Summary: When an injured John Sheppard shows up at his door in the middle of the night, David Sheppard finds himself in the middle of a desperate adventure. Hunted by implacable enemies and haunted by past misunderstandings, the two brothers struggle to survive in a world gone terribly wrong.
Part one / Part two / Part three
Dave looked down on the Earth below him, so peaceful beneath its belt of clouds. "He'll be okay," the big man said – what was his name? Ronon? "Sheppard always is."
In the stories, people always pinched themselves to find out if they were awake or dreaming, but what was that supposed to prove? You might just be dreaming the pinch. Looking down on the Earth, Dave felt as if he was floating in a dream. It didn't even feel real when they let him sit beside John's bed, because John had been gone for so many years that it seemed impossible that Dave could be sitting there beside him.
And he wasn't really John. This man, this Colonel Sheppard, had friends, and they had been quite insistent about that. They had made Dave sign things, made him say that he wouldn't tell anybody about it, and then had revealed the secrets of another universe.
This wasn't John. Or, rather, this was John, but a John from another place. I thought you'd come back, Dave wanted to say to the still form in the infirmary bed, but it wasn't you after all. They'd almost begun to come to an understanding, almost begun to heal the rift of the last few years, but it had all been for nothing. John was a fake.
John could still die.
When they'd found them, or so the talkative one called McKay liked to repeat, Dave had been huddled protectively over John's body, ready to fight off all comers. Dave didn't remember much of that, though. He remembered John's face cracking into a smile, though; remembered how much feeling he had put into the names of the people who were closing on him. Dave remembered fighting, struggling to hold his wavering pistol steady. "Who's that?" he remembered McKay asking, and Ronon had said, "Looks like Sheppard's brother." Someone had slapped something onto his back, then, and the next thing he remembered was being here, on a ship called the Daedalus – a space ship! A fucking space ship! – far above the Earth.
"We don't know how it happened," McKay had explained, some time afterwards. "Sheppard was taking a jumper back to Earth – research into the Ancient tech; though why they couldn't get me to do the research back on Atlantis, and actually believe my report, I don't know, but that's Stargate Command for you. So, anyway, he was heading home, when something happened – and, no, Conan, it wasn't anything I did, not this time – and… well, he never arrived. Not in our version of Stargate Command, anyway."
Dave didn't understand. He couldn't understand. Other universes? It was the stuff of science fiction. But so was the world he already lived in – a dystopian vision of the future, all watchful cameras and thought police.
But the Earth was below him, and John at least had a chance.
"Was it easy?" he asked now. "Finding him, I mean?"
Ronon looked out through the window, not down at the planet below, but up at the stars. "I leave that sort of stuff to McKay," he said. "McKay says it was hard."
"But you did it," Dave said.
Ronon nodded. "Of course." He said it as if no other result had even been a possibility.
Dave wandered through the ship, seeing its crew of people who looked as human as he was, and who spoke with the same colloquialisms and the same range of accents as anyone he had ever known. He remembered how good he was at networking during business lunches and parties, and spoke to some of them. The best way to learn about a person, his father had always said, was to talk to the people that knew them, for they were the mirror that reflected the person's true nature. If that was true, then this was a mirror held up to a mirror. Dave was scrabbling for snatches of insight into his own brother, through the opinions people held about someone who wasn't even him.
This Colonel Sheppard was a good man; this he learnt. He could be cold and ruthless when he needed to be, but he was fiercely loyal to those under his command, and he had risked his life on countless occasions to save others. Everybody on this ship had willingly come through the barrier between universes on the off-chance that they could rescue him. "Because he'd do the same for us," said a young soldier, little more than twenty years old. "We've all heard the stories, you see."
He learnt more, too, on his wanderings. The Daedalus was stranded here, because it had used too much power getting here. McKay said he could fix things, but there was something that he needed first – something that he didn't know how to get. "We're still shielded," he said. "Don't want to reveal ourselves to the natives, because they're… well, they're mean. There's no reason to believe that the Atlantis expedition even exists in this universe, and Stargate Command… They're based in DC, for a start, and they seem to spend most of their time trying to kill people."
"And if you can't get home…?" Dave asked.
McKay started, as if he'd forgotten that Dave was there. "We'll get home. I'll think of something."
"You did it for him," Dave said quietly. "For John."
McKay frowned, as if Dave had said something very stupid indeed.
John woke on the third day. His friends were the ones who saw him first. Dave drifted in a few minutes later, drawn by the news, and stood there out of sight, shielded from John's sight by Ronon's bulk.
Then he heard John speak his name. "Is Dave still here?"
"You know he isn't your brother, right?" That was McKay. "People can be very different in different universes. You remember that, don't you, Colonel Mensa?"
"I know that," John said, as Dave edged forward. John smiled as he saw him; Dave saw that.
"Hey." Dave's throat was dry. The others moved away, Ronon dragging McKay by the sleeve. "You're…"
"On the good stuff." John nodded in the direction of the IV in his arm. He'd been shot a second time, Dave had learnt, in the course of their escape, but he hadn't said a word.
"Yeah." Dave perched on the chair by the bedside.
"I thought…" John shifted position, pressing his head back into the pillow. "…thought you'd have gone by now," he said. "They'll have told you the truth. You didn't believe me when I told you, but--"
"It's kind of hard to argue with a space ship." Dave smiled. He felt fragile inside, as if he couldn't move too much in case something broke.
"I meant it, though," John said. "You should find him. I want you to find him."
"You're not my brother, to tell me what to do," Dave said, and the words hurt as they came out, even though they were true.
"No." John shook his head.
Dave looked down at his clasped hands. "I almost hated him, you know – my John. I'd always looked up to him, and he just left. He said…" He closed his eyes for a moment. "You said you had to do what you needed to do, that you couldn't bow down and be something that you weren't, but what about me? One of us had to inherit. It was supposed to be you. I was supposed to be the one free to do whatever I wanted. You said you'd always look out for me, but you abandoned me, left me with that."
"I'm sorry." John's voice cracked.
"What if I'd wanted to fly, too?" Dave said. Then he held up his hand, stopping John's reply, then pressed his fingers to his brow, between his throbbing eyes. "I resented it, and then when you couldn't even stick with the life you'd chosen…" He let out a breath. "But it wasn't just a choice for you, was it? I understand that now. It would have killed you, living the life Dad wanted you to lead. Minute by minute, it would have killed you, and I…"
"Dave," John breathed, but Dave barely heard it.
"I'm good at it," he said. "Sure, I flirted with rebellion, but I was never brilliant, not like you. I was never meant to fly. I'm good at my job. I thought it wasn't what I wanted, and then I resented you for trapping me in it, but I'm good at it. And I couldn't live the sort of life you lead. I… I don't know how good I'd be at anything else."
"Dave," John began again, but once more Dave interrupted him.
"I know," he said. "You're not him. But it's like you said, back then. It's easier to say these things, you know, when it's not real."
"You should say it to him," John said. He shifted position again, obviously in pain. A doctor hurried over, asked him a few sharp questions, and adjusted something on his IV. "He won't like it," John said, when she had gone, as if there had been no interruption at all. "He'll try to deflect it, but he'll want to hear it. It'll be good for him to hear it. He can be a stubborn son-of-a-bitch at times."
"How do you know?" Dave looked at the old scar on John's neck. What scars had his own brother picked up over the years, he wondered. "He might not be anything like you."
"I think he is," John said, "from the things you said when you thought I was him."
The childhood memories were real. Those expressions, those painfully familiar expressions, were real – this John echoing an expression that Dave's own John had used so many years ago. This John had been willing to die for him, but it was his own John who had walked away from the career he loved because they had refused to let him risk his life to save someone else. This John had triggered the comprehension, but the man he now understood a little better was his own brother, his own John.
"What about your Dave?" he asked. "Are you… close?"
John seemed to hesitate a while before shaking his head. "We… talked, nearly a year ago. Things are better than they were, but…" He looked away, retreating in on himself. "He's more… stiff than you."
Dave smiled. "You caught me on a bad day. Normally I'm…" The words ran out. How could he even begin to wonder what another version of himself was like, over in another universe? "If my John's like you," he said, "and if the circumstances of our lives have been similar, then…" He looked John full in the face. "He misses you, John, and it's all mixed up with resentment and misunderstanding, but he misses you. He just wants to know his brother again, because once… once we were so close."
"I know." John closed his eyes, perhaps drifting towards sleep. "I know. I just wish… wish it wasn't too late with Dad."
"What do you mean?" Dave frowned. "It isn't too late."
John's eyes snapped open. "Dad's still alive?"
Ronon was pacing up and down the parking lot of the nursing home. McKay rubbed his hands together in an exaggerated attempt to keep warm. "I don't know why we had to come."
"Because Sheppard needs us," Ronon said.
"Needs us to stay outside in the cold?"
"Might need us afterwards," Ronon said, "even if he doesn't say anything about it."
Dave had wanted to go in with John, but John had been insistent. "I know he isn't really Dad," he said. "I know that my father's dead, but…"
John still looked exceedingly fragile, just one step away from being ordered into a wheelchair himself. The doctors had tried to refuse to let him come, but John had insisted. As soon as the Daedalus was fixed, they'd be returning to their own universe, and he had to grab this chance before it was taken away. "I have to," he had begged, and from the look of consternation on McKay's face, Dave had deduced that this version of his brother seldom showed such naked need.
And so Dave waited outside, along with these people who, or so Dave was beginning to realise, had taken the place of family for Colonel John Sheppard.
He wanted to peek in through the window. He wanted to burst in to his father's room and explain. Instead, he wrapped his arms around his body, slapping his arms to stay warm. Fake icicles hung from the window, and when Dave had parted from John in the warm lobby, he had heard a radio singing Christmas songs.
"Dad can't cope with visitors for long," he found himself saying now, as if in explanation, but for what? "He's deteriorated rapidly these last few months. It's mostly physical, but he's showing definite signs of dementia. The stress of… all this--" He gestured widely, meaning this world of compounds and disappearances. "Well, it couldn't have helped, could it?"
He had only dared ask a few questions about the world these people had come from. It was far from perfect, he knew, but at least it was better than this.
"I didn't even know Sheppard had a father," McKay said, "until he died."
Ronon jabbed him in the ribs, snapping his name.
Dave looked up at the sky, where a small tear had opened up in the clouds, showing a square of blue. John would have reached the room by now; would have said those first introductions. "I thought there might be enforcers here," he said. "I thought they might have… you know? Got at him. At Dad."
"Oh." McKay flapped his hand, as if it wasn't really important. "Colonel Caldwell had a little chat with the bosses of your Evil SGC. They're all over Sheppard's puddlejumper like eager little beavers, and… I don't know what Caldwell said, but he told them certain things. They're quite ridiculously narrow-minded, you know. They discovered the Stargate five years ago, and it turned them instantly paranoid – alien sympathisers under the bed, and so on. It goes right to the top, of course – the Stargate Project always did – but here it seems to have turned into a military dictatorship. But where was I?" He snapped his fingers several times. "Caldwell. Said a few words. Told them to stop accidentally snagging people from other universes, and, by the way, not to hurt a single hair on the head of one David Sheppard, or… I don't know – maybe the enormous space ship in orbit might blow them into a million pieces?"
"Way to stop them being paranoid," Ronon said.
McKay shrugged, frowning as if it wasn't really important. "Maybe he said something else; I wasn't there. Busy fixing the ship, remember? So we can return home? You know, saving our lives again?"
"You're going soon?" Dave asked, but then a door opened, the music swelling louder. If McKay answered, Dave didn't hear it. The person who emerged wasn't John, though.
Dave hadn't yet gone home. He didn't know if he still had a home to go to. He remembered waking up in the cabin, thinking about the meeting he was going to miss, and realising how supremely unimportant such things were. Now he found himself eager to get back. John and his friends lived in a different world, in far more ways than the literal one. It wasn't just duty that bound Dave to the life that he lived, but aptitude. It suited him. All he had to do was look at things in a different way.
"I wonder what they're saying," McKay said, when they had all been silent a while. "It's freaky, wanting to talk to someone after they're dead."
Ronon looked up, his eyes suddenly burning. "Wouldn't you," he said, "if you could?"
McKay let out a breath, his shoulders slumping. "I just wish he'd hurry up."
Dave began to walk around the side of the building, looking into a place that blazed with lights. Was that his father? Was that John sitting in front of him, holding his hands in both of his own? Then someone came to the window, pulling the drapes, and he could no longer see in. There was a star painted on the window in glitter, slightly lop-sided.
Dave stood there, arms limp at his side, on the outside, not even able to look in.
He was still there when John emerged, his steps slow and weary, his face fading away into the dusk. "You spoke to him?" Dave said. "It was--" He swallowed. "--good?"
"Good." John passed his hand over his face, as if he was wiping away invisible tears. "I know it's not him, but I said things… things I wish I'd said to Dad, to the real one, and he…"
"What?" Dave asked, his voice raw. Once again, he saw, Ronon was tugging at McKay's arm, pulling him to a place far enough away for Dave and his brother to speak without anyone else hearing them. "What?" Dave asked again.
John blinked, and seemed to be fighting for composure, but when he finally spoke, his voice was quiet. "He said everything I would have wanted to hear."
But it was not enough. Dave had to see for himself, to tear open the door, to rush into the stifling warmth inside.
"Dave." His father was smiling. "Johnny's come home. Have you seen him? Johnny's back."
"I know, Dad," Dave said, and for the first time in countless years he was crying, really crying. "I know."
"So this is it," John said. He was back in bed again, still recovering from his premature trip out into the cold. "Caldwell's wrested what Rodney needed from the claws of the Evil SGC, Rodney's done his magic, and…"
"You're going," Dave said. "Back to your own universe."
John nodded. "Yeah."
And Dave wasn't sad, he realised. This John was a mirror onto his own. Whenever he spoke to this John, he saw a reflection of the things he should be saying to his real brother. "I'm going to find him," he said. "He's definitely still alive. Three thousand miles away, that colonel said. That's a clue."
"We can find him for you," John offered, but Dave shook his head.
"No," he said. "It needs to be about us, about mending fences, not about… well, about giant space ships and doppelgangers from another universe."
John chuckled. "I can see how that would be a distraction."
There was a different feel to the ship, Dave realised; everyone was relieved to be going home. "What about you?" he asked. "You're going to talk to your brother?"
John tried to look away, tried to deflect the question just for a moment, and then sighed. "Yes," he said. "Those things you said… They might be true for him, too. I never thought… No. Well. I have to ask him. I have to talk."
"And show him who you are?" Dave asked, remembering how John had been when he had returned from quitting the Air Force: defensive, flippant, miserable. If it hadn't been for this encounter with John's other self, Dave might never have realised the sort of man his brother truly was. Did this other Dave know, he wondered. Did this other Dave know even the tiniest fraction of what his brother did every day of his life?
"Families are allowed clearance," John said. "It's… it's hard, when you can't tell people what you do. It's living a lie. You… you become the mask when… when you're with them. You become what they expect you to be."
Someone came through this door – Dave's signal, perhaps, that it was time to leave. "You'll tell him?" Dave urged. You'll let him see what I saw? You'll let him understand?
"Yeah." John's shoulders slumped as if he was defeated, but he smiled. "I'll do that. I'll…" His eyes flickered over Dave's shoulder, to the place where the escort waited. "I'm sorry I brought all this down on you."
"Don't be," Dave said, meaning it utterly. "If you hadn't…" Well, if he hadn't, then Dave would still be living a bleak existence, resenting his job. His father would still be miserable, missing his best-loved son. "I'm glad you did," he said simply.
John looked at him, swallowed, and said, "So am I."
They clasped hands, brother to brother, separated by worlds and years, and separated by nothing at all. "Goodbye," Dave said, and perhaps it was a cliché, but it felt like the start of things, not an ending.
He walked away, John watching him, and he did look back, but only once. The white beam took him, and deposited him back on his own, familiar earth.
On the night when it had all started, he remembered, he had looked into a wine glass and failed to see any sort of reflection that he recognised. As he looked now into his own unshattered windows, he saw his own self looking back at him.
Sometimes, he thought, it took a reflection to show you the truth of a thing. Sometimes, he thought, as he looked up at the sky and wondered which, if any, of those silver dots was the Daedalus, it took something that was not real to show you the truth about what was.
Was that a star winking out? He put his key into the lock, and went in, scenting the familiar smells of home.
Perhaps he would find his own John by Christmas Day.
Long note: As regular readers will know, I love outsider viewpoint stories. I particularly like outsider viewpoint stories when the viewpoint character initially has a poor opinion of the character they're observing, but has their opinion changed as a result of the character's actions. Additionally, one of my absolute favourite guilty pleasure scenarios is the incognito thing – the Scarlet Pimpernel scenario when someone has a secret life of heroic awesomeness, while their family and friends think they're nothing much at all.
Put all of these together, and it might have seemed inevitable that I would write a story from the viewpoint of John's disapproving brother. However, I also have a rather unreasonable aversion to committing myself on issues that I think that the show (or, now, the movie) might address. As long as there's any possibility that we might learn more about John's background, I'm reluctant to come up with my own version in fanfic. Then I got hit by the perfect solution: make much of it AU. The freedom this gave me was incredible, and this story took over my brain in an amazing fashion. It totally wrote itself.
I did worry a bit that people might feel cheated by the revelation that this was an AU Dave, and feel that this meant that the emotional developments didn't count, but I really didn't want to ruin the mysteries of the early parts by putting a great big AU label on the story. I am also aware that this could, perhaps, have been a much longer story, in which real John and AU Dave went on a long, danger-filled adventure, but the plot bunny that bit me was for a shorter piece focused on the emotions.
I have no immediate plans for a sequel, but if an idea might wander along and hit me one day, who knows? What happens when Real John, fresh from this experience, goes to see Real Dave? What happens when AU Dave finds AU John? In my mind, AU John has been living quite an interesting life these last few years. I rather suspect that he plays an important role in a secret resistance. He's outwardly a very minor trouble-maker, enough for the enforcers to monitor him but not arrest him, but, unbeknown to anyone, he's the… er… the Scarlet Blade – the mysterious masked figure who snatches doomed people from the very clutches of the evil… Well. Ahem. I should probably quit now.
Thank you very much for reading, and especial thanks to everyone who's left comments along the way.