John Sheppard leaned back comfortably in his fold-out lawn chair, content to feel the prairie sun warming his eyelids, turning his vision to a blank of muted red. He felt liquid and lazy, and happily anticipated not moving from his seat for several hours. Even the muffled sounds of city traffic seemed pleasantly distant, far removed from his little corner of pedestrian paradise. He stretched his legs out in front of him on the sidewalk, dropping his heels over the edge of the curb. A tiny breeze wafted through his hair, and he relaxed further into his gently accommodating chair.
"Sheppard, you slothful ingrate! Get your malnourished ass over here and help me unload!"
One discordant note in the serenity of the morning, but John was so accustomed to that particular sound that it didn't disturb his peace in the least. He shifted up slightly, just enough to hook his neck over the back of the chair and get an upside down view of Rodney hanging half out of the Expedition's front passenger window. Hip resting on the door, one hand braced on the side mirror and the other on the roof, it looked like Rodney was trying to molt his way out of the SUV. Possibly he was just trying to see if he could reach John's neck without actually leaving the vehicle.
"You stuck?" he asked, just because playing with Rodney McKay, hypertensive time-bomb of explosive disgust, was possibly the funnest thing since slinkies. The long metal ones, not those crappy plastic rainbow things they'd become after fame corrupted them.
"Yes, because oddly enough, while you've been out there sunbathing like a pregnant sea lion I suddenly and without warning gained seven hundred pounds. Hope you packed a crowbar."
"Arf," he said agreeably, because he was a good sport, and stood up with a satisfying stretch.
They'd parked in front of a shabby Chinese restaurant. Like most of the public buildings in the city, the owners had decorated the front of the building with bright window-paintings of cowboys on bucking broncs, angrily snorting bulls, and Old West lettering admonishing them to have a Happy Stampede! The bales of hay lining the walk to the front door added a touch of authenticity.
The important thing, though, was that they'd accomplished what they'd set out at seven-thirty a.m. to do - get the best front-line, roadside position for the parade that in about an hour and a half would kick off the official start of the 95th Calgary Stampede, known rather optimistically by the locals as 'the greatest outdoor show on Earth.' John was reserving judgement.
He ambled over to the car, where Rodney had wedged himself between the front seats and was rooting through the bags and coolers packed into the back. John had a nice view of his ass, clad in jeans that usually did a much better job of hiding their owner's body. He leaned against the passenger door, silently.
Water bottles, a few bags of chips, an iPod, sunblock, a PDA, an assortment of chocolate bars and a cell phone were tossed into the front with varying degrees of care. John's hat came next with remarkably little care, hitting the windshield and sliding down the dashboard and over the airbag compartment to land top down in the footwell. John grimaced.
Keeping an eye on the continuing rain of necessities, he opened the door quietly and retrieved his abused hat, checking for scuff marks. He found one small smudge that he chose to identify as chocolate and rubbed it off with his thumb. He placed his hat carefully on his head, and opened the door fully. Then, with relish, he slammed it shut.
The savage dressing-down he got when Rodney got his breath back was absolutely worth it. He considered refuting the "pre-pubescent" comment with visual evidence, but decided that even Rodney probably wouldn't be oblivious enough not to realize something was up if he did that. Plus, Rodney's ever-impressive vocal range was attracting spectators again. He frowned at the wholesome-looking family who'd stopped to gape at them until they hurried on down the street.
"C'mon, Rodney," he said soothingly, breaking into the tirade, "give me some of that crap and get your chair out of the back." He pushed his hands through the open window and waggled his fingers. Rodney peered at them suspiciously.
"You don't have to try so hard to give me a heart attack, you know," his friend grumbled, stacking chocolate into his cupped hands. "A couple more years in your company and I'll slit my wrists."
"Might help your blood pressure problem," he said mildly.
"Shut up. I'm writing you out of my will. Ronon gets your share. He'll need it to feed any cubs he may sire."
"But I need that money," he said reasonably. "I'm gonna buy a football team." Never mind that at the moment they could barely scrape together enough money for gas - he had ambitions.
Rodney snorted. "I think you're overestimating your place in my affections."
"I doubt it." John smiled openly. Rodney averted his gaze and gave a little huff through his nose that managed to sound both mocking and embarrassed. He dropped the last water bottle onto the pile in John's arms, and disappeared into the back again.
John knew that Rodney got horribly embarrassed at the mere mention that he even liked any of his outriders. But Rodney had started it himself, however inadvertently, when he'd gathered them together after a heat in Texas and told them the contents of his will as if he were instructing them on proper refrigerator maintenance. All this element goes here and that coil goes there and get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy, whoever that was.
There was an uncomfortable omg! death talk! moment, which Ford mercifully broke when he hugged Rodney with avaricious glee, and Ronon snorted. Teyla kissed him on the cheek and thanked him for the honour of including her in his last rites, and, figuring it was as good an excuse as he was likely to get, so did John. Rodney'd sputtered and waved his hands around in a fit of horrified goodwill and it had taken nearly twenty minutes for the blush to fade.
The fact that both Teyla and Ronon saw through John's teasing bothered him not at all. They wouldn't say anything, and Ford was nearly as dense as Rodney.
Since then, Rodney's will had become an odd sort of shorthand for acknowledging the friendship between them. And if it allowed Rodney to muse on the subject of his own death with disturbing fascination, that was just a personal bonus for him.
John made his way back to their little sidewalk claim and carefully unloaded his stash. He plucked the fruit chews out of the pile and tucked them close on the other side of his chair out of habit. He doubted the candies had actual orange in them, but better safe than sorry.
He lowered himself into his lawn chair again and surveyed the stretch of highway visible from their spot. Apparently, they'd just beat the rush, as carloads of people lugging collapsible furniture were marking territory all along both sides of the road. He was just about to call out to Rodney to hurry up, when he heard the familiar sound of a motorcycle engine.
Sure enough, just as the deep-throated rumble reached a point where it was rattling unpleasantly in John's chest, Ronon came around from the back of the Chinese restaurant on his big black Honda. He looked around the full parking lot for a moment, then, undaunted, eased his bike into the space between the wall of the restaurant and an obliging bale of hay. John lifted a hand to wave him over.
"Ronon!" Rodney called from the open back hatch of the Expedition, "How nice of you to grace us with your subtle masculinity. Take a seat."
"Morning." He dropped his helmet and gloves in the SUV, accepted the tattered nylon lawn chair Rodney shoved at his chest, and joined John by the curb.
"You got the budget chair," John said, eyeing the thin stretch of green fabric as it strained under Ronon's weight.
"Doesn't matter to me," Ronon said with a shrug, and settled in comfortably. He grabbed the fruit chews from beside John and tore into them, tossing handfuls into his mouth, unmindful of colour.
"Look, mine has cup holders."
Ronon looked over to where John was patting his armrests. "They're empty."
"Yes, but if I had a drink, I could put it right here. They're potential cup holders." Ronon lifted his eyebrows in mock enlightenment.
"Potential cup holders," came the response from behind them. "Holders of potential cups."
"Whatever. My point was that I got the cool chair, not to instigate a discussion of metaphysical soft drinks."
From there the conversation skipped from Schrödinger's potential cola to What the Bleep Do We Know? to the time Ford had told another chuck driver that Rodney had a doctorate in metaphysics and Rodney made Ford point out everyone he'd talked to at the post-rodeo mixer so he could stress that he was a doctor of astrophysics and not pseudo-spiritual wish-fulfillment.
By that time Ford and Teyla had arrived, having walked from the motel, and were sitting on Rodney's other side in less cool chairs of their own. At the end of their little row, Ford was talking animatedly to a little girl while her mother sat on a checkered blanket a few feet away, watching nervously. Every few seconds her eyes would flit discreetly to Ford's left eye, where a stray tent pole had caused a permanent discolouration.
"And when the race starts, me and Ronon toss all the equipment into the wagon while John and Teyla hold the horses - this is Teyla - and then the wagon starts down the track while the rest of us run for a bit, then we jump on the horses and chase after it to the finish line." He grinned at the girl while she looked over at the rest of them doubtfully. John waved at her, then gave a friendly smile to her mother. She looked marginally reassured, and gave him a small smile in return.
The girl examined them with the intensive scrutiny of the very young, then made a beeline for Rodney, stopping in front of his knee.
"Hi," she said expectantly.
"Oh my God, what?" Rodney groaned.
"Are you a cowboy?"
"Do you ride horses?"
"Yes. No. I drive horses. From the- the wagon. I have a bad back. What do you want from me?" His only response was a thoughtful regard. "Go bother him," he said roughly, pointing at John. "If you stand close enough to him you can hear the ocean."
She looked over at John speculatively. John tried to look as uninteresting as possible, and not at all like an empty conch shell. Fortunately, her gaze passed over him and landed on Ronon, who blinked back at her calmly. Apparently sensing a kindred spirit, she walked over and settled herself cross-legged by his feet.
"Do you have a horse, too?"
"I want a horse, but I can't have one because we live in an apartment."
"That's too bad."
The conversation continued for longer than John would have thought possible, while Teyla smiled at them fondly and Rodney muttered about intellectual equality. Finally, the girl's mother lured her away with promises of crackers and Cheez Whiz. As she passed Rodney on her way back, she paused.
"Bye!" she said with a wave.
Rodney rolled his eyes and shoved a peanut butter cup into her hand.
After she'd tottered off, Ford turned to Rodney with a smirk. Before he could open his mouth, Rodney said, "Shut up. The best way to get rid of children is to just give them what they want."
"Do not be embarrassed, Rodney," Teyla said reassuringly. "Among my people it is said that when children show an affinity for a person it indicates a gentle soul."
"I think it's more a case of like attracting like," John said thoughtfully.
"No, opposites attract," Ford piped up. "Like magnets. Like repels like."
"McKay is repellent." Ronon could always be counted on to take a discussion to its logical conclusion. John surreptitiously handed him one of the good chocolate bars.
"Who taught you to speak, you half-sentient kermode?!"
"And a point for the win!" John called out triumphantly, holding his arms over his head like goal posts.
Ronon gave a little tilt of his head in acknowledgement, Ford laughed, and Rodney growled, "Teyla gets everything."
"Are you certain you are not uncomfortable, Rodney?" Teyla asked with a small smile as he stopped to shake out his left pant leg again. The jeans were just loose enough to feel heavy and cold where the soaked denim bunched up around his ankles, and now the ever-present prairie dirt was caked onto the material halfway up his calf. He'd probably have to throw away these socks.
He took an experimental step, and the squish-squelch of his favourite running shoes said they'd be headed for the dumpster as well. Figured.
"Of course I'm uncomfortable. I'm probably getting athlete's foot as we speak. People don't go to parades for audience participation! What if I'd been working on my laptop?" Luckily, his PDA and iPod were on the ground closer to Sheppard, who - of course! - hadn't gotten a drop on him. The man was surrounded by some sort of charmed energy field, and any misfortune headed toward him bounced away harmlessly, only to land on the nearest available human target.
"I found it quite refreshing," she said, with a teasing glint in her eye. She shook a hand through her damp hair, darkened nearly black by the water. Rodney gracefully endured the flying droplets she sent his way with little more than a sigh. He supposed he should be grateful that he and Teyla had been the only ones hit by the spray from the firehose - Ronon probably would have shaken himself dry all over the backseat of the Expedition.
"You know what I would find refreshing?" he said, squelching determinedly across the parking lot to catch up with the others, "If a Hooters girl on roller skates handed me a fifty dollar gift certificate, and someone turned the hose on Sheppard!"
At this, Sheppard jerked, and twisted around to give Rodney a half-amused, half-confused twitch of his lips, as if he wasn't quite sure he heard what he'd thought he heard. Rodney gave him a wide smile and nodded emphatically.
Sheppard scowled at him with his eyebrows and turned back around, scratching the back of his head with his middle finger. Rodney huffed a laugh through his nose and only considered sticking his tongue out for a second.
They found a picnic table without too much difficulty, and sat down for a traditional pancake breakfast in the middle of the crowded casino parking lot. This, Rodney thought blissfully as he cut into his first fluffy, buttered pancake, was the greatest part of Stampede. Winning races and watching his enemies cry in defeat amidst clouds of dust and shame was fun, but ten days of free breakfast - that was rapture.
"Oh, my God," he whimpered at the first forkful. "Perfect. Perfect and free."
Whipped butter, maple syrup, sausages, all the coffee he could drink. Not even the smell of the orange juice Ford was waving under his nose could spoil this moment. He cracked an eye open and knocked the plastic cup with his elbow, ignoring the other man's whining as the spilled juice soaked into his own pancakes.
John grinned to himself as he chewed on his last piece of pancake. He'd given up on keeping pace with Rodney and Ronon after three plates; he thought they were on their fifth now, and by the steadily decreasing speed at which he worked through it, he suspected the fifth would be Rodney's last. He wasn't making porny faces at his breakfast anymore (too bad, that had been really fun), and was now frowning at Ronon as the bigger man eyed the food line for a sixth time.
To Rodney's obvious and visible disgust, he went, and Rodney scowled at his own plate in indecision.
"I wouldn't," John drawled. Teyla looked up inquisitively from her plate of fruit.
"When I want your opinion, I'll gouge my eyes out with this plastic butter knife," he replied distractedly, sawing at the edge of his plate.
"You need your eyes for seeing."
"What?" Rodney's attention snapped to him, alert to any suspected whiff of mockery. "What does that mean?"
John blinked his eyes slowly. "You don't know what seeing means?" A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing!
Ford snickered, and Rodney bared his teeth, sixth breakfast forgotten. "You're a plant aren't you? You're a spy hired by Lee or Mitchell or some other inferior chuck driver to infiltrate my outfit and wreak havok and destruction from within!"
John smiled. When Rodney had come to him and asked him to fill the fourth spot on his outrider team, John's career in the rodeo had been all but over, and everyone on the circuit knew it. No professional outfit on the continent would touch him with a ten-foot tent pole. Fortunately for him, Rodney held little respect for what anyone else knew.
From that day, there was little doubt - to anyone - as to where John Sheppard's loyalties lay.
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say," he said, deadpan.
Ronon returned to the table, plate piled high with pancakes and sausages, a fresh cup of orange juice in his other hand. "We should have a hinge installed on your scalp," Rodney said, spearing one of Ronon's sausages. The other man gave no indication he even noticed. "We could use the empty space for storage. Oats." He shoved the sausage into his mouth whole and chewed it thoughtfully.
John had a sudden vision of Blackhawk munching contentedly from his open skull and grimaced. "You're no longer my favourite driver."
"I am too!" Rodney said, affronted.
"No. You're now a distant second to Caldwell. You know, I heard one of his men is leaving the game after this season."
"Would you like a reference?" Rodney said earnestly, leaning across the table, eyes wide. "I'm sure my recommendation wouldn't scare him off. Though I'd be honour-bound to tell him about your habitual tardiness, of course, and your lamentable sense of direction. If you suddenly decide to gallop off the wrong way on the track, it could cost him a win, you know. And despite his soggy cardboard personality, I do vaguely respect the man as a competitor. I wouldn't want him coming after me for pushing a defective product." Rodney tapped his own temple mournfully in illustration.
The thought passed through John's head that if he were the dog Rodney occasionally accused him of being, he'd very much like to bite that snub little nose right about now. It was possible that wasn't the best response in a family environment, however, so he opted to flick him in the middle of his forehead. Rodney swatted at the offending hand and sat back in his chair with a smug grin. "I am so your favourite."
"Actually, you're like, fourth."
The smug seemed to be growing the longer Rodney smirked at him.
"Eighth, ninth. You're losing altitude very quickly."
Finally, the beam of smug was redirected as Rodney speared another of Ronon's sausages. This time, though, a fork flashed out from beside the plate and recaptured the sausage mid-theft.
"Get your own," came the growl from behind the curtain of dreadlocks.
Rodney waved a hand dismissively. "I'm not hungry."
They finished up with breakfast, Ford teasing Teyla for using a knife and fork to eat her melon slices, and Rodney suggesting they stay to let their meal settle, then have a free lunch, since it was nearly one o'clock anyway. Ronon vetoed the idea ("The plastic forks taste funny,") and they halfheartedly batted around a few sight-seeing ideas before it was decided to go back to the motel.
Ford and Teyla went back with them in the Expedition, and Ronon walked back to the restaurant to get his bike. Twenty minutes, and they were back in the dingy ground-floor suite.
John kicked off his boots and jeans and flopped face down on the ugly, cigarette-burned comforter with a grateful "Hmmph!" The smell of stale smoke and old bedcovers hit him in the face and with a grunt, he yanked the blanket down far enough to uncover the pillows. He'd found that the pillows in cheap motels like this were usually much more forgiving to the nose than the blankets. A plain white pillowcase didn't hide as many sins as a patterned blanket could, and had to be replaced and cleaned more frequently.
"You can't be going to sleep already," Rodney said. John opened an eye to see him walking out of the room's little bathroom wearing a clean pair of jeans. These were his looser ones, unfortunately, that Rodney'd had forever (or at least since long before John had met him), with the tattered white hems and the ripped back pocket. He tossed his muddy jeans on top of his open suitcase and looked at John disapprovingly.
"We've been awake for almost forty hours, Rodney. Fifteen of which I spent driving. I'm tired." To illustrate his point, he pushed the covers down to his waist, then kicked them down as far as he could, and fought to untuck the sheet. Damn hospital corners. He gathered as much of the material as he could, and rolled around on the mattress until there was enough slack for him to slide under it. "Turn out the lights." He shut his eyes and happily dug his chin into the cool pillow.
"You've been doing this for eight months now. You should be used to long days. And we shared the driving." But John heard him padding to the door anyway, and a moment later the brightness on his eyelids dimmed.
"Driving for twenty-five minutes then getting pulled over doesn't constitute 'sharing the driving.'" Though watching Rodney alternately insulting and attempting to flirt with the pretty - and thoroughly unimpressed - blonde state trooper had been almost worth the ticket he'd end up paying half of because that was - according to Rodney - the Rule of the Road.
"You do a hundred and fifty across Montana and I get pulled over ten minutes from the border because they can't be bothered to fill in their potholes," Rodney muttered irritably. "Stupid energy field." He jerked the curtains closed with more force than was necessary. The heavy curtains blocked out almost all of the afternoon light, creating an artificial night inside the room. John sighed with pleasure and stretched his legs out comfortably.
He heard Rodney putter around the room for a bit, then there was a sliver of light as he opened and closed the bathroom door. The shower started, and John starfished on the mattress, enjoying the feel of the cool sheets against the underside of his arms. The sound of the water drowned out the noises from outside, broken now and then as Rodney dropped the shampoo bottle or kicked the side of the tub or whatever noisy misfortunes he managed to inflict on himself. As with the indignant tirades, though, the sounds were familiar to John by now, reassuring in the dreary monotony of another bland motel room.
He'd assumed, when he'd joined the team eight months ago, that he'd share with one of the other outriders. Four of them; two to a room. It was how it had worked in all his previous outfits. At first he'd thought it was for Teyla's benefit, that being the only woman on the team, she'd been given a room of her own, but later he'd found out that their previous fourth member, a man named Geoff, had shared with Teyla until he'd retired from the circuit and moved to Seattle to work as a chef. Rodney still harboured much resentment for his desertion, or possibly just for choosing a career that invited such ridicule. ("Geoff the chef! Oh my God. How could he do that to me?")
Then he'd thought that maybe, being averse to small talk himself, Rodney had wanted to spare John any getting-to-know-you late night hotel room chats that the others might want to engage in, and in which Rodney would have no interest at all. After getting to know Ronon, however, he couldn't imagine that to be the case.
After the second week on the road, and the third time Ford asked him, "So, have you killed McKay yet?" he figured the others had just pulled rank on the new guy.
He didn't mind. He appreciated McKay's utter lack of interest in his past (and occasionally in his very presence), and knew better than to take his very vocal derision seriously. He'd grown up with a father who actually did think he was a worthless waste of space, and the difference between his father's silent disapproval and McKay's sarcastic humour was like night and day. And hey, McKay was kind of cute, in an oddball sort of way, and just like that, John found himself quietly enduring his own exciting bisexual freak-out at thirty-five. Good times.
He'd figured it was McKay's fault, since he'd told John he was gay within five minutes of his sales pitch, "just in case gays in the rodeo is going to be a problem for you," so he didn't feel guilty at all for secretly watching him smack the tv or break the radiator or raid the minibar in his underwear. He'd put on a robe (if one was provided) when he went into the lobby to peruse the selection at the candy machine, but to Rodney, motel time meant being as comfortable as possible. John had spent so much time in Rodney's company with the other man wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a thin white t-shirt that any discomfort he'd felt at his own response had long since given up and died an exhausted death from constant exposure.
Being with Rodney was like that; you had to adapt or die. The man travelled around with his horses and his entourage, putting the fear of Darwin into people across the continent.
John had adapted very well.
The shower stopped, and he slitted his eyes open to watch Rodney emerge from the bathroom. The dark blue plaid tonight. He was standing in the light from the bathroom, wet hair plastered to his head, except where it stuck up in tufts from the towel. The steam-dampened t-shirt clung to his stocky body, cheerfully accentuating the softness at his waist and the little swell of his stomach. He was squinting into the dark room, face a picture of sharp annoyance, looking like no one's idea of male perfection. John smiled under his sheet and loved him.
"There's no shampoo in the washroom," Rodney announced heatedly, slapping off the light. "They have hand sanitizer and shower caps and no shampoo. They just put things in there that they know no one will use so they can save money. I had to use body wash." He dropped his towel in a wet heap on the carpet and began turning down his own bed.
"We'll pick some up tomorrow," John replied from his cocoon.
The other man hummed his agreement and wriggled himself into a comfortable position in the bed. John counted back from ten in his head, and sure enough, before he got to one, he could hear the soft snuffly breaths, quiet and even in the dark. Say what you wanted about sharing a room with Rodney, but when he decided to go to sleep, he went. Gone.
A few minutes later, John followed.