Epilogue 1: Our Universe
It took a week for Sheppard to get out of the infirmary, and that was only under rather cautious and polite threats from Keller to go straight back to his quarters, and to stay off active duty for at least a month.
He didn't remember much of their return to Atlantis, just disjointed flashes. Elizabeth had told him, sitting at his bedside, that the explosion in Lantea's upper atmosphere had drawn the attention of one of Lorne's patrols, which had been canvassing the ocean ever since their disappearance a week before. They'd found him and Rodney floating in the Caledon's escape capsule in the ocean: Sheppard bleeding and unconscious, Rodney freaking out. Keller had later told him that his internal bleeding had been so severe when he was brought in that they hadn't expected him to survive.
During that week in the infirmary, he missed Carson with a pain deeper than the morphine-dulled ache in his side. He'd almost been past it, at least as far as a person could get past something like that -- and then he'd been in that other universe, and he'd talked to his lost friend, and now the pain was back, worse than ever.
He couldn't even run to get rid of it. He'd done a lot of that, in the early weeks after Carson's death -- just ran and ran in the halls of Atlantis, until his legs burned and his lungs felt as if steel bands were wrapped around them.
But he couldn't do that, so he slept a lot instead. And sometimes pretended to be asleep, in order to not have to deal with Keller's polite but impersonal solicitousness, with Elizabeth's overly cloying concern, with Kate Heightmeyer's steady and too-penetrating stare.
Having Ronon and Teyla back -- his Ronon and Teyla -- almost made up for all of that, though. They came to see him often. Teyla brought him books, flowers from the mainland, and amusing stories about the Athosian children. Ronon sharpened knives and sat with him, a pleasant and undemanding presence.
Rodney, though, was largely absent. He would show up, mumble something about the labs going to hell under Zelenka, and then vanish for another two days.
"You seem to be doing fine, John," Elizabeth told him on one of her visits -- which got a raised eyebrow from him, because if she thought that, then she really wasn't paying much attention. "I'm worried about Rodney, though. Do you know what's bothering him?"
"Something's bothering him?"
"John, Rodney doesn't exactly have a poker face. He spends all his time in his labs or in his room; he even takes his meals from the cafeteria to eat them there. Teyla's commented on it. Did something happen to him in that other reality?"
"If something did," Sheppard said carefully, "I think that's for Rodney to talk about, not me. He gave you a report, right?"
"Almost as thorough as yours," she said, with a direct stare. Sheppard had yet to grant her an actual debriefing, and had turned in a half-page report that touched on the basics (alternate reality, et cetera) without really discussing it. So far, he'd managed to beg off writing anything more thorough, pleading exhaustion and the difficulty of typing with one arm mostly out of commission from his chest injury.
"We were discussing Rodney," he said quickly. "Have you thought about maybe having him talk to Kate?"
Elizabeth eyed him, but obviously decided to let it go ... for now. "I've suggested it, but I don't want to make it an order unless I absolutely have to."
She smiled and leaned back in her chair, settling her tablet PC in her lap. Since John wasn't up for long conversations, she'd taken to doing some of her paperwork in the infirmary, when she could get away. While Elizabeth's presence wasn't as undemanding as that of his team, Sheppard had found that he enjoyed having her there, as he drifted in and out of pain-medication-induced sleep.
Now, though, she frowned. She tapped the stylus on the screen and frowned some more.
Her look of worry finally caught Sheppard's attention. "What's wrong?" His slightly foggy brain began cataloguing all the bad things that could have happened in their week-long absence. Wraith? Genii? Food shortage?
Elizabeth shook her head. "I think I've done something to my computer, but I can't imagine what."
She swiveled the screen his way. There was her normal desktop -- and a full-sized version of the Windows dancing paperclip, filling the screen.
Sheppard threw his head back and laughed. It hurt his side like hell, but he couldn't help it.
"John! This isn't funny! It could be a virus!"
"Sorry," he gasped.
If Rodney had managed to find the time to do that, then he would be fine. They'd both be fine.
So now he was free of the infirmary, under strict orders to go back to his quarters and sleep. Ronon had escorted him there, and he drowsed for a while, loopy from pain meds, finally waking with a kink in his neck and moonlight shafting across his face.
He'd slept through dinner, but he opened his door to discover that some thoughtful person had left a tray with a sandwich, roll and some fruit.
I'm home, he thought, and felt warm all the way down to his toes.
He ate a little, and then went for a stiff walk -- more of a hobble -- around the nighttime corridors of Atlantis. At night, he was less likely to be stopped; most people were desperately curious from the rumors they'd heard about his and Rodney's sojourn in the other dimension, and he'd been fielding questions almost continually whenever Keller didn't keep strict control over his visitors. Perhaps he should have just stayed in his room and worked on War & Peace for a while, but he'd lost a lot of muscle tone during all his days in bed, and he wanted to start getting back into shape.
Besides, he didn't really want to think about war or peace, at the moment.
It wasn't until he noticed that he'd gone down the same corridor twice -- the one outside Rodney's room -- that he had to admit he might have a slight ulterior motive for taking a walk, above and beyond the call of physical fitness.
It was the middle of the night, and Rodney had to be asleep. Still, he paused in the corridor, and tapped very softly on the door. He waited. No answer. He was just starting to turn to go, when the door whooshed open.
Rodney was barefoot, wearing nothing but a pair of pants and a jacket thrown over his bare shoulders. Still, it was fairly obvious that he hadn't been asleep, especially since he was holding the neck of a bottle and reeked of alcohol.
John just stared, and tried to remember the last time he'd seen Rodney actually drunk.
"This better be important, Sheppard."
"I, uh ... Can I come in?"
A bit unsteadily, Rodney stepped back and waved a hand around. The lights were off; the only illumination came from the full moon outside the window, highlighting everything in shades of silver and black. Sheppard shut the door, and nearly tripped over a pile of dirty laundry on the floor. Rodney was not generally a meticulous housekeeper, but his room tended to be tidy in a Spartan kind of way, a byproduct of spending almost no time there.
"Have you talked to Kate?" It was out before he could stop himself.
Rodney sat down heavily on the floor by his bed. "If you're here to nag, you can just march yourself right back to your room. Where I'm guessing you're probably supposed to be anyway. I heard Cars -- Keller had let you out of prison, but I don't imagine it'd take much to get her to throw you back in the slammer."
Sheppard sat down beside him, very carefully, and leaned his back against the side of the bed. "So ... you going to share?" he asked, nodding at the bottle.
"With a man who's probably got enough narcotics in his system right now to supply a small Columbian drug cartel? I really don't think so."
"It's always disturbing to me when you channel your inner grown-up, Rodney." Sheppard leaned an arm on the bed, and rested his head against it.
"Funny." The strength seemed to go out of Rodney, all of a sudden; he sagged sideways against the bed, and closed his eyes. The timbre of his breathing didn't change; he hadn't fallen asleep or passed out. He just didn't seem to want to deal with the world at the moment.
"Rodney," Sheppard said. "Don't. Seriously. Don't."
Rodney didn't open his eyes. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
John leaned forward. "I'm talking about sixty men dead on the gate shield, that's what I'm talking about. Human beings, with lives and families. Sumner. Kolya. I've been there, believe me. There's no way to deal with it that I've ever found, except by accepting that you did what seemed like the best out of a bagful of lousy options, and then moving on."
There was a long pause, during which he thought that Rodney was going to pretend he didn't understand. Then Rodney's eyes opened a slit, silvery in the moonlight. His voice was slow, drowsy, a little slurred. "Fifty is a far cry from a whole world full of people. We're talking genocide here. We're talking Nuremberg trials."
"We're talking about another universe. Rodney ... a universe where Chevy Chase was Han Solo, for pete's sake."
A very faint grin tugged at the edges of Rodney's crooked, downturned mouth. "Which is so very wrong," he mumbled.
"We don't know what else was different there, McKay. Different uniforms. Different history. It would be a very simple thing for a group of refugees to dial a different gate address. And Teyla's people had never heard of anyone living in the Doranda system."
"I don't know." Rodney's voice was a faint sigh. "I'm so tired of thinking about it. Wondering about it."
"I thought we established that I don't know how to stop thinking, Colonel."
"But now you do," and Sheppard couldn't resist a very small smile. "Clear blue skies, remember?"
"Dark clouds swirling around my head," Rodney mumbled.
"That's just the preliminary step."
"You're the worst meditation teacher ever ... you know that?"
Sheppard poked him lightly in the arm. "But it worked, didn't it?"
Rodney's eyes peeked open again. "What in the world makes you say that?"
"You're still here."
Rodney stayed silent for a moment. Then he worked himself to a somewhat more upright, vaguely more alert-looking position. "And people say I have an ego."
"Loved the paper clip, by the way."
A tired, but genuine, smile cracked through the surface of Rodney's exhaustion and misery. "Yeah? You saw that? I was hoping she'd be somewhere around you when she booted up the computer, but I couldn't guarantee it."
"Remind me not to suggest anything seriously felonious to you -- like, say, a bank robbery."
"I'd say the Jesse James stuff is more your style, Sheppard."
Since he was sitting on the floor and therefore had easy access, Sheppard reached under the bed. If it was still where it used to be -- aha. He pulled out a cheap chess set in a plastic box.
"Oh, this is completely unfair, Colonel -- playing chess with me when I'm drunk?"
"I win even when you're sober, Rodney."
"Not all the time."
"I'm high on painkillers, remember? That should even the odds somewhat."
There was silence while Sheppard set up the pieces. Finally he said, "We made a difference in their universe, you know -- at least I think we did."
Rodney snorted. "Yeah, sure. We sort of helped them fight some terrorists, and we didn't even do a whole lot of that. Big deal. Even assuming they survived the whole assault-on-Atlantis thing, at the end of the day they're still a bunch of screwed-up bastards."
"I'd like to think we made more of a difference than that."
Taking a drink, Rodney set the bottle on the nightstand. "I guess we'll never know. Your move."
Epilogue 2: Their Universe - 1 Year Later
The sun rode high in a sky so blue it was nearly white at the horizon, glittering on the shoreline of the Lantean mainland as if handfuls of diamonds had been thrown upon the waves.
There was a place on the mainland where the mountains came down to the sea, and huge tumbled rocks enclosed a white-sand cove. Half of Team Sheppard -- the Ronon and Sheppard half -- had discovered the cove a few months back, and the group had been there several times since; it was now their preferred location for their all-too-infrequent days of R&R. From the high rocks, suitable for cliff diving, to the deep clear water with glittering shoals of fish, to the soft white beach that seemed tailor-made for lying on a blanket in the sun ... the cove offered enough variety that every member of the team could find something entertaining to do.
Today Teyla had managed to coax Zelenka away from his laptop into the water. Between the two of them, Teyla and Ronon had turned their scientist into a respectable swimmer, and from his high perch in the rocks, Sheppard could hear splashing and laughter coming from below. Looking around, always alert for the location of each member of his team, he finally located Ronon even higher on the rocks, apparently scaling a sheer rockface for the hell of it.
On his day off. The man was insane.
Sheppard's eyes kept roving, looking for his special guest scientist; he finally found her when she dropped lightly from a nearby boulder to join him. There was a belaying harness laced around her waist.
"Ronon has been teaching me rock climbing," she explained, stripping off her fingerless climbing gloves.
"And I'm the one who gets to explain to the Dorandans why their leader bashed her brains out on a rock." But he grinned when he said it, and Larissa smiled back, a bit cautiously. They had slowly gotten past the lingering awkwardness between them, as their two cultures had; but they were not friends, and probably would never be.
At least he no longer felt an instinctive urge to point a gun at her every time he saw her.
"Your world has so many different kinds of recreation." She lay down, folding her hands under her head and looking up at the wisps of cloud unfolding in the sky.
"Have I shown you golf yet?" He nodded towards the bucket of balls and the clubs leaning tidily beside it. He was still scouting for a nice meadow on the mainland that could be turned into a golf course, but in the meantime, he'd found that this alcove over the ocean was nice for practicing his backswing.
"You have ... explained the rules of the game." Larissa could be almost Teyla-like in her careful attempt to speak the truth while tiptoeing around offense.
Sheppard sat up, setting aside War & Peace. "This would be a perfect time to show you, then, while we're waiting for --"
"Oh, look, there they are!" Larissa pointed skyward, sounding faintly relieved.
The second jumper appeared low on the horizon, and came in for an inexpert, wobbly landing, next to Jumper One on the beach.
Sheppard and Larissa reached the beach as the back hatch of the jumper lowered to the sand. "You guys're late," Sheppard said.
"Well, excuse me, Captain Obvious," McKay snapped, jumping down to the sand.
"That's Colonel Obvious, and look, after what the doppelgangers told us about their universe, do you blame us for wondering where you were? We only came out here because we thought everything was fine back on Atlantis."
McKay rolled his eyes. "Everything is fine, the Ancient device is deactivated, the patients are fine, station-wide day off proceeding as planned, and if we didn't have to bring everything and the kitchen sink, we would have been here hours ago."
"They're only ferns, Rodney." Katie Brown gave him a reproachful look as she trotted past him with a tray of baby plants.
"The mainland has ferns already!"
"They're special ferns, and if I leave them unattended all day, they'll die." She went back for another load, adding in passing, "A true gentleman would help me."
"I'll help you, love," Carson offered, appearing from behind McKay with a tray of ferns. Next to him was Mokarra, carrying another flat of the small feathery plants.
McKay threw his hands in the air. "You people do realize that I have a dozen very important experiments back in Atlantis?" He very ostentatiously and obviously pretended not to notice Carson offering Mokarra a gentlemanly hand down to the sand. But he did vanish back into the jumper to grab a tray of ferns.
Sheppard left them all to their bickering and wandered down to the edge of the water. He knelt on the damp sand, picked up a flat rock. Behind him, he could hear that the conversation had moved on to Carson and Ronon arguing about fishing: "it's a gentleman's sport" versus "stab it with a spear until it stops moving".
Sheppard grinned. He drew back his arm and threw the rock as hard as he could, watching it skip across the water before vanishing when it met an onrushing wave.
"Most people grow out of that sort of thing when they're about eight," McKay said at his elbow.
Sheppard glanced over at him, and picked up another rock. "You're only jealous."
"Jealous of your rock-throwing prowess?"
"Sounds like it to me." He cocked his hand and tried to put a spin on the rock. It skipped once and sank.
"Yeah," McKay said, "I can see there's a lot to be jealous of, all right."
They walked down the beach, away from the main group. Sheppard tried to remember the last time that he'd seen Rodney outside of work. Team movie night the other day, maybe. The physicist had been dropping in on those more often since his recent brush with near-Ascension. He might not technically be a member of Sheppard's team anymore, but it was strange -- or maybe not so strange -- how easy it had been to get used to having him around again.
"How are things with the project?"
McKay snorted. "It would be going faster if I could get Jeannie out here permanently. For some reason she's still insisting that her family's more important than a super-energy source that could end the war with the Wraith and the Ori in one swoop."
"For some reason," Sheppard said dryly. He threw another rock, watched it dance in the sun. "You still think you can get Arcturus to work?"
"Oh please. I know I can. It's just a matter of taking it one step at a time."
They walked in silence for a while. The voices of the others had faded almost completely; the only sounds were the sounds of the sea -- wind, surf, the distant cries of birds that were almost but not quite like gulls.
"Do you ever wonder if they made it back?" Sheppard said at last.
McKay made a soft hmph noise. After a long pause, watching the surf pound against the white sand beach, he said, "Yeah. Sometimes."
"Think they did?"
"I don't know, Colonel. I'm not Physics Google." He didn't speak for a moment, then bent over and picked up a flat piece of shale from the water's edge. A flick of his wrist hurtled it straight into an oncoming wave, where it vanished immediately.
"Yep, that's some technique you got there, McKay."
"Don't blame me if some of us prefer to reserve our brainpower for more noble purposes than learning to throw rocks."
"That and tunneling under other countries' borders in the dead of the night."
McKay jumped and looked guilty. "I, uh ... I thought you weren't checking the game room anymore. Since ... you know, last year. When we stopped."
"So I figured, when I noticed that you'd taken advantage of my absence to start encroaching on my borders."
"I just wanted to see how the game simulation was running," McKay said defensively.
"Seriously," Sheppard said, "when did you start checking it again?"
McKay looked away, staring out at the waves. A light blush colored his cheekbones. "Oh, I don't know. Couple of months ago. You?"
"Month or so. Couldn't tell you exactly."
If McKay noticed that this happened to coincide perfectly with his recent brush with Ascension and near-death, he didn't say anything about it. "So I'm sure you know nothing about the defensive fortifications that have been springing up along my borders."
"Hey, the simulation did that. I had nothing to do with it." Sheppard threw another rock. Three skips. "Well ... maybe I did push it along a little, once I noticed it was already happening."
"Ha! You admit it." McKay brushed his hands against his pants, wiping sand off the palms, and cleared his throat. "You know, whenever we're done with our little tour in day-off Purgatory here, I was thinking about maybe hitting the game room ... you know, if nothing urgent and life-threatening has come up in our absence. Of course, if you're busy, and I imagine you are --"
"Funny," Sheppard said, cleaning off a bright shell with his thumb and slipping it into his pocket to take back to Elizabeth. "I was thinking of doing the same thing. Taking advantage of the day off to see how the game's running."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rodney smile.
And it's DONE! Thank you all for your patience, and for taking a risk on reading this story when it is a little bit different from my usual ones.
Just FYI, in "our" universe, the general timeline on this one is somewhere between Sunday and First Strike.