Promises Writ in Indelible Ink

Dec. 17th, 2007 09:47 am

Fandom: SG: Atlantis

Characters: Team

Rating: PG-ish?

Warnings: Spoilers for the last two episodes, language, pre-McShep

Disclaimer: Not mine!

Beta: ferret_kitty, responsible for getting my head out of my ass for this one.

Summary: You don't know what you've got 'till it's gone. Sometimes you get the chance to get it back.

Author's Note: Starts directly after Miller's Crossing ends (seriously, they're on their way to eat), continues through the end of the season, and a little bit past that.

PS: Now available in podfic form thanks to 2naonh3_cl2 over here in mango flavor.

PPS: Now available in podfic form thanks to terialk over here in papaya flavor

hr

Dinner with John drags out into the early hours of the morning, somehow. Rodney's certain that he couldn't have slept in any case, and so they banter back and forth eating leftovers and drinking stale, burnt coffee. He only really realizes how late, how early, it is when other people start straggling into the Mess, looking bleary eyed and faintly zombie-like.

He eyes a bunch of half-asleep Marines warily and Sheppard mumbles out of the corner of his mouth, "They're going to eat your brains to gain your knowledge."

He chokes on his coffee, surprised into laughter. It's not often that he laughs at anything, he's never been the gregarious sort, and the near constant threat of death these last few years has left little enough opportunity for it. Sometimes Sheppard forces it out of him, and it's worth the unfamiliar burn in his chest for the way half Sheppard's mouth twists up. The way he looks genuinely happy, just for an instant.

It's only after he's wiping at his nose, because coffee burns like a bitch going through your sinuses, that he realizes what little noise there was around them has tapered off to nothing. He tenses, expecting alarms or explosions, but there's nothing. Just, silence, like everyone's collectively holding their breath and he starts to look around as Sheppard says, "I heard once that you only get those weird silent moments at twenty of or twenty after the hour."

Rodney snorts, because, sometimes he forgets what a superstitious idiot Sheppard can be, set his coffee to the side to avoid knocking it over when he waves a disapproving hand in John's direction, says, "Yes, and I suppose that chill I just got was someone walking over my grave, was it?"

John stiffens, and Rodney wouldn't have noticed except Sheppard had been reaching for one of the chicken wings on the plate between them, and his hand freezes, fingers twitching in the air. Rodney blinks, narrows his eyes and tries to read the expression behind John's shuttered eyes, and then the other man is standing, grunting, "I have to get to work."

Rodney looks down at his watch, because, yes, work. He's sure he's got lots of work piled up, and he wonders how much time he has before his minions start slumping into the labs and pestering him with their mundane questions about their inept work.

It's five twenty three.

hr

He expects the labs to be empty when he arrives, because they always get lazy while he's away. He once caught the entire mass of them slinking in at eight thirty, the morning after he liberated himself from Carson's torture chamber after spending nearly a week in the care of the Wraith. They had, at least, taken their chewing out like adults, and been prompt the next morning.

In any case, after what had, in the end, amounted to a week spent on Earth--first looking for Jeannie, then captured with her, fixing her--he's counting on a few hours of quiet to catch up on the inevitable backlog. And so it's a surprise to find Zelenka standing in front of one of the Ancient consoles, an almost manic expression on his narrow face. Rodney sighs, because he knows that look, snaps, "What did you break? No—don't tell me, just get out of the way so I can fix it."

There are days when he likes to play: Guess What They Broke. Today is one of those days. Sometimes it's intriguing trying to figure out what the morons he's surrounded with have managed to do, and how they've done it, because, seriously, all the safety protocols and redundancies he's worked into the systems over the years should have insured that anyone with the intelligence of a small child would have been able to operate the systems without nearly killing everyone on a regular basis.

But Radek resists when he tries to move him aside, bats at his hands and shoves his glasses up and says, "Rodney. I did not think you would be in so early."

Rodney rolls his eyes, snaps, "Trying to erase your mistakes before I catch them? I'd say I expected better of you, but I really don't. Now, move, you're only delaying the inevitable and I don't have time to play games this morning."

Radek's giving him a look that Rodney reads as mutinous, squinting up into his face and demanding, "Are you sure you are cleared to be here? Should you not be sleeping? Getting over your 'gate lag, yes?" Which is such a blatantly obvious attempt to save his own hide that Rodney ignores it. Crosses his arms over his chest and stares at the other man until he starts to squirm.

The smaller man waves a hand at him, mutters under his breath, "Fine, fine, look if you must."

Rodney does not point out that of course he must, it's his job. He just snorts, shoves Radek out of the way, and squints at what he's seeing. He's scrolling through lines of code, trying to make sense of what, exactly, Radek's done to the life signs detector when there's a sharp prick in the back of his hand.

"Ow!" he jerks his hand back, watching a bead of blood swell against his skin. He's already got his skin pressed to his mouth, sucking at the wound, when Radek shrugs .The man looks completely unapologetic, waving a small syringe, and Rodney snaps, "Oh, God, have you lost your mind? Did having to fill my shoes finally break your inferior little brain?"

Radek sighs, rolls his eyes and pushes at Rodney, sliding the syringe into an open port on the Ancient device. There's a whirling sound, and a soft beep, and Radek makes a pleased sound in the back of his throat. Rodney drawls his hand away from his mouth, eyes the skin warily, looking for a rash or some other sign of a flesh withering disease.

Other than the small red drop of blood, his hand looks normal. Still, "This is your day of vengeance, isn't it? Oh, God, is that where everyone else is? Did you already kill them all? I'll have you know that I'm armed, and won't go quietly. And Sheppard will look for me. You don't want to be on his bad side."

"Shut up, Rodney." It's said almost fondly, and the surprise of that is probably what makes Rodney snap his mouth shut. Radek ignores him, bends over his computer and types in a few commands before clapping his hands together and saying, "Ah. There it is. See?"

Rodney stares at the screen, all the little life sign dots spread across the city. It looks exactly the same as it did a second ago. He scowls, because Radek's not usually a complete idiot, and reaches out, adjusting the parameters of the screen, trying to figure out what's changed. And then, yes, in one of the labs, instead of all the white dots, there's a white dot and a red dot.

He blinks, forgets about the fading sting on the back of his hand, says, "What did—Is that me? Why am I red?"

Radek beams, fingers threaded together, hands held up by his chest. "It is so we will not lose you, yes? Now, we will know whether or not you spend all the time in the labs you say you do." Rodney blinks at the screen, as yes, that's kind of useful. Now, if he gets lost somewhere in the city at least they'll be able to find him.

He says, "Huh. Can you do that for everyone?" He thinks that it'd be great to be able to keep tabs on Sheppard. And of course, he could keep track of his wayward subordinates. There'd be no more wondering what Kavanaugh was messing up. He yanks the laptop away from Radek, starts typing commands into the program to see if it's possible.

Radek is smiling at him, lopsidedly, almost softly, "For anyone else, it would be a violation of privacy, Rodney. For you? Is just like safety net, yes? Like leash, so that you can not go too far." And Rodney thinks about being offended, but he's got his very own red dot. It's awesome enough that he doesn't really mind.

He cocks his head to the side, watching his little red dot floating beside Radek's white dot, says, "I think it should be gold." And at Radek's disbelieving snort, "If it's going to be an adequate representation--"

hr

His good mood, is, regrettably, short lived.

He's certain that it's actually statistically impossible for his team to be making this many mistakes. It's like they've completely forgotten what they're doing. All of them. At the same time. It's a miracle that Atlantis is still in one piece, if they've been behaving in this completely unforgivable way the entire time he was away.

After fixing yet another coding error, this time one so simple he's fairly sure his niece could have done it correctly, he decides he's had enough. He finds Miko typing away absently on her computer, looking distracted and tense and he prepares to unleash his fury upon her.

He grabs the computer, doesn't bother with preliminaries, just erases all the work she's done for the last few hours before releasing the computer and turning his focus onto her. She's blinking up at him, wide eyed and almost hopeful, and he wonders if she actually thinks she's done something good.

He hopes not, because that would be a clear sign of delirium, and he'd hate to lose her to Keller for tests.

She's opening her mouth, and he waves a hand for silence, snaps, "Tell me, do you have some fond childhood memory in which the smell of raw sewage plays a critical role? Is that what you were trying to recreate, by changing the coding on the waste refinery? Do you realize that if I hadn't happened to glance down and notice the huge, gaping errors in your work we'd all be swimming in the contents of the city's septic tank within the day?"

He expects her to tremble, possibly, even to cry. She can always be counted on for a few tears. He's not prepared for her expression to relax, for her to beam up at him while apologizing and promising to do better. He turns and marches away, distinctly unnerved by the way she'd been almost smiling, and the way she'd patted his hand before he'd managed to yank it away.

It's not important. He's got a dozen other idiots to berate, and tries to ignore the soft humming that he's sure is coming from her as he stomps away.

Ten hours later, and he's starting to think that the entire science division have lost their collective minds. They're all making mistakes, and they all seem utterly and bizarrely pleased to have them pointed out. It's like they're in a better mood, after Rodney finishes screaming at them, and he's not sure what to make of it.

He's irritated, and tired, and wondering what the hell the botanists thought they were doing trying to put through plans to redecorate with poisonous, carnivorous plants. He's fairly certain he's chewed out every member of his staff, along with a few unlucky soldiers who happened across his path as he stormed through halls and transporters to find those deserving of his ire.

He's got one last stop, before he can retreat back to his quarters and pray that no one has managed to flood it with poisonous gas or sink it into the sea or use it as storage for hazardous waste or any of the hundreds of other ridiculous scenarios he's been battling all day.

The door in front of him opens when he's still a dozen feet away, and he wonders how strongly he must be projecting his aggravation for the city to snap to attention like that. Doesn't have time to consider it, because then he's through the door and Carter's looking up from the paperwork spread over her desk, smiling tiredly at him and saying, "Rodney, I heard you were back, how--"

He slams a hand down hard on her desk, out past the end of his rope and tired, snaps, "And you! You should be ashamed! Allowing this utter breakdown of logic and common sense! Don't think that I didn't see your signatures on these projects! It's completely inexcusable and--"

He thinks that it would be easier to rail at her if she wasn't just sitting there, obviously trying to keep from smiling. He draws his hand back, suddenly unnerved, and continues while making a strategic retreat, "Look, I understand how difficult it must have been for you having to handle doing my job while I was away. No doubt it was very overwhelming. Next time, though, I think you should probably just not. Because you're really bad at it."

And then he's at the door, and thank God, because he's not sure he can deal with the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth any more. It's far too bizarre, on top of everything else he's had to deal with all day.

She says, even as he's got one foot out the door, so close to home free he can taste it, "I think that the best thing would be if you didn't go missing any more." And he can't read the tone of her voice, the way she's looking at him, like she's saying something that he's not hearing.

He calls over his shoulder, "Yes, well, I'll keep that in mind next time I'm kidnapped."

By the time he gets back to his room all he wants is his bed. It's been over a day since he last slept, and staying up all night with Sheppard, while it had seemed like the only thing to do at the time, started to look like a serious mistake hours ago.

He throws himself down into bed, vaguely aware that his sheets are tucked into perfect military corners and wondering how the hell that happened before his head hits the pillow and he remembers that he doesn't care. He gropes one hand out blindly, heavy eyes already shut tight, pats softly on the wall by his head. He hears himself mumble, thick and distant, "It's okay, I'm back now, those idiots won't hurt you anymore," right before he falls asleep.

hr

The door to his quarters is chiming, over and over again, and that's what wakes him. He feels groggy, more tired than when he fell asleep, and wonders what time it is. It fades to inconsequence when whoever is outside his door chimes again.

He swings himself up to his feet, stumbles over his shoes, left at the side of the bed, and is still cursing when he reaches the door. He snaps, as the door opens, "This had better be an emergency," and then, "Oh, Teyla."

His first instinct is to blink dumbly at her, standing in his doorway with some kind of billowy robe thing on, holding what looks like an entirely too complicated tea set. Seeing as it's neither very useful, nor likely to move the conversation along in such a manner as will allow him to crawl back into his abandoned bed, he shoves it aside and says instead, "You have tea."

She smiles at him, and he's starting to wonder if everyone is going to keep doing that. He hopes not. It's unnerving. And then she's stepping past him into his room, saying softly, "It is Tahkmau."

"Right. Yes. Tahkmau. Why is it in my room?" She ignores him, sinking down to her knees and setting the tray of tea on his floor and arranging tiny little saucers without a word. Feeling defeated, and lost, and wondering if this is perhaps some strange dream, he steps back from the door and stares down at her, "Is there a reason you're setting up a tea party on my floor?"

She looks up at him, says, "Sit, Rodney," and he does, because she's doing that mystic alien princess thing she does every now and then and he's curious, despite himself. And then she's handing him a cup of the Tahkmau, which is at least pleasantly warm and unfortunately smells slightly like yams. He cups it in his palms and wonders if she'll notice if he doesn't actually drink any of it.

And then she says, "I am pregnant." Which, okay, it's a good thing he hadn't hazarded a drink of the squash scented drink, because he's pretty sure it would be splattered all over the front of his shirt if he had. As it is, he manages to startle badly enough to spill scalding hot liquid over his fingers.

He yelps, hastily settles the cup back onto the serving tray, and sucks at his aggrieved fingers. And then, still trying to soothe his skin, he snaps, "What? And also, that is not an explanation for waking me at an ungodly hour for tea."

He's surprised when she kind of just ignores him, refills his cup and glares at him pointedly until he heaves a resigned sigh and takes it. It's only then that she speaks, her own steaming cup held under her nose. He wonders if she likes how it smells, as she says, "I have always been expected to provide an heir, to lead my people when my time expires."

Which sounds suspiciously like a non-answer. Rodney readjusts his grip on the cup. He wonders if this is one of those situations where he's supposed to be supportive of their different cultures. He hopes not, as it's entirely too early for him to be supportive of anything but coffee. Besides, if she had wanted soothing platitudes, she'd have gone to someone else.

He settles for the truth, snorts, "You let them talk you into being a brood mare? I mean, besides the fact that it's none of their business, this is a horrible idea. You're going to have to leave the team! What are we going to do without you? Sheppard will probably get us all killed within the week."

For a long moment she just stares at him, and then she ducks her head, half her mouth curling up into a smile. "It was not entirely...intentional. And it does not matter now, in any case." She shrugs, and Rodney decides against pointing out that it certainly does matter, and she can't just abandon them in the middle of the big stupid free-for-all known as the Pegasus Galaxy.

Besides, he feels presently that there's a more important issue to be addressed, "Not intentional? How could it not be intentional? Were you lying down? Did he trip and fall on top of you and accidentally figure out how to get Tab A into Slot B? And who is this guy, anyway? Shouldn't he be here, with you?" And then, in a sudden flash of disbelief, "Oh, God, is it Ronon? It's Ronon, isn't it?"

Her laughter surprises him, as does what he's pretty sure is genuine affection in her eyes, "The father is not Ronon," and when he opens his mouth again, "Or Colonel Sheppard. It was a man among my people, lost now with the rest of them."

He says, "Oh," because he's not sure what else to say. Wonders if this is where he's supposed to reach out and hug her and something. He hopes not, because he has absolutely no intention of doing such a thing. "That's, um, very sad," he thinks. "However, it still doesn't explain the tea."

She sounds vaguely disapproving, "It is not tea. It is Tahkmau." He opens his mouth, trying to figure out how to steer this conversation back into an area he has some chance of understanding, and then closes it when he fails. Luckily, Teyla's filling up the silence, "My people are all lost in shadow, Rodney, and so I have stewed the Tahkmau and we shall drink it and you shall be the Tahkmaun for the child."

He chokes again on his own spit, making wide panicked eyes at her and Teyla smiles serenely at him.

"What? I don't even—what does that even mean? You can't just—you can't just decide I'm going to be your Tahkmaun, or whatever. Wait! It doesn't count right, yet? I haven't, I didn't drink any of this." He sets it down, just in case.

He wishes she'd stop smiling. It's making him squirm. "I have already chosen you, Rodney. This is just to make everything official." She reaches out, picks his cup up and starts gently but incessantly pushing it into his hands. After a long moment of trying to bat it away with no success, he takes it, glances down at it sickly.

"You have met me before, right? I don't get chosen for these kinds of things. Whatever this is. I'm sure Sheppard or Ronon would be much better at—whatever." Really, really, much better. He has absolutely no doubt that this is the kind of touchy-feely thing that he's never held with.

She's still smiling, "I have considered both the Colonel and Ronon, but the things they could teach my child are part of the education I will already be providing. You will give something they can not." Which, okay. She's certainly correct at least that he'd be able to teach the kid more than anyone else. And do it better, as well.

He shifts, looks down at the tea—Tahkmau—because it's simpler than looking at her expectant expression. "Really? You really want me to teach and—whatever?" He makes an involuntarily broad gesture, and inadvertently spills yet more tea over his fingers. At least it's no longer scalding. Still, Teyla makes a disappointed face and he says, because he's vaguely sure that pregnant people shouldn't be upset, "Okay. Okay. I could. I guess. I mean, I need a better explanation of what exactly you're trying to rope me into."

She beams at him, and five minutes later he's drinking the sickly sweet, now tepid tea.

hr

It's all slightly more complex than she lets on, of course, and three weeks later he's slouching down the hall after what he's pretty sure was some kind of meditative Lamaze thing. He'll never admit it, but it's the first time he's felt relaxed since...well, since he doesn't know when. On a more recent note, it's the first time he's been able to take a breath without seeing Elizabeth's face since they lost her all over again three days ago.

He feels like he could sleep, and it's such a relief that he's almost stumbling by the time he reaches his room. All the exhaustion he's been fending off, the tight pressure that's kept him up and moving and working for the last three days has been lanced out of him.

He trips his way into his room, toeing off his shoes and shrugging out of his jacket and only realizes then that he's got company. He says, "Um," jacket halfway down his arms, and momentarily gets himself tangled when he fights conflicting instincts to pull it back on and slide it the rest of the way off. And then he remembers that it's his room, and struggles out of it, says, "Sheppard?"

Sheppard grunts, doesn't raise his head, and Rodney wonders what horrible thing has happened that has driven John into his room. The other man is sitting on his bed, elbows on his knees, staring down at something in his hands. The line of his shoulders is tense, the stretch of his neck almost painfully tight. Rodney wonders if someone else has died, says, "Why are you in my room?" All he gets is another grunt.

He tugs his shirt out of his waistband, pads across to his bathroom and grabs for his toothbrush. Sheppard being in his room has not changed the fact that he is exhausted, and he's sure that he can multitask enough to hold this non-conversation while getting himself ready to collapse into bed. But John doesn't make any attempt to speak with him while he's in the bathroom.

In fact, Sheppard's still in the same position he left him in, perched on the edge of his bed, staring down at his own hands.

Rodney sighs, because okay, fine, he's perfectly willing to let Sheppard take the small eternity he needs to gather his thoughts. Just. Not when he's exhausted, and the other man is in direct conflict with him getting the sleep his body is suddenly desperate for. He crosses his arms, tapping his foot impatiently, reaches out and shoves at the side of John's head, snaps, "Okay, seriously, I'm tired. Get out."

He shoves again when John doesn't respond, trying to ignore the first creeping hints of worry in his gut. And then Sheppard's reaching up, grabbing his hand and pressing something hard and metal into his palm, curling his fingers up around it like perhaps Rodney has forgotten how to operate his hand on his own.

He blinks, draws his hand back, stares down at what John's left behind. "These are your dog tags." Both of them, cradled in Rodney's palm, the chain slipping between his fingers, tickling against his arm. "Is there something wrong with them? Because I know I said I can fix everything, and I can, but I don't know what I'd be able to do about any potential problems with flat metal and a non-mechanical chain."

John makes a sound that might be laughter, not that loud obnoxious sound that Rodney's become perplexingly fond of, instead something soft and almost bitter. When John looks up, finally, the dark bruises under his eyes make his entire expression something hard and miserable. His voice is rough, "The other me, these were his. He gave 'em to me."

Rodney says, "Oh," and wonders why the other him didn't think to give him anything. Then again, it's not like he'd ever put very much stock on his physical possessions. Being able to work with someone actually on his intellectual level, even if it had only been for a little while, had probably been the best present he could have asked for, anyway.

Of course, that's still not an explanation of why John's in his room, giving them to him, he repeats, "Are they broken?"

And something in Sheppard's expression lightens, opens, he even cracks half a smile. "They're not broken, Rodney." And then he's standing up, briefly in Rodney's space, a rush of warmth and tingles up and down Rodney's spine before he's gone, heading towards the door.

Rodney stares down at the tags in his hand, then whirls to face Sheppard's retreating back. Saying, "Wait, you left--"

Sheppard freezes, back still to him, and Rodney bounces the tags in his palm, aware of the soft metal whisper of sound, but only distantly. John's voice sounds funny, tight and Rodney can't even begin to sort out the emotions that he's sure must be there somewhere below the surface, "He would have wanted you to have them."

"I—what? That doesn't even make sense. He didn't even know me." He knows it's semantics, but still. That other Sheppard hadn't known him, not really. All he'd known was a copy, albeit an exact and perfect copy. He extends his hand back towards Sheppard, fingers open, "I don't think that--"

Sheppard cuts him off, half turning to face him, still smiling that odd little almost smile, "C'mon, Rodney. It's almost a dying wish. You wouldn't deny me my last wish, would you?"

His hand curls closed automatically, and he's distantly aware that John's playing dirty. That doesn't stop him from drawing his fist in close, from tightening his hold enough that the metal digs into his skin, almost painfully. He's sure that it must all show on his face, the flare of almost-panic at the thought of John dying, and looks at the floor to hide it.

Snaps, because at least venom will keep the concern from showing through, "Fine. Whatever. Are you done, now?" He shoves his hand towards his pocket, and John stiffens, is in his space again in seconds, fingers closing almost painfully tight around his wrist. He hears his voice, loud in the suddenly thick air of the room, "What the hell, Sheppard? Have you lost your--"

Sheppard's voice has lost whatever false cheer it had, is almost a growl, "They go around your neck. That's what the chain is for."

And then he's pulling the tags out of Rodney's hand, fingers stretching it wide, lifting it over Rodney's head. Rodney thinks about protesting, but then John's fingers are brushing against his temples, his cheeks, settling the surprisingly cool chain against the flushed skin of his neck.

Sheppard pulls at his shirt, drops the tags between the fabric and his skin. He looks focused, intent, almost feverish. He pats at Rodney's chest, fingers curling over the tags, like he's reassuring himself that they haven't somehow disappeared. It's so bizarre that Rodney just gapes up at him, trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

He says, trying to gauge exactly what the expression on John's face means, "Have you been sleeping?"

For a long moment he gets no answer, just John's fingers tapping a rhythm onto his chest. And then Sheppard's pulling back, drawing back into himself. His voice is still rough, grim and serious as the grave itself, "Don't take them off."

By the time Rodney thinks to protest, because John has absolutely no right to be throwing around orders like that, it's just ridiculous, John's already gone.

He doesn't feel tired anymore, his brain is loud and thick with all the different things he has to fix and set up and Elizabeth's face, alive and there and then gone again. He scrubs a hand up over his face, reaching for his shoes, tugging his jacket back on. He feels too big inside skin, itchy and jittery, all nerves and jagged edges.

He heads back to the labs.

Only realizes later that he left the tags on, and after that, it's just easier to leave them on than take them off. That's it.

hr

He blames the exhaustion, three days later, a deep, abiding companion that he cannot rid himself of, on allowing himself to be lured into Ronon's room. Oh, sure, it seems like a good idea, when Ronon rumbles, "Chocolate," and steers him into the open door. But he's sure that had he been properly rested he would have known that it should have been avoided. He's fairly sure that he's known about strangers with candy since he was four years old. And that they were generally bad things.

However, his brain is sort of fuzzy around the edges, and he's been walking around with the biggest headache in the galaxy for the last twelve hours and chocolate, with the associated caffeine and sugar, is too good to pass up.

And that's why, when he should be protesting, he's instead staring blearily around Ronon's room, grabbing at the air, asking, "Chocolate?" The big man snorts, and then, like a benediction from above, there is a Hershey's bar in his hands, and he is aware of the happy little sound he makes, but only distantly. He's more concerned with, well, the chocolate.

He's aware that Ronon is steering him deeper into the room, and that there appear to be even more instruments of disembowelment scattered around the room than there were last time he was in here. His gaze gets hung up on a particularly huge and serrated knife, and he ends up being dragged backwards, chewing on a hunk of beautiful, wonderful, miraculous chocolate.

He says, around the perfect sweetness on his tongue, "Your room is bigger than mine. Why is your room bigger than mine? I should have a bigger room than you."

Ronon ignores him in favor of shoving hard on one of his shoulders, and rumbling, "Sit down, McKay." And he sits, because Ronon must outweigh him by like, three hundred pounds, all of it muscle. He's not sure what this has to be on the floor, but he folds his legs on the mat that Ronon has set up, cradles his chocolate, and blinks at the pot of black ink on the floor in front of him.

He says, "Um. I think I should probably go, I'm supposed to be meeting with Zelenka over on the north pier and if I'm not on time he might start touching things without me and--" He tries to push to his feet, and Ronon braces a hand on the top of his head.

The man says, moving off to a deeper part of his room, "Eat your chocolate." He sounds amused and Rodney thinks about being offended, but its candy, and no one is trying to make him share, and he figures what the hell. He figures at worst Ronon will hit him with sticks some more, at best he'll get some more chocolate out of the deal.

He's still staring, half-dazedly at the bubbling ink, when Ronon strolls back and sinks down in front of him with barely a whisper of sound. He looks up, scowling, and points at the ink accusingly, "I'm not going to drink that. I don't care if you are pregnant."

Ronon stares at him for a long moment, and Rodney stares back. Finally Ronon shrugs, settling a weird, primitive wooden thing between them, says, "You're not going to drink it." And Rodney relaxes because, well, that's good news. And then Ronon's continuing, "Hold still." And there goes any sense of relaxation.

He's snapping, "What? No. I will not hold still. Why would I hold still?" more out of reflex than anything else. He's also pushing up, and Ronon reaches out, grabs his elbow and holds on and he struggles for a half second before realizing that it's pointless. He starts to reach for his radio and Ronon rolls his eyes.

"Relax, McKay." It's oddly not comforting at all, and Rodney scowls at him, but hesitates. Because, honestly, if Ronon had been going to hurt him, he's pretty sure he would have done it already. He glares suspiciously at the larger man, who is bent intently over the instruments he has arrayed before him.

"What are you doing?" He reaches out, can't not. Runs his fingers over the edges of the bowls that Ronon has set up, dips a finger in the ink and hisses because it's surprisingly hot. He catches himself an instant before he sticks the injured finger into his mouth, and shakes his hand instead, frowning as the ink stains into his skin.

Ronon grunts, and at first Rodney assumes that's to be his answer, but then he's continuing, "My family is dead." It's so random, painfully out of the blue that he flinches. He shifts, uncomfortable and lost and not at all sure where this is coming from. Ronon's continuing before he can catch up, "My people are dead. I won't lose anyone else, McKay."

"Look, I'm sorry, you know we're all, um, sorry about what happened. To your people. But I'm not sure how exactly that has anything to do with--"

"People should know that you have someone looking out for you." The words are plain and bald and flat and Rodney stares at him. Ronon's looking at him like this is important, and Rodney's sure it is, at least to the other man, but that doesn't mean he understands. "You are not a stray, and people should know."

One of Ronon's hands drifts up to his own neck, fingers ghosting over the tattoo there, and Rodney tenses at the sudden understanding in the back of his skull. He shifts backwards, drops the chocolate, "Oh, no. No. I don't—needles aren't really my thing and people have allergic reactions to ink all the time and it's really not a good idea to be injecting it into my skin and I really have to go now."

Ronon's still gripping his elbow, and smiles, just a little, "It's not going to be very big." Rodney makes a distressed sound, because obviously his entire team has gone insane, and Ronon's just manifesting it in a desire to stick tiny needles into his skin. He twists, hard, and Ronon's expression for the first time shifts to something less than calm. He growls, "Rodney. This is important."

And Rodney knows, knows it has to be the exhaustion and the chocolate and quiet possibly the desolation on the other man's face that makes him stop fighting. He shifts, still uncomfortable, "How big is not very big?" And Ronon grins at him like he's just said the best thing ever.

hr

Not very big turns out to be the size of a quarter, whorls of black-blue ink nestled under his ear, kissing up against his jaw. It had stung, burned, but just a little, like an itch that would go away if he could just scratch it. And afterwards Ronon had let out a deep, shuddering breath, and patted him heavily on the shoulder, said, "There, now we're family," and sent him away with another bar of chocolate.

And Rodney commences panicking as soon as he's out in the hallway.

Because he has a tattoo, and it's where everyone can see it, and what the hell had he been thinking, anyway? His skin feels swollen, hot under his fingers, and he pokes at it, walking towards the north pier with the vague certainty that Zelenka was supposed to be there and he had work to do. By the time he gets there his fingers are sticky with the salve Ronon had smeared over his skin, and he still can't stop touching.

He's dreading what the other man's reaction is going to be, dreading having to explain how he let himself be talked into being permanently marked, for the rest of his goddamn life. Turns out he needn't have worried, because Radek is no where to be found when Rodney finally makes it to the lab they'd decided to work in.

His tools are all there, spread out and welcoming, and Rodney wonders where he went, but only briefly. It's not that important, because if it were people would be screaming at him over the radio, and no one is. Besides, seeing as he doesn't actually want to talk to the other man, he sees no reason to complain about him not being around.

It takes him five minutes to find the console that Radek stopped working on, and yes, it probably would have taken longer without the Post-It he finally finds that's covered in the other man's chicken scratch. He skims the few legible words: unstable power source, energy fluctuations, all of it starting about a month ago.

The time period coincides too neatly with his own temporary absence, and he huff in frustration. He'd thought he'd already fixed everything they'd managed to break, but apparently some things had slipped through. Which meant he probably had nothing but weeks of running around playing Fix What My Idiot Staff Broke as small errors compounded to huge, massive, deadly errors, in his future.

He crumbles the Post-It in frustration, and starts taking apart the console. Energy fluctuations happen to be an understatement, and by the time he's managed to figure out which of the couplings is misfiring his knuckles and fingers are covered in tiny little burns. He grits his teeth, already wondering who, exactly, is going to get blamed for this, and worms his arm deeper into the machine, towards the faulty connection.

He's trailing his fingers over each inch of machinery as he goes, trying to feel the one that he needs, aware dimly that he's crooning soft endearments as he goes. He knows that Radek would never let him live it down, if he found him here, murmuring sweet nonsense to the city. Therefore, it's just as well that Radek is off on his power lunch/nap/whatever with Miko.

One more twist of his fingers and he can feel bubbled metal where there should be none. He grins, pats the console with his free hand, grunting, "Good girl." And that's about when he feels something move in the machine.

Jerking his hand is an automatic reflex, but apparently his sleeve is caught on something, because he doesn't go anywhere. He twists, harder, trying to rip it free because he can feel a flash of heat and something moving closer to his skin and—

He does not scream, at the sudden, painful press of searing metal against the skin of his inner wrist. There's no one around to say otherwise, either, and he continues not screaming until he manages to get his free hand up and his radio on, and then he yells, "Sheppard! Wait, no, belay that—Zelenka, you bastard, what did you do? Get down here right now before my arm is gone, hurry--"

It's not really a surprise when Sheppard jumps on the line, and Rodney wonders what insanity prompted him to call for the other man first, anyway. It doesn't matter because John's snapping, "Where are—never mind, I'm on my way. What's wrong?"

Rodney really, sincerely hopes he doesn't sound as hysterical as he feels, but, hello, burning metal pressing into his skin, here, "Get Radek, and-and-and Keller. And I'm—never mind? What do you mean never mind?"

Sheppard grunts, he sounds a little winded, "Red dot. Northern pier." And Rodney bites back on the laughter building in his chest because it's not at all an appropriate response to having his skin fried to a crisp. He tugs on his arm again, hard, and it slides free, like it was greased with butter. He topples over, momentum carrying him from vertical to horizontal with a brief pause to crack his head against Radek's toolbox along the way.

Which, he's fairly certain, is why his ears are ringing and there's blood in his mouth. And then there are footsteps, insanely loud pounding towards him, and a familiar hand dropping to his neck to take his pulse, and John Sheppard's worried face hovering over him. Rodney says, "Ow," because that pretty much adequately describes his exact feelings, at the moment.

John's saying, "What did you do?" all accusing, like this is in any way at all his fault, continuing with, "Is that—what's burning? Shit, Rodney, say something."

He grunts, drags his wounded arm up to cradle against his chest and flashes John an irritated look, "I said 'ow'. Where's Keller? I told you to bring her. And Zelenka." They're both noticeably not in the room, and he scowls harder at the other man, who doesn't even have the decency to look moderately ashamed with himself.

In fact, Sheppard mostly just sounds worried, "You were hysterical, McKay." Which doesn't actually, in fact, explain anything. He's also poking at him, pushing an eyelid up with one finger and taking his pulse again, which seems completely pointless seeing as Rodney is coherent, and all.

He bats at Sheppard's hands, pushes up to a sitting position and groans when the room lurches into focus a half-second later. He snaps, waving his injured wrist under the other man's nose, "Yes, well, now I have to go all the way down to the Infirmary, my untended injuries blazing into greater agony with each second, because you can't follow simple instructions."

John scowls, a beat too slow to reply as he grabs Rodney's arm, holds it steady and stares, "You are such a drama queen." And then, his brow furrowing as he stares at Rodney's skin, which, hey, Rodney's pretty sure that he doesn't actually want to see himself, not with the way it's hurting, he's never been good at seeing himself hurt. "Jesus, what the hell did you do?"

He waves his free hand towards the console, "I didn't do anything. It tried to eat me while I was fixing it." He shifts, growing more uncomfortable by the second with Sheppard's complete fascination on his burn, "How bad—how bad is it?"

"See for yourself," which is all the warning he gets before Sheppard's releasing his arm, turning his expectant gaze onto Rodney with startling intensity. Rodney shifts, looks down at his own arm so he doesn't have to look at Sheppard, and opens his mouth. Closes it again. John says, voice low and close, "Is that what I think it is?"

Rodney stares down at his angry, inflamed skin, the burn already swelling up beneath the red-pink-white of the brand itself. He hears himself, "That's the home symbol for Atlantis." And it is, set right below his palm, huge and beautiful, in its own way.

John says, "Yeah, thought so." And then he's hauling Rodney to his feet, steadying him when he sways unsteadily. He's saying, "Lets get you down to Keller, and I'll tell Zelenka to close off this area of the city until we can make sure no one else gets a surprise branding."

Rodney nods, still staring at his raised skin, and is glad when John doesn't comment about the way he holds onto him. He just...doesn't feel very steady on his feet. His mind is going in circles, replaying Teyla's tea ceremony, John giving him the tags, Ronon's strong fingers on his neck, setting the ink into the skin.

He lets John guide him, a hand on his back below his shoulders, barely registers the transporter ride, or the corridors they traverse. He's elsewhere, trying to figure things out, trying to sort through the complicated human responses that he was never any good at decoding.

And then they're in the Infirmary, and John's helping him up onto one of the beds, hand lingering just a second too long on his knee, fingers just a little too tight when he squeezes. Sheppard's looking at him, and Rodney reads all kinds of things that he doesn't understand in the man's dark eyes. He opens his mouth, to demand an explanation, and Sheppard calls over his shoulder, "Hey, Keller, our Rodney's had a bit of an accident over here."

He thinks: Oh.

And understands.

::back to index::


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