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The Number of a Man

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Oh, the number one is not my favorite number
'Cause one means only me and there's no you
But one plus one you see makes two, that's you and me
And it's more fun when one and one makes two
Johnny Cash, One and One Makes Two

John dug the heels of his hands into his eyes and arched backwards, hearing his spine pop as he twisted side to side, rotating his shoulders. One of these days the back would snap right off his chair, he figured, and he'd wind up on the floor with all his fellow cubicle farmers gathered around in a circle to stare down at him. But not today. He laddered his arms up and tried to decide which spreadsheets he wanted to work on next. Requisitions were very rarely good for a laugh. Maybe start pulling together the data from sales.

He took a deep breath and very carefully rearranged the icons on his desktop. He'd never replaced the pre-installed Microsoft wallpaper, so he found himself trying to cover a brilliant blue sky with little file folders.

"Go home, Shep," Alan said, using his psychic powers to sense boredom from all the way across the room and behind his big steel boss' desk. "Your brain's coming out your ears."

John dropped his hands and stared up at the track lighting, thinking that melting brains would be a really cool excuse for taking the rest of the week off. He rolled his head, staring at the clock but having trouble focusing his eyes after eight hours with the computer screen burning itself on his retinas.

He'd go down to the warehouse tomorrow, he decided. Trying to make his minions use the inventory software properly was always futile, but he lived with the hope that one day he wouldn't have to reinput all their data so that it made sense.

He blinked, catching himself spacing out again. And he was going to have to hustle to pick Xan up from daycare, he realized. He swore under his breath as he scraped his cell phone and coffee flask off his desk and into his messenger bag. He pulled his sneakers on while getting up, and hello, back pain. He hadn't had time to go running for the last. . .week? two weeks? Too long, he knew, but there were never enough hours in the day.

"I'm just going to," John said, pointing at the door, and Alan flapped a hand at him dismissively.

"Drive safe," Alan said, not looking up from the calm blue glow of his computer.

"Always do," John tossed over his shoulder as he headed for the stairwell. He jogged down the four flights to basement level B, said hey to Tish as he went through security, and pushed through the steel doors to employee parking.

The dashboard clock read five-forty two when John pulled onto Wendover, but traffic was light. He was at the Center for Learning Excellence ten minutes later. The playground was empty, but he could hear children's voices from the classrooms.

He got buzzed in and knocked as he opened the door to room 106, already smiling so hard his cheeks were practically in his ears.

"Hey buddy," he said, and Xan looked up from the Lego table. Even after four years, John still felt the tug of awe and amazement that this was his son; this person with his hair and nose, a complete disregard for dirt (he takes after you, Nancy had said), smart and improbably, wonderfully happy.

This wasn't going to be one of the days when John got a running hug. He was cool with that. Xan had his hands full, so John went over to squat next to the table and hear all about what Xan was building. There was a spaceship and a house and a rocket car and some little men who were burglars and a couple of tops that really spun if you twirled their antennas and a giant blue alien cockroach.

"Eww," John said, wrinkling his nose.

"My dad hates bugs," Xan said to Miss Alysha, who had wandered over to suggest to Xan that he get his bag while John signed him out. A couple of Xan's friends left their card game to go help him collect his stuff, which was supposed to be in his cubby by now but—mysteriously—was still scattered around the various stations.

"We'll see Xan back here tomorrow at eight?" Alysha asked, and made notes on her clipboard while John affirmed that and his pick-up time, and gave his okay for Xan to have the lunch on the menu.

John kind of wished he could skip work for a few days, maybe take Xan camping. But he was saving for a couple weeks in Hawaii, someday, and also college and braces and a down payment for a house with a yard, and while he was dreaming, also a car that was more famous for speed than child safety features. On bad days he wondered what Dave would think if John called and asked for his money. But no day was ever bad enough to try.

John didn't hate his job. It was boring, but it paid the bills. It paid for the important things.

Xan came up and grabbed John's hand, waving goodbye to Miss Alysha and his friends even as he dragged John outside.

"It's Monday, right?" Xan asked, taking the car keys and opening the doors carefully. John let him stick the keys in the ignition and then made sure Xan was buckled properly into his child seat. "It's pizza day, right?"

John had discovered early on that he was grumpy Monday nights, and he was even more unpleasant to be around if he had to cook and clean and all that crap. So they had a tradition of Monday night pizza, and later added every-other-Wednesday ice cream and Saturday morning French toast.

"You want to order?" John asked, and handed over his cell phone. He'd already typed up the e-mail and saved it as a draft.

Xan read it out loud, carefully, making sure that John hadn't done anything radical like ask for asparagus or pineapple. A lot of the girls in Xan's class were already reading picture books; Xan had no interest in reading or writing, but John figured that was normal for a boy. He'd been like that himself, and Xan was great with numbers, so John let it slide that the only words Xan knew were from take-out menus. Xan announced that John hadn't made any mistakes, and said, "Here we go," while hitting send.

"Think we'll be home before they get there?" John asked. When Xan had been three he'd had a stage of desperate anxiety, when a question like that would have had him in tears, thinking that the pizza would be gone forever if they were late. Now that he was so much more mature, he just kicked John's seat and told him not to break the speed limit.

"Turn signal, Daddy," Xan said when they came to the Unitarian church. "That sign's go slow."

John muttered about backseat drivers, like he always did, and pulled into the apartment complex. The parking lot was separated from the buildings by a stand of pine trees. When John unbuckled the safety straps, Xan jumped down and ran ahead, past the laundry room and the wide strip of lawn where the kids played soccer.

"No pizza yet," Xan declared, looking in the mail box, and climbed the two steps to their landing. He jumped off, arms wide. "Pterodactyls can fly."

"Pterodactyls can wash their hands and then set the table," John said, pushing the door open. He kicked his shoes off in the direction of the closet. "Are you the kind of pterodactyl that wants milk or water with your pizza?"

"Yeah," Xan said, and flapped his way into the bathroom.

John had found videos of the Muppet show and given them to Xan for his last birthday. Xan had turned up his nose at first, but John had just shrugged and made popcorn and settled in on the sofa to watch by himself. It had taken Xan not even ten minutes to be sucked in by the silliness. They were both addicted now, so when the pizza came John turned the TV around so they could watch from the table while they ate.

When John was a kid, he'd envied the servants because they got to eat in the kitchen and watch TV. He'd had to change his clothes for dinner and mind his manners. He didn't think he'd ever enjoyed eating as a child. Most nights when he had asked permission to leave the table, his stomach had hurt worse than it would have if he'd been hungry.

Nancy had warned John that Xan couldn't be his do-over, but John figured what was the past for, if not to learn from?

After the accident, John had terrible dreams. He dreamt about being on fire, thrown backwards and out, about water closing over his head and darkness and pain. He'd had sleeping pills for a while, but either they knocked him so deep into sleep that he had trouble waking the next day, or they wouldn't let him rouse himself from the nightmares. After one night spent burning alive in the dream, he stopped taking the pills and started keeping a stack of paperbacks handy for when he woke too early, grieving and alone.

John was more than ready for the weekend by four Friday afternoon. Atlantic Consolidated's shipment on Tuesday had consisted of totally random lots of all the parts John had requisitioned, and he'd had his phone headset on for the past two days, talking himself hoarse. It took ages to reach the it's not you, it's not us, maybe it's a computer glitch stage, but now they were stalled at the so what are we going to do part of crisis resolution. Atlantic insisted they could just add whatever was short in their next shipment, and John tried to hammer it home that he had clients who were expecting filled orders next week who were going to be very upset.

Atlantic somehow thought that was John's problem.

John was waiting for Alan to grant permission to threaten to find another supplier, but on this short notice Atlantic knew as well as John did that it would cost them a small fortune.

On top of that, he'd had six e-mails of varying degrees of doom from Customer Support and Service about complaints relating to Parts NR-631 and MC-741. John hoped to God that this wasn't going to lead to another recall.

After working through his 40-minute lunch hour, John begged for and got permission to work from home this weekend. He knew he was playing the single-parent card for sympathy and special favors, but he didn't care. Last-minute babysitters weren't cheap.

"Sheppard," Alan called across the room, sounding stiff and unnaturally jovial. "We have a visitor."

John figured he wasn't going to like this. He made a horrible face while still in the privacy of his cubicle. He pulled his shoes on and did up the top buttons on his shirt and hoped that was presentable enough.

He arranged his face into bland friendliness as he walked over to Alan, who was having a hand-gesture competition with a sturdy-looking man in a rumpled blue suit. Alan introduced him as Rodney McKay, from the home office.

McKay—call me Rodney, ha, ha—beamed at John as if he'd found the Holy Grail. His handshake was a two-handed clasp, and it went on a little longer than John was comfortable with, while Rodney studied John intently, as if he was memorizing him. John didn't know if his own social skills had atrophied after years in a cubicle, or if Rodney was just kind of weird.

John extracted his hand and fished a business card out of his breast pocket, handing it over with an even wider insincere smile. Rodney took it with a bemused blink, and returned to his previous conversation, talking about the head office, and Canada, and some unspecified big changes that Alan nodded knowingly about.

John was having a mental conversation with himself about what to have for dinner, soup like he'd been planning or maybe, yeah, grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles, when Rodney stopped going on about restructuring and said, "I'll need John, here, of course. I need his input about Atlantic."

"Why don't you use meeting room two," Alan said immediately, gesturing with wide generous magnanimity and ignoring John's dirty look. He scattered helpful-sounding phrases that didn't actually commit him to anything: "Let me know. . . anything you need. . . ."

"I'll go grab my laptop," John said, holding a sigh in. He snagged his cell phone as well, wincing when he checked the time.

The meeting room was windowless, but it did have a whiteboard on one wall, which Rodney looked pleased about. He looked pleased with everything, really. He was very smiley and tended to finish his remarks to John with that short laugh, as if these were in-jokes between them. He kept mentioning Canada, in a leading way, until John had to ask if he was Canadian, to which Rodney said he was, ha, ha.

Then John heard about the majestic north, the ice fields and auroras, the Mounties, the pods of whales off the British Columbia coast. He also learned all about Rodney's allergies and health concerns when poor Thomas from accounting showed up with a pot of coffee, a box of Danish cookies, and a put-upon expression.

Most of these statements were followed by hopeful little wide-eyed glances at John. At first, John felt like he'd walked into some spy-versus-spy LARP adventure, but then he suddenly started to wonder if Rodney was hitting on him.

He let Rodney talk his way through a cookie, something about astrology and Norse mythology now, and eyed him speculatively.

John hadn't been involved with anyone since Nancy died; he hadn't been with a guy since college. He was rusty with even the most basic interpersonal communications, and he didn't think he was ready to start dating, not with Xan still so small and needy, but. . . it was kind of nice to be flirted with. Even in such a weird way.

He refilled Rodney's mug and gave him a smile with a little lift of his eyebrows. Rodney dropped the cookie he was just picking up and stopped talking. John felt a glow of smugness; yeah, he still had it. He leaned back in his chair, slow and easy, knees apart.

"So how the hell did you end up in the exciting world of inventory control?" Rodney burst out, as if he was dying to know. "Were you a type-A child?"

That wasn't what John thought Rodney would ask. He'd braced himself for a clumsy pass, if he was right about the flirting, or for Rodney to start in on how John was handling the whole Atlantic mess. But maybe this was the getting to know you phase?

He grinned and spread his hands. "I worked here summers in college. Joined the military, left the military, came back." He let his shoulders roll with the inexorable acquiescence to his fate. "I get to be a supervisor this time," he said, and widened his eyes like he couldn't believe his good luck. "The pay's good, I have insurance, the hours are okay." He used that as an opening to flip his laptop open and start discussing Atlantic.

Rodney really got off on spreadsheets; it was a little disturbing. John found himself swept up in Rodney's intent focus on details and clear way of weaving them into one big, bad picture, but then John's body clock went off, a sudden bone-deep feeling that he needed to be gone. He checked the time on his cell phone and winced.

"Can you give me an idea of how much longer this will take?" he asked. He tried to shake loose the tension in his shoulders, and told himself that there shouldn't be anything embarrassing about just. . . saying it. "I have to call my son's daycare if I'm going to be late." John was never late; he prided himself on that.

Rodney's eyes had gone wide, and now they narrowed, his laser-sharp concentration refocusing from corporate incompetence to John. "You're married."

That was insulting. As if John would have been flirting back if—"My wife's dead," he said, and tipped his head to the side. "I just. . . family's important."

Rodney went uncharacteristically quiet, digesting that.

"It must be hard," Rodney ventured, carefully, as if he was entering uneasy conversational territory. "For you. For your son, with no mother."

John shrugged, and then realized that he was biting his lips together, the way he did when he was trying to hold things in. "My mother died when I was about Xan's age. My father buried himself in work and basically left me to be raised by wolves and housekeepers until he remarried. I'm trying to not make the mistakes he did, but, ah."

"Trying counts for a lot," Rodney said. "Trying counts for everything. Go get your kid. We can finish this tomorrow."

"It's Saturday," John said, wincing. "I wasn't planning on coming to the office this weekend."

"Your place?" Rodney asked. "It'd only be a couple of hours. You could come to my hotel, but, um, not so interesting for a kid. There's porn on the TV and beer in the fridge."

"Let me draw you a map," John said, snagging McKay's yellow legal pad. "If you eat meat, come around eleven, I'm making burgers."

"I love meat," Rodney said, all shining eyes and enthusiasm. John managed not to laugh out loud, but he grinned so hard the corners of his eyes ached.

John didn't dream about the accident that night. He dreamt about Rodney McKay instead, but he still snapped awake hours before dawn, feeling like he'd lost something.

Rodney rang John's doorbell at exactly eleven. John waved him in.

His apartment was small, but John didn't apologize. At least it was mostly clean; John had walked around earlier with a cardboard box and collected all the stuff from the floor and on top of the tables and television. The box was hidden behind his closed bedroom door, where Rodney wouldn't stumble over it and realize what a bad housekeeper John was.

John pointed at the coffee table now. He'd set up a mini-office, with a few pens and some scratch pads and post-it notes, which were always useful. His laptop was open and on, the annoying Windows XP screensaver bouncing slowly across the screen. "I thought we could set up here. Do you want a drink? I have beer, water, milk, iced tea. . . ."

Rodney set his briefcase down on the sofa and sat next to it, taking out a thick stack of files and an ominous handful of flash drives. "Is your beer any good?"

"No," John said, straight-faced. "Flavor destroys good beer."

Rodney snorted and gave John another of those flirty half-smiles. "Maybe after lunch. Water now, but no lemon. Allergy. Deadly."

"You told me already," John said, and went into the tiny galley kitchen, hoping he'd remembered to make ice. Yes. All his drinking cups were bright Crayola colors and made of unbreakable plastic. He gave Rodney a bendy straw as well, just for the hell of it.

When he came out, remembering to snag a coaster at the last second, Xan was hovering in the short hallway between the bedrooms and the living-dining room. John put Rodney's cup down, and Rodney muttered, "I feel like I'm being watched."

John went and grabbed Xan, swinging him up to sit on his hip. "This is Xan," he said to Rodney. "Xan, this is Mr. McKay from Daddy's work."

Xan ignored Rodney as hard as was humanly possible, and Rodney shot John an annoyed look. John knew just what had ruffled Rodney's feathers; later, he'd have to explain that Xan only knew one kind of doctor, so Rodney's title would only make Xan more nervous.

Xan put his face to John's ear like he was going to whisper, but instead said loudly, "I want juice."

John mentally balanced bribery versus tooth decay, and realized he was nervous himself because he wanted Rodney to like Xan. "Sure, buddy," he said. "Just today, because we have a guest."

Xan fought to get down. "Crabbery," he said, and, "you get it for me," even though once John let him go he was already streaking towards the refrigerator.

John was kind of touchy about people insinuating that Xan was spoiled; he hoped Rodney wouldn't say anything. He didn't see how taking two seconds to get Xan a cranberry juicebox, settle him at the dining table, and poke the straw in carefully could be seen as a bad thing, especially when he knew Xan was only being clingy because he needed the attention. John totally got Xan's unease. But a lot of adults felt it was appropriate, necessary, even, to call Xan on not acting like a big boy, crap like that.

"After, you can show Mr. McKay your Legos, okay?" John said, and gave Xan's shoulders a squeeze. "We just have to work a bit."

"Kay," Xan said, and swung his feet.

"He looks so just like you that it's kind of scary," Rodney said when John dropped down next to him with an insincere half-smile of apology. "Xan with an X or a Z?" He pronounced Z zed. John figured that was a Canadian thing.

"It's short for Alexander," John said, poking his laptop until it bleeped and entering his password to get at his work files. "My wife and I," and he tipped his head to indicate the family pictures on the wall behind the TV that Rodney had been surreptitiously studying, "had bad first names, we wanted something better."

"John's not that bad," Rodney said, and then proved he was a mind reader when he said, "At least it's better than Rodney."

"What the hell were our parents thinking?" John agreed, relieved that Rodney wasn't going to criticize his kid, and got down to work.

Rodney wanted to go through all John's correspondence with Atlantic for the past four years. When noon rolled around and Rodney was still perusing the e-mail attachments, John excused himself to go cook, telling Rodney to go nuts with the data.

"These files are read-only, right?" Rodney asked, looking at John like he was stupid. "Because I could make malicious changes and destroy your career, if I was evil, and you don't know that I'm not."

"I'm pretty sure you're not evil," John said, dragging the word long, eeeevil. "You're cute."

"Cute," Rodney echoed in outrage. John took the hamburger patties he'd made that morning out of the fridge and started heating up his frying pan. He heard Rodney typing, and then a loud huff of satisfied laughter as Rodney discovered what John had told his computer to do if anyone fucked with his data. John figured he'd let Rodney work his own way out of that trap.

When the burgers were done and arranged quasi-artistically with sides of salad and oven-baked potato wedges, John brought the plates to the table and found Xan building Lego fortifications around Rodney's PDA. Rodney looked like he was intently comparing two files, but he was muttering something under his breath that sounded like, "So you think you've thwarted Dr. Know-it-all this time, Mini-Me."

"That's not my name," Xan said, and made a Lego guy jump off the wall onto the keyboard. It bounced.

"Lunch," John announced, wishing he had his video camera on hand. "Xan, why don't you show Mr. McKay where he can wash his hands?"

"No," Xan said, not budging. He dropped a handful of blocks onto the little toy man.

John bit his bottom lip and counted to five in his head. "Um, yeah," he countered, as neutrally as he could, despite the fact that Xan could raise his blood pressure like no one else. "Lunch is not an option, kiddo."

"Why?" Xan said. He didn't even glance in John's direction, which just went to prove that he was stalling.

John knew by now not to give ultimatums or be goaded into anger; he'd survived the temper tantrum stage, after all. He was looking for a non-confrontational angle when Rodney said, "Oh, hey, lunch," with no subtlety at all as he brushed Xan's toys aside and shut the computer with a snap. "Best meal of the day."

John rolled his eyes, but Xan stood up when Rodney did, so John backed carefully into the kitchen to pour drinks. A moment later, John heard Rodney being told the whole story of soap and germs, and after that he heard him singing the most sarcastic version of the alphabet song he'd ever heard.

Rodney apparently forgave John for the humiliation of being treated like a preschooler, though, when he dug into his food.

"You can cook," he said, not quite before swallowing, and his glare at John was accusative.

"Only on weekends," John shot back. "Weekdays, I let Xan use the stove and the big knives."

"I make salad," Xan said, looking insulted. "I make potatoes."

John nodded at Rodney. "He does. He's an excellent potato masher. He has a secret technique." He handed Rodney another napkin for the ketchup on his chin, seeing as how the one on the table next to Rodney's plate was being ignored. Rodney took it, looking confused, and put it on the other side of his plate.

"So, Xan." Rodney said, looking across the table at Xan. Xan studied his mini tomatoes, rolling them around with his fork.

John had re-read a bunch of books he remembered from his own childhood because he wasn't sure which ones were age-appropriate. He'd had to read The Little Prince in French as a kid and hated it, so he was holding off on inflicting it on Xan. But Saint-Euxpéry had really nailed the way adults asked children the stupidest questions. John wondered if Rodney was going to be nosy about Xan's school, or his friends, or whether he took lessons in anything. Or maybe he was going to ask the kinds of questions that John always leapt in to deflect, about which girls Xan liked at school, or if he missed his mother.

"What's the coolest thing you can make from Legos?" Rodney went on, looking earnest, planting his elbows on the table and leaning forward.

Disregard of manners and an interest in toys was obviously the way to loosen Xan's tongue. Before the meal was finished Rodney had used up most of a legal pad sketching designs in black Sharpie for rockets and race cars and a pretty awesome-looking giant robot with missiles that really fired.

"I want one of those," John said, handing Rodney his after-dinner coffee as he watched Xan add the finishing touches to the robot. It looked like it had old-fashioned television aerials sprouting out of its head. Xan was working on what looked like a vacuum cleaner hose. "What's it do?"

"It blows stuff up," Xan said, with casual negligence. "But it doesn't make a mess. Can I bring my Lego box out?"

"No," John said. "There's still a hole in my foot from the last time you left them on the living room floor. But you can show Rodney your room after your nap," he added. "Maybe he'll help you build something."

Xan smooshed May I please be excused into one word as he carried his plate into the kitchen, dropping it in the dishpan with a clunk. "I'm going to nap really fast," he told Rodney, and ran off to brush his teeth. Miss Alysha really stressed the importance of good health habits, and Xan took every habit to heart.

"God, I wish my life had naptime." Rodney sighed, looking envious. "He's a good kid. Were you that polite when you were little?" He didn't wait for an answer, just shook his head and added, "Long ago, before you became charmingly manipulative like you are now."

"Let's go over the warehouse inventories," John said brightly. "Now that it's quiet. Also, I have—" he grabbed the Sharpie and scrawled homemade cherry pie on a page next to a sketch of some kind of jet.

"If I fall in love with you, it will be all your fault," Rodney informed John, picking up his coffee mug and crossing back to the computer.

Flirting is go, John thought, vindicated, and then realized that he'd been left with all the kitchen clean-up.

The rest of the afternoon passed quickly. In between slices of pie, Rodney made cryptic telephone calls, the gist of which seemed to be that head office lawyers would be sicced on Atlantic, taking that mess out of John's hands. He was still going to get caught by the impending parts recall storm, but as Rodney said with a high-wattage smile, John was so good at that sort of thing.

For that, John made Rodney build Legos for a whole hour after Xan woke up. He actually considered not letting Rodney leave until John had a cool new robot for blowing stuff up, but Xan's friend Lanie showed up with a soccer ball and Xan abandoned the adults at top speed.

"So he, ah, he can just go off like that?" Rodney asked, flopping onto the sofa as if playing with plastic blocks had enervated him. "You don't need to be around?"

John snorted. "I'm not that overprotective." He sat down next to Rodney, maybe a little too close. "Plus, I can see them from the window." He pointed.

"I'm just surprised," Rodney said. "That he can argue with you and go outside without you, and that he's so imaginative when he plays. It's not what I expected."

"I guess you're not around a lot of kids." John bumped Rodney's knee with his own. "They're people, too, just, you know, shorter."

"My sister has a daughter," Rodney said, nudging John back. "She's got McKay genes, so she's smart, but she also collects pink rhinestone jewelry. She has a tiara. And a magic wand."

"The horror," John said, deadpan, rolling his head to the side so he could meet Rodney's eyes. The corner of Rodney's mouth twitched up, and John leaned over to press his mouth to Rodney's, very carefully.

Rodney let John kiss him for a moment, but John knew there was something wrong. He pulled away, scooting back on the sofa and saying, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," even as his shoulders tensed hard with the need to run.

"No," Rodney said. "I mean, that's not—but you've got nothing to apologize for."

"You're from the head office," John said, numbly, and of course that's what it was. Occam's razor. Rodney had no reason to be interested in John except professionally. He was here to, to see how John handled pressure. The idea that made the most sense had nothing to do with John's libido and everything to do with the fact that he was probably being considered for promotion. Or had been, until he kissed Rodney.

He dropped his head, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes and trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with him. "I'm sorry," he said, because he had to say something. "I have never assaulted anyone like that in my whole life."

"I'm forty years old, single, and used to have more hair," Rodney said dryly. "Forgive me for not being traumatized because you find me irresistibly sexy."

John snorted and didn't tell Rodney that he had the whole thing backwards, that it was John who'd been so desperate to be wanted. "I like you," he said, and made himself sit up, eyes on his fingers as they picked restlessly at the rip in the knee of his jeans. He smiled so it sounded less like a eulogy. "I've been in the cubicle farm too long, you just seem—so alive."

"God," Rodney said, fervently, and John snuck another look at him. Rodney quirked the corner of his mouth up, as if they were sharing a private joke. "I have to go." He rolled his hands around in the air. "I really want to just push you down on the sofa and cover you and never let go of you ever. But," he spread both hands, palms wide, at the coffee table's litter of documents and files, "I'm here on business so I have to go." His tongue flashed out to wet his lips. "I have to talk to people. About business. Home office stuff. I'll be back tomorrow morning?"

John wasn't sure if the warmth in his stomach was gooey embarrassment and shame, or him being charmed by Rodney's enthusiastic dorkiness. "Okay," he said. "I'll, ah. Work harder at being professional. Keep my hands to myself."

Rodney winced, and busied himself shoving his things back into his briefcase. "When this is all done, just. . . ask me then."

"Yeah, okay," John said, and got up to show Rodney to the door. Rodney shook his hand again as he left, another lingeringly long grasp, and then he was stalking past the pick-up soccer game, down the path to the parking lot, his briefcase swinging, and not looking back.

That night, John had the nightmare again. The terrible rushing roar of flames, the searing concussive slap of air from the explosion, the sudden silence and the realization that he was burning. John could see his bones. He fell into the water and breathed in deeply as he sank. The most terrible thing about it all, John thought as he snapped awake, heart racing, face wet, was how much he regretted wanting to die.

The next morning Rodney showed up at nine, while John and Xan were just walking back from the laundry room with the basket of wet clothes.

"I figure we save about twenty dollars a month by hanging the laundry in the back yard," John explained, trying to balance the basket on his hip so he could open the front door without exposing Rodney to all of his underwear. Rodney snorted and took the key from him, unlocking the door and pushing it open with a sarcastic flourish.

"You could ask for help, you know," Rodney said, parking himself on the sofa while John dropped his basket by the sliding garden doors. Xan got the bucket of clothespins out from under the kitchen sink.

"Go ahead and start," John said. "Computer's just there, and I know you memorized my password yesterday."

"I brought your son a present. Well, more like a bribe so he likes me despite the way I'm using up all your father-son bonding time." Rodney pulled a plastic shopping bag out of his briefcase. It rattled in a way that sounded ominously familiar.

"You didn't have to do that," John said, but Xan was already making a beeline over to Rodney. "Say thank you," John reminded.

"Thank you," Xan parroted. He pulled the Lego kit out from the bag and stared at it in awe. John caught Rodney's eye and mouthed wow, with total sincerity. Rodney's cheeks turned red.

"I'll help you put the robot together while your dad hangs out the laundry," Rodney said, shoving work-related stuff aside on the coffee table. "Or do you think you can do it yourself?"

"You can watch me," Xan offered, and John grinned as Rodney accepted.

The postage-stamp sized back yard was surrounded by a wooden fence high enough to make it perfect for stringing clotheslines. John hung the sheets front and back, quickly, and then pegged the clothes up on the middle lines, out of modesty. Xan liked to pick out loud cartoon boxers for John when they went to K-Mart, but he didn't want to share with Rodney that sometimes he had Bugs Bunny or Superman on his ass.

"Aren't you guys done yet?" he asked when he came back in the house, blinking to adjust his eyes.

"We are," Rodney said. "Xan's just going to go into his room and make a robot house. Maybe a castle."

"Excellent," John said, hoping that the Bill and Ted spin on the word would hit Rodney with all his intended sarcasm intact. He waited until Xan and the robot left before adding, "You want to talk to me without Xan around. I guess," he took a breath, "this is about yesterday." John dragged a chair from the table over and sat down, keeping a good physical distance between himself and Rodney. "Am I fired?"

Rodney's face pinched unhappily. "Not really," he said, and John thought he might be sick, that terrible nightmare feeling of falling and not being able to breathe. "Not because of the kiss," Rodney added. "Okay? But there are some things you have to know. That I thought you'd want to know, except, maybe now, maybe not. But you have to."

"That scored a seven point five on the Richter scale of verbal incoherence," John muttered, and Rodney, for some reason, looked pleased.

"Let me tell you a story," Rodney said, twisting so he faced John and crossing his arms. "There's an ancient city in the Pegasus Galaxy, and an expedition from Earth lives there. It's a group of scientists, local civilians, and soldiers, and the person who had the job of keeping them all safe from. . . everything was Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."

"Great," John said. He felt kind of queasy listening to this, the way he did when some memory of his childhood fought its way into his consciousness. Rodney was obviously crazy, or possibly belonged to a cult. Unless. . . unless. "Hand me the dice so I can generate my player character."

"Let me tell you about John Sheppard," Rodney went on, looking miserable and serious in equal measures. Rodney talked about missions and games and arguments; and then he stopped himself short mid-sentence.

"John Sheppard's my best friend," he said, his voice slower, heavier, that clunky awkwardness making it seem achingly honest. "Six months ago a Wraith dart crashed on one of Atlantis' piers. When it blew up, it sprayed this horribly corrosive chemical cocktail over everyone close by. We had to put you into stasis because. . . because you were hurt so badly you'd have died before we could save you."

"Bones," John blurted out, images from his nightmares superimposing themselves over his vision. Fleshless fingers, blackened skin. "I saw my bones. Under the water."

"We can fix that," Rodney said immediately. Empathetic, leaning forward, hands clasped together. "Trust me, we've had the busiest six months imaginable. It's not just me, I know you know how I get, this isn't hubris. Jeannie and Sam and Bill and Radek and Jennifer and Carson and everyone in two galaxies has been in on this. The medical technology has been refined and tested, it works." He grimaced. "It's a simple procedure involving nanites."

John shuddered. The word nanites made him cold straight through; terrified. He was remembering things, huge chunks of his life falling into place like Tetris pieces. His brain supplied faces that went with those names, and histories, things that had happened in another life. In his life. He remembered people dying, and monsters—God, the Wraith. "Okay," he said.

"Okay—what?" Rodney looked baffled.

He knew what Rodney had been trying to tell him for the past few days, reminders of things he was supposed to know. Things he'd let himself forget, except in dreams. "Okay, I'll wake up now. Isn't that what you want?" John knew his expression was tight, but he crimped an eyebrow up anyway. "Is there a magic word?"

"You don't want to say goodbye?"

John absolutely did not want to do that. He just. . . he wanted to never remember any of this. He felt his mouth twist the way it did when he was angry. "To all my imaginary little friends? What would be the point?"

"John, " Rodney started, and John thought fuck you as hard as he could—

—and opened his eyes into a world of blinding light and asphyxiation and pain that crushed him down into blessed oblivious nothing.

After coming out of medical stasis, John didn't feel anything for a couple of weeks. He emerged from the absolute nothing of general anesthesia to the queasy disconnect of pain management drugs. The process of integrating his newly-generated body parts to his central nervous system was apparently excruciating, so he didn't mind missing that at all. His lungs had been damaged badly enough that Jennifer kept him on the ventilator and encouraged him to sleep. He didn't dream, not once.

"So you're," Jennifer paused in a place that didn't require a pause; grateful to her though John was, her voice got on his last nerve, "good to go, Colonel."

"Thanks," John said. His voice still didn't sound right to his own ears. It was too soft, raspy when he was sitting still and prone to helpless breathlessness when he was moving.

"I got your stuff," Ronon said. "Teyla and Rodney are fixing your room up. You need a chair with wheels?"

"Just walk slow," John said. His physical therapist told him he was making excellent progress. She was optimistic that he might regain more than 90% of his previous manual dexterity. John had made Jennifer show him the pictures taken of him before Rodney threw him in the nanite box to be rebuilt. He'd known his arms had been bad—he'd been dreaming about seeing his bones, after all—but Rodney hadn't mentioned that John's face had been half-gone. And his hair.

His new skin was just starting to produce light, baby-fine hair. His head looked ridiculous. His fingers were too thin and didn't like to obey, but he could chew and talk just fine now. His therapist even had him practicing smiling. Just in case.

He was bored stupid, anxious to reclaim his life. Unlike the VR, which Rodney made sure to tell him at least three times a day was paused, saved, backed up, and waiting, Atlantis had gone on without John, seven months and counting, now. The Wraith continued to use booby-traps like the one that nearly killed him, against humans and each other. Lorne had been running a disinformation campaign with Todd, not letting the Wraith get word that John had been so badly hurt, but he had had to inform the SGC, who had put Caldwell in charge.

John didn't know where he fit any more, but his short-term goals were to get out and kick some Wraith ass. He felt the universe owed him some ass-kicking; just maybe not for a while yet.

"Go a little slower," John wheezed, halfway to the transporter, leaning against the wall and hoping Ronon's bulk would keep any passers-by from noticing him.

Ronon bounced John's duffel bag in his hand as if it weighed nothing. "You could carry this," he suggested, "and I could carry you."

"Screw you," John said, pressing one arm tight to his stomach and taking a few slow steps.

"I know you want to be better." Ronon put his arm around John's waist, and damn if that didn't make walking easier. "You're not, though. Don't push people away. We were worried."

"Lorne said," wheeze, and John hated sounding like Jennifer, "you pulled me out. Of the water." John imagined that he must have thought water would stop the burning. If he was thinking at all, and not just panicked. He didn't remember.

"Would have done it for anyone." Ronon's hand squeezed over John's hip, comforting like an anchor. "McKay was pretty scary. You should be nice to him."

They stopped at the transporter, and John waved it open and tapped in the destination. When the doors opened, it was just a short walk down the corridor to his quarters. John shook Ronon's arm off as he waved his hand over the door scanner; he was back, he was home, and he was going to cross the threshold on his own two feet.

Teyla welcomed him with hands on his shoulders and her forehead against his. Kanaan called a greeting from where he was having trouble getting John's curtains re-hung, while Teyla explained she'd had all his fabrics washed. From her delicate phrasing, John suspected the sheets had been nasty. Rodney was in the bathroom unit and didn't appear immediately. When he did, it was with damp spots on his shirt and loud ire about improper ventilation and bacteria.

"You have a new toothbrush," he told John, a vicious edge to his voice, as if something was John's fault. John nearly said that it should go well with his new teeth, but he figured he shouldn't. Ronon could probably beat him up with one finger.

Rodney had been a lot nicer to John in the stasis VR, John decided, and watched as Torren happily pulled everything out of his bookcase. Ronon egged him on, and Teyla was not pleased.

John hated having people hover over him in the infirmary; he always felt as if he should pretend to be better, even if he just wanted to curl up and beg for drugs. He didn't mind so much when he had visitors in his room. He sat down on his bed with his back to the headboard and told people to help themselves to beer and stale chips. Kanaan and Teyla went down to the mess and returned with loaded trays. Food tasted better outside the infirmary, John thought, and fell asleep still holding his fork.

He woke up in his dark and quiet room, feeling disoriented. He'd been manhandled down the bed and stretched out on his back, and his boots and socks and pants were gone. John wondered if that had been Ronon; he hoped so. He didn't want Teyla seeing him mostly naked.

The light by the desk went on, and Rodney said, "You should brush your teeth."

John sat up, his bones heavy and his thoughts slow and slippery. "Come here." Rodney didn't move. "Please," John said, and hey, that really was the magic word, because Rodney got up and came and sat beside him.

"You forgot me," Rodney said on a sigh, hands clasped down between his knees. "I keep coming back to that."

"How about," John said, pulling his jacket over his head because his fingers still weren't good with buttons, and then tugging at Rodney's, "we don't talk about it, and just go to sleep?" Rodney batted his hands away, and stood to take off his trousers as well as his uniform jacket.

"Did I ever tell you I loved you?" Rodney asked, sounding as annoyed about that as he had been about the toothbrush.

"Once," John said; he remembered the scene pretty clearly. "First year. In your defense, it was in the middle of good sex."

"Huh." Rodney padded over in his underwear to turn the light off, and found the way back to the bed by touch and stumbling. John caught him, one hand on Rodney's arm, and pulled him down.

"You don't need to say it." John had said the words precisely once, when they'd been back on Earth and Rodney had wanted John to find someone so he could double-date with Rodney and Jennifer. Jesus, Rodney, give it a rest, he'd shouted. How do you not know I'm still in love with you?

John had had too much to drink. He'd been ashamed of himself later, for yelling and being melodramatic, and for saying things that would make Rodney feel guilty. Their breakup had been low-key and amiable, not affecting their work or their team or their friendship at all. John had worked hard to make that so. After he lost his temper, he'd made a point of going out twice in the next week and getting laid. It was easier to do that on Earth.

Jennifer ended things with Rodney shortly after, for reasons John didn't understand and was too superstitious to ask about. Once Atlantis was back in Pegasus Rodney had wooed John with Fawlty Towers marathons and Ferrara Pan candies. John gave in easily. After all, he'd already told Rodney he was a sure thing.

"I brought you back from the dead," Rodney said. "Most people just get crappy flowers or ugly neckties."

John brushed the back of his hand down the side of Rodney's face, trying not to jab a finger in his eye accidentally. "Hey," he said, and pulled Rodney closer. "Hey."

"The thing is, I do love you," Rodney said, and he sounded lost. "Like I said in the VR, you're my best friend."

"I didn't want to forget you." John thought that was the important thing, and he found Rodney's cheek with his hand and leaned over to brush light kisses down to the slant of Rodney's lips.

"I missed you," Rodney said, words falling straight into John's mouth.

"Sleep," John said back. He put his ankle between Rodney's and closed his eyes and was gone.

"While you were in stasis," the new psychiatrist started. John could never remember the man's name.

"I had a crappy nine to five job inputting data," John cut in. "McKay says Atlantis initiated cycles of mental stimulation, like a brain treadmill or something." Rodney also said that that whole other world was still there, frozen, waiting for John to return. Like it was a game. Like it wasn't real.

"Do you remember what you dreamt in detail?" The man leaned forward.

"I can't talk any more," John said, and shoved himself to his feet.

The day after John was cleared for light duty, he met with Woolsey, Lorne, and Caldwell for the inevitable discussion of what was going to be done with him.

John had tried to find out as much as he could about what he'd missed, but now he was handed every mission report, all the minutes from command staff meetings, databurst top-menus, notices of deaths and medical emergencies, and a dizzying number of communications from the SGC. All the data took up gigabytes on John's laptop. He wondered what poor minion had had the tedious job of preparing all that for him.

Woolsey ran the meeting, seating himself at the head of the table and indicating that John should sit by his right hand with Caldwell on the left. Under Woolsey's uniform jacket he wore a white button-down and a navy-blue necktie with some kind of small diagonal pattern. John thought that the whole arrangement was meant to be symbolic; that Woolsey was present as both commander of Atlantis and lawyer, mediator and—possibly—kindly yet stern patriarch. In all those roles, he suspected Woolsey planned to make announcements, not solicit ideas or opinions.

Caldwell thought so too, John guessed, judging by the constipated expression on his face. He tried to tone down anything that might seem antagonistic in his posture. This was one time he really didn't want to piss anyone off, intentionally or unintentionally.

"Gentlemen," Woolsey said, and cleared his throat. "Let me first welcome Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard back. Atlantis has not been the same without you."

John noted that he didn't say whether the change was for the better or worse. "Thank you," John said, inclining his head with what he hoped was a polite social smile. There was a numb spot on his cheek that made it hard to judge. "I'm looking forward to—" except he wasn't sure what he had to look forward to—"getting back into the swing of things." Not quite as pretty a turn of phrase, but equally meaningless.

"Excellent," Woolsey said, and shuffled some papers. For dramatic effect, John thought, before getting right down to how things were going to swing.

Lorne had taken over the lead gate team, and he would keep that position. Caldwell outranked John and was used to command of Atlantis after transferring the Daedalus to Colonel Yi-Jae Sobol. Basic math suggested that left John with nothing, but Woolsey gave John a quelling look and segued decisively into, "So the US Air Force, the IOA, and the command staff of this Atlantis base have decided to divide the responsibilities of military commander into off-world, with an emphasis on exploration, first contact, and gate team supervision, and on-world, emphasizing primarily the security of this city and its citizens, maintenance and exploration of Atlantis proper, and diplomatic relations with our allies."

John tried not to think how much it would bug him to have to deal with Caldwell in charge of Atlantis' security. He could just imagine new rules springing up like pernicious and strangling weeds. But he could escape that by scheduling himself off-world, maybe all the time. . . .

"This has been through much heated discussion," Woolsey said, giving Caldwell a level look which was returned with a twitch that suggested a sneer. "Generals Landry and O'Neill were consulted, as was Colonel Carter. Given the uncertain prognosis for Colonel Sheppard's complete recovery," and John's mind started going no, no, no, "his genetic advantage with Ancient technology, and the respect many of our trade allies and enemies have for him, the most logical position for him is on-world."

For the first time ever, Caldwell's sour glare at John seemed commiserating.

All John could think was that he had been elegantly and compassionately grounded.

Woolsey got him alone after the meeting broke up; Lorne had followed Caldwell out with an apologetic grimace. "You're not being punished," Woolsey said, puffing his chest up and clasping his arms behind his back. "We need you. Desperately. So much that we can't really spare you the time to recover from your, ah, injuries." He took a breath. "Any personnel you want, any resources, office furniture, just let me know."

John nodded, and coughed to make sure his voice wouldn't do anything embarrassing. "I'm a bit off balance."

Woolsey put a hand on his elbow and steered him towards the door, as if perhaps John meant that literally. "Teyla found you a lovely office suite. Centrally located, with big picture windows and a transporter that leads straight to the jumper bay. Four of the jumpers will be yours, of course."

"Of course," John echoed. That sounded okay.

"It's all on your computer," Woolsey said, offhand. "I know for you, this must seem like an incredible overnight change."

"Not really," John said. "I feel like I've been gone a long time."

"Interesting," Woolsey said, and John felt his stomach drop. He forgot that Woolsey was as smart as McKay in his own way, and just as inquisitive and persistent. But they arrived at a set of tall, narrow doors inset with stained glass, and Woolsey gave John a self-satisfied smile. "Here we are."

John waved them in, feeling awkward, and found Teyla and Ronon and Rodney waiting for him on a set of oddly-shaped Ancient sofa-ish things.

"Surprise," Rodney said, looking sour, as if he'd been kept waiting far too long seated in front of food he wasn't allowed to eat. John found himself starting to smile despite himself.

Then Ronon got up and grabbed him into a hug, getting John's feet all the way off the ground and spinning him around in a circle while John pounded on his back and threatened to kick his ass. John staggered when he was dropped. Teyla caught him by the arm, and then lowered her head so he could press his forehead to hers.

"I'll just be going," Woolsey said, and all of a sudden John felt magnanimous, as if he had at least as much sense of belonging that he could share some.

John sat down and waved a hand over the elaborate spread of food on the low table. "Stay for lunch." He picked up one of the hairy pink apple-like fruit that he recalled he'd liked, before. And they were pretty expensive; he wondered who'd put this party together.

"Well," Woolsey said, and Ronon clapped him on the shoulder and pointed at a chair. "Perhaps I will."

Lunch stretched until midafternoon, so when John was finally alone he figured he'd just spend a couple hours with his computer and call it a day. Light duty, he told himself. Enjoy it while you can.

He didn't actually leave his office until well past eight AST, and he radioed Rodney to meet him in his quarters because he was well and truly weirded out.

"What did that stasis thing do to me?" he demanded as soon as Rodney walked through the door. "Did you know I know how to operate every program Microsoft ever spawned?"

Rodney's shoulders hunched. "You'll probably be really good at touch-typing as well, when your hands are on-line," he said, walking past John to go sit on the edge of the bed. "You typed faster than me in the stasis VR. Plus, apparently you know how to cook."

"I can read Ancient," John hissed. "You never said Atlantis was, was programming me."

"Do I look like I know everything?" Rodney asked, tossing his hands into the air. "Well, yes, I do, but guess what? Things happen in this world that I have no clue about. Three years passed for you, relatively?"

"Nearly four and a half," John said. That was the thing about having a child. Xan's lifespan had become this indelible way for John to measure time. Another few months and Xan would have had another birthday. He wanted a DS, and John kind of wanted one, too, but he wasn't sure—

John made himself take a deep breath, then another, and think about getting ready for bed. He walked into the tiny bath cubicle and started the process of trying to brush his teeth without dropping the toothbrush or making a mess. His fingers were so balky they shook with the effort to make them obey his will.

"So that's a week of virtual time per day of realtime," Rodney said. John ran the numbers; yep, that was about right. "I wonder if the Ancients used the VR as an educational tool." Rodney's voice went tentative. "That probably explains how Xan turned into a real boy. He started out as a construct built from your memories, but then he learned and grew."

John swore as he spat out a mouthful of toothpaste.

"Do you know how to make ZPMs?" Rodney asked, sounding so suddenly excited that John actually checked his brain to see if he'd had any recipes for Ancient power sources stuck in there between MSWord macros and absolutely ridiculous Ancient pronouns and Betty Crocker.

"No," he said loudly around his toothbrush, when he realized that Rodney was waiting for an answer.

"Was Xan—was he there the whole time?" Rodney asked. "Because he seemed pretty. . . there."

John rinsed and spat and decided that he'd rather face Rodney than the bathroom mirror. "I was in South Korea when he was born. I left the Air Force when he was fourteen months old. Nancy was in a car crash four months after that. Pretty fucking elaborate set-up." He leaned in the bathroom doorway and shoved his hands in his pockets.

"It's not like people would know how much of him is you," Rodney said, abrupt and loud; obscene. "All parents share traits with their kids."

John felt kind of sick, wondering what Rodney thought he knew about him now. "I don't need or want," and he swallowed hard, trying to keep everything down, "to talk about how fucked up I am." He pulled off his clothes as he spoke and just let them fall until he was naked.

"I'm not sure," Rodney started, and John cut him off with, "Then get the hell out."

Rodney stood and stripped just as sloppily, while John went to sit on the edge of the bed. Rodney turned the lights off and ran his hands over John like he was checking for damage and didn't complain when John's returned touches were clumsy and rough.

"You should fuck me," John said, so wound up that he just wanted this to end as quickly as possible. Rodney didn't even argue. He just dug the stuff out of the back of the drawer, and John wondered if it'd be all right after all that time, and then decided he didn't care.

Orgasm hit John like being turned inside out, like an overexposed film starting to burn. He couldn't catch his breath; his lungs were on fire. He got lost for a while.

He came back down to hear Rodney's annoying classical music on the laptop speakers, and to the feel of Rodney's hand, heavy, keeping a steady rhythm on his chest. John was suddenly wide awake and exhausted down into his bones. He tried to get a hand up to his face, where there was something cool over his eyes, but Rodney intercepted his wrist with a firm grasp.

"Slow breaths," Rodney said. "Remember how Teyla made us all practice those Athosian Lamaze exercises? Not the pelvic floor stuff," he added. "Slowly, in and out."

"Did I fall out of bed?" John asked, his brain trying to connect the dots but failing.

"You had a panic attack," Rodney said shortly. "Nothing serious, except you were naked and covered in come and your primary physician is my ex-girlfriend, so I didn't really want to call her, except I thought it was a heart attack." Rodney's hand kept steadily to its beat despite the way his voice rose and fell with the tides of irritation and worry. John liked feeling Rodney's touch anchoring him. "She gave you something and you went out like a light." Rodney sighed. John wished he could open his eyes, but the wet washcloth (he thought that was what it was) was holding the headache at bay. "You should go back to sleep."

"Stay?" John asked, trying to shift over and make room. His arm dropped off the edge of the bed, and Rodney retrieved it, swearing, and said he was a menace, even as he turned the music down and slipped under the covers. John pressed back against Rodney, eliciting more grumbles, and said love you against the underside of Rodney's arm, which tightened around him so he could sleep.

Waking up to bright sunlight and embarrassing memories was a terrible way to start a day.

The only mercy was that Rodney was still asleep when John pulled himself out of bed and into the shower. The water drowned out Rodney's voice in his head, worried, saying John's name, and then Keller yawning her way through an examination while Rodney peppered her with questions. John knew she was discreet with his gay personnel, but there was no way she'd be cool with finding him in bed with Rodney. He'd have to go apologize. He'd rather be fed on by the Wraith.

He looked in the mirror just long enough to push his hair down so that hopefully it would cover the bare patches when it dried. He didn't need to shave yet, which was kind of disturbing, and not something he cared to dwell on.

Rodney was up and dressed when John came out, and looked as if he hadn't slept at all.

"I'm sorry about last night," John said, pulling on clothes like armor.

"It was a disaster," Rodney agreed. "I wish I'd been able to pass out for most of it." He picked John's watch up from the desk, looked at it, and winced. "I have to go off-world. Um."

John couldn't blame him for running away. "I'll talk to Keller," he said.

"She wants to scan your brain," Rodney said, bracingly. "Maybe it's something physical."

"Yeah, right." John straightened his jacket and waved towards the door. "I see more therapy in the future."

"Maybe you need it," Rodney said, and that was like an unexpected slap across the face. John couldn't hide his hurt fast enough; Rodney's mouth twisted down, his chin coming up. "I thought you were dying. Again. Except this time I'd killed you." He shook his head. "Maybe we need couple's therapy."

"Two for the price of one," John agreed, trying to reclaim some distance, and waved the door open. He went right, towards the infirmary, while Rodney swung left without saying goodbye. John figured he might as well get the hard part over first, and then maybe he'd be able to choke down some breakfast.

Keller was staring thoughtfully into the secured medicines cabinet when John walked in. He coughed, and she turned and immediately blushed.

Okay, that was worse than he'd thought.

"I need to apologize," John said, and she shooed him into her office, shut the door, and dropped into her chair without meeting his eyes. "Um. I really, really wish Carson had been around."

Keller snorted, and pulled a couple of granola bars out of her desk drawer. She offered him a choice between date and nut and cumin crunch. He took the cumin.

"Carson would have flipped," Keller said, ripping the wrapper down in strips. "He's not very open-minded about homosexuality, especially in connection with Rodney. The sheep jokes don't help," she added, and nibbled a bit off the end. She chewed thoughtfully. "I knew you and Rodney used to be," and she crossed her fingers with a raise of her eyebrows, "close," and now John was blushing; he hadn't realized until now that his ass was sore, but there was no way in hell he was going to squirm. "Were you sleeping with him when he and I—?"

John shook his head, hard and with conviction. "It ended well before Katie," he said. "And Rodney wouldn't cheat, we didn't, it was after—um."

Jennifer was really working on her bite of food. John was glad he hadn't chosen the dates; he hated sticky healthy things. "We broke up," she filled in for him, covering her mouth because she was still chewing. "We were too much alike," she said, and held up a finger while she ducked back and rummaged in her drawer again, this time coming up with a half-empty bottle of water. She took a swallow and went on. "Academically and professionally, I'm kind of heading down the same path he took? So he'd tell me I was an idiot for wanting to do something, and then I felt like I should do it anyway just because Rodney McKay said no. Or if I didn't do it, then he acted like it was all because of him. And that bled over," she said, leaning forward. "Into our personal life. It was either doubt my own judgment all the time, or let him go."

"Sanity or Rodney," John said, nodding, feeling his mouth curling up at the corners. "How the hell does Zelenka do it?"

Jennifer jabbed her granola bar at him. "How do you do it?"

John thought that was a joke, and then he realized that she was serious. Not accusatory, but honestly curious.

It wasn't like John hadn't had plenty of time over the years to think about it, but he wasn't sure how to fold all his ideas into as few words as possible. He turned his granola bar end over end, practicing manual dexterity, before saying, very carefully, "I'm pretty sure I'm doing it all wrong."

Jennifer put the stub end of her granola bar down and gave John a level look that reminded him, with the sudden urgency of knowing he'd said too much, that she was his doctor.

"I want you to see Dr. Patel," she said. "Work on your anxiety issues. It's not uncommon to have problems after a traumatic experience. And you should talk about Rodney." She paused, and corrected herself. "You should have someone you can talk to in safety and privacy. About Rodney. I'm not exactly objective," she added, and looked unsubtly at the clock on her desk. "You should maybe eat that after I look at your brain, and things."

"Sounds like a plan," John said, and stuck the granola bar in his pocket.

John got through the rest of the day because he had to, and brought his dinner back to his room so he could stretch out on the bed and reacquaint himself with his graphic novels while trying not to drop the fork or the food on them. He wanted Rodney to read his mind and just show up, which was unfair, but he kept stopping himself from calling to see if Rodney was back. He felt like an idiot when Rodney did finally show up. John eyed him, feeling awkward and exposed as Rodney settled in on the sofa.

"Good trip?" he asked, putting volume 3 of Wormhole X-treme! down.

"Yes," Rodney said. "What did Jennifer say?"

John pointed vaguely towards the bathroom. "I have more psych appointments, but luckily I also have pills to keep me from getting depressed about that."

Rodney frowned. "I don't think grief can be medicated away."

That was rich, coming from Rodney. "You mocked Bill Lee for weeks when his World of Warcraft character died."

"I was wrong."

"You got everyone to send condolence cards. It was this huge joke."

"I was wrong. You know I feel physical pain saying that, don't make me repeat myself." Rodney leaned forward, elbows planted on his knees, shoulders rounding defensively. "I spoke with Carson, who knows everything there is to know about cloning and, thanks to you, medical nanites. We can clone, well, you, and move Xan's consciousness in. Totally doable, more or less what Carson the Second is, actually, if you're open-minded enough to accept that intelligent life can come into existence within a VR. I'd mention Replicator Ava here, but I think that might skeeve you. Would it?"

"My boyfriend, the mad scientist." John dropped the book over the edge of the bed. He wished he hadn't eaten supper. It wasn't so much that his stomach hurt, more like his whole middle was going ominously numb. "Thank you, no."

"You're a good dad."

"It was a fucking VR, I'd have been good at anything." John meant to shout, but he was too tired suddenly to manage proper volume. "In real life, you hate kids, I was just dead for half a year, there are Wraith out there." He jerked the words to a halt, feeling control slipping. "I'm tired. It's been a long day."

"Do you want me—" and Rodney made a round little hollow gesture with his hands.

"If you want," John said. He slid down on top of the covers, curled on his side, and shut his eyes. But his stupid body wouldn't release him until he heard Rodney pick the graphic novel up from the floor, the steady susurration of pages telling John that Rodney wasn't going anywhere, that he was going to stay.

John had never been one to remember his dreams, and he hated that now he did.

Xan shouted Daddy at the top of the path, and John turned to look, too far away to do anything but look as the front tire of Xan's trike slipped sideways and Xan flipped over. Xan didn't stop screaming: not in the car, not at the doctor's, not while having his teeth x-rayed or when he had two stitches put into his lip. At the pharmacy, Xan finally fell asleep with his head on John's shoulder, one hand fisted in John's hair. John was covered with snot and blood and tears, and he was saying stupid, stupid things, It's okay and I've got you and You're so brave.

He woke up overflowing with the memory of that helplessness, more exhausted than he'd been when he fell asleep.

John didn't let himself talk about Xan after Rodney made his proposal. It wasn't worth putting ideas in Rodney's head, or encouraging him to do crazy stuff. He wanted Rodney to stop looking at him like he was going to fall apart; he wanted to find normal again; he wanted to have sex some time before he was too old to get it up.

"Everything's okay," John said, like a mantra, in the face of Rodney's worry. "I'm okay."

Rodney invariably snapped back, "Yeah, right," heavy with sarcasm, so John worked twice as hard to be okay.

Just to prove Rodney wrong.

Which was pretty effective motivation.

John gave himself a stern talking-to about how unattractive resentful sulking was, and found after that that he kind of liked his new job. He had to rely on his people skills, which John had always thought sucked. But all those years watching Teyla, Elizabeth, and Sam in action had apparently taught John a few things. He liked catching up with the indigenous populations his team had made first contact with, and he liked brokering new ways for their people and his people to work together.

Ronon made him a sign, a thin square of dark polished wood that read The Man in Satedan. John about fell down laughing when Ronon explained it to him, and then had to wipe his eyes on his t-shirt while saying thank you. He hung it on his office door. Woolsey and Caldwell dropped in every morning for the daily meeting; John liked knowing that they had no idea what his sign said.

He served them terrible coffee—a subversive habit picked up in the VR—but the view of the moons rising in the early morning was spectacular, and John usually had warm muffins. Muffins and jam helped soften the blows of all the stuff John was letting slide, like refugees settling in the city and people marrying and the industrial revolution that Pegasus was undergoing, with a good bit of orchestrated covert assistance. Part of his job description was to build a spy network to root out Wraith worshippers and other collaborators, which was pretty cool. He got a lot of good information to work with, and Woolsey and Caldwell didn't stop him from carrying out his own ops.

He had permission from Keller to start relearning how to shoot. John asked Lorne to work with him; they were pretty sobered by how utterly crap John's aim was.

"I suppose muscle memory doesn't work if the muscles are replaced," Lorne said, ruefully. "Let's start at the very beginning."

"A very good place to start," John agreed straight-faced.

He was also working with Teyla, who was surprisingly easy on him. The first time John dropped one of his sticks, she'd asked what he was practicing in physical therapy, and after that tried to incorporate appropriate movements into their work-outs. She showed up one day with a baseball and glove and asked John to teach her how to throw not like a girl. John felt that whoever had told Teyla that deserved whatever pain he got, and kept his own language gender-neutral as he explained overhand and underhand and grips, working his way into knuckle balls and stealing bases before he realized that Teyla had thrown the ball to him and he'd caught it.

"Cool," John said, impressed with how easy it had been. "You're pretty sneaky."

"You are much recovered," Teyla said with a grin, as she caught the wobbly ball John tossed back. "I'm glad for you. We worried. . . we all worried."

"It's like Weebles," John explained, enjoying the slap of the ball as he caught it; Teyla was not serving him easy ones. "Those are toys that wobble but don't fall down."

"Can you make them?" Teyla asked.

John had no idea how to make plastic, but the principle was easy. "Maybe Ronon could. They're like eggs. They mess with kids' heads."

"I'm meeting him for lunch," Teyla said. She gave John a sly look. "I have to confess, sometimes I like. . . messing with Torren's head. You should join us, and tell Ronon about this toy."

"Maybe I will," John said, and found that he wasn't just being polite. He missed having meals in the mess; he just couldn't usually bring himself to go when there were other people there. It wrung him out.

"We will be on the side balcony," Teyla said. "At noon." And she gave him a smile that made John have to duck his head with pleasure.

John figured he'd be less likely to chicken out if Rodney was with him, so after a shower he swung by the lab. If Rodney thought it was weird that they were eating out, he didn't say anything. The whole way to the mess he complained about a project the marine botanists had been working on that was apparently mutating at an alarming rate.

"It'll either rise up and strangle us all in our sleep," he informed John, "or it will end up here," and he waved in affront at whatever the meal of the day was—something with pink noodles sandwiching brown sauce. John suspected a kind of lasagna.

"I could go shoot it," John suggested. "I get to do that. Part of the job."

"It's a date," Rodney agreed quickly. "I'll bring a video camera. Sheppard versus seaweed. It will no doubt go viral."

"I'd nuke it," John said, adding a glass of water to his tray and picking it up, pleased when he got the grip right, "but I have this vision of a giant mutant radioactive creature stomping all over my city."

"With Woolsey clutched in one leaf?" Rodney asked, and followed John out to the balcony. "That's a good vision."

"You're late," Ronon said, pulling his feet off the chair opposite. "Saved you a seat."

Teyla had moved two tables together; John sat across from Kanaan and Torren in his high chair, leaving Rodney to try and be gracious about sitting where Ronon had had his dirty boots.

John didn't have to talk much, which was good. The lasagna was a lot better than he'd expected. The noodles were sour and the sauce was spicy and he found himself going back for seconds.

He didn't even need to think about coordinating the food up to his mouth now, and it was fun to lord his newly recovered skills over Torren. Or try to. Torren was more interested in smearing some sweet potato-ish jam on his flatbread and pretending that it was a jumper. John couldn't really blame him.

"Hey, buddy, forks are cool," he told Torren, demonstrating what he could do to an innocent baby carrot.

"An Jan," Torren said, which meant Uncle John and also, give me that. John passed the carrot over.

"Just you wait," John said, leaning forward over the table like a conspirator. "Wait 'til you have the hang of a knife, little Mr. Man, then you'll be all about using utensils."

And then he heard what he'd just said, the words falling down on him as if from very far away, and four years of memories flooded him with no warning. He remembered the feel of a small hand in his, and running after hundreds of badly-kicked soccer balls. He remembered coming down with the same stomach flu that had gone through the kids at daycare, and the way he'd held Xan at Nancy's funeral, under an umbrella, safe from the rain. He remembered bedtime stories and sturdy plastic dishes and the refrigerator covered in layers of artwork, and every memory hit like a physical pain.

He didn't remember getting up, or walking, or running, though he must have; he was breathing hard when he surfaced into consciousness, safe in his room. He broke a few things out of anger, even though it didn't help much with the realization that he'd done exactly what his father had done.

He'd put his responsibilities—to Atlantis, his job, his friends—ahead of what he knew was important. He'd practically convinced himself Xan had been a dream, even though there was a Xan-shaped emptiness that he was constantly aware of. He didn't talk about his son with anyone. He didn't want them to feel sorry for him—he especially didn't want pity from people who wouldn't believe that Xan was real. He'd told himself that this was the real world and he had to live here. He'd made his choice, and he hated it.

He dropped down to sit on the bed, shocked by the force of his own unhappiness. He hadn't known he felt like this, like the best part of him had died and he was just stumbling, trying to figure out if it was worth going on.

The way he felt right now. . . .

Rodney walked in without knocking, rocking to a stop when he realized he was crushing glass under his shoes. He bent down to retrieve the picture of John meeting Evel Knievel from the remains of its frame, frowning unhappily as he shook glass slivers off.

"I'm not," John started, and then cleared his throat because the words were abraded to near unintelligibility. "I'm not a good father."

Rodney was quiet. He put the picture on the desk and took John's dustpan and broom off the magnet hook on the side of the desk, and started cleaning the floor. "And you say that because?" he asked, squatting and glaring at the floor.

"He's only almost five," John said. "And I left him alone."

Rodney opened his mouth, shut it, swept up more shards, and then said, "Okay, that was pretty shitty of you, although technically no time's passed in the VR at all since you left. Can we consider that you have a few extenuating circumstances?"

"I miss him," John said, turning some of his anger at himself onto Rodney. "All right?"

Rodney got up to dump the glass into the trash. He inspected the soles of his shoes, brushed them off, and then threw the dustpan and broom away as well. "Say the word." His hands were on his hips and he was glaring at John. "That's all you have to do."

John had no idea how he would explain a child, his child, to the SGC. He didn't know how he'd do his job. He didn't know how he'd explain Atlantis and being in another galaxy to Xan. He stared down at his hands. "Please?" he said, finally, throat feeling like he'd chewed all the glass and swallowed it down.

"Yes, of course," Rodney said. "Would I say no?"

"Everything is going to change," John said, words tumbling out unstoppable. "I want Xan to be better off, and I have no idea how. My stepmother said I was a creepy kid. Like a little ghost. I don't think," he added to be fair, "she knew I was listening." He was fairly sure that Rodney would be able to put the pieces of his thoughts together; that was one of Rodney's talents, knowing what John was thinking.

"Of course you have doubts." Rodney came and sat down next to him, close but not touching. "Thirty years later, you can't possibly still think that you were the problem." He eyed John sidelong, and sighed. "Jeannie's a terrific mom and she still gets insecure about whether she's doing the right things. She says it's a matter of love and acceptance, which our parents weren't so good at. Unconditional love." He shifted over, just enough to press his shoulder against John's. "Xan's never going to be you. You already changed that."

John snorted. "I'm pretty sure I heard the word clone."

Rodney blew out a huff of air and took John's hand in his. John needed to concentrate, but he got their fingers laced together okay. "From the moment the VR created him, Xan changed from being you into being himself. Nurture trumping nature. He's happy. He's loved. And yes," Rodney said, when John frowned, belatedly wondering when Rodney had started speaking in childcare catch-phrases, "I had Jeannie e-mail me some parenting books while you were. . . recovering. I even convinced Teyla to let me have a regular Torren-sitting hour. I assumed either I was dating someone who had a kid or someone who'd lost a child, and either way I was out of my depth."

John put his head down on Rodney's shoulder and breathed through the burn in his eyes and throat. "You surprise me," he got out, finally. "All the time. You're maybe," he added, as Rodney put a tentative hand to John's back, rubbing small circles, "the bravest person I know." He remembered seeing Rodney for the first time in the VR, and Rodney meeting Xan. "I can't believe I bought that you were interested in inventory spreadsheets."

Rodney shrugged, tugging John closer. "I'm a master of disguise," he said, voice low and amused. "I wear many hats."

John twisted up and around to kiss Rodney. His whole body was shaking and John couldn't stop any of it, so he just ignored the tremors and the jitters and the way he twitched when Rodney touched him.

"How would you like to be a father?" John asked, trying for light and teasing, or at least some degree of self-protective irony. He thought he sounded more like he was anticipating Rodney saying hell no.

Rodney shrugged, but John didn't let that dislodge him. "I'm going to be honest, okay?"

"Hit me with your best shot," John said.

"We're going to have to date," Rodney said, in the same morose voice he used when Zelenka was right. "For the record, I suck at dating. But we're going to have to talk about stuff, and your kid's going to have to get used to me."

"I'm fantastic at dating," John lied. "I'll bring you flowers, and I won't stick my hand down your pants until the third date."

"What about when I refuse to let you teach Xan skateboarding, or ten years from now when he says he hates you and likes me better? Probably in relation to driving or sex or both," Rodney added. "I played my parents off each other all the time. I think the only reason they didn't get divorced was to spite me." He gave John a wary look. "I don't want you to stay with me because you feel obligated."

"How about because I think you're awesome?" John suggested. He tugged Rodney back so they were both half-lying next to each other, and turned to slide his hand inside Rodney's shirt to rest on his stomach. Rodney tensed for a moment, possibly fearing tickling, and then relaxed as John kept still.

"You're going to have to think up a cover story for Xan having two daddies that will fly with your employers."

"There's time," John said, and put his head on Rodney's shoulder. He was wondering how comfortable he'd be allowed to get before Rodney shoved him off. Rodney pulled his arm out from where it was pinned and started petting John's hair as if he were a cat. John wondered if maybe he could get Rodney a cat, now that he was in charge of making rules instead of just bending them.

"You're kidding, right?" Rodney said, and that derailed John's speculation into what kind of cat Rodney would like. He'd been leaning towards long-haired white Persian.

"About. . . ?" John asked, because he felt Rodney expected it of him, even though he was dozing off.

"It'll take maybe two or three days to grow a clone using nanites," Rodney said, and John woke up as fast as if Rodney'd dumped ice water over him. "It's not like he'll have to gestate."

"Holy fuck," John said, sitting up and looking around his room, seeing everything that would need to be kid-proofed or hidden.

Rodney pulled him back down, muttering fond insults. "Freak out tomorrow," he said firmly. "You're the best boyfriend ever sex now."

"Why, thank you," John said, and tried to look as pleased as if it was an honest misunderstanding and not one calculated to drive Rodney nuts.

As soon as the lid to the stasis pod slid shut, John opened his eyes and found himself back in his living room, on his sofa, with Rodney sitting next to him. His laptop was on the coffee table. Outside, his sheets were snapping on the line.

He could hear Xan playing in his room: the growly sound of dinosaurs talking and the robot's higher-pitched reply.

"Slow. Breathing," Rodney said, and tapped at the center of John's chest. "Relax. Focus."

"Relaxed," John said after a minute. He put his hands on his legs and pushed himself to stand, a little weirded out by how none of this felt illusory at all. He was glad Rodney was here.

Rodney muttered something that sounded like and I'm the Queen of England, but John didn't call him on it.

John went and leaned in the doorway to Xan's room, just watching, until Xan looked up from wrapping string around the dinosaurs' tails.

"What are you doing?" John asked, because Xan always did things that baffled him.

"Making a swing," Xan said. He held the string up, and the tyrannosaurus and triceratops clacked against each other as they dangled. "It's a park."

John went and sat on the bed, elbows on his knees. "Hey," he started, and then winced. He felt rusty at this. "Hey, kiddo." Xan looked up at him. John would need to talk fast before that attention span flickered out. "I got a different job," John blurted out. "So we're going to have to move."

"Okay," Xan agreed, with a nod; and then, apparently sensing that John was vulnerable and possibly distracted, "Can I have ice cream for lunch?"

"No," John said reflexively.

He heard a snort from the doorway, and when he looked over, Rodney said, "Wow, you suck at this." Rodney walked in and sat down on the floor across from Xan. "Do you know what a computer is?" Rodney asked.

"You push on the buttons," Xan said, scornful. "I can play pinball and cards and the square numbers game."

"He kicks my ass at Minesweeper," John confirmed. Rodney narrowed his eyes at him like an accusation.

"A really smart computer," Rodney went on, getting back on track, "is big enough to hold people, not just games. Your dad was sick," and Xan looked up at that, wide-eyed, "so the doctors where we live put him in a computer until he got better." Rodney waved his hand. "But your dad was too lonely by himself, so the computer made you so he'd be happy and get better. Which he did."

John could just see the side of Xan's face. He was frowning, and sticking his lower lip out. "Did it hurt?"

"No," John said, and both Xan and Rodney looked up at him. Xan looked like he'd believe whatever John said; Rodney was making an indignant face, as if he couldn't believe John was lying so blatantly. "But that's why we have to move. Out of the computer. Back to Atlantis, which is a city on the ocean made up mostly of towers."

"There are real spaceships," Rodney said, off-hand. "Part of your dad's job is flying them."

Xan picked up his robot and swooped it through the air, like he was thinking about something. "Is there a door to go out?"

Rodney looked confused, and John was just on the verge of adding He means, to get out of the computer when Rodney shook his head. "It's just like waking up," he said, and snapped his fingers. "So, are you ready to go?"

Xan stood up and reached for John's hand. He looked scared and resolute, and John pulled him close, wrapping his arms around Xan's waist.

"You're brave, you know that, right?" he said to Xan, who stood a little stiffer.

"He gets that from you, just like the hair," Rodney said. "On three, two, one. . . ."

John shoved back from his desk, stretching his legs out to break up the cramp from sitting so long and laddering his arms up. His neck hurt, and he figured he could send off the intel on the Latiran alliance with the Genii tonight, and schedule follow-up missions tomorrow. Woolsey hadn't called him on slacking off yet, and Caldwell was still trying to be grateful that John had rescued him from a hiveship last month. Not that John expected the gratitude to last, but.

"Don't be here too late," John said to Sergeant Rubinstein, as he locked his laptop in the bottom desk drawer and grabbed his travel coffee mug. He looked pointedly at his watch, even though he hadn't reset it for Atlantis time for a few days and it was utterly wrong.

"I have a hot date tonight," Rubinstein said serenely. "You just thought I was compiling stats on hiveship movements. Really I was writing a sonnet."

John raised an eyebrow. "A good one?"

"There once was a girl on Atlantis," Rubinstein started with a grin, and John winced. He'd walked right into that one.

"Have a good evening," John said, heading for the door. "You mind locking up?"

Rubinstein gave him a cheery finger-flutter for goodbye.

John radioed Rodney from the corridor to see if there was anything he needed to pick up. Rodney sounded put-upon, saying he'd done all the picking-up and when was John thinking about coming home, anyway?

"Three minutes," John said, and stepped into the transporter.

He'd moved into larger quarters when Carson had broken the news to Woolsey that he'd found an orphaned child whose father was Colonel Sheppard. Everyone believed Carson's word about genetics; it was useful having him spin the cover story.

John had walked through the gate with Xan on his hip a day later, and had been swept away by Teyla and Ronon. Everything about Atlantis had been strange and frightening to Xan except for Torren, who had thankfully not minded Xan bossing him around in an attempt to assert some control over his life.

Ronon had found a suite of four bedrooms that opened onto a central sunken lounge area, which he said was decent. Rodney had inspected the balcony for structural integrity, the crystals, and the plumbing, and pronounced it theoretically child-safe. John wasn't so thrilled that all the walls were coral pink, but he liked all the space.

When John carried his over-exhausted and cranky kid into their new home, he had discovered presents from people all over Atlantis. Hand-made clothes and toys, two big barrels of Lego from the Xenobotany department, and an elaborate spread of snacks from Earth that Rodney had already made inroads on.

John had been stunned and kind of choked up. He'd expected more snide remarks and definitely not Xan turning into a celebrity. It was unnerving. But it did make some things easier, like setting up daycare or building a slide and sandbox in the roof-garden of sub-tower SE-7. Or having Rodney move in, even though he ostensibly had his own bedroom, with a big sign hung on the door, courtesy of Ronon, that read MCKAY.

John found himself grinning in anticipation as he left the transporter and headed down the hall. He waved himself into his quarters and nearly stumbled into a minefield of Lego.

"Don't step on that," Xan yelled. John suggested, as he stripped off his jacket and headed for the bedroom, that if it was important that it shouldn't be on the floor.

"Nice parental supervision," he added to Rodney, who was sitting at the desk with his laptop open. There was an empty bag of Doritos shoved carelessly to one side.

"You're the one who needs to be supervised," Rodney said, watching as John pulled off his shirt and dropped his trousers. John pretended he didn't notice and gave Rodney a bit of a show as he rummaged for his jeans and a clean t-shirt, and pulled them on slowly, with unnecessary tugs.

"Hi, honey," John said, coming out and dropping a kiss on Rodney's forehead. "I'm home."

"You're an ass," Rodney said, and poked John in the ass. "Go hassle the birthday boy."

"Who do we know who has a birthday today?" John wondered aloud, and then was grabbed around the knee and shaken.

"It's me," Xan said, grinning. John picked him up and swung him up into the air, saying are you sure? and you don't look five and maybe it's Torren's birthday.

Xan planted his feet on John's stomach and dug his hands into John's shoulders for balance. He smelled like baby powder and cheese-flavored snacks, and he squirmed to get free of John's protective grasp. "I have cake," Xan announced.

John nodded. "Then the birthday thing must be true."

Xan collapsed against him. Fortunately, John was prepared for that kind of dirty trick, and managed to guide him into a controlled slither to the floor. Xan grabbed John's hand and dragged him towards the dining table. "Come see my cake."

John had to agree when he saw it that it was a gorgeous cake. It had three layers with jam in between, and was dusted with powdered sugar. Someone had arranged Matchbox cars around the top so they looked like they were racing, and the banner at the finish line read Xan 5.

"Can I open my present now?" Xan went on. John looked over at Rodney, who made a chatterbox motion with one hand. Yeah, Xan had probably asked that question a hundred times since Rodney picked him up from daycare.

"When Torren's here," John said. "Because you promised that you can share and play nicely together."

"I'm five," Xan agreed.

John was going to milk Xan's belief in his new maturity for all he could.

"Can you move the toys in front of the door?" he asked. "Because that's kind of dangerous."

While Xan was occupied, John grabbed Rodney and pulled him into the bedroom. He pushed him up against the wall and kissed him, fast and wet and dirty, a little dizzy with how much he wanted Rodney to know—to know everything.

"No one has ever," John said urgently. "I would have said no." He took a breath. "I did say no. To all of this. But you made it all possible." He thought his face probably gave everything away. He hoped so.

"I love you, too," Rodney said. "You know that, right?"

"Yeah," John said, and ducked his head to lick at Rodney's neck where it met his shoulder.

Rodney tugged at John's hair. "Later," he said. "Party. Guests. Your very revealing tight jeans. Try not to shock the neighbors."

John leaned in and kissed Rodney again, this time with more amused restraint. "Sorry. Kind of crazy about you."

"Not complaining," Rodney assured him. "And John?" He hooked a finger in a belt loop to keep John from retreating. "Happy birthday."

John grinned. "Best ever."

mercy, my daddy like to roll them bones
seven is the number of a man
son, don't you wander through this world alone
seven is the number of a man
one is for all the world in a bright rainbow
two for the sky above and the earth below
three for the seeker on the desert plain
four for the flower in his hand
five is for pleasure, and six for pain
seven is the number of a man
Seven Is the Number of a Man (Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer)