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A Better Fate

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Rodney looked out the window. He could see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. He was pretty sure he shouldn't have let John talk him into this, but John had made a visit to New York sound pretty appealing. Besides, after nearly two years in Atlantis, Rodney had no idea what to do with two weeks on Earth.

"They'll like you," John said, leaning into him slightly and looking out the window.

"I didn't think they wouldn't."

"Uh-huh."

That John knew him so well was sometimes damned annoying. The seat belt light came on, and the pilot announced that they would be landing in approximately fifteen minutes. "Do you miss flying?" Rodney asked, because it had suddenly occurred to him that John might miss flying planes and helicopters and whatever else he'd flown for the Air Force.

"I fly all the time."

"It's not the same, though, is it?"

"No." John grinned. "It's better."

Rodney returned the grin and leaned back in the seat. John's parents would like him, and if they didn't, well, that was just too bad.

***

They hadn't bothered to check any luggage, and Rodney followed John through the airport toward the pick-up area. The press of people had him looking around, feeling like a tourist. He'd forgotten what crowds were like.

"Weird, isn't it?" John asked, pitching his voice so only Rodney could hear him.

"Yeah, it is."

Before John could answer, a short woman with graying hair called out, "John," and waved.

"Mom." John picked up his pace, leaving Rodney behind. Reaching her, he pulled her into a hug. John let her go just as Rodney approached and turned to the man next to her. He too was gray-haired, roughly John and Rodney's height, but without John's slenderness.

They hugged while Rodney stood a couple of feet away, watching awkwardly.

"It's good to see you," John's father said, letting him go.

"Yeah, you too," John replied, stepping back. Turning slightly, he held a hand out in Rodney's direction. Rodney moved closer and John took hold of his arm, drawing Rodney into the small group. "This is Dr. Rodney McKay. Rodney, my parents."

Rodney extended a hand and John's mother took it. "I'm Olivia Sheppard. It's nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you."

John's father extended a hand as well. "Malcolm Sheppard."

"It's a pleasure, sir," Rodney said, taking his hand and ignoring John's look.

"Now that everyone knows who everyone is, how about some pizza?" John asked.

Rodney gave a slight shake of his head. "I thought the food obsession was my gig?"

"Do you have any idea how long it's been since I had pizza?"

"Twenty-two months and twelve days."

"Fifteen days." John grinned. "I had General Tso's chicken the last night."

"Ah."

John's parents began to walk. John and Rodney followed along with them. "What did you have?"

"Poutine."

"How very Canadian of you."

"You're Canadian?" Olivia asked, smiling at Rodney.

He nodded. "I'm from Kingston. It's a small city in Ontario."

"But he doesn't like hockey," John added.

"No cheerleaders."

"Football has cheerleaders," John said.

"I am not watching football with you."

"It's a silly game," John's father said with a grin that made him look remarkably like John. "Grown men knocking each other down over a piece of pigskin. Now baseball, that's a game."

John rolled his eyes and Rodney smiled. Maybe this would be a good trip after all.

They took a cab to the pizza place, because John's parents didn't own a car. Rodney didn't blame them. A car in New York City was an unnecessary expense. It was a small restaurant with red-and-white checked tablecloths and empty wine bottles for candleholders.

The hostess seated them at a booth in the back, where John and Rodney could leave their bags against the wall.

"This place has the best pizza," John said, sliding into the booth next to Rodney. "Lots of cheese, spicy sausage, and they aren't stingy with the pepperoni."

"You don't have to have pizza," Olivia said. She was sitting directly across from Rodney. "Their pasta is good, too."

"Pizza's fine," Rodney said, closing his menu. "I haven't had pizza in a long time."

"Twenty-two months and two weeks," she said.

"Approximately, yes."

"You work with John," Olivia said.

Rodney nodded. "I do."

"What are you a doctor of?" Malcolm asked.

"Physics."

"And you chose to work with the military."

Rodney glanced at John and then looked at Malcolm. "They recruited me when I was in graduate school."

"I thought you were recruited in junior high," John said.

"Grade six, and that was the CIA."

"The CIA tried to recruit you when you were still in elementary school?" Olivia asked, staring at him in surprise.

Rodney shrugged. He was saved from replying by the arrival of their waitress.

Malcolm looked around the table. "Supreme all right with everyone?" They nodded their agreement, and Malcolm turned to the waitress. "A large supreme, and I'll have a Sam Adams."

"No olives," John said. Everyone turned to look at him. "Rodney doesn't like them."

"I can pick them off."

"No olives," Malcolm said to the waitress, who scribbled into her pad before turning to Olivia.

"Red wine, please," Olivia said.

The waitress nodded and looked at Rodney. "Do you have Molson?" he asked.

"In a bottle."

"That's what I'll have, thank you."

"I never knew you were so patriotic," John commented.

"It's not patriotism, it's good beer."

"In that case, I'll have the same." John handed their menus to the waitress, who smiled winningly at him. Women often smiled that way at John.

She left, and Malcolm leaned forward, resting an arm on the table. "So you worked for the CIA as a child."

The disapproval in his tone made Rodney defensive. "I did. A couple of small projects."

"And now you work for the military."

"Actually, Dad, the base we're on is under civilian command. We both report to a woman named Elizabeth Weir. She's a fairly well-known diplomat."

"Where is this base?"

"You know we can't tell you that."

"Of course." Rodney was certain that Malcolm had more to say on the subject, but whatever it was, he kept it to himself.

The waitress arrived with their drinks. When she left, Olivia said, "Why don't you tell us something about yourself, Dr. McKay, since I'm sure we can't ask how you met."

"No, that would be confidential." He took a sip of his beer. "Please, call me Rodney, and there isn't much to say, really."

"You talk about yourself all the time," John said.

Rodney glared at him. He was trying to make a good impression.

"He's brilliant, arrogant, allergic to citrus and bee stings, and has an unnatural fondness for Philip K. Dick," John said.

"Thank you for that apt description," Rodney replied, letting the sarcasm drip freely from his tongue.

John grinned. "You're welcome."

"You like science fiction," Olivia said, diplomatically.

Rodney nodded.

"John has always loved science fiction."

"Actually, I'm more of a horror fan," John put in.

Rodney smirked. "Bad horror."

"I like good horror."

"There is no such thing."

"Let me guess—you've never seen Psycho." John's voice had his familiar droll sarcasm.

"Nope."

"It's a classic."

"I don't watch horror movies."

"Why not?"

Rodney took a deep breath. "How long have we known each other?"

John's mouth twisted a little. He was the only person Rodney had ever known who could shrug with his lips. "Two years, give or take."

"Have you ever known me to enjoy being scared?"

"But this isn't real, it's fun."

"For you."

John sighed, his "Rodney is so annoying" sigh. Rodney supposed he should be flattered that he had his own sigh, but he wasn't.

"What was that show you used to watch?" John's mother asked. Clearly she was someone who knew when to redirect a conversation.

"What show?" John said.

"I think she means the one with the bad guys who looked like pinball machines," Malcolm said.

"Cylons," Rodney said. "It was Battlestar Galactica."

"He made me buy Frosted Flakes for two months so he could save up the box tops and send away for a…" She leaned forward and looked at John. "What was it?"

"A Viper cockpit."

"That cockpit wasn't anything like a Viper cockpit. It didn't even have a joystick," Rodney said.

"I know," John added, nodding. "How could they claim it was from Battlestar Galactica when it didn't have a joystick?"

"Someone should have sued them."

"I wanted to."

John's parents didn't even try to hide their amusement, and John smiled at his grinning mother. "It was a good show."

"I'm sure it was." She was clearly struggling to hold back a laugh.

"I watched it every week," Rodney said, coming to his friend's aid. "I never missed an episode, except for part of the premiere. They interrupted it for the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords and I had to go to school the next day. My parents made me go to bed while Sadat and Begin were still fiddling with their pens. I was pissy for weeks."

"We made John go to bed, too."

"Yeah, but I got up after you guys had gone to sleep and watched the ending."

John's father frowned.

"He's still like that," Rodney said.

"I am not."

"Yes, you are."

"I am not."

"You are. You invariably think that your way is best and you don't bother to listen to other points of view."

"Look who's talking."

"I may be opinionated and arrogant, but I listen to my staff."

"You listen to Zelenka."

"He's on my staff."

"So are a whole bunch of other people you don't listen to."

"John," Olivia said warningly.

"I listen to you." John was looking directly at Rodney as though willing Rodney to believe him.

Rodney opened his mouth to protest, then he realized that John really did listen to him. Not always, but far more than he listened to other people. "You do," he conceded slowly.

John grinned. "That's my Rodney, always observant."

Distracted by John's grin, Rodney completely missed the pleased smile Olivia gave her husband.

***

The pizza had been good and Rodney was feeling full and sleepy by the time they reached John's parents' house. He followed everyone else inside, looking around as Malcolm turned on lights. It was a comfortable-looking house, or at least the living room was, with faded rugs and lots of books. Rodney liked houses that held books.

"You're both in John's old room—the guest room now," Olivia said as John and Rodney followed her up the stairs. "I hope that's not a problem."

"We'll be fine," John said.

Rodney wasn't terribly worried about the accommodations, given some of the places they'd slept in the last two years.

Olivia opened a door, and the three of them stepped into a room dominated by a queen-sized bed. The deep green comforter spread across it appeared to be down, and Rodney suddenly wanted nothing more than to crawl between the sheets.

"The bathroom is directly across the hall," Olivia said to Rodney.

He nodded. "Thank you. If you don't mind, I think I'm going to turn in."

"I'm sure you've had a long day." She gave them a soft smile and started to back out of the room. "Goodnight."

"Night," John answered, and she pulled the door shut behind her.

"I'm exhausted." Rodney dropped his bag to the floor.

"Me too. Why don't you hit the bathroom first?"

The bathroom was larger than he'd expected, given the size of the house, with traditional white fixtures and more faded rugs. He took care of the things that needed taking care of quickly and efficiently.

When he returned to the bedroom, John had stripped down to his boxers and a T-shirt. He didn't say a word as he passed Rodney on his way to the bathroom.

Rodney sat on the edge of the bed. He preferred to sleep nude, but had learned to sleep in boxers and a T-shirt, just like John, after being awakened in the middle of the night too many times. Sighing, he undressed quickly and slid into the bed. The comforter was definitely down. It was early fall and probably too warm for the comforter, but after years of military-issue blankets, Rodney didn't care.

Two weeks of nonmilitary blankets and as much Earth food as he could manage—evidently, there was an up side to leave, even unasked-for leave. After six weeks of partial duty and thrice-weekly therapy sessions, Rodney had simply wanted to get back to work, but he had suspected that refusing leave would just lead to more afternoons with Dr. Heightmeyer. As much as he liked blondes, he was ready for life to return to normal. So here he was, in John's childhood bedroom.

When John came in, he turned off the light and then fumbled his way to the other side of the bed.

"You could have had me turn on the lamp," Rodney said.

He felt the bed give as John sat on it. "It's fine. I slept in this room for years."

Rodney wondered what it had been like when John had lived in it. He suspected the bed had been smaller. The bed shifted some more as John lay down. Rodney looked over at him.

"Goodnight, Rodney."

"Goodnight."

Rodney closed his eyes, wondering how long it would take him to fall asleep in a strange place with someone else in the bed.

It didn't take long at all.

He woke once in the night. John was moving in his sleep, making soft, desperate sounds. Rodney put a hand on his shoulder. John's shoulders were too slender for the weight they carried. He gave John a small shake. "John. John. Wake up." He spoke softly but insistently. "John."

Light from the street lamps was coming through the windows and Rodney could just make out John's face. There was no reason for John to look so pained. Not now. He shook John a little harder. "John."

John came awake, his whole body tensing and then relaxing a moment after he saw Rodney.

"Nightmare," Rodney whispered.

John nodded.

"Go back to sleep," Rodney added, because he couldn't say anything else—because John wouldn't want to talk about it anymore than Rodney did.

John closed his eyes. Rodney left his hand where it was.

***

John was sound asleep when Rodney woke, lying on his side facing Rodney. John was still, his breathing slow and deep. He looked kind of sweet, without the usual tension in his face. Rodney wanted to reach out, to trace a cheekbone with his fingers. Instead he edged his way to the side of the bed, determined not to wake John.

After pulling on some sweats and brushing his teeth, he made his way downstairs. The kitchen was easy to find. Olivia was already there. She smiled at him. "Good morning. There's coffee in the pot and the cups are in the cupboard over it."

"Thank you." Returning her smile, he took down a mug and filled it. The coffee was hot, and Rodney cupped the mug in his hands. "What are you making?"

Olivia looked up from the bowl. "Bread." She spread some flour on the counter, tipped the contents of the bowl onto it, and began pressing into it with her hands.

Taking a sip of his coffee, Rodney leaned against the counter. "I've never watched anyone make bread before."

Olivia glanced at him. "No one in your family bakes?"

The thought of his mother or his sister or his father in a kitchen was laughable. "No, they can barely boil water."

"That's unfortunate." She smiled at him. "Would you like to try?"

John may have had his father's grin, but he had gotten his smile from his mother, at least the one Rodney couldn't say no to. "Sure." He put his mug down and she stepped to the side, making room for him.

"Get some flour on your hands."

He rubbed his hands in the flour on either side of the ball of dough.

"Good. Now press into the dough with the balls of your hands."

Placing one hand on top of the other as she had, Rodney pressed.

"Fold the dough in half."

Rodney folded.

"Now turn it a quarter turn and fold it again." Rodney dutifully folded and turned. "Now press."

Rodney pressed and then folded and turned. After a few times he found the rhythm. Pushing his hands into the dough was surprisingly relaxing. He was a little disappointed when Olivia touched him on the shoulder.

'"I think it's ready."

"How can you tell?"

"It should be smooth to the touch, elastic, and only slightly sticky."

The dough was all of those things. "Now what?" Rodney asked.

"We let it rise." She held out a glass bowl. "Plop it in there."

Rodney plopped. Olivia placed the bowl on the counter and covered it with a towel while Rodney washed his hands and retrieved his coffee. It was lukewarm, but he didn't care. Olivia washed her hands as well and poured herself a fresh cup. She tilted her head toward the kitchen table. "Sit with me."

Sitting at the wooden table, Rodney looked around. The kitchen was small but inviting, with warm colors and just the right amount of clutter. He tried to picture John as a kid, pestering his mother while she baked. It was a disturbingly Rockwellian image. Rodney knew families weren't really like that, but he liked the image anyway.

"What do your parents do?" Olivia asked, pulling Rodney from his thoughts.

"My father's a heart surgeon at a teaching hospital in Ontario. He also does quite a bit of research."

"Does he teach?"

"He used to. I assume he still does." Rodney took a sip of his coffee.

"Sounds like he's a busy man."

His family wasn't something that Rodney wanted to talk about, but he could no more refuse John's mother than he could John. "He wasn't home much," Rodney admitted.

"And your mother?"

"Wanted to be an actress." Rodney tried to keep the sarcasm from his voice. His mother deserved a lot of things, but his contempt wasn't one of them. Too bad it had taken him so long to realize that. "They met here in New York, actually. My father was a med student and my mother was a waitress destined to get her big break any day. It was love at first sight. Soon to be followed by disappointment, bitterness, and acrimony."

"I'm sorry."

Rodney looked away from the sympathy in her eyes. "The best part of it is they're still married."

"When did you last see them?"

"1995. I went home for Christmas."

Olivia's eyes moved from Rodney's face to the doorway. Following her gaze, Rodney turned. John was standing there in sweats and a T-shirt, his hair going in even more directions than usual. Sleep-mussed was a good look for him, Rodney thought, but then most looks were.

"Good morning," Olivia said.

"Morning," John answered, heading for the coffee pot. Rodney and Olivia watched while he filled a mug and added some sugar. Then he turned around, leaned against the counter, and took a long sip.

"Sleep well?" Olivia asked. Her tone was casual, but Rodney was certain the casualness was deliberate.

John's eyes flicked to Rodney. "Yup." He took another drink of his coffee.

"Good, isn't it?" Rodney asked.

John nodded. "I'd forgotten what good coffee was like."

"Just don't get addicted," Rodney said, "I don't want to put up with you while you're in the throes of caffeine withdrawal."

"I'd give you the same advice, but you in withdrawal wouldn't be all that different from your normal charming personality."

John's mother glared at him, and Rodney struggled to think up a suitable reply before she could scold John for his apparent rudeness. "I don't need to be charming. That's your department," he paused, "Kirk."

"You're never going to let that go, are you?"

Rodney smiled. "No, no I'm not." Aware of the interest Olivia was taking in his interactions with John, Rodney stood. "Would it be all right if I cleaned up some?"

"Of course. The towels are in the closet just outside of the bathroom. Help yourself to whatever you need."

"Thank you." Rodney drained his mug and carried it to the sink before leaving for the bathroom.

***

"You have a good collection," Rodney said, running his fingers over the spines of the CDs that covered half of one wall. After showers and lunch, they had all gathered in the room John's family referred to as the sun porch. It wasn't actually a porch, but it was warm and comfortable, with lots of sunlight streaming through the windows.

"Feel free to play whatever you like," Malcolm said from the chair where he was making his way through the Sunday Times.

Rodney turned to look at him. "Really?"

"Of course."

Rodney spotted a familiar boxed set and took it from the shelf. "You have the Gardiner set."

"What's so special about the Gardiner set?" John asked from the couch.

"John Gardiner. He's a conductor. He recorded all of Beethoven's symphonies on period instruments using Beethoven's original notations." Rodney opened one of the cases. "You've heard the Fifth, right?"

"Isn't that the one ELO used when they covered 'Roll Over Beethoven'?" John was using his lightly sarcastic tone, the one which clearly said, "Why yes, Rodney, I am an idiot."

"Probably." Rodney put the CD into the player and pressed play. "Listen to this." Familiar notes filled the room. "You hear that?"

"It's different," John acknowledged.

"Lighter, faster, which gives it more impact, in my opinion. Hoffman called the Fifth 'the essence of pure Romanticism.'"

"Did he?"

Rodney nodded absently, his attention half on the music. "It's my favorite of Beethoven's symphonies. Everything he wrote in C minor has a similar feel of fate and struggle." Rodney held up a single finger. "I love the flautino part here. It's delicate, but not weak."

"Flautino?" John asked.

"Piccolo," Rodney answered. "Can you hear the difference in the instruments? Brass without valves and the woodwinds don't have all of the keys and levers Bohm added. The voicing is completely different."

"Completely," John said, and Rodney turned to look at him, giving John his full attention. John was smiling. It was an expression Rodney had seen countless times but had never quite deciphered.

"What?" he asked.

John replied with a slight shake of his head. "Nothing."

"You've got that look."

"What look?"

"That look. That amused look."

John shrugged one shoulder. "I like you when you're smart."

"I'm always smart."

"Hence the look." John grinned winningly and Rodney had to grin back because that grin was simply irresistible. Intending to listen to the symphony, he dropped onto the couch between John and Olivia who looked up from the paper she was grading.

"You love music," she said.

"Since I was a kid." Rodney wiggled the fingers on his right hand. "Piano lessons twice a week."

"Ugh," John said.

"I really did love it. I fully intended to play Carnegie Hall one day."

"What happened?" Malcolm asked.

"My piano teacher informed me that while I was technically proficient, I lacked soul."

"You lacked soul," Olivia repeated. "How old were you?"

"Twelve."

"All twelve-year-olds lack soul," Malcolm said. "They're twelve."

"What did your parents say?" Olivia asked.

"I didn't tell them."

"They didn't ask?" Malcolm said.

"No, my mother was upset when I told her I didn't want to take lessons anymore, but she got over it."

"They didn't want to know why?" Malcolm leaned forward in his chair. "If you were my son, I'd want to know why you were giving up something you loved."

Rodney doubted his father had even noticed. Nevertheless, he found himself wanting to defend his parents. Criticizing them himself was one thing, having someone else do it quite another. Before he could come up with an appropriate response, John spoke. "You should take it up again."

"Right. In my copious amounts of free time. And there are so many pianos where we are."

"We could work something out."

"John's right," Olivia said. "There is more to life than work, and you should take some time for things you enjoy."

John stood. "I'm going to take a walk." He looked down at Rodney. "You want to come?"

"Thank you," Rodney said when they reached the sidewalk.

"You're welcome." John started moving up the street and Rodney fell into step beside him. "They mean well, but sometimes they go too far without realizing it, and they have very definite ideas about how children should be treated."

"That isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially for teachers," Rodney said, because it wasn't.

"No, it isn't, but I'm willing to bet that my father is currently ranting about the evils of arrogant piano teachers."

"She was pretty evil."

John chuckled, and Rodney looked around. It was a beautiful day, and the sun's heat felt surprisingly good. It was early enough in the season that the trees still had their leaves. Nearly identical houses lined both sides of the street. They were small compared with the house he had grown up in, with a stoop and a low fence instead of a big, sloping lawn.

"Your parents seem pretty dedicated," Rodney said, because he needed something to say, and John's parents seemed like a safe topic. Besides, he was curious.

"They are. My father was ABD when he left grad school to become a high school teacher. Apparently, there were howls of protest from NYU's sociology department. My Mom said there were a couple of publishers interested in his dissertation, too."

"And he never finished?"

"Nope. He went into the Peace Corps, came back and started teaching."

"Your father was in the Peace Corps?"

John nodded, sliding his hands into his pockets. "So was my mother. In Rhodesia, back when it was Rhodesia. I was born there."

"You were born in Africa and you never mentioned it?"

"It's not exactly the kind of thing that comes up in casual conversation."

Rodney silently conceded the point. "What about your mother? What did she study?"

"Biology. She finished her PhD and then followed my father into teaching. She claims teaching kids to do experiments is a lot more fun than doing them herself, but I always wondered if she only became a teacher to please my father."

"She doesn't seem like the type to do something simply because it'll make her husband happy."

John shrugged. "Maybe. You know what's funny?"

"No, but I trust you'll tell me."

"It's not funny ha-ha, more funny ironic."

Rodney grinned, because John could be damned entertaining sometimes. "Okay."

"My father wanted me to be an academic. He goes on and on about how academics are the pettiest of the petit bourgeoisie—"

Rodney had never thought of it in quite those terms, but it fit. "They are."

"Yet he and my mother were convinced that I was going to be some great mathematician."

"But it wasn't what you wanted."

"No." John kicked a small stone with his foot. "It wasn't."

"Does that mean that when I finally produce my Grand Unified Theory you won't do the math for me?"

"You want me to do your math?"

"Einstein's wife did his."

John stopped walking and smiled at him. "Is that a proposal?"

Rodney was tempted to say yes, because he rather liked the idea of seeing that smile every day for the rest of his life. "It'd be worth it just for the look on Bates's face when we told him."

John chuckled and they resumed walking. Three girls were playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. John and Rodney separated to walk around them.

"When I was a kid, the street would have been filled with kids playing on a day like today," John said when they met up again.

"They grew up."

John nodded. "My father says the neighborhood is mostly retirees now, with just a few young families." He smiled. "We used to play softball every Saturday in the park. Not formally, just a neighborhood game. Sometimes we'd rope the adults into playing with us." He lowered his voice, making it sound conspiratorial. "My mother is a much better hitter than my father."

Rodney could believe that. He tried to imagine his mother playing softball. "Was the neighborhood always so ethnically mixed?" he asked, because he wasn't about to compare his childhood to John's, at least not out loud.

"It was. My parents bought the house just after they came back from the Peace Corps; apparently, it took them a long time to find a neighborhood like this."

"This whole selfless thing comes from your parents, doesn't it?"

"I guess, but I'm not that selfless."

Rodney could have pointed out all of the times when John had willingly thrown himself into the line of fire, but he didn't want to think about John and selflessness, because it led to John and infirmary beds. John and pain. John and blood.

Rodney remembered thinking that he'd never be able to look at a bottle of ketchup again.

He remembered fearing that no one could lose that much blood and still be alive.

Dr. Heightmeyer had assured him his fears were completely reasonable. He'd informed her that fear was always reasonable.

"So is this park nearby?" Rodney asked, because it was too nice a day for such thoughts.

"A couple of blocks. You want to see it?"

"I do." Rodney wanted to see the park and hear stories about baseball games and picture John as a safe, happy kid.

"So why do you like the Fifth Symphony so much?"

Rodney glanced at John. John was trying to change the subject, which was fine with Rodney. "It's from Beethoven's heroic period, when he was losing his hearing. There's a powerful sense of struggle in it." Rodney could hear the music in his head, the give and take of the tonic minor and major. "Beethoven supposedly said that the opening bars are Fate knocking on the door."

"It certainly sounds that way."

Rodney nodded, smiling a little. "But the struggle isn't just external. It's internal as well, especially in the Andante. I think you should listen to it sometime."

"I have heard it. I'm not a complete cultural ignoramus."

"I know, but there is a difference between hearing a piece of music and listening to it."

"All right. I'll listen to it."

Rodney smiled. "Cool."

John pointed to their left. "The park's that way."

***

Rodney leaned back in his chair as John refilled both of their coffee mugs. John's parents were at work. He and John had spent the morning sharing the paper and then had eaten sandwiches made with homemade bread for lunch. It was nice to linger at the kitchen table, to not have anywhere to go or work to do. He liked that about Atlantis, the constant work, but this was nice. John was good company, especially when no one was shooting at them.

"So you and my mother had a good chat yesterday," John said, stirring his coffee. He was looking at the coffee, and if Rodney hadn't known better, he'd have that John sounded almost jealous.

"We did," Rodney answered noncommittally. He was curious to see where this was going.

"I didn't know your father was a doctor."

"I didn't know you were interested."

"Well, I am."

Rodney took a sip of his coffee. "I see that."

"What was your childhood like?"

"Nothing like yours."

John put his feet up on the opposite chair. "Meaning?"

"My parents didn't like one another very much. They certainly didn't kiss in the kitchen." Rodney had been rather taken aback when they'd gotten back from their walk the day before and found Malcolm and Olivia standing next to the sink kissing.

"I used to hate that."

Rodney gave him a puzzled look.

"It was embarrassing."

That made sense. "Especially when you brought girls home."

"I was over it by then." John paused to take a drink. "Besides, they thought it was sweet. Not that there were that many girls."

"So you weren't a teenaged Lothario?" Rodney was vaguely disappointed by that.

"No. I went through an awkward stage. It started in junior high and didn't go away until sometime in my junior year."

"Are there pictures?"

"Somewhere. I'm sure my mother will be happy to show them to you."

"Good." Rodney tried to soften his eagerness by adding, "I always figured you for a bit of an outsider."

"Why?"

"You have your own perspective, your own way of looking at the world, and you're not big on compromise."

"Noticed that, have you?"

"Once or twice." Rodney took another drink. The coffee really was good. He was going to have to take some back with him.

"I thought we were talking about you."

Rodney shrugged. "School wasn't so bad. I was never going to be one of the in crowd, but I had friends."

"You were the leader of the geeks."

"Yes, I was a geek."

"But not just any geek, the geek leader."

"What in the world makes you say that?"

"You have leadership qualities."

"I do?" Rodney had long been of the opinion that he had leadership qualities, but he'd realized a while ago that he was the pretty much alone in that opinion.

John nodded. "You do."

"If you say so."

"I say so."

"What about you? What did you lead?"

"Nothing."

Rodney didn't believe him.

"Don't give me that look," John said. "I was an outsider, just like you said. I didn't really have a niche. I was athletic but too short for basketball and too skinny for football, which didn't matter because we didn't have a football team."

"You were smart."

"Yeah, but I didn't take it seriously enough to be a geek. I had a couple of close friends, but that was pretty much it. And the teachers liked me."

Rodney wasn't surprised that the teachers had liked him. "Why in the world are we talking about high school?"

"Especially since we aren't even talking about the good stuff."

"The good stuff?"

"Sex." John grinned and nudged Rodney's arm with his elbow. "So how old were you the first time?"

Rodney had no idea why John wanted to talk about their adolescent sexual experiences, but it wasn't like they had anywhere they had to be. "Seventeen. She was a fellow geek. Her parents went away for the weekend, and since she was so smart and responsible, they left her alone."

"They weren't worried she'd have her boyfriend over?"

"She didn't have a boyfriend. We were friends. She decided she wanted to lose her virginity. I was convenient."

"I'm sure you were more than convenient."

"That's true. She approached it very scientifically, laying out all of her options and eliminating them one by one until I was the only one left."

"That's romantic."

Rodney shrugged. "I was a seventeen-year-old guy. I didn't need romance. Of course, without the condom I'd have lasted five minutes. What about you?" He looked at John.

"It was an accident."

"An accident. How do you lose your virginity by accident?"

"We were dry humping and it kind of slipped in."

Rodney laughed. Only John.

"Then we had to stop because no condom."

"Must've been hard to do."

"Oh, yeah." John took a drink of his coffee. "The next time we had condoms, but instead of being easy and fun, it was tense and awkward."

Tense and awkward—that pretty much summed up his first time, too. "You know, if they really wanted to discourage kids from having sex, that's what they'd tell him in school."

"That it's nothing like the movies."

"Exactly."

"Thank God it gets better with practice, and the practicing is fun."

"True." Rodney drained his mug and set it on the table. "Although I have to say I always thought intergalactic explorers would get to practice a lot more than we do."

John laughed, a full-out belly laugh. He had a great laugh, rich and deep. Watching John laugh made Rodney laugh a little too, made him feel warm and happy, made him want to make John laugh more often. John looked really good when he laughed.

Their laughter subsided, leaving a hint of awkwardness in its wake. Rodney looked at the table; it was still covered with the remains of their lunch. "We should clean up."

"I guess we should," John said, standing.

***

Dinner with the Sheppards reminded Rodney of dinner in the mess hall: lots of conversation that meandered all over the place. He was beginning to think there wasn't a subject that at least one of John's parents couldn't discuss intelligently. As much as he was enjoying the talk of film and music and even politics, there was something he was far more interested in discussing. "John tells me he went through an awkward stage," he said when the conversation reached a natural break.

Olivia smiled and glanced at John.

"That's one word for it," Malcolm said, a teasing note in his voice.

"Hey!" John protested.

"Face it, son, you were a dork," Malcolm said.

John gave his mother a pleading look. "You were," she agreed.

John looked at Rodney. "You're still kind of a dork," Rodney said.

"I thought I was Kirk."

"You're a dark-haired, dorky Kirk." John gave him a look of exaggerated hurt and Rodney grinned. "But it's a charming dorkiness."

"Uh-huh."

Rodney's grin broadened. "He also said there were pictures."

"Would you like to see them?" Olivia asked.

"I would."

"You are not taking any back with us," John said.

Rodney forced the smile from his face. "I wouldn't think of it."

For some reason, John looked doubtful.

After dinner, he and Olivia went to the living room while John and Malcolm cleaned up the remains of dinner. She pulled two photo albums from one of the book shelves and carried them to the couch.

Rodney sat beside her and she opened the top album. The first pictures were of John as an infant. "Wow, he had a lot of hair even then."

Olivia smiled. "He came out with hair going every which way."

"He was born with bedhead."

She chuckled. "He was."

Rodney turned the page and found a picture of John lying in the middle of a table on his stomach, naked. He had never understood why every parent in the world seemed to need to take a picture of their child's naked behind. John apparently hadn't minded since he was smiling at the photographer.

"He was a good-natured baby, always smiling, always curious."

"John said he was born in Africa."

"He was. That was an experience."

It was one Rodney was certain he didn't need the details of. Fortunately, Olivia spared him, turning the page on the album so Rodney could look at a John as a chocolate cake-covered toddler. "He still eats his cake that way."

Olivia chuckled. "We did try to teach him manners."

Below the chocolate cake picture there was an image of John sitting on Malcolm's shoulders. He was holding a peace sign high in the air.

Olivia touched the picture. "I remember that rally."

"What were you protesting?"

"The Vietnam War."

Rodney studied the photo. The people in the background were all colors, all ages. He was pretty sure that it would never have occurred to either of his parents to protest anything. The common good wasn't very high on their agenda.

Rodney flipped through the pages, seeing John at Christmases and birthdays, on vacations and attending family gatherings. There were a couple more pictures of rallies. It was easy to see when the awkward stage arrived: John's long limbs suddenly looked like they belonged to someone else. Not long after that, the smiles became less frequent. "He looks so serious."

"He was, in an odd way. John was always friendly, but there was this sense of things going on inside, things that he didn't let others see."

That was the John he knew.

"Can I ask you something?" Olivia said. "It's none of my business, and if you want to tell me to get lost, you can, but there's something I need to ask."

Rodney tensed. As much as he liked Olivia, he wasn't crazy about the idea of a question she thought she shouldn't ask. "You can ask," he said after a moment's thought, "but I might not answer."

She nodded. "Are you and John lovers?"

Her question didn't surprise him. He and John were close; even the Chymnar had seen that. "No."

"It would be okay if you were. Malcolm and I like you." She smiled encouragingly.

Rodney couldn't help but smile back. "Thank you. I like you, too, but I'm not sleeping with your son."

"Actually, you are."

"Now I know where John got his sense of humor."

Her smile faded, and Rodney's followed. "Something happened to him, didn't it? Something bad."

Rodney sucked in a breath. He didn't know how to answer that one. He wanted to protect John, but he didn't want to lie. "John has experienced any number of bad things, but, yes, this one was especially bad."

She looked as though the very idea of John in pain hurt her. Rodney knew that feeling. "Tell me, please."

"I'm sorry. I can't."

"Because it's classified."

Rodney understood her resentment. Hell, he shared it. "I can't tell you because it's not my story to tell. It's John's."

Her knuckles were white where she'd tightened her grip on the album. "I'm not so sure of that."

She was damned perceptive, but then Rodney hadn't expected John's parents to be stupid. "You're right, but you should still hear it from John."

"You're a good friend, Rodney."

He wondered if she'd say that if she knew what had happened. He lowered his gaze to the album in his lap. An adolescent John looked up at him, his expression part defiance and part amusement. Rodney knew that look.

***

"How was school?" John asked partway through dinner, just like he had the previous two evenings. Rodney found the obvious pleasure John took in asking that question amusing.

"Fine," Malcolm replied in a tone that said it wasn't.

John gave his mother a quizzical look.

"It was career day," Olivia said as though that explained everything.

"You don't like career day?" Rodney asked.

"It's distracting and I'm not sure it accomplishes all that much," Olivia said. "High school is a little late in the game to be trying to motivate these kids with visions of a future career."

Rodney frowned. High school didn't seem all that late to him, but then he wasn't a teacher in an inner-city school. "Who do they have come?"

"We had a department store buyer this time. She was a big hit. Other than that, it was the usual—paramedics, police officers, fire fighters, lawyers, accountants, architects."

"The military," Malcolm added.

Rodney glanced at John, who froze, his fork halfway to his mouth.

"They go to schools with lots of poor and working-class kids with few prospects," Malcolm continued, "and tell them that if they join up they'll learn valuable career skills, earn money for college, see the world—they always seem to end up with less than they were promised." He looked at John.

"I'm not going to defend the military's recruitment policies. It's not my job."

"But you'll defend the military," Malcolm pointed out.

"The military has been good to me."

"Is that why you have that scar on your forearm? Because the military has been good to you?"

John removed his hand from the table, placing his arm in his lap. "I've gotten to explore, discover, see things you can't even imagine."

"Discoveries which are kept hidden from the rest of us." John didn't reply, and Malcolm added, "And how many of those discoveries are used to invent new and better ways to kill people?"

John stiffened. "There are times when violence can't be avoided."

Malcolm dismissed him with a wave of his hand. "Violence is never unavoidable. Gandhi proved that."

"Sometimes," John grated, "it is. You have no idea what we're up against."

"Because my government chooses not to tell me." Malcolm leaned back in his chair. "I know one thing. I know that I don't drop bombs on villages."

John's eyes narrowed and Rodney waited for a response. Instead of speaking, John rose slowly from his seat and turned his back on his father before walking away.

Rodney stared after him for a heartbeat and then turned to look at Malcolm. "Who the hell do you think you are?" he demanded. Malcolm opened his mouth to answer, but Rodney didn't give him the opportunity. "Bombing villages, is that what you think he does?"

"It's what the military does."

"It's not what John does. You don't know anything about what he does, the risks he's taken, the lives he's saved, or what he'll do to protect the people he's responsible for. You don't know anything about his courage, or his loyalty, or what it's cost him." Rodney knew too well what it had cost, and he found himself running out of steam, unable to maintain his anger when all he could see in his mind's eye was John being braver than anyone should ever have to be. He stood. "Quite frankly, Mr. Sheppard, you don't know a goddamned thing."

With that, he left the table, determined to find John and say whatever it was John needed him to say. Spying John through the windows on the sun porch, he stepped through the back door into the Sheppards' postage-stamp-sized yard. "Your father is an ass."

John was looking up at the sky, at the stars just visible beyond the city's lights. "Sometimes."

Rodney went to stand beside him and followed John's gaze. Cassiopeia was barely above the horizon. "You've saved more lives than I can count," he said quietly.

"I've killed."

"You have," Rodney agreed, because John had killed, but never without cause.

"I've gotten people killed."

John never talked about this kind of thing, and Rodney wondered for a moment if that was for John's benefit or everyone else's. "You've had to make choices, very tough choices."

"I got you captured."

"It was unavoidable. You know that." The conversation had the rhythm of one of their bickering sessions, but it wasn't anywhere near as much fun.

"I was in charge."

"And there was nothing you could've done," Rodney insisted. John still hadn't looked at him.

"You were tortured."

Rodney had no idea what to say to that. John was the one who had been tortured. Rodney had only had to watch. For some reason, the Chymnar had believed that making John scream in agony would break Rodney. It nearly had.

John hadn't screamed.

Rodney had. He'd screamed, and cursed, and pleaded. But then John had shaken his head, just a little, and Rodney had fallen silent.

"John." John and Rodney both turned. Malcolm was standing just inside the yard. "May I speak with you?"

When John gave a small shrug, Rodney nodded and started toward the door, passing Malcolm who moved into the yard. His hand on the doorknob, Rodney paused. "John."

John looked at him, and Rodney held his gaze. "If you had asked, just once, I would have given in."

Something flashed in John's eyes, something Rodney could see even in the darkened yard. Then John lowered his gaze and his chin, giving Rodney the barest of nods.

Rodney opened the door.

***

He went to the kitchen. Dinner still needed to be cleaned up. Olivia was there, loading the dishwasher. Rodney picked up John's half-finished plate and scraped the remains into the garbage before handing the plate to Olivia, who placed it in the dishwasher. Rodney retrieved his own plate from the table and scraped.

He wanted to apologize, say something that would start a conversation, but the truth was that he wasn't the least bit sorry.

"Malcolm has never forgiven him," Olivia said quietly, sounding resigned.

Rodney handed her the plate. "For what?"

"Joining the military. The U.S. military, any military, is anathema to Malcolm. You have to understand, we dedicated a large part of our lives to stopping a war. Killing, it never solves anything, and that is what the military is for. And John—when we asked why he joined, he said it was because he wanted to fly. He wanted to fly. That mind, all that potential, and he wanted to fly." She shut the dishwasher with more force than necessary.

"He does more than fly."

"So you said."

"You're not being fair to him."

"He turned his back on us, on everything we believed in, everything we taught him. And we learned to overlook it."

"Sounds to me like Malcolm isn't the only one who hasn't forgiven him."

Olivia looked at him sharply, her eyes flashing with anger, but all she said was, "Maybe not."

"Stop looking at the uniform and try seeing the man."

Her lips were pressed tightly together, but she gave him an almost nod.

"He's a good man, brave and kind. Not that he doesn't have his faults. He doesn't listen enough and he's stubborn, unwilling to change his mind once he's made a decision. And he is far, far too willing to risk his own life." Far too willing, Rodney pushed that thought aside. "But he's John and there's no one else like him. There are a lot of people who would willingly follow him into hell and back." He looked directly into Olivia's eyes. "I'm one of them."

She let out a long, slow breath. "You have a lot of faith him."

"He's earned it."

"I'll try."

Rodney was of the opinion that she should do more than try, but he managed to keep that to himself. "I think you'll be proud of what you see."

***

Rodney prepared for bed and then settled back against the headboard with a book to wait. A half hour or so passed before John came in, looking better than he had earlier. "How did it go?"

John shrugged. "Okay, I guess." He pulled his shirt off and sat on the side of the bed. "Thanks for sticking up for me. My Dad said you really told him off." He bent to remove his shoes, exposing the scar that went across the lower half of his back.

Rodney looked down at his book. "He was wrong."

Standing, John removed his pants and tugged on a T-shirt. Rodney kept his eyes on his book. "And you live to point out when other people are wrong," he said, sliding into the bed.

"Everyone needs a hobby."

John settled onto his side, resting his weight on his arm and hip. He flashed Rodney the lopsided grin. "Well, thank you."

"He was wrong," Rodney reiterated, searching John's face. He hadn't liked the things John had said earlier. He hadn't liked them at all.

"I know." John's grin faded. "About the other stuff, we all have our moments, you know."

Rodney suspected that John had more of those moments than most people. "I know. I had one myself once."

"You?" John asked with feigned astonishment.

"It was a long time ago."

John smiled. "I'm sure it was." He shifted onto his back. "You ready to turn in?"

Rodney wasn't, but he closed the book anyway.

"This must be a record for you. Four nights in a row with sleep."

"You might be right." Rodney turned off the lamp. "Goodnight, John."

"Night."

Rodney closed his eyes and listened to John's breathing, listened as it slowly deepened and evened out. As he listened, he thought about courage, and what it cost.

***

The next day, both John and his parents behaved as though nothing had happened. Rodney should have been accustomed to having things swept under the rug, but it felt weird to be party to someone else's sweeping. It left him feeling restless and he wandered onto the sun porch after dinner, searching for something to occupy him.

He began browsing through Malcolm's CDs, hoping something would appeal to him. Pulling a Charlie Parker CD from the shelf, he scanned the back. He hadn't listened to bebop in a long time.

"Find anything good?"

Rodney turned. Malcolm was standing just inside the door. "Charlie Parker," Rodney replied, holding up the CD.

Malcolm sat in his chair. "Good choice." Rodney returned the CD to the shelf. "I feel as though I should apologize to you for last night," Malcolm said, leaning forward in his chair.

Rodney crossed his arms and lifted his chin. "We both have bank accounts full of unused pay. We could have gone anywhere—Hawaii, Paris, Disneyland. John wanted to come here, and he persuaded me to come with him. He wanted to see you."

His eyes narrowing in a way that suggested he was reading between the lines, Malcolm loosely hooked his hands together and said, "I apologized to John last night."

"Good."

"I am sorry."

If John could accept his father's apology, then so could Rodney. He nodded. "Accepted."

"Good." Malcolm smiled. "So you like the Fifth."

"I've always been partial to bombast."

"That doesn’t surprise me."

John's parents were a little too much like John. Nevertheless, Rodney smiled slightly. There was a chess set with marble pieces to Malcolm's left that Rodney had been meaning to ask about. "That's a nice set," he said, nodding at it as he it as he took a seat on the couch.

Malcolm picked up a rook and rolled it in his hand. "It's John's, actually. He's just never had anywhere to keep it. My father gave it to him." He looked at Rodney. "Do you play?"

Relaxing slightly, Rodney leaned against the back of the couch. "John and I have played a few times. I haven't been able to figure out his game. It's all over the place."

"He learned that from my father. They played together every chance they got. That's where John got his love of flying. My father was a World War II pilot, and he used to regale John with stories in between games."

"He's mentioned his grandfather a few times."

"Has he? That's good. He's not usually the most talkative person."

"No," Rodney agreed, "he isn't." John was very good at not talking. He could even keep silent when there was a knife cutting into his skin. That was all it took, that one stray thought, and Rodney was back in the Chymar prison, watching their interrogator drag a knife across John's chest, blood welling in its wake. Rodney's eyes were locked on John's and he couldn't look away, couldn't breathe, couldn't scream, even though he could feel the scream swelling his chest.

"Rodney?"

With a shake of his head, Rodney forced his mind back to the present.

"Are you all right?" Malcolm asked, with a concerned frown.

"Fine." Rodney took a deep breath. "You never did tell me which symphony you prefer."

"Of Beethoven's?" Malcolm leaned back in his chair, concern still showing in his eyes. "I'm partial to the Ninth, although the Third also has a lot of charm."

Rodney nodded, concentrating on Malcolm's words, making certain there wasn't room in his mind for anything else.

***

They had settled into a pattern. John's parents left in the early hours of the morning to teach, while John and Rodney slept until nine or so and then puttered about the house, reading, and chatting. In the afternoon they went for walks, exploring the neighborhood. They talked about going to the Metropolitan or maybe MOMA, but they never quite seemed to make it.

Instead, they baked cookies. It had been John's idea. They were finishing lunch, when he said, "You know what I want? Cookies. Homemade cookies."

A little poking through the kitchen turned up an unopened bag of chocolate chips with a recipe on the back. Given that he could build nuclear bombs, Rodney figured cookies couldn't be that hard.

He was in charge of stirring while John gathered and measured the ingredients. They had just added the chocolate chips when John reached into the bowl to steal some batter. Rodney tapped his hand with the metal spoon.

John took a step back.

Rodney looked from John to the spoon. It was the same color as the Chymnar knives had been. Inwardly cursing himself, he looked back at John who turned and walked away. Rodney followed him into the living room. John was a few feet ahead of him, almost to the stairs.

"You had a flashback, didn't you?" Rodney asked. He had had more than one himself. Dr. Heightmeyer said it was normal; she claimed that she would be worried if he didn't have flashbacks. Rodney still hated them.

John stopped in the doorway and turned a little, so that he was almost facing Rodney. "Yeah."

"I wanted it to be me," Rodney said, because he did and because it was past time he said it. "I couldn't give them what they wanted, and I knew you didn't want me to, but watching you. I just…I wanted it to be me."

John didn't answer, and the silence was too much for Rodney to bear. He knew he tended to talk a lot, but not about the things that mattered. This mattered. "I don't have many friends, John. People seem to think I'm—"

"Obnoxious." The corners of John's mouth almost curved into a smile and Rodney nodded. "Arrogant," John added, taking a step toward him. "Irritating." John stopped less than an arm's length away. "I'm glad it wasn't you," he said softly. "I don't think I could have held out."

Rodney shook his head. John was one of the bravest people Rodney knew. He didn't quit or give up or give in.

"I might have," John insisted, adding in a softer voice, "I don't have many friends either."

"Charm and good looks keep 'em away in droves," Rodney said, trying for humor, the tightness in his throat keeping him from making it.

"I thought I was a dork." John's mouth curved into a tiny smile, and Rodney reached for him. Burying his face in John's neck, he breathed in John's scent—John, who wasn't bleeding or in pain, who was whole and safe and letting Rodney hold onto him with every bit of strength he possessed.

John held on too, easing Rodney's embarrassment over his own desperation.

It went on too long for a hug between friends, even desperate friends. Rodney handled the awkwardness with his usual grace, blurting out, "Your parents think we're lovers."

John gave an amused snort and squeezed Rodney tightly for a moment before letting him go. "I know."

Before Rodney could answer, the front door opened. "Hey kids, you in the mood for Thai?" John's father asked as he entered.

Manfully ignoring the fact that he'd been called a kid, Rodney said, "Yes."

***

John had worn a button-down shirt to dinner and Rodney couldn't keep himself from glancing over as John unbuttoned it. He still hadn't seen most of John's scars, even though they shared a room. He didn't want to see them, but he couldn't stop looking.

John, being John, noticed. Wearing nothing but his boxers, he knelt on the bed next to Rodney. "It's okay to look," he said quietly.

Rodney glanced at him and then looked quickly away. "No, I—"

"I understand if you need to."

Rodney looked, not at the scars, but at John's face. John really did understand, but then, John was like that. He understood things Rodney had no clue about.

Slowly he let his gaze fall down John's face, past his neck, to the scar that started just under John's throat and disappeared into a thicket of chest hair. Before he could stop himself, he lifted his fingers and traced the scar's path. John didn't protest, and Rodney followed it through the hair with his fingers, over the curve of a pectoral muscle, and down to John's stomach. The skin was raised where the Chymnar had cut into him, but the skin on either side of it was smooth beneath Rodney's fingers.

Unable to look at John's face, he traced another scar across John's abdomen, and a third that stretched diagonally across his chest.

One of the scars started at the base of John's neck and went down along his shoulder. Rodney touched it with his fingers, and John twitched a little. He moved his fingers over it, realizing that what mattered wasn't the scar, but the strength beneath it. John was alive and whole and they were both safe, at least for the moment. John was still John. He wondered if John knew all of this, if this was his way of trying to tell Rodney or if he needed Rodney to tell him. Leaning forward, he pressed his lips to the place where the scar began.

Drawing back, he looked up. John's eyes were wide and his mouth was open, just a little. He leaned down and Rodney stretched to meet him.

The kiss was brief, shy, and so sweet it made Rodney ache.

They parted, blinked at one another for a moment, and then kissed again. And again. The shyness was receding; the sweetness wasn't.

With John kneeling and him sitting, the angle strained Rodney's neck, so he lay back on the bed. John followed.

A small part of Rodney's brain marveled at what they were doing. The rest was focused on the kissing, on John's lips and tongue and the feel of John's skin beneath his hands.

He was touching John.

John pulled at his T-shirt, and Rodney helped him to remove it. Then it was just skin and warmth and John.

The touching and kissing had to give way to more eventually, and it was Rodney who broke first. Kneeling between John's legs, he began tracing the scar on John's calf. John kept still, but Rodney could feel him watching, even as Rodney watched his fingers moving over John's skin.

He found another scar, then another, both small. He wondered how deep the cuts had been. His own memories of those hours were a blur—most of them, anyway. A few remained clear and sharp. He hoped John's were blurry.

The next scar he found was on the inside of John's thigh, far enough up that when he touched it, his hand brushed John's balls through the fabric of his boxers.

John gasped, and Rodney looked up. Pleasure—there was pleasure on John's face. That's what John needed, pleasure to replace the pain. John needed to feel it, and Rodney needed to see John feel it, needed to hear him feel it. He reached for the waistband of John's boxers and John lifted his hips. It took only a moment to remove them, and then Rodney was kneeling between his friend's bare thighs, looking at John in all of his naked glory.

John was hard, but Rodney had known that, had felt it when they were kissing. John's cock was long and straight. Rodney's curved a little to the left. He was circumcised, which was a relief since Rodney didn't have the slightest clue what to do with a foreskin. Rodney wasn't at all surprised by the abundance of dark, curly hair.

He traced the edge of one of John's balls with the side of his finger. The skin was surprisingly soft. Impulsively, he pressed a quick kiss to the base of John's cock. John's sudden inhalation was audible.

Curling his hand around John's cock, he stroked slowly and probably too lightly. He repeated the stroke a few times before once again pressing his lips to the base. Resting John's cock against the palm of his open hand, he began kissing his way upward. Turning his head for a better angle, he sucked lightly on the skin beneath his lips. The firmness of John's cock felt good, and he tasted of that indefinable something that made him John.

John groaned when he reached the place just beneath the head, so Rodney lingered there, alternating sucking with quick flicks of his tongue.

Drawing back, he closed his hand around the base and studied the situation. There was only one thing left to do that he could see. He circled the head of John's cock with his tongue, tasting a hint of salt, and then closed his lips around it.

John moaned, and any doubts Rodney had vanished. Slowly, he slid his lips lower, taking in more of John. When he had as much as he could manage, he sucked lightly. Then he slowly drew back up, maintaining the suction as best he could. Reaching the tip, he resumed his downward journey. He knew the rhythm was probably too slow and the suction too light, but he had to be careful, gentle. No matter how easy it was to do this, and it was far easier than Rodney could ever have imagined, they were both too fragile for anything else.

The taste of John on his tongue was somehow comforting, and the glide of John's cock over his lips was oddly sensual. Rodney gave into the rhythm of it, into sucking and stroking and feeling. He sucked until his cheeks were sore and his jaw ached, and then he kept sucking. He didn't stop, even when John's cock jerked and spurted. He kept sucking, letting John fill his mouth with fluid, not caring that the taste was bitter, caring only that John was moaning with pleasure.

He held John's softening cock in his mouth until John reached for him.

John guided him down, wrapped his arms around Rodney's shoulders, and brought their mouths together in a kiss.

Rodney held on when John rolled him onto his back, determined not to lose the feel of John's body against his. He made a soft, protesting sound when John left his mouth in favor of his neck. Then he stretched his head back, offering more of his skin to John.

But John didn't linger. He mouthed his way down Rodney's chest to a nipple and sucked. Rodney arched, his response purely instinctive. It felt like John was drawing the pleasure out of Rodney and into his mouth and then somehow giving it back. Rodney buried his hands in John's hair, silently encouraging him.

John switched to the other side, and then he moved lower. The thought of John's mouth doing to Rodney's cock what he had already done to Rodney's nipples was nearly enough to make him come.

Taking hold of Rodney's boxers, John began pulling them down. Rodney lifted his hips, desperate to help. He needed to be naked with John, in front of John. He needed John to see him, to look at him, to touch him.

John knelt between his legs, and Rodney watched him as he studied Rodney, as he reached out and took Rodney's cock in his hand.

John stroked him a few times, then simply leaned down and took Rodney's cock into his mouth. Rodney's shoulders curled up off the bed. Panting, he forced himself back down, letting go of John's hair and clutching the sheets as he struggled to find some control.

When John began to suck, Rodney's cock decided that this was the best place it had been in a long time. Make that ever. And it wasn't going to leave. It was going to spend eternity with John's mouth.

Apparently its definition of eternity wasn't that long, because Rodney came embarrassingly soon. The power of it made him shake, made him reach for John, his hands petting John's shoulders and hair, even as he lifted his hips from the bed. John had done this for him, given him this, and Rodney had to touch because there weren't words for how that made him feel.

He collapsed against the bed, tension gone, and John settled onto his side, sharing Rodney's pillow. "You okay?" he asked softly.

Rodney found just enough energy to roll onto his side as well. "Yeah. You?"

"I'm okay."

Rodney wanted to say something, to let John know that he was more than okay— he was incredible. But Rodney had never been good at postcoital conversation, and when he spoke, the words, "I think I'm in love with you" came out.

John didn't react for a long, heart-pounding moment, and then the corner of his mouth quirked. "You think?"

"It's not like I have much of a basis for comparison."

"You've never been in love." It was half statement and half question.

"I've never felt like this."

"Like what?"

"Like I'd give my life for yours, and not just in a walk into a life-sucking-alien-cloud kind of way, but in a watch-American-football kind of way."

"I'm reading Stephen Hawking," John said.

Rodney turned onto his back and held out an arm. "Come here." To his surprise, John settled against him, his head on Rodney's shoulder.

Rodney did the thing he'd needed to do since they were rescued. He held on.

***

Rodney woke up on his back. He almost never slept on his back. Turning his head a little, he discovered that John was sharing his pillow, his face mere centimeters from Rodney's. John's arm was slung across him, and Rodney slid his hand over it, coming to a stop just above John's elbow.

It should have felt weird, waking up with John like this, but it didn't. Of course, they'd been sharing the bed for a week. Still, this was their first morning after. Rodney smiled. There were going to be more mornings after. He was sure of it.

John opened his eyes.

"Good morning," Rodney said quietly.

"Morning," John answered with a sleepy smile.

Rodney wondered if he should kiss him. Most of the women Rodney had woken up with had preferred not to kiss until after they'd brushed their teeth. John wasn't a woman, but that didn't mean he'd like morning breath.

John took the matter out of his hands by giving him a brief, close-mouthed kiss. "What time is it?"

Rodney glanced at the clock on the bedside table. "Almost nine." John's parents had undoubtedly left hours earlier.

"What do you think—should we have sex then shower and then eat, or should we shower first or eat first?"

"We could have sex in the shower," Rodney suggested, the idea of a wet, naked John making his cock harden.

John grinned. "You have the best ideas."

They smiled at one another all through breakfast. Neither of them said much. They just kept smiling. Rodney had tried to stop. He'd force his mouth into a straight line, only to have it curl up again. After a few tries, he'd given up. Besides, John was smiling as much as he was.

John had a really nice smile.

He'd smiled in the shower, too.

When Rodney rose to put his dishes in the sink, John came up behind him. He rested one hand on Rodney's waist and began to kiss the side of Rodney's neck.

Rodney stood still for a moment, enjoying the feel of John's lips on his skin. Then he turned, and their mouths met in a hungry kiss. They'd jerked one another off in the shower less than half an hour ago, and now they were kissing like they'd both been celibate for years.

"Damn," Rodney muttered when they parted, resting his forehead on John's shoulder.

"You can say that again." John was sliding his hands up and down Rodney's back. It would have been soothing, except it made him want John even more, and Rodney wasn't used to wanting this much.

"Damn."

John chuckled but only for a moment. "Why did we bother to put clothes on?"

"So we could take them off."

"So let's take 'em off."

Rodney was pretty sure they were too old to walk hand in hand to the bedroom, but they did it anyway.

The undressing took longer than it probably should have. They both kept getting distracted by the kissing. Rodney couldn’t figure out why either of them had bothered with socks. Eventually, he was naked and John was naked, and Rodney lay down on the bed.

John kissed his back, just above the hip where John's hand was resting, and Rodney closed his eyes. Desire spread through him, slow and warm, as John mouthed his way up Rodney's back to his neck. John sucked gently, drawing Rodney's skin into his mouth, and Rodney dropped his head, offering more of himself to John.

"You feel so good," John whispered, and Rodney moaned in answer as John's hand slid up his side. John's mouth was back on his neck, kissing and teasing and turning the warm desire flowing through him into a sweet ache.

John paused, and Rodney shifted onto his back. John smiled, and Rodney reached for him, drawing him into a slow kiss.

When they parted, John moved his mouth to Rodney's neck. Apparently John had a thing for necks. Rodney wasn't complaining, especially since his neck seemed to be acquiring a thing for John's mouth.

John slid lower, his skin warm against Rodney's as he kissed his way to a nipple. Sweet suction drew pleasure from his toes to his nipple, and Rodney arched, burying his hands in John's hair. This was exactly what he needed, what John needed. The two of them together, making each other feel good…

John lingered, alternating from one side of Rodney's chest to the other, until Rodney tugged a little on his hair and guided John's mouth back to his.

Indulgent kisses, lips and tongues, and John had to be the most generous kisser Rodney had ever known.

"I could kiss you all day," Rodney murmured when they parted for a moment.

"Now that's a plan," John said. He might've followed his words with a grin, but Rodney didn't give him a chance to; he just pulled John back for another kiss.

Rodney rolled them so he was on top and worked his way to John's neck, reasoning that John probably dedicated so much time to necks because he liked having his kissed. A little light suction, and John groaned, tilting his head and exposing more of his neck to Rodney's mouth.

John didn't taste like anyone Rodney had been with before, and Rodney wondered if it was because he was a guy or if it was because he was John. Then he decided it didn't matter.

Slowly he worked his way down John's body, rubbing his cheek in John's chest hair, teasing John's skin with his mouth.

He was on his knees and his cock was heavy, the tip occasionally brushing against John, causing them both to suck in a breath. He traced John's hipbone with his tongue before settling over John's cock, his lips scant centimeters from the tip. Rodney studied it, noting the hint of moisture at the slit, the flushed color, the slope of the head. Reaching out with his tongue, he touched the slit, savoring the taste of John's arousal. He'd done this, made John hard, made John leak. He lifted his eyes from John's cock to his face. John was looking at him and his expression made Rodney's breath catch. It wasn't the desire that caused the catch, or even the vulnerability; it was the wonder. John was looking at him like Rodney was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen, which was strange because Rodney was pretty sure it was the other way around.

John touched him, his fingertips brushing across Rodney's lips.

Eyes still on John's face, Rodney lowered his mouth, closed his lips around the head of John's cock, and sucked. John moaned. It was quite possibly the sexiest sound Rodney had ever heard.

He caressed John with his tongue, running it over the head, and teasing the slit. Then he slid his mouth lower, sucking, until John's cock touched the back of his throat. He slowly drew back until his lips hit the ridge, and then he went back down.

Rodney lost himself in the caress, in the feel of John's cock moving over his lips and along his tongue, in the concentrated flavor of John, and in John's barely audible sounds of pleasure.

When John reached for him, Rodney resisted for a moment before relenting and allowing himself to be guided from John's cock to his mouth.

"Don't want to come yet," John said softly just before they kissed. "I thought we were going to kiss all day," he added when they parted.

"We are," Rodney answered.

Their bodies slid together as they kissed, hands touching every available bit of skin. Rodney had no idea when they started moving, pushing their hips together with tiny motions that gradually grew larger.

They came like that, lost in motion and taste and the feel of skin against skin.

***

Two days in a row spent pretty much entirely in bed had left Rodney in a really good mood. Shower sex hadn't exactly hurt, either. Still, catching sight of himself in the bathroom mirror smiling widely for no apparent reason was a little disturbing. He looked closer. "You gave me a hickey." He lifted his fingers to the mark on the side of his neck. Fortunately, it was low enough that his shirt should hide it.

John hung up his towel and slid his arms around Rodney's waist. "I'm sorry."

Rodney looked at John's reflection in the mirror. "No, you're not."

"No, I'm not," John admitted, pressing a quick kiss to the spot in question. "Come on. We should get dressed before…"

"John, Rodney," Olivia called.

"Your parents get home," Rodney finished.

They hadn't bothered with clothes for the short walk from their bed to the shower. Now they had no way of pretending they hadn't just been showering together. John let go of him and held out a towel. Rodney wrapped it around his waist.

He let John go first.

"Kind of late in the day for a shower, isn't it?" he heard John's father ask.

"I'm going to get dressed," John replied.

Rodney waited a couple of minutes before stepping into the hallway. Fortunately, he didn't see either of John's parents.

"I think they suspect," John said when Rodney closed the bedroom door.

"They suspected when there wasn't anything to suspect," Rodney pointed out, pulling on his boxers.

"So they shouldn't suspect now."

"Except for the moaning and the late afternoon showers. Not to mention the cookies we forgot about."

"Helpful as always."

Rodney grinned. "I try."

***

Rodney tried to concentrate on his dinner, but kept getting distracted by the mark on his neck and the memory of how it had gotten there. Dinner was unusually quiet and Rodney kept his head down, uncomfortable with the odd undercurrents that reminded him of dinner at his parents' house.

"I had a good day," Malcolm said at last. "How about you?"

Olivia smiled. "Mine was good."

"How about you two?" Malcolm asked, looking from John to Rodney and back.

"We had a good day," John answered with the barest glance at Rodney.

"Try anything new?" his father asked.

Rodney choked on his water.

"Are you all right?" Olivia patted his back.

"Fine," he croaked.

John put down his fork. "Rodney and I are sleeping together."

"We know, dear. We put you in the same room," Olivia said, her expression completely placid.

Rodney bit his lip to keep from laughing.

"Entirely platonic sleeping," Malcolm added. "You explained it very carefully. You're close, straight friends."

If Rodney didn't stop biting, he was going to draw blood. Unfortunately, he'd never seen John look quite so put upon.

"We're having sex," John said.

"I thought you were straight," Olivia commented, rather pointedly.

"And you told me dichotomous thinking is limiting."

She smiled beneficently. "I'm glad to see you listened."

"You said it enough times," John muttered.

"You don't always listen the first time. Or the second."

"I'm glad you sorted things out," Malcolm put in. Apparently, Olivia wasn't the only one in the family who knew when to redirect a conversation. "We were starting to think we were going to have to draw you a diagram."

"That's not a bad idea." Three sets of eyes turned to look at Rodney.

"Tell me you didn't just say that we need diagrams," John said.

Rodney waved his roll at him. "It's just that we're both new to," he paused, "nondichotomous thinking and some additional—"

"Do we have to talk about this now?" John asked his voice low.

"There's a bookstore on Lawrence with a large gay and lesbian section," Olivia said. "It's within walking distance."

"Really?" Rodney asked. "How late are they open?"

"Rodney," John protested in his "stop telling the nice people how to make nuclear weapons" voice.

"We're just discussing bookstores," Olivia said with a small smile.

"For purchasing sex manuals."

Rodney thought about that for a moment. "You're right. We should probably get more than one. It's always best to have multiple sources of information."

John groaned, his father laughed, and Olivia rose to get paper on which to write the directions.

***

"Sex manuals. You discussed sex manuals with my mother."

"I did not," Rodney said, sliding into the bed and settling onto his side facing John. "I discussed bookstores with your mother."

"Semantics."

Rodney kissed John's shoulder. "I love it when you talk dirty."

John snorted. "Books, huh?"

"As much fun as we're having figuring things out on our own, a little knowledgeable advice can't hurt."

"Fine. We can go tomorrow, but you're buying."

"I'll buy the books, you buy the lube." Rodney pulled the covers up around his chin.

"Lube?"

"Unless you don't—"

"No, that's a good idea." John rolled from his back to his side and edged closer to Rodney. "Think my parents are asleep?"

"Probably, unless the thought of their only son having sex with another man in the room down the hall is keeping them awake."

John snorted softly. "I'm surprised my mother isn't selling tickets."

"I don't think she'd go quite that far."

"Do they have to be so damn happy about it?"

"Would you rather they disowned you?"

John shook his head. "No, it's just…Nothing I've done has made them happy for a long time. Now they're happy because I'm having sex with you."

"They like me, at least your mother does, and maybe they want you to be happy. Maybe seeing you happy makes them happy."

"Maybe," John conceded. "I am pretty happy."

"I can make you happier."

"I thought you needed a manual first."

Rodney lifted the covers and slid under them, his mouth closing over John's flaccid cock, which promptly began to harden.

"Maybe not."

***

"You really think we need books?" John asked as they passed a busy deli which, according to Olivia's directions, was only half a block from the bookstore.

"I can go in alone if you're embarrassed."

"I'm not embarrassed. I just thought we were doing pretty well."

And Rodney had thought they'd discussed this already. "Before constructing an experiment you should always review the relevant literature."

"Even if it's porn?"

Rodney opened the door to the bookstore. "Even then."

John flashed him a smile as he walked past. Rodney followed him into the store, and they stopped just inside. Light flooded the entrance. The store was on two floors with real wood shelves and plenty of nooks and crannies.

"Nice place," John said.

"Yes, it is."

John gave him a sidelong glance. "You never struck me as a bookstore kind of guy."

Rodney shrugged. "Books contain information. I like information."

"They also have these things called stories, with characters and plots."

"Have you finished War and Peace yet?"

"I was thinking of getting the sequel."

"There's a sequel?"

John grinned and started toward the literature section. Rodney watched him walk away and then began searching for the gay and lesbian section.

He found it tucked away in a corner, obviously placed so that patrons could browse unobserved. He didn't know whether to appreciate the courtesy or be annoyed at the prejudice which made the courtesy, well, a courtesy.

Bypassing the fiction and erotica, he began browsing through the nonfiction.

"Find anything good?" John asked an hour or so later, resting a hand on Rodney's waist and his chin on Rodney's shoulder. "Or should I say, informative?"

"Yes, I have." Rodney turned his head, but he couldn't quite see John's face, so he went back to looking at the book in his hands.

"I don't think either of us is that flexible."

Rodney looked more closely at the illustration. No, they probably weren't, which was unfortunate. "Did you get more Tolstoy?"

"I went with Tolkien instead."

"You haven't read The Lord of the Rings?"

"Of course I read it, but it was a long time ago. I thought about getting some sci fi, but considering that we're living it…"

"Mmm," Rodney agreed, leaning back a little. The books had left him in a state of low-level arousal, and John felt good pressed against his back.

"You ready to go?"

"Yeah." Rodney picked up the other book he had chosen and reluctantly took a step away from John.

"What about that?"

Turning, Rodney followed John's gaze to the erotica shelves. "You want porn?"

"It's information." Stepping past Rodney, he pulled a book from the shelves. "This one says it's the best."

"That one says it's the best of the best."

John picked up the book Rodney was pointing at, adding it to the one already in his hands. "Let's go."

Rodney followed John to the counter, placing his books on top of John's. The clerk politely asked if they had found everything they were looking for, and John flashed Rodney a grin before saying, "We did. Thank you."

The clerk smiled at him, and Rodney thought for a moment about pointing out to her that they were buying gay books. Then she smiled at him, too, and he handed her the money for the books. She put the books in a bag, wishing them both a nice day.

Rodney smiled and wished her one in return before following John out the door.

"I don't know about you," John said as they again passed the deli, "but I feel kind of daring." He gave Rodney a sly grin.

"Buying books makes you feel daring?"

"Buying gay books. The clerk knew we were together. That we're lovers."

"You liked having the clerk know?" Rodney was curious, because it had felt good, but he was surprised it had felt good to John.

"I did. We're breaking this big taboo and having people know, it's—"

"A bit of a rush," Rodney finished for him.

John smiled, his whole face lighting up. "Not as much of a rush as actually doing it."

Rodney laughed. "Or flying a jumper."

"Or flying a jumper," John agreed.

Thinking of the jumper reminded him of Atlantis. There wouldn't be any bookstore clerks in Atlantis. "We won't be able to tell anyone."

"No, we won't," John agreed. "Are you okay with that?"

"I knew that going in." He had; he simply hadn't thought about it, about what it would be like to try and hide something this important.

"Yeah, but you're not that fond of keeping secrets."

"You mean I'm not good at it."

"You're plenty good at it when you have to be."

Rodney stopped walking. John took a couple of steps before realizing that Rodney wasn't next to him and looking back. "Rodney?"

"I'm fine." Rodney didn't feel fine, and he wondered where the happy camaraderie of just a few minutes ago had gone. He wondered how long it would be before the most innocent things stopped being reminders.

"You didn't have a choice."

"I know that," Rodney snapped. John was being understanding; Rodney didn't want his understanding. He didn't know what he wanted, but it wasn't understanding.

John opened his mouth, looking like he was about to try again, but something in Rodney's expression must have gotten to him, because he uttered a clipped "fine" before turning on his heel and walking away.

"Fuck," Rodney muttered and started after him. John was only a few feet ahead of him and Rodney caught up to him after a short jog. "I'm sorry."

John stopped walking and turned to face him. "I don't get it. Do you want me to be angry at you?"

"Of course not." Rodney replied automatically. "Maybe," he added in an unsure voice.

"It wasn't your fault," John said, sounding more exasperated than understanding.

A woman on rollerblades passed behind Rodney, forcing him to take a step closer to John. He closed his eyes. Even though they weren't touching, he could feel John's presence, just like he'd been able to feel John's presence in the Chymnar prison. "Maybe I want it to be," he whispered.

"Why?" John's voice was soft.

"Because if it's my fault I can make sure it doesn't happen again. I can keep you safe." He wasn't sure John could hear him over the street noise.

"If you had talked, they would have killed us both."

Rodney swallowed. "I know."

John squeezed his shoulder. "You kept me alive, Rodney. You kept us both alive."

But alive wasn't the same thing as safe. "I wanted to keep you safe," Rodney confessed.

"I know," John said simply. He slid his hand closer to Rodney's neck. "Let's go home."

Rodney nodded and they started up the street. John slid his arm around Rodney's shoulders, and Rodney let him.

***

"Find anything good?" Olivia asked when they entered the living room, looking up from her book.

To his complete shock and John's amusement, Rodney blushed.

"I got a new copy of The Lord of the Rings." John sat beside his mother on the couch.

"You could have had ours," Malcolm said from his chair.

Rodney didn't hear John's answer as he climbed the stairs and went into their bedroom, closing the door behind him. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he rested his elbows on his knees, with the handles of the plastic bag held loosely in his hands, and stared at the floor.

He and John were lovers. He'd known that, of course. He was pretty sure he'd been the one to initiate the whole thing. Until now he'd been so focused on being with John that he hadn't thought about the implications, not really. He hadn't thought about the fact that John was risking his career by being with him, or that a lot of people would hate them simply for loving one another.

Rodney was used to being disliked, but that was because he was an arrogant ass. To be hated for loving someone—that was bizarre.

He wasn't going to be able to kiss John in public, or even hug him. No one other than John's parents was going to acknowledge that they were anything but good friends. For some reason, that rankled.

The door opened and John came in. "You okay?"

"I'm fine."

John sat beside him on the bed. "You blushed."

"I wouldn't have if you hadn't bought porn."

"Erotica," John countered. "Didn't you read the sign? Besides, you paid for it." John nudged Rodney with his shoulder. "I can't believe you're embarrassed by a little explicit fiction."

"I'm Canadian."

"They don't have porn in Canada?"

"We do. We're just polite about it."

"Polite, of course." John glanced at him sidelong. "In what ways are you polite about it?"

Rodney put the bag on the floor and lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. "I have no idea," he admitted.

John leaned over him. "Are you sure everything is okay?"

"Yeah, I just hadn't thought about it. I knew about it, but I hadn't thought about it."

"It?"

"Homophobia."

John frowned.

"There are people who will hate us just because we—" Rodney stopped, unsure how to finish the sentence.

"Have great sex?" John suggested.

"Yeah, that."

Lying on his back next to Rodney, John said, "You do realize that there are a lot of people who hate me for being American and in the military and who hate you for being—"

"Me," Rodney suggested, cutting him off.

John turned onto his side. He used one arm as a pillow and placed his free hand on the center of Rodney's stomach. "Is this really different?"

Rodney thought about that for a moment. "It feels different," he said at last. "Being disliked because I'm arrogant and can be a bit of an ass is one thing. It's justified, based on something real. Being hated because I care about you isn't. It's prejudice."

"Yes, it is."

"I've never been on the receiving end of prejudice before."

"You mean there isn't anyone out there who hates brilliant, white, Canadian men simply for existing?"

"Not that I know of." Rodney covered John's hand with his. "You're risking more than I am. A lot more."

John looked at him with dark, serious eyes, and moved his thumb back and forth over Rodney's shirt. "Worth it," he said in a tone as serious as his expression.

Rodney swallowed and squeezed his hand. "We should go out there, spend some time with your parents."

Still stroking Rodney's stomach with his thumb, John kissed him before rising from the bed. Linking his hand in Rodney's, he pulled Rodney up next to him.

Rodney went.

***

John rested his chin on Rodney's shoulder and studied the book in Rodney's hands. Rodney wondered if this was going to become a habit. "That looks like fun."

The book Rodney was reading had illustrations, and the two men in the drawing were sharing a sixty-nine. "We've done that," Rodney said.

"And it was fun."

Rodney smiled. A playful John had long been one of his favorite things. "How's your porn?" John's parents were at work, which meant playing was definitely on the agenda for the afternoon.

"Interesting."

"Why did you buy it, anyway?"

"Because your books can tell us the nuts and bolts, but mine will give us the context."

"Context," Rodney repeated. "Have you read that kind of stuff before?"

"Porn? Or gay porn?"

"Gay porn." Rodney didn't bother pointing out that John was calling it porn and not erotica.

"Only what was in Penthouse."

"There's gay porn in Penthouse?"

"Sometimes. In the letters section."

"Did you like it?" Rodney wanted to know because this whole change in sexuality thing was puzzling. At first he hadn't thought much about it, because being with John had been one of the easiest things he'd ever done. It had felt right, like it was exactly what he should be doing. It still felt right, but now he couldn't stop thinking about it, wondering if he was gay, when he had become gay, what it all meant. He kept going back over his memories, trying to figure out if there had been times he'd been attracted to men, or turned on by the idea of two men together.

John lifted his chin from Rodney's shoulder and shrugged. "I read them along with the other letters. I was turned on, but there aren't any that I remember being especially exciting." John frowned a little. "I think maybe you're overthinking this."

"Thinking is what I do."

"It's not all you do," John teased. "I can have my mother give you the dichotomy lecture."

"I'm a scientist. I like categories."

"But sexuality isn't one of those things you can categorize. People don't fit into neat little boxes, or Linnean classifications. They grow and change. We're not ever one thing or the other, Rodney, especially when it comes to sex."

Rodney was certain Olivia would be thrilled to know John had paid such careful attention to her lectures. "Don't you think I should have known? Had some clue that I was attracted to men?"

"But you aren't attracted to men, you're attracted to me."

"And people think my ego is big."

"Are you attracted to every woman you see?"

"Of course not, but—"

"But what?"

"This should be a big deal. It's a massive change in how people will perceive us, in our identity. We bought lube and you're reading gay porn."

"It is a big deal," John said in his firm voice, the one he rarely used. "But having sex with a man isn't a big deal. Having sex with you is."

Rodney stared at him. Sometimes John said the right thing, the perfect thing, and Rodney shouldn't be surprised by it anymore, but he was.

"I think we've been working toward this for a long time," John added in a softer voice.

Rodney nodded. John had been the most important person in his life for so long it was sometimes hard for Rodney to remember that he hadn't always been there.

"When we're having sex, I don't think 'wow, a cock.' I think, 'wow, Rodney's cock.' Do you understand?" John was giving Rodney his earnest look now, and Rodney had no defenses against the earnest look, none.

"Yeah, I get it."

"Good. So will you stop worrying about what it all means?"

Rodney nodded again. He could do that. For John, he could do that.

John smiled. Then John kissed him, and Rodney let the book fall to the floor.

***

John leaned against the wall at the back of the shower, spreading his legs, encouraging Rodney to wash him just a little more thoroughly. Rodney let go of John's balls and moved his fingers further back, covering John's perineum with soap, skating the edge of John's entrance—not that he had gotten dirty there. In fact, most of the fluid from both of their orgasms had ended up on Rodney.

John tilted his pelvis, pushing himself toward Rodney's fingers and whispered, "Touch me."

Rodney's breath caught. John was asking him to…John wanted him to…He took a deep breath. "The book says we shouldn't use soap for lube."

He half expected John to say he didn't care what the book said. Instead, John grabbed a plastic bottle and held it out to him. "What do they say about conditioner?"

The book didn't say anything about conditioner. Rodney rinsed the soap from his hands and read the ingredients list on the back, ignoring the water that was hitting the side of his head.

"Rodney."

"Just checking."

"I'm sure it doesn't have any lemon."

"Funny." Rodney poured some onto his fingers and rubbed them together. It wasn't that different from lotion. Deciding it was probably safe, he looked at John. "Are you sure?"

"Rodney."

"All right, but if you don't like it…"

"I shall whine like Kavanagh."

"John, don't mention Kavanagh while we're having sex."

"But we're not having sex. We're talking about having sex. By the time—"

Rodney silenced him with a kiss. John made a happy sound and kissed Rodney back enthusiastically. Rodney was still trying to get used to John's enthusiasm—and his own.

Letting John do whatever he wished to with Rodney's mouth, Rodney once again slipped his hand between John's legs. The skin around John's entrance was wrinkled and had a smattering of hair. He traced it with his fingers, and John's kiss became even more enthusiastic.

Rodney pressed gently against John's entrance with his fingertip, and after a moment his finger slid inside, not all of the way, just the tip. It was so close inside John that Rodney couldn't imagine a penis fitting into the small space, although his cock twitched at the thought. He pushed a little more, and his finger slid further in. It was easy, so he pushed a bit more, and then his finger was all of the way in.

It was smooth, nothing like a vagina—not that vaginas were rough exactly, but they didn't feel like this. Remembering his reading, Rodney crooked his finger and felt it, John's prostate, firm against his fingertip.

John broke their kiss with a moan.

Rodney pulled out a bit and then pushed back in, rubbing John's prostate.

John's hands closed around his arms, squeezing his biceps. "Do that again."

Rodney did as he was asked, amazed at John's obvious pleasure. He was touching John in a place no one else ever had, and John was staring at him with wide eyes and an open mouth. Head and shoulders against the wall, legs spread, water everywhere, he was the sexiest thing Rodney had ever seen.

He kissed John again, because he had to, sliding his finger in and out in time with his kiss.

John pulled away from the kiss, panting, and in a voice rough with sex, said, "More."

Rodney drew his finger back far enough that he could slip in a second beside it. He had to push harder now and he almost stopped, but John murmured the words, "So good."

Rodney leaned back and watched. He watched pleasure move across John's face, the way John began to move his hips in time with Rodney's touch, watched a lock of wet hair fall across John's eyes. He listened to John's soft whimpers and occasional gasps.

John was tight around his fingers, but welcoming. Feeling John surrounding him, even just his fingers, was almost unbearably erotic.

"Rodney."

The mere sound of John saying his name was enough to send a small frisson of pleasure through him.

"So close."

Rodney understood. His fingers were enough to take John to the edge, but not quite enough to take him over. Leaning close, his lips beside John's ear, he asked softly, "Would it help if I sucked your cock?"

John groaned and his hands tightened on Rodney's arms. "Please."

Rodney dropped to his knees, forcing John to let go of him. John pressed his hands against the wall and pushed his hips forward. "Please."

Rodney took hold of the base with his free hand and then wrapped his lips around the head. He licked up the drops of water from the shower and then began to suck, taking as much of John in as he could. Part of John was in him and part of him was in John. Thinking about it made him feel even more exposed than he was, so he stopped thinking about it and gave into John's rhythm, stroking and sucking, caressing and being caressed. How had he not known that an ass could actually caress fingers? It seemed like something he should have known. He hadn't even realized fingers could feel pleasure, at least not like this.

John whimpered. Rodney looked up at him, his mouth still on John's cock, and watched John come apart. He hadn't ever thought of pleasure as something that could undo someone, but there John was, coming undone.

He was beautiful.

The thrust of John's hips was a surprise; the fluid filling his mouth wasn't. He swallowed because this was John, and rejecting any part of John wasn't something Rodney could do.

When John's tremors stopped, Rodney eased his fingers free and rose to his feet. John immediately pulled him close, burying his face in Rodney's neck. Rodney held him until John muttered, "The water's cold."

It had been cold for a while, but Rodney had kept his body between John and the cold spray.

"We should get dry," John said to Rodney's shoulder.

Rodney loosened his hold, and John turned off the water before climbing from the shower and reaching for a towel. Rodney followed him.

John had goosebumps. "You need to get dressed," Rodney said as he rested his leg on the side of the tub, bending over to towel it dry.

John grinned and shook his head. "I have a better idea." He opened the medicine cabinet and took out a bottle of clear liquid. "Come on."

Rodney followed him into the bedroom, where John immediately climbed into the bed, settling in the center with his back against the headboard. Parting his legs, he patted the space in front of him. "Come here."

Rodney wasn't an idiot. He climbed onto the bed between John's legs. John wrapped an arm Rodney's chest, pulling Rodney back against him. "That's better."

It was awfully nice, and Rodney's cock, which had been feeling a bit neglected, perked up.

John began to caress Rodney's chest, his fingers moving unerringly to one of Rodney's nipples. "You have the cutest damn nipples," he murmured.

For a moment, Rodney considered being offended by that, but concluded it would be self-defeating.

Far too soon John took his hand away, using it to open the bottle he had taken from the medicine cabinet. Rodney watched as he poured the clear, slick liquid into his palm. It was mineral oil. Rodney's cock twitched in anticipation.

It didn't have to anticipate for long. John wrapped his hand around Rodney's cock, his warm, strong hand. Then he slid it slowly downward. Rodney rested his head on John's shoulder and groaned.

John began to stroke him, slow and steady, his oil-slick hand sliding easily over Rodney's cock. John had an incredible touch, firm and sure, no hesitation. When John touched him, Rodney knew it was because John wanted to touch him, because John enjoyed touching him.

Slick fingers teased his nipple, and Rodney groaned again, closing his eyes. John was pressed against him, holding him, sharing his warmth.

"Talk to me," John whispered.

Rodney struggled to process that. John wanted him to talk? Now?

"Tell me what you think about when you do this to yourself."

Rodney shook his head. He couldn't tell John that; besides, it didn't matter. He hadn't jerked off since he and John had started this, and nothing from before then mattered.

"No?" John asked. He sounded a bit disappointed, but Rodney wasn't giving in.

"No," he managed to get out.

"Will you jerk off for me sometime? Let me watch?"

The thought of John watching him, of John seeing him like that, was simultaneously disturbing and wildly erotic. "Yes, if you…" That was another reason he couldn't tell John what he thought about when he jerked off. With John's hands on him he could barely get out single words. Sentences were entirely beyond him.

"I will. I'll touch myself and let you watch."

Rodney groaned. He could see it in his mind's eye: John naked, stroking his own cock. John might have to tie him up, because Rodney wasn't sure he'd be able to keep from touching him. He groaned again.

"You like that idea," John said softly. He was using the tone Rodney thought of as John's bedroom voice, low and intimate. It promised all kinds of sin. Rodney was discovering that he liked sin. A lot.

"Pervert."

"Mmmm," John acknowledged. "But you like that."

Rodney did. He really did.

"Know what I like?"

Rodney had some ideas about what John liked, but he wanted to hear John say it. "Tell me."

John slowed his stroking, which was probably just as well, because Rodney was getting closer with every stroke, and he wanted John to talk to him.

"I like you. I like the way you kiss like it's the most important thing in the world. I like the taste of your skin and the feel of your cock in my mouth. I like the way you moan when you come. I like your cute nipples and this spot on your neck." He kissed the side of Rodney's neck, and then sucked lightly on the spot in question.

"John," Rodney whispered, because he was close, because John was telling him things Rodney hadn't ever expected to hear, from anyone.

"I like the way you touch me, and your mouth—you have the most amazing mouth. Every time you suck me, I want it to last forever."

Rodney moaned, because sometimes he wanted it to last forever, too. Wanted to stay on his knees with John's cock in his mouth until the world ended.

John began to shorten his strokes, concentrating on the area just below the head. Rodney opened his eyes to watch, staring at the head of his cock as it disappeared and reappeared within the circle of John's hand.

Then he started to come and his eyes fell closed again. But he didn't need to see because John was holding him, his arm tight around Rodney's chest and his face buried in Rodney's neck.

John kept stroking him, slower and lighter. Rodney kept coming, pleasure rolling through him in waves. John was holding him. John was touching him. And Rodney, Rodney let himself feel it.

***

That night Rodney woke up alone. It was the first time he'd woken alone in more than a week. It was disorienting. After staring at the ceiling for a few minutes, wondering where John was, he pulled on a pair of sweats and a T-shirt, then made his way downstairs.

John was in the living room with Malcolm. They were both sitting on the couch, and John was leaning forward. They hadn't bothered to turn on the lights, and something about the darkness made Rodney hesitate, made him pause in the doorway.

"They expect me to save them, even the ones who don't like me." There was irony and resignation in John's voice, along with a hint of resentment.

"And you thought your mother and I expected a lot from you." Malcolm's words were teasing, but his tone was understanding.

"You think that's ironic, don't you?"

"Isn't it?" Malcolm asked.

"Not really." John paused and Rodney wished he could see John's face. "The irony is that everything they expect from me, I expect from Rodney. He's brilliant, you know. I love watching his mind work. He gets this look on his face when he's figured something out, like he's managed to amaze himself."

"You love him."

"Yeah, I do."

"So why are you talking to me at three in the morning instead of in bed with him?"

Rodney thought it was a fair question.

"You should have been a psychologist."

"Nah, I'd be telling people to get over themselves all of the time."

"Is that what I should do?" John never asked questions like that, and it troubled Rodney to hear him ask it now.

"I don't think Rodney would say that's what you should do."

John was quiet for long moment and then he rose from the couch and went to stand by the window. The window faced the backyard and almost no light shone through, leaving John's face in shadow. "We were captured. Tortured. Or I was." John stopped for a moment, and Rodney held his breath. "They thought they could break Rodney by torturing me, but Rodney—he's stronger than people think. He didn't break. He said that if I had asked him to make it stop, he would have. Would have talked." John paused, his head dropping forward. "I asked. I asked him over and over. Just never out loud."

John sounded lost, broken, and Rodney wanted to go to him, wanted to tell him to stop, wanted to pull John into his arms and hold onto him until the rest of the world went away. He kept still.

So did Malcolm.

"I held his gaze, Dad. I wouldn't let him look away. No matter how bad it got. I'm the one who made him watch. Not them. Me."

"You needed his strength."

"No, I—" John's voice broke and he sucked in a ragged breath. "I needed him to hurt. He thinks I'm strong, but I needed him to hurt. I couldn't do it alone, and I needed—" John choked.

Malcolm went to him, put his hands on John's shoulders. "You did what you had to do to survive. There's no shame in that, John."

John shook his head.

"You survived. Rodney survived. That's what matters."

John shook his head again. "I… I…"

Malcolm pulled him close, wrapped his arms around him. Rodney turned away.

Back in their room, he stripped off his clothes, crawled into their bed, and waited.

When John came in, Rodney didn't pretend to be asleep. Instead, he watched John undress, and he held the blankets for him when John climbed into the bed.

"Are you okay?" he whispered when John was lying on his side facing Rodney.

"No."

Rodney reached out, touched the side of John's face. "Anything, John. Anything you need."

John closed his eyes for a moment. "Touch me."

Rodney touched. He traced the angle of John's cheek with his fingertips, felt the bridge of his nose, the stubble along his jaw, the curve of his eyebrow. He touched John with the pads of his fingers and the palms of his hands. He touched John everywhere, in ways and in places he had never touched anyone.

He knew absolution couldn’t be granted with a touch, but he tried anyway. Even though it wasn't his absolution John needed.

John was solid beneath his hands, warm and solid. Rodney focused on that, focused on John's strength, because John's fragility might rip him apart.

Might rip them both apart.

That wasn't going to happen, not to John, not if Rodney could stop it.

John got hard. So did Rodney, but it was a long time before he brushed his fingers across the top of John's cock. Before he leaned down and took John in, took John deep. Before John arched his back and lifted his hips, thrusting into Rodney's mouth.

When John came, Rodney swallowed and sucked, holding on until John's softening cock slipped from his mouth.

John kissed him, and his hand closed around Rodney's cock. "Is this okay?" he whispered.

"Yes."

"I want you to come on me."

Rodney made a quiet, desperate sound. Burying his face in Rodney's neck, John began to jerk him off in a slow, firm rhythm. Rodney came silently, his fluid landing on John's chest and abdomen.

"I'm sorry." John's face was still buried in Rodney's neck. "I'm sorry I wasn't stronger."

Rodney pressed his cheek to John's hair. "I had to see you," he whispered. "I couldn't look away. I knew if I looked away, I'd break. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, but I would do anything for you. Anything."

John's arms tightened around him, and he could feel John's tears sliding onto his skin.

Rodney squeezed his eyes shut and held his own tears in, because he could do anything for John.

***

When Rodney woke, he was alone again. The sun was up this time, almost taunting in its brightness. He pulled on some clothes, stopping by the bathroom before making his way downstairs.

He found John on the sun porch, listening to Beethoven's Fifth, sitting with his back against the arm of the couch and his knees drawn up. He was resting his cheek on his knees.

Rodney sat so close he was almost on John's feet.

"You were right about the Andante," John said without moving.

Rodney nodded, although John hadn't looked at him.

"I have nightmares."

"I know. I have nightmares, too."

John lifted his head. The circles under his eyes made him look haunted. "There's a lot of fear in this music."

"There is, but the hero triumphs in the end."

"I dreamt that I begged you to make it stop and you…" John paused. His voice was so tight it made Rodney's throat hurt. "You turned away from me. You wouldn't look at me. You just…"

Rodney curled his hand over John's ankle. "I would never do that."

"I'm not a hero, Rodney. I can't be your hero. I can't be anyone's hero."

Rodney wanted to deny that he had ever asked that of John, but he was a bad liar. "You don't have to be. All you have to be is you."

John wasn't quite looking at him. "Is that enough?"

"It's always been enough."

John nodded and closed his eyes. Rodney rubbed John's ankle with his thumb and let the music flow over him. Triumph and passion, fear and longing. There was that piccolo again. Delicate, but never weak, reminding the listener that even in struggle there can be joy.

Rodney wondered what John thought of the piccolo, but he didn't ask.

When the symphony ended, Rodney turned the CD player off before the Sixth could start playing. "Come on," he said with a tilt of his head.

John followed him into the kitchen, where they had coffee and the last of the chocolate chip cookies for breakfast. They ate leaning against the counter, and Rodney tried to think of something to say, something clever or funny, something John could react to, so everything could be normal again.

Then John put his empty mug on the counter and reached for him. Rodney reached back.

He buried his face in John's neck and breathed him in. This was normal, and Rodney wondered when that had happened, when holding John had become normal. Then John kissed him, and Rodney decided holding John had always been normal.

Kissing in the kitchen was normal too.

***

They kissed their way through the house and up the stairs.

When they reached the bedroom Rodney took a step back, out of John's reach, and began to undress. Keeping his eyes on John's face, he removed his clothes one at a time, not hurrying, but not making it a tease either. Then he stepped close to John and reached for the hem of his shirt. John lifted his arms.

Dropping John's shirt to the floor, Rodney pressed his lips to the scar at the base of John's neck, the same one he'd kissed the first time. He kissed his way along it and then reached for John's zipper. He lowered it gently, letting his fingers brush against the cotton covering John's cock.

It was John who pushed his pants to the floor.

Rodney sat on the edge of the bed and John kissed him. Rodney lay back, knowing John would follow. John followed, stretching out over Rodney without breaking their kiss. Rodney loved that they could move together so effortlessly.

John shifted his attention to Rodney's neck and Rodney arched, desire shifting to want with every sweet pull of John's lips. He tightened his hold on John, wanting to press his body to John's until they melded together. He'd never get John as close as he needed him to be, as close as he wanted him. "Fuck me," Rodney said his voice barely above a whisper. The mere idea of it made his cock heavy, made him ache somewhere deep inside. Saying it…hearing himself say it…

John immediately stopped what he was doing and stared at Rodney. "You?"

Rodney nodded. "Yeah."

"Sure? Are you?"

Rodney smiled because John was so damned cute sometimes. "Yes."

"Oh, okay." He looked at the bedside stand where they'd stored the lube.

Following John's gaze, Rodney patted him on the ass. "Get it." While John was getting the lube, he shifted higher on the bed.

Lube in hand, John lay down on his side next to him and Rodney turned onto his side facing him. "Are you sure, sure?" John asked.

Only John could look earnest and horny at the same time. A surge of affection made him brush his fingertips over John's cheek. "I'm sure."

"If I do something wrong, if I hurt you—"

"I'll tell you."

John nodded and then kissed him. He followed the kiss with more kisses, soft and deep, and touching. John's hands found every sensitive place on Rodney's body, repeatedly.

Rodney knew what John was doing. He was trying to get Rodney as aroused as possible. But only part of him was even aware of John's touch. The rest was focused on what was going to happen next, on John being inside him.

His patience ran out between one breath and the next. Rodney took John's hand from his chest and moved it between his legs. John gazed at him for a long moment and then picked up the lube he'd left lying on the bed next to Rodney's hip. He flipped the lid open, and Rodney parted his legs.

He watched John pour some onto his fingers, then drew in a breath as John lowered his hand. His fingers brushed across Rodney's entrance, and Rodney relaxed a little. John's touch did that to him—relaxed him and turned him on at the same time.

John pressed his finger against Rodney's opening and Rodney bore down, because that's what the book had said to do. John's finger slipped inside. It was strange, but not unpleasant. It wasn't pleasurable either, though. Rodney was confident that it would get better, because John had really liked it when Rodney had done this to him in the shower.

John pushed until his finger was all of the way in, and Rodney wondered if he felt as smooth and warm inside as John had. Then John found his prostate and Rodney stopped thinking for a moment, because, dear God, that was good.

John leaned close and whispered, "Feels way better than you thought it would, doesn't it?"

Rodney nodded and John touched him there again, and again. Rodney was only dimly aware of fisting the sheet in his hands, of spreading his legs farther apart and arching upward in a desperate attempt to get closer to John, who was stretched out over him, resting his weight on his knees and free hand as he slowly fucked Rodney with a single finger.

When he added a second, Rodney groaned. It stretched him, but he wanted to be stretched, wanted to take as much of John into him as he could. Because John might not be a hero, but Rodney loved him.

John turned his fingers and Rodney knew he was trying to coat him with the lube, to get him ready. There was something wildly erotic about that, about being prepared, about John preparing him. Preparing him so John could enter him and fuck him and come inside him.

John was going to come inside him.

"Please." Rodney barely recognized his own voice. It was deeper than it should have been, deeper and pleading.

John went still. "Rodney?"

"I want you. Please."

John kissed him, deep and hungry, and feeling John's want made Rodney want more.

When they parted, John stared down at him, his eyes a little wild. "I love you. I just…I needed to tell you."

Rodney swallowed and nodded once. Then he pulled John into his arms and buried his face in John's neck. John loved him. Rodney had known, but now John had said it, really said it. Rodney needed a minute, just a minute, of feeling John, and smelling John, and holding John.

Then he kissed John slow and deep, the way John kissed him.

John drew back and Rodney realized kisses weren’t enough. John deserved more than that. "I want to kiss you every day for the rest of my life," he said softly, touching John's lips with his fingertips.

"I think that can be arranged." John smiled his sweet half-smile.

"Good."

John kissed him again before settling back on his knees and carefully withdrawing his fingers.

Lifting his head, he watched John spread lube on his cock until it glistened.

Then he squirted some directly onto Rodney.

Rodney squirmed. "That's cold."

"Sorry, I just wanted to make sure there was enough."

"It's okay," Rodney said, because John was irresistible when he was rueful.

John nodded and took hold of his cock. Once again stretching out over Rodney, he pressed the tip to Rodney's entrance. "Tell me if I hurt you."

Rodney didn't think reminding John he was a virgin would help. "John," he said gently.

John pushed. Rodney once again bore down and the head of John's cock sort of popped inside. Rodney burned as his body stretched.

"Rodney." John's eyes were wide, amazed and a little wild.

Rodney cupped John's cheek in his hand and John turned his head, pressing his lips to Rodney's palm. "I'm okay," Rodney whispered.

John leaned down and kissed him, then pushed a little. It burned, but not as much as before. Rodney began stroking John's back, his hands moving restlessly over John's skin.

John pulled back a little and then pushed forward again. John was fucking him, really fucking him. And John was gazing at him with that look, the one that said Rodney was the most wonderful thing ever.

His movements were slow. Slow and careful. And tender. Everything was tender—John's kisses, his movements, the look on his face. Rodney closed his eyes, because the tenderness in John's gaze made him feel exposed, but safe. He'd never known that tenderness could make you feel like that—that it could make you feel loved.

He could feel John moving inside him, going slowly deeper with each push. He opened his eyes when it became too much, when he had to see John. John's whole face shone with pleasure, and Rodney couldn't stop looking at him. That pleasure came from him, from being inside him.

Rodney tilted his hips, trying to help John get deeper. John groaned and buried his face in Rodney's neck. Rodney held him as John moved within him, still careful, still tender.

"Rodney," John murmured, "Rodney."

"John," Rodney answered, tightening his hold and lifting his hips.

John pushed deep and went still. A heartbeat later, Rodney felt John's cock pulse, and warmth flooded him. John shuddered in his arms, every pulse of his cock warming Rodney still more.

Rodney held him until the shuddering eased and long after. He held him until John muttered "Sorry" to his shoulder.

"John?" John had nothing to be sorry for. Rodney stroked his back, trying to tell him that.

"That was kind of premature," John explained to his shoulder.

Rodney gently lifted John's head until his mouth was within kissing range. Then he kissed him, putting all of his affection for John into the kiss.

When the kiss ended John lifted himself onto one arm and reached between them for Rodney's cock.

Rodney intercepted his hand. "Don't. Please."

"I hurt you."

It hadn't hurt that badly—certainly not badly enough to merit the self-accusation in John's voice. "John, I was a virgin."

"That makes me feel better."

Rodney sighed. "I dated this woman once who had trouble reaching orgasm. I used to go through all kinds of contortions trying to bring her off. I'd go down on her until my jaw ached."

"Rodney."

This might not be the best time for stories about old lovers, Rodney knew, but he had a point to make. "She used to tell me there was more to sex than orgasms. I never quite believed her. Until now."

John frowned, but nodded. "I get it."

"Good. Now will you get off me? You're heavier than you look."

John withdrew his softening cock from Rodney's body, causing them both to sigh, and then settled onto his side next to Rodney. "Are you really okay?"

"I really am." Rodney smiled, hoping John could see his amazement. "You were inside me. Deep inside me. You came inside me."

"Yeah, I know." John was starting to smile now, too.

"How could I not be okay after that?"

John's almost smile broadened into a real one. "I was hoping for better than okay."

Rodney chuckled. "I thought I was the one with the ego."

"You rubbed off on me."

Rodney laughed and reached for him. John loved him and they'd fucked and now they were going to hold one another and maybe take a nap.

Life was pretty good.

***

Life was still good, even when Rodney discovered that sitting wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world. He didn't really mind, and every time he shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable, he found John smiling at him. Rodney smiled back.

If Olivia and Malcolm noticed the squirming and the smiling, they didn't say anything.

Life was even better that night, because John was right: sixty-nines were fun.

And it was still pretty good the next morning when Rodney settled onto the couch on the sun porch with a cup of coffee and the second of the two books he'd bought. He hadn't gotten very far when John came in and laid down on the couch, resting his head on Rodney's thigh.

John was freshly showered and shaved and his wet hair gave him an appealing, impish air. He smiled up at Rodney.

"Good morning."

Rodney moved his book to the side so he could see John clearly. "Good morning." For some reason he smiled too.

"I've been meaning to ask you…" John paused for effect and Rodney waited. "When can I be on the bottom?"

His cock hardened, and Rodney silently scolded it for being so easily excited. It ignored him. "You want me to…" Rodney let his voice trail off.

"Fuck me."

Rodney's cock was on the verge of dancing a damned jig. He scolded it again and was ignored, again. John was grinning at him like he knew exactly what Rodney's cock was doing. "If that's what you want," Rodney said as casually as he could manage.

"Today." It wasn't a question.

"Okay."

"Now."

"Sure." Rodney put his book aside.

"Are you sure you don't want to bring it along? Just in case you need the diagrams."

John was a smartass, and Rodney wanted him more than he'd ever wanted anyone or anything. "If you want to have sex, you'll have to remove your head from my thigh."

Turning his head so that his lips were mere centimeters from Rodney's groin, John said, "That depends on the kind of sex, doesn't it?"

"Okay, if you want me to fuck you, you'll have to remove your head from my thigh."

John got up from the couch. Then he took Rodney's hand and tugged him to his feet. Rodney followed John into the bedroom, closing the door behind them, because even if they were alone in the house, he couldn't have sex with John if the door was open. As soon as the door clicked shut John kissed him. Then he began undressing Rodney, removing his shirt and mouthing his way across Rodney's shoulder before slowly lowering the zipper on Rodney's jeans.

Once he had Rodney's jeans open, he dropped to his knees, his hands on Rodney's hips. For a moment, Rodney thought John was going to blow him, something that struck Rodney as being counterproductive. But John left his cock alone, kissing his stomach instead, a light press of his lips to flesh Rodney felt was a little too soft. Then he turned his head and pressed his cheek to Rodney's skin, his arms around Rodney's hips. It was an odd position for a hug, but Rodney went with it, reaching down to stroke John's still damp hair.

After a moment John looked up at him and smiled. "I like your stomach."

Rodney stared at him. "You like my stomach."

"It's soft."

Rodney chuckled, because John looked and sounded so damned playful that he couldn't resist. "You know most people would consider telling a man his stomach is soft an insult."

"I'm not most people."

"For which I am deeply and profoundly grateful."

"You should be."

"Are you going to get up? Or do you want me to come down there?"

"I'll get up in a minute. First, we have to take care of these." He tugged on the waistband of Rodney's jeans and Rodney reached down to help John push them over his hips. Once Rodney's jeans were out of the way, John carefully lowered his boxers, stretching the elastic so it wouldn't catch on Rodney's erection.

Rodney stepped out of his boxers, and John sat back on his haunches, looking at the penis now staring him in the face.

"Is there a problem?" Rodney asked.

John glanced up at him. "No, I'm just looking."

Rodney was in love with a very weird man. "Haven't you looked at it enough over the last few days?"

"Not from this angle. I'm a pilot. I know the benefits of seeing things from different angles." Rodney could see John struggling to keep from smirking.

"This would be a 90 degree angle."

"I can see that." He looked up at Rodney. "I could hang a coat on there."

"You are the weirdest person I have ever had sex with."

John laughed and licked the head of Rodney's cock, causing Rodney to suck in a sharp breath. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"You would."

John rose gracefully to his feet. "Have you got the diagrams? I thought you could show me how you want me."

Rodney crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Naked. I want you naked."

"Naked on my hands and knees? Naked on my side? Naked on my back?"

"Let's start with naked."

John shrugged. "If you insist." He pulled his shirt off and dropped it to the floor, leaning forward as he pushed his pants to the floor and stepped out of them. Then he stood and Rodney stared. He had spent most of the past week looking at and touching a naked John, and still John took his breath away—lean thighs, slender hips, perfectly curved biceps, a solid chest filled with soft, dark hair.

"You're beautiful." Rodney hadn't meant to say it, but perhaps he should have.

John looked down at this chest and stomach, where the concentration of scars was greatest. "Even with?"

"All I see is you."

Maybe John wasn't the only who knew the right thing to say, because a heartbeat later, John was in his arms, kissing him, touching him, feeling like he was trying to press himself into Rodney, through Rodney's skin and in. Rodney was inclined to let him.

He slid a hand down John's back to his ass. It was all firm, curving muscle. Rodney squeezed it, just because he could.

John drew back from their kiss and grinned at him. Reaching behind him, he removed Rodney's hand from his ass and began walking backward toward the bed, pulling Rodney after him.

John lay back on the bed and Rodney stood at the foot of it, watching John wiggle his way to the center.

"Coming?" John asked with a grin.

Rodney shook his head and crawled onto the bed so that he was on his hands and knees over John. "Double entendres should be saved for when you're not actually having sex."

"That was a single entendre." John smiled up at him.

Rodney laughed. "How silly of me."

"Very."

Rodney kissed him before John could say anything else. John wrapped his arms around Rodney's shoulders and pulled him downward. Rodney managed to stretch out half on top of him without breaking their kiss.

Then it was the now-familiar rhythm of kissing and touching, of John's mouth and skin and hands. Rodney let himself get lost in it, in the sweetness of John's mouth, and the sureness of his touch, the beguiling smoothness of his skin.

"I want you," John murmured between kisses, reminding Rodney of their earlier conversation.

He drew back until he could see John's face. "We don't have to. We have all kinds of time. We don't ever have to if you don't want to." Rodney didn't want John to feel he had to do this for him.

"I want you," John repeated. "And I don't want to wait."

Rodney closed his eyes. As exciting as the idea was, he just—

"Rodney?"

He opened his eyes and forced a smile. "If you're sure."

"I'm sure. I really liked it when you fucked me with your fingers, remember?"

"Like I could forget."

John grinned and spread his arms and legs. "Do me, babe."

"Oh my God, I'm sleeping with Cher."

John laughed. "Get the lube."

Rodney got the lube and knelt between John's thighs. John smiled at him, happy and lustful. Rodney didn't think he'd ever seen a better smile. He opened the lube and John wiggled his ass. Choking back a laugh, Rodney said, "I won't be able to do this if I'm laughing."

"Sure you will. Laughing and kissing, that's hard. But laughing and fucking? Completely doable."

"Like you." Rodney lowered two lubed fingers to John's entrance.

"That was a double entendre."

"Single," Rodney countered. He touched the edge of John's entrance and John drew his legs back, bending his knees and resting his feet on the mattress. Rodney drank in the view: fragile balls, the base of John's strong cock, and the phrase "shadowed cleft" now made a lot more sense.

"Rodney?"

"Just looking." Rodney resumed touching, circling John's entrance with his fingers.

"Okay, just, you know, multi—" Rodney pushed a single finger inside, and John gasped. "—tasking is good." Rodney pushed a little further. "Really, really good."

John was as smooth inside as Rodney remembered and he worked his finger in slowly, exploring.

When he found John's prostate, John groaned, a deep, outrageously sexy groan. Rodney continued to touch him gently, easing his finger in and out. When John began to lift his hips, seeking more, Rodney added another finger.

John stared at him wide-eyed while Rodney slowly fucked him.

He had no idea how long they stayed like that, watching each other while Rodney slid his fingers in and out of John. Eventually John reached between his legs and covered Rodney's hand with his own, stilling it. "Please," John whispered and pulled on his hand, withdrawing Rodney's fingers.

Rodney reached for the lube with his free hand. John released him and Rodney squirted lube into his palm. With a shaky breath, he stroked his overeager cock, covering it with lube.

Looking up, he found John watching him with that look, the "Rodney is wonderful" look. John lifted his hand and Rodney caught it with his own. John squeezed his hand and then pulled it upward, pulling Rodney with it. John let go of his hand and Rodney placed it on the bed above John's shoulder. With his other hand, he positioned his cock.

Rodney pushed and John grimaced, just a little. Rodney froze.

"I'm okay," John said softly.

Rodney shook his head and pulled back. "I can't—" He was intimately familiar with how John looked when he was in pain. He couldn't be the one to cause that look. He simply couldn't.

John pulled him into a hug, and Rodney buried his face in John's neck. "What can't you do?" John asked, gently stroking his back.

"Pain. I can't cause you pain, can't see you in pain."

"I'm sorry."

Rodney drew his head back far enough that he could see John's face. "Stop that. Stop saying you're sorry. You didn't do anything wrong."

"It doesn't feel that way," John whispered.

"I know." Rodney pressed his lips to John's neck. "I really do want you."

"Even though I'm weird."

"I want you because you're weird."

"That's right. You're a scientist." John rolled them so he was on top. He kissed Rodney slow and deep, exactly the kind of kiss he knew would get him whatever he wanted. He kissed him until Rodney groaned.

Then he sat back. "How about we do it like this?"

Rodney nodded, because he really wanted this, and it was obvious John really wanted it too. John kissed him again, a quick, approving kiss. Then he took hold of Rodney's cock, holding it firmly while he positioned himself over it. He wiggled his ass back and forth, his skin brushing across the head, making Rodney gasp.

Grinning, John said, "The book says I should bear down."

"You read the book?"

"Research can be useful," John answered with a perfectly straight face.

Rodney started to chuckle, but then John bore down and the head of his cock was inside John. It was a tight fit, an almost painfully tight fit. John's eyes were closed and his expression was similar to the one he got when he was flying the jumper and someone was shooting at them—except John tended to keep his eyes open when he was flying, especially in the middle of a fight.

"John?"

John opened his eyes. "I'm okay. Just stretching a little."

"A lot," Rodney countered.

"I'm trying to accommodate your dick, not your ego."

Rodney couldn't help it. He laughed.

John laughed a little, too. "I told you fucking and laughter are good together."

His hands stroking John's sides, Rodney replied, "I should never have doubted you."

"No, you shouldn't have." John pushed again, and more of Rodney's cock slid into him. Another push, and he was further in. John felt incredibly good, warm and soft.

John lifted himself up and then lowered himself back down. Rodney stared. John was fucking himself on Rodney's cock. He watched his cock as some of it disappeared inside of John and then reappeared. John wasn't taking him all of the way in, and that somehow made it hotter.

Then John took hold of his own cock and Rodney groaned. John began to stroke. He still looked like he was concentrating, but now it was different, more like the look John got when he was flying for the sheer joy of it, making the jumper twist and turn just because he could.

Needing to touch, Rodney brushed his fingers across John's nipple. John moaned, so Rodney did it again, his other hand resting on John's hip.

John continued to move, his rhythm slow but steady. He was the sexist thing Rodney had ever seen.

Eventually, Rodney couldn't keep still any more. He lifted his hips, pushing his cock up and into John, fucking John.

"Yes," John panted, "just like that."

Rodney thrust again and then it was all motion and pleasure, the two of them moving together, and John touching himself while Rodney stared.

Panting and gasping, John came all over Rodney's chest. John coming was one of Rodney's favorite things and this time, he felt it, felt every contraction, every twitch—with his cock.

Lifting his hips, he came too, pouring himself into John, letting go of everything but John and the way John made him feel.

John collapsed against his chest and Rodney wrapped his arms him.

"Am I still the weirdest lover you've ever had?" John asked when his breathing had slowed.

"Absolutely."

John chuckled into his skin. Then he playfully nipped Rodney's neck.

"Hey, no marks." They were going back the next day and Rodney didn't want to have to explain to Carson Beckett how he'd been bitten by a rabid Air Force officer. "Do you think we should tell Carson?" he asked, and then mentally kicked himself when John rolled to the side and said, "Why?"

"It could make things easier when one of us is sick." Rodney looked up at the ceiling, keeping his tone casual. "You know how Carson sometimes likes to kick people out of the infirmary. If he knows, he might let us stay."

John looked at him for a long moment. "Let you stay, you mean."

"And you, too."

"What aren't you telling me?"

"Nothing." He kissed John lightly. "I just thought it would be easier, that's all." Unfortunately, Rodney was a bad liar, and John was damned perceptive.

"You don't have to tell me, but don't say it's nothing when it isn't."

They had just had incredible sex, and Rodney was an idiot for bringing this up. "The last time you were in the infirmary, he kept chasing me out. He insisted you needed to rest. It was only after you asked for me that he let me stay." The last time had been the time after Teyla and Bates had burst into the room where John had been tortured. They, at least, had understood that Rodney needed to be near John, needed to be the one holding his hand and whispering meaningless words. "I needed to be near you, and I was pretty sure you needed that, too."

"I did." John gave him a soft, lingering kiss. "We'll tell him."

"Are you sure?"

"Carson's not military, and I don't think he'll be inclined to tell anyone who is. Besides, this way we'll be able to get more lube."

"How often do you think about sex, anyway?" Rodney asked, relieved but wanting to change the subject.

"I don't know. I'm a guy. Every few seconds?"

"Every few seconds?"

"How often do you think about it?"

"Not that often."

John shifted, resting his head on Rodney's chest. "I can fix that."

Rodney laughed.

His laughter subsided, and Rodney lay there, holding John, enjoying the feel of John's fingers toying with his chest hair. "You're wrong you know."

"About what?"

"The ending of the Fifth. It isn't triumph; it's survival."

Rodney thought about that for a moment. "With bombast."

"With bombast," John agreed.

***

John had moved away in his sleep, and when Rodney woke up, he was lying on his side with his back to Rodney. Rodney's first impulse was to nestle against John's back. Unfortunately, his bladder strenuously disagreed with that plan. He settled for running his hand over John's side before reluctantly getting up.

The smell of coffee brewing lured him downstairs. Olivia was sitting at the kitchen table. She looked up when he entered. "Good morning."

"Morning," he answered, going straight to the coffee pot.

He helped himself to coffee and some cream and then carried his mug to the table.

"Did you sleep well?" Olivia asked as he sat.

He nodded. "You?"

She shrugged. "Well enough." She smiled at him softly. "I'm glad you came."

"I am too. Thank you for having me."

"I think John's the one who had you."

Rodney swallowed frantically, trying not to spit out his coffee. She grinned at him. Rodney managed to swallow, only to find himself blushing.

Olivia patted his hand. "I'm happy for you both. I think you're good together. You complement one another in interesting ways." Withdrawing her hand, she took a sip of her coffee. "I've never seen John look at anyone the way he looks at you."

"Really?" The eagerness in his voice was a little embarrassing, but Olivia merely smiled again.

"Really. What do you think, shall we make pancakes for your last morning in New York?"

Pancakes sounded perfect. "You have real maple syrup, right?"

"No, Rodney, I'm going to serve corn syrup that's been dyed brown."

"I thought so."

Malcolm wandered into the kitchen when they'd finished cooking about half of the batter. John came in not long afterward and kissed Rodney good morning as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Rodney absolutely did not beam afterwards.

Olivia really did have authentic maple syrup and the pancakes were summarily devoured. Olivia excused herself to run a couple of quick errands, and Rodney told himself that he needed to get up and go pack. Instead, he took another sip of his coffee. John and Malcolm were cleaning up the breakfast dishes, since he and Olivia had cooked.

Malcolm glanced at him, and Rodney tensed. "John," Malcolm said, looking back at John, "there's something I need to say to you."

John had been filling the dishwasher, and he stood up straight before turning to face his father.

Before he spoke, Malcolm glanced at Rodney again. "Rodney told your mother that we should stop looking at the uniform and start seeing the man. He was right. I will never respect or trust the military, but I respect you. I trust you to do the right thing, to make good use of all of those talents of yours."

John swallowed visibly. "I…Thanks."

Malcolm nodded and handed him an empty glass. Rodney hid his smile by taking another drink of his coffee.

***

"You told off my mother, too?" John asked tucking a pile of shirts into his bag.

"I was angry, and I didn't tell her off. I just pointed out a few things."

"Uh-huh." John zipped his bag closed. "You ready to go?"

Rodney shouldered his own bag and looked around the room, his eyes landing on the bed. It was freshly made, the comforter hanging neatly over the sides. The beds in Atlantis were narrow, and Rodney wasn't sure they'd be able to make love without tumbling to the floor, let alone sleep together. This bed was warm and safe, and Rodney wanted to pull John into it, wanted to keep him there. "Do you think anyone would notice if we requisitioned a real bed?"

"We can try." John was standing next to the door, his bag in his hand.

"We should." Rodney took a step through the door.

John followed. "We'll always have my parents' guest room."

Rodney chuckled, even though it wasn't that funny. "I'm Bogart."

"No way. I am way more suave than you are."

"You are not."

"I so am. You admitted it. You said I was charming."

"For a dork."

They started down the stairs.

"I'm Kirk, and Kirk is not a dork."