Reinventing the Wheel
by eleveninches

Rating: NC-17 for adult situations.

Summary: A strange coincidence leads to Sheppard and McKay wiping out the Wraith. Now, to return home, they must battle aliens, Ancients, dopplegangers, their own feelings, and the most unnerving thing of all, whales. McKay/Sheppard, with McKay/Keller, Sheppard/Katie Brown, Teyla/Ronon, Teyla/Kanaan, Ronon/Keller, Sheppard/Carter, and Sheppard/Beckett.

Spoilers: Up through and including SGA 5x10/5x11 First Contact/The Lost Tribe; SG-1 3x06 Point of View, 5x04 The Fifth Man, 5x14 48 Hours, 6x01/6x02 Redemption, 8x16/8x17 The Reckoning, 8x18 Threads, 8x19/8x20 Moebius, 9x13 Ripple Effect, 10x10/10x11 The Quest, 10x14 The Shroud.

Huge thanks to Mel for beta reading, and Keri and Cait for their suggestions and help.


Chapter One

They found it in one of the previously unexplored storage closets, in a room they'd only been able to access after the Ancients' little visit. The cramped, dust-filled closet was in a section of the city that had been completely submerged in water up until the Ancients had retaken (and soon after had been killed in) Atlantis two years ago. The device itself looked like the high-end coffee maker Rodney had bought from The Bay in 1986, which meant, like all things from the Eighties, it was huge and tacky. The problem was that as far as they knew, the Ancients hadn't drunk anything that resembled coffee. Rodney suspected they had, however, smoked a lot of weed, if the long dresses and headbands and We Are One With Nature fake priestesses were anything to go by.

Rodney pulled the machine out from the cobwebs and gently blew off the dust.

"Coffee maker?" Zelenka asked from above where Rodney knelt, leaning over Rodney far enough for his glasses to slip down his nose.

"Doubt it," Rodney said.

He cradled the machine in his hands. There was an open tube of silver metal where the pot would have gone if it was a coffee maker, and a faded line of indecipherable Ancient was scratched onto the what must have been the machine's back. Knowing Rodney's luck, it probably said, 'Do not touch on pain of death.' Small blue lights lined each corner. On the side opposite the tube was a strange hieroglyph painted in a faded, rusty red; it was hardly a typical Ancient colour, as they were more prone towards colours that were 'soothing' and 'calming' and other examples of useless, Nirvana, find-yourself crap.

"Juicer?" Simpson asked, standing over Rodney's other shoulder.

"Food processor?" Zelenka sighed.

"Blender?" she asked fervently.

"What a subtle way of telling me you want to break for lunch," Rodney said sarcastically.

Simpson and Zelenka moved out of the way as Rodney climbed to his feet, grimacing at the cramp in his lower back. His knees popped loudly. Standing up, he could now see the device -- whatever it was -- was nearly as long and wide as his chest, although it was also deceptively light. He still had no idea what it was for. A microwave? He raised it to his nose and sniffed it. It smelled like plastic.

"And they say you are oblivious," Zelenka said. He pushed up his glasses with a finger and raised his eyebrows at Rodney.

Rodney frowned. "Who says that?"

Before he could wheedle a response out of Zelenka, the doors to the room slid open and in sauntered Colonel Sheppard with a coffee mug in his hand that said 'Sarcasm: Just One More Service I Offer' and his P-90 flopping against his tac vest. The lights, which had already been dim thanks to the entire left-side light panel being shattered, brightened noticeably. Sheppard took a sip of his coffee and leaned against the wall like he belonged there.

Rodney felt the first twinges of annoyance. "What are you doing here?"

"Last time I let you explore alone, you were stunned and kidnapped," Sheppard replied, giving Rodney a meaningful look. As flattered as Rodney was that Sheppard's main concern was for him, the smile Sheppard directed towards Simpson ruined it. Rodney rolled his eyes at the way she shyly tucked her blonde hair back behind her ears. Zelenka, too, looked happy to have Sheppard there to distract him. Leave it to Sheppard to reduce intelligent scientists to schoolgirls.

"I, for one, have no desire to be electrocuted again, like when we found the Ascension machine," Zelenka agreed.

"I don't need you to supervise," Rodney said to Sheppard. Zelenka muttered something under his breath that sounded suspicious like "Attero device," and Rodney batted a hand at him without even looking. "Don't you have better things to do, like press Woolsey's love letters between the pages of your diary?"

Sheppard scowled. "They're not love letters, they're my performance reviews. I can't help it if he thinks I do a good job."

That was the most blatant lie Rodney had ever heard -- he had seen Sheppard showing one of the notes to Teyla just last week, their heads bowed together over their lunch trays -- and so he did the mature thing: he ignored it. "If another alien cyborg tries to grab me, what are you going to do, smirk at it?" he asked.

"That's what the gun's for, Rodney." Sheppard stepped into the small circle they'd formed, bumping Rodney's shoulder with his. "Hey, a blender. We could make smoothies. I mean," he added, puffing his chest out a little, "margaritas."

"It's not a blender, you frat boy," Rodney said irritably.

"That's okay, I thought it was a blender too," Simpson whispered to Sheppard.

"That's because you're an idiot," replied Rodney. "It's obviously some sort of..." He turned it over in his hands, trying to figure out what was the point of a solid, metal coffee maker-shaped apparatus. "Something not a blender, that's what. Or a food processor," he said loudly as Zelenka started to open his mouth.

"Yes, yes, I understand, not food processor," Zelenka said, rolling his eyes. "What is this?"

Zelenka pulled the device out of Rodney's hands. He flipped it so Simpson and Sheppard could study the red symbol on its top. Or maybe that was the bottom; it was difficult to tell. The contraption looked enormous in Zelenka's tiny hands, and he had one palm pressed against the dull bottom right corner in a way that hurt Rodney to look at.

"I have no idea what that is," Rodney admitted. "It doesn't look like anything I've seen before."

"Huh, it looks like a two-headed eagle," Sheppard said, face scrunching up in thought.

When Rodney looked at it from that angle, it did sort of look like an eagle with two faces in profile. The image was so faded, however, it was difficult to tell; the elongated shape in the middle could have been a beak or a nose or a cucumber, for all Rodney knew. The symbol could have been anything from a flower to an amoeba. As usual, the Ancients made absolutely no sense.

"Maybe it's the Ancient symbol for 'danger,'" Simpson suggested.

"Perhaps it is a machine that produces two-headed eagles," Zelenka said.

Rodney huffed. "Don't be--"

"I think I've seen it before," interrupted Sheppard.

He deliberately placed his free hand on the device, and for a split second, Rodney was convinced something was going to happen. Sheppard seemed to as well; a moment later, he dropped his hand, looking slightly disappointed.

"Really?" Rodney asked flatly, even though his heart was racing. "You've seen a two-headed eagle before? In Atlantis?"

Sheppard rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Yeah," he replied. "Can't remember where though."

"Thank you, Colonel, for being no help whatsoever."

"Now that we've established no one is turning into eagle, what shall I do with this?" Zelenka asked, waggling the strange device at them as best he could with both his arms wrapped around it, while Sheppard gave Rodney a dirty look.

"Let's take it to the main lab," Simpson suggested. She gestured to the bottom of the appliance. "See the little slits at the base? It might plug into something."

"What a great idea, plugging it into random Ancient tech," Rodney said.

She glowered at him. "So, what, we're going to do nothing? Just because you--" she started, and Zelenka loudly chimed in with, "I can look it up in the database, perhaps, when we get back upstairs--"

"Children," Rodney shouted. They both stopped mid-sentence, scowling at each other. Sheppard leaned a hip against the closed closet door, gazing back and forth between them.

"This is the part of the mission where you defer to me--" Rodney pointed at his own chest. "--your wise and capable leader. And as your wise and capable leader, I say we take this upstairs to the labs and carefully examine it. As much as it pains me to admit this, Zelenka's right; we should see if we can find it in the database before we start trying to power it up."

"Fine," Simpson said flatly. Zelenka preened and readjusted his glasses.

It wasn't until he was almost out the door that he noticed Sheppard wasn't following. Instead, he was sipping his coffee with a thoughtful look on his face, gazing at the blank, dusty wall.

"Aren't you coming?" Rodney asked.

Sheppard shook his head. "Nah, I've got paperwork I've been avoiding. Lorne says he won't do it anymore unless he gets a raise. You wanna play golf later?"

"As much as I would love to spend a few hours of my precious time hitting balls with sticks, I already have plans."

Sheppard looked at him askance, and Rodney was almost tempted to take him up on his offer; as much as he hated to admit it, he had more fun with Sheppard than with Jennifer, and Sheppard never made him feel like a bumbling, virginal sixteen year-old. If he and Sheppard had been having sex, it would have been the perfect relationship.

"Jennifer and I are going to have dinner alone," he explained. "I've been planning it for weeks."

"Okay, you have fun with that," Sheppard said. And before Rodney could say anything clever in response, like, "Oh, I will," Sheppard abruptly pushed past him and left the room.

Rodney watched him go. Simpson and Zelenka were both staring at Rodney. "What crawled up his ass and died?" he wondered.

"Why must you maintain this ridiculous farce?" Zelenka asked.

*

Three months later.

The day John and Rodney destroyed the universe began like any other. John woke up at dawn, brushed his teeth, and met Ronon for their daily five-mile jog through the city. He rode the transporter back to his floor with Doctors Coleman and Wu, who were busy giggling over something. He wasn't paying much attention to either of them until he heard Wu say, "I never thought McKay would actually do it."

For Rodney, however, the day began very differently. He was having a nightmare in which he was reliving the holiday to Disneyland his family had taken when he was ten, when a horrible, stabbing pain in his upper back caused him to jerk awake. His face was smashed against a pillow and there was someone -- or something -- in the bed next to him. Also, he was completely naked.

After roughly five seconds of panicking, he realized his back hurt because he was in someone else's bed, and that someone else was Jennifer. More importantly, he and Jennifer were naked and curled around each other, after a night of passionate love-making. Well, nervous, awkward, and reasonably-decent love-making, at least. It hadn't been the best he had ever had (Trina Poplar from third year Classical Thermodynamics), but it certainly hadn't been the worst (Stephanie Erikson, one of the students he had been TAing during his first PhD, who had wanted to call him 'daddy').

Despite this, he was filled with a sense of dread. Looking down at Jennifer's beautiful, sleeping face, he knew he had to get out of there as fast as humanly possible.

He had just finished pulling on his trousers when he heard a tired, "Rodney? What's going on?"

He froze. "Oh, you're awake," he replied feebly as he finished zipping up.

She squinted at the clock and pulled the sheets higher over her breasts. There was a big crease across one of her cheeks from the pillow. "What time is it?" she asked, pushing back her tangled hair. "Are you leaving?"

"I have an early meeting," he lied, slipping his feet into his runners.

"Okay then," she said, yawning.

Jennifer looked at him expectantly. "Oh," Rodney said, belatedly realizing what she wanted. He was a terrible boyfriend. He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss. "I'll see you later?"

"Later," she repeated with a wide, cute smile. He smiled back at her, his eyes flickering over the inviting outline of her body under the sheet, but then the dreadful feeling returned.

He was an idiot, he thought as the door slid shut behind him. He was running away from a beautiful, intelligent, funny, blonde, and more importantly, naked woman, and he didn't even know why. She liked him, he liked her, and while Rodney wasn't stupid enough to believe that was all they needed to make it work, their relationship, if it could even be called that, had been great thus far. There was no reason for him to be panicking now. If anything, he should be feeling even more secure than before. He had never even made it past second base with Katie.

Unfortunately, in Rodney's hurry to get away, he had not anticipated other people being awake at this hour. Doctor Coleman (Rodney could never remember her first name; Teresa? Tina?), who had evidently been walking by, slowed to a stop and gave him a little wave. Groaning, Rodney glanced back at Jennifer's door and contemplated what was worse, talking to one of his underlings about his girlfriend, or telling his girlfriend he had lied to her about his reason for running away.

While he was debating with himself, Coleman called out, "Hi, Doctor McKay." She pointedly looked at the door to Jennifer's room and smirked.

"Doctor Coleman," he said stiffly. His expression probably screamed 'guilty.' "Don't you have somewhere to be?"

Her dark eyes lit up. Lowering her voice, she asked, "Was that the first time you and Doctor Keller--?"

"If you finish that sentence, I am going to make you wish you had turned down the University of Michigan and moved to a hippie compound in Oklahoma," Rodney threatened, and then he ran away to hide in his room. He could hear her laughing all the way to the transporter.

It took Rodney a good two hours before he felt normal again. By the time he made it to breakfast, Sheppard was already sitting with Woolsey, who had, in the last few months, inexplicably decided Sheppard was his new best friend. He was talking and gesturing with his spoon, while Sheppard was reading a book that said, very clearly even from this distance, Learning to Manifest Your Desires. Rodney had seen The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and How to See Yourself As You Really Are discreetly squeezed in between the spines of Russian literature, Anne McCaffrey ("Did you know SG-1 once saw a dragon?" Rodney had once asked, thumbing one of the books. "No way, you're just saying that to make me feel bad," Sheppard had replied.), and The Princess Bride on the shelf in Sheppard's room. He didn't know why Sheppard bothered to hide it; the McCaffrey was far more embarrassing than the self-help books.

It wasn't like Sheppard had any shame whatsoever, what with his low-rise pants and his incessant whining. But this was the first time Rodney had seen him reading one of those in public.

Woolsey was still blathering on about something when Sheppard glanced up from his book and, for no reason at all, narrowed his eyes in Rodney's direction. It was disappointing, because if there was one person with whom Rodney wanted to share the intimate details of his night, it was Sheppard. His head always felt more clear after he told Sheppard his problems.

"Is it just me, or is Sheppard acting weird?" Rodney asked. Come to think of it, Sheppard had been behaving strangely for a while now.

"Sheppard always acts weird," Ronon replied with a mouthful of toast.

"Okay, weirder then." Ronon shrugged, and Rodney huffed, "Nevermind. I don't know why I bother."

Ronon slurped down the last of his breakfast, but, to Rodney's surprise, he didn't immediately get up and leave. Usually, Ronon slammed down his food and hurried to the gym before someone stole his favourite exercise bike. Personally, Rodney didn't understand what Ronon did all day other than work out and stalk his girlfriend.

"McKay," Ronon started. He waited until Rodney gave him an impatient look. "I hear you're getting laid."

Rodney stared at him, completely baffled. "How did you--?" He was about to demand how Ronon could possibly known he and Jennifer had slept together, when something even more important occurred to him: "You really want to talk about sex with me?"

Ronon shrugged. "Sure. Sheppard never talks about it. I asked him once and he started talking about feelings. And then he asked me if I had a boyfriend." Ronon paused long enough for a glop of oatmeal to drip off his spoon and back into the mostly-empty bowl. He frowned into space. "Maybe I don't want to talk about sex with him."

Rodney, for one, had no desire to listen to Sheppard talking about all the hussies he had slept with. Bragging was so unattractive. "So he never talks about how he has hoes in different area codes?" he found himself asking, as he viciously stabbed his scrambled eggs with his fork.

"What's an area code?" Ronon asked.

Rodney waved a hand in dismissal. "Nevermind." At that, Ronon raised an eyebrow and merely snatched a muffin off Rodney's tray, which puzzled Rodney. "Wait, you're not going to ask me what a hoe is?"

He could never remember how much or how little Ronon knew about Earth culture. Sheppard was always making Ronon watch horrible movies like Blades of Glory and Hair Spray, instead of the good, quality films Rodney suggested, like 2001, A Space Odyssey or Fred Claus. It was, perhaps, unfair to say Sheppard had bad taste, because Rodney knew he loved science fiction and fantasy and had burned himself DVDs of the entire Star Trek franchise, and he never seemed to mind when Rodney insisted on picking the movie, unlike Ronon and Teyla, both of whom predictably loved movies with lots of explosions. Teyla had gotten someone -- probably Bates, and probably through sheer terror -- to send her all three Terminator movies, which Rodney knew she watched at least once a week on her laptop. Sheppard had promised to take her to Earth to see Terminator Salvation on its opening night; she preferred Edward Furlong's John Connor, but she was excited about Christian Bale.

Ronon grinned. There were bits of egg stuck in his beard. "I know what a hoe is. But if Teyla asks, I don't."

Rodney snorted. "What am I, stupid? I would never say 'hoe' in front of Teyla. She'd rip off my--"

"What was that, Rodney?" a voice asked over his shoulder.

Teyla and Kanaan (with little Torren in a pink, Athosian-made wrap thing on Kanaan's back) were standing right behind him, Teyla with one brow arched severely. Perfect, he thought.

"I was, er, that is--"

"He was telling me he thinks John's acting weird," Ronon interjected, giving Rodney a smirk.

With a slight smile, Teyla took the seat beside Rodney. Kanaan, meanwhile, sat beside Ronon, transferring the wrap from his back to his chest; Torren stared right at Rodney and started blowing spit bubbles. It was both revolting and fascinating.

"What has John been doing?" Teyla asked, as she picked up her spoon to stir her tea.

Rodney tore his eyes away from Torren's drooling and immediately felt his face grow hot. For some reason, explaining it to Teyla was much more embarrassing than admitting it to Ronon. He cleared his throat. "He keeps... looking at me, and glaring."

"Perhaps you did something to hurt his feelings," Kanaan suggested, buttering his toast.

"That would require Sheppard to have feelings first," Rodney said. Both Ronon and Teyla glowered at him. "And anyway, what could I have done to hurt his feelings? Okay, yes, the other day I may have told him he had the physical appearance and common sense of a Muppet, but that's just how we talk to each other."

"Maybe it's because you didn't want to share a sleeping bag with him on PX2-587," Ronon said. He snatched a slice of cantaloupe off of Teyla's tray, and she lightly smacked his hand. Torren clapped his own hands and squealed loudly. He was obviously pre-disposed to violence.

Rodney thought about that night on PX2-58. Sure, he had recoiled and yelped, 'Why? Why can't I sleep with Teyla?' but he didn't think Sheppard had been that offended. He certainly hadn't been offended enough not to practically sprawl all over Rodney that night. The man was surprisingly grabby in his sleep.

"That can't be it," Rodney decided.

"Well, have you done anything differently today?" Teyla asked. She unscrewed the lid off of a bottle of green baby food and handed it to Kanaan. "Is it possible you inadvertently did something?"

"Just the-- Oh. The only thing I did differently today was, ah, spend the night with Jennifer," he boasted, even though he was both proud and horrified by his actions. He puffed out his chest and tried to look like a stud. "I don't know what that has to do with Sheppard though."

Teyla's raised eyebrows were the only sign of her surprise. Kanaan, on the other hand, nodded sagely. "So I was right, you hurt his feelings," he said confidentially

Rodney blinked, all the pomp rushing out of him. "What?"

"Kanaan," Teyla said sharply.

"But you said--"

"I know what I said. Please be quiet."

"Wait, you know what's going on?" Rodney asked her.

She stood. "I am going to get some juice," she announced, throwing Kanaan a glare.

With a sheepish look, Kanaan climbed to his feet. Torren made a happy sound and grabbed at Kanaan's nose. "I will go with you, dear," Kanaan said, gingerly holding one of Torren's little fists away from his face.

Rodney watched the two of them stalk off to have a heated conversation by the snack table. He wondered what they were talking about, especially when it became obvious even from there that Kanaan was apologizing for something.

"Do you think they're always like that?" he asked Ronon.

"I bet the sex is hot," Ronon said wistfully.

"Mmm," Rodney agreed.

He glanced over at Sheppard again. As if feeling his eyes on him, Sheppard looked up and pointedly turned his attention to Woolsey. What was his problem?

*

Several country music albums about broken hearts and pick-up trucks later, John got a call from Ronon over the radio. He had been lying on his bed and trying to read another chapter of a fantasy book he had borrowed from Sergeant Campbell, but it wasn't working; somehow elves and warrior princesses just weren't cutting it today. He was contemplating whether or not he was up to getting his ass handed to him by Teyla when there was a burst of static in his ear, followed by, "Sheppard, come to my room."

"No, Ronon, I'm not doing anything, and I'd love to come over," John said sarcastically.

There was a long pause. "Uh, okay. You're coming, right?"

Sighing, John sat up and tossed the book onto his nightstand. "Yeah, I'll be right there."

When he got to Ronon's, the man was tearing open a huge box on which was a picture of a tall bookcase. The word 'Ikea,' in bright yellow print, was written on the side. His room was a lot messier than usual, and that was saying something; his bed sheets were thrown to the floor, his laundry basket was tipped over, and his favourite painting, the one with the Satedan warriors in the red sunset, was propped up against the foot of his bed.

"What's going on?" John asked, as he sat down beside Ronon and crossed his legs Indian-style.

"Teyla says I need to baby-proof my room before Torren learns to walk," Ronon grunted. He tossed the instruction booklet for the bookcase into John's lap. "Last week he picked up my Wraith bone necklace and put it in his mouth.""

John flipped the pages until he got to the English instructions. "Nasty," he agreed.

"Thought Kanaan was going to have a heart attack."

Ronon flipped the box upside-down, and about one hundred pieces in various sizes rolled out of it and onto the floor. He scowled at the mess. "There weren't this many parts in the store," he said accusingly.

John had a sudden mental image of Ronon in Ikea, with his leather pants and his dreads. He bet the yuppies loved that. "So the last time you went to Earth, that was to go shopping?" he asked. "You said you had another review before the IOA! Is this because Teyla's still mad I bought the last set of drapes at Pottery Barn?"

"See, this is why I didn't want you to come with me," said Ronon.

Irritated, John recalled he had spent that week pretty worried Ronon was in trouble for something. First he found out Rodney was having sex with Keller, something which John knew he had never done with Katie Brown, and now Ronon had lied to him. His friends sucked. All he needed now was for the Wraith to attack, and today would be the perfect day.

"Hand over the long screws," he said pissily, holding out his hand.

Ronon studied him for a moment. "McKay was right."

"McKay was right about what?" John demanded.

"You talk to him today?"

John decided now was the perfect time to thoroughly study the instructions. "No, why?" he asked the booklet.

"He said you were being a freak."

"Did he," John said flatly.

If John was acting like a freak, it was only because everyone in Atlantis was talking about Rodney and Keller and their perfect love. First, there had been Coleman and Wu in the transporter; then he had walked in on Campbell and Banks gossiping about it in the control room. Banks had been gushing about how 'cute' they were. The last straw had been when he had bumped into Lorne, and Lorne had asked, "Sir, can you believe--?" He had taken one look at John's expression and finished, "That... we're out of number two pencils?"

And just as John had been thinking his only real friend was Woolsey, because Woolsey didn't care about crap like who was sleeping with whom, Woolsey had told him at the end of breakfast, "I heard a very interesting piece of gossip today, Colonel."

There was never an emergency when John really needed one. At this point, he would do almost anything to get people to focus on their goddamn jobs and not Atlantis' newest prom king and queen. So they had slept together, so what? It wasn't like they were getting married.

John's stomach knotted at the thought. He lowered the booklet to his lap. Rodney the Hologram had told John he and Keller and gotten married within a few months of dating. "Crap," John said.

He realized Ronon was looking at him funny. "What?" Ronon asked.

"Nothing." Ronon eyed him like he didn't believe him, and John grimaced. "It's... complicated."

"Whatever," Ronon said. He jumped up and began rifling through a toolbox John hadn't noticed was there, and John remembered, suddenly, that Ronon was pretty open about his thing for Keller. Maybe that was why he had decided today was the day to make his quarters safer for Torren; maybe he needed the distraction just as much as John did.

"How are you doing?" John asked neutrally.

With a hammer in hand, Ronon plopped back down beside him. He began sorting through the pile of tiny plastic pieces. "I should've bought the Hensvik model," he replied, sounding annoyed.

"No, I mean with... you know. McKay and Keller."

Ronon snorted. "Doesn't matter. She's having dinner with me tomorrow. I'm making tacos."

John's eyebrows shot up. "Really persistent there, buddy."

"I got a lot of free time," Ronon said with a shrug. "Besides, I like her, and she likes me. That hasn't changed just 'causes she's with McKay."

"That's the spirit," John replied, but, privately, he wondered if Ronon's chances with Keller were as good as he seemed to think they were. He wished he had Ronon's confidence that things would work out in his favour. In his experience, these things usually didn't. Or worse: he got the guy or girl, and then he did something to screw it up.

They managed to put the bookcase together in less than an hour, with minimal shouting on Ronon's part. When John was helping Ronon put his room back in order, he noticed something funny about the painting.

"The guy here kind of looks like you," he said, gesturing to the guy in the middle.

"My grandfather," Ronon said proudly. He finished hanging the painting on the wall and took a step back.

John frowned. "The one who had the Second Childhood?"

"Yeah," Ronon replied. "He was the Minister of Defense until he got sick. Always wanted me to follow in his footsteps."

"In the...?" John tried to think of what the Satedan government was called, but he couldn't remember what, if anything, Ronon had told him about it. "What kind of government did Sateda have, anyway?"

"We had a king, but we had the politburo too."

John nodded. "Cool," he said. Just like Star Wars.

Ronon crossed his arms over his chest and smiled at the painting, lost in thought. John thought that was his cue to leave.

It was time to face the music and go find Rodney, before Rodney started to think John was seriously pissed at him. If Rodney had noticed John was acting weird, he must've been pretty obvious about it. Lucky for him, Woolsey was probably too excited about being included in the gossip mill too notice anything was up with John, especially since John had used him earlier to keep Rodney away. As much as John wished Carter or Elizabeth were still in charge of the expedition, he had never had an easier time avoiding Rodney as he had today. In the past, Elizabeth had always noticed when something was wrong right away, and she had 'encouraged' them to work through whatever problems they were having, while Carter, who wasn't a big fan of feelings herself, had either made fun of them or had acted like they were being melodramatic until they had been forced to deal with it. Woolsey, on the other hand, probably wouldn't realize something was wrong until it directly affected their work. But there was no way John was going to let this get that far. He shouldn't have even let it get to him in the first place.

John found Rodney in the most obvious place, his lab. He was bent over his bench, trying to hook some kind of Wraith tool to his laptop. He was muttering to himself under his breath.

"How's it going?" John said, leaning his hips against the doorway.

Rodney looked up and threw an exaggerated glance around the lab. "Oh, are you talking to me?" he asked sarcastically.

John shuffled his feet. There was no good way to tell one of your best friends you were mad at him because he was having sex with his girlfriend. That would lead to a conversation John really wasn't up for today.

"I've had a lot of work," said John.

"Uh-huh." Crossing his arms over his chest, Rodney asked, "What was that little show in the mess this morning? Do we have a problem I need to know about?"

"No, no problem," John replied. "Today's just not a good day."

Rodney studied him for a long moment, and John gave him his most innocent expression. It must have worked, because Rodney cheerfully said, "Okay."

John was lying. He did have a problem. A pretty big one, in fact. His problem was that he had thought he and Rodney had been going somewhere, after Rodney and Katie Brown had broken up. Rodney had showed up at John's door that evening looking miserable, and they'd gotten drunk off an ancient bottle of rum John had brought back from Earth in their second year. After telling John all about how he hadn't really been that into Katie, Rodney had slurred, "I wish I could marry you," and had closed his eyes as John had leaned in to kiss him -- and then Rodney had upchucked all over John's feet. But the next day, Rodney had acted like it had never happened. (The marriage and the kissing thing. He seemed to remember puking pretty clearly.)

At first, John had told himself they had all the time in the world. John could make his move (again) any time he wanted. It was just better for everyone if he waited. He had team dynamics to think about. Things were kind of messed up already, with Ronon moping over first Tyre dying and then his crush on Keller, and Teyla starting a family. Except then Rodney had started seeing Keller himself, who even John knew was a much better match for him than Katie. Hell, John liked Keller. Since then, John had told himself he didn't care what Rodney did -- up until today. For the first time in his life, he was having a hard time living in denial.

"Aha!" Rodney said suddenly, breaking into his thoughts.

Several lines of Wraith scrawled across the screen of the computer at Rodney's elbow. From this angle, John could see more than half the screen, and something about what he was reading seemed familiar.

"Hey, I can read that," he said in astonishment. He had long ago memorized the important words -- shield, weapon, ship, dinner -- but this was the first time he had looked at an unfamiliar line of Wraith and was able to read it right away. It kind of freaked him out.

Rodney glanced up and glared at him. "We can all read this, Colonel."

"But it's Ancient, isn't it?" John asked. "Why do the Wraith write in Ancient?"

"It's not, actually; their languages are just very similar. For some odd reason." He paused. "I think Elizabeth was trying to figure out why, but she never finished her research, because of, um, you know."

John winced. "Yeah." He tugged at the high collar of his zippered sweater so he could scratch his neck. "You want to go play video games? I got the new Prince of Persia."

Rodney didn't even look up. "Can't," he said dismissively. "I'm meeting Jennifer once I finish this. She said she had some sort of surprise for me."

"I'll bet she does," John said bitterly.

Rodney raised his head. "What was that?"

"I said, 'Have fun,'" John lied, patting him on the shoulder.

He started to leave, but Rodney twisted around to look at him. "Hey, wait a minute, Colonel," he started to say, but something popped off the device, bounced off Rodney's laptop, ricocheted off the wall, and shot through the door.

Rodney and John stared at each other for a long moment. An irritated expression slowly crept over Rodney's face.

"Fine, I'll get it," John grumbled, setting out for the corridor.

It was still bouncing off the walls and down the corridor, making a loud pinging noise as it hit Atlantis' hard walls, before disappearing around the corner. John hurried after it. If it hadn't been part of something Wraith, he would have let it slide. But knowing this galaxy, the device would turn out to be a Wraith Destructor Ray and this little rubber ball would be the key component. He made it to the next corridor just in time to see it shoot down a flight of stairs.

Groaning under his breath, John followed it down and down and down, until, finally, at least fifteen floors below Rodney's lab, it hit the railing and bounced into a hallway. When he got there, the ball had rolled to a stop right in front of one of the doors. John was crouching to pick it up when he had a funny feeling. He looked up.

Staring down at him from the door was a two-headed face.

*

When Sheppard hurried back into Rodney's lab, nearly twenty minutes after he'd left to find the missing piece of the Wraith device Rodney was trying to study, and announced, "You have to see this," Rodney was half-convinced he had found another computer game for them to play. So he was somewhat disappointed when Sheppard added, "Bring the blender." It took Rodney a good thirty seconds to realize Sheppard was talking about the Ancient device they had found several months ago, the one Rodney had shelved away among other broken Ancient tech in the room he had labeled 'Probably Useless'. Unless they were playing was Suzy Homemaker, the chances of Sheppard having found another Ancient game were slim.

With his tablet tucked under one arm, he lugged the Ancient apparatus down several flights of stairs before he managed to catch up to Sheppard long enough to ask, "Are you going to tell me what this is about?" He didn't understand why they couldn't use the transporter like normal people.

"Nope," Sheppard said. He waited on the next landing for Rodney to catch up to him. He was practically buzzing. "It's a surprise."

Sheppard had the kind of enthusiasm that could only come from discovering something really cool. It was infectious, and Rodney could feel himself beginning to grow excited. There was nothing Rodney found more exhilarating than experimenting with new technology, especially if it was something no one else had seen in hundreds of thousands of years. It was better than a perfectly-grilled fillet mignon. It was better than sex.

"Speaking of surprises," Rodney said, suddenly reminded of what he had wanted to tell Sheppard earlier, before Sheppard had taken to glaring at him from across the room. "No, wait, that came out wrong. Speaking of... oh, forget it. I just wanted to tell you: Jennifer and I finally did it."

Sheppard's face creased. "Did what?"

"Did it. It."

Remembering last night made his chest tight with confusion and embarrassment, but he tried to push that away in favour of vanity. Why shouldn't he take pride in sleeping with his beautiful girlfriend? Okay, sure, the sex wasn't that great, and she had sounded funny when she'd called him over the radio to ask him meet her for a late dinner, but how often did he get to brag to Sheppard about his sex life? Never, that was how often.

Sheppard grimaced and pushed past him again. "I don't need to know that," he called over his shoulder, the sound of his boots hitting the metal stairs ricocheting off the walls.

"Oh, I see, so you talk about this stuff with Ronon but not me," Rodney sniffed, hurt. He started taking the steps two at a time so he could match Sheppard's pace.

"Talking to Ronon is less embarrassing than talking to you," Sheppard said, not looking at him, "and anyway, he's, you know."

"Judgmental and immature?" Rodney finished, rolling his eyes. "Tell me, do you two talk about your feelings before or after he beats the crap out of you?"

Sheppard's lips thinned, but he didn't say anything, clearly focused on heading towards their destination. Rodney's stomach twisted unhappily. Really, it wasn't his fault Sheppard was a prude. It was perfectly normal for him to want to talk about his sex life with his best friend.

Rodney readjusted his grip on the Ancient coffee maker. "Wait, I wanted to tell you something."

Sheppard turned to him and gave him a long, hard look, and his urge to tell Sheppard about how weird and uncomfortable this morning was evaporated.

"Nevermind, it can wait," he said.

Finally, Sheppard paused on the top step of one of the floors. Just in time, too: Rodney's arms were starting to ache. He hoped that whatever this was, it was worth the trouble.

"Woolsey, this is Sheppard," Sheppard said into his radio. "McKay and I are--" He glanced up at the ceiling and wrinkled his brow. "--conducting an experiment. I'll contact you in half an hour. If we fall out of radio contact, send a team to the eighth floor of the central spire."

"Understood, Colonel. Good luck."

"Come on," he said to Rodney. "It's not much further."

Ten agonizing minutes later, he had led them both out of the stairwell and into one of the corridors. While there was a good chance Rodney had been down here before, nothing about it seemed familiar; it was a generic, blue hallway that could have been any floor of this building. It was dark and silent, which was typical of floors that were not in use.

"Here it is."

'It' turned out to be the two-headed symbol stenciled on one of the doors, each head on either side of the divided line. The image was a larger version of the one on the device they had found a few weeks ago, and it was faded and worn. Up close, it no longer looked like an eagle; it was more like a human head with two faces. The beak was actually a very large hook nose.

Immediately, Rodney forgot what the hell he and Sheppard were fighting about. He cradled the coffee maker in the crook of one elbow, held up his tablet, and began checking for energy signatures.

"I saw it when we were trying to sneak into the city through the underwater docking bay," Sheppard explained. "I didn't remember until the ball stopped in front of it."

"So in other words, you saw it when we were being led to the brig," Rodney translated flatly, frowning at the disappointingly low traces of energy coming from the room.

Sheppard said, "You say 'potato'..."

Now that Sheppard mentioned it, there was something about this area that looked familiar. Although at the time, Rodney had been more concerned about whether or not his plan would work before the Replicators killed them. These corridors looked different when he wasn't panicking -- less terrifying beyond belief. Now they merely looked dark and abandoned.

The doors effortlessly opened after Sheppard waved his hand over the controls. "Hello, hello," Rodney said, looking up as the overhead lights brightened.

He tapped his radio. "Zelenka, are you in the control room?"

"Yes, Rodney," Zelenka replied. He sounded bored.

"Good. Do a scan of the lower floors of the central tower and tell me if you see any energy signatures."

Inside, the first thing Rodney noticed was a large, waist-high machine that resembled a DHD without the keys for dialing. It was mounted onto the floor in the centre of the room. It looked like something had been cut out of the centre of it; something geometric and long, leaving behind a flat surface. Once Rodney could tear his eyes from the Ancient tech -- tech that was different than anything they'd found before, and even though the last time he'd been the first to find something he'd almost died horribly, he still felt that jolt of excitement -- he saw on one side of the room was a console with a broken screen, and on the other, more disturbingly, was an enormous, two-headed statue made out of what appeared to be stone. Each face was looking away from the body; one was bearded, the other smooth. Its normally white exterior had blackened with age. Neither Sheppard nor Rodney were particularly short, but the statue towered over them, staring down with blank, black eyes.

In one of the statue's hands was a shepherd's hook. The left hand, meanwhile, was extended away from its body, palm up; it was holding dozens of clear crystal marbles. It was an odd, and extremely creepy, sight. Rodney hadn't even known the Ancients had been into art.

"Have we found any other statues in the city?" Rodney asked. He set the coffee maker down at his feet.

"No," Sheppard said. He sounded creeped out.

He moved towards it, and Rodney said, "Don't get too close, are you stupid?"

"I wasn't," Sheppard said prickily. "I was just looking."

Slowly, cautiously, Rodney placed his hands on the machine. When nothing lit up or exploded in his face, he released the breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. Much to his relief, nothing had come down from the ceiling and electrocuted him, either; he could only deal with almost Ascending once in this lifetime, thanks.

He tapped his radio. "Zelenka, are you detecting any power surges?"

"No, Rodney. If you are attempting to activate something, it is not working."

"Hmm," Rodney said, studying the dais. Sheppard circled it with a suspicious, contemplative expression on his face.

The shape of the missing piece was familiar, and, with a flash of insight, Rodney knew what it was. "I know what it is!" he announced.

The coffee maker easily slotted into the machine. It was a perfect fit. Rodney twisted it a little, just to make sure, but it had locked in place. The little blue lights on the side of the machine started flickering. Rodney's heart sped up. This was the best part of his work: that moment when everything was coming together.

"Aha!" he cried.

"Is it a missing piece?" Sheppard asked, peering over Rodney's shoulder.

"I think it might be some sort of key. Wait for it," Rodney warned, pushing Sheppard back with one hand. The blue lights noticeably brightened. "Wait for it..."

They waited. Nothing happened.

"Huh," Rodney said.

"Were you expecting something to happen?" Sheppard asked. He moved so he was standing opposite Rodney, the machine between them.

Rodney picked up his tablet from where he had set it on the floor. The device was giving off strange energy readings, but they were minute. He doubted even Atlantis's main scanners would be able to analyze them.

"Maybe the batteries are dead," Sheppard mused out loud.

He rested his palm on the top of the machine. Unexpectedly, the top panel pressed inward, like an 'on' button, and Rodney's tablet began beeping. Rodney glanced down; the energy signature had abruptly spiked.

"Wait!" Rodney shouted, reaching out to grab Sheppard's wrist.

The shocked look on Sheppard's face was the last thing Rodney saw before they were engulfed in a bright, white light.

*

Chapter Two

First, the room turned upside down and began spinning. Next came a bright flash, and then the floor beneath John's feet collapsed, pulling him into darkness. It was different from being sucked through a wormhole; that was instantaneous, but now John felt himself tumbling through open air over and over and over, just free falling, like he was never going to hit the ground.

He tried to open his mouth to call Rodney, or gasp for air, or maybe even scream--

And the world snapped back into place.

"What--" he managed, raising both his arms to keep his balance. His stomach gave a nauseating roll. "What was that?"

Rodney's face was pale. He looked as bad as John felt. "I don't know. Where are we?" he asked, gulping.

They were still in Atlantis, but not the room they had been in before. This narrow, windowless room was some kind of laboratory. Rows of long tables covered in phials and beakers took up the room; large screens were hanging from the ceiling, each one showing an image of DNA or cells or all that other stuff John had never paid much attention to in school. What grabbed John's immediate attention, however, were the two tanks of live, black insects that were sitting on shelves mounted on the walls. The tanks were enormous, easily big enough to hold a person, and each one had between six and a dozen bugs of various sizes. John's blood went cold at the sight of them.

"Iratus bugs," he said thickly.

He heard Rodney's breath catch. Suddenly furious at the idea of someone on his base raising these insects, John marched his way to the door and palmed the crystals. But he didn't make it past the doorway, because as soon as he caught sight of the people in the corridor -- the handful of unfamiliar people wearing very familiar blue and cream uniforms or flowing robes -- he froze. He was still staring when Rodney slammed right into his back.

"Ow!" Rodney shouted, voice muffled, like he was holding a hand over his nose. "What the hell are you--? Oh. Oh. This is very, very bad."

"Yeah," John agreed, drawing the word out.

'Bad' was kind of an understatement, because the people passing through the corridor were Ancients. Living, breathing Ancients.

John couldn't seem to make his feet move. He just stood there in the doorway, gaping at the Ancients who walked by, with Rodney cursing up a storm behind his back. One or two of the passerbys noticed him, and they looked at him like he was nuts, but no one stopped to demand who he was or what he was doing standing in the doorway like an idiot.

John grabbed his own arm and pinched as hard as he could. "Ow," he said, staring down in surprise. Part of him had actually expected to wake up.

If he wasn't asleep, then it meant there really were Ancients in Atlantis. Ancients which John was sure were not there twenty minutes ago. Either the city had been invaded while he and Rodney had been exploring and no one bothered to alert them, which he doubted, or...

Or that machine had sent them to an Atlantis occupied by Ancients.

When Rodney was finished with whatever it was he was ranting about, he hooked a hand in the back of John's sweater and, muttering, "For God's sake," under his breath, yanked John back into the lab. The door whispered shut. Staring into Rodney's panicked face, John felt the gears in his head begin working again. Right now, they couldn't afford to let Rodney completely freak out, which meant John had to keep him focused.

"Okay, so we're either in a parallel reality, like that time with the Daedalus, or--"

"Or we've traveled hundreds of thousands years in the past," Rodney finished, voice rising until it reached almost a squeak. He was looking down at his tablet in horror. "Since we only have one ZPM, our Atlantis is only working at one-forth the power it should be. But this Atlantis? Has four ZPMs. There are systems online I've never seen before. And on top of that, there are literally thousands of life signs in the city. Unless we've gone to a parallel reality in which the Ancients never left Atlantis, and just happen to be experimenting on iratus bugs, we've--"

"Traveled hundreds of thousand years into the past," John agreed.

The expression on Rodney's face was a mix of terror and excitement. Rodney, John knew, was itching to find out just how and why this had happened, probably more than he was scared. That was one of the things John liked about him the most (other than his sense of humour, his courage, and the way his arms looked in t-shirts): he wasn't satisfied until he knew everything about everything. And also, he appreciated a bad ass piece of technology.

Seeing that little bit of excitement in Rodney kept John from freaking out himself. They could handle this. It wasn't like he hadn't time traveled before. They weren't being attacked or in any danger of dying, which made it different from the other times he had time traveled and reality-hopped. They weren't in a sandstorm, or about to be blown up by a race John had never met before.

Setting his hands on his hips, John said, "Look, we can get through this. It's no big deal."

"No big deal?" Rodney seethed. He threw his arms in the air. "We're stuck here with iratus bugs and a malfunctioning-- what is this? A time machine?" He looked around. "Where did it go, anyway?"

Rodney was right: the time machine, or whatever it was, was not in the room with them. John's heart sank.

"Typical," Rodney said, scowling at the iratus bugs like it was their fault.

That drew John's attention back to the other problem they were having. "What are they doing with all these iratus bugs?" he asked. He stared at the tank, watching one enormous bug crawl over another. A shiver went down his spine.

Rodney frowned. He seemed completely thrown. "Well, there are records of the Ancients experimenting on them, but I don't think Carson could ever figure out exactly what they were doing."

"So let me get this straight," John said. "The Ancients experimented on iratus bugs. Wraith come from merging human DNA and iratus bug DNA. And Wraiths and Ancients share a common language."

"Yes, but it would have taken centuries for the iratus bug DNA to change. Natural selection takes generations." At John's look, Rodney's mouth dropped open. "You don't think the Ancients were--?"

"I think the Ancients made the Wraith," John said. "Right here, in this lab."

Rodney looked bewildered. "Why would they do that? It's insane."

"Rodney," John said, frustrated, "these are the people who invented the Ascension machine and the Asurans and -- don't forget -- made all those stupid rules about what an Ascended being can and can't do. Or what about when they wiped out all life in the Milky Way Galaxy so they could start over from scratch? The Ancients were pretty messed up. This is right up their alley. Besides, they probably didn't know what they were getting into."

Rodney glanced back at the insects. "You're probably right," he said, straightening his shoulders. He started keying through files on his tablet. "I'll make a copy of their research, maybe we can--"

"We need to stop them," John said vehemently.

Rodney blinked at him. "We need to what? You're not serious. Oh my God, you are. Wait, wait, that would change the timeline," he insisted frantically, grabbing John's arm with the hand not holding his tablet.

John tried to shake him off, but Rodney wasn't letting go. "That's kind of the point, Rodney," he growled.

The hand around John's arm tightened. "But you don't know-- how do you know this will make it better? What if some new, even worse bad guy takes the place of the Wraith, and we end up having to fight them instead? What if we create a whole series of universes where I've never been born? I shudder to think of a universe without Rodney McKay."

"Look, we have an opportunity no one in the galaxy has ever had -- to keep the Wraith from even being created. Think about it. We could stop the Wraith from culling Ronon's and Teyla's people. We could stop them from creating the Asurans. We can save the lives of millions of people, and all we need to do is kill a couple of bugs!"

"Okay. Okay!" Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose. "Just give me a minute to get used to the idea."

While he was doing that, John pushed a chair over to the tank and climbed up. He was ready to open it up and shoot the damn things until a thought occurred to him.

"Hey, McKay, our timeline won't change completely, will it? We're not going to suddenly fade away like in Back to the Future, right?"

Rodney's mouth opened and closed a few times. "I-- yes. Yes, it should be fine."

"Are you sure?" John demanded.

"Oh, yes, I jump back in time and change things all the time," Rodney snapped. He ran a hand over his sweaty forehead. "I don't know! I can't say for certain. SG-1 once found a video in Egypt that said in an alternate timeline, they had gone back to leave a ZPM to be found by the future, but they had taken every precaution to make sure their being in the past didn't affect anything. If we change something this far back in our own timeline, we have no idea what the outcome will be."

John licked his lips nervously. "But won't we need to have a reason to go back in time to stop the Ancients from creating the Wraith?"

Rodney looked relieved. "Yes, you're right."

Hopping back up on the chair, John stared to lift the top of the tank.

"I think," Rodney added.

"McKay!" John said, glaring down at him.

The bugs shrieked and tried to dart away when John began shooting at them. Much to his disgust, their yellow, goopy insides splattered all over the walls of the tank. To John's left, Rodney was standing on a chair and firing into the other tank, looking like he was going to puke at any second. John had done a lot of disgusting things in his career, including peeing on an open wound and having sand in every orifice of his body, but this was one of the worst. He really hated bugs.

When it was over, Rodney just stood there, staring at the now-yellow tank. "Rodney," John asked uncomfortably, "you okay, buddy?"

"Just thinking about the destruction of our timeline and the possible extermination of almost everyone I care about," Rodney replied morosely. He shook his head, as if trying to clear it. "Of course, we're also destroying a lot of people I hate, so I'm torn. Okay, now we need to find the time machine again. As long as it, too, hasn't changed rooms, we should have no problems finding it."

As they were leaving, an Ancient burst through the door. "What were those loud sounds coming from here?" he asked them, forehead creased with worry.

John and Rodney exchanged glances and got the hell out of there. "Oh dear lord!" they heard the man shout as they hurried down the corridor, pushing past startled-looking Ancients.

It was easy to find the room. It was in the same place it had been in the future, but there were more things in there now: a lab bench covered in spare parts, a chair, a set of tools. The statue was still there, looking just as creepy as it had earlier. Rodney was strangely quiet, but John knew they had done the right thing. Now all they had to do was go back to the future and make sure everything was okay. He didn't really have a plan after that, but he was sure something would come to him. They would be okay. He had to believe that; they would be fine. They had done this for Ronon and Teyla and the people of this galaxy, the Satedans and the Athosians and the Travelers and even the Genii; it didn't matter what happened to him, as long as everyone else was safe.

Rodney placed his hand over the time machine. He glanced at John. "Ready to see what new horrors we've brought to this galaxy?" he asked darkly.

John squinted at him. "McKay, I can't believe you're already bringing pessimism to our brave new world."

With a dirty look, Rodney pressed the button.

A flash of bright light blinded him, and he once more felt the sensation of falling. This time, though, when the universe righted itself, he and Rodney weren't a lab. But they weren't in the time machine room, either. In fact, the room they were in was empty except for a single console covered in layers of dust and cobwebs. Dim light shone from the backup lights along the floor.

"Oh, great," Rodney said, obviously having a difficult time regaining his balance, "I hope we're not in a part of the city that's underwater. drowning wasn't really in my schedule today."

"At least there aren't any bugs this time," John murmured. But then he discreetly checked around for spiders, just in case.

While Rodney clutched the dusty wall for support, John waved his hand over the door crystals. It opened easily enough, and he wasn't met with a rush of water, which he thought was a good sign. The floor, however, was a little wet. And the empty, darkened corridor smelled a lot like fish.

He heard a low moaning sound coming from down the hall. Switching the safety of his sidearm, he called quietly, "McKay."

Fumbling, Rodney tucked his tablet under his arm and pulled the life signs detector out of the pocket of his jacket. "There are several life signs up ahead," he said grimly.

What ever they were, they probably weren't Ancient. John took a few steps forward, and then he gestured for Rodney to follow him. Together, they walked as quietly as they could through the wet corridor. The puddles under John's feet splashed with every step. Soon enough, he was able to tell that the moaning was coming from one specific room; the door was shut, but even through the heavy material, John could hear sounds inside.

"I think I know where we are," Rodney whispered loudly. His breath puffed against the back of John's neck. "We're on the same floor as the time machine."

John nodded mutely. He held up his fingers so Rodney could see and began counting down. At the count of three, he waved his hand over the door crystal.

The room was full of creatures John had never seen before, in either galaxy. They were broad and tall, taller than Ronon, with rough, grey skin and round heads that sat atop thicks torso with no necks. They were wearing orange jumpsuits. They were--

"Holy crap," John said, "they're whales."

"They can't be whales," said Rodney.

At that, all the whales in the room swiveled their big, black eyes to stare directly at them. They were utterly and creepily silent. One of them hobbled forward on its fin-like feet, stopping several feet away from where John and Rodney were standing. Rodney took a step back, swallowing audibly, but John refused to be afraid of a bunch of sea mammals.

John raised a hand in greeting. "Hey. I'm John, and this is Rodney."

They stared at him silently.

"We come in peace," he added. When that got no response, he said, "Uh, live long and prosper?"

"They probably don't understand English," Rodney hissed at him. "Great, just great, we get sent back in time, and now Atlantis is full of these--" He stopped suddenly, looking at the closest whale with a bewildered expression. "Sam?"

The whale pointed its hand fin at McKay. "Kill the fat one!" it screeched.

"Of course," Rodney said flatly.

The rest of the whales made a high-pitched shrieking noise. Things were about to go really bad really fast, John realized. He darted from the room as fast as he could, shoving Rodney along. The whales followed, shouting things like "Land-dwelling monsters!" and "Fresh meat!"

For creatures without feet, they were surprisingly fast; they didn't stop until John fired a warning shot above their heads. While they were hesitating, John turned the corner, Rodney at his heels. At the next junction, he started to turn left, toward the transporters, but Rodney grabbed his arm and yelled, "No, no, go right! The time machine room's this way!"

When they got to the room -- which, thankfully, still had the time machine -- John shut the door and pulled out the control crystals. He knew the whales weren't that far behind them.

Rodney wiped a hand over his brow. "Jesus Christ, what the hell was that?"

"Killer whales," John said with a smirk.

"Oh, ha ha. Good one, Colonel." He grimaced. "Why didn't you shoot them?"

John stared at him. "They're an endangered species, Rodney," he said.

"They were going to kill me!" Rodney insisted. John raised an eyebrow at him. "And... probably you too."

"I have to say, I didn't expect Atlantis to be overrun by whales," John said, scratching his head.

"What did you expect?"

John shrugged. "I don't know. Happy things, I guess."

"Like sunshine and rainbows?" Rodney asked sarcastically. He crossed his arms over his chest and sneered at John. "Everyone holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya'?"

"No," John retorted, feeling embarrassed and disappointed. That wasn't exactly what he had been thinking, but he had expected things to be better than when he had left. That was why he had wanted to change the past to begin with. He wasn't doing this because it was fun. (Well, it was a little fun, he amended; it made him feel like a Time Agent.)

As if sensing John's conflicting emotions, Rodney ran out of steam. His shoulders sagged a little. "Well, what now, Colonel?"

"We need to fix this. Activate the time machine."

He had always wanted to say that. Rodney looked disgusted. "'Activate the'--? Well, I'm glad to see you're having fun with this. What is wrong with you?"

Something heavy pounded on the door.

"Activating the time machine," Rodney said hastily, and he placed his hand on the device.

They landed in some kind of Ancient cafe. Other than the clothes and the obviously alien food, they could have been on Earth, from the way the room was designed. It looked almost like this burrito place John used to eat at when he went to Stanford, with its bright, colourful decorations and its robust smells, right down to the cheesy acoustic music.

It didn't take John long to notice everyone was staring at them, which was probably because they had appeared out of nowhere in the middle of a crowded restaurant. He had to admit it was a little weird, even for Atlantis. Some of the patrons had half-risen out of their seats, while others were gaping, open-mouthed. One of the waitresses was holding a bottle of some kind of fizzy drink that was foaming over onto her hands, but she wasn't moving to stop it.

Rodney was fighting with a waiter whose path he had walked into; the man was juggling four plates and was on the verge of tipping over. Yanking a plate of fish out of the waiter's hand, Rodney shouted, "For God's sake, give me that!" He looked down at what he was holding. "What do you know, this looks really good."

He grabbed the waiter's shirt collar. "Give me the recipe!"

"McKay," John murmured out of the corner of his mouth.

"Fantastic," Rodney groaned as he realized they were being gawked at. He let go of the waiter, and the man stumbled backwards. To the stunned Ancients, Rodney explained loudly, in his best Chief of Science voice, "We're experimenting with... teleportation. No need for alarm. We miscalculated the, uh, trajectory of our..." He seemed to struggle with the word. "Our teleporting."

To John, it sounded like an obvious bluff, but the people seemed to buy it. They turned back to their meals, and a minute later, it was like it had never happened. Conversation resumed, waiters were ducking around them with full platters, and the man whose table John was standing next to actually gave him a glare, like John was ruining his evening. John rolled his eyes.

"I was serious about that recipe," Rodney threatened no one in particular.

Despite Rodney's instance that they could take a break to get a bite to eat, they managed to make it to the laboratory without an incident. If anyone they walked past noticed neither he nor Rodney were wearing typical Ancient clothes, they didn't say anything. John wondered if this meant the Ancients liked to mind their own business, or if they were just used to weird things happening around them. From the reaction of the people at the restaurant, he was guessing it was the latter.

"The iratus bugs are still alive," said John, when he realized nothing in the lab had changed. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed. He really hated those things.

"Oh, thank God," Rodney exclaimed in a rush.

"Does that mean we're about to run into ourselves? That could be awkward."

"There's only one thing we can do," Rodney said.

John gazed at him expectantly.

"We have to create the Wraith," Rodney announced boldly.

"I'm not creating the Wraith," John said, narrowing his eyes.

"In case you didn't notice, we destroyed our timeline in order to make an Atlantis overrun by evil, miniature Flagecalluses! Our stopping the Wraith from being created made things worse."

John had to admit he was right; things weren't better, they were much, much worse. At least when the Wraith were around, so were humans. Disappointed, he put his hands on his hips. "Well, how are we going to stop ourselves?" he demanded. "I don't think waiting around and saying, 'Hey, would you mind letting the Wraith be created?' is really going to work."

"Yeah, you'd just get rid of the iratus bugs while our backs were turned," Rodney grumbled.

That did sound like something he would do. His gaze drifted to the wall as he attempted to think of a way out of this. Suddenly, he spotted the answer in a crate tucked beneath one of the lab benches: several large, woolen blankets.

He fished one out and held it up for Rodney to see. "Hey. Help me cover the tanks with these."

*

This time they flashed into an empty room. John was just glad they weren't in another public place; Rodney still had a bloodthirsty look in his eyes. Now if they could just guarantee Atlantis was whale-free, they would be great.

"There are considerably more, uh, people in the city this time," Rodney said as he studied the life signs detector. "Thousands of people, in fact."

"Where's your tablet?" John asked.

Rodney looked at him blankly for a moment, and then glanced around in shock. His eyes darted left and right as if hoping the tablet would magically appear out of thin air. "Goddammit," he said, "I must have left it in the past. You don't think someone found it, do you? Or-- Do you think we found it?"

John bit his lip. "There's only one way to find out."

When they opened the door, rather than stepping out into a corridor, they were in one of the main intersections in the central tower. The afternoon sun was shining brightly through the windows of the room directly across from where they were standing, but other than that, they were walled in.

The blue and copper walls were a familiar sight. Twenty flights of floors with railed balconies rose up around them. They were standing a few floors down from where Elizabeth and Grodin had set up the commissary back in their first year, except now it only vaguely resembled the tower in which John had gone to breakfast that morning. Enormous brown and maroon banners, on which a different hieroglyph was woven, were draped over every balcony. Even more surprising, the hall was bustling with people of all shapes, sizes, and colours, wearing the kinds of clothes John had learned to associate with the Pegasus Galaxy: leather armour, roped vests, flowing robes, silly hats. There were carts with various goods placed along the balconies and the main floor, much like a covered market; John could pick out the smells of spices and leather and sweat along with the usual scent of sea salt and crystals.

John curled his fingers around the railing and looked down. An even bigger market was on the main floor. He had seen places like this on missions, or even on Earth, but it was strange seeing it in Atlantis. His people had turned Atlantis into their home, but in a lot of ways, it was still a military and research outpost.

"I realize I'm not the most observant person, but I'm fairly certain Atlantis did not look like this when we left," Rodney said, sweeping a hand over the scene before them.

"No, this is new," John agreed, trying to keep from looking as weirded out as he felt. A woman with bright blue hair and a braided vest and skirt flirtatiously looked him up and down as she walked by, trailing her herd of goats behind her.

John was at a loss of what to do now. There weren't any whales in sight, and from where he was standing, it looked like Atlantis was flourishing. But he and Rodney had been trying to get the Ancients to create the Wraith and restore their timeline, not -- as his original plan was -- to save the galaxy by making sure the Wraith had never been created in the first place.

Had they unknowingly fixed things? Where were Ronon and Teyla? And better yet, who was in charge of this Atlantis?

He glanced over at Rodney, who was looking intently at the crowd below. His face was slightly flushed from their run through the corridors. As much as he trusted Rodney, John wasn't sure what Rodney would do if he said this was the end of the line; after all, Rodney hadn't wanted to mess with the timeline to begin with. He needed Rodney to back him up with whatever he decided to do. Not just that -- he needed Rodney to be okay with possibly spending the rest of his life with John in a city that was no longer theirs. No Keller, no Nobel Prize.

"McKay," John began, uncertain whether he was going to say they needed to leave things as they were or head back to the time machine room. He bit his lip. "Rodney..."

Before he could make up his mind, however, Rodney sniffed the air. "Do I smell french fries?" he asked, and John made a face at him.

"We have more important things to focus on right now than food," John said, irritated.

Rodney looked at him like he was nuts. "Are you kidding me? I certainly consider my survival to be a priority. Unless you have a plan, of course. You do have a plan, right, Colonel?"

John grimaced. "Of course I have a plan," he lied. "First, we need to... go down there." He nodded at an empty area on the main floor, partially shaded by both the balconies and a series of potted trees. From that spot, they would be able to look out over most of the main floor and almost all of the balconies of the right side of the tower.

He could feel Rodney rolling his eyes as John squared his shoulders and took the lead, with Rodney on their six. They had to shove their way past crowds of people going up and down the stairwell, a lot more people than were in John's Atlantis. As he and Rodney crossed the main floor, it became impossible not to notice they were getting plenty of strange looks from people, especially once Rodney whipped out the life signs detector and started waving it around, muttering, "Interesting."

John was used to local people staring at his team on missions, especially when exploring worlds that had yet to invent firearms or closed-toe shoes, but this was different; this left him with a bad taste in his mouth, particularly when they passed a group of teenagers who started whispering behind their hands. He wished he had thought to bring his sunglasses with him.

Rodney didn't seem to notice what was happening at all, too busy salivating over the different food carts, until someone bumped into John, nearly knocking him over. "Out of my way, traitors," he sneered before John could tell him to watch it. John had a sudden flashback to boarding school.

"What the hell is his problem?" Rodney said, looking outraged on John's behalf.

"I think it's our clothes," John said, watching a passerby eye the Canadian flag on Rodney's tac jacket with disgust.

They were sticking out like sore thumbs, with John in his zippered sweater and Rodney in his black t-shirt and tac jacket. The fact John was wearing his holster wasn't helping things; nothing they were wearing was colourful or made from animals. A good number of people were carrying sidearms of their own, but they were the typical bulky, oddly-shaped pistols John had learned to identify in the last few years. From how busy the city was, John was guessing the civilizations in this region probably all knew each other, and he and Rodney were obviously not wearing the traditional garb of their people. He wondered how Rodney would feel about changing into an Eskimo coat.

Whatever they were going to do -- whether it was get back to the time machine, or stick around for a while -- they were going to need to blend in.

"Look," he said, dragging Rodney to the empty corner behind the plants (under where the chemistry labs used to be in their Atlantis, he thought with a pang), "stay here while I get us something that won't draw so much attention."

"Why can't I come?" Rodney whined.

John clenched his teeth. "Because I said so, McKay."

Rodney gave him a meaningful look. "That never worked on me as a child, and it's certainly it's not going to work on me now, Colonel."

"Because I'm also going to go see if I can find someone who will tell me what the situation is," John explained carefully, "and I don't want you saying something... something you!"

"Oh," Rodney said. "You're right, that is a good reason. Hey, on your way back, could you see how much those shish kebabs cost? They're over by the--"

John left before Rodney could finish that sentence. Ignoring the suspicious, and sometimes confused, glances of the locals, he made his way through the sea of booths and carts. The floor wasn't divided into what was being sold, so John walked past what seemed like a little bit of everything. Some of the booths were selling metal and glass jewelry, some swords, and others food: there were tables covered with fruits and vegetables and cheese and meat (including something called a 'balak' that Ronon insisted on buying in bulk from PX9-763 every few months and was the only thing he kept in his mini-fridge). It reminded John of a market Teyla had taken the team to back in the first year, back when they had needed supplies from allies in order to survive. Teyla had bought a bunch of pillows and candles for her room and then had made Rodney help carry it back to Atlantis; Ford had traded a black cap for a miniature icon of an old woman he had said reminded him of his grandma. John remembered McKay and him teasing Ford by saying it was a doll; Ford's face had turned beet red, and he hadn't spoken to either of them for the rest of the day, relaying messages to them through a very annoyed Teyla.

Finally, John spotted exactly what he needed, stuck between a cart of sausages and a stand selling rainbow-coloured candles: a vendor selling long coats that would help hide their gear. The vendor himself, who was short and portly, was wearing an ankle-length black trench coat over a fitted leather shirt and trousers. A box hat was perched on the top of his head.

"How much?" John asked, fingering the material of a black coat.

"Twelve kurants each for the leather," the vendor said cheerfully. He pulled a long, olive green one off the rack and held it up. "Twenty for the wool. For material this good, it's a steal."

John wondered how much a 'kurant' was; it wasn't one of the currencies he had ever encountered off world. When he saw John hesitating, the vendor grabbed John's wrist and held it up. "This is nice," he said, gazing at John's watch. He ignored John's flinch. "I've never seen a time-piece like this. I'll give you two coats for it, your pick."

John was going to miss that watch; it had both an American eagle on its face that lit up and when he touched a button, it played Walk Like an Egyptian. But it was more important he and Rodney stay inconspicuous for now. Licking his lips, he pulled it off and said, "I'll take the black one and the brown one." He pointed to the two he wanted. They both looked big enough.

But when he handed the watch to the vendor, the man paused. "Before I accept, I have to ask, where did you get it?" he asked suspiciously. "It's not Genii, is it? I can't take it if it's Genii."

"Uh, no," John replied, giving the man an innocent smile. He thought fast. 'Fossil' probably wasn't the name of a planet. "I got it from Athos."

At that, the vendor snorted and handed the coats over to John. They were heavier than he expected. He immediately held them to his chest, hoping they covered his holster and sidearm and didn't make him look even more obvious. Maybe he should buy a hat, too. They wore cowboy hats in the Pegasus Galaxy, right?

"Athosians," said the vendor, lips twisting. "Good riddance to bad rubbish."

That didn't sound good at all; with a sinking feeling, John wondered where Teyla was.

"Listen, I'm new in town," he began, struggling to keep the smile on his face, "and I was hoping you would help me out with something."

The man looked him up and down. Now that he had been paid, it seemed like he was through with John. "Depends on what that 'something' is, stranger."

John tilted his head to the side. Going for casual, he said, "Well, I was wondering if you could give me the basic low-down."

"Low-down," repeated the vendor, sounding the word out.

"Yeah, you know, like who's in charge here?"

"The Emperor, obviously," he said haughtily.

John frowned; he hadn't met an emperor before. "Emperor, huh?" he asked. "Is the he a Lantean?"

The vendor looked scandalized. "Of course not!" he gasped. "The venerable Emperor would never be one of those filthy, lying Alterans."

He seemed to look at John then -- really look at him. His eyes narrowed dangerously. John had seen that look many times before, usually right before someone kidnapped him or shot him or started screaming for help or, on one memorable occasion, burst into song.

"Where did you say you were from?" asked the vendor.

"Oh, here and there," John said, taking a few steps back. "Enjoy the watch."

Before the vendor could get out another word, John took off in the direction from which he had came. He heard a, "Hey!" behind him, but he ducked between two fruit carts and kept going. A few minutes later, he realized he wasn't going in the right direction at all; nothing around him looked familiar. He had been sure this was the way to the balcony.

Bemused, he stood in the middle of the crowd until he saw a familiar red cloud over one of the tables. That particular vendor was selling bottles of brightly-coloured liquids that had red smoke rising from them, and John had been able to see that from the corner where he had left McKay. He jerked his head to the left and, sure enough, there was the row of potted trees. He could just make out the top of Rodney's head.

Rodney was still waiting where John had left him. He looked more annoyed than worried. "What took you so long?"

"Got lost," John grunted.

Snorting, Rodney said, "I should have known."

"Something weird's-- What'd you trade for that?"

Rodney was eating what looked like purple french fries out of a paper cone. He stopped chewing. "Trade?"

"You stole it?" demanded John. They'd only been in this universe for twenty minutes.

"I was hungry!" Rodney insisted, mouth full of purple mush.

John tried to grab it out of his hands, but Rodney was clutching the fries like they were made from weapons-grade naquada. "Aren't you not supposed to touch things when you go back in time, because it could alter the timeline?" John asked.

"Only if you learned about time travel from the Simpsons," Rodney said sarcastically. "Besides, I'm sure they have bigger things to worry about than two time travelers--" John tried very, very hard to quelsh his glee at being called that. "--stealing french fries from a cart."

A loud commotion drew John's attention back to the market. "Help! I've been robbed!" a vendor cried. "Thief! Thief!"

"Okay, time to go," Rodney said, tossing the empty cone over his shoulder.

He grabbed Rodney's arm and pulled him down so they were hidden behind the plants. His knees hit a mound of soft soil. Four men in leather uniforms and carrying massive guns -- Lantean cops or something -- passed their hiding place and disappeared back into the crowd.

"Like I was saying," John said quietly, "something weird's going on here. I traded my watch--"

"Really?" Rodney raised his head, astonishment flitting across his face. "But you love that stupid watch."

"I traded my watch for information," he continued a little louder, "and the guy said he couldn't take it if it was Genii-built. He said it was because of the war."

Rodney rose to his feet. He gazed down at John with a fuddled expression. "The Ancients are at war with the Genii?" he asked.

"I'm not sure these are Ancients," John answered. Something about this whole set-up was hinky. "Let's just say the guy I was talking to didn't seem very enlightened. He wasn't like any of the Ancients I've ever met. Or, hell, like any of those Asuran wanna-be's, either."

"You mean he wasn't 'Ancienty' enough for you?" Rodney asked sarcastically. He glanced down at his dirt-stained pants and sighed. "Great. I just washed these."

John uncurled from his crouch and stood. His knees popped audibly. "He said there's no way an Ancient could be in charge of Atlantis."

Rodney stopped dusting potting soil off his knees to look at John. "That doesn't sound good," he agreed finally.

"You said it. Here, put this on."

He tossed Rodney the heavy leather coat. Rodney looked at it dubiously, but he pulled it on over his jacket without a word. It fell down to his knees and looked like something Ronon would wear (after personally skinning the animal himself), but it looked good. It looked better than good, actually, and John scratched the back of his neck and tried not to stare at the way it framed Rodney's shoulders and made him look all tough and dangerous, like a bounty hunter. Or an X-wing pilot. Keller would probably love to see him like that, John thought miserably.

"Where'd you get this, a dumpster?" Rodney asked, sniffing his arm. "Ugh, it smells like cheap aftershave. Did you rub your face all over this before giving it to me?"

Rolling his eyes, John shrugged on the black coat he had bought for himself. It was a little Maxtrix-y, but it fit alright. Hopefully, they would blend in more now. "Yes, Rodney," he said, "that's exactly what I did."

Rodney looked up, gave him a dirty look, and held it. John kept his annoyed expression for as long as possible, but soon enough, he felt his lips twitching in a smile. Suddenly, Rodney snorted and giggled, and they were laughing, both of them full of nervous excitement. After all the crazy shit that had happened to them today, John was glad it was coming out as laughter and not something worse, like when John had to tell everyone he'd lost Elizabeth and he had thought he was going to cry right in front of everyone, and Ronon had hugged him and wouldn't let him get away. John hadn't been able to look the big guy -- or Zelenka or Teyla or Campbell -- in the eye for nearly a week.

Rodney looked at John and smiled crookedly. "Well," he said.

"Well," John said in response. He grinned. "Want to go explore Atlantis?"

They didn't garner as much attention this time as they checked out the market. The coats did their job. It also helped that Rodney had put away the life signs detector and was trying to act halfway normal. As normal as Rodney McKay could be, at any rate.

While Rodney was busy openly staring at a pair of scantily-clad women selling lingerie, John let his eyes wander over the floor. His gaze drifted over to his right just in time to see things were about to go downhill, fast. The coat vendor John had been talking to earlier was speaking to two men who were clearly guards of some sort, making wide, sweeping gestures in John and Rodney's direction; the guards were carrying heavy rifles and were donned in black leather. One of them had cornrows in his hair, and the other was wearing a helmet.

"We've got a problem," John said.

Just as he expected, the vendor met John's eyes and pointed directly at him and Rodney.

"Crap," John breathed. "McKay, we need to get out of here."

The guards barreled through the crowd towards them, shoving people aside. They were coming fast. He heard the very familiar sound of laser pistols being powered up.

All at once, the market's occupants seemed to realize something was happening. The crowd scattered in every direction, effectively blocking the guards from John and Rodney; the stand nearest to them, which was selling blown glass, was overturned, the bottles shattering all over the floor. Screams and shouts broke out, and John could hear someone bellowing, "In the name of the Emperor, stand down! Stand down!"

"What now, Colonel?" Rodney shouted in his ear.

"If we get separated, meet me at the transporter," John yelled back.

John caught Rodney's nod right before he was swallowed into the mob. He caught one last look at Rodney's terrified face, and then he was surrounded by frightened strangers on all sides. He pulled out his sidearm and headed for the nearest exit, which he knew from experience was up ahead; if he could get to the corridor leading to the sky walk, he could take the transporter from the next building and meet Rodney at the one at this tower.

He saw a flash out of the corner of his eye. This time it wasn't one of the guards aiming for him; a vendor of one of the food carts was fumbling for a sidearm of his own, heedless of the hundreds of people around them. John locked gazes with him just as he raised his weapon level to John's chest. He was close enough to see a bead of sweat slide down the side of the man's face.

John had locked on the guy's shoulder and was about to open fire when someone crashed into his back. He hit the ground, gasping as the wind was knocked out of him; his Beretta went spinning into the crowd and disappeared between a dozen pairs of feet.

John's mouth formed an 'o' of surprise. "Oh, shit," he swore, raising himself up onto his elbows.

He shoved himself back to his feet. The guy who had been aiming at him was gone now, and straight ahead was the door to the sky walk. John dodged a mother and her shrieking child. He was nearly there when a warning shot was fired in the air; someone screamed loudly. John slid to a stop. The moving crowd around him was too thick to duck into, and even without worrying whether or not someone would get hurt, he was useless without his gun. He really should have brought his P-90.

A voice that was all-too familiar called out, "Stop at once."

Cringing, John raised his arms in the air in surrender.

"Genii spy, give up or your friend is dead."

John rolled his eyes to the ceiling and thought desperately for a way to get them out of this. But he had nothing. Slowly, he turned around to find the guard with the cornrows had his pistol pointed directly at Rodney's temple. Rodney, to his credit, looked simultaneously scared and embarrassed. He met John's eyes and winced slightly.

The other guard, the one who had warned John to stop, was none other than Tyre the Satedan. He was looking pretty good for a dead guy. That bad feeling John had earlier returned and increased two-fold.

"Tyre," John said tightly.

Tyre smirked. His helmet was tucked under his arm, and with his other hand, he was pointing a pistol at John's face. "I see you've heard of me."

"You could say that," John replied.

Tyre stepped forward and socked him in the jaw, sneering, "Traitor." John collapsed to his knees as pain blossomed in the lower half of his face. He couldn't stop himself from making a low groan. He heard Rodney yell, "John!" and then there were sounds of struggling and Rodney crying out in pain.

John managed to stagger back to his feet. He spat blood onto the deck. "That all you got?" he asked.

After five years of Kolya, Michael, Todd, Wraith queens, Asurans, cyborg Asgard, and creepy iratus/human hybrids, one short Satedan didn't really scare him.

"When the Emperor is through with you, you'll wish I had killed you," said Tyre.

Oh, right. The Emperor. John had forgotten about him. Maybe he hadn't thought this out very well.

"Can't wait," he lied.

As they were cuffed and shoved towards the transporters, John thought he saw a flash of light out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head in time to catch a glimpse of someone who looked like General O'Neill in full mission gear, halfway hidden behind a corner. But when John twisted around to make sure his eyes weren't playing tricks on him, O'Neill was gone. John received a hard smack on the back of his head from the unnamed guard.

"What'd you do that for?" Rodney murmured out of the corner of his mouth.

"I thought I saw O'Neill," John whispered back, gritting his teeth through the stinging pain in the back of his skull that matched the soreness in his jaw. Rodney blinked at him blankly. "Must've been wishful thinking."

"No talking!" barked the guard who wasn't Tyre.

"Where are you taking us?" Rodney demanded shakily.

"To see the Emperor."

"Oh, the Emperor," Rodney said. He glanced at John with wide eyes. "What do you think the chances are this Emperor is a kind, generous old man, and not a raging psychopath?"

John looked back at him and raised his eyebrows. "About the same as Tyre being on the path to enlightenment."

"I heard that," said Tyre.

*

Chapter Three

The Emperor, it turned out, was Ronon.

As the leader of his people, Emperor Ronon Dex had turned one of the larger briefing rooms into a throne room, complete with a massive blue and green crystal throne that actually looked as if it belonged to the city. It was against the wall, between two wall hangings that bore the design of Ronon's neck tattoo. The wall to John's left was one giant window that overlooked much of Atlantis.

For the first time, John was able to see that Atlantis had recently been in a battle. Some of the towers were scorched or even had their tops lopped off. Over a few of the towers were what looked like zeppelins, carrying scaffolds and workers to finish reconstruction. Smoke rose from the western corner of the city.

The view outside was the first thing John noticed. The second thing was Ronon lounging in the throne. He was sitting sideways in it, with one leg thrown over the arm, and his other foot on the floor. Several bowls of food rested on the floor around him.

"Ronon," John started to say, but the name stuck in his throat. Beside him, Rodney went completely still.

John hadn't had much time to think about it, what with the time traveling and the whales and everything, but he had honestly not expected to see either Ronon or Teyla ever again. Realizing this now made his knees go weak; he would do anything for them, he would give his life to save them, he would destroy a timeline so they could grow up in a nice, Wraith-free galaxy, but he really wasn't emotionally prepared for living without them. He'd gone six weeks on Earth thinking his life on Atlantis was over, and it had been some of the worst weeks of his life. He still had Rodney, who he felt, you know, whatever about, but Ronon and Teyla were his best friends. The four of them were a family.

He didn't know how much of it showed on his face, but Rodney threw him a look of concern. Ronon just raised his eyebrows at him. With his crystal throne and his nice clothes, he was actually a lot more intimidating than normal Ronon. He was wearing a fitted leather jacket, dark slacks, and hunter green tunic opened to reveal his muscular chest; it nicer than anything John had ever seen him wear, and it was obviously tailored instead of the usual hand-made stuff Ronon liked. The tattoo on his neck was different as well. It was more intricate, as if it had been added to over the years.

Yet the biggest shock was his hair: it was cut short and wavy, which was a lot hotter on him than John would ever have expected. But the way his eyes sparkled was all Ronon. He looked good, actually. He looked confident and content, without all that baggage Ronon had always carried from being a Runner. He also looked kind of scary.

"What's going on here, Tyre?" Ronon asked. He leaned forward and grabbed a handful of what looked like blue tortilla chips out of one of the bowls at his feet.

"We found some Genii infiltrators, my lord," Tyre said proudly, raising his voice so Ronon could hear him over his crunching.

"We're not Genii," John argued. He glared at Tyre, who looked back at John with a cold, even gaze.

"Yeah?" Ronon asked. "Then who are you?"

When Ronon absently rubbed his crumb-covered hand on his trousers, he suddenly looked more like the Ronon John knew, who respected John but still thought he was silly, who liked to watch movies and wrestle, and less like a stranger who might possibly order to them to their deaths.

Rodney must have felt the same way, because he bravely took a step forward. "We ask the questions here," he said, jutting out his chin stubbornly. John winced to himself. "Where are the Ancients? The-- the Ancestors?"

"Killed 'em," Ronon said casually. John swallowed thickly. "But you would know that, since you're Genii."

"Didn't you hear him the first time? We're not Genii."

Ronon wasn't smiling anymore. "Then I'll ask again: who are you?" he demanded.

Rodney glanced at John before crossing his arms over his chest. "I'm Doctor Rodney McKay, this is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, and we're time travelers," he said, point blank.

Ronon let out an abrupt laugh. John groaned, "McKay," and Rodney snapped, "What? What are we supposed to do, lie to him?"

"Time travelers, huh?" Ronon asked. He grinned toothily, and John tensed. "That's a good one. You're funny."

Rodney seemed at a loss for words. "I-I am?" he stammered. "Oh, well, thank you."

"So if you're not Genii, why're you wearing uniforms?"

"This is the ceremonial dress of our people," John said hastily, before Rodney could say something that would get them both killed.

Nonplussed, Ronon asked, "And the weapons?"

"Accessories," John replied, giving Ronon his most innocent smile.

"That is the worst lie I have ever--" Rodney started hissing in his ear. Without letting his smile fade, John elbowed him in the stomach. Rodney let out a quiet "oof."

"The time travel story was more convincing," Ronon said.

John closed his eyes. He was out of ideas. At this point, telling the truth was probably their only option. "McKay's right," he said, opening his eyes again, "we really have been time traveling We accidentally went back into the past and changed things, and now everything's all screwed up. We're trying to go back and fix it. None of this is supposed to be happening. In our timeline, you're our friend -- you're one of my best friends." He stumbled a little over the last part, embarrassed.

Ronon's eyebrows shot up. "You and me?" he asked, not sounding like he believed it. He started chuckling.

Offended, John rose himself to his full height. "Yes, you and me," he said. "And Rodney here, and Teyla--"

"Teyla?" Ronon interrupted. He dropped both feet to the ground as leaned forward, the look on his face changing completely, from mild boredom to keen interest. "You're saying in this other universe, Teyla Emmagan's on my team?"

"On my team, yeah," John replied uncertainly. He glanced at Rodney; Rodney shrugged. "I'm the team leader."

"Yeah?" Ronon looked at Rodney. "And what do you do?"

"I'm a scientist," Rodney said. He looked genuinely puzzled at Ronon's question, and he didn't even try to boast about his genius-level IQ or about how many times he had saved Ronon's life with his mighty brain.

Ronon pushed himself to his feet and moved so close John could have reached out and touched him if he wasn't worried Ronon and Tyre would beat the crap out of him. "So, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard," Ronon asked, smirking without any trace of amusement, "why would I want to go back to this other universe where you're the boss of me? In my universe, I'm the leader of the Satdean Empire." He spread his arms. "I've conquered five worlds and crippled a dozen more. People throughout the galaxy either fear me or worship me. My life is awesome."

He poked John in the chest with a finger. "What's so great about your universe?"

"Well, that... is a very good question," John said. He didn't think 'but you're my friend' would work a second time. "I'll have to get back to you on that."

Looking at it that way, John had to wonder if maybe they did fix things after all. Ronon was the leader of his people, Atlantis was prospering, there weren't any Wraith or Replicators, and even though the man at the market had said the Athosians were gone, that didn't necessarily mean Teyla wasn't out there living it up. This timeline seemed alright. If he could convince Ronon to let them go, maybe he and Rodney could start a life together in the city. Rodney could get a job in a lab, and John... had skills. It wouldn't be the first time he had started over; he had done it before when his father had disowned him, and again when he had moved to another galaxy without knowing whether or not he would ever see Earth again, and, more recently, with Teer in the cloister.

"Wait, I'm sorry, but did you say earlier you killed the Ancients?" Rodney piped up suddenly.

"Yup," Ronon said. He took a seat back on his throne. "Every last one of them. They wouldn't share their technology with us, so we had to make them pay."

On second thought, maybe things weren't going that well. John didn't think he liked this Ronon very much.

"Oh, of course, that makes perfect sense," Rodney said sarcastically. "I don't suppose you realized you need a specific gene to work the technology in this city? How did you plan on getting around that, hmm?"

"Do you have this gene?"

John knew what was about to happen. "Rodney--" he began sharply, trying to get Rodney to shut up, but it was too late.

"Of course I do," Rodney scoffed.

Ronon grinned toothily. "Good. Tyre," he called, "take him down to the labs."

"Wait!" Rodney looked at John frantically as Tyre and one of the other guards came up behind Rodney and grabbed both his arms.

"Ronon, stop!" John yelled, struggling against his restraints. The guard to his right shoved his firearm against the back of John's neck, which was the only thing stopping him from launching himself at Tyre. He was no use to Rodney dead.

John couldn't do anything while the guards dragged Rodney away, Rodney shouting, "John!" the whole way. He watched as Rodney disappeared through the door, his heart pounding and his hands clenched into fists.

With his grin firmly in place, Ronon sauntered up to John, stopping only a few inches away. He leaned down; his breath smelled like garlic and that smelly Genii cheese all Ronons in all the realities must have liked. "I have a special job for you, Sheppard," he said menacingly, gazing at John the same way a snake would look at a mongoose.

He had to be brave for Rodney. "Are you going to make me one of your concubines?" John asked, raising his chin.

Ronon frowned, hastily straightening back up. "Uh, no."

"Oh," John said disappointedly.

*

The first thing the Satedans did was make Rodney change out his Atlantis uniform and into what he assumed was the uniform of a prisoner. It consisted of a pair of black trousers and a black shirt with a high collar. It buttoned diagonally. It reminded Rodney uncomfortably of something from the Eighties, a time period he had been spent the last twenty years vehemently repressing. His captors spent a few minutes poking the Maple Leaf on the sleeve of his tac jacket before shoving him in -- ironically -- his own lab.

"This is just great," he said to the locked door. "Just perfect."

But unlike his lab back in his own universe, this one was filled with people. Tired-looking people with poor hygiene who were working in near-darkness. Some of the equipment was different, too, but that was to be expected, being in an alternate reality and all. And this probably meant he'd be forced to go without a personal laptop. It was like Russia all over again. All he needed now was for General Chekov to show up and start demanding miracles.

He glared at some of the lackeys who had gathered to stare at him. "Take a picture."

"What'd you do?" one of the men asked him.

"Went back in time and stopped the Ancients from creating the Wraith, thereby screwing up the timeline and causing Ronon to become the Pegasus version of Mussolini."

"I accidentally blew up my lab on Hoff," the guy offered, smiling blankly.

"Good for you," Rodney scoffed.

An excited whisper rippled through the lab. At first Rodney thought it was about him, but then someone hissed loudly, "Boss is coming."

Those gathered around Rodney hurried to their respective work stations and pretended to look busy, leaving him standing alone and worried in the middle of the lab. From the looks of things, this 'boss' was tough. Rodney tried not to fidget as panic tried to claw its way up his throat. It was just some prick who was going to assign him a task, he told himself; no worries, he was fine, Sheppard was fine, he'd be running this place in under a week, oh God, he was never getting out of here--

The boss rounded the corner and stopped between benches, arching a familiar eyebrow at Rodney.

"Teyla?" Rodney squeaked.

Teyla inclined her head at him. She pulled his life signs detector from the pocket of her lab coat. "I am Doctor Emmagan," she corrected. "You must be the new arrival, Mister... McCray?"

Her hair was long, almost as long as when they'd first met, and pulled back into a ponytail. Her blunt bangs were cut short across her forehead. The hair wasn't weird in and of itself, but her attire was: it was so... un-Teyla. She wore a modest pink tunic tucked into high-waisted tan pants, under a blue, knee-length jacket that resembled a lab coat more than anything worn for warmth. A pair of gold-framed glasses were perched on the end of her nose. She pushed them up with one finger when she noticed Rodney gawking at her.

"Of course," he said with clarity, snapping his fingers, "Ronon mentioned you, but I guess I was too busy worrying whether or not he was going to have us executed. Without the Wraith decimating your people, you would've gone to school-- did you call me McCray? No, no, no, it's McKay. Doctor Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD, foremost expert in astrophysics."

The unimpressed look on her face was so familiar he wanted to cry. "I am Science Director Teyla Emmagan," she said in response, raising her chin proudly, "a graduate of the Athosian Academy of Sciences, first class."

He crossed his arms over his chest. "Is that supposed to mean something to me?" he sneered.

She smiled. "Emperor Ronon said you would be difficult."

"Well, maybe if he hadn't imprisoned me--"

"If you want to see your friend again, you will cooperate, and furthermore, you will defer to me," Teyla interrupted. Rodney snapped his mouth shut. She smiled again. "Thank you. Doctor McKay, if you would be so kind as to tell me what you are good at, perhaps we could find you a job here that you would enjoy."

"What I'm good at?" Rodney repeated. "What I'm good at?"

So Rodney opened his mouth and told her exactly what his specialty was. And he kept telling her long after she ordered him to be quiet and go sit in the corner while she decided on what fresh new hell she planned on giving him. He continued to tell her just what he was 'good at' until she summoned one of the guards, who rushed towards Rodney with a particularly nasty expression on his face. At that point, he shut up.

Grudgingly, he perched on a stool at a bench in the far corner of the lab, where Teyla had ordered him to stay. The lights were even dimmer in that part of the room, thanks to heavy drapes covering the windows, and there were several other prisoners working diligently on various machinery around him. From here, he could see at least three people who were on the verge of either breaking something or electrocuting themselves. He could care less if some idiot shocked himself because he was sticking a piece of metal into an electrical outlet, but he hated the idea of a piece of valuable Ancient technology being damaged beyond repair because of ignorance.

Eventually, Rodney was assigned an unfamiliar device to fix. It was of typical Ancient design, even if he didn't know what it was for, and he managed to recalibrate the crystals in under forty-five minutes. When he handed it off to Teyla with a triumphant smirk, she immediately put another one in his hands. He felt his grin fade even as hers brightened.

Several hours and a god awful amount of machinery later, Teyla wandered by his bench. He was putting the finishes on his latest project -- some kind of environmental control unit much like a humidifier -- when a hand landed on his shoulder. He jumped at the unexpected touch, and turned to find Teyla standing over him.

"What the--?"

"Very good, Doctor McKay," Teyla said pleasantly. Her spectacles slipped down her nose a fraction. "I believe you are ready to move on to more complicated projects."

"You said I could see my-- my friend," Rodney said. It came out pitiful, and he hated himself a little for it.

"Perhaps if you complete all your work tomorrow, we can arrange a visit."

It was the thought of seeing Sheppard that made him swallow back a response that surely would have savagely ripped into her. He was terrified she would keep Sheppard away from him, or worse, have Sheppard tortured simply to punish him. His Teyla was nice, if not tough and sometimes bizarrely cryptic, but who knew what kinds of messed up things had happened to the Teyla in this reality. It had been Ronon, of all people, who had thrown him in this prison, after all.

*

At the end of his shift, Rodney was escorted by the same, and possibly only, guard to a room at the end of the corridor in which his (or Teyla's) lab was located. Every room on this floor was a laboratory in Rodney's universe -- mostly because he needed a spacious lab for himself, and also because spending his entire workday with most of the peons who worked for him would turn him homicidal -- but that didn't seem to be the case here. For the first time since he and Sheppard had been separated, he felt his spirits lift. Once he had a good night's sleep and a decent meal, perhaps he could work on freeing himself, finding Sheppard, and getting them back to their Atlantis.

Except when the guard opened the door, Rodney saw the room was filled to the brim with prisoners such as himself, sleeping on mats on the floor that looked an awful lot like the hard exercise mats from the gym. There had to have been at least thirty people sleeping side-by-side and head-to-foot, squeezed in there like sardines in a can. The stench of sweat hung in the air.

"Oh, come on!" Rodney said.

When he turned to complain to the guard, the door slid shut. He heard the controls lock. Infuriated, Rodney reached for the control panel to reprogram the door, but it had torn off the wall, leaving behind frayed wires and scorch marks. Disheartened, he realized he was stuck there.

Somehow, he managed to find a spot on the floor under the window. It was unusually dark in the room; the only light was coming from the strip of lighting on the floor that, Rodney knew from personal experience, would stay lit unless the ZPM was unplugged. When he managed to squeeze into the empty spot, he was being pressed in on all sides. "Move over," he hissed, which got him a "Shhh!" from somewhere near his feet. Whoever it was to the right of him muttered something that sounded derogatory, but she scooted her bum over a fraction of an inch. Rodney realized he was going to have to deal with it, even though he was being groped by strangers who probably couldn't remember the last time they bathed.

From his position on the floor, Rodney's gaze naturally fell on the window. The sky was practically pitch-black, except for the tiny pinpricks of stars that managed to shrine through the bright lights from the city. There was one significant thing missing, though. For a brief, heart-stopping moment, he forgot where Atlantis was and wondered what the hell had happened to the moons. Even during the day, at least one moon was always in view no matter where you stood in Atlantis.

Leaning on one elbow, he managed to push himself into a seated position and press his face against the window. There was, without a doubt, a distinct lack of moons.

Then he realized he was being an idiot -- in this reality, Atlantis was still on Lantea, not on M12-578. He laid back down, snorting at his own foolishness.

But then Rodney realized he should at least be seeing Lantea's moon; from the amount of stars he could see, it meant there were no clouds out, and he knew from experience all the rooms on this side of the corridor should have given him a direct view of Lantea's moon. He couldn't think of a good reason why he wouldn't be able to see it from where he lay.

Unfortunately, no matter how awake his mind was, his body was exhausted from all the running and time traveling he had done that day, and he felt himself drifting off to sleep. The last thing he thought before sleep overtook him was that he hoped Sheppard was okay.

The next day was a repeat of the day before. This time, however, Rodney finished his work at record-breaking speed and, before Teyla noticed him (she was on the other side of the room gently lecturing someone named Romalda over how to properly use a tool that looked like a cross between a screwdriver and a wrench), logged into the computer terminal next to his station. It was difficult to hack the computer systems, but not impossible -- he was a genius, after all -- but the only mention of Sheppard he could find put him in 'Sector D,' whatever that was. Just as long as Sheppard wasn't listed as dead, he thought to himself as he stared at the screen, wiping his sweaty palms on his thighs.

It was another three days before Rodney couldn't take it anymore. All he could think about was where Sheppard might be, what they might be doing to him, and whether or not they could fix this god-forsaken universe. Also, the missing moon was really bothering him. In the middle of repairing what was obviously some kind of video game console, Rodney threw his screwdriver down and marched over to the nearest guard.

"I demand to see Teyla immediately," he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

The usual guard -- Pin, or maybe it was Pan -- looked aggravated. Rodney didn't care. "That's Doctor Emmagan to you," the man said stubbornly, gazing at Rodney like he was something he'd stepped in.

Rodney waved a hand. "Please, we've known each other for years. I demand to see her. Now."

Teyla's office turned out to be right across from Rodney's lab. In Rodney's own reality, her office was actually Zelenka's personal laboratory, which he like to keep dim and cold, or as Rodney liked to call it, Communist. Today Teyla was wearing a pale blue tunic tucked into black pants that were pulled up almost to her armpits. She still had on her lab coat and her glasses. Rodney was fairly certain she could still kick his ass.

"Hello, Doctor McKay," she said, shelving the heavy book she was reading. She smoothed down the front of her tunic. "Officer Pem says you wish to speak with me."

Rodney stared at her feet. "Are you wearing orthopedic shoes?"

She stiffened. "My footwear is none of your concern."

It took a great deal of restraint, but he managed to tear his eyes away from her atrocious shoes. He clasped his hands behind his back and hoped he looked intimidating. "I want to make a deal," he announced.

She looked amused. "A deal?" she repeated. "You are in no position to make deals, Doctor McKay."

"You prove to me that Sheppard's safe, and I don't blow up Atlantis."

The smile slid right off Teyla's face. "You would not do that," she said, but she didn't sound confident.

He crossed his arms over his chest and sneered. "Try me. I know this city inside and out. Your protocols and security measures are laughable; trained monkeys could hack into your system. I hacked into your mainframe within the first hour I was here, just so I could turn up the air conditioning. Do you know how many flaws in your network I've found since then? Believe me, you-- you--"

Hastily, he tried to come up with something horrible to call Teyla, but it was hard; she was Teyla. "You skinny, four-eyed, simple-minded... tramp!"

She gasped in outrage.

He barreled on. "You heard me. I was writing data encryption programs like yours when I was a baby. Well, not literally, because the internet wasn't available to the public until I was in my twenties -- but you get the idea. What I'm trying to say is, I can and will end the life of everyone in Atlantis if I don't speak to Colonel Sheppard within the next twenty-four hours."

When he was done, Teyla was staring at him. Had he not known her as well as he did, he would have thought she was calm, but he had seen that look on her face literally hundreds of times: underneath her deadpan expression, she was enraged. In fact, she was beyond enraged. If this was his Teyla, he knew, he would be dead by now, but this reality's Teyla seemed frozen in place, as if she had no idea what to do next. Either that, or she was about to round kick him in the balls.

Slowly, Teyla's eyes narrowed to slits.

"Well?" he asked finally, bracing himself for pain.

"Who told you I was a tramp?" she demanded. Her hands were clenched into fists. "Was it Ronon Dex? That man is so infuriating!"

Rodney blinked. That was not the direction he had seen this conversation going. "Uh," he started.

She sucked in a few deep, furious breaths and began pacing back and forth. Rodney had never seen Teyla do that before. "Is it not enough I am constantly put down for being the only female director in the Ministry of Science, or that he is always in my laboratory questioning my work?" she asked, although he had a feeling she wasn't speaking to him. "Now he is spreading rumours about me?"

"No," he tried to tell her.

"I am so angry," she announced, completely ignoring him.

It seemed she had forgotten about him entirely. The last time he had seen Teyla this out of control, she had been pushing a person out of her vagina. Rodney contemplated whether or not he could sneak away without her noticing.

"The Ronon Dex I know would never call you something like that," he found himself saying, wringing his hands.

She stopped pacing and turned to meet his eyes. "You know Emperor Ronon? How? I thought you were Genii?"

"For Christ's sake," he muttered. "No, I'm not Genii! I know Ronon because-- because I'm from an alternate reality. A reality where Ronon and I -- and you and I -- are friends."

Teyla frowned skeptically. "How is that possible?"

Rodney sighed. "Because Sheppard and I mistakenly altered the timeline. The Ancients -- the Ancestors -- were supposed to make something-- something unimportant right now. But we stopped them, and then we thought we fixed it, but obviously we didn't, because now Ronon's evil and you're wearing high waters and everything's wrong. You see, because we altered the timeline so far back in our own timeline, we--"

"I am familiar with the theory," Teyla cut in. She raised an eyebrow.

"Of course you are," he stammered.

From the unimpressed look on her face, he suspected she did not exactly believe him. He got that look from her a lot, but usually it was for more banal circumstances, like when he claimed he hadn't stolen her powerbar out of her pack when her back was turned. If he had been in her position, however, and someone had claimed to have a time machine, he would have demanded to be the first to examine it regardless of whether or not he believed them, so he wasn't surprised when Teyla insisted, "You will take me to your time machine."

Rodney stiffened. "No," he replied. "Not until I see Sheppard first."

Teyla gave him a narrow-eyed look. "Doctor McKay, that was not a request. I am ordering you to take me to your time machine."

Normally, that tone from her would have worked. "And I'm saying no, not until I'm guaranteed my friend is safe and unharmed," he snapped.

Her expression shifted slightly, and Rodney could tell she was on the verge of giving in. It was the same expression she used when Sheppard whined at her, or when Ronon asked for her dessert.

"Time machine," he reminded her, sing-song.

She closed her eyes. Abruptly, her hand darted out and waved over the door crystal. Rodney flinched as the door slid open to reveal Officer Pin or whoever awaiting her orders. "Officer Pem, please take Doctor McKay back to the lab." To Rodney, she added gently, "I will see what I can do."

Mouth dry, all Rodney could do was nod.

*

The next day, just as he settled down to do his work, Pin or Pan or whoever walked up to him. Rodney froze, gripping his screwdriver-slash-wrench tightly. Teyla had either given into his demands, or she was about to tell him to go fuck himself. He would never see Sheppard again. He was going to die here, alone and insignificant, in a reality he himself had created.

"Doctor Emmagan wishes to see you," Pern ordered.

"Yes, of course," Rodney managed.

When Rodney arrived in Teyla's office, standing in the centre of the room was a lone man in black. The man's shoulders were drawn up nearly to his ears. Rodney's heart stuttered in his chest.

"John?" he blurted.

Sheppard's head snapped up. "Rodney?" The tension visibly drained out of him, and the tight lines around his eyes softened. "Hey."

Unlike Rodney's own Eighties get-up, Sheppard was wearing a black leather surcoat (Rodney hated Renaissance planets) over a long-sleeved black shirt and black trousers. It wasn't exactly like something their universe's Ronon would wear, but it was close enough; Ronon did, after all, like to wear vests made from monstrous beasts he personally slew. Sheppard's hair was more wild than usual, and his eyes held a bright, fevered look. He was still clean-shaven, however, which hopefully meant he had access to clean facilities.

"You look terrible," Rodney said, trying not to notice the way the belted surcoat emphasized Sheppard's narrow waist. Instead he stared at Sheppard's unattractively skinny legs sticking out from under the surcoat's skirt (ha!). It was because of that he noticed the dark red stain on the edge of Sheppard's sleeve.

"Are you bleeding?" he asked, heart pounding.

Sheppard grimaced and raised his arm. "No, it's ketchup." Rodney must have looked as flabbergasted as he felt, because Sheppard added, grimly, "I've been in the work camps."

Rodney felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. "Are you-- are you okay?" Needing to verify for himself that Sheppard was okay, he reached out, and it wasn't until he hand both hands grasping Sheppard's shoulders that he remembered Sheppard wasn't big on touching. "They didn't do anything to you, did they? What am I saying, it was a work camp, of course they did horrible, awful things to you."

"Yeah, I don't think I'm ever going to get the grease out of my skin."

"They greased you up?" Rodney asked shrilly. He tried very, very hard not to picture that. "For what?"

Sheppard stepped forward until they were practically nose-to-nose. "The work camp was a fast food joint."

"Huh?"

Rolling his eyes, Sheppard replied, "Rodney, we're on a planet ruled by Ronon. They have six meals a day here. Actually, I'm pretty sure the entire culture revolves around food. Their idea of inservitude is working twelve-hour shifts at the Satedan Micky D's."

"Really?" Rodney asked. He was horribly, ridiculously relieved at that. The thought of Sheppard in some work camp, slaving away, maybe being held down and forced to perform oral sex on his fellow prisoners... Terrible. It was terrible, and not at all exciting.

Sheppard glanced around the room before lowering his voice. "Listen, I've been talking to people. Things aren't so good here. Apparently, the Satedans and the Genii have been trying to wipe each other out for the last ten years. They're conquering other planets to use in their war. Millions of people have died."

"So once more, by making things better, we actually made them worse. You know, repeatedly ruining the universe is going to give me chronic self-esteem issues."

Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Way to make it all about you, Rodney," he said, but he was smiling.

"Nice skirt, by the way."

Sheppard self-consciously ran a hand over his chest. "They took my clothes. That was my favourite sweater, too."

"I could tell by the way it was the only one you ever wore," Rodney said with a huff. He shook his head. "I'll buy you a hundred identical black sweaters when we get home, okay?"

Beneath his hands, Rodney could feel more of the tension leave Sheppard's shoulders. "When we get home," Sheppard said, the relief evident in his voice. "Yeah. What about you, did they hurt you?"

"I'm fine," Rodney replied. It shocked him to realize he was telling the truth. "Aside from my back hurting, no thanks to the torture devices they call sleeping mats. I've mainly been working in the labs, trying to repair their microwaves and televisions. Frankly, it's been humiliating."

The door whispered opened, and Teyla entered, wearing her ubiquitous blue lab coat and her pants pulled up under her armpits. It occurred to Rodney he and Sheppard were standing embarrassingly close together, and he realized just how this looked. He jumped back, in case she was going to get any ideas about using Sheppard against him. Again.

Sheppard gave him a long look, perplexed, before he seemed to realize just who was in the room with them. "Teyla!" he exclaimed hoarsely. Then he noticed what Teyla was wearing. He squinted at her. "Teyla?"

If she noticed the tone in his voice, she didn't react to it. Inclining her head, she greeted him with a polite, "Hello, Mr Sheppard. I trust you are well?"

"Yeah, uh," Sheppard said. He glanced at Rodney with unease, and then his gaze shifted back to Teyla. "I didn't know you were here."

She raised an eyebrow. "Where else would I be?"

Sheppard looked panicked. "Uh." He gave her a wide, false smile. "Great to see you. You look good."

"Please," Rodney muttered in an undertone.

"Doctor McKay has informed me it is very important that you return to your time machine," Teyla said bluntly.

Sheppard glared at Rodney. "He's right. It's very important."

"What?" Rodney asked. Sheppard's lips thinned, and it occurred to Rodney what he was mad about. "Oh, come on. She brought you here, didn't she?"

Stiffly, Teyla added, "It was not as though I had a choice."

Rodney winced and muttered, "Dammit." Sheppard stared at him in disbelief. "Rodney, what did you do?" he demanded in a tone that more than implied he thought Rodney had screwed things up.

He couldn't look Sheppard in the eye. "I may have promised her she could see the time machine," he told the wall. "Oh, and also that I wouldn't blow up Atlantis."

"McKay!"

Teyla came to his rescue by placing a hand on Sheppard's arm. She said, "I would very much like to see the time machine."

Sheppard's brow knitted. "You would?"

"Teyla's the Director of Science," Rodney boasted.

"Really?" Sheppard asked.

She didn't seem to like that reaction, from the way her expression clouded.

"No offense," Sheppard continued, making a vague gesture with one hand, "but our Teyla is the leader of her people, not a scientist."

"Then I am very different from the Teyla you claim to know?" Teyla asked, putting an emphasis on 'claim.'

"No," Rodney said without thinking. "Yes. No. A little? The Teyla in our timeline is more..." He trailed off, unsure of how to articulate what he wanted to say. He considered Teyla to be one of the most significant people in his life, but he never thought he would be in the position of trying to describe her to herself. "Well, she's a little bit of everything, I guess. And she has a son."

"A son?"

"Torren," Sheppard said fondly. "Torren John Emmagan."

"Torren John?" Teyla asked, her voice raising. Her eyes rounded. "He is not...?"

She trailed off, looking at Sheppard meaningfully. Sheppard barked out a laugh. "You're with Kanaan," he explained. "You two kids are crazy about each other."

Teyla's face went frighteningly blank. "Kanaan was killed when the Satedans invaded Athos several years ago," she replied frostily.

It was like being doused with cold water. For some reason, it had never occurred to Rodney that Kanaan wouldn't be in Teyla's life. He had naturally assumed that if she was there, Kanaan and his fuzzy sweaters and his wise Athosian proverbs would be there as well. Now Rodney felt like a heel, and from the expression on his face, Sheppard was feeling the same.

Teyla spun on her heel and walked out of the room. The door slid shut behind her, and Rodney heard the locking mechanism activate. He and Sheppard exchanged an uncomfortable look.

"Well, that was awkward," he said.

Sheppard cringed. "No kidding."

"Do me a favour," Rodney said. "If Teyla asks, tell her Ronon called her a slut."

Sheppard cocked a brow at him. "Ronon has a crush on her," he said smugly.

"Really?" Rodney asked, astonished. "How do you know?"

"Because I know him."

"She did say he was making fun of her," Rodney mused. Of course Ronon was the type to mercilessly mock someone he had feelings for. This was the man who spent most of the day trying to pull down Sheppard's pants or trick Rodney into saying obscene words, and, not to mention, he tried to flirt with Jennifer through teaching her to spar. Ronon was far from the most mature member of their team. How he got women, Rodney would never know.

Sheppard nodded and pointed a finger at him. "See, crush. I recognized that shifty look he gave us back in the throne room." He paused. "Wow. I can't believe I just said that."

"When we get back home, we can never, ever tell Ronon he was the leader of his own empire," Rodney agreed.

Suddenly, the door opened again, and Teyla returned, this time with Pan at her heels. "Doctor Emmagan, I cannot allow you to be alone with these dangerous prisoners, much less to allow you to remove them from the Science Ward," Pin was saying desperately. Teyla's expression was unreadable.

Sheppard raised his eyebrows and mouthed, "Dangerous prisoners," in Rodney's direction.

Teyla stopped the guard with a raised hand. "Officer Pem, I will be fine," she soothed. "You must trust me. They will not hurt me."

"At least take a weapon with you," Pem pleaded.

Teyla glanced at them. Sheppard gave her what he obviously thought was his most winning smile. Rodney tried not to let his disgust show.

"Thank you, that is an excellent idea," said Teyla, tucking the gun he was offering into her waist of her trousers so it was snug against her sternum.

That wiped the smile clear off Sheppard's face. Rodney snorted.

In typical Athosian fashion, Teyla placed both her hands on Pam's shoulders, and he lowered his forehead to hers. With Pan's neck now craned, Rodney could make out a tattoo on his neck that was identical to their Ronon's. Rodney had a feeling they were watching something they shouldn't be watching. This was possibly more uncomfortable for him than when Sheppard had brought up her dead lover.

"I will see you shortly," she told her special Satedan friend.

Pin straightened. "Good luck, Doctor."

After one very angry, very threatening glare in Rodney and Sheppard's direction, Pong left, leaving them alone with Teyla.

Sheppard asked, "I thought the Athosians were the enemies of the Satedans?"

Teyla gave him a sideways glance. "We, like many of the other citizens in the Empire, were conquered by the Satedans in order to help provide resources for the war against the Genii. Those of us who no longer have a home have found solace in one another."

"And I'm sure you being the hottest scientist in Atlantis doesn't help," Rodney said, rolling his eyes.

Teyla let out a surprised laugh. "Thank you." She smiled at him. "Now, if you would be so kind, Doctor McKay, and take me to your time machine?"

He had been hoping she had forgotten about that. "Of course," he replied, shoulders slumping.

For reasons Rodney couldn't understand, Atlantis was dark and cold and empty, and even fifteen minutes after leaving Teyla's office, they had yet to see another soul. In his very humble opinion, that seemed wrong. Granted, he hadn't left his hallway since he had been turned into an indentured servant by someone he had once trusted with his life, but Rodney had been on enough disastrous missions to know when he was having a feeling.

"Give me the life signs detector," he insisted. He held out his hand in expectation.

"Not until you have proven to me your time machine is what you say it is," Teyla replied, stepping around him.

"But--" he protested. He looked at Sheppard in desperation. "Colonel, make her give it to me!"

Sheppard glowered at him. "You've got to be kidding me."

They had just stepped out of the transporter when there was a deafening sound and the floor began to shake. It sounded like it had come from nearby. An unfamiliar-sounding alarm began blaring from... actually, Rodney wasn't sure where it was coming from, but it made his eardrums ring

"The Genii are attacking the city," Teyla shouted over the cacophony. "We are being invaded!"

Another boom shook the ground. Sheppard stumbled into Rodney, elbowing him in the side. When Rodney could breathe again, he found himself demanding for the second time, "Give me the life signs detector." Teyla visibly wavered, and Rodney held out his hand. "If you give it to me, we can use it to locate where the attack is taking place. Or maybe you want your friends to die."

Reluctantly, she placed it in his hand.

The life signs detector sprang to life as soon as it touched his glorious ATA genes. He flipped through the images until he found a large number of people stationed in the top levels of the central spire, around the control room, where there was also the remnants of an energy spike. "This way," he said, heading for the transporters.

They never made it to the control room. As soon as they stepped in the hallway, Rodney could tell the central tower was on the verge of collapsing. A giant hole was ripped out of one of the walls and most of the ceiling, and the wind was howling. Behind the fallen ceiling beams, Ronon was wrapping a white strip of cloth around a gaping wound in his leg. He seemed to be the only survivor; Tyre's dead body was propped up against the beam next to him, and Rodney thought it was incredibly unfair Ronon had to watch his best friend die twice. The rest of the dead bodies appeared to be a mix of both Genii and Satedan.

Sheppard, Teyla, and Rodney crawled through the rubble and over the carcasses (and ugh, Rodney would never be able to wipe this from his memory) until they reached him.

"Fucking Genii," Ronon growled when he caught sight of them. He narrowed his eyes at Teyla. "Emmagan. You shouldn't be here."

"It would appear to me you should not be here either, Emperor," Teyla said sharply, and Ronon looked faintly ashamed. She snatched the makeshift bandage out of his hand and finished tightly wrapping his leg.

"You okay there, buddy?" Sheppard asked, kneeling at Ronon's other side.

"I'm not your buddy," Ronon said gruffly. He shifted a little in his seat. "But yeah, I'm okay. You here to help?"

Sheppard nodded. "We'll need some weapons."

Ronon grimaced and nodded at his dead men. "Take theirs." Rodney grabbed the nearest gun, which happened to be from Tyre's rather stiff hand. "Not that one, Radney."

"It's Rodney," Rodney tried to say, but then Sheppard slapped a laser pistol of a similar design to Ronon's, which he had taken from the fallen Satedan soldiers, into his hand. It was lighter than what Rodney was used to, but it would have to do.

It was just in time, too, because someone began shooting at them from the other side of the corridor. A series of bullets hit right by Rodney's head; he yelped and ducked, hoping most of his body was protected by the slab of metal at his back. Blindly, he raised his gun and began firing back. Beside him, Sheppard raised himself to his knees and returned fire.

Ronon bared his teeth and twisted around so he could shoot at the Genii. "I hate these guys," he muttered, throwing an arm around Teyla's shoulders. Rodney felt much better about being scared when he saw Teyla, possibly the bravest person he knew, was also on the verge of panicking.

"Me, too," Sheppard agreed, pulling the trigger.

Someone let out a cry of pain. "Captain Ladon's been hit!" Rodney heard one of the Genii holler.

Without warning, the attack stopped.

"I really hope Ladon's still a bad guy in this reality," Sheppard murmured.

"Considering he's trying to kill us, I'm assuming yes," Rodney snapped. He squeezed his fingers around the butt of his gun, waiting for the Genii to go back to trying to turn them all into Swiss cheese.

Just as he thought it, the siege started up again. Above the sound of gunfire, he heard the ping, ping, ping of bullets embedding themselves into the metal beam he was currently hiding behind. He tried to scrunch himself lower. He wondered exactly how bullet-proof the Ancients had built the city; the Ancients didn't even have projectile weapons, he realized with trepidation.

Ronon eyed Sheppard. "You a soldier?"

"Yeah. Air Force."

"He also happens to be the military commander of our Atlantis," Rodney added brusquely.

Ronon nodded in understanding. "So in this other 'reality'--" He still didn't sound like he believed them. "--of yours, do I have a girlfriend?"

The expression on Sheppard's face would have been hilarious in any other circumstance. "Yeah," he blatantly lied. "You have lots of girlfriends."

Rodney was about to tell Ronon that their Teyla had a boyfriend and a baby, and that the other woman Ronon liked happened to be his girlfriend, when John gave him an intense look that clearly said 'shut the hell up, McKay.' It was just as well; he needed Ronon to be focused on keeping back the Genii, not on where he was putting his dick.

"Awesome," Ronon said, sounding pleased.

From somewhere above their heads came a crackling noise, and Rodney thought, Oh no, right as a large chunk of what was left of the ceiling collapsed. It missed him, but both Ronon and Teyla had to roll out of the way to avoid being crushed. Ronon was no longer completely protected by the ceiling beam, and Rodney watched in horror as a stray bullet went right through his shoulder.

Ronon looked down at his bleeding wound. "Hmm."

"You okay?" Sheppard asked, looking horrified.

Teyla tugged Ronon out of the line of fire. Her face was pale and pinched. "You know how to fire a gun?" Ronon asked her, even as she began tearing her lab coat into strips. She tied one around Ronon's arm, tucking it under his armpit so it would cover his shoulder.

"I am a scientist," she said hotly, "why would I need to know how to fire a gun?"

Ronon grabbed Teyla's hand, and, with both of them clutching the sidearm, pointed over the rubble and fired. A scream followed the blast, and Rodney, who was had just peeked over the beam to once more return fire, saw it hit its target. "Point and shoot," he heard Ronon say. "It's easy."

After taking a deep breath, Teyla lifted herself up beside Rodney and fired a succession of shots. Each and every one hit a Genii directly in the chest.

"Unbelievable," Rodney said.

"You were right, Emperor, this is quite easy," stated Teyla with a self-satisfied smirk. Sheppard let a snort of laughter.

"That was hot," said Ronon.

The floor began shaking again, and Rodney heard a faint crumbling sound coming from behind him. It sounded like the whole city was falling apart. During the Wraith attack on Atlantis, Rodney had been out of his mind on speed, but he could still remember what it had sounded and felt like when the Wraith darts had begun colliding with the towers. That was what it sounded like now, and from the alarmed look in his eyes, Sheppard was remembering it too.

"You have to let us go," Sheppard yelled, trying to make himself heard over the noise.

Ronon let out a frustrated growl. "There's no such thing as a time machine!"

"Your city's being destroyed! Does it really matter now?" Rodney bellowed.

Whatever Ronon was going to say was forgotten when he was clipped on the arm. He yelped in pain and dropped further down behind the rubble. He immediately wrapped the hand of his other injured arm around the wound. Already blood was seeping through his fingers. It was, Rodney realized, entirely possible he wasn't going to make it out of there alive.

"Go," Teyla shouted at them. She put her hand over Ronon's. His face was starting to pale. "I will stay with him."

Sheppard hesitated. "I'm not leaving you like this."

"There is no need for all four of us to die!"

"As soon as you get a chance, withdraw to the control room," Sheppard said. "You can use the life support terminal to override the door commands."

Teyla began, "I--"

Another explosion rocked the tower, sending smoke and dust into Rodney's already-dry eyes. When Teyla noticed they were still crouching there, she yelled, "Go!"

With one last look at the other half of their team, Rodney and Sheppard fled.

*

Chapter Four

Hundreds of thousands of years in the past, Rodney and Sheppard stared at the tanks of the iratus bugs forlornly.

"We are surprisingly resourceful," Rodney said.

"I never thought I'd say this, but we need to be stopped," said Sheppard. He pressed his lips together and put his hands on his hips. Rodney recognized it as his 'I'm having a deep thought' look.

Looking at Sheppard's determined expression, Rodney was struck with an idea. "Maybe we need help," he mused out loud. A second later, he marched over to the door and palmed it open.

"Who can we--? Rodney!" Sheppard said.

Rodney stepped out into the corridor and tried to call attention to himself. "Hey, you two, in here," he yelled to two men walking by. They each were carrying a pair of laser pistols in the holsters at their waists, which must have meant they were guards. They could be hair stylists, for all Rodney cared; all he needed was someone to watch the lab and make sure the other McKay and Sheppard didn't blow the iratus bugs to smithereens, an incident which no doubt would happen very, very soon if they didn't do something about it.

The guards exchanged bewildered looks before heading to where Rodney was leaning out of the doorway. They looked wary as they approached him, and it took Rodney a moment to realize it was because he was still holding the laser pistol he had used in the last timeline. Mortified, he tucked it into his belt, even though a part of him -- a large part -- was certain that any second now he would somehow accidentally fire it and blow off all his toes. That would be the perfect end to this week, he thought miserably.

"Can we help you?" the guard on the right asked.

"Yes, you can. We were at the, er, park earlier today--" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sheppard bury his face in his hands. Scowling, Rodney continued, "We were at the park, and we overheard some men saying they were planning on blowing up this lab. Big, burly men with-- with beards and hats."

"The Dercosta?" the one on the left asked. He didn't sound surprised. In fact, he sounded angry. "Figures."

The other guard nodded gravely. "Thank you for alerting us, good citizen. We'll get those cave dwellers."

They pushed past Rodney and entered the lab, guns in hand. Sheppard was still standing there with his mouth hanging open like a buffoon, and Rodney snapped, "Colonel, if you don't mind, I would like to get out of here before the alternate Sheppard and McKay show up."

"I think you just caused an intergalactic incident," Sheppard hissed as they strode down the corridor. Rodney was confident now their past selves would arrive, see the guards, and run for it, without ever realizing the iratus bugs were in the laboratory. Sometimes, he even amazed himself.

"Is this the face of someone who cares?" Rodney shot back, walking swiftly towards the transporter. "As long as the Wraith get created, we're fine."

"We're not fine. What if we just caused a big war that changes the timeline?"

"That would never happen," Rodney said.

As soon as they jumped forward to the present, however, Rodney knew his plan had not worked. For one thing, like the last reality, there was no moon hanging in the night sky. The room they appeared in, which Rodney recognized as one of the cramped laboratories in one of the western towers, had an enormous window overlooking the ocean; both the sky and the water were nearly pitch black. A single man was in the lab with them, apparently in the midsts of fixing something; he was crouched over a console with a hammer, obviously in mid-swing.

It was not the man himself so much as it was his clothing that alerted Rodney to the fact they weren't in the right place: he was wearing a white uniform much like that of the crew of the Aurora.

"Ah, dammit," Rodney said.

Slowly, the man lowered the arm holding the hammer. "Where did you come from?" he asked, sounding dazed.

Sheppard grabbed the front of Rodney's jacket and began dragging him towards the door. "Nowhere," he replied with a tight, polite smile. "We're a figment of your imagination. We were never here."

"But--" the guy started as they shot through the door and into an empty corridor.

"That was close," Sheppard said, finally releasing his vice-like grip on Rodney's jacket. He was staring back at the laboratory with an intense expression, as if daring the man to come running out after them. When nothing happened, he turned back to Rodney and narrowed his eyes, as if to say, 'Are you happy now?' but Rodney was too busy fuming to figure out how the hell this was his fault.

"I can't believe it didn't work!" Rodney cried. He raised a hand to his forehead and groaned. "How many trips has this been?"

Sheppard did an exaggerated head roll. "Five. I told you that you were starting an intergalactic incident in the last jump. Weren't you the one going on about 'affecting the timeline'?"

He even did the finger quotes. Rodney hated the finger quotes. "Hey, don't blame it all on me," Rodney said crankily. "For all we know, our alternate selves were able to outsmart the guards and exterminate the iratus bugs."

"Maybe if you hadn't--"

"Halt!" a voice rang out.

Rodney startled; Sheppard looked over Rodney's shoulder, and his eyes widened.

"Oh, we're dead," Rodney moaned. "I hate time travel."

A hand on Rodney's shoulder jerked him around, and he found himself face-to-face with a red-haired man he had never seen before. Another two men stood behind him, stony-faced. They were all three wearing the Aurora-class uniforms, although theirs were considerably less pristine than the man's in the laboratory. More troubling, however, was that they were carrying those clunky, Ancient laser pistols the same Ancient guards from the past had, and Rodney's heart sank at the sight of them. Clearly, no matter what reality there were in, people were going to try to kill them.

Rodney waited for one of them to notice the bulges at his waist where he had hidden the life signs detector and the Satedan sidearm, but then the second guard said, "Oh, Sheppard." He visibly relaxed, and then he lowered his pistol, shaking his head. "You know your kind isn't allowed back here."

Rodney and Sheppard exchanged glances. "Yeah, silly me," Sheppard replied carefully.

"Back to Helena Hall, the both of you," said another one of the guards.

"Right away," Rodney said, trying to play it cool. "Back to Hallana Hell-- I mean, Helena Hall!"

The guards -- if that was what they were -- looked at him oddly. Sheppard's smile turned brittle. He clasped his hands behind his back, and if Rodney hadn't known he had shoved his borrowed sidearm into the belt of his surcoat, against the small of his back, he would have looked perfectly innocent. Rodney braced himself to begin running like hell at Sheppard's command.

But instead, Sheppard said, "Don't mind my friend," and threw Rodney a meaningful look. "He's had a bad day."

A bad week, more like it, Rodney wanted to say, screwing up his mouth. Luckily for the both of them, the guards seemed to buy it. After a few more 'no, seriously, get the hell out of here's, they ambled off in the direction in which they had came. Rodney released a breath he had not realized he had been holding.

"I heard they were working on new uniforms, but those were just ugly," one of the guards said to the others, his voice trailing off as he walked out of sight.

"How did they know you?" Rodney hissed.

"How the hell should I know?" Sheppard replied, sounding frustrated. "Come on, we need to get out of here before they come back."

They headed away from the guards, and that was when they walked into another John Sheppard coming around the corner.

This Sheppard was wearing a uniform cut exactly like the others', except his was dark grey and obviously well-worn. Discoloured patches were sewn onto the elbows and the knees, and the line around his collar was frayed. His thick hair was longer and more floppy than Rodney's Sheppard's, almost in his eyes, but it was him, all right, from his elf ears to his big feet. Rodney goggled, dumbfounded; beside him, the real Sheppard's mouth dropped open in shock.

For a long moment, no one said anything.

Finally, the other Sheppard said, "This is weird."

"Well, we really did it now," Sheppard groaned. "I'm an Ancient!"

"What the hell is an Ancient?" Ancient Sheppard asked, his face scrunched up in thought.

"They don't call themselves Ancients, genius," Rodney scoffed. To the Ancient Sheppard, he asked, "Why are you wearing that uniform?"

"Why are you wearing that uniform?"

His Sheppard stepped forward. "Look," he explained, impatiently cutting the air with a hand, "we're from an parallel reality. We accidentally went back in time and screwed things up, and now we're trying to go back and fix it. All we need to do is reach this room with a time machine. We're not going to get in your way." He said the last uncomfortably.

Incredibly, Ancient Sheppard's face creased even more. He looked stupendously baffled. Rodney was positive he didn't believe them. The worst part was, Rodney himself was fairly certain that if another Rodney McKay from another reality came forward with such an outrageous story, he would not believe it until he had been given some pretty convincing evidence. (The presence of another McKay in and of itself was not, in Rodney's mind, evidence something was wrong; two years ago, he hadn't believed Rod so much as he had believed the results of his experiment. His own research supported the multiverse theory, after all, and there was no telling how many evil genius Rodney McKays were out there.) But since Rodney had forgotten his tablet somewhere, they didn't have any evidence other than their word.

"You're trying to go back in time?" the other Sheppard asked, his eyes darting from Sheppard to Rodney.

Rodney cleared his throat. "I realize this may seem--" He floundered, not knowing how to finish that sentence. Odd? Unusual? Crazy?

"So if you do go back in time and... do your thing," interrupted Ancient Sheppard, making a funny gesture, "my reality will be different?"

"Well," Sheppard started.

Rodney waved a hand, silencing him. Sheppard -- the real Sheppard -- looked annoyed. Rodney didn't know what about this whole thing was so difficult for people to understand; Madison probably could have gotten it. It annoyed him to no end that no one, in any reality, seemed to understand what time travel meant. That is, except Teyla, strangely enough. When they got home, he was going to have to look into that.

"No," Rodney replied, not wanting to give his Sheppard the opportunity to misconstrue the situation, "what we would actually be doing is trying to recreate the conditions that led to the creation of our own timeline. By altering the past, we've actually created new parallel universes, and once they're created, they won't be affected by our going back and forth in time."

Ancient Sheppard opened his mouth to say something, but Rodney raised a finger, silencing him. "But what we can do," he continued, beginning to get excited, "is make sure our timeline is created as it should be and go forward within this new timeline -- our original timeline -- and appear after we originally used the time machine. Hopefully. In other words, imagine time as a river--"

"Okay, I think he gets it," Sheppard interrupted, throwing Rodney a reproachful look.

The alternate Sheppard looked amused now. "What you're saying is my reality won't change, but someone else's reality will," he said, with a know-it-all air.

"Yes, I suppose that's one way of looking at it," Rodney admitted.

"Okay, I believe you. What'd you screw up?"

"You-- you what?" Rodney asked incredulously. His Sheppard looked taken aback as well.

With a shrug, the other Sheppard said, "To be honest, it's not the weirdest thing I've heard today."

"Good," Sheppard said. He paused, and his expression turned bleak. "I guess."

The two Sheppards looked at each other and then quickly looked away; the Ancient one had a curious, but still slightly alarmed, look on his face, while Rodney's Sheppard was obviously uncomfortable. It was stranger seeing another Sheppard now than when they had met the Replicator team, possibly because this time, Rodney knew (and Sheppard seemed to understand this as well) this Sheppard wasn't a copy. He had his own life here in this parallel Atlantis; he could be the leading expert on xenobotany and hate flying, for all Rodney knew. He could be married.

Oh God, he could be married to Chaya, Rodney realized with horror. They needed to get out of here.

"What's the situation here?" Sheppard asked.

"Situation?" asked Ancient Sheppard.

"Yeah, you know," Sheppard said. "Are things... how are things? Good?"

"Not really. Are things in your reality... good?"

It was painful to listen to. "What he wants to know is, is Atlantis currently at war with anyone?" Rodney snapped.

Ancient Sheppard cocked a brow at him. "There hasn't been any war since the Alterans wiped out the Dercosta and declared a universe-wide martial law a couple of millenia ago."

Slowly, Sheppard's head turned so he was glaring at Rodney.

"You don't know that we had anything to do with that," Rodney said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Maybe it's a coincidence."

"Some coincidence," said the real Sheppard.

"Hold on, does this mean there's a war going on in your reality?" Ancient Sheppard demanded. "Who are you fighting? Do the Alterans actually allow you to have ships and weapons?"

That sounded troubling. From the look on his face, Rodney's Sheppard agreed. "If there's no war here, then why did you say things weren't going well?" Sheppard asked.

Ancient Sheppard looked at them like they were insane. "You know, because of the slavery," he said carefully.

Rodney was at an absolute loss at what to say in response to that.

"Slavery?" Sheppard said weakly.

There was another long silence as the three of them stared at each other. Rodney watched in amazement as a half-dozen emotions flickered over Ancient Sheppard's face. First, he brightened, then he tensed, then he perked up once again, and finally, his expression turned steely.

"You'd better come with me," he said.

"No, no, absolutely not," Rodney protested. "We need to get to our time machine."

"Where is it?"

"On one of the lower floors of the central spire."

Ancient Sheppard looked grim. "You won't be able to get in there. They don't let us anywhere near any of the main operating systems."

Rodney had a flash of insight. He shook a finger at this new Sheppard. "That's right. Didn't those guards tell us 'our kind' aren't allowed here? What are you doing here, exactly?"

"Yeah, about that," said Ancient Sheppard, scratching his head. He gave a long look around the hall. "Like I said, you need to come with me. We'll go talk to some friends of mine."

Trusting Sheppard had been ingrained in Rodney practically since the man had 'accidentally' sat in the control chair in Antarctica. Rodney was a highly paranoid individual, but Sheppard had proven himself trustworthy time and time again. Except for when it came to snack food, and then, apparently, it was every man for himself. So when one Sheppard was telling Rodney to follow him, and the other Sheppard was hesitating, Rodney was so confused his head began to hurt.

"Lead on, McDuff," Rodney's Sheppard said finally, nodding.

The other Sheppard managed to look even more confused, and he said, "Uh, okay."

Rodney was completely unprepared for this new Sheppard to lead them to some sort of bar, located in one of the smaller towers of the city in which Rodney had never actually been. It was dark and cramped and smelled like the unpleasant combination of body odour and cigarettes; it looked like the country bars Rodney had grown up seeing in rural Alberta. It was absolutely not the place he would have ever expected to see in a city like Atlantis, especially an Atlantis still occupied by its original inhabitants.

"Do you think the Ancients had Ladies' Night?" he asked Sheppard.

"Your mind's a weird place, McKay," Sheppard replied.

They followed Ancient Sheppard as he weaved in and out of the tables. Faint electronica music was playing from tiny, round sconces mounted on the walls, and enough people were chattering for it to be difficult to pick out any one voice. There was a table of really hot blondes up against one of the walls.

Rodney was still staring in their direction when he realized Sheppard was glaring at him from over his shoulder. "What?" Rodney asked.

"Hey," Sheppard said, quietly enough for Rodney to have to practically press himself against Sheppard's back to hear, "if I'm here and he's here, why aren't I having... whatchamacallit, cascade failure?"

"You mean entropic cascade failure," Rodney whispered back. That was a good point, and he was delighted Sheppard had brought it up all on his own. Rodney was such an excellent teacher. "Lee and the other idiots at the SGC undeserving of their PhDs believe it only happens if the two, say, the two you's, are from realities that are completely dissimilar."

"This seems pretty dissimilar to me," Sheppard hissed, inclining his head at the passing Ancients. Alternate Sheppard glanced back at them and mutely raised a brow.

"We've been here for less than an hour," Rodney pointed out. "I doubt entropic cascade failure will happen for at least a few days, if not weeks. We were in the last godforsaken universe for nearly a week, and neither of us went through it."

"Maybe in that universe, we're dead," Sheppard said.

"I considered that," Rodney replied darkly.

Rodney followed his Sheppard, who was following the other Sheppard, towards the back of the bar and to a table already occupied by three men. His eye was first drawn to a scruffy, bearded man smoking a cigarette. He looked familiar, somehow, but it was hard to tell who that was under the eye patch and scars. When he caught sight of Rodney, his hand moved towards his waist.

"Wait," Rodney started to say when the two other people at the table stood, but none of them had weapons in their hands.

The other Sheppard grabbed two chairs from the next table and dragged them over. They loudly scraped against the floor, and Rodney saw one or two heads whip around to stare at them. "Sit down before someone notices you," Ancient Sheppard ordered in an undertone, giving the two of them a pointed, narrow-eyed glare.

Rodney waited until Sheppard sank into his chair before joining him. It was at that point Rodney realized he'd missed something far more important than crazy, bearded man. From the way Sheppard was looking dazed, he had noticed long before Rodney had.

"General O'Neill?" Rodney asked, astonished. "Major Lorne?"

"Oh, this can't be good," O'Neill muttered.

"Sir," said Rodney's Sheppard, voice cracking. He started to do a sloppy salute, then faltered.

"Seriously, why are there two of you?" O'Neill asked Ancient Sheppard. He didn't sound particularly pleased. "Did one of those Lanteans who want to marry you decide they were sick of waiting and cloned you instead?"

Rodney felt himself scowling. Of course Sheppard was a huge hit among the Ancient women. At least some things were consistent no matter what the universe. Thankfully, his Sheppard did not look happy to hear that either.

Before Rodney got a chance to respond, the other Sheppard replied, rolling his eyes, "They claim they're from an alternate universe."

"Say what?" Lorne asked.

Rodney gaped at the other Sheppard. "You said you believe us!"

"I say a lot of things," that Sheppard said.

"So you lied to us?"

The real Sheppard crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. "I'm thinking you're also lying about being Alterans."

"Never said I was," Not-So-Ancient Sheppard said. "We're from Earth, the same as you two, I'm willing to bet."

"Of course we're from Earth. Where else would we be from, Mars? Hold on," Rodney said with a sudden realization, "you don't know who I am, do you? Right now I'm hoping that means the alternate me working in a highly-respected, top secret think tank, not that I'm dead or that, even worse, I was never born. My parents did meet in a highly circumstance way; my father's lab partner in university had hidradenitis suppurativa, which is a kind of, ah, skin disease, and anyway, he was absent for a few weeks, and my mother's partner had also come down with something, so the two of them partnered up. It's possible that in this reality, one of their partners was healthy. It seems strange we've never met." He glanced over at his Sheppard, whose expression was flat. "Don't you think?"

Ancient Sheppard blinked at him slowly before turning to Sheppard. "Come on, him?" he asked, somehow managing to sound both amused and appalled all at once.

To Rodney's amazement, Sheppard flushed. "He's not so bad when you get to know him," he said, voice nonchalant despite his red face.

Rodney was touched. "Really, you think so?" he asked. "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about me."

"Really not the time, McKay," Sheppard said.

"I'm just saying, we're kind of hot," said the alternate Sheppard.

O'Neill dragged his gaze from the real Sheppard's chest to the top of his pointed, hedgehog-like head, and then did the same to Rodney's perfectly normal one. It was more than a little unsettling, mostly because the General O'Neill in his universe would've done the exact same thing. "Alternate universe," O'Neill repeated sarcastically, pursing his lips. "Iohannes, do you honestly expect me to believe that?"

"I know how it sounds," Ancient Sheppard started, "but--"

"Did he just call you 'Iohannes'?" Rodney interrupted.

"Uh, yeah," said the alternate Sheppard. "It is my name."

"My name's John," Sheppard said. He looked faintly horrified. "So if you're Iohannes--" He pointed at the other Sheppard. "--the rest of you are...?"

"Iefan," said Lorne. He put both his elbows on the table and leaned forward and asked Rodney, "Who the hell are you?"

"Doctor Rodney McKay, thank you very much."

Lorne snorted. "What kind of name is Rodney?"

"His real name's Meredith," Sheppard cut in.

"Do you mind?" Rodney demanded, irritated. Sheppard smirked at him.

"I'm Jackin," said O'Neill. "Jackin O'Neill. Two L's."

"That sounds made up," Rodney said.

"Well, I think my parents would disagree," O'Neill replied dryly. He grinned in a way that was completely terrifying, and if Rodney was a weaker man, he would have recoiled. "Iohannes, not that this isn't great and all, meeting your buddies from an alternate reality, but why did you bring them here? You know our club is members only."

Iohannes squirmed in his seat. "I was thinking we could help them."

"Help them."

"Our reality's not supposed to exist. None of this is supposed to be happening."

O'Neill didn't look like he was buying it. "You don't say."

"We may not be able to fix our situation, but maybe we can prevent it from happening to someone else."

"What situation?" Sheppard interrupted.

Iohannes, O'Neill, Lorne, and the bearded guy all turned to look at him.

Rodney felt it was his turn to step in and help. "Yes, what situation? I think it's time you told us what's going on here."

Instead of answering him, O'Neill looked to the man with the eye patch. "What do you think of all this, Beckett?"

It took Rodney's admittedly superior brain a few seconds to catch up to what O'Neill said, and when it did, Rodney froze. "Carson?" he asked weakly.

"You bet your fat ass, laddie," said Carson Beckett, snuffing out his cigarette on his own arm. Both Sheppards made an appalled face. "I think they're genuine," he said to O'Neill, while Rodney was still gaping. "It certainly explains why there are two Iohanneses. And I think we should help them."

"Iefan?"

"He has a point," Lorne admitted. "I don't think the scientists have perfected human cloning yet."

O'Neill rubbed his forehead. "Right. Okay. Iefan, do you want to do the honours?"

Proudly, Lorne told Rodney and Sheppard, "You're looking at the Committee for the Unified Movement of Slaves."

"The Committee for the-- Your name is CUMS?" Rodney stared at all of them with his mouth hanging open. "Who's flash of genius was that?" He knew before they even answered: "Right. Sheppard's. I should've guessed," he muttered, covering his eyes with one hand.

"Hey," Sheppard exclaimed.

Rodney still had his hand over his eyes when Sheppard said, "Seriously, what's going on here? The Unified Movement of Slaves? Are you saying you're the Ancients' slaves?"

"I'm guessing you guys don't have Alterans in your reality? Good for you," O'Neill said wryly. Rodney's head snapped up. "Humans have been slaves of the Alterans for thousands of years. Most of us who were 'lucky' enough to be born with Alteran blood work here in Atlantis, doing little things like repairs and maintenance. Iefan here works in the garbage compactor. Beckett and Iohannes do ship repairs, and I'm Councilwoman Cerra's personal chef. The rest of our people are spread throughout the Milky Way and Pegasus Galaxies."

If this Sheppard was anything like Rodney's, he must have been miserable, Rodney thought. "I thought the Ancients were all about 'releasing your burdens' and all that other mumbo-jumbo crap," he said.

"Yeah, not so much anymore," replied O'Neill.

"Some of the Alterans used to want to free us," Lorne offered, "but most of them are gone. Now they call themselves the Ori, I think. But they're in another galaxy."

"So the Ori are the good guys?" Sheppard's brow furrowed. "This is like being in Bizarro World."

Rodney held up a hand. "Let me see if I have this right. The Ancients have enslaved mankind. Except for the good Ancients, who are the Ori. Meanwhile, the four of you belong to an organization abbreviated CUMS."

"That sounds right," said O'Neill. He threw an arm over the back of his chair. "You got a problem with that, Doctor?"

"Oh, I have many problems with that," Rodney began, but Sheppard stomped on his foot hard enough for him to see stars. He let out a choked wheeze and curled his stinging toes in his runners, his eyes watering.

O'Neill smirked in a way that told Rodney he knew exactly what was happening under the table. "So how do we get you boys back to your reality?"

Rodney explained what had happened as best he could. He could tell by their expressions, however, that they didn't believe him as easily as the alternate Sheppard -- Iohannes, Rodney reminded himself -- had.

"I have a question," Lorne said as soon as he was finished. "How do you know going back will change anything?" He looked uncertain.

Sheppard nudged Rodney with his elbow, and Rodney blinked a few times, his mind clearing. "SG-1 -- er, a group of people from our Earth, one of whom was O'Neill, as a matter of fact -- have traveled back in time before." At that, O'Neill cocked a skeptical brow at him, as if Rodney didn't know he was a hero under that gruff, intellectually-challenged exterior. "Twice, actually. In one scenario, they went five thousand years in the past and altered the timeline, allowing the team in the present day to find an artifact they themselves had buried. Theoretically, while they had changed the past, their present would remain unchanged, because in order to have a reason to go back, their present needed to lack the artifact they had been looking for. Going back in time and burying this artifact caused a timeline, or parallel universe, to be created from that point onwards, and it was this new timeline in which the artifact was found in our present day. Does that make sense?"

"Absolutely not," replied O'Neill.

Lorne was gazing at Rodney like he had grown a second head; both Sheppards had their browns knitted in thought, although Rodney knew perfectly well at least one of them -- his Sheppard -- had understood him.

Carson took another drag of his cigarette. "I understood it perfectly," he said to Rodney, smoke puffing past his lips with every syllable.

"Please don't speak to me," Rodney said.

Although the real Carson would have been upset and admonished Rodney for being a 'bampot' or a 'numpty' or some other made up Scottish word, this Carson merely smirked and rolled another cigarette.

Sheppard rapped his knuckles on the table to get their attention. "What he's saying is, we destroyed our own timeline so we got sent to another one. Once we fix what we did, we should be able to go back to our present day with no problems."

The others turned to stare at him. "You destroyed your own timeline?" Lorne asked.

"It was an accident," Sheppard said defensively, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Okay, so you destroyed your timeline," O'Neill said. "I don't see what this has to do with us."

Iohannes leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow at his buddies. "I was thinking we could provide them with a distraction."

That seemed to be the magic word. Rodney's Sheppard raised his own eyebrow at that, and while Rodney had no idea what was going on, the others seemed to get it.

O'Neill brightened. "Yes, Dex and the other Satedans are waiting on Balkan for our orders," he mused, gazing off into the distance. Visions of machetes and sniper rifles were probably dancing in his head.

"You know Ronon?" Rodney asked, heart in his throat.

Sheppard leaned forward with an intense look on his face. His eyes flashed. "What about Teyla Emmagan of Athos?"

Iohannes snorted. "Who doesn't know Teyla Emmagan? She's only the most popular actress in two galaxies."

"I met her once," Lorne said dreamily. "She signed my chest."

Teyla and Ronon were alive. Rodney didn't realize how tightly the muscles in his shoulders were clenched until they relaxed at the news. He glanced at Sheppard, who was visibly relieved. Intellectually, Rodney knew it was ridiculous to be having this sort of reaction -- neither of these people were his real friends -- but at the moment, he didn't care.

"Teyla's not a slave like you?" Rodney asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer. For the first time ever, he was glad to hear someone was in show business.

"She killed three of her masters and the Alteran Protectorate of Athos had her slated to be executed, but then Lord Ladon bought her and fell in love with her. He released her in his will and left her all of his estate." When Lorne realized everyone was staring at him, he added defensively, "It's in her autobiography. Come on, guys, read a book."

Rodney was fairly certain Teyla would rip off Ladon's arm and beat him to death with it if he ever so much as touched her, but maybe the Teyla in this reality had somehow been charmed by him.

"So... distraction," O'Neill said, steepling his fingers. Looking embarrassed, Lorne ducked his head. "I can work with a distraction. What's say we freak these Alterans out pretty good?"

Before long, O'Neill had outlined a plan in which they would divide into three teams and set off bombs at three different locations, with the end goal being Sheppard and Rodney with the time machine, and O'Neill and Lorne going through the gate to Balkan. It seemed suspiciously like this was an old plan they had been waiting to put into action. Rodney had been at the SGC when O'Neill had been in charge, and the O'Neill he knew was a lunatic. This reality was no exception, apparently. He was particularly convinced they were going to die horribly when O'Neill turned to Carson and ordered, "Beckett, take McKay with you."

"You're kidding me," Rodney exclaimed. Carson sneered, waggling his cigarette between his teeth. "Him?"

"Yeah, I don't know about that," Sheppard said. "I think McKay should stick with me."

"If you're worried about his safety, don't be," said O'Neill. He jerked a thumb at Carson. "They don't call him Mad Dog Beckett for nothing."

"They don't what?" Rodney exclaimed.

Carson exhaled a puff of smoke. "How else do you think I got these scars?"

"Frankly, I was more concerned with the eye patch."

"Oh, I just wear that for fun," Carson said sarcastically.

Rodney scowled at him. Carson smirked back, looking distinctly un-Carson-like. Soon after, Rodney realized that while he was busy ruminating over his ultimate demise, he had missed the rest of the plan. The next thing he knew, O'Neill had left to pay the bill for their -- more like Carson's, rather -- drinks, and Lorne was saying something to Sheppard Rodney couldn't hear. Iohannes gave Rodney a familiar nod, and then he turned to Rodney's new teammate.

"Take care of yourself, Carson," Iohannes said quietly. His gaze was intense.

Carson threw him a fond smile. In that moment, if it had not been for the disfiguring scars and the inexplicable eye patch, he would have looked just like the Carson from their timeline. "Of course I will," he practically crooned, tousling Iohannes's hair with one hand. "Who else will keep you from doing those crazy stunts of yours?"

Iohannes laughed that dorky, barking laugh every Sheppard in every timeline probably had.

Suddenly, Rodney's Sheppard jerked, gazing at the scene with wide eyes. A handful of expressions flitted on his face before finally settling on one that was strangely vulnerable. Something about it made Rodney's insides twist. He felt he was missing something important here.

"What was that about?" he asked, confused.

"Nothing," Sheppard said defensively. But his gaze flickered over to where Iohannes was now having a hushed conversation with Lorne, and he took on that strange look again.

"Come on now," Carson said to Rodney, slapping his back, "we should get a move on."

He stood, giving Sheppard a pleading look. All Sheppard did was smile back thinly. "See you at the time machine, buddy."

Rodney pointedly looked at Carson, who looked back at him and grinned in a way that was probably not meant to be as frightening as it looked.

"I suppose we've had worse odds," Rodney muttered.

"Just think of it like being at the Midway Station when the Wraith took over," Sheppard said, not helping.

"I had nightmares about that for weeks."

Carson laid a firm hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Laddie, it's time for all of Atlantis to finally know the name of the Committee for the Unified Movement of Slaves. I can see the newsreel headlines now: 'Atlantis brought to its knees by CUMS, Ecstasy Ensues.'"

"Yeah, we really need to get you a new name," said Sheppard.

*

After an incredibly terrifying night spent sleeping in some sort of slave barracks under the assumed names Maredudd Rod (which, frankly, sounded like the name of a porn star) and Shepherd John, in beds that were considerably more comfortable than the mats he had been forced to sleep on when he had been Teyla's indentured servant, Rodney found himself helping Carson 'Mad Dog' Beckett plant a bomb. Carson seemed to take great pride in ripping out the pin of the grenade-like apparatus with his bare teeth. Rodney wondered how the universe had come to this.

In his many years on a gate team, Rodney had set off a number of bombs. Big bombs, little bombs, nuclear bombs; he'd used C4 to blow open doors, loaded a nuclear warhead onto a puddlejumper, and inadvertently blew up Atlantis' gate from another planet. This was the first time, however, he had set off a bomb in the city with the intention of causing deliberate harm. Even though this wasn't his Atlantis, he still felt guilty blowing up an abandoned auditorium in the tower south of the central spire.

After destroying said auditorium, Rodney and Carson ran into a crowd of terrified, screaming people. That had been Carson's suggestion; he had said it would make them seem less suspicious. As he managed to squeeze himself into a transporter that was already filled to the brim, Rodney was thinking that being inconspicuous was highly overrated. He glanced at the sobbing man beside him and sighed to himself.

When they got to where the rest of the people were going, which, thankfully, seemed to be the central tower, Rodney was planning on waiting until they were alone so they could take it right to the floor of the time machine, but Carson grabbed his arm and pulled him out into the busy hallway.

"What are you doing?" Rodney asked over the sound of someone screaming. In the distance, he could hear another explosion.

"If we take the transporter, we'll never get there," Carson shot back. "Too many people are going to be evacuating."

That made sense. Rodney looked around hurriedly. "Stairs?" he asked.

"Aye, meet you there."

Rodney was taking the stairs two at a time when another bomb went off somewhere in the tower. There was a loud, screeching sound and the metal staircase gave out from under Rodney's feet. He slammed his upper body against the stairs and curled his arms around the one nearest to his chest; his stomach dropped all the way to his toes, which were now dangling mid-air.

"Rodney, are you okay?" Carson bellowed. He grabbed Rodney's arm and pulled; Rodney managed to throw one leg onto the last stair, and then the other, until he was lying completely on the staircase.

Rodney felt what was left of the stairs trembling beneath him. His heart was pounding a mile a minute. He was afraid to look down; he didn't want to know exactly how many floors he had narrowly missed falling from. Terrified, he shouted, "I thought there were only three bombs!"

"Jackin and Iefan love blowing up shit," Carson said grimly, sitting down next to where Rodney was lying. He tapped a particularly ugly scar on his right cheek. "That's how I got this beauty."

Rodney sucked in a deep breath and flipped himself over. There was a black, gaping hole where the rest of the staircase used to be; where he and Carson were sitting now was bent out of place. There was no way they were going to be able to take the stairs now. "I knew this was a bad idea," he moaned. "We'll have to use the transporter on the last floor."

Carson stood gingerly. "Be careful," he warned. "This feels like it could collapse any second."

"No, really?" Rodney snapped.

Carson gave him a one-eyed glare before slowly walking up the stairs. Rodney didn't think his own knees could support him, so he carefully crawled his way towards the last floor. With every step, the battered staircase bobbed up and down; he thought he was going to be sick.

"Going to die, going to die, going to die," he murmured.

"Shut it," Carson hissed.

He was going to fall to his death in a trap set by his own (well, not really) people. Sheppard was going to have to try to fix the universe on his own, and Rodney knew very well that would never happen. Sheppard would end up going back and forth in time until he was killed. Rodney wouldn't -- he wrapped his hands around the railing -- let that -- he heaved himself up -- happen.

"Hurry up, lad," Carson shouted down to him.

Rodney made it to the floor before another explosion finished off that segment of the staircase he had just been climbing. He could hear it clattering against the tower's stone interior walls all the way down.

He let out a strangled cry of relief. "I hate time travel."

Carson grabbed him by the shoulders and tugged him to his feet. "Transporter's this way," he said brusquely.

The rest of the way was blissfully clear of people. But, of course, that was too easy; Rodney was halfway there when something unexpected happened. He followed Carson around the corner, towards the double transporters--

And found himself in literally the exact same corridor he'd just vacated. Rodney knew his way around Atlantis, even an Atlantis in another timeline, and this was, without certainty, the same corridor. Carson froze in place as well, his one eye wide.

A frown marred Carson's face. "Did we just--?"

"There was no way that just happened," Rodney said.

He went around the corner again, and found himself face-to-face with Carson. Rodney walked back to the corner and peered around it, and he was looking right at Carson's backside.

"What in the bloody hell is going on?" Carson demanded. Their voices came from both the corridors in front and behind him.

Rodney marched over to him. "I did just leave this corridor, right?" he asked, pointing both pointer fingers at the floor.

Carson's brow knitted. "Aye, you did."

This was simultaneously perplexing and infuriating. While was stewing, he heard a loud, "McKay!" and turned to find Sheppard and the other Sheppard, Iohannes, heading for him. Sheppard was bleeding from a cut high on his left cheekbone, and his Renaissance surcoat was more wrinkled than usual, but other than that, he looked fine. Rodney was impossibly relieved.

"We have a problem," Rodney told him. "First, O'Neill is out of his goddamn mind."

Iohannes grimaced. "I think he's happy to be messing with the Alterans. He has a lot of built-up resentment."

"There's an understatement," Carson said with a snort.

"Come on, there's a transporter this way," Sheppard said, heading for the corridor with the time loop.

"Wait!" Rodney said, but just as the words left his lips, Sheppard was already standing behind him, looking confused. "I told you to wait!"

"Is the hallway doing what I think it's doing?" Sheppard asked ominously.

"That's the second thing. It's some sort of--" Rodney started.

Rodney heard a loud, and now incredibly familiar, cracking sound, and the ceiling began to fall. Carson shoved Rodney back. He tripped and landed on his ass, hard, and he looked up in time to see a huge pile of stone where he had just been standing. Unfortunately, it looked like he and Carson had been cut off from the two Sheppards.

Unless... Unless they were trapped under the fallen ceiling. Rodney swallowed thickly at the thought of Sheppard crushed beneath tons of stone. There had better be a functioning transporter on that side, he thought, sick to his stomach.

But before he had the time to think about it further, yet another explosion rocked the tower, and Rodney stumbled forward. Luckily, he hit the wall and was able to regain his balance before he fell flat on his ass. "You would think O'Neill didn't want us to get to the time machine," he muttered through clenched teeth.

"There's another transporter down here," Carson said, taking off in a run.

A baton of armed soldiers in white were waiting for them when Rodney, out of breath, rounded the opposite corner from the hallway with the time loop. "Shit," he yelped, and managed to dive behind the wall just as lasers shots hit the wall right where he had just been standing, leaving behind scorch marks. The transporter was, unfortunately, right across the corridor from him, but if he made any move for it, he would be killed.

"We'll never make it," he moaned.

"I'll handle this, lad," Carson said gruffly. His face was flushed, making his scars across even more noticeable. "You need to go fix the timeline."

Pulling two pistols out of the holsters at his waist, he started to move forward. Rodney grabbed his arm. "Wait," he hissed, "what are you doing?"

"Get going," Carson snapped, shaking him off.

Before Rodney could stop him, Carson, screaming, jumped out from around the corner, straight to where the guards were lined up. Rodney could hear him yelling, "You'll never take me alive!" as the sound of gunfire echoed throughout the corridor.

Rodney was too stunned that Carson Beckett had just saved him in a manner much like an action hero to really be sad that he was most likely dead. As if Rodney wasn't traumatized from the last time Carson had died. What was wrong with the people in this reality?

Much to his relief, when he made it to the transporter without being shot at, the two Sheppards were waiting outside the time machine room. They were both looking agitated.

"McKay, good to see you," his Sheppard said, his relief evident on his face.

Iohannes grabbed Rodney's arm. "Carson?" he demanded.

"He didn't-- he didn't make it," Rodney stammered.

For a brief instant, Iohannes looked completely, utterly devastated. Then he pulled himself together, a determined expression masking whatever it was he was feeling. Rodney had never seen Sheppard look that upset before, and it was unsettling -- for more reason than one. Iohannes and Carson? That alone would fuck up any universe, as far as Rodney was concerned.

"Come on," Iohannes said, voice hard, "we need to get you two out of here."

Rodney recognized that tone. It resulted in him mutely opening the door panel and starting to override the commands.

"I'm sorry," his Sheppard was saying while his back was turned.

"Thanks," said Iohannes quietly. "He was-- I--"

"Yeah, I know."

"I'm going to puke," Rodney muttered to himself.

It wasn't like he hadn't known about Sheppard's sexuality. It wasn't something the team openly discussed -- except that one time at an Athosian festival when Sheppard had not-so-discreetly gone into the woods with a man they would later find out was Kanaan's cousin, and Ronon and Teyla had dragged Rodney into a drunken conversation about who they thought Sheppard's idea of the perfect man was (Rodney had said, "Han Solo," and Ronon, weirdly enough, had said, "Zac Efron") -- but Sheppard usually tried to be discreet about it -- so discreet, in fact, sometimes Rodney forgot Sheppard liked the Pegasus Galaxy's men as much as, if not more than, he liked the women. Rodney had a hard time reading people in general, but sometimes Sheppard was utterly impossible.

Now, however, Rodney's chest felt funny and tight, a feeling he usually chalked up to jealousy -- jealous of the attention Sheppard was getting, the ease in which he flirted. But this wasn't the bimbo or himbo of the week; this was Carson Beckett. Granted, a more rugged, manly, and, apparently, insane version of Carson, but it was Carson nonetheless. Rodney should not have been feeling the way he was. Perhaps he was coming down with a fever. All this time traveling was probably wreaking havoc on his immune system. God only knew what kind of bacteria he had been exposed to that they didn't have in his universe.

He must have been louder than he thought, because suddenly his Sheppard was at his side. The tips of his ears were bright red, but he sounded normal when he snapped, "Hurry up, McKay."

As if on cue, the door slid open.

Rodney was already halfway to the time machine when he heard Sheppard address Iohannes: "Thanks. For believing us, and for helping us."

Sheppard looked pointedly at Rodney.

"Uh, yeah, thanks," Rodney said.

Iohannes shrugged. "What kind of guy would I be if I didn't help two time travelers change the timeline?"

Sheppard nodded, tight-lipped. "I know we can't do anything about your reality, but--"

"Don't worry about us. In about twenty minutes, Jackin, Iefan, and Dex will be breaking into the Balkan weapons cache, and I'll be busy planting bombs on the gate ships." He rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. "Again."

"They call them gate ships here, huh?" Sheppard asked.

"Wait now, lads," said a voice.

Mad Dog Beckett came staggering around the corner. Both his pistols were still clutched in his hands, and the collar of his grey uniform was completely soaked with sweat. He was bruised and limping, and the entire lower half of his right leg was covered in blood.

"Carson!" Rodney and Iohannes cried at the same time.

"Your leg!" Rodney added, gesturing at the horrible thing.

"Jeeze, Carson," Iohannes continued. The tone of his voice was irritated, but the look on his face was anything but. Rodney knew that look because he had been on the receiving end of it many times after being injured or held hostage.

Carson waved them off. "Och, it's just a flesh wound."

"Your foot's dangling by a tendon," Rodney said.

"I'll live," Carson replied gruffly.

He reached over and placed a hand on Iohannes' arm. Iohannes gazed at him with big, wet eyes. For the second time in the past few minutes, Rodney had the urge to vomit.

Another bomb went off somewhere, and ceiling fragments crumbled to the floor. O'Neill and Lorne were awfully trigger happy, it looked like.

Sheppard seemed like he was about to fumble through a speech that would no doubt embarrass them all, so Rodney loudly said, "Yes, yes, goodbye, don't forget to write, catch you on the flip side."

The last thing Rodney saw before the door slid shut was Iohannes and Carson making out. His heart stuttered in his chest, and Sheppard said, "That's awkward."

"Please don't tell me you're in love with Carson," Rodney said, hastily disabling the door controls so it couldn't be opened from the outside.

Sheppard looked at him sharply. "I'm not in love Carson, Rodney. Jeeze."

Some of the tightness in his chest lessened. "Oh. Well. Just checking," he sniffed.

"Uh-huh," Sheppard said skeptically.

He had that 'I know something you don't know' tone Rodney hated. Why shouldn't Rodney feel strange seeing his old best friend making out with current best friend? That was perfectly normal, he told himself. If he had walked in on Teyla and Ronon playing tonsil hockey, he would have felt the same way.

"You want to know what's creepy?" Sheppard asked, his hands on his hips. "With that beard, Carson kind of looks like my dad. I mean, before the obesity that eventually killed him."

"Wow, I did not need to know that. Issues much?" When Sheppard smacked him on the back of the head, he yelped, "Ow! I wasn't talking about you, I was talking about the other Sheppard!" He rubbed his now-surely-bruised cranium.

"Why don't I believe you," Sheppard stated, stalking over to the time machine.

"So what now, Colonel?" Rodney asked.

"Now," Sheppard said, powering up the time machine, "we go back to trying to stop ourselves from making the biggest mistake of our lives."

"Yay," Rodney said sarcastically, but it was swallowed up by the light.

*

Chapter Five

It was harder than John thought to come up with yet another a way to keep the iratus bugs from being killed. He was running out of ideas here. Rodney wasn't being much help, either; John had a sinking feeling he was going to give up soon, if John didn't keep pushing him. But they couldn't give up until they were sure the people of this galaxy were safe.

Finally, John noticed there weren't any windows in the room. He could work with that.

"Hey, help me pull the light fixtures off the walls," he told Rodney. He headed to the nearest wall and tugged one of the glowing sconces out of its plug.

"Your plan is to make it too dark for them to see?" Rodney asked. "What's next, turning the temperature down so they're too cold to stay? What makes you think that will even work?"

Actually, the cold thing sounded kind of good. John pulled out a second light and tossed it on the floor. "If it doesn't work, we'll come back and try something else," he said, trying to make it sound like an order.

He heard Rodney sigh, and a moment later, the room became dimmer. He glanced over to find Rodney working on his second light. By the time they were done, the room was only barely lit by the lights along the floor paneling. It was too dark to make out the iratus bugs in their terrariums. They put all of the sconces into the bins with the blankets, and then they high-tailed it out of there.

Back in the time machine room, right before Rodney placed his hand on the time machine, John found himself glancing over at the two-headed statue. It had been a while since he had given it any thought. It was still one of the creepiest things he had ever seen, but he could have sworn there were more marbles in its hand last time they had done this. He was still staring at it, brow wrinkled, when he felt a sickening lurch and everything turned white.

"I think I'm getting used to this," Rodney said shakily after they had flashed to another timeline. "I only want to puke a little this time."

"Never say puke again," John said as his stomach flipped over.

Rodney's face turned green. "Sorry," he gulped. He sat down heavily on a plastic box. There were beads of sweat dotting his forehead.

Equally nauseated, John reached out and braced himself on the-- ammunition crate? He jerked his hands away, and that was when he realized they were in Atlantis's armoury, surrounded by plastic crates filled with P-90s, ammo, and C4, plus whatever this Atlantis had convinced the SGC to send them. His stomach dropped.

"We can't get caught in here," he said.

Rodney frowned and raised his head. "Why not? I don't see the difference between getting caught here or in one of the other rooms."

His voice rose. "Because if we do, they're going to think--"

"Step away from the artillery right now," ordered an unfamiliar voice from the direction of the door.

John gave Rodney a meaningful glare before spinning around to face whatever evil beings were occupying this Atlantis. By this point, the evil thing was getting a little tired; when were they going to find a universe with good guys?

But he was surprised to see it was a that a thin woman with shaggy, shoulder-length black hair and an unfamiliar uniform pointing one of his people's P-90s right at them. Along with a tac vest, she was wearing a Navy sailor uniform shirt, complete with a blue collar with white stripes, and a matching short, ruffled skirt. And under that, crazily enough--

"Are those heels?" Rodney demanded, sounding scandalized. "You're wearing heels, in Atlantis? What is wrong with you?"

She squinted at Rodney in confusion, but her hand didn't waver. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?" she growled.

Her voice was nasal. On top of that, her nose was pointed, her hair was mussed, and her face was long and familiar; she had a face John remembered from childhood, a face that was in nearly half of his family photos back on Earth. (Which were probably in a box in Dave's attic, but John wasn't going to dwell on that right now.) The only way he knew she wasn't his mother -- if his mom had somehow de-aged twenty years, sobered up, and joined the SGC -- was because her eyes were hazel, not the grey Dave and his mother had shared.

John gaped.

"Are you going to answer me or what?"

Rodney glanced at John and asked desperately, "Colonel?"

That snapped John out of it. He held his hands out in front of him. "We don't want any trouble. How about you tell us who you are, and we'll tell you who we are? That way, everybody wins. Something about you tells me you're an intelligent, rational, and fair leader," he said seriously.

Rodney gave him a disbelieving look.

"That is true," she agreed, still sounding suspicious. Yet there must have been something in his expression -- apprehension, or maybe even fear -- because she replied, in a tone that let him know she was only humouring him, "Major Jenna Sheppard." And just when John thought it couldn't get any worse, she added, "Brown."

"I know what universe this is," John said, filled with dread.

Rodney leapt his his feet. "This is the universe where you're a woman!" he finished gleefully, ignoring the dirty look John gave him. He rubbed his hands together and gazed at Jenna Sheppard-Brown like she was a piece of meat. John's stomach rolled unpleasantly; it felt weird that he was jealous of himself.

Jenna crossed her arms over her chest and glared at both of them. "Maybe your universe is the one where I'm a man," she said flatly. Then she frowned. "Wait a minute. What universe? Are you from a parallel reality?"

John's head snapped back in surprise. "Um, yes?" Rodney answered, baffled.

"Perfect," she groaned. She looked up at the ceiling in exasperation. "Not another one."

"Did you say 'another one'?" John asked, worried.

"You're the sixth team from a parallel reality we've met this year."

"That's... weird," John said. He really hadn't seen this coming.

She cocked her head in agreement. "You're telling me," she said.

"Well," Rodney said briskly, heading for the door, "this has been nice, but since we're obviously not in our timeline--"

He was almost there when Jenna stepped directly in his path. Rodney stuttered to a stop, looking thrown. She put a hand -- the one not holding her P-90 -- on her hip. "Where do you think you're going, buddy?" she asked.

"To our time machine?" Rodney replied tentatively.

"I don't think so. First, I think our commander's going to want to meet you."

Rodney visibly grit his teeth. "Oh no, we're not falling for this again! Listen here, Commando Barbie, I realize that the botox may have killed off any brain cells you may have had--" Fuming, he started to take a step forward, and then, seeing Jenna's P-90 aimed at his belly, he went still. "What I meant to say was, uh, Major Sheppard--"

"Brown," she interrupted. "I go by my married name."

John felt a part of his soul die.

"Major Brown," Rodney continued, sounding strangled, "as I was saying, it is imperative we get to our time machine."

"Time machine, huh?" Jenna asked, frowning. "That's different. The other teams got here from gate malfunctions or matter bridges."

"Rod," Rodney seethed in an undertone.

"Look, I've dealt with people like you before. I know how this works. My commander's going to want to talk to you about your reality. He's really interested in where our paths diverge, or whatever. I think he's writing a paper. When he's done with you, you'll be free to go on your way."

John pressed his lips together. "Just like that, huh?"

Jenna arched a brow. "Just like that."

He didn't see any other choice than to believe her. It was either go with her or kill her and hope none of her people found them before they got out of there, and, honestly, he was a little curious himself to see how their paths diverged. Unless there was something Iohannes hadn't been telling him, he obviously hadn't a woman in the last reality.

Mind made up, John asked, "Who's in charge here?"

"Commander Teal'c of the UPMW."

John didn't know what the UPMW was, but he was really glad -- and kind of confused -- to hear Teal'c was there, because that meant the SGC was in charge. And if the SGC was in charge, it could mean that maybe this time they had fixed things. Maybe this was finally the reality in which everything was okay.

He glanced at Major Sheppard. She was studying her nails, which were painted hot pink.

Or not, he amended.

"Teal'c?" Rodney asked. He didn't sound happy. "That's it, we're dead."

"What are you talking about?" John said.

Rodney grimaced. "I'm fairly certain Teal'c hates me."

"Maybe because you tried to kill him," John pointed out.

Jenna goggled at Rodney. "You tried to kill him?"

Rodney let out a dramatic sigh. "It was one time," he protested. "And I'm perfectly willing to admit now that I was wrong and Colonel Carter was right." When he noticed Jenna was still staring at him, he snapped, "It was a long time ago. I'm sure Teal'c doesn't even remember it happened."

To his credit, he didn't look as pained as John would have expected. He was pretty sure Rodney was only admitting that because Carter wasn't there, though.

"We don't even know if the Teal'c in this reality knows the you in this reality," John said.

Rodney brightened. "You're right."

*

Teal'c remembered him.

"Doctor McKay," he said slowly, one of his eyebrows arching painfully high.

"Please don't kill me," said Rodney. "I am deeply, deeply sorry about when you were stuck in the wormhole and I told Sam it was a waste of time to try and save you. In my defense, I'm a terrible person."

Teal'c's other eyebrow shot up.

John jabbed Rodney in the side with an elbow. "McKay's not really a terrible person," he said, smiling apologetically. "He just doesn't know when to shut up. Isn't that right, Rodney?"

"Ow! Do you mind? Keep your pointy elbows to yourself!"

John was a little resentful of the fact that in this timeline, he was a woman while Rodney was still himself. Emphasis on the him.

As if sensing what John was thinking, Teal'c turned his attention to John. His reaction to John was completely different than his reaction to Rodney; he blinked at John like John was the strangest thing he had ever seen. To John, however, Teal'c looked pretty much the same, except he was missing both that white streak in his hair and his gold tattoo on his forehead. He was the first person John had seen without a sailor suit; along with his navy blue trousers, he was wearing a plain black t-shirt that only served to make him appear more enormous. He was also completely, one hundred percent male.

General O'Neill was there too, this time as Teal'c's 2IC, or something. He, however, was wearing a white Navy Full Dress uniform along with, hilariously enough, a blue scarf. John felt like he was in a bad sci-fi movie from the Forties. Right now, O'Neill was resting one hip against Teal'c's desk (which had also been Elizabeth's, Sam's, and Woolsey's desks in John's reality) and gazing at all of them with his lips pursed. He hadn't said much other than, "Welcome, ladies," when Jenna had first led them into the office.

Without taking his eyes off John's face, Teal'c reached up and tapped his radio. "Doctor Rod McKay," he said, carefully enunciating each word, "would you please come to my office immediately."

"Rod?" Rodney squeaked. "Oh no. No, no, no, no."

While Rodney was still moaning "no" over and over, the door slid open, and in walked the most un-Rod Rod John had ever seen.

She looked exactly like Jeannie Miller, except with very short brown hair instead of blonde curls. Unlike Jenna, her uniform several sizes too loose, and John was pretty sure those were the same boots he was currently wearing. Peaking out of the collar of her sailor shirt was the edge of a colourful tattoo. She, thankfully, was wearing pants.

Rodney made a horrible choking sound and sort of half-fell into one of the four empty chairs in front of Teal'c's desk. "What--? You--? But--? What?"

"Let me guess, Meredith?" John asked.

The female Rodney looked at John coldly. "I go by Rod, as a matter of fact. Doctor Rod McKay, if you don't mind."

The she seemed to notice Rodney freaking out at John's side. She sighed. "Another parallel reality, Commander?" She looked Rodney up and down. "I have to say, though, this is the first time I've met myself as a man. Good lord, am I bald?"

Jenna snickered loudly; O'Neill pointedly coughed into one hand.

"Hey, I still have most of my hair!" Rodney replied, reaching up to feel the back of his own head. "And you're one to talk, G.I. Jane."

Teal'c was still staring at John throughout this exchange, which was starting to make him really uncomfortable. "I am sorry, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard," Teal'c said, schooling his features back into a bland expression, "but I had never imagined Major Sheppard as a male before. The resemblance is uncanny."

"Hey, what about me?" Rod asked.

"Please, with that haircut?" Rodney said.

"Does this mean every parallel you you've met has also been... you know. Women?" John asked both Jenna and Rod. He took a seat beside Rodney, while the other two remained standing. Jenna folded one leg over the other and leaned against the wall, and Rod stood and held her chin up high.

Jenna crossed her arms over her chest. "What else would they be? Oh, right," she added knowingly, smirking.

"I look just like my brother," Rod said, narrowing her eyes at Rodney's belly.

"I look just like my mom," John said in empathy.

Rodney's attention snapped away from Rod and back to John. "Really?" he asked, with obvious interest. "Your mom was hot! I mean, uh, that is--"

"Thank you, Doctor," Jenna said dryly. "I think."

Rodney stammered something incoherent and looked away, obviously embarrassed.

It looked like Teal'c's reaction towards Rodney wasn't because he had recognized Rodney and had been surprised to see him. Now it was obvious he had recognized the Rod in Rodney and had been shocked. And probably pretty appalled, too. If one of John's teammates from an alternate reality had shown up and had been the opposite sex, he didn't think he would know what to do. He had barely known what to do with their alternate selves that actually looked like them.

That reminded him. "So... is there a Ronon and Teyla in this reality?" When he got nothing but blank looks, he elaborated: "Ronon Dex? Teyla Emmagan?"

"Oh," Rod said, drawing out the word. "This is going to be hilarious."

It turned out Jenna and Rod weren't the only ones who had changed on John's team; John should not have been shocked, but he was. Teyla's alter ego was, unsurprisingly, named Torren; he had a square jaw, short copper-coloured hair, and bulging arm muscles, but he looked bored with the whole situation. Rhonda Dex, meanwhile, had Ronon's characteristic dreads and jewelry, and from the amused expression on her heart-shaped face, much of the same personality. But what John was really surprised at was neither of them were on his -- Jenna's, whatever -- team; they were the Athosian and Satedan ambassadors, respectively, just two of many ambassadors and liaisons on base.

"Is this going to take long?" Torren asked, slouching into one of the two remaining chairs across from Teal'c's desk. "I was having sexual intercourse with my girlfriend."

That was more information than John had ever wanted to know about any Teylas in any timeline. He felt himself make a face. O'Neill met his eyes and winced.

"Gross, Tor," said Rhonda, gracefully dropping into the last chair.

"Torren Emmagan, I have spoken to you about your... over sharing," Teal'c said with obvious distaste. Torren slouched down even further in his chair.

Rodney jabbed a finger at O'Neill and Teal'c. "Wait, how come they're still the same, but we've all changed? Why am I a woman?"

"Maybe I'm special," O'Neill drawled.

"Perhaps the universe is trying to tell you something," Teal'c said very seriously.

Rhonda twisted sideways to stare directly at John and Rodney. "Whoa, are you from a parallel reality? Why are there only two of you? Where am I?"

"Right now, you're the leader of your own empire," Rodney said snidely.

"Cool," said Rhonda, grinning widely.

John snorted. "In our universe, you're part of my gate team. Both of you," he added when Torren's frown deepened.

Torren looked skeptical. "A gate team? So I am out there, fighting and exploring the galaxy?"

"Yeah," John said eagerly.

"That sounds like a lot of work."

John could feel his face fall. "I guess it is."

"What am I like?" Rhonda asked.

"Big and scary," Rodney replied.

"I am confused," Torren announced. "If you are from a reality parallel to our own, who are you? The other expedition members we have met all had counterparts in our reality."

"This is Colonel John Sheppard and Doctor Rodney McKay," Teal'c said. He looked pleased.

Torren, and Rhonda began snickering as soon as Teal'c said the name 'John.' "Hey," Jenna called. She glared at the both of them. "It's not funny."

"You make a surprisingly good-looking guy," Rhonda said. Then she threw John a familiar lecherous smirk, which had John shifting in his seat awkwardly. Rodney grumbled something under his breath, lips twisting. "So what's up with your Atlantis?"

John didn't exactly know how to answer that. He looked at Rodney for help, but Rodney wouldn't meet his eyes. "We're trying to get back there," John admitted. "We sort of got lost."

"Were you on a mission?" asked Jenna.

"Sort of," John replied. He was remembering the way their buddies in the last reality had reacted when John had told them about destroying their timeline when he said, "So what's this UMPW thing Major Sheppard talked about?"

"The UPMW. The United Planets of the Milky Way," O'Neill interjected. "You don't have this in your reality?"

"Please, we can barely decide on what to do with our own planet," Rodney said.

Teal'c launched into an explanation. In this universe, it turned out, most the Ancients had still died of the plague, although it apparently had taken thousands of years later than the Ancients in his and Rodney's reality. Instead of Ascending, the remaining Ancients occupied a handful of worlds in the Milky Way Galaxy, and they had been isolationists as of two hundred years ago, after Earth and the planet of Kelowna had become involved in a war that had nearly wiped out both civilizations. This Teal'c had never heard of the Goa'uld; apparently whatever the Ancients were doing, it involved keeping the Goa'uld away. The strongest allies to Earth were the Furlings, who seemed to think the Ancients were all a bunch of tight asses and liked to piss them off. Also, he and Rodney were both women, but John figured pointing that out again was a bad idea.

"It was an accident that led us to finding Atlantis and the Pegasus Galaxy," Teal'c explained. "The Ancients gave us permission to occupy it. The cities on Velona and Dakara are far more advanced than Atlantis. The general feeling among Stargate Command is that they felt this city no longer has any value for them. We at the UPMW, on the other hand, believed we could learn much from their former capitol."

"Yeah, our reality's a little different," John said, wincing slightly.

He didn't know how to explain to Teal'c that he had been a slave in their universe, so he let Rodney do it. Rodney knew more about the history of Earth in relation to the rest of the galaxy, any way, since he had worked at Area 51 and the SGC at least ten years before John had ever even known they existed. John knew about a couple of missions relevant to Atlantis, as well as a few stories Carter had told him during her brief stint as John's CO, including one about Daniel Jackson and an alien lizard that meant John could never look Jackson in the eye again, but he had a habit of confusing the names of the Goa'uld overlords, and he still wasn't exactly sure what the Ori were.

"So I saved the Milky Way in your timeline too?" O'Neill asked. He sighed. "Man, I never get a break. Is it so much to ask for a universe where I'm a fisherman?" He looked at Rodney like it was somehow Rodney's fault.

"Yes, and I'm sure in that universe, we are all dead," Rodney replied, bristling.

John leaned forehead, resting his forearms on his knees. "Our Atlantis is a joint international expedition with a civilian head, under the jurisdiction of the International Oversight Committee. I'm the CO and Woolsey's in charge."

"Woolsey?" asked O'Neill. He scratched his head. "We don't have an International Oversight Committee, so maybe that's why I've never heard of him."

"I believe there is a Richie Woolsey in the UPMW," Torren said, narrowing his eyes in thought. "I met him at one of the diplomatic functions a few months back. He married one of the princesses from M5S-224."

"Isn't that the mist planet?" Rodney asked.

Ew, John thought. "That's extremely nauseating," Rodney said, wrinkling his nose.

"Hey, don't knock it 'til you try it," O'Neill suggested casually. He picked a piece of white lint off his shirt. "If I'm at your Stargate Command, then who's your 2IC, Colonel?"

"Major Evan Lorne, sir," John replied.

"That bitch Evangeline?" Rod cut in. She sneered; it was kind of an unattractive look for her. "Why am I not surprised."

"Meredith," hissed Jenna.

Rod raised her nose in the air. "I told you, Major, if you're going to call me by that name, I won't respond to it."

"You just did," Jenna pointed out.

O'Neill rolled his eyes and gave John a look that said, "Children." It was a lot like the look Elizabeth used to have when she dealt with him and Rodney; John remembered, sadly, how much they had irritated the crap out of her. He wondered if Jenna and Rod were as bad as they were. Seeing the way they were glaring at each other, he figured that was a yes.

"So you have a Lorne," John said, pulling his attention back to Teal'c and O'Neill, "now we just need to find out who else is here. Zelenka?"

"Yup," said O'Neill.

"Weir?" John's voice cracked.

"Never head of 'em."

That made something inside his chest hurt. "Ford?" he asked, almost afraid of the answer.

"Oh yeah, served with her back in the Officer Corps. I think she's a Captain now, serving on Tollan."

"Beckett?" Rodney asked suddenly, while John was trying to keep control of his facial expression.

O'Neill's face went blank. He glanced at Teal'c, who simply blinked in response.

"Carson Beckett?" Rodney repeated. His voice grew shrill. "Doctor Carson Beckett, the geneticist?"

"I've never heard of a Beckett in the UPMW," Jenna answered. "Our Chief Medical Officer is Doctor Marcus Huang."

"I picked him myself for this expedition," Teal'c said.

Rodney swallowed audibly. "I see."

John felt bad about that, since Carson had saved Rodney's ass in the last reality. Hopefully, he wasn't in this Atlantis because he had a life on Earth, and not because he was dead.

Teal'c inclined his head at John. "Our expedition -- which is not only international but also inter-galactical -- has two joint heads: the civilian head, which is myself, and a commanding officer, which is Colonel O'Neill."

"Two L's," O'Neill added, holding up two fingers.

John had a feeling of deja-vu. "Why isn't, uh, Major Sheppard your CO?" he asked.

"Because I'm older," said O'Neill. "And, oh, that's right, I saved the Milky Way a few dozen times."

"From whom?" Rodney demanded. "If there aren't any Wraith in this galaxy, and there aren't any Goa'uld in yours, then who have you been fighting?"

"The Ori," Teal'c replied. Much to John's amazement, he actually sounded surprised. "Are you saying you have no Ori in your reality?"

"No, we have those too," John said, disgruntled.

Teal'c frowned in a way that John took to mean he was disappointed. "That is most unfortunate."

"Not that this isn't nice," John said, "but we should really be going."

"You are correct, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. If you will tell me where your time machine is, I will have a team escort you and Doctor Rodney McKay."

John tensed. It wasn't that he didn't trust these guys, but he had already been two three other realities where the people there had tried to kill them. When Rodney explained where the machine was, Teal'c replied, "That area was damaged by flooding during a hurricane, so we were forced to seal it off. Yet I am certain with your assistance, Doctor Rebeka Zelenka will be able to--"

"With my assistance?" Rodney said. He chuckled haughtily. "More like, with his assistance, I will be able to figure something out."

Zelenka. John absolutely trusted Zelenka.

"I will make sure he is available," Teal'c said. He tapped his radio.

While Teal'c was talking to Zelenka, John got up and stretched his legs. He could see the others doing the same.

"If you do not need me, I will be at dinner," Torren announced. "Rhonda, do you wish to dine with me?"

Rhonda was busy straightening her sleeveless, bright green dress. John looked away pointedly as she adjusted it around her boobs. "Sure, I could eat," she said, finally satisfied with the way the fabric was hanging. She threw John a leer as she and Torren left the office together.

He felt Rodney lean into him, close enough to feel Rodney's breath on the side of his face. "You think they're doing it?" Rodney asked, and the goosebumps that were forming on John's arm immediately faded.

"No," John said, stepping away. "And even if they are, I don't want any details."

"They're not doing it," a new voice said from behind them.

It was Rod. She was looking at them with a bemused expression.

Rodney frowned. "How do you--?"

"I can't talk to you," Rod interrupted, frowning at Rodney. "You look like my brother Gene. It's creepy and weird and wrong."

Rodney turned to John. "We need to get out of this universe."

"Gene," John repeated, smirking. That was the funniest thing he'd heard in three universes. When they got back to their own timeline, he was going to have to be there when Rodney told Jeannie about this. She would totally freak out.

"I think girl me is a lesbian," Rodney said to John in what he must have thought was a whisper.

John smiled apologetically at Rod, who was glowering.

Luckily, Teal'c interrupted them by calling for "Doctor Rodney McKay." When both Rodneys turned their heads to look at him, he clarified himself: "Mister McKay, if you would please follow me."

Rodney gave Rod a satisfied look and left with Teal'c, who had given both John and Rod a bow before leading Rodney through the doors.

John's stomach audibly growled. Rod pointedly looked down at it. "I've missed a couple of meals," he confessed.

She sighed. "Come on."

The food in the commissary was the same in all universes, John decided, poking at his bland mashed potatoes. Rod had gotten a tray of nothing but coffee and cupcakes and was sitting across from him, licking the frosting off one of them. When Rodney did that, it was gross, but with her it was almost cute.

Jenna was sitting with a beefy, strawberry-blond man with tattooed sleeves that started at his wrists and went up under his sleeves. He was pretty hot, in a dangerous kind of way, but he didn't look like anyone John had ever seen in Atlantis. While John was watching, Jenna tossed her hair over her shoulder and began spoon-feeding the guy her pudding, gazing at him with a love-struck expression that John hoped was not an expression they shared.

"Disgusting, aren't they?" Rod sneered. "That's Doctor Brown. Keanu Brown. Do you have one of him in your universe?"

John decided right then he didn't like this timeline very much. "We have a Katie Brown," he said awkwardly. "You -- uh, Rodney, went out with her for a while."

"That sounds horrible."

"It was," John agreed, wrinkling his nose at the memory. Then he realized he was saying too much, and he shook his head. "He really liked her."

"Hmm," said Rod, sounding unconvinced.

He couldn't help but glance over at Jenna again. Now she was rubbing Keanu Brown's arm in a loving way. Seriously, John was really freaked out here.

"You said you'd meet me in the gym last night," he overheard Rhonda saying from the table diagonally across from him.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Torren shrugging. "Kana went to visit her parents on Athos, so I have to watch the kids," he replied, sounding as bored as he had during the briefing. "Torren Junior has decided he wants to be an artist, so he is painting on every available surface, and all Leela does is cry for her mother."

"Thanks for telling me," Rhonda grumbled. "I could've come over and helped."

"I considered calling you, but it seemed like too much effort."

John rolled his eyes. When he turned his attention back to his table partner, he found Rod leering at a sexy blonde a few tables away, and he felt a spike of irritation. It looked like no matter what universe they were in, Rodney McKay still preferred blonde women. Meanwhile, John was pretty sure he didn't like what the universe was trying to tell him about his taste in partners; first there was Mad Dog Beckett, which was weird, because John had never been attracted to the real Carson Beckett, and now his alternate self was married to male, and strangely macho, Katie Brown. He wasn't sure how, but this was all his father's fault.

"Hey," he asked, tearing Rod's attention away from the blonde, "do you know if Jenna was married to someone before Doctor Brown?"

Frowning, Rod stabbed at her Jello with her spoon. "Yes, to a... Will Osterberg, I believe his name was. She doesn't like to talk about it though. The only reason I know is because Torren wanted her advice on something, some missed anniversary or something." She waved a vague hand.

John blinked in surprise; he hadn't thought about Will in at least fifteen years. "Will Osterberg?" he asked, knitting his brows. "From Exeter?"

"How the hell should I know?" Rod asked. "If that's some guy from your preppy boarding school days, then, yes, it's probably him."

John's mind was reeling. He had been expecting to hear about Jenna and a male Nancy (which, funnily enough, wasn't a huge stretch for him to picture), not Will. The two of them had fooled around a little back then, but it hadn't been serious. No one at school had known, even though Dave had walked in on them one afternoon when John had forgotten to lock the door to his room. He had paid Dave a month's allowance to keep his mouth shut, although it hadn't been until he had signed the divorce papers and come out to their dad (and subsequently kicked out of the family) that John had realized Dave had kept his promise. John knew his teammates thought he was all anti-social and mysterious, but in truth, his pre-Atlantis life had just kind of sucked.

"So you and me aren't friends in this reality, huh," John said, watching Rod devour the last of the food on her tray.

Rod looked up at John. "Huh. I suppose we are friends," she replied, sounding baffled. "Although I wouldn't say we're close. You don't have a lot of female friends. To be frank, Colonel, no one in this universe likes you because you're such a slut."

"Sounds a lot like my regular universe," John said dejectedly.

Rod let out a surprised giggle that sounded just like Jeannie's. John felt his own mouth curve in response. She was still chuckling when Rodney hurried into the mess several minutes later, eyes bright and hair askew.

"We did it," he announced, coming to a stop at John and Rod's table. His gaze flickered to Rod and then back to John. "Well, to be more accurate, Zelenka and I did it. We managed to raise the interior shields, normally used for events such as a hull breech, in that specific area of the city. Then we used the sewer system to drain the water."

"I could have done that," Rod sniffed.

John threw down his napkin and stood. "So we're ready to go?"

Rodney beamed at him. "Whenever you're ready, Colonel."

As nice as this universe was, John was ready to get out of there. They said they their goodbyes to Rod, Rhonda (who gave him one last leer), and Torren (who just silently raised an eyebrow); John and Jenna exchanged a head nod from across the room.

"I can't believe I look like Jeannie," Rodney muttered as soon as they were out of earshot.

John bumped him with his shoulder. "Think of it as a good thing. Jeannie's a beautiful lady."

"Yes, which is strange, because our mum was hideous," Rodney mused. John coughed into his hand, and Rodney glared at him. "We can't all have hot mums, Colonel."

John rubbed his chin. "What's Zelenka look like?"

"The same, actually," Rodney said, with obvious distaste. "He makes a horrible woman."

Zelenka was waiting for them outside the transporter in the hallway of the time machine room; she did look just like the regular Zelenka; if John hadn't known she was a woman, he would have thought she was Zelenka. Teal'c was there, too, as well as O'Neill, who looked bored.

"May you defeat your enemies swiftly and return to your parallel reality, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard," Teal'c said, setting one giant hand on John's shoulder.

"Thanks," John replied. Was he supposed to put his own hand on Teal'c shoulder now? "You too."

"Good luck," Zelenka added. Her voice was high-pitched and squeaky.

When they reached the door, however, O'Neill jogged over to them. "Sheppard, before you go."

John turned to find O'Neill leaning one hip against the wall, his arms folded over his chest. His lips were pursed, and he was staring into the adjacent corridor like there was something down there that bothered him. The door to the time machine room whispered shut behind John; he hoped Rodney wouldn't carelessly leave him behind.

When John looked at O'Neill in askance, O'Neill said, "Why don't you stick around?"

John squinted at him. "What?"

"I'm just saying, this is a pretty nice reality. No Goa'uld, no Wraith, no Replicators..." O'Neill looked up at the ceiling. "It'll be like one nice, long vacation."

"Uh," John said, unsure of how to reply to that. He couldn't think of a way to say, 'Sorry, your universe is too weird for me,' in a way that didn't make him sound like an asshole.

"I could sure use a vacation," O'Neill continued. John wasn't certain whether or not O'Neill was even addressing him anymore. O'Neill rolled his head on his neck, taking one long, look around the intersecting corridors, before focusing on John again. "Come on, what do you say?"

Before John could think of a way out of this awkward situation, the door opened again to reveal an irritated-looking Rodney. "Are you coming or what?" Rodney demanded. "Decided to stick around for some fashion tips, Colonel?"

"No, I--" John turned back to O'Neill, but he was gone. The transporter doors were closing around Teal'c and Zelenka at the end of the hall.

"What?" Rodney asked.

"Nothing. Let's go."

John laid his hand on the machine.

"Thank God," Rodney said, as soon as the room stopped spinning.

John couldn't help but glance at the statue. This time, he was sure there were less marbles. The pile had decreased by at least an inch.

"Got any ideas on how to stop our past selves this time?" Rodney asked.

"I was thinking, remember how you drained the water into the sewage system? There's a way to do it in reverse, right?"

"That's disgusting," Rodney said. He waggled a finger at John. "I like the way you think."

*

"If I'm a woman in this universe," John announced as he slammed his hand on the door crystal, "I'm going to use this machine to go back in time and beat up some Ancients."

"I thought that was the most accurate timeline we've been to yet," Rodney replied smugly.

"That's right, you were a lesbian," John said.

Rodney threw a glare at him over his shoulder as they stepped out into the control room.

"Were we in a closet?" Rodney demanded, twisting around to look behind himself. "Well, that's ironic."

John had lost count of how many parallel universes they had been to by now, but this was the first one where, for a long moment, he could not see anything wrong with it. No one seemed to notice them as they stumbled out of the empty supply closet and into the space between the corridor and the entrance to the control room; Sergeant Campbell was sitting at his usual station eating a sandwich, which was a completely normal sight to see, and John recognized every person in the room, diligently doing their jobs. Everything was very calm and quiet, just the way John liked it. It was his Atlantis.

Relief slammed into him, and he felt his knees go weak. "I think we're home," he said hoarsely, more to himself than to Rodney, not daring to believe it.

That was when Campbell noticed them. He stared at John, open-mouthed, as he slowly lowered his sandwich. A thick slab of sauce fell onto the keyboard of his laptop.

"Who are you?" Campbell asked. "Doctor McKay, who's this guy?"

So much for nothing being wrong. "Great," John muttered, exasperated.

Rodney looked bewildered. "What do you mean, who is this?" He turned to John, goggling. "Does this mean--? Are you--?"

Campbell reached up and tapped his radio. "Doctor Weir? Colonel--" John's stomach twisted into a knot, first at hearing Elizabeth's name, and then again at wondering who the CO was in this universe. "--we have an intruder in the control room. Yes, sir. No, a man, sir. He doesn't appear to be armed." Campbell made a face. "Um, I don't know, tall? Dark hair, skinny."

"Hey," John protested, putting his hands on his hips. "I'm not skinny."

"Whiny," Campbell added.

"Hey!"

"Yes, sir," Campbell said again to whomever it was he was speaking to. He stood, pulling out his sidearm and pointing it directly at John's chest. "Sorry about this. Doctor McKay, could you please move aside?" He frowned at Rodney. "Hold on, aren't you supposed to be on PX-743?"

"Erm," said Rodney. He looked at John with a panicked expression. "That is-- you see--"

Campbell tapped his radio again. "Make that two intruders, sir."

Not seeing any other alternatives, John raised his arms above his head. When he noticed what John was doing, Rodney looked at him like he was crazy. John glared until Rodney, making a big production of it by sighing and rolling his eyes, raised his hands as well.

It was strange to have Campbell pointing a gun at him, even stranger than that time Lorne had been convinced John was a Replicator and John had thought he was going to die at the hands of his own 2IC. Maybe it was because John didn't really believe the Canadian army was a real army (come on, who was going to attack Canada?). Or maybe it was because John had seen Campbell fire a weapon exactly twice, and both times he had accidentally shot their own people, one of whom had been Ronon. Campbell was a fun guy, there was no question about it, but he wasn't a guy John would ever want to have his six. He was a gate tech for a reason.

Campbell's laptop beeped, and he jerked, looking between the computer and John with an anxious expression.

"We need to speak to whoever's in charge here," John said carefully.

"Colonel Sheppard will be here in a second," Campbell replied, and John felt his brows furrow in confusion.

"He's right here, you idiot," Rodney snapped.

"Uh-huh, for sure, whatever you say, Fake Doctor McKay," said Campbell, unconvinced.

John exchanged a glance with Rodney. If there was a Colonel Sheppard in this universe, and it wasn't him...

"Oh crap," he said, feeling sucker-punched. It couldn't be.

The door to the control room opened, and in walked exactly who he had expected: his brother, Dave Sheppard. His uniform, which consisted of a white t-shirt, grey tac jacket, and grey BDUs, was bleached and pressed. Not one blond hair was out of place on his head. He still had the all-American looks John had always been jealous of when they had been younger, back when John had wanted to play football for Exeter but had ended up joining the chess club instead, after their third stepmother, Buffy, wouldn't sign his permission slip because she'd said didn't want John in the locker room with all those other boys. (It had taken John a few years to figure out what that had meant.)

"This is going to suck," John muttered as Dave looked over at him and did a double-take.

"You know this douchebag?" Rodney asked, jerking his thumb at Dave.

For an instant, John considered lying. But he knew Dave was going to come over and give it up anyway. Finally, he grit his teeth and replied, "My brother. Dave."

"Your brother?" Rodney echoed, clearly taken aback. Then he narrowed his eyes, studying Dave thoughtfully. "Your real brother?"

"My--? Yes, my real brother!"

"John?" Dave asked cautiously. His brows were drawn together in a tight frown. He moved forward slowly, one hand raised, as if worried John would leap at him. "Is that you?"

"Who else would I be, Dave?" John asked, resigned. His arms were getting heavy, but he was afraid to lower them in case it startled Campbell into shooting him.

"You could be a shape shifting alien," Dave said. "What was the name of your favourite pony when we were kids?"

John sighed. "Judy," he murmured, not looking at Rodney. He could still, however, hear Rodney's snickering.

"He could have stolen his memories," Campbell said loudly. "I think that happened to SG-1 once."

"Shut up, Chuck," John said, scowling.

"Well, you sound like John," Dave murmured dubiously. He stepped closer; not close enough to touch, in case John really was a shape-shifting alien, but close enough to get John's hopes up. The worried frown on his face, however, wasn't all that encouraging. "But if you are who you say you are, then how did you get here?"

John shrugged. "Oh, you know, went back in time and stepped on a butterfly."

Dave squinted. "Wasn't that an episode of The Simpsons?"

"Hey, they still have The Simpsons here," John said to Rodney.

"But where are you?" Rodney asked. He turned to Dave. He was looking slightly pale. "I'm here, so where's Shep-- John?"

"Yeah," John said. "If you're the commanding officer--" His voice cracked; it had almost physically hurt him to say it. "--then where am I?"

Dave looked at him like he was a moron. "On Earth," he said, like it was obvious. "I don't know about your reality, but here, you live in Vermont. You and Will breed ponies."

"Vermont?" Rodney repeated. He looked at John like he was seeing him in a completely different light.

There was only one Will John knew. "Will Osterberg?"

Why was he married -- partnered, whatever -- to Will in two different timelines? Was it a coincidence? John was pretty much the opposite of a religious guy, and he hadn't stopped the creation of the Wraith for any reason other than helping the people of this galaxy, but now he was beginning to wonder if he should be taking something away from this experience. Namely, that he had made a huge mistake in never letting things get serious with Will. Why wasn't there a universe where he and Rodney were together?

"Who's Will Osterberg?" Rodney asked.

"We went to prep school together," John replied, feeling a little dizzy. "He was my, um, good friend. Very good friend."

Rodney looked unhappy. "And now you breed ponies together," he said flatly, his mouth a thin, crooked line.

"They're gay," called Campbell. Dave winced and shuffled his feet.

"Yes, thank you, Sergeant, I could figure that out on my own," Rodney snapped.

Rodney huffed, crossing his arms over his chest and staring at the wall. Dave looked at Rodney with a cold, appraising look, the same way he had looked at Ronon when John had brought him to their father's funeral. John clenched his fists.

"So I never married Nancy Corriveau?" he asked.

Dave looked confused. "Nancy? Why would you marry her?" His expression turned knowing. "Did Dad make you?"

"I--" John said, right when Elizabeth Weir walked into the control room. A thin-lipped Sergeant Bates was right behind her. While Bates had more grey in his hair and lines around his eyes than when John had spoken to him, Elizabeth looked exactly the same as the last time he had seen her, the real her, before the Replicators had taken her away. However, instead of wearing her signature red t-shirt, she was wearing deep purple. She also had a ring on her finger. She looked beautiful.

"Elizabeth," Rodney said, his voice breaking.

She raised a cool brow. "Rodney, I thought you were off world" She looked at John. Part of him expected her to recognize him, but all she said was, "Who is this?"

John gazed at her mutely, not trusting his own voice. This wasn't his friend Elizabeth, he told himself. She belonged to another universe. This was an Elizabeth who had never met him. This was an Elizabeth he had never left behind on the Asuran home world, or sent to die in space.

"He's my brother from a parallel universe," Dave explained. "Apparently."

To her credit, Elizabeth looked at them like they were only a little insane. "I see."

"I'm sorry, sir, but... alternate timeline?" Bates cut in.

"You see, time is like a river," Rodney began.

Elizabeth's eyes fluttered shut. She held up a hand. "Please, I think I'm going to need to sit down for this conversation."

It did not take as long to explain the situation to this command staff as it had in the other universes, which was both good and bad. Good, because it meant John didn't have to listen to Rodney ramble on about SG-1 and Egypt and Einstein; bad, because if they found time travel and reality shifting possible, then it meant this reality had as many crazy aliens and technologies as John's own, even if there were no Wraith here -- and if John had learned anything in the past two weeks, it was that there was always a bigger bad guy.

When they were finished, everyone in Elizabeth's office was silent. John did his best to look as sincere as possible. Rodney, on the other hand, couldn't stop fidgeting, picking at a string on his jacket. It didn't exactly make the most trusting of images.

"Well," Elizabeth said finally. She was sitting at her desk with her elbows resting on the surface, while the others, including the set of Marines Dave had summoned, stood at parade rest. Now she raised both her eyebrows. "It sounds like you two have had quite a few weeks. Colonel Sheppard, if you'll escort our guests to the infirmary?"

Dave's lips thinned. "Yes, ma'am."

Keller cleared them quickly enough with a, "According to your scanner results, Colonel Sheppard, you and Mister Sheppard are definitely related. And if I didn't know any better, I'd swear this was our Doctor McKay." This was the first time they had seen Keller since they had activated the time machine, and John kept an eye on Rodney, wondering what he was going to do. John felt like a complete asshole when he was relieved Rodney didn't send her any longing looks or even try to get her attention beyond asking for some aspirin. Keller, as well, didn't act like Rodney meant anything to her other than being her patient. Her hair was cut short, with bangs that fell into her eyes; it reminded John of Carter's hair the first time he had met her. John didn't like it.

"Wonderful," Dave said sarcastically.

He didn't look happy. John didn't get it; when Dave had mentioned his John earlier, it had sounded like they were in each other's lives.

"We'll let you guys get some dinner and then get settled in," Dave said, circling around until he was standing at the foot of John's examination table. He was looking down at John in a way that was all-too familiar.

"Thank God," Rodney muttered. "Now to see if this reality is really worth it."

"Great," John said to Dave, smiling and patting his belly. It had been a few hours since he had eaten lunch with Rod. "I've been dying for a turkey sandwich."

Dave looked at him in confusion. "What's a turkey?"

"This is the worst universe ever," John told Rodney.

*

Chapter Six

It was probably one of the most uncomfortable dinners John had ever had in his life. And he'd been to a lot of uncomfortable dinners. There were the quiet, tense family meals they'd had before his mom had left; there were the ones when his dad had brought home a new girlfriend; there were the later dinners where Dad, John, and Dave had run out of things to talk about that wouldn't end in a screaming match; and, lastly, there had been the dinner when John had announced he and Nancy were getting a divorce. That night had ended with Dave giving John a black eye and John breaking a ten thousand dollar vase. It wasn't one of John's better memories.

This particular dinner was awkward for more the one reason. Firstly, everyone in the mess gave them a wide berth, and the commissary staff stared at John and Rodney like they were members of a strange new alien race. Which, John guessed, was kind of true. Luckily, most of them seemed focused on Rodney, since everyone knew their Doctor McKay was off world with his team -- his team that didn't include John. John couldn't help but wonder which asshole had taken his place as team leader. It was difficult for him to correlate his uptight, stick-in-the-mud, goody-two-shoes brother with this man who went through the stargate and dealt with aliens. The Dave he knew couldn't even make a box of Kraft Dinner on his own, for crying out loud.

But what really made the meal special was Dave. After all these years, John had forgotten how to talk to his brother, even his parallel reality brother, and it looked like Dave was having the same problem. The last time they'd seen each other had been after Dad's funeral; the time before that, Dave had told John that John had ruined his life, because when their father had disowned John and made Dave his sole heir, Dave had to change his life's plans to suit their father's. "You don't care about anyone but yourself," Dave had said.

"Pass the salt," John grunted, scraping a pallet of butter into his mashed potatoes.

Dave picked up the salt shaker and slammed it down right in front of John. "Anything else, your majesty?"

"I'm good for now," John replied slowly.

Rodney, being Rodney, didn't seem to notice how tense things were. He was blindly rambling on enough for all three of them. "And so then the Colonel here," Rodney was saying, in the middle of a story about the time John had single-handedly overthrown the prince of Parnasha, "marches into the middle of the tavern and takes off his shoes!"

It was a pretty funny story, if John said so himself. Dave didn't laugh.

Instead, Dave abruptly stood. "If you're done, I can show you your rooms," he said with stiff politeness.

"Was it something I said?" Rodney asked John, as Dave carried his own tray back to the bins.

"No, he's always like that," John sighed.

First, they dropped Rodney off at one the empty quarters in the tower immediately west of the central spire. John knew where they were, because these were empty in his Atlantis too. Two of the four Marines following them were told to stand outside Rodney's door, but not to stop him from leaving; with a pointed glance at John, Dave ordered, "But if he does go anywhere, follow him."

"Sir, yes, sir," the Marines replied.

John caught a glimpse of Rodney's desperate face as the door slid shut.

His own room was, thankfully, a only few doors down. It would have been easy to stick the two of them in adjoining rooms, but John knew why Dave wasn't: it would be easier to know if they were conspiring together. It was something John himself would have done if he was in his brother's shoes. He didn't know if he was annoyed or impressed.

Trying to break the ice, John asked, "So you and your John still talk, huh?"

"Yeah, a bit," Dave answered tentatively. "It's harder now that I'm in the Pegasus Galaxy, of course."

It hurt a little, but he found himself asking, "What about Dad?"

Dave shook his head. "Dad died when I was seven. Mom's still alive though. She moved to the house in Greenwich Village a few years ago."

So if their mother had raised them instead of their father, John would be happy, successful (hey, he was good with horses), and in a serious relationship. He felt a spark of jealousy. That John Sheppard sucked.

"It's funny, because in my timeline, you were never cool with my, uh, sexual preferences." He cringed at the way his voice squeaked on 'preferences.'

Dave gazed at him coldly. "I never said I was okay with it, John."

He left John standing in the corridor with his two guards, feeling stung.

The quarters they gave John were identical to the spare rooms on his Atlantis. After pulling on a plain t-shirt Dave lent him, John looked for differences, but he couldn't see any; there was a laptop on the desk in the corner (not connected to the network, if the Dave in this reality was smart), a plain white comforter on the bed, and a bathroom tucked off to the side. He couldn't help but wonder if his brother's room in this universe had a Johnny Cash poster or a surfboard, or if he could hear Doctor Vogel's heavy metal music when he opened his windows at night. If Vogel was even on this expedition. There were a lot of people John had yet to see here, like Lorne or Zelenka or Teldy or Carson; part of John -- a large part -- was itching to do a head count.

He lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. This universe wasn't too bad so far, except for the obvious things, but it wasn't the same. And there was no way in hell was living in a timeline where Dave had his job. He and Rodney had to fix things. They had to get back. He wanted his friends back, and his base to be exactly the way he had left it. No slaves, no whales.

Finally, just as the sun was starting to peek over the horizon, he passed out from exhaustion.

When he woke, it was after nine AM. The sun was shining directly on his face. Groaning, he threw an arm over his eyes. Then he realized someone was ringing his door chime.

"Sheppard!" Rodney shouted from the other side of the door. "Er, John, not that other blond man who happens to look nothing like my Sheppard. Open up!"

John's chest felt funny at 'my Sheppard.' "Coming, Rodney," he yelled back.

Rodney was wearing a white t-shirt with grey BDU pants, just like the other officers in Atlantis. He held a spare set of clothes in his hands, which John guessed were for him. A pair of blue-and-white boxers peeked out from between the shirt and the trousers. On top of the pile was a razor and a bar of soap. "Here," he said, thrusting the clothes at John and walking into the room, "Sergeant Bates delivered these to me this morning."

"Maybe it's his subtle of way of saying we're starting to smell," John said. When he stripped off his shirt and headed into the bathroom, Rodney pointedly looked away.

"Bates doesn't do subtle," Rodney called.

After John was shaved and dressed in clean clothes, he realized they really had nothing to do here. He wouldn't be sure whether or not this was the best reality until he found out what had happened to Ronon and Teyla, but he was willing to bet Dave wasn't going to be much help. And if Dave hadn't taken Rodney to the lab yesterday, then he probably wasn't going to today, either.

They headed for the control room, along with the four silent members of their security detail, to see what Dave and the other expedition members were up to. They were right outside it when Rodney announced, "I had breakfast with Elizabeth this morning." John flinched. "It was like... well, it was like before," Rodney added sadly.

Hearing that hurt a lot more than John had expected. He lowered his eyes to the floor and pressed his mouth into a thin line.

"She said she has to talk it over with your brother and O'Neill -- have you noticed O'Neill's everywhere we go? -- but she believes we'll be allowed to stay. If we want, of course. Frankly, I'm undecided. On the one hand, this universe isn't a complete write-off; according to your brother, there aren't any Wraith, and no one's trying to kill them. Ronon hasn't turned into Nero and wants us to be his slaves. The whales are safely in the ocean. Being here is actually kind of refreshing. I haven't been this relaxed in years." When he realized John wasn't saying anything, he stopped in the middle of the hall. He looked flabbergasted. "Why aren't you saying anything? What's wrong?"

John shook his head. "Nothing." Rodney didn't stop looking at him like that, though, and John sighed. "It's just. Elizabeth."

Rodney's mouth tightened. "Yes, me too. Seeing her is--" He made an undecipherable gesture with one hand, but John knew what he meant: that seeing her hurt all over again.

"Not just that," John replied. He rubbed the back of his neck, not sure how to explain what he was feeling. If Teyla was there, she would have been able to do her freaky mind-reading thing and know exactly what he meant without him having to say it, but Rodney had a tendency to miss the obvious when it came to human behaviour. Finally, he bit out, "I'm not in this timeline, and Elizabeth is."

Lucky for him, Rodney seemed to get it. "You think your being in Atlantis is why Elizabeth died? Do you honestly believe that if you didn't exist, Elizabeth would be okay?" When John didn't answer, Rodney said, "How horribly egocentric of you. If it's anyone's fault Elizabeth is dead, it's mine."

John's head snapped up. "No, it's not," he said, as carefully as he could. "I'm in command."

Stubbornly, Rodney pointed out, "But I'm the one who injected her with the nanites. Which, in case you remember, you were dead set against."

Rodney had said those words before, when he had wanted to build Elizabeth her own body, but repeating now it didn't make it any more true. Shaking his head, John replied, "I'm the one who okayed the mission to the Replicator home world I'm the one who said we should fly the city to another planet. And I'm the one who agreed with Colonel Ellis that we needed to make a tactical strike against the Replicators. Pretty sure that makes it my fault."

"John, I want need you to listen to me," Rodney said. "Your mere existence has nothing to do with Elizabeth's death. There are probably dozens of parallel realities in which your not being here actually resulted in her dying."

"Thanks, I feel a whole lot better," he said dryly.

Rodney grabbed his arm. He looked angry. "Would you listen? None of us could have known what would happen. It is not--" He shook John's arm. "--your fault."

John didn't want to argue about it. "Okay," he said evenly.

Rodney glowered at him for a long moment, but then suddenly his expression changed entirely. It was at that moment John realized how close he and Rodney were standing; he could smell the generic soap Rodney must have used in the shower that morning, and he was suddenly very aware of Rodney's hand clenching his upper arm. A few more steps, and they would finally have a chance to finish that aborted kiss from last year.

Distantly, he heard Sergeant Campbell say, "The SGC is sending an encoded message, sir," but he missed Dave's reply.

Campbell's announcement must have shaken Rodney out of his revere, because, much to John's disappointment, he cleared his throat and took a step back; grimacing, John stepped back too. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw their security detail was trying really, really hard not to pay attention to them.

"You should go to see Keller, see how she's doing," John said, ignoring the bad taste in his mouth that came with saying those words.

Rodney frowned. "Why?" he asked, in that clueless way that sometimes drove John insane.

John gave him a look. "Because she's your girlfriend, McKay. Don't you want to know if the Keller and McKay in this universe hooked up?"

"Oh. Right." Rodney took yet another step backwards. He didn't look like he wanted to leave. "Will you be alright on your own?"

"Yeah, I'll go see what Dave's up to," John replied. "You know, while he's doing my job and... being me."

With a final clap on John's shoulder, Rodney left to go see his pretty blonde girlfriend.

In his heart, John knew why there wasn't a universe where he and Rodney were together: because Rodney, for whatever reason, didn't want to be with him. The fact Rodney could only come out to him when he was drunk, coupled with the fact he was now with Keller, told John everything he needed to know. Maybe he didn't like the idea of sneaking around, or maybe he liked Keller more than John, or maybe he just didn't want to admit he was anything less than straight. Before Atlantis, John had been interested in men who had liked him back but didn't think the sneaking around with worth it; he'd been with guys who never had the guts to admit who they really were. He had been with guys who had girlfriends on the side, and John himself had been with plenty of women -- some of whom he'd thought he'd loved, and some he'd dated to keep people from noticing the guys he'd thought he'd loved. So while part of him was still pissed over Rodney's denial of what had happened the night he had proposed to Katie, another part of him didn't blame Rodney for staying away.

He had more important things to do than worry whether or not Rodney McKay was in love with him. Like wondering whether or not they would ever get back to their own reality, for instance. He would deal with all this relationship crap later. (Or not, a voice in his head supplied unhelpfully.)

Their second day there was a lot less eventful than the first; after breakfast, his Marine escort took him to the gym, which had a lot more equipment than John was used to. Without Ronon and Teyla around, he realized, the people of this Atlantis would have to work out the old-fashioned way. There were a handful of officers in there when John arrived, including Lorne, and most of them looked at him curiously. He got a few nods and greetings, but for the most part, everyone stayed away from him. He wondered if this was how Rod had felt when he had come to John's Atlantis.

Lunch and dinner were with Rodney. It seemed Rodney was doing virtually the same thing as John: he had gone to the labs to check out whether or not the Rodney in this reality ruled over his lab with an iron fist.

"They're terrified of the McKay here," Rodney told him. He sounded delighted. "Apparently, he has a reputation for being the most cruel and unforgiving man in two galaxies. Even Zelenka cowers before him. Can you believe it? I wish he'd come back from his mission so I could get some pointers. I think the scientists in our timeline have lost all respect for me by now. I remember the days when they used to tremble before me."

"Maybe you're not as big a jerk as you used to be," John pointed out as he scraped the last of his pudding from its cup. The food tasted the same here. The biggest difference John could tell was that they shipped in bottles of Deer Park water instead of Evian.

Rodney waved a vague hand. "We can't be that different. He still goes on missions, and he's still the head of science. From what I understand, the only major differences appear to be that he went to another university than I did -- some alien university -- and he never worked in a secret lab in Area 51. Mostly because there is no Area 51 on this Earth."

"So the only similarities are he's smart, he's mean to the people who work for him, and he lives in Atlantis?"

Rodney blinked a few times. "Well, if you want to put it that way, then... yes."

"You going to eat that?" John asked.

Neither of them talked about what they both knew was coming up: the decision to stay in this universe, or leave to see if they could get home.

By nightfall, John was bored out of his skull. He didn't have a laptop or his Nintendo DS here. At one point, he tried to engage his escorts to see if they would tell him something about Dave, but all they would admit was that he was something of a control freak. While John had known that for years, it still made him feel better to know his men would never have said that about him. The sheen had started to wear off when Dave surprised him by stopped by.

"Figured you might be bored," Dave said. He lingered in the doorway even after John had walked back to sit on the bed. "Here."

Dave tossed John a well-worn paperback of Anna Karenina. It made John feel weird to know that the alternate universe version of his brother, who had never really been a big fan of fiction and had always made fun of John for reading a lot, especially after John had joined the chess team, liked Russian literature too. It left him wondering if his Dave had changed his mind about reading in the last few years. Maybe this was his real brother's favourite book too. He might never get a chance to know now, he realized.

John swallowed thickly. "You want to come in and... hang out?"

Dave stared at him for a long beat, face unreadable. "I have a lot of work to do," he said finally.

"Yeah, no problem," John lied. He held up the book. "Thanks."

After one mute, stiff nod, Dave fled. Sighing, John settled back against the pillows and opened to the first page. It looked like there didn't exist a universe were he and Dave got along.

On his third and final day in Dave Sheppard's world, John was so bored he was considering asking one of the Marines on his detail if she knew anyone with any comic books, but he chickened out with one look at her stoic face. To make matters worse, Rodney wasn't at breakfast or lunch, which wasn't like him; the Wraith could be sucking the life out of everyone in the city and Rodney would still take a moment to finish his salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. John's stomach twisted unhappily when he realized things must have gone well between Rodney and Keller. They were probably making out all over the place.

John grimaced at the thought, pushing the last of his soggy green beans around his plate. He considered going to the gym, but it seemed like an awful lot of effort. Then he realized he was sounding like Torren from the last reality, so, sighing, he put his tray away and went for a walk.

There was something he could do, he realized, halfway between the control room and the commissary. He stopped in mid-step; the Marines following him paused as well. The fish tank to his left let out a loud bubble. Ten minutes later, he was standing outside the corridor that had been stuck in some kind of time loop back in the universe where they had been slaves of the Ancients. Unlike in that universe, it was quiet here; this tower had been cleaned up recently, but it looked unoccupied. The metallic paneling on the walls was faded to a dull bronze, and the air smelled strange and musty.

He looked up and down the corridor, but, just like before, he couldn't see any signs of a loop or time bubble or whatever it was. It looked like a normal, everyday Atlantis hallway.

"Okay, John," he told himself quietly, and then he poked his head around the corner.

Standing in the hallway was himself, with the upper half of his body leaning into the next corridor. He narrowed his eyes at his own tall, gangly image. Was his ass always that flat?

Experimenting, he waved one of his hands around the corner; at the same moment, his body at the other end of the corridor's right shoulder blade moved up and down.

Why would the loop still be here two timelines later? John knew for sure this did not exist in his Atlantis. He had walked down this particular hallway more times than he could count; several of the scientists had their offices on this corridor, and two floors down were a few living quarters he distinctly remembered scouting out during their second wave of recruits. For the loop to be in one timeline was odd; for two, it was downright suspicious.

"Mister Sheppard, can I ask what you're doing?" one of the Marines asked hesitantly from behind him.

"Just checking something," John said, straightening up. He turned to find the Marines gazing at him uncomfortably. "And it's Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, not Mister."

The other Marine scratched his head. "Yes, sir, but that's going to be confusing, since our Colonel Sheppard is... the other Sheppard."

"Yeah," John sighed. His brother ruined everything.

After that, he rode the transporter back to the central spire. He was walking back towards the control room to see if anyone had heard from Rodney when a door opened and General O'Neill stepped out, followed by Sergeant Bates. Bates was saying, "So I said, 'You want to cut my hair using a number five guard? What am I, a male nurse?'"

"Colonel Sheppard," O'Neill said quickly, looking relieved. Bates scowled a little, but fell back.

John glanced around, but he was the only Sheppard in the hall. "How do you know who I am?" he asked.

O'Neill arched a brow. "Because Dave told me," he said, carefully enunciating each syllable.

"Right," John said sheepishly. "Dave didn't mention you were on base, sir."

"Why would you need to know the Secretary's whereabouts?" Bates demanded, eying John like he was some kind of criminal.

O'Neill held up a hand. "Calm down, Sergeant. It's fine. I just arrived this morning," he told John. "Brought some paperwork for your brother to sign. You know how it is." He indicated the stack of folders and tablet he was holding. Bates was also carrying what looked like a pencil box and an electric pencil sharpener.

"So... you know who I am, I'm guessing," O'Neill said.

John nodded. "Yes, sir. In my timeline, it's because of you we found Atlantis."

O'Neill looked pleased at that. "Yeah?"

"I used to work with Colonel Carter, and she talked about you a lot. Said you were a hero."

"Carter, huh? I always knew she was a good egg." O'Neill beamed. "How're you liking your stay here... John, is it?"

John couldn't tell if he was being polite or if he was genuinely curious. With a shrug, John answered truthfully, "It's not home."

One corner of O'Neill's mouth lifted in an empathetic grin. "No, I guess it's not. But you gotta admit, we've got it pretty well here."

That seemed like a weird thing to say. "Yes, sir," John replied, his eyebrows shooting up.

"I'm heading to the control room, you want to come with?"

Bates was shaking his head. "Sure," John said, which received him a glare. "It's not like I have anything else to do."

He -- and his band of merry Marines -- followed O'Neill the rest of the way. The man hummed under his breath the entire way. Bates, meanwhile, was silent, and John could feel the man glowering at him behind his back; it was just like back when Bates had been John's head of security while simultaneously wishing he could get John, and most of the other officers, court martialed. When they got to the control room, Dave was already there, standing over Sergeant Campbell's shoulder and dictating to him what to type.

Once he noticed Elizabeth wasn't there, John felt a rush of relief. Then he felt like the world's biggest jerk for feeling that way. But he didn't know if he could handle any more interaction with her; the last time had been hard enough.

"Plans will be carried out as soon as-- Oh." Dave broke off, stiffening. "John. Secretary O'Neill."

"Colonel," O'Neill drawled. "Ran into our new friend here."

"Did you," Dave said icily.

John glanced out at the gate room floor. There was a team waiting to leave, it looked like. Sergeants Miller and Stackhouse were part of the group, along with two women John vaguely recognized as being members of his own expedition. They were carting a bunch of crates with them. "Sending out a team?" he asked.

"The Satedans raided our alpha site again," Dave said irritably. "They took all our weapons and most of our food."

"You don't say," John replied, throat suddenly tight. He wondered if Ronon was one of the raiders.

"Our alpha base is on one of their moons."

"And you didn't think they'd have a problem with that?"

Dave's right eye twitched like it always did when he was mad. "It's not like they were using it."

"That reminds me," John said, "I haven't noticed any Pegasus natives in the city."

"Why would we have natives in Atlantis?" Dave asked snootily. He chuckled and shook his head as if John was saying something funny. John clenched his hands into fists. "I don't know how things work in your Atlantis, but in our reality, this is an Earth expedition."

"Well, we have a bunch of Athosians living with us, and Ronon Dex and Teyla Emmagan are members of my team," John said stubbornly, putting his hands on his hips.

"Athosians?" O'Neill cut in. He and Dave exchanged glances; John's heart sank. "I don't think I've met them. Colonel?"

Worry rolled in John's gut. "You've really never heard of them?" he asked Dave.

Dave shook his head. "Try their gate address," he ordered Campbell.

Apprehension clouding his judgment, John bent over Campbell's shoulder to dial the DHD himself. He was on the fourth key when Dave snapped, "John, what do you think you are doing?" Everyone else in the room, too, was looking at him like he had suddenly lost his mind.

John clenched his teeth and, taking a deep breath, stepped back. "Sorry about that."

Campbell finished dialing the gate address for Athos that John gave him, but after the last coordinate had been entered, nothing happened. He tried it twice more, but the same thing happened each time. Looking up at John in sympathy, Campbell said, "I'm sorry, sir, but the address is not connecting. Either the planet doesn't have a stargate, or it doesn't exist."

Why would Teyla be okay in every timeline before this one? Was there something about this timeline Dave wasn't telling him? Did it have something to do with the loop in the corridor? Maybe it was like the reality in which Ronon was the Satedean Emperor, and Athos had been conquered by another group of people, or maybe they had left and were living somewhere else. He could only hope Teyla was some kind of space pirate or something.

"We've been here for six years, and I've never heard of a planet called Athos, John," Dave said.

"I've been meaning to ask about that." John scratched his head. "You said there aren't any Wraith here, right? But your Earth sounds too similar to mine for there to be living Ancients."

"The Replicators wiped 'em out thousands of years ago," O'Neill explained.

Alarmed, John started to ask, "Are they still--?"

Dave stopped him. "No, no, we got rid of them. My fiancée and her team found an Ancient outpost at Dakara that contained the technology to wipe out all life in the galaxy. They managed to calibrate it to destroy only the Replicators." Dave shook his head. "Pity about the Asgard, though; if we had only found the outpost sooner, we could have saved them."

John was certain he had heard this story before, or at least the first part of it. "Your fiancée?" he repeated. Something in his brain clicked. "Are you talking about Colonel Carter?"

Dave brightened. "You know Sam?"

"He works with her," O'Neill offered, waggling his eyebrows.

John tried to imagine the Carter he knew with his brother; somehow, it wasn't too hard. She was a woman who liked rules and regulations, and no matter how different this Dave claimed to be, John knew he was the same way. She was still way to good for him, though.

"McKay's going to love this," John muttered to himself. His head snapped up as he remembered Rodney hadn't been around for hours. "That reminds me, anyone seen McKay?"

*

Rodney had not, in fact, seen Jennifer when Sheppard had suggested it, and for one simple reason: he was the worst boyfriend in any reality. To be honest, he hadn't thought about Jennifer much since they had first altered the timeline, and he could admit to himself that, frankly, he missed Ronon and Teyla more than he missed her. When Sheppard had told him to go see how she was doing, he had been struck with such an overwhelming guilt that he had gone and cowered in the other McKay's lab for as long as they had allowed him to stay.

It wasn't until their third day there that Rodney had decided he was behaving foolishly and, chin held high, marched right down to the infirmary after a quick breakfast. Jennifer was sitting at her workstation and typing on her laptop when he arrived, and she didn't notice him at all at first. While Rodney watched, she hit a few keys and paused, biting her lower lip and squinting at the screen. Rodney lingered in the doorway; he liked her short hair, especially in profile. Today she was wearing it back away from her face with silver hair clips. It made him want to run his fingers through it.

"Hello," he called out finally.

She jumped and glanced over at him with wide eyes. "Doctor McKay?" she said, closing her laptop.

"Rodney," he corrected her, stepping closer. "In my Atlantis, you call me Rodney."

"Okay, Rodney," she said playfully, obviously trying not to grin. It was the same look his Jennifer often used on him. She leaned an arm on her desk. "What can I do for you?"

"Just wanted to see how you were doing."

"Um, okay, I suppose," she replied. "Did you really come all the way down here to ask me that?"

"No," he admitted. "You know, in my reality, the two of us have a thing." He pointed at her and then himself.

Jennifer wrinkled her nose. "Really? The two of us?" She didn't sound like she believed it. "No offense, but you're not really my type."

"That's exactly what you said to me when we first started dating," he said smugly. "So what is your type, if I may ask?"

She pushed away from her desk and walked over to the Ancient scanner. "Someone who takes me seriously and doesn't call me names," she said, scoffing a little as she leaned over and adjusted something.

Rodney didn't know to reply to that. "Oh. Ah, am I-- is he not..." He trailed off awkwardly.

"Very nice?" she finished, straightening up. She looked off into the distance thoughtfully. "Not really. You're much nicer. You actually said 'please' and 'thank you' when you were here the other day. My reality's Doctor McKay would never do that."

He had already known the other Rodney McKay wasn't liked by his staff. It was nice to be the McKay everyone wanted around for once, but this was a bit embarrassing, really. He wondered what exactly had happened to the other McKay to make him so different; surely it wasn't as easy as the two of them going to different universities.

Jennifer turned back to him. One corner of her mouth curled up into a smile. "So, am I a good girlfriend?"

"The best I've ever had," he answered honestly. She started chuckling at that. "It's easier being with you," Rodney added, remembering the way Iohannes Sheppard had looked at Carson, like he had been the one who had almost been dead.

A confused expression crossed Jennifer's face. "Easier than what?"

His head snapped up. He didn't know why he said that. "Easy. I meant easy. I like being with you."

"Well, good," she said brightly. Suddenly, she put a hand up to her radio. "Yes, sir?"

There was a long pause. She blinked and frowned at the floor. "Yeah, he's-- I-- okay. Yes, sir."

"What was that about?" Rodney asked.

She spun around quickly and began rifling through one of the cabinets. "Oh, Colonel Sheppard thinks it's a good idea for you and, um, the other Colonel Sheppard to have a check up before you go," she said, not looking at him.

He snapped his fingers and hopped up onto the examination table. "Yes, that's a good plan. I was having these, uh, crazy thoughts--" He gestured to his head. "--a few alternate universes ago, and God only knows what kind of bacteria or diseases we could have picked up."

When they had first started seeing each other, he had been mortified to be dating someone who had already seen him naked in less-than-flattering circumstances. Not that he wasn't a fine specimen of manhood, of course; it was just that Jennifer had bandaged his wounds and pulled out his splinters and, on one memorable occasion, helped him put on his pants, and those kinds of things were definitely romance-killers. Dating his doctor was even something Sheppard wouldn't do, apparently. Before their first date, Rodney had informed Sheppard -- modestly, of course -- that he was going to a private, romantic dinner with Jennifer, and Sheppard had repeated, "You're going on a date with Doctor Keller?" over and over, as if expecting Rodney to be horrified as well.

While he shrugged back into his shirt, Jennifer smiled and placed a paper cup of water on the stand next to his examination table. "Here, drink this. You're probably dehydrated from moving through all those parallel realities." She said the last part like it was the craziest thing she had ever heard. Luckily, he had known her long enough to know when she was teasing him.

He took a few sips from the cup. "So, ah, you took over from Carson in this reality too, I presume? Carson Beckett?"

"Carson Beckett?" Jennifer asked. A line formed between her brows. "I've never heard of him. Doctor Frasier was the Chief Medical Officer before I was, but she moved back to Earth after they defeated the Replicators, so Doctor Weir put me in charge."

That was strange; no one had known Carson in the last timeline either. He supposed Carson must have never been recruited by the SGC in both galaxies. He was probably busy raising sheep and giving his children names no one could pronounce. Either way, he was better off than the Carson that was a slave -- or the Carson in Rodney's own timeline, blown to Kingdom Come.

Feeling a stirring of something in his chest, Rodney glanced down at the floor -- to find the fingers of both fists were clenched. Suddenly, he realized his fingers were going numb.

"Something's wrong with my arms," he said in alarm.

The cup slipped out of his fingers and hit the floor. He stared down at his hands. The numbness was spreading now from his chest and his hands and his feet; suddenly, he was having a difficult time breathing, like something was sitting on his chest. Sucking in shallow, panicked breaths, he gawked at Jennifer. Her mouth was twisted into an unhappy frown, but she wasn't moving.

"Aren't you going to help me?" he gasped, as the numbness moved up his throat.

He started to sway forward as his lower body became completely numb. Jennifer hurried forward and caught his shoulders, gently easing him back onto the examination table. "Whaa?" he managed, mouth and lips feeling swollen, like he had just gotten a tooth filled at the dentist.

She leaned over him, chewing on her bottom lip. "I'm really, really sorry, Rodney," she said, and she sounded like she meant it. She placed a hand on his rapidly-numbing shoulder. "Colonel Sheppard ordered me to do it -- he said the Consortium would fire me if he didn't! My father's on P3X-196; they'd never let me see him again."

Rodney couldn't move his lips to ask what the hell the Consortium was, or why Dave Sheppard had done this.

Jennifer raised her head and glanced at the door. "Um, you're going to have to hang on for a little bit. They're going to think I've killed you, but you're only paralyzed."

Wow, thanks, Rodney thought sourly.

"Once they think you're dead and the drug wears off, you can go find your time machine and get out of here. No one will know."

That was the worst plan ever, he wanted to shout.

He didn't know how long he lay there, unable to move or feel. It was like he was floating; he couldn't feel the examination table under his back, or the pillow beneath his head, just wave after wave of tingling pins and needles. He imagined this was what it would feel like to be hit with a Wraith stunner and still remain conscious while the rest of your body was asleep. It was horrible.

Finally, he heard the door open.

He couldn't see or hear who was in the infirmary with him, but he knew someone was. A feeling of terror washed over him, and he struggled against the effects of the drug. Some of the feeling was creeping back into him, but he still couldn't move a muscle.

Someone sucked in a breath. John, he screamed mentally.

"What'd you do to McKay?" Sheppard demanded from someone.

Finally, Rodney managed to twitch the fingers of one hand. Of course, the universe being what it was, it was the hand on the side opposite the door. That was just his luck.

"He's dead."

It was Dave Sheppard's voice. Despite his numbness, Rodney felt like a bucket of cold water had been tossed over him. Furious and worried, he focused even harder on moving. He had to warn Sheppard his brother was a homicidal maniac before it was too late. His toes wiggled inside his runners, but it wasn't enough; he wasn't going to help Sheppard with his goddamn toes.

While Rodney was trying to move, he hadn't noticed the room had fallen quiet. Finally, Sheppard growled, sounding angrier than Rodney had ever heard him, "You're lying. What'd you do to him?"

Dave chuckled. It sounded mean. "I'm afraid I'm not. I had Doctor Keller euthanize him. You can check yourself, but I'm sure you can see that he's not breathing."

Sheppard made a horrible choked sound Rodney had never heard before. Rodney worked harder now to move -- to move anything; a finger, a toe, even to blink -- because he would do anything in his power to keep Sheppard from making that sound again.

Abruptly, his leg jerked painfully, and most of the numbness faded into a mild pins-and-needles. The drug must have worn off, he realized. He managed to sit up as silently as he could, flexing his now-burning fingers, praying Dave wouldn't turn around and see him. But even Sheppard wasn't looking at him; he was gazing at his brother's face while they argued, looking pale and furious, his mouth drawn tight. Rodney needed to do something now, before Dave turned around and realized he wasn't dead. Something like... He looked around frantically and then he saw the best possible way to save Sheppard and himself.

With a speed he had no idea he possessed, Rodney launched himself off the examination table, and, miraculously, managed to grab the sidearm out of Dave's holster with one hand and shove Dave away with the other. Dave stumbled back, looking stupefied. Rodney flipped the safety off the gun and pointed it in the centre of Dave's chest.

"Don't move," Rodney said, hoping he sounded tough.

"Rodney!" Sheppard said hoarsely.

The look on Sheppard's face mirrored the one Rodney had seen on the face of Sheppard the slave two universes ago. It threw Rodney off for a second; he had seen relief that Rodney hadn't fallen to his imminent death in Sheppard's expression many times, but it had been a long time since he had been there in person when Sheppard had been told one or more members of his team were still alive (usually because Rodney himself was unconscious). Maybe if he had been there, he would have seen this -- he would have known this. To see Sheppard gazing at him like that, relieved and open and so vulnerable, made his heart do a painful flip.

Dave's gaze flickered to Sheppard. "You're really going to let him shoot me, John?"

"Oh, cut the crap, Sheppard," Rodney sneered.

The look Dave shot him could have curdled milk. "You're nothing like the McKay I know," he spat. "The McKay in my Atlantis would be crapping his pants right about now."

"Yes, well, your McKay never met your brother," Rodney said hotly.

As soon as he said it, he realized with a jolt that it was true. That was what made the McKay in this universe so different from him: he had never met John Sheppard. That had made all the difference in the world. That had to mean something -- but what, he had no idea.

"That's right," Sheppard said with a sudden realization. He stared at Dave with an expression he usually reserved for Wraith. "I'm your brother! I can't believe you tried to kill me, you asshole."

"My brother's on Earth," Dave said coldly. "Raising ponies with his gay boyfriend."

"Can we not talk about the ponies?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney took a step closer to Dave, and he leapt back. "Fine! I was given orders to kill you."

"Orders?" Rodney echoed. "From whom?"

Pulling himself up to his full height, Dave replied, "From Supreme Overlord Daniel Jackson, of course."

"I should've seen this coming," said Rodney.

"I knew you guys were evil," Sheppard exclaimed. He waggled a finger at Dave. "You don't have turkeys in this universe! Why would Jackson want us dead? Aren't we on the same side?"

"All he said was that you were the reason the stars were disappearing."

Mystified, Rodney met Sheppard's eyes. The look on Sheppard's face was equally bewildered, but Dave appeared confident. "What the hell does that mean?" Rodney demanded.

"He said when you arrived, half the stars in the sky went out."

"And he knows this because...?"

Dave stared at Rodney incredulously. "Because Daniel Jackson knows everything," he said, in a tone that implied Rodney was an idiot. "It comes with being on a higher plane of existence. He is neither a god nor a man."

Rodney looked at Sheppard in dismay. "He must be half-Ascended, like Anubis."

Sheppard was still looking vaguely perplexed, even though Rodney knew he, as well as everyone who worked for the SGC, had an idea of who Anubis was: the mostly-Ascended Goa'uld who could possess people and couldn't be killed. From what Rodney understood, it had taken another Ancient to bring him down -- and even then, only because Daniel Jackson had convinced her. Being mostly-Ascended meant that if Jackson wanted to come to Atlantis himself and torture them to death, all he would have to do was snap his fingers. They were so dead.

"That's bad, right?" Sheppard asked him.

Rodney let out a frustrated sound. "If you consider 'having most of the powers of an Ascended being without having to follow any of their ridiculous rules' bad, then, yes, this is bad," he replied loudly. "Very, very bad!"

Sheppard seemed to realize how screwed they were, because his expression turned serious. "We should get out of the timeline now," he announced, ripping open the top drawer of the nearest cabinet. "Come on, we need something to tie Dave up with." He pulled out a giant plastic bag filled with condoms and blinked at it in horror.

"Don't bother," Rodney grunted, and right as Dave's expression shifted to one of startled comprehension, Rodney gripped the Beretta's barrel and clocked him over the head with it. Dave crumpled to the floor.

"I've always wanted to do that," Rodney said proudly, surveying his handiwork. He had never felt so manly as he did in that moment. This must have been how Ronon felt all the time.

For a moment, Rodney thought Sheppard was going to yell at him for pistol whipping his brother, but instead he quickly stripped Dave of his knife and his radio. His face was grim. "Come on, we need to get out of here."

To Rodney's amazement, when the infirmary door slid open, Jennifer was standing in the middle of the outside waiting room. Her short hair looked wild, like she had been running her hands through it, and her eyes were huge and frightened. "Rodney!" she cried when she spotted him.

"You," growled Sheppard, taking a step forward.

Rodney grabbed Sheppard's arm before he did something rash. "Wait, wait, she didn't try to kill me, she saved me. She's the reason I'm still alive."

Sheppard backed off. He started to tell her, "Thanks," but Jennifer stopped him by holding out their life signs detector. "I was bringing you this, but I wasn't sure if Colonel Sheppard was still in there," she said. "I grabbed it from Doctor Zelenka's lab when he had his back turned. Figured you might need it."

Rodney took it from her and shoved it into the front pocket of his BDUs. It was a tight fit. For the first time ever, he missed his tac vest. "You should come with us," he insisted. "God only knows what that psycho will do to you."

"And don't forget Dave," Sheppard added.

Rodney made a face at him. "A crazy Daniel Jackson joke? How original."

"I have to stay," argued Jennifer. "I can't leave my dad here. I'll be fine; I'll say I mixed up my meds. It'll be okay. They think I'm pretty ditzy anyway."

"If you can, get off Atlantis and go to Sateda," Sheppard said. "There's a man there named Ronon Dex. He's a good guy. He'll be able to help you."

Rodney bristled at the idea of sending his girlfriend into the waiting arms of Ronon, but then he remembered that Ronon was one of a handful of people he was certain could survive anything the universe threw at them, even a universe where Daniel Jackson was half-Ascended. Teyla was another person he knew could take care of herself, but, frankly, he was afraid to ask where she was.

Jennifer nodded shakily. "Sateda. Ronon Dex. Got it."

Impulsively, Rodney hugged her. He didn't know what came over him. Jennifer stiffened in his arms a second before relaxing and hugging him back awkwardly. Out of the corner of his eye, Sheppard was staring at the floor. Rodney cleared his throat and took a few steps backwards. "Good luck," he told her.

"You too," she said to both of them.

When Jennifer had fled, Sheppard said quietly, "They have two Marines stationed outside the time machine room."

Rodney thought fast. Okay, between the two of them they had one gun, one knife, a radio-- That was it. The radio. "How good are you at imitating your brother's voice?" he asked.

Sheppard smirked. "Used to do it all the time when his girlfriends called the house." He plucked the radio out of Rodney's hand and put it on. "Colonel Sheppard to Major Lorne," he said, his voice faster and more clipped; Rodney was vaguely impressed. "I need a team to the second floor of the central tower immediately."

That was six levels down from the time machine room, but nearly forty from any floors currently occupied by the expedition, which meant Lorne would most likely send the nearest officers. That was a bright idea, if Rodney said so himself.

"Sending Arivez and Soloshenko now, sir," came Lorne's reply.

"I say we have about five minutes before they realize there's nothing down there," Sheppard told Rodney, tossing the radio to the floor.

The corridor was mercifully empty when they made it to the time machine room. Rodney's heart was pounding from the combination of running for his life and the fright of being caught. He kept expecting a glowy Doctor Jackson to pop out from the walls and-- could Ascended beings kill people? Probably, he surmised, as Sheppard keyed open the door and activated the machine.

There was a bright flash, and then darkness. When Rodney no longer felt like he was going to vomit, he realized he had his eyes squeezed shut.

They had left the old reality behind and were now in what looked like someone's personal quarters. This person had a dark bedspread and equally dark curtains, which only partially blotted out the bright mid-day sun coming through the windows. There were several knickknacks on a sturdy table against the wall, and there was a potted tree in the corner. Rodney wondered if they had any food.

Sheppard wobbled for a moment. When he apparently regained his balance, he tore open the white wardrobe that was between the door and the bed. Much to Rodney's astonishment, there were actually clothes in there. Immediately, Sheppard peeled off his t-shirt. "Wait, what the hell are you doing?" Rodney asked, as Sheppard kicked off his boots and began unbuttoning his trousers without any sign of shame.

"Changing," Sheppard said flatly. "I don't want to wear his uniform."

"Well, I never did look good in white," Rodney said, staring the way the lean muscles in Sheppard's back rippled as he pulled on a black tunic. He stepped into a pair of black trousers, and then he fastened a belt around his waist, over the tunic. It reminded Rodney of what he had been wearing when they had found him living it up among the Ancient groupies a few years ago. It also reminded him of a ninja, but he didn't think Sheppard would appreciate that right now. He seemed to be in a bad mood, even though it had been Rodney who had almost died, not him.

"These are someone else's clothes, you realize," Rodney said, reaching around Sheppard and grabbing a blue, long-sleeved shirt. He tugged it on over his t-shirt, but that was as far as he was willing to take this. The material was rough, but it wasn't itchy; actually, it felt like something Teyla would wear.

"They can buy new clothes," Sheppard grunted, stomping off towards the middle of the room.

"You know, your family is really something," Rodney said, watching Sheppard pace. The expression on his face was dark. "I knew my parents were horrible, but yours must have really done a number on you two. I should've realized this years ago."

"Yeah," Sheppard said, sounding exhausted. When he reached the long, white Ancient couch, he practically fell on it; he spread his legs and slouched down as low as he possibly could. Suddenly, Rodney noticed the dark circles under Sheppard's eyes and the sad curl of his mouth, and his gut tightened. He never liked seeing Sheppard like this. This was 'I just sent my former boss slash friend to her death' big, or 'my dad died and the only way I know how to deal with it is to drink beer and make sad faces' big, or, that one time, 'I super glued my fingers to my autographed Sandman issue number twelve' big.

"Sorry," Rodney mumbled.

"It's okay. My dad sucked." Sheppard straightened up into the sitting position of a normal person and scrubbed his face with his hands. When he lowered them, his expression was a little less pained. "You did good today, Rodney."

Rodney raised his chin proudly. "Really? Thanks."

"If you hadn't gotten up when you did... well, I might have done something stupid," Sheppard added with a half-smile.

It was the smile that did it. It hit Rodney like a ton of bricks: the look on Sheppard's face back in the other reality, the tortured sound he had made when Dave had said Rodney was dead. Rodney was so stupid; it was so obvious now, thinking about it. Suddenly everything about their unlikely relationship made sense, from the way Sheppard was always mysteriously around to annoy him right down to how he had told Rodney that Rodney was 'stuck with him' back when Rodney had been dying of a brain parasite.

"You're in love with me!" he blurted.

The expression on Sheppard's face froze. "What?" he asked.

"You have feelings for me," Rodney said, stabbing a finger at him. Saying it out loud was even better; he was certain now that this was the answer to everything. "That's what this whole thing's been about, with the weirdness and the--" He waved his hands excitedly. "It must have been going on for a while. How did I never notice this?"

Sheppard's forehead wrinkled. "You didn't know," he said slowly, like this was news to him.

He gaped at Sheppard. "Of course I didn't know!"

Sheppard was staring at him like he had just announced his intention to marry a Wraith. "I thought-- I thought that maybe you were in the closet." He squinted at Rodney in confusion. "Rodney. How could you not know?"

But that didn't make any sense at all. Rodney wasn't gay. Something cold and scary twisted in his gut. "In the closet?" he sneered, swallowing against a wave of inexplicable fear rising in him. "Oh, that's rich, coming from you. Were you even planning on telling me how you felt?"

Sheppard gazed at him evenly. "Not really, no."

"Don't tell me that's why you really wanted to change the timeline. Was this some harebrained scheme to keep us together forever?"

Rodney immediately regretted it as soon as the words left his mouth. Sheppard's head went back like he had been slapped.

"Sorry to keep you from your girlfriend, McKay," Sheppard said icily.

"Sorry to keep you from-- oh, that's right," he said icily, "there haven't been any women."

Sheppard looked incensed. "There have been women. Chaya-- alright, maybe she doesn't count. But there's Larrin, sort of, I guess, and there was definitely the virgin in the cloister."

Rodney snorted. "And how telling that one is."

Sheppard poked him in the sternum with a finger and said, "Say what you will about my being... that thing I'm not allowed to talk about, but I'm not the one who was in a pretend relationship for two years. Come on, Rodney, like dating Katie Brown wasn't your way of avoiding dealing with your-- your, you know. Your feelings for me."

Rodney went still. That wasn't true -- was it? Katie had been nice, and pretty, and she had smelled good, and, most importantly, she had liked him. Okay, yes, she had thought he was some kind of sensitive, poetic soul, but she'd let him touch her boobs. He had wanted to marry her. Or, at least, he'd thought he had wanted to marry her. Other than his panic attack, he didn't remember much of what happened in the greenhouse on the day he had been prepared to propose, but he remembered everything before it (Sheppard holding the ring in his hand and gazing at it with a funny look on his face) and almost everything from after (getting drunk and sleeping on Sheppard's floor). He had woken up the next morning with a massive hangover and vague memories of throwing up on Sheppard's shoes. But he hadn't exactly been heartbroken.

He didn't know what kind of expression he had on his face, but Sheppard looked triumphant. "You'd rather date some woman you don't even like than be honest with yourself."

"I am honest with myself. I don't have any feelings for you beyond friendship," Rodney snapped, a little hysterically. He felt hot all over; that panicked feeling was suffocating him. He couldn't breathe. "And even then, it's pushing it. Okay, yes, you're right, Katie and I didn't have anything in common. But what about Jennifer? I love her, and she loves me, and our relationship is very good, and one day, maybe, she'll be the mother of my children."

Sheppard's face went blank. Dimly, Rodney realized he was hurt. "Well," Sheppard said calmly, taking a step backwards, "I hope you two are very happy together."

"Christ," Rodney said. He sat down heavily on the couch.

"Rodney?"

He pressed a cool hand against his hot forehead. "Why do you have to be so difficult?"

Sheppard gingerly sat down next to him. He felt a warm hand touch his back, and then Sheppard was asking gently, "Rodney, buddy, are you freaking out?"

"Maybe a little," he admitted. He chuckled nervously, shaking his head. "Forty years old and having a panic attack over liking cock."

"Well," Sheppard said. Rodney raised his head to see Sheppard tilt his chin back to look at the ceiling. "I was thirty. My denial ran pretty deep."

Rodney frowned. "Really? What about that guy from prep school?"

Sheppard snorted. "There's a reason I'm not raising ponies with him in Vermont," he said, glancing at Rodney sideways.

"Ironic that the universe in which Daniel Jackson was an evil Ascended overlord was the one in which you were the most well-adjusted," said Rodney.

"You're telling me," Sheppard agreed.

They smiled at each other, and, not for the first time, Rodney was struck with how beautiful Sheppard's smile was. Sheppard, who had stupid hair and a smart mouth and crazy (but oddly brilliant) ideas, who felt responsible for everyone under his command (and a lot of people who weren't, too), who had made Rodney a better person without Rodney even realizing it, who liked comics and Star Trek and depressing Russian novels, he loved Rodney. He loved him. If Rodney could miss that, maybe he could have missed a few other things.

Sheppard moved to stand. "So, ready to go? You know what they say, if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try, try, try again."

"Wait," Rodney said, holding up a hand. Sheppard settled back next to him, watching him carefully. "Maybe you're right. About what you said about me. Maybe I've been avoiding how I felt."

"Well, yeah," Sheppard said with certainty. "You told me. After you and Katie broke up. You told me that you wanted-- that we--" Sheppard cut off and looked away, his expression frustrated.

"You told me that you wanted to marry me," he finished in a hiss, like he was telling Rodney a particularly dirty secret.

"What?" Rodney squeaked. "I did not."

Sheppard's jaw tightened. "Did too."

Rodney stared at him incredulously. "And you didn't think that was something I needed to know?"

"I thought you were pretending like it never happened!"

"Oh my God, I am gay," Rodney gasped.

In the past few years, he had been forced to do more self-reflection than what he was comfortable with, thanks to some Ancient technology and a certain water-dwelling parasite. He'd had to think about his friends, his co-workers, and his family and what they meant to him, but somehow he had missed this. It was strange he would miss not only that his best friend was in love with him, but that he loved his best friend back. He wasn't a genius; he was an idiot.

"I'm gay," he repeated. "Or bi, more likely, because trust me when I say I still have a deep, deep appreciation for the female form, but-- but I like men."

It wasn't so bad once he said it. It was kind of nice, actually. He had probably missed out on a lot of sex over the years by not coming to this conclusion this sooner, he realized. That was a travesty.

"I don't love Jennifer as much as I love you," he found himself saying. He grabbed Sheppard's hand, and Sheppard's eyes widened. "I do love her, and had you and I never had this conversation, or, strangely enough, these time travel escapades, I'm sure in a year or so, Jennifer and I would be settling down and maybe even having an incredibly bright child or two. But I'd rather-- I don't love her as much as I love you," he repeated helplessly.

Sheppard was looking at him with a tense, guarded expression. "You don't?"

"You were right. You were absolutely right. About my hiding from my feelings. I mean, you're one to talk, but..." At Sheppard's glare, he cleared his throat and continued: "Right. What I'm trying to say is, I think we should. Be together."

"Oh, you do, do you," Sheppard said, but he looked uncertain. "Look, Rodney, I don't want you to do this if it's out of some misguided sense of loyalty, or--"

"Loyalty? Are you kidding me? What am I talking about, that's exactly something you would do. Did you miss the part where I said I loved you?"

Rodney was sure now what he wanted. It was scary, and he wasn't a hero like Sheppard, but he wanted this. He wanted this, Sheppard wanted this, they both wanted this, and he wasn't going to give up now. Determined, he wrapped his free hand around Sheppard's neck and pulled him down so their lips touched. For an instant, Sheppard seemed frozen, and then Sheppard's lips parted and his tongue darted out and the next thing Rodney knew, his eyes were shut and he and Sheppard were sharing wet, open-mouthed kisses and running their hands all over each other. He smoothed a hand down Sheppard's long back and cupped his scratchy jaw, and Sheppard breathed out hard through his nose and pressed their chests together, scraping Rodney's lower lip with his teeth. It was the best kiss Rodney had ever had.

Eventually, Rodney had to breathe. Reluctantly, with one final kiss to Sheppard's upper lip, he pulled back. Sheppard had his eyes closed and was gripping the fabric of Rodney's shirt so tightly Rodney was afraid it was going to rip in two.

"Okay," Sheppard said, opening his eyes, "you've convinced me."

"Oh, now you're convinced," Rodney said, but it was hard to be mad at a guy who might be giving you a handjob within the next five minutes. "My heartfelt declaration didn't do anything for you?"

"Nope," Sheppard replied.

Smirking, he put both hands on Rodney's shoulders and pushed him flat on the couch. He crawled on top of Rodney, and looked down at him with a pleased look.

"What about--" Rodney's hands flailed for a moment, and then, after a moment's hesitation, he settled them on Sheppard's hips. "What about the timeline?"

"It can wait a few hours," Sheppard said, bending to kiss him again.

*

Chapter Seven

As soon as the world stopped spinning, John realized they were in one of the public bathrooms on the floor beneath the control room, right next to where, in John's Atlantis at least, they kept the locker rooms. Rodney was already pulling the life signs detector out of his pocket and aiming it at the outside hallway. When he bent his head, John could make out a hickey on the nape of his neck, halfway hidden under the blue tunic he'd borrowed.

Rodney had said he loved John, and that he wanted to be with him, but John had been around the block enough times to know that it was easier for a guy to fool around with someone else when he didn't think there was a chance his girlfriend would find out. But John had wanted Rodney for what seemed like forever, and right now, after all the mistakes he'd already made, this one didn't seem that bad.

"There's--" Rodney started, but John leaned in and kissed him, swallowing whatever it was Rodney was about to say. He cupped his hands around Rodney's flushed face, and Rodney wrapped his free arm around John's waist and kissed him back enthusiastically.

When John pulled away a fraction, Rodney licked his lips and asked, "What was that for?"

"No reason," John said.

Rodney looked pleasantly surprised. He grinned crookedly. John really wanted to push him against the wall and blow him, or any of the million things he might never have a chance to do again, but he settled for stroking a thumb across Rodney's cheek.

When he stepped back, Rodney cleared his throat and looked back down at the life signs detector. "There's one person in the corridor right now," he said, his voice echoing in the vaulted room. "But there are several hundred within the entire city."

John pulled the knife out of his boot and opened the door, prepared for an attack. He wasn't sure if he was expecting another Dave, or more whales, or even a Wraith, but what he wasn't expecting was Major Lorne sauntering down the otherwise-empty hallway.

Lorne looked perfectly normal; he was wearing his normal uniform, had his normal haircut, and was still his normal sex. There weren't Navy uniforms or Ancients or giant, sea-dwelling monsters; the floors weren't wet, and no one, from what he could tell, at least, was trying to blow up the city.

"What were you guys doing in there?" Lorne asked, his brows drawing together. He was carrying an Atlantis-issue tablet under his arm, and he travel mug of coffee in his hand.

"Major?" John asked, not wanting to jinx it. His heart was pounding in his chest.

Lorne raised an eyebrow. "Uh, I believe you mean 'Colonel.'"

All of John's hope evaporated. "Colonel?" he repeated stupidly.

"Are you okay, Major?"

John's head went back. "Just one question," he asked, "are you Atlantis' CO?"

"Yeah," Lorne replied slowly. He was giving John that 'I think you're a Replicator' look again. "You know I am, Major Sheppard. After all, you're my 2IC. You have been for the past five years."

John turned to Rodney. He crossed his arms over his chest. "We're not staying in this universe."

Rodney started to argue, "This could be a perfectly fine--" but then General O'Neill walked around the corner wearing a blue scientist uniform, and Rodney's shoulders slumped. "You're right. Let's get out of here."

*

"Time out," Rodney announced as he opened the door to the time machine room. "I'm calling a time out."

John rolled his eyes. "We just had a time out, Rodney. Sex on the couch, remember?"

Rodney waved a hand in dismissal. "Doesn't count. I want a shower, a steak as big as my face, and at least twelve hours of interrupted sleep followed by the world's slowest blowjob."

"Do I get a blowjob?" John asked.

"No," Rodney sniffed, "because after I get mine, it'll be time to go back to ruining the lives of everyone in the universe."

Before John could remind Rodney he wasn't the blowjob fairy, Rodney slammed his hand on top of the time machine and the world faded away. By the time he was able to focus again, Rodney was saying, "Oh, now we're back in the time machine room," and John realized the time machine had sent them to the same room, different year.

"This couldn't have happened five parallel realities ago?" Rodney asked no one in particular.

Abruptly, Rodney stopped pacing and stared in the corner of the room long enough for John to become concerned. John glanced at the speculative look on Rodney's face, and then he followed Rodney's line of sight to the statue. It was gazing down at them with both of its eerily calm faces and hard, black eyes, the likes of which reminded John entirely too much of the eyes of insects. It was strange that no matter what else changed in Atlantis, the statue never did. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking; maybe one time, in the near future, they would find themselves with a statue of a giant unicorn instead of this ugly thing.

"What are you thinking?" John asked. If Rodney had noticed something wasn't right with the statue--

"I'm wondering if it creates a paradox if we kill our past selves," Rodney said bitterly.

John rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. "You don't feel it?" he asked.

"Feel what? Rage?"

"I don't know," John admitted, rubbing the back of his neck.

"That's helpful," Rodney murmured.

John approached the statue tentatively, feeling both stupid and on edge. It was just a statue, for crying out loud; it wasn't going to come to life and try to kill them with its shepherd's crook. That was crazy. He could hear Rodney muttering to himself, and in the middle of half-listening to Rodney ranting about how he was "this close to using this thing and going back to teach those Ancients a lesson; let's see if they like their lives screwed up by a coffee maker," it hit John what was different.

More than half the marbles in the statue's hand were missing. The enormous handful of marbles had nearly vanished.

"Something's not right," John said.

"Yes, we can't get home to our universe," Rodney grumbled.

Shaking his head, John replied, "Not that. This. Every time we go through, there's less marbles in the statue's hand."

Rodney looked at him like he was an idiot. "So? In case you haven't noticed, we're jumping through parallel realities. Maybe the different sculptors in the varying universes all carved it with a different number of marbles. I don't see how that's any weirder than our entire team switches sexes or Daniel Jackson ruling the universe."

"Don't you think it's a big coincidence that there are less and less marbles every time we use it?"

Rodney made an exasperated noise. "I don't know!" he said. "What do you want me to say, John?"

Something about it felt wrong. Something was going on here. Something bad. It was more than just the marbles and the sailor suits and the whales and Dave: it was the missing moon, the city looping back in on itself, Athos' disappearance. It was Jack O'Neill, in more than one reality, telling John he was better off staying there.

"Come on, let's get this over with," Rodney said, stomping over to the door.

"Wait," John called. Rodney's hand hovered in mid-air over the door crystal. "Let's try going forward now."

Rodney looked confused. He lowered his hand back down to his side. "But-- but we haven't changed anything yet."

"That's the idea." When Rodney looked even more perplexed, John explained, "I have a good feeling about this."

"I don't understand. We're just going to go back to the reality with your brother. What could you possibly hope to achieve by doing this?"

John's voice rose. "McKay, trust me on this."

Rodney scowled. "Fine, but if Daniel Jackson captures and tortures us, remember that I'm the one who wanted to stay away."

"Don't worry," John said, "we're not going to see him or Dave again."

Rodney's hand came down hard on the time machine's controls. John caught a glimpse of his expression sliding to one of resigned conviction just as the world collapsed around them.

*

It turned out Rodney was completely wrong about them moving back and forth in Dave Sheppard's reality. The new Atlantis was cold, dusty, and completely empty. Rodney could feel his nose prickle as soon as he and Sheppard stepped into the darkened control room, which was illuminated by the emergency back-up lights against the flooring. The whole city, from what Rodney could tell, had been like this since they had stepped out of an empty room in a tower on the outskirts of the city. It was a building he had never been in before, but Rodney had been able to tell from a glance that no one had set foot in it in centuries.

He had to admit, Sheppard was right: things had changed without them evening altering the past.

The control room was deathly silent. Sheppard looked somewhat defeated. "I thought..." he trailed off, scratching the back of his neck with one hand.

The life signs detector began beeping. Rodney looked down at it in disbelief. "It says-- hold on." He flipped through the images. "There's one person in the city, and whoever it is, they're standing on the balcony outside."

Both he and Sheppard turned to stare at the balcony. "You don't suppose it's Major Lorne again, do you?" Rodney asked.

Sheppard's lips thinned, and he moved to the doorway. Rodney followed him. Through the stained glass window, he could make out the shape of a man. Apparently, the only living organism left was this unfamiliar person standing on the balcony outside, gazing up at the sky. Rodney exchanged a glance with Sheppard, who then, with a determined look settling on his face, opened the doors. The man didn't bother turning around as they approached.

"Hello?" Sheppard asked cautiously.

There was no response. The man didn't even move a muscle. Sheppard glanced at Rodney and shrugged.

"You there," Rodney called. "He's talking to you. Are you deaf, or just rude?"

The guy finally turned towards them. He was around their age, with pale, almost bloodless skin that was nearly the colour of his white tunic, and curly blond hair. "Ah, Colonel Sheppard, Doctor McKay," he acknowledged with a slight tip of his head.

"You know who we are?" Rodney asked, feeling himself grow excited. He didn't recognize the man, but that wasn't saying much; Rodney only remembered the names and faces of people who mattered. He turned to Sheppard, who was staring at a spot over Rodney's shoulder with a daunted expression. "This is great! We need to make sure--"

"This isn't the right universe," Sheppard interrupted tightly.

"Well, of course it's not, Colonel, as if the clothes--" He broke off, because Sheppard's expression still had not changed. "What are you looking at?"

Sheppard pointed to the sky. Even before he spun around to look, Rodney knew something was wrong; the expression on Sheppard's face was the same one he had every time they stumbled across something unexpected on missions: his wide-eyed, lip-biting 'oh crap' look. He was staring up and over Rodney's shoulder with something like real fear in his eyes. Over the years, Rodney had learned that when Sheppard was afraid, they all should be afraid.

Heart pounding, Rodney slowly turned around. When he saw exactly what Sheppard was looking at, his stomach dropped, and his palms began to sweat.

If it hadn't been for the sunset, they would never have been able to see it, because there were no stars in the sky. It looked like the heavens had been torn in two. On one side was what was left of space -- the sun setting and a single moon peeking out from behind the clouds -- and the other half was an empty nothingness. It was impossible, Rodney knew, but that was exactly what it looked like: as if someone or something had punched through the sky. Electricity crackled along the edges of the jagged lines of the tear. It was nothing like a black hole, which made it even more terrifying, in Rodney's opinion; a black hole he could figure out. As smart as he was, he had no idea what the hell this was. He had never seen anything like it. He had never even read about anything like it.

"I give it about an hour before it engulfs the sun," the man said casually, drawing Rodney's attention back to him.

What was this, the reality where everyone was a mindless zombie? How could anyone be calm about the universe being torn apart? Rodney was sure even the Replicators would be running around in panic right about now.

"How can you be so nonchalant about this?" Rodney cried. He wasn't ready to be snuffed out of existence. He had too much to do; he had to win the Nobel and destroy the Wraith and watch Madison and Torren grow up and laugh at Jeannie's thirtieth birthday, and he had just -- finally! -- landed Sheppard after years of some kind of bizarre courtship ritual familiar only to crazy people. He still had a good thirty, even forty years ahead of him.

"Because I'm the one doing it."

Rodney met Sheppard's eyes, and he could tell Sheppard was as horrified as he was.

"And," the man continued almost proudly, "I could not have done this without you."

"Without us?" Rodney repeated weakly.

"Yes, Doctor McKay," he replied. He was smiling, his hands clasped behind his back. He looked unusually happy for a man watching his world crumble before his very eyes. "Every time you used my machine, you wiped out a dozen more realities. The universe is becoming unhinged."

Beside Rodney, Sheppard went still, lips parting in surprise. "Your machine," he echoed knowingly, and Rodney knew they both were reaching the same conclusion: that he was talking about their time machine.

"Yes, my machine," said the man. "It's doing exactly what it was designed to do."

Rodney went cold all over. That must have been why the time machine had been broken, he realized with horror, because no one was ever supposed to use it. Rodney was so stupid; it wasn't a time machine at all. He couldn't believe he had made such a huge mistake about a piece of Ancient technology. Now things started falling into place: the way the corridors had repeated in the timeline where the Ancients had enslaved mankind, and why their friends were missing. The inconsistencies. The ridiculous statue Sheppard had been going on about. It wasn't his mind playing tricks on him, after all. But if this was what the machine did, then why hadn't someone destroyed it?

"Oh, the marbles," Rodney said, finally getting it. "They're symbolic," he told Sheppard.

"No kidding, McKay!" said Sheppard.

The blond man's smile grew wider. "They said I was mad, but they'll see. Soon enough, the universe will be completely destroyed," he said dreamily, completely ignoring the conversation that was going on in front of him.

Rodney thought he was going to be sick. "Are you insane?" he demanded. This guy was out of his mind; not even the Goa'uld had tried to completely take apart the universe. "What am I talking about, of course you are. Why would you do this?"

He shrugged. "Why not?"

"Well, stop it," Sheppard insisted angrily, voice rising. His hands twitched like he was wishing he still had his gun. "Whatever you're doing, turn it off."

"I'm afraid I can't. As you can see--" The man gestured to the gaping hole in the sky. "--it's almost completed. All we have to do now is wait for it to finish. As we speak, entire worlds are being wiped out of time."

"So I wasn't wrong. Things are missing," Sheppard said.

The man gave Sheppard a look. "Of course they're missing; the space-time continuum is unraveling. Didn't I make myself clear?"

"Is that why O'Neill's been in every universe?" Sheppard asked.

Frowning, the guy said, "I don't know an 'O'Neill,' I'm afraid."

Sheppard nodded in response, like that was something he heard every day, and before Rodney knew what was going on, Sheppard was taking a leap at the insane man. But before Sheppard could even lay a hand on him, he winked out of existence, leaving the two of them alone with the collapsing universe. Sheppard started at his empty hands and muttered, "What the hell? Was he-- Ascended?"

"Great, just great," Rodney moaned, covering his eyes with one hand. "We've been unknowingly helping an Ascended psychopath kill everyone and everything in existence. This has been the worst month of my life, and that's including the summer my parents sent me to fat camp."

"Rodney, focus!" Sheppard said. "How can we stop this?" Rodney lowered his hand to find Sheppard looking frantic.

"How the hell should I know?" Rodney retorted.

"Rodney!"

Exasperated, Rodney threw his hands up in the air. "In case you haven't noticed, Colonel, I'm an astrophysicist, not a magician. Unlike when we were on the reality-shifting Daedalus, I didn't create whatever it is that's doing this." He paused and frowned, and Sheppard arched a brow at him. "Well, that we know of. What I'm trying to say is, without taking apart--"

He broke off when the sound of clapping filled the balcony.

Leaning against the doorway stood General O'Neill, sarcastically applauding the two of them. Unlike in the past few timelines in which they had met him, this time he was wearing a typical olive green SGC uniform, the uniform he had most likely been wearing when Rodney had first met him all those years ago. (Rodney couldn't remember his first meeting with O'Neill, although he remembered the first time he had met Carter with crystal clarity. Over the years, he had fantasized about different ways it could have gone, how he could have wooed her by saving Teal'c in a stunning feat of intelligence he was so well-known for. That was, until she had shown up in Atlantis as his boss, and he had come to realize absence had not made the heart grow fonder.) His uniform had a well-worn SG-1 patch on the shoulder, and Rodney was willing to bet the sidearm in the holster at his waist was fully loaded.

"I thought you said there was only one life sign in the city," Sheppard murmured in an undertone, narrowing his eyes in O'Neill's direction.

"There was!" Rodney hissed back.

While they were arguing, O'Neill had pushed off the doorway and was now heading towards them, expression cloudy and familiar. "Now you've done it," he said, sounding irritated.

Sheppard looked embarrassed. "Sir?"

"Over a millenia of peace, and all it takes is two numskulls with a gene to undo everything," O'Neill complained. He sighed dramatically and shook his head.

"Numskulls?" Rodney repeated furiously -- he didn't have to take that kind of crap from Jack 'If It Ain't Dead, It Ain't an Alien' O'Neill, of all people! -- but Sheppard stopped him with a hand on his arm and a, "What are you talking about?"

"What I'm talking about is the fact you two geniuses have been tearing the universe apart!"

"So we were told," Rodney said crossly.

"It was an accident," Sheppard added. Then he seemed to realize something, and he pointed an accusing finger at O'Neill. "Hold on, how do you know about that? Is this another timeline with evil Ancients?"

O'Neill raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips. "Because I am an Ancient, Colonel Sheppard. I'm not Jack O'Neill. The name's Tony."

"Your name is Tony? Tony the Ancient?" Rodney asked sarcastically.

"That doesn't explain why you look like General O'Neill," said Sheppard, before Tony came back with something scathing that would get Rodney worked up and off point. Sheppard knew him so well, he thought, not unhappily.

"It's just a coincidence," Tony the Ancient replied. At their startled silence, he said, "Just kidding! I Ascended many centuries ago, back when we Alterans inhabited Atlantis. I've chosen to appear to you in the form of O'Neill because both of you believe in his ability to save the universe."

"I don't," Rodney interrupted.

"Subconsciously."

"No, I'm pretty sure I don't even subconsciously."

"Rodney, don't argue with the omnipotent being," Sheppard hissed.

"I liked being O'Neill," Tony continued, gazing off into the distance with a far away look in his eyes. "I could do or say anything I wanted and get away with it. Everyone looked up to me."

Rodney waved a hand, trying to get Tony's attention. "Hello, the end of the universe? Back to the problem at hand? You can deal with your kinky role-playing fantasies later. If you've known about all this, why didn't you try to stop us?"

"Oh, yeah, stop you," Tony replied dryly. "I've only been guarding over the machine for, oh, tens of thousands of years."

Sheppard scrunched up his face. "You know, when he says that, he really does sound just like General O'Neill," he told Rodney.

For an instant, Tony looked pleased, but then he stopped and glowered at the both of them. Sheppard was right; even knowing this man was an Ancient, Rodney wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between him and the real O'Neill.

"When you activated the machine, I descended to watch you. The best way to do this was to take the form of someone familiar to you both, so you wouldn't be suspicious." Sheppard opened his mouth to argue, but Tony held up a hand, silencing him. "I'm aware this didn't always work. What can I say, I never expected the whales."

"I never saw you in the whale timeline," Sheppard said.

"I was one of the whales."

"This is great," Rodney interjected, "but in case you haven't noticed, Tony the Ancient, that psycho friend of yours is destroying the very fabric of the space-time continuum. The fact that I just uttered that sentence and meant it should tell you how dire the situation is. So maybe instead of going on about whales, you can tell us why you've been watching us and how the hell we're going to get out of this mess."

Out of the corner of his eye, Sheppard winced slightly, but, much to Rodney's surprise, Tony said, "You're right." He ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. "Listen up, kids. When we began to lose the war with the Wraith, Anu -- the Ascended being you met earlier -- developed his machine and presented it to the Council. He said if we could not stop the Wraith, the best thing to do would be to destroy the entire universe." He paused meaningfully. "Naturally, the Council thought he had a few screws loose and sent him to therapy. Now, don't get me wrong, we're not opposed to wiping out a galaxy, but the entire universe -- that's a bit much."

Ancients, Rodney thought sourly. "Let me guess, Anu was friends with Janus?"

"Yeah, how'd you know?" Tony asked.

"Call it a hunch."

"But Janus stopped his project when he realized it was going to destroy the universe," Sheppard protested.

Tony nodded. "They collaborated on a few projects, and they were buddies, in their own way, but Janus, as rebellious as he was, was never as bad as Anu. The Roman god Janus was the god of gates and doors; the Assyrian god Anu was the father of evil spirits and demons. Demons... doors... kind of a big difference there." When Rodney and Sheppard stared at him mutely, Tony rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry. I've been spending a lot of time with Daniel Jackson.

"As I'm sure you guessed, Anu tried to use his machine again at a later date, but we managed to stop him in time. We destroyed his research and took the machine apart. Unfortunately, we were never able to find the key that makes it work -- well, not until we Ascended, at any rate. It's been my job, both in Atlantis and in the afterlife, to guard over the machine and ensure no one activates it."

Sheppard nodded gravely. "Until us."

"Until you," Tony agreed.

A chill went down Rodney's spine. This was much, much worse than when he had activated the Attero device to save Jackson's life. At least then, he had been able to fix it. He wasn't exactly sure how to fix the universe falling apart.

As he watched, Sheppard swallowed thickly. "Tell us what we need to do to help you stop Anu," he said quietly.

"Stop Anu?" Tony repeated, raising his brows. "Is that what you think I'm here for? No, I'm here to tell you that you need to pick a timeline and stick with it, before you kill us all."

Both Rodney and Sheppard stared at him, stunned. "Look, it's our fault," Sheppard said, "we get it. We activated something we shouldn't have, and now the whole universe is screwed up. But don't punish everyone else for our mistake!"

"I'm not punishing anyone. I'm suggesting you give up trying to find your Atlantis. And before you say anything, you should be lucky you're even getting this. Technically, I'm not even supposed to be talking to you."

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "From what I remember, Daniel Jackson descended to fight Anubis."

"Yeah, and look what happened to him," Tony replied, rolling his eyes. "Plus, he was a real nutjob. Drove everyone crazy. You have to understand, we have rules about these sorts of things. The only reason I'm even speaking to you is to ask you to stop using the machine before you destroy the entire universe. The best thing for you to do is go back to when Atlantis was occupied and remain there. If you keep a low profile, you should be able to live peaceful lives."

A mixture of rage and terror bubbled up inside Rodney. Peaceful? His life hadn't been peaceful since grade six. He was a genius, the smartest man in two galaxies, if he did say so himself; he had gotten used to the people of Atlantis needing him. And more than that, he liked his dangerous, high-risk life. He couldn't just drop everything and live as a nobody in some random alternate reality. Rodney didn't know what he would do without his missions or his team or his minions or even Zelenka, despite how incredibly annoying Zelenka was, always pestering him; he remembered very clearly what it had been like those six weeks on Earth, missing his home and his -- dare he say it -- friends.

Plus, it was too early in their relationship to decide whether or not he wanted to settle down with Sheppard. Sex on someone else's couch in an alternate timeline did not count as a date, no matter what Sheppard might say.

"Settle down and do what, become janitors?" Rodney snapped his fingers. "Wait, that's right, we've already spent the last five years cleaning up your messes."

A flash of irritation crossed Tony's -- O'Neill's -- face. "You dumb humans couldn't possibly understand--"

"What I understand is that you're going to sit back and let Anu destroy the universe," Sheppard interrupted, his voice hard. "You might have rules about interfering, but we don't, and we're going to stop him."

"I wasn't giving you a choice, Sheppard," Tony snapped. A muscle in his jaw twitched. "If you don't give this up, everyone is going to die. If I have to, I'll send you to a place where you won't have any hope of reaching the machine."

"You're saying you'd use your powers to stop us from saving the universe, but you won't stop Anu from ripping it apart? What's the point of being all-powerful and all-knowing if you can't use it to help people?"

"I told you, we can't interfere!" Tony shouted.

"You've already interfered this much, why not go all the way?" Sheppard demanded.

"He's right, you know," Rodney said coldly. Tony gave him a dark look. "It looks to me like you didn't learn anything from pretending to be O'Neill."

Something on Tony's face changed. "That's not true," he said defensively. "I learned a lot of things, like how to fish, and what Sam Carter looks like naked. Also, Teal'c, but I really don't want to talk about it."

"I meant about being a hero, you stupid, glowy octopus."

Rodney expected Sheppard to jump right in with him, so he was taken aback when Sheppard sucked in a sharp breath through his nose and said instead, "Alright. We'll only use the machine one more time."

Rodney jerked. He was almost too stunned to say anything. Almost. "What?" he asked shrilly.

He had expected Sheppard to say 'Hell no.' He wasn't ready to give up yet; why was Sheppard?

Tony seemed suspicious as well. "Yeah?" he asked, thoughtfully tipping his head back. "I have your word?"

"You have my word we won't do anything to screw up the universe," Sheppard promised seriously. His gaze didn't waver.

"What?" Rodney repeated.

"And McKay?" Tony asked, as if Rodney wasn't even there.

"I'll take care of it."

With a nod, Tony said, "Well then. See you on the flip side, kids."

He disappeared in a flash of light.

While Rodney was still trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with everybody, Sheppard marched out of the balcony and back into the control room. It took Rodney a second to realize he should be following him. He couldn't believe this was happening; there was no way Sheppard would willingly let harm come to the people of not only this galaxy, but the entire universe. Even people outside his own reality.

"You can't be serious," Rodney called, managing to catch up with Sheppard just as the transporter doors opened.

"Of course not," Sheppard said, looking at Rodney like he was some kind of idiot. "I promised we wouldn't screw things up any more, and if I'm right, we won't."

Rodney had a sinking feeling about this. "What are you planning?"

Instead of answering him, Sheppard smirked at him and hit the section of the map in which the time machine room lay. He was quiet until they had arrived at the room, after which he asked, "What do you know about fighting Ascended beings?"

Rodney blinked. "I know you can't."

"That's not good enough, McKay," Sheppard said impatiently, palming open the door.

Rodney threw his hands in the air. "I don't know!" he snapped, even as he followed Sheppard into the room. "Do I look like a four-eyed nerd who has a habit of dying often?"

When Sheppard stopped in front of the time machine, his face was grim. His hand hovered over the control button. "If Tony comes after us, we're going to be in trouble," he said in a way that was really not comforting at all.

"I don't understand. What are we doing?"

Sheppard glanced up at him and flashed a grin. "Using the time machine one more time."

"Oh, I see where this is going. Wait." Rodney grabbed Sheppard's arm. He wanted to say, 'This isn't your fault,' or, 'Maybe he's right and there's a nice reality for us to settle down in,' but what came out was, "You wanted to save them from the Wraith."

Sheppard smiled wistfully. "Yeah." He took a deep breath. "I hope this works."

"If I get kidnapped by the Asgard again, I am going to be very angry," Rodney warned.

Sheppard's hand paused where it was raised over the machine's 'on' button. "Rodney, I have one question."

He looked completely serious. Rodney licked his lips. "Yes?"

"Fat camp?"

He glowered at Sheppard's smirk. "Oh, and I suppose you spent your summers in France?"

"Italy, actually." Sheppard looked chagrined. "But I promise I didn't like it."

"Your life is so hard," he said sarcastically, and then he turned on the time machine himself.

Just like the last dozen times they had activated the time machine, Rodney squeezed his eyes shut against the spinning sensation in his gut. He was falling and falling, and suddenly he was on solid ground again, his legs feeling like they were made of jelly.

He knew they were in the right place before his eyes managed to focus, because he caught the faintest sound of Sheppard catching his breath. The blond man from before, Anu the very evil and very Ascended Ancient, was scribbling an equation on a transparent marker board. His handwriting was erratic and sloppy, and even with his sub-par understanding of Ancient, Rodney could only make out about one-third of his text. While he had no doubt it was something diabolical, Rodney wished he had some way of preserving Anu's research; the time machine, even with its ability to tear apart the very fabric of time and space, required a knowledge of gravitational time dilation and cosmic strings Rodney had only dreamed of. Not that he had ever considered destroying the entire universe, of course.

"Hold it, Anu," Sheppard called.

"Colonel Sheppard, Doctor McKay," Anu said without turning around.

They were the same words and tone from his greeting on the balcony: that sort of smug, smiling intonation that reminded Rodney of... well, himself. Rodney wondered if it was possible for a person to have deja-vu if he was experiencing the second time thousands of years before the first.

"It's bad that he knows who we are, right?" he murmured to Sheppard, who was looking faintly puzzled.

"It's not good," Sheppard whispered back.

Finally, Anu capped his marker and moved to look at them. "If you've come to stop me, you're too late," he said arrogantly.

"Really?" Sheppard drawled, and before Rodney knew what was going on, Sheppard had raised Dave's sidearm and fired at Anu twice in succession.

Rodney flinched, even though it was a second too late. But there was no need, because the bullets had gone right through Anu and embedded themselves into the wall. Rodney had only ever seen something like that on a hologram; when Anubis had projected himself into Cheyenne Mountain six years ago to tell them to 'prepare to meet their doom,' some of the more startled officers had fired at him, thinking he was there in person. The bullets had only ricocheted off the gate and the walls, causing an even bigger panic than before.

It was only appropriate that Rodney was now remembering how he had laughed at the poor soldiers and then followed Sam up to the observation room to make even more fun of Anubis -- 'Yeah, that would be embarrassing, wouldn't it? Nothing can stop the destruction that I bring upon you! Then the gate shuts down. Oops, sorry, nevermind.' -- because right now, he was so scared he was practically crapping his pants.

If Anu wasn't a hologram, that could only mean one thing: he was Ascended. They hadn't gone back far enough, to when Anu was still human. They were so very, very screwed.

Rodney had never truly faced down Ascended beings before -- Chaya notwithstanding -- but he knew humans couldn't do a damn thing to stop them. Not without something like Merlin's Ascended-neutralizing Sangraal, something Rodney had, admittedly, thought was imaginary the first time he had read about it in the weekly SGC data burst. In his defense, he only believed about twenty percent of what came out of Jackson's mouth. The man was an archaeologist and a linguist, for Christ's sake. He was barely worth listening to even before it became apparent how insane he was. Now, though, looking at Anu's unmarked form and the growing realization on Sheppard's face, Rodney wished someone like Jackson was here with them. If only because if anyone could talk an Ascended being out of killing them all, it would be him.

"I should've picked an earlier time to go back to," Sheppard muttered, wincing.

Rodney scowled. "Really wish you would have thought about that earlier, Colonel."

"Honestly, Colonel Sheppard, you're going to shoot me?" Anu asked dryly. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Was that your big plan?"

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Sheppard admitted.

"But I thought-- I thought you had to be a good person to Ascend," Rodney said.

One corner of Anu's lips lifted in a smirk. "Ah, that's where people get it wrong," he replied, raising a finger. "You only need to be a good person to Ascend completely. Otherwise, you need help from someone already Ascended."

A knowing look crossed Sheppard's face. "Someone like Tony?" he asked with trepidation.

"No, not Antinous, I'm afraid. It was someone else on the Council; one of Janus's former lovers. It's actually a very long story. I'd tell you, but you're about to be dead soon, so there's really no point."

"Yeah, about that," Sheppard said. "We can't let you do it."

"Do you really think you can stop me?"

Rodney didn't have to look at Sheppard to know his answer was 'yes.' Rodney's answer, on the other hand, was a firm 'no'; no, no matter how smart or creative -- or in his case, brilliant -- they were, they were still human. Humans verses Ascended Ancients was never a good idea.

However, before Rodney could do something embarrassing, like beg for mercy, a voice called, "They might not be able to, but I can."

A ball of white light appeared between them and Anu. Its hazy, blue tendrils stretched out to nearly touch Rodney's face, and a breeze seemed to stir the room. All the hairs on Rodney's arms stood up. An instant later, the light stretched and faded until it was in the form of a man. He was tall and slender, with a white beard and hair, and he looked remarkably like Alec Guinness.

"Obi-wan Kenobi?" Rodney asked in wonder.

The man sent Rodney an irritated look. "No, McKay."

"Antinous," Anu said. He sounded irked. "I should have known you would come. You were always sticking your nose where it didn't belong."

Tony crossed his arms over his chest. "Anu, good to see you. You've lost weight."

His face and voice were different, but he still sounded like O'Neill, right down to the sarcastic tone.

"I thought you weren't going to interfere," Sheppard said.

"I thought about it, and maybe you did have a point," Tony replied. To Rodney, he added almost sheepishly, "And you were right. A hero like O'Neill wouldn't let the universe be destroyed when he could do something to stop it."

"I said no such thing," Rodney protested, even as he was filled with relief.

While they were talking, Anu had begun taking a few steps backward. He was nearly to his time machine when he sneered, "You're too late, Antonius. When I push this button, you will have exactly thirty seconds before the universe is destroyed."

"That's what the bad guys always say," Sheppard said.

Sheppard took a few steps forward, but Anu extended a hand and, much to Rodney's horror, Sheppard went flying back. He slammed against the wall, hard, and then whatever was holding him lifted him several inches. His palms were pressed flat against the wall as well, and when Rodney bellowed, "John!" he turned his head to look at Rodney with wide eyes.

"Try anything, and I'll do far worse to you," Anu told Rodney, his hand still level with his chest.

"Mc--" Sheppard started to say, but then his head whipped back, and Rodney winced at the sound of his choked-back cry. When he lowered his chin, his mouth was bleeding.

Rodney helplessly froze where he was. He didn't have a weapon on him, and the only thing in the room he could get to was the--

"Ow!" he cried as something crashed into his mouth. He cradled his stinging jaw with a hand. "I didn't do anything!"

"You were thinking about it," Anu replied.

"Okay, that's enough, Anu," Tony cut in.

"Finally," Rodney grumbled. He pulled his fingers away from his face and found them covered in blood. "Christ. I bit my tongue when you did that, you lunatic!"

Tony and Anu were glowering at each other and didn't seem to hear him. Slowly, Anu backed up more and more until he was able to rest a hand on his machine. When Rodney realized what was about to happen, suddenly his smarting mouth didn't matter any more. He lowered his hands numbly.

Tony started, "Anu, don't you--"

Anu pushed the button.

A loud humming sound erupted from the machine, along with a powerful glow that had Rodney squinting in pain.

He saw Tony's lips move, although he couldn't hear what was being said; a second later, Tony transformed back into a ball of white light. This time Anu followed him. They crashed into each other and the force sent them flying across the room. Together, they were roughly the size of a basketball, but even at a distance Rodney could feel the energy pouring off of them.

The machine was still going. Terror washed over Rodney. He was going to die. Not just him, but everyone and everything in the universe. Everyone he had ever loved or hated or was just plain indifference towards. Every world he'd been to, every star he'd ever gazed at.

As he watched, a circular band of light enveloped the machine, and in it Rodney could see realities falling apart one by one. He could make out Emperor Ronon and Doctor Teyla holding hands while their Atlantis was ripped apart; Rod, Major Sheppard, and Teal'c watching planets disappear one by one on Atlantis' long-range scanners; Sheppard and Carson's eyes meeting as the ground beneath their feet crumbled. He watched Sheppards and McKays he never met disappear in a blink of an eye; he saw Elizabeths playing with their dogs and Teylas sharing a meal with their fathers and Ronons playing with their children and Jeannies winning the Nobel prize, none of them expecting their worlds to suddenly fall apart. Somewhere in there, Rodney knew, were his Ronon and Teyla and Kanaan and baby Torren and Jeannie and Madison and Sam and Jennifer and Woolsey and everyone else he cared about, and there was nothing he could do about it.

He couldn't take it. He squeezed his eyes shut.

Something hot and tingling slammed into him, causing the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and knocking him to the ground. Rodney opened his eyes to see the balls of energy, the Ascended Ancients, still duking it out. He couldn't help but glance over to the machine again, and that was when he caught sight of the McKay from Colonel Dave's universe hiding under a desk and crying that he didn't want to die.

It was at that moment Rodney remembered he wasn't that McKay anymore. He was Doctor Meredith Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD, and he'd faced down giant masses of energy and Wraith and Replicators and Genii; he'd almost Ascended, he'd nearly drowned, he'd had a brain parasite, he'd destroyed a solar system, he'd jumped through realities, he'd opened himself to being with a man he loved, and if anyone could stop an evil Ancient from killing everyone and everything in existence, it was him. He may not have been the bravest man in two galaxies, but he was, without a doubt, the smartest.

Rodney pushed himself to his feet. Sheppard was still pinned to the wall, and even through the nearly-blinding light, he could make out Sheppard's half-frightened, half-mutinous expression. When he saw Rodney heading for the machine, Sheppard began struggling even harder against the invisible hand holding him, shouting something Rodney couldn't hear through the machine's droning. Rodney knew, of course, being a genius, that Sheppard wouldn't be able to free himself in time. It was up to him.

It was like when he had faced down the energy monster in his first few days in Atlantis, except this time he didn't have a personal shield to protect him. The Ancients battled on, oblivious to him, but he could feel Sheppard's eyes on him the entire time. The closer he got to the machine, the hotter he became, until sweat was pouring down his face and he thought his eardrums were going to explode. Next time it was Sheppard's turn to save the universe, he decided.

When he was within touching distance of the machine, his body was engulfed in a white, burning light. He raised a hand to cover his eyes and he reached out with the other, thrusting his fingers through an image of Jeannie and Sheppard firing at a group of oncoming Wraith. Finally, his fingers touched hot metal.

He heard a cry of outrage reverberate throughout the room, and then Sheppard screamed, "No! Rodney!" right as Rodney's fist slammed down on the machine's controls.

The humming slowed to a stop, and the band of circular light shattered and pulsed outward like a bomb. Rodney staggered but managed to catch himself; he raised his head to see whatever it was holding Sheppard to the wall let go, Sheppard bonelessly sliding down to the floor.

"Ha!" Rodney said triumphantly, straightening his back. "And that is why you never invent an off switch."

And then Rodney died.

*

Chapter Eight

There was a flash of light, and the floor disappeared from under John's feet. He was free falling for less than five minutes before the world rushed back into focus and he landed, ass-first, on something soft and bouncy. Before he knew what was happening, he had bounced off of it and crashed to the floor.

"Ow," he said, resting his cheek on the cold stone.

He heard a familiar scream coming closer, and suddenly it was right there with him. Something squeaked, and Rodney landed on the floor beside him, groaning loudly.

"I really hate time travel," Rodney moaned.

John raised his head to glare at him -- and realized exactly where they were. He sat up quickly. "We're in my room," he said incredulously.

Everything was exactly as he had left it nearly two weeks ago -- no, he corrected, that morning. His Johnny Cash poster was over his no-longer nicely-made bed, his curtains were over his windows, his guitar and surfboard were propped against the wall. His laptop was even playing the same play list he had started before leaving for breakfast; Kate Bush was crooning that she wasn't running up that hill.

Rodney reached under his bed and pulled out a bag of Doritos. John smacked it out of his hand. "Don't touch the secret stash," he warned.

"What are you, a fourteen year-old girl with an eating disorder?" Rodney asked. He peeked under the bed again. "Good lord, is that an entire set of fine china?"

"My mom gave it to me before she died," John countered. "It's a family heirloom."

"Looking at these, I can tell your mum was a drunk. Seriously, lace?"

"Yeah, well, your mom was ugly."

"You can't insult me with something I told you willingly!"

He gave John a challenging look, and John went still as he was hit with a sudden realization.

Rodney seemed to realize it at the same moment. "Wait," he said, voice raising in pitch, "am I...?"

"You're alive," John croaked.

"Oh my God, I died, didn't I?" Rodney looked down at himself and began patting his own chest with both hands. His eyes were nearly popping out of his head. "That bastard killed me!"

Without thinking, John reached out and grabbed Rodney's shoulders. He ran his eyes all over Rodney's body, checking to make sure he wasn't seeing things. There was dried blood in the corner of Rodney's mouth and his hair was wild, but he was warm and solid and alive beneath John's hands. The sleeve of his right arm was torn; his hand was pink, and John suspected Rodney was going to have a burn on his palm from where he had touched the time machine's controls.

Rodney was still gaping. "Anu came at me, and then-- and then--"

Relieved laughter bubbled up inside John. He smiled and said, "Rodney," sliding his hands over the tops of Rodney's shoulders. Rodney had walked into a field of white light and then had been attacked by an Ascended Ancient, but he was fine. The universe was fine. They were fine.

"Tony -- Antinous, whoever -- he sent us back," Rodney gasped. "He saved us!"

John grimaced. "That's going to cost him."

With his left hand, Rodney swiped at his ear. John realized they were both wearing their radios -- the radios that Tyre had taken away last week. He reached up to touch his.

"Who's the president? Where are the whales? Do you know what Wraith are?" Rodney demanded from whoever was on the other side.

There was no answer at first, and the muscles in John's shoulders got tighter and tighter until, finally, he heard, "Henry Hayes, there are no whales in Atlantis, and, yes, of course I know what the Wraith are." Woolsey didn't sound amused. "Are you quite done, Doctor McKay?"

"How long have we been gone?" John asked.

"I talked to you... let's see... less than twenty minutes ago. I assume you've given up on your experiment?"

He snorted. "Something like that."

He was about to tell Woolsey they needed to have a briefing when Rodney said briskly, "One hour, your office."

Rodney clicked off his radio and started to grab John's forearms, but he wrenched his right hand away at the last minute. "Mother fucker, that hurts," he yelped. He spread his palm, and, sure enough, there was a red, circular burn in the centre of it. The pads of his fingers were also burned.

John swallowed past the lump in his throat. "Rodney, what you did--"

"I had to," Rodney replied confidentially, raising his chin. In that moment, John was really proud of him. That was, until Rodney fisted a hand in John's tunic and said, "Now take off your clothes."

"What?" John laughed.

But Rodney was completely serious. "John, I did a very brave thing just now. We need to have yay-we're-alive sex."

"Rodney."

"John?"

Frustrated, John pointed out, "We're back in our Atlantis."

"And?"

"And don't you want to go see Keller?" John said awkwardly, not looking at him.

He was cool with this. It wasn't like he hadn't dealt with Rodney having Keller for a girlfriend before. It didn't matter that this time he knew what it was like to touch Rodney or remember the silly, earnest faces Rodney made during sex. He wouldn't miss the way Rodney had looked at him after, like John was the most amazing piece of technology he had ever seen, as he had brushed kisses across John's neck and shoulders.

Maybe John would give Will Osterberg a call the next time he was on Earth. Apparently, they still got along great.

"No!" Rodney blurted. "I mean, yes, it would be nice to see her -- nice to see everyone, obviously -- but--" He grabbed John's forearm again, and John finally looked at him. Rodney's face was reddening. "I told you, I want to be with you."

"Even though we're not stranded together?" John asked doubtfully.

"I want to be with you," Rodney repeated. He made a frustrated sound. "I don't know how I can make this any more clear."

It was Rodney's 'I know just how to fix it' face. John had seen it thousands of times before. If someone asked him, he would never be able to explain why, but it was that look that made him finally believe that maybe, just maybe, Rodney did want to be with him after all, that he wasn't going to take one look at Keller and change his mind. Maybe, John realized, he needed to trust Rodney with more than just saving lives.

John curled a hand around Rodney's cheek and kissed him, sliding his tongue into his mouth. Rodney flailed for an instant, and then John felt his hands gently cup John's shoulders and pull him closer, pressing their chests together.

"So... sex?" Rodney asked hopefully when they pulled apart.

"I'll think about it," John said.

Rodney's eyes bulged angrily, and John leaned forward and kissed him again. He slid a hand under Rodney's shirt and palmed his chest, spreading his fingers; underneath his clothes, Rodney felt strong and broad. John could feel Rodney's heart racing.

He had liked the way, the last time they'd done this, the tip of Rodney's tongue had poked out from between his teeth as he had concentrated on making them both feel good, and the way Rodney had flushed all the way down his chest. He really liked the fine scattering of freckles across Rodney's broad shoulders; he couldn't wait to run his hands over them again. He could touch Rodney as much as he wanted now; he wasn't just bottling up memories so he could miserably jerk off to them later.

When Rodney dragged his lips down to John's neck, John shivered at the rough scrape of Rodney's stubble against his skin. He leaned back against the bed, and Rodney's hand slid past the waistline of his pants and into his shorts, stroking him with just his fingertips. John thrust up, and Rodney smirked and said, "How's that?" just as he wrapped his big, hot hand around John's cock.

John made a really embarrassing noise. "No complaints here."

But they'd jerked each other off last time, and this time he wanted more. It was really hard to make himself stop Rodney, though, especially after Rodney added a little twist to the end of his strokes that had John seeing stars.

"Hey," he interjected, laying a hand on Rodney's chest.

Rodney looked up, his brow creasing. "What? Am I doing something wrong?"

"No, you're great," he said honestly. "But I want--I want you to--"

"You want what?" Rodney asked. "Please tell me you're not into anything kinky and/or disgusting. I hate to break it to you, but I'm not the sexual connoisseur I appear to be."

John gave him a look. "Trust me, no one thinks that. Look, I want you to do me. Fuck me."

He gave Rodney an intense stare, and the expression on Rodney's face changed. "You want me to do that? Really? I mean, I knew it was coming eventually, but I wasn't sure what you'd like."

"I like a lot of things," John said, shrugging one shoulder. "So you wanna...?"

"Is that a rhetorical question?" Rodney scrambled to his feet and stripped quickly. He nearly tripped over his own shoes before bouncing back onto the bed. "So how does this work?"

John raised an eyebrow. "I think it's pretty self-explanatory," he said dryly, kicking off his trousers.

"No, I mean." Rodney wrung his hands; maybe this wasn't such a good idea, John thought. "How do I make it good for you?"

"It'll be good, trust me," John replied, trying to sound comforting.

He finished undressing and climbed onto the bed onto his hands and knees. He started to turn towards the wall, but Rodney grabbed his hand. His cheeks were red. "I want to see your face."

John felt a jolt. "I-- yeah. We can do that. Lube's under the mattress, okay?"

He tucked a pillow under his neck and pushed another one under his ass. Rodney made a choked sound, staring down at him with huge eyes, and John pried the lube out of his hand. He generously slicked up one of his fingers and carefully pushed it in. He hadn't done this in front of someone in a while, and it felt weird but also kind of exciting, especially when Rodney's eyes practically glazed over.

Rodney looked terrified, but he listened while John showed him how to loosen him up using his fingers. John thought maybe this was a lot to lay on a guy who had just realized he was into men, but Rodney snapped, "I have two PhDs, I think I can figure out how to have sex," and grabbed the lube out of John's hand. Suddenly, John found himself flat on his back and Rodney slowly inserting one finger, his tongue peeking between his teeth.

John reached up and ran a hand over Rodney's hair. "Doing good, buddy." He arched his back. "Another one."

"Please tell me I get to put my cock in you soon," Rodney said, letting out a shaky breath. But he slid a second finger in and then scissored both of them. It burned a little, but it was a familiar burn, one John hadn't felt in a long time. It felt great.

And then Rodney's fingers brushed his prostate, and John was making embarrassing sounds and saying, "Come on, I'm ready, come on, Rodney," and Rodney let out a low moan. He raised and straightened John's leg. John dropped his other leg into the crook of Rodney's elbow. Rodney kissed the inside of his knee and used his working hand to raise John's ass, lining himself up. John watched his adam's apple working. And then finally, finally Rodney was pushing inside him, gazing down at John in wonder. His cock felt huge and thick and it wasn't going to fit, and then John remembered to push, and Rodney slid all the way in, until John could feel it in his throat.

"This is the best day of my life," Rodney said, voice trembling, and then he started to move. "Oh my God."

John let out a laugh. God, this felt good. It had been way too long.

Rodney braced his left hand on the mattress beside John's head. The change of angle made sparks shoot through John's body. "Can you jerk yourself off while I do this?" Rodney gasped. He lowered his injured right hand so the back of it rested against John's cheek.

"Yeah," John said. He reached down to fist his cock, and Rodney's gaze followed, eyes wide.

Rodney's thrusts sped up, practically shoving John back into the pillows. "Yeah, yeah," John repeated, louder this time. With the hand he wasn't using to jack off with, he cupped the back of Rodney's sweaty neck. Rodney moaned loudly, curved his back, and dropped his head; his forehead pressed against John's collarbone, and he rolled it from side to side in time with his thrusts. The top of his damp hair brushed John's nose. While Rodney couldn't seem to keep his upper body still, his cock was still moving in and out in a steady motion. It made John's thighs tense and his toes curl, and he choked out, "Rodney, fuck, Rodney, Rodney."

Rodney made a strangled sound and said, "John. God, you feel-- You're so--"

He let go of Rodney's neck and reached down to grip the back of Rodney's thigh, trying to pull him in closer. He was about to come; his breaths were coming out in rough pants, and something hot was pooling in the base of his spine. He tightened his grip on his own cock and went at it faster.

"Rodney, I'm," John started, and Rodney kissed the line of his jaw, his cheek, and finally his lips. His tongue slid inside John's mouth, and John moaned around it as he came, his ass clenching tightly around Rodney's cock. Rodney kept fucking him all the way through it.

When John came back to his senses, Rodney was practically sobbing, "John, fuck, John," into John's neck. Now John wrapped both legs around Rodney's waist and both arms around his shoulders. His come was smearing all over their bellies and chests.

Rodney's hips stuttered, and then he made a satisfied sound and slumped down onto John's chest. He was really heavy, but it felt good. It felt even better when Rodney started kissing his neck again. His scratchy jaw felt good against John's overheated skin. "That was-- you're so--" He raised his head and kissed John hard on the lips. "You just beat Trina Poplar."

"Thanks, I guess," John said. "Who's Trina Poplar?"

"Mmm," Rodney said happily. He dropped down again. "I love you."

John froze. When he could breathe again, he gripped Rodney's shoulder tightly. "Good."

*

It took them a surprisingly long time to convince Woolsey what had happened.

"You're telling me you went back in time, destroyed our reality -- along with many others -- ran into two feuding Ascended beings, and then reappeared in Atlantis within minutes of your departure?" Woolsey gingerly removed his glasses. "Colonel, Doctor McKay, if you're telling me this to get out of --"

Rodney scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. "As elated I am you seem to think my imagination is this good, we are telling the truth."

He had no idea what he looked like, but Sheppard's face was hard and intense -- as intense as he had been in bed a mere hour ago. And again in the shower, half an hour ago. And again the supply closet. Rodney's dick twitched.

Woolsey's face went slack with shock. He stared at Sheppard, and then at Rodney. "You're serious."

"Yes, sir," Sheppard replied. He almost sounded amused. "I know it's hard to believe, but it happened. And it's not like that's the weirdest thing that's happened to us recently."

"I wouldn't say that," Woolsey started.

Sheppard shrugged one shoulder. "I thought the zombies Major Teldy's team fought were pretty weird."

Woolsey paused thoughtfully. "You make an excellent point, Colonel," he said. "Are we in any danger from the Ancient, Anu?"

Rodney and Sheppard exchanged glances; to be honest, Rodney hadn't even considered that. "Probably not," he said uncertainly.

Looking alarmed, Woolsey said, "Perhaps we should ask Doctor Jackson to return to Atlantis for--"

"No!" said Sheppard and Rodney together.

"We need to do something about the time machine, though," Sheppard added.

Rodney waved a hand. "Yes, yes, I'll deal with it."

"Well," said Woolsey. He slowly removed his glasses and set them on the desk; he seemed at a loss at what to say. "This is going to be one interesting report. Did you happen to meet any alternate versions of me?"

"In one, you were married to a princess," Sheppard said unhelpfully.

Woolsey beamed. "Is that so? That's wonderful."

Rodney rolled his eyes. He noted Sheppard didn't point out Woolsey's royal wife was a mist planet princess and most likely made of gases.

"Let's go find Ronon and Teyla," Sheppard said as they walked out of Woolsey's office. Rodney suspected it was going to take Woolsey quite some time to figure out how to write that report for the SGC. The last time Sheppard had time traveled by himself, it had taken some convincing for General Landry to believe Sam.

"First, I need to--" Rodney glance around. No one in the control room was looking at them, but that didn't mean none of them were listening. Especially Campbell, that gossip. Rodney lowered his voice. "I need to go speak with Jennifer."

"Alright." Sheppard's voice was neutral. "I'll see you later?"

"Yes, you will," Rodney said firmly. Sheppard gave him a pleased smile and left him there alone.

Rodney hated break ups. The last real, adult relationship he had in which he had broken it off with the woman had been Sonia Berezovsky, his girlfriend from when he had worked at the Russian SGC in Siberia, and he had been so nervous he had written a speech on a note card on exactly why they weren't compatible. To make matters worse, she had cried the entire time. In retrospect, he hadn't been very nice about it. Now that he was older, wiser, and gentler, he hoped this break up would be amicable. He still cared for Jennifer very much, and it would be so awkward to have to see her every day if she hated his guts after this.

He found Jennifer in the infirmary, sitting at her computer. He had a sudden flashback to the short-haired Jennifer who had worked for Dave Sheppard. The scary thing was, he realized, if any Jennifer was going to have a reason to poison him, it would probably be this one.

"Ahem," he said.

"Hey, Rodney." She jumped up and kissed him on the cheek.

Hesitantly, he kissed her back. He wasn't sure how Sheppard felt about him kissing his soon-to-be ex, even on the cheek. He would be furious if he caught Sheppard kissing... oh, who was he kidding, Sheppard hadn't been in a relationship in the entire time Rodney had known him. However, he would be fairly upset if he caught Sheppard kissing a random individual, he was man enough to admit.

He clasped his hands behind his back. "Jennifer. Listen, we need to talk."

Jennifer looked at him incredulously. "Did you really go to a bunch of alternate realities and fight an Ascended Ancient?" she asked, sounding skeptical. "That's what everyone's saying."

Shocked, Rodney looked at the empty corridor behind him and then back to her. "I gave my report less than ten minutes ago!"

"Amelia told Sergeant Stackhouse, and he told Marie when he came to get some Aspirin, just a little while ago," Jennifer explained. "Then she told me."

Rodney waved a hand dismissively. "Fine, yes, Sheppard and I went back in time and fought an Ascended Ancient, but we can talk about that later," he replied. He cleared his throat. "Jennifer, I'm sorry, but I-- it's hard to explain, but--"

She gave him a meaningful look and crossed her arms over her chest, stepping away from her desk. "You're breaking up with me," she finished for him, smiling thinly.

Rodney had no idea how she knew that. "Yes, um, yes, how did you guess? It's not you, I promise, it's, well, kind of--"

"You want to see someone else."

"Okay, seriously, stop that," he said.

She grinned at him, and he felt much of the tension between them evaporate. "Rodney! It's okay!" She rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. "I mean, it's not okay-okay, but I understand."

"You do?" he asked, both stunned and relieved.

She raised her eyebrows, looking annoyed. "You practically ran screaming from the room after we slept together."

"You noticed that," he said glumly.

With a hurt smile, she replied, "Yeah."

"I'm sorry," Rodney said. He meant it, too. "Look, you're great. You're smart, and you're funny, and you're just so, so-- great. You deserve someone so much better than me, someone who will really love you."

"Rodney, don't say that. You're pretty great yourself." She reached out and squeezed his arm. "So this other person, is she someone I know?"

"You could say that," he replied.

His team was sitting in the mess drinking coffee when Rodney managed to track them down. He could hear Sheppard's donkey laugh from the corridor. He hadn't seen Ronon or Teyla since the reality where everyone was the opposite sex -- and it wasn't like those two had been his Ronon and Teyla, after all. They had been Meredith 'Rod' McKay's friends, and, obviously, he and Rod were nothing alike.

Deciding he really deserved a post-break-up meal, he grabbed a tray and selected a sample of the mess's best desserts. He was heading towards his team when he suddenly remembered that Teyla was keeping a huge, and incredibly important, secret from him.

"You!" Rodney stabbed a finger at Teyla, interrupting whatever she was saying to Ronon and Sheppard. His tray almost slid out of his hand. "What is the first law of Thermodynamics?"

She stared at him blankly. "Rodney, I do not even know what this 'thermodynamics' means."

"I should work on someone giving you private lessons," he murmured, taking the empty seat next to Sheppard.

"I'm sure she'll fit them in between fighting the Wraith and raising a kid," Sheppard said dryly.

He met Rodney's gave and licked his lips. Rodney's eyes flickered down to Sheppard's mouth, and he found his own mouth suddenly dry as he was hit with a powerful wave of lust. Great, Sheppard had turned him into some kind of nymphomaniac. He was never going to be able to look at Sheppard again without being reminded of how hot he was in bed. Strangely, he didn't mind.

"I was just telling them about the last two weeks," Sheppard said. Was it Rodney's imagination, or was his tone suddenly sultry?

"It sounds as if you two had quite an adventure," Teyla said, sounding considerably more convinced than Woolsey or Jennifer had been.

"So what was the weirdest reality?" asked Ronon.

"The one with the whales," Rodney said immediately, popping a grape into his mouth.

Sheppard's face scrunched up in thought. "I don't know," he replied, "I was pretty freaked out by the one where we were women. Laugh it up, big guy, you were a woman too," he added, glaring at a chuckling Ronon.

Ronon's grin stayed put. "What was I like?"

"Surprisingly good-looking," Rodney answered. Sheppard gave him a narrow-eyed look.

"Was I also there?" Teyla asked.

Sheppard nodded. "You were a guy, and your name was Torren."

"And what was I like?"

A weird expression crossed Sheppard's face. If Rodney didn't know better, he would have said it was distaste. "I've really missed turkey sandwiches," he said instead of answering her.

Teyla gave him a long look, clearly irritated. She rolled her eyes and turned to Rodney. "How are you doing, Rodney?" she asked.

"I, ah, broke up with Jennifer," Rodney said. He couldn't help but look at Sheppard as he said it. Sheppard broke out into a small, private smile that made Rodney's chest feel funny. "Just now."

Abruptly, Ronon sprang to his feet. "See you," he called, and practically ran from the mess.

"Oh, come on!" Rodney shouted after him. He turned to find Sheppard scowling at him. "Well, excuse me for hoping she'll need more than five minutes to get over me. I happen to be a fantastic boyfriend."

"You slept with me twice before you broke up with her," Sheppard said.

Teyla arched an eyebrow.

"I could tell it was really bothering you, the way you were pawing at me," said Rodney.

"I didn't hear you complaining."

Teyla stood, picking up her tray. "Perhaps this is a conversation you would like to have in private, so I will never have to hear it," she said wryly. "I believe I will now go find my fantastic boyfriend." She laid one hand on the back of Sheppard's neck. "It is good to have you both back."

"It's good to be back," Sheppard agreed with a crooked smile.

Rodney gave her a wave as she left. As soon as she was out of earshot, he asked, "You're not going to try to fix up Ronon and Teyla now, are you?"

"Nah," said Sheppard. "Teyla would probably kill me, and Kanaan would probably cry. I'm not good with crying."

"Besides, I'm sure you don't want to be responsible for creating a broken home."

"I've broken a few homes," Sheppard said nonchalantly.

Rodney could have gone his whole lief without hearing that. "This is a good time to mention we are never talking about people you slept with before me," he said irritably.

"Uh-huh."

"No, really," Rodney insisted.

Sheppard picked an oatmeal cookie off his tray and smiled at him again, and Rodney decided maybe he wasn't so angry after all.

*

John was having an awesome dream where he was on the verge of winning the Hawaiian Pro when a giant tiki statue appeared in the sky. "Colonel Sheppard?" it asked. Startled, John wobbled on his surfboard, and then he hit the waves nose-first. He woke up sputtering. Something heavy and fuzzy was resting on his chest, and he realized he was lying in his own bed, not drowning in the Pacific.

"Colonel Sheppard?"

Without opening his eyes, John reached a hand out towards his nightstand and groped until he found the soft plastic of the radio. He bumped something cold and heard a little ping! as it hit the floor, but he had the radio in his hand. "Yeah, Sheppard here," he said blurrily as he hooked it around his ear, trying to sit up. It was Rodney's head that was resting on his chest, and he stirred and muttered something sleepily as John pushed at his shoulder, trying to get more comfortable.

"Just checking to make sure you didn't slip to an alternate reality while I was asleep, Colonel."

John scrubbed his face with his hands. Did Woolsey just make a joke? "I'm still here," he murmured.

"Excellent. See you in a few hours."

"Yeah, see you at breakfast."

John turned off his radio and threw it back onto his nightstand. He missed, though, and it tumbled to the floor. Groaning, he tried to lean over to grab it; Rodney made a noise and rolled almost all the way off of him, finally giving him room to manoeuvre. Man, he really needed a bigger bed.

When John reached to the floor, his fingers brushed over something smooth and cold. Wide awake now, he curled his fingers around it and raised it to eye level.

It was a single white marble.

John stared at it for a long moment, rolling it between his fingers. "Are you there, Tony? It's me, John," he said quietly, looking around the room.

He didn't get a reply, but, deep down, he wasn't really expecting one.

Maybe John's life had kind of sucked, and maybe Ronon and Teyla had lost people they'd cared about to the Wraith, and maybe Rodney would be better off with a wife and two point five kids and a white picket fence, but no matter how bad things were, they had each other. And in the end, John thought, the best reality he could hope for was this one right here.

While he was rolling the marble in his hand, Rodney groaned something that sounded kind of like 'John' and then pulled the pillow over his head. Smiling, John set the marble back on his nightstand and snuggled back in for another hour of sleep.


Notes:

[1] The time travel logic here comes from 'Continuum,' '1969,' 'Moebius,' and 'Before I Sleep.' This story's not meant to be scientific, it's just meant to stay within canon guidelines for time travel. I'm not a scientist, I just play one on tv.

[2] "No one likes you because you're such a slut" comes from Mean Girls.

[3] This was originally intended for the 2007 SGA Big Bang, but I never made it. The prompt was: Sateda wasn't culled to extinction.

Disclaimer: Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis do not belong to me. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

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