John leans against the metal skeleton of the building he's in charge of erecting, taking a break to watch his ten-man crew working two floors down. A sudden gust of wind brings an errant sound from the street far below, where the people resemble streams of ants churning around their disturbed hill. Being several hundred feet in the air doesn't bother him – he finds it invigorating. He rests one hand on his safety harness and gazes past the steel beam supporting him as he contemplates how life led him to what he thinks is the best job in the world.
John's parents weren't what he'd call happily married, or at least, he has no clear memories of them as a happy couple. He can easily recall the sounds of fighting, though, and lots of bruises left in his father's wake. His mom, Beverly, usually dismissed them with an unconvincing, "I fell". Even worse, once they sent him to a boarding prep school at 14, he was no longer present to act as a deterrent. Finally, when he was in his last year of college, she sued for divorce. With the help of one of the best divorce attorneys in the state (After twenty-seven years with that man, I deserve a medal), she came away with a lot more than that. Financially secure, Beverly set out to achieve her lifelong dream of opening a restaurant. When John graduated from college soon after the divorce became final, she asked him to move back home and help.
They spent six months making exacting plans for the restaurant, then reached out to those few friends Patrick Sheppard hadn't managed to poison or outright intimidate to find someone who could build her dream. In the end, though, one of John's college friends held the key. Teyla Emmagan came from a family of ironworkers, a profession John admired even though his father dismissed anyone in a blue-collar job as 'disposable'. After a marathon meeting to discuss her vision, Teyla drew up plans that met with Beverly's wholehearted approval. And when it came time to clear the building site, John was there at first light with a sledgehammer.
John helped demolish the decrepit burger joint that currently occupied the lot, and found that he enjoyed the honest work despite his burning muscles and aching joints. As the demo wound down and the groundbreaking neared, he figured it was time to start looking for a job that related to his Masters in Applied Mathematics. Teaching was a possibility, as were research and theoretical work, but something about stretching his muscles doing physical labor suited him down to his bones. He said as much one evening over beers at a nearby bar.
"You can certainly help out if you would like, John. My father would welcome the assistance," Teyla assured him as he worried the label on his bottle.
From that moment, John's life completely changed. Starting the following morning he trained with Tagan, learning about ironworking and construction in general. They started with the hands-on basics, but quickly branched into other aspects of the business. Each passing day proved that John had a talent for it and he quickly rose through the ranks, taking on ever more responsibility.
While John's math degree was useful in the planning stage, he found that he much preferred the tangible work at a construction site. There was no place he'd rather be than hundreds of feet in the air with the city spread out below him. And on the crisp fall morning when Tagan gave him his first project lead – for a 26-story skyscraper – he felt like he'd won the sky.
While John was learning the ropes – and rivets – of his new trade, his mother's restaurant was built, furnished, and staffed. It flourished, despite a smear campaign in his father's newspapers. While the elder Sheppard's pet food critic, Peter Kavanagh, panned it, there were plenty others who raved about Pegasus Market Bistro.
His foreman's shout of, "Hey! C'mere and boss us, Boss!" shakes John from his reverie. Grinning, he clambers down to see what Chet needs.
After locking down the external elevator and making a last check of site security, John sets off for home as the sun sinks below the horizon in his rearview. After a few minutes, however, the car seems to turn towards the restaurant of its own accord. It's become a habit – especially on days he's spent hours double- and triple-checking project paperwork – to slip into Pegasus for a quick meal rather than scrounge something at home. Glancing down at his dusty clothes and bandaged hand (courtesy of a new apprentice's rough weld), he shrugs. He'll just eat in the kitchen if he's adjudged too grungy for the dining room. He pulls past the valet and is surprised by how full the lot is for a Tuesday, but figures the extra cars probably belong to club-goers willing to risk the $250 tow.
When he opens the front door, however, it reveals a sea of diners. The only free table is a two-top that some (not very discerning) customers reject as being too close to the kitchen. More experienced diners realize that it not only offers the best view of the entire restaurant, but also affords a glimpse into the kitchen, where head chef Laura Cadman directs the controlled chaos that results in dishes that are pure magic.
Beverly recruited Laura after a local magazine touted her as a 'hot up-and-comer'. The formal interview consisted of constructing a meal from the ingredients on hand, and was so successful that John's mother named her head chef on the spot. "Your kitchen, your rules," Beverly promised. John was skeptical, but Laura won him over when he overheard her likening cooking to a warzone: she met every day like a battle, and would rather blow up someone's taste buds than make them a casualty of bland mediocrity. Her adventurous attitude filled Pegasus' tables on a regular basis, though John thought some patrons came hoping to watch her confronting – and correcting – entitled blowhards. (Sadly, an all too common frequenter of hot new restaurants.)
John hangs his jacket on a hook behind the hostess stand and looks toward the kitchen for his mother. Coming from the bar, she spots him first and pulls him into a hug. "How was your day, sweetheart?"
"Hey, Mom. Wow, that's quite a crowd."
"Pretty good for a Tuesday, right? I think the funky new bookstore down the block had an author in for a signing." Beverly rolls her eyes as she wipes a smudge off her dirt-magnet son's sleeve and tuts at his bandage. "John..."
"It's fine, Mom. I'm just gonna grab something from the kitchen," he says, but Beverly misses it as she turns to conduct a couple to the rest of their party.
He only gets three steps into the kitchen when Laura Cadman catches sight of him. "Not tonight! Get out!" She gestures at the swinging door behind him with her knife.
"What? I'm just gonna-"
"You're just gonna go right back out, Sheppard," she commands. "Take your filthy carcass out of my kitchen!"
Knowing that tangling with Laura in her own kitchen is a losing proposition, he sighs and turns around. The dining room is packed – as is the bar – but the two-top is still sitting empty. Catching his mother's eye, he points at the table and starts to pull out a chair.
Ronon, the gargantuan maître d', appears from nowhere and growls, "Sheppard." John looks up in time to catch his glower, before Ronon directs it at the table.
"What?" John shrugs. "No one's using it."
Ronon steps aside to reveal a man about John's age, whose navy sports jacket accentuates the breadth of his shoulders. "Sheppard, this is Doctor Rodney McKay."
John arches an eyebrow into his best So? expression. Ronon pins him with a look that says he's a clueless troglodyte about important (i.e., food-related) matters. (It's true. John's declaration that Good food is good food – who cares about critics? got him dope-slapped by half the kitchen staff just last month.) "Doctor Rodney McKay, of Epicurean Magazine."
McKay finally detaches from his smartphone and starts to speak before obviously being struck by a thought (John notes both the double-take and his startlingly blue eyes with satisfaction). After a couple of false starts he says, "You take that side, and I'll take mine." He glances around the restaurant, frowning. "I may not be here that long, anyway."
As Ronon pulls the chair out for McKay, John says, "Hey, Pegasus makes great food."
McKay, reaching for the napkin before Ronon can lay it across his lap, scoffs. "I'll be the judge of that."
John watches McKay scrutinize the menu. He opens his mouth to offer a suggestion, but Ronon's death glare convinces him to sit back in his chair and wait.
Ronon returns to the table following a glance from McKay. "What can I start you out with?" he asks, his voice as smooth as Evan Lorne's dark chocolate silk pie. The pastry chef's hiring was another coup for the fledgling restaurant, this one two-fold. While his desserts filled a void in Pegasus' menu, it was even sweeter that he'd been Patrick Sheppard's personal chef until Beverly and John stole him away.
Drawing his forefinger down the menu, McKay points out a few appetizers, followed by two entrees. "Oh, and have you been informed about my-"
Ronon nods. "Your assistant sent over a list." Clasping McKay's shoulder, he says, "You can trust us completely." Turning his attention to John, Ronon grunts, "Usual?" and takes off for the kitchen before John can even nod.
Once Ronon is out of sight (John's not sure he's ever out of earshot; his hearing is so acute that it's safest to avoid even thinking heretical opinions – such as, The only good clam is a fried clam or Truffles taste like dirt – in his vicinity), John turns to McKay, who's just picked up his water glass. "You're not pairing a different wine or beer with each course?"
McKay inspects John thoroughly before taking a drink. When he finishes, he looks across the table with derision. "One should never pollute the palate with anything stronger than water on their first visit to a restaurant." McKay's supercilious tone perfectly conveys that John is both an unreasonable toddler and a complete philistine. John's resultant grin demonstrates how little he's affected by the non-verbal name-calling.
Ronon appears tableside with a bottle on a tray, deftly avoiding a collision with a distracted teen directed by his parents to take that call outside, Josh. "Good thing I've eaten here dozens of times, then." John toasts with the local microbrew before taking a long draught, closing his eyes to better savor its malty flavor. He sets the beer on the table with an exaggerated, "Aaaah," earning a quelling frown (which leaves him completely un-quelled) before McKay returns his attention to his phone.
John isn't much for idle chitchat, but after a day where most of his interactions consisted of orders and questions grunted across a two-way radio, he's ready for a bit of conversation. Plus, this guy (currently muttering, "Damn tasteless check," as his fingers fly over the phone's keyboard) is intriguing, not to mention very attractive.
"So, exactly how does one become a food critic?" he asks as Clyde, their best runner, slides the first two appetizers onto the table. John eyes the soupe de d'escargot visqueux with a shudder.
The scornful look makes a comeback.
"It's a family business, if you must know. Started by my great-grandfather, Angus, passed down to my father, and then to my sister and me." He takes a notepad and pen from his jacket pocket, flips to an empty page and jots 'Pegasus Bistro' and the date. "Our unique genetic makeup lets us taste foods at a deeper and more complex level than almost anyone in the world. If you could see my tongue-"
"Maybe later," John says, bobbing his eyebrows.
McKay sputters to a stop, then shakes his head and continues, "Specifically, the fact that we have four times as many taste buds as the average person, along with their arrangement and superior powers of perceiving flavor, makes it clear why we excel as food critics, sommeliers, et cetera."
After taking another sip of beer, John says, "So, you're like Spiderman. You're a mutant, but your superpower is a really good sense of taste." John glances at the pants McKay is wearing and adds, "Maybe not so much in clothing..."
"Hey, I'm not the one covered in seventeen kinds of muck!" Jutting his chin defiantly, McKay adds, "And at least I'm using my powers for good. My kid sister is a vegan food critic, if you can credit that. She's wasting her talent on grass clippings and tofu!" He grabs a shrimp from the appetizer plate and points it at John. "Why would you limit yourself unless you'd end up in the hospital otherwise? When I think of all the dishes I can't eat because of my stupid allergy..."
John asks, "What are you allergic to?" as he tilts the bottle to take another drink.
"All citrus," McKay says, biting into the shrimp.
"Jesus!" John jumps to his feet, his beer skittering off the table to smash on the floor. He slaps the shrimp tail out of McKay's hand and thumps him on the back, yelling, "Spit it out!"
McKay reflexively coughs at the unexpected assault and the shrimp flies out, landing on the leg of his khakis. Ronon appears a second later, manhandling John away. He dimly registers his mother yelling, "John!" as he frantically tries to recall a long-ago First Aid class.
"I was... He was... The shrimp!" John sputters as Ronon finally stops shaking him. "He's deathly allergic to citrus." John takes a deep breath and says, "Lemon!" pointing to the scampi in the seafood appetizer plate like it's the guilty hoodlum in a police lineup. "You gotta call an ambulance!"
"John," his mother says, gripping his arm and drawing him a few feet away from the table (and, not incidentally, the valued guest/food critic he'd just assaulted). In a voice strained by maintaining her civility, she clarifies, "We know about Doctor McKay's allergies. That's why I closed the restaurant last night and had Laura remove every trace of citrus in the kitchen." She points to the glass of water. "See? No lemon in the cucumber-lemon water?"
John can feel his face turning beet red. As if he's not embarrassed enough, Laura Cadman has steamed out of the kitchen and looks mad enough to make spare ribs of him. She hisses through clenched teeth, "God dammit Sheppard! If you ruin this opportunity-"
Rodney interjects, "No, no, Chef - it's quite all right. I'd just told John that my allergy could land me in the hospital. He acted in good faith and I'm grateful he was looking out for me." McKay offers his hand and John shakes it, noting the warmth of his skin. Beverly is obviously anxious to speak to McKay, so John reluctantly lets go and steps aside.
After a few minutes the staff goes back to work and the other diners return to their meals. As they sit down to resume their own interrupted dinner, John says, "Thanks, McKay."
Rodney gives him a shy smile. "Call me Rodney."
John smiles at his new friend.
After The Incident, the evening improves tremendously. (It seems nothing breaks the ice like a well-intentioned assault.) Rodney shares his food, along with a professional evaluation of each dish. John enjoys the experience more than he would have guessed, as even the technical bits usually led down interesting conversational byways. Between discussions of how corn harvesting methods affect its suitability for certain dishes, or how they imagine caviar was discovered, they carom from subject to subject: superheroes (including Rodney's diatribe on how Spiderman isn't a mutant at all, but the victim of a radioactive insect bite), the horrors of modern air travel, Rodney's brief teenage rebellion (wherein he proclaimed his intent to become a theoretical astrophysicist), and John's work. Following his confession that he became a blue-collar worker only after getting his Masters in Applied Mathematics, he would swear Rodney muttered, "That is so hot." When asked to repeat it, though, Rodney challenged him to a game of prime/not-prime instead.
After an in-depth discussion on the outcome of a hypothetical fight between Ant-Man and The Thing, John looks around and realizes they're the only diners left. A glance into the kitchen shows only a couple of people who are focused on end-of-day cleaning and setting up for the next morning.
"Huh. So, do you want dessert?"
Rodney groans. "Seriously, I couldn't eat another bite." He pats his belly (which has been drawing John's attention all evening).
"You have to at least take a piece of Lorne's chocolate decadence cake for later. It's... I mean, perfection." He meets Rodney's cornflower blue eyes, praying he's not imagining the – attraction? Lust? Hope, maybe? – that he sees in them. John isn't much for one-night stands, but Rodney pushes all of his buttons. "Hang on a sec." Gesturing for Rodney to stay seated, he dashes to the cake chiller in the kitchen, cuts a thick slice, and puts it in a takeout clamshell. He puts everything away and turns to hurry back to the table-
Except Rodney's standing in the doorway with a shy smile. Popping open the lid, John drags a finger through the frosting and then licks it clean, enjoying Rodney's rapt attention.
Offering Rodney the container, John says quietly, "I think you'll like it." Rodney breaks off a piece with a generous amount of frosting and pops it in his mouth. He holds John's gaze for a moment, before closing his eyes and moaning in ecstasy.
When, exactly, did John's pants get so tight? He wishes for something to hide behind, but there's only the cake. Even if it wasn't part of the problem, it's not enough to disguise the bulge in John's Carhartts.
Rodney's face is flushed and when he opens his eyes, his pupils are dilated. "Hey, you wanna come–"
Grabbing Rodney's hand and pulling him through the dining room, John says, "You bet your sweet ass I do!"
For the second time, John's life turns on a dime. He and Rodney are inseparable, with John joining him as he works more often than not. Rodney feels it makes the kitchen less tense and more apt to send out food that's truly representative of their capabilities. They dance around each other for months before John blurts out the "L" word while recovering from one of the most spectacular orgasms of his life. (Rodney nearly collapses on him in relief. Thank god! I've been holding that in for weeks so I didn't frighten you off, you emotionally repressed WASP! Please, no – not the muppet laugh! Anything but mmph–)
Over the past few months, John had discovered the best method for stopping both rants and rambles is distraction by kissing.
The following Saturday, as John mulls keeping Rodney captive on the couch for the evening, Rodney asks, "Hey, can I pick the place tonight?"
A gobsmacked John says, "What? But you never want to pick the restaurant."
Rodney shrugs as much as he can with John practically laying on him. "Well... I-" He blushes, and John is sure he'll never stop finding it adorable. "I want to take you somewhere special. My favorite restaurant."
John is standing next to the couch in an instant, taking Rodney's hand to pull him up. "This, I gotta see," he jokes. "World famous epicurean Rodney McKay finally confesses that he does have a favorite restaurant in this big city." He lets Rodney zip up, and then chivvies him out the door, holding out his keys as they approach the truck.
Rodney almost trips over the curb. "What? Nobody drives your truck but you!"
"Well, you're the only one who knows where we're going. Just remember – if you dent her, I'll be taking it out of your ass."
"Like that's supposed to dissuade me?" Rodney shoots back, making John leer at him as they pull out into the evening traffic.
Rodney's favorite restaurant turns out to be a hole-in-the-wall Chinese joint. He's obviously a regular, judging by the hero's welcome they're given. The wait staff forgoes menus in favor of bringing an unending string of tiny dishes, including the best vegetable lo mein John has ever tasted. He's enjoying the super spicy Kung Pao gizzard, when Rodney starts running his socked foot up and down the inside of his thigh. His coughing fit brings the waitress to ask in broken English if everything is okay.
John already has a plan to get him back. When the resizing is done, he'll have the owner slip the ring into a wonton.