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Theory of Sheppards

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Now

John Sheppard flipped the sharpened pencil across his knuckles. It was the last of a dozen exactly like the other eleven lodged in the ceiling tiles above him. God, he hated office work. There were only so many ways to shuffle paper around and he'd tried them all. He had the wastepaper basket full of crumpled paper airplanes to prove it.

Days like this, he truly regretted not going to another galaxy when he had the chance. At least his desk time was almost over. His brother Dave was making a great recovery. One more week and he'd be back from his Miami vacation and behind this very desk. John sighed. Thirty-four was too damn young for a heart attack.

At least they'd all learned something from it, Dave starting taking more time with his family, and their father had even made an effort to delegate more of the family business to his partners. And, he'd learned – the pencil snapped in two. John set the pieces carefully down on the desk. He'd learned life was a pain in the ass.

The feeling of someone watching made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. John stood, eyes scanning the office, as his military training took over. In the middle of the room, he spied a dark shadow. No larger than an ice cube, it silently hovered chest high.

Before he could move any closer, it morphed in front of his eyes. For once, John was glad he knew about Stargates, aliens, and other galaxies, otherwise he'd be tempted to freak out right now.

He watched in amazement as the cube extended in a narrow line in both directions and then widened into a doorway. The smell of explosives and burnt circuits wafted into the room moments before a strange woman stepped through the aperture. Battle-worn and weary, not to mention armed to the teeth, she was still one of the most remarkable-looking women John had ever seen.

Her brown eyes pinned him under her sharp gaze. "Are you John Sheppard?"

He was too surprised to do anything except nod, but it seemed to be the answer she was looking for.

She tapped the radio on her tac vest. "I have him, Rodney."

Even from three feet away John could hear the response yelled back over the radio. "Have you explained to him how badly we need him? Is he coming? Teyla, tell me he said yes!"

John scowled. "Who are you people?"

"I am Teyla Emmagan." She inclined her head in greeting. "We have been looking for you for some time and in many realities, though I understand that it may be difficult to believe."

"Difficult to understand that you've opened some kind of dimensional portal? That you're able to travel to different worlds? Nah, not so much."

"Oh. Well, that does make it easier." A glimmer of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. "Do you also know about Atlantis, the city of the Ancients?" At his nod, she continued. "We have a base there but our situation is becoming ever more desperate. If you could come with me, even for a few days – "

A head stuck out of the shimmering doorway. "Well, Sheppard, are you coming?"

John took stock of the dirty, sweaty, exhausted man in front of him. Bright blue eyes scrutinized him in return as John took in the military BDU's. There wasn't a sign of orange fleece in sight.

"Dr. McKay?"

"Yes. Possibly not exactly the McKay you were expecting. Well?" He beckoned to John with an impatient wave. “Trust me, Sheppard, you’re needed, more than you can imagine. I can't hold this doorway open much longer, so I'm afraid lengthy explanations will have to wait."

"You didn’t say exactly where I’m going, McKay."

"To Atlantis, of course." With a rakish grin that pulled at the knife scar that ran across one cheek, McKay said, "Let’s just say this is your chance to find out what’s on the other side of that coin toss."

John wasn’t sure what he was getting into, or if he’d be coming back, but this felt like the first right decision he’d made in months. He stepped over to his desk and hit the intercom. "Marcy, tell my father I’ll be late for dinner."

Earlier

 

"Ronon, cover me!" Rodney's hand curled around the pale blue crystal so tightly that its delicate edge cut into his fingers. Damn Replicators, they were determined to take over his city and didn't care how many they killed in the process. Thank god they'd had enough warning to get everyone else to the alpha site. The three of them had stayed behind because Rodney had a plan.

"Keep your head down, McKay!" Ronon yelled back.

He did exactly that. He could hear the whine of Ronon's blaster taking shot after shot. He didn't need to see it to know his teammate was giving him time to complete one last Hail Mary. The rapid fire of a P-90 to his left revealed Teyla's location. For a half-second he took the time to be grateful for his team refusing to let him go it alone.
A half-second was all he had to spare. Despite the chaos, his hands were steady as he slotted the crystal into its new home. They all knew it might not work. He'd engineered the code himself, in secret, and only he, Ronon, and Teyla knew about this part of his plan. If it worked—well, they wouldn't be saved exactly—but they'd have a fighting chance.

"Rodney, hurry!" Teyla yelled.

Closing his eyes, he pulled the switch. Dead quiet followed. Carefully, Rodney stood from where he'd been couching behind the console. "Is everyone all right?"

"I'm good," Ronon said. "I think Teyla took some fire, though."

"I am all right. The blast grazed my skin but other than a little blood, I'm fine." Teyla looked exhausted. The P-90 hung loose in her hands and blood seeped through the sleeve of her shirt but she still managed a wan smile. "It worked!"

Replicator dust littered the floor. "It won't work a second time," Rodney cautioned.

Ronon didn't waste any time and was already bandaging Teyla's arm. In between tearing strips of bandage with his teeth he asked, "But it gives us time, time for you to bring John Sheppard here. That's what you said we need to defeat the Replicators, right?"

"Every other universe we've seen has a John Sheppard. I have a theory about why there's no John Sheppard in our universe, but that can wait until later."

"Is the Alternate Reality Drive safe to use?" Teyla sat with her head tilted back against the bulkhead. Rodney was glad to see color returning to her face.

"No, it's not safe, because the Replicators built the ARD from a flawed blueprint. That's one of their problems. They can duplicate and they can learn, but they don't have the imagination to create. The drive was never going to work correctly.

"Yes, it's given us a glimpse into other universes, but if we tried to use it to full capacity we'd be trapped in a loop, or worse." Rodney held up his hand. "However, I'm all for trapping the Replicators in it, preferably in a universe with a black hole."

They were lucky. In their universe, the Replicators had barely developed from laser-wielding, spider-like creatures. Maybe lucky was the wrong word. But at least they hadn't developed far enough to create a humanoid form like in some universes. It kept their abilities limited but damn, they could move fast.

Ronon gave Teyla his arm to lean on while he gathered up some of the more delicate equipment. As they made their way back to the central tower, Rodney happily crunched down on the Replicator remains. It wasted energy he couldn't spare right now, but it was deeply satisfying.

They made their way back without incident.
"McKay, how long do you think we have before they attack again?" Ronon asked.

"Six hours, if they stick to schedule. Once they update their code we're not going to be able to use the same trick twice." He wished he could spare the time to put the equipment down long enough to wipe the sweat off his forehead. He wished even harder that he could wipe the weary expression from Teyla's face.

"Not much time." Blaster at the ready, Ronon released his hold on Teyla and stepped forward to secure their position. "Clear."

"It will be enough. It has to be." For the first time in hours, Rodney smiled. "It's all going according to plan."

Teyla gave a soft snort.

"Well, it is! Rodney insisted. "Just look at this place. Two days ago, it still looked like a 10,000-year-old city in desperate need of repairs." He waved his hand around the room. "Now, it looks brand new. I might hate that the Replicators found us, but we can use this to our advantage."

"The ZPMs, Rodney, did they have time to make them?" Teyla asked.

"Checking…." He ran a quick inventory diagnostic on the ZPM Room. "Bingo! Three fully charged ZPMs awaiting your pleasure, ma'am."

Her shoulders relaxed in relief and she grinned back at him.

"We have the ability to fly the city to safety, all we need is a pilot." Rodney rubbed his hands together. This was going to work, he could feel it. They just needed to get themselves a John Sheppard to fly them somewhere the Replicators couldn't find them. Once they'd secured the city they could open a gate to the alpha site and let everyone know it was safe to return.

"It’s still risky," Ronon said. "What if Sheppard won't come?"

"No, no, no, he has to come!" Rodney couldn't bear the idea of any other outcome. "His universe ended up with two John Sheppards. We didn't get any. How is that fair?"

Ronon groaned. "This stuff makes my brain hurt. If you say he's supposed to be here, fine. Let's go get him."

For the first time, Teyla smiled. It was a weary smile, but Rodney's heart lightened to see it just the same. She pulled a small, rose-colored, crystal cube out of her vest pocket and held it out to him. "It's time for this, then."

"You were able to save it!" Rodney reached out eagerly for the device. He turned it over in his hands. "I was afraid it had been destroyed in the fight. You just upped our chances of pulling this off by ninety-percent."

"Were our odds so bad, then?" She asked.

Rodney decided he didn't want to answer that. Instead he took a deep breath. "Teyla, I think you should be the one to approach him. You're more…" he wildly gestured between the three of them. "More talented at persuasion." Unconsciously, he brought his hand to his face, fingertips grazing the knife scar that ran across one cheek.

"Less threatening and crazy looking than the two of us are," Ronon said. "And prettier."

"Yes, what he said," Rodney grumbled. He held out his hand to help her up. "Are you up to it?"

"I will be fine, Rodney. How do we do this?" She glanced around the room as if the answer would leap out at her. "Do we need to access the Alternate Reality Drive?"

"The ARD is a piece of garbage. It's only good for viewing not actually traveling through. I'm just needed a tiny piece of its code."

Rodney had flipped through dozens of alternate realities in the short time they had before he found one that had a John Sheppard that wasn't already on Atlantis. He patted the DHD console. "Since I've already repaired and uploaded the workable part of the AR programming to this cube, all I have to do is connect it to the DHD."

He worked as he talked, setting the cube into a panel that popped open on the console. "Once I've uploaded the coordinates we'll be able to use the dialing protocol to access Sheppard's universe." Rodney pushed the panel closed and carefully watched as the console began to light up.

Ronon shot a sharp glance in his direction. "You said we couldn't use the Stargate because it had too many variables."

"We're not using the gate, we're just using the DHD." The panel popped open and Rodney removed the cube. He gently set it down in the middle of the gate room floor. "Whenever you're ready, Teyla."

She nodded, pulled herself together, and took a step towards the cube. "I'm ready."

Rodney engaged the prime chevron and the cube began to glow. A thin, pale yellow beam shot up from the cube and hovered six feet in the air. It began to widen until the portal stretched wide enough to step through.

Rodney nervously watched as Teyla checked the safety on the P-90, squared her shoulders and stepped through the portal.

 

Now

 

John stepped through the portal into a large, airy room full of light. No evidence of a battle, which told him the fighting had taken place elsewhere. "Is that a Stargate?" The Stargate sat near the back of the room, leaving plenty of space for the splash zone.

"You recognize it?" Rodney asked. "Sorry, stupid question. I didn't realize you'd seen one."

John shrugged. "I didn't. I never got as far as the SGC, but my version of McKay showed me a video of it. This one looks different, though." He rubbed the back of his neck. "This is weird."

Rodney looked pained. "I know. But I have every faith that you're smart enough to get up to speed quickly."

"Smart enough to know you guys are in trouble and you must be pretty convinced I can help. Don't look so surprised, McKay. Why else would you have opened a portal to another dimension just to come find me?"

Rodney raised a hand to his forehead and sighed. "God, pretty and smart." He clapped his hands together. "You know me, and Teyla already introduced herself. That leaves Ronon. John Sheppard—Ronon Dex. Ronon, this is John. C'mon, we need to get you to the chair room. I'll explain more on the way."

John followed along but not without taking in every inch of his surroundings. He couldn't figure out if the architecture was meant to be useful, decorative, or both. Large, geometric windows let in plenty of sunlight and whoever built this place seemed to like shades of aqua and blue a whole lot.

McKay and Teyla headed up the stairs while the big guy, Ronon, stayed behind him. John shot him a cocky, insincere grin. He refused to be intimidated by having a guard at his heels, but yeah, he'd have done the same thing with a stranger in their midst.

The stairs began lighting up under his feet, and McKay spun around and stared at him. "Sheppard, are you doing that?"

"Uh. Not on purpose." John decided he'd keep the happy, welcome-home vibe he was feeling to himself. If he was the only one getting that, he really didn’t want to know.

Rodney didn't look like he believed him, but he seemed willing to let it go. "This way to the transporter. The chair room is in the eastern tower and it's the fastest way to get there."

Transporter? John knew the place was alien, he'd learned that much in the short amount of time he'd spent at the Antarctic base. No one had said a thing about Star Trek.

"Not Star Trek transporters," McKay announced as if reading his mind. "Completely different technology."

"So, you're saying it's not completely built on TV sci-fi fantasy. Good to know."

"I mean," McKay stressed, 'it's…oh, never mind. There's the transporter. Get in and find out for yourself."

After a light touch on the location panel, the transporter opened up in a short hallway. The chair room lay just ahead. John knew because it was pinging a happy welcome at him, just like the stairway had in the gate room. "Hold up, McKay. Before I go any further, I need a few questions answered."

Questions like: Who were these people? What had he gotten himself into? And, just how miserable was his life that he'd jumped at the chance to join them – no questions asked? Okay, that last one he'd examine later, as in never.

Were these people even trustworthy? Or was this a trap and he'd just willingly walked into it? The Antarctic McKay didn't seem capable of deception, but how the hell did he know what this one was like?

Teyla drew his attention by gently touching his elbow. "I know you have no reason to trust us. However, you've shown a remarkable ability adjust surroundings that should be quite strange to you. Why is that?"

John scrunched up his nose, deciding how much to tell her. "A lot of this place reminds me of my Earth's Antarctic base. That's all the Rodney McKay in my universe could talk about – going to Atlantis.

He cocked his head to the side, still debating. He decided that since these guys were his way home, he'd better let them in on as much as he knew. "After my brother's heart attack, my father went over my head and pulled some strings. He pushed through my hardship discharge without bothering to ask me if I even wanted it."

John still wasn't sure how his father had managed it. Power and money; his father knew how to wield them both. He shook his head. These people didn't need to know the blistering arguments his discharge had caused or how sick to his stomach the entire mess had made him feel. At least Dave had made a full recovery.

"So, I was sent home, and my access to any SGC intel dried up, including information about the Atlantis trip. Before I left, our Dr. Jackson figured out the gate address so I knew they were close. It wasn't hard to figure out that's where this is, an alternate Atlantis. Or that you guys were in trouble."

"You're not wrong," Ronon said. He folded his arms across his chest. "McKay says you can fly us to safety. Can you?"

"I can fly anything."

"Great!" Rodney piped up. "Let's go."

The chair room looked almost identical to the one on his Earth. John sat down and felt the happy welcoming buzz in his head the moment his gene interacted with the chair. The chair reclined and he looked over at McKay. "Where to?"

McKay keyed up a display of the galaxy. "Our destination is in that yellow square. To get there, you'll need to get us far enough away from the planet to make it safe to open a hyperspace window."

"We can do that?"

McKay grinned back at him. "We can." Finger in the air, McKay added, "Don't forget to increase the power to the inertial dampers."

"I got it."

"And the shields."

"Already done. Relax, Rodney, I've got this." And he did. Flying a ship the size of New York City should have been a lot harder than this. Factoring in the drag alone should be a nightmare. But the control chair plus the power of three ZPMs made it easy.

The chair fed the information to him before he even asked. Cool. Slowly, John raised Atlantis until they were above the stratosphere. "Do you want me to put her into orbit?"

"No. Bring us three hundred and twenty kilometers above the surface. After that, it should be safe to open a hyperspace window."

"Open a hyperspace window? How do I do that?"

Rodney raised his head from the display he was studying. "Think about it?"

"McKay!"

"What? It's not like I know anything about flying. Oh, fine." Rodney came over to the chair and laid his hand on top of John's where it rested on the gel pad.

Information began streaming in almost faster than John could process. "Did you know it would do that?"

"Do what?"

Before John could answer, the city gave him the information he needed. Rodney was right. All he had to do was send a mental command and Atlantis would handle the rest. "Damn, McKay, you were right."

Rodney looked pleased if slightly baffled by the praise. "Of course, I'm right." He turned back to the main computer. "We're almost there. Almost….now, Sheppard!"

"Roger that."

A holographic display opened overhead and they both watched as a hyperspace window opened. John guided Atlantis through and it closed behind them. John drew out a long, slow breath. "On target."

With a thought, he closed the hologram. Hyperspace looked too weird and disorienting to stare at it for long. "Now what?"

Rodney sat back, hands limp at his sides and looking like the wind had been knocked out of him. "I can't believe it worked."

John switched from flight to autopilot, got up out of the chair and walked over to McKay. "Rodney? Are you okay?"

"I'm sorry," Rodney said.

"Sorry?"

"This is going to take a few days. Several days, actually. I might have implied that we could get you back to your own universe in a few hours." He turned wide, pleading eyes up at John. "We have to get as far away from the replicators as we can. We need time to build a defense. Otherwise we're dead."

"I get it, I do, and I'd probably do the same in your shoes. Make it up to me by showing me around the city." John rocked back on his heels. "Besides, you'll send me back eventually, right?"

~*~

With little to do while they were in hyperspace John took advantage of the time to explore the city. Ronon wasn't much of a talker but he had tales about the Wraith that made the hair on the back of John's neck stand on edge.

Ronon stepped in when Rodney was distracted by his research and Teyla was still recovering from her injuries. He got John set up in temporary quarters, pointed out the supply closet, the mess, and the armory. All the necessities of life in Atlantis.

John got a good sense of the honor and integrity that made up an essential part of the Satedan, and he wondered if his counterpart, the man who was part of the original expedition, had met his own version of Ronon Dex. He hoped so.

The same went for Teyla Emmagan. If he ever had a chance to put a SGC team together he wanted her on it. As both a fighter and a diplomat, she impressed the hell out of him.

That chance was long gone. His father had seen to that. John took his lunch tray and went to sit next to Rodney. The mess was empty except for the two of them. "How many of these MREs do we have left?"

"Hm? Oh, enough. And even if we ran out, we could drop out of hyperspace and find a planet we could trade with. Not that I recommend it. We really need to get much further away from the replicators first."

John's fork stayed frozen in mid-air. "We can drop out of hyperspace at any time?"

"Yes."

"So, we could drop out of hyperspace long enough to send me home. Why didn't you tell me?"

"No, no, no. We still need you. Once we find a suitable planet, you're the only one that can land Atlantis." Rodney frowned. "I promised you I'd send you home, and I meant it. We just need a little more time."

"It's been three days."

"And it might be three weeks. I'm sorry, John. I know I should have told you this to begin with but we were desperate."

John pushed his spaghetti around with his fork. "Tell me about the me in your universe."

"We don't have a you here. Believe me, I looked."

John raised an eyebrow. "Seriously?"

"The first Sheppard in your universe went on the original expedition to Atlantis. Everyone but Sheppard and Elizabeth Weir died when Atlantis flooded. Long story short, Dr. Weir had access to a time machine. She went back in time and stopped Atlantis from flooding. This time everybody lived. Two different results creating two different timelines."

Rodney stopped to take a drink of coffee. "Keeping up so far?"

"Let me guess, I'm the second John Sheppard, only I didn’t go to Atlantis."

"Bingo. Honestly, I thought you'd find this much more confusing."

John shrugged. "You're forgetting I already had exposure to Dr. Rodney McKay and his geeks in my universe. Those guys chew this stuff up for breakfast. Do you know what happened to the first me?"

"You were in stasis for 10,000 years. I rescued you. Well, your reality's version of me did on the second loop. Now that ‘you’ is running around your Atlantis. Unlike our Ancient technology, the alien stasis device didn't put a year on you. Poor Elizabeth didn't fare so well. Clearly, the Ancients could have learned something there." Rodney gave him a look that swept up from John's toes to his hair. "It's amazing. You look just the same, except for the hair."

"My hair! What's wrong with my hair?"
Rodney grinned. "Have I told you my theory of Sheppards?"

"Er, no," John said, cautiously.

"When your universe created two John Sheppards, it prevented my universe from getting one. While I understand the need for the multiverse to find balance, I can't help but think it's grossly unfair." Rodney's gaze locked with John's. "Clearly, you should stay here with us."

"Oh?"

Rodney leaned forward, "Please think about it."

John wasn't ready to answer that. He got up, cleared the dishes off the table, took them into the kitchen and dumped them in the sink. With no crew on board they were divvying up the chores and it was his turn to wash, anyway.

A quick look told him that Rodney was still sitting at the table communing with his second cup of coffee. Good. John needed the time to think. He turned on the tap and watched the sink slowly fill. No answers there. The cupboards and storage bins he stared at in turn weren't coughing up any answers, either.

John raked his hands through his hair and sighed. On his first day here, Rodney had handed him a laptop full of files. Most of it had to do with mission reports and the replicators. A few had included Rodney's research on the Alternate Reality Drive.

This McKay had searched through a number of realities looking for an available Sheppard before finding John's universe. Most of those realities had a John and Rodney that were romantically involved. Those that didn't hadn't faired well, to put it mildly.

John finished up the dishes and put them away, still without any answers. Part of him knew it couldn't be an accident that Rodney had included those files. Plus, he'd noticed the curious and appreciative glances Rodney shot his way when he didn't think John was watching
Rodney was looking for an answer that John couldn't give. Not yet, maybe never. Because right now, he wasn't sure how he felt about any of this.

Taking the coward's way out, John left through the back exit, avoiding Rodney. He'd hunt up Ronon. Maybe this time he could talk him into letting John use his blaster for target practice. It hadn't worked yet, but Ronon was going to weaken one of these days, he just knew it.

~*~

Rodney sat in the lab gazing at the coding on his laptop without it really registering. It had been a long, unsuccessful morning of trying to discover the best way to shut the ARD down for good. Admittedly, his concentration was shot. It had been ever since John showed up in the mess that morning wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt that clung to his chest like melted butter on bread.

All things considered, it was no wonder he didn't hear Teyla approach until she sat down beside him.

"Any progress?" she asked, holding out a mug of tea.

"Hm, some. Is that for me?"

"It is." She passed him the cup. "You seem troubled, Rodney. Would you like to talk about it?"

"How long has John been with us now?" he asked.

She arched one delicate eyebrow. "I believe you know the answer to that as well as I do. If you're asking is John fitting in to life on Atlantis, I think it's too soon to tell."

"But it's been a week!" Rodney protested. A week of traveling through hyperspace. Even he was starting to get bored. Maybe that was John's problem; he was bored.

"Rodney, we pulled John from a settled life. He left his family and friends to come here and help us." She reached out and patted his hand. "I know you want him to stay with us, but it's his decision."

"It sucks." Rodney leaned back in his seat. "This is Atlantis! He has the gene. How can he not want to stay here?" He snapped his fingers. "We should drop out of hyperspace and give him a chance to fly one of the gate ships. Maybe that would charm him into staying?"

"Perhaps. Are we far enough away for us to be safe from another replicator attack?"

"Maybe."

"Is maybe good enough?" she asked.

"Probably not," Rodney reluctantly admitted.

"Then we will keep traveling. We'll find a safe place soon, I'm sure of it." Teyla stood. "John is not quite as bored as you think. He's working with me daily and learning to use the bantos rods. Ronon is keeping him occupied with target practice and survival lessons."

"Preparing him for a battle with the Wraith?" Rodney rubbed at the scar on his cheek, remembering his run-in with a Queen.

A dozen Marines, Ronon and Teyla had come to his rescue in the nick of time, but the Queen had left him with a mark that he'd carry for the rest of his life. Fuck. He'd been dreaming to think that there was any chance John could be attracted to him.

Teyla stood up to leave. "Rodney? The shield extends over the entire city, does it not?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Then why couldn't you fly a gate ship around the city within the safety of the shield?" With a sweet smile, she turned and left leaving Rodney staring at her back and wondering why the hell he hadn't thought of that.

~*~

"This is so cool." John didn’t waste any time sliding into the pilot seat.

Rodney, grinning from ear to ear, took the co-pilot's seat. "I had a feeling you were going to like the gate ships. Are you sure you can fly it?"

"You can't saddle a little puddle jumper like this with a name like Gate Ship." John gave the console an affectionate pat. "I think I'll call her—Puddle Jumper One."

"Fine," Rodney huffed. "Just remember to stay within the shield. We're still in hyperspace and I'm not sure what would happen if we got separated from Atlantis."

"Sit back and relax, Rodney." John's hands roamed over the console, getting a feel for the flight controls. He turned switches on and off, first by hand, and then tried it again with his mind. He couldn't even begin to wipe the grin off his face when it worked.

"Oh, god. Do you know you act like a kid in a candy shop? I think the only thing that's preventing you from bouncing out of your seat is the roof."

"Don't be ridiculous, Rodney. I'm a trained pilot. Cool and calm under pressure, that's my motto."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "I thought it was Fly, Fight and Win?"

"Yeah, that too." John rubbed his hands together. Now, let's see what this baby can do!"

By now, he was used to the Ancient technology responding to him. This was even better. The jumper interface welcomed him with joy and he could sense her eagerness to fly. He was the pilot and she was built for him. What were they waiting for?

What were they waiting for, indeed? John asked J-One to rise and she floated up and out of the roof's aperture as smooth as silk. He brought her to a hover, stunned by the scope and size of the city.

"My, that is impressive," Rodney said, staring out at the view. "I knew, of course, but seeing it…."

"Yeah," John said, softly. The glowing arc of the shield arched over the entire city. Even with most of Atlantis powered down, the light reflected off the buildings, bathing the entire landscape in a golden haze.

Beside him, Rodney made a quiet noise and John pulled his gaze from the view to look at him.
Rodney was staring out the window. His normally sharp blue eyes were full of wonder and amazement. Even the hard line of his mouth had changed to something vulnerable and open.

John swallowed. Okay, maybe he was beginning to see the attraction that his counterparts had
felt. He turned back to face the screen. He'd deal with it later. Right now, the jumper was in a holding position waiting for his next command. "Let's take a few turns around the city and see what we can find."

As they flew by, Rodney pointed out some of the city's features. "Straight ahead is the tower with the chair room. If you bank left, you'll see the building where we found Janus' lab. There's a lot left to explore. Several areas were flooded. Now that the replicators have repaired them, once we have everyone back we can go back to exploring."

"About that, how are they getting back? You left them at the Alpha site, right?"

"Did anyone in your reality explain about realigning the Stargate?" Rodney asked.

"Didn't get into it that much. Mostly, you wanted me to turn things on."

"Oh." The tips of Rodney's ears turned pink and he wouldn't meet John's eyes.

"With my mind," John drawled. Yep, Rodney's ears could turn a deeper shade of pink.

Stiffly, Rodney said, "We have a dialing program that will realign the Stargate and account for any stellar drift. Once that's initiated, we'll be able to dial the Alpha site and tell Elizabeth that it's safe for everyone to return. Look out!"

Crap, he'd been so interested in watching the starch grow in Rodney's chin that he'd flown too close to one of the towers. Pulling back on the joystick and sending a mental 'up' for good measure, John put the jumper in to a steep ascent. They missed crashing by a good yard but that was still too close.

"What just happened?" Rodney might have a death grip on the console but it didn't stop him from shooting John the stink-eye. "I thought you could fly?"

Before John could respond, images starting rolling up on the display. "Aw look, she's apologizing. We weren't in any danger. See?" He pointed at the screen. "The ship activated her shield and turned up the strength on the inertial dampers. We might have punched a hole in the tower but we'd have been fine."

Rodney turned to stare at him. His eyes looked very blue and very bright in contrast to his pale face. In fact, he was so pale that the white lines of his scar almost blended in. "The ship is apologizing to you? You can tell that? I hate you so much right now."

John eased back on the controls and took them for a lazy spin around the city. The minutes ticked by and Rodney refused to say another word. Fine. John couldn't help that Atlantis and the jumper responded to him the way it did. He just had to give Rodney time to get his head out of his ass and get over his jealousy.

Five quiet minutes passed. As John began his descent into the jumper bay Rodney blurted, "Yes, I'm jealous, okay? But not for the reasons you think. Do you know how many lives we could have saved if we’d had you on our expedition from the beginning?"

"I'm here now."

Rodney sighed. "But for how long?"

~*~

He'd observed enough alternate realities, he should have known. It was only a matter of time before John ended up in the infirmary. Rodney slapped the ice pack down on John's shoulder.

"Hey!"

"Oh, I'm sorry, did that hurt? Maybe you should have thought about the risk to yourself before deciding you could go exploring all by yourself! Oh, don't you dare pout at me, Sheppard."

"I just wanted to check it out."

"Just wanted to check it out," Rodney mocked. "I know I pointed it out. That entire area was flooded until three weeks ago. It hasn't been checked for integrity yet. The entire ceiling could have collapsed on you, instead of…." Rodney stopped to calm his breathing. "Instead of just some badly placed shelving."

"What's up with that? I thought the Replicators fixed everything?"

"They restored a lot, but once they'd created three functional ZPM's we didn't wait for them to repair anything else. So, no, they didn't fix everything."

Starting to feel badly that he hadn't been exactly gentle with John's shoulder, he passed John a bottle of ibuprofen. "You should probably take a couple of those."

"Thanks. You're a real Florence Nightingale." John shook a couple of pills out and swallowed them dry. He sat on the infirmary bed, swinging his legs back and forth and shooting Rodney expectant looks. "Aren't you even going to ask what I was doing there?"

"Oh, were you doing something other than being stupidly reckless? I wonder how I could have missed it."

"Rodney, she was talking to me. Atlantis. She said there’s something hinky down on that level, and I just wanted to check it out."

Rodney pulled a chair over and sat down. "There's so much wrong with that sentence…let's begin with—the city talks to you?"

"Not only did you neglect to mention that, it didn't occur to you that if something is wrong that the rest of us could help with that? Right, of course, it didn't."

"If I’d found anything wrong, I'd have told you right away, Rodney."

"And that brings us to hinky." Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose. "Do you think you could define that better? Please try."

John rubbed the back of his neck. "Um, Atlantis doesn't exactly use words, but she kept sending me a map of that area with images of a graph overlaying it. There were a bunch of red lines growing progressively higher every hour or so. She seemed pretty urgent about it."

"Well, that's at least something I can work with." Rodney stood. "I'm going to the control room and run a diagnostic. If there's anything wrong, I'll find it. Then, we'll check it out together. Agreed?"

"Okay." John hopped off the bed. I'll go with you."

John walked by his side, making light of his injury, but Rodney was having a tough time taking it as casually. He desperately wanted John to stay with them but this was a dangerous place. Wraith, Replicators, and Ancient booby-traps were all standard fare in this galaxy. Asking John to stay with them would be putting him at risk every single day.

It was a relief when they got to the control room and he could focus on the task at hand.

"Oh, no." Rodney stared down at the coding scrolling across the computer terminal. "This is bad."

"I told you something was wrong," John said. He cocked one hip against the console. "What is it and how do we fix it?"

Rather than answer he lifted his hand to his radio. "Ronon, Teyla, we have a problem." He turned to John, who was bristling with impatience. "Ronon, I need you in the ZPM room. Teyla, I need you here. Hurry."

"What's going on?" John asked.

"I need you in the chair room." Rodney stopped typing long enough to meet John's eyes. "I found your red line. It just happens to be located on the level directly below the Alternate Reality Drive. There's an open conduit where there shouldn't be, and it's draining power from the ZPM at a rapid rate."

"Can't you just shut it down?"

"I've been trying. The drive has never functioned the way it was meant to. Just turning it off could cause a massive overload."

"How bad would that be?" John asked.

"Bad. A crack in the containment field is siphoning and collecting power from the ZPM. If it goes, it's going to take out the entire city. Plus, I have no idea what an explosion that size will do if it goes off in hyperspace. Theoretically, it could rip a hole in spacetime."

"So—not good."

"Not good." Rodney pushed his chair back to give John a better view of the screen.

"That's the same image I got from the city." John tossed the ice pack down and folded his arms over his chest. "Tell me what I can do to help."

"I need you in the control chair. Oh good, here's Teyla."

She came running up to stand next to them. "I came as quickly as I could. Ronon has already arrived at the ZPM room and is waiting for instructions."

Rodney slid out of his chair. "Sit here." He pinpointed a spot on the screen. "I need to get down there and disable the drive before it overloads. I need you to tell me if this red line spikes beyond that point."

She nodded. Hand poised over the radio she asked, "What should I tell Ronon?"

Rodney picked up his laptop and cables. "John, get to the chair room and be ready to drop out of hyperspace. Teyla, I'm going to swing by the ZPM room and talk to Ronon myself. Oh, while you're at it, check the database. Look for a suitable planet where we can land. If the power drain gets as bad as I think it could be, we might not have any choice."

John followed him as far as the transporter. He touched Rodney on the shoulder. "Be careful, and keep me in the loop."

Rodney didn't bother to answer beyond a sharp nod. He watched as John stepped inside the transporter and impatiently waited for his turn. He had a lot to explain to Ronon and not a lot of time to do it in.

He bustled into the room. "Ronon, what's the status of those ZPMs?"

"Two of them still have a full charge, but one of them has taken on a weird color. It's darker than it should be. Take a look, McKay."

"Damn it. I was afraid of that." Rodney pulled up an image of the city's schematic. "See how Atlantis is laid out in a six-sided snowflake design?"

"I know that," Ronon said.

"Built into the design is a separation matrix. Any one of these six sections can be disconnected from the whole and Atlantis will still function."

Ronon crossed his arms over his chest. "So?"

"There are only three places where the separation can be initiated. The control tower, the control chair, and here."

"You need me to do it?"

Rodney could say one thing about Ronon, he was a lot quicker than he usually let on. "Teyla will waste precious minutes trying to talk me out of it, and John would flatly refuse. But if I can't disconnect the ARD in time, you need to jettison this section to save the others."

"What about you?"

"I'm going to stay and try to fix it until the last possible minute. But if I tell you to give the separation command, don't hesitate. It will be your only chance to get the others to safety."

Rodney rubbed at his forehead. He could feel priceless seconds ticking away. "I've coded it so that imminent separation will automatically drop you out of hyperspace. John's in the chair, he can handle it from there. Once you've found a place to settle, do me one last favor? Make sure John gets back to his own reality."

Ronon laid his hand on Rodney's shoulder and squeezed. "I'll take care of it."

Running most of the way, by the time he reached the lower level Rodney was out of breath. This was one time he could say, screw taking his pulse, he wasn't going to live long enough for it to matter. Heart racing, he hooked the leads to the drive interface.

Critical mass was still several minutes away. Good. He had time. Rodney sent up a silent thank you to Atlantis for alerting John. Without that warning their odds of survival would have been much worse.

He tapped his radio, "Ronon."

"Now, McKay?"

"No! Not now. Hopefully not ever." Rodney typed quickly as he talked. Just a few more lines of coding…. "Go over to the flawed ZPM."

"Okay."

"When I tell you, pull it. First, you're going to have to cycle the table and set it to null position."

"Rodney! What are you doing?" John's voice burst over the radio.

"Trying not to be dead!" Crap, John must have accessed the control chair's interface and seen what he was doing.

"I can see the pre-separation codes. Quit it!" John yelled. "We're not leaving you behind!"

"If you let me finish this, you won't have to."

Rodney did a quick check of his coding. Nervously, he rubbed his hands on his thighs. This was it. "Ronon, are you ready?"

"Ready."

Rodney squinched his eyes shut. "Pull it."

The lights went out. The only illumination in the room came from Rodney's laptop and he quickly checked his results. So far, so good. "John, see if you can bring the lights back up in here. Slowly."

When he had enough light to see by, he began disconnecting the AR Drive from its power source.

"How are we doing, Rodney?" John asked.

"I still have to figure out a safe way to bleed off the extra power so that nothing else overloads, but it looks like we're all going to live to see another day."

"Okay, then," John's voice came through the radio loud and relieved. "Beer's on me, buddy."

"What about me?" Ronon radioed in.

"Beer for you, too," John said.

"And me?" Teyla asked over the comm. "I've located a suitable planet for us. Surely, that deserves a drink as well?"

John laughed. "Fine, beers for everyone!"

~*~

John tipped up his glass and took a drink. He smacked his lips. Not bad. Not beer; the fermented berry-based drink was more like a wine. Teyla's people had been making and trading it for years. He took another sip. "Yo, Ronon!"

Ronon was the man of the hour. He grinned back at John with a big piece of roast beast in his teeth. The barbeque had been Ronon's idea. "Good planet."

John had to agree. Once he'd landed the city safely on the surface of the ocean, Ronon asked to be flown to the mainland. They were all hungry for fresh food and it seemed like a great idea. Within an hour, Ronon had hunted down and dressed a pig-like animal that he'd assured them was good to eat. He'd been right.

Finishing his drink, he felt loose enough to ask, "Ronon, you weren't really going to jettison Rodney with that part of the city, were you?"

"McKay understands explosions. When he says it's going to be big and gives you a chance to get away, you do it or die."

That wasn't the answer he expected, but he understood better now why Rodney had told Ronon his plan and no one else. He looked over at Rodney, who was, judging from the way his arms were waving, informing Teyla about his next big idea or how very doomed they were. With Rodney, it could go either way.

"Hey, Ronon. No one ever said. Just how did Rodney get that knife scar on his face?"

"It's not from a knife. Teyla and a couple of her people were captured by the Wraith. We took a team of Marines up to the Hive ship to get them back. McKay was there, too, but he got separated from us.

"When we found him, he'd been captured and forced to kneel in front of the queen. She had his hand on his face, scraping down the side of his cheek with her nail. From what I could see, she was pissed. She kept howling that his mind was too full, too busy and she was trying to force him to quiet his mind."

Ronon snorted. "You can imagine how that went over. It probably made him think twice as fast. When I got a clear shot, I took it. So did every Marine there. We got Teyla and her people out and rescued Rodney, but not before the queen did that to his face."

The next morning, John walked into the control room to find everyone waiting for him.

Rodney wore that stiff-upper-lip expression that didn't do a damn thing to hide his real feelings. Ronon looked as stoic as he ever did and Teyla had a hint of sadness about her.

"Guess it's time for me to go back, then." John stepped up to Rodney to shake his hand but Rodney stalled the movement by shoving a cube into his hand.

"Take it. It's a way back, if you want it," Rodney said.

John stared down at the small crystal cube. "What did you do?"

"I made it this morning. It's a duplicate of the Ancient portal cube. I used the excess displaced energy from the ARD. I had to do something with it after I shut it down." Rodney pointed at the cube. "So, I used it to power that."

Rodney rocked back on his heels, obviously proud of his accomplishment. "It's mentally activated. Just think 'on' and it will open a portal. It's already keyed to this location. If you do decide to use it, don't wait too long. It won't hold power indefinitely."

"Um, thanks." John put the cube in his pocket. "I guess this is good-bye."

Teyla stepped up and placed the transport cube in the middle of the floor. She turned and inclined her head. John met her halfway and their foreheads touched. "We will miss you, John. I hope you decide to return to us."

Ronon passed him a knife. "When you return, I'll sharpen it for you."

He tried to meet Rodney's eyes, but he'd already turned away and was busy dialing. Seeing the bare, vulnerable back of Rodney's neck made John want run his fingers over it and find out if it was as tender as it looked. Shaken by the thought, he pulled his gaze away.

The portal opened. John steeled his shoulders and stepped through.

Well, damn, he was back in his old office. John took a minute to adjust to his surroundings. The desk had been cleared off, not a scrap of paper on it. He picked up the phone's receiver—dead. The rug looked like it had been recently cleaned.

 

Not his office anymore then, but tidied up and cleaned for the next person to use it. He left and stopped by the receptionist's desk. "Marcy? Remember me?"

"Mr. Sheppard!" Marcy stared at him like she'd seen a ghost. "How?" She glanced towards the front doors, which John clearly hadn't used. "Where did you come from?"

"It's a long story. Hey, is my brother or dad around?"

Wide-eyed, Marcy passed John a white card. "Shortly after you—disappeared—Sheppard Industries acquired a new office building." Her expression softened. "Would you like me to call ahead and tell them to expect you?"

"Nah, I got it." John put the card in his pocket without checking the address. "Take care of yourself, Marcy." He did his best to smile.

~*~

John went back to his apartment, grateful he'd had the foresight (laziness) to pay his rent six months in advance. He wandered around the place feeling like a stranger. He didn't realize how much he'd enjoyed the welcome hum of Atlantis until it was gone. Now, every sound in the place echoed, cold and empty.

After a restless night, he got up, dressed in his best business suit and double checked the address. He had some explaining to do to his family, and John preferred to face it head on. He'd be glad to tell them the truth if he thought they'd believe it. Yeah, that was going to happen. Shit. Well, at least he could try.

~*~

John stood on the wharf and looked up at the night sky. He shoved his hands in his pockets and tried to find some peace in the sound of softly lapping waves.

Not his best day. But at least he'd tried. His father's accusations and Dave's look of disgust were still fresh in his mind.

John never got the chance to explain. He did wonder if good ol' dad was going to pop a blood vessel.

He'd barely gotten through the door when his father jumped up to face him off.

Stabbing a finger an inch from John's face, he'd yelled, "Too busy being a beach bum to answer your phone? Or did that even cross your mind wherever the hell you took off to? It was a miracle we didn't have to forfeit the contract with Devlin Medical Technologies."

John had opened his mouth to interrupt when Dave walked in.

"I knew you were going to duck out of your responsibilities as soon as you could, but you couldn't even wait for me to get back to the office?" Dave sneered. "Jesus, John, have some consideration for someone else!"

The speech had gone on for several more minutes, but John tuned it out.

John snorted. Even his family's reaction hadn't pissed him off as much as Rodney and his refusal to look at John before he stepped through the portal. Why was that?

Thinking it over, it belatedly occurred to him that maybe Rodney hadn't watched him leave for the same reason John hadn't reached out and touched him.

Fuck that.

This universe had already had a Sheppard in Atlantis and didn't need him. But there was an Atlantis and a family that did. He pulled the cube out of his pocket.

Terrible odds, a crisis at every turn with life or death situations, or a safe, boring life behind a desk. It really wasn't a decision at all.

He set the cube down and sent it one strong, clear thought. Take me home.

~*~