Actions

Work Header

Normalize

Work Text:

"So on a scale of one to ten," John says casually, "I'd rate this one at about a six."

"This is clearly a negative a million," Rodney snarls. He points at the three mirrors mounted on the three other stark, otherwise bare walls of the stone temple. "Do you know what those are?"

"Well, given that we just stepped through one, I going to go with what are three quantum mirrors?"

Rodney makes a hand gesture that simultaneously conveys how much he hates this mission, this totally ridiculous situation, John, and answers in the form of a question. "Clearly, your many head injuries prevent you from recognizing the grave seriousness of this situation, but I assure you, Colonel, that we are really very fucked right now," Rodney promises. He looks around the room. "I don't even know where we are. Do you see a sign?"

Nearly half an hour passes before Rodney believes John's original, "No, Rodney, there aren't any signs," answer, and by then Rodney's worked himself into such a froth John's eased himself to the ground just to wait it out.

Once upon a time John had wasted precious energy and sanity trying to calm or otherwise provide alternatives to Rodney having a massive freakout every time something went wrong—especially in a place like Atlantis, where everything was going wrong anyway and it was all just a matter of relative scale—but then he'd been reminded during one of Rodney's more epic rants of something an ex-girlfriend had once told him while screaming at him in the feminine hygiene aisle. "What the fuck makes you think I want you to fix the problem?" Cassie'd yelled.

While emasculating and somewhat prejudicial in nature, John figured it was essentially true, since Rodney didn't really expect any of them to come up with bizarrely fitting answers to their thrill a day disasters, so after about three weeks of trying to fight the irresistible force, he'd just started nodding earnestly.

"God this is all so monstrously stupid and unnecessary," Rodney spits out hatefully, digging through his field pack for equipment. "Why would anybody who knows what these things are arrange them in a way as to maximize the potential entropic calamity? And why is it that we are always the ones who trip on a log and fall into the quantum mirror? Why don't Teyla and Ronon ever trip on the log and fall into the quantum mirror?" he demands.

"Actually, we fell into the quantum mirror because you screamed like a little girl and started running away from the alien Bambi," John supplies.

"It had six eyes," Rodney hisses, snatching up his tablet laptop.

John just rolls his two eyes as Rodney starts taking measurements. It seems safe enough in here, still and stale, like nobody's been around in a long time, and the deep layer of dust on everything seems to confirm John's gut instinct that for the moment they're in a relatively safe location. Rodney's murmuring math like music to himself, like other people hum, and John takes his distraction as an opportunity to push himself to his feet, check the room, walking carefully around the mirrors, nudging Rodney back out of their direct line occasionally.

There doesn't seem to be an entrance or exit, but light filters in gray and blue and mystic from an overhead grill elaborately styled to look like a lotus. There are dust flecks in the air, caught in the beams of downward-rolling light, and it's all so quiet John would almost believe it were a tomb if it weren't for the smallness of the room, the lack of anything other than floor and glass.

John's contemplating how much bitching he's going to have to listen to when he proposes to use some sort of pulley system to haul Rodney up there and climb through the grill when he hears Rodney say, "What the—Jesus Christ, are those quantum mirrors?" and blinks once, twice, before he hears Rodney scream like he's just seen another six-eyed deer. By the time he snaps his eyes back down there are two Rodneys screaming and a bored if mildly horrified looking woman with dark hair and a big ass gun, still standing next to another mirror, opposite the one John and Rodney had fallen out.

"Oh my God," the Rodneys chorus together. "We're all going to die. It's entropic cascade in effect."

They stare at one another as they close their mouths over the last syllable, with matching, constipated expressions and stop short, glowering at one another thoughtfully.

"That's really disturbing," John finally says, because the silence is starting to freak him out. He sidles over to their mirror and kicks his pack in front of it as a marker. He can sort of see where this is going and it's giving him a headache already.

The woman next to the new Rodney shifts her weight from one hip to the other, canting them with a grace that John really hopes he doesn't exhibit before running a hand awkwardly through her messy bangs, tucking a few stray locks behind one ear, and saying, "Let me guess: they named you John?"

John's about to say something inane to stall for time and hyperventilate quietly in his mind when he hears a much higher-pitched version of a very familiar scream and looks to his left to see a slightly angrier-looking version of Jeannie McKay take a header in the dirt—followed closely by a much-angrier-looking version of himself.

"Oh, Jesus," the McKays all say together, eyes huge and blue and exactly the same before there're twin thumps to indicate that passing out from manly hunger is apparently in the genes.

John glances at the other two Sheppards and says, "We should probably mark whichever mirror is ours."

*

The only thing worse than trying to engage in male bonding is trying to engage in male bonding with two versions of himself—only one of whom is actually male, John notes depressively. They've resorted to talking about what helos they fly and how fast they like to fly them, and John feels a moment of manly solidarity with Other John when Jane rolls her eyes and calls them both pussies before shattering their speed records in regards to F15s and reckless disregard for the laws of physics.

"Man, can they sleep," the other male Sheppard says, looking fondly at his McKay's dirty-blond curls.

"Yeah, whatever," John says, getting impatient and nudging Rodney's shoulder none to gently with the toe of his boot. "Rodney! Wakey wakey."

There's an instant when all the uncoiled tension in Rodney's shoulders goes completely tight again before Rodney mutters, half in the dirt, "I don't want to. There's a version of me with breasts a scant three feet away and I just don't think I can deal with that today."

"She also has a vagina," Jane tells Rodney helpfully, and punches her own. "McKay! Up and at 'em."

"Ow!" her McKay yowls, rocketing up and rubbing feverishly at his shoulder, glaring at her darkly. "Is that any way to be treating the future father of your children?"

Everybody else in the room chokes and Jane holds up a quelling hand, looking resigned. "I don't want to talk about it. Trying to convince him otherwise only seems to deepen the delusion."

Her Rodney turned to them with a feverish expression. "Do you know she does non-Newtonian calculations—in her head?"

John looks at where Rodney is still lying on the floor and Rodney looks back and says solemnly, "I promise if I ever knock you up I won't be proud of it."

Meanwhile, in the background, the other John is gently shaking McKay awake, saying softly, "Hey, Meredith—"

"Oh, Jesus," Rodney mutters, pushing himself to a sitting position against the wall next to John. "Kill me."

"—Meredith, wake up, I got some great people you should meet," the other John finishes with a smirk.

"Hey," Rodney suddenly clues in, glaring at John and Jane after staring at Other John for a moment. "Did either of you notice how much nicer he is to her than you are to me?"

"No," John and Jane chorus together and their McKays share a long-suffering sigh.

"You need to cut that out," Jane informs Other John. "You're setting a bad precedent here."

Other John laughs, unabashed, and helps a muttering and complaining Meredith McKay to a seated position, letting her lean heavily on his side as she gets her bearings, staring wide-eyed around the small room. "Trust me—she's a lot better socialized than yours are," Other John promises.

Jane's McKay makes a noise of wordless fury and John just says, "Well, sex ratios in the physics department," which Jane follows up with, "I guess being a hot piece of ass during college really does make you a better human being."

"Meanwhile I'll just worry about us being stuck here forever and dying of starvation while you take cruel pleasure in the farce that is my life," one of the McKays says.

John's honestly not paying enough attention to tell which it is—he can't seem to tear his gaze from how Meredith, though scowling and just as snappish as her male counterparts seem to be, is still leaning against Other John, letting him loop a protective arm around her shoulders. John sees the rings and tries not to feel a sick combination of jealousy and horror but Rodney does it for him by shouting:

"Oh my God, could you two be any more disgustingly heteronormative? You make me want to go to a LGBTSA meeting just looking at you."

Jane cracks up and when Other John and Meredith glare at her, she holds up her hands in a peacekeeping gesture, saying, "I'm sorry—but it's funny."

"Traitor," Other John mutters, and glances warily at the last mirror. "Somebody's late to the party."

"Oh please, there's no reason to believe anybody is coming at all," Jane's Rodney snaps, sidling closer to her against their wall. John notes she doesn't shove him away when he all but pastes himself to her side, knuckles brushing the side of her boot lightly.

John raises his eyebrow at her. "I thought he was deluded," he says to her.

She makes a face. "Oh, don't start with me."

"We really are very close," her Rodney is telling his Rodney, who is wearing an expression bordering dangerously close to disgusted pity.

"Oh, I'm sure," John's Rodney is saying back, and it makes John briefly furious to think that even Rodney thinks so little of himself.

Jane's Rodney puffs up in irritation. "We're in a very committed relationship, I'll have you know!"

John's Rodney rolls his eyes. "Okay, sure. She looks totally into you."

Jane and John say together, "Hey," because it doesn't matter who it is, no Sheppard likes a bully.

Jane's Rodney beams at her with an intensity that makes John embarrassed; he can't even imagine how much Rodney wants to claw out his counterpart's eyes right now. And right on cue, McKay launches into a rant about being sycophantic and willfully-blind, which starts Jane's McKay snarling right back. Watching two of them go at it is a little surreal, and John's distracted until he hears a woman's voice say:

"So while we're waiting for those two to kill each other with their teeth, what are we going to do to get out of here?"

John and Jane turn to see Meredith, irritated and clearly stressed, but calm, with a deep furrow between her brows. She's round-cheeked and pretty—surprisingly soft-looking despite the way she's glaring at John and Jane over her laptop.

"Well?" she snaps. "We don't know how long we have to correct this before it corrects us."

Jane raises an eyebrow. "This is better socialized?" she asks Other John, who shrugs.

"Well, she isn't cussing anyway," he says generously and pulls away from Meredith to go digging into his field pack, returning with a canteen and a power bar that he passes over to his McKay wordlessly.

"Thanks," she mutters before turning back to the laptop, saying, "The markings on the cave entrance that turned out actually to be a quantum mirror said something about intersections—" she looks up and rolls her eyes at present company including but not limited to two other McKays, now both sullenly eating powerbars in between ripostes "—which I really should have known to interpret much more literally than I did." She scowls at her laptop screen.

"Is it possible that we could just go back through whichever one we came from?" Jane asks.

"Only if you enjoy the possibility of dimension-hopping for all eternity," John's Rodney cuts in, snarling. "We have no idea where these lead or how these quantum mirrors in particular are controlled—there are an infinite number of potential universes we could end up in, I'm not even factoring in the sudden death possibilities here!"

Jane cocks her brow at him, amused. "The sudden death possibilities?"

"That something goes wrong and then something else goes wrong and even if everything else goes right we die anyway," Rodney snaps, and John has to bite his lip to keep from laughing because it's (a) kind of inappropriate given the dire nature of the situation and (b) a really easy tell.

"Oh," Jane says, ridiculously charmed, John can tell, "those."

"Hey," her Rodney says, eyes a little too round, and John feels a stab of pity for him.

"Okay, will you two idiot bastards stop fooling around and get the fuck over here and focus on the problem?" Meredith finally roars, eyes blazing, and John and Jane and Rodney and Rodney all share a meaningful look before the Rodneys scramble over to her side of the room as Other John scrambles away.

"Jesus Christ! The shit I have to put up with for a little productivity in the face of otherwise certain death!" she finishes and spends some precious seconds glaring at Rodney and Rodney in what is probably the most entertaining and strange thing John has ever seen.

"Okay, okay," one of the Rodneys says meekly.

"Let me just get the sensors," the other adds.

"Men," Meredith says in utter disgust, with almost alarmingly good timing because right then another Jane and Meredith step out of the mirror opposite them and spend an entire minute looking dumbfounded before glaring at each other.

"I told you not to go into that cave!" Jane shouts.

"There were energy signatures and multiple passes with the flashlight didn't show any man-eating anything in there!" her Meredith argues. "How was I supposed to know that we'd—I don't know, is this some kind of quantum mirror lounge?" she asks curiously, suddenly losing steam in the face of scientific discovery, and Jane just rolls her eyes and throws up her hands helplessly.

"God," she hisses, and glances down where John and Jane and Other John are sitting around before she says, "Okay, this is strange."

"Have your existential crisis in the corner with the muscle!" the first Meredith yells and points at the newest addition, saying, "You—laptop, over here." Meredith goes.

It's like being at a really weird middle school dance, John decides, when they all scoot over and make room for the new Jane, who looks almost exactly like the first Jane except she's got long hair, tied in a ponytail at the back of her head. She waves one hand awkwardly, "Hey. Guys. And girl. Oh," she says, looking at three sets of pronounced bedhead longingly. "That must be so nice."

Jane grins. "It really is," she says, and adds, "You could get it cut."

In the background, the two Rodneys are accusing the two Merediths of being reckless and the name-calling has escalated, but not to anything John's particularly worried about.

The new Jane shrugs and sets down her P90. "Merry likes it long," she says easily.

Other John snorts. "I see that's cross-gender," he says. "The first time I got my hair trimmed she threw a shit fit and sulked for an hour."

"You were nearly bald," they hear from the other side of the room. "I thought somebody had attacked you offworld." And the other Meredith chimes in, saying, "Don't get any ideas, Jane!"

The newest Jane and Other John roll their eyes and John shifts. He's getting the uncomfortable feeling that the universe might be telling him that he and Rodney are meant for each other or something. He's about to ask a caucus of himself to take a vote on whether or not he should just call Rodney on his big gay crush and cash in on it when Jane says:

"So you guys are all...involved with Ro—Mckay?"

Other John holds up his ring finger and Jane smiles. "Well, you know, she is the smartest woman in two galaxies, how's a body supposed to resist that?" she laughs.

"Wait," John asks after a burst of sudden clarity, turning to the first Jane. "You're with Rodney, too?" She winces. "You said he was deluded!" His eyes round in horror, remembering her McKay's words. "Are you having his baby?"

"No," she snaps pointedly. "I just—you know," she mumbles. "Get drunk sometimes and go fuck him."

Both the other Jane and John scowl at her.

"It's purely an adrenaline-based reaction," she tries. And when that doesn't lessen the glaring, she turns to John and demands, "Oh and I bet you two read love poetry to each other and carve your names into the jumpers."

John colors. "Uh, I haven't gotten around to it yet," he says vaguely.

"The poetry?" Other John asks. "Read Lawrence. McKay hates it and it's the funniest thing in the world to watch her fake attention at a romantic gesture."

"I meant the getting drunk and fucking part," John says lamely.

"Oh," Jane says, mildly surprised.

"Oh," John says sarcastically.

"I mean," Jane asks curiously. "Are you thinking about it?"

"What are you taking a poll?" John snaps, suddenly defensive, ignoring the other two's knowing expressions because there's nothing more obnoxious than people in happily monogamous long-term relationships. "Just because you're doing it doesn't mean I have to use McKay as a drunken booty call."

"If it's the gay thing you're worried about," new Jane supplies playfully, "believe it or not Meredith actually can be discrete if she's getting laid."

"Oh," John covers his face and says, "my God. I can't be hearing this."

"Wait, so, you married McKay?" Jane is saying in the background, and John hears his own voice saying dryly, "I figured I ought to do right by her after all the booze-addled nights I just you know, got drunk and fucked her."

When John looked back up, Jane was glaring at Other John and new Jane was biting her lip to keep from bursting into laughter.

"Okay, you morons realize we can hear you, right?" John hears Rodney say acidly over his his shoulder and nearly sprains something pasting an innocent expression on his face as he gets to his feet, trying to meet Rodney's eyes and failing miserably.

"McKay," he says nervously, cut off by Rodney's finger in his face.

"Saving the fabric of our universes first," Rodney says. "Screaming at you later."

He turns back to the huddled foursome of McKays and John tries not to look at the wounded look on the other Rodney's face, a combination of frustration and embarrassment and such naked hurt he kind of wants to glare at Jane, too.

"Rodney," the first Jane says, nervously, and he startles out of his expression and puts on what John refers to as his Brave Little Toaster face: an expression so completely false it makes some of the college theater John has seen look like high art.

"Please, Colonel," her Rodney replies evenly. "Is now really the time to be gossiping about this? No."

"No," Jane agrees quietly. "You're right," she says, sounding more assured now, a determined smile appearing on her face that John recognizes from his own mouth. "Okay—what do we do to get back to our rightful universes?"

"It's really fabulously complicated—" John's Rodney starts.

"But it basically boils down to the very first thing I ever said to you," Other John's Meredith follows up. She smiles tightly. "Imagine where we are in the universe."

The new Jane frowns. "These are Ancient quantum mirrors? I mean—they're keyed to the Ancient gene?"

"Not really," her Meredith says, pushing herself to her feet and heading toward their own mirror. "It's more of a...mind-guided GPS." She holds up a quelling hand at her Jane's expression. "The inscription on the cave mouth talked about intersections and possibilities—I think this must have been some kind of...strange wish fulfillment."

"The Ancients really were the least romantic people in the world," John's Rodney says speculatively. "This must have been designed to let you see possible outcomes, weigh the risks and rewards before you ever had to take a leap of faith." He looks at John. "I'm pretty sure we were the ones who triggered the machine though—we were the first ones through."

"Like a game of MASH gone horribly wrong," John mutters under his breath and he almost misses the under-the-lashes look of fond amusement his own Rodney allows at that. "Okay, so, what, we all stand in front of our mirrors and click our heels twice?"

"Actually, you two stand in front of the mirror and think there's no place like home," Jane's Meredith says, smirking. She raises her eyebrows at John's Rodney meaningfully. "You really have no idea what the inscription on the cave said?"

John narrows his eyes. There had been one situation similar to this and it had ended in a truly unfortunate combination of worsted wool waders and a truly devastated 12-year-old kid who had to be told—three times—that John wasn't really going to make an honest boy of him when he became an adult, which was of course the age of 15.

"No," he says pointedly. "We tripped in here by accident."

"Sure, sure," Jane's Meredith continues, jovial and smug, a combination of emotions in Rodney that made John wish he had more than a professional right to tell Rodney to shut the fuck up sometimes. "Of course—but when you do get out on the other side, be sure you read the inscription."

John blinks. "It's in English?"

"It's in Ancient," the first Jane says, frowning. "You didn't learn Ancient," she continues, irritated.

"Rodney reads Ancient!" John argues. "The rule was one per team!"

"That is not a rule!" his Rodney snaps back. "You just kept skipping Elizabeth's classes and then she made me learn it because she didn't know how to teach Teyla or Ronon because neither of them even read English!"

Both other Janes cover their faces and John is gratified to see Other John looking mildly embarrassed. Not that his Meredith seems particularly pissed at him, more filled with bemused charm. John wishes Rodney would be filled with bemused charm by more often; a sideways look shows Rodney still more filled with irritation, probably going over the horrors of the 36 and one half rune alphabet Elizabeth had made him draw flashcards for.

"Anyway," Other John's Meredith says, a smile tugging at the corners of her curving mouth. "The point is you two triggered the mechanism, so you have to be the ones who shut it off—we were all compelled from our own versions of reality into this time pocket—"

"It is not a 'time pocket,'" Jane's Rodney interrupts.

"I thought we agreed that semantical differences were totally pointless—" the other Jane's Meredith sighs.

"—and to get us back, you guys just have to shut down the machine," Meredith soldiers on. "There should be some kind of—" she searches around the floor, kicking away the thick layer of grime and sand and dust until she finds a raised stone. "Perfect," she says, and grins at her Jane, saying, "Major, would you like to do the honors?"

John mouths to Rodney, "Major?" and Rodney whispers back, looking almost amused, "Damn the patriarchy."

"My Jane's a colonel," her Rodney says suddenly, ignoring Jane's pleads of, "Oh my God, shut up about that," to add, "She just got promoted! Full bird! Or something."

John tries to fight the expression of utterly painful jealousy on his face, but it's very hard, and when Jane sees it, the embarrassment on her features morphs into a reluctant grin. "Maybe if you learned Ancient," she suggests meanly.

"Bitch," John mutters, and watches as Major Jane Sheppard goes over to the raised stone and bends over to touch it gently with one hand, tucking a few loose bangs behind one ear as she goes—a move with such economy of motion that John sees it in one smooth, continuous downward stroke, and wonders if genetics is really all it takes to train a body to work like that.

The raised stone turns, slowly, with creaking, grinding noises, into a raised dias, faintly blue like all the things the Ancients made, and the Major kind of stares at it in bafflement before glancing at her Meredith. "Okay," she asks. "Now what?"

"Give it a second," Meredith murmurs, distracted and monitoring her laptop. "I think it's booting up again."

The Major looks at John who looks at the Colonel who looks at the other Lieutenant Colonel who just shrugs and says, "I haven't used a Windows box since Meredith came over to compile SunBSD and left wearing her shirt inside out."

"God, that's not what he was—" Rodney starts, and makes tiny frustrated fists with his hands before turning on the Other John's Meredith. "You did tech service for him?"

She cocks an eyebrow at him. "And I'm sure your John set up his own computer, Mister I Just Restart A Whole Bunch school of computer repair."

"Meanwhile," John interrupts, going toward the dias, watching the flickering blue lights calm slowly before flashing green once, twice, and steadying back to blue. "I think it's ready—what do I do?"

Jane's Meredith reaches out and pulls John's hand over the stone, and her hands are so much smaller and slimmer than John has ever known Rodney's to be. But they're still calloused in the same places, and the nails are trimmed neatly—no skidding over computer keys, and he smiles as he looks up to catch her familiar blue eyes. She says, "Good luck," and is gone to fetch Rodney before John can ask her what she means.

And when Rodney comes back to put his hand next to John's, the machine makes a low murmuring noise, a low hollow sound, and John takes the opportunity to say, "It's been real," when he really means, "You two are so much luckier than you'll ever know," and "I'm sorry; you deserve colonel more than I do, probably," and "You should really just make an honest woman out of Rodney already."

"Yeah, it was great," Rodney says from his side, sounding tired. "Let's never do this again."

"Oh," Jane's Meredith says, grinning hugely. "I wouldn't worry about that."

John and Rodney share a concerned look, but before they can start asking what the hell that means, it's Jane's Rodney who says, more softly and gently than he needs to, "Now—imagine where you want to be in the universe," and John closes his eyes and sees Atlantis.

-----

What's really anticlimactic is that they end up falling out of cave again, into a pile of slimy moss and then skidding down a gentle slope into the trickle of water below. By the time John and Rodney manage to extricate themselves from such an intense embrace with nature, the six-eyed deer—who are apparently totally fearless—have gathered in a distant semicircle to watch, fascinated.

"Hey, so that was a trip," John had said lamely, and that's all it took to set Rodney off.

"So that was a trip?" was how Rodney started, and by the time it escalated into a shriek, John had already sighed, pulled off his field pack and started making a rubbing—very carefully—of the worn inscription over the cave entryway, since no matter how wronged Rodney seems to feel about learning Ancient, it wasn't like he learned it very well.

Rodney yells about how he's amazed the fabric of all four of their universes didn't just spontaneously catch on fire at the sheer impossibility of it all. Then, he yells about how there had to be a ZPM somewhere there in order to power such a machine and went about circling the cave—which John learns is really hard to do, given that caves are usually attached to rock faces which are generally very large mountains. It takes almost an hour for Rodney to give up hope.

When Teyla and Ronon arrive, Rodney takes break from yelling to eat all of their powerbars and drink all of their water and then he tells them about how obnoxious John is without or without ovaries all the way back to the Stargate, which Ronon seems to find endlessly amusing.

"She had long hair?" Ronon asks.

John says, "God," and shares a suffering glance with Teyla, who only smiles mysteriously back.

"Long," Rodney confirms, gleeful. "About halfway down her back, actually. It curled a little."

"It did not," John snarls.

"It did," Rodney says smugly. "And she was pretty."

"Rodney!" Teyla laughs, and John sees the Stargate looming in the distance—finally.

"So, was she single?" Ronon asks, with a lot more interest and enthusiasm than John's seen in him since he discovered the Thanksgiving on a sandwich, which had ultimately lead to the waste of a lot of perfectly good space on the Atlantis intranet being used as a permanent shrine to Ronon's ability to fit things into his mouth.

John says, "Ronon!" because oh my God, that's him they're talking about here, but it's probably overshadowed by Rodney's outraged exclamation of, "Okay no, because even if they weren't in other universes, one of them was a lesbian and both of them were dating me."

The rest of the walk to the gate's pretty awkward, with McKay flittering between mortified and existentially smug and cowering from Ronon's speculative glances and Teyla carefully saying absolutely nothing, but John figures that Rodney's not bitching, they're all in their rightful dimensions, and nobody's been stabbed, so he's going to count it as a win.

John has learned that in the Pegasus galaxy he should take what victories he can, so he lets the sense of accomplishment carry him until they get through the gate, and then all the pesky questions like, "Six-eyed deer?" and "Quantum mirrors?" and "You had long hair?" start really bringing him down.

It's one of the longest briefings John has ever sat through, compounded by the betrayal of Teyla and Ronon begging off since they don't have anything to contribute to Rodney's ramblings about theoretical physics and expanding entropy, the kind of power source needed to power something like this. And of course that's when Rodney changes gears entirely and starts in on the gossip.

"Okay, now that that letch Ronon is gone, I can tell you the juicy stuff," he informs Elizabeth, who seems to snap out of a glaze to say blankly, "Juicy stuff?"

"Oh my God, there was so much juicy stuff," Rodney assures her.

John clears his throat; he knew this would happen, he'd been saving a last-ditch defense. Retrieving the rubbing from the cave door, he unfolds it on the conference room table and offers it up to Elizabeth saying, "The others said the inscription was important, but they wouldn't tell us what it meant."

Rodney looks sullen and stymied as Elizabeth's attention diverts immediately, and he gives John an evil eye as Elizabeth begins to pore over the paper.

"Bastard," he mutters.

"It was self-defense," John mutters back.

"I'm going to tell her eventually anyway," Rodney whispers meanly. "There's nothing you can do to stop me. I'm going to send her emails. Encyclopedic ones. And then I'm telling Cadman."

"Who has seen your penis," John reminds him, voice low.

Rodney's eye twitches at the memory. "God damn it," he hisses, demoralized all over again.

"Gentlemen," Elizabeth says unevenly, and when John and Rodney look up at her again it's to see her lips twitching nearly as badly as Rodney's eye. "You're certain you didn't know what the cave said?"

"How could we?" Rodney demands defensively. John rolls his eyes hugely. "Between your draconian and altogether useless lessons in Ancient and Lieutenant Colonel I Can't Be Bothered I Have To Count Bullets here, we were the most illiterate people in that cave, and so—"

"It says," Elizabeth interrupts wisely, pointing at each word as she enunciates it, "Welcome – to – those – who – embark – on – journeys – together."

John and Rodney stare at her blankly.

Elizabeth continues, pointing at the last series of symbols, in large, stylized Ancient writing, and says, "Forever." Then, she indicated some flourishes on the sides of the words. "From my research, those are the Earth equivalent of little hearts."

There's a long silence before Rodney says, "I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth."

John lets the realization that the universe really was trying to let him know he and Rodney were meant for each over wash over him slowly as Rodney turns an ever brighter shade of red and Elizabeth starts biting on her lower lip to keep from bursting into outright laughter. She has that, 'Oh, gate team one,' expression on her face she gets every time they show up two hours late reeking of weed and smeared with makeup.

"So that juicy gossip you were going to tell me," Elizabeth invites.

"I've suddenly and conveniently forgotten all of it!" Rodney snaps, and shoves away from the table. "If you'll excuse me, I'd like to go cobble together all the shards of my dignity in private now."

Elizabeth and John watch him go, and when his footsteps disappear down a hallway, John asks, "Report due tomorrow at nine?"

"Make that the day after at noon," Elizabeth allows kindly, grinning. "I get the feeling this was a very trying afternoon for you, too." She takes the rubbing and smoothes it down on the able, saying too-casually, "You know, John, some people make the argument that everything happens for a reason—maybe you were meant to go into that cave this afternoon."

John freezes like a deer in headlights. He loves Elizabeth, he does, but talking about this with her feels a little bit like when he got the talk from his father, only with less emphasis on not getting anybody pregnant and more mortification.

She smiles at him mysteriously and straightens a few papers on the conference table before saying, "But I see you already have a lot to think about. Thank you, Colonel."

"It's not what you're thinking," John says, glaring at her.

"I'm not thinking anything, John," She says, too casually. "Go."

John believes her about as much as he believes Rodney when Rodney claims he's stretched before science team PT, but since he can't exactly make Elizabeth do a deep knee-bend to prove her wrong, he just scowls and makes for the exits.

He ends up winding through the narrow and secret passages of Atlantis for hours, stroking the walls and murmuring in his own head, listening to the ocean whispering outside. He thinks and thinks around the three sets of answers those mirrors had given him and Rodney, and wonders if it's ever been worth it to ask the question. No matter how wronged Rodney feels and how much John might want to touch, there have always been consequences.

"Good luck," one of the Merediths had told him, with a smile John had recognized from so many times he'd wandered into the labs, into the middle of Rodney's latest grand discovery. It always meant explosions and math, the physical manifestations of all the theory Rodney chanted like a prayer song, and Rodney would always pull John in, say, "Look, look," and say, "Isn't it amazing?" like it was the first time he'd ever seen anything like this, instead of one of a million treasures in a city made of them.

And John leans over one of the railings on Atlantis' highest spire, on the western edge of the city, staring down at the gleaming, rolling sea and the way the moonlight gilded it silver and green, and let out a desperate laugh.

"Maybe we're all luckier than we know," John says to himself, and pushes away from the edge.

-----

John decides that an ambush is in his favor, which means waiting until morning. Rodney's not exactly a night owl but his brain is always running like an unclocked computer after a long day, hyperaware and sensitized, a truth John learned the hard way over the course of years.

It means he spends a night sleeping badly, doing stupid math tricks to weigh the relative merits of taking and wanting, risk/reward schemas and bargaining with himself. But mostly, John spends the night trying to predict how Rodney's mouth might go slack in surprise, his eyes bright with fear or the thought "finally" or—and he tries to make himself think of this most frequently—how Rodney's eyes might go hard and angry and his mouth fix into a tight line. How Rodney might send John away.

But all the potential grief and humiliation is balanced against the way Meredith had leaned against her own version of John, wearing one another's promises on their fingers. John closes his eyes and sees Jane leaning into her Meredith's space, all their soft curves softer together; sees the way even Colonel Jane Sheppard had spared her own Rodney a smile so rich with fondness John had been jealous of how openly she'd been able to give it.

He ends up shuffling off toward Rodney's room just at dawn break, when the sky is pink and frothy with high, wispy cirrus clouds; it takes him nearly ten minutes to get up the courage to knock—ten minutes he spends convincing Atlantis not to automatically open the doors for him.

"Okay," he tells himself. "Operation This Can Only End In Disaster is a go," and knocks.

When Rodney finally answers the door two minutes of knocking later, he's wearing a I'm With Genius t-shirt and blue boxers, black socks—hair in disarray.

"What the fuck?" Rodney asks blankly, eyes glazed, and then his lizard brain kicks into gear as he asks, voice rising blurrily, "Oh shit, are we dying? Is the city capsizing?" He blinks three times hard, and John watches in fascination as Rodney stumbles away from the door toward a pile of clothing. "Why didn't you call me on my radio? I don't even have pants! I can't save Atlantis without pants!" Rodney moans.

John goes over and takes Rodney's hands out of his wrinkled mountain of shirts—no pants in sight—and says, "Rodney, Atlantis is fine. I just wanted to talk to you."

Rodney stares at him for a long time before he says, too drowsy to be a snarl, "You just wanted to talk to me at this ungodly hour of morning?"

"Well, I know how coveted a moment of your time is," John tells him as he leads Rodney to sit down on his bed, covers strewn madly. "I was thinking about the cave, yesterday."

"Oh, God," Rodney mutters, and lets himself fall back on the bed, turning onto his side and curling into a bank of sheets pitifully, digging his legs and arms under the covers for warmth, making snuffling noises and closing his eyes again. "Can you just not do this? I thought that whole manly, let's never speak of this rule we had going on was working out pretty well for us."

John sighs and pulls the sheets and blankets up until they cover Rodney's shoulders, for which he gets a mumbled thanks as Rodney curls up completely under them, until only a tuft of his alarmed-looking hair is peering out from beneath the gray comforter.

"We never had any manly lets never speak of this rule, Rodney," John tells him. "Look—those other us-es in the cave made me think—"

"If you're asking about casual sex, you had your chance," Rodney interrupts, sleepy but annoyed, shifting irritably beneath the sheets. "I offered and you said no and then we decided in a manly way never to speak of it again."

"What?" John asks, alarmed. "When did you offer me casual sex—look, never mind, that's not the point. The point is that doesn't it seem kind of important that all three versions of us that fell out of those windows were together? Like maybe the Pegasus Galaxy is trying to tell us something?"

Rodney pushes the sheets away to glare darkly at John. "Are you asking me if I think the universe thinks we're meant for each other?"

This isn't going according to plan, John thinks sadly, but realizes nothing with Rodney ever does.

John glared back. "It sounds stupid when you say it," he sulks. "And also: You never offered me casual sex."

"I did so offer you casual sex," Rodney argues, pushing himself into a seated position on the bed, still glaring. "I offered you casual sex like, the second month we were on Atlantis! You told me you'd show me a good jogging route if I was feeling twitchy!"

"Okay, when one person tells another person he's feeling skittish, no normal human being interprets that as a come on," John snaps. "Look, will you focus?"

Rodney throws up his hands. "What, about us being meant for each other? No, I don't think we're meant for each other!" he says, annoyed. "There's no such thing as meant for each other! The fact that we saw three sexual-orientation indiscriminate versions of ourselves come out of mirrors that fuck with the space time continuum doesn't scream holy light of meant to be to me."

"You do not believe that," John says, crossing his arms.

"I do," Rodney says back.

"What if I just said I liked you?" John asks, changing tactics and seeing Rodney's self-righteous expression collapse into surprise. "What if I said that I just like you, and I want you to like me back?"

"Uh," Rodney says intelligently, eyes huge.

A full minute passes before Rodney licks his lips and furrows his brow, clearly giving it his entire mental effort as he says tentatively, "Does this mean we can have casual sex?"

John debates killing him for a minute, but ends up just growling, "Oh, for fuck's sake," and close his hand over the back of Rodney's neck and pull him into a kiss. And for the first few seconds, Rodney's mouth is still and slack with shock beneath his own, but John strokes his thumb in slow circles along the place where Rodney's neck melts into his shoulders, until Rodney makes a hungry, grateful noise and starts to kiss him back.

It hot and messy and surprisingly easy, like there was never any question that they'd find themselves here eventually, sitting in Rodney's wreck of a room, on wrinkled gray sheets covering a prescription mattress, making out at seven thirty in the morning with the alien sun rising red-gold behind them.

John kisses the corners of Rodney's mouth, the downward slant, the bow of Rodney's lips, where sweat gathers when he's nervous. John smoothes his other hand down Rodney's side until he's curled his fingers in with Rodney's and leans them back, tilts forward until Rodney's pressed into the small mountain of pillows at the head of his bed, until John can feel Rodney's free hand knotted in his hair, demanding. This is so high school, John can't help but think in delight.

"Okay, yes, yes," Rodney says frantically, flushed and jubilant when they break apart for oxygen. "This is going to be the best casual sex ever."

John glares directly at him, eyes just inches apart.

"Not casual sex?" Rodney asks uncertainly, hooking one insistent leg around John's side and nearly distracting John from the task at hand.

"Not casual sex," John agrees, and cants his head so he can lick at Rodney's neck, suck open-mouthed kisses into his collar bone and listen to the purring rumble of his moans at close range. Rodney smells like fabric softener and sleep, cool cotton and a little like the ocean outside his always-open windows.

This is easy, easy, this is all so easy, John keeps thinking, like expressions in imaginary planes: frictionless and smooth.

It's later—after Rodney has slid down John's body and closed his mouth around John's cock like he's spent his whole life wishing he had practice to go with theory, after John curls around behind Rodney like a sickle moon and chants filthy encouragements into Rodney's ear, jerking him ruthlessly until Rodney came like a punch to the gut—later that Rodney presses close and whispers, "Meant to be, huh?"

"I thought there was no such thing," John murmurs back.

But Rodney's already slipped back into sleep, all arms and legs and warm, warm skin pressed against him, unabashed and adoring. Rodney could never do casual sex, John thinks, before he tips into dreams, he's all tells—in everything but words.

-----

epilogue:

-----

Rodney tells him, too-casually, almost a year later, that they found an entry in the Ancient database about the cave.

"All right," Rodney admits, sliding into the seat across from John in the mess hall, their team-appointed table at the top of the steps. "The newly-arrived historians and cultural anthropologists found it, but I don't like giving them credit often for fear they might get uppity and start thinking theirs is a legitimate field of intellectual pursuit."

"You're such a gem, Rodney," John commends him, because he recognizes that in all things apart from science, each step forward for Rodney has to be a baby step.

"I know," Rodney says with easy efficiency and slides a folder across the table, opening it with long, thick fingers. John has almost but not completely progressed past the Everything About My Partner Makes Me Think About Sex phase, so he entertains briefly a memory about closing his lips around Rodney's fingers and listening to the sheer, desperate, wanton noises Rodney made before leaning over to look at the folder.

It's a series of photographs of the mouth of the cave, cross-referenced with details from the Ancient database that include the words like, "marriage as a culturally-significant milestone," and "weight of commitment evident from the nature of preparatory steps leading to the state of matrimony," and "not unlike the bans in the Catholic church."

John glances up at Rodney from beneath his lashes to see Rodney flushed deep red, and says, "Wait, so."

"I mean, it doesn't mean anything," Rodney hurries to assure him. "Not to us, anyway. Totally different cultural contexts—but I thought you'd get a laugh out of it," he finished, sounding strained and artificially light. "Marriage ceremony. Hilarious, right?"

John looks at Rodney for a long time, at his worried-tight mouth and his blue eyes all imploring for John to let this slide away gracefully, not to push too hard or turn him down or freak out. For someone as surprisingly selfish as Rodney, it's strange to see him so hesitant to ask—maybe that's why Rodney always just takes.

"I just thought it was interesting that we seem to have passed their test," Rodney babbles on. "Or at least, it seems like we passed their test. Okay, so maybe it's not really so much a test as a VR experience to show you that potentially you could be married to somebody hot and really rich but obviously it didn't scare you away and maybe the fact that we weren't already—"

John can't exactly reach over and hush Rodney with a kiss in the mess—no matter how far gone the Marines are here—so he reaches one hand over the table to the folder, closes his fingers over Rodney's in a gesture of comfort John remembers from so many times his father and mother had discussed moving to another Air Force base in another state. He strokes his thumb over the side of Rodney's hand and says, "I do, you know."

It takes a remarkably long time for Rodney's enormous brain, probably still stuck on a track straight toward sleeping alone in his room and carving John's name sullenly into his arm while listening to Bright Eyes, to get with the program. And when it does, Rodney's face lights up like the city underneath John's hands, and he says, "Okay, you just skipped some steps there," but sounds so entirely happy John can't do anything but smile back stupidly.

"I've always been one to buck convention," John remarks easily, and lets his fingers curl into Rodney's for a stolen moment, tries to pull away, but gets caught by Rodney's thumb, his big, warm palm, and the look on Rodney's face as he says:

"You know, on a scale of one to ten, I give this one a six."

John can't help the laugh that rolls up and out of him. "Well," he says indulgently, and goes back to his breakfast, hand laced together with Rodney on top of the table and ridiculously pleased at it, "better than negative a million, anyway."

And when, a few moments later, Elizabeth wanders past their table, eyes shining and saying, "Morning, gentlemen," it sounds a lot like "congratulations, congratulations."