They have seven days before Rodney's due back in Berkeley – a short trip home to pack what he can, store what he can't, and see his life loaded onto garish trucks ("they're always garish, are you kidding me? Eyesores of the first water – it's as if they're poking fun at people already blighted, forced to uproot. What? What? Don't look at me like that, Grapes of Wrath touched me, okay?") . They spend their first full day together on some kind of rollercoaster, touching each other as if to prove they can, kissing sloppily propped up against doorjambs, in front of the fridge with the door wide open, tumbled on the couch. Between times there are awkward moments – cautious glances and halting conversation - until Rodney snarls "fuck it," and drags John to bed, mouthing apologies to the inside of his thigh, pressing demands against his stomach, his hip. Afterward, his words new and clumsy, John rolls them both over, kisses Rodney quiet. "We're starting over," he manages, and hears Rodney huff "duh," before he falls asleep.
They drive into town the next morning. John falls in love with the house the physics folk have rented for Rodney – a three bedroom stand-alone with hard-wood floors, a shaded garden, and wrap-around porch. There's parking off the street, and the house - in a move that suggests Rodney's reputation more than precedes him - is two solid miles from where most students live. There's lawn service, leaf service, and snow service for the asking, and if Rodney experiences a wholesale shift in personality, he can walk from the house to his lab.
Rodney seems to like the town, much as it clearly pains him to admit it. The creeping panic that had him babbling in the truck about earthquakes and fog and barefoot hippies begins to recede once John shows him the specialty grocery store, with bins of coffee standing six feet high. Rodney strives for acclimation in his own way - insists they spend the rest of the day sampling every form of noodle that can be found within ten minutes of the physics building, and devises an intricate point system to rate the merits of Thai over Chinese over generic Italian.
(They find a café that serves all-day cereal at four in the afternoon, and Rodney almost breaks down and weeps right there on the sidewalk, gesturing helplessly, he's so moved by the perfection of the idea.)
The move's a big adjustment, a sudden burst of momentum where they'd been used to creeping, and John's not surprised to wake three nights later to find empty space where Rodney should be sleeping. He pads downstairs, following the smell of coffee that's not going to help Rodney's sleeplessness any, finds him sitting at the kitchen table, yellow notepaper and blue pen in hand. John's not over fond of the combination – the memory of Rodney's I have to go is still too fresh – but Rodney pushes the notepad toward him, and John finds himself looking at a list.
Could work late
Big house (room for cat?)
Liquor stores - good beer
Bookstore – passable selection
Availability of late night burritos
All major national newspapers available a.m.
Food grows in dirt
Deer fling themselves at cars
45m drive from lab in good weather
May get snowed in.
It doesn't seem a very promising list – John can replace town with 'pros' and farm with 'cons' and get the sense of what's going on here – save for the last item on the 'Farm' side: JOHN, written in bold ink and underlined several times. He smiles just a little, weirdly touched, and glances at Rodney, who's pale and tired-looking in his prime-number boxer shorts, screwing up his mouth as if he's going to say something difficult.
"I thought perhaps," Rodney says, tilting his chin, "I might live here, most of the time, except for those evenings where I really can't get in a car and – I have this habit, see, of getting engrossed in things and forgetting to eat or to sleep or to look at a clock and it'll be some ridiculous time of night like 3am, which is the most ridiculous time of night, I'm fairly sure I have mathematical proof of that, and I'll look up and think oh god, I can't drive, I'll crash into one of those maniacally suicidal deer that like to hang out by the side of the road just waiting for unsuspecting California drivers to try and get by without death or injury, and then I'll probably just – " he sighs, "well, let's face it, I'll probably fall asleep at my desk, drooling into my notes, because that's been the case before, and I bet I could have cracked the problem of the mass gap in the Yang Mills theory if I hadn't completely obliterated those equations with saliva – but perhaps on those nights I might go back to the house and sleep. A little?" He takes a breath and looks at his own knees. "Otherwise I thought I might live here. If that was okay."
John slides a hand to the back of Rodney's neck and leans to kiss his forehead.
"Is that a yes?" Rodneys asks, sounding worried.
"Course it's a yes," John mumbles, voice thick with sleep, and he sets the notebook down. "C'mon. Bed."
"I made coffee, I was just going to . . . "
"Bed," says John, and Rodney's mouth makes a perfect little 'o'.
"Well, I have had trouble sleeping," he says hopefully, standing and awkwardly scratching the round of his belly.
"Mmhmmm." John switches off the light.
"And I sleep particularly well after . . . "
"Shut up and get upstairs."
One blowjob later ("Oh god, John – John . . . I - oh") Rodney falls asleep, an arm thrown haphazardly over John's chest, knee bent in a fashion that'll be murder in the morning, mouth open, snoring softly. John watches him, thinks of the vegetables growing in the dark, rich soil outside, and the December quiet of a second snowfall. He smiles and tugs the blanket a little higher – he never thought blissed out would look like this.
Next morning he's up before Rodney, and stands in the living room, mentally shuffling furniture around. After two cups of coffee and much deliberation, he moves the bureau to the basement, along with one of the chairs, takes a couple of pictures off the wall and shoves half his DVD collection in a barely used drawer. He pours another mug of coffee and wanders to the barn, sorts through the wood that's stacked against one wall, and sketches out a plan on a lumber-yard receipt. By the time Rodney finds him, he's almost finished. There's a blood-blister livid beneath the thumbnail on his left hand, and the muscles in his shoulders are stiff and sore – but he's content, happy, feels accomplished.
Rodney just looks appalled. "What are you doing?" he asks, clutching at a mug of coffee like it's a life preserver, as though the grass and bindweed might conceal an undertow.
John pounds in one last nail and stands back to eye his work, setting his hammer on the toolbench. "Bookcase," he says, gesturing.
"I can see that. Why are you building a bookcase?"
John runs a hand over the length of one shelf. "Figured you'd need space for your stuff."
"That's – " Rodney gestures over his shoulder. "The mysterious holes in the living room. The cabinet and the – " He stares as though confronted by an elderbug twice his size. "You were making room for me?"
John hitches a shoulder. "Sure. Why not?"
Rodney lifts his chin. "I'm not easy to live with," he says as if offering up state secrets under duress.
"I'm shocked," John deadpans.
"I get very territorial. About things like toilet paper."
"So we'll buy extra."
"And I'm very particular about my jello."
"Yes. Blue. Always. And if not blue, I can deal with red, but I'll probably whine and you'll want to hit me. People have."
John nods sagely. "I can barely imagine."
"I like to store half-eaten bags of chips down the back of the sofa cushions for ease of snacking on future occasions. I find it streamlines the experience of true couch potato-ness."
John squints. "Pretty sure that's not a word."
"You're absolutely missing the point . . ."
"Rodney?" John slips his hands into the pockets of his jeans, thumbs hooked over the pockets. "Not sure if you noticed yet, but I'm a guy."
"I could hardly have missed it, considering the uses you've found for your – "
"So I'm just saying," John continues with exaggerated patience, stepping closer. "I understand the virtue of a half-hidden bag of Doritos, alright? And I drop towels on the bathroom floor and regularly shove my dirty boxers under the bed."
Rodney colors. "Oh."
"Yeah, oh." John crosses the barn. "Would you calm the fuck down?"
"Unlikely," Rodney manages, but leans forward, lets his forehead thud against John's shoulder.
"Alright then," John murmurs. He pauses for effect. "Wanna help me carry a bookcase inside? Only weighs like, forty-five pounds."
"I don't do manual labor," Rodney mumbles. "You're the rough trade in this relationship."
John snorts and bites the skin just below Rodney's ear. "Wuss," he whispers and turns back to the bookcase, lifting it easily and waiting with a smile. "Think you can get the door?" he asks with mock concern.
"Asshole." But the corner of Rodney's mouth almost twitches, and John feels a grin on his own face before he can give it a thought.
Rodney leaves for California at the end of the week, and John's left with a sudden awareness of empty space and drifting silence where there once wasn't absence at all. It freaks him out a little, to have cleared out space in his head as well as his living room, and he spends a couple of days purposefully parking the truck so there's no room for another car in front of the garage, and sleeping in the middle of the bed, just to prove a point.
"Do you have the original Star Wars trilogy?" Rodney asks on the phone one evening. If the random thumps John can hear over the line are anything to go by, he's packing while he talks.
"Course," John says.
"Huh." The thumping noises – John has a vision of DVDs being thrown into a box – stop. "So – maybe I should put mine in storage."
John swallows. Okay, this is serious. This is a man's sci-fi collection they're talking about. Somehow they've moved from email buddies who fuck after concerts and break up before they've begun anything to this - men with a double set of DVDs and fuck, he's this guy? He sets his jaw. "Well – "
"On the other hand, maybe I should bring them. There's always the other house – what if I go back there at four in the morning and I'm struck by the need to contemplate the battle readiness of the X-Wing over the Y-Wing fighter? It's happened," Rodney says wistfully.
"Yeah. Other house – yeah I . . . "
"Or perhaps I'm in the mood for Empire and you're in the mood for Jedi and – "
John frowns, baffled. "Who picks Jedi over Empire?"
"You might have some sort of – urge."
"To watch – I don't know – small furry animals vanquish other species much larger than themselves and arguably more technologically advanced."
"I want that, I can go spy on the goddamn rabbits in the radishes," John drawls.
Rodney sighs – John can almost picture the look of concentrated patience on his face. "Do we need two copies?" he asks.
John swallows. "I really don't know," he manages.
"We're pathetic," Rodney offers.
"Yeah," John agrees.
"It's a DVD."
A pause. "Are your hands sweating too?" Rodney sounds vaguely strangled.
"I haven't been this damn light-headed since the last time I swallowed helium at Brad's birthday party," John confesses.
There's a choking noise on the other end of the line, and after a split-second of panic, John realizes Rodney's laughing.
"We lose," Rodney manages. "We're having an existential crisis over a digitally recorded tale of ambiguous outlaws and renegades, up against The Man."
John half-smiles. "Fuck you." He pulls a beer out of the fridge. "And make sure you pack your goddamn baseball bat."
It's easier when they're together – when Rodney comes back with two suitcases of journals and a selection of shirts in dubious shades of brown; when the truck shows up in Iowa City and Rodney stops just short of an apoplectic fit over the way the movers man-handle his filing cabinets; when – with eight enormous boxes piled haphazardly in the bed of the truck - they stop at the grocery store on the way back to the farm, and reach for pepperoni frozen pizza at the same time.
The bookcase – stained and polyurethaned in Rodney's absence – fills with books, and John doesn't say a word when Rodney thumbtacks his poster of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to the inside of the bedroom door. They argue about the best way to file Rodney's bootleg copies of Dr Who - by order of Doctoral incarnation (Rodney's preference) or by who was coolest (John's). John draws the line at a lime-green lava lamp that Rodney admits came from an ex-girlfriend who was overly fond of rats ("her laboratory rats – what do you - you think I date people who comb dumpsters for affection?" "Do you?" "I'm not dignifying that with an answer." "Clearly that means 'yes' . . . " "You are so sleeping in the wet patch tonight . . . ") but finds an empty ice cream carton in which Rodney can store his peanut butter cups, so the mice don't get them, if mice should show.
They make little adjustments – John stops buying orange juice, and Rodney starts drinking his coffee without cream – and touch by touch they learn just where to press and stroke and nip to make one another fall apart. They learn to take their time, to forget the urgency of separate time zones, to kiss and tease wrapped around one another, moving slowly, until they're quaking with something that almost hurts.
(When John finally presses inside Rodney's body it's August, humid, and with his lips against the curve of Rodney's spine, John swears the whole damn world's gonna come apart, can't hold together, not after this).
Rodney goes back to Berkeley again in September – there's a department meeting he can't miss if he has any hope of brow-beating his colleagues into supporting the regional super-collider rather than a fund for new potted plants, wall art, and carpet in the lounge – and there are grad students to terrify, four prelim exams to administer, and meetings with two deans and the VP of research to suffer through in painful silence. John comes back from helping Arnold Miller lay a new deck out the back of his ranch house to find Rodney's deluged his inbox with piercing insights into the workings of his day.
Subject: Kill me now
If Jenkins doesn't shut up about the earth-shattering implications of fully appreciating his research into the fluffy bunny, ill-defined, useless, brainless, machinations of universal entropy, I will fashion a hollow-tipped spear from the pencil in my hand and launch it directly at his heart.
Subject: No really
The only forms of life who should be as interested in questions of carpeting as some of my colleagues seem to be are carpet-eating bacteria, hidden in some remote pocket of the universe, who lack the higher brain function to understand what carpet is.
Every second I sit here, another neuron dies.
Also, you're wrong. Tom Baker was way cooler than William Hartnell.
I finally understand. This is all an elaborate experiment to gauge the efficacy of stupidity as a weapon.
I think I may be bleeding from my eyes.
John grins and writes back the details of his epic battle with the squirrels over at the Millers' place; itemizes the seven splinters he earned and the events that caused them to get buried in his palm, his forearm, and his thigh; and sketches out the bike ride he's planning to take the next day, since he refuses to spend another afternoon hammering planks to framing when it's 75 degrees and the sky's a careless, yawning blue.
Hope you're not actually bleeding from your eyes, buddy. Pretty sure that'd make it hard to operate a super-collider, no matter how damn smart you are.
Twinkies were on sale at the gas station. I bought you four boxes and a lighter that says "World's Best Iowan." That way, if you get stuck in another meeting next time you have to go back, you can set everyone on fire with more than your mind.
Rodney flies in a week later, still vaguely dazed and gibbering about the boundaries of science versus high-loop carpet-weave when John fetches him from the airport.
"So then, as if he hadn't already proven his monumental stupidity by claiming to have read Johnson's theorem on . . ." Rodney pauses as they reach the truck, turns his head to look out over the fields that stretch in every direction, at the sun low in the sky that's almost the same color as ripening corn. "Wow I – " He looks at John over the hood of the truck, expression somewhere between stricken and elated. "I'm home."
John feels some strange, warm pressure build in his chest, and ducks his head, looks toward the sunset himself. "Yeah," he nods, and opens the door, climbs in the cab and turns the ignition while his lungs and stomach work out their proper places in his body again.
"I may have to hyperventilate," Rodney says, climbing into the passenger seat, looking pale.
"Go right ahead," John offers placidly, and puts the truck in reverse. He's about to back out of the parking space when he realizes he can't, slams on the brake and reaches to wrap his right hand around the back of Rodney's neck, pulling him in to roughly kiss his temple. "Alright," he says, letting go, looking over his shoulder out the cab window and trying to ignore Rodney's look of surprise.
"You – "
John swallows and nods toward the booths where the parking attendants sit. "Got a dollar?"
"Yeah," Rodney murmurs, and when John glances in his direction he's smiling as if he just worked out some puzzle or another. "Yeah I do."
Rodney works, and once or twice a week doesn't come back to the farm, showing up the next night creased and stale, with ink marks on his face where he fell asleep on top of his pen. John gets used to the Rodney McKay Early Warning System – learns that when Rodney twitches in his sleep he's likely, moments after, to sit bolt-upright in bed, eyes alight with some feverish new understanding, before scrambling out from beneath the covers and hurrying away to find his laptop. The laptop itself's a marker, a signal, and John accepts that when the computer's on he barely exists in Rodney's world. There are other compensations, so he doesn't mind - like Rodney's feelings toward his work boots and tools.
"You weren't kidding about me being your bit of rough, were you?" John asks, startled, the night he comes home from roofing the Giddons' place. Pinned against the kitchen door, he's still clutching the insulated coffee mug he took to work that morning.
Rodney leans in to suck on his neck. "Not remotely," he pants, and his fingers are quick and busy at John's fly.
John thinks it over with what brain cells aren't burning away at Rodney's touch. "I could wear the boots more often?"
"Okay," Rodney mumbles breathlessly as he falls to his knees.
It gets to be a habit that they head down to Mitch's bar either Friday or Saturday night, sometimes both, and by October Rodney's finally stopped sitting with his back against the wall, glancing at the rest of the regulars out of the corner of his eye. Whether by innate talent, an appreciation for the geometry of the game, or blind luck, he proves a prodigy at pool, and twice wipes the floor with Brad, pocketing a penknife, a piece of chalk, two half-eaten packets of gum, four unused condoms, and just over $50 in cash. It's October 11th when the whole bar learns that after six beers, Dr. Rodney McKay, Ph.D. can be reliably trusted to break out into song, and after seven, climb on the bar and impersonate Sean Connery with uncanny precision. It's October 12th by the time John finally manages to pry Rodney away from the jukebox and take him home, laughing as he tumbles him into bed and strips off his clothes. Rodney helpfully accompanies the whole procedure with a slurred rendition of 'Crazy' by Patsy Cline, and kisses John on the ear before falling into a sudden, abandoned sleep, sprawled diagonally across the bed. A week later Rodney's sick as a dog with - "plague, it has to be plague – bubonic plague most likely" –and things get abnormally quiet while he sleeps off his cold.
Come November, John decides the clan should descend on his place for Thanksgiving, and Rodney approaches the idea as if the meal is his prey and he's the predator who must make an efficient kill. He wanders off at the grocery store, eschewing the frozen food aisle, turning up later with a can of mushroom soup in his hand, reading the instructions for green bean casserole with a singular intensity. John explains the concept of pot-luck again, but Rodney looks so crestfallen John sets the soup in the cart and suggests they go find French onion rings and a disposable baking pan.
(In the end, the holiday's memorable not for the fact that Brad brings a keg as his contribution, or that Mitch thinks Cheez-its are a side dish, but for the conversation Rodney tries to have with his sister that night, holed up in the bedroom, awkwardly trying to reach across distance and protective indifference to patch together his family again.)
Rodney flies to California the following Monday, chasing the tail-end of November toward warmer climes. There are two grad student dissertations in his carry-on, inked in vicious red pen, and two defenses scheduled for the next ten days. John sees him off, raises his hand in a haphazard wave as Rodney looks back just before the security check-point - hoards the sight of his crooked smile, watches as Rodney sets his laptop on the belt, his bag behind it, and steps through the scanners into a different world.
They talk that night, briefly, barely, but the next evening Rodney calls unnaturally early and John can all but reach out and touch the desperation that's live and dangerous on the line.
"Rodney? What happened?" He's tensed, poised for action, and has to consciously order his muscles to relax.
"Did I ever - mention . . . Katie?"
John frowns. "Katie who?"
"Katie Brown who – she - I might've . . . before you and I were – a thing. That night. That thing. Before that - I might've been, sort of, perhaps, involved? With her?"
"You were dating someone?" John asks, surprised.
"No! No, not dating, it was – a mutually beneficial arrangement where we both had sex without either of us having to invest time in a relationship and divert precious energy and resources away from our work."
"Wow. You're a freak."
"She's a botanist."
"Well that explains everything."
"I just – oh god . . ."
John wet his lips. "How about you sit down and take a breath? I can hear your blood pressure rocketing two time zones away."
"I'd love to, really I would but in this situation – this . . . . situation, it's – impossible. I can't I . . . oh god."
"Head between your knees, buddy."
Rodney's voice is muffled. "Okay."
John fights against a creeping sense of panic. "How about you tell me what's going on?"
Rodney makes a small, primal sound that sounds a lot to John like someone dying.
"She's pregnant," Rodney whispers.
"Oh." John tilts his head, confused. "Well – that's nice?"
"No. No no no no no it's not, she doesn't – she was going to, and then she decided she couldn't, she wasn't cut out for – she has incredible work to do and - and she's not, not happy, not at all, no, not happy. She yelled a lot, and then I yelled, because I didn't know, what could I possibly do when I didn't know? It's Iowa, it's not the end of the earth, she could have called, she could have emailed, she could have camped outside my office door when I came back the last time, or the time before that and . . . "
"Uh - John squints at the flyer on the fridge that itemizes the Hawkeye football games that season. "I'm not following."
Rodney makes the dying noise again. "She's not newly pregnant. She's – 39 weeks or something – she's huge."
John winces. "I don't think you're supposed to say that kinda thing about pregnant women . . . "
"It's – " John has no recollection of ordering his limbs to move, but suddenly he's sitting on the kitchen floor. "Jesus."
"Yes, yes, exactly, invoke deities - entirely appropriate, begging, pleading, bribery, whatever you can muster – "
John's mind runs madly in seventeen different directions at once. "So – you're calling to uh . . ."
"Right, and you're – gonna stay out there?" He sets his jaw against the poisonous twist in his stomach.
"Well, I can hardly do anything else, I mean – "
"Well, right, you should do the right thing by her and I'll just – "
"You'll just what?" Rodney's voice vibrates at an impressive pitch.
"Well, I – I know this is pretty difficult for you and so, you know, I won't make a fuss. I mean, I can ship your stuff back and – " John grimaces, empty, hollowed out in an instant.
"My stuff?" There's a pained gasp on the other end of the line. "Oh God, you're breaking up with me. Oh God, oh God, oh God – "
John tries to clear a path through the fog of his thoughts. "I'm – what?"
"I can't blame you." Rodney sounds heartbroken. "I can't blame you, if the positions were reversed I don't know that I could – "
"Rodney – " John bangs his head against the fridge. "Slow down, start over – I'm not . . . I'm not breaking up with you, you're breaking up with me."
"I am not!"
"I meant I'm – the baby's due any day, and she doesn't want the kid! Of course I have to stay here until the baby's born!"
The yelling penetrates the haze of confusion clouding John's brain. "She doesn't want the kid and - you want the kid? And – "
"Yes. Sort of. Well, not really, can you imagine me with a child, the horrors I'll inflict, the bodily fluids I'd have to grow comfortable with? It seems likely it'll be a venture into utter catastrophe and I should probably start a college fund and one for therapy right away, but – I'm not . . . I couldn't - just . . ."
"No, no, I get it, I – " John rubs at his forehead, trying to push away the nightmarish headache building behind his eyes. "Are you saying you wanna come back here? With a kid?"
"I can go to the house in Iowa City. I'd understand if you – "
"Are you fucking insane?"
"I – well." Rodney sounds as if he's considering the idea. "I think after today, quite possibly."
"You'll – " John looks around the kitchen, as if the spatulas and steak knives might have advice. "You'll come home and we'll . . . we'll work this out. We'll figure something."
"Yeah." John wishes he sounded more sure because he's sure, he's sure without having the faintest clue why he's sure, and that should scare the shit out of him, but it doesn't, and that's fucking terrifying.
Rodney's breathing hard. "So – "
"Yeah." He nods, as if that can help when Rodney can't see him.
There's a poignant silence on the other end of the line. "John?"
"I'm - gonna be a dad."
"Yeah." And this is when he says what a great dad Rodney'll be, but the words are lodged somewhere in his throat, which seems to be closing, locking out air.
"Yeah. You'll – you're smart."
John lets out a long breath. "Fuck."
A huff of rueful laughter. "You have no idea." A long, fragile silence. "I don't mean to be – you know, or – presume that you – but I . . . I wish you were here."
John tenses, ready to start packing if that's what he should do - and he'd love to know what he should do, because sitting on the kitchen floor and banging his head against the fridge doesn't seem like a long term plan. "Should I come out there?"
"No, no, I – who knows how complicated it could get and – " Rodney swallows audibly. "I just miss you."
"Yeah." John lies back against the kitchen floor, feeling the truth of it deep in his belly. "I miss you too." And he stares at the ceiling and listens to Rodney's breathing start to slow, lost for words but as close to him as he can get.
John doesn't sleep. He knows what he's doing to a point – 1) get Rodney through this, 2) bring him home – but then everything dissolves into a messy puddle of frantic indecision and the only thing he's marginally sure of is that he doesn't know what he's doing with his own life, never mind about some kid's. Things get even messier when he hits that wall: he's selfish, he admits it, and he wants Rodney to himself, resents this interruption into something that was headed someplace good. From there it's barely half a breath before he's knee-deep in anger, yelling at a Rodney who's only present in shadows, pointing out a condom's hardly a revolutionary idea, that someone so fucking smart should surely be able to figure out prophylactics.
He's exhausted by the time he's done; by the time he's kicked the wall and pointed out to whomever's listening that he did not goddamn fucking sign up for this; by the time he's slid down the wall to sit in a heap, and stare at the covers on their undisturbed bed.
Sometime before dawn he picks himself up, shuffles downstairs and sets a pot of coffee brewing. He pads to the basement, to a set of shelves filled with mementoes he couldn't throw away but didn't want to see, and pulls a set of photo albums from a cobwebbed sleep. Back in the kitchen he sits down at the table, coffee mug in hand, and swears softly but viciously before he cracks open the past.
He remembers parts of the childhood captured here, tucked between pages of photos from the county fair and annual church fete. His own face grins out from the branches of apple tree that died in '79, from the porch swing where his grandma shelled peas, from beneath the kitchen table where the canning circle made swift work of plum jam. The workroom where his grandpa made table after cupboard after chair stands immortalized in a dog-eared print, and he spies his own feet up in the rafters, his grandpa painting a bookcase below, the sepia color of all his best memories.
But the parts of himself he's shut away are here too – his mom's ready smile; the snap of her dish towel as she chased him from the kitchen; their two heads bent together over a book about flight. And his father, disdainful, barely tolerating the indignity of being captured in a snapshot, his back ramrod straight and resentment in his eyes.
John touches a picture of his father, but not the outline of his father himself. He snaps the album closed and picks up his coffee, drinks it quickly and climbs back upstairs to find jeans and a shirt. By the time dawn's a glimmer on the eastern horizon, he's tugged on a jacket and headed to the barn, pulled out the rocking chair that's been standing in a corner. "So. You're thing number three," he murmurs, and sets down his mug, turns to the shelves full of half-used paint cans, and searches for the color of his grandfather's belief.
There's no time to talk about the things that they should be talking about – Rodney's acting on blind faith, denial, talking to lawyers and controlling what he can, and while it's clear both of them are reeling, stunned, they seem to have reached an unspoken agreement that all conversation about what this means should be postponed until one or the other of them has slept or is sane.
Not that Rodney seems likely to turn sane any time soon. "Rodney, no." It's one in the afternoon, and John's slouched at the kitchen table, staring at a world made blurry by exhaustion.
"It's easy enough – the software's already installed on my computer, the webcam's in place, it's merely a question of creating a link to whatever high-speed network is easiest – I'm sure the hospital has a hackable system, and given a few minutes I can set everything up so that you can see what – "
"Rodney?" John clears his throat. "Not that I don't want to be part of this experience, but I kinda like to be introduced to a woman before I see her vagina."
"I asked Katie – she said it would be fine. Nothing underhand."
"Well it's nice that she's consented – I'm saying I don't consent."
"But – "
"It's a little weird."
"It's one of life's most natural and beautiful processes!"
John squints as though pained. "Did someone give you a brochure?"
Rodney makes a small, derisive sound. "The nurse-practitioner may have provided me with some information earlier this morning, yes."
"Well, I'm thrilled you get to experience the miracle of birth, buddy, but I don't think this is a team sport."
"I – " Rodney pauses for a second. "I'd rather not have to do this on my own."
John raises an eyebrow, jamming the phone between his shoulder and his ear, slouching further against the table. "I kinda think she's the one doing this on her own . . ."
"Yes, yes, of course – it's just that if I knew you were seeing it too I'd feel – "
John sighs. "That, right there – that's emotional blackmail."
"Is it working?"
"Rodneeeeey . . ."
"Is that a yes?"
In the end John's thankful for the link – there are four hours between the call to say Katie's in labor and Rodney hacking into the hospital's network and by then John's so frustrated by the great, yawning silence emanating from California that he's ready to do something drastic, like drive to goddamn Berkeley, or start watching infomercials for Proactiv, anything to distract him from the fact that his life is changing on a dime and he knows how to clean and reassemble a gun but not how to change a diaper, and that doesn't seem like a promising sort of start for a sort-of, possible, maybe-if-he-wants-to-be pseudo-dad. He sighs with relief when he sees the link flicker to life on his computer – even if, for several moments, he's treated to a horrifying close-up of Rodney's nasal hair and the shot's at an angle like some kind of crazy independent film – but he waves back when Rodney waves into the camera before realizing the video feed only runs one way. Rodney gestures with his cell phone and John runs to the kitchen, snatches up the landline the moment it rings.
"Okay, can you see things?"
"Well – not right now. I'm in the kitchen."
"Yes, yes, I mean – in general. Did the link work?"
"Yeah, and man, I'm getting you nose-clippers for Christmas."
"What? Oh – did you . . . unfortunate . . . "
"Look, this is nice and all, but your link works, and you should probably get back in the room with the nice lady who's pushing your heir into the world and I should go back to pacing a hole in the rugs and – "
"Okay. Yes. Plan, I like plans." Rodney sounds stunned. "I – okay, so I'll talk to you – "
"After. Okay. I love you." And the line goes dead.
Rodney's little bombshell gives John plenty to freak out about in the long hours before the main event begins and Katie Brown starts yelling epithets of a caliber that suggest there's Irish in her family. Things really start getting good when she punches Rodney in the arm and Rodney steps away, yelling vaguely encouraging things from a distance about the trajectory and velocity of objects meeting resistance and immoveable force. John, who's gnawed his fingernails down to the quick already, makes a split-second decision, runs out to the truck, pulls out the football that's jammed behind the drivers seat, and pounds back inside, glad to finally have something to do with his hands.
He's glad he's not in California – he's pretty sure Katie wouldn't appreciate his quarterback stance as he watches, or his suggestion she go for a touchdown when the doctor tells her to push. But the analogy works for him, and he whoops and cheers like she's made third and down every time she sags back against the pillows. When the baby's head finally crowns he gasps, appalled, winces and shuffles his feet as the rest of the body appears, and breathes "Hail Mary," as the baby starts to cry.
Rodney cuts the cord, and John laughs affectionately, crazily at the trembling in Rodney's hands and the look of wonder on his face. And when, minutes later, Rodney brings the baby over to the cam and murmurs, "Finn McKay," so that John knows his name, it's all John can do not to weep like a child himself. Instead he throws the football across the room, breaks a lamp, and goes to fetch a beer, rubbing the heel of his hand across his aching heart the whole time.
The next twelve days are a patchwork of hurried conversations and middle-of-the-night emails, none of which are particularly coherent on either end. It's hard to connect – Rodney's exhausted, sleeping when Finn sleeps, palming off his infant son on the administrative assistants in the department while he eviscerates his grad students and begrudgingly grants their PhDs, gabbling at John on his cell phone when he has a minute. He tries to explain – "She just walked into my office! Enormous! Pregnant! And the math's not hard, forty weeks – March, December - and I tried to sit down because everyone knows I have a trick knee under situations of grave stress and I may have, possibly, missed the chair" – and everything's peppered with a running commentary – "Please don't cry? Please don't – ohh, oh no, that's a new wail. Oh shit, what does that mean? Could you – just – skip all those really annoying milestones of human development and tell me what you need? Finn? Please?"
By the time John drives Rodney's car to the airport to meet their flight, baby carrier strapped firmly into the back seat and shades on the side windows to keep off the sun, he's almost completely sure that throwing up would feel fantastic. The waiting is interminable – the flight lands, passengers trickle into the concourse, but Rodney's not among them, and the trickle abates long before he hears Rodney bitching at hapless airport staff about the soulless idiots who own the airlines. When Rodney finally rounds the corner, John realizes why it took him this long – he's hauling his laptop case, his bag, a large, quilted tote the size of a small house, has a bottle of formula clasped awkwardly in one hand, a magazine under his arm, and of course there's Finn, fast asleep in his baby carrier. John's struck dumb.
"Hi," Rodney says tentatively, coming to a halt a good five steps away.
John clears his throat. "Hi."
"I see that. Can I . . ." John wets his lips nervously and steps forward, takes the baby carrier out of Rodney's hand and sets it gently on the floor, crouches beside it. "Hey buddy," he whispers, touching the back of one of Finn's hands. Finn squirms a little, but carries on sleeping, and John realizes he's in a whole world of trouble where his heart's concerned. "So – "
"So." Rodney sets down all his other bags – he looks miserable, anxious.
John looks up. "God, I missed you," he murmurs and stands, tugs Rodney into a rough, graceless hug and holds on until he feels Rodney's arms come up to hug him back. They stand there for a long moment, quiet, holding on for what feels like dear life, Finn sleeping beside their feet.
Rodney balks for a moment in the parking lot when he realizes John didn't bring the truck – "it's just . . . no, I get it, you're right . . . it's just it's always been the truck," – and he's deathly quiet on the drive home, dozing against the passenger window, occasionally turning to check Finn's okay. John feels like someone's thrust a turn-key into his back, slowly tightening a spring inside him as though he's some clockwork toy ready to perform, but he keeps his silence since he's no idea when Rodney last slept, and it seems like a good idea to let Finn sleep too.
Back at the farm he lets Rodney scoop Finn out of the baby carrier – contents himself with hauling in the luggage, the other baby seat, the diaper bag, the laptop case. "Upstairs," he says to Rodney as he sets everything down in the kitchen. "I bought a crib."
"You didn't have to – "
"Rodney? Go put the kid down."
He gives Rodney a minute, then climbs the stairs himself, makes his way to the spare room that he's spent the last twelve days transforming. Rodney's standing in the middle of the room, Finn still in his arms, gaping, wide-eyed as he takes everything in.
"Is it okay?" John asks.
"Okay?" Rodney manages. "It's – "
It's a room that was painted cream the last time Rodney saw it, with a full-sized bed covered in a patchwork quilt, and bookcases against the wall filled with equal parts junk and ancient editions of National Geographic. Now the room's blue – sky blue on the walls, the night-sky on the ceiling – with a crib and changing table, a dresser and a toy chest. There are blocks by the window, and a bear by the door, and the rocking chair John's been building piece by piece is set in the corner with a lamp at its side.
"I mean – I didn't ask if it was okay, the colors and the – " John ambles across the room, sets the airplane mobile spinning above the crib.
"It's – I never imagined . . . I can't believe you . . . "
John turns and Rodney's deathly pale, so he moves quickly, scoops Finn out of his arms, and nudges Rodney back toward the chair. "Head, knees," he says, and shifts to settle Finn in his crib, runs a gentle hand over the shock of dark hair sticking up every which way on the top of Finn's head. "He has my hair," he laughs softly.
Rodney laughs brokenly.
"It's gonna be okay, you know" John offers.
Rodney looks up. "I can almost believe that," he says, strangled, "except I haven't had any coffee."
John smiles and tugs him up out of the chair, grabs the portable baby monitor from a bookshelf, and heads downstairs. He busies himself with the coffeepot, pulls out the really good Hawaiian beans, lets Rodney sit at the kitchen table and take everything in.
"You – "
There's the scrape of a chair and John turns to see Rodney cross to the stove. The coffee can's back on the shelf above the spices, a new strip of tape stuck to the front, with FINN inked in big black letters where BIKE used to be. "I?"
Rodney looks at him, amazement on his face, and barely fumbles the coffee can to the stove top before he reaches out, pulls John close, and kisses him sloppily – warm, intense. John lets himself be backed up against the kitchen counter, slips his hands into the back pockets of Rodney's jeans, welcomes the scrape of Rodney's stubble against his jaw. They'll make it work, he thinks - he's certain; knows it from the pressure inside his chest, and if he can't quite say the words yet, can't quite vocalize how he feels, he can offer up new paint in the spare room and a coffee can above the stove, and maybe Rodney'll work out that he loves him back.