Title: Inflated Frogs
Rating: borderline between R and NC-17
Word Count: ~18,700
Warnings: character death
Spoilers: Second half of Season 3, from The Return through Submersion
Summary: Why is the new scientist blackmailing Rodney? And why is Rodney giving in?
A/N: Some stories practically write themselves; this was not one of them. Many, many thanks to my husband and to the kind folks at words_count for listening to me gripe about this story almost every day for a month and a half, and encouraging me anyway. And special thanks to oriolegirl for the beta!
It all started when the Daedalus arrived with more new personnel to supplement the staff that had returned when the city was reclaimed from the replicators. They had the usual orientation sessions in the afternoon (John conducted the sessions for the military himself; Rodney delegated the scientists' orientations to a minion who was out of favor), followed by the welcome party in the evening (Rodney never missed that part, since there was food). After some circulating, John ended up standing near Rodney, who was strategically positioned near the buffet table. New scientists, who had seen Rodney at a distance but hadn't spoken to him yet, kept coming up and introducing themselves to the head of science.
"Yes, yes," said Rodney, waving impatiently at the latest newcomer to try her wiles on him. She was older, brunette and a little dumpy, so naturally Rodney was more interested in the food than what she was saying. "Sociology isn't my field, since of course I do actual science. Go tell Dr. Corrigan about your research."
The woman's eyes narrowed, but she wasn't scared off so easily. "Oh, but you're the Head of Science," she said with something like a-simper. "I thought you would want to know --"
"Well, you thought wrong. Advancement around here doesn't depend on sucking up to me; it depends on competence and results."
"And survival skills," John murmured, but they weren't listening to him.
"Look, there's Dr. Corrigan in the corner, there. Go make nice with him." Rodney turned his back on the woman and studied the newest tray of hors d'oeuvres with a happy little hum.
"Not exactly telling it like it is, there, buddy," John needled him.
Rodney puffed up in predictable indignation. "What are you talking about? My department is entirely free of internal politics and ass-kissing. Promotion and allocation of resources is based purely on a record of success."
"Like that extra greenhouse you set aside for Katie, hmm?" John didn't feel threatened by Dr. Brown -- it wasn't like he owned Rodney or even wanted to; that would just be setting himself up for a fall -- but he thought she was too sweet. Rodney needed someone who wouldn't let him walk all over her (or him). Someone to tease him and puncture his ego from time to time so it didn't overinflate.
"That was results-based!" Rodney's chin came up defiantly. "She had some very compelling graphics to show why more space was necessary."
"All right then, what about Zelenka? He has the highest rank after me and the most resources -- because he's the most competent. And he doesn't suck up to me at all!"
"True." John waited for Rodney to bite into a wiener before continuing, "but sometimes I think you stick with him just so you won't have to learn any of the new peoples' names."
Rodney choked. "Fine! I'll learn a new name right now. You --" He pointed at a man whose face was vaguely familiar to John. "Nice to meet you, how was your trip?"
"Uh . . . I'm Dr. Graydon. I've been here for a few months?"
Rodney was taken aback. "Oh. Right. I, uh . . . didn't recognize you with the new, uh, haircut. Looks good."
Graydon lifted a hand uncertainly to his head and wandered away.
John didn't bother to hide his smirk.
"Yes, well . . . it could happen to anybody," Rodney insisted.
"Uh-huh." John nodded at another man who was heading their way. "Now this guy, I think is new."
"No no, I've known him for years. It's, um . . ." Rodney snapped his fingers to stimulate his memory.
"Merry!" said the newcomer oddly. "I'm Dr. Torrenz." He held out a hand.
Rodney didn't shake it. He had gone stiff and pale, the empty plate he held trembling a little. "What did you call me?"
"Merry . . . Meredith?"
It was John's turn to choke, on nothing but air. "Merry?" he murmured, but Rodney's tense expression took most of the fun out of it.
"You are Dr. Meredith McKay, aren't you?"
"Rodney. I go by Rodney these days."
"Oh, sorry. Someone at Area 51 must have used the old name. I overlapped with you there, remember?" The guy grinned fiercely, and John was sure the mistake had been deliberate.
"Yes, I think perhaps I --"
"I worked with you and Dr. Ingram. Remember her? Excellent scientist," he said aside to John, "but questionable taste in men, you know?"
"Excuse me," said Rodney in a strained voice. "I have to, uh --" He waved vaguely in the direction of the bathrooms and set his plate down on the edge of the buffet table. It toppled as soon as he let go and fell clattering to the floor; it was unbreakable, but still noisy. Conversations stopped and people around the room stared as Rodney hurried away with shoulders hunched.
John asked about it later that night, in Rodney's room. (They had ended up using Rodney's room because John was better at sneaking around at 5 am without looking like he was sneaking around, and because Rodney was obsessively attached to a ridiculous array of personal care products, which John didn't want migrating to his bathroom.) John arrived to find Rodney sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at the wall of his diplomas and awards. Strangely, whenever Rodney looked over these trophies he never seemed smug; instead he was thoughtful, almost wistful or nostalgic. Sometimes it gave him some kind of inspiration or at least renewed determination when he was struggling with a problem.
John was used to it by now, and they weren't facing any special challenges, so he didn't bother giving Rodney time for contemplation. "What's up with you and that Torrenz guy?" he demanded.
Rodney bent to unlace his boots. "Hmm?"
"He called you Merry? I haven't heard that one before."
Rodney snorted. "No one at Area 51 called me that. I don't think any of them knew my first name, except Colonel Simmons and maybe Colonel Maybourne."
"So Torrenz was just yanking your chain?"
"Yes, that must have been it." Rodney kicked his boots aside and headed for the bathroom. If he got hold of his toothbrush or floss, the conversation would be over.
"What about this Dr. Ingram he mentioned, then?"
Rodney paused in the doorway, not turning. "What about her?"
"The name sounds familiar. Have you talked about her before?"
"I doubt it." Rodney continued into the bathroom.
The terse answers were setting off alarm bells in John's head. He lounged in the doorway and kept pushing. "Could Jeannie have mentioned her? I'm sure I've heard the name before."
Rodney puttered over the sink. "It's possible. Jeannie did meet Mary -- Dr. Ingram -- once, before she dropped out of school and married that moron."
"Yeah, I remember now. Jeannie said something about how she was a perfect match for you -- a woman who could keep up with your mind and your mouth, I think she said."
Rodney didn't answer, spreading toothpaste on his brush with excessive care.
"And she said you made a really cute couple -- Mer and Mary." John gave a predatory grin. "That is kinda sweet. So you were dating this woman?"
John should have been warned off, but he pushed anyway. "So what happened? Bad breakup? She only wanted you for your brain? What?"
"She died." Rodney shoved the brush in his mouth and started moving it in careful circles, staring fixedly at the mirror.
"Oh. Shit. I'm sorry, buddy, I shouldn't have . . . uh. You don't need to talk about it if you don't want to." John leaned in to pat Rodney's shoulder awkwardly and then withdrew for his own, much shorter, bedtime routine. He was under the covers ten minutes before Rodney emerged to join him.
John rolled over to put his arms cautiously around Rodney, and Rodney (who was never much of a cuddler, since he claimed the awkward positions gave him back spasms) wrapped his own arms over John's.
"Guess I shouldn't have pushed," John said. Obviously whatever had happened had hurt Rodney badly. "You don't have to talk about it."
Rodney sighed into the darkness. "We were researching some . . . devices brought back by SG-1. They were invented by this crazy old guy -- a genius, actually, but he was totally nuts by the end, and paranoid because he'd been fighting the goa'uld all his life. We didn't know until too late that some of the devices were booby-trapped."
John petted Rodney's chest soothingly.
"He didn't want them falling into the wrong hands, see. So he set them up so that certain kinds of tampering . . . . We were just trying to figure out how it worked, and Dr. M-- Mary, I mean, she just --"
"Shh, it's okay," John said uselessly. It wasn't okay, but he didn't know what else to say. He was no good at offering comfort, at least not with words.
"I forgot," Rodney said miserably. "I haven't thought about it in so long, and I just -- I forgot how much I missed . . . . Everything changed." He rolled suddenly toward John, and then they were kissing, and the awkwardness fell away. This kind of comfort, John knew how to provide. He took over, did all the work, tried to let Rodney lose himself in sensation, fucked him slow and deep until Rodney was begging for release.
When it was over and Rodney was asleep, John lay awake thinking how weird it felt that he had hurt Rodney -- usually it seemed to be the other way around in John's relationships. But of course, he hadn't really caused the pain this time either, just reminded Rodney about it. He wondered what that Dr. Torrenz had intended by bringing up such painful memories.
John didn't see a lot of Dr. Torrenz over the next few weeks, what with missions and the usual weekly crises, but he paid attention when the man was around. One afternoon in the mess, he heard Torrenz and some of the other new scientists griping about how McKay was holding them all back from the cutting-edge research and the most interesting artifacts. John had heard such complaints before; a lot of people had trouble adjusting from being the best and brightest in their fields on Earth to 'clueless newbies' in Atlantis. But after Torrenz left, the other two (a Dr. Watson, who had asked about John's driving range setup, and a woman he didn't recognize) agreed that Torrenz had it better than either of them, and they speculated on why McKay would be playing favorites. This was different; Rodney normally had a uniform disregard for the new people until they brought themselves to his attention by some feat of brilliance or stupidity.
John meant to ask Rodney about that, but he got distracted by the whale-watching and pretty soon the whole city was going crazy. A couple of weeks later, when he was heading to the labs to grab Rodney for a quick game of Civilization, he ran into Radek instead. The physicist was wheeling a cart laden with equipment down the corridor, so John offered to help him unload the stuff. "What is all this, anyway?"
"One of my experiments. I am transferring it to another lab."
"Oh. Okay." John frowned at the door Radek entered, well away from the more central lab area. "I take it this is something that needs a little less . . . bustle, more privacy?"
"More room for Dr. Torrenz, more likely."
John paused in the act of getting his arms around one of the larger boxes. "Huh?"
"Rodney is giving some of my lab space to Dr. Torrenz, who has been agitating for more room."
"You're kidding me. Since when does McKay give the time of day to the new guys, much less your lab space?"
"Well. This is not a high-priority experiment. Just something I tinker with when I have an hour or two to spare. Yes, put that over here, please."
John grunted as he set the big box down. "Okay, if it's not vital, that's nice, but what has Torrenz done to earn space in your lab? Why doesn't he get the space down the hall and around the corner? Is he some big hotshot genius?"
Radek snorted. "Not likely. No, I think . . . actually, I think Rodney is afraid of him."
John stiffened. "You saying this guy is threatening McKay?"
"Yes . . . oh, no, not like that. Nothing physical. But there is something he holds over Rodney's head. Something in the way he speaks, implying things without saying them, and always with the little smile, you know? He keeps always talking about the old days back at Area 51, and he calls Rodney by the wrong name."
John lifted the last box off the dolly. "Sounds like I'd better have a talk with Dr. Torrenz."
Radek looked uncomfortable. "Ah, Colonel, perhaps you should . . . that is, I think Rodney would be angry if he knew I had told you this."
"He should have told me himself, if this guy is making trouble. It could be a security issue!"
"Dr. Torrenz has not done anything wrong, not that I have witnessed. He hasn't even said anything truly threatening. It is all in his eyes and his smile and the way Rodney reacts."
John took a breath and forced himself to calm down a little. "Okay. I get it. I'll have to take a subtle approach."
Radek's forehead furrowed.
"What? I can be subtle!"
John sought out Torrenz the next morning. The new scientist didn't really look like a bad sort of person; he had an open face, quick smile, easy manner. He was always very neat, too: hair well trimmed and combed, not a trace of stubble, uniform crisp. It looked good to John's military-trained eye, but he'd realized a while ago the more rumpled scientists were the ones that got the most work done. After all, Kavanagh had been a pretty clean guy, too.
"Hey," said John with a friendly smile (not his best smile; that would be pushing too hard). "Is McKay around?"
Torrenz looked up from his computer. "Ah, no, he's with a team going through the lower levels. Looking for power drains, I think."
"Oh, is that today? I forgot," said John vaguely. He hadn't forgotten; in fact, he'd offered to go with the scientists, but Rodney had said sarcastically that he didn't think there would be any replicators hiding out that the converted shield had missed. And if there were, bullets wouldn't stop them anyway, so John might as well stay behind. John had decided to use the opportunity to question Torrenz without interruptions.
He hitched a hip on the edge of the workbench. "What are you working on?"
"Just a little project of mine," said Torrenz modestly. "I'm trying to characterize the power supplies for some of these self-contained Ancient devices, you see?" He waved at an array of scanners and other devices -- including some John was pretty sure were broken or depleted -- scattered across what had been Radek's workspace until a few hours ago. "I'm hoping to figure out how to recharge them, or at least use Ancient power sources for some of our own electronics."
"Sounds . . . cool," said John. Actually, it sounded like something Rodney had worked on a couple of years ago. He'd never figured out how to do the recharging (so no more personal shield device, not to mention reclaimed ZPMs), but Ancient battery packs were pretty common for computers going offworld. Apparently no one had shared this news with Torrenz, though; John wondered if Rodney had given the man a useless job to keep him busy, or if he just hadn't believed Rodney that the possibilities had already been checked out.
"So, I guess all you new folks are getting settled in around here?"
Torrenz rubbed his face. "Yes, I suppose you could say that."
"Getting along with McKay?" John leaned in and murmured confidentially, "He can be a little tough to get along with; believe me, I know."
Torrenz laughed nervously. "Yeah, actually I'm not so sure about that. I don't think Dr. McKay likes me very much."
John blinked at this easy admission. "Oh, really?"
"I keep thinking it's something I said, but Dr. Simpson and Dr. Kusanagi have been telling us all not to take his temper to heart. Maybe it's him and not me. I'm just not sure."
John narrowed his eyes a little. Either the guy was a great actor, and not about to cave under a little subtle questioning, or he wasn't really holding anything over Rodney's head. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding. John generally trusted Zelenka's instincts, but he'd just reported that Rodney seemed afraid of Torrenz somehow -- so maybe Rodney was misinterpreting something.
After all, was it really likely that this guy was, what, blackmailing McKay somehow? It seemed incredible; could Rodney really have some dirty secret in his past -- one that he never revealed in a slip of the tongue, when he was tired or frightened or drunk?
He had to give the direct approach another chance before giving up, though. "I hear you worked with McKay years ago, back on Earth. What was he like back then?"
"Oh, well, we crossed paths but we weren't exactly working closely together --" Torrenz began, but just then John had to hold up a hand as he got a call over the radio.
"John," said Elizabeth's voice, "I think you should come to the infirmary. Rodney accidentally activated an Ancient device of some sort, and we don't know what it did."
"Is he all right?" John was already heading for the door, Torrenz forgotten.
"Well, he looks all right. He's complaining about the tests," Elizabeth said.
Faintly, John could hear Rodney saying 'Ow' in the background. Considering how directional the mikes on the radios were, he gathered that Rodney was complaining loudly. He grinned in relief. Couldn't be too bad, then. "Gotcha. I'll be right there."
The next few days were crazy, and with all the concern about Rodney turning into some kind of superhero or maybe dying, John didn't think about Torrenz much. It did occur to him once that Rodney's new mind-reading ability might be just the thing to clear up any misunderstandings. He'd just stopped by the lab to talk Rodney into trying the meditation thing again; with an eye on the clutter around Zelenka's former work area, he asked if Rodney had seen Torrenz lately.
Rodney snorted without looking up from his typing. "No, he's off sulking since I told him his power experiments are fatally flawed, and useless even if they could have worked." The computer next to him beeped, then started typing on its own. It was a little creepy to see the keys depressing by themselves.
John tore his gaze away from the computer and smirked. "Sulking, huh? I guess you know that because you read his mind?"
"Hmm? No, no, I haven't seen him since --" Rodney waved a hand vaguely "-- before."
So there was no magical clearing up of misconceptions. John wondered for a moment if Rodney would pick up on his own suspicions about what was going on, but Rodney never mentioned it. Apparently he really was trying to tune out others' thoughts.
Then Rodney did die (briefly), and lost his superpowers, and that was that. John had plenty to worry about with his own personnel, and a couple of challenging missions, and he nearly forgot about Dr. Torrenz until everything went to hell.
John wasn't asleep yet, just drifting with Rodney snuffling into his shoulder, when the call came over the radio -- Rodney's radio, so he couldn't answer it. Instead, he applied himself to waking Rodney up. That was no small task; Rodney worked hard and slept even harder. By the time he was mumbling back at John and trying to fit the radio over his ear, Carson's voice was getting pretty anxious. John figured there'd be a call for him pretty soon, or maybe a Marine pounding on the door. But now Rodney was sitting up and responding blearily to Carson, so the Marine wouldn't be needed.
"So what's up?" John asked when Rodney turned off the radio and sat blinking at the room vaguely.
"Morons," Rodney managed around a yawn. "Trying to kill themselves. My morons, unfortunately." He levered himself up and pulled a pair of boxers free from the heap of clothes on the floor. "Wher'za bathrobe?"
"Over by the desk." It had slipped down from where it was draped over the desk chair. John headed for Rodney's drawers and pulled out one of the T-shirts Rodney sometimes slept in (when he wasn't sleeping naked after a round of mind-blowing sex). "Here, put this on."
Rodney stood there, boxers twisted on his hips, bathrobe in hand, and stared at the T-shirt as if he'd never seen one before.
"It'll cover the, uh . . ." John waved at his own collarbone, mirroring the position of an incriminating red blotch on Rodney's shoulder. "Sorry, I didn't mean to. Guess I got a little carried away."
A flush spread up Rodney's chest and neck until his face was almost the same color as the hickey. Since John was still bruised and sore from crash-landing an alien shuttlecraft, and Rodney was still upset about nearly losing him, they had ended up tonight with John lying flat doing none of the work while Rodney tried to drive him crazy -- and nearly succeeded. John had been grateful more than once for the excellent soundproofing of Atlantis, but they'd really put those Ancient designs to the test tonight.
John simplified things for Rodney by taking the bathrobe and handing him the T-shirt. While he pulled it on, John straightened the waistband of his boxers and then held the bathrobe for him to shrug into.
Rodney looked at the rumpled bed and then at John. "You going to be here?"
"Nah, I'll probably go back to my quarters. That way you won't have to worry about waking me when you come back." John patted Rodney's butt to push him toward the door. "Go on, go deal with your morons."
As it turned out, he barely had time to get back to his room and hadn't even taken his clothes off (again) when Carson came over the radio calling both him and Elizabeth to the infirmary. It looked like it would be a long night.