John falls into the habit of dividing his life into stages during college (a period known as stage six – Post-Dad's Control, pre-The Rest of Everything). At twenty-one comes graduation, the beginning of stage seven; by thirty-one he's stacked up stages eight through twenty-nine. Now, with a little gray at his temples, a son tucked under his arm like a football, and a truck parked in the driveway, running on nothing but sheer luck and the benevolent charm of the odd hail Mary, John Sheppard enters stage thirty-eight of his life. "What?"
"I think we should open a joint checking account," Rodney repeats.
John blinks. "Huh."
It seems like a smart idea – a shared account for bills and groceries, diapers and satellite TV so there's hockey and baseball available year round – and Rodney's already thought it through, decided they should each stick in a chunk of money, a share of what they earn.
Then it gets sticky.
John's never asked how much money Rodney makes. It's never interested him; they have enough. The house is in good shape, there's always beer and milk in the fridge, gas in the tank of the truck, and Finn has as many jars of food as he can rub with great solemnity into his hair. But suddenly he knows Rodney's income down to the last dime – Rodney emails him a spreadsheet, and there it is in black and white, an awful damn lot of figures, some from the U, most from the government, and John's pride gets itself into several creative knots when he realizes he might be a kept man.
He tries to fill in his half of the spreadsheet, but it's difficult – he makes enough for what he needs, but it's not as if it's dependable income. He's still working on Mr. Brenneman's plane, so that's a nice, bi-weekly chunk of change, but the odd-jobs he does between times have no rhyme or reason and he puts away what he can when he can – there's no monthly debit from his checking account into his savings, storing away for everyone's future. His idea of long-term planning's to throw his spare change in the coffee can above the stove, a can that still has Finn's name taped to the front.
With a bit of effort, he manages to talk himself down from the ceiling and dismiss some really chilling visions of himself in an apron, cooking dinner, serving it just as Rodney walks in the door with a trilby tipped over his brow and a pipe between his lips. It's not like that – he knows it's not; Rodney's never brought this up before; they've muddled along just fine. Rodney's just trying to be fair, to think of contingencies, like one of them driving off the road in a fiery accident or exploding when the death-ray Rodney's been working on turns sentient and starts shooting those it considers enemies.
John pushes the laptop away and buries his head in his hands, reminding himself to breathe and not be such a fucking idiot. He half hears Rodney come into the room, pausing as if to size up what has to – in its own repressed, years-in-the-Air-Force kinda way – look like a pretty respectable panic attack.
"You okay?" Rodney asks gently, touching his shoulder.
"What do you do for a living?" John asks, peering between his fingers.
"I – " Rodney blinks. "I'm a physicist?" He frowns. "Did you hit your head on the desk again? I told you to stop emailing that talk radio station, even if they are completely . . ."
John stands up, jams his hands into the pockets of his jeans and starts pacing. "I'm just asking – "
Rodney chews on his bottom lip. "You know I can't tell you."
John pauses, looking out the window of the study into the yard. "Are you – " He shrugs as if it's no big deal. "Doing something that'll get everyone killed?"
Rodney pauses. "Define everyone," he says at last.
"Well how do I know who you mean?" Rodney says, gesturing wildly. "Everyone in this house? Our neighbors? The inhabitants of the state of Iowa? Just the idiots who keep buying lottery tickets when I'm trying to go through the 'ten items or less' aisle at the store with critically necessary boxes of macaroni and cheese? Who?"
"Everyone!" John says, suddenly angry. "How about that? How about everyone."
"No," Rodney says, mouth set into a firm, unhappy line. "I am not personally trying to get everyone in the world killed."
John eyes him sulkily. "Are you doing something that could allow someone else to get everyone in the world killed?"
Rodney looks like he's thinking about it.
"Jesus, you are!" John explodes.
"I'm thinking! There are – variables!" Rodney snaps. "Quantum mirrors and the half-life of naquada and . . . " He presses his lips together, tilts his chin. "I . . . can't say."
John sags and slides down the wall to sit on the floor. "Are you working on a death ray that's going to become sentient and kill you when it decides it doesn't like the code that compels it to call you Master?"
Rodney looks utterly perplexed. "I – "
"So long as I don't have to wear an apron," John says feebly, and gestures to the finished spreadsheets.
By the law of averages, gravity, something, nothing much changes because of the checking account except the sort of checks John carries. Rodney wants plain checks – possibly with the heraldic lettering so that the 'Dr' in 'Dr. Rodney McKay' looks sufficiently impressive – but John disagrees and orders them both several sets of superhero checks. It takes a while for Rodney to stop complaining, especially since all the checks feature guys and he really wanted Wonder Woman to make an appearance, but John points out it's a hell of a lot more fun writing out a check for truck repairs when Batman's staring grim death at the mechanics. After that Rodney starts using the checks with precision – Superman when he's sending money to his alumni association (to go into a fund for supporting genius Canadians of either gender who think the humanities are horseshit and want to devote themselves to science. He'd put a clause into the arrangement to prevent them from choosing Johnson as an adviser if he was allowed, as well as one requiring that they yell a lot at hapless idiots, but it ends up there's only so much a donation can buy), and Spiderman when he's paying property taxes or the annual registration fee on his car, muttering all the while about webs of bureaucracy and being immune.
In the meantime, Finn teethes for about seven years, wailing with such pitiful intensity that both John and Rodney find themselves reading the small print on the Orajel tube in the hope it might suggest parents swallow the whole damn thing and numb themselves to their kid's misery. When that idea's crushed, they debate the ethics of rubbing scotch on Finn's gums (Mrs. Gunderson's suggestion) and then on their own (via a tumbler with a couple of ice cubes for medicinal purposes). Eventually they start freezing everything in sight – not just the gel-toys and teething rings that they've been buying by the dozen, but washcloths and dish towels, Elephant and Bear, Finn's t-shirts and once, memorably, fourteen pairs of his very tiny socks. They stumble through the world, sleep-deprived once again, and Rodney's hair starts to look more and more like John's by the minute. Rodney swears he's heard undergrads calling him Porcupine Pissant under their breath, but he hasn't the energy to get mad, just mutters the information into John's armpit when they're sprawled in bed one night, drooling their exhaustion into the pillows, and John merely hums and points out – slurring his words – that being called Tiggywinkle would've been worse.
Finn's first summer burns into fall and so begins a three week discussion about what they should have him call John, now that his grunts and shrieks are showing signs of becoming recognizable babble. John refuses any version of Dad or Daddy – "those are yours," he tells Rodney. "You donated the swimmers," – which leaves Father (the name John's dad preferred), Papa (". . . right, because it's 1847 and he's a girl,") and Pa ("That's dangerously close to Pap. Pappy." "Pap smear?" "Yeah, see, no.") Finn solves the problem for them, throwing "Baffa" out among the jumble of his first words and pointing at John until the idiots raising him get the idea.
"Baffa." Rodney squints at his son. "It's – "
"Creative," John suggests.
Rodney pales, looks away from Finn, who's sitting in his high chair, painting his toes with peas he's mashed into a passable goop with his own fingers. "Oh god, do you think this means he'll write books?"
"You could write books."
"Yep, yeah, I do. I think the fact he's settled on a nonsense word to summon me means he's going to write the definitive American short story about breasts. And llamas."
Rodney presses his lips together hard and looks at his son. Finn, always glad to be the center of attention, gamely stretches out a hand and wipes pea-guts across Rodney's shirt. "Llamas," Rodney manages weakly.
"Dada," Finn grins, and John hides a smile as Rodney's face softens like it always does when Finn calls him by name.
"You can write a llama book," Rodney whispers awkwardly, and kisses Finn's hair.
"Baffa," Finn giggles, glancing at John and flicking peas onto the floor.
John's never been the kind of guy to feel like life's moving slowly, but with Finn around, it's as if the world's kicked it up a notch, revved the engine and switched to eight cylinders while everyone else was trying to take a leak or find their way to the nursery in the dark. He swears it's only five seconds after Rodney brings Finn home that Finn starts crawling around the living room, and the whole house reveals itself to be a gargantuan death trap, full of sharp spikes, electrical outlets, unstable bookcases and year-old Cheetos that fell down the back of the couch. They buy baby gates – Rodney seems unable to climb over any of them without snagging a foot and tripping spectacularly for at least a week – and plastic doohickeys that keep all the cupboard doors closed. John puts a lock on the door to the basement and takes to vacuuming like it's his new religion, while Rodney decides the best way to make sure the world is safe for a fully-fueled baby is to get down on his hands and knees and try and injure himself if he can. (He finds a thumbtack with the heel of his hand one Sunday afternoon in October, and his triumph at having saved his child from the terrors of a push-pin means he doesn't complain as much as usual when John smears on antiseptic cream and insists he wear a band-aid).
Finn's first birthday arrives with startling suddenness and passes in a blur of brightly-wrapped gifts, grown-ups wearing party hats, and Finn shoving frosting up his nose while Mitch applauds. Rodney doesn't relax until three days after, when it's clear Katie Brown's not going to show up out of the blue with designs on her son, and the mail doesn't bring packages dispatched from California, full of "I don't know, seeds and plants and tubers of evil." Rodney's the one who puts Finn to bed that night, who stands by the nursery window, primed to sound the alarm if a red-head steps out of a cab at the end of the lane.
John moves to stand behind him, slipping his arms around Rodney's solid torso and hooking his chin over his shoulder. "She doesn't want him," he whispers, nose grazing Rodney's ear.
"Why not, that's what I want to know," Rodney whispers sharply. "Why wouldn't she want him? He's – he's . . . "
"She has other things," John reassures.
"Yeah. Plants." He presses his face close. "She knew she couldn't do this, she gave him to us. We're lucky."
Rodney sags. "I just – I haven't . . . " He covers John's arms with his own. "I'm not very lucky, by and large." He tilts his chin. "I don't understand, most days, why you decided I was something you wanted, and to expect I get to have you and him, sometimes . . ."
"Hey," John murmurs.
"I know it's stupid," Rodney snaps waspishly. "Don't lecture."
"Wasn't planning on it."
"It's just – one of those things that intellectually doesn't make any sense and – "
"Makes sense to me."
"Well yes, of course it does, your IQ is notably lower than mine, you can accept all kinds of things that a man of my capabilities finds improbable."
John laughs softly. "Come to bed."
"I'm not tired."
"And Katie Brown's not showing up here," John soothes, tugging until Rodney's turned around and he can kiss his crooked, unhappy mouth. "He's ours. Promise. If your brain's too big to wrap around that, you'll have to go on a little simple-minded faith." He kisses him again, until Rodney sighs against his lips and slips a hand into the back pocket of his jeans, palming John's ass, keeping him close.
"Okay." John ghosts a kiss to his forehead, reaches to wrap a hand around Rodney's wrist and pulls him to their bedroom, strips him bare and puts him back together again with the gentleness in his fingertips and the strength of his arms, his thighs.
It's February when John decides they need a dog.
"We need a dog," he tells Rodney over dinner.
Rodney looks at him over the pile of toast they're liberally smearing with assorted kinds of jam and inhaling as if they haven't eaten in a year. "Dog?"
"Yep. Big rangy mutt of a dog who'll – "
"Dig up your potatoes and ravage your lettuce because yes, I'm anxious to spend another summer hearing how the gods are vengeful and delight in your horticultural trials."
John frowns at him, polishing off the raspberry jam portion of his evening and moving on to strawberry. "Hey, I just think a dog's a part of a kid's – you know. Thing. Life experience."
"Did you have a dog?"
John looks sullen. "No." He licks jam from his fingers. "My dad wouldn't let me have one."
"Mine either." Rodney chews silently. "So really, what we're saying is, we want a dog. Finn's just . . . "
"Convenient," John agrees.
Rodney sighs. "Our parents were shitty."
"Well. Not your mom."
"But everyone else."
Rodney heaps jam on another piece of toast. "Does it have to be a mutt?"
"Why, you want a poodle?"
Rodney throws him a look. "No, actually, I'd like a pretty, pretty shih tzu with a pink ribbon collar," he says dryly.
John grins, raspberry seeds stuck between his teeth, giving him the look of someone with random tooth decay. "You're my pretty, pretty . . . "
"Attack dog," John finishes, and takes another piece of toast. "Mutt," he says again.
"Mutt," Rodney agrees. "We can call him Einstein."
"Or Fart," John offers.
Rodney eyes him. "I hate you," he mumbles, snatching the last piece of toast.
John grins happily. "Pretty, pretty . . . "
Rodney bounces the toast off John's head and when they go to bed, an hour later, finds blueberry preserves in his underwear.
They find their dog – a suitably scruffy, cheerful mutt, exactly to John's liking – at the animal shelter the next Saturday. Finn sets eyes on him and immediately begins a wobbly dance of joy, clapping his hands and stamping his feet, and chanting "Burp Burp Burp!" while his mittens-on-a-string fly in random directions as he waves his arms.
"You coached him," Rodney says, eyes narrowed as he looks at John.
"Don't know what you mean," John replies innocently, leaning against the doorway to Burp's cage - as good an admission of guilt as taking out an advert in the Press-Citizen and paying the extra to have a colored border put around the outside.
"Burp, I ask you," Rodney says, but crouches down and lets the sweet-tempered dog lick his face. John grins while Rodney has his back turned, and gives Finn a thumbs-up. Finn laughs delightedly and tries to replicate the motion, with the unfortunate result of punching Rodney in the eye.
"Ow," Rodney says from the floor of Burp's cage.
Finn peers at him. "Burp, Dada," he says.
Rodney sighs. "Burp," he agrees.
Finn leans in and smacks a clumsy, painful, but well-intentioned kiss to Rodney's eyebrow. "Goo' boy," he says, clasping his hands together.
Rodney blinks in surprise then laughs softly and grabs him, tickling him through his thick winter coat. "Yeah you are," he says above Finn's shrieks, standing up awkwardly. "Your Baffa on the other hand. . . ."
John meets Rodney's eyes for a second and sees such warmth there, such surprise at being so well-loved, that his throat closes and he has to look away. He reaches down to snap a leash onto Burp's collar, looks back up and kisses Rodney's forehead messily. "Baffa's not a good boy," he whispers. "But he loves you anyway."
Rodney ducks his head, nosing Finn's hair, but John still catches a glimpse of his smile and the pink of his cheeks that has almost nothing to do with the cold.
John works through winter and into spring on Mr. Brenneman's plane. It finally looks like a plane again – wings and bodywork in place, polished wood trim fitted snug around new engine gauges. There are moments, just as dusk begins to shroud the Brenneman place in careful secrecy, when he can almost believe he feels the plane vibrate beneath his hand, strain toward the sky, pleading to be set free. He realizes it's likely a trick of his imagination, but he's felt that yearning before in his life, understands what it is to be grounded with your eyes on the clouds – so he pats her hull, lays a warm hand against her wing and makes silent promises that she'll soar by summer.
Rodney's close to some kind of breakthrough of his own, working feverishly, leaving early in a morning, coming home for dinner and bath-time, going back to his laptop once Finn's in bed. John picks up toys, sets the laundry going, keeps the coffeepot full and leaves the Cheetos alone. He's weathered this before, knows that Rodney will find the missing puzzle pieces he's twisting out of the space between atoms and set them in place, collapse into bed and sleep for three days once the theorem's proved and the margins of the universe slip into clearer focus. Whatever this is – this piece of work, this knotted problem – Rodney's bouncing between the U and the study, between the dedicated laptop that's wired to the Colorado systems and the equipment stored in his university labs. When Rodney announces he has to go to NORAD for five days, has to leave in two, John quirks an eyebrow but helps him pack, answers Finn's questions all wrong during the time Rodney's away, and drags Rodney to bed the moment he gets home, kissing over every square inch of his skin.
"It's like you're looking for implants," Rodney murmurs softly, as John explores the inside of his arm with patient kisses.
John stills, feels the heat of a blush on his cheeks.
"You – " Rodney bats at his hands, at his shoulders, wriggling with irritation. "I am not a mandroid!" He clips John behind the ear, tries to knee him, but John's too quick – and the whole thing turns into a furious wrestling match until Rodney's making the helpless wheezing noises that mean he's two seconds from crying with mirth and John relaxes, satisfied.
It's the middle of May when John comes back from the airport in Iowa City – a long but productive mid-afternoon summit with Jeff the mechanic - to find Rodney pacing the living room and vibrating at such a pitch it's a wonder the glass in the windows hasn't shattered.
"She's dating," Rodney yelps as John walks in the door.
"She – uh." John blinks and sets down his backpack. "She who?"
John frowns, not following. "She's dating?"
"Exactly!" Rodney stabs the air with one finger.
John shakes his head as if to clear a fog, and peers at Rodney. "What does that have to do with us?"
Rodney steps closer. "She's dating Brad."
"Huh." John wanders to the fridge and pulls out a beer. "Hey buddy," he says as Finn careens in from god only knows where, uses his leg as a ballast to spin 360 degrees, then launches himself back into the living room again.
"Huh? Huh?? That's all you have? He took her hunting on their second date!"
John hitches a shoulder. "Laura strikes me as a girl who'd like guns."
John blinks. "You remember what I used to do for a living, right?"
"She's shooting at animals!"
"And I shot at people."
"Who had guns!" Rodney yells, waving his arms. "I doubt Bambi's mom is out in the woods toting an Uzi!"
John takes a long pull from his beer. "Shows what you know about the version Disney didn't want you to see."
Rodney sets his jaw. "Laura Cadman is dating Brad, and you see no cause for concern?"
"I reckon Brad'll be okay. She'll wallop him if he gets out of line."
"I'm not concerned about Brad!" Rodney snaps.
John blinks. "You're worried about Laura?"
Rodney tilts his chin, looking uncomfortable. "I feel . . . a little protective of her maybe."
John grins. "Rodney."
"Oh stop it. Wipe that ridiculous smile of your face. She looks after our son! I don't want her traumatized and unable to care for him – imagine the setbacks to the world of science if I were forced to become a stay-at-home dad because Brad couldn't . . . "
John passes Rodney his beer. "Here."
"Thank you." Rodney drinks most of it in several greedy gulps. "It's just – " He eyes the bottle, drinks again, empties it. "She doesn't have anyone to look out for her, not nearby. Her family's all the way over in Storm Lake and . . . "
"So we'll keep an eye on her," John offers.
"Okay." Rodney peels the label from the beer bottle.
"And maybe you should give Jeannie a call."
"I – huh?" Rodney asks, looking confused.
"Trust me," John smiles, and smacks Rodney on the ass on his way to find their kid.
Besides becoming the summer of Rodney and Jeannie's Standing Sunday Morning Phone Call ("heathen hour," John cheerfully tells anyone who'll listen), it becomes the summer of mishaps. All the kids at Laura's daycare come down with a virulent stomach flu that causes noisy, stinking bodily evacuations from both ends, and while John can't help being awed at how much one little body can produce in the way of liquids destined for the toilet, it's a nasty couple of days, trying to keep Finn hydrated and comfortable, and soothing his fears. The moment he's well, Rodney succumbs, and adds projectile hurling to his repertoire of skills. In thirty minutes he's goes from "I don't feel good" to "did you see that?" and John defers that yes, yes he did, and goes to find the Clorox and a hunk of paper towels to do what he never really imagined he'd be doing on his hands and knees for someone he loved. Once Rodney starts to turn the corner, John goes down out for the count, and if it weren't for Mrs. Gunderson, whose home Finn loves – "because there's nothing but danger in every corner and sharp, sharp knives!" Rodney moans, clutching a blanket to his chest – they'd have been officially, well and truly screwed.
After the stomach flu comes Rodney's cleaning binge ("they're lurking, bacteria, everywhere . . .") then two weeks of him sleeping at the lab while some program runs numbers that do things (it's as precise as he'll get, trying to avoid spilling anything that would classify him as a security breach to the powers that be). In quick succession after that, Finn gets a cold, John hammers the nail clean off the middle finger of his left hand, and Rodney beats them all by accidentally eating chicken salad flavored with a little lemon juice.
"I'm sorry," he tells John when the latter skids to a halt by his hospital bed.
"Jesus, God, fucking – Burp on a – don't you ever . . . " John manages before collapsing into a chair, breathing hard, heart beating madly in his chest. Rodney turns his hand over, palm up, and John grabs hold.
"Where's Finn?" Rodney asks.
John looks up, stunned. "I – "
"You left our son somewhere??" Rodney yells with surprising strength for a man on oxygen.
John smirks. "No, but consider that payback number fucking one-of-many, asshole," he whispers and kisses him.
Rodney's unsteady even after he's released from the hospital, and John establishes in no uncertain terms that for once in his goddamn life, he's going to do exactly what the doctor ordered and take it easy and yes he can read as many journals of physics and mathematics as he wants, but he's not going near his lab for at least a week, maybe two. The ultimatum makes Rodney gasp and he visibly gears himself up to protest - but then acquiesces under John's version of the evil eye. He grows even more penitent when Finn won't let him be for two whole days, managing to crawl out of his crib and into bed with them at night, insinuating himself between John and Rodney and fisting his hand in Rodney's shirt, as if to make sure he can't go anywhere or do anything stupid.
"You scared him," John whispers over Finn's tousled, sleeping head next morning.
"I scared myself," Rodney sighs, rubbing a hand over his face. "I was – distracted. I can't believe I didn't . . . it was just there, someone's leftovers from a stupid anniversary party, and I was hungry and . . ."
"S'why you're staying put, just for a while. No more distraction, not like that," John says, finding Rodney's hand, trying to ignore the catch in his voice that he really dislikes, traitorous fucking thing. He hopes Rodney didn't hear it, but the squeeze of Rodney's fingers tells him he did.
"No more distraction," Rodney promises, and smiles apologetically as Finn squirms himself into a more comfortable position, face mashed into the pillow, arm smacking across Rodney's chest.
John takes Finn to daycare come Monday, deciding that routine's probably the best thing to reassure him both his dads are fine, but he works around the farm himself, preferring not to stray too far from where Rodney might need him. He turns over soil in the garden for leeks and zucchini, weeds the spinach he's already planted, fixes the mailbox where some idiot going too fast along the county road clipped it and left it lopsided. Tuesday he clears the brush from the far pasture, cleans out the hay in the loft of the barn, climbs up to the roof and checks the shingles have lasted out the last couple of storms. Finn's tree-house needs attention on Wednesday – a couple of loose boards, an abandoned bird's nest to get rid of, new branches to prune back – and by Thursday he's moved on to the fences, pulling off rotten rails, cutting lumber, hammering everything back together under an increasingly warm sun, casting his shirt aside and working through lunch, happy to feel the strain in his arms and his back, the satisfaction of repetitive, useful work.
He doesn't see the storm coming – only looks up to see the sky turning inside out, black and purple-grey, when he feels the first gust of wind blow in from the west, cold against his back. Working quickly he has time to get the power saw inside, grab his tools, stow them in the barn and lock the doors against the wind, but it starts to rain as he runs back up to the house, large, painful raindrops hammering against his bare shoulders as he dashes into the kitchen and toes off his boots, pulls off his socks.
The afternoon's a loss – there'll be nothing much he can do in the damp aftermath of the storm – so he pops the top button of his fly, pads upstairs to change out of his rain-splattered jeans and check on Rodney. The latter's laid out in the middle of their bed, a journal propped up on his chest, eyes half-closed. John grins. "Caught you," he says, popping another button as he walks through the door. "And you tell people you don't nap."
Rodney blinks, eyes growing wide, and John looks over his shoulder as if someone else might have followed him into the room. No-one's there, and he glances back at Rodney, at the pink flush blooming high on his cheeks, at the way his eyes rake up and down John's damp chest . . . and suddenly it all clicks into place. Smirking, he pads across the room, scratching a thumb along his jaw, feeling stubble rough against his skin. He presses one knee into the mattress, then the other, and crawls up the bed until he's positioned on all fours above Rodney, whose journal has fallen to the side. "Want something?" John asks wickedly.
"Ngggh," Rodney manages, breathing already uneven.
John quirks an eyebrow and leans in to suck on Rodney's bottom lip. Rodney squeaks – it's the most unmanly, fantastic sound John's ever heard and he can't help himself, he grins.
"Oh god," Rodney mumbles as soon as he's able, hands skimming restlessly up and down John's sides. "You – smell of . . . "
"Sweat?" John offers.
"Rain. Rain and – pollen and – yes, sweat." Rodney raises his head as if to kiss him, but John pulls back just enough that he can't reach, making Rodney whine. "Oh god this is embarrassing," Rodney pants, and John glances down, sees what Rodney means. Smiling, he sits back on his heels, straddling Rodney's thighs, runs a finger over the bulge in the front of Rodney's pants. Rodney hisses, so John does it again, right before reaching to pop another button on his fly. He's not wearing boxers, and Rodney's eyes go wide.
"Want something?" John asks again.
Rodney closes his eyes, breathes hard through his nose. "If you touch yourself," he manages, "I'm – going to . . . go off like a rocket." He blushes to the roots of his hair.
John grins and pops the final two buttons. "Promise?" he asks, voice hoarse and low.
Rodney's eyes fly open. "John . . ." he breathes, voice shaking, watching avidly as John licks his palm, kneels up a little, pulls himself free. "Oh god, you're really going to . . ."
John reaches down, tugs at himself firmly, catching his bottom lip between his teeth. He can feel Rodney trembling, vibrations telegraphing up the inside of his thighs where they're pressed tight against Rodney's legs.
"Yeah," Rodney breathes, fingers glancing over the back of John's knees then falling away, winding into the comforter. "Yeah, just like that, god – you look like . . . Oh please . . ."
And fuck, that's hot – Rodney begging with him, pleading with him to keep going, as if he has any mind to stop when Rodney's squirming beneath him, mumbling encouragement, eyes fixed on John's swiftly-moving hand.
"You have no idea," Rodney's whispering, "none at all - you look, you – oh . . . I . . . keep going, keep going . . ."
John whimpers, getting close fast, twisting his wrist and panting a little as Rodney stiffens beneath him. He watches as Rodney's eyes slam closed, as his hips buck and twitch, his hands spasm, and he realizes – oh shit - Rodney's coming just from watching him and oh god that's - he's right behind him, hips bucking, thrusting into his own fist, coming all over Rodney's t-shirt.
Rodney's the first to recover. "Fuck." His eyes flutter open and he smiles unsteadily. "You made me – "
"Yeah," John grins, still breathless, absurdly proud. "I did, didn't I?" He leans down again, kisses Rodney: hot, wet, messy. "Fuck."
Rodney yanks at him, pulls him off balance so that he's mostly sprawled over him. "Was that what the doctor ordered?"
John laughs softly. "Not exactly."
"Thought not." Rodney kisses the skin below John's ear, causing tiny bursts of pleasure to race down his spine. "Good though."
"We'll write it up."
"For medical texts?"
"Mmmmmm. Sure." John's drowsy, limbs getting heavy despite the fact that he's sticky and his open fly's a little uncomfortable against his softening cock.
Rodney shoves at him. "Okay, we're done here, get up."
John snorts. "So romantic."
"You came all over my shirt! I came inside my pants."
"And – this is not the time for either of us to experiment with variations in waxing. Get off me."
"Can I come back later?"
"Come back where?" Rodney sighs.
"Here. Your neck. S'very nice neck."
Rodney huffs a breath of laughter. "If you let me get up and save myself from being glued to my underwear, yes. You can come back later."
"Okay." John rolls off, smiling, eyes still closed.
Rodney kisses him softly before he gets up off the bed. "You were like porn," he says reverently. "Real life porn."
John grins and slides off the bed himself, kicking off his jeans and padding after Rodney, heading for the bathroom. "I'm gonna put that on my tax return. John Sheppard, real-life porn."
"Give the knitting circle something to talk about," Rodney yawns, turning on the shower.
John grins his agreement, and bites at Rodney's shoulder, just because he can.
It's August before the plane – Martha, John's called her, since Rodney shot down 'Mirabelle' as a name that invoked too much dairy cow and not enough charm – is ready to fly. They've missed the fourth of July, and the county fair, but Mr. Brenneman's happy all the same, running an appreciative hand over her bodywork before he has one of the farmhands tow her out to the pasture. He's had a whole team of people mowing all summer, keeping the ground as level as possible in anticipation of this moment, and he nods with pride when John eyes the make-shift runway and smiles with approval.
Rodney's there, balancing Finn on one hip, shifting from foot to foot and trying not to look like he thinks John's lost his mind. "It's safe, yes? Jeff checked everything?"
"Twice," John answers, climbing up into the cockpit with a smile. "And he had Dave check it over too." He's told Rodney this fourteen or fifteen times since breakfast.
"Right, right. And they're both excellent mechanics . . . "
Rodney's voice trails off and John realizes he's probably done background checks on both of them, hacked into who knows what systems and checked out their qualifications, their work histories, their private proclivities for Bud over Miller. "Rodney," he rumbles, raising an eyebrow. "S'gonna be fine."
"I'm sure – I'm sure, I mean, you're an excellent pilot – "
John suddenly wonders if Rodney hacked into his files.
" – and you're more than capable . . . it's just this is – it's made of tongue depressors and canvas and quite possibly horse glue and you're used to something a little more sturdy, I'd imagine, having flown since we figured out, oh, how to weld, and I'm trying to trust that you all know what you're doing but the so-called rivets on this hull, they look an awful lot like thumb-tacks to me, and I know I don't know a great deal about the construction of planes in the 1940s, but I'm an engineer, and I'd very much prefer you were planning to dangle yourself a mile above the earth's crust in something I could trust wasn't made by kindergarteners on a dare."
"Hey," John says solemnly. "I have absolute faith in the work I let Finn do." He pats the hull.
Rodney presses his lips together hard. "Fine. Fine. Just – come back in one piece or I will be forced to track down each bit of your mangled body and lecture every molecule until you disintegrate into dust from shame."
John's face softens and he leans to touch Rodney's face. "I promise you, it'll be fine."
"Of course it will," Rodney says as if John's being ridiculous, and takes a step back.
Finn grins up at John. "Flyin' Baffa?"
"Flying," John smiles, and turns his attention back to the plane as Mr. Brenneman herds everyone to a safe distance. With barely any coaxing – every one of the hours he worked on spark plugs, stripped valves, oil filters and mounts comes to life beneath his hands – the engine catches, propeller making its first lazy sweep. Letting out a satisfied breath John leans back in the seat, pushes his sunglasses higher up his nose, and eases the plane into a turn so that he can check the runway's clear.
He's glad of the turn – the rudder's more responsive than he thought it would be, and he accommodates, mumbles softly at the plane as he finds his bearings, listens to the directions she's communicating through the soft vibration of her hull, the seat beneath him, the drag of her tail. He pauses at the end of the long expanse of close-cropped grass that's his ticket back into the air, thinks idly of the last time he flew, of the loose gravel and packed-dirt landing pad at McMurdo. And then, headphones in place, sight-lines wide on either side, nothing visible over the nose of the plane except wide blue sky, he pulls back the stick, eases up the throttle, and accelerates to the dull roar of the engine. He feels a quiet joy warm in the pit of his belly, adrenaline buzzing beneath his skin as he eases the stick forward, lifting the tail, and there's nothing but clean, sweet air beneath him and the earth as the plane climbs gracefully toward a rightness that's been missing.
There are too many years of training, care, precaution in his hands, his fingers, the read of each gauge, to immediately let out the cackle of glee that wants to break loose from his gut. Instead he focuses, increases his speed by a few knots at a time, gets used to the pull of rudder and stick at each elevation, listens for the whine of the engine doing its job, the perfect-pitch rush of wind over the wings. He banks, gauging the force he needs by touch and response, grins as he catches sight of the runway below, turns toward the Brenneman farm and wiggles his wings as he flies overhead.
There's gas in the tank enough to stay up for a couple of hours, and it's tempting to push, to see how far, how fast the plane can go. John smiles at himself, at the familiar burn of want that's insistent and restless against his palm, but this isn't Ramstein, Bagram, McMurdo; it's home in a fragile yellow-painted shell, and he banks to sweep low along the river, to trace his way to the farm and sweep an arc in the sky above the place he's set down roots.
On his return he lets the plane ride high, coaxing up memory from sheltered places before he skims into a landing that bumps him back to himself, whole where he'd been fractured. And as he cuts the engine, flips the catch on the door and jumps down into the flattened welcome of summer-smelling prairie grass, he smiles at Rodney and stoops to catch his son who's running toward him without the slightest notion of grace, grinning and laughing because his Baffa can fly.
The flights become a weekly thing provided the weather holds – too strong a cross-wind and the plane's a plaything for the elements, no more sturdy than a sycamore seed caught by the breeze that tears across the yard at the farm. It's the last, best day of September before John can coax Rodney to go up with him, and he tries not to laugh at the way Rodney agrees as though he's consenting to a trip to the guillotine.
"You know how this works," John says, watching Rodney inelegantly fold himself into the front seat of the plane, knees wedged wide against the side of the hull. "There's nothing here but good hard science – gravity, air pressure . . ." He slams the door and checks the catch, smiles as Rodney checks it twice more.
"I like to experience science from the comfort of a rather more advanced mode of transportation," Rodney says tightly, pulling on an ancient pair of goggles that Mr. Brenneman loaned him. He has the air of a desperate anti-Biggles.
John slides into his own seat and pulls on headphones. "People flew these things in the war, Rodney. They're safe as houses, unless you're getting shot at by the Axis."
"Oh Jesus," Rodney says, voice crackling over the radio. "Cadman's not down there hunting is she?" John yelps a smothered laugh and pats Rodney's shoulder as the latter grips the edge of the cockpit when the engine rumbles to life.
In early November, Finn starts stealing boxer shorts out of the dresser in Rodney and John's bedroom. John's amused – Finn likes to pull the elastic up under his arms and clutch the extra fabric to his chest like he's wearing the latest in high-fashion sarongs, dotted with e=mc2 or characters from South Park. Rodney, on the other hand, scratches his chin and fires up his laptop, sighs heavily and spins it around so that John can see. "I think we have to start – " he waves a hand. "You know."
John skims the screen. "Potty training." He wrinkles his nose. "You're sure?" Now that he's an accomplished diaper-changer, he's a little loathe to give it up for the unpredictability of dashing to the nearest public restroom with Finn chanting "pee pee pee" along the way.
Rodney spins the laptop back around. "Doesn't like dirty diapers – can articulate wanting to be clean," he says, checking the items off against his fingers. "Can pull up his own pants. Is confident in both standing and walking. . ."
Finn comes trotting in, Burp at his heels, a pair of Rodney's 'has anyone seen my space time continuum?' boxers falling down as he runs. "Snacks!" he demands.
"Hey buddy," John says, gently catching his arm. "You're wearing Daddy's shorts."
Finn nods firmly.
"Why're you wearing Daddy's shorts?" John presses.
"Be like Daddy," Finn beams.
Rodney has the temerity to look proud.
They wrestle Finn into real clothes and head to Target, where it ends up there are limitless products designed to help the hapless parent convince their child to do their business appropriately. They buy a training seat, a portable potty, several packets of pull-up training diapers, and Finn goes wild for the y-fronts covered in dinosaurs. John's the one who discovers the tiny alphabet letters you float in the toilet to improve your son's aim, and privately thinks that's probably a really cool game when you're drunk. He throws two packets into the cart, and Rodney throws him a look that suggests he isn't fooled for one blessed second. (John merely smiles, and privately resolves to get Rodney drunk as soon as possible.)
November stumbles, confused, into December – a flurry of diapers, pull-ups, encouragement and rewards. When Finn's second birthday rolls around, everyone's a little caught off guard, and Jeannie cements the occasion by sending a flamboyantly wrapped package which turns out to contain a snare drum, a cymbal, two tambourines, and a whistle.
"Am I allowed to call her and spew vile names down the phone?" John asks as Finn makes an ungodly racket, beating the hell out of his drum, his cymbal, and the arm of the sofa, clad only in his Tyrannosaurus Rex underwear and a pair of John's sweat-socks, worn like gloves.
"What?" Rodney asks. "I can't hear you!"
"I SAID – " John yells, but gives it up as a lost cause when Burp throws back his head and begins to howl accompaniment to the stylings of Finn McKay.
There's no snow until the middle of January, when the frost-hardened world shifts soft overnight, a storm blowing in from the Rockies to set two feet of accumulation on the farm, drifting over the roads.
"You probably shouldn't go to the lab in this," John says, eyeing the snowfall from the kitchen window, sipping on coffee.
Rodney comes to stand by his elbow. "Probably not," he says cautiously.
"What will you do?" John mumbles.
Rodney eyes him and turns his head. "FINN MCKAY. BOOTS ON, NOW. SNOWBALL FIGHT IN FIFTEEN MINUTES, PRONTO." There's a distant squeal of joy from upstairs and the sound of shoes being thrown around.
John grins. "Have I mentioned I love you?" he asks.
Rodney hitches a shoulder. "What's not to love?" And runs for his coat.
A snowball fight at the McKay-Sheppard farm turns out to be no flippant thing. Dashing out the door, jostling each other with coat-clad elbows, both eye the yard for strategic positions, then run as fast as it's possible through the drifts to stake out their claim. By the time Finn toddles out, wearing two hats but no sweater, his fathers have both built snow forts at either end of the yard, and by the time they've shepherded him back inside and dressed him properly, he's quivering with excitement and needs to pee.
It's almost ten by the time they trample back into the yard again, and Finn decides the most productive approach to playing in the snow is to run screaming between both sets of fortifications.
"You're doomed, Sheppard!" Rodney yells, bright yellow wool hat pulled down over his ears (another gift from Jeannie).
"Oh yeah? You think? You need reminding I'm trained in combat?" John shouts back, the tips of his ears pink as he peers over his snow bank.
"And physics is my bitch!"
John sniggers as Finn asks what a bitch is, and Rodney explains in muffled, moderately ashamed tones.
"How's string theory helping you out now, big guy?" John asks, watching as Finn struggles out from behind Rodney's fort and leaps into a snowdrift with a blood-curdling yell.
"STRING THEORY?" Rodney yells back. "COCK AND BULL."
"FAIRY TALE, FANCY, FRIPPERY, WASTE," Rodney shouts. The clouds above his fort are no doubt from his breath, but John likes to imagine there's actually steam coming out of his ears.
"You know you love it!" John yells.
"I'll show you love," Rodney rejoins, sending a perfectly aimed snowball to smack directly into John's forehead. John shakes off the snow, a little stunned, then grits his teeth and launches three snowballs one after the other, guessing he made two out of three strikes by the accompanying "oof! OOF! Ha!" from Rodney's side of the yard.
They trash talk their way through the fight, and what John can deploy in terms of pitching ability, Rodney more than makes up with an uncanny tendency to plot the proper trajectory for each snowball he unleashes. John convinces Finn to go stick two snowballs down Rodney's neck, and laughs himself stupid at the shrieks from Rodney's fort when Finn accomplishes the task. He finds it rather less funny when Finn pulls up the back of his coat and dumps two snowballs down his jeans.
"Did your Dad - Daddy . . . tell you to do that?" he gasps, hopping around from foot to foot, trying to get ice out of his ass crack.
"Hap' pay-back!" Finn recites, and takes off for another snowdrift.
They play until they're exhausted, until John's limbs feel heavy and his joints are burning, until he's wheezing and coughing with laughter and Rodney has run out of snowballs, preferring instead to enact glove-puppet theatre on the top of his fort. It's hard to be sure, the expressions on his gloves giving so little away, but John thinks he's being cursed back at least seven generations.
"Uncle!" he yells.
The tip of Rodney's yellow hat pokes up from behind his fort. "What's that?"
"UNCLE," John shouts. "I'm freezing!"
"Do I win?"
"DO I WIN?"
"Yes, yes you win," John says, rolling his eyes and standing up. The tips of his fingers are numb, and he's fairly sure his nose is bright red.
Rodney bounces up from behind his fort. "WINNER!" he says, fist-pumping the sky then standing with his arms outstretched above his head.
John can't help himself. He has to smack that with a snowball.
There's still snow on the ground when Brad calls to float the idea of a double date – a proposition that makes Rodney pale as he listens in on John's side of the telephone conversation.
"I think it's a great idea," John says, slouching against the kitchen counter, the phone jammed against his shoulder and his hands tucked under his arms.
"No, no, not a good idea!" Rodney hisses, waving the copy of People magazine he's been using to show Finn how badly Madonna's aging, while waxing lyrical about the mid-80s and the genius of 'Lucky Star.'
Finn, comfortably ensconced in Rodney's lap, pokes at a photo of Jennifer Aniston. "Blue," he says, pointing at her t-shirt. He jabs at Gwen Stefani's lip color. "Red!"
"Crimson, even," Rodney says, frowning as he eyes the picture. "But yes, yes, red. Find the yellow."
Finn obligingly smacks at a picture of Jake Gyllenhaal in a profoundly tasteless shirt. John grins and tunes back into Brad's planning.
"So I figured – maybe seven?" Brad suggests. "That too early?"
"Nah, we'll take Finn over to Ada's place. He likes to play with the poker she keeps by the fireplace, it'll be great." John bites back a snigger at the look of death Rodney flashes his way.
"How's Giavanni's? Too pricey for there to be a bunch of students in there, and no football stuff on the walls so His Majesty can't get all wound up about universities being polluted by Neanderthal sports freaks."
John laughs. "Eh – we'll just ply him with alcohol, he'll be docile in no time."
"I am right here," Rodney snaps.
John grins at him. "Saturday, seven, Giavanni's. We'll be there."
"I'll even go wash a pair of jeans, special."
John shifts and grabs the phone from his shoulder. "I'm hanging up now."
"You mean you don't want to make sure we're not planning on wearing the same thing?"
John snorts and slams the receiver back into the cradle with a grin.
"You're a horrible person," Rodney says, breaking off from reading Finn a review of the pilots NBC may be picking up for fall, complete with running commentary on exactly which part of a person's brain would rot if they watched such garbage.
"It's just dinner," John says, slipping into a chair on the other side of the table. "You like Brad – Jesus, Rodney, you've sung karaoke with the man."
Rodney flushes. "Yes, well – I defy anyone to resist the sing-along temptation of Bon Jovi, and Brad is, despite all indicators, quite gifted at harmony. Also," he tilts his chin, "we were both drunk."
"And I know you and Laura have this bizarre love-hate thing going on . . ."
"She told our son if he sniffed me I would probably smell of bacon, because most Canadians do!"
John hitches a shoulder. "Bacon's a good thing."
"I do not smell of bacon!"
"Bacon?" Finn asks, wide-eyed. "Bacon, Baffa? We's have bacon?"
"Sure," John shrugs. "Want it in a sandwich?" He gets up and crosses to the fridge.
"Sammich!" Finn crows, raising his arms above his head in joy, a miniature version of his father down to the little fist-pump of his hands.
"Can we stay on point here?" Rodney asks with resignation.
"Hey, you're the one who brought up bacon," John points out, crossing the stove and rummaging for the frying pan.
"No, no, Laura Cadman brought up bacon in a twisted attempt to convince my son that I smelled like one of his favorite foods."
"Maybe she meant it like a compliment?"
Rodney sighs. "She'll make fun of my pants."
"Wear the navy ones."
"She'll talk about literature."
"So we'll steer the conversation to Where the Wild Things Are."
Rodney blows out a breath. "He's serious about her, isn't he?"
"I think so." John lays strips of bacon in the pan as Burp wanders in to sit at his feet, grinning his doggy approval of the bacon plan.
Finn tugs on Rodney's shirt. "Laura nice," he says, as if that settles everything.
Rodney whimpers. "Oh, I am so screwed."
In the end the evening's relatively painless. Laura tries to get everyone to talk about Jane Austen, and Rodney twitches so hard he spills wine on the tablecloth. Laura beams, but Brad outmaneuvers her – turns to John and waxes lyrical about the barely harnessed force of nature that's Emma Thompson's boobs in "some film we watched, Snot and Sneakery; Shit and Shitfaced?" John pulls at his beer and calls them all philistines, wags his finger and gets started on Tolstoy, comparing the first battle in War and Peace to the popularity of NASCAR, and Laura backs down with good grace while Rodney pours more wine. Brad grins at John and asks Rodney about something he read in the science section of the Des Moines Register, and they make it through four high-priced entrees without an international incident or a single mention of bacon.
The waiter brings champagne with the desserts, and John looks confused. "We didn't . . ."
"Yeah, we did," Brad says, looking a little sly, smiling at Laura, who's uncharacteristically quiet.
"We did?" John turns to Rodney for backup, but Rodney's got that look on his face, the look that says his big old brain is working overtime and he's just unlocked some secret before anyone else.
"You proposed," he says, pointing a finger at Brad. "You're getting married."
John gapes at the whole table. "What?" he asks, sounding strangled.
"Yeah," Brad says, smiling sheepishly, taking Laura's hand in his. "She likes guns, dude. She watches sports. She's fucking smart – you should see how much people pay her to tell 'em they can't spell! You think I'm letting this one get away?"
"That's – that's . . ." Rodney's spluttering, but he looks touched, not appalled. "I – "
"Besides," Brad adds in a stage whisper. "She has really foxy underwear."
Laura and Rodney manage to bean him with leftover bread rolls at exactly the same moment, which makes John spew beer out of his nose and into his crème brulee. Rodney offers him a napkin while Laura smacks Brad up the back of his head, triggering the peculiar moose-call laugh he saves up for special occasions, and causing half the other patrons in the restaurant to squint murderously in their direction.
"Why are you marrying him?" Rodney asks Laura, while John and Brad honk their mirth.
She gives him a lopsided grin. "He's a good guy." Her grin widens. "And he's great in the sack."
It's Rodney's turn to use alcohol like a reverse nasal spray, and Laura giggles happily, a flushed and delighted bride-to-be.
Somehow – and John's really not going to think about this too much lest it scar him for life – Rodney ends up volunteering to help plan the wedding. It starts with a spreadsheet he makes one night, sitting up in bed, tapping at his laptop and blatantly not picking up on John's patented 'wanna blow me?' look. It quickly escalates into sample freeze-dried rose petals arriving in the mail and four copies of Martha Stewart Weddings getting mixed up with the pile of Sports Illustrateds by the side of the couch, and John finds himself grabbing at Rodney through his pants just to check he still has a cock.
"You are so pathetically stereotypical," Rodney hisses, batting away his hand. "It's not a matter of being a girl, it's a matter of someone being organized! Have you seen Cadman's system for filing her bills? She throws them beside the toaster and those that don't get sucked into the waste disposal unit by week's end, she pays. I'm just injecting a little order into the proceedings."
"You're comparing shades of purple tulle," John points out, nodding at the mess of fabric on the kitchen table.
"Yes, well, she also lacks taste. What's a person to do, allow themselves to be invited to a wedding which will sear the retinas of the guests with the sheer bastardized ugliness of the event?"
"I guess not?" John says, reckoning that's probably the right answer.
"You guess right," Rodney nods, and begins color-coding spreadsheet number four before making a histogram of possible expenditures.
Jeannie calls the following Sunday and floats the idea of the whole Miller clan descending on the farm for three weeks as soon as school's out. John agrees in a heartbeat, ready to forgive even the snare drum incident in return for someone giving Rodney something to fret over besides font styles on invitations.
"We'll need new towels," Rodney says when he hears the news.
"Check." John searches through the kitchen drawers for a pencil, and starts a list on the back of a discarded bill.
"And um – " Rodney snaps his fingers several times, pointing in John's direction. "Blankets."
"It'll be June," John points out skeptically. "And they're from Canada. It'll feel like the tropics to them."
"Yes, because what, Canadians are a different species?" Rodney drawls, bestowing his best 'you are an idiot' look on John. "I just want to be prepared for emergencies and freak weather conditions. You never know. What if there's a tornado and we're forced to flee the house?"
"Oh, well, in that case the blankets'll save us for sure," John agrees.
Preparations absorb Rodney for every moment of the next several weeks. There are rooms to clean, reports to finish, and Rodney valiantly tries to teach Finn the Canadian national anthem in case Jeannie should mock him for not passing on his heritage to his son. By the day before they're due to arrive, everyone's a little squirrelly – a situation that isn't helped when they wake to the dull roar of rain against the roof, an early summer squall pelting the house and the garden with a truly galling level of energy. No one's eager to get up. Rodney can't find his pants, and Finn swears there's a flamingo under his bed, and John doesn't seem to have a toothbrush anymore, and someone starts singing Three Blind Mice (but it really doesn't matter whom since they're all at it five minutes later). It's John's morning for Finn patrol, his turn to coax him through the hoops of face-washing, bed-making, and a running argument of some kind or another, because you're not, John muses, two-and-a-half years old if you're not single-handedly trying to turn your father's hair a little more grey.
"Baffaaaaaaaa . . ." Finn whines, navigating the stairs.
"We had this talk, buddy," John says patiently, steering Finn into the kitchen by way of a hand set gently upon his head. He idly wonders if there's any chance someone could harness the whining of an average two-and-a-half-year-old, and use it to solve the world's energy crisis. "You can go outside when it stops raining." Burp runs past them both with a raggedy stuffed animal in his mouth and gives a muffled bark of agreement.
Finn sighs with the dramatic flair he's been mastering for the last four months, and Rodney looks up sharply from his cereal bowl. He glances back and forth between Finn and John, cradling his bowl close to his chest as if he fears someone might try to steal his breakfast (not so dumb a thing to fear in their particular brand of madhouse, John concedes).
"What?" Rodney asks.
Finn pouts, opening and shutting the trunk of his Hot Wheels Ferrari.
John makes a beeline for the coffee.
"What?" asks Rodney again.
"Baffa's mean," Finn offers.
John rolls his eyes. "Told him he couldn't go play outside until it stops raining."
"Well that's sensible," Rodney offers.
Finn sighs some more, and shuffles a little for added effect.
"You'll just – " Rodney gestures with a spoon, showering the table with droplets of milk. "Get soaked to the skin and catch pneumonia or trip and fall face down in a puddle and drown and I'm . . . against that," he finishes lamely.
John chokes on his coffee.
"Besides which you'll get your clothes wet," Rodney says emphatically, and eats more cereal as if that settles everything.
"Good job," John says, patting Rodney on the shoulder and wandering to the pantry. "You want toast and PB, Finn? Cornflakes?"
"We're out of cornflakes," Rodney clarifies, raising his voice.
John scans the shelves. "Cap'n – oh yeah, no, sugar, bad idea. Um . . . Shredded Wheat?" He wrinkles his own nose at that. The box is probably a year old – a remnant of the unfortunate month where Rodney's digestive tract turned bitchy and stubborn. "Raisin Bran?" Who the hell bought Raisin Bran? He pushes things around. "Cheerios. You want Cheerios, buddy?"
The screen door slams in reply, and John sticks his head out of the pantry - finds himself looking at the back of Rodney's head and a distinct absence of kid.
"Did he just . . . ?"
Rodney lets his cereal bowl clatter to the table. "He took off his clothes!" he says, gesturing helplessly toward the jeans, socks, underwear and shirt piled by the kitchen door.
John crosses the room and yanks the kitchen door open, ready to let loose with the sort of yell he swore he was never again going to employ once the military was behind him. Instead he gapes, then presses his lips together in a valiant attempt not to laugh.
"What, what?" Rodney asks, rounding the table and coming to stand beside him. "Is he . . . " His words grind to a halt. "Jesus."
Finn's running rampant through the deluged backyard, clad only in a pair of red rain-boots and an overlarge cowboy hat – a gift from Laura that Finn adores in roughly equal proportion to how much Rodney hates it. With a blood-curdling yell of joy, he jumps feet first into the biggest of all the puddles, splashing himself and everything in a five foot radius with muddy water.
John pushes open the screen door and steps out onto the porch, giving up the ghost and allowing himself to grin. "Hey puddlejumper," he yells above the noise of the rain. "Come back in here."
"S'FUN BAFFA!" Finn yells back, running hell for leather through more puddles, getting dirtier every second.
"I see that!" John shouts, and turns his head to look at Rodney, who's clearly trying to work out where his genes fell short. "We should go join him. He'd love it."
Rodney gapes. "Are you insane? It's pouring! It's cold! It's . . . " He gestures wildly as if to take in all the other obvious but unnamable things the morning's turned out to be.
John quirks an eyebrow and clatters down the porch steps, jumping in a puddle near Finn and dousing him in mud. Finn screams with joy and takes off in the other direction.
"AT LEAST HE'S NAKED," Rodney yells.
"WE'RE NOT DOING THAT IN FRONT OF THE KID," John shouts back.
Rodney flushes bright pink. "THAT'S NOT WHAT I MEANT." He ventures out from beneath the shelter of the porch, shivering and grimacing as he walks down the porch steps. "WE HAVE LOST IT. THIS IS MADNESS. GOODBYE NOBEL PRIZE."
"Daaddddddddyyyyyyyy!" Finn shrieks happily, and runs clumsily to Rodney, clasping him in a hug, arms around his knees, smearing dirt and water up Rodney's khaki pants.
Rodney shakes his head ruefully. "You're a menace," he offers weakly.
Finn beams at him. "Come play in the puddles!"
"Play in the puddles, I ask you," Rodney repeats, huffing. But Finn's already taken his hand to tug him further out into the yard.
"S'fun!" Finn giggles and jumps in a puddle to demonstrate.
Rodney wipes mud from his eye and throws John a look as if the whole thing's his fault. "You can shut up," he sighs. "Standing there, looking rakish. Soaked to the skin looking hotter than anyone has a right to, while I just wrinkle up like a prune . . ."
"I like prunes," John murmurs, hooking a consoling hand around the back of Rodney's neck.
"That says something terribly unflattering about me or your bowels," Rodney mutters, tilting his chin. "I don't know that I want to know which."
"Should we talk about the Shredded Wheat?" John asks, low, licking rainwater from Rodney's jaw.
"No," Rodney whispers tremulously.
"Didn't think so," John murmurs, smiling for a fraction of a second before he kisses him.
"KISSING," Finn yells, running up and down the yard, waving a rock he's picked up from who knows where. "YOU'S KISSING!"
Rodney breaks the kiss, laughing. "Oh God, we're all doomed," he mutters, forehead against the wet fabric at the shoulder of John's shirt.
"S'alright by me," John grins, and scrubs both hands through Rodney's hair, making it stick up in a dozen different directions. He cackles wildly before taking off up the yard, Rodney in hot pursuit.
"War!" Rodney yells. "It's war, Sheppard!"
Finn sits down in the middle of the yard and solemnly pulls off his boots. "My daddies are the bestest," he tells his rock, then takes off after them in only his cowboy hat, slipping and sliding in the mud.
Rock proves such a stalwart friend that Finn brings him out to the porch when the Millers arrive next morning, and solemnly introduces each of his cousins to his small, geologic pal.
Maddie chews her lip and looks from Rock to Finn and back again. "Are you really smart?" she asks. "Mom said you were really smart so I was thinking maybe you speak, like, Egyptian, cause they were really smart, I read a book about them, they wore eyeliner."
Finn blinks at her. "Wan' play barn?" he asks.
"BARN!" Bradley yells, and that seems to be all the bonding time they need, taking off to run through the pasture with Burp lolloping at their heels.
"Well," says Rodney, hand tightening and relaxing around the handle of one of his sister's suitcases. "They seem to have, uh . . ."
"Kids," Caleb smiles, rounding the stationwagon with an enormous backpack thrown over one shoulder and a suitcase in each hand. He looks rumpled and half-awake, as if it's some sort of professional badge of honor, not because he just spent god-only-knows how many hours in a car with two small children.
Rodney squares his shoulders, and grabs for another suitcase. "Yes, well, of course – if you – uh . . . this way . . . "
John shares a look with Jeannie as their other halves shuffle into the house. "Should we go in after 'em, make sure they're playing nicely? Or – "
"We should make coffee and sit ourselves down on your porch," Jeannie says definitively. "Let them circle like moose in Yellowstone if they want to. I wanna hear about Mer's new-found tolerance for quiet and wide-open spaces."
John blinks. "Mer?" he asks.
Jeannie smiles wickedly. "I have so much to tell you."
By the time Rodney and Caleb make it back outside, John's weeping with laughter, dangerously close to spilling his coffee all over his own jeans. He looks up, catches Rodney's cold, tense expression, and smiles reassurance at him. "Jeannie was telling me about getting locked in the ladies room at the last Tim Horton's between their place and ours," he says, wiping his eyes.
"Oh. I see." Rodney's shoulders come down a notch and he risks a small, fleeting smile. "No damage done, I hope?"
Jeannie grins. "Depends on whether you mean to me or the bathroom stall. I got a little – violent."
John snorts and Rodney's smile flickers a little but stays in place. "Well, you did always have that tendency."
"Hey, Greta Barnstall deserved every bit of that punch!"
"She was merely pointing out – "
"She was jerking you around!"
"She wanted to date me!"
"She wanted your homework!"
John can feel his eyebrows take refuge somewhere up near his hairline. It's not the first time he's been around siblings who can pick up a fight that's been going on for twenty years as if it all began yesterday – but he's never seen it quite so up close and personal, and it's strangely discomforting. He sets his coffee cup on the porch railing, wondering if he's supposed to intervene, but catches Caleb's eye. The latter shakes his head almost imperceptibly.
"Wanting my homework is not a sign of using me," Rodney says indignantly. "My intelligence is part of what makes me attractive!"
John feels his gut clench a little, catching a glimpse of fourteen-year-old Rodney beneath his bluster, a passing snapshot of the little hurts and wash of friendlessness that accumulated into protective isolation.
Jeannie snorts. "Mer, it was twenty-something years ago, get over it already. John's so much hotter."
Rodney blinks, looks at John, and blushes furiously as if he's seeing him for the first time. "Well. Not that I want to cause his ego to inflate further than it already has, but . . ."
"You big lug," Jeannie says affectionately, standing up and hooking her arm around Rodney's shoulder. "I'm starving. You better have Cheetos."
"We - possibly," Rodney says, and John smiles at him, nods toward the kitchen, trying to communicate 'I bought extra, they're in the pantry,' and 'it's okay, buddy, really,' with a jerk of his chin.
It's Rodney's idea that he show Jeannie and Caleb around the farm and – suitably armed with a monster bag of Cheetos – Jeannie leads the way in the direction she thinks is most promising. John settles himself on the porch steps, where he can hear if the kids scream because they've severed a limb, and allows himself a quiet chuckle at the whip-snap of comments flying between siblings as Rodney tries to catch up and establish some control over the proceedings.
There are screams from the pasture before long, but not the severed-limb kind, and John sets down his mug as three tow-headed hellions come racing into view. Maddie and Bradley hang back a little, letting Finn pound ahead, and he flings himself at John, climbing into his lap. "Hung'y, Baffa," he whines, butting his head gently against John's shoulder.
Bradley's two steps behind and grabs John's right arm. "Foooods," he pleads, tugging.
Maddie grabs the other arm. "We're really hungry, Uncle John."
John flushes with pleasure at being someone's uncle, and stands up, all three dangling from his body like strange Christmas tree ornaments. "Well," he says, swaggering like a giant while everyone screams and giggles. "Better see if we have anything in the house, huh?" And he swings Maddie up the steps, then Bradley, while Finn hangs on around his neck as if to make it very clear who John belongs to most.
They eat PB and jelly sandwiches, and Bradley asks that the crusts get cut off his, then promptly stuffs them up his nose. Maddie ewwws dramatically (at a pitch John was previously unaware humans were capable of reaching), and Finn laughs so hard he spews half-chewed bits of bread everywhere, then laughs harder at the look on John's face. They have a competition to see who can chew every bite of sandwich ten times before swallowing, but Maddie rolls her eyes after two bites and pronounces the game "boooooring." Bradley wins, Finn having separated his sandwich into two halves so that he can lick the jelly from one and the peanut butter from the other, while Maddie peppers John with a dozen questions about why the walls are white and when did they get the farm and do they have cows and why not and when will they buy some, please, please, please?
John makes everyone help clean up the dishes – Finn loves using the hand-held dustpan and brush, although he tends to wear them more than he uses them for tidying up crumbs. Maddie kneels on a chair and washes dishes, John dries, and Bradley puts the cutlery back in the drawer, looking very determined as he works. Once everything's stowed away (John takes care of the plates, mindful of how few they have), there's a brief pause. "Alright," John says.
Maddie blinks at him. Bradley chews on his thumbnail. Finn balances the dustpan on his head.
"I think," John says solemnly, "it's time for . . . ATTACK OF THE GIANT MONSTER!"
The response is instantaneous – the kids run into the living room, screaming with glee, while John lumbers after them, making roaring noises and sniffing the air, as if he can track down Millers and McKays by the scent of peanut-butter on their fingers. Every time he catches a kid, he blows a raspberry on some exposed bit of skin – a palm, a forearm, the back of a neck – and the screams of delight that echo through the house are the best thing he's ever heard. Dazzled, he misses the covert looks and wide eyes that communicate tactical planning between the cousins, and is genuinely surprised when they all leap on him at once. He lets himself be toppled over, falls on his back, and is promptly jumped upon by three children of varying sizes, all intent on blowing raspberries on him. Finn gets a little muddled, blowing noises into John's hair without actually making contact, but the other two are quick learners, and when Rodney, Jeannie and Caleb come back, he's laughing helplessly, pinned and, for all intents and purposes, trussed.
It quickly becomes clear that John is the go-to uncle for rough-housing – Rodney tends to stand off to the side, wrinkling his brow and looking as though he's about to remind everyone how bones get broken - but it's Rodney on whom everyone curls up at bedtime, asking for stories. "You have a nice voice, Uncle Rodney," Maddie tells him, yawning and rubbing one eye after his second read-through of The Velveteen Rabbit for the fourth night in succession. John watches from the doorway as Rodney lights up, and smiles to himself before he pads back downstairs to fight Jeannie for the remote.
It's not easy to cram so many people into one house – someone invariably has to pee when someone else is in the bathroom; Caleb startles everyone by reading on the porch in the middle of the night; Rodney is quickly dazed by all the noise, and Jeannie can't seem to help herself – if there's a chance to tease Rodney, she has to exploit it, and John spends a good amount of time squeezing Rodney's shoulder or whispering "go get 'er," and grinning when Rodney squares his shoulders and lets out an "Oh yeah . . . well remember when you . . ." Between times they weave together a summer-soft store of memories - get up at the crack of dawn and drive to the Field of Dreams; follow the Mississippi and idle at a Lumberkings game; visit the children's museum, the water park, the go-kart track, and the big playground out by the library in Coralville; find innumerable ways to get utterly filthy around the farm. The adults muddle along in the wake of the children – muddle, that is, until Rodney takes off on his own one afternoon, and comes back with an envelope in his hand - slides it across the kitchen table to Jeannie at dinner. "I thought – you and . . . " He gestures in lieu of using Caleb's name, even though Caleb's sitting two feet away. ". . . might want a little time alone? We could take the kids for a night, if you'd – " He clears his throat. "I booked you into a bed and breakfast at the Amanas. It's – they're villages, vestige of some completely cracked German utopian experiment , but I hear it's very nice?" Jeannie stares at him, open mouthed, then leaps up and smacks a kiss to his forehead, which makes him squirm, John laugh, and Bradley ask if there are any more potatoes.
Jeannie and Caleb get an early start on their freedom, pulling out of the driveway in Rodney's car before 9am next morning, leaving the stationwagon behind so that all the kids'll fit in one vehicle if needs be. Everyone waves them off, then piles back inside to eat cheerios floating in apple juice, and toast with Cap'n Crunch mashed into the jam, and it's after ten before John can break away to grab a shower; after eleven before Rodney can do the same. The day unfolds sunny and warm, with blissfully cool shadows pooled at the back of the house and beside the barn – and the kids run wild through the pasture, their laughter breaking the lazy heat of morning, clattering onto the porch and demanding sandwiches to take to the tree-house when it's time for lunch.
With the kids amiably stowed twenty feet off the ground, John brings his own lunch out to the porch, kicks his feet up on the rail and smiles at Rodney around a sandwich. "What you doing?" he asks, nodding at Rodney's journal.
"Um – the relative sub-particle . . ." Rodney breaks off and looks up as a FedEx truck rumbles slowly down the lane to the yard. ". . . sub-space . . . I'm not expecting anything, are you?"
John shakes his head. "Probably Colorado."
"Huh." Rodney sets down his coffee cup, pencil, and journal. "Probably." He stands and ambles down the porch steps, eyes the buff envelope he's handed with something bordering on suspicion, but signs for it anyway. The driver wishes him a good afternoon but he doesn't reply – he's already ripping open the envelope and skimming the contents, and in seconds he's a peculiar gray. "Fuck."
John sits up cautiously, boots hitting the deck. "Bad news?"
"No – no . . ." Rodney's shaking his head, reading the letter again. "Good news. Great news, oh my God."
John frowns, stands up. "Rodney?"
"They offered me a job – SGC – a job, a real life job . . . oh my god, this is - I have to sit down." He doesn't – just keeps standing where he's rooted in the yard, heedless of his lack of sun block or the fact that he has a breadcrumbs clinging to the front of his shirt.
"Stargate Command," Rodney says absently, skimming the other documents he's been sent.
"Stargate?" John flexes his fingers.
"Um – " Rodney waves a hand. "You know – that's its name. Could've been Star Wars, remember that one?" He laughs absently, still reading. "They're – the uh . . . Colorado folks. That's who I've been working for with the – dedicated . . . "
" . . line," John finishes. He wets his lips. "So if you already work for them, why are they offering you a job?"
"They finally came to their senses and realized they couldn't continue to operate without my genius input. I mean – it's a different job," Rodney says, looking up, face wide open and intensely pleased. "Working with – I mean . . . god this is huge. This is so much more than the theoretical stuff I've been . . . this is hands on. I just – "
John feels suddenly chilled, despite the heat of the afternoon. He can feel sweat pricking the back of his neck, but he shivers as though it's December and he's standing barefoot on frosty ground. "This job - it's here? They're – they're funding your lab?" He knows he's grasping at straws, but his mind tries not to go toward the really, really bad place that he thinks Rodney might be hurtling toward.
"What? No - no it's in Colorado. At the headquarters, see?"
John swallows, and for a long, difficult moment is fairly sure he's forgotten how to breathe. "Colorado," he manages.
"Two states over?" Rodney says airily, waving his hand and turning a diagram upside down to squint at it. "I'm sure they have air force bases, it can't completely have dropped off your radar. Or did your school not make you learn the Western states? Wyoming, Colorado, Montana . . ."
"Rodney – " John's suddenly seized by the urge to haul off and punch him, because this can't be happening again, not twice, and Rodney can't be this fucking stupid, it's not possible.
"What?" Rodney looks up, frowning. His frown deepens as he studies John's face – John can't begin to imagine what Rodney sees.
"Colorado?" John says again, rubbing the thumb of his right hand over his fingertips.
Rodney looks suddenly stricken. "I – I - All of us! All of us would go – God, John . . ."
John takes a step back. "But this is home." He doesn't even recognize his own voice.
"We can – they'll find us a house, they'll help with moving costs, they'll – "
And if he was cold before, John's freezing now, as if winter's rolled in from goddamn Colorado – another storm he didn't see coming - cutting off the sky from his reach and bleeding the world of every valuable color. "I gotta – " He jerks his thumb over his shoulder and heads to the house, veers away at the last moment, heads to the barn instead.
There's a note of pleading in Rodney's voice but there's no way for John to grasp it between fingers gone numb.
He comes back after a couple of hours, refuses to meet Rodney's eye, sweeps Finn up and kisses his hair, suggests they go see what's ready to pull up in the garden. Maddie and Bradley hang back, strangely quiet – it's as if they know something's amiss.
"John." Rodney reaches out, catches his elbow with just the tips of his fingers, and John flinches like he's been shocked.
"Not in front of the kids, okay?" John asks, risking a furtive glance, barely managing it when he sees the heartbreak on Rodney's face, herding the kids off to pull carrots and potatoes, to talk about what they could make for dinner after they've washed off the dirt.
He manages to smile beneath the confidences Maddie heaps upon him; at Finn's excitement when he sees carrots come out of the ground; at Bradley's quick grin. Hands full, he guides the kids back to the kitchen, helps them pack tomatoes into silver foil to cook on the grill, shows them how to pull the husks off the sweetcorn so that they can roast it with just a little butter. Rodney stays near, tense and nervous, offering to help, knocking over the salt shaker and not fussing over the mess. They eat outside, swatting away flies, laughing when Maddie sings a song she made up about bees and pajamas, stacking plates and making bets about where the first fireflies will show.
Bradley starts to cry come bath-time, missing his mom, and Rodney scoops him up against his shoulder, murmurs comfort as he takes him inside. John can hear Rodney promise blankets and stories and not to leave him alone, and his voice is so rich with a fatherhood he never asked for that it cuts John to the quick.
"Baffa?" Finn asks, crawling into his lap as Maddie goes off to chase fireflies.
John's throat closes a little. "Just a little tired, buddy."
"But you look sad."
John nuzzles Finn's hair. "How could I be sad when I have you, huh?"
Finn winds his fingers into John's shirt. "Maybe y'need Daddy-hugs."
John swallows. "Maybe."
"Maybe he needs Baffa hugs too."
John huffs a half-breath of laughter. "You're a smart little puddlejumper."
Finn leans against him. "Ever'body needs hugs."
"Yeah." John leans his chin on his son's head and tries to imagine them penned in by mountains. "Yeah, you're right."
Rodney's sitting at the end of their bed when John finally makes it to the bedroom, the house settling into sleep on the soft breathing of three, tired-out children. They look at one another for a long, awkward moment, then launch into apologies at the same time.
"I shouldn't have walked away when you . . . "
"I shouldn't have assumed you knew I meant. . . "
John breaks off, pulls in a breath and licks his lips. "We have to talk about this."
"We have to, Rodney." John closes his eyes. "I know this is huge for you, and god, you deserve this – but . . . "
"Not tonight." Rodney pleads. "Just - can we do this tomorrow?"
John feels like he's kicked a puppy, and his guts twist as he glances at Rodney's face. "Okay."
They strip and take turns in the bathroom without speaking, slide into bed beside one another without exchanging a single touch. But there's a force between - them a strange kind of gravity - and they inch into each other's orbit, wind themselves together, a double helix of wishing the world easier while they barely sleep, face against neck, breath against hair.
If he had some hope things would be easier by morning, John wises up fast. Rodney retreats into himself, becoming more like the man John met out by the road three years before than the man he's been building a life with since. This Rodney doesn't snap – merely holds himself rigid, answers questions when he's asked, doles out apple juice and Cheerios with brisk competence and a faltering, quick half-smile. Finn watches his every move with wide, blue eyes, and John has to turn away, make a new pot of coffee.
Rodney makes his excuses and ducks into his office as soon as breakfast is done, and the tension winding relentlessly inside John ratchets up another notch. He forces a grin on his face, asks the kids who wants to play soccer, and they all tumble outside to play a loose, dirty, fumbling game of something that resembles no known sport on earth, especially when Bradley picks up the ball and runs into the fields.
He tries to talk to Rodney at lunch, to explain that he's invested in what Rodney does, in Rodney soaring – but Rodney's watching the kids run through the flowerbeds, pollen sticking to their skin like sunlight made manifest, and John realizes this isn't any battle zone he recognizes. Both of them see the situation from every side – he sees his points flash across Rodney's face without even speaking them, sees anger and determination, helplessness and loss rise up in their wake. There's coffee in his hand, so he sets it down on the desk he built, far enough away from the laptops that it can't damage anything if it spills. With a breath that doesn't come easy he turns and goes back outside, climbs up to the tree-house and, settling into the perch he made with his own two hands, sits just a little way from the ground and watches the kids run free.
It takes Jeannie all of about thirty seconds to realize something's wrong when she comes back – John's kinda impressed; it's like a sixth sense, triggered by stiff shoulders and dark circles under other people's eyes. She ably fusses over her kids, hugs Finn, describes the bed and breakfast – and somehow she makes coffee, finds cookies, fills juice cups and squeezes John's hand amid it all. He watches, remembers what motherhood looks like.
Needing distraction, and with the kids crawling all over Caleb for a change, John spends the afternoon changing the oil in Rodney's car, cleaning out the inside and washing the windshield. He finds two snack-sized Snickers under the front seat, and they still look good, so he takes them to the empty study as soon as he's done, lays them on the desk beside laptop number one. He means to walk away, but a file folder catches his eye, laid open on the desk, postcards jumbled messily inside. John picks up one – realizes it's from him, a note sent when Rodney was still in California; that every one of the postcards is from him, right down to print-outs of the e-cards he'd sent Rodney when the latter was in Japan. His name's inked on the folder, and it's resting on top of the packet of information sent from SGC. John wets his lips, tucks Rodney's office chair more tightly under the desk, and makes sure he closes the door to keep the kids out when he leaves.
Dinner's quiet, but John figures everyone's tired, and after they've eaten there are routines – baths, stories, conversation among the adults with the TV droning in the background. When John goes to bed, Rodney's already asleep, looking tired even while sacked out and drooling, and John falls asleep not thirty seconds after sliding in beside him, careful not to touch.
John's used to waking first, so it's a surprise to drag his eyes open not long after dawn and find Rodney gone, a dent in his pillow the only sign he was ever in bed. For a second John feels a sharp wave of panic, but then he realizes he can smell coffee, tells himself that Rodney's probably as restless as he is and got up rather than spending the morning in a fitful doze. He slides out of bed, throws on a t-shirt, pads downstairs but finds no one around. He pours himself a cup of coffee, stands by the window – and sees Rodney at last, sitting on the deck outside the tree-house with Jeannie beside him, gesturing out toward the fields and looking as miserable as John's ever seen him. He watches, feeling like an intruder, as Jeannie squeezes Rodney's knee and says something softly, offers an understanding smile. Rodney shakes his head and hitches one shoulder, looks out over the garden with such a piercing look of wistfulness, John's shaken. He forces himself to step back, to find something else to do but watch, because he's sure he's seeing things he has no right to see.
He's reading the classifieds in the paper without really seeing them when Jeannie comes back inside.
"Morning," she says.
John looks up, expecting to see anger on her face. Instead there's a patient understanding. "Uh – yeah. Morning." He clears his throat.
"So – Caleb and I," she offers, filling her coffee cup. "We're taking the kids today. I figure we'll drive into town, find a hotel with a ridiculous sized pool, spend the night, take 'em to the mall and the movies."
John blinks, not following. "Hotel?"
Jeannie turns back to him. "You need time to talk without – " She gestures – a dismissive circling of her fingers, just like Rodney. " – all of us here." She studies him sympathetically.
"Hey, I wanted to talk and he didn't," John says defensively, looking back at an advertisement for a Plymouth Acclaim, mint condition, only 57,000 miles.
"Yeah, well, I'm telling you you're going to talk," Jeannie says, unimpressed. "We'll stay out of your hair for a night, come back late tomorrow – and if you need more time, well hell, we have cell phones, you can call us."
John sighs. "It'll work out, Jeannie, you don't need to – "
"Spare me," Jeannie says lightly. "It'll work out if you stop circling things and actually deal with them, maybe. Stop being such a jerk."
John flinches, stung. "Alright," he says through gritted teeth.
"For God's sake." Jeannie sets her coffee cup down on the counter and circles the table, leans in from behind John to wrap her arms around him and rest her chin on his shoulder. She squeezes hard. "It'll be alright, you stupid lug. Just talk to him." She kisses his temple and pulls away. "I'm gonna go wake the kids. Take a shower while you can."
John touches the side of his forehead. "McKays," he says ruefully.
"Take on one, you take on all," she grins, and heads upstairs.
It's twilight before John tracks Rodney down, figuring they can't avoid things any longer. It's not like they haven't tried – Rodney barricaded himself in the study as soon as everyone left, and John figured it was damn important he tune the engine of the truck, mow the yard, and finally get a lick of paint on the peeling front door that nobody uses. But now he's run out of useful distractions, and the silence in the house is an accusation. He walks upstairs, barefoot, his steps barely sounding on the treads, and pauses in the bedroom doorway, watching Rodney, who's staring into the yard. "So."
Rodney jingles the change in his pockets. "Yeah."
"Your sister's really something."
Rodney nods. "I guess."
John wets his lips. Someone has to start this. "Rodney – "
"Look," – and that's all it takes for the freight train of Rodney's bluster to get going – "I . . . I realize I assumed that – I made a big leap, and I should've talked to you, we should've . . ." He blows out a breath. "But – maybe I didn't make it clear. Maybe I didn't – this is the pinnacle. This is it. What I do – it doesn't get better than this job, and I thought – " He pauses, flushed with emotion. "I thought you'd be happy for me."
John grimaces. "I am."
"Huh. And here I was, thinking completely the opposite since you, oh, I don't know, haven't acted happy?"
"Well forgive me for not being thrilled at the idea of giving up my home on a moment's notice!" He'd meant to be patient, but he finds it's beyond him, as though his skin's been peeled away, as though he's exposed and raw.
Rodney huffs mirthlessly, a twisted smile on his face. "I gave up my home for you already. So it – what? Only works one way?"
John stares, incredulous. "Are you kidding me?"
"What? You have some alternate paradigm, some space-time tear in the universe in which this didn't all start with me packing up my life and moving here?"
"You didn't give up your home."
"Yes I did! What the hell . . . "
"You gave up a lab. You gave up an apartment you never went home to! Don't talk to me as if you had to give up this."
Rodney turns toward him, breathing hard. "I gave up lab space in one the best institutions in the world. Does that mean anything to you? I left Berkeley to come work at the University of fucking Iowa. For you!"
"Oh how generous," John says dryly. "For me. You got nothing out of the deal. Nothing at all."
"That's not what I'm saying and you goddamn know it!"
John takes a step forward, anger hot and slick in his belly. "Have you had to stop working on anything you were working on before?" He waits, but Rodney just stares at him, mouth a thin line, and it's like a match to tinder – fury wells up and pushes words from his mouth in a graceless rush. "They've bent over backwards for you! They cleared out lab space, they found funds from God only knows where while other departments were getting cut. Every fucking grant you've written has been funded – exactly what have you had to give up? You have everything you could want or need."
"Everything except what they're working on Colorado!" Rodney snaps. "Jesus, John – I've been working toward this my whole fucking life. Since I was twelve. This was the plan, this was – "
"And what about Finn and me?" John asks viciously. "Never part of that plan, huh? Expendable?"
Rodney gasps and takes a step back. "That is – that is . . . take that back." He folds his arms across his chest.
"Take it back!"
"What is this, grade school!? It's fucking true!"
"It is not."
"Finn loves it here. This is his home!"
"He's two and a half! He'd learn to love Colorado."
"And what about everything else, huh? Laura? Mrs. Gunderson? The other kids at daycare? You gonna replace them too? Explain to him why they've gone away?"
"He'd adapt! Kids are resilient."
John levels a murderous look in his direction. "Yeah? How well did you adapt? How resilient were you every time your dad moved you to a new, better school; to college when you were still a kid?"
Rodney falters. "That's – not the same."
"Like hell." John scrubs a hand through his hair. "And me – what about me? This place is - ."
"I'm not suggesting we sell it."
"No – just that we use it like some sort of goddamn summer house. Weekends once in a while."
"It'll still be here." Rodney tilts his chin, sets his jaw. "SGC – it won't . . . I can't do the work they want from here. I can't do what they're offering without being there. I can't – visit and be part of – God, John, the biggest breakthrough in modern physics since . . ."
John tucks his hands under his arms, looks out the window. "See . . ." He jerks his chin toward Rodney. "I knew it. I just knew – God, and you don't even realize that's the fucking problem."
John shakes his head, restless. "You'll disappear."
"Into the fucking job, Rodney." He looks over, anger and fear simmering beneath his skin. "So fucking important you'll never leave your lab, because we don't compare – we can't measure up to that."
Rodney gapes, his mouth working but no sound coming out.
"I could do it, I could give this up, I could try. If it weren't for the fact that – " He swallows, trying to master himself. "I can't tear up these roots to move somewhere and watch you – "
"Fuck." John slams the side of his fist against the wall. "I don't know how to do this without you anymore!"
Rodney freezes, and John's never seen this look on his face before – this stunned, trembling, wide-eyed disbelief. "Oh," he breathes, then, "oh. Oh." He finds momentum, takes a step and then he's closing the space between them wrapping his arms around John's shoulders and hauling him in, holding him so tightly that John can barely breathe.
John's hands come up to fist in Rodney's shirt, and his face is mashed gracelessly against Rodney's neck. He can feel Rodney shaking.
"I – I don't always know," Rodney's whispering, one hand at the back of John's neck now, the other glancing up and down his spine as if he's not sure he has the right to touch. "I don't always – I'm not all that bright when it comes to this, when it comes to us, and I need words sometimes, I need – I need you to say. I'm sorry, I am, I know you – I know you do things, you make desks, you clean out my car, you fix me dinner and don't complain about my socks but – " He takes an unsteady breath. "I need words, sometimes."
"Yeah?" John manages.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't sure – if you'd care. If I was gone."
"Jesus, fuck," John curses, pulling back, grabbing Rodney's face between his hands. "What – what would make you think that."
"I don't know why you're with me in the first place," Rodney says, stumbling. "I feel like I'm – on borrowed time. Physics is certain and you're not, you're – out of left field, you're unpredictable, you're – there's no universal law of McKay Sheppard! What the hell explains us? I – physics is . . . there's always been physics."
"So what – this was a test?"
"God! No . . . no." Rodney shakes his head, still cupped between John's hands. "I just – "
"Figured the job would be there when the other shoe dropped?" John asks quietly.
Rodney's face twists with something like faltering pride. "Maybe. Yeah."
"And if you didn't take it now – "
"It might not ever be there, and I'd be – "
Lost, John thinks. "You fucking idiot," he mumbles and kisses him softly, lips dragging rough reassurance over Rodney's own. "I," he breathes between kisses, "am not the kids who didn't get you at school." Their noses bump as they tilt their heads, change the angle. "Not your folks." Their lips part just a little, Rodney's breath hitching as John licks the corner of his mouth. "Not those dumbass college students." Rodney's hands come up to clutch at his arms. "Not Samantha fucking Carter."
Rodney makes a sound that's plaintive, strangled, and leans in to find another kiss. "I won't go," he whispers, sounding determined.
"We can figure something out – "
"No, no. I – " He leans his forehead against John's. "You're not doing this without me. Not ever"
John feels his knees go weak, and fuck, he's been so fixated on making Rodney believe him, on keeping him upright, he'd almost forgotten that his own fears are mixed up in this too. "Bed," he whispers hoarsely, and they manage to untangle just enough to stumble there, fall on top of the comforter, wind themselves back around each other, not letting go. "I don't want you resenting me," John murmurs, hand cupping the back of Rodney's head, holding him close, shivering as an unsteady breath chases across his throat. "If you need to do this, we'll figure out how to – "
"I'm a genius," Rodney says suddenly, stiff and resolute. "This – this should be about them wanting me, doing anything they can to get me on board – they can't do this without me, what are they thinking? I'm gonna – " He wriggles as if he's going to go find the phone, call them right this second.
"I hold all the chips here! It's not like Samantha Carter ever respects the boundaries of negative energy, they need me to help keep her in line or the subatomic consequences of her gerrymandered, half-wit theories on – "
"Hmmm?" Rodney's managed to wriggle his head up from John's shoulder, and his hair's sticking up at strange angles.
Rodney stills. He frowns and presses his lips together. "I just want to make it right."
"So touch me," John whispers, and lets everything show on his face.
"Oh," Rodney breathes, as if his vocabulary's been distilled to just this one, resonant sound, this single expression of everything he wants to say. He manages a faltering smile, fingertips gliding over John's jaw, his cheek, his eyebrow, down his nose, watching their progress as though he can map all the emotion John usually locks away. "Oh – "
And he kisses him – soft and slow, nudging his lips against John's own, teasing a stuttering breath from John's mouth. John can feel every ounce of Rodney's focus turn toward him, shivers as Rodney kisses one corner of his mouth, then the other, calm and certain in the wake of so much anger.
"You're teasing . . . " John murmurs, rocking his hips up into Rodney's weight.
"Shut up," Rodney whispers back. "Shut up, shut up and just let me – " And he's covering John's mouth with his own, clever tongue stealing John's token objections, hand cupping the side of John's face as he presses down, swallowing John's groan.
That fast, there's a wild, unholy want gnawing in the pit of John's belly, and he tries to hurry Rodney up, scratches at his back, nips at Rodney's mouth. But while he manages to drag broken little moans from Rodney's throat, he can't make him rush – Rodney grabs his hands and presses them down into the pillows, carries on kissing him as if they're young and naive and there's no such thing as second base, just the drag of stubble and the slick slide of tongues and the catch he can foster in John's breathing with the barest graze of his teeth.
"Rodney," John manages, "goddamn, come on, I need – "
But Rodney doesn't listen, and it's not like that's a new personality trait, so John doesn't even feel like he can complain – he signed up for this, every bit of it, especially . . . "Oh - " the way Rodney's noses aside the collar of his shirt to suck at the spot where his neck meets his shoulder, and John's always been sensitive there, but not like this, not like – "Rodney . . . "
"Too many clothes," Rodney whispers hoarsely, letting go of John's hands to unbutton his shirt - long, deft fingers that can tease order out of the night sky, transform the wash of a galaxy's temper into equations of such dependable beauty, glancing over John's skin, John's body, coaxing shivers and tremors from places long undisturbed. He's helpless – tries to touch, to push at Rodney's shirt, to find the belt buckle that always frustrates him at moments like these – but Rodney's having none of it and bats away his hands. "Would you stop it?" he chides without rancor.
"Want," John says roughly.
"Well, me too," Rodney answers back, mouthing a kiss to the arc of John's stomach.
John laughs and lifts his head, surprised, then gasps when Rodney's tongue dips into his navel. "Jesus – "
"Yes, yes, we look a lot alike," Rodney murmurs, pushing John's jeans down as far as he can, closing his mouth over the jut of John's hipbone. John's head slams back into the pillow and he throws one arm over his eyes, trying not to break completely and goddamn whimper as Rodney lavishes kisses over his hip, down to the crease of torso and thigh, tracing maddening lines with just the very tip of his tongue. John arches, but it does him no good – Rodney pulls away and tugs at his jeans, as though the buck of his hips is convenient, helpful, not wanton and wanting as it very much is.
"Beautiful," Rodney breathes, and John shivers, naked under Rodney's gaze, and he's pretty sure Rodney's still dressed, still wearing his jeans and his vile green t-shirt and –
"Oh – " He starts when Rodney's lips press to the inside of his knee, bites back a whimper and steeples his leg, giving Rodney room to – "Oh, yeah, yeah . . ." – kiss a little higher, graze his stubbled cheek over the sensitive skin of John's inner thigh. John grits his teeth, trying to salvage a little dignity from the trembling in his hands and the sweat beading across his chest, but Rodney kisses him, right there, warm and open-mouthed just above his knee, then pulls away and breathes over that same spot. John keens softly – "Rodney, Rodney . . . " – and pulls his arm from his eyes, tries to reach for Rodney's shoulders, tries to drag him close.
"Shhhh," Rodney soothes, and how is he doing this? How is he not crawling out of his skin, covering John's body with his own, thrusting lazily down into the cradle of John's hips and – "Shhhh." He runs his tongue along the underside of John's erection, and for a second, neither of them breathes.
Then the world rushes back into John's lungs, a white-hot flare of oxygen that burns bright and reckless through his blood, and Rodney's sucking him hard, tongue working the underside of his cock with a certainty that's almost faith. John twists, restless – fingertips alive with the worry that the words in his throat might tear through his skin, split him apart and lay out every atom of his fears for Rodney to see. And here, with the sheets growing damp beneath his back, with Rodney's broad palms pressing sweet and steady against his skin, he realizes it might be okay - this might be the order of things in a strange, fire-bright corner of a new world – and he comes with a sob, letting out a broken gasp as he flies apart, expands to fill a universe with helpless trust.
When he comes back to himself, boneless and shaking, it's as if his body's a new thing, heavy and lax against the sheets, nerves still flaring with aftershocks as Rodney drags himself up to kiss him. Rodney's naked now – clothes no doubt thrown in a hasty pile on the floor – and the slide of skin against over-sensitized skin makes John cry out softly, shiver at his touch.
"I want – " Rodney's all but panting as he mouths kisses to John's jaw, and John can feel him hard and wet against his hip.
"Yeah – " John manages, a clumsy hand coming up to rest at the back of Rodney's head. "Yeah – you should – " He lets his thighs fall further apart, the best invitation he can manage with his vocabulary fried, and Rodney groans at the movement, reaches to rummage in the bedside table, pulls back and kneels over him.
"You are so fucking beautiful," Rodney says with such force he almost sounds angry, but when John manages to pry his eyes open, Rodney's face shows nothing but wonder, even gratitude. John presses down against his hand, hums as Rodney's finger slides inside, works him slowly, and oh god, he's too senseless to get hard again but this is so good, this slow build, this steady pressure. He murmurs encouragement, scattered bursts of "yeah, yeah . . ." as Rodney stretches him open, taking his time in a fashion John can barely process. He'd be frantic if their positions were reversed.
When Rodney's ready – long after John's begun asking for it, begging clumsily for Rodney to get in him already – he shifts, kneels between John's thighs and glides his broad hands up John's calves, hooking his fingers behind his knees and steepling his legs, pulling them higher.
"Rodney – " John breathes.
"I'm – just be quiet, I'm . . . " And he's there, pushing slowly inside, and John lets his head sag against the pillow, eyes falling closed with satisfaction at the pressure, the slow, slight burn, the comfortable ache.
"Oh yeah – "
"John," and Rodney's moving, slowly, hands flexing against John's thighs, holding them apart as he picks up speed, every thrust forward pulling a soft grunt from his lips, a shattered gasp when John purposefully tightens every muscle around him. He sways, building a tempo, sliding into John's body again and again, breathless and wanting. "I'm - not gonna last, not if you . . ."
John tightens his muscles again, intoxicated by the steady slap of Rodney's body against his, by the way Rodney's biting at his own bottom lip, shivering and twisting as he drives his way home, freezing for a second before he shudders and thrusts down hard, coming on a barest exhale of breath, groaning when he finally collapses, sated and sweating with exertion, ruined from the inside out. The warmth that wells up in John's chest is devastating, and he blinks hard, hands gentling over Rodney's back, soothing him as he murmurs reassurance that he's pretty sure Rodney can't hear, petting him through aftershocks until Rodney raises his head, drowsy and a little confused, and manages a huff of something that was probably meant to be a word.
They watch each other's faces for a long, private moment, fingertips tentative against the other's cheek, then Rodney pulls out as gently as he can manage, murmuring softly at John's unguarded hiss. They roll to the middle of the bed, wrapped in each other, clumsily covered in blankets. And this, John thinks, is the best part of apology – the welcoming dip of Rodney's shoulder beneath his face; the broad possessive touch of another's hand; the tangle of their limbs and the words that seem inadequate.
"Love you," John mumbles, rubbing his cheek against Rodney's skin.
Rodney's breath catches, as if he's never going to grow used to hearing it. "You too," he whispers as they drift toward sleep.
They wake in the middle of the night and confront the prosaic aftermath of great sex – sore muscles, full bladders, sticky sheets. Rodney takes a shower while John remakes the bed, then they switch so that Rodney can deal with the pillowcases, since John hates that job. Rodney goes to forage for snacks, bringing back chips and water and leftover brownies, and they can't help but laugh as they eat, as if they're getting away with something, and when they kiss, everything tastes of chocolate.
Morning comes, and they ignore it, letting themselves wake up when they're rested as opposed to when they're summoned by small voices and the thunder of children on the stairs. They slouch into the day, blissed out and drowsy, and if John has to take a couple of ibuprofen for the burn in his thighs, it's a worthy trade. They brew coffee, shuffle to the porch, and sit with their feet kicked up on the rail, saying nothing much of anything to each other. John lets his right hand dangle loose over the side of his chair – and when Rodney picks it up in his left, slides their fingers together, he flushes like a teenager and smiles.
"So," Jeannie asks when she gets out of the car late that afternoon. "I need to start helping you pack?"
Rodney shakes his head and rolls his eyes for effect – she is his sister after all; it wouldn't do to let her get too smug.
"Nah," John offers. "We figured we'd stay a while." And he grins as Finn runs pell-mell to the porch, babbling excitedly about the pool and the movies and Uncle Caleb swinging him so high, and clambers onto Rodney's lap and smacks a kiss to his face.
"Hi Daddy," he says, grinning.
"Puddlejumper," Rodney murmurs affectionately, and messes up his hair.
The Fourth of July dawns sharp with heat and brilliant sunlight – the perfect day for indulging in small town festivity. John spends most of the day in the Piper, flying those who'll pay a small fee over the town, and if it weren't already worth it for the rush he feels every time he leaves the earth, it'd be the right thing to do just for the smile of deep satisfaction on Mr. Brenneman's face as he presides benevolently over the whole affair. There's a parade in the afternoon, and John buzzes the route, waving at the sea of neighbors beneath him, while Rodney, Jeannie, Caleb and the kids find a shady spot to watch the floats trundle down Main Street. They eat ice cream, Finn fills his pockets with candy, and when the paying customers are done at the air field, John takes Jeannie up to show her the farm from on high. She laughs through the whole flight, and accosts him when they land, hugging him tightly before she recounts the whole thing for her bemused and indulgent-looking husband.
The Millers head home the next day, but not before both families have exchanged promises to spend the holidays together. Finn pouts as his cousins pile into the car, and bursts into tears as Maddie and Bradley wave from the back window of the departing stationwagon. John scoops him up and hugs him tight, walks him back into the house and whispers a story about a little boy and a baseball bat, a magical baseball and a farm where the best carrots in the world are said to grow. Eventually Finn pulls his damp, flushed face out of John's neck and begins to asks questions, and before the afternoon's done they're out in the yard, the radio tuned to a tinny broadcast of a far-off game while they throw around a ball that Finn's too little to catch, but loves to chase regardless.
Rodney spends most of July making demands of SGC, fielding phone calls and emails and occasionally yelling replies at the corn just to get things off his chest. By August there's a new arrangement all worked out to the satisfaction of every party, and while Rodney has to travel to Colorado more often than he did before, the Farm's still home, and the option of working at Cheyenne Mountain's still on the table for the future. SGC sends two more laptops, and a strange piece of machinery no bigger than a cell phone that lights up when John touches it. He stares at it, warm in the palm of his hand, and hurriedly puts it back down before Rodney sees that he broke it. By the time Rodney comes back inside with the mail and ambles to the study, John's on the phone with Mrs. Gillis about the basement renovation she needs doing before summer's through, and he lets out a sigh of relief, having dodged that bullet, thank God.
Brad and Laura get married in mid-August – a small but elegant affair that Rodney coordinates with timetables, charts, and PDAs he distributes to the groomsmen and bridesmaids, ensuring that everything goes off without a hitch. John's an usher, and the way Rodney flushes every time he sees him in his navy suit makes him laugh under his breath, while Finn's the ring-bearer – sans jacket, since he protests, quite rightly, that it's "too hot, Daddy," for coats. He watches the proceedings for a little while with interest, but when the rings have been taken from his pillow, lies down at the foot of the altar with the silken cushion under his head, and has a nap until everyone applauds the new husband and wife.
The reception's at Brad's parents' place, spilling out of the house and out through their garden, Mitch grilling brats and burgers while Mrs. Gunderson puts together five tiers of apple pie as the couple's preferred alternative to cake. There's dancing until late in the night, music provided by Rodney's iPod and a towering set of speakers that John wired together for optimal sound, and there's beer and wine and ice cream for the kids, and fireworks to round out the evening. When they're ready to head home, John has to forcibly remove Finn from the dance floor, and the tantrum he throws is a marvel – Rodney scores it 9 out of 10 on his fingers as John passes, and John has to stifle a laugh.
They wake early next morning, programmed to be ready for whatever Finn demands, but tired out by wedding, he sleeps on while they tangle themselves together and doze in drowsy warmth. John runs a hand down Rodney's spine, his face pressed into Rodney's hair, and smiles as he replays the wedding in his head - Laura's smile, Rodney's tight-lipped orders, Finn's nap, Brad's beaming pride. Rodney hums against his shoulder, left hand lying flat against John's chest, and John catches the barest edge of a half-crazed idea, reaches to pick up Rodney's ring-finger and waggles it back and forth.
"I, John," he rumbles hesitantly, voice still heavy with sleep, "take you, Rodney, to be my godawful blanket-hogger . . . "
Rodney snorts softly, and John can feel the warmth of the flush that's no doubt creeping over his cheeks.
" . . . for better or worse, for Cheerios or Lucky Charms, for mismatched socks and boxers beneath the bed, from this day forward . . ."
Rodney chuckles, but doesn't pull his hand away.
". . . I promise to not eat the Cheetos, or mock you too hard when the Leafs lose the championship," – that earns him a punch, and John laughs softly – "and to always tell you when you have pasta sauce on your chin, for the rest of our lives . . . "
Rodney ducks his head and John wishes he could see his face.
"Your turn," he prompts.
"Your left hand's on my back," Rodney protests.
"Yeah, what, I'm supposed to make this easy?"
Rodney sighs and squirms, reaching around for John's hand. "Dislocated shoulders are so romantic," he mutters.
John grins. "You, Rodney . . ."
"Yes, yes, God you're so impatient – I, Rodney, take you John, to be my – my . . . shut up, don't even think of interrupting, this is much harder than it looks – my . . . my sinfully hot trophy boyfriend?"
John snorts softly.
"For better for worse, for . . . Empire over Jedi, for a complete inability to throw away the coffee grounds when cleaning out the coffeepot and a deep, cellular level aversion to taking out the trash . . ."
"Oh shut up, it's true. I promise not to make you feel like my intellectual inferior too often and to praise your math skills whenever possible, especially as they're hot; to generously avoid pointing out the inability of the Cubs to win a World Series; and to um . . . always save the last fudgesicle for you. For the rest of our lives."
John beams. "Well. That's taken care of then."
"Yeah." Rodney looks up at him, a little dazed, a lot pleased, and John kisses him softly.
"I'm sad I didn't get to see you in a poofy white dress," John whispers, nudging the tip of his nose against Rodney's.
"We'll have kink night once a month. Who am I to deny you?" Rodney teases, and shrieks as John runs a hand down his side, tickling him mercilessly, and waking Finn. There's a distant thud, then the patter of small feet on bare wood, and Finn appears in the doorway, rubbing one eye.
"You's noisy," he says petulantly.
"Blame your Baffa," Rodney says, then shrieks again as John attacks.
"Best help me, puddlejumper. Your Daddy needs a good tickling."
"I do not!"
Finn grins and runs to the bed, climbing up with efficiency, despite the windmill effect of his flailing limbs. "I'll get his feet, Baffa!"
"No no no – " Rodney pleads, dissolving into helpless laughter as Finn makes good on his word. And John grins, figuring if this is what's he's married into – a muddled maelstrom of noise and curses, childish glee and sleepy surrender – it's a life he never thought to imagine for himself, but needs like earth and rain and sky.