a/n We've been posting this as a WIP on our LiveJournal (link is on our profile page) but it will be posted here in two parts. Finishing up final edits on part two now. Expect to see it in a day or two at most. Also, the photomanip that inspired part of this fic is also available on the LJ. Thanks to Chaps1870!

The Geek's Guide to First Times and Second Chances

with a special section on time travel because Goons have a thing for flux capacitors

by likethekoschka

re·al·i·ty (ree al u tee), noun 1. actual being or existence as opposed to an imaginary, idealized or false nature. 2. something that has real existence and must be dealt with in real life. 3. an existence or universe, either connected with or independent from other kinds of fantastic notions or alternate realities.

Geek's addendum: If you remember nothing else, remember that reality is subjective. People say you only get one chance at a first impression. I would counter that there is nothing in physics that says time travel can't take place, so it's just a matter of time…no pun intended…before time travel devices are as prevalent as cell phones and you're able to go back and reintroduce yourself to that miniskirt clad coed sitting across the cafeteria… only this time without spilling your Mt. Dew in her lap. Goons tend to have a problem with the possibilities of alternate realities. They tend to deal in absolutes…I have sixteen bullets; therefore I can kill sixteen of the enemy, and brag that I killed twenty. Today I have two Snickers bars; therefore I can taunt my assigned Geek twice as many times than normal that he has none. This perspective goes a long way to explain why when you ask a Goon who the best pilot in history is he'll answer Chuck Yeager instead of Han Solo. Why they cannot understand how we Geeks can find hours of enjoyment arguing over theoretical math problems when they're just proud of the fact that they were able to calculate that two Snickers bars is twice as many as one Snickers bar. But just keep in mind that friendship is subjective, too, and that in real life, your Goon's sixteen bullets covering your ass is more important than who was the better commanding officer, Patton or Picard. And as soon as cell phones come standard with flux capacitors (and you find out where the hell he's hiding his stash of Snickers), you'll be the one with twice as many sugary snacks to gloat about instead of him.

Reality 1

John has the uncanny ability to catch me off guard more times than should be humanly possible. You know that phrase 'coming out of left field'? Well, John Sheppard was evidently born and raised in left field and goes back for frequent visits. A perfect example was yesterday. I didn't even hear the door open to our quarters, so engrossed in my work on a strange energy fluctuation that I couldn't explain. The lights had flickered that morning. No big deal, you say? Well, when a diagnostic revealed that the ZedPM had stopped working…stopped working, mind you… for one point four seconds, I consider that a pretty damn big deal. Especially when I couldn't explain why. And if I couldn't explain why, then nobody could explain why it had happened.

My first indication that John was home came in the form of a flick to my ear. "Ow! What the hell was that for?"

"Attention. As in I want it and the laptop is getting it."

"PC envy; it's not a good look for you, Colonel." My frown wavered with the accompanying grin and kiss I received in return.

"Everything's a good look for me." Ignoring my rolled eyes at this Kirky cockiness, he wrapped arms around me from behind and looked over my shoulder. "What're you working on that has you ignoring your spousal duties anyway?"

"Trying to keep us all from becoming so much human sushi served up on a floating platter for the Wraith," I told him testily with a flourish of keystrokes even as I leaned back against his chest.

"Ah, same old same old, then."

When the nuzzle to my jaw received little more than a mumbled, "Yes, the tedium is mind boggling," as I watched the numbers scroll across the screen, he straightened and rested his hands on my shoulders.

"Still no progress with the ZPM, I take it?" At my growl of frustration he patted. "Maybe it's just a…glitch." One silent glare later, he was backing away. "Or maybe not." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him plop on the couch and prop his feet on the coffee table. "So, I saw Miko today," he informed me conversationally. "Looks like she got a new toy on the last Daedalus run."

Only half listening, I noticed a blip on the frequency reading on the screen and gave the command to hone in on it. "What?"

"The camera," he told me as if that cleared it up. "A real camera that uses film. I didn't know they still made those."

"Oh, yeah." Why the hell was that spike showing up there almost five minutes before the power failure? "Her sister works for Nikon. Head of the optics lab or something. Sends her the latest models and stuff." I pulled up the sensor readings from the various distribution hubs in the city.

"She had some photos she took of a couple of Athosian families."

"Yes," I sighed as I aligned the readouts to run in synch, "I had to let her set up a darkroom in one of the closets. Kavanagh is beyond pissed that I let her use some of his chemicals but it was either that or have her run through the supply of Kleenex and toilet paper in a teary-eyed fit and the paper supplies are infinitely more valuable than the chemicals any day."

"Kav's pissed? How could you tell?" At my snort he continued. "Well, she has quite an eye for it."

"With those glasses, she has an eye for everything. The better to see you with, my dear," I crooned in a grandmotherly falsetto.

"I was thinking…maybe…she could take some of us."

I stopped typing and blinked in surprise as his chatty tone lost some of its casualness. "What? Like a family portrait or something?"

I looked back over my shoulder to see him shrug his shoulders awkwardly. "Yeah, something like that."

"Sheppard, the last family photo I was in I was ten. My mother dressed me in a corduroy blazer with leather elbow patches to match my father's and my sister was wearing a dress with enough poof to put cancan dancers to shame. Halfway to the photographer's studio, Jeannie and I got into a fight when her skirt crossed onto my side of the bench seat in the station wagon. We had to stop and buy me a new tie because she cut mine off with a pair of nail clippers. By the time we had the photo taken the bruising was starting to show nicely. I can still see that image, my father an unnatural shade of purple from screaming at us, my mother red eyed from crying that we had ruined her precious family photo, Jeannie with a blackening eye and me with parallel pink claw marks on my neck. I grew up with that photo hanging on the wall the entire time I lived in my parent's house. In fact, it was still there the last time I was. Jeannie has it now. She says she looks at it anytime she's having a bad day to remind herself that things could always be worse. And this is something you really want to do? Put on a suit and tie and stand in front of a camera and have our picture taken?"

He stared at this boots for a second before mumbling, "We don't have to wear a suit. Our regular street clothes would be fine."

And then it dawned on me. "You never had to do that, did you? Get dressed up and smile for the birdie?"

"Never had to? No." He forced a quirk of his lips but the humor never reached his eyes. "Sounds like I was the lucky one. You're right; it was a bad idea. Forget I said anything."

And there it was, that ball flying toward home plate from out of nowhere. What I had always considered to be an act analogous to child abuse was for John something to be revered and longed for. Something every perfect family did, even the perfectly dysfunctional ones.

"You really want to do this don't you?"

At my question he shook his head. "Nah, Miko offered, I didn't want to hurt her feelings. That's all. Besides, I see your smug mug all the time. Why do I need it hanging on the wall, as well?"

Why? I glanced over at the snapshot of the two of us that sat on our bedside table. Something he needed so little that it had been one of the few things he had taken when he moved out when I had Ancient-induced amnesia. Why indeed?

"Okay, let's do it."

Sitting up from his slump he eyed me cautiously. "Really?"

"Like you said, we wouldn't want to offend Miko. I don't think I could stand being stared at by a wounded doe with astigmatism every time I walked in the lab."

A boyish grin spread across his face. "Good, because she says she's going to be working in the darkroom tonight. If she can take them today, we can have them back tomorrow."

"Today?" I looked back at the computer screen that was already queuing up the readouts from the sensor stations. "But the ZedPM…"

"Will still be doing whatever it's doing in a few hours when we finish up," he offered eagerly.

With a lingering look between the computer and John I finally sighed. "Fine. Give me half an hour to set up a subroutine to run while I'm gone and I'll be ready."

With an ear-bridging smile he stood and kissed me firmly. "I'll go tell Miko."

Turning back to the computer I called to him as the door opened. "I'm not wearing a tie."

"I've seen your ties, Rodney. It looks like you raided Alex Keaton's closet. As far as I'm concerned the only use they have is for tying you to the bed."

Not looking back from my work, I told him dryly, "I've already agreed to take the picture, John. You don't have to bribe me."

"Doesn't mean I can't reward you." And with a waggle of eyebrows he was gone.

And an hour later, we were standing in an unused residence with Miko while she set up her equipment. She had chosen the room…because of the lighting she explained… and converted it into a makeshift studio complete with crates and boxes and a few other props for sitting and standing. After positioning me on a box with John sitting a step below me, she smiled in apology that she would just be a minute more getting ready before bustling off to affix camera to tripod. I honestly didn't know who was more excited, her or John, but by the way the man at my knee kept fidgeting with the casual blue jacket he was wearing I had to wonder if giddiness had given way to another emotion.

"Having second thoughts?" I asked with a raised eyebrow.

"No, no," he assured quickly with false composure. "Just the last time I did this was when they took the official Air Force photo. Makes me a little jittery is all."

Reaching my arm around him, I slid my hand between shirt and jacket and gave a little squeeze. "We don't have to do this if it makes you nervous, you know?"

"Wouldn't be the first time I needed something that made me nervous." He looked up at me then, hazel eyes so sincere I had to clear my throat to continue.

"I'm just saying it's not like we don't already have photos of us together."

The shake of his head was so minute I would have missed it if I hadn't felt the brush of hair against my jaw. "It's not the same. Those weren't planned. They weren't…a family photo."

And it was then that I realized I had never been part of a real family photograph myself. Wrapping my arm around him tighter I nuzzled against his ear. "Mmmmm, I like the sound of that. Say it again."

"Family," he complied softly, turning and running his nose along mine.

Fighting the constriction in my throat, I leaned my head against his and closed my eyes. "Again."

Tipping his head back until his lips brushed against mine he kissed me before forming the word 'family' silently against my mouth. I held him close and kissed him back, savoring the feel of the word and the feel of the man that embodied the meaning of it for me. So caught up in the act, we didn't even acknowledge the shy cough from across the room.

"Dr. McKay, Colonel Sheppard, I am ready now. Look this way, please."

With reluctance we broke the kiss and turned to where Miko stood behind her camera. The flash had me blinking away the spots that formed before my eyes but today we had a photo of the two of us…one of several Miko took… and tomorrow we're planning a trip to the Mainland to find an Athosian artisan to make us a frame.

I still haven't figured out what went wrong with the ZedPM. Maybe John was right and it is just a glitch. As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes things happen that can't be explained. Sometimes they come out of left field and hit you so hard you see spots, like the flash on a 35 mm camera, like falling in love with your best friend, like lying in bed together and picking a place by moonlight to hang a photo of the two of you.

And maybe that's just what a family does.

x x x x x

When I was fourteen I'd go over to one of my friend's houses and watch MTV. We didn't have cable. Not that we couldn't afford it. After all, dear old dad was a Colonel. But cable was frivolous. It rotted your mind. A disciplined mind in a disciplined body. I heard that a lot. It should've been cross-stitched and hung on the wall. Maybe if Mom had stuck around past my third birthday, she could've done that.

Yeah, no such luck there.

So…no cable. I'd hit Tim or Mark's after school if I didn't have baseball practice and catch a few videos. They used to kid me every time that Twisted Sister video came on. Is that a Twisted Sister pin? On your UN-I-FORM They cracked up, howls of laughter . It's your dad, John. And I'd get a sharp elbow to the ribs and a few more quotes of 'you do nothing, you are nothing' and the classic: What-do-you-want-to-do-with-your-life?

I know my father never saw the video and his material predated it by years, but I had to admit I occasionally wondered who in Twisted Sister had met Colonel Hank Sheppard and why we weren't getting paid some sort of royalties.

"Colonel? John? Do you want to go ahead and make arrangements?"

I looked up from the paper and folded it methodically. Elizabeth looked concerned…somewhere between hostage situation concerned and five pregnant Athosian women fingering Ronon for shotgun weddings concerned. "I'll get back to you," I said absently and checked my watch. "Damn. I'm late." And with that I was gone, leaving her staring after me. As I passed Ronon in the hall, I told him, "Dr. Weir is looking for you." He disappeared so fast I saw an afterimage of dreds hovering in the air.

It wasn't a lie. I was late. I'd brought Rodney lunch and dinner every day this week in the lab. He was still obsessing over the ZPM glitch. He'd made the effort to let it go…to embrace the Zen of sometimes shit just acts up, but in the end he just couldn't do it. And a week later, he was still banging his head against the damn thing. Ancient technology versus the most stubborn Canadian born—I knew where I had my money. Until he figured it out, however, I was schlepping food from the cafeteria to the lab twice a day and I did it without complaint. Rodney had let me have my quirk with the family photo; it was my turn to let his run its course.

When I delivered the tray, I kissed his jaw and peered over his shoulder at the laptop read out. "Is it my imagination or is that the same as it was yesterday?" And the day before…and the day before that. The growl I got in response was answer enough. I shook my head and pinched his ribs. "Time to eat up."

He grumbled, "I said I'd meet you in the cafeteria."

"Yet here we are." I tapped my watch meaningfully and looked around at an utterly empty lab. It was over thirty minutes past noon.

He blinked. "Oh. You're late."

Unbelievable. He doesn't show up at all and I'm late. I curved my lips faintly. "I got tied up. Now eat or I'll give your mystery meat pot pie to Miko, bribe her to keep her hands to herself."

He rolled his eyes. "For the thousandth time, Miko is not secretly lusting after me, you jealous bastard." But behind his dismissive tone, his eyes were bright. Rodney loved a little jealousy on occasion. He hadn't gotten a lot of that in the past, I was guessing. Didn't think he was a sex god with supplicants throwing themselves at him right and left. He was wrong. Miko, that Brotherhood chick, that botanist. He didn't see in himself what others saw…what I saw.

"Right. She rubs everyone's feet when they have a cramp," I snorted, sitting on a stool beside him. "If we went to her place, I'll bet we'd find copies of our family photo with her head pasted on my body."

"You are certifiable. Truly." He watched as I pulled the tray over and spooned up the first bite of pot pie. I blew on it to cool it. "Where's yours?" he asked before I popped it into his mouth.

"I ate a sandwich on the way over." It was a lie. I wasn't hungry. At the crinkle of paper in my pocket, I imagined it would be a while before I got my appetite back.

"Really?" he said with dark dubiousness after he swallowed, but he was distracted by the next bite coming at his face. "Wait. I want to ask…."

"Don't make me do the airplane noises, Rodney," I said patiently.

He glared and accepted the bite. "This is fucking ridiculous," he mumbled, mouth full.

There had been an accident three days ago. Some bit of Ancient technology he and Dr. Z had been using to try and scan the inner workings of the ZPM had blown without warning. No buzzing, no vibrating. Just boom, and Rodney had been holding it at the time. Luckily it was a very small explosion. His hands had been singed, not destroyed. Second degree burns, deep and painful. His hands were dressed twice daily with cream and loose bandages and he couldn't do a damn thing for himself. Couldn't dress, couldn't feed himself, couldn't brush his teeth. Of course, he could work. He had Radek set up a voice response system on his laptop.

Geeks.

I shook my head. "How're the hands?"

His mouth tightened in pain. "Fucking useless. I can't do what I need to do and Radek…he tries, but his fingers don't do what I want them to do. I swear to God I'm never going to figure out this damn glitch. And there've been more in the past two days." He sighed and slouched on his stool. "It could be trouble. Big, bad, explosive trouble and I need to get it fixed now."

"No time off then?" I asked casually.

"You must be joking." He rubbed awkwardly at weary eyes with his forearm. "We'll have plenty of time off if Atlantis sinks under the waves. The mushroom cloud will be very festive though."

"They usually are." I looked at the food on his plate for a moment, cleared my throat and said, "Okay then, what do you want next? Beans or potatoes?"

"Pudding," he said and added instantly before I tried to stuff the spoon back in his face, "and you didn't eat any damn sandwich on the way over. I know you didn't. You're a pathetic liar, Colonel Sheppard." His foot hooked around my ankle. "Seriously, John, what's wrong?"

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the screen saver pop up on his laptop. It used to be a picture of us in the field. Now it was a copy of the same family photo we had hanging on our wall—the one I'd wanted so desperately. I'd never had one made before. Well, okay, not strictly true. Once I'd been digging through some boxes my dad had put out at the curb. There wasn't a lot of storage space in base housing. Curious, I'd rooted through them to see what he was throwing away. There'd been a framed picture at the very bottom of one box. Old with that cheap gold metal frame from the late sixties and early seventies. Three people had been in it…my dad in uniform. My mom…at least I assumed it was my mom. By the time I was twelve I'd long forgotten what she looked like.

Like me a little. Same dark hair, same eyes, same breezy, see-you-later smile. A picture does tell a thousand words.

The third person was me. I was a baby, probably not a month old. My first and last family photo. Until now.

My mom had left me, and my dad had never been there to leave me…not emotionally. For the longest time…until Rodney actually…I'd thought that's the way all relationships were, fleeting and fake. You got in, got what you wanted out of them, and then left. Way of the world.

I looked up into blue eyes. Concerned, exasperated, loving blue eyes. Goddamn, I'd been so wrong.

"Nothing." I smiled and dipped into the butterscotch pudding. "Kind of worried about Ronon maybe. Not sure he can afford to keep working for us with five Athosian families to feed. He's going to need a higher paying job."

He groaned. "I never thought I'd meet someone with less ability to keep it in the pants than you. It's like finding out the moon is made of green cheese. It's simply not possible." He accepted the pudding. "Mmm. Good. Okay, I'll let it go this time, but you're eating double helpings of supper tonight, got it?"

"Sir. Yes, sir," I responded solemnly, then I smiled again and kissed him to taste butterscotch and Rodney. Good tastes. The very best.

Later that night I helped bag his hands for a shower, finger-combed his wet hair when we were done, gave him his pain pills, and applied the new cream and the bandages for the second dressing change. I pulled boxers up for him, put him to bed, and arranged a book in his lap before settling in beside him. At each soft nudge from an elbow, I stopped reading my own book and reached over to turn the page for him. And when he dozed off, I moved the book aside and pulled the covers up to his chest. After that, I stared at our photo on the wall for a long, long time. Then I slid quietly out of bed and went to the computer to send Weir an email telling her I wasn't going to need to make arrangements to return to Earth for the funeral. That bastard had never been my family no matter what some birth certificate said. My family was here and that family needed me.

And I wasn't going anywhere.

x x x x x

I had thought being waited on hand and foot would be fun. Notice my use of the word had…as in past tense, as in no longer applies to me or my current situation, as in I had been wrong. Suffocatingly, claustrophobically, wrong.

"Where are you going?"

At John's question, I stopped in my path and took a deep breath. "Bathroom," I grit patiently… or at least as patiently as I was capable of after three days of hovering.

The report he had been reading dropped unheeded beside him as he stood. "Need some help?"

Normally the smirk and waggle of eyebrows that accompanied the offer would have been met with an equally welcoming agreement on my part, but with my hands in bandages from that damn explosion, today was anything but normal. "I'll manage. I'll… sit," I sighed in shame.

"Sure?"

"My hands are injured, John. I haven't regressed back to the age of two. I am more than capable of going potty by myself."

At my testy response, he sat back on the sofa with a sulking frown. "I'm just trying to help."

I knew that was the case and somehow that just made me more irritated. I vaguely recalled seeing John when I came to briefly during the trip to the infirmary. Radek must have called him for him to be there by then, seeing as we were a good ten-minute walk from the gym. Although I seriously doubted he had walked. And seeing as my hands were pretty well mangled, he couldn't clasp on to reassure me he was there like he normally did. Not that I needed him to. I knew he was there, just like I knew he always would be there. I didn't need his touch to confirm that. But when I woke a bit later, he and it were there; one hand squeezing my shoulder, the other stroking a thumb soothingly along my temple. The mental image of the smile tight with relief and worry that I conjured at the trace of fingers morphed into the real thing when my eyes flickered open and it had rarely left his face since. It was as if he was relishing the fact that I needed him for every little thing. That I was totally dependent on him. That he finally had me right where he wanted me.

And it was wearing on my nerves like someone who has forgotten their watch poking you every five minutes and asking the time, or a waiter showing up after each bite you take to ask if everything is okay, or the person you love more than life itself jumping every time you stand up to go take a piss.

With another sigh I told him, "I know, and I appreciate it, I really do. But if you don't stop hovering I'll have to smother you in your sleep and that would really suck because otherwise I'm quite fond of you."

Reclaiming the report he scoffed, "As if you could smother me with your hands like that."

"Maybe not," I conceded, "but I can at least take a leak by myself." To prove my point, I stalked purposefully into the bathroom only to hang my head in defeat when faced with one of the most simplistic technological advancements of our time. "John? Can you help me with my zipper?" I could explain the most intricate workings of the stargate, calculate the diameter of a naquedah-enhanced explosion to within a few microns, but I was stymied when it came to a tiny metal tab.

Hands came around my waist to unfasten button and zipper and lips brushed my jaw. "Just holler when you're ready to be tucked in."

This seriously took degrading to a new level. And what I needed to ask him next, had been working to avoid asking him for days now, took nerve-wracking to a new height. "Marco?" I called when I finished up.

With a grin he got me…situated, then went to wash his hands. "You're enjoying this aren't you?" I asked as I leaned against the shower stall and watched him, trying to interpret the play of emotions I saw on his face. Relief? Regret? Anger? Resolve? All of them and yet none of them. They would scurry along his smile, lurk in the shadows of his eyes and then be gone, like the snippets of static and music and talk that skittered across the airwaves when scanning through late night radio stations back on Earth. I couldn't quite place it because, honestly, I'd never seen it before. But conflict… that was the word that was probably closest to what I was seeing.

Something had been bothering him. Something he wasn't saying and I'd been so wrapped up in saving the entire expedition from certain death that I honestly hadn't had time to pry like I usually would. It was another reason I had let him play doting nursemaid for so long, it seemed to take the edge off whatever it was that he was working so hard to hide. Oh, I'd find out. I had no doubt about that, but right now other things took priority.

At my question he rolled eyes and dried hands. "Yes, Rodney, being your personal man servant has always been my secret aspiration. It's one of the reasons I married you."

Ignoring the sarcasm I regarded my feet. "I need you to do something else for me."

"What?" The puppy dog glee was apparent behind hazel eyes.

"I need you to go check out a section of the city where the energy fluctuations are occurring before the ZedPM tweaks." I'd finally noticed a pattern to the ZedPM malfunctioning. It was usually preceded by a minute energy surge a few minutes before. Problem was, the surge was never in the same exact location but it was limited to the same general area. "It's the old laboratory section."

And that's why I had been avoiding asking him to go. I had watched five members of my staff die in that section when they succumbed to a nanovirus. I had put John in stasis when he touched a poison-coated glass that he had found down there. Hell, that's even where we had found a ten-thousand-year-old version of Elizabeth. Believe me; I had no desire to find out what other surprises awaited us in those hallways. And the worst thing? The absolute worst? I couldn't go, not with my hands, and that meant I had to rely on Radek to watch over John in the most dangerous section of the city. And as good as Radek was, he wasn't me. Yeah, John had me right where he had always wanted me, all right…safely out of action and on limited duty. And if I was a little grumpy over the fact that he could take care of me but I couldn't return the favor, then who could blame me?

The way he bent to retie my bootlace only reminded me of that point all the more. "Sure, I'll round up Teyla and Ronon and we'll head out," he told me casually, like I had asked him to stop by the lab and pick up my laptop on the way home.

I lightly rested my bandaged hands on his ducked head where he squatted in front of me. "I'm sending Radek with you, as well as the video link so I can monitor it back in control."

Standing with a snort he smirked. "Paranoid much?"

"With you, always. Especially when I'm sending you off to the booby trap capital of the universe on your own."

"Schlepping around with Teyla, Ronon and Dr. Z hardly qualifies as alone."

"It does in my book, and that makes me a little antsy."

Eyebrows rose in humor. "Is that McKay-speak for pissy as hell?"

"It's McKay-speak for worried as hell. I'm serious, John, that section of the city is nothing but trouble…plague-ridden, poison-drenched, imminent-death-lurking-around-every-corner trouble and if there was any other way…"

He cut me off with a thumb running along my jaw and that damnable flicker in his eyes that was as much a mystery as the ZedPM. He seemed on the verge of saying something then the look was gone and he quirked his lips. "You're getting scruffy. When we finish up the recon I'll give you a shave."

Grinning myself at the memories of what had happened the last time he had done that…steamy shower, steamy mirror, and even steamier sex… I leaned in and kissed him before sighing. "No risks. No checking things out without the green light from me first. And for God's sake, no touching anything."

"Okay, if you say so, but what's the point of lathering you up with shaving cream if you're going to put limitations like that on me."

Once again cursing my inability to pinch away the sultry smirk on his face, I kicked him lightly in the ankle instead. "In and out, just a quick look, and that's all…and I'm talking about the lab section, not off duty afterwards. Then you can take your time."

"Piece of cake," he assured me with a quick kiss of his own.

"And I expect that, as well, when you feed me dinner tonight, preferably chocolate. But if they don't have that then blue jello will have to suffice."

The smile grew and this time there was no mystery emotions stalking in the corners. It was pure happiness and love and devotion and everything else John embodied for me. And seeing it, I couldn't help but think maybe I had been wrong about hating the doting. Yeah, John had me right where he wanted me, all right… wrapped around his pinky finger. Ends up, that's right where I wanted to be, as well.

Another kiss and I shooed him away. "Go, before I change my mind and I just let the city disintegrate around our entwined bodies."

"Not a bad way to go, if you ask me," he offered as he headed toward the door.

Following close behind him I agreed wistfully, "Yeah, I can definitely think of worse."

Problem was, I gave myself too much credit. Ends up there are worse ways than even I could imagine.

I followed Rodney down the hall, as he bitched and grumbled under his breath. He held his hands up as if they were sterile and he was headed into surgery to perform a heart transplant. His hair was sticking straight on end from slouching down on the couch, there was toilet paper on his shoe, and his fly was open. I'd helped situate him after he'd taken a piss, but I'd stopped a little short of the whole shebang.

All of it his fault, completely.

Rodney had reached critical mass today. Whether it's in explosive power or in pure pissiness, the fall out is the same. And Rodney had flat out lost it there for a second, but with good reason. I wouldn't have been any happier to let him go on a potentially dangerous mission without me. I'd have been grumpy as hell too, snapping and snarling, because keeping Rodney safe was pretty much the be all and end all of my existence…well, that and mind-blowing sex, of course. Knowing Rodney's safety was out of my control would not leave me in a good mood, and the vice versa held true. He had my sympathy, empathy, and love…but pissiness, however, is its own reward.

"And if Radek had even the faintest, most remote clue what…." He caught a glimpse of himself in a smoky mirrored piece of Ancient art that hung on the wall and stopped walking.

I stopped with him and rested an elbow on his shoulder. "Been doing this shit since your were two, Dr. McKay. I got it."

He snorted, sighed and rolled blue eyes back in my direction. "I was an ass?"

"You were an ass," I confirmed with a kiss to his jaw. "But you had your reasons."

"It's not fair you can take care of me, but I can't take care of you," he said quietly. Trying to pat down his hair with careful bandaged hands, he sighed and repeated, "Not fair."

Moving his hands, I finger combed and smoothed his hair, and then reached around to zip him up. I then kept my arms wrapped around his waist and my chin resting on his shoulder. "I won't touch anything. I won't even look at anything. It'll defeat the purpose of the mission, but what the hell."

He gave me a rueful shadow of his crooked grin in the mirror. "Promise?"

I returned the grin. "No problem. I'll use Ronon like a bomb-defusing robot. Anything that needs touching, I'll let him touch."

"Relating to the mission," he amended instantly. "All other touching is mine. Got it?"

My grin widened and I kissed his neck. "I'm looking forward to it. Now let's get the toilet paper off your shoe and get this over with."

An hour later Ronon, Teyla, Radek and I were in a deserted part of the city, which hadn't yielded up anything good in the past, and I wasn't looking for a big change on that policy in the here and now. "Do you see anything?" came the tense question in my ear.

Radek answered before I had the chance. "No, Rodney. As last ten times you ask in past five minutes, we do not see anything, and if anything to hear, is drowned out by bleating of Dr. Crispy Critter. Parboiled physicist with unending flap of jaw. Combustible Canadian who…."

I placed my hand over Dr. Z's mouth before Rodney exacerbated his burns with a stroke. "Nothing yet, Rodney," I said calmly, "but we have a lot of territory left to cover, so hang in there." We walked on, scanning the dark and empty laboratory we were currently moving through. "And what's wrong with the video feed? I thought you were going to see what we saw."

"It's working, but there's quite a bit of static. Interference from whatever is interacting with the ZedPM I'm guessing." I could imagine the sound of a smack of hand against metal to punctuate the exasperation in his voice. "Or it could be Radek hooked up the feed incorrectly. Why would today be different from any other day, right?"

Dr. Z was turning a peculiar shade of purple and I thought it best to change the subject. "You have any kind of idea what sort of equipment we're looking for here? Big? Little? Glowy? Not-so-glowy? What?"

"It should be obviously active, at least when it precedes the glitch in the ZedPM, which I'm estimating to be any time now."

I sighed, "Then I think we're out of luck for the moment, because I don't see anything around here that looks capable of any kind of activity." And it was true…at least until the entire far wall lit up. Purples, blues, greens…it was so bright I shielded my eyes from it. "Holy hell. I hope you can see that."

Dr. Z had an Ancient energy scanner out and was studying it, mouth slowly rounding into an O. "Kurva drat."

I had no idea what that meant, but it didn't sound along the lines of 'cool' or 'wow.' It sounded more like the Czech version of 'fuck me running'. "Rodney?" I verbally nudged.

"Yes, I see it," he said tensely. "You need to get back. All of you. Out of the room at least."

I jerked a thumb and Ronon and Teyla backed off, Teyla pulling a stumbling Radek with her. As they passed me, I studied the shimmering lights. "You getting a glitch in the ZPM?"

"Yes, a nice fat big one. Now move your ass!"

I grinned and began to back up. "They're only disco lights, Rodney. Granted, it's a scary mental picture. You, bell bottoms, black polyester shirt, big medallion in that wispy chest hair of yours…." I kept moving as I talked…pretty lights or not, if Rodney said move—you moved. If you wanted to stay in one piece, that is.

"Yes, Disco Dick was your theme song, I'm sure. Go faster!"

I was about to correct him about it being Disco Duck, even though I knew he was aware of exactly what the title of the song was, when the lights exploded. They flared like a solar corona and they were around me and in me and through me and….

"Colonel, can you hear me?" "Sheppard, snap out of it." Voices and hands on my shoulders, but not the voice I wanted to hear, not….

"John? Can you hear me? Jesus, John, wake up, all right? Wake the hell up."

And there it was. I could feel my lips curve a little at the familiar bossy buzz of it. I wondered vaguely how he'd gotten here from the lab so quickly and I got my answer almost instantly. "Carson, he's been out almost fifteen minutes, do something."

"And it took us thirteen minutes to get here, lad. Give me a moment or two to work."

I wondered vaguely what had happened. I didn't feel hurt. I remembered the lights, so bright, and then nothing. And now I felt…I felt light. Hazy. Like all this was a dream, not real. Even when I felt warmth running over my mouth and tasted the salt of blood.

"God, he's bleeding." Warm, unsteady fingers were on my face, wiping and cupping. "John? I really, really need you to wake up. Please?"

"Need to be unzipped?" I mumbled with a thick tongue and pried open my eyes.

Rodney's face coalesced. It was flushed…from running. His hair was sticking on end again and I wondered what I was doing wrong there. My hair always behaved. I must've said that aloud because Rodney's mouth quirked and he gurgled a laugh, "You're insane, you know that? Crazy as a bed bug. I look just like you now." His hand came up with a wad of medical gauze against his own bandages and wiped at my nose and mouth. It came away bloody. He grimaced at it. "I told you to move your ass."

"I did." It should've come out defensively, but I still felt woozy…disconnected. Light enough to just float the hell off the floor. I moved my hand…yep, floor was still there. "Is this a dream? It feels like a dream."

"You lying on the floor with a rabid nose bleed—I hope you have better dreams than that." His head turned to look out of my line of vision. "Radek, you've had more than enough time to interpret the readings. You've had enough time, in fact, if you were trying to sort them out via interpretive dance. What's going on?"

"Yes, the broiled ass of egomaniac physicist shaking in dance of the atom. That is what is missing from equation."

Rodney scowled, but his hand was still preoccupied with cleaning my face. I watched fascinated as his wedding ring swung back and forth, glinting in the dim light. He'd hung it on a cord around his neck after his hands had been burned. They'd removed it immediately in the infirmary before his fingers had a chance to swell. I'd offered to wear it on my dogtags, but he'd refused. He said I'd lose my nine-mil if it wasn't holstered to my scrawny thigh, no way he was entrusting his ring to me. It was his unique way of saying he didn't want to be without it…not for a minute. I'd seen that in his eyes—it was enough; I hadn't needed to hear it in his words.

Funny how bright it was even in the gloom. I reached up and wrapped my hand around it. The silver shone through my hand.

Through it.

"Rodney?" A dream. Like I'd thought. It had to be a dream.

He looked down. "Oh no." It was said so quietly, I almost didn't hear it. The thing Rodney said when things were at their worst…not damn or fuck or shit, but that simple, earth-falling-away-beneath-you oh no. "John." His eyes were on mine. "John, don't do this. Don't."

And the silver shone on, brighter and brighter as my hand faded bit by bit.

"John."

I looked at him, the pale skin even paler. Mr. Sunscreen 4000. That fine, light hair. Stubborn chin. The crooked grin I saw more than anyone else. It said a thousand things, a thousand times a day. Happiness, smugness, glee, horniness. I smiled at that, a small curve of my lips. Horniest physicist alive….

"John, I can't do this alone. I can't," he said thickly.

"You can do anything," I said softly, surely. And he could. He could do anything at all. "But you'll get me back. I know you will."

The ring, it glowed…alone. Untouched. But I didn't look at it. I looked at Rodney. I looked into his eyes. It was the only thing I saw. The only thing I wanted to. "I'll be seeing you."

I had no doubt at all that that was true.

Not one.

x x x x x

Reality 1 Modified

A dream, he'd said. Is this a dream? Like it was a hazy vision conjured of clouds and fog and gossamer and a thousand other soft, wispy things. But the only thing soft and wispy in the picture was him. Fading before my eyes…literally fading away.

"I'll be seeing you." His voice as translucent as his body, his eyes looking right through me the same way I was looking though him…through him.

"John." If I said it out loud, it would have been a miracle, seeing as my throat had shut off and I couldn't breathe.

But he heard it; the faint smile on his face told me that. Reassuring and comforting until even it disappeared like the one on the Cheshire Cat. And what the fuck rabbit hole had I fallen down this morning?

"Bloody hell."

The words beside me where muffled, everything was muffled, packed in that same gauzy film that was taking John away. He was gone, just…gone. My wedding ring dropped back against my chest as his hand vanished and the impact jarred me into sucking in a breath. Funny how something as big as a human being could drift away like a puff of smoke and something as small as a band of silver could hit me with the force of a city bus.

"Rodney."

He was gone. Gone. Gone. How could he just be gone? People don't disappear; they don't just literally vanish before your eyes.

"Rodney!" I flinched from my shocked stupor at Radek's voice, dragging my eyes away from where John had been a brief few seconds before and saw where Radek was pointing.

Teyla and Ronon stood as little more than fuzzy outlines along the wall. "Dr. McKay? Rodney, what is happening?" Teyla asked in worry as she looked at me through her own diminishing hand.

Eyes widening in dawning understanding, I looked down at my ring and saw it was little more than a shadow against my chest. He was gone and now everything he had touched, everything he had caused to be was leaving, as well. With a final glance up at where the wall had been shimmering a few minutes before I realized I had been wrong. I hadn't fallen down a rabbit hole, but John may have taken a trip through the looking glass.

"McKay!"

At Ronon's demand I stammered. "I…I'll fix it. I promise. I'll fix it for all of you." I'd fix it for John. John. Christ, he had just vanished. He'd just… Fighting the desire to hyperventilate where I stood, I keyed my radio and called desperately. "Elizabeth, this is McKay, I need an immediate head count of all Atlantis personnel."

"Rodney? What's the matter?"

At her wary question, I ordered, "There's no time to explain, just do it!" I couldn't do this without John. I couldn't do without him. He was everything. He was…what was his name again? Joe? Jeff? It was right there…John! Christ. I had to remember. I had to remember so I could get him back. I had to…

"Standby," Elizabeth directed.

So I did. I stood with Radek and Carson alone in the hallway, wondering absently what was taking so long for a simple head count, scratching irritably at the three-day growth of beard on my face with bandaged hands, and trying to remember who the hell this John was that wanted me to do something for him. Well, he could just get in line with all the other desperate souls on Atlantis that turned to me for every little thing. I swear to God, I needed to get a take-a-number machine.

"Rodney, you need to stop by the infirmary and have those bandages changed." Carson shook his head in resigned disappointment. "You're supposed to replace them twice a day and I know for a fact you haven't done so since yesterday morning."

With a quick glance down at the wrappings that looked as grungy as I knew I did after three days without a shower, I shoved them behind my back and sighed. "Tell you what, Carson, if you don't mind explaining to everyone here on Atlantis why they're going to die a horrific death because I had to take time out of figuring out what the hell is wrong with the ZedPM just so you can make sure my bandages are nice and white and folded with perfect hospital corners, then I'll drop by."

"Perhaps can also give you sponge bath," Radek mumbled just loud enough for me to hear. "Forget ZPM, we shall all die from infestation of flies that have begun following your stench."

"I do not have flies," I insisted.

He snorted and continued to study the readings on his electronic pad. "They are like little children outside bakery windows with tiny buggy noses pressed against you." He smashed his own nose down in demonstration before pushing his glasses back up and shaking his head in disgust.

"Elizabeth, do you have that head count yet? There may be one less soon," I informed her with a meaningful glared at the Czech.

"All personnel accounted for, Rodney. Seventy-three, just as we expected."

At her count I frowned in thought. "That number seems low, doesn't it? I mean there should be a couple of hundred at least."

She laughed lightly over the radio. "Rodney, you really don't pay attention to what's going on around you, do you? We haven't had that many people here on Atlantis since we first walked through the gate. Ever since the Daedalus evacuation and the SGC's restriction to a skeleton crew for the city, our numbers have been strictly limited."

"I pay attention. It just seems like there should be…more." Before I could question the count further, the lab behind us flared with colors once again. "Move! Move!"

The three of us scrambled down the hall a few dozen meters and I looked back seeing the shimmering facade for the first time without the aid of video equipment. It was like looking through a soap bubble, an iridescent swirl of colors glided across the surface and behind that I could see the lab…and a squark swimming by.

What the fuck?

"It's underwater," Radek observed dumbstruck beside me. When I nodded in agreement, he continued. "But how? This is interior room and the walls are structurally sound and we're…"

"Above the water surface," I finished. "Because that's not the same lab."

"What in blazin's do you mean it's not the same lab? We were standing in it just a moment ago and it looks exactly the same…aside from the aquatic life swimming about."

At Carson's remark I shook my head. "It's the same lab, but a different Atlantis."

Radek cursed softly beside me. "A quantum rift."

"Precisely," I agreed and went on to explain when I saw Carson's confusion. "Like the quantum mirrors that have been studied back at the SGC."

"But that's not a mirror."

"No, Carson, it's not. It's more like a… quantum bubble and that," I pointed triumphantly at the light show in the hallway, "is what's been interfering with the ZedPM."

Carson rolled his eyes at my gloat. "Brilliant, Rodney. Now how do you propose to stop it?"

Crossing arms, I rocked back on my heels. "I haven't gotten that far yet." At the Scots disappointed shake of his head, I lifted my chin defensively. "Oh, give me a freakin' break, I just found out what the problem is for Pete's sake."

Still studying his equipment, Radek's eyes widened. "Uh, Rodney, we should maybe move further away, yes?"

Peeking over his shoulder, I saw the energy peak that was causing his concern. "Oh, shit. Go, go, go!" We ran further down the hall and this time the bubble didn't seem to plan to stop expanding anytime soon. "Elizabeth, we need to evacuate the city to the Alpha site immediately," I called as I jogged down the corridor.

"Are you sure?" she demanded a little unbelievingly.

Radek tapped quickly on his pad even as we continued away from the labs at a brisk pace. "It has stopped, but my calculations show it grew nearly twenty percent that time."

"Yeah, pretty damn sure, unless you want to live in an Atlantis that never rose."

"Rodney, you need to explain what's going on here."

"Elizabeth, I swear to you, as soon as we're on the other side of the gate, I will do just that."

And that's exactly what I was doing a few hours later. The tent was powered by a standard Earth generator and the lights would flicker annoyingly every time the motor would stutter. Pulling my jacket a little tighter around me to ward off the cold from the winter night, I watched Elizabeth as she watched the image on the laptop that had been captured by the video equipment. "And this…bubble is taking over Atlantis?"

"To begin with. Eventually it'll expand and take over this whole dimension, basically overwrite this reality with the one where it originated."

"One where Atlantis didn't rise?"

"Exactly."

"Do you have any ideas how this bubble was formed?"

Radek spoke up then. "Ah, well, according to the database, it appears that the original energy fluctuations we were reading before the ZPM started malfunctioning were taking place in laboratory of an Ancient by the name of Janus."

"Janus? The one who built the Gateship capable of time travel?"

"Yes, the very one," Radek confirmed. "We believe seawater that eventually flooded Atlantis caused a malfunction of time travel device."

Elizabeth furrowed her brow. "But I don't understand; that Gateship was destroyed in the crash and he was ordered to destroy all of his research into time travel."

"May I?" Radek reached across and zoomed in on the screen, showing a console sitting in the lab. "We believe this is another device Janus was working on capable of time travel."

"So what does that mean?"

"It means his research was never called into question so he was never ordered to destroy his work, which suggests you never went back in time to cause the uproar among the Ancients that the alternate Weir told us about," I summarized. "We went through the gate, the city flooded, and for some reason you died along with the rest of us instead of traveling back and manning the ZedPM bank. So there was no second chance for the team."

"Something was different in that timeline, then, that kept me from traveling back in time."

"Not something, someone," I corrected with a raised finger shrouded in grey gauze.

At her inquiring expression, Radek took over again. "It appears that due to its distance from Atlantis, the duplicate records here at Alpha site are slightly different than those in the city. They are evidently not being impacted by the rift just yet. Rodney was right; there should have been more people on Atlantis." I beamed smugly at the admission. "We have been studying personnel records and there is one person that came through on the original mission team that neither of us recognizes… well, there were several Rodney did not recognize, but only one we both did not recognize…Lt. Colonel John Sheppard."

Taking a print out that Radek offered with a brief dossier of all mission personnel, Elizabeth scanned it. "Sheppard? That name doesn't sound familiar." And honestly it didn't to me either, not consciously anyway, but my heart skipped a beat every time I heard it. "It says here he had the ATA gene naturally."

"Yes, very strong. And he was also pilot. It would not be too much of leap to think that maybe he flew the Gateship you were in, yes?"

"It's possible, I suppose." She shook her head in amazement. "Still, why would he be the only person to disappear from our reality?"

"He wasn't. There were others." I adjusted the video once again. "Like Radek said, things are a little different here than on Atlantis, including the video feed from the mission to the laboratory section. Look."

On the screen we could see two other people walking the hall with Radek…a large man with long dreds, scruffy beard and leather clothes and a smaller woman with long brown hair wearing a combination of military issue and native dress.

"That's Teyla Emmagan from the Athosians," Elizabeth recognized immediately. "We trade with them but she's never even been to Atlantis. And the man?"

"No clue. But watch, right here." I pointed excitedly toward the screen as the team passed by a dark glass observation window in the wall and froze it as a reflection appeared. "There," I tapped the faint outline of a man in the glass. "That is John Sheppard."

"Are you sure?" she asked, squinting at the image that made photos of Big Foot look like publicity headshots.

"Positive."

"How do you know?"

I laughed a little giddily. Evidently the lack of sleep was getting to me. "I have no idea."

A curious eyebrow rose at my admission. "That's not really like you, Rodney."

"Elizabeth, nothing about this whole experience is like any of us."

"You have a point there. So what happened to him? I mean the Quantum Mirrors allow people to move between dimensions. Why did he simply disappear from this one?"

"We are not sure," Radek confessed, "but the mirrors are much more sophisticated than what has formed here. This was accident, a tear, not controlled like the mirrors."

She turned back to her study of the paperwork. "It's amazing to think that one man could have such an impact on this mission. There's no telling how things would have been different if he was still here."

"I doubt it would have been significantly different…aside from the whole never getting a second shot at saving Atlantis thing."

Flipping the page a small smirk broke out on Elizabeth's face. "I wouldn't be so sure about that, Rodney. I take it you didn't read the file on Colonel Sheppard too closely, did you?"

"Close enough," I countered, "why?"

"It ends up that Colonel Sheppard married here on Atlantis."

"So? It wouldn't be the first romance that's sprung up among expedition members."

"He married you."

"What?" If it had been possible, I would have yanked the file from her hands, as it was, I could only stare in outrage at the papers over her shoulder. "That has to be a typo. A clerical error. A fucking practical joke."

"Do prdele!" Radek hissed behind me. "I owe Kavanagh a case of beer."

Glowering back at the Czech, I insisted, "Elizabeth, there is no way I was married to this guy. I mean first off, he's a guy. Second, he's military. Third, he's a guy!"

"Rodney?"

Ignoring Radek, I continued on, not caring how belligerent it came across. "You need to contact Earth and get this straightened out. And while you're at it, find out what the hell he's doing now and why he didn't come on the expedition in the first place."

"Rodney!" He grabbed my arm and swung me back toward the laptop where the screensaver had just activated. And there on the screen was me with my arm wrapped around what could only be Lt. Colonel John Sheppard.

My mouth opened, closed, opened again as I pointed toward the screen. "That…" I tilted my head as if looking at it from a different angle would change things. It didn't. With bewildered eyes I looked into the amused face of Elizabeth. "That can't be…" But it was. It really fucking was.

"Yes, must be mistake," Radek shook his head in disbelief. "No way you could bag someone so hot."

"Exactly! See, Elizabeth, even Radek thinks…" Frowning as it sunk in what he had said, I turned on him. "Hey, I could so bag someone that hot."

Elizabeth tapped my shoulder with the folder she carried and grinned. "I think I'll go see if Peter has the control crystal installed in the gate so I can make that call to Earth now." She started toward the tent flap. "In the meantime, I need you two to figure out how we stop the bubble."

Unable to take my eyes from the screen, I absently waved a bandaged hand over my shoulder, barely noticing how the bindings fluttered off my thumb. "Oh, I've already done that." How the hell did he manage to get his hair to do that?

"What?" Both Elizabeth and Radek demanded in surprise.

"Do you think he uses hair gel? Because there is no way it can do that on its own."

"Rodney, how are you going to fix this?"

Blinking at Elizabeth I shook my head to clear it. "Oh, we're going to send someone back in time to make sure Sheppard comes on the expedition."

"How?"

My eyes drifted back to the photo of their own accord. "With the little time travel device…thing. What color do you think his eyes are? Are they hazel? Does it say in the paperwork?"

"Rodney, focus!" Elizabeth clicked the laptop closed. "What little time travel device?"

"Oh, Rodney, you cannot be meaning the one found in Ancient Stronghold."

Looking with frustration at the shut computer, I crossed my arms and responded to Radek. "Yes, that's the one."

"The facility where Lt. Ford and his men were killed by the defense system?" Elizabeth asked in concern. I nodded my head and she looked with worry to Radek. I had only heard about the facility and read the mission report seeing as I so rarely went off world given my responsibilities on Atlantis. And granted, four men had been killed and another wounded before Kavanagh managed to shut down the system. Still, that shouldn't keep us from using what we found there. "I thought you felt that device was too dangerous to use."

"It is," Radek insisted.

"It's too dangerous to use by itself. It would be like jumping in a wormhole without the gate system to buffer you from the extremes of outer space. You would probably bleed to death from the exposure. But I think it was a prototype for the Gateship time travel system. If the user is protected, say by the Gateship or the gate system, then theoretically she would be fine."

"Theoretically?"

"Elizabeth, everything is theoretical at this point. We don't have time to prove theories before we implement them."

"Wait one minute," Radek interjected, "you said 'she'."

Elizabeth's eyes widened. "You already have someone picked out for this mission."

I glanced heavenward in frustration. "Look, whoever goes back has to be able to connect the charged ZedPM from our reality into the gate in the second reality. She also has to have the gene and it has to be natural, because there is no telling what will happen to the gene therapy genes when someone crosses over. Since they never existed in that reality, they might just disappear. Now, there is only one person that I know of that meets both of those criteria."

"Miko," Radek identified with a shake of his head.

"She wouldn't be my first choice either," I admitted, "but seeing as she's our only choice we really don't have a choice…plus, she's SCUBA certified and considering how the alternate Atlantis is under water, that's pretty important."

"So, she goes through into the alternate reality, hooks up the ZPM, activates the gate back to Earth…" Elizabeth indicated with a pause that I was to continue the plan.

"She takes the time travel capable Gateship and goes back to before the team is to go to Atlantis and tells them that John Sheppard must go on the mission with us. Sheppard goes, he does whatever he's supposed to do, Atlantis eventually rises, the bubble never forms, we go back to normal."

"You said it yourself that this isn't like a Quantum Mirror. What keeps her from being overwritten by the rift just like Colonel Sheppard?"

I frowned in thought…I honestly hadn't gotten that far. Radek snapped his fingers as an idea hit him. "Out of phase. If she is out of phase, then it will not assimilate her until the times converge."

"That's right! All she has to do is jump back in time long enough to get through the gate and travel further back."

"Whoa, whoa, slow down," Elizabeth ordered. "Explain this."

Radek took over again. "If she travels back in time a few minutes as she crosses the boundary then she will not be properly aligned with the second reality. It is not until the two times converge that the overwrite will take place and by then she will have traveled back further and the risk will be less."

"She activates the time travel device as she steps through the gate so she's protected or if the bubble hasn't expanded all the way to the gate, the trip back a few minutes will be so short the physical dangers will be minute…theoretically." Done with my explanation, I tried to fumble the laptop open once again.

A female hand rested firmly on top of the computer. "And how does Miko get back?"

"See, that's the beauty of the plan. If she's successful, then none of this will ever have happened. The bubble will never form, so she will never travel back in time so she will never have to come back." Using gauze-shrouded fingers I accentuated the movement from one reality to the next and beamed at her.

"Rodney, a new Miko will form, just like a new Dr. Weir formed when she traveled back and changed history." Radek countered patiently. "The Miko that goes through the gate will be trapped on Earth."

"Yes, I know." Seriously, like I didn't know that. "But we'll never know that when the timeline resolves."

"So therefore it doesn't matter?" Elizabeth's crossed arms told me it did matter to her.

"She'll be alive back on Earth in the alternate reality. We'll be alive here. To me that's a hell of a lot better than us all being dead in this dimension."

Elizabeth considered for a moment then sighed in resignation. "This is completely voluntary on her part. If she says no, then we come up with another alternative." When I rolled my eyes she reiterated. "Completely voluntary."

"Yes, fine, voluntary. I'll even have her sign a waiver, how about that?"

"That won't be necessary, I'll just confirm with her myself. I'm off to contact Earth and let them know about our plan of attack."

A day later, Miko was through the gate and I hoped like hell she could remember why because I couldn't any more. The bubble was expanding, encroaching on the Alpha site and the details of exactly what she was going to do had been fading away. I was mentally sorting through my thing so I could oversee their packing for the evacuation when Elizabeth entered my makeshift lab.

"We just had word from the Daedalus; they should be here within fourteen hours."

Kicking the carrying case for my laptop over toward the desk, I shook my head. "Not sure it's going to help any. By Radek's calculations, the bubble has increased its rate of expansion. It'll overtake the entire Pegasus galaxy before we even leave it."

"Then I guess we hope that Miko accomplishes her mission." I could only nod my head in agreement. "I sent the final databurst through to the SGC and this came back on the incoming feed. It's evidently a response to a request you made."

I frowned in confusion. "I don't remember making a request."

"Seems we don't remember a lot of things lately." She smiled sadly then read, "In regards to Dr. McKay's request for data on a Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, we could find no information on an Air Force Lt. Colonel by that name. However, given the information you provided, we believe you were inquiring after a Major John Sheppard that was killed in action when the Pave Hawk he was piloting was shot down during a rescue mission in Iraq on January 17, 2006."

Elizabeth folded the paper solemnly and sat it on the table in front of me. I stood looking at in silence for several seconds, unable to explain why I hated it so much. Why I wanted to tear it into a million tiny pieces and pretend it had never ever existed. Why I just wanted it to fade away into oblivion.

Finally, I raised my eyes and asked quietly, "Who's John Sheppard?"

x x x x x

When I was a small girl, my father had a print of a dragon from the famous Japanese artist Kuniyoshi hanging on the wall in his office. A simple piece…my father was successful but even he could not afford an elaborate multi-block print from a master printmaker like Kuniyoshi… it was black and white with only the eyes of the creature in a piercing emerald green. I loved to stare at the image when my sister and I sat on the floor doing schoolwork while our father worked diligently at his desk. I would imagine it was Ryo-Wo, the Dragon King, stalking the seas and keeping a wary eye on us humans on the surface. Making sure that even though I excelled at my studies, he could always counter my science with his magic.

There is a legend in Japanese mythology of a simple fisherman, Urashima, who caught a sea turtle in his nets. Seeing as the turtle is the messenger of the Dragon King, Urashima released it. Out of gratitude, the turtle invited the fisherman to his master's court. Little did he know that this creature was actually Otohime, the daughter of the Dragon King in disguise. And once they were in Ryugu, the mystical palace of Ryo-Wo, she appeared to him in the shape of a beautiful woman, and married him. Urashima lived for three days with his beautiful young wife but then he wished to see his parents who were aging. Otohime gave him a keepsake of their love, a beautiful magic box with instructions never to open it, and sent him back to the surface. But when he returned to his land, he discovered that one day in Ryugu was the same as one hundred years in the human world and all his family had died many, many years before. Urashima was grief-stricken to have lost his family and yearned only to return to his new wife, but he did not know how. Out of desperation, he opened the box, hoping it would help him find his way back to Otohime. But when he opened the box, he immediately aged three hundred years and fell dead upon the ground.

This is not the happiest childhood story to recall when you are about to embark on a mission involving time travel and an underwater city, but it is also easy to understand why it came to mind. Especially when I stopped by Dr. McKay's quarters before I was to depart the Alpha site. I was about to request entry when I heard the voice of Dr. Beckett inside his tent.

"I swear I might as well be talking to the tent posts, Rodney, but you have to keep these bandages changed."

Dr. McKay had injured his hands with one of the Ancient devices he was using to study the ZPM. I only wish I had been able to assist him so that maybe I could have been activating the device when it had exploded instead of him. Unfortunately, he had sent me to my quarters, loudly voicing his disapproval of my presence in the lab. I'm sure it was that he felt I should have been resting, seeing as I had been awake for almost twenty-three hours. He worries over all of us in the labs, and we often garner his displeasure by not heeding his advice quickly enough or in the manner that he believes is best for us. He works much, much too hard, trying to ensure the safety of everyone on the expedition, and his injuries have only made his already heavy workload that much more burdensome and his concerns that much more verbal. That is one of the reasons I was honored he would ask me to take on such an important mission, so that I could ease some of the constant strain he is always under. Not wishing to disturb the two men, I stepped back from the door, wrapping my coat tighter around me to ward off the winter winds and waited until Dr. Beckett could properly care for Dr. McKay's wounds.

"Why? We'll all be gone from this reality before they heal and if Miko's successful then the injuries will never happen."

"I'd much rather concentrate on the here and now than try to wrap my brain around the concepts of time travel, quantum rifts and alternate dimensions. Now, stop moving so that I can apply the bandages properly." There was a pause before Dr. Beckett continued. "Rodney, if you keep staring at that screensaver, you're going to burn out your retinas."

"I'm not staring! It just…keeps catching me off guard is all."

Dr. Beckett gave a disbelieving and slightly distracted, "Of course, it does. There, done with the right hand, let's move to the left."

"Well, how would you feel, Carson, if someone dropped a bombshell like that on you? Oh, by the way, you're married… to a guy… that you've never met before…and he's the key to saving the lives of numerous people in multiple realities. I mean, you try assimilating that along with a photo of the two of you looking awfully damn happy together. Freakishly fucked up does not even start to cover it."

"Aye, you happy, that's probably what caused the rift in the first place. I doubt the dimensions could ever survive such an event. It must go against a dozen different laws of nature." There was a hiss of pain and Dr. Beckett soothed, "Sorry, lad, almost done. Although if you would just change these like you're supposed to, the dressing wouldn't stick."

"I do look happy, don't I?" I could hear his snort even over the wind. "A happily married McKay, now that is a true contradiction. Just one more thing that makes me think that photo's been doctored, the files have been manipulated and I was just the victim of a ruthless prank whose timing sucked."

"Huh, that's interesting."

Obviously Dr. Beckett had noticed something on Dr. McKay's hand as my supervisor demanded in alarm. "What? What is it? Christ, gangrene has set in, hasn't it? You should have changed these out days ago, Carson. What the hell kind of doctor are you anyway?"

"Rodney, calm down. Despite your lack of care for yourself, your hands are actually healing nicely. It's just I've never noticed this band of undamaged skin on your finger before. It's like you were wearing a ring that protected the flesh at the time of the accident." After a moment of silence, Dr. Beckett asked quietly, "Rodney, are you okay?"

Dr. McKay's voice was flat when he finally responds. "Just finish bandaging up my hand, Carson. I've got work to do."

"Of course," Dr. Beckett responded sympathetically. I stepped away from the door when Dr. Beckett's voice came closer. "I'll stop by in the morning to check them again." When he exited, I smiled and bowed slightly in greeting. "Miko, I was hoping to see you before you left. I just wanted to wish you good luck on your mission."

"Thank you, Doctor. It has been most enjoyable to be part of this expedition with you and the others."

His smile drooped. "I guess I hadn't meant this as a goodbye but it is, isn't it? If what Rodney has told me is true, we'll never know you did this but you'll be trapped in the other reality."

"Yes, it is rather complicated to think about how the time line will be changed and the results of those changes."

"And you will be all right staying in that alternate reality?"

"It will be odd, surrounded by people that I know but actually do not know. But I am sure I will adapt." I did not mention the concerns that I may not be able to exist for very long outside of my own dimension; that even those that traveled through the Quantum Mirrors are only able to survive in the alternate realities for a limited time due to entropic cascade failure. But Dr. Zelenka had discussed the possibilities with me and we believed I may have a chance…although the cause was rather morbid and not easy to consider.

"Aye, I'm sure you will, as well." He smiled warmly then took my hand in both of his. "God speed on your journey, lass."

I lowered my eyes demurely and bowed my thanks then entered the Dr. McKay's tent when he left. "Dr. McKay? May I come in?"

Dr. McKay quickly clicked his laptop shut with a nervous and somewhat guilty jump at my presence. "Ah, Miko, good, you're here. Saves me a trip." He motioned for a seat on one of the crates that housed the equipment and Ancient technology we had brought with us from Atlantis. "So, you're ready? Radek said he had briefed you on everything we know about the time travel device."

I patted my pocket where the smooth palm-sized device rested. "Yes, we have gone over all the data. He believes the rift has consumed all of Atlantis by now so that I can activate the device when I step through the gate back to Atlantis to allow me to cross into the other dimension and then I can use the Gateship Janus built to travel back three years. I will only have to use the hand held device without a buffer in an emergency."

"Excellent." He seemed not to know what to do with his hands so he put them behind his back. "Now, you do understand that you can't tell anyone back there anything else about the expedition to Atlantis other than John Sheppard, a pilot in the U.S. Air Force has to go with them to Atlantis. Everyone on the entire expedition is going to die this time around, except, hopefully, Dr. Weir, and telling them anything else may keep someone else from going. And the last thing we need is to get Sheppard through the gate and someone else critical decides not to come."

I nodded my understanding earnestly. And that was what we were hoping would be my saving grace. If the Miko from that reality died, which we knew would happen when she went through the gate, then I might have a chance to survive. "My name is Miko Kusanagi, I am a member of the Atlantis expedition, and I must speak with General O'Neill," I told him from rote memory. "And then I tell him that it is imperative that John Sheppard go to Atlantis with the expedition and nothing else." I sat straighter, emphasizing my resilience so that he knew he could count on me.

"Great. So, do you have any questions for me before you go?"

"Yes, is my clothing appropriate?" I would be wearing a full wetsuit when I went though the gate but I wanted to make sure the clothes I had on under them were correct.

"What?" He asked in genuine bewilderment. "Why are you so worried about your clothes?"

"Dr. Zelenka was adamant that I not wear a red shirt. I just want to make sure that blue is acceptable."

At my admission, Dr. McKay frowned and growled, "Radek, you smart ass son of a bitch," under his breath, before shaking his head and telling me, "The shirt is fine, Miko. You're going to do fine. Just do whatever it takes to get Sheppard through the gate and we will be eternally grateful…even though we won't remember it but if we could, we would be…or something like that."

I beamed proudly, trying to hold back my threatening tears of joy that he would praise me so. "Dr. McKay, I just want you to know that the honor my country bestowed upon me by asking me to be part of this expedition was nothing in comparison to the honor I have had working under the supervision of someone as esteemed as you."

He appeared somewhat flustered by my words. "Well, thank you, Miko. And as for working with you, all I can say is…ditto." We stayed that way for a moment, me basking in his praise and him standing and surveying the contents of his tent. Finally, he spoke. "So, you should probably gear up and get going."

"Oh, yes, of course. Forgive me for not realizing I was interfering with your work." I stood and handed him the laptop I carried. "For you to reassign as you see fit. I must apologize. I have stored personal files on the computer and did not have time to clear it out."

Raising his hands to show he couldn't take the computer, he indicated his table and I sat it down there. His face softened then, and his lips curved into a melancholy smile. "That's fine, Miko. We'll…we'll take care of it."

I started to leave, then mustering my courage I offered, "As you may know, I am an amateur photographer. Over the years we have been on Atlantis, I have taken numerous photographs of the expedition members, and evidently others that we have met but are no longer in our reality because of the rift." He perked up at that. "There are photographs of you and…others on the hard drive if you would like to see them." With a final respectful bow I turned to go. Behind me I could hear Dr. McKay powering up my computer.

When I passed through the stargate from the Alpha site and into Atlantis, I fingered the device in my hand, thought about going back fifteen minutes, stepped into a liquid surface and out into a world of water. The control room was pitch black as the city was currently hundreds of meters below water. Taking a few seconds to recheck the regulator on my SCUBA tank, I then scanned the room with my flashlight. Alien coral encrusted much of the control station and a school of fishlike creatures darted away from my light and up into the opening to the Gateship hangar. The architecture was dreary without the glow of sunlight through the stained glass or the pale blue that outlined the steps and walkways at night. Like images of sunken ships that had sparkled in their heyday but now lay dead and dull on the ocean floor. Or the palace of the Dragon King that had been abandoned centuries before.

Following in the wake of the fish, I swam up to the Gateships. Activating the first one open, I waited a few minutes until the inside flooded with water before I entered and it glowed to life. I had flown them a few times but had repaired and studied them many times more. Studying the interior, I realizing that the first one was not the one I was looking for, so I moved to the next one and still no luck.

The watch on my wrist started beeping indicting that ten minutes had passed. My timeline was converging in both realities, if I didn't go through the gate soon, I might forget why I was going in the first place. Swimming quickly to the next craft I opened it.

My name is Miko Kusanagi, I am a member of the Atlantis expedition, and I must speak with General O'Neill. It is imperative that John Sheppard go to Atlantis.

The door opened slowly and I waited as the water rushed in. John Sheppard must go to Atlantis. I must speak with General O'Neill. It is imperative that John Sheppard go to Atlantis. When the third Gateship didn't have the consol, I started to panic. What if I couldn't remember? What if I made it back to Earth but couldn't remember why and they went without taking Colonel Sheppard? I could use the time travel device again when I was there. But that was dangerous. If I wasn't protected then the device could kill me, like the box Otohime gave Urashima, it held death and salvation depending on how it was used.

John Sheppard must return to Atlantis. No, he must go to Atlantis. Returning to Atlantis might give away too much information. If I did not get this right, I would dishonor everyone on the expedition. I would shame Dr. McKay for trusting me with such an important mission. My name is Miko Kusanagi and John Sheppard must return to Dr. McKay. No, that wasn't right, and yet, recalling the pictures that were on my computer, it was probably much closer to the truth than anyone realized.

Glancing at my watch again I considered jumping back a few minutes more; just to give me more time. When the third ship didn't have the time travel apparatus, I did just that. Five minutes, I thought as my fingers ran over the slick surface of the device. Just five minutes more and I should be safe and still have time to find the correct ship. The trip was quick and excruciatingly painful but looking at my watch, I saw I had the extra time. Kicking my legs that protested the action, I moved to the next ship and opened the back hatch.

My name is Miko Kusanagi. John Sheppard must go to Atlantis. Dr. McKay will be very upset if he does not. I would have giggled at the thought if my lungs didn't hurt so badly, the five-minute jump had obviously done more damage than we thought it would. Inside my mask I could feel the warmth of blood running down my upper lip. Fighting to hold up my flashlight, I directed the beam into the darkness of the craft even as the water continued to rush in. The shaft of light passed over a large shape in the middle of ship and I let out a relieved sigh in an escape of bubbles. After the ship filled with water, I entered, activated the consol, and in a blip I traveled back three years. This time, the only indication I had that I had completed the trip was that there was no water outside the ship. Atlantis hadn't flooded until after we came through, so this Atlantis still had an active shield holding back the ocean.

Opening the back hatch again, I then had to wait for the water to drain out. The weight of my air tank without the buoyancy of the water nearly toppled me over. Struggling out of the tanks, I peeled off my mask and wiped at the blood on my face. If I could make it to the doctors at the SGC, they could help me. And clinging to that thought, I stashed my SCUBA gear in a corner of the Gateship, knowing that the ship would crash before anyone ever found them.

I fished my glasses from my pack then took it and staggered out into the hangar, the city responding to my ATA gene and lights activating as I stepped. I had to hurry; if I stayed too long, the city would begin to rise and flood before the expedition even stepped foot through the gate. Making my way as quickly as possible to the stargate, I dropped heavily to my knees and began installing the ZPM and attaching the feedback loop that would drain the power source before the expedition arrived. There had been quite a bit of debate about that. Dr. McKay had argued that a fully charged ZPM in Atlantis would have made our lives so much easier but Dr. Weir convinced the SGC that it was important that we maintain the timelines as close to accurate as possible or there was no telling what would happen.

My name is Miko Kusanagi. I must speak with John Sheppard.

Finishing my installation, I stood and nearly toppled over from lightheadedness. I found myself wondering when the Dragon King would appear, with his emerald eyes and ability to suck the life from a ZPM with just a thought. Leaning against the DHD for support, I dialed in the eight chevrons to Earth then watched with satisfaction as they began locking into place. Soon I would be leaving and there would be no way back. I had spent three years on Atlantis, three hundred years in Ryugu, and would return to a world that thought they knew me but didn't. A world where I would condemn myself to death so that an entirely different reality could live, myself included. Wavering where I stood, I watched as Ryo-Wo roared and in an explosion of dragon's breath the event horizon burst to life. And I suddenly knew what it felt like for Urashima when he so desperately wanted to go home. The problem was, I didn't know if I wanted to go to the home of my parents or Otohime.

My name is Urashima. I must speak to Ryo-Wo. Otohime must go to Ryugu.

I entered the IDC code I had been given by the SGC when they approved this mission. It was an emergency code given to indicate an ally in need of assistance. If they didn't lower the shield, then the mission would end as soon as I stepped through the gate.

Wiping at my nose that still bled, I cradled my sore chest, walked to the gate, and stepped into the head of the dragon who spit me violently across the universe and out into the roar of klaxons and the grey of the SGC. The men with guns spun and I found myself looking up at the ceiling as cold metal ate into my back.

The bodies of several men appeared over me, their faces taught, their heads covered with helmets, their guns pointed down at me. Then the face of a woman framed in short blonde hair…Colonel Samantha Carter.

She looked back behind her. "We need a medical team to the Gate Room! General, you should see this." I tried to speak and she smiled reassuringly. "Just take it easy. Help will be here soon."

The room continued to spin and darken around the edges but I blinked back against it when another man appeared. "Carter? What is it?"

"Her clothes, Sir. She's wearing an Atlantis expedition patch."

A salt-and-peppered head peered down at me. "And the gate dialed in from there?"

"Yes, Sir."

"My name is Miko Kusanagi, I am a member of the Atlantis expedition, and I must speak with General O'Neill. It is imperative that John Sheppard go to Atlantis." My words slurred sloppily toward the end and it was with shame that I realized I could no longer hold my eyes open. The world faded from white to black, just like the print of the dragon in my father's office. And I found myself watching the dragon swoop and soar through the water, the emerald eyes glowing, tracing through the darkness.

"Do you recognize any of those names?"

"No, Sir, but I don't think she's military, so she must be one of the scientists."

"All right, have Walter get Weir on the phone. And what's his name… the head scientist that pisses you off so much…"

"Rodney McKay, Sir."

"That's the one. Get him down here to identify her."

"He's in Antarctica with the rest of the expeditionary force."

"Send the Prometheus to haul him back." His voice started to fade as he moved away. "And find out who the hell this John Sheppard is."

And then even the eyes of the dragon faded away.

TBC..part 2 up in a day or two