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Lips and Hearts

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It's the few weeks before that bring it up again, make it immediate. John walks around all day with this ache behind his eyes and tightness in his chest; both finally make sense only after he's picked up and put away the tenth and eleventh lovingly scribbled art projects that say (in pink pen, blue glitter, purple pencil, dabs of drying paint): I LOVE YOU MOM.

"Mother's Day, soon," he tells Rodney that night, after the easy shift for position of arms and legs and pillows (Rodney always tugs half the covers back, sneaky bastard).

"Yeah," says Rodney with a tilt of surprise in his voice that says he hadn't been thinking about it either, and then "yeah", a warm hand curling around John's, a short rub of thumb against the back of it.

It's enough for John's shoulders to relax, the ache to ease, so he can sleep.

Halfway through quiet reading a week later, when most of John's attention is on the Red Group and helping their quiet struggle with "A Day at the Beach", several kids still at their desks decide this is the perfect time to talk about what their fathers are getting their mothers for Mother's Day.

"Dad's hopeless," whispers Jordan at a volume that is twice as loud as he thinks it is. "He had to take my sisters with him to the jewelry store. And they texted Mom three times."

"My dad always forgets until Sunday morning," says Amanda with something like glee. "So Mom gets a lot of gift certificates."

This dissolves into a debate about which presents are the most romantic (because second graders are such great judges of romance), and John is about to get up and shut down the talking (he'd been hoping it would quiet down on its own, hey, it happens) when another overly loud voice breaks through.

"What about you, Cara?"

Cara's pretty quiet as a rule (always follows directions, funny as hell, and when she smiles John can tell she's going to break hearts in high school; though he's biased that way about most of his kids). So quiet that he almost misses it, the look on her face, the way it pales and tightens and oh, he remembers that look, can feel the ghost of it on his own face.

Before he can say anything, she's up and out of her chair, barely glancing in John's direction (you're supposed to ask to leave the room, and it's May, so they all know) before she's gone.

"God, Jordan, get a clue," hisses Amanda. "Don't you remember that Cara's mom died last year?"

Whatever Jordan says, John can't hear, or hears but can't quite understand because his heart is beating too loud in his ears and did the AC cut out, because it's hot, and how can the kids not be staring at him? Amanda is, but only because she saw Cara leave (escape, part of John's brain offers) and after a blink of troubled eyes she turns her head back to her workbook.

Somehow, John makes it through the Red Group and "A Day at the Beach", the Blues and "Pete's School Project" (which is Cara's group, but he doesn't say anything when she's not there, still not back yet, and for once the rest of the students don't seem to notice, don't "helpfully" remind him about it, which is only another kind of tattling, really) and is halfway through "Brave Balto's Journey" with the Green group when the bell rings for lunch.

"Push in your chairs," he tries to pitch his voice above the growing chaos of boys and girls who have just remembered that they are starving and need to eat five seconds ago. "We'll read the rest of the chapter when we get back from lunch," he tells the small group squirming to be released from the back table, biting back a bit of a smile at the sour look Joey is throwing him.

"But what about math, Mr. Sheppard?" asks Ben, and if John hadn't been doing this for a while he'd almost be taken in by the fake concern loading the words.

"I think we'll fit it in somewhere," John assures him, trying to slide some humor into it even as his palms still feel a little itchy and he can't really think or breathe.

Room 12 is mostly quiet and in a (mostly) straight line by the classroom door, so John does an absentminded sweep of the room with his eyes, doesn't see any glaring mess on desk or floor (although if he's really honest with himself, at this point Tolstoy could have escaped his cage and started doing the Macarena in the middle of the room and he would have missed it) and walks the kids to the lunch room. Though, as usual, the line disintegrates after about five feet, except for Amanda and Jenna (but John's pretty sure that's only because they're deep in some important conversation involving sleepovers and cookie dough, not that's he's eavesdropping or anything) and a gaggle of boys who always seem to compete to see who can walk the absolute slowest.

Eventually he's herded them all to tables and the cafeteria line (pizza today, which John stopped finding exciting after his first or second year at Atlantis; turns out when you're not seven and eating everything in sight, pizza gives you a stomach ache). Now to find Cara, not that she could go anywhere, it's an enclosed building with enough locked doors that for once, John is glad instead of mildly creeped out.

"Mr. Sheppard?" Amanda, still standing at the door to the cafeteria.

"Yes, Amanda?" Normally, he'd manage a smile, but it's beyond him at the moment.

"...when you see Cara, can you tell her that me and Jenna and Susie are saving her a seat at lunch?"

Sometimes, kids are too much, John thinks, and feels something tighten in his throat for a minute, something proud and sad all at once. And whoever said kids are stupid has never met one.

"Sure, Amanda, I'll tell her. Now go on," John says, and Amanda grins brightly and the door closes.

The student restrooms are on the way back to the classroom, so John ducks his head into 4th grade where (like he'd thought) Laura Cadman is still scribbling herself notes about the next lesson. Either that or marking a dinner date with Carson, but now isn't the time to tease.

"Got a minute?" John asks, and the change in Laura's expression says that he hasn't been hiding as much of what he'd been thinking about as he'd thought.

"Sure, what's up?"

"Well," and John feels himself shift his weight, tells himself to get a grip. "One of my kids made a break for it in the middle of class and hasn't come back yet. Now that the coast is clear, I'm sure she's going to try to sneak into lunch and hope I'll forget the whole thing. But on the off chance she's holed up in the bathroom…"

Laura laughs a bit.

"Oh, I see, you have a need for my singular talents," she grins and follows him, but after she ducks into the girls' room for a moment, she's back, shaking her head. Damn.

"I'd try your room again, or maybe the nurses office? Who was it?"

"Cara Wells."

Laura's smile gets a touch sadder. "Was it something about her mother? I had her brother Nick last year, poor guy. It's tough, especially this time of year."

"Yeah," John says and God, hopes he manages to keep the wobble out of his voice.

When they reach Room 12, John can hear the muted squeak and shuffle that means someone's inside, a thump and soft zip that must be Cara getting her lunch box out of her backpack.

"Want me to talk to her?" Laura says, something enough like understanding in her voice that John almost gives in, but feels enough of the tension in his slowly clenching fists that he shakes his head.

"No, thanks. Besides," and here he can grin, "you have to get back to drawing hearts around Carson's name, or something." He leans away from Laura's swat (barely) and lets her get farther away before opening the door to the classroom.

Sure enough, at the noise of the door opening, Cara's head pokes around the cupboard where the kids all hang—or madly pile—their backpacks. For a long second, she doesn't move, but finally she emerges with a lunch box clenched so tight it probably hurts.

"Hey, Cara," John says, wishing this could be easier. "Why don't you come and sit for a second."

" 'Kay," she answers after a minute and she slowly shuffles into a chair at the reading table.

"I was worried when you left the room without asking," John begins, and a slow flush starts on Cara's face. Barely (and only because he was expecting it) he can hear a noise of apology, though Cara's chin is now tucked to her chest, her hair falling forward to hide her face.

"Are you okay?" John knows what a stupid question this is, and the sarcastic voice he always thinks of as Rodney answers back Gee, John, what do you think? Were you then? Are you now?

Cara shrugs with half a head nod. Which is more than John was expecting.

"I'm not mad at you, Cara. I figure that if you left without asking that it was for an important reason."

Firmer nod this time.

"Like if you were feeling bad. I know that when I feel bad, if I'm sad or angry, I need to be by myself for a bit to feel better," which isn't particularly true, but Cara is actually looking at him now, and the look in her eyes just about breaks John's heart.

"I know when Jordan asked about your mom that made you upset and I know because," John swallows, throat raw, "when I was your age, people would ask me questions like that after my mom was gone and I'd be upset too."

"Your mom's gone too?" And Cara's voice wobbles and John can't breathe, can only nod and see her face both brighten and twist, a shiver as tears begin to slip down her face. "I really miss her," she whispers and John leans over, slides an arm over her shoulders.

"I know you do, honey," is all he can say, and Cara cries. It's not long, John's pretty sure that she'd been crying some in the bathroom while she was gone, and eventually Cara's down to sniffles and staring at the table again.

John sits for a minute, breathes slowly (trying to work past the memory of the teacher hadn't known, had told John off for not drawing his mom in a family portrait for art. He'd cried in the bathroom and torn up the paper before his dad could ever see it.) and crams a smile back into his voice.

"It's okay to be sad," John says quietly, because every kid has a right to be sad, to not suck it up and be a grownup, not yet, not ever, about this. "And if you're ever sad and need to talk to someone, let me know, okay?"

Cara nods, head pillowed on John's shoulder.

"Now, why don't you get a drink of water and a tissue and then if we hurry, you can still make it for the rest of lunch and recess." John lowers his voice conspiratorially. "I hear that Amanda and Jenna and Susie are even saving you a seat."

" 'Kay," says Cara like before, but her voice is louder and calmer. She takes the tissue John finds for her, blows her noise, twice, and gives John a closer approximation of her normal smile. There's a knock on the door, and then Laura Cadman pokes her head in.

"I'm on my way to the teacher's lounge, Mr. Sheppard," she says with a seemingly ignorant smile. "Need anything?"

"Nah, I'm good," John says, though the idea of food doesn't sound as impossible as it had before, though actually talking to someone (the kid sitting next to him at lunch always got a note from his mom saying she loved him. John used to pick them out of the garbage to read them, wishing they were his.) sounds tiring. "Hey, Cara, do you want to walk with Ms. Cadman? Just so she doesn't get lost," he whispers and Cara smiles a little wider and heads to the door. After she's turned, John mouths a thank you to Laura, who widens her eyes in a "who, me?" sort of way.

The door clicks closed. John leans back, feels the itch of his palms slowly slip away, the ache in his throat become manageable. He stands, goes to dig his lunch out of the class fridge. Hell, maybe Tolstoy wants the lettuce in his sandwich.

**

While John hates acronyms, right about now he is highly willing to thank God (or really, anyone else) that it's Friday. Friday means an hour earlier dismissal, means that after he picks the kids up from lunch it's a quick math lesson involving a slightly more educational version of blackjack, then a double period of PE with Ronon that burns off the edge of restless energy that's been hanging around Room 12 because they can tell something's up with John too. John decides to sit in, and so is witness to the hilarity that is 20 second graders playing kickball and then a laughter-filled game of tag where they move in blobs of two or three kids holding hands. He sees Cara stuck in the middle of a crowd of girls, all gleefully "it" and his throat feels tight again. If Ronon is surprised to see him hang around, he doesn't say anything.

It's not too long after that (especially because Atlantis is still in the lull before report cards, so John can get the hell out of there) that John's opening the front door, dumping his keys and the mail on the table and his bag on the floor and then he allows inertia to set in enough that he just stands there.

"You just have to hear what a freshman said in class today, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to applaud his highly articulate stupidity or send a letter to the high school that let him pass any science class ever. Hey-" and suddenly there was Rodney's hand on his shoulder to go with the voice, Rodney's thumb worrying at the collar of John's shirt.

John allows himself to lean into it a little and says softly, "a girl. In my class. Hid in the bathroom for most of reading, 'cause some kid asked her about Mother's Day, and her mom died last year. And," John feels his throat start to close a bit, works his jaw even as he feels Rodney step closer, hand cupping his neck. Close enough that he can finish it. "I talked to her about it. About my mom, and that it was okay to be sad." Rodney's near enough that John can step into him, tuck his chin over Rodney's shoulder, feel his breathing.

"I'm glad," and Rodney's hand is on his back, barely moving in a motion that John still finds calming. "I'm glad that she had someone to talk to."

"Yeah?" John wishes he didn't sound so young, so hopeful.

"Yeah," and now Rodney's pressing a kiss to John's temple, still holding him close. "You should have."

John feels his jaw tighten, his eyes start to sting.

"Rodney—"

Rodney pulls away enough that John can see his face, and wow, he is furious.

"No, John, I get to be mad about this. I get to be absolutely and completely incensed that your asshole of a father never helped your talk about your mother and, instead of letting you and your brother grieve, he shut you down and closed you off and eventually sent you to boarding school--"

"It was a tradition, Rodney, not some kind of punishment--"

"--instead of just loving you. That's what he was supposed to do," Rodney's down to a whisper now, right in John's ear and his voice sounds as wrecked as John feels inside. "Just love you, and let you know that it was okay to miss her and okay to feel sad."

John swallows, feels a shudder work its way up his back as his hand fists in Rodney's shirt.

"I really miss her," he finally manages and with barely the time to process being embarrassed about it, bursts into tears. Rodney's hand doesn't stop moving up and down John's back, but he doesn't murmur anything ridiculous and false in his ear about it being all right, or hum or some other romantic movie crap (an ex-girlfriend had once gotten John to talk and, yeah, cry about his mom, but the whole thing had felt so damn fake and manipulative that John had ended up feeling sadder as well as irritated with the whole thing) but just lets John cry.

John feels the tears slow enough that he actually can notice each hesitant slip of wetness down his face, how he has a hitch in his throat every third breath, that Rodney has somehow maneuvered them down the hall and into the bedroom, onto sheets that smell faintly of detergent and stronger of them and rest and peace.

"Sorry," John says, scrubbing a hand across his face and then shaking his head a little when he realizes he isn't being clear. "'M sorry that I don't talk about her much."

"You know you can, though," Rodney says, and there's enough of a question that John kisses him an answer in a soft brush of lips and air.

John falls back against the sheets, part of him reveling in the sheer pleasure of lying in bed on a Friday afternoon, the stretch of a lazy weekend before them, twisting sideways so that their feet tangle as they kiss.

"Yeah," John says, because it's important to say it, to let Rodney hear it out loud. It makes it real; hell, it makes it true.

"Tell me something about her," Rodney says and some of the ache that still sits in John's heart (I LOVE YOU MOM) eases at the gentleness of the request.

John thinks. She hated green beans. Her favorite color, she'd said, was the grayish blue bruise of a rain cloud in a thunderstorm. She had taught John to dance one afternoon, laughing. She'd had a great laugh.

"She would have really liked you," John answers, and it's not going to be fixed, this, not really (he can still feel the rawness of it, scraped thin, and an answering shudder of Rodney's breathing feels like the tears clinging salt to his face) but it's better, truer, and Rodney leans in with a kiss full of rest and peace and home.

*