John had only thought about Rodney five-and-a-half times since breakfast.
It was nearly lunchtime now, so that wasn't bad at all--he deserved a thumbs-up for self-control. True, one of the thoughts had involved an elaborately detailed analysis of Rodney's biceps in his new t-shirt, but at least two had been vaguely irritated speculations about when Rodney was finally going to assign scientists to the three new gate teams, so it balanced out. (The half was more a quick mental image accompanied by a rush of heat than an actual thought; the less said about that the better.)
So when Rodney radioed him to come to the lab and initialize some new Ancient tech, it was a circumstance completely out of John's control. Any Rodney-thoughts he might find himself having in the next hour or two were therefore not his fault and in no way counted toward the daily total. John was trying not to obsess, he really was, but when the focus of his non-obsession was looking cutely irritated and waving little pieces of half-broken equipment in his face, what was he supposed to do?
"It's a range-booster for the life-signs detectors," John said in response to a bluish springy coil. "But it's not working."
John watched Rodney's mobile face temporarily fall, then perk up again. "How do you know it's not working?"
John shrugged. "It feels... busted."
"Busted," Rodney said, frowning. "Well, your highly technical assessment aside, this one goes into the study box."
The full name of the box was the To-Be-Studied-By-The-Semi-Competent Box. It was a grade above the Busywork-For-Useless-Minions Box, but a step below the large crate that was officially named (and labeled in black sharpie), the Doctor-McKay-Gets-All-The-Cool-Toys-Just-As-God-Intended Box.
Since John was there in Rodney's lab, touching things, he decided he might as well give himself a free pass and get some serious Rodney-thinking done. Willful avoidance of his messier emotions had always been John's friend in the past, but for some reason it wasn't working for him now. He didn't know why this... thing was hitting him so hard, after more than four years, but he was pretty sure he needed it to stop.
John had made the decision way back in the early days of the expedition that Rodney McKay was Off Limits; the subsequent years had only convinced him of the wisdom of keeping his feelings to himself. There were so many things that could go wrong. Hell, the best-case scenario would be that Rodney would return his interest and they'd have some decent sex for a while before one or the other of them inevitably fucked it up. John knew his track record, and he'd seen Rodney in action.
The thing was, he actually liked McKay. He liked watching bad sci-fi movies and beating him in video golf. He liked knowing someone would be there when he woke up in the infirmary. He liked rounding up McKay at the end of a long day to make sure he wasn't neglecting dinner in favor of scientific discovery. John didn't want to give that up. If he touched Rodney, their friendship would crash and burn in one of the world's great breakups; he was sure of it. That is, if they even made it to the breakup stage. Rodney might easily reject John from the very start.
You didn't fuck teammates or friends that you wanted to keep, that was just the way it was. So why couldn't John get it through his thick skull after all this time?
Rodney handed John a small spherical device that looked and felt like a see-through marble with thin glinting lines of silver circuitry tracing through it. John felt disgusted at himself at the frisson of excitement that shuddered through him as their fingers brushed. He knew better, but sometimes he couldn't help listening to the small, plaintive voice that whispered through his mind about how good he and Rodney would be together. The sex, sure--but it was more than that. They already made a great team--they bounced ideas and strategies off each other in the best partnership John had ever had. Lying in bed late at night John sometimes thought they could be so much more. Sometimes he didn't even have his hand on his dick when he thought it. He was finding it harder everyday not to reach for Rodney, harder and harder to keep the words in his mouth.
"Sheppard!" Rodney's exasperated tone brought him back to the lab. "I realize I'm encroaching on your usual day-dreaming hour, but if you don't mind?"
Right. The Ancient marble. John sighed. It was clear no decisions were going to be made today. No Rodney-shaped epiphanies lurked around the corner, just an astrophysicist with an expressive mouth drawn increasingly tight in annoyance. God help him, John found it cute.
He held the marble in the palm of his hand and stared meaningfully at it. What do you do? The small device remained frustratingly silent. Maybe it was an Ancient aggie after all. John amused himself for a moment with the thought of a group of Ancients on their knees in the corridors of Atlantis, trying to knock the hard little balls out of a chalked ring. He wondered if Rodney had played marbles as a kid.
John reached out to the device with his mind. If he could figure out what it did, McKay would be pleased, and he'd smile one of his real smiles. If it was something especially good, maybe Rodney would clap him on the shoulder, and then maybe John would lean forward slowly and--no. He wouldn't let himself fantasize. Not before he'd come to a real decision about him and Rodney. Concentrate on the marble.
It felt sort of... fuzzy around the edges of his mind. Not hard and cold, like John would have expected a marble-like object to be. Not soft either, exactly, but there was something there--some spark just out of reach. John could feel energy start to bristle around its edges. Not in the palm of his hand where the marble actually was, more in some undefined space in his brain.
As John watched, a pinprick light began to glow in the center of the sphere. It raced along the lines of the circuitry until it changed from a soft violet to a deep blue and filled the sphere, shining so bright it made his eyes hurt. At the same time the marble began to heat--not burning, just pleasantly warm in his hand. John was pretty sure marbles shouldn't do that, but he felt suddenly dizzy and it was hard to think. His stomach couldn't decide whether it wanted to drop to his feet or rise through his throat. He felt his knees buckle, and the last thing he was aware of before he fell to the floor was the look of fear and alarm in Rodney's blue, blue eyes.
Someone was shouting, and there was the heavy stomping noise of people running in combat boots, and then more shouting and the unmistakable snick of weapons being raised into position.
What the hell? John's head hurt like someone stuck a spike through it, and there was something small and hot in his fist and a faint smell like electrical wires burning. He was on his back on a cold hard surface--the lab floor--and he was pretty sure his eyes were open, but all he could see were blurs through a haze of red.
John blinked hard and took a breath. He could feel his pounding heart slowing, and his vision beginning to clear. He could make out shapes now, and okay, seriously--what the hell?
Lorne was looming above him with a group of four Marines, only one of whom John recognized--O'Hara? O'Toole?--all of them aiming the business ends of their P90s down at John. Rodney was hovering in the background, eyes bigger than John had ever seen them.
"Major Lorne?" John raised himself to his elbows. The barrels of five P90s followed him. He tried to keep his voice calm. "Something you want to tell me?"
"Sheppard?" Rodney sounded squeaky. "Is that you?"
What? What was wrong with everyone? John was about to demand some answers when another pair of combat boots clomped into view. He got a sick feeling as soon as he saw the undone laces and that feeling didn't abate as he followed the black BDU-clad legs up a skinnier-than-he'd-realized torso to a shock of messy dark hair.
"Rodney?" John tilted his head at the new arrival who was... well, him. "Where did he come from?" From the way the Marines were deferring to the new John while still glaring suspiciously at him, he was pretty sure he already knew.
"What?" Rodney actually sounded irritated. "I don't know. He was probably fondling guns in the armory or something. You." He pointed a flappy hand. "You, on the other hand, appeared on my lab floor in a flash of light. I'm sure there's a story there somewhere."
"Shut up, McKay," new John said in a tone of voice that seemed uncalled for. "Sheppard." It sounded like a dirty word. "Talk."
Okay. John took a breath. No reason to upset the nice people with the weapons. "I was in Rodney's lab touching the new tech--"
"What?" Rodney said. "No you weren't."
"McKay." Did John's voice really sound like that? It was weird hearing it from the outside.
"Flash of light," Rodney continued, illustrating with his hands. "Poof. Sheppard out of thin air."
Rodney took a few steps toward John, biting his lip appraisingly. He seemed considerably less freaked-out than he'd been a moment ago. "So... Do you feel as though you've been split in two? Any personality changes?" He looked between the Johns. "Are either of you feeling, say... evil?"
They both stared at him, which seemed to be enough answer. Rodney made a pleased little hum. "Not evil. Good, that's good. In that case, I'm going to go with parallel universe."
The Sheppard that was not him glared at Rodney, who held his hands up in innocence. John let his head fall back on the floor.
John guessed they knew what the Ancient marble did now. Knowing, unfortunately, did not seem to gain them any ground on the problem of how to get John back to his own universe.
The marble was dead or dormant. The glowing blue light was gone, and it looked like clear glass again. John couldn't feel any energy coming from it, or heat, no matter how many times he stared at it and thought desperately, home.
This Atlantis didn't seem that much different from his, as far as John could tell. Their Sheppard was still the military head, and Rodney was CSO. Their Colonel Carter had taken the whole situation in stride, told a story about how something similar had happened to SG-1, and released him into their Sheppard's custody. So not very different at all.
Alt-Sheppard had "escorted" John to the mess hall, and kept shooting him dirty looks while he ate. Like John wouldn't have gone home if he could. This universe's Rodney was back in his lab, working to figure out a way for him to do just that, and if Sheppard was going to be all pissy about a situation none of them could help, he could assign someone else guard duty and go brood elsewhere.
They should be helping Rodney work on the marble, not staring at each other over half-eaten tava burgers. John sighed. He couldn't really blame alt-Sheppard. Much. If a double of him had suddenly appeared in his Atlantis claiming to be from a parallel universe, he probably would have been reluctant to let him near the scientists too.
Also--he'd known his ears were pointy, but it was kind of hard to see the side of your head in a mirror. He'd always thought Rodney was exaggerating. His hair looked good, though.
"Look." He broke the silence. Other John regarded him suspiciously. "This isn't accomplishing anything. We should be in the lab."
"No." Other John was apparently a man of few words. He probably got along even better with Ronon than John did.
Maybe he could appeal to the man's finer feelings. "Come on. You know how Rodney gets. Let's bring him some lunch."
Sheppard looked blank. "Why would we do that?"
John blinked. "Because he'll forget to eat otherwise."
If anything, Sheppard's expression got even blanker. "McKay's a grown man. He can get his own food if he's hungry."
He went back to his burger, seemingly having lost interest in the conversation. Well, there was a difference between universes anyway.
"Are you guys fighting?" John was surprised how much he didn't like the idea, even in a different reality. "There's no point. You know you can't stay mad at him."
Sheppard looked at him uncomprehendingly. "Fighting? Why would I be fighting with McKay?"
Okay, then. John looked closely at Sheppard, but he didn't seem to be hiding anything. John hoped he would know if he was.
Just then Sheppard got a vaguely annoyed look on his face and tapped his comm. "Right," he said into the radio, then stood and beckoned to John. "Looks like you get your wish. McKay needs you in the lab."
John grabbed Rodney a couple of peanut butter powerbars on the way out, ignoring Sheppard's irritated look.
John spent the rest of the afternoon in the lab alternately being quizzed by McKay and touching the marble while thinking different commands. He didn't think that would work, but it beat spending his time with Wonder-Twin-Sheppard, who had proved to be a barrel of laughs, sequestering himself in a corner of the lab with a comic book and glancing up at them from time to time.
McKay had the other scientists combing the Ancient database for any mention of the marble. In the meantime he was working on the theory that the device was incomplete. It clearly generated a quantum rift--"Clearly," John had said, earning himself a glare--but that was useless if you couldn't control your destination in the multiverse. Without the "tuner" (here McKay made air quotes), the device had randomly selected an alternate universe. It was either luck or some kind of default setting that it was fairly close to John's own.
The upshot was that McKay didn't think it would pose much of a challenge to send John back; it would take a day or two at the most to jury-rig something that could focus the device. Intellectually John knew that this man wasn't his Rodney, but it felt like his Rodney, and it was hard not to believe in him--even though he seemed to be having a little too much fun with the situation. John supposed for a physicist parallel universes must be like g-force or the sound barrier.
"You know, if this were Star Trek, we'd have to stage a coup before we could get you back to your own universe," Rodney said, humming thoughtfully at the marble. "Of course that would make me Spock, and you and Sheppard are the ones with the ears."
"Maybe he should click his heels three times," Sheppard said from his corner in an unfriendly tone of voice.
"Yes, I'm sure learning a lesson and making a wish will fix things right up." Rodney's voice held none of the banter John was used to. "I don't see any ruby slippers, so let's call that Plan B."
There's no place like home. John closed his eyes, just in case. He opened them again to find both Sheppard and McKay giving him odd looks.
It was hard not to like this McKay, who was so close to his own Rodney. He was thrilled to have John there, which gave John a kind of warm, fuzzy feeling despite himself.
"We had Rod, of course," McKay said, mouth turning down slightly. "Did your universe get Rod? But I always wanted to meet another Sheppard. It was just a matter of time, really." He looked closely at John. "Huh. I wouldn't have thought it was possible for that hair to exist in more than one universe."
He was as chatty as John's Rodney. John learned that he and Sheppard were not teammates, that in fact McKay rarely went offworld at all. He'd started out on Sheppard's team in the beginning, Rodney told him, but after a few missions it was decided he could best be utilized on Atlantis.
"Don't sugarcoat it, McKay," Sheppard said lazily from his corner. "You kind of sucked."
His tone was friendly, almost like he was joking, but John could tell it hurt Rodney. He had a strong urge to slug the guy in his stupid face, but it was already bad enough being stuck in a parallel universe. He couldn't afford to be locked up in the brig too.
After that, McKay didn't feel like talking much. All John learned from him was that their expedition had kept the ZPM from the Brotherhood's planet, that their Elizabeth had left Atlantis because of a bad IOA review and was now living somewhere in Switzerland, that the Daedalus was captained by someone named Richmond who was blonde and kind of hot in a "military dominatrix sort of way," and that Lorne had married Lieutenant Cadman before she had been rotated back to Earth.
Sheppard piped up every once in a while with something that was always just on the borderline between laughing with Rodney or at him--and okay, by the time Sheppard escorted him back to the living quarters for the night, John was starting to get it.
"I know what you're doing with Rodney." John had been bunked in Sheppard's room so that Sheppard could keep an eye on him.
"With McKay," repeated Sheppard, folding his uniform more militarily than John ever had.
"Look, I do it too," John said. And I'm stopping right now. "You don't want anyone to know that you like him, so you overcompensate."
"Like him?" Sheppard asked, like he had no idea what John was talking about.
"Like him." John looked at Sheppard meaningfully. "Want him. The point is that Rodney doesn't get it. You're--we're hurting him, and we're being bullies, and I want it to stop."
He expected Sheppard to blow up at him; he was even prepared to deflect a punch if necessary. Sheer bug-eyed speechlessness was not something he had anticipated.
"Want him?" Sheppard managed finally.
John rolled his eyes. "This is me you're talking to."
"I don't know what kind of fucked-up universe you come from--"
"Hey." John said.
"But in this one I do not 'want' McKay." He shuddered. "I don't even like the guy."
John had always been a good liar, but he knew the look on Sheppard's face. It was involuntary--and it meant that Sheppard was telling the absolute truth.
John sat down hard on the bed. "You don't play video golf?"
"With McKay? Why would I play video golf with McKay?" Sheppard sounded honestly puzzled.
"You don't watch movies on your laptops?"
"Look, buddy." John recognized Sheppard's tone as the one he usually only trotted out when someone was pointing a spear at him. He spoke slowly. "I don't like McKay. He's an egotistical asshole. And he doesn't like me. We spend as little time together as possible."
John believed him. And that just... sucked. "You should give him a chance."
Sheppard snorted. "Whatever. You can have the bed."
John pulled back the blanket. He was about to get in when he felt suddenly dizzy, and like he was going to vomit. The room started spinning around him and his legs wouldn't hold him up. At least he had a relatively soft bed to lose consciousness on this time, he thought right before he was sure he felt something in his hand--burning hot--and everything went black.
John was on something soft when he woke up this time, which was good since it looked like he was making a habit of this.
He squeezed his eyes tight. Let me be in my universe. He'd have crossed his fingers for luck, except he felt the marble in his fist, hard and cooling. It had been in Rodney's lab, nowhere near him. He sniffed the air, and there was the smell of burning wires.
He really didn't have much hope, so when he opened his eyes, he was not surprised to find he was in what looked like his own room with another him pointing a nine-mil at his head.
He was surprised, however, that this Sheppard's sidearm was shaking in his hand, and sweat was breaking out in pinpricks on his forehead.
"Parallel universe," John said, sighing.
New Sheppard looked John over and slowly lowered his weapon. A grin broke over his face and his eyes lit up. "Cool," he said.
New John was Doctor Sheppard in this reality, which didn't surprise John as much as it probably should have. Getting a doctorate after he retired was an idea he'd been toying with on and off since he'd met Rodney.
This Sheppard's doctorate was in astrophysics, not math like John expected, which was not so much a surprise as a horrifying shock, because the instant John heard that, he knew what was coming.
"Colonel McKay!" the new Sheppard yelled at the Rodney who busted into his quarters moments later wearing black BDUs and leading a pack of Marines. John was getting used to having guns pointed at him. "It's all right. He's from a parallel universe."
"How is that all right?" Rodney yelled back, but he stopped looking like he was about to shoot John where he sat on his--on Doctor Sheppard's--bed.
Rodney... Rodney was the head of the military on Atlantis. John was pretty sure this universe hated him.
John had had about eleven hours in the last universe, all told, so he figured he had about that much time in this one, even though Doctor Sheppard said one data point was not enough to show a trend. They got right to work anyway, managing to convince Colonel Carter a debrief was unnecessary. At least John would be spared more SG-1 stories.
Colonel McKay--and John could not even think that with a straight face--had taken a coolly appraising look at John and then assigned Lorne guard duty. Apparently McKay had better things to do in this universe than hang around the labs where John and Sheppard would be working. John really missed his own Rodney.
And he really wanted to get home. At least they hadn't had to start all the way from the beginning as John had feared. Doctor Sheppard had liked McKay's tuner idea; John wished he'd paid more attention to the technical aspects.
He liked this Sheppard a hell of a lot better than the last one. He was brilliant and funny and curious. A lot like Rodney, John realized, not sure how that made him feel. He was also easily distracted--again like Rodney. He couldn't believe a version of himself was in the military--all he'd ever wanted to do was physics, he told John. Flying made him airsick.
John would have happily spent the afternoon comparing the differences between the universes, which were really pretty interesting--McKay was Canadian Air Force here, for one thing, and Lorne had never even met Cadman--but he was kind of on the clock. He really needed to get back to his own universe before he was sucked away somewhere else. Doctor Sheppard made a familiar flappy hand motion at him--which was just creepy--and rolled his eyes, but settled in to work.
Sheppard could apparently work and complain at the same time. John had probably broken the marble with his careless handling. And what kind of name was "marble" for a multi-dimensional transportational device? Surely John's head of science hadn't called it that.
He nearly choked on his coffee when John informed him that Rodney was head of science where he came from. After that John got an earful about Colonel McKay. How he had the gall to want Doctor Sheppard to join a gate team. How he liked to drop by the labs unannounced and poke his nose into their work, pretending he had the ability to understand what the scientists were doing.
"He's pretty smart," John said mildly. Sheppard sniffed.
Maybe John wasn't that crazy about this version of himself after all. Not when he was bitching about McKay, anyhow.
"So I guess you two don't get along."
"I like to think about shutting him in an airlock," Doctor Sheppard said. "I haven't decided whether to vent the atmosphere."
"So no chess? No flying lessons? Maybe you just need to get to know him better?"
Sheppard looked at him like he'd suddenly turned into a dangerous lunatic.
"Yeah," John said. "Okay."
John looked around. Lorne was the only other person in the lab, and he was half-falling asleep on the other side of the room.
"But," John said, leaning in and lowering his voice. "You think he's hot, right?" He didn't know why, but he needed at least one thing to be the same about his and Rodney's relationship. "His arms? His shoulders?" He lowered his voice even more. "His ass?"
The look of absolute horror on Doctor Sheppard's face told John they did not share the same opinion about Rodney's attributes. And wow, John hadn't known his face could get that red.
"I think you should stop talking now," Sheppard said when he was able to speak. "Be somewhere that's not here."
"Right," John said, and sighed. What could he do? He wasn't an inter-dimensional matchmaker.
He was turning away to join Lorne, when he felt the familiar dizziness. That was not fair. It hadn't been anywhere near eleven hours. John whipped his head around to look at the marble where it sat on Sheppard's lab bench. A violet light was racing through it. John's last thought as he hit the floor was that he really didn't want to have to do this all over again.
Ice-pick headache. Check. Smell of burning wires. Check. Ancient marble in his fist. Yup. Back to the beginning; just great. John wondered how many guns would be pointed at him when he opened his eyes this time.
That was different.
John blinked and sat up. He was in Rodney's lab. Rodney's empty lab. Where was Security? Where was Rodney?
He jumped to his feet, a horrible lump starting to form in his stomach. What if this Atlantis was abandoned? Or captured? What if Rodney was--
"Do not--I repeat, do not touch anything. That means you." Rodney's voice sounded loud and clear from the hall. John had to stretch a hand out to the wall to keep himself from sinking to his knees in relief. He turned to the door, waiting.
A moment later, Rodney entered the lab, looking harassed, followed by--John blinked--followed by five Sheppards, two thankfully non-identical Marines and a handful of scientists.
John clutched the Ancient marble tightly in his fist. Gee, universe. Way to make a guy feel special.
Each Sheppard had a large brightly colored round sticker affixed to his shirt. None of them looked happy. The Marines were herding them into one corner of the lab, when Rodney glanced in John's direction and groaned.
"Oh, God. There's another one. Zelenka!"
Which was apparently as much notice as he was going to get from Rodney. The other Sheppards stared at him dispiritedly from across the room. Clearly John needed to be the squeaky wheel here.
He was just about to head to Rodney and demand some attention when Zelenka appeared out of nowhere, cutting him off. He had silky, well-behaved hair, which was possibly the wrongest thing John had seen in any universe yet.
"No, no, Colonel. Please stay in one place. I must ask you some questions."
John noticed he was carrying a clipboard. "Radek--"
"First, Colonel--" Zelenka stopped himself, peering closely at John. "It is colonel, yes? We have two majors."
"Look, Radek, I don't know what's going on, but I'm from a--"
"Parallel universe, yes." Zelenka made a sweeping gesture to encompass the other Sheppards. "It has been happening all morning. Sheppards popping up all over the city. Madness. What is your favorite color? Don't say black. All Sheppards try to say black."
Zelenka was starting to look impatient. He waved a sheet of the round stickers. "For color-coding. Tell me now or you get pink."
John glared, but this Zelenka was apparently tougher than the one from his universe and remained unmoved. John glanced at the sheet. There weren't many choices left. He pointed. "That one."
"Tangerine. Yes, good choice." Zelenka stuck it on John's chest. "Now, what is the last thing you remember?"
John sighed and told him about the marble, and how this was the third universe he'd been to in the space of a day--fourth if you counted his own. Zelenka tutted and looked vaguely sympathetic, but John could tell his heart wasn't in it.
"Wait there, please." Zelenka pointed to the corner with the other Sheppards. Someone had set up folding-chairs.
"You don't understand, I have to--"
"Get home, I know. This is what all Sheppards say. Wait there, please."
Both Marines swiveled their heads when John made a move toward Rodney's work area anyway, and kept staring at him until he sighed and took a seat with the other Sheppards. He perched on the edge of the chair restlessly. This was ridiculous. He needed to be doing something.
The other five Sheppards were quiet. They were probably freaked by the gaggle of Sheppards; John knew he was. Yellow-Sheppard and Green-Sheppard were playing cards in a distracted manner. Red-Sheppard was pacing behind the row of seats. Blue-Sheppard kept flexing his right hand near his thigh, itching for a weapon that wasn't there. Purple-Sheppard was sitting utterly still, looking kind of sick. He was the only Sheppard in civilian clothes.
They were a sad bunch, but maybe they could help. John took a quick survey and discovered he was the only one who had been to more than one universe. None of them had any idea how they'd gotten here; none of them had seen an Ancient marble. He was about to press for more details when Rodney's voice rang out.
John looked up. Rodney was glaring at the Sheppards impatiently. Zelenka leaned in and said something in Rodney's ear.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Fine, tangerine!"
John guessed that was his cue. Rodney was tapping his foot now, and folding his arms, so John put some extra saunter in his walk.
"You have a--a thingy." Rodney snapped his fingers expectantly, not even looking at John.
"A device." Rodney was reading the clipboard. "A marble. Whatever. Let me have it."
John handed it to him. "The last McKay thought it needed a tuner to work. And Doctor Sheppard--"
"Doctor Sheppard?" Rodney's voice did that squeaky thing. He finally looked at John. "Never mind. I don't want to know."
McKay turned away to study the marble, seeming to forget all about John.
"That's it?" John asked finally.
"Yes. Thank you. Sit down."
"The scientists in the other universes let me help."
"In this universe you can help by sitting down and staying out of the way."
"I need to get home, McKay."
"Yeah, well, get in line."
McKay was rubbing at his forehead, which was the first sign he was getting one of his tension headaches. John could feel his anger melt, replaced by that familiar urge to take care of Rodney.
"You okay?" John asked. "Did you eat?"
McKay gaped. Right. Seemed like he wasn't allowed to be concerned about Rodney here either. It wasn't exactly a surprise.
The universe looked like a wash, so John sat. He thought about interrogating the other Sheppards, but they didn't look like they wanted to talk, and he was bone tired--he could do it later if he was still here. John had no idea how long he'd gone without sleep; it was hard to tell with the universe-hopping. He leaned his head back and let himself drift.
From Rodney's reaction to his simple show of concern, it didn't look like they were friends in this dimension, either. It was hard to understand that. John would give anything to see Rodney--his Rodney--right now. How could any other John feel differently?
John had thought about parallel universes before. After they'd met Rod, he'd spent quite a bit of time imagining what other universes would be like--what kind of lives did other John Sheppards lead? He'd been sure there must have been worlds out there where he'd never gone to Antarctica, worlds where he'd chosen not to go through the gate, worlds where he hadn't awoken the Wraith. But the one constant he'd always imagined had been him and Rodney as a team. He'd more than half-expected every John to be in love with every Rodney, and he'd enjoyed fantasizing about those worlds where Rodney loved him back.
He looked up wearily as a man walked past him. Another Sheppard. Without a colored sticker this time, so presumably the one that belonged here. John watched Rodney's body language change as Sheppard approached him. He seemed to get smaller, closed off. They spoke to each other quietly and it was like a chill descended--John was pretty sure he could feel it all the way from where he was. There were no smiles, no warmth, no invasion of personal space.
John forced himself to sit up. Turning his chair around to face the other Sheppards took more effort than he expected. "I have a question."
Blue-Sheppard raised an eyebrow.
"Are any of you... friends with the Doctor McKay from your universe?"
Now they were looking at him like he might start gibbering at any moment and eating bugs. John was getting used to that look.
"It's important," John said. "Maybe."
"Who?" asked Purple-Sheppard, the one in civilian clothes.
"McKay can suck a lemon," said Red-Sheppard, who was still pacing.
Green-Sheppard looked thoughtful. "He seemed okay. Sort of. Got killed when our ZPM overloaded the first week."
"Don't mix much with the scientists," Yellow-Sheppard said.
Blue-Sheppard just shrugged.
Red-Sheppard stopped pacing. "This is stupid. I'm getting out of here. Who wants in?"
Blue-Sheppard looked intrigued. Purple-Sheppard looked sicker. John left Yellow-Sheppard arguing strategy and walked up to where McKay and Sheppard were studying an Ancient device that wasn't his marble. He was starting to feel dizzy.
"Okay," he said to them. His voice sounded hoarse and shaky, and more than a little desperate. McKay looked up in alarm, and Sheppard rested his hand on his sidearm.
"You know what? I don't even care how stupid this sounds," John continued. "I have to know. Do you--" He had to grip the edge of the lab bench to keep his balance. "Is there any--any kind of... spark? At all?"
"Spark," Sheppard said in a dead voice.
"Yeah, never mind," John said and collapsed to the floor.
After that came the universe where an accident with Ancient tech had turned him and McKay into eight-year-olds. John arrived just in time to stop mini-Sheppard from pushing Rodney through a space gate.
Next was the one where Rodney was Meredith, a surprisingly good-looking woman with springy blonde curls. At first John hoped that at least some of the animosity between that universe's Sheppard and McKay was due to sexual tension, but no--it turned out that Sheppard really did find him... her... that irritating.
The universes were starting to blur. John would wake up with the marble in his hand, convince whoever found him he was from another universe, and get their McKay to try to help him get back. McKay would make progress, or he wouldn't, and John would get sucked away somewhere else.
Before that, he'd get a front row seat to just how many ways Sheppards and McKays could be indifferent to, dislike, or just plain hate each other.
The universe where John had transformed completely into a bug. They kept him locked up there, and he hated everyone. But he saved his angriest clicks and hisses for Rodney.
The universe where the Genii had overrun Atlantis. John and Rodney were the Resistance leaders, and they couldn't stop arguing long enough to plant their bombs.
The universe where he'd run away with Chaya to be co-protector of Proculus. He supposed Rodney had a pretty good reason to hate him in that one.
Best (worst) of all was the universe where John arrived just in time to witness Sheppard's court-martial. Sheppard claimed he hadn't known the ceremonial fruit he'd insisted McKay eat contained citrus; the Ghari chief was sure Sheppard had been informed. Rodney, of course, wasn't there to say one way or the other, and John couldn't read the look in Sheppard's cold dead eyes.
At first John had thought it was a weird coincidence, worth nothing more than passing interest. Surely the next universe's Sheppard and McKay would be friends, or they'd figure out a way to send him home and it wouldn't matter. But in dimension after dimension the pattern was the same. After a while even John had to wonder if the universe was trying to tell him something.
He thought about his own Rodney. Was their relationship the aberration? He remembered how he hadn't actually liked Rodney when he'd met him. It was strange to think about now, after all they'd been through together, but McKay had rubbed him the wrong way their first few weeks in Atlantis. He'd seemed abrasive and conceited, careless of other people's feelings.
That was before John found out that Rodney really was as smart as he thought he was, that he could do everything he claimed. That he was brave and funny and scared and human, and that something between the two of them just clicked.
John had never had a friend like Rodney before, but he figured they deserved each other. He was well aware he wasn't the greatest example of emotional maturity himself, but if Rodney could put up with him, then he could put up with Rodney.
That was, if he could ever get back. John refused to believe he was doomed to this existence of traveling forever. These other Rodneys didn't seem to be able to help--in fairness John never spent long enough in one place that they could--but his Rodney was out there, back on his Atlantis. His Rodney was working on the problem--probably without sleep and with too much caffeine. His Rodney could do anything. John would get back.
Then John woke up on Earth.
On Earth, specifically at the SGC deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, so when John opened his eyes he was treated to the sight of more weapons pointed at him than ever before.
"Colonel Mitchell," John nodded to the man behind the biggest gun.
Mitchell nodded back in a friendly manner. "That's me, all right. Who the hell are you?"
He had to debrief again, this time for General Landry, which was a pain in the ass because John had gotten skilled at debriefing for Carter--by now he could anticipate her questions before she'd asked them. The times Teyla had been in charge of Atlantis had been tougher, but he'd gotten through them.
Landry was more suspicious than either of them had been and made John cool his heels alone in a holding room for three hours. John was surprised he wasn't pulled away in all that time. He supposed he had to witness the John and Rodney hate-in in this universe first.
Landry eventually asked him several excruciatingly personal questions and released him into Mitchell's custody. John wondered why he'd jumped to Earth. He'd expected to find a version of himself working there, maybe on a gate team, probably still a major, but nobody had ever heard of him.
He didn't know what the hell Mitchell was planning to do with him, but he doubted he'd stick around long enough for it to become a problem.
Mitchell, it turned out, thought there was someone on his team who could help.
"Colonel Carter?" John asked, trying to remember the makeup of the SG teams.
"Nope," said Mitchell, walking him down a corridor. "My other scientist. Linguist and anthropologist. Go-to guy for all things Ancient."
"Anthropologist," John repeated. If Rodney could see the depths to which John had sunk. "Think I know the guy. Does he die a lot in this universe?"
"You could set your watch by it," Mitchell said and pushed open an office door.
There, barely visible behind a huge pile of dusty leather-bound volumes, was Rodney.
John didn't stop laughing until Mitchell threatened to call Security.
He'd been in this universe eight hours, which was the longest for any universe since the first. John felt a quiet stirring of unease--what if this was the end? What if he was stuck here? The idea of Rodney being Daniel Jackson had been amusing at first, but it was only a good joke if he had someone to share it with. He wanted to see the look on his Rodney's face when John told him about it.
It was a mild relief to find that this Rodney had none of Jackson's people skills. John had been told to "sit down, shut up, and look pretty," while Rodney pored through what looked like every book ever written. John spent the time idly leafing through a slim volume of Ancient poetry.
Rodney had poetry in his office. The sooner John got out of this universe the better.
"Aha!" Rodney shouted, looking up from a decaying volume. John ignored him. It was at least the fifth time he'd thought he'd found something.
This time, however, Rodney stared expectantly at him while snapping his fingers. "Marble? Now? Unless you're enjoying your time with us so much you've decided to stay?"
"Yeah, Rodney." John put as much grumble into his voice as he could. "I just love your poetry collection."
"It's a window into the Ancients' lives," Rodney started indignantly, then grabbed the marble out of John's hand. "You're incapable of understanding it on the level that I--oh, who cares what you think? You'll be your own McKay's problem soon enough."
John tensed. Of all the Rodneys, it couldn't be anthropologist-Rodney who solved the problem. Not after all this time.
Rodney pointed at a crumbling page. In the corner was an unmistakable hand-drawn illustration of his marble.
"These books weren't written by actual Ancients, of course," Rodney said. "But hopefully the knowledge won't have devolved to the point of uselessness."
He took out a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket, slipped them on, and leaned in to the book. John almost missed the next thing he said, because Rodney in glasses was unexpectedly distracting.
"It says--" Rodney translated in his head. "The device is a tool to help you solve a problem. What kind of problem do you have, Sheppard?"
"Besides bouncing from universe to universe like a superball?"
Rodney continued to read. "A problem... Or a decision. It's supposed to give you insight into yourself by showing you the yous you might have been." He closed the book, looking embarrassed. "It's probably so much Ancient mumbo-jumbo, sorry."
John felt cold. A decision. He had needed to make a decision--about him and Rodney. And he'd seen the two of them. Over and over again in different ways, and none of it had been pretty. Before John had been sucked away for the first time, he'd been trying to make a choice--leave his and Rodney's relationship where it was, or try for something more. Shit. The universe really had been trying to tell him something.
"How does it know which universes to show you? To help you make your decision?" John was proud of how casual the question sounded.
Rodney opened the book again, dragging a finger down the columns. "Hmm. It's random, according to this. The Ancients were a 'throw it against the wall and see what sticks' kind of civilization. Guess they figured you'd see something applicable eventually." He read silently a moment, then pointed to a passage. "And when the Visitor understands, the Journey is over. Huh. Be useful if it worked."
"Yeah," John said. He felt numb.
There wasn't much point in delaying. John took the marble in the palm of his hand, ignoring the puzzled look Rodney gave him. He stared at it, concentrating.
Okay, Marble. I get it.
Rodney and I don't belong together. Bad things happen when McKays and Sheppards mix. I understand. I have seen the multiverse, and I get it. Okay? You win. I. Get. It.
The small sphere began to glow. It was different this time--lighting up in pale red, instead of violet or blue. The familiar dizzy feeling started. John closed his eyes, and felt a tug.
"John! John, wake up! Please, wake up. Can you hear me?"
Someone was slapping his cheek. Hard. It had better be Rodney--the right Rodney, or John was going to be seriously pissed.
"Have you all spontaneously forgotten how to use your radios? Call Doctor Keller. Now!"
John's eyes wanted to stay closed, and his mouth didn't want to work, but his face was starting to hurt.
"Rodney." John batted a hand at the slapping. "Quit it."
"Oh, thank God," he heard, and was gripped in a sudden embrace so hard it made him choke and gasp for air.
"Sorry, sorry," Rodney said and dropped him. John hit his head on the floor.
"Oww." John finally managed to get his eyes open. "Maybe I should've stayed where I was."
John blinked away the remaining clouds in his vision, and there was Rodney--his Rodney, kneeling over him, panicked and grinning, an almost feverish glint in his eyes. John grinned back, and felt an overwhelming rush of emotion. God, Rodney.
John raised himself shakily to an elbow. He was back on Atlantis, in Rodney's lab. It was definitely his Rodney, with his quirky crooked mouth and eyes bluer than all the other Rodneys--and his Atlantis. He could see Lorne now, and Zelenka in the crowd of scientists that were pressing forward. John felt giddy, and bloodless with relief, and like hysterical laughter might break through any moment.
"You were there," John said pointing, unable to hold back a giggle. "And you, and you."
"Oh my God," Rodney said. "You've been damaged in transit."
Keller broke through with a med team then, so John had to swallow his comeback. Rodney insisted on walking with his gurney all the way to the infirmary--he grinned all the way, so John figured Rodney was happy to get him back in any condition.
The first thing John did after yet another endless debriefing was take the marble out to the East Pier and whack it with a golf club. He half expected it to shatter in pieces, but it sailed far into the horizon before disappearing in the ocean with a splash.
It turned out he'd only been gone a week. John thought it had been more time on his end, but he didn't see how he'd ever be able to tell. Rodney had been working around the clock the whole time, and promptly collapsed once they'd gotten John settled. They ended up both having to spend the night in the infirmary. Rodney seemed a little put out that he hadn't been the one to save John in the end, but he couldn't stop smiling.
John couldn't stop smiling back. That was a problem.
But a problem to which he'd been given the solution, after all.
John threw himself into his work as much as he could. He trained the new Marines, and planned offworld missions with Carter. He did so much paperwork that Lorne walked around with a grin for three days and told John that his return was the best Christmas present he'd ever gotten. (John asked Lorne if he knew it was July, but he just grinned more.) After that there was always sparring with Teyla or Ronon.
He wasn't avoiding Rodney. There were no offworld missions, and he was too busy to waste time in the labs. It was better that way. Rodney would eventually get used to John being back, and he'd stop smiling and things would get back to normal.
John hadn't told anyone what the marble had showed him about him and Rodney, and it was going to stay that way. He would be friends with Rodney. That was enough--more than enough, or it would be, anyway. It was just--hard for now, when every time he saw Rodney he ached to pull him into his arms, and press kisses into his hair, and tell him how fucking lost he'd been without him.
So John would just not see Rodney for a little while--just until he got himself under control. It was a bad plan, but a plan nonetheless. It worked for four days. When John heard his door chime past midnight on the fourth night, he knew who it was.
Rodney pressed past him as soon as John palmed the door open. He planted himself in the middle of John's room and folded his arms challengingly. "You've been avoiding me."
John sank down on his bed. "Yeah."
Rodney looked surprised. His arms unfolded. "Are you going to tell me why?"
"Oh." Rodney sat on the bed next to John. He was so close John could smell him. John wanted to lean over and bury his face in the crook of Rodney's neck. He wanted to breathe in Rodney's horrible piney aftershave and the recycled-air scent that always clung to him from the labs. He wanted to forget about all he'd seen.
But he wasn't going to have gone through all that for nothing. He forced himself not to move.
"So," Rodney said suddenly. "I take it you saw something on your... trip that explains the way you're acting now?"
John could only nod.
Rodney sat a little straighter, and put on what John knew was the face he wore when he didn't want to let the bad guys know how scared he really was.
"Look, I know people have sometimes found me... irritating, and I suppose I'm a petty man no matter what universe." Rodney's face crumpled and he looked away. "That is to say, I wish you wouldn't hold me responsible for whatever the me from another universe did." Rodney looked up suddenly. "Wow, there's a sentence I never thought I'd say."
Rodney was looking sad, and John had no defenses for that. He wanted to touch Rodney, to reassure him with soft words and soft kisses, but he couldn't. He was so relieved to have Rodney back in his life--so fucking happy to be with a Rodney that actually liked him and wanted to be with him. He couldn't risk that for anything. Couldn't Rodney understand that?
John had to get Rodney out of the room before John did something stupid and ruined their whole goddamned friendship.
"So," Rodney said. "I'd really like it if you could get past whatever the other me did to make you angry."
"Yeah," John said. "It's going to take a little while. Hey," he added as Rodney's face fell even more. "It'll be all right. Just give me some time, okay?"
"Time," Rodney said. "I can do that."
"Like now, McKay? Good-night?"
"Right," Rodney said.
John didn't think he would sleep for the rest of the night, but he woke up in the morning, so he supposed he had.
It was a lot easier avoiding Rodney after that, since Rodney had gotten into the act and was now avoiding him. That seemed to be working well, so John decided to expand his parameters and start avoiding everybody.
When John canceled sparring with Teyla for the third time, she showed up at the armory where John was counting bullets and announced that he would be spending the afternoon meditating with her.
He made his best puppy-dog eyes, but a determined Teyla was not unlike a determined rhinoceros, and John found himself sitting cross-legged on the floor of the gym with his butt falling asleep.
John opened his mouth to see if whining might succeed where puppy eyes had failed, but Teyla silenced him with a glare.
"Three missed sparring appointments equals one meditation session, John. I am sure we have discussed it."
They so hadn't, but no one was better at the butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth thing than Teyla, so John closed his eyes and tried to make the best of it.
"Relax, John," Teyla said. "Think of your time here as a journey."
John had been thinking too goddamned much about journeys lately. Maybe he could get some napping done.
They sat in silence for a few minutes. John had felt for days as though every tendon in his body was stretched to snapping, and sitting quietly in the meditation circle only magnified it. He tried not to let it show, but even with her eyes closed, Teyla could apparently tell he was not in the spirit of things.
"John." Teyla's voice held the tiniest edge of impatience. "Open your mind. I know you are a man who likes to rely only on himself. But I ask you now to accept some outside authority. Listen to the universe. It will guide you as it does us all."
John respected and admired Teyla and that's why it was best for both of them if he got out of there right the hell now. He mumbled something about having a thing with a guy and ran out of the gym as fast as his legs could move. He punched a destination in the transporter without looking and ended up on a balcony in a deserted section of Atlantis, breathing hard.
Teyla thought the universe wanted to guide him. She was more right than she knew.
Teyla also thought he didn't like to listen to authority. Teyla was very, very smart and very, very perceptive. John gripped the balcony rails hard enough to feel the edges cut into his palms. He ducked his head, staring at his white knuckles.
When John had been eight, the counselors at Camp Kupugani said that a beautiful palomino named Sky Rocket was too big and dangerous for him to ride.
When John was sixteen, his father informed him he would be going to Harvard in a few years.
When he was thirty-one they told him his men were dead or good-as and the United States Air Force would not waste equipment and manpower on a fool's errand of a rescue mission.
John had been in trouble his whole life for not doing what other people wanted. He'd bucked authority and disobeyed rules since he had been old enough to know what rules were, and what had it gotten him?
John had never been able to stand people trying to tell him what to do. Why the hell would he start listening to outside forces now? Even if it was the goddamned universe? Or twenty goddamned universes for that matter? What the hell had been wrong with him for even thinking it?
John felt giddy. He'd always been told he didn't know what was good for himself, and he probably didn't. It all seemed to crazily work out anyway. Maybe it wouldn't this time, but he had to try.
John Sheppard was not a man who listened to what the universe told him. He never had been.
He was kind of proud of that.
"Rodney," John said when the door opened. "Can I come in?"
Rodney looked uncertain, so John decided not to wait for an answer. He pushed his way in, then paced around the center of the room for a few steps. His whole body felt like it was thrumming. Rodney looked at him suspiciously.
"I need to tell you about the other universes."
Rodney looked stricken. "Is it bad?"
John nodded. Rodney sat on the bed as though to prepare himself.
John took a breath. "You were an anthropologist."
"What?" Rodney sprang up. "No. No way. You lie, Sheppard. Why would you say that?"
John grinned. "You read poetry."
"Shut up, Sheppard, I'm warning you." Rodney took a step toward him.
"It's possible," John said slowly. "That you even wrote it."
Rodney launched himself at John, gripping his shoulders. John laughed and the murderous look in Rodney's eyes suddenly faded and he was hugging John tight. John hugged back and pressed their bodies together as hard as he could and Christ, he'd missed Rodney so much.
Rodney's hair felt amazing against his cheek, and he smelled so good, and before John knew it he was kissing the top of Rodney's head like he'd wanted to for days--wanted to for years. Rodney pulled back and stared at him with those big eyes. John could still play it off as a friendship thing; he could still try to follow the rules and learn from the universe, and all the reasons he'd given himself for keeping away from Rodney in the first place had not changed one goddamned bit.
To hell with it, maybe John had changed.
John leaned in slowly, with intent. Rodney's eyes got bigger, but he didn't pull away, and then they were kissing, finally. Finally. And all the other Johns in each and every universe were idiots and morons, and if they didn't want the feel of Rodney's tongue in their mouths or Rodney's hot breath on their necks, then John didn't have any use for them.
John had almost been the biggest idiot of them all, because he'd almost passed this up. He guided Rodney to the bed and pressed him down, still kissing, running his hands over Rodney's solid body, searching out his pulse points, desperate to feel his heart beat.
"God, Rodney." John shoved Rodney's shirt out of the way and bit down where his shoulder met his neck hard enough to leave a mark. Rodney arched up off the bed and dug his fingers into John's back.
"Clothes," Rodney said, already helping John out of his shirt. "This isn't some weird kind of post-traumatic stress reaction, is it?"
John laughed. "God, no."
"Good," Rodney said. "Because it feels like I've wanted you my whole life. Longer."
He ran a hand through John's chest hair, making him gasp, making him shudder, but--
"Rodney--" John forced himself to pull away.
"What?" Rodney sounded annoyed. He was halfway through removing his own shirt and had gotten stuck in the middle. John laughed and helped him out of it, but there was something he had to know.
"You wouldn't care--" John panted. Rodney's hand had found his cock and was stroking it slowly over his BDUs. "You wouldn't care if this--if it was just us?"
"It had better just be us," Rodney muttered.
"I mean--" John tried to think, but it was nearly impossible with Rodney's hand slipping under the waistline of his pants. "I mean the other versions of us. We didn't--We weren't--It's possible--ohh." John moaned. "The universe was kind of trying to talk to me."
"I'm Rodney McKay. I tell the universe what to do." He licked a stripe up John's neck. "Anyway, it's all just a random collection of atoms. Utterly meaningless. Don't anthropomorphize."
"I like it when you use big words in bed."
"Freak," Rodney said with affection, then drew his hand out of John's pants.
"Hey," John said. "What?"
"I wasn't really an anthropologist, was I? You were making that up."
John pulled his head back and looked, really looked at Rodney. Rodney who made his heart skip just by being in the same room. Rodney who John would rather spend time with than anyone he'd ever met. Rodney who hid nothing and was looking back at him now with a depth of emotion in his eyes that made it hard for John to catch his breath.
Rodney who was different than every Rodney in any universe because he was his.
"Yeah," John said smiling. He touched Rodney's cheek with one finger. "I was making it up."
"I thought so," Rodney said, and kissed him again.