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Chapter Four

Atlantis, Present Universe

Elizabeth sighed and rubbed her temples. She was going to have one heck of a migraine soon, and she couldn't afford it, not right now. Doctor Sheppard and Radek Zelenka were working on tracing the source of the problem in the City's systems. Doctor Emmagan and Carson concentrated their efforts on the Hoffan virus and the Wraith vaccine, for Emmagan had done significant research on both in her universe. As for Ronon…

She winced as she recalled his cry of utter shock when she'd told them about his planet's ruin at the hands of the Wraith. Ronon fled the conference room and the Control Tower; McKay followed him to make sure he didn't do anything rash.

"Let him go," Emmagan has said, in that soft voice. "Meredith will look after him. Ronon will listen to the captain." Elizabeth found it rather ironic that this Ronon and McKay were as close as brothers, while Ronon and Rodney were feuding siblings who still managed to like each other.

"You all right, Doctor Weir?"

She glanced up at Evan Lorne, who had entered her office. "I'm all right, Major. It's just…it's a bit of a shock to find out you're dead in another universe."

Evan nodded soberly. "Yeah, I can imagine. According to Captain McKay, their Elizabeth Weir was killed during a negotiation with the Genii. She and their Doctor Grodin were…'close'."

Her mouth curved into a bittersweet smile as she heard the quotation marks. "Close."

Evan hesitated, but she nodded at him to go on. "I know this is before I came to Atlantis, but I've heard the stories about Doctor Grodin, what he did and how he died, but I saw your reaction in the Infirmary and I wondered if…"

"…if Peter and I had been involved here as well?" Elizabeth shook her head and sighed as she got up from her seat. She wrapped her arms around herself as if trying to keep herself together.

"I know it's probably none of my business, but…"

"Evan." The use of his first name surprised him. "It wasn't exactly common knowledge. I couldn't afford to be involved with one of my team, and then at the time, there was Simon, back on Earth—" She stopped and shrugged. "Things happened."

He heard a wealth of words in that simple sentence. "Oh."

"Carson knew, and I suspect Rodney did as well. When he told me Peter had been aboard the space station…" She broke off, then continued, "In any case, I didn't have time to mourn him. We had the Wraith on our doorstep."

Evan nodded; he'd come to Atlantis as one of Colonel Everett's men, and he'd eventually stayed on Atlantis when his unit was transferred back to Earth. "I remember."

"And now hearing that he's alive and well over there, it's a lot to absorb."

"Yeah." Evan sighed. "And this Ronon hearing about his planet…it seems that Sateda's still there in his universe. I don't blame the guy for going ballistic. I would've too, if I were him."

Elizabeth nodded, then said, "I'd better go check with Radek and see if they've made any progress."

Evan accepted the change of subject. "Of course. And I'll see if Captain McKay's managed to get Ronon calmed down."

She managed a smile, then made her way past him and down the stairs.

*****

Lieutenant Laura Cadman prided herself on expecting the unexpected, and Rodney McKay missing on a Gate mission wasn't exactly unexpected anymore. Still, she worried about him, despite the fact she'd knew way too much about him from her little sojourn in his head.

But she wasn't expecting the person who ran at her, full tilt, as he headed for the East Pier. She froze for one critical second and that hesitation nearly became her undoing. Ronon Dex—with shorter dreadlocks, but still carrying that formidable blaster—charged toward her and it didn't look like he was going to stop.

"Holy cr—" She dove out of his way as he thundered past without breaking stride. Laura blinked and thought, Wait a minute…isn't Ronon supposed to be missing too?

"For God's sake, Ronon! Where the hell do you think you're going?"

She blinked as Rodney McKay came around the corner in hot pursuit. To her shock, Rodney didn't seem winded at all; in fact, he was only a few minutes behind Ronon. He glanced over at her and demanded, "Where'd he go?"

"I think he's headed for the East Pier," Laura answered. "What's going—?"

"Thanks," he snapped, and then he was off again before she could blink. She watched him go, openmouthed, as she realized something. Not only was he in decent shape, but he'd worn some sort of rank bars, and he'd been armed with a P-90.

And he hadn't made any indication that he recognized her at all.

Her mouth worked itself a few times before she was able to speak. "Definitely not Rodney," she said, then she tapped her headset mike. "Control, this is Cadman. I just saw two men who looked just like Ronon Dex and Rodney McKay barrel right past me. What the hell is going on?"

*****

If he could run fast enough, far enough, maybe he could escape the pain. To hear that his world, Sateda, had been overrun and culled by the Wraith was simply unbearable. The faces of his family, his friends, his men flashed into his mind. Melena. Tyre, and countless others…all dead and gone, for the nearly a decade in this universe.

He couldn't envision it. Sateda was strong, with its allies in the Athosians, Hoffans, and countless others. How was it that the Wraith had managed to destroy thousands of years of culture and history in a single day? Then again, he'd seen their handiwork and knew that it was possible.

He hardly noticed the female soldier who'd had the bad luck to be in his way. Surely, she would know enough to move before she was injured. Dimly, he heard McKay shouting something far behind him, but he didn't care.

Suddenly, he ran out of room to run. His body automatically stopped at the edge of the East Pier before he tumbled off the edge. The cold spray of the ocean brought him back to sanity. Cold reality, like the chill of the ocean, and the realization followed on its heels: Why is the water cold and not warm, like our Atlantis?

"For Christ's sake, Ronon, you trying to give me a heart attack?" McKay swore as he screeched to a stop next to him. The captain gasped great lungfuls of fresh sea air. "Why'd you run?"

"They're all gone here, McKay. The Wraith killed them all." Ronon rumbled. "It's always a threat, being culled, but to hear of it, ten years after it happened…"

The captain nodded soberly. "Yeah. I was as shocked as you isn't easy to see what might have been, if history had been a little different."

"Yeah." He tried to block out the truth from Elizabeth Weir's words. "I spent seven years as a Wraith runner. Held their versions of Sheppard and Teyla hostage while Doctor Beckett—" he snorted in dark humor, "—took the tracking device out of my kind of a person am I here to have gone through these things?"

McKay grabbed his arm. "Listen to me, buddy. That person, their Ronon Dex…he's not you. He's made different choices, had different experiences. But there's one thing you have in common: you're both . He managed to spit in the Wraith's eye just for surviving, and you'll get through this too. Sheppard will find a way to get us back. Melena'll keep a hearty dinner warm for you until we get there, but right now, I need you here. All right?"

He was silent for a long moment, then he replied, "All right. But I pity their Ronon for losing so much."

"What doesn't break us makes us stronger," McKay quoted. "It could be your counterpart's life journey to go through adversity to be stronger."

"Yeah." Although he didn't really believe in any of Sateda's religions, McKay kept surprising him with his knowledge of them. It was this insight that helped cement a bond between them, a bond of brothers.

McKay laughed and gave him a smirk. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm supposed to be an arrogant ass here."

He smirked back "You still are."

"Watch it, Big Guy, or I'll sic their version of Bates on you. Or Kavanaugh."

Ronon pretended to shudder. "That's really frightening, McKay."

The captain laughed, then became serious again. "You okay?"

"Yeah, thanks. But if you don't mind, I'd like to just be out here for a while before I head back."

"No problem, it's kinda nice out here. A little chilly, but nice."

Ronon snorted, as they watched the sun set in companionable silence.

*****

"Tanzania? You're from Tanzania?"

Doctor Emmagan nodded, her light brown hair swinging as she moved. "That's right. My mother is African, my father is from France. They were both doctors on the Continent before moving to my homeland." She chuckled. "My mother proudly traced her heritage to a succession of folk healers. I guess that's where my desire to heal others comes from."

"Aye, it makes sense." Carson grinned, for this version of Teyla had her genuine forthrightness and her strength of character. She was also a brilliant medical researcher, and as they pored over information in the Ancient database, her tenacity impressed him. She wouldn't give up very easily. The medical scanner lit up in her hands as she examined a sample of Wraith cells.

"You have the Ancient gene."

"Yes, that allows me to use the medical equipment." Emmagan's face grew worried. "It also allows me and Captain McKay to hear the City as well, when She speaks to us."

His eyebrows shot up. That was what she and McKay had meant when they'd said they "couldn't hear Her." Atlantis was sentinent? He'd had his suspicions for a long time, but…"The City actually talks to you?"

She nodded absently and replied, "Yes. She doesn't do it here, or we would've heard Her by now. It's like losing a part of yourself, like an arm or a disconcerting."

Carson murmured in sympathy, but such a close connection made him uneasy. "I can only imagine. I can feel certain emotions, but that's the extent of it."

"It's scary and wonderful at the same time. Someday, you might be able to hear Her, if She allows it." She glanced sideways at him and smiled; Carson felt a sudden rush of heat in his face and the beep of the scanner gave him a few moments to recover.

She nodded at Carson as they surveyed the results. "Right there, Carson. That particular protein located here and here, and how it's synthesized."

"Not to mention how it's transported through the entire cell," Carson murmured. "If there was a way to isolate it—"

Emmagan sighed and leaned her head within her hands. "I've been working on this for nearly three years, but it's so elusive, so frustrating. Even with all the medical knowledge and technology from our Pegasus allies, we've only discovered a scant percentage of information to combat this…thing." She shook her head. "I'm tired of losing friends to this. I just want this stopped."

Carson said nothing during her rant. He only got to his feet and moved behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders and kneading the tension out of her muscles. She sighed and allowed her head to fall back.

"You know, love," he murmured. "I've told meself the same thing these past three years."

She closed her eyes. "Marie Cho told me about what happened to the Hoffans in this universe. There was little you could do to change their minds, Carson."

"I should've—"

She opened her eyes and looked up at him with a steady gaze. "You tried to warn them; they decide to take the risk anyway."

"Aye. My mind knows that, but here—" He withdrew a hand and tapped his heart. "—I feel differently."

"That's what makes you a good doctor here, Carson. Any doctor who doesn't feel so deeply for their patients can't do their job properly."

Carson sighed. "I suppose my counterpart doesn't have that problem?"

She chuckled and her gaze turned humorous. "On the contrary. He is very much like you in many ways, except he manages to hide it much better."

Quantum theory. Rodney had explained it as a diferent universe that branched off the main one with every decision made. It was enough to give him a bloody headache. Carson flinched involuntarily as he wondered just what kind of life he would have had as an officer in the RAF, and second-in-command of Atlantis. "I would guess he'd need to."

"For what he does, yes." She turned to face him, her eyes sympathetic, "but you both are very much alike in more ways than one."

"Aye?" Carson swallowed hard at the way she was looking at him: serious and vulnerable at the same time, just like that time in the gym before his Teyla and the others had vanished. His heart ached at the prospect of never seeing her again. His Teyla.

When had he started to think of her as "his Teyla"? He couldn't remember, but it sounded right.

"Yes." She stood up, faced him, reached up and touched his cheek with her hand. "For one, you both value life above all things. You both would do anything for your friends. You both have seen terrible things, but you find the strength to go on."

He swallowed hard. "Lass, I—" Carson nearly jumped as she slid her hands around to the back of his head and gently pulled him down to her level. She brushed her lips against his, gently and without malice. Part of him wanted to pull away, but his body turned traitor on him as his arms slid around her and returned the kiss.

What're you doin', man? Are you daft? This isn't the Teyla you know. You can't just—He closed his eyes and told that part of his brain to simply sod off.

The moment was broken by a polite cough at the doorway. He jumped as if someone had given him an electric shock.

"Ah, sorry. Am I interrupting something?" asked Meredith McKay. The Canadian captain leaned in the doorway with a bemused expression. Emmagan glared at him with an annoyed look, but the moment had already passed.

Carson tried to reorganize his addled thoughts. "You need to get some rest. It would do either of us any good if you collapse from exhaustion."

She sighed and shook her head at him. "I know, but—"

"No buts," he said firmly. "Off with you, love. I'll see you in the morning."

She nodded reluctantly then smiled. "Thank you, Carson, for taking care of me."

"You're welcome. Sleep well."

She nodded and headed for the door, shooting a glare at McKay as she left. The captain only gave her a measured look as she disappeared out of sight.

"I'm sorry," McKay said quietly. "I didn't mean—"

"Ach, don't worry about it." He reached over and turned off the computer monitor. "It's an awkward situation for all of us, I think."

A dry smile upturned the corner of McKay's lips. "She's in love with your counterpart, you know."

He flinched, despite himself. "I thought as much, but I'm not him."

"No, you aren't." Something flashed in McKay's eyes, but it was gone before Carson could be sure. "When's the last time you ate something, Doctor?"

"Here and there over the past couple of hours."

"Which usually means not enough. All right, that's it. I'm dragging you to the Mess Hall. "

Carson chuckled. "Now that's bloody ironic."

"What is?"

"I'm the one usually nagging you—I mean, my Rodney McKay—to eat and sleep."

Something flashed in McKay's eyes, but it was gone before Carson could be sure. "From what Zelenka told me about him, we're both pretty driven, just about different things."

"Aye, that's true." Carson shucked off his lab coat and closed his laptop. "All right, let's go." As they made their way through the darkened halls of Atlantis, he asked, "Is Ronon all right?"

McKay nodded, but his eyes were still shadowed. "He took the news of Sateda's fall here pretty badly. You have to understand, his planet's still thriving where we come from. So it was a bit of a shock."

"I can understand that." Carson sighed. "It must be a very different place where you come from."

"Somewhat. There are things that are easier, and things that are definitely harder." McKay fell silent, and Carson watched him out of the corner of his eye. Unlike Rodney, this man chose his words carefully, and controlled his emotions. It was disconcerting, and Carson wished Rodney was back. He had to admit it: he missed the verbal sparring, the minor medical emergencies.

He heard the sound of two people discussing something and noticed McKay had rolled his eyes. "Better keep the medkit handy, Carson. Sounds like Sheppard's on the warpath."

*****

"That might work," Sheppard said as he tapped the information on his tablet. "If we can concentrate all of our power in one controlled burst, we might have enough to make a bridge between your universe and ours."

Radek took off his glasses and scrubbed his eyes with his other hand. Elizabeth had checked in with them hours ago, but he was no closer to solving the problem now as then. "We did that when a duplicate McKay came over—"

Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Another one?"

He gave Sheppard a tired smile. "But the problem was——"

"—you completely drained your ZPM." The scientist nodded and sprawled back in his chair with a troubled look on his face. "We need another power source, a supplemental one—"

"But where are we going to find something like that? A ZPM has a great amount of energy. We don't have anything that's more—"

Sheppard snapped his fingers once. "Is your Gate system interconnected like ours is?"

Radek frowned and put his glasses back on. "Interconnected? What do you mean?"

Sheppard leaned forward again and tapped the tablet. "Our Gate system is a network that connects all parts of the Pegasus Galaxy. The one in our Atlantis isn't directly connected to the rest, but the others…from Hoff to Sateda, each planetary system can control who comes through their Gate. Each checkpoint is powered by either a ZPM or an alternate power source." He brought up a star chart and used his stylus to draw lines from one planet to another.

Radek's mouth dropped open. "The amount of power—"

"—is enormous. Yeah. The problem is that we haven't found a way to harness it all. I'm not even sure if that's possible."

The Czech frowned. "But if you do that, won't that leave your allies open to attack? The shields—"

"Yeah." Sheppard's face was unwontedly serious. "Leaves everyone open to the Wraith, the Genii, the Ori, the Replicators…"

"We cannot do that."

"But there's got to be another way."

"Could we somehow—I do not know—share the load?"

"Between the universes?" Sheppard widened his eyes as he thought. "Holy crap, that'll be a neat trick if we can pull it off. We'd have to find a way to let Doctor Grodin know on the other side."

Radek sighed, his eyes softening. "Doctor Emmagan told me that Peter's alive and well in your universe, but—"

"Elizabeth isn't." Sheppard's eyes were shadowed. "Believe me, it's just as weird for me to see her here and not Peter. He was devastated when Kolya killed her. We all were, but Peter—" His voice broke, but he recovered quickly. "Anyway…what the hell are you still doing up, Mer?"

Captain McKay made a face. "Carson and I were going to have a late-night chat, but it looks like the two of you are busy."

"Actually, we could use your opinion, Mer. Radek and I've got the beginnings of a possible idea, but it's got a few…um, hangups."

McKay raised his eyebrows. "Hangups. This doesn't sound good."

"Yeah, some hangups."

As Sheppard began outlining the problem, McKay and Carson took seats at the table. Carson caught Radek's bemused expression. Sheppard explained his theory in the rapid-fire manner that Carson was used to hearing from Rodney. Captain McKay wore a look of skeptical amusement that usually belonged to Colonel John Sheppard. Carson nearly laughed aloud at the juxtaposition.

McKay sighed. "It's so crazy it might just work, but we need our Atlantis to help figure out the power problem. Bates is one of the best system guys we have over there."

"And Rodney's the best we've got here," Carson put in. "If there's a way, he'll help find it."

McKay's mouth quirked upward. "It's funny, Jeannie's always been better at this stuff than I am. I keep expecting her to walk through that door."

Radek chuckled softly, for Rodney would never make such an admission. Then an idea came to him. "Perhaps she could."

Carson frowned and asked, "Radek, are you suggesting she come here?"

Radek shrugged. "We will need all the help we can get, Carson. Jeannie is also a physicist, and she was here when we constructed the intergalactic bridge."

"How is she doing here?" McKay asked quietly. "Is she happy?"

Carson's eyes softened at the anxiety in his tone. "Aye, lad. She's married and has a wee lass, Madison. Last I heard, she was doing well."

The captain sighed. "That's good to hear."

Sheppard glanced at him, then turned back to Radek. "If she's anywhere close to her counterpart in our universe, we'd sure appreciate her help, if she'd come."

"I'll ask Doctor Weir." Radek shook his head. "She's probably still awake herself."

*****

She couldn't breathe—something was bubbling in her lungs, she could feel it; people were shouting above her, but it meant nothing to her. All she needed was air, she was drowning…

Someone lifted her and she could breathe just a little easier. "Elizabeth—"

She forced his name past the blockage in her throat. "Mer—"

"Save your breath. It'll be okay. We're gonna take care of you. Just stay with me."

She heard the conviction in his voice. He would save her, or die trying. Always putting his heart and soul into themission. Failure was never an option.

Yet she knew that even he couldn't save her, not this time.

She drifted for a moment. How could she be here, on a ruined battlefield, and also there, safe in her bed in Atlantis? The question flitted through her mind, then was gone. It was strange, as if she was split in two and worlds were dissolving, reforming around her. She could actually feel the shifting, as events unfolded differently in both worlds and lives were rewritten.

In one world, Elizabeth Weir commanded Atlantis, and Peter Grodin had died on an Ancient space station. In another, Peter Grodin lived, but she had died at Kolya's hands. In one world, a man named Meredith McKay met an RAF pilot named Carson Beckett at a Canadian Air Force Base called Moose Jaw. In another, the same man, but known as Rodney McKay, met a doctor named Carson Beckett at a base in Antarctica.

Both worlds were slowly diverting off their respective tracks as the ripples between them grew stronger. Instinctively, Elizabeth knew that unless the main Atlantis teams were returned to their correct universes, those ripples would tear the space-time continuum apart.

Restore the balance, her deceased counterpart cried. The living Elizabeth Weir agreed, but how? She couldn't bring her double back to Peter Grodin, just as the murdered Elizabeth couldn't restore her Peter.

Trust your people. They will find a way. They know what they're doing.

Elizabeth couldn't stifle a cry as someone jarred her body. She struggled to open her eyes. Her mouth moved of its own volition.

"Peter? I'm sorry…I thought—"

His mouth moved, but she couldn't hear him. Elizabeth knew she was reliving her counterpart's final moments of life. She was flooded with emotion: anger, bitterness, regret, love.

Gratefulness, that at least her double had had the chance to say good bye. She wondered briefly what her Peter had thought about in his last moments on that space station. Alone.

"I'm sorry," had been his last words. Suddenly, she realized what they'd meant. I'm sorry, Elizabeth.

Then he was gone, as the Wraith had destroyed the space station. Her heart twisted again as she heard Rodney's words, "Elizabeth, Peter Grodin was aboard the space station."

She'd never gotten the chance to say it. No, not again. With every fiber of strength she had left, she forced the words out of a shattered throat.

"I..love…you—"

The dark current rose and swept her away into silence.

*****

Her eyes snapped open as her radio mike crackled in her ear. She sat bolt upright, heart pounding, tears sliding down her face.

"Zelenka to Weir."

She hastily scrubbed away her tears as she tapped the receiver. "Weir."

"I'm sorry…did I wake you?" Radek's voice betrayed his concern.

Damn, the Czech was perceptive. She managed to keep an even tone. "It's all right, Radek. What is it?"

"Sheppard—Doctor Sheppard—and I may have found a way to solve our problem."

"You have?" She pushed the foreboding out of her mind. "How?"

"It would take some time to explain, and we need to make an unsual request."

Elizabeth frowned. Radek didn't ask for much, so this was unusual by itself. "What is it?"

He told her, and she wondered just how much more complicated this would get before this was all over.


Chapter Five

Britgate, Atlantis

"Damn. If I'd known my life would've gotten this complicated…"

Katie chuckled and shook her head. She and Rodney were alone on the balcony leading from the Gate Room. Peter had asked her to show him around Atlantis and she'd agreed, despite the awkwardness between the two of them. As far as she could tell, Rodney was not married, or even engaged, and finding out that his counterpart was, well, it had to be quite a shock.

"I'd thought about proposing to you. The other you. In my Atlantis."

His voice was so soft that she'd almost missed it. Katie glanced sideways at Rodney, whose gaze was riveted to the warm ocean waves surrounding the City. "What changed your mind?"

"It's a long story, way too complicated and way too convoluted to get into right now."

She only nodded sagely. That usually translated in "Mer-speak" into "I don't want to talk about it." At least that much was similar between the two. "You don't have to tell me. He nearly didn't do it, either."

That got his attention, although he still refused to look directly at her. "Really."

"Really. It was a little awkward. Okay, a lot awkward, but the point is that he didn't let it stop him."

An uncomfortable silence fell between them. Katie was more than content to just wait; she was a patient and observant woman, and it was going to take some time for both of them to get used to this strange situation. A man who was her fiancé…yet wasn't.

Finally, he asked, "So, what happened? How'd he get himself into…this?" She laughed, and he looked at her with an aggravated look. "It's not funny, Katie."

"Sorry." She got herself under control, then told him the story, one that sounded familiar.

*****

Flashback

"Meredith, how long are we going to be locked in here?"

McKay sighed and leaned back against the wall of the Medical Bay. Katie sighed and snuggled against his chest. His grip tightened on her. Unknown to her, his other hand gripped a small box in his jacket pocket.

"I don't know. The City's biohazard protocols kick in whenever She think there's a threat. She must've detected something we missed. In any case, I'm sure Sheppard and Teyla'll get us out."

"Can't you Hear Her? Talk to Her and ask what's going on?"

McKay sighed and shook his head. "Nothing, not even static. It's like She's completely isolated Herself."

Katie nodded. The temperature in the Infirmary had fallen another degree in the past several hours, but somehow, she didn't mind. She sighed and murmured, "Oh, this is lovely."

His tone was humorous as he agreed, "It is, yes."

"For the past year, you've really made an effort to make time for me, and it has been lovely."

"I like you a lot. I mean, I do."

She smiled at the seriousness of his tone. "I know you do, and I like you a lot too."

He chuckled, with the slightest bit of irony." I know. And to be honest, I find that just baffling."

Katie blinked as the words took her by surprise. "Come on, now—"

McKay laughed again. "No, it's other people— they find it baffling too."

She raised her head and gazed up at him. "I guess they just don't know you like I know you."

"Yeah, but, you see, that's what scares me. I mean, at some point, you're gonna know me the way they know me and then …"

She shook her head. Yes, he wasn't a very easy person to know, for he kept his true feelings locked away. Only a few knew what lay behind the facade. She did, and so did Teyla and Carson. Maybe John as well, and Ronon. His team. And Atlantis. She'd never been jealous of Melia's extraordinary bond with Meredith; Melia seemed to understand her feelings about him.

"Mer, I think I know you pretty well. There's not a lot of subtext with you."

He snorted. "Noticed that, did you?"

"It's one of your endearing qualities, Mer," she said as she laid her head back upon his shoulder.

He smiled, though she didn't see it. "It's funny, you know? I mean, much as I hate to admit it, seeing Jen Keller so happy with her family, I just … well, it kind of made me realise that, uh … well, I'd like to get married."

She froze, her breath suspended for a long moment. Then she whispered, " You would?!"

He shifted his weight under her and she looked up at him again. The bright blue eyes never left hers as he reached into his pocket and drew out a velvet box. With a quick snap of his wrist, he flipped it open to reveal a diamond ring set in a simple gold band.

She stared at it for a long minute. Her voice came out in a soft whisper. "You were gonna propose to me? Today?"

He blushed, and Katie couldn't help but grin. Not many people could embarrass him. "I was. Oh, I mean, before the … before the lockdown."

"So? Why don't you? Do you want to hear my answer?"

He smiled at her and cleared his throat. "Katie, I—um, would you—"

"YES!" she shouted and threw her arms around his neck. It startled him into laughter, which she readily joined in. And as he slipped the ring on her finger, she thought she was the luckiest woman in two galaxies.

*****

Katie realized that she had his full attention now, as she finished her story. She saw emotion mirrored in his eyes, locked deep away. Regret. Something similar must have happened in his Atlantis, but the outcome had been different. Maybe his Katie had refused. Maybe he hadn't gotten up the courage to ask, and now it was too late. She felt a pang of sorrow for him. He must be so very lonely.

"I'm sorry, Rodney. I didn't mean to—"

He waved a dismissive hand. "No, it's okay. I mean, I'm happy for you, and for him. Good to know that at least somewhere it happened."

She bit her lip and nodded. He was withdrawing, just like Meredith would, when he was upset, taking refuge in defensive sarcasm. What can I do to make him feel better? I know…

"Are you up for taking a look at the Gate? I think Sergeant Campbell's expecting us."

The mention of work was like a charm, and Rodney seemed almost relieved. "Yeah, let's go. The sooner we find the problem, the better. That way, you can get your fiance back and I can get home."

Katie only nodded and led him back into the Gate Room, willing the tears not to fall.

*****

Britgate, Athosian Quarter

How can you tolerate this version of McKay? He is loud, obnoxious, completely lacking in social graces, his counterpart's complete opposite! He does not think before he talks and managed to insult Doctor Grodin and Doctor Brown, in the space of a few moments! Even when I tried to correct his misconceptions, he simply plows ahead!

John stifled a curse and massaged his temples. "Okay, okay, we get the message. Honestly, Rodney isn't that bad. He just takes some getting used to. Once you get past the whole loud and obnoxious thing, he's not a bad guy. Really."

I suppose. Perhaps it is a good thing that I cannot hear most of his thoughts and talk with him as readily as I do you. I believe it will drive me insane!

"C'mon, give Rodney a break. He's saved our collective asses more than once. Besides, this accidental switcheroo has thrown all of us for a loop." John felt obligated to defend his friend's moral character, especially to the City. Next to him, Beckett spoke to Grodin on his headset; the commander didn't sound amused, either.

I think Beckett's headache is worse than mine. He gave the commander a lopsided grin and asked, "Does She get snippety like this often?"

"Now and then." Beckett closed his comm channel, and took a deep breath to clear his headache. It wasn't helping. "Usually when someone really does something stupid or someone She cares about in the City is in mortal danger. Only a handful of us can Hear her like we do, Colonel."

"No offense, but that's probably a good thing." He leaned casually against the balcony railing and looked down on the lower levels. Laughter and conversation rang through the halls of the City as Athosians, Satedans, Hoffans, and other people went about their daily lives. The streets were packed at this busy hour as people crowded the markets stalls and children ran free in a game of tag. It only reminded John how empty Atlantis seemed in comparison.

Your City must be lonely indeed.

"Yeah," he replied softly "It just seems so lively around here.". It still felt strange, how naturally he could talk to Her. Her, not It; both Beckett and Atlantis had set him straight on that little detail, and the last thing John wanted to do was to peeve off a living City, especially if it was a "Her".

"Your Atlantis isn't?" That came from Beckett.

"Not exactly." John nodded at an Athosian boy who reminded him of Halling's son, Jinto. "The Athosians live on the mainland in our reality."

"Some of ours do too, actually. They couldn't adjust to bein' within walls, even if it was the City of the Ancestors," Beckett said. He leaned casually against the balcony railing; John recognized it as a way it as a way to keep an eye on the people below. He didn't say anything for a minute, then he added, "I'm sure your people are trying to find a way to get you back."

"I'm sure they are." John chuckled and raised his eyebrows. "I'm still not used to seeing you as a military officer, Carson."

He grinned. "My counterpart is the chief medical officer. That's just as bizarre to me."

"I'm sure Doctor Emmagan's bedside manner's great."

Beckett cleared his throat. "She's a wonderful physician, aye."

Suddenly, he remembered seeing Teyla and his Beckett in the gym and finally put it all together. John grinned and asked, "A little sweet on her?"

Beckett shrugged, but his blush gave him away. For a moment, real emotion shone in the commander's face, and he resembled Doctor Beckett. So, this man still felt things deeply; he was just better at hiding it. John wondered how Commander Beckett managed to live with himself with some of the things he'd done as McKay's second in command.

"She's a good lass." Beckett glanced over at the Athosian with a small smile. John saw the unguarded emotions on his face and tried not to smirk.

"So…you and her counterpart. How long have you two been going out?"

Beckett turned back to him, raised his eyebrows at the blunt question and he hesitated for a moment.

Carson, there's no shame in telling him, and he does outrank you here.

"I'm aware of that, lass." Finally, he said, "Officially, almost a year. Unofficially…almost six."

John's eyes widened in surprise. "Six years? That's longer than you guys have been here in Atlantis, right?"

"Aye." Beckett turned back toward the crowd and his brogue became thicker as he explained, "I met her durin' a relief effort in her native Tanzania. She caught my eye almost immediately. We kept in touch and eventually, we were both ended up in Glastonbury. The rest is history."

John nodded and glanced over at Teyla, who appeared not to notice them at all as she surveyed the Athosian quarter. "She's the leader of the Athosians in our universe. She cares about her people, but I think she doesn't allow herself to get…personally tangled with anyone. Although, I think she might have finally found someone."

"My counterpart. The doctor."

"Yeah. I think she deserves a break after all she's done for us."

Beckett nodded and agreed, "Aye. If she's anything like my Teyla, she does."

Indeed.

*****

Teyla stood nearby and gazed at the crowds below her. Tears gathered at the corner of her eyes. It had been so long, so long, since she'd seen her people so relaxed. Her Athosians had lived under the shadow of the Wraith for as long as she could remember. Yes, there were ceremonies of joy and thanksgiving, but nothing quite like this. She felt a smile tug at her lips even as she felt the conflicting emotions.

And of course, another source of those conflicting emotions stood almost directly behind her. For the countless time, she reminded herself, He is a different man. He is not Carson Beckett, she quickly amended, Yes, he is, but not the one you know. Why was she drawn to him, like a moth to a flame? She sternly reminded herself to retain her objectivity, for she knew they wouldn't be staying long in this universe.

She hoped. Rodney was going to find a way to get them back where they belonged.

"You okay, Teyla?" John asked, concern in his voice.

She turned and beamed at him with a brilliant smile, being careful not to betray her inner turmoil. "Yes. It is wonderful to see them all together here like this in the City of the Ancestors."

"Yeah." He also felt overwhelmed by the sights and the sounds of a noisy Atlantis.

Beckett eyed the organized chaos like a hawk. He glanced sideways at Teyla and said, "The Athosians still celebrate life, despite everything."

She nodded as his quick perception. "That is the way of my people. Even through the cullings and other tragedies…"

Beckett frowned. "Colonel Sheppard told me your people don't live in the City."

She hesitated for a moment, then shook her head. "We did at one time, after the Wraith first attacked, but my people eventually settled on the mainland. I chose to remain with Colonel Sheppard's team."

He raised his eyebrows. "They left the City? I'd thought they would've stayed for protection against the Wraith."

She winced and exchanged a painful look with John. The colonel clearly remembered the circumstances that caused their Athosians to leave Atlantis: the suspicion and distrust from the Expedition when they'd been suspected of collaborating with the Wraith. It hadn't been their most shining moment.

Teyla finally said, "They were not used to living within walls, and decided to move to a place where they could see the stars and feel the wind in the trees." Her expression became sad again. "This is how the City of the Ancestors should be. Full of life."

"Indeed," a voice said from behind her. "We try to make it so."

Teyla's breath froze in her throat. Her eyes brimmed with tears, but she refused to let them fall. Slowly, she turned to face the newcomer.

"Charin," she breathed.

The older woman smiled at her, just like she'd always done in the past. Charin's hair was long and silver, her posture stooped with age, but her eyes still undimmed. Teyla blinked hard as Charin approached and put her hands on Teyla's shoulders. She bent her head in the traditional Athosian greeting and Teyla matched it.

"Why do you weep, child?"

"Because I am happy to see you," Teyla whispered.

"And I, you." She drew back and looked Teyla in the eye. "You look like Grodin's doctor, but I can tell your heart is Athosian. It is good to hear our people survive and thrive in your world." Then she reached out and Teyla took her hand. It was warm, solid, and real. "You have the hands of a warrior, child. Have you seen much combat?"

Teyla nodded again. "Unfortunately, we still battle the Wraith, as well as other enemies."

Charin's eyes narrowed and she met Commander Beckett's grim expression. "It is here as well, but we have in the Satedans and the others." Her ominous tone hinted at things that were hidden beneath the surface. Then Charin's mood shifted again as she noticed the bantos rods on Teyla's belt.

"I practice regularly," Teyla answered her unspoken question. "My father made these for me when I came of age."

Charin chuckled and inclined her head at Beckett. "The commander is quite skilled in bantos fighting himself. He has a good teacher."

Teyla blinked and glanced over at him. She had to remind herself that this was not Carson she knew. This man was also a warrior. Beckett shrugged in a self-depreciative manner. "Halling," he explained.

"Ah. Then we should spar sometime, then." If this man was the opposite of Doctor Beckett, it would be an interesting challenge. John looked both amused and worried at the thought of fighting hand-to-hand with Beckett and she didn't blame John one bit.

"Come, my dear. Let us show you what we have managed to build here in the City of the Ancestors." Charin nodded at her, then her gaze flickered to Beckett for a brief second before returning to her. "I believe you will be very surprised and pleased."

Teyla smiled and walked alongside Charin, with John and Beckett close behind. If she could capture this moment for all eternity, she would do so. It gave her hope that perhaps in her universe, she could do the same.

*****

Britgate, Gateroom

Peter pretended to look at the requisition orders on his tablet, but he watched Rodney as the Canadian leaned on the console next to Chuck. Doctor Kyle Bates stood on Chuck's other side, tight-lipped as he studied the readouts. Peter caught the flash in Bates's eyes that clearly told him, "That man doesn't belong here." Peter narrowed his own eyes at Bates, who immediately looked back down at the panel. Bates was their Atlantis's foremost expert on Ancient technology, and wasn't thrilled at being upstaged.

Of course, Rodney wouldn't have known that, but Meredith would have.

"No record of any energy spikes or foreign power readings," Bates said. "Nothing to indicate anything was wrong with the Gate at the time of transit."

If I'd known something was wrong when McKay and the others went through the Gate, I would have stopped it before it happened.

Chuck sighed and gave the console a pat. "You couldn't have known, dear. Don't blame yourself."

Rodney looked surprised at the sergeant's tone, and had that been an affectionate gesture? That was weirder than seeing Doctor Bates and Colonel Lorne. "You hear Her too."

Chuck shrugged and Bates spoke up. The sergeant—no, he was a scientist in this universe, Rodney reminded himself—had a touch of hostility in his words. "Of course. She wouldn't let anyone without the ATA Gene handle the Gate."

"A Cosmic Doorman," Chuck joked. "That's okay. I don't mind."

The breezy humor brought a sarcastic smile to Rodney's face. "I can see why She likes you, Sergeant. She yells at me."

"Yeah. She told me you ticked Her off."

"I didn't mean to." He rolled his eyes and huffed at the ceiling. "So, now You're broadcasting our little disagreement to everyone who can hear You?"

Not on purpose, Rodney. You project pretty loudly; I can't help it if you think as loud as you talk.

The admission took Bates by surprise, and he chuckled in response. Chuck choked on his laughter. At Peter's droll look of confusion, Bates repeated the City's reply. Peter's mouth twitched in humor.

Rodney tried to regain whatever remained of his dignity. "We had some strange readings on our end before the gate teams left, but they disappeared. It looks like our problem might be deep within Atlantis's systems, but it could be on my universe's side, yours, or both."

Miko Kusunagi nodded and pushed up her glasses farther up the bridge of her nose. "Do you believe it could be hidden so deeply that the City wasn't aware of it?"

"Maybe."

"No." That came from Bates.

Perhaps.

Bates frowned and said, "Explain."

Even my systems aren't completely foolproof, Kyle. When I was incorporated into the City's mainframe, Janus and the other engineers had already reprogrammed some of Atlantis's security protocols. They could have tampered with something and the effects are only apparent now.

"Figures," Rodney muttered. The Ancients could never seem to leave a system well enough alone when it actually worked.

Chuck sighed. "That's a reassuring thought, Melia."

"If that's true, we need access to Your programming within the mainframe," Bates said, "and that means we need to go down to the Chair Room."

Rodney looked sharply at him. "The Chair Room?"

Perhaps it would be advantageous if someone with a different perspective survey My systems, Kyle. He would be able to spot anomalous things more quickly than one who is overly familiar.

Bates scowled. "You're implying you want this McKay to enter Your mainframe?"

He is familiar with the systems of his Atlantis. There are a few differences between Me and the Other, but we are essentially the same.

"Is there a problem?" Peter asked. He'd noticed Bates's unhappy tone, and looked at him, then at Rodney. Rodney relayed the City's suggestion to him, and he only nodded. "You've also got the ATA Gene, so you should be able to do it."

"It's not as strong as my counterpart's," Rodney pointed out.

"Still, it's worth a try." Peter nodded again and said, "Kyle, Miko, take Rodney down to the Chair Room and we'll see if it's possible. If it is, we might be able to fix the problem."

Bates sighed and gestured at Rodney. "Fine. Follow me, then."

*****

Rodney gazed at it with more than a hint of trepidation. Unlike the one in the Chair Room of his Atlantis, this one thrummed with suppressed power and glowed a brilliant sapphire. Rodney could feel that power and he wasn't even close to it. He resisted the urge to put the door between himself and the Chair.

This must be how Carson feels every time I make him sit in the Chair. No wonder he's such a chicken. And if Sheppard doesn't mind it so much… "This isn't a chair. It's a damned throne."

He heard Her dry laughter in his mind. Close enough, Rodney. So all you have to do is sit, and you'll have access to all of my systems.

"That's it?" Rodney still eyed it with suspicion.

That's it. Melia's tone was serious under the humor. If there was any other way…but if you don't want to, I suppose Kyle Bates can do it.

"The only way I can fix anything is if I see it myself. I just need a second to get my equipment ready. Bates, let's get this over with."

A slight smile came over Bates's face, but he allowed Rodney to fuss with the computers. Finally, Rodney stood in front ofthe Chair and there was only one thing to do.

"Okay, here goes." He gingerly lowered himself into the Chair, which automatically reclined beneath him.

Just relax and think of what you want to see.

"Okay…" Rodney closed his eyes and visualized the Gate, how it went all glowy and the ka-woosh when it activated; the wave like water that spilled out of it, before being sucked back inside…

He remembered his first step into Atlantis, how he was stunned into complete and utter speechlessness—a rare happening, but he could forgive himself for this one—at the size of it, the majestic wonder, the discoveries just waiting for him…he was once again in what would become the Gateroom, looking around at the consoles, dark and silent, and they all came alive at once…

…when Sheppard arrived, Rodney thought, then-Major Sheppard, who possessed the strongest ATA Gene besides General O'Neill. He turned slightly to see Peter Grodin already at a console, Elizabeth Weir on her walkie-talkie. Sheppard, Sumner and Ford would be nearby…

…but they weren't, and the realization derailed Rodney's train of thought. He frowned and searched for them; they must be overseeing the rest of the expedition's arrival, and knowing Sumner, he'd be already ordering a defense perimeter. To his surprise, he heard the Scottish brogue of Commander Beckett issuing the orders.

So this must have been when the joint British/Canadian expedition had arrived here, four years before. That meant he was reliving the moment from Captain McKay's eyes. Rodney walked toward the railing overlooking the Gate Room floor. Then he saw an odd blinking light on the DHD, one he didn't recall seeing before.

What the hell? He scowled at it, but there didn't seem to be a button or lever to turn it off. Rodney put his fingertips on the odd rectangle and felt a surge of energy slam into him—

Welcome, Rodney McKay, Melia greeted him, and she pulled him down a tunnel of light, all shot through with color—

Hypercharged atomic and sub-atomic particles, a detached part of his mind observed: protons, electrons, neutrons, quarks, quanta, the stuff of matter and anti-matter…

It was beautiful. Every tiny bit had its place in the whole puzzle, and Rodney could see where each system fit into Atlantis's scheme. Power conduits snaked around like blood vessels, commands flew at the speed of thought, and the City pulsed like a living thing.

And in the middle of it all stood a woman in a long, white gown. She had dark hair, brown eyes, and a brilliant smile.

"M-Melia?"

"Hello, Rodney," she replied aloud, and he really heard her. "I knew you could find your way."

"I-I'm really in Atlantis? I mean—"

She grinned and answered, "You're in the City's mainframe. Well, your consciousness is, anyway. This is My domain."

"Uh——" Rodney looked around. Where could he start? There was so much to see, his mind almost exploded with possibilities.

"Let's start with something simple before we get into the more complicated tasks, Rodney." Melia took his hand and pressed his palm against hers. "I want you to access the personnel database."

He frowned. "The personnel database? Isn't that supposed to be restricted?"

"Usually, but we're not going to be looking at everyone's. Just yours. At least your counterpart's. If you can access that, then you can get to the other parts of the City's programming without any trouble."

Rodney wasn't sure he wanted to find out about this other Meredith McKay, but he only nodded. "All right, fine. How do I do that?"

Melia smiled. "Close your eyes and ask the City for what you want."

"That simple, huh?"

"That simple, at least while you're here."

"All right, here goes…" He closed his eyes and did so, and he felt a warm rush through his veins. When he opened his eyes, he glanced down at his tablet and saw the summary for Group Captain Meredith R. McKay, Royal Canadian Air Force. He concentrated on the screen in front of him as he read "his" military record.

"Born in Toronto, Ontario; one sister, Jean McKay, astrophysicist, currently head of the Physics department at McGill University—" Rodney shook his head in wonder as he read aloud, "She actually did it, she never married that English major—"

"Rodney. Focus."

He shook his head again. "Officially assigned to a project with the Russian Armed Forces, but in reality, military head of the Atlantis Expedition for almost four years. What the—"

"What?" Melia asked, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking.

"Knight Commander? How the hell—"

Melia shrugged, and answered in an offhand tone, "Ah, that. Peter described it to me as a little adventure with a group called…MI-6? You earned the eternal gratitude of the sovereign of Peter's country; I believe she was surprised you survived through that one."

Rodney rolled his eyes as if praying to Heaven "James Bond. Me. I'd make a lousy superspy. That's more Sheppard's line of work."

"Ah, the Colonel. Yes, I could see that." She sobered. "He is not unlike my Sheppard in some ways, though their lives, like yours and the Captain's, have taken different turns."

He nodded. "Yeah, reading this is just too weird."

"At least we know that your Touch of the Ancestors is strong enough for you to work with My programming, and manipulate it with little trouble."

"Wait…Sheppard can do it too?"

"Possibly, but he does not have your knowledge, and time is growing short. We must correct the problem within our Gate system without delay."

He cleared his throat and forced himself back to the problem at hand. "Okay, let's get to work."

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May 2012

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