Title: By Any Other Name
Rating: PG, safely
Genre: Gen, Angst
Spoilers: Numerous, all the way up to "Lifeline".
Summary: What's in a name? John's starting to ask himself that very question. (semi-tag to Adrift and Lifeline)
Beta: The wonderful Gayle, who puts up with my insecurities and ending sentences with prepositions. She deserves a cookie... or a whole plate of cookies.
Feedback: Any, especially since I managed to stay serious for several sentences in a row.
Author's Notes: This is a departure from my usual style of writing. It's basically an excuse for me to put my fannish observations on the evolution of character relationships via naming conventions into a story… or in other words, meta wrapped in a ficcy package. Originally written right after Reunion, but revised a little to hint at the end of "Miller's Crossing". Only a hint though, I don't think anyone will get it but me.
"Words have meaning and names have power." – Author Unknown
John Sheppard had never really given much thought to names. He knew they had significance, a value beyond just a pretty sound. His first name had various meanings depending on where you looked. Most of them had to do with God being either gracious or merciful. He liked the one that said "the most successful of all people". It didn't describe him at all, but it was a nice thought. His last name was more straight forward: a shepherd, a man who looked over his flock, protecting them from whatever threat that reared its head. Putting them together made him the herder of the most successful of all people. Apparently from birth he was destined to be Rodney McKay's babysitter.
Which is what he was doing right now.
He glanced back in McKay's direction to see that the scientist was still deeply engrossed in the machine he was studying. The newly promoted Colonel Carter had left a few days before, and the IOA was currently reviewing candidates to fill Elizabeth's very big, intimidating shoes. They were temporarily in charge of Atlantis, meaning neither of them were really in a position to be leaving on missions. So when Rodney decided he wanted to investigate one of the outlying towers where the micro-asteroids had penetrated the Ancient architecture, John had jumped at the chance to escape the duties of lead administrator for just a little bit.
Morale in the city was at an all-time low, as everyone was feeling the loss of Elizabeth on some level. John in particular was feeling that loss as the heavy weight of command fell almost completely on his shoulders. There also might have been the expression on Elizabeth's face, forever burned into his mind, as they were forced to leave her behind on the Asuran home world.
Elizabeth had always called him John, she only used his rank or last name when addressing him formally. She knew the first name of each expedition member: the original contingent as well as the new ones who came after the Daedelus rescued them from being stranded that first year. She liked being able to relate to everyone. At first John had just thought it was the politician in her, trying to make people like her by remembering their names. After he got to know her better, he realized that was who she was, and that she wanted to know each of them personally as well as professionally.
McKay cursed loudly, and Sheppard looked up from where he was fingering a small, pinky-sized hole in the wall to see the scientist sucking on his index finger and glaring at the console he had been working on.
"Problems?" John asked lightly.
The glare that had been reserved for misbehaving equipment was redirected to him briefly. "No, I shock myself for fun."
"Hey, what you do on your free time is your own business."
Rodney's nostrils flared as he expelled a frustrated breath, eyes narrowing. "Don't you have paperwork to fill out?"
"Don't you?" John shot back, bobbing his eyebrows in amusement as McKay's face pinched in annoyance. In Elizabeth's absence, Rodney had taken on extra duties as well. "I mean, isn't there some sort of debate you need to be moderating instead of looking at this console?"
"Stuff it!" Rodney spat, shaking his hand as he knelt next to the console again. "I don't need babysitting."
"Maybe I just wanted an excuse to escape too," John muttered, marveling at the damage inflicted on the strong walls by the sheer force and momentum of such a tiny object. He shuddered to think what one of those large meteors might have done. He'd seen what one of the small ones had done to Zelenka up close, and was damn lucky they hadn't lost the Czech to that ill-fated repair trip.
Rodney glanced up at him briefly at that, before dropping his eyes to his work again. "We should probably think about resuming gate activity soon."
"Teyla is anxious to re-establish contact with the new Athosian settlement and check in with them." His hand brushed over the door that led out to the balcony. The kaleidoscope of holes resembled constellations, the sun streaming from the outside lighting up the perforated door like stars. Upon contact with his hand the door swished open, letting in the soft breeze wafting up from the ocean.
Behind him, Rodney didn't look up, but he could hear the scientist pause in his work. "What are you doing?"
"If you're bored, why don't you go do something more useful than bugging me?"
John rolled his eyes. "I already admitted that I'm hiding. Why would I leave sanctuary?"
"So I can concentrate?"
"Believe it or not, your level of concentration isn't my chief concern, now or ever."
"Why don't you go bug Teyla? I'm sure she'd take great pleasure in beating you down with those sticks of hers, as well as distract any unwanted visitors with a similar offer."
Teyla would too. He'd caught her eyeing him critically the past few days, as if she wanted to say something about looking after himself, but couldn't quite figure out how to phrase it without sounding like Elizabeth or Carson. Two people who he was trying very hard at this moment not to think about, and failing miserably.
She had always been Teyla to him. Never Miss Emmagen. It was first, a mouthful, and secondly, it didn't suit her as much as her first name did. The first year, she referred to everyone by their formal title and name. It was something he had never really questioned. The first time he remembered her calling him by his first name was after Ronon had joined the team, when their jumper had crashed trying to leave Olessia. She might have transitioned to it before then, but that was the moment that stood out in his mind the most.
"But the gym all the way over there." John continued to slowly circle the room, eyeing the patterns left in the tower as if he were an astronomer charting the stars. "Just pretend like I'm not here."
"I've been trying. Oh, I've been trying!" Rodney huffed an annoyed sigh. "Someone, it seems, just wants to chat."
"It's my hiding place too. I can be as loud as I want."
He had circled around enough to where he could see Rodney's face, and watched as the other man's eyes closed in an expression clearly trying to gather his tattered shreds of patience. "I'm sure Ronon then would take pity on you, and you two could hide in the catwalks, running around merrily as you shoot at each other and smash beer cans on your foreheads."
"That was once."
Ronon was like Ford, in the sense that it was never first names from them. It was a soldier thing, a combination of rank restrictions and respect. There was the rare moment when first names slipped, like trying to coax a half-baked Lieutenant out of the woods, or when certain Satedans were trying to get a rise out of his Terran and Athosian friends. It was always "Major" and "sir" with Ford, and exclusively Sheppard with Ronon.
Without thinking about it he began to whistle a tuneless melody.
He couldn't refer to Ronon by his last name though, because every time someone said Dex his mind conjured up the image of the friend he had lost in Afghanistan. So it was Ronon, and that never seemed to bother the Satedan. On that last thought, his whistling ended on a distressed note.
Silence filled the room, and John cautiously glanced at Rodney. The scientist's shoulders were hunched up, and from his angle John could see the physicist's eye twitching. He cleared his throat, looking away somewhat sheepishly. "Whistle while you work?"
A strangled cry of frustration escaped the scientist, and he reared the spanner back, as if he were seriously considering chunking it at Sheppard in an attempt to silence the pilot.
John raised his arms in surrender. "Quiet?"
The room lapsed into blessed silence, and Rodney busied himself with resuming his work without being electrocuted. There was another reason that John didn't want to go and bug his other teammates, as there was something he had to find out. So he made his stealthy approach, being careful to avoid debris as he quietly stepped up behind McKay.
This time the spanner did leave the scientist's hand and collided with the wall with a loud thunk, while the other hand flew to Rodney's breast. He turned wild eyes to Sheppard, before summarily shoving him away.
"Don't do that, you big oaf! What the hell? Are you trying to kill me?"
"Just curious." John shrugged, and reached out to touch the console. Before he could get close his hand was slapped away like a mother correcting an errant child.
He quirked a half-smile at Rodney. "C'mon, let me help. I'm bored."
"Then go do your job!"
"This is much more fun."
"You won't even see it coming! One day you'll walk into a transporter, and you just won't come out!"
"Was that a threat?"
"It's a freaking promise if you don't shut up and stop bugging me!"
"You're not used to hearing the word 'no', are you? Here, let me find a dictionary to show you how to spell it and clearly define it so your miniscule brain can get it—"
"An act or instance of refusing or denying by the use of the word no."
Rodney blinked. "Did you—did you memorize Webster's definition of the word 'no'?"
It was so hard to keep a straight face doing this, but he continued. "Used as a function word to emphasize a following negative or to introduce a more emphatic, explicit, or comprehensive statement."
"Used with a following adjective to imply a meaning expressed by the opposite positive statement."
"How much free time do you have on your hands to go around memorizing all of the definitions to the word no?" Rodney cried.
"I figured it would come in handy."
"That's just sad."
"How many definitions do you know?"
"I—" Rodney sputtered. "I have better things to do with my time! Like fixing this stupid console!"
"Meaning you give up."
"Are—are you challenging me to a spelling bee?" Rodney looked very confused.
"Are we in the fourth grade?"
"According to popular opinion, yes."
"Define strange. Go!"
"What? Wait, that's not fair—"
"Not before known, heard, or seen."
"I wasn't ready!"
"Too bad. I'm already up one, hurry, catch up."
"Discouraging familiarities; not unlike your preferred method of social interaction."
"That's just low!"
John grinned. "Also, a fundamental quark that has an electric charge of − and a measured energy of approximately 150 MeV."
Rodney just stared at him, unable to come up with words in response, which might have been an actual first for him. Instead, he just looked at his friend with a mixture of respect, disdain, and a good dose of annoyance.
Finally he seemed to find his voice. "I'm going back to work now. Play your Chinese Word Mind Games with someone else, Colonel."
Rodney turned away, and missed seeing Sheppard's grin falter. He'd memorized the definitions the other day, bored out of his skull and desperately trying to find a way to keep from going insane. Unfortunately, the dictionary at Elizabeth's desk had been the only thing he'd been willing to touch. Quietly, he rose to his feet again, returning to the wall to study the damage.
The scientist had started out as the annoying-pain-in-his-ass before they had even arrived in the Pegasus Galaxy the first time, and became "McKay" at some point after leaving the huge chunk of ice where they had all been stationed. He had remained simply "McKay" after coming to Atlantis and joining Sheppard's team. John had surprised himself by introducing him as "Rodney" to the kids on M7G-677. He had been on a first name basis between Elizabeth and Teyla, but then again, he could spend five minutes with them without conversation disintegrating into an Abbot and Costello routine.
"I'm picking up a strange reading from right over there."
"You're not pouting, are you?" Came the muffled question.
John glanced back to see that the top-half of the scientist's body had disappeared back under the console. He pursed his lips, as his mind drifted back to the conversation over three years ago.
"You don't know what 'strange' means?"
"I know what 'strange' means, Rodney."
"Weird, freakish, odd..."
Strange was the fact that he could remember the exact point where he had started thinking of the man in front of him by his first name. It was inane, it was stupid, and it didn't mean anything, because at the end of the day it was still just a name.
"Sorry, Rodney, just thinking."
Because it had crept out only when he had been driven to exasperation by the man. Insulting his intelligence, making him run to the furthest end of the city to fix a grounding station, arguing with him endlessly over the radio on his inability to kill the Super Wraith, rambling off unnecessary advice on out flying nuclear explosions—up to where the scientist's attitude towards Chaya had made him revert back to calling him just McKay for the remainder of that debacle. Hell, even after Doranda, he never stopped being 'Rodney'.
"Thinking? That'll be the day." Rodney snorted, before yelping again after a sizzle of electricity. "Son of a—"
Sheppard tuned out the cursing since the loud complaining meant that the shock hadn't been anywhere close to lethal. One hand started tracing the holes in the wall again, idly wondering if they resembled any real constellations. It was a pointless thought, just like this whole name nonsense.
It wasn't like he had been disturbed by the revelation that at some point he had realized that he had liked the acerbic scientist, or that he had thought of him as a friend. All of his teammates were his friends, they had to be; they had to trust each other in order to survive in this galaxy. It was just that it had come so naturally for him—
"Hello! Dying here!"
Sheppard looked up to see Rodney rubbing his hand furiously. "You're fine."
"Oh? Did you read an entire medical text on electrical shock after the dictionary?"
"You're complaining aren't you?"
"I always complain!"
"My point exactly."
Rodney's face scrunched up. "Fine! But if I start to have a seizure, you better not still be fondling the walls. Do I need to give you two some privacy?"
"Me and the wall will pause in our making out long enough to call someone."
"My gratitude knows no bounds," Rodney muttered, dropping his eyes back to his hands. After a moment he glanced back up at Sheppard suspiciously. "You're quiet."
He pretended like he was still extraordinarily interested in the walls. "I told you, I'm thinking."
"And you couldn't shut up a minute ago!"
"I'm taking your advice."
Rodney's eyes widened. "Oh my god, you're dying aren't you!"
He frowned, forced to finally turn and face the subject of his scrutiny. Fortunately the outburst gave him the perfect reason to stare at him like he had grown a second head. "I'm fine, Rodney."
"What's wrong with you today?"
Over the radio it was Sheppard, since there were multiple military men on Atlantis, and occasionally on off-world missions. Face-to-face, it was always rank, without fail. It never had really occurred to him that Rodney never called him by his first name until Teyla had started. Even then, it was a passing thought, something he hardly noticed. For a while there the man could hardly remember whether John was a major or lieutenant colonel, and it had taken him eight months to even remember how to pronounce Zelenka's last name.
Then a small niggling voice had started to notice that Rodney had moved to calling almost everyone by their first names: Elizabeth, Teyla, Ronon, Radek, Chuck the Gate Technician, Peter, Brendan, Carson—freaking Wraith had first names, Genii leaders did, virtual strangers on other planets, Sam Carter had a first name, whales did—
—but he didn't. Not to Rodney McKay at least.
All of his friends called him by his first name at some point. Elizabeth did it all the time, Teyla now too. Ronon had done it once jokingly. Even Carson, he felt a twinge of pain at thinking of the Scot and tried to force it down, had used it on occasion.
"Colonel?" Rodney was frowning and staring at him in concern.
He forced a grin on his face, hoping it would placate the sudden attention on him. This only caused the frown to deepen.
He had once asked Rodney about it, when he was starting to go batty with the—was it jealousy?—fact that he referred to all of his other friends and perfect strangers by first names, but one John Sheppard was forever relegated to his rank. It had been asked in a far more round-a-bout way, because he wasn't about to let McKay know that it bothered him.
Rodney had snorted, and announced that he barely remembered anyone's name, much less anyone in the military. He had started to say something about respect, but then the ground next to them had exploded. From that point it had been a lot of running, some hysterical screaming from Rodney, and not a lot of time for talking. He hadn't brought it up again after that because that would first make the scientist suspicious. Secondly, he never wanted to wonder if the conversation forced the change in the dynamic. So he shoved it to the back of his mind and forgot about it.
At least he had, until a few minutes ago. He had been staring at the holes in the walls, mind unwillingly replaying his and Zelenka's repair trip. The "leap", the rush repair job, and that conversation, the one he hadn't really been listening to.
"You want to WHAT?"
"Reactivate Weir's nanites."
"That is a terrible, terrible idea."
Fingers snapped in front of his face, bringing him back to the present. Two blue eyes stared at him, not bothering to mask their worry. "Earth to Sheppard."
A more natural grin settled on his features. "We're on Atlantis. Er, New Atlantis—where the hell are we again?"
He saw tension drain out of the other man's shoulders, but the concerned eyes didn't waver from him. "Somewhere new."
"I've reprogrammed them."
"John, we are losing her here."
He nodded. "Definitely new."
Rodney eyed him for a moment longer, before slinking back over to his console. "If you and the wall are done consummating your relationship, maybe you can hold a light for me so I'll stop shocking myself."
"You could wear gloves," he said lightly, but grabbed a flashlight and pointed its beam under the console.
"Coming from the man who puts his fingers in light sockets every morning?"
"Is that a hair crack?"
"Yeah," Rodney muttered as he carefully started to taking out cracked pieces of crystals. "Need work?"
It had taken four years for Rodney to call John Sheppard by his first name. Unconsciously his jaw clenched as he held the light steady. Just the one time, for one moment, Rodney had let all of his defenses around Sheppard slip, and John hadn't even noticed.
He spied the faulty wiring and seized the scientist's hand before he shocked himself again. Without a word, John shined the light on the spot, illuminating the problem. Rodney rolled his eyes and yanked his hand away. However he was careful to avoid the area as he ventured back in.
Next time—if there was a next time—John promised himself that he would hear it. And somehow let Rodney know that he noticed.