Pairing: (Rodney McKay/John Sheppard)^2 (um, warning: the pairings in this story made my beta cry. . . not your usual McShep)
For mdime who wanted angst, drama, humor, romance. . . action/adventure-based; AUs, episode-related fics, snark, our team kick[ing] ass and take[ing] names. She also likes the boys smart. Well! That just screamed Mensa-verse crossover to me.
Spoilers: 'Common Ground' and 'McKay and Mrs. Miller'
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.
Beta:: A is for Angel, and Amazing, and Awesome, and also for You ♥ Thank you, amberlynne.
A/N: Title refers to The Minstrel Boy, in particular the third verse; which is missing from this version, but it was very inspirational anyway. Also: 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.