Slowly and slowly
Dawns the new day . . .
What's become of John boy?
No one can say.
Some think that John boy
Is lost on the hill;
Some say he won't come back,
Some say he will.
What's become of John boy?
Nothing at all,
He played with his skipping rope,
He played with his ball.
He ran after butterflies,
Blue ones and red;
He did a hundred happy things –
And then went to bed.
Forgotten (A.A. Milne – Now We Are Six )
Rodney McKay hadn't thought he was the sort of person who would enjoy an exercise programme called Discover Your Inner Power! But within a few weeks, the Saturday morning class was one of the highlights of his (admittedly pathetic) life. He enjoyed the quiet kick-ass style of the instructor, Teyla Emmagan. He liked the mix of adults and children in the class: just enough that both he and Madison always had someone to talk to or to hit with sticks. He felt comfortable and accepted (and, possibly, inwardly powerful).
He even confessed this to Madison's counsellor, who'd recommended that he take Madison to the class in the first place. Dr Dex gave him a feral grin and said, "Told you so."
Most of all, however, Rodney felt like he wasn't drowning anymore, and he wasn't dragging Madison down with him. You have the power to change your life, Teyla said, during the cool-down and visualisation exercises. He was starting to believe that.
Which was why he sidled up to the new girl (woman, he reminded himself: he was trying not to be sexist these days) during the after-class refreshments. Not because of the skilful way she'd sparred with Teyla — more because of the way she moved with grace but still projected prickly awkwardness. She was also one of the few members unencumbered by children, and he didn't want her feeling left out. He was being altruistic. Really.
"It's not as New Age flaky as you might think," Rodney said. "I mean, from the class name. With an exclamation mark. Teyla's a good teacher, and I'm not just talking about the martial arts stuff."
The woman shifted her weight from one hip to the other and almost looked at Rodney but not quite. The class had no walk-ins: everyone was referred here by social workers or therapists. The other students had been bullied, divorced, abused, cheated on, depressed, or just generally down-trodden before being encouraged to discover their Inner Power (exclamation mark). Rodney had been on the verge of turning into the spitting image his own abusive father, and Madison had gone from one outburst of temper to another. Someone had beaten the new girl (woman) fairly recently: she had a fading black eye and a bandage on her cheek, and healing toothmarks on her lip. Rodney thought that some of her awkwardness was probably due to other bruises, hidden by her baggy sweats. She was taller than Rodney and Teyla had been impressed by her reverse roundhouse kick, but Rodney knew that people couldn't — or sometimes wouldn't — defend themselves against everything.
"Rodney McKay," Rodney said, holding out his hand. She shook it, quickly and automatically.
"Jona Sheppard." She rather obviously pulled herself back to attention, and looked over to where Madison was giggling with the other girls. Barbies were involved. "Your daughter's cute."
"Niece. She's my sister's."
"I can see the family resemblance," Jona said, nodding, and then looked at him sharply. "Don't want to bug you by asking."
"You can ask me anything," Rodney said, hoping desperately that his expression hadn't morphed into a leer. "If it's too personal, I'll let you know."
"Cool," Jona said, looking vague again, and then she quirked an eyebrow at him. "What's the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?"
"Eleven metres per second," Rodney snapped back. "Answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?"
"Forty-two." Jona grinned. "Computer programmer?"
"Geophysicist," Rodney said, with as much dignity as he could muster. "Her mother's not dead, if that's what you were wondering. She works for a Kenyan development project, a three-year contract researching solar power."
"And you take care of your niece, bring her to classes and things?"
"I'm her full-time guardian. It helps me pick up girls," Rodney said automatically, and Jona laughed. "No, really, the cute blonde thing she has going, and the valiant way I struggle? Women love that. The only thing is," he added, with a rueful sideways glance, "when they give me their numbers, it turns out they only want to babysit."
"Hard life, McKay," Jona drawled.
"So, have you talked to Marie yet? She's the one who organises the coffee and snacks," Rodney asked, looking a question at Jona's half-full cup and gesturing towards the coffee maker. Jona shook her head, so Rodney refilled his own. "Follow me and I'll introduce you. That will also give me a chance," he added, watching Marie's daughter whisper in Madison's ear, "to find out what disgusting new jokes Madison's being exposed to."
The disgusting joke turned out to be the old one about pea soup, and Jona managed to kill its appeal by telling Madison that she'd heard it as a kid. After that, it was one introduction after another and a natural progression to the recipe for the vegan carrot cake, until Rodney had to leave the group to go stand outside the girls' washroom, shouting in every two minutes, are you done yet?.
When he came out, everyone was saying goodbyes, putting on coats, and dispersing into the strip mall's car park. He found himself following Jona.
"Hey," he said. Jona turned around, lazily, the gym bag over her shoulder banging against her hip. "See you next week?"
"Sure." She waved at Madison, who hid behind Rodney's leg, clinging and dragging. Madison didn't react well to changes in her routines, new foods, surprises, clothes other than purple sweats, and strangers.
Rodney stopped next to Jeannie's Volvo; Jona kept on going, climbing the strip of grass up to the road and turning east. Apparently she lived near enough to walk. Huh, he thought, and then promptly forgot about her in the typical Saturday rush: laundry and lunch, grocery shopping followed by an hour in the park, naptime and snacktime, one video's worth of let-the-VCR-babysit time while Rodney made dinner, and then they were into the evening countdown. Three ducks in the bath, two bedtime stories, and one Ugly Doll for Madison to cuddle as she dropped off to sleep.
Rodney got himself a beer and sighed as he slumped into his office chair and booted up the computer. Nine o'clock. He hoped he could get a few hours of work in without making himself exhausted. Tomorrow was Sunday, so there wouldn't be any eight-o'clock undergraduate classes; but Jeannie would be calling at seven. After that, the day would both fly and drag by in errands and temper tantrums. And then, another roller-coaster week of school lunches, classes, department meetings, and counselling before he could Discover his Inner Power! again.
Sometimes he wondered when his life had turned into this. Mostly, though, he didn't have the time.
Attachments: Dec1.zip, Nov4.zip, ZPM.zip, RANT.txt
Re: hey there
Jeannie-bean: Hope you've resolved that power surge by now. Though I guess if you hadn't, I'd have seen the smoking crater on the 6 o'clock news. Have the first two boxes got there yet? M is worried you won't have Christmas on time — told her not a problem. If the boxes *are* late, just lie to her, okay? She got you coloured pencils with Jennie — from Another Planet™ on them. M doing well, settled in @ new school — attachments are photos, NO I'm not going to send any art. There's still glitter in the scanner from last time. *Yes* still seeing counsellor, M enjoys, lots of sandbox toys and clay and finger-paints. *Also* still going to >>flaky New Age callisthenics — DOES NOT mean spandex is involved and also? Exercise = healthy. M has massive girl-crush on new member, air ambulance pilot, MA in applied mathematics (Stanford). Very role-model-y. You'd approve.
No other news. Car's still running, heating bill's extreme. Looked over the papers you sent me. Seriously, this whole 'Zelenka Photovoltaic Module' scheme might blow up in your face — literally. I attached the Zelenka files encrypted as per usual, as well as my thoughts on your entire WTF "crystal matrix" — there must be good drugs where you are, is all I can say. Love you. RMcK (and Madison too)
Another Inner Power(bang) class successfully completed, Rodney thought. He didn't ache after class anymore: the stretch to his body felt good. Powerful. His brain was able to let go of the week's hassles, and he had a whole day to go before he needed to worry about next week's problems. Some days he could just kiss Teyla. He buckled Madison into the carseat and realised he was actually humming whatever Wiccan pagan bongo-accompanied chant Teyla'd had on the boombox during meditation. Something about change and changing.
"I'm cracking up," he told Madison, untangling her long hair from the harness and handing her Barbie's friend Nikki. Nikki's red rainboots matched Madison's own. Madison grinned back at him. Funny how easy it was to say things when they weren't really true anymore. Funny how it really was possible to look back and laugh.
"You're a nut," Madison said, and kicked the back of his seat as he started the car. The nut thing was something she'd picked up from Jona, as well as the phrases get out of town and don't let the turkeys get you down (which were inevitably mixed up, the turkeys leaving for downtown to get some nuts, or something).
"Yes," he said. "A cracked nut. Takes one to know one." He backed out carefully, the view from the windows warped by the rain, and headed out to the nightmare of Saturday morning traffic.
"Stop!" Madison shouted, and Rodney very nearly slammed on the brakes. Instead, he scanned quickly for immediate disasters (pedestrians, walls, tires rolling away) and then gradually eased the car to the side, prepared for a stage-two crisis (impending vomit, bathroom urge, forgotten Barbie raincoat).
"What?" he snapped. He couldn't help that adrenaline made him cranky.
"Jona's got no brulla," Madison said, and pointed. Jona was headed off the way she always went. She had turned the collar of her jacket up, but the cold winter rain had already plastered her hair to her head.
"And?" Rodney said. "Looks like she's wet." If they were going to play 'state the obvious', he planned on winning.
"She can catch her death," Madison said. Her forehead wrinkled and her chin went up. Rodney mentally cursed the idiot who had programmed that fun little turn of phrase into Madison's literal and phobic brain.
"Fine." Rodney rolled the car slowly forward until they were in beeping range. Jona stepped back and away quickly when he did beep, and her face didn't lose its wariness until he rolled down the passenger-side window and leaned into view.
"Do you want a ride?" he asked. Jona tried to demur — for politeness' sake, he thought, which was stupid. Rodney told her to shut up and get in, the upholstery was being ruined by rain as long as the window was open.
Jona shrugged and folded into the front seat awkwardly.
"I live over the bridge," Jona said, buckling herself in and pulling a towel from her gym bag. She rubbed at her hair (which curled hilariously in the damp, like Jeannie's), and then shoved the towel back in the bag. "In this weather and traffic, it'll take ages. You could just drop me — "
"So do we," Rodney said. "The bridge thing. My sister's house is in a good neighbourhood, which apparently means it's required to be as inconvenient as possible."
"I have a laundromat and a Chinese takeout place across from my building. That mean I'm in a bad neighbourhood?"
"If anyone steals my hubcaps, I'm blaming you."
Madison, feeling excluded, started whining for her music. Rodney tried to get the CD out and load it while keeping one hand on the steering wheel and his front bumper from impacting the yellow SUV ahead of him. Jona very efficiently took over the whole music thing, even following Madison's directions to skip ahead to the crocodile song.
"Probably not your usual kind of music," Rodney said in apology.
"Probably not yours, either." Jona adjusted the speaker balance. Rodney refrained from telling her it was too late: he already knew all the words (and hand gestures) to the damn song. "You look like a classical music sort of guy. Or a closet thrash fan."
"I wanted to be a concert pianist when I was a kid. Didn't have the artistry for it, though." He shrugged, and then glanced at her quickly. "So what about you?" Rodney said — and okay, that might have been the world's worst segue, but he still had to scowl at her when she nodded sagely and said yes and nothing else. "You never talk about yourself. After five weeks, I know — " he raised his fingers from the steering wheel — "you fly helicopters, you're American, and you have a geek brain in the body of a jock. Not that I've been looking at your body," he added hastily. "I'm working on not being a jerk in therapy. I used to be. Very sexist. It's why my baby sister has my rightful job and I'm teaching absolutely imbecilic undergraduate students. Long story. I had this co-worker — well, boss — who was exactly my type, Meg Ryan in a C cup, and I might have called her an umb-day onde-blay. To her face." He tried to indicate Madison with his eyebrows. "Little pitchers. Why am I talking about me again?"
"I have no idea, but it's fascinating. Like watching a train wreck."
"So talk about yourself."
"I like college football, Ferris wheels, and anything that goes over 300 kilometres per hour."
"Fine." Rodney felt his mouth thin and his jaw tighten, and knew he looked annoyed. Everything, unfortunately, showed on his face.
Jona shifted so she was angled towards him. "What do you want me to say? I'm in therapy because I can't talk about myself. I can talk about helicopters." She shrugged. "Flew an Osprey once."
"And yet lived to tell the tale."
She snorted. "It was cool." She shifted a bit more around in her seat to include Madison, and spent the next twenty minutes talking about helicopters, as promised, and her experiences (with helicopters) in the Air Force (American). Madison had some good questions, like whether helicopters could fly in the rain and whether they ever got things tangled up in their going-around bits. By the time Rodney pulled up in front of Jona's building Madison had a whole little fleet of origami helicopters that Jona had folded out of finished pages in her sudoku book.
Jona invited them up for juice and coffee, pointing Rodney at space thirty-two in the car park (I pay for it, might as well have a car there). Rodney told her she didn't have to do anything just to be polite, even as Madison undid her restraining straps and started trying to open the child-locked door. Jona told him not to be stupid.
Jona lived on the fifth floor of a building with no elevator (which, Rodney thought, explained why her kicks were so powerful, living in StairMaster Towers). Her apartment was small and had probably been considered stunningly modern sometime in the 1970s. Jona apologised for the mess, saying she slept at work half the week, and hated cleaning on her days off. Rodney scoffed: she didn't even have unfolded laundry on her sofa. The living room was almost Spartan, opening onto a balcony with orange and blue plastic panels that acted as sun catchers. The balcony overlooked the river, but was mostly occupied by a bicycle and a skateboard and a tangle of roller skates and various balls, which might have been the aforementioned mess.
"Oh my God," Rodney said. "You are a jock. You're not supposed to like people like me."
Jona put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around to face the bookshelf. Rodney spent a long time dissecting every book, CD, and DVD Jona owned. When he finally realised that Jona was no longer engaging with him (simply responding with mm-hm and yup and really, as appropriate), he looked over to find Jona and Madison seated at the table, eating sandwiches.
"She can't eat mayonnaise or cheese," Rodney said, standing up from his squat fast enough that his back cracked. "And also citrus is death." He tried to remember where Madison's Epi-pen was. In the car, five stories down.
"Relax," Jona said. She made it sound less like empty reassurance and more like an order. "I have the handout you gave the class on the care and handling of McKays taped to the refrigerator. It's just chicken and tomato. I read all the bread ingredients, no dairy or eggs. Madison said you make it for her all the time." She pointed at the third plate. "We made you one, too."
Rodney sat down and flipped up the bread on the sandwich, just to make sure. "Last year," he said, not even trying to join in Jona and Madison's conversation about sharks, "I caught a neighbour trying to feed her fruitcake in secret. She thought Madison was deprived."
Jona listened to an explanation of how sharks were really boneless, and nodded when Madison demonstrated with her nose. "I've seen people in anaphylactic shock, at work."
"Jeannie probably should have breastfed her," Rodney said around a mouthful of sandwich. "We McKays are like hothouse flowers. Brainy, but delicate."
Jona handed Rodney a rather desperately-needed napkin and busied herself looking at the wall while Rodney did away with the dribbles of tomato. "It must be easier breeding for brains than for manners." She did a similar tidy-up on Madison's face and fished lettuce out of Madison's hair, without any sarcastic comments, even stopping to count Madison's teeth despite all the things that were probably stuck in them.
"Oh, ha very ha." Rodney pushed back from the table. "I used to have minions that I terrorised. What you see now is the kinder, gentler me."
"Sharks teeth just get a new one when it's worn down," Madison said. "That's why people have to floss."
"I'm the last person to prefer style over substance," Jona assured him — or at least he thought it was assurance. It might have been an insult. She had an infectious grin, at any rate. "I like your teeth better than sharks' teeth," she said to Madison. "You ever see real sharks' teeth?"
"I got a tiger shark tooth," Madison said. "How many teeth do you have?"
Jona endeared herself to Rodney forever by brushing her teeth quickly with water before opening up to let Madison count (even though Madison gave up at twenty). Jona then took down a huge pad of graph paper and a really nice set of pencil crayons, spread old newspaper over the living room floor, and let Madison go nuts with the pictures of sharks and teeth.
"She's really, really smart," Rodney said in his best quiet voice as he carried plates into the kitchen and bullied Jona into letting him wash up while she dried. "Seriously, she's a genius — takes one to know one and all that. But she's also really messed up. She hated being a baby, she cried all the time, it drove Jeannie out of her mind. My job, it was leave or get slapped with a harassment lawsuit, so I left — Jeannie got me the position at the university in return for being her live-in babysitter. It worked when she was here, but after she left I was still working full-time and overtime and Madison was in daycare twelve hours a day and I kind of. . . I wasn't happy and took it out on her. That lasted nearly a year before I realised I'd turned her into a toddler delinquent."
He found it remarkably hard to talk about this, even after all the practice he got with Dex. Jona didn't push him, just wrinkled her eyebrows together in a thoughtful listening kind of look.
"Seriously. For half a year she didn't talk. She just screamed and snarled and destroyed things." Rodney realised he'd been washing the same plate over and over, and he stuck it in the drainer guiltily. "Of all the things I never thought I'd be when I grew up. . . .." He used the sponge to rinse down the sink, wrung it out, and opened the under-sink cabinet to look for bleach.
"Cease and desist," Jona said, stacking the dishes on the high shelves effortlessly and then swiping the sponge away from Rodney. "That's plenty clean." She looked at him sidelong. "Did you hit her?"
Rodney stared. "She was, like, three. I might have yelled a lot, but I'm not that much of an asshole."
Jona nodded as if it was all the same to her. "The coffee's ready," she added. "Milk's in the fridge. There might be some non-dairy creamer on the door." She poured him a generously full mug and handed it over. "What's past is past. She seems happy now."
"Therapy," Rodney said. "Lots and lots of it. An expensive new school for her, with shorter hours and a lot of developmentally-appropriate structure and teachers who have degrees in difficult kids. I gave up my graduate seminars. I teach undergrads now. I thought — I could have won the Nobel prize in physics by the time I was forty, you know, if I'd kept on with my research and been picked for the job my sister has now. But it's getting easier to look at Madison and see her progress as an accomplishment, too." He reconsidered that last sentence. "That sounds pathetic."
"Too Anne of Green Gables, yeah." Jona opened the fridge and studied the contents as if she had no idea what was in there. "Can she have a snack?" Jona asked. "There are grapes."
"Sure." Rodney poked his head out of the kitchen. "Mads, do you — crap." Madison had nested herself into the sofa and was curled up asleep. "She's out like a light."
"In that case," Jona said, and opened the freezer. "I have Häagen Dazs."
"Bless you," Rodney said, and between them they polished off most of a pint of mocha chip while getting fuzzily nostalgic over The Last Starfighter.
Jona gave Madison grapes for a snack when she woke up, while Rodney towel-dried the wet spot Madison had left on the sofa cushions, even though Jona said she didn't mind. She let Rodney take the DVD home to finish watching and actually seemed sincere when she said they could come over again.
Driving home, Rodney found himself relaxed and grinning. It took him a while to figure out why. He didn't make friends easily, and he certainly didn't usually make friends with women. It was a combination, he thought, of the counselling and the weekly exposure to the women in Teyla's class. He suspected that Jona was probably just as lonely as he was — she was a foreigner and new to the city — but still. He didn't plan on questioning the results of his Inner Power.
Attachments: Jan16.ZIP, Afghanistan.TXT
So what, you think I can absolve you, tell you to write I will not fuck w/ abandoned Soviet labs 100X and WHAMMO you won't be guilty? Get over yourself. So the Kenyans are 5/6 short of a mountain. Let Zelenka spin the PR for that, it's his job. So you lost good people. *Your* job is to finish the research that will make their deaths meaningful. NOTHING will ever undo what's done. How you figure out how to live with it, that's up to you.
I try not to mention my friend Jona b/c you
bite my head offsay you don't need to hear about strangers (newsflash: aside from family and physicists, we have NO friends in common). But I asked her if I could tell you something she told me when we were talking about how we fucked up our lives (you already know what I did). She said OK (actually, she sent me a doc, attached). When she was in the AF, she had orders to abandon a crashed helicopter & crew — leaving people behind is as alien to her as leaving ideas alone is to you (seriously, you KNEW the Mt. Doranda project was cancelled for a reason, you just thought you knew BETTER). She disobeyed, people died, she wound up in Antarctica, basic career death. But she *used* her mil training esp. flying in desert and arctic conditions to get the job she has right now. The way I did. So: you can live through even the worst things, Jeannie-bean. What seems like the end of the world — isn't. Chin up. And other clichés.
love and all, RMcK/MMcK
Getting together with Jona after class soon became a habit. Sometimes they hung out at her place, or at Rodney's, and sometimes they went to the park. It was never prearranged, or anything serious enough to require an admission fee or special shoes, but it started to feel like a habit. Madison started drawing sharks in helicopters.
Then Jona missed one Saturday morning. Madison pouted and sulked and kicked Rodney very hard on purpose. Rodney theorised that Jona had caught a cold and took Madison to the aquarium to see the new documentary film about sharks.
Jona wasn't there the next week, either. Rodney wasn't enough of a creepy stalker to call her at work, but he'd had a rough week of bad attitude, wet beds, and thrown toys. He asked Teyla, when she was done with a special session of grounding and anger-management meditation (intended, Rodney thought, for Madison's benefit). She knelt to look Madison in the eye and told her that Jona had had to work. Madison wasn't placated by the idea of Jona saving lives: that didn't do anything to ease the turbulence in her own life.
Rodney almost didn't make it to the next class himself. He'd forgotten to wash Madison's striped track pants, and she had to have the track pants with the pink stripe. He finished ironing them dry at ten to nine, and they slipped into the studio fifteen minutes late. Rodney's own sweats were his second-worst, and he hadn't had time for coffee. He looked like crap and Madison was as bitchy as she ever got. He looked the other way when Madison sat on the floor, with her back to Jona, and refused to participate.
Jona brought him coffee as soon as the lesson ended, fixed just the way he liked it, and apologised. She had stopped dressing in drab oversized sweatshirts after the first couple of weeks; her usual outfit for class involved a geeky t-shirt. Today's was the caffeine molecule one, probably in some attempt to appeal to Rodney's subconscious.
"I usually work in three- or four-day blocks over weekends and holidays," Jona explained, shifting her weight onto one hip like someone being called onto the carpet. "My therapist got me to switch my schedule with Lorne — the other full-time pilot — to get Saturdays off, to come here. But he's got family and I don't, and so. . . ."
Rodney had been studying her surreptitiously. He didn't see any signs of bruises or pained movement. He decided — Occam's razor — that Jona was probably telling the truth, and that she hadn't gone back to the guy who'd given her the black eye.
"Madison has abandonment issues," he said. "And attachment issues, and any other issues beginning with A." He gave Jona the same look he gave to students who asked for extensions on their papers. "Are you quitting the class?"
She shook her head, checked the level of coffee in his cup, and snagged him one of the rapidly-disappearing muffins. "We worked it so I can take a couple Saturdays a month off. Teyla's helping me process stuff. It's helping." Rodney, mouth full, toasted her with the remains of the muffin. "I could maybe call, tell Madison when I can't come?" She pointed at Rodney. "You could maybe give me your number."
"I told you how much I love having gorgeous women begging for my telephone number, right?"
"I told you how much I hate having lines used on me, right?" Jona snapped back, looking truly annoyed. "Save them for your intended victims." She fished a schedule book out of her gym bag and held it out. "Put your name under M for Madison." She watched him as he wrote. "We could go get something to eat. The mall with the jungle gyms or something. Or is an attempt to buy Madison's forgiveness with food pretty pathetic?"
Rodney shrugged. "I wasn't lying, earlier. She likes attention, in the not-being-abandoned sense. Don't buy her a pony. She'll be happier spending time with you." He felt compelled to be honest. "She's going to punish you first, of course. But you'd better smile and put up with it. I've had to deal with her temper for two weeks."
"Crap." Jona tucked her address book away. "How do I buy your forgiveness?"
"Don't disappear again," Rodney said, flatly. Jona seemed to get that he was serious: she stared at him a moment, and then nodded.
The ride to the mall was unusually quiet, but Madison became increasingly normal (i.e., vociferous) as they ordered food and drinks. After a few chips and a plate of cherry tomatoes and cucumber sticks from the salad bar, she bounced up from her seat and announced that she was going to slide now.
"She's left me," Rodney said, trying to look tragic. "My little girl, all grown up."
Jona shoved the rest of the chips at him. "Grown men shouldn't try to flutter their eyelashes. It's frightening."
"I have abandonment issues," Rodney said in his own defence. Which he thought was true. He'd known he was angry: when Dex recommended Teyla's class as a way of learning anger management, Rodney'd gone ballistic. What does she have to be angry about? he'd yelled. She has a great new school and tons of free time and all her clothes are purple and she has you to take her side.
Dex had given him a level stare, just long enough that Rodney started to squirm. The class is for you, he'd said. You're pissed at your sister for leaving and you're taking it out on her kid. That's not fair.
Rodney had countered that it hadn't been fair for his mother to go back to work after Jeannie was born, either, leaving him to take care of Jeannie and to deal with his father's frustrations. His father had had real abandonment issues: every minute the family hadn't been centred around his needs, his father had felt abandoned. And angry.
Jona took out her schedule book again, wrote down her cell phone number and an e-mail address, and ripped the page out. "Here. I have voice mail. I don't answer the phone when I'm working."
Rodney pictured a helicopter falling out of the sky while the pilot was distracted by chatting on the phone. "I and the nation of Canada thank you for that." He folded the paper and tucked it into his wallet. Madison was pulling off her shoes to go wallow in the ball pit. She waved at him; he waved back. "I know Madison's difficult," he said, after a minute of fiddling with the lid on his coffee, twisting it off and snapping it back on. "What's that fish that sticks onto sharks?"
"A remora," Jona answered, eyes narrowing. "They eat skin parasites and the placenta after shark pups are born." She drummed her fingers on the table. "Where were you planning on taking that analogy?"
"Ew." Rodney decided that on was the best place for the lid, so he could swirl the coffee around without sloshing it over his fingers. "The kid's been stuck to me for two weeks because she thought she'd lost another significant person. You can't expect me to be thinking straight." He used the coffee stirrer to poke Jona in the arm. "I had to be Barbie's dad in a game of house last night. I have two PhDs."
"She's a fun kid, McKay."
"She's strong-willed. She really likes you. She misses her mom and all that quality girl-time they used to have. I mean, I'm just no good at — hey!" Rodney stared at Jona like she was a winning lottery ticket. "You want me to forgive you?" He tried not to look like an emotional blackmailer.
"Whoa." Jona shifted her chair back. "Look, no."
Rodney deflated. "You don't like kids."
"I didn't say that."
"I won't start you out on the hard stuff, like babysitting. Just maybe the occasional Barbie play date — or not," he added quickly, at the look on Jona's face. "I don't want to be sexist, you could play soccer or whatever. Just — think about it. Haven't you always wanted to be an honorary aunt?"
"Rodney." Jona bit her lip, and looked around the food court. The lunch crowds hadn't arrived yet; the tables around them were empty. Jona leaned forward anyway. "The thing is, I'm transsexual."
"Are you sure?" Rodney blurted out, his mouth moving independent of his brain. He looked at Jona — really looked — and she stared back, eyes hard and dangerous-looking. "Dumb question, very dumb question. Right. Why are you telling me? I mean. I wouldn't have guessed. Though I can be oblivious sometimes. Apparently, really, really oblivious. Um. Shutting up, now." He thought that was for the best. His therapist had noted that Rodney tended to be most offensive when he was theorizing ahead of his data.
Jona reached out, slowly, picked up her ice tea and took a long, slow drink. "I've been living as a woman full-time since I moved to Canada. Almost two years, now. It's not something I want people guessing, ever. This is who I am."
That made sense to Rodney. "Turning over a new leaf. I can relate to that." He jerked his head to the side in a sort of defensive shrug. "I came back to Canada and restarted my life." He blinked, and stared at Jona some more. "Are we emotionally bonding? Because I have to warn you, I'm no good at that. I mean, I'm in counselling. It would help me a lot if you'd tell me outright what kind of emotional response you expect? So I don't screw things up."
Jona raised an eyebrow. "Maybe if you didn't turn every conversation into one about yourself, McKay?"
"No, I don't think that's it." Rodney studied her some more. He could kind of see her looking like someone else, if he unfocussed his eyes as if he were looking at one of those stereogram puzzles. He'd never been good at seeing the hidden pictures, though; mostly, they just gave him headaches. People who weren't straightforward gave him headaches. He gave up on the mental attempt to shorten Jona's hair and give her five o'clock shadow and went with what he actually saw: tight t-shirt and boobs, long hair held up with a plastic clip, and a look that suggested Jona was trying to decide between a swift death for him or a painful one, "This is coming out, right? I'm supposed to be supportive? There's hugging involved?"
"I don't think you can really script life like that," Jona said. "I'm not coming out, because I'm not gay. But. . . it's kind of a warning, or — I don't know. You were asking me to babysit. Some people might not want me to."
"Ah," Rodney said. "Wicked pervert uncle syndrome. Once? I was dragging Madison kicking and screaming out of Toys R Us when some woman asked is this your daddy? And of course the answer was no. I was nearly arrested. Thank god Jeannie was still around then. I blame The Who," he added darkly. "Damn."
Jona ripped a napkin into fine strips, concentrating hard on the destruction. "A former lieutenant of mine, a really good kid, sweet, he got in trouble with drugs and went missing. His cousin called me, said he was mixed up in something bad and wanted my help getting out. So like an idiot I went to rescue him, not thinking — " She looked away. "Most women learn to distrust men when they're kids. I ended up taking the crash course."
Rodney's throat had gone dry. Most of the women in the Inner Power! class were there because they needed to be more assertive, but he knew some of them had been hurt. He remembered Jona's bruises on the first day she's gone to class. He remembered the bite mark. "He raped you?"
"No." Jona's mouth twisted. "He thought I was a freak. He wanted me to fix up a plane for drug running — kept me locked up, let his friends knock me around." She shrugged, her fingers twisting the scraps of napkin into tight little balls. "I got away when I could. Had to take the bus from L.A. because he stole my car and cleaned out my savings account. The minute I got back I called my therapist and had a crisis. Two days later — " she pointed at Rodney — "kismet."
"I don't really know what to say." Rodney's hands tried to do the talking for him, describing helplessness and anger and worry in distressed arcs. "I'm sorry."
"I told Elizabeth — my therapist — that it wouldn't have happened if I were a man. That it happened because — " Jona broke off. "I don't think that now — even if I still had the muscle mass, it wouldn't have done much good against six guys on speed. But. . . I've never wanted to tell anyone, about being trans. I've worked too damn hard to blow my cover. Except that, after that, I feel like I have to know. Sometimes. Just. If the people I think of as friends would. . . not be friends. If they knew."
"Wow," Rodney said. "I'm either really flattered or really insulted."
"Or both," Jona said, with a brittle kind of false brightness.
"Because yes, we are so doing the emotional bonding thing here — don't think you could sneak it by me. But you still think I might have some weird phobic reaction?"
Jona shrugged and sipped at her tea. "Even if you don't — if I do get clocked, they'll call you a faggot, too, or try and protect Madison from whatever perversion I exude by existing."
"Well." Rodney picked at the last reject fries, trying to find one that wasn't too badly singed or disgustingly soggy in the middle. "I can deal with that. I mean, let me think." He ticked off points on his fingers. "You're smart, and Madison adores you, and you know I'm an asshole but you're willing to overlook that, and you appreciate my quirky charm."
Jona disguised a rude noise with a cough.
"So, what, I'm going to worry what some complete stranger thinks?" Rodney frowned in thought. "I'm trying to overcome the asshole thing. Sort of. When it counts. Especially towards women, because, as it turns out, a lot of people are women, and I need to not objectify them." He pointed at Jona. "I'm still not cancelling Jeannie's subscription to the Victoria's Secret catalogue."
"You're a piece of work, McKay," Jona said. ""I'm going to make you a shirt reading Appreciate my quirky charm, bitch."
"Would you mind if I asked you questions later?" Rodney looked straight at Jona, meeting her eyes. "When we're not in the mall."
"And after you've done some internet research?"
"I've never met anyone who's. . . done that, before." Rodney frowned. "That I know of."
"I hate talking," Jona said. "But. Maybe."
"Can I tell Madison?"
Jona made a horrible face, the sort that Rodney associated with lemon-related agony. "I want to say no, but I think she kind of knows, or suspects."
Rodney jabbed the finger of accusation at her. "You think I can't be sensitive. I explain all kinds of things to Madison. Frogs, clouds, gay marriage, graffiti, terrorism, quarks. . . ."
Jona held her hands up. "I trust you." She looked over Rodney's shoulder. "She's walking like a penguin, by the way, you might want to exert some authority and take her to the girls' room."
"You take her," Rodney said, standing up decisively. "You're the girl. Go — nurture or something. I'm going to get some more food."
"Sexist bastard," Jona said amiably.
Rodney watched her walk across the play area carpet. Well. That explained why she was so tall. He thought he ought to be processing this differently, but mostly what he thought was, huh. Then again, he was hungry. He didn't think well when he was hungry.
He spent a couple of hours on the internet that night, instead of going over Jeannie's latest batch of problems. He only found one picture book on Amazon that dealt with a little boy turning into a little girl. It didn't seem like a very Jona kind of story, but he ordered it anyway. He never had good luck finding books that dealt with the issues in Madison's life, books that explained why Mommy's career took her away from her family, or books about being raised by kindly (not pervy) uncles.
He found a few educational websites and an awful lot of pornography on his first Google search. Reading through, he was glad he hadn't asked Jona about her sex-change operation, because apparently that wasn't how it was done, go in a boy, come out a girl. There was a whole process of hormones and counselling that led up to Sex Reassignment Surgery, and not everyone went through the SRS (which was interesting, that meant there were men out there with vaginas, and women with dicks; he filed that in his mind together with wave-particle duality). There were all different kinds of surgeries. He was fairly sure that Jona hadn't had a boob job, but he'd assumed she just had the natural build for someone as athletic as she was. He had no idea about whether she'd had genital surgery or not, but one website said it was rude to ask. He liked to know where the lines were drawn in social situations.
Jona: Just seeing if you have text messaging. RMcK
Isn't it past your bedtime?
No work tomorrow. You @ work now?
Yes, I'm just flying over Mount Xmmmahjeayyw.krkl ks BOOM
We're sitting waiting for a kidney and some corneas and things. Carson (my paramedic) says hey. We were playing the fuck-marry-kill game, he wants to ask you: Julia Roberts, Halle Berry and Ra gta go NT-NT
Night-night? Sometimes you scare me. Going to put on my jammies now and hope the thing under the bed doesn't get me. Hope your organs, you know, save lives or whatever.
When Rodney checked his phone in the morning, he found that Jona'd managed to make a fairly good text emoticon for being eaten by a big scary monster. He showed it to Madison, who then spent the morning drawing new and improved monsters, only some of which rode in helicopters (some of them were friends with sharks). Rodney took pictures of all the monsters and sent them to Jeannie with a CC to Jona.
Jeannie replied with sharp comments (to Rodney) about things that were inappropriate for four year olds, and a few awkward sentences (for Madison) about the very nice choice of colours.
Jona sent back a 36-point scream of terror that made Madison shriek with maniacal laughter.
Rodney thought he might be in trouble.
He had the talk with Madison the day Amazon delivered the book. Jeannie had been very into providing Madison with sensitive picture books about landmines or lesbian mothers or gay penguins or environmental destruction. He'd tossed most of them up on the closet shelf: he didn't think Madison wanted to hear that Heather had two mommies, when Madison didn't even have one in the same hemisphere. Usually he stuck to the old favourites, If You Give a Moose a Muffin or The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. But the explaining transsexualism to toddlers book was. . .okay. Once. Maybe twice.
Afterwards, he handed Madison her Ugly Doll and loosened the covers the way she liked.
"You know how some people think I'm your dad?" he said to Madison, checking that the elastics on her braids weren't too loose. Tangles in the morning always started a day off badly. "They see a girl with blue eyes and yellow hair and a ski-jump nose, and a guy with blue eyes and hair that's still yellow in a certain light and the same nose, and that's what they think because that's how we look. And you hate that, don't you?"
"My daddy's in Toronto," Madison said. She'd only met Kaleb two or three times: he wasn't that interested in her, nor she in him. It was for the best, really. He used words like deconstruction and epistemological in conversation.
"Right," Rodney said. "I'm your uncle." He sighed. He never really knew whether these talks worked, or whether they just bored Madison to sleep. "When Jona was born, she looked like a boy. When she got older, she changed how she looked so that people would understand. That she's a girl."
Madison yawned. "I'm a girl. Girls have a vag."
Rodney wondered how weird it would be to be a girl with a dick. He didn't think he'd be very happy with the wrong hardware for his operating system. "But your vag is private, right? It just lives down there in your underpants. Most people know you're a girl because — ?"
Madison frowned: girl was obviously self-explanatory. "I have pink sneakers?"
Rodney tipped his head sideways in a half-nod to concede the point. "Some people think changing from looking like a boy to looking like a girl is wrong. Just like some people think boys kissing boys or girls kissing girls is wrong, or mommies having jobs is wrong, or making really big noises in shops is wrong, or wearing purple is wrong. But — "
"It's not wrong if that's how you are."
This was a bit of Dex wisdom that Rodney had taken as his mantra back when Madison threw tantrums whenever they went to the supermarket. He'd had all kinds of comments from strangers, ranging from drug recommendations to the occasional what that child needs is a good hard slap. But Dex hammered home that it wasn't Madison's temper, it was her temperament.
"You are who you are, I am who I am, and Jona is who Jona is, and if anyone says anything — "
Madison knew this script. She grinned over her Ugly Doll's head. "I go get you or Ms Dennis or mommy."
"Good girl." Rodney turned the light down and kissed Madison good night. "I'll be downstairs if you need me."
"Kiss Baby," Madison said, holding her stuffed toy up. Rodney kissed the Ugly Doll right above his third eye, glad — as he often was — that he wasn't on reality TV and he didn't need to worry about all his daily humiliations being exposed to the world.
Attachments: preschool.ZIP, ZPM.ZIP, crystals.ZIP, SGC.ZIP
Art enclosed. My favourite is her picture of the onions (her class picked onions as a kind of social studies thing, and also a nutrition thing). She really captured a lot of the existential angst of being trapped in the dirt and then the exultation of BREAKING FREE into the sun. Crap, shoot me, I'm channelling Kaleb. Also? the worm picture is really good. I might use it on the Christmas card if I can be bothered to send cards this year.
Thing 1: connect the crystals in serial not parallel in the array, like making a bridge. Should bring up efficiency 32%. How are those ZPMs coming? The Soviets were right about a few things in Doranda as well as being HORRIBLY WRONG — see the file for my notes. Put the matrix in a vacuum. Trust me — genius here.
Thing 2: have been asked to make presentation for the SGC bash, Dallas. Need Zelenka to clear some things for me, also approval of final draft of paper for IJG. Can take Madison, who will be bored to tears. Hotel says has babysitting room open 8am to 8pm. Sounds exciting, doesn't it.
Thing 3: your box arrived, elephant family toys big hit. Stop sending clothes. M has 5 pr purple sweats, says only purple feels good, she's happy. I pick my battles, do not need tantrums about wearing button-up shirts and plaid and knee socks. I can PhotoShop her head onto some catalogue models for you. She doesn't look *eccentric* she looks *four*
Look, a whole letter without once mentioning the therapy, the school, the exercise class, or any friends whose names shall not be named. That work for you?
love, the usual suspects
Jeannie generally disregarded holidays and celebrations, but she was conscientious about calling home regularly. Rodney and Madison dropped everything and put her calls on speaker-phone, Madison standing on a chair to talk and not understanding that Jeannie didn't get her gestures and nods. Rodney used the wall calendar to update Jeannie on school things and doctor's visits, and Jeannie teased him with all the exciting new developments that she'd be e-mailing on as soon as Zelenka gave her the okay.
There was more time to talk if Jeannie called at night, but Madison always cried herself to sleep afterwards. Dex recommended that Jeannie call mornings, instead, and give Madison a message to deliver to her class. Her preschool teacher had been very accommodating, and had set up a bulletin board devoted to Jeannie's news from East Africa. This gave Madison something to look forward to and a whole day to replace the pain of missing her mother with more pleasant things, like acorns or playing with her friends.
The system didn't work that well on Sundays, however. Rodney had stayed up too late the night before, and Jeannie's call had come before the coffee was brewed. Madison had still been asleep, and Rodney could tell that Jeannie was angry at them both for not being more enthusiastic. Or perhaps she was disappointed and homesick and tired herself. Rodney didn't know. They never talked about those things.
The physics department secretary was Japanese-Canadian, and she'd told Rodney the cynical old saying ko wa kasugai. Which translated into, the child is the link that keeps the couple together. That was what Madison was, the link holding him together with Jeannie, despite all the time zones and kilometres and clinging bitter remnants of their childhood and Rodney's career. When Jeannie'd called to say she was pregnant, wondering what the hell she was going to do with her life, Rodney'd said some offhand things that turned out to be more binding than wedding vows. Sure, I'll help you out. You won't be doing it alone.
But now, standing uncaffeinated and tired in the kitchen, Rodney had no idea what Jeannie was thinking, whether she was happy, or frustrated, if she was doing okay, how she really was. He did know that she was redirecting her free-floating hostility into corrections of Madison's speech and asking whether she still wet the bed and wore purple. She couldn't keep Madison's friends straight, mixing Cellie with Jazmyn with Leslie. Finally, and worst, Jeannie interrupted Madison's report on the school's Parents' Day (the kids had had a song circle, and Rodney had had to lie down and pretend to be a cucumber) with a hurried Oops, I've got to go, love to both of you, bye.
After that, there was nothing to do but batten the hatches, because Rodney knew there was a storm coming. Madison didn't want corn flakes, she wanted granola, but not with regular soy milk, with chocolate soy milk. When it tasted nasty, she played with it for ten minutes and then dumped the whole mess into the dishwasher. While Rodney was picking dates and nuts out of an appliance he couldn't afford to have repaired, Madison took all her clothes out of her drawers and threw them down the stairs. Rodney yelled at her for that and she screamed back. Still screaming, she went into Jeannie's room and somehow pulled over her grandmother's bureau, the mirror (dull and spotted, but carried over from Ireland wrapped carefully in quilts) shattering on the floor along with all Jeannie's cosmetics, which Rodney had stowed in the drawers to keep dust-free.
"It's no wonder your mother doesn't — " Rodney shouted, taking the steps two at a time and nearly breaking his neck slipping on Jenny from Another Planet panties. He literally bit his tongue to keep the rest of the words in, but Madison understood anyway. She might have looked less wounded if he'd just hauled off and hit her. They stared at each other for a long moment, and then she turned and ran into her room, slamming the door shut.
Rodney's first instinct was to get that door open and say a lot of things that all started with now see here young lady and who the hell do you think you are. His second instinct was to break something himself, throw things out the windows.
The final instinct he went with was to get help. He did Teyla's calm breathing thing, imagined that she was there talking him down from his rage. He thought about calling Dex — he had Dex's home number for emergencies — but he wasn't completely overwhelmed. He knew what Dex would tell him: that he wasn't alone, that he had a network to tap into, a surrogate family.
He went downstairs and called Jona, hoping that she had the day off, hoping that she was free. She answered on the fifth ring and said — asking no questions — that she'd be there in fifteen minutes.
Rodney went upstairs, kicking all the clothes to the side just to get them out of the way. He knocked on Madison's door.
"Mads, Jona's coming over." Madison didn't say anything. "Here's what I think. We go downstairs and have a snack. Maybe a banana. Maybe an apple."
"Bananas are stupid," Madison said in a tiny, hoarse voice. She sounded as if her heart had broken.
"I always thought they were pretty funny, myself." Rodney turned the doorknob, as a warning, and then opened the door. Madison was sitting in the middle of the room. The floorboards were covered with hair: Barbie yellow, Nikki black, Jenny brown, and an awful lot of Madison blonde. Madison was still holding her blunt-tipped scissors. Her face was tear-swollen, and her hair was utterly butchered.
"Bananas are stupid and Jenny is stupid and you're stupid and school is stupid." Madison's face squished up more and more as her voice turned into a wail. Rodney hefted her up, repressing the urge to sticky-roll her clean of hair first, and hugged her tight.
"Is Jona stupid?" he asked, manoeuvring down the stairs.
"Stupid stupid stupid," Madison shouted, pressing her wet face tight into his neck.
"Gotcha." He plopped her onto her kitchen chair. "Here, have a stupid banana." He called Jona back. It took her ages to answer this time. "Madison cut off her hair," he said, hoping that none of the tension that had him shaking could be heard in his voice.
"I copy," Jona said. "I'm just outside your house, get a move on. Wasting money on the call," she added, and hung up.
"Huh," Rodney said to the dead phone. "Hey, short stuff, put your shoes on, Princess Charming is here."
Getting Madison into her shoes took a few very loud minutes, but Rodney figured Jona would just have to wait. Finally, finally, he grabbed his wallet and keys and shepherded Madison out the door. Madison was clinging to poor shorn Nikki.
Jona was at the curb, leaning on a banged-up Toyota Puddlejumper. She straightened and raised both eyebrows at Rodney in question, but gave him a reprieve as she dropped into a squat to say good morning to Madison and to give her a hug. Madison told her she was a stupid turkey. Jona called Madison banana-breath.
"You got your car back," Rodney said, just to have something to say (Madison, predictably, said it was stupid), as Jona and Madison fiddled with the car seat strapped in the back. The car seat was new: Jona had to strip off plastic wrap and tags with her pocketknife. In Rodney's experience, even advanced degrees were not enough to make sense of all the various straps, buckles, and hooks used to assemble kid paraphernalia, so he was glad to give the job over to Jona, who dealt with restraining harnesses professionally.
"I got a car," Jona corrected, snapping the adjusted straps into the buckle. She turned around. "Insurance has been a basic nightmare." Her t-shirt was dark red and said Not Just a Phase.
Rodney pointed at it. "I don't find that comforting."
Jona looked down. "I guess you wouldn't."
"What about your money that was stolen?" Rodney asked, getting in and adjusting the seat so his kneecaps weren't flush with the airbag compartment. "Insurance taking care of that, too?"
Jona flipped on a pair of sunglasses. "Nope," she said. "So can you tell me what's up? Or has Madison figured out Pig Latin?"
"Bad call from Jeannie," Rodney said, pinching the bridge of his nose to see if that did anything for his headache. "We were both in what my therapist calls negative headspace."
Jona snorted. "And you were both misfiring. Gotcha." She turned on the radio, and the car filled with elevator music. "All the presets came like that," Jona said apologetically. "Blame the previous owner. So — bad news?"
Rodney reached down and tuned in the university radio station. Sunday morning meant organ music and the announcer with the Australian accent. "No news, no big deal, no nothing, just — " he waved his hand, trying to find the right word.
"Any permanent damage?"
"One battered antique, lots of bad haircuts." Rodney tapped the windshield. "Speaking of antiques — aren't you ashamed to be driving a Jumper?"
"STFU," Jona said, and flipped Rodney the bird discreetly. "Hey, Mads, my new car needs a name. Got any ideas?"
By the time Jona parked the car and ordered everyone out, both Madison and Rodney were referring to the Puddlejumper as Annie T, short for Ancient Toyota.
"You," Jona said, pointing at both of them, "will never be allowed to name anything, ever again."
Rodney drew a shark in the dust on Annie T's rear windshield and looked around. The car park was mostly empty; the office building was probably dead on weekends. The windows were all reflective glass, and there was a curvy aluminium sculpture arcing up out of the entranceway flowerbed.
He followed Jona, who had slung Madison on her hip and was still muttering her outrage, into a sunny atrium and past a coffee shop with uncomfortable-looking chairs, to a door marked Relaxation Salon.
"You're kidding me," Rodney muttered, walking in and looking askance at the bronze Buddha on the counter and the overgrown pots of bamboo.
"Nope," Jona said cheerfully, and tapped the miniature gong on the counter with a tiny hammer that Madison immediately glommed onto. Madison rang the gong, and then started pounding on the counter itself, which did wonders for the headache. "A friend of mine runs this place. There's a trading company upstairs and some government offices next door, lots of stress — they do good business."
He realised with a start that he'd phased out while Jona was talking quietly to a woman with pale hair tied back in a perky ponytail.
"See what I mean?" Jona said, giving Rodney a fond jab in the ribs with her elbow. "Laura, Rodney, Rodney, Laura. You'll have lots to talk about — Laura used to work in munitions."
Laura shook Rodney's hand firmly. "I find there's a lot of similarity between the human body and, say, land mines."
Rodney frowned. "That makes sense to me."
"So — sixty?" Jona asked Laura.
Laura wobbled her hand. "Ninety. At least. I'll call you if I need more time."
"Say bye-bye to Uncle Rodney," Jona said, and Madison waved half-heartedly. "He's going to get relaxed." She took a step backwards. "We'll pick you up after, okay?"
"Wait, what?" Rodney said, but Jona was already retreating. Laura took his elbow and steered him into the back of the shop, where two of the four cubicles were already occupied by masseurs and people who looked enviably boneless.
"Here," Laura said, handing him a pair of — pyjamas? "Change and we'll get started." She grinned and gave him a push. "It'll be good for you."
"Promises, promises," Rodney snapped. But even though he felt stupid wearing the pyjamas and lying on the table and having this complete stranger touching him more intimately than he'd been touched since Madison first came screaming into the world. . . oh God, was it good. He might never move again. He didn't know how he could, really, with his body reduced to a goo of contentment.
He fell asleep at some point, and woke only when he felt little fingers poking him in the face. He opened one eye, blinked, and found that he didn't even have the strength to be irate that Madison's hair was now streaked with pink and purple, or that she was wearing strawberry-scented lip stuff.
"Hey," he said, and Madison shoved her doll at him.
"All better," she said. Someone had given Nikki extensions that went down to her knees (it looked like part of a hairpiece, tied on with a doll-size bandana).
"Great," Rodney said, and at the same time he heard Jona say, "Hey, Mads, let him sleep."
"I'm up," Rodney said, still lacking the strength to move. "Practically."
"Come on, Mads," Jona said. Madison moved away, replaced by Laura, who gave him a chipper smile that, remarkably, didn't make his blood pressure rise.
Laura gave him a hand up and offered to help him dress. He refused. She handed him a discount coupon for his next visit and waved off his credit card, saying Jona had already paid. He went out to the car park feeling as if he could solve any problem set before him.
Madison was standing outside the automated doors making faces at herself in the polished surface of the sculpture. Rodney didn't know what it was supposed to represent, anyway: maybe it was supposed to be a kind of funhouse mirror. Madison's hair had been trimmed even, short around the sides with longer bits on top. One surviving long piece had been braided and hung down her back like a tail. Her fingernails were the same pink as the streaks in her hair, and she had little rhinestones in odd places: over one eyebrow, on her ears like earrings.
"She needed to get it fixed, so I took her to that place across from London Drugs," Jona said, moving over to stand almost at Rodney's shoulder. "The girl there said kids do this all the time — usually to their younger siblings. She suggested the colours and the glitter so that it wouldn't be too depressing. I have a bag for you in the car of Jenny from Another Planet cosmetics."
"Thank you," Rodney said.
Jona snorted. "I thought you'd blow a gasket. Laura does good work, huh?"
"Laura is a goddess upon the earth," Rodney said.
Jona smacked him in the back of the head. "And what about me?"
Rodney frowned. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you're the best friend I ever had. In my whole life. Ever will have. I don't know what I'd do without you." He'd never really thought about it. Thinking about it felt like being in a dropping elevator. He crossed his arms and glared defensively at Jona.
He'd thought that Jona's complexion was too dark to show a blush, but he'd been wrong. Even the tips of Jona's ears turned red. It was fascinating, and gratifying, and Rodney smirked, a very relaxed smirk, all the way home.
Jeannie-bean: Don't freak. We cut Madison's hair. Vv cute, easy to take care of, pics attached. — R&M
Re: Re: hair
J: Um, actually, I have EVERY RIGHT to dress M in what she likes or cut her hair if she wants it short. She's not in fucking STASIS, she's *growing: and *changing* and there's only so much you can do from fucking AFRICA. **DEAL**
Dex suggested that Madison was at an age where her self-confidence would be boosted by mastering age-appropriate skills. Not, he added, academic skills. Jeannie had pushed early reading, and Rodney had tried, but it had reached the point where the sight of Rodney with a workbook in hand was enough to make Madison throw a fit. Skipping rope, Dex said, or maybe baking, or playing catch.
"You're fucking kidding me," Rodney said. "I thought I was supposed to be creating a stable home environment."
"Yeah, well." Dex spread his knees and planted his elbows on them, looking up at Rodney in amusement. "You already did that, man. Congratulations."
"Screw you," Rodney said. "I don't how to do any of those things. What about calculus? Kids love calculus." He jabbed a finger at Dex. "We're still doing the Inner Power thing."
Dex fished a lollipop out of the pocket of his beat up leather jacket and handed it to Rodney. His face was solemn, but his eyes were wrinkled at the corners from the effort of holding the laughter in.
Can you believe it? Do kids even jump rope these days — does anyone jump rope? I have two PhDs. So why do I feel like there's something wrong with me that I have never jumped a rope in my life?
It's good cardio, McK. *I* jump rope.
You would. You also run for fun. YOU SURF IN CANADA. Seriously, I think Madison would like calculus, don't you think?
She got the hang of base 2 pretty easy.
I hate you.
Hello hello hello
Sorry — soymilk and cookies time. M says hi and not interested in jump rope, apparently only nuts, turkeys, and the stupid jump rope. Hate to break it to you.
You busy Sat after class?
Busy = yes for jump rope, no for food.
Roger. See you Sat. Over and out.
Rodney tried, for the rest of the week, to trick, cajole, or threaten Jona into revealing whatever plan she had, but Jona was remarkably resistant.
"Do I need to prepare anything?" he asked Friday night. "Bring anything?"
"Wear good socks," Jona said, after a contemplative pause.
Rodney thought she was joking.
He hadn't anticipated roller skates.
"You're out of your mind," he told her when she handed him a carrier bag heavy with a pair of inline skates and accompanying paraphernalia (borrowed them from Teyla's boyfriend, they should fit). The very top item in the bag was a set of protective pads, which he wouldn't need, because he had no intention of roller skating.
"Suit yourself," Jona said, adjusting Madison's helmet. All Madison's stuff was new, so not only was it bright pink and purple, but it was permanent "I just thought, don't all Canadians know how to skate?"
"And all Americans have guns and eat at McDonald's." Rodney checked. There was a helmet in his bag, nestled down between the skates. "Are you recreating fond childhood memories? Is this some midlife crisis thing I'll have to watch out for?"
Jona looked up at him. "If my father had ever caught me roller skating. . . ." She shrugged and mimed a vicious backhand slap behind Madison's back. "No roller skating, McKay, no Barbie dolls, no nail polish or lip gloss. No hair longer than half an inch, no television except for sports, and no crossing of any of a hundred different invisible lines."
Rodney paused, watching Jona's sure fingers double-check that everything was tight enough. "Did he know?" Rodney asked, trying to picture Jona as a little boy and not a Madison-clone (which was hard, because Madison was turning into a little Jona-clone: today, she was wearing a future pilot shirt from Jona over her sweatshirt). Rodney added a propeller beanie to his mental image and grinned to himself as he set the bag down and sorted the elbow pads from the knee pads and began velcroing himself up.
"He thought I was eer-quay." Jona shrugged, seating Madison on the grass to put her skates on. "So did I. There, now, stand up, that feels okay? Yeah? All right, then, let's go."
Jona took Madison off for a slow, wobbly circuit of the learn-to-skate area, and by the time they came back Rodney was — unfortunately — unable to procrastinate any more.
"Up and at 'em," Jona said. "You need a hand to keep from falling on your ass?"
"No," Rodney said, standing up and immediately falling on his ass. "Oh, ow. Ow, ow, ow."
"Shut up, you're well padded." Jona held out her hand, failing to completely keep the amusement off her face.
"You're dead," Rodney said, allowing himself to be tugged to his feet, balanced, and rolled carefully forwards. "You are so dead. You realise I have no idea how to do this."
"Easy as riding a bicycle," Jona said, skating backwards in front of him and making little critical corrections to his shoulders and elbows. "You do know how to ride a bike?"
"Dead," Rodney repeated. Madison rolled at them on a very slow collision course: as neither she nor Rodney really knew how to turn, much less stop, he braced himself for impact. But Jona nudged Rodney out of the way and took Madison firmly in hand. Rodney could hear a steady stream of good, great, you're doing good, look at you go, whoa, nice move, Madison and resolved not to be outdone by a four-year-old. "Just you wait until I get my hands on you," he called after Jona.
"Never going to happen," Jona said, and Rodney's attempts to prove her wrong somehow turned into a game of tag. Jona, despite being able to skate up the steps and along the cement wall around the flowerbeds, was caught almost every time by Madison. Madison shrieked with laughter and shouted.
"So, what did you do as a kid?" Rodney asked, hiding behind Jona as Madison made an awkward turn, lowered her centre of gravity, and headed towards them.
"I rode," Jona said, drifting to the right. "I loved horses. National Velvet was like the Bible for me. You?"
"Ham radio," Rodney said promptly, matching her glide to keep Jona in the middle. "My grandfather taught me all he knew. After he died, computers. And bombs."
Jona looked back over her shoulder at him. "We were fucked up, weren't we?"
"Speak for yourself," Rodney snapped back. "Munchkin on your left."
"Crap," Jona said, twisting into a half-arc, which took Rodney by surprise. He windmilled his arms, because sometimes looking stupid was better than collapsing onto the pavement. Jona made a grab for him, Madison made a grab for Jona, and down Rodney went.
"Ow," he said, glaring at both of them.
"You know, I think that's enough for today," Jona said, pulling Rodney to his feet. She'd stripped down to her tank top, and every time she bent over it rode up and her jeans rode down, flashing him with the waistband of her underwear. It was turquoise and thong-ish and had a rhinestone butterfly that rested right at the base of her spine. This was a major factor in Rodney's clumsiness, and secretly he thought Jona might be doing it on purpose. "I'll take care of Madison — think you can make it back to your shoes without falling again?"
"You have low expectations of me, don't you?" Rodney said. "Oh, ow."
"Same expectations I have of anyone who's not used to exercise." Jona looked pointedly at her hand, supporting Rodney's elbow. She let go carefully, and dug her car keys out of her pocket. "There's food in the trunk, and a blanket. If you want to go the sexist route and be the provider while I nurture Madison out of her skates."
"Best idea ever." Rodney hadn't even realised it, but he was starving. And, he discovered as he sank down onto the grass, he had bruises in some unusual places. He didn't recall getting half of them. He'd been having too much fun, though he'd rather be strung up by his thumbs than admit it.
Jona's cooler was heavy and awkward to carry; Rodney thought Jona had played him. But she had sandwiches, and salad, and bottles of tea and juice, and sliced apples, and cherries, and crackers. There were even brownies, which were gooey, vegan, and sinful.
"Best picnic ever," Rodney said, sliding back onto the blanket to digest. "What do you think, Mads?"
"Wanna play frisbee," Madison said, pulling her sneakers back on and velcroing them sloppily.
"Let's clean up first, okay," Jona said, rolling to her feet with another flash of underwear. She tidied up with some distracted assistance from Madison, and then took the cooler in one hand and Madison's hand in the other and headed off towards the car park.
Rodney flapped his hand in a vague goodbye, looked up at the blue sky flickering through the tree leaves, took a deep breath, and fell asleep.
He woke with a start to find the sky an entirely different shade of blue. A late-afternoon colour, he thought, and sat straight up in panic, wondering where Madison was. For a moment, his heart beat so loudly he couldn't hear anything else.
Dex told him that he was lying to himself if he didn't consider himself Madison's de facto parent. Rodney didn't know when he'd crossed the line from being the guy who helped out sometimes to the person who felt the whole weight of responsibility for Madison's health and happiness and — oh, God — whereabouts.
He didn't want the job. He wasn't good at it. But he sure as hell didn't trust anyone else to do it right. Not even, he suspected, Jeannie, which would make things interesting when she came back. If she came back.
He ratcheted himself to standing, his legs wobbly from the skating and his back stiff from lying on the ground. He turned in a half-circle, and his heart gave a hard bump when he spotted Madison and Jona, off playing frisbee under another tree.
He heard Madison laugh and Jona say something, moving her arms slowly to pantomime a proper throw. Rodney cracked his neck and thought fond thoughts about massage as he headed across the grass. Madison flailed and launched the Frisbee in a wide, enthusiastic, utterly wrong arc. Jona dove for it anyway, just missing as it skimmed past her fingertips. She stumbled, looking very uncool, retrieved the Frisbee, and threw it in an exaggeratedly slow toss that ended right at Madison's feet.
"Stop with the exercise already," Rodney said. Madison squealed and ran over to grab him around the knees in a rare display of spontaneous affection. Rodney put an arm around her and launched her up to eye level. "You're the kid, I'm the responsible adult. So why didn't you take a nap?"
"I want a snack," Madison said, grabbing Rodney's shoulders and clinging on madly. "Wanna cookie. A big cookie. A big normous cookie. A big normous huge cookie."
"Sure, cookies," Rodney said. "Let's go home, small fry." He swung her onto her feet. "Last one to Annie's a rotten egg."
Jona complained all the way back to the house that it wasn't fair because she'd had to double back to get the blanket Rodney had left behind. Rodney gave her the lecture on being a good loser, and she told him to blow it out his. . . ear.
The promised cookie just took the edge off everyone's hunger, so Rodney threw two vegan pizzas in the oven and told Jona to make a salad while Madison set the table. Hopefully, if they ate at five, he could have Madison in bed hours before her usual bedtime.
"Fresh air and sunshine," Jona said knowingly, nodding at Madison as she yawned over her dinner.
While Jona cleaned up in the kitchen, Rodney got Madison to take her bath and put her pyjamas on by saying she could watch a video afterwards. Twenty minutes into The Little Mermaid, Madison toppled over sound asleep, and Rodney carried her up to her room. When he came down, Jona was becoming one with his sofa, her feet up, a beer in hand, watching the muted television.
"Yours is there," she said, waving vaguely towards the coffee table without looking away from ESPN. Rodney located the beer and dropped into the opposite end of the sofa.
"I have a question for you," Rodney said, speaking slowly because all that fresh air and sunshine apparently affected adults as well. "Well, more like a request. Definitely a request. You can say no," he added. Jona's gaze had drifted over to him. She looked curious, in a tired kind of way, but also as if she were inclined to give him a knee-jerk no. "You know I'm presenting a paper at the Southwestern Geophysics Conference next month. In Dallas."
"You've showed me your PowerPoint slides a few times," Jona said dryly.
"And you know I have to take Madison, because there's no one who can watch her for four days."
"Oh, hell no."
"You're good with her," Rodney went on. "She listens to you. And you know your way around my kitchen. The hotel has a babysitting service, but the programs aren't really geared for little kids. Eight hours sitting watching videos, probably."
Jona tipped her beer can at him. "Nice manipulation, McKay."
"I know. It's what I'm good at. If an appeal to your better nature doesn't work, try guilt. If guilt doesn't work — "
Rodney gave Jona his best evil smile. "What can I do for you?"
Jona shook her head and checked the scores for whatever game she was watching. "I'd have to shuffle my schedule. And you have to tell your sister — seriously, Madison's her kid." Jona said something very rude to the television and turned it off in pique. "I want a t-shirt."
"As in My geophysicist went to Dallas and all I got was this lousy?" Rodney asked, and grinned. "You really could ask for something better. I'm the one at a disadvantage."
"What I really want, you can't give me," Jona said, and dropped her head back on the sofa.
"Probably." Rodney squinted at the beer: it was supposed to be a depressant, but he was wide awake now. "I changed all the slides for the second half of my presentation — you could take a look at them now. And tell me what a genius I am." Jona gave him the finger. "Or we could watch a movie."
"I've got to be at work by four," Jona said, rolling forward to set her beer on the table and stretching her shoulders. "I should be getting home." Rodney knew there were polite things he should say, oh you shouldn't have or I'm sorry to have kept you, but he didn't want to. He felt disappointed and he could feel his face sliding into the expression of his feelings. "I'll be back Wednesday," Jona said, standing and laddering her arms as she yawned, which made her shirt ride up and hel-lo, stomach. "I can see myself out."
Rodney got up and stomped behind her, just to prove that he wasn't that socially inept.
"Today was good," he blurted out, just when it was almost too late to say anything. Jona stopped halfway down the walk and turned to grin at him.
"The word is fun, McKay," she said. "You had fun."
"Did not," Rodney said automatically. Jona's eyebrows went up. "Maybe a little."
"Ha." Jona unlocked the Jumper and drove off as Rodney stood in the doorway and watched. Then he shook himself, and went to turn on the computer and write to Jeannie.
Attachments: ZPM.zip, ATL.zip, SGC.zip
Re: SGC Mother May I
Went over your numbers on the crystal matrices at least ten times. Found mistakes, corrected — should give you *greater* storage capacity. You do realise that this is bigger than splitting the atom and will KILL fossil fuels. *insert maniacal laughter here* Enclosing possible design for collection array, note whole thing costs less than your average missile b/c made with aluminium foil and chewing gum. Will that help w/ Kenyan gvt re lease extension?
Re the SGC: M would hate being cooped up in a hotel all day. Jona (from the IP! class, the pilot) has volunteered to stay here and watch M @ home. She's familiar w/ M's routine & diet and + I can pay her in those t-shirts they hand out at conferences, and the free ballpoint pens. She says w/ your permission. Let me know if you need resume, dental records, etc etc. Sending latest PowerPoint. Have a look.
Re M: She's turning 5, any plans, anything I should do? She wants Barbie doctor's office: yea/nay? (Barbie = dr. = good, Barbie = PINK & BLONDE = evil pure and simple)
Love, RMcK and MMcK
Re: Re: SGC Mother May I
Jean-o: NEVER look a gift babysitter in the mouth. Don't make me beg. Jona knows CPR, also how to administer Epi, & Madison LOVES her. Full name Sheppard, Jona (no clue re middle name), born 1967-1-17 therefore older than me HA. She says her therapist = Elizabeth Weir (email@example.com) can give a reference if you need one. Or you could just trust ME. Crap, it's hard to convey the right tone of voice just by capslock.
Tell Z thanks for data. Will analyse. Suspect the problem is in the parallel crystal configuration; am running a simulation for serial. What's the weight you're down to on the ZPMs?
"So," Rodney said. "Here's the number for my cell phone, the hotel, Jeannie — though good luck there — Madison's doctor and dentist, and her school. I've got copies of all her insurance stuff in the red folder, and here's a spare EpiPen — is there anything else you need?"
Jona took the file and slid it carefully onto the front hall table. The action was deliberate and slow, as if she were trying not to threaten a wild animal.
"You really didn't need to add 911 at the bottom of the page. In red."
"You might panic under pressure."
Both of Jona's eyebrows went up at that. "I've flown in combat. Trust me — babysitting Madison is going to be nowhere near as dangerous as your physics shindig."
Rodney tried to shake the tension out of his shoulders. "I know."
"Looking forward to it?"
He grinned at that. "Immensely."
"Knock 'em dead, tiger. See you in three days," Jona said, with a steadying punch to his shoulder. She got Madison to separate from the cable T.V. long enough to say goodbye, then shoved Rodney out and waved goodbye from the doorway with very sarcastic good cheer.
Rodney had really missed the kill-or-be-killed atmosphere of academic conferences. By the end of the banquet on the first day he had disciples and mortal enemies: it was exhilarating. The food was expensive, but later he didn't remember anything but the taste of success.
He enjoyed the constant challenge of being surrounded by people who respected him only so far as his theories held (and who were simultaneously trying to disprove those theories and earn themselves a turn in the spotlight). The question and answer session following his presentation started with a moment of loud, ringing silence, and then the sharks started circling. Rodney didn't give them any blood to home in on: everything he'd talked about had run the gauntlet of his department, the peer review for the International Journal of Geophysics, and Jeannie's brutal critique. Frankly, his presentation was conservative. There were far more earth-shaking discoveries he could have discussed, but he didn't think the world was worthy yet.
He did see some of the sell-outs to big oil duck outside, clutching their cell phones. Their whole world was crashing down around their ears. A woman from Hong Kong Polytechnic stood up and asked him point-blank how soon he thought portable, exportable, clean energy would be a reality. Zelenka — not to mention Jeannie — would kill him slowly if he answered that, but something in his smile as he refused to comment made another unnatural silence fall.
Rodney was in his element. He knew he would get bored, after a while, of resting on his laurels, but for now the praise and the respect were like rain after a drought.
He got on the plane on Saturday with six serious job offers in his carry-all: two from prestigious universities, three from major research facilities, and one which was either for a think tank or a glorified form of concubinage (he wasn't entirely sure). He also had the names of several publishers who wanted his next book, and the card of a thin young man who'd been encased in flannel, who said he was interested in making a documentary film.
The house was empty when Rodney arrived home. Even the Barbie castle that had been built with the sofa cushions and the coffee table in his living room didn't entirely dissipate his glow of righteous triumph. He went upstairs to unpack and change into casual clothes. His bed had been stripped and covered neatly with the comforter. Jona's bag was still at the foot of the bed, unzipped with tempting things spilling out. Rodney suspected that she hadn't left it like that on purpose: there had probably been a distraction, and then another distraction, and she had probably forgotten. He knew how easily that happened.
Rodney should have pretended he didn't see anything, the way he usually did when he caught glimpses of Jona's bra straps or underwear. It was one thing to know that he liked lingerie in the abstract, catalogue sense, and quite another to be interested in the specific things that someone he knew actually wore. But he never would have guessed that Jona's nightgown was bright pink; that surprise was the only reason he pulled it out. It was like a sleeveless t-shirt, and when held to his shoulders came down just to his knees. It would be even shorter on Jona, he thought, and put it back quickly.
If there was a special hell for people who perved on their friend's underwear, he was so going there.
He changed, resolutely not looking once at Jona's stuff, not even the hairbrush she'd left in the bathroom, even though it was hard to feel noble for not doing something that he didn't want to do in the first place, considering that he had never once in his life found brushes arousing.
Jona had said she'd text him whenever they went out, and she'd been meticulous about keeping Rodney in the loop. The latest update (forty minutes previous) said they'd gone to the park, so Rodney pulled on his sneakers and headed out, turning right and then taking the shortcut through the church car park.
He heard Madison even before he crossed the road, shouting more — more — higher, and he felt a moment's guilt for not warning Jona that Madison refused to pump for herself on the swings, preferring to be pushed. Pushed until Rodney got cramps in his lower back, usually.
The swings were back behind the big climbing frame built out of lumber and old tyres. By taking the path, Rodney got a good view of Madison and Jona from the back. They looked like the kind of picture religious organisations put on the covers of their magazines, to demonstrate the wholesome joy of whatever crackpot ideas they espoused. Madison was wearing a billowy red print dress, her hair was bright in the sun, and she was laughing in between tyrannical demands (no, too high — push more — again). Jona was wearing the same dress, only adult-sized: it came down to her knees. She was wearing sandals and had her hair tied back in a scarf, and wham — suddenly, Rodney was past imagining her in her underwear and straight into imagining her naked.
Oh, he was going to burn for this.
He told himself firmly that, no matter what happened when Harry and Sally met, it was perfectly possible for a man and a woman to be friends without sex coming between them. He reminded himself of the last few disastrous dates he'd been on, of the acrimony and anger that had marked the end of his few relationships. He didn't even really get on with Jeannie, who was his own sister, and he didn't fool himself that he was good with Madison. What he had with Jona. . . was too good to be fucked up with his lecherous thoughts.
He didn't even know what Jona's type was. In all likelihood, it wasn't sturdy middle-aged geophysicists with receding hairlines. He wondered, very briefly, if she'd be impressed with his professional success and the job offers (including the concubinage). She'd probably laugh at him, he decided. He took a deep breath, stopped staring at her legs and her chest, and made himself call out to Madison as he walked up.
Madison screamed for Jona to stop the swing and ran around to give Rodney a solid hug around his knees. Spontaneous physical contact wasn't something either of them did much of, but Rodney hugged her back and hefted her onto his shoulder. She asked where her present was, and told him she'd seen sow bugs, a black one and a grey one, and that in her book it said sow bugs were stations.
"It's true," Jona said, collecting a canvas tote bag and falling into step behind Rodney. "They're land crustaceans. And how many pairs of legs do they have?"
"Seven," Madison said, with deep satisfaction.
"And how many pairs of legs do you have?" Jona asked. Rodney had the feeling that this was a game they'd been playing.
"Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds," Madison yelled.
"Centipede," Jona explained, and Rodney pretended to drop Madison in horror. She then chased him all the way to the corner.
"Jona's got an owie," Madison said when Rodney let her catch him.
Rodney raised an eyebrow at Jona. "Do you want a band aid for your owie?"
"My owie's older than Madison." She tilted her head and pushed her hair back to show the scar that ran along the side of her neck. "Centipede bite. Lieutenant Ford saved my life."
"He's still an asshole."
"Little pitchers," Jona said sharply. "Jeez."
"So what's with the dresses?" Rodney said, changing the subject clumsily. He didn't want to hear anything redeeming about Ford. Jona'd shown him the man's picture once. He'd been sweet-faced and young, squinting in bright desert sunlight. Rodney hated the idea that Jona might forgive him; that if he called again, she'd go to rescue him.
Jona lowered her voice. "I just got so sick of all Madison's purple tracksuits. We were at the mall and — well." She jerked one shoulder in a shrug. "The phrase I will if you will might have been used."
"Yeah, well." Rodney gave her a dark look. "You'd better give me the name of the shop. I might have to buy five more dresses, if she plans on making this her new outfit."
"Jeannie used to dress her up in all these fancy baby dresses. I assumed she'd given Mads a phobia." Rodney jabbed Jona in the shoulder. "It's a new look for you. No jeans, no boots. . . . "
"Alert the media." Jona rolled her eyes, and then gave Rodney a sharp sideways glance. "It's an old look for me, actually. I haven't. . . not since. . . ." She shut her mouth and breathed in through her nose, looking irritated, as if Rodney'd done something wrong. A moment later, Rodney realised that it wasn't him: Ford was the one who'd so carelessly damaged the old Jona. He wondered if he ought to try a comforting hug. He suspected Jona'd flatten him. Fortunately, they were already on the doorstep and Madison was demanding her snack, so Rodney had a get out of awkward conversations free card.
By the time Madison's hands were washed and several carrots and cucumbers had been chopped into snack sticks and dumped on a plate with some crackers, Jona had the house looking less like a Barbie disaster zone. Her bag, now packed and zipped, was slung carelessly on the sofa.
"Want some?" Rodney asked around a carrot as Jona grabbed the pitcher of barley tea from the refrigerator and poured three glasses. She drank half of hers in one swallow.
"I need to be heading out," Jona said.
Rodney felt his face fall. "I thought we could maybe go out to dinner."
Jona leaned back against the kitchen counter. "I've got things to do before work," she said. Rodney thought that was true, but he also thought she probably wanted time alone to decompress. She deserved time away from the McKay madhouse, Rodney thought: he needed to watch out for that familiarity/contempt thing.
"How about Thursday night?" Rodney asked. "It's pretty easy to get a sitter just for a couple of hours. We can go eat someplace where none of the dishes are plastic."
Jona gave him a very odd look, but it wasn't until she'd given him a drawn-out Oh-kay that he realised he'd asked her on a date.
It was on the tip of his tongue to say, no, that's not what I meant, I just wanted to gloat about how brilliant I am. He saw Jona stiffen, slightly, as if she knew he was backpedalling, and her expression start to go mask-like, her smile stretched and false.
"I'll pick you up at six," Rodney said. Bulldozing over problems was the easiest way to resolve them. "You should wear that dress. Should I bring flowers?"
"You're allergic to flowers," Jona said, pushing off and stretching her shoulders back. "It'd be funny, though."
"What, watching me wheeze?" Rodney glared at her. She shrugged.
"Never said I was nice, McKay." She ruffled Madison's hair, snagged a cucumber stick, and scooped up her bag.
"Oh, hey, t-shirts," Rodney said, snapping as he remembered. He ran upstairs and upended his suitcase, looking for the bag of bribes. He fished out Madison's presents and went down to shove the bag at Jona. "Just — don't open it until you're home."
"You scare me," Jona said, but she was looking more like herself, teetering between amusement and irritation. Rodney thought that was good.
That night, instead of the usual after-bedtime checking-in text message, Jona sent him pictures of her trying on the new t-shirts: the Debbie Does Dallas one, which had only been available in medium, so it was tight (which looked decidedly not bad); the Chicks Dig Geophysicists shirt (with Jona giving him the finger); and finally the top of a pair of HTTPajamas, which read 304 Not Modified. Rodney wondered whether Jona was wearing the HTTPanties that went with it, and then tried very hard to unthink that thought.
@ work now?
Trying to annoy me on purpose?
Yup. > : )
Obviously, you have too much free time. Am sending file, check the math, return by Monday.
It builds moral fibre. And strong bodies 12 different ways. Also, I think Jeannie made a terrible mistake somewhere on p 4, because p 7 is a mess. You'll see what I mean.
I like steak.
And wine. Wine is good.
Wait — did you want me to GROVEL or something? Just pretend that the pleases and thank yous are where you think they ought to be.
Okay *sigh* PLEASE would you double check Jeannie's numbers. THANK YOU.
sry l8r R
Rodney leaned back in his chair. It was disconcerting to think that somewhere, someone was dying or sick or injured, and that Jona was flying now. Rodney was fairly sure that there wasn't even a moon out for light. He took a breath, figuring that if Jona hadn't hit any mountains or power lines yet, she was unlikely to do so tonight, and opened Jeannie's document. He had work to do himself.
Rodney arranged for the regular babysitter (an undergraduate studying sports medicine) and made a reservation on the department secretary's recommendation (someplace medium-nice, Rodney had said, someplace that a girl wouldn't feel compelled to put out for; Miko had given him a sour look and said, well, not Hooters, then and made him stammer before taking mercy on him). He waffled on what to wear for a good five minutes before taking himself firmly in hand. He told himself that he was taking the whole thing far too seriously. He had a sports coat that most people didn't wince at: that would be good enough.
He did think, when he picked Jona up, that maybe he should have brought the sports coat to work so that Miko could give it the thumbs up or down. Jona looked really good. It probably didn't matter about the coat. People would be looking at her, in her black dress and black see-through cardigan and her aura of subtle danger. She looked, Rodney decided, kind of like a Bond villain. It might be the way she'd twisted her hair in back, he wasn't sure. It was a new look for her.
He thought that, if this was a date, he ought to say something appreciative. But if it wasn't a date, he'd just come off sounding sleazy. He wished Jona would take charge, but she seemed to enjoy watching him twisting in the wind.
"Nice jacket," she said, sliding into the passenger seat and putting her bag in back, next to the car seat. "You look good in blue. Oh, hey, don't change the channel, that's Johnny Cash."
"That's why I was changing the station," Rodney said, but he rolled the dial back to the university station. "Sing along and I'll take you to McDonald's instead."
"Where are we going?" Jona asked. She probably had no idea that it was a leading question, but Rodney managed to talk for the rest of the drive about restaurants, and Miko, and the ancient Japanese sayings that she used (which he suspected she made up to annoy him: just the other day she'd told him that he made her teeth itch — that wasn't a sign of stability, now was it?).
The restaurant wasn't crowded, not this early on a weekday. The reservation probably hadn't been necessary, but Rodney had made sure to request a good table, private and away from traffic. He hadn't figured on it being by the window overlooking the river, or on the floating candles and the roses in a vase.
He survived the roses for five minutes before Jona picked them up and relocated them to another table. Rodney sneezed twice, glad that he was now in the habit of carrying tissues and wet wipes.
They ordered and caught up on small talk, with the inevitable helicopter anecdote. The food came, and Rodney found himself, for perhaps the first time in his life, downplaying his genius and his eligibility as a Nobel-worthy concubine. Rodney talked automatically, a surface diversion while he tried to figure out what the hell he was doing.
When Jona had first told him about herself, he'd found himself unable to stop looking — at times, not all the time — at her face or hands or chest. Jona had borne this with sarcastic bad grace, and at some point it had changed. He started watching other people, seeing who looked at Jona a moment too long, or who gave her a second glance, or who pretended not to see her at all. Jona never let on that she noticed, but she had military training: there was no way that she could be more oblivious than Rodney. He knew that sometimes people said things to her that she never repeated but which made her jaw tight and her eyes hard. He knew that when she said we're leaving, now it meant she'd identified a threat, and that the best thing to do was shut up and do as she said.
But he was entering new territory now. He was watching Jona, and watching the way the other diners and the staff looked at her, and he was feeling. . . smug, as he basked in their envy. But Jona had nothing to look at but the potted palms or him, so he knew she was observing him right back. It was only a matter of time before she confronted him.
"So," Rodney said, taking one sip of his wine and then setting the glass down far away, because he needed to stay alert. "The suspense is killing me. Are we on a date or what?"
Jona might be wearing more eye makeup than usual, in a way that brought out the green in her eyes, but that just meant that her glower was prettier than usual. "You tell me, McKay. You're the one who asked me out." She rolled her fingers as if throwing something aside. "It doesn't have to be a date. Friends eat out all the time."
"Do you want it to be a date?" Rodney asked, feeling helplessly as if he was screwing things up. But he didn't know what he was doing wrong and he didn't know how to fix it.
"Do you?" Jona's face didn't give anything away, but there was something too close to contempt in her eyes.
"Yes," Rodney said. "But you have to understand — I don't date my friends. I can't really afford to lose them. I don't have that many of to start with, and relationships always go horribly wrong. You're my best friend. I want some kind of guarantee, here, that you won't end up hating me."
Jona smiled, an easy win-some, lose-some smile that didn't show in her eyes. "That's a very nice speech," she said. "Don't worry about it. I don't usually get past the first date, anyway. Ah ah ah." She brought her chin up to silence him. "If you were going to say 'it's not you, it's me', don't." She reached for the dessert menu. "Did you want something besides coffee?"
Rodney's dinner was settling uncomfortably. He didn't think he should risk the mango pudding. Jona seemed to feel the same way, ordering two coffees and, as the waiter started clearing away the dishes, turning the conversation back towards Rodney's research and the stupidity of his colleagues.
He was far too distracted to enjoy the conversation, and when the waiter brought over the bill he added on an exorbitant tip because his grasp on simple mathematics was slipping. The waiter thanked him, looking wary, and left them a dish of pinwheel mints.
Rodney took one and unwrapped it automatically, and then rewrapped it, stuck it in his pocket, and stood up. He hoped he looked resolved; he felt like he had the false courage that came from strong drink. He took the two steps around the table to where Jona sat, leaned down, one hand sliding into the hair at the back of her neck, and kissed her.
If he had planned a first kiss, he'd have made sure of more privacy, with at least the possibility of things proceeding naturally through the bases of the baseball metaphor. But in the restaurant, he was aware that the potted shrubbery didn't entirely hide them from other diners, which made the kiss a delicate balancing act. A chaste, brotherly kiss would give Jona all the wrong ideas, but he really didn't want to turn their first time into a free show.
It didn't help that Jona was watching him, even as she shifted to kiss him back, one hand curling around his shoulder. He ran his tongue over her lips and felt her breath hitch.
He pulled back, just a bit. "Let's go," he said, his forehead practically against hers. "Let me drive you home."
"Okay." Jona stood, not even looking wobbly at the knees, damn her, and scooped the rest of the mints into Rodney's pocket. "For Madison," she said, shrugging, and gestured for Rodney to lead the way. He caught her hand and laced her fingers with his. The expression on her face was complicated — the hopeful side of caution, Rodney thought. He squeezed her hand once in solidarity as they headed out, and waited until they were in the car park to kiss her again. He'd never dated anyone taller than he was, but he didn't mind having to angle up to kiss. It was different, but also really, really good.
He had to adjust himself in his pants when he got into the car. He did it sneakily, while Jona was putting on her seatbelt, and hoped she hadn't noticed. Driving with a hard-on was uncomfortable. He wondered if Jona had the same problem, and then wondered what he'd do if she did. He was unnerved by the fact that he was curious instead of put off — though he suspected that it wasn't because, deep down, he had been secretly sensitive all these years. He thought he was just being greedy.
Thinking greedy thoughts about Jona was not conducive to making his pants any more comfortable.
"So, can we be officially involved now?" he asked. "And before you start stabbing me with my own questions," he took a deep breath, "if we can be in a relationship and still be friends, then yes, that's what I want."
"We'd start having sex," Jona said, sounding both not at all interested and as if she were asking an important question. Jeannie had the same habit of setting verbal traps. Rodney supposed it was another gender difference. He was noticing a lot of those recently.
"Maybe," Rodney said, and Jona gave him an eyebrows-raised look of disbelief. "Some people wait. Some people wait until they get married, or committed, or what have you. Some people have rational discussions about birth control and whether leather turns them on. I personally like to trade test results and possibly credit ratings and academic transcripts and police records. Not that I have a police record," he added hastily. "We could just make out on the sofa until we get around to having that rational discussion."
"I don't have a police record," Jona said. "Yet," she amended darkly, and Rodney remembered, with a twist to his heart, the drug-running scheme that her life's savings had been stolen to finance. "I don't know if I want to get married again."
Rodney nearly ran a light. He hit the brakes hard enough that Jona had to brace her hand against the dash. "You're married?"
"Divorced." Jona crossed her arms and looked out the side window. "I married my best friend from college. It was. . . a disaster. I loved her, but I didn't desire her. We're still close, but — we should never, ever have had sex."
"Okay, that's weird," Rodney said. A horrible thought hit him. "Do you have kids? Is that why you're so good with Madison?"
"Oh, God no." Jona sounded equally appalled by the idea. "I've been told I'm a five year old at heart. With the hormones of a teenager," she added. "In this pushing-forty body."
Rodney looked sideways at the pushing-forty body that had been distracting him all evening. He was used to Jeannie's swirling peasant skirts and unshaven ankles: he hadn't considered that Jona's style would be different. He could see why Jona had felt the need to cover up in long-sleeved sweatshirts and baggy pants when he'd first met her, if this was how she had dressed, before. Sexy on her was equal parts dangerous and vulnerable. She was. . . she was taking a chance on him, he decided, despite all his faults and flaws. She was making herself vulnerable for him. Which was kind of breathtaking.
He was so busy being breathtaken that he drove right past Jona's building and didn't even realise it until she whapped him on the shoulder.
"I'm a little distracted," he said, turning the car around while she implied that she was a better driver (just with a smirk and a pointed way of breathing, which was pretty talented, Rodney had to give her that). He had to park on the road, now that she had a car in her parking space, but he couldn't stay long anyway, with the babysitter needing to be sent home.
Jona undid her seatbelt and twisted around to grab her bag. Rodney caught her as she turned, with one hand on her waist and, a moment later, one hand curled under her ear. He felt the scar on her neck, the brush of her hair and the beat of her heart, and then he leaned in and kissed her again.
Just like the Three Bears, he got it right on the third try: not too gentle, not too fast, the right combination of desperate lust and — well, he supposed it was love, the way a friend felt about another friend, only more so. He didn't break the kiss off as he shifted in the confines of the seat, sliding his hand across to Jona's stomach, and then up. Can I? he asked, still kissing, kissing and touching, and Jona said Knock yourself out, just as normal as if he'd asked if he could put the TV on. But she reached out to him, too, curling her fingers in his hair, tracing his arm up to his shoulder and then trailing her fingers down across his shirt even as he spread his hand up, under the cardigan, to cover one breast.
He could feel a jolt go through her, felt her breathe in sharply, felt her fingernails, a brief sharp pain. He loved women's underwear, he really did, to an occasionally disturbing degree, but right now he wanted to be tracing Jona, not a bra. At least it wasn't padded: after a bit of effort, he was able to find the nipple with his circling thumb. Jona arched into the touch, and he felt her fingers slide across the fabric of his trousers to settle warm between his legs. And then her hand moved up, finding his dick and curling around him. Please he said, covering her hand with his own, feeling the heat and pressure all through him, and he came as if he'd been struck by lightning, his face pressing into Jona's neck as he shook.
Jona held him and anchored him, and when his breathing had returned nearly to normal she patted him down, finding the wet wipes in his inside left pocket.
It was hard to glare when still in a state of semi-euphoria, but Rodney tried anyway.
"Sorry," Jona said, sitting back and straightening her clothes with sharp little tugs. She didn't touch her hair, which was in wild disarray. "You wanted to wait. I never was good at doing what I was supposed to."
Rodney grabbed her face in both hands and kissed her, wet and messy, forgetting about the damn packet of wipes until he realised he was pressing them into her cheek. "I'm not upset — you can't keep your hands off me. I'm irresistible. How is that in any way bad?" He kissed Jona again. "You're irresistible."
Jona checked his hand as it started to wander. "Resist," she said. "You need to go rescue your babysitter." She patted him on the shoulder. "I'll see you on Saturday, okay?" She pushed the door open and slipped out before Rodney had even processed that she was escaping.
"Saturday," Rodney said, and suppressed the urge to wave. He waited until she was through the security doors before cleaning himself up. He overtipped the babysitter when he got home: he hoped he'd be needing her services more often. Before she left she said Madison had been a sweetie, which he took with a grain of salt. He looked in on Madison. She had fallen asleep with her covers kicked off and her arms wrapped tightly around her Ugly Doll. Rodney tucked her in, put on the nightlight in the bathroom, and went downstairs to turn the computer on.
Yeah, right, if you think I'm calling the whole thing off, then *you* are a cracked nut. You know what? I'll tell you what. Teyla says that one of the causes of unhappiness is being afraid of being happy, and I think she might be right.
Teyla was quoting When Harry Met Sally. Now *you're* quoting When Harry Met Sally. Today has officially become too surreal for me to handle, I'm going to bed. Night, Rodney.
Today was one of the best & *happiest* days of my life.
Rodney occasionally regretted being past the time in his life when he could be reckless and irresponsible. He'd wasted those years in laboratories and computer labs, and that freedom was never coming back. He had lectures to give and tests to grade, preschool bills to pay, PTA meetings and counselling sessions, and all the day-to-day things like laundry and vacuuming and cooking. His second, third, fourth, and fifth dates with Jona all involved Madison. He wasn't, in fact, sure that they really were dates, except that there was kissing and hand-holding. Madison was curious, in her self-centred way, about what all this meant, and Rodney tried hard to explain that this didn't mean she'd have less time with him, just more time with Jona. He wasn't sure that she understood. She'd had the sex talk, but to her, the idea of a relationship between adults was more exotic.
Rodney felt the same way. He'd had girlfriends who hung around peripherally for years but who never wanted to get beyond second base; he'd had one-night stands. But he'd always hyperventilated at the suggestion of anything domestic, moving in or marriage or even the joint ownership of small electrical appliances. The first time he realised that he'd been in a domestic relationship with Jona since that day when he'd driven her home and Madison had peed on her sofa, Rodney had actually hyperventilated to the point where he started to see little black spots before his eyes. Jona had shoved his head between his knees in the crash position and tried to talk him down with quotes from Teyla about Inner Power(bang). This annoyed right Rodney out of his panic attack. Jona insisted that her technique was effective just because it worked; Rodney muttered that she was trying to kill him. Jona said that was just his amygdala speaking.
Rodney found sarcastic intelligence a huge turn on these days.
He found a lot of random things a huge turn on, actually: the sun glinting off Jona's hair, Jona teaching Madison how to hit a golf ball, Jona doing things to the engine of Jeannie's car in threadbare jeans and a dirty shirt reading I'm the one your mother warned you about. The common denominator was Jona, and Rodney wanted nothing more than to enact all his mental pornography: on the hood of the car, on the miniature golf course, any- and everywhere. He didn't want to be mature and restrained, damn it. He wanted more than the occasional handjob after Madison was in bed, and while Jona gave spectacular blowjobs they'd never even been naked together. He'd seen — and nuzzled — her breasts once, briefly, before being interrupted by the violent onset of a virus that made Madison vomit continuously from eight at night until two in the morning. Jona had wound up washing about five sets of sheets that night, but she hadn't been naked on any of them. Life was not fair.
He probably wouldn't have had quite so much sex on the brain except that he'd asked, one night while doing the washing up, for Jona to give him a run through of her care-and-handling manual. She hadn't said anything, which was for the best: it probably would have come out in helicopter metaphors and he'd wind up being baffled by how to interpret phrases like pull pitch in a sexual situation. Instead, she'd snapped him with the wet tea towel hard enough that it stung. But a couple of days later she sent him an e-mail with links to some websites and a rundown of her no-fly zones (ha, he replied, I knew you'd use aviation metaphors; bite me, she said, and Rodney answered with the emoticon for a lecherous leer). Jona said (and getting her to do so was harder than pulling teeth) that she hadn't had sex since before moving to Canada, and that she'd never actually slept with a straight guy. Rodney told her about the dampening effect parenting had on his sex life (which she was experiencing first-hand). He told her that he'd never had sex with a man, unless jerking off to porn together counted. Jona grimaced: Too much information, McKay.
He told her she'd better call him Rodney in bed.
She asked him if he could take a half day at work, which he thought was a brilliant plan. Madison would be at school; Rodney would have a couple of hours of free time. Just thinking about what he could do in all that time made him hard. Actually arranging their schedules was also hard, but not impossible.
Rodney left work at ten past twelve and was outside Jona's door by half past. She'd just returned home from five days away, a compulsory company training session in Winnipeg coupled with a few days spent shuttling burn patients from a factory explosion, and she looked rumpled, as if she'd slept all morning. Rodney had missed her, and the way she pushed him up against the door and kissed him made him feel that she might have missed him as well.
"There's soup and sandwiches," Jona said. "If you wanted to have lunch."
"Maybe later," Rodney said.
"I have this bed," Jona said, crossing her arms and nodding towards the hall.
"I have this sexy girlfriend," Rodney countered. He pushed at her shoulder until she led the way and added once they were there, after a quick shove, "Hey, you got my sexy girlfriend into bed."
"Funny old world, isn't it," Jona said.
Rodney sat down, took off his shoes and socks, and crawled up to stretch out next to her. He kissed her like that, playing with her hair, and then rolled so that he was kneeling over her as they kissed, holding his weight on his knees and one arm while his free hand curled over her stomach. That was good, but then Jona started working Rodney's shirt up, and Rodney recalled that the purpose of this exercise was mutual nakedness.
"I'll strip if you do," he told Jona, removing the shirt just to show he was serious.
Jona reached up and touched his chest. Rodney wondered briefly if he ought to hold his stomach in, and then decided that that would send the wrong message. He undid the button on his trousers, which he thought sent the right message, and then moved off Jona so that she wasn't distracted. Hey, Jona said, looking annoyed, but then she was skimming out of her shirt and her bra (white and lace and front-opening hook) and then — oh God — her low-slung cargo pants. She stretched back on the bed and gave Rodney a challenging little smirk. He one-upped her by pushing his boxers off with his trousers, and she reached up to pull him down to her again.
They were going with Jona's script: Rodney didn't mind. She wanted him on top. He wasn't complaining. She wanted him to touch her breasts. He could happily spend days playing with them: she was incredibly sensitive and vocal despite her best efforts not to be. He liked the little bitten back, strangled sounds she made. And Jona wanted Rodney in her. She'd been thinking about it, she said. She'd been thinking about how good it would feel. Rodney had wanted to be suave, say sure, no problem, but it came out as oh, God, yes: he'd been thinking about it himself.
"Oh, God," Rodney said again, as the unsexy business of condom and lube transformed into the very sexy act of Jona's body opening for him, of Jona taking him. He didn't want to hurt her. He rocked against her, not moving in-and-out but in, and in, and in. "I'm in you."
"I noticed," Jona said dryly, and she crossed her ankles behind his back, holding him there.
"You're amazing," Rodney said, ducking his head to lap at her nipples again. He felt her shiver all through her. "I'm not going to last long," he warned. He could already feel himself start to sweat from restraint.
Jona raised her eyebrows and tilted her head backwards. With her hair a messy halo and her back arched, she looked — Rodney was very familiar with that expression — smug. He kissed her, open-mouthed, wet and greedy, as he pulled almost all the way out, and then thrust home hard. Jona's fingernails dug into his shoulder, and she whispered more, more, more against his mouth. Who was he to not give her that?
The pace they found was more enthusiastic than rhythmic. Rodney slipped out, once, swearing, and Jona reached down between her legs to reposition him. That touch, her fingers guiding him back into her, was somehow so incredibly, intimately erotic that he felt himself start to go. "Please," he gasped out, "hold me, I'm coming." Jona held on with everything she had, wrapping him tight in her arms and legs as Rodney's body washed through with pleasure sharp as electrical shocks. He shook and shivered and fell entirely to pieces, because he knew that Jona was there to catch him.
He didn't really want to be insensitive, so as soon as he was verbal again he asked Jona if she was good. He expected her to give him an eyeroll and a smart-ass reply, but instead he got a lazy blissed-out smile. Her mouth was bright from their last ungentle kisses.
Rodney wanted to say he loved her, but he didn't want that first time to be conflated with sex. He shifted, raising himself off her (she hadn't complained, but that might just be because she couldn't catch her breath) and kissing her as he slipped from her body. He said thank you and you're gorgeous. She did laugh at him as she worked her way out of the tangle of the bedclothes, but Rodney figured that was the natural order of things. She gave him a hand up and let him use the bathroom first for a quick shower. Then it was her turn, and he was disappointed that she went in naked and came out back in her clothes already.
"Where's my view gone?" he complained. Jona shrugged and crossed to help him tuck his shirt in. "You just can't keep your hands off me," he added, as her hands did evil, evil things below his waistband. He slipped free and tried to stare her down.
"Okay," Jona said, stepping back with her hands raised. Rodney grabbed her and kissed her and messed up her newly combed hair. His fingers trailed under the inviting collar of her shirt.
"You're not wearing a bra," he said, and that did earn him a roll of her eyes.
"Why do I like you?" she asked — rhetorically, Rodney hoped — as she slipped away, heading towards the kitchen. "You want that soup?"
"Sure," Rodney said. "I worked up an appetite."
"Someday," Jona said, turning the burner on and taking down two bowls, "I'm going to sell you to Hallmark. You'd make great greeting cards."
"I'll keep that in mind if I ever decide to give up physics." Rodney could never remember which drawer was silverware. He found the spoons on his third try. Jona was cutting thick slices of bread from some nut-grain loaf; Rodney waited until she put the knife down to hug her, press her back against the counter and kiss her. True to the proverb, the soup boiled as soon as they both forgot about it — or perhaps they'd just raised the ambient temperature of the room to the point where the soup had no choice but to boil. Rodney felt like that, sometimes.
They ate on the sofa, gradually shifting together until, when the last of the soup was drunk and the dishes were piled on the end table, Jona was pillowed back on Rodney, who had his hands clasped over her stomach. Every so often Jona twisted half up to check the kitchen clock. Rodney was glad to let her be the responsible one: all he wanted to do was to cuddle, or snuggle, or whatever the word was for what they were doing. He probably could have fallen asleep like that. Someday. . . someday he would sleep with Jona. All night. She'd wear her blinding nightie, and he'd wake up with her head on his pillow. Someday.
Jona nudged him. "You awake in there?"
Rodney opened his eyes to find her face right in front of his. "No."
"Come on." Jona kissed him, quick, and then pulled back. "Madison," she said firmly, and pulled Rodney up and out of the sofa. "You know the kid'll freak if you're not there on time."
"My dad," Rodney muttered, cracking his shoulders as he wandered around looking for his shoes and socks, "would have something to say about that. Things like spoiled brat and difficult and stubborn and manipulative and — always a favourite of mine — mistake, as in, having you was a." One of his socks was under the bed mating with Jona's discarded panties. He applauded it for effort and wondered if Jona would miss just one pair.
Behind him, she cleared her throat. When he looked around, not guiltily at all, she pointed out his shoes with bland amusement. "Good thing we didn't turn into our dads, then. Mine didn't believe in sparing the rod." She shrugged and watched him tie his laces. "They were wrong. You can't force a kid to be something he isn't. You do a good job with the Madster. And I," she added, finger-combing his hair down, "do not think you're a mistake." She looked at the alarm clock and gave Rodney a shove towards the door. "Late, yes, mistake, no."
"Look, we'll see you at the party Saturday, right?" Rodney patted down his pockets for keys, grabbed his bag, and prepared to head down the stairs from hell.
"Wouldn't miss it," Jona said with a smile. "Jeannie say what she was sending?"
Rodney sighed. "Probably something expensive and useless and probably age-inappropriate." He grabbed Jona and tried to give her the kind of knee-weakening kiss that would last both of them for the next few days. "You do know that I love you? I haven't said it, but that doesn't mean — "
"I get it," Jona said, looking all deer-in-the-headlights. She really didn't do well with emotions; Rodney briefly wanted to be a fly on the wall at one of Jona's therapy sessions. He suspected her therapist knew more than anyone normal needed to know about helicopters. "I do, too," she said, and Rodney couldn't help grinning, though he did swallow down a flip remark about how romantic she was. "But you have to go." She pushed him out onto the landing. "Go, go."
"Going," Rodney said. "Sweetheart."
Jona muttered something that was probably rude, but she watched him until he was out of sight. Rodney reached the bottom of the stairs without even realising that he'd been moving. He stopped to catch his breath, and then fished out his phone to call the school and let them know that he was running — he checked — fifteen minutes late.
Jeannie-bean: Party will be @ Studio Athos, 34971-17A Lantea Rd., Sat 17th 3-5. But FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, don't send a) clothes (she doesn't *wear* them), b) balloons (a source of terror for her), c) clowns (a source of terror for *all* of us), d) educational toys (never as fun as the websites make you believe) or e) Barbie's paediatric clinic complete with Barbie babies (yes, I caved, don't give me grief). Honestly? We are not good with surprises, whole party planned to be LOW LOW LOW key, and am not just saying that because of own burning desire to know. M's current favourite TV show is the weather report: she likes to know what's coming, Jona says it's a phase (she leafed through one book by Penelope Leach and thinks she's so clever). Oh *forgot* f) food (dr still has her on no dairy, no egg diet, low fat/salt/sugar — pain in the *ass* but dermatitis almost all gone, attention span better, less wheezing/vomiting — food colouring BTW **work of the devil**).
You haven't bothered me with any files for days now — are you into prototype production? I bet Zelenka's *insufferable*.
Love, RMcK & MMcK
Having the party at Teyla's studio had been Jona's idea, and Rodney thought it was brilliant. He'd tried a party once before, when Madison turned three, but it had been an epic disaster. Last year he'd not even suggested doing anything for her birthday. They'd gone to the aquarium, as he recalled, and he'd bought her a book. But all her little friends had parties, and Rodney felt the peer pressure. The studio was familiar enough that Madison wouldn't melt down, and Teyla had agreed to teach the kids some of the kata and exercises that Madison knew, as well as some games she'd learnt as a child. All Rodney had to do was provide the food (vegan brownies, cut fruit, barley tea, and coffee) and the Jenny from Another Planet-themed bribes. He'd even got the other parents to explain what presents they were bringing so that he could prepare Madison.
The only thing he was worried about was Jeannie's surprise.
Forget Madison, he hated surprises.
The last event on Teyla's programme was tinikling, which was a dance that was like jump rope, except with the possibility of getting hit with bamboo poles. Rodney filled the last of the paper cups, put the candles on the cake, and watched as Teyla and Madison did a good job of bruising Jona's ankles. When Teyla turned the music off, Jona guided everyone off to the bathrooms to wash up. Rodney seated them as they emerged. It was like a well-organised military manoeuvre, Rodney said in an aside to Jona, and she muttered back, for this I went through ROTC? Teyla lit the candles, everyone sang, cake was served.
And Jeannie walked in.
She looked tired and thin, her hair sun-bleached and tied back in a sloppy knot. Still —
"Jeannie-bean," Rodney said, grabbing her and spinning her in a circle. Jeannie hugged him back hard. Madison jumped up, knocking her drink over, and wound up squashed between Jeannie and Rodney. Rodney thought Jeannie might even have tears in her eyes.
He had hundreds of questions, at least half of them not work-related, and Jeannie was catching up with Madison. She complimented Madison on getting the purples of her sweats, hair streaks, and nail polish to match, and told Rodney that she'd just got in that morning. She posed for pictures with Madison. Rodney handed her a cup of coffee, and she said she'd had a meeting, then called the house, but as there was no answer she'd just driven straight over. Rodney thought that maybe she was a little too caffeinated, but Teyla appeared just then with some snack yogurts and bagels, saying that she knew airplane food was terrible. Jeannie shook hands with Teyla, and Rodney introduced Jona, who was mopping up the third major spill and wet-wiping down the kids who were already done eating.
Rodney ordered everyone off to the toilets and put Jona in charge of the present circle while he pulled Jeannie up a chair and let her have a few minutes to adjust to the noise and the chaos.
"She's happy," Jeannie said, watching Madison sort her loot into neat piles. "You do a great job with her, Meredith."
Rodney shrugged. "It's all acquired skills, believe me. I have no aptitude for any of this."
"Who does?" Jeannie asked, sounding lost. "I don't even know how to start again."
Rodney took a breath, then another. "So, are you home for good, then?" he asked, hoping it sounded casual, or at least positive.
Jeannie gestured tightly, nearly launching her yogurt. "It's complicated," she said.
"Hold that thought," Rodney said, as the first wave of parents and grandparents arrived to pick up their progeny. He chatted, hunted down mislaid party favours, was grateful that neither of the two kids having temper tantrums were his, and packed up all their clobber so Teyla would be ready for her six o'clock self-defence class. He taped the first box shut and turned around to ask Jona to carry it out to the car. Jona wasn't there.
"Jona left," Jeannie said. "I'll do it. Still driving the same car?"
"It's yours, I can't very well sell it," Rodney said, annoyed. "Take that bag, too."
Jeannie ragged him about his manners; he teased her about her cluelessness (So who is Jenny? he heard her ask Madison). It felt so comfortable that he found himself hugging her again, right in front of Teyla.
"I missed you," he said into Jeannie's hair.
"Oh, I missed you guys more." She ruffled his hair and snagged Madison in for a squeeze. "I can't wait to get home."
"Crap," Rodney said. "Um. I kind of moved into your bedroom."
Jeannie slapped the back of his head, "Meredith," and Rodney burst out laughing.
When they got back to the house, Rodney put the casserole in the oven and moved all his stuff back down into the office. He had to clear several years' worth of clutter off the bed, and the sheets were ruined with dust. Jeannie and Madison had camped out in the living room, looking over the new toys with a Jenny video on in the background. At the table, Jeannie told stories about East Africa, and after dinner she took Madison upstairs for her bath while Rodney did the washing up. Rodney felt a pang at being the third wheel again, but he told himself it was a relief, and that for all he knew Jeannie would be ripping herself out of their lives in a few days.
Jeannie came downstairs with wet hair, wearing the bathrobe that Rodney would not admit to having borrowed, ever. Rodney got them both bottles of fizzy water from the fridge and settled into what Madison called the comfy chair.
"Madison's grown up so much," Jeannie said, curling up on the sofa. "She's so tall, and she's not fat and knock-kneed anymore. I mean, I knew it from the photos, but — wow. I hated her hair short at first, but she looked so cute today."
"She only gets the stripes for special occasions," Rodney said. "Jona takes her to a real hair place to get it cut."
Jeannie twisted the cap on her bottle, off, on, off, and sipped. "About Jona," she said. "You do know that your girlfriend's a guy in a dress, don't you?"
Rodney's stomach did a slow roll. "Who told you that?"
Jeannie grabbed her purse from the floor and pulled out a manila folder. "Your friend Jona was spending an awful lot of time with my daughter, and pretty much everything you told me was a lie. Jona Sheppard was never in the Air Force. Jona Sheppard never went to Stanford. Jona Sheppard was never born." She held the file out to him. When Rodney didn't move, she dropped it on the table.
"You had her investigated?" Rodney tried to convey maximum outrage in a voice that wouldn't wake Madison.
"You let him babysit my daughter. And I do recall that you were the one who suggested I look Jona up."
Rodney's brain was turning over rapidly but he just couldn't engage. "So now what?"
"I spoke to him. At the party." Jeannie paused. "We agreed that he should leave us alone."
Rodney swallowed hard to avoid choking. "You blackmailed Jona into breaking up with me."
Jeannie swung her bottle in a circle. "I simply presented. . . a situation. He's the one who left."
Rodney stared at her. "I'm so angry with you that I actually have no words to suitably express my rage." He set his bottle down with deliberate carefulness. Jeannie sat up. Rodney picked up the file and slapped it lightly across his palm. "I'm going to go talk to her. When I get home. . . tomorrow. I'll talk to you tomorrow." He shoved to his feet. "I thought you knew better."
"I thought you knew better," Jeannie said. "I thought I could trust you."
Rodney threw up his free hand in disgusted anger and snagged his keys from the hook. In the car, he thought of thousands of things he ought to have told Jeannie, devastatingly sharp ways of proving that she was wrong. He thought of all the things it had been impossible to show her without her actually being here. She didn't know anything. She knew the wrong things.
Jona's car wasn't in her parking space. Rodney called; she wasn't home. He climbed all the way up the five flights of stairs and knocked, on and off, for five minutes.
>Where are you? I'm at your front door.
Seriously. Where are you?
I *just* spoke to Jeannie, she *just* told me what she did, I know you're probably angry, I'm angry, too. I had NO IDEA that she was digging up your past. I took the file, I was going to give it to you, except you're not home. I'll shove it under your door.
Stupid firesafe doors — file will not fit. Would stick it in your mailbox but doesn't seem safe. So I'm hanging onto it. Have not read. Have not even peeked. Will give to you, or I could just burn it. Where are you?
I love you.
Rodney was driving the very long way home when his phone rang. He answered even before pulling off the road.
"Hey, Rodney," Jona said.
"Where are you?" Rodney hoped his persistence sounded caring and not stalker-like.
"At a friend's." Rodney heard the lack of trust there. "Where are you?"
Rodney snorted. "The side of some road, somewhere. Can I talk to you?"
The typical Jona thing to say would be something smartass like, you are talking to me. Instead, she just said, "Why?" Rodney didn't even try to answer that. "Maybe Jeannie's right. I don't. . . I can't be the reason you lose your family, McKay. Madison needs you."
"What about us?" Rodney listened to himself and winced: he sounded like some Danielle Steele television miniseries.
"What about us? Where do you see this going? Could you bring me to faculty parties, or academic conferences? Would we ever move in together? Do you see us getting old together? Jeannie won't — " Jona took a breath — "she's the first, she won't be the last. That's real life."
"What do you want?" Rodney asked. "Do you want to be alone again? Because I don't, and I don't really care how hard it is. You're the one who's against commitment. I have thought about living together. I've even," he added, feeling reckless (Jona had already run, what further damage could it do?), "thought about marriage."
Jona was silent for a long time. "I don't even know if it's legal for you to marry me," she said, so quietly that the pop and crack of the line as it disconnected sounded as loud as a door banging shut.
Rodney actually managed to get himself lost trying to get home after that. He found himself on a road that narrowed, became pitted, and finally dropped into nothing just short of a stretch of dirty sand. He got out and walked down to the water's edge, staring straight ahead and trying to pinpoint where the dark ocean touched the rim of the sky. He just couldn't see it; all he got was a headache for his effort. He thought about sleeping out here on the beach, where it was peaceful, but figured with his luck he'd have his throat slit and his wallet stolen. He made his way back to the car and this time watched the street signs, which guided him efficiently back into the suburbs and to the dark windows of home.
The bed in the office had been made up with clean sheets, but it still smelled dusty and unused. Rodney stuck Jona's file under the mattress and fell asleep in his clothes. He woke up hugging the pillow and felt more tired than he had been the night before.
He took a shower, noticing that there was a new clutter of herbal-floral shampoos and things on the shelf. He could smell coffee, so he wandered into the kitchen, checking the clock on his way. Five-ten. Wonderful.
"Morning," Jeannie said, looking blearily up from one of the old fashion magazines that Rodney'd packed up in a box under her bed.
"You look rough." Rodney poured himself a cup of coffee. "Jet lag?"
"Guilt." Jeannie offered him the milk carton; he shook his head and sat down in Madison's usual chair. "I didn't know you were so serious."
"Do not lie to me," Rodney said sharply. He repeated himself, more quietly, when Jeannie stared at him, her eyes gone round. "I've been telling you about Jona for months. You were the first person I wanted to tell when we finally got together, do you remember that?"
"Your Jona walked out on you up without protest. Is that love?"
Rodney glared. Jeannie glared right back. "She's all about the stupid grand gestures. If she were a cat, I'd be finding dead headless things on my doorstep every morning." He swirled his coffee: it moved sluggishly in his cup. "She loves me so much that she's given me to you, Jean-o. And to Madison. She's seen Madison at her worst. You just got the Cole's Notes. She said. . . she said, Madison needs me." He shrugged. "She said we had no future, not with her past. Thanks for that, ever so much."
"I was angry," Jeannie said. "It was a shock, okay, Mer? You've been hiding this from me, and I was angry."
"You were jealous." Rodney's voice was flat from the effort it took not to yell. "Don't look at me like that. You've been jealous, because Madison is your daughter and you don't see her every day, haven't been to her school open houses, you don't take her inline skating, you don't know what TV shows she likes or get the jokes she tells. You're jealous of me, but me? I'm only doing the job you gave me. Jona, on the other hand, is a complete stranger, and if I'm the surrogate dad, you're terrified that she's replacing you. You'd hate her anyway, even if she were a genetic girl."
"People talk about me," Jeannie said. She'd lowered the pitch of her voice deliberately, the way she did when she had professional arguments, and her tone was as hard as her expression. "Because I'm a woman. If I get emotional, it's PMS or hot flashes or the need to get laid. If I keep everything under control, then I'm frigid and unnatural, and I have to pretend I don't hear about how they think that affects my performance in bed. The first week in Kenya, Kavanagh practically staged a coup in my lab because he didn't think a woman had the stability to be in charge. Now, of course, he accuses me of being rigid and afraid to take risks. Of not having the balls to do my job right." She snapped the magazine shut, flipped it over, and started curling the perfume ad on the back into a tight roll.
"I wake up every day," she said, scraping her chair closer to the table to watch the sky outside the window as it lightened, "and I'm in a strange place and I'm homesick. I go for my morning walk, and I see beautiful children outside houses made of tin and cement blocks, and they're wearing rags, Meredith, and they don't have running water or electricity, and some of them are hungry. And I'm changing that — Zelenka's changing that. We're going to make every African town self-reliant for energy. Children will live because of us." She turned her head to stare at Rodney, her hands tightening and wrinkling the magazine. "And I still get called a cold bitch for putting my career ahead of my own child. Even you — you're jealous of me, you think I have a wonderful job so what right do I have to complain."
Rodney couldn't argue with that, it being the truth. "You could have talked to me."
"You had your own problems, Mer. Problems I was responsible for."
Rodney hated the weird alchemy of family. He'd wanted so much to be furious with Jeannie. And he was, but now he felt himself wanting to protect her, too. He studied her wearily over the rim of his cup. "Did you plan to do this to Jona?"
Jeannie shoved the magazine away and ran her hands through her hair, shoving it straight back. "I went from the airport directly to the investigation agency — I didn't know what they'd found out until yesterday. I didn't even read everything, just skimmed the important parts." She rubbed her thumbs over her eyebrows, and then dropped her hands self-consciously. "I wanted something — anything — to justify how much Jona pissed me off. And then — he's not even real, so how, how dare he be better than — " Her voice broke off.
Rodney was grateful to Teyla for all the ridiculous meditation sessions about finding his centre and his Inner Power! He breathed in slowly, the way she recommended, and breathed out his anger until he felt he could talk and not break things. His hands were itching to do something, so he pushed away from the table and started getting breakfast going, working on autopilot.
"She," he said, when he thought he had some equilibrium back. He salted a potful of water for the oatmeal and set it to boil, and took down two apples and the sharp knife. "Dresses, sexy underwear, ability to quote When Harry Met Sally at length, boobs, definitely female, so. She. Her." He didn't turn around to look at Jeannie. "How does her body make her less a woman than your mind makes you?"
Jeannie's mug slammed into the sink. Rodney hadn't even heard her get up. "Fuck you, Mer. I know what it is to be a woman, I am a woman, I'm not just dressing up, I can't take off who I am at the end of the day."
"Neither can she," Rodney said, realising with dismay that he'd cut the apple wedges the way Madison liked, with the peel curling up to form bunny ears. "That's what you don't get. She's not pretending. She's a girl, too. So she's different — if she had to take insulin for diabetes, you wouldn't get upset. She takes oestrogen for an unfortunate case of masculinity, deal with it."
He handed Jeannie the bowl of apples and shooed her aside as he dove for the oatmeal, snatching the pot up from the heating element just in time to keep it from boiling over.
"Does she still have, you know, a penis?"
Rodney was finding it more difficult to connect with his Inner Power. He would have to ask Teyla, he thought remotely, if there were special exercises to do for dealing with family.
"Get the raisins from the freezer, would you? And Madison'll probably have the strawberry soymilk." He ladled the oatmeal into bowls. "What on God's green earth makes you think I'm going to talk about my girlfriend's genitalia with you? Did I ever ask you how well hung Kaleb was?" He jabbed the spoon in Jeannie's direction. "I did not, because you know what? I do not want to know." He dropped the pot back on the burner with a little too much force, sending a splatter over the stovetop. "Mom had a hysterectomy when you were born, did you know that? So she didn't have all the essential female body parts, but no one played pronoun games with her." He set each bowl down with extreme precision in the centre of the placemats. "She also had this little moustache. So do you."
Jeannie opened her mouth — probably to explain why his reasoning was wrong wrong wrong — but Madison woke with a scream of terror, followed by wailing sobs. Jeannie looked shocked; Rodney waved her to the table.
"I've got it," he said. "She always does this. Think of it as a stage or a phase or — or just make a face in her oatmeal with the raisins, she loves that."
"Jesus," Jeannie said, and Rodney walked out on her. At least Madison's problems he understood.
Rodney spoke to Jona again the next weekend: she'd been tapped as an instructor for a three-week course run out of her company's Winnipeg branch, she said. It was a good career move, she said, but the word Rodney heard as if it were lit up in neon was move, which sounded ominous in connection with Winnipeg.
"So are you in Winnipeg now?" he asked, and Jona sighed at him.
"I'm in Minnesota," she said, giving the word extra emphasis, as if that explained everything. "My boss has a cabin up here. He's been fishing."
"You're staying in a cabin. With your boss."
It really was amazing how he could practically hear her eyes roll. "And his boyfriend, and a whole bunch of pilots, half of whom met me when I was transitioning. So enough with the jealousy. It's just fishing and fighting over football and hockey. There's supposed to be good golf nearby," she added. "If it ever stops raining."
"I don't know whether to laugh or cry," Rodney said, though he was leaning towards mean-spirited laughter.
"I'm about to cry myself," Jona said. Rodney doubted that. Jona's dad had been one of those stop that noise or I'll give you something to cry for fathers, and Jona was a fast learner.
"Come home," Rodney said.
"Is Jeannie still there?"
Jeannie had apparently had some kind of epiphany, and was trying to arrange lab space in Vancouver so that she could test the ZPM prototypes and live at home, best of both worlds. "Yes," Rodney said cautiously.
"Then I can't."
"She's coming around." Which meant Jeannie had finally thrown up her hands and said I just don't understand, giving Rodney the chance to sit down with the internet and his sister and explain the facts of Jona's life. He'd even got her to read the picture book to Madison, even though she said she didn't know why it was necessary. Rodney had pointed out that Cats in Hats weren't exactly necessary either, and also that Jona had known she was different since she was Madison's age, to which Jeannie had raised an eyebrow and said huh.
"I've got to go," Jona said. "The barbeque's done, if I don't hurry I'll be stuck eating ramen again."
"You annoy me to no end, but I still miss you," Rodney said. "And also, you leaving is the world's stupidest idea and I'm angry with you for going."
"I'm glad you're in touch with your feelings," Jona said. "Take care, now."
"Hey," Rodney said. "That doesn't mean I don't love you."
"I know," Jona said. "I love you, too." In the background, Rodney could hear the distinctive sound of several people whooping at this, and also a loud it's Jona's boyfriend, which was followed by a sing-song hi, Jona's boyfriend.
"Oh, God," Jona said. Rodney could hear, through her muffling of the phone, her yelling Fuck you — and fuck you, too. "No, really, I've got to go."
"Hit people for me," Rodney said, and Jona laughed and hung up.
The sudden blare of his cell phone had Rodney groping for it even before he was completely awake. He flipped it open and jabbed the pick-up button.
He came to full consciousness so fast that he felt his heart race to keep up. "What?" he asked, turning on the light and swinging his feet over the edge of the bed, the coolness of the floor anchoring him. The clock said it was half past three.
"My father died," Jona said. Her voice couldn't have been any flatter if she'd ironed it. "And I wanted to — to hear your voice."
"Good," Rodney said, and then hit himself in the head. "I mean, calling me, that's good, I'm glad. Where are you? Was it sudden? Are you holding up? Did you get to say goodbye?"
Jona made a noise that sounded like a sob, but Rodney assumed it was a bitter laugh. "No. He just keeled over, apparently. It was his heart? I guess. . . . I spoke with my brother — I think my ex made him call." She paused. "I'm flying down for the wake. I just — I just got home, what time is it?" Rodney heard a thump. "Shit. I guess I woke you up, didn't I?"
"I'll go with you," Rodney said. Jona said nothing. "I mean — if you want me to."
"Don't take this the wrong way — I'd love that. But it's going to be a pit of vipers."
"When do we leave?" Rodney asked, opening the closet and digging through the pile of clothes he'd hauled down from Jeannie's much more spacious walk-in. Somewhere in there was his good navy suit, which he hoped hadn't been eaten by moths. "Where are we going? Do I need a hat?"
"Bring weapons," Jona said, probably not joking, and Rodney muttered that he was a weapon of mass destruction.
"Baby," said Jona, mistress of non sequitor. Rodney could hear her smile.
"What?" He found his good shoes under a pile of books. He wondered how you got wrinkles out of shoes.
"I am a weapon of mass destruction, baby. It's a good pick-up line."
"Yes, you could segue neatly into heat-seeking missiles. Idiot." Rodney breathed in through his nose and concentrated on polishing his shoes with the nearest convenient sock instead of breaking down into clichés and saying God, I miss you so so much. "Speaking of pick-ups. . . "
"I'll be there Tuesday morning at eight," Jona said, and then did laugh at Rodney realised this meant he'd need a ticket, and his passport, and time off from work as well as unwrinkled shoes. He didn't even know where he was going.
"Jeannie will just have to babysit," Rodney said decisively. It was only after he was off the phone that he remembered that mothers were generally considered the default and not the babysitter.
He had his suitcase packed and ready to go by the time Jeannie woke up. She didn't like the idea of being in charge, but really, what could she say? Rodney crossed his arms and stared her down until she threw her hands up and not only called to reschedule her meetings during Madison's school hours but also volunteered to iron.
Rodney hadn't even considered ironing before shoving his stuff into the suitcase. He usually just hung things in the shower and hoped the wrinkles fell out all by themselves. Jeannie sighed dramatically and subjected him to a hands-on demonstration of ironing and folding with tissue paper to keep everything crisp and perfect.
"Our mother passed the art of ironing down to me like it was the eleventh commandment," Jeannie said, whipping the suitcase's inner straps tight over a folded bath towel to keep anything from shifting. "How did you escape unscathed?"
"Boy genes," Rodney said, and Jeannie smacked him.
"I want you to be happy," Jeannie said, tying a hair ribbon tightly around the suitcase handle so that Rodney could spot it from way the hell away.
Rodney wound up the cord for the iron with pointed precision. "I'm going to a funeral. I'm actually not anticipating a lot of fun."
"With Jona, you dolt," Jeannie said. "You shouldn't — I don't have any right to ask you to sacrifice your happiness. So. You know. Go get the girl."
"Oho." Rodney hadn't seen that coming. "You're giving me your blessing?"
Jeannie shrugged. "I guess I am. Is that weird?" She took the iron, set it up on the shelf, and wrapped her arms around Rodney, squeezing tightly. Rodney supposed the hypoxia must have done something to his brain, because he suddenly went all warm with forgiveness. He hugged Jeannie back, and she leaned her head against his shoulder, and for that moment everything was good.
> J: Condolences, will see you there - N.
>> Reilly, Patrick R., 69, chief executive of LakeShore Utilities, died of a heart
>> attack September 15, 2007, in Westlands General Hospital. He was
>> predeceased by his wife Marilyn, and is survived by his son David.
>> The wake will be held September 19 at the family home in Long Valley from
>> four to eight in the evening. Funeral services will be held
>> at St. Walburga's Church on September 20th, from nine in the morning.
The family-harmony endorphin rush carried Rodney through having to explain the death of a father to Madison (he said it was because the man had been really, really old as well as sick, and then diverted Madison into thinking what she could do to cheer Jona up). The feeling lasted until the next morning when Jona called to say she was in front of the house, and then it was replaced by panic. Jeannie moved into efficiency mode, checking that Rodney had his passport in his pocket and his suitcase in hand before shoving him out of the house and down to the curb. She swung Madison, dressed for school and with toothpaste down her shirt, up onto her hip and followed.
Jona was leaning against the car, arms crossed and sunglasses on. Anyone sensible, Rodney thought, would think twice about touching her, but Jeannie was in a hugging mood and having Madison gave her an excuse. She grabbed Jona into a three-person squeeze and said apologetic and sympathetic things. Jona gave Rodney a trapped look over Madison's head as she patted Jeannie's shoulder awkwardly.
"Come on, break it up, we have to go," Rodney said. "Call me if you have any problems," he added as Jeannie disengaged. "You know what time to drop Madison off — "
"Nine," Madison said; at the same time, Jeannie shut the car door and said "Have a good flight." She reached through the window to mess up his hair. Madison did the same. Rodney growled. Madison started playing with Jeannie's hair.
"You have to cook rice for dinner," Rodney said: he knew there'd been something he'd forgotten. "Madison never eats salmon without rice."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. We'll survive." Jeannie stepped back to wave goodbye as Jona released the parking brake and pulled into the road. Rodney twisted around, watching until Jeannie and Madison were out of sight. Jona didn't say anything until they were almost at the airport, and then she looked sideways at Rodney.
Rodney shrugged. "How are you doing?"
"I don't really want to talk about it," Jona said, and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. "I'm glad you're here. I just. . . I'd rather talk about Madison's diet, or the weather, or your fear of flying."
"I don't mind the heights," Rodney said, trying to sound stung. "I'm more afraid of the food and the toddlers. There was this one time — " he started, and he managed to keep up a steady stream of invective, complaint, and indignation all the way to the rental car counter at their destination. Jona was amused that what finally managed to shut him up was not the indignity of security checks or the fact that airlines now charged for blankets and pillows (he'd managed to be angry about that for a good thirty minutes), but the fact that they had been give the keys to a late model Daedalus.
"It's sportier than the Jumper," Jona said, slinging her suitcase into the trunk. "And it's a hybrid. And it's red."
"I just hope someone got fired for, you know, giving a car a name that starts with dead," Rodney muttered darkly, as Jona accelerated into a tangle of on and off ramps. "I think it's illegal to change four lanes at a time, actually."
"Uh-huh," Jona said, and turned the radio on. The car filled with the so-called hits of the eighties. Jona flipped on her sunglasses, and Rodney dropped his head back and shut his eyes. Between them, he thought, they were generating what Douglas Adams would have called a pretty good Someone Else's Problem field. They wouldn't get ticketed. They were not the reckless idiots from out of town that the police were looking for.
Rodney woke up with a start, hearing a door slam, and wondered for a moment what the hell Jona was doing getting out of the car when she was driving. Then he realised the car was no longer moving. He got out, blinking sleep from his eyes and wondering how long it would be before his spine forgave him. He looked up at the hotel, which was rather painfully designed to look like an oversized English country house. Rodney wondered if there were animali heads on the walls of the restaurant. There was probably a disco in the basement with a dungeon theme.
Jona came back with the key to their room and a bit of embarrassment about not asking him if he wanted his own room (to which he replied you have got to be kidding me). She was solicitous about his back but still made him carry his own suitcase up to the room, which looked like any other hotel room Rodney had ever been in.
They just had enough time to shower and dress before heading out. Rodney wanted to order in room service — two packs of pretzels did not count as a meal in his book — but Jona suggested that the catering at the wake would be good. She had borrowed her suit from a shorter friend, apparently. It was nondescript black, less like business wear than Sunday best, except for the shortness of the skirt. Between them, Rodney thought as he sucked in his stomach and pulled his zipper up the last two inches, they looked like downtrodden paralegals and nothing like family in mourning. He thought about making a joke about being in disguise, but there was a little too much truth to it.
He didn't really start to feel out of his depth until Jona pulled the car up behind a Mercedes in the driveway of one of the largest houses Rodney had ever seen outside of the movies. The perfect lawn was covered with rich- and successful-looking people, and there were waitstaff circulating. There was a pool. There were horses.
"Breathe, Rodney," Jona said, steering him towards the crowd with one hand on his shoulder. "Shit." The hand on Rodney's shoulder tightened.
"What?" Rodney said, trying to stop. They were still close enough to the car that they could escape easily.
"I did mention my ex, right?" Jona straightened and buttoned her jacket defensively. "Here she comes."
The ex-wife walked right up to Jona and hugged her: apparently, it was socially acceptable to grope women if they were bereaved. Rodney had been looking for cheap feels in the wrong place all these years. He should have hung out at more funerals.
He shook hands with the ex — Nancy — and then backed the hell off, looking at the horses while Jona asked polite questions about Nancy's job and her new boyfriend. Nancy did the same — once he was over the surprise that Jona and Nancy seemed to keep in fairly regular touch, he got nervous wondering just how recently they had last talked. Whether Nancy knew what Jeannie had done, or that he and Jona were in some kind of relationship limbo, getting ready to take the next step or. . . not.
He wondered if that was the sort of thing people discussed with their exes. Obviously Jona had discussed being transsexual at some point, because Nancy seemed to take it in stride and had recognised Jona straight off. Rodney was glad he hadn't been eavesdropping on that conversation. Jona was congratulating Nancy on her promotion at Homeland Security. Rodney had a natural paranoia about the U.S. government, but he was fairly sure that in Nancy's thorough background check [caution: PDF] someone must have noticed that her former husband was now a woman. That had to have been awkward. He doubted Homeland Security was a bastion of forward-thinkingness about gender issues.
Jona said something bitter about her father, and Nancy, and her marriage. Rodney moved back in, hoping he wouldn't have to break up a fight, but Nancy just shrugged and made leaving now gestures. She shook hands again with Rodney and gave Jona another sympathetic pat as she headed off towards the buffet.
"That went well," Jona said, twisting her mouth to imply that it could have gone a lot better. She took a deep breath, moving towards the crowd as if looking for something. Finally she nodded towards a kind of sunroom in the crook of the house. There were tastefully expensive wreaths on either side of the open doors, and the sort of coffin that seemed a waste to bury displayed — tastefully — inside. "I'll just — " she said, and bit her lip. "And then we can go."
"You just got here," someone said from behind them. Jona tensed, then turned around, carefully blanking her face.
"Dave," she said.
Rodney looked with interest at the brother Jona never talked about. He was trying very hard not to look at Jona, finally setting on pulling his chin down and looking sideways past her, towards the pool.
"This is dad's wake, and you're just going to run away again?"
Jona smoothed her hands down the sides of her jacket. "I only came to say goodbye. Surely you don't want me to mingle."
"I assumed you were here for the reading of the will."
Rodney put a restraining hand on Jona's arm, one of several grips that Teyla had taught him which required just a slight twist to immobilise an opponent. He figured that that was better than letting Jona punch her brother. He was surprised to see a man break free from the sombre conversation behind them and put an equally restraining hand on Dave's shoulder.
Jona managed a social smile that wasn't too strained and held out her hand. "Jona Sheppard," she said, and then tipped her head sideways. "Rodney."
The man shook both of their hands and introduced himself as Tony.
"My financial consultant," Dave clarified, and shook Rodney's hand, giving the strong impression that he was only doing so because he had good manners.
"Her physicist," Rodney said, and pointed at Jona. "Excuse us." He practically dragged Jona away, worried that one or the other of them was going to burst out in hysterical laughter and need sedation. "You weren't kidding about needing weapons. Your family's — " He waved his hands in agitated parabolas, trying to find the right words. But there didn't seem to be right words.
"There should be strong drink around here somewhere," Jona said, frowning at the house. "I don't mind being the designated driver."
"Go," Rodney said, gesturing towards the coffin, which seemed to grow larger the closer they got. "I'll watch your back."
"Yeah," Jona said. "Okay." She reached down and grabbed Rodney's hand, just for a quick squeeze, and then crossed to climb the sunroom steps. Rodney half-turned away, trying to give her privacy, and found himself almost shoulder to shoulder with Dave, who had no compunctions about staring at Jona's back.
"What you don't know," Dave said, very quietly, "is that my brother was a real dick. A textbook case of someone growing into their name. Constantly fighting, always in detention or suspended from school. Both the best and the worst big brother I could have had. He'd stand up for me, and then turn around and hit me for not defending myself. He was such a fuck-up that anything I did looked good by comparison, but — like in the Bible, the prodigal son, Lord, how our father tried to get him to come home. I always thought. . . it would be me and dad burying him. I never expected that." Dave's hand jerked towards Jona.
"Jona never said she had a brother," Rodney said, and Dave stared down at the grass for several long seconds while Rodney became acutely aware of having said the wrong thing.
"Well," Dave said finally. "I can't say we talked about him much, either, not after the last time he came home."
"I read the obituary," Rodney said. He looked over at Jona just as she turned around, and he caught the grimace as she saw who Rodney was talking to.
Dave set his jaw. "His wasn't the only name that should have been there that wasn't — look, there's a façade we keep up for these people. Our private lives are different."
"Toeing the party line?" Jona asked, coming up, her voice rough.
"We're talking about financial consulting," Rodney said. "Apparently, it's not the sort of job where you get a lot of recognition."
Jona's eyes flickered between Dave and Rodney. "Fine. Be mysterious. I'm ready to go."
"Dad regretted what happened between you two," Dave said. "Right up to the end."
"Nancy knew where I was. He could have contacted me anytime."
"He had his pride. Both of you — too proud to stay in the same room long enough to reach some kind of understanding."
Jona took a deep breath. "Did you? With dad?"
"Yes," Dave said. "Yes, I did. Because I was the one who stayed. I looked after dad, I ran the business, I was here, and in the end, that's what matters."
Jona nodded, slowly, looking about a hairsbreadth away from falling apart. "Well. That's good, then. I'm glad — I'm glad you both had that."
Dave reached into his inside pocket and took out a small gold case, flicking a business card out casually and handing it to Jona. "It's up to you," he said, and shrugged. "I'll be here." He stepped back, watched Jona pocket the card, and then turned, walking purposefully towards the knot of important people surrounding the priest.
"Give me the keys," Rodney said. "I'll drive, you just — do the radio, or something."
He was alarmed that Jona didn't even protest. She settled into the passenger seat, rolled down her window, and said nothing, not even when Rodney got them completely lost, driving past the same Walmart three times, each time from a different direction. The sky purpled and darkened; Rodney's stomach growled. He pointed out an Indian restaurant that looked decent. Jona shrugged and said sure.
Over dinner, he shovelled in curry and naan while discussing Zelenka's plans for super-efficient solar-powered cars while Jona moved her food around on her plate half-heartedly.
"Hey," he said, scooping up a handful of fennel seeds as they were leaving. "Your brother should invest in ZPM technology. Utilities, right? Zelenka would be thrilled."
"Jeannie could go to work for him," Jona said, and leaned on the driver's side door until Rodney returned the keys. He handed them over with bad grace. It wasn't as if she had any better sense of direction, he grumbled to himself as they pulled out into traffic. Except for having lived here, twenty years ago. "We could consolidate all our problems."
"But what would we do when they took over the world?" Rodney asked.
Jona opened her mouth to say something and then bit her lip to keep the words in. "Here we are," she announced instead, a moment later, pulling into the hotel's car park. "Home away from home."
Rodney expected her to go up to the room and go straight to bed. He had been trying to figure out when a good time would be to explain to her that he wanted to sleep together, as in, in the same bed. He had not anticipated Jona shoving him up against the wall as soon as the door slipped shut behind them, her mouth closing on his, her hands touching every place she wasn't covering with her body. He didn't mind. He pushed the suit jacket off her shoulders, and she shook it loose impatiently. His jacket was next, and necktie, and he nudged her back, into the room, fingers catching on her buttons.
They were both naked by the time they reached the bed, naked and desperate. Jona pulled Rodney down on top of her and twined her legs with his to hold him down. Their kisses were a little too close to biting, and their touches a little too close to bruising, and Rodney hadn't shaved since the morning so he was scouring the hell out of Jona's skin, but she still moved up into every touch as if even all this wasn't enough.
Rodney twisted around, switching places, and Jona stared down at him through slitted eyes. He tried to prove the advantages to the position by putting both hands on her breasts; Jona shook and her head dropped forward. She panted for a moment, and Rodney felt well pleased with himself. Then Jona started rolling her hips, sliding along his dick, and they were both thrown back into urgency. Rodney thrust up and tugged at her nipples simultaneously. Jona made a low sound, almost a cry, breaking the silence and throwing every touch into such sharp focus that Rodney felt the orgasm in every place Jona touched: electric where her mouth slid wet on his neck, lightness in his legs, an almost unbearable heat in his chest.
He felt Jona slide down to settle at his side. He put his hand against her stomach so he could feel her breathe, and let himself sleep.
They woke far too early and made love again, this time a slow exploration as the new sunlight rose gradually on the curtains. After showering (separately, unfortunately), Rodney ordered breakfast up from room service, and they ate wearing the hotel's heavy terrycloth bathrobes, with the windows wide open and the clock radio tuned to NPR. Rodney was sorely tempted to have the New York Times delivered up so he could do the crossword while lying in bed with Jona, but that was the kind of fantasy he suspected would disturb her.
Jona was busy packing, trying to shake the wrinkles out of her friend's clothes. Rodney refrained from mentioning the tissue-paper trick.
"So," he said, never one to let sleeping dogs lie and always one to look gift horses in the mouth, "when we go back, what happens?"
Jona gave the blouse a malevolent look and rolled it up, shoving it on top of the suit bag. "I was offered the chance to make the teaching thing permanent. I'm going to say no." She jerked one shoulder up. "Winnipeg's flat."
"We should move in together." Jona's face clouded with all the reasons that was a bad idea. "It's never going to be easy. But it's easier when we're together. Isn't that why you called me?"
"I called you because I needed you."
"And I came because I love you." Rodney shrugged. "You need me, I love you, it's not like we get bonus points for martyring ourselves, move in. With me. Oh, crap. Are you crying? I'm no good with crying." Jona had turned her back to him, one hand pressed to her face, her whole body still and impossibly taut, as if she were shielding herself from physical blows. "Hey." Rodney got up and put a hand on one shoulder. When she didn't lash out or twist away, he took one step forward to hug her, backwards. "We make a good team. Don't we?"
He could feel Jona forcing her breathing to be slow and regular. "We need to get the car back by ten," Jona said. "I need to pack."
"Right," Rodney said, and let her go. One long, shuddering breath broke loose from her control, and then she went back to work as if nothing had happened. Rodney wondered if she were having a very quiet emotional breakdown. Her face was set, but her eyes were pale and lost-looking. Rodney checked the bathroom and the drawers one last time, emptied the basket of complimentary soap and toothbrushes, and then slung his bag over his shoulder.
"Rodney," Jona said. Rodney looked at her warily. All the signs pointed to her not being in any mood to talk. He wasn't going to push it; he didn't want her to, either. Her hands tightened, then loosened, and she looked up. "Yes," she said. "We are a good team. And I trust you, and I love you, and there's no one I'd rather wake up with. But I don't know if that's enough. I don't know. . . how not to hurt you."
"I'm a big boy," Rodney said. "And you're pretty flexible. You'll figure it out."
"Idiot," Rodney said, and pulled Jona close so he could kiss her. His bag banged into her; he dropped it and threaded his fingers into her hair and kept on kissing until he felt lightheaded and started to wonder if they were going to miss the plane. "Yes, I promise, let's go home. I have," he added, "this sister who's finally started to act like a real person who'd like to meet you."
Jona raised an eyebrow.
"I'm not asking you to move in with her, though," Rodney added hastily. "Just with me."
Jona picked up her suitcase, and then handed Rodney his. She opened the door. Rodney led the way down to the elevators. "Yeah, okay," she said.
"You soft-hearted romantic, you," Rodney said, as the elevator dinged on their floor. "Sweep me off my feet, why don't you?"
Jona was giving him a dirty, dirty kiss when the elevator stopped on three to pick up an elderly couple.
"Oh, my," Rodney heard one of the women say, sounding more titillated than scandalised, and he could feel the heat of Jona's blush all the way down to the lobby.
different day –
I love my ordinary life
(See You in the Morning Joan — David Brown)