The first guy John tries to date on Earth breaks up with him within forty-eight hours of meeting Rodney McKay. John doesn't think this is a coincidence.
"What the hell did you say to him?" John demands, amused and incredulous and pissed-off, all at once.
"Please." Rodney glares at John like he's being deliberately obtuse. "You can do better. Did you pick him up in a bar?"
"No," John says. "I went to an actual dating agency because -- " and he makes himself shut up by snapping his mouth closed and counting to ten backwards in his head in Athosian. Because he didn't want to be lonely. Because being in the closet sucks. Because they weren't in peril, they were off the coast of San Francisco, like a sign from the gods that John Sheppard should go get laid and maybe even get lucky in love.
"Oh," and now Rodney's expression crumples softly a little, and it just figures he knows what John's saying even when John doesn't say it. "So it was a sexual compatibility thing and not a relationship thing?" Or maybe not.
"There was no sex," John says with urgency, stressing each word. Rodney looks baffled. Oh. Right. "Being queer doesn't mean I'm led around by my dick."
"Oh, like you couldn't be easy, if you wanted to," Rodney says dismissively, chin coming up.
"I picked up some new games on my way back from being dumped," John says, before Rodney gets his foot too firmly stuck in his mouth. "You wanna?"
"Can't," Rodney says. "I have a. . . thing. With Jennifer."
John waves with cheery dismissal. "Have fun thing-ing," he says, and reaches for his laptop so he can let the agency know that the Friday after next works just fine for him.
John's next arranged date is an absolute disaster all on its own, no McKaysian interference necessary. There's a comic book shop in the strip mall across from the Starbucks where John just crashed and burned, so once he gets rid of creepy scary incompatible Joseph he heads over for some consumer therapy.
The guy behind the counter turns out to be the owner, and after talking for a bit he offers to special order anything John wants that's not on the shelves. They argue for a good hour just for the hell of it -- John arbitrarily in favor of the Isis reboot, Neil Gaiman, and the edgy new Riverdale series. Customers wander in and out, reading in the aisles and joining in the discussions when they come up to the register. It's fun, and John runs back to Starbucks to pick up some drinks and an assortment of overpriced snack foods. Over some caramel-covered coffee beans, John ends up telling the story of his dating failures, and the owner gives John a wide grin. He's got a build like he works out in a gym, but his face is baby-round. He reminds John of Ford, only with darker skin and a shaved head that's probably disguising a receding hairline.
"Charlie Xavier," he says, holding his hand out.
John shakes and introduces himself, and then has to ask the obvious, "Charles Xavier?" while indicating the shop, and the posters, and the cramped shelves around them.
"Oh, shut up," Charlie says, and tosses a bean at him. John catches it easily. "So you're a single, gay comics fan?"
"I'm military," John corrects, and swallows down the last of his coffee. He looks into the empty cup and winces. "Damn. I'm going to be up all night."
"I lock up at nine," Charlie says promptly. "There's good Thai takeout on the way to my place. If you don't want to be up all night alone."
It's such a line that John nearly laughs, but instead he just meets Charlie's eyes and says, "Awesome."
When John returns to Atlantis the next morning, he runs into Rodney on the way back to his quarters.
"Walk of shame, Colonel?" Rodney asks, acid in his voice. "I guess your date went well."
"Nope," John says. He can't stop smiling. "The date sucked." He lets Rodney construe what he will, and keeps on walking.
John's done the buddy thing and been there for Rodney through the crush on Carter, and the months with Katie Brown, and all the ups and downs of dating Keller. Once when they'd been out drinking on the pier Rodney had said, with deep inebriated sincerity, that he felt bad not being able to reciprocate.
"Really, what were you thinking when you decided to be gay?" Rodney had asked. "Are you just trying to make my life harder?"
John's dad had said nearly the same thing, and John never spoke to him again after that. But somehow it was different with Rodney, so John just gave him a sharp sideways leer and said, "I'm all about making your life harder," and Rodney had laughed and jabbed John with an elbow and they'd been good.
So John's surprised when, over the next few months, Rodney's a total ass. He doesn't want to hear about Charlie, and he doesn't want to meet him. He makes a point of asking John to do stuff when he knows John's got plans, and then gets all huffy and angry when John refuses to cancel with Charlie to hang out with him. It hurts; John tries not to show it. He manages to fool Rodney, he thinks, but Jennifer sees right through him.
She comes by his quarters one night, bringing a peace offering of pistachio nuts.
"I think Rodney's worried you're going to abandon him," Jennifer says, snapping the shells off a nut and popping it in her mouth. "Not rationally or consciously, but." She gives John a look. "You haven't had a serious girlfriend since before you guys, um." She waved a hand vaguely around, indicating the room and the city. "Came here."
"Like he asks me to approve his relationships." John clamps down his resentment, taking his annoyance out on five nuts in a row, crack-crack-crack-crack-crack. "Sorry."
"But that's different," Jennifer says, and catches John's eye to give him a wry smile. "If Rodney does something, of course it's the right thing to do, because he did it, QED. It's other people who screw up and marry English majors, or have nasty custody fights because nobody wants the kids, or ship you off to Siberia."
"I am so glad you're with Rodney and not me," John says earnestly. "I'd wring his neck."
Jennifer laughs. "It takes a bit of, um, assertive getting used to." She grins. "Forget Buns of Steel. I'm developing a steel backbone."
"Good," John says, and smiles at her. Before he can let himself think about it he adds, "Boyfriend. I mean, the person I'm, he's not a girlfriend."
Jennifer doesn't look that surprised, and she gives him a big goofy smile. Rodney, John thinks with weary, suppressed horror, must have let it slip. Damn.
What he's thinking must show on his face, because Jennifer sighs and starts throwing nutshells into his wastepaper basket in precise, devastating arcs. "I read him the riot act for telling me. He was contrite. He knows better, he just. . . he wants to be reassured that he's not losing you." She shrugged, and threw her aim off. A shell hit the floor and skittered under the bed. "Is he losing you?"
John's munching a nut, which sucks because his mouth goes dry, and it's hard to swallow. He wants to say no, that he and Rodney are A-OK, peachy and otherwise fine. But. "I didn't have to tell him," John points out. "I just thought that. . . ." He doesn't know how to finish that sentence.
Jennifer's good though, almost as unnerving as Teyla the way she plucks the words out of the air. "If he was accepting of you being," she falters -- John's relieved Rodney didn't tell her everything -- and settles on, "bi, then you thought he'd be happy for you finding a relationship."
"Well." John shrugs. "Duh."
"I can work with that," Jennifer says, looking like she has a plan until she stands up, sending a rain of nuts and shells down all over the floor. John cracks up; he can't help himself. Jennifer throwing nuts at him, he reflects later, is totally understandable.
Jennifer's bright idea is for them all to go on a date together. Charlie is less than thrilled about the idea of meeting John's overprotective jealous best friend, and Rodney grumbles and insists that it's all John's fault, that things were just fine before.
"You mean, when you were getting laid and I wasn't?" John asks, voice sharp and mean. "When you were showing me a wedding ring safe knowing I'd never have that, ever?" He's shocked at the words he's saying, because he's not a bitter person, he doesn't dwell on crap or waste time being resentful. He breathes hard, trying to figure out where the hell this sudden anger came from.
"You know I'm bad with people," Rodney says in apology, and John's anger turns into exhaustion.
"I just didn't figure I was people to you," John says, and walks off the balcony fast, shoulders hunching and wondering if he'd end up hating Rodney eventually if he gave in and broke up with Charlie now.
John's still not trusting himself to hold a civil conversation with Rodney by the big double date on Saturday. He gets on the shuttle to the city with Rodney and Jennifer, but spends most of the ride staring out over the water and avoiding looking at Jennifer. He's a little worried that Jennifer's been rolling her eyes so often and so hard that she won't be able to see straight, which would suck seeing as she's signed the four of them up as a team in a charity bowling thing. Even Rodney hadn't been able to protest about the shoes and the noise and the tackiness of it all when Jennifer brought up her med school friend running the event, and the children's hospital that will benefit.
Charlie's waiting for them outside the bowling alley, looking like he tried to dress up and then thought fuck it. He's wearing his classic Fort Thunder tee under a nice jacket, but also threadbare jeans and dirty sneakers. John has a sudden attack of nervous paralysis. He doesn't know what to do. Charlie's friends are mostly queer, geeky, and/or guys from the gym, and Charlie just always says, My boyfriend, John. Even touching or kissing is casual and easy after that.
John tells himself that Wraith are scarier, not to mention the Replicators and Ori and Goa'uld. "Hey," he says to Charlie, and gets through the introductions on autopilot manners. It's only when he's finished and hands have been shaken all around and Jennifer's herding them inside to find their assigned lane that John realizes he's holding Charlie's hand so tight his fingers are cramping.
He lets go and apologizes. Charlie puts one warm hand over the small of John's back and leans in to say low, "Meeting the parents is always traumatic."
John can either give in to hysterical laughter or pull Charlie over to the side by the glass trophy case and kiss him. He goes for option C, a quick hard closed-mouth kiss as bracing as a shot of whisky, and then he's ready to face the green and orange shoes and Rodney's grumpy face.
Without Jennifer, John might have given up. But she asks Charlie all the right, boring questions, where he's from and how long he's been living here, how he got interested in comics and what live-action film version did he like the best. Rodney is physically incapable of keeping quiet during a discussion of the Batman films, and he agrees with Charlie on a lot of the major failings of the franchise. John throws in a few useless remarks about the old TV series, just to mix things up. Charlie and Rodney both look at him like he's an idiot, and Jennifer grins, grabs her ball, and scores a strike for their team.
After the first game, Jennifer's friend talks about her hospital a bit and then brings the mike around for each team to introduce themselves. Charlie sneaks off to go buy drinks, and Rodney very unsubtly follows him.
"They'll be fine," Jennifer says, and pats John's knee. He gives her a flat stare, and she pulls her hand back to shove a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "Rodney's warming up to him. He just needs to make vague threats about what'll happen if you get your heart broken."
John snorts. "That's fucked up." But as he watches Rodney jab a finger at Charlie's chest, he feels a disturbingly gooey kind of happiness.
"Give up," Jennifer tells him cheerfully. "You're part of our family, and you might as well reap the benefits."
John's about to ask her just what those benefits are -- cockblocking? high blood pressure? -- when Jennifer's friend shows up with the microphone. Jennifer burbles about how great this opportunity is, and John tunes out, trying to figure out why all his balls have been hooking to the left. Maybe it's the shoes, he thinks, and is retying his laces when Rodney and Charlie return.
"Your disgusting iced tea," Rodney says, shoving a paper cup at John, who takes it automatically.
Normally he'd say how much better it was with a twist of lemon, but today he just looks up and says, "Thanks," with a nod for emphasis, not really sure what the mood is, if teasing would go over well.
Rodney looks flustered and brave, and then gives John a wry smile. "Even your boyfriend thinks you're a pathetic bowler. Try not to embarrass us in the next game."
"Screw you," John says, and settles back with his arm across Charlie's shoulders.
They finish the second game in seventh place, which John thinks is respectable, especially since it earns them the fabulous prize of two boxes of SpongeBob Squarepants band-aids. Afterwards, Jennifer treats them all to dinner, and John relaxes enough to get tipsy and quiet, content to watch Jennifer and Rodney and Charlie as they talk. When the server finally brings their coffee, Rodney sips, makes a horrible face as he denounces it as decaf, and points at John.
"You need to put him to bed," he tells Charlie, sounding accusing. "He used to be well-rested, you know."
Jennifer bursts out laughing. "You liar," she says, and by the way her arm moves John figures she's patting Rodney's leg under the table to take the sting from her words. "Only when I had him sedated."
John leans over to explain to Charlie that Jennifer is his personal surgeon. Charlie's familiar with John's collection of scars; he puts a hand at the back of John's neck and tells Jennifer, "Guess I owe you thanks, then." There's an earnest sincerity to the words that makes John's ears get warm all of a sudden.
"My pleasure," Jennifer says, and Rodney adds, "We hope to keep him around until we're all crotchety and old."
John waggles his eyebrows at Rodney -- who knows full well that John's met the old, crotchety version of him -- and then raises his coffee cup in a toast. "To old age," he says, and they all drink to that, and then the bill is paid and Jennifer's got her phone in her hand, calling for two cabs.
"This was fun," she tells Charlie, who isn't complaining that John's leaning on him. John likes that Charlie's comfortable. "We should, you know, do it again."
Charlie mentions hiking; Rodney counters with Alcatraz. Somehow, they agree that barbecuing would be fun, especially with marshmallows on sticks.
"We used to be scouts," Charlie says by way of explanation when John grumbles. Jennifer confesses to having been a Brownie, and is shocked that John's childhood didn't include merit badges and poison ivy.
"That's so sad," she says. John's afraid for a moment that she's going to embrace him right there on the sidewalk, but he's saved by the arrival of the cabs. Rodney grumps that John had better not be late for work; John flaps a hand at him and says Good night, already right before he slams the car door shut.
The feeling of pleasant disconnect lasts until Charlie's unlocking his apartment door, when it suddenly turns into desperate overwhelming lust. As soon as they're inside John kisses Charlie and pulls the jacket off his shoulders, then undoes the zipper on the ratty pair of jeans. Charlie keeps pushing John backwards, even as John fumbles at his belt. In the bedroom doorway he yanks John around, using the momentum to toss him across the bed. John blinks up at him in surprise, and Charlie's jeans fall down around his knees. It should be funny, but instead it's hot like fire. John rolls over fast and reaches out with both hands, grabbing and greedy. He wants Charlie's dick in his mouth already; he doesn't want to wait a second longer.
Charlie takes a couple of hobbled steps forward while John yanks his briefs down, and then John's got his hands on Charlie's ass and his mouth is wide-open and full, sliding down. It's perfect, and John shuts his eyes.
"Let me," Charlie says. John can feel his muscles hard and shaking from the effort of holding back. John says go for it as best he can with his mouth full, and then Charlie starts rocking into him, slow at first but then he stops being careful. John's overwhelmed with awe at how good they are at this, at how they fit together, at how he's somehow pulling this off, despite everything.
Charlie shoves John off when he gets too close, but John doesn't want to bother with condoms. He pulls Charlie down onto the bed next to him and shoves his own pants mostly off. John kisses Charlie while they jerk each other off, desperate and hard and messy. John comes first, gasping for air through clenched teeth, and Charlie follows right after. The afterglow lasts for a few warm minutes of lazy touching and dopey smiles, and then Charlie points out that they're only half undressed and sticky with come.
"Your point?" John asks, and Charlie shoves him over until he can either fall on the floor or get up and grumble his way into the shower. He has his own shampoo in the stall, and his own toothbrush in the cup by the sink, and after two minutes Charlie yells at him not to use up all the hot water, the way he always does.
Charlie gets in the shower while John's toweling off, and John leans back against the sink and watches.
"Pervert," Charlie says, sluicing water over his chest.
"What did McKay say to you?" John asks, curious.
Charlie shrugs. "The usual. Told me you only get a few weeks on Earth a year and that if that's going to be a problem I should be honest and let you go now, before you got attached."
"Huh," John says, absolutely at a loss as to how to reply to that.
Charlie turns the water off and shakes his head, like some vestigial habit from when he had hair. "I asked him if he was serious about the on Earth part. For the record, I'm not sure if I find that hot or terrifying."
John hands him a towel. "Science fiction's pretty cool until it tries to kill you."
Charlie runs a damp hand over John's side, the scars there.
"I like you," John says, feeling helpless against the tide of reality washing in. "I'm already attached, I guess."
"I can't really imagine you as a soldier," Charlie says, looking apologetic and a little embarrassed. "But I can see me waiting for you to come home, I figure I can do that, if. If that's where we're heading."
"Sleep on it," John offers. "Things look different in daylight."
"So are there really aliens?" Charlie asks. "Spaceships? Robots and shit?"
John yawns pointedly. "I turned into a bug once," he says. "No, really."
"And this whole conversation is classified, huh?" Charlie heads back to the bedroom, and John follows.
"Actually," John says, getting into bed naked and securing dibs on the pillow that isn't flat, "this conversation is illegal."
"Fuck." Charlie turns the lamp off and settles next to John, warm and solid and grumbling about the pillow situation. John promises to buy him new pillows for Thanskgiving, or something. "If we're going to do this, can you promise you'll try and stay safe? Your friend Rodney kind of implied you take risks."
"This is a risk," John says. Some of his irritation at Rodney for saying that bleeds through, making the words more irritated than he meant. He puts an arm across Charlie's stomach in apology and takes a breath to make himself relax. "And I know it's not fair to you. But I want," he doesn't even have the words that encompass everything, the comic book shop and the toothbrush and the pillows and having someone to wake up next to.
Charlie scoots a bit closer, finds John's face in the dark, and kisses him. "I'll keep the home fires burning," he says. "Stranger things have happened, yeah?"
"And twice on Sundays, in the Pegasus Galaxy," John tells him, and kisses him back, and keeps holding on until he falls asleep.