Title
Dawn Will Break
Prompt
Big Bang 2009.   Anything goes.
Summary
When Atlantis - upon returning to the Pegasus Galaxy from Earth - breaks apart in hyperspace, only John is saved from the debris. The group of Ancients that retrieved him offer him a bargain: Either he helps them make corrections in some universes, where things have gone wrong, or they put him back where he was found. Reluctantly accepting, John embarks on a lonely journey through a multitude of universes until he finally reaches the place he could again call home.
Pairing
McKay/Sheppard, mentions of: McKay/Brown, McKay/Keller, and McKay/Carter
Rating
NC-17
Word Count
92401 words
Notes
Thanks go out to our support group consisting of earlwyn, forestgreen, rheanna, and whizzy; especially forestgreen, who read the first part of the fic to see if it had the right emotional impact. Also, thanks to Leah and springwoof. Extra special bonus thanks to our beta team, dashadowpanther, musicianatheart, and mcflyboys. You ladies rock and this story would have fewer commas, more wrong words, and definitely a lot of intelligeble parts in it. Especially panther was incredibly helpful with her hard questions of "Why?" and "Huh?" and "What are you saying here?". Bouncing things off her was a joy and the story would be poorer without her. We also want to thank our artist, who - when she heard of our blight (also called deadline) - took it upon herself to read through the last part of the story and gave us her opinion and her help and basically betaed the last universe for us. You rock! Also? Your art is incredibly beautiful.
Warnings
This story has warnings; they are listed at the end of the story.
Jump to the warnings.
Companion Artwork
  • Dawn Will Break Cover Art by davincis_girl
  • John Prime at Dawn by davincis_girl

One thing had to be said about being back on Earth: It was very … peaceful. Something that made John jumpy more than he'd thought it could. There were no nightly alarms, no unscheduled 'gate activations; no, all that happened at the SGC and John wasn't entirely sure if he should be happy about that, or sad.

John really missed going through the Stargate, making new friends, talking to the natives of the Pegasus Galaxy, running for their lives, and trading. Yes, he even missed the trading, it didn't matter that he'd always been bored out of his mind throughout the actual negotiations. Anything was better than the complete inactivity and mind-numbing duties he had going on right now. The whole base was on stand-down; all they got by way of activity were the imports of new personnel, new supplies, and new toys for the scientists, which really wasn't all that exciting in John's point of view. Sure, John had gotten new weapons, ammunition, and men. That, and they'd all been allowed to requisition whatever they wanted – as opposed to what they needed. To John, that was just cold comfort; he never dealt well when he had nothing to do.

However, being back on Earth also meant that John could have regular meals again, and he wasn't above using dirty methods to make sure Rodney would come out of the lab to have them with him. Naturally – John didn't expect anything else – Rodney had, yet again, been ranting about the new people who'd started working in Atlantis. He'd ranted at every opportunity during the entire week, pretty much since the newbies had been ferried over. It was almost like old times, when the new personnel had still been brought in by the Daedalus, just more often. Of course, now that the city was still floating in San Francisco Bay, getting to Atlantis was so much easier, and that accounted for most of Rodney's bad mood lately: They got new people almost every day, not just every time the Daedalus arrived.

This time, lunch was the same as always, a rather mixed affair of Earth foods thrown together with what remained of the supply of Pegasus food they'd brought to Earth with them. It was just chicken with some of the orange tubers that tasted a lot like rice, nothing terribly special, but it was edible, at least in John's opinion. Rodney, though, was eating the food more quickly than usual while he was also regaling John with stories of what was going on in the labs. John seriously doubted that the meal was one of Rodney's favorite dishes; it was far more likely that he'd skipped breakfast again. Whenever they got new personnel, Rodney often ignored his stomach in favor of carefully supervising the new scientists. Just in case they tried to blow up the city, taking a chunk of the west coast with them while they were at it.

"So I told them to stop wasting my time with it and get back to work," Rodney concluded his latest tale of idiocy, between bites of his chicken surprise.

"Did it work?" John asked with a smirk.

"No, no, it didn't. These morons think they know everything there is to know and turn Ancient devices on willy-nilly. I've told them about the exploding tumors," Rodney said, waving his fork around, "and they said that won't happen to them. How stupid do you have to be to fall into that trap? If they want to survive in Pegasus, they'll have to stop with the 'it won't happen to me, it only happens to others' thinking. And they need to do it ASAP."

John winced in sympathy. At least the new military contingent was well trained, obeying his orders without complaints; some of them even positively vibrated with a thirst for action that John didn't like. Sometimes, he thought, they all looked so young: fresh-faced, and wet behind the ears. It felt like he'd never been that way.

"They'll grow out of it," he told Rodney with more confidence than he felt. Generally the new personnel – scientific and military, because the military, while they obeyed orders, didn't actually believe in them until they saw the consequences – settled right down once they had the first casualties due to stupidity or carelessness. From the haunted look Rodney gave him, Rodney knew that as well.

"When are we going to hold the Pegasus 101 course?" John asked, intending to cheer Rodney up. It was an introductory class they had started holding when the first batch of people had come in after they'd managed to contact Earth again, all those years ago. The new personnel had stomped around like they owned the place, just to have five of them die in the first week because they disregarded the safety guidelines for living in an Ancient city. "Pegasus 101" had been – and still was – a whole week of different gate teams giving their audience an earful – with slides. Accidents had immediately dropped afterwards.

"Once the last group is in, I suppose." Rodney perked right up at the mention of Pegasus 101. He always did. "We should definitely give Lorne a spot on the second day. Remember how they came back from PX5-312? Covered in that slime stuff that made them purple for a week? Parrish told me they have a whole power point presentation on that and similar events. It's very informative," Rodney enthused, then added, with a mean little grin, "and quite disgusting."

"Sounds fun." John took his last bite in time with Rodney, even though Rodney had easily had twice the amount of food. He'd definitely forgotten to have breakfast again. "What are we gonna do?"

"The usual," Rodney said, and there was no mistaking his delight. They had a standing bet with the other teams on who could make more of the newbies throw up during orientation. Unsurprisingly, SGA-1 held the record. Rodney could be positively evil when he wanted to be.

John grinned. "Alright." They always let Teyla and Rodney do most of the talking. All Ronon and John needed to do was stand there and look menacing until the second week, when everybody was put through exercises. The science department would get training with firearms and basic self-defense. They called this the "What Do I Do When a Wraith Attacks Me?" training course. The military got to be beaten up by Ronon and Teyla. After that, none of them underestimated the natives in the Pegasus Galaxy again.

"I'll add something new, though, so you and Ronon don't get too bored."

John grimaced. "Will you never let that go?" Just because John had fallen asleep one single time, Rodney now was forever teasing him. He was never gonna live that one down, which was just mean since the whole thing clearly hadn't been John's fault. It had been dark, there had been not one, not two, but three emergencies the night before. So really, it was blatantly unfair that Rodney kept pulling it out.

Rodney suddenly grinned at John in obvious glee. "No, no, I don't think I will," he teased.

John smiled right back, sharing the moment with Rodney, glad he'd managed to cheer his friend up. Then he started to stand. The thing about being back on Earth meant that he had to stay on top of everything. Reports, training, it didn't come in bursts anymore, it happened all the damn time. That, and they had a slot scheduled for exploration that afternoon, something John was really looking forward to. But there was still a stack of reports for him to sign back in his office. Lorne was sneaky, too; there were likely to be more by now.

"John?" Rodney suddenly said; he sounded oddly hesitant. "Could I ask you a huge favor?"

John sat down again, recognizing the tone of voice immediately. Whatever this was, it was important to Rodney. Very important. John watched attentively as Rodney looked around the room, visibly nervous. Must be something personal. Otherwise Rodney wouldn't make such a production about it. "Sure," he said. Rodney's gaze jumped back to him.

When Rodney swallowed and babbled, "You can say no, of course, but it'd really be a ton of help and–", John felt a stab of affection that he couldn't quite understand where it came from.

"Just spit it out, Rodney," he interrupted fondly. He knew that if he didn't get Rodney to focus then he might still be in the mess in an hour when the main lunch crowd would descend on it. That was the kind of time he really didn't have. There was too much left to do before they left to explore the northeast pier.

Rodney looked around the room again; now John was certain that Rodney was just stalling. It was probably one of those things Rodney wanted John's help on, but at the same time didn't, and wasn't quite sure how to ask. Something private and important to Rodney; something the entire room would know by now already. John had to suppress a grin at Rodney's behavior. When Rodney had determined it safe to continue – there were only a handful of people in the mess hall at this time of day who were far enough away for him – he leaned over to John and whispered, "I want to ask Jennifer to marry me."

For a moment John couldn't answer; he hadn't expected this at all. John swallowed hard. "Okay," he whispered back, but Rodney's face fell and John wasn't really sure why.

"You're alright with this, aren't you? I mean, it's okay I want to ask her?" Rodney asked, his voice as insecure and hurt as his gaze.

"Of course I'm alright with it," John told Rodney, baffled that Rodney would think he wasn't. Suddenly defensive, John asked, "Why wouldn't I be?" Because he really was okay with it; Jennifer was good for Rodney, she cared about him, even if John didn't completely agree with her methods sometimes. When Rodney didn't answer, John added, "What exactly do you need help with?"

Rodney blinked, like he usually did when his brilliant mind suddenly changed gears; his gaze wandered through the mess again, but this time not to check if someone was watching or listening, more so he didn't have to look at John. "I want her to say yes, of course," Rodney muttered, and John could see the helplessness in the way he tensed up. "And seriously, of the two of us you're the one who has more experience with women, as much as it pains me to admit that."

John chose to not comment on that statement, knowing how much it must have cost Rodney to even say it out loud. "Okay, Rodney, don't panic. I'm sure that together we're gonna get you your girl," he said, and smiled at Rodney reassuringly, knowing it would calm Rodney to hear him say the words out loud.

After the disaster with Katie, Rodney really needed a better plan this time. John knew that Rodney loved Jennifer more than he had loved Katie by far, and Jennifer also seemed to be genuinely happy with Rodney. They'd make a nice couple. John just hoped Rodney wouldn't lose her as well, like his older self in the alternate timeline had. Somehow, John had a feeling Rodney wouldn't be able to deal with that.

But first things first. They needed a plan. A good plan. A plan that hopefully included enough time to buy some essential things while still on Earth. Like flowers, candles, bubble-bath, and, of course … "Did you buy a ring already?"

"You're really going to help me?" Rodney asked. His voice sounded somewhere between relieved, excited, and terrified.

"Of course I will," John drawled. He didn't understand why Rodney had ever doubted that. "Come on, buddy, let's go make ourselves a shopping list." He got up for real and picked up his tray to bus it. "What exactly have you been thinking of doing?" Maybe Rodney had had a workable idea at one point. John figured it'd be good to stick with that.

"I thought I'd drop by in the infirmary and give her the ring," Rodney started; John groaned. "What? What's wrong with that? We're both busy people and doing this at her workplace would save time."

Suppressing his laughter, John led the way outside, heading towards the labs. He was due to check how things were going there, anyway. "I see. Tell you what; we're trying the romantic way just this once. See where it gets us, alright?" he asked, noticing the frown on Rodney's face. "You'll see. It'll work much better. Trust me."

They were silent for a few heartbeats, the most Rodney managed without getting twitchy.

"So, exploration today," Rodney said, brightly. John heard the unease underneath that. It had nothing to do with the prospect of doing something else for a while and everything to do with the way he'd asked a personal favor of John and probably felt embarrassed now.

"Yup. It's gonna be great." And it would be. The only good thing about being on Earth – as far as John was concerned – was that they had lots and lots of opportunities to explore Atlantis.

John had continuously asked for permission to go out into the city over the years, but often there had simply been no time between crisis and missions. Now there was time. Something which had given John blanket permission on the exploration of Atlantis, probably because John had been asking Woolsey every time they met until he caved.

"Radek and I think that area will be very interesting," Rodney started and John just let his voice wash over him as he brought Rodney back to the lab.

An hour later, his fingers hurting a bit from signing his name so often, they met again. They were taking a dozen scientists, all of them newly arrived, and Rodney was scowling at them like he'd rather go exploring alone. It was remarkably like managing a kindergarten group, what with people whining while they were being herded through already explored and cleared corridors into the new section.

"I don't see why we have to be with the exploration team," one of the scientists complained loudly, his voice echoing strangely in the empty corridor. John had decided he didn't need to learn this one's name, seeing that Rodney hated the man's guts. He'd be gone soon. "There's enough to do in the labs for us, and I'm sure Colonel Sheppard could bring anything interesting back with him."

Like usual, the new scientists were huddled together in the middle of the group, John and Rodney – Rodney, really, but John knew him well enough to be able to appear like he was in the lead as well – leading the way, a group of ten marines spread liberally around, just in case. It wasn't so much to keep an attacker from the scientists, more to keep the scientists from everything around them. They'd almost had two accidents already and Rodney had said he'd revoke people's network rights or throw them off a balcony if they didn't start to be careful; threats that really did nothing – at least not until Rodney followed through with them.

"Haven't you read the memo on the security guidelines? No member of the expedition is allowed to touch anything without it having been approved by the science staff first. That also means Colonel Sheppard," Rodney snapped at the man without looking at him. "Especially Colonel Sheppard," he added, as if on afterthought and John had to suppress a grin at the level of irritation that was in Rodney's voice. "People have died because they weren't careful before, and we really don't want to break in another CO right now."

John shot a grin at Rodney, knowing the last part of his rant hadn't really been aimed at the whining scientist, but at John. It was amazing how Rodney still had time for that when he was in the middle of berating someone else.

"But this is a waste of my time," the man replied heatedly.

John could feel the tension rolling off Rodney and decided it was time to interfere. "This is what you signed up for. Exploration, off world missions, research. We've got emergencies every week and catastrophes every month," he drawled easily.

"I'm sure there won't be a lot of causalities on Earth," the man muttered, "better medical care."

"'Better medical care' doesn't help you if you explode. 'Better medical' care doesn't help you if your body is being forced to ascend. 'Better medical care' doesn't help you when nanites are exploding your brain, either," Rodney had stopped and turned to face the man with a fierce expression. "Better medical care," he said and accompanied the words with a disparaging snort, "isn't gonna save your ass if you touch the wrong device and it blows up in your face with the force of a small nuclear bomb." He paused and pointed at the man, "And if you go against the security guidelines once more, I won't only put you on the server blacklist, I'll also find a way to make sure you'll never take another hot shower for the rest of your miserable little existence. You could have blown up the east pier this morning."

The man's face took on an amazingly red color, but apparently he didn't know when it was better to just stop engaging in a skirmish. "I don't think–"

"No, you don't. That much is obvious. Maybe you should elect to stay on Earth when Atlantis returns to the Pegasus Galaxy." It wasn't a suggestion; the new guy recognized that as well; his eyes went round and he snapped his mouth shut. "Don't. Touch. Anything," Rodney said, reinforcing previous orders, every word clipped and clear.

As Rodney turned back, John could see a small, contented smile on Rodney's face. He'd enjoyed the confrontation. That wasn't anything new, John was fully aware of how much Rodney loved it, knew how often he quibbled with Zelenka over the little things. Of course, John had to choose that moment to lean towards Rodney and quietly ask, "Are we there yet?"

Rodney's face contorted into a grimace, mixed exasperation and disbelief in his gaze as he shot John a glare. "What are you? Five?" he asked, the words hissed to keep their entourage from hearing.

"Nope, six; I know my numbers and my letters," John told him, and predictably Rodney huffed, but he didn't answer. Reading Rodney was so easy, everything was written in his face, the way he held himself. After five years John didn't really think much about it anymore, he just held up his hand and said, "We're here. Spread out, stay with your assigned groups and be careful." Rodney was already busy opening the first door and John went to stand slightly behind him, ignoring the excited mutters and annoyed comments around him.

They – well, Rodney and Radek really – had decided to explore this side-corridor ages ago; John didn't know exactly why, but he figured Rodney had his reasons. When the door slid open, John stepped through it first, Rodney barely constraining himself. "What exactly are we looking for?" he asked over his shoulder at the same moment as Rodney's control snapped and barreled his way past John to the console that dominated the room.

"For a way to recharge the ZPMs or make new ones," Rodney told him while he connected his tablet with the crystals in the console. "This is one of the areas the Ancients activated during their stay here, before the Replicators killed them all. I'm pretty sure they didn't have three ZPMs lying around on their ship. Radek agrees with me that somewhere around here – or possibly one of the other three areas we've tagged for exploration – should have the facilities to build them."

John listened to Rodney's explanation while he wandered around the place, looking at the consoles and the raised area at the far end of the room. It didn't look like a ZPM factory to John, but with the way the Ancients had built, one never knew.

"What's this place then?"

"Oh my God, Sheppard, just shut up and let me work already. It's not like the Ancient labeled their consoles, I have to get this to work first, then decipher what it says and what it was used for. Just … I don't know, clean your gun, read your book – I know you brought it with you – and let me work," Rodney said. "When I know, you'll be the first to find out what exactly was done here."

John grinned and listened to Rodney mutter a while longer, then he suddenly stopped talking, did something on the tablet and his whole posture changed. The happy hum was the last thing John needed to know and he prepared for the wait. He hadn't brought a book; he really wasn't going to need it anyway. All they were going to do was figure out what the room was used for and then move on.

As much as John hated being on Earth, this part he could live with: Seeing his geek happily hunched over his tablet, muttering something intelligible now or then. He knew the other scientists – most of them anyway – where probably doing the same thing.

Raising his hand to the radio, John opened a channel to his men. "Report," he said, and listened to the all clears coming in.

"Let's move on," Rodney suddenly said and unplugged his tablet. "This is useless."

"What is it?"

Rodney shot him a glare. "Yes, let me activate my superpowers of reading broken technology," he snapped. "I don't know. And I'm unlikely to find out before I send a team here to fix it."

John grinned at Rodney and followed him outside. They passed open doors with teams inside and then Rodney went through the process of forcing another door to open. Again, John went in first, and this room looked less empty and more like the Ancient working here hadn't been fond of cleaning up. Bits and pieces were strewn around everywhere. Mostly crystals though. Crystals in all sizes and shapes; big, small, clear, and grey.

"Huh," Rodney said, as he walked around the room.

"Looks like whoever worked here was fond of fish," John muttered and pointed his P-90 at one of the empty aquariums that lined the walls. There was no water in either of them – unsurprisingly – but inside there were broken crystals. "Maybe they used it as a kind of storage place?"

"No, no," Rodney snapped and stopped in front of the biggest aquarium. He reached into it to get out one of the damaged crystals and hold it against the light, his expression turning excited. "This is where they made the control crystals."

"Cool," John replied, and Rodney smiled at him.

"Yes, it's cool. Because now we can repair most of the damage that the city took during the fight with the super Hive ship and Carson's absolutely fantastically horrible landing," Rodney said, his hands flying through the air in obvious agitation. He rocked forward onto his toes, his eyes shining with excitement. "We can actually get Atlantis back into shape. None of the suits from the IOA can say that there is no possibility to return the city back to Pegasus because she's not in top form. Do you know what this means? We'll be able to get Atlantis back home."

John looked around the lab, trying to see it the way it could be. About two dozen aquariums, full with water – or whatever they had to use – growing crystals, most likely. Sometimes John figured that the Ancients weren't all that crazy, that they had had great ideas and great minds as well.

Home. They'd be going home. John turned back to Rodney and they grinned at each other. "Let's get started," he said. Rodney moved to the console while John turned away and opened a channel to Woolsey.

Good news had to be shared.


John really hated being on Earth. Their every move was under scrutiny, their decisions, their orders, everything ripped apart with the advantage of hindsight. None of the IOA representatives who'd visited them over the past few weeks had ever stepped foot into a warzone. They had no idea what it was like to make a choice between a bad and a worse option while under constant pressure. They didn't know what sacrifices were 'acceptable' and which simply weren't. All they saw were numbers, not people. It pissed John off.

After the dust had settled and the super Hive ship had stopped burning up in the atmosphere, John hadn't really thought they'd be on Earth this long. The IOA and the SGC had certainly taken their time to decide what would happen with them; half a year, six long months and a couple of days. John had no idea what kind of political posturing and bickering had made it happen in the end; he didn't really want to know. All that counted was that they'd finally decided that Atlantis should return to the Pegasus galaxy.

Settling into the control chair with a breath of relief, John allowed himself to relax for the first time in weeks. He was looking forward to flying the city more than he wanted to admit. They were going home. He was seriously excited about that; after all, they were getting back to where they belonged. For the first time since the gate bridge had been destroyed, their stores were full again. They had the largest contingent of scientists and military in their entire history, and they'd even been able to go on training exercises with the new men before they were dumped into the more dangerous environment in Pegasus. Which was something that John had appreciated a lot, he hoped it'd cut down on stupid accidents. All in all their stay on Earth hadn't been wasted – even if it had sometimes tested the limit of John's patience.

Not everybody was pleased that the city was to be returned to the Pegasus galaxy. There had been a lot of discussion about it, mainly by the IOA and in the Pentagon, but one fact remained the same: the city was too easy to detect while it was still on Earth by pretty much anyone from whom the Stargate Program was still a secret. Even with the cloak, people were bound to stumble over it eventually. They had moved Atlantis a bit further out onto the ocean and had cordoned off the area with the excuse of contamination with something extremely poisonous. But the Navy couldn't keep out everybody until the program was declassified. Someone would get nosy sooner rather than later, and that was even without the possibility of the cloak malfunctioning and throwing their secret wide open. There was also the fact that the more interesting Ancient technology was still located in Pegasus, and with the intergalactic gate bridge destroyed the Stargate on Atlantis was the only way there.

Both the SGC and the IOA had eventually agreed that it was important to maintain a presence in the Pegasus galaxy, but that was pretty much the only thing they had managed to agree on. Leadership, how said presence should be maintained, every little aspect of the expedition's actions in Pegasus had been up for discussion and scrutiny. Both John and Rodney had hated that with a passion. But Woolsey had done a good job on the whole mess, John thought. Without the man's effort it might have gone differently.

"You done flirting with my city?" Rodney asked sharply. John became aware of how he was stroking the armrests of the chair tenderly. "Can we start with pre-flight?"

Just to be a jerk, John took his time to pat the gel-pads a few more times before he grinned at Rodney. "Okay, I'm good to go." Riling up Rodney never got old, but John knew when to stop. He also really wanted to get this show on the road. Leaning back, he pushed his fingers into the gel-pads and closed his eyes, letting Rodney's voice wash over him as they went through all the important systems together. They weren't going to use the new stardrive; it took too much energy and they didn't have that much to spare, so they'd take their time to get back home. John would enjoy that a lot.

"Are we ready?" Woolsey asked through the open radio channel.

John opened his eyes and looked at Rodney, who nodded before he turned back to his tablet. "Yes, we're ready," John told Woolsey. "Do we have a go?"

They'd been waiting for the right conditions for over a month. Finally, San Francisco was now being enveloped by a storm that would – hopefully – mask their take-off. There would be a few waves, but really no one should be out on the water in that kind of weather anyway.

"Yes, we have a go," Woolsey told them. A moment later his voice came out of the city-wide speakers. "We're going to take off now, so please double-check that you are in the secured areas of the city to minimize injuries due to accidents."

The reminder was a formality only; their people had been told repeatedly where they were supposed to be during the journey, so John ignored the alarms that echoed through the corridors. Instead he concentrated on the city's standard stardrive, feeding it more and more power, slowly, as Rodney had drilled into him. Yes, they were sure that the city was space-worthy, but there was no reason to bet all their lives on it. Take-off and entrance into hyperspace were crucial points – Rodney had said that often enough, accompanied by a lecture John knew by heart now – and Rodney had also spent hours in simulations to figure out how to do this with the fewest problems.

Nonetheless, it felt amazing doing this for real instead of in a dry-run: warm, and gentle, and so very right. Inside his head, the displays went from deep red to dark orange and then into a strong orange that practically glowed. It was a slow, but steady, process, telling John that the stardrive was ready for takeoff.

When John had fed the stardrive the right amount of energy, the colors tipped into the amber John only knew from ZPMs. Atlantis vibrated underneath him as they lifted off the disquiet bay easily. John had only flown the city once, and then the situation had been a dire emergency. Life and death, one catastrophe leading to another, leaving him very little time to actually fly, so he was looking forward to this so much that he felt almost giddy.

"Give it a bit more energy," Rodney said, and John grinned. Figured that Rodney was a backseat driver. John obeyed and felt Atlantis winning the fight against gravity. They'd barely cleared the atmosphere when Rodney announced that they were far enough away to go into hyperspace.

"I know," John told him, unable to be annoyed with Rodney when he sounded so excited. "Now let me enjoy this."

Rodney muttered something unintelligible in reply, but didn't say a word when John directed Atlantis past the moon, giving everybody who was looking out of the right windows a perfect view.

"Okay, hyperdrive?" John asked, looking over at Rodney.

"As far as I can tell, the hyperdrive is in working order. Energy flow is constant and on the right level, so no dangerous spikes. Still, the entry to hyperspace wi–"

"Will be the most dangerous part," John finished with Rodney. "You've said. Several times. I think I know by now." John concentrated on allocating some energy to the hyperdrive, warming it up as gently as he had the stardrive. It was surprisingly easy to open a hyperspace window in front of them; all he had to do was to tell the city and she reacted instantly. For a moment, Atlantis just hovered in front of the window, then John nudged the city forward bit by bit. After all, he still had Rodney's tirade in his ear about going into a hyperspace window too fast and what it could do to the structural integrity of an object the size of a city.

If taking off with the city had been amazing, entering hyperspace was exhilarating, adding a hum to the surroundings he hadn't really been aware of last time they'd traveled with Atlantis. Then another, stronger sound was overpowering the gentle, soothing hum of the city and John frowned. The timbre of the booming seemed to reverberate through his whole body in a way that set John's teeth on edge. When he wondered what it meant, the interface told him in bold letters that it was a safety mechanism to keep the pilot awake. Huh. That did make sense.

"See? Everything's fine," John pointed out to Rodney, happy with the way Atlantis had performed during take-off. It was like flying a puddlejumper, a little slower to react to his nudges, but just as enjoyable.

"Excuse me for being careful. We were in a firefight with a super Hive ship and Carson's landing was anything but perfect. But that's the kind of thing that happens when you let someone who has never even flown a paper plane into the command chair of a flying city. Whoever thought it was alright to bring you back to Earth and saddle us with Carson as a pilot was a moron. The potential structural damage was incalculable and I'm genuinely surprised all of the towers survived impact. Our structural engineers aren't used to the architecture and there were four hotspots we had to stabilize over the last few weeks." Rodney's voice changed direction as he walked through the room to the console to John's left. "But seeing as we're still in one piece, I think some people may deserve a recommendation." John had to crane his neck to see him until he walked right back into John's field of vision, settling down to John's right at another console. He kept throwing glances in John's direction, but he looked ridiculously happy while he talked. But they all looked like that lately, even John.

John was just about to tease Rodney about getting soft in his old age when the city started to vibrate around him in a way that wasn't natural for hyperspace travel at all. Alarm lights went off in the interface in his mind. "Rodney?" he asked, but he didn't have to wait for Rodney to speak to know it was bad, because Rodney had gone deathly pale and his eyes were wide with fear.

"Crap," was all Rodney said. John knew that they were beyond trouble. "This isn't good, not good at all," Rodney muttered, probably more to himself than to John. Uh-oh, really deep shit, then.

The city began to shake even more around John. From the readings he got through the chair, the shield was pulling back from where it was supposed to be at an alarming rate that made John feel sick to his stomach. The only thing between the city and the vacuum of space was rapidly retreating to the central tower. Every time one of his people was left behind by the shield, John felt a pinprick of pain as the lifesign faded first and then abruptly vanished. He tried to intervene, to force the shield to stay put, but the city wouldn't have any of it and he was locked out almost instantly. All he could do was look at the readings while the shield became increasingly smaller.

"Rodney, what's going on?" John demanded. But Rodney ignored John's questions. Shoulders tense, Rodney hunched over the tablet, utterly still apart from his hands that were moving over the keyboard quickly. John made to get up from the chair to join him, his mind reeling from the deaths he was experiencing so vividly through the internal sensors that it felt like he'd pulled the trigger himself. He couldn't stay sitting there, doing nothing.

"Stay the fuck where you are, John," Rodney shouted at him and John fell back into the chair at the urgency in his voice alone. Rodney never swore. He just didn't. "That chair is the safest place on Atlantis right now and you'd better–"

Metallic noises filled the air, sounding like the city was being torn apart around him; the racket drowned out the rest of Rodney's sentence. Sections of the wall started falling down in pieces around them. "Rodney!" John yelled as the wall behind Rodney crumbled like it was made of paper. Then, with the deafening sound of air rushing out and into space, the shield pulled snugly around John, separating him from Rodney and the rest of the city. He watched Rodney stumble, fight to stay on his feet. Rodney's eyes grew wide in his pale face; and with a wrenching feeling in John's heart, he saw Rodney's face contort with pain. Stunned, John was forced to helplessly look on as Rodney raised a hand to his chest, tentatively touched a spot there that was rapidly growing darker.

"Rodney," John whispered, just as another shudder wrecked the city. Rodney was thrown up against a wall with such force that he crumpled to the floor. John saw that a long, sharp piece of metal was stuck in Rodney's back, had probably stuck there with the first impact and pierced him through with the second.

"Rodney!" John screamed, but he couldn't even move. As much as the shield was protecting him, it had also turned into a prison, pinning him into the chair whether he wanted to stay there or not. His frantic thoughts of off, off, off, damn it didn't have any effect.

Then the artificial gravity failed and the debris started floating around him in a maelstrom.

John stared as pieces of metal zipped around like deadly bullets and huge chunks of his city fell off and then floated away. The scariest part, though, was that he could see through a deep, jagged rip that went the whole length of Atlantis into space. Something had gone seriously wrong. John stared into space unblinkingly; he'd stopped struggling to get up and was just sitting there. Rodney. His eyes were riveted on what had to be Rodney, floating several hundred meters away, growing smaller every moment.

Then the shield that had allowed him to survive a few moments longer than Rodney shimmered one last time before it, too, failed. He didn't even try to hold his breath, knowing he was as good as dead while the last bit of oxygen that the shield had held was sucked away. With the incredible force that had kept him in the chair lost, John was catapulted out of the gap through his city and into open space. His lungs burned and his face felt cold where he'd breathed out; the last thing he saw before he drifted into unconsciousness was Atlantis breaking to pieces around him.


John had never thought that hell could be this bright. Or this tacky. The little diner he quite suddenly found himself in – and wasn't that a surprise considering he'd expected never to wake up again – was brightly lit and empty. He had no recollection of how he'd gotten there at all. The last thing he remembered ….

"Oh shit," he whispered as he recalled the surprised expression on Rodney's face when he'd died right in front of John. Suddenly feeling dizzy, John grabbed onto the counter of the bar. "Rodney," he moaned and sank onto one of the barstools, hands pressed against his face, trying to process what had happened to him.

They were all dead. Rodney. Teyla. Ronon. But John wasn't. Unless he really was dead and this was hell.

"You're not dead."

Startled, John lifted his hands, resisting the urge to reach for a gun he knew wasn't there. There was a woman standing behind the counter. A woman he was pretty sure hadn't been there before. "Who are you?" he asked reflexively.

She smiled at him impersonally as she absentmindedly brushed her shoulder length blond hair out of her eyes. "That isn't important," she said in a melodic voice, "but you may call me Shylah or simply 'Guide,' if you wish. Aren't there other things you'd rather know, John Sheppard?"

"How am I not dead? Where am I? And what's up with the 'Guide' thing?" John asked, suddenly unable to stop himself. He wanted to know what the hell was going on. But she now smiled at him amusedly. It made John's temper rise.

"So you do have a lot of other questions, it seems," the guide said, her face giving away nothing about what she might be thinking.

John clenched his fists tight and stomped down on the urge to yell at her. Why wouldn't she answer his questions? And where the hell were the others? If he was alive, maybe the others were too? John forced himself to calm down, assess the situation, and take a closer look at the woman in front of him. Something about her was familiar. Not the way she looked, but something in her eyes. John just couldn't quite put his finger on it. When he couldn't figure it out and the woman wasn't forthcoming with information at all, John lost his patience.

"Tell me what the fuck is going on here. One moment I'm dying, the next moment I'm here. Why am I not dead? I was in space, I'm pretty sure no one can survive that."

To John's great annoyance, "Shylah" just smiled again. The same kind of knowing smile Chaya had given him back when ….

Finally the penny dropped. "You're an Ancient," John hissed.

"You don't have to say that quite so accusingly," she said, her smile fading a little, but she didn't deny it. "I ascended a long time ago."

What the hell? Stunned, John just sat there for a moment, thinking over everything he had learned now. "So I'm really not dead," he murmured to himself.

"No, you're really not. Well, it depends how you define being alive, I would think. Your body died when the shield failed and you encountered space, but we took you before your … soul passed. At the moment, you are … let's just say … almost ascended. It's the most accurate term I can come up with. Your language is so inadequate when it comes to these things." Patronizing now. And smug. Definitely smug.

"Can we not make this about semantics?" John asked, still more than just slightly stunned about the fact that he found himself in some strange diner with an Ancient who claimed to have rescued his soul, or something.

"As you wish, but there really is no better way for me to describe what has happened to you," Shylah said calmly, folding her hands in front of herself.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," John said angrily, slamming his hands down onto the bar in front of him. He was furious. Why did all the Ancients have to be so cryptic? "How the hell can I be 'almost ascended'? Either I am dead, or not. Or I am ascended or not. There is no in between, damn it. And where the hell am I anyway? Why don't you just tell me what the fuck is going on?"

His friends, his life, everything he knew and loved was gone. But here he was, sitting in this weird place with an Ancient who wasn't telling him anything at all besides that he was not quite dead. What kind of fucked up situation was that?

"Let me try to explain," Shylah said pleasantly, as if John hadn't just had a fit. "We took your consciousness, your essence, your… soul you might call it, before you could ultimately die or ascend. What happened to your universe's Atlantis is sad and perhaps even regrettable, but it was destined to happen. It may be hard to accept for you but there is nothing you can do about it. The passing of your colleagues is of no consequence for us since it is what was supposed to happen in this particular universe. We do, however, have a use for you still. If you choose to accept the offer we want to make you, there is much for you to do."

John started to shake. He couldn't believe Shylah was talking like that. "'Of no consequence'? You call the death of my people, my friends, of my home 'of no consequence'?" John felt like he was choking on the pain and the horror of the last few minutes … hours … however long it had been.

Shylah had sounded unfazed, almost cold as she told about the destruction of everything John held dear. Feeling like he wanted to punch something, John slid off the barstool and began to pace in front of the counter.

"You think I am going to help you with anything at all after what you just told me? You think I'm going to work for you after you let all of them die and brought me here against my will? They're dead. They're all dead and Atlantis is gone. I never wanted to be the only one to survive. Hell, I'd rather die myself than let them die. How can you believe I would want a part in any of this? Why would I want to go on when everything I know is gone?"

John felt like he was being crushed, so overwhelmed by the pain that he was sure he was going to drown in it any moment now. Staggering back to the barstool, John sank down onto it again, eyes stinging and throat tight.

Shylah looked on calmly, almost dispassionately, not saying anything to John's outburst. It was more than John could bear. He got up and looked around, but he couldn't see an exit, couldn't figure out how to leave this creepy place and this heartless woman behind the counter.

"I want out of here. Let me go. Put me back and let me die. I'm not going to help you. You didn't help us either. My people are dead because you didn't do anything to save them," John demanded, rage burning fiercely in his chest.

"I am aware that you are upset about the loss of your people. We did not, however, see the opportunity, or even the necessity of preventing the destruction of Atlantis. As I have told you before, it was what was supposed to happen in your universe; it had to happen to keep this universe's structure intact. We do not wish to cause any problems here. But there are problems out there that we would like your help with. You might not have been able to save your Atlantis and your friends, but we offer you the opportunity to make a difference in the destiny of other universes, the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of other John Sheppards and other Atlantises. If you still do not wish to help us after I have explained your task to you, we will put you back where we found you and you will die or ascend completely, if you can manage it. The choice is yours."

John turned back towards Shylah, stepping up to her as close as the bar between them allowed. "What the hell is that supposed to mean, now?" John snapped. He just couldn't believe her audacity. "You said that I'm pretty much dead. I don't have a body any more. You've abducted me, taken me out of my life, out of my home. I should have died along with them. I should have never been rescued. I don't know what you want from me. You're making no sense at all."

There it was again, that magnanimous, syrupy sweet smile on her face. "John, for what we have in mind for you, you won't need a body. In fact, a body would be quite a hindrance. What we want from you is quite simple. We will put your consciousness into the body of another John Sheppard in a universe that needs correcting. Then you will pretend to be that other John Sheppard, fix the things that went wrong, and, once you have fulfilled your task, you will be taken out again and placed into the next universe where the process starts over," Shylah explained cheerfully.

For a moment, John just stared at her. He was supposed to take over the bodies of other Johns like some twisted kind of Goa'uld? Make them do things that they wouldn't usually do? That couldn't be what she meant, could it?

"You've got to be kidding me. I'm not going to violate those men, it doesn't matter if they are other versions of myself. And even if I did take over their bodies and mess up their lives, what makes you think that they won't change it back the second they are themselves again? I know I would. This is insane. You can't honestly think your plan is going to work," John hissed. The thought of forcing his will and the will of the Ancient bastards who had kidnapped him onto unsuspecting other John Sheppards made John want to scream with anger.

"Oh, but they will feel like they made those choices themselves," Shylah said brightly. "They won't remember that you took over for them for a while. Every John Sheppard you 'jump' into will think they initiated those changes themselves, and they will be happy with the choices they, or rather, you, made. John, you shouldn't forget that you are going to make vital corrections in those universes. That means something went wrong in them that should not have happened, and you are setting it right." Shylah actually had the audacity to place a hand on one of John's own that were flat on the bar in front of him.

John flinched, but controlled the instinctive need to jerk away from her with iron discipline. He wanted to put as much space between himself and her as he could, but he knew he had nowhere to run. He was at her mercy. "Why should I believe you?" John bit out through gritted teeth. "Why should I believe a single word you say? Even if I did what you want from me, what's in it for me? Why would I want to play puppet on a string for you?" That wasn't the way John had wanted to spend his life … afterlife … whatever doing. He'd always been rather solitary, but Atlantis had changed that. He'd had a family, friends, people who trusted him and whom he could trust. All that had been yanked out from underneath him in one cruel twist of fate.

"Well, you would make sure that other John Sheppards wouldn't have to watch all of their people die and their homes fall apart around them. You could spare other universes the loss of Atlantis. You could make sure that at least they get to be happy. Isn't that a good enough cause for you, John?" Shylah asked.

There was something in her tone now that John couldn't name. It was a sharp note underlying her words and something about the way she had said those things – John was pretty sure she knew how much she had just hurt him – was off. But John just couldn't care right then, because if he thought about it too much, if he pursued it too far, he'd either break down or freak out and he couldn't do that. At least not with an Ancient around who was obviously trying to get him to do something. He couldn't even go hide and lick his wounds. Right then he had nothing left to go back to, Shylah knew that just as well as John did.

"Just how long would do you plan on putting me through this … fixing universes thing? What would happen once I was done? " He couldn't believe he'd even ask that. It wasn't like he had accepted the Ancients' offer yet, but still, something cold settling into his belly at the mere thought of it. What she was proposing would leave John with nothing. It'd be a life without a home and without anyone he could turn to. A borrowed life.

"We cannot predict how many missions you will have to take," she said, her tone of voice eager. "I can promise you that after your tasks are complete we will place you in a universe where you will be allowed to stay." John couldn't help but find the small smile of hers insulting. It was like he'd already accepted and she looked to be congratulating herself. "You will be able to live your life to its natural end, and, if you can manage it, you might even ascend. Without our help,we will not contact you again once we part ways in your new home universe. That is what I can offer you. Make your choice. Choose to live and take on this responsibility, or decline our offer and we will put you back to die – or ascend."

The last word was spoken in a way that said Shylah doubted that John would ascend anytime soon – if ever. Not that he wanted that to happen. Navel gazing really wasn't something John particularly looked forward to; he'd rather die.

"There are several universes that need help," Shylah explained, leaning closer to John. "Otherwise catastrophic problems will arise in them. You would save millions upon millions of innocent lives, including the people you care about."

"They wouldn't be the people I care about," John pointed out immediately, but his voice came out as a whisper. "They wouldn't."

Shylah smiled, but instead of one of her bright, fake ones, it was just sad. "Whoever they are, they'll still die when they shouldn't. You can stop that." Looking at him with a serious expression, she waited a few heartbeats, and then added, "Please, help us." It was quiet, and it was the first thing she said that made him believe her.

This wasn't just a game; it was important enough for the Ancients to interfere, even if it meant taking John moments before his death and putting him into a situation he didn't want to be in. "How long?" he asked, because she just kept talking about universes, plural, and her answer to that one really hadn't been good enough for him. They should at least be able to guess a timeframe.

"However long it takes, John," she answered, "but you won't be alone. I'm your guide and I'll be giving you all the necessary information before we leave you there."

John looked at her, not sure what to say. Shylah was definitely hiding something, he could see that much. Ancients really sucked at lying, more so than Rodney and he had already been an open book, everything showing on his – John forced himself to stop thinking about that. Dying or living. It all boiled down to the choice between that. Either he could suffocate again and let all those people – people he didn't know and didn't care about, he really didn't – die as well, or he could help. Make something right, even if it was too late for his own Atlantis, his own family. Thinking about it like this, it really wasn't a choice at all.

"Alright," John agreed and took a step away from the counter because he needed some distance. "I'll do it."

The smile Shylah gave him was full of relief and so damn happy that John wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled. His people were dead, he'd seen Rodney … no, he couldn't think about it. Not now. But Shylah didn't even seem to care about any of that. Balling his hands into fists, John bit his tongue to keep from yelling at her.

"Thank you, John," Shylah said. The room around him seemed to be brighter than moments ago. "You don't know how we appreciate your doing this for us."

John frowned and put a hand to his head. A wave of dizziness swept over him, making it impossible to talk or he would have told her how little that meant to him.

"I know this way of traveling to alternate realities is rather disorientating for your kind, but it's the only way we can do it. Don't be alarmed," Shylah said; her voice sounded so close. "You should shut your eyes against the light."

John didn't feel alarmed, more like he was about to puke, but he wasn't going to tell her that, either. Instead, he did as she'd suggested and closed his eyes against the white light, hoping it'd stop soon.

#1

The brightness faded away slowly; John had to blink a few times to be able to see again. Still, white dots were left behind on his retinas, like he'd looked into the sun for too long. Keeping himself as still as possible, John only barely kept himself from bending over and retching. Going through the Stargate had never felt like this, though it was as disorienting as well, at first. John hoped fervently that he'd get used to this mode of traveling as quickly as he had to the Stargate. It took a while until his stomach stopped roiling, and only then did he take in the grey-on-grey corridors of a typical Air Force Base.

"This John Sheppard never joined the expedition," Shylah said from behind him. John spun around to face her, not really thinking. He nearly overbalanced as the dizziness returned tenfold. If he hadn't flung an arm out in time to hold onto the corner of a wall that was conveniently close to him, he'd have fallen. "You need to do something about that." She smiled at him kindly and honestly, glowing in the way John figured most Ancients did.

"Shouldn't you look more normal? You know, in case someone sees you and wonders why the fuck you're glowing?" John asked, the anger he'd tried to push back briefly simmering back to the surface. This wasn't the time to mourn his friends. He could do that later, when Shylah was gone and he'd found his quarters. Until then, it was much more important to fly underneath the radar; being seen with a woman shining with a white light in the corridor of the base wasn't the way to go to achieve that.

Shylah just laughed. "Don't worry; no-one will see me. Look," she said, and walked towards the corner. He went with her; a few hesitant steps later, he looked into an office where several Air Force officers were sitting and standing around, motionlessly.

"You can freeze time?" John asked, staring. He'd been through a lot during the last five years, but freezing time, now that was something they could have used in Atlantis a few times. "How do you do that?"

"I'm not actually freezing time; you and I are simply communicating so fast that it appears like everybody else is frozen. They cannot see or hear us." She went to stand next to one of them then deliberately poked him in the arm. "Or feel us, for that matter."

"Hey," John snapped, grabbing her arm to pull her back. "Don't do that, you're not the one who has to live here." Maybe the man hadn't felt that right that very second, but he might once Shylah had finished doing whatever it was that she was doing.

She shrugged easily out of his grip and smiled at him a bit ruefully. "True. I am sorry." She led the way back to the corridor and John followed her slowly, as he was still feeling slightly queasy.

John had figured he'd regret his decision sooner or later, but he hadn't thought he'd regret it on the first mission or whatever this was. Now that they were alone again, John felt inexplicably nervous. "So," he finally said, "how should I get this John to Atlantis?" He didn't even know where to begin with that. "Where am I anyway?" The more information he could get, the better prepared he would be for whatever was coming next, and there was no doubt that something major was going to happen. One thing he'd learned living in Atlantis was that it never just rained, it always poured.

"The where doesn't matter all that much, John, it's the why that is far more interesting. In this universe, you never crashed that helicopter and you weren't punished for disobeying. You served in Afghanistan and then you were sent back, were promoted, and made up with your family. Your father pulled some strings and you were stationed at Andrews Air Base. Now, you are about to decide if you want to stay in the service or leave in order to fulfill your father's wish of coming back home to join the family business."

The thought alone was horrifying, even if John kept that first impulse under control and off his face. Patrick Sheppard had never warmed up to the thought of one of his sons in the service. They hadn't had a very good relationship, both of them were stubborn. His father had always been trying to get John to do exactly what he'd wanted him to do all his life: go to the right schools, marry the right girl, have the right children, and join the family business. But John hadn't been the dutiful son Patrick Sheppard had thought he deserved.

Joining the Air Force had only been the first of several burnt bridges and John had no idea how this version of him had managed to get back into his father's good graces. "How am I supposed to fix this?" he asked Shylah a little helplessly. He didn't want to deal with his father.He really didn't. John hadn't wanted him to die, but had been comforted by the knowledge that there were no more quarrels and recriminations in his future. No more demands to leave the Air Force and patch up things with Nancy. No more threats of being cut out of the will. No more quarrels over not non-existent grandchildren who could continue the family name. None of that ever again.

"You'll figure it out," Shylah told him, her voice gentle, like she knew what he was thinking about.

"Aren't you supposed to help me with that?"

Shylah shook her head. "No."

They looked at each other for one long moment with John feeling like he'd made the wrong choice. He should have told them that he'd rather go back and die alongside his friends than do this thing for them. "No? You can't just put me here, tell me that I need to find a way to get to Atlantis and then not fucking tell me how I'm supposed to do that." John wasn't scared of dying. He didn't want to die, but he wasn't afraid to either. Shylah had said it herself, he could have tried to ascend on his own, even though his chances of that happening were pretty slim. But ascending would have changed fuck all in John's opinion: He certainly wouldn't have been in Andrews Air Base impersonating himself, trying to get into a top secret project like the Stargate Program.

"This is something you have to figure out yourself. I cannot help you. My knowledge of Earth is very limited. I will tell you all I can when you jump universes. Where you are, at what point in your life the universe took a different turn, what needs to be done for you to leave again. But I cannot give you a solution. If it was that easy, we wouldn't need you, we would do it ourselves. Don't you think?"

And that is why the Ancients are untrustworthy assholes, John thought, kind of hoping that Shylah could really read his thoughts and was doing so right then. "So I didn't crash and ended up here instead of in Atlantis?" Shylah nodded in response. Great, she really wasn't going to make this any easier. "Who is in charge at the SGC right now?"

"General O'Neill."

"And the Atlantis expedition?"

"I'm not allowed to tell you."

"Oh, come on," John muttered, "how do you expect me to do this if you're not–"

"I'm sorry, John, but there are things that are forbidden. What is going on with the expedition in this universe is of no interest. The only thing you need to do is get yourself into the position of going to Atlantis. That will be when your stay here is over and you can move on to the next universe," she said, sounding genuinely sorry.

"At least tell me if they're fine, what's happening to them," John tried again.

Shylah looked at him thoughtfully, then she sighed. "They just lost the Zero Point Module on Dagan today. But that is all I can tell you." The glowing that had annoyed him mildly in the beginning was getting more intense and she dissolved into the cloud of energy she actually was. "I must go now." With that she vanished, leaving him alone.

"Well, crap."

She hadn't even told him where he lived or what the John Sheppard of this universe was doing here. How the hell was he going to blend in like this? It was definitely going to be fun, only not. God, he wished Rodney was here. He'd know what to do. A surge of grief surprised him, but he stuffed the feeling back into the box it had escaped from. He couldn't deal with that now. Instead he pulled himself together as much as possible, retreating behind the wall he'd built as a kid and had used again and again in the military, where nothing could touch him, then walked down the hall.

People passed by him, greeting him politely. Using the reflection of a window, John got a surreptitious look at his rank insignia. Full bird, he'd actually made it to full bird Colonel in this universe; he felt kinda sad that wherever he'd eventually end up, whatever he would be in that universe, whether he was going to be in the military or not, he wouldn't have been the one to do any of it. He'd just take over what the previous occupant had left for him. John slipped into the lavatory and pulled out his wallet, rifling through the documents he was carrying around in it. At least he wouldn't have to be homeless until Shylah picked him up again, he thought as he frowned at what he'd found. There was his driver's license, some odd change, but no pictures, nothing that would give John even a little hint of what was waiting for him.

Before he could even decide what to do or where to go, his cell phone rang. Cautiously picking it up, John soon found out that he had a secretary, that he'd taken the rest of the day off, that he had an entire week of vacation coming up, and that it'd be great if he could come back to the office to sign the form he'd forgotten earlier.

John figured he owed the man and went back in the direction he'd come from earlier. It really wasn't hard finding his office; not only did it have his name out front, there was also a nervous young man coming his way.

"Colonel Sheppard, sir, I'm so sorry I forgot to give it to you, but it's really important."

John signed the form the nameless airman was holding out to him and said, "It's alright, don't worry. I realized I'd forgotten something anyway." With that he slipped into the office, closing the door behind himself with a snick.

Leaning against the wood for a moment, John took in the office. His unfortunate alter ego must have gone near stir crazy with the need to fly.

He pushed off the door, dropped into the chair behind the desk and opened one drawer after another in the hopes of finding something he could use. There really was nothing that gave John an idea of how to "fix" this. Nothing he could use to get to Atlantis or even to the SGC. This John Sheppard wasn't even aware that something like the Stargate Program existed, John was pretty sure of it.

Seriously, though, Shylah was either trying to be cute or cruel, or maybe both. How the hell was he supposed to get them to let him go to a top secret base in another galaxy? This John didn't have any contacts to the SGC – and John had checked. There was nothing that could get him there. And that gave him an idea. John reached for the phone and dialed a number he'd memorized the first time he'd been back on Earth after they'd re-established contact. "Hello, this is Colonel John Sheppard," he said with a pleasant smile. It never hurt to be friendly.


The flat John's counterpart lived in was on base, unsurprisingly. He'd always preferred living in housing and the only time he hadn't done that was during the time he'd been married to Nancy, who had been strongly opposed to the idea. The place this John lived in was small, functional, and sparsely furnished, like he was barely ever there. John wasn't surprised about that either; he'd never liked sitting around at home. Somehow John thought, that he and this John Sheppard were very similar.

His phone call hadn't been met with a lot of enthusiasm, but John knew which buttons to push. By now – he was pretty sure about that – there was a team on their way to come and get him. It was what he would do. Well, maybe he'd send two teams after checking his file. With Zats.

John figured he still had enough time to take a shower. If not, at least they'd see that he wasn't armed. John really hoped they wouldn't shoot him. Getting stunned was annoying. As it was, he had just finished rubbing his hair dry when there was a bang at his front door.

Sighing, John left the bathroom only dressed in a towel and came face to face with a Zat and two conventional Berettas. He froze. "Hi," he said, very slowly putting his hands in the air. "I've been expecting you guys." There were no familiar faces in the group the SGC had sent for him, nobody John knew from Atlantis or even the SGC. "Did General O'Neill send you?"

Instead of an answer one of the men rooted around the wardrobe and then threw a t-shirt and a pair of sweats at him. "Get dressed," was the short order John got.

Situations like these were volatile enough, so John obeyed, keeping his movements deliberately small and slow. He also kept quiet; he'd seen the hand on the Zat tightening with every one of his words and he'd rather walk into O'Neill's office under his own steam.

He'd barely slipped his bare feet into the shoes that had been thrown at him as well when they hustled him downstairs, into the back of a black SUV. It was one of the cars John remembered driving a time or two when he'd been involved in operations on Earth. He sat with one of the men on his left and one on his right. He was there by his own design, but he still had to tell himself that he'd wanted the attention, that he'd known what he'd be getting himself into, even while his heart thudded loudly in his chest.

They ended up in a small airplane, and John almost expected the twitchy man with the Zat to finally stun him, but all they did was handcuff him to his seat with his right hand. Knowing that there most likely wouldn't be any service, John leaned back and closed his eyes. He'd just had an incredibly long day, but even though he was exhausted, he wasn't sure he'd be able to sleep. Still, he was about ready to at least give it a try.


John woke up disoriented, terrified, and swinging. It hadn't been a good idea to try and shake him awake. Anybody who'd spent some time in the field should have known that. As such, John didn't feel bad that he had just most likely broken the nose of the person who'd startled him during a nightmare; his real worry were the fine bones in his free hand: he hoped he hadn't broken any of them on the guy's face. Then the afterimages of the dream hit him, making John curl up as far as the handcuffs allowed and whimper. He hated showing weakness in front of this crowd, but he really couldn't help himself. There hadn't been any time to actually work through the pictures of Rodney dying in front of him, of seeing Atlantis break apart, of the images his head conjured of his friends suffocating in open space.

"Told you so," John heard someone rumble from behind. He didn't bother looking for who had spoken, but at least he knew no one would shoot him for his uncontrolled reaction. "Shouldn't have touched him. Seen guys like him come out swinging from a nightmare before. You're lucky that he just broke your nose."

Rodney, Ronon, Teyla. They were all dead. Lorne, Zelenka, Keller. Five years in Pegasus, they'd survived all that just to die because… John didn't even know why. Woolsey, Brown, Banks. Why had it happened? Why had Atlantis done fine through take off and through the entry into hyperspace? Teyla, Rodney, Ronon. It was almost a relief when he heard the Zat power up and then there was nothing more.


Waking up from a Zat blast wasn't nearly as painful as waking up from a Wraith stunner. It wasn't as disorienting as being dragged into another universe, either. All in all, it was the least traumatizing thing that had happened to John since he'd taken Atlantis into space.

"Wakey, wakey, sleeping beauty." General O'Neill. That was so typical of the man that John wasn't surprised by the homesickness that swept over him and hit him like a punch in the gut.

John tried to sit up, but his muscles didn't want to work the way John was used to. He ended up flailing a little and moaning, but stayed lying flat on his back on the uncomfortable bed they'd put him on.

"Yeah, not my favorite thing either," O'Neill said. "Being zatted is always a bitch."

"Better than a Wraith stunner," John tried to say, it came out a bit slurred, but still understandable. "Those leave you itching for hours…" Memories of Rodney rubbing his foot on the conference table came up unbidden and John had to swallow down the pain. "Let's just say those are even less fun." Finally he managed to control his quivering muscles enough to carefully sit up. O'Neill was standing by the door of what looked to be an isolation room. There were two armed men with him.

"You're putting me into quite a bind here, Sheppard," O'Neill said, cocking his head as he looked John up and down in quite an unnerving way. "I've had to field calls from more people today than in an average week. Most of them asking if you're a Goa'uld, a Replicator, or psychic. To be honest, I'm not sure what to answer them about that last one, but Doctor Frasier said you're not a Goa'uld and Doctor Lee assured me you're not a Replicator. That only leaves me with 'psychic' and I honestly don't buy into that. Care to enlighten me?"

John didn't try to get up; he was pretty sure O'Neill's armed escort was as opposed to it as his own muscles were. "I'm from another universe," John told him instead, "and I'm here to fix something."

"Another universe," O'Neill said, deadpan, his eyebrows rising up to meet his hairline. "And you're here to … 'fix something'," he continued, then paused for a heartbeat. "I think I'll add 'crazy' to the list, why don't I? So right now, I'm tending more towards crazy than psychic."

"Sir," John tried again, "it's true."

"Funny that, you see, we actually test for these kind of things because we've had more than just a few visitors from alternative universes. Frasier told me you're definitely human and from here. So one of you is lying, and, personally, I trust Doctor Frasier more than I trust you."

John eyed him for a long moment. "It's a long story," he finally said.

O'Neill looked around, then smiled at John, "You appear to have lots of time." The implied "you won't be going anywhere" was clear as crystal.

"Right," John said, and wondered how much to tell them. Then he figured that there wasn't anything they couldn't know, considering what had happened. "In my universe I am – was the military commander of Atlantis. Earth was targeted by a Wraith Hive ship powered by a ZPM and we moved the city back to the Milky Way to stop it."

"What's a Hive ship?"

"The ships of the life-sucking aliens that dominate the food chain in Pegasus. The Wraith feed on humans, breed them and later come to cull their harvest." It was bizarre having to answer these questions again. It brought back memories of his first debriefing after the reconnection to Earth. Not good memories, really, if John was honest, but at least back then it had just been a meeting, not an interrogation.

"Nasty," O'Neill said, just like he had four years ago. "Keep going." It was pretty eerie.

"After the super Hive was stopped, we sat around the Pacific a little bit, got re-supplied and all that, you know how it works on big bases. I guess it's only been a few days now, but we took off to head back to Pegasus. She was flying pretty smoothly, entry into hyperspace wasn't a problem, but then something happened and I can't … I don't know what, I just know it scared Rodney and it ripped the city apart, clear through the middle. My people were all killed pretty much instantly when the shield failed on them."

O'Neill's face had been impassive up to now, but he gave John a look of real sympathy at that. "And then? How did you not die if you were there with them?"

John shrugged awkwardly. "Ancients," he said, and O'Neill suddenly looked old and resigned. They'd most likely had their own experiences with Ancients. John could relate with the sigh, too. "They picked me up before I died and asked me to do them a favor. Said something here needs fixing, and could I do it for them? Apparently you left for Pegasus without some key personnel."

"And who do they think is this 'key personnel'?" O'Neill asked, but John knew that he knew who John was talking about. It was just a game for the benefit of the people who were most likely standing behind the one-way mirror; waiting for John to say something interesting. Or incriminating.

Still, John shrugged and smiled at O'Neill. "Me."

O'Neill grinned at that, but he finally sat down on the only chair in the room instead of hovering. "Okay, gotcha, hotshot. So you're not actually Colonel Sheppard?"

"No, I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, US Air Force. And I was," he had to take a break and swallow past the lump in his throat here, "Military Commander of Atlantis."

Only now did John realize that there was no way to actually verify anything he had said; this would be far more difficult to do than he'd thought when he picked up the phone. "I'm not with the Trust," he told O'Neill quickly.

"Yeah, we know that, you're squeaky clean, no connections to anybody on our watch lists. You don't even know people who know people on our watch lists."

That was at least something. John didn't think that Shylah would look on the mission as completed if the SGC decided to lock him up for the rest of his life.

"Why did you go with the expedition in the first place?"

"I've got the gene." When O'Neill kept looking at him expectantly, John sighed and continued, "Strongest expression of the ATA gene they'd ever seen. I sat down in the chair in Antarctica after Beckett nearly shot us down with a drone, and the whole thing lit up. I went with the expedition as a light switch." O'Neill was now making "continue" motions, but John really didn't know what else to say. After a moment of rather awkward silence, John guessed he wasn't going to get out of it, so he continued with the next bit of the story, heavily editing it in his mind, "When Colonel Sumner died, I was the highest ranking officer left in the city and the rest is kind of self-explanatory."

"I know a couple of people who'd be very interested in your self-explanatory story or any other stories you have of Atlantis."

John frowned at O'Neill, watched the way his face went blank again at the mention of the name and figured something hadn't quite happened the way it had in John's home universe. "Why? Is something wrong with the city?"

"We don't know, we haven't managed to make contact in almost a year," O'Neill said. "They used the last bit of energy in the ZPM to get there, and we haven't been able to check up on them. Been waiting to hear back from them or finish that ship we're building."

"The Daedalus," John muttered and saw O'Neill's eyebrows shoot up again.

"Yeah, exactly. She's almost ready, they're just putting the finishing touches on. After that, her first mission is to go to Pegasus and find out what happened to our people."

They'd only left a year ago. John was on his feet before he realized what he was doing, pacing the room. He noticed the men raising their weapons, but ignored them. What Shylah had said about Dagan came back to him and John had no idea how he could have missed it. "Fuck," he said, his mind going back to that first year in Pegasus. The pain, the losses, the successes. "You're four years behind. Damn it."

"Colonel," O'Neill snapped and it was habit that John froze in place and turned to O'Neill in parade rest. "What is the problem?"

"If our universes are as close as they appear to be, then you should tell whoever is painting the Daedalus that they have to do it after the maiden voyage. You've got to find a ZPM and send them out with it as soon as possible, along with all the ammunition and essential supplies you can get on that ship." He ran both hands through his hair in frustration, unable to stop thinking about how they were going to send the letters soon, how they were going to prepare to die. "They'll need the shield," John said.

"Why?" O'Neill asked calmly.

"Because the Wraith are coming," John told him, keeping his agitation tightly reigned.

"Your life-sucking aliens that eat humans," O'Neill supplied and John didn't like the lightness in his voice. Like he didn't believe a word he said, still thought "crazy" was the only open option here.

"Yeah, those. Right now, there are probably three Wraith Hive ships on a direct course towards Atlantis if this universe is anything like mine. They'll reach the city soon and the expedition doesn't have a shield," John told him, his tone more forceful than it should have been, addressing a superior officer, but he didn't care. Maybe it was a side-effect of traveling into another universe, or dying, or something else the Ancients had done to him while he'd been in their clutches, but right then, it was all too much for him. The last thing he cared about right then was the chain of command. He remembered too clearly how the scientists had worked day and night for weeks to give them that little edge. Remembered how desperate they'd been, remembered Peter Grodin … remembered getting on that 'jumper with the nuke.

"Sheppard?" Warm hands touched John's shoulder and he barely managed to hold onto his reflex of punching whoever it was. "Sheppard, come on, soldier, you've been through worse."

John buried his face in his hands, hysterical laughter bubbling out of him. Worse. "Not really," he told O'Neill after he'd finally gotten a grip on himself. "I watched my city dissolve around me, lost consciousness knowing my people were all dead, thinking I'd never wake up again. Only I did. Instead, I was kidnapped by a group of Ancients who want to use me as some kind of alternate universe repairman, and let me tell you that their way of traveling sucks." God. He'd never thought being in another universe would be this bad. Rubbing a hand over his eyes, John got himself under control. He was so tired.

"Yeah, the Sergeant told me about your nightmare. PTSD can be a bitch, but we've got–" O'Neill broke off when the claxon for an unscheduled off-world activation of the Stargate echoed through the entire complex. "We'll finish this later," he told John, going to the door. "Get some rest."

Left by himself, John curled up on the bed and closed his eyes. He didn't want to go to sleep again, but there was nothing else he could do. Instead, he stayed where he was and thought of what he'd lost, of the home that had been destroyed, of the people he'd cared for who were now dead. In the process, he realized that the chance of helping Atlantis survive here, of helping his team and the expedition as a whole was worth it. His Atlantis was gone, his team was gone, his family, but these people? They were still here. And they could probably use someone like him, or at least this 'verse's John Sheppard and his gene.

He slipped off to sleep without really wanting to, but at least he didn't dream.


A sudden metallic bang woke John up; his hand went for the non-existent sidearm under his pillow before he was really awake.

"Look, I brought you something to eat this time," O'Neill said cheerfully, deliberately scraping a chair over the floor. "I've been told they didn't feed you on the plane."

John stared at O'Neill for a moment, then he slowly got up and went to the table, sitting down in the second chair that had magically appeared while John had been asleep. It was almost embarrassing that he hadn't woken up.

"First off, I believe you. You're John Sheppard from an alternate universe," O'Neill said. He pushed the tray towards John, then looked pointedly at him until he start eating. Pasta, lettuce, and a bowl of strawberries, better than what John was used to. He picked up his fork, starting in on the main dish.

"I've had Doctor Frasier look at your DNA and she said you've got the ATA gene. So that checks out." O'Neill slipped his hand in his pocket and then put a small device on the table next to the tray. "Just so we're clear on this, I'm still not sure what to do with you, alternate universe or not, but we could use you in the program." He watched John eat a few bites, then he let go of the device and pushed it over to John's side of the table. "Tell me what this is."

John put down his cutlery and reached for it. "I remember this," he said. "It's one of those Ancient PDAs Rodney didn't figure out until after it nearly melted when someone connected it to a naquada reactor." He thought "on" at it and it glowed briefly before he pulled up the holographic interface. "They came in pretty handy once Rodney cracked them and made them work in English." He put it down and pushed it back over to O'Neill. "They need the gene to be useful and you've got to ask it for the HUD. Have fun."

Starting to eat again, John watched O'Neill from underneath his eyelashes and had to suppress an amused grin as O'Neill poked the device, frowning in concentration until the interface popped up again. "It's not about the strength of the gene," John told him, "it's about intent. We figured out how they worked by accident."

They'd been playing around in the lab again. Rodney had asked John something about the puddlejumpers, and John had been trying to explain what it was like to pull up the HUD when the little thing had done something pretty similar. Rodney's expression had been funny: shock and surprise right before his professional curiosity had pushed to the front.

"We heard from Atlantis," O'Neill said and the food John had eaten started to feel like lead in his belly. "They're coping and they got their hands on a ZPM. They said they'll need the energy to defend against a Hive ship, but they've got this satellite they're going to activate and they hope it'll never reach Atlantis."

John blinked. It was all he could do.

"Apparently our universes aren't that close," O'Neill said and stole one of John's strawberries. "They lost a lot of people though, Sumner among them. Ford went MIA a few months ago and Sergeant Bates took over. Did you have that many losses, Colonel Sheppard?"

Mutely shaking his head, John pushed the tray away from him. He wasn't hungry anymore. "What about Rodney, Teyla, and Elizabeth?" he asked. "Are they alright?" He wanted to ask about the others as well, the list of names that endlessly repeated in the back of his head, but he didn't.

"No idea who this Teyla is, but Doctors McKay and Weir are fine," O'Neill said and stood up. "Well, I guess you fixed this universe. The IOA has decided to agree with my suggestion to send Colonel Sheppard to Atlantis to take over as military commander." O'Neill smiled at him. John was about to say thank you when his surroundings got brighter. His hands immediately went to his eyes, but it was too late, he already felt like he'd been blinded. Apparently he wasn't supposed to hang around a place once he was done. John wasn't sure if he was thankful for that or if he was annoyed by it. He'd have given everything just to see them again, to step onto Atlantis and hear the city hum into his thoughts.

"That was quite a mess, John," Shylah said before he could even see anything. "This isn't what we thought you'd be doing."

"It was effective, wasn't it?" John asked, trying his best to stay on his feet even though he felt viciously ill. He knew, intellectually, that this was a new body, that this John was unlikely to just have had a few forkfulls of pasta, but still he wished he hadn't eaten any of the food O'Neill had given him.

"So it was," she agreed; her tone was still disapproving, though. "Don't do it again, we cannot be seen to interfere that openly. To send you there to fix things is allowed, but to tell them what you're doing is not."

"So there are rules now, too?" John asked incredulously. "Not only am I supposed to fix your problems, I'm not even allowed to talk about it?"

Shylah looked supremely uncomfortable at that and lowered her eyes to study her hands. "Now that you've committed to the cause, I can tell you," she muttered. "We're not supposed to be here."

"What?" It was a purely reflexive question, honed in five years of commanding a bunch of Marines, who, while they could kill with their pinkie fingers, behaved like a bunch of little kids at times.

"I did not actually belong in your universe," she clarified, and looked at him, chin raised defiantly, her eyes shining with the usual arrogance John figured Ascended beings gained just by getting to that "higher plane". "We've been looking for someone like you all over the multiverse, John. It was a long journey, but a successful one, because our counterparts in your universe graciously allowed us to take you."

John blinked. She was talking about him like he was a pet or a toy, like his will didn't even matter in the great scheme of things. "They allowed you to take me?" he asked carefully, his voice low with anger, "Shylah, I'm not something that can be passed around. I'm a human being and–"

"You were dying," Shylah interrupted him. "We know you are not a possession. But you were not going to live much longer and you were what we needed. I am truly sorry that everybody you know is dead, but we've had the experience that under different circumstances any John Sheppard who would be worthy of doing this, would never agree to help us. Do you think you're the first John Sheppard we talked to?"

John had never really thought about it, hadn't had the time to.

Shylah didn't wait for his reply. "No, you are not. You are the fifth. Two outright said they would rather take their chances with ascension than work for us. One said he'd rather die than leave his universe while one of his people was still alive. And the last one was half-ascended when we got to him and we helped him go the rest of the way. He said to look for one like you."

That was something John had also not thought about until now: how it would feel like to be betrayed by yourself. Because that was exactly what this was. "One like me? That's …" he started to say, but trailed off when he realized that he didn't actually know what to say.

"He knew," Shylah said. "The moment he ascended he knew exactly what we were doing. And he approved. Don't you see, John? What we're doing … what you're doing is important. Important enough for someone who thinks like you, who has had the same experiences, the same beliefs, to help us choose. Be honest, would you have taken me up on my offer if Atlantis had been still standing and you had just died in an unfortunate accident?"

Would he have? John didn't know and he was unlikely to find out. But no, he probably would've taken his chances with ascension. Teer had said he could, that he was close. He'd have ….

"No," John answered, "I wouldn't have. I just …"

Shylah took pity on him and continued his sentence, "You just wanted to help those that are still alive. We understand that, and your loyalty to your people honors you and them. But this is bigger than just you. It is even bigger than the five hundred and fifty two people that died in space when your Atlantis was destroyed. If you only believe one of the things I tell you, then I hope it is this. I will not lie to you. I may, at times, say I cannot tell you, but I will not lie to you." She sounded almost desperate, and John had to fight against feeling sorry for her, even though he wasn't sure he could believe a word she said.

"What happened to the city?" he asked instead, feeling sickened by her need and what he knew her kind of desperation could lead to. He hadn't even thought about it like this up to now, but if it was this important? Five hundred and fifty two people were probably nothing for Ancients. "Did you make that happen?" He knew it was dangerous to voice it if it had really been them, but John didn't care. He was dead either way. Living the lives of other people for a short while until he did whatever Shylah had brought him there for, then moving on. A ghost, really, without a life of his own. "Did you destroy the city to get your hands on me?"

Shylah's eyes grew big in surprise. "No," she denied immediately. It was said too quickly to be anything but gut reaction – at least in a human. "We could not even do that kind of thing in our own universe. That's what the rules are there for, John."

"Then tell me what happened to my city," John said. Instead of cold and low it came out upset and nearly shouted. He was sick of her giving him all that information but nothing that actually mattered to him.

For a long moment there was nothing to hear but John's agitated breathing; he didn't think Shylah would actually say any more about the topic. He expected her to just retreat, tell him what she had to, so he could do his job in this new universe and then vanish. But she closed her eyes, as if to ask for patience with the primitive human, and when she looked at him again, her eyes were full of pity and sorrow. "There was a device installed while you were on Earth. It was supposed to allow the hyperdrive to engage normally and then rip the city ship apart after a certain time," she told him.

"Who?" There was a multitude of possibilities, none of them were pleasant. It had to be someone close, someone who had access to the city.

"Why do you insist on doing this to yourself?" she asked instead of answering. "You will not be able to reverse what happened. They are gone and you have to move on."

"Who?" John repeated.

"I don't understand you humans," Shylah whispered, staring at him like she'd never seen him before. "I really don't." He couldn't say anything to that, but just kept looking at her and refusing to give in. He needed to know what had happened to his people, no matter whether Shylah thought it was important or not. John crossed his arms in front of him stubbornly. After a long moment, Shylah sighed. She raised a hand to her forehead and rubbed it. Did Anscended beings get a headache? Or was it just a habit from before she'd gone to the higher plane? John didn't really care.

Sighing again, Shylah finally gave in. "It was a political faction. They were going with the old saying of 'If I can't have it, then no one can,' I believe. Is it really that important?"

She didn't understand anything. "They killed my people," he said, heatedly.

"Yes, they did," she agreed gently, "but you can't do anything about it."

"No, but you can." It was insane to even think that, Shylah's expression said as much, but John couldn't stop thinking about Rodney's expression as he was impaled on a piece of metal. He couldn't stop thinking about what Ronon probably had looked like when the shield passed him by and he encountered vacuum without protection. Or that Teyla's last thought had probably been how glad she was that Torren and Kanaan had stayed behind in Pegasus.

Visibly upset, Shylah put some distance between them. Only now did John feel a pang of fresh hurt as he realized they were on Atlantis, in one of the main corridors. It didn't matter. It wasn't his Atlantis. It was just a cheap copy of the real thing.

"You can't mean that, John. We can't interfere, you know that," Shylah told him, but John barely heard her. For a moment, he wondered why he hadn't felt Atlantis humming through his very being, the way it always used to, even in his sleep. Sure, he'd been half-blind from his mode of alternate reality transportation, but that shouldn't really have had any effect on his connection with the city. Then he saw Zelenka, obviously heading away from John, frozen in mid-step. John's heart missed a beat at the sight and he squeezed his eyes shut, but the picture of Zelenka – alive and well – was still there. John hadn't realized how much it would fucking hurt to be back on Atlantis, to see his friends again like this. To know they're dead, but still have them walking around and talking and so obviously alive. It just wasn't fair.

"But you could," John repeated faintly, his mouth dry. He opened his eyes again, staring at Shylah intently, willing her to understand him. He doubted she ever could, that she had any idea that he hadn't just died, that his world had collapsed around him, literally. "You could."

Shylah suddenly advanced on him, pointing a finger at him. "We won't punish them for you," she declared. "Human concerns are not our concerns." It would have had a better effect on John if her hand hadn't been shaking. "Now," she said weakly. John watched her take a shuddering breath then she turned her back on him. "As you see, in this universe you did go to Atlantis–"

"I won't do it," John said over her, but Shylah didn't even slow down.

"– and you did very well here. When you encountered our aborted project on Doranda, you had a falling out with Doctor McKay that you chose not to mend, allowing the rift to deepen. Fix it," she said then looked at John, her face blank. John wondered if this was how he sometimes looked like when he was keeping a tight rein on his feelings.

"I won't do it," John repeated.

Shylah didn't say anything for a heartbeat. "Then Rodney McKay will die before your eyes yet again, and so will this city," she finally told him, like it was nothing. "It is your choice. I will see you on the other side, John."

"Shylah," John said, using her name for the first time, but she was already fading into the light and gone by the time John reached out to stop her. "Damn it," he cursed.

Then the city slipped into his mind like she had done the first time he'd stepped through the 'gate.

#2

"Sir? Everything alright?"

John whirled around to come face to face with a Marine whom he'd never seen before. "Yes, I'm fine," John told him, nodded, and then hurried away. He was still reeling from jumping and the conversation with Shylah. Damn the Ancients to hell anyway. They knew very well that John couldn't stand by and watch Rodney die yet again. The thought of seeing his city fall apart alone was enough to make his stomach heave and cold sweat break out on his skin.

He didn't consciously decide on a destination, but wasn't surprised when he found himself in his quarters. The way they were identical to his own spooked him more than he had ever anticipated. There was no reason for him to feel uncomfortable, the room was exactly like he'd left it in his own universe. Even War and Peace laid in the exact same spot it had always occupied. He ran a finger over the spine of the book, hesitant to touch anything else.

Doranda.

He'd almost forgotten about that. It had been so long ago. Really, the whole thing had been such a disaster that John had gladly tried to rid himself of the images. That, and it had been the one time he'd really fallen out with Rodney. The few times he got stupidly drunk and maudlin, John had figured that he was lucky their friendship had survived. If it hadn't been for Teyla, John didn't think it would have. She'd been the one to come to him and tell him that he was being unreasonable.

"I believe it is time to forgive Rodney for his mistake," she'd said seriously as she'd looked for weaknesses in his sparring stance. "Has he not suffered your displeasure enough? You are angry with him, I understand that, but he is also your friend and friends forgive one another."

He had squinted at her as they'd circled each other warily and had asked, "Even if said friend nearly got you killed because he used that friendship for his own ends?"

"Even then." Teyla had proceeded to beat him soundly. As he had contemplated the ceiling, she'd held out a hand to help him up and said, "You are more angry with him for being fallible, John, than his using your friendship. That solar system, it means nothing to you just like it means nothing to me. I know you are ignoring him, but he is not doing well. If you wish the team to prevail then you need to mend this breach between the two of you, before it is too late." At that point he'd only stared at her, then he'd gone to find Rodney.

The 'before it is too late' had scared John, had terrified him, actually, as he thought about what exactly 'too late' might mean. Now that fear was back, startlingly clear, just as scary as back when it had originally happened to him.

John was on his way to Rodney's lab before he was even completely aware of it. The time really didn't matter; if Rodney wasn't there, John would go and knock on his door until he opened. This version of John hadn't gone to Rodney, hadn't talked to him like John had in his own universe. Even after John had apologized, it had been incredibly hard for them to gain back what they had had, despite the fact that it had only been a couple of weeks since the Doranda incident. John had a pretty good idea how much harder it would have been had he even waited a day or two longer. This situation here was even worse and the foreshadowing of what was yet to come in this universe lay like lead in John's stomach. He dreaded to think what it would take for him to do to make things right again between this John and Rodney. It was bound to be a nightmare.

The light was still on in the labs. Sure enough, Rodney was sitting at his workstation. John remembered this, the long hours Rodney used to put in when John wasn't there to pull him away from research. For a moment, he stood in the doorway quietly. Rodney was typing, his back bent in a way that looked like it could only hurt and he was moving slowly in comparison to his normal frantic pace.

"Hey," John said, watching as Rodney almost jumped off his chair and whirled around. There were dark smudges under his eyes – eyes that seemed far too large in Rodney's haggard face. He was probably sleeping too little.

Rodney didn't answer; he just looked at John with a guarded expression, then turned away again. John remembered how they had yelled at each other last time, airing it all. The process had been like a cleansing; they had ended up in a heap on Rodney's bed, breathless and laughing at their own stupidity. From five years of experience with his own Rodney, John was sure that this wasn't good. In his opinion a silent Rodney was one who had given up and that was … unacceptable, John realized with startling clarity.

"We need to talk, Rodney," he said. Rodney suddenly sat ramrod straight on his chair, his hands clenched into fists.

"We do? Since when? You've barely acknowledged me for three months outside of work related issues and now you want to 'talk'? Whatever for, hmm? To kick me off the team, perhaps? Well, newsflash, Colonel, I don't want to be on your stupid team any more anyway. Consider this my resignation. At least you're not doing this in front of other people; I'm surprised you're even here on your own." Rodney's voice was so scathing that John was taken aback. "Now kindly do what you've been doing for the last few months and leave me alone."

John stared helplessly at Rodney's back. When he'd been in the same situation in his own universe, his Rodney had looked hurt and vulnerable, which had been like a punch to the gut for John. It had also shown him that Teyla had been right – it was high time they fixed this thing between them. This Rodney wasn't just hurt, there was also anger and disappointment layered into the whole mess. John didn't really blame him for that. They were friends, and this thing should never have gotten that bad. John swallowed, then moistened his lips before he found something he could say. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Rodney whirled around and stared at him in what looked like surprise at first. "You're sorry? What exactly for? That you treated me like dirt for three months? That you didn't actually give me the opportunity to earn back your trust? That you're probably the shittiest friend ever? What exactly are you sorry for?"

John's counterpart in this universe probably deserved that; it still hit him pretty hard to hear any Rodney say things like that to him. He'd never made friends easily and Rodney had wormed his way in, somehow. "For all of that," John finally said.

"Well, that's nice," Rodney snapped, "real nice. I don't care, though. I don't need you, your approval, or your friendship. I know it wasn't right of me to use you like I did, but that doesn't give you the right to treat me the way you did."

"You're right," John agreed.

All the fight went out of Rodney at that and he stared at John, wide eyed. "I'm right?"

"Yes, you are," John said, meaning every word. It had been a shitty thing to do for the weeks he'd done it in his own universe, but three months here must have felt like … John didn't know what it must have felt like for this Rodney. "You're right," he repeated instead. "And I'm sorry."

Rodney stared at John incredulously for another few heartbeats before John could practically see the shutters come down and his surprise was swept away by cold anger. It wasn't an expression John had seen on Rodney's face before. "Sorry doesn't cut it, Colonel," he told John and turned away again, their conversation effectively ended.

From the set of Rodney's shoulders and the way his hands were obviously shaking, John decided to not say anything. He simply left. Saying sorry may not have fixed the friendship of this Rodney and his John, but he was fairly sure it was the first step in the right direction. At least he hoped so.

Because no matter how much he wanted to see the bastards who had killed his people suffer, he couldn't watch another Rodney die. He couldn't just stand by and let another Atlantis fall apart around him. Shylah had known that. She'd known he wouldn't go through with his threat. John resented that she knew him that damn well; it made him wonder what the Ascended John had told them.

Back in his room John didn't bother getting undressed. He didn't think he'd be getting much sleep, anyway. Too many things were swirling around in his head. Instead he lay down on the bed and took War and Peace from the nightstand. Finding his place, he decided he'd read until he got drowsy, got called in for an emergency, or had to go to work. At least this time he knew what he had to do. Being back on Atlantis definitely had its perks.


John had just put down his book and asked Atlantis to turn down the lights when the door signal startled him back to wakefulness. He quickly checked his clock, then got up to open the door personally. It was probably some emergency or other, seeing that it was 4 o'clock in the morning. It wasn't like he'd get a lot of sleep before Ronon came along to drag him for a run after he'd dealt with this.

It wasn't one of the technicians or one of his men who stood in front of John when the door slid open, but Rodney. He looked so uncomfortable that John was starting to feel guilty. Before John could say a word, Rodney brushed past him and then stood in the middle of John's quarters with his arms crossed in front of him defensively.

"Hey," John muttered. Rodney was the last person in this universe he'd expected to come by. Closing the door, John turned to Rodney, and waited for Rodney to say something, anything really.

But Rodney just stared wordlessly at him and John could see the apprehension in his expressive eyes. Though, it could have been fear as well. As the silence stretched between them, John sighed, then he went to lie down again. He was tired, finally, and now he had to go through the whole emotional wringer of seeing Rodney again, all the while knowing it wasn't his best friend.

Tired, he sat down on the bed. There was nothing he could say that he hadn't already, so he just looked at Rodney, whose eyes were roaming John's quarters like he'd never seen them before. The vulnerable, almost terrified expression on Rodney's face made John's chest feel painfully tight. It was too much for John, too close to how his Rodney had looked when he'd realized that something was wrong and they were all going to die.

"Did you mean any of that?" Rodney suddenly asked. At that moment John really wanted to have the possibility to kick this universe's John Sheppard for putting the hurt into Rodney's voice.

Swallowing painfully, John opened his eyes and sat up again to look at Rodney. "Yeah," he said, not sure what Rodney needed to hear from him. It felt very much like groping in the dark for something – anything – to say at all. "Yeah, I did. You're my best friend and I was acting like a first class asshole about the whole stupid thing." Rodney just looked at him, like he didn't know what to do about it or what to say. Or why he was even there.

John sighed as he rubbed his hands over his face, "I wasn't just angry with you for using our friendship, though – for the record – that was a shitty thing to do on your part. I couldn't give a fuck how much of a solar system you blew up, there was no-one living there and I don't really care about that either. But … you're not supposed to make mistakes."

There, he'd said it. Something he hadn't even been able to tell his own Rodney back when they'd made up. The words had been on the tip of his tongue numerous times, but John just hadn't been able to say them. Now he had.

"You're supposed to know everything and you're supposed to always be right." John was breathless with having to say it, his heart pounding painfully in his chest. "You're never wrong," he repeated. For a long moment John studied his blanket so he didn't have to look at Rodney, but then gave up on that, meeting Rodney's gaze. The wide-eyed expression of surprise on Rodney's face was a welcome change from the fear. "I'm really sorry," John muttered roughly.

"You treated me like shit because I didn't fulfill your ridiculously high expectations?" Rodney asked and he sounded as rough as John had. "You bastard," Rodney said, but it didn't sound like he meant it.

"Yeah," John agreed readily, and looked at Rodney again. Rodney, who was eying him like he wasn't sure if he wanted to be angry, annoyed, relieved, or just plain pissed off. John didn't blame him. "I know it's fucked up. But I …" He didn't know what more to say. John just wanted them to be okay. He wanted them to be okay in any universe. "I just couldn't … you're my best friend," he finally said, and immediately regretted it when Rodney's face shuttered and his hand went to where his sidearm would be on missions.

"Who are you? What have you done to Sheppard?" he demanded.

Crap. John didn't move, didn't want to freak Rodney out even more than he already had. "What the hell are you talking about?" he asked instead, unsure about when exactly he'd decided to play it like Rodney was being an idiot. "I'm me. Who else should I be, exactly?"

"The Colonel hasn't talked to me about anything but work related things in three months, he barely looks at me, and he can't stand to be in the same room with me. You sought me out today, you explained why you were acting like something crawled up your ass and died there and you just called me your best friend. That's not the way he acts. Either you can tell me who you are now, or you can tell Elizabeth later, when you're in a holding cell."

John closed his eyes and wished desperately that just for once Rodney could be stupid. But he wasn't an idiot, which complicated the whole matter a lot. Fuck you, Shylah, he thought angrily and turned towards Rodney, hands offered in the least threatening manner John knew. "I'm John Sheppard, just not yours," he confessed. "I'm from an alternate universe and … I'm here to fix this problem between you and your friend."

"I guess it was bound to happen," Rodney snarled all of a sudden. "Either you've gone completely mad or you've decided to add to the constant punishment. I can't stand this shit anymore. If you want me to leave Atlantis, then be a fucking man and tell me to my face."

"I don't want you to leave Atlantis," John snapped at Rodney, fed up with the whole thing. He'd never liked it when Rodney got like that, when he was being brilliantly wrong and stubbornly not seeing what was right in front of his eyes. "I told you the truth: I'm from an alternate universe."

"Yeah, right," Rodney said with a viciousness in his expression that John had never seen on his own Rodney's face. Maybe he would have, though, if he'd left matters alone back then. If he hadn't had Teyla to kick his butt, or Ronon to grunt at him and tell him to go talk to Rodney every time they parted. Maybe then he'd have done the same thing. And it infuriated John that it was his own inability that had let this universe's John go down a path that was absolutely fucking insane in John's opinion. Because Atlantis needed Rodney. The team needed Rodney. Hell, John needed Rodney.

"Look, I'm not here voluntarily and I'm not actually supposed to talk about it. I'll get a slap on the wrists just for telling you. Can't you just accept that I'm trying to help?" John nearly begged.

For a moment Rodney looked at him, unblinking, then he said, "I should call Lorne," and raised his hand up to open a channel.

"No! Please, don't," John said. "I spent hours in a cell in the last universe and I'm not so hot on a repeat."

The arm went back down again, but Rodney continued to stare at him. "Who are you? And what have you done to John Sheppard?" Rodney asked and this time he seemed about ready to bring down all of Atlantis on John if he didn't get an explanation.

"Your John Sheppard is still in here," John said, pointing at his head. "I haven't figured out how it all works yet, but I think he's kinda asleep or something. But he's not hurt, I swear. As for who I am, I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, and I was Military Commander of the Atlantis expedition in another reality." He knew that Shylah was going to be pretty unhappy and unimpressed with him, but he banked on her needing him more than she wanted for this to stay quiet. It wasn't like John had much to lose; he was living on borrowed time anyway.

"My Atlantis died," he continued tonelessly when Rodney started to tap his foot in impatience, "my team died. Everybody died. And instead of doing the right thing and dying alongside them I'm now being brought to alternate universes to fix things that shouldn't have gone wrong in the first place." He got up very slowly and went to stand close to Rodney, wanting to touch him so badly, to make sure he was really alive.

"I saw you … a piece of metal hit you right here," John said and touched Rodney's chest with a shaking hand. "And I … I can't let something like that happen here, too. And they know it." John broke off, if he didn't he'd start crying, something he'd rather not do. It'd freak out Rodney even more than he already had. Rodney was warm and alive underneath his hand, and John was shaking so badly that he was afraid he'd break apart.

"They?" Rodney prompted.

"Ancients," he muttered when he realized he'd probably been quiet a little too long. "They want me to fix things for them. Saved me right before I actually died just so they could send me through the multiverse like some kind of twisted repairman. I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I can do this and stay sane." Next he knew he was hugging Rodney desperately. It didn't matter that this wasn't his Rodney, his friend, it just mattered that he was here, he was a Rodney, he was some other John's friend. It was awkward, because neither of them tended to hug a lot and John really didn't know why exactly he was doing it in the first place.

"I'm sorry," Rodney said in a small voice. "About what happened to you."

"Yeah. Me, too."

They stood there for a while, it felt like hours, but really couldn't have been more than ten minutes when John took a step back from Rodney. "Look," he said, "this Sheppard, your friend, he's terrified. I'm sure. If he's anything like me then he's terrified. It's got nothing to do with him not trusting you and everything to do just with how much he trusts you. In my universe … if Teyla … if Ronon … if they hadn't … I don't know what would have happened."

"Teyla?" Rodney asked. "Ronon? Who are they?"

John blinked, taking another step back. "You don't know them?" Rodney shook his head, and John didn't know what to say. "They are … were on my team," he whispered.

"Ford and Stackhouse are on my team." They were quiet for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. "You sure that's what this is about?" Rodney asked eventually and waved between the two of them as if to indicate something wordlessly complicated going on there when John knew it was their friendship he meant.

"Yeah," John told Rodney, putting all his conviction into his voice. "Absolutely sure."

Rodney nodded. "So what now? I mean, what happens to you?"

Already there was white itching closer in John's peripheral vision. He hadn't noticed it last time because he hadn't expected it. "Now I leave," he said, "and this universe's John Sheppard is back in charge." He closed his eyes in expectation of the light.

"I can't believe you did it again," Shylah said, her voice betraying a frustration that was as deep as the one John felt every time they talked. John figured it was only fair. "You were told not to reveal to anybody who you really are."

"I thought you knew me," John drawled, the nausea not quite as bad as last time, but still enough to make him want to puke on Shylah's shoes. "I have this habit of ignoring orders I think are stupid."

"This isn't a joke, John. There are a lot of lives at stake. We're trying to save whole realities from experiencing catastrophic failures." She definitely wasn't happy with him, that much was clear. But John didn't see how he could have done anything differently.

"I don't care about other realities," John told her, and finally opened his eyes. He was still in his quarters, but alone, sitting on his bed, bent down to apparently tie or untie his shoe laces. Straightening up and looking at Shylah, he saw how upset she was. She looked like she was about to throttle him. "He knew I wasn't who I said I was. This is Atlantis we're talking about, not some backwater village somewhere on Earth. Goa'uld and other beings that take over people old news. He should have had me locked up the moment he suspected me."

"That doesn't matter," Shylah hissed. John had never thought an Ancient could get that angry, or was even allowed to. "You should not have told him anything."

John didn't even have to think about that. Not for a moment. "It was Rodney," he said, like that should explain everything, which, to John, it did. It had been Rodney. He'd looked like Rodney. Had acted like him. Had sounded like him. John couldn't have lied to Rodney. He couldn't have. Not now, not after seeing him die only a few days ago.

At that, Shylah's face grew soft again, her anger visibly draining out of her. "I know." She sighed. "This isn't easy for you, is it?" she asked.

A shockingly bitter laugh escaped John. "Not really, no," he muttered. "I've never … this isn't … it's not easy, no."

"We were anticipating that. Traveling through realities this way isn't natural. You'll be experiencing emotional upheaval and the trauma will be harder to deal with." Her voice was so calm and she looked so poised that John to shoot her. Which he probably would have done if he thought he'd stand a snowball's chance in hell. "It will get better, though. I promise."

"What the hell is happening to me?" he asked, his voice low. He knew he was glaring at her now, but wished he could really throttle her. "What is wrong with me?"

Shylah winced and took a step back. To John it looked like it was unconscious, like she was anticipating that whatever she was going to tell him she thought he might react badly to. "Traversing realities is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of energy. What we're doing, basically, is poking a small hole into the fabric that separates one universe from the other, and then we funnel you through it. The process is not as safe as traveling through a Stargate or a mirror device, but our access to those is minimal. For us, going through these gaps is easy, we're pure energy, but you are very different to us at this stage and doing that to you is having side-effects …" she trailed off, looking at him uneasily.

"Side-effects," John repeated, losing his patience with her, wishing she would just tell him already.

"Yes. Nausea, headaches, phantom pain, emotional instability–"

"And you're only telling me this now?" he asked, trying very hard to be calm. He knew he had at least two of those side-effects and it sucked so badly that it just had to be 'emotional instability' instead of the headaches. He would have preferred the pain.

"There was only a possibility–"

John didn't believe that. "You should have at least warned me," he snapped at her. "I'd classify that as important information, and I thought you were going to give me that." But at least it did make sense now, his inability to think, sometimes, the way he'd talked to that last Rodney, how he'd hugged him. It made sense.

John hated it with a passion.

"I'm sorry, I didn't know how without upsetting you unnecessarily," Shylah said unnaturally meekly.

With a sigh John dropped his head into his hands. He was just tired. "Please tell me it's evening and I'm undoing my shoe laces," he said, hoping it was night, so he could curl up for a while and lick his wounds. Sooner or later John needed some time to himself to deal with all the crap that had been happening to him.

"I'm sorry," she said again, she really sounded it, too. "You were just getting ready for your day, actually. Doctor Weir is expecting your decision on who will be on your 'gate team today at 1000 hours. Here, you decided that Doctor McKay was too much work to include and you weren't going to ask him if he wanted a place on your team."

"Why not?" In his universe they'd bonded instantly over the insanity of that personal shield. John had figured that anybody who'd let John shoot them and throw them off a balcony just to test a cool little toy was worth his time, especially when they went into a cloud of energy to save the expedition even though they were terrified. It hadn't taken John long after that to decide that he wanted Rodney on his team.

"This John went to ask and heard Rodney rip a scientist apart. He was quite vicious and John thought his personality wouldn't agree with the rest of the team, and would possibly endanger the others more than help," Shylah explained.

"Right," John said, thinking back on how often that had happened over the years. Still, the scales tipped in Rodney's favor because, more often than not, his genius got them out of problems not of their own making. Once John had trained him to shut the fuck up at a certain tone of voice, it had been more or less smooth sailing. Shylah was already glowing, a surefire sign of her fucking off, when John asked, "Teyla and Ford are the rest of my team?"

Her voice was dim as she answered, "Teyla, Cadman, and hopefully Rodney once you've finished here."

#3

At least this time he wasn't going to run into a trap head first – at least he hoped so. He finished tying his laces and was pleasantly surprised to find both the nausea and the vertigo of the gap-travel gone. At least Shylah was good for distracting him from that.

The hum in the back of his mind was just the same as it had always been, yet it also wasn't. There was a distinctive change in cadence to it, not only from his home universe, but also from the last one he'd been in. A change John couldn't put a finger on, but it preoccupied him on his way to the labs. Naturally he could hear Rodney's voice three corridors down. Someone had left the doors open again. That was so ridiculously normal that John felt like he was home, and he would have believed it as well, if Atlantis hadn't sounded so different in his head.

"Do you want to blow us all up? If yes, then go ahead and keep doing stupid things like that. See if I'll save you from drowning when the city sinks right back to the bottom of the ocean we just got it up from," Rodney ranted, followed by such an intense silence that John imagined everybody in the lab being paralyzed with fear. "Now get out."

John was close enough to see several people in the science division uniforms scram from the lab. It had taken them months to get used to the specific McKay style of leadership originally; it was going to take some time here, too. When John entered the lab, Rodney was sitting there, deep in his work already. John sometimes wondered how Rodney did that: berate people, then dive straight back into whatever he'd done before. "Hey, McKay," he drawled, and watched as Rodney slowly disengaged his eyes from the screen to turn around. It was odd how much quicker Rodney had gotten at doing that over the years, sometimes even anticipating John's appearance in his doorway.

"Colonel," he answered with a slightly surprised expression on his face and John almost started at Rodney calling him Colonel instead of Major. John remembered this one of Rodney's expressions far too well from the first few dozen times he'd dropped in for no reason at all. Rodney's surprise, the 'why are you doing this' expression that wasn't the one he reserved for idiots, his pleasure at being sought out for something other than repairing things and last minute saves.

"Hey, I figured you need a break, buddy," John said brightly, leaning against Rodney's workstation in the most obnoxious fashion he could muster. "What's that?" Reaching out, John poked an Ancient device that was lying there.

"What are you? Suicidal? Why do you always have to touch things?" Rodney went off immediately, pushing the box to the other side of the workbench and out of John's reach.

"Dunno," John drawled, enjoying this far too much, then offered, "they're shiny?" Rodney blinked at him twice, then took a deep breath, that was when John continued with, "I think you should join my off world team."

Completely derailed, Rodney snapped his mouth shut again and stared for a few heartbeats. "What?" he asked hesitatingly.

"I think you should join my off world team," John repeated, putting all his patience into the tone he was using.

Already John started feeling sick and as the world around him brightened, he heard a dim "what? Have you been hit over the head a few times too often lately? Do you know how dangerous it is out there? I'm allergic – deathly allergic – to citrus. Going through the Stargate would be a death sentence for me. Also, I'm completely unsuited for field work" drift after him. John couldn't deny that sometimes this was actually fun. At least a little bit.

#7

The only reason John was still on his feet was because Rodney was holding him up. "What the hell did you do that for?" Rodney screeched into John's ear. It wasn't like he didn't feel sick enough yet, apparently. "He could have killed you!" At least they weren't moving; John was sure his stomach wouldn't have been able to take that.

John grinned weakly at Rodney, so glad they were still alive. "Nah, I was fine," he drawled.

"You could have died in the blast!"

"Didn't happen, though," John threw back and leaned more heavily against Rodney. "What's your problem?"

"My problem is, Colonel, that I have a Military Commander in my base who doesn't listen to my orders," Rodney pressed out between clenched teeth, and John could feel Rodney's breath on his skin as he panted with the effort of keeping John upright. "You shouldn't have broken quarantine."

"We've got one casualty, McKay, you're alive, and everybody else is going to be fine." He'd done this – this being using a naquadah reactor to create an EMP to destroy the nanites that were killing his people – once before and if he'd jumped to this alternate reality just an hour earlier he'd have been able to do so much more. There wouldn't have had to be that one casualty, even.

"Apart from you," Rodney muttered, his annoyance so clearly audible in his voice that John didn't even need to see his face. Rodney kept looking down the corridor as well, John could see that, probably composing a lecture on faster response times to Carson at the same time. "How did you manage to break your leg anyway?"

John really didn't want to explain that and he was almost glad when his vision started to white out and he left that reality. The other John could deal with Rodney's questions. Though, Rodney as the leader of the Atlantis expedition was … amazing. It really was. John wished he could have stayed longer in this universe where Rodney had been just as brilliant but … happier. It certainly made John wonder what had happened to his Rodney for him to become such a lonely man.

#15

John wasn't comfortable at all as they trudged through the jungle. The air was so humid that breathing was starting to be an issue, and he was hot. He would have taken off the long sleeved shirt and the gloves in a heartbeat if he didn't know that it'd freak out everybody around him. Seriously not worth it, not even for the relief; he'd spent enough time in holding cells and isolation rooms to give them a pass for a bit. Just for variety's sake, of course.

It figured that the one time he jumped into a universe in which he had superpowers – and woah if his counterpart didn't have it badly, this so wasn't a superpower John would ever want – it wasn't anything cool. No, he jumped into a universe where he was Gifted and it was something creepy. Flying would have been cool. Rodney's Gift was cool. Grodin, Elizabeth, Radek, they all had cool Gifts. John not so much. Being a Charmer had sounded great at first glance, until just about the time Shylah had told him what that actually meant, then it had hit John that he himself would definitely prefer not having a "gift" like that.

Making people do what he wanted wasn't John's idea of a great superpower, really.

John knew that he was fucked up. Well, he'd known that he was fucked up even before he started being bounced around the multiverse as if he was the ball in a pretty demented game of pinball. But this definitely put the bar a bit higher on the fucked up scale. But even with all the issues Shylah had outlined for him, with everything this John would be forced to deal with eventually, even with all that, this John was still lucky. His people were alive and well, Atlantis was whole, he wasn't being bounced around. This John still had his team. Teyla, Rodney, and Ronon, they were there, trudging through the jungle alongside him.

Though if the Ancients put him in front of the decision of staying here or continuing to jump until they found someplace else, John would rather leave. John didn't want to be a Charmer; he didn't want people to be afraid of him just because of something he happened to be. This version of John had his special brand of problems, most of which John really didn't want. John felt that – even jumping through the multiverse like he was – he was better off.

"We're nearly there," Rodney muttered next to him, and John automatically gripped his P-90 tighter. The good thing about this whole gig was that John usually had at least an idea of what he had to expect.

The first shot didn't startle John at all, he'd been expecting it. Pushing Rodney behind a tree for cover before the next shot rang through the forest, John was about to return fire, when the world around him whitened and he jumped.

#23

"You can't be serious," Doctor Wallace – John was glad he could call her Elizabeth, because he would so have slipped up otherwise – told John. If he hadn't known her so well, he wouldn't have seen how incredulous and surprised she was at his suggestion of fixing the LaGrangian Point Satellite. "It's a waste of resources, Colonel."

John smiled at her, the same smile he'd used on her so often lately, the one he knew made her kind of mellow. Gee, talking her into stuff was damn hard sometimes. He'd never taken her for a pushover, but he remembered it to be easier. "We might need it; strategically it'd be a good idea to have some defenses in case of an attack." Understatement of the year. LaGrangian Point Satellite was going to save the lives of a lot of people sooner than Elizabeth Wallace could ever imagine. John was just here to speed up the process a little. At least according to Shylah, that was his primary goal.

"Who is supposed to attack us? We're a peaceful expedition with no enemies in the Pegasus Galaxy."

Wraith, Genii, Replicators, John thought, tempted to say it just to see the expression on Elizabeth's face. They hadn't actually met any of those yet, something John couldn't quite believe. He couldn't help but wish that it had been the same in his home universe. Blinking rapidly, John pushed the thoughts away of how his Rodney would have loved nothing more than to dive into only research. "You heard the stories of the Wraith, too, they sound really bad-ass."

Elizabeth sighed, but he could tell exactly the point at which she just gave in. "Alright. If Doctor McKay agrees to the project, I don't see why not. Maybe we can learn something interesting." Elizabeth was the same in every incarnation up to now, whether she'd married Simon Wallace or not, whether she'd led the expedition or had just been an advisor. It was a nice kind of constant that made John's life moving around alternate realities so much easier, and yet harder. This wasn't just a stranger with a familiar face, this was Elizabeth, his Elizabeth. She was exactly the same, both in looks – apart from her changing hair style – and her mannerisms and idiosyncrasies.

It made interacting with her damn hard.

#55

"You should come with us," John told Rodney, who was five beers in. He'd waited on purpose, wanting Rodney to be loose and open for this part of their talk. It wasn't like they were buddies, John was just the third person to try to get Rodney into the program. He didn't know exactly what made Rodney change his mind, what he'd said so that Rodney was now sitting opposite him in a little restaurant that made the greatest burgers, talking about God and the world. It was pretty much like they'd used to do on Atlantis, just with burgers and an unlimited supply of beer.

"It's a one-way trip, not a hop on the plane kind of job," Rodney said, his eyes focused on John's mouth for some reason. "I have a life here."

John leaned in, lowering his voice to a drawl. "It's Atlantis, McKay. It'll be beautiful and exciting and there's going to be so much stuff for you to discover. You'll love it."

Rodney took a long swig off his bottle, then appeared to be deep in thought. He was silent for so long that John thought he'd either fallen asleep with his eyes open, or gotten lost in his own thoughts again, but before John could repeat himself, Rodney said, "You think so?"

Grinning, John nodded, "Yeah. I think so."

#64

"Why didn't you tell me before?" John demanded. He wanted to scream at Shylah, but he knew that wouldn't actually gain anything. "Rodney died," he raised his voice at that, "and I couldn't change that because you said that Grodin needed to live," he spat. "Why?"

Shylah gave John one of her mournful looks. "In some universes, Rodney McKay isn't supposed to survive," she said, as if that somehow was all the explanation he needed.

He wondered if there were universes where John Sheppard wasn't supposed to live, and if he'd end up in one of those eventually.

When Rodney had said goodbye to John over the radio, John hadn't seen this 'verse's Rodney in front of him, who'd looked scruffier and somehow older than his own; instead it had called up pictures of when he'd watched his Rodney die. And he couldn't help but wonder if the Ancients were doing this on purpose.

He'd refused to talk about his loss ever since the first time Shylah had tried to "help" him with it. That had been ten jumps back. Now he'd lost Rodney, again. John wondered if Shylah knew exactly how much John cared for Rodney or if it was just pot luck that she'd hit the worst wound. But considering the fact that Ancients were omniscient, that kind of thing couldn't just be bad luck, there had to be more to it.

"You should have told me," John snapped. "Letting me run into it like this was unfair."

Shylah didn't answer, but she didn't have to. The look on her face and the pity in her eyes was all John needed to know.

"You want to talk about it that much? Alright." His voice sounded grating to his own ears, but if she really wanted to know what went on inside of him, well, he hoped she was prepared for the anger. "Rodney was my best friend, and I watched him die because some asshole thought that Atlantis should either belong to everybody or to nobody. And yeah, I miss him. Just like I miss Teyla and Ronon and Radek. Hell, I even miss Kavanagh. Every universe you put me into feels wrong."

At that Shylah grimaced, only for a moment, though, then her face went blank again.

"You knew," John said accusingly. "You knew about that, didn't you?"

Now she sighed. "Yes, yes, we knew. You're not from here. Things smell different, they have a slightly different hue or the cadences of sounds aren't the same. Things too small for you to consciously be aware of, but they'll leave behind a sense of wrong."

She'd known that all along and hadn't told him; there was no way John could actually put into words just how much that felt like betrayal. He didn't think he'd ever get over it. With an abrupt movement he turned away from her and looked around the room he'd jumped into for the first time since he'd confronted Shylah.

Some days, he just couldn't stand it, the endless jumps and the different cities and people. John hated Shylah especially, with a passion.

He didn't think he'd ever trust her again.

#71

"Who the hell are you?" Rodney asked, his side-arm pointed at John with an unwavering steadiness John wanted to feel impressed by, but was actually a lot worried about.

"Come on, Rodney, you know who I am. Could you point that somewhere else?" John tried, but he could see in the cold hardness in this Rodney's eyes that he wasn't buying it.

Rodney just raised his free hand to his radio to open a channel. "McKay to Major Lorne. We have an intruder in the city who has taken over Colonel Sheppard. Please send backup to my lab." It took an amazingly short time before Lorne came through the door with two men and Rodney's sidearm went back into the holster. Then Rodney's hands started to shake. John was glad that even though three other people who were heartbreakingly familiar to him were now holding him at gunpoint, at least it wasn't Rodney anymore.

#89

Rodney had once asked him why it always had to be John who did all the stupid stunts. Well, of course he'd used different words, but the wording wasn't important. It had just shown the difference of the civilian mindset to a purely military one.

Rodney thought that John was too important, he'd pointed that out a few times. But back then, John had thought Rodney was wrong, that his civilian perception was faulty. Because that was what it came down to in John's point of view. For John, being military meant he was just a small cog in a bigger machine. Easily exchangeable. If he was gone, there were always other people who'd come and take over his job.

At least that's what John had always thought before. Now, he wasn't so sure anymore. He'd been in 89 different universes up to date, and the whole journey had served one purpose – at least in John's eyes. It had driven home that John was actually undeniably important. Maybe not in the same way as Rodney with his genius and his ideas, but important enough that he could change things.

That was a pretty good feeling. But days like this, he hated it. There was so much blood on his uniform that it felt stiff against his skin and the stench of it was coppery in his nose; he'd probably smell it even after a shower. None of it was his.

He'd been as helpless to stop it as this universe's John would have been. Helpless and angry and wishing it had been him. Why hadn't Shylah warned him, he didn't know. He could have stopped it. If he'd known, he wouldn't have let Elizabeth go to the meeting. She wouldn't be dead now, and Colonel Caldwell wouldn't have to live with it on his conscience. There was no doubt in John that it didn't matter to Caldwell that he'd had a snake in his head. He'd been there for the whole thing, watching it and unable to do anything.

John knew exactly how that felt.

At least he had managed to do what he was there for. He'd saved the rest of the command staff from the same fate. That's what Shylah had wanted from him. She'd said, "You need to keep Doctors Beckett, Zelenka, and McKay away from the conference room for half an hour. Be careful when you go in." He had been. Careful. But now they were without a leader and the whole expedition was in mourning.

"Fuck," John muttered with feeling. He wanted to hit something, but he knew that wouldn't change a thing. When the world turned white around him, John felt thankful for small mercies. At least he didn't have to attend her funeral.

#94

John was stunned. He'd done everything he could, but saving Keller and reaching Shylah's objective had been impossible. Maybe that's why he was still there, because he'd let Keller die. God, she'd … she'd just stopped.

He was sitting on his bed, untying his boots, or he had been at one point.

Death was a part of what he did. Killing people was a part of his job. But this, this was different. Jennifer Keller shouldn't have died, John knew that much.

"John," Shylah said from behind him, and he let go of his shoe laces. He seemed to have forgotten how to untie them anyway. "It wasn't your fault."

Of course it wasn't. He'd been there, he'd known what would happen, had done everything he could have to make sure that the systems Shylah had wanted him to save weren't damaged. He'd never even thought that Keller might …

"Sometimes people are supposed to die. You can't save everyone."

John nearly choked on that. "She didn't die in my universe," was all he could say. "She lived there."

Her hand on his shoulder felt solid and warm and he didn't know when the last time was that someone had actually touched him. Not one of the other Johns, him.

"She lived in yours because she saved herself. This Jennifer Keller couldn't. It wasn't your fault. You did exactly what we asked of you."

"I let her die," John said tonelessly.

Shylah sighed behind him. "No, John, we let her die. Not you. I knew she was going to die, but I didn't warn you because I knew you would try to save her." He felt the bed dip as she sat down beside him, her arm around his shoulders, grounding him. "Sometimes we lose people," Shylah said after what felt like an eternity of silence. "It's something you never learned."

Unaccountably angry all of a sudden, John shrugged her arm away and stood up, getting as far away from her as possible. "I'm not going to let people die just because it's the way of the world," he snapped.

"We know that," Shylah answered, her voice so sad that John whirled around to face her. "It's something you'll have to learn, though."

"No, I don't think–"

But Shylah interrupted him. "It's something you will learn. Eventually." She still sounded sad, but there was a core of steel underneath it all that she didn't show too often.

It kind of scared John, so all he could do was stare at her until the telltale signs of the next jump forced him to close his eyes.

She'd just revealed something to him, maybe unintentionally, maybe on purpose, but apparently he was supposed to learn something. Thing was … why was he supposed to learn this? John didn't know, wasn't sure he was ready to know. But with all their advancement and their being on a higher plane of existence the Ancients were still fallible. She'd slip again, and then he'd know.

#151

John tried really hard not to puke onto his own shoes as the world around him finally came into focus. For some reason this jump had been an especially gruesome one. Taking slow, deep breaths, John waited for Shylah begin to speak. She was standing right in front of him, looking apologetic.

"I'm sorry, John. I know this one was hard on you. We can't really explain why some universes are harder to reach than others, but you have a bit of time to recover. It's early still," she said and smiled, but somehow it looked strained.

"Don't worry about it, let's just get this over with," John replied, not liking one bit the way she seemed to minutely fidget. "Why don't you tell me what's up with this universe?"

Shylah sighed. "Time-wise you're right before that big storm Kolya used to invade Atlantis. And while everything turned out well in your own universe, here you need to actually be one step ahead of him. It's vital that he does not get his hands on Meredith McKay," Shylah said, and only the strange way she empathized the name 'Meredith' made John hold back a laugh and an amused remark about how Rodney allowed people to call him by a girl's name in this universe.

"Meredith?" he asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral.

There it was again, that slight flinch, the uneasy shift in Shylah's stance. "Yes, in this universe Dr. Meredith McKay is actually female, and she is in danger. If you allow Kolya to get his hands on her, he will do more than just cut her arm. He is going to … violate her before he beats her almost to death for not giving him any information. Meredith won't ever recover from that completely, and the whole expedition is at stake after that. You need to make sure that Kolya does not get a chance to hurt her in that way, John."

Shylah didn't look at him, instead she stared at the floor. For a moment John hated her for that display of cowardice. But the anger over what Shylah had just told him overpowered everything else.

A woman. Rodney was actually a woman, here. And Kolya … Kolya would hurt her. Would … John swallowed hard, his mind refusing to go there. The image of Jeannie Miller appeared in John's mind and he wondered if Meredith looked anything like her.

Forcing himself to concentrate on getting any information that would help him to prevent a catastrophe, John asked, "Anything else you can tell me? Any hint how to go about keeping Kolya from her? Is there anything I need to know about my friendship with Meredith or the others?" John knew his voice was cold and hard but he didn't care. Anger was boiling in his blood, the urge to strangle Kolya with his own bare hands growing stronger.

"No, nothing I can think about right now. Your friendship to her isn't any different than to any Rodneys you've met so far. You're buddies, you call her Mer and the two of you do everything you'd expect team members and best friends to do together. She trusts you. She'll listen to you if you suggest something. Just make sure she does not get trapped with Kolya and all will be well," Shylah said, her voice compassionate now.

"I'm going to kill him. I'm going to fucking kill him," John pressed out through clenched teeth, the thought of someone violating his best friend unbearable.

"See that you do," Shylah said dryly, and added a "good luck" before she vanished and John was alone again.


Turned out, Meredith did look a lot like Jeannie and yet, also scarily like Rodney. She was about as tall as Rodney usually was, with dark blond curls that were pulled back in a ponytail, bright blue eyes and the crooked mouth John was used to seeing in a male face. Her mannerisms, however, were completely on spot – no matter if male or female, she had berating morons and scaring minions down to an art form.

To John that was strangely comforting.

#199

It wasn't so much that John had ever underestimated Rodney's intelligence. Not his intelligence-intelligence. But he'd thought his social-intelligence had been sub-par. Really, total underestimation on John's part because of the five times he'd been caught out, it had been Rodney four times and Teyla once. All in all John preferred it to be Rodney; he at least didn't hit him over the head.

"You will tell me what you have done to Major Sheppard," Teyla said to him, kneeling on his back while she kept his arms immobile. Impossible to dislodge. "A security team is on its way, but I believe it would be beneficial if you told me who you are now, rather than later."

It was amazing how heavy she was, considering she wasn't exactly tall. It hadn't even been something big, well, nothing that John would call big. He'd bent down to touch his forehead to hers as she'd extended her arms for the Athosian greeting, next thing he knew she was kneeling on him, demanding answers. So apparently Shylah had forgotten to tell him some small details.

John wasn't sure if she did that on purpose, or if she really had no clue, but at the moment with Teyla's knee digging painfully into John's back, it sure as hell didn't matter. The end result was the same and John was pissed as hell. Well, if she kept so conveniently "forgetting" to tell him details, he'd forget he had promised not to tell about his mission.

"I'm John. I really am," he panted, her weight on him making breathing a hard thing to do. That statement however, earned him a painful pull on his arms.

"Do not lie to me," Teyla hissed. "Major Lorne will not be as gentle as I am with you, unless you tell us where Colonel Sheppard is."

Crap. This was going to be a hard sell.

#267

John looked at Ronon, who was growling at him in a very disconcerting manner. This wasn't the Ronon John had gotten to know. His hand tightening on the gun, John didn't let Ronon out of his sight. He knew what he had to do, but he couldn't just … he couldn't do it.

Ronon pounced, knife in his hand, ready to kill. Not at John, though, no, but at Rodney, who was hanging helplessly between them, upside down, disoriented, and pretty angry. John didn't hesitate. The bullet killed Ronon instantly.

#318

John paced the cell again. He'd been there long enough that he knew exactly how big it was. Tiny, that's what it was. He'd been there for an eternity, as well. Seventeen days. Four hundred and twenty three hours. Twenty five thousand, three hundred, and ninety seven minutes. John was going insane with inactivity. Rodney kept doing this to him as well. Discovering that John wasn't exactly who he said he was. Giving him a fifty-fifty chance if he was locked up or if Rodney believed him and god, how much he wished this Rodney had believed him. Being stuck in a cell sucked.

He'd been in 318 different universes now, and in too many of them he'd ended up in a cell at one point or another. Not just because Shylah hadn't told him stuff, but also because he'd expected people to act a certain way, and then they hadn't.

At first glance, Elizabeth was the same everywhere, but really, she wasn't. Neither were Rodney, Teyla, Ronon, Radek, Lorne, or anyone else whom John knew. Most of the time, John could still recognize the people he'd known in his home universe, but that was pretty much it. Like there had been a base mould, but someone had used a different kind of dough to fill it.

Sometimes the differences were so strong they made his skin crawl. Teyla, cold hearted and closed off, Rodney, who was pretty much not talking to anyone if he didn't have to, Carson, a mad scientist who liked his own medication a bit too much, or an Elizabeth who was more a dictator than an expedition leader. Some universes hurt. Some were so amazing that John felt like a kid on Christmas Morning. Most of them were just strange and cold and wrong.

Like this one.

John kicked the pile of blankets and pillows he'd been given to sleep on. He had to get out of there. Not just the cell, no, this whole place. Moving on had rarely sounded like such a great idea before.

#453

John watched as Rodney struggled, looking pale and drawn. For a moment, John feared it hadn't been enough. That the things he had changed, the things he had made the expedition members say and do hadn't been enough to make Rodney believe he was worthy of ascension. But that was John's job in this universe, no matter how much it pained him to help Rodney ascend.

Rodney would – if all went according to plan – ascend and pretty much instantly descend again. The vital point apparently was that he knew that he was capable of ascension since Rodney might have to do it again at a later time.

John hated that fact, hated that for Rodney to actually ascend, he had to die first. Just thinking about it made John's stomach clench. He couldn't stand it that Rodney had to die at all, no matter if he got to ascend or not. Watching him struggle so much was something John just couldn't take.

He'd tried the 'clear blue skies' routine with this Rodney as well, but John had soon figured out that the sky really didn't hold the same peace for Rodney as it did for John. He'd needed another analogy and finally, finally they had settled on a stage in a dark room, with nothing but a piano on it. Letting all thoughts go and just getting lost in the music, in the tune that he knew by heart was what did it for Rodney.

Peace. Alone on the stage surrounded by music.

John was glad they'd figured that out together, that they'd managed to find a setting Rodney could feel secure in. He'd need it.

Sitting down beside Rodney's bed, trying to calm him. "It's okay, Rodney. You can do it. I know you can. Don't be afraid. There's no need to worry. It's just one easy step. All you have to do is take a deep breath, and let go of all thoughts, all fears. It's going to be alright, I promise," John said in a low, soothing tone of voice. He had to force himself to speak, but for Rodney, John would do pretty much anything.

Rodney looked up at him, eyes hazy with pain and a million other things as John tried to reassure him one more time. "Trust me, Rodney. I am absolutely sure that you can do it," John repeated and Rodney closed his eyes again. His breathing deepened as he consciously relaxed.

"Go to your stage, Rodney. The stage and the music. Let the music carry you away. Let it take you, let it flow through you, let it fill you. Nothing exists but the music and the light and the stage. That's it, deep breaths," John murmured, and as he watched, the readings on the machinery that was attached to Rodney changed. They had switched off the sound of the many monitors, and that was probably a good thing because John was pretty sure there would be alarms blearing through the room right now, judging by the flashing of the lights.

For a split second, John was afraid that Rodney wasn't going to make it, wasn't going to be able to take that last step and ascend. That he would really die and be gone for good. But then the readings changed, the brain waves displayed on the monitor evened out and John barely had the time to get out of his chair and take a hasty step back as Rodney's body burst into a blinding light. John heaved a sigh of relief.

It had worked.

Rodney had ascended. He knew how to do it now and the danger of him dying for good was banned.

"I'm back. I did it!" a voice suddenly sounded from behind John and he whirled around to face a very smug looking Dr. Rodney McKay.

But before John could actually talk to him, tell him how proud John was of him and how well he'd done, the world around John faded into white light. With a hint of regret, John felt himself being pulled to yet another universe.

#500

"I hate you," John said, but Shylah only smiled sadly at him. "I really hate you." He heard her whispered "I know" as she left, but he didn't react to it.

#675

"Come on," John hissed into Ronon's ear, "get the fuck up." He'd been barely on time. Shylah's intel had been lacking again. Just a little bit. Okay, a lot. She'd better not think that he wouldn't mention it next time he saw her. He'd so mention it. There would be some yelling.

Thinking along those lines kept John on his feet as he practically dragged Ronon along with him towards the 'gate. He just hoped that Ronon would still be alive by the time they reached Atlantis; he was losing so much blood.

Every damn time she forgot something it had to be important. It didn't happen that often, but when Shylah fucked up then she fucked up big. Like the time she hadn't told him that Rodney was the expedition leader and not Elizabeth. Or when she'd told him there would be an ambush when they came out of the Stargate and it hadn't been on the way to P5X-7545, but when they'd gotten home.

It was so damn annoying. But Shylah didn't even acknowledge that she wasn't exactly helping him. She kept insisting on his getting all the information necessary. Which was just wrong, wrong, and wrong.

She hadn't told him that Teyla was injured and wouldn't be with the team once, culminating into an hour of being checked through by Carson for possible illness or alien influence because of "forgetfulness." He'd had to play amnesiac in five separate universes because what Shylah had told him had had nothing much to do with the universe he'd ended up in. Apart from the conditions for his continue journey, everything else had been jarringly different. They'd quarreled about this so often that John could hold both sides of the argument all by himself; it was mildly irritating that it never changed though.

Now, thanks to Shylah's inability to tell right from left, Ronon was bleeding on John's uniform as John dialed the 'gate home. Hopefully Rodney and Teyla had made it through earlier, but they'd needed radio silence and John just didn't know. Damn Genii.

The wormhole had barely settled into a shimmering surface in front of him when someone screamed at him to stop. Even the bullet John felt tearing into his shoulder couldn't stop the forward momentum that took him and Ronon through the Stargate and home.

#756

John woke up in an entirely different setting than the one he had fallen asleep in and immediately panicked – even though he did it in an orderly, well trained fashion. He was up, crouching next to the bed with the sidearm he – and most of his alternates – kept in the same place every night, making sure there were no hostiles around. Then he realized that he was in the guest quarters at the SGC. Not his favorite location, but not dangerous, either. This was a first, he'd never before gone to sleep somewhere and woken up someplace else. He hadn't even thought it was possible, what with the nausea and the vertigo he still experienced when jumping.

John relaxed slightly, secured his weapon and put it back where it belonged. The SGC wasn't a place he felt comfortable in at all. He'd never been entirely fond of being stuck that far underground, but after having spent years on Atlantis, with her windows, balconies, and spires, he was even less happy.

"Good morning, John," Shylah said from the foot-end of his bed, and John whirled around to face her. He was used to her appearing out of nowhere, and he'd figured out long ago that she was doing it on purpose, to give him a scare whenever she could. "We let you sleep."

"How on Earth did I sleep through the jump?" he snapped at her, hating that he hadn't been aware of it.

Shylah had the grace to look sorry for a moment, but then she smiled. "It was easy to make you go back to sleep when you woke up after you arrived here. You deserved some rest."

"I did?" he asked, still annoyed with her. He hadn't really needed that much sleep anymore, it was like every time he jumped he was as awake or tired as the John Sheppard he'd jumped into. Time had started to lose its meaning as well. John couldn't even tell how long exactly he'd been jumping from universe to universe, fixing what went wrong. He'd lost count of how many places he'd been to a couple of times as well. The thing was, it was really hard to tell. Some places he stayed in for days or even weeks, others for minutes. It was completely random as far as John could tell, and depended on how fast he could fulfill his mission objective. The best he could say was that he'd been at it for the better part of two years now. Maybe more, actually.

"I'd rather have a vacation if you're handing out awards for good behavior." He could so do with a vacation. "Or better, I'd like to arrive somewhere, finally." He barely even thought about when he'd finish doing … this. Not anymore. He'd been at it too long. Still, sometimes the longing to stay somewhere made him feel almost breathless.

Shylah gave him a wan smile and he knew that he'd hit a topic she'd rather not talk about. Well, tough luck for her. "When am I going to arrive somewhere? Have you even been looking for a place for me?" he asked.

"Of course we have, but it's not as easy as you may think. It'd have to be a universe where there isn't a John whose place you'd have to steal," she told him, and gave the word "steal" an awful sounding twist, like she thought that was what he wanted to do. He was sure it was mostly to discourage him from asking questions, and it had actually been a rather successful plan of action: John barely asked. It had all become so much a part of his life that John had – for the most part – started to accept it as normal.

He hated that.

"Just give me the rundown," he told her, and now that the adrenaline had worn off he became aware of the little things. He was wearing an old t-shirt he didn't remember owning and a soft pair of sweats; the room really was one of the standard guest quarters at the SGC like he'd thought at first glance. Not one of the personnel quarters, meaning he was most likely only visiting, which suited John just fine. It meant there were few people here who knew him and therefore few people who could blow his cover wide open.

"You're at the SGC," Shylah started with the most obvious, but she always did, and John let her words wash over him as he walked around the quarters to look at the sparse personal items displayed in them. "You've returned after the end of the first year together with Doctors Weir and McKay. You've already been promoted to Colonel and the three of you are picking personnel that will be going to Atlantis with you. You will need to make sure that Rodney is on the list."

John turned around to her and stared. "Sorry?" he asked. "I thought you said McKay is here with me and Elizabeth."

"This McKay is a Doctor Jeannie McKay, who joined Area 51 after her brother was sent to Siberia. She was then involved in several projects around the world and ended up with the expedition as it was conceived. Jeannie is adequate, but she will not be able to ensure the survival of the expedition through the second year."

"Where's Rodney now?" John had learned that asking questions was the only way he got all the important things out of her before they bit him in the ass quite spectacularly.

Shylah shrugged her shoulders delicately. "At Area 51 and the SGC alternately, he's key in a few important experiments. He hasn't been here since the Atlantis expedition has made contact, though. We are sure he is trying not to run across his sister."

"Great," John muttered, "this is gonna be so much fun."

Shylah frowned. She was incapable of realizing when John used sarcasm or irony, it just went right over her head, and John had stopped trying to teach her. "I don't know your definition of 'fun,' but I don't think I'd call it that. The two of them haven't argued over Jeannie McKay leaving academia here, but they haven't talked in a long time. Not since their parents died, actually."

"Why not?"

"Jeannie believes that Rodney is wrong when he says they hated him and has made it clear that she doesn't appreciate his dragging their reputations through the mud like that. They haven't spoken in ten years." Shylah seemed somewhat astounded by that, maybe the Ancients didn't have parents that didn't care about their kids, or children who thought their parents loved their little siblings more than themselves. Maybe she just didn't understand how humans worked. John had also stopped caring about why Shylah often looked surprised at the information she gave him. It didn't really help him with his job anyway. "Getting them to speak again will be hard."

John snorted. "Hard?" he asked incredulously. He knew both Jeannie and Rodney better than anybody else, he'd seen multiple alternates of them interact, quarrel, hate and love one another. This place, where their differences had gone on that long, it'd be almost impossible to get Jeannie to take Rodney back to Atlantis with them. "It's gonna be a nightmare. Is there anything you can give me that will help me?" John asked, getting angry once again. This was just so typically Shylah.

"Nothing I can think of, John," Shylah said, apologetically and John suppressed the urge to yell at her. It wouldn't serve anything anyway, he'd tried it and she had just gotten upset with him. But John just couldn't take this whole game of getting no information – or worse, false information – any more. It was pretty much how every mission started. Every damn time. John was so sick and tired of it. Shylah sometimes knew things that would be helpful, more often than not she didn't really know it was all that important, though. Either she was incredibly stupid for an Ancient or she didn't care, or – which was the option John liked least – she misled him on purpose. It made John want to scream with anger. Instead he took a deep breath and tried to get a grip on his emotions.

"Great, this way it'll take ages. They're both stubborn and there's no way I can get them to even talk if you don't give me something. I know you don't have it easy, either, but isn't there a way you can give me all the stuff I should know? Seriously, you never tell me the bits that might help. Remember three jumps back? When knowing that Ronon hadn't been a runner for quite so long would have helped a great deal and would have kept me out of the holding cell?" That really had angered John quite a lot. It was something that would have been entirely preventable.

"I'm very sorry for that, John. I didn't know it would be how you would approach Ronon."

John threw up his hands in annoyance. "You said he was gonna leave Atlantis and we'd need him to stay at least another year. Of course I needed to know all about the differences to my Ronon."

Suddenly there was an odd expression on Shylah's face, like she was communicating with someone only she could hear. It wasn't the first time John had seen that happen, generally when she asked the others in her group a question or got information from them that she hadn't had access to before. "There is a suggestion, but only some of us agree with it," Shylah said hesitatingly, she was probably one of those that didn't agree. "A consensus couldn't be reached, so it was decided you should hear for yourself and choose. We could arrange it so you get all the information directly from the John Sheppard you are jumping into. It would be just straight memories, none of the emotional responses that go along with them. The memory will be replaced as you go along so as to not overburden your human brain. Some of us think this would make you less flexible in the way you deal with the problems in the universes; others believe it would help you to resolve things more quickly."

John frowned at her, crossing his arms in front of him. "What do you think?"

"I think that it would relieve me of the burden of making sure you know what you call 'the important stuff.' You could judge that for yourself from now on," Shylah answered, but she didn't sound sure. "There is no telling what the side effects would be, though. The interference might make the jumping harder to take again. You have started to become used to it, but I remember how bad it was."

"Alright," John agreed easily enough. As much as he sometimes hated Shylah and wanted to never see her again, she'd been the one person he'd been able to spend any constant time with lately. Kinda sad, thinking about it, but next to the variations of Teyla, Ronon, Elizabeth, Sam, and Rodney, Shylah knew him best. John didn't have to like it, he really didn't have a choice. There was no way back; all John could do was move forward somehow.

"I can live with being sick again." He'd rather be sick than spend another moment in either the SGC cells or the holding cell in Atlantis. Those two places would most likely make John feel claustrophobic for the rest of his life. Or longer. At this rate it was likely to be longer. John watched Shylah as the faraway look returned to her eyes, then she smiled at him and he figured the discussion was over.

"This may be uncomfortable," she said, and stepped closer, reaching out and placing both hands on his head.

All John felt was a slight pressure behind his eyes, nothing worse than a starting headache. But the things that came with it were amazing. It was like reading reports, but with so much detail, more than John had ever put down in writing. Just like that he knew everything this John Sheppard knew about this Atlantis expedition, but oddly detached. "You know," John told Shylah, "this was a good idea. I'd never have gotten Jeannie to let Rodney come with us just with what you told me."

Shylah gave him a rueful smile. "Good luck, John, you'll probably need it," she said, and vanished.

Cursing viciously, John turned to the locker and pulled out his BDUs. Apparently he had a lot of work to do and no clue how to do it.


"No. I don't even know why you'd say that," Jeannie said, arms crossed, frown in place, and tense. So much for the easy way out of the problem.

John shrugged, pretending it wasn't really important. "I heard he's good. And I figured we'd have a family bonus getting him to come with us."

The frown deepened into a scowl and Jeannie snorted. "He may be a good engineer and a good astrophysicist, but he sucks in social situations. I don't think he'd do well on Atlantis." With that she turned away, dismissing John.

It was infuriating. She hadn't even been listening to him. At all. John knew from the memories that they had never really clicked, not in the way Rodney and he had. They'd been friendly, but that was it. This Jeannie … she was nothing like the woman he'd met in his own universe. Yeah, she looked the same, but there was a difference to her that John didn't like. Huffing, John turned away and left the lab. He'd really have to get Rodney to come here and probably lock them in a room without anything that could a) break or b) be used as a weapon to kill each other.

What a mess.


Where Jeannie was as different from her counterpart in John's home universe as was possible, this Rodney was exactly the same. Achingly so. This was Rodney the way he had been when he'd first come to Atlantis, and John hurt for him.

"But you want to come to Atlantis," John said, seeing the play of emotions on Rodney's face, reading them like a book. Insecurity, longing, fear; it was all there.

"Now, why would I want to go to a place that has space vampires that try to suck out your life? I've read the reports," Rodney said. John knew Rodney probably pored over the records and had them committed to memory. "I really don't think it's the best place for me at all."

John had the one advantage Rodney didn't know about: he knew Rodney way too well to fall for that blatant lie. "There's tons of Ancient tech there," he wheedled. Rodney's eyes narrowed at that, but he kept his mouth shut. That was the one difference between this Rodney and John's; he actually didn't start talking as the silence lengthened.

"Look, I don't know what happened between you and your sister," John said, his voice still low, so none of the other people in the lab could hear him. Something flickered in Rodney's eyes and John bravely foraged ahead, "I really don't want to know, but this is your opportunity to do something great. Maybe if you talked to Jeannie, the two of you could–"

"No," Rodney hissed, cutting John off. "There is nothing I want to talk to her about and I don't get how this is any of your business anyway."

"I'm the CO of the Atlantis expedition and if it's about the good of the mission I make it my business."

Rodney sniffed and turned away from John, not quite the obvious dismissal Jeannie had given him, but pretty close. "Well, this isn't something you can fix, Colonel. Maybe you should just leave it alone."


"Okay," John said, looking first at Rodney, then at Jeannie. Both sat on an end of the conference table with exactly the same posture. It was almost funny. "So, talk."

Rodney and Jeannie both glared at him at the same time, their expressions identical. If the whole situation hadn't already been so annoying, it would have been funny.

"I don't think we have anything to say to each other," Jeannie forced out from between clenched teeth. When Rodney nodded in agreement, John wanted to bang their heads together. This? Wasn't working.

"Well, you're not leaving until you've talked," John said pleasantly, and leaned back. He looked down at his golf magazine and started leafing through it. "I've got time." He reached down, picked up War and Peace, and let it drop heavily on the surface of the table. "Lots of time."

When he peeked up through his lashes, he saw both of them staring at him in disbelief. They didn't say a word though, which, okay, wasn't so good. But knowing both Jeannie and Rodney, they wouldn't be able to keep it going for very long.

"You shouldn't talk so badly about Mom and Dad," Jeannie suddenly hissed at Rodney, as if she couldn't keep it inside anymore. Bingo. "They were good to us and you know it!"

"Good to us?" Rodney repeated back at her in open astonishment. "Good to you maybe. You were too young to remember, maybe, but I remember. And I'm unlikely to forget any of it."

And off they went. John was only listening with one ear, ready to interfere if the yelling actually turned violent; it was unlikely, but a distant possibility. Then he felt the tug in his guts, the world started whitening out and the nausea he had started to actually get used to returned full force.

Still worth it, John thought as he clenched his teeth shut at the roiling sensation in his stomach. And they were, the memories, they were worth it. His last thought before he lost consciousness was that even if the jumps stayed terrible like this he'd made the right decision.

#822

The last time John had infiltrated a Genii outpost, his whole team had ended up in a cell. Not this time, though. This time they just found Radek's body, a bullet in the center of his forehead. Executed.

John wasn't exactly sure how he got back to Atlantis, probably more to do with Ronon, Teyla, and Rodney than himself. John had seen a lot in the universes he'd been to. He'd had to kill a lot of people and he'd seen a lot of people killed, but Radek had always been … safe. In John's mind Radek was one of the few people who'd only ever died in his home universe. He'd often wondered why that was, what made Radek so special.

Apparently it was nothing. Luck, probably. Radek had been very lucky. But not here.

Sitting on the bed in the infirmary, John kept looking for Rodney, who was loudly complaining to Carson about one thing or another. He listened for Ronon's quiet grumble in answer, only noticing Teyla's hand on his shoulder when she squeezed a little.

"John?" she asked gently. "What is the matter?"

But there was nothing he could tell her.

Radek was supposed to have been safe. He wasn't supposed to die. All that had changed now, though, and John wasn't sure how to deal with that.

#934 (or so)

John stared at his feet in surprise. He'd never thought that at one point he'd be hovering a couple of inches above the floor without the help of a rope. "What the hell?" he asked no one in particular, not actually upset, just surprised. There had been instances where he'd had creepy gifts before. Briefly. A few times, actually, but this one was probably the first time he'd be able to do something that he loved. There was nothing creepy about this one in the least.

Shylah only gave him a smile and watched him float around his quarters.

"This is cool," John told her, and grinned, already making plans on going out for a little … stroll. He figured he deserved it.

"Yes, John." Shylah chuckled. "Don't worry, you will be able to try it out, we won't move on before you've had a chance to play a little. We're glad you can still be so happy about something. It has been a long time."

It had been, she was right. John hadn't felt like living was actually a step up from explosive decompression for a while now. It had become increasingly difficult to keep track of all the places he'd been to, as well. "I've been keeping count of how many alternate realities I've been to," he told Shylah, most of his concentration on keeping afloat a hairsbreadth above the bed. "But I think I made a mistake. Is this number 934 or 935?" Counting the different universes had become a ritual. To be able to say "I'm now in alternate universe 934" in front of the mirror before he ventured outside of his quarters. That way it hit home that he was in a different universe, and nothing was the same as before. Not knowing for sure made him unbelievably uncomfortable.

It wasn't something he'd ever let Shylah know, even though he was sure she was aware of it anyway. She often seemed to be aware of what was going on in his head. John knew that the Ancients in the group that had snatched him had a close eye on anything he was doing. They were most likely around him 24/7, watching him, taking notes, or doing God knew what. There had been a time when John had been angry by the mere thought of it, but not anymore. He didn't have the energy to be upset.

"Is that really important?" Shylah asked, but she didn't sound surprised, confirming John's suspicion about her.

"Yeah. It is." It was very important. The little things were what kept John sane. Concentrating on the "now," on the people around him, finding the differences and the consistencies in how they acted and how they felt. Seeing how Elizabeth was usually the diplomat, careful in whatever she did, and Rodney was generally stubborn and a genius. How Teyla was mostly graceful and a born leader, and Ronon dependable and loyal. How Atlantis brightened around him as he passed and the smell of the ocean that was the same wherever he went. It was … reassuring.

"933. You lost count three universes ago. And before you ask, you've been jumping for close to six years now. "

He dropped onto his bed, absentmindedly noting that he'd have to work on the landing. "933," he muttered, more to himself than to Shylah. God, almost six years. He's been gone from his Atlantis longer than he'd been living in it in the first place. It was a sobering thought that pained him more than he wanted to admit. Such a long time. It hadn't felt like six years though. That was another reason why John counted universes – jumps as she had just put it – and not days or years. Time seemed to have a different quality, in some universes it seemed to stretch, in others it flew. He never would have guessed it had been that long already since he had lost his own identity, his life, his friends. But it still hurt. It still hurt so damn much every time he arrived in yet another universe and saw another set of people who were not his friends, alive and kicking, knowing it was his job to make sure they actually stayed that way. Knowing that there might come a time again when he would have to let one of them die. Some days John wondered how he had managed to stay sane through all of this.

"Alright." He did notice the worried frown on Shylah's face, the way she looked at him like she was trying read his mind, or at least make sense of him. Maybe something of what he had been thinking had shown on his face. But he didn't care. He couldn't care.

"I believe you are in need of a place to rest for a while. A few days, perhaps?"

"Here?" John asked, and thought of the things he could do, see, if he could fly around for a few days. The thought alone made him a little giddy.

Shylah shook her head. "No, not here. There are a few things coming up that need absolute control over these powers and you won't be able to gain that in just a few hours. It took John most of his childhood to figure out what he can do and can't. But soon. A few days, to rest and recuperate. You need those."

Sighing, John let her voice fade into the background as she started to talk about the mission.

#1094

"Why can't I do the same for Lorne as I did for Rodney?" John asked, seriously wishing Shylah had come with a manual because he couldn't fucking understand her sometimes. Actually, he didn't want to understand her at times like this. He really didn't get why he couldn't go into Lorne's dreams and help him against the nightmare Sheppard. There was no reason why it shouldn't work.

"If you do that, this Sheppard will die. It worked with Rodney because you and he are very close, and he has abilities that others do not," Shylah told him with an unaffected air. By now John knew that it was just an act; Shylah felt everything too much, but she was very good at hiding it. Not good enough, though.

John's eyebrows went up. "You're saying it only worked because Rodney is a genius? Well, Lorne isn't stupid, I'm sure–"

"Major Lorne is intelligent, but he is no Rodney McKay," Shylah said. "You're forbidden from interfering. No heroics, no trying to save his life."

"But he'll die," John snapped at her.

Shylah looked at him, then she turned away, already starting to vanish. "Exactly."

#1458

The hardest thing of all was to do nothing. Just letting things happen. It wasn't John's favorite thing to do, at all. Actually, it made him itchy. Those missions, they were the worst. Especially knowing something bad was going to happen. It was even worse when, through his inactivity, someone had to die. He remembered the exploding tumors. Remembered thinking that he preferred Rodney's kind of genius to the Ancients' craziness. But back then he could at least do something. Here he couldn't even try for real. No one was looking at him oddly, though. Maybe because he was so on edge that he was snapping at the engineers to go faster. Of course, it was too late.

He could have stopped it, too, had Shylah allowed it.

"Fuck," John muttered viciously, as the explosion rocked Atlantis. That was when the engineers finally managed to open the door that let them into the infirmary.

Carson was already dead.

#1563

Some versions of Atlantis felt so much like home, the humming in the back of John's skull eliciting thoughts like "I'm home" and "I love you" and "this is where I belong" instead of "this is so wrong" and "just a while until I can leave." The universe he was in right then was strange. John felt at home here; if it hadn't been for the fact that his Atlantis had been destroyed and he'd been there to witness it, then he'd have said this was it. The whispers of the city as he walked the corridors was pitch perfect, the corridors led where they were supposed to, and the people he met and knew were exactly how they had been in John's home universe. However, everything else didn't fit. The city wasn't blue, like the water all around; it was softly hued in reds and oranges, totally foreign and strange. And there were people everywhere.

Intellectually John knew all the facts. That this Atlantis had never been attacked by three Hive ships. That they had sent letters home once, just once, but had never received an answer. That, when they had finally located a ZPM that they could actually keep, they'd dialed Earth at least twenty times before giving up. It was all there, in his head, but seeing it was different from the kind of knowing that came with the memories.

This Atlantis had survived the past 5 years without Earth, without the Daedalus. John had become something of a guiding star to the people that had gravitated towards the protection of the city of the Ancestors.

They'd built a life here, a good one. With John as de facto leader of a city that was bustling with people.

It was scary in a way John had never experienced before. Even when he'd jumped into places where he had been in charge of Atlantis it hadn't been like this; he had never been alone. There had always been Earth, the SGC, and the IOA, sticking their noses in, sending orders, and just generally being a pain. But here there was no one to fall back on, no requisitions, and no supplies. There were only them and their allies. Only the things they could manufacture themselves or trade for. The whole thing was scary, yes, but it was also freeing.

"Sheppard," someone exclaimed, voice happy and full of pleasure, right before John was engulfed in a hug that nearly broke his ribs. "It is good to see you. The Prime of Sateda sends his greetings."

That was when John blinked up at the man who had already let him go again and recognized Ronon. His hair was shorn short and he was clean shaven; it was his voice and his eyes that tipped John off, right before he could connect the memories of this man to the name.

"Ronon Dex," John said, and smiled. He loved this place so much. This was Ronon how he could have been without his planet destroyed, without having been a Runner for all those years. "How are you doing? Back, I see. We've missed you."

Ronon laughed; John had never seen him like that before. "I'm sure you have. How is the council doing? I've heard a few bad things."

"Oh, same old, same old. The bickering never ceases, you know how old men can be," John answered.

"I sure know how McKay can be," Ronon said, and laughed again. "How is he, anyway? He wasn't there to welcome us back. So not him."

John grimaced. Rodney was the reason he was here and he'd just been on his way to see him. "Rodney ate something bad, he's in the infirmary." With sudden urgency he reminded himself that if he didn't hurry, Rodney might never actually leave the infirmary alive. "Wanna come?"

"It would be an honor, Sheppard."

Ronon was talking happily while they walked side by side. It was baffling, but in a good way.

"I don't want to eat that," Rodney's voice drifted towards them when they were only a corridor away from the infirmary. "Last time it made me feel sick to my stomach." His voice sounded rough and nasal from the cold he'd been recovering from before he'd eaten the wrong meal. John walked faster until he was almost running. He was scared for Rodney, really, really scared.

He arrived just in time to see the nurse glare at Rodney and hear her heated "in that case you'll have to starve, because I'm not getting you anything else."

"Hey, Rodney," John said, and the nurse whirled around, blushing furiously with embarrassment. "How are you doing?"

"'m good," Rodney muttered. He looked everything but good, though, and John wished desperately that Jennifer wasn't away on a mission right now. She'd have ripped the nurse a new one for treating a patient like that, even a trying patient like Rodney. "Just sick."

Alarm bells went off in his head; Rodney didn't do "just sick". Generally he was acting as if he was dying; if he wasn't, that meant it was really bad. Cold sweat broke out on John's skin and he hoped he wasn't too late already. "Get him something else to eat," John ordered the nurse, who bowed low and scurried off. She was a Satedan who had asked to be able to train on Atlantis only a few months ago, and John had never seen her in person before.

"It's okay, Rodney, Jennifer is going to come home soon and she'll take a look at you," John muttered soothingly, a bit surprised at the wave of protectiveness and affection that rushed through him. It was weird but he had to suppress the urge to hug Rodney and tell him everything was going to be alright. Maybe he really had cracked under the pressure of jumping now, because if he hadn't known better, John would have described the strange feeling in his chest as Rodney smiled gratefully at him as attraction. Forcing himself to focus on the task at hand, John suddenly became aware of Ronon standing next to him, frowning after the woman. John knew there would be words later; he really wouldn't want to be in her shoes. "Look who I found," John said brightly, hoping to make Rodney smile as he pointed a thumb at Ronon.

Rodney brightened and mumbled something that sounded like "hullo," then he fell silent again and John listened to Ronon's voice wash over them. He certainly wasn't going to budge until Jennifer was here, that was for certain.

#1584

"It'll be easy, John," John muttered, annoyed. "Nothing can go wrong. It'll be fun, John!" He wished Shylah was there so he could throttle her – or drown her in the copious amounts of mud he was dragging Rodney through. Her idea of fun was totally opposed to John's own. Being shot at, almost kidnapped and chased through a swamp sure wasn't it.

#1617

Some universes were unbearable. Either because they felt so close to home or because they were too far away from what John knew. He wasn't sure what was worse. Probably when everything around him was so different and yet looked the same on the surface.

There had been others who had died over the years. Elizabeth, Ronon, Carson, Teyla. But it had never been Rodney before. Not like this.

"You'll want to save him, but you can't," Shylah had said. "Rodney has to die here, I'm sorry." And she'd really sounded like she was, but that didn't help John as he was watching Rodney work through the glass of the observation room. Not getting him out, not saving him was like a physical pain to John. It was making him want to scream. Or hit something. The urge inside of John to keep Rodney safe and protected had grown over the years. It seemed to get stronger and stronger with each universe that passed. This situation right now was pure agony to John. He was going to lose Rodney. Again. Shylah hadn't told him when it'd happen, or how, just that he was not to risk this John's life.

She'd said it would go quickly, not like that was any kind of consolation. Not for John, at least.

"We know this universe will be hard on you."

No shit. It was fucking insane to force him to go through this, and John didn't know why, exactly, they thought it was a good idea. Because it wasn't. All it did was cause pain. Lots and lots of pain. John was sure by now that there were other ways to do this. Shylah might not lie to him, but she wasn't telling him everything, either. John wasn't an idiot, he could see the patterns, could see how his choices affected what other universes he went to.

Shaking like a leaf, he turned away and left. This was Rodney he was leaving behind. His best friend. The man he'd do practically anything for. Rodney, who was sarcastic and brilliant and so damn vulnerable underneath his super-genius attitude. The one John had sworn to himself he would protect. Now John had left him to die. He'd only made it to the corridor before he heard an explosion, and the world started to white out around him.

#1830

John swallowed. When he'd agreed to come to Atlantis he'd done so with the knowledge that someone else would be in charge. That he wouldn't have to make any of the hard decisions. Then he'd had to kill Sumner, and everything had changed.

"We know how much you care for all your people. But there are times when you will have to send them to do something that may lead to their death." Of course they knew. They knew everything about him and John felt claustrophobic just thinking about that. This certainly wasn't the first time they'd made him go through this kind of crap, and one of these days he'd tell Shylah that they could stop with it. That he'd learned his lesson.

"Markham," John said, barely able to get the name out.

The Marine's expression didn't change as he saluted John crisply. "Sir."

"Zelenka informed me that they're finishing the nuke in an hour. I won't order you to do this–"

"Sir, you don't have to, sir. I'm volunteering," Markham interrupted John. He grinned and then offered John his hand. "It was an honor to serve with you, sir."

#2001

"You are not allowed to ask them to look outside of Atlantis," Shylah said. "Lieutenant Ford cannot be retrieved too soon. A few hours later and nothing would have saved him. This is what is needed."

John stared at her. This was a nightmare. "I can't do that," he whispered.

"You have no choice."

#2137

"Sir," Lorne said, and handed him a stack of papers, which he was probably supposed to sign. Again. It wasn't like he'd been doing anything else the whole day. He'd been pretty unlucky and jumped right into his office. Elizabeth's office, but his in this universe. So he'd jumped into that special hell in the middle of the work day and got stuck doing administrative stuff.

"Thanks, Lorne," he muttered, wishing he could just throw them back at Lorne and tell him that they'd keep till tomorrow, but that'd have been terribly unfair to this universe's John. So he grit his teeth, forced his hand to relax enough so he wasn't about to break the pen, and kept signing his name.

Who'd have thought that being the leader of the Atlantis expedition would entail so much paperwork? He'd never seen Elizabeth sign much. Or Sam, come to think of it. Alright, so he hadn't exactly spent all his time with either of them, so maybe it wasn't just him. That was only a cold comfort, though, as Chuck handed him another stack.

"This is the last lot. Seriously, John, if you wouldn't insist on doing all this the day before we dial out, then your hand wouldn't hurt so much. Also, you wouldn't forget our lunch," Rodney told him cheerfully as he sauntered in, put another stack in front of John, and then retreated rapidly. Despite being annoyed at the fact that Rodney had just brought him still more forms to sign, John found Rodney's antics oddly adorable. "Don't throw them at me this time, you'll just regret it when you spend half an hour picking them up and sorting them again." With that, Rodney vanished, and John was left with the impression that he sucked at being an administrator.

What kind of idiot left everything to the last minute? His counterpart, apparently. John shook his head over this John's work ethics, and remembered fondly how he'd always been atop his paperwork at home.

This John seemed to prefer to do the hands on stuff. From the amount of reports and forms John had had to sign, he got the impression that he preferred to be with the exploration teams, in the labs, and pretty much anywhere other than his office. Of course John could relate to that; he hated paperwork as well. But a city this big needed to be supplied.

The number of inhabitants had shocked John at first. This Atlantis was teeming with life, and there'd been numerous activations of the Stargate since he'd jumped in. Every five minutes. On the dot. Like a schedule. Knowing himself it probably was a schedule as well. People came and went and he was probably behind on the signing, because he'd been so fascinated with everything that he'd been looking out of the windows more than on his reports.

Maybe he wasn't that different from this universe's John ….

The Athosians were there; John had seen Halling with a group once, and there were several other natives he didn't know just from looking at them. Some of them were wearing Earth style dress in addition to their own homespun wardrobe, and John couldn't help but feel a little jealous of what they'd done with this Atlantis.

From what Shylah had told him, from comments he'd overheard just outside of his office – apparently he also had an open office rule – and from reports he'd read over the course of the day, John had figured that he'd taken over lead on the city after Sumner had died. It had happened pretty early on during their stay in Pegasus, and instead of turning people away to fight for survival all by themselves, this John had taken them in. They'd been welcomed with open arms and settled inside the city or on the mainland, turning Atlantis into a bustling metropolis instead of a ghost city.

Maybe it wasn't so bad that he'd been chained to his office; John didn't know if he would have been able to walk through Atlantis and stop staring, pretending it wasn't all new to him. This. This was what Atlantis could have been. What they could have been. It was exactly what John had always imagined. A part of him couldn't help but be proud of his counterpart, of what he'd done here, bit by bit: giving the people of the Pegasus Galaxy a chance to fight back, to survive.

It was great.

#2471

"Would you just stop it?" John yelled at Shylah, and watched with satisfaction as she flinched back. "I got it already. I can't save everybody and sometimes it's necessary for people to die, but I can't take it anymore."

Shylah winced. "I can't–"

"The fuck you can't. Next time you put me in a situation where one of my people dies and you tell me they have to fucking die, I'll do everything I can to save them. I don't care about what you're doing, or what lesson I'm supposed to learn. It was hard enough to watch them die once, but over and over again?" It was no empty threat. Seeing Rodney's lifeless body, sucked dry and discarded in a corridor next to the ZPM, had unhinged John just a little bit. Okay, a lot. It had felt like someone had ripped away a part of himself. Despite knowing that there was nothing he could do for Rodney any more, John had knelt down beside his friend and had cradled the frail, wizened body to his chest, murmuring Rodney's name over and over again. He just couldn't bear it. He really couldn't.

John was certain that if something like this ever happened again, he'd start screaming and never stop again. This was Rodney for god's sake. Rodney with his agile hands and his big smile. The man who could talk a mile a minute and looked like a kid at Christmas day at the mentioning of a ZPM. Rodney, who was brilliant and sarcastic and sometimes so incredibly clueless, that John winced in sympathy. Rodney, who loved chocolate and coffee and who was the best, most loyal friend anyone could wish for.

That man was gone. Killed because some stupid, arrogant alien bitch with a holier-than-thou attitude had forbidden John to save him. But John wouldn't stand for it any more. This torture was going to end here and now.

"This isn't gonna happen again. Do you understand?" John asked.

Shylah nodded. "I do."

John really hoped she did, because if she fucked with him again like this, she'd regret it. John would rather be sent off to die himself than watch Rodney die just one more time.

This sick game Shylah and her peers were playing was going to end. One way or the other.

#2537 (or so)

The moment the nausea faded and John could actually feel his own body, he knew something was wrong. Seriously, seriously wrong. He felt awful, his balance was all off, his limbs seemingly too long and uncoordinated, and when John looked down himself, he suddenly realized why.

He was in the body of a kid. A teen, no more than maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. John groaned and glared accusingly at Shylah, who sat on the bed in his old bedroom on Earth and studied him with an amused smile.

"Oh you've got to be kidding me," John said, completely terrified at the thought of being stuck in this teenaged body for an unknown length of time. That age had been pure hell for him the first time around, and John had no interest at all in going through it again.

"No, John, I am very serious. This is a dire situation. You are about to go to a math summer camp where you will meet Rodney," Shylah explained, and a very bad feeling settled into the pit of John's stomach. "He's just been told that he will never be a professional piano player by a very jealous and quite vindictive teacher. Rodney has given up the thing that means most to him in his life – making music. His parents are no help to Rodney, and his sister is still too young to understand what is going on with him. If you do not interfere, Rodney will become depressive and he will kill himself within the next two months."

Shylah's words felt like a blow to John. Suicide? Rodney? Never! Rodney might not have had a happy childhood, but to break him badly enough that he would take his own life … John felt suddenly very, very cold.

"You need to make sure that he picks up piano playing again and that he gets a decent teacher this time," Shylah went on, apparently completely oblivious to what was going on inside John at the moment. Completely uncaring about what would happen to Atlantis if Rodney ended up giving concerts instead of being the genius that saved all of their asses on a regular basis. As if in cue, Shylah said, "There are no Stargates in this universe, John, and Rodney is supposed to become the most famous composer and concert pianist of the century."

John sighed and mentally prepared to be patronized and ordered around again. Being an adult stuck in a teenager's body sucked even more than being a teenager in the first place.

"So I help him keep his music and that's it? We're … they're never gonna meet again?" John asked, and just now realized that hearing his own voice – too high and sounding too damn young – was downright creepy.

"Oh, they will meet again, that much I promise you," Shylah said, as if she knew exactly how much this kind of thing meant to John, and maybe she did. Probably she did. The thought of not being friends with Rodney, the thought of not having him in his life scared the hell out of John.

"I must be on my way now, John, and you will be off to math camp in a few hours. Oh and yes, it's indeed been 2537 jumps - almost ten years so far. I know you've been wondering about that. Please stop worrying about those numbers so much, John. It's not healthy for you. I hope you'll have a good time at the camp. Enjoy yourself," she said, smiled at him and vanished.


When John saw Rodney for the first time, he barely recognized him. A boy with huge blue eyes, a head full of blond curls, and the weight of the world on his shoulders. There was so much pain and so much helplessness in his whole posture that John wondered why the hell no one else saw it.

Inwardly cursing Rodney's parents and every other person who was responsible for Rodney's hunched shoulders and the haunted look in his eyes, John set out to make things right for Meredith Rodney McKay.

Putting on his hugest smile, John sat his tray down beside Rodney's, who was seated alone at a table in a corner of the huge dining hall. "Hey, I'm John, mind if I join you?" he asked brightly, and sat down before Rodney could reply.

Rodney looked at him with wide eyed confusion before his face went blank and John had to swallow hard. He'd seen that happen a couple of times before on the grown up Rodney, but John had had no idea Rodney had resorted to that kind of technique even at the tender age of thirteen. It was disturbing.

"Are you sure you're alright? You haven't hit your head or something? Because I'm fairly certain someone like you usually doesn't waste his time with someone like me. So either you are mentally disturbed, which would be the preferable option, or this is some kind of prank, in which case I think I should tell you that I have most probably suffered through everything you could come up with at least once and it will ruin your fun, so you should better go back to your friends and sit with them at the table for the popular boys."

John blinked. Wow. Rodney hadn't even taken a breath during his rant, and that was a really remarkable achievement for someone so young. Something else he had in common with grown-up Rodney. Also, he really did sound like the Rodney John knew, even at this age. Which was sad and – John had to admit – strangely comforting, as well.

Grinning at Rodney once again he said, "I'm not crazy and it's not a prank. I'm just not all that keen on spending time with … them. And you look like you're great company. So," John reached over and placed his pudding cup on Rodney's tray, "wanna have my dessert?"

Rodney just stared at him.


It took John almost two weeks to get Rodney to talk about music and the fact that he had given it up because of some stupid teacher, and another week after that until Rodney would even go near the music room with John. Getting to know Rodney hadn't been as hard as John had thought it would be, the kid's defenses weakened by his grief and loneliness. John felt almost bad about exploiting Rodney's fragile mental state, but he reminded himself firmly that it was only for the best and would, in the end, keep Rodney from dying. That was worth a little deception.

Now there they were, standing in front of the room that held the baby grand. At first John hadn't believed his luck when he had discovered that there was a music room with a piano in it, because somehow he hadn't quite expected to find that at a math camp. But since it made his plan to get Rodney to pick up music again so much easier, John wasn't about to complain. Well, at least John had thought it would make things easier, which in reality, it didn't. But then again, the tasks Shylah gave him always were hard work.

"Listen, John, I'm sure you mean well, but I told you I've given up music. I can't do this any more. I really can't. Please don't make me. If I'm not good enough to play in the most famous halls of the world, then I don't want to play at all. What use would it be? I can do something else, something I'm really brilliant at," Rodney said once again, and John suppressed a sigh. He knew that speech by heart now.

"You promised, Rodney," John whined, knowing that most probably nothing else would work with Rodney. "You promised you'd play for me. And you don't get to postpone it, either. You promised you'd play for me today."

John didn't tell Rodney that he had arranged something for him. Or well, John's father had. When John had gotten the memories, been surprised to find that in this universe, he was the only child of business tycoon Patrick Sheppard, who quite adored his son. So much, in fact, that little Johnny could ask for the weirdest things and his father would still indulge him. This time John had called his father and had asked for him to arrange that Serena Andrews, world-renowned piano player, would come and listen to Rodney play. John had a pretty good idea about what it would take to make this wish happen and even with the memories of John's father moving heaven and earth for his son, John hadn't really believed that his father would do it. To John is was a small miracle that Patrick would do anything other than ask John if he had lost his mind – his own father had been so different. But this Patrick Sheppard here had just laughed heartily and told him he'd see what he could do, and asked if John was planning on becoming a talent scout. John's mind was still reeling at the memory of how different this universe's Patrick Sheppard was compared to the man John had grown up with himself.

Now Miss Andrews was there and had actually agreed to listen to Rodney play, but of course John couldn't just tell Rodney that. He'd never agree to it after his last teacher had crushed him. John figured he'd just have to get Rodney to play for him and then Miss Andrews would just stand by the door and listen.

John thought his plan was quite good, but getting Rodney to actually sit in front of a piano and play turned out to be much harder than John had anticipated. Rodney looked like he wanted to protest again, but John just grabbed his wrist and dragged him into the room.

"John. John no, I'm really not sure I can actually do this," Rodney said, sounding panicked and miserable as he tried to break free from John's grip, but John wouldn't let go of him.

"I know you can, Rodney. And you promised you'd play something for me. I'm sure I'll love it. Now come," John gave Rodney's wrist a little tug. "It's just me and I'm not gonna judge you, you know that."

"Oh alright, but if you find it to be clinical, emotionless, soulless, and all the other things Mr. Stronghill said it was – don't blame me. This is the last time I'm going to play, anyway. And … and I wouldn't do it if you hadn't managed to make me promise," Rodney groused. John grinned at him and let go of his wrist.

Rodney made his way over to the piano with hunched shoulders and an unhappy look upon his face. John could see how much it cost him to actually go through with his promise. John thought that, had it been for anything else than to save Rodney's life, pushing him to do this would have been incredibly cruel. But as it was, there was no other way to get Rodney to play.

Rodney sat down in front of the piano, opening it reluctantly. John could hear the pained intake of breath when the ebony and white keys were revealed. Finally, Rodney placed his hands onto the keys softly, almost reverently. John could see how much this meant to him, and how much it hurt Rodney to have given up his music.

As John watched, Rodney took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then Rodney's fingers began to fly over the keys of the piano. John didn't know the piece, but whatever it was, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Sad and aching, yet full of hope and life. John thought that Stronghill, that asshole, should be beaten for making Rodney believe that he was playing without soul. It wasn't true, not true at all.

Intellectually, John had known the teacher had been wrong, he had known that Rodney had talent; Shylah had told him about Rodney's possible future, after all. But knowing something and then actually experiencing it were always two completely different things, and this time it was like a revelation to John. Rodney's music was incredible.

John listened to him play, saw the way Rodney lost himself in his music, and John's heart ached for him. When he was done, Rodney sat there for a while, head hanging low, and when John stepped up to him, wanting to comfort him, John saw the tears on Rodney's face.

"What was that piece, Rodney? It was wonderful," John asked, and Rodney looked up, wiping over his face in obvious embarrassment.

"It's just something I wrote," he mumbled, and that was the moment when John really understood the amount of talent Rodney had.

There was a noise coming from the direction of the door, and then John could see Serena Andrews entering the room, a huge smile on her face. "That was absolutely amazing, Mr. McKay," she said.

The dumbfounded look on Rodney's face was the last thing John saw before the white light took him.

#2594

John had gotten used to having the advantage of hindsight. He'd also gotten used to being that tick too late for it to actually be useful. Maybe it should upset him more, but John figured that there was a reason. Something Shylah didn't tell him. There were a lot of things John suspected Shylah wasn't telling him. But there were things she didn't talk about, and he was discouraged to ask. Sometimes John also thought she was actively deceiving him about stuff. So much for "I will not lie to you." Her knowledge of humans was often extremely remote, as well, yet she knew enough about them to manipulate John. Funnily enough she was often so clumsy about it that John had noticed from the beginning.

With that in mind, it wasn't surprising to John that he was too late to stop Caldwell from bending over the pod. It wasn't even that surprising that he was also too late to stop Elizabeth from doing the same thing. He jumped in while Thalen and Phoebus were kissing.

"For fuck's sake," John snapped at Shylah, "your timing sucks."

Shylah looked at him with big eyes. "It's not my doing when you arrive in a universe, John, I'm just your guide."

For a moment John was tempted to yell at her, but it was pretty useless anyway. Things like that always seemed to run off of her in drops – or make her angry at him. "Let me guess, stop them from killing not only each other, but also the rest of the expedition. Have I got it right?"

"When you're like this, it is hard to speak with you," Shylah muttered, and he could see her whiten as she prepared to leave. "But yes, you are right."

She vanished quickly after that. John couldn't blame her, at least she knew when to go.

Tensing, he waited for the kiss to end, and when Phoebus/Elizabeth made a move towards the door, John grabbed the stunner from the Marine next to him. He didn't wait for anything else, first he shot Elizabeth, then Caldwell.

"What the hell?" Rodney piped up next to him and John grimaced.

He'd jumped the gun on this one and now he had to pay the price for it. "I had a bad feeling about this, Rodney," John muttered, earning a glare from Rodney for that. Instead of entering into an argument with Rodney, John turned to the Marines who were hiding their shock pretty well. "I want them in two different observation rooms. Alone, make sure they have nothing to hurt themselves with." Best way to do this: wait them out. Phoebus and Thalen were going to be done soon enough, which was all that mattered.

"Yes, sir," was the reluctant answer, but they did as they'd been told, and that was better than what John expected from Rodney.

Rodney was still glaring at John, his arms folded in front of his chest. "I didn't particularly like the idea, either, but did you have to stun them? I'm sure they'd have gone voluntarily."

Of course they'd have gone voluntarily, right up to the point where they could have gotten hold of a weapon. Then they'd have started shooting. But that was something John really couldn't tell Rodney.

John had never forgotten how it felt to be completely under the control of another consciousness. How it had felt to be a prisoner in his own head, screaming as Ronon had been gunned down. He remembered how it had felt to hurt his people, to have this stranger use him to hunt Elizabeth.

Up to then it had been one of the most terrible things to happen to John, ever. John would rather die than go through that again, and he was pretty sure that both Caldwell and Elizabeth would thank him for stopping them before anything bad could happen. John felt a stab of pity for Caldwell; first a Goa'uld and then this thing.

They'd almost reached the isolation rooms when John felt nausea swamp him before his world turned bright.

#2657

It never got any easier. Even lying down, John felt nauseous from the vertigo of the jump. The nausea was swiftly followed by the familiar hazy feeling of heavy duty painkillers, a sharp burn in his throat that John recognized as the after-effects of having been intubated, and an even sharper pain in his chest.

God, he hurt all over.

Not even the painkillers that were noticeably rushing through this body were doing much against that kind of pain. What the hell had happened? Why were the memories taking so long to come to him?

Reluctantly, John tried to move. He knew he needed to open his eyes, even though the light was hurting him. It was a different quality of light than the one that generally bothered him while traveling, but just as annoying. All in all he had no doubt about the fact that he would find himself in a hospital room of sorts; the smell of disinfectant and the sounds of medical machinery were a dead giveaway.

"When you're drugged up like this, it can take a while until the memories come to you," Shylah's voice suddenly broke through the haze; she sounded like she was smiling. "I've told you this before, but I doubt you'll remember right now." John slowly opened his eyes to see her standing at the foot of the hospital bed he was lying in. His head didn't like the action at all though, and another wave of nausea rolled through John, followed by searing pain rushing through his skull.

John suppressed a curse and whispered "Ow," instead which really was the understatement of the year. He hated waking up like this – drugged up to the gills but still in agony – and was beginning to get annoyed about the fact that he had to wait for the memories to come to him. Hopefully it wouldn't take too long, he hated not knowing what was going on with him. But maybe Shylah would at least give him a run down of what was up, until he remembered.

"I know you're uncomfortable, but all things considered this John was very lucky," Shylah said as if on cue; she really was quite dependable that way. "If he had been found a few moments later, he'd be dead now. He certainly tried his best to get killed. Not that Detective Sheppard had much in his live that was worth fighting for," Shylah went on, sounding like she was talking about the weather and not about the fact that the man John had just jumped into might actually be suicidal in every sense of the word. Really suicidal, not just the "someone has to do the job" kind of stunts John had pulled in his own universe more than just a few times.

"He tried to kill himself?" John croaked, throat hurting fiercely when he talked. Damn, he hated feeling like this. Weak and sluggish and too damn tired to keep his eyes open for more than a couple of minutes at a time. How was he supposed to fix this universe when he was stuck in a hospital bed, feeling more dead than alive?

"Oh no," Shylah announced cheerfully. "He didn't actually try to kill himself. He just didn't really do anything to not get killed, either. He became a Detective, by the way, after he was dishonorably discharged. He's got a gambling problem, is in debt way over his head and he really hates his life. It's a good thing you are going to make it all better," Shylah said with conviction, and John wondered, not for the first time, if Shylah expected him to work miracles.

"What happened? Where am I?" John asked instead, and just as he finished talking, finally, finally the memories came to him. Oh god, it was so much worse than Shylah had just made it sound. This John's life was fucked up so badly it wasn't even funny. Also, wow, this universe's Rodney was really something else. He'd gone all alpha male on this John and somehow, for some reason, this memory did something very peculiar to John's insides.

Huh. Interesting.

When it came to his behavior, this Rodney was clearly one of the most different to the Rodneys John had known, so far. Even as a woman, Rodney was usually staggeringly consistent. Not this one, though. Something about this Rodney spoke of authority and the sort of self-confidence John had often thought to be fake in the other Rodneys. More like a mask he was hiding behind than the real thing. But this Rodney? This Rodney's confidence was genuine. He was wearing suits and making threats, being all … surprisingly enough the word "hot" came to mind. Rodney in charge and in full intimidation mode, for once not berating his minions but focusing all of his considerable attention on John was strangely unsettling.

"We want you to befriend Rodney and let yourself be hired by the SGC. You need to get him to ask you to join the expedition. This Atlantis needs a John Sheppard to survive. It's vital for your mission that you not just get hired, it's very important to become friends with Rodney, as well. Good luck. You'll need it." He hated it when she added that at the end of their little chats. She was already fading before John could think of a good comeback to it. John blamed the drugs. "Good luck. You'll need it." That was Shylah-speak for "Don't fuck it up, this is important. It's also going to be hard beyond belief. I'm so glad I'm not in your shoes."

"Crap," John cursed, and a second later the sound of someone typing away on a laptop filled the air.

Rodney.

John turned his head slowly, carefully, to avoid more pain and nausea and looked at the man sitting beside the hospital bed. Rodney was wearing a suit and, all in all, didn't much look like the man John had known from his own universe.

"McKay," John rasped, attracting Rodney's attention. Rodney closed his laptop and gave John an assessing look.

"So you've finally decided to come back to the land of the living. How nice of you to grace us with your presence. I'll call for a nurse," Rodney said, his voice lacking the goodhearted teasing John had gotten used to.

"Thanks," John replied, trying to get more comfortable. His chest really did hurt a lot and the urge to cough that had been building inside of him for a few moments now grew worse by the second. But somehow John thought coughing would be a really, really bad idea.

Rodney had pressed the call button for the nurse and was watching him intently now, a frown appearing on his face. "Are you alright?" he asked, and there was a hint of … something in his voice John could not identify. "You're pale. And your lips are turning blue," he went on, just as the pain in John's chest was joined by an almost unbearable pressure.

He couldn't breathe properly. In fact, drawing breath was excruciatingly painful and hard work by now. John felt the first threats of panic grab him. Something was wrong. He was pretty sure it wasn't supposed to happen that way, he wasn't supposed to actually die. He was being send to fix things, how could he fix things if he died for real this time? Or maybe John would jump out of this John again before that? But Shylah had said this John here needed to go to Atlantis. He was important to the mission. No, he shouldn't die, John was pretty sure of that. It made no sense to put him into a dying body with no means to prevent it. But what if the Ancients had messed up? What if this body would die and John along with him? That couldn't be, could it? Shylah had promised him a new universe to stay in, after all. She had better not lied to him. John was beginning to doubt he would ever get there by now, though. He'd been jumping for so damn long and Shylah still hasn't found a new home for him yet. Maybe she really wouldn't do it. The thought scared John. But maybe it wouldn't matter any more anyway, soon because right now it looked like maybe this universe's John Sheppard wouldn't survive after all. John was feeling worse by the second. Maybe Shylah had made a mistake.

When the pressure in his chest got too strong, the struggle too hard, John did cough, which sent another wave of blinding pain through his chest, and made the world gray out for a moment. There was something wet on his lips, John noticed, but he couldn't muster enough energy to wipe it away. John was dimly aware of Rodney yelling at someone, but the words were drowned out by the rushing of blood in his ears.

A second later, his world turned dark.


When John woke the next time he wasn't in the hospital any more. He was a bit surprised that he actually did wake up again, he'd been sure enough that he'd die for good. But no, he was in the infirmary of the SGC, with the same cottony feeling of painkillers bothering him as before, but in a lot less pain. In fact, he was barely in any pain at all. Which was … odd.

Surely the SGC hadn't used Goa'uld technology to heal him? He wasn't even part of the SGC, wasn't of any importance to them, so there was no reasonable explanation of why they would do such a thing. Well, there wasn't a reasonable explanation for him being at the SGC, either, come to think of it.

"You're really one of the most annoying people I have ever met, Sheppard," Rodney suddenly snapped, stepping up to John's bed. "What is it with you and almost dying? You should be glad that some people feel very grateful to you for preventing that Wraith transmission, or else you wouldn't have survived the little pulmonary embolism you decided to have back at the hospital," Rodney said. His tone made it clear that he thought John wasn't worth the trouble he was giving them, that Rodney would rather have had another version of John Sheppard, maybe one of those alternatives he had met.

Can't help you with that, buddy, John thought. I'm just in charge temporarily and you have to make do with what you have. It was odd, how uncomfortable he was with any thoughts of this universe's version of John Sheppard. Yes, the guy had been treated pretty badly, yes he'd had a tough time, but that was no reason to start gambling and throwing his life away. Not when there were others who were far worse off. Not when there were still people who cared about him. Not when what John had been doing was nothing but slow suicide. The cowardly way out, and John had never thought of himself as a coward. So why this? Why choose this life? What the hell had motivated this John to just give up like that?

John was annoyed that this time, the memories he had gotten didn't give him the answers to those questions – not without the feelings that should accompany them. Maybe this John Sheppard had PTSD? John wouldn't be surprised.

"Um, I'm sorry?" John finally asked.

Rodney rolled his eyes at him. "You're not supposed to be sorry; you're supposed to be grateful. We saved your life. You're going to be alright pretty soon. Question is, what are you going to do with your life now, since it doesn't seem to mean a lot to you." Rodney's tone was cold. "I've not yet decided if you are just incredibly stupid or if you really have a death wish."

Quite frankly, that was a question John would have liked to have the answer to, as well.

John sighed. "Listen, McKay, I know I'm not the guy you'd like me to be. I'm not a super-hero fighting space aliens kind of guy. I'm just me. I'm a detective who's barely getting by and who has a gambling problem. I can't be one of your poster boy soldiers, no matter if you like it, or not," John said, improvising. "There is no mystery about why I did what I did. I saw the trailer, I thought I could help, I followed my gut feeling. End of story. Nothing more to it."

"You were told not to engage," Rodney snapped irritably, and stared at John coldly, hands in the pockets of his suit pants. No hand waving, no nervous pacing. This version of Rodney had a tight control over his body.

John raised an eyebrow at him, going for sarcasm rather than anger. "Yeah, and we both know how great I am at following orders."

"The last time you didn't follow orders, you were doing a honorable yet incredibly stupid thing. Which brings me back to the question of your sanity. We've rescued you because you saved Earth. And I'm not looking for a poster boy soldier, none of the John Sheppards I met was one. You're too damn rebellious and self-sacrificing for that. Every single version of you that I've known. I'm just here to try and figure out if you're actually worth our time." Rodney was still not moving an inch, just eying John in a way that made John's blood run cold.

"And how are you going to do that?" John asked, finding that he actually would like to have an answer to that question. It would make this mission so much easier.

But Rodney just kept looking at him for a moment longer, a thoughtful expression rushing over his face before he turned around and walked away. "We've paid your gambling debt. Once you're healthy again, you're free to leave. Have a good life, if you can manage, Detective Sheppard," Rodney said, without turning back around.

John groaned. Great, just great.


John sat in the mess hall of the SGC, pushing his food around on his plate. To his great surprise he'd been allowed to walk around the base freely once he had signed the non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements. Now, nine days after last seeing Rodney, John was almost well enough to leave, and he was still not one step closer to actually make this mission a success.

Of his objectives, John hadn't fulfilled either one, yet. There had been no invitation to join the Atlantis expedition issued yet, and Rodney wasn't about to declare his deep and abiding friendship to John, either. That last bit was actually as likely to happen as a snowstorm in hell.

"I heard Dr. Keller is going to release you in two days," Rodney's voice came out of nowhere, startling John. He looked up from his food to see Rodney standing in front of him, try with dinner in his hands. John had been so lost in his thoughts that he hadn't noticed Rodney's approach.

Rodney seemed completely disinterested in what would happen once John had been released and John wondered if Rodney really was indifferent about whether or not John joined the expedition. It was a bit unnerving that this Rodney's expression wasn't giving away any of his thoughts. John had become so used to being able to read Rodney like an open book by now that it was unsettling that this Rodney managed to keep things from him.

"Yes, she says I'm pretty much good as new, thanks to you guys," John said, and smiled at Rodney, who was still looking down on John dispassionately. "Why don't you sit down, McKay? We could talk about why you've been making yourself scarce."

Rodney sat without commenting on John's accusation of having been avoiding him, and began to eat. John decided to leave him be for a while, he had a feeling if he pushed Rodney too hard, Rodney wouldn't say anything at all.

"So you've used your charm and your ATA gene to get O'Neill to ask you to come to Atlantis with us," Rodney finally said, and John had to hide his surprise. He hadn't known he was actually going to be asked to join the mission. Somehow John had assumed it had to be Rodney's decision because Shylah had said the befriending part was important after all. Seemed like John had at least managed to reach his goal partly. The invitation had been issued. It was a start, John supposed. But he also knew that getting into Rodney's good graces and starting to make friends with him would be the way harder part of his mission.

John raised an eyebrow. "I did?" He grinned at Rodney knowing in any other universe Rodney would have rolled his eyes or laughed at his antics. Not this Rodney though. John felt a stab of pain at that. He missed the easy camaraderie he and the other Rodneys had shared in most of the universes he had been to.

Rodney put down his cutlery and fixed John with a glare. "Listen, Sheppard," he said in a cold tone, "this is not some kind of game. It is nothing you can take lightly or make fun of. People are dying out there. Good people, who want nothing but to keep Earth safe. I'm supposed to offer you the chance to come to Atlantis with us, which I think is a really bad idea, but O'Neill seems to be convinced that you could be of help. Personally, I think it will be just one more chance for you to fuck up royally and endanger my friends, in the process." He looked away from John and started to eat again.

John swallowed hard. Rodney's words hurt. John was used to Rodney being his friend, or at least on friendly terms, and the outright hostility Rodney was treating him with really cut deep.

"I'll decline the offer if you want me to," John finally said, looking down at his tray before pushing it away. He wasn't hungry anyway. John knew that he couldn't take the offer if Rodney really was completely opposed to the idea. It would be hell to both of them and John feared he would be stuck in this universe for a long time to come if he destroyed all his chances at having a friendship with Rodney in this way. If necessary, John would have to try and convince Rodney that John could be beneficial to the Atlantis expedition at a later date. Maybe John could stay t the SGC for a little longer, say that he needed time to sleep on it. It should be possible, now that O'Neill had agreed to let him go to Atlantis. The dial out was still more than a week away as far as John knew and John had until then to warm Rodney up to the idea of taking John with him to Atlantis. Because One thing john knew: rushing things would get him nowhere with this Rodney.

"Don't be ridiculous. You'd be stupid if you didn't take the offer. Why the hell would you not want to go?" Rodney asked, to John's great surprise. He didn't however answer Rodney's question, as it had clearly been a rhetorical one. "I've seen your reaction to the chair and the darts and all the other things I showed you. During the last few days you have been actively behaving like someone O'Neill would want to put on the expedition. Don't tell me you don't want to go." Rodney still had himself under rigid control, but a hint of anger was creeping into his voice and posture.

John sighed. He wished Rodney would just open up to him, would be a bit more like the friend John had gotten so used to. Unsure of how to make Rodney see that John would be worth the risk of taking him to Atlantis, John decided to face the problems head on. "Listen, McKay. I know you think that I'm not good enough to come with you. I know you don't like me, and you'd like to get rid of me as fast as possible. What I don't get is why you're here. You could have just delivered your message and been gone again. No need to sit down with me and talk. So, what are you not telling me? What is it that you want from me?"

John swallowed. God, saying all those things had hurt and John wasn't sure how Rodney would react to hearing them said out loud. That they had been hanging unspoken between them hadn't been any better though and John was glad he'd actually brought them out in the open. It still had been a hard thing to do. John had learned a long time ago that just because he had had to do a lot of painful things in the past universes – killing people or standing by as he watched them die for example – didn't make it any easier on him in the current universe. It seemed he never got used to doing or saying certain stuff. It always hurt no matter how often he'd had to do it by now. John suspected that this was one of the things that wouldn't change. And to be honest, he wasn't sure he wanted it to change.

Would he really want to become so insensitive, so numb that he could have talks such as this without feeling absolutely crappy? Would John really want to turn into a person who could watch Ronon or Teyla, Carson or Rodney die without feeling the pain of the loss burning like fire in his chest? Would John really want to be that kind of person?

No. The thought alone that John would one day be completely indifferent about whether or not people around him were in physical or emotional pain – or even died – was absolutely appalling.

And that Rodney was bothered by their talk as well was becoming apparent to John more and more by the minute.

"What I want, Detective Sheppard, is of no importance. We both know we don't always get what we want – or deserve for that matter, don't we?" There was hurt in Rodney's voice now, faintly, but it was there. The anger John had recognized before was back full force, as well, but it was still only noticeable if someone knew Rodney really well. That was amazing and terrifying to John at the same time.

This Rodney didn't react in any predictable way. He wasn't like any of the other Rodneys or Merediths he had met – and there had been a damn lot of them.

"So in your opinion I don't deserve to go to Atlantis with you, then," John said, feeling a sting at the thought of Rodney actually despising him. Rodney was the person John cared for and depended on most in all of his travels. To have him be so outright hostile was hard to take for John.

His comment earned John a stern glare from Rodney, who said, "If you are jumping to conclusions like this, Sheppard, it's no wonder it took you three tries to make it to Detective. You know nothing about me, so don't go around making assumptions. The SGC – especially O'Neill – seems to have a soft spot for you. I agree with O'Neill in the regard that kicking you out for trying to do the right thing was an unwise decision, because, having met other versions of you, I actually think you usually care for others. Unfortunately for you, you lost that capability somewhere along the way. And that makes you stupid and dangerous, in my point of view," he still stared John down, his voice cold and hard and unforgiving. John didn't know what to make of this Rodney, who was so cruel, disillusioned, and deliberately rude instead of just socially inept. It was a strange combination and one John didn't care for at all. It was a skill John was sure could actually destroy a person completely – and he was reasonably sure Rodney was aware of that.

Trying to set things straight, John started to say, "Listen, McKay–"

"No, Sheppard," Rodney interrupted John immediately, "I don't want to hear it. You've messed up, they kicked you out, I get that. There were casualties, so what? Life sucks. You know it, I know it. But then you suck it up and carry on. That's what you should have done. You should have gotten help for your damn PTSD instead of throwing your life away like a coward," Rodney said, and John agreed wholeheartedly with him. This John had fucked up. Big time. But maybe he would get the chance to make things right. John hoped that would be the case.

"You're pathetic and if I had more time I'd insist you get therapy before I take you to Atlantis with me. But as it is, I also think there's still hope for you. When I first met you, you said you didn't really care if anyone could live with you, knowing what you've done. I think that's not quite true. I think you do care. It's why you've been running from everyone. It's why you'd rather die than get attached to anyone or anything again. But you've changed since that first time we talked. And that's good enough for me. Don't disappoint me or you'll regret it."

John swallowed hard. It's why you'd rather die than get attached to anyone or anything again. Rodney didn't know how damn right he was. And it hurt. Fuck, it hurt so damn awfully to hear those words said to his face. It didn't matter that Rodney hadn't meant really him but the John who was actually living in this universe, Rodney's accusation was still spot on. John really couldn't allow anyone to get close to him. Neither physically nor emotionally. John just couldn't risk it, wouldn't be able to bear to lose the connection again once he jumped and was yet again transported to another universe. All it would was to bring more pain. And John had had enough of that to last him a lifetime. Several lifetimes. Not that it mattered. He wouldn't get out of the deal with the Ancients now. He'd have to see it through to the end.

Rodney scowled at John, clearly waiting for any kind of reaction from John's side and John had to admit that this scrutiny slightly unsettled him. This Rodney was a no-nonsense kind of person, and to John's great embarrassment, Rodney's alpha male behavior made John's stomach do little flips. Which was so not funny. Even if the John of this universe were inclined that way, this Rodney here was married – the gold band on his finger made that quite clear – and wouldn't want someone like John anyway. He'd pretty much told John he despised him. Which also wasn't a surprise; John's life in this universe was a right mess.

"I dunno what to say to that," John replied, because he honestly didn't. All he knew was that he needed to get through to Rodney, to make him understand. To make him see that this John deserved a chance. An opportunity to go to Atlantis. A chance to prove he could do better than just being a run down Detective with an addiction and a secret death wish. He needed to do it, so this John would have a better life sometime soon. "I'm trying, alright? Do you honestly think I like the way I live? You think I like being alone, barely getting by?" John swallowed hard and had to force himself to actually get those words out. He hadn't been just talking about the John he'd jumped in just now. John was more than familiar with that feeling of absolute, almost unbearable loneliness that the John he was standing in for must have felt. The only difference was that this John here had brought this situation on himself at least partly. John hadn't had a choice other than agreeing to the Ancients wishes or taking his chance with ascension. Somehow John felt like he was being punished for having chosen like that and his sentence was all-encompassing loneliness for however long it would take to reach this one universe where he would stay. Of course John knew that that was his guilt speaking as well, but he just couldn't help feeling that way.

Rodney was frowning at him now and John decided that he needed to say something else, needed to bait him with a few words, make him curious. John settled for, "Maybe you don't know everything about me after all, Dr. McKay, if you believe I actually enjoy this whole 'solitary man' bullshit."

Rodney studied him for a moment, an unreadable expression on his face. "You're surprising me," he said after a moment. There was a hint of suspicion in his voice, and John's stomach clenched with instant panic. Uh-oh. Not good. Nervous from Rodney's unrelenting stare, he forced himself to stay calm and not fidget in his chair. "Something about you is different," Rodney said, and it was the tone of voice that usually led to John ending up in a holding cell. There were a few tense moments were John almost didn't dare to draw a breath, being scared he'd been found out again. But then Rodney abruptly stood and said, "Maybe you're not a completely hopeless case."

John tried not to show the relief he felt. He'd have to be careful not to give himself away. Getting stuck locked up in this universe here would almost equal the failure of his mission – something John just couldn't risk.

"General O'Neill awaits you in his office at 1700 hours sharp to discuss your role on the Atlantis mission. I hope that for once in your life you don't mess things up. This is a once in a lifetime chance, Sheppard. Don't make me regret my decision, I meant it when I said I can destroy your life."

Rodney turned and walked away without another glance back.


John was bored. He was bored in a way he hadn't been in a very long time. There was nothing really for him to do on Atlantis. Not until Rodney trusted him completely. Sure, he'd been allowed to come – O'Neill had even invented a title and position for him – but there was nothing he was actually allowed to do. At least not on his own.

He wasn't allowed into the 'jumper bay, let alone near the 'jumpers. He wasn't allowed to be alone in the labs. He wasn't allowed to touch any ancient devices without supervision from a select list of scientists. He wasn't allowed to go to the shooting range, since apparently he couldn't be trusted with a weapon on Atlantis just yet. In short, John wasn't allowed to do anything at all. Nothing fun, at least. But John was sure that if he offered to clean the sewers, they'd let him do that all on his own.

Walking around Atlantis aimlessly, John finally ended up in a small room that seemed to be used for storage. There was a still unerased whiteboard in one corner and boxes upon boxes with presumably broken ancient devices were filling the shelves. Rodney's pristine handwriting labeled them, and if John had been interested, he could have checked what was in them.

John grinned. This was the perfect place to hide out in for a while, because he really was sick and tired of thinking 'on' at some ancient gizmo or the other. John had never imagined that he could be so bored while actually doing something. He'd needed to get away from the labs for a while and it looked like he had found what he had been searching for. This place was perfect for his purposes. Surely no-one would go looking for him in a random storage room.

Curious, John eyed the scribbling on the whiteboard. The handwriting seemed vaguely familiar, but John couldn't quite place it right then and there. It was an equation of sorts, and John thought that they might have worked on that in his own universe, or in one of the ones he had inhabited over the last few years, really.

The physics behind it was still a bit too high for John, even though he had gotten used to dealing with that kind of stuff, but the math was easy. He could most probably work on the equation a bit without doing any damage, and no-one would be the wiser. It was going to be fun.

Having come to a decision, John wiped out the part of the equation he knew to be faulty. It wasn't obvious, but John saw it because, by now, he knew what to look out for. Taking the one lone black marker from the bottom of the whiteboard, he began to write.


"What the hell do you think you're doing?" The unusually angry voice of Rodney McKay startled John out of the productive phase he'd been in. This was the first time John had heard this Rodney losing his composure that way. John turned around slowly, and was surprised to see Rodney's eyes ablaze with anger, his hands balled to tight fists at his sides. He was obviously livid, even though John couldn't even begin to guess what had set him off.

"I was just–" John began, but was interrupted as Rodney grabbed him and dragged him away from the whiteboard forcefully.

"How dare you touch this? How dare you erase … erase what Sam worked so hard on? You don't even realize what you've done. I knew it. I knew you'd be nothing but trouble. All you are capable of is destruction. Get out of my sight. Get out I said!" Rodney all but yelled, shoving at John until John found himself in the corridor in front of the storage room

John blinked, surprised. What the hell had just happened?


Two hours later John was none the wiser. He'd assumed that the "Sam" in question was Samantha Carter, but her file in the database was locked, and John couldn't override the security lock. He wasn't part of the command crew here, after all.

The chiming of his door signal surprised John a bit. He didn't expect anyone, and he was pretty sure Rodney wouldn't come after him, invade his privacy, and lecture him again, would he?

Thinking the door open, John was more than surprised to find it was indeed Rodney who was standing there, but he didn't look like he was about to lecture John. In fact he looked tired and weary in a way John was only too used to seeing by now. The tight control this Rodney had always had on his feelings and emotions so far was slipping, and John found he didn't like that at all. It just didn't seem right for the Rodney of this universe. This Rodney was much more self-confident and in control of himself and his emotions than any of the other ones John had met. In a way, that was something that John found very appealing. It gave John hope that not all Rodneys in all universes had been mistreated and had to hide their insecurities behind sarcasm and biting words. To John, this Rodney who was so genuinely confident and secure in his ways had been a sliver of hope he had thought long lost.

To see this Rodney now so vulnerable seemed wrong, and John wanted to wipe that pinched, hurting look off his face and make him smile.

"Can I come in?" Rodney asked, hovering in the doorway. "I need to talk to you."

"Sure, come on in," John said, very carefully keeping his tone light.

Rodney stepped into the room, chin raised and hands clasped together behind his back. Everything about him screamed 'uncomfortable.' "I think I owe you an explanation," Rodney said, looking John directly into the eyes.

"You owe me nothing, McKay. Everyone has a bad day now or then. It's no big deal. I shouldn't have been in that room in the first place. So, don't sweat it. We're good." John said, trying his best to make Rodney relax and go back to his normal self.

"You may be used to behavior such as the one I displayed earlier, but I usually have myself under better control. I shouldn't have said the things I did. But in my defense, I have to say there actually is a good explanation for my lack of control," Rodney said, ignoring John's words.

"Alright, if you insist on talking about it, let's hear it. Why does the writing on an old whiteboard in a storage room make you lose your temper? I didn't manage that even once until today, even though I was sorely tempted to try it, a few times. You're just way too uptight most of the time. Now tell me what does this "Sam" person have to do with you blowing up into my face?" John asked, careful to not give away the fact that he knew who Sam was.

"She was my wife. Sam, I mean. The equation on the whiteboard? It's the last thing she worked on, before she died. She never quite managed to pinpoint where she went wrong. I'm sure she'd have found the problem eventually, but then the Wraith attacked and she died, and I just put the whiteboard aside and never touched it again." There was no pain in Rodney's voice, barely any emotion at all, and John inwardly cursed himself for bringing up the past. Even if he hadn't known about Sam and the fact that Rodney had been married, it still made John feel guilty.

But before John could say anything, before he could apologize, Rodney stepped up to him, close. His body language changed he turned back into the man John – this universe's John – had first seen all that time ago in the interrogation room.

The one in charge.

The alpha male.

The one who was self-confident and a little intimidating and just so damn hot.

"You've been holding out on me, Sheppard. Who would have thought that under all that messy hair of yours is an actual working brain? Somehow I'm not sure if I should be angry at you or kiss you," Rodney said conversationally. "You've solved Sam's equation. You're not actually half as stupid as you made everyone – including yourself apparently – believe. Why on Earth does a person capable of doing that kind of math waste his life playing Detective in the middle of nowhere? You are capable of asking for help, I know that for certain. Kate told me you've been seeing her regularly. And before you protest, she told me so you can go and do something else rather than just playing light switch for less than talented scientists."

Rodney's little speech was only half-registering with John. Somehow his brain was stuck at "kiss you." That one had thrown John for a loop. Rodney had been married, and until just a few minutes ago there had been no indication whatsoever that Rodney had any interest in men in a sexual way, least of all John. But his behavior right at this moment could easily be described as predatory. And John was his prey.

Which was … odd. Well, not more odd than a couple of dozen of other things that had happened to John throughout the years, but still odd. Why hadn't John noticed it if Rodney was interested in him this way? Why hadn't he noticed in any of the other universes? Because if it happened here, then it would have happened elsewhere as well. John had noticed that the Ancients liked to send him to places that had a lot of similarities with each other. Like an endless amount of variations of the same theme.

John had always cared for Rodney. He'd wanted to keep him safe, to make sure nothing happened to him. Of course, that was something that one did for their best friend. But then John remembered how his heart skipped a beat when Rodney smiled at him in that one, special way, how he loved to say something to make Rodney rant, because then his eyes lightened up. How John liked to watch Rodney's hands move over the keyboard or a console, how he liked to have Rodney by his side during missions. It wasn't just because Rodney was his friend; it wasn't just because Rodney was the only one who was his equal on the expedition.

Oh God, he really never saw it coming, did he? He was actually attracted to Rodney. Wow. John blinked as the realization had hit him like a bucket of ice-water. He, John Sheppard, was indeed attracted to his male best friend. The thought itself wasn't that much of a problem; John had never had a problem with homosexuality. There was no way he could care less about what people did in their bedrooms. John had played by the rules of the Air Force his whole life, he'd kept his mouth shut and his nose out of other people's business.

But now, in a universe he was a stranger in, with someone John suddenly found he loved more than he had thought possible before, John was also afraid. Because in this case Rodney seemed to be attracted right back.

As John was still trying to figure out what to do, Rodney moved closer, confidence back in his posture and all thoughts fled. It had been so long since he'd been touched like this, since someone John had wanted had wanted him, as well. It's not me he wants. The thought hurt, but John couldn't step back, didn't want to.

Rodney was studying him intently now and it was actually quite hot. When Rodney put his left hand flat onto John's chest, John realized he wasn't wearing his wedding ring any more. Rodney must have done some thinking in the two hours since they had parted. Knowing Rodney, it had been an awful lot of thinking. Or maybe he'd had a revelation, just like John. It didn't matter.

"No comments from your side?" Rodney asked pointedly, and John realized that he should say something. Anything, really.

"Well, you said I should get help for my PTSD and you were right. I got a second chance, McKay, and I'll do whatever it takes to prove to you that I won't mess things up this time. As for why I'm Detective … I couldn't afford to finish my degrees. But now that I've outed myself, maybe you will give me something else to do than think 'on' at your little gizmos all day," John teased, and he noticed how Rodney stared at his lips.

Okay, that was fast.

Really fast.

Rodney was outdoing himself again and moving ahead quickly. If John wasn't mistaken, Rodney had come to a decision and he'd go for it.

"If you don't want this, Sheppard, now's the time to tell me. Otherwise, we can discuss the fascinating new possibilities that just opened up for you at another time. I think I can find a better way to occupy your mouth than with talking now," Rodney said, and coming from anyone else it might have sounded stupid and cliché, but not the way Rodney said it.

There was that confidence again, and he'd delivered his speech in that matter of fact way John had found so incredibly hot all along.

So this was it. He was going to kiss Rodney.

At least John thought he was. With the whole jumping business, one could never tell what would happen. And considering that kissing and being intimate and the way Rodney was suddenly showing interest in him–

John couldn't even finish his thought. Rodney, who had seemed to take John's silence as permission to go on, was leaning forward and when their lips were almost touching, John jumped.

#2842

The nausea that John was used to was followed by a wave of pure panic. John couldn't move. He couldn't move a single inch, couldn't even look down his own body. A body, John realized, he couldn't feel, either. Oh god, oh god, something went wrong, John thought desperately when not even the memories were coming to him to explain what was going on.

"John, calm down, everything is alright. You don't need to worry," Shylah suddenly said, beside John's right ear, and John would have flinched from being startled if he had been able to move at all. To John's great frustration, he couldn't even yell at her for pulling this stunt on him.

"I will touch you in a moment so you can speak to me, but I want for you to listen to me before you get upset and yell at me, like I am sure you long to do. It is very important that you listen to me very carefully, John," Shylah said, and walked slowly into his field of vision. She was damn right; he really wanted to yell at her for scaring him like that. Come to think of it, he'd like to strangle her as well. Not that that was possible at the moment.

Shylah leaned over and stroked her fingertips down his cheek, and John could feel the muscles of his face relax. At least he could feel his face now. The rest of his body was still completely gone. "What the fuck? Shylah, what the hell do you think you're doing here?" John asked angrily, and Shylah shot him a glare.

"Be silent and listen to me, John," she said sternly, and folded her arms in front of her body in a rather human looking gesture of annoyance.

John bit his lips and obeyed.

"I chose to immobilize you and take away the feeling for your body because this John you jumped into is in a very special situation. I did not only have to take his health into consideration but also that of the …" she hesitated, and from the way she looked, John knew she was about to deliver some unpleasant facts. "That of the child he is carrying as well. The John you jumped into is pregnant."

John blinked. Surely he hadn't heard that right.

"Oh no. No, no, no. You must have something wrong here. This John's a guy. I sure sound like a guy. How the hell would a man be able to get pregnant? That can't be true. You're not seriously telling me men can get pregnant in this universe," John stammered. He didn't like the look of pity on Shylah's face one bit.

"Here, John, see for yourself," she said, and touched him again. Suddenly John could feel his body again. All of it. Freed like that he could feel the way the skin of his stomach was pulled taut by the sizeable bump that threatened to pull him off balance. John instinctively adjusted his stance, shifting his hips to stay on his feet.

Slowly, John looked down on himself and there it was, the protruding belly that spoke of the last stages of pregnancy. Suddenly John felt dizzy.

In an instant Shylah was by his side, keeping him upright before she slowly walked him the two steps to the queen sized bed that was off to the right. John sat down carefully, balance all off, the weight of his belly unexpected and foreign to him.

At that moment, the baby inside of him kicked, hard, and John's heart missed a beat. This just wasn't possible. It couldn't be real. Men did not carry children.

John looked at his hands as he put them tentatively onto his belly, finding that his fingers were slightly swollen. His feet, which he hadn't been able to see at all while still standing upright, felt swollen around the ankles as well.

This isn't right. John thought hazily. This isn't how it's supposed to be.

"My hands are swollen. And I can't see my feet. And … and my back aches." John complained, feeling as if someone had stuffed cotton into his head. Somehow his whole body felt off.

Something was pressing into his ribs from the inside and breathing seemed to be way harder than he was used to. And the constant, dull pain in his spine, especially at this one point somewhere around the height of his hipbones was getting to him already.

"Yes, John. I know you are uncomfortable, but that is to be expected. The baby is due in less than three weeks time," Shylah said patiently and John just blinked at her.

Baby?

"It's a baby," John said wonderingly, and, as if on cue, another hard kick to his ribs followed his words. "There is a baby in my belly."

At that, Shylah laughed. "Yes, John, there is a baby in your belly," she agreed. "And it is because of that baby that you are here. She is a very special little lady and you need to take good care of her and protect her. This John you jumped into is a little bit too reckless, and does not heed the warnings Carson has given. He's convinced he has everything under control when he really doesn't. It's your job to take it slow, to delegate more work, and to allow everyone to take care of you and let them pamper you a bit. You're carrying the child Atlantis will recognize as her rightful owner."

"I'm pregnant," John said slowly, as the reality of the situation finally began to sink in. There was a child growing inside of him. A little girl that would change the future of this Atlantis, of this universe. The thought alone made John feel humble. This John … this John had helped to create a new life. A life that would make a difference.

Inside of him the baby moved, and it was one of the most peculiar and yet awesome feelings John had ever had in his life, and that said a lot. Then there was a fluttery feeling, like a twitch of a nerve, and John wondered what this was all about.

"Looks like your daughter has a hiccup," Shylah said fondly, and sat down beside John on the bed. "I know it sounds like there is not really much for you to do here, John, but that's not true," she went on, and touched his arm tentatively. Somehow the situation seemed to make her all touchy-feely. "It is very important you take it slow, and not overdo it. This is for the life and the health of the baby, John. I know you hate inactivity, but if you listen to this body, closely, you will find that you will need time to rest. Why don't you enjoy the time you have left being pregnant? I know it sounds hard, but think about it this way: you will never again be this close to your child – to any of the children you might have in any life – again."

John swallowed hard. He suddenly didn't know any more if he should feel grateful or angry over having ended up in this pregnant John Sheppard's body. Yes, Shylah was right, he most probably would never get the chance to experience something like this again, but maybe, maybe that was for the best. How was John supposed to not grow attached to the life growing inside of him, moving and kicking and having a hiccup? Why the hell did Shylah seem to be so set on sending him to universes that would only end up in heartache for him?

"I'm going to have children in other universes? Am I going to be a father in my new home universe, too?" John asked. Suddenly it seemed to be a very important question. If and with whom he was going to have children.

"I'm not going to tell you that, John. I can't really know, anyway. We've not yet found a place for you to stay. But I am sure that there are lots of Johns who are great fathers," Shylah said, and John tried his best to hide his disappointment at her answer.

"Who is the other father of this one?" John asked, and wasn't surprised that somehow his mind supplied Rodney's picture. It was weird, John had never thought of himself as gay at all, but Rodney was his best friend in pretty much every universe. Considering friendship was a good base for a relationship, it would make sense that he'd be with Rodney. If Rodney was the other father of the baby … though … a thought occurred to him. "There is another father, right? Not a mother?" he asked.

"Oh right, we were holding back the memories," Shylah smiled and John suppressed the urge to roll his eyes at her. That was just so typical.

A second later the memories came and John was pleased to realize that Rodney really was the father of the child he carried. This John and Rodney were married, something that John wasn't surprised about at all. Maybe he would have been put off at one point, but not anymore. Being married to Rodney actually sounded like something John himself would like to be. Not every Rodney he'd met, but some of them definitely.

Especially since he'd realized that he liked Rodney that way John had started looking at every Rodney he met differently than before. It wasn't that John was gay, he wasn't, he still was attracted to women, too … so maybe he was actually bi. The whole self-discovery thing was really hard with everything that was going on. John went from one thing to the next, with barely a moment in between to just sit down and think about it. But he had found himself staring at Rodney's ass, at the way his hands flew through the air when he was talking, at the way he smiled crookedly when John said something particularly bright.

So really, it didn't bother him, he actually envied this John. That was a new feeling. He hadn't envied one of his alternates in a while. Maybe because they all had enough problems, and he knew that his thoughts on the matter wouldn't be of any consequence in the Ancients' decision of where he was to stay.

As long as John wasn't required to actually have sex with anybody the Johns he jumped into were seeing or married to, John didn't care. Though, he was glad Rodney wouldn't be there before the baby was born, it would have been too much of a temptation to just give in to the longing of being touched again, of sleeping next to someone.

That, and the chances of being caught out if he was forced to fake his way through sex were incredibly high. Thanks, but no thanks.

The memories rushed over him and John was surprised to find a lot of very personal moments being among them. He blushed bright red at some of the images he received. John hadn't expected those at all, he'd never gotten any memories of a sexual nature before. Of course, none of the Johns he'd jumped into had been in a relationship at the time. Which, on afterthought, was kind of weird. The odds were decidedly against that, considering how many universes he'd been to. The images of Rodney, caressing him, were pushing to the foreground again and John bit his lips. He could imagine the emotion connected to those memories only too well.

Shylah seemed to know what was going on inside of John's head and she smiled dirtily at John. "Rodney is a very enthusiastic husband, isn't he?" she grinned and John groaned in embarrassment.

"He seems to be. But seriously, I could have lived without those memories. He's not even here. Rodney's still on Earth, he'll be lucky if he's back before the baby's born , so why the hell did you need to show me that? You know I'm not going to do anything with him, I've established that already," John groused, inexplicably bothered by the images he'd gotten with the memories. Not only had they made him unbearably horny, they'd also given him such a stab of jealousy for what this John had, that the baby kicked with his upset. Images of a very naked and very aroused Rodney, who was very much in love with his husband were stuck in John's head. Pictures of Rodney smiling at him like John was the best thing that had ever happened to him. It was humbling and gave John such a pang of longing that it physically hurt.

"Yes, I know. But we thought you deserved to see the whole picture," Shylah replied as she got up from the bed, still grinning. John, who had kept his face carefully blank, could see the curiosity in her eyes. She didn't know what was going through his head at all, but she wanted to know. Well, she could keep guessing, because he had to share everything else, but this was something that belonged just to himself and nobody else.

"I wish you a good time, John. Enjoy yourself."

A moment later John was alone again. Well, not completely alone, considering the child in his belly was still having a hiccup and constantly reminded him of his mission.

If he had to stay 'till giving birth this would be a very long three weeks.

#2921

John had instantly liked Rod when he had shown up to stop them from using the matter bridge that was destroying his universe. Rod was a great guy and back then John wouldn't have minded keeping him on Atlantis in addition to their own Rodney. They'd somehow … clicked. But now that John had jumped into a universe where that actually had happened, where Rod had been integrated into the everyday life of Atlantis, now John wasn't so sure any more that this whole thing was a good solution.

It wasn't that he didn't like Rod, no, John liked him just fine. And even Rodney had made his peace with Rod and didn't view himself as 'the lesser model' any more. John had been quite angry when he had learned about the degrading way Rodney had talked about himself.

All in all it should have been perfect. Two great minds, two McKays, who had the ability to save the day with their combined brilliance. But something about the whole situation was off. Something just didn't fit. And Shylah had been no help whatsoever in telling him what exactly that was. All she had told him was that he had to convince the expedition to make another try – and succeed – to send Rod back to his own universe. John had asked her why that was, and how he was supposed to do it, seeing that according to his memories Rod had settled into this universe's Atlantis quite nicely.

But Shylah had just smiled and told him that he, with all of his experience with other universes now, would be able to figure it out. That he might see something the John Sheppard in this universe might not recognize as a problem.

John seriously hated it when Shylah went all cryptic on him, but there was nothing he could do about it. She had not given him any more information, saying she was certain he'd figure it out on his own. John wasn't sure if she didn't know herself what the problem was, or if she just enjoyed seeing him struggle.

But whatever it was, it didn't help John in the least.

Taking another swing at his golf ball, John tried to figure out how to approach the topic of getting Rod back to his own universe without sounding as if he wanted to get rid of him. Finally he settled on asking, "Do you miss it?"

As expected, Rod grinned at him and asked, "Do I miss what, Sheppard?"

"Do you miss your Atlantis. Your home. Your … Teyla, Ronon, and John. Your niece and nephews. Jeannie. Do you ever miss them?" John looked at Rod searchingly. There was something rushing over his face, but it was wiped away by the blinding smile Rod gave him.

"I volunteered. I knew I'd most probably be stuck here. I knew what I was getting into, and that makes all the difference. And after all I have you guys now. But to be totally honest with you, yes, sometimes I miss my own universe a bit, the little things. It's okay, though. I like it here a lot, and you're all like family to me. But you already knew that," Rod said, and John had the strange feeling that he was hiding something.

It was odd, really. Rodney couldn't lie if his life depended on it, every emotion showing on his face and in his eyes. Rod was much harder to read, but still, John got a vibe of something … decidedly unhappy from him, even if he couldn't put a finger on it. There was no obvious tell, nothing John could pinpoint. Besides the fact that Rod had rather cheerily admitted to being slightly homesick every now and then, of course, which was to be expected. It was also something John could relate to wholeheartedly considering how long it had been since he had had a home.

That, however, wasn't something he could tell Rod about. Pity, it'd have been nice to commiserate with someone who knew how it felt like to feel estranged in a place that was so familiar at the same time.


Being in this universe wasn't easy by any means. John had thought it was hard to keep up with Rodney sometimes, but keeping up with both Rodney and Rod was pretty much impossible. John – this universe's John – had dealt with it by separating the two, carefully spending the same amount of time with each of them, but on totally different things. Where it was golf with Rod, it was chess with Rodney, and for every run with Rod there was time spent in the mess hall or in one of the jumpers with Rodney.

It seemed to be a workable solution and none of his team had complained, but still John felt like there was something he wasn't giving them. Either of them. Something they needed from him that he just didn't provide yet.

It was nagging at John, because he was fairly certain that once he had figured out what it was that was missing, he would have the solution to the problem. It would help him find that last missing puzzle piece that was driving John up the wall.

John sighed and pushed that thought away. He was due to meet Rod in his quarters to go over some plans for a new weapon Rod was developing. When John pressed the door chime, nothing happened though. John rang again, but it was clear that Rod wasn't home. It was most likely that he'd been held up in the lab once again. After a moment John tapped his earpiece, opening a channel.

"Rod, this is Sheppard, I'm standing in front of your quarters. Where are you?" John asked, still not really used to the whole Rodney/Rod thing.

"Oh, John, am I late already? I'm still in the lab, I need to finish this simulation. I'll be with you in a few minutes. Why don't you just go on in and make yourself at home. I'm sure you'll find something to occupy yourself with. Be there in ten." At that the connection was closed.

Having been invited, John let himself into Rod's quarters. Just like Rodney, Rod was all for creative chaos when it came to his quarters. His version of "neat" was a mix between stacked papers and journals, at least three different laptops strewn around the room, and a few empty cups of coffee here or there. What John found when he walked over to Rod's desk surprised him, though.

There was a sketching pad lying on the desk, and John was instantly intrigued. He hadn't known Rod could draw. John picked the pad up and turned over the cover, coming face to face with a drawing of himself. No, not himself, this had to be Dr. Sheppard. The John in the drawing was wearing glasses, and there was a frown on his face, but other than that, he looked a lot like John did.

The next sketch showed Dr. Sheppard as well, and the one after, too. In fact, most of the sketches were of Dr. Sheppard and many of them seemed to have caught private moments. Dr. Sheppard rubbing his eyes, glasses dangling from one hand. Dr. Sheppard with his head thrown back, laughing heartily, Dr. Sheppard with a soft look on his face, smiling at someone outside the drawing. Dr. Sheppard asleep on his desk, glasses askew on his nose.

There were other drawings, too. Of Jeannie and the children. Of Teyla. Of an Atlantis that was familiar, yet seemed to be so different as well.

There was such longing in those few pictures that John's heart broke. Going back to the drawings of Dr. Sheppard, John thought that something about them was special. Not only the fact that Rod was really good at capturing the essence of a scene, no, there was something ultimately … intimate about them. As if ….

Realisation hit, and John called himself all kinds of stupid. He'd been to universes where their John and Rodney had been involved. He had once carried the child of one Rodney, and even if this universe's Rodney was clearly very much in love with Katie Brown, Rod was definitely a whole other matter. He was not just missing his best friend. He was missing the man he was in love with. Dr. Sheppard had been more than just Rod's teammate and friend, of that John was certain.

The sound of an opening door made John turn around, sketching pad still in hand and the moment Rod saw what John was holding, his face fell. In that second, he wasn't any better at hiding his feelings than Rodney had ever been.

"Damn, I forgot that I left those out, you weren't supposed to see them," Rod said, but there was no heat in his voice, just sadness and resignation.

John smiled at him, feeling sorry for this man, who was stuck in a universe that wasn't his own because he had wanted to help the people and the city he loved. He hadn't complained, hadn't spoken about how much it must have pained him to be surrounded by people who were so similar to the ones he had lost, and yet not the same. How much it must have hurt to be reminded of what he would most likely never have again. John knew exactly how much. His smile turned into a grimace and he closed the sketching pad. At least Rod's people were still alive, he'd saved them. That was more than John could say about himself.

"I figured that," John finally said, and handed the pad to Rod. "Why didn't you tell us? Why didn't you say a word?" John asked, but he knew the answer to that question already.

Rod smiled back at John, but it didn't reach his eyes. "What good would it have done? I can't go back, not without endangering your universe and most likely depleting your ZPM in the process. I knew I might get stuck here, I knew what I was getting into. There's no use in whining over what I've lost. At least I know they're still alive, my universe is still intact. That has to be enough."

"But it shouldn't be enough," John replied heatedly. He hated the look on Rod's face, hated the way Rod had been suffering in silence and putting on a brave front – for them. What shitty friends had they been? They were responsible for Rod having to take this step in the first place. They were responsible for him being stuck away from home because they were too cowardly to risk something for him, when Rod had risked everything for the people in his own universe.

It just wasn't fair.

Just like it wasn't fair what the Ancients were doing to John, come to think of it. John could relate to Rod, knew what it felt like to be stuck in a strange universe that was close but never close enough to home, the people all around like figures in a distorted mirror, and interacting with them wasn't comforting but instead a source of even more pain.

Maybe that was why John felt so strongly for Rod. He could relate. Maybe he was the only one on Atlantis who really could. Maybe that was what Shylah had meant when she had spoken of his experience with the jumps – John had been were Rod was now, for years. And it sucked to be in that place. It really, really sucked.

But John would see to it that at least for Rod, things would turn out for the best.

#3045

"Penny for your thoughts," Shylah said. John had been spending some time teaching her a few phrases and sayings. She really wasn't any good at using them, though, not normally anyway.

"Nothing interesting," John told her, and turned around in the office, taking everything in. It was a game he played with himself, cataloging it all, guessing what this new version of him was up to in the moments before the memories came along.

This John was in charge of Atlantis, that much was apparent. They were in Elizabeth's office, but it definitely had touches of himself in it. There was the collection of outlandish figurines that Elizabeth had gotten from natives all around the Pegasus Galaxy, only a few of them, though, not the massive collection she'd ended up with, from what John remembered of her office in his home universe. But there was the model of a helicopter next to them. John caught sight of a small stack of paper, recognizing it as the first sign of paperwork after the long absence of it during the first year. He remembered how it had taken them all months to get back into the whole paper side of paperwork. Personally he'd always preferred to do that electronically.

Letting his fingers trail over the short line of clay figures that Elizabeth had put up – presents from the Athosian children – John frowned. His counterpart hadn't expected to occupy the office for very long. The only sign that it was his was the helicopter model. An HH-60G Pave Hawk he picked up briefly to take in the details.

John sighed. He hated being in charge; it always led to things that he really couldn't control. Then the memories hit him and he very carefully put down the model and clung to the edge of the desk. Elizabeth had died … very early on. She'd been in the way of the energy cloud, killing her instantly. It hadn't been pretty.

Pushing those memories away, he cleared his throat. "He doesn't expect to be here much longer. Cleared out the office a bit and started packing already."

Shylah had watched him quietly, accustomed as she was to his habits. Now she nodded. "He was right with his assessment. They are about to remove him from power. The IOA and the SGC believe that what Colonel Sheppard did with the city wasn't in their best interest. There are voices calling for a court martial."

Waiting her out had never been John's strong suit. It still drove him crazy, even with all the practice he'd been getting. "Is that so," he muttered.

At that Shylah started, most likely recognizing that she'd been taking too long for him. "Your mission is to not give that up. Any way you can. This John Sheppard is needed here, in his position as leader of Atlantis. He has done much good in the Pegasus Galaxy, and there is a lot left for him to do."

He'd stopped asking her how to do the impossible years ago, so the thought didn't cross his mind. But just once, John wished she could give him a complicated problem that had an easy solution. He sighed and rubbed his face. "Jeez. You never ask anything hard." He let her blink at him in lack of understanding, then shrugged and turned away. "I'll think of something."

"I know you will. You always do."


Like any of the other John Sheppards, who had been in charge of the city before, this one had collected a ragtag crew of people who had been all out of other options. It was one of those constants that warmed John just a little bit when he happened across them. The Athosians generally were there in universes like this. They had become more than just friends here. Now, they were integrated into the most essential parts of the expedition, helping them with the most sensitive operations. John could see how both the IOA and the SGC could frown on that approach.

John didn't understand, though, what exactly the problem was; this 'verse's John had, after all, managed to keep the expedition going. They hadn't given up through the year and a half they'd been cut off from Earth, they had had fewer losses than his home universe had suffered in the same time-frame, and they'd flourished.

"I got a few messages in today's databurst," Rodney said from John's right.

John startled; he hadn't even noticed Rodney approaching him. "Really?" he drawled.

"Yes, really. They're going to get rid of you."

"Yup," John answered evenly. He was still not sure what to do about it.

Rodney reached out for John and pulled him to a stop and into one of the unused labs. "John," he muttered, "they're going to get rid of you."

"Yes, Rodney, I know." There was nothing else he could say to that, and he figured that Rodney really didn't need help getting upset over that little thing. They both knew he was fucked. If the IOA and the SGC both agreed that he should be recalled, then there was no way that John could stay on Atlantis at all.

"You're just going to take that lying down?" Rodney asked. His voice was rising above the normal state of panic he operated in and into the range of upset John was used to hearing when there was a Wraith Hive ship coming their way.

John sighed. He should have expected Rodney would corner him before he had any chance to formulate a plan. "There's nothing I can do," he admitted.

"Yes there is," Rodney muttered. John didn't like the way Rodney's face shuttered with those words. "We don't want to lose you."

John blinked at Rodney, but mostly at the way Rodney had so carefully pronounced those words. They didn't want to lose this John. Well, that was good, but it didn't really help with a solution. "I know, but I'm sure they'll send someone good to take–"

"No," Rodney snapped. "We don't care. I don't care. You have to stay." His chin jutted out stubbornly and his mouth was pressed into a thin, unhappy line.

"I don't know how," John admitted, and a little bit of the pain this John would be feeling was in his voice, too, because Atlantis, for John – most Johns – meant home.

"Radek and I have a few ideas. So do your men, if you would bother asking them. They're not all that stupid, actually; it was a little surprising that they chose to approach me, though. Isn't there some obscure law about not skipping the chain of command or something?"

"Rodney," John growled, and Rodney's attention went right back to the topic on hand.

"Yes, yes. So we've been thinking that we should probably declare Atlantis to be a free colony. We've survived on insufficient resources for more than a year, we don't need Earth." He'd crossed his arms in front of his chest, finishing in a hurry, then glared at John as if challenging him to deny it.

"I don't think–"

"What does it take for you to think of yourself first just once? You throw your life away recklessly at the drop of a hat, but that we want you here, no, that we need you here is completely irrelevant. You're what kept us all together and you know it," Rodney said, clearly exasperated.

"Alright," John found himself saying. "Alright, tell me what you and the others came up with." Rodney brightened visibly, beaming at him. "I didn't promise anything," John reminded him warningly, but really, it was a good way out. This John, he would never have done that. John wondered if he would have done it if he hadn't had the experiences from 3045 different universes under his belt. Probably not.

#3286

John hadn't been found out in so long that when it happened, he was surprised. Rodney had taken one look at him after they had come home from the mission, muttered something quietly – probably a spell, a spell – and he'd been escorted to his quarters by four Marines and confined until further notice. The memories were extremely non-helpful this time. Lying on his bed, John was very grateful that this John had a different book than War and Peace; reading kept him busy at least.

Then the door opened and Rodney stepped inside, dressed in robes this time. John had a few memories of him like this, but they were all hard to access. Mostly this John seemed to see him in uniform anyway.

"Hello," Rodney said, and again it hit John how utterly different from his Rodney – and most of the other ones John had met over the years – this man was. Just like always, Rodney was self-assured and trusted in his abilities, even the insecurities beneath that were still there, John could see that, but this Rodney played it very well like they weren't. There was more to him than that, though. He radiated something John tentatively called "power".

"Hi," John answered, and put his book away. He hadn't even had the opportunity to talk to anybody yet and to try and convince them that they got it wrong.

"Who are you?"

Well, this Rodney certainly believed in getting to the point straight away. That was good, John preferred it that way.

"I'm John Sheppard, Rodney, you should know that, we came to Atlantis in the expedition together," John said. "And I thought we were friends." John added that last one on principle, because Rodney did guilt really easily.

Not this one, though. This Rodney only frowned as he regarded John. His hand tightened on the staff he was carrying with him as well. Master Wizard McKay didn't look very pleased at all. "Don't play games. I know you're not John. Your aura is all wrong. It's like you suddenly aged a dozen years and didn't tell anybody. So. Want to try that again?"

Well, that sucked. Thanks, Shylah, for the non-existent warning. She would have known this was a possibility. But no! She had to let him run into the damn knife. A simple "oh, and Rodney can read auras, stay away from him" would have been very helpful.

"Okay," John said, sick and tired of this universe already, where he'd been amazed and excited to be there only hours ago. "Okay, so I'm not exactly your John Sheppard," he conceded, "but I'm a John Sheppard." When Rodney didn't stop frowning at him, John sighed and added, "From another reality."

"How come you don't look older? Are you a magical being? Incubi don't age like we do."

John blinked. Incubus, he mouthed, trying to figure out why exactly Rodney would think he'd be that kind of magical creature. Then he remembered that this was Rodney he was speaking to and decided to just ignore that part of the question.

"It's complicated," he finally answered. "Too complicated to try and explain." Especially because he was running out of time. He was supposed to save Rodney from … okay, maybe this wasn't quite so bad. Considering Rodney was here and was unlikely to go for a walk on the South pier.

"Try."

It was definitely an order, one John would have balked at normally, but this time he figured it could only work in his favor. Maybe he could even talk Rodney into giving him a demonstration of his magic after. That would definitely be more fun than the one John had gotten when he'd just jumped in. John still thought he could smell his burnt hair; Rodney's demanding questions as to why he hadn't ducked still rang in his ears as well.

He watched Rodney sit down, carefully arranging his robes around himself, then he looked expectantly at John.

"Yeah, alright," John said, and hoped that Shylah wouldn't blame him for this disaster. It was entirely her fault anyway.

#3424

John had never enjoyed killing, had never enjoyed taking another person's life. He knew a few of his comrades felt differently, hell, some of them even got high on killing. John, though, had never been one of those people. He had never understood how the extinction of a life – no matter if it was justified or not – could be anything but regrettable and tragic.

But those were not thoughts that served a soldier well, and with time, John had learned to deal. He had moved from killing people by shooting at them out of whatever he was flying at the moment to snapping someone's neck so swiftly and silently no-one ever noticed him. He'd done it because he had been trained to do it, had been ordered to do it, but he had never enjoyed it. Not once.

Until this day.

When John looked down at the bloodied and broken body of Acastus Kolya, he felt satisfaction. It was a good thing the man was dead, and it had felt right to kill him. If this had been anyone else lying at his feet and not the man who had tortured Rodney, John would have been disturbed by the fact that he felt no remorse at all.

But this was Kolya. The man who had hurt Rodney, who had invaded his city, had taken Elizabeth hostage, and had made John believe he had killed both Elizabeth and Rodney. He had mocked John over the radio, had told him how Rodney and Elizabeth had begged for their lives.

No, Kolya deserved what he had gotten for putting Rodney, for putting Elizabeth and John through this. No one hurt John's family that way and lived to regret it.

For John, it had been a relief when Shylah had told him he was actually allowed to kill Kolya before he could drag Elizabeth through the gate.

And John had done it. He'd short him right between the eyes.

When Rodney now stepped up to John from behind, wrapped in a warm blanket, and looked at John with gratitude in his eyes, John knew this shot was one he wouldn't ever regret. John had a lot of things on his conscience, but right there and then he realized that for once, this death would not add to his nightmares.

Just like with Sumner, this had been the right decision.

Beside him, Rodney tried a first tentative smile.

#3510

Knowing that Kolya wasn't real, that he was just something his subconscious had come up with, made the whole thing easier to deal with the second time. It obviously disturbed the AI and it had gotten him and the two scientists back to Atlantis with no complications whatsoever. Still, the memories of what had happened had come back almost instantly; the pain, the worry, the fight for his life that wasn't actually happening. It was all there.

The funny thing was that Shylah had sent him here to make sure Sam opened the device. Something John would have loved to see happen the first time around already. The Kolya hallucination had been so real and it certainly hadn't helped the AI to ensure that John thought it was harmless. He still didn't think that, and apparently neither did Shylah.

John felt grim as he watched Rodney and Sam open it up, the AI helplessly begging in the background. It wasn't exactly a good feeling. Sam and Rodney didn't talk, they grimaced now or then, probably the AI talking with them, too.

"I don't understand why you are doing this, John Sheppard," AI Kolya suddenly said from behind him, sounding tired.

John deliberately didn't turn around to him as he answered, "Because I have to."

The AI didn't try to talk to him after that again, not even before it died.

#3541

John jumped into this new universe in the middle of a forest. He immediately closed his eyes, waiting for the nausea and the bright light to fade entirely. It was odd how used to things like this one could get, even though they never really got any easier. John didn't understand when or how he'd managed to expect and even look forward to the gut-wrenching sick feeling that came along with a jump. Maybe it was because he knew there was something waiting at the end of his journey. A place to stay at, somewhere to call home. God, he really wanted that. No more jumping, no more thinking on his feet because the people around him were wearing familiar faces but acted so differently. No more wrongs to fix, no one's mistakes to prevent but his own. He'd had it with being responsible for whole universes.

John was just so very tired of it all. Thirteen years. He'd been hopping around universes, living other Johns' lives for over thirteen years now. There were days when John was surprised he was still sane. Often if felt like somewhere along the way of being a stand in and pretending to be someone he wasn't, John had lost himself. That he'd stopped being the person he'd been all this time ago. Did that person still exist? John didn't think so. Sometimes, when he was lying in bed inside of borrowed quarters, living yet another borrowed life, interacting with friends that weren't his, John wondered if he'd made the right decision. If this half-life was worth it in the end. If he shouldn't have asked Shylah to send him back to die along with the people who actually had been his friends, his family.

There were days when John missed them so much that the pain seemed impossible to bear. John didn't know how much longer he would be able to take this life that made it impossible for him to let anyone at all close again. It was torture. He wished it would all just stop.

The memories that swamped him right then didn't help with that at all.

"You've been very quiet lately, John. Are you well?" Shylah asked and he sighed, opening his eyes to look at her.

No, no I'm really not. I'm going crazy and I can't take this any more. I want to go home John wanted to yell, but instead he shrugged at her and asked, "What's wrong here?"

Shylah gave him a measuring look, but then she shook her head and let it go. "My people left a Sanctuary behind here. It's supposed to–"

"Help people ascend. I know, I had the pleasure of being stuck in it for six months," John interrupted her as he felt this John's life flood into his head. "So I'm here to …" he trailed off expectantly.

"To make sure no-one gets stuck in there. Especially not Rodney, he wouldn't be able to survive the experience on his own," Shylah supplied and already began whiting out. "It's not going to be hard this time, John. But maybe we should leave you here for a while, so you can rest. You must be terribly weary."

John frowned at that. Why did she keep doing that to him? Talking to him like she cared when all it would take was to find a new home for him and everything would stop. "Just get me a place to stay permanently," he called after her. Then Ronon, Teyla and Rodney, who had been arranged around him in walking formation, began to move.

"Yeah, well, whatever it is, it's around here somewhere," Rodney said and John couldn't quite remember the rest of the conversation enough to butt in just yet. It had been too long ago. He remembered the portal, though, the boredom and the fear that he'd be stuck there forever. He remembered how he'd hoped that his people would finally come and get him out. Something he hadn't actually given up on until the day they really had come. The surge of relief and happiness … he'd never forgotten that feeling in all the intervening years.

"What's around here?" Ronon asked, gruff as usual. Good old Ronon. As ever-changing as he was from universe to universe, he often was an emotional touchstone John could depend on.

"Whatever it was that was causing the energy spike we detected from the puddlejumper," Rodney answered and John had to hide a smile at how this Rodney never even looked up from the scanner and still navigated the uneven ground perfectly. It was a skill most – almost all, actually – Rodneys seemed to have mastered.

Funny, how some universes felt like slipping on an old glove while others felt so disturbingly strange to him. "Any idea what it is?" he asked, picking up his part of the conversation with ease now. They had had similar once so often over the years. Not just back at home, also in other universes. It was soothing in an abstract manner and John loved these universes with a passion that almost made his hands shake with its intensity.

"No," Rodney answered, lifting his gaze from the scanner for the first time since John had jumped in to glare at John, "but I'll know it when I see it." He looked pointedly to his left and waved at the overhang there. It was disturbingly familiar. "And there it is," Rodney ended with a flourish and a little smile. John didn't think it was funny at all; he'd been caught in that fucking thing for half a year. That was more than enough.

John didn't help Rodney remove the vines; he really couldn't help feeling a slight – alright, strong – aversion to the place. Setting eyes on the square archway and the cave that led to the Sanctuary wasn't pleasant for John.

"Looks like a door," Ronon said drily.

John watched as Rodney threw a rather tame look at Ronon. "Yes, it is remarkably door-like," Rodney said as he rolled his eyes. He turned back towards the cave, then ducked under some of the vines that were covering the rock. They entered and John didn't even bother pointing his gun at the dark nooks like Ronon and Teyla were doing. He knew that the only thing lurking in here was the doorway to the Sanctuary.

"There's something there," Rodney said, his voice excited and he grabbed hold of John's elbow to stop him from walking further. Which was okay, considering John wanted to stay as far away from the thing as possible without it looking odd.

"What?"

McKay pointed at the doorway. "There's some kind of an energy barrier around the threshold."

"We shouldn't be here," John told the rest of the team, already turning away. "Let's go back to the 'jumper. Elizabeth can translate the notice the Ancients left us," he waved towards the carving on the wall, "and we can all be happy knowing what this place is." He started walking back out, but Rodney stared at him with a shocked expression on his face, which soon turned to stubborn.

"No," he said, "we're here, we can look at it." He bent down, grabbed the first rock he could find and threw it into the doorway. With a flash of blue it went through the energy field, just like John remembered; it vanished in mid-air.

"It disappeared," Teyla said and there was awe in her voice. She'd never ceased to be amazed by the artifacts the Ancients had left them. For a long time John had envied her the capability to look at the devices like that, the shit they had found lying around had taken John's own enthusiasm away pretty quickly.

"It could be a cloak," Rodney offered after a few moments and a hesitant look at John. "It has many of the same properties as a cloaking field."

And with that Rodney did the worst thing possible: He reached out and touched the barrier that John could only too well remember sucking him in. John hadn't expected Rodney to do that. At all. Not with him being the one to remind them about safety protocols and proper procedure and his constant fear of dying a gruesome death. Rodney rarely was acting on impulse. Generally it was John and Ronon who did things without properly thinking them through. What could have made Rodney behave so fucking stupid? Well, John wouldn't find it out by gaping at Rodney who was now trying to get his hand back.

"Oh my god, oh god, it's pulling me in," Rodney squealed.

The field was glowing blue where Rodney's hand was stuck in it and Ronon and Teyla had both reacted immediately. They were now holding onto Rodney, who was struggling not to stumble through the doorway completely.

"Fuck," John cursed viciously, ignoring Rodney's panicked muttering. "Okay, here's what we do," he said, then pointed at Rodney, who was visibly trying to stay calm, but failing terribly. "Ronon, Teyla, you go back to the 'jumper. Dial home, tell Elizabeth to send Radek and let them know that we're stuck in a time dilation field, it's faster on the inside." He saw them giving each other dubious looks. Ignoring Rodney's "what the hell are you talking about and how would you know that anyway", he nodded grimly at them. There was no time to discuss the details. Not that he remembered them, he'd really never felt the urge to read the reports that closely.

"Just trust me on this, alright? I don't know the exact ratio, but it's a lot faster, they need to hurry. We'll wait for you guys in there. Now you'll let go of him," John said and didn't listen to Rodney's screamed "no, don't let go". He knew exactly how scary it was to not know what was on the other side, but he really couldn't help it. The longer they stayed like that the harder the pull of the field would get until … well, John didn't know how far it'd go and if there'd be any permanent injuries. From the pale color of Rodney's face and the pained expression in his eyes John knew that he couldn't stay like that much longer, though. He raised his voice, "After you let him go throw everything you think might help us through as quickly as possible. Then run like hell. Got it?"

Ronon was staring at him like he'd lost his marbles, but nodded when Teyla agreed haltingly.

"Okay, let go."

They did while Rodney was screaming for them not to, even though he was also moaning in pain. It hurt John to do this, but they didn't have the time to discuss it any further, the few moments it had taken John to tell Ronon and Teyla what to do had probably pushed the pain level so high that John was amazed Rodney hadn't passed out, yet. John was already in motion as Rodney was finally sucked through the doorway completely. It all went so fast; Rodney was gone in a matter of seconds. But John was right on his heels, pushing through the barrier instead of fighting against it. That turned out to be not nearly as painful as it had been the first time. Please stay put, don't go anywhere, Rodney. He figured he'd arrive there maybe half an hour after Rodney, probably less. When John stumbled out on the other side, Rodney was sitting there, head leaned against the stone, looking dejectedly at the ceiling.

"Hey buddy," John said and Rodney startled badly, knocking the back of his head against the wall. "Nice place you have here."

"John!" Rodney yelped. "You shouldn't have come in after me," he said, but he looked so relieved at seeing him that John thought Shylah was right. Rodney would have sat here until his food and water ran out; he'd have waited for them until he'd dropped off into a hypoglycemic coma. Soon, Rodney's relief vanished and John could see exactly when Rodney started to get angry, his face morphing from thankful to upset quickly as he braced himself on the stone wall. He got up, glaring at John all the while. Then, with a couple of steps, Rodney was nose to nose with John. "What the hell? Why did you tell them to let me go? It'd have been much easier getting me out of the barrier instead of trying to penetrate it. It wasn't your call!"

It was almost a relief that Rodney was shouting at him. At least he didn't look so desolate anymore. "Yes, it was my call. You were in pain," John told Rodney, overhearing Rodney's "was not!" in favor of continuing, "it would have gotten worse and I didn't want to risk permanent damage. It's not so bad here. We'll be fine 'till they figure it out. Radek is pretty bright."

"'Pretty bright'?" Rodney repeated. "You bet our lives on 'pretty bright'? Oh my god. I think I completely overestimated your intelligence. Still, that doesn't explain why you're here too. You should have stayed outside."

"I didn't want to leave you in here on your own. This is a time dilation field; it'll take them weeks, probably months before they figure out how to get us back."

Rodney stared at him in surprise for a moment, then his mouth turned into the stubborn line John was so familiar with. "How do you know that?"

"It said so on the wall, McKay," John retorted angrily. "I told you Elizabeth should have translated it, we wouldn't be stuck in here if you'd just listened to me." It didn't really matter. He'd already fucked up his mission. Rodney was in here, but at least he wasn't alone. John was there to get him through somehow. Intelligent as Rodney was, John had a feeling that Rodney wasn't capable of living in the wilderness – or even in a low tech village – for a few months without alienating everybody. There might even have been death by sharpened sticks in Rodney's future if he'd been here all by himself.

It was the pack coming through that broke the tension between them. Teyla's, most likely, with everything Ronon had had in his pockets stuffed into it somehow. Bless them.

"Now come on," John told Rodney, his voice brooking no argument, "let's check out what's in the pack that we can use and go."

"What? No! We can't leave; this is the point of entry. If Radek manages to get through the barrier I want to be here so I can get out as quickly as possible. Leaving the doorway will just make everything that much harder. Hasn't anybody taught you to stay put when you get lost?"

They stared at each other for a few heartbeats. It felt like an eternity to John, but eventually Rodney deflated visibly and pulled his backpack closer.

"Okay," Rodney said, but he was obviously unhappy about leaving. "For the record, I still think this is a bad idea," he complained while they were already moving away from the doorway. "We should stay put."

"If we don't get rescued in a year you've got the right to say 'I told you so' as often as you want," John muttered good-naturedly. The rant that followed was balm to John's soul. There was nothing better to gauge Rodney's well-being than getting him started on a complaint.


Three months. They'd been living together for three months and John could see how this John could care for his Rodney. It was easy to like Rodney. To love him. But John kept a tight rein on those feelings. This wasn't his Rodney. He belonged to another John, one who was – judging from some of the memories he had received – madly in love with his Rodney. John didn't want to cheapen his counterparts' feelings or take anything away from him. Their first times belonged to the John who was at home here entirely, not to him, however much he wanted to stay.

Stealing from himself … Shylah had been right; it would be exactly that. Taking away a moment from this universe's John that should belong to him and Rodney alone. . Of course, she hadn't talked about just Rodney and probably meant it far more general. It galled John to even think it, but yes, she'd been right. If he kissed Rodney into silence, he'd rob this John of the opportunity to do it himself. Even if it took a while longer, then. God knew that his other selves could be a bit slow; the John from this universe was – apparently – no exception to that. It wasn't John's job to fix that part of it, though. All he had to do was make sure that Rodney stayed alive.

Of course, in the meantime, John was stuck here with Rodney. Which would have been great, if it hadn't been getting harder to keep what that thing between them on a friendship level. John didn't know what exactly it said about him that he even found Rodney interesting when he complained of boredom. Rodney constantly whined. About the food, the non-prescription mattress, the grass, the trees, the people, the list was endless. Rodney especially seemed to hate he lowly tasks he was asked to do.

Every time Rodney opened his mouth to talk – even if it was to complain or rant – it distracted John. But worst of all were the times Rodney finally gave in and tinkered around with whatever they wanted him to look at happily; it was peaceful, domestic in ways that John didn't want to think about too closely.

Up to now John had managed to make sure they were both and stayed alive. Which of course didn't mean Rodney didn't complain. There was a never-ending string of "Where do you even find this disgusting stuff?" or "My back aches, no, scratch that, everything hurts" or even a "You suck at this survival stuff, Sheppard, you know that? I'm sure you're doing this just to annoy me. You're enjoying my misery." The whole whining thing put a bit of a damper on John's good mood at keeping Rodney alive, but all in all John thought he was doing pretty well. No-one had tried to kill Rodney with a sharpened stick, yet, even though John wasn't sure if that would keep at this rate. Rodney's mood was souring more and more, the longer they were there.

"I'll see you later then, John," Teer said in farewell and smiled at John.

Suppressing a sigh, John forced himself to smile back in an easy, friendly way. This was a train-wreck in the making, John just knew it. As expected, the moment he turned away from her he saw the dark expression on Rodney's face. Great. There was bound to be another lecture coming anytime now.

"Would you stop flirting with that …" Rodney hissed, then trailed off, obviously looking for the right word to describe Teer appropriately, "hussy!"

John thought that was a lot funny and a bit sad. Mainly because he really hadn't been flirting with Teer at all. He was just trying to be friendly while at the same time blocking all the advances she made. It wouldn't do to anger the people he and Rodney pretty much were depending on for support. It didn't help any that Teer seemed to be completely unfazed by his gentle rejection, in fact she was surprisingly determined and never let up on her advances, no matter how often John shot her down. Of course that wasn't how Rodney saw it. For him, John was flirting right back, and John really wasn't sure how he should take Rodney's resulting moods.

"I was just being nice, I wasn't flirting," John replied as patiently as he could muster. It didn't matter if Rodney believed him, which he never did, it didn't matter how often John said it. Times like these John wasn't enchanted by Rodney, though, instead he was fervently hoping he would finally jump. They had had three big rows about Teer in the last week alone and John just couldn't take it anymore.

"I'm not blind, John, that so was flirting," Rodney snapped, frowning deeply. "You really shouldn't, though, these people here, there's something wrong with them. I thought even you would notice that."

"Do we have to do this again?" John asked, trying very hard to stay calm and collected. He knew his voice had taken on a whiny tone, but he couldn't help it. He just didn't have the energy to try to get rid of Rodney's unfounded jealousy. If the John of this universe didn't get a clue soon, then John didn't know what Rodney would do. It might not actually be all that pretty though, judging from the glare he was leveling at John at that moment. "She's not even my type, Rodney." Rodney probably didn't hear the unspoken "anymore" at the end of that sentence, but John heard it swinging between them; it made him uneasy.

Yes, Teer had obviously been interested in John the moment she'd met him in his home universe. Back then, John hadn't been adverse to the whole thing, especially after the first few months, when he'd started giving up hope he'd ever leave that place. This Teer here hadn't acted any differently at all. She really liked something about John, but the attraction wasn't mutal, hadn't even been really mutual in John's home universe. John wasn't proud of using her like that, but at the time, Teer had been there and John had been lonely.

Here it had been completely irrelevant that Rodney had pretty much gone into "go away, he's mine" mode from the moment Teer had set her sights on John. It had been eerily reminiscent of Chaya, just that John wasn't working against Rodney this time. Teer and Rodney didn't get along at all. As long as they weren't alone together it was more or less alright, but John had had to tell Rodney in very small words that he was not to speak to Teer, look at her, or otherwise engage with her in any way from the very start. It had worked – to a certain degree.

"Do what? She's been undressing you with her eyes again. She's been doing that since the moment we met her and I just don't like her," Rodney declared, arms crossed, glaring at John. Just when John was about to tell him that yes, he knew all that, a look of hurt and insecurity rushed over Rodney's face, and John couldn't say anything. Instead he watched as something in Rodney's stance shifted. He suddenly seemed to deflate, looking hopeless. "Of course, if you – if you want her, then I'll – I'll not stand in your way, of course. I mean, it's only – it's demeaning, that's what it is. But it's not like it's any of my business, it's really not and–"

"Rodney," John interrupted gently and Rodney stopped babbling immediately. "You know that I care a lot about you, right?" he asked and Rodney just blinked. "Well, I do. And I don't care about Teer at all. So, think you could, dunno, dial down the jealousy just a little bit? Because I really don't think I can take it anymore."

Rodney sputtered. "Jealousy? I'm not jealous of her. That you think I'd stoop that low is just as degrading as her looking at you that way. I don't know where you get–"

"Rodney," John interjected. As annoying as the whole situation was, it was also starting to be amusing.

"I'm not jealous," Rodney insisted again. "It's just that I don't like her." He repeated his earlier statement.

"Rodney."

"Oka, maybe I'm a bit jealous, but that's not the point."

"For fuck's sake, Rodney, there is no reason to be jealous," John hissed, keeping his voice down.

"What? What do you want from me?" Rodney almost yelled. "I'm here all the time and you just ignore me and now you say you care about me but you don't do anything about it. By the time they find us I'll be insane and it'll be your fault." Then he turned around and practically ran to their house. He would have slammed the door, had they had one.

John closed his eyes. Rodney's confession couldn't have come at a worse time. It changed everything between them and John really didn't want to have to deal with the fallout. This was the other John's mess and he should be the one dealing with it. He was the one Rodney wanted, he was the one who should tell Rodney how he felt. Not that John had any hope of that actually happening any time soon. God knew how long they'd still be in the time dilation field, or how long John was required to stick with this universe. He had the sneaking suspicion that Shylah, the traitor, hadn't listened to him on the whole holiday thing.

At this point, John had done exactly what she'd wanted from him: Rodney wasn't alone. John was there, too; there was no way anything could happen to him. Sure, John hadn't managed to stop Rodney from putting his hand through the doorway, but he'd done the next best thing by not leaving Rodney. What more did she want?

John didn't need a holiday, he didn't need Shylah's worry, or her pity; the only thing he needed was a place he could stay, where getting attached to people wasn't a bad idea. How the fuck did he tell Rodney that one though? That there couldn't be anything between them because John just wasn't who he was supposed to be. Who Rodney thought he was

"You argued again," Teer suddenly said from behind.

John whirled around to her, a bit startled. "It's what we do," John told her.

"He makes you unhappy, maybe it's time you moved out. I offered you to stay in my house already, John. Maybe it is time you took me up on that," Teer offered with a small smile.

Shifting uncomfortably, John shook his head. "No thanks. I'd rather stay with Rodney, he needs me."

"What about what you need?" Teer asked, her voice low. "You are special, John Sheppard, you shouldn't stay with that man out of duty, commendable as that is. You and McKay keep yourselves apart from the community, we don't understand why. There is no way out of here apart from ascending, but neither of you are preparing. Why can't you accept that this is your destiny now?"

John gave her a grin, wishing she'd stop trying to talk John into just settling down there, with them. She just couldn't understand that neither he, nor Rodney were interested in ascending. "Our people are out there and they'll get us out of here one way or another." It was true, that was something John never doubted. It wasn't just John who wouldn't leave a man behind; the whole expedition had accepted that as fact here, it was their motto.

"No, they won't. It's impossible," Teer told him serenely.

"You obviously don't know our people," John muttered, his confidence in Elizabeth, Radek, and the rest of the people who were outside, working to free them unshaken.

Teer sighed. "You keep me at bay all the time, John." A small frown marred her face as she threw a dark look toward the cabin Rodney and John lived in. "I'm sure your McKay won't mind if you find company here. Someone who is less abrasive, less arrogant, and–"

"Stop right there," John suddenly snapped, as sick and tired of Teer talking like that about Rodney as he was about Rodney calling Teer a hussy or worse. "Rodney is my friend. Sure, he's not easy most of the time, but nothing that comes easy is actually worth all that much anyway. He may be difficult at times, but he's also got a whole lot of courage, he stands up for what he believes in, and he doesn't hide behind someone else like a coward. If that was his monster," John found himself saying loudly enough to attract the attention of some of the other villagers, "he wouldn't be hiding behind me. You don't know him and you're not even trying. Neither is he, to be fair, but you're not making it any easier for him," John told her.

The last thing Rodney needed was a lecture about the purity of heart, selflessness, and the spirit of giving, all of which Teer had managed within a day of them arriving Not exactly the best way to start off with Rodney on his better days, definitely not good after he got sucked into a time dilation field. "Look, I don't want to hurt you, I really don't, but you seem to want more from me than I want to give. I'm not interested in you that way. I don't want to share your hut, eat your food, have you do my laundry, or be more than a friend."

By the time he'd finished talking, Teer's face was pale and drawn, but she was still smiling. "I understand," she said, "thanks for being honest with me. I might have mistaken your friendliness for being interested in further relations. I apologize. I would like to be friends." She threw a glance at the hut. "With Rodney, also, if he would like to try. I know we haven't gotten along, but if we both try … maybe … will you let him know from me?"

John gave her a smile of his own, then nodded. "Sure, I'll talk to him. Thanks, Teer," he said, meaning every word. This hadn't been as hard as he'd expected it to be, but it wasn't over yet. He waved at Teer, then turned. He couldn't let Rodney stew in it too long, it'd just get worse.

John wasn't sure what to do now, didn't know how he was supposed to keep up this charade. He was tired of the deception. Maybe it was because he'd been in this universe for so long now. Three months was almost a new record. Most of the time he went in, got the job done, and jumped. 3541 universes. As far as John could tell the longest he'd been in any of those was a month and a half.

Entering their cabin, John found Rodney right next to the door. His eyes were wide and his hands knotted together as if to still them.

"Hi," John started, cautiously. "Look, Rodney, I really don't care about–"

"I heard all that," Rodney interrupted John. "Well, what you said anyway. I think the whole village heard." John noticed how still Rodney held himself.

Closing his eyes, John stepped inside properly and sat down on the bed, suddenly feeling weak. "Okay, before you say anything else, I have a confession to make," John said. He couldn't do this anymore. "I'm not actually allowed to, but I think this is a really special kind of circumstance." He swallowed; he hadn't told anyone in years and getting the words out felt like hitting himself over the head repeatedly. "I'm not from here." Okay, no, that wouldn't do. "I mean, I'm a John Sheppard from another universe."

Rodney frowned. "When you fell down the ladder last week, did you hit your head? I thought you were fine, you said you were fine. Why am I even listening to you in those cases? You're never fine when you say you are. Oh god, you'll probably be in a coma by the time they get us out of here and it'll all be my fault and–"

Up and in front of Rodney in a heartbeat, John caught his fluttering hands. "No, Rodney, listen to me. I really am from another reality. How else did I know about the time dilation field? Do you really think your John could have read that Ancient stuff on the cave wall?"

Rodney looked at him with wide eyes, but he didn't try to get away or say anything. John counted that as a blessing.

"I'm from another reality, and I was here to make sure that you didn't get sucked in here. When that failed becuase you stupidly–"

"Hey!"

"–stuck your hand through the doorway, I stepped into the Sanctuary as well, so you didn't get yourself killed in here. That's my job."

"Your job is to save me?" Rodney asked, disbelief in his voice.

"In this universe it is, yeah." God, it felt so good talking about this, just being able to tell someone. "There's this group of Ancients, when my Atlantis was destroyed they pulled me out of the debris of my Atlantis. They said that either I could help them fix things in other universes, or they'd put me back where they got me from, to either die or ascend. I took their offer because … I couldn't let any more of you die." He'd never told that to anybody, the way he'd been recruited. The anger on Rodney's face was like balm to John, maybe because once he'd started jumping, John hadn't been able to properly get angry about that part anymore. There had been too many other issues to work through. "They said that they'd eventually find a place for me to stay."

"Here?" Rodney asked, horrified.

"No, not here, I'm just here because my guide has a terrible sense of humor and thinks I need a break," John tried to reassure Rodney immediately. He let go of Rodney, returning to his seat on the bed. He was so goddamned tired. Had been tired ever since #3497 when he'd jumped into a John who had been a Runner. That one had been an absolutely terrifying reality; it had drained him physically as well as emotionally. The physical tiredness had been taken care of with the next jump, the emotional problems had stayed. He wondered how to tell Rodney that without actually having to recount the details. "It's been a tough few universes," John finally settled on, rubbing his hands over his face. "I promise though, once Shylah–"

"Your guide?" Rodney asked.

"–yeah, my guide. So, once Shylah figures I had enough rest and relaxation, I'll jump and your John Sheppard will be back in charge."

When Rodney looked up, he had a peculiar mix of embarrassment and insecurity on his face. "So, if you're not really him, does that mean that he … he doesn't like me that way? Everything you said was just … show? And … what about him?" There was curiosity in Rodney's face now as he moved on from the uncomfortable topic. "Does he know what you are doing? Is he safe? Won't he be mad when he is back to himself?"

"Your John loves you. More than anyone or anything. I only jumped in when you were a minute out from the doorway, everything else was him," John said, watching as Rodney relaxed incrementally. "Nothing was for show." He was just about to tell Rodney more, when his surroundings brightenend and the terrible nausea swamped him.

So this had been what he could have done to make Shylah come and get him. He would have to remember that for the future.

#3656

John walked around Atlantis with no real destination. He was getting used to seeing the city brimming with life, had been in numerous universes where she housed a lot of people. This time though, Atlantis was something like a colony project, had been from the very beginning in fact.

Everyone on the expedition had been able to bring their families and loved ones along because the SGC hadn't been a secret for decades now, and the Atlantis project had never been one to begin with. This Atlantis was housing everything from Kindergarten to College, along with several training centers for both terrestrial and Pegasus galaxy professions. They even had a shopping centre and restaurants. The Athosians were as much part of the city's life as the people from Earth were – along with more than a dozen other cultures thrown in for good measure, it all made for a thriving community with a growing industry.

John still didn't know what he was supposed to do here, though. All Shylah had told John about the mission was that he – with his long experience in dealing with unforeseen situations and thousands of jumps under his belt – would be able to handle the upcoming situation better than the John of this universe. John still felt miffed about the lack of information. It was as if she was doing it on purpose at times. Talk about being evasive. Really, the John Sheppard of this universe had done a great job so far. Elizabeth and Simon, who were still the leaders of Atlantis colony, were trusting and supporting John. There was nothing John could imagine he'd be needed for.

John's radio clicked and he tapped the earpiece, opening a channel. "Sheppard," he said.

"John, please come to my office for a moment. I have news for you," Elizabeth's warm voice came through the radio.

"I'm on my way," John replied, curious. He closed the channel and made his way to meet with Elizabeth. What news could she possibly have? She hadn't sounded as if anything was wrong, or like a catastrophe was in the making, so John wasn't worried. Usually he sensed it somehow when hell was about to break loose.

When he arrived at Elizabeth's office, she was sitting behind her desk, reading something on a tablet PC. "John. Come on in, take a seat," she greeted him. "I've just received news from Earth." Her smile faltered a little. "John, do you know someone called Laura Saunders?" she asked

John searched his borrowed memory and came up with a pretty redhead with wide blue eyes and freckles in the most interesting places. "Yes, I know her. We were together for a while but broke it off when I went to Atlantis and she didn't want to come along. Haven't heard from her since. Why? What's the matter?" Why would an ex-girlfriend contact him after such a long time? And why would she do it through the SGC and Elizabeth rather than just send an e-mail to him?

Something on Elizabeth's face shifted. She looked compassionate now and John got a sinking feeling in his stomach.

"I'm sorry, John. We've got word that Laura died three days ago in the car crash. The police found your name in some documents and arranged that you be informed. I'm very sorry for your loss." Elizabeth said sincerely.

John blinked. Okay, that was tragic and sad, but he somehow didn't think the death of a woman John had last seen four years ago was a good enough reason for a jump. Just when he was about to ask about the documents Elizabeth had mentioned, she took a deep breath and said, "But there is more."

John nodded slowly, once. "Alright, tell me what else you've got."

"John, it seems that Laura was pregnant when you left Earth. She has a three year old son, his name is Jamie. Laura named you as Jamie's father, but decided against contacting you or asking any kind of support from you. Right now Jamie is with childcare services, but since Laura has no living relatives, you are Jamie's the legal guardian, unless you absolutely refuse to take him on. I'm sorry that you had to learn of him that way," Elizabeth said and John blinked.

Wow. Okay, he could see now how the Ancients had thought it to be a good idea to send him here. From this John's memory it was clear that he and Laura had used condoms. How the hell had she ended up pregnant? And why hadn't she said anything? They had not parted in anger, so why had she kept his child from him? If the boy even was his son.

"It's confirmed that he's my son?" John asked, just to be sure. It wouldn't do for him to change this John's whole life and then have someone take the boy away from him again.

"Yes, it's been confirmed by a DNA test," Elizabeth's voice was gentle. "However you decide, we want you to know that we will support you. It's going to affect not only yours but Jamie's life as well. We just want you to know that Jamie is always welcome here on Atlantis, you know that, right?"

Yes, John knew that he would have the support of everyone on Atlantis, no matter how he decided. The community was set up that way. If he could raise his child as a single father anywhere, then it was here on Atlantis, that much was certain.

"Thanks, Elizabeth," John finally said. He was still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he had a child. A son who had lost his mother. And this John was the only living relative. The boy didn't know him. But he didn't have anyone else, either. Being with his father was definitely better than foster care.

"What does childcare suggest?" John asked. He didn't know what to expect, what would happen now. He didn't even know what to think.

"That depends on if you want to take him, or not. If you agree to raise him, they would like to send a social worker here with Jamie, so you can meet each other. In that case everything will be prepared for his stay here. If you decide against raising Jamie yourself, he will stay on Earth and you will be given the chance to give him up for adoption. It would be too stressful for him to come here and be sent back again. I think you agree it would be cruel to raise his hopes like that," Elizabeth said and John had to agree. It would be more than cruel to do that to a child. "It's up to you now, John."

There was a compassionate expression on Elizabeth's face and John knew now why he had been placed in this universe. He swallowed hard, hoping that he would make the right decision for this John. Even though whether or not he wanted to see and raise this child wasn't really a question at all in John's point of view.

Atlantis, this Atlantis here was a perfect place to raise a child. "I want to meet him as soon as possible. He's my son and I want to raise him," John said with conviction and as he said it he knew it was the right decision. The jump he almost expected didn't come, though. Okay, so apparently he would have to interact with the boy as well.

"I'm very glad you've decided this way John," Elizabeth said and smiled warmly at him. "I'll arrange for him to be brought over later today, childcare wanted to get him settled into his new home, wherever that would be, as soon as possible, anyway. Until then, I'll get someone to help you set up your new quarters. There are very nice family quarters still available in the south tower, I'll see to it that you get them if you like."

John knew those quarters. They were spacey and had a very beautiful view over Atlantis, John thought that a child might really like it there. "Thanks, Elizabeth. You know I'll need all the help I can get," John said, only half-joking. He had no idea how to raise a kid.

Elizabeth reached over and touched his hand, "You'll get everything you need, John. I'm sure you will be a great father."

John just hoped she was right.


Five hours later found John in the gateroom, waiting anxiously for Jamie to arrive. How would a three year old, who had just lost his mother and was now being relocated to another galaxy, react?

The gate sprang to life, the shield was lowered and a moment later a woman appeared, holding the hand of a small boy as they walked out of the event horizon. The boy – Jamie – was clutching a stuffed animal tightly to his chest and looked positively terrified.

The woman took a few more steps and Elizabeth, who had been standing beside John walked towards her and greeted her. John tuned out what was most likely a polite chat and crouched down in front of the boy.

His son.

The semblance was undeniable. A mop of messy black hair and brilliant blue eyes, eyes that widened in surprise just as John said, "Hi, Jamie."

"You're my daddy," the child said wonderingly and John had to swallow.

"That's right, I'm your dad. How did you know?" John asked and wondered what they had told the most probably completely traumatized kid.

"Mom showed me a picture. She said you couldn't come visit us 'cause you're far away on 'Lantis. Mom has lots of pictures of you and told me stories. She said you are a hero. Why didn't you come see me, daddy?" Jamie sounded like he was holding back tears and his lower lip was trembling now. John felt like a jerk even though the John of this universe had not known about his son and couldn't have done anything differently.

"I'm sorry, Jamie. Atlantis is very far away from Earth. I got caught up in my work and kept postponing it. That was a mean thing to do, I know," John apologized instead of trying to explain. The kid didn't need to know that John hadn't had a clue before his mom's death. "I promise I'll try to be a better dad from now on, okay? You're going to stay with me, you know that, right?" John asked carefully, not really knowing what else to say.

Jamie looked miserable and terrified but seemed determined to put up a brave front. He nodded his head and clutched his stuffed animal tighter to his chest. John's heart broke at the sight of that lonely little boy who was hurting so badly.

"Mommy went away. They say she is an angel now. But I don't want her to be an angel. I want to have her back," he sobbed, the tears that had been pooling in his eyes spilling over now.

"I know, Jamie. I know, I'm so sorry," John said and – following an impulse – opened his arms in invitation. To his great surprise Jamie flung himself at him, burying his tear-streaked face in John's shirt.

John pressed a small kiss on top of his son's head, wrapping Jamie into his arms securely. "I'm here now. I won't let anything hurt you any more, I promise," he murmured meaning every word of it. Before he could say any more though, the white light took him away.

#3719

"This will be amazing," was the first thing Shylah said to John. He was still blinded from the jump. "But I don't think you'll share my excitement," Shylah added, dryly.

For a split second, John felt proud because he'd been the one to teach her that tone of voice. That was before his sight returned and he came face to face with a very pregnant Jeannie Miller. Only it wasn't Jeannie, because her eyes were bluer, her mouth a bit thinner, and her hair was a different shade as well, darker. There was also a scowl on her face John knew only too well.

"Rodney?" he asked incredulously.

Shylah laughed. "Meet Meredith McKay-Sheppard, John," she said and that was exactly the moment the memories came.

"We're married?" John muttered, surprised.

"Yes, all in all you went through 25 different rituals and ceremonies. That is only 5 times more than you went through with your own–" she broke off, grimacing.

It had been so long by now that John had come to expect the sharp pain in his chest at the mention of any of his people or his city. It always hurt more when Shylah mentioned Rodney, though; and this time was no exception. John swallowed and gave Shylah a weak smile.

"Yeah, I know," he said. "But Rod–" it was his turn to break off. He'd almost said But Rodney and I never married on Atlantis. Instead he corrected himself, "But Mer and him got married here. Officially." Shylah didn't even bat an eye, her gaze held understanding; combined with barely concealed irritation. "And they're having a baby," John added after the silence had gone on too long. He knew it was lame, but it was the only thing he could come up with.

"Yes, they are. And you are going to make sure that Meredith won't be trapped in the transporter during today's quarantine. Otherwise she'll die in childbirth due to complications, together with their unborn child."

John felt cold just imagining what this John would do in response to a tragedy like that. It wouldn't be pretty. This John, he'd do everything for Meredith; that was obvious from every action he'd taken over the past 4 years.

This Meredith wasn't that different from Rodney. They were pretty much the same person, apart from the obvious. Very much like the last Meredith John had met. It almost seemed like Rodney was a constant in the ever-changing surroundings John was put in. It didn't make any sense for everybody else to change so much. Ronon had been strange as a diplomatic contact to an existing Sateda. He'd seen Ronon talkative, happy, and so different from what he'd known that it was hard to reconcile with what he knew. Teyla had varied a lot, as well; from a hardened, ruthless warrior to a gardener who'd never so much as seen a Wraith. The only two constants in John's ever-changing life were Rodney and Elizabeth.

"Make sure she's in the infirmary in an hour," Shylah told him and vanished rather abruptly, leaving him behind with a very pregnant woman and the feeling of impending doom that he generally had right before he ended up in deep shit.

#3844

John didn't even have to look into a mirror to know that something was different. He felt it the moment the nausea ebbed away. It had been bound to happen at one point, John supposed. There had been a few actual Merediths instead of Rodneys, and one really strange and yet kind of satisfying universe John had actually been pregnant. Having been a pregnant guy before, it wasn't quite such a shock to find himself with girl-parts as it could have been.

"So, apparently, I'm a woman," John said and startled at the sound of his own voice. It was rather weird.

"Yes, apparently you are," Shylah answered, smiling. "As it is, you are Dr. Joanna Sheppard, who is a part of the scientific contingent of the Atlantis expedition. That is about to change, which is why you are here. We believe that you will be able to make the change in Joanna's status easier than it would otherwise be."

John looked at her, confused. The memories hadn't come yet and Shylah didn't make much sense – that wasn't a huge surprise, Shylah often didn't make sense. It would, for example, have helped if Shylah had hinted at what exactly he was there to do. So her status as a scientist was going to change, to what exactly? Was she going to be sent back to Earth to work at the SGC, or at Area 51? It could be anything. Well, almost anything, considering Joanna Sheppard was one of their scientists. Which didn't really bother John all that much; he'd been a scientist a couple of times already, both on Earth and on Atlantis. He found it kind of interesting, actually. He'd always known he could have gone that way if he'd wanted to, before they'd met Rod in his John's home universe, but he'd never thought he'd enjoy it that much. In a way, John could understand each and every one of his alternate selves who had chosen mathematics or engineering over flying, but only in a way. He'd still go for flying himself, but it did make sense.

John raised an eyebrow at her. "What do you mean, 'is about to change'?" he asked, already getting used to his new voice, but it reminded him of how different it felt to be in a female body. The sensation was hard to describe and John really didn't want to think about it while Shylah was still there. Instead, he ignored the wrongness of it all as best as he could – he would explore it later and very likely freak out once Shylah had gone.

"Elizabeth will offer you military leadership of Atlantis. She will recall you to active duty," Shylah said, giving John one of her brilliant smiles that John just loathed out of principle.

Being a scientist wasn't bad at all, but it was a full time job; there was no way Joanna – or anybody, really – could pull off being military leader and actually do some research at the same time.

"How's that going to work?" John asked. "She's already got a job, doesn't she?" Then the long overdue memories rushed in and John thought that okay, yes, this really was a special situation. Colonel Joanna Sheppard had left the Air Force after a black ops mission gone bad. John guessed she didn't have a clue what she wanted to do instead and had gone back to university. Judging from the memories she'd immersed herself in that life rather thoroughly, at least until her strong ATA gene had been discovered by sheer dumb luck.

Shylah shrugged. "Yes, but all in all she really would be the best choice to lead the military in the city." And she was, of course. Sumner hadn't wanted her there at all, but the one thing stood out clearly in John's borrowed memories was Elizabeth approaching Rodney, asking him to let Joanna come with the engineering staff.

Otherwise she'd have had to come as a lightswitch, something John himself would never have done. Originally, Sumner had hated John's guts from the moment he'd set eyes on John and hadn't trusted him, but John had been his XO. There had been fuck all Sumner could do about it with Elizabeth's decision and General O'Neill backing it up. John could see how that'd have been much harder with Joanna. No wonder she'd ended up working in the labs instead.

"She hasn't had it easy," Shylah told him, genuinely worried now. "And she won't have it easy taking over from Colonel Sumner either." That was an understatement, but then, Shylah loved understatements.

"Yeah," John muttered. "No kidding. Nobody knows she was military, and once Elizabeth tells everybody that Joanna's taking over, it'll get messy pretty quick."

"It most likely will, yes," Shylah said, "but I have no doubt you'll make the transition an easier one for her."

Taking over after three years of Sumner having had command was not only going to be messy, it was also going to be the hardest thing possible from Joanna's current position in the science division. John had no idea what to do about it at all. He was a man, not a woman and this body felt off to him. It was peculiar, like he was just about to lose his balance but not quite. Damn irritating, that was what it was. Especially because he didn't know how long he'd be stuck in this universe. He could be there for weeks, stuck in a female body, training and going on away missions. Oh crap, away missions. There was no way he could fight like this.

"This will be a disaster, Shylah. They'll expect me to go on missions like this," he whined in that odd, female voice and waved his hands up and down his new body. "I'm not even sure I can walk in this body without keeling over, never mind running or fighting."

"There will be a brief period of awkwardness," she said, her tone soothing, "but you will get used to it soon enough. Muscle memory will help with the rest. Your coordination and motor skills in this body are excellent as well, and both you and Joanna have had the same training. There won't be as many differences as you believe there are."

"I'm a woman," John said slowly. He wasn't sure exactly how she thought this was going to work, but he was pretty sure it wasn't going to be as easy as Shylah said. It never really was.

"So I see," Shylah told him, teasingly, then she waved his concerns away in the way she always did, like he was just a small human, whose worries weren't really necessary. "You have Joanna's memories. Do what comes naturally and all will be fine. Her years of being a scientist have changed her significantly; your experience in this will help her. What we need you to do is to give her a good start for her new posting. You'll have to show her men what their new leader is made of. I'm sure you'll have lots of fun." At that, she winked at him.

John suppressed a groan and closed his eyes. He knew her well enough to not expect her to still be there when he opened them again. He wasn't disappointed, for she'd vanished. Taking a long breath, John forced himself to relax. He could do this. He could be the military CO even though he was stuck in a body that confused him. It would be easier than some of the other stuff he had had to do lately, of that John was certain.

Clenching his hands into tight fists, John determinedly strode over to the bathroom. He needed to see himself in a mirror, needed to see what kind of mess Shylah had landed him into this time. That and he had to get acquainted with the body he was stuck in. There were a multitude of differences John could determine just by simply walking across the room. The way his hips swayed slightly no matter if he wanted it or not. The unfamiliar feeling of a bra underneath his t-shirt. The brush of shoulder length hair.

At the bathroom door, he felt a little queasy and he had to wait a moment before he went in and stepped in front of his mirror. He really wanted to see how he looked like as a woman, but it also unsettled him that he was inside that female body. When he'd been pregnant it hadn't been this bad, mainly because he'd still had all the body parts he'd always had, even if he hadn't been able to see them over the bulge of his belly. But essentially he'd still been the same. Not this time, though.

Taking a moment to collect himself before he took a first look into the mirror to see himself as a woman, John took a deep breath. What he saw was strangely familiar; his own eyes with the long dark lashes in a softer looking, rounder, clearly female face. Dark, slightly dishevelled looking hair, the tips brushing her shoulders. He … Joanna was wearing a wide, black t-shirt and grey pants that showed as little of her figure as possible.

Reluctantly John took a look at his hands. He figured this was as good a place to start as any. He was oddly conflicted about even looking into the mirror, torn between wanting to know and not wanting to know about Joanna's body. Joanna's fingers were long and elegant, the nails short and without polish. Reluctantly John reached for the hem of the t-shirt and lifted it off over his head. Undoing the bra behind his back was a bit tricky, but after a moment, John was able to shrug it off as well. The trousers came last and a second later John stared at Joanna's mostly naked body.

Joanna had smallish breasts that fit her slim, slightly muscled body. It was the body of a runner, the body of a fighter. It was clear that Joanna had kept up her workout-routine meticulously. Now that he'd started, he suddenly couldn't wait to test his limits and the differences from this body to his normal one.

John's gaze travelled down Joanna's body in the mirror, taking in every little detail with new curiosity. He felt like he hadn't quite arrived in this body yet and looking into the mirror to see himself, but not, was weird. Joanna was wearing plain black boy-short panties, plain and not very female, at least to John's eyes. In a way he wanted to take them off, too, but he also didn't, because for a ridiculous moment he felt like he was imposing on her, taking the decision away about who to show her body to and who not. Feeling oddly reluctant John didn't pull down that last piece of clothing. This was enough for now, he decided.

When he'd been a teenager John had wondered briefly what it must feel like to be a girl. Every teenaged boy probably wanted to know what 'it' felt like for the girls they went to bed with. But these thoughts had always been abstract and a fantasy that would never be realized. Having it come true wasn't quite as much fun as he'd thought it would be back then, though; his foreign body unsettled him a bit. Actually, he wasn't exactly sure what to think about this whole experience. He was excited about finding out all he could about what it meant to be a woman, but the thought of, Oh my god, I'm a woman, was stuck in an endless loop at the back of his head as well. Still, some of the curiosity from when he was basically a kid was still there, and now John would get firsthand experience in how it was to really be a woman. But somehow the idea wasn't as appealing as it had been in theory.

Slowly, as if he was doing something forbidden, John lifted his hands and touched his fingertips to his face. No beard would be growing there come morning. His gaze travelled over her body, to the silky smooth legs and doubted he'd get out of shaving altogether. But maybe she didn't use a razor? John had heard of some sort of wax that took care of that kind of problem. Though, from what he knew that hurt quite a lot and John shuddered at the thought of actually having to wax his legs.

He'd have to take a look into Joanna's bathroom cabinet later.

John's fingertips moved from his face, down his neck, then rested on his collarbone; his eyes followed the trail of his fingers in the reflection of the mirror, half-afraid of what he was doing and impossibly curious. John stared at himself for a heartbeat, feeling almost naughty and with a deep breath he carefully cupped Joanna's breasts. It was a rather weird sensation. Unlike anything he'd felt before.

And it wasn't just the breasts, this body was so different. Despite being fit, healthy, and muscled, Joanna was soft in places John wasn't used to. His balance was off somehow as well, but – surprisingly enough – not in a disturbing manner, at least not anymore. Just like Shylah had said.

John let his hands drop to his sides. That was as far as he was prepared to go for now. First, he needed to get used to having a female body, then he could explore further. At least that was what he told himself as he opened Joanna's cabinet: Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant – no surprises there. John pushed a bottle of painkillers to the side, making a mental note that he needed to find out what kind of contraception Joanna used – and where she kept it – when his gaze fell on a box of tampons.

John swallowed. Oh no. No, no. There was no way he was going to stick his fingers there, poking around in his borrowed body. That just seemed to be way too intimate and … inappropriate. Why the hell couldn't she use those … sanitary napkin things? Surely there had to be a way to do this that did not require for him to … no, best not to think about it just now. John really, really hoped that he wouldn't be here long enough for that to happen, anyway. Just like John luckily enough hadn't been forced to have sex with anyone while in control of the other John's bodies, either. John wasn't sure if he could have lived with that. It would feel way too much like cheating. Even though years and years on end with nothing but his own hand was kinda hard on him by now.

John sighed and started to put his clothes back on.


John was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. He'd been unable to sleep, things kept running through his head and it was impossible to shut them up. That was probably how women felt sometimes. Nancy had done that, too, lain in bed for hours before she'd finally fallen asleep. Once, she'd told him that she just couldn't stop thinking. Before, he hadn't understood that, now though, he could sympathize.

"Colonel Joanna Sheppard will be taking over command. I know many of you will be surprised by my decision since it is not common knowledge that Doctor Sheppard has been part of the military in the past. But I assure you, she is more than suited for this position. She's a highly decorated officer of the Air Force, whom I've been authorized to reinstate should the need arise. With Colonel Sumner's death, I have recalled Colonel Sheppard to active duty. Tomorrow morning there will be a meeting in the mess hall where the situation will be explained properly to everybody," Elizabeth had said, the words still ringing in John's ears. She had given Joanna a smile, one of those that John had often seen female officers give each other. The smile that told of a kind of sisterhood and said, "You and I, we have to stick together, because we're alike." It was strange to be on the receiving end of it. He'd smiled back awkwardly, more because he had been sure it would be expected than because he'd felt like it. Of course he hadn't felt like it – he wasn't really a woman, after all.

Closing his eyes so he didn't have to see the ceiling anymore, John sighed. He'd been sitting there in the conference room with the command staff, everybody gaping at him. For a moment, he'd wanted to meet their eyes, but then he'd just stared straight ahead, not daring to look at anybody; especially not Rodney, who had seemed so betrayed.

The only ones who hadn't been surprised were Elizabeth and Lorne. Elizabeth, because it had been her idea; and Lorne, because John had talked to him right after Elizabeth had asked him to take over. Lorne had been more than just a little surprised at first, but also strangely relieved that he wouldn't have to take command. When everyone had finally left the conference room, John had been the first out the door. At that point "tomorrow morning" had sounded reassuringly far away. Long enough to plan and to get used to certain things in his new body.

"Tomorrow morning" was three hours away now and John still couldn't sleep. Absentmindedly he reached for the dog-tags that were lying pooled between Joanna's breasts. Their weight was comfortable and welcome. It felt right to have them back, like having recovered a part of himself he hadn't been aware was missing. He doubted Joanna would have felt the same way. From her memories John couldn't tell, but she'd at least never said she was sad about leaving the service. Not to his knowledge anyway.

John had kept busy during the past day, preparing for what was to come and getting used to being a woman. He'd been to the hairdresser, choosing to cut off the too long hair so it wouldn't get in the way in the field. Joanna had only grown it out after becoming a civilian; now she had the same cut as before, which had some resemblance to the one John was used to wearing. It seemed Joanna had as many cowlicks as John had in a male body; she looked unkempt already. John didn't mind one bit, dealing with girl parts was hard enough without having to worry about styling.

Sighing, John turned around in bed once more, facing the window now.

This body had given him a few problems over the course of the day. It felt different, somehow, but he couldn't describe it. Also, he was constantly reminded of being a girl. For one, there was the thing where he had to sit down to pee, and that stupid bra had been uncomfortable and foreign to him the entire day. Joanna was also a bit shorter than John usually was, and it was harder to adjust to that than it was to get used to the different balance. Then there had been that lock of hair that kept escaping the braid and hung into his field of vision all the fucking time. Well, at least that last one had an easy solution. The rest? Not so much.

It wasn't like he hadn't been busy enough throughout the day, he really should have been out like a light from sheer exhaustion alone, but no, he just couldn't come down. He'd even gone to take a shower earlier, in the hopes that it would help. It had been an… interesting experience, really. Somewhere between scary as hell and exciting. The last time he'd washed a female body had been a long, long time ago, and he'd been clearly very male himself, back then. But this? This had been something else. After a while of just standing under the hot spray and not doing much of anything – least of all touching the female body he was stuck in – John had finally lost a few of his hang ups and had begun to actually wash himself. He still didn't know exactly how it had happened, but … well, he'd found the one good thing about the female anatomy: Multiple orgasms. It had been fascinating.

John still blushed at the thought of how Joanna's body had throbbed and pulsed, the slow build of arousal so unlike anything John had ever felt as a man, it was a heady feeling, almost intoxicating. It just hadn't made him tired at all.

Sitting up, John beat the pillow into submission, but then didn't lie down again. It was 5 a.m. anyway. Even though he hadn't slept a wink, he didn't feel especially tired, either. Deciding that he'd had enough, he got up. There were a few things he'd run away from the day before: Carson and his frown, Rodney and his furious surprise. Rodney, especially, who'd gotten up to walk towards John at the end of it all and John had just blindly jumped out of his chair, leaving quickly. Rodney had rung the door bell at least twenty times later that night, but John had told Atlantis to not let him in. Thankfully he'd given up after a while and left. But there was going to be a confrontation with Rodney eventually – and wasn't it a lovely thought to have to face him and tell him Joanna's truth?

John pulled out the black tank top and the cut off, dark gray sweatpants Joanna used when she was training. Until today, no-one had seen her in this outfit before. She'd run off the beaten path and worked out in a small room she'd discovered that no-one else knew about. Close enough to a transporter that she could be back in case of an emergency, but out of the sight of both military and scientists. That was going to end now; Joanna was going to be recognized as the military leader of Atlantis, which meant she had to act differently.

John would walk to the actual gym like this. Joanna's dog-tags would be visible around her neck; her new haircut and style as much a sign of the change in her status as the change in clothes was. John knew he'd be defining the way Joanna was going to act in the future, but he didn't doubt that she'd do the exact same things if she'd been there instead of him. From now on she wasn't going to hide anymore, not her body, nor her nature. The expedition – everybody, military and scientists – needed to know who she really was and what she was capable of.

For that, a demonstration would be necessary, John was pretty sure about that.

Joanna needed to be seen as something other than the almost genderless, bland scientist everybody had gotten so used to. They needed to know she was someone who actually knew which was the business end of a weapon. For now it was John who needed to make sure that she took control. He would have to show them that Joanna knew what she was doing, and that she had no scruples whatsoever doing what needed to be done. It would go a long way to getting at least some respect from the men and women Joanna was going to command, but respect really was something that needed to be properly earned. It would take time for Joanna to get the military to see her as more than just a scientist; it was definitely going to be a long and possibly painful process.

Her men would obey her orders, of course they would, because they had to, but John knew it wasn't Joanna as a person they respected just yet. The men would treat her with the courtesy and obedience her rank demanded, but in a crucial situation that kind of "respect" was worth nothing much. She hadn't earned their trust and loyalty, mainly because that could only be won through actions and the kind of camaraderie that came with battles fought side by side. Tales of how brave or decorated Joanna was really wouldn't be of any help here. "Paper doesn't blush" John thought, and knew that many of his men had painfully experienced that every mission stood or fell with the commanding officer and the – to put it bluntly – sanity of his or her orders. Joanna's men just didn't have that kind of confidence in her skills just yet, couldn't really have it, reasonably. They didn't know her, after all. No-one did, if John was honest. So, for some time to come, they wouldn't really be saluting Joanna, but her rank, and would view her as an outsider. It would have been hard for a guy as well, but John knew things would be even worse because Joanna was a woman.

Sure, her men should know better; Teyla beat their asses on a regular basis after all. They should have learned by now not to underestimate a woman, but that hadn't sunk in yet. John was pretty sure of that.

It sucked that it was John who had to change all that – or at least make a step in the right direction. With those thought in his head he finally left his quarters, going for a run. If anybody saw him, it didn't matter anymore. In two hours the whole thing would be out anyway.


The meeting had gone over better than he could have hoped for, but Rodney had stood in the first row, arms crossed and face closed off. He'd looked angry. Well, there was nothing John could do about that right now, and he really didn't want to have what would probably culminate in a screaming match in the mess hall with all these people around. Rodney didn't seem to want to do that either, because he left with the scientists rather quickly. Of course, he might just have decided to punish Joanna with silence – John wasn't entirely sure.

John had given a quick speech, the faces of the men and women now under his command impassive. Almost in the way Sumner had looked at him in the beginning, sometimes, like they didn't trust him. John couldn't really blame them.

He'd returned to his quarters and changed back into Joanna's work-out clothes again, having decided there was only one way to get started with this. Taking a deep breath, John steeled himself for what was to come. He'd been hovering in the corridor in front of the gym for a few minutes now, hesitant to actually open the door. Of course, he had a pretty good idea of how the men would react. The way they'd looked at him as he'd walked through the halls of Atlantis had been a pretty good indication of the overall situation after all. The scientific staff felt betrayed – John was surprised Rodney hadn't hunted him down yet – and the Marines were miffed about what they viewed as deception. They had been prepared to accept Lorne as their new CO, most likely, but now felt that Joanna had usurped Lorne's position.

Scolding himself inwardly for stalling, John palmed the door to the gym open and stepped inside. One of the men spotted him, then the whole room froze, one person after another turned towards him, staring. They all stopped, even the men sparring. John would have laughed out loud about that one if he hadn't been so tense about what he was going to do.

"Hey guys. Hey Ronon, mind if I join you?" he asked.

Ronon grinned wolfishly at John, eyes never leaving his. "Nope," Ronon said and waved him over.

John knew that everybody would be looking at him and he could hear the clicking of radios as those present called their friends to see their new CO get beaten up by Ronon. Well, the more the merrier. Also, it'd be more impressive if they saw it with their own eyes. That was why John made a show of warming up and stretching. He waited for the doors to open and close rapidly before he turned to Ronon.

There was no doubt in John that – after years and years of practice – if he'd been in his own body, he could have beaten Ronon easily. After all, he had beaten Ronon uncountable times in different universes, but until Ronon attacked him with the sticks for the first time, John hadn't been sure he could do it in a female body. The moment Ronon did attack – from above – he reacted instinctively, though, like he would have in any other body, ducking below Ronon's arm and slipping past his unprotected side. He delivered a blow to Ronon's side that elicited a satisfying grunt of pain.

There was an odd, calculating expression in Ronon's eyes as they circled each other, and then John could see realization dawn. Ronon looked around at the crowd they'd collected, at their faces and John knew he'd finally understood that this fight served a certain purpose.

That little bit of distraction was all John needed, he attacked low, going for Ronon's open side, was blocked easily and twirled around in a move he'd learned from Teyla. The resulting crack of wood against Ronon's shoulder elicited a murmur from the people watching.

Then there was no more time to think, all John did was react, blocking Ronon's blows as they came faster and faster. Ronon was trying to find some sort of vulnerability; something John used to his advantage as he lured him in half a dozen times before Ronon caught on to the game. His eyes glittered as he stepped back, both of them glistening with sweat and John knew Ronon had to feel about as hyped as John did himself. They weren't holding back, giving everything, and John's body hurt from several hits he'd taken, but he also knew he'd gotten in about as many on Ronon.

"You're good," Ronon said loudly and John was glad he knew that it wasn't just lip service. This was no show fight with choreographed moves, it was a real training fight, and the way both of them were breathing hard and the bruises that started to spring up all over their skin was proving that.

"Thanks," John muttered, already moving out of the way when Ronon attacked again. After that it was a matter of tripping Ronon up – which was hard – and keeping him on the mat – which was harder – before Ronon finally yielded.

John looked around. Surprise and a kind of dawning respect were on the faces of those present. There was Rodney as well, staring at him like he was some sort of alien. John supposed he deserved that. He felt bad about not having had the guts to open the door for Rodney the night before. Oh well, probably time to face the music.

"Thanks for the spar," John said after he'd gotten up. He offered Ronon his hand, and was surprised when Ronon grinned at him as he took it.

"We'll have to do this again, soon," Ronon said. By the time John had reached Rodney, Ronon had already picked his next victim out of the crowd.

John didn't bother saying a word, instead he grabbed hold of Rodney's arm, giving him the option between coming along quietly, or putting up a fuss and being dragged. Rodney did come along; he didn't even say a word until John had palmed the door open that led into a small, unused room directly across from the gym. They would have the necessary privacy there.

The door hadn't even closed behind them properly, when Rodney said, "So."

It was just that one word, but that was worse than Rodney babbling or ranting, because John could hear the disappointment and the anger in it quite well. "I'm sorry, Rodney," John blurted. He let go of Rodney's arm, putting some space between them even as he thought 'lock' at the door. He didn't want anybody to walk in on them during this.

"No, you're not sorry. If you were sorry you wouldn't have let me stand in front of your door for almost half an hour last night. You'd have let me in and talked to me then. If you were sorry, you would have told me years ago," Rodney snapped back. John could see the hurt in his expressive face.

Well, fuck. He'd been so preoccupied with the whole "oh my god I'm a girl" thing and the "how the fuck can I take over the base smoothly?" thing, that he hadn't really thought about what it would do to Rodney to put this conversation off just a little longer.

John shook his head. "I'm not sorry for not telling you, Rodney, but I am sorry for not talking to you yesterday. My life… look, it wasn't your business. You didn't really want me here in the first place, knowing that I was military before wouldn't have endeared me to you. And it was something I just didn't want to talk about. Ever."

"Elizabeth knew."

Ah. That was the crux of the matter. Of course. "Elizabeth read my file, Rodney, she's got full disclosure from the Air Force. Sumner knew, too, but no-one else did, and that's how I wanted to keep it."

Rodney glared at him, his mouth pressed into a thin line, clearly unhappy. "Lorne didn't seem too surprised," he muttered. There'd been other accusations thrown around about Lorne over the past three years, which Joanna had always ignored or joked about, but the incidents were clear as crystal in John's mind at that point.

"I told Lorne right before the meeting, it was a courtesy–" John tried to explain, but Rodney wouldn't let him finish.

"And I didn't deserve the same? Is that what you're saying? That I don't deserve to be told because I'm what? Not important enough? I thought we were friends," Rodney said, his last sentence almost whispered.

John felt bad for it, but it had all gone so fast that John hadn't really thought about that bit, either. "No! That's not it at all, I just wasn't thinking. Of course we're friends. But I did things while I was with the Air Force … you don't even want to know half of what I had to do."

Frowning, Rodney looked at John like he was an especially tiresome Ancient device he was trying to figure out. "Black ops?" he finally asked. John just looked at Rodney until he flushed and waved his hands through the air in a complicated way John interpreted as "I take that question back". Instead of saying anything on the subject, Rodney swallowed and looked away from John. "You should have told me, Joanna."

That last one startled John. He'd completely forgotten who he was; being in Joanna's body no longer disturbed him. Somewhere along the line he'd gotten used to it. "I know, Rodney, I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier," John said, watching Rodney shrink back a little.

Rodney swallowed, his gaze running over the empty walls of the room, away from John. There was more to this than just hurt, John could see that much. But this was something Rodney wouldn't let himself be hurried into. He'd tell John when he was ready, not before. Then Rodney crossed his hands over his chest and looked at John. "It's… it's not only that you let me believe you were just a gifted mathematician and passable engineer. Do I know you at all? You're a Colonel in the USAF, you've got combat experience. Look at you," Rodney muttered, like he was embarrassed to say it but couldn't help himself, "you're hot and … and … you're a woman."

Oh, right, John thought, somewhat surprised. Being reminded of that was strange, because especially now, after his very successful sparring session with Ronon, John didn't really feel all that different any more. He'd gotten used to this body in a way he hadn't thought possible and it had taken Rodney to make John remember that yes, he really was a girl. As in actually female. "I've been a woman for quite a while now, Rodney," John teased, forcing himself to grin at Rodney. The whole thing was surreal, like something straight out of a movie.

"Oh, don't be stupid, of course I knew that, but now you look like one, too. You were hiding your body since the moment you stepped foot into the SGC. Now look at you," Rodney repeated, and his eyes traveled over the length of Joanna's body. John knew exactly what Rodney saw. "You've got muscles," Rodney said, "you beat Ronon when I didn't think that was even possible and now I'll never find the courage to ask you out on a date. You're completely out of my league, just like Sam."

"Ask me out on a date?" John echoed, not sure if that was really as funny as John thought it was, or if it was just awkward. To him, it probably was a bit of both. At the same time, all the memories of working together with Rodney pushed to the front. In a sudden flash of insight, John figured that Joanna's flirting was about as bad as John's. At least when they were doing it on purpose. They were also as oblivious as humanly possible.

It had taken John 2657 universes to figure out how he felt about Rodney, and it had taken Joanna three years to figure out the very same thing. They'd both been flirting with Rodney the whole time, teasing them, protecting them in their own way. If the situation hadn't been so serious John would have laughed out loud.

"Yes, ask you out. I was just … I was just waiting for the right," Rodney continued blithely, uncrossing his arms, his hands fluttering around, "you know, moment."

John could tell the exact moment when Rodney realized what he'd said, for he took a step back. Rodney looked positively terrified, his hands going up, like he wanted to snatch the words back out of the air. Taking a breath, John followed him until they were close enough to touch.

John swallowed around the lump in his throat, then said, "Rodney." Am I really going to do this? John wasn't sure. Yes, he liked Rodney, he had flirted with him in some of the universes since he'd figured it out, but to John it was still a strange feeling. This was Rodney. His best buddy, who happened to have a great ass and be someone John wanted to spend time with. A guy. John had been attracted to various Rodneys by now. Well, at least it was always Rodney, so that was kinda okay. Because John didn't really want to deal with the possibility of being gay and not bi right then, that'd be too much introspection for one universe. To be honest, John was grateful that until now he had never actually had to act on the attraction that was present in varying degrees in pretty much every universe he'd jumped into, lately. John had to admit that only part of it was the feeling of betraying someone if he did – the rest was plain fear. Fear, and the knowledge that once he let go of his control and touched Rodney, let himself be touched, he couldn't stay apart from the people in the universes he jumped into. It was pure self-defense that made John refuse to let anyone closer. Losing his people once had been bad, accepting other versions of them, then losing them again when he jumped, that'd have broken him.

With Rodney looking at John like he wanted to turn tail and run, John wasn't sure what to do. Of course John knew this thing between Rodney and Joanna – the attraction – was what she wanted, what she'd have liked to happen three years ago if she had paid attention and actually realized. What John couldn't quite believe was that he was about to help her to finally get Rodney. After all that time, he had managed to avoid getting involved in any kind of romance while he was acting for other Johns. John really felt better with leaving this part to the "original."

By the time John had made up his mind, Rodney had backed up to the door, his eyes wide as John kept inching forward after him. "Joanna," Rodney muttered, "what are you doing?"

John just smiled at him. No wonder they'd never managed to get anything going, with both of them either too blind to see, or too hesitant to make the first step. It would have been funny if it hadn't been so sad.

Seriously, if he'd been there as a visitor, he'd have taken Joanna aside and told her: "Look, this is Rodney we're talking about. He's hopeless most of the time, but I know he cares for you. In this instance, hinting and flirting is gonna do shit. Just tell him, for fuck's sake." Knowing himself, Joanna would have looked at him with wide eyes at that and asked him what the fuck he was talking about. They made a great pair, Joanna and Rodney, hell, most versions of John and most versions of Rodney did. Just tell him. Easier said than done. John reached out to Rodney, taking hold of the lapels of his open jacket and pulled him in. "Rodney, you're such an idiot," he muttered and just as he was about to kiss him, his surroundings grew brighter and he jumped.

#4028

Some universes made John physically ill – and not because the body he'd jumped into had caught some sickness. This was one of them.

The sun was wrong. John could barely look at anything without the intense feeling of wrong swamping him. That, and all the people were blue. Not the blue John had been changing into when he'd been turned into a bug. No, a gentle light blue that reminded John of the sky. It made talking to Rodney hard, his equally blue eyes eerily intensive in his face. It was creepy.

"What?" Rodney snapped. "Do I have something on my nose? What?"

Apart from being blue, he was still Rodney. No changes there.

#4100 (or so)

All these years, John had thought that if he hadn't woken up the Wraith, everything would have been so much better and easier. Walking through this Atlantis at Shylah's side, he realized that he had been wrong, wrong, oh so wrong. Huh. What did it say about him that the voice in the back of his head sounded like Rodney at his smuggest? Probably a lot, but John refused to think about it.

"They didn't fare well," Shylah whispered. She didn't normally whisper, but John could see why she would now. The people they passed, frozen in the corridors, looked tired and thin, worn down with everything the Pegasus Galaxy had thrown at them over the past years. There was no relief from Earth, making their stay on Atlantis especially hard for them.

Without the Wraith they had done a lot of things differently. They hadn't had to fight for their lives – at least not against an overpowering force of lifesucking vampires. Mostly it had become apparent how terribly different the people here were from them. Something John had never really noticed before, maybe because they'd all been united by the common enemy. John wasn't sure, maybe it was just a radical difference between John's home universe and this one.

"No," John muttered, unable to stop looking at one of his men, who had cuts and scrapes all down his arms and a leg in a cast. "No, they didn't fare well."

They'd been greeted nicely enough, making a few friends early on, the Athosians among them. Only a few cullings now or then versus the constant onslaught 50 years too early; John had never thought he'd ever think this, but he'd preferred it the way it had worked out at home. Without the Alliance that had sprung up around the Genii, doing everything they could to make their lives difficult.

They reached the gateroom and Shylah suddenly stopped, her eyes glued to Rodney McKay, who looked like he'd lost a few pounds more than he could spare, his eyes big and feverish in his face. "You have to make sure they survive," she said.

"That's all? Why don't I just tackle world hunger while I'm at it?" John snapped at her. He turned in a circle, looking at all the familiar faces, and he saw the bone-deep tiredness in them. "They've been out here on their own for two years. It was only one for us and that was hard already. Why hasn't the SGC sent someone yet?"

"They have," Shylah said, frowning and looking at Elizabeth, who looked like she was crumbling under the pressure of command. "The Daedalus was here, but Atlantis had already been moved to a safe location at the point. They believe Atlantis was destroyed."

"Great," John sighed and rubbed his eyes and dropped into an empty chair. "Just great." Finally he looked at Shylah again. It was interesting how Shylah regarded Elizabeth. Did she look at him like that as well? Like he was a specimen that needed to be researched?

Elizabeth had been a good leader, ideal for what they'd needed – in John's home universe. Here she was so much out of her depth it was painful to even look at the memories. When she'd been taken by the Replicators John had genuinely mourned her loss, but here it'd have been better if someone had taken command out of Elizabeth's hands months ago.

A thought occurred to John. "You want me to ursurp Elizabeth?" he asked, only now connecting Shylah's interest to his purpose here. She had the grace to look slightly bashful, but the look she gave him was decidedly shifty. "And do what? Do you think I'd do that much better?"

Shylah cocked her head, then she said, "Yes, I think you'd do much better."

His first thought was to tell Shylah to go fuck herself, one he immediately suppressed; he really didn't want to amuse her right then. His second one was that she was right, and that realization hurt far more than seeing all of them like this. He looked at Rodney, and even frozen the expression on his gaunt face had made John shudder. "Alright, but that won't be enough."

Now Shylah smiled at him, and then she turned away and slowly walked towards the way they'd come again; John hurried to catch up to her. "You need to find a way to contact Earth as well."

Sometimes John wondered what Shylah thought he was, because her expectations had always been pretty high, but this was starting to get a bit ridiculous.

"And John?" she said, already fading into nothingness as they'd reached an empty enough place for him to start out in. "It's number 4105. Just thought you'd like to know."

#4105

John scowled after her. Yes, he liked knowing, but he hated it when she told him something as she left, robbing him of the opportunity to answer back. It wasn't so much about having the last word; it was mostly about being polite, a concept Shylah just couldn't grasp.

McKay to Sheppard, come in, Rodney's voice came over the radio.

John had to swallow at the exhaustion in those few words. "What's up, Rodney?" he asked, trying to keep the anger and the worry out of his voice.

"We're still on for a film later?"

"Yeah, my place, you pick," John confirmed, taking the information from his borrowed memories easily. This John had really had his work cut out for him, what with having to try and keep Rodney together so he was actually capable of saving their asses repeatedly at the last moment. That and trying to keep Elizabeth from upsetting the tender balances even more. She'd been incredibly vindictive after Doranda, far more than John's Elizabeth. Hell, far more than John himself, and he'd been a stupid asshole after the whole fiasco. Here, Rodney's word hadn't been enough ever since and that had started to seriously ruin the atmosphere on the entire base.

They'd all wanted it to work; they'd all wanted to be able to use it to dial home. It hadn't been Rodney's fault that he hadn't managed to get it up and running, weapon and power generator destroyed in the meltdown that followed. It hadn't even been his fault that they'd kept trying after the first casualty. This time, without the vision of a Nobel Prize in front of his eyes and the SGC not there to put pressure on them, Rodney hadn't been so entirely sure about himself. He'd taken Radek's doubts into consideration, and had wanted to proceed carefully. It had been Elizabeth's desperation that had driven them to move on a timetable that had no hope in hell to succeed. But still, in her eyes it had been Rodney's fault. Not that they'd almost died, no, that wasn't why she'd been furious at all. She'd been spitting mad that they'd lost their opportunity to get the power to dial home.

"Alright. McKay out."

Elizabeth was fraying at the edges, becoming more and more erratic as they couldn't find a ZPM or another power source that could allow them to gate back to Earth. Frowning, John changed direction; instead of heading to his quarters to shower, he was now heading to the infirmary for a little chat with Carson.


When John got back to his quarters, he hadn't expected to find Rodney curled up on the couch. He looked absolutely exhausted, almost as bad as John felt.

John squatted down next to Rodney, taking the opportunity to really look at him without anyone around. Not Shylah and not the – still – creepy frozen living statues of the others. In sleep, Rodney's features were relaxed, but his mouth was slanted downward unhappily. There were dark smudges under his eyes, the kind that only went away after a month of regular sleep, not snatched naps on John's couch. Rodney looked like the next big gust of wind was going to blow him away. It just wasn't right. Rodney had always been bigger than John, broader, somehow, taking up more space when they stood side by side. Closing his eyes, John tried to recall how his Rodney had looked like, tried to remember the fine differences that a slightly changed lifestyle had brought to the version of Rodney he'd started out with. It was scary that he couldn't remember him that well. That Teyla's small smile, the one only his Teyla had ever given him just that way, was slowly fading, too. That Elizabeth's way of frowning at him and Rodney and saying their names in near-despair was lost. The little things were fading, replaced by a multitude of habits and lines and bruises that his people had never had.

Swallowing against the pain, John gently said, "Hey, buddy." His hand went to Rodney's shoulder, not to shake him, but just so he knew John was there. Rodney blinked awake slowly, something that hit John like a punch. Rodney didn't wake up slowly, he was asleep one moment and talking and up the next; his brain already working before his feet hit the floor and way before he had the first cup of coffee.

"Hey," John said. Rodney rubbed his eyes with his fists and John instantly wished he'd let Rodney sleep. "You should head to bed," John told Rodney, only to be nearly bowled over as Rodney sat up quickly.

"No! I mean, I'm not tired. I just fell asleep because you weren't here to keep me entertained." It sounded weak, must have even to Rodney, for he grimaced briefly before fixing John with a scowl.

They stared at each other, Rodney stubborn, John worried, then John sighed. "Alright." Everything here was too much, it was too close to what John had always been afraid of. His people, worn down and breaking. Rodney, bereft of the bouncy energy that had always fascinated John and made Rodney such a good pal when one wanted to do something slightly unorthodox. He needed to get out of there for a bit, breathe. "Put on the movie, I just need …" he trailed off, waving vaguely towards the bathroom. He only started shaking after he'd closed the door behind him on Rodney puttering around with the laptop.

His gaze fell on the mirror, the centerpiece of John's bathroom. Rodney may have a tub a lot of universes, but John? John had a full length mirror. He didn't know why but he had it in most universes as well. Stepping closer he let his eyes travel over this John's body, taking in the lines of worry etched around the familiar eyes. There was the faint line of a scar on his neck, the same as the one he'd had since the Iratus bug had nearly killed him. But God, he looked as bad as Rodney did. His eyes slid away from the image almost of their own accord.

Weakly leaning against the wall next to him, John took a deep breath. Everybody here looked like that: tired and overworked. This John hadn't lost any weight, not the way Rodney had, but he was fitter than John had been before, probably out of necessity.

"Beckett to Sheppard," came out of his radio, and John heard Rodney cursing on the other side of the door.

He opened the channel and said, as evenly as he could, "Sheppard here. What's up, Carson?"

"You were right," Carson said, his voice heavy with something John couldn't name. "We should definitely have a movie evening once a week. Why don't you come over? And bring Rodney with you."

John grinned. He'd known Carson would see reason. "Alright, we're on our way." He closed the channel and left the bathroom without even glancing at the mirror again. He didn't want to know the rest of the differences; that kind of thing was creepy anyway.

"I don't want to be social," Rodney snapped at him the moment John left the bathroom. He looked angry and disappointed at the same time as he turned towards John, his arms crossed over his chest, but mostly hugging himself. "I thought this was going to be our film thing, you and me and–"

"Just shut up and let me explain," John interrupted Rodney before he could get a good rant going. "Carson is going to help me take over command of the expedition."

Rodney gaped at him. Then he blinked. He didn't say anything, though.

"Rodney?"

"You're what?" Rodney croaked, clearly disbelieving.

John clenched his jaw and frowned. "I'm taking over the city," he repeated. By now, even if Shylah hadn't given him that task, he'd probably have done it anyway. The memories sometimes came all at once, but other times they trickled into his brain in response to what was going on. The more of the memories he became aware of, the more John realized that Elizabeth was completely unfit to lead them; had been for a while now.

"You can't do that! That's … that's … mutiny!" There was that bruised look on Rodney's face that John had always connected to the worst trauma they'd experienced: the Genii invasion during the storm, Rodney being kidnapped by the odd natives to slave over their tech, Rodney being shot at.

Mutiny. The word brought a new rush of memories for John, and he had to clench his hands into fists in order to stay firmly on his feet. Elizabeth had accused Rodney of mutiny more than once, had silenced Rodney often enough with a threat of what would happen if he didn't stop being insubordinate. She'd never done that to John, not like that; she'd needed John too much. For a heartbeat John thought he was going to be sick all over his floor, but his stomach settled again almost instantly.

He closed his eyes against the anger and the worry; whispering, "This can't continue. If I don't do something now, you won't be alive to go back to Earth. Elizabeth … she needs me. You know my men lost any trust in her when she wanted to leave Stackhouse's team to die on M2X-0501 and only sent help after I insisted. She can't lead the city without me. I've watched this shit go on long enough now. There's no way I'll let her kill you."

"She's not killing me," Rodney protested, his eyes wide in his too thin face. "Elizabeth just wants the best for the city. You know that we're all important to her, and how much she cares." The mulish expression on Rodney's face told John all that he needed to know.

Rodney knew exactly what was going on, but he obviously had chosen not to acknowledge it. He'd chosen to uphold Elizabeth as the standard she should have been for them. Which she wasn't anymore; maybe had never really been in the first place.

Instead of answering, John asked Atlantis to open the bathroom door for him. He bodily dragged Rodney into the bathroom, pushed him in front of the mirror and held onto him. "No? She's not? Look at us," John hissed.

"John," Rodney almost begged, but he wasn't struggling to get free. "We can't do this, we can't just take this from her. It'll kill her."

John saw his face go cold in the mirror at that, and Rodney shuddered in response to it. "It's either her or you, Rodney. Guess who I'll pick." Before Rodney could answer, John continued, "I'm not going to shove her through the Stargate, I'm not even going to lock her up. But she's not doing what's best for the expedition anymore. I don't know why I didn't see it earlier, but she's cracked. We need to do something. And if you don't help me, then I'm going to do it on my own. Carson and I are going to talk to her first and we'll make her see reason. She can step down on medical reasons. If she's still rational enough for that, then nothing else will be necessary, and I won't need to do anything at all."

Rodney's eyes broke away from John's in the mirror, and John watched as Rodney erratically took in both their conditions. "But you would." It wasn't a question, it was a statement. One Rodney looked pained at.

Closing his eyes against the accusation in Rodney's eyes, John's hands tightened on Rodney's shoulders for a second. "Yes," he answered.

"For me?" Rodney asked, like he couldn't quite believe it.

Of course Rodney couldn't, he would never expect it. John knew without a doubt that every day Rodney got up and found people cared for him was a day of surprise for him. It made John equally angry and determined. Angry at whomever had hurt Rodney so much that he couldn't trust the people around him that far. Determined to not ever do anything – again – to re-affirm that misconception. John had also quietly promised himself that, if he ever found out who'd put that look onto Rodney's face, he'd go and beat the crap out of them.

With a sudden clarity, John realized that there really wasn't anything he wouldn't do for Rodney. And it wasn't a memory, or what this John would do for his Rodney. It was what he would do for any Rodney.

"Yes," John said and Rodney met his eyes in the mirror again; something intangible between them. Something John couldn't quite grasp. "Yeah, Rodney, for you."

"Okay," Rodney said, some of the almost frantic energy animating his face that John hadn't known he missed until it hadn't been there any more was returning. "Okay," he repeated, and then Rodney turned around and pushed past John, leaving the bathroom. John followed him and watched him pick up the laptop. "We shouldn't let Carson wait longer, or he'll be upset." John grinned when Rodney turned around to him in the doorway, sending a mild glare John's way. "Are you coming, Sheppard? Or are you waiting for an engraved invitation?"

"Depends. Gold letters or just plain pressed? I like the cursive ones best. If you could get me one of those then–"

"Sheppard," Rodney snapped.

John laughed and together they left John's room, walking towards the infirmary. For the first time since he'd jumped into this universe, John didn't feel the oppressive exhaustion in his limbs. If Rodney could be bossy like that again, if he could walk next to John, their shoulders bumping together on purpose now or then, then everything would be alright.


Deposing of Elizabeth had – in the end – been quite easy. She'd started shaking the moment John, Carson, and Rodney stepped into her office together, their faces grim. John hadn't expected it to be hard, but he hadn't expected her to sit down in her chair heavily, hands in her lap while she shook like a leaf in the wind, and ask, "This is it then, isn't it?"

After that, she accompanied Carson to the infirmary, where she'd gotten a private room and sedatives. Kate Heightmeyer and Carson were now both taking care of her.

The moment he announced the change in leadership over the intercom, John noticed an immediate change in the personnel around him. People who had been dragging their feet before were walking straight again, the techs in the gateroom sat straighter, too. It was like a boulder had been lifted off everybody's shoulders. But it wasn't until Rodney dropped into the visitor's chair in the office that John realized it was now him who was stuck organizing the chaos a changeover would bring. At least until he jumped out, something that could take a while. Fuck. Why didn't I think of that before I started all this? He dropped his head to the table. "Oh no," he muttered.

"You just noticed, didn't you?" Rodney had the cheek to ask.

John groaned.

"Well," Rodney said, and sniffed delicately. "It was your idea, so you have only yourself to blame."

Debating if he should look up so he could glare at Rodney, or if he should just stay like that and take a nap, he muttered, "Yeah, I know." Then he abruptly sat up straight. "So, now that I'm in charge, is there any way we can contact Earth without totally depleting our ZPM, but still letting them know that we're, you know, alive?"

"I don't think …" Rodney started, then trailed off, a thoughtful expression on his face. "I have to go and talk to Radek."

John grinned. Figured, all he'd needed to do was ask the right question. Now, it was completely in Rodney's hands. As the world whited out, John was just thankful that he was given one last look at Rodney as he turned around and locked eyes with him. He'd be fine.

#4249

This universe set John on edge; the hum of Atlantis was like someone scratching on a blackboard to him; the cadences were completely off, almost painful. The city was also much darker in tone than he was used to. All the little things that generally only gave John a feeling of wrong were multiplied into actual, visible differences here. So much that John couldn't wait to leave again, if only so he could sleep again. The noises Atlantis made gave him a headache and made it impossible to find any rest.

Sitting in the meeting, John kept throwing glances at Rodney. He couldn't help it; this universe really was beyond wrong.

Actually, it would have been funny if it hadn't been so fucking creepy. John had often tried to evade Rodney for a multitude of reasons; mostly because he hadn't wanted to be found out. Now he did it because seeing Rodney animate Cadman's body was … no, there was no other word for it, it was creepy.

It had been one thing that had gone differently. Only one thing. Something so small that John never thought it would have consequences this far-reaching: this John had pointed at the other dot on Radek's tablet. Of course, that had fucked up everything. They'd been a little too late to find the solution, and consequently had had to watch one consciousness fade away into nothingness. No-one knew why she'd done it, but Cadman had given up her own body, her life, just so Rodney could survive. She'd given all of them a better chance at survival with her last, selfless deed, something John knew Rodney was still aching over. He could see it in those borrowed eyes. Eyes so different from the brilliant blue they used to be.

"We should go there, just to check if any of the facilities the Ancients left there are still intact," Rodney said at that moment.

It was a shock every time Rodney opened his mouth, Cadman's voice with Rodney's inflection and his intelligence behind it. John's memory of the meeting with Carson after Cadman had faded away, how Rodney's new body had adapted, how Cadman's brain had created more synapses. It had been endlessly fascinating for Carson, but John agreed with the assessment of Rodney and this John: it had been creepy, insane, and unfair.

"I'm going to veto that," John said. "Teyla said her people went there and the planet was empty. It'd be a waste of time." Rodney looked at him like John had stabbed him in the back, but John continued anyway, "We should go to M6X-834. Radek said that the database entry was interesting, if hazy, and Teyla told us that she's never been there."

Rodney snapped, "Safe and empty versus never been there? I think safe and empty should always win."

Elizabeth, though, only smiled gently at Rodney, like she was doing more often than not nowadays, something that John knew must have been driving Rodney slightly bonkers. "M6X-834 it is. We should put P7X-324 on the list for later, though."

Rodney shot him a triumphant smile as he got up and left. John only closed his eyes. At least something had worked right in this universe.

#4699

John stared at Shylah. "I hate it when you say that."

"What?" She asked, surprised. "Why? I just said that it's going to be fun. You'll see, it'll be–"

John didn't let her say it. "Don't. If the next thing out of your mouth is 'it will be easy,' I won't be responsible for what I'll do."

#4711

His mission wasn't exactly a hard one this time. The whole thing was more of a holiday than anything else. Shylah would never admit it, but she had looked at him worriedly during their last few dozen meetings. It was nothing specific, but John guessed that he was getting tired again. He'd been jumping so long now. The whole thing got kind of tedious and hazy.

Atlantis hummed into his mind, and after all this time John could tell from the subtle changes in pitch that the city was as worried about him as Shylah had been. There had been one universe, years ago, where Atlantis had been sentient. Rodney had unearthed the AI and John had actually been able to talk to her. That had been a cool universe. Aside from the fact that the Wraith had developed into a more bug-like creature. Big, big bugs. John shuddered involuntarily and turned the corner. All he had to do was play a round of golf with Rodney and encourage him to ask Katie Brown to marry him. Nothing strenuous. There wasn't going to be any running or screaming, no-one was going to shoot at him.

He didn't exactly want to do this, but Shylah had said that Rodney's marriage with Katie would be important for the future of mankind in this universe. There had been no more details forthcoming, and if John was honest he hadn't wanted to know what was going to happen anyway.

Instead, he'd started to think about "operation matchmaker" – as he'd decided to call it in his head – as a way to rectify his selfish, stupid thought when Rodney had shown him the ring in his home universe. When John had seen it, the whole thing had been like a slap to the face. His first reaction was one that John would never forget. It had been: "But then he won't be spending as much time with me anymore." Years later he still regretted that; even if he had never said it out loud, it made him a terrible friend. He'd been relieved when Rodney had come back and told him that it was over.

At least now he had a chance to make up for that a little.

#4999

There were two Ancients this time. John wasn't sure what to think about that. It wasn't that he didn't trust them … well, actually, that was exactly it. Yes, he'd known Shylah for a long time now, but the way she kept holding back, stopped talking at odd times or looked at John; it was starting to become apparent that there was more to this than fixing things. John, by now, was pretty sure it had nothing at all to do with the universes the Ancients put him in, but it had everything to do with John. He frowned; he felt like he'd been on a run with Ronon, all warm and tingly, but without the sweat and the soreness.

"So this is him," the new guy said, and looked at John with an interest that made John's skin itch. "Are you sure he can do this?"

John blinked. He wasn't used to being talked about like he wasn't there. He turned to Shylah, who damn well better would not follow the new guy's lead, and asked, "Is he naturally like this, or do you guys have to study real hard to reach that level of rudeness?"

The new guy's eyes grew wide and his mouth opened once or twice before he regained equilibrium enough to speak again. "I'm sorry, John Sheppard," he said, "I thought you were outside of time as well. Shylah did not explain the circumstances properly to me." He leveled a look at her and John saw her shrink away minutely. "But she is young, so her tardiness in conveying information may be forgiven."

Yeah, that did sound like Shylah. "She does do that," John muttered, remembering how often Shylah's oversights had ended with John paying the price in a holding cell. Or with interrogations. Or medical examinations that were too intrusive to bear remembering. It made him surprisingly glad he wasn't dependent on her like that anymore

"I'm Oniph," the new guy said, and held out his hand for John to shake. "And we – that is, the group that I work with and I – are very glad that you are here."

"Yeah, about that," John started, while Oniph shook his hand with a gravity that made John uneasy about the gig in this universe. "Why are you here?"

Shylah blushed and looked flustered enough for John to feel a mean little spark of happiness. "Sometimes we're approached," she started hesitatingly.

"That is true. All of us know what you're doing," Oniph said, obviously taking pity on Shylah. "You are somewhat unique in the multiverse. And on behalf of my people I asked Shylah to set up a meeting with you."

"Alright," John muttered, "shoot."

Instead of looking puzzled at that, Oniph smiled, while Shylah looked at John like she was still trying to figure out what he was saying. Hmmm. Oniph apparently understood humans far better than Shylah. Interesting.

"In this universe there are many differences to where you came from. You're not just human, John Sheppard, you are also one of us."

"One of you?" John asked, incredulously, unable to keep his mouth shut any longer. This was his chance to get information, even if he got it off the wrong Ancient. But at least it meant he didn't have only the remote memories – which he still hadn't gained – to do his job.

Oniph grimaced and then shot John a small smile. "Yes, the John Sheppard of this universe is a Latean. An Ancient as you would call it. He descended to be born to human parents and grow up on Earth. His mission is to protect Atlantis – and the Pegasus Galaxy – from any enemies our people have left there. It is," and Oniph broke off there, his hands fluttering around briefly, "not easy."

"Say, do Ancients go crazy as well?" John asked Shylah, and not just to see her blink and try to figure out if he was being sarcastic.

Oniph, on the other hand, laughed. "No, I'm not crazy. Though I can see why you would think that. Our John is exactly what I said he is. Can't you feel his powers inside of him? It will be most peculiar and probably strange."

That brought the throbbing in his whole body back to the front. He'd ignored it once Oniph had started talking, but it was still there. Warm and pulsing in time with his heartbeat. "I can feel something," John answered, balling his hands to fists to see if the sensation changed. "Those are his powers?"

Nodding, Oniph stepped closer until they were face to face. "Yes. Tural – that is John's Lantean name – was my friend. The leader of our group. We are all of the opinion that humans need to be protected from the horrors we left behind. When Tural volunteered, the group pulled around him to look after his human form and guide him as we can. But we are at a loss as to how we should proceed. There are things that will happen soon, things that will need Tural's expertise and his powers. If Tural has not regained his memories by then, Atlantis will fall. He will have failed his mission, and knowing Tural he will never recover from it." Oniph looked at John, really looked at him. "I know you are thinking that you are nothing like Tural, but you are. The two of you, you are alike. The only difference is that he was born 10.000 years ago, in this very city. You would be him, had you been born at that time. Do not doubt that."

That was a surprising bit of information. John had found that he was a lot of things in the multiverse. Sometimes on Atlantis, sometimes Earth-bound. He'd been a woman, had been a commercial pilot, a math teacher. There didn't seem to be an occupation that John hadn't had in at least one of his jumps. But he'd never thought he would jump into a universe where he was an Ancient. That, he figured, wasn't exactly a job profession you could learn.

"So what do you need me to do?" he asked. For some reason he wanted to help Oniph, maybe because he'd been so honest with John.

Oniph smiled at him, open and relieved. "We want you to touch something. There is a statue in the place you are going to explore tomorrow. It is beautiful, you won't be able to miss it. You have to touch it."

"Touching things is prohibited by McKay-law," John answered immediately, and at once saw the problem when Oniph smiled brightly. "Okay, so touching things is in the Boo-Boo Guide to the Pegasus Galaxy and you need this John to touch something so … what exactly?"

"There will be an electric shock that will stimulate his brain. He'll start remembering."

That sounded pretty ominous. "So I touch this thing, get an electric shock and your Tural starts remembering. Is this gonna hurt?"

Oniph looked shifty eyed, but he didn't evade John's gaze. "Yes, it will hurt. It's an electric shock. You shouldn't feel it for long, but Tural will be singed a little." He shrugged, then said, "We've tried all the harmless things, but Tural is extremely hard to get into the kind of situations that allow us to do something. We're under certain prohibitions until he knows who he is. Interference is only allowed insofar that nobody knows we're doing it."

"As opposed to …" John prompted.

Oniph grinned, it wasn't an expression John had thought the Ancient could ever sport, more of a baring of teeth than anything else. "As opposed to not being allowed to interfere at all." Then Oniph sighed. "Look, I know there are a lot of questions you will have. Let me answer them quickly. No, no-one is going to get hurt. No-one is going to die. But unless you help us, a lot of people are going to be both: hurt and dead. Tural is going to protect these people. He would rather die than leave or destroy Atlantis, and he will protect everybody you are thinking of right now."

"How did you–"

"Tural is you," Oniph said, this time his smile was friendly, real. "He's you, and those are the questions he would ask me in your stead. I've known him for a long time."

John was surprised at how good that sounded. Lately, he'd had to do a lot of things he had hated and quietly condemned, but this? This was finally something he could do without feeling dirty in a way he knew would never wash off again. He'd be doing something good, helping Tural.

That there were Ancients who actually cared enough to do something about the whole stupid mess they left behind when they ran away or ascended was a pleasant surprise. John wasn't sure why he believed Oniph just like that, but he did.

"Alright," he said, amazed at how right that felt. "I'll do it."

#5489

"You didn't tell me Teyla was going to die," John said, his tone low and cold. "Damn it, Shylah, I told you–"

"It was necessary," Shylah interrupted him. "Sometimes they–"

"Yeah, I know, sometimes they can't all live. But I thought we had an understanding." They'd had one and damn Shylah for breaking it.

She looked away, a grimace on her face. "This wasn't my decision. John, you know that I'm just your guide. I do have some say in where you go, but not nearly as much as you may think. A lot has been taken out of my hands, and I was ordered not to tell you. I'm sorry."

John grit his teeth and glared at her. He had no clue what was going on, but he didn't like it one bit.

#5701

When the nausea and the spots dancing in front of his eyes faded, John found himself sitting on the pier. That itself wasn't anything unusual, he liked the piers of Atlantis, he just rarely got to just sit there and do nothing. Curious, John looked around and found Rodney sitting to his left. Rodney was holding a can of beer and was wearing ….

Oh no. No. No. John threw a quick glance down himself for confirmation. Something in his stomach clenched as he saw the familiar flannel shirt and the t-shirt with the Panda print on it. No this wasn't good. Not good at all. No. Not this. Oh please, not this again, John thought, fighting hysterics.

It had been painful enough when it had happened in his own time, in his own universe. But now, after having met so many Rodneys, now that he was beginning to have romantic feelings towards Rodney it would be worse. A lot worse.

John couldn't go through this again. He couldn't. It had cost him all his self-restraint and willpower to not collapse with grief the first time around. To have to go through this again, seeing Rodney slip away, to become less and less himself each day was pure torture. It didn't matter that John knew the outcome of the whole ordeal, it was still going to be painful.

"John!" Shylah's impatient voice pulled John out of his maudlin thoughts. Apparently she had been trying to gain his attention for quite some time now.

"No. No, don't make me go through this again. No, please, Shylah. I can't do it; I just can't," John begged. He wouldn't be able to bear it. He just couldn't.

"John, you need to. The Atlantis expedition will fail and Atlantis will get destroyed if you don't," Shylah said sternly, and John thought that this speech got old really fast.

"Are you sure about that?" John asked, knowing the answer already. It was always the same anyway. It was always about the survival of Atlantis and there was never the option of sitting it out.

"I'm very sure, John. If you don't fix this universe, Rodney will marry Jennifer and she will make him go back to Earth with her. The loss of Rodney to the expedition leads to him not being able to save the day when he is needed the most. Atlantis will fall."

"Then find someone else to fix this universe," John tried again. Maybe just this once Shylah could let him off the hook. "Find a way to change it without involving me. Please. Shylah …" John hesitated. He hated talking about this, hated that he had to reveal how he felt for Rodney. All of the Rodneys he met, lately. He'd somehow managed to keep this little bit to himself. Why did this whole setup feel like the Ancients were testing him? Like they wanted something specific from him that they couldn't figure out any other way? It wasn't fair that they wanted him to give them everything he had; he'd already given them his life, after all. Apparently they also wanted his soul.

When Shylah didn't say anything to that, and just looked at him with a frown, John didn't see another way but to confess. "I can't do this. See, I … I …" God, that was so hard. Why couldn't she just pick up on it by herself like she had on so many other things over the years? "I think I kinda … I really like Rodney," he finally settled on. Shylah's expression didn't change and John could see that he wouldn't get away without actually stating what should have been glaringly obvious at this point. Sometimes, Shylah was surprisingly stupid. "I'm starting to develop feelings for Rodney that I shouldn't have for my best friend. I really can't deal with this shit, okay? I can't stand it to see Rodney like this. And … it wouldn't be right anyway. I'd feel like an ass if I stopped this Rodney from being with Jennifer. He's in love with her. I mean, if he's anything like my Rodney, he's in love with her. You said yourself that he'll marry her. That has to mean something." John pressed out through clenched teeth.

Instead of the lecture John had expected from Shylah, she just laughed. "Oh John," she said, shaking her head in amusement as if he had made a joke. "You really think we didn't know about your fledgling feelings for Rodney? That we don't know that you care more and more for him with each passing universe? We have known this for a long time now, maybe even longer than you knew yourself. You're falling for the man he is and there is nothing bad or wrong about it, at all. In fact, we're pleased it happened. Did you think you could keep something like that from us? When we are the ones who transport you into the next universe every time anew? You're like an open book to us, John. And this time, you will need to call onto those feelings you usually try to hide and let Rodney know about them," Shylah said cheerfully, and cold sweat broke out on John's skin.

Wasn't there anything he could keep from them? Wasn't there anything that was still his? He should never have agreed to do this for them. Yes, he'd done some good with it, but that wasn't worth all the shit he had to put up with.

Suddenly angry, John snapped, "You've got to be kidding me." He really didn't have to take this lying down. "You can't seriously expect me to tell Rodney that I am in love with him. He is going to marry Jennifer, for god's sake." John wasn't going to do anything that would hurt this John and Rodney in the process of fixing this universe. Telling Rodney that he loved him? That was sure to destroy everything. John couldn't understand why Shylah didn't want to see that. "And what about the John I've jumped into? What's going to happen to him if I tell Rodney I'm in love with him? Their friendship will end right there. It's not you who'll have to live with it, this John has to face the consequences. I don't even know if he's gay or at least bi. I could be ruining his life. And what about the regs? You can't seriously tell me that if I offer Rodney an affair with me … John, which he will have to keep secret, that Rodney is going to consider this offer over being with Jennifer." John didn't think he'd ever been that angry. There had been a lot of situations that had sucked, numerous of them, but this … John didn't even have the words for it. "This whole thing is insane," he whispered,

"You are making things way too complicated," Shylah replied and smiled at him indulgently. "I know you only get partial memories and no feelings at all from your host, but you have to believe me when I say that this John is even more in love with Rodney than you are. A lot more. And here, in this universe, there is no such thing as the regulations you have been referring to. . People of every sexual orientation can serve in the Armed Forces openly. You don't need to worry for your counterpart. He won't get into trouble. But you really need to convince Rodney that he should be with you, rather than with Jennifer. If Rodney begins a relationship with Jennifer, he will go back to Earth with her for certain. You have to prevent that from happening," Shylah insisted.

"But I don't know how," John muttered, heart pounding in his chest wildly at the thought of having to actually voice his feelings for Rodney. Thinking about them was all fine and dandy – he'd thought about them a lot, especially recently – but actually saying it out aloud … it had been hard enough to tell Shylah, telling Rodney would be a hundred times worse. John almost asked Shylah if it was too late for her to put him back into the debris of his Atlantis and let him die there.

"You'll figure something out, of that I'm sure," Shylah said, and John thought all that was missing was the pat on the head now. She had the "good boy" tone down to perfection, already; it made John feel like he was a dog, rather than a human being. Before John could make a sarcastic remark, though, she was gone. Which meant that John's period of grace was over. Time to face the music. Crap.

While John still wondered where exactly in their conversation he had gotten stuck – and if it even was the same one he had had in his universe back then, Rodney said, "This morning I was trying to help Zelenka finish a device that was apparently my idea. I was useless. Jennifer says it's gonna get worse now, almost by the hour." He looked sadly at John, and the expression on Roney's face tore at John's heart. He couldn't do this. He really couldn't. He just wasn't strong enough. It had been hell already when Rodney had 'just' been John's best friend. Now this, this was torture. Just then, Rodney said, "In a week or so, I won't even remember my name."

And this time around, John didn't even have the dubious blessing of not knowing what was going to come, and how bad it would actually get before it would get better. Before they saved Rodney.

John swallowed hard. He knew what Rodney would say next. Words that had haunted him in his nightmares, had burned like acid in his chest whenever he thought of that moment on the pier. Maybe this Rodney wouldn't ….

"How's about …" Or not. Seemed like John was really out of luck. "How about we say goodbye now?"

Fuck. It hurt as much to hear it now as it had hurt the first time around. But instead of the rection he had given back then, John now needed to … needed to convince Rodney that his best friend was in love with him.

"I'm not saying goodbye to you, Rodney. Not now, not ever. Because you're not going to die," John began, and realized it might have been a mistake. What he'd just said was too close to the way this situation had played out in his own universe.

There was a hurt expression on Rodney's face and seeing him like this knotted John's insides up with anger and fear. But maybe if he inisted they take Rodney to the shrine earlier, maybe if he could arrange it that Jennifer took all of her equipment to make it easier for her to operate on him, then this whole mess could be dealt with more easily.

John didn't know yet how the hell he could convince Woolsey and the others to go there. Especially with Jeannie just on her way it would be pretty hard. Unless he told them who he really was, which wasn't an option. But still, he had to try.

For both Rodney and this John's sake. Because John had a feeling that seeing Rodney like this, pretty much gone and only a hull of the man he had been before, might be too much to take for the John he was currently replacing. If this John really was as much in love with Rodney as Shylah claimed, then it would do him more damage than good to see the man he loved like that.

It had been hell in John's own universe, and he seriously hoped that he could spare his counterpart this gruesome experience. After all, he'd do everything to not have to go through losing Rodney that way again, as well. Saving this John the ordeal was the only thought that would get John through the whole thing.

Just when John was beginning to wonder if he'd stunned Rodney into speechlessness, the hurt expression on Rodney's face changed to anger and he snapped, "You don't know that. It's getting worse day by day and I'll be … gone long before I actually die. I might not like it but let's face the facts, this time it looks pretty bad for me. So why do you have to be such an ass about this? I want to say goodbye while I can. While I still remember you." On the last sentence Rodney's voice broke and he looked like he was about to start crying. This meant so much for him, but John just couldn't. Not even here could he let Rodney say goodbye. It was too permanent, a sign of giving up, and that was something John wasn't capable of. Not with Rodney.

John briefly closed his eyes, this conversation painful and oh so close to what he had experienced with his own Rodney. But at the same time, this universe was different in ways that might make it possible for John to save Rodney without him having to slip as far as he had in the other reality.

"Yes, I know because I'll prevent it from happening. Ronon told us about a place we could bring you. I wanted to tell you about it and let you decide if you want to go there, if you want to take the risk, but Jennifer wouldn't let me talk to you about it. She insists that she's the only one who knows what's best for you, and that we shouldn't get your hopes up. But, Rodney, I believe that this place, this shrine is what will make it possible to cure you," John said, feeling lightheaded with the thought of what he was about to say and panic and a lot of other feelings he couldn't name. "And after we get that thing out of your brain, I want to go on a date with you." The key to saving this Rodney was right there, in the muddle of memories that were just now straightening out. He didn't care that his mouth was running away with him, saying things this John had been forbidden to say. But John didn't give a damn about what the Jennifer of this reality would say, or what she'd do. It wasn't exactly the same as what had happened in John's home universe, but close enough. Here, Keller had decided – entirely on her own – that Rodney was not be told, so she could find a cure on her own – though, Rodney still had the mental capacity to make decisions for himself. That didn't really matter to Keller. John felt angry at the memory alone, and it wasn't even his memory. He thought that this John must have felt even worse at Keller's decision.

Keller had been a pain in the ass and a self-righteous bitch in that situation in his own universe, but in this one, she was even worse. If Jeannie hadn't arrived when she did, Jennifer would have let Rodney die, just because she was incapable of admitting to herself that she didn't have a solution for his problems. John wasn't sure what Carson would have done in that situation. Would he have reacted like that? Would he have let them go to Ronon's shrine earlier? Would he have seen the parasite earlier and operated on Rodney's brain? Jumping around alternate realities often got John thinking of the dozens of other ways a situation could have gone with just the change of one tiny detail. Sometimes, when he couldn't sleep, he picked a decision they had made, a mission, anything, and he tried to predict alternatives from that. But John had never actually tried to think of this, of the parasite in Rodney's head, of what could have happened here. Concentrating on Rodney again, John rubbed his hands on his thighs; he couldn't believe how nervous he was.

Rodney looked startled now, confused. His befuddled "what?" prompted John to go on and say more, try to convince him. "Rodney, I believe that you should have been told that there might be a way to save you. Listen, I know this sounds vague, but we've done stranger stuff, alright? I mean, you all went into a cave full of Iratus bugs for me and I wasn't dying, just … changing. The planet the shrine is on, has a Wraith settlement on it, but I'm pretty sure we could sneak past them. Why can't we take that risk for you? Ronon says this cave will only give you one day where you're completely back to normal, but I'm sure that we could figure out what it does and cure you. I also think it should be your decision and that means we should ask you now, while you are still lucid enough to decide for yourself." John knew he was rambling, it wasn't something he was used to, but he wanted Rodney to understand him, had to hope that Rodney could still process everything, that he was still mostly there."Wait, okay, let me get this straight," Rodney said, and he sounded almost like his old self now. "You're saying that there is a shrine, and you believe that it will help find a cure for me. And that Jennifer decided that you are not allowed to tell me because of what? Not getting my hopes up? That is ridiculous. I'm not a minor and I am not so far gone yet that I can't make my own decisions. How dare she?" Rodney sounded royally pissed now and – at least in John's opinion – rightfully so. "I want you to tell me everything you know. Everything Ronon told you. And then we are going to talk to Jennifer. And Woolsey. If there is a chance that I could be cured, I want to take it," Rodney said with fervor, and John smiled at him, relieved. Maybe everything would be alright for them. There was a thoughtful look on Rodney's face now, and then Rodney asked, carefully, "Did I imagine that or did you say that you want to go on a date with me?"

John swallowed. Okay. What now? John opted for just being bold and said, "Um, yes, I guess I did. I mean, I'd like to spend some time with you … you know … not just being buddies. I, um…" He really couldn't say it. Even though John was attracted to Rodney, and this universe's John was completely in love with this man, John couldn't actually say it.

"You asked me out on a date," Rodney said, wonderingly. He looked at John with a sort of wide eyed awe that made John's skin tingle.

"Yes, I did," John agreed, softly, enjoying the happiness that suddenly shone from Rodney's eyes. "If I'd known it means so much to you, I'd have done it sooner," John said, and Rodney rolled his eyes at him.

"That's just great, Colonel Oblivious. I have been waiting for you to notice me as something other than just a team member for … oh forever … and you of course have to wait until the moment I have a parasite in my valuable brain and am dying, until you ask me out on a date. Let me tell you something: Your timing sucks. But …" he waved his hands about, looking and sounding much like there was nothing at all wrong with him. "But I will accept your invitation anyway," he said, and beamed at John. Then, as if something had just occurred to him, Rodney jumped up from where he had been sitting and snapped his fingers at John.

"Come on. Chop chop. Before we can go on our date we need to go see Keller and berate her for treating me like an idiot. I'm not an idiot, well … not yet. But that's beside the point. We have a trip to plan and a shrine to visit so Keller can get this thing out of my head. And then I think a date and kissing and maybe even sex are in order. So what do you say? Let's go find Keller?" Rodney looked eager and hopeful now, and John pushed himself to his feet, grinning.

Just then, Rodney smiled at John thoughtfully and leaned forward to brush his lips over John's, but before they could actually touch, the world was bathed in blinding white light and John jumped.

#5722

"Yeah," John said, "it'll be okay."

Rodney started smiling at him, then reached for John, when, suddenly, he stopped, frozen completely. With a look around the gateroom, John noticed that everybody was frozen like that. He frowned.

"I'm sorry, John. I know this is not what you're used to, but we have to talk," Shylah's voice drifted to him before she took shape next to Rodney.

"You look happy," John observed. "Any special reason?"

Shylah smiled at him so broadly that John figured her face might actually hurt from it. "Yes, a very special reason. We found a universe for you to stay in."

John felt like he'd been frozen as well. "What?" he asked breathlessly.

"We found a place for you to stay, just like we promised," Shylah repeated, and blinked at him. "I thought you'd be happier about that."

"Really?" he heard himself ask, but it was the same feeling of disconnection he usually associated with the memories he gained. The situation had the same it's not happening to me' texture to it. Maybe I should sit down. But he couldn't move.

"Yes, John, really," Shylah said, and she looked worried. "Are you alright?"

No. No, he didn't think he was alright at all. He let her take his arm without protest, and she led him towards the stairs and forced him to sit down with a push of her hand on his shoulder. "It's going to stop?" he asked.

"It's going to stop," Shylah confirmed gently, like he was about to break. And maybe … maybe he was about to break. He didn't know. He had enough trouble just breathing properly.

They sat like that for a while – he didn't know how long; time losing all meaning when everybody was standing there like a really funny section of Madame Tussaud's – until Shylah finally started fidgeting. "Are you feeling better?" she asked. "Can we talk now?"

"Yeah, talk," John replied, still feeling a bit out of it. After all these years, all of this time, he would have a home again. A place to stay in. It was exciting and very, very scary at the same time.

What if the Ancients had chosen one of those crappy universes for him where he felt nauseated from even the hues around him? What if they had chosen a universe where there was no SGC, no Atlantis? What if they had chosen a universe where Rodney was married to Keller? John was pretty sure he'd feel horrible if any of that happened, and he didn't have a jump to look forward to that would get him out of his misery.

Something must have shown on his face, or maybe Shylah knew him well enough by then, that she anticipated what was going on inside of him, because she said, "Don't worry, John. You'll like it there. We've made sure of that. We want you to feel comfortable there. Since we're not allowed to interfere in this special universe, you will be on your own from the moment of your arrival there."

John frowned. That didn't make sense. "I thought you are only forbidden to interfere in your own universe."

But Shylah seemed set on ignoring him, continuing blithely, "Don't worry about getting found out, John. It's not going to happen. This John whose life you are going to take over – he is dead. Well, brain-dead," she winced and John had to swallow hard. Brain-dead? What the hell happened? The thoughts didn't want to translate into his saying them, but enough must have shown on his face, because Shylah looked at him thoughtfully.

"It's been a really unfortunate combination of events that lead to him catching meningococcal meningitis. He didn't recover from it, and we will put you in just shortly before they decide to switch off life support. It's going to be a mysterious recovery," she smiled sadly at him, and John wasn't so sure what to make of that.

"The memories of this John are partly gone already, so you won't be able to access all of them – ever. And it'll take some time for them to come to you as well. But don't worry. You'll be doing well in this universe. You've got all the skills you will need to thrive, and you're adaptable enough to make the transition from his to your own personality smoothly. It will be seamless. We know you can do it. We've made sure of that."

John frowned. This was weird. If Shylah and the others weren't allowed to interfere in this universe, how had they made sure he'd fit in well? Unless… something cold and nasty settled into the pit of John's stomach. It couldn't be that the Ancients had tortured him all of these years just so he would fit into the universe they had hadin store for him all along, could they?

No, no that wasn't possible. Shylah and the others had not pushed, prodded and put him through hell to mold him into the perfect John Sheppard to fill this man's place, had they?

But maybe they had. Maybe that was what all of those painful, torturous universes, where he had lost so many people and had learned to love in a way he'd never expected to, had been all about. How many times had John thought that the universes he jumped into were about learning a lesson? How many times had he gotten the feeling his next jump had been influenced by how well he had done in the previous one? It all made a perverted kind of sense.

"You've known it all along. You've known that this was going to be where I would stay. You've known from the second you took me out of my own universe, didn't you?" John asked breathlessly, and the look of guilt on Shylah's face answered his question.

"You needed to change, John. You needed to be able to adapt in a way that went beyond anything you could have imagined. Your journey was necessary. And now you are ready. Now it's time for you to go to your new home," Shylah said, and her voice was soft but not really apologetic.

"You've forced me through twenty-seven years of loneliness," John said, still too shocked to really show how angry he was. Instead, he got up; he had to get away from Shylah, had to move. "Twenty-seven years of borrowed lives and borrowed friends." Now the anger started to burn hotly, his voice becoming low and dangerous as he went on, "I have nothing. I have nothing left that's mine and now you're telling me that this could have ended years ago? Is that what you're saying? How long would you have done this? I'd have kept jumping if I hadn't turned into the trained little pet you wanted me to be, with the right skills and the right mindset?"

"Yes, that is an accurate assumption. The length of your journey was defined only by the way you changed. If you had reached this level of skill earlier in your journey, you would have been placed in your new home back then. But, all in all, we think that you were doing very well, and you learned amazingly fast for a human. Some of my peers are astounded that you only needed 5721 universes to reach the state we needed you in. We really are very pleased with your performance. I am truly sorry the we had to deceive you in this way, John, but I am sure that you will understand that it was necessary] and for the best of the universe you will be staying in," Shylah said, having retreated to her formal pattern of speech, most likely because she could make out just how angry and hurt John really was.

"I don't believe you," John snapped. "I thought you liked me. I thought you'd come to understand humans. I thought …" he broke off, completely horrified by what he had learned. Upset beyond belief he ran a hand through his hair.

"I do like you, John. But the success of the mission as a whole was more important than your comfort. I thought you would understand that," Shylah explained, and had the audacity to sound insulted. "The universe you are intended for cannot survive without a John Sheppard. He was not, under any circumstances, to die. And we needed you to take over for him. What is the stability of a whole universe against the comforts of one man? I thought we had taught you that you are important. That there is a higher plan. and we need you to fulfill it."

"Yeah, whatever," John pressed out through clenched teeth, unable to even attempt to make Shylah see how horrifyingly wrong her way of thinking was. "Let's just get it over with. I can't take you and your holier-than-thou attitude anymore. Put me into the body of that poor guy and let me have a go at fulfilling your great cosmic plan. I just want to find a place to stay. I'm so sick and tired of all of this." John couldn't even look at her.

"You realize that this is goodbye, John Sheppard?" Shylah asked.

"Yes, I know that, and I can't wait to be rid of you. It means you won't get to fuck with me and my life any more." John spat.

"I am very disappointed that you feel this way, but human emotion is irrational like that I suppose. I wish you a good journey, John. May everything we wish for you to accomplish come to pass."

The room dissolved in nausea and blinding light for the last time as John was whisked away.

# 5723

Waking up would have been a battle, if John had been inclined to fight. All he did was float, though, enjoying the feeling of not having to do anything for a moment, or worry about anything. He was so tired – physically as well as emotionally. His whole body hurt, from the tips of his toes to his hair, and his limbs felt like lead. That wasn't anything new; he'd jumped into plenty of Johns, who had been injured badly. Often enough he thought to recognize the feeling of the sedatives, which were trying to pull him under again.

John almost didn't want to wake up and face this new, final universe quite yet. Mainly because he was sure he'd feel a kind of homicidal rage when he did. Also, he had to admit – only to himself – that he was afraid … terrified, even. Shylah had manipulated him into being what the Ancients wanted. She had sent him through hell and back to make sure he'd react exactly the way they needed him to. And now that he was there, 5722 universes later, he wasn't sure if he could actually do this.

"He was incredibly lucky," a man murmured close by. All of John's instincts told him to sit up, to take in the room and make sure he knew all the exits, but his eyelids felt so heavy that he couldn't open them, or move a muscle. Which, from experience, he knew was the best course of action anyway. He'd been conditioned to react with inactivity in cases like this, John realized, and he resented Shylah that little bit more for that.

"He's in a coma. What exactly about that is 'incredibly lucky'?"

John's mind went blank. Mom?

"Mrs. Sheppard, it is a miracle your son is still alive at all, and to be totally honest we have no explanation for that."

John had one, but he didn't think it would be a good idea to tell anybody about the Ancients and what they'd done. Not even the SGC would believe him just like that, and they knew about Ancients.

"Realistically, he should not be in the condition he is in now. Ten days ago his EEG readings showed no brain function at all, which means he was brain dead. In fact, when we contacted you to come here, we were about to ask you if you would consent to organ donation and would have advised to switch off life support," the doctor – because the man was so obviously a doctor – said, but he now sounded dim, like he had his back turned on John. "You see, he is alive and breathing on his own and that is, quite frankly, something I've never seen happen before in cases like this. You should be very grateful your son is still with us at the moment, and–"

"I know all that, Doctor … what was your name again?" John's mother interrupted, her voice cold; John could hear the anger underneath.

"Assistant Medical Director Whitwell."

Then there was some silence, and while John really wanted to see what was going on, he figured it was better to pretend to still be in a coma. The memories hadn't come yet, and John didn't even know if he had a good relationship with his parents or if his mom was only there because he had apparently been dying. He didn't know anything, and that was terrifying in its own way. Up to now he'd had Shylah, who'd told him at least most of what he needed to … fuck, she'd done it on purpose. She'd only given him what he needed to know to get through, but no more. All the times he had thought she was flaky and forgetful, and she had done it on purpose.

"Doctor Whitwell," John's mother finally said, her voice unwelcoming, "I was informed of my son's condition several weeks ago. I probably know more about it than you would think. What I don't know is what exactly you want here."

"Your son's case is extremely fascinating, Mrs. Sheppard. I'm sure you are aware of that. I would like to do some more tests. See how he reacts, try to figure out what brought this on."

Tests. No. There would be no tests. Not if he had any say in it and he didn't think his parents would let them do anything to him, either. "No," his mother said. He'd have to thank her later.

"Mrs. Sheppard–"

"I said 'no'. You won't experiment on my son. You didn't look in on him even once before his miraculous recovery, and now every doctor in the whole hospital keeps walking in here and talking about John like they knew him oh so well. Let me tell you something, Doctor Whitwell, my son is not going to feature in any of your tests. I won't allow it, and my husband won't allow it, either."

"But we have to make sure your son is indeed well. He could have sustained brain damage during the ten hour period where his EEG flat lined. You know there might be complications when he wakes up."

John knew a desperate last try when he heard it, and he was pretty sure his mother knew it, too. "Do you know that several doctors have approached me for permission to perform brain surgery on John?" Lillian Sheppard asked, conversationally. John still couldn't quite believe she was really there.

"I'm sure–"

"Eight! Eight different people, completely independent of each other," she said. "I think it would be best if you left now."

"Mrs. Sheppard, you know there is the possibility that your son will not wake up as the man you've known. There could be extensive brain damage. Even then, this recovery is amazing, and we need to figure out–"

"We," John's mother said, stressing the word, "have already decided to move him to another hospital once he wakes up." There was the sound of a door opening. "Good bye, Doctor Whitwell."

John was probably more tired than he originally thought, because while he still heard heavy steps leaving the room, he didn't get to open his eyes before he drifted off into the darkness again.


The first thing John became aware of was the sharp smell of disinfectant; only then did he hear the steady beeping of the monitors around him. He hadn't even noticed those before. Everything was quite dim.

"John?"

Opening his eyes was probably the hardest thing he'd ever done, and that was counting some of the stuff he'd gone through in alternate realities. Forcing himself to blink a couple of times until he could actually keep his eyes open, John tried to move. His arms and legs still felt like they were filled with lead, though, so he settled for looking around the room.

"Oh god. Patrick, get a doctor." John's mother was leaning over him, smiling almost blindingly, but there were tears in her eyes. "John, honey, don't be afraid. Everything will be alright."

A moment later, someone shone a penlight into John's eyes. Flinching back violently, John tried to bring up his hands to protect him, but he still couldn't move.

"What are you doing to him?" Lillian – his mom – asked. She'd been dead for more than thirty years as far as John was concerned, and here she was, talking to him and trying to protect him. It was … mind boggling really. Hands were pulling on him, pushing his head this way and that. Blinded by the light, John only felt the pricks of needles. These guys were worse than Carson had ever been.

"It's alright, Johnny," his mom said from right next to him. At least it sounded like his mom. It could be anyone, it wasn't like he'd heard her in way too long, and he just wasn't sure. "They're just checking your reactions. They're not trying to hurt you," she said.

"Mrs. Sheppard," a male voice from right in front of John suddenly spoke up, and John pulled his head away, closing his eyes. The man sighed and started again, more quietly, "Mrs. Sheppard, you shouldn't expect too much, really. It's doubtful he will be able to articulate himself or do much of anything. How severe the damage to his brain has been can be only evaluated after more tests."

"So you've been saying, Doctor Whitwell, but this is the third time he's woken up …" she trailed off, and gave a huff John remembered from when he was a kid and his dad had done something particularly annoying. "Are the restraints really necessary? He hasn't thrashed since that first time; he was afraid and you're just scaring him more."

"It's a perfectly normal reaction," the doctor said, and forced John to face him again. "Patients have been known to come out of an induced coma in a state like this. We believe they are not actually doing it in response to anything that we're doing. It's most likely synapses firing randomly in this case anyway."

"Okay," John's mum said, and he recognized that tone of voice as well; it was generally the one that prefaced her lecturing him or Dave on something they'd done. "Take your hands off my son. You've taken a look at him, and you've taken some of his blood. Now you'd better step back from that bed or I'll …" she trailed off, probably thinking of something suitable to do to the man.

John blinked. God, how he'd missed her. "Mom?"

"That's … that's impossible," the doctor said, but his voice was almost drowned out by John's mother's.

"Johnny, honey," and there she was, right beside him, holding his hand. Spots were dancing in John's eyes, but they faded away quickly, now that the penlight wasn't pointing directly in his eyes anymore. He could finally make her out. Her and about a dozen doctors who were now staring at him in what might be shock or at least utter amazement. "How are you feeling?"

It was a little hard to focus, but he managed to squeeze his mother's hand. "'m fine, mom," he slurred, then looked around. His tongue was practically glued to the roof of his mouth. "Thirsty."

His mom beamed at John, and then she turned slightly away from him to glower at the room at large. "What was that about randomly firing synapses?"

The doctor took an involuntary step back from John's mom. "The last EEG we did showed that there was no neural activity. This is impossible," Whitwell said. "We need an fMRI. I also want an MEG and a brain biopsy; get me an operation theater for later–"

"You're assuming a great deal here, doctor." John had never in his life been so glad to see his father. Of course, he barely remembered the way Patrick Sheppard had been before his mom had died, but he knew his dad had been different back then. That he'd changed with his wife's death. "Because there's no way we'll give our permission for you to do any of that," John's dad said, the finality in his voice audible to everyone with ears.

Whitwell didn't even turn around; instead he looked at John like he was an interesting specimen. "We don't need your permission, Mr. Sheppard. We've put everything into motion to get custody of John here. He's a medical miracle, and he's unlikely to regain his full faculties ever again." He looked kind of smug, and John thought he had no idea who exactly he was messing with. There were a lot of things he'd forgotten about his mom and his dad, as they'd been before the cruel stroke of fate that had ripped John's family apart. They'd all suffered from her death, John and Dave as much as their dad. But one thing he remembered as if it had been yesterday: Neither his mom nor his dad would let anybody take John away from them like this. And there was a lot of money to throw around. If they tried, John had no doubt that his parents would destroy them.

Before the situation could get completely out of hand, someone knocked against the open door. "Nice little party, here."

John didn't even have to look; he knew that voice better than he cared to. It was really Jack O'Neill standing there with Carson next to him, but where Jack was smiling one of his 'I think I'd like to shoot you right now' smiles, Carson was frowning deeply.

"Sorry to disappoint," Jack drawled, "but John here kinda belongs to the USAF already. The hospital will need to make do with a kitten or something like that." He gave Whitwell an insincere smile.

Then Carson rushed into the room, pushing his way through the crowd and to the side of John's bed. "Hello there, lad," he said, his brogue oddly comforting as he looked into John's eyes and checked his reflexes. "We're going to take over now."

"And who are you?" John's father asked, clearly irritated.

"Colonel Jack O'Neill, I'm your son's CO and that's his new doctor, Carson Beckett," Jack said, and pointed at Carson.

Carson, who had removed an injection from his bag and was inserting it into the port of John's IV, was muttering lowly to himself. "One of you Muppets should go and get some ice chips for him; he must be thirsty," Carson said, his tone was nice, like how he always talked to children and the badly injured. He never stopped smiling at John. The whole thing was somewhat soothing, but also a bit annoying. These people, they didn't know him. They knew the John, who had died, if any. Hell, John didn't know them, either. They were none of the over 5000 different versions he'd met. They also looked far younger than John had known them in his home universe. It was weird, in the normal inter-dimensional traveling kind of way.

"Now let's get these off you, why don't we?" Carson asked John cheerfully, already starting to open the restraints. "I'm sure you'll be far more comfortable without them. There will be a couple of men along shortly so we can move you."

Thank fuck. Hopefully they were going to get him to the SGC, or better, Atlantis. There was no good place to be sick at, but if he had the choice he'd rather stay in the infirmary at home where he could keep an eye on the city.

"And where exactly do you plan on moving our son?" John's dad asked mildly.

"Major Sheppard was transferred to the DSRT project before he fell sick. He was due to start his new assignment a week ago," Jack told them, but he was clearly more interested in John. Probably wanting to know if he really was a vegetable.

"DSRT?" his mom asked, glaring at Jack. "Young man," she said, though while Jack was clearly younger than he'd been when John had last seen him, he wasn't all that young either. "If you want to throw around Air Force abbreviations I hope you don't think we'll just sit back and take it. I'd appreciate it if you could use normal English."

"Deep space radar telemetry, ma'am," Jack told her, still looking at John. "We have orders to bring him to Peterson Air Base in Colorado. Of course you'll be able to come with him, if you want to."

"Peterson?" John asked, surprised when his voice sounded rough.

Jack smiled and shared a look with Carson that John found undecipherable. "Yeah, kiddo, they have a great hospital there."

"I know," John muttered just as a nurse came in with a bucket of ice chips. "Alright." It was close to the mountain. The best he could hope for right now, anyway, he guessed. Whitwell looked at John like he wanted to do an autopsy right that very second. That guy wouldn't just stand for it if John simply vanished. That, and his parents would most likely raise hell. "When?"

"Soon as Doctor Beckett here says you're fine to be moved," Jack said, and nodded at Carson.

Carson – bless him – put a cup with ice chips into John's hand. When he lifted the cup, he shook so much that he had to take it in both of his hands until there were finally a few ice chips melting in his mouth.

"Alright, John," Carson said a moment later, and put away the cup to take both of John's hands, "I want you to try and squeeze my hands as hard as you can." John did, and Carson smiled at him. "Excellent," he said. "What's your name?"

Oh great, 20 questions. And there were no memories to fall back onto. He frowned, looking at Carson in puzzlement. "I … John," he answered. There had been enough universes in which he'd had to pretend to be forgetful. Apparently that had been a skill they'd wanted for him to learn as well. Now it came in handy enough. He frowned a bit more, looking around the room. "John Sheppard?"

"Well done, lad, yes, that's right. Now, what's your birthday?"

"I don't know," John said with just the right mix of bewilderment. He was going to ascend and he was going to find Shylah and make her life a living hell, just like she'd done to him.

Carson patted his arm gently. "It's okay, lad, it'll come back to you."

Whitwell stepped forward aggressively, hands on his hips. "How can you be even sure he really remembers? He's been called by name numerous times since he's woken up. And we've referred to his mother as Mrs. Sheppard. He may just be repeating things he's heard. I'm not sure what your questions are supposed to accomplish. I also believe it's a very bad idea to remove him from these premises, and I will call the police. We'll see if the judge approves of you just rolling in here and kidnapping my patient."

Carson's face hardened, and John was relieved that Carson turned away to look at Whitwell. "And if he is as damaged as you believe him to be, how could he possibly have the processing power to connect the two?"

Whitwell's expression was both startled and disbelieving when he answered, "I don't know what your specialty is, but mine is neurology and–"

"Good for you. Is that why you were going to cut open his skull? Out of professional curiosity, or to make sure that the lad is really handicapped for the rest of his life?" Carson didn't give the man a chance to answer. "I see the medical team is here; let's get Major Sheppard settled in the ambulance. The medical transporter should already be waiting for us at the airport." He then gave John an injection, muttering about how everything would be peachy and John shouldn't worry. That his parents would be there with him, and he would be well taken care of.

The last thing John was aware of were gentle hands taking the cup with the ice-chips, and what seemed to be a whole troop of Marines invading the room.


Peterson wasn't any different from the hospital he'd been in before, at least from what he'd had the time to notice: same white walls, same kind of bed, same routines. The people were different, though. He wasn't treated like a medical wonder, and everybody was very friendly. They treated him like an actual human being.

There was still an IV line going into his arm, and John suspected that they were giving him sedatives, because he kept dozing off. Or maybe whatever illness this John had contracted that had actually killed him had left his body still recovering. John didn't know; what he did know was that he was unnaturally tired. At least he wasn't hooked up to numerous machines anymore.

Then they hit him like a hammer, the memories. It had never been that painful before, not once. John curled up on his side, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out. The last thing he needed was for a doctor to come in and see that he was in pain. He had a moment to be incredibly glad that he was alone in his room before the killer headache in his head turned into blinding agony as it all came flooding in so quickly, not just the last few years, not just the relevant moments. It was all of it, all of this John's life.

Childhood memories flooded him first, all suffused with emotions like never before. Painful and wonderful at the same time. John's mother helping him with school work, his father changed with his mother surviving the car crash instead of dying in the wreckage. Everything was there, birthdays, getting his first pony, learning how to ride from his father; Dave, small and helpless and hopelessly adoring of his big brother, following John around everywhere he went. School, home, his room, his mother's love and his father's pride. His moderate rebellion when he became a teenager, leaving home for school. Joining the Air Force and attending Washington Academy. Flying.

The headache stopped as suddenly as it had started, leaving John with the taste of bile and blood in his mouth, feeling disoriented and strangely displaced. Jumping universes hadn't been that bad. He rolled on his back, gasping for air. Blinking rapidly, he lifted a hand to his face, it came away wet. He'd been crying without even noticing.

He hadn't seen that there were gaping holes in his memories while he was getting them. Now he did, though. The last few years especially were full of missing pieces. It was so frustrating that John wanted to scream with it. The SGC was never going to let him go to Atlantis if he was an amnesiac; hell, they were unlikely to let him onto a gate team if he couldn't even remember basic training.

It started all over again a moment later, the nausea cutting through him like a knife, and he folded up on his side, holding his stomach in a hopeless attempt to stop it. He tried to breathe through the pain, wholly unsuccessfully. It wasn't quite as bad this time as memory after memory rushed through him, but bad enough, leaving him shuddering with pain and emotion as he experienced what his counterpart had gone through. It was all in high definition and Dolby Surround Sound, scary and yet exhilarating all at once.

When the onslaught of memories and emotions finally ebbed away, he was left lying on his bed, panting and soaked in cold sweat, his face wet from crying. But the gaping holes were gone, instead there were only bits and pieces missing now or then. Just like Shylah had said, they hadn't given him all the memories, but the most important things were all there now. Complete with the emotions behind them.

John didn't understand why the process had been so damn painful this time. Maybe it had been because this was the body he'd be staying in, or because the Ancients had given him the emotions as well. Maybe it had been because there was no one there to freeze time for him. John really didn't know, he was just glad it was over.

It was all there now, basic training, his higher education, the time he'd spent in the Air Force. He felt winded though, about ready for a nap. He closed his eyes, knowing his parents were going to visit in a few hours. His parents. That was still a continuous source of amazement. They spent a lot of time sitting by his bedside, talking to him, trying to spark a memory. It was probably the best feeling John had had in a long time, to be loved like that and cared for. This was – after Atlantis – the closest thing he'd ever experienced to a real family. With the memories backing it all up now, he finally understood just how right he'd been when he'd said how much Ronon, Teyla, and Rodney had meant to him. They really had been his family.

He fell asleep, crying for them. Mourning the family he had lost so long ago now, while simultaneously being glad about the family he'd gained.


John was sick and tired of being stuck in hospital. At least he didn't have to stay in bed, because that would have driven him over the edge. He was allowed to move around as long as he didn't completely overdo it, so running was out of the question. There had been a few rehab sessions he'd been forced to do – something John's new body may or may not have needed, but Carson had insisted on them. John felt a little weak from lying about; just stiff though, nothing too bad. It wasn't like he had any problems besides being bored out of his mind. By now he just wanted to get out of the hospital.

At least yesterday he'd been told he could return to active duty. Today was the day he would actually get out of there, and John was sitting on his bed, dressed and packed up, his family hovering around him in an obvious attempt to help, but really only getting in the way.

"Are you sure you want to go back to work already, honey? You've been pretty sick," Lillian Sheppard … his mom asked, worry in her voice. "I'm sure Colonel O'Neill wouldn't mind if you stayed here for another few days."

It was nice to have family, something John had never experienced in this way before. With a stab he realized that he'd miss them a lot when they went back home. "No, mom, I've been lying in bed long enough now. I'll go stir crazy if I stay longer."

Dave grinned at that and sat down next to him on the bed. "You mean you're not crazy already?" he asked, his voice warm and teasing. His brother had only been there for a day, but it had been like getting something back that he'd lost a long, long time ago.

"More crazy than normal," John amended, smiling. In his own universe, somewhere along the line, John had "lost" his brother. They'd lost that special connection siblings usually shared. John wasn't sure when exactly it had happened, but a while after their mom's death they'd just … started to drift apart. What was happening here and now though was so very different from that life he'd left behind. His new memories showed how close Dave and he had been, and John felt close to Dave. He was John's little brother. It was a very peculiar feeling, strong and colored in the emotions of the John whose place he was now taking up.

John still didn't know how to react to the whole thing. Yes, this John had died, but … this was still a stolen life he was leading. These weren't his parents, or his brother. The people he saw in his mind's eye weren't his friends. It was all a charade, John was lying to them. Of course they'd never know, but still, John felt somewhat bad about it at times. But he also figured that he deserved a place to stay, a home, people who cared about him. These people, even though they weren't originally his family and friends, could really be his, if only he allowed it..

Some days John had to remind himself that he wasn't going to jump, that there was nothing he was there to do before he had to move on. Other days, he felt absurdly at home with these people. This alternate reality didn't chafe against his senses instead it felt just right.

"You'll call," their mom admonished him, not quite a question. The past few months had been hard on her. She'd need a while to recover from the scare and the worry.

John got up and hugged her tightly. "Every day, mom." She clung to him for a moment in silence, then Dave got up and joined them. John's dad had left the day before. He needed to tend to urgent business that he couldn't put off any longer, but saying goodbye to him had been nearly as bad.

"And I'll visit," he promised. It was strangely hard to leave his new family, especially after he'd only just found them. On the other hand, he also wanted to get back to the SGC rather desperately. Having them around and going back to the job he loved at the same time would be impossible, John knew that. It was such a strange feeling, though. He had a family now. An intact family that loved him, took care of him, and would miss him.

Here, his dad hadn't been too thrilled about John's joining the Air Force either, but he hadn't hated or disinherited John for it, either. There was also the absolute knowledge that both his parents and his brother loved him very much. Surprisingly, John found that he loved them right back.

It wasn't just his new family status that kept throwing John a little he was also younger. Much younger. This John Sheppard was barely twenty-five. Hell, he had been born after John had started traveling between universes, which was a seriously creepy thought. John's mind was seventy odd years old by now, and he was feeling every single one of those years at times. To be in such a young body wasn't the odd thing though. No, it was the way other people treated him now. He was used to be around fourty, a grown-up, who made his own mistakes and went his own way. Now he got treated like a kid again. Well, almost like a kid.

"Come on, mom," Dave suddenly said and disengaged from their impromptu group hug, "we should be going now. Otherwise we'll embarrass John in front of his new CO."

With a last kiss to his cheek, John's mum let go of him. "Bye, honey," she said, then left quickly while Dave gave John a cheeky grin and a wave.

Sighing, John sat down on the bed again. He hoped he'd get to leave sometime soon. Fortunately, he really didn't have to wait long before Jack stuck his head through the door, grinning broadly. "You ready to blow this place? I'm here to spring you. Well, Carson said I could have you now, but only for light duty."

"Yes, sir, I'm ready," John answered and got his duffle. All his other stuff had already been moved to the SGC.

"Why are you in such a hurry, Jack? Give the man some time," Daniel said as he entered the room, then smiled at John and continued, "Don't mind him. He hates hospitals."

A memory flashed to the front, one of Jack and Daniel visiting him before he'd gotten sick. They'd showed up at his door, right after he'd been found in a routine ATA test for all personnel on John's base. They'd given him a non-disclosure agreement to sign and had told him everything he'd ever wanted to know about the ATA-gene, the Stargate, the Stargate Program, and why they wanted him to join.

John smiled at Daniel, who was giving Jack a glare. Jack and Daniel were the epitome of an old married couple and suddenly John remembered that they indeed were … married. Legally, officially married. John needed a second to wrap his head around the idea of an openly gay couple serving in the United States military and found that he was quite relieved that he wouldn't have to deal with stuff like "don't ask, don't tell". Sure there had been plenty of universes without those stupid homophobic regulations and in some of them Jack and Daniel had been together, as well. But never like this. It was quite awesome in John's point of view.

"I'm ready to leave, though," John said and smiled, happy to finally get out of hospital. "To be honest, I've had enough of doing nothing."

"Good," Jack grinned and rocked on his toes, his hands in his pockets. "Let's go then."


John was slowly unlacing his boots. He hurt from the tips of his toes to the top of his head, but he felt ridiculously happy all the same. His life had settled down into a routine, only not. With his very own gate team – SG-5 – John was finally going on missions again. Normal ones; or as normal as they got at the SGC. Which, yes, was a routine of sorts, he guessed.

It was great.

But even though John was thoroughly enjoying himself, at the same time the whole universe was confusingly weird. Just because he had gained the memories didn't mean he automatically understood everything. John actually had to access and work through them, integrate them into what he already knew, which could be hideously confusing when the new memories conflicted with the old ones. He'd learned a long time ago that it was a slow process of integration, especially with the larger chucks. This time he'd gotten a whole life; it was still slowly slotting into place. It was good, then, that John had become a real expert on faking it.

Maybe this was just one more proof that Shylah had been right, and he really had needed the time to become who he was. He had needed the time to become as adaptable as he was now. John knew now that it most probably really hadn't been maliciousness that had made the Ancients send him on this seemingly unending journey. Shylah and the others had known that if he wasn't ready, John would never have been able to survive in this universe that was to become his new home. John accepting the fact didn't mean he had forgiven them, though … at least not completely. He'd been hurt too damn much to just brush it off like that.

"So what do we call this mission, then?" Rodney asked as he dropped down on the bench next to John. "Qualified success?"

John grinned and shrugged. "Sure, why not? We did do what we were supposed to. Kinda." He threw a quick look at Rodney. There was still a bit of an ache there, whenever Rodney did something particularly like John's original Rodney. It was muted though, not quite as painful as it could have been. Having this version of Rodney around was actually somewhat soothing. He was filling parts of the hole his Rodney had left behind with his abrupt death. John figured that was because he'd finally allowed that Rodney to go. Him, the Atlantis that had broken apart around him, the people he'd cared for; they were gone and John had taken a long time to stop missing them.

John had figured it'd never stop, that it would always be there with him, like a phantom pain, at the back of his head. But it had eased. Now it was time to look forward to a new life with new friends and a Rodney who was excited and hopeful and a million other things – and so very much alive.

It was entirely possible that it only worked because this Rodney was different, younger. He still acted like Rodney; John could see his Rodney in him now and then, but at the same time he was completely his own person. For one, he was slimmer, like he still needed some time to fill out his frame. His face looked less square and the curls gave him an almost delicate look, a verb John wouldn't usually use to describe Rodney. He generally had more hair, his eyes, however, were just as blue as John remembered them being. It was good to find something familiar in this younger Rodney's face, since the differences to his older self were so startling to John. At least his mouth had that slight downward slant John had gotten used to seeing in each and every one of the Rondeys he had encountered. There was a lot of gesturing and talking a mile per minute. Totally Rodney and yet … not quite.

Most of the people he'd known were younger here. Significantly in some cases; not that much in others. Carson, Jack, Rodney … John wondered if the same thing would apply to Teyla and Ronon, but squashed that thought as soon as it had appeared. He'd had lots of practice with that as well; not thinking about what would only hinder him in adapting.

"Kinda?" Rodney asked, dryly. "Well, I suppose you're right. We did get the mining rights but I'm sure that General Hammond was hoping for more than just three months. Your method was a little odd, though."

John pulled at the front of his T-shirt, grimacing at the slick feeling of the mud that covered pretty much every little bit of him. "Yeah," he quietly agreed, "I think next time I'll let you do the faceplant into their 'holy bath'."

"I think not," Rodney muttered in reply, eying John wearily. "With my luck I'd be allergic to the muck and you'd have to carry me home after pumping me full of epinephrine." He bent down to unlace his combat boots. "Have you given them a sample of that stuff yet?"

"Yeah," John answered, still not moving. He was so damn tired. There'd been missions with more action that hadn't left him that drained. It hadn't just been the 'holy bath' either; there had been a whole string of quests that had culminated in the hole in the ground filled with mud about knee deep. "Carson said it's harmless and that I'm allowed to shower."

Rodney sniffed, then wrinkled his nose and grimaced. "You should. You really smell."

"Thanks," John said, drily, and toed out of his boots with a squelching noise. There was mud inside of them, dripping off his standard issue socks. "Yuck," he muttered.

"Exactly," Rodney agreed easily while he hurriedly changed out of his combat gear. "I'll see you at the debriefing." He was already half-way out of the door when John managed a weak wave.

John smiled to himself and finished undressing. Fuck. The stuff had even gotten into his underwear. "Humoring the natives" was a bit more hazardous than John had figured when O'Neill had given them their orders. Just his luck. Stepping underneath the hot shower spray was a relief, but getting the stuff off wasn't quite as easy as that.


"And that's when they asked for one of us to go through their sacred ritual that culminated in what they call the cleansing, sir. We didn't have a lot of choice in the matter. They were kinda insistent. They were more than happy to grant us mining rights for three months after that, though," John concluded his report to General Hammond and leaned back in his chair.

"Well done, Major," Hammond praised him with a small smile. "Now, I'm sure you all have work to do." He stood up, effectively dismissing the team. John didn't doubt that Hammond had more than enough to do himself; the SGC had done some hiring and John didn't envy him the paperwork that must have brought with it.

SG-5 stood and left the conference room in an orderly fashion. John couldn't help but be proud of his team, weird as they were, what with the emphasis on science. There was Rodney, Lieutenant Fielding, a first class engineer and Sergeant Atkins, who had majored in physics. The system the SGC used in this universe was quite ingenious, actually. Even if it wasn't like anything John had seen before.

In this universe, Air Force, Army, and Navy worked in total co-operation with each other. Instead of going the same way the Armed Forces had gone in John's home universe, they'd never actually separated. Instead of being fiercely independent and competitive, they had fused even further, ending up on a level John had never even imagined before, hadn't even thought possible.

The three branches still existed, but the ranks above Lieutenant Colonel were – while there were more available and neatly shared out between the branches – made equal. For every General with a Navy background, there was one coming out of the Army and one from the Air Force.

Staying so closely together meant one thing – there were no Navy or Army pilots. If it flew, there was an Air Force Pilot flying it. John had memories of sitting in the cockpit of aircrafts he would never have gotten the chance to fly in his own universe. Of course he'd have liked to actually be in the pilot seat himself, but he was almost ridiculously content with what this John had done.

The United States Armed Forces ran one of the best universities in the country. Most of the non-civilian scientists had graduated from Washington Academy, including John. That had been quite a surprise when it had first become obvious what exactly John was going to do at the SGC.

John had found out on his first day at the SGC that there were mainly two types of gate teams at this SGC: science teams and purely military teams. They only had three mixed ones. SG-5 was a science team and damn good at it. Military teams could raze a sizeable village in an hour if they had to; they had some of the best equipment John had ever seen, and he'd been privy to some good stuff during his time as CO of the Atlantis expedition. John would have liked to have some of what SG-20-25 had at their disposal during the five years they had struggled to keep Atlantis in John's home universe. The military teams went on rescue missions, or anything that might require brute force.

Science teams like John's, now they got to do the fun stuff. Rituals, second contact with friendly natives, retrieving Ancient and other alien tech, the list went on. John wasn't sure if he was glad he led a science team, but he knew that there'd have been no other way to get Rodney. The SGC would never have agreed to put him on a mixed team. Rodney's file said that he was too valuable, as well as not pliable or diplomatic enough … quite the accurate assessment. However, John had managed to keep Rodney in line for five years in his original universe; Rodney had learned what not to do very quickly while on AR-1. Here, he'd learned that even quicker.

"Is it just me or are we getting more dangerous missions lately?" Rodney asked darkly as they trudged along the corridor.

Fielding laughed at that and draped an arm around Rodney's shoulders. John was sure he wasn't actually that touchy-feely – he only did it to annoy Rodney. It worked as well. "Haven't you heard the rumors, McKay?" Fielding asked. "Apparently we're being groomed for something big." Fielding always had a finger or two on the pulse of the base; he was probably the most reliable source for gossip around.

Atkins, almost as tall as Ronon and nearly as scary, frowned. "Big?" he asked, sounding troubled about it.

"Hopefully not Goa'uld ship big," John muttered. They'd had five unplanned encounters with the current big shot System Lord. Five too many, in John's opinion. "I don't think I could take the excitement," John added dryly. They'd survive somehow, but ideally, SG-5 would have no more meetings with Hapi in the near future.

Fielding grimaced, obviously agreeing with John's assessment. "No, bigger than that. They," he said, stressing the "they" in a way they all did when talking about SG-1, "have been looking for Atlantis for over a year The trail is getting hotter now, and the SGC decided to start selecting the units that are going. All the ATA teams are being looked at, and the Generals agreed on sending at least five strong carriers."

Visibly perking up, Rodney beamed at his team, but especially at John. "So Mr. ATA here –"

"Is our ticket to Atlantis," Atkins supplied, almost as gleeful as Rodney, rubbing his hands in apparent anticipation.

Home, was what went through John's head, the thought almost painful in its intensity. John missed the city like a lost limb. A few weeks on Earth were no problem; he'd had to do that more often than he'd wanted to and knew he could handle it. But he'd been here for months now, and the place in the back of his head where the city had hummed at him started to feel like a gaping black hole.

"Which means our whole unit will go," Fielding added after a long pause just as they entered the primary lab.

The whole unit, it echoed inside John's head as he heavily sat down behind his desk. John still hadn't gotten used to thinking of SG-5 as a unit rather than a four man team. All the Stargate teams were units of twenty people, four going on missions, the rest acting as support. Every unit was specialized in their own way, SG-5 consisted mostly of physicists and engineers, with a few first rate mathematicians thrown in. The thought of "unit" was reinforced when their sixteen scientists comprising the stay-at-home part of SG-5 flooded the main lab like a swarm of insects. All of them had been handpicked by Rodney, of course.

"Have you found interesting device?" Zelenka asked eagerly, his voice rising above the din of many others. His face fell at Rodney's shake of head. "Well, we have enough work with cache from two months ago," Zelenka muttered, but the disappointment was evident in his voice.

John listened half-heartedly to the unit giving updates on their projects. He'd incorporated most of "his" school time by now. If he'd paid attention he'd have been able to follow them well enough, but his thoughts were still on Atlantis and its spires, and the seemingly endless ocean around the city … the technology, whispering to him, beckoning him, welcoming him home.

"–Sheppard faceplanted into the goo. Granted, the High Priest did shove him, but you should have seen it," Rodney said, the mention of his name bringing John back to the harsh reality of Earth and a unit full of nosy scientists.

"One of these days they'll pick you for the strange rituals," John drawled, grinning at the grumbling that was emanating from the crowd, "and guess what? I'll be there, pointing and laughing." He pulled up the forms and looked at his monitor, ignoring the last bits of shared information until his unit had dispersed and gone back to work. Atkins and Fielding left as well, probably checking on the experiments they'd left behind.

"You wouldn't really," Rodney said, hesitatingly. It was a statement, but Rodney's tone was questioning as well. At John's raised eyebrow, Rodney elaborated, "Point and laugh while the natives try to kill me, you wouldn't." Rodney dropped into his own chair, facing John's as their desks were back to back. John frowned at him, but Rodney was talking again before he could say anything. "You were just joking, right? Because I'm way too important to die of anaphylactic shock, and some of the things they made you do today would most likely have killed me."

"Yes, Rodney, I was joking," John said soothingly when Rodney finally ran out of things to say. Somehow Rodney's insecurities always got to John. "And that's why both Atkins and I are certified field medics," John paused and deliberately gave his voice a teasing tone to lighten the mood a bit. "Just in case someone tries to kill you with a holy ritual."

"Ha, ha, Sheppard," Rodney muttered, rolling his eyes at John, "You're a riot. You should have become a comedian."

"You know I only tease because I care," John replied, knowing that a bit of honestly wouldn't kill him, but would go a long way in putting Rodney's fears at rest. If John hadn't known Rodney so well, he might have dismissed Rodney's question as just another complaint, just another way for Rodney to tell everyone how very valuable he was. Hell, even at the beginning of his journey and most probably for the first couple of years, he had done exactly that. He had dismissed Rodney's deep rooted need for affirmation. As confident and arrogant as Rodney seemed to be at times, he still needed to be told that he was valued and needed, someone who was important to his team, not because he was a genius, but because he was Rodney, their friend.

John smiled at Rodney's slightly dumbfounded expression and turned back to his report. He wanted to get it written down while all the details were still fresh in his mind. When several minutes passed and Rodney didn't say anything more, John looked up again. Usually Rodney would at least make fun of John's statement or say something sarcastic, but Rodney was just sitting there, now giving John a wide eyed stare. That really surprised John. It wasn't just any stare but the kind John had gotten used to over the years from thousands of different Rodney McKays, but still couldn't quite steel himself against. The one that left Rodney naked and defenseless, his fear and insecurities for all the world to see. It was the look John feared most, because the wave of protectiveness that look usually caused regularly got John in trouble. It made him want to wrap Rodney in his arms and tell him everything would be alright. This time wasn't any different. Even though Rodney looked so insecure John highly doubted that Rodney would appreciate it if John hugged him and went all mushy on him. So John settled for asking calmly, "You do know that I care for you, right?" Really, John had to ask, because there were too many different emotions in Rodney's eyes now to pick up on a single one of them.

Rodney unfroze, but an expression of puzzled bewilderment remained on his face. "Of course I do," he told John, but the way he refused to meet John's eyes was telling. This was nothing but lip service, Rodney didn't really believe him. At least not in the way he should. It was sad that even at such a young age, Rodney already had the same defense mechanisms in place John had seen in so many other, far older Rodneys. It made John want to kill someone – namely the person responsible for hurting Rodney so badly. How could someone like Rodney, who was so self-confident when it came to his intelligence and scientific knowledge, be so incredibly insecure when it came to self-worth and emotions?

Something akin to gratitude rushed over Rodney's face as he deliberately turned to his computer screen.

Oh, Rodney. John's heart constricted. Rodney was so very easy for John to read most of the time. Possibly because he'd had a ton of practice, or because Rodney was a bad liar, maybe a bit of both, John figured.

The thing was, since John knew Rodney so well, he also was aware of the fact that dealing with Rodney while he was in this state was damn difficult. If John called him on his lie, Rodney would be hurt and embarrassed. At the same time not addressing the topic meant dismissing Rodney's insecurities and fears, which was something John had sworn to himself to never do again. At a loss as to what to do about the situation, John studied Rodney for a moment over the rim of his own monitor. Finally John settled on saying, "I just wanted to make sure you know that you're important to me, Rodney. I know I've not said it out loud before, and I thought you deserve to hear it."

Rodney tensed. "Thank you, I appreciate that," he then said tersely, throwing John a glace.

John felt a pang of longing for Rodney. For this Rodney. Knowing he couldn't do much more, John sat silently and watched as Rodney composed his face into what he probably thought was a blank expression, but really wasn't one at all. Rodney was still looking at the monitor of his computer intensely. Problem was that John was reasonably sure that he hadn't even turned it on yet. John suppressed a sigh. He'd developed a tentative friendship with Rodney, not unlike the way they'd bonded when they'd first met in Antarctica all those years ago – just with more flirting. Well, a lot more flirting, to be honest.

"I know that we aren't talking about this, but–" Rodney suddenly started, then broke off. He avoided eye contact with John and looked a bit lost, but also determined.

"We're not talking about what?" John asked softly, focusing his attention back on Rodney. John had a pretty good idea what Rodney was referring to. John had given him the perfect opening after all, but it was necessary that Rodney voiced his thoughts. John couldn't risk jumping to conclusions. There was too much at stake to mess his relationship with Rodney up. John had waited so damn long for a chance to be with Rodney – without the threat of an impeding jump hanging over his head – that now he could wait a little longer.

"This," Rodney said and waved a hand between them, "this thing between us. The flirting. I mean, we have been flirting, right? I didn't … I didn't imagine that, did I?" Rodney's eyes were wide and scared as if he feared he'd said too much. Or maybe something he shouldn't have said. Then Rodney's chin jutted forward and his face took on a very familiar, stubborn look. He clearly dared John to deny it.

John knew then and there that he was lost. He'd been slowly falling in love with Rodney, universe after universe. It had gotten worse with each jump, but John had never allowed himself to truly give away his heart. Those Rondeys in all the other universes, they weren't for him. They belonged to the other John Sheppards, that much had been clear. John couldn't dare to get close to those Rodneys, couldn't allow himself that one last step.

Not only would it have felt like cheating, John also had known that he would jump again as soon as his mission was completed. He just couldn't allow himself to get too attached even though he'd been so damn lonely. Twenty-seven years of keeping himself detached from everyone around him. Twenty-seven years of loneliness, of pain, of longing. An eternity without a real home or friends.

That was all in the past now. This was the universe he would stay in. No more jumps. No more denying himself human contact. This Rodney wasn't meant for someone else, he wasn't off limits, so John was free to pursue a relationship with him if Rodney was interested.

Still something was bothering John. In these other universes Rodney had been almost twenty years older. He'd been much more an adult than this Rodney here who was wide-eyed and so damn innocent at times, a young man who was barely above the legal age of drinking. It made John painfully aware once again of how long he had been traveling and how long he had been alone, without real close human contact.

Could John really do this? Could he allow himself to enter into a relationship with Rodney? Flirting was one thing, and John had enjoyed their banter a lot, but actually getting involved with Rodney would be something completely different. It would mean that John had to commit to a person again after twenty-seven years of carefully staying detached to everyone around him. It was a scary thought. John wasn't sure he could do it, wasn't sure it would be a good idea to even try it.

Rodney was so young. John didn't look his seventy plus years, but he felt like a lecherous old bastard trying to rob the cradle.

John rubbed his forehead before throwing a quick glance at Rodney. There was hopelessness and shame spreading over Rodney's face and John knew he needed to make a decision now.

"Yeah, we've been flirting," John said and grinned at Rodney, without further thought. He'd just have to trust that everything would turn out alright. "I just wasn't sure if it was something you'd want to take further, Rodney."

"Oh," Rodney said. It was obvious that he was momentarily confused, and very much surprised. "Why wouldn't I want to be with you? You're hot. And pretty smart for a flyboy. And you actually genuinely like me. There's no reason why I wouldn't want to take things further," Rodney explained, sounding excited now and John felt himself relax slightly.

"Alright, I guess that's set then. What now?" John asked, knowing he needed to let Rodney set the pace. Although John had been living like a celibate for almost thirty years, he could be patient, could wait as long as Rodney needed him to. Rodney was still so very young and, from the way he had talked, he hadn't had many relationships in his life so far. If he was honest, John had to admit that it was good that Rodney most likely wouldn't rush things, because while John had had his share of relationships, he'd never been with a man in a sexual way before, and his last encounter with a woman had been almost three decades ago. John was sure he'd need a while to get used to the idea of having sex with another human being again – as strange as that sounded.

"A date. We definitely need to go on a date. Pick me up at 1900 hours tomorrow? We could have pizza and then go catch a movie. If that's okay with you that is?" Rodney said and there was a hint of insecurity mixed in with the excitement John could hear in his voice and see in his eyes.

John smiled. That plan was right up his alley. "Pizza and a movie sound great, Rodney," he answered, enjoying the way Rodney blushed slightly. He would have liked to say more but right then Fielding and Atkins came back into the room, talking loudly about what they might find in Atlantis, and the moment was gone.

But John didn't mind too much, he'd get to spend some alone time with Rodney the next evening after all.


John was nervous. Not hyped-before-a-battle nervous. No, there were actually butterflies dancing in his belly and his hands were sweaty. Get a grip, John chided himself, this is just Rodney. Yeah, right. Just Rodney. Just the man he'd been slowly falling for – John figured he'd been in love with Rodney one way or the other for about fifteen years of jumping, all in all. That was a long time to get used to the feeling of unrequited – no, more like forbidden – love. Somehow the fact that he didn't have to suppress his feelings for Rodney any longer hadn't quite registered with John yet. It was all very confusing and more than a little scary.

John threw a quick sideways glance at Rodney, who was sitting so close to him, their thighs touching, and was watching the film they had picked. A film John didn't remember a single minute of.

It really was terrifying. John wasn't sure what was happening to him. He'd been a nervous wreck since the moment he had knocked on Rodney's door. This was it. This was serious. There wouldn't be a white light that would drag him away at the last moment. There wouldn't be anyone at all in charge beside John, and Rodney of course. It was a heady feeling but terrifying nonetheless. He was on a date with Rodney. He would maybe – probably – get to kiss Rodney for real this time. No more jumping out in the last seconds, no more standing in for someone else, just him and Rodney and a whole universe of possibilities. At first John had thought he'd cancel, but … he hadn't. He wanted this, this hand wavy, unspoken thing between them, wanted it so badly.

Rodney shifted next to him, laughing softly at something that had happened on the screen, but John hadn't even seen. This was what he'd been waiting for. This was what he'd been fantasizing about for fifteen long years. Tentatively, he reached for Rodney's hand. Rodney looked at him for a moment, then down at their hands, John's fingertips barely brushing the back of Rodney's hand.

To his relief, Rodney took John's hand in his with a brilliant smile and concentrated back on the film.

Staring at their hands, John had to suppress a grin. This – holding hands with Rodney in a dark movie theatre – felt right in a way John wasn't used to. John was pretty sure it wasn't just new to him that things went so smoothly, it had to be that way for Rodney as well. John had seen Rodney try to woo people, hundreds of them over the years, but Rodney had never been like this with them. He'd been awkward, saying things that came across just wrong, bending himself totally out of shape as he tried to get the interest of whomever he'd taken to. Never like this, though. With John he'd been the same as always, just a bit more nervous. It was nice.

Rodney leaned closer to John until his mouth was at John's ear. "Did you actually catch any of that up to now?" he asked.

"Yeah, of course," John answered immediately, but Rodney only smiled, somewhat indulgently, squeezing his hand. He obviously knew that John hadn't seen anything or heard a word, but at least he was willing to pretend. John was grateful for that. It would have been embarrassing to admit that Rodney's closeness alone was making it completely impossible for John to concentrate on anything besides him, at all. John felt a bit like a teenager on his first date again. He'd been a nervous wreck back then, as well.

To John's delight, Rodney didn't move away from him any more; he stayed right there, his left side pressed against John's right, foot to shoulder. John could feel Rodney's warmth through the layers of both their shirts, could feel it whenever Rodney laughed.

It made John's skin tingle and he shivered as his body reacted in a rather basic way to Rodney's smell and the way he was pressed against John. It would have been completely humiliating if it hadn't happened in the comforting darkness of the movie theatre. With startling clarity, John realized just how starved for touch he'd been. He'd never allowed himself anything that went beyond what had to be done. Had kept himself apart from the people he knew he couldn't get too used to and too close to. Now, his whole body sang with Rodney's closeness. John decided that there was nothing shameful about the fact that he physically reacted to the touch of the man he loved.

Completely enthralled, John was still staring at their entwined hands when music started blaring and the lights went on. Rodney was looking at him with an odd expression on his face, somewhat caught between worry and curiosity.

"Are you okay, John?" he asked quietly, his eyes following John's gaze, but he made no move to untangle them, or get up.

John had to swallow before he could get something out, even then his voice sounded scratchy. "I'm fine." He just didn't think he could let go anymore, right now. Or well, get up without Rodney noticing the state he was in, really.

Rodney frowned, but he didn't comment, instead he got up, pulling John to his feet at the same time. "Let's go," he said and when John didn't move right away, he looked at him questioningly.

"Rodney, um …" John started to explain, now feeling slightly embarrassed as Rodney's gaze traveled down John's body, lingering on the bulge in John's jeans. John felt himself blush. This was ridiculous. He blamed it completely on the fact that he hadn't gotten any in so long. It had been just John and his right hand for longer than John cared to remember.

"Oh," Rodney commented and the next second a smile spread over his face that was just this side of dirty. "I like the way you think. It's just so incredibly hot that you react to me that way. It's never happened to me before that someone like you was interested in me. I can't believe we're really going to do this."

Smiling at Rodney, John and tugged his shirt out of his pants so it covered his groin up at least a bit and said, "Come on, let's get out of here."

He really didn't want to waste any more time. It looked like John would maybe even get to do more than just kissing Rodney.


The drive to Rodney's place was pure torture and thankfully really short. John didn't know what he'd have done if it had been longer, he was that hyped. So he breathed a sigh of relief when the front door fell into the lock behind him. The next moment Rodney was pressed up closely to John, the cool wood of the door at John's back and Rodney's warmth at his front.

"I know this is just our first date and things are moving quickly right now, so if you don't want to do this after all, just tell me now, okay?" Rodney suddenly said, insecurity lacing his voice and John wondered what had brought that on. John had thought things were developing rather nicely and he felt strangely at ease with the whole situation. Who would have thought that having an aroused male body pressed against him would feel so good? Well, not any male body. Rodney's body. John was pretty sure that the reason why he was okay with the whole situation was that this was Rodney he was with. John knew Rodney inside out, knew him in a way that was intimate and personal. Twenty-seven years of jumping through universes. Twenty-seven years of watching and protecting variations of Meredith Rodney McKay. John was certain, if there was such as thing as a "Rodney McKay expert" John would be it. There was nothing unsettling or scary about being physically close to Rodney. Not even if the closeness was of a sexual nature.

It wasn't scary but instead actually quite hot and John had to fight very hard to keep at least a semblance of control. Rodney's smell, the heat emitting from his body, the way Rodney was pressed against him – all that was intoxicating. It made John feel giddy with excitement.

Following an impulse, John leaned forward and captured Rodney's lips with his, and John didn't know which of the two of them was more startled. It hadn't been what John had planned to do. He'd been going to … he didn't know what it was that he had wanted to do in the first place, but he was sure he hadn't leaned forward with the intention of kissing Rodney.

They both unfroze in the same moment, Rodney's lips mobile against his. "John," Rodney moaned as he pulled away.

"Bed," John just said and kissed Rodney again on the lips, "we need to take this to bed. I'm not sure how much longer I can hold on, if you keep rubbing yourself against me like that. And I'd rather not embarrass myself. So please?" John pleaded. His heart was racing and his head spun with the desire to touch and taste as much of Rodney's skin as possible. This Rodney might not be as broad or solid as the older versions of Rodney had been but he was sexy as hell nonetheless. John wanted him, badly.

Pushing his hands under Rodney's shirt in search for the warm skin John had only been able to feel through layers of fabric up to now, John sighed in contentment when he succeeded. Rodney felt so damn good against him, his skin smooth and warm to the touch. John experimentally scratched his nails over Rodney's back lightly and was pleased to notice that goose bumps sprang up all over the skin.

Rodney groaned again and abruptly stepped back from John, almost pushing John off balance in the process. "You're right. Bed. Bed is good," Rodney muttered, the next moment he grabbed John's wrist and pulled him towards the bedroom.

Once inside, John's gaze was inevitably drawn to the bed that was dominating the room. It was a strange feeling to know that he would be making out, having sex with Rodney on it very soon. The thought alone brought John almost to the edge. It was something he'd dreamt of for a long time now.

Rodney, who had been in the process of unbuttoning his own shirt froze and studied John intently. "Have you ever tried this with a man before?" Rodney suddenly asked, a hit of curiosity creeping into his voice.

"Nope," John replied honestly, neither he nor the John whose body he now owned had ever had sex with a man. But John wasn't worried. He had wanted Rodney for such a long time now that actually going for it just couldn't be wrong. "Did you ever try it?" John asked right back, stepping up closer to Rodney.

"No, I didn't exactly have the opportunity," Rodney answered and now he sounded a bit embarrassed.

But John would have none of that. "Guess that means we can discover everything together," he said and the blinding smile Rodney gave him warmed John's heart.

John grinned at him and pulled him in for yet another kiss before tumbling Rodney onto the bed. As John settled comfortably onto Rodney's body, John thought that this was what he had needed. This was what had been missing. They had a night full of discoveries ahead of them and John had no doubt it would be an amazing experience.

As John set out to make love to Rodney, he felt for the first time that this could really be, no, would really be home.


The gateroom was crowded with people, more so than it had been the first time John had set out on this journey. This time, though, John had made sure that they were prepared for all eventualities. If anything happened, they wouldn't be desperately trying to survive. If necessary, Atlantis would be able to be relatively self-sufficient. Yes, there would still have to be trade, but John was planning on going for that anyway. Trade was the lifeblood of the Pegasus Galaxy, there was no way to live there and not trade.

This was what Shylah had prepared him for. John knew that without a doubt. They'd put him through too many universes in which he'd been the leader of the expedition for it to be a coincidence. John wondered what this meant for all the other things they'd put him through, had spent a few sleepless nights, curled up around Rodney, thinking about what they were getting themselves into. But for John there was no other choice than to step through the event horizon.

He wanted to go back home. Finally, a part of him rejoiced, while another part of him was busy trying to figure out what this meant for him and Rodney, if it actually had to mean anything for them.

"We're ready," Rodney's voice came out of the speaker and John sought his eyes, amazed at how calm he looked, all things considering.

John looked around, finding so many faces he was familiar with. Others, he had never seen before. His people. These where his people.

"Well, everybody," John said, brightly enough to make some of the scientists of his unit grin back at him. "You know what to do, 'cause we've practiced it often enough. Let's get going." He wasn't terribly fond of speeches and there was nothing he could think of that would stir the troops. They were all eager to move out, however. John nodded at Rodney and moved down the ramp, away from the Stargate and towards the command centre. He wanted to be there when the MALP telemetry came back.

Standing next to Rodney, he waited for the address to lock, but he wasn't nervous about the data that was sent back once the MALP had been directed through the wormhole. He knew – without a shade of doubt – that Atlantis was viable, that they could go there, would go there. "You have a go, Major."

John nodded and waited for Rodney to disengage the ZPM from the contraption they'd built for it to interface with their Stargate. He didn't know how Rodney had done it, John was a good engineer, but the physics involved were too advanced for him. They'd found a way to power the gate without the ZPM once it was initiated. John hadn't thought it would be possible, but Rodney, Zelenka and the scientists of five of the ten SG units that were going to Atlantis had pulled it off.

Rodney was just putting the ZPM in its protective casing when John started towards the stairs that led to the gateroom. He was vibrating with excitement as he climbed the ramp and then hesitated in front of the event horizon. Rodney was next to him a moment later, ZPM case clutched protectively to his chest, geared up, weapon clipped to his tac vest and a heavy backpack on his back, looking radiant.

They shared a look and John hand cramped around his P-90 as he forced himself not to reach for Rodney. There would be time for that later.

"Let's move out," John ordered, and together he and Rodney stepped through the Stargate. Home.


Epilogue

"Congratulations," Teyla said, smiling brightly at John, then put her hands on his shoulders and touched her forehead to his. "May you have many more happy years together."

John grinned goofily at her, then pulled her into a tight hug. "Thanks, Teyla," he muttered into her hair before he released her. They didn't do this often, hug, but this once she was going to forgive him. It was a party, after all, his party … well, his and Rodney's. It was their twentieth wedding anniversary.

If, fifty years ago, anyone had told John that he'd spend most of his twenty-five years in Pegasus happily married to Rodney McKay, he'd have laughed at them. Now, it didn't seem quite so funny. This is happiness, John thought as he locked gazes with Rodney through the crowd of people who were trying to congratulate them both.

"Dad?" Julian asked, and touched John's elbow. "You alright?"

It was nice how their children tried to take care of them. It wasn't like John and Rodney were in their dotage. Well, for the kids they probably were. "I'm fine, Jules. But I think I'm going to rescue Papa. We've been social long enough. There are other things I'd like to do with him on our anniversary."

Julian grimaced. "Ewwww, Dad, TMI," he muttered and left John standing there alone while he retreated to the safety of the buffet. John snickered, it was too easy sometimes.

At least people were ignoring him in favor of food now, something John didn't mind. It meant he could intercept Rodney while he was making a bee line for the delicacies put up for general consumption and discretely pull him out into the main corridor.

The door had barely closed behind them, when Rodney started babbling, "What? I haven't had any of that yet. I've been looking forward to the food for months. Teyla made the little round things with the green stuff inside of them. I have to eat, or do you want to visit me in the infirmary tonight? My blood sugar is getting low already and–"

"Shut up, Rodney," John said, grinning at his husband. Rodney sputtered, but didn't have the time to react before John pushed the button on the transporter that would put them practically on the doorstep to their apartment. "I'm sure Carson won't mind if I come by tonight for sex," he waited until Rodney blushed furiously and continued just as Rodney was opening his mouth for a heated reply, "or we could have this." At the last words, John gently pushed Rodney into their home. Teyla and the Airman responsible for the mess hall had built them their own little buffet. More than enough of both their favorite foods so there would be plenty for later, too.

Rodney glared at John, then wordlessly went to get one of Teyla's canapés and stuffed it into his mouth whole.

Smiling, John joined him and pressed his shoulder against Rodney's, who leaned into John briefly, humming his approval. This was a rare private moment, one of those that didn't come along often with two kids. But Julian and Hannah weren't going to come home that night. They'd be staying with Aunt Teyla.

"So," John drawled, and Rodney's hands stilled, hovering over a selection of different breads with cheese. "We're all alone." Rodney's hand finished its descend, but John could see the slight tremor; Rodney knew exactly what he was talking about.

"Oh really?" Rodney asked, though. "So we are, I hadn't noticed."

"Uh huh," John confirmed, noticing how Rodney threw him a quick look out of the corner of his eyes. He opened the balcony door and stepped outside, throwing a "maybe we should, you know, seize the moment?" over his shoulder.

The sun was shining brightly, reflecting on the spires of Atlantis beautifully and John took a deep breath, enjoying the warmth of the peaceful Lantean day. There was a small, warm breeze stirring his hair. It was getting a bit cold, autumn would be here before they knew it again. Closing his eyes and smiling, John listened to Rodney's footsteps approaching. He leaned back when Rodney's arms came up around him, hugging him closely.

"I can't believe we made it this far," Rodney said, his breath warm on John's cheek.

John had to smile at that, but put on a sad tone and said, "You didn't think we'd still be married after twenty years? I'm hurt."

"That's not what I meant," Rodney started heatedly. "You know it wasn't … oh, you," there was a huff of laughter that John could feel in his whole body before Rodney rubbed a hand over John's belly. "Got me," Rodney conceded.

John turned around in Rodney's arms, letting all the happiness he felt show on his face as he smiled at his husband. "Yeah, got you," John murmured before he kissed Rodney softly. "I love you," he said, before kissing Rodney again.

With another huff, Rodney said, "Of course you do. You've loved me from the moment we met." For that, John bit Rodney's lower lip a bit harder than he'd planned to. That Rodney was more right than he knew didn't really matter. "Alright, alright, almost since the moment we met?"

John just smiled in answer.

A part of him had always loved Rodney. In a way, he'd loved every Rodney he'd encountered, every last one of them. But this Rodney, his husband, was the only one John could imagine living with, the only one he could imagine in his life and in his bed. "You know, I think you may be right there, I did love you from the moment we met," John finally agreed.

Somehow John had gone from losing everything – his home, his friends, his whole life – to gaining all he could ever wish for. He'd gone through years of hell and living borrowed lives, but pain had been repaid with happiness.

He had a husband he loved. Julian and Hannah, whom he adored. Friends who he cared for. This was where John belonged.

This was home.

The End
Warnings
Genderswap, m-preg, pregnancy, multiple character death (major and minor), torture, angst, AU, kidfic, crossover with SG-1
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Notes
Universe #5 has John jump into Leah and springwoof's story "Aegis", which you can read here together with the sequels. Thanks so much for letting us do that.

Universe #4999 is based on another of our stories, a series called "Total Recall", which you can read here.

We took the title from the African proverb "However long the night, dawn will break". After about a hundred thousand hours of arguing, yelling and "No, I don't like that" from either of us, Mel went on google and started looking. She came back with that saying, which both of us thought fit perfectly on John's situation. There are points in his journey where he thinks he'll never arrive somewhere, but of course he does.

Writing this story was incredible. It was fun, wonderful, terrifying, awesome, overwhelming, all of that and more. Sometimes even everything at once! Having a deadline to work to, did help us to finish it, but it also raised our stress levels into the sky when we realized just how big this was going to be. We started out thinking we'd definitely hit 40.000 words easily. Then we thought that 60.000 was a realistic estimate for the final word-count. When we hit 65.000, we already agreed we'd end up closer to 80.000 than we'd ever thought. Now the story is over 90.000 words long and neither of us have an idea of how exactly that happened.