John's grandpa dies July 27th, six days after he turns eighty-two. He's buried long before the news reaches Antarctica, and John's left with a note from the minister who conducted services, a newspaper clipping about the funeral, and the key to a farmhouse he hasn't seen since he was twelve. The key's dull and scratched, and for reasons John doesn't entirely understand, he hopes this is the one his grandpa used to tuck under the doormat when he headed into town.
He shoves it under his pillow, and heads out to the chopper. There's nothing to be done about it now, and his grandpa always said work could cure pretty much anything.
He takes the supply run, does his best not to think about Iowa overmuch, but there are only two months left of his tour, and suddenly there's someplace he can go when he's through. A lifetime in the military's made him good at pushing away unwanted thoughts, but this time none of the usual tricks seem to work. He lies awake at night, kept from sleep by memories of summers flecked with gold and the sting of bug bites in the late afternoon. He can't decide if everything he remembers is soaked with sunlight because he's tired of freezing, or because his memories are sepia-toned.
By the time he packs his duffel and checks his locker for the last time, he's still not entirely accepted what he's about to do. But four days later he's in a cab, $46 on the meter and rising, speeding down a county road, looking for the farmhouse around every September bend.
The farm's seen better days. There are only eighty acres left now – rented out, they'll bring in enough to keep the farmhouse in repair, but there's no real livelihood to be coaxed from such a small plot of soil. He could rent the pasture out, but he already knows he'll keep that for himself – hoard the sun-warm tangle of ditch lilies in June, the riot of grasses that'll grow thigh-high by next August, sweet-smelling and dusty to brush against his jeans. The barn's still standing, sweetly aged, the weathered red of a knowing blush, and as he pushes a handful of twenties at the cab driver, he wonders if the old tractor's still working – if he'll even need it on this uneven patch of land.
The key slips into the lock with an easy familiarity, and the door swings open into dark, musty heat. John crosses the room without thinking to raise a blind, open the window and let in a breeze. For a moment it's overwhelming - the press of memory, the lure that's pulled him back - so he moves to raise every blind, open every window, let a little life back into a house that seems to be holding its breath.
Things have changed since the last time he was here – the couch is bigger, the fridge brand new, the kitchen walls white instead of yellow – but so much is the same it's hard to grasp that he's full grown and owns the place. The knitted blanket on the back of the sofa's the same one he claimed for himself when he was seven. The wall clock still ticks with measured solemnity; the tread on the fourth step from the top of the stairs creaks a familiar warning. Beneath the twin bed in the smallest bedroom, he can run his fingers over the spot where he carved his initials – J.S. 8-4-73 – waiting out a storm that he'd have died rather than admit made him crawl beneath the bedframe out of fear.
He sleeps on the couch for the first few days, empties the wardrobe of his grandpa's clothes, donates what's useful and hauls away the rest. He rummages in the basement and finds enough paint to make the bedroom look more like something he can claim as his own, takes down all the pictures, and makes up the bed.
Despite the stash of money in John's savings account – there's nothing to buy in Antarctica after all – he's leery of spending too much at once, sinks some into fitting the bathroom with its first shower, and rebuilds the sagging porch that runs two sides of the house. Most everything else can wait – the roof's in good shape and the siding's weathered but solid. There's no a/c, but it's mid-October, and the nights are cool even if the days are still warm. In November he discovers that the heat doesn't really make it through the vents to the bedroom, but he's always been the sort to burrow beneath a dozen blankets, so he doesn't count it a hardship.
He meets his neighbors, accepts an invitation to dinner, helps one repair six (nearly seven) miles of fences before winter shows up. In return he finds the lane from the road ploughed after every first snowfall. That's the kind of deal a man can savor, standing by the window, coffee in hand, listening to the radio announcer tell him the windchill's thirty below.
Come spring he feels restless, decides he's going to grow something if it kills him. He buys seeds, tills a vegetable garden and cheerfully plants whatever comes to mind without a clue what he's doing. He sticks onions in the dirt the wrong way up on his first try, and wonders why they pop out of their furrows as if making a getaway attempt. Tomatoes work out better, as do potatoes and beets, but the deer eat his corn, and rabbits eat his radishes.
(The second year he grows peppers, and heroically manages not to pull the carrots up to see how they're doing more than once or twice.)
He uses the tractor more than he thought he would, hauling logs from the creek to the house, pulling out a stump from the furthest pasture. She's a steady piece of machinery, chugs where John's used to speed, but she puts up with his attempts to tinker beneath the hood and seems to respond when he croons endearments. He stores her in the barn between trips, the building leaning south like it yearns for warmer winters, submitting with grace to a retirement of hay bales and raccoons in the eaves. John can't help but pat the door when he enters in an afternoon, pressing his hand to sun-warmed wood and absorbing the scent of sawdust and patience.
(There's a coffee can on the shelf above the stove, slowly filling with loose change and the odd five-dollar bill. He's written "BIKE" on a strip of tape he stuck to the front. There's a Triumph dealership in Dubuque, and by god, he'll save up enough money the military hasn't touched to buy one, he swears, skim along these back roads like he's flying).
It's a while before he feels like he's found a rhythm to living among these different shades of brown and green. He learns to fix things, gets a reputation for being handy, and pretty soon the odd jobs that roll his way mean his savings are put aside for emergencies, and the fridge is always stocked with beer. He dreams of his bike, but savors the way the fields roll by when he's driving his grandpa's truck, a '48 Dodge that has no business holding together, but refuses – like the barn and the tractor and the house – to give up the ghost when there's work could be done.
(There are two, lone corncobs in the back of the truck when John arrives at the farm that first September. He leaves them there with a nod to his grandpa, and lays his baseball bat beside them. It's good to have a little company when he drives, and a guy never knows when he might need to play ball).
It's spring, and he's fixing the tractor when he hears it – the familiar thud-thud-thud of a car with a tire that's about to blow. He ducks out from beneath the hood, squints into the early evening sun and lifts a hand to his eyes, watching the sedan come into view, wondering why the driver isn't slowing. He can see from the color of the plates that the car's not local, frowns at the speed its going and despite himself, flinches when the inevitable happens and the road's showered with strips of rubber in a spectacular show. He pulls a rag from the back pocket of his jeans, works on getting the worst of the oil from his hands as he jogs up the lane, headed toward the car that's nose-deep in the ditch. He's still fifteen feet away when the driver's door's flung open, and the guy inside catapults out, yelling a stream of incomprehensible babble at a pitch that suggests he's really fucking annoyed.
"You alright?" John calls, closing the distance between them.
"Alright?" The driver's quivering with indignation or shock or something, his face an unnatural shade of pink "Do I seem like I'd be alright? My car is in a ditch! What sort of roads do you people have out here? Is this a trick? A lure? A test for people who don't know their way around your . . . your . . ." He gestures, as if to take in everything around them – the oak trees by the creek, the wide open fields, the farmhouse – and dismiss them all out of hand.
John quirks an eyebrow. "John Sheppard," he says, extending a mostly clean hand.
"Sheppard. Of course. How appropriate, with the rural, farming . . . " the driver's words fade into an exasperated sigh. "Dr Rodney McKay." He shakes John's hand and promptly wipes his palm down his own trousers, leaving a smear of oil behind.
John valiantly doesn't show his amusement. This guy's a trip. "Need a phone?"
McKay waves a hand, and digs in his jacket pocket, brandishing a cell phone as if it's something John might not have seen before. "I have one. Thank you."
John waits for him to work out they're out of range of any tower.
"What do you mean there's no signal?" McKay splutters at his phone, as if it might have an answer for him. "Where in hell am I?"
"Cedar County," John says blandly. This is ridiculous, but also pretty fun. "Maybe my land line'd help?"
"Land line." McKay says the words as if they're roughly the equivalent of smallpox. "Sure."
He follows John back along the road and down the lane, obviously completely out of his element, twitching when something inquisitive buzzes too close. "You have mechanics out here, I assume?" he asks.
"Oh yeah," John nods blithely. "Course it's after hours now, and no one's open Sundays but . . . "
"This is the twenty-first century," McKay hisses.
"Yep." John's sorely tempted to pull a long stalk of grass from the edge of the pasture and start chewing on it, just for effect. "But Bob and Jim are your regular God-fearing sort of folk. They'll help you out Monday."
McKay says something – probably unpleasant – beneath his breath. "It's a rental car," he observes tightly. "I have twenty-four hour roadside assistance for which I paid a premium, and someone will no doubt be here within the hour."
John makes a small, skeptical noise.
"What?" McKay snaps.
"Nothing – phone's right in here." John opens the kitchen door, ushers McKay inside, points to the phone and gets himself a beer. He steps back outside to give the man a little privacy to experience his searing disappointment in the value of add-on services, and sits on the porch steps, savoring the breeze. When McKay starts yelling, he swears it makes the beer taste better.
There's silence for a good few minutes once the yelling stops, and John's just about to go investigate when the screen door creaks open. "I wonder. . . ." McKay seems to be fidgeting. "It's just that I'm hypoglycemic, you see, and stress can be a factor in bringing on episodes, and my blood sugar's no doubt plummeting into ranges that only . . . "
John waves a reassuring hand. "First cabinet on your left. Go to town."
McKay nods and disappears.
John's content to sit on the stoop and finish his beer for all of thirty seconds before his curiosity wins out. There's a manic level of rustling going on in the kitchen, and it's possible McKay's a doctor of medieval murder techniques for all John knows, so he sticks his head around the doorframe and bites back a smile as McKay eats what looks to be his sixth Reese's Peanut Butter cup in a row. "Better?" John asks.
"It's debatable," McKay says, licking the wrapper morosely.
"So your rental company," John says, reaching to pull McKay a beer from the fridge. "Coming right out?"
McKay stiffens and lifts his chin. "There are apparently no available vehicles in the vicinity. They'll . . . call me back." He looks a little shamefaced. "If you don't mind me waiting."
"Not at all. Stoop's nicer, unless you've got a thing for doing someone else's dishes."
McKay squints at him. "Um. Sure." The 'whatever' seems implied.
They settle on the stoop, tugging at beers, and John's happy with the silence – McKay's clearly not. John bets himself an extra hour in bed in the morning that McKay's gonna break and rant about the roads or the mechanics or the –
"What sort of place is this that you don't have cell phone coverage?" McKay explodes.
- cell phone towers any second. 8am it is. "It starts again about fifteen minutes down the road," John says, gesturing with his beer bottle. "And I don't talk on the phone so much these days."
"It's a basic tenet of civilization!" McKay argues, gesturing wildly and spilling beer on his shoe. "A means of modern, global communication without which the exchange of ideas and information on which we build any notion of progress would be utterly crippled. A tower's a mere matter of steel beams and wiring! Given an afternoon I could probably raise one myself. No wonder people choose to fly over this part of the country . . . "
John raises an eyebrow. "So why were you driving?" he asks dryly.
"That's classified," McKay answers, his words precise and clipped.
John looks at him. "Classified?"
"I'm sorry, do I look like a Speak 'n' Spell? I believe I was quite clear."
McKay shudders. "Please. Although I've had the misfortune to work beside members of certain research divisions from time to time."
John feels a knot between his shoulders slowly ease. "So you're . . ." He searches for the profession that seems best suited to making McKay break out in hives. " - not a doctor of art history, I take it?"
It's impressive how far McKay can spit – down Mitch's bar he'd be a favorite, save for the crease-resistant khaki pants and the ill-matching sports coat. "I hold Ph.D.s in Physics and Mechanical Engineering, thank you very much – two separate Ph.D.s."
John nods. "Huh."
McKay stares at him and twitches. "I'm sorry. Would an associate's degree in sheep excrement from the local extension office have been more impressive?"
"Wasn't aware you were trying to impress me, McKay," John drawls, and delights in the flash of frustration that shows on McKay's face.
"And what exactly do you do, Mr. Sheppard?"
"Tinker." John shrugs lackadaisically, just to be irritating. "I was fixing my tractor when you hurtled into my ditch."
"A task for which I'm sure your GED was a great advantage."
"Nah." John swigs his beer. "But my degree in math from MIT sometimes comes in handy."
McKay actually manages to spit further this time, and John narrows his eyes, wondering if there's a technique to that. "MIT?" McKay splutters.
"Sure." John scratches the back of his neck. "And then you know, advanced study in the Air Force. They kinda like you to understand physics before they put you in one of their shiny planes."
"Air Force?" Rodney sounds a little ragged around the edges.
"Major." John looks at him and smiles. "How y'doing?"
The car company doesn't call and doesn't call, so McKay calls them four times in the next hour. Each time he ends up on hold, and John lets himself grin when McKay starts criticizing Avis' choice of classical music and argues with the recorded voice about whether his call is actually important at all. John has to intervene the fifth time McKay gets shuffled into some interminable queue – his phone, he reckons from the blood-curdling yell of frustration McKay emits, is thirty seconds from a violent death it doesn't deserve.
He makes a start on dinner. McKay gnaws on a thumbnail, glaring at the phone, but quickly gets distracted when onions hit the pan. "You're not cooking anything with citrus, are you? I have intense allergies to citrus."
John looks over his shoulder. "Wanna stay for dinner, McKay?" he asks.
"Oh – well, yes I . . . I just assumed, since they haven't called back and have no other means to reach me or to retrieve their car, which, by the way, is nothing but a gigantic testimony to the inferior workmanship of American engineers. If they'd had something German, like I asked, none of this would be happening, except perhaps the part with the back roads, but that's entirely the fault of this godforsaken state and its shoddy system of signposts which are really completely misleading about simple requirements such as gas. If you signpost gas at the next exit, does that mean someone should be required to drive thirty miles into the naked wilderness to fill their tank? It does not! Are garages by the side of highways illegal in this state? Do you have moral objections? Clearly, the least the rental company could have done is supply a compass if this was the uncharted back of beyond they were sending me into – something to aid me in addition to my usually impeccable sense of direction, which was only thrown off by an ill-timed bag of Doritos and the glare of the sun. Someone, by the way, should see to the height of those road-signs, they're a hazard at certain types of day, completely impossible to read, no wonder I took a wrong turn and ended up here, and – " his face pales – "if my tire hadn't blown, who knows where I'd have been? Feasting with the Amish, lost to the scientific community, my insights withheld from humanity forever." He sits down heavily on a stool.
John blinks. "Pasta's alright then?"
"Yes. Thank you." McKay stares off into space, apparently consumed by the prospect of his doom in a pre-industrial society.
"So how long have you lived here?" McKay asks over dinner.
John shrugs. "Couple years. Since my grandpa died."
McKay looks at him quizzically, doesn't make the obvious leap.
"It was his place," John explains. "My mom grew up here. We came here on vacations and stuff, 'til I was twelve."
"And then what happened?" McKay stuffs pasta into his mouth with a minimum of grace.
John looks at his plate. "My mom died that fall. My dad wouldn't let me come back after that."
He's no idea why he's telling McKay all this – things his neighbors don't know and haven't asked. Perhaps it's the freedom of knowing McKay'll be gone before long – confession, good for the soul, all that junk. He glances at McKay, who's chasing a last tube of penne around his plate and wearing sauce on the lapel of his shirt. Funniest looking stand-in for a man of the cloth John's ever seen.
McKay glances in his direction. "Trouble with your dad?"
That's just downright eerie. He's surely not said enough to communicate that much to a stranger. He shrugs again and reaches for his beer. "Maybe."
"I couldn't stand my parents," McKay offers cheerfully. "They started it. Hated each other so intensely it was only a matter of time before it spilled over to my sister and me." He mops at his plate with a hunk of bread. "Course the shouting stopped eventually and then it was all frigid silence and disapproving looks over the top of the newspaper. Couldn't wait to get away."
John nods, understanding. "Something like that."
"I'll win a Nobel someday."
"Uh – okay?"
McKay waves his bread. "Sorry, segue, lost art – I mean, I'm brilliant, it's a foregone conclusion I'll win one eventually, but in this instance I mean I'll win one just so that I can fail to thank them from the podium." He smiles wistfully. "They're dead, of course, so the shock value's lessened, but I'm petty enough that I'll still do it. Just for me." He puts down his bread. "A little for Jeannie."
John nods, pushing his plate away. "He was the only family I had left."
McKay nods as if he understands.
"You should stay."
McKay tilts his chin again – the gesture's already becoming familiar. "I'm sure there's a hotel nearby."
"One, no there isn't; two, how would you get there if there was; and three, the car company still doesn't know where else to reach you."
"There's a major interstate – "
" – forty miles away as the crow flies, sure – "
" – and there have to be hotels. Hotels are a mainstay of the American compulsion to drive places when there are so many other ways they could travel in greater comfort and with less opportunity for getting lost in the middle of nowhere . . . "
Not this again. "Bout an hour that way – "John points toward the far end of the living room " – are the Quad Cities. Likely you drove through them – Mississippi River ring a bell? Plenty of hotels out there, but the trouble is it's the national sales meeting for John Deere this weekend, and they bought up every hotel in a thirty mile radius two years in advance – always do."
"But . . . "
"Bout an hour that way – " John points in the other direction "- is Iowa City, but it's graduation weekend at the U, and if you think there's a square inch of space someone hasn't already overpaid for, you're out of your mind."
"But . . . "
"I've a spare room and you can call the car company tomorrow morning, early as you please. And if you're afraid I'll make a play for your virtue, you can take the couch. The stairs creak – you'll hear me coming with the ax if that's the way my blood runs."
Rodney pales. "I hadn't considered ax murder."
"Well I'm covering all the bases for you, okay?" John scrubs at his face, tired and bamboozled by the events of the last five hours. "Seriously, McKay, it won't kill you to sleep in a real bed, but if you're afraid I built the damn thing out of citrus, go ahead and sleep in your car."
"My car's in a ditch!"
"So take the damn bed," John says with exaggerated patience, spreading his hands.
McKay tightens his jaw. "Do you have coffee?"
John squints. "What?"
"Coffee. A bean grown in warm climes the world over, historically a popular cash crop in Brazil, but my preference is for Hawaiian beans when they're available, though Kenyan would be acceptable."
"Folgers do?" He knows before he says it McKay's going to have an apoplectic fit, but it's such an easy pitch, hanging right over the plate.
"I – I – wh – you – I . . ." McKay has the look of a man who's seen the edge of civilization and stared into the abyss.
"Relax, McKay. Two bags of top quality beans in the freezer that even you won't be able to find fault with. What do you think I am, a philistine?" He glances at McKay. "Don't answer that."
"Well. All things considered. Perhaps – perhaps I should accept your offer of hospitality."
"Thank God. Jesus, you're a stubborn freak."
"Wasn't a compliment."
"I have an irritating knack for finding compliments where they're not intended."
John stares. "Shut the light off and follow me," he says at last.
Despite his resolution to sleep in until eight, John's wide awake at six and by seven he's brewed a second pot of coffee for McKay and scribbled a note - Working in the barn. Help yourself to whatever breakfast you can forage. There's wireless if you want to fire up your laptop while you're waiting for Avis..
He takes a walk around the perimeter of the garden first, checks for damage done overnight, and figures it's another couple of weeks before the spinach'll be ready to pull. He leans on the fence by the pasture for a while, savoring the last of his coffee, and only wanders to the barn when the cup's good and empty. He slides open the heavy doors, and smiles as the sharp scent of fresh-cut wood rises up to greet him.
The chair he's trying to build's a labor of love, an idea that got stuck in his head the October before. Like the vegetable patch, it's an experiment, a muddle of trial and error – the fireplace did well over winter with the scraps of wood he broke or sawed off too short. But now it's beginning to look like something – like a rocking chair, meant for the porch, for his grandpa's memory and all the unfinished family business that got buried in a cemetery ten miles down the road.
John scratches his chin, Sunday stubble rough against his fingers, and shrugs off his jacket. The plane's where he left it the week before, and he checks the blade, smoothes a hand down the length of the rail that's gripped in the vice. He bends his body and shaves a sliver from the wood, crafting his peace one stroke at a time.
"You have wireless," McKay splutters when John steps back into the kitchen.
John blinks, and dusts his palms against his jeans, flecks of sawdust falling to the floor. "Yeah." He moves to the sink, turns on the faucet, and reaches for the soap to wash off his hands.
"You don't have cell phone coverage but you have wireless," McKay presses.
"DSL line, router, easy enough."
"But it's . . ."
"We liked the Pony Express just fine," John drawls, drying his hands and leaning a hip against the counter, "but the cost of feed was killing us."
McKay's mouth sets into a thin line, and he types furiously for a couple of seconds – long enough for John to notice the coffee pot's still mostly full. He'd bet good money it's because it's the third pot brewed that day. "Avis call?" he asks, reaching for a clean mug.
"Yes." McKay tilts his chin in what's rapidly becoming a trademark fashion. "They can have a car for me tomorrow at 8am."
"And I called hotels – I've left a twenty under the phone book, because there were rather a lot of them – and . . . you're right. There's nowhere."
John shrugs a nonchalant 'told you so.' "So you're saying you need to stay another night?"
McKay looks ready to seize. "It seems so."
"S'fine by me." John's puzzled to realize it really is fine by him – that he doesn't find McKay's acerbic bundle of academic hypertension nearly as annoying as he probably should. He chews his lip, looking out over the back pasture, wondering what that says about how much time he spends alone.
"Perhaps there's a – diner or something. I could take you to dinner as a thank you." McKay speaks stiffly, as if he's walking over hot coals while he talks.
John considers the idea. "Sure." He sips his coffee. "The Cubs are playing tonight. We could watch the game."
McKay rolls his eyes. "I will never understand your nation's obsession with such a slow-moving, drawn-out, lingering travesty that masquerades as a sport."
"Whoah." John sets down his mug.
"With the warm-ups and the throwing and the catching and the striking out and the once in a blue moon someone hitting anything," McKay sniffs. "Hockey. Now there's a sport where you're guaranteed speed, precision, and stick on puck action from one end of the period to the other."
"If you're about to start quoting poetry about men who throw other men against plexiglass . . ."
"Baseball's such a ridiculous waste of time," McKay shoots back, gesturing with one hand. "Hours and hours in uncomfortable seats and the singing and stretching and the unfathomably bad beer . . ."
"Oh that's it," John says and grabs for the keys to the truck. "Get a move on."
McKay freezes. "What?"
"I said get a move on. It's after twelve already."
"Oh my god," McKay says weakly. "You're actually an ax murderer aren't you? An ax murderer who snaps when someone questions his fixation with baseball."
John rolls his eyes. "McKay."
"What's really out in that barn of yours? How many other unfortunate souls have you lured in with promises of phone calls, only to beat them senseless with a baseball bat and sacrifice their bodies to the in-field fly gods?"
"We're going on a little trip, that's all," John soothes, hands held up, palms out toward Rodney.
"That's what they always say! I've seen Miller's Crossing!"
"Children of the Corn!"
"How much coffee did you have exactly?"
McKay looks at his laptop as if he's wishing his next of kin goodbye. "Just promise me it'll be quick."
John points toward the kitchen door. "Now."
McKay calms down a lot when John buys him a packet of Hostess cupcakes at the gas station, and before they've made it the thirty miles or so to Highway 151, he's babbling inanities about electromagnetic radiation and the true capacity of the human eye to discern color, all while drinking in the limitless blue of the afternoon sky and scattering cake crumbs the length and breadth of the cab.
John shakes his head and turns on the radio. He flips past the ball games, not wanting to squander his hand so soon, and winces at the bubblegum pop that assaults his ears for three seconds before he can think to move the dial. He's almost at the end of the spectrum when he catches the familiar opening notes of Folsom Prison Blues and grins wickedly.
McKay flinches and looks at him out of the corner of his eye.
"C'mon McKay. Johnny Cash. You've gotta love Johnny Cash."
"Oh. Yes, of course," McKay drawls.
John throws him a look and starts to sing along, lamenting about time dragging on, and the train rolling by to San Antone. McKay's eyebrows shoot up toward his receding hairline, but John just taps along on the steering wheel, enjoying the rhythmic thud of the road beneath the wheels of the truck, and the warm breeze blowing through the partially open window. "But I shot a man in Reno – "
"- just to watch him die," McKay throws in, enunciating the words like a Hollywood movie announcer. John almost drives the truck off the road in surprise, and McKay smirks with satisfaction.
"Are we there yet?" McKay whines as John pulls off 136, heading out past the outskirts of Dyersville into open farm country. There's nothing showing in the fields yet, save the stubble from last year's corn harvest, and the road's in spectacularly poor shape.
"I almost wish you'd killed me. I'd be out of my misery," McKay mutters, opening another Reese's peanut butter cup and munching morosely.
"Like I said, almost there," says John, making a right on Lansing Way.
"I could have spent the afternoon productively heckling the car company to upgrade me to a better vehicle in return for leaving me stranded," McKay fusses. "I could have made the next move on my game of online chess with Zelenka – he'd never have seen it coming, he always underestimates me, the knight-loving, Czechoslovakian son of . . . ."
John slows to make the left and realizes he has all of McKay's attention for once.
"It's real?" McKay asks, dumbfounded.
"Pretty much," John replies and rumbles down the gravel road to the Lansing farm, pulling to a stop next to a beaten-up station-wagon and a brand new minivan, beside a baseball field that in four months will be surrounded by corn .
"How is it real?" McKay asks, fumbling with the door handle and getting hurriedly out of the truck, staring at the rickety bleachers, the familiar white farmhouse, the red-dirt pitcher's mound.
John hides a smile as he rummages behind his seat for his glove and a couple of baseballs that have seen better days. "Wanna catch?" he asks, reaching into the bed of the truck for his bat.
"We can – are we allowed?" McKay asks, blinking.
"Sure." John nods at the kids who are reluctantly leaving the field, herded by their worn-out parents.
"I'm no good at baseball," McKay says, stunned.
"Who cares?" John tosses a ball in the air and catches it again. "We're just messing around."
"It's real," McKay says again, and John can't help himself, laughs and tugs on McKay's shirt to get him moving, drags him past a noticeboard full of photos from when a movie crew descended in 1988.
It's after five when they leave the field, and by the time they pull off the highway, head out on the county road that leads back to the farm, the sun's low in the sky. The trip back's strangely quiet – McKay's slumped comfortably in the passenger seat, dirt on his neck and his hands and his pant legs, a grass-stained baseball in one hand. He doesn't quite smile, but John's so used to the babble of his discomfort he reckons this must be some form of contentment he's seeing.
The farm's in view when McKay clears his throat. "You should call me Rodney," he says, and John reckons perhaps they just decided they were friends.
"Berkeley," Rodney says.
"Hmmmm." Rodney squints into the twilight for no good reason that John can fathom. "Except for the students."
John frowns. "I thought – "
"Oh yes, yes, I hear they're terribly bright," Rodney drawls dismissively. "I personally think that perception's entirely the result of an authoritarian PR campaign waged by the admissions office. If they were bright I wouldn't have to keep failing them, would I, hmmm? If they could read perhaps it would help, but no, they come to my office hours, day after day, whining that the book's so complicated, the chapters are so long. Of course it's complicated! It's physics! If they want simplicity I'm sure the music department has Intro to Bongo Thumping and they could fill up their spare hours and vacant little minds with a helping of modern art."
John snorts. "I bet your apartment's just plastered with Warhol."
"He'd just make me hungry," Rodney sighs. "All those soup cans."
John chuckles low, leaning back on his arms, the floor of the porch rough beneath his elbows. "Least you have cell phone coverage back home," he points out.
"A fact for which I will give devout thanks each and every day. Until I forget. So, Thursday."
"Seems fair." He ignores the small twist in his gut that suggests he doesn't think it's fair at all, and concentrates on the way the barn's fading into shadow as twilight deepens.
Rodney sighs. "Considering we're in the middle of nowhere, without immediate access to foods containing partially hydrogenated oils, mechanics who understand the concept of customer service, lab space in which I can continue to push the boundaries of modern science, or newspapers whose managing editors are generally known by a first and last name . . . " He drifts. "This is almost bearable."
"Well I can hardly expect to find my personal Shangri La in the middle of a naked corn field, can I?" Rodney asks, beer bottle tilted emphatically. "This is a wasteland, a desert that exists outside the parameters of meaningful intellectual exchange. A backwater."
John nods considerately. "I think the folks at the U might have a few words to say about that."
"Oh please. It's the University of Iowa. Name one significant contribution made by any physicist at that institution."
John takes a swig from his beer bottle. "Van Allen's work on radiation belts that utilized the first Explorer mission?"
"Oh." Rodney pauses. "He was from here?"
"Chair of the department from '51 to '85."
John bites back a smile as silence swallows them whole, lets it spin out between then and follow them upstairs into two separate bedrooms. He lies awake thinking of space travel and the last F-16 he flew, dreams about gravity pressing him back into his seat.
Morning comes quickly, two pots of coffee strong. The new rental car shows up at 8am, a tow truck on its tail, and by 8.15 the road's empty, May rising up to fill the hollow spaces left where the prairie grass is trampled. John chews his lip for a minute, then heads for the truck. Mrs. Yoder's been pressing him all winter to paint her house come spring, and the weather plans to hold for a few days yet. He can get a start, see what needs patching, maybe even make it into town for supplies if she's a color picked out.
His baseball bat's still in the bed of the truck, and he sets his jaw against something he can't quite pin down. Failing at self-reflection, he yanks the driver's door open, cranks the engine, pulls out into the road and heads in the opposite direction to the one Rodney took.
He finds his sense of humor by sundown – turns on the ballgame and toasts McKay with a beer.
(link back to part one).
He sends the first postcard fifteen days later, to an address the Berkeley website's only too willing to supply. On one side of the postcard is a picture of a pig with half a corncob hanging from its mouth. On the other he scrawls a note –
Struggling along in the backwater. Hope you made it to civilization okay. JS.
Rodney's reply arrives after twenty-three days that John's not counting – a large manila envelope containing two journal articles from The International Journal of Modern Physics, and a sheet of notepaper with five homework questions and a supplementary "Leafs v. Sens, Sunday, 7pm ET."
John notices the envelope has a Colorado postmark, but Rodney hasn't corrected him about the address, so he sends the second postcard to Berkeley too.
Does the math on page 367 seem off to you? P.S. Your team sucks.
Nineteen days later comes another article, a note asking exactly what he means by 'off', and a book about the Leafs with a post-it note on the front. They do not, you lackadaisical, loitering oaf.
The postcards become a thing. John searches out the most tasteless pictures he can find (a surprising number of which involve pigs), combing the racks at the gas station and the grocery store. He finds a truly dazzling photo of parade float one day – a giant ear of corn, constructed kernel by kernel out of gallon milk jugs painted bright yellow, anchored to a hay rick in resplendent, phallic glory. He fears he may have peaked after he sends it, but then finds a postcard of an I-80 rest stop, peopled entirely with extras from 1974, bedecked in polyester pants and shirts with collars so wide it's a wonder no one's lost an eye. In return Rodney supplements the physics articles with the occasional study in mathematics or quantum mechanics, and twice the post-it has crusted mashed potatoes smeared on the edge.
John dates Donna Miller for almost the whole month of July, and relearns the feel of someone else's hands on his body. It ends badly – he laughs at a joke that turns out to be a sincere invitation to the church social – and winds up ass down in a patch of stinging nettles for his trouble. Things go better with Abby Brenneman – at least until she decides she's back with her ex, and then John's down one really reliable supplier of making out and can't go to Mitch's bar for three weeks until Brad's had enough beer to forget he wants to snap him like a twig. (John's no slouch at a good, honest brawl, but Brad's the size of a barn and there are better things to do of an evening than run face-first into his fist - Rodney's homework problems for a start, not that he'd ever give him the satisfaction of letting him know he's doing every one).
At the beginning of August, John mails Rodney 'The Idiots Guide to Football,' on the suspicion that a man who dislikes baseball will fail to see the inherent beauty of a last minute punt return without a little coaching. McKay sends back two packets of strange Korean candy to which he says he's become addicted, a post-it on which he's drawn a reasonable representation of himself flipping John the bird, and a scrap of paper scrawled with his home address, email, and phone number. The postmark's Californian, and John doesn't ask about Colorado, but sends his own email address in return.
Rodney's first email's two lines long; asks if postcard manufacturers in Iowa really have nothing better to do than inflict photographs of pigs and corn upon the world. John writes back – "no." He's fairly sure the lack of capitalization will drive Rodney round the bend, and he isn't surprised to find a 5K screed on the importance of grammar in his inbox two mornings later, with a 3K P.S. on the imminent downfall of western civilization as a special bonus prize.
Late summer burns with a heat so intense Antarctica seems suddenly appealing in comparison - then fades into the embers of autumn with barely a sigh. John drives to Dubuque, takes three bikes on a test drive along the bluffs above the Mississippi, and the smile on his face when he's done doesn't dim one whit when he considers that it'll be another year before he can take one home. He counts the change in the coffee can that evening, lining up the quarters and nickels, bagging them in cheap Target sandwich bags and totaling up the figures in a battered notebook that tells him how much he has squirreled away. He writes Rodney an email about the trip, includes a link to the dealer's website, and sleeps the sleep of the happily exhausted, the memory of a nickel's weight against his palm following him into dreams.
(Rodney uses orange post-it notes in October. He draws a pumpkin face on one, and a speech bubble that says I'm Kavanagh, I don't feel the need to theorize balance in the spatial curvature of a wormhole. John snorts to imagine a 12 year old Rodney, trick or treating as Einstein and calling the local matrons insufferably stupid.)
The farm's washed pale by November frost when John gets out of bed on Veteran's Day, sunlight thin and insubstantial against the grain of the floor. He can already feel the prospect of his day unraveling, and by the time he's drunk enough to call Rodney that evening – sitting on the floor, well away from the broken glass of the beer bottle he threw while he yelled obscenities meant for his father – he can feel his agitation like a trembling chaos that resonates down to the molecules at his core.
Rodney's clearly taken aback by the call, but in thirty seconds has apparently decided to take it all in his stride – babbles about colleagues and the masterful strides he's made in the theoretics of negative energy string-loops until John has hold of himself and can poke back, pointing out that theory's just imagination, and Rodney's creating possibility out of nothing, just like a novelist. Rodney splutters, heaps insult upon the Cubs, the Patriots, and John's ability to father children, then asks what happened - listens while John haltingly tries to explain about his dad and Afghanistan, interrupting only to express long-winded derision for men with more medals than brains.
"You should eat a banana," Rodney says at last.
"Potassium. Something to do with the – oh for heaven's sake, it's not as medicine's an actual science, why the hell would I have the remotest idea why it works? But trial and error have instilled in me a healthy respect for the miraculous powers of the banana to ward off hangovers of the type you're currently coaxing into existence."
"And you should drink a very large glass of water and take two painkillers before bed."
For Christmas, John Mapquests every batting cage in the greater Berkeley area, sends the printout to Rodney, and includes a roll of quarters and a brand new bat. Rodney sends him a Leafs jersey with 'Pain in the Ass' printed as his name, right above the number 11 (Rodney's favorite number of dimensions in space). When Rodney calls on December 26th, it's John's turn to fill in the silence, to recount the accident with the turkey, the parakeet, and the golden retriever at the Mulholligans' house on Christmas Eve, to describe the way the farm looks beneath a blanket of fresh-fallen snow, and to not ask what's wrong, since he already knows how it feels to ache with a loneliness that creeps up without warning when you're least equipped to deal with it
John sees the concert advertised just after New Year's, and buys a plane ticket for Rodney four days later. He wants to believe McKay won't ask questions – just accept the gift out of some unexplored spirit of altruism – but he knows he's out of his mind to imagine that's possible. Trouble is, he's not sure what to say when Rodney asks what he's thinking, so instead of trying to figure out an answer he waits three weeks to send the ticket (or thirty-seven back-and-forth emails in the ongoing debate of 'Rodney McKay – smarter than Sir Isaac Newton?'). He's done his homework – the concert's on the Saturday of the last weekend of Berkeley's spring break. He picks a flight from SFO to Cedar Rapids that should get in around 6pm – plenty of room to maneuver if there are storms at O'Hare or delays on the coast. He mails it off. And waits.
Three days later, the phone rings an accusation. "Hello?"
"You sent me a plane ticket to Iowa."
John screws up his face for a second. "Yes."
"Why did you send me a plane ticket to Iowa?"
There's a concert."
"You know, I happen to live in a major metropolitan area. We have theatres, opera, the symphony, art galleries, museums, and, I might add, a very talented young man with bright blue hair who likes to hang out by the student union and juggle gourds. We have strip shows, movie theatres, bath houses, excellent Chinese food, a tram I can travel if I'm really at a loose end and there's nothing on any of the 600 cable channels for which I pay an obscene amount of money considering I am never home. Why would I fly to Iowa to see a concert?"
"Rodney . . . "
"Oh please, don't use the whine – "
"I'm not whining!"
"You're whining. You're a grown man and a product of the US military system and yet – faced with a question you can't answer - you whine. Were you aware that I can tell when you're pouting through email? If there were lessons on stealth and subtlety at the Air Force Academy – "
"I didn't go to the Air Force Academy."
"Well that's probably why your stealth skills are pitiful, wouldn't you say?"
John scuffed his boot on the floor. "I checked. It's your spring break."
"And you assume I have nothing better to do than to fly to the middle of Praise the Lord It's Corn for Dinner-ville and see the local yokels whack spoons against their knees?"
"Yes, yes I am." He paused. "A concert."
Another pause. "I suppose you have spent quite a lot of money," Rodney says, as if the words are physically painful. "And there'll be a $100 penalty for changing the ticket, which is just a scam, a scam and proof that airlines are run by small dictatorships based in off-shore locales, living on highly alcoholic drinks with small umbrellas in the glass while I subsidize their guava habit with the inadequate recompense I receive for consistently challenging contemporary understanding of scientific possibility."
"Uh." John blinks. "Sure."
"Did anyone put up a cell phone tower yet?"
"Not that I noticed."
"So . . . ?"
"Will you come?"
A deep, heartfelt sigh. "Clearly I need to take up the portion of my benefits package that attends to mental health because yes, yes I'll come."
"What are you, twelve?"
"Thereabouts," John grins.
Rodney spends the next two months trying to wheedle The Great High Secret About The Concert out of John – a pastime John quickly grasps is all about winding him up within an inch of his life rather than any real desire to know. A man who can allegedly hack into the air traffic control systems of enough major airports to make the nation's planes spell out 'I love Journey' with their flight paths can surely look at a website to work out what might be playing in Iowa City in March.
Despite the obvious joy it gives Rodney to try and wheedle and plead for information, he's easily distracted – John dangles one well placed comment about the first Star Trek movie in an email and Rodney's off and running, offering chapter and verse on why it's ludicrous to suggest – a la the movie Armageddon – that the Russian space station Mir could generate artificial gravity by rotation and yet not split apart like a tasty donut (at which point John suggests Rodney go get some breakfast). From there it's a short hop, skip and a jump to considering which fictional technology they'd like to get their hands on. Rodney wants a Death Star – John wants a light saber.
The closer March comes, the more absurd their conversations become, and even John's not so dense as to miss the fact that nerves are at play. Two days before the flight to Iowa, Rodney has a mid-level panic attack about packing the right clothing for the season, and confesses to calling Iowa's state climatologist for advice.
"We have stores, you know, " John drawls. "Even a mall. You could shop for whatever you don't have."
"And make my selection from racks of plaid polyester and overalls, no doubt," Rodney sniffs.
John meets Rodney from the plane with a double-pack of Twinkies in his pocket and Rodney's look of snack-cake adoration is worth every bit of needling that's colored the last two months.
John's nerves don't come back until they're sitting in Hancher Auditorium, waiting for the concert to begin. He fiddles with his program, taps his foot against the richly carpeted floor – manages by some Herculean effort not to start gnawing on his fingernails, but it's a close run thing. Suddenly he's struck how ludicrous all this is – he's lured a semi-domesticated McKay out from his natural environment (a lab, fitted with at least two top-of-the-line coffeepots and a cupboard devoted to chocolate) to sit in a tiny concert hall among very nice Iowans who have no idea how easily their evening could be ruined by Rodney's huffs of derision.
"Would you stop fidgeting?" Rodney asks
"Would you read your damn program?" John shoots back, wanting some indication of whether he's completely or only moderately insane to have cooked up this whole trip.
"Oh no." Rodney smiles at him, mouth a thin, smug line. "You went to all this trouble to keep your secret. Wouldn't want to spoil it."
John sets his jaw. "It's hardly spoiling it now you're here, is it?"
"I have been in your company for – " Rodney checks his watch. "Twenty-four hours and fifty minutes. Give or take a few seconds, I'm not entirely sure how fast I made it off the plane and through the positively cavernous halls of the Eastern Iowa Airport, but that said, I'm quite sure waiting a few more moments for your big reveal won't kill you."
"No," John says, very low. "But it may cause me to kill you."
"Please." Rodney looks back at the velvet curtains drawn across the stage. "Your pinky finger death threats don't impress me. With my training as an engineer I could turn that chair into a complex guillotine in roughly thirty seconds. You'd be beheaded before you could recall which boot had a knife stuck inside it."
"You are such an annoying bastard," John growls.
"Forgot, did you?"
"Absence, heart, fonder, all that shit."
"You're a regular Hallmark card of joy."
John hisses, and is about to apologize to the old lady beside him for making her flinch when the sounds of a string quartet tuning their instruments filter into the hall. Moments later, the lights dim and the curtain rises.
For the next hour and a half, Rodney does nothing but gape.
The complex music of Sun Rings flows over and around them; the rise and fall of notes coaxed from strings, interwoven with a symphony captured from the spaces between stars. Violins play in harmony with the bird-like whistle of solar wind; cellos with a chorus generated by electrons, spiraling through Jupiter's atmosphere. Behind the members of the Kronos Quartet spill image after image of the reaches of space – starbursts, solar flares, the earth seen from afar – and equations twist through light and sound to splash the promise of astrophysics across the stage.
John sneaks a glance at Rodney part way through the second movement and ducks his head, pleased and relieved at the look on the other man's face.
The ride back to the farm's spent in drifting silence. John idly wonders if there's anyone else in the world who can claim the distinction of having shut Rodney McKay up on two separate occasions, but doesn't ask. Rodney's squinting out of the window, looking up into the clear, cold night, having who-knows-what conversation with himself about the events of the evening. John's almost sorry to pull into the lane at the farm, to put the truck in park and turn off the ignition, break the spell.
It's a mesmerizing night – Iowa's showing off. Out of the truck, John pauses to look up and chart the familiar constellations he remembers from his childhood – the big dipper, Orion – music still echoing at the back of his mind. He turns to look at Rodney, who's rounding the truck wearing the strangest expression. He immediately wonders if Rodney suffers from motion sickness. "Are you . . "
Rodney pauses – he's standing a fraction too close. "I – " He shuts his mouth, apparently lost for words.
John realizes with a sickening lurch that the silence in the truck might have been rooted in horror, not satisfaction. "Music and physics - I remembered about the piano lessons see, and I thought you'd like it, especially when I found out about the pictures they took and – " John clamps his jaw shut, ruing this Rodney-induced, Newtonian variation - for every silence an equal and opposite reaction.
"Shut up," Rodney whispers, reaching to take John's head gently between his hands, leaning in to kiss him softly, lips a barest warmth.
John gasps and pulls back just a fraction. "Hey - that's my move," he protests feebly. "The hands – "
"You want it back?"
"Not right now." And he doesn't remember shifting, but his hand's at the back of Rodney's neck, pulling him in, anticipating the kiss, and it's clumsy, awkward, but oh so fucking good, its own solar flare.
They make it upstairs without switching on a light or exchanging much in the way of conversation, hands moving restlessly, sliding under shirts, skimming over too-warm skin, coaxing breaths to hitch and break until the bed hits the back of John's knees and they're sprawled together, half-dressed and moving too slowly for the supernova that's threatening to explode in the pit of John's belly, in the curve of his spine, in the pulse at his wrist. He rolls to pin Rodney to the mattress, drags his teeth across the hollow of his throat, undresses him, greedy for the sounds he makes, needy and desperate as he reaches with clumsy hands to pull at John's shirt, work at his fly. "Yeah," John gasps, kicking his pants to the floor, pulling Rodney flush against him, swallowing the fractured moan that resonates between them, slick and sweaty, urgent, a blur. He slips a hand between their bodies, wraps his fingers around them both - tugs, whines, and buries his face at Rodney's throat as he works them hard and fast toward completion.
Later – much later - he's breathing hard, and Rodney's heart's still pounding beneath his ear. There's a splash of moonlight on the floor by the window, and Rodney's hand's like a brand at the small of his back.
"Wow," John manages.
"Music and physics," Rodney mumbles.
"I thought maybe you finally – " he licks his lips " – got that I'm right about baseball."
Rodney snorts softly. "In your dreams."
He falls asleep, happy to oblige.
They reach for each other again in the grey half-light of dawn – slow where they'd been frantic; patient where they'd rushed heedlessly before. John falls asleep to the brush of Rodney's fingertips against his cheek.
When he wakes, Rodney's gone.
The note's on the kitchen table – blue marker on yellow legal paper – and John knows he owns neither; imagines Rodney searching through his laptop case for something serviceable. He makes a cup of coffee before he reads it, swallows bitterly when he notices the change by the phone for the cab Rodney must have called. It's likely $60 or more to get to the airport from the farm, and he hopes to hell that burns. It's cold comfort, but he'll take what he can get – anything to fill the gaping pit of shame and regret that's slowly opening up inside him.
The note's brief and to the point – I'm sorry, I have to go. He realizes, as he crumples the paper into a ball, that he's been falling by inches for nearly a year now. Some pilot, not to have anticipated this kind of landing.
He works. There are loose tiles on the barn roof from the last storm, and downed limbs in the furthest pasture, beneath the big oak, that need hauling away. Here and there the fence that runs by the roadside needs fixing, and the corn crib can use a new coat of paint. Mitch needs someone to fix the leak in the kitchen at the bar, and as soon as the first real warm day comes in April, Mrs. Gunderson needs someone to mow her yard, someone to clear the brush from her orchard. Joe needs help pouring a new concrete floor for his garage, and cleaning up his barn now he's decided not to bother with livestock anymore. There's the broken tread in Eileen Yoder's basement stairs that needs replacing, and the plaster needs to come down at the Jacksons' place. Drywall's a messy business, and for four straight days it takes John half an hour to shower the dust out of his hair.
If it doesn't exactly fix anything that's broken in John, at least it's a distraction.
He mails Rodney's note back to California, with you motherfucker scrawled on the other side. He's furious at his own weakness, at how much he misses him. If he lets down his guard, thinks of that night – the slide of their bodies, the fierce warmth of Rodney's mouth, the tangled, desperate, right feeling of hip against thigh – it's all he can do not to double over, crouch to force the sickening regret into the smallest space it can hold. But the ache in his bones doesn't come from the memory of skin beneath his palm – it's silence that gnaws a misery he can't seem to evade. He misses the emails, the phone calls, the letters. He misses the goddamn homework questions and the post-it notes; misses the bickering, the disagreements, the unexpected sound of his own laughter. He misses having someone to tell him to eat a godforsaken banana, and hates himself for it, kicks the tires of his long-suffering truck and throws the baseball bat into the attic.
His only respite is working on the chair, forcing himself to focus on nothing but the grain of wood beneath his fingertips, the rasp of sandpaper and the sharp scent of glue.
May 23rd, and John's lying on the couch. It's 10am but his motivation's taken a vacation and he counts it an achievement he's dressed – worn jeans, hole at the knee, wallet imprint on the back pocket, black t-shirt – rather than slouching around in nothing more than boxer shorts and a grimace. He's idly considering the things he could do that day – garden needs some work, he's low on groceries, Jerry'd welcome a hand with his roof, and there's glazing for the barn windows to price out – when he hears the rumble of tires on the gravel of the lane, and ruefully swings himself up and off the sofa. He peers through the window – a black SUV with Illinois plates is parked twenty feet from the house, and he narrows his eyes in suspicion, turns and moves to the kitchen and out onto the porch, sharp words ready for whomever's disturbing his well-earned morning of self-pity – until he sees Rodney standing in his yard.
"Hi," Rodney says, flushed a searing shade of pink.
John stares, jaw tight.
"Probably weren't expecting to see me," Rodney continues, looking abashed.
John manages to quirk an eyebrow in response, curls one hand into a fist.
Rodney sees the movement, flinches, but doesn't step back. "I – " He wets his lips and shifts foot to foot. "I'm sorry. About – you know when I . . . " He ducks his head and mutters something to himself, looking utterly miserable and out of his depth.
"I just – " Rodney's head snaps up and he tilts his chin, a familiar gesture of defiance that makes John's stomach twist. "There's a position – a Distinguished Visiting Scholar program, here, I mean, in Iowa City, at the University, the physics program to be exact, a physics program that I was somewhat hasty in dismissing it turns out, and the position – the Distinguished Visiting Scholar position that is – it comes with lab space and two assistants and whomever the person is only has to give two lectures per semester, which is somewhat bearable. Barely. Sort of." He presses his lips together for a second. "I'm – the . . . person. Visiting. Distinguished."
John makes a small sound of derision.
"I'm – they have housing for me in town, an apartment I believe, maybe a house, I didn't pay much attention, and um . . . " He looks, John thinks, exactly as if someone is trying to pull his intestines through his navel. "Well. I'll be here. For – until – next August."
"Huh." John grinds his teeth for a second. "Well you have fun." He turns to go back in the house.
"Excuse me?" And his anger's there, simmering just beneath the surface of his words, violent, hurt, sharp as a blade.
"I just – " Rodney gestures helplessly.
"You came out here to tell me I should watch my step around town, to give me the courtesy of knowing you'd be in my fucking neck of the woods, I get it," John spits.
Rodney pales. "No! No, no no no no no no no . . . " He takes a step forward, then wavers, perhaps reconsidering. "I – they didn't ask me – I asked them."
"What?" John shakes his head.
"I asked them – well, begged them actually would be more precise. I didn't actually get down on my knees, it was all over the phone you understand, so it wouldn't have helped even if I had, but I offered and offered again and I think there was some concern that I wouldn't be contented with the remuneration, but the money's not remotely important, and there was also the question of whether I would make the undergraduates cry, but really, if they can't handle a little criticism they have no business going into this field and . . ." He swallows. "I asked them."
"Because of you."
"You're dabbling in the psychotropic drugs now, are you, McKay?"
"Then explain to me how the fuck you walk out after – " he gestures "- what happened, don't so much as fucking apologize, never mind about explain yourself, and then clam up like the whole business has security clearance I'm not privy to for two fucking months?"
Rodney starts wringing his hands. "I - " He grits his teeth. " – was terrified."
"You! This – I woke up and you were fast a-fucking-sleep beside me and – you don't get that that's terrifying?"
"I mean it in a good way!" Rodney yells.
"Yes! Good way like – look at you. Look at you and look at me. How on earth could that possibly . . . "
John gapes. "You are fucked up."
"I know! That's exactly my point! And I panicked – I saw you, lying there, asleep, you were smiling and I panicked - I'm still panicking!"
"So you ran off?"
"And has that worked for you in any fucking relationship since you were thirteen?" John asks, incredulous.
Rodney looks utterly broken. "Well. There haven't been that many."
John lets out a breath, his anger leaching away despite his determination to stay mad. His fingers uncurl, and if his gut's still twisting, it's for whole different reasons than before. He steps down from the porch. "You're a piece of work," he growls.
He crosses the space between them. "And that was a fucking shitty thing to do."
"That said - "
Rodney looks up.
"Goddamn you, Rodney," John grits out, setting his jaw but giving in. He reaches out, cups Rodney's face with both hands and leans in to kiss him.
Rodney flinches and pulls back a fraction. "Your – move," he whispers.
"Yeah. Mind if I have it back?"
"Not right now, no." And Rodney leans in to meet him, hand curling around John's arm, and John can feel the tremor in his fingertips.
Come September, John catches a ride to Dubuque with Mitch, writes the largest check of his life, and heads home on a Triumph Rocket III Classic that's entirely his. He takes the back roads – less traffic, fewer cops – and speeds until he's breathless with it, joy backed up in his lungs, exhilaration singing through his veins as he leans into each corner, feels the tug of the wind, each bump of the road. It feels like flying, the instinctive way he guides the bike, the soaring freedom conjured by his hands. When he slows to pull into the lane by the farm he feels washed out, clean, hewn from new cloth.
Rodney's working at the kitchen table when John steps inside, turns his head to meet John's kiss without ever really looking away from his laptop screen. John grins, setting down his helmet - watches Rodney drink his seventh cup of coffee that day and tap out equations with focused impatience.
This feels like flying too.