A/N: Lots of thanks to my beta The Wishyles! All remaining mistakes are mine.
Scratches, lies and small animals
So far, it had been an unspectacular mission. The planet, overgrown with trees as old as the hills, was uninhabited. The only animals had run away whenever the team approached and there were no signs of Wraith. There were also no signs of the research facilities which should have been there according to the old Ancient recordings. They split up, Ronon and Teyla forming one search party, and Sheppard and McKay forming another one. The latter limped slowly behind the Colonel. "It's getting dark, we should return to Atlantis. And I'm tired, I think I have a blister under my foot and the backpack is bloody heavy."
Sheppard sighed before turning around to face the sweating scientist. "I told you to leave the plants for Katie and pick them up on the way back."
"And I told you I can't see the plants in the dark and it's ridiculous to try and illuminate the whole forest with a torch." McKay took off his backpack and leant against a tree.
"You know what? I'll walk on a bit and as soon as it's dark I'll return. You wait here and rest until I'm back."
"Wait a moment, you want to leave me alone? All alone?"
"Look Rodney, there are no dangerous animals here, and no humans. We'll stay in radio contact, reporting every fifteen minutes. So?"
"Yes. Yes, all right. But if you find my gnawed bones you'll be sorry for leaving me alone."
Sheppard grinned and set off. "I'll be back within an hour."
McKay sat on the forest floor, happy to be resting for a moment. He took the torch out of his backpack and looked in the opening at the grass-like plants, still with their roots and soil, that he'd collected for Katie. Then he closed the backpack and tested the torch. Startled by the bright light one of the local animals run away at top speed in its turn startling McKay.
The Ancient had named "animali benigni", friendly animals. McKay had only read the Ancient report up to the point it described them as "harmless herbivores" but he still recognized the animal immediately. It was a mammal, approximately the height of a domestic pig and its legs, which seemed to be unnaturally long, had sharp claws at the ends. It didn't have fur and the leathery skin had a grey-green tone, which reminded him of the Wraith. Necrotized skin hung like rags from the thin animal. Its tail looked like a rat's, just longer and thicker. The face was narrow and shapeless. There was an opening for the mouth, above two small slits for the nostrils with two more slits for the ears on either side of the head. The protruding eyes over-compensated for the lack of shape of the nose and ears and were framed by vibrant red rings.
After fifteen minutes McKay reported to Sheppard and then, bored, looked into the forest. Although his eyes were adapting to the growing darkness it was increasingly difficult to see outlines. The forest seemed to be waking up slowly but surely. He heard a cracking and panting, a groaning and howling, and instinctively grabbed his P 90. Another fifteen minutes and Sheppard reported in this time telling McKay he was returning and would be back in half an hour. If he didn't get lost. But surely Sheppard wouldn't get lost. Another noise, and McKay jumped up holding the machine pistol in the firing position. At the loud crash directly behind him, he turned around in a panic firing a volley. A wretched scream rang through the forest, followed by silence.
Sheppard called over the radio. "I heard shots, what's happening?"
"Uh. I heard a noise and shot. It wasn't anything."
"McKay, you can't just shoot at nothing! What if you had shot me?"
"Won't happen again. Promise."
McKay was trembling. He had a really bad feeling that he had hit something. He took the torch and shone it in the direction he thought he had shot at. Something lay there. He desperately hoped it was just a tree trunk but when he approached it he noticed it was a "friendly animal". It sent a terrible pang through him to see the animal riddled with bullets. But even worse, he saw seven babies, small as kittens, hanging off the skin of the animal. "Oh no, I killed the mother," he muttered and tears welled up his eyes. "I didn't want that, I really didn't."
He noticed that a bullet had hit one of the babies. He picked it up and as he bandaged it, thought, "What's the use? Without their mother the little ones are surely lost." There were severe quarantine regulations in Atlantis and he knew they were justified. There were an infinite number of unknown pathogens, viruses, germs, bacteria, parasites, which could spread from the animals to the inhabitants of Atlantis.
The animal he had bandaged made a short, faint noise and began to lick at his hand. Its helplessness made him sob. These small creatures were going to die because of his carelessness. This was his fault, and his fault alone.
As the little one licked him again, he pulled himself together and considered his options. He was the head of science of Atlantis and had responsibilities for the safety of Atlantis and its inhabitants. Here were seven young animals whose life depended on his next decision. Seven babies whose mother he killed against the human population of Atlantis.
He sighed and opened his backpack. Carefully he laid one animal after another between the collected grasses and hoping desperately that they would be quiet. He was afraid that Sheppard wouldn't understand what he planned.
The Colonel called on the radio. "I'm almost there, so don't shoot or you'll end up in a military court."
"That's not funny!" McKay yelled into the radio. "That's not fucking funny!"
Sheppard was surprised by McKay's furious reaction. He assumed the Canadian was frustrated because they had wasted a whole day to find research facilities, when there weren't any to be found. He would still need to talk to McKay about shooting carelessly into the forest without checking where Sheppard was, but maybe he should do that after the scientist was more relaxed and receptive to criticism – well more receptive than he would be right now. McKay was never particularly good at taking criticism.
Sheppard shone his torch on tree after tree until he finally saw McKay leaning on the same tree where he had left him.
"You look pretty shattered, McKay. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, everything's fine. I just want to go home." McKay carefully lifted his backpack to his shoulders.
"Uh, you know what? Give me your backpack. We can take turns."
"No! I'm responsible for the contents."
"Hey, I'm not going to damage the grass." Sheppard was surprised when McKay refused his offer, after all, he had been complaining the whole day about the weight.
"It's my backpack, okay?" McKay sounded strange. Sheppard shone the torch into McKay's face.
"Have you been crying?" McKay walked on without answering.
"Oh my god! Katie didn't dump you?"
"No! What gives you that id…" McKay paused. Sheppard had just came up with an excellent excuse. "We've been having a hard time. I don't want to talk about it."
"Ah well, that's bad. Listen, I've got a couple of beers in my quarters, if you want one…"
"Thank you, but I'm not really in the mood. What matters most is that I get the…," he hesitated, "plants safely to Atlantis."
Beckett was relaxing in the bath, tapping the water with the tip of his finger, so that the surface rippled. The aroma of the lavender-oil Nurse Roberts had given him smelled pleasantly and the temperature of the water was perfect. Exactly the right thing after a strenuous day.
"Carson." A whispering, hardly understandable voice came out of his radio. With a curse the doctor reached for the headset, which was ready to hand as always. To work in Atlantis meant be permanently on call.
"Carson, are you alone?" the whispering voice asked.
"Is that you, Rodney? What do you want?" Beckett stretched his legs so that they sank in the water.
"Are you alone?" McKay asked in the same undertone.
"Yes, I'm alone and enjoying a bath."
"Okay, listen," McKay used his normal, bossy voice, "I need you in my quarters, with a first-aid-set and magnesium supplement from the infirmary. And not a word to anybody!"
"Rodney, just go to the infirmary. I'm just having a bath and…"
"Please." The voice sounded a bit desperate.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, but I need someone who is discreet."
Beckett sighed. "All right, I'll be there in ten minutes."
Beckett was at McKay's door when he heard McKay shouting from the inside. "Caldwell, no! Come here! Come here! No, not the… Dammit, come here!"
Confused the Scot knocked at the door. "Rodney?"
"Come in and close the door quickly!" McKay shouted.
Entering, Beckett was rendered speechless at the sight before him. McKay stood in the room, his hair tousled, two small animals Beckett didn't recognize hanging off his legs and another one being held in McKay's arms. A fourth animal was running directly for Beckett.
"Close the door! Quickly!" McKay shouted again. Beckett managed to turn and close the door before the animal could escape. "Finally, you took your precious time! Maggie's getting worse and worse." McKay held the animal he had in his arms out to the doctor. He sniffed shortly before continuing, "She was so lively when I took her out of the backpack, so I thought she wasn't as badly wounded as I'd thought, but suddenly she became quieter and quieter." The Canadian sniffed again.
Beckett put down his first-aid-set and the bag with the magnesium supplement before taking the animal from McKay. "Rodney, what's going on here?"
"I'll explain everything, but please take care of Maggie first."
The doctor began to examine the small creature. "Careful! Don't hurt her!" McKay shouted when Maggie squeaked.
"I know what I'm doing, Rodney. Don't you have to look after the other animals while I look at… Maggie?"
"Yeah, you're right, I need to make up their milk." McKay took the magnesium bag and went to the bath.
Beckett had carefully examined Maggie and changed her bandage by the time McKay came back with a baby's bottle. "How is she?"
"She's badly wounded. It looks as if a bullet went straight through her body. Her internal organs are irreparably damaged. I'm sorry Rodney, but it'd be best to put her down."
McKay gently stroke Maggie's head. When he offered the wounded animal the bottle, she started to suckle. "Carson, she's drinking."
Beckett shook his head. "Rodney, I canna help her. She's gonna die."
"She's tough. That's why I called her Maggie. After Margaret Thatcher, you know?"
The doctor watched his friend as he fed the dying animal. He saw the affection Rodney had for Maggie, his hunched posture reflecting his sad expression. Maggie wasn't suffering any pain and Beckett couldn't bring himself to talk McKay into putting her down.
As he started to look around Rodney's room, he could see three animals hanging off McKay, two from the legs and one from his back. Another three animals were enthusiastically exploring the quarters, climbing walls and cupboards, ripping the framed diplomas off the walls, gnawing at Rodney's books. They were clearly not house-trained.
"Ah Rodney, what are these animals?"
"The Ancients called them friendly animals."
"You smuggled them in, didn't you?"
"Mmmhmm." Maggie didn't want to drink any more and McKay was busily removing one of the animals from his legs so offering it the bottle.
"Rodney! You know the quarantine regulations. You once lectured one of your staff for a half hour for daring to bring back insects in a glass without permission."
"This is completely different." McKay stroked the belly of the animal to stimulate its digestion. He told Beckett what had happened.
"And Sheppard?" Beckett asked affected, "What does he think of it?"
"I didn't tell him. I didn't know how he would react and whether he would understand."
"So what are you going to do now? Rodney, we're talking an unknown animal here."
"No, not completely unknown. I found a detailed report in the Ancient database. One Ancient brought orphaned animals to Atlantis. He included the recipe for milk they could tolerate. That's why I needed the magnesium supplement. Everything else I found in the storerooms."
"The baby's bottle as well?"
"Yeah, they're a popular trading good. Anyway – the animals don't need to be breastfed for long; after three weeks at the most they no longer need any milk and eat only solid food. That's when they leave their mother and become completely independent. Using the grasses I brought back, I'll be able to find out when they will start to accept plants as food. According to the database, after that it'll be another two weeks before I can release them back into the wild. The Ancient scientist was able to track his protégés in the planet's forests over the years. They'll survive if I can just keep them alive until they are old enough."
McKay hung the animal he had fed back on his leg. His face contorted with pain and he clearly had to suppress a scream.
"Rodney? Is everything okay?" Beckett asked concerned.
"Oh, they have unbelievably sharp claws."
"You have to carry them all the time? How are you going to work without attracting attention?"
"According to the report they should sleep most of the time so I can lie them on my bed. I just have to check in on them occasionally."
"And what, if you're away? On a foreign planet?"
"Then… then maybe you could …?"
Hesitantly Beckett looked at the small creatures, who did not exactly conform to any ideal of beauty.
McKay caught one of the animals, which were busy destroying his quarters, and handed it to Beckett. "She hasn't a name yet. You can give her one if you like."
The doctor lifted the animal and looked deeply into her eyes. "Roxanne. I think Roxanne fits."
"So you're helping me?"
"It's not like I have a choice." Roxanne began to wriggle and Beckett put her on the floor.
McKay was relieved and pointed at Maggie. "So, you already know Maggie. There, over at the back, that's Caldwell. She's got nothing but nonsense in her head, but I think she is very smart."
"Caldwell? You named a girl after Caldwell?"
"She was the first I gave a name to before I was able to tell the difference between the sexes. I just gave her the name because of her appearance."
Beckett snorted with loud laughter. "Her appearance?"
"He has a bald head, she has a bald head…" McKay smiled diabolically, and then pointed to his right leg. "This is Frédéric and this…" he pointed to his left leg, "is Marie. Janis is clutching my back and one of the boys is missing. Where are you? Ah, over there, under the table, that's Isaac."
After a restless night with his new roommates McKay crawled sleepily into the lab. He hoped that the animals would sleep for the next few hours after having explored his quarters for half the night using him as a climbing frame. He had scratches all over his body and his favourite t-shirt had been shredded from their sharp claws while he was wearing it. The Ancient report said, "The young animals stay for the first 10 to 15 days on the dam's body. They clutch at the necrotized, and therefore insensitive to pain, skin parts. From the fifth day they start to explore their environment returning to their mother at any signs of danger."
"Morning, Rodney. You are late today." Dr Zelenka stood in front of the coffee machine, pouring himself a cup. "Would you like a cup too? The coffee is freshly brewed."
"Please." McKay reached for the cup.
"Where do these scratches come from?" Zelenka asked, as he passed McKay the coffee.
"Scratches? So, uh, the scratches, um, yes, there's a really simple explanation," McKay concentrated, "um, you know, yesterday, yes yesterday, I was on that planet… oh yeah! Those plants, I collected grasses for Katie and you know grasses can cut sometimes, these where those sort of grasses."
Zelenka looked doubtfully at McKay's hands. "Then why are the scratches on the back of your hands and not on the palm of your hands?"
"I was a bit clumsy. Well, I'm not a gardener." The Czech didn't really buy McKay's explanation but didn't make any more comments. He had gradually gotten used to the head of science acting a bit strange sometimes.
McKay left the lab a couple of times to look after "his small ones" but they were happy sleeping the whole day.
When he returned to his quarters later that evening Sheppard was standing in front of his door. "Colonel? What are you doing here?"
"I missed you at breakfast. And at lunch. And at dinner too. Were you evading me and the reprimand you deserve?"
McKay stiffened. Reprimand? Had Sheppard found out about his animals? "What kind of reprimand do you mean?"
"The incorrect use of a firearm."
McKay relaxed. "Oh, I see. I hadn't thought about it, I had a lot of things to do today."
"Alright. Can we move into your quarters?"
"Why?" McKay asked in his most innocent tone.
"You want me to teach you a lesson about firearms in the hallway?"
"But I can't let you in my quarters. I… I haven't tidied up."
Sheppard raised an eyebrow.
"All right, that was a lie." McKay was now whispering. "Katie's in there. We're about to talk about our… our problems."
"Oh, why didn't you say so?" Sheppard looked uncomfortable. "Promise to download the firearms safety protocols, okay?"
"Yes, yes, of course, I will."
Sheppard nodded, pointed to the door, sighed, "Um, good luck in there."
McKay entered his quarters and turned on the lights. With the exception of Maggie none of the animals lay on his bed where he had left them. Janis had climbed up the window frame, chased by Marie who was trying to bite into her tail. Caldwell was watching from a drawer McKay was sure he had left closed. Isaac ran up and climbed his leg. The two other animals weren't in sight. McKay bent over the bed and carefully stroked his problem child, Maggie. She was very weak and hardly moving. Then Roxanne let herself fall down from the ceiling to his back digging her claws deep into his skin. He screamed loudly as he felt the blood run down his back but as he couldn't reach her, he couldn't remove her.
Resigned to the pain, he sighed and walked slowly to his bath to prepare the milk, Roxanne on his back and Isaac cling on his leg. Frédéric sat in the sink, playing with McKay's toothbrush and looking very happy. "You're small monsters," McKay muttered without meaning it.
Beckett packed disinfectant, some plasters and swabs before visiting his friend. Yesterday evening had left him with the strong impression he would need his first aid kit. Well prepared, he knocked at McKay's door. "It's me, Carson."
"Come in, but close…"
"I know. I'll close the door quickly."
McKay was sitting on his bed, holding Frédéric in his arms while he sucked strongly at the bottle. Maggie lay on his lap. The other animals were wandering around the room.
McKay looked searchingly around the room. "Try the bath. They discovered it today."
"Why didn't you close the door?"
"They found out how to open it. Caldwell is my main suspect."
"Och, they won't get out of your quarters?"
"No, the door is locked, they can't open it. – So, now you're here, can you take a look at Maggie again?"
Beckett took the weak animal between his hands knowing that any examination was unnecessary. "I'm sorry, Rodney, I think she'll die to- night."
"Oh, okay." McKay stared at Frédéric who was insatiable.
"I…" The scientist breathed out deeply. "I'll stay with her, through the night. She won't die alone."
Beckett sat next to him and laid Maggie back on his lap. "Do you want me to stay with you?"
"No. I'll get through this on my own."
The doctor patted his back comfortingly, whereupon McKay winced. "That was Roxanne," McKay uttered between gritted teeth, "she jumped down on me from the ceiling."
"They're able to climb along the ceiling? Impressive."
Beckett watched the playing animals for a while and when McKay finished feeding Frédéric, asked him to strip and let him treat his injuries to his arms, legs and the upper part of his body. When he finished he went to the door. "If Maggie is in pain or if you just need somebody, let me know."
It was a long night during which McKay stayed by the small animal's side. Sometimes her siblings demanded some of his attention but he always turned back to her. He stroked her and told her stories out of his life. Each time her breathing faltered he held his breath, half hoping she would breath again, half hoping it would be over. It was early morning when she finally fell into a final sleep.
Beckett was woken up by a hesitant knocking. When he opened the door, McKay stood there with red-rimmed eyes and still in his pyjamas. Beckett hugged his friend without words. He knew nothing he could say would alleviate the pain. Finally McKay broke the silence. "It's my fault, I killed her," he uttered through sobs.
"It was an accident," Beckett said in a quiet, calming voice.
"Still my fault." McKay buried his head in Beckett's shoulder. The Scot held him until the scientist wasn't crying anymore and stepped back. He nodded gratefully to the doctor and went back to his quarters.
"Are you taking the day off?" Beckett called.
McKay stopped and thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I can't. The Daedalus is arriving today, and we'll have even more work to do."
Zelenka had prepared the documents for the Daedalus and was waiting for his superior who was late for the second day in a row. When McKay finally arrived he went straight to the coffee machine.
"Rodney, have you forgotten that the Daedalus is coming today? We've lots of work to do and you…"
"Of course I haven't forgotten !" McKay snarled at Zelenka, while he poured himself a cup of coffee.
"You got up the wrong side of the bed, weren't you?" For the first time Zelenka looked directly at McKay. His eyes were red and he was looking dishevelled. "Are you all right?"
McKay thought about whether he could ignore the question, but the Czech's piercing look made it difficult. "I'm having a hard time with Katie." Sheppard had bought it, so why not Zelenka.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sure it'll be all right." Zelenka gave him the documents. McKay took them and went to sit down on a free chair. Without thinking he leant back and was hit by intense pain from where Roxanne had sunk her claws. He cried out, spilling coffee on the documents. "Dammit!"
"Not so bad, Rodney, I just print them once again." Zelenka went to the computer before turning once more to McKay. "What happened to your back?"
McKay cursed inwardly. Why couldn't Zelenka be a little bit more uninterested? "It's nothing. A… a minor fall. I fell on my back."
"Really?" Zelenka didn't believe him but out of respect for his superior he didn't want to pursue it. But he made a mental note to keep an eye on McKay's strange behaviour.
Around noon McKay met Beckett for lunch. Unusually McKay was only picking at his food.
"How are you?"
"And the wee ones?"
"What have you done with her… her body?"
McKay pushed his half-full plate aside and sighed. "Put her in a box. I'm going to bury her on her planet."
Colonels Caldwell and Sheppard entered the canteen with Weir and sat at one of the tables. The attentive observer could see that their casual attitude was just a pretence.
"You should join them, Rodney, you're the head of the science department."
"Nah. I'm not in the mood for pretending to be polite." McKay ate some mashed potatoes. "What about you? You are head of the medical department."
"I haven't had much to do with Caldwell." Beckett took the dessert – a chocolate pudding – off his tray and watched the Daedalus' commander. After a while he said deadpan, "You're right. She looks like him."
The day passed with various meetings on how best to distribute resources, the induction of the new staff, the alignment of data, the systems check on the Daedalus and a lot more.
McKay was exhausted by the time he returned to his quarters. "Hello, you little monsters," he shouted and immediately four animals ran squeaking in his direction. Isaac and Caldwell on the other hand climbed into the ruins of his cupboard. "Oh no, what have you done? Did you unwind the screws?" Annoyed he grabbed Isaac but the animal lashed a claw across his face and when McKay dropped him, hid in the depths of the cupboard.
With four animals hanging from his body McKay entered the bathroom to prepare the milk. The floor was flooded and the tap of the sink was still running. "So, you found out how a tap works." He smiled. They were smart little beasts. He liked that.
"You're late the third time in a row. That's not your way. And anyway, where did you get this scratch on your cheek?"
McKay yawned before he answered Zelenka. "I'm not sleeping very well at the moment." It wasn't a lie. Nobody could sleep very well with small, nocturnal animals romping around the room, climbing over you and demanding to be fed. "The scratch… It's from my cupboard door. I'm… I ran against it." It was lie, and not a very good one.
"I see. So you run against your cupboard? And you expect me to believe it?" Zelenka sounded concerned.
"Look, I don't have to justify myself to you." McKay poured his third cup of coffee in half an hour.
"Maybe you should talk to Elizabeth. Or to Dr Heightmeyer."
McKay gave Zelenka a look, which made him stop talking.
Dr Weir was in front of her computer and examining McKay's personal file. Zelenka had met her a short time ago and told her that something was wrong with McKay. That he was inventing excuses for injuries. She agreed the Czech's worries needed to be looked into.
Atlantis had only a small group of people all living and working very closely together. Although they were the best of the best, nobody was safe from only too human problems. The overwhelming tasks and the permanent threat of invasion strained everyone's nerves. Already a number of people had had breakdowns.
She hoped McKay would be able to give a satisfactory explanation. Something banal, easy to explain. But when he entered her office he looked tired.
"Please, take a seat, Rodney."
"You wanted to talk to me? If it's because of the hyperspace drive, I already told Caldwell, that we need at least two days to…"
"It's not because of the drive. Rodney, how did you get the scratch at your cheek?"
"The scratch? You ordered me to your office because of a small scratch?"
Weir sighed: "Rodney, please."
"I ran into a cupboard."
"Radek said you have scratches on your hands too."
"Oh, you should see my arms in comparison." If he wasn't so tired that wouldn't have slipped out.
"Show it to me." Dr Weir realised this wasn't nothing, Zelenka was right, this was serious.
"It's private, really. This… this is private."
"Private? If the head of science has strange injuries I'm not sure if it's really private."
McKay's thoughts jumped back and forth. "But it's private… very private. It's…" he was inspired – at least he hoped he was, "intimate."
"It's – well…," he blushed when he thought where his lie was taking him, "when Katie and me… when we… she likes it hard and rough when we… are intimate."
"Oh." Weir stared at him for a moment. "And what about you? Do you like…" She interrupted herself. It was none of her business what two expedition members did together. Unless… "You take part voluntarily?" she asked suspiciously.
"Yes, of course." He cast his eyes down not daring to look at Dr Weir while lying.
Weir stood up and walked towards McKay. He curled into himself in the posture he occasionally took on when defensive.
"Rodney, look at me," Weir said with a quiet, but determined voice. He looked up for a second but wasn't able to look at her for longer without giving himself away.
"You don't have to be ashamed if you are forced to do or endure something you don't want." She spoke in a friendly and calm manner and the meaning of the words slowly passed through him. He didn't like their meaning. If Katie should ever find out what he had implied…
He jumped off the chair. "It's nothing. Katie and I have come to an agreement. It's our business, not yours, please don't talk to Katie, it would be too embarrassing, I have lots of things to do, I have to go." The words were spoken so hastily that some syllables almost merged. Dr Weir would have liked to ask him more questions but he had already stormed out of her office.
"Stop it!" Beckett was examining a sample under the microscope while McKay stood next it him and drummed his fingers on a console.
"Sorry." McKay folded his arms. "Will you be finished soon?"
The doctor adjusted the focus. "I can't work when I'm constantly interrupted."
The scientist started to walk up and down the small medical lab. "Okay. Are you finished?"
"Rodney, what's the problem?" Carefully Beckett put a new slide under the microscope.
McKay paced faster. "I need a stimulant."
"According to the way you're acting you need a sedative." He put a dye on the slide. "How much coffee did you drink today?"
"Twelve, thirteen cups, I don't know. Will you give me a stimulant?" McKay stopped right in front of Beckett and looked at him. There were dark rings under his eyes.
"It's not even noon. What's going on?"
"I've had almost no sleep for the past three days, the Daedalus is here, the hyperspace drive has a problem and I'm hardly able to keep awake."
"What prevents you from going to bed?" Beckett propped himself up and looked at his friend.
"The babies are keeping me up at night." He started to drum at the console again.
"Then go to sleep now."
"Now? I'm needed!"
"You have a capable team and there's no emergency. Just get a good night's – or day's – sleep."
McKay shook vehemently his head. "I've downed far too much coffee. Just give me a stimulant."
Beckett walked to a medicine cabinet and took some pills out. He gave McKay two, together with a glass of water. "It's a downer. Take it and sleep well."
McKay looked sceptically at the pills. "Why are you giving me a downer? I want…"
"What did you tell Elizabeth? A lie about Katie? A lie you know for sure will get you into trouble? You have to sleep or else you'll lose your mind."
McKay shrugged resignedly. "Alright."
Dr Weir and Colonel Sheppard had just finished a meeting about the newly arrived marines. Sheppard was about to go when Weir called him back. "Can you spare a moment, John?"
"Of course. What's it about?"
"Have you noticed if Rodney's acting strange recently?"
"Scientists are always acting strangely," Sheppard said cheerfully, but then continued seriously, "I don't know, he hasn't eaten with Ronon, Teyla and me or met us for three days. Not that he eats with us all the time but even when he has…" Sheppard interrupted himself.
"When he has what?"
"I shouldn't say anything, he said it to me in confidence." Sheppard looked concerned. "You think he's acting strange?"
Weir leant back in her chair. "Has Radek talked to you?"
"No, what's he said?"
"Hmm. He's noticed things; I'm not about to go into details. What did Rodney tell you?"
"Nothing really. He told something on the planet, but – no, I don't think he would be happy if I told you."
"I'm worried. Have you seen the scratch on his face?"
"No. What kind of scratch?"
"You'll have to ask him. Do you know if he's getting on with Katie?"
"Katie? Hmm." Sheppard's expression turned thoughtful. "Actually…"
"What do you mean 'actually'?"
Sheppard shrugged his shoulders.
"John, you know something I don't know."
"And you know something I don't know."
"We're going round in circles. I just can't give you confidential personnel information."
"I'm your second in command. Shouldn't I know everything?"
"Rodney may feel awkward if he finds out you know anything. He found it very difficult to talk to me in the first place."
"He's on my team. If something isn't alright I need to know."
Dr Weir carefully considered Sheppard's arguments. He wasn't completely wrong with what he'd said so she told him what she knew at the same time impressing on him that this was from the head of expedition talking to her second in command.
Sheppard listened, then, "He cried when we were on the planet. He said he was having a hard time with Katie."
Weir shook her head. "What do you think?"
"I don't know. Actually I can't imagine that he would do something he doesn't want to. Maybe we should talk to Katie."
"Mmmm. Just tentatively approach her with our concerns." Dr Weir hesitated. The thought that Dr Brown was abusing Dr McKay seemed to be outrageous.
"Yeah, and I'll try to have a chat with him." Sheppard sighed. "If Caldwell leaves me alone for a moment."
Beckett went to McKay's quarters to check everything was all right. McKay was lying in his bed with six small creatures huddled up against his body. The sight was so peaceful that Beckett decided to take some pictures. He was sure his friend would be happy to have a memento.
The next day McKay was in a very good mood. He had slept well during the day and then cared for his protégés during the night who had fallen asleep on time in the morning. He even joined his team. "Hello, Rodney," Teyla greeted him and Ronon growled at him, his mouth filled with pancakes.
"I thought you were trying to avoid us." Sheppard tried to cover up his slight nervousness. McKay was looking good and relaxed. Maybe he and Weir were worried for no reason.
"Oh, there are bilberry pancakes?" McKay looked at Ronon's tray.
"Mmmhmm." Ronon ate another pancake and McKay went to fill his own tray with pancakes. When he came back to the table, Teyla asked, "Where did you get that scratch?"
"Bumped a cupboard," McKay uttered between two bites.
"It looks more like a wild animal scratched you," Ronon replied.
McKay grinned at Ronon. He would have loved to tell him that the wild animal was as small as a kitten and still breastfeeding. But he resisted.
On his way to the lab, he noticed the Colonel following him. "Do you want something, Colonel?"
"Ahh. Um, yesterday I had a conversation with Dr Weir."
"What a coincidence. Me too."
Amazed Sheppard stopped. "We thought your injuries…"
"Just some scratches. Nothing bad."
"The thing with you and Katie, we just want to make sure you're fine."
McKay looked sideways, embarrassed. "Uh, Elizabeth told you about the thing with Katie? Everything's fine."
"Oooooookaaaaay." Sheppard looked seriously at McKay.
"Okay." McKay pointed to the hallway. "I have to…"
Sheppard nodded. "Okay."
In the afternoon McKay went to his quarters to make his regular check on the animals. He was expecting to still be deeply sleeping, and he was shocked when he realised that the door to his quarters was open and that Janis was about to climb up the walls of the hallway. "Oh no! No, no, no, this can't be happening!" He grabbed Janis, who luckily didn't scratch him instead licking his face in welcome. Quickly he counted the animals, which were still in his quarters. "Isaac, good, you're still there. Roxanne, Marie, Frédéric, good. Caldwell? Where are you, Caldwell? You can't do this to me! You have to be somewhere here. Caldwell! Dammit, when I get hold of you… Caldwell!"
Caldwell wasn't there. Not in the ruins of his cupboard. Not under or in his bed. Not in the drawers. Not in the bathroom. No sign of her anywhere. McKay locked the door to his quarters and desperately hoped only Caldwell had worked out how to open the door. He walked up and down the hallway. When he was sure he was alone he shouted, "Caldwell! Where are you? Caldwell?" Carefully he walked along the hallways, again and again calling for his little animal.
Finally he went to the infirmary and pulled at Beckett's shirt. "Caldwell is gone. You have to help me find her."
"She's gone? How?"
"She's smart, really smart."
Beckett took off his coat and walked along the hallways with McKay. "Come, kitty, kitty, kitty."
McKay stared at the doctor. "She isn't a cat."
"I know that, Rodney. She might still listen to me."
McKay shrugged his shoulders. "Look, you go right, I'll go left and we'll meet at the transporter."
McKay went on, giving a whispering, then a shouting "Caldwell". In one of the closets he heard a loud noise. He immediately shouted, "Caldwell?" There were more rumbling noises in the room and he ran to the door. "Caldwell? Are you there?"
Major Lorne came out of the room. "No, it's just me and Lieutenant Kagan. Why are you searching for the Colonel here of all places?"
"Uh, someone said to me, she… he would be here." McKay admonished himself and continued his search. At the transporter he met with Beckett who shook his head. "I had no luck, and you?"
McKay sighed. "I haven't had any success either. But she has to be somewhere near here. She's very small so she can't far."
"Maybe she knows how to use a transporter?"
"What?" McKay looked uncertain. "No, surely not."
"Well then, we patrol all the hallways near your quarters and open all unlocked doors. We'll find her."
They split up again and McKay looked in every small gap, in every small hole. He even lay down on the floor so he could look in the wall cavity. He slowly realised that there was a pair of legs in olive-green trousers and black shoes next to him.
"Ah, hello, Colonel. I, uh, I'm searching, I'm checking the… the heat pump for the quarters."
"Really." Caldwell stood with arms crossed in front of McKay. "Major Lorne informed me that you are looking for me."
"Yeah, that's true."
"So, here I am."
"How are you?"
"And your family? If you have a family? Everything's fine there, too?"
Caldwell looked at McKay in disbelief. "I beg your pardon?"
"The Daedalus? How are things there? Is it a pleasant command?"
"Are you bullshitting me?"
At that moment Beckett came around the corner, calling in a low, monotonous singing, "Caaaaaldwell!" When he saw the Colonel he immediately took a backwards step out if sight.
"Beckett, I can see you!" Caldwell yelled and Beckett stepped back around the corner. "What's all this shit about?" Caldwell didn't wait for an answer. "You damned civilians, do you think you can do what you want? Dammit, if you were under my command you would regret it NOW!" He calmed a bit and said to himself as he walked away, "How does Weir put up with them? They're like little boys!"
Sheppard was searching for McKay. He urgently needed to continue the morning's conversation. He couldn't stop thinking about it. Suddenly he saw out of the corner of his eye movement on the ceiling. He looked up and saw a shapeless face, staring at him. With slow, careful movements he took his pistol out of its holster and released the safety catch.
"No!" someone behind him screamed and at that moment he was knocked down by the weight of the Canadian scientist rushing at him.
"Ouch! Dammit, McKay, what are you doing?"
"I had to prevent you from shooting Caldwell."
Both men stood up and Sheppard looked at the creature on the ceiling. Doubtfully he asked, "That's Caldwell?"
"Yeah. No. Yeah, it's Caldwell, but not Colonel Caldwell. It's just Caldwell."
"Rodney, I heard a noise…" Beckett came running. "Oh, good, there she finally is, the small vagrant."
"She?", Sheppard asked.
"Hey, come on down sweetie." McKay lured her and she let herself fall down onto his shoulders. Sheppard noticed McKay's face contorted with pain as Caldwell's claws dug into his back.
"Oh, that's why you are scratched?"
McKay nodded and rocked Caldwell in his arms like a baby.
"What is that thing?"
"It's not a thing, it's Caldwell." McKay lovingly stroked the animal's belly.
"Rodney! I want an explanation and I want it now!" Sheppard's tone was increasingly sharp.
McKay winced and made a face one could safely interpret as his please-don't-bite-me-face.
"He has a really good explanation." Beckett thought it was time to interfere.
"Really? I want to hear that."
And McKay told him. About the mother he had killed. About the helpless young animals he couldn't let down. About Maggie. About his guilty feelings. And about the fear of being exposed. He didn't miss anything.
Sheppard took a deep breath. "How long have we known each other, McKay? So why didn't you trust me to understand why you would want to raise these… these things?" Sheppard was hurt.
"My trust would be more extensive if you would stop calling them 'things'. I mean, you're military. And I don't know if you like animals. How would I know if you were going to feel pity for the animals or not? Maybe you would've said that what happened was bad luck and animals sometimes became orphans, and that they are too much of a risk for Atlantis and…"
"McKay!" Sheppard looked guilty. "Yes, maybe I would have said something like that but you know I would've helped you, if not for the animals, for you." Sheppard stared at Caldwell. "God, this critter is uglier than Hermiod!"
"I'm just kidding." Grinning Sheppard picked up his pistol from the floor and returned it to his holster. "When were you going to tell Dr Weir?"
"She's going to be angry because you violated the quarantine regulations. And she'll probably be angry because you made up the story about Katie and we were all really worried. But she will understand why you feel responsible for the little beasts. Rodney, you know us, you're on my team. Why couldn't you trust us?"
"Hmm, yeah, I suppose I should talk to her." Caldwell started to suck at McKay's fingers. "Hey, are you hungry, little one?"
"Oh, isn't she cute?" Beckett looked dreamily at the animal.
"And how did you persuade Katie to play the baddie?" the Colonel asked.
"Uh, Katie? She doesn't know anything about it."
"Dr Weir was about to talk to Katie about, well, about your injuries."
Panicked McKay thrust Caldwell into Beckett's hands. "Take care of Caldwell, I have to find Elizabeth before she finds Katie." Then he run along the hallway to the next transporter.
Sheppard stared at the animal in Beckett's arms. "If Rodney named one of these beasts after me, he'll be really, really sorry."
Later that evening McKay and Beckett met in the scientist's quarters. "How did you go with Elizabeth?"
"Oh, it went better than I expected. She wasn't really angry because of the animals. She just sounded disappointed because I didn't let her know from the beginning. As far as the story about Katie is concerned… well, I think she was mostly relieved that it wasn't true. She left it to Katie to deal with me, she had already talked with her."
"Was it bad?" Beckett couldn't suppress a grin.
"Katie was fuming. But she thought it was sweet that I cared for the animals and she accepted that it was an exceptional situation. So she's giving me another chance. Still I have to make it up to her."
The next day everyone heard about it and people wanted to see the animals. McKay warned Beckett and Sheppard not to tell anyone about the name "Caldwell".
Ronon and Teyla came too to see the animals. "They don't look tasty," Ronon said.
"They aren't for…" Teyla nudged Ronon, who grinned from ear to ear.
Zelenka came as well. "So, these are the scratchy animals." He watched them with interest. "You've done the right thing to bring the animals here." Reinforcing his words, he slapped McKay on the back.
"Hey, that hurts." McKay flinched.
Zelenka smiled, before he slapped him gently on the back again. "I hope you aren't such a mystery-monger the next time."
By evening McKay was exhausted as were the little ones, who weren't used to the attention.
The animals grew quickly and when the time came to introduce them to the wild, McKay oversaw the affair with mixed feelings. He really liked his animals but he recognised that they were wild animals and not pets. They belonged to the forest, without borders or cages.
His team along with Beckett escorted him to the planet. They set the animals free near where McKay had killed the mother. The animals were interested in everything –the forest, the trees, the grasses, the leaves, the mushrooms, the mosses. It was all new and exciting. Quickly they began to climb the trees and the lianas and then vanished one by one into the depths of the forest. The only thing left to do was to dig a grave for Maggie. When that was done McKay took a last look into the forest. "I hope they survive."
"Of course they'll survive." Beckett sounded confident. "The most critical stage is always when they are young. You've supported them past that stage. Without natural enemies they will become big, strong and – above all – old."
They went back to the stargate and while Teyla dialled Atlantis, Beckett pulled McKay aside. "Hey, I've got something for you." He gave McKay a picture.
It showed six small animals, snuggled against the sleeping scientist.