E pur si muovo (And still it moves.) -- Galileo
Father Meredith R. McKay, SJ, checked his watch for the tenth time in as many minutes. The curb outside the Anchorage airport bustled with the inevitable traffic of the end of the high summer tourism season: families in matching hiking boots wearing heavy backpacks, blue-haired women clutching shopping bags emblazoned with glossy Native-influenced logos.
He couldn't help feeling like they were all surreptitiously staring at him. Was it the shirt? He flushed irritably and turned back to the magazine he wasn't actually reading.
The denim shirt with clerical collar had been a gift from Jeannie when the news of his exile came. "I couldn't find one in flannel," she'd said, smiling gamely, "but this should help you fit in, don't you think?" He hadn't been quick enough to wipe the horror from his face, and the way her face had fallen at that still made him feel like a heel.
None of this seemed quite real.
"Haven't you heard?" Father Marco had asked, a scant week ago. "You're being reposted. They're sending you to Siberia."
He'd burst into his superior's study, feeling sick and hot from running across the campus at top speed (and from the news, which sat in his stomach like a stone.) One look at Father Scott's face and Rodney had sunk to the floor in abject misery. "You're sending me to Siberia," he'd said, dully.
"What? Not at all, my dear boy," Father Scott had replied, and though the kind words were belied by the acid in his tone for an instant Rodney had believed him and gratitude had rushed through him like grace.
"We're sending you to Alaska. You're leaving on Sunday, after mass."
He would be able to do the Lord's work in Kodiak, the good Father assured him. There was much to be done. The Church ran a school for promising Island children -- not a Jesuit institution, though Jesuits had taught there in the past -- and the pupils' knowledge of catechism was apparently sorely lacking.
Naturally, Father Scott had said, this work will keep you sufficiently busy that you will have no time to continue your work on astrophysics, nor, indeed, to do any higher mathematics at all.
That it was framed as a strong suggestion was only a formality; the message was clear. He had been disgraced and his superiors were not pleased. The Church ordered him to relinquish his work, and he had no choice but to obey.
He had spent the remainder of the week in a flurry of activity: packing his books to store in his sister's basement (he wasn't supposed to own them anymore, but he couldn't bear to think of them in some stranger's hands), packing his few permitted personal items, shopping for winter clothes thick and strong enough to withstand cold he couldn't currently imagine. Not today: Anchorage was blazing hot. He ignored the drop of sweat rolling down his neck, the way the denim shirt stuck to his back, without difficulty. Mortification of the body had never been his style, but ignoring the body altogether was the first and easiest practice he knew.
Again he checked the piece of paper he'd been carrying in his pocket. Steve Wright was supposed to pick Rodney up on the curb outside of baggage claim. Wright had an agreement with the school to ferry teachers and pupils to Kodiak for half the cost of a regular commercial flight, but that didn't mean much if he didn't actually show up to fetch his passenger.
Rodney felt his jaw tightening as he stared, unseeing, at the pages of Company. He didn't notice the rumpled man in black approaching until he was standing right in front of him.
"Hey," the man said. "Are you Father Meredith?"
"I am," Rodney said, unable to tamp down the mild irritation that manifested in his tone. "And you must be Steve. Are you aware that you're almost an hour late?"
The man -- Rodney couldn't help noticing that he was lean and fit, his black t-shirt snug against his chest -- grinned easily. "I'm Jack, actually," he said. "Jack Sheppard; Steve's partner. He had a little bit of an emergency this morning, so I stepped in. Sorry to keep you waiting, Father."
"That's all right," Rodney said, not exactly graciously but as close as he could manage.
"Plane's parked thataway," Jack said, gesturing with his head toward the tarmac. "Can I carry something for you?"
He lifted Rodney's duffle bag easily; Rodney followed with his two carry-ons.
"Trip to Kodiak takes about an hour-ten," Sheppard said, amiably. "Some of the prettiest scenery you'll ever see, I can promise you that."
"Hm," Rodney said, shortly. He really wasn't interested in chit-chat. Maybe if he were lucky, Sheppard would figure that out.
Sheppard's plane was distressingly tiny.
"Good God," Rodney said, taken aback. It was white and blue and looked more like a toy than like an actual aircraft.
"You would know," Sheppard said, with a sly smile.
"Mm, yes, I've never heard that one before," Rodney muttered.
"She's a Cessna 152," Sheppard said proudly. "Runs like a dream." He was mercifully quiet while he stowed the bags, got Rodney lashed in to his seat, and did his pre-flight check.
"Control tower, this is ATL-984, ready for takeoff," he said.
"ATL-984, please stand by," said the voice in Rodney's headset.
"We'll be idling here for a little bit until we get the green light," Sheppard explained.
"Mmm," Rodney said. There was very little in the world that sounded less appealing to him than making conversation with some ridiculous-haired, excessively easygoing bush pilot; dared he hope that Sheppard would get the hint?
"ATL-984, you're clear to go," the voice said.
Rodney closed his eyes. Take-off was likely to be wobbly and he didn't especially need to endure it with his eyes open.
"C'mon, you're missing the best part," Sheppard said as the plane taxied down the runway, picking up speed, and then lifted with a slightly sickening wrench into the air.
"Thanks for the tip," Rodney said, through clenched teeth, and didn't open his eyes.
A minute or so later the plane had stabilized, as had Rodney's innards, and so help him, he was curious; he let himself look.
"Pretty, isn't it?" They were flying over water and trees and rumpled hills. "That's the Turnagain Arm."
Rodney didn't much care, so he didn't reply.
"Nice to be flying in a new teacher," Sheppard said after a while. "The kids can be a little tough at first, but they'll really appreciate having somebody talented working with them again."
"How do you know I'm talented?" Rodney snapped. He didn't mean to, but he'd been awake for what felt like days, this had been one of the worst weeks of his life, and he was having trouble accessing the reserves of steadfast calm which were usually at his fingertips.
Sheppard shrugged. "Jesuits are all about the teaching, right?"
"Only when the subject matter is approved from on high," Rodney said bitterly.
Sheppard threw him a quick glance, then returned his eyes to the controls in front of him. "I figure you've got to be pretty committed, or you wouldn't be taking the posting in Kodiak."
"You figured wrong," Rodney said. "I'm a terrible teacher. I hate kids. I don't know what I'm doing up here. This is a nightmare."
He clapped a hand over his mouth, immediately appalled with himself. "I'm so sorry," he said, hastily. "I can't believe I just said that. Please forgive me." All his years of training, and yet he was saying these kinds of things aloud to a perfect stranger?
"Whoa there," Sheppard said. "No apology necessary; it sounds like you're having a tough time. What happened?" Against all odds, he sounded like he actually cared. Maybe that was what moved Rodney to actually answer him.
"I'm an astrophysicist," he said, the word tasting like ashes in his mouth. "Or I used to be. Yes, the Jesuits value higher learning; that's part of why I knew I was called to the Order in the first place."
"With you so far," Sheppard said.
"I've been working on --" He cut himself off. "You wouldn't understand, it doesn't matter." Besides, just remembering the work, the heady exhilaration of it -- now lost to him forever -- filled him with despair, which was a grave sin indeed. "One of my colleagues became jealous of my progress. He charged me with faking my results."
"Damn," Sheppard said, then seemed to reconsider. "Uh -- sorry."
"Hardly the first profanity I've ever heard," Rodney said.
"Yeah, but I want to make a good impression." Sheppard smiled. "So what happened?"
"My superiors believed him. Honestly, I suspect at least one of them had been itching to get rid of me anyway; if nothing else, this offered a convenient excuse."
"A black mark on your record," Sheppard said, his mouth twisting a little.
"Exactly. That's how I got exiled."
"You didn't try to defend yourself? Or get some of your buddies to stand up for you?"
Rodney knew his smile was mirthless, but couldn't stop it from showing. "You haven't known me very long, Sheppard, so this may come as a surprise to you, but I'm not an easy man to get along with."
"Oh?" Sheppard's face was studiously blank but Rodney had the feeling there was amusement behind his sunglasses.
"It's been argued that I can be difficult and abrasive, and that I would do well to strengthen my practice of humility."
"I seem to remember learning something once about keeping your light under a bushel," Sheppard said mildly.
"Yes, well--" That was a surprise; Rodney hadn't expected even watered-down theology from the mouth of a bush pilot who lived God-only-knew what sort of a life. Steve's "partner," he'd said. Instinctively Rodney tamped down that line of thinking, ignoring it with the ease of long practice. "It hasn't made me any friends, even in the Order. Now I have to do penance in this Godforsaken place." Misery washed over him again. From the depths I call to You. . .
"You might be surprised. A lot of us really like it here," Sheppard said. "The other priest in town calls it God's country."
"How delightful for him," Rodney bit out, and stared out his window, glumness overtaking him again.
Sheppard had the good sense not to try to talk with him again during the remainder of the flight.
Another exile in Kodiak. Maybe they should start a club.
John glanced at the still figure slumped beside him. Father Meredith's denim shirt was stained with sweat, his face pale with exhaustion. The stunned grief in his eyes was familiar. John had seen that very look in his own eyes three years ago.
At least John's exile here was his own decision, like the decision to change his name, become Jack Sheppard, bush pilot. This poor guy didn't even have that choice.
And John could keep flying. Not fighter jets or helicopters, but his Cessna was a sweet ride. Father Meredith was left with nothing. There wouldn't be any astrophysics at St. Elizabeth's school. Astrophysics, for God's sake.
John almost laughed.
He brought them in smooth as silk, ignoring Father Meredith's white-knuckled grip on his rosary beads and small, breathy exclamations. The good Father would have to get used to flying in puddlejumpers if he was going to minister to outlying villages.
Taxiing into his parking space, John turned.
"Here we are. All safe and sound."
"Yes. Right." Father Meredith sighed deeply and raised his chin.
Steeling himself? Yeah. That made sense.
John helped him down and unloaded his bags. Hefting his duffle, John jerked his head toward the parking lot.
"This way. I'll give you a lift into town."
Staggering slightly with his two carry-ons, Father Meredith shook his head. "No, that's not necessary. I can get a taxi. . ."
John chuckled. "No taxis here." He headed toward his truck and called over his shoulder. "Don't worry. It's all part of the service."
Father Meredith hesitated. John heaved his duffle into the back of the truck before Father Meredith made up his mind and dragged his carry-ons over.
"Thank you." Tight lipped and about as ungracious as you could get. "I suppose I should go to the school. . ."
"Thought I'd give you a quick tour of the town." John had been in Father Meredith's shoes once; he'd cut him some slack. For a while. Plus, he'd seen the guy's hands shaking. Nerves? Exhaustion? When was the last time he'd eaten? "Just to get you oriented."
"I. . ." He closed his eyes briefly. "Thanks."
John was a good tour guide. Knew what would appeal to most tourists. He kept it short, sweet, and general: harbor, cannery, museums, an historic church or two. Father's eyes lit up when they passed the coffee shop, and John made an executive decision. No one should meet Francis Stuart on an empty stomach. Especially someone who'd have to deal with the stubborn bastard every day. He made a quick u-bie on the street, ignoring a squawk from the passenger seat. "Don't know about you, Father, but I had to skip lunch. I could really use a sandwich and cup of coffee."
It wasn't exactly a moan, but it came damned close. "Coffee."
John grinned and ushered Father Meredith into the shop.
Twenty minutes later, John leaned back in his seat, sandwich at hand and coffee at his elbow, and stared at the pile of food in front of the other man. A pile quickly disappearing. It was pretty amazing, really. By the time his plate was empty except for a smear of mustard and a few crumbs, and his cup had been refilled three times, Father's color had improved and he'd sunk back in his chair, looking relaxed for the first time. He still had that bruised look around his eyes, but at least his hands weren't shaking.
"God, I needed that."
John raised his eyebrows, but Father just stared at him for a second before turning and calling for the check.
"My treat." John stood. "Put it on my tab, Cindy." He waved to Cindy, smiling at them from behind the counter.
Father frowned. "But--"
"She won't take your money. Not this time." John shrugged. "Don't even try."
Father's chin jutted out and John wondered if he'd argue. He looked like he could be pretty stubborn. Maybe he'd be able to stand up to Principal Stuart. John would pay money to see that.
"Thank you. Again." The mulish set of his chin softened and he looked. . . lost.
John had always been a sucker for stray puppies and for the last kid to be picked for the team. Somehow, Father Meredith managed to combine the two.
"Right." John clapped him on the shoulder, then led the way back to the truck. "Let's get you up to the school."
Father stiffened up, like a new recruit coming to attention. "Yes. I've imposed on you for far too long."
"Nah." John caught his gaze and smiled. "It's been fun."
Francis Stuart was officious, sanctimonious, and full of himself. He was nevertheless one of God's children, created in the divine image and imbued with a spark of divinity, but some part of Rodney mistrusted him from the moment he first walked into the man's office, suitcases in hand.
"Shirley, you'll never believe who just walked in," Stuart said into the receiver, gesturing to the chair in front of his desk. "What? Yes, it's -- how did you -- oh," and he sounded distinctly annoyed now. "The Roastery. I see."
He'd let Sheppard talk him into coffee and a meal, and now he was on Stuart's bad side. Already. That wasn't exactly an auspicious start.
"Well, I should -- yes, yes. Of course. Talk to you soon," he said dismissively, and hung up.
"Mr. Stuart," Rodney said, half rising out of his chair to offer the man a handshake.
"Father," Stuart said, distantly, and let his hand go quickly.
"My apologies for being late," Rodney said, trying not to grit his teeth. "The bush pilot--"
"Not at all; you're entitled to feed the body, if you're going to be in charge of feeding these young minds." He was positively smarmy.
This builds character, Rodney thought, desperately. "I'm looking forward to being here." Surely lying was a lesser sin than admitting to Stuart just how doomed this place made him feel?
"I'd meant to introduce you straightaway to Father Liam," Stuart said, "the other priest in town -- collegiality, and all that -- but he's away doing a few baptisms up in Inupiat."
"I see," Rodney said. Other priest, of course; Sheppard had mentioned him. Father Liam who felt this place was God's country. Rodney felt, shamefully, inclined to dislike him just for that.
"Come," Stuart said. "I'll give you the tour."
St. Elizabeth's was as unimpressive on the inside as it had looked from the outside. Cement-block construction, painted over in a dingy shade of lemon yellow. The classrooms gave Rodney a sinking feeling -- just the memory of being in one of those little desks made him feel constricted -- which he did his best to hide.
"Built in the early 1900s," Stuart said, and "not exactly state-of-the-art, but we make do," and "of course, the Alutiiq children used to need instruction in English, though these days almost no one speaks Alutiiq anymore." He was all too easy to ignore until Rodney heard the words "where you'll be staying."
"Excuse me?" Rodney said.
"Your quarters are just down this way, at the boys' end of the hall," Stuart said, leading the way. "They're the principal's quarters, historically, but I already have a house, and -- well, there's no way I could convince my wife to move in to a place like this," he said, "but for a bachelor like yourself it should be just fine!" The jocularity set Rodney's teeth on edge.
"Well, I'll leave you to settle in," Stuart said, outside the door that divided the principal's quarters from the long hallway. "The summer students are on a field trip at the moment, but don't be surprised when you hear the pitter-patter of little feet down the hall; they'll be back in an hour or so."
"Summer students?" Rodney said weakly.
Stuart scowled. "Children from the most remote villages board here; haven't you been listening to a word I've said?"
"Er," Rodney said.
"We'd been hoping you could take over tomorrow; Mrs. Lever costs us an arm and a leg, whereas for you, Father, this is a natural part of your responsibility."
Penance, Rodney thought; I am doing penance. Focus on God.
"Yes, well, it will take me a few days to learn the children's' names, not to mention getting a sense for where they're at academically," he said. The words came out haughtier than he intended. "Perhaps I could join Mrs. Lever for a day or two, to get a sense for the pedagogical underpinnings of what she's been doing, and then I can take over."
"Pedagogical underpinnings!" Stuart's laugh grated on Rodney's nerves. "Well, if you say so, Father. I'm just a lowly administrator."
Lowly administrator, my black cassock, Rodney thought; you just want to make sure I understand you're in charge around here. Message received, loud and clear. "I'll go settle in, then," he said. "Thanks for your help." He shook the man's hand again, and opened the door.
"Spartan" would have been an understatement. The door opened onto a small sitting area furnished with a loveseat, mismatched chair, and a cube refrigerator with a hot pot balanced on top. Through a doorway that had no door, there was a bedroom barely large enough to hold a bed and a bedside table. No closet, though there was a tall wooden box where a few metal hangers waited unused on a hanging bar. A small bathroom, shower and sink and toilet, which was a blessing -- he'd already been dreading sharing bathroom facilities with however many children were resident there.
It was no small wonder Stuart's wife hadn't wanted to move in. These were quarters designed for a single religious, not a married couple; Rodney could hardly imagine how two people could share the space without tripping over each other. He wondered whether Stuart was the first layman to hold the principal's chair, and how on earth he had gotten the job. He certainly didn't seem to have any love of children or education.
Rodney pushed that thought out of his mind; it wasn't charitable. Of course, on the whole he wasn't feeling particularly charitable at this moment, but surely that was because he was in dire straits. This was the sort of week that tried men's souls, and he knew he was failing to live up to the standards of spiritual generosity that his calling required.
Major transitions had never been his strong suit, even transitions he'd entered into by choice. But once he settled in to this new circumstance, he would be able to regain his equilibrium. To respond to this new life with grace.
For the time being, God would have to help him. "Please," he said aloud, wearily, wishing he could find it in himself to offer a more eloquent prayer, and began to unpack his bag.
The student body during the summer session was small, only fourteen children, all between the ages of eight and eleven. Mrs. Lever turned out to be the town's kindergarten teacher, sweet and blue-haired; despite her no-nonsense attitude, the children obviously loved her. By the end of his first hour with them, Rodney could tell they were not going to love him.
Not that he minded. He wasn't looking for love. Though obedience would have been nice -- was, in fact, critical, if he were going to survive a life with these terrifying creatures -- and he wasn't at all sure how he was going to get that. It was the three oldest boys who were going to be the problem, he could tell, but he had no idea how to keep that from happening. Appealing to their manners or their sense of good sportsmanship was unlikely to make a difference.
They all had bland, uninteresting names, Sam and Patrick and Susan. "Don't you have Alutiiq names?" Rodney protested, but they just shrugged and kept coloring and reading and throwing spitballs at one another.
"They tend to be a little short on tribal history," Mrs. Lever murmured, right in his ear. "I've been wanting to take them to the Alutiiq museum in town, though; you could go on a field trip."
"You know the rest of the student body," Rodney said. "Would they benefit from that?"
"Oh, I'm sure they would," she said. "What year will you be teaching, once school starts up?"
"Fifth grade," he said, trying not to sound glum.
"That's a wonderful age," she said. "You could take the whole fifth grade class!"
"I'll do that," Rodney said, trying to sound like the prospect filled him with anything other than horror.
Summer school, it turned out, was mostly a way for the children who lived far away to stay in Kodiak for the summer. Rodney wondered what was so imperfect at home that they -- or their parents -- preferred to leave them here, benignly neglected. He was, however, wise enough not to ask.
School was in session five hours a day, and the rest of the time the children were on their own, playing basketball behind the school or fighting over the Game Boy someone's parents had sent. There were two dorm parents, a quiet young Russian man named Sascha and a nun named Sister Grace; they took care of the children outside of classtime, which left Rodney at loose ends. He spent several evenings staring at his notebooks and at the pile of worn textbooks he'd been bequeathed, trying to draw up fifth grade lesson plans.
Meals were included in his salary, as long as he took them in the dining hall. He fell into the habit of sitting at a table alone with a book wedged beneath the cafeteria tray. The rectory library was stocked with the classics -- Aquinas, Augustine -- so he started there. Though it was hard to focus on sin and salvation with fourteen voices raucously clamoring over the smash of tin silverware on battered tin trays, and Sascha and Sister Grace seemed to have given up on maintaining any kind of order at all.
Up early for morning prayer alone in his cell, praying the rosary and reciting psalms in a whisper; a day wrangling schoolchildren; meals in the jailhouse atmosphere of the refectory; evenings spent alone with his books. It wasn't good, exactly, but he could endure.
Rodney's first Sunday in Kodiak, he woke for early mass. The children were obligated to attend, but Sascha said he and Sister Grace took them to the late service, which had clinched Rodney's decision. His nerves had been jangling; he wasn't proud of needing time away from his charges, but he knew he needed to pray in community, and beyond that he needed some space.
The sanctuary echoed, almost empty, though a handful of dedicated worshippers were present when he arrived. For the first time since he'd arrived in town, no one stared at him. No one paid him any mind at all, and as he took his seat, Rodney felt himself sagging with relief. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed the experience of being silent in company without fearing that his silence would give offense. No one would ask him to chat here, but neither was he alone.
Father Liam was white-haired and weathered, and his voice bore a trace of Irish accent. He was straight out of central casting, in fact, and so were the two Alutiiq boys serving at the altar. Rodney relished the chance to relax into the familiar language, though reciting the Act of Penitence caught at his heart like a thorn. How could he be truly penitent when he'd been wrongly accused? It took effort to tamp the anger and shame back down, which left Rodney with a bitter taste in his mouth that even the sip of Communion wine couldn't wash away.
After "Dominis vobiscum," Rodney followed the paltry crowd toward the door. Everyone who passed was shaking Father Liam's hand warmly, and as the man smiled at them he was the perfect picture of the kindly old priest.
"Father," Rodney said, offering his hand. "I'm--"
"The new priest in town," Father Liam said, with mild disapproval in his voice. "Collar gives you away."
"Right," Rodney said, feeling off-balance.
"We've a moment before I need to prepare for the 11am; join me in my office?"
So Rodney did, following the Father through the warren of little hallways. When they sat down -- the Father in his grand old desk chair; Rodney on something wooden and stiff-backed -- Rodney felt like a disobedient child called in to see the principal.
"I'm sorry I didn't come to introduce myself after you returned," he said. "It's been kind of a crazy week, between getting to know the children and learning my way around town, and--"
"I used to teach those children," Father Liam said, which shut him up. "It's been years, of course -- the boys I taught are all grown men now -- but I spent many long hours at that school."
"I'm sure they appreciated the instruction," Rodney said inanely.
The Father narrowed his eyes. "Jesuit, aren't you?"
"I am, yes."
"I've known some treacherous Jesuits," Father Liam said, sounding almost meditative.
So have I, Rodney thought, and had to hold back the hysterical giggle that threatened to burst forth.
"When I heard a new young priest was coming to town, I wondered," the Father said. "What brings a man like yourself to these parts?"
"My superiors decided this was the best place for me to serve," Rodney said stiffly.
"Working with children is a delicate business," Father Liam said, and there was steel behind his voice now which hadn't been there before. "I'd better not find out that you chose this posting because you imagined you'd be free of pastoral supervision."
"What?" Rodney felt his blood pressure rising. "I don't know what you--"
"We've had teachers here who took far too keen an interest in their charges."
It hit Rodney like a blow to the head: this man thought he was a pedophile. Before he knew it he was standing, practically vibrating with fury. This added insult to injury and he couldn't bear it. "I don't know what the hell your problem is, Father, but don't you dare accuse me," he spat. "We all struggle with the desires of the flesh, but children -- of either gender -- do not tempt me in the slightest."
"Settle down," the Father said, his hands raised in a placating manner, and -- still breathing hard; fury was hard work -- Rodney did. "Surely you'll understand this isn't personal."
"Father," Rodney said, finally. "I am a man of many flaws. Pride and disobedience are among the crosses I bear. But I assure you--"
"I'm satisfied," Father Liam said, leaning back in his chair.
Rodney's shirt felt clammy, stuck to his skin. Nothing like a rush of adrenaline; he'd have to do laundry again this afternoon.
"You need to understand," Father Liam said, "I was taken in by Father Jacobson. His sons came to me, seeking support, and I turned them away; I couldn't believe what they said he had done."
In a flash Rodney understood. Of course: the priest who had fathered two sons in Alaska during the 1960s. Their mothers had been teenaged prostitutes, and had been shamed into keeping silent for more than thirty years. Who would take the word of a young Native sex worker over the word of a Jesuit priest? Once the story broke, it had raged through the Jesuit world like wildfire.
"I'm sorry," Rodney said.
"We all are." Father Liam's voice was sharp, but Rodney had the clear sense the castigation was inwardly-aimed.
"I won't betray your trust," Rodney promised. There was a momentary silence, and on impulse Rodney went out on a limb. "Father Liam, are you. . . involved with spiritual direction at all?"
Father Liam tilted his head slightly. "'Involved with' would be a stretch, but I'm familiar with the concept."
"My previous spiritual director and I parted ways when I moved here." Rodney hoped that would be enough of an explanation; he really didn't want to get in to the question of why he'd come, or why he and Father Eric had severed their relationship. (The image of Father Eric's face when he'd told Rodney he believed Rodney's accusers still burned in Rodney's memory; Rodney pushed it aside.)
"Didn't the Order assign you a new one?"
"They did, but he's in California," Rodney said. "I just -- spiritual direction over the phone doesn't feel right to me."
Father Liam looked pensive for a moment. "I could meet with you weekly," he said.
Rodney exhaled. "Thank you." He hadn't realized he'd been so nervous about working with a new spiritual director until just now. He'd have to work on figuring out what that was about -- maybe with Father Liam, once some trust had been established.
"We don't observe the night Office here, but I say Matins at five without fail." Father Liam rose and offered Rodney his hand. "Perhaps you'll join us."
"Thank you," Rodney heard himself say, and on autopilot he rose, shook Father Liam's hand, and headed for the door.
God damn Steve Wright. John checked his passenger and banked steeply for the approach. God, when would he ever learn? He had actually believed Steve when he said he'd only be gone a couple of days, four or five at the most.
"It's Shelley. She has a business trip to Paris and she wants me to come along."
"Sure," John had said. He'd met Shelley, Steve's girlfriend-du-jour. She seemed nice enough. "I'll cover for you."
Instead, it had been almost two weeks before Steve had called with the news of their engagement. And, oh, yeah, he'd be back on Saturday. Late.
In the meantime, John had been responsible not only for his own bookings, but for Steve's as well. He'd barely had time to eat and sleep, but he'd managed to cover every trip.
Now he just had to deliver Brad Ellanak to St. E's and he'd be free for the rest of the afternoon. And when Steve got in later that day, he'd make it very clear that Steve owed him. Big time.
A smooth landing -- yeah, he still had it -- and then he made Brad haul his own stuff to the truck. Good kid, but like most boys his age, he needed a little discipline. Not much, nothing like boot camp; John wasn't one of those ex-military guys who ironed their shorts and took adolescent mouthiness as a personal affront. Kids needed a goal that they could only achieve through hard work, one that would give them a sense of pride in what they'd accomplished. Teach them self-respect. That's what the Air Force had done for him. Helped him clean up his act and get his wings, change his life in a lot of good ways. It had changed his life in some pretty shitty ways, too, but he had, well, not exactly come to terms with that, but didn't let it gnaw on his guts the way it had at first.
Still, he was doing all right for himself. He'd made a home here, had a job that let him fly, kept busy. A little lonely, maybe, but he wasn't a romantic, never believed in the whole soul-mate shtick. A hard body and a willing attitude were all he asked, and, if push came to shove, he was willing to negotiate on the hard body.
Brad talked about some new video game the entire drive into town. John had the windows open -- who knew how many more mild, sunny days they had left -- and let Brad's words wash over him with the breeze. Tang of salt in the air, the faint fishy whiff of the cannery. He'd lived in far worse places.
John pulled into the parking lot, his truck immediately surrounded by kids yelling greetings to Brad. After unloading his charge, he waved to Sascha and started to drive away, but braked immediately. A familiar figure sat on a bench by the playground.
Father. . . Meredith. That was it.
He wasn't quite sure why he felt compelled to park the truck again and amble over to the man sitting so still, gazing down at a book open on his lap.
He jerked, as if John had woken him, and looked up. Tension collected in the corners of his eyes, dragged at his wide mouth. He looked. . . defeated. Resigned to his fate.
"Um?" Recognition slowly dawned. "You're the pilot. We had lunch. . ."
"Yeah." John smiled and stuck out his hand. "Jack Sheppard. Nice to see you again."
After a pause that started verging on uncomfortable, Father Meredith clasped his hand. "Yes. Sheppard." A dry, brisk shake, then he dropped John's hand like an unpleasant duty.
"Settling in okay?"
"Yes, yes, just fine."
Father Meredith was spectacularly bad at lying.
"Kids a bit much? Or is Stuart being an as. . . idiot."
Father's stifled laugh sounded suspiciously like a sob. John raised an eyebrow and met his gaze.
Father looked down at the book in his lap and sighed. "I'm afraid teaching -- on any level, honestly, but especially the elementary grades -- is not my forte. And Principal Stuart has made it abundantly clear that I was forced on him against his will."
John nodded. "That sucks."
Father's muttered "Like a giant sucking thing," surprised a laugh out of him, and his own next words, "Hey, are you busy?" surprised him even more. What the hell was he thinking?
"I should prepare. . ." Father lifted his face to the sun, expression miserable, and shrugged.
"Listen." He'd felt his stomach drop like this -- a combination of "cool" coupled with "I'm going to die" -- when he flew his first F-16. "I have the afternoon off for the first time in two weeks and it's a nice day. Let's do something."
A suspicious glance, but at least it tempered the misery. "What did you have in mind?"
"Dunno." What would he find appealing? John remembered one thing. "We could get some coffee, take it over to Fort Abercrombie. Great views from there."
Father's eyes lit up at the mention of coffee, and John suspected he didn't even hear the rest.
"Yes. Thank you. That would be. . ." He stood, hefted the book in his hand. "Let me put this away."
Civics and You, third edition. "Leave it. No one's going to steal it." John jerked his head toward the truck. "C'mon. Let's blow this popsicle stand."
Father's laugh lasted all the way to the coffee shop.
"Fine. You're right. It's beautiful. Magnificent. Awe-inspiring."
"Told you so." John cupped his hands around his coffee and ducked his head to hide his grin.
Father sat beside him on the picnic bench, holding his cup under his nose and inhaling deeply, far more interested in his coffee than the view.
What a difference an hour made.
It was like watching a flower bloom in a stop-action film. By the time they got to Cindy's, Father's eyes were losing their haunted shadows. They sparkled after the first cup, and after the second, words began to bubble from his mouth, almost as if they were beyond his control. He bought a travel mug for his third cup, and barely stopped talking long enough to drink, all the way to the Fort. Religion, politics, families, the state of education, the lack of respect toward one other, all was grist to Father's mill. John sat back and enjoyed.
It was like watching a dead man come to life.
They hiked, well, sauntered, along the trails to the pillboxes and bunkers. John assessed the fortifications with a military eye, but didn't comment. Father just looked at them with a frown and turned away. They lingered at the overlooks until, despite the sun still high in the sky, dinner time neared.
Father glanced at his watch and sighed. "I suppose--"
"How about getting some dinner?"
For the moment, Father's bright smile banished the sadness in his eyes.
Full of pizza and the single beer he allowed himself when driving, John headed back to the school. An odd ache beneath his breastbone, he watched the light in Father's eyes dim as they pulled up in front of the building.
"Maybe." Why the hell was he so nervous? "Maybe we could do this again. Sometime. If you want."
Father blinked once, then smiled almost shyly. "I'd like that. My schedule is still fairly open, so. . ."
"Good. Oh." John reached into his jacket pocket, fished around. "Here's my card, in case you need to reach me. For uh, a ride or something."
Father took the card, stared at it for a second, then tucked it away. He slid out of the truck and shut the door, but didn't walk back inside.
John pulled away, trying hard not to stare at the solitary figure in his rear view mirror.
"There might be extra copies of Faith and Life in the basement somewhere," Stuart had said. "You won't mind looking for them, will you?"
How on earth was Rodney supposed to answer that? He'd bitten back the sharp response that came first to his mind ("Aren't there better uses for my time?") and had agreed that digging through a musty old storage closet was absolutely the best idea ever, his favorite way to spend an evening, nothing in the world could be finer. Okay, he hadn't actually said that either. He'd just nodded, bowing his head in a way he hoped signified acquiescence.
This job offered him endless opportunities for practicing humility -- a reality he suspected hadn't been lost on Father Scott when he'd made the assignment in the first place. But every time he thought of that, a furious powerlessness curled in his belly, so he tried not to go there. Anger was a perennial temptation he knew he needed to resist.
The basement was cluttered with old furniture and boxes of magazines, remnants from some long-ago church tag sale. At one end a persistent leak had drenched half a dozen boxes of books and papers, rendering them a pungent mold farm; Rodney backed away, coughing, and made a beeline for the far end of the room. At least, the best beeline he could, clambering over half of a sectional sofa and a set of rusting box springs.
He hadn't seen anything like boxes of textbooks yet, but there was a door in the corner, and he managed to shove several boxes to the side just far enough to pull the door open. It led to a small windowless room (to call it a closet would have been uncharitable, but it wasn't that much bigger than what that name would suggest) lit by a single bulb on a string, where boxes of books teetered in a pile as high as his head. Two of them were labeled "F&L," which was promising.
But he forgot them as soon as he saw them, because just beyond them there was a battered old upright piano, wedged crossways into the room. It barely fit, and -- like everything else around it -- was covered with a thick layer of dust.
His heart pounding, Rodney cleared a path to the piano and opened the lid. The keys were yellowed but intact. He couldn't help holding his breath as he played a single D: tinny, but clear. He rolled an arpeggiated chord, and mirabile dictu, it was more-or-less in tune.
Oh, God, there was a piano here. A part of him that had been clenched without his realizing it released, leaving him feeling almost expansive with gratitude. He sat down and started Bach's invention number 13 in A minor, slow and steady at first. His internal metronome was still ticking away inside of him, comforting and strong.
From there, to Bach's prelude and fugue in E major. The music washed over him like rain, and as he played something in him seemed to break free. O God, he thought, I am poured out like water, my bones are out of joint. I forget Your presence -- I get so lost in this exile -- but You are here to comfort me. I can sing Your song even in this strange land. Holy Mary, help me remember that I am not alone.
By the time he stopped playing, his face was wet with tears. He rested his fingers on the keys for long minutes before rising, closing the lid, and turning to carry a box of textbooks slowly up the stairs.
"Okay, Sam, now bring it down the center and. . ." John grabbed Sam around the middle and held him high. "Throw it!"
The ball -- miraculously -- made it through the hoop, and a shrill cheer went up around them. Sam grinned like a loon, and when John set him down on the blacktop, did a victory dance that would've made M.C. Hammer proud.
"Hey, Father." He waded through the kids to the sideline.
"What are you doing here?" Father Meredith stared at him.
"P.E." John used his forearm to wipe the sweat dripping into his eyes, suddenly conscious of his ratty sweatpants and faded tee-shirt. "Sascha can't play basketball to save his soul. . . " Ooops. "At all, so he dragooned me into doing it over the summer."
"But I haven't seen you instructing the children before."
"I had to cancel for the past couple of weeks, couldn't get away from work. But now," John whirled and caught the ball speeding toward them, "I'm back." He glared at the small group of eleven-year-olds. One of them had thrown it. His money was on Brad. "And I'm going to wipe the ground with a bunch of these smart alecks if they don't straighten up and fly right."
Father Meredith raised John's glare to a scowl. "Miserable little hooligans."
John wasn't surprised they were giving Father trouble. Kids that age traveled in packs, could scent weakness at fifty yards; they'd be on Father Meredith like wolves on a wounded caribou. Maybe he'd have a word or two with Brad and Patrick. They were usually the ringleaders.
"I'm about done here," John said. "Want to grab some dinner?"
Father raised an eyebrow and gave John's damp sweats a once-over. "Not unless we eat outside, where I can't smell you."
John laughed. "I was going to run home to shower and change first."
"In that case, fine."
Somehow, John was never quite certain exactly how, their dinners became a standing. . . date? No. Just something they did together three (or four) times a week. He had words with Brad and Patrick, and when he casually asked Father how the kids were behaving, was pleased to hear that they were -- and here Father's face took on a thoughtful expression -- becoming more tolerable.
John enjoyed listening to Father Meredith talk. The guy had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of, well, pretty much everything, and loved to lecture. The only subjects he wouldn't mention were physics and math, but that was all right. There was still plenty for him to babble on about.
A couple of times -- not too often, because then the element of surprise was gone -- John would drop a little nugget into the conversation. Nothing too esoteric, but a fact or figure that wasn't in USA Today, an opinion carefully thought out. Just enough to startle Father, to make him snap his mouth shut and stare at John through narrowed eyes for a few seconds before resuming where he'd left off.
John loved doing that.
One Saturday John took Father Meredith to the Alutiiq Museum. Father had mentioned a possible field trip for the kids, and John had suggested taking a first-hand look at the facility to see what it offered.
"Have you ever even been inside?" Father snapped as they walked to the front doors.
John just shrugged.
Father Meredith rolled his eyes. "I suppose there's some sort of docent who can help me."
The look on Father's face when John had pulled out his membership card was priceless, only topped by Father's expression when the Museum director offered to take "one of our major private supporters, Jack Sheppard, and his friend" on a private tour.
John wasn't rich, but between his retirement, his earnings as a pilot, and a small legacy left to him by a favorite great aunt, he was damned comfortable, especially for Kodiak. He liked supporting the Museum and would have done it anonymously, except that Bernie, his accountant, threatened to have a heart attack if he did.
He'd have to remember to send a thank you card to Bernie.
Rodney stared into the small tin mirror mounted over his sink, trying to see whether the sweater still fit him properly. The burgundy one he usually wore was beginning to grow thin at the elbows, and he couldn't help feeling he needed something slightly fancier for a gala. Though it didn't seem likely that a museum fundraiser in Kodiak would require anything like black tie. . .
None of the three museums in town had a large enough constituency to throw its own fundraiser. This would be their third year of joint fundraising for the Baranov, the Alutiiq, and the Military History museum, and when the invitation had arrived at the school Rodney had volunteered before anyone else could even read the fine print. "You couldn't pay me to show up at a thing like that," Stuart said, rolling his eyes, and it had been all Rodney could do to hold his tongue.
The truth of the matter was, volunteering to meet-and-greet at a local arts fundraiser wasn't generally Rodney's style. But it would be a good opportunity for him to meet more people in town; a chance to support worthwhile arts and educational institutions; and. . . oh, who was he kidding? He was hoping to see Sheppard again.
He scowled one last time at his reflection -- blue sweater, corduroy blazer, clerical collar -- and headed out the door.
"Father," Sheppard said, dipping his head in what was almost a little bow. "Fancy running into you here." He'd dressed up for the occasion: dark trousers, white shirt, sleeves rolled halfway up his arms and collar open just enough to offer a tantalizing glimpse that Rodney steadfastly refused to take.
"What, you didn't think I'd turn out to support the arts?"
"Well, I was kind of hoping you would," John began, and Rodney felt the grin spreading across his face.
"Jack!" A heavyset man wearing a crisp striped shirt and tweed sportcoat bustled over, grabbing Sheppard by the hand and the elbow.
"Mr. Landry," Sheppard said, smiling graciously. "Have you met Father McKay--"
"Father," Landry said, nodding, then turned back to Sheppard. "Hey, you got a second? I want to introduce you to someone I think you might enjoy," Landry said, and stage-whispered "another potential donor," winking at Rodney in an elaborate grimace. Rodney wished fervently, for an instant, that the man's face might stick that way. Something else to atone for.
"Well," Rodney said to no one in particular, looking down. So much for that.
"Say," a voice floated by him. "Did I just hear that you're Father McKay?"
The voice belonged to a blond man who looked about thirty-five, slightly taller than Rodney, well-dressed and impeccably groomed.
"The one and only," Rodney said, aiming for hearty. He wasn't sure he'd succeeded, but the man didn't seem to mind.
"Stan Gates," the blond man said, shaking his hand enthusiastically. "I'm a big admirer of your work."
Rodney couldn't help the laugh. "What, have my elementary education skills become legendary already?"
"No, no," Stan said. "Your-- " he gave a little cough. "Previous work. I'm from Northern Lights."
Northern Lights Aerospace, it turned out, was a private sector firm with a launch complex just outside of Kodiak.
As soon as Stan said the word "aerospace," Rodney had blanched, looking around the room nervously. His superiors' orders had been quite clear on the imperative to stop talking about his work; what if someone in this room were a mole, prepared to report back to the Church hierarchy? But Stan had just smiled, placing a gentle hand on the small of his back, and led him through the crowded room. They went through three galleries and up a flight of stairs, and suddenly they were on a little balcony overlooking the party, near enough to see everyone but not so near that their voices could be heard.
"It's honestly not as exciting as it sounds," Stan said, smiling. "Sure, the rocket launches are fun, but mostly we do research. Which is where your name comes in -- I'd been following your work in all the journals until you suddenly fell off the map."
"Yes, well," Rodney said. "Career change, you know how it is." But his face was burning. Just hearing the terminology made him feel flushed and excited, and fearful, and anxious. His palms were sweating and his heart was beating fast.
"Imagine my excitement when I heard you were in town! I'd really love to learn more about -- wormholes, was that the term you were using?"
Oh, God, Rodney wanted to answer that question, and he couldn't.
As if to rescue him from that tension, Sheppard burst upon them. "Father McKay, I've been -- oh," he said, "didn't mean to interrupt," as though just noticing Stan's presence.
"Stan Gates, Jack Sheppard," Rodney said, and the two men shook hands.
"I was just talking with Father McKay about his work," Stan said.
"He'll tell you he's terrible with the kids, but don't believe him." Sheppard grinned.
"Yes, well, that's not exactly what we," Rodney began.
"Say, look, I don't want to keep you," Stan said, taking a step back and raising his hands. Rodney felt his face fall; he wanted to beg the guy not to go. The mere prospect of talking about physics again had woken him up. They could talk shop a little, Rodney could do that without spilling anything about his forbidden research--
"So what do you say?" Stan wound up, and Rodney realized he hadn't been listening.
"I'm sorry, I got--" He waved a hand, indicating distraction.
"Private tour. Tomorrow. Say -- 2pm? Does that give you plenty of time for mass? Forgive me, I'm not a religious man."
"Yes, yes, that should be fine," Rodney said absently, already thinking about what kinds of questions he could ask without getting himself into trouble. "I look forward to it."
"Goodnight, then," Stan said, and touched him once more on the shoulder, and was gone.
"Nice fellow." Rodney bounced on the balls of his feet a little.
"You think so?" Sheppard's voice was noncommittal, but his posture was tense.
"And a private tour of the facilities; very generous," Rodney said, deciding to ignore Sheppard's weird behavior. If the man couldn't handle him making another friend in town -- well, Rodney would just have to nip that in the bud.
"Tell you what," Sheppard said, suddenly looking loose and slouchy again. "How about I pick you up after mass, we have a picnic lunch out by the coast, and then I'll give you a lift to NLA?"
"And what do you get out of it?"
"The pleasure of your company," Sheppard said innocently, and when Rodney gave him a look, he grinned. "And maybe Stan'll let me tag along. I always like looking at rockets."
"Count on it," Rodney said, feeling magnanimous. His Sunday was looking good -- great, even -- and he wanted Sheppard to share his elation.
He was in such a good mind he didn't even flinch when the parade of little blue-haired ladies found them and started oohing and ahhing. "Good-looking new priest, isn't he?" Sheppard said solemnly to one of the ladies, who grabbed Rodney's arm and cackled.
"Why don't you go flirt with the dashing bush pilot over there," Rodney muttered, but he was smiling. Maybe life in this town wasn't going to be so bad, after all.
The church doors opened as John pulled into the parking lot. A handful of people walked out before he spotted Father Meredith in the doorway, talking with Father Liam. Father Meredith was gesturing -- stiff-fingered stabs, broad sweeps and arcs -- and Father Liam was missing his usual smile.
What was going on?
John climbed out of his truck and started for the church.
". . .intend to honor the spirit of my orders, as well as the fact." Father Meredith said, almost pleading, as John approached. "But it's a wonderful opportunity. NLA sponsors an educational program that might benefit the older children. . ."
Father Liam's frown deepened, and Father Meredith's expression grew increasingly desperate.
Shit. Why did Father Meredith look like that? John hated that look; all he wanted was to banish the fear from those blue eyes. "Hey, Fathers."
They both looked startled at his interruption. Father Liam nodded at him, and Father Meredith took a deep breath and clasped his hands tightly.
John looked at Father Meredith and raised an eyebrow. "Ready to go?"
Silence. Father Meredith's gaze rested on his hands for a long moment.
"Yes." Soft, almost tentative. "I need to get my jacket." He disappeared into the church.
John waited for Father Liam to speak, but he just studied John briefly, nodded, and followed Father Meredith inside.
Well. That was interesting.
John started back to the truck, Father Meredith joining him before he reached it.
"I'm sorry you had to hear that," Father said once they were settled inside. "Father Liam is. . ."
"Concerned?" John offered as the silence stretched between them.
"That pretty much covers it." Father sighed. "After my. . . disgrace, my superiors forbade me to continue my work, to discuss, or even to think of it. Father Liam is worried that touring NLA will provide a greater temptation than I'm able to resist."
John had seen death before. Swift death. Lingering, painful death. This wasn't on the same level, but to prohibit a man from continuing his life's work. . . John was appalled by the cruelty. He wanted to ask more, find out details -- names, dates, charges -- but he couldn't ask Father Meredith, at least, not right now.
John gestured toward a travel mug in the cupholder. "Thought you might need some coffee."
"Thanks." Father took a sip, smiled. "Coffee makes everything look a little brighter."
They rode in silence until they passed the airport. John started pointing out the sights as they drove along the bay: the Coast Guard Station, the fairgrounds and stock car track, various good fishing areas, the submarine docks from WWII, a large bald eagle nest high in the trees, a creek where salmon spawned. Father Meredith admired the scenery and asked questions; if John hadn't spent so much time with him recently, he would have accepted Father's interest at face value. Now, however, he could tell there was something else on Father's mind, and was pretty sure what it was.
Not that John could blame him.
They turned onto Pasagshak Bay Road. John continued to play tour guide, ignoring the fact that Father grew quieter and quieter as they progressed. They finally pulled into the empty parking lot at Pasagshak State Recreation Site. John turned and looked at Father Meredith, hunched in his seat.
"Yes, yes, of--" Father raised his eyes, watery with unshed tears. "No." He wiped his eyes and took a shuddering breath. "Not even remotely."
John's heart stuttered. He clasped Father's shoulder and gave it a brief squeeze, then opened his door. "How about some lunch?"
By the time John had hauled the food over to a picnic table and started in on his sandwich -- Cindy's were always great -- Father had managed to collect himself and joined John.
"Sorry," he said, clearing his throat. "I don't generally embarrass myself, and my friends, with unnecessary displays of emotion. It's just that--" He shrugged, and stared at his sandwich.
John chewed, swallowed. "You've had a rough time." He handed Father a Thermos. "Don't worry about it."
Father's mood improved with more coffee and several sandwiches. John asked him what he'd like to see on the tour, and sat back, smiling, as the tap of Father's enthusiasm turned on full.
"The launch control center, absolutely." Father gestured expansively. "And the telemetry systems, auto-tracking antennae, launch pads-"
"All that in an hour?" John felt like kicking himself as Father's face fell.
"An. . . Oh. No. No, that wouldn't be possible. I suppose I'll have to narrow it down."
John checked his watch. "Time to go. Let's see what your friend Stan can do."
Stan was waiting in the parking lot, visibly taken aback when John stepped from his truck. He covered his dismay quickly, but not quickly enough.
"Father!" He grabbed Father's hand, shook it heartily as his gaze slid to John. "And your. . . driver?"
Father smiled. "Stan Gates, Jack Sheppard. You met at the arts council fundraiser. Jack's a pilot, and offered to give me a lift in exchange for accompanying our tour." He looked from Stan to John, his smile fading. "Is there a problem?"
John maintained his casual slouch, kept the grin plastered on his face. Just another good ol' boy, wanting to see the rocket ships.
He had that act down pat.
"I'm not sure. . ." Stan began.
"After his kindness in driving me all the way here," Father said, the barest hint of anger in his voice, "I can't just ask him to stay in the parking lot."
Stan glanced at John, waiting for John to offer just that. John smiled and slouched and would be damned if he'd let Father go with Stan by himself.
"It's a security issue." Stan shrugged and spread his hands. Oh, yeah, there was nothing he could do, it was all the fault of the guys in Security. "I'm sure you understand."
Father's cheeks flushed. "If that's the way--"
"Security, eh?" John pitched his voice loud enough to interrupt Father. "Have your guys call this number," he fished a card out of his wallet. "They'll vouch for me."
Stan glanced at the card. He hid his surprise well, but couldn't quite mask his sudden wariness, the nervous flick of his eyes toward John. "I'll see what I can do."
Which name made Stan uncomfortable: Sam Carter or the USAF? Or both?
"I apologize, Jack." Father's voice was as tight as the arms crossed over his chest. "If I had any idea you would be treated this way, I wouldn't have suggested. . ."
"It's okay." John was glad he had suggested. Something about Stan bothered him, and John had long ago learned to trust his instincts.
Stan appeared in the door of the guard shed. "Mr. Sheppard? Yes, everything's taken care of. If you could sign. . ."
John made sure Father was beside him as he signed the visitor's form, and retrieved the card from Stan. The security guys returned John's nod with perhaps more respect than they would have otherwise, and Father shot him a glance full of questions. Questions John hoped he'd never have to answer.
Stan proved to be a surprisingly knowledgeable and competent tour guide. In two hours they had visited the launch control center, the instrumentation field, and one of the launch pads. John had asked a question or two, but mainly followed behind Father and Stan, listening to Father's rapid-fire questions and Stan's equally enthusiastic replies.
About half-way through, John had been investigating a mobile operations center, and Stan had drawn Father aside. When John realized that they weren't right behind him, he'd run from the center in a panic -- not that he expected Father was in danger -- only to find them huddled together around the corner. Head bowed, shoulders hunched, Father had been frowning at his feet as Stan spoke intently, one hand wrapped around Father's biceps.
John wanted to grab Stan's hand and. . . Well. He took a deep breath, willing himself calm. Nothing like over-reacting, was there.
Father's face lit up when he saw John, and he pulled free of Stan's grasp. God, it was hard not to make more of that than was meant.
John returned Father's smile, and never left his side for the remainder of the tour, not even when Stan suggested that he and Father wait while John retrieved his truck. No, John had just thanked Stan, placed a proprietary hand on Father's shoulder, and escorted him to the truck.
Pulling onto the road, John glanced over at Father. "Seemed like you enjoyed yourself."
"Oh, I did!" Father grinned and launched into a description of everything they had seen. John didn't mind; he'd rarely seen Father so happy. Plus it meant Father didn't ask about how John had gotten past security. Looked like Father had avoided the temptation to talk about the forbidden, as well.
John kept his eyes on the road. Father wasn't the only one who had temptations. Although, if John was seriously trying to avoid his, he probably shouldn't have accepted Father's invitation to dinner when they got back to town.
What could John do? He liked to live dangerously.
Rodney hadn't expected teaching to come easily to him, but he hadn't thought it would be so miserably, grindingly hard, either. The formal school year began, the rest of the children arrived, he gritted his teeth and survived the inevitable jockeying for pack position. . . but he was disheartened by how difficult everything was. The material was stultifying and his natural lack of patience wasn't helping.
He tried a few times to deviate from the book, to teach something that actually held some interest for him, but it was clear the children were as bored by his digressions as they were by the lesson plan.
"I've been thinking," Rodney said to Principal Stuart one day during lunch, "Do you think Mrs. Lever could cover a few days of my class?"
"Let's discuss this in my office," Stuart said, somewhat pompously, and Rodney followed him there, a vague excitement beginning to burn. As the door closed behind them Rodney was off and running.
"I've been talking with Father Liam about his pastoral care ministry," Rodney said. "He's beginning to find the pace of the travel grueling -- all that traveling to officiate at Mass, do weddings and funerals, christenings and so forth." He could feel himself lighting up as he spun the mental image into words. "I'm young, I'm energetic, I'd be happy to take some of that work off his hands. . ."
Getting out of the classroom would feel like such a reprieve; and surely he deserved a break from time to time. It wasn't like he was suggesting a vacation, after all! Just work of a different kind.
That Jack Sheppard would presumably be the pilot who would fly him out to wherever he was going was, of course, not the point. Though there was nothing wrong with feeling a frisson of excitement at that prospect; it was nice to have a friend, was all.
But Stuart was shaking his head, and Rodney's heart sank. "Frankly, Father Meredith, I don't think it's advisable for you to leave the children at this point in the year. You're just settling in."
And I'm miserable, Rodney thought, can't you see that? But he pressed his lips together tightly and did not speak.
"Actually, I'm glad you came in here, because I've been meaning to speak to you," Stuart said. "I'm hearing that you've been teaching some things that aren't in the textbook, is that right?"
"I've deviated somewhat from the lesson plan, yes," Rodney began.
"That has to stop."
Rodney felt as though he'd been slapped.
"State education guidelines are clear," Stuart said, and as he prattled on Rodney realized the man was enjoying this. Having a priest under his thumb obviously fulfilled some sick fantasy; this man was never going to grant him leave to go anywhere.
Rodney left Stuart's office with his face burning and his shoulders so clenched that they sparked a string of muscle spasms which plagued him through afternoon classes and well into the night.
Being reprimanded by an authority figure was too familiar, and painful, a sensation. He resolutely tried not to think about his last reprimand -- the one that had resulted in him being sent here -- but he was exhausted and haggard by the time he rose for Matins the next day.
Worship calmed him. The words had power, and their familiarity was soothing. Hail Mary, full of grace. . . How Rodney needed grace.
It was too easy to get enmeshed in frustration. To sink into the small mind of his misery. But the implacable and unquestionable infinite presence of God set him at ease, reminded him of the vast universe surrounding him. God was in control; God had a plan; Rodney needed only to surrender himself to that plan and allow it to unfold.
Easier said than done, but the idea of it was a kind of comfort.
There were half a dozen regulars who attended Matins at St. Elizabeth's: three old guys who often spent the service whispering loudly to each other in the back pew, a young woman who never spoke to anyone, and Rodney. The first time he'd come he'd felt dismay at the size of the assembly, but he'd come to like it that way. They rattled around in the echoing church like marbles, like specks of dust in the eye of God. . .
"Father Meredith." The voice of Father Liam distracted him from his meditations. The service had ended. Rodney stood hastily.
"Won't you join me in my office? I'll put the kettle on."
Rodney followed him down the twisting hallway to his office and sat on the by-now-familiar stiff-backed chair. (He suspected Father Liam had chosen it precisely because it was uncomfortable. The man had a misanthropic streak that made Rodney feel increasingly at-ease.) "No, thank you," he said, to the proffered cup of tea; it smelled herbal, too distant from coffee to be bearable.
"So," Father Liam said, and sipped his tea. "I've done a bit of inquiring about how exactly you came to Kodiak. I spoke with a Father Scott. . ."
Rodney felt his stomach drop. So much for feeling increasingly at-ease with his new spiritual director. "I see."
"You come to confession without fail. And you seem truly present at our sessions." Father Liam's voice was sharp as ever but his eyes held a kindness that Rodney couldn't bear to see; he looked away. "But you've never mentioned--"
"I thought what was said in the confessional was between me and my God," Rodney bit out. He could feel his heartrate skyrocketing.
"I'm not talking about what you've said, but what you haven't." Father Liam set down his teacup with a clatter. "Look at me, son."
Rodney couldn't help but obey.
"This is too heavy a burden to bear. Give it to our Lord. It's a paltry cross compared with the one he carried."
"I can't confess to something I didn't do!" The words burst out of him without conscious intent, and hung in the silence until he spoke again. "My work was for the glorification of God. You have to understand that. Asserting that there are universes beyond our own only expands the infinite wonder of God's creation--"
"It's not the nature of your work that's troubling." Father Liam's voice was tart. "It's the dishonesty."
"I did not falsify my results." Rodney stood, his whole body vibrating; his voice cracking just added insult to injury. "I didn't fabricate anything. No one believes me, but it's true."
"Father Scott is well-respected not only among the Jesuits but within the broader Church, as well," Father Liam noted. It was as good as a condemnation, as far as Rodney was concerned.
Rodney fumbled blindly for his jacket. "My previous spiritual director didn't believe me either," he said, hating the tears that were beginning to form in his eyes.
"Don't put words in my mouth," Father Liam said. "But I'm asking you to consider: where is God in what you're feeling right now?"
"I have to go," Rodney said, and fled.
With a show of reluctance, Stuart granted Rodney permission to offer piano lessons in the basement room. Rodney spent a happy few hours shoving boxes of books around and creating a reasonable path through the basement's detritus, and three students put their names down on the sign-up sheet he passed around during study hall. His first lesson would be on Thursday. Though listening to Hanon finger exercises had always struck him as a form of purgatory, he was looking strangely forward to teaching music again.
But there was only so much time he could spend preparing the music room for occupancy, and in general Rodney was spending too much time in his quarters. They felt like a microcosm of the school: uncomfortable, confining, a place he would never have chosen to be. He didn't want to keep calling Sheppard; the man seemed to genuinely enjoy his company (and when had that ever really been true before?) but he didn't want to push his luck.
So he set out on foot after school that afternoon, walking past the part of town he knew. The weather was beginning to cool; already the days were noticeably shorter, and the wind bit at his exposed neck and ears.
When one particularly sharp gust rose he stepped into the next shop he passed. The place was warm, thank God; lit by dim incandescent bulbs, a little dusty, filled with knickknacks and curios. Toward the back of the room there was a shelf of Matryoshka dolls which drew his attention: the traditional style, of course, but also dolls painted to look like American football players, actors, martial arts movie stars (one read "Bruse Lee" in inept block print), politicians. (Gorbachev was the outermost doll; inside he suspected he would find Reagan.)
"Priest's here," said a voice through a beaded curtain, and an old fellow in a heavy flannel shirt stepped through.
"So he is," the old fellow called back, and then grinned at Rodney. He was one of the Matins regulars, though Rodney had no idea of his name. "Father."
"It's good to see you," Rodney said, lamely. "I was just walking--"
"On a day like this?" The man clucked his tongue.
"I wanted to clear my head."
"That wind'll blow your mind right out your ears," the man said, sounding satisfied. "Cup of coffee?"
Oh. That sounded good. "I don't want to put you to any trouble," Rodney said.
"No trouble, pot's already on. Come on back."
Through the beaded curtain was a small room with two little square tables, a chess board on each; and a woodstove with a kettle simmering merrily on top.
"Not that one," the man said, as Rodney began to reach for it. "That's just for humidity. Here," and he gestured to the shadowed kitchenette, where sure enough, a full coffee pot awaited. The stuff was strong enough to stand a spoon in.
"Bless you," Rodney said, fervently, and the three men laughed.
"Coming from you, that might mean something," the first guy said. "I'm Ernest, and this is Manny," he gestured, "and Ben." The other two nodded in greeting.
"Pleased to meet you," Rodney said.
"We're waiting for our fourth, but he doesn't seem to be showing up. You play chess?"
"I do, though I don't want to infringe on your --"
So Rodney did.
To his surprise, his first opponent -- Ben, a retired fisherman with about three teeth to his name -- beat him handily in no time. ("Not a lot to do around here in the winter," Ben pointed out.)
Rodney was on the verge of losing his second match, too, when the front door opened, bell jingling. A familiar voice called, "Sorry I'm late, boys."
The curtain parted and in walked Jack Sheppard.
"Father Meredith!" His surprise was evident, and Rodney felt embarrassed. What if Sheppard didn't want him here?
"I didn't mean to horn in on your chess game," he said, standing up hastily.
But Sheppard was grinning, like he was honestly happy to see Rodney, and with two strides he was giving Rodney a tight hug.
His body was solid and his aftershave was spicy and Rodney resolved to say an extra prayer for chastity come nightfall. When Sheppard stepped away Rodney felt his whole body tingling.
"I see you've met my chess buddies."
"Wind blew him in our door," Ernest said, sounding satisfied. "And you weren't here, so."
"Yeah, I apologize; I had to stop in Dillingham to drop off some medical supplies, and Susie was having some trouble with her Rochester gauge, so I stuck around for a while to lend a hand."
"The good Father's been an adequate replacement," Ben said.
"You're just saying that because you beat him!" Ernest chortled.
"I didn't know you played," Sheppard said, and there was a gleam in his eye.
"Not half so well as I thought I did," Rodney admitted, but he couldn't help smiling back.
"It's suppertime for me," Ben said, "You're welcome to our chess table if you want to set a spell."
"How 'bout it, Father?" Sheppard looked eager. "You up for a game?"
"I'll miss dinner at the refectory," Rodney said dubiously. Though he didn't really want to eat at the school, and Sheppard knew it.
"C'mon," Sheppard said. "Play me one game. Winner buys burgers for both of us."
A night out with Sheppard sounded like paradise. "You're on," Rodney said, and reset the board.
Good thing Father played chess and not poker. With a face that showed every emotion -- practically every thought -- he'd go down in flames at the poker table. As it was, John could see him consider an option, reject it and mull over another. By the time Father actually moved his piece, John already had his next move planned, so it was the work of a moment to execute it and then he could sit back and bask in Father's glare.
When he'd walked in, he'd been stunned to see Father sitting there, playing Ben. Surprised and pleased and just reckless enough to cover the distance between them in a couple steps and wrap his arms around him. Father felt good, warm against him, firm under his hands. Smelled like coffee and something woodsy and astringent. John let himself hold on for a long moment, then forced his arms apart, took a reluctant step back, wishing. . . Well, that was neither here nor there, as his grandmother used to say.
One advantage of them playing was that he had an excuse to study Father's face closely. For strategic purposes, sure. And because he could catch flashes of Father's intelligence sparkling in those blue eyes. Laugh at the desert-dry humor quirking his crooked mouth. Even his grumbles were amusing.
"I've been set up," Father muttered by his fourth move -- already desperately on the defensive.
"Nah." John grinned. He could see an opening that would let him win in three more moves. "The boys are ruthless. I got tired of losing, had to sharpen my skills."
"That's 'cause he insisted on betting." Manny cackled. "He got tired of skinny-dipping in the harbor in the middle of winter and freezing his ass. . . ets off."
"Manny!" Damn him. John ignored the sudden heat crawling up his neck and jaw at the thought of Father standing on the dock, watching him strip. "Father Meredith doesn't need to hear about that."
Father's hand stilled, holding his bishop in mid-air. He stared at John, wide-eyed. "I suppose it's a good thing you suggested dinner, and not. . ." He swallowed, sketched a grin. "Although it might be worth doing, just to see Principal Stuart's face when he finds out."
Surprised, choking on his laugh, John's eyes watered.
Ernest leaned over and thumped him on the back, laughing. "That stuck up fool would probably piss hisself at the thought."
Father cleared his throat and placed his bishop. "Now you're tempting me, Ernest." He raised his gaze and met John's, blue eyes dancing with suppressed laughter.
Light glinted off John's damp lashes, fracturing and refracting, wreathing Father's face in prismatic colors. John wiped his eyes, forced his attention back to the board. Why did he always fall for the most inappropriate guys? It was getting worse, he had to admit to himself: a priest was even more disastrous than the last object of his affections. Some shrink could probably tell him the whys and wherefores; John just knew it was damned awkward at best, and at worst. . . No. He wasn't going there. Not now.
Five minutes later, Father grimaced, his fingers lingering on his threatened king. He sighed when John moved his queen.
"Check, and mate. Dinner's on you, Father."
"How did you. . ." Father scanned the board, then lifted his gaze and shrugged. "I walked right into that, didn't I?"
"Yep." John grinned and stood. "Ben used that strategy on me half-a-dozen times before I figured out the counter."
"It took you that long?" Father's eyebrows lifted as he helped John reset the board. "I promise you I won't fall for that again."
Manny looked up from the other board. "Enjoy your win, Jack. I don't think it'll be long before you're the one buying dinner."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence." John crossed his arms and studied their board, then shook his head. "You're going down, Ernest."
"Yeah." Ernest shrugged. "Can't win 'em all. We're playing again tomorrow, Father. Join us?"
Father glanced from Ernest to John. "Are you sure? I don't want to impose."
"Sure he's sure." John handed Father his coat, grabbed his own. "Besides, I could get used to having someone buy me dinner. Next time I'll ask for steak."
Father scowled. "I certainly don't intend to keep losing to you, if that's what you're implying."
"Not me." John held aside the curtain and ushered Father through. "I gave up implying for Lent. Bye, boys."
Father's hand hovered over the board, dipped toward a pawn.
Leaning against the far wall, John coughed. "Notthatone."
Ben swiveled around, gave him the evil eye. "You cheating, boy?"
John gave him his best 'who, me?' look, complete with 'aw, shucks' shrug. Ben rolled his eyes, turned back to the board.
Only now Father was glaring at him.
"How can I play with you standing there," he waved a hand, "leaning and staring at every move I make?"
John hummed a bar of "Every Breath You Take," much to Father's obvious disgust.
"It's not possible to think with you looming in judgment." Now he just sounded petulant.
"Okay." Hiding his grin, John pushed away from the wall, crossed around behind Father, and took position six inches from his chair. "This better?"
"Oh, for. . ." Father tilted his head back, shot John a withering upside-down glance, and faced forward. "Fine. Just don't bore a hole in my skull with your laser vision."
John's gaze fell to the back of Father's head. Soft brown hair, thinning a little on top. Damp wisps curled at the nape, where the stiff collar covered tender skin, like a carapace. He took a shuddering breath, looked up, straight into Ben's eyes.
Ben's far too perceptive eyes.
A beat. Two. Heat flared in John's face, sweat trickled down his back. Then Ben lowered his gaze to the board.
Ben scratched his ear. "You gonna move anytime soon, Father?"
"Yes, yes. Right."
Father made his move, and John stifled a groan. A trap, one of Ben's best, and he didn't seem to see it.
Ben moved, and when Father lifted his hand again, John leaned down, breathing into his ear. "Watch his knight."
A pause. Ben kept silent. Finally, Father swallowed, changed his move.
John straightened, rested his hand on the back of Father's chair, his knuckles occasionally brushing against warm wool. He was playing with fire, and he didn't care.
They lost, but only just. At Father's congratulations, Ben held out his cup for more coffee -- John played waiter -- and nodded once.
"'Tween the two of you boys, God gave you some brains. Make sure you remember to use 'em."
Father was obviously disappointed that there was no game tomorrow -- Thursdays the boys played bingo over at St. Nicholas' -- but everyone agreed to meet on Friday.
Dinner was quiet. At least in their corner of the Roastery. John ate his sandwich, tried not to stare at Father, sitting across from him with a far-away expression. Had he gone too far with his teasing? Made Father uncomfortable?
"Okay." Father gestured with his pickle. "When the white pawn forked my knight and bishop, what do I do? I thought the obvious counter would be to sacrifice. . ."
John grinned in relief. The only thing that seemed to be on his mind was chess strategy. John hadn't hazarded their friendship.
The alarm buzzed and John pawed at it, eventually finding the right button to turn it off. He turned over, stretching. Didn't usually need the alarm, but his new-found social life kept him up later than he was used to.
He grinned. Ten years ago, hell, five, he'd have busted a gut laughing at the thought of his social life consisting of three old guys and a priest. Sounded like a joke: three old guys and a priest walk into a bar. . .
And then what?
He'd showered and was downing a second cup of coffee when the phone rang.
"Did I disturb your beauty sleep, Major?"
He froze, just for a second, before consciously taking a breath and leaning back in his chair. "How's my favorite Colonel doing?"
Sam laughed. "I'm fine. You?"
"Just peachy." He waited. If Sam Carter wanted something from him, she'd have to ask first.
"Heard you've been visiting Northern Lights Aerospace recently." Almost a question.
"Yeah." Okay, what was this about? Sam didn't call just to ask about a visit to a local facility. "Toured it with a friend."
"Did anything look. . . unusual?"
"In what way?"
"Just. . . odd."
For God's sake, spit it out. "It might help, Colonel, if I knew what kind of odd you're talking about."
She sighed. "I can't tell you a lot, but we've received intel that our friends in the Trust are interested in Northern Lights."
Sitting up straight, John frowned. "What for?"
"I'm not sure. Hence my questions."
"That's. . . not good." He scrubbed one hand through his hair.
Her chuckle was humorless. "My thoughts exactly."
"So. What can I do?"
"Nothing official. You know that. But if you could keep your eyes and ears open, let me know if anything shows up on your personal radar, I'd appreciate it." She paused. "So would the General."
"Sure." John ignored the bitterness that painted the back of his throat. Both Sam and the General had tried to help, even when all hope had fled. And as for showing up on his radar. . . "You might want to check out a guy named Stan Gates. He gave us the tour, and I wouldn't trust him to piss on me if I was on fire."
Sam laughed. "He set your Spider-sense a-tingling?"
"Something like that."
"Will do. Thanks for the tip. And John?"
"Don't be a stranger, okay? You have my number. Give me a call sometime."
He knew he wouldn't. Some wounds were still too raw.
"You." Father pointed at John, then to the far corner of the room. "Over there."
"Yes, sir." John snapped out a salute that raised Father's eyebrows, then moved to the far corner. He could see just fine from there.
Father sat at the table across from Ben and rubbed his hands together. "Right. Chop chop. Let's get this show on the road."
Ten moves in, John was stunned. Ben actually paused a full minute before moving, his usual complacent expression replaced with a frown of concentration. Manny and Ernest gave up the pretense of playing, and pulled their chairs around to watch. Father's face was flushed, his eyes sparkled, and he kept up a muttered commentary throughout.
John moved toward him, like a fish on a line. Stood at his side, silent, unable to look away.
Forty moves. Ben was on the defensive.
Sixty moves. Ben had regrouped, but Father didn't let a piece go without a struggle.
Eighty moves. Father made a mistake and Ben pounced.
Father leaned back in his chair and groaned, covering his eyes with his hand. "I can't believe I did that! Of all the stupid--"
John just stared.
"Way to go, Father!" Manny and Ernest applauded, and Ben grinned like there was no tomorrow.
"Good job, boy." Ben narrowed his eyes. "Now you gonna tell me how you got so good so fast?"
Father took a deep breath and sat up, grinning. "I picked Jack's brains on Wednesday, found an old copy of Lasker's book in the school library that night and read it. Last night, Sascha and I sat down and played. . . six hours? Something like that."
"If I'd known. . ." John began, shaking his head. What the hell had he done? He'd created a monster.
"I was just a little rusty." Father smirked. "A few hours' practice and a little studying to refresh my memory was all I needed."
Father's grin was infectious. John couldn't help himself -- a smile spread over his face. He'd only seen Father this happy once before, when he was touring the NLA. This confident, pleased man was a far cry from the Father Meredith he usually saw. John's smile faded as he realized: Father wasn't just having trouble fitting in, he was miserable -- bone-deep, achingly unhappy. And John hated that. Would have to do something--
"Jack?" Father's voice roused him. The light was dimming in Father's eyes as he searched John's face. "You aren't angry, are you? About this?"
"No way." John's smile returned. "You know, you're pretty sneaky for a priest."
Father's mouth twitched. "I prefer to think of it as utilizing my natural cunning."
"All right, you two." Ernest handed them their coats. "Your natural cunning's made Ben late for his dinner, Father. It's time for you boys to go find your own."
After a brief discussion -- Father insisting that he got to pick their destination this time -- they drove over to the diner. John enjoyed dinner; teasing Father never got old. And Father's good mood continued through the meal.
Amazing what a shot of self-confidence could do for a man.
They ordered a last cup of coffee, and John excused himself. Returning from the head after a minute or two, he stared at their table.
Stan Gates sat across from Father, nodding and smiling, while Father grinned and talked and gestured wildly. He looked even happier than he had at Ernest's.
John was at Father's side in a flash. His mouth stretched wide, teeth bared, but he knew it looked nothing like a smile.
Father turned, beamed at him. "Jack, you remember Stan."
John nodded, crossed his arms over his chest.
"Good to see you again." Stan's smile turned as false as John's. He slid out of the booth seat. "I won't keep you two. Just wanted to say hello, Father. Maybe we can get together soon and talk shop."
John wasn't surprised that he wasn't included in the invitation.
Father's expression turned wistful. "I'd like that."
He really wanted to do this, and John couldn't blame him. Of course an astrophysicist -- even a disgraced astrophysicist -- would enjoy talking about his subject with colleagues. He'd enjoy it a lot more than hanging out with a two-bit, chess-playing pilot with an inappropriate crush and impossible dreams.
Ten minutes later, John pulled up in front of the school and Father opened the truck door. He hesitated, turned back. "Jack, I didn't mean to take advantage of your knowledge of Ben's strategy." He paused. "Actually, I did, but I was just so excited to have something to think about, something I could dig my teeth into, I didn't realize that you'd feel used. I don't want this to affect our friendship."
John rubbed the back of his neck. Yeah, he did feel a little used, but it was worth it to see Father so damned happy. It was just. . .
"Don't worry. We're good." Maybe he should say something about Stan, but how? All he had was instinct warning him to be careful around Stan. Anything he said would sound feeble at best. His only hope was if Sam discovered something bad about Stan, but even then, how could he tell Father he'd sicced the US Air Force on Stan just because he was jealous? His fingers itched with the need to reach out, to grab Father's shirtfront and pull him close. . .
"Okay. Would you. . ." Father cleared his throat. "Would you like to have dinner tomorrow?"
"Sure." The tightness in his chest eased.
"Excellent." Father stepped back. Closed the door. "Goodbye, Jack."
"See you tomorrow." John threw the truck into gear and pulled out.
There was nothing quite like waking up on a Saturday to the realization that no schoolday lay ahead. No classroom bell ringing every fifty minutes, and then again on the hour in a futile attempt to call chattering students to order. No need to attempt to interest ten-year-olds in the intricacies of social studies, nor the fine nuances of catechism. Instead Rodney anticipated a long undifferentiated day that he could fill with books, perhaps with a walk by the wharf, and ultimately with Jack's company for dinner.
And maybe they'd wind up back at Jack's place afterwards. The thought gave Rodney a happy little frisson.
Last time they'd had dinner out, they'd gotten into a conversation about formative novels that led directly to Rodney demanding to see Jack's bookshelves. Sheppard had shrugged, pointing out that he'd long since lost most of his childhood possessions (it was possible, he acknowledged, that there was a storage unit filled with stuff somewhere in the Lower 48) but after the meal he'd taken Rodney to his house, a small bungalow not far from the harbor.
It wasn't that much bigger than Rodney's monastic cell, but it felt like a home. Each of the few possessions felt significant. A woven blanket folded neatly on the small couch. A guitar in the corner. A small stereo with CDs piled beside it. A Johnny Cash poster visible through the doorway to Sheppard's bedroom, where Rodney could see a thick paperback novel on his bedside table.
Rodney had felt oddly shy, at first, as though he were crossing some invisible boundary. But Sheppard had toed off his boots and padded in to the kitchen to make coffee, which he'd fortified with a sizeable splash of Irish whiskey, and they'd stayed up past midnight talking. The anticipation of another night like that one washed through Rodney as he lay abed.
Though remembering the warm full-body pleasure of that kind of closeness while lying in bed felt dangerously close to a kind of fantasy Rodney did not permit himself, so he rose and showered.
He walked to Matins beneath a pitch-black sky -- though no stars were visible at this hour, already washed-out by the impending day; dawn would come while they were inside the church. The nights were growing perceptibly longer already. How long would it be before school days both began and ended in darkness?
Manny and Ben waved to him as he entered the sanctuary, and Rodney smiled in greeting. It was amazing how much of a difference regular chess games with Jack and "the boys" had made. Rodney felt strangely at-home with Ernest and Manny and Ben. They groused and sniped at each other with the comfortable force of long habit, and Rodney had found himself beginning to join in, enjoying their obvious amusement at playing chess with a trash-talking priest.
And, of course, Jack was a worthy opponent. And if sometimes Jack braced his face in his palms, studying the board with such intensity that Rodney was able to sneak glances at Jack's strong forearms and fine hands, well. . . okay, he had experienced the stray nanosecond of attraction, but he suppressed the feeling as quickly as it arose.
"You're looking almost contented this morning," Father Liam noted as Rodney followed him back to his office. Neither of them made reference to their last meeting, or the painful memories it had stirred in Rodney's heart.
"I think I'm beginning to find a niche here," Rodney said. It felt strange to admit it, as though he were tempting fate, but he said the words anyway.
"Hm. Does that mean you're not interested in a weekend assignment, then?"
"Eh? No, not at all -- I mean, yes, I'm interested," Rodney said hastily. Even Stuart couldn't object to him taking an assignment from the parish priest! Exultation flowed through him.
"Tragic situation," Father Liam said, and as he turned around to sit down at his desk Rodney saw that his eyes looked tired. "There's a need for a set of funerals up in Port O'Brien."
"I'm so sorry to hear that," Rodney said. Instantly he clicked in to funeral preparation mindset, his excitement at the prospect of a trip out of town shunted to the side, trumped by the needs of the moment.
"Steve Wright will be by in an hour to pick me up, but I have obligations here. You should stay to offer mass tomorrow; you can return Monday morning before dawn."
"Let me go pack my things," Rodney said quickly. "I'll be back within the hour. Thank you, Father."
"Go with God," Father Liam said, and turned to his desk.
Rodney hurried back to the school, his mind racing. His little black book containing the liturgy he would need was by his bedside; he had a clean set of clericals hanging in the wardrobe. He should bring a black sweater in case it was cold; winter seemed these days just around the corner. . .
As he stepped into his room again, he had a flash of memory of getting dressed before his mirror a bare hour before, thinking of his dinner with Jack. Regret washed through him. But surely Jack would understand. He could write a quick note, leave it with Steve to be delivered later that day. He was needed -- and even if this paled in comparison with the way he had once been needed, back when his research was valued and his intellect routinely praised, this mattered. Seeing Jack could wait.
John pushed through the office door, clutching a sheaf of papers threatened by the wind.
Wan in the cold fluorescent lighting, Steve looked up from his desk. "Hey, Jack. Good run?"
John dumped the papers into the tray for filing and rubbed his hands together. The weather was turning. "Yeah. No problem. What're you still doing here on a Saturday night? Thought you'd be home with Shelley by now." He winked, leering a little.
"Had a last minute run up to Port O'Brien." Steve raised his arms and leaned back, stretching with a grunt. "Took the priest up for a couple funerals -- whole family died in a fire -- needed someone right away."
God. John grimaced. "Sad business."
"Yeah." Steve picked up an envelope, held it out to John. "He asked me to give this to you."
"Who?" John took the envelope. To: Jack Sheppard was scribbled across the front.
"The priest. McKay."
That was weird. "Why didn't Father Liam go? He usually does funerals and weddings."
Steve shrugged. "Dunno. McKay didn't say." A smile, more than a little malicious. "Just white-knuckled his way during takeoff and landing and said about two words in between."
"Sounds like him." John kept his voice level as he tore open the envelope. "When's he coming back? I could pick him up."
"Early Monday morning."
"Damn. I've got that run to Katmai that'll take me most of the day." He pretended to consider. "You wouldn't want to switch, would you?"
"No can do." Steve looked regretful. "Got an appointment at the lawyer's that afternoon, and Shelley'll kill me if we miss it."
"No problem." John sat, hiding his disappointment behind Father's letter.
I'm very sorry to have to break our engagement for dinner tonight, but tragic circumstances require me to assume my role as minister to our far-flung flock. Father Liam requires me to officiate at several funerals in Port O'Brien, and I am leaving within the hour. I will return before classes on Monday, and hope to avoid Mr. Stuart's ire. (A vain hope, I'm afraid.)
I look forward to trouncing you soundly next week -- on the chessboard. I expect you to buy me an expensive dinner when you recover from your crushing defeat. I'm afraid the weather is too inclement for your alternate wager.
Very truly yours,
M. R. McKay
John carefully folded the letter and tucked it into his pocket. He wasn't going to be a girl and wrap it in red ribbon, or hide it in his underwear drawer, but he wouldn't toss it. Not yet.
He waved to Steve and walked out to his truck, at loose ends. He'd been looking forward to dinner, and now. . . Now all he could think about was skinny-dipping with Father, sliding up against him, smooth and warm, wrapping his arms around him, letting his hands roam. . . and if he wasn't going to Hell for all his other sins, that one would certainly tip the scales.
Nothing like exercise when battling those familiar demons. John headed over to the high school gymnasium. He was in luck; a bunch of kids and a sprinkling of older guys desperate to get out of the house had started a pickup basketball game. John pulled off his sweater and jogged a dozen laps around the gym to warm up, then spent a couple hours getting sweaty and tired -- not in the way he preferred, but at least he could live with himself afterward.
A quick shower at home -- way too quiet and lonely -- and then he headed back out to the Roastery. It was near closing time, but Cindy would let him stay for a bit.
Sure enough, she greeted him with a smile and brushed aside his apology. "You want to make it up to me? Give me a lift home after I've closed."
He watched her clean up as he ate his sandwich, then he took out the trash as she locked up. They were in his truck when she turned to him. "Oh, I just remembered. Someone came by earlier, asking about you and the priest."
"Oh, yeah? Who?"
"Don't know him. Tall guy. Blond. Trying to be charming."
Stan Gates. Son of a bitch.
"What did he want?"
"He said he was a friend, and wanted to know if you and Father -- Meredith, is it? -- had stopped by for dinner, or if we were expecting you."
"He's no friend of mine, Cindy, and I don't think he's one to Father, either."
"Thought so." She nodded. "He didn't look like the kind of guy who has friends. Just people he uses."
"Yeah." He pulled up to Cindy's house. "Let me know if he comes back, okay?"
"Sure. Thank for the ride."
A restless night filled with dreams he wouldn't look at closely followed by a day filled with demanding clients and balky machinery left John too exhausted and jittery to relax. He sat down to read, found himself pulling Father's letter from his coat pocket. With a grimace, he dropped the letter into the trash and picked up his phone.
He needed to take his mind off a certain priest, and he knew just the guy to do it.
An hour later, showered and shaved, he knocked on the dark green door. "C'mon in!" drifted from inside. The door was unlocked. Damn it. John had warned Eli about taking chances -- there'd been trouble in this neighborhood before -- so he carefully locked the door behind him, and made his way down the short hall. He dropped his coat on the floor, sweater and shirt following. The bedroom was dim, lit only by a single lamp, and Eli stretched out on the bed, pale skin scattered with freckles, short curls glinting gold.
"Haven't seen you for a while." Eli clasped his hands behind his head, lifted his chest. His cock was hard, and the sight of it made John's mouth water.
"Been busy." John shucked his boots and trousers, socks and boxers, left them in a pile beside the door.
Eli raked him with an appreciative gaze. "If you weren't so damned pretty, I'd tell you to stick with your own right hand." He bent his knees, ran his hands up the inside of his thighs, spread his legs. "But I'm a sucker for a pretty face."
John snorted. "You're a sucker for this." He grabbed his cock, gave it a quick stroke. Yeah. This was what he needed. He climbed onto the bed, straddled Eli's chest. Grabbing the top edge of the headboard, he pushed his hips forward, trailing the head of his cock over Eli's jaw and cheek.
John watched his cock slide between Eli's lips, shuddered from the heat and pressure. Good, so fucking good. He let his head fall back, closed his eyes as he rocked his hips. Thought about Eli's mouth, full and red, sucking him in, shivered deep in his belly as his mental image of Eli shifted: lips thinning, freckles disappearing, his curls straightening and darkening and. . .
With a gasp he opened his eyes, pulled away from that welcoming heat. Eli. He was with Eli, not. . .
"What's the matter?" Eli frowned, smoothed his hands up John's thighs, cupped them around his hips.
"Nothing." Heart thudding in his chest, John sank back, felt Eli's cock brush his ass.
Eli's lips quirked, and he shifted his hips, his cock sliding between John's cheeks. "That didn't look like nothing to me."
A shiver, a flush of heat blossoming on his chest and face. "I didn't come here to talk."
Before Eli could answer, John swung himself to one side and scrambled between Eli's thighs. He grabbed Eli's ankles and lifted his legs.
"Oh, God, I love it when you go all caveman on me," Eli breathed, hand scrabbling under the pillow. He threw a packet and small bottle at John, who released Eli's ankles. After rolling on the condom and slicking his cock, John lifted Eli's legs again.
Eli gasped as John nudged his ass, then grabbed the inside of his knees and pulled his legs back. "Go for it."
John positioned himself and pushed forward, slowly, so very slowly, sliding into Eli. He hissed and closed his eyes. Tight. Hot. Squeezing his cock, squeezing his heart in his chest. God, there was nothing like this. He forced his eyes open, stared unblinking at Eli until his eyeballs burned. Saw Eli's muscles tremble, the sweat bead on his chest, his upper lip, at his hairline. Listened to Eli's muttered encouragement, to his bitten-off groans and breathy whines as John kept up his slow pace, in, out, squeeze, release.
"God damn it, Jack!" Eli squirmed, trying to pick up the pace. He grabbed his cock and stroked it roughly. "C'mon, you fucker. Nail me!"
His arms and legs trembled, sweat trickled down his ribs. John wanted to hold on, but Eli was making that impossible. With a shout, Eli threw back his head and came over his stomach and hand. John couldn't help it. His hips jerked forward, then back, close, so close. . .
A moment later he closed his eyes and shuddered through his climax. Yeah, he knew he was fucking Eli, but he wished. . . for the impossible.
But if he couldn't have who he wanted, Eli was a damned good substitute.
They rested for a while before John fucked Eli again, pushing him from his hands and knees to his back. He needed to see Eli's face to keep reminding himself who he was with.
It almost worked.
They showered together in comfortable silence, hot need banked into the warmth of well-used muscles. John left Eli crashed out on the bed and dressed quietly in the hall. He checked his watch -- it was late, and he had a long day ahead, but he felt better. Could cope with seeing Father Meredith again the next evening.
The cold outside air hit him like a blow, and he huddled deeper in his coat as he pulled the door shut behind him. Heard the lock click. Took a step toward his truck.
Something -- a sound? A shifting shadow? -- warned him of danger a second before the hands closed on his arms and he twisted, breaking their hold. A grunt, loud in the late-night stillness, as he stumbled back, stepping on a booted foot.
Two, at least.
Hands snatched at him, and he fought for freedom, a mad dance fueled by the familiar buzz of an adrenaline surge. He got in three good blows before a fist connected with his jaw and he landed on the ground with a gasp. The hard toe of a boot smashed into his side. He curled up, protecting his belly and chest, as they kicked and punched.
Only two. No weapons, or none that they were using. Probably local guys who knew that the cops wouldn't respond if there weren't any weapons.
He uncurled and caught the next kick, heaving the guy off balance. Kicking out his right leg, he hit the second guy's kneecap, heard a satisfying crunch.
Didn't feel the pain -- yet -- but he knew he would soon. The one he'd kneecapped rolled on the ground, holding his leg. The other. . . An uppercut snapped the guy's lower jaw against his upper, stunned him long enough for John to bring him down with a quick smash to his temple.
John ran. Made it to his truck. A few short blocks home, but his muscles were tightening up in the cold by the time he got inside. He ran a hot bath and stripped, swallowed four ibuprofen dry. He prodded his soon-to-be-bruises; no broken bones. He'd look like a rainbow flag in a few days, but he didn't have a concussion, wasn't pissing blood. No worse than any of the other times this had happened, and no sense calling the police. Muggings in that part of town weren't unusual, and any investigation would involve Eli. He didn't want that.
He managed a few hours sleep before he staggered into a hot shower, standing there long enough to warm up his stiff muscles and wrinkle his fingers and toes. A quick breakfast and more ibuprofen, and he was off to Katmai, shuttling a hunting party.
As they lifted off, he hoped Father Meredith made it back to the school in time for class.
He was wiped. Aching, bruised, exhausted. John glanced at his watch. Way late for chess. He should just go home, lick his wounds and crash.
Who was he kidding? He'd just stop by Ernest's first, see who was winning.
The door bell rang as he walked in, but there was no welcome. The light was on in the back -- someone was home.
John tiptoed to the doorway, peered through the strands of beads.
Ben and Father Meredith were bent over their chessboard in identical poses of focused absorption. Manny and Ernest sat, crowding the far side of the table, eyes glued to the pieces in front of them.
Half the pieces were off the board -- a hard-fought battle -- and Ben's hand hovered over one piece, then another.
John had never seen him indecisive.
He didn't want to break their concentration. Besides, Ben would skin him alive if he burst into the room at this point. John stayed on the far side of the curtain, watching.
Finally, Ben drew his hand back without moving a piece and looked across the table at Father. "You win."
The words fell into the silence like a bomb. Manny and Ernest stood and crowed their congratulations, while Father leaned back and laughed.
"I told you I would do it!"
For the first time since Saturday, John felt the accumulated tension in his shoulders relax. Father was back.
Grinning, he stepped through the curtain. "Sorry I'm late. Did I miss anything?"
"Dear Lord, what happened to you?" Father was around the table in a blink, fingers gentle on John's jaw. He frowned as he studied John's face.
John shrugged, trying not to lean into Father's touch. "I'm fine. But I hear you wiped the floor with Ben."
Father dropped his hand and his frown disappeared for a moment, eclipsed by a brilliant smile. "You should've been here, Jack. I beat him, fair and square." He narrowed his eyes, his smile fading. "Looks like someone beat you, unfair and unsquare."
The concern on Father's face was mirrored on the faces of Manny, Ernest and Ben. John mumbled something about falling down on the basketball court, could see the disbelief in their eyes. They wouldn't call him on it, though. If he didn't want to tell them what happened, they'd accept it. They wouldn't like it, but they'd let him get away with it, like the times when it had happened before.
John glanced at Father, caught the resolute look in his eyes. Convincing him to let it go would be another matter.
"Looks like it's my turn to pay for dinner." John nodded to the guys, stepped through the curtain, followed by Father. "Your choice."
Father had the courtesy to wait until they were in the truck before rounding on him. "Falling down on the basketball court, my ass!"
He sounded pissed, and a little frightened.
"It looks worse than it is." John headed toward the steak house. Father's concern warmed him in places he shouldn't be thinking about, but if he was using words like 'ass' in private, it would probably be a good idea to eat in a place where good manners were the norm. At least, John hoped so.
"I don't believe that for a second. Have you even been to a doctor?"
"I'm really okay. Bruised, yeah, but nothing serious."
They were seated at their table, menus in hand, before Father conceded defeat. He scowled down at the tablecloth. "So you won't go to the doctor. All right. Just promise me one thing." His voice was husky.
John was leery of open-ended promises, he'd been burned before. "If I can."
"If you start to feel dizzy, or have any other symptoms: blood in your urine, nausea, edema, anything, you'll go to the clinic."
"Yeah. I can do that. But it's not necessary. I'm--"
"Fine." Father rolled his eyes. "Yes, I know." He glanced over John's shoulder, his grimace quickly smoothing out. "The perfect end to a trying day," he murmured, nodding to someone over John's shoulder.
"What?" John didn't look. He couldn't turn that far without wincing in pain, and he was damned if he wanted to set Father off again.
"Our beloved Principal and his wife are dining here tonight." Father's smile was as false as a porn star's boobs. "Just our luck."
"Did he give you grief for being gone over the weekend?" John kept his voice low.
"Is the Pope Catholic?"
John chuckled as their waitress arrived. "Remember, I'm buying. Order the most expensive thing on the menu, if you want. I'm having steak."
This time Father followed his lead, and once their orders were in, John asked about his trip. They spent their meal discussing the horrors of propane fires, the beauty and poverty in remote villages, and a host of related topics. Father did most of the talking, of course, but he listened to John's comments and considered them carefully.
They had just ordered coffee when Father looked up, a grin spreading over his face. He stood, extending his hand, as John glanced up.
Into Stan fucking Gates' mocking eyes.
Father was pumping Stan's hand, offering him a seat, asking if he'd eaten. John clamped his jaw shut. He would not play pleased to see Stan, but he'd rather eat ground glass than leave Father and Stan alone together.
Stan sat, turned to John with raised brows. "What happened to you, Jack? Meet up with someone who wasn't very friendly?"
John's instinct screamed a warning. He took a deep breath. Relaxed. Like he did before a battle.
"Or maybe," Stan continued, leaning closer and dropping his voice, "maybe it was someone a little too friendly?"
His fingers itched -- he wanted nothing more than to punch Stan's smug smile. But he had to wait, find out Stan's game.
Father's smile froze on his face, as brittle as cold iron. "Do you know something about Jack's injuries?" His gaze darted between John and Stan.
"About his injuries?" Stan sat back, spread his hands. "Not a thing."
Father lifted his chin. "Then what--"
"I do know a few things about a certain Major John Sheppard, late of the United States Air Force."
John stared at him, his gut twisting. No. He couldn't--
"Who?" Father looked bewildered. "Jack?"
"You see, this Major Sheppard had to leave the Air Force under a black cloud. He had been conducting an inappropriate relationship with his commanding officer -- his very male commanding officer. Because of his connections, he was allowed to retire, rather than be prosecuted."
John's heart stuttered in his chest. He tore his gaze from Stan's face, hazarded a glance at Father's. . .
The world around him was torn to pieces, as if he'd hit the dirt at top speed.
Father stared at him. "Jack? Is this true?"
He couldn't bear to see the disappointment, the disgust that he knew would soon appear in Father's eyes. Gutted and flayed, he felt his belly hollowed out, his skin stripped off, piece by bloody piece. Knees watery, John stood, kept his gaze on his hands -- not shaking, not yet -- and nodded. "Yes. Now, if you'll excuse me--"
Father's voice followed him out of the dining room, his words impossible to understand over the roaring in John's ears. He paused for a moment, handing the hostess enough money to cover their tab, and left.
He reached the truck, climbed inside, lowered his head to the steering wheel. He couldn't leave the parking lot -- had to make sure Father got home safely -- who could he call? God, he couldn't think. The only thing running through his mind was the revulsion Father must be feeling.
John managed to get the door open before he puked.
Ten minutes later, he'd rinsed his mouth with a bottle of water he kept in the truck, and parked in a dark corner, where he could see everyone who came or went. A few minutes after that, the restaurant door opened and Principal Stuart and his wife emerged, followed closely by Father. They all piled into Stuart's SUV.
John followed them, keeping well back. He waited until Father was safely in the building before returning home.
Stripping off his clothes, John fell into bed. Stared at the ceiling, watching the lights from occasional passing cars skitter across the plaster in kaleidoscopic patterns. Despair weighted his chest, pressed him into the mattress.
He was so fucked.
Two days had passed and Rodney hadn't been able to stop thinking about Jack. John. His bruises, angry and livid, marring his face. And, worse, the expression he'd worn when Stan had outed him, and the way he'd fled. As though he couldn't bear for Rodney to know.
As though he thought Rodney would --
Did he think Rodney would hate him? The thought twisted Rodney's heart. For God's sake, John was his friend. What did he care what John did with his personal life?
Though come to think of it, he'd never heard John mention a partner, other than Steve Wright, who was engaged. He'd never seen John date. John was ostentatiously charming to the women they encountered -- Cindy, at the coffee shop; the little old ladies at the museum fundraiser -- but he'd never seen a spark of sexual tension between John and anyone. He knew that, because (shame swept him, again) he'd been looking.
Rodney had never been tempted to break his vow of celibacy. Giving up sex when he'd joined the priesthood hadn't been a particular hardship; his fumbling encounters with women had never been particularly satisfying anyway.
No. It wasn't true that he'd never been tempted. God help him, he was tempted by John. He could admit that to himself; he could admit it to God.
But just because he was tempted -- just because John was gay -- that gave him no grounds to hate him for his sexual orientation, and he felt wounded that John had obviously presumed that would be his response. Even if Church teaching forbade the act (and Rodney flushed to think, even in a guarded and distant way, of what exactly that act entailed -- John's body, revealed --) was he not instructed to love the sinner?
And if that injunction pushed him again too close to forbidden fantasy, he could always lose himself in prayer.
Though since Stan's revelation, Rodney had found even prayer a distant comfort at best. He couldn't stop thinking about the way John had fled the restaurant. The way John had fled from him.
Truth be told, these last few days Rodney had spent more time at the battered old upright than kneeling in prayer. Playing the stormiest music he knew -- Debussy and Rachmaninoff, for God's sake. Which was a little bit embarrassing, but it helped. If he couldn't pour his heart out to God in words, he could do so without language, and if his fingers fumbled on the keys, well, he was a flawed servant all around.
"God help me," he murmured, fingering the beads of his rosary without cognition.
And then a pounding came at the door. "Father Meredith!"
He knew the voice; it belonged to one of the children. Isaac, a tall and ungainly seventh-grader who hoarded the basketball on the court. He'd seen John teaching him how to shoot from the perimeter, a study in motion and grace.
"What is it?" Rodney called.
"Telephone." Footsteps pounded as Isaac ran back down the hall.
Maybe it would be John. Rodney's heart leapt in his chest as he made his way to the payphone.
But the voice was Stan's. "Father!"
Rodney had to bite back the impulse to blister Stan's ear with an excoriation like he hadn't offered in years. After dropping his bombshell, Stan had looked at Rodney expectantly, as if he honestly thought Rodney would welcome John's public outing. Rodney had snarled at him to please, for the love of God, step away and never speak to him again. Then he'd had to fumble an explanation to Principal Stuart despite his confusion and his aching heart.
Stan had called Rodney's cellphone a few times, but Rodney had seen his number on the caller ID and refused to pick up, deleting his voicemail messages unheard. But Rodney hadn't thought to screen incoming calls on the dormitory payphone.
"I thought I told you to go to hell."
"But we really ought to talk, don't you think?"
"Not especially, no." Rodney felt visceral disgust spreading through him again. He had no interest in making polite conversation with the man who had outed his best friend. His only friend. Who was now avoiding him like the plague.
Stan ignored his words. "I'm sending a car for you; it'll be there shortly."
"This isn't a good time. I'm preparing tomorrow's classes," Rodney lied.
"They'll bring you directly to my office," Stan continued, as though Rodney had not spoken.
"I'm not interested," Rodney said bluntly.
"I think you'll find what we have to say extremely persuasive." The note of amusement in Stan's voice made Rodney's blood run cold. There was something sinister in it; why had he never noticed that before? "See you soon, Father."
Rodney stood there for a second, holding the dead phone, before hanging it up with a clatter and running back to his room. He fumbled for his cellphone. He had to call John.
John answered on the fourth ring.
"Thank God," Rodney blurted. "Are you okay?"
"I -- what?"
"This is -- Father McKay," Rodney said, hastily, realizing he'd been about to use his first name, an informality John surely wouldn't have welcomed.
"I got that," John said drily. "You sound out of breath; what's going on?"
"It's Stan Gates," Rodney said. "He just called. He's sending a car for me. I don't know what's going on, but I really don't have a good feeling about this, and --"
"You're in danger." John's voice was preternaturally calm. "You need to get out of there. I'll be there as fast as I can."
"You're hurt," Rodney objected. "I don't want to put you in --"
"I can handle it." Clipped, efficient, in control. "Get behind the school -- isn't there a fenced enclosure?"
"Trash cans, yes, right, I'll --"
"See you in ten," John said, and disconnected.
Rodney grabbed his pocket Bible and his rosary, and stood for a moment in the middle of the room. Nothing else there held any meaning for him.
Would the children be safe? He had to trust that they would be; Gates wasn't interested in them. He ran down the hall to Sascha's room, but no one answered; heart pounding, he staggered to the far end of the corridor, the girls' quarters, and knocked on Sister Grace's door.
"Yes?" She looked faintly surprised, though whether by his air of panic or by his mere presence he wasn't sure.
"Lock the doors," he gasped. "Don't let anyone in. Call the police, I think there are men after me."
To her credit, she didn't seem fazed by this revelation in the least. "You're leaving?"
"I'm trying to draw them away. I have to--" Rodney gestured over his shoulder, frantic.
"Go with God," she said gently, and watched him turn and run for the back door.
Rodney made his way to the fenced-in trashcans and crouched behind one, peering through the slats in the fence. The night was cold and the air felt heavy. A few fat snowflakes fell, caught in a gust of wind.
The whisper startled Rodney, who flinched -- but as he turned, fearful, he saw that it was John, kneeling beside him.
"How the hell did you do that?" He didn't like the sound of his own voice, scared and irritable.
John quirked a half-smile. "Military training has to be good for something, I guess."
But a shadow crossed John's face as he murmured the words. He didn't want to be talking with Rodney about his Air Force days. Rodney averted his eyes, feeling that he had somehow transgressed.
The sound of an approaching car silenced them both. Rodney's breathing felt too loud as they watched a large black SUV pull up in front of the school and three burly men climbed out. Even his untrained eye could tell they were armed. He bit back a gasp and John placed a reassuring hand on his forearm, squeezing briefly. Rodney leaned into the touch, terrified and grateful.
God, he was out of his depth.
They pounded on the door, heavy blows. A patrol car, lights flashing, raced down the street toward the school, and the men ran back to the SUV. It pulled away and disappeared around the corner.
"C'mon," John whispered once the police arrived. And Rodney followed.
"Good, you have your coat," John said, as the truck peeled out of the parking lot, taking a hard left turn. "I threw some things in a bag -- I think they'll fit you."
"Fit me?" Rodney felt dazed. "What's going on, where am I going?"
"We," John said, yanking the truck around a hard left turn onto a dirt road Rodney didn't recognize, "are going to the far end of the harbor. Short cut; I don't think the goons will know this one. Plus I'm hoping they go to my place first, and then to the airport."
"The harbor. Well, that explains everything." No matter how bad things got, sarcasm was always the answer.
"I'm borrowing an amphibian from a buddy of Steve's," John said as they bounced over the rutted road. "I made a few calls; I know a guy who's refurbishing his hunting lodge outside of Anchorage, I figure we can hole up there for a while."
Rodney clung to the handle on the cab's ceiling as the truck rattled down the rutted road at high speed. "An amphibian?"
"Cessna A185E," John said, as they turned back onto blacktop again. "Float plane."
Rodney was reeling. How had John pulled all of this together in the minutes since their phone call? "I can't believe you-- " He had no idea how to finish that sentence. He took a deep breath and started again. "You didn't have to do this."
"Not open for negotiation," John said, his voice tight.
"I'm not arguing with your obviously noble intention of saving my skin," Rodney objected. "I'm trying to say--"
"Thank me later." They squealed tires as they turned into the far end of the harborside road; John pulled them up close to a dock where a float plane was tethered.
The snowfall picked up as Rodney took the duffle bag from behind his seat of the truck and handed it to John to be stowed. Their hands brushed. Rodney had to swallow hard, overwhelmed with the intensity of his longing to touch. Everything was going to hell; what if he just allowed himself to reach out--
But John was already moving away, stuffing the bag into the cargo compartment as Rodney climbed into the tiny plane. John cast off the moorings. The plane rocked as he clambered aboard, and Rodney's anxiety flared.
As John powered up, flipping switches and checking gauges, Rodney saw distant lights through the blowing snow, moving their way. Panic prickled the back of his neck. "They're coming," he said.
"Yep." John kept doing whatever he was doing.
"Perhaps we could consider getting out of here."
"I'm working on it." The engine rumbled to life and they started moving slowly out of the harbor.
"Oh God," Rodney said, his voice rising, as the car pulled over and he heard its doors slam. People climbing out, probably, and what if they had guns, and--
"Here goes," John said, calm as anything, as they hurtled toward liftoff.
"Jesus Christ!" John gripped the control stick and didn't worry about Father hearing him. Between the wind gusts -- they had to be over 40 knots, easy -- and the driving snow, he had enough to worry about.
Father wasn't listening to him, anyway.
John lowered his shoulders, loosened his fingers. It was hard not to overcompensate, hard not to forget the damned floats under the plane, hard not to strong-arm the Cessna through the air, instead of letting her soar. He checked the instruments, peered out the window -- not that he could see much, between the snow and the darkness. They should be close.
He glanced over at Father, barely visible in the light from the instrument panel. Rosary beads passed between his fingers, his eyes were closed, his lips moving. Calm. Serene. No trace of his earlier panic.
John sighed. What would it be like to have such faith?
Father's whispers were faint over the headset. Prayers?
John strained to hear over the howl of the engines, the creak of the fuselage.
"Ninety-one thousand, six hundred thirty-one, ninety-one thousand, six hundred thirty-nine, ninety-one thousand, six hundred seventy-three, ninety-one thousand, six hundred ninety-one, ninety-one thousand, seven hundred three, ninety-one thousand, seven hundred eleven, ninety-one thousand, seven hundred thirty-three, ninety-one thousand, seven hundred fifty-three..."
Prime numbers. Father wasn't praying, at least, not any sort of prayer that the Church recognized. But John knew this. Understood the beauty, the order of numbers.
A tug, needle-sharp, centered behind John's breastbone.
Another gust lifted them, and he fought to stay on course. John checked the instruments, circled, looking.
There. Through the snow he could see the lights. Now he just had to bring her down on the choppy water and hope like hell there weren't any logs or other flotsam in his path. Or that a stray gust wouldn't catch them wrong and flip them over. Or. . .
"Hold on," John muttered and he circled back over the water. "And pray."
This time Father's prayers were more traditional, very loud, and interspersed with stifled yelps and bitten-off screams. They might have helped their safe, if bumpy, landing. John didn't really care if they did or didn't -- they were down, intact, and were taxiing toward the brightly lit dock. His joints cracked as he stretched his fingers, and he hoped Father didn't notice, or at least wouldn't comment on, the slight tremor in his hands.
He managed to bring the plane up to the dock, despite the chop. Now to jump out and tie her up -- hopefully before she drifted away, carrying Father with her. John squinted, then breathed a sigh of relief. A figure hurried down the dock holding a boat hook. Keeping the plane as close as possible without crashing into the boards, he waited until both fore and aft lines were secured before cutting the engines.
"Knew it was you, Shep." The bass voice bellowed over the wind, and a strong hand took his duffle before he scrambled down from the cockpit. "No one else would be crazy enough to fly in this weather."
"Didn't have much choice, Rich." John braced himself against the wind and extended his hand to Father, hesitating in the door. Father's face was pasty against his dark coat, and he wobbled on unsteady legs as he stepped onto the dock. John held his arm until he was sure Father wouldn't stagger. "How're you doing?"
"Better, now that I'm on. . ." He glanced at the heaving dock and closed his eyes. Snowflakes landed on his lashes. "Fine."
"Let's get on up to the lodge," Rich said. "We can do introductions then."
They slid their way along the dock and up the path, lurching in the wind gusts. The lodge loomed before them, cedar and fieldstone, the deep porch lit and welcoming. John hustled Father through the doors and into a cozy reception area, Rich following close behind.
Rich turned to Father. "Richard Thornton." He stuck out his hand.
Father blinked, looked bewildered, snowflakes melting in his hair, on his shoulders. Held out his hand -- it shook a little. "Rod-- Father Meredith McKay."
Rich pumped Father's hand twice, glanced at John. A question. But he didn't ask, just turned back to Father, smiled. "Coffee's in the corner. Grab a cup and we'll go right out to your cabin." Rich walked behind a desk on the right, picked up an envelope. "I stocked the kitchenette, so you'll be good to go for a couple days."
Father gravitated toward the coffee like a planet sucked toward an event horizon. He poured one cup, drank it in a single motion, then refilled and drank his second cup, eyes closing, shoulders relaxing as he gave a contented sigh.
John caught Rich's startled gaze and laughed. Father would be okay. "That's great, thanks. We'll also need to go out for toiletries and clothes sometime -- toothbrushes, underwear, socks, shirts."
"No problem." Rich jerked his head toward the back of the lodge. "We've got a small selection we keep on hand for guests whose luggage is delayed or lost."
After choosing a few necessities, they headed out, down a winding path sheltered from the worst of the wind and snow by thickly-planted trees and shrubs. Father clutched his coffee like a drowning man, and although he stumbled once or twice, he never spilled a drop.
Rich ushered them inside the log cabin as if they were actually paying guests. John kicked off his muddy boots in the foyer, and after a pause, Father did the same. Living, dining and kitchen areas shared a large room, whose ceiling soared to the fieldstone chimney on the far wall. A hall on the left led to two bedrooms and a bathroom. Rich lit the logs laid in the fireplace, pointed out the amenities, including cable and wifi, and disappeared.
John dumped his coat and duffle in one of the bedrooms, put the bag with the extra clothes in the other, and returned to the main room. Still holding his coffee cup and wearing his coat, Father stood in front of the fire, which crackled in the hearth. Comfortable overstuffed chairs and a sofa faced the fireplace.
Picking up the poker, John squatted down and prodded the fire. Not that it needed tending yet, but it allowed him to not look at Father. "Sit down. Make yourself comfortable." He hated the barrier between them, the barrier erected by Stan's big mouth and Father's. . . No, he shouldn't blame Father. Not much. He had to follow the Church's rules on these matters, even when the sinner was a friend.
"What are we doing here?"
John looked up.
Father turned in a slow circle, frowning at the room, sounding lost.
Keep it simple. John stood, faced him. "Staying safe."
"I know that. I mean," he gestured broadly, "why here? How did Mr. Thornton know we were coming?"
Father gripped the coffee cup in both hands. Must be empty, because Father's hands shook so hard that if there'd been anything in the cup, it would've spilled all over.
"How about we get something to eat first?" Without waiting for Father's reply, John headed for the kitchen. Rich had left a container labeled 'chili' in the fridge -- something warm and filling would help them both. He scooped a healthy portion into two bowls and nuked them. Found bread and butter, spoons and knives.
He felt Father's solemn gaze on him as he worked.
When the food was hot and on the table, John sat in one chair, cocked an eyebrow at Father. Frown deepening, Father hesitated, gaze dropping to the cup in his hands.
John's hunger withered. Was his company so repugnant that they couldn't even share a meal anymore?
He shot to his feet so fast his chair overturned. "Go ahead and eat. I can have mine later."
He was halfway to his bedroom before Father spoke. "Jack! I mean, John. Wait."
John stopped, but didn't turn. "It's okay. I'll stay in--"
"Oh, for pity's sake! Am I the only sane person on this planet? It's bad enough to have to cope with juvenile delinquents, an idiot for a principal, a man I thought was a friend threatening me, and having to escape from his muscle-bound goons in a blizzard. Now I find my best friend as jumpy as an excited electron and although he'll risk his life to keep me safe, he won't even eat at the same table. Will you please come back here and sit down and break bread with me as we've done for the past six weeks?"
Best friend. Father still considered John his best friend. The tension in his gut eased.
He wanted to grin in relief. Instead, he lifted one shoulder. "Okay." Returned to the table, righted his chair and waited while Father shucked his coat and said grace. They sat and dug into the food. John was ravenous. He hadn't really eaten much for the past several days. Since Sunday, in fact.
They didn't slow down until they'd finished their third bowls, then, by unspoken agreement, they cleaned up in silence. Drifting back to the fireplace, John sat on the hearth, idly poking the flames. Father chose the sofa, leaned back and closed his eyes. Lines of exhaustion dragged at his face.
"How long ago did you contact Mr. Thornton about hiding out here?"
"And how long do you think we'll be staying here?"
"Til the FBI tells us we can go back."
"The FBI? You contacted the FBI? Oh, good Lord. . ." Father took a deep breath. "When did your suspicions about Stan begin?"
Suspicions. A good word. One that could cover jealousy as well as doubts. "A while back."
"Since the tour?"
"What. . ." Father hesitated. "What made you suspicious in the first place? The fact that he tried to befriend me in spite of my disgrace?"
"What?" John met his gaze. How could Father even think that? Especially considering John's own situation. "God, no. He was too. . ." John lifted his hands. Shook his head. "Something about him set off my radar. I asked a friend to check him out, found out the FBI are interested in him, too. They just wanted to wait until he tried something before bringing him in."
"Your radar is obviously better than mine." Father sounded peeved.
"It should be. You don't have to use yours."
A dry, bitter laugh. "You must be joking. There's more intrigue in the corridors of the Vatican than in any royal court or parliament. My posting here is a direct result of my inability to successfully negotiate those treacherous waters."
But if he hadn't been exiled to Kodiak, they never would have met. John opened his mouth to point this out, then closed it. Becoming friends with some disgraced pilot would never make up for what Father had lost -- the work he loved. Which led to another question.
"Why's Stan so interested in you?"
"Not for my charming self, that's for certain." Father yawned, rubbed his eyes like a child. "He never said, but I imagine it has to do with one of the subjects I was exploring before I had to stop."
"Yeah, but which area?" John frowned. Father slumped, heaved his legs up onto the sofa, stretched out. Shadows stained the thin skin beneath his eyes. He looked exhausted.
"Who knows? String theory, numerical magneto hydrodynamics simulations, wormhole theory, supermassive black holes, solar wind plasma structures. . . Gates could be interested in any of them."
Wow. Father'd been working in all those areas? He really was a genius. Not that John had doubted it -- anyone who was successful in the field of astrophysics wasn't an intellectual slouch, John knew that -- but the reality was kind of disconcerting.
He looked up, ready to continue the conversation.
Father was asleep.
Soft breaths lifted his chest, whispered between his parted lips. Out for the count.
John turned off the lights, placed another log on the fire, and snagged the afghan from the back of a chair, spreading it over Father's still form. He stood for a moment, staring down at the man he'd grown to. . . At his friend.
His bed, no matter how soft, didn't appeal. John made himself comfortable on the thick carpet in front of the fire with a pillow and another afghan. Drifted to sleep to the sound of the fire and Father's even breathing.
Movement. The rustle of cloth against cloth. The soft thud of stockinged footfalls. Quiet, cautious. John blinked, recalled where he was, why he was sleeping on the floor in front of glowing embers. Still dark, but he could just make out Father's shape as he padded into the hall, then heard the rush of water. Toilet, then shower.
John stretched, rose. Replaced his pillow and afghan. Father had already folded his neatly over the back of the sofa. Started the coffeemaker in the kitchen. When the shower stopped, he headed down the hall toward the bathroom.
The door to Father's bedroom was open, dim light spilling across the threshold. John paused, glanced inside. Father knelt beside the bed, his back to the door, head bowed, hands folded.
John turned away, stung. He didn't want, or need, such a graphic reminder of Father's priorities. He knew exactly where he, John Sheppard, came in Father's personal hierarchy of importance, and there wasn't a damned thing he could -- or would -- do to change that.
He'd showered and changed and was scrambling eggs by the time Father emerged. Wearing the same corduroy trousers he'd had on yesterday, and a soft old sweatshirt of John's. . . with no clerical collar gleaming above it. The sight was like a sucker punch.
He greeted John's tentative smile with a solemn nod. John's smile faded.
Father took a deep breath. "I know what Stan wants."
Father headed for the coffee, poured himself a cup while John dished up the eggs, retrieved the toast from the toaster. They were sitting before Father met his eyes.
"Before I had to. . . come to Kodiak, I'd just achieved a breakthrough on. . . well, the specifics aren't important, but it had to do with creating and harnessing shortcuts through space, wormholes, as they're sometimes called. I'd only released very preliminary data to a few select colleagues, but Stan knew about it, and was well versed enough to ask critical questions."
"Wormholes." That made sense, and would fit the info about the Trust that Sam had given him.
Father nodded, his expression miserable.
"Is there anyone else who's familiar with this wormhole theory?"
"Not that I know of." Father's brows drew together as he thought. "The colleagues to whom I sent my results specialize in ancillary fields; they wouldn't be capable of continuing the work on their own."
"Which is why Gates wants you so bad." John pushed the remains of his eggs around his plate. How much should he tell Father? "The FBI think Gates is working for a bigger organization."
"I suspected as much." A whisper.
"They know about your work -- Gates' knowledge proves that. So even when he's out of the picture, you could still be in danger."
Father Meredith swallowed hard.
"My friend could help." John kept his voice matter-of-fact, tried not to show just how frightened he was for Father. "Sam would arrange for protection, but there are no guarantees. If you could continue your work--"
"I'd have to break my vow of obedience." He shook his head, but sounded torn.
Of course he was torn. Work he loved and staying safe on one hand, breaking his vows and remaining in danger on the other. There was no way to win.
"Is your life worth keeping your vow?"
Father looked startled. "Of course."
John hated himself for continuing. "And the lives of others that could be in danger? Are they worth it, too?"
Blue eyes reproached him. "I should say yes, but you know I can't."
"Continue your work. Please." John quashed his guilt. Father had to do this -- he didn't realize just how ruthless their enemies were. "I'll send it to Sam, arrange for your protection."
"There must be another way," Father Meredith pleaded.
"I wish there was, but there isn't."
Father hesitated. He squeezed his eyes shut, then nodded. "All right."
"You'll do it?"
There was a flash of the confident, self-assured Father he'd occasionally seen. "Yes. But not here. I'll need to go back to my office--" He broke off, grimaced. "Which is gone. All my notes were destroyed. . ."
"Damn." John hated the grief in Father's tone. They might as well have ripped out his heart as denied him his work. "Could you recreate it? Here?"
"Without even a computer?" He sounded defeated.
"I have my laptop. I could contact--"
"A laptop? What kind?" The light in Father's eyes dimmed, and he shook his head. "No, it's foolish--"
"You could try." John leaned forward. "Work on it until we can leave. See how far you get."
Father looked doubtful. "I suppose. . ."
"Nobody else has to know."
"It doesn't work that way." Father snorted. "I'll have to confess my disobedience."
Yeah. He would. "But if it's for the greater good. . ."
Father chuckled. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, right?"
John's grin mirrored his. "Couldn't have said it any better myself, Father."
"Please." Father closed his eyes. His mouth twisted. "I know your name. Your real name." Voice harsh. "My middle name is Rodney. Until I entered the priesthood, everyone called me that. I would. . . Would you please call me Rodney?"
Something hot and thick was stuck in John's throat. He cleared it. "Sure. Rodney."
A small smile lit Father's -- Rodney's -- face. "Good. Now, where's this laptop?"
Putting his fingers to the keys of the battered old upright in the St. Elizabeth's basement had felt like something in him was rising up to God, coming alive. Touching the keyboard of John's laptop felt like that, multiplied.
Rodney was only dimly aware of the snow descending in thick sheets outside their windows, of John trudging out to the woodpile time and again, coaxing the damp wood to stay kindled. Once the fire got hot enough, the wood hissed, releasing steam as it burned.
But Rodney hardly noticed. His world had narrowed to the screen of John's computer and the pile of paper beside him, which was rapidly becoming covered with pencil scrawls. No: it had broadened. For the first time in long, dry months, his world was expansive again. He was thinking about spacetime, universes, the energies released in the first instants of creation. About where they were in the solar system. About how to bend the fabric of reality to connect them with other worlds, impossibly distant but almost at his fingertips, if only -- if only --
His coffee cup was empty and his brain was stuck and what on earth was he thinking? This was impossible. He couldn't do this. He was rusty, it had been too long, he had forsworn the work.
"Behind you," John said, gently, and Rodney gave a little start. John was at his elbow with the coffee pot, refilling his mug. Rodney wrapped his hands around it, seeking warmth.
"How's it going?"
"This is ridiculous," Rodney said, angry and miserable. "There's no way I can reconstruct this work. I'm out of practice, my brain won't go in the right directions, and I've hit a wall."
"Tell me about it."
"There's no need for sarcasm," Rodney snapped.
John barked out a laugh. "Okay, first of all, coming from you that's pretty funny."
Rodney felt his mouth tightening, exasperation written across his face.
"And I'm serious," John said, more quietly. "Tell me?"
"It's specialized," Rodney objected.
"What do you have to lose?" John looked so earnest, sitting there, that Rodney relented. It wouldn't be a long conversation; after a word or two John would realize he was out of his depth.
"The problem has to do with the Schwartzschild metric. You know it?"
He expected John to shake his head, but John nodded. "One of the simplest solutions to Einstein's equations, right?"
His astonishment must have shown on his face, because John grinned at him. It was, Rodney thought desperately, one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. Oh, God, obviously reopening the door to his work was dangerous -- suddenly he wanted to throw open all kinds of doors. Make the forbidden permissible.
"Flyboys aren't all idiots," John said, mock-gravely.
"Right." Rodney pulled himself together. This was no time to be wrestling with inappropriate longings; they had work to do. "The trouble is, a gravitating object will collapse into a black hole if its radius is smaller than the Schwartzschild metric."
"Leading to a gravitational singularity," John supplied.
Rodney nodded. "Before I had to let my research go, I was exploring new ways of working with the black hole entropy formula. . ."
They reheated the leftover chili for lunch. By dinnertime, Richard had stopped by with a Tupperware of soup and a loaf of bread. They had drunk the cabin's whole stock of coffee; Richard raised an eyebrow but said he could easily resupply, the storm was letting up and he'd be able to get to town in the morning. Meanwhile he lent them some of the stash from the main lodge, since no one else was there to drink it anyway.
"I owe you one," John said, quietly, and Rodney saw Richard shake his head once, curt.
"You got me out of there," Richard said, sotto voce. "I'll be repaying that the rest of our lives."
Once Richard left, Rodney looked over at John, head tilted in inquiry.
"Air Force buddy," John said, shortly. "We were in Afghanistan together."
"You saved his life," Rodney said, understanding. You got me out of there. Rodney himself could have said the same.
"I don't leave men behind." John stood up and stretched, then came over to the table and sat across from Rodney again. "Where're we at?"
"I think I'm done for the night," Rodney admitted. "I can't quite see straight."
"We could watch a movie," John suggested. "They've got DVDs in the main house."
That did sound appealing, in a certain way -- the chance to abdicate thinking, to relax into something predictable and easy. But Rodney's eyeballs were aching. "I'm not sure my eyes can take more computer time," Rodney said, regretfully.
John looked around the room, his face lighting up as he walked toward the bookshelf beneath the window. "Looks like there's a chess set. Can I interest you in a game?"
"Always," Rodney said, and began to clear papers away to make room on the table.
John's smile warmed him more than the coffee, more than the fire. More even -- it scared him to admit it -- than the work.
"Best two out of three?" John offered. "Loser does the dishes?"
"You're on," Rodney said, cracking his knuckles ostentatiously.
Astrophysics had always been Rodney's passion, but most of the time it had been a grind. Science was a difficult taskmaster. It required his energy and his passion, and he had thrown himself into it completely. That was why leaving it behind had hurt so much. Leaving physics had been like severing himself from a part of his heart.
Physics had graced Rodney with a sense of God's immensity. Science held in tension the mysteries of God's unknowability, and the incarnate realities of God manifest in creation. When he was immersed in the arcana of astrophysics, Rodney's awareness of God filled him wholly. The physical universe was God's love-letter to creation, and the study of physics had been Rodney's mode of loving response.
Beating his head against the limitations of the field, against the laws of physics and the immutable principles that underpin them, wasn't easy. It never had been, and Rodney had never minded. The work was satisfying in proportion to its difficulty, and Rodney had always done it -- blessedly -- alone.
But not now.
Working with John was like nothing Rodney had ever experienced. He seemed to have some innate sense of when to hold back and when to push. He wasn't trained in the field, which meant that sometimes Rodney had to stop, backtrack, explain -- fingers snapping, hands sketching concepts in the empty space of the room. But it also meant he saw things in ways Rodney didn't. He had ideas Rodney wouldn't have had.
They struck sparks off of each other, explaining and arguing and agitating. He pushed and John pushed back. Had he ever had a colleague before who wasn't cowed by his intellect? And if John found him abrasive, he mercifully didn't let on. When Rodney yelled, John got laconic and smirky, which just made Rodney want to yell more, which led directly -- through some ineffable, miraculous process -- to blinding flashes of insight, Rodney typing furiously to keep up with what he suddenly understood.
By the end of four days, they had something.
"It's not complete," Rodney said. "It's not fleshed-out."
"But it's right," John insisted.
"It is," Rodney agreed, in wonderment. "John, do you have any idea--"
"I think I might." John leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest.
"This is real," Rodney said. "We've done something I didn't think -- I mean, this is groundbreaking! This is Nobel quality work, John, we've--"
We've got to tell someone, he'd been about to say. But the words dried up in his mouth. They couldn't tell anyone. Not if he was going to remain in the Order. His superiors' instructions had been clear. This was work he was not permitted to do. Even if his life were in danger. Even if the lives of others were in danger. He had allowed his dreams sway, had strayed from the true path.
John crossed the room in three steps, crouching at Rodney's feet. The pity on his face was like a knife to Rodney's gut; Rodney closed his eyes and turned his face away.
"Hey," John said quietly, and Rodney felt John's hand just above his knee. The touch was warm and in his abject misery Rodney wanted nothing more than to melt into it. He opened his eyes, desperate and afraid.
John took his hand away, fast, as though he couldn't handle the combination of touching Rodney and being seen. Rodney felt himself flush.
"It's going to be okay," John murmured.
"I never should have done this." Rodney's voice broke, which just added insult to injury. "It's too much. I've taken vows." He heard himself pleading, though he wasn't sure with whom.
"I'm sorry," John said, and his voice was low. "I'm sorry for tempting you."
God. Did he have any idea how deeply he tempted Rodney, and on how many levels? Rodney felt himself teetering for an instant on the brink, but he took a deep breath and firmed his resolve. He had taken vows of obedience, and he was not going to throw them away: not for astrophysics, not for John Sheppard. Who probably wasn't interested in him anyway. How abject and pitiful he would seem if John could read his mind!
"It was my decision," he said, briskly, stifling the part of him that wanted to weep. "But I can't share it. . . No matter who is in danger."
"Right," John said, and his voice and face were all business now. He rose and stepped away, which made Rodney feel at once bereft and grateful. Bereft because already he missed John's proximity; grateful because being so close but unable to touch was almost more than he could bear.
John had thought playing chess with Rodney was cool, but it was nothing compared to working with the man. He felt as if he'd been running flat out just to stay in place for the past four days, and was surprised his brain hadn't seized up with cramp from all the unaccustomed exercise. But look what they'd achieved. What Rodney had achieved, really. He'd just stuck his paddle into the water occasionally to help steer; Rodney had done all the hard work.
And now he had to give it up. Again. While the danger remained.
John's hand tingled from where he'd touched Rodney's thigh. Another thing to feel guilty about, to add to his list of sins.
He'd do almost anything to banish the despair in Rodney's eyes, to bring back the passionate, argumentative, completely exasperating man who floored John with his brilliance. And who, for some reason, seemed to need John's occasional contributions in order to reach his conclusions.
But he wouldn't try to undermine Rodney's vows any more than he already had, no matter how much he wanted to charge in, overpower any objections, seize the day and the man. Even though he was beginning to suspect -- there was that word, again -- that Rodney was fighting his own temptations, not all of them related to his forbidden work.
Rodney sat at the dining room table, rechecking his work -- more like avoiding having to say he was finished -- as John put together soup and sandwiches for lunch. Maybe he could coax Rodney outside for a walk afterward. The sun was blinding on the snow, but it would do them both good to breathe fresh air and stretch their legs.
They were almost finished eating when the phone rang.
John rose, crossed to the table where the phone sat. "Rich probably found more coffee." He picked up the receiver. "Yeah?"
His throat contracted. "Speaking."
"Agent Collins, FBI. I wanted to let you know that you can bring your package home now."
Gaze darting to Rodney, John nodded. "Right. You pick up everyone?"
Rodney stared at him for a moment, then lowered his eyes. He was trying, God help him, to keep his face blank, but John could see his resignation and despair as plainly as if they were written on his forehead.
A snort over the phone line. "We've assembled quite the collection. You'll be debriefed when you return. Both of you will report to the police station on your arrival."
"Okay." He drawled the word, wanting to object, to beg another day or two. He had no reason to ask for an extension. "We'll leave this afternoon." He disconnected with a savage punch of the button, wishing for an old-fashioned phone that he could slam down.
Rodney rose and hurried into his room.
God damn it.
John was cleaning up from lunch when Rodney returned, stiff and proper in his clerical collar, armor he'd assumed again. John wanted to rip it off Rodney's shirt, yell at him that he didn't have to do this, didn't need to carve out part of himself on the orders of others. John had tried to be less than his true self at the behest of others, and it hadn't worked -- Rodney was making the same mistake, suffering the same pain. . .
A glass slipped from his fingers, fell, shattering.
John stared at the pieces of glass scattered across the floor. He had to get a grip. He'd lost all perspective when it came to Rodney, and it scared him. He was getting obsessed, and at this rate, it wouldn't be long before he'd do something incredibly stupid and everything would come crashing down around him -- around them both.
He'd already added enough to Rodney's burdens.
Brushing off Rodney's concern, John cleaned up quickly. "I'll pack, then we can go."
Rodney nodded, gestured toward the laptop and his notes. "We'll need to do something about this. I can't take it with me."
"I'll hold onto it. One day--"
"Don't be ridiculous." Rodney closed the laptop with a snap. "I know I should send it to your friend, but I can't. It would mean another black mark, disgrace for my disobedience, and I. . ." He turned away, shoulders slumping. "I don't want to be sent away."
John wanted to argue, but stopped himself. Rodney didn't want to leave Kodiak. Didn't want to leave him? "Rich would," he began.
"No." Rodney's fingers stroked the laptop, gently caressed his notes. "It has to be destroyed. Everything. Wipe the disk. Burn my notes." He looked up at John, miserable. "I don't think I can do it."
John hesitated. Rodney would hate him for what he was about to do. Still, it was better than the alternative. "I'll take care of it. Go. Wait for me at the lodge."
Rodney's agonized gaze rested on his work for a moment, then he whirled, fumbled on his boots and coat, and ran outside.
John finished packing, checked to make sure they hadn't forgotten anything. He stared at the laptop and notes. Pulled out a thumb drive and a sheet of paper, and prepared to betray his best friend.
Returning to St. Elizabeth's felt, to Rodney, like walking into prison.
After the expansiveness of their days at the lodge -- rising because the work called to him; working with John to untangle one of the puzzles of the cosmos; eating on their own time, closing their days with chess and conversation by the crackling fire -- the school felt even more stifling than it had before. His cell was too small. No view. No John.
He had formed too strong an attachment, he told himself. His first allegiance was to Jesus, and to the Society of Jesus. Obedience and submission were God's will for him. This was a bump in the road, but his vows would sustain him until he felt able to be enlivened by them again.
Early in his novitiate he'd seen men for whom the brotherly love of others in the order became almost fetishized. Their superior had separated them, denying them access to one another until the craving for approval and presence dimmed. He would have to be strong enough to enact that same discipline for himself.
He had feared, his first morning back, that the children would be a disaster. But they were quiet and respectful; Father Liam had covered his classes while he was away, and had evidently put the fear of God into the fifth grade. Stuart's usual disapproving mien had escalated to outright fury, and he glared at Rodney from across the dining hall that first day at lunch, but Rodney just stared back, silently daring him to say a word, and the man turned away in what looked like disgust.
Maybe the FBI had scared him a little. It was, Rodney thought, devoutly to be wished. He'd have to atone for that thought, of course, but it paled in comparison with everything he knew he would have to confess now. The work. The desire.
He dreamed of math, equations spiraling across every blank surface in front of him like a continuously-scrolling slide show of the fabric of creation. He dreamed of John's hands, resting again on his thighs. Moving upward. Of pressing himself against John's body and kissing him senseless, begging with his entire body until John let him in.
He woke with a gasp, and as the realization of what he'd been dreaming washed over him he pulled himself out of bed, knelt on the floor, and bent his head in prayer. Intent was equivalent to commission, and required repentance and true contrition just as the acts of which he had dreamed would have done.
Rodney reached, internally, for the feeling of penitence he knew was there. . . and didn't find it. He opened up his heart to the shame he knew he should be experiencing, to the contrition which would begin to pave the way to repentance, but the feelings weren't there. It was like discovering that the ground had simply disappeared from beneath his feet, and Rodney opened his eyes, taking in his rumpled bed and the dark shapes of his room.
"I believe in God, the Father almighty," he whispered, taking hold of his rosary, and as the familiar words poured from his mouth he found comfort there. The Creed, the Lord's Prayer, three Hail Marys. "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." An instant to consider the first joyful mystery, the incarnation, and then another Lord's Prayer.
But as he recited the first decade of Hail Marys, he found himself distracted. The words still poured from his mouth ("blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus") but his mind was racing in circles. In his sleep he had longed for John: for his touch, for his kiss, for his heart. And now, in waking, he couldn't find it in himself to regret that longing.
But what did that mean for his vocation? Was he still called to serve?
Surely this was a dark night of the soul. Rodney had studied the works of St. John of the Cross as a young priest, and the saint's words returned to him now, verses of longing for God. But some of the lines that rang in his mind had a different tone now than they had had when he was young. "The highest science leads / to an ecstatic feeling / of the most holy Being." Were these dreams a sign that he was meant to return to science, even if it meant breaking from the Church?
And if he felt no remorse for desiring -- loving -- John, could it be God's hand that had plucked the shame from his heart?
He spent the night in meditation and prayer, waiting for an answer. When his alarm clock beeped he dressed and went to Matins, but didn't let himself talk with Manny or Ben, didn't linger, just walked back to school in the late morning dark. The air felt pregnant with moisture, but the temperature hovered on the cusp. Rodney waited for his emotions, like the world around them, to either freeze or thaw.
"Rodney. Hey." There was a pause. "Um. It's John. Obviously. Look -- can you meet me at the Kodiak Inn at 4:30, when you get out of school? It's. . . important." Another pause. "Thanks, buddy."
Rodney had tried to fool himself into thinking he was sanguine about whatever was happening in him, but the instant he heard John's voice on his voicemail his heart leapt into his throat. By the time the message finished playing, Rodney was standing with one arm wrapped tightly around himself, the other clasping the phone to his ear.
He played the message twice before deleting it. And he was distracted all the way through civics class and the study hall that followed.
He knew he was supposed to steer clear, but John had sounded. . . excited. Nervous. Supplicatory (and he quashed the mental image that raised as fast as he humanly could).
His heart was pounding as he walked into the Kodiak, a tony old hotel in the heart of the small downtown. Crackling fire, leather sofas, and -- oh God -- John, facing the fire, standing with his hands clasped behind his back, like a man at parade rest.
"John," Rodney said quietly, but John heard him and whirled around, and the smile on his face was warmer than the fire.
"Rod-- Father," John amended, grimacing a little as if the return to formality pained him. In three big steps he had crossed the room, like he wanted nothing more than to sweep Rodney into his arms (and was that wishful thinking?) but he aborted the gesture, instead reaching out to clasp Rodney's upper arm for an instant. "Thanks for coming."
"Of course," Rodney said, feeling a little bit confused.
"There's someone I want you to meet," John said, and ushered him into a side room lined with books. A woman sat at a polished oak table, immersed in a folder of paperwork. She had blond hair and bright eyes, and she wore what Rodney was pretty certain was an Air Force uniform. She rose as they entered, and extended her hand.
"Father McKay," she said, and her grip was firm and sure. "Colonel Samantha Carter. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"The pleasure is mine," he said, "or would be, I'm sure, if I had any idea what was going on here." That last was directed at John, who had the good grace to blush.
"Please, sit down," she said, and somewhat warily, Rodney did, John beside him.
"John, maybe you should," she began.
"Right," John said, and Rodney realized, yeah, he really was nervous; he'd never seen John like this, so stiff-backed and solemn. Did this have something to do with his leaving the Air Force, with his. . . disgrace?
"I didn't mean to go against your wishes," John said. "I just couldn't stand to see it disappear." Pleading.
Rodney stared at him. "What did you do?"
"I didn't destroy your work."
"Our work," Rodney corrected him, absently, staring at his face.
"I went back to Plan A," John said, spreading his palms. "I sent it to Sam."
'Sam' meant Samantha. Realization washed over him: John had sent their work to Samantha Carter. Exultation warred with horror in Rodney's heart. To think that the work hadn't been burned -- that it still existed -- that someone knew it was real! And, in the same breath: to think that John had ignored his direct request, had preserved the work even though it went against Rodney's orders.
"This is impressive stuff," Carter said. "Some of it duplicates work we've been doing, but John tells me you did this within the span of a week, after having formally left the field more than three months ago, and that's. . . pretty remarkable, as I'm sure you know."
"I don't see what--" Rodney felt almost dizzy.
"I'd like you to come to Colorado for a few days, to consult on. . . well, it's classified; I can't tell you until you agree to our terms. But I promise you, this will change your whole world."
Carter reached into her briefcase and pulled out a small triangular object, plastic or maybe metal, Rodney wasn't sure. She handed it to him and he examined it, but didn't see anything especially interesting about it; he handed the thing to John.
Whereupon it promptly began to glow, emitting a faint hum that was almost musical. John jumped slightly, and Carter looked like she'd just seen a miracle.
"What is this?" John said.
"Classified," Carter said wryly, "but when you come to Cheyenne, you'll see a lot more like it. If you're able to work this kind of magic on the rest of our artifacts, we'll be awfully glad to have you back, Major."
Rodney was reeling. Colorado. Artifacts. Major: that was John.
John who had directly disobeyed Rodney's instructions.
"No," Rodney said, and felt his heart break in two.
"I can't say I'm not disappointed," Carter said, again, "but if that's your decision--"
"I've taken vows," Rodney said, dully. "You have to understand the circumstances under which I abandoned this work. My superiors were very clear."
"I have to leave first thing in the morning," Carter said. "But the offer remains open. If you change your mind. . ."
Rodney shook his head. "I can't disobey a direct order from my superiors. Surely you understand that."
John's small laugh was mirthless. "Actually, Father," he began, but Rodney held up a hand to stop him, and he mercifully fell silent. Rodney wasn't sure he could withstand whatever argument John had been about to make.
"We'd be happy to talk with your superiors," Carter said gently. "It's possible we could convince them to change their minds. Certainly we could clear your name; if John trusts you, I trust you, and it's obvious to me you could never have done this," gesturing toward the sheaf of papers, "if you weren't genuinely capable of the work."
Rodney wanted that so badly -- so incredibly, desperately badly -- that he knew it couldn't possibly happen. It couldn't be what he deserved.
"Thank you for your gracious offer, but I can't," he said, with as much finality as he could muster. He rose, and John rose too, right there beside him. Near enough to touch. "And you shouldn't have done this to me," he said to John, hating the way his voice betrayed his misery, and he turned and walked away.
"I know our next session isn't until next week, but I need to speak with you." Rodney stared at his folded hands.
Father Liam set down his cup of tea and leaned forward. "I've been waiting," he said, mildly.
Oh, God. Rodney couldn't do this. "Thank you for taking care of my classes," he said inanely, because it was easier than saying what he really needed to say.
Father Liam just raised an eyebrow. "My pleasure," he said. "Now. What's this really about?"
"I'm having a crisis of vocation," Rodney admitted. He felt like he might hyperventilate, just saying the words aloud. "Last week, with John -- I broke a vow," and he was pleading now, begging the Father to understand.
Father Liam took a deep breath. "You're hardly the first priest to experience a weakness of the flesh."
"What?" Rodney felt his face coloring. "No," he said hastily, "that's not the problem." Father Liam's gaze was penetrating, and Rodney felt his face and ears heating even further. "Okay, it's a problem," he admitted, "but it's not what I meant. I. . . let him entice me into thinking about physics again."
"He enticed you," Father Liam said, his lips pursing in what Rodney was pretty sure was disapproval.
"No," Rodney said finally. "I can't blame this on him. We wanted to figure out why Gates had sent his men after me -- what knowledge he was trying to attain."
"I understand that," Father Liam said. "But you had orders."
"I know." Rodney's heart felt like a stone. "And I disobeyed them. And -- God help me -- now that I've reopened that door, I'm not sure I'm strong enough to close it again."
Father Liam sipped his tea, meditatively, looking at Rodney in a way that made him want to squirm.
"Have you considered the possibility that the priesthood is no longer where God is calling you?"
Of all the things Rodney had imagined that Father Liam might say, that wasn't even on the list. He stared at the Father, gobsmacked, as though he had just suggested Rodney fly to the moon.
"There are many ways to serve Him," Father Liam continued. "I don't suppose it's escaped your notice that teaching fifth grade catechism is perhaps not the best use of the talents God gave you."
"But the Order," Rodney said, pleading. The mere possibility turned his world upside-down. He needed certainty. He needed to know that the last fifteen years of his life hadn't been a waste. He needed to hear that he was doing the right thing, that this kind of crisis was a natural part of monastic life and that God would eventually favor him again with a sense of commitment and faith.
"I can't say I like counseling a man to leave the priesthood," Father Liam said, "and I certainly can't approve of your -- relationship -- with Jack Sheppard." Listening, Rodney felt like he was in free-fall. "But I've seen priests burn out before, and I have to tell you, I don't know that you'll ever be happy as a priest."
Rodney felt shaky. Queasy. Like he'd gone too long without a meal.
"I can't give up," he said. Some part of him hardly believed he was doing this -- turning down the second way out in as many days -- but he couldn't bear to think that he had failed. That he couldn't honor his commitment to God.
The memory of Father Robert, the parish priest who had nurtured Rodney's faith through his childhood, arose in his heart. How could he even consider giving up, when Father Robert had been such a beacon for him? Didn't he have a moral obligation to live up to that memory?
Last night had felt like an epiphany, but in the cold light of morning Rodney wasn't so certain. What if that epiphany had been wishful thinking, his clever brain's attempt to circumvent the teachings implanted in him by the Church? St. Ignatius had known these voices of desolation and consolation; maybe if Rodney held firm to his teachings, his vocation would return. How could he discern God's will for his ministry? Could God be calling him to serve now outside the church?
"Take some time to consider," Father Liam said. "And return on Sunday for the sacrament of penance."
Rodney nodded, mutely.
"God is gracious." Father Liam's voice was gentle. "The Lord forgives."
The words echoed in Rodney's mind as he walked back to the school. He wanted so badly to believe.
"I have to admit that I'm disappointed, John." The microphone distorted Sam's voice, but her irritation was obvious.
John glanced up from the instruments. Sam was looking out the passenger side window, where Anchorage was just visible in the distance.
"You knew it was a long shot."
"Yes, you made that very clear. It was hard not to get my hopes up, however."
"I hate to browbeat a civilian, but Father McKay could be just the person we've been looking for. God knows we certainly don't have any other viable candidates."
John waited, silent. Sam was leading up to something.
She hesitated, so unlike Sam. She sounded almost desperate, at the end of her rope. The Trust worried her, he knew. They'd gotten too damned close to Rodney. Father McKay. But there was something else going on. Were the rumors true -- that some major discovery was being kept under wraps by the big shots? Something dangerous, something related to the work Rodney -- Father -- had been doing? John fixed his eyes on the horizon. Didn't matter. Whatever was up, it wasn't his problem. The Air Force had made that perfectly clear.
Sam's voice was gentle. "Could you have another word with Father McKay? He's your friend, he'll listen to you. Wait, don't shake your head. It's a new day, he's had a chance to think about our offer. Another word from you might--"
"He won't change his mind." Not that he would listen to John. Not anymore. No, he'd lost Father as a friend when he sent all their work to Sam. Father had made that very clear.
"How can you know that?"
"Sam, he's a priest." John coughed, trying to clear the lump in his throat. "It's the most important thing to him, more than the work, more than. . ." Me. "anything. I caught him at a weak moment, convinced him to continue. But it's his decision to stop, to destroy what we. . . he did. Just. . ." He pressed his lips tightly together. "Just let him be."
Would she push it? Please, no. His nerves were fraying; it was all he could do not to yell at the top of his lungs. She must've heard something in his voice, because her next words were soft.
He shook his head. "Sorry."
"You have the--" Her voice rose, frustration evident. "It's a rare -- very, very rare -- ability to control. . . God damn it, John! We need you!"
He hesitated. Wanted to say 'yes.' The thing she'd handed him yesterday hadn't been made on Earth, he could feel it. He'd touched an alien device -- what the fuck did it do? He wanted to know. Did they have more? Would they all respond to him? His fingers tingled at the memory of that seductive touch, knowledge of how to use it buried just beneath the surface of his mind.
"Yeah." There was no humor in his chuckle. "Three years ago, the Air Force needed me so much that it kicked me out."
"You know that I tried everything I could--"
"Oh, I'm grateful every damned day." She flinched at the brittle sharpness of his words. "Other fags weren't allowed to quietly retire and keep their pensions."
"John, if you'd just--"
"No, Colonel, I can't."
"So you're going to play ostrich here in East BF Alaska? Fly your little Cessnas back and forth at everyone's back and call? Be a goddamned taxi service?"
Fuck. He bit back his anger. Should have remembered that Sam fought dirty when she was cornered.
"If that's the only way I can keep flying, then yeah."
"You pig-headed. . ." She took a deep breath. "John. I'm sorry. I'm. . . frustrated and desperate and I'm taking it out on you."
"I noticed." But his words held a note of understanding.
After a moment, she lifted her chin, rested her hands on her lap. "So, you like Kodiak?" Polite conversation topic number three.
"I'm glad to see you have friends there, a job."
Had a friend. Who cared about a job?
"Talked with Bill O'Malley recently," he said. Yesterday, but who was counting? And John had been the one to call. "He offered me a stake in his business."
"Isn't he up in Fairbanks?"
John nodded. "I'll probably finish out my contracts, move up there in a couple weeks." A fresh start, away from reminders of things he couldn't have and shouldn't want.
John hoped to God that she didn't.
Three days since he'd last seen Rodney. Father. Not that he was counting. He had too much to do to count. Line up a place in Fairbanks: check. Give notice on his place here: check. Arrange to pack and drive his truck up, then have Bill fly him back for his Cessna: check.
Tell Father he was leaving: blank.
Not much to pack, but he needed a few boxes. As he drove to the liquor store to raid their trash, a familiar feeling made him check his rearview mirror, casually glance around as he piled empty boxes into the truck bed. Someone was watching him.
When he arrived home, he phoned Agent Collins -- the guy had briefed them when they returned from the lodge, assured them that Gates and the muscle he'd called in had been dealt with.
"We're still interrogating Gates," Collins said after John told him about feeling watched. "But that doesn't mean someone else in the organization isn't interested in you and Father McKay. Keep your eyes open and let me know if you see or hear anything more."
That afternoon he stopped by Ernest's. He had to say goodbye to the boys, and if Rodney -- Father -- damn it, if he was there, well, he'd have to say something to John.
Ernest and Ben sat at one table, Manny looking on. No Rodney.
At least they welcomed him with smiles, a nod toward the coffee pot. "Time for a game?" Manny sounded hopeful.
John shook his head, filled a mug. Stood by Ben's shoulder to watch. Why was it so hard to tell them?
"Heard you're leaving us, going up to Fairbanks." Ernest didn't look at him.
John sighed. He should've known. Nothing was a secret for long in Kodiak.
"Yeah. Old buddy asked me to join his business."
Three grey heads nodded. "Shame to lose our fourth." Ben moved a pawn.
"You have Father, now." Kept his voice light. "He'll give you a challenge."
"We haven't seen him since the snowstorm. I don't reckon he'll stop by much." Manny shook his head. "Hate to lose two good players."
"You see him every morning." John sipped his coffee. "Ask him back. I bet he'll come." Especially once John was gone and there was no chance of bumping into him here.
Silence. Around the table eyes met, messages were exchanged. John frowned. What was going on?
Ernest rubbed his forehead and sighed. "Son, we don't like to butt our noses into other people's business--"
"Says you," muttered Ben.
"But we couldn't help notice that you and Father are -- were -- close."
"And would've liked to be closer." Manny nodded sharply, brows lifting. "If there's anything--"
"How did you--" John's face heated, panic settled under his breastbone. "I've never. . . We've never. . ."
"Calm down." Ernest glared at Manny. "Nobody's saying the two of you've done anything. What's the saying in the Bible? 'There are none so blind as those who will not see?' We didn't know if you could see who was in front of you."
"Yeah, I. . ." A hard swallow. "I saw."
"Told you so." Ben sounded complacent. "Father saw, too."
John closed his eyes. Oh, God, he was not having this conversation with three octogenarians. "Wait." He stared at Ben. "What?"
Ben shook his head. "For two boys so smart, you both are as thick as two planks. I haven't seen two boys pine for each other like this since Ernest and Manny were separated during the War."
John's gaze swung round to Ernest and Manny, sitting on the far side of the table, holding hands and grinning broadly.
"I. Uh." His brain had stalled, he was in free fall, seconds away from smashing into the ground. He grasped at the one immutable fact in all this. "But he's a priest. He can't."
Ernest shrugged. "And I was married. Didn't matter in the end."
John bowed his head. "He won't."
A chair creaked. "That's different, then," said Ben.
"Maybe." Manny released Ernest's hand. "When Ernie got married, I kinda lost hope. Did some foolish things."
Ernest frowned. "Almost got hisself killed."
Manny rested a hand on Ernest's shoulder. "Worked out in the end, didn't it?"
"Will you two stop it?" Ben snapped. "I can't concentrate with all your romantic crap."
"He likes to play Mr. Tough Guy." Manny smiled. "But he was the one who found me, got me patched up, and then talked some sense into me and Ernie."
"I shoulda left you in the snow." Ben shook his head, but a smile touched the corners of his mouth. He turned to John. "Heard how you took care of Father last week, kept him safe."
John met his gaze. "I'd do that for anyone."
"Know you would, son. That's why you're wasted here."
"Don't have much of a choice." He didn't think of Sam's offer. Not even a little.
Ben snorted. "I ain't a fool, boy. Don't treat me like one."
"No, sir." John felt about six years old.
"And don't go doing foolish things just 'cause you can't see your way clear to what you want. As the good Lord says, 'ask, and it shall be given to you. '"
John stifled a smile. Rodney would probably have a stroke if he could hear the boys' skewed theology, but the ache in John's chest suddenly eased. "You have my word, nothing foolish. But," he remembered the prickling up his back outside the liquor store and eyed the three of them, "if you hear of any strangers in town, let me know."
Three pair of eyes watched him alertly.
"I told you this wasn't over." Manny grinned.
Another Matins where Rodney could hardly find the words to pray, so many mixed emotions were swirling around his heart. He felt paralyzed. Half of him yearned to accept his epiphany as God's will, to embrace his love for John even if that meant leaving the world he knew -- even if John didn't reciprocate his feelings. And half of him, remembering Father Robert and all the mentors who had guided him into the priesthood, wanted to quash those feelings and return to the familiar normalcy of knowing who he was and who he was meant to be.
Caught up in that internal debate, he wasn't quick enough leaving his pew to make a clean escape.
"Father!" Ben's voice was familiar and clear, and too loud for Rodney to pretend he hadn't heard; he turned to greet his friends, shamed that his first impulse had been to flee.
"Ben," Rodney said. "Manny. Ernest. Good morning."
The three of them nodded, but it was Ben who spoke again. "You heard the news?"
News? Rodney shook his head, mutely.
"Sheppard's going north," Ben said, and Rodney ignored the way the name made him ache.
"Oh?" Rodney tried to sound uninterested. "Well, he's a busy man, I'm sure he'll--"
"For good," Ben said, and exasperation was written across his face plain as day.
It was all Rodney could do not to sit down again. He felt faint.
Ben nodded, his mouth a grim line. "That's what I thought. He didn't tell you, did he?"
"No," Rodney admitted, "I can't say that he did."
Ben's huff showed what he thought about that, and Rodney almost mustered a smile in response.
"Expect he wouldn't rather leave without saying goodbye," Manny offered, his hand on Ernest's shoulder.
But oh, if Manny knew what John had tried to do -- what Rodney had refused, point-blank -- he wouldn't be so sure about that.
"I -- thank you for letting me know," Rodney said, and the three men parted ranks, making room for Rodney to walk numbly through.
John's departure was all Rodney could think about. He taught the morning civics class on autopilot, realizing every time he paused that he had no idea what he'd just been saying.
On the one hand, John leaving might be a blessing. It would offer just the distance he needed in order to regain his equilibrium. Surely it stood to reason that if he weren't seeing John all the time, he could train himself out of the habit of needing to see John at all. John moving north would remove both of Rodney's temptations in one fell swoop.
On the other hand, Rodney felt as though John leaving might actually kill him. John made Kodiak bearable. No: John made life bearable, and Rodney wasn't certain he remembered anymore how to live it without him.
All of which, of course, surely proved that he needed John to leave. The two thoughts chased each other around his head like a snake biting its own tail. Snake: symbol of temptation, crude and cunning. Would John's departure remove his temptations from before him, or leave him like Adam alone in the Garden? Could God want him to leave the priesthood, to listen to his heart?
The afternoon dragged on. The catechism class was in the middle of a unit on Life in Christ, and Rodney found himself parroting lines from the text because his own words seemed mysteriously absent.
"'The third part of the Catechism deals with the final end of man created in the image of God,'" he read, "'beatitude, and the ways of reaching it: through right conduct freely chosen, with the help of God's law and grace, and through conduct that fulfils the twofold commandment of charity, specified in God's ten commandments.' Who can tell us what the ten commandments are?"
Right conduct freely chosen, he thought, not listening to the decalogue being chorused across the classroom. He was pretty sure what right conduct meant, or at least what the Church understood it to be. But could it be freely chosen? Could he really choose to turn away from his questions about the cosmos, or were they innate to his very being, planted in him by God?
Could he really choose to turn away from loving John?
After dinner, Rodney went downstairs with Thomas and Sarah for a piano lesson. Sarah dutifully played through the simplified "Ode to Joy," and then Thomas took his turn. But focusing on Clementi was beyond Rodney, and he nodded absently until Thomas stopped playing and asked whether he was all right.
"What?" Embarrassment flooded his body; was he really so lovesick that he was reduced to suffering the concern of twelve-year-olds? "I'm fine," Rodney assured both children, perhaps a little sharply. "I just--"
There was a loud bang from the upstairs, followed by what might have been a scream.
"What was that?" Thomas sounded more curious than scared, but Rodney was instantly suffused with fear.
"Let me check," he said, and somehow his voice came out sounding calm. "Stay here. Thomas, you look after Sarah. I'll be right back."
He wasn't sure how he managed to tamp down his panic, but he crept quietly through the basement storeroom and partway up the darkened stairs. He heard two loud crashes and a scream, and then a man's voice demanding, "Tell me where Father McKay is, or I'll--"
Oh God. They were still after him. And the children were in danger.
Rodney ran back down the stairs to the piano closet and seized his briefcase, fumbling in the bottom for -- praise the Lord, his cellphone was in his bag.
"Stay here," Rodney said, already speed-dialing John.
Please let him answer the phone, he thought. Oh, please, don't let him be avoiding my call, I can't--
"Father?" John sounded guarded, distant, but the relief was so fierce Rodney almost sobbed.
"We're in danger," he managed. "The men, they're back, I--"
He heard what sounded like a gunshot coming from above. "Oh God," he babbled, "I think that was-- I have to--"
He took the stairs two at a time. Behind him, John's tinny voice was still coming out of the cellphone, which had clattered to the floor.
They seized Rodney the instant he came out of the basement stairwell. A large man pinned his arms behind his back and forced him to his knees.
"Don't hurt the children," Rodney said. He wasn't sure where these reserves of calm were coming from, but it didn't matter. God is with me; I will not fear. The goon who was holding his arms twisted them even further, bringing his wrists together, and Rodney felt rope wrapping around them. For an instant he closed his eyes.
That was Sascha begging, and the sound tore Rodney's eyes open, panic threatening to rise, but he tamped his fear down.
The third burly man, this one holding a large gun, gestured for the one who had been holding Sascha to push him into the crowd of children. It looked as if they had rounded everyone up into the classroom where Rodney usually taught. One of the desks was splintered and shattered, presumably the recipient of the gunshot Rodney had heard from downstairs. Sascha knelt on the floor, his arms around two of the smaller boys. Sister Grace was doing the same with a cluster of the littlest girls.
"You can't slip away this time, Father McKay," said the man with the gun, who was walking toward him with measured steps. His smile was mean and he pointed at Rodney with the gun as though he didn't care whether it went off or not.
But whoever Gates had been working for would want Rodney alive. That awareness made him bold.
"It's me you're after," he said, thrusting his shoulders back and raising his chin defiantly. "Come on, what are we waiting for? You don't need all of them." Gesturing with his head toward the assembled school.
"Don't tell me what I need," the man spat out, sneering.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to presume. Please, by all means, enlighten us," Rodney said. "What are you here for? Our collection of back issues of National Geographic? The cooks' recipe for Sloppy Joe's?"
The man fired his gun into the hallway ceiling. Shards of ceiling tile rained down and some of the younger children were wailing.
"I surrender," Rodney said, desperately. "You don't have to--"
"Get up," the man said, gesturing now with his gun, and on wobbly legs Rodney complied.
How long had it been since he'd called John? It felt like years, but he knew it was probably only a few minutes. He had to stall.
"I know what your superiors want," Rodney said, trying to sound placating. "I need to get my materials from my quarters."
"We're not letting you go anywhere," said the goon who still had a punishing grip on one of his arms, as though the trussing of his wrists weren't sufficient to immobilize him.
"That's fine, you can take me to my rooms," Rodney said. "They're just down the hall."
And had the advantage of being away from the children. If only the gunman would follow him to his rooms, and stop menacing the students. . .
"Fine," the gunman said. "Take him down there. Be quick."
There wasn't much in Rodney's rooms, and there certainly wasn't anything that looked like scientific research; Rodney could only hope he could fool them into thinking there were things that he needed.
And into maintaining the current situation -- without further violence or injury -- until John arrived. Mother Mary, be with me, he prayed. Bring John here soon.
"Rodney! Rodney!" John yelled into his phone and retrieved his gun from the trunk. What the fuck did he think he was doing? Why wasn't he answering?
"He's gone," a young voice whispered, "upstairs. They're up there." The last word cracked. "Oh, please help us."
The children. They must be threatening the children. John fumbled on his coat, stuck the gun in one pocket, his hunting knife in the other, and grabbed his truck keys. "Okay. Who's this?"
"Thomas. Sarah's here, too."
Right. Older boy. Pretty bright. Sarah was a lot younger, maybe eight? "Listen, Thomas, can you and Sarah hide?"
"We are hiding." Thomas' voice wobbled with fear, but John could still hear the adolescent annoyance at adult stupidity. "But someone shot a gun, and the little kids were screaming. I've got to call the cops."
"Yeah." He ran out the front door. "Here's what I want you to do. Hang up. Call the police and tell them there's a hostage situation at St. E's. I'm on my way over. Do what the police tell you, okay?"
"Okay." Thomas sniffled. "Father Meredith's yelling something. I think. . ." His voice dropped. "Bye."
John pushed away the panic that washed through him, weakening his knees and making his hands shake. He climbed into his truck, headed toward the school. He tried Agent Collins but just got his voicemail. Left a brief message as he raced down the street. He could hear sirens in the distance. Good boy, Thomas.
John had to park a block away. Three squad cars were pulled up in front of the school, lights flashing. Another two cars were visible at the back, watching the rear. Knots of officers stood behind the cars, conferring. John circled the growing number of bystanders collecting down the street and headed for a familiar figure. Maybe Father Liam knew what was going on.
"You heard." Father Liam's mouth was twisted with worry. He led John a few yards from the crowd.
"Father Meredith called me. They were looking for him. He gave himself up." John ignored the tightness in his chest. "Thomas and Sarah were with him. They're hiding."
Father Liam nodded. "That's what the police said. They told them to stay where they were and keep quiet."
"I hope they listen."
"Father!" A breathless wheeze. Ben hurried up, Manny on his heels. Ernest stepped from his ancient Chevy pickup, parked down the block. "It's true? They're in the school?"
"Holding the children hostage." Father's voice was hard. "I pray no one will be hurt."
"Amen." Manny turned to Ernest, who had joined them. "They've got the kids."
"God-damned sons of bitches," Ernest muttered.
"Too right. The cowardly bastards." Father Liam's brogue had thickened. John had a sudden image of him as a snub-nosed, freckled boy on the streets of Dublin, settling scores with his fists.
"Cowardly bastards with at least one gun." John hated stating the obvious. "They don't have many options--" His cellphone rang and he glanced at the incoming number. His heart stuttered. "Sheppard."
"Jack, please, they're hurting him, oh, please, help. It's dark and we can hear them and I think there are rats down here. . ." Thomas choked down a sob. "Sarah's so scared. Me, too. Please."
"Thomas," John's whole body went rigid, but he kept his voice soft, "calm down. Take a deep breath. Who are they hurting?"
Four faces peered up at him through the growing darkness, mirroring identical expressions of growing horror.
"Father Meredith. They made him scream." Thomas' voice cracked.
John felt as if his heart was cracking, as well.
"Where are you?"
"Behind the boilers. We tried to get to the church, but the door's locked and I can't. . ." His voice rose, panic clawing through the words.
John turned to Father Liam. "A door in the boiler room connects the church and school?"
A nod, dawning comprehension. "It's never used, but yes. I have the key." He started toward the church.
"Thomas, I'm on my way. Talk to Ben until I can get to you and Sarah, okay?" He handed the phone to Ben, looked at Manny and Ernest. "Tell the cops I'm going to try and get two of the kids out. The cops can follow, maybe surprise the bastards."
Pipes, crusted with dust, lined the short corridor in the church basement, a heavy steel door blocked the end. Father stood behind him -- John had insisted -- holding a heavy iron candlestick, as John struggled to turn the key. The air was thick with the smell of mildew and pipe cladding.
"Whose idea was it to keep this door locked?" John's whisper echoed in the small space.
"Francis Stuart insisted. He was worried the children would sneak out at night."
The lock screeched as John turned the key, and he prayed it wouldn't snap off. "I don't know how loud it'll be when I open it, so be prepared to grab Thomas and Sarah and run. Got it?"
"Okay. Turn off the lights." He sure as hell didn't want to be a target if the bastards were in the basement.
Impenetrable darkness. John waited a minute for his eyes to adjust, then opened the door. It gave a muffled groan that didn't sound too bad from their end. He pulled his gun out and slipped through.
Hot. Hot and dry, the enormous bulk of the boilers loomed in the darkness, making him feel like a redshirt in The Land of the Giants. Their burners rumbled, blue-tinged light dimly illuminating the grimy concrete floor. A pipe clanked. In the far corner, a soft susurration.
"Thomas?" Barely audible over the burners. "Sarah?"
A sharp sob, quickly cut off, was followed by footsteps. "Here." John could barely see them. Sarah darted forward, threw herself at John. Thomas was on her heels, but pulled himself up short, shaking. John wrapped one arm around Sarah, clapped Thomas on the shoulder. "Hey, you did good."
"Mr. Czarnecki wants to talk with you." He held out the phone.
John blinked. Ben. Right. "Thanks. Father Liam's waiting. Go on."
Thomas helped disengage Sarah from John's waist, and the two children disappeared through the door as John put the phone to his ear. "I'm here. What's going on?"
"The cops are on their way through the church. They have to work fast, 'cause the bastards are threatening to kill the kids if we don't let them take Father and leave."
"Shit." John crept to the boiler room door and peered out. A basement storage room, filled with books and papers, an old piano crammed into a far closet. Nothing he could use for cover.
"The cops want you to come back."
"Like hell I will." He could see the staircase, narrow and dark. Was the door at the top closed?
"Yeah." Ben chuckled. "That's what I told 'em you'd say."
"Gotta go." John turned off the phone, stuck it in his pocket.
He checked the stairs -- the door at the top was ajar. He could hear a whimper, a sob. Gritting his teeth to stop the curses he wanted to scream, John tested the first tread, then the second. He had crept to the top of the stairs before he heard a shuffle and creak behind him.
He glanced over his shoulder. Three cops stood at the bottom, one gesturing for him to go back down.
Then Rodney screamed "No!" and the world went to hell.
John was through the door, cops at his back. The third classroom down the hall was lit up like an amusement park. Another yelp from Rodney, coming from the other end of the hall. The front door burst open, two more cops running in. Leaving them to take the classroom, John turned and ran toward Rodney's rooms as the back doors opened and another two cops joined him.
He didn't wait, couldn't wait. Just dashed into Rodney's rooms, gun raised, saw the big form leaning over Rodney, who was tied to a chair, and fired.
The man staggered back, knife dropping to the floor, arm a bloody mess. The two cops pounced, had him on the floor in a heartbeat.
John didn't give a shit.
He landed on his knees in front of Rodney, gun shoved into his waistband, hands traveling over Rodney's arms, shoulders, face.
"Knew you'd come," Rodney whispered, then he babbled something about the children, were they safe?
John tried to remember that he should care. But Rodney. . . Bruises, yes, and a few shallow cuts under his jaw -- God, what the fuck had they been doing?
An officer ran in. "Everything's secure, sir. The hostages are unharmed."
"Does he look unharmed to you?" John spat out. Fingers clumsy, he tugged at the ropes binding Rodney to the chair. One of the cops came over, pushed John's hands away.
"We'll take care of him."
He let them untie Rodney, check that he wasn't seriously injured. Followed on Rodney's heels as he walked to the ambulance, "just to make sure." Watched Rodney climb inside, and the tail lights disappear around the corner.
It wasn't until Father Liam, Ben, Ernest and Manny ran up to him that he began to shake.
When John's truck pulled up outside the emergency room doors of the Province Kodiak Island Medical Center, the tightness in Rodney's breastbone began, at last, to ease.
"Thank you for picking me up," Rodney said. He climbed in and slammed the door with, perhaps, slightly more force than was strictly necessary.
"No problem." John put the truck into gear and pulled out of the parking lot. "I would've come sooner--"
"There was no need. Really, it's been unbelievably boring. A lot of sitting around and waiting for test results. I could have told them I was fine."
John's hands clenched on the steering wheel, but whatever he was imagining, or remembering, he didn't say. "Hospitals tend to have procedures for these kinds of things."
Rodney grimaced. "Even so. I'm glad to be out of there."
They drove down Rezanov past Potatopatch Lake, the fog over the lake weirdly luminous in the light of the almost-full moon. When they hit the intersection with Ismailov, John slowed. "You want me to take you back to St. E's?"
Oh, God. Rodney couldn't help the hard shudder. "Not especially," he admitted.
"Fine, that's fine -- we don't have to go there. My place?"
"I'd like that," Rodney said hastily. Yes: that sounded good, sounded like normalcy. Sounded like a distraction from this godawful day.
"It's a mess," John said, though he turned onto Ismailov and headed toward Mission, toward the coast. "I mean, it's -- there's a lot of boxes."
Of course. How had Rodney forgotten? John was leaving. "Right," he said, and turned to look out the window so he wouldn't have to figure out what to say.
They drove the rest of the way in silence. It didn't take long before John was walking up the steps, opening his door -- which, apparently he hadn't even locked, he'd left in such a hurry. The realization hit Rodney like one more blow to the solar plexus, leaving him strangely breathless. Whatever damage he had done to their friendship, John had still--
"You want some coffee?"
"Have you ever known me to say no to coffee?" He pushed a pile of John's clothes off the couch to the floor so he could sit where they had been, and watched John move around the kitchen, measure the grounds, get the coffee pot hissing. The comfortable domesticity of it reminded him of the cabin outside Anchorage. The memory tugged at his heart.
When the coffee pot had begun its whispery work, John turned to face him, leaning against the kitchen counter,
"So. This Fairbanks thing." Rodney let the words fall between them like a sword.
It wasn't that big a room; John crossed it quickly. "Rodney, I--"
"Please," Rodney said, holding up a hand. "Let me get through this. If I lose momentum--" Lose his nerve, was more like it. "I have to say this."
John sat beside him and waited.
Rodney took a deep breath. Somehow everything he was planning to say had sounded a lot more eloquent when he was imagining it beneath the jackhammer pounding of the MRI machine. Now that he was about to actually speak the words, they seemed inadequate. But they were all he had.
"I'm sorry," he said, finally. He had to look down at his own fingers laced in his lap; he couldn't bear to watch John's face, to see what might (or, worse, might not) be playing across it. "I think I told you when we met that I'm stubborn to a fault, and I've obviously just proven that in spades. I should have--"
He had to swallow hard.
"I don't think the priesthood is the place for me anymore." The words had a finality, spoken aloud. As soon as he said them he felt lighter than air. He also felt bereft. They were true, and he couldn't un-say them, and they changed everything. "Being up here -- something in me has changed." Rodney took a deep breath. This was a moment of truth, everything hanging in the balance. It seemed strangely appropriate that he needed to draw on all his years of Jesuit training, the focus and strength of his connection with God, in order to speak words that would sever him from the Church. He felt suffused with great calm.
"Look," he said quietly. "I think I'm in love with you. I know it's crazy, I don't know how you're going to feel about that, but it's not something I can deny anymore. I've prayed about it and I've come to the certainty that God is in this love. Which means I can't remain the man I've been. I don't know whether Colonel Carter's offer will stand, with you going north, but--"
"I'm starting to think maybe I'm not going north." John's steady voice broke in and Rodney looked over at him, hope rising dizzily in his chest.
John shrugged, too casual, but Rodney thought he detected a shy smile hiding behind the cool exterior. It made his heart speed up and start pounding. "I didn't really want to go to Fairbanks. Way too much snow up there."
"I see," Rodney said.
"Colorado sounds pretty good to me."
John hadn't said anything about the other part of his revelation, but he was smiling at Rodney now, a real smile that Rodney felt himself mirroring.
Well, whatever else Rodney McKay might be, he wasn't a coward. Not anymore. Not after coming so close to losing everything.
He reached out and captured John's hand. Unlike Rodney's own, the palm was bone-dry, and a couple of his fingers bore calluses. Rodney had never thought of his hands as particularly sensitive before, but the feel of John's fingers beneath his was astonishing. Like he could lose himself in the sensation of touching John, just like this, just here.
"Rodney?" John's voice sounded mildly strangled, and when Rodney's eyes swept up from their joined hands to John's face he had to take a fast, deep breath because there was a question in John's eyes he was certain he'd never seen before.
"If you'll have me," Rodney managed, his voice embarrassingly thick with the tears he had managed to hold back all blessed day--
And John released his hand and John was moving toward him and next thing he knew John's hands were settling on both sides of his head, carding through his hair and holding him steady for (oh God, choruses of angels singing hallelujah) a kiss.
Nothing had ever been like this, not in Rodney's memory, not even in his fevered imaginings. And -- even more amazing -- John seemed as eager for it as Rodney was. John groaned into his mouth, and when Rodney dared to mouth his jaw John gasped and tilted his head back obligingly to give Rodney access to the long line of his throat.
"God," John muttered, and the word vibrated beneath Rodney's lips. "Look, don't let me push, I know it's been a while--"
Rodney pulled back and stared at him, incredulous. "'Been a while'?"
"I didn't figure you'd," John grimaced a little, "done this recently."
"Try 'never,'" Rodney admitted, and he felt the blush moving up his face. "Not with a man."
"So I don't want to push you into anything you're not ready for." Like he was gentling a scared animal.
"Are you kidding me? I've wasted so much time! -- We've wasted so much time," Rodney amended.
John's grin was endearingly dorky. "You're saying not to stop."
"I'm saying," Rodney said as patiently as he could manage, "that I don't know how we survived so long without doing this." He'd meant to say something a little bit more suave than that, but pressed on anyway. "And if you stop, I won't be responsible for--"
"Not stopping," John murmured, though he disentangled them and pulled Rodney to his feet.
"What are you," Rodney began, and John kissed him again. God, doing this standing up was even better! Their whole bodies pressed together. Rodney hadn't tried getting drunk in more than fifteen years, but this was a lot like what he remembered of it. He was giddy with sensation.
"Bed," John said. "I want to get you out of those clothes."
"Clerical collar not doing it for you, eh?" Rodney meant it to sound flip, but John turned in his bedroom doorway and there was something aching behind his eyes.
"You don't know the half of it," he said.
Rodney's hands fumbled as he reached back behind his neck to unfasten the thin strip of starched cloth. When his hands came down, the collar clutched in his right fist, he felt exhilarated and exposed. John had seen him without the collar, those few days at the lodge, but taking it off before his eyes felt like a declaration of intent.
John was staring at him with such open hunger, such tenderness, that he felt perilously close to begging. "Well?" he managed, voice cracking a little. "You'd better--"
Before he could finish the thought John was kissing him again, and Rodney let himself surrender.
John's mouth on him was like nothing he had ever imagined.
"God!" Rodney hardly recognized his own voice, so desperate with desire. His hands scrabbled at the blankets on John's bed, seeking some kind of purchase, an anchor to keep him from floating away.
John pulled off of him with a wet sound and Rodney gasped at the loss of sensation. No, that wasn't right; now he had the sensation of cool air on his swollen and aching erection, and he strained helplessly upwards.
"You okay, there?" John mouthed his balls, gently, teasing.
"I -- ohhh," Rodney wailed, as John took him in again. "I can't, oh, God, I'm--" The suction went away again. "Don't stop, why did you stop?"
John's chuckle was wicked. "Where's the fire?"
"Please," Rodney said. He would beg, if that's what it took.
"Relax, I'm gonna take care of you," John promised, and licked a languorous stripe to the tip of his cock. Rodney shuddered. "We only get," John sucked him in and then released him, "one first time." Another lick. "I want it to be good."
"John," Rodney moaned, his whole body tensing in desperation.
And John got it, or took pity on him, or something, because he slid his mouth back down and stayed there this time, both hands getting in on the action. That was it: Rodney was a being of pure light, he was flying apart into constituent atoms, everything in him singing praise.
They were granted a week to make their goodbyes.
Taking a shuddering breath, John ran his hand up Rodney's flank, squeezed his ass gently. Loved the feel of Rodney under his fingers, warm and willing and eager. "We could stay," a gasp, "in bed and phone everyone." He groaned.
Rodney lifted his head and looked over his shoulder. His lips were red and slick, his eyes sparkled. "If you can carry on a conversation while I'm trying to blow you, I'm doing something wrong." Then he turned back, and John thought he just might die from the pleasure of having his dick in Rodney's mouth.
Considering they'd only been doing this for forty-eight hours, Rodney was an exceptional pupil. Brilliant at understanding theoretical concepts and applying them to real-life situations, he brought an engineer's mind to every new position. John would shiver in anticipation when Rodney would say "Hold on. Let me. . ." and then he'd move his hand or his mouth or shift John a little to the left and bam!, the darkness behind John's lids would light up and he'd come hard and fast.
But then John's dick started getting sore, and Rodney admitted that he really needed to take a break -- "eight, twelve hours, tops" -- and take care of his responsibilities. Besides, they had to change the sheets.
After they took their leave of Father Liam, Rodney insisted on meeting with Principal Stuart by himself. John hung around the playground, said his own goodbyes to the kids. In case someone had to rescue Stuart from Rodney's increasingly acerbic tongue.
John liked the way Rodney's mind soared like a bird that had gained its freedom, and the bite of Rodney's impatience added a tang to their discussions, urged John to think harder, analyze more deeply. But he wouldn't put up with Stuart's smug condescension, John knew that. There could be fireworks.
In the end, Rodney strode out on his own, smiling. Shrugged when John raised an eyebrow in query. "I only singed him a little."
The next day, John flew Rodney to Anchorage, so he could spent a night with his sister and her family. John shook his head when Rodney asked if there was any family John wanted to visit, and again when Rodney reiterated that John could join them. Nothing like being introduced to your ex-priest brother's new boyfriend to put a crimp on a reunion. Instead he rattled around his place all evening, pretending to pack. The rooms that he'd more-or-less happily inhabited for three years seemed empty after living with Rodney for a few days, and his small bed was too big for him alone. And he missed the sex.
A subdued Rodney met him at the airport the next day. Quiet enough to allow the chill of concern to nip at his heart. John waited until they were in the air before patting Rodney's knee once. For Rodney's sake. Not because John needed to touch him or anything.
"Everything go okay?"
Rodney nodded. "Yeah. I think so."
John steeled himself. "How'd they take the news?" God knows what Rodney'd had to put up with -- tears, screaming, hysterics.
"Pretty well, actually." Rodney sounded. . . mystified. "When I told her I was leaving the priesthood, Jeannie. . . Well, she said 'Thank God!' and hugged me. She told me I'd been running away and hiding behind my collar for years. After I got over being annoyed at her for knowing me better than I knew myself, I had to agree."
"You've got a perceptive sister." He wet his dry lips. "Did you tell her--"
"About us?" Rodney's voice was too loud. "Of course I did! I couldn't not mention that I'd found someone who's totally hot and almost as intelligent as I am, who has the good taste to find me attractive."
John winced. "And who's a guy?"
"Yes," Rodney snapped. "The subject of gender arose."
"She didn't take it well." Not a question.
Rodney took a deep breath. "She didn't invite us both to celebrate Christmas, no, but she gave us her blessing." His voice wavered a little. "She asked me to tell you she's glad you make me happy, and hopes I make you happy, as well."
"Okay." Better than he'd expected, but less than he had hoped. Jeannie was still talking to him, so that was good. "The boys want us to come over and play a game or two tonight."
"I'd enjoy that." Rodney rested his hand on John's thigh. "I'll miss them."
John nodded, relaxing under Rodney's touch. "Yeah. I told Ben you'd kick his ass."
Rodney's laugh warmed him through and through.
Rodney didn't quite kick Ben's ass, but he did win the game. Just. With John's help -- cheating, Ben called it -- but Ben seemed more amused than angry. They promised to return for a rematch, even though everyone knew that would never happen.
And John thought Rodney's eyes would pop out of his head when Rodney got up to pour another cup of coffee and discovered Ernest and Manny kissing in the kitchen.
All in all, a good evening.
Except that, now that they were home, Rodney was fidgeting more than usual. Babbling. Pacing around the room, picking up a book, putting it down. Shifting a pile of clothes from one place to another.
John leaned against the doorframe to the kitchen. Crossed his arms. "What's bugging you, Rodney?"
Rodney's eyes met his. Surprise, tension, apprehension. John could read his expressions clearly.
"I. Uh." Rodney's face suddenly flushed, ears blazing crimson.
John tilted his head.
"While I was at Jeannie's." Rodney cleared his throat, lifted his chin. "I stopped by the bookstore and bought a book on gay sex because I like hands and blow jobs but I knew there was more we could do but you were being careful not to burden me with too much information and freak me out." He sucked in a breath, held up his hand and John shut his mouth. Rodney continued, his flush deepening. "So I read the book and tried one or two things. In my bed. Last night. I discovered. I liked. My, um, fingers. Inside. And oh, God, would you please fuck me?"
John could do that.
Two minutes later, he had Rodney stripped, laid out on the bed, and was kissing his way down Rodney's spine, his hands massaging the curve of Rodney's ass. Rodney was babbling again, but John wasn't worried, because the words were "good," and "hurry," and, best of all, "Iloveyoupleasecomeinsideme."
He used his mouth, first. Lips and tongue to open Rodney up, make him stutter into the pillow and squirm under John's hands. Then fingers pushing in lube, lots of lube, until Rodney was on elbows and knees, rocking back against John's touch, letting loose with a really impressive flow of curses and pleas, mainly concerning how he was going to do exactly the same thing to John, oh yes he was, just watch him, and would John get on with it before he had a stroke and missed the best part?
So John rolled on a condom, despite Rodney's whines, and positioned himself. Pushed. Slid. Stopped a scarce inch inside.
Patted Rodney's hip awkwardly. "Bear down."
"I am." Rodney gasped and panted and squeezed around him. "I read the damned book, Mr. Know-it-all. Just get your damned self inside!"
John stared at his dick, disappearing inside Rodney. Felt his balls tighten. God, not yet. Closed his eyes and breathed. Grabbed a little control, let his need back down. Then he leaned forward, pushed until he was inside. All the way.
Rodney struggled to his hands, rocked back. Their rhythm was off, then on, then off. Rodney grunted and keened, and John felt off-balance, fumbled for Rodney's dick, stroked him with clumsy fingers. But then Rodney's head tilted back and he groaned as he came, warm and sticky, over John's hand, and John pushed deep, came hard, slumped over Rodney's broad, sweaty back.
What had happened? John had never felt so inept. He'd always prided himself on his ability in bed, but Rodney had stripped away his control, his skill. Laid him bare, exposed his needs and wants. And then Rodney gave him what he needed, what he wanted.
John closed his eyes. Kissed Rodney's heaving back. Rested his cheek there for a moment.
"Ready?" John glanced at Rodney, strapped into his seat beside him.
Rodney reached out, clasped his hand for a moment. "I hope Colorado is warmer than here."
"Don't bet on it." John smiled and taxied the plane, preparing for takeoff. He shifted in his seat, ass twinging. Rodney had nailed him for the first time the night before, and John would be feeling it the whole day.
He smiled. Pressed into the seat. He couldn't wait for Rodney to do that again.
That wormholes ought, theoretically, to be possible was manifestly obvious to Rodney. That had been clear to him since he was an undergraduate, distracting himself by dreaming up solutions to unsolvable problems during a particularly boring seminar on string theory. But that they were actually real -- that stable wormholes had been formed, were indeed routinely formed between this subterranean base and other worlds, other galaxies -- was like proof of the existence of a benevolent God. It made Rodney grin so widely his face hurt.
He'd had a week to get used to the idea, but setting foot inside Cheyenne Mountain made it real in a whole new way. He couldn't help fidgeting through their tour of the facility; it was all interesting, yes, of course, the kind of thing he would have adored at any point in his previous life, but right now all he wanted was to see the Stargate. To watch it do what it did.
Eventually Colonel Carter noticed that while he was physically following her through the corridors, he wasn't really following what she was saying. "McKay? You still with me?"
John smirked at him. "I think Rodney's a little. . .distracted."
"I'd really like to see the Stargate," Rodney admitted.
The colonel laughed. "Of course. We have a gate team scheduled to return shortly; we'll bring you to the gate room so you can see what you're about to get yourself into."
They came to a stop in front of a closed blue door.
"But first," John prompted her, gesturing at the door with a quizzical expression.
"The General would like to meet you both."
Rodney's stomach did a quick somersault. A general? What if this were someone who knew John from. . . before?
The door opened.
"General O'Neill," Carter said, motioning for them to walk in to the conference room where a good-looking man with salt-and-pepper hair was waiting.
"John Sheppard," John said, snapping out a salute that looked a little sloppy to Rodney, though what did Rodney know? "Reporting for duty, sir."
"Er," Rodney said. "Rodney McKay. I'm a civilian."
"Yes, I think someone mentioned that." The general wore an air of mild amusement as he gestured to the chairs along the conference table.
John and Rodney sat.
"Thanks, Sam," the general said, and she saluted and closed the door behind them.
"So," said O'Neill, looking at Rodney. "You used to be a priest."
"Until about a week ago, yes."
"We haven't assigned a chaplain to the Atlantis expedition. A shrink, but no chaplain."
Did he want Rodney to volunteer? "I, ah -- should probably admit that pastoral care isn't exactly my strong suit."
O'Neill snorted. "I've seen your personality profile. Really, what I can't figure out is how you wound up in the priesthood in the first place."
"It's kind of a long story," Rodney said defensively. Then, belatedly, tacked on a "Sir."
"You'll have to share it with me sometime," O'Neill said genially, and turned to John. "And you, Major. Got into some trouble, if I recall."
"I'm not a Major anymore." There was remarkably little bitterness in John's voice, though Rodney wondered if he missed having rank. Or had the military fit him about as well as the priesthood had fit Rodney? "I'm a civilian, just like McKay."
"Stuff it," O'Neill said, and John did. "The brass consider you a special liaison -- a mercenary with military training."
"Who exactly constitutes 'brass,' if not you, sir?"
O'Neill snorted, but didn't dignify that with a direct response. "Personally, I think you could have used a few lessons in flying under the radar, but you're no more a civilian than I am."
"If any of this is going to be a problem--" John's voice was tight.
"If it were, you wouldn't be here." O'Neill leaned back in his chair, steepling his hands. "Look, I have to admit this all sounds a little crazy to me. Atlantis -- a flying city -- from the Pegasus galaxy?"
"You think we're crazy for going," Rodney guessed. It was understandable. He hadn't been able to tell Jeannie where they were headed, but even what little he'd been able to explain had sounded pretty harebrained to her, and knowing the whole story didn't actually make it any less insane.
"Actually," O'Neill said, "I'd think you were crazy if you weren't going. Trouble with getting promoted; if I thought I could get away with it, I'd be the first in line to walk through that gate."
"We'll send postcards," John said.
O'Neill laughed. "You do that." He rose, and Rodney and John followed suit.
"That's it?" Rodney felt almost light-headed with relief.
"I like to meet people before I send them off to God-knows-what." O'Neill's handshake was firm. "See you in the gate room."
The stargate was an enormous ring planted up a short ramp from the nubbled rubber floor. Rodney wanted desperately to touch it -- what kind of metal was it made of? what would it feel like? -- but he didn't; it still wasn't clear to him what the rules were here, or how he fit in. Suddenly a bell sounded.
"Incoming wormhole," the guy in the uniform at the control console said. "Reynolds' IDC."
"Here we go," Carter said. She was beaming.
The metal iris covering the front of the gate swirled open, like watching a camera shutter open in slow-motion, and behind it a wall of -- water? light? whatever it was, it rippled like a pool of water lit by sun.
Rodney felt dangerously close to tears. He gripped John's arm.
And then people started walking out of it. There was a noise each time a person stepped through the event horizon and into the gate room, a watery sound that Rodney's brain didn't entirely know how to process. When the fourth member of the gate team stepped onto the ramp and the wormhole dematerialized, Rodney became aware that he'd been holding his breath and that his face was wet.
It couldn't be real. But it was. A wormhole to another world. The four members of the gate team were saying something to Colonel Carter, grinning and slapping each other on the back as they walked down the ramp and past where John and Rodney stood, but Rodney didn't process a word of it. Rodney exhaled, closed his eyes, and wept.
"There's no need to apologize," Carter said firmly. "We've seen every response in the book, believe me."
"I knew a guy once who threw up the first time he saw somebody step through the gate." O'Neill smirked.
"See? I told you you weren't the first," John offered.
"I just -- it's genuinely awesome." Rodney's whole body was still tingling from the sight.
"It's kind of nice to be reminded how remarkable this is," Carter said. "It's been a long time since either of us walked through our first gate."
"Well, you have about an hour to pull yourselves together; the team assembles here at 1300 hours to ship out. You'll report directly to Dr. Elizabeth Weir," O'Neill said to John. "Military head of the expedition is Colonel Marshall Sumner, who's not exactly thrilled to have you, so you might want to be on your best behavior for a while."
"I'll take that under consideration," John said.
"We'll give you some time," Carter said. "It's a lot to process."
And then the two of them were alone in the conference room. John stood up and Rodney was in his arms before he could consciously consider.
Their kiss was slow and sweet and lasted until they were both breathless. When they pulled back, John leaned his forehead against Rodney's and they rested there for a second.
"I can't believe we're doing this," Rodney murmured.
"What -- necking in a top-secret military installation?"
"No, going to another galaxy." He hadn't even thought about the necking in a subterranean military base part. "You don't think there are -- hidden cameras or anything, do you?" He pulled back and scanned the room, anxiously.
"I think we're safe," John said, grinning at him and sitting back down.
"We're going to another galaxy," Rodney said, in wonderment.
"Not having second thoughts, are you?"
"God, no." Fervently. "I just -- when I think about where I was six months ago, you know? About the life I was leading? I feel like I just escaped from house arrest."
"We kind of both did," John acknowledged.
A fierce exultation filled Rodney's body. Like the way he'd felt when he first professed faith in Christ, the way it had felt to know himself -- irrefutably, beyond a shadow of a doubt -- to be saved.
"It's like we're in zero gee." John looked contemplative.
"Free fall," Rodney agreed, and thought of Galileo, the law of falling bodies, how God had plucked him out of ignominy and despair.
John fished a small metal case out of his vest pocket and brandished it: a tiny pocket chessboard. "Time for a game before we go out there to face the music?"
"Always," Rodney said.
This was a brave new world. Anything was possible. The old laws they'd lived under didn't apply. Rodney sat back, watched John set up the board, and beamed.