It wasn't even really a cat.
John knew that for a fact--after they'd gotten it back from the planet and Rodney had started going all gooey-eyed, he'd asked their head zoologist, Doctor Parente, who'd informed him it wasn't in the family Felidae at all, but was instead some kind of marsupial. Not that Rodney cared.
It had whiskers and big brown eyes and stupid pointy ears, and Rodney had taken one look at it huddling soaked and miserable under the DHD on P8X-368 and scooped it into his jacket next to his heart, dripping wet fur and all. Then of course John had had to let him take it back to Atlantis or he was the asshole--not that Rodney asked his permission. Still, as team leader, John would have been perfectly justified putting his foot down.
The thing looked enough like a cat, John supposed. It was roughly cat-shaped and kitten-sized and it had stripy brown fur, but that didn't change the fact that it was an alien life form. John fully expected Woolsey to order it removed from Atlantis, or at the very least turned over to the life sciences department for dissection, but Teyla just had to pipe up during the debrief.
"It is called an eldru," she said, smiling fondly at Rodney who'd obtained a fuzzy blue towel for the thing somewhere and was now pacing the conference room cradling it like a baby. "The people of many worlds keep them as companions. Rodney's is quite young."
Eldru or not, the thing chose that moment to let out a kitten-like meow, and Woolsey's face softened in a way that was not befitting a base commander. John rolled his eyes and left before the man could embarrass himself by cooing.
John got that Rodney missed his cat from Earth, but that was no reason for him to dote on the alien thing so openly--with such goofy adoration in his blue eyes. It wasn't as though he was lacking for companionship. John was always happy to play video golf with him, or race RC cars. Hell, he'd even be willing to touch things in the lab a couple of times a week if it would make Rodney's face light up the way it did when the alien cat-thing so much as sneezed--John was all about keeping his team happy and productive. But apparently that wasn't good enough for some people.
"Want my jello?" John asked casually over dinner a few nights later. The cat-thing was drinking milk from a dish on the table. That had to be unsanitary.
"Yes!" Rodney said immediately, with a brilliant smile that made something in John's chest feel warm.
"Enjoy." John pushed it over. He'd nabbed the last of the blue especially to give to Rodney, but it wouldn't do to let him know he was being spoiled.
"Thanks," Rodney said with feeling. John ducked his head, foolishly pleased. "He prefers strawberry, but sometimes he'll eat the blue."
The warmth in John's chest vanished so abruptly he felt a sucking sensation.
Rodney dumped the jello into a saucer he had at the ready and placed it before the creature with the air of a supplicant. It seemed to like blue just fine, if the way it licked it up with its long pink tongue was any indication.
John picked at his Salisbury steak, and did his best to ignore the slurping sounds the thing was making. "Look, Rodney. I'm not sure this pet thing is a good idea. Who's gonna take care of it when you're offworld?"
Rodney gave him a funny look, but it was a perfectly legitimate question. "He's a cat." Rodney waved a hand. "Eldru, whatever. He can take care of himself."
That had the sound of famous last words, but it wasn't like John had anything to say in rebuttal. As if it wanted to prove Rodney's point, the eldru suddenly gave a yawn and a mighty stretch, and settled on the table to bathe itself. With its tongue. Rodney smiled like a proud parent and gave it John's fruit cup.
Rodney named the creature Russell for reasons known only to himself, and at first it wasn't as bad as John had feared. The team went on a day mission without incident and Rodney was only fifteen minutes late to their weekly chess game/trash talk session--which was five minutes earlier than he'd been the week before. John was beginning to feel cautiously optimistic about the whole alien pet situation. Rodney wasn't even using it to meet girls--though he definitely could have, judging by the look in Simpson's and Esposito's eyes on the days he brought it with him to the lab.
And then it hit puberty.
Or whatever the furry alien creature cat-thing equivalent was. One day it was happily snuffling around the lab, poking its wet nose into things and trying to lick the equations off the whiteboard, and the next it was lying limply across Rodney's bed whimpering intermittently and refusing to move, even for strawberry jello.
Parente examined it. Keller examined it. In increasing desperation, Rodney was about to conscript the anthropologists to comb the Ancient database for any mention of eldrues when Teyla happened across him trying to talk the duty nurse into giving it another Ancient MRI. John was there for moral support--or, barring that, to act as lookout while Rodney worked the medical scanner himself.
"Russell is not unwell, Rodney." Teyla wrinkled her forehead. "Is this not the way of your Earth cats?"
She and Rodney then launched into an improvised comedy routine which John would have titled "The Difference Between Cats and Eldrues," if he'd been writing the playbill. It mostly involved a lot of interruptions and puzzled staring, along with some strangled choking on Rodney's part. When they were done, John had learned three things: who's-on-first style misunderstandings were even more hilarious when the participants were from different galaxies, Rodney could go from pleasantly pink to bright red in roughly seventeen seconds, and when an eldru hit about six months of age, it slid abruptly from happy-go-lucky alien kittenhood into a few months of emotional despair.
Teyla was surprised to learn that Earth pets did not generally go through a well-defined period of sulky adolescence, and she didn't appreciate the clipped voice in which Rodney informed her that that was what made them better than people. So she probably could have been a bit nicer to Rodney as she explained what was in store.
Apparently Russell the eldru was due to spend two or three months lying around feeling sorry for itself--Teyla might have put it a bit more charitably--after which it would emerge content and affectionate, and a fine companion for many years to come, provided that during its difficult time Rodney nurtured it properly with compassion and kindness.
John couldn't help the laugh that escaped him and rang loudly through the corridor.
But--Teyla went on, glaring at John before turning back to Rodney--if he did not feel capable of devoting the considerable time necessary to ensure the eldru's well-being, it would be best if Rodney gave Russell up sooner rather than later. Failure now would result in a sickly and short-lived animal. Teyla knew several Athosian children who would be glad of an eldru. Russell could be ensured a good home.
John felt a quick rush of relief. At least this would mean the end of Rodney's experiments in alien pet adoption, and some nice kid would get a high maintenance cat-thing out of the deal. It wasn't anyone's fault--even if Rodney had been the compassionate nurturer-type, he just didn't have the time to devote to a needy animal. Rodney was the busiest man in the city, possibly the galaxy, as he enjoyed telling John repeatedly.
John felt a little sorry for the guy, but that's the way it went sometimes--no harm, no foul. He clapped Rodney on the shoulder and was about to suggest a beer and a round of 3-D Tetris, when he saw that Rodney was nodding earnestly at Teyla's instructions, and had started to make notes on his datapad.
In theory the idea of Rodney having an emo cat was hilarious--in practice, not so much. At first Rodney tried to take the creature to the lab with him, working off the hypothesis that it was used to that environment by now so he'd be able to get a little work done between bouts of trying to interest it in its favorite pink toy mouse and murmuring reassurances into its drooping ears.
But the moment the eldru got to the lab, it squirmed out of Rodney's arms and planted itself in the center of the highly-trafficked floor, laying flat with its chin on the ground and limbs splayed, heedless of the scientists trying to step past. Whenever Rodney tried to move it, it jumped back to the spot it had claimed and lay there, flat as a pancake, sighing from time to time. If Rodney got more than a few feet away from the creature, it gave everyone the creeps by crying softly in a way that sounded disconcertingly human.
Rodney started working from his quarters.
John knew it had to be killing Rodney to be away from his lab. He'd gotten Simpson to drag in and install something with more processing power than his usual half-dozen laptops, but there was still only so much he could do from his room. Especially since, as Radek informed John, he was only able to work when Russell was sleeping.
In the fleeting glimpses of him John caught in the next week, Rodney looked exhausted--dashing quickly in and out of the mess, or popping into the lab for a few seconds like a ghost. His eyes were bruised and his hands jittery when he dropped by the senior staff meeting for five entire minutes, stroking the cat-thing the whole time and whispering sweet nothings to it like a second-rate Bond villain. Nobody seemed bothered by this but John.
It had to stop.
Rodney had canceled on John all week, which was bad enough--John had been looking forward to movie night and Beyond Thunderdome--but not the real problem. Atlantis's best brain couldn't be allowed to wear himself out over some alien animal that wasn't even grateful enough to notice that its master was fading into half the Rodney he'd been only a week ago. John could have understood if the creature was helpless and needed regular bottle-feedings or delousing or something, but he refused to let Rodney kill himself giving an animal emotional support.
If no one else was going to look out for Rodney--not even Rodney, who up until now had been dependable in matters of self-preservation, John supposed he would have to do it. Rodney would thank him for it. Someday.
When John broached the subject with Teyla during their Thursday night sparring session, she refused to even entertain the idea of sending the cat-thing away, her earlier claims of knowing Athosian children who liked drama queen pets not withstanding. John hadn't even meant permanently--just until the creature had grown up a little, just so Rodney could get a goddamn break.
"Rodney appears fine to me," Teyla said calmly. John was working up a good head of steam to tell her exactly how not fine Rodney was when she continued. "I believe it is good for him to have something to care for. It seems to make him happy."
John gaped and sidestepped one of her sticks. "He was happy before that thing moved in."
Teyla hummed in a way that didn't say yes or no. "Perhaps you should consider why Rodney's pet bothers you so much, John. His affection for you remains unchanged."
Okay, so not the point, and wait--what? "I--" John had more to say than that, but Teyla was wearing that serene little smile that always signaled the conversation was over no matter how John felt about it. As was usual, in case he didn't get it she whacked him in the knees.
When Rodney canceled their second movie night in a row, John played every card he could think of. They'd watch the movie in Rodney's room so the creature didn't have to be left alone; they'd make it a short night; he'd bring the thing any flavor of jello it wanted. John just wanted to see Rodney. But apparently the cat-thing couldn't bear to have Rodney's attention divided away from it for even one second.
"He needs focused and steady reassurance, John. Otherwise he gets this look in his eyes like I've disappointed him, and he knows he shouldn't be surprised, but he somehow still is." Rodney sighed. "We'd better do it another time."
Clearly the time had come to save Rodney from himself. What John needed was a strategy.
Woolsey was useless, of course--at the first sign of the cat-thing's woe-is-me act he'd let Rodney out of his mission schedule completely with an indulgent smile for him and a pat on the head for the alien--and Rodney didn't have any other superiors in the city who could order him to get some rest and/or perspective. That left forcible drugging, or tossing the eldru off a balcony and pretending he'd never heard of the thing when Rodney asked.
John considered. Keller might go for the drugs--she had a no-nonsense side to her that John admired.
In the end, popcorn was easier. John popped a bag in the Ancient device that hadn't started its life as a microwave, but was now serving as one with honor, grabbed his first season original Trek DVDs--Rodney was constitutionally unable to resist an opportunity to correct the science--and headed for Rodney's quarters.
"Hey, buddy," he said as the door slid open, revealing Rodney on the other side in his fuzzy blue bathrobe.
John's heart went out to him. He looked awful, hair standing up at wild angles, and exhaustion clouding his eyes in a way John hadn't seen since the Wraith had laid siege to Atlantis the first year of the expedition.
Rodney blinked slowly. John didn't feel confident he actually recognized him. He pushed his way in anyway, figuring Rodney would place him sooner or later.
The alien cat-thing was stretched on Rodney's bed exactly where John wanted to sit. It tilted its head the slightest amount and peered balefully up at him through alien kitty eyelashes. John graciously didn't try to move it, just fit himself into what little space it had deigned to leave and held out the popcorn and DVDs.
"John?" Rodney asked.
"That's me, buddy," John said and shook the popcorn bag encouragingly.
Rodney hesitantly took it, glancing uncertainly at the cat-thing. "I thought we agreed--"
"Go ahead." John spoke soothingly, trying to infuse his voice with the power of suggestion. Rodney might be tired enough for that to work. "Your cat-thing won't mind. We'll be right here."
"Eldru," Rodney corrected absently, but he put the first DVD into one of his laptops and settled next to John. He arranged the computer in its usual spot for movie viewing at the foot of the bed, and pulled the eldru onto his lap.
It was nice. Rodney was warm against his side, even if he did smell a little ripe--didn't the creature even leave him enough time to shower? John could feel him relaxing bit by bit as the episode started--leaning into John a little more every moment. Rodney really needed this. And, John suddenly realized, so did he. He'd been weirdly tense ever since the eldru arrived in the city. He hadn't realized how much he depended on the time he and Rodney spent together, the hundred ways they goofed off and let off steam. He hadn't known how much he would miss it if it were suddenly taken away--how much he would miss Rodney.
But it would be okay now. John already felt much better just being with Rodney like this. Surely he and the cat-thing could come to an understanding. There was enough Rodney to share. In the spirit of camaraderie John reached out a hand and gave the thing a friendly pat on what was probably its shoulder. "Good boy," he said.
The creature swiveled its head slowly in John's direction. It blinked--once, twice. John saw what he was sure was a considering gleam in its eye just before it flopped over boneless, whimpering.
Rodney shot John a betrayed look, then immediately cradled the thing close. "Shh. Shh, Russ. It's okay. I won't let the bad man hurt you."
"Hey!" John said, but Rodney just went on crooning nonsense at the thing.
When the eldru's pitiful whimpers had turned to lingering sighs, Rodney finally looked at John. "I told you." He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "You'd better go."
"No," John said.
"He'll be like this all night." Rodney popped out the DVD with one hand while scratching the eldru's ear with the other. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"No." And some part of John knew he was being ridiculous, but most of him just didn't care. He pushed the DVD back into the tray, slamming it hard enough that the laptop tipped off the bed. Rodney stared at him open-mouthed.
After a long moment Rodney rescued the laptop from the floor, closing it and placing it carefully on his bedside table. "I have a history of reading these things wrong," he said finally. "But you seem upset."
John looked at Rodney, who hadn't stopped scratching the thing's ears, and something in him cracked. He wanted to whine that Rodney had canceled on him all week and even before that he'd been wrapped up in that animal. He wanted to drag Rodney out of that room--to the mess for a decent meal, or to the East Pier to race cars. He wanted to soothe away the bruises under Rodney's eyes with his fingers, and smooth out the wrinkles gathering in his forehead. He wanted to apologize for going suddenly insane, to start all over and tell Rodney that he didn't know what was wrong with himself, except that he did.
He wanted too much, so he settled for leaning in and shoving his lips against Rodney's, licking against his mouth until Rodney let him in, until Rodney caught the kiss from him and licked back, and bit at John's dry lips.
Distantly John heard the alien creature squeak, and could feel it as a warm lump between them, but it didn't matter. Then it was suddenly gone, and John could pull Rodney close, and grip his shoulders hard enough to bruise. And this, this was what he wanted, what he'd always wanted, even if he hadn't known it until now.
Rodney moaned, deep in the back of his throat, which was suddenly the clearest signal he wanted his neck sucked on. John could feel Rodney kissing him anywhere he could reach--his cheek, the corner of his eye, the top of his head. And he was talking, saying John's name over and over.
Then there was another noise. Something was whimpering somewhere, and Rodney was pulling away. John chased his lips.
"John," Rodney said, and no, John was not stopping, was not giving this up because it upset some alien thing. "John." Rodney was still kissing him, darting in for a quick press of lips even as he was stepping back. "Look at me."
John looked and the depth of Rodney's feeling was all there in his eyes--he could never hide a damn thing. He swayed in again, but Rodney stopped him with a hand to his chest. "John, I want this. I want--Just, later. Okay?"
The cat-thing whimpered louder. Rodney looked unhappy, and torn, and John would do anything to take that look off his face. It took all he had to nod, but it was worth it for Rodney's blinding smile. John had to kiss him again. "Soon," Rodney said against his mouth. "Just a few months, Teyla said, and he sleeps sometimes. God, John, I want--"
"Soon," John agreed and made himself step back. He smoothed Rodney's robe down over his chest which made Rodney shiver and John grin. "It's okay, Rodney," he said, because it was. "Take care of your pet."
In spite of everything, John was an animal lover. And Rodney was worth waiting for, so he endured the two-and-one-half months of near celibacy with reasonably good grace, stealing kisses and gropes when he could. Russell was a good little guy, even with all the drama, and hell, John had had a tough time as a teenager too--he could sympathize. At least there was no poetry.
Then one day it was as though the sun suddenly rose out of darkness. Russell bounced through the labs, and let John pet him and feed him jello. He chased patches of light across the floor, and didn't cry or whimper or even sigh wistfully. Rodney was as proud as if he'd gotten early admission to MIT, and celebrated by handing him over to Teyla and spending three days in bed with John.
It was kind of fun having a pet, John had to admit, especially when someone else was taking care of him.
John would never love Russell the way Rodney did--he was a dog person, an Earth dog person, but as far as alien creature cat-things went, Russell turned out not to be bad at all. At least Teyla had been right about his terrible neediness being temporary. John valued his shins too much to ever tell her, but he'd had his doubts. All in all things were working out better than John had dared to hope.
And then two months later Russell sprouted wings and became the most awesome pet in the history of all animals anywhere ever.
"Do not your Earth cats fly?" Teyla asked a sputtering Rodney, but John didn't wait around to hear the answer. He was pretty sure he could train Russell to do some nifty aerobatics, and he wanted to get started.