He remembers Nicky Sharpton calling from Korea and saying, "Shep, I swear, she's amazing, you'll love her; I can't wait for you to meet her." John remembers saying, "Uh-huh," and "That's great," and then, the first moment he thought he could say it and Nicky might actually hear him, "Look, Nicky, I'm sure she's a really great girl and everything, but you're overseas, man, away and alone and... Just, maybe slow down a little. Just, you know, before you make any definite decisions..." and Nicky says, "We got married on Tuesday," and John says, "Gee, Nicky, that's great: congratulations!"
Now he slumps back into one of the leather armchairs in their suite at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond and stares at the heavy, snoring lump of Dr. Rodney McKay, Ph.D Ph.D, who dropped his bags near the door and faceplanted into one of the sofas within moments of their arrival. He thinks he owes Nicky Sharpton an apology; Shinwon had, in fact, been a terrific girl: beautiful, smart, a lawyer specializing in international business, the daughter of U.N. Ambassadors, now the doyenne of their particular set inside the Beltway.
John doesn't know how the hell he's going to explain this.
"Come on," John says, and throws a towel over Rodney's head. "We've got an 8 o'clock dinner reservation, so you've got to get up and shower now."
Rodney groans from somewhere under there. "I don't need a shower."
"Oh yes you fucking do," John says.
He's a little worried, but Rodney brought a suit and it's even pressed. Rodney gives him the stink eye as he stalks off, wrapped in a towel, garment bag slung over one bare shoulder. John knows that look; it's oh, ye of little faith and it's not as if I've spent my life at world class institutions of higher learning, Stanford-boy. John's own shirt could probably use a little ironing. Fuck, he hates ironing. He's not doing it. Fuck.
He's just unplugging the iron when Rodney comes out of the bedroom, and okay, Rodney looks fine; Rodney looks good. It's a good suit, and it suits him: tie's a little wide, more MIT than Harvard, but that's fine: that's who Rodney is.
John holds up the iron. "Want me to run your shirt through?"
Rodney narrows his eyes. "Not unless this is the beginning of some extremely kinky roleplay," he says, and John grits out, "All right, shut up, I'm a little stressed out."
Rodney drifts off to study the Mermaid's chalkboard of specials—Lamb Chop and Tenderloin Anchovy Stuffed Bulb Onions, Spring Peas, Sage jus; Berkshire Pig, Olive Relish with Arugula Salad, Stewed Shoulder with Artichoke; Dry Aged Beef with Sauteed Porcinis, Shallot Confit—so he's on the other side of the room when Dave and Margaret—fuck, he brought Margaret—walk in. Dave looks weirdly happy to see him, which is just wrong on so many levels, but John lifts his chin and tries not to look like he'd rather be on another continent or maybe dead.
"Hey. John," Dave says, and offers a hand. John takes it, but David shakes hands with authority, and it makes him feel like he's at school again: makes him glad that he lives in a world of salutes. "It's good to see you," Dave says, and then it's Margaret's turn; she smiles at him and leans in to brush a dry kiss onto his cheek. John tries not to flinch.
"Rodney," John says, and for a second, he can see Dave and Margaret's confusion, as if he's greeted them in a language they don't speak. This is almost true. John clears his throat, turns toward the chalkboard, and says, raising his voice, "Rodney?"
Rodney turns at the sound of his name, then comes over. John half-expects him to have the tense, braced-for-anything body-language of an away-mission, but Rodney just ambles across to them, shoulders sloped. "Rodney," John says, jerking his head toward his brother, "this is my brother Dave, David Sheppard, and his wife, Margaret." The flat line of Rodney's mouth quirks a bit on one side; Rodney's idea of a pleasantry. "David, Margaret, this is Dr. Rodney McKay," John says, flipping the introduction, and then adding, almost offhandedly, "Astrophysics. Engineering," because hell: two Ph.D.s.
It makes his head hurt a little to watch Rodney shaking hands with his brother: worlds that should never collide, colliding. He tries to see Dave and Margaret the way Rodney sees them: his buttoned up, square-jawed brother, Margaret with her expensively coiffed blonde hair and a little circlet of diamonds pinned to her jacket. He can't tell what Rodney is thinking; Rodney just smiles crookedly and puts his hands in his pockets.
"Uh-huh." Dave shoots John a curious sideways look. "Another civilian contractor?"
"No. Rodney's my partner," he says. The maitre'd tells them their table is ready.
Margaret goes up about a million percent in John's estimation when she throws herself on the conversational grenade, turning to Rodney before they're all even seated. "Astrophysics?" she asks. "Engineering?"
"John's easily impressed," Rodney smirks, before modestly going on to explain the circumstances of his double doctorate. John would normally have kicked him, but Dave is looking around blankly and fumbling with his napkin, so John's grateful for any conversation, even at his expense. He keeps an eye on David while pretending to study the menu, so he's only half-listening to Rodney and Margaret, which is why it takes him a moment to realize that they're not having the polite non-conversation he's expecting.
It turns out that Margaret left Georgetown for some kind of administrative appointment at the NIH, where Rodney apparently knows a ton of people. "He's a shithead," Rodney declares, and jabs a finger at Margaret, and maybe it's that this is his father's sort of restaurant, but John is stiffening, suddenly furious: he can't believe that Rodney's using language like that at the family table. Except Margaret is laughing, and she's leaning over and grabbing Rodney's forearm and saying, "No, he is, and the best part, seriously, is that he has the gall to complain; it's a gift and he has the gall to—"
"I can't believe you gave that asshole a grant," and Rodney's craning his neck and snapping his fingers for the waiter. "I need a drink just to think about that. This is where my tax dollars are—"
"Well, to be fair," Margaret says, while Rodney's ordering scotch on the rocks, "he did some great computational models of—"
"Yeah, ten years ago and in DOS," Rodney snaps, and then: "Do you want a drink?"
"Sure." Margaret sits back in her chair and gives the gold bangles on her wrist a little shake. They jingle. She looks up at the waiter and says, "I'll have the same."
"John?" Rodney asks, and for a second, John has no idea what Rodney wants.
"Uh," John says.
Rodney rolls his eyes and tells the waiter, "Bring him a beer, whatever lager's on tap."
Dave's still grimly staring down at his menu, so Margaret says, lightly, "Make that two," and gives the waiter a quick, dismissive smile. "Do you know Amol Singh, out of—"
"Yes," Rodney says, brightening, "and actually, he's not that stupid. For an M.D."
Margaret huffs out an amused breath. "He is very not stupid. In fact, we just tripled his grant; his models of apicomplexan molecular physiology are going to—"
"Oh, that's only because he has a Ph.D. in something useful," Rodney snorts. "Mathematics, I think," and that's when Dave lifts his head.
"Is this," Dave says tightly, and suddenly John can see he is upset, that he actually is upset, "is this what you and Dad were—"
"Some of it," John says, not looking up from his own menu, mainly as a courtesy to Dave. "Not all of it."
The table's quiet for a moment. Rodney fidgets with his fork. Margaret shifts, her bracelets clicking softly together. "Of course," she says slowly, "the best researchers do always have a strong secondary field," and Rodney says, "Of course they do. Got to be."
"It's not you," Dave says as the waiters are clearing the salad plates. "I don't want you to think that it's you. I'm just," and suddenly Dave's massaging his forehead with his fist, and he looks old: really old. "I'm just so angry at how things worked out."
That's probably the most honest thing his brother's ever said to him. John wonders where he learned to talk like that. "I'm, uh..." There's a lobster tank on the far wall. He thinks he can see thick red rubber bands around their claws. "I'm also pretty angry," he says.
Dave bites his lip, jerks a nod, and then blurts, "If there's more, what's the more?"
John's world goes white to the horizon. "No, I'm...sorry, I," he says, and then, "I've done my sharing for today. I think I've done my sharing for, like, the next couple of years," and suddenly Dave cracks up and John's grinning and laghing, too. He slumps back in his chair, the pole of his spine relaxing; he has the childish impulse to kick against the rungs.
"Okay," Dave says, pinching the bridge of his nose to hide his smile. "Yeah."
"Tell me about the stables." John downs the rest of his beer and signals for another.
Dave tells him about a horse called Tailspin, bred from their last big winner, Bangtail, which apparently has a good chance at winning the Breeder's Cup. John nods and dredges his memory to ask the right sort of questions, but he's mainly just grateful that the conversation gets them through most of the entrée. It also gets them a little nearer to the ostensible purpose of this trip: family business of one sort or another.
"Will you come to the house tomorrow?" Dave asks, over coffee.
"Yeah," John says.
"There's some stuff of yours, boxes, that Charlotte—"
"Probably covered in anthrax," John says darkly.
"You don't mind that we're selling?" Dave asks casually, but there's something steely in the question, so John knows that it matters. He looks Dave in the eye.
"No," John says. "I don't mind. Sell it all, sell everything." Dave nods and wants to ask the question, John can see it, so John cuts to the chase: "And no, I don't want any of the money. I don't want anything. Nothing. I don't want it and I don't need it."
"Okay," Dave says, a little defensively, like John's the one with the problem here. "I just, I'm not looking to cheat you—"
John snaps back, "Did I say you were trying to cheat me?"
"Oh, look," Rodney says loudly, swinging round from his conversation with Margaret. "Mango sorbet," and Dave's irritated glance is so perfectly priceless that John really wants to tongue-kiss Rodney right now, right here, in the middle of the restaurant. Rodney throws the little leather-framed dessert menu down onto the table and says, in a tone that makes it perfectly clear he could give a shit, "Usually all they have is lemon."
John bites his lip. "You want some mango sorbet, Rodney?"
Rodney waves for the waiter to bring the coffeepot. "Yeah, cause that's queer enough, right?" Margaret laughs behind her hand.
Margaret saves them all again by putting her platinum Amex on the check, a move that seems to stymie Dave as much as any of them. "Oh, please," she says, rolling her eyes. "Any more testosterone at this table, I'm going to need to get my lip waxed." She pulls a business card out of her wallet and tosses it over toward Rodney. "If you're ever applying for anything, I know some people at the NSF and—"
Rodney looks up, still shoveling cake into his mouth; the mango sorbet had come with a coconut napoleon. "Thanks," he says, mouth full, "though don't take this the wrong way, but you guys are totally Little League."
John smirks and says, "Oh, I'm sure she won't take that the wrong way."
Margaret tosses her napkin onto the table and says, "Well, I'll say this much: this was a more memorable evening than usual."
John ducks his eyes away from Rodney, because he doesn't want to laugh and he knows Rodney's face says: You know, not really for us.
When they get back to the hotel, Rodney steers him directly to the oak-paneled bar in the lobby and orders them both nightcaps: double whiskeys, three rounds. Rodney, who habitually drinks scotch, holds his liquor well. John, a beer drinker, doesn't, which is probably why Rodney orders them whiskeys in the first place.
"Dr. McKay," John says after a while, grateful that the barstool has a back, "I believe you have designs on my virtue."
Rodney shows him a crooked smile, and says, "Think you can sleep?" and huh, yeah, maybe he will sleep. Maybe it's the adrenaline ebbing, or more likely the booze, but he feels loose-limbed and relaxed. He feels okay. He doesn't feel like punching anybody.
They go upstairs, and Rodney actually doesn't make a play for his virtue: just helps him unknot his tie, motor coordination not being what it was, and shoves him toward the bed. John manages to shuck his shirt and pants and slides under the covers in his t-shirt and boxer shorts. It's a good bed—huge, good comforter, high thread count—but he's not really comfortable until Rodney finishes brushing his teeth (Rodney's obsessed with his teeth), clicks off the bathroom light, and slides in on the other side.
In the old days, John might have given it a couple minutes, but there's been too much water under the bridge for that: he's got no shame, now. Rodney's stretched out on his side, and John snugs up behind him and pushes his face into the hot back of his neck.
He sleeps well like that. It's the only way he ever sleeps well anymore.
For all McKay's bullshit about allergies and anaphylactic shock, it's John who gets the first really bad case of offworld poisoning. One minute he's sitting at a banquet, forcing himself to make small-talk with the local village leader, the next he's feeling a little woozy and thinks he probably ought to excuse himself from the table.
He doesn't remember much after that: flashes of trees, trying to find his way to the guest hut, and then he remembers sitting down next to a rock. By then, he's totally out of his mind, and it seems like a really good idea to crawl off into the forest to die, so that's what he does. He feels soft dirt on his palms, the sponginess of the earth beneath his knees.
Then the sweating starts, and the aching, and all he can do is lie there and take it. All the long bones of his body hurt, and his ribs, too, but he feels stupefyingly calm: it's like being high, or really, really drunk. He thinks he's probably dying, but he can't bring himself to be upset about it. It seems theoretical. It's almost fascinating.
He doesn't know how McKay finds him, but the next thing he remembers, he's somewhere else, and McKay's there too. The really interesting thing is that he can't speak: McKay's asking him frantic questions, but—wow, he's got nothing, it's like he doesn't understand what words are. He remembers lying on his back trying to push his shoulder blades into the ground, because that feels good somehow, makes his body ache less. He remembers McKay wiping a cloth across his face, remembers McKay clutching him tight when the shaking starts and whispering, "It's all right, it's all right. You're sweating it out." There's a weird taste in his mouth. He cries a little but he doesn't feel embarrassed about it. Rodney makes him drink water he doesn't want.
And then suddenly, it's over; it just rolls off him. John lifts his head, he's cotton-mouthed and sticky, and says, "Uh. I feel better," before crashing into sleep. When he wakes up, McKay's tactfully moved to the other straw pallet. Without thinking, John crawls over and curls up behind him. He presses his face against the warm back of Rodney's neck and goes back to sleep.
"You liked Margaret, huh?" John murmurs against the back of Rodney's neck.
The answer comes out of the dark. "Mm, I did like Margaret. I've always liked women with that sexy librarian vibe. She reminds me of the dean at USC."
"I think she was a dean once," John tells him. "At Georgetown."
"Mmhm," Rodney says, and he's drowsing.
John shakes him a little. "What about my brother?" he whispers. "What'd you...?"
"Hmm," and that's a cautious sound; Rodney's being cautious. "You're not very alike. I wouldn't have tagged him as your brother, if you hadn't said he was."
John pushes his face into Rodney's hair. "Different mothers," he says.
He hates to talk, but he can talk to Rodney like this. He can talk to the back of Rodney's head: Rodney figured that out years ago. "Mine was number two," he says. "She was around until I was—I don't know, four or something. Dave's was number three; she was married to someone else when she got pregnant with Dave. Four we both hated; that was Charlotte, she was a nightmare, but we were at school most of the time. Five—"
"God. Tell me there's not more than five."
"Five, Patricia, she died of breast cancer a couple of years ago. And actually, you want to know who was great, the only one out of that mess I still talk to? Kathy, numero uno, his first wife, which—you can guess why he divorced her, right?"
Rodney hesitates for only a moment. "She couldn't have children?"
"I forget you're so goddamned smart," John snaps; he's furious, all of a sudden, and he rolls onto his back and stares up into the darkness.
Rodney doesn't push him; Rodney just lies there, snuffling, on his side of the bed. He likes Rodney for this. Little by little John unwinds again, and begins to ease closer; it was his goddamned story to tell, and now he's told it. No point taking it out on Rodney.
Still, Rodney's not asleep; John knows Rodney's sleep noises and these ain't them. The problem isn't that Rodney's as smart as he thinks he is; the problem is he's never learned to be tactful. If he has a question, it's going to be trenchant, so John braces for it.
Finally Rodney makes a dissatisfied noise and says, "Your mother didn't get custody?" and it's such a bullseye that it almost hurts, it's almost bliss. John closes his eyes and opens his mouth to breathe. Smart. He's grateful Rodney's so smart.
"Can I," John says finally, when he can speak, "tell you tomorrow?"
"Whatever, okay," Rodney replies muzzily, and then he really is asleep.
"No. Seriously. Over my dead body," and Rodney's crossing his arms and using his extremely serious voice, the one he uses when something dangerous is going on in the lab and idiots are standing around. John tries, "Hey, look, it's my rental," and "You don't even know where we're going," before childishly lashing out with, "You drive like ass, Rodney, okay? I haven't said anything, because I didn't want to be insulting, and it's not a dealbreaker, but it's time to face facts. You drive like ass." Rodney's sigh is aggrieved, but he doesn't hand over the keys, and finally John resorts to viciously giving Rodney the finger, but he gets in the car.
It's not just Dr. Rodney fucking McKay, it's the fucking Virginia scenery giving John the heebee jeebies, that and the thought of whatever's in those boxes that Charlotte Fucking Sheppard sealed up for him twenty-five years ago. Probably body parts. A human head.
There's a human head on a pike outside the Minister's yurt, but by the time John sees it, it's too late, they've got his gun, and they've been surrounded and tackled to the ground and tied up. "Fuck," John says, and spits blood into the dirt. "It's never my day," because now he sees the line of cages against the horizon and when's he going to learn?
The Minister breaks the news pretty gently for a psychotic maniac. "One of you must sacrifice his life for the rest," and okay, they've clearly been tied up pretty good, because Ronon's growling and twisting and writhing like a crazy man and if he can't break free, John hasn't got a chance. He sighs and lets his head roll from side to side. Ronon fights like a demon. Rodney's wide-eyed with terror. Only Teyla is calm, keeping an eye out for an opportunity, but John already knows that's not going to matter. He's seen what they haven't: the huge, blood-stained chopping block, that wicked-looking axe. Everyone's watching Ronon struggle, and even all trussed up like that, Ronon almost takes one of the villagers down. Still, a single, hard kick sends him sprawling into the dirt. John winces and thinks he's never loved Ronon Dex as much as right now.
Then the Minister waves his hand and the villagers haul Ronon up by his arms, legs dragging in the dirt. "Take him to the—" and that's it, he's out of time.
"No, me," he says, and he doesn't even have to raise his voice. He's been in the military for eighteen years; he knows what authority sounds like. "It's my job."
"No," Teyla says immediately. "John. We will find another—" but it's no good; they're going for Ronon, and he can't let it be Ronon. He can't let it be any of them.
"No," and this time it's Rodney. "No, John, you can't—" and then he's pleading with the Minister, his voice sliding higher and higher even as he strains for rationality. "God, look, this is ridiculous, this is unnecessary, there is so much suffering in this fucking galaxy that can't be avoided, so how can you—? Why would you—?" and Ronon chooses that moment to renew his assault, and this time Teyla joins in, rolling suddenly and using her whole, tied up body as a blunt instrument, so John goes for it too, butting his head hard into the groin of his nearest captor, trying to take people down with his shoulders.
It doesn't work, of course; all it gets them is punched in the face. John is picked up and slammed down, and Christ, he knows it's the chopping block, he can smell the blood. He swallows and tries not to gag. His throat is pressed against the stone, and he turns his head to see Ronon and Teyla and Rodney being muscled up the hill toward the cages. He can just make them out in the crowd, and then it splits into three and he loses them.
But he can hear Rodney. Under the blood rushing in his ears and his own desperate panting, he can hear Rodney. Even when the villagers begin streaming back down the hill to see him get executed, he can hear Rodney. Not words, anymore; just the raw, wretched sound of his voice saying no, or John, or don't.
The crowd gathers around him, darkening his field of vision. They're murmuring to each other, but he can still hear Rodney's voice; it's like he's tuned in to it. Someone turns his head, repositioning him, and holy fuck, this is it: he's going to die here. He closes his eyes and tries not to snivel. Let it be quick, he thinks. Quick. Painless, and then he's squeezing tears back because Rodney's shouting himself hoarse up there and he's so fucking grateful for it, but poor Rodney. It'll be over for him in a second, but poor Rodney, Jesus—
He gasps as he's yanked up. "You are a good leader," the Minister says. "A true leader," and then they're wrestling some animal onto the stone, all four legs kicking and they're still kicking a moment later, even after the thud of the axe has taken its head off. The crowd lets out a roar of approval as blood flows over the stone of the cutting block, drowning Rodney out and darkening the world. John goes woozy and passes out.
They splash water on his face to bring him around. They give him something to drink and help him to his feet. The Minister's talking nonsense about how John's a true leader, not a despot like the others, so they can be allies now. All John wants is to get his team the fuck out of here, and either he's mumbled something like that or the Minister's guessed, because he says, softly, "Of course you can think of nothing but your people."
The cages, now that he's close, are more like large crates, and Ronon's door is already dented outwards. "Ronon," John says, dropping to his knees to unlock it. "Hang on, I'll—" and he's knocked backward when it flies open. Ronon bursts out, huge, terrifying, and then he sees John looking okay and regains his cool faster than any human being John's ever known, flinging his hair back and saying, "Hey, you're alive. Go, you."
Teyla's face flashes with relief when John opens the door. When he gives her his hand and pulls her up, it's not necessary, or a courtesy: it's so they can hold on to each other for a moment: connect. "I did not believe it," Teyla says, but the lines on her face, the dried sweat on her brow, say something else. "I would not let myself, even when we heard it."
"Rodney," John calls, banging his hand against the door a couple of times before fumbling with the lock. "It's me, I'm all right!" he says. "I'm okay!" The latch comes free and John yanks the door open, but Rodney's not—no, he's there, but he's not crouched inside the door, poised to escape. Rodney's sitting in the cell's back corner, legs sprawled out in front of him. John can see the thick tread of his boots. "Rodney, I'm okay," he says again. "It was—I don't know, some kind of test," but Rodney just sits there, blinking at him and making no move to come out.
The cells are tiny—four feet high, maybe; five feet deep, maybe—so there's really barely room for one person, but John goes in anyway, awkwardly, squatting. "Rodney," he says, lowering his voice, "come on, let's get out of here," but now that he's closer, he can see that Rodney's face is somehow blurred, his mouth gone slack.
Suddenly John's afraid, really afraid, because he sees what can not be true. He comes in close, touches Rodney's shoulder, shakes him. Rodney's face never changes; he looks—thick, dull. Stupid—and that's when the thought shrieks into his brain like a dart: something's happened. Rodney's broken something. Some small, incredibly necessary something that makes Rodney who he is has gone snap.
"...oh, fuck," John says in a small voice—and thank all ye holy angels and archangels and holy orders of blessed spirits but that seems to shake something loose, because Rodney begins to drip tears. John hooks his arm around Rodney's neck and chokes back his own tears, whispering, "fuck, fuck, fuck" against the wet, hard side of Rodney's face. Rodney's arm comes up clumsily, clutching for him, strong fingers scrabbling hard at his back. John hugs him harder, then kisses his wet cheek, sloppily, twice, and pulls their faces together. Rodney's is soft in places, scratchy in others; his skin is hot.
Finally Rodney takes a long, shuddering breath, and when he says, "...f-fuck," John winces because his voice has been scraped raw. "I'm sorry," Rodney rasps, and John wants to beg him not to talk, but it's so good to hear him speak. "I just, John, I couldn't—"
"Don't," John says, closing his eyes. "Don't apologize. Jesus."
They don't say a word about what's happened, but Keller isn't stupid and hauls them all into the infirmary during post-mission clearance. Ronon gets twenty-two stitches and an intravenous antibiotic; Teyla gets seven stitches and her pinky finger set in a splint. John gets his ribs taped and a butterfly bandage to the temple, and Rodney gets a powerful sedative that leaves him dopey and uncoordinated; 5 ccs of pure stoned.
"I'll keep him here for the night," Keller says. "He'll be fine, Colonel, don't worry."
"Nah, I'll stay," John says. Rodney makes a bleary grab for him and misses, hand falling off the edge of the bed. Keller moves to intervene, but John's there first and waving her away. "It's okay," he says. "Really," and maybe she hears the edge in his voice, but she nods and backs off. Almost as an afterthought, she pulls the curtain around them.
So John's just standing there with Rodney's hand in his, and he knows he ought to tuck it back under the covers, but he can't; he can't let go. And then Rodney tugs, and he's weak and uncoordinated but John goes anyway, John does the unthinkable and puts one knee up onto the bed and then the other, lets himself fall down into the space between Rodney's body and the cold railing with Rodney's arms round his shoulders.
"What is this?" Rodney whispers, and John knows, from the way Rodney's holding onto him, that Rodney means him, that Rodney means them. "I don't understand this."
"I don't know," John says, and he doesn't. "Fuck if I know."
"Are you going to tell me about your mother, or are you just going to sit there and sulk?" and John looks at Rodney across the car and skids from relief to irritation in seconds flat.
"Yeah, whatever," John says, punitively uncommunicative. "She's in California," and Rodney surprises him by driving onto the shoulder and slamming on the brakes.
"Your mother is alive?" Rodney demands, glaring.
John slouches back in his seat, intentionally infuriating. "Topanga Canyon, I think."
"Well, that just..." and John's stomach flips when Rodney smashes his hand on the steering wheel hard enough to hurt, because he didn't mean to make Rodney that mad. He opens his mouth to say as much, but Rodney wheels on him, finger stabbing, and cuts him off with, "No, don't even. I have been very fucking patient with you and your whole fucked up family thing," which is true. "I came, I made nice, I wore a tie, and I am currently spending valuable moments where I am not in danger of imminent death driving you around the back roads of Virginia, and—"
Rodney goes silent, face pinched; he is very, very unhappy.
"It's not actually that important. No, really," John insists, when Rodney rolls his eyes.
"How can your mother not be important?" Rodney demands, crossing his arms. "There are like, entire schools of psychotherapy founded on the premise. And even if she's not important, that's important. You're full of shit."
"I hate you," John tells him.
"Transference," Rodney sniffs.
"Okay, fine," John says, letting his head loll back against the headrest. "So when I'm four, my father divorces my mother and she vanishes."
"Okay?" Rodney says warily.
"I have a new brother, who's two, which is distracting, because—" and John makes a flailing, strangling gesture with both hands because he can't explain how it was, having this woman show up with this kid who's your brother because your father's been having an affair with her, and by the time the divorces are worked out— "whatever, it sounds crazy, but I didn't think about it, I really didn't. You're four; they tell you to sit, you sit."
"Right," Rodney says.
"Later, though, I got to wondering. Started looking into it: newspapers, phone books, snooping around. I found some old pictures of her in the paper, going out to things."
Rodney frowns. "You couldn't just ask him about it?"
"It wasn't like that. 'She left,' that's the story. 'She couldn't handle being a mom and she left.' I mean, by this time I'm fifteen, sixteen. I figure out that she's in California. I get her address, a phone number. I think about calling, but I'm sixteen, I'm an idiot, what am I supposed to say? 'Hi, it's John, how's it going?'"
"Stanford," Rodney says suddenly, in the voice he sometimes uses to say, "Protons."
"Right," John says. "So I finally drive down there and it's..." He trails off, shrugs. "Anticlimactic." Now it's Rodney's turn to gesture furiously, so John finishes the story as best he can: "She's there, she lives in a house. She's seems happy enough to see me but she's also totally freaked out because she's not supposed to see me under the terms of her settlement. So it's like, 'hi, good to see you; great seeing you.' And that's the end."
Rodney's completely outraged on his behalf. "That bastard," he says, "paid her to—"
"She needs the money, Rodney. It's not like she's got skills." Rodney's staring at him in blank incomprehension, so John spells it out for him: "My mother was like, Miss Malibu, 1966. She meets my dad and gets knocked up, except she's lucked out and he's rich and wants sons, so he marries her. And then, when they get divorced, she goes back to L.A. with a fat monthly check and makes a horror movie, a bunch of commercials, and—"
"Wait, whoa," Rodney says, blinking. "Your mom was an actress?" John shrugs and shows empty hands; having seen his mother's movie, he knows she was no actress. "I just—" Rodney's having trouble processing this. "I mean, I'm not surprised she was beautiful—because, I mean, duh—but I can't believe she wasn't also smart."
"I didn't say she wasn't smart. She's eighteen, standing there in a bathing suit; who the hell knows what she could have been if she'd gone to school instead of—whatever. Me." John closes his eyes, blows out a long breath, and then tells Rodney: "She gave me a soda. She was like, forty-three; she's not even sixty now."
"Wow," Rodney says, and then: "She's probably still pretty hot," and John cracks up and hits him, because it's just so Rodney, and it's the perfect right thing to say.
"That's the driveway, turn there," John says, and then he has to deal with Rodney's increasingly loud snorts, and okay, yes, the driveway goes on for a while. Finally, they roll up to the clearing outside of the house. Five or six SUV's are already parked there. The paddock's full of horses: a couple of chestnuts, a couple of bays.
Rodney turns off the engine; he's staring out the windshield at the horses. "Not that I'm complaining, but you're not running your family's horseracing business why? Horses not fast enough? Not enough chance of death or other debilitating injury?"
"Too much forced breeding. Sensitive topic," John says, and gets out of the car.
This thing with Rodney seems to mean that he spends a lot of time in Rodney's lab playing video games, and sometimes Rodney stands behind him and presses his forehead between John's shoulder blades while groaning out rhetorical questions like: "So if I want to kill everybody in the city, does that make me a bad person?" It seems to mean that John can tell at a glance the difference between, "Oh, Christ, that's disgusting!" and "Give me the epi-pen!" It means that when John trips over a tree root on M9P-409, Rodney comes by every night to massage anti-inflammatory ointment into his calf.
This weird intimacy he has with Rodney reminds him a little of his relationship with Nancy after they stopped having sex, except with Rodney, there's never been sex. But he still feels this obligation to ask Rodney's permission before he does things. ("So, Ronon thinks that he and I should go undercover to meet these arms dealers on MX3—" "Yeah, right, no," Rodney says, without even looking up. "Stupid plan; next?") And the thing is, when it was Nancy, John used to narrow his eyes and go on the mission anyway. With Rodney, he argues if it's important and doesn't go if Rodney really doesn't want him to.
So he has someone to eat with and play chess with, and when he gets drunk with the marines, they call Rodney and he comes. And when his radio beeps and Zelenka says, "John," John's heart leaps into his throat, and he drops everything, and he runs.
But they don't have sex, partly because he thinks it would be weird to have sex with Rodney, and partly because a lot of their most intimate situations are real sex-drive killers, and partly because somehow, impossibly, Rodney appears to be straight. Rodney looks at women; Rodney looks at women all the time, sometimes with his mouth open. Rodney looks at breasts and seems to like round asses and thighs. Sometimes the women notice him staring and hit him. Sometimes John hits him, and Rodney yelps, "What?"
They're at a party on a really nice, technologically-advanced planet when John sees Rodney on the other side of the room, trying to pick up a blonde with big breasts. She's pretty in the blowsy way Rodney seems to like, a little like an alien Marilyn Monroe. John idly snacks on alien bar food and watches it all go down: he figures Rodney'll crash and burn in about ten minutes, and then John'll go over with a fire extinguisher.
Except Rodney doesn't crash and burn. Marilyn smiles at him, and then Rodney's arm is around her waist and she's kissing his mouth. Her breasts are pressed up against his chest, and Rodney's hand is sliding down over the curve of her—and John's up, off the stool, and crossing the room before he's even really aware of what he's doing, because Jesus, they have no idea who this woman is: she could be a space bimbo or an assassin.
"Hey," John says. "I have to talk to you," and Rodney slowly turns to stare at him, gape-mouthed and furious. "No," Rodney says. "No, no, no, no—" but John's implacable, grabbing Rodney by the front of his shirt and saying, "It'll just take a minute. It's important." Then John smiles his best smile at Marilyn and adds, with all the sincerity he can muster, "I'll bring him right back, I promise," and tows Rodney away.
"Okay, look," Rodney says, roughly grabbing John's arms and trying to get past him and back out the door of the sitting room they've retreated to, "seriously, I am begging you: this woman wants to have sex with me. I will give you anything, a blank check, if you will go somewhere for half an hour and soak your stupid—" and then Rodney blinks at him. Once. Twice. Three times. "Or..." he says slowly, and swallows, hands tightening on John's biceps. "I mean, if you wanted, you could..." Rodney lifts his eyebrows meaningfully; John doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. "I mean, it's been ages," Rodney says, flushing hard now, red rising up from his collar. "I'll probably come in two seconds. It's not a bad idea to bring—you know: backup," and that's when John understands what Rodney's proposing; that Rodney's suggesting he come with.
He's oddly touched, and a lot freaked out. "Rodney..." he grinds out.
"I don't think she'll mind," Rodney adds hastily, perhaps mistaking his expression. "I mean, you're—" and his eyes slide down John's body and then back up to his face, "you know," and that's when John does it: leans in and kisses Rodney's stupid mouth.
When Rodney's mouth opens against his, it's just from shock, but John slides his tongue in anyway. Rodney's lips are dry against his, a little chapped, edged with stubble, and John slows the kiss way down, not just to savor it, but to let Rodney shove him away if he wants. Rodney doesn't push him off, but he doesn't kiss back either, so in the end, it's John who stops it, teasing Rodney's tongue with his own before breaking away.
"Ohhhhhhh," Rodney says, and it's not a pleasure sound: it's a long, drawn out exclamation of dawning comprehension. "Wow," Rodney says, and his eyes are comically wide: nobody does comic shock like Rodney. "That is so weird!"
John sighs, his shoulders sloping dejectedly, because, okay, yeah, it's weird.
"Just—wow." Rodney's still boggling. "I mean, yeah, I guess this is where this ends up, but—" and then Rodney's hands are in his hair, and Rodney's mouth is sliding over the lower half of his face, like he's exploring, and then Rodney's tongue is in his mouth.
They kiss again, kind of awkwardly, though it's better than before—but when they break apart, John sees that Rodney's whole face is brimming with suppressed laughter. John blinks, mutely outraged, except then suddenly he gets it, because holy shit, this is Rodney, as boringly familiar as his own stupid face in the mirror. Rodney cracks up a second later, but still tries kissing him anyway, hiccupping with laughter and leaving weird spit on John's cheek, and John can see he's thinking, Oh my God, it's Sheppard, and, I can't believe I'm kissing this asshole.
That's when John laughs, too, clumsily jerking his head to the side and nearly breaking his nose on Rodney's skull. Rodney laughs harder, but he's forcibly turning John's head back and kissing him again. John's grinning so hard, he can't keep his lips in the right place, so Rodney's sort of kissing his teeth. Rodney snorts helplessly, and John kind of sprays him with spit, and Jesus, this is getting disgusting, so he digs his fingers into Rodney's shoulder and mashes their mouths together. This time Rodney's tongue is right there, sliding against his, and for a few, seemingly endless seconds they're shuddering together, teetering right on the edge of revulsion—and then it goes hot.
It's like a switch being flipped, and John knows it's not just him, because Rodney's hands are on him, clutching hard enough to bruise. John opens his mouth and surges forward, breathless with wanting it; God, he wants this so much. Rodney seems to want it too, if his hard-on's any indication, but he's clumsy and obviously inexperienced, trying to rub the erect parts of himself against John: his cock, his nipples. John grabs Rodney's hand and pulls it to his fly, pushes his cock against Rodney's palm. "God. Touch me," and Rodney starts panting raggedly and stroking him through his pants. Good enough, and John has just enough presence of mind to slide his fingers behind Rodney's waistband, thumb open his button, unzip his fly, and then he's got Rodney's hot, silky cock in his hand. Rodney shouts out and shoves himself forward so hard he nearly knocks them both over. John stumbles, regains his footing, and blindly shoves Rodney toward the nearest soft object: a low, wide futon in the corner.
It doesn't take long once they're horizontal, though it's ridiculous: two grown men rubbing off like teenagers. John can tell Rodney's close by the way his breathing changes, and that's the moment it really becomes sex for him, because he realizes he wants Rodney to have an orgasm; he wants to make Rodney come and hold him when he does. He slows his hand on Rodney's dick and hears Rodney gulping noisily for air, then slides his mouth against Rodney's cheek and speeds up, taking him more deliberately this time, paying attention to how Rodney's breathing goes ragged and his hands go clumsy. John brushes his lips against the soft shell of Rodney's ear and feels his whole body shiver. "Come on," he whispers, jerking him fast, faster, "come on, Rodney..." Rodney comes, shouting, hips bucking, all over his belly and John's fist—and fuck, that's a turn on, and John reaches down and finishes himself off with Rodney's orgasm still echoing in his ears.
He doesn't know what to expect, after. They're both just lying there, wrung-out and exhausted with their dicks hanging out of their pants.
John closes his eyes and figures he'll wait to take his cue from Rodney.
Finally, Rodney says: "I know they say I'm a genius, but you... you..." and it would almost be funny except Rodney means it. "I think you are," Rodney says.
Rodney wanders off toward the horses, and John stares up at his father's house before taking a breath and going in through the side door. Everything's in disarray: there are stacks of boxes, antique furniture all taped with padding round the edges. Dave's there, giving instructions to the staff, telling them how to pack things: what goes where.
"Listen, if you want any of this stuff..." Dave says, turning to him, and John rolls his eyes, because yeah, what he needs is eighteenth century furniture. Dave grins at him, shrugs, and says: "Some of it's going to museums," as if John's going to be impressed.
John drifts into the hall they call the reception room. It's where his father's coffin was, and his grandfather's. John remembers his grandfather's funeral: the reception line, flowers, and all the guests signing the book. John's aware that Dave's come in behind him, and he's suddenly aware they're not saying the one really obvious thing hanging between them: that Dave's selling the house because John's not there to take it over; that the Sheppard family, for all Patrick Sheppard's machinations, lacks an eldest son.
"You," John says, throat tight, "you've been good, Dave, running everything. The business, and—"
Dave shrugs and turns to stare out the glass doors. "I've got a knack for it," he says. "Thing is, Dad wanted you to have it," and before John can even open his mouth, Dave grits out, "Yeah, I know you didn't want it, I know. I'm just saying, that's the part that sucked, all right? I know it sucks to be you," Dave says, with unexpected sarcasm, "but it also sucks to be me, because I actually am pretty good at running everything and Dad always treated me like your goddamned understudy."
"That's not my fault," John mutters, and looks away.
"No, it's not," Dave agrees. "But I'm keeping the stables and the lake house," he says defensively, like John's going to say maybe he doesn't deserve it. "I'm gonna take Margaret and the boys up there this summer; they're about the right age to enjoy it."
"That's great," John says and means it.
"I'm selling the rest: this place, the Nevada ranch, the house in New York."
"I'm going to give some stuff to Mom," Dave says, meaning Linda, and John approves of that; Dave's mother Linda is about as close to a mother as he ever had. "A couple paintings, some of the china..."
"Good," John says again, and then, because he can't help it: "As long as—" and Dave reads his mind and says, with a bark of laughter, "Oh my God, no, nothing for Charlotte. Fuck Charlotte," and then: "She's married again, did you hear?"
"No! Poor bastard," John says, genuinely shocked. "Really?"
"Yeah, some guy up in Boston." They exchange baffled glances: John never understood how anyone could be attracted to Charlotte. "Guess there's no accounting for taste."
John's in the dining room going through the boxes Dave's put aside for him when Rodney wanders in, hands in his pockets, eyes darting everywhere like he maybe wants to put in a bid. "This is some pile," Rodney says, with a low whistle. "You really grew up here?"
"Here, yeah," John says, shrugging. "Up north in the summer. I lived mostly at school."
Rodney pulls out a chair on the other side of the table. "Anything good?"
"Nah," John says. "Just junk," though he tosses over a beat up paperback: S Is For Space. "Hm, yes; it certainly is," Rodney comments, paging through it. Aside from the Bradbury, John can't recognize himself in anything: his Andover yearbooks, a cookie tin of baseball cards, a gold watch that must have been a present for something. His camera, which was a good one back in the day, with manual focus and some good lenses. John pops the back and yanks the film out, exposing it; whatever it is, he doesn't want it.
There are some small pictures, still in frames: him and Dave in matching blue suits with wide lapels from the 1970s, a picture of him and Nancy, looking awkward in formalwear, and here: his mother holding him. He had some other pictures of her at school, but like most of his things, he can't remember what's happened to them. Doesn't matter, he thinks.
He slides the picture of his mother over to Rodney, who boggles at it and says, "God! So that's what it takes to make you." John smirks and says, "Yeah, I know: it's like needing three tons of uranium to get a single gram of radium." Rodney looks up, grinning crookedly, and says, "Exactly like that, yeah. The degradation is enormous."
He likes having sex with Rodney; he even likes it when Rodney stays overnight. The only downside is that Rodney finds his new sexual orientation endlessly fascinating. "So, do you think I was always gay and just didn't know it? Or am I just gay for you? Or maybe I'm like—Pegasus gay," Rodney says, rolling over to look at him, "because there's a thing called 'situational homosexuality,' except usually it's prison and not another galaxy," and John groans and pulls his pillow over his head.
Rodney pulls the pillow off, then hits him with it. "No, seriously: did you know? When did you know you were?" and John sighs and rolls over and sits up.
"I always knew," he says. "I just tried not to be."
"Oh," Rodney says.
There's a box of battered audio cassettes: ELO, Cheap Trick, Kiss. A school medal for French. Sports Illustrated, a couple of car magazines—his single, battered porn magazine, burned up years ago, the softest of softcore except it was boys—and it's all too much, unhappiness piled on unhappiness. His brain echoes with ancient arguments.
"John?" Rodney looks up from the Bradbury, then gets to his feet, and says, "Come on, we're going," and John stands up, relieved. Rodney's halfway around the table when he stops and says, suddenly, pointedly: "These people, John, they don't know who you are," and John exhales and goes to Rodney and kisses him, hard, because he's never kissed a boy in this house and it's something he wants to do before he goes.
"God, I love you so much," Rodney says, one day, out of nowhere.
"I know you do," John says, surprised to find that he does.
"Oh, don't even play that Han Solo bullshit with me," Rodney says, rolling his eyes, "though of course," he adds with a snort, "she was worth three of him. Let's face it, she was!" he shouts, when John cracks up. "I mean, she totally was!"
The maid tells him Dave's down by the paddock, so John goes out to say goodbye. Dave's leaning on the fence, watching a chestnut being exercised in the yard. "Tailspin," he tells John, and points. "He's gonna win the Breeder's, I'm telling you right now."
"I hope he does," John says, and then: "Look, I'm going. We're going."
Dave turns to him, frowning. "Stay for lunch at least."
"I can't, I just—" John's grateful for his sunglasses. "Thanks, though."
"All right," Dave sighs, and looks back to the horses. "Good to see you, anyway. And I'm glad you brought Rodney. He's, uh..." Dave trails off and John smirks, because that's not an easy sentence to finish. Rodney's not exactly "nice," or "a great guy," or—what they used to call Nancy—"a knockout," though Rodney's more of a knockout than Nancy ever was if you've seen him with the right weapons. Dave shoots John a nervous glance and blows out a breath of absolute incomprehension. "Hey, if you're happy, I'm happy."
Well, I was away, John thinks, overseas and alone, except he's maybe just figuring out something that Nicky Sharpton knew years ago, which is that things are clearer when you are away. You can get what you need without worrying about how to fit that into a larger world. There is no larger world at the end of the day, John knows this now. Just your own emptiness: your own fears and limitations.
John shrugs, unsure how to explain this all to Dave. "Rodney's my desert island guy," he says finally, because it's the simplest, truest thing he can say: if there's one person he gets to keep with him, he chooses McKay. It's as simple as that. "He wears well."
Dave shakes his head ruefully. "If you say so, bro," he says, and shakes John's hand.
Rodney's waiting by the car, and he's taken John's Bradbury. "Ready to go?" he asks, and when John raises his hand for the car keys, Rodney throws them smack into his palm.
"So..." Rodney says offhandedly, when they're back on the road toward Richmond. "Was that...you know," and Rodney's arms are crossed protectively over his chest, and he's staring out the window at the rolling Virginia country. "I mean, do I pass, or—?"
"Pass?" John's hands grip the wheel tight. "Jesus, I don't care what they— I wanted you to see. Where I— So you'd understand—"
Rodney looks across the car at him. "I understood everything I needed to years ago. Idiot," and when John extends his hand, Rodney grabs hold and squeezes tight.