John Sheppard's favorite spot on earth is the Troub, a beaten up bar on the south side of town, just west of the spot where Highway 14 yanks Henderson out from its hiding place and pushes it into a wider world; sorghum and soybean fields, patches of alfalfa, cattle forage baking steadfast in the sun, roadside stands bearing up beneath a glory of peaches. The Troub itself was a glory once, shiny bright with Nadeen Baker's money, full name spelled out on a roadside sign – A Whole World of Trouble; Live Music; Thursday night $1 draws. Picked out in red against a backdrop of white, the name was a tongue-in-cheek joke; Nadeen was a preacher's kid and lived up to the stereotype with a gusto she never applied to marrying or settling down. ("I love my girl," her father would say, mopping his brow outside the Henderson Grill, "but Lord help me, she rests a world of trouble 'pon my soul.")
But as with most things, the shiny newness of the Troub faded fast, settling instead into a better comfort, neon letters shorting out and paint peeling fast until the 'Troub' was all that was left. Nadeen never saw the need to fix up what failed – the whole town had called the place Troub from the beginning – and when her own glory faded and she took to her bed in the home across town, her sons tipped their hats to the memories left to her and let the Troub settle into a satisfied middle-age, welcoming all comers to its door, warming cool nights with a little steel guitar, steaming up summer evenings with lyrics that caused more than one couple to test out their truck's suspension.
The Troub's been John's refuge for as long as he can remember – since he was a boy in his daddy's truck, leaning out the passenger window, trying to grab the music that spilled into the parking lot, his fingers still too small for a guitar. His hands are bigger now – competent, callused, rubbed rough by frets and steel strings, by the tools he wields every weekday when there's construction to be done, this town or the next. He works where he has to, but Henderson's in his blood – he broke away once: three whole months at the Tech twisting numbers into knots with his mind. But then his momma got sick and numbers seemed an indulgence – besides which, the college bars were slick and artificial, everyone's jeans too expensive, too new, and if it was two more years before he could get inside the Troub, he could borrow his daddy's truck on a weekend, sit in the lot and listen to the music spill comfort over his grief.
He's pushing forty now, dark hair turning silver above his ears, and both his folks are gone. The house they bought as newlyweds over east belongs to him – gingerbread sweet, a pride and joy he coaxes through burst pipes and storm-ripped tiles to shine still, paintwork gleaming beneath rain and sun. His momma's garden still blooms each spring, even though he hasn't much clue which flowers are which and swears he's likely ripping up heirlooms when he goes for the weeds, but he's never quite figured out his daddy's gift for raising beets, and the back yard's turned into a run for his dog – Hank, a first-rate mutt, mostly black with a hint of mischief 'round his paws, flirtatious as a high-school quarterback and sometimes better with a football.
Often, come Saturday, he heads to the Troub a little early, slips in the back way and helps Randy and the boys stock the bar. It's a never-ending curiosity, the way the room looks by day, angular and stark in sunlight, a four-walled box of nothing at all. But with his Gibson stowed at the back of the stage he's time enough to drink a cold one, watch the sun scoot low behind the hills, see the transformation of a two-bit corner of nothing into something pleasant, warm with invitation, low lights flickering above the heads of the first regulars to push in the door. It's always the same – the same orders at the bar, same couples with their problems, same sweethearts with their new smiles, same women with their eyelids painted heavy, same guys leaning cocksure against the wall.
Until that night, when it isn't the same, and the door swings open to let in a breath of not-belonging, a stocky, slant-mouthed guy in khaki pants and a long sleeved t-shirt, a regular t-shirt pulled on over. John watches him gravitate to the bar, find himself a stool in the corner, seemingly oblivious to the glances the Troub's regulars are throwing his way. John's close enough to slide behind the counter, nudge Randy toward a woman with a twenty and the kind of cleavage for which men have died, and he eases up to where the guy's sitting idle, staring off into a distance no one else can measure.
"What'll you have?" John asks.
The guy sighs. "Whatever's on tap," he offers as if making a concession, and his consonants cement the fact that He's Not From 'Round Here.
John spins a glass in his palm and fills it slowly. "On the house," he says, making free with Randy's hospitality, sliding the pint across the bar.
The guy squints at him as if he's some specimen fixed beneath a magnifying glass. "Why?"
"Welcome to Henderson," John says, folding his arms across the countertop and leaning just a little into the guy's space.
The guy mutters something inaudible but takes a pull from his beer and seems mollified by the taste. "How do you know I'm not from here?" he asks, tilting his chin in what John recognizes as defiance.
John bites back a laugh, settles for a smile. "Born and raised here," he offers. "Know everyone in this town, two generations forward and back."
"Hmmmph." The guy drinks his beer again. "Well for your information, I'm a new arrival."
John tilts his head, eyes him thoughtfully. "Big ole two-storey over on Lee?"
The guy narrows his eyes. "Yes?"
"I'm your carpenter," John smiles lazily. "You hired me yesterday afternoon. John Sheppard." John reaches over the bar, extends a hand.
"Rodney McKay." His grip's good and firm. "I hired Bud Smith."
"Bud's who I work for."
"Huh." Rodney pulls at his beer again. "Well. That's . . . "
Apparently he doesn't have it in him to feign interest, no matter that John's the guy who'll be fixing that trip step on the second flight, the one Mr. Jenkins swore about night and day for twenty years before he passed. John smirks and pushes up from the bar, ignores Tom Roubideux who's trying to get his attention, no doubt apoplectic about his lack of Miller Lite. "You like country music?"
"I like real estate that's affordable and the opportunity to live in a house rather than a shoebox some inner-city landlord estimates to be habitable," Rodney blurts. "I like space – I think better when I'm pacing, I have no idea why, but it works, and who am I to impede the flow of genius? – and I abhor neighbors who have loud sex, especially at three in the morning. Ergo, I'm here, where there are houses a man can afford, even if they are at the end of a highway that's shockingly easy to miss when coming south on the interstate, and after the week I've had, trying to get the mortgage papers signed, not to mention find anyone who knows how to fix anything in this town, I needed a beer, a godforsaken beer, which is all by way of saying I've driven past this place every day since Tuesday and I saw it served alcohol and no, I don't like country music, music being an utter misnomer if the noise emitting from that jukebox is anything to go by."
John raises an eyebrow. "Maybe you'll hear something tonight to change your mind," he offers, casually flipping Tom the bird.
"And I'll win the Nobel by next Tuesday," Rodney grumbles into his beer, and that's the end of that conversation.
The place fills steadily, the band showing up close to quarter-of-nine, and with his hat retrieved from the back room where he stowed it, John makes his way from the bar to the stage at a leisurely pace, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, promising songs and even a dance or two if a woman catches him right. The lights are still down on the stage, and only a handful of couples are on the dance floor, carving out a little privacy in a room full of neighbors, bodies pressed close as they shuffle and sway between the rise and fall of Emmy-Lou's voice. John unlocks his case, sits on the floor behind Bo's drums and pulls his guitar into his lap, cocks his head to the frets and listens, tuning each string to pitch-perfect tension. Wayne tunes his fiddle, a whisper of discord that he fixes with agile fingers, and then they're all where they ought to be, the lights shining warm against John's face as he tips his hat back just a fraction, smiles into the crowded emptiness beyond the footlights. "Howdy folks," he smiles, grinning when a wave of noise rises up to greet him, and with a flurry in his fingertips picks out the opening notes of 'Honky-Tonkin's What I Do Best.'
It's flying, this feeling, the rush of music that swells beneath his pick and fills the room, the warm spill of words over his lips, carried by his breath, by the thrill that never fails to find him here, picked out by white lights as his foot taps a baseline against the stage, as his fingers find their places, mold chords and set free every riff he knows. The Troub's clientele are a vague, shifting mass of dancers moving at his command, shadowed by the brighter glare of his song. He grins, glances at Bo, at Wayne, at Chip and his bass guitar, leans his body into the force of the music and gives himself over completely.
It takes a while for John to make it to the bar after the first set – always does, women flirting close and persistent, the odd guy making cautious eye contact, friends slapping his shoulder and telling him he's too good for this crowd. He's careful to ease his way through the throng so that he'll hit the bar at Rodney's corner if the guy's still there – and he is, sipping another beer, hair damp and messy from the heat, blinking, surprised when he sees John.
John touches the brim of his hat. "Hear anything you liked?"
Rodney tilts his chin again – John wants to laugh at the gesture, familiar so quickly – and gestures with one hand. "You're good."
John nods. "Thank you."
"No really, you're good. What are you doing in this dump?"
John laughs softly at that, rubs his fingertips over his lips, feels the stubble that's already pushing up coarse against his skin. "You're not one for subtlety, huh?"
Rodney snorts. "Waste of time."
John smiles. "It is that," he agrees, gesturing to Randy for a beer.
"So why do you stay here?" Rodney asks. "Sing here. Judging by the way the crowd responded this isn't a one time thing."
"Every Saturday," John concurs, tipping the neck of his bottle toward Rodney in acknowledgement. "Sometimes Friday nights."
"Why?" Rodney asks, clearly baffled.
John swigs from his bottle while he shrugs. "It's home," he says, turning around to lean his elbows back against the bar. From here he can see the Troub laid out before him like a painting, lit up by laughter, illuminated by the shouts flaring sharp down by the jukebox, by the clink of glasses and the scent of cigarettes.
Rodney scrunches up his face like the whole thing is beyond him. "And you've never wanted more?"
"What do you do?" John asks, turning toward him, shifting the conversation from places he doesn't want it to go.
"What? Oh – um, scientist."
"At the U?"
"No, at the community college," Rodney says witheringly. "Of course at the U."
John sips his beer and eyes him thoughtfully. "You strike me as an east coast, west coast kinda guy."
"Yes, well, you'd be wrong," Rodney says as though speaking to someone with an IQ of 14. "I'm handsomely compensated here, have my pick of grants, a large and growing body of graduate students to drive me to an early grave, and now I have a home in which I can grow old and increasingly crotchety."
"Crotchety," John repeats, nodding, trying to hold back a smirk.
Rodney points his beer at him. "Shut up."
"Wasn't gonna say a thing," John grins, lifting his hat to run a hand through his hair before jamming it back on his head. "Any requests?"
"Oh – . . . you have to sing again?"
Rodney is, John realizes, one of those people who wears his feelings on his face, and right now his features are nothing but a landscape of disappointment. It's a little gratifying, a little sad that the guy's so starved for company that a five minute exchange of insults with a guy he thinks has no ambition would make him happy enough that he doesn't want it to end. But then loneliness is John's stock-in-trade, the stuff that makes his guitar sing and his voice reach to twist around the rafters, tugging at the dark places in everyone below. "One more set," he says. "You want to hear something?"
Rodney wets his lips. "I don't know any songs."
"So I'll pick something for you," John says, smiling. "You should stick around after."
Rodney blinks. "Okay?"
John nods, tweaks the brim of his hat, hooks the neck of his beer bottle between two fingers and wades back into the crowd.
The second set's never quite so upbeat as the first – people are in the mood to get close to their loved ones, or their maybe-someday-you'll-be-loved-ones, or their wanna-go-home-with-me-and-get-somes. John glides through old favorites, throws in a couple of his own tunes, mixes it up with some Elvis, steals a little of Brad Paisley's thunder, and it's not until he's almost through that he knows the song to sing for Rodney. He bites back a grin – his smile's threatening to eat his face whole – and summons the band in close, whispers his idea. They laugh at him – he knew they would – but the song's familiar and everyone in the room'll know the words, plus most of the women at the Troub'll conclude John's singing about himself. He eases up to the mike, touches the brim of his hat again and says, voice pitched low, "we got us a visitor or two here tonight. So for them . . ." and he picks out the opening bars of 'Cowboy Take Me Away.'
He's not sure if Rodney'll get the subtext – most of Henderson gets the subtext but loves him 'cause he belongs to them anyway; half of Henderson gets the subtext but hopes the right pair of breasts can turn him around. Still Rodney's hardly been in town a minute, it's not likely he'll know John's proclivities in the sack, so John just enjoys the song for what it is, a four verse rumination on the right kind of escape, and grins, unashamed that he loves it like he does.
Rodney's still on his stool when John makes it back to the bar, looking tired and like he's overloaded on new things and strange places. "You're good," he says, nodding, as if they haven't already had this conversation. His face is open, earnest, as if he's got a mind to tell secrets, but then it shutters in an instant and closes up tight. John blinks at the change, but then Rodney flicks a finger to point over John's shoulder. "You have company."
John glances and sees a gaggle of girls – no one could call them women – hovering a few feet further down the bar, flashing teeth and midriffs and thighs. He nods at them politely, then turns his back. "So, you liked the set?"
Rodney blinks at him, confused. "You – they're practically panting for you."
John hitches a shoulder. "They're not my type."
Rodney snorts sloppily. "Let me guess. A thing for redheads."
John leans in real close. "A thing for guys."
He has to hand it to Rodney, he's the first guy to fall off a stool upon finding out John's gay. "Y'okay, buddy?" John asks, pushing the stool aside and crouching.
Rodney blinks. "Perhaps I've had – you know, too much beer," he says decisively. "Making me hear things."
"No, you heard right," John says pleasantly, hauling him up. "Park yourself on your stool again, the world'll keep turning."
"You're a cowboy," Rodney says, gingerly perching on the stool until he's sure it's not about to slip out from under him.
John shakes his head, sips on a new beer. "I work construction and I have a couple of big hats," he clarifies.
"You have a belt buckle," Rodney points out.
"Noticed that, did you?" John smirks, a smile that turns into a grin when Rodney ducks his head. "It's just part of the show – doesn't mean shit about where I get my – "
Rodney clears his throat, as if worried that John might be about to overshare. "So, well, um – I'm very glad to have met the town's gay singing cowboy carpenter and – " He stands up. "I'll be off home now. I'll see you Monday I think? Yes – um, with . . . Bob."
"Him too, okay, so – I'll . . . okay," and he wanders off, rubbing his forehead as if John's personally interfering with his sense of space and time.
John cocks his head and stares at his ass a little as he walks away.
There's an art to getting seated at the Henderson Grill come Sunday morning – one part charm, one part remembering to call Shirley Jenkins 'ma'am' at every opportunity, and one part showing up while all the do-gooders are in church. John knows the drill, slides into a back booth just after 8am, shoulders still damp from his shower beneath his t-shirt and his stomach rumbling at the prospect of juice.
"Usual?" Shirley asks, weight resting on one hip in a fashion that some might consider flirtatious if it weren't for the fact she knows John doesn't play for that team.
"Yes ma'am," John smiles. "And coffee. Real strong."
Shirley smirks. "What d'you get up to last night, John Sheppard?"
"Nothing," he says truthfully. "Helped clean up, went home. Worked on a new song a little."
"Sure," he nods. "Couple hours."
Shirley tsks at him, knocking her pencil against the side of her order pad. "You'll run yourself into the ground," she says before tucking the pencil behind her ear. "Swear to god . . ."
"Now, now, Shirley. Not on the Lord's day," John grins, and gets a swat to the back of the head for his trouble.
The coffee comes quick, as it always does, strong and black, enough to chase away the cobwebs and put a little liveliness in his blood. From his booth, John can see the full spread of Sunday-morning rituals; pancakes and syrup for the Daughtrys, a glass of orange juice at table number four, Bill Thicken's boy staring sullen into his hash browns, Charlene Scott whispering low and urgent to her friends by the window, lit up by some glow that suggests she's sharing something a little more puerile than the baseball scores. There's a comfort to it – the way the Hamiltons share one plate of eggs so there's extra room for waffles; the way Shirley dispenses coffee and scorn in just the right amount. John smiles into his swiftly emptying cup, filled with affection for his born and chosen home, and when Rodney walks in looking lost and bewildered, he only feels that affection a little more.
"Hey Rodney," he calls, intercepting Shirley's beeline to the door with a wave and a nod of his head. He smiles pleasantly at Shirley's evaluative gaze, the way she looks back and forth between him and the stranger who's rubbing his eyes and looking more confused by the minute, and his smile becomes wider when she ushers Rodney across the room to John's booth.
"Sit," she says, pushing at Rodney a little, slapping a menu into his hand when he sits down. A jug of coffee's hanging from her finger, and she turns over an earthenware mug, fills it efficiently. "Drink up, honey," she orders, patting his shoulder. "I'll be right back."
Rodney doesn't hesitate, fumbles a hand around the mug and pulls at the coffee like it's water for a man who's been wandering in the desert. "Oh Jesus," he says, sagging against the banquette when half the mug's gone. "Oh that's good." And he goes in for the second half.
John sips his own coffee, offering up his mug when Shirley comes back with two Sunday specials, nudging them into place with a practiced hand. Rodney offers his mug too, earning a cocked eyebrow and a tiny smile from Shirley, and she lingers until he notices there's a heap of food in front of him that he didn't order.
"I didn't order this," he says.
"Believe me, I know what you need, and it's all on that plate," she says, plucking the laminated menu out of his hand again and sashaying over to table number five. "I want that plate clean, y'hear?"
Rodney picks up his fork and digs into his eggs like an obedient child.
John has a method to eating his Sunday breakfast – bacon first, eaten with his fingers, sausage next, and for that he'll use a fork. The eggs he can live without, but he eats some to keep Shirley happy, then he drowns his pancakes in syrup and hums with delight. He realizes Rodney's watching him and that they haven't really said much so far. "Morning," he offers sunnily, then stuffs half a pancake in his mouth and gets syrup on his chin. Rodney pulls a face, but it's not like his table manners are anything to write home about – he shovels in eggs like a starving man, eats home fries like he's doing shots. John likes a guy who can appreciate the finer things in life – like the proper ratio of coffee to sausages, and grape jelly over peach – so they eat in companionable silence until both their plates are cleared, their coffee cups refilled, and they can eye each other in a well-fed stupor from across three feet of laminated tabletop.
"Didn't see you pull up," John offers, lifting his coffee mug.
"I walked," Rodney says. "Left my car at the bar last night."
John tilts his head. "You drank that much?"
"No." Rodney scrubs a hand over his face. "I just think better when I walk."
John nods as if he understands. He's no idea what scientists think about, but he supposes ideas might come at odd times and you have to go with the flow – the same way he can sometimes get caught up in a fondness for calculus, losing half an hour in the embrace of an equation he hasn't had cause to recall in twenty years. "Need a ride over there?"
Rodney doesn't quite look at him when he mumbles, "Okay, sure, if it's – I don't want to be – but yes, that would be . . ." and John gets a little burst of pleasure in his stomach that has nothing to do with pancakes and everything to do with Rodney's slanted mouth.
They throw money down on the table after Shirley comes over to inspect their plates and lecture John on his leftover eggs, saunter outside to where John left the truck parked in front of the hardware store. "S'open," John says, pulling his door open and climbing inside.
Rodney clambers up into the cab and slams the door, fumbles for his seat belt. "Okay, see, here's what I don't understand," he blurts, and John reckons this might be a thing, the way Rodney stays wary and quiet until he can't stand it another minute, spewing forth words so fast they fall helpless and writhing at someone else's feet.
"Okay?" John asks, one hand resting easy on the steering wheel.
"You're gay," Rodney says.
Rodney flails a hand. "This is officially east butt-fuck Egypt – " he blushes when he realizes how apt the description is when talking to a man who eschews the fairer sex " – and you're gay and – how are you . . . people like you."
John nods, chewing that over. "You were expecting . . ."
"Pitchforks!" Rodney exclaims. "Organized protests and people giving you the cold shoulder, shoving religious tracts into my hand for being seen in your company."
"Mmmhmm," John offers supportively.
"These places – " he waves a hand again, taking in every rural town in America, John presumes " – are supposed to be hotbeds of homophobia!"
"Oh, we got a homophobe," John says, turning on the ignition. "You wanna meet him?"
Rodney gapes at him, jaw flapping uselessly. "Huh?"
John just pulls away from the curb and heads two blocks west, pulling into the full-service gas station on the corner of Main and Locust. Inside the station a bell pings, and a middle-aged man ambles out, wiping his hands on a greasy cloth. "Morning Charlie," John says, waving a hand. "This here's Rodney."
Charlie nods a greeting, pulling the cap from the truck's tank and setting the gas to pump. "Morning."
"He wanted to meet you – I told him how you were against folks being gay."
"Yessir," Charlie says to Rodney. "Your friend here's going to hell sure as I'm standing here."
"Thanks, Charlie, 'preciate it," John says solemnly.
"No problem. You going out to the pond today?"
"Maybe after lunch. You?"
"I'll be at second service. Thought about next week though if the weather holds."
"Sounds good. How's the wife?"
"Eight months now and angry as a cornered possum."
John nods sympathetically as the pump clicks off, tank full. "Well, you give her my best." He hands over a twenty. "Put the rest on my tab for next time?"
"Will do. You have a good day now," Charlie says, stowing the hose before touching his forehead and pointing at Rodney. "Nice to meet you."
Rodney waves feebly. "Uh – I . . ."
John starts up the truck again. "There you go, one genuine homophobe," he offers, and pulls back out onto Main.
Rodney stays quiet the whole way across town to the Troub and gets out of John's truck still looking stunned. "Well. Um – thank you," he says, door held open while he frowns.
John nods. "My pleasure. You need anything, give me a holler."
Rodney squints at that, no doubt wondering what a holler is. "I'll uh – " He jerks his thumb toward his car and shuts the cab door.
John watches him for a second, then eases the truck into a slow, graceful arc, pulling up at Rodney's side as the latter slides a key into the door of a city sedan. "People are real nice here," he offers with a smile. "No one's gonna hurt you cause you're gay, Rodney." And with a wink at Rodney's shocked, open face, he eases off the brake and pulls out of the parking lot, grinning as he watches Rodney in his rear-view mirror, gaping at the rear of his truck.
John expects to see Rodney at the house during the week, hovering over the details of the fixes he needs, but instead he's gone before the construction crew shows up in the morning, coming home after they've packed up for the day. There's plenty to do, so John doesn't think on it much – save an idle thought as to whether these are Rodney's usual hours or workdays born of avoiding him – preferring instead to measure out stair treads, saw and fix sweet-smelling oak, lend a hand with the dry-wall in the bathroom, shore up the porch and replace the glass in an upstairs window. John finds all his work satisfying - there's a slow, sweet curl of pleasure to be had, seeing something change at his hand - but he he likes the old houses best, remnants of the railroad's first haul of wealth into town; prefers their grace to the boxy houses on the west side, cookie-cutter new and their trees too small. Rodney has an oak growing tall outside his bedroom window, bluebonnets blowing sweet in the breeze, and while there's always a mug left in the sink, it's never the same piece of stoneware twice.
By Saturday, John's built up a fearsome itch in his fingers – there's music beneath his skin that's fixing to drive him crazy, and it's not until he stands on stage, dressed in black beneath the Troub's bright lights, that he feels the knot in his chest release, letting him breathe so he can throw back his head and sing. Music pours out of him, prickles his spine damp with sweat and sets his foot to tapping, puts a grin on his face and a sweet coil of happiness deep in his belly as he feels the Troub move obediently, come alive beneath two-stepping feet. He gives the mike over to Bo for one song, sets his Gibson in its stand and jumps down to grab Shirley from the arms of her beau-for-the-night, grinning unabashedly as he slides in close, nudges her into a dance, accepts the smack to his shoulder because of the grin on her face, and whirls her off around the dance floor while Bo borrows Travis Tritt's thoughts on the subject of Trouble.
When he makes it to the bar for a post-set beer, breathless and jubilant, ass still stinging from where Shirley pinched it, he finds Rodney sitting on his previous-Saturday stool, dressed in jeans and a dark blue shirt, sipping on a beer. "Well, hey," John says, leaning on elbow on the bar and grinning. "You came back."
Rodney offers him an uncertain smile. "Beer," he says, waving his bottle.
"Uh-huh," John smiles. As if there aren't a dozen other bars in town.
"You looked as if you were enjoying yourself," Rodney says, gesturing to the dance floor.
John laughs. "I'll say." He grins. "You should get up. Plenty of people'll dance with you."
Rodney raises both eyebrows. "I don't think so," he says. "I don't know how even if I . . . two left feet and . . . "
John takes the beer Randy's pushing across the bar, drinks from it greedily. "I'll show you."
Rodney flushes to the very tips of his ears. "Now?"
"Later. You can stay, right?"
"So it's a date," John says, and touching the brim of his hat, he heads back toward the stage.
The atmosphere in the Troub's wound tight and sharp, so John sets aside the ballads for a while, spins the room into another frenzy of songs so bright they're all but blinding, couples whirling on the basis of touch, not sight; hands at the back of necks; resting against the curve of a spine; thighs rough with denim and slick with sweat; hot, damp air pressed to temples and throats. When he eases them down, he can feel each exhale chase over his skin, feel the relief of slower steps, the contented surrender of bodies that slide sweetly to gentler songs, and he tugs with his voice until the room's sated and drowsy, until the set's done and couples tumble outside, truck ignitions flaring, everyone heading home to burn a little longer because of the spark he lit.
Rodney's sitting on his stool, shirt damp beneath the arms, color high in his cheeks. "This place cleared fast," he says as John comes over, guitar case in hand.
John leans the guitar against the bar. "Sometimes it happens like that," he says, hitching a shoulder, gesturing to Randy for a beer. "It gets kinda . . ."
"Hot," Rodney says, and then clears his throat, swigs from his own beer to try and clear whatever made his voice catch.
"It does that," John agrees, smiling. "So – you were gone a lot this week."
Rodney blinks. "Um – yes, I suppose. Experiments – when I'm running simulations I . . . " He pauses. "It's not as if you care."
John pulls up a stool. "Why don't I?"
"Why would you?"
John cocks an eyebrow. "I'm not so dumb as I look."
"You don't look – " Rodney swigs from his beer again. "Few people find what I do particularly interesting, so I've come to expect that people are just being polite. I'd rather not go through the motions, if it's all the same to you."
John takes off his hat, lays it on the bar, runs a hand through his damp hair. "I was in college for about five minutes for math," he says before he pulls at his beer. "Got good grades too. Gave it up when my momma got sick."
Rodney looks uncomfortable. "I'm sorry."
"I'm not. Right thing to do." He turns on his stool a little, body language open and inviting. "All I mean by it is I know a thing or two about – " He hitches a shoulder.
Rodney studies him for a second, then lifts his chin. "Okay. Fine." And he's off as if it's a test, as if he's trying to lose John with the flow of his words and the arc of his thinking, but John keeps up fine, asks questions when something's not clear, and before long Rodney's sketching out equations on the back of a napkin, waving his hands and tearing down the character of other people in his field. John watches as hard as he listens, sees Rodney come alive beneath the panoramic stretch of the numbers he wields, and when Randy slides the key to the place over the bar John just nods, lets Rodney keep going, happily oblivious to the fact that no one else is near. He pauses for breath eventually, blinks as if he's coming out of a trance and glances around the empty bar. "We're – huh?" he asks intelligently.
John holds up the spare key. "We're locking up."
Rodney looks at the napkins he's spread over the countertop. "I – um . . . got carried away."
"No you didn't," John smiles. "That was what I asked for."
Rodney reaches for his beer, but it's long since empty, so John hands him his bottle and watches the color flare in Rodney's cheeks again as he closes his lips over the mouth. "So," Rodney says, handing it back, wiping his lips on the back of his hand. "We should be going."
"I guess we should," John agrees, standing up and gathering his guitar, setting his hat back on his head. He switches off the lights, holds the door open for Rodney, then locks everything up and ambles over to his truck. Rodney's standing between the truck and his own car, looking thoughtful.
"Well," he says, smiling a little. "I uh – this was nice."
"We're not done yet," John says, stowing his guitar on the passenger seat of the truck. He stretches, slides the keys into the ignition, turns on the radio and nods, satisfied, as tinny music spills out into the lot.
"I was gonna show you how to dance, right?"
Rodney blinks. "Uh . . ."
"There's only you and me here," John points out. "Figured that was the way to go for a first time."
Rodney hesitates as if he's thinking something over, then he jams his keys into the pocket of his jeans and crosses the lot with a look of determination on his face. "Okay."
"Okay," John smiles. "First thing? You gotta relax some." He takes Rodney by the shoulders and shakes him gently. "You're wound tighter than a spring."
"Well forgive me for having some apprehension about my ability to do what you were doing in there. Earlier. With the . . . " Rodney twirls a hand as if to encompass dancing.
John acts as though he hasn't heard him. "Just close your eyes and listen to the music for a minute," he says, voice low. "It'll help." And Rodney obeys, giving John all the time in the world to study the tilt of his chin, the stubble darkening his jaw, the cowlick of hair sticking up at the back of his head, the breadth of his shoulders. "There you go," John breathes as he watches Rodney relax a little, and eases up close, setting a hand on Rodney's hip. "Now – " He makes a soothing noise as Rodney stiffens, waits until he relaxes again. " – it's all about body contact. Going with the flow. It's not hard." And he presses his knee between Rodney's legs, persistent until Rodney widens his stance, lets him slide in close. "There you go," John murmurs. "Now just follow what I do." And he nudges him into motion, using his hips, his thighs, to guide Rodney into a slow-shuffle approximation of what everyone in Henderson's been doing since they were born.
John's breath quickens at the intimacy of it, the trusting, inexpert shift of Rodney's body against his, the scent of their sweat and the heat that's bleeding from Rodney's hands into his arms. There's no sound save the noises that make up a Henderson silence – bullfrogs and crickets, the shiver and moan of a song on the radio. John closes his eyes, lets his nose graze Rodney's temple, and in the next instant Rodney's jerking in his arms, eyes blown wide.
"Am I the girl?" he asks in a rush. "Are you teaching me to be the girl? I'm dancing the girl's part aren't I, oh my god, you're dooming me to social ostracism and – "
"Rodney?" John waits for the rush of words to slow then die. "I've never thought of you as a girl," he murmurs, and nudges his hips against Rodney's to demonstrate just how much his body's reacting to the fact that Rodney's a man. Rodney gasps, fingers tightening on John's arms, and that's when John leans in, steals whatever Rodney might say next with a slow, wet kiss.
Rodney might not know much about dancing, but he knows how to kiss – good god, he knows how to kiss. John feels his stomach flip at the unexpected skill with which Rodney curls his tongue around John's own, nips at his mouth, makes John's breath catch and stutter the way it hasn't in years. "Jesus," John manages when he pulls away.
"I, um – " And that's all Rodney says before he leans in and kisses John again, hand curling firm around the back of John's neck, holding him steady as he backs him up against the truck, rocks his hips and shivers beneath John's hands, not pulling away until neither of them are good for anything but trying to catch their breath and John's hat's fluttered away into the dirt.
"Well," John says at last, hand smoothing down Rodney's back.
"Mmhmm," Rodney offers intelligently.
"I'd like to do this again," John murmurs. "Think we could?"
Rodney blinks at him. "Are we – not . . . "
John ducks his head, wets his lips. "I, uh – " He looks up, smiling a little dangerously. "See, I'm not much for one-night stands," he explains. "I'm a lot better at courtin'."
"Mmmhmm?" John can't help himself, leans in to drag his nose up the side of Rodney's neck. "Dinner, Wednesday, suit you?"
"You want to court me?" Rodney asks.
Rodney stares at him. "You can't be serious."
"Because people don't court! It's the twenty-first century, no one's courted anyone since 1859!"
John smirks a little. "Maybe I'm staging a one-man renaissance."
"Maybe you're a royal pain in my ass," Rodney mutters, but he steps back, worrying the hem of his shirt between the fingers of one hand. "Okay," he says, tilting his chin. "Wednesday. Dinner."
"I'll pick you up at seven."
"No. I'll pick you up at seven," Rodney says, jabbing a finger in his direction. "I am not a girl!"
"I noticed," John says, letting his eyes drift down to where Rodney's jeans seem awful tight.
Rodney hmmphs. "Cocktease," he says, turning and walking toward his car.
"Think of me when you jerk off!" John shouts after him, and laughs when Rodney shows him the finger.
John can't speak for Rodney, but for him the week's progress toward Wednesday is pitifully slow. It isn't helped by the fact that he's working in Rodney's house – that he can smell his soap and aftershave in the bathroom, that his bed's big and wide. He brews coffee in Rodney's kitchen and it's far too easy to imagine backing him up against the counter; lets his mind drift when he's repairing a splintered floorboard in the living room, and before he knows it he's thinking how good it'd feel to press Rodney down into the couch.
He's ready before seven come Wednesday night, which is how he knows he's got it bad. The clues were there for the asking, in the way he chose his clothes with particular care and made sure the bedroom wasn't too big a mess, but it's the fact that he's ready at 6.30 that causes him to hang his head. Muttering at himself – this is what happens when you let someone else pick you up, he supposes – he grabs his guitar, goes out to the back porch and picks out some tunes, loses himself in a song he's been writing, tries out chords and scratches at his stubble with a thumb, changes from strumming to picking and back again, doesn't hear Rodney's car.
"I like that," Rodney says, startling him, standing on the footpath that winds down the side of the house. He's a little pale and his forehead is damp; his shirt is ironed – John grins to realize they're both in trouble pretty deep.
"Something new," John says, hitching a shoulder. "You ready?"
"I, uh – did you have somewhere in mind?"
"Not especially. Just thought we'd – "
"Only I stopped by the Grill and Shirley helped me pick out some things, packed them up. She said your house was nice, that you had – well, and she was right, a back porch that – " He waves at the climbing roses – "flowers and it might be nice to just talk and so – um, fried chicken?"
John smiles at the way Rodney's practically vibrating with nervousness, sets his guitar down against the porch rail. "Why, Doctor McKay," he says, ambling down the steps. "I think you're trying to court me."
Rodney smiles, unexpectedly brilliant, and laughs a little. "Maybe."
John leans in and kisses him, chaste. "Fried chicken would hit the spot."
They busy themselves inside the house with plates and paper towels ripped from the roll, carry everything outside, a six-pack of beer under Rodney's arm. The chicken's perfect – crisp on the outside, tender in the middle – and there's potato salad, peach cobbler, and a flyer for the Grill in the bottom of the bag, '10% off with your next date!' written in Shirley's hand, a huge red heart drawn around the note.
They talk about houses – the price of guttering, the rate for yard work hereabouts – genetics, Budweiser, Batman, rain. John picks up his guitar when the food's all done, picks out songs while they talk, threading notes between their disagreements, twisting out accompaniment to their companionable silence. When the sun drops slow behind the oaks at the bottom of the yard Rodney starts to pick up their plates, their trash, wanders inside and John can hear him washing dishes. The unexpected sweetness of it makes John close his eyes and pick out a long, slow song about being lucky, while crockery slides into the dish drain and forks splash clean,
"So – I should . . ." Rodney's drying his hands on a dish towel when John goes inside. His nose is pink from the late afternoon sun.
John sets his guitar on the kitchen table. "You haven't seen the upstairs," he murmurs, standing close enough for Rodney to feel his body heat, not touching him at all.
Rodney swallows. "Oh?"
John turns and ambles toward the stairs. "Yeah."
"Okay." There's a moment's pause before Rodney follows, footsteps heavy on the ancient treads, and John waits in the doorway to his bedroom until he's sure Rodney knows where to go, crosses to the window to wait.
"Um. Bedroom," Rodney says, nodding. "It's – uh. Very nice."
Rodney crosses the room to stand beside him, watches, fascinated, as John slides his fingertips underneath his forearm, drags them toward his wrist and takes up his hand. "So – "
"God, yes," Rodney says, closing the space between them, kissing him hard then pulling back, "although none of this makes sense to me, not one bit of it, does any of it make sense to you? Because none of it – " His voice becomes muffled as John drags his t-shirt up and over his head. "I mean – I don't usually get laid by – " His breath catches as John leans in, laves his tongue over one of Rodney's nipples. "- smoking hot country singers and . . . " He gasps as John does it again, his fingers closing in the fabric of John's t-shirt. "Off, off," he manages, pulling, tugging, until John helps him out and throws the shirt aside.
For a few moments there's silence – quiet resting heavy between them except for the soft, slick sound of their lips brushing and retreating, the hitch of their breathing and the clink of Rodney's belt buckle as John's fingers work it loose. "Yeah," John breathes into the crook of Rodney's neck, nuzzling against the place where throat meets collarbone, easing down Rodney's fly.
"Are you sure you know what you're getting into?" Rodney asks, voice high and tight as John's hands slide inside his jeans, easing them over his hips. He steadies himself with a hand on John's shoulders as John crouches, unlaces Rodney's boots, eases them away, taps at the back of Rodney's knees to encourage him to kick the jeans aside. He doesn't stand up straight away, but noses against Rodney's cock, still hidden by the fabric of his boxers, hums low in his throat at the musky smell of him, mouths the head, making Rodney groan. "No really," Rodney breathes as John stands, nudging them both toward the bed. "I'm – I have no idea what – I don't understand this world of yours. My wife has never left me . . . well, possibly because I've never had a wife, but still – I don't drive a truck, I'm truckless!"
John sweeps a leg behind Rodney's, tumbles him onto the bed where he lies, dappled by shadow, chest heaving. "I know," he murmurs, voice made low and hoarse by want, and crawls up over him, jeans still on.
"I like the way you sing, but in general I still don't like country music," Rodney continues, as if he's sure there's a flaw in this contract and he just has to find it. "The grammar of the genre is appalling, and the dialect makes it impenetrable from time to time, and I've never fished."
John hovers over him, eyes dark, waiting. "You done?"
Rodney wets his lips. "You're far too dressed," he whispers.
John lets a slow, easy smile work its way loose from the affection that's blooming in his chest and bends to kiss Rodney's stomach right above the waistband of his boxers. "I can fix that," he whispers, and sits back on his heels, slowly, teasingly unbuttoning his fly.
"Oh god," Rodney whispers with a shiver. "Are you – oh god, you're . . . nothing. You're naked. Under there."
John smirks, raises himself up enough to slide the jeans down his hips to his thighs, let his cock spring loose. "Yep."
Rodney keens softly, hand fluttering up as if to touch and then falling back against the bed. "John . . ."
And there's something stripped bare in way he says his name, so John leans forward, kisses him lazy and slow, spares a moment to get them both the rest of the way naked, then settles between Rodney's thighs, weight on one elbow as he licks his hand. "Need a little help," he explains, slicking up both their cocks, Rodney bucking into his touch and gasping, helpless. "Feel good?"
"Just – would you . . . " And Rodney grabs for him, greedy and unashamed, steeples his knees to catch John firm between his thighs and pushes up against him, mangling a groan.
"Oh yeah," John breathes, rocking down, pressing his face into the damp skin of Rodney's neck, breathing hard as Rodney rises up to meet his thrusts. His senses are overloaded, tumbled by scratch of hair against his chest, his thighs; the sharp scent of Rodney's sweat; the salt taste of him on his tongue; the tremble and shudder of his body straining toward release; the sound of Rodney's voice as he pants and begs, hitches out a tense, desperate 'oh' in the second before his hips lift and he comes, arms locked tight around John's back, face buried in his shoulder, bucking a pleasure that sings along John's thighs, coils in his belly, pushes out with a force that steals his voice, leaves him trembling and gasping, belly slick with come.
"This is courting?" Rodney asks at last, voice little more than a whisper.
John lifts his head, rolls a little to the right, leg hooked over Rodney's thigh. "This is sex," he grins. "But no way I'm giving up on courting you now."
Rodney laughs for the first time John can remember, pressing the sound into a kiss, nosing a path up into John's hair. "All right."
"All right?" John asks, cocking an eyebrow. "Just all right?"
Rodney grins at him, sated and content. "Wouldn't want you to get complacent."
And John smirks at the challenge. "Oh, you're on," he murmurs, and kisses Rodney not-exactly quiet, tangled and satisfied across the full width of his king-sized bed.
Saturday night, John's got plans for Sunday – a road trip to the pond with fishing gear in the back of the truck, adding one more New Thing to Rodney's experience of Henderson. He steps up to the mike with 'Mud on the Tires' on his mind, and the crowd roars warmly, falls into step by the chorus, sings along in a rough-shod fashion, weaving home out of off-key shouts. It's always the same – the same orders at the bar, same couples with their problems, same sweethearts with their new smiles, same women with their eyelids painted heavy, same guys leaning cocksure against the wall. Until that night when it isn't the same, and someone's sitting on a stool in the Troub's furthest corner, nursing a beer and holding out against the purchase of bone fide cowboy boots, wearing a t-shirt that says 'I'm with Genius' and waiting for the first set to be done.
'You're the Lucky One,' John sings, quieter than the crowd is used to, but he's playing for himself and no one pays him mind, couples winding round one another, high on beer and weekend freedom. 'Ladies like Country Boys,' he belts out, and though he can't see a damn thing for the stage lights, knows someone's protesting they're not a girl. It's 'Everyday Love' he's shooting for, for Charlie and his wife, for Shirley and her beaux, for Randy and Eliza, for Rodney and himself, and standing there, rooted in the Troub, it feels more than possible, lives sewn together by the amateur glide of soaring voices, whoops and shouts, applause when a set draws to an end, and a slant-mouthed grin to welcome him home.