Author: Alli Snow
Rating: PG (mild language)
Category: Humor, Weir/McKay friendship
Summary: You can wish him luck. It won't make any difference.
Author's note: This story was originally published in the fanzine Revelation: Volume III. The new volume - Revelation IV - is now available at the SJHW website, as is the inaugural volume of Taking Flight: Tales from the Pegasus Galaxy. You can read an excerpt of my new story in Taking Flight, "The Divine", here.
It all started because Rodney McKay asked Aiden Ford a question, and after a fair amount of heckling, Aiden Ford gave Rodney McKay an answer. Knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Rodney, at the time, was trying very hard to be distracted from his paperwork; one of the drawbacks to really being in charge of people, he'd discovered, was that you were actually expected to monitor their progress, give feedback, and make reports to the higher-ups. In the militaristic bureaucracy that was Atlantis this meant paperwork, and Rodney had quickly learned that the phalanx of biologists, chemists and physicists tagged for the expeditionary team had not been selected because of their excellent grammar or narrative talent.
Therefore he had taken his work to the mess. Here he could expect to be diverted by any number of factors: laughter and snatches of conversation from those sitting at nearby tables, peculiar smells coming from the kitchen, and concerns about the possibly lethal content of his breakfast. They were frequently using different fruits and vegetables harvested from the mainland now, many species transplanted from Teyla's world, and although the Athosians promised that none of their crops approximated the Earth lemon... well, come on, they were from a different galaxy!
Ford's strutting entrance to the mess was, in its own sick way, a welcome interruption from all of this. And make no mistake – Ford was strutting. He strutted right up to McKay's table, sat down, and grinned.
Seeing someone grin – especially that kind of grin – always made Rodney more irritable than usual. So, despite his relief at the distraction, his words were sharp. "What's wrong with you?"
The grin went nowhere. If anything, Ford seemed even happier. "I," he declared, "am going on a date."
"Oh." Rodney shuffled some of his papers around, as though the nearest report was fascinating by comparison. "Have we come across another planet of hot alien babes and no one felt like informing me?"
"I'm sure if we have, Major Sheppard has things well under hand," smirked Ford. "Personally, I'd rather stick to what I'm comfortable with."
The young man looked unaccountably pleased with himself. "Earth women."
"Ah." What else could he say to that?
Ford leaned forward, squirming in his seat, his eyes bright. "So... aren't you going to ask me who it is?"
"I wasn't planning on it." Actually, he was wondering why he'd received the honor of Ford's attention in the first place. Still – the situation being what it was he wasn't yet prepared to turn away company.
Aiden frowned, narrowed his eyes slightly, and then shrugged. "You're right. I probably shouldn't tell you anyway."
It was reverse psychology – McKay knew this very well – yet he couldn't keep himself from asking the obvious question. "Why not?"
Another shrug, this one even more staged than the last. He leaned back and angled his body away. "Because I don't want you blabbing it all over Atlantis."
"Blabbing?" Rodney was rightfully insulted. "It's not like you're going to be able to keep it a secret. It's a big city, but the population? Very small." He pointed at Ford with the business end of a ballpoint pen. "Prone to gossip." Now he waved the pen at the surrounding tables. "The walls have ears."
Ford rolled his eyes. "I don't care about keeping it a secret. I mean, not in the long run. I'm not embarrassed. I just don't want her hearing about it from, I don't know... Zelenka... before I've had a chance to ask her myself."
"Ask her?" Had he missed something here? "I thought you said you already had the date."
"Well... practically," said the lieutenant with a tolerant sigh too old for a man even twice his age. "I've been talking to some of her friends... you know, kind of getting a feel for the possibilities. I think I've got a good chance, and I'm going to ask her out just as soon as she walks thought that door."
Rodney twirled his pen between his fingers. "Ask her out? We're in an abandoned alien city in the middle of an ocean on a planet many millions of light years from the nearest Sizzler. How 'out' do you plan on getting?"
He made a face. "It's a figure of speech, McKay. I'm just going to invite her over to my place for dinner and a movie." He steepled his hands on the table top and waggled his eyebrows in a very disconcerting fashion.
"Oh, I'm sure she'll be real impressed with your Schwarzenegger collection." Sheppard and some of the others had been trying to make "movie night" a weekly thing, but their library was limited to what individuals had brought along for their own amusement. Blockbuster had no branches in the Pegasus Galaxy. "Or have you been holding out on us?"
Ford's smile was an emphatic 'yes'. "Titanic."
An involuntary shudder went down Rodney's spine. "Ugh. Don't tell me you actually like that... that..."
Aiden looked shaken by the notion. "Not on your life. But man, as date movies go... nothing better. Trust me."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "So of the few personal items you could bring from home, one's a movie you hate but you think you can use to score?"
Sitting back abruptly, Ford scowled. "Please. You think I'm trying to set up some kind of one-night stand? If we end up never finding another ZPM, I might have to spend the rest of my life living alongside this gal. The city isn't that big. You know what they say about a woman scorned."
"It rings a bell," McKay muttered.
"I just decided, you know, if we are here for good... just planning for the worst-case scenario... there's no reason to put our lives on hold." He put on what he probably thought was a brave face. "I'm still just a man. I've got needs."
"And you looked at the number of men and the number of women on Atlantis and did the math."
"So..." he grimaced, as though the question was actually painful to ask, "who is she?"
"Amelia," said Ford happily.
Rodney wished he'd stopped and gotten coffee. He wished he'd taken a mouthful of it right before Aiden spoke, because that declaration was truly worthy of a classic spit-take. "St. Claire? Dr. St. Claire?"
"Yeah? So what?" Ford asked, defensive. "I don't care how many letters she has after her name. She's still a woman, and with women you only need to remember three things."
"Now I really am afraid to ask."
Ford held up his index finger. "One: compliment her. My grandma always said that no matter how much confidence a woman has, how smart and clever and beautiful she might be, she never gets tired of hearing about it from a man."
Rodney was well aware that Amelia St. Claire was beautiful – curly blonde hair and hazel eyes, tall and slender... the kind of woman Rodney had long considered his "type". Smart went without saying, and her wit was legendary among the other biologists.
A second finger: "Two: you gotta ask her questions. Don't make it about you all the time. Make her understand that what she thinks and feels is important to you, even if it's stupid little stuff like her favorite character on Gilligan's Island."
"I should be taking notes," said Rodney dryly.
"And number three: make sure she thinks about you, even when you're not there. Leave your watch or something lying around where you know she'll be, she'll see it and be reminded of you. Then you always have an excuse for coming back and seeing her."
Rodney tried to sound skeptical. This was, after all, Aiden Ford. But he certain sounded confident, like he had put this plan into action before and come out victorious. "And the movie just... ties it all together?"
"Trust me," said Ford. "The movie is the lynchpin. I—" He stopped short. "She just came in. I'm going in." He grinned. "I'd say 'wish me luck', but we both know I don't need it."
* * *
Rodney watched Ford strut away, all thought of paperwork-related obligations gone from his mind. Aiden was generally an idiot, of course – too young to realize that he didn't know everything and seeped enough in the military mindset to assume everything you needed to know you learned in basic training. But what if he was right about this?
Sure, they hadn't even been on Atlantis a full year, but Rodney suspected that time could fly when you were being hunted down by soul-sucking vampires. If not one year, why not two, three, five...? None of them were getting any younger, despite what they'd learned about Ancient time-travel technology.
And one thing was for certain: more than half of the scientific team was male; in the military contingent, men outnumbered women almost five to one.
Of course, Rodney told himself, he had an important job, one of the most important – if not the most, actually – and little time for romance. But now that he was entertaining the idea...
Well, there was really only one woman who was a possibility. Bright, brave, intelligent... not blonde, of course, but this was a whole new galaxy. No reason to be slavishly obedient to what he'd always considered his 'type'.
No, in a lot of ways Elizabeth wasn't his type at all. And judging by the melancholy glimmer in her eyes at certain quiet times, the way she'd idly touch the pendant hanging around her neck while deep in thought, she didn't exactly come without her own baggage. But Rodney had more respect for her than any other person on Atlantis; an argument with Elizabeth about the most pedantic matters of protocol was far more stimulating than the most intimate conversation with another woman ever could be. And her eyes... her smile... Well, he genuinely liked seeing her smile.
Rodney glanced up in time to see Lt. Ford walk about of the mess arm in arm with the stunning Amelia St. Clair, PhD., and straightened in his seat.
Pay her compliments. Ask her questions. Encourage her to think about you. That didn't sound so hard.
Maybe he didn't have Ford's youthful exuberance or Sheppard's rakish charm or even Carson's funny accent. But he had something that none of them had in such abundant quantity: brains, and the confidence to put them to good use.
Brains enough to know his chances.
"I'd say 'wish me luck'," he muttered to himself, "but I don't think it'll make any difference."
* * *
The morning staff meeting was the perfect place to begin, especially since Ford wouldn't be present to recognize the tips he'd just passed on.
Rodney hurried into the control room with his arms full of unread and uninteresting reports, eager to be the first to arrive and maybe have a moment alone with Elizabeth. Unfortunately someone had beaten him to it; from across the room he saw her deep in conversation with someone – with Bates.
He couldn't tell what Bates was saying; the other man's back was to him and Rodney had never excelled at lip-reading anyway. But Elizabeth's eyes were wide and intent and focused on the Sergeant.
Bates could have been explaining that one of his security detail was sick and that another was filling in temporarily; this had happened before. Or he could have been imparting the latest mad rantings to come from Sora's "guest quarters". Or he could have been describing the brilliant sunrise and all the morning's majesty like Shakespeare reincarnated.
Sure, Bates looked vaguely like Frankenstein's monster sans neck bolts and was only about half as intelligent. But Rodney, having set his mind to romantic conquest, was loathe to rule anything out.
He strode past the pair towards the conference room, shifting the files in his arms, faking distraction only to glance up and catch Elizabeth's eye as though by chance. He tried to smile but, pressured, was afraid that it came out looking more like a grimace.
She acknowledged him with a small nod of her head – and then returned her attention to Bates.
Mortified – and only half-knowing why – Rodney slunk into the meeting room and slid meekly into the nearest chair. She hadn't even returned his smile. Just a nod. A nod – what was that? A nod was nothing. Was Bates really so fascinating that she couldn't even spare an infinitesimal twitch of the facial muscles for him?
Of course, maybe the Sergeant really was imparting some important information, but if it was so crucial why hadn't he been included in their little conclave? Why hadn't Elizabeth met his eyes, smiled in greeting, then reached out to stop him as she passed – "Wait a minute, Rodney, I want you to hear this" – and... well, fine. Maybe they thought it wasn't any of his business. He'd go back out there and make it his business, find out what the big deal was. If Bates could describe the sunrise magnificently to one person, he could do it twice as well for two.
He leaned forward, prepared to push himself into a standing position, and –
"Good morning, Dr. McKay."
A woman's voice, but not the one he'd hoped to hear, floated up behind him. Rodney froze, then deflated as Teyla, Major Sheppard and Carson Beckett filed into the room, followed closely by Elizabeth and Bates.
He was unhappy about missing his chance and suspicious about the timing. Had they all been talking outside? Everybody but him?
Indignation bottled up inside him. As the others took their seats, he blurted out, "Good morning, Elizabeth."
She sat, folding her hands on the tabletop and – at last – smiled at him. A little curiously. Maybe he'd spoken too loudly. "Good morning, Rodney... everyone," she amended, looking over the table. Her gaze didn't linger on any one individual an unwarranted length of time.
There was a general murmur of reply from those assembled... except for Bates. He was silent, appeared subdued. Rodney sat up a little straighter. Had Elizabeth rejected his advances?
"Let's get started," she said. To Rodney's delight, she turned to him. "What do you have for us first, Doctor?"
Ask her questions. He briefly drummed his hands atop the file folders. "What would you like me to start with?"
Inexplicably amused, the corner of her mouth twitched. "It's really your call, Rodney."
He considered that. He had several projects in the works, of course, and teams assigned to each one, and some teams had made more progress than others – but what would Elizabeth find most interesting, most significant? The research being done on the Ancient stasis unit? No... that might bring back unpleasant memories – for all of them. The possibility of souping-up the Jumpers to make the mainland less than a half-hour away? Nah, then he'd never get Sheppard to shut up. What about his final analysis on the use of lightning to power the shield, or –
He came out of his reverie to find that he'd been passed over, that Carson was talking about containment units and rationing of antibiotics and a variety of other things that was probably very important and serious and completely not anything that Rodney cared about right now.
"That's a good idea," said Elizabeth.
"Yes, it is," said Rodney, happy to have something to agree with her about.
There was a pause, and then Teyla spoke up with a report from the mainland. Bates, still unusually passive, mumbled through the usual update on the city's fortifications: they had nothing that would so much as trip up a solitary Wraith should they decide to attack Atlantis en masse. Sheppard provided running commentary through all of this, but no one seemed to expect him to contribute much at these meetings anyway.
By the time the group dispersed, Rodney felt vaguely relieved. He had the unsettling feeling that his first advances had somehow gone a little... wrong... somehow.
Thoughtful, he lingered in the room, gathering up his things, until he looked up and realized that he and Elizabeth were alone in the room. She was still seated, her hands clasped under her chin; their eyes locked and Rodney felt an unexpected tingle. "What is it?"
She tilted her head a fraction to the side as though trying to get a look at him from a different angle. "Nothing. I was just wondering... if you wanted to tell me anything."
The tingle became a thrill. So he hadn't been a complete failure after all. "Well... I did want to ask you something."
Her eyebrows drew together. "What?" she asked, earnest.
"Who was your favorite character on Gilligan's Island?"
* * *
"Carson, this is ridiculous."
Chagrined, Rodney opened his mouth and 'ah'ed obediently as Carson Beckett aimed the flashlight's narrow beam down his throat. What the doctor was looking for he hadn't the foggiest. Signs of Goa'uld infestation? Wrong galaxy for that.
The moment Carson moved back, Rodney reiterated his opinion of the whole thing: "This is ridiculous."
"Doctor Weir didn't seem to think so," said Carson peevishly, as though sensing Rodney's weak spot. "And frankly, I agree with her. You were acting rather strange at the meeting yesterday."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I'm a genius. Geniuses act strange sometimes. How is this new to you?"
"Not to mention that you kept leaving things all around the place. You have to admit, that's not like you."
Not all over the place, Rodney wanted to correct him. Just places that he knew Elizabeth would frequent. Of course, he could hardly declare that his absentmindedness had been intentional. "It just so happens that on top of being a strange genius, I'm busy. Very busy. Is that a good reason to subject me to this?"
Put out, Carson frowned. "It's a check-up, Rodney."
"You took my blood. How is that just a check-up?"
"I drew some blood because I need to test it."
"Test it for what exactly?"
One of the nurses, ambling by on his way to clean bedpans or something, cleared his throat. Rodney realized that he'd been a little louder than he'd intended, taking his frustration out on Carson. And he was frustrated. Following Ford's advice had not garnered any adoring smiles or fond gazes from the object of his affection. Instead Elizabeth had suggested he go see Dr. Beckett in the infirmary.
And it hadn't really been a suggestion.
Sure, the whole point of this aberrant behavior was to get her attention. But being poked and prodded by a Scottish physician was not the kind of attention he'd been going for.
Still – what had he expected, honestly, following the advice of a 25-year old jarhead? He needed guidance from someone else, some he had more in common with, that he perhaps had some shared experiences...
He looked speculatively at Beckett, who in turn eyed him back, warily.
"Carson, did your grandmother ever give you dating advice?"
The other man's eyes widened and he held up a defensive hand. "Hey, leave my grandmother out of it."
Rodney sighed. "No, no... I'm actually not being insulting. It's a serious question."
Carson's brow furrowed. "My grandmother... no... both passed before—"
"Your mom, then."
An unexpected smile graced the doctor's face; the furrow smoothed. "Ah, my mother never thought I needed advice on that kind of thing. No girl was good enough for her son anyway. And when you're in school half your life..." He shook his head. "Well, you know how it is. Any appeal you have is based on brains rather than brawn... or anything else. Why the curiosity?" The smile widened, became toothy. "Planning on asking out a certain lass?"
Rodney carefully schooled his features, well aware that a too-vigorous denial could be just as telling as an outright confession. Besides, he wasn't especially interested in dating, per se, just letting Elizabeth know how he felt without being stupidly blatant about it. "This is an intergalactic expedition, not a dating service," he said witheringly, absently rubbing the spot on his arm from where his blood had been drawn. "I was just talking to Ford about it earlier."
"Ah yes," said Carson knowingly. "I've heard about the lieutenant and Dr. St. Claire."
He'd sure been right about the whole gossip situation. Carson Beckett, not extroverted by nature and often holed up in the infirmary, was usually one of the last people to know anything. Which was good. He didn't need the rumor mill coming back to haunt him.
* * *
He paused in the doorway of Elizabeth's office and rapped a knuckle against the frame. Most of the time he felt comfortable walking right in, but she was sitting with her eyes fixed on the computer screen in front of her, lips silently moving, concentration absolute. At first she didn't even seem to register the knock; after a moment, however, she blinked and looked up, her expression blank for an instant before focusing. "Rodney. How are you feeling?"
He decided it would be rude to point out that there'd been nothing wrong with him to begin with and smiled gamely. "Much better, actually. I think I just got a little... overworked."
She leaned forward, eyes crinkling at the corners. "Can it be true what I'm hearing? Rodney McKay admitting that he's not invincible?"
Women liked vulnerability, didn't they? "Well, even the best of us have to sleep now and then." He nodded at the laptop. "You looked pretty fascinated right now."
She sighed and pulled the screen down. "Just the usual. Is there something you needed, Rodney?"
Fine. Right down to business then. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Miller's group is back from the mainland. They have those soil samples for you to look at."
"Mm. Okay." She pushed the laptop open again, apparently finding whatever was on her computer far more mesmerizing than the idea of analyzing soil samples. Rodney couldn't blame her, but he also couldn't help feeling that her disinterest had more to do with him than with scientific inquiries. "I'll be there in a second," she said absently, her eyes already locked back into place.
Rodney's mind raced. What had Carson mentioned? That women found his brains appealing? "You know," he drawled, "the official definition of a second is the time it takes for 9,192,631,770 vibrations of the Cesium atom exposed at a suitable excitation." He grinned.
Elizabeth looked up at him with an expression which suggested another call to Dr. Beckett, who this time with be accompanied by capable nurses and a nice new straightjacket emblazoned with the expedition logo.
* * *
Anything having to do with the naquada reactors was typically a McKay-only job. It was bad enough that they had to power the city without a ZPM; if anything happened to the generators, they were worse than screwed – they were literally dead in the water. Lately, however, after several heroically-managed brushes with death, Rodney had realized that he had to be comfortable with handing the tasks off to others... just in case he did happen to perish saving the rest of the city from certain doom.
That was why he was standing to the side in Generator Room A, watching over Zelenka and Miko's shoulders, offering helpful comments like "are you trying to get us all killed?"
So intent on this task was he that he didn't realize Sheppard was behind him until he heard the Major's voice. "Are you on drugs?"
Ignoring Zelenka's mirthful snicker, Rodney turned. He looked askance at Sheppard who, dressed in sweats and toting a gym bag, had either been working out or getting his butt kicked by Teyla. Why the guy had such an interest in alien martial arts was beyond him. "Drugs. Yes. Of course. What a delightful comment."
"You have to admit, McKay, you've been a little off lately."
Rodney bristled. "I don't have to admit anything."
Sheppard opened his mouth to respond, then seemed to think better of it. He shrugged, backed out of the room, and continued on his way.
It began to occur to Rodney that Sheppard's advances, however rudely stated, might have been motivated by genuine concern. That the flyboy might actually be worried over his state of mind and just didn't know how to come out and say so without making a wisecrack like "are you on drugs?"
But then another idea hijacked his mind – Sheppard. Of course. He'd been relying on the advice of novices like Ford and wimpy nerds like Carson for advice on wooing women, and that certainly didn't make any sense when Sheppard, for all his faults, was a much more logical example to follow. Just look at the whole fiasco with the Ancient lady. And how had that all started? Oh, the rumor mill knew.
A picnic basket.
He left the generator in Zelenka and Miko's capable hands.
A picnic basket.
* * *
Wherever Sheppard had gotten the basket – McKay couldn't imagine he'd brought it along himself – the Major had yet to return it. It therefore made sense that he wasn't actually stealing anything when he let himself into Sheppard's quarters and appropriated it. And as far as letting himself in in the first place... well, Sheppard shouldn't make his passcode so obvious.
Just before the lunchtime rush, the basket filled with foodstuffs secreted from the mess, he ambushed Elizabeth in the hallway. She stopped short when she saw him. "Rodney?"
His heart, to his surprise, thumped violently against his ribcage. He was still a little worried about the reappearance of Carson and the straightjacket. He was also a little surprised at his own daring, approaching Elizabeth like this, all but asking her out on a date! And after he'd mocked Ford for much the same thing. "I... thought you might be hungry," he managed between heartbeats, holding out the basket.
Her surprise eased into a cautious smile; she took the basket from him – their hands brushed and for a second Rodney felt that his heart stopped altogether – and she peeked beneath the lid. "That's an awful lot of food for one person," she remarked.
Maybe others were walking past them in the corridor, maybe they were looking at the tableau of Rodney, Elizabeth and the basket and thinking all sorts of audacious things. He didn't care. "Maybe you'd like some company."
She closed the lid and smiled at him again, full-on this time. "That's a wonderful idea. After everything with the Athosians today... I've been meaning to talk some things over with Teyla. This will be the perfect opportunity."
It took a moment to register.
Elizabeth regarded him happily.
Everything with the... talk... Teyla?
"Oh," he said dully. "Um... glad to be of help."
She thanked him again – or he thought she did; he suddenly felt rather disconnected from the world around him – and walked sprightly away, in search of another with which to share his carefully-prepared meal.
It just wasn't fair.
* * *
As they trudged through knee-high grass on their way back to the Stargate, with Sheppard and Ford several paces ahead in deep nonsensical discussion, Teyla just had to mention that lunch again. "It was very kind of you."
"Yeah, that's me," he muttered. "Mr. Kindness."
Teyla ignored his sarcasm. Possibly she didn't even notice it anymore. She was different than the others, he mused, not just because she'd been born in a different galaxy, but because she was—
The realization struck him so hard that he stumbled among the tall grass. No wonder he'd made so many faux pas with Elizabeth. He'd been falling back on the tips and strategies of other men... some of whom had admittedly enjoyed some small success in the past but who were still undeniably single. Strange that it had never occurred to him until now that someone of the female persuasion might be more helpful. "So, how come you never talk about your people?"
She looked at him in surprise. "I do."
"Not to me."
Teyla appeared to consider this, and then nodded grudgingly. "I suppose I never thought you were... interested."
She was right there, but he didn't say that. "I'm not an anthropologist, but there's no way of knowing how long we're going to be sharing a planet."
Warming to the subject, Teyla nodded again. "What would you like to know?"
Rodney craned his head back, looking over the tops of tall pines into the blindingly blue sky, as though searching for a topic. "Well... what about… courtship?"
"Yeah, you know," he pitched his voice lower, worried that the words would carry to Sheppard and Ford, "how does an Athosian guy let an Athosian gal know he... has feelings for her?"
"I know what 'courtship' is." She looked puzzled, then shook her head as though casting off some errant thought. "It's my understanding that Athosian... methods are not so different than those employed in your own culture."
She frowned contemplatively. "Usually the man will present the woman of his affection some token... an item of jewelry, perhaps."
She hadn't been kidding. Athosians and Earthling really weren't very different.
"Or he might compose a verse for her," Teyla continued, "give her an elegant meal or a bouquet of beautiful flowers."
Rodney experienced a moment of panic at the word 'meal', afraid that she would remember the kindly lunch he had so recently provided and latch on to the true reasons behind his question. But she said nothing, and he eventually relaxed.
Jewelry? It didn't seem quite appropriate, not with that pendant around her neck obviously having some important meaning. A verse? Never, ever, ever, ever. Flowers – that idea had potential, but beautiful bouquets didn't exactly sprout from the cracks along the causeways of Atlantis.
Apparently Teyla could not only sense the approach of Wraith; she could also sense desperation, and seemed to read his mind. "I believe Jinto mentioned that there are many lovely species of flower growing wild on the mainland."
"Hey, what are you two yammering about? Let's go!"
Sheppard waved at them from the DHD as Ford dialed, and Rodney and Teyla picked up the pace. She smiled at him but said nothing more about Athosian courting techniques, and for that he was grateful.
* * *
"I'm not sure that this is such a good idea."
Rodney gave a long-suffering sigh, hoping to hide his own anxiety with exasperation. "Don't be such a wet dishrag," he told Carson scornfully, glancing sideways at his copilot. "I thought you were happy about this arrangement."
"I was happy that I wasn't going to be doing the flying this time," the doctor corrected him nervously. "I still don't want to die."
"You're not going to die."
"Have you even flown one of these things before?" This was Bates, surly and unhelpful, from the rear compartment. Rodney couldn't understand why the Sergeant was a part of this little trip; they'd only needed someone to get Carson and his team to the mainland to look at some sick Athosian kids. Maybe Bates figured they were some kind of security risk.
"As a matter of fact, I have, several times," Rodney retorted. Three was several, right? "Major Sheppard even gave me personal lessons," he added, assuming that this would comfort the medical crew huddled in the back.
Bates snorted. "We all know what 'remedial training' means, Doctor."
The bay doors cycled open, and Rodney's teeth ground together. Okay, so he'd never flown to the mainland before, and this would actually be his longest overland trip. But Elizabeth had needed someone, and Carson had been terrified of making the flight by himself, so he, Rodney, had heroically stepped forward.
And ignored the smirk that passed between Sheppard, Ford and Teyla.
* * *
It hadn't been such a good idea after all.
Sure, they'd made it to the mainland without incident, and he had set the Jumper down so gently that not even Bates had been able to make a negative comment. Carson and his nurses had gone off to find the sick children, who were being kept in a hut on the edge of the settlement, Bates had promptly disappeared, and Rodney had sought out Jinto.
He made sure the kid understood that his interest in the flowers was purely scientific, implying that they had potential medicinal quality.
Jinto and his friends pointed Rodney in the direction of the fauna before taking off, having plans of their own that didn't include leading him around the thickly-wooded outskirts of the settlement. Fine. He didn't need a tour guide. He'd explored many an alien word by himself, or nearly so. He could take a look around for these stunningly beautiful flowers of Athosian lore without getting lost.
He'd gotten lost.
He'd wasted several hours trying to deny the fact, telling himself that the Athosian village was just around the next turn, or that he would be able to see it over that next rise in the terrain. Then the clouds began to gather, and while he was trying to convince himself that he hadn't been walking in circles for miles, it began to rain. Bizarre greenish lightning sliced through the darkening sky and gave the air a strange astringent quality.
Several times he considered radioing back to the team from Atlantis, but even if he spoke directly to Beckett, there was no way that Bates wouldn't be listening and hear everything that was said. And then there would be no end to it. Bates would tell Elizabeth, and... well, that just couldn't be allowed to happen.
Blinded by the rain, wondering what the hell had been wrong with the Ancients that they'd decided to put their precious city on a planet with such hellish weather, Rodney took a misstep and found himself rolling down a steep slope, a hill muddy and strewn with debris. Probably it wasn't as severe a grade as it seemed, probably he had walked up the same incline not long ago without a problem, but in the storm it was sheer and terrifying and a terrible insult to his dignity to wind up at the bottom and simply be grateful to have escaped broken bones and punctured organs.
Filthy and bruised and really very upset with the entire situation, he reached for his radio... and found it missing. He must have lost it during his tumble, if not before; the sun was setting, the backlit clouds would soon fade completely to black, and there was no way he could hope to find it before then.
He wondered if the mainland had predatory animals. That seemed like the kind of thing that would have come up during a staff meeting, but he probably hadn't been paying attention.
Wet and miserable, he crawled underneath the sheltering limbs of an ancient tree and hugged his legs to his chest. What had he been thinking? Aiden had come strutting around like a... a peacock in fatigues, preening because he had a date, and all of a sudden Rodney had found himself possessed, consumed by the idea. That was so... not him. Not that he wasn't a competitive guy, because he was, because he was intelligent and good in tight situations and not encumbered by false modesty, but he'd never become so infatuated by a woman that he'd lost sight of the important things in life.
He was important! His job was important! Now the people he worked alongside thought he was mentally unsound, Teyla probably thought he was hitting on her, and he'd risked life and limb for flowers, flowers, a nice unambiguous sign of his affection for Elizabeth... Elizabeth. Why? Because she was strong, and warm and funny, and brave, and she gave so much to the project and expected so little back, yet expected the best of everyone around her and brought the best of them, including him...?
He was asking why?
Rodney sighed and huddled back against the trunk of the tree... and then sat up suddenly. He heard something... voices? They were just vague murmurs against the sounds of the rain and wind, no words, just a certain cadence that stood out from the mindless chaos of the storm. With mixed feelings about this rescue – Bates would never let him live it down, and even the benign Carson had a decidedly tart sense of humor – McKay hesitated before crawling out of his shelter. He squinted through the deluge in the direction of the voices and saw forms coming towards him through the dusk.
His rescuers seemed extremely... short.
It was Jinto and a pack of Athosian kids, the same group he'd seen earlier: an older boy, thin and awkwardly prepubescent, a scrawny, big-eyed girl who was the tallest of the set, and a pair of androgynous twins wrapped in a large, waterlogged blanket. Their hair dark and plastered to their heads, their faces pale ovals by contrast, they stumbled towards him; after a moment of bewilderment Rodney pushed himself to his feet.
Green lightning arced across the sky, and one of the twins screamed in fright.
Trying not to take it personally, Rodney waved the kids in his direction. "What are you guys doing out here?"
Jinto looked shaken. "We were going to go fishing on the coast. We do it all the time. But the storm came on so quickly..."
Grimly, Rodney herded the children into the niche under the tree. If they'd been full-grown adults there never would have been room, but these five weren't afraid to squash in close together. It was a sentiment that Rodney didn't exactly share, but he was able to squeeze in with his back to the rain. "The coast, eh?" The nearest waterway from the settlement was due west; he was sure that he'd started out east in search of Elizabeth's flowers. Either he'd wandered, lost, halfway around the village, or the kids had, and he wasn't about to bet against them.
The tall girl pressed her lips together anxiously. "Is this going to be another storm... like before? Will we have to leave?"
Smirking, the older boy shook his head. "This isn't like before, Brya. That green light: it's a sign from the Ancestors. They're angry with us."
One of the twins – the other one this time, Rodney thought – screamed again, presumably at the mere thought of angry Ancients.
"Oh, knock it off," Rodney told the bully. "There's a perfectly logical explanation for the lightning being green."
Brya looked at him skeptically. "Like?"
"Like... like a little extra xenon in the atmosphere, I guess. Maybe. It would have to be a very little extra, considering this planet's atmospheric composition is almost identical to Earth's and I think the percentage there is something ridiculous like 8.7 times 10 to the negative 6th..."
He glanced down from his reverie into five blank faces.
"That's a very small amount," he clarified.
"Not the Ancestors?" asked a twin tremulously.
"Not the Ancestors," he confirmed. "Just a big, noisy storm... a lot of air moving around, making clouds and rain, and sometimes lightning and thunder... not scary at all."
The small twins looked unconvinced, but they relaxed enough to let Rodney take their dripping blanket, wring out the excess water, and drape it across one of the low-lying branches. It flapped in the wind but kept out most of the drafts, as well as the rain. Brya held the two smallest against her side and closed her eyes wearily. Rodney wondered if they'd been out there, wandering, as long as he had.
"What now?" asked Jinto. Now that they were out of the storm and in the company of a capable adult, he had the sense to look a little sheepish.
"Doctor Beckett can use the technology in the jumper to locate our life signs," Rodney explained, feeling rather silly himself. "We'll just have to wait out the storm."
So that was what they did.
He didn't think he'd be able to sleep, not with the constant soughing of the wind and the concern that the green lightning would choose their tree over all the others to strike and set aflame. But the next thing Rodney knew he was being shaken by several small hands, and several squeaky voices were calling to him through the fog of exhaustion.
He sat up with a start. The children were all awake, swarming around the root system of their sheltering tree. "I hear men's voices," said Brya.
The storm had passed. When Rodney pulled the blanket out of the lower limbs the striking blueness of the morning sky made his eyes water. The prospect of rescue should have given him a sense of relief; instead, he was suddenly willing to spend the rest of his life in the forest if it meant never having to face Bates' smug wisecracks, Carson's genial teasing, and, eventually, Elizabeth's disappointment.
He glanced at Jinto and the other boy and saw much the same emotion reflected in their eyes.
"Come on," he said reluctantly.
The search party had come on foot – not surprising considering Carson's lack of confidence with the Jumper – and included the doctor himself, Bates and two Athosians. One was Halling, Jinto's father, and the other a slender, dark-eyed woman who, judging from their mutual reactions, was related to the twins. While the older children all braced themselves for a lecture, a chorus of thanks and greeting went up from both sides, and Bates even muttered an audible "Thank God," much to Rodney's surprise.
Carson echoed the sentiment more vehemently, looking paler than usual, and Rodney realized that he wasn't holding the life signs detector. "The electrical storm," Beckett explained, gesticulating wildly. "We couldn't get the Jumper off the ground, none of the Ancient devices would work... even afterwards..."
Rodney nodded, looking up at the previously-storm wracked sky. "I'm not surprised. They probably need a... a reboot."
"Oh, dear Lord," murmured Carson, wilting in relief. "I thought I broke it."
* * *
After spending the night wet, chilly and half-covered in mud, the clean elegance of Atlantis was truly a thing of beauty. Rodney piloted the jumper back into the bay without quite realizing he'd done so, and shuffled out through the cargo compartment behind Bates and the medical team.
"Not one word," he told Carson through clenched teeth.
Beckett looked back at him, guileless.
There was something of a welcoming committee awaiting them: Sheppard, Ford, Zelenka, and of course Elizabeth. Rodney felt a strange, sad twinge of regret seeing her standing there, wished that he'd found those stupid flowers after all, reminded himself that he was done with sentimental nonsense towards women who could never return the feelings he felt towards them, and braced himself for a lecture as the Athosian children had done.
"Thank heavens you're alright," said Elizabeth, her shoulders slumping at the sight of them all relatively unscathed.
Her eyes sought out his. He was sure he didn't imagine it.
"Not one word," he repeated.
* * *
Showered and fed, rested and reclothed, he sat on the last rung of the embarkation room stairs and gazed up at the Stargate. He wasn't moping. He was refocusing himself. The Stargate. Wormhole. ZPM. Home. This was the important stuff. Not finding out if the expedition leader cared at all about him beyond the obligatory concern of teamwork and common friendship. Not hinting to her that if they ever got home... well... and if they never got home...
Focus. Stargate. Wormhole. ZPM.
He looked up immediately, Gate forgotten. Elizabeth stood on the balcony outside her office, looking down at him like a fairytale princess – which she wasn't – fondly regarding her prince – which he wasn't – whom she was relying on for rescue – which was preposterous.
"Can I talk to you?" she asked.
Of course she could.
He climbed the stairs, approached her office, and she hesitated. "Let's go outside," she suggested.
They went outside.
The sun was setting, and the sunsets here were always amazing, even more brilliant than the sunrises. Rodney didn't have the ability to describe the colors, the calm, the simple peace in the words of Shakespeare, but he didn't have to describe it, because they were both here, sharing it.
Elizabeth leaned against the railing, staring out over the city. "I think I owe you an apology."
He started. "You... what?"
"I've been distracted lately."
"You're not the only one."
She sighed, turning to meet his eyes. "Sergeant Bates came to me earlier this week and... told me something personal."
Trying to ignore the stab of jealously in his gut, he nodded jerkily. "Okay..."
She was silent, watching him with her lips pressed tightly together. It occurred to him that she was debating whether or not to pass on this private tidbit.
"It's safe with me," he said, before wondering if it was something he really wanted to know.
Elizabeth brushed a lock of hair off her forehead. "He confided in me that he was... distracted, preoccupied, that he thought it might affect his performance as head of security. He suggested that I name a temporary replacement."
He felt that he hid his relief very well. "Why..?"
She bowed her head. "This Tuesday was his little brother's birthday. Little... he's nineteen now, but the sergeant basically raised him single-handedly after their parents died."
Rodney digested this, looking out on the water and remembering the expression on Bates' face when he'd seen the Athosian children safe. "I... didn't know that."
"Neither did I," she said, her voice suddenly hard. "It made me realize exactly how little I know about the people on this team. I mean, I know that they're smart, brave, capable... but what about their homes? Their families? Everything they left behind, everything that they sacrificed to travel to another galaxy by my request."
He made a face. "Come on, Elizabeth, everyone here is an adult and made that choice for themselves."
"But the fact remains that I asked them to do it," she insisted.
"You didn't ask them to do anything you didn't do yourself."
He knew immediately that he had touched on a sore point, but she didn't recoil.
"People have died," she said softly. "Humans from Earth, and Athosians too, and all I knew was that they were smart, brave, capable. That doesn't seem like enough."
Rodney guessed now what she had found so interesting on her computer those few days ago: profiles of the expedition members. And why she had wanted to luncheon with Teyla: to discuss her people, those who didn't have biographies written up about them by the military or anybody else.
"I still don't see why you've need to apologize."
"I guess it all kind of... overwhelmed me for a few days. I knew I was acting strangely, and I started projecting it onto other people... like you." She laughed softly. "I can't believe I actually sent you to the infirmary."
Rodney rubbed the spot on his arm where his blood had been drawn. "I was due for a check-up anyway."
"I was so consumed trying to personally know and be friends with everyone on this planet that I think I started shortchanging the people who really are my friends. And I didn't realize it until last night. You and Carson left – and Bates too; I thought a change of scenery might help his state of mind – and I didn't think anything of it. Then all of a sudden we couldn't get in touch with you, or anyone on the mainland."
"The electrical storm."
"We didn't know that at the time. Major Sheppard and Lt. Ford took a Jumper out, but just as the thunderheads came into view they started losing power. They had to turn back around and wait on the perimeter, but we still had no radio communication and no ability to use the life signs sensors. Finally they returned to Atlantis." She shivered, not from the night air, but from a certain unpleasant memory. "We didn't know if it was a Wraith weapon, the first wave of their attack... you all might have been taken, or cut off from the Stargate permanently."
Oh yes. That was indeed a shudder-worthy thought.
"And to think you still went out into that storm to look for those poor lost children..."
Rodney suppressed another start. What had Carson told her? "I guess I... just got lucky."
She smiled at him. Even in the growing dusk, the smile brightened her face. "I don't know what I would have done if anything had happened to you."
Waves lapped against the shores of the city many miles away, and the moment almost became awkward, but not quite.
"I think Atlantis would have managed with Zelenka at the helm," Rodney said at last, deliberately misunderstanding her. "But you're right... I am pretty irreplaceable."
Elizabeth laughed, a little tersely at first, and then with more freedom. If her smile brightened her face, her laughter lit up the whole night.
He really had been stupid. Trying all these tactics, all these tricks, all these unnatural ways of getting her attention when the truth of it was... it was all completely unnecessary.
He just had to be himself.
"Any plans for the evening?" Elizabeth asked him.
"Actually," said Rodney, "I was just going to kick back and watch a movie. How do you feel about Titanic?"
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