It's 2:30 in the morning when Sheppard shows up at the front door. By the time Rodney gets downstairs, pulling on a fleece over the t-shirt he slept in, Jeannie's already answered it, mussed and sleepy and wrapped in her bathrobe, and Sheppard's scrubbing the back of his neck and looking anywhere but at her. He's been to Jeannie's house plenty of times at all sorts of ungodly hours, seen her in her dressing gown repeatedly, and he never fails to go red in the face. Rodney's not sure whether it's because of her curves or that he's just overwhelmed by the sheer domesticity of it. "We have a lead," Sheppard says, meeting his eyes over Jeannie's shoulder, and Rodney grabs his kit and lets Jeannie kiss him on the cheek and follows Sheppard out into the night.
In the three months that Rodney's been working with Detective John Sheppard, following him to gruesome crime scene after gruesome crime scene, he's thrown up twice (to be fair, once might have been because of some bad chicken salad), been stabbed (in the arm, with a letter opener, but still), very nearly been shot in the leg, and almost drowned. The really crazy part is that he can't say that he's sorry--getting to put his revolutionary work in theoretical forensics to the test in actual field situations makes all the danger and aggravation that seem to go hand-in-hand with working with Sheppard worth it.
In a way, Rodney has Mayor Woolsey to thank--if Woolsey didn't have a penchant for getting himself invited up to Gracie Mansion to smoke cigars and swap war stories and talk about whatever politicians talk about, he might never have learned about the "consulting" Rick Castle was doing with the NYPD or decided to treat Castle's weird partnership with Detective Beckett as a pilot program for skilled civilians to work with the Atlantic City Police Department.
Rodney's only met Beckett once (and fine, it was over video conferencing), and not only was she obviously intelligent, she was a fine figure of a woman. Rodney felt like they'd really made a connection in those ten minutes (while Sheppard and Castle were busy having a smirk-off and some kind of silent communication via eyebrows), and he was sure it was only a matter of time before she encountered an especially tough case and called Rodney and his particular expertise up to the city to consult.
"We'll catch up when I'm down there for the poker open, Sheppard" Castle promised, all buddy-buddy. "Oh, and tell the lovely Detective Emmagan I said hi." Beckett rolled her eyes, and Sheppard laughed and said, "Sure thing," before he closed out the conference, and it burst Rodney's bubble of Beckett afterglow. "I need caffeine," Rodney said, and then was even more irritated when he realized that meant really bad squad room coffee. "Hey, get me some, too," Sheppard called after him, and Rodney stomped away and brought back the biggest heartburn-inducing mug of the stuff he could find, just to spite him.
After three months working together, Rodney knows that John Sheppard drinks his coffee hot and sweet (but slows down after the first cup, unlike Rodney, who will drink it all day unless Sheppard cuts him off); drives too fast; has an improbable sense of humor and an even more improbable laugh. He knows what Sheppard's face looks like when he's holding a gun, and what his hand looks like clamped over Rodney's forearm, covered in Rodney's own blood, but he doesn't know what brought Sheppard to Atlantic City, and he doesn't know where he was or who he was or what he did before he came here.
The way he tells it, not that he tells much, Sheppard came this close to ending up in what he called "Antarctica"--indefinite desk duty, with the accompanying mountains of snow-white paperwork. Of course, thanks to what he thought was an unshakeable belief in his own infallibility, Rodney almost ended up in his own Siberia--actual Siberia, not metaphorical Siberia--though when he'd first arrived in Atlantic City, he wasn't sure it was a much better alternative. If the city glittered, it was like paste jewelry, like broken glass. Underneath, there was grit and grime, an awareness of all the people who had passed through over the years, and it was hard in the beginning not to feel the weight of their despair. Or maybe that was Rodney taking things a little too personally, feeling his own failures pressing in.
He probably should have been sluttier, professionally-speaking. He could have wined and dined the scientific community more, or else written a couple of popular-science-for-kids bestsellers like his sister had, and then he'd be the one rolling in it. He likes to imagine that his swinging bachelor lifestyle would have turned out more like Castle's. Instead, Jeannie's money bought her a cozy bungalow by the sea for her family, with royalties that are earmarked for schools or orphans or whales or who knows what. They have a garden and a compost heap and an overweight cat and eat organic, vegan meals (Sheppard slips Rodney the occasional Ring Ding, for which Rodney might love him), and his brilliant homeschooled niece makes art projects out of things she rescues from the recycling bin. When Rodney didn't know where else to go, he came here, and somehow, he found a place in their busy, homey little life.
Inside the car is dark and quiet. Sheppard's laconic at the best of times, which can be maddening, regardless of the fact that he likes to point out Rodney talks enough for both of them. Now, though, Rodney has to fight the urge to hold his breath, to hold himself still and not disrupt the weird, humming tension. When they stop at a light, Rodney can hear the rasp of Sheppard smoothing his palm against his thigh, over and over, like he's building up a static charge.
Just when he thinks he's going to explode if he doesn't open his mouth and say something, anything, Sheppard beats him to it. "I think we've got our guy."
Rodney whips around in his seat as much as he can. "The fibers! Oh my god, I knew it." He points at Sheppard and snaps his fingers. "I am so going to patent that baby--what do you think, the McKay Ultraviolet Device?"
"The 'MUD' light?" Sheppard answers with a grin. "Yeah, you might want to work on that a little."
Rodney thinks they might be something like partners. No matter what Sheppard says ("Less like a partner, more like a bad penny--you just keep turning up, McKay"), they click, and they're good: three months and eleven closed cases, and that's not even counting the collars that technically belong to Detectives Emmagan and Dex. Besides, Sheppard can't want to get rid of him too badly--after Rodney almost got shot, Sheppard made sure he got a Kevlar vest and knew how to wear it, and Rodney knows that Sheppard carries an EpiPen, even though he's sure he's only mentioned his citrus allergy once or twice.
Then again, in the three months that Rodney's known Sheppard, he's never been to Sheppard's house. He's not sure he even knows where Sheppard lives. Rodney's thought about inviting him over to dinner, but if Jeannie's nightgown gives him the vapors, Rodney's not sure what her tempeh loaf would do to him. So they meet on neutral ground--Sheppard's desk at the precinct; Sheppard's car; crime scenes; Starbucks when Rodney needs a good, wholesome caffeine high; the corner bar with Teyla and Dex when Sheppard needs to unwind.
It's not supposed to happen like this: They stumble on the guy they've been chasing for weeks just as he's setting up to torch another old warehouse, and they don't have any backup. Or maybe this is exactly how it's supposed to happen, all roads leading right here, from Atlantic City to family to Sheppard. From an arson suspect and the fibers he left behind to Rodney with a gun pointed at his head at three o'clock in the morning.
Sheppard has a gun too, and he looks angry, like he wants to yell at Rodney for driving him so crazy all the time, or maybe to just shut up. Rodney knows he's babbling, he can't stop himself, but whatever's coming out of his mouth, his mind's running a mile a minute on a whole other track. Rodney wonders if this is going to be the third time he throws up on the job. He wonders if Jeannie will miss him, if he dies. If Sheppard will. He wonders if, should he survive this, Sheppard will make him wear a Kevlar helmet. He wonders if he'll earn a lot of money or prestige with the McKay Ultraviolet Device, and he wonders if it matters if he does, and then Sheppard's pulling the trigger, and the guy who was standing behind Rodney and pressing the muzzle of a gun into the nape of his neck is sprawled out on the ground.
When Rodney stops reeling, when he stops feeling like he needs to sit down and put his head between his knees, he looks at Sheppard. Sheppard's expression is a churned up mess--still angry and also scared and maybe a little grateful. Rodney's grateful. He's so fucking grateful that he moves forward and grabs Sheppard's face and kisses his stupid mouth that never says anything. His hands are trembling, and when he pulls away, Sheppard looks scrubbed raw, like the beach scoured after a storm, like clouds scudding across the sky and the sun starting to break through.
Eighteen hours after Sheppard saves his life--after the clean-up and statements and reports, after Sheppard tries to send Rodney home to sleep, after Rodney looks at him hard enough to get the message across and says, "I'll go when you do"--Rodney finally gets to see Sheppard's place. It's an apartment in an older building with big picture windows that reach nearly to the ceiling, and it's dark, but Rodney's willing to bet there's a pretty amazing view of the ocean and the sky, all the way to the horizon. Sheppard leads Rodney past a couch and a coffee table and a TV, some LPs framed on the wall and a surfboard propped in the corner, tugs him into the bedroom, pulls Rodney down onto the bed and lets some of his secrets spill out against Rodney's skin.
It's freezing down on the beach the next morning. There are maybe half a dozen seagulls wheeling overhead, silhouetted against a sky that's streaked palest blue and pink and purple and yellow. He can barely make John out as he cuts through the dark water, sleek in his wetsuit.
Rodney likes the city in winter, likes the way everything feels cold and clean and clear. He stands with his hands shoved in his pockets, and he watches the sunrise, and he keeps an eye on John to make sure he comes back to shore.