It had all started out so well.
The people of Pegasus were very different than the people of the Milky Way galaxy. In the Milky Way, the stargates were looked at as the exclusive purview of the gods. Only the exalted went through the 'gates. Ordinary people would never use the 'gates unless directly ordered by their god or his jaffa.
In the Pegasus galaxy they were viewed as an everyday part of life, as a necessity almost. The people of Pegasus traveled through them almost from birth to trade with other worlds, to escape from their own world when it had been culled, to visit loved ones who had left for another world. To the people of Pegasus, the 'gates were their birthright.
So, it was natural that the tales of the Lantean travelers spread from world to world on Pegasus. John had heard the stories reported by their allies. They varied wildly, painting them alternately as either avenging angels arrived to save the galaxy from the scourge of the Wraith to fire-breathing demons who had come to Pegasus to further their own aims of pillaging and conquest.
It was inevitable that someone would show up at their door one day requesting aid. What surprised John was that the request had been for Rodney McKay. Not that Rodney wasn't the most brilliant person John had ever met, and there was no doubt that his brilliance shouldn't be in high demand. It was just that most people never saw beyond the veneer of bluster and arrogance that Rodney used to keep people at an arm's length.
The request had arrived through one of their trading partners. Rodney had been alternately appalled and pleased that *he* was being requested.
"Well of course they want me, I'm the very best there is," he had sniffed at the briefing where the request was considered.
The world making the request was shielded like M7G-677, the planet with the children who had been sacrificing themselves. Like that world, the shield was being depleted over time, gradually covering less territory, forcing the people there to sacrifice some of their population in order to control the size of their protected area. Rather than resorting to ritual sacrifice like the kids of M7G-677, there was a lottery that selected the individuals who were to leave the protection of the shield. Those unlucky enough to be chosen would go through the gate to another world rather than live outside the shield and make their planet a target for the Wraith.
John had enjoyed seeing Rodney all smug and satisfied that a world had requested him. Of course they went; it was part of their mission to supply aid when they could.
From the first moment when they had set foot on the planet, John's spidey sense had begun to tingle. The people had been so solicitous of Rodney, praising his work, attending to his needs. Teyla and Ronon had gone watchful, one of them staying with Rodney at all times.
Rodney had eaten it up. "You're just jealous that it's not you they're dancing attendance on this time," Rodney had accused.
And dammit it wasn't that. John just didn't like the way the people looked at Rodney, like they wanted to swaddle him in royal robes and keep him. John was the only one who got to look at Rodney like that.
Of course it had all gone bad. They'd been arguing. It wasn't even over anything important. It was their everyday conversation, as natural to them as breathing.
"Alright, McKay, it's time to pack it up and get going," John said. He didn't like the way these people kept making excuses to touch Rodney.
Rodney stood, his back popping in three places. He put a hand on his back and stretched. "Do we have to go?" Rodney whined. "There's going to be a feast in my honor. I've never been to a feast in my honor." There was a wistful tone in Rodney's voice. John wished they could. Rodney deserved to be feted. But there was a possessive gleam in the eye of the people who hemmed them in. John wouldn't feel safe until they were back home in Atlantis.
"Sorry, buddy," John said. "We're supposed to be home in time for that thing this afternoon. You know." He frowned at Rodney hoping he was picking up on the cues that John was sending.
Rodney being Rodney missed the cues. "Afternoon thing?" Rodney frowned. "We don't have an afternoon thing. I think we should stay for the feast." Rodney made a dusting motion with his hands as if he thought the argument was over. He beamed at the people around them. The smiled back at him, pleased to bask in his good mood.
John knew that Rodney was ruled by his stomach. He'd used that for his own advantage once or twice. But this time, it was damned inconvenient.
"Rodney," John growled, "we're going home." He grabbed the front of Rodney's tac vest.
That was when everything changed. Things shifted around them and they were suddenly surrounded by a crowd of people all with weapons pointed in his team's direction.
"You will remove your hands from Dr. McKay, please," the big guy who spoke stood in front of John with a spear pointed on him. John could feel it pressing against the skin of his throat. He swallowed and released his hold on Rodney's tac vest, holding up his hands where they would be in sight.
Rodney cleared his throat nervously. "Really there's no need for all this."
A woman stepped out of the crowd of armed men surrounding the team. "Dr. McKay," she said quietly. "Tales of your genius have spread throughout the galaxy."
"As they should be," Rodney responded stiffly. John could tell that Rodney was nervous, afraid that any misspoke word would get his team killed. Rodney had a lot of great attributes but diplomacy was not one of them. Still, his words seemed to have a calming affect on the people around them. With the number of weapons pointed at his team, calm could only be a good thing.
The woman smiled as if Rodney had said something witty. "We did not think that we would ever have the honor to meet you."
"Well, you've met me now," Rodney looked around at all the weapons surrounding them, he gulped. "It.. ah.. seems that it's time for us to leave… now."
"Is it not your wish to stay for the feast in your honor?" the woman asked.
There were some subtle movement in the crowd that surrounded them. They were cutting Rodney off from the rest of the team.
Rodney rubbed his hands together, worried eyes meeting John's. "I might have said that I wanted to stay, but uh... John... I mean Colonel Sheppard said that we have something to get back to... at home." Rodney spoke slowly, working hard to rein in his acerbic tongue. John appreciated his effort.
"So, I've completed the repairs on your shield," Rodney declared brightly. "If you ever need us again, just give us a call." He started towards John, but two men stepped into his path. Rodney gulped looking up at the behemoths towering over him.
"But, Dr. McKay," the woman said sweetly. "We are going to have a feast in your honor. Perhaps you would like to rest for a while before the festivities begin?" She gave a small wave of her hand and the two men turned Rodney and marched him out of the room.
That was it, John had had enough. He swept an arm up, pushing the spear at his throat out of way and lunged in Rodney's direction. "Rodney!"
The guy with the spear used it to sweep John's feet out from under him. He crashed to the floor, the air knocked out of him. John could hear the sounds of a struggle and knew that Teyla and Ronon were also trying to go after Rodney. A boot pressed down on John's back when he tried to push himself to his feet and he could feel the prick of the spear again between his shoulder blades. All too soon, the sound of Teyla and Ronon's struggles stopped.
The boot let up off his back and a delicate toe nudged at his side. John rolled carefully, aware of the spear at his back. He found the woman who appeared to be in charge standing at his side, frowning down at him.
"You do not properly respect, Dr. McKay," she stated. "You do not deserve to be conservator of his genius."
John gulped. "You can't just take him. Rodney is one of my people, I'm responsible for his safety and I'm not leaving without him." John wasn't going to tell this woman everything Rodney was to him.
"I am saying that you will leave. If you are worried for Dr. McKay's safety, is he not safer here on a world protected by a shield? The Wraith have not culled here in many ages."
John felt like a toddler being reprimanded because he'd had his hand in the cookie jar. He pushed himself to his feet slowly, mindful of the spear being shoved into his back.
"Ma'am," John thought fast, trying to keep his mind working, despite the mournful keen of Rodney, Rodney, Rodney running round and round. "We don't want any trouble."
She nodded. "Then you will leave now. You will see that we can make Dr. McKay happy."
John swallowed down the protest that they had no idea how to keep Rodney happy. It wasn't helpful to their present situation.
"We could leave," he allowed begrudgingly. "But I have to tell you that Dr. McKay is very important to my people. We will be back, probably with more weapons than you've ever seen, weapons that aren't affected by the shield protecting your planet. A lot of people could die, maybe even Dr. McKay. Nobody wants that."
The woman's lips thinned as she took in John's words. She stepped away from John to whisper to one of the people standing on the periphery of the crowd watching the drama. A tall thin man, who had been following Rodney around all day, hanging on his every word, scurried away quickly.
The woman drew herself up and moved back to John. She was tall, nearly as tall as John. She regarded him with an aloof air.
"We do not wish for hostilities between our two peoples. The Wraith are enemy enough for us all."
John nodded, his heart beat quickening in hope. "I agree. Just give us Rodney back and we'll be on our way – no harm, no foul."
The woman held up a hand, halting any movement. "I propose a test."
John wanted to protest, but he held his peace. He and his team were at a disadvantage here. He needed to play for time until he could see an opening to get them all, including Rodney, out. He could see Teyla and Ronon across the room. They were surrounded by a half dozen men, all as big as Ronon. Teyla was watching him, she smiled slightly at him, her cue that he was playing the whole situation correctly.
"A test?" John asked hesitantly.
She nodded. "If you can prove your regard for Dr. McKay then we will allow him to leave with you."
"Okay," John shared a glance with Teyla. She gave a tiny shrug of her shoulders. She had no idea what the test would be. Ronon growled. That spoke plainly to John that Ronon was ready to fight his way out whenever John gave the word.
Heartened that his team had his back no matter what he decided, John looked back at the woman. "And just what are the terms of this test?" he growled.
The woman waved a hand to indicate the door where Rodney had disappeared. "If you can find Dr. McKay, then you may leave here with him this day."
John blinked at her. "I just have to find him?" John couldn't believe that it would be that easy.
She smiled sweetly. "If you can find the real Dr. McKay then, yes, that is all that is required." She took his arm and led him to the door. "You must leave your weapon here."
John swallowed the fear that was welling up in him. What was behind the door? That was the question, wasn't it? Because it wasn't going to be as straight forward as pulling out the life signs detector and tracking Rodney, John was almost sure.
He unhooked the P90 from his tac vest and handed it to Teyla. They shared a secret glance.
Good luck, her look said. He would need it. He looked at Ronon standing at Teyla's side.
Get her out if I don't come back. John projected at Ronon.
Ronon growled. You'd better come back. John almost smiled.
He nodded at the woman in charge.
"I just have to find Rodney?" He asked again, just to verify the terms of the test.
"You have to find the real Dr. McKay," she answered. It was a strange choice of words.
"I have to find the real Dr. McKay?"
She nodded decisively. "Once you return through this door, if you have the real Dr. McKay with you, you will be permitted to leave."
"And if I don't?" It wasn't even an option as far as John was concerned, but he had to ask the question.
The woman's smile was radiant. "Then Dr. McKay will live out his days here, living as one of my people." She bowed to him. "I would like to wish you success, but I would be lying. You may begin."
The man who had been at his back melted away, the woman took a step back, leaving him alone at the door.
Rodney was somewhere behind that door.
The door loomed in front of John. It was just an ordinary door. Or as ordinary as a door could be in an Ancient building. John had felt the faint thrum of the Ancient facility all day while Rodney had been working. It was very distant as if muted, but it was there.
He reached for the panel to open the door. It opened automatically, like the doors at Atlantis, responding to his will. The room beyond the door was dark, with the light behind him spilling in. He couldn’t see much beyond the first few feet of empty room. With a deep breath, John stepped through the door, it slid shut behind him.
For a moment there was just darkness. No sound, no breath betrayed if Rodney was there or not. John fumbled in his pocket for the life signs detector. He wondered why nothing but his weapon had been taken from him.
Once he fumbled the LSD from his pocket he realized why. It was an Ancient device. The dampening field that shielded the planet from the Wraith also worked on Ancient devices. It was dead in his hands. He shoved it back into its pocket and pulled out the flashlight. It flickered on, lighting the space around him. Slowly it dimmed and died.
"Great." John muttered to himself.
"I could have told you that wasn't going to work," Rodney said.
"Rodney!" John cried. He whirled trying to get a fix on Rodney's voice. "Where are you?"
"I'm over here; it's about time you got here, too. It's been really creepy sitting here in this dark room. I thought maybe you had all deserted me."
"Never," John assured him. "There's some kind of test I have to complete. I have to get you, the real you, out of this room." He began moving toward the sound of Rodney's voice.
"What does that mean?" Rodney asked.
"I don't know, you're the genius, you tell me."
That was when the lights came on.
John found himself surrounded by dozens of Rodney McKays.
They were crowded in around him; there was an impossible number of them. John studied the ones standing closest to him. Their eyes were all the same shade of blue, their shoulders were all the same wide width, they all had that irritating side-ways slanting smile that made John want to kiss those lips.
That was it! No one kissed like Rodney McKay. He pulled the closest man to him and kissed him. The man kissed with all Rodney's eagerness, his lips doing wicked things. But there was something… off. The man kissed as if he were desperate to prove himself.
John pushed him away. He studied the blue eyes staring back at him unblinking.
"John?" the man said. The voice was Rodney's, there was no doubt it could be him. And yet…
John fumbled in his pocket, pulling out a sharpie. He uncapped it and wrote an "N" on the Rodney's forehead.
"What was that?" the man asked.
"You're not Rodney McKay," John muttered. Dismissing that one, he turned to the next Rodney, grabbing a fistful of his tac vest, pulling him in and kissing him.
This Rodney was as eager and earnest as the last one, kissing with Rodney's enthusiasm. John shoved him away.
"Sorry, not you either." He scribbled a hasty "N" on the man's forehead and turned to find the next Rodney waiting eagerly, his eyes already filled with desire.
"It's so hot watching you kiss me," Rodney murmured, moving in. It sounded so much like Rodney McKay. Rodney put his hand on John's back, pulling John in to kiss him.
John so wanted this Rodney to be his Rodney. He let himself fall into the kiss, he pulled Rodney into him, felt hotness bump into his hip. Breathing heavily he pushed the man away. He didn't even talk to him, he just scribbled an "N" on the man's forehead.
This was impossible. He could kiss Rodneys all day and not find the real one. He pulled out the life signs detector again. It was still dead. John hit it on the side. Hey, it sometimes worked on his TV back on Earth.
"I know I've told you that doesn't work," the Rodney standing next to him said.
John looked up, hope blooming. "Rodney?"
"The one and only," Rodney declared rocking back on his heels, a smug smile on his lips.
John wanted to believe that this was the right one. But how to tell for sure? That was the question.
He only had one chance to walk through that door with the real Dr. Rodney McKay. What happened if he chose wrong? Rodney would be alone on this planet for the rest of his life. John couldn't let that happen.
"Prove it." John challenged.
"What, you want me to prove that I'm me?" Rodney frowned. "I'm Dr. Rodney McKay, chief scientist in Atlantis. We're in the Pegasus Galaxy."
It sounded like Rodney. It looked like Rodney. What was that thing Rodney was always saying – Occam's Razor. But he gazed around at the other Rodney's that crowded in eager for their chance to prove who they were and he doubted. He wrote an "N" on the forehead of the man standing next to him.
"What if I'm the real Rodney McKay?"
"Well, first of all, the real Rodney McKay wouldn't ask me that question."
John stared around him. Why wasn't the real Rodney McKay declaring himself? John would expect that out of him first thing. Then he realized that it wouldn’t help to differentiate him from all the other Rodney McKay's surrounding him declaring themselves to be the one true Rodney McKay.
John turned in a circle trying to figure out how to find the needle in the haystack. One in a million, that was Dr. Rodney McKay, and there had to be a way to determine which of them was the real deal.
"Okay," John held up his hand. Silence fell around him.
He felt the weight of a hundred pairs of blue eyes on him. He frowned.
"Will the real Rodney McKay take one step forward?"
They all took a step forward. John found himself with Rodneys pressed in on all sides of him. While his body thought this was a fine idea, it obviously thought that all of these men were Rodney McKay, it was making it hard for John to think.
"Oh, like that was going to work," John heard muttered. It had the right acerbic tone, the right casual insult that only Rodney could bring.
John forced himself through the throngs of Rodney McKays. Hands kept reaching out, trying to pull him away, but John kept going determinedly. He finally found a McKay sitting on the floor, his back against the wall. He had his head tilted back and his eyes closed. John stood staring down.
"Hey," one of the Rodney's next to him draped himself against John's back. "When do I get my chance to prove myself?" His voice was low and husky with want, John could feel his warmth soaking in.
The man on the floor opened his eyes and speared the man behind John with a poisonous look. "Go away," the Rodney on the floor spat out.
The Rodney at John's back stiffened, he kissed John's throat. "When you want the real Rodney McKay, look me up." John's back was cold when he moved away.
John sat next to the Rodney on the floor. "Why aren't you trying to prove who you are?" he asked.
"How do you prove something like that?" Rodney sneered. His voice was devoid of hope that John would know who he was. He waved a hand taking in the crowds around them. "They're all me, how do I prove who I am?"
John smiled; he took Rodney's hand and entwined their fingers. "What do you say we get out of here?"
"What?" Rodney turned to stare at him. "Really? You choose me?"
John pressed a kiss to Rodney's mouth. Not as proof, John already knew who he was. Just because he could.
"I'll always choose you."
He pulled Rodney up. They pushed their way through the crowd of Rodneys still determined to prove who they were. Finally John stopped and inked an "R" on the back or Rodney's hand.
The finally reached the door. When it opened for them, the crowd behind them disappeared.
The woman was true to her word. She didn't like it, but she let the team leave with Rodney.
Late that night, after the debrief and the tale being told over and over by Rodney, they laid in bed together, arms and legs entwined.
"How did you know it was me?" Rodney whispered into the darkness.
John pressed a kiss to Rodney's shoulder. He smoothed a hand down his back, reassured by the solidity that Rodney was there and they were together.
"Don't you know, Rodney?" John whispered back. "You're one of a kind."