Unravel the Knot


Four days earlier


They had gated to Azimia in hopes of trading technology for food. It appeared prosperous enough and the ruler of the land, Innak, was eager (even greedy) to trade. However, his personality was, as Sheppard pointed out sotto voce, the pits.


Within the first fifteen minutes of meeting them, he’d propositioned both Teyla and Ford, pointing out with a lewd wink that he preferred “dark meat” and wasn’t particular about which gender it came in. Ford had wanted to shoot him, and though Sheppard had been inclined to agree, Teyla had settled them down (and indicated they’d get Innak later, when he wasn’t suspecting) in her usual placid way and begun trade negotiations.


It wasn’t easy. Innak was even more condescending than McKay, and the team hadn’t been able to smoothly cover their shock at his casual mistreatment of his many slaves. It was almost enough to make them turn their sights to other planets for the supplies they needed.


But they did need those supplies quite desperately; while their staples were still at adequate levels, the fresh foods they needed to stay healthy were at critical levels, and Azimia was a lush tropical planet where fruit hung heavy on every bough. If only they could cement the trade agreement between their two peoples, it would be a matter of hours before Atlantis was eating well and the preliminary medical problems that had sprung up from lack of proper nutrition could be fought back.


Innak could tell they disapproved of his ownership of fellow human beings. He was a crafty man, however, and knew that he had something they needed. As long as their food situation was pressing, he could afford to be a little difficult.


And they had something he needed, as well: McKay. It appeared that the city’s sewers were in danger of overflowing if an improved aqueduct system was not formulated soon, and thanks to McKay’s usual posturing, Innak was now convinced that the Canadian was an angel sent from above to help him in his hour of need.


Thus, Innak’s ultimatum: fix the sewers, get the trade agreement, and eat like lords.


That, of course, had been enough to make McKay agree to Innak’s ultimatum. He had scampered off to whichever wing of the palace housed the doomed sewer research, leaving the other three to explore Azimia and enjoy the city’s hospitality.


Sheppard and Ford were, to be frank, utterly bored with the place after the second day, and even Teyla’s patience was showing signs of wearing thin by the end of the third. Only McKay’s spirits showed no signs of flagging. No one could figure out why, and it was driving them all crazy.


Usually, he was the first to want to abandon a world once the depths of its technological mysteries had been plumbed. Azimia was at the equivalent of Earth in North America and Europe in the middle of the 19th century—post-Industrial, but pre-combustion, certainly.


By McKay’s standards, then, it was positively archaic. And in any other circumstance they’d thus experienced, he’d have been griping about it at the top of his lungs.


So what, Sheppard mused silently, was different about this place? Was it because McKay’s intellectual curiosity refused to let a simple problem get the better of him? If it were anyone else, he’d have thought maybe McKay was just trying to be positive and make the most out of the situation.


But it was McKay, and so that possibility was ruled out. McKay never tried to make the best of a situation. McKay pissed and moaned until everyone else was as miserable as he was.


Intrigued by this minor conundrum, and really really bored, Sheppard decided to investigate. Leaving Teyla and Ford to continue mingling with the natives, he wandered off through the palace until he heard the familiar sound of McKay’s voice.


“No, not there, here!” the Canadian was exclaiming, and Sheppard could just imagine the downward slant of brows as McKay scowled at whichever poor bastard had not psychically read his mind and anticipated his needs before he’d known he had them.


Then the strident tone changed, and became—Sheppard found himself gaping in shock at the sound of it—gentle. “How did that work, Fred?” McKay asked as Sheppard tiptoed closer to the door. “Better than last time?”


Why the hell would he become nice to a fellow scientist? Hell, he was still rude and hostile to Zelenka back in Atlantis, and he’d known and worked with the guy for months now. It was unthinkable he’d be solicitous and pleasant to a new person. Especially one named Fred.


The little line of confusion that had settled between Sheppard’s eyes thus smoothed away with almost startling speed, then, when he entered the laboratory and found McKay standing at a hip-high table and flanked on either side by two Azimians. One was a man at whom McKay kept shooting filthy looks whenever he did anything that could be described as “interacting” with the wire-sprouting gizmo before them.


The other was a skinny, scared-looking young woman, who reached out and slipped a small metal part into a slot on the side and then wound a wire into place around a node as McKay watched with soft eyes and patient expression that quickly changed to one of extreme ire and promised retribution when the male scientist opened his mouth to say something.


The sight made Sheppard smirk and relax his grip on his weapon, cradling it informally in his arms as he leant against the door jamb.


McKay had a crush.


Oh, this was beautiful.


He would get years of teasing out of this, he just knew it.


“Yes, Major, what is it?” McKay asked him briskly, and Sheppard forced his smile to fade. McKay always stayed right at the line between briskness and rudeness with Sheppard. He was more than equipped to beat someone intellectually, and he relied on most people to value at least the pretense of being too civilized to confront him physically.


But there was always that little niggling doubt, which Sheppard carefully cultivated, that one day Sheppard might actually just haul off and punch him in the nose if pissed off too mightily.


“Oh, nothing,” Sheppard replied lazily, sauntering into the room and glancing around. “Just thought I’d come see what you were doing.”


McKay was ignoring him, concentrating on the gizmo again, before he’d finished the sentence. Sheppard decided to test his theory and mentally ratcheted up his charisma.


“Hi, there,” he said to the woman, a charming smile on his lips. “Did I hear right, is your name really Fred?”


She glanced up at him with big brown eyes, and suddenly Sheppard didn’t think McKay was so stupid for being interested in her.


“I’m pretty sure it is,” she said without a hint of sarcasm. “But I’m not really sure about anything, anymore.”


Fred returned to working on the gizmo, and Sheppard looked at McKay with his eyebrows raised in inquiry.


McKay ignored him, instead once again deciding on insults as the best way to progress. “Your presence is distracting and, I might add, not a little annoying. Doesn’t Teyla have anything for you to do?”


Sheppard, a little offended at the suggestion that it was Teyla and not him in charge, briefly reconsidered punching McKay in the nose. “She let me have time off for good behaviour,” he drawled, a note of irritation rising to his voice.


McKay glowered, jerked his head toward the male scientist, and nodded toward the door, all at the same time. “You can take Kalen, here, with you. He’s not helping at all.”


And with that, McKay bent back over the gadget, speaking with Fred, and Sheppard knew he’d been dismissed. He forced his fingers to relax on the trigger of his P90 and preceded the scientist from the room.


“Is he always like that?” the unfortunate Kalen asked, darting a scared look back at the laboratory as they progressed down the corridor.


“Yeah,” Sheppard replied, “and sometimes worse.” He was glad the other man was with him; the hallways were so twisty it was a miracle he’d found the lab to begin with.


“How do you keep from killing him?” Kalen demanded bluntly as they emerged from a stairwell to a sunny, flower-decked cloister.


“It gets harder every day.” Sheppard said, and sighed.