"It’s all your fault," Rodney said to the fox-thing in its wooden cage atop one of the lab tables. It responded by staring balefully at him through the slats and blinking slowly.
The thing--the flicksa, Rodney mentally corrected himself--belonged to Torren. Well, it was Rodney's now, he supposed. As winner of the Jazzsinger, Torren was entitled to give his prize to anyone he chose. (Okay, not Jazzsinger… Jessinko? Jacsiina? Whatever its actual name, it was the communal sacred ceremonial hunt all Athosian ten-year-olds had to take part in to transition successfully to Athosian young-adulthood. Or something. What did Rodney know? He'd only lasted in the Eager Beavers long enough to get his computer science badge.)
So Rodney was now the proud owner of a fuzzy brown fox-thing. Even he knew it would have been insensitive to refuse the gift--the winning hunter traditionally presented the captured flicksa to his or her father. (The Athosians had been eagerly anticipating the jacuzzi-what's-its-name for months--Teyla had explained its traditions in excruciating detail to the team, the memory of her own long ago victory bringing tears to her eyes.) Torren, of course, had never known his father, Kanaan having been one of the last casualties of the Wraith wars.
"So am I supposed to eat you or keep you as a pet?" Rodney asked the thing. It didn't seem to have an opinion on the subject one way or the other, merely blinking and letting out a low gurgle. The sound was kind of nice, actually, like purring. "Stop that," Rodney said. "You are not endearing."
The thing shouldn't have been his problem to deal with anyway. Rodney hadn't wanted to be the one to accompany Torren to the mainland for his big day. He hadn't understood why Torren had asked him. Surely this was more Ronon's area of expertise. Even Sheppard would have been more at home amidst the sweat and dirt and hunting tents. Sheppard had badly wanted to go, too. Rodney had been able to tell by the way Sheppard's lower lip jutted out when Torren had asked him instead.
"You're making Sheppard pout."
"McKay!" Sheppard hissed.
"What?" Rodney asked, puzzled. "You're pouting."
"Am not." Sheppard made himself a big liar by pouting more. "And could you lay off in front of the kid?"
"Torren and I always speak frankly in the lab."
"Is that so?" Sheppard sounded amused.
"Yes," Torren said. "It's a rule. Science demands absolute integrity."
Sheppard choked off a laugh. Torren, Rodney was pleased to see, ignored him completely. He smiled proudly at the child. It was hard to remember there had ever been a time when he hadn't wanted him hanging around the labs.
From the time Torren had been a baby, Teyla had wanted him to spend time with each of his three "uncles." Ronon had tried to teach him how to fight, and Sheppard had devoted many an afternoon to taking him flying, but it was his time as a junior lab assistant that made Torren the happiest. The flying and fighting had eventually tapered off when Torren had shown no interest--or aptitude--for either, but he still reported for lab duty every day. He'd turned out to have a first-class mind, quickly moving beyond the make-work Rodney had originally tried to set aside for him. He'd been conducting his own experiments for several years now--his work on fluid dynamics was outstanding. Rodney was seriously considering assigning him to Simpson's team for the shield augmentation project.
But all of that was no reason why Rodney had to be the one to go with him to the mainland. "Seriously, Torren. Sheppard's a better choice for your vision quest."
Torren, to his credit, did not whine. He did not throw a tantrum on the floor. He did not even let his big brown eyes fill with tears and make his mouth wobble like some other ten-year-olds (Madison) Rodney had known.
Instead he looked up at Sheppard in that serious way he had. "I'm sorry, Uncle John. I'm only allowed to bring one person with me. I hope you understand."
Sheppard nodded gravely back. Torren turned to Rodney.
"I don't want to go either, Uncle Rodney. I would much rather spend the day on my hydrodynamic stability simulations, but it's important to Mom."
And of course Rodney couldn't refuse if he was going to bring Teyla into it. He sighed. Torren really was a brilliant child.
Rodney whipped his head around from the lab bench where he'd been trying to distract himself by working on the shield equations. He could have sworn he'd heard a meow.
"You don't have to impersonate a cat," he told the flicksa sternly. "I wasn't really going to eat you."
The sacred ceremonial hunt had turned out to be just as sweaty and dusty as Rodney anticipated. Luckily he hadn't been expected to take part in any way. As soon as he'd arrived, he'd been ushered into a tent with the other adults, all men, presumably the participants' fathers, to wait it out. There had been five other Athosian kids entered, and only one flicksa, released specially into the mainland scrub for the occasion. Under normal circumstances, Torren wouldn't have stood a chance.
Teyla's son, to Sheppard and Ronon's eternal sorrow, was not to put too fine a point on it, an indoor child. He wasn't clumsy, exactly--how could he have been with Teyla for a mother?--but he was small for his age, with a quizzical frown as his default expression. He always had an air of slight distraction, like he might have been working something out in his head. This tended to lead to his tripping over obstacles--rocks, trees, his feet--more than the average kid, especially the average Pegasus galaxy kid. And Sheppard could glare at Rodney as much as he wanted, it wasn't his fault Torren had the sense to prefer spending the afternoon reviewing the basics of mechanical engineering instead of chasing around a football.
Rodney had to admit both Sheppard and Ronon did a pretty good job hiding their disappointment from Torren. Teyla, of course, was Teyla. She had nothing but unconditional love for Torren and support for his choices. Still, Rodney had never been good at reading her. Sometimes he couldn't help wondering if she would have preferred Torren take more interest in traditional Athosian pursuits rather than spending so much of his free time in Rodney's company.
The hunt-thing was supposed to have lasted most of the day--the children had to track the flicksa over several miles, spirit it from its hiding place, and capture it alive--but not two hours after it began a thunderous Halling had returned, dragging Torren behind him. Torren carried the flicksa in a little wooden cage, but instead of being hailed as the triumphant victor, he had seemed to be in great disgrace. It turned out he hadn't stalked the wild flicksa through the undergrowth with a pointy stick or whatever the proper procedure was. Apparently he'd been spending his last week in the lab modifying a life-signs detector to recognize the animal's particular energy signature. This wasn't against the rules--mostly because nothing as worldly as rules had ever been deemed necessary in the long history of the sacred hunt--but Halling and the Athosian elders had considered it bad form anyway. Nor did they approve of the chocolate power bar Torren had used to tempt the thing into his cage.
After taking a moment to marvel that a hidebound reliance on old methodology was not something endemic to Earth, Rodney had breathed a sigh of relief that at least it was over and they could all go home. Halling, unfortunately, had had different ideas.
Torren looked sick.
Rodney couldn't blame him--he kind of felt the same way. Apparently he, Rodney, was expected to explain to Torren the error of his ways, and discipline him appropriately. Rodney didn't remember signing up for that, but Halling and the other elders seemed to consider him Torren's father-figure. They'd gone away to… be judgmental elsewhere, Rodney supposed, leaving him and Torren alone in the tent staring miserably at each other.
If only Teyla were there. She was Torren's parent, not him, and she had this mystical warrior mom power that prevented her ever making a misstep. But Teyla was back on Atlantis.
All right, Rodney could do this. He couldn't actually see Halling's point, but that was hardly a surprise. Traditions were often meaningless to him--as a scientist he prided himself on his willingness to innovate--but they were important. Or so he'd always been told. By Teyla, even, so it had to be true. There was a reason the Athosians expected their sacred ceremonial ten-year-olds to hunt in a certain way. Chasing the flicksa through stinging and possibly allergenic nettles built character, maybe. And it wasn't as if Torren could possibly become a functioning adult without spending a hot summer day in a completely meaningless rite of passage.
Okay, that kind of thinking was not helpful right now. Rodney took a breath. What would Teyla want him to do?
"Torren," he began sternly. Or tried to. The name caught in his throat. He covered with a cough.
"Are you all right, Uncle Rodney?"
"Fine, fine." He waved a hand, then remembered he was trying to look stern. "Torren," he said again.
Rodney tried to remember how his own father had chastised him. "Do you know what you did wrong?"
"No, Uncle Rodney."
There was that complete honesty again. The boy looked up at him with trusting eyes.
"Well. You--uh…" Rodney racked his brain. He wasn't entirely sure what Torren had done wrong either. "You used an advantage the other children didn't have. Though why you should be penalized for employing your intelligence is utterly beyond--" He forced himself back to the point. "There's a certain way to do things. At least some things. Just because you have a better way of doing something doesn't necessarily mean you should do it that way. Do you understand?"
Torren hesitated. "I do not think so," he said finally. "I thought it was smart to invent a new way to capture the flicksa."
Being smart isn't everything. It was on the tip of his tongue, it really was. Rodney could say it.
Rodney picked up the modified life-signs detector from the low table in the corner of the tent where Halling had left it. He wasn't stalling; it just felt good to turn the Ancient device in his hands while he considered how to explain things to Torren in a way he would understand. He idly scrolled through Torren's coding.
"This is good. Well, of course your work is always exemplary, you take after me that way. Still, this is good, even for you, Torren. Why did you decide--hmm, yes, I see, you didn't have a sample of the flicksa's genetic material to work with."
"And it isn't the only animal of its size on the mainland, so--"
"So you modeled the neural electrical activity of--Yes, good. Just how I would have done it."
"Really?" Torren's face glowed at the praise.
This wasn't going well at all.
"Torren," Rodney said one more time. This was ridiculous. All he'd done was come to the hunt with Torren, how had he been been delegated to impart life lessons? It was completely unfair, but Teyla had trusted him with her child. He couldn't let her down by not even trying. "You might not understand why what you did was..."
Was what? Was not fair. Was cheating. Rodney sighed, trying out the words in his head. He couldn't make them fit.
"Was unacceptable," he settled on finally. "But even if we don't understand, sometimes we still have to try to... fit in with... what people expect. If you can get the hang of that now, things will be easier for you when you're older, believe me."
Rodney paced, trying to make his words true by waving his hands in wider and wider arcs. Reaching the far side of the tent he stopped and turned to look at Torren. The boy gazed up at him, face scrunched in concentration, trying hard to make sense of Rodney's nonsensical ravings, and Rodney just--he couldn't do it.
He strode back to the boy. "You know what? Forget everything I just said. It's crap."
"Crap?" Torren sounded even more puzzled.
Rodney nodded furiously. "Complete and utter crap. No idea what I was thinking. I get addled around children and ceremonies, ask anyone. Torren, you invented a new way to do the task assigned to you. An elegant, much, much better way. The only thing you did wrong was use your brain, which is more than the Athosian so-called elders ever did." He winced. "Don't tell your mother I said that."
"Okay." Torren nodded.
Rodney started to pace again. "You didn't break any rules. You can hardly be blamed for being smarter than all of them put together. And if your people are too small-minded to see what an amazing thing you've done--well, fuck 'em." He swallowed. "Don't tell your mother I said that, either."
"I will not."
"Don't ever let anybody make you afraid to try something new. You're going to do great things." Rodney wasn't sure when exactly he'd turned into an After-School Special, but his words seemed to get the point across. Torren positively shone. And the kid deserved it, after all. He was the most brilliant child Rodney had known since well, him. Rodney hadn't actually known very many children, but even so.
He looked down at Torren's brilliant little head with its brilliant little brain whirring away inside, and was staggered with a rush of protective affection. He'd stand between this child and anything that wanted to hurt him, he suddenly realized, no matter what. There were precious few people he felt that way about. Torren had wormed his way onto the list without Rodney even noticing.
Rodney could fix things with the Athosian elders somehow, get Torren recognized as the winner. And Teyla. What was Rodney going to tell her about the ruined hunt? She'd understand, wouldn't she? She wouldn't be angry, not beautiful, open-minded Teyla.
He could think of something to tell her later. For now he was going to enjoy the (well-deserved) hero-worship he could see shining up from Torren's eyes.
If nothing else, the flicksa had a future in competitive staring. Rodney had finally given up on getting any work done on the shield equations. He kept glancing over at the animal and finding it looking back at him, big orange eyes gazing placidly up.
"I think I'll name you Blinky," he told it.
It sniffed and whimpered a little. It was too bad if it didn't like the name. Rodney had been saddled with a terrible name his whole life. He didn't have a lot of sympathy. He had more important things to worry about.
After they'd gotten back to Atlantis, Rodney had tried to take Torren back to his quarters. He'd wanted to explain to Teyla what had happened, to smooth the waters for the kid as much as he could. He was painfully aware that diplomacy was not a job for which he was suited, to say the least, but he couldn't let Torren face the consequences on his own. After all, he would never have used technology to catch the flicksa if it weren't for Rodney.
But Torren had insisted on going home alone. He had wanted to explain to his mother what he'd done and take full responsibility without hiding behind Rodney. He'd agreed to ask Teyla to go to Rodney's lab after he had spoken to her first, but that was the only concession he was willing to make.
So here Rodney was, bickering with an alien animal while waiting to see if Teyla would come. He felt ridiculous, for what had to be the thousandth time that day. He knew Teyla. She wouldn't be angry with Torren for something like this. She was the best mother Rodney had ever known--not that he had a lot of experience in that area, either--loving and kind, and scrupulously fair.
But the traditions of her people were sacred to her. Growing up in the shadow of the Wraith, of course they would be. She couldn't help but be disappointed that her son hadn't passed into young adulthood in the prescribed Athosian manner. She wouldn't show her unhappiness, but it would be there. Rodney must have suddenly developed a squishy marshmallow center, because he hated the idea of Teyla being disappointed in Torren.
That, at least, he could mitigate. Teyla was ruled by her well-defined sense of justice. When he put the case to her, she would have to agree it was Rodney who was most at fault--Rodney who'd led Torren astray with the siren calls of physics and Ancient technology. Rodney really, really hated the idea of Teyla being disappointed in him, but he was an adult. He could take it.
He'd spent a lifetime not caring what other people thought of him, but it was different with Teyla. Rodney wanted her to admire him, or rather, he wanted to be admirable for her. He was aware he rarely lived up to his finer instincts, but she inspired them nonetheless.
He couldn't even pretend not to understand why.
Maybe he should have been embarrassed. He might have been once, but Rodney had seen too many things in the Pegasus galaxy to worry over something as inconsequential as his own messy emotions. It wasn't hard to admit he loved Teyla. It was Teyla, how could anyone not love her? And if his own feelings went beyond those of his teammates, well, so be it.
Teyla had no idea, of course, which was as it should be. Rodney suspected Sheppard had guessed, but the likelihood of Sheppard initiating a discussion of feelings was about the same as the Wraith taking up organic farming, so he had nothing to fear from that quarter.
Rodney glanced at the clock on his laptop. It had been longer than he'd expected. Maybe Teyla wasn't coming after all. "Looks like it's just you and me, Blinky."
The flicksa responded by sniffing the air and jumping violently in its cage. "Fine," Rodney said. "If you hate that name so much, I'll think of a new one."
There was a soft cough. "Peri is a common name for a flicksa among my people."
Of course she would come just as Rodney was having a pathetic one-sided conversation with an alien animal. He turned. Teyla stood inside the lab entrance, which he supposed explained the animal's agitation. Perhaps it was protective, like a dog. That could be useful to keep the underlings away from his experiments.
"Shh, little one." Teyla crossed to the wooden cage, flicking the latch open and extracting the animal. It nestled in her arms and snuggled under her chin, humming happily. So much for its defensive potential.
"Some watch-flicksa you'd make," he told it, not without a little rancor.
Teyla lifted her head from nuzzling the flicksa and smiled. Rodney's stomach fell as he tried to remember what he'd decided to tell her about the hunt. If he'd come up with anything, he couldn't recall it now. He sighed, hating that he was about to make her unhappy.
"Torren has told me what occurred at the j'ha cehna."
So that was what it was called. Rodney had been pretty sure it wasn't actually jazzsinger.
"You have to understand--It wasn't Torren's fault. It was all me. Well, not all me," his need for conscientiousness made him add. "But I have to take ultimate responsibility."
She nodded. "What you are saying is very serious."
"I realize that, and I'm--"
"I had assumed my son won the j'ha cehna through his own efforts. But I have never known you to take credit for accomplishments that were not your own." She smiled suddenly. It reached all the way to her eyes, making them dance. "I shall be sure to speak firmly to him."
"You--? You're not upset?"
"Should I be?" She bent her head to the flicksa and tickled under its chin with an index finger.
"Yes! I mean--no," he added, when she looked up so quickly the flicksa was jostled. It let out another meow-like cry.
"I mean," he said, trying to unscramble his brain. "You don't mind Torren's... nontraditional methods?"
"Rodney." Teyla stepped closer to him. Rodney felt his stomach jump, unable to quash the foolish hopefulness he always felt when she stood near. "Do you know why I have always encouraged Torren to study with you?"
"No," Rodney said. "Wait. You've been encouraging him?"
Teyla rolled her eyes. "For several years now. Did you not notice?"
"Um, no? I thought he came to the labs because he liked science."
Teyla's eyes twitched like she wanted to roll them again. "He does, Rodney. It is one of my greatest sources of pride in him."
"It is?" Rodney heard his voice squeak. He cleared his throat. "As well it should be."
"Torren is the future of the Athosians." There was no mistaking the pride in her voice this time. "He will be first in a generation that comes of age using the technology of my galaxy and yours, and creating it as well. He will be a great scientist."
"Yes," Rodney nodded. "He will."
"I thank you for helping him learn. My people must always honor the old ways, but we must not be afraid of the new."
She wasn't angry, or disappointed--with Torren or with him. Rodney was so staggered with relief, he felt light-headed, and then ridiculous again, for the thousand-and-first time. He had known Teyla embraced technology. She was always the first--and usually the only--member of his team to want to learn about things like ship systems and computers. Why should he be surprised she wished her son to be conversant in science and its applications, that she wanted Torren to surpass her, to go beyond what she could achieve?
He was surprised, though, and ashamed of himself for forgetting she was a leader, not just his amazing, beautiful friend. He opened his mouth to apologize. "Teyla, I--"
She placed a hand on his forearm. The flicksa took the opportunity to scramble down her arm and attempt what was either an extreme snuggling move or an effort to strangle him. Teyla laughed and retrieved the animal, placing it back in its cage.
"You will enjoy having a flicksa. They are fine companion animals. Of course, with the animal living in your quarters, Torren will want to visit often."
"Oh. Well, that's okay, I suppose."
She stepped in close again. "I would not wish Torren to bother you. Perhaps if I accompany him it will be easier."
Rodney swallowed. "To my quarters?"
"You would not mind?"
Rodney shook his head, unsure what was happening, but smart enough not to speak and ruin it.
"Rodney." She looked down a moment, then met his gaze with determination. "Torren telling me of his adventures at the j'ha cehna made me realize something."
"It did?" he asked when she didn't continue.
"Torren did well not be afraid to try something new."
"You know that's just what I told him. It's the same advice my first mentor at Northeastern gave me. I was only sixteen and--"
"I myself have wanted to try something new for some time, yet I have let fear hold me back."
"You?" Rodney knew the shocked tone in his voice was obvious. He couldn't imagine Teyla being afraid of anything.
She smiled. "Would you advise me to face my fear of the unknown then?"
"Yes, of course. Well," Rodney amended quickly. "If it's something you're afraid of trying, maybe not. Are there poisonous claws involved? Dagger-like teeth?"
"Perhaps." Teyla nodded solemnly. "But I feel today is a day to be brave."
She took a step in, close enough that the heat of her body made goosebumps rise on his arms. Then she leaned in, rising on her toes, and touched his lips gently with hers.
She pulled back almost immediately, stepping back and giving him a quick, shy smile. "Perhaps I should go."
"Oh no," Rodney said. "You kissed me. That was a real kiss on the lips."
Teyla smiled. "It was."
Rodney felt suddenly full of courage, the way he always wanted to be around her. "And now I think you should have dinner with me."
Her smile widened. "I would be glad to."
Rodney felt warm all over. "Really?"
"Of course." Teyla's eyes were mischievous. "It is meatloaf night, I believe."
He took a chance and held his arm out, as gallantly as he could manage. Teyla hooked her elbow through his. Rodney was leading her out with all the chivalry he could summon, when there was a plaintive mewl from the cage.
She stopped. "Have you not feed the flicksa at all today?"
"Um." It was probably pointless to lie. "I don't know what it eats?"
She gave him what he was almost sure was a fond look. "I will collect Torren and we will help you set up your quarters for your new pet. Then we can all have dinner together."
Teyla's hand was a pleasant weight on his arm as they walked into the hallway. Rodney felt happier than he could ever remember, yet he still couldn't help being honest. "Teyla? You know I had a cat on Earth, right? They're one thing--they practically take care of themselves--but a flicksa?--I'm not sure I'm the best choice for an alien pet owner."
She slipped her hand into his. "Then Torren and I will have to make sure we are around often to help you."
"Oh," Rodney said, thinking it over. He tightened his hand around hers. "All right."