Summary: Utility is in the eye of the beholder
McKay hurried through his post-mission unpacking, anxious for a snack and a cup of coffee. On autopilot, he emptied his vest pockets, stowing his equipment with barely a look (and making a mental note to replenish his chocolate supply). He stopped abruptly when he realized that the weight in his hand was unfamiliar. Turning the item over, he looked at it more closely.
Ford's compass. In all the excitement, he'd forgotten to return it.
He ran his thumb over a faint scratch in the casing. Back on the planet, he'd been in the middle of dismissing it as useless, when he'd realized its wild gyrations indicated an electromagnetic disturbance.
That hadn't been his only misjudgment on the mission, either. He'd written off the children's suicide ritual as stupid and useless, too, before Dr. Weir had pointed out that its inception coincided with the installation of the shield. She'd suggested that the suicides had a purpose McKay hadn't considered, and she'd been right.
Not to mention that if she'd let them keep the ZPM, they would have left the planet without a means of defense. The Wraith probe would have sent back images of a whole world just waiting to be harvested. Tow-headed children with bows and arrows were no match for Wraith dart ships and teleportation beams. And it would have been all his fault.
So much for thinking that maybe he was getting closer to understanding the "art" that went into science.
All in all, it had been a truly stellar performance--maybe for an encore, they could find some alien puppies for him to kick--
He glanced up to find Major Sheppard standing in the doorway, hands stuffed into his pockets. "Major." He set the compass down quickly and pushed it away, wanting to dissociate himself from it before Sheppard could draw any conclusions about worthless things keeping one another company. It was supposed to be a casual, negligent motion, but his hand shook a little, and the compass ended up spinning slowly on the smooth tabletop.
He turned away from Sheppard, unwilling to face whatever sardonic gleam was surely coming into the major's eyes. To cover his discomfort, he scooped up his scanner and started tapping brusquely at the controls. "Was there something you needed? I'm afraid I don't really have time for a chat. I have a lot of work to do--I'd like to analyze the readings on the shield device further, see whether it could be adapted for use on planets with a different electromagnetic field--that's assuming, of course, that we can find a ZPM to power it, in addition to the ones we need for the city's defenses--"
"I just came by to thank you for what you did on the planet." Sheppard sounded quietly amused.
McKay spun around in confusion. "Thank me?"
"For increasing the field range on the shield. Those kids were long overdue for life to cut them a break, and you helped with that."
"Oh, that." McKay waved a hand dismissively. "Well, the control interface was fairly intuitive, once I had a few peaceful minutes to work on it." Once the probe was no longer practically hovering over his shoulder, sending his brain into vapor lock.
No sense of the art, *and* graceless under pressure. That compass was actually *more* useful than he was--it at least fulfilled its function: pointing towards wherever magnetic north might be.
Sheppard shifted, leaning a shoulder against the doorjamb. "At the risk of making you insufferable--well, more so than usual--it *was* a big deal. You did good, McKay." He lifted his head and gave McKay a lazy smile. "We're all just screwing around with the big kids' toys, here. It's pretty amazing that we can get anything to work at all, if you think about it." He raised his eyebrows winningly.
"Uh, thanks." McKay winced a little, but in a rare moment of inarticulacy, he couldn't come up with anything better. Sheppard had a way of focusing on a conversation that was compelling and yet disconcerting at the same time. Maybe there was something to be said for the laconic approach.
Sheppard didn't comment on his lapse in verbal acumen, instead stepping into the room. "Well, I don't want to keep you from your work--though you know what they say about making Rodney a dull boy." He reached for the compass on the table, spinning it towards himself and trapping it smartly before it slid off the edge. "You want me to give this back to Ford, since I'm headed that way anyway?"
"Sure. Thanks." McKay ducked his head, remembering his pretense of work.
Sheppard nodded amiably as he left, and McKay couldn't help watching him go. In the hallway, Sheppard paused to flip open the compass. He turned in a slow circle, watching the needle. When he came to a stop- -facing McKay--Sheppard grinned, eyes wide.
"Huh. What do you know?"
He stared at McKay for a long moment, teasing grin in place, but something warmer and darker was going on in his eyes. Something McKay couldn't possibly be reading correctly.
He felt himself flushing under that stare, and he dropped his eyes to the scanner. The readout was blurring a little, and he rested the edge of the scanner against the table to steady it. Over the gentle background noise of Atlantis's ventilation system, he heard Sheppard snap the compass shut and head off down the corridor.
Once Sheppard was safely gone, McKay let his gaze drift over to where the major had been standing. On this planet, magnetic north was actually about thirty degrees to the left of where Sheppard had pointed the compass.
McKay wondered what that meant.
He took a deep breath, then blinked himself back to the task at hand- -stowing his equipment, then grabbing a snack from the mess hall before hypoglycemia set in.
He already felt a little light-headed.