The first cook John approached about baking a cake for McKay laughed in his face. Her name was Sophia. She was Korean-American, petite and dark-haired, but she could benchpress her own mass -- he'd seen her in the weight room in the early mornings, and she was tough. She had to be, to move those industrial-sized steel pots and pans around.
"You're kidding, right?" she said, looking up from her book. She was lying on a woven folding beach chair on the east pier, soaking up sun in short jean cutoffs and a bikini top. John kept his eyes where they were supposed to be.
"What do you want to do that for?"
John shrugged a little. "Does it matter?"
She grimaced. "He thought I was Miko."
"Do I look anything like Miko to you?"
"Of course not," John said, biting back a sigh. McKay. "It's -- it's not a race thing, he's just an idiot with women."
"Obviously." She gave him a look he couldn't quite interpret. "I guess he's not an idiot with you."
"He's...McKay," John said, spreading his palms as if to indicate his irreducibility.
"That's nice for you, then," she said, dismissively. "I hope you're very happy."
What did John's happiness have to do with anything? "I take it that means no cake."
"No cake. Sorry, Colonel." She picked up her book again and pointedly ignored him.
So much for that. He jogged back to his quarters, vaguely annoyed. It'd be a whole lot easier to do something nice for McKay if McKay were generally nicer to the support staff.
McKay had been oddly deflated ever since Jeannie had come and gone. Well, since Rod; it was Rod's visit that had done the damage. McKay was so full of himself most of the time that it was easy to forget there was insecurity under the bluster. John had tried to reassure McKay that they hadn't liked Rod all that much, but it hadn't stuck.
It was a little weird to be scheming a surprise for McKay, but John told himself he would have done the same for anyone on his team. He didn't like seeing McKay upset. And if a chocolate Powerbar could brighten the guy's day (which it could; John had seen it happen) a cake would be even better.
If he could just get somebody to make one.
Maybe bugging the off-duty cooks wasn't the way to go. Maybe he'd get further if he actually braved the kitchen. It was technically off-limits, but hell, he was the military commander -- he could stick his head in the room, right? And this time he wouldn't actually say who the cake was for. Might be easier that way.
He went in late, when the night baker was working on the next day's bread. "You're not supposed to be in here," she called cheerfully, muscling dough into long torpedos and lining up the torpedos on huge cookie sheets to rise.
"Yeah, I know." He gave her his best 'you know you like me' smile, leaning against the shiny steel surface of one of the prep tables. "I -- " Have a favor to ask, he'd been going to say, but he got a good look at her beneath the baseball cap and saw in her eyes that she knew him but didn't expect him to remember her. Uh-oh. This could be a train wreck.
So he scrambled for time, and started with her name, which was the only thing he knew for sure. "Sara, right?"
That turned out to be a good start. She grinned at him, pulling a new double-armful of dough out of the mixer and slapping it onto the table. "Right. Colonel Sheppard. Good to see you."
She'd cooked somewhere else he was posted, he was sure of it. But she wasn't military, which meant -- "McMurdo?"
"You got it. McMurdo to Atlantis. Apparently I have a soft spot for 'hazardous journeys, low wages, long hours.'" Her words were punctuated with the slaps of the dough on the kneading table.
He recognized that -- the ad Shackleton had supposedly posted, before the disastrous voyage where his ship got caught in the ice and eventually sank. Thirteen months his crew survived on ice floes, rowing in tiny little boats across the worst seas in the world. Everybody on the Ice knew that story. The part John always remembered was, he hadn't lost a single man.
"Don't forget 'honor and recognition in event of success,'" he said, lightly.
She snorted. "Right. If we could tell anybody back home where we actually are."
"Yeah, well, there is that." Hearing her voice, memory was coming back to him. "You threw that luau for Whitney, didn't you?"
"You have no idea how hard it is to make pineapple upside-down cake with the kind of limited supplies that base had in late July." She grinned. "No shortage of rum, though."
God, he remembered that party. The geeks and the grunts and even the watercolor artist on the Office of Polar Programs fellowship, hula-ing drunkenly around the base. "Yeah. About that."
"The luau? It's been at least four years, and we're in another galaxy; the statute of limitations on any indiscretions has totally expired."
Yeah. He wasn't touching that. "Could I convince you to bake a cake for me this week?"
"Another pineapple upside-down number? We're short on maraschino," she said, regretfully.
"I was thinking more along the lines of chocolate."
Slap, went the dough. "Lemme guess, somebody's birthday."
"Two of your team are offworlders, so I can't imagine you even know when their birthdays are."
"So?" He didn't know, actually, though not for lack of trying. Teyla said hers was sometime in the spring -- Athosian spring, and John was never sure how that correlated to Atlantean spring. Ronon hadn't even acknowledged the question when he'd asked.
She snorted. "Hate to break it to you, but there's no way we have enough chocolate. Not unless you want to be responsible for putting an end to chocolate pudding until the Daedalus gets back."
"They just left." John did the math. "A month without chocolate? There'd be mutiny."
"Sorry, Colonel." She actually sounded regretful. "I wish I could do it for you; I like making birthday cakes. And McKay's a decent guy."
He laughed despite himself. "Tell that to Sophia."
Sara gave a little smile. "Yeah, well, she's a little crushed."
"Crushed like -- oh," John said, getting it. "That kind of crushed."
"She had a thing for him, and then it turned out he couldn't tell her from one of his own scientists? Now she hates him with the passion of a thousand fiery suns."
"I can see that," John admitted. "But you think he's all right."
Sara shrugged. "He likes to eat. I like to cook."
"That works," he said. "But...you can't bake him a cake."
"Sorry. Supplies just aren't here."
"Some other kind? Something that's not chocolate?" But even as he asked, he knew what she was going to say.
"Lemon," she offered, "but I seem to remember -- "
"Thanks anyway," John said, and stood up to go. "See you around."
Sara cornered him as he was leaving the mess hall the next morning after breakfast. "Colonel Sheppard. A word?"
"Sure," he said, motioning to the rest of the team to go on without him. "If it's about military personnel barging into the kitchen without authorization..."
"Yeah, about that," she said. "I looked in the staff database. McKay's birthday isn't for another six months."
Damn. Busted. John smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, I know."
"So what gives?"
"Look -- McKay's been down," John said, quietly. "For a few weeks now, ever since -- well, it's complicated."
"Since Rod was here?"
"Oh, you know about Rod?" That was a surprise.
"He made a point of introducing himself to everyone in the city," she said, looking a little rueful. "When he waltzed into the kitchen, Sophia almost brained him with a frying pan."
John winced. "Whoops."
"Right. And then, once we got the introductions out of the way, he started offering us recipes. Stuff they cook in his Atlantis."
"Ah." And then you almost brained him with a frying pan, John thought. "I'm sure no insult to the present, ah, culinary situation was intended."
She threw him a look that suggested she knew exactly what he was thinking.
"Somehow McKay got the sense that people like Rod better than they like him."
"Oh," Sara said. "That sucks."
"And I just -- he's not himself," John said. Which was a weird thing to say. The point was that McKay was precisely himself, not that other guy who looked like him and sounded like him but didn't move like him, didn't act like him, and oddly wasn't half as attractive as he was. In a hypothetical sense, of course.
Sara brightened. "I can help you out."
"If it were his birthday, we'd be in trouble; I can't bake a birthday cake unless I'm making enough for everyone. Dr. Weir's policy," she said, as if to forestall his objection. "Ever since Kavanagh got his nose bent out of shape when LeGuilloux made soufflé and there wasn't enough to go around."
John resisted the urge to make a noise that would reveal precisely what he thought about that.
"-- which is why, like I said, everyone who has a birthday between now and next month is getting Betty Crocker lemon."
"Yeah, that's a problem," John said, wryly. Death didn't seem like the thing to cheer McKay up.
"But since it's not a birthday -- look, I can scrounge enough chocolate to make a small cake. You'd have to eat it someplace other than the mess hall, though, so people wouldn't get jealous."
"How small are we talking, here?" They could have a picnic, John thought. The four of them in a jumper -- head over to the mainland for an afternoon. Teach Ronon and Teyla how to play frisbee. Or hackeysack. All the geeks John had ever known had played hackeysack; McKay couldn't possibly be an exception to that rule.
"An individual-sized cake," Sara said, making a circle with her hands.
"So, like, a cupcake."
"Bigger than a cupcake! But, yeah, pretty small. Look -- it's what we've got. Take it or leave it."
"I'll take it," John said. "Thank you." Not the four of them; just him and McKay. That'd be all right. He could run with that.
"Pick it up tomorrow, late morning," she said.
"I owe you one," John told her, and smiled.
Talking Elizabeth into letting him borrow a jumper, and McKay, for the afternoon was easy. ("He could use some cheering up," she said thoughtfully, and then gave him a probing look. What was she probing for? He smiled back, blandly.)
Convincing McKay to take an afternoon off for no apparent reason? He should've known that wouldn't be as easy.
"No, no, of course that didn't compile -- did you learn to code from kindergarten students?" Rodney snapped, then turned back to John as the new guy -- Andries, the kid was Dutch -- flinched and scurried away. "I promised Elizabeth we'd have the new sensor array up and running by the end of the week and there's absolutely no way I'm going to meet that deadline, even if I rewrite every line of code we've got -- whatever this is, can't it wait?"
John resisted the urge to grit his teeth. Amazing how he could want to deck the guy, and want to make him smile, at the same exact time. "No," he said, pointedly, "it can't. And Elizabeth's already authorized the time off."
"She has?" McKay looked discomfited. "But I can't possibly abandon this, Zelenka's not remotely capable -- "
Radek pushed by them on his way to his workstation. "S dovolenm," he muttered.
"No problem," John said.
Radek looked up and John's presence seemed to register. "Take him away," he said. "Proboha. For love of God. Get him out of this lab."
"I'm needed here," McKay insisted.
"You're indispensable," John agreed, "but they can get by without you for an afternoon." He raised a hand to forestall further objection. "Don't make me ask Elizabeth to order you to take the afternoon."
"Fine," McKay grumbled, "tomorrow, which means I have twice as much to do this afternoon. Van Dijk!" He stalked off to terrorize the Dutch kid again. Radek and John exchanged half-smiles.
"So where are we going, again?"
"Relax," John said, leaning back in the pilot's chair. The jumper was on autopilot; it knew where they were going, and John was looking forward to seeing how long it would take Rodney to figure it out.
"Not exactly my strong suit."
"Yeah, I kinda noticed that."
"And that's not an answer to my question."
Rodney looked around the jumper aimlessly, and his eyes settled on the picnic basket. "Oh good, you did bring lunch."
"No, Rodney, I was going to take you for a three-hour hike and expect you to subsist on the three Powerbars in your daypack."
"Ha," Rodney said, then paused. "How'd you know I had three Powerbars in there?"
John made an innocent face. "Lucky guess."
"That's an invasion of privacy," Rodney sputtered.
"Hey, I was kidding, I haven't been poking through your stuff."
Rodney glared a little, but let it go. "Hey," he said, after a moment. "Are we going to that cove?"
"Got it in one." The shuttle began its gradual descent. "Picnic by the seaside."
"Hm," Rodney said, looking distracted. Like he was trying to figure something out.
"McKay," John said, waving his hand in front of his face. "Snap out of it. You're off-duty for the afternoon. Radek has everything under control."
They glided gently to a landing spot, and as the jumper door opened John couldn't help grinning at the ocean air and the lightness of being off-duty for an afternoon. The day was spectacular: cloudless blue sky, gentle breeze, the soothing sounds of tiny wavelets lapping at the rocks.
John got the picnic set up. They ate sandwiches wrapped in plastic and little containers of potato salad, and McKay groused about nonrecyclable products; he was about four paragraphs into a rant on bottled water when John tried to stop him.
"Hey," John said. "Let it go, would you? This is supposed to be fun."
McKay gave him a look that was suspicious and a little prickly. "You keep saying that."
"And why do you think that might be?"
That was when McKay stopped chewing, put his sandwich down, and inched almost imperceptibly back on the picnic blanket.
"What exactly are we doing here?" McKay asked.
"Ah, see, there's this custom on my home planet, called the picnic." John sounded snippy even to himself, but he didn't care.
"Because if you think I'm that easy -- "
"I mean, sure, it worked on Chaya, and oh my God did this work on Rod, did you -- you know, scratch that, I don't even want to know -- "
Did this work on Rod? "You did not just -- "
McKay steamrollered right over him. "Was the rest of the team in on this? What, did Jeannie tell you I have a thing for al fresco dining and sunburn? Because she's totally wrong. And you are so not my type."
"Oh, get over yourself," John yelled, exasperated. "I didn't hit on Rod. You've been moping ever since he was here, I just wanted to -- " He couldn't figure out how to finish the sentence, so he started again. "I talked the kitchen staff into baking you a chocolate cake, but right now I can't imagine why," John snapped, and stood. "And if I were hitting on you, you'd know."
As he walked a few paces away, all he could think was, wow. That could not possibly have gone worse, in any way.
John skipped another pebble onto the still surface of the cove. It bounced five times and then sank.
"Hey," McKay said quietly, from behind him. "Come have some cake."
"It's an individual chocolate cake," John said. He sounded sulkier than he meant to.
"There's plenty for two. And it smells amazing." There was a pause. "Come on, Colonel, I'm sharing my goddamned cake; this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
John skipped another stone -- six bounces, this time -- and then rose from his crouch. He took a deep breath. "Okay," he said.
McKay had cleared away their lunch; what was left on the blanket was the cake, divided onto a pair of little plates.
"So," he said, aiming for light and instead sounding embarrassed, "you're saying I've been such a dick you orchestrated a chocolate cake to bribe me into being less of one?"
"It wasn't supposed to be a bribe," John said. "You've been down, that's all."
McKay shrugged. "Something about meeting my alternate self," he said quietly. "He made it to Atlantis just like I did, you know? But it seems like -- maybe he's...happy."
Ouch. "Eat," John said. "C'mon."
McKay took a bite and pleasure washed across his features. "Oh," he said, through his mouthful of cake. "That's good."
"See? The universe can't be all bad with chocolate in it." And his day had just redeemed itself. If nothing else, he'd put that look on McKay's face. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen the guy look so blissed-out. Not that he made a habit of paying attention to... things like that.
They ate in contented silence for a few minutes before McKay started talking again. "Everybody's been really nice since Rod was here. At first it was -- I mean, it felt good, you know? But then it occurred to me that maybe you're all just wishing I were him. And I'm not," he said, sounding both earnest and pained.
"It ever occur to you that you think too much?"
"Not by a long shot," McKay said, horrified.
"Rhetorical," John said, trying not to laugh.
"I know that!"
"Look -- nobody wants you to change."
"That has nothing to do with Rod," John pointed out. "You've always been a pain in Zelenka's ass." He thought for a moment, and settled on, "Your friends like you the way you are." Truth was, he couldn't quite figure out why he liked McKay so much the way he was, but he did. Really did. Clearly he had a masochistic streak.
"I'm sorry I made assumptions," McKay said. "I didn't mean -- it's just -- having Rod here shook me up." He managed to sound apologetic and defensive all at once.
"No problem," John said. "I get it."
Though something was niggling at him. The way McKay had admitted that he wasn't happy. How his face had flushed when he insisted John wasn't his type.
"You thought I -- with Rod? What gave you the idea that I -- " On second thought, maybe he wouldn't finish that sentence, because any of the endings he could think of made him a little queasy.
McKay gulped his bite of cake, then gave John a look he couldn't interpret. "Excuse me if I don't exactly feel like having this conversation."
John looked away, unaccountably disappointed. "Finish your cake," he said. "We should head back."
It turned out McKay wasn't the only one who thought John had a thing for him. Everybody in Atlantis seemed to be making the same damn assumption.
"I trust you and Rodney had a good time," Teyla said serenely, as they prepared to spar. Her smile was warm, like always, but this time John saw something new in it -- an insinuation that was just plain not right! -- and before he knew it, he was flat on his back, gasping; Teyla kneeling over him, triumphant.
She offered him a hand up. "Your emotions are too near the surface," she cautioned. "You must set them aside in order to wisely fight."
What's near the surface, John thought, is irritation. Not emotion. "Right," he said, terse, and assumed fighting position again.
"Thank you for taking McKay off our hands for few hours," Zelenka said, in the lunch line. "I don't know how you put up with him, but on behalf of entire lab, thank you. You are good for him."
John bobbled his tray and almost spilled his soup. "Ah -- about that," he began lamely, but Zelenka had already headed toward a table packed with scientists.
Jesus, even Ronon had the wrong idea. "Heard you got the cooks to bake McKay a chocolate cake," he said, as they ran along the pier at sunrise.
"And?" John was a little out of breath, but had no intention of showing it.
"Wish somebody would do that for me," Ronon said, and zoomed away. John stopped, bracing his hands on his thighs, and gulped in air.
This was more than he could bear. Desperate times called for desperate measures: he called on Heightmeyer.
"What's on your mind, John?" She smiled at him sunnily.
John, who was not feeling particularly sunny, did not smile back. "Everyone in Atlantis thinks I'm gay."
He expected her to seize on "everyone in Atlantis" -- it was obviously an overstatement; the only people he knew thought that were Teyla, and Ronon, and Zelenka, and Elizabeth, and the kitchen staff. And, damn it, McKay.
"Say more about that," was all she said.
He sighed. "I tried to do something nice for McKay, and now everybody I talk to thinks we're -- dating."
"So the assumption isn't that you're gay, exactly; it's that you're involved with Rodney."
"What's the damn difference?"
She shrugged gently. "Rodney is," she said.
John looked at her helplessly. "We're not involved."
Heightmeyer steepled her fingers. "Do me a favor," she said. "Indulge me. What if you were?"
"Has it escaped your notice I'm in the goddamned Air Force?"
She didn't seem fazed by that at all. "You're in Atlantis," she pointed out. "You're a long way from your chain of command, even from the SGC."
There was a silence. "Besides," she added, "that's not a very convincing argument. I know how much you value military rules."
John resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but it was a near thing.
"If you were involved with Rodney, what would be different?"
The prospect of answering filled John with a mute terror, and he blanched. "I -- you can't just ask that -- "
Heightmeyer raised her hands, placating. "Consider it your homework," she said. "And John? Next time, call ahead. You can get more than fifteen minutes if I actually know you're coming."
Against his better judgement, he thought about it. Before falling asleep. Out running. In briefings with Elizabeth. Standing on the balcony, staring at the endless sea.
Admitting this even to himself felt freakish, but most of his life wouldn't be that different if he were dating McKay. Missions would still be missions; meals would still be meals. They'd probably even still bitch and snark at each other all the time.
The main thing that would be different was the thing he couldn't really imagine. They would -- touch each other. Which, okay, they did a lot of, anyway, but this would be different. Touching with intent.
The thing was, he just wasn't attracted to men.
And he sure as hell wasn't attracted to McKay. McKay was obnoxious and over-the-top and full of himself. McKay had a big crooked mouth, and impossibly soft hair, and broad shoulders that carried the weight of the city more often than not, and square capable hands that moved everywhere when he talked, which was most of the time, and John could so easily imagine those hands reaching through his tac vest, through his defenses, and stripping him bare, and --
He cornered McKay in the mess hall just after dinner. "Can we talk?"
McKay scowled at him. "You know, nothing good has ever come from those words in the history of mankind," he said.
Traffic swirled around them.
"Okay, what," McKay asked, projecting impatience.
"I was thinking, someplace a little more private," John said, quietly. Butterflies rushed his stomach and he ignored them. "What are you doing after this?"
"I have to stop by the lab and make sure Kuo hasn't burned it down," McKay said.
"After that," John pressed.
"I'll swing by, then," John said, and walked away. He wondered whether McKay was watching him go.
And then he spent half an hour standing outside, watching the light change over the sea, wondering why he wasn't paralyzed by fear.
When he arrived at McKay's quarters, the door opened for him immediately. McKay was standing, arms folded, apparently waiting.
Might as well cut to the chase. "Have you noticed that everyone here thinks we're dating?"
"I have, actually, yes," McKay said, "and pulling stunts like this one is in no way helping!"
"'We need to talk'? Who says that? And in the mess hall!" McKay was working up a head of steam. "That's going to fuel the gossip mill for weeks."
"Oh, I think getting the kitchen staff to bake you a chocolate cake trumps that," John said, mock-serious, because it was kind of fun to watch McKay get apoplectic.
"I may never live that down." But McKay was smiling, as though despite himself. His crossed arms loosened, and John couldn't help noticing the pull of his shirt over his biceps. "Good cake, though."
"Worth the rumors?"
McKay seemed to be considering. "Yes, actually."
"Good," John said, relieved.
And then he ran out of steam. He knew what he wanted to say; he just wasn't sure how to say it.
"So -- when you said 'we need to talk,'" McKay began. "Did that imply there was something you were planning on saying?"
"Right," John said, and took a deep breath. "So everyone here thinks we're dating."
"We've covered that, yes."
"What if they're right?"
"Excuse me? I think I would know if we were dating." McKay sounded huffy. "I've been given to understand there are perks involved."
"Yeah, like picnics," John said, taking a step closer. "And, um, chocolate."
McKay swallowed hard, but didn't back away. "I thought you -- didn't do this."
"Yeah. About that," John said.
McKay huffed a little laugh. "You've got to be kidding me." His eyes flickered to John's mouth, then quickly back to his eyes. "Okay, ah, you said if you were hitting on me, I'd know," his words starting to speed up a little bit now.
John felt like his heart might pop out of his chest. "I did," he confirmed. He licked his lips and watched heat flare in McKay's eyes.
"Oh," McKay said faintly, and John kissed him.
McKay kissed like he did everything else. He was brash, exploratory, surprisingly reckless. John liked that, more than he had even imagined he might. They tumbled onto the bed, clothing yanked awry and out of the way, kissing like they were making up for lost time.
And McKay was all over him, broad hands and expressive mouth and oh, God, firm thigh pressed between his, right where he needed it. John closed his eyes and gasped and came too fast, his orgasm rolling through him like waves.
When he opened his eyes, the wonder he saw on McKay's face reminded him of their first days in Atlantis, when there was something new and startling and inconceivably cool around every turn.
"Sorry," he managed, a little weakly. "That was -- "
"Unbelievably hot," McKay said fervently, and kissed him again.
Huh. A guy could get used to this. "If you say so," he said, and rolled them over so he was on top. "Let's see if I can figure out how to fly this thing."
"If you're planning to make off-color comments about my -- ohh," McKay moaned, sounding surprised, as John gave an experimental lick. "Oh, God. I didn't think we were -- ohhh!" That was almost a wail.
It figured that McKay would be a talker. Not that John was complaining. It was fun, seeing what sounds McKay made when John tried suction, and a light scrape of teeth, and the combination of mouth and one hand working together --
"Oh. Fuck. John," McKay moaned, shuddering.
"Hm," John said happily, his mouth full. Yeah, a guy could get used to this, for sure.
"I really wasn't into Rod."
McKay groaned and pulled a pillow over his head. "Can't I escape from my body double in my own bed?"
"I didn't think he was that good-looking," John pushed on. This was important; he had to get it through McKay's thick skull.
McKay rolled over, yanking his pillow to his chest and clinging to it the way he had probably once done with a teddy bear. It made John goofily happy. "He looks exactly like me!" McKay's voice was indignant.
"But he doesn't," John tried to explain. "He didn't insult anybody. He didn't act like he was God's gift to the Atlantis expedition."
"I fail to see what those have to do with his appearance -- or, for that matter, how that's supposed to make me feel better." The air of imperious authority would have been easier to pull off had McKay not been naked, John's bite-marks still faintly showing along his shoulders and neck.
"His personal shield still had juice," John reminded him, "which has to mean he didn't save his entire expedition from that black cloud thing."
McKay brightened a little at that, but still looked faintly suspicious. "Rod did risk life and limb to come over here and correct our faulty experiment." He was still holding on to his pillow, though the death grip had loosened a little.
"That's not -- the point is," John said, ignoring the voice in his head that said this was too corny for words, "I haven't spent the better part of three years looking at him."
"Looking?" McKay echoed, his face softening.
John could reach out and touch McKay's face, now -- that was one of the perks! -- and he did, curling his fingers around the back of his neck so his thumb could stroke McKay's jaw.
"Oh," McKay said, and John felt the word rumble through his fingers.
"He's pretty enough, but he isn't you," John said.
Watching McKay get it was like watching the sun rise. Dazzling and a little overwhelming, and it filled John with a kind of awed glee.
"Of course not," McKay said, lofty and a little smug. "You so got the better end of the deal."
It was all bravado, and yet it managed to be true.
"I know," John said, and shut him up with another kiss.