“We are grateful to you, Dr. McKay,” said the Chief Elder of P3X-9174, with a tilt of her head. “Thanks to you, our water will flow clear once more.”
“As if I didn’t get enough of fixing sewer systems at home,” Rodney muttered, but Teyla elbowed him, hard, and he added more loudly, “It was my pleasure, ma’am.”
The old woman smiled. “As a token of our gratitude, please accept this amulet, so that you may always know the warmth and regard others have for you.”
The Second Elder – only slightly less gray and shriveled than the Chief – held out a gnarled hand. In his palm sat a round-ish blue-ish stone on a leather cord.
“May I?” said John, already reaching for it. Rodney tensed, as always expecting something terrible to happen, but the stone stayed dark and motionless in John’s hand. He let it dangle from the cord for a moment, catching the light, then passed it to Rodney. “Nice rock.”
It was about the size and weight of a British pound coin, slightly convex on both faces, with colors that varied like an abalone shell. Teyla nudged him again, and Rodney said, “Yes, very nice.”
The Chief Elder smiled again. “It is a great honor to be the holder of this amulet. Will you promise to wear it always?”
“I—” Rodney began, but Teyla interrupted, with her most diplomatic smile.
“The Lanteans are from a world far from here,” she said, “and can sometimes have allergies to things common to our galaxy. May we allow our scientists to examine this stone?”
“By all means,” said the Chief Elder. “Even honor must give way to practicality. But we ask your word that, should it not prove harmful to you or yours, you will wear it always, Dr. McKay.”
“I—” Rodney said again, then glanced sideways at Teyla’s waiting elbow. “I promise.”
“Excellent,” said the Chief Elder.
“It’s a rock,” said Carson, holding out the amulet.
Rodney scowled and took it back. “You went to medical school to be able to tell me that?”
“Aye, I did. I’ve run every contamination test we have, and there’s no sign of residue, no microorganisms. Radek looked it over and there’s no trace of technology, Ancient or otherwise. I even had Dr. Johnson in the geology lab give it a look – he says it’s a fantastic specimen, some kind of opal.”
“So, it’s a rock,” said John. “Not at all harmful, then?”
“Only if you throw it hard enough,” said Carson. “Rodney can start wearing it at any time.”
“Wearing it?” Rodney repeated.
Teyla smiled. “You promised the Elders you would.”
“Fine.” He pulled the leather cord over his head, still half-expecting something terrible to happen as the amulet settled over his heart.
“Looks good, buddy,” said John, and Rodney scowled at him.
A week later, although Rodney would not have admitted to anyone, he had found that he liked wearing the amulet. The leather cord was soft against his skin, and the stone rested reassuringly against his sternum. After the first few days, he didn’t bother to take it off when he showered or slept, and he liked the weight of it under his tac vest when they went off-world.
By the end of two weeks, it had become a habit to fiddle with the stone while he was working and especially when listening to reports or project updates. One of the soft scientists – some kind of sociologist or archaeologist or something – commented on its color, but everyone else seemed to ignore the amulet entirely.
“Idiots, all of you,” Rodney complained, at the end of the third week, when the Daedalus had delivered another batch of over-education halfwits masquerading as scientists. “If I wanted people to carelessly move potentially-dangerous objects, I would call in the Marines.”
“We just—” began one foolhardy soul, but quickly retreated under the force of Rodney’s glare.
“None of you are allowed to touch anything that was not manufactured on Earth for the next week,” he told them. “I will reevaluate at that time. Now, shoo.”
Rodney went back to his own work, absently fiddling with the amulet. He could hear the new scientists muttering, commiserating with each other and mildly cursing his name, the usual stuff – then, suddenly, he felt a stab of irritation. Rodney glanced back at the grumbling so-called professionals and scowled again.
They could be mad at him all they wanted, if it kept them alive.
“That’s new,” Rodney said, warily. He held his mess tray carefully out of dishing range, his bare arm brushing the cool stone of his amulet. “How do you—?”
“There is not a trace of citrus, Dr. McKay,” the sergeant on duty assured him. “Dr. Beckett checks over all produce brought into the city, even the stuff we don’t serve, and Colonel Sheppard came down to taste-test this new recipe himself.”
The young Marine smiled, and Rodney felt a wave of protectiveness. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Anything you’re served by any of my men will be safe.”
“Huh,” said Rodney, trying to quash a sudden fondness. “Fine. I’ll try it.”
He held out his tray and allowed the sergeant to scoop a helping of off-world meat stew onto his plate.
Now that the Wraith were no longer such a threat to the Pegasus Galaxy, Woolsey took advantage of the quiet to schedule an appalling number of staff meetings.
There were too many people around the conference table for Rodney to get away with playing solitaire on his tablet, but that didn’t mean he had to pay attention to Parrish’s report about hybrid Earth-Pegasus potatoes. Rodney let his mind wander, to several maintenance-level repairs they needed to do later, a new design for a naquadah generator, an upgrade idea for the jumper’s cloaks…
He ran his thumb over the curved edge of the amulet stone, a gesture that had become a habit over the last few months, so lost in thought that at first he didn’t realize what he was feeling.
Usually at these meetings, he felt bored. Sometimes, tired or hungry. But at the moment, he felt… content. He felt like he was exactly where he needed to be, surrounded by the people he needed, the people he would always protect –
No, that wasn’t Rodney’s feeling at all. His fingers tightened around the amulet as he looked up sharply. John was sitting across from him, head propped on one fist, pretending to pay complete attention to Parrish, but really staring over at Rodney. When their eyes met, John smiled and Rodney was hit with such an overwhelming surge of fondness/trust/nearness/contentment/love that he drew in a sharp breath.
The feeling faded with John’s smile when the colonel leaned forward, radiating concern and protectiveness, just as Parrish asked, “Are there any questions?”
Rodney caught John’s eye again and shook his head. John nodded and relaxed – or, at least, he looked like he did, slumping back in his chair in his usual slouch, but Rodney continued to feel pulses of concern.
“Thanks, Dr. Parrish,” the colonel said. “Keep up the good work. And maybe we should stop for a quick break right about now?”
“That’s an excellent idea, colonel,” said Woolsey. “We’ll reconvene in… fifteen minutes.”
He had barely finished speaking before John was up and around the table, snagging Rodney’s elbow to pull him out into the hall. “Rodney, what—”
“What were you thinking about?” Rodney interrupted.
John’s concern shifted to confusion. “What?”
“I know you weren’t listening to the Pegasus Farm Report. Were you thinking about me?”
“I—” said John.
Rodney held the amulet stone up between them. “Think about Teyla.”
“McKay,” growled John, concern ratcheting up again.
“No one’s in any danger,” Rodney assured him. “I’ve been wearing this for almost two months, it won’t kill me now.”
“Think about Teyla,” ehe repeated. “How you feel about her.”
John scowled, but said, “Okay.”
“Try thinking about Ronon,” suggested Rodney.
John closed his eyes this time, then opened them. “What is this about, Rodney? I mean, it’s a rock. We checked it out. What’s it supposed to do? Because I don’t feel anything.”
“You’re not supposed to,” said Rodney. “I am. Now, think about me.”
There was more concern and irritation in John’s feelings this time, but still the same unwavering affection. Now that Rodney knew what was happening, he let the feelings sink into him, trying to identify them all.
But there was no single emotion by itself, John seemed to feel them all at the same time – worry that Rodney had been carrying something potentially dangerous for so long – guilt that he hadn’t somehow known and been able to do something – a fierce protectiveness, only a notch up from his usual constant feeling of it – utter faith that whatever the problem was, Rodney would be able to solve it – and other things that Rodney just didn’t have enough words for. (He had heard Heightmeyer use the phrase ‘emotional vocabulary’ but had dismissed it as psychobabble until now.)
John actively preferred Rodney’s company. He felt safe with him, not protected so much as feeling safe to be vulnerable, the freedom to speak when he wanted to and let Rodney speak when he didn’t, the security to hide behind Rodney’s sharp tongue when he was too tired for charm.
He was impressed by Rodney’s brain, but not awed. John saw it as a weapon and a wonder, but only a small part of what made up Rodney as a person. He enjoyed Rodney’s sarcasm and looked forward to their debates. Some days, John felt like he was only able to keep things together because he had Rodney to rely on.
John loved Rodney.
Maybe he never meant to tell him, maybe he didn’t even know himself – that was more likely, given how emotionally stunted they both were – but there was no mistaking that as just comradery. It was an unshakable and unfathomable depth, and Rodney couldn’t believe he hadn’t realized it before.
He drew in a shaky breath. “I…” he began, but there weren’t words for that, either, so he snapped, “Hold this,” and pulled the leather cord over his head.
John took the stone automatically, their fingers brushing as Rodney let go, and the scientist closed his eyes, concentrating.
He didn’t know how much of his emotions, if any, actually, would be transmitted to John, but he focused on them. He felt a lot of things for John, it was just that he didn’t usually consciously think about it.
Rodney trusted John to protect him, not just from aliens and explosions, but from himself. None of his carefully-constructed defenses, his arrogance and insults and sarcasm, had worked to keep John away, and once he was inside, Rodney didn’t know how he’d ever lived without him.
And for the first time in a very long time, John made Rodney want to take care of someone else. He wanted to give John anything he needed, wanted to stand with John against anything that would threaten him. He wanted to just be with John, playing chess or watching movies or doing nothing, as long as they were together.
So, he was pretty sure he loved John, too.
“Oh,” breathed John, and Rodney opened his eyes.
“Sheppard?” he asked, cautiously.
“That was… Did you just feel what I…?”
“Yeah,” said Rodney. “I mean, you were feeling what I was feeling, and before that I was feeling what you were feeling but… Yeah.”
“But it’s a rock,” John protested.
“And I will be inventing a few new tests for it,” said Rodney. “But before that… You love me.”
John looked down at the amulet, stull clutched in his hand. “Yeah,” he said, more a breath than a word. “I – yeah, I do.”
“Like a friend loves another friend?” Rodney suggested – John hadn’t meant to give Rodney a front-row seat to his emotions, and Rodney wasn’t about to take advantage.
But John looked up at him, smiling. “No, not like that at all.”
He slid the cord of the amulet back over Rodney’s head, then laced their fingers together and wrapped them around the stone.
It was like a feedback loop – Rodney could feel his own emotions reflected back through John – love, need, protection, admiration, permanence – and he felt a warmth down to his toes.
“Wow,” John laughed. “I have a few tests of my own we should run.”
Rodney twisted his free hand into the fabric of John’s jacket and pulled him in for a long, deep kiss.