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Title: Country Roads (Take Me Home)
Author: krabapple
Recipient: mad_maudlin
Pairing: McKay/Sheppard
Rating: R for language
Summary: John goes, and comes, home.
Author's Notes: Happy Holidays mad_maudlin There's no actual physics (and probably some questionable dimensional travel, now that I think about it), but I hope you enjoy it anyway! Thanks also to my awesome, invaluable, clever and wonderful beta, who turned this around in just a couple of hours, and who is amazing. Thank you, my friend!

*

It wasn't very often that John got called down to the labs to test the Ancient equipment. If they needed someone with the gene in order to operate something, there was Rodney, and, it had to be said, Rodney was always eager to help in that regard. Eager, loud, demanding -- Rodney regularly put his gene to good use. There were, however, some things not even Rodney could turn on, or make light up, or have skitter across the counter top, in which case John would get a call over his radio from Zelenka. In spite of Zelenka's best efforts, John could always hear Rodney sputtering on the other end about inbreeding and alien mating habits.

Today was no different. It was a slow day in Atlantis, or what passed for a slow day. Lorne's team was off-world, but only for a visit with happy and satisfied trading partners. John had spent the morning training the new Marines, which mostly involved telling them not to touch anything. Carter, Keller, Teyla and Ronon had gone to the small patch of land in the southwest corner of the planet that was currently home to the Athosians. Keller was conducting checkups; Carter was performing some diplomatic maneuvering. Teyla had gone to show off her new son, Torren, and Ronon went along with her mostly to hover benevolently and give the other kids rides on his shoulders.

It had to be a slow day in the labs, too, otherwise they wouldn't be trying to catalog unknown Ancient equipment in the first place. Usually they were too busy fixing the latest crisis, or running simulations on the ZPM, or adjusting the sewer system (one of Miko's favorite projects). Zelenka had radioed John just before he was about to swing by and grab McKay for lunch anyway, so John had thought it would do no harm to also try out the latest Ancient remote control or electronic text reader.

Zelenka must have been having a bad day, because he bolted out off his stool at the first sight of John. "Colonel!" he said, picking something black off the table and heading toward John.

"Hey, now, go easy on that thing! We don't know what it is!" Rodney's scowl, if not his warning, was deeply impressive.

Zelenka rolled his eyes at John, and John didn't even bother to try to hide his smile. "If he were woman, I'd think he was -- " Zelenka started.

"Don't even finish that sentence, Radek."

"That's right, Dr. Zelenka. I'm sure it's offensive to women," John said.

Zelenka offered John a smile. "It has been some day."

"I saw him have coffee this morning," John offered.

"It was something you call . . . Folgers," Zelenka offered. John winced.

"I am right here," McKay snapped. "And just because I was force fed that sorry excuse for dirt doesn't mean I'm not right about --"

"So you wanted me to test something for you?" John decided it was better to cut off Rodney's rant. The sooner they were out of there the sooner he could attempt to distract Rodney from his bad mood with blue jello.

"Yes," Zelenka said eagerly, pushing his glasses up his nose. He held out the device for John to look at.

"Do you know what it does?" John asked, looking at the small device closely. It was roughly a cylinder, but with sharper side panels that drew into points at either end, and smaller than the palm of his hand.

"No," Zelenka answered.

"Awesome," John said, reaching out a hand to take the device from Zelenka.

"No, not awesome," Rodney snapped. "I think it's a personal heating device, but it could still be dangerous. It could get too hot, or not hot enough . . ."

"Relax, Rodney. I'm sure it's fine," John said.

"That's exactly what someone says right before they get set on fire by an Ancient keychain, Sheppard."

John shrugged. "You all have a fire extinguisher, don't you?" He grinned, and reached out to take the device, which started to glow bright yellow in his hand.

The last thing John heard before the darkness engulfed him was Rodney's, "Is it too hot?"

****

John heard himself saying, as the darkness receded, "No, not hot at all." Which was true -- the device in his hand was still at the exact same temperature it had been when he had taken it from Zelenka.

The problem was, there was no Zelenka standing in front of him. No Rodney behind the lab counter.

As a matter of fact, there wasn't even a lab at all. John found he was standing outside in broad daylight. He blinked against the sun and tried to orient himself. He was on a circular gravel driveway, a road out ahead of him beyond the grass. Trees lined the side of the road.

Okay. So this was definitely not Atlantis. Right. Fine. Maybe the device was a personal transporter. That was plausible. John had been beamed around by the Daedalus often enough that such a device made sense to him; it wasn't that much of a leap to think the Ancients might have developed similar technology.

Which left the question of where, exactly, he might be. The drive began to look unsettlingly familiar, and not because it was from the Pegasus galaxy. Aware that he had no idea what was at his back, John slowly turned around.

"Shit," he said. He knew the house. The bushes were different, different flowers were blooming along the side of the drive, but that didn't much matter to John. This was The House, the Virginia House, His Father's House. John had lived there from the age of three to the age of eighteen, and only visited a handful of times since then -- the last for his father's funeral six months ago. The house looked different than it had for Patrick Sheppard's service, but John couldn't quite place his finger on how -- some of the landscaping, yeah. The back patio wasn't as big, and the front door wasn't the same. It didn't much surprise John; as he thought about it, Dave had gotten the house, and it was just like Dave to change things to suit him. John shrugged.

So the Ancient device might be some kind of teleporter, and it had brought him back to his childhood house. Okay. In a different galaxy. Even with all he'd seen in Pegasus, John was still mildly surprised the Ancients could manage to skip galaxies like that, but it definitely had advantages.

In fact, the effects of this could be huge. If the expedition could figure out how to actually work the thing, get it to go where someone wanted it to, the implications could be enormous. If they could find more, or discover how to manufacture them . . . huh. This was way better than a personal heating device. McKay. John couldn't wait to tell Rodney what this thing actually did. He wasn't sure why it had brought him to Virginia, and he at this point, he really didn't care. It was a personal transporter. That crossed galaxies. That was just cool. For all he knew, it could even lead to parallel worlds. This might not even be his own universe. Rodney was going to have heart palpitations.

He was about to see if he could get the device to take him back to Atlantis when he first heard the sound of a car rumbling up the drive. Great. It was probably Dave, which meant he'd have to come up with some excuse as to why he was here. Yes, their relationship had gotten marginally better since Dad had died, but that didn't mean John wanted to be searching for a reason to be in Virginia when he should be in Atlantis. Steeling himself, John turned back around to face the drive.

It wasn't Dave's black BMW that was headed his way. Instead, what looked like a mid-seventies Ford LTD wagon was coming up the drive. While it looked fairly new, John couldn't imagine Dave ever driving that monstrosity, and not with wooden side panels.

Confused, and with a bad feeling in his gut, John unconsciously squeezed the device in his hand as the car rolled to a stop a few feet ahead of him. The driver's side door popped open immediately, and a young woman stepped out.

"If you could . . . just a minute . . . I'm so sorry," she said, gesturing at John to wait where he was. She ran to the back of the car and opened the door. "I'm so sorry," she repeated, dragging out two big brown bags of groceries and managing to close the back hatch between her elbow and her hip. "I know we were supposed to meet at ten thirty, but the traffic was awful . . ."

John stayed rooted to the spot as the two back doors opened and two boys tumbled out; one with sandy hair on one side and one with dark hair on the other. They both ran at top speed around the house to the back. The woman paused in her apologies to John in order to issue them directions.

"David, you stay out of the creek, okay? The woods are fine but the creek is off limits today." John heard a muffled shout of assent. "And John. John! John," she shouted. "You are not allowed in the barn unless Todd is there, do you hear me? John?" A "yeah, mom" floated from around the side of the house and the woman relaxed.

She came around the car to where John was standing. "Sorry for being late, and the distractions. Boys, you know?" John nodded mutely, not knowing what to say. "Claire Sheppard," the woman said. "I'd give you a hand to shake, but --" She juggled the grocery bags in demonstration.

John found his voice. "Right. Right. No problem. I'm . . . John," he finished lamely.

"Nice to meet you, John." Claire smiled. "That's my son's name."

"I know," John said.

****

He followed her into the kitchen, partly at her insistence, and partly because he couldn't fathom doing anything else. She started making coffee, putting groceries away in the pantry and the fridge. She poured John a cup of coffee, and he took it, black. A big gulp went down bitterly, but it was something tangible for John to hold on to.

"So, like the ad said, it's not a big job," Claire said, pouring cream into her coffee until it was the same color as the kitchen cabinets. "Most of the work has been done downstairs, but we want to renovate and repaint some of the bedrooms, add a couple of rooms on the main level if we're ambitious, though we haven't decided, and insulate the attic. Do you have a crew?"

John automatically thought of Teyla, Ronon and Rodney, and his heart seized momentarily in his chest. "I." He cleared his throat. "I. No. I do most of the work myself."

"Oh. Well, if we decide to add on the rooms, do you think you can do that? We'd love to have everything done by September."

John just nodded.

"And you have prior experience?" Claire looked a little skeptical now, which made John duck his head.

John had lots of experience, of course. He had flown almost every chopper imaginable, F-16s and other high powered planes; he took puddlejumpers out on a nearly daily basis. Hell, he had even flown an entire city. He had extensive combat experience, field experience, command experience. In his time he had ordered supplies, brokered treaties with aliens, trained recruits.

But for two summers in college, he had worked on houses in Boston. The only thing he hadn't done was the plumbing, those hot days working for a guy named Matty, and he always reckoned he could have figured that out in a pinch.

It was those summers that made him say, "Yes. I've done this kind of work before. Used to be on a crew in Boston. Worked on lots of houses."

"Uh-huh. Well. We'll expect you here nine to five; you get an hour for lunch; we pay you weekly. If you need help you're welcome to put together a crew, but you're responsible for paying them."

"Yes, ma'am."

"This is a serious job, John. My husband's with the Pentagon. We do everything above board and by the letter. We'll treat you well and pay you well. In return we expect responsible, reliable service and a job well done. Our boys are very important to us, and if you can't work with them around, then you can't work here. Is that understood?"

John nodded. "Yes, ma'am," he said. He didn't remember her this way, of course. The no-nonsense tone, business manner. The way she'd had two cups of coffee in the last five minutes. Some things, though, were familiar, coming more and more into focus the longer he was there. She's dressed in a flowing patterned blouse and, bless her, her thought, bell bottoms. Her hair was tied back in a hasty ponytail, dark and curly, unruly like his around the edges -- her face, the nape of her neck. She had a deep Southern accent and a soft voice. She was shorter than he remembered, the idea startling John. She wasn't that petite, about 5' 5", 5' 6" on the outside, and she had shucked her shoes the minute they had stepped into the house.

Suddenly she was looking at him, eyebrows raised, with a look somewhere between sardonic and accepting, a look he had thought only appeared on his own face. She took a pen and scrap piece of paper from the junk drawer and scribbled something down before passing it across the counter to John.

"Is that a fair amount per week?"

John barely looked down; he didn't care. "Absolutely."

Claire smiled and reached out to shake his hand. "Great. So we have a deal?"

John looked at her hand before taking it. It was cool and soft in his own. "Deal."

Later, when John stepped out the back door, he managed to persuade the real job applicant, in a Volkswagon and talking about the traffic like Claire, to turn around and not waste his time. The job had been filled.

John walked to the highway, closed his fingers around the Ancient device now in his palm, and thought as hard as he could: Home. Home. Home. When he realized he went nowhere, he tried to picture Rodney's face, closed his eyes, and thought: Atlantis. Please.

****

The next thing he knew was Rodney's voice, a little high-pitched and a little exasperated: "Well, is it too hot?" as if he had asked the question more than once.

John opened his eyes. Zelenka and Rodney looked at him expectantly, as if he might burst into flames at any moment.

"No, McKay. It's not too hot," John said, putting the device back on the counter as it faded from yellow back to black.

Rodney's face looked somewhere between annoyed and relieved. John, meanwhile, willed his heart to stop pounding.

****

He went back, of course. It was stupid, and dangerous, and weird beyond all of his imagining, but he went, over and over and over again.

Rodney had cataloged the device as unusable and put it in the storage section of the labs, in its own container and with its own label. John had been careful not to say anything. Even he wasn't sure what the device did. Was it a time machine? A personal transporter? A wish-fulfillment machine? Not that John would have thought working on his parents' house in the summer of 1976 was exactly his deepest wish, but who knew what the Ancients thought about these things.

If John has spoken up, told Carter and McKay about where he had been, what the device had done, there would be hell to pay, in so many different ways. Experiments with the device. With him. With him and the device. Things would be out of his hands.

Besides, it wasn't like time ever passed, on either end. Whenever he went to Virginia, even if he'd been away for days, it was like he had been there the entire time. No one asked where he'd been for a week. Everyone greeted him just the same, and he went back to whatever project he was working on at the time. He bought tools, and some jeans and t-shirts to work in; he stashed them in his quarters and pretended not to hear Rodney when Rodney asked if that was a new shirt when he wore one to team movie night.

When he came back to Atlantis, the same was true, only even more precise. He always came back to Atlantis in the exact minute he left, in the exact same place he had left. No one missed him.

No one ever knew he was gone.

If they knew what he was doing, they would stop him. And John wasn't ready to give up anything just yet.

****

John usually had lunch with himself in Virginia. That is to say, his younger self usually plopped himself down in the grass next to John with a peanut butter and jelly and chocolate milk. They would eat together in silence and then lay down in the grass, which prickled pleasantly at John's back.

Sometimes Little John, as John called his eight-year-old self (and, yes, the Robin Hood reference did amuse him), would tell John a story, spinning a tale of childhood angst and woe. The day his turtle died was an epic poem, involving the vet's office, the moment of death, the burial and the wake (Mom made chocolate chip cookies). There were times when John would ask a question where his own adult memory was hazy, and tuck away the answer for his own reference.

Or sometimes Little John would ask questions -- where did John come from? Why did they have the same name? Had John always wanted to be a carpenter when he grew up? Sometimes the questions were so prescient that John wondered if his younger self knew something, or at the very least sensed that something different was at work in the situation. But then John used his memory to conjure up his own image of himself at eight, and realized through the haze of time that, no, that was just the way he had been: bright, curious, friendly.

He didn't spend much time thinking about when that little boy had disappeared.

Today wasn't any different. John hadn't been to Virginia in almost a week and a half. One off-world mission lasted four days; not for any catastrophic reason, which was a relief. Mainly there was a lot of dancing, a goodly amount of food, and enough ale to keep even Ronon happily buzzed. But by the time they managed to ease their way away from their generous hosts and through the gate, John was itchy, restless. He knew why. He was in the middle of painting one of the upstairs rooms, creating crown molding for it by hand out near the garage. He wanted to get back, finish it. It had been too long, a thought that scared John when he dared think about it long enough. So he made it through the debriefings, new marine team deployments, and stick practice with Teyla as fast as possible -- all so he could go back to a house over thirty years old and billions of miles away.

John had already finished eating today's lunch, ham and cheese from the little deli in the village. He was on his back in the grass, eyes closed in the face of the bright sunlight. He felt more than heard Little John join him; there was a soft whisper in the air as the boy sat down, the grass crunching underneath his legs.

John cracked open an eye. "Hey, buddy," he said.

His eight year old self looked up from his lap, where he had been reading a comic book, hands around his eyes to shield them from the sun. "Hi, John."

"Whatchya doing?"

"Reading."

That was part of what John loved about these conversations. No trace of sarcasm or irony; Little John was only offering up an honest answer to an honest question. "Reading what?" John asked.

Little John flashed John a glimpse of the comic's cover in reply.

"Oh, The Amazing Spider-Man," John read from the over. "Nice. Is that the latest issue?"

Little John nodded. "Yep. I got to it before Dave," he said, and couldn't keep the glee out of his voice.

John laughed. "Good for you."

"Yeah. I mean, it's okay if he reads them, but sometimes he's messy and I don't really like that."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah. He eats when he's reading them, and then they come back to me and they have ketchup on them and stuff."

"Well, that's not right," John affirmed.

"No, it's not. It's okay with the Superman ones, 'cause I'm done with them after I read them. But Spider-Man is my favorite."

"Your favorite?" John looked over in time to see the kid duck his head.

"Yeah."

John smiled. "What makes Spider-Man your favorite?"

For a second John didn't think Little John was going to say anything, but it turned out he was only getting warmed up. "'Cause I like Peter Parker. He's smart and funny and stuff. He's like a regular guy who can also do these awesome things."

John hummed in agreement. "Makes it fun to think you could be a hero, too."

"Yep. 'Cause I'm regular just like Peter Parker. Maybe I'll be a hero, too."

"Maybe," John agreed, swallowing. He was happy to have Little John go back to his comic and for the conversation to end. As it was, he had to get up and go back to painting if he was going to be able to look the kid in the eye again.

****

Friday was payday, not that that meant much to John. He already had a stack of checks in his nightstand on Atlantis, green bank checks made out to cash in Claire Sheppard's neat handwriting. It wasn't like he had a bank account here in 1976; he thought briefly about cashing them, but what would he do with the money? He already had all the money he ever wanted or needed, stashed away in an Earth bank account in 2008. They didn't use money in Atlantis; the SGC provided everything for them, and Chuck's thriving black market took care of everything else. Besides, he wasn't sure any bank would let him deposit 30 something year old checks, even if he wanted to, which he didn't.

He wasn't here for the money. And seeing his mother's handwriting was more valuable than the amount she wrote on the checks anyway.

This Friday John wandered into the kitchen about five, as he usually did. Claire smiled at him.

"I just made some iced tea -- would you like some?"

"Sure," John said easily, sliding onto one of the kitchen stools. His heart never failed to flutter just a bit whenever she addressed him.

Claire poured the tea over two glasses generously filled with ice, then turned the oven light on and bent down to check whatever was in there. It smelled like chicken to John. She came back and set the tall glass in front of him. John took it gratefully, genuinely thirsty after working all day.

"I should be able to put the crown molding up in the guest bedroom next week," John said.

"That's wonderful, John," Claire said. She took a sip from her glass and then reached for her purse, pulling out her checkbook. "We're so pleased with the work you're doing."

John ducked his head. "Thank you, ma'am."

Claire smiled. "I'm not used to being called ma'am," she said. "Claire is just fine."

"Okay. Thank you, Claire," John said.

"That's better." Claire pulled the check off and slid it across the counter toward John. "In fact, Patrick and I are so happy, we think we're going to add those rooms to the downstairs after all, maybe extend the deck. What do you think?"

"I think that's up to you and your husband."

Claire grinned, a little lopsided. "I meant, is that a project you'd be interested in doing for us?"

John's answering smile was slightly bashful. "Yes. Sure. Yes. I'd love to."

Claire didn't laugh, but John saw the amusement dancing in her eyes. "It's a deal then. Same hours, if that works for you. We'll up your weekly salary to take into account the extra work, and we'll pay for all the supplies, of course."

John nodded, unable to speak for a reason he couldn't identify.

"Excellent. Do you have any plans for the weekend?" asked Claire.

John thought. Plans for the weekend. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had plans for the weekend. Atlantis ran on a seven day schedule, of course, but it wasn't like he got a lot of time off. Carter tried to implement a regular rotation of off days, but that fell into a shambles quickly, between city-wide emergencies, longer than usual -- and often dangerous -- off world missions, and the just plain huge amount of work most of the expedition members had to do. John was lucky to get a day off once a month.

What passed for John's weekend plans was an off-world mission to M70-X51, a planet they'd never been to, and where he could only hope the natives were friendly and the weirdest thing they had strangers do was hold court at a banquet.

"No, not really," John said. He tilted his head. "Maybe dinner with some friends."

"Oh, that sounds nice," Claire hummed, taking the chicken out of the oven.

"Yeah," John said, and shook his head quietly.


****

As it turned out the visit to M70-X51 had involved a banquet. It also involved a ritual cleansing that, as far as John could figure, was designed with as much humiliation as possible in mind. Well, John thought of it as humiliating, though Ronon had worn a strange smile for the rest of the day, which, frankly, freaked John out. Rodney seemed appropriately pink around the ears, however, which John found reassuring. Being scrubbed down with the local version of soap (John could have sworn there was grass in it) by the eldest women in the village and then covered in oil (possibly made with pine, John had thought) by the eldest men in the village before being sent for inspection by the high priest who actually used a magnifying glass to peer at their skin was not exactly John's idea of a good time. Especially when the priest had sniffed dismissively and made disparaging remarks about the size of John's pores (too big, apparently). Still, they had made it home with an agreement to trade antibiotics for what looked and tasted surprisingly like peaches, so John chalked it up to a win.

John was on his way back to his quarters to take a shower -- in private -- when Teyla caught up with him, jogging a bit until she was able to meet him and match his stride.

"Teyla," John said.

"John," Teyla greeted him, tilting her head.

They walked along in silence for a minute, John nodding to various staff members as he passed. Finally John said, "I think that was a productive mission."

"Yes. I think both parties will benefit greatly," Teyla replied, before taking a breath that John knew from long experience meant that she was about to embark on her real reason for speaking with him. John stiffened unconsciously. "John, if I may . . ." she started.

John hummed a non-committal sound, but kept walking along with Teyla.

Teyla continued. "You seem distracted lately," she said.

"Distracted?"

"Yes. I have noticed that you are not as . . . focused in some situations as you usually are."

John frowned. "I thought our mission went fine -- and was successful."

"Of course. But I am not talking about our off-world missions, John."

John stopped and turned to face Teyla. "Then what are you talking about?"

Teyla merely stood her ground and looked at John calmly. "I am speaking of our meetings with Colonel Carter, or our briefings as a team, our practice sessions."

"You think I'm neglecting the team?" John couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice.

"No. Not exactly. I am not concerned about the team, John. I am concerned about you."

"Me? Teyla --"

"You do not seem yourself. You do not spend very much time with us. Not even with Dr. McKay. Nor do you spend time elsewhere. Major Lorne has mentioned that he hasn't spoken to you at length in some time."

"I've been busy, Teyla. The Daedalus is due here in a week, and that always ups my workload."

"I understand that. I am." Teyla paused. "You are very inwardly focused, John, even more so than usual. If there is something wrong --"

John sighed. "Nothing's wrong, Teyla."

"If there were, you would remember that we are not just colleagues, but also friends, yes?"

"Yes, Teyla." John tried to smile.

Teyla smiled in response, but it seemed somewhat sad. "Of course."


****

John was inside, so he heard the crying first. It wasn't loud, but it was low-pitched and earnest, and John knew immediately that it was a child. He wondered if he should wait, see if Claire took care of it; he waited for a minute, but the crying didn't stop, so John started out into the hallway, following the sound.

It didn't take him long to stumble into Dave's room, and it was Dave who was crying. Little John was perched next to him on the bed, his face pulled downwards into a serious expression. Dave was holding his hands in front of his nose and making hiccuping sounding sobs.

"Hey, guys," John said, coming into the room. "Something wrong?"

Dave looked up but didn't speak. John crossed the room to the bed and said gently, "Can I see, David?"

Dave nodded slowly; his brother still hadn't said a word, but his eyes were wide and glued to what John was doing.

Dave moved his hands away from his face, guided by John's hands on his wrists, gently pulling his hands down and toward John. John shushed him, "Hey now, buddy, it's okay."

Much to John's relief, it really was okay. Dave had a nosebleed, but it wasn't particularly heavy, and it didn't look like he'd really hurt himself -- no bruises and the nose definitely wasn't broken. John knelt down and rocked back on his heels, Dave's arms still in his hands. "John, can you go to the bathroom and get a wet washcloth for me?"

Little John nodded and obeyed instantly, slipping from the bed. John could hear his feet pounding down the hall as he ran to the bathroom.

"Did you hit your nose on something, Dave?" John asked.

Dave shook his head, managing a trembling, "No."

"Oh. So it just started bleeding?"

Dave nodded and then looked a little horrified, as if the nodding of his head might make the bleeding worse.

"That's okay, then," John said. "Sometimes that happens. It's probably just dry because of all the air conditioning." Dave looked disbelieving, but John could feel his arms relax, see his shoulders fall just a little. Little John came back with a washcloth and handed it to John.

"I'm going to press this to your nose, okay? Don't lean back; if anything lean forward just a little bit. I promise it won't hurt," John said, raising the washcloth to Dave's nose. He pressed gently to staunch the bleeding, though he didn't think it would take much. Little John sat back down next to Dave on the bed, hovering, eventually placing his small hand on Dave's shoulder in a gesture of comfort. John was struck by the gesture; he and Dave had basically grown up and decided to hate each other. It was hard to remember a time when it wasn't like that.

Just as John started to pull the washcloth back, Claire entered the room. "Is something wrong, boys?" She was pulling off gardening gloves; she had obviously been outside.

Dave finally spoke up. "My nose started to bleed, but John helped."

John got up from his crouch. "I heard crying, so I came to investigate. I hope that's alright."

"Of course it's alright," Claire said, crossing the room in three steps and peering at Dave, putting her hand gently on his head. "Did you hit your head, honey?"

"No." Dave shook his head again. "It just started, but I think it's stopped now."

Claire gently titled his head up by the chin, so she could get a good look at his nose. "Why, I think it has," she smiled brightly, and Dave couldn't help but smile back. Even Little John relaxed, though his hand stayed on Dave's shoulder.

She turned to John. "Thank you, John. I'm glad we have you here," she said, smiling, and kissed Dave on the top of the head.

John looked away. "Glad to be here," he said.


****


John had just gone to the kitchen for a glass of water when Patrick Sheppard walked through the door.

Now he was just as John remembered him. He was younger, of course, his hair closer to blonde than to silver. He had the same build, though, like Dave's -- more suited for football than swimming, or track and field. His jaw was still just as square, and to John's mind, just as hard. He was slightly thinner than John remembered him being, though it's not like that surprised John. His father had always been fit. It was still surprising that something as ordinary as a heart attack had felled him.

If Patrick was surprised to see John standing in his kitchen, he didn't look it. He merely smiled and held out his hand. "You must be John. Patrick Sheppard."

John took the offered hand. The shake was firm and short, just as John expected. "Nice to meet you, sir," John said. Unlike Claire Sheppard's dismissal of the word "ma'am," Patrick didn't even comment on the "sir."

"Good to meet you as well. I've heard all about you." Patrick went to the fridge and pulled out a pitcher of lemonade.

"Have you now?" John forced himself to keep his voice nice and even.

"Of course. Claire has mentioned how good you are at your work, and with the boys. And our John talks about you constantly."

"Does he?"

Patrick filled a glass. "All the time. I think you might have a case of hero worship on your hands."

"Well. There are worse things." John tilted his head.

"Indeed," Patrick said, putting the pitcher back into the fridge.

"Patrick!" Claire's voice was unmistakable as she came into the kitchen. She sounded genuinely pleased, and John had to look away as she and Patrick kissed hello. "What are you doing home so early?"

"I had a meeting that got out early, so I decided to come home early. Where are the boys?"

"John's at swimming and Dave is at baseball practice."

"Do you want me to pick them up?"

"Do you mind? They would love that," Claire replied.

John watched the ordinary domestic scene with what he hoped was concealed surprise; this was not the Patrick Sheppard he knew. Or at least not the one he remembered. He remembered General Patrick William Sheppard, U.S. Army. Decorated and celebrated a hero; joined the Pentagon before the age of 40. A legend in his own time, his colleagues used to say. Eldest son of the Pennsylvania Sheppards, who by all accounts should have run for political office, and who did eventually run the family business. The Patrick Sheppard who ran his own house like boot camp, and treated his youngest son, at least, like a new recruit.

They would love that. John's chest tightened when he realized that at eight, yes, he would have.

"Sure," Patrick said. "I'll just go change first." He kissed his wife again and left the kitchen.

Sure, John thought. Smooth and easy.

****

Usually when he got back to Atlantis the city was quiet, dark and hushed as most of the staff slept, and the staff on duty whispered. John made sure he left at night, and it was always night when he returned.

It was a little earlier this time, but no less quiet. John passed more staff in the hall, that was all, and if they noticed the sawdust on his pants, they didn't say anything. The ocean was gently sloshing outside, a rhythm of waves and crests, and Atlantis fairly hummed underneath his feet.

John's quarters, however, were slightly less peaceful, what with Rodney McKay standing directly in his space the second John entered.

"Are you insane?" Rodney hissed. John didn't know that it was possible to sound that pissed and still be whispering at the same time.

He opened his mouth to speak but Rodney beat him to it. "Seriously, have you hit your head? Did you get a head wound I don't know about? Did you develop amnesia? Mysterious off-world device scramble your brain? Or are you really just that stupid?"

"Hey," John said. "No using the word stupid."

"Okay, let's perform a test," Rodney said. "What day is it?"

John thought. The device had never brought him back on a different day, or at a different time, than when he had left. "Tuesday?" he ventured.

"Is that a question?" Rodney asked.

John rolled his eyes. "No. It's Tuesday."

"Well, congratulations, you got one. It's Tuesday. Do you remember at all what was supposed to happen this Tuesday?"

John knew what had happened this Tuesday. He had spent the first part of the morning after breakfast on backlogged mission reports, then about an hour exchanging information with Lorne. After that was senior staff, which lasted two hours, then lunch, then three hours of emailing back and forth with the SGC about supplies, which was a huge waste of his time. He'd skipped dinner, and then he'd arrived back in Atlantis after spending a day in Virginia.

He was about to tell Rodney all of this, except for the part about using a time travel device to go back to his childhood home, when he got a glimpse of his room beyond Rodney's shoulder.

"Shit," John said.

"I see it's coming back to you," Rodney hissed.

"Listen, Rodney," John started.

"You know, I'm not sure I even want to know," Rodney said, raising a hand to stop John. "I don't want to know what could possibly make you either too stupid or too memory impaired to remember that we were supposed to babysit for Teyla tonight. At least one of us held up our end of the bargain." Rodney folded his arms.

John quietly walked around Rodney to the portable crib Ronon had fashioned. Torren was fast asleep, his small butt in the air as he slept on his stomach, softly blowing the occasional spit bubble. John gently put his hand on the baby's back. His pajamas were soft, the heat from his body warming the palm of John's hand.

"He's asleep, Rodney."

"Of course he's asleep, Sheppard." Rodney tilted his chin up. "He's been asleep since he's been here."

Then if this wasn't about not being there to help take care of the baby . . . John sighed. They had agreed to babysit for Teyla, hang out in John's quarters. John took another look around. There was a cooler filled with part of Rodney's hard won stash of beer, and two bowls, one filled with popcorn, the other with potato chips. Various fun size candy bar wrappers were scattered around the edge of the bed; Rodney had obviously eaten the candy itself while waiting for John. He even saw Parrish's much beloved Wii plugged into the t.v. and DVD player combo that John kept around to watch movies. John wondered vaguely what Rodney had had to promise Parrish to get the console for the night. John rubbed the heel of his hand into his right eye.

He opened his mouth, but once again Rodney beat him to the punch. "It's one thing." Rodney stopped. "It's one thing if you don't want to see me. I get it. I get it." Rodney held up a hand to keep John from speaking. "And if you're seeing someone, that's great. It really is." Seeing someone? John thought. What did that even mean? Did Rodney think he was dating someone?

Before John could ask, Rodney continued. "But I never thought you'd let Teyla down." John grimaced. It was one night. And Rodney had been there. Teyla . . . well. Teyla would probably be disappointed with him, and for some reason that was really not something John wanted to happen.

"She doesn't know, by the way," Rodney kept on. "I mean, when she dropped him off and you weren't here I told her you were just on your way. You'll be here when she gets back, so. I guess it'll be fine." Rodney's mouth was a thin line that said to John that it would be anything but fine.

"Look, Rodney, I --" John tried, but Rodney had already turned away.

Rodney held up a hand as he headed to the door. "You know what, I don't think I want to know. Really, Sheppard. I don't," he said, sounding as tired as John felt. He swiped the door release and left.

John sat down on the end of his bed and sighed while Torren let out a little snore in his corner of the room.


****

John was out working in the yard when Little John approached. John didn't hear him coming; he was using the circular saw to cut wood for the frames when Little John suddenly appeared in front of him.

"Whoa, buddy," John said, turning the saw off and taking off his goggles. "Easy there."

"'Msorry," Little John mumbled. John noticed right away that he was acting differently, almost shyly. He barely looked up at John, never mind meeting his eyes.

"No problem, little man. Just didn't want you to get hurt, sneaking up on me like that." John took off his gloves and went over to the other side of the platform so that he could talk to the boy. "Is something up?"

"No, well." Little John took a deep breath. "Here." He handed John a folded white piece of construction paper.

John opened the paper to messy elementary school cursive. Written in pencil were a date, time, and there was a small blue patch on the bottom left hand corner. John squinted, then ventured, "Okay, well . . ."

Little John interrupted. "It's. Um. It's an invitation to my swim meet. I made it myself."

"Did you now?" John bit his lip, in part to hide a smile.

"Mommy said an invitation would only be polite."

"Uh-huh."

"I. So. Can you come?" Little John blurted.

This time John couldn't keep his smile from showing. He peered at the invitation. "Three weeks, huh?" He glanced at the invitation again; the handwriting was almost indecipherable, which John's handwriting still was as an adult. "At ten in the morning?"

The boy nodded.

"Sure. Yep. I think I can make it."

Little John's grin was almost blinding. "Cool! Uh. Yeah."

"Yeah, cool." John nodded. "Thanks for the invitation, buddy."

"Okay. I mean, you're welcome. See you later!" Little John bounced on the balls of his feet once and then scampered off, running around the side of the house.

John looked at the piece of paper in his hand. "Yeah," he said softly. "See you later."


****

The conference room was oddly silent, the only sound the soft hum of Rodney's open laptop. The fan on the computer was running awfully loudly; John thought absently that someone should probably check that out.

Sam started. "Colonel, no one here thinks you are responsible --"

John felt his jaw tighten even more, so hard that his teeth ground together. "With all due respect, Colonel, that ambush was completely preventable."

"I disagree." Sam's lips tightened. "There's no way you could have known . . ."

"Save your breath, Sam," Rodney said, speaking suddenly. John was perversely glad to hear Rodney's voice. He'd been exceptionally quiet on the way back from MY7-L98, and obviously shaken by Ronon's injuries. John straightened up in his chair. McKay was certain to read him the riot act, and none too soon -- it was about time someone did. He made himself look at Rodney's face.

"Rodney --" Sam tried.

"No, really. Don't bother. The Colonel here isn't going to believe that he wasn't at fault here, so you might as well be talking to a brick wall. And in this case, he's actually right."

"What is that supposed to mean, McKay?" John asked, leaning forward in his chair. He saw Teyla shift slightly toward him in her chair out of the corner of his eye.

Only Rodney could fill a sigh with so much scorn. "I mean, Sheppard, that you're going to take everyone's attempts to reassure you and completely block them out, especially as they are wrong, so we should all just take Keller at her word that Ronon's fine and go visit him in the infirmary." He paused. "If you're not too busy wallowing in self-pity, that is."

If John thought the room was quiet before, he could feel the tension wash over each person at the table now. "It's not self-pity, McKay," John grit out between his teeth.

"No?"

"No." John looked across the table at Rodney. "And I don't need you or anyone else telling me what went wrong on that mission."

"Of course not, because a child could have seen the ambush the settlers set up for us on our way out a mile away."

"Rodney," Teyla started. "We are all upset that Ronon was wounded, but there's no need --"

"Do you think I don't know that, McKay?" John asked, talking over Teyla. "I made a mistake. I miscalculated and one of my team members ended up with a bullet in his leg. I get it."

"Damn right you made a mistake," Rodney agreed. "You know what went wrong on that mission? You."

"That's enough, Doctor McKay," Sam said firmly.

Rodney ignored her. "He doesn't need us to sit around the table and try to make him feel better. There's no reason to stroke either the Colonel's ego or his martyrdom."

"I said that's enough, Rodney," Sam said again. "We're not here to assign blame."

"Maybe we should be," Rodney said, lifting his chin.

Sam opened her mouth to say something, but John didn't hear what it was. The fact was, McKay was right. He was what had gone wrong on that mission. Tired and distracted, he had allowed his fatigue to get the better of him; it had gotten his team in danger and Ronon injured. He had failed those in his charge.

Suddenly John slammed his hand down on the table, barely noticing the others jump at the force. "Fuck," he said, and walked out of the room. Carter could file the paper work. She could also reprimand him later for storming out of a meeting. Right now, John was going to go down to talk to Keller and make sure he was there when Ronon woke up.

****

It was only going to be one more time.

It wasn't just something John told himself; it was true. He just wanted to say goodbye.

As usual, it was a dark, quiet night in Atlantis. Even the city seemed to know that John was in no mood for company. The lights in the hallway were low, barely lighting his path. He made his way to the lab more from memory than from sight. It was only once he reached the storage bins that he realized he wasn't the only person who was awake in Atlantis.

The thing was, Rodney didn't even say anything, just stood there with his arms crossed over his chest, his mouth a thin line. The silence was unnerving. John couldn't even hear Atlantis' usual background him. To John's surprise, Rodney turned around, reached down, and took out the bin with transporter device.

"So, what does it do?" Rodney asked, almost conversationally.

"Rodney --"

"No, I'm genuinely interested, Sheppard. What does it do? I'd go with some sort of sexual function, but that seems so pedestrian, even for you."

John sighed. "Just. It's not important, McKay."

"Not important? You come here almost every night, don't you?"

John raised his eyebrows. "How do you know that?"

"So you don't even try to deny it," Rodney said.

"Why bother?" John shrugged. "You clearly know already."

Rodney opened the lid of the container. "Interesting move. I would have expected more adamant denial coming from you."

"Rodney. Just put the device away and let's go. I won't use it again."

"I don't care if you use it again or not. I just want to know what's so important that it's a bigger priority than Atlantis."

John took an involuntary step back. "What?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh, please. You are certainly not that obtuse, no matter how much you try to hide it under all that hair."

John's mouth opened, but closed again just as quickly. "I. Nothing is more important to me than Atlantis."

"Honestly, Sheppard. Six months ago that might have been true, but not now."

John straightened his spine. "Atlantis always comes first."

Rodney snorted.

"Who are you to question my loyalty to this mission?" John asked, suddenly angry.

"Don't think that a good offense is the best defense, Colonel," Rodney snapped. He picked the device up out if its storage bin and cradled it in his palm. It did nothing in his hand -- didn't light up, or make any noise, just sat there, dark and quiet. Rodney held it out to John.

"I'm not taking that from you, McKay."

"What? The tech or the backtalk?"

John's mouth tightened. "Either."

"Get off your soapbox, John. You can't cow me into submission like you do your military grunts." Then Rodney lobbed the device at John, who had to make the split second decision whether to catch it or let it fall to the floor.

John caught it.

It started to glow a bright yellow in his hand before he could even think about telling the device not to work, or not to go on, or not to do anything. He looked up at Rodney, slightly panicked.

Rodney's face was full of nothing but disdain.

John reached out and grabbed Rodney by the wrist. The last thing he saw before everything went black was the widening of McKay's eyes.

****

Traveling with another person was different than traveling alone. For one, the landing was harder. He and McKay landed on the back lawn in a heap, a tangle of limbs and bruised ribs. For another, it wasn't at all quiet: Rodney started bitching as soon as they hit the ground.

"What the hell, Sheppard?"

John looked around quickly. "Shut up. Just shut up. For once in your life, McKay, just close your mouth for two damn seconds."

Rodney was scrambling to his feet, already brushing himself off and checking for injuries. "Oh, that's nice, Colonel. Tell me to shut up. God only knows where we are, and you're already barking orders."

John stood up and got right in Rodney's personal space. "I'm telling you, be quiet. Just --" John heard the back door open and shut, and he closed his eyes for a moment. So much for getting out of here before something incredibly bad happened. "Let me do the talking." Rodney's mouth opened in what was no doubt a protest. "And don't call me Sheppard. Or Colonel," he added.

John turned around to face the house and see who had come out to greet them. It was Claire.

"John!" she called, smiling and waving a hand at John and Rodney.

"Who is that?" Rodney asked. Rodney's head shot from side to side. "And where are we, anyway?"

"Just." John held up a hand. "Let me do the talking."

"As if -- " Rodney started.

But Claire had already reached them, stopping in front of them and wiping her hands on a tea towel. "Good morning, John," she said. "There's coffee in the kitchen if you want it." She looked at Rodney.

"Uh. Thanks, Claire." He paused. "This is Rodney McKay. He's . . . a member of my team." John looked sideways at Rodney, who had his mouth open, but had yet to speak.

Claire's face lit up with a smile. "Hello, Rodney. Nice to meet you."

"I'm sure it's very nice to meet you, too, whoever you are, but as it so happens I'm not really interested --"

"Rodney's an engineer," John interrupted.

"That's great," Claire said, holding a hand out for Rodney to shake. Rodney took it reluctantly, shook it, and then not-so-subtly wiped his palm on his pants. Thankfully, in John's estimation Claire looked more amused than insulted. "I take it you're going to be helping John on the job?"

"The job?" Rodney asked, voice pitched in the way he had when tribal chiefs asked him to do something particularly distasteful.

"Yes, Rodney, the job," John said. "I'm doing some work on Claire's house."

"Oh, well isn't that lovely," Rodney said, sarcasm poured through every word. He paused. "Wait. Wait wait wait wait wait. Wait. You're sneaking off to do a construction job? Are you kidding me? Is this some kind of fever dream? Oh. My. God. Have I been shot? Is this all a delusion? Am I hallucinating?" Rodney took a breath. "A construction job, for Christ's sake?"

John held up a finger to Rodney. "Can you just? For, like, five seconds?"

"I have been shot, haven't I? Oh, God, Keller's going to have to do the surgery. She's nice and all, but she's no Carson in the operating room and --"

John pointed his finger at Rodney. "You have not been shot. Okay? You are fine. I realize this is a foreign concept to you, but you need to relax here for about minute or so, you got that?"

Claire was looking back and forth between John and Rodney. "Do you two need a minute?"

"I. Yes." John looked from Rodney to Claire. "Yes, I think we do. Rodney can be a little . . . " about a dozen alternatives floated through John's mind. "High strung," John settled on. "He's brilliant, a great engineer, but sometimes he has trouble adjusting to new jobs." John threw Rodney the glare he'd learned the first time he had to chew out a younger officer. Which, predictably, only made Rodney scowl, not cower in fear. Then he shrugged for Claire's benefit, trying to convey, but he's amazing, so what can you do through the rise and fall of his shoulders.

Claire looked a little skeptical, but nodded. A rather kind but reasonable reaction to Rodney McKay, John thought.

"Sure," Claire said. "The boys are both out at day camp right now, so you're welcome to start the paint on their rooms today, if that works for you." John nodded.

Claire shot a look at Rodney. "It's nice to meet you, Rodney," she ventured.

Rodney waved a hand at her. "Yes, yes. It's nice to meet you, too, Claire . . . ." Rodney deliberately trailed off.

"Oh, right. We haven't been properly introduced, have we? I'm Claire, Claire Sheppard."

This time, Rodney opened his mouth, but didn't say anything, just gaped. He looked from Claire, to John, and then to Claire again. He took in Claire's face, her eyes, her features, and then his gaze settled onto John, cataloging his face from his hair to his chin.

"Oh. My. God," Rodney said, starting to draw an even bigger breath.

John grabbed Rodney's arm by the bicep, hard enough to draw an "Ow," out of Rodney, derailing him slightly from whatever rant he was going to start into. "We're going to head out by the pool for just a second," he said to Claire before dragging Rodney back around the side of the house.

John maneuvered Rodney into the shady spot by the wall of the pool area, hoping to get him out of hearing range. He'd heard Rodney rant on more occasions than anyone could count, but this was going to be a doozy. Maybe they'd be able to hear it through time and space back on Atlantis. John waited, breathing a little heavily through his nose from pulling Rodney as quickly as possible.

But Rodney was silent. And was silent. And was silent. For long moments, the only sound was their breathing and the small ripples the breeze was making in the pool water. John shuffled his feet; Rodney was unnerving him.

"Look -- " John finally said.

Rodney only frowned in response.

"Okay. Look. We'll just use the device, go back to Atlantis. That'll be it."

Rodney still didn't speak.

John snapped. "God, Rodney, you make more noise when there aren't any muffins for breakfast, for Christ's sake --"

Rodney interrupted by, of all things, pointing.

"What?

Rodney jabbed a little with his finger.

"What?" John snapped.

Rodney made a frustrated sound and grabbed the Ancient device out of John's hand. John's hand, where it had been throughout the last few minutes. Rodney grabbed John's wrist, forced John's palm out flat in front of him, and put the device back in John's hand.

Where it stayed the dull metallic gray of it's natural color and did nothing at all.

John looked at it for a moment while Rodney made a noise that sounded like he was being strangled. John thought, Atlantis, Atlantis, Atlantis as hard as he could, and, frankly, as frantically as he could. But nothing happened.

"Shit," John said. He looked up at Rodney. "Maybe it's just on hold for a minute."

"Or maybe you drained all of the power, you fucking idiot," Rodney finally said, perhaps a little too loudly. John winced.

"Hey!" John said. "There's no reason --"

"There's no reason? There's no reason?" Rodney repeated, sounding slightly hysterical to John. John had heard Rodney sound slightly hysterical in a fake way before, but never sincerely. He didn't like it at all.

"There's no reason?" Rodney said again. "No reason to what? Panic? Marvel at the wonder that is your tiny lizard brain? Reason out that we are totally, completely fucked?"

"Look. We are not fucked," John answered. He paused. "And I don't have a tiny lizard brain."

"Oh my God, that's what you're choosing to focus on right now? Not that we're stuck in your own insane Oedipal nightmare?"

"Keep your voice down," John hissed.

"I. Keep my voice down? Keep my voice down?" Rodney's voice only got louder, and the gesticulating started, his hand flailing out wildly, nearly hitting John in the eye. "Where the hell are we, Sheppard?"

"Don't call me Sheppard," John started. "I told you that."

"Well excuse me if I forgot, after you introduced me to your mother, you imbecile," Rodney shouted.

John looked around, but no one was outside, or seemed to be paying attention. "She's not --"

Rodney rolled his eyes so hard John was momentarily afraid they would get stuck in the back of his eye socket. "Do not even try to lie about that one, John," he said. He started counting on his fingers. "You have the same name; you have the same eyes; you clearly inherited her facial structure, especially the cheekbones; the chin is extremely similar; and, God help me, you even seem to have the same hair. Hell, the freckles across the bridge of your nose are exactly the same!"

"I have freckles?" John asked. "On my nose?"

"Oh for Christ's sake, focus, you flyboy flunky!"

"Right. Listen. The device will work again shortly, and we'll go home."

"Stop trying to fix this by distracting me with Atlantis," Rodney snapped. "How did I just get introduced to your mother? Besides which, Ancient devices just don't power back all on their own. They need chargers. Or, failing that, actual Ancients."

John decided to address Rodney's question first, instead of what was starting to look like their inevitable power problem. "I. I don't know how I get here. Somehow the device just brings me here."

"Where is here?"

"Um. My parent's house in Virginia." John paused, grimacing. "In 1976."

"1976?" Rodney shouted.

"God, McKay, keep it down!"

"The . . . the. Whatever that is, it sends you through time and space?"

"Apparently," John said.

"Apparently. Apparently," Rodney repeated scornfully. "Well. Yes, apparently, Sheppard. Jesus." Rodney took a breath. "The implications of this on the metaphysics of time travel and wormhole physics are . . . Jesus."

"It doesn't seem to change anything," John said.

"What?"

John shrugged a little. "It doesn't seem to change anything. I always arrive back on Atlantis at the exact same time I left. I've timed it. It's down to almost a hundredth of a second. And here, even if it takes me days to get back, no one says anything. It's like I just slip in and out of this world. I don't even remember myself being here. I mean, all my memories are the same."

Rodney's mouth hung open. "You've met yourself?"

John had the good grace to look a little ashamed. "Yes."

Rodney's hands started to move in their own independent patterns. "God." He took a breath. "Do you even realize. Do you have the remotest clue about how enormous an influence you could be having on past, present and future events? The energy spent must be massive to transport you between two galaxies and more than thirty years."

"Said by a man who learned everything he knows about time travel from Doctor Who," John said.

Rodney's eyes narrowed. He pointed at himself. "Astrophysicist, asshole," he said.

"I'm sure it's fine," John said stubbornly.

Rodney snorted. "I'll just take your word for it, then," he said.

"Right."

"Jesus fucking Christ on a pogo stick," Rodney said. "You've stranded us in Virginia in 1976 with your family using an Ancient device we know nothing about, which now appears to be out of power with no way to get any more, and we have no idea what affect all of this could be having on this, the Pegasus, or any other galaxy."

"Um," John said.

"What do you think we're going to do?" Rodney asked.

John thought. "I have some painting to do," he said.

Rodney was silent.

"You could help me," John offered.

Rodney sighed. "Or I could drown myself in the pool."

****

As it turned out, Rodney was actually really good at doing trim.

****

Country Roads (Take Me Home) - Part 2 of 2

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