The thing is, of course, that the head of science in Atlantis – in, technically, the whole of the Pegasus galaxy, if you consider the level of technology on the planets they visit – is an incredibly demanding position. Rodney has a huge staff that he’s responsible for (although it’s true that the numbers do deplete a little whenever Elizabeth notices how much menial labor he gets out of the greener of the marines), but it’s a lot to oversee. Especially when you take into account the fact that he supervises nearly every project carried out in the labs; although it’s not actually his job to micromanage to that degree, it’s generally necessary in order to prevent minor accidents like, say, the destruction of the better part of the East pier.
Is it any wonder, then, that he generally doesn’t find the time to listen to the tedious briefings that take place before every single mission? It’s practically a miracle that he finds the time to attend them in the first place. Besides, his job is to discover things about the planets they visit, and Teyla’s information – useful as it no doubt is to people with less important things to occupy their attention – would just provide distraction and bias and muddy the intellectual waters, so really he was practically blameless when it came down to it, and –
Rodney deflated, slightly.
“You’re not buying this at all, are you?”
“Not so much,” John said, and finally gave in to the urge to smack him around the back of the head.
The urge had started pretty much as soon as they set foot through the gate.
P7Y-685 wasn’t anything special, as far as John could see, but the meadow that the Stargate stood in was hip-deep in tall grass and wildflowers. Kind of pretty, actually, but Rodney reared back fast enough to nearly head butt him in the face and Ronon had to grab hold of Teyla’s arm as she avoided John’s clumsy sidestep.
“What the hell, McKay?”
“Do you have any idea how -” Rodney shrugged his arm out of his pack, quickly swinging it to the ground and rummaging through it – “how potentially allergic I could – have you ever seen a severe allergic reaction, Colonel?” He let out a triumphant noise, holding something over his head with one hand while still pawing through the pack with the other. “Take this, would you? I’m not sure you’re the most reliable but you’re certainly the only one with adequate pockets.”
Rodney flicked a glance sideways – not wanting to have Ronon menace him over insulting Satedan pockets, or something – but Ronon’s hand was still wrapped around Teyla’s arm, even though she’d clearly caught her balance, in a way that made her look even tinier than she already was; it really didn’t look like the big guy was paying attention.
John took the Epi-pen and looked at it, one eyebrow raised.
“I don’t have to give you the lecture again, do I?” Rodney’s blue eyes were fixed on his face, the pack of antihistamines that he’d apparently been searching for clutched in one square hand, and there was something ever so slightly brittle about his expression until John shook his head.
“I know how to use it.”
“Good,” Rodney said, turning back to his pack and cinching it closed again, “good. Put it somewhere you can reach it easily or I’ll rethink the whole Ascension thing just so I can come back and make your life hell.”
“I think I’m flattered.”
Rodney scowled at him, but kept his mouth shut as John made a point of dropping the pen into the front pocket of his vest. It clacked softly, resting up against the one that had been there ever since their second mission together.
“Good,” Rodney said again softly, absently, and then clapped his hands together. “Right. Ready to go forth and meet the natives?” And you’d think, from the tone of his voice, that they’d been the ones to hold him up. John pulled his aviators out of the pocket of his vest, folding them open as slowly as he could and sliding them onto his face.
He figured it was probably best to keep his hands occupied.
The walk to the village was pretty uneventful after that. Ronon and Teyla were out in front, his head bent close to hers, and Rodney was a persistent buzz in John’s left ear. Life signs readings, allergens, blisters, musings on various of the science projects back home on Atlantis; John pretty much tuned in and out, contributing on the rare occasions where it seemed to be expected and almost making Rodney trip over once when he corrected mistaken math. For someone who talked so much, the guy always seemed a little surprised when people turned out to be listening, but the truth was that there was something kind of relaxing about it. It was silences that you had to look out for with Rodney; all the many fucked-up fates that silently underlined what he didn’t say.
There was no place for silences here, though. When they eventually reached the village, solid looking stone-built houses with scorch-marks every now and again to prove that the smiles on the faces of the folks who lived there were hard-won, the villagers lived up to the way Teyla had painted them. If anything they were more welcoming, ushering the team into one of the largest houses to meet and greet and be invited to dine with some kind of mayor type and his family.
‘As much of a dinner as can be managed on such short notice,’ they were promised, with apologetic looks and much bowing, but the feast that met them even shut Rodney up for a minute or two.
“This is all for us?” he asked John, awed, and “back off, Chewie, I saw it first.” He elbowed Ronon in the side and took his seat at the table first, mouth full and chewing happily before everyone else had even taken their seats.
“Rodney,” John drawled, warningly, and he was backed up by Teyla.
“Do not forget you must be careful, Rodney,” but all she got in reply was the wave of a pseudo-fork.
“Yes, yes. I have you to keep an eye on me, don’t I?” Which he did. That was what they were for, and John quirked a fond, lopsided smile as he filled his own plate and made what passed for polite conversation at these things.
Eventually, after discussion of the crops and the weather and the weather when they harvested the crops, even Ronon was defeated by the mountains of food that heaped the scratched wooden table, the flickering fire and candlelight contributing to a kind of amiable lethargy. Rodney, unburdened by the sort of regard for first impressions that kept John vaguely presentable, subtly undid the button on his BDUs and smirked, letting out a satisfied sigh.
“That was the best meal I’ve had in a long time. I should stay here longer,” and John’s head jerked up, and Teyla’s chair clattered to the floor as she jumped to her feet, but Rodney continued before they could stop him. “I’m going to have to stay here a month at least to diges-”
That was when Teyla’s small hand slapped over his mouth, but it was already too late. The mayor guy, Mantel, was rising out of his chair, bowing jerkily to Rodney with a pinched expression on his face.
“Very well,” he said. “My wife will ready the first guest chamber for you, Dr. Rodney McKay.”
“What?” Rodney yelped, caught in the middle of yanking Teyla’s hand away from his mouth. He looked from the mayor to John, eyes wide and confused. “Wait, what?”
“I warned you to be careful,” Teyla said sharply, and John had to sit on his hands.
Of course, if Rodney’d been listening the way that John had been - mostly, apart from the small game of hangman he’d prodded Rodney into between staccato typing – he’d have heard Teyla talking about the trade the Athosians had carried out on P7Y-685 in the past. He’d have heard about the elaborate and rigidly enforced hospitality rituals that were a necessary part of trade relations, and the part about new trade partners having to be really damned careful about what they asked for, for fear of what they might be asked in return. He’d probably have heard something about where the tradition came from too – John was pretty sure it involved something about the Ancients - but that was the point at which he’d kind of been kicking ass and hadn’t really been listening that closely himself.
If Rodney’d been listening, though, he wouldn’t have been left gaping as the team prepared to leave, plucking kind of helplessly at the sleeve of John’s jacket.
“You can’t be serious,” he was saying, but they’d been through this and John was. No amount of protests, and there had been a lot of protests, could change that. And the amount that John hated that fact was making him a little more terse than usual as he shouldered his pack.
“Deal with it, McKay. We’ll get Elizabeth in to sort this out in the morning, but right now we’re not screwing up potential trade over you not wanting to stay for a sleepover.”
John rechecked the buckles on his tac vest, a pointless activity that kept his hands occupied and stopped them from reaching out to smooth over baby-fine hair, the way they had right after he’d given Rodney a (well deserved) smack around the back of the head.
“You will be fine.” Teyla had been standing by the DHD with Ronon, but she came over to place her hand gently on Rodney’s forearm, over the place he’d been rubbing absently, fretfully. “My people have never found cause to quarrel with them. You should consider it an opportunity to strengthen our new trade alliance.”
Usually that would have had the wide crooked mouth twisting sardonically, would have prompted a dismissive snort, but there was just silence for a second or two.
“Just - ” Rodney’s eyes were wide and strangely defenceless, “just don’t leave me here, okay?”
“Only for tonight,” John answered quickly, his voice more intent than he’d meant it. “We’ll be back bright and early to rescue you.”
There was just something about Rodney, he’d found, that snuck right through carefully built walls, made him impulsive in a way that usually only happened when lives were on the line. His hand was ruffling quickly through soft brown hair before he could think about it, and he was stepping back and jerking his head impatiently at Teyla and Ronon before Rodney could react.
He was pretty sure he could feel eyes on his back right up to the wormhole, but he didn’t turn around.
Of course, this was the Pegasus galaxy, and this was McKay, so things weren’t quite as simple as that.
Rodney met them at the Stargate the next morning, virtually hopping from foot to foot in his anxiety, grabbing onto the sleeve of John’s jacket before the wormhole had even closed behind them. Elizabeth raised an eyebrow at that, but Rodney was too busy babbling to notice.
“- and singing songs is considered a valid form of entertainment here and apparently being able to do so in tune isn’t actually a requirement and if I don’t get my hands on a laptop sometime in the next half hour, Sheppard, I’m going to kill something. Possibly someone. Probably you.”
“Good to see you too, McKay.” And it was kind of true, too, in spite of his lopsided smirk and sarcastic drawl. Last night had been relaxing, sure, the opportunity to eat without a constant litany of complaints in his ear kind of novel, but that didn’t mean that it was something he wanted to continue. Besides, the amount of time he spent wanting to shoot McKay, he wasn’t sure he wanted to leave the guy in the company of strangers any longer than he really had to.
He should’ve known better than to expect a response to that, unless you counted the orgasmic noises McKay made when he saw the laptop Elizabeth had slung over her shoulder.
They got him moving again, eventually – apparently the chance to let Elizabeth talk his way out of this was enough to convince Rodney not to just settle down on the stone steps by the Stargate and boot up the laptop right then. As soon as she was safely inside and working her diplomatic magic with Mantel and his lovely wife Selwyn – both of whom were a little twitchy around the eyes, which boded pretty well for negotiations – he had the laptop open and resting on his outstretched legs, his back against the stained stone wall. John entertained himself by throwing small stones at McKay’s left foot, a point for every direct hit and five when it was enough to cause a twitch.
“You are aware that I could kill you in any of -” Rodney paused, apparently to calculate, still without looking up - “fifteen different ways, right now?”
“Coming from Zelenka that’d worry me, McKay,” he responded easily.
“Zelenka, really? Even without my extensive combat training?” Rodney looked up, scowl firmly in place.
John shrugged, trying not to snigger.
“He’s kind of crazy around the eyes.”
Rodney’s mouth went crooked and he nodded once, conceding the point.
“Besides,” he continued, settling himself in a more comfortable sprawl against the house opposite McKay’s, “I know you love me.”
A twitch that wasn’t caused by a stone, which John noted with interest and a little bemusement, but before he could ask about it Teyla emerged from inside the house and the twist of her mouth was a little unsettling.
Rodney’s head jerked up from the laptop again as John spoke, his own mouth pulling down at the corner when he saw the look on Teyla’s face.
“I am not sure,” she said carefully, her hands spread a little way from her sides. “They are – reluctant.”
“Even with Ronon in there?” Elizabeth never really approved of the tactic, but John generally made sure that Ronon played a big part in any negotiations. “Even after a night with Rodney?”
“Yes, thank you for that,” McKay snapped at him, but before John could decipher the look in blue eyes they’d flicked away again, back to Teyla’s face. “Seriously?”
“Their traditions are complex and highly important to them, Rodney,” she answered, the admonishment in her tone clear, and he flapped a hand at her impatiently, going back to his laptop.
“Which I would know if I’d been listening, yes, yes. Can we assume that I’ve been punished enough by a night of Mantel’s singing and move on to the part where you find a way to convince them that I’m really more trouble than I’m worth?”
“I will do my best,” Teyla said, her face starting to relax into a smile, and John raised a hand.
“I’m here if they need convincing.”
Rodney snorted. “Oh please,” he said derisively, “you know you love me.”
But Rodney didn’t look up, so John was pretty sure he didn’t see John’s foot twitch.
It was well past lunch time when Elizabeth emerged. John took one look at her slumped shoulders and his hand dropped instinctively to rest on his sidearm.
“No,” but it wasn’t him. He looked over at Rodney’s eyes gone wide, mouth uneven and unhappy. “No no no no you’re supposed to fix this!”
She nodded, mouth tight.
“And I have done my best, Rodney, but -” She shrugged, helpless, wordless, and John’s hand curled over the butt of his gun.
“Elizabeth -” John began, voice low and warning.
“We can’t afford to lose their trade,” she snapped. “The Daedalus can’t serve as a supply ship forever, not with the state of things on Earth, and I’d rather we weren’t left to starve when that happens.”
“And I’d rather we didn’t explode or sink or all die of some Ancient nano-virus in the meantime because we didn’t have the only guy smart enough to fix it.”
“How much can happen in a month?” And, when Rodney and John turned to give her matching incredulous looks she rubbed her eyes tiredly. “Right. Yes. I know.”
She disappeared back into the house again and the eventual conclusion, satisfying to no one, was that Rodney would spend his days at work on Atlantis and his nights back on P7Y-685. Mantel and his wife wouldn’t accept any less than that, careful of their laws, and John wouldn’t accept any more.
“We need him,” he’d said, Ronon looming unrepentantly behind him and Teyla solemn and intent and close to Rodney’s side. John was pretty sure that it was their combined presence that’d closed the deal more effectively than Elizabeth’s extended persuasion - extended long enough that it was dark when they finished their discussions, Selwyn firm that Rodney should stay in the face of his protestations that night time was negotiable and he never slept ‘til the early hours anyway.
“Stay strong, buddy,” John told him, hand on Rodney’s shoulder, the look on his face – illuminated by the flickering blue light from the Stargate - dampening the relief that they didn’t have to abandon him here for a whole month.
“Just don’t leave me here, okay?”
Same words he’d said the night before, and John’s hand tightened a little.
“Promise,” he said, voice low and serious, and Rodney’s mouth tightened but he nodded his head. He was still watching intently when John turned to lift a hand to him before backing through the wormhole.
John’s voice was kind of hushed, incongruous in the busyness of the lab. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to wake the scientist over the last few days, but generally McKay waited at least until the sun had gone down. This time it was barely even eleven and McKay was already sacked out and drooling at his workstation.
Confused blue eyes blinked open and Rodney frowned, lifting a hand to wipe his mouth absently. When he focused on John his frown deepened and he sat up a little, obviously trying to concentrate.
“Something wrong, Colonel?”
Nothing he was willing to admit to in public, especially not with Zelenka three feet away and smirking. John was betting that he’d been the one to twist Rodney’s hair into tiny devil horns.
“C’mon,” he said instead, getting to his feet and jerking his head in the direction of the door. Rodney looked confused, but followed him obediently anyway, which was probably the most telling sign yet that he hadn’t been getting nearly enough sleep. He didn’t protest until they were nearly at the door to his quarters, nearly stumbling into John’s side when he shook his head.
“I have work -” he protested, but John just waved his hand in front of the crystals and pushed Rodney through the opening door.
“You have nothing that won’t wait,” he said firmly, “and I’m gonna feel better about the work you’re doing if I know you’re getting some sleep.”
“It’s just -” Rodney lifted a hand and rubbed at his eye, looking all of six years old – “it’s too quiet there.” He winced a little. “Apart from when they’re singing.”
“I know, buddy,” he said, and Rodney didn’t protest when he walked over and tugged down the zipper of his jacket, easing it off his shoulder before Rodney sat abruptly on the edge of his bed. He didn’t protest when John knelt to pull his boots off, either, and John just watched his fingers on laces and carefully didn’t think of anything at all.
Rodney didn’t speak again until John was almost at the door, his voice small and tired.
“Don’t leave me?”
John let out a breath, still facing the door.
“Promise,” he said eventually, walking over to take a seat at Rodney’s desk and open his laptop.
He’d been waiting for an opportunity to beat Rodney’s minesweeper scores, anyway.
Every day until then Rodney had been waiting when John dialled through, bouncing with impatience, but this time he was a little late, red and flushed with the hurry he’d been in to get there.
“Sorry,” he said, in answer to John’s raised eyebrow, “Selwyn’s sister is visiting with her kids. You know how it is.”
“Sure,” said John, jaw tight, but he figured it was better not to comment.
And later, when he caught Rodney happily humming something ‘Anta’ had taught him as he switched around control crystals in ‘jumper five, he didn’t say anything either.
Anta turned out to be a kid under three feet tall, and she started coming with her mother to wave Rodney goodbye.
“Just remember,” Rodney was saying, as John came through the wormhole on the twelfth day – not that he was counting – “Hockey is the sport of kings.”
He was really trying not to resent the way Rodney was starting to look well-rested these days, better even than he had on Atlantis. Right now he looked looser, relaxed, a smile quirking one side of his mouth as he leaned forward with his hands on his thighs, talking intently to the tiny girl as her mother looked on fondly.
John’s voice was a little sharper than usual when he spoke.
“Corrupting the young, Rodney?”
“Practicing the uncle thing,” Rodney answered, jerking upright, clearly uncomfortable. “Are we going?”
He almost responded snidely to that, almost drawled something about Rodney being sure he didn’t have anything better to do, only – what if he did? John had never noticed before quite how much time Teyla and Ronon spent ‘training’ together, hadn’t needed to when he’d had Rodney to bug the crap out of virtually 24/7. And then when he’d tried for other entertainment, hunting down Zelenka – there were some things he was just really, really not going to ask Lorne.
“We’re going,” he said instead, flatly. “If you’re done?”
“One can never be done with instilling a love of hockey in the young,” Rodney said primly, stepping up next to John as he dialled the DHD.
“Yesterday he taught me about Hail Marys,” Anta piped up cheerfully, almost drowned out by the sound of the opening wormhole, and Rodney’s fingers curled securely into the fabric of John’s sleeve.
For the first time in a while, John’s grin lasted most of the day.
John heard Rodney before he’d even managed to get his eyes open, the familiar haranguing voice starting a grin that hurt his face.
“Hey buddy,” he croaked, barely loud enough to hear, and the tirade stopped like he’d been switched off. After a second there were cool fingers resting against his wrist.
“You’re an idiot.” Softer than usual, and John forced his eyes open, squinting even in the low light of the infirmary. Waiting a second until he’d focused, he sought out Carson, behind Rodney and a little to the left.
“Been prepping him, doc?”
Rodney made a frustrated noise.
“As if he needed to. It’s not exactly a stretch of the mental faculties to reach the conclusion that your presence in the infirmary and my lack of presence on your team would mean that you had done something quite offensively stupid without me to watch you.” The scowl on his face was kind of undermined by the way that his thumb was brushing back and forward a little where it rested on John’s wrist. “So what was it this time? Wraith worshippers? Crazed monks? Alien priestess?”
“He fell in a river.” Carson’s comment, dryly amused, had Rodney turning to blink at him incredulously.
“Really. And then the silly bugger refused to get his cold looked at until it had him dizzy enough to take a tumble down the gate-room stairs.”
“Hey,” John repeated, weakly. “Doctor-patient confidentiality?”
John shrugged in reply, hoping to head off the tickle in the back of his throat by steadfastly refusing to open his mouth. It failed exactly the same way it had the previous five times he’d tried it and he wound up bent almost double and choking hard enough to send sharp stabs of pain through his head with every cough. Rodney’s big square hand traced small fretful circles on his back until he finally lay back again, tired and aching and frankly miserable.
“I think that’s enough talking, Colonel,” Carson said, brisk but sympathetic, and John nodded once, obediently enough, but hooked his fingers around Rodney’s sleeve when he stood and tried to leave.
Shrewd blue eyes regarded him for a moment or two, then Rodney’s mouth curved upward a little at the corners.
“Promise,” Rodney said, and pulled up a chair.
John still wasn’t exactly steady on his legs, four days later, but there was only so much of his limited time on Atlantis that Rodney could spend in the infirmary, and John was pretty sure he was already using up more than he ought to in visits. (That thought always sent a weird warmth through him, in a way that John wasn’t hugely willing to look at too closely.)
It was worth Carson’s dire warnings, worth the way he had to lean against the DHD in what was actually not entirely a laconic slouch, just to see the slow growing smile on Rodney’s face when he saw him.
He wasn’t expecting the hug, full body contact and Rodney like a furnace against him, but he wasn’t going to protest.
“Guess you missed me, huh?” John inserted the required amount of levity in his tone, but Rodney was kind of falling down on the job.
“Yes,” he eventually answered, oddly subdued as he turned to focus on dialling the gate. “I suppose that must be it.”
Day Twenty Four
“Atlantis? This is Sheppard.”
“You know you’re being ridiculous, right? I mean, you do know that this is frankly -”
John tuned Rodney out at the sound of Elizabeth’s voice.
“Go ahead, John.”
“I want Beckett out here.” There was an explosive sigh from behind him, the rolled eyes practically audible.
“Something’s happened to Rodney?” There was worry in Elizabeth’s voice and it felt kind of good to not be the only one freaked out, here.
“I think he’s been brainwashed. Drugged, or something.”
Silence for a moment from the other end of the radio. Not so much from behind him, and every dismissive remark was tightening the knot of tension in his stomach.
“…are you serious?”
He turned to glare at Rodney.
“He’s refusing to come through the ‘gate in favour of a harvest festival, Elizabeth, so yeah. I’d say I’m pretty damned serious.”
Rodney mouthed that he was an idiot, threw up his hands and started marching back towards the village, impatient aggravation in every line of his body.
“I don’t see how that’s -” Elizabeth was muttering in his ear, and he just told her to hold that thought and started jogging after his scientist.
“McKay.” Not a twitch, and he let out a frustrated breath and put on a burst of speed, closing his hand on McKay’s shoulder. “Rodney.”
“Is it so hard to believe?” Rodney’s voice snapped like brittle twigs and he turned fast enough to dislodge his hand, wild eyed and a little flushed, high up on his cheekbones. “That I might want to take some time off, or do something that isn’t precisely what you want of me for a change? That I might like to experience one of these things as something other than an outsider, for once?”
“Well you’re sure as hell not an insider,” and he tried to say it like it was a reminder rather than some sort of plea, his brain saying quietly in the back of his head just – don’t leave me here, okay? in a tone entirely too much like panic.
“I’m well aware of that, Colonel, but thank you for reinforcing it.” Rodney folded his arms mulishly. “Insider or not, they invited me, and they actually looked as though it mattered if I said yes. Not because they’re required to but because they wanted to, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t take advantage of that just because there’s work I could be doing on Atlantis.”
“It’s not -” John’s fist clenched at his side against the effort it took not to just shove Rodney or smack him on the back of the head or find some way to physically reinforce the fact that – “Jesus Rodney, we need you, okay?”
Rodney’s mouth tightened, pulled down at one corner, and he lifted his chin defensively.
“You? You’ve never needed anything, Colonel.”
And that was seriously it, the final straw, and John curled his hands into the front of jackets tightly enough that his knuckles bled white and just shoved him back into one of the trees that lined the path.
“You have no idea what I -” he shook his head and shoved him back again, not hard enough to hurt but enough to demonstrate pretty damned clearly precisely who was in charge here. “I’ve been going insane these past few weeks.”
Rodney’s eyes were fixed on John’s face, pupils incredibly wide and dark, and he had time to think abstractedly that he’d been right, that Rodney’d been drugged, before thin lips were abruptly pressed against his and he was forced to re-evaluate his conclusions.
But he was actually pretty okay with that.
After John had jogged back to the Stargate and dialled home, after Rodney had watched him with slumped shoulders until he’d registered that John was calling off the back-up but saying he should maybe stay a little, after the grin on Rodney’s face when John had turned to him and spread his arms and told him to bring on the damned harvest festival already.
Later after the ale they made on P7Y-685, which they’re really going to have to get onto the trade agreement somewhere, especially if Rodney always gets that snuggly; after the proper introduction to Anta and the way she looked so damned confused when they spent fifteen minutes arguing about hockey and football and whether or not curling is a real, actual sport.
Later, after John’s woken up, trapped by an unaccustomed weight across his chest that makes him smile goofily, after the best damned breakfast this side of any place he’s ever been, John subtly undoes the button on his BDUs and lets out a satisfied sigh.
“Y’know,” he says, solemn but for the laughter in his eyes, “that breakfast was so good I think I’m gonna need at least a week to digest it. Right, McKay?”
And Selwyn rolls her eyes a little, and says something about preparing the second guest room, but McKay stops her before she gets too far, insisting that no no no, it’s fine, really.