The first time Rodney saw his upstairs neighbor, he almost fell down the stairs.
He was headed out to buy a cup of coffee, since he’d run out of beans. It was oh-god-o’clock in the morning, because he’d been up all night chasing an idea, and wasn’t ready to wind down yet. And so it took him a moment, as he stood in the doorway fumbling with his pockets to make sure he really did have his keys (he’d already checked twice, but his short-term memory was so fried he couldn’t remember what the result of either check had been), to process what he was seeing as this vision in gray jersey bounded athletically up the steps.
“Hey,” the guy said, shooting him a pleasant smirk. Dark hair, fine jaw limned with dark stubble, slender but masculine neck, hazel eyes, long lithe torso, gorgeous mouth. “Nice day, huh?”
“What?” Rodney said, nearly dropping his keys, swaying forward in dangerous un-balance.
“Whoa there,” the guy said, and caught him by the shoulder with one long-fingered hand, shoved him back onto his center of gravity, laughed in a flash of teeth, nearly perfect but one slightly crooked in the lower jaw. He was beautifully just-off-perfect, a little scar across one cheekbone, the beginnings of crows’ feet around his eyes. He was tanned, flushed, sweat rolling down his temples— he’d been running, of all things, that explained the gray jersey and basketball shorts and the earliness of the hour.
“Wow,” Rodney said, “I really need that coffee.”
“You new here?” the guy asked.
“Yeah,” Rodney said, “moved in last week.”
“Oh.” The guy beamed, a truly pleasant smile. He held out his hand, and Rodney shook it automatically. “I’m John Sheppard. I live in the second floor front apartment.”
“Rodney McKay,” Rodney said. “Dr. Rodney McKay. I, ah, first floor front apartment.” He jerked a thumb. Something in the guy’s face made him add, “Not a medical doctor.”
“Gotcha,” the guy said. “Hey, if you’re looking for coffee, due south about two blocks there’s this awesome joint, Java Temple— sounds kinda hippieish but whatever, man, they roast their own and it’s totally awesome.”
“Really,” Rodney said, perking up. “I just kinda, all-nighter, not done yet and I need to—“
“Corner of Allen and Franklin,” the guy said. “Can’t miss it. Run by lesbians with cats, who know all about coffee. How can you not love that?”
“Sounds like heaven,” Rodney said, staring entranced at the guy’s soft, full lips, thinking about heaven, thinking about how he needed not to fall down the stairs.
“Nice to meet you,” the guy said. “Catch ya later. Don’t fall down the stairs.”
And with that and a cheeky grin, he was gone.
Rodney’d stalked him, just a little bit. It took him a little while to puzzle out the odd hours, but finally he saw Hot Neighbor leaving the house in a cop uniform and figured it out. He wore the uniform fairly often, often enough that Rodney’s sort-of guilty fantasy that it was a stripper costume vanished. He also dressed in a random assortment of clothes in his downtime, with tightish jeans and really nerdy t-shirts appearing with mouth-watering frequency (including a gorgeous HAN SHOT FIRST specimen). His hair never changed, though— it stood up crazily in random directions with astonishing consistency, varying slightly in intensity and degree but never significantly in form.
He mostly didn’t notice Rodney watching him out of the front window as he went by. Rodney had sort of expected that now that he didn’t live in the middle of ass-nowhere he’d probably revert to heterosexuality, freed from the constraints of situational and somewhat-desperate homosexuality brought on by no social life apart from overwhelmingly male lab partners. But there was no doubt he was completely smitten with Hot Neighbor. And maybe, in normal civilian life, away from such constraints, well… maybe, Rodney was realizing, maybe he was actually genuinely non-desperation-dependently gay, as it happened. OK, bi; he still nearly got whiplash at least once a day when a pretty girl went by. Or a… reasonable girl. Or just a really busty girl. Or a girl with a particularly cute haircut. Okay he really really wasn’t used to girls anymore.
Shit, he never really had been.
And yet. And yet! Hot Neighbor eclipsed them all. The lips, the throat, the narrow waist and slim hips, the lanky grace, the sarcastic eyebrow… the nerdy t-shirts. (Another one appeared the second week: REPUBLICANS FOR VOLDEMORT, done up like a real campaign sign in stars and stripes. Rodney bit his lip and actually whimpered out loud.)
Rodney had no idea how non-desperation-homosexual relationships worked. Well, he hadn’t really any idea how homosexual relationships at all worked either, as it happened. Handjobs under a lab bench, sure. Sloppy blowjobs when drunk off one’s ass, yeah. But… like… how did you know if a guy was gay?
Well, data point #1: there was the Java Temple. It was, indeed, run by lesbians and at least partially staffed by cats— a glorious long-haired gray tabby with a lion’s mane and gold eyes, and a beautiful if psychotic tortoiseshell shorthair. (She mostly didn’t let people pet her, but loved Rodney, which made him a little smug and made his own cat hissingly jealous. Cosmo hated cats.) There were rainbow flags everywhere. Surly-sweet uncombed lesbians in sweatervests manned the counters; improbably pretty boys in incredibly tight jeans lounged together on the slightly-disreputable couches, filling the air with mannered laughter. It was definitely, definitely very gay. And it was the very, very first thing Hot Neighbor had mentioned about the neighborhood.
If nothing else, Rodney thought hopefully, clutching his Enormous Americano Black With Sugar to his chest as he walked home, Hot Neighbor wasn’t actively opposed to the gays. Which was something.
Then Rodney almost burned himself on his coffee turning his head to stare at a perky blonde woman’s perky ass, and she noticed and gave him stink-face, and he blushed and hurried home. It was Saturday, which meant, well, Hot Neighbor didn’t have a fixed schedule, but sometimes it meant that around this time of day he’d see him going off wherever he went— normally more along the wrinkled dress shirt and reasonable jeans spectrum of wardrobe.
So he set himself up at his desk by the window, and worked, and watched the world go by. He was indeed rewarded with a Hot Neighbor sighting. Hot Neighbor was wearing reasonable jeans and a nerdy t-shirt— a faded drawing of Pac-Man— but he was holding the hand of a small child. Rodney blinked at this unexpected bit of data.
The child was, well— Rodney didn’t know anything about kids, but this one looked maybe old enough to go to school, but not by much. It looked like maybe a boy, with short dark hair and a black t-shirt with the Batman sigil on it, and it was just beaming up at Hot Neighbor, tiny face split wide in a grin like Hot Neighbor was the most important person in the world.
Hot Neighbor, Rodney had to note, was giving the child much the same look, if tempered by the apparently native sardonic cast to his face. “We just went to the science museum like, two months ago,” Hot Neighbor was saying.
“But Dad,” the kid said, “I love the science museum.”
“I know you do, buddy,” Hot Neighbor said as they came up the stairs. “Okay. But we’re not stayin’ there all day and I’m not buyin’ you half the gift shop again.”
The kid laughed, delighted, and Rodney stared at them: they had the same dark hair, the same curve to their mouths, the same straight, almost pointed nose. Well. Hot Neighbor had definitely known the touch of a woman at least often enough to sire offspring. How had Rodney never seen the kid before, though? Or the kid’s mom? Well, his vigil generally had consistent holes in it. If the woman worked nights, or traveled for business… well, hell, there were women who lived in this building, and Rodney didn’t notice all of them. If Hot Neighbor’s wife was brunette and not very busty and didn’t wear tight pants as a habit, it was perfectly possible that he wouldn’t have really noticed her at all.
Devastated, Rodney gave himself the rest of the week off from Hot Neighbor Watch, and closed the blinds and played video games until his eyeballs about fell out.
After that brief period of despondency, he decided to explore his new environs a little bit more, get out of the house, meet some people. He found that his brief research had indeed put him in a decent neighborhood— cheapish rent, but near a lot of really funky restaurants and kind of divey bars, with a place a few blocks away that had live music almost every day (none of it to Rodney’s taste, particularly, but it was still something). Lots of young folks with families, lots of… were they called hipsters nowadays? Rodney lost track. A fair quantity of frightening but interesting street people, and a refreshingly Canadian flavor to some of the accents and slang. Manners were pretty blunt and direct, but mostly fairly kind, an odd mix of East Coast and Midwestern, and decidedly Canada-like. But Rodney was no sociologist. The thing he cared most about was that almost every single restaurant within his range was locally-owned, most were very reasonably-priced, and all of them, every single one, had awesome chicken wings. And most of them had servers who listened with good-humored sincerity to his citrus rant. (That was the good thing about locally-owned— the recipes weren’t corporate secrets, and if you pestered enough, you’d probably eventually get the owner or at least master chef to come and glower at you while you earnestly and shrilly explained anaphylaxis.)
Rodney was probably gonna get fat, but it was a nice change from the food being all terrible and expensive, so he resigned himself to buying a new wardrobe. It wasn’t like he was gonna catch Hot Neighbor’s eye for his waistline alone, anyway.
When he resumed Hot Neighbor Watch it was sort of accidentally. He’d caught a glimpse of the guy with a woman, but she was very obviously not the kid’s mom— she was black, and the kid pretty clearly hadn’t been. She was gorgeous, though, impeccably-styled and with a stunning smile when Hot Neighbor came to the door. This cast Rodney back into deep despondency, and he closed his blinds and played about twelve more hours of video games until they called and yelled at him for his lack of productivity. He blustered back at them, and hung up, collapsed into bed for about twenty hours, then dragged himself out and went back to work.
But first— out for coffee. So he showered, shaved, put clean clothes on, pants even, and shoes, combed his hair like a reasonable human, and went out the door to Java Temple.
The polo-shirted woman, uncombed brown hair scraped messily into a bun, tilted her head at John. Despite the fact that her attire and context screamed that she was a lesbian, she was responding perfectly to his flirty smirk. “And an ice cube in it,” she concluded, proving that she knew his order.
“Exactly,” he said.
“We work so hard to make sure our coffee’s hot,” she said, almost pouting. She was actually pretty cute, if you liked the total lack of grooming aesthetic. Which wasn’t usually John’s scene, and who was he kidding, his dick pretty much had cobwebs on it, but it was fun to flirt.
“I got a bad tooth,” he said. “I just can’t drink it that hot. I appreciate how hard you folks work, though, believe me.”
She fairly floated off to get his order, and John smirked a little to himself. He was old, damnably old, and a sad pathetic loser to boot, but he still got a gold star at flirting. Good for him. He dropped his change in the tip jar and leaned against the counter, scanning the room mostly by habit (he’d already halfway inventoried the people in the room when he came in— nobody had noticed him or reacted to him or changed their demeanor, so he hadn’t worried).
His gaze alit on a somehow vaguely familiar slightly-receding hairline, over by the window. Pointy nose, pointy chin, broad shoulders, he knew that guy from somewhere. It came to him and he grinned. “Hey,” he said. “I know you.”
The guy looked up, a little startled— bright blue eyes, not the pale washed-out kind you usually saw— but his expression immediately shifted warmer. “Oh,” he said. “Yes.”
“You’re my downstairs neighbor,” John said. The barista, a little fawningly, handed him his cup, and he thanked her, dumped a little sugar and cream into it, stirred it, and walked over to where the guy was sitting. “So you found the place!”
“This place is awesome,” the guy said. Doctor something. M something. Mc something. “It is absolutely perfect.”
“What’s not to love?” John said. He hooked out the chair with one foot and sat down at the table. “So are you just new to the neighborhood, or new in town, or what?”
“I’m from Alberta,” the guy said, “and I’ve lived all over, but this is the first I’ve been to this city.”
“Welcome to town,” John said, grinning broadly. “I’m not from here either, but I’ve been here like ten years. People are always so damn surprised when they find out you’re not a native. Like there’s no reason to move here, or something.” He sniffed at his coffee, decided it was still too hot to drink. He had a cracked molar that the military dentists had never quite been able to sort out, and really hot or really cold stuff tended to feel like an ice pick to the jaw. “What brings you here, though?”
Doctor McSomething shrugged. “I work remotely,” he said. “I could log in from anywhere. So I figured, hell, why not here?”
“Fair enough,” John said. “Nice natural scenery, climate that’s much better than the hype makes out, really excellent food, reasonable people, why not?”
“Exactly,” McSomething said. “Plus, for me, just far enough away from the main office that they won’t make me come in, but close enough that if I have to, it’s not a complete pain in the dick.”
That surprised a real laugh out of John, and he belatedly smothered it. “Good point,” he said. He glanced at his watch. “Ah, I gotta head out. Good seein’ ya.”
“Catch you later,” McWhatsit said.
Later that week, McKay (John looked at his mailbox to remember the name) almost ran into him on the steps again. John was just back from his run, again. This time, McKay didn’t look quite so glassy-eyed, though he was kind of distracted-looking.
“Batman?” he said.
John blinked at him. “How’d you guess my secret identity?”
“I meant the t-shirt,” McKay said. “I always liked Spiderman a little better.”
“What?” John drew the syllable out indignantly as he looked down to confirm that, yes, he was wearing his Batman shirt. “Pff! Eccentric, tortured geniuses over overly-earnest mutants anyday!”
“I assume you’re not a Super Man fan then,” McKay said. He was wearing a gray, well-worn t-shirt that said, on the chest, “I’m with Genius” and had an arrow pointing up to McKay’s face. Subtle. Classy. John kind of liked it. This guy was okay.
“No,” John said. “He was a pretty transparent allegory, actually. Not a lot of character depth. They tried, but really. Ethereal alien-types, never really my scene.”
McKay looked a little shocked about something. “So, a comic books fan, not just movies?”
“Please,” John said. “If I had even half of what my old collection that my dad threw out was worth, I wouldn’t be worrying about my mortgage.”
“Ooooh,” McKay said, looking pained, “yeah.” But he was a little too bright, because the next thing he said was, “Wait, we live in an apartment.”
That had been a pretty careless slip. “Yeah,” John said, “that’s a long story.” He smiled tightly. “The classic TV show is my favorite, though. I watch it with my kid all the time but he’s too young to appreciate Julie Newmar.”
“I was never too young to appreciate Julie Newmar,” McKay said.
“Linda Carter was much more of a formative experience for me,” John said. “Batman was in reruns by the time I was born, but Wonder Woman, that was on the air when I was old enough to watch. And the, with the stars on the shorts, and the boots, yeah. That’s definitely, like, primal id material there.”
“I don’t remember if it was first run or reruns or what, I don’t know when it was on Canadian TV,” McKay said. “But you’re right about the boots. Those were some boots.”
“Now I think about it,” John said, “my kid is the exact same age now that I was when Wonder Woman was on TV. Maybe he’s not too young to appreciate Julie Newmar.”
“Maybe she’s not his type,” McKay said.
“Julie Newmar is everybody’s type,” John said. “He and I are gonna have to have a little father-son chat about this.”
McKay’s face went a little shuttered and his chin went up, just a little. “Not all little boys have the same place in their psyche for an attractive woman,” he said, a little brittle.
“Oh,” John said, realizing— McKay thought he was— “No, no, it’s not— God, no. No, I didn’t mean— if my kid turns out, you know, if it’s Adam West that’s more his type, good for him, as long as he’s happy. Jeez, that’s not at all what I meant.” McKay’s chin un-pointed slightly. “Or if he’s, y’know, more into Eartha Kitt, or whatever, that’s cool too. It’s okay, I just feel like Julie Newmar’s appeal transcends all that.” He realized he was making a vaguely waist-to-hip-ratio gesture in the air with both hands, and grimaced, pulling his hands back. “I mean… she’s so statuesque.”
McKay stared at him. “Did you just quote that movie where Patrick Swayze was a drag queen?”
John rubbed the back of his neck. “Is that what that’s from? Is that the one with the giant pink bus? God, wasn’t that, like, ten years ago? Wait, that was the other one. The pink bus was the other one. Hugh Laurie. No. Fuck. What’s his name? Elrond. Hugh whatsit. Hugo! Hugo Weaving.”
“How many movies about drag queens have you watched?” McKay asked, looking utterly fascinated.
“There haven’t been as many, lately,” John said. “Seems like they stopped makin’ em. You know, I know this for completely innocuous reasons, I swear, but there’s a club like four blocks away that does drag shows on Saturday nights. I have only been there for work-related reasons, though.”
“Work-related?” McKay looked faintly incredulous. “Wait, what do you do?”
John stared at him, one eyebrow climbing as high as it could go. “I leave for work almost every day in a police officer’s uniform, what do you think I do?”
“You could be a stripper,” McKay said. His eyes widened almost immediately as he realized what he’d just said. “Uh— I mean— I didn’t mean that like it sounded.”
John blinked at him. “How did you know about that?” he demanded.
McKay laughed, then sobered in confusion as he realized John’s tone was slightly off, and John realized, no, he didn’t. “Jesus,” John said, rubbing his face, “not you too.”
“What?” McKay asked timidly.
“Like my second week as a cop I responded to a noise complaint from a party, and it was some lady’s 40th birthday party and she assumed I was a stripper,” John said. “Unfortunately I wasn’t there alone, and my then-partner told every single person in the entire department about it, and now there’s this whole five-year-long running joke about my night job. People who don’t even know me laugh about it when I introduce myself because that’s how they’ve heard of me. Christ almighty, do I really look like a stripper?”
McKay’s mouth slanted strangely as he regarded John. “I was kidding, at least,” he said. “I didn’t know there was painful history. I’m sort of bad with people or maybe I’d’ve thought of that.”
John laughed. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I guess I should be flattered.” He jerked his head. “Gotta go get ready for work. See ya around.”
McKay looked at his watch. “It’s like, two PM.”
“Cops aren’t 9-5,” John said. “Otherwise it’d be pretty easy on crooks, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh,” McKay said. “Right.”
John waggled his eyebrows a bit sarcastically at the guy, and went past him up the stairs. Gay nerdy genius. Not bad qualities in a neighbor. Not that he was sure why the gay part mattered. Maybe it didn’t.
He caught an elbow to the eye breaking up a bar fight at the lesbian bar. It was amazing, John thought, how many people at gay bars weren’t even gay. And how many of them made trouble. If the guy who’d hit him was a lesbian then so was John. As they wrote up their report in the aftermath, the bartender, who was carefully styled to fit the Sassy Twink mold (and made a good living at it, from the looks of things) sympathetically offered him a bag of ice. He took it gratefully and held it over his eye.
“I’d offer you a drink, hot stuff,” the bartender said, too weary to really sound flirty, “but I know how dedicated you folks are.”
“Oh, I’d fall asleep,” John said, “but I appreciate the sentiment.”
The customers had largely dispersed— cops showing up generally had that effect on an establishment, and it was getting on toward the end of most people’s nights anyway— so there were no customers. The bartender leaned on the bar across from John. “You come around here much, friend?”
John gave him a wry half-smile. “I spend enough time on the clock in places like this,” he said, “when I’m off-duty I got no taste for it.”
“Gay places, or booze places?” the bartender asked.
“Booze places,” John clarified. “The gay places don’t need police all that much. Not like the places on the Strip. It’s a nice change to get out here for once. This is my neighborhood, I live near here.”
“Oh,” the bartender said, eyebrows telegraphing fascination. The Strip was a three-block-long neighborhood populated largely by nightclubs, some gang-affiliated, some drug-affiliated, many both, some innocent, all rotten with underage kids on fake IDs and drug dealers and roofie rapists and knife fights and what-have-you. John spent a lot of Saturday nights getting increasingly sick of human beings on that strip, so catching an elbow in the gay neighborhood was almost worth it for the change of pace. “But you never come around?”
John shook his head. “I’m not what you’d call a social drinker,” he said.
Bates fetched up against the bar next to him. “How’s the eye?” he asked.
“Eh,” John said, pulling the ice away and squinting at him, “you should see the other guy.”
Bates didn’t laugh— he never did, not at John’s jokes anyway— but he half-smiled, which John was learning was about the same difference. “I was just thinkin’ we were gonna get away with no bar fights tonight,” he said.
“Yeah,” John said, “keep dreamin’.”
“You ready to blow this joint?” Bates asked.
“Born ready, sir,” John said, even though he outranked Bates. Bates had been a Marine, and he and John had faced off like stray dogs, arm’s length, sniffing each other out, when John had joined the squad, but they’d mostly settled down now. Bates was a crazy son of a bitch with a stick up his ass, and John was a cocky no-account flyboy, and both of them had taken bullets in Afghanistan so they were brothers, after all. It was good enough. John had gotten the promotion to sergeant ahead of Bates, but it didn’t seem to have hurt the other guy’s feelings much.
Bates jerked his head toward the door, and John turned back to give the bartender an easy little wave. “Hey, thanks for the ice, man. Catch ya around.”
“See ya,” the bartender said, giving him a little up-and-down look and some eyebrows. Was that a leer? Had the guy just leered at him? John put his hat back on and went out to the foyer.
“Got him,” Bates said. “He was makin’ time with the cute bartender.”
“Hot lesbian?” Mitchell asked, waggling his eyebrows.
“Naw,” Bates said, “the bartender here’s a dude.”
“Hey,” John said. “If somebody knew how to do a proper restraint hold I wouldn’t need to flirt with rent boys to get ice so I don’t wind up disfigured. You know I gotta keep that night job, this gig ain’t payin’ the bills.” Half-blinded by the ice bag, he tripped over the floor mat, kicked it flat again, and noticed a flyer on the foyer windowsill for a drag show. He bent to fix the rug properly, picked up the flyer, and stuck it in his pocket as the others went out.
“You should probably stick to the middle-aged ladies,” Mitchell said. “I think they tip better than the homos.”
“I wasn’t really flirtin’ with him,” John said. “Jeez, you guys. Your interest in my sex life is kind of unhealthy.”
They split off to their separate cars, but Mitchell stopped, a hand on John’s arm. “Hey, Sheppard,” he said. He looked self-conscious. They didn’t know each other well, just overlapped sometimes on patrols like this. Mitchell was pretty new to the station, a transfer in from another station.
“Yeah?” John asked, puzzled at the attention.
“You’re not really hurt bad, are you?” Mitchell asked.
“No,” John said, “just a bruise. Should be fine.”
The others had drawn away a little bit, and Mitchell leaned in slightly. “I don’t mean to be a prick,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were actually gay. I wouldn’t make fun— I didn’t mean— I’m not that kind of jerk.”
John blinked at him. “I’m not,” he said.
“It’s okay if you are,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t mean— I got a lot of gay friends, and they call themselves homos, and I just got used to doing it too, but I wouldn’t— if it’s offensive, I didn’t mean that.”
“I’m not gay,” John said. “But I appreciate the sensitivity,” he added sincerely.
“Oh,” Mitchell said. “You’re not?”
“No,” John said. “But that’s okay. If you like me better that way, you can think of me that way. I won’t be offended.” He clapped Mitchell on the shoulder and walked to the car where Bates was waiting. They weren’t usually partners, but sometimes they patrolled together. John picked up a lot of extra shifts where he could, as much overtime as they’d let him do, so he wound up paired with just about everybody at some point.
“Want to get a coffee?” Bates asked.
John rubbed his good eye. “Eh,” he said, “I could take it or leave it.”
“Mitchell wasn’t givin’ you shit, was he?” Bates asked, putting his turn signal on like the stick-in-the-mud he was as they waited for a car to go by so they could pull out of the lot.
John snorted. “He was telling me it was okay that I was gay,” he said.
Bates shot him a look. John pulled the ice away from his eye.
“I’m not,” he said. “That’s the punchline.”
Bates didn’t say anything for a moment. “I,” he said finally, “I kind of thought you were. And I was going to say, if he had a problem with it, then I have a problem with him.”
John stared at him, unexpectedly touched. “Thanks,” he said. “I… you know what, if I ever switch teams, that’ll mean a lot to me.”
“You let me know,” Bates said. “I mean, if you need help. Not if you switch teams. I kind of feel like that stuff’s need-to-know, and I don’t really need to know. But I mean. You know.”
“I do know,” John said. He put the ice back up to his eye. “That’s very sweet. Thank you.” He sighed. “It’s all completely irrelevant, as it happens. Can your virginity grow back? Because after the divorce I just went through, I’m sort of considering joining a monastery and just never sleeping with anybody ever again.”
“Took me like that too,” Bates said. “I married my first wife when I was twenty-two and we were gonna be together forever. A year later, I was out on my ass, and I said I’d never date again. Married the second one when I was twenty-seven and I been with her ever since. Don’t give up.”
“Ten years,” John said. “Ten years I was with her.” He mimed reaching into his chest, pulling out a beating heart (flexing his fingers rhythmically to show it beating), then rolled the window down and mimed throwing it out. “Now run it over, back up and run it over a couple more times.”
“That bad,” Bates said.
“I gave up the Air Force,” John said. “She said, it’s flying or me, and I picked her, and that was okay for a little while, but it wasn’t really enough. Lost her anyway, and now the sky’s gone too. I got nothin’.”
“Thought you had a kid,” Bates said.
John took in a breath, let it out slowly. “Every other weekend, for a few hours, I got somethin’, I guess,” he said. “Guess I can’t regret that.”
John had a crushing headache by the time he got home. He knew fine well that was a prime symptom of a concussion, and he also knew that he’d had several concussions and should really be cautious about getting any more. He also knew he was damned if he was going to take any of his sick days over it. He was saving those up, like he saved all his time off, to spend with Joey, if Nancy would ever let him have the kid that long. She talked a big line about wanting him to spend time with him, and flipped her shit if he ever had to reschedule from his normal two weekends a month, but God forbid he ever wanted to do anything with the kid but sleepovers and going to the park. And God forbid he wanted to spend a holiday with his son. Those were all reserved for family, and since he didn’t have any other family, apparently he didn’t count.
He rested his head against his steering wheel for a moment. His eye was really throbbing but it hurt on the other side of his skull, too. Shit. That was like prime symptom number two of a concussion. At least he wasn’t nauseous.
Think nice thoughts about Nancy, he thought determinedly. There were very good reasons he didn’t spend holidays at Nancy’s house, and the number one reason was two Christmases ago when they’d put Joey to bed, together, and then had tumbled into Nancy’s bed, together, and fucked like rabbits for the rest of the night, and while it had been fleetingly pleasant (or, well, shit, fucking awesome), it had really just given her an opportunity to grind his heart further into the mud. The only consolation, which was sort of the opposite of a consolation, was that it had broken her up pretty badly too.
Knowing she still had feelings for him was about as comforting as a nice firm kick to the nuts, so, John wasn’t counting it a victory.
He slumped his way out of the car a little gingerly. Concussion meant no painkillers, meant limiting activity, meant no TV, meant sitting quietly in a dark room. Fat chance. He had eight hours off, then a twelve-hour shift again. But that meant overtime, which meant money, which meant paying down that fucking mortgage faster and getting his father the fuck out of his life.
The stairs needed to be salted, they had ice on the treads. He unlocked the door, grabbed the coffee can out of the bag of de-icer salt inside the door, and dumped salt onto the steps. The door swung shut behind him and he had to re-unlock it, muttering curses.
As he fumbled for his keys again he encountered the crumpled flyer in his pocket. He pulled it out, frowned at it, remembered what it was, and laughed out loud, then folded it in half and stuck it into McKay’s mailbox. It lightened his mood a little, and he went into the house a little more cheerful.
McKay opened his door and poked his head out. “Is that you opening and closing and opening and closing the door?”
“Just de-icing the steps, McKay,” John said, unable not to grin at him.
“Jesus Christ,” McKay said, recoiling from his face. “What the hell happened to you?”
John put a hand to his cheekbone, poking gingerly at it. “That bad, huh?”
“Did you get in a fight?” McKay asked, clutching at his apartment door like he was thinking of hiding behind it.
John stared at him for a long moment. “Breaking up bar fights is a not-insignificant portion of my job,” he said. “So yes. I got hit in a fight.”
“Oh,” McKay said. He looked down suddenly. “No! No! Hey!”
John realized he was talking to the cat who was trying to scoot out into the hallway. McKay kept it from exiting by blocking it with his foot, and scooping it gently back into the apartment. “Ambitious,” John said.
“She’s curious,” McKay said. “That’s what cats do.” He came out, shut the door behind him. Apparently he was committing to this conversation. He was wearing almost-hilarious plaid pyjama pants. “Anyway— are you okay, Sheppard?”
“I’m fine,” John said, a little touched that McKay would even ask. “Thanks. Just a black eye.”
“You off today, then?” McKay asked. “Just getting home, I mean?”
John huffed an ironic half-laugh. “I got eight hours off,” he said, “then I got another twelve-hour shift.”
McKay frowned. “I think maybe you work as much as I do,” he said. “That’s not right.”
“Money,” John said. “It’s overtime. Christmas is coming, I need the money.” Which was sort of a lie, he didn’t have anyone to shop for but Joey, but everybody always took that one at face value. It was the one time he didn’t feel weird about admitting he hustled so hard for extra shifts for money reasons.
“Oh,” McKay said. “You got a big family, big holiday plans?” There was something almost wistful, a hard edge of false joviality, that told John pretty clearly that McKay didn’t.
John slumped against the bannister post. “No, actually,” he said. “My only family’s Joey. And I don’t have custody of him for Christmas. He goes with his mom to spend it with her family.”
“Oh,” McKay said, perking up a little bit, and John grinned to himself a little bit at how easy it was to read McKay. He wasn’t just comforted that somebody else was a big loser and had nowhere to go for Christmas, he was trying to think of a way to ask if John wanted to hang out without sounding super pathetic.
“Doesn’t look like you’re going anywhere cool for Christmas either,” John said.
“No,” McKay said. “My— I don’t have anyone still alive who I’m on speaking terms with.”
“I’m working Christmas Eve to Christmas, the super-mega-overnight shift,” John said. “Figured I’d do the people with families a favor, and also make double overtime and a half. But I get out at noon. Come on up to my place and we can get totally fuckin’ hammered. Shit, I’ll even cook.”
“You can cook?” McKay asked.
“Sure,” John said. “I mean, I know the basics, and then you just gotta follow written instructions. I’m decent at those, I did manage to get a college degree.”
“In criminal justice?” McKay asked.
John gritted his teeth and didn’t stop smiling. “No,” he said, “I actually have a B.S. in mathematics from Stanford.”
“You do?” McKay was comically astonished.
“Yeah,” John said. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Anyway, I gotta go get cleaned up and catch a few z’s before my next shift. We’ll do Christmas, all clinical-depression style. What do you think, a ham and some potatoes and like a weird vegetable casserole like you see on old TV shows?”
“I’m deathly allergic to citrus,” McKay said.
“So, no pineapple glaze. But anything else?”
McKay stared at him. “Are you for real about this?”
“I am,” John said. “No presents, though. I’m shit at buying presents, don’t put that on me.”
The next day as he dragged himself home from his shift McKay was in the driveway messing with the garbage cans. John gave him a hand dragging them back up and stowing them behind the house.
“Eye looks better,” McKay said. John gave him a look. “Okay, not really. It looks a lot worse. But it’s less swollen, right?”
“Yeah,” John said. “The color’s up now, but it hurts less.” He shrugged.
“Did you leave a flyer in my mailbox or do I have an anonymous harasser?” McKay asked, squinting at him a little.
John laughed. “I’ll never tell,” he said.
“Hmph,” McKay said. He paused to kick at a chunk of ice still adhering to the steps, then went up. John gestured him to go first, and followed him up, absently noticing that the guy had, like, a perfect ass. John wouldn’t have even thought that was a thing a guy could have, but McKay totally did. Huh.
“Hey,” John said. McKay was fumbling for his keys, and John had his out, so he edged past him and unlocked the building door.
“Yeah?” McKay looked up at him. He was a couple of inches shorter than John, but much broader in the shoulders, just a real solid guy. John blinked.
“Um,” he said, and shook his head. “Sorry, I lost my train of thought. I haven’t had a whole lot of downtime lately.”
“You didn’t get a concussion, did you?” McKay asked worriedly. “Because a blunt trauma to the eye socket like that could well cause a head injury. Did you get that checked?”
“Yes,” John lied. “It’s been checked.” He was still having headaches. It was all right, though. He just had to avoid taking any more hard shots to the head until this one was healed.
Good luck with that.
He got the door unlocked, shoved it open with his shoulder, and went into the hall with McKay.
“What do you want me to bring to Christmas?” McKay asked. “That’s what I was going to ask you, once I settled my questions about the weird flyer. Or did you want to go to that show? Were you asking me to go with you? Because I don’t, I mean, I would, if you wanted.”
John laughed. This guy made him laugh a lot. It was kind of nice. “No,” he said. “I just saw the flier and thought it’d be funny to stuff it in your mailbox. Since we had a conversation about that.” He shrugged. “I dunno, you don’t have to bring anything for Christmas. I already have all the stuff I’m gonna make.”
“Beer?” Rodney asked.
John chewed his lips thoughtfully, leaning against the bannister pole. “I have wine,” he said. “And whiskey for Manhattans. I always have those on Christmas, never any other time.” He thought a little longer. “I know,” he said. “I haven’t had time to get anything for an appetizer. Could you bring, like, a cheese plate or something?”
“A cheese plate,” McKay said blankly.
“Yeah,” John said, gesturing vaguely. “You know. Like, weird cheeses, and crackers, and stuff. Like they always have lyin’ around at fancy occasions. Or is that weird?” He was suddenly self-consciously aware that his upbringing was approximately seven hundred million dollars removed from any semblance of normal. A cheese plate couldn’t be that fancy, his mom had assembled them herself, and she never really did any of the cooking. “They don’t have to be, like, super fancy cheeses. Just, like, you know. Or whatever it is your people do for appetizers, I don’t know. Something that doesn’t need to be heated up or prepared in a time-sensitive fashion, that can just sit around and get picked at by drunk people.”
“Cheese plate,” Rodney said. “Where would I find a thing like that?”
“Grocery store,” John said, though he honestly didn’t know, now that he thought of it. He hadn’t known the slightest thing about where anything came from until he’d gone to college— and hadn’t that been a hoot, his first trip to the grocery store with no clear understanding of how food worked before it was served to him— in desperation, he’d spoken only French and pretended to understand no English. It was the only way to pass off his befuddlement as anything other people could understand.
“I’ve never seen anything like that there,” McKay said suspiciously.
“You can get ‘em,” John said. Now that he thought of it, yeah. The big grocery store in the nearest first-ring suburb had a whole cheese department. He snapped his fingers, remembering. “There’s a gourmet grocery store out on Elmwood,” he said. “They’re attached to the state’s largest liquor store. They have such weird shit there, it’s a hoot to go. Or the big W’s just off the highway. They have a cheese department. Or, hell, go to the little shop down the street and buy a block of each kind they got, and some Ritz. I really don’t care, I plan on being so fucking drunk I can’t see straight. I won’t know the difference, McKay. Do what you feel like.”
“Gourmet grocery store,” McKay said, a little dazed.
“What?” John said, uneasy. Did McKay think he was some kind of uptight pretentious prick now? “I don’t know, what do your people do for appetizers? Fruit? Quiche? I don’t care, man, I’m just riffin’ here.”
“No, no,” McKay said, belatedly noticing John’s discomfort. “I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m just, I just spent the last two years in fucking Siberia. The whole idea of a grocery store with a cheese department, let alone a whole separate store just for fancy shit, is blowing my mind.”
John laughed again. This was probably the most he’d laughed in about a week. Since the last time he’d seen Joey, anyway. That sobered him up. He wasn’t going to see Joey until after New Year’s. Nancy was taking him to his grandmother’s for the big family reunion. That he used to be welcome at, and had spent a lot of happy years at.
“I bet,” he said, a little feebly, remembering the conversation he’d been in the middle of. “Hey, I’m beat. I’ll see you around, hey?”
“Are you all right?” McKay asked worriedly, peering at him.
John managed a half-smile. “Nothin’ a shower and some sleep won’t fix, McKay. See you Christmas, if not before.”