Title: The Minstrel Boy
Summary: Mensa-verse crossover. It warmed Rod's heart to know that the whole leave no man behind thing extended all the way to include alternate realities. (Spoilers for Common Ground and McKay and Mrs Miller)
Warning: (Rodney McKay/John Sheppard)^2 (the pairings in this story made my beta cry. . .)
SGA Secret Santa for mdime, Winter 2007
A/N: Operation Safe Passage and the Phuket cyclone are entirely fictional. There are gratuitous Red Dwarf references. And also Princess Bride….
Rod McKay liked ice hockey, roller coasters, and traveling faster than the speed of light. Being beamed back into his own reality was like all three in a blender: speed, that fantastic free-fall feeling, and the knowledge that he was going to hit the boards any. . . second. . . now.
He quickly tucked himself into a ball as he materialized. He'd found it cut down on the nausea last time. He took a few experimental deep breaths. His insides were a little shaken up, but he was feeling fine. He supposed it was the adrenaline and the endorphins. He was flying high — top of the world. The last thing he wanted to do was to fold back into his normal deferential self, which meeting with Elizabeth would require. He stood, stretching, the good feeling tingling in his toes and fingers. He wanted to talk to someone who'd be impressed; someone who'd buzz with a vicarious high simply from being in his vicinity.
It was well after midnight according to the clock on the wall of the lab (the legume studies lab in his Atlantis, though, not a universe-destroying energy scheme). He knew, however, that the person he wanted to see was awake: Sheppard usually didn't give in to sleep until he collapsed sometime around dawn. Not only that, but he was just down the hall, and he stockpiled power bars.
Rod pocketed the personal shield, adjusted his jacket, and walked down to Sheppard's lab. He might have bounced a little as he walked; he was tempted to whistle, but he wanted this to be a surprise.
Sheppard hadn't changed the key code; Rod didn't bother knocking, he just let himself in, already grinning.
Sheppard usually had wicked fast reflexes, but the way he whirled around, half rising from his chair, suggested that he'd been at the go/no-go pills again. He was unshaven and looked as if he'd been living in the lab since Rod left.
Which was probably the case, Rod thought with a mental wince. He'd maintained that the harsh side effects of temporal entropic cascade failure were a design defect of the quantum mirror that SG-1 had stored in Area 51. He didn't believe that his trip to the other Atlantis would end within the week with seizures and death, should he find himself living in a reality with another Rodney McKay. Sheppard had been ordered to do an immensely complex probability study on the mirror for the SGC, and believed the opposite: that TEC failure was practically inevitable.
Judging by the rather frightening amount of raw organic naquqdah piled up under the all-floors display, Sheppard was trying to build his own damn quantum mirror, even though the SGC had decided years ago that human technology needed to advance several hundred years or so before that would be possible.
It warmed Rod's heart to know that the whole leave no man behind thing extended all the way to include alternate realities.
"Hey, you're working late," Rod said; it was what he usually said when he interrupted Sheppard's work. "This place looks just the same. Everything worked out well on this end?"
Sheppard stared. Rod glanced at his own reflection on the polished surface of the all-floors display. His hair had that fluffy wind-blown look that he hated. He leaned against the doorframe and looked around, surveying this familiar part of his realm.
"Hello," John said, and looked at his watch numbly. "You're up early."
"Just got back from the alternate reality," Rod said, and smirked like a mischievous kid, chuffed with himself and inviting John to share the glee. He was practically vibrating with the energy of it. "Great people, really friendly, ever so sorry about nearly being the death of us all. Look, I hate to mooch off you, but I'm starving."
John pulled open his desk drawer, took out a power bar, and handed it to Rod. Rod grinned at him.
"You're a lifesaver," he said, and gave John a thumbs-up that morphed into a light punch on the shoulder. There was a short, awkward moment, and then he started telling Sheppard about life on the other side, the stories spilling out of him as he paced. He made Sheppard laugh, which was no mean feat, with stories of Meredith (who was him, and not his older sister, oddly enough). Taking that as encouragement, he talked about Elizabeth and Ronon (more or less the same), Teyla (more violent and shorter-tempered), and the other John Sheppard.
He tried to be tactful about mentioning that alternate-John was much cooler and a Lieutenant Colonel who was in charge of Atlantis and a gate team leader and a gateship pilot. In short, everything Sheppard would never be, though he tried as hard as he could not to make it sound cruel. He was one of the few on Atlantis who liked Sheppard. The trick to it, he'd found, was to actually listen to what Sheppard said — oddly, hardly anyone did. Sumner only listened to him if ordered to, and none of the science staff believed that Sheppard could have valid insights in their fields. Rod could see that it could get wearing, although Sheppard actively warded off empathy and sympathy with his acid temper. Alternate-Sheppard had certainly been easier to get along with.
After a while, he found himself accompanying Sheppard to the mess for caffeine, and who the hell needed sleep when everyone was so glad to see him back? Thinking back on it later, Rod McKay suspected that it was some time during that punch-drunk early morning that Sheppard lost his tenuous grip on sanity.
"John?" Rodney said, when he turned around. He did not see Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard sprawled out over more than his fair share of the rec room sofa. This was odd, because John had been there two seconds ago when Rodney got up to change DVDs. He did see one of his precious bottles of expensive imported Elsinore beer dribbling onto the floor, and he grabbed it and set it on the table automatically.
He was having a Twilight Zone moment, and wished — not for the first time — that the SGC had sent Rod Sterling along to narrate an explanatory soundtrack for the Pegasus Galaxy. Aliens? Ancient artifacts? Brain-devouring nanites?
If he were lucky, John might just have suddenly been called away — although why he wouldn't say bye, going now was a mystery. Rodney hailed him three times on his radio, checking the bathrooms and John's quarters along the way as he stalked back towards the control room. When he still hadn't raised John after fifteen minutes, he alerted Elizabeth and ordered the idiot watching the control room sensors — who should have noticed, damn it, when the military commander disappeared in the middle of the second season of AirWolf — start tracking all recorded life signs beginning at 2500.
Half an hour after John disappeared mid-sip of good Canadian beer, Rodney watched in color Atlantis-vision on the all-floors as John's life-sign indicator blipped out of existence at 2507:14.
"But look," the chunky Marine — Hathaway? Haskell? — said. "At the exact same time, a new life sign appeared — " she moved the frame down several levels and out to the west — " here. NW 17-42."
Rodney had wanted to keep this all in the team, so to speak, but Elizabeth insisted that Lorne and two heavily-armed Marines accompany Teyla, Ronon, and himself. Rodney hung on to the life signs detector, watching the mysterious blip as it snuck about. He fancied the speed it picked up was annoyance that all the transporters in the area had been shut down.
In the best of all possible scenarios, John would give them his ear-to-ear whoa, cool grin and tell them all about his new power of teleportation. Rodney would then punch him in the shoulder — hard — for wasting good Canadian beer.
When they finally found the man indicated by the life signs detector, however, the only part of Rodney's fantasy that played out was the desire to commit violence. Which totally figured: if there was one thing he knew about the Pegasus Galaxy it was that he could never, ever count on having good luck.
"Freeze and put your hands on your head," Rodney snapped. He assumed that Lorne would have a problem with pulling a weapon on his commanding officer. Ronon had no such qualms. He'd seen what Rodney had, and he had the man in his sights. "Then turn around slowly. No sudden movements," he added.
The man who turned around looked like John. Mostly. The same hair, but cropped to regulation shortness. The same face, except thinner, the sharpness of his cheekbones and chin exaggerated by dark-framed glasses and several days' worth of stubble. His uniform was similar. But not the same.
"You know, I just saw this movie," Rodney said. Ronon eased his stance slightly, but not-John didn't move. "Just a wild guess, but do you know a man who looks just like me who goes by Rod?" He was answered by a series of facial tics — mouth, eyebrow, chin — and assumed that was a yes. "Wait — didn't he make it back? Tell me he made it back. Tell me I didn't kill a ZPM for nothing. Maybe he — took a detour, or something."
"He made it back," the man said, almost smiling, though still tense. "You must be Meredith. I'm John Sheppard."
"Rodney," Rodney said. "Dr. McKay to you. I don't know how you stand your lesser version of me. I thought he was an asshole."
"Um," the man said, and looked at Lorne. "Where's your version of me? I heard I was in charge in this reality."
"Our Colonel Sheppard disappeared at exactly the same time as you appeared," Lorne said. "Care to explain that to me, Major?"
Sheppard's face went blank for a moment, and then he frowned in concentration. After a minute of painful-looking thought, Sheppard's shoulders slumped, and he dropped one hand to rub at his forehead unconsciously.
"Shit," he said. "I think I may have made a mistake."
Of course you did! Rodney wanted to shout. You made a great big fat mistake and you're going to correct it right now.
Unfortunately, he missed his opportunity: Sheppard sagged and kept on sagging right down to the floor. His head connected with a painful-sounding thunk, and Rodney found himself yelling for Carson instead.
A bit of a circus ensued, and when the excitement died down Rodney found himself pacing outside a drawn curtain in the infirmary. Elizabeth sat on one bed, Teyla opposite; Ronon towered and glowered. Carson, when he emerged from behind the curtain and velcroed it shut behind him, seemed immune to their collective hostile scrutiny.
"What can you tell me?" Rodney asked, and caught Elizabeth's raised eyebrow. "Us. What can you tell us."
Carson gave him a sour, bleary stare. "Did you never hear of patient confidentiality?" Carson said.
Elizabeth crossed her arms. No matter that it was the middle of the night: she looked ready to hold a debate, and Rodney doubted Carson was strong enough to withstand that. As he watched, Carson frowned and licked his lips. Rodney reminded himself that Carson liked John, that he wanted him back just as much as all of them did, despite being hobbled by the ridiculous ethical demands of his profession.
"He is John Sheppard," Carson said, finally, the words coming slow and considered. "Genetically. I would guess, from differences in scars, healed fractures and other injuries, that their medical histories were similar — or identical — until roughly ten years ago. His collapse was most likely due to stress, lack of food and sleep, and irresponsible use of amphetamine. As far as I can tell, he has no communicable diseases." Carson looked at Elizabeth. "He's been sedated and will remain under observation for at least the next six hours."
"We need him for questioning," Rodney said, and how sad was it that he was backed up by Ronon, who growled something about ways of making people talk.
"Seven o'clock, then," Elizabeth said, rising with brisk elegance, her face furrowed with worry.
"Colonel Sheppard might be in danger," Teyla said, when Carson looked as if he wanted to protest.
Carson grimaced. "Don't you think two guards are overkill?" he said, nodding sideways at the armed Marines standing outside the curtain. "Major Lorne's handcuffed him to the bed. He's not going anywhere."
"Except for back where he came from," Rodney said with an all-encompassing glare, and stalked out to go rouse Zelenka and Nishibayashi and everyone else who was remotely knowledgeable about alternate realities.
"Hey, easy," John said as he was pushed into the isolation room. He held his cuffed hands out. "These cramp my style." The Marine behind him gave him another shove, this time towards a chair, and John stumbled, turned with a vicious scowl, and then cut his eyes up to the observation window. He caught Rod's eye and spread his hands as wide as he could, in a gesture easily read as what the fuck.
"I'm ninety-nine percent sure that's him," Rod said to Elizabeth. "He's a nice guy — lousy backswing, but don't tell him I told you that."
"What you're going to be talking about is how he plans to get Major Sheppard back, not golf." Elizabeth watched as John paced the room. "Be careful down there."
"Um," Rod said. "I'm not sure that this Sheppard was responsible for the, ah, inter-reality glitch. He's not a scientist, he's a pilot and a first-contact team leader. And their military leader."
Elizabeth's gaze felt like it was stripping layers of meaning away like an onion. "So you agree with Sumner, you think Sheppard went AWOL."
"I didn't say that," Rod said, which was, he knew, as good as saying that. "The Colonel might be seeing things in black and white that are really more. . . grey." The Colonel would dance the fandango in a frilly dress if he got to lock Sheppard away as a deserter. He was probably right now drawing little hearts in the margins of AFI 36-2911.
"Oh, I think we're seeing this problem in full, living color," Elizabeth said. "Go. Talk to him. We'll be recording up here, of course."
"Right, right," Rod said, straightening his shoulders and striding for the stairs.
"Prove to me that you're the Rod McKay I just met in another galaxy," John said when he walked into the room. Rod unzipped his jacket. His parting gift from the other Pegasus galaxy was a shirt with ironed-on bubble letters reading I saved two universes and all I got was this lousy t-shirt. His alternate's whole team had signed it for him. It was ugly as sin, but he was rather fond of it.
"Look," Rod said, pulling at the fabric over his shoulder. "There's your signature. You probably still have marker on your fingers."
"Rod!" John said, equal parts relief and biting sarcasm. He held out his hands. "Buddy! I'd hug you, but — "
Rod cringed. "No. Just. . . no. That way lies madness." He waved hospitably at the chairs. "Look," he said, sitting and adopting his 'kindly professor' pose, knees wide, elbows on knees, and hands clasped together earnestly. John sat opposite him, as stiff and wary as any doctoral candidate seeking his advice. "Our John Sheppard is a complex person."
"The Mensa club guy," John said. "The one you described, and I quote, as an egotistical nightmare to work with."
"Ah," Rod said. "Yes. I mentioned him, didn't I? Did I mention that in addition to being brilliant that he has this thing about not leaving people behind?"
"In parallel universes, for example?" John said, and Rod blinked. He was used to being body-slammed with Sheppard's intellect. This was more like an unexpected stiletto between the ribs.
"For example. I'm sure you aren't familiar with TEC failure — I didn't want to bring it up while I was over there, it would either happen or it wouldn't — but suffice it to say that two versions of a person don't usually survive in one universe."
"The intruder suffers from convulsions and eventual death," John said flatly. "The SGC sent us off with a list as long as my arm of things we were to avoid. Magic mirrors were one. So." He drummed his fingers against his knees. "Mr. Mensa made a pair of ruby slippers to summon you home. Except that we sent you home. And here you are."
"He seems to have accidentally sent himself to your universe," Rod said. "And since the device he rigged up — I think naquadah slippers would be more accurate — ensured that each universe had only one version of a person. . . "
"When he crossed over, I got sent here in his place." John leaned back with a grin. "So that's great. You'll have me home in time for lunch."
"Well." Rod lowered his head and rubbed his temples with his thumbs. "It would be greater if I'd been around to know exactly what Sheppard did." He glanced up at John hopefully.
John's smugness faded into consternation. "Oh, God. You're the smart one, where I come from." He gave a nervous smile. "Did Sheppard come with a string of doctorates or something?"
"Or something," Rod said, and pushed himself to his feet. "Well, thank you for your time, anyway. I'll let you know how things go."
"Wait a minute." John was on his feet, turning and reaching out. "Let me help you. I mean — what else can I do? Sit around in the brig?"
Rod shoved his hands into his pockets. "Actually, I think that's the general idea."
"Hey." John looked wounded. "We put you in the guest quarters, with a fruit basket, no citrus, and those complimentary bottles of shampoo and stuff."
Rodney pointed at his t-shirt. "I was saving two universes. You — " he frowned — " you were sent here by a man whose current status is absent without leave. Major Sheppard. . . may have slipped a few gears, I'm afraid."
John narrowed his eyes. "All the more reason to get his ass back here. As far as I'm concerned, he's whereabouts unknown, the same as I am, and I'll be fucked sideways before I let anyone throw either of us in jail." His stare was uncomfortably judgmental.
Rod sighed. "I'll see what I can do."
"I know you're awake," Rodney said. "I brought you waffles. Mmm, waffles, with synthetic syrup substitute." He set the tray on the bedside table and dragged a chair over noisily. "Wakey, wakey, Sheppard. Rise. Shine."
Sheppard took a deep breath, and then his eyes slitted open. "Dr. McKay."
"There are still guards outside," Rodney cautioned, holding up the handcuff key. "So don't try to spork me to death."
Sheppard rolled his eyes and rattled his chain. "Scouts' honor," he said. "I never spork men who bring me breakfast in bed."
"I am so not going there," Rodney said. He removed the handcuffs and handed Sheppard his breakfast. He stacked his own waffles, sawed them into large squares, and shoved one into his mouth. "So, you're probably wondering how badly you fucked up. I have minions still working out the details, but the chances are really, really good that you simply swapped places with our Sheppard."
"I was trying to prevent TEC failure," Sheppard said. "That's why I wanted to get Rod back."
"And let me just say," Rodney said through another mouthful, "I am one hundred percent behind that sentiment. A place for everyone, and everyone in their place."
Sheppard looked, very briefly, as if he'd been slapped, but he chewed and swallowed and took a gulp of his warm powdered milk before answering. "I thought I was sending him to his death," he said, and replaced the tray on the table. "One way or another."
Rodney moved the tray back to Sheppard's lap. "Eat," he said, gesturing with his spork. "You're not going to make me fly the little airplanes into the hanger again, are you?"
That earned him a glare. "You're kidding me." But Sheppard sporked a small triangle of waffle and ate it.
"Just that one time," Rodney said. "We were stoned out of our minds, and the Colonel was tied to a pole, and there were ritual eels involved. But that's not important." He cut his yellow blob of butter substitute in half and gave the larger piece to Sheppard. "Eat. You've got the skinniest ass in four galaxies."
"You're trying to soften me up, aren't you?" Sheppard made a waffle-inclusive gesture, jerked his shoulders in a shrug, and spread the subbutter with the back of his spork.
"I'm trying to say we're all on the same side, here. John Sheppard's Atlantis' military commander, and despite how quickly Colonel Caldwell will try to get his grubby mitts on command yet again, we kind of like the way Sheppard runs things." He paused, looked at Sheppard, and burst out, "What were you thinking? My Atlantis needs him — hello, he's the military commander, and we're at war." He jabbed his spork Sheppard-wise. "You might have the same pretty face, but you're basically useless to us."
"I can do whatever you need me to," Sheppard said.
"The only thing I want you to do it go back where you came from!" Rodney said. "I want John back."
Sheppard's face lost all color, and Rodney belatedly recalled that the man might not be feeling well at the moment. He'd fled his own reality after Rod's undoubtedly triumphant hero's return; at the very least, messing with the quantum nature of reality showed more creativity than falling into depression or despair. But in this reality, Sheppard was stuck, nowhere to go and no escape, and the phrase the kindness of strangers rattled in Rodney's head, sparking guilt. In his experience, strangers could not be counted upon to be friendly.
"Oh, for goodness' sake," he said. "I'm sure your people are equally as eager to get you back, Major."
Sheppard winced and dropped his spork. "I really doubt that. But I do realize that coming here as I did was a mistake." He rubbed at his forehead in what Rodney was beginning to suspect was a habitual gesture. "A mistake, but not an accident." He gave Rodney a wry smile, as if making fun of the pain Rodney saw in his eyes. "He kept telling me what a great guy your Sheppard was. So he and I. . . had a disagreement." He paused, and looked even more disgusted with himself. "No. I told him how I felt about him — " Rodney didn't need a decoder ring to figure that out, not when Sheppard's cheeks reddened — " and he told me to get the hell away. So I did."
"Okay, stop," Rodney said, and watched as John instantly blanked his expression. He continued, his voice fast and low: "In this world, U.S. military personnel cannot admit to being gay and keep their jobs. I don't care, I'm Canadian and bisexual myself, so stop looking at me like I could beat you up even if I tried. I just — you and I know you're not the same as the Colonel, but if you out yourself — "
"Right," Sheppard said, and looked weary with misery.
"I'm springing you from this place after the meeting with Elizabeth," Rodney said. "I need to talk to you. If you could just not mention the gay crush thing or the insane jealousy of yourself, I'd appreciate it." He finished the last pieces of waffle, not because he was hungry anymore but because sometimes the act of eating kept certain feelings (terror, despair, pain) away. The relief, however, never lasted long.
"This is the best you could do?" John said, plucking at the over-large orange jumpsuit that he'd been issued, his own clothes having been confiscated. "Seriously, Color Me Beautiful says I should avoid dressing like a pumpkin if I want to succeed at life."
Rod whapped him in the head, and then went wide-eyed when he realized what he'd done. "Sorry! I didn't mean to do that." He gave John a speculative look. "I think exposure to your universe brings out the worst in me." He punched in Sheppard's key-code and waved open the lab door. "Home sweet home."
"I've slapped our Rodney upside the head enough times, it's probably just karma," John said. He was looking around as if. . . as if nothing here was familiar, and he stuck his hands in the jumpsuit pockets like he was afraid to touch anything.
"Sheppard has a doctorate in applied mathematics," Rod said: it felt like peeling off a bandage to get a good look at the damage. "Also in astronautical engineering, both from AFIT. But you've never had any severe brain damage, right? So you should be able to pick up your own work easily."
John began a slow circuit of the room, examining the tidy equations that filled the white boards and the floor to ceiling map display of Atlantis. "The one thing I can tell you, right off the bat, is that if he's supposed to be so smart then he made damn sure not to leave a trail. I may not have the degrees, but I know McKay. Give him a crumb, he'll produce a fucking bakery. Dollars to donuts Sheppard knows that about you, too."
"So tell me this," Rod said, leaning against John's desk with his fingers curled lightly around the edge, elbows out. "John Sheppard. Where's he going to slip up?"
"His friends," John said after a short frozen hitch. "You can search this lab — really, go nuts. I need to talk to the people who know him. His team — you, Ronon, Teyla? His bestest Mensa buddies. Anyone who works with him."
Rod looked down at the sad, crumpled power bar wrappers in the bin. "You want Miko Nishibayashi. They're in the Musical Mensa SIG together. And she has a bit of a crush on him." He tapped his radio and asked Radek to send her up. To kill time, he turned Sheppard's work station on. "Try cutting your teeth on some of Sheppard's other projects — here, how about the hyperdrive for the jumpers?"
"Cool," John said. He stood on the left of the chair and leaned forwards; Rod stood on the right and did the same thing. The chair stood empty between them, a ghostly presence that made Rod's shoulders itch. He wasn't going to be the one to take Sheppard's place, not even symbolically. Unfortunately, neither was John. After flipping desultorily through several documents, John snorted and checked Sheppard's scores in FreeCell, and then opened his e-mail. Or tried to: Sheppard was one paranoid bastard.
"Dr McKay," said a soft voice, and Rod turned around, grateful for the change.
"Dr Nishibayashi. This is — well, the other John Sheppard."
"Nice to meet you," John said, out-suaving Rod with a charming smile and an outstretched hand. Miko shook firmly, her eyes watery behind thick lenses and her chin raised stubbornly. "I'm trying to figure out what the other me did, so I can get him home, and Rod said you're John's closest friend here." He spread his hands in wide-eyed earnest supplication.
Miko shook out a pink handkerchief and rubbed at her eyes almost angrily. "They'll send him away from Atlantis if he comes back," she said, and stared at Rod in accusation. "They're saying he didn't activate the device by accident — that he ran away. They're saying that he went crazy," she said, and, yes, Rod was so not her favorite person right now. "He never ran from the Wraith or the Genii. Why would he run now?"
Rod opened his mouth to speak, but John stopped him with a raised hand.
"If you don't mind," John said in a tone that implied he didn't really give a damn whether Rod minded or not. "I'd like to talk to Dr. Nishibayashi in private." He pointed at the back of the door. "My lab, right?"
"Wrong," Rod said. "Wrong in so many ways I don't know how to begin." John crossed his arms and very quietly began to stare him down. "Fine. Fine! I'll be overseeing the actual work around here when you two are finished commiserating."
"Wow," John said, ticking his head to the side. "You really are Rodney McKay."
There was no real answer to that that wouldn't make him seem like an even bigger asshole. He asked Miko to bring John down when they were done, and then walked out through the busy corridors. For the first time in decades, he felt like an outsider looking in; for the first time ever in Atlantis, he started to see groups of theys and thems swirling about him, and to wonder what life here would like for those who didn't fit in, the misfits among the castaways.
It wasn't his first time feeling stomach-gnawing guilt, of course, but he was prevented from doing what he usually did — seeking out the person he'd wronged and apologizing, perhaps even making restitution, probably ending in beer and karaoke and renewed camaraderie.
He was useless until Miko returned John to him, unable to reassure his team that their efforts were valued and their insights were, well, insightful. John, delivered, signed for, and looming next to the door, stared at him with unreadable eyes and indicated he wanted to talk in private. They ended up on the corridor's southern balcony, looking out over the wide expanse of ocean.
Rod would have caved in and confessed everything, except that John spoke first.
"Your cracked under pressure theory might be right," John said abruptly. "The universe threatened to dissolve, and he came up with the great genius plan, except that as it played out, he ended up sending a team mate — a friend — to his probable death. He then had to work under the clock to come up with another plan to get you back. Which I think he could have handled — I think I could handle — with the support of the military or of the civilian staff. But your Sheppard. . . didn't have either." He shrugged, angry.
"Um," Rod said.
John jabbed a finger at him. "You acted a lot cooler in my universe. Of course, you were being a hero, there. Here, you don't even notice when a man on your team's being driven into a mental breakdown."
"Oh, it's worse than that, I assure you," Rod said, and he watched the waves break, break, break against the hard walls of Atlantis. "Sheppard. . . might have been closer to me than I was to him. I try to be nice to everyone," he added in desperate exculpation. "How was I to know that he'd — "
"Assume friendliness was friendship?" John suggested, with a twist to his mouth.
"Fall in love with me," Rod said, and that shut John up, but good.
"No, we're not talking about that," Rodney said, shifting awkwardly as he looked around. Being in John's room without John felt extremely awkward, even though he doubted John would begrudge his double clean underwear. "The John Sheppard in this universe would rather gnaw his own arm off than discuss feelings."
The Sheppard looking through John's wardrobe shot him a look. "It took me several years to work up the nerve, and I still needed sleep deprivation and drug-induced lack of judgment." He pulled out a long-sleeved black sweater and a pair of grey jeans so old that the cuffs were ragged and the knees nearly white. "I just wanted to meet myself," he said, and looked straight at Rodney. "The John Sheppard Rod liked so much." He shrugged. "Beat the crap out of him, maybe."
Without even a glance Rodney's way, Sheppard shut himself into the bathroom. Rodney wandered around and touched John's things, a boy's own adventure cornucopia. He counted one book that wasn't a textbook or a military manual and at least fifteen DVDs, as well as one surfboard, one pair in-line skates, four rolls of duct tape in three different colors, golf clubs, a skateboard, a paper cup filled with screws and bent nails, and a guitar.
He reached out a hand cautiously and poked at the guitar. "Do you play?" he asked, because the bathroom door had opened and he wanted desperately to have a normal conversation with Sheppard for once, without swinging to alarming extremes of rage or pity. He fiddled with the tuning pegs nervously, twist twist twist. "I've never heard the Colonel play, but I know he surfs with Ronon and built some kind of skate park on the south pier with the Marines and of course he played golf with Rod, so it seems everything here is functional, if disturbingly adolescent — "
"I play, but I doubt I know anything you'd like," Sheppard interrupted, sidling up and easing the guitar away. He sat down on the bed and started retuning it, shooting sharp little glares at Rodney when it emitted particularly sour notes.
"What am I supposed to call you?" Rodney blurted out, making Sheppard stop in the middle of what sounded suspiciously like country music.
"Whatever you don't call him," Sheppard shot back. "Because I'm not him, and I never will be him, and even though it would probably be for the best, I don't really want to be him." He played something that sounded mocking. "Hack his files. I want to read them."
"Why?" Rodney said, and then caved before Sheppard could batter him with scornful rationales. He was curious himself: he'd never really had a good excuse to read John's records until now.
"I can't believe your middle name is Lee," Rodney said ten minutes later, memorizing John's social security number as he scrolled down. "That demonstrates a criminal lack of creativity on the part of your parents."
"Thanks, Meredith," Sheppard said, and wrested control of the mouse. He had to lean over Rodney awkwardly, nearly shoulder to shoulder, and he ran the index finger of his left hand down the side of the screen as he read.
"So, what? When did you diverge?"
"I will tell you when I know myself," Sheppard said, in the tone of someone barely holding on to patience. He moved his finger to follow his voice as he read, as if explaining something to a very stupid undergraduate. "NCSU, BS in applied mathematics, AFROTC — same. MS, applied mathematics — same. UH-60A, OH-58C, TH-6B, AH-1S, SH-3, HH-60, AH-64, that's more-or-less accurate, though what idiot let him fly the MV-22? . . . Ah."
"Ah what ah?" Rodney said, twisting so that he could see Sheppard's face.
"Operation Safe Passage," Sheppard said. Rodney shook his head. "Securing evacuation routes for survivors of the Phuket cyclone, making sure aid workers and supplies got through. Your Sheppard went straight from there to fixed-wing transition and then on to the U.S. Navy Test Pilot Course — rotary-wing, of course. He's a distinguished graduate, too. What a guy. Bet he gets all the girls."
"Where did you go?" Rodney asked, because he figured that, conversationally, it was expected of him. But the condensed bitterness in Sheppard's voice made him wish he could just change the subject, hey presto.
"I went from assisting with aeromedical support to needing it," Sheppard said, tersely. "On the plus side, I finished my first PhD while I was being rehabilitated. Useful, seeing as I wasn't going to be allowed to fly again."
"I'm sorry," Rodney said, though he never sounded sincere when he said things like that. He simply wasn't a condoling kind of person. But Sheppard was too prickly to accept condolences graciously anyway; he made a noise like a short, bitter laugh. "The Sheppard I know would rather fight Wraith than be grounded."
"I lost an eye," Sheppard said. Rodney stared. "No, not this one, the left. Thanks for not being able to tell the difference," he added with a vicious little twist to his mouth.
Rodney turned even more around so he could look from one eye to the other. Sheppard bore the scrutiny badly. "What did you get the PhD in, sarcasm? It's a really good fake eye. Not that I've seen a lot of fake eyes for comparison, or at least I never noticed. I'll bet it was expensive. Does it hurt?"
Sheppard's eyebrows went up, and he gave Rodney a genuine smile for the first time. It made him look younger, and oddly a lot less like John. "You're a real piece of work, McKay," he said, and seemed happy with that.
"It's just your tough luck that in your universe you got stuck with McKay Lite," Rodney shot back. "Artificially sweet, no calories, no flavor. So tell me," he continued, closing John's file, "is McLite going to be able to figure out how to get you back, or is that ball entirely in our court?"
"It won't take me more than a day to put together another device," Sheppard said, scornfully. "We just have to recharge your ZPM and collect, oh, forty kilos or so of organic naquadah."
"Recharge the ZPM," Rodney said, trying for the calm tone that police detectives on television used with criminals about to spill all. "We don't actually know how to do that or don't you think we'd have bloody done it by now?" He clenched his hands on the edges of the chair seat to keep from strangling Sheppard.
"Hey," Sheppard said, turning to lean a hip against the desk, his whole posture trying to signal non-threatening rationality. Rodney would have gnashed his teeth, if he wasn't worried about the effect on his gums. "Look, it's probably just a planet you haven't visited yet. We found an Ancient alternative-energy lab. Some of their ideas were whacked, but — " he jabbed a finger into Rodney's shoulder — " not as bad as pouring exotic particles into an alternate reality." He jerked the computer around and called up the Ancient database. "It's on the third moon of PV2-2R1, in the Doranda system. The recharger we built to a modification of their specs is slower than molasses in winter, but — fully depleted ZPM?" He shut his eyes for a moment to calculate, and then blinked them open. "A couple of weeks to fix up the recharger and then roughly 100 days to bring the ZPM up to fifty percent power, depending on what generation it is, and where it was manufactured." He took a deep breath and blew it out again. "Four months."
"Doranda," Rodney said, his mouth numb. "I really hate to say this, but. . . " He supplemented his brief-to-the-point-of-incoherent summary of the Arcturus disaster with mission reports and a few of his own encrypted files. By the time he finished, he felt emptied out, and Sheppard looked equally as exhausted. His eyes were haunted and despairing, which Rodney thought was pretty interesting, considering one of them was acrylic.
"Six months, then," Sheppard said. "Certainly no longer than a year."
Rodney scowled and crossed his arms. "Oh, yeah? What's organic naquadah?"
"Can't the Marines stay outside?" John said, giving Rod a laid-back innocent grin. "I'm not going to wig out in Dr Sheppard's quarters."
Rod chewed on his lip. This Sheppard didn't have proper clearance, but no matter how clever he was, he was no academic. There was practically no chance that he would understand Sheppard's work enough to commit a security breach. Damn it.
"I'll watch him," he said to the taller guard, the one who seemed to be less bored by the whole situation. "Just — wait by the door, all right?" The Marine didn't say anything, but opened the security seal on the door and synched his headset to Rod's before stepping aside.
"So," John said, crossing the room to flop down the wrong way across the bed. His head hung off the side and his legs the other, his arms out straight. He looked not unlike Rod's nephew Bradley: actual age five versus mental age five, Rod thought, and smirked to himself. "Are there going to be guards on the door all night?"
Rod looked at him. "You're supposed to be spending the night in the brig."
John's face wrinkled into an upside-down frown, and he swung one arm out to point. "Hey. That's not nice. We gave you a guest room. With a fruit basket and everything."
"I know. I know!" he said, guilt clicking in smoothly as John gave him sad eyes. "But I was there to save the universe as we know it, and you're here because — "
"Because the other me deserted," John said flatly. "Went AWOL."
"Well, yes," Rod said uncomfortably. "I know you're not him, and right now that might even be a good thing, but there's the whole issue of you not having clearance. Elizabeth's sent word to the SGC — strangely enough, there are actual precedents for this kind of thing — but it's going to take time. And until then. . . "
John nodded; or at least, bobbed his head. His face was slowly turning red. He took a deep breath and rolled to his feet in one tense move.
"So we'll just get what we came for, shall we?" He waved at the shelf of books and periodicals over the desk. "Whatever you think will be useful."
"Hmm," Rod said. It took nearly an hour before he was satisfied that John could keep up with the reading assignments he was setting, and he scribbled out three pages of problems on the yellow legal pad that sat next to the empty space where Sheppard's laptop usually sat. Miko had it now — she had, she said, ways of making it talk. "What, are you bored?"
John rolled his eyes, but shut the drawer he'd been rifling through. "Of course I'm bored. Apparently, I'm a deeply boring person in your reality. What do I do for fun?"
"Sheppard writes Colonel Sumner long reports on why he, his men, and the SGC in general are complete idiots. His record so far is fifteen pages of footnotes, but that was when Sumner wanted us to fire up some super-weapon in the Doranda system. That would have been only slightly less dumb than the stunt your McKay just pulled."
John made an embarrassed-sounding noise and clapped his hands. "Right, are we done here?" He threw the bag over his shoulder and gave Rod a strange look, fond and exasperated all at once, and then killed whatever mood was trying to happen with a wave of his arm and a "To the brig, Batman!"
"I'm really sorry about this," Rod said, shutting John in. He'd tried to express his remorse with food; John looked at the supper tray and his eyebrows shot up.
"You're trying to fatten me up for the Wraith, aren't you?" John said.
"That's not funny," Rod said, sharply. "You don't know — "
"Kolya?" John asked after a moment. "It happened here, to your Sheppard?"
"He died," Rod said, flatly. "He died screaming. We'd tried so damn hard to rescue him, and in the end we had to stand by and watch a Wraith save him. Just after it got done with killing him."
"Yeah, that hurt like a bitch, too," John said. "Look, take this stuff back, I've lost my appetite now." He pushed the tray towards the door.
Rod shook his head. "I've been trying for years to get Sheppard to live off real food. Keep it, eat, do your homework."
"You'll most likely kill me in the morning," John said, and waggled his fingers goodbye as Rod retreated.
Rod asked Teyla to guide him through meditative stretches at dawn, the way she did before difficult missions, and he was feeling much more grounded in himself when he entered the brig to collect John for breakfast. He had a feeling he'd need reinforced inner strength to make it through the day.
John was doing stomach crunches, but he bounced to his feet as soon as he saw Rod. "So here's the plan," John said, instantly, as if he had been waiting for ages for Rod to appear.
"I'm sorry about all this," Rod said, sweeping his arm out to include the cell and the guards and the bright orange jumpsuit. "We'll see if we can't get this whole — thing — straightened out by tonight." He coded the door open and waved John through.
"Well, that's part of the plan," John said, falling into step with him easily. "Look — I can't just join your American military contingent here. They'd have their issues, and personally, I'd feel wrong about it. No offence."
"None taken," Rod assured him, and held the transporter door. "After you."
"But it'd be stupid to waste my training and my knowledge of the Atlantis I come from. So I think I ought to be given a local contract, like Teyla and Ronon. I wouldn't be a threat to your military hierarchy, and you could use me."
"You want to be on a gate team," Rod said flatly. "And fly the gateships." He let John go ahead of him into the mess hall, and watched in fascination as John served himself a huge bowl of sugar-frosted Spacey-O's.
"You do know that's disgusting, don't you?"
John shrugged and nodded towards an empty table. Rod waved him on and finished making his cup of Athosian root and bark tea before joining him.
Seating himself, Rod explained his food choices, pointing at each item on his tray. "While adopting my brother-in-law's strict veganism would be unfeasible here in another galaxy, I usually practice a mostly vegetarian diet. Good for the health, provides energy, all that." He jiggled the mixed fruit cup. "I might have backslid a bit in your universe."
John grinned. "If I'd known I was coming here, I'd have stolen more Crunchie bars from McKay for you." He swirled the cereal around until the milk turned purple and then began slurping it down in parti-colored spoonfuls. "So tell me about your Sheppard, as you know him."
Rod frowned and watched as John fished out a Space Berri Crunch and sucked it into his mouth with an audible mmm. "He's not a very. . . friendly person. I don't think he likes operating outside of a structured framework — his lab, the gate team, the Mensa club. Which is weird, because he always ends up as both integral to the group and an unwanted fifth wheel." Rod shrugged, awkwardly. "He's been working with Miko. She's the SGC's top expert on naquadah."
John sighed. "He never got himself reassigned to Antarctica in disgrace, did he?"
"Sam Carter practically begged O'Neill to keep him, but Atlantis needed a strong natural ATA carrier. His research — well, if he were in my field, suppose I'd be like the rest of the science staff — I'd have to hate him. As it is, we bounce ideas off each other. I respect him professionally."
"Right," John said, drawing the word out until it sounded like an accusation. "I need copies of all the research he's done, everything he's ever published, all the professional e-mail he sent." John tapped his head. "This brain figured out the problem once. I just need the right tools to do it again. And then you'll have your own John Sheppard back, safe and sound."
Rod lost his appetite for his yogurt.
"I'll need civilian clothes, eventually," John went on, tugging at the jumpsuit zip. "Also, clean underwear and maybe shampoo and a shower to go with it."
"I'll take you down to the Shoppette," Rod said, glad that this was a problem he knew how to fix. "I can authorize rations for you, and you can charge everything to my account."
John was staring at him with his mouth literally hanging open. "You have shops here?"
Rod shrugged. "We tried to get Starbucks, but security was a bitch. The Shoppette is run by very well-qualified Air Force personnel. It's not bad, although our waste reduction regs mean that nothing can be packaged except for food, and rationing is really tight."
"Doritos," John said, like he'd seen the Holy Grail.
"Salt and fat with artificial cheese powder," Rod agreed. "Ah, civilization. Hey," he added, and pointed at John, "I'll bet I could get you a job there. Most of the part-timers are Athosians."
John made a lazy but very rude hand gesture. "You aren't allowed packaging, but your convenience store workers commute by jumper?"
"No," Rod said, with extra emphasis to show just how stupid that question had been. "They use the mainland transporter. You think we'd isolate them from Atlantis and the gate? What kind of trust would that demonstrate towards our closest allies?"
"Ouch," John said. He appeared to be blushing.
After the second month, Rodney got used to the strange rearrangement of life on Atlantis. The SGC had replaced John with Sam Carter, much to Caldwell's disgust. Sam in turn performed some kind of military sleight-of-hand and made Sheppard an Air Force major assigned to a second-contact gate team, which meant that he probably protected beans from weevils and put band-aids on skinned alien knees.
Rodney had asked for Sheppard to be assigned to Science, but Sam apparently wanted to keep an eye on him herself. Rodney suspected that this was because Sam had her own experiences with Sam Carters from other dimensions, and she felt some kind of maternal protective instinct. She'd insisted Sheppard learn to fly the jumpers, and for a few weeks every sentence Sheppard said was Colonel Carter this or Colonel Carter that. It got old really quickly. Sheppard hung out with Miko, who was working on the naquadah problem. Rodney heard they'd started a band, or something. At least it wasn't Mensa: he really wouldn't forgive that.
The way their schedules were arranged, Rodney didn't see Sheppard often, outside of the incessant science staff meetings. He found that each time they ran into each other, Sheppard was more like his own person and less like a warped copy of John. Sometimes he was afraid that he was forgetting John, who was one of his best friends ever and who had saved his life countless times and who wasn't dead; just gone.
When that happened, when he found he had trouble picturing John without glasses, when Sheppard said something sly and devastatingly funny, Rodney became even more vicious to everyone, but especially to Sheppard. After a few days, Teyla would take him aside and beat him with sticks, which usually made the impotent rage fade into background noise again. Usually.
Now though, in the middle of the party, he was feeling the anger coming on again. Fortunately, he was pre-emptively blissed-out by the cause of celebration: he and Radek had finally got two empty ZPMs to initiate the recharging sequence, based on Sheppard's recollection of the Ancient technique. The rate of recharge was pitifully low — we'll use up the energy created faster than we can create it, Radek had said, scowling and raking his hair up in handfuls. Sheppard was trying to slave more empties to the two recharging ZPMs: he had a theory, which Rodney had grudgingly and ungraciously admitted might be right, that this would increase energy flow, though that seemed counterintuitive. Even with his new calculations, however, they were looking at a minimum of two years, seven months, and eleven days per refilled ZPM: but still, refilled ZPM. That was, as John might have said, pretty cool.
The Athosians had showed up for the bash with alcohol and a fifteen-person dance band. When they finally took a break, after a complex circle dance that had, surprise surprise, involved leaping over clacking sticks, Sheppard appeared on the stage with Miko and Teyla, who should have known better, or at least been winded by all the exercise. Sheppard had his guitar — had John's guitar, Rodney corrected, and apparently he had stolen John's cool and his friends as well. There was a smattering of applause from the people who weren't stampeding for drinks and food. Sheppard pulled up a chair and sat down; Miko produced a microphone; and with no introduction, they launched into their set.
Sheppard couldn't play anything without making it sound like country. It was funny, especially when Teyla was singing Celine Dion in Athosian. For the final song, the Athosian band got back on stage and the whole mess hall sang and swayed in boozy camaraderie, all bongo drums and love and peace and unity. If Atlantis hadn't had such stringent smoking regs, there would have been lighters waved. Rodney felt his throat begin to reflexively tighten: he despised this kind of blatant emotional manipulation. He crossed his arms and glared, first at Teyla, then at Miko, and finally at Sheppard.
Sheppard just happened to glance up and meet his eye. We shall be as one echoed off Atlantis' walls and Rodney couldn't stand it any more. He pushed his way out of the hall and started for the transporter.
"McKay — wait up. Damn it. Hey!"
Rodney supposed that it was childish to make Sheppard run after him, but — he was drunk! If that wasn't license to act even more pettily than he usually did, he didn't know what was.
Sheppard skidded through the transporter doors just as they were sliding shut, and leaned against the wall. He looked well pleased with himself, and ignored the way Rodney was ignoring him.
"I just wanted to say thank you," Sheppard said, not even having the grace to breathe hard. He smiled wide, succeeding in looking very drunk himself. The doors slid open and he waved Rodney through first, an odd irruption of gentlemanly behavior that put Rodney off balance. "You're — I really — you've — thank you," he said, dogging Rodney's heels.
Rodney stopped in front of his door and turned around to glare. "You're welcome," he said, with false solemn gravity. "Your incoherence moves me. Good night."
"McKay." There was enough of a plea in the way Sheppard drew his name out that he recalled John's voice in a vivid auditory flashback which made Rodney see red, literally. He grabbed fistfuls of Sheppard's jacket and slammed him backwards into the wall.
"I also wanted to say I'm sorry," Sheppard said, pushing his glasses up his nose as if being pinned to the wall was no big deal. "I am so, so sorry that I took John away from you."
Rodney shook him by the shoulders, and Sheppard must have been pickled, because he was as limp as a kitten. "You should be, you bastard. He was my best friend."
"I will bring him back," Sheppard said, with all the steel conviction of his mantra, leaving no man behind.
"And then I'll lose you," Rodney blurted out, and shook Sheppard again, because — damn it — this was his fault. "You or him. Him, but not you. He and I have been through so much — if we hadn't loved each other we'd have killed each other long ago. And by love I mean like the way friends do," he added, because Sheppard looked like the floor'd just dropped out from under his feet. "Even if he hadn't been a Captain Kirk clone, he's not my type. You," Rodney said, letting Sheppard go and looking off down the corridor, "you — gah!"
He slapped his door open, deciding that it wasn't running away, it was a tactical retreat; except that Sheppard followed him in, and locked the door behind him.
"Out," Rodney said, and made little shooing motions with his hands.
"Am I your type?" Sheppard asked, voice low. Rodney cast about for something he could throw at Sheppard's head.
"I'm not Rod McKay," he shouted, grabbing yesterday's t-shirt from the chair, balling and flinging it. He followed with an enamel mug stolen from the mess, which scored a solid hit on Sheppard's shoulder. "I'm not your do-over chance — do you have any idea how pathetic it feels to be a poor second to yourself?"
Sheppard's eyebrows squashed together. "Yes," he said, dragging the word out slowly, as if he couldn't believe Rodney was so dumb. "Rod might have mentioned that. And I think you bring it up, oh, in every single conversation we have." His mouth twisted. "I don't get you confused with him. Just so you know." He shrugged, and the motion put him off-balance. He did an awkward step-forward step-back, dropped his chin, and jerked his shoulder at the door. "I'll just be going, then."
"Don't," Rodney started, and Sheppard gave him the left half of a smile.
"Promise I won't leave this reality or plane of existence," he said. "Night, McKay."
"This is stupid," Rodney blurted out, and that earned him the other half of the smile. He threw his arms out to the sides in frustration, and Sheppard held a hand out to him, steady, palm up. The room felt like it was slowly revolving around that outstretched hand, and Rodney had to grab hold or be flung backwards. John had told him about being put in a human centrifuge for G-Loc training; that was probably why Sheppard was looking so calm, the bastard, he was used to this; but Rodney felt as if the breath was being squeezed out of him, as if all his blood was headed south, as if his brain might just shut down entirely.
"Come here," Sheppard said, and pulled. Two can play at that game, Rodney thought as he was reeled in, and put his other hand to the back of Sheppard's head, holding him still while Rodney kissed the corners of his mouth. But he didn't really get a taste of Sheppard's smile until he ran his tongue over his lips. Sheppard licked back, his tongue somehow managing to convey desperation as he traced the lines of his mouth. Rodney leaned closer and Sheppard opened to him immediately.
His head was still full of the battle between he wants me and he wants this, which were not the same things at all. But Sheppard had both hands sliding up the plane of Rodney's chest now, ostensibly removing his shirt, but with a circling of thumbs around his nipples that left Rodney gasping.
"Bed," Rodney said, and pointed it out, one of the few very rare Ancient double beds (he'd whined at Elizabeth for a week to get it; he'd do so again in a heartbeat, his comfort being far more important than his macho image). They were naked by the time they reached the bed, and it was brutally obvious that Sheppard and John were not the same person. Whatever Sheppard'd been through hadn't just taken his eye. He must have been nearly killed, several times over, and that was a hard thing to think about when you had someone naked in your bed.
"Does it matter?" Sheppard asked when Rodney ran the palm of his hand across from the older scars on his bicep to the raw new imprint of a Wraith's feeding hand. Sheppard was as quiet as a wild animal, ready to run at Rodney's slightest misstep. Which was unfair, because in a situation like this? Rodney was practically guaranteed to put his foot in his mouth, and not in a kinky Karma Sutra way.
"No," Rodney said, figuring monosyllabic was the way to go, and Sheppard kissed him and rolled him onto his back and climbed right on top of him.
"Let me," Sheppard said, doing something absolutely devastating with his hips that brought their dicks into alignment. Rodney couldn't help pushing up as Sheppard moved over him. He slid his hands down over Sheppard's bony ass, feeling every muscle that was in motion. Sheppard smirked down at him, and then ducked his head to lick his way slowly down Rodney's neck.
Rodney touched everywhere he could, from the short wiry hairs on Sheppard's legs to the soft bristles on his head, all the hard muscles and sharp bones and smooth scars, the unexpected softness of his lips and the heavy firmness of Sheppard's dick. There was no mistaking him in Rodney's head, though it was troublesome when he felt himself on the verge of coming.
"John," he said, arching up. Sheppard paused in his own exploration of Rodney's body and gave him a look: without his glasses, his eyes looked less focused, more vulnerable. "John Lee," he corrected; "Sheppard — oh, fuck me," he snapped in frustration and came, the force of it sweeping sensation into his fingers and toes like a tsunami. He was still shaking with the force of it a minute later, and it took a moment to realize that the reason Sheppard was also shaking was that he was laughing. "Bastard," Rodney said. He shoved Sheppard off, and went down on him with such vindictive enthusiasm that Sheppard came with a shout on only his second hard swallow.
"So there," Rodney said, and Sheppard started laughing again, wrapping Rodney in his arms and kissing him lazily. They did the basking in the afterglow thing, which was so very cliche that Rodney wouldn't have admitted to liking it; but he didn't have to, because Sheppard didn't want to talk. They took turns in the bathroom and got back into bed with less than five words between them. Rodney felt as though he'd finally discovered the fast-forward from early-relationship awkwardness to mid-relationship comfort. If he could only market it, he'd be a millionaire.
Sheppard fell asleep with his arms over his head, crossed at the wrists, lying perfectly still. Rodney thought it was weird, not that he was any connoisseur of sleep positions, but Sheppard looked like he was tied up. Or maybe dead.
Rodney snuggled into his preferred sleeping position. He wasn't able to get his elbow just right, because there was a Sheppard in the way, and he dropped into sleep with a mild buzz of annoyance.
When he woke with a jerk, desperately needing a piss, he was alone in the bed. He sat up, noticed that Sheppard was working on his laptop, staggered into the bathroom, and when he was done stumbled out again.
"I thought you weren't an early riser," he said, peering over Sheppard's shoulder. "And I'm not sure I want naked men having their way with my data."
"Like I'd touch your data," Sheppard said, leaning his head back so that his hair brushed over Rodney's stomach. "Eww."
"Come back to bed," Rodney said. "The alarm won't go off for another hour or so."
Sheppard paused, looking up for one long moment with a slow smile working its way across his face. "Yeah," he said, and saved whatever he'd been working on.
In the end, Rodney didn't get any sleep at all, and Sheppard dropped off just five minutes before the alarm. Rodney told him he could stay, sleep some more, but Sheppard insisted on getting up, showering, and meeting Rodney in the mess after he'd swung by his own room for a change of clothes.
"I never sleep at night, anyway," Sheppard said, when Rodney eyed his third cup of coffee.
Rodney took the words as a promise of good things to come, at night, all night, every night, and spent the rest of the morning absently smiling in a way that made his colleagues give him a wide, wide berth.
Over the next two weeks they had sex in Sheppard's Spartan quarters and on Rodney's prescription mattress and in the shower and on the balcony (once, and Rodney wasn't even sure how it had happened, in a bright misting rain with Sheppard swallowing his dick down as if it was the answer to hunger). There was one point, on the ninth day, when Zelenka asked a question and Rodney answered what ZPM?, when Rodney thought he might be getting a little out of control.
But then, fifteen days and nineteen hours after Sheppard first kissed him, SGA-2/4 came in hot from a routine inspection of the algae farms on PX3-W21.
"Second-contact teams aren't supposed to run into trouble," Rodney yelled as he skidded into the gate room. He wasn't even breathless; his new nocturnal exercise program seemed to be doing him some good.
The two botanists, covered in muck to the knees, dripping fetid, bacteria-ridden water all over the floor, and grinning like loons, stepped to the side. The Marine whose name Rodney could never recall was holding Sheppard up. Sheppard just had to be an original: he was dripping blood, even though he looked just as deliriously happy.
"Merry Christmas, McKay," he said, and one of the botanists held out a filthy backpack. "Hope it's your size."
Rodney zipped it open and stared, slack-jawed, at the ZPM inside.
"We rock," Sheppard said happily. "Don't we?" He turned his head to look up at the Marine.
"Yes, sir," he said. "We totally rock. Sir."
"Good," Sheppard said, collapsing, and Rodney was definitely going to laugh at him later, because he had more fainting spells than a Regency romance. Periodic unconsciousness was not a trait Rodney found attractive in a boyfriend.
It wasn't until several hours later, when Sheppard was dozing in the infirmary and Rodney was making grandiose lists of all the things they could do with a ZPM at 38.7% capacity, that he realized this moved Sheppard's departure from some time vaguely two years hence to within the month (if the liquid naquadah worked). Rodney's heart froze for a moment, wanting John and wanting Sheppard, and he lowered his forehead to the cool laminate of his desk. Sheppard would say leaving was the right thing to do; not leaving John behind was the right thing to do. Rodney knew it was, too. He just wished it didn't hurt so much.
Rod had been Elizabeth's choice as babysitter for alternate-John simply because they'd saved the universe together a few times. But after the first few weeks, when it became apparent that alternate John was going to be with them for a while (six months, Rod said; no more than 3 years, 27 days, Miko said), Elizabeth insisted that life go on as normally as possible. Which meant that it was time for them to go their separate ways.
Rod and SGA-1/1 were cleared for off-world activities, Sheppard's place taken over by the exceedingly dull Major Harrington, from SG-17. He started working on some of the projects that had been back-burnered by all the crises of the past month. Major Sheppard was temporarily classified as MIA, much to Sumner's dismay: the SGC actually had a Standard Operating Procedure for losing personnel to alternate realities — who would have guessed?
Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard had met with General O'Neill and a full house of very important people who knew little or nothing. He emerged after several days having resigned his (well, Sheppard's) commission in trade for a generic soap-opera cover story about a head injury and permission to stay and work in Atlantis until such time as he could return home. This meant that he didn't need to wear orange anymore. He wore a lot of black, instead, to match his mood.
Rod was on M35-LR2 when John was turned into a civilian. There was a manufacturing site there that looked as if it would yield some fascinating insights into Ancient technology. It took Rod five days to delegate everything that needed doing. When he got back, it was the Athosian festival of remembrance, and he accompanied Teyla and Sumner to the mainland. It was always tricky trying to get Sumner to be diplomatic without insulting the man: sometimes Rod thought that other-Atlantis might have had the right idea, to put Sheppard in charge. Even Sheppard couldn't be half as bad at liaising with aliens as Sumner was.
Sumner left Sheppard's name off the list of the Atlantean dead and missing that he read before the Athosian Council. Rod could see that this angered Teyla. Even though he didn't believe that these rituals actually helped lost souls find peace — he didn't believe in souls or an afterlife himself, but he had the good sense to keep quiet about it — he understood the importance of the ritual, of the remembering, to the Athosians. I will not remember you was one of the worst things you could say to someone. He sighed inwardly, adjusted his ceremonial robe, and wondered how long it would take him to iron out this gaffe.
The mainland transporter was housed in its own little concrete bunker a short walk from the Athosian settlement. Teyla was as dignified as always, but she made it a point to see them off personally. When she was out of view of her people, inside the windowless walls, she said to Sumner, "That was not well done."
"You hardly knew him," Sumner said, letting his eyes drop to the leather corset-thing Teyla wore over her robes.
"We were on the same team," she countered. "He was always honest with me. Perhaps you wouldn't dislike him so much if he hadn't so often been right when you were wrong."
"He's the one who woke the Wraith up," Sumner said, with a cruel smile. "He's responsible for nearly all the names you read tonight."
"He did it by accident, to save your life." Teyla looked at Sumner and then very obviously dismissed him. "Please give my regards to Dr Weir," she said to Rod. "I must return."
"Bitch," Sumner said before the door had even shut completely behind Teyla's back. "Trusting aliens is like having an armed enemy standing behind you. Are we going back, or do you plan to spend the night here?"
Rod punched in his key code, and the transporter doors opened. They made it all the way back to Atlantis in the silent blink of an eye, and Rod hoped that he could keep silent long enough to get away from Sumner. One of these days, the temptation to speak his mind would overwhelm him. Now that he no longer had Sheppard to act as a buffer, he found the military presence on Atlantis incredibly irritating.
"McKay," Sumner said, just as Rod was making his escape. "O'Neill's sent word that General Sheppard wants to talk to his son. You arrange it, however you like so long as there are no awkward questions."
"Joy," Rod said. "You want him to impersonate Major Sheppard."
"They're the same damn person," Sumner said. "Just make sure he toes the line."
Which really wasn't that easy.
"You're fucking kidding me," John said. The glare he turned on Rod was dark and without the undercurrent of humor that Rod thought of as typically John. "No. Hell no. Let my bastard father rot."
"Look," Rod said, putting a hand on John's shoulder and steering him into the mess. He grabbed two coffees and some whole-wheat biscuits, and pointed to a window-side table far away from everyone else. "I don't know anything about Sheppard's family — I don't know anything about your family. He never says anything. I don't talk about my parents, either, and my sisters are the same. Meredith hasn't seen them in years, and Jeannie says they'd be bad for the kids."
He shrugged, and offered John a biscuit. John refused.
"But you, you're kind of undercover here. On Atlantis, there's a place for a John Sheppard from another reality. Not on Earth — there, there's only one." John looked stubborn; Rod changed tactics. "And you wouldn't be doing it just because your dad's giving O'Neill a hassle. You'd be doing it because John Sheppard's been reported head injured and he's no longer in the Air Force and he can't go home. Maybe your dad wouldn't worry, but his obviously does."
"Oh, thanks for the guilt," John said. He wrapped both his hands around his coffee mug and stared out the window.
"He's been injured before," Rod said, and wondered why he felt as if he were betraying Sheppard's confidence. "He doesn't talk about it, but — "
"He's missing an eye, and he nearly lost an arm to bone death." John's eyes flicked to Rod and then away again. "Which I can't really imagine."
"He nearly died. So just call his father and let him know he's okay."
"It's a hell of a lot easier to say no to my McKay when he makes insane demands," John said, with a put-upon sigh.
"Oh, really," Rod snapped back. "Because I got the impression that your McKay talked you into any number of dangerous situations, and that it was easy for him because you refused to make use of whatever intelligence you purportedly have."
"You just talked me into this and now you insult me," John said, and pushed his chair back from the table. "You want more coffee?"
"You should eat something," Rod said automatically. "You're losing weight." He paused, almost stopping himself from speaking before John moved away. "Are you doing okay? Are you happy here?"
John looked as if he wanted to say something flip and sarcastic, but then the anger about him seemed to ebb and he just looked weary. He made a just getting coffee, be right back gesture. When he returned he had a bag of taco chips and lines between his eyes.
"Sometimes I pretend that I really am head injured," John said, dangling a chip temptingly in front of Rod's face. Rod caught it with two fingers and ate it in one bite. "Then all the gaps between what's real and what I know are just like things I forgot. I spend half my time here studying to find a way home, and half trying to find a place for myself here. The cognitive dissonance. . . is wearing."
"I'm sorry," Rod said. He stole more chips from the bag. "I thought you'd be more popular than our Sheppard."
John raised an eyebrow. "Except I kind of think of him as a little brother, so I want to punch anyone who badmouths him."
Rod fiddled with the zip on his jacket. "That would be me, then."
John grinned. "I only want to punch you a little, though. Sumner I want to pulverize."
"Get in line," Rod said, and then glowered at John and stole the whole bag of chips. "You bring out the worst in me."
"I'm making an honest man of you, McKay." John raised his mug in a toast. "Can we make the stupid phone call right now?"
Rod craned over the table to read Sheppard's watch. "We could make the afternoon dial-in. If you're sure. . . "
"Just break the transmission if I start foaming at the mouth, is all I ask."
"Oh, ha very ha," Rod said, but when they were in the comm cubicle with the word connecting flashing in the centre of the monitor, John shot him such a desperate look when he made to leave that Rod realized he'd been serious.
"What's the worst that could happen?" Rod said, leaning back against the wall and crossing his arms.
John didn't get a chance to answer; the call patched through, and Rod found himself staring over John's shoulder at a grey-haired man in an ugly yellow plaid shirt. The conversation was stilted, generic questions that John answered shortly, or with meaningless phrases. I'm fine, everything's fine, no really, it's fine, and hey, the weather's fine, too. It was awkward to the point of pain, and finally John cracked.
"Do we even like each other? Because. . . I remember fighting."
Sheppard's father grimaced and shifted as if he wanted to reach out. "We fight like devils, Johnny, but I'm too old to think I've got a lot of second chances left. And of course your mother won't quiet up until we mend our fences."
John's hands wrapped around the edge of the desk, white-knuckled. "Mom's alive?" he asked. He sounded broken, and Rod knew how very hard it was to break John Sheppard. He straightened, not sure what he should do, or even whether he should do anything.
"She's making a pie or somesuch," Sheppard's father said. His face had gone very still. "Right over there in the kitchen, Johnny — honey, the flour don't matter none, come talk to the boy."
"Can he hear me?" A woman walked in front of the camera, putting on her glasses and getting flour on her nose. "Lord, I don't understand these things at all." Sheppard's father turned her so that she could see the monitor, and she smiled. Her fingers left ghostly trails across the screen. "Sweetheart, what have you done with your hair?" she said, smiling with Sheppard's smile and giving the last word too many syllables and vowels.
John was so still that Rod didn't realize anything was wrong until John covered his face with his hands. The instant he let go of the table, he started shaking.
"Okay," Rod said, moving into the camera field himself. He settled one hand on John's shoulder and gave Sheppard's parents a smile that was meant to be compassionately reassuring: he doubted it worked. They looked confused and distressed. "I'm Dr. Rod McKay, I work with John," he said, and he kept smiling as he lied to them about temporary memory loss and stress and John's healthy appetite.
It was ghastly, and John didn't help any. Finally, Rod said that while sending pies to Sheppard's APO was probably a bad idea, e-mail was always welcome, and the Sheppards told him to take good care of their son. John managed to say goodbye all by himself; Rod rubbed small circles idly at the centre of John's back, the way he did with his sisters when they got hormonal, and caught Sheppard's father's eye by accident as he hit the disconnect.
"You just outed your Sheppard to his parents," John said, dragging the hem of his shirt up to clean his face. He still looked shocky.
"I did, didn't I," Rod said. "This is bad."
John twitched a shrug and pushed himself up. "They didn't seem to mind. Maybe they knew everything except about the overprotective boyfriend in black leather."
Rod muttered something very rude at John's back as he followed him out, and then remembered that he was supposed to be sympathetic. "I'm sorry about your mother. I mean — in your reality, I'm guessing she died."
"Don't," John said, with a quick chopping motion of his hand.
"Do you want to go get dinner?" Rod asked, hearing his own words the way an outsider might hear them. They way Sheppard had probably heard them. "Oh, God. I am such the overprotective boyfriend."
"Honesty's a bitch, isn't it?" John said, and jerked his head at the transporter. "I've got to clear my head, I'll see you. . . when I see you." He didn't even wave, just turned on his heel and left.
Rod didn't see John in the mess, even though he walked by, or through, once every twenty minutes or so until hot meal services stopped at half eight. He went by John's quarters shortly after nine. There was no answer, but he'd had the forethought to bring a life-signs detector, which proved that John wasn't home. John wasn't in the jumper bay, either, or in the gym, or watching Sex and the City with the others in the rec lounge.
On impulse, Rod walked down to Sheppard's lab. He got a life-sign blip, and he keyed himself in without knocking. It was a habit.
"There you are," he said, and John spun his chair halfway around to give him a look.
"Here I am," John agreed, somehow implying, And what do you want, Dr. States the Obvious?
"Look," Rod said, crossing to the desk and leaning down to look at the equations on John's computer. They were easier to confront than John's still bruised-looking face. "Back there — today — I realized something."
"Me, too," John said, and Rod had to face him, then, because that was pretty much the perfect invitation. When he twisted sideways he was close enough that he just needed to tilt his head and lean and he was kissing John.
Pretty much perfect, he thought. He liked the longer hair that he could thread his fingers through, and he liked the way John spoke his name into the kiss as he opened his mouth. He liked the way John's eyelashes settled when he shut his eyes — and, oh, but John shutting his eyes to be kissed was the hottest thing, ever. One of John's hands slid around his waist between his jacket and his shirt, and Rod felt himself shiver. He was not the sort of person who shivered and came undone — especially not in a lab.
"Come with me to my room?" he asked, still holding on to John, their foreheads pressed together. "Please," he said; "please."
"I figured out what Sheppard did wrong," John said, and he pulled away and looked at the computer. He was breathing hard. Rod slid a hand down and felt the way John's chest rose and fell, the way his heart was beating as if he'd been running.
"Tomorrow," Rod said, "tomorrow morning," and he rubbed his cheek against the side of John's head.
"He suspended the naquadah in a vertical matrix," John said in a voice that sounded too much like sex. "He made it two-way, you see?" Rod wasn't looking at the screen: he'd found a nipple beneath John's shirt to play with. "But it'd be a hell of a lot easier to just roll the naquadah out flat — like a pie crust," John said, catching Rod's hand and squeezing it in reprimand. "Stop that." John called up a schematic. "Fuck vertical, horizontal is the way we want to go."
"The sad thing is, I don't think you meant that as innuendo," Rod said. "Seriously — the work'll be here tomorrow."
"I would go through, set up a sister device on the other side, and send Sheppard back," John said. "Nested one-way tickets."
"John," Rod said.
"I can't do this," John said, sounding agonized. "I can't steal Sheppard's mother, and the guy he has a crush on, and his research. That's not fair. It's not right. What I want doesn't make a difference. What you want — " John returned Rod's hand, very gently, to his side. "Well. You want what you want."
"I kind of hate that one of the things I love about you is your loyalty," Rod said, but he straightened up and crossed and uncrossed his arms. "Give me what you have, let's see how much you've learnt. You're probably wrong about everything." He pulled over another chair and shoved John out of the way.
"Ha," John said, hours later. "Not too shabby for only a Master's degree."
"Don't even talk to me," Rod said. "Football metaphors in the physics, that's grounds for capital punishment in most civilized nations. And don't get me started on quantum mechanics — no, wait, don't get you started. Where'd you learn physics, one of those For Idiots books?"
"Let's call it a night," John said. "My ass has gone numb and I'm seeing double."
"Do not talk to me about your ass," Rod said, and yawned.
"Beddie bye time," John said, hauling Rod up out of the chair and propelling him towards the door.
"Alone?" Rod said, and John tipped his head sideways — agreement and apology all rolled into one.
Rod spent the next week feeling like the heroine of a Gothic novel, complete with random deep sighing at the memory of that one forbidden kiss. John didn't seem affected at all, but he was kept busy running errands, and Rod only saw him coming or going.
Finally, there were three last diagnostics to run on what John had dubbed the quantum puddle before it could be connected to the ZPM. John stretched out on one of the lab tables to wait, with his head pillowed on Rod's jacket (which he had totally stolen) and his arms illustrating their discussion of B movies in two realities.
Right now, John's arms were demonstrating zombie-killing techniques. "You don't have Return of the Living Dead?" he asked, incredulous. "Brain-eating zombies! Make love 'til we die!"
"Rapist of the Dead," Rod replied, keeping one eye on the scrolling data. "Ima D. Cappa, 1994. Co-eds stumble into a necrophilia cult."
"Aww, man," John said appreciatively. "I gotta see that before I go."
Rod gave him a glare that hopefully said, You'd rather watch Ima bounce around topless than sleep with me? Infidel! John apparently didn't get it, and started talking about possessed bowling alleys, but Rod had noticed that there was something very ominously wrong with Atlantis.
"What?" John said, rolling upright in one smooth motion and hopping off the table like the reanimated dead. "What's wrong?"
"Shut up," Rod said, trying to listen to his headset while projecting all life-signs onto the all-floors display. He made all the blips that had appeared in the past two minutes glow red instead of Atlantis blue. "Darts over the city. No, wait," and he grabbed at John, who had made for the door. "There are already gateshipss shooting at them, okay? It's not the darts, it's whoever they just beamed down. And where they are, and — fuck — what they're doing."
Sheppard was following the fighting on the all-floors. "They don't move like Wraith."
"I know," Rod said, and pulled up the menus for recalibrating the LSDs. It was taking too long. "We need Sheppard. He knows the city's defenses backwards and forwards and has secret weapons and traps and possibly even a few nukes squirreled away. Oh, good, good, there we go, finally." He changed the parameters with rapidfire taps on the keyboard.
"Hey," John said. "All the life signs on our floor just went out."
"It's a Sheppard trick," Rod said. "Only life forms with a mass greater than 200kg will get blipped. Which means we are effectively invisible."
"So are they," John said, and then winced as the headsets buzzed with static, and then a scratchy voice.
"Major Sheppard — you haven't learnt any new tricks since the last time we visited, have you?"
"Kolya," John hissed. Rod had never seen him look murderous before: it was a look he associated with Sheppard, who did crazy a little too well.
"We have Dr. Weir, Major. I understand that she is important to you. I'm willing to trade her life for yours. What do you say?"
Rod was frantically texting messages to control. He tilted the screen, so that John could read: Sumner shot — Genii barricaded in SE-17 — Weir confirmed taken — Lorne assuming command but trapped in the mess hall. John pushed Rod to the side and hijacked the keyboard, sending terse, unpunctuated messages to Lorne.
"Why are you doing this, Kolya?" John said, sounding almost conversational.
"Why do you think, Major? We know what you're up to on M9U-KL2, and we know about the weapons platform that you found in the Bane asteroid belt. I think you and I parted ways too hastily last time. I'd like to. . . chat." Kolya coughed. "Stop stalling. Do you think I'm not serious? Perhaps I should start sending Dr Weir out piece by piece."
Confirmed, Lorne wrote, and John said, "Okay. We'll trade, her for me."
"Are you fucking insane?" Rod hissed, barely remembering to make sure his radio wasn't on 'send'. John was agreeing to something, making mm-hm and uh-huh noises, as if he were getting ready for a blind date and not more torture at the hands of a psychopath.
"Stay with me, McKay," John said, tapping his own microphone off. "Oh, sorry — I forgot, you don't hyperventilate under pressure."
"You can't do this," Rod said.
John shrugged. "It will buy us the time we need for you to go get the other Sheppard and bring him back here. I'll be fine — I don't know any of the stuff Kolya wants from Sheppard, anyway."
"That won't stop him from sticking pins under your fingernails," Rod snapped. "He's already had you killed once."
"Then get your ass in gear," John snarled back, grabbing Rod's jacket and tossing it to him. He studied the all-floors one last time, probably trying to memorize the Genii whereabouts. They were, unfortunately, in an easily defensible position. "You're the expert at alternate realities, go."
"One last thing," Rod said, as John glanced at his watch and turned to go. He reached out, grabbed a fistful of John's shirt, and pulled John into a kiss. It was desperate and over far too quickly. "Try not to die for the next hour or so."
John touched his mouth unconsciously. "You, too, McKay." He looked as if there were things he wanted to say, but instead he turned and left, already running before the door slid shut.
Rod was fairly sure that he wouldn't be demolecularized when he stepped into the puddle. That would have to be good enough. He diverted power from the ZPM through wastewater treatment, the dental clinic, and three other locations before feeding it into the puddle. He could hear Genii squawk on his headset as the power levels dipped and rose across the city, but it cut off abruptly the second he took a naquadah dive.
Other-Atlantis looked exactly the same. The hardest part of being there was that everyone wanted to shake Rod's hand and chat, to catch up, inquire after his health and his Atlantis. After the tenth time he had to politely explain that he was really rather busy now and repress the need to add a courteous and how have you been?, he was sorely tempted to just shout.
Rodney and Sheppard intercepted him before he reached critical irritation, thankfully. Rodney had a smug, successful glow to him, as if he were getting regular sex or had found a love nest of ZPMs. Sheppard looked as if someone'd beaten him, with bruises on his face and a limp. Rod wanted to file a complaint: we took good care of your Sheppard, look what you did to ours! (He'd leave out the part about the brig. . . and maybe the hostage thing meant there were certain stones he wasn't supposed to be throwing first). Sheppard was dressed with a sloppiness Rod associated with John: boots undone, shirt untucked and open over a t-shirt that was identical to one Rod owned.
"What's wrong?" Sheppard said with reflexively sharp suspicion, and that was it. He sounded perfectly like himself and not like John at all. Rod rocked on his heels and began to explain.
"I cannot believe you needed me to do this," Sheppard said, talking to Rod as if he'd just asked to have his shoelaces tied and his nose wiped. "Why the hell did you let them fuck with the quarantine system?" He waved a finger in angry circles at the all-floors. "You've got Marines boxed up in six different locations, all useless. Here," he said, and Ancient flashed across the monitor. "We go in through the ducts and gas the Genii, here and here and here."
"They have Sheppard," Rod said. He sounded genuinely worried; Rodney gave him points for that.
"It's not poison gas," Sheppard said, rolling his eyes. "Hm. We'd need to rappel down to level 6 and go over the walkway."
"We have to get John out before Kolya kills him. Again," Rodney added. Sheppard gave him a sharp look, then shrugged.
"Fine. We can create a diversion here — " he tapped the zoology lab — "and take the wastewater main through to the galley."
"That'll work," Rod said, and handed Rodney a harness. "Let's do it."
Rodney hated Rod at all-new levels for being able to pull of a phrase like let's do it while sliding on safety glasses with a kind of Terminator-cool.
He had tagged along on this insane mission because a) John was in trouble, and b) Sheppard was going, and c) he hated the idea of being the only one in their foursome who hadn't seen both realities. He'd known he'd look pathetic in proximity to Rod, but he had sworn to himself that he wouldn't complain — not even when it became apparent that he'd be taking home a whole new array of new phobias from this inter-reality jaunt. The rappelling hadn't felt quite as much like certain death as crossing the walkway's roof ten stories above sea level, with the wind plastering his clothes to his body.
Sheppard's idea of a diversion was to fiddle with the life-signs system again, this time making it register anything weighing over 20 grams and then letting loose every cage of exotic insect and rodent that zoology had. It was like the creeping circle of hell and reminded Rodney too much of the way his skin had crawled in the Iratus nest.
They just made it into the pipe (the sewer, Rodney thought with disgust: disused for ten thousand years, yes, but still. . . eww) when a dozen or so Genii raced by. Rod had an uncorrupted LSD, and he made an encouraging hand gesture: onwards and upward. Sheppard dropped two gas canisters down, and they ran.
Kolya liked to interrogate prisoners in relative privacy. Rodney suspected he didn't really want it getting out about how much he enjoyed causing pain. He had holed up in a disused storage room. There were two guards on the door, two more still figures in the room — more guards — and one pacing. The only life sign in Atlantis blue was still, flanked by guards.
Sheppard and Rod really had the snappy hand-signal communication thing down pat. Rodney was more than happy to let them lead. He'd thought that the outer guards would be taken out with gas; he hadn't quite recalled that none of them had gas masks. Rod shoved the access grating up, and Sheppard shot both of the guards efficiently with some kind of energy weapon.
Rod cuffed the guards and dragged their bodies off to the side. The outer room secured, they now needed to worry about how to get inside. It would be stupid to simply walk in through the door; Rodney figured everyone knew that, even Sheppard.
But apparently, no.
Rodney scrambled to copy what Rod was doing, moving swiftly to back Sheppard up. He could tell by Rod's expression that Rod thought Sheppard had cracked his nut, too; but then again, when the man who'd killed you (in two realities) had you prisoner and was trying to torture you into revealing information you didn't actually have — well, Rodney supposed that if anything was an extenuating circumstance, that was.
"Ah," Kolya said, smiling like the host of a successful party. "I was worried you'd suffered brain damage. Your brother?" he asked, waving a hand airily at John, who was tied to what looked like a coat rack. He looked both furious and drugged, but thankfully not too damaged.
"Tell your men to stand down," Sheppard said. He kept the green dot of his laser sight absolutely motionless against Kolya's shirt.
Rodney had no doubt that Rod would prove to be an ace shot. But it still felt a bit too much like stalemate. Three of them versus three of us.
"This feels like a game of klappen oggie," Kolya said; Rodney assumed he meant musical chairs, or fruit basket, or maybe Red Rover. "You may stay, Major. Your brother can leave with your friends."
"No," Sheppard said.
Kolya shrugged as if were no matter. But apparently the radiation had made the Genii military stupid, because one of the guards took that as a sign that he ought to shoot John. In the back.
Time all of a sudden sped up and slowed down, simultaneously. At the time, however, Rodney didn't even think of all the implications for physics. He saw Rod shoot the guard and Kolya collapse in dramatic slow motion, and he might have shot the other guard. It was hard to tell, with all the gunfire, but the guard ended up twitching on the floor one way or another.
Rod shoved Rodney towards the outer room, half-shouting orders to get the goddamned doors open and the transporters running. Rodney would have argued, but it would have only been for form — bad form, under the circumstances. And the circumstances were that Rod had to cut John down from the rack, getting horribly, brilliantly bloody as he did so, while Sheppard called for Carson and Lorne and stood, every muscle tense, over Kolya's motionless form with his gun aimed at his heart, for what felt like hours.
When his own hands had stopped shaking, Rodney looked up from the mess of code that the Genii had hacked in. "John," he said, and it was amazing how hard it was to sound properly exasperated. "John. The doors?"
Sheppard didn't say anything, but Rodney saw him holster his gun after a long moment. That was one less thing to worry about. Rodney wasn't all that worried about Kolya, and he knew that he (and probably Rod) wouldn't have said anything, but Sheppard didn't need to do that to himself. Rodney made room for Sheppard in front of the terminal. He didn't say anything, but after a minute Sheppard started denigrating the intelligence of the entire Genii military. Rodney didn't disagree. There was no all-floor display here, just the one hacked terminal, so Rodney had to talk constantly back and forth with Carson to figure out which doors were open and which weren't, and which transporters Sheppard had got on line again. Time was being measured in the flow of blood, and there was too little of the first and too much of the second.
Finally Carson was there with lots of sturdy young men, and time stuttered back into normalcy as John was examined and the prisoners were taken away and the investigation of the whole disaster began. Carson whisked John off to the infirmary, and he made Sheppard come along. Sheppard followed with such a look of grim determination that Rodney wondered if he thought Carson wanted a kidney or a lung instead of a few vials of blood. And then he started worrying himself that John might actually need spare organs. Gunshot wounds were bad, he knew that. Though he really didn't want to think about it.
Thankfully, it seemed every Atlantis in chaos needed the firm guidance of a McKay. Rodney realized that most of the jobs sent his way were intended for Rod, but Rod had gone all round-eyed and vulnerable-looking. Rodney told himself that he only felt sorry for Rod because he looked so much like Jeannie, with that bearing-up-well twist to his mouth. He refused to even consider that he himself might ever look like that. He just. . . wouldn't. Ever.
He supposed Rod was probably the sort of person who remembered people's birthdays, and sent condolence cards (for deaths, not recent publications), and donated sick days so co-workers could nurse sick children. Rod probably hand-made Christmas presents for his assorted nieces and nephews.
But Rodney's heart stuttered every time a call came over the radio. He might not make a production of it, but worrying about John — and John — was his prerogative.
When a call finally did come from Carson, Rodney literally dropped the entire crystal array he'd been reconfiguring into the hands of the nearest person. The work had allowed him not to think; he didn't need it any more.
He didn't need Rod following him, either.
""You don't need to come," Rodney said. "You're not a medical doctor, you know."
"Thank you," Rod said, and Rodney half-turned around, disconcerted. Rod clapped him on the shoulder. "We did a good job, I think. The best we could have, anyway." Rod was wearing his leather jacket with nothing underneath: the zip was down far enough that there was a strip of chest and chest hair showing. Rodney would have accused him of being a poseur, except that he knew Rod had used his shirt as a makeshift bandage. It would have to be binned: it was very hard to get blood out of cotton.
"It's what we do," Rodney said, his hands making loops through the air. "Travel to other universes, save the day, be heroes." He felt his face twist. "I think I fell in love with your Sheppard. I'm really. . . going to miss him, so if you could maybe take care of him. He's prickly all the way through, but that's because he's used to being hurt." Rodney frowned. "He's going to get hurt here, isn't he?" He supposed that was how he would remember this day: the day the Sheppards got hurt.
Rod shoved his hands in his pockets. "I'm pretty sure he won't be thrown in prison. I don't know if he'll be able to rejoin the Air Force, but really, why would he want to? We told his parents he had amnesia from a head injury."
"You suck at being reassuring," Rodney said. "What, are you sleeping with my Sheppard or something?" Rod's expression of wounded vulnerability increased a hundredfold. "Oh my God, you so are. I told you he was an intergalactic slut, but would you listen? No-o."
"We haven't actually done anything yet," Rod said, stiffly. "He said it felt like he was stealing his brother's boyfriend, or something."
"Sheppard is totally over you," Rodney said. He paused and took a deep breath. "He'll be fine, really. John — my reality's John. I've seen him die, you know, so many times. So. I know. . . I know, okay? And I still believe that he'll be fine. When he does really die, it'll be something stupid like falling down the stairs or autoerotic asphyxiation or choking on his chewing gum."
"Thank you," Rod said again, with an odd almost-smile. "You mean well, don't you?"
Rodney was saved from trying to figure out whether this was a compliment or an insult by their arrival at the infirmary. Sheppard was standing next to John's bed. They both looked as if they had the right number of lungs and kidneys and things, though Rodney knew he wasn't the most observant person when it came to that. John was conscious; Sheppard had his back half-turned away from everyone and was leaning over John, speaking too low to be heard. John raised the hand that wasn't hooked up to IVs and monitors and made a feeble de nada gesture. Sheppard reached out and squeezed his hand.
Rod coughed — on purpose, Rodney thought — and both Sheppards looked up. Sheppard said something final, and then walked over. He looked pale, and Rodney wondered how much blood Carson had taken.
"He wants to talk to you," Sheppard said to Rodney.
"Hey," Rod said, and Sheppard gave him a look that was somber and sympathetic.
"You can see him afterwards," Sheppard said, and bit his lip. "He's saying his goodbyes."
Genius meant that Rodney understood instantly what that meant.
"John," he said, and Sheppard rolled his eyes and shoved him in the direction of the bed with an exasperated, "Go."
"Hey," Rodney said, awkwardly, and tried not to look at the bandages.
"Hey yourself," John said, or more like whispered. Rodney didn't think he was in pain, but he looked so damaged, and also as if he was fading away.
"You always make the big dumb sacrifices, you know," Rodney said. "I just want to say thank you. For being there. I really liked knowing. . . that you were there."
"Be happy," John said. "I am. Really." His eyes were shining, and despite all the tubes and gadgets he managed to raise his hand a few inches. "Trying for a manly hug here," he said, and Rodney put John's hand in his. He put his other hand on John's shoulder and leaned forward for an Athosian head-bump; and then he kissed John, because if you couldn't kiss your best friend at a time like this, then you were way too much of a coward. John smiled, a little, and his hand slipped free.
"John?" Rodney said.
John's eyes drifted shut.
Rodney took a breath, and another just because he could. He straightened his shoulders. And then he did the hardest thing he'd ever done: he turned his back, walked out, didn't even look behind to make sure he was followed. He went down to the gate room, where they'd set up the puddle. No one talked to him; no one said a word. They established the quantum puddle, and one by one they each stepped through.
He didn't realize until he was on the other side that he was crying. There was a flurry of activity that he barely registered. Elizabeth was there, and Sam Carter, asking what was wrong, and he had to tell them.
"I left John behind," he said. "I left John behind and I brought John home."
He knew he wasn't exactly coherent, so he tried to explain while he cleaned his face on his sleeve.
"You did the right thing," Sam said. "The biggest danger inherent in these infinite universes is that you second-guess yourself, knowing that somewhere other choices are being lived out. You doubt your ability to make decisions. Don't doubt this, McKay."
"Give me some time," he said, and reached out blindly, catching the fabric of John's jacket tightly and holding on as if it were a lifeline.
"Thank you, sir," John said (Rodney's John; the only John, now, which made calling him Sheppard seem ridiculous). He snapped General O'Neill a crisp salute. "We'll be out of your hair real soon. Daniel said he had something to show us?"
"He said he had a homecoming present," Rodney corrected. "Really, we'd rather have cash." John elbowed him, glaring in his direction while at the same time trying to apologize to O'Neill with twists of his mouth and eyebrows. It was hilarious, but Rodney figured he shouldn't point that out.
O'Neill directed them to an elevator with a vague there there be geeks, and they descended well into the heart of the mountain. They found the right lab by asking every other person for Daniel.
The door was labeled 'Temporal Hazard – Extreme Caution – Authorized Personnel Only'. When Daniel let them in, the first thing Rodney saw was something that looked like a 1950s cabinet television — like something salvaged from a Genii bunker, complete with dials and buttons that lit up. He would have pointed and laughed and asked whether this was Daniel's take on a time machine. . . except there was something about the monitor, which on close inspection seemed to be a layer of naquadah under plexiglass.
Daniel was annoyingly enigmatic about the device and its function, no matter how hard John tried to stare the information out of him. He — Rodney wasn't sure what the proper verb was but went with the television analogy — tuned it in with the biggest dial, and then the midsized dial, and finally with a series of thumb-switches. When it was aligned precisely to his specifications, he handed each of them a headset and whapped a big red button.
"I thought the SGC banned all experiments with alternate realities," John said, crossing his arms. Daniel smiled beatifically.
"For some," Daniel said. "It's not something we want our enemies to discover, but we have to assume they might." He shrugged and flipped up something that looked far too much like a bunny-ear antenna for Rodney's peace of mind. "Still. You don't know what this is, you've never been in this room, and we've never had this conversation."
"What conversation," Rodney said, crossing his arms, and that was when the screen came to life.
"Heya," John said, flickering into view. The picture was static-y and drifted between color and black and white. But it was still John (Rodney's first John), waving. "Surprise!"
"He's growing his hair," Rodney said, grabbing the nearest arm and pointing rather wildly. Daniel gently detached Rodney's hand and stepped prudently out of range. "Look, he's even more relaxed than he was before, which I hadn't realized was even humanly possible — and he's standing upright all by himself."
"That's our boy," John (John Two? — crap, this was confusing) said, and grinned wide at his counterpart's embarrassment. "Little Johnny, all grown up."
"I'm Canadian now," John said, and pulled his collar open enough to flash them with the flannel shirt he was wearing under his jacket. "Jeannie and Meredith gave me the whole secret Canadian initiation rites. Eh."
"You wouldn't believe what they got him to do with the maple syrup," Rod said, crossing his arms. "We put the videos on YouTube and got TOSed and deleted and banned for life."
"I blame the beer. There's too much good beer in Canada," John said. "So how are you two crazy kids? And you, too, Dr. Daniel."
"We're good," Rodney said. "Really. . . good."
"Adjusting?" John asked John, and John shrugged.
"We went with a memory-loss cover story. Sometimes I almost forget that your life wasn't mine."
"I know the feeling." John spread his arms wide. "Worth it, though."
"Ha," John said, tucking his chin down to give John a black look. "I had to re-earn my degrees while defeating the Wraith, and the don't ask, don't tell thing in your Atlantis sucks." He looked sideways, giving Daniel a knowing, Mensans, unite! kind of look. "Though we might not have to deal with that much longer."
"They really are doing well," Daniel said. "John's just been promoted." (John ducked his head and glowed.) "Rodney's yea close to mass-producing ZPMs. And I'm still alive and the right gender and age, which is something that keeps me going when things fall apart."
"You make such a cute little girl," Rod said.
John snorted and pointed in repeated accusation at Rod. "He bought you Archaeologist Barbie the last time we were on Earth. You killed it. Brutally."
"Speaking of which," Rodney said, and then stopped, waving his hands and hoping he didn't look as horrified as he felt. "Never mind." In a weird mirror moment, John put a hand on Rodney's shoulder just as Rod put a hand on John's. They stared at each other through the shimmer for the space of several deep breaths.
"I wanted to thank you," John said. "For leaving me here. Politeness is the Canadian way, or so I am told. I would have said something before you left, but I was — "
"Yes, well," Rodney said. He really didn't want to get into the whole discussion of how and why he'd left John half-dead in another reality. Even if his John had been able to synthesize organic naquadah, they had both signed a ridiculous number of official documents promising that no, they wouldn't ever even think about other realities — and oh, by the way, what other realities? In return, although it wasn't officially a bribe, the SGC made John what he referred to as a real boy: paychecks, driver's license, social security number. No matter how much they might have wanted to know, it had been impossible.
Rodney hated things that were impossible.
"I knew you'd think that way," John said, pointing with a sharp nod. "Which is why we combined our genius powers to rig up this interdimensional phone-vid system. Didn't want you to lose any more hair worrying."
"Hey," Rodney and Rod said in tandem.
"So don't worry," John said, reaching up to cover Rod's hand with his own. Rodney had thought it was a transmission glitch, but the weird blur on John's hand appeared to be a ring.
"Wait a minute — did you two — " he started. Rod's wide grin shut him up. "Oh, my God."
"Huh," John said, thankfully sounding more amused than, oh, angry or disturbed. "I'll have to get Daniel to figure out how to send you a toaster."
"We'll reciprocate with sex tips from the honeymoon," John said with a leer, and Daniel made a noise and his ears turned red.
"So you're not angry," Rodney said, because he really wanted to get this clear. "You're not lonely or pining and you don't hate me."
"I don't hate you," John said, and the picture began to break up, distorting into streaks. "Did you get that, Rodney? I don't hate you — you'll always be my best friend."
"Even though we're far away," Rodney said, and nodded. "This is a repulsively sentimental misuse of the SGC's naquadah. You take care of him," he said, pointing at Rod. "And — and be happy."
"Hey, you too," Rod said, but whatever he added next disappeared into static, a flurry of inter-reality snow, and then nothing.
"Sorry," Daniel said. "It's not exactly perfected yet. And the realities are drifting apart, which makes it really hard to hold on to a connection."
"No, no, it was good," Rodney said absently. "We said what needed saying. Do you think it'll still work the next time we get homeworld leave?"
"Maybe," Daniel said, doubtfully. "We harvested the naquadah from Gou'ald blood, though. A bit hard to get more."
John shuddered. "Thank you for not showing us anything during the time we were not in your lab. If you don't have anything else to not share with us, I'm going to take Dr. McKay back to his apartment and get to work on this happily ever after business. I'm feeling competitive."
"I so did not want to know that," Daniel said. "Go on then." He grinned. "I'll send you a toaster."