Title: Cross Product, Part 6
Rating: R this part, NC-17 for the whole story
Spoilers: specific references up to Conversion, vague ones up to No Man's Land
Date written: July-August 2006
Length: ~7200 words for this part
Summary: All is resolved.
Links to Part One
Rodney was not enjoying his stay in the infirmary -- not that he ever did, with Carson's sandpapery bedside manner. But this time was worse. His hands were slathered in ointment, wrapped in light dressings, and then tied to the bed to keep him from handling anything. He couldn't use a computer, couldn't go to the bathroom without assistance, couldn't even rub his furiously itching eyes. And Carson, after listening to his lungs, had said he'd have to stay here at least overnight for monitoring. He was miserable and bored and lonely. Also worried about his teammates; he hadn't heard anything since Radek carried off the memory unit with muttered imprecations in Czech.
Rodney sighed and twisted his head to rub one eye, then the other against his pillow.
Rodney gaped at the watery, blurred images of Ronon and Teyla. "What are you doing here?"
"Came to get checked out by the doc," Ronon rumbled, sounding unfairly amused. "Make sure we didn't get our parts mixed up."
"Dr. Zelenka released us from the Wraith transporter," Teyla said.
"Well, he could have told me!"
"We promised him we would come speak to you right away."
Rodney blinked furiously as his eyes stung even worse than before. After a moment a soft brown hand brought a tissue to dab at his cheeks.
"Thank you," he choked around a lump in his throat. Had there been lemon in that dinner the nurse gave him? "There are some, uh, eyedrops over there, if you wouldn't mind."
Teyla tended him gently and without embarrassment. "Co-- Mr. Sheppard told us of your bravery, and how you were injured while rescuing us. Ronon and I both owe you a great debt."
Rodney sniffed. "Well, that's nothing new."
"Sorry if we worried you," said Ronon, sounding not nearly as repentant as he should be.
Rodney stiffened. "Worried? Oh no, I wasn't worried -- more like appalled. Infuriated, maybe. And outraged, yes, definitely outraged. Has anyone pointed out what an incredibly brainless stunt that was, Ronon? You too, Teyla! You'd think two people who grew up in this galaxy would know better than to run directly into a Wraith culling beam! I mean, what were you thinking? No, forget that, you obviously weren't thinking at all. Don't worry that the transporter scrambled your neurons or anything, because it couldn't possibly make you any more stupid!"
"We were fortunate you were there to save us from the consequences of our foolishness," Teyla said smoothly, without a trace of irony in her voice. Rodney couldn't focus well enough to see if she was smirking at him.
"Hmmph. I really don't know how either of you survived to adulthood. And also? You owe me a new knife. I lost mine inside the guts of an exploding dart!"
Something large and shiny appeared before his face. "This one good enough for you?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "One that fits in my boot sheath will be fine. It's not like I have anything to compensate for."
"I know. Seen you in the showers."
Teyla laughed out loud.
"You -- what -- you've been --"
Just then, Carson called out, "Teyla, Ronon, I'm ready for you now."
"Later, McKay," said Ronon. Teyla's breath was still unsteady with suppressed laughter as she said goodnight and followed him off, and then Rodney was left to sputter to himself.
The explanations lasted forever. Worn out from arguing at the SGC -- not to mention all the fighting and running, more fighting and more running, and then the post-adrenaline letdown -- John slumped in a conference room chair and let McKay tell most of their side of the story. He only took in the broad details of this other Atlantis expedition.
Their first days in the Pegasus galaxy had been much like his, except that Sumner survived for nearly a year as a withered old man, and gave O'Neill a field promotion so that he could act as military commander. The extragalactic dialing crystal had gotten damaged on the planet of the mist aliens (McKay groaned), so even when they got the ZPM from the Quindosim they still couldn't dial Earth. Zelenka had been lost to the nanovirus.
The Daedalus had arrived unwarned in the middle of a Wraith siege and taken a terrible pounding. O'Neill had left the shielded city to rescue the few survivors by gateship, and got a Wraith handprint on his chest and a trip through enzyme withdrawal for his troubles. Caldwell had a spinal injury and was wheelchair bound; Daedalus was an airless hulk drifting in orbit. And so on. They had fooled the Wraith into thinking the city was destroyed, and after that they kept a pretty low profile. They'd missed many of the more recent scrapes John's expedition had run into, simply because they didn't have the manpower or resources to go so far afield.
McKay started quizzing Grodin about the exact state of the dialing crystal. John told them about the intergalactic bridge of stargates his Rodney was working on; they could do the same thing, but they'd have to wait for the Odyssey to arrive to help them harvest gates. Then McKay and Grodin began arguing over whether the Daedalus could be salvaged. John sighed and dropped his forehead to his crossed arms.
He jumped. "Huh?" Everyone was looking at him. "Oh . . . sorry."
Weir smiled understandingly. "Don't be. We're all exhausted. Why don't we break for the night? We can resume this discussion in the morning."
"I have to get back to --"
"Peter will check the database and make sure the planet you told us about is still here in this universe. If everything looks all right, Captain O'Neill can take you there tomorrow."
"Yeah, okay, that sounds good." John rubbed a hand over his face and winced as he touched the splinter-gash on his cheek, which had taken two stitches.
Thanks to the expedition's shortage of supplies -- not to mention the disruption from the Genii invasion -- the quarters Bates directed him to were small and sparsely furnished. But there was a bathroom and a bed, and that was all that mattered.
He woke to an unexpected weight pressing down the mattress. "Hngwha?"
"It's just me." The weight shifted around, tugging blankets and adjusting pillows.
"Rodney? What are you doing here?"
The weight stilled. "Well, I thought that was obvious, but if you have to ask . . ."
"No, I mean --" John flopped onto his back with a groan, trying to persuade his eyelids there were no hydraulics holding them shut.
"We didn't get to spend much time together at the SGC while I was working on that power source and packing up my apartment in my free time. And tomorrow you'll be -- well, we hope you will, anyway -- so I thought . . ."
"S'okay," said John, flopping one hand around until it found a fistful of McKay to pull closer. "C'mere."
McKay was wearing a t-shirt and boxers, since he had actually packed to come here. John had just peeled off his fatigues (all he had to wear, which didn't actually belong to him or this reality's John Sheppard) and crawled into bed.
"You're tired. Maybe I should --"
"I'm fine, just give me a moment." John rubbed a hand soothingly over McKay's back. "What time is it?"
"Atlantis time, really? That's pretty late." John had found it was a lot easier to get to bed before midnight when midnight was four hours later, but apparently that wasn't good enough for McKay.
McKay shifted until his head was nestled more comfortably in the hollow of John's shoulder. "Grodin was showing me some of what they've done here. It's amazing! There are still whole sections of the city they haven't explored yet, did you know that? And they've barely begun to catalog the Ancient database --"
"Glad you're enjoying yourself," John said with a grin. "I knew you'd like Atlantis."
"I can hardly believe I'm finally here, for real. I've dreamed about coming here since, well, forever, it seems. Oh, and Beckett has a therapy to give people an artificial version of the ATA gene, so I can actually interface with the Ancient technology! It only works in forty-seven percent of cases, though . . ."
"It'll work on you," John promised.
"Really?" McKay's voice was unmistakably smug. "It didn't work for Peter Grodin."
"You going to take over as chief scientist?"
"Actually, Peter did suggest that. I think he just wants to foist off the paperwork onto someone else. But Elizabeth said we should wait to discuss it until I get settled in."
"Doesn't matter, really. You'll make your mark no matter who does the paperwork."
McKay snuffled a short laugh into his neck, then sobered. "It's dangerous here, though. Even though it's comparatively underpopulated, this galaxy actually might be more dangerous than the Milky Way. You realize they've lost almost 40% of their people? That includes scientists as well as military."
"That just means they really need you. We've lost 20% in two years, which is bad enough. But a lot of the ones still alive owe it to Rodney."
There was a long silence, then McKay said, "You, uh, you really love him, don't you?"
"Your Rodney McKay."
John hesitated. "Actually . . . we aren't a couple. Never so much as kissed. You kinda jumped to the wrong conclusion there."
"Oh. I did wonder. You seemed -- well, surprised by some things you should have known."
McKay squirmed a little. "No, not that. Really, I only do that -- very rarely. Only once or twice, when the, um, the sex was really, you know . . . exceptional."
John smirked into the darkness. "Why thank you, Dr. McKay!"
McKay slapped his chest. "Now you're just trying to distract me. But it won't work; I'm relentless. So do you love him?"
John had never really thought about it. "I . . . I miss him. I miss all of them. Having you here, being in Atlantis again -- it helps, but it isn't the same." The people were nearly the same, but they weren't his people, and he wasn't one of theirs.
"I'll send you back. If this device tomorrow doesn't do it, I'll find another way."
"I know you will, Rodney. I trust you." John realized that was true, and it didn't start with this Rodney. The faith that had been shaken by Doranda had grown strong again when he wasn't looking.
"And when you get back, you'll tell him how you feel, won't you? Leaving aside the fact that you still haven't told me straight out. You will tell him?"
John sighed. "I really don't know if I can do that. It might mess up the team, or our friendship, or even the whole command structure of Atlantis. I'm not sure I want to take that chance."
"Just tell him. Look, it might not come to anything -- it doesn't have to. But he should get a say in that decision, too."
"I'll . . . think about it."
The hand that had been absently stroking his shoulder started to move more deliberately across his chest, teasing a nipple experimentally. "Huh. I suppose I should remind you just what you have to gain if it does work out."
"Rodney," he groaned.
"What?" McKay tried to sound innocent.
John rolled suddenly, pinning McKay under his weight. "If you're going to start something like that, you should really be naked first. What, you think that's funny? Or you're just getting a head start on the laughter?"
McKay giggled again. "That depends. Is this going to be exceptional sex?"
"Oh, I'd say so." John investigated the soft skin below McKay's ear. "I'd say very definitely exceptional sex."
Between the regular application of eyedrops and the dimmer lighting at night, Rodney's vision was improved by the time Sheppard came to visit him. He saw the grim expression and knew exactly what it meant.
"Weir spoke to you?"
Sheppard gave a short nod. "She said you can't get me back where I belong. You're sure about that?"
Rodney sighed. "From what I could tell, I think that outpost was somehow deliberately sabotaged even before the looters came through. The device wasn't designed to do what it did to you, and it definitely wasn't designed to reverse it. There is no memory buffer, so we just don't have enough information to identify the exact universe you came from. It's possible we might be able to replicate most of the conditions if we could find another quantum mirror with an intact control unit, but I've never seen any mentioned in the SGC reports. And if they did find one, after their previous experience they would probably --"
"Enough, McKay. I get the idea." Sheppard glanced around the quiet infirmary alcove, looking uncomfortable.
"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry," Rodney said miserably. "I'm sure you want to get back to your own life. But really, Atlantis isn't so bad once you get used to it."
Sheppard grimaced. "Atlantis is fantastic. But Weir said I'd probably have to go back to Earth."
"What? That's ridiculous!"
"I'm not your Colonel Sheppard, Rodney."
"I know that! Obviously, I know that. But we need your gene. You're already as good as our best pilots after just one jumper flight, and with experience you can be as good as Colonel --"
"I can't take over his life, Rodney. I can't take over his command. And I can't be here if the new commander and every marine and airman is going to be looking at me and wondering 'what would Sheppard do?' in a crisis situation."
"They don't have to! You could still . . . well . . . there must be -- I'll talk to Weir," Rodney said finally.
"Don't bother. She's right. But she did say I wouldn't have to leave right away." Sheppard eyed Rodney solemnly, as if trying to decide something. Then he sighed and said, "Look. I, uh, I wasn't exactly happy with the way my life was going, before I came here, but it wasn't anything bad. I swear to you, I wasn't in jail. Your colonel will be fine."
Rodney's face heated. "I know. I did figure that out. I just -- I couldn't --"
"All right. As long as you don't think I'm some kind of usurper or something."
"No no, of course not. There was no way you could have planned what happened. Or even known about it."
"Yeah, but you won't be the only one to think I might be taking advantage of the situation. That's another reason why I have to go."
"I wasn't thinking that! Okay, maybe for a moment there, but I -- I had some other issues confusing me at the time."
Sheppard's mouth quirked. "No kidding."
"I don't want you to leave here thinking that I . . ." Rodney tugged at the gauze holding his wrists down. He couldn't talk without his hands! "It wasn't you. It wasn't the sex -- that was great. Well, pretty good, anyway."
"Only pretty good?" Sheppard gave an exaggerated pout.
"That was my first time doing, you know, some of that stuff. I expect it'll get better with practice."
Sheppard frowned. "That what you want, Rodney? To try again?"
Rodney tugged again at the restraints, wishing he could gesture to draw attention away from the heat in his face. "Yes, I . . . I think so."
"You need to do a little better than 'think so' before you try again, Rodney. Because from where I'm standing, that sexual identity freak-out you had the other day --"
"That wasn't about sexual identity! At least, not my sexual identity. I may not have been with a man before, but I'm open-minded enough to take the opportunity when it comes up. But . . ."
Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Colonel Sheppard," he said in long-suffering tones, as if talking about an eccentric relative who needed to be bailed out of jail again.
"Despite what you say, I've really never had any reason to think he was anything except completely straight."
"Look, you asked me all those questions and compared them with my -- your colonel's -- file, and you decided that my universe diverged from yours just three years ago. Right?"
"What? Yes, of course I'm sure."
"Well, then, I'm sure Colonel Sheppard is bisexual. Really very sure."
"He's just good at hiding it. You have to be, in that line of work."
"Right, that makes sense."
"And I'm also sure he's attracted to you. Maybe he thought you wouldn't be interested, maybe he figured it wasn't worth the risk, but I guarantee he's thought about it."
Rodney shook his head. "No, see, that part I just can't buy."
Sheppard groaned. "Jesus, Rodney! You're so sure of yourself when it comes to scientific theory or any kind of technology --"
"With good reason!"
"-- and then you have absolutely no confidence when it comes to your own sexual appeal."
Rodney grimaced. "Again, good reason."
"Just, try to stop doubting yourself, okay? Maybe I'm not your colonel, but I'm a healthy human being with eyes, and I'm saying you're sexy!"
Rodney boggled for a moment, then tried a smile. After all, it was a compliment. "Right. Well . . . thank you."
"So if you really want to get some more practice -- if you can get past 'think so' to 'pretty sure' -- well then, you know where to find me."
Rodney blinked. "For a little while, anyway. I -- I won't be able to do much in the way of reciprocation, though. I can't even undo my own fly right now."
Sheppard's eyebrows went up suggestively. "Sounds like you could use someone to help you out, then. Look, why don't I stop by your quarters after you get out of here. I can give you a hand with -- well, anything that needs hands, and anything else . . . we can talk about."
Rodney's smile came more easily this time. "That would be good. We can talk about it. I'd like that."
"Okay, it's a date. Or -- whatever." Sheppard patted his knee. "And now I better get out of here before the nurse decides I'm disturbing your rest. Night, Rodney."
"Good night . . . John." Rodney let his head fall back against the pillow with a wistful smile.
They gated to the Ancient outpost the next evening, since its day was nearly in phase with the Atlantis night. O'Neill flew the 'gateship,' accompanied by Grodin and Teyla -- who were regular members of his team -- along with Jackson, who was evidently curious to see the place and got to sit in the co-pilot seat. This left John and McKay the seats in the rear of the jumper. John always hated to be a passenger, but it was actually harder on McKay, who was wildly curious about the operation of the ship (though he hadn't accepted John's solemn assurance that they were really called 'puddlejumpers'). John ended up standing in the cockpit half the time anyway, pointing O'Neill in the right direction.
The dunes must have drifted differently in this universe, because only the top of the outpost was showing. Grodin and McKay argued in partial sentences for a bit -- John was glad to see that the Englishman gave as good as he got in the interruptions department -- and came up with a cunning plan to alter the jumper's drive pods to blast away sand. This required some fancy maneuvering at first, which made John's fingers itch for the control sticks. Then they hovered in place for a while letting the sand blow away until the entrance was accessible.
John and O'Neill between them persuaded the door to open. Inside, they found the outpost whole and untouched.
"Whoa," said John.
"What is it?" Grodin asked. McKay and Jackson were already engrossed in the equipment.
"This was all vandalized in my world. Completely gutted."
McKay spared him a glance at that. "That might explain something. From what I'm seeing, I don't think this was intended to -- hmmm." Then he was lost in a display of Ancient text Jackson had conjured up.
John opened the inner room so they could check out the device, but all three of them seemed happy checking out the controls and information in the outer room.
Once they had confirmed the place had no obvious threats or booby-traps, O'Neill gave a shrug. "Looks like they'll be at it for a while. Let's get some fresh air."
The two of them scrambled up the steep sand ramp to loiter in the shade of the jumper. Teyla gave them only a curt nod as she prowled around the exterior of the outpost like an angry tiger. It bothered John to see her so shadowed. He knew she was working through it -- talking frequently with the other women who had been through the same ordeal -- and he knew he was a stranger to her and could do nothing to help, but it still worried him. He was ready to get back to his own universe and leave the dilemmas of this one behind.
"Who's the fourth on your team?" he asked O'Neill by way of small talk.
"It was Ford, but he's ready to lead a team of his own by now."
John made a non-committal noise. The plans Ford had come up with in his universe were too damn reckless, but that might have been the enzyme affecting his judgment. Regardless of his strategies, he'd certainly inspired loyalty in his ragged band. Maybe leadership would be good for him.
"I was thinking of Markham to replace him, but . . ." O'Neill shrugged. "I'm not sure Teyla would trust a new guy on the team just now. What about those women who came with you? They any good?"
John considered. "Hailey's gung-ho, but she's really a science whiz at heart. It'd be a waste to team her with Grodin. Put her on a team that needs a scientist with combat skills." John was always scrambling to find enough scientists suited for offworld missions. There were plenty of capable candidates, but most wanted to stay in their peaceful labs and run experiments. Hailey, however, obviously had a strong sense of adventure. He wondered if her counterpart in his universe would be eligible for the Atlantis project.
"She might be what you're looking for. Tough, level-headed in a crisis -- and she's a demolitions specialist, so she'd be good to replace Ford. You have to keep on her about the hairstyle regs, though."
O'Neill flicked his eyes skeptically up at John's head.
"Hey, this body isn't in the Air Force," he pointed out. "My real hair is shorter." By at least a millimeter or two, he didn't add.
"I still wouldn't have much of a leg to stand on, the way Teyla wears her hair."
"Yeah. My team . . . well, the only one whose hair is regulation is the scientist." One Marine had joked that Ronon was only on the team to make John's hair look respectable. Ronon had held the guy down and shaved his head, and after that no one else commented.
"Maybe I'll give Cadman a try," O'Neill said.
"Put McKay on an offworld team too. No, I'm serious, he's brilliant."
"I know that, I'm just not sure I want him holding a gun when he has a panic attack."
John grimaced and rubbed his arm where a new pink scar should have been. "You might feel differently after he's pulled your asses out of the fire a few times. I told your Weir about a planet that has an Ancient ship on it -- or had, anyway. In my world it got blown up by a volcano. But if the sand dunes moved differently here, maybe that volcano hasn't gone off yet. If it's still there, you need to get McKay on it."
"All right, I'll think about it." O'Neill cocked his head. "What about you? Your double, I mean?"
John shrugged. "Don't know if he'd be interested. He's only been out of the service a few years so he shouldn't be too rusty -- but if he was discharged for what I think he was, you can forget about getting him reinstated."
"Weir might take him on as a civilian. We need more people, especially with the strong version of the gene."
John considered a moment, then thumped the side of the jumper and revealed, "If you want him to stay, just let him fly one of these babies once. He'll be hooked."
O'Neill's mouth twitched. "Useful advice." Then he raised a hand to his ear. "On our way." He turned to John. "Peter says they need us for something."
"Where have you been?" McKay demanded irritably as they slid through the doorway with sand in their boots. "There's a panel in that wall over there that will only respond to the gene. Open it."
O'Neill just gave the scientist a pained look.
"Way to make nice with your new co-workers, Rodney," said John as he started patting the wall.
"Please!" Rodney huffed. "If they're as touchy as the last bunch I worked with, we might as well get it all out in the open now."
Fortunately, Grodin looked more amused than annoyed. Jackson seemed oblivious to the by-play. Then a panel slid back in the wall, and McKay and Grodin were elbowing each other aside to get at it. John stepped safely out of the way.
"What did they figure out so far, Daniel?" O'Neill asked.
Jackson waved at the console with the scrolling Ancient text on it. "Evidently this installation wasn't designed to make people switch universes at all. It was actually for observing different universes. You were supposed to see the other reality through your double's eyes for however long you had your head in the device. They wanted to check out other universes to search for a solution to the Wraith problem."
"So how did it get messed up?" John asked. "Somebody who didn't know what they were doing?"
"No, that's the interesting part; it had to be deliberate. Apparently there was an Ancient who got stranded here -- well, this place in your universe -- when Atlantis was abandoned. He altered the device in your reality so that he could switch with his double in this universe who made it back safely."
O'Neill winced. "So the other guy, his double, just pops from Atlantis --"
"Probably Earth by that time."
"Right. Then he just shows up in this place in the middle of the desert, all of a sudden?" O'Neill gave an exaggerated shudder. "That's creepy."
"Well, it wasn't a desert then . . ."
"It's still the middle of nowhere," John pointed out. "And Atlantis was empty, with the Stargate blocked against dial-in from anywhere but Earth. And the Wraith were probably really pissed." He shook his head. "That is pretty nasty."
"It gets worse," said Jackson. "We think this Ancient must have set it up so the transfer from your universe to this one would burn out some of the circuits on that end."
"Oh, good," John sighed in relief.
They both stared at him. "You think that's good?" O'Neill demanded.
"I was worried the reason my McKay couldn't get me back was because something went wrong, back in my universe. I mean, I was holding a gun at the time of the switch -- what if my double freaked out and shot him or something? But if the device was broken, that explains it."
Jackson nodded. "But the burned-out circuits caused the same problem for the Ancient who used it -- or rather, for his double. Even though he had all the same knowledge, he wouldn't be able to get the device to return him to his original reality, unless he could bring replacement parts from somewhere else."
"Probably got himself killed trying it," O'Neill mused.
Jackson nodded. "That could be connected to how the outpost got vandalized in the other universe but remained sealed in this one."
O'Neill shook his head. "So the evil twin basically got away with murder, huh?"
"And messing with the order of the universe, not to mention my life," John muttered.
"Oh no, he didn't get away with it," Jackson replied absently.
"He didn't?" asked O'Neill.
"Who do you think sent the information about what he'd done to this database, in this universe? He was caught."
McKay turned to them from the crystal bank. "But we knew that anyway. When did the timelines for the two universes diverge?"
"What is this, a pop quiz?" John objected. "I thought you decided it was three years ago."
"Exactly. Not ten thousand years ago. So that means the Ancient who transferred to Earth had no impact on its history. None. He died there shortly after the transfer -- maybe even sooner than his double who switched to your universe."
John sighed. "Fine. Bad guy paid the price, history was unchanged, wonderful. But he still messed up my life. Can you fix it? Can the swap be reversed from this end?"
McKay nodded. "Yes, I think so."
Grodin shook his head. "I'm not so sure."
"Yes!" McKay repeated. "Look, it's all in the database there. If we swap these circuits around --"
"But you would have to flip and reverse the control crystal. It isn't meant to go that way!"
"So it will probably burn out on the first use. That doesn't matter, as long as it works the first time."
"What if it doesn't work? What if we send him to the wrong universe?"
"Uh," said John uneasily.
"That's not going to happen. The chances are no more than three percent. Maybe five."
"Rodney . . . "
"No, look. After the bad guy was caught, this outpost was set to observe the universe he had come from. They would have sent him back if he hadn't died first. That was the last thing that was recorded before this place was abandoned -- and it's clearly been untouched for thousands of years, which means the connection should still be set for the last universe contacted."
"You're saying the universe I swapped with wasn't chosen because I was thinking about surfing?"
"No, that was just a coincidence."
"Some coincidence!" John objected.
"Not really," said Grodin. "You were thinking of something you enjoy doing, and your double was doing something he enjoyed doing."
John glanced at O'Neill, who looked equally skeptical.
"Think about it," said McKay. "How many other things that you enjoy did you mention or think of in, say, the hour before you got switched? If you had ended up eating your favorite food or listening to your favorite music, you might have thought that was too much for coincidence too."
"But when you consider that it might have been any one of those things, the odds aren't so long," Grodin pointed out.
"Okay . . ." John said doubtfully. "You think the choice of universe to switch with is fixed."
McKay nodded. "Or at least unchanged from the last time this facility was used."
"So as long as it hasn't been touched in ten thousand years, I'll go home." John frowned.
"Okay. What do I need to do?"
"Just wait a few minutes while I swap these circuits, then stick your head in the device again."
John turned and looked around at the others. "Well. I guess should, uh . . ." He pulled himself up. "Dr. Jackson. Thanks for your help, and please pass that on to the others from the SGC. Captain O'Neill . . ." He shook his head, still bemused by the rank. "Good luck. Take care of your team -- and listen to McKay," he added in a whisper.
O'Neill shrugged lightly. "Thanks for, you know, breaking us out of jail and all that. And shooting Kolya."
"Oh, that part was my pleasure," John assured him. "Dr. Grodin?" He shook the Englishman's hand hard, trying to think of something to say. "Be careful." He looked away as a light of suspicion appeared in Grodin's eyes.
O'Neill had been muttering into his radio, and now Teyla came sliding down the sand ramp. She paused in the doorway, looking uncomfortable. John wondered if she was going to develop a fear of confined spaces, but she walked into the outpost with her head high.
He rested his fingertips on her arms, not grabbing, and bent his forehead to hers. "Take care of yourself," he murmured.
"And you also," she said solemnly. "Good fortune wherever you go."
It was one of the more intimate Athosian farewells, and John was touched. He swallowed hard.
McKay got to his feet and brushed off his pants legs. "Okay, it's ready." He pointed at O'Neill. "You. Don't even think of coming in that room." Instead, he followed John into the small chamber himself, and the door closed behind them.
John blinked. Had he done that?
"I wanted to say goodbye alone," said McKay, an unhappy groove appearing between his eyebrows.
"Hey." John squeezed his arm. "You'll be fine. In fact, you'll be great. You're going to love it here, and the people will love you too once you save their lives a few times. Though it might happen sooner if you could keep from snapping their heads off all the time."
McKay rolled his eyes. "Do you really think that's going to happen?"
"Well, it's not likely. But you could still try." He pulled McKay into a hug. "Rodney. Thank you. For everything. You believed me, you helped me, you --"
McKay shook his head. "No, you believed in me. And you got me to Atlantis."
John smiled. "You inspired me." And he kissed him. Even dry-eyed, McKay tasted like tears. "Take care."
John stepped back. "Maybe . . . you know, the other guy might be interested. I hear he's as good-looking as I am."
McKay snorted. "Same to you, Colonel. Tell my double how you feel. It could all work out."
"Okay. I'll, uh, I'll consider it." John looked at the framed thing on the wall.
"You just have to step close to it, and it will activate," said McKay nervously.
"I know." John grabbed McKay and kissed him one more time, then walked straight up to the device and shoved his face at it. The frame grabbed his head and a bright light flashed. He blinked, and when he opened his eyes he was in Atlantis.
Dressed in loose sweatpants and a t-shirt, Rodney opened the door to his quarters. "Oh. Sheppard."
John grinned broadly. "Hey there!"
Rodney shook his head quickly. "Don't, uh -- don't say anything yet, okay? Um. You'd better come in."
Inside, Rodney paced back and forth, his gauze-wrapped hands moving in nervous aborted gestures.
John frowned. "Rodney, what happened to --"
"No, please, just -- just let me speak first." Rodney came to a stop and took a deep breath. "I know I said we would talk about it, but I've been thinking, and . . . I really don't think I can. It's not you, it's nothing you've done. I just can't get past the fact that that's Colonel Sheppard's body." He waved with one white mitten.
"Rodney, I am --"
"No no, let me finish. I'm sorry if it seems like I've been leading you on or something, but you have to remember I was on some pretty strong painkillers last time we talked, so I can't really be held accountable. Not that I exactly want to take anything back. Except, well, I've decided I can't have sex with you."
"Oh." John's forehead furrowed.
"Yes. I -- I mean the first time was great, but --"
John stared. "First time?!"
"Yes, the other night? You were there too, as I recall. In fact, it was your idea. But I just don't feel right about it. Using Colonel Sheppard's, um, body that way, especially in Colonel Sheppard's bed."
John's eyes narrowed and he put his hands on his hips.
"I realize for all intents and purposes that is your body now, since we can't switch you back, but Colonel Sheppard is my friend -- was my friend, anyway -- and I just can't do that to him. To you. With you, in that body."
John sighed and forced his jaw to unlock. "Rodney. It's me."
"No, really, it's not you at all -- it's me."
"Rodney! Identification code alpha seven tango three."
Rodney froze. "What?"
"Do you need my sixteen-digit command code as well? I'm sure you'll recognize it."
"In the flesh. My very own flesh," he said pointedly.
"Oh. But how did you . . . ?"
"I went to the SGC in the other universe, and their Rodney McKay figured out how to reverse the switch." John shrugged. "That's the short version, anyway. The long version has a lot more talking and shooting and running."
"Oh. Well . . . good. Not about the shooting and all that, I mean -- good that you're back."
"Uh-huh. Now what's this about having sex in my bed, with my body?"
A wave of red swept up from Rodney's collar. "Oh! That, uh . . . oh god. I don't suppose you'd believe . . . alien influence?"
"I'm pretty sure my double was human."
"Yes. He was. Is. Was. Um, mind-altering drugs?"
"He said you wouldn't mind!"
"I don't know that I'd go that far," John growled.
"He said you'd do the same thing if you had the opportunity."
Now it was John's turn to flush and look away. "Maybe, but that's not the point."
"Isn't it? It certainly makes a difference." Rodney's gaze sharpened. "What did you do with his body?"
"Okay, but not in his bed, Rodney! Besides, it was your id-- your double's idea."
"You slept with my double?"
"Well, you slept with my double!"
"Yeah, but at least it was actually your body!" Rodney paused, looking confused. "Does that make it worse, or better?"
"I think it makes us even," John sighed.
They stared at each other for a long moment, then looked away at the same time.
"So, uh . . ." John began.
"Does Elizabeth know you're back?"
"No, I was going to go there after talking to you."
"It's, uh, getting late, you know. You could let it wait until morning." Rodney's eyes flicked to the bed and back.
John's mouth twitched. "I guess I could."
"I, uh, you know, I'm going to need a little help getting ready for, uh, ready to go to bed." Rodney held up his hands in explanation.
John stepped a little closer. "What happened to your hands, anyway?"
"I had to rescue Teyla and Ronon from a Wraith. I'll tell you all about it if you tell me about the shooting and running."
"Sounds fair. I guess I could give you a hand with your clothes and stuff, too." John stepped up until he was inches away and ran his hands down from Rodney's shoulders to his back, right down to the hem of his tee. He slipped his hands under the shirt and insinuated them into the waistband of Rodney's sweats. "Does this help?"
Rodney's breath was quick, his mouth half-open. "Actually, it seems to be, um, making the clothes feel tighter."
"Uh-oh. Maybe we'd better take them off entirely."
"Sure. But yours, too. I wouldn't want to be the only one underdressed." Rodney brought his arms up and stroked his clumsy mittened paws down John's back. He was missing half the sensations, but the arch of John's long neck and the soft groan he gave made up for a lot.
"Rodney?" John murmured, some time later.
"Mmmm?" Rodney was trying to do with his mouth what he couldn't with his hands.
"Why did we have to be strangers to each other to figure this out?"
"Too close to the subject," Rodney suggested, nuzzling a brown nipple. "Couldn't see the forest for the trees," he added a little later as he lipped at a line of hair leading lower. "Knew what the friendship was worth and didn't want to risk it."
"Ohhhh," said John. "Yes. Friendship's worth a lot. But this -- oh! This could be worth a lot more."
"Could be," said Rodney, very muffled. "We'll have to see."
Later still, in one Atlantis or another, Rodney McKay was sobbing with uncontrollable, hysterical laughter.
John Sheppard stroked his lover's back soothingly and chuckled at the contagious sounds of delight. "It's a good thing I'm a confident guy, or this might give me a complex."