Taking the Long Way Home

Jan. 17th, 2008 12:26 pm

Fandom: SG: Atlantis

Characters: John (and John and John and John and John etc)/Rodney

Rating: R

Warnings: Slash, het, language, rape, abuse.

Disclaimer: Not mine!

Betas: ferret_kitty and mgbutterfly. How did they get so awesome? I demand to know.

Summary: It starts with the fortune cookies, spilt soup, and more Johns than Rodney can shake a stick at. Or maybe that's how it ends.

Author's Note: Also known as the one with all the AU's that I'll never write, but want to.

mcshep08 puddlejumper

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It starts with the fortune cookies.

Okay, fine, the Dumplings of Great Cultural Significance. That just happened to look an awful lot like fortune cookies and came complete with little strips of white paper nestled inside. And had numbers on the back for no reason their hosts could provide. They'd even been stale.

So. Fortune cookies. They'd been delivered at the end of the twelve course meal that was held to celebrate their new trading agreement with the Bejwahl. They'd been in individual plastic bags. Rodney had crushed his, inadvertently, and read his little piece of profound drivel to avoid the displeased looks that John and Teyla had been shooting him.

It had said: Home.

He'd snorted, rolled his eyes, crumbled the fortune and tossed it at John's head before eating the stale bread. He'd then read John's fortune upside down while the other man wasn't paying attention. John's had said: Wanderer. Rodney'd opened his mouth to demand an explanation and point out how stupid their fortunes were. He didn't manage it before the waiter behind him tripped over his own feet, and dropped a tray of heavy stone bowls on Rodney's head.

When Rodney'd woken up, blurry eyed and with a headache that encompassed his entire body, he'd been staring up at the ceiling in the infirmary, and Keller had been there to tell him that he'd suffered a concussion. He'd scowled and wondered why the hell the fortune cookie hadn't thought to warn him about his imminent crushing by soup dishes.

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Rodney has a firm rule about head injuries, and that is to take absolutely every precaution necessary to make sure they don't end up serious. After all, his brain is the most important, well, anything, in two galaxies and no one else seems particularly interested in making sure it's properly protected. And so he hears concussion, registers the nausea, and orders Radek to bring his laptops down to the infirmary.

He plans to spend the next forty-eight hours under medical supervision, knows that if he were really being careful it'd be seventy-two, but he doesn't have that kind of leisure time. Keller is surprisingly magnanimous about letting him stay, which Rodney figures means the concussion is probably worse than even he'd been imagining.

Still, he's surrounded by the comforting sounds of the infirmary, and his computers, and the ringing in his ears has mostly gone away, so he barely worries at all. At least, not after he runs the numbers and decides that the odds of him actually being permanently damaged are minuscule. Besides, he has Zelenka's codes for the heating system to debug, and they distracts him until the ringing gets worse again and he decides that sleep, sleep is the way to go.

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Rodney wakes up to find Carson's old glowing wall clock blinking 12:13 at him. And to someone shoving him in the shoulder, accompanied by John's petulant voice, "Rodney, wake up." Rodney tries to bat the offending hands away, but it proves to be too much work, and so he shifts to the side instead. John's fingers are wrapping around his shoulder, shaking him, "Wake up."

"I'm awake. Thanks for that, by the way. What's going on? Is something blowing up?" He's blinking blurrily, trying to sit up, ignoring the ache in the back of his head, the sour twist in his stomach. John uses his momentum to shove Rodney further over to the side of the bed.

Rodney curses, because it turns out that those bedrails hurt when shoved into your ribs, and the pain clears his eyes, if not his mind. Which is why he curses again, louder, and almost tips himself out of bed to try to get out of John's reach, because, "You're blue!"

Very blue. Blue from his hair down his neck, blue disappearing under his black shirt. Blue, and yes, faintly scaled. For a half second Rodney thinks this is a nightmare, that it must be a nightmare, but Sheppard isn't attempting to eat him or lay eggs in his intestines or, actually, being threatening at all.

John, in fact, looks faintly exasperated, leaning half over the bed, his hand still curled around Rodney's shoulder. He says, "Yes, I am. Hit your head harder than we thought, huh? C'mon. Scoot over."

And then John's crawling into his bed, saying, "I know I said I'd stay in the room tonight. But I'm cold." He sounds faintly hurt, and Rodney tries not to flinch back from where John is settling against him, because he really, really doesn't want to piss off possibly-hallucinatory bug John. Rodney distracts himself trying to figure out what the hell is going on. And then John's shifting, squirming closer, flopping down on his side on the bed.

Rodney says, "Um," and doesn't move. He thinks that at least John's eyes are normal, mostly brown tonight. And John's just wearing a t-shirt and sweat pants. He's not exactly dressed for combat. Still, Rodney almost wishes he were, because then at least there wouldn't be so much blue skin on display.

For a moment there's silence, and then John's saying, "Rodney, please, I'm cold." And he sounds so pathetic that Rodney lets the other man tug him down. It helps that John's pulling on him hard enough to leave bruises, and not actually giving Rodney the option of saying no. He ends up with John's back pressed against his chest, ends up with an arm thrown over John's waist, fingers tangling together.

Rodney's certain that he's hallucinating, because this is too bizarre to actually be happening. Even in his life. And so he figures he might as well go with it. Besides, John really is cold, his body is chilled against Rodney's even through the layers of their clothes.

John makes a pleased sound, snuggles back against him even closer, shoving the back of his neck against Rodney's nose. And then John sighs, and relaxes completely, just goes limp and heavy against Rodney. Rodney tries very hard not to freak out, because there's a ridged trail down the back of John's neck, and now that he's more awake he can feel cool, smooth scales over John's fingers, across the back of his hands.

He starts reconsidering that this might actually be a nightmare, after all.

Rodney says the first thing that comes to mind that isn't screaming. It happens to be, "John, why are you so cold?" He tries not to sound suspicious and scared, because, well, if something's wrong then who knows what John might do to him. He prefers to think that this is just more of the nightmare-cum-hallucination, because, hey, nothing says side effect of a head injury like imagining your best friend turning into a bug. And wanting to cuddle.

John hums, snuggling impossibly closer to Rodney, "It's your fault, getting me used to being warm at night. My joints are already stiffening up." And it's only then that Rodney realizes it's not so much John snuggling in against him as it's John grinding his ass back into Rodney's crotch. John's voice is low and impatient, almost a whine, "Rodney, warm me up. C'mon."

And yeah. Definitely a hallucination. At least it makes sense now. He's had these particular kinds of dreams before. Usually without the added scales, but he's willing to blame that on the swelling of his brain. He nuzzles against the back of John's neck, feels the man shiver, full body, everywhere they're pressed together.

He says, "John?" And John groans, drags Rodney's hand down his waist, settles it over his erection. Rodney makes a sound that doesn't even make sense to him, cups John through the thin sweat pants he's wearing, and figures what the hell. It's his goddamn hallucination. He might as well enjoy it. John already is.

John's pleading, "God, yeah, like that, Rodney. Warm me up, please--" he's rocking himself back and forth, like he can't decide if he wants to thrust against Rodney's hand or shove back against him. Rodney gasps, groans, stutters words that make no sense against the too-rough skin on the back of John's neck.

It takes Rodney only a second, even clumsy with potential brain injury, to get his hand actually inside John's pants, and John's erection is only slightly warm, nowhere near the burning hot that Rodney knows it should be. It feels strange, to curl his fingers around it, to feel John jerk up into his grip, hard and smooth and not what he had expected, even a little bit.

But John is warming up, everywhere their bodies are pressed together. Rodney can feel him, the chill leaving his skin by degrees, spiking with each movement of his hand. John's arching against him already, making happy little clicking sounds that aren't half as disturbing as Rodney's sure they should be.

Of course, the most surprising thing is that Rodney isn't hard himself. He's not sure if it's the head injury or if he's apparently so borderline obsessed with Sheppard that his fantasies don't even involve getting himself off anymore. Because somehow his whole world has boiled down to getting John warm, to the slick movement of his hand over John's dick, the little insect sounds John's making in the back of his throat.

John's warm by the time he comes, gasping and clicking. In fact, he's almost hot. John's not sweating, but Rodney is, aware of the heat he's putting off only as it relates to the way John's absorbing it. He wipes his hand on the blanket by John's hip, then slides his palm to rest on John's stomach, on skin that feels a few degrees below normal human body temperature.

He's content to lie there, feeling John continue warming, leeching Rodney's heat from him, until the man shifts in his arms. John sounds sleepy, rough, "Hey, you didn't...you know."

Rodney snorts, because, apparently he's a lot of things, but not half so kinky as his imagination wants him to be. This bug John isn't really the John he'd like to have in his bed, and he's far too freaked out and vaguely nauseous—he assumes from the concussion, not the cuddling—to think about getting it up, even for a hallucination.

He says, "Are you kidding? I know where each of the surveillance cameras are in this room, and at least three of them have a view of this bed. Who knows what they've seen already." There's no way he's going to beat off where he knows that Keller will be reviewing videos later. Not even for hallucinatory bug John.

John squirms again, tugging at him, somehow manages to get one of Rodney's arms under his head and nuzzles into his skin. The other man is mumbling, sounding mostly asleep, "If you say so." And then his breathing is slowing, leveling out, and about two seconds later John's snoring.

And Rodney figures what the hell, it's almost comfortable, and Sheppard is almost a normal temperature now. He buries his nose in the back of Sheppard's hair, which doesn't feel bug like at all, and closes his eyes, surprised by the temporary burn of sadness and loss at knowing that none of this will be here in the morning.

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Except, when he wakes up, it still is. John's still there pressed against him, drooling on his arm, every bit as blue as he was the night before. Which is probably why there's a half dozen people standing over them with guns drawn, and Carter is saying, voice tense and quiet, "Rodney, we've got the situation under control. Do you think you can get out of bed without waking him up?"

Rodney blinks, staring up at guns, at the worried, thinly veiled terror on the faces of the soldiers above him, and then back down at John. John, snoring lightly, John, who he jerked off last night, who he warmed up. Yes, he's blue. But he's still John.

He twists, pushes John onto his stomach and rolls half on top of him, raising a hand towards the guns, waving them away. He's saying, "Wait, stop, it's okay. He's not—he's okay. He was just cold." Which, he realizes, doesn't exactly explain anything, but he's tired and a little dizzy still, his brain throbbing like it's too big in his skull.

Carter is opening her mouth, shifting uncomfortably, and Rodney looks over her head at Lorne, "Major, he's fine."

And that's about when John shifts beneath him, biting down on Rodney's arm for a half second, before jerking completely into awareness. John sits up, and it's like Rodney's not even there. John's all coiled strength that just moves Rodney out of the way. John blinks at the guns, and then smirks, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, stretching and saying, "Very funny. Don't you have work to do? Major, you're supposed to be off-world."

And then John's standing, bouncing up on the balls of his feet, and Rodney can see fingers tightening on triggers, and at least they brought stunners, not P-90s. He jerks upright on the bed, grabs Sheppard around the shoulders and snaps, "Lorne, get your men out of here, right now! Do it!"

For a second everyone stares, John apparently realizing that something's off, stiffening under Rodney's hold. And then Carter's saying, "That's a good idea, Lorne. And get Keller back in here. And Zelenka."

John leans back into Rodney's chest. Rodney can feel the man crossing his own arms, can almost see the eyebrow rise. John drawls, "So. Why exactly is everyone suddenly so surprised that I'm blue? Hell, Carter, you never saw me any other way."

And Rodney snaps, "Oh, this is just what I need. Do you have any idea how hard quantum reality ripples are to fix?"

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Turns out they do. Well, at least Zelenka, Carter, and Sheppard. Everyone else looks faintly dumbfounded as Rodney stumbles his way out of the infirmary, dragging John along with a sheet thrown over his head. They're moving towards his labs, towards his computers, towards someplace he can think.

It's a testament to just how weird life is on Atlantis that they don't get more than one or two odd looks, most of the senior command staff running through the halls with a man doing his impersonation of a nine year old trick-or-treating in their midst. Rodney sure it's a very fascinating view of human nature and what they can adapt to, but his brain is otherwise occupied.

Rodney's thinking about loss of matter and stars dying and the universe folding up billions of years before it was supposed to. Millions of years from now, sure, but he doesn't want to be the one responsible for damning his grandchildren to the hundredth power to an early grave. Which is why it's vitally important to get the right Sheppard back as soon as possible.

Of course, running the numbers through his head even as he throws himself into the transporter to the labs, he has to admit he might be overreacting. After all, the Johns are almost identical. Maybe he should be worrying about a massive rip in the space-time continuum instead of the synchronized death of every star in the galaxy. Maybe he should be worried about both.

Carter's opening her mouth as the transporter jerks to a stop around them, and the first half of her sentence gets eaten up, "—fix this?"

He can fill the rest in, shoves John down into the nearest chair and waves a hand in Sam's general direction, "Of course I can. Give me, hm, thirteen hours to figure out how it happened. I'll have an estimate on fixing it after that." He shifts his attention to the rest of his staff, staring at him with blank expressions on their faces, barks, "Out, everybody. Take your work with you, I expect regular updates on your projects every hour, but get out and stay gone until I tell you to come back. Now, people, move!"

Everybody leaves. There's not even conversation. After four years he's finally got them pretty much trained the way he wants them. There's a brief jostle of asses and elbows and then it's just him, John, Radek and Sam. Rodney reaches out and tears the sheet off John's head, throws it to the side, snaps, "Keep Teyla and Ronon out. Tell them we'll explain later."

John is sprawled back in his chair, blinking up at Rodney with familiar eyes and a twist of a smile on his almost purple lips. John says, with something that might be sadness in his tone, "Yeah, the bug thing didn't go over so well back home, either." Rodney stares for a brief moment, but there's nothing he can say or do to make this better, and so he just takes a deep breath.

He points at John, "You sit there and be quiet," points to Radek, "You—I know it's a little above your pay grade but start running scans on any and all power fluctuations and--"

"Yes, yes, I have already started writing the equations for the--"

"Started? I've already got--"

He's vaguely aware, through the conversation with Radek that is mostly carried on without any actual attention on his part, that John is looking up at Carter. He hears, over the click of his fingers over keyboards, over the beeps as the computer tries to keep up with his brain, John's voice, "I guess the bug thing didn't last here, huh?"

Carter crosses her arms, cocks her head to the side, "Yeah, not so much."

John says, "Huh," and Rodney catches a glimpse of him, staring down hard at his blue hands. There's a flash of almost sadness across John's face, and Rodney thinks he should have expected this, this twist of protective desire to make things better low in his gut. He's always this way with people he fucks.

Rodney pauses, information still scrolling over the half dozen screens he has arrayed around him, reaches out and pats awkwardly at John's shoulder, "I'm sure Keller still has Carson's notes on how we fixed our you. We can, we can get her in here. I can help her, or, well, get Zelenka to help her. He understands some of that voodoo bullshit. We'll do something. Find some way to fix it."

He's starting to take his hand away, pretty sure he shouldn't have put it there to begin with, and John's scaled fingers catch at his wrist, hold him in place with that same surprising strength. John's eyes are big, searching, and then he smiles like the sun, voice light and teasing, "Different universe, same Rodney."

And the affection, the sharp, heavy, undercurrent of it, is enough to make Rodney flush, and turn his attention completely back to his work.

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Hours later and Sam has wandered off to take care of her important city-running duties, Zelenka has disappeared to a different lab, Keller has been and gone with countless vials of blood and tissue samples cradled to her chest. There's just him left, and John.

Rodney runs a hand up over his face, eyes blurring from looking at the screen, curses low and under his breath because he's getting no where. There've been no power spikes, no strange pieces of Ancient tech suddenly glowing, no one else reporting similar problems with space time distortion.

Rodney braces his elbows on either side of the keyboard, lets his head flop forward and stares hard at his hands, balled somehow into fists. He jumps when two hands slide onto his shoulders, fingers pushing into the muscles that have wound themselves up into painful knots. He makes a tiny sound, involuntarily tenses because it hurts, and then relaxes when thumbs dig into the skin on either side of his spine.

John's voice is low, more felt through their contact than heard, "You're going to figure this out, Rodney. Take a breath."

Rodney scowls, tries to shrug John off, but the other man is nothing if not tenacious. John tightens his hold, palms flat on Rodney's shoulder blades, warm now for all that he was cold earlier. Rodney snaps, "I've still got five hours until my thirteen are up. Of course I'm going to figure this out. Stop rushing me."

John huffs, fingers kneading at Rodney's shoulders, hitting sore spots Rodney didn't even know he had, like John already knows where they are. Rodney bites out, "You've done this before." He doesn't mean to sound so accusatory, but apparently in whatever alternate universe this Johns from they're more intimate than they are here. Backrubs probably aren't uncommon in bug John's world.

John's voice is all gentle indulgence, "A time or two."

Rodney doesn't mean to blurt, knowing even as he does that he's letting himself get overly distracted, "How'd we—when'd we get together? In your world. It's--" Weird? Bizarre? Insane? Nothing that he had expected? For a second John pauses, and then his hands are moving again, one hand cupping Rodney's neck, one sliding down to flatten across his chest.

"You were warm. I was cold." The other man's voice is suddenly closer, breath dancing against the shell of Rodney's ear. "You're so warm." John sounds almost needy, like he did in the tiny hours of the morning, hand creeping under Rodney's shirt, fingers just a step too rough sliding against skin. "And you smell so good."

Rodney says, painfully aware of the familiar warmth of John behind him, "Wait, you only want me for my body heat?"

John shrugs, slides the hand on his chest further down, fingertips brushing against the top of Rodney's stomach, "It's not just a bug thing." He pauses, lips close enough now that they're brushing Rodney's cheek, "I wanted you from 'picture where Earth is in the solar system'. At least in my world. The cold just...made it impossible to stay away from you. Did you know that you run a constant low grade fever? Warmest body temperature in Atlantis."

"I think we need to stop." Because this isn't his John, this is some weirdly affectionate alternate version. And John, this John, with his low voice and his grabby hands, is freaking Rodney out every bit as much as he's turning him on.

John pulls away, slowly, like he's drawing out the contact as long as he can.

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By nine Rodney is kissing up against the edges of an epiphany, he can taste it in the corners of his mouth. By nine, the sun has set, and John is sitting beside Rodney's computer on the desk, shivering. The man's sitting on his hands, rocking back and forth, his teeth audibly chattering. He's not said a word, not since Rodney rebuffed him, but he's staring with naked longing at Rodney.

Rodney's pretty sure that John wasn't that purple earlier.

And he's never been able to just do nothing while John's hurting, never been able to tell John no. Apparently the same is true even with this bizarre version of John. Rodney shoves his chair back from the desk, cracks his neck from side to side, motions impatiently and snaps, "Okay, okay, fine, come here."

John's in his lap in seconds, long limbs folding up, pressing his face up against Rodney's neck, clicking contentment low in his throat. John's nearly as ice cold as he was when he crawled into Rodney's bed that morning. He's already got his hands up under Rodney's shirt, pressing against his skin, sliding around to his back.

For a second Rodney flails, not sure what to do with himself, and then he wraps his arms around John's back, because he doesn't know what else to do. He says, because it's scary how cold John is, even more than how blue he is, "Tell me more about your me."

John hums, his nose cold against Rodney's neck, "He's, well, he's mostly you. More cuddly." He sounds vaguely remonstrative, and Rodney squeezes him harder. "He'll be worried. Got kind of protective after the whole bug thing."

And Rodney's never done comfort or protection, never been good at it. He tightens his arms, rubs a hand up and down the curve of John's spine. He says, surprised by how thick his voice has gotten, "I promise—I promise I'll get you back to him."

John squirms, though there's no conceivable way that he could actually get closer, "But not until morning, Rodney. God. You're so warm."

Rodney sighs, because it's not like he can just let John freeze, tips his face up to the ceiling and says, "Tell me more."

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John's still talking, his voice sleepy and thick, three hours later, the clocks on each laptop dutifully reporting it to be midnight. Rodney's almost asleep in the chair, John's weight pressing into him in a dozen uncomfortable places. And Rodney now knows that this John doesn't get to go off-world anymore, that they'd been dead set on sending him back to earth, back to the dark, deep places of the SGC where John could be safely locked up for the rest of his life. That his Rodney had been the driving force to keep John in Atlantis.

Rodney knows too much about this alternate John, the way he likes to be held, the sounds he makes when he's content. He knows too much about the things the other him has done to protect this John, the lines they've come to and all the ones they've crossed...about the people that Rodney's threatened and blackmailed into submission, into leaving John alone.

He knows about the first time they came together, John crawling into that other Rodney's bed, desperate to escape the chill in his bones, able to sense Rodney's echoing warmth from half-way across the city.

It makes him miss his John, even though they never had any of this, even though Rodney doesn't think his John would ever want it. It makes him want to slide his hand below this John's pants again, makes him want to suck John off, want to find out what his come tastes like, if he really has blue balls.

Rodney's just working up his nerve to say so, when John shifts in his arms, sounds surprised and almost in pain, "Rodney? Rodney wha--"

He'll never be able to say, later, how he knows something has changed. But the John in his arms isn't the same John that was there a half second before, and he just knows it, bone deep. Rodney loosens his hold, carefully, says, "Colonel Sheppard? John?"

John stiffens in his arms, and just like that he's on his feet, hauling Rodney out of the chair and shoving him to the floor. John's not blue anymore, but Rodney's having a difficult time appreciating that, because John's drawing his sidearm, and for a terrible long moment Rodney's sure he's about to be shot.

John's not pointing the gun at him. He's swinging in a quick circle, relaxing only when he seems to decide that they're alone. And then John takes a deep breath, re-holstering his gun and turning his gaze down to Rodney, still sprawled in an awkward heap on the floor. Rodney says, "John?" Hoping, somewhere deep in his gut where he already knows it's a lie, that this is his John.

The quiet, intense look on John's face proves it. John doesn't do that look, not until the shit has hit the fan in a big way. John's leaning down, grabbing Rodney by the arm and dragging him to his feet, saying, "It's okay, I'm not going to let anything happen to you, come on."

John's not exactly giving Rodney the opportunity to say no. He's moving Rodney towards the door with a hand low on his back, firm and possessive. They're moving fast, in almost a jog by the time they're through the door, and Rodney blinks, tries to wrap his mind around what's happening, "John, John, wait, just--"

"It's okay," and wow, Rodney can see himself getting sick of that gentling tone real quick, "I don't know what's going on, but it's okay. I've got you." They're booking it down the corridor, the lights dimmed for the night cycle, the hallway empty around them. There's tight lines of stress all around John's mouth, John's eyes, his free hand keeps twitching towards his gun.

"Tell me what's going on, right now."

John pulls a face, momentarily so sad that Rodney's gut clenches, and the tender cadence to John's voice is even more obvious now, "Shit. Shit, did you—look, it's not your fault. You're doing real good, it's okay to slip sometimes. I'll get us out of here, okay? Just—just try to concentrate on me. Don't think about the others."

Rodney stumbles, tries to pull away from John, because this is, if possible, even weirder than before. "Stop, look, you need to know, I need to tell you--"

And John freezes, grabs him by his shoulders, fingers digging in almost painfully, "What did you see, Rodney?" His eyes are bright and intense, almost feverish. "You need to tell me right now. Concentrate, buddy, I know you can do it."

Rodney has time to think that apparently all his alternate selves are having sex with their Johns, and also, that this John is even more on the crazy side than the last one. He raises his hands, grips John around the arms, tries to keep his panic from his voice, and involuntarily blurts, "I'm not your Rodney."

John's face goes momentarily blank, wiped clean, his voice flat, "What?"

Rodney swallows, because it's a scary look on John, this quiet desperation on his face. "It's some kind of quantum reality shift that's been affecting us since, well, roughly twenty-four hours ago, I think. I can show you, if we just go back--"

And that's when John hisses, "Shit, it's really bad this time, isn't it?" And cold cocks him.

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Rodney wakes up strapped into the shotgun seat of a Jumper, groggy and with a shock of dull pain echoing from his jaw. He thinks that really, he's had enough head injuries to last for awhile. It'll be just his luck if John's goddamn right hook, coupled with his previous concussion, is going to do actual damage.

He groans, tries to blink back the spots and only then realizes that it's just really dark inside the Jumper.

And then there are warm hands, unhooking him from the seat, drawing him close and he slumps against John's chest. The movement ends up jarring his chin against John's collarbone, and he curses, yelps, struggles for just a moment. John's hands are running up and down his back, gentling him, John's saying, "Hey, sorry about that, you know sometimes I have to. It's okay. We're safe now. You can tell me what you thought—what you saw now."

Rodney squirms, wonders if they're still even on Atlantis, wonders how John managed to get him all the way to the Jumper bay, "Where are we?" God, he needs to be working, needs to be getting his John back, not being hit and kidnapped by John's obviously delusional double. Or triple. Whatever.

John shrugs, "We're safe." And then, after a pause, "What did you see, Rodney? Back there? I need to know, we need all the warnings we can get, we're barely staying one step ahead of them as it is." John sounds tired again, exhausted and worn thin, and Rodney manages to get one hand around him, manages to squeeze, because he keeps confusing this John with bug John and forgetting what he's supposed to be doing.

Rodney says, "Look, I have to go back, there are things in my lab that I need, I can explain when we get there."

John's shaking his head back and forth, Rodney can feel the rasp of stubble against his temple. He thinks it's odd, in the lesser scheme of things, that he's touched John more in the last day than he has in the last four years. Rodney kind of almost envies his own doubles. Except that these other Johns are significantly less sane than his.

John sounds deeply upset, sad down to his soul, "I wish we could, God, you know I wish we could. But we can't." Which is just incredibly unhelpful. Rodney scowls, tries to push at John's shoulders and the man just winds around him like some kind of octopus, all strong arms, implacably holding him close.

Rodney tries words, again, doubting they'll work even as he babbles, "Why? Why can't we? You're not making any sense and I have to get back, I have to, I have work I need to be doing."

John makes a sound like a sob, like he's been kicked in the gut, "Oh God, Rodney." John's rocking him back and forth, hands petting at him. When John speaks again his voice is tight as a wire. It sounds like he's talking to himself, "It'll be okay. In the morning. In the morning you'll remember. You always remember. I just have to--" John chokes on, "—hold on."

And Rodney knows, knows that he should keep pushing this. But it's easier to just let John hold him, to let the other man's breathing even out. He's migrated in John's hold, forehead pressing into the other man's shoulder, both John's hands resting low on his back. He says, "Why can't we go back, John?"

Somehow, it's a surprise when John says, voice hard and flat, "Cause they'd try to kill you. And I won't let them."

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Talking to this Sheppard is like pulling teeth. With a piece of string and a doorknob. It takes Rodney a while before he realizes that this is because John's already explained this, probably innumerable times, to his double. That doesn't change the fact that Rodney needs answers.

It takes Rodney hours to work out that this, whatever this is, was just an even worse outcome to his own run-in with the ascension machine. That it had just...warped his alternate, drawing short of endangering his life. It had left his double scrambled, mind bouncing around to before the accident, to after it, to his childhood, to college. It had left John not knowing what he'd be dealing with at any given moment.

It had also left that other Rodney with certain abilities. It doesn't take long to figure out that his other self is at least mildly precognitive, psychic to degrees that change day by day, plagued by other powers that come and go. The transportation—which is apparently how John assumes they got back on Atlantis—happens only now and then, and never before has John been transported as well. This doesn't seem to concern John.

There are other things, too, that Rodney's double can apparently do. John dances around those, but Rodney can guess. Can put together the way John shifts, the way he talks uncomfortably about death. Rodney starts to wonder uncomfortably if his double kills people with his brain.

Which would be a hell of a lot cooler without the implications John drops that Rodney's responsible for the deaths of Elizabeth, Teyla, Ronon, Lorne, half a dozen others. It doesn't actually make Rodney feel any better that John doesn't seem to think it was intentional, and for the first time he worries that maybe he is the Rodney that belongs with this John. That maybe he just doesn't remember. That maybe he did accidentally hemorrhage Elizabeth's brain, and stand by in a gibbering panic until John dragged him away and off Atlantis and into the safety of space.

But there's nothing in Rodney's brain that doesn't belong, no feelings or thoughts not his own, no visions of the future or the past. There's a part of him, lying on the floor of the Jumper with John whispering bloody secrets into his hair, that's drowning in relief. He's surprised by how big a part it is.

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Rodney sleeps, though he doesn't mean to. Wakes up to find John in the pilot's seat, watches the other man slide through 'gate after 'gate after 'gate. Rodney counts twelve, before John stops, lets them drift in space. John raises his hands to his face like he's trying to mold his expression into something acceptable.

Rodney clears his throat, his back hurting, burning and aching from sleeping on the floor, says, "What time is it?"

John turns to face him slowly, expression so nakedly hopeful that it burns, ignores his question in favor of one of his own, "You with me?" And staring into John's eyes, bright in the reflected star light, the shadows that move like bruises across his skin, Rodney can't bring himself to tell the truth.

Rodney makes himself smile, "Yeah. I'm with you."

John's on him in seconds, driving him flat onto the ground, all hungry kisses and breathy moans, "God, Rodney, please don't do that to me again. I can't—what if you don't come back? Tell me you're always going to come back. Promise me."

It's all murmured between bruising kisses, between John just taking Rodney's mouth, hands moving over his body, all possession, knowing and hard and desperate. He's not even sure how his shirt got off, but it's gone, and John's sucking and biting his way down Rodney's chest. And Rodney wonders just how much of a bastard this makes him, letting this happen.

This isn't his John. His John doesn't want him this way and Rodney shouldn't, he shouldn't let this happen.

But the John above him, the John holding him down, the John shaking with need and want, the John leaving trails of burning heat over his skin, that John he can't turn away. Rodney was always shit at saying no to John. And so instead he says, "I promise, John, John, oh, I'm so sorry."

And John grabs his hips, thumbs digging in hard enough to bruise, and Rodney wonders where his pants went. It doesn't matter when John lowers his mouth over Rodney's cock, when the world dissolves into the perfect wet heat wrapped around him.

Later, when John crawls up his body, kisses him good and sloppy and with the edge of desperation taken off, Rodney lets him. He lets John slide his hand into his pants, and it's odd, how familiar it is to wrap his fingers around John's cock. Nothing is that different from John's bug self, except the heat, all that burning heat, filling Rodney's palm up perfectly.

John's a gasping, shaking, mess by the end of it. Promises as he comes, mouth crushed against Rodney's, "I will never let them take you away from me."

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Turns out, in the end, that there aren't very many hours left till midnight. Apparently he'd been unconscious longer than he thought when John hit him, or slept harder than he'd wanted on the floor of the Jumper. He barely has to pretend to be himself for any time at all, before John tenses beside him, face going blank for a long half second before it resets itself.

It's bizarre to watch. Not half as weird as John gaping up at him, saying, "Colonel, what are we doing in a Jumper?" Or as John tilting his head to the side, sniffing, and saying, "Did we just have sex?" with a slow, dirty smile that implies he sees nothing wrong with the idea at all.

Rodney snaps, "No, we did not." Which is not technically a lie, because, he hasn't even touched this John yet. He wonders how long that's going to last, because he's two for two for clone fucking, and there are all kinds of promises in this John's voice.

The lights of the Jumper brighten around them, Rodney can't tell if it's at his request or John's. He does a quick inventory of the changes in this John. Same wild hair, same sharp eyes but the glasses are new, wearing one of the blue zip-up science shirts that Rodney hasn't seen since Carter took over, khaki pants, not a dog-tag to be seen.

Rodney hazards a guess, while John continues to take stock of him, "Doctor Sheppard?"

John smiles, blindingly bright, drawls, "Let me guess, quantum reality shift?"

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Carter's having a controlled freak out when they get back, meets them a foot outside the Jumper with a worried look on her face. There are six armed Marines behind her, and their guns are aimed at Sheppard the second he steps up beside Rodney.

Rodney jerks in front of the other man, arms out, blurting, "Wait! Wait! Look, this is not the same John, they're changing on a twenty-four hour rotation and the last one was a little on the crazy side but he's gone now and I really need to take this one down to the labs and get him to help me with reformatting the city's scanners and--"

One of the Marines cuts him off, staring at John with a puzzled look, "Why isn't he blue anymore?"

Rodney narrows his eyes at the man, snaps, "What part of 'they're changing on a twenty-four hour rotation' did you not understand? We're past bug John, we're past crazy John, we've moved on to brainy John. Keep up. Or, better yet, get out of my way. I have work to do."

Carter makes an exasperated noise, starts, "Rodney--"

"Can't talk, work to do. Have Keller meet me in the labs with stimulants."

And then he's marching through the crowd, aware that John's following in his wake. The other man falls into step beside him when they reach the hallway, casts him a sidelong look, "You make me sound like a Barbie doll. Bug John! Comes complete with detachable exoskeleton and real web spinning action! Did crazy John have a hockey mask? And eye patch? A hook for a hand?" He sounds amused. Rodney is not. He doesn't think he will ever be amused again.

Rodney grits out, "Tell me your degrees are actually in something useful, and not just a bachelors in hairdressing."

John's smile softens, twists into something affectionate, "You know, you said that to me once before." And Rodney, for once, doesn't know how to reply, and so he says nothing.

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Brainy John actually turns out to be more along the lines of Rodney-John, if the Masters degrees in astro-physics and mechanical engineering are anything to go by. He takes to the computers like he's been working on them for years, and Rodney realizes with a start, somewhere around four in the morning, that he has been.

Rodney blames the belated epiphany on the stress of the last two days, on most of his brain power being diverted to getting his John back. He leans back from the computers he's been working on, staring hard at John's profile, the way light catches and reflects off the small, oval glasses John's wearing. Rodney says, "Oh my God, I'm military where you're from, aren't I? I have your job."

John doesn't bother with looking away from the computer, but one side of his mouth does twist up into a smile, "If that makes it easier for you to understand, then, yes, you have my job. Where I come from you're Colonel Rodney McKay, USAF."

Rodney stares for another long moment, listening to the soft sound of John typing, tries to wrap his mind around it, "But I'm Canadian. And—and I'm far too intelligent to be part of the armed forces. Oh, God. Am I brain damaged there? Possibly dropped on my head as a small child?"

John snorts, sounds amused, "You were born in Canada, your parents shipped you off to your grandparents in Texas when you were eight. And you're hardly unintelligent. I mean, you've been the fair haired boy of the SGC program for ten years." There's warm affection there, even when the tone abruptly veers towards teasing, "It's completely endearing when you try to keep up with me. Sometimes you even manage it. For a few minutes."

Rodney feels his spine snap straight, "Wait, you think you're smarter than me? That's just--"

"True." John looks away from his computer, still typing, eyebrows raised almost to his hairline, "Don't get me wrong, you do better than expected for a grunt, and you're a strategic genius, but I'm carrying around the most valuable brain in two galaxies, here. Not to mention, Atlantis likes me better than you."

It's a chill of ice in his gut, and he thinks he might be sick. Can't explain why, not even to himself. Rodney looks away, throat too tight to even protest that there's no way, no conceivable dimension where he's not the smartest man alive, where he doesn't have that, at least.

Somehow, it hurts even more that it's John—even this John that's not his—that's taken it away from him.

There's a sudden heaviness between them, and Rodney makes a conscious effort to relax his jaw. He has to do this, has to get his John back. He's surprised when the other man clears his throat, when John says, voice uncomfortable, "Hey. Rodney. I didn't—I don't mean that like it sounds. You're not stupid. You're—look, no one else even understands half the things I talk about. I barely believed you did, at first."

Rodney feels a sharp spike of irritation for his double's sake, snaps, "Yes, well, maybe you shouldn't take me for granted." John makes a soft sound, and his eyes flash emotions too fast for Rodney to track. For a long moment they just stare, and then Rodney's brain snags on an earlier part of the conversation, "Wait, am I a full bird colonel?" Something about the face John makes tells him he is, "Oh, my God, I'm a better soldier than you!"

This time the flash of sadness, of remembered pain or hurt, is long enough that Rodney can catalogue it, the way it twists up John's face. Rodney says, "What?"

But John just shakes his head, turning back to his computer, smoothing the distress off his features, says, "Nothing."

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At eight the doors to the lab open and Rodney's opening his mouth to rip someone a new one for disobeying an imperative direction. He cuts himself off when it turns out to be Teyla and Ronon. They both look rough, comparatively. He thinks for a moment that Teyla might even have a hair out of place, before realizing that she's just combed it differently.

Rodney says, "Good, you're here. I need food and coffee. Ronon, you can start working on monitoring the scans John's got set up—you remember how I showed you to do that, right?" He shoves away from the computer, because he also needs to piss. He hadn't wanted to leave John alone, hates the suspicion in the back of his head that tells him to think this might be a trap even though he's sure that it's not.

Ronon rumbles, "Good morning to you, too, McKay," but Rodney's vindicated to see that Ronon's eying John's glasses with something like unease on his features.

Rodney waves a hand, "Yes, yes, what a wonderful day it is. Still no idea where Sheppard has managed to lose himself this time, and, oh yes, the possibility of a catastrophic collapse of the entire structure of reality is still growing incrementally higher by the second, so of course there's time for pleasantries. Excuse me for having my priorities in order."

Teyla smiles at him, soft and careful, and he wonders who filled them in. He smiles back, tight, feels his face stretch painfully. His eyes are burning, strain and exhaustion and he grits his teeth against the sudden swell of panic in his gut, like hearing himself say it has reminded him of how much is at stake here. She says, "It will be alright, Rodney."

Rodney says, "Of course it will be. Why wouldn't it be?" and then heads for the door like a bat out of hell, hoping to escape in the event that she actually has a reason for it not to be.

John calls when Rodney's half out of the door, "Hey, bring me some of that coffee, would you? And do you guys have those fruit things from M54-32R? Cause I'd like some of them, too." Rodney doesn't dignify that with a response. He ends up bringing them back anyway, and tells himself that it's not just to see John's smile, even on this stranger's face.

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He finds Ronon outside the room when he gets back. The big man is leaning against the wall, scowling fiercely. When he spots Rodney he springs away from the wall, growling, "That is not Sheppard." He sounds upset, and furious. For a second Rodney thinks Ronon's going to reach out and shake him, but the man catches himself at the last moment.

Rodney says, "I know."

And Ronon stares at him hard for a second before nodding and saying, "Bring back our John."

Rodney forgets to say, "I'm trying." To say, "I will." To say anything at all until after Ronon's already gone.

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Teyla flees the room as soon as Rodney's inside. He casts a sharp look at John, who shrugs, completely unconcerned. Then the other man's expression is brightening, and he's reaching for the food Rodney brought, fingers dragging too slow and purposeful against Rodney's when he takes his coffee. John says, around a bite of pink fruit, "Nothing we tested is the cause of the anomaly, Rodney."

Rodney startles, because, no, it has to be something. He says, "You must have just missed it."

John snorts, licking at the corners of his mouth, where juice from the fruit is sliding out. "Do we have to go over the genius thing again? I don't miss things." And for a long second all Rodney can do is stare at him, feeling something bitter as coffee creeping back up his throat.

Rodney says, "Look again anyway. And stop smiling at me." He throws himself back down into his chair and it's warm. He wonders if Teyla was sitting here. He thinks she must have been, can still smell the faint vanilla of her shampoo, and wonders why he's letting his mind wander. Buckles down hard, staring at the results of the scans that finished running while he was gone.

John's silent for a long moment, and then, "I can do this, you know. You don't have to--"

Rodney's out of his chair in a second, crossing the steps to John, finger jabbing towards the other man's face, snarling, "And stop patronizing me! Stop—stop not being my John, goddamnit." Because that's the problem, no more simple or complex than that.

John blinks at him from behind those glasses that shouldn't be there, and then he's reaching out, closing his fingers around Rodney's wrist, saying, "You think this isn't hard for me, too? You think I don't want my Rodney? You think I'm not worried about what he's doing right now? Last time I disappeared he almost started a war to get me back. A war. And we're fighting two already."

John makes a face, something open and telling, waves his free hand disgustedly at the computers around them, "I'm telling you, the answer isn't here. And it's stupid to waste time and resources looking for it."

Rodney yanks his hand free, grinds out, "Look. Again. Anyway."

The disgusted sound John makes is only matched by the exaggerated impatience of the man's almost audible eye-roll. John crosses his arms, braces his feet and tips his chair back, glaring up at Rodney over the tops of his glasses, "Rodney, I swear to Christ, this isn't the answer. Trust me."

Rodney purses his lips, turns on his heel, and slumps back into his chair. He says, "Did Arcturus take out five sixths of a solar system in your world, too, John?"

There's a moment of silence, he thinks John might be holding his breath. And then John's shifting in his seat, his fingers clicking along the keyboard without another word of protest. It's as good as an admission. Rodney doesn't look, just starts looking over the results again himself, praying that he finds something they missed the first time.

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Rodney finds it three hours later, jerks to his feet, sudden jubilation forcing words out of his chest in a tumbling rush, "There, right there! Look at the shield power levels right here, it's the same across the board, every system—everything in the city, look--"

John's pushing into his space, bending over the computer, typing in commands, face tight with concentration. John says, "That's not—that should have almost drained the ZPM, even only running for a few seconds. Every system suddenly operating at full power." He sounds focused, intense, "It's not showing as any discernable drop in energy levels. How is that possible?"

Rodney is vibrating inside his skin, "Outside power source. It's got to be. Something big is happening every day cycle, and whatever it is, it's flooding all the other systems with energy overflow." He shoves John away from the computer, "If we can just determine what the energy signature is then--"

"We'll know who did it."

He turns to face John, flashes him a huge smile, because, yes. They'll know who did this, and once Rodney has a name he fully intends to track them down and demand the immediate return of his John Sheppard. He says, "Yes. Then we'll know who did it."

John breathes, in his space, eyes burning, "Jesus. You really—you found this. That's--" and then John's hands are on his face, fingers sliding around to his neck, crushing their mouths together. It's a brief kiss, all sweet elation and Rodney stares at John's face, the way the other man's eyes flutter shut behind his glasses.

When John pulls away he's smiling, licking his bottom lip, "When I get back, the first thing I'm going to do is make you recalibrate the life support systems in the north pier."

Rodney stares at him, incredulous, "Wait, is that your idea of flirting?"

John grins back, huge and dangerous, "Right now? It's my idea of foreplay."

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John's easier to work with, somehow, after that. It makes Rodney painfully aware of the ticking clock over his head, because they're running out of minutes until this John disappears, and he doubts he's going to be handed another copy this good with his brain the next time around.

They make progress with the power source, in that they successfully figure out all the things that it's not. Not Ancient, not Replicator, not Wraith, hell, not even Goa'uld. It's pure energy, space-time folded in on itself, which at least possibly explains the different versions of John.

By the time midnight rolls around, though, they're no closer to figuring out how to fix it, how to turn it off and Rodney turns away from the computer again, his stomach sinking. He says, "I guess this is goodbye."

John turns, stares at him for a long moment, and before he can say anything, even as his mouth is opening, the seconds run out. John goes still, like a computer being reset, and then he just...changes. It hurts something in Rodney's brain, trying to make sense of the way that John is at the same time himself and something not quite the same. He hazards, "Sheppard?"

The woman in the seat across from him blinks, says, voice tight and careful, "Meredith. What the hell happened to you?"

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Part Two

This John turns out to be a Joan, with a Rodney that's more of a Meredith waiting for her back home. It's more than Rodney wanted to know, that he has a female counterpart running around out there. More information than he needed when Joan runs her long fingers back through his hair and says, "I miss the curls."

Rodney says, "Please, don't," and doesn't know if he means: please don't touch me. Or: please don't make me think about myself as a woman. Or something else entirely.

Joan pulls back, in any case, expression going thoughtful as she sprawls in her chair, so much of John in reflected in the softer curves of her legs and chest. Her voice is a familiar drawl, just slightly higher pitched than Rodney's used to, "Tell me again what's going on."

Rodney sighs, frustrated, and explains to the fourth John he's had to deal with in as many days, what he's found out so far. It feels pitifully inadequate, even to him.

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Joan turns out to be no better with computers than Rodney's John, and it's something like a relief to dump her into Teyla and Ronon's care when they show up a few hours later. He's been thoroughly saturated with enough Sheppard-ness to drown him, and none of it the Sheppard he wants. He needs a break. He needs to sleep. He needs to figure this the fuck out.

The hours are all starting to blend together, his back and shoulders all locked up from sitting in front of the computer for what's going on two days straight. He feels like the answer is right there, like he'll be able to see it if he just pushes, just skims this next line of code, just runs this last test.

Rodney's holding it in front of himself like a carrot, baiting himself, saying look, you're almost there. He keeps telling himself it'll be just another minute, and at the end of that minute telling himself just one more, just one more, just one more.

Around him, the hours wax and wane, and he lets the world fade out until a pair of strong hands slide onto his shoulders, squeeze. He knows the smell of John, even covered by the soft almost sweet scent that apparently belongs to Joan. He knows the strength in those deft fingers, even though they're smaller than he's used to.

Joan says, "Have you left the lab at all, Mer?"

He lets all the aggravation and frustration in his chest bleed out through his voice, "My name is Rodney. Why aren't you with Teyla? I told her to keep you occupied." Rodney'd actually demanded that Teyla keep Joan away from him, because it was too weird, seeing this female John. He didn't like it.

Behind him, Joan shrugs, "Have you left the lab at all, Rodney?" She sounds faintly amused, and it's just a step to the left of familiar. Rodney clenches his jaw tight, because what does it matter, she'll be gone in six hours, and he'll be left with some fresh hell—some new John to learn. Joan sighs, long-suffering affection practically dripping from the sound, "C'mon, let's get some food in you. Get you a shower, some sleep."

She's pulling his chair back from the computer without waiting for a response, manhandling him upright. He stares across at her, trying to figure out how to disentangle himself from her hold without hurting her, blurts, "I can't, I can't, look, I've almost figured it out—"

Joan raises her eyebrows at him, cocking her head to the side and snorting, "No. You haven't. Rodney, if you run yourself into the ground who's going to figure this out? Shower. Food. Sleep. Then you can come back to work, okay?"

And he'd fight her, but he is exhausted, and she's already got him out the door, fingers digging into his arm and he can't get out of her hold without yanking against her and she's so much smaller than he's used to. He lets her drag him to the mess, lets her fill his plate up with his favorite foods, and lets her direct him to their usual table.

Rodney stares hard at his plate through the meal, because he doesn't want to see her, the way her hair falls into her eyes, the way she's watching him. He can feel her eyes on him, and shovels in his food as quickly as he can, because the focused attention is making his skin crawl. He snaps, "What, don't I eat as a girl?"

Joan snorts, "You eat exactly the same way. It's—" And Rodney doesn't want to hear how it's cute, or how it reminds Joan of home, or how similar he is to Meredith. He shoves away from the table, grabs his tray and stomps towards the door, ignoring the way Joan curses and scrambles after him.

He says, marching down the hall, aware that she's a half step behind him, "There, I ate. Happy? I don't think I need any help with the showering. Or the sleeping. Go find Teyla again. Leave me alone." But Joan's following him into his room, not cowed when he spins around and glares at her.

In fact, she's just bracing her hands on her hips, staring across at him, and it's bizarre, how they're of a height now with John's extra inches stolen. She says, a tiny smile playing in the corner of her mouth, "Go shower, Rodney." And he throws his hands up, because John is even more impossible as a woman, and goes to take a shower.

He's surprised by how good the water feels, hot across his skin, soothing. He's dirty, he realizes for the first time, wearing over three days worth of stale sweat. He scrubs at his skin, until it's red and pink, until he can't feel John's hands or mouth on him anymore. He pounds a fist into shower wall, swallows around the pressure in his mouth, and pants until the burn behind his eyes goes away.

Rodney nearly jumps out of his skin when he steps out of the shower and Joan is there, sitting on his sink, swinging her legs. She's got the over shirt she'd been wearing all day off, her black t-shirt sticking against her skin from the humidity in the room. Rodney yelps, "What the hell are you doing?" grabbing for the towel he knows he left set out and settling for covering himself with his hands when he can't find it.

Joan shrugs, the movement does interesting things to her breasts that Rodney looks away from, and then she's sliding off the sink. She says, "We were going to adopt. Eventually. Me and Meredith. I want kids and she won't let me raise a child on my own."

Rodney gapes at her, steps back into the shower because he needs the distance. Before he can pull the door closed she's grabbed it, standing in the doorway, her face set and determined. He says, because talking is buying him time, "How very special for you, I'm sure you'll make some special child very uncomfortable having to explain why it has two mommies. Get out of my bathroom."

Joan ignores his demand, reaches down to her waist and grabs her shirt, pulls it up and over her head. She says, "But I can't help but thinking, a kid with your eyes, your mouth, my hair? A kid that's ours? That'd really be something, you know?"

She reaches for him, and he flattens himself against the wall, shaking his head, "No. No—look, okay, I understand you want kids. That's—that's actually kind of flattering. That you want my kids. But, this isn't, this isn't the way to do it, okay? We can go down to the infirmary, Keller can, can like, do something medical with—with it."

He can see a brief flash of little plastic beakers and whirling machines and his mind shies away from it.

Joan's already shaking her head, stepping into his space, her hands coming up to rest on his shoulders, "I don't think I can take anything with me when I go, Rodney." She's leaning into him, her mouth warm and wet against his jaw, "I want this, please."

He flaps his hands, not sure what to do with them, grabs her elbows because they seems safe, but then gets confused about whether he should pull her closer or push her away and ends up just holding her in place. He babbles, up to the ceiling as she leans his head back, as she bites and kisses her way down his throat, "Do you know the likelihood of actually getting pregnant on the first try? It's—it's almost non-existent, this is—"

She murmurs, lips dragging across his shoulders now, "Shut up and fuck me, Rodney."

He never could tell John no.

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Afterwards, her legs still wrapped around his hips, he buries his face in her hair and tries to even his breathing out. He's still in her, tight and hot and wet around him, and he can't remember the last time sex made him feel quite this spectacularly dirty. Used.

His fingers clench in the sheets on either side of her shoulders, because he's afraid that he'll hit her, that he'll shake her, that he'll let the bitter anger in his gut twist its way free. She's running her own hands over his shoulders, his back, fingertips dragging over the raised welts she dug into his skin with her fingernails not ten minutes ago.

She says, "You still with me?"

He chokes on a laugh, because he's so very painfully with her. He turns his face away from her hair, seeks the cool smoothness of the sheets, the fabric that smells just like him, nothing like her. Pushes himself up on his arms, after a minute, when he feels something like stable again, and tries to roll away from her.

She tightens her legs around his waist, a vice coming closed and holding him in place. She runs her hands up his chest, cards her fingers through his chest hair with a fascinated, distracted look on her face. He doesn't want to look at her, doesn't want to see, but that's somehow not actually stopping him.

She says, after a long moment of just touching him, "We have a little over three hours. Do you think you can—"

He wants to tell her no, to tell her that he's not twenty years old anymore, that he doesn't ever want to look at her again, much less touch her. But then she's arching up off the bed, pulling herself up against him with the arm she has wound around his neck, crushing her breasts between them, pressing her mouth to his. She says, "Please."

It's enough.

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Rodney sleeps, though he hadn't intended to, wakes up with the early morning sun streaking across his face. John's curled against him, and for a half-second all Rodney registers is the press of breasts against his skin, thinks that somehow the John from last night managed to overstay her twenty-four hours.

He jerks into a sitting position. John makes a protesting sound, and Rodney realizes that this John, while a woman, is at least dressed. And that she has much shorter hair than the last one, shorter, even, than his John. And then Rodney brain catches up with the fact that he's naked, and that John is going to wake up at any second, and he can just picture a freak out of epic proportions.

He tries to slide out of bed, and John shifts, makes another irritated sound, and there's an arm around Rodney's waist, holding him in place. John's voice is a whine, and Rodney hates, just a little bit, that even the female sound of it is familiar now, "Rodney, unless you've suddenly realized how to recharge the ZPM it's way too early for you to be waking me up."

For a long moment he stares down at John, the sharp spikes of her hair, the little half smile playing on her mouth. There's a part of him that hates to break the illusion, but this is starting to feel rote, and so he clears his throat and says, "What do you know about warps in the fabric of space-time?" And it's amazing how quickly she wakes up after that.

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He shoves this John—named Jo, which he prefers to Joan for reasons he can't express—off onto Teyla as well. Grabs his teammate by the arm, leans down to hiss into her ear, "Do not let her alone with me. Do not. Do not. I can't—"

He can't finish the sentence, just looks Teyla hard in the eyes and tries to make her understand and maybe she does, because her expression softens into something almost sad. She smiles, tight and gentle, pats his arm and says, "It is alright, I will...show her around the city."

He nods, distracted by relief, "Good. Good, yes, do that." And doesn't see Jo, her short hair and the soft smile she stares at him with for the rest of the day, not until Teyla delivers her to the lab at five minutes to midnight.

Teyla says, softly, almost apologetic, "I thought it would be best for you to be here, when the change comes." And Rodney knows she's right, because they could end up with another crazy John, or, hell, another genius John that could possibly help him figure out what he's missing. Because he's not getting anywhere.

Still, he can't help but wince, looking at the mouth that is identical to the one he kissed last night, looking at hands identical to the ones that left bloody scratches over his shoulders and back. He can still remember the burn of them in the morning shower, shifts uncomfortably in his shirt because thinking about them has brought the pain back.

Jo's expression darkens, and she reaches out, lays her hand over his and he flinches back. She looks at him, careful and tight and he wants to explain, but there's no way to vocalize his upset. It doesn't even make sense in his own brain. His emotions are all tangled up, yearning and pain and failure and Joan wrapped around him, her hips lifting to meet his as she bit at his neck.

Jo says, following his hand with hers, strong fingers curling around his wrist, "I'm sorry. I don't know—I don't know what happened between you and your John, but I hope it works out. It's probably his fault, and he's probably really, really sorry about it, even though he'll never say it, okay?"

He wants to say, God, that it's not John's fault. That it's his. That he should have been able to fix this already. That he should have been able to get Joan away from him. What he does say is nothing, just stares at her until she blurs, shifts, twists, into someone taller, more familiar, and with considerably more facial hair.

Rodney feels a twist in his chest, naked hope that this is his John, even though he doesn't really believe it, says, "John?" and ignores how pathetic and needy and hopeful he sounds.

John's brow furrows, confusion flashing across his expression as he drags his eyes up and down Rodney's body. It's not until he reaches Rodney's eyes that there's a spark of recognition, John grabbing both sides of his face and twisting it back and forth, staring hard into his eyes before saying, "Meredith? Shit. Shit, what happened?"

Rodney doesn't even have to say anything to Teyla, she's already got John by the arm, saying, "Come with me, Colonel, I will explain everything."

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When John wanders down to the lab hours later, it's an unpleasant flashback to Joan, especially when the first thing the man does is walk up behind him and brace his hands on Rodney's shoulders. Rodney jumps, vicious nausea twisting through his gut, and John's hands tighten to hold him down in the chair. Rodney hates the whine in his voice, "Let me go, let me go, let—"

John leans over him, his stomach brushing the back of Rodney's head, "Hey, it's okay. I'm not going to hurt you." And then the other man stiffens, Rodney can hear his breath catch, "Oh. Oh. Do I hurt you? Here? Because I swear to God, if I do, I'll find a way to beat the shit out of myself." He sounds angry, pissed to holy hell, and Rodney shakes his head.

Rodney says, "I just. I just need my John back." His John who hardly ever touches him, his John who calls him McKay, his John who he understands. His John, who has never, ever given him a back rub. Would never give him a back rub. "Sheppard?"

The other man presses even closer to him, hums, "Yeah?"

"Why are you here? I told Teyla to keep you away from me."

John snorts and shrugs, Rodney can feel the movement translating down John's arms, into his shoulders. "Yeah, I got the feeling she was trying to keep me busy." John pauses, "You need to take a break. Let me get you some dinner, get you to sleep—"

Rodney jerks his head back into John's chest hard, shoves him away and turns on him, hands up defensively. Rodney sounds shrill, even to his own ears, "You don't think I know what that means? Well you can forget it. Fool me once, shame on me, you know, but I don't get fooled twice and you just stay away from me and my shower."

John's face is unreadable, eyes flat, "So I did hurt you. One of me, anyway."

Rodney doesn't understand why John's pushing this, snaps, "What does it matter? Can't you just—go away. Go away and let me work, I'm running out of time and you're not helping anything." But John's shaking his head, stalking towards him and Rodney steps back. "Stop. Sheppard, stop."

John jerks to a stop, a muscle in his jaw jumping. When he finally does speak, his hand half extended towards Rodney, it barely sounds human, his voice gone so rough and thick, "You know, I promised once I'd never hurt you. I stood up and swore through better and worse, Rodney, and I meant it. I don't know what this other me did, but I'd kill him if I could."

Rodney stares, at the stiff line of John's shoulders, the way John's looking at him, like he's the only thing in the room. He says, "Wait. Better or worse? What am I, where you're from?"

John's jaw tightens up even more, and then he's pushing closer, stepping into Rodney's space, brushing feather light fingertips over Rodney's cheek. John's voice is low and intimate as the kiss Rodney can almost feel coming, "My wife. My wife. God, Rodney, I can't—I can't believe I hurt you. I need to—"

And there's the kiss that Rodney knew was coming, gentle and soft and nothing like the other Johns have been. Knowing and familiar and warm and Rodney thinks that he understands why he'd want to marry this man, this version of John, if he were a woman.

John kisses him thoughtless, until his brain is empty, until he's not thinking about anything but the warm slide of his mouth. He says, when John finally pulls away, "Oh."

And allows himself be led off, when John grabs his wrist and says, "Food, Rodney. And a shower, and sleep. Nothing but that, okay? I'm not going to hurt you." And the best part, Rodney decides an hour later, lying in his bed, John a warm presence beside him not touching, is that this John meant it.

He falls asleep to John's soft breath, not slow and even in sleep, but awake, aware, watching over him.

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He wakes up alone, and at first just thinks that whatever John he must have ended up with in the middle of the night wandered off. His bed is still warm, he can almost see where John had lain, curled towards him without touching. It's the first time he's missed any of the Sheppards besides his own. He hopes the man made it back to where he belonged. To his wife.

He rolls out of bed, away from the bothersome thoughts, thumbs his radio on to the team channel, says, "What'd we end up with this time?"

There's a moment of silence, and then Ronon's voice, gruff, "What are you talking about, McKay?"

Rodney scowls, because what does the other man think he's going to be talking about, really? Rodney's been eating, drinking, living nothing but finding John for the last week. He grinds into the radio, "What Sheppard did we get today? Is he pregnant? Bald? Tentacled? Winged? What? And also, where is he?" Rodney's gotten used to John stalking his steps until banished to the care of his other team mates.

Ronon rumbles back, after enough of a pause that Rodney's managed to get his shoes on with hands that are not shaking, "Haven't seen him. Teyla?"

Teyla sounds almost as worried as Rodney feels, "I am having Chuck run a scan for the Colonel's transmitter. He is not with me or responding to his radio." And for a long moment Rodney just stares at his floor, like he already knows that they're not going to find John anywhere, like he's trying to make his peace with a world without John Sheppard.

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Rodney works because he has no other way to keep his mind off the fact that John is gone. Just gone. He tries hard as he can not to wonder if John died, in whatever parallel universe they're drawing from, if he was just never born. Rodney fails. But he tries.

He barely notices when Teyla and Ronon come in, when they settle around him, Ronon pulling one of the computers down, rumbling soft explanations to Teyla as he works. Rodney barely notices, until it's all he can hear, the rise and fall of Ronon's voice as he talks about power input and output and Rodney can pick up the phrases he used when explaining it to Ronon a few weeks ago.

Rodney stays hunched over his own computer, but he's not seeing the screen anymore. He's not seeing anything, he's just listening to his teammates. He's hanging on every word, almost hypnotized, and it's an electric jolt when he hears Ronon fumble over an explanation for differences between energy conversion rates for the ZedPM and naquadah generators on Ancient tech.

Rodney spins away from his computer, looks down at Teyla and Ronon on the floor, and finds himself sliding out of his seat, shoving his way between them. It takes only a second for him to settle onto his haunches, to strip the laptop from Ronon's hands and by that point his mouth is already running, "No, no, no. Think of it like, hm, like—"

The explanation distracts him for the better part of the day. And after that it's dinner and he gets shanghaied to the work out room, where Teyla and Ronon take turns beating him up. He's sore and aching by the time Ronon half carries him back to his room, but he also hasn't lost his mind, and there'd been a moment early that morning when he'd thought that there was a very real chance of that happening.

Rodney says, when Ronon deposits him on his bed, "I don't know how to fix this."

Ronon pauses, one had still on his shoulder, "Maybe this isn't something you're supposed to fix, McKay."

Which is so patently stupid that Rodney rolls back to a sitting position, saying, "I fix everything. That's my job. That's what I do." Ronon rumbles, and tries to push him back down, but there's a hot swell of irritation and fury in Rodney's chest now, and it drives him up to his feet. "I'm going to get him back."

Ronon sighs, rolls his eyes and crosses his arms, says, "McKay—"

But Rodney's already waving him off, heading towards the door, ignoring the burn in his arms and shoulders, the ache in his ribs where Teyla hit him hard enough to knock him down. He wonders, vaguely, what it would be like to have friends that didn't think physical abuse is the way to make people feel better. He probably wouldn't know how to handle it.

Rodney's halfway back to the labs when midnight rolls around. Ronon is following stiff and disapproving at his side. He hadn't really thought about what would happen, because he hadn't been thinking about John at all, had been avoiding it with a single-minded desperation.

And so when he steps out of the transporter, and right into someone's chest, it takes him a half second longer than it should to realize that it's a familiar body. That it's John, a John anyway, this one with wild eyes and a buzz cut and fingers closing like iron bands around Rodney's upper arms.

John blinks, rapid succession, and then he's gasping, "Rodney!" and then John's cutting his eyes at Ronon, and it reveals the scar down his neck, ugly and thick. A second later John's jerking his attention back towards Rodney, throwing his arms around him, yanking Rodney's face down against his shoulder, burying his face in Rodney's hair.

Rodney says, squirming and not getting anywhere, "Um. Yes. Nice to see you, too, could you just—"

And then John manages to lift him, somehow, just an inch off the floor. John's laughing into his hair, "Oh, God, Rodney, how aren't you dead anymore? No. No, wait, I don't care. It doesn't matter. You're alive!" And then he's throwing his head back, bellowing up to the ceiling, "Rodney McKay is alive!"

Rodney thinks it makes sense, in a way. The universes seem to be sliding Johns into place in some kind of order. And after a world where there was no John, it only figures there'd be a world where there was no Rodney. He wonders how he died, and then decides he doesn't want to know.

Besides, it doesn't matter. John's ducking his head, laughing, loud and booming and like he doesn't have a care in the world, squeezing Rodney tightly enough that his already aching ribs scream with pain. He doesn't have time to protest it, because then John's sliding their lips together, taking Rodney's mouth with nothing like finesse and everything like desperation.

Ronon clears his throat after a long moment, drawls, "Are you two fucking in every reality but this one?"

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John won't let him go, and Rodney knows he should be complaining, but the shock of no John at all the previous day makes him pliant. Besides, this John is content to sit and listen to him, willing to let him talk his way through the things that aren't making sense. This John even makes some suggestions that are half worthwhile and all he wants in return is to touch Rodney.

It's a trade Rodney can live with.

John doesn't bring up how Rodney died, which is a relief. Rodney already has a few deaths under his belt, and he has no desire to add anymore to the list. Neither will John discuss the scar down his neck, not that Rodney asks. That's Teyla's question. Ronon's is, "What the hell happened to your hair?"

John ignores that, as well. In fact, he kind of ignores everyone except Rodney, even after it's explained that he's not actually going to be around past midnight. Something dark and intelligent flashes across his face, but it's gone before Rodney can read it. Then John is saying, "So, tell me how close you are to finding a way to stop this."

John listens with rapt attention as Rodney explains everything.

Rodney thinks that he'll miss this John when he's gone, as the hours drain away. Even with his too-short hair. Even with the constant presence of his hands, his warmth, all along Rodney's body. Even with the occasional press of his lips, absent kisses that John doesn't even seem aware of giving.

It's probably the gentle, reverent touches, the occasional kisses, that mean Rodney's entirely unprepared for it when John draws his fist back and hits him. He can feel his eyes rolling back up in his head, imagines he hears John's voice, a soft apology, before the blackness reaches up to take him.

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He wakes up to John's face, hovering over his own, to arms wrapped around him tight. Rodney pushes at the other man, demands, "What the hell did you do that for? Oh, God, you didn't drag me off to a Jumper again, did you? Cause I'd really rather not make a habit of that."

John holds him tighter, ignoring Rodney's struggles, "I'm sorry. I know you're just trying to get your John back, I know. But, listen, I can't get my Rodney. He's dead. He died. And I couldn't stop him. I'm sorry."

Rodney freezes, feels a chill in his gut, "What did you do? Sheppard? What the hell did you do?" Rodney struggles again, trying to get to his feet, to reach the computer above his head. He throws an elbow into Sheppard's ribs, cursing, "What the fuck did you do?"

Rodney's on his feet, Sheppard still trying to hold him down, but Rodney's got weight and muscle on the other man. He stares at the blank screen, types in commands with growing desperation, but the entire hard drive has been wiped. Everything, all the information that he'd been working on with blood and sweat and tears for the last week. Gone.

Rodney collapses back, into John's embrace, though he barely feels it. He says, "Why would you do that? That's not going to keep you here, you idiot. All this is going to do is keep my John from me. You idiot. You asshole. You—you—"

John shuts him up with a kiss, hard and desperate, and it's a plea for forgiveness and an explanation all at the same time. John's saying, "I had to try. I had to try to stay. I'm never going to see you again, am I?" He says it like it's the end of his world. Sounds broken and young and Rodney thinks the other man's hands might be shaking.

Which is probably why Rodney says, "You can fuck me, if it'll—"

He doesn't get to finish the sentence before John has him flat on his back, bruised dark eyes intense on his face. For a second he thinks John's just going to rip his pants down and do him there on the floor of the lab, but then John shakes his head, laughs without humor. John says, "I'm pretty sure that would just make it worse."

And then John's curling up on him, butting his head up under Rodney's chin, wrapping around him. Rodney can barely hear John's voice, muffled against his chest, "Is this okay? Just for a little while?"

Rodney says, "Yeah. Yeah, John, this is okay." They stay like that, Rodney playing John's pillow, until John goes still. Resets. Until the whole stupid cycle restarts itself. Rodney takes a deep breath, and gets ready to explain the whole damn thing, one more time.

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They get a John who never left Earth, from a universe where Jeannie went to Atlantis, and Rodney stayed home to have a family. He has two kids, with that John, an adopted boy and girl and he stares at their pictures for hours, trying to imagine what it would be like to feel the swell of fatherly affection for these strangers. He pays almost as much attention to the little gold band around John's ring finger.

They get John who's the civilian leader of his Atlantis, where Colonel Sam Carter was the military head from the beginning and where they met Rodney on P94-128 instead of Teyla on Athos. It's odd, to think of a universe where they never met Teyla, where she'd probably been culled, where Rodney's the leader of an entire civilization. Even weirder when John corners him in the lab, running eager fingers through Rodney's hair, and murmuring against his mouth, "The short look suits you. I might have to whip out some scissors when I get home."

They get a John who's been alone with Rodney for months after destroying Atlantis in the process of destroying the Replicators. This John is quiet, jumpy, looks at Atlantis and all the people in it like they're ghosts. It takes Rodney most of the day to get an explanation for what happened out of the other man. That Rodney had been the one with massive brain trauma after the Replicator attack, that they'd used the nanites to save him, and when he'd been taken by Oberon, John had destroyed everything to get him back.

And that's just in the time it takes Rodney to get all the work Buzz Cut John destroyed re-done. He's really, really not sure how much more of this he can take. Rodney thinks it's a miracle he hasn't already lost his mind. And then he worries briefly that possibly he has, that being constantly faced with these revolving door Johns, all of them sexually involved with his own doubles, has driven him around the bend.

When Rodney starts initiating the touching, when he slings his arm around the shoulders of a John who's both male and pregnant with his child, he decides that yes, he must be crazy.

Rodney goes to Carter, ignoring the fact that it's three in the morning. His sleep cycle has been fucked for over two weeks, he's forgotten that most people sleep at night, that most people sleep regularly at all. He's forgotten that the hour or two of naps he's snagging a day aren't really enough to function on.

She looks soft and confused and half her hair is plastered to the side of her head and maybe it's the first time he's remembered that she's human, too. She says, "Rodney?" stepping outside of her room and closing the door behind her and she's wearing an oversize shirt and rubbing at her face.

He blurts, "I can't do this anymore."

She takes a deep breath, runs her hand back through her hair, "I understand that this isn't easy—"

Rodney doesn't mean to laugh, but how is he supposed to stay serious when she says insane things like that? He wants to grab her and shake her, restrains himself, but only barely, "Believe me, you do not understand. I can't find him, and I can't keep dealing with these...these bastardizations of him. I think I might be losing my mind, possibly some kind of resetting Stockholm syndrome that's domino-ing completely out of control and I'm not sure if maybe I'm not intentionally not seeing something—"

"Rodney, take a breath!" He does, surprised by the burn in his lungs, the way he can feel his blood pounding in his cheeks. Sam's got him by the arms, shaking him, and he swallows another mouthful of air, feeling himself twitch. "Better?"

"Not really, no. I've never found the whole relaxing breathing thing worked very well for me, actually. Do you want to try something else? Possibly hypnosis or some other mumbo jumbo, or could we move on to actually helping me in some useful way?"

Carter pinches him before letting go of him, a rueful smile twitching up the corners of her mouth. She says, half under her breath, "I was worried about you, there for a minute. What do you expect me to do, McKay? You can reassign the work to anyone you think might do a better job. But I really don't think that's going to keep the Colonel—any of the Colonels—away from you. He seems..."

He stares at her when she trails off, her expression flashing between chagrin and amusement, spits, "You can't make any judgments on John's character based on these...aberrations. They're not him, and you're not allowed to hold him responsible for the fact that his clones are all apparently blessed with much better taste than he is."

She raises an eyebrow at him, says dryly, "Right. Because you two weren't involved—" she cuts herself off, mouth falling open into a silent 'o' of surprise. Rodney shifts uncomfortably, and then she's saying, "You weren't. You really weren't. This universe must be filled with emotionally retarded men. Or cowards."

He crosses his arms, "Look, I came to you for help, if you don't think you can manage that tell me now so I can pursue my other options, but I don't have a lot of time. I'm supposed to be bringing John ice cream. With those vegetables from R21-93R."

She opens her mouth, and then makes a face, head cocked to the side, "The pickle things?"

He waves a hand, "Yes, yes, the pickle things. Didn't I tell you? He's pregnant now. Help me!" Very, very pregnant. Like he's carrying around a bowling ball under his shirt. A warm, living, bowling ball that had kicked and moved when Rodney had touched it and he'd really thought his life couldn't get any weirder until discovering that, hey, there was a universe where ass-babies happened.

Sam raises her hand to her face, finally says, "I'll do my best to figure something out, okay? Just. In the morning."

And he says, "Okay, yes, fine," and marches away because ice cream waits for no man. And neither do purple alien pickle things, or babies, or anything else. He does his best to convince himself that she'll be able to help, that in a few hours things might be a little bit better. Unfortunately, he's completely destroyed his credibility with himself, and doesn't believe it one bit.

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John is attempting to wheedle him into a blow job when Carter does finally show up. And by attempting Rodney means asking. And by wheedling Rodney means explaining that the relaxed muscles are good for the baby. The scary thing is, Rodney's already rising to his feet, moving towards the other man, when Carter appears in the doorway. He's already had some kind of sexual interaction with over a dozen different Sheppards. What's one more?

Carter takes one look at the scene, John sitting slouched in a chair, his legs splayed open, Rodney standing suddenly awkward between his knees, and sighs. She says, motioning to the swell of John's stomach, "You know, I thought you were exaggerating."

Rodney shrugs, "Yeah. Not so much."

She keeps staring at John, "He's really?" Rodney nods, tired. "With your?" Another nod, and an entirely uncalled for grin on John's part, "Right. Right. Well. I—have to go. Now. Over there. I'll get back to you on possible solutions, McKay." And as much as he wants to be angry with her for freaking out and abandoning him, he can't actually blame her for it.

He heaves a sigh when John flashes him a hopeful look, bouncing his hips in the chair. And somehow, it's become something familiar, normal, to lock the door and go to his knees, fingers tugging at the loose, stretchy waistband of Sheppard's pants.

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He's lying with his hand cupped over the swell of John's stomach at midnight, when John changes again. Feels it when the John's stomach snaps back into it's proper shape, and has time to enjoy the rush of sweet, sweet relief in his chest before the John beside him is squirming, shoving himself into a sitting position and demanding, "Fuck! Another one. Alright, what's wrong with you? No—let me guess. You've lost your John to a horrible Genii related plot? Or—oh God, you're not another woman, are you?"

Rodney jerks, "Wait. You already know what's—"

And then the John is grabbing his arms, squeezing, "Has this happened to you before? Tell me you know how to fix this. I can't take much more of this—this bouncing."

Rodney grins, a too big stretch of his lips, but he can't help himself. This isn't his John, the accents all wrong and, well, that's not how his John talks. But it's the first time one of the copies has had any idea about what's going on, the first one that's apparently been shuffled more than once, and Rodney blurts, "The labs," at the exact same time the other John does.

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It takes them an hour to get a dozen new simulations up and running. Sheppard's crowing the entire time with delight when he finds out that Rodney already has so much work done. This John has lots of theories about what might be causing the shifts, scrawls them out all over the white boards with a tight, sharp expression on his face. Rodney watches for a while before saying, "Another Doctor Sheppard, huh?"

The man waves a dismissive hand, "Oh, what? Yes. No. I am a doctor, but you're supposed to refer to me by my rank. Generally, you just call me Shep." And Rodney freezes, blinks without seeing a goddamn thing before he snorts.

"Rod's Shep?" And really, now that he thinks about it, it's only natural that sooner or later they'd end up thrown together. John jerks towards him, eyes big and surprised and Rodney grins and doesn't bother trying not to look smug for figuring it out first.

Shep's eying him, "You're the ones responsible for Rod's attempted suicide, take eight?" Which isn't exactly how Rodney would have put it, but as long as they've established who's who, he's not going to argue. Shep apparently is, stepping into Rodney's space and waving a finger up under his nose, "Do you know how worried I—Weir was? He could have been lost to your crappy dimension forever, just because you were too stupid to know what a horrible idea—"

Rodney kisses him, because weeks of experience have taught him that it's the only surefire way to shut any and every John Sheppard up. Shep still goes on talking for a moment against his mouth, before pulling away, blurting, "What—what did you do that for?"

Rodney looks at him, flushed cheeks, shining eyes, and says, "Um?" Usually the John's are all for kissing. Or biting. Or licking, sucking, fucking and pretty much anything else that ends in 'ing' and has something vaguely to do with sex. "It seemed like a good idea at the time?"

And then Shep is lunging back forward, crushing their mouths together, nearly crawling all over him in an attempt to get closer. When the man pulls back he's grinning like a loon, "I'd wondered, I mean, all the data seemed conclusive that you—my you—wanted me but I wasn't sure and it would—"

Rodney cuts him off, "Wait, we aren't fucking in your world, either?"

Shep shrugs, kisses him again, "We will be when I get back." And then he vanishes, just, gone with nothing but the fading memory of his warmth left behind. Rodney stares at the equations the other man left scrawled all over his white board, and he puts his head in his hands and does his best to resist pulling his hair out.

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Two days later, days when he has to deal with a John with one arm and a John who's apparently some kind of mermaid thing and Rodney's never going to get the fish smell out of his sheets, they get an unscheduled inbound wormhole. Rodney happens to be in the 'gate room, mostly to avoid being down in one of the lower levels hastily converted to an aquarium, and so he's there when the event horizon stabilizes.

He's also there, coincidentally, when everyone panics because the wormhole is white, and they can't get the shield up. He opens his mouth to yell at everyone to shut up so he can think, and then a rock comes sailing through the 'gate, bounces twice on the floor before rolling to a stop, and the 'gate shuts down.

Rodney says, "Huh," and beats everyone else to the rock by virtue of shoving a few people out of his way. There's a paper tied to it, and he peels it off, flattens it against his palm, and reads:

McKay,

Got home.

Shep.

Ten minutes later, Carter's asking him what the hell it means, and he shrugs and pleads ignorance. There's no way in hell that Rodney's telling anyone that apparently the reason his John is missing is because he hasn't yet realized that they should be fucking. He thinks this is possibly the worst idea for a matchmaking service ever.

And then he goes to see the little mermaid again, because the zoologists left in charge are pleading with him to convince John to stop making that particular high pitched keening sound before it ruptures their eardrums. Rodney stops by the mess on the way. They're serving fish sticks.

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And it's just more of the same, after that. There's a Sheppard who ended up leading SG-1 after O'Neill got promoted, who had demanded Doctor Rodney McKay be placed on the team before taking the job. Which is, well, flattering, but by the end of the day Rodney's still thoroughly sick of hearing about the adventures of team Sheppard, McKay, Mal Doran and Teal'c. Especially because John keeps putting his hand on Rodney's thigh.

They get a John who apparently ascended, if the glowing ball of tentacles that follows Rodney around all day is any indication. Rodney points out to anyone willing to listen that this isn't actually how ascension works, and tries to shoo his new pet squid away, but John's still there, hovering at eye level, when midnight rolls around.

Then there's a John who works for the NSA, whose first question is a demand to know where Rodney's snake is. Which, bizarrely, does not turn out to be a come on, and Rodney spends a good hour trying to wrap his mind around the fact that there's a version of him out there completely obsessed with a giant snake named Betty.

They come and they go and Rodney begins to think that his John is never going to figure out that they're supposed to be having sex, and he's going to spend the rest of his life sorting through the John du jour. It's not a happy thought. Made worse by the fact that he has no idea how to fix it.

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Two weeks later and Rodney's decided that his John Sheppard is a complete idiot and also must be suffering from the biggest case of denial ever. It makes no sense. None of his other selves seem to have any problem at all with the idea of having sex with Rodney. In fact, most of them are scarily obsessed with him.

He's walking down the hallway towards the mess with a John that differs from his only in the branch of the armed services they joined. This John graduated from Parris Island, and seems completely confused by the fact that Rodney isn't the CMO of the expedition. Rodney decides to keep his opinions about the medical profession to himself, just this once.

They're halfway through the meatloaf surprise, and yet another story about how Rodney put John back together after he managed to get himself blown up off-world, when the other man makes a distracted, pained face. At first Rodney thinks it must be the meatloaf, because he's pretty sure the surprise might be that it's actually poison or at least spoiled.

And then John flickers.

Rodney's not sure how he gets to his feet, but his chair is toppled on the floor behind him, and he's tasting panic over the tomato sauce the meatloaf had been soaked in, because no-no-no. He can't deal with more than one John in a day, but this is exactly how they change, every night at midnight.

John's expression smoothes out, his uniform flowing from green back to black, his cheeks going from clean shaven to a full beard, his eyes going from amused to confused. And familiarity hits Rodney like a punch in the gut. Rodney starts to go around the table but his body isn't listening to him, and instead he's crawling over it, throwing himself at John.

He can hear himself, "You asshole, you complete and utter bastard, do you know how worried I was? Do you know how many yous I've had to deal with? What took you so long? What the hell were you waiting for?" He hits John in the chest, arms going around his neck, and feels John's shoulders brace, feels an arm low across his own back.

John's saying, "Rodney?" and then, a second later, voice steadier and more sure, "Rodney. Oh, God, it's you. I thought—" he cuts himself off, grabbing handfuls of the back of Rodney's shirt and pulling him in, tugging Rodney off the table and into his lap.

It's only then that Rodney becomes aware that his knee had been smashed in a plateful of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, that he'd managed to overturn both their coffee cups and his pants are soaked with too-hot liquid all down his left thigh. It doesn't matter. John's beard is scratching rough against his ear, and John's heart is thundering against him, and Rodney says, "You idiot. You moron."

And that's about when Major Lorne clears his throat above him, says, "Uh, Doctor McKay, maybe you should go somewhere not here?" Which Rodney figures is probably excellent advice, especially in light of the fact that he's sitting in John's lap, clinging to him like a lost child.

Various Johns had been outed over two dozen times, but somehow Rodney doubts that it'd be the same thing as outing the only one that matters. Apparently John agrees, because he jerks to his feet, almost dumping Rodney to the ground before catching him, cradling him too close and tight for it to be anything but an embrace.

John's voice is registers lower than normal, "Good to see you, Major. I'll be expecting a full report on everything that's gone on during my absence. Have it on my desk at 0600 hours." And then John's hauling him out of the room, literally walking him backwards, and their feet get tangled every other step, but John doesn't seem particularly concerned.

hr

They go to John's room, and it's the first time Rodney's been there with any of the Johns. It was always his room or the lab, and once the broom closest, before. But now they're tumbling through the door, John spilling both of them onto the floor, an impact that jars Rodney's teeth together and he says around the burst of blood in his mouth, "What took you so long?"

John's squirming on top of him, straddling his hips and leaning down over him, eyes dark and bruised, smile a flash of startling white in his dark beard. "It was a lot to work out, McKay."

"It was not! I worked it out the first day!" Which is a slight exaggeration, but there's no one here to contradict him, "What, the universes where we were married with kids didn't give it away? Or, hey, the ones where you killed a couple thousand people for me? Or, okay, not the one where you were a mermaid, but other than that, I mean, married, John. With kids."

John huffs, it sounds like a laugh, and then his hands are on either side of Rodney's face, and he's leaning down, kissing him soft and intent. It's familiar and strange at the same time, and Rodney tilts his head, kisses his way into John's mouth the way he knows the other man likes and John groans over him, pulls back and says, "Jesus. I might have been freaking out a little bit."

Rodney stares up at him, "You mean I've been worrying nonstop about you for nearly a month, ignoring the dozen other critically important projects that I needed to be working on just so I could try to find you because you were having a sexual identity crisis? You selfish bastard! Couldn't you have sucked it up long enough to—"

John laughs, too loud, his thumbs rubbing circles on the skin behind Rodney's ears, "Not that, Rodney, not a freak out about that. I already knew I—" John cuts himself off, rocks their hips together in substitute for finishing the sentence. Rodney arches up against him, instinct to seek out that heat and pressure.

He grabs at John's hips to stabilize himself, to hold the other man still, to give himself the time to blurt, "What were you freaking out about, then?"

For a long moment John just stares at him, and then he takes a deep breath and shifts back, bracing a hand on Rodney's chest to hold himself up. Rodney groans, because it settles John's weight perfectly across his hips, and his body knows this from the other Johns, knows what this pressure tends to lead to.

But John's reaching for his shirt pocket, digging inside with long fingers that Rodney would really like to suck on, and pulling out two small, dirty, pieces of paper. John's smiles gets softer, and he flattens the paper on Rodney's chest, before holding them up for inspection. Rodney squints, recognizes them after a moment as the not-fortunes they'd gotten on Bejwahl.

They're stained now, the same brownish-yellow as the soup that had been dumped on Rodney's head. They're also wrinkled, like John's balled them up and then smoothed them out before. They still read the same. Home. Wanderer. Written in the same bold script, black print against white paper.

He flashes John a sharp look, "You were freaking out about the fortune cookies? For almost a month?"

John has the good grace to look slightly ashamed of himself. He's tucking the fortunes back into his pocket, and Rodney wants to catch his wrist and tell him to throw the damn things away but figures he can do it himself after he gets the shirt off. John says, "At first. And then about the marriage thing. And the kids. And the killing anyone to save you. And then the fortune cookies some more. It was a lot to take in."

Rodney says, "Oh." And then, because he feels they may be straying dangerously close to a discussion of feelings, "What's with the beard?"

John grins, flopping back forward, settling his weight across Rodney's chest, "I got tired of having to convince you on every world that I wasn't joking when I said I wasn't the same John Sheppard that had been there before. The beard helped." His expression suddenly goes serious, "Should I shave it? Do you want me to shave it before—" another hip thrust. Rodney wonders if maybe John is incapable of saying the word 'sex'. Not that he minds the substitution.

His response is the same, in any case. He slings an arm around John's shoulders, drags him down, kisses him in answer.

hr

Later, he'll manage to get John onto his bed through a mixture of cajoling and lifting and relocating. Later, he will fall asleep with John's head pillowed on his shoulder, beard scratchy against his skin. Later, he will wake up exactly at midnight, a habit he's not sure he'll ever be able to break, expecting someone else with the same face in his bed.

John's beard is still scratching against his chest, comforting reassurance that it's still his John, curled against him. John's dragging his fingers, up and down Rodney's side, across his stomach and chest, a pattern that it takes Rodney a moment to make out. He lets John trace 'home' all over his skin, until he falls back into sleep.

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