Chapter 1: Chapter One
I gotta tell you, Jake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone give Kolya such a run for his money.
I agree, Bobby. Kolya’s typically several car lengths ahead of the second place driver.
This could be close. I mean, Mitchell is doing pretty well today. He’s no Kolya, but he’s a damn good racer. I know he’s a rookie, but damn has he moved up into the public eye fast.
These two are certainly giving the fans one hell of a race to remember.
That they are, Jake.
Hey, did you see that?
Number 52 just pulled up into third. Where did he come from?
52? *papers rustling* Who’s the driver of car #52?
Uhh. . . . some rookie, I thought. Oh man, Bobby, he’s tied with Mitchell!
Here it is! Name’s John Sheppard, racing for Team Atlantis.
Atlantis? Haven’t heard their name in a while. Not exactly synonymous with winning.
And here they are with an unknown name. Looks like their gamble’s paying off.
Holy crap, look at them go!
This has got to be the most exciting race we’ve covered in some time, huh, Jake?
You said it, man. First Kolya and Mitchell, and now Sheppard.
Three laps to go.
. . . . .
Half a lap to go, folks, and Kolya’s lead is shrinking by the second. Mitchell and Sheppard are neck in neck for second place.
Oh, wait a second. Looks like we spoke too soon. Sheppard’s making a move as they head into the second last turn!
. . . . . aaaaand Sheppard pulls into second place!
He’s gaining on Kolya, Mitchell now in his rearview.
It’s gonna be close.
Rounding the last turn.
Heading for the finish line.
Sheppard’s gaining on Kolya.
Mitchell making a valiant effort to catch up but it’s no good.
Kolya’s falling back!
No, no he’s not falling back, Jake. Sheppard’s speeding up!
Ooohh . . . . . oh man, gonna be close.
Here comes the finish line. . .
SHEPPARD TAKES THE WIN!!!!
OH MY GOD, THE ROOKIE FROM BEHIND TAKES IT ALL!!!!
Bobby, can you believe this?
It’s incredible! Rookie John Sheppard for Atlantis Racing comes out of NOWHERE and not only displaces Mitchell, but he beats Kolya—a man who has not lost a race in over five years, folks. FIVE years!
We have a new champion, folks! Incredible, just incredible. That was one hell of a race by Sheppard.
This kid is going places, Jake, trust me on that.
Every spot on the street was taken, or so it seemed. It took him two tries before he finally found an empty spot four houses down from where he needed to be. He took his time turning the car off. He really did not want to go in there. Birthday parties were the worst.
His phone buzzed. With a sigh, he pulled it out and scowled at the text on the screen. Yes, he knew he was late, thank you very much. That was sort of the point. Reluctantly, he climbed out of the car, grabbed the gift bag, and made his way down the sidewalk.
Damn suburbia. He always felt like some creepy neighbor was watching him, just waiting for the moment to come out and attack him with a garden shovel or something. He’d take the city over this any day, and he loved his apartment. Since this was his sister’s house, he didn’t bother with knocking or ringing the doorbell and just strolled on in. He had just closed the door behind him when he heard a screech and turned. Something hit his legs and he staggered back, dropping the gift bag.
Wincing at the high pitch of her voice, Rodney frowned down at his niece. “Do you have to yell that?” he asked her.
She peered up at him then held up her hands. “Pick me up, Uncle Mer.”
Rolling his eyes, he hoisted her onto his hip with a groan. “You’re getting to be too big for this, kiddo. What are you, four?”
Shaking her head, Madison said, “No, I’m not. I’m eight today! And besides, it’s my birthday and the birthday girl always gets what she wants. Mommy says so.”
“Oh she does, does she?”
“Uh huh. So what’d you bring me?”
Rodney shook his head. “Now, you know I’m not going to tell you. The surprise is the fun part. Plus, you’re a smart girl, and smart girls don’t cheat.”
Maddie pouted. “Even on their birthday?”
Like mother, like daughter. “Especially on their birthday.” No sense in not teaching her that right from the start. He never gave in to Jeannie’s pouty face growing up and he’d be damned if this kid would make him.
She made a face. “Fine.” Squirming, she slid out of Rodney’s hold and down to the floor. “I have to go finish making my hat.”
“Hey, where’s your mommy?”
Maddie took off back down the hall, yelling back, “Kitchen, with Daddy and friends!”
Kitchen. With Daddy and friends. Rodney sighed heavily. This was not shaping up to be a great day. Picking up the gift bag, he headed for the kitchen. He loved his sister, really he did, he just did not like being set up by every one of her single friends. It was like once she’d married . . . oh whatshisname, that English major fellow—she’d become convinced he needed someone too. When he informed Jeannie he was bi, she seemed to be ecstatic that he’d opened up the possible blind date situation. Fortunately, he’d alienated most of her friends so that drastically cut down on the potential blind dates.
The kitchen was full of people but thankfully Jeannie was close to the door when he entered. She scowled at him. “Finally! I can’t believe you’d show up late to your own niece’s birthday party!”
He leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. “I hate parties, you know that.”
“They’re eight-year-olds, Meredith.”
“And their parents,” he pointed out.
Jeannie sighed. “You won’t understand until you’re a parent.”
“Which is hopefully never.” He held up the bag. “Where do you want this?”
“I’ll take it. The rest of her presents are down the hall so she doesn’t peek. Caleb, hun, would you him get a drink? Mingle, Mer, okay?” Jeannie brushed past him.
Mingle. Yeah. Right.
Rodney looked over. Jeannie’s husband was holding out a bottle. “Uh, yeah. Fine. Thanks.” It was a twist cap, cheap stuff, but hey. He wouldn’t say no to alcohol.
As he drank, Rodney eyed the rest of the occupants. Jeez, how many kids were here? And it looked like all of them brought their single mothers. A couple of them apparently hadn’t gotten the message he’d been giving over the years because they kept eyeing him, making him uncomfortable. Maybe there were some new kids in the class?
He was contemplating making an escape—Jeannie never did come back—when the sound of the doorbell drew his attention. Caleb leaned back and said, “Ah, I better get that. Don’t know where Jeannie went.”
Left alone, Rodney did not intend to get caught in any sort of conversation with these women, so he moved so that he was sort of in the hallway. He’d have gone further into the hall but for the two hellions that nearly ran him down.
Great. Just what the day needed. More out of control kids and their mom.
“—glad you could make it, John,” Caleb was saying when Rodney looked back up.
His brother-in-law was talking to a man that Rodney could only see the back of. About Rodney’s height, slim build, with short brown hair that stuck up every which way, he was wearing a black leather jacket, and dark wash jeans tucked into what looked like black motorcycle boots. Nice ass, though.
Really nice ass.
The new arrival ran a hand through his hair, making it stand up more than it already was. He sounded tired as he responded, “Sorry we’re so late, Caleb.”
Caleb clapped a hand on his shoulder and grinned. “Don’t worry about it. We’re just happy to see you and the kids.” Taking the presents, he added, “I’m going to go find my wife, maybe get the barbecue going. Why don’t you head on into the kitchen, grab a beer?”
Rodney quickly moved back into the kitchen, sticking close to the island and away from the moms. The man entered shortly afterwards and Rodney watched him.
He stopped just inside, looking around. Picking up a bottle of beer from the cooler, he leaned against the fridge and made no effort to talk to anyone. Now that he could see the front of him, Rodney decided he was a) extremely handsome, and b) far too young to have two kids Maddie’s age. Unless he just looked younger than he was—and he was hot. Okay, stop thinking that way. Dating one of Jeannie’s friends was a definite no, no matter how hot the new dad was. His black leather jacket was unzipped and Rodney could see a pair of sunglasses tucked into the collar of a black shirt. Didn’t he know Goth was for teenagers?
Movement and a low giggle from his right drew Rodney’s eye and he hid a grin. The women who’d been eyeing him earlier were now eyeing the new dad like shark sensing fresh prey in their midst. Ah, it was nice to not be the focus of that attention for once.
The women were halfway to the dad when Rodney reluctantly decided to rescue the poor fellow. He looked uncomfortable enough; he didn’t need to fend off the sharks, as well. Plus it would be nice to have someone male to talk to at this thing, so Rodney pushed away from his spot, cut off Jeannie’s friends and walked right up to him.
The man quirked an eyebrow in silent query when Rodney stopped in front of him.
Holding out a hand, Rodney introduced himself, “Rodney McKay, uncle of the birthday girl.”
After a second, he took Rodney’s hand and gave it a firm handshake. “John Sheppard.” He paused then added, “Uncle of two of the birthday guests.”
Uncle? Intrigued by that statement—he’d assumed young father but it looked like his earlier assumption of being too young to be a dad had borne fruit—Rodney said bluntly, “You’re welcome, by the way.”
John gave him a confused look. “For what?”
Rodney jerked the tip of his bottle over his shoulder and clarified, “My sister’s friends. Sharks, I call them. Predatory is the nicest adjective I can think of to describe them. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being forced to get to know some of them and I figured I’d save you some trouble.”
His mouth lifted in a half-smile. Rodney noted that his eyes were hazel and full of amusement. “Ah. I see. Well, thanks, then.”
The conversation stilled after that. Rodney drank some beer then abruptly said, “Let’s go help with the food. Being vegetarians, my sister and her husband are not very good at cooking food normal people want to eat.”
John shrugged. Rodney took that as a yes and set his nearly empty bottle on the closest counter. John set his down next to Rodney’s—unopened, Rodney noted with interest—then gestured for Rodney to lead the way. Down the hall, there was a door in the main bedroom that led to a very nice patio and backyard. One good thing about suburbia, he supposed, was the space you had. Too bad the neighbors were most likely creepy stalkers or something.
His suspicions about the grill were right. They still hadn’t managed to turn it on. “Have you been trying to do this since I got here?” he asked his sister as he and John walked out.
Jeannie straightened up, a frown on her face, but her expression cleared almost immediately. Rodney had about a second to wonder why before she hurried over to hug John. Go figure.
“John! Caleb said you were here, oh it’s so good to see you! How are you?” Jeannie said as she pulled back.
John offered a small smile. “Hi, Jeannie. Sorry we got here so late. We, uh, had some trouble getting on the road.”
She smiled at him. “Oh don’t worry about that. Remember, anytime you need help or advice, you call us, okay?”
He nodded. Rodney was now very intrigued about John Sheppard. Why was he here, and where were the kids’ parents? Why were Jeannie and Caleb so happy and relieved to see him? How exactly did one become an uncle of pre-teens? And how long had Jeannie known him? She seemed surprisingly protective of him. There was a mystery there and Rodney vowed to solve it.
Caleb called out, “Hey, John, how are you with grills?”
Sliding between the siblings, John joined him, bending down. Oh, yes. Very nice ass. To distract himself from the view, Rodney turned to Jeannie and asked in a low tone, “What’s his deal?”
He waved one hand inarticulately at the two men. “John. What’s his deal?”
Jeannie shot him a disapproving look. “Oh sure, you remember his name but not your brother-in-law’s.”
“John’s name is normal. Your husband’s is not.”
“One could argue that since Caleb’s name is more unique, you’d remember it better.” Rodney shrugged. Did it matter? Jeannie continued, “John’s relatively new to the area; moved in a couple months ago. His niece, Nicole, is Maddie’s age and his nephew, Alex, is about thirteen.”
Rodney was kept from questioning her further when Caleb and John suddenly stood up and high-fived each other.
Jeannie walked over with a smile. “You got it started?”
Caleb nodded, grinning. “Thank John, he’s a genius.”
John ducked his head. “It was nothing.”
“Genius?” Rodney repeated. “He turned on a grill. Anyone who actually grills can do that. Actually, I don’t grill and I could probably have figured it out. That’s not genius material.”
“Meredith,” Jeannie chided, frowning at him.
“What? He knows it’s true.”
John’s gaze was steady on Rodney’s as he said, “Your brother’s right, Jeannie. I’m no genius, but I do know my way around a grill.”
Rodney raised an eyebrow at his sister as if to say see? I was right.
Jeannie shook her head then turned to the cooler. “Let’s get the food started before the kids start demanding cake.”
He’d been telling the truth, he did love grilling. He just hadn’t had the chance to do so lately. And not because it was the middle of March, though it was a rather warmer March than normal—he used the garage for shelter. It was big enough. Caleb was grateful for his help and John figured this way he could avoid the . . . . what had Jeannie’s brother called them? Sharks. Amusing, yet accurate from the little contact he’d had with them the past couple of months.
Jeannie popped up next to him with a plate and ordered, “Eat. Caleb can handle things if anyone wants seconds.”
John took the Styrofoam plate, amused by her mothering, and loaded it with a hamburger, some coleslaw and chips. Looking around for a place to sit, he noticed Rodney sitting on the edge of the deck, away from everyone. His mind tagged the man as safe, so he wandered over, snagging a can of pop from the cooler on the ground as he went.
“Hey,” he said, “mind if I sit here?”
Rodney looked up, clearly startled to see him, then shrugged and faced forward. “Yeah, sure. Whatever.”
So John sat. And ate. And neither of them said a word, just let the conversations behind them flow as a steady stream of noise.
It was nice, the silence. His life was usually all about noise and speed and he sometimes forgot to slow down and enjoy the quiet too.
A hand landed on his shoulder and John looked up at Jeannie. She looked from him to Rodney and said, “Can I convince you two to help with clean-up while Caleb and I get the kids ready for presents?”
Rodney groaned and John felt a flash of amusement. He started to get up. “Yeah, sure, Jeannie. No problem.”
“Great, thanks!” Then she was gone.
John bent down to pick up his trash and asked, “Need a hand up?”
“No, I’m good. Should have known she’d make me work.” Rodney climbed to his feet.
John followed him over to the trashcan and offered, “Look at it this way: you’re not trying to wrangle a dozen kids.”
Rodney visibly shuddered. “Oh god, that sounds horrible.” He tossed his plate and plastic cup into the can. “Good point.”
They worked fairly easily together, Rodney going along the tables just sweeping things into the trash can while John sorted out what needed to be tossed and what could be saved. He was cycling back to the patio after taking some of the condiment containers into the kitchen when he got waylaid in the doorway by a couple of the women.
“Hi, John,” one said, running a hand down his arm. “It’s great to see you. You haven’t been around the school lately.”
He forced a smile to his face. “Hi, Margaret.”
Margaret gestured to her friend. “John, have you met Deb?”
“Don’t think I’ve had the pleasure.” No matter how many women flirted with him, John never felt anything but uncomfortable.
The second woman smiled widely at him. “Wait, John Sheppard. I knew I recognized you when you came in! You’re that fam—”
Rodney knocked them both aside as he stepped between them. In a move that quite impressed John, Rodney grabbed his wrist, said pointedly, “I need him,” and dragged him back out onto the deck. All in about ten seconds. Rodney thrust the garbage can at him and walked over to a table that was partially clean. John followed.
“Thanks for that.”
“Yeah, well, I warned you about them.”
John’s mouth quirked up in a half smile. “Yeah . . . you did. Predatory was the right word.”
Rodney dumped a pile of dirty paper plates in the can and looked up at him. “I’ve found they only understand bluntness. Subtlety is completely lost on them.”
“Good to know.” John was starting to learn that bluntness was the norm with Rodney. Which was fine by him. He’d had enough people in his life lie to him; bluntness was perfectly fine. Welcome, even.
Once they finished the patio, they headed downstairs. Jeannie and Caleb, along with some of the other parents, had gathered the kids on the other side of the room. John paused at the bottom of the stairs, scanning. There. Off to the side.
“Are you coming?”
Rodney gave him an annoyed look so John hurried over to help clean. It was a mess. Food ground into the carpet, plates and cups tipped over, liquid spilled. It took them ages to clean up and John kept glancing over, finding himself needing to know where Alex and Nikki were.
“My god, they’re not going to up and vanish on you.” Rodney’s surprisingly astute observation effectively pulled John’s attention back to the task at hand.
Rodney gave him a knowing look and gestured at the kids. Madison was nearing the end of her presents. “The kids. They’re not going to disappear if you turn your back on them so just relax already.”
John tensed, because that was indeed what it felt like. Not bothering to respond—he had a feeling Rodney wouldn’t understand without background and he really didn’t want to go into the whole messed up tale right then—John went back to work.
After presents came cake and ice cream, a couple more party games and then John was half-carrying his sleepy niece to the car, a tired Alex following along behind carrying the goodie bags. John had a bag of leftovers from Jeannie—“In case you don’t feel like cooking later”—dangling from his free hand and his phone buzzing in his pocket. Shifting Nikki to the other hip, he tugged it out.
John answered on a sigh, “Yes, Teyla, I know I haven’t been answering. I told you, today was . . . yeah, I know that. You’re kidding me, seriously?” He turned his head. “Alex, can you get the door? Look, Teyla, can we talk about this another time? I’m about to get in the car. With the kids. Yeah. Yeah. Thanks. Bye.”
John got his niece and nephew settled, slid his sunglasses on and got in the car. The rumble of the Mustang’s engine settled in his chest and settled him as he hit the gas.
He had nearly everything together but this one box refused to budge. What the hell was wrong with it?
“Need a hand?”
Rodney banged his head on the trunk lid. Rubbing the sore spot, he turned around with a scowl, intending to harangue the poor soul who had caused it.
John Sheppard stood a couple feet away, still looking as handsome as he had at Maddie’s party two weeks ago. “Jesus Christ, you nearly gave me a heart attack!” Rodney snapped.
John lowered his sunglasses. “Sorry.”
He sounded sincere so Rodney bit back his next remark and said instead, “What are you doing here?”
John raised an eyebrow. “It’s the middle school. Here to pick up my nephew. What are you doing here? I didn’t think you had any kids and Madison goes to the elementary school.”
Rodney crossed his arms with a huff. “For your information—not that you need to know—I run an afterschool tech club for interested parties.”
John looked interested. “Tech club? Like computers?”
“In part. At the moment, we’re working on robotics.” Which reminded him . . . he turned back to tug at the stubborn box.
“Do you need any help with that?”
“Are you always this stubborn?”
“It’s called independence.”
“It’s stubbornness. Look, just let me help you. It’s one box, how much damage could I cause?”
Rodney threw his hands in the air and stepped away. “Fine! It’s all yours.”
John stepped up to the trunk and stared inside for a moment then bent over and reached for the box. Rodney couldn’t help himself. He leaned to the side to admire John’s ass. John stumbled back a step as the box came loose and he rested it on the bumper, tossing Rodney a smile.
“Well . . . I loosened it for you,” Rodney huffed, trying to hide the fact that he’d just been ogling John’s behind.
John nodded easily. “I’m sure you did. Where are we taking it?”
Rodney blinked. “I’m sorry, we?”
“Yeah. You’ve obviously got your hands full and I’ve got a few minutes to kill before school lets out so . . .” he trailed off with a shrug.
Rodney thought about it. It would save him a trip . . . He took a couple bags out of the backseat, dropped them in his wagon and said, “Follow me, then.” He didn’t wait for John as he headed for the doors. He did, however, hear the hood of the trunk slam shut.
John trailed after him as Rodney walked down the hall. It was quiet, everyone still in class for a couple more minutes. He decided to take the opportunity to prod a bit. “So, what exactly do you do?” he asked as they walked.
Rodney glanced over his shoulder. “What do you do?” he repeated. “You know, a job?” He pushed open the door to the empty classroom he was using. John still hadn’t answered. “What, is it some lousy job? Are you ashamed to tell me?”
“I’m not ashamed,” John immediately responded, his tone defensive.
Rodney smirked. Score one for him. He dropped the handle of his wagon and pointed at a spot on the partially full table. “You can put that there.”
John set the box down and Rodney immediately started opening it and pulling things out. He’d put together an example of what they’d be working on but it had needed to be boxed in several pieces for the trip.
“I’m a racecar driver,” John finally said then added with a little disbelieving laugh, “Actually, I’m quite famous.”
Figured. Handsome, athletic, and probably dumb as a brick. Well, at least he knew not to let himself get any farther in the attraction phase. He could admit John had a nice ass and move on. “You say that like I’m supposed to know who you are,” Rodney said, putting a few pieces together. “Clearly Jeannie didn’t tell you I know nothing about sports.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured that when you didn’t say anything at the party. A few of the women there recognized me.”
Rodney scoffed. “You don’t think they actually follow racing, do you? They probably saw you on some magazine at the dentist’s or doctor’s office and thought you were handsome.”
John retorted, “Some women are into NASCAR. What is that? Some sort of robot arm?”
“That’s exactly what it is. We’ve been working on combining computer programming and mechanical engineering, starting with basic designs. This is one of the more advanced projects that will test whether they’ve been paying attention. We’ll be working on it for a while but I wanted them to see what their ultimate goal was.” He frowned at the arm. “Can you hand me a screwdriver from the toolbox in the wagon?”
John came around to the other side of the table, looking down at the arm, his brow furrowed. Rodney stuck out a hand, impatiently waiting for him to hand over the tool. Instead, John tugged the arm towards him, tightened a couple spots with the screwdriver, then attached a wheel and straightened. Rodney stared at him.
“Did you just . . . ?”
“That’s what you wanted, right? The gears weren’t sitting right. And you were missing a part when you put it together.”
“Huh.” Rodney studied John, his head tilted to the side. Interesting. Maybe there was a brain under that spiky hair. “I take it you learned from working on your racecar?”
John grinned at him. “Nope. Well, yeah. A driver knows his car intimately. But no. I studied mechanical engineering and mathematics at Stanford.”
Rodney felt his mouth drop open. “Stanford?” Holy shit, so he was handsome, athletic, and smart? How was that fair? That made him totally out of Rodney’s league. Ugh, he hated his life sometimes. “What the hell are you doing racing cars?”
John shrugged, twirling the screwdriver like a baton. “It’s fun. What about you?”
“MIT. Physics and mathematics. I’m a university professor.” Fun. He thought driving metal deathtraps at 200 mph was fun. He went to Stanford and was playing live action Hot Wheels because it was fun. How did one even respond to that?
“Nice. Explains how you did such a good job with the arm, here. Looks good.”
Rodney bristled. Was John mocking his hard work? “I’ll have you know—” He was cut off before he could really get started by the sound of the bell ringing to signal the end of the school day.
John set the screwdriver down with a regretful look. “Guess that’s my cue to leave.” He headed for the door, tossing a wave over his shoulder. “See you around, McKay!”
Rodney watched him go, feeling dumbstruck and wondering what the hell just happened?
The students started to trickle in, casting curious glances at the setup on the front table. Rodney forcibly shoved all thoughts of John Sheppard out of his mind and focused on science.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
“We cannot, John. I have told you, that is not an option. Not for this.”
John switched his phone to his left ear, tucking it against his shoulder. One hand reached for the peanut butter, the other for a knife. “You have to,” he told his manager. “I can’t make it.”
A hand tugged on the hem of his shirt. He looked down, the knife stuck in the jar. Nicole stared up at him, her green eyes wide and pleading. “Uncle John?”
“Yeah, kiddo?” He spread some peanut butter across the bread.
“Can you braid my hair?”
He folded the bread in half and shoved it in a plastic sandwich baggie. “I’m a bit busy. Can’t Alex do it?”
“He told me to go away.”
John closed his eyes for moment. “Okay. C’mere.” He led the way to the couch. “Teyla, I’m putting you on speaker. Say hi, Nikki.”
Nikki leaned over the phone and said loudly, “HI, AUNTIE TEYLA!”
Teyla’s tinny voice came out of the speaker. “Hello, sweetie. How are you today?”
Nicole settled in front of John and he started separating out her hair into three groups. “I’m okay,” she said softly and reached up to rub her eyes with a fist.
Christ. “Teyla, reschedule it. Just, just, just—push it back a couple hours. Or to the next day. I can do the next day.”
Teyla sighed, a huff of static against the phone speaker. “John, this interview has been on the calendar for months. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to get them to agree in the first place? We are lucky they had a cancellation at the time. We cannot back out now.”
“You’re a miracle worker, Teyla. You’ll figure it out like you always do.”
Her voice hardened. “You will be there, John.”
“Ow.” Nikki put a hand on her head. He’d pulled her hair too tight.
“Sorry, Nik. Teyla, come on, just push it back . . . an hour or two. It can’t be that big a deal.”
“John . . .”
He finished the braid and asked, “You got a rubber band, kiddo?”
She handed him a bright pink elastic hair band thing. “It’s a scrunchie, Uncle John.” Nicole’s voice informed him that he should know the term already.
He smiled. “Right, a scrunchie.” He tied it off and she jumped up, spinning around with a smile. “Go put your shoes on, ‘kay?”
She took off down the hall and he picked up his phone, turning speaker phone off, and called down the hall, “Alex, come on, we gotta go!” To Teyla, he told her, “The kids get out at three, Nikki’s got ballet practice til five . . . . I just can’t do it.”
When Teyla answered, she had that voice that told John he was going to do what she said or deal with the consequences. “John, you need this as much as Atlantis does. With Mitchell and Kolya getting cozier, Atlantis needs you to be in the public eye, needs you to be the media darling, and that means doing a lot of interviews and photo shoots. So you’re going to have to figure something out.”
Alex shouted back, “I can’t find my permission slip!”
“Get another one from your teacher! Teyla, look, I’m good but even I can’t be in two places at once!” He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “My life was so much easier before I got saddled with my brother’s kids.”
“I know this is a difficult time for you right now, John, but you do still have a career to think about. It’s been four years since you first beat Kolya and we have to keep the momentum going.”
“It’s due today, Uncle John!”
“I know, Teyla, I know.” With a heavy sigh, John leaned into the couch. “Fine. Fine, I’ll figure it out. Send me the details on where to go.”
Dropping the phone on the couch, John spared a minute to despair over the hell that had become his life in the last three months. Life was so much simpler when it was just him and his car. Not even five months since everything had been upended and he still couldn’t figure out how to blend their lives together. John also hadn’t really had a chance to deal with the recent events—first Dad died from a heart attack and then two months later Dave and Linda were killed in a car crash. A month or so of trying to be Atlantis’ top racer and parent to two kids who’d lost their entire world. He dropped his head back and closed his eyes.
The weight of his loss and the expectations heaped on him kept John down for a few minutes before he did what he always did. John took a deep, somewhat shaky breath, mentally shoved everything to the back of his mind, shut the mental door and focused on what he had to do now. Glancing at the clock, John swore and stood. “Kids! Let’s go; we’re going to be late! Alex, we are leaving with or without the damn permission slip!”
He pulled on his jacket, grabbed the Mustang’s keys from the bowl by the door and waited. Nicole came barreling down the hall, zipping up her coat with her backpack already on her shoulders. Crap! He ducked into the kitchen. Shoving the sandwich into a brown paper bag, he added an apple and juice box from the fridge.
John was zipping up her backpack—lunch now inside—when Alex came skidding into the room. John raised an eyebrow at the teen: shoes untied, backpack in hand, with his coat half on. Alex dropped his backpack, quickly bent down to tie his shoes, then thrust his other arm in the sleeve, grabbed his backpack and met John’s gaze defiantly. “I found it.”
“Great,” John said dryly. “Maybe you’d have found it faster if you kept your room cleaner.”
Alex scowled at him and headed out the door. Nikki turned to John and he forced a smile to his face. “Come on, kiddo.” He offered his hand and she slid her warm little hand against his. Alex was waiting by the car as John locked the front door and walked over.
He refused to talk all the way to the middle school, just giving John a curt “Thanks” when John handed over five bucks for lunch. Alex claimed he was too old to bring a lunch from home. John didn’t feel it was a worthwhile argument; besides, it wasn’t like he was doing much else with his money.
On the way to the elementary school, John felt like banging his head on the steering wheel. A brilliant solution had just presented itself to him.
She had told him, repeatedly, to call her if he ever needed help. Well, he needed help.
Nikki leaned forward, pointing past him out the window. “Uncle John, can you let me out here? I can walk in with Maddie.”
“Sure, kiddo.” He pulled up behind Jeannie’s minivan and shifted into park. Nikki climbed out, then gave him a confused look when he got out as well. “I need to talk to Maddie’s mom real quick.”
“Oh. Okay. Hey, Maddie, wait up!” She hurried over and they skipped up to the school’s front doors arm in arm.
Smiling a little at them, John waved to get Jeannie’s attention. She closed the sliding door and waited for him to come over.
Jeannie smiled at him. “Morning, John. How are you?”
“I need a favor.” He winced; he hadn’t meant to sound so desperate.
“Anything. What do you need?”
“Well, I’ve got this interview with Drive magazine tomorrow. It’s been booked for months and I can’t reschedule. Plus, they want to do a photo shoot, put me on the cover, which is great for my career but the timing is just not ideal.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s tomorrow afternoon, right when the kids get out and the place is, like, an hour away, so I was wondering if—”
“You need someone to pick up Alex and Nicole from school and watch them until you’re finished,” Jeannie completed his sentence with a knowing smile.
Feeling his shoulders drop in relief, John said feelingly, “Yes. Please. And Nikki has ballet practice tomorrow after school, too.”
“Not a problem, John. I’ll take care of everything. Just make sure Nicole has the address to her ballet school and all her things with her when you drop her off in the morning. I can have my brother take Alex and you can pick him up from the university. That work?”
John folded his hands as if in prayer. “Thank you, Jeannie. Thank you. That’s perfect. I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t worry about it, John. I told you to let me know if you needed anything. Besides, I know the girls would love an impromptu playdate.”
“That they would.” His phone vibrated in his pocket. “I’m sorry, I really have to get going but thank you, again.”
“Anytime, John. Have a good day!” Jeannie had to call after him because he was already backing towards his car.
His phone vibrated again and he picked it up, waving to Jeannie as he did so. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m on my way.”
He was always rushing, it felt like.
Papers everywhere. Nothing fit in his bag the way it came out so of course Rodney couldn’t find his phone when it started ringing because he was too busy fighting with his course materials. By the time he managed to zip the damn thing, whoever was calling him was trying again.
Heading out the door, he answered without looking at caller ID. “What’s so damn important this early in the day?”
“Why, good morning to you, too, dear brother.”
“What do you want, Jeannie? I’m on my way to work.” Tossing his bag in the passenger seat, he backed out the driveway, flicking the phone to speaker so he could use both hands.
“I need a favor.”
“I need you to pick up Alex, John’s nephew, from school tomorrow.”
Rodney scowled at his phone, as if he could send it to her technologically. “What did you hear when I said no? Because it sure wasn’t a request for more information.”
Jeannie’s sigh came through as an annoyed huff of breath. “Mer, come on. John needs a little help. Just do this for me? For him?”
“Why can’t you do it? I assume you’re taking the girl, right?”
“Nicole. Her name’s Nicole. And, yes, I am but we’re heading straight to ballet practice after school and somehow I don’t think that’s something Alex has any interest in.”
“And what am I supposed to do with him once I have him? I’m not a babysitter, Jeannie. I have afternoon classes.” He paused then quickly added, “I’m not agreeing, by the way. This is strictly hypothetical.”
“Uh huh. Take him with you. You can teach, he can do his homework and John will pick him up when he’s done.”
Rodney shot the phone on the console a glance. “Done? Done with what?”
“With his interview.”
“Why should I care that he’s got an interview? They’re not my kids. Hell, they’re not even his!”
“Meredith! Have some compassion!” Jeannie chastised him. “You’d say yes if I needed you to do this for Madison. Why is helping John so different?”
Rodney made a face. He was not a fan of kids, never had been. He still wasn’t a fan of his students half the time and they were legal adults.
And maybe it was sort of that it was John Sheppard. Running into him the other day at the school had left him with questions and a strange—well, he wouldn’t call it attraction exactly—it was just . . . well . . .
The man intrigued him.
Sheppard was just so incongruous! How could a man that looked that damn gorgeous be so damn smart? He went to Stanford and yet chose to race cars for a living; why? He didn’t buy John’s explanation of it being fun as a valid reason to challenge death every day.
“Mer? Look, I know you’re not a fan of kids but could you please just do this?”
Rodney sighed heavily. Making sure he sounded as put-upon as possible, he dragged out the word, “Fiiiiine. I’ll do it, under protest.”
“Thanks, Mer! I really appreciate it.” She hung up without waiting for him to respond.
“Bye,” he said sarcastically. Great. Now he had to figure out what to do with the kid while he was teaching. Despite what his sister said or thought, sticking a kid in the corner to do homework would be a definite distraction to his students.
Rodney eyed the line of parents on the sidewalk and tried to subtly shift far enough away that they wouldn’t want to talk to him while still being visible from the door. Not that it would help because he had no clue what the kid even looked like. He crossed his arms. He’d been regretting giving in to Jeannie since the moment he agreed. It was just a bad idea all around.
What time was it, anyway? Weren’t they supposed to leave the building after the last class? He figured John’s nephew would want to be the first one out.
Just then the front door opened and kids started to trickle out. Some went to the line of parents, but most headed for the row of buses along the sidewalk. Rodney waited, thinking hopefully, that Alex would look similar enough to Sheppard that Rodney could assume that any kid that approached him would be John’s nephew.
A few more minutes passed by and as the students continued to split off, two boys headed for where Rodney stood. Squinting against the sun, he thought he recognized one of them from his technology club. Name . . . name . . . what was his name?
The one he recognized smiled and waved. “Hi, Dr. McKay!”
Well, that answered that. The light bulb went off and he nodded. “Hi, Tommy.”
Tommy said, “I’m having a little trouble getting the code to work like you showed us. Do you think you could help me with it?”
Rodney nodded. He may not know how to talk to kids or like them even remotely, but math and science? Now that, he could talk with anyone, no matter the age. “Bring what you’ve got to the next meeting and we’ll figure out what’s going on. Okay?”
Tommy grinned. “Thanks, Dr. McKay! Well, I better get going if I don’t want to miss my bus. See you next week. Bye, Alex!” He jogged off to the row of buses, leaving Rodney and the other kid standing opposite each other.
So this was Alex Sheppard. At least, Rodney assumed they had the same last name. Come to think of it, he didn’t know if John had a brother or sister that gave him his niece and nephew. Rodney studied him even as Alex studied him back. John had a brother. Alex looked enough like John that he felt safe in that deduction. Well, had had a brother. There was a story there he still wanted to know.
Rodney eventually said, “Hi. Uh. So . . . I’m—”
“Dr. Rodney McKay. I know. I guess I’m spending the afternoon with you.”
“Uh, yeah.” Was it a family trait, throwing Rodney off balance? He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’m parked back here.”
“’Kay.” Alex continued to stare at him. Well this was awkward.
“Right . . .” Rodney turned and started across the parking lot, looking back once to make sure Alex was following. He was. Rodney opened the driver’s side door and got in. He started when he saw Alex climbing into the passenger seat. “Whoa, wait, are you old enough to sit up front?”
Alex gave him a disdainful look. “Uncle John lets me,” he answered, his tone challenging.
Yep. Definitely a Sheppard trait. Eh, what the hell. “Put your seatbelt on,” he muttered, buckling up himself.
They drove to the university in silence and good god were all of the old farts on the road today? Nobody drove the speed limit, he caught practically every red light and by the time they reached campus, he was late. He only hoped he could make it before his students decided he wasn’t coming and left.
He’d never been more relieved to have his own assigned parking space as they finally made it to the science building. Rodney grabbed his bag from the back and hurried into the building. Dodging people and keeping a firm hold on his bag to keep it from being bounced around, he swung quickly by his office to grab a few lecture materials and then headed straight up the stairs. Third floor, fourth door on the left and—
—oh good, they were still all there. It was only as he reached out to open the door that Rodney remembered the kid. He threw a frantic glance around, spotting him back down the hall inspecting a display. “Oy!” he called, snapping his fingers.
Alex looked at him and raised an eyebrow. Just like Sheppard did.
Annoyed, Rodney waved him over. “You’re supposed to stay with me. Come on.” Alex walked slowly to where Rodney waited. “I’m already late so just go in, sit at the desk, do your homework, and stay quiet, okay?”
When Alex nodded, Rodney shoved the door open. The myriad conversations immediately stopped. “Sorry, I’m late, class.” He dropped everything on the table and grabbed a piece of chalk. As he started writing an equation on the board, he called out, “Speed review. The principle of conservation of mechanical energy states that . . .?” He didn’t turn around as he wrote, glancing briefly at the desk to make sure Alex was settled. The kid was sitting at the desk, but he was staring at Rodney. Rodney pushed him out of his mind and focused on his lecture plans.
A female student called out confidently, “If a body or system is subjected only to conservative forces, the mechanical system remains constant.”
“Good. The difference between a conservative and non-conservative force?”
Rodney chalked up a second equation as a male student answered, somewhat hesitantly, “When a conservative force moves an object from one point to another, the work done by the conservative force is independent of the path.”
“Good. A physical quantity that can be described by a single element of a number field is . . .?” For a few seconds, no one answered him. He waited. Double checked his notes. Started a third equation. “We covered this last week. Were you all asleep during that class?”
The first responder quietly asked, “Scalar quantity?”
“Correct. And it’s expressed as?”
“Umm . . .”
A third voice joined the conversation, throwing out, “A numerical value and a physical unit.”
“Correct.” Rodney turned around. “Now, today I’m going to teach you about the vis-viva equation. This is where you’ll want to start taking notes.” He set the chalk down and dusted his hands off. “Now, the vis-viva equation is also known as the orbital-energy-invariance law and models the motion of orbiting bodies. Vis viva is Latin for “living force” and is the only surviving usage of the word we find in the history of mechanics. One of the equations you see on the board in front of you is the vis-viva equation for any Keplarian orbit where v stands for . . .”
So this is where McKay taught, John thought as he jogged up the steps to the science building. He was so late. Nikki was at the Millers’ and he’d have to swing by there after he picked up Alex. Hopefully, Alex hadn’t given Rodney too much trouble. He wouldn’t put it past the kid to misbehave the whole time.
Pushing through the double doors, John stopped in the entryway. Crap, now where was he supposed to go? Jeannie had simple texted him the university’s address and the name of the building to go to. He looked around and noticed a directory on one wall. Figuring it was the best place to start, John went over to study it. Classroom numbers, labs, floors . . . ah. Offices. Dr. Rodney McKay, PhD. PhD. Smart and clearly not too modest about it. The sign said his office was Room 126. And that would be . . . ?
Just up the hall. Good. John hurried down the empty hall, his footsteps echoing against the tiled floor. Rodney’s door was open but he knocked on it anyway.
Rodney looked up. “Oh, hey. You know, it occurred to me during my last class that I had no idea how long you were going to be and was starting to wonder if I was going to have to take him back to my place or Jeannie’s.”
John did a quick look around for Alex. Not in sight. Rodney’s office was rather messy, small, and filled with books and papers. His desk was perpendicular to the wall, facing the door, and there were two chairs opposite it. For students, presumably. Rodney was staring at him. Oh, right. He hadn’t responded. Rubbing his neck, John answered, “Ah, yeah. Sorry about that. I wasn’t sure how long it was gonna take, either. I should have let you know when I was on my way here.”
Rodney gave a half shrug and turned back to his computer. “Eh. That’s what I get for agreeing to do a favor with almost no information. Are you coming in or are you just going to lean on the doorjamb?”
John smiled a little and came in, dropping into one of the chairs. “So . . . where is Alex?”
“Bathroom. I think. He might have ended up back in the lab. Kid’s fascinated by the equipment we have.”
John opened his mouth to ask something but Alex rushed in, grabbing his attention. Alex had a huge grin on his face.
“Hi, Uncle John!”
“Hey, kiddo. You ready to go?”
“Yeah, just let me get my stuff.” Alex went behind Rodney’s desk to get his things. He looked happier than John had seen him in days. “Thanks, Dr. McKay. This was so much fun.”
“You’re welcome. I think you were more interested in what we were doing than my students were.” Rodney leaned back in his chair, caught John’s gaze and rolled his eyes.
No, John’s stomach did not just do a weird little flip. He covered it by getting to his feet, hoping the heat he was feeling in his cheeks wasn’t nearly as visible as it felt. “Thanks for doing this, McKay. I owe you one.”
Alex came around to stand next to him, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. Rodney shrugged. “I didn’t mind as much as I thought I would.”
“Well, thanks, again. Come on, kiddo. Let’s go get your sister and grab some dinner. I’m thinking pizza, yeah?”
“Yes!” Alex pumped a fist in the air and John chuckled.
Rodney called out as they stepped into the hall, “Um, John?”
John turned, waiting curiously.
Rodney twisted his pencil in his fingers. “I, uh, look I know you’ve probably been inundated by new people and unwanted parenting advice since . . . you know. Since the kids started school here and I, uh, I just. You know, if you wanted some—some guy time. Or, just someone to talk to about non-childcare related things . . . . .” Rodney shrugged, clearly uncomfortable and yet still determined to press on, “I’m here.”
He sounded hesitant and vulnerable, something John had yet to see in him. A new layer to the man who was already becoming quite intriguing. For a man who professed to have zero social skills (or so his sister said), John wouldn’t forget the way Rodney rescued him—not once but twice—at Madison’s party. Here was someone John would like to get to know better.
John nodded, touched by the offer. With a quick smile, he replied, “Thanks, Rodney. I might be calling you on that sooner rather than later.”
Rodney returned the smile. “Good.”
“Okay. So, uh . . . yeah. See you around, McKay.”
“See you around, Sheppard.”
John forced himself to walk away before he said something stupid, catching up to Alex who was looking in one of the display cases. “Come on, Alex.”
They got in the car and John pulled onto the highway towards the Millers’. He waited until they’d merged before he said, “Sorry I’m so late, bud.”
“It’s okay, Uncle John. I know you have a life outside us. Mom and Dad did, too, but they were always there for us, like you’re trying to be.”
John’s throat went tight. Christ. “You have a good time?”
“Yeah. Oh, man, Dr. McKay’s so cool. You should have seen him when we first walked in. He didn’t even look at the students, just went right up to the chalkboard and started throwing out questions. I had no clue what they were talking about but the answers were like something right out of a text book. And oh my god, he’s so smart! He was writing these super complex equations on the chalkboard and he didn’t even have to look at anything! He had them memorized! I wonder how smart he is. Do you think Dr. McKay’s as smart as Stephen Hawking? Oh man, how cool would it be if I could tell my friends I know someone who’s as smart as Stephen Hawking? I can’t wait to . . . .”
John let his nephew’s excitement wash over him for a while. It was nice to hear him actually excited about something. They were getting near Jeannie’s place when something Alex said drew his attention. “Wait, did you just say you were working in the lab?”
“Yeah. I finished my homework fast; it’s super easy. So Dr. McKay let me come to the lab with his class! He even gave me a worksheet that they were working on and a couple of the students let me work with them. It was hard, but I figured out some of it.”
John pulled up to the curb outside the house and threw his nephew a sharp look. “You understood college level science?”
“Yeah. Wasn’t as hard as I’d thought. Oh, look, there’s Nikki.” Alex rolled down his window, stuck his head out and yelled, “Hey, Nikki! Let’s go, Uncle John says we’re getting pizza!”
John could only stare. Where did he get those smarts? Dave had been smart, yeah, but more in the business sense. He took after Dad that way. John still wasn’t sure where his had come from but he assumed his mother. His IQ was partially why he went to Stanford instead of Dad’s alma mater of Harvard. He had needed to be his own person. But Alex . . .
Nikki came running up to the car, Jeannie and Madison behind her. Nikki yanked open the side door and clambered in as Jeannie bent down to peer through the window.
“Hi, John, Alex.”
“Hi, Mrs. Miller.”
John was still stuck on the fact that his thirteen year old nephew could keep up with college level science. He might have to do something about that when Alex hit high school age.
“Hey, Jeannie. Thanks again for watching Nik.”
“Not a problem. The girls had a good time.”
John thanked her again, made sure Nikki was buckled in and headed home. It wasn’t until bedtime later that Alex brought up the subject again, asking sleepily, “Hey, Uncle John?”
John replied quietly, “Yeah, buddy?”
Alex yawned and rolled over in his bed to look at him. “Do you like him?”
John stopped with his hand on the light switch. “Like who?”
Yes. John shrugged. “I guess. I don’t really know him well enough to say whether I like him or not. He seems like a nice guy.” There was no way in hell John was going to admit out loud to being attracted to McKay or that the doc intrigued him. And he especially was not going to say anything of the sort to his nephew.
Alex said tiredly, “Well, I do. He’s cool.” Another yawn and his eyes slid shut. “I like him way better than Cam.”
John froze, unsure what to say. There were times that Alex acted far beyond his age and he had surprised John by doing so twice tonight. “Goodnight, Alex,” John said, flicked off the light and stepped into the hall. Closing the door behind him, John checked on Nikki to find her fast asleep already. He closed her door and went to the kitchen.
He needed a drink, some alcohol to help him forget.
But he couldn’t forget.
Not about a certain blue-eyed professor of science who had so charmed his nephew. And himself.
Not about the butterflies in his stomach when Rodney had said he was interested in spending more time with John.
Nor could he stop thinking about Alex’s comment about liking Rodney better than Cam. In what way? As a person? As someone John dated? Should date?
Rodney fascinated John but he didn’t want another Cam.
John’s thoughts just kept going in circles and he couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
After a day of disappointing run after disappointing run, John was in a crap mood. A mood that was not made better by the fact that he nearly ran into Lorne, waiting in the hall outside the locker room. John caught himself just before knocking into his crew chief. “D’you need something, Lorne?”
Lorne raised an eyebrow. “So who is he?”
Shit. John knew exactly what, or should he say who, Lorne was talking about but decided to play ignorant. “Who?”
Lorne gave him a look, a look John knew very well. It was the look that called bullshit on whatever John said. It was a surprisingly integral part of their working relationship. “The guy you can’t stop thinking about and who’s been distracting you for the past week. That’s who, Shep.”
How was it possible that he was that transparent? He went for nonchalance, lifting one shoulder a little. “There’s no guy, Lorne.”
Lorne crossed his arms, shaking his head. “Sheppard, I’ve been your crew chief for almost five years now and I’d like to think I’ve gotten to know you pretty damn well. I consider you a friend; hope you do the same.”
John thought back to their first meeting, after it all went to shit.
The season had already started, he’d been struggling with the lack of a crew chief, been in a bad mood almost constantly. He’d walked into the garage one day to find someone talking with Ronon and Ford. His anger had spiked, paranoia kicked in and he stomped over and demanded to know “Who the hell are you and how did you get past security?” The man had turned, smiled, and said, “Ah, you must be John Sheppard. Nice to meet you. I’m Evan Lorne, your new crew chief.” He offered his hand and John just stared at him, then stared at his friends in disbelief because there was no way. He was too young to have any actual experience and was this Cam’s doing? Was he fucking with John again? When John didn’t take his hand or say anything, Lorne had lowered his and said, “I know what you’re thinking but I’m actually about the same age as you.” John lifted an eyebrow, not believing it. Lorne continued, “I know you’ve had some trouble in the past getting someone who works with you instead of expecting you to work for them. You’re the racer and you know what you’re capable of. I’m here as support. I’ve been catching up on your record and you’ve got potential.” When John still refused to say anything, Lorne’s expression turned serious, and he told John, “I can get you a win. And not just any win. You work with me for this season, John, and I can guarantee not only will you beat Kolya, but you’ll win the championship.” John was still wary of getting burned again, but reluctantly agreed because he did need a crew chief and he knew Weir and Teyla were getting frustrated with him.
John remembered thinking that it had easily been the best decision he’d made since agreeing to race for Atlantis. Lorne got him, in a way none of his previous crew chiefs had—and he’d had quite a few of them. Landry, Sumner, Carter, Ellis, Caldwell . . . They worked so easily together, Lorne was a calm steady presence in John’s ear during races, dispelling John’s frustrations with ease. Lorne understood how John worked, how he drove, how he liked to take risks in his racing, and when John not only won that first race of the season, but kept winning, he’d quietly gone to Teyla and told her to do whatever it took to keep Lorne on. She’d smiled at him and promised she would.
Turning back to Lorne in the present, he nodded. They’d quickly become friends and Lorne knew things he didn’t share with anyone else. “We’re friends, Evan. Good friends.”
Lorne nodded in acknowledgement. “Ask him out.”
Startled, John blinked. “What?”
Lorne grinned and took a step forward. “Dude, Shep, if he’s thinking about you as often as you’re thinking about him—which is a hell of a lot, I’m guessing—then he’ll say yes.”
“I’m not thinking about anyone.”
Lorne gave him that bullshit look again and John fought the instinctive grimace. He’d be damned if he gave anything away. “Oh yeah? You sure nothing’s been distracting you? Well, then, would you like to see your times for the past week?”
Now John ducked his head, grimacing. Damn. He knew he’d been driving like shit but was it really that bad?
“If it helps, think of it as being my job on the line.” John’s head shot up in surprise. Lorne’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “If Weir gets word of this, she’ll start thinking maybe Lorne’s not working out so well anymore. Maybe Sheppard needs a new crew chief, one who can whip him into shape and—” Lorne snaps his fingers, “I’m gone.”
Crap. John hadn’t thought about it that way.
Well, duh, of course he hadn’t. Because he’d been too busy thinking about Rodney and whether he should talk to him again.
He couldn’t lose Lorne, as crew chief or friend.
Lorne crossed over to him and clapped a hand on the shoulder. “As your friend, John, I am telling you that not everyone is Mitchell. Ask him out. You won’t regret it.”
Then Lorne walked away, leaving John in the hallway with his thoughts. Not everyone is Mitchell, Lorne had said. Yeah, he supposed that was true but how were you supposed to know? He couldn’t, which was the worst part. He’d honestly thought that Cam was a good guy, maybe the guy.
John made a frustrated sound and shoved a hand through his hair. “Fuck,” he muttered. John walked outside, grateful he’d decided to ride his motorcycle to the track today because he needed it now. He put on his sunglasses and started the engine. The machine vibrated beneath him and he took off.
John liked going fast. He liked seeing the world speed by in a blur of color. He liked feeling the wind whistle past. You couldn’t really get that in a regular car but on his motorcycle? It was almost like being on the track. He pulled onto the highway, dodging between cars, going as fast as he could without catching the eye of highway patrol. He dodged between cars, tempting fate, trying to keep himself from thinking.
Eventually, John took an exit and turned onto the road, slowing down to city speed limits, not even paying attention to where he was. He pulled into the first establishment with a parking lot—a jeweler’s—and tugged his helmet off. Breathing hard, John ran a gloved hand through his damp hair. Not everyone is Mitchell. Lorne’s words kept bouncing around inside his head. If he’s thinking about you . . . he’ll say yes.
It took a few minutes to get his breathing back to normal. He was spiraling and he knew it. His past with Cam, his fledgling feelings for Rodney, his fear of losing Lorne, he was just getting his life back on an even keel, he couldn’t handle another curveball . . . Dammit, get a grip! John took one last deep breath and slid his phone out of his jacket pocket to figure out where the hell he was. He tapped the maps icon, turning the device’s location on, and waited. A little blue car icon appeared next to a label informing him he was at Kay Jeweler’s on Aiken Blvd.
Where the hell was that? He pulled off a glove and used the touch screen to widen the map. Okay, there was the exit he took. Nothing really jumped out at him as a landmark so he widened the map again.
John had to laugh. He was ten minutes from the university Rodney taught at. Well, damn, if that wasn’t the universe trying to tell him something, he didn’t know what it was.
“Alright,” he said aloud. Then, in a louder voice, “Alright! I’ll ask him out, happy now?”
He put his phone away and tugged his helmet and glove back on. John muttered to himself, “But it’s not a date.” He revved the engine and pulled out. He knew his way home from here. “I’ll ask him out but it’s a friends thing. Take it slow. Not a date.”
John shot one last glare upward, daring the universe to change his mind on that last, then hit the gas.
John grabbed his laptop and settled on the couch. The kids were in bed and he wanted to research something without interruptions. It was easy enough to find the university’s website; easier still to find Rodney’s faculty page. He had published a ton of stuff, in practically every scientific paper out there. Rodney was smarter than John had thought.
What if Rodney found him too stupid to talk to?
He shook his head, reached for his beer. He went to Stanford. He was smart, he could keep up. Besides, he had more to offer than that.
Christ, he was already thinking in terms of a future relationship. No, he had to stop that. Friends first. Maybe just friends, but definitely friends first. Protect his heart but also keep the kids from getting attached in case it didn’t work. Although it might be a bit late for that where Alex was concerned.
He put the beer down and returned to the website. He was trying to find a class schedule, figure out when Rodney had some free time. But it had been a while since he’d been to school and, despite the ease of his earlier results, it took John a few minutes to find a course schedule. But of course it didn’t have professors listed so he had to go back to Rodney’s page and hunt through it to find out what he was teaching that semester.
Good god, he just wanted to ask the man out for coffee!
Not a date. Friendly coffee.
“Ugh,” he groaned, dropping his head back against the pillows. Why was this so hard? He took a moment then went back to the search.
By the time his beer was gone, John had finally managed to find out Rodney’s schedule. Rodney had a couple hours free tomorrow between classes. Provided he didn’t already have plans, maybe he’d be interested in getting to know John a bit better.
John sure was interested in getting to know Rodney better, after all.
Ugh, he needed to stop thinking. He seemed to think that a lot.
John ran his hands over his face, his fingers catching slightly on the stubble on his chin. Did Rodney like a man with scruff or should he shave?
It was entirely possible he was overthinking things, again. Okay, it was officially time for bed. John set his laptop aside and stood. He would go through his day like normal, pretend like he was just meeting Lorne or Ronon for lunch because that’s what friends did. They grabbed lunch or coffee together sometimes. There was no reason for him to be nervous about it.
No reason at all.
This was a bad idea.
John must have told himself that a hundred times that morning. He’d busied himself after dropping the kids off by alternating his time between cleaning and skimming Rodney’s papers. Eventually, John stood in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to . . . well, he wasn’t sure. Was he trying to psych himself up or trying to talk himself out of it?
His phone beeped. John pulled it out and made a face. It was from Lorne, asking where he was. With a sigh, John looked back in the mirror. Setting his jaw, he nodded once. Right. Time to drag the risk taker off the track and into his personal life. John made his way to the door, tapping out a response as he went. He was playing hooky today. Lorne would understand.
John grabbed his jacket and keys, not stopping because if he stopped, he’d stop for good and talk himself out of it. He settled into the comfy leather seat of his Mustang and his phone chirped, showing Lorne’s reply. John chuckled. Lorne had simply sent good luck with a winking emoji. He tossed his phone onto the passenger seat, cranked the radio way up, and pulled out.
Half an hour later, John pulled onto campus and turned his radio down. Looking around, he made his way to where he’d picked Alex up a couple weeks ago. There were a lot of people walking around; classes must have just ended. He took the steps two at a time and right up the stairs, heading for the classroom the schedule said was Rodney’s most recent course. His thinking was that Rodney might still be inside, cleaning up, and alone. That last was important. No need to embarrass himself more than he needed to.
The room was empty.
Damn. Okay, that was okay. He could adapt. John turned around and decided to check Rodney’s office. Students were milling around, waiting for class to start or just catching up. John wound his way down to the first floor and to Rodney’s office.
The door was open.
John stopped a couple feet away. He took a steadying breath. He could do this. It was just an invite to hang out, nothing more. Right, now if he could just ignore the pounding of his heart, maybe he could believe it. Now or never.
John stepped up, looked inside, and was relieved to see Rodney at his desk, working at his computer. He wasn’t sure what his next move would have been if Rodney hadn’t been in his office. Well, to be honest, he’d probably have just left. John reached up and rapped a knuckle a couple times on the door.
“Office hours aren’t until later,” Rodney responded absently, not looking up.
John replied, “How about coffee hour?”
Rodney’s head popped up over the top of the computer, staring at John with an unreadable expression. Was he happy to see John? Or was this an unwelcome intrusion?
John offered a small smile and shoved his hands in his jacket pockets, struggling for a casualness he certainly did not feel. “Hey, McKay.”
Rodney’s brow furrowed. “What are you doing here?”
John shrugged. “You said something last time about if I needed some—what did you call it?—guy time. I had some free time, figured you could use a caffeine fix, so . . .” he trailed off.
Rodney stared at him for so long that John had decided this was a bad idea and was trying to figure out how to gracefully escape when Rodney pushed his chair back.
“Yeah, sure. I could use some coffee. What they serve in the staff lounge does not qualify as more than brown water, in my opinion, and it’s lukewarm at best.” Rodney did something to his computer, grabbed his jacket and came around the desk.
He was closing the door and stepping into the hall before it completely registered that he’d said yes. John grinned and jogged to catch up. Rodney told him, “You’re driving.”
Fine by him. He didn’t know what Rodney drove, anyway, and his Mustang was sure to impress.
Damn it, he wasn’t trying to impress him!
“I’m just parked out on the curb.” John glanced at him from the corner of his eye, still surprised that Rodney had so readily agreed. As they approached his car, John thumbed the unlock button on the key fob and said, “So since I’m pretty sure you know the area way better than I do, what’s the best place to grab coffee?”
Rodney stopped with his hand on the car door handle, his mouth twisted in thought. John leaned his forearms on the roof of the car and waited. After a minute, Rodney said, “Juanita’s. Best coffee I’ve ever had, including Starbucks.”
John offered an easy smile. “As long as you can give good directions.”
Rodney scoffed and climbed in, John quickly following suit. “Please. The question is never if the passenger can give accurate directions. It’s whether the driver feels like listening.”
John pulled out, tossing him a look. “Sounds like you’ve got some issues there. Are you usually the driver or navigator?”
Rodney returned his look. “Depends on whether I’m with my sister or not. If I’m with her, I’m unfortunately the navigator and she always decides she has a better, faster, way of getting where we’re going and then we’re typically late. If not, then I drive.”
Rodney reached out to turn the radio on and added, reluctantly, “And maybe control issues, too.”
John held back the chuckle. He really shouldn’t have been worried. It was something he’d realized the last couple times he’d run into Rodney—things just felt so easy with him. John already felt more relaxed than he did before. Rodney settled on some sort of soft rock station.
It was a comfortable ten minute drive to the little diner called Juanita’s. Kinda looked like Denny’s but a little smaller. John locked the car as they walked up, taking a lunging step forward to beat Rodney to the doors. He pulled it open and stepped back to allow Rodney in first.
Rodney shot him a surprised yet pleased look and walked in. Almost immediately a woman around his age or so called out, “Take a seat anywhere. Be with you in a minute.”
John barely had a chance to look around before Rodney was making his way to the back wall and sliding into a booth. He took the bench opposite and said “Nice place.”
A waitress appeared, white apron around her waist and a pad of paper in hand. She was older than John had thought, maybe late forties? “Hello, Rodney. Didn’t expect to see ya today. Who’s your date?”
Rodney turned pink, John noted with interest. Rodney flailed a hand in his direction and muttered, “He’s a friend.”
Right. Friendly coffee. John gave her one of his most charming smiles and offered a hand. “I’m John. I take it Rodney’s a regular?”
She shook it with a wide smile. “Juanita. Rodney comes in all the time, usually brings a pile of papers with him.” She winked at Rodney, put a hand to the side of her mouth, leaned a little towards Rodney, and added in a loud whisper, “He’s cute.” Rodney’s cheeks turned a darker shade of pink, inching towards red. John thought it was adorable. Juanita pulled out a pencil and asked, “So, coffee, I’m sure, for you, Rodney. How ‘bout you, handsome?”
“Coffee’s fine, thanks.”
She scribbled something on her pad. “You need me to send some menus over with your coffee?”
Rodney glanced at John, the blush fading. John shrugged at the unspoken question. “I could eat. Depends on how much time you got.” Don’t let on that you know his schedule, he thought.
Juanita offered, “I could have the chef whip up a couple of house specials for you?”
It was John’s turn to glance at Rodney, quirking an eyebrow. Rodney answered the unspoken question, “The food’s really good here. You’ll like it.”
Add that to the list of things about Rodney that John liked. He liked that they already know each other well enough to have unspoken conversations. John found himself making a mental list.
Rodney turned to Juanita. “Two specials and coffee for both of us.”
She beamed at them both. “Great. Be right back with your coffee, then.” She was back in less than a minute, returning to set two steaming mugs of black coffee in front of them and a bowl filled with sugar packets and little creamers. Then she left them alone.
John blew on his drink and took a sip, gauging the strength. Hot but not burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth hot. And slightly too bitter for him. He added a couple sugar packets and one creamer, used a stirrer from the condiment container against the wall, then took another experimental sip. Mmm. Delicious.
He settled back against the bench, watching with mild amusement as Rodney doctored his own coffee. He apparently had a routine—one sugar, stir, one creamer, stir. Repeat. Three times. Rodney took a sip and sighed in satisfaction. John hid his smile by taking another drink.
Rodney said abruptly, “Can I ask you something?”
Oh boy, here it comes. John lowered his mug to the table. “Alright.”
“How did my sister adopt you?”
John laughed. “Wow, uh, that was not—” He laughed again. Not the question he’d been expecting. He’d been expecting Rodney to ask him why he was taking care of his niece and nephew. “Adopt is a good word for it. She’s kinda got the mom thing down, huh.” Rodney didn’t respond, waiting. John took a breath. “Right.
“I met her on the kids’ first day of school. Well, Nikki’s first day, anyway. Alex didn’t want me to even get out of the car when I dropped him off that morning.” John played with his mug, spinning it. “I had to walk her into the office because there was all this paperwork and crap I had to take care of. I was waiting for the principal to do . . . something. Can’t remember what because Nikki kept crying and I had no clue what to do. I was totally new at the whole “guardian” thing. Anyway, this woman comes out of nowhere while I’m trying to convince Nikki that she’s gonna be okay. So this woman comes over, asks what’s going on, so I tell her, you know, first day of school, etc. She kneels down next to Nikki and starts talking to her and next thing I know, the kid’s got a smile on her face. Nikki gives me a hug, says see you later, and walks into the classroom.
“The woman introduces herself as Jeannie Miller, says she’s got a daughter Nik’s age and asked if we were new in town. I thanked her, introduced myself. Jeannie told me she was happy to help, then wrote her number down on a piece of paper, handed it to me and told me to call if I ever needed help. She said she and her husband would be more than happy to help out with anything I needed. I don’t know how she knew I was a single—well, not parent exactly, but you know.” John shrugged. “I’ve never really needed anything other than advice every now and then until, you know, the whole babysitting thing—thank you, again, by the way, for that. Honestly, though, your sister’s great, a lifesaver. I’m not sure I’d even still have the kids if it weren’t for her.”
Juanita arrived then with their food. Each plate held a Reuben-style sandwich, sliced in two triangles, with a deli pickle and side of French fries. It looked delicious. John immediately reached for the ketchup, squirting a pile next to the fries. As he did that, Juanita asked, “So . . . how do you two want to handle the check?”
Rodney said, “Separate bills.”
John shook his head and spoke over him. “I’m paying.”
Rodney glared at him and said hotly, “I am perfectly capable of paying for my own food, Sheppard.”
Not a date, not a date, not a date . . . John turned to Juanita. “I’m paying.”
She grinned. “Yessir. Rodney, hun, he’s a keeper.” She left and Rodney went pink again, shoving a fry into his mouth.
A slightly awkward silence fell for a minute, then Rodney asked, “So is that what this is about? A thank you lunch? Because it’s totally not necessary. You’re welcome, even if Jeannie didn’t exactly give me a choice in the matter. No surprise there.”
John hedged, “No, well, not totally. I mean, sort of, but no.”
Rodney pointed a fry at him. “That kid is damn smart, you know that, right? I was teaching advanced mathematics and science, mechanical engineering, some astrophysics . . . He wanted to try what I had my students working on. After he finished his homework, of course. Can’t neglect schoolwork. And once he understood what all the variables were supposed to mean, he got damn close to the right answers a couple times.”
John felt his mouth drop open. “We are talking about the same kid, right? Because Alex hates school.”
“Been there. He’s too smart for what they’re trying to teach him. He probably already knows it. Public school teachers don’t understand students who are smarter than the average dunce.” Rodney sipped his coffee. “You should look into vocational classes when he hits high school, get him into advanced mathematics courses, too. He needs to be tested or he’s going to get bored and trust me when I say that you do not want a bored genius on your hands.”
John’s mouth quirked in a half smile. “Blow shit up when you were a kid, McKay?”
Rodney returned the smile. “Didn’t we all? I just did better than my classmates with their tiny magnifying glasses and bottle rockets. I’ll never be able to thank my high school science teacher for letting me do more advanced work.”
He nodded. “I’ll talk to Alex, see what he wants to do.”
“Don’t talk. Do it. He’ll thank you later.”
“We’ll see.” He doubted Alex would thank him for anything at the moment.
They settled in to eat for a few minutes. John noticed again that it was a comfortable silence, neither one seeming to feel the need to talk and fill the silence needlessly.
“You’re their uncle, right?” Rodney kept his head down.
Ah, shit. Here it was. “Yeah.” He kept it short but the mental door creaked open, anyway.
Rodney asked, “So . . . what happened to their parents? Were they, like, declared unfit or something because mine totally would have been. I mean, I loved them but they were just not meant to be parents.”
John opened his mouth to respond—with what, he truly had no idea—but that mental door suddenly slammed open. Flashes of memory shot across his vision:
Standing on the race track with his crew, getting the phone call that forever changed his life.
Standing in the hospital morgue, identifying his brother and sister-in-law.
The acrid taste of bile as he threw up in the hospital trash can.
Dave’s house. Walking into the living room to see two kids dressed in black sitting on the couch, crying. . . . .
“. . . John?”
Christ, he’d totally spaced. John sniffled, cleared his throat. Averting his gaze to his plate, John muttered, “They’re gone.” John took a fry and slid it through the ketchup, twisting it round and round.
Rodney’s voice was hesitant as he asked, “Gone, as in out of the country or—?”
John snapped, “Gone, McKay! What other definition is there? They’re just . . .” He swallowed hard. Blinking a couple times, he repeated, “They’re gone. Dead.” He may not have gotten along really well with Dave but he was still his big brother, still his family. And now his family was gone.
French fry guts leaked out between his fingers. With an effort, he forced the mental door closed again. After a few uncomfortably silent minutes, he took a shaky breath and looked up. He wiped his fingers on the napkin and apologized, “Sorry, Rodney. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just—hard, to think about. It’s not your fault.”
Rodney shook his head. “No, it is my fault. I shouldn’t have pushed. I have a tendency to say things before thinking about whether or not I should. Jeannie’s forever telling me I need to work on the whole brain to mouth filter thing.”
John felt a smile tugging at his lips.
Rodney reached out and laid a hand on top of John’s, his voice serious. “I’m sorry for your loss, John. That’s gotta be hard to handle. Not just your grief, but theirs.”
John lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “I wasn’t prepared for them, I can tell you that.”
Their eyes met and John felt his face heat. Rodney’s hand was a warm weight on his. As the moment stretched onward, John had the irrational impulse to just flip his hand, put them palm to palm. Holding hands but not quite.
Not a date, his evil brain reminded him.
He cleared his throat and made himself slide his hand free. “D’you think we could, uh, change the subject?”
Rodney slowly pulled his hand back, a faint blush creeping across his face. “Yeah. Sure. Um. Are you into sci-fi at all?”
Rodney got a gleam in his eye and leaned forward a little. “New Trek or old?”
John grinned and leaned back into the bench, all tension from before gone as he relaxed into one of his favorite topics. “Please, Kirk all the way.”
Rodney grinned back and they jumped into a debate about the merits of each of Star Trek’s many iterations over the years as they finished their meals and coffee refills.
Before they knew it, two hours had passed and Rodney had to get back to school. They called Juanita over, Rodney harrumphing and making a face as John handed over a credit card but the grumping had far less attitude than earlier. John conceded the tip to him, though. They continued talking as they left the diner, Rodney holding the door for him this time. Their movie and TV tastes were almost exactly similar, John found with pleasure.
“Oh come on!” Rodney exclaimed as they got in the car. “How could you enjoy Back to the Future?”
“It’s a classic!”
“Yeah, a classic pile of crap.”
John defended, “It’s a good story! How many times do you wish you could go back in time or see what your future would be?” He pulled out of the parking lot.
Rodney scoffed. “Please. Just being there would change the entire future because you’d have no way of knowing what actions or choices you make in the present would lead to that exact future. Not even taking into account the Grandfather Paradox. There are millions of possible variations out there. Have you never heard of the multiple universe theory?”
“Yeah, but that’s just one part of it. I understand that being present changes things from what they’d normally be—observer theory—but that doesn’t mean the entire future is decided by something I’d do. There’s no way my choosing to eat out leads to winning the lottery or something.” John shot him a look. “Besides, you can’t convince me that you wouldn’t want to see future technology, see if the Enterprise is possible.”
Rodney made a face. “Yeah, okay, I concede that point.”
“But!” Rodney pointed a finger at him.
“But you still don’t know for certain that your present does not affect the future.”
“One person cannot change the future that much.”
“Sure they can, if they’re the right person. And you can’t know if you’re the right person until that future comes to be. Which you won’t know because you most likely won’t even be alive to see that specific future.”
John made a face. “Okay, my head hurts now.”
Rodney laughed. “Just don’t street race and run over someone and I think your future will be just fine.”
“Ha, you have seen it!”
“To mock it!”
John couldn’t fight the grin, though, as he drove back onto campus. “Do you ever just enjoy a movie?”
Rodney frowned, a little sadly. “I can still enjoy the movie while criticizing its science. But, yeah, Jeannie won’t go with me anymore. Says I ruin things for her by talking through them and apparently no one wants that.”
John shook his head, offered, “I don’t mind. My friends and I talk through movies all the time. Sometimes it makes the viewing more enjoyable. That is the point of B movies.”
“Yeah.” John made his way back to the science building. “We’ll have to go sometime.”
“I’d like that.” Rodney looked at him with something a lot like hope in his eyes.
John’s previous parking spot was still open so he grabbed it while he could. They sat in the car for a minute, awkward now that the non-date had come to an end.
Rodney finally said, “Thanks. That was . . . nice. I had a good time.”
John nodded. “Yeah, me too.” Hesitantly, he asked, “Maybe we could do it again, sometime?”
Rodney turned to look at him, blue eyes bright as they studied him. Then he nodded. “Yeah, we should. It was nice to be able to talk to someone about sci-fi and actually talk about the science side of it.”
John rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah. So, I’ll, uh, I’ll stop by when I’m free, then?”
“That should work. Can’t guarantee I’ll always be free at the same time or for how long, but yeah. Stop by.”
There was another beat of awkwardness before Rodney said, “Okay. Bye.” He opened the door and climbed out.
John called, “Bye!” after him, receiving a wave in acknowledgement. He watched Rodney walk up the stairs, taking the opportunity to admire his ass from afar. Then he pulled out and headed home, grinning widely.
As far as non-dates went, it had gone really well.
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
Rodney was wrapping up the day’s lesson when something caught his eye. Turning slightly, he saw John peeking through the window in the closed door. When he noticed Rodney looking, he waved. What was he doing here? Wait, was this John’s stop-by-when-I’m-free thing? Crap, now he’d lost his train of thought. Oh, whatever, if they hadn’t been paying attention earlier then it wouldn’t really matter now. With a sigh, he dismissed them.
The students all hurriedly shoved their belongings in their backpacks and shuffled out en masse. Once the last of them were gone, Rodney went out into the hall and looked for Sheppard.
He was sitting on the bench across from the door. Well, lounging was a more apt term. Sheppard was slouched, one leg straight out in front, the other bent and was doing something on his phone. Probably playing a game. He hadn’t even looked up. Frowning, Rodney stalked over to him, settled his hands on his waist and demanded, “What are you doing here?”
John looked up, smiling easily. “Hey, McKay.”
Rodney eyed him. “Not that I’m not happy to see you, but I can’t leave. I have another class in ten minutes.”
How did he know? Was Jeannie in on this? Oh, no, was she setting them up? But John hadn’t given any sort of indication that their lunch was a date . . .
. . . . or had he? Oh fuck, now he had to rethink things.
Having no idea what to say, Rodney spun around and walked back into the classroom. He started gathering up the papers and switching them out for his next class. John came in after a minute, still smiling, only now he was carrying a bag. Where had that come from?
Mentally shaking himself, Rodney picked up the eraser and started cleaning the board so he could reuse it. “I told you, I have students who will be arriving any minute.”
There was a creak and Rodney turned around to find John sitting on the edge of the desk. Swinging his legs. Rodney stared at him. Was he five? “What are you doing?”
John said, “I don’t need long.”
Rodney’s eyes landed on the bag, its logo facing outward, and his eyes widened. “Is that from Juanita’s?”
“Yup. I swung by on my way over. Figured you’d need some real coffee right about now and she threw in some apple pie for us to share.”
Coffee and apple pie from Juanita’s. It called to him like a siren song. Rodney dropped the eraser and joined John at the desk. “You’d better have two forks in there,” he said, attempting to frown but it was hard when John pulled out the delicious smelling box.
“’Course I do. Just don’t eat the whole thing before I can have a bite.” John handed him a coffee in a to-go cup. Rodney eyed it warily since it didn’t seem to come with any sugar or creamer. John rolled his eyes as he pulled out two forks and his own coffee. “Just drink it, McKay. I promise it’s not poisoned.”
“Better not be,” Rodney grumbled, but took a tentative sip, finding himself surprised at the taste. It tasted just like it would if Rodney had fixed it himself. He threw John a look, eyes narrowed. Had he really remembered how Rodney took his coffee? Maybe he really did need to rethink that lunch as a date.
Rodney used the chair to lever himself up onto the desk, the pie between them. John handed him a fork. He closed his eyes as he took his first bite. Oh, that was good. Juanita’s pie was definitely the best. He turned back to take another bite and found John staring at him. “What?”
“Do you always make those sounds when you eat?”
Rodney bristled. “I appreciate good food.”
“Okaay.” John took a bite.
Rodney made a face and stabbed an apple slice.
They alternated eating the pie in silence after that. When it was gone, Rodney set the fork down, took a sip of his coffee—still surprised that John remembered how he liked it—and asked, “So what did you need?”
“You said you didn’t need long. What did you need?”
“Oh.” John set his coffee down and leaned back on his hands. Rodney got momentarily distracted by his clearly defined chest visible under his open jacket. Again in black, but damn he looked good in it. “I wanted to talk to you about Alex.”
“What about him?”
“I’m no good at this whole parenting thing, and he and I clash a lot. He’s starting that whole teen angst thing. Anyway, until he gets into high school classes, there’s not a whole lot I can do for him, but I was kinda hoping that maybe he could join your after school club? I know it’s really late in the year and he’d probably be way behind on whatever you’re working on but I think he’d really like it. And he needs to do something, get out of his room, make friends, and since he really enjoyed that afternoon he spent here—”
“Yeah no problem,” Rodney cut him off. He took a long drink of his coffee, set it down, and slid off the table, returning to the chalkboard. Alex would be a great addition to the club.
He could hear John’s astonishment as he replied, “Just like that? No forms or—or fees? Just yeah?”
Rodney turned back around and raised an eyebrow. “You want your nephew to learn, right? I’m all about learning, if you hadn’t noticed.” He gestured around the room, delighting when he noticed John’s ears turn red. “So if you want the kid in the club, he’s in the club. I’m sure he’ll catch up pretty quick.”
John rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh, well, uh, thanks . . . Rodney. I appreciate it.”
A couple students walked in, throwing curious looks at the pair. Rodney nodded and picked up his chalk. “As much as I appreciate the visit . . . and the coffee and the pie,” John grinned, “I do have a class that I need to finish preparing for.”
John nodded and hopped easily off the table. “No problem.” Rodney both admired him and was jealous of how easily he did it. The life of a nerd—always admiring jocks. Although John was both, which was extremely interesting. He still needed to find out why John wasn’t using his degrees and was racing cars instead. John gathered up their trash, shoving it back in the bag, and headed for the door.
If the lunch was a date . . . then this was . . . also a date? On a whim, Rodney called his name, “Hey, John, wait a second.” John stopped and turned around as Rodney hurried over. He held out one of his business cards. “Maybe next time you could text me before you show up randomly?”
Fear and hope and wariness all flashed across John’s face so fast that Rodney wasn’t even sure he’d seen it before John nodded. Their fingers brushed as he took the card and Rodney’s heart skipped a beat.
John winked as he tucked the card in a pocket. “Do I have to wait the requisite three days?”
Rodney rolled his eyes, amused. “Didn’t we already do the three day wait after lunch? Just text me or I’ll see you Wednesday when you come pick up Alex after school.”
“Cool.” John tossed him a wave and left.
Rodney shook his head, laughing a little as he returned to the chalkboard. John was an incurable flirt, apparently, which made it difficult to figure out what this thing between them was. Were they dating but not dating? Or did John just genuinely want a friend without kids and flirted with everyone? He needed more data points.
He started writing on the board. He was surprised to realize just how much he was finding he liked John. They had similar interests, similar sense of humor. Hell, he liked the kid and Rodney hated kids. What if lunch really had been a date? That changed things a bit. And he really liked that John stopped by pretty much just to bring him coffee and pie from his favorite restaurant which was really awfully sweet of him. Rodney had the feeling that asking about Alex joining his tech club was a spur of the moment thing but he didn’t mind.
Rodney wouldn’t mind if John asked him out on an actual date and found himself secretly hoping that the next contact he had from John was an official date invite.
But it wasn’t.
It was a link to a screening at a local theatre for a Star Trek original movie marathon and a question mark.
Rodney took this to mean John wanted to know if Rodney wanted to go see them with him. He decided to operate under the assumption that this was a friends thing that could go either way at the end of the night and responded with ‘meet you there?’ and got a ‘works for me’ in response.
They had a great time, sitting in the back of the theatre, talking through the movie. Rodney wore a Spock-themed shirt and found it highly entertaining when John showed up with a matching Kirk shirt. He was honestly surprised no one kicked them out after the first movie had ended. They were annoying enough that by the second movie, there was no one in the rows around them.
It was great to find out John had been telling the truth about talking through movies. And not only did they discuss the science and action bits—and mock the dramatic overacting—but John started quoting lines with the actors so of course Rodney had to fill in the rest of the scenes. It was hard not to act out some of them and they cracked each other up more often than not.
He’d never had so much fun in his life.
Alex joined the club and was indeed a very quick learner. Rodney watched him with the group and wished he’d had something like this when he’d been growing up. To have a group of likeminded peers, to have a mentor who understood him . . . he strove to be that person for Alex and they bonded over the next couple weeks.
Rodney soon came to accept the fact that John would just randomly show up at the university, they’d sometimes go to lunch or he’d bring coffee and they’d hang out in the few minutes between his classes. It was nice, if somewhat frustrating to feel the tension between them and not know what to do about it. Yes, he was horrible at social cues, but the amount of times he caught John staring at his lips or lifting his gaze or quickly turning his head when Rodney turned to face him were sufficient data points to the conclusion that John felt it too.
The question was, why did he refuse to do anything about it?
For that matter, why did Rodney never do anything about it?
Maybe that should change . . .
Rodney shook his head. “What were you thinking, climbing the side of your house?”
John shrugged. “I was thinking Dave was a stick in the mud and needed to lighten up. ‘Course, how was I supposed to know he had a girl over the day I decided to do it?”
Rodney turned to him. “Oh no, oh please tell me you didn’t?”
John grinned. “I had to. I was already planning on scaring the shit out of him when I found out he wasn’t alone. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. And, besides, she didn’t much like me, anyway.”
He rolled his eyes and replied sarcastically, “Gee, imagine that. It must have been so terrible to have someone dislike you.”
John kicked his chair lightly and responded, “Hey! That hurts. I’m wounded.” He made a dramatic sound, pressing a hand to his chest as if Rodney had actually hit him.
Rodney couldn’t fight the laugh that bubbled out, John joining in after a couple seconds with his loud donkey bray of a laugh. They were in his office. It was finals week and Rodney was working on catching up on his grading. Two classes had taken their written exams and he had another three classes left to administer plus two labs. John had stopped by half an hour before and had taken up the only empty space on Rodney’s desk with his behind.
A very nice behind, but still . . .
“Let me guess,” Rodney said, trying to focus on the exam in front of him. “She got pissed and broke up with him?”
He saw John shake his head out of the corner of his eye as he marked through the multiple choice section. “Oh yeah. And gave me the stink eye every time she saw me. Dave was pissed at me for days. But seriously, he was asking for it!”
“How was he asking for it?”
John nudged his chair again. Rodney glared at him. “He dared me.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. Of course. “And you, being the cocky teenager you were, just couldn’t pass up a dare to climb the side of the house in the dark.”
“Of course! No one ignores a dare, everyone knows that; that’s why it’s called a dare. I was smart about it, though. I chose the side of the house his room was on, waited until they were—shall we say occupied—and snuck outside. I even took it a step further by dressing all in black wearing my skeleton mask from Halloween so that was all they saw. Ah it was brilliant.”
“Your poor mother.”
“Nah, she was gone by then. Think Dad was on his fourth wife? Or was it still Tanya? Anyway, Dad tanned my hide when Dave told him. My butt hurt for at least a week after, but it was so worth it,” John answered, his voicing turning a bit nostalgic at the end.
The pieces that made up John Sheppard had been steadily, if slowly, falling into place over the past month. Second son of a rich family, adored his mother who had died when he was at a young age, father didn’t understand him, distant brother, multiple stepmothers, boarding schools, life planned out until he chose to attend Stanford and his father disowned him. From what he had learned, racing cars had been John’s way of finding himself as well as pulling away from a family that didn’t understand him. It sounded like a hard life for a child and Rodney suddenly found himself feeling far more grateful about his own upbringing. Rodney found himself falling harder for John each time they hung out. Saturdays had even turned into viewing nights, sometimes at the movies, and sometimes DVD marathon at one of their homes. Jeannie was always more than happy to babysit John’s niece and nephew for him. The kids were even starting to grow on him a bit.
“You were a horrible child growing up, weren’t you?”
“Oh, like you were any better? I seem to recall you saying you liked to blow things up,” John retorted, his eyes dancing with mischief.
Rodney frowned briefly at him, then flipped the exam page, moving to the short answer portion. “I blew things up in the name of science and no one ever got hurt.”
“Pfft. Well, that’s no fun. Where’s the danger? You ever launch a rocket from your backyard, McKay, watching from just a few feet away? Ever send one of your action figures on a one-way trip? Now that’s fun.”
Rodney frowned at the response on the paper. The student had answered the question but it looked like he’d mixed subjects, maybe. He stood up, moving over to grab a textbook to check the answer. “I reiterate, you were a horrible child growing up.”
John’s breath audibly hitched.
Startled at the odd response—he’d been expecting a laugh—Rodney darted a glance at John and felt his own breathing stutter. Their faces were mere inches apart. In the next instant, Rodney became incredibly aware of the position they were in. A position he had created.
John hadn’t moved but in reaching for his textbook Rodney had just casually leaned across him to where the book was resting on John’s other side. When had things gotten so comfortable that Rodney could just enter John’s personal space without thinking? Oh, but he was thinking now, because John’s thigh was pressed against his hip, the muscles warm through their clothing. His left arm was stretched across John’s other leg, hand braced against the textbook.
John’s gaze was locked on Rodney’s mouth, breath coming fast, face a little flushed.
Desire pulsed between them, heating the air. This was it, Rodney thought wildly. This was his chance to change things, push them along a little. He was so tired of the back and forth, of wondering if they were just friends—which he was okay with—or something more. John seemed to want more, like Rodney did, but John would pull himself back every time, throwing a wall up between them and force things to a lighter, more superficial topic.
He licked his lips, gauging John’s reaction.
John swallowed hard. He still hadn’t moved. Neither had Rodney.
Rodney leaned in, his heart pounding.
To his absolute delight, John leaned in slightly as well.
Just as Rodney was about to press his mouth against John’s, John jerked back, his eyes wide. Somehow, he knocked Rodney back a step and slid off the desk. Rodney stared at him, his heart still racing, as John said rapidly, “I’m sorry, I just remembered I’ve got this thing at the track Atlantis asked me to do and I’m gonna be late, like really late. I’ve got to get going but we’ll hang out this weekend or—or I’ll text you. Sorry, bye.”
And just like that, Rodney found himself standing in his office, alone and strangely cold.
What the hell just happened?
John had clearly wanted to kiss Rodney as much as Rodney wanted to kiss him. So why did he just run away?
Something else was going on here and if this thing between them was ever going to go anywhere, he needed to learn what.
Unfortunately, he didn’t think John would be all that willing to tell him anytime soon.
John acted like nothing had happened when they talked again after the near-kiss and Rodney let him, hoping he was working things out in his head. But when they went to the movies almost two weeks later, Rodney couldn’t keep acting like it hadn’t happened. Jeannie had the kids. John had driven. It seemed like the perfect time to get some answers.
He waited until after the movie ended, when they were walking out of the theatre with the rest of the moviegoers. Then Rodney asked, “So what gives?”
John asked, “What?”
“What are we doing?”
John raised an eyebrow at him. “We are walking to the car.”
Rodney huffed. “Yes, I know spatially what we’re doing. What I mean, Sheppard, is—” he gestured between them. At the space that John always put between them, space Rodney was beginning to wonder if he did it unconsciously. “Us. This. What are we doing? What is this?”
John slid him an unreadable look. “I thought we were friends.”
Rodney made a frustrated sound. Was he being deliberately obtuse? “We are, and I like that but . . . Look. I’m attracted to you. And I know you’re attracted to me. So my question is, why do you keep putting up walls? Why do you keep putting space between us? Is it me? Do you just not want a relationship with me? What is it?”
He could see John’s jaw tighten as he avoided Rodney’s gaze. They continued to the car in silence and Rodney let it go on in the hopes that maybe he’d get an honest answer if it grew too uncomfortable. John walked around to the driver’s side door, unlocked the car. Rodney said, “John.”
John stopped but didn’t look over.
Rodney softened his voice. “We almost kissed. And for some reason I can’t fathom, you freaked and ran and now you’re acting like it never happened. All I want to know is what’s going on. I think I deserve that much.” Without waiting for a response, he got in the car.
John closed his eyes as Rodney yanked the door shut. He swore softly. Fuck. Rodney was right. On all counts. He was attracted to Rodney, kept trying to fight it in hopes of keeping himself from getting hurt again, and in doing so he pulled away. It was getting harder but he still did it. And he hurt Rodney in the process of trying to protect himself.
And damn it, Rodney did deserve to know why. Deserved to know about Cam.
It was not going to be easy, though.
John blew out his breath in a huff and climbed in the car. He drove out of the parking lot, the silence heavy between them. He fought with himself, trying to figure out what to do. What to say. Finally, John admitted, “My last serious relationship blew up in my face,” and waited.
Rodney didn’t respond and John didn’t dare look at him. He didn’t want to know what Rodney’s very expressive face said.
When he did speak, it was quiet. “What happened?”
“It’s a long . . . complicated story.” His knuckles were turning white where they gripped the steering wheel. Minutes passed as John drove, feeling Rodney’s gaze on him, waiting. Expectant. At a red light, he flexed his fingers, trying to loosen them, get some blood flowing. Rodney deserved to know. If he had any hope of a future with Rodney, John had to tell him. Maybe it would ease the lingering pain. “How much time you got?” John asked reluctantly.
Rodney said simply, “As much as you need.”
Decision made, John took the next left. Ten minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of the one place he knew could help him make it through the whole sordid tale. Daedalus Speedway. His training course. If he was going to bare his soul, he might as well do it where he felt the most comfortable.
He got out, led Rodney to the racers’ entrance and unlocked it. Lorne got him keys so he could get in whenever he wanted, which was far more often than it likely should be for his peace of mind. Their footsteps echoed in the tunnel. John felt the most comfortable on the track, any track, always had. He glanced at Rodney, walking quietly next to him, and amended his thought. He felt comfortable with Rodney.
Out of the tunnel, John led the way onto the track, pushing the gate open. He glanced at Rodney again, grateful for his silence. It was another thing he liked about the man. John had seen Rodney use his words and sheer force of personality to bulldoze through or boss people around to get what he wanted, but not once since their first meeting had Rodney done that to him. They were both quite content to be quiet with each other.
Something he hadn’t really ever had before. Oh, there was quiet in his life, especially growing up after Mom died. But it was never a comfortable quiet, always a tenseness to it.
They started a slow lap around the track, John’s hands in his jacket pockets. It was early May but their breath still fogged a bit in the evening air. John thought about where to start. They crossed the start line and John began talking. “I’ve always loved cars and racing, ever since I could remember. I figured I could use my degree to open up a garage or something but then I found NASCAR. The crowds, the cars, the rush of adrenaline, the danger, the camaraderie and rivalry of it all. It’s always filled a need within me, something I don’t know if I could live without. But as much as I love the noise . . . the silence of the track . . . when it’s just me and my car . . . or even just me, walking like we’re doing now . . . It’s different but it . . . it settles me.
“And out here? On the track, I’ve never needed to be something I’m not, you know?”
He saw Rodney nod out of the corner of his eye but remained silent. They kept walking and John spared a moment to wonder why he didn’t feel embarrassed about sharing that. Lorne was the only one who knew, or guessed, even a smidgen of what he’d just freely told Rodney. Everyone else just accepted that he was an adrenaline junkie.
They hit the first turn and John gritted his teeth. Now or never. “His name was Cam,” he started. “Cameron Mitchell.”
Rodney interrupted, “Wait, do you mean Cameron Mitchell, the racecar driver? The same Mitchell who is always trying to knock you out of the race? Your rival?”
John threw him a startled look. “How the hell do you know that?”
Rodney shrugged one shoulder. “Alex.” He paused, then added, “And I’ve kind of been watching you race the last couple of weeks.”
Huh. A flare of pleasure eased the tightness in John’s chest momentarily and he smiled a bit. “Alex told you? You know, I’m not even surprised. That kid is far too smart and meddlesome for his own good sometimes.
“Anyway, yeah. Same guy. Cam and I were rookies, oh, god, almost eight years ago now. Wow. Uh, there were a few of us that hung out together but it was just races and media events, shit like that. Never more than a surface friendship. It was right after the Daytona 500 one year, we were at some big shindig, totally out of our leagues. Literally bumped into each other at the bar. We figured, hey, we knew each other at least. Too self-conscious to try and mingle with the big names, Cam and I decided to use the buddy system. It worked and we left that night as friends, planning to meet up again.
“Couple weeks later, he kissed me before a race. Said he’d liked me for a while but wasn’t sure if I felt the same way. ‘Course I was surprised but I really liked him. First person in my life I felt actually understood me and we started dating.”
Rodney shifted closer, their arms brushing slightly. John took a slow breath, taking comfort in the contact as they turned onto the next straightaway section. “So, uh, we were together for almost three years. I was thinking of taking it to the next level with our relationship. But I was floundering career-wise. I couldn’t win a race, couldn’t keep a crew chief more than a year.” John glanced at Rodney, explained, “A crew chief is someone a driver needs to be able to depend on implicitly. He’s in the pit, watching the race, the cars, the track. You depend on him to catch what you can’t, the opportunities, the problems, to keep you safe. If you can’t trust your crew chief . . .”
Rodney said quietly, “I’m guessing Mitchell might have had something to do with that?”
John sighed, ran a hand through his hair. “Looking back on it . . . he had to have. Especially with what happened next. It was halfway through the season. I was kind of on good terms with my current crew chief. Felt good about things with Cam. I had some free time before the race, so I headed off to find him. He was being interviewed down near the fencing.” He shrugged. “Decided to crash it. Wouldn’t have been the first time one of us crashed the other’s interviews. Everyone knew we were a thing, so it wasn’t like it would be a huge surprise. I got within earshot, caught Cam’s eye and waved. Cam looked over at me, smiled, and held out a hand. I started forward to join him.
“But he wasn’t holding his hand out to me.” John swallowed. “Some guy I’d never seen before stepped into view, took Cam’s hand. And then I watched Cam kiss him. On camera. Right in front of me. I couldn’t move, couldn’t think. The reporter oohed and aahed, asked how long they’d been together.” John swiped the back of his hand across his eyes. “I remember feeling like my heart had actually snapped in half when Cam said it had been four months.”
Rodney made a sympathetic sound. “That had to hurt.”
John laughed bitterly. “Yeah. Yeah, it hurt a shit ton. But he wasn’t done.”
“Your crew chief,” Rodney guessed.
“Yup. He put out some bullshit about how his new boyfriend had been so encouraging and how happy they were. About how excited he was to finish the season with his new crew chief, Stephen Caldwell. My crew chief. In two minutes, I lost my crew chief and what I thought was the love of my life, and any shot I had at winning anything the rest of the season. My professional and personal life ruined, all at once.”
“Christ, John,” Rodney breathed.
“Needless to say, I did not do Atlantis any favors the rest of the year. It’s a wonder they didn’t dump me after that. I owe Teyla big time for convincing them to keep me on. She kept hunting for a crew chief. The next season started, we had a couple races under our belts, and I walked into the garage one day to find Lorne. Evan Lorne,” he clarified. “My current crew chief. Don’t know where the hell she got him, don’t care because he saved my ass. I was simply grateful to finally have someone who understood the way I raced. We’ve been working together almost five years now. But Cam . . . god, he never misses an opportunity to rub it in my face, to screw with me. Always asking when Lorne was gonna get sick of me. Showing off his new boyfriend, whoever the hell he happened to be at the time. Constantly messing with my head, no matter how hard I tried to avoid him. I still can’t figure out how I missed it, how I didn’t see what he was really like. What he was doing.”
They left the track, settling on the bleachers. Rodney sat on the bench to his left, facing the track. John sat between benches, his feet braced against the metal in front of him. After a minute, John admitted, “That’s part of why I keep pulling away. How could I misread someone so badly? What if being with me changed him? What if I change you?”
Rodney spoke slowly, as if he was choosing his words carefully. “I may have only known you for a couple months, John, but I do know you. I’ve seen you with your niece and nephew. I’ve seen you around strangers. Around me. I’m not an easy person to get along with; I know that. But you put up with me. Trust me, if you’re changing me, it’s definitely for the better.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because we’re here. John, I push and push until I get what I want. If you’ve noticed, I didn’t push you to tell me. I haven’t once pushed you to do what I wanted. I did want you to want to tell me, to confide in me, but I didn’t make you. You had every right to refuse. That’s a new thing for me and that’s on you. I may not do it very well, but I want to try.”
John nodded slowly, taking it in.
“Can I ask you something? And, feel free to refuse. Like I said, I won’t push.”
“What is it?”
Rodney bit his lip, glancing briefly at him then back out at the track. “If you feel up to it . . . how—how did your brother die?”
John leaned his head back against the bench behind him, eyes closed against the barrage of emotion. He sniffed. Opened his eyes and stared up at the stars, a couple clouds floating by. True to his word, Rodney didn’t push. Didn’t say a word as he waited for John to come to a decision. Eh, fuck it. Might as well go for broke. “Dave and my sister-in-law Linda were killed in a hit-and-run about five months ago.”
Rodney inhaled sharply. “Oh, John. I’m so sorry.” He reached over to take John’s hand and squeezed.
John held on tight, his lips a thin line. “Dad had died of a heart attack the month before.” Rodney’s thumb rubbed the back of his hand. “Dave . . . Dave and I were, uh, were trying to—to be better. Make an effort to be brothers, to have a better relationship because you never know what can happen, right?” His voice shook and tears stung his eyes. “Turns out anything can happen.” He swallowed, sniffed. “I was, uh, across the country . . . when I got the call about Dave. Me and the crew were getting—getting ready to move out, get ready for the next race.”
He focused on the feel of Rodney’s hand against his and took a slow, shaky breath. Damn, this was hard. He’d never shared the full story with anyone. Anybody who would have needed to know had been there at the time. “Teyla, my manager, she handled things because I just, I couldn’t. She flew out with me that night, came to the hospital with me. A doctor met us with a cop, took me down to the morgue. Cop said they needed a family member to identify . . . . . identify the bodies.”
John could still remember the awful overpowering smell of antiseptic and bleach; see the sterile whiteness of the place. How quiet everyone was, with their fake sympathy. He shoved to his feet, pulling his hand free. “I need to move, you coming?” He needed to regain control of himself before he broke down completely.
Rodney silently stood and they went back down to the track. He fiddled with his jacket, tugging the sleeves down over and over until Rodney took hold of his hand again. It grounded John, gave him a lifeline that kept him in the present even as his memories of that day threatened to overwhelm him. After a few steps, Rodney laced their fingers together. That simple intimate act loosened something in John’s chest and he found it a bit easier to breathe.
Rodney hadn’t walked away from him yet.
Rodney was trying to comfort him.
John started up the tale again, his voice shaking a little. “The doctor pulled back the sheet just—just far enough to show Dave’s face. Eyes closed, no expression, god he was pale . . . . I remember thinking, it looked nothing like my brother, the brother I knew. It was more like—like someone had tried to draw him based on someone else’s description but hadn’t gotten it quite right. Same with Linda. I barely managed to confirm that they were . . . who they . . . before I had to get out there. I barely managed to make it to a trash can before vomiting. I’m not sure how long it was between then and when Teyla came and got me. She had a lawyer with her, our family lawyer. He said we had some important things to talk about. And that was when I remembered: Dave had had two kids.” John’s voice broke completely and his breath hitched. He pressed his hand to his mouth, trying not to let the tears fall. Worst day of his life.
The realization that he was alone. An orphan in every sense of the word.
Rodney stopped them, pulled his hand free. Before John could begin to protest the lack of contact, Rodney put his arms around John and drew him close. He tensed. He’d never been a big fan of hugs. After a few seconds, though, John tentatively wrapped his arms loosely around Rodney’s waist.
Rodney rubbed slow circles along his back and the dam broke. John tightened his grip, buried his face in Rodney’s shoulder and cried. Rodney never let go, just kept rubbing his back. John allowed himself to grieve the loss of his family, finally crying for the first time since everything had happened. Finally had a moment where he didn’t have to force himself to keep going, to act like everything was normal, to be the solid pillar for Nik and Alex.
They stood that way for a long time, until John’s tears had run their course and his breaths came in little hiccups. John broke the embrace first, pulling away and wiping his face. He mumbled, “Sorry. I didn’t—”
Rodney reached out and brushed away a stray tear. His hand trailed down John’s arm to grip his hand again and said firmly, “Don’t apologize. Not about this. I may not have been there for you back then—and I’m realizing you didn’t really have anyone besides your agent—but I’m sure as hell here for you now.”
John nodded, attempted a smile but didn’t quite make it. “Thanks.”
Rodney and John stood facing each other, barely any space between them, yet the only contact was their joined hands. Vulnerable, all his walls down, John spoke into the suddenly charged silence. “I really want to kiss you right now.”
Rodney smiled a little. “I won’t stop you.”
John nodded slowly, thinking. He was still second guessing things with Cam, years later. Was it wise? He settled for saying, “Cam really fucked with my head,” and hoped Rodney would get what he wasn’t saying.
He needn’t have worried. Like Lorne, Rodney seemed to have the ability to understand him even when he couldn’t put it into words. “Okay,” Rodney said slowly. “Okay. I can wait. I know where we stand now.”
After another moment, they started back towards the tunnel. John couldn’t keep from looking over at Rodney, thinking. Would Rodney wait? What if he was just saying it to ease John’s mind? Fuck. He knew he had trust issues. He also knew he might not ever fully be over what Cam did to him but maybe . . .
John stopped walking, forcing Rodney to stop as well. Rodney turned around, brow furrowed in confusion. “What is it?”
Stop thinking. “This.” John let go of Rodney’s hand, reached out, cupped the back of Rodney’s neck and tugged him into a kiss.
Rodney pressed against him, his hands resting on John’s waist. John slid his other hand around to rest on Rodney’s lower back, pressing him closer still. Tilting his head to the side, John slotted their mouths together better. Everywhere they touched felt like it was on fire. His heart threatened to beat right out of his chest.
For the life of him, John could not remember ever feeling like this when he kissed Cameron. He was loving every second of it.
John broke the kiss off but didn’t pull away. Their breaths mingled in the open space. Rodney looked flushed and John was sure he looked the same. John said breathlessly, “I’m sorry, I just—I needed to know we were still on the same page about . . . things. Despite—despite everything I’ve dumped on you tonight.”
Rodney kissed him again in answer. “Absolutely still on the same page, John. When you’re ready, I’ll be here.”
Just when John thought he couldn’t like Rodney more, he went and did something like this. It was getting really hard to fight the rising feeling that he was falling in love. Even with all his baggage, if it was just him, John had the feeling he would say fuck it all and ask Rodney on a date right now.
But it wasn’t just him.
It was Atlantis. It was his team. It was Alex, and Nicole. It was trying not to upend their lives again and what would they think about him dating? Did he need to tell them? Did he need their permission? Sometimes, he wished he'd never adopted them and in the next thought he hates himself for the wish. Christ, why was this so hard?
Rodney had listened to him vent, listened to him talk about his ex. Had fucking held him while he cried over the loss of his brother.
And Rodney still wanted him, after all that. So John just needed to figure some things out and then maybe he and Rodney could try the whole relationship thing. If Rodney was indeed willing to wait.
All of this went through John’s mind in an instant. Rodney stepped back, gently tugged on his hand and they headed out to the parking lot. He pulled into the driveway of Rodney’s apartment building, left the car running. “So, uh, thanks for uh, listening. And not walking away from . . . whatever this is.”
“I don’t think there’s anything you could do that would make me walk away from you completely.”
John offered lightly, “Give me time.”
Rodney snorted. “Please. I’d be the one more likely to cause you to leave me.” He paused then added, hesitant, “Juanita’s on Tuesday?”
John finally felt a real smile spread across his face. “Noon work?”
Rodney returned the smile, looking a little relieved. “Perfect. Night, Sheppard.”
“Night, McKay. And, thanks, again.”
Rodney got out and John watched him walk up to the door. Just before he stepped inside, Rodney turned back and waved. John waved back and backed out of the lot.
He smiled to himself as he reached over to flick the radio on. He felt hopeful, a sensation he’d not had since Cam absconded with his crew chief.
It was nice.
I am so thrilled that you guys love this! It's super hard for me to post anything and it means the world to me that you like it. Hopefully you like how the rest of it goes.
Also, infodump time. Hope it lives up to the hype, such as it is.
Chapter 6: Chapter Six
John strolled into the science building, sunglasses tucked into the vee of his shirt, and a feeling of everything coming together that made his stride confident. Rodney was filling in for a colleague, teaching a summer course for a few weeks and John knew he had the afternoon free because of it so this was the moment. John had taken the last couple of weeks since his breakdown to think about things, like, really think about them.
He still kept coming back to the fact that Rodney hadn’t judged him that night.
And that kiss . . . .
John smiled as he stepped off the stairs and headed down the hall, his stomach still doing a little flip whenever he thought about it. That feeling never dissipated, and that was what had ultimately cinched it for him. Nothing that felt like that could be bad, right?
Students started to enter the hall and John dodged them until he could enter the classroom. Rodney was at the chalkboard, erasing what looked like stoichiometry at a quick glance. “Hey, McKay,” he said cheerfully. “You busy?”
Rodney spared him a look. “Yes.”
John leaned against the desk, started twisting a pencil in circles. “Cool. So, I was thinking we could go for lunch.”
Rodney set the eraser down and joined him, gathering his papers together. “I can do lunch, sure.”
“Do you mind if I bring some work with me? I’ve got lab reports to grade and I really don’t want to have to do any work this weekend if I can help it.”
John bit his lip, still fiddling with the pencil. “Would you—I was—I mean—do you mind if--?”
Rodney picked the pile of papers up and shot John an amused look. “Spit it out, Sheppard.”
John said in a rush, before he lost his nerve, “I was hoping we could call it a date date, instead of lunch.”
Rodney stared at him, then slowly set the pile back down. “This is how you ask me out on a first date?”
John made a face and forced himself to stop playing with the pencil. “You know, it’s harder than you think.”
“Even when you already know the answer before you ask?”
“I wasn’t sure,” he replied softly. “I hoped, but I wasn’t completely sure.”
Rodney’s expression softened. “The answer is yes, John. I will go on a date with you. Same page, remember?” John grinned in relief. Rodney added, “So long as it’s somewhere other than Juanita’s; I’ll never hear the end of it.”
John chuckled. “How ‘bout you choose the place, then?”
Rodney shook his head and started picking up his things again. “Aren’t you supposed to have planned things out instead of making the datee choose the place?”
“Is that even a real word? And what’s wrong with Juanita’s? She already thinks we’re together.”
Rodney threw his bag over his shoulder and answered, “All words were made up words at one point. You call the person being interviewed an “interviewee” therefore it is perfectly grammatically correct to assume that that rule can be applied to other nouns. And that’s precisely my point. We’ve been at the diner often enough that it does not fit the criteria for first date.” He shot John a quick smile and added, “And here I thought you were the romantic one, bringing me pie and coffee all the time.”
John rolled his eyes, amused. “Fine. So do you want me to pick a place?”
“I believe that’s exactly what I just said.”
John huffed a laugh and shook his head as they went back down to Rodney’s office. “Alright, alright, I’ll pick a place but no complaining.”
Rodney shot him a grin and replied, “No promises. And no citrus.”
John leaned against the door and said airily, “Yeah, yeah, deathly allergic, I know. Come on, McKay, I’m getting old here.”
Rodney threw a stress ball at him and John caught it, laughing.
The date honestly wasn’t much different than the other times they’d gone to lunch together, except it was. They kept finding ways to make contact, however briefly—legs touching and knees bumping under the table, fingers brushing when they reached for something, lingering gazes.
They were nearly done, John leaning back against the bench, having trapped Rodney’s feet with his own. Rodney was talking about his course load for the fall semester and John was really trying to listen but he kept getting distracted by Rodney’s mouth and the way he kept waving his hands in the air as he talked.
John’s phone rang, interrupting Rodney. John shifted to tug it out of his back pocket and frowned. “Sorry, Rodney, I gotta take this.”
“Oh. Yeah. No problem.”
John slid out of the booth. “Be right back.” He tapped the answer button and put it to his ear as he pushed the door open. “Hello?”
“Mr. Sheppard? It’s Laura Cadman.”
He stopped a few steps from the door. Her calling him could not be anything good. “Hi, Laura. What can I do for you?”
“Well,” she said hesitantly, “I hate to do this last minute, but my daughter just went into labor and I’m not going to be able to babysit this weekend. I’m sorry.”
John just barely refrained from swearing out loud but he knew his voice was tight when he responded, “Congratulations, Laura. I’m sure your daughter and grandkid will be just fine. Thanks for letting me know.”
“Thanks, Mr. Sheppard. I really am sorry to cancel so last minute.”
He scowled at the world in general. “Don’t worry about it. Just take care of your family.”
“Bye.” John shoved his phone in his pocket and sagged against the wall of the building. Fuck fuck fuck. He was so screwed. He needed to be in Sonoma, California this weekend for a race; couldn’t take the kids with him because they were still in school. Not that he could watch them. Fuuuucck. He was just starting to get his life to where he wanted it to be and the damn universe couldn’t give him a break, could it?
Rodney’s voice startled him and he looked up. “Hey. Yeah, ‘m fine.”
He received a look eerily similar to the I’m-calling-bullshit look that Lorne had and felt the edges of his mouth quirk upwards. Rodney leaned his shoulder against the wall and crossed his arms. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong.” The look intensified and John found himself relenting. “My babysitter just cancelled. She was supposed to have Alex and Nikki for the weekend while I raced in California.”
“Ah. That’s not good.”
“No,” John agreed. “And I can’t take them with me. I can’t just pull them out of school right now nor can I watch them while I’m there and I sure as hell can’t just dump them on Teyla. She’s got her own job to do.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I just feel like I’m totally out of my depth sometimes. Seriously, how the hell did my brother do this?”
“He wasn’t alone.” John scoffed but Rodney said, “No, seriously. Your brother had his wife, your dad, probably friends to help out when he needed it and so do you.”
“Rodney, my friends are my crew.”
Rodney shrugged. “So I’ll take them.”
John straightened, staring at him in surprise. “What?”
“I’ll take the kids for the weekend. Alex and I get along well enough anyway, and Jeannie’ll help, I’m sure. You’re not alone in this, John.”
John kissed him.
When he pulled back, Rodney looked a little stunned, his face pink. Then Rodney leaned over and kissed him. They didn’t say anything afterwards, just leaned against the wall. After a moment, John reached out and snagged Rodney’s hand, lacing their fingers together. Rodney squeezed his hand and he let his head rest on Rodney’s shoulder. He was so grateful to have Rodney in his life.
They stayed in that position for a few minutes until John remembered something. “We should go back in, pay the bill.”
“Already taken care of.”
John lifted his head to look at him. Rodney was always surprising him. “Thank you. And thanks for volunteering to babysit.”
Rodney shrugged. “You’re welcome.”
Alex was setting out silverware while John dished out dinner. “Put your coloring book away, Nik. Time to eat.”
She made a face but slid her book and crayons to the side. “Can’t I color and eat?”
“No,” John said, setting the plates down. He sat down and they started to eat. But John wasn’t feeling very hungry. He needed to talk to them about this weekend but he wasn’t sure how they’d take it. He lasted ten minutes before setting down his fork. “So, listen,” he started.
Alex froze with his fork halfway to his mouth. “This doesn’t sound good.”
John frowned at him. “There’s been a change of plans for this weekend.”
Alex asked warily, “What do you mean?”
“You’re not going to Laura’s.”
Alex’s eyes lit up. “Are we coming with you?”
“Ah, no.” His face fell. John said, “You’re going to Rodney’s while I’m gone.”
Nicole asked, “Who’s Rodney?”
Alex answered, “Uncle John’s new boyfriend.”
John couldn’t tell if the kid was happy about the news or not. Also, gee thanks, kid, for dumping that on him right now as well.
Nicole’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Is that like Mommy and Daddy?”
Alex set his fork down. “Yeah, only it’d be like having two daddies.”
“Oh.” She turned to look at John. “Who’s Rodney?”
“Maddie’s uncle,” John answered, still studying his nephew who had gone back to eating.
“Oh!” Nikki looked much happier with that news. “I like Maddie. She’s my bestest friend. Can she be my boyfriend?”
Alex snickered. John shot him a frown and told Nikki gently, “It doesn’t work like that, kiddo.”
“Isn’t Rodney your bestest friend?”
“Well, I guess so. Yes.”
“And your boyfriend.”
“So why can’t Maddie be both too?”
Yikes. John put his head in his hands, wondering when the conversation had gotten away from him.
Alex stepped in again. “It’s like Mommy and Daddy. They were friends and then they started kissing and then they were Mom and Dad. Same with Uncle John and Rodney. If you started kissing Maddie, then you could say she was your girlfriend.”
Nikki said slowly, “Oh. Okay.” John looked up in relief. Then Nicole turned back to him and asked, “So does that mean Maddie’s gonna be my sister?”
Alex busted out laughing. John was officially done with the conversation. “Maybe. I don’t know. I—we—we’re not even close to . . . finish your dinner, kiddo. And you, shush.”
Having Alex spend an afternoon with him while he was at work and having Alex and Nicole spend three full days with him were two completely different concepts, Rodney very quickly learned.
Alex was, thankfully, self-sufficient and able to occupy and entertain himself. Especially when he showed Alex his work space.
Nicole, on the other hand, seemed to constantly need his attention. She wanted him to have a tea party with her. She wanted him to play dolls with her. She wanted him to watch Dora the Explorer with her. She wanted him to color with her. (That one wasn’t so bad.)
That didn’t even include meals or bedtimes. He was sure his phone was permanently set to Jeannie’s number. He didn’t want to bother John with stupid questions like what did 8 year olds like to eat? When was their bedtime? Did she need a bath before bed and how the hell did he do that? What about Alex? Did he need a bath or was he old enough to shower? Should their bedtimes be the same?
Sunday was better. Although that might have partially been due to the fact that he could turn on the sports channel and they could see John. Alex settled himself in Rodney’s favorite spot—his easy chair—and watched TV. Rodney sat at the kitchen table and worked on grading papers. Nicole slid onto the chair next to him with her coloring book and offered him a crayon. He managed a not-creepy smile and took it then went back to what he was doing. She seemed content enough to color in silence, which worked for him. He got quite a bit of work done before the next interruption.
“Hey, Rodney, you’re on TV!”
Rodney’s head whipped around at Alex’s call. “What?” He got up and walked into the living room, Nicole trailing hurriedly after him. “Why on earth would I be on . . .” his voice trailed off and he sank down onto the couch, barely noticing when Nicole sat next to him.
He was indeed on the television. And he was kissing John.
Nicole said knowingly, “So that’s why Uncle John said Maddie was my friend and not my boyfriend.”
Rodney stared at her. “What? Oh, never mind. Alex, turn it up. I want to know what they’re saying.”
Alex obligingly turned the volume up and they listened to the reporters discuss his relationship with John. Thankfully, they didn’t seem to know who he was as of yet but it was only a matter of time. And besides, who had taken that photo? It was right after Rodney had volunteered to watch Alex and Nicole this weekend, only a couple days ago.
Rodney frowned, trying to remember if he’d noticed anyone taking an interest in them. And clearly he’d underestimated how popular John was, if someone had snapped a photo of them kissing. Did John get followed by paparazzi? Was that really a thing?
The picture vanished only to be replaced by a reporter on the track . . .
. . . headed for Team Atlantis.
Oh no. Oh this wasn’t going to be good. John did not need this right before a race.
“—your cool when you get in the front of the pack. Don’t make any crazy-ass, daredevil moves until I tell you it’s clear, you hear me?”
John refrained from rolling his eyes. Lorne gave him this speech before every race, and every time, John listened and then disregarded. You’d think he’d have learned by now, John thought, leaning back against the wall with his arms crossed. Maybe it was a cover your ass sort of thing. That way if John did something stupid, Lorne could say he’d told John not to. It’d be like him.
And John did stupid things a lot. But, hey, most of the time it paid off.
“John Sheppard! John, can I have a minute?”
Noting the scowl on his crew chief’s face, John raised his eyes briefly and pasted on his fake smile as he turned to greet the intrusive reporter. It was Ladon Radim. Of course it was. Ladon seemed friendly but he had a way of turning the conversation back on you. John tended to avoid him whenever he could. “Hello, Ladon. How are you today?”
Ladon stepped right into his personal space and thrust the microphone at him. The cameraman shifted to get them both in frame as Lorne quietly backed away. “So, John, what do you have to say about the photo going around?”
John couldn’t quite hide his confusion. “What photo?”
Ladon looked smug. “The one of you on the sidewalk, kissing someone.”
The one of . . . shit. Well that hadn’t lasted long. Struggling to keep his feelings off his face, John lifted one shoulder in a shrug, said, “What’s to say?”
Ladon leaned in, the microphone the only barrier between them. “Who is your mystery man, John? And why isn’t he here with you?”
John kept his expression pleasantly polite. Not letting him in, nope, he gets nothing. He waved a hand around. “Maybe he is. You don’t see my whole team here, do you?”
“You’re hiding something, John. Why don’t you want to share with me?”
John tossed him a wide smile and replied, “Because I’m not sharing with just you, Ladon. And a man is entitled to a certain amount of privacy.”
“A normal man, perhaps. But then, John Sheppard isn’t normal, is he? At least, not according to his team.”
John gritted his teeth. Ladon spun at the new voice, his eyes lighting up as he noticed the drama about to unfold. He waved at his cameraman to turn and held out the microphone to the new arrival. “Are you saying you know who’s in the picture with Sheppard?”
His suit unzipped to halfway down his chest, Cameron Mitchell gave the camera a blinding smile then bent forward to speak directly into the microphone, meeting John’s gaze. As he did so, John felt a sense of unease cross over him that had nothing to do with their normal drama. “Why, yes, Ladon, indeed I do. That is none other than Dr. Rodney McKay and he’s John Sheppard’s new boyfriend.”
Fuck did not adequately cover the situation, John felt.
Rodney’s mouth was hanging open.
He’d been right.
This was not good.
Not only was John distracted right before the race started, but the entire world now knew about the two of them.
Mitchell knew his name. Rodney scowled at the television, thinking quickly. How did Mitchell know who he was?
Because he took the photo.
It had to be. It was the only reason that made sense.
Mitchell took the photo of him and John kissing, sent it to this—this Ladon fellow and then waited for the reporter to spring it on John so he could step in and mess with John’s head.
Rodney’s scowl deepened.
If he hadn’t hated Mitchell’s guts before, he officially did now.
John scrambled for something to say, something that would both wipe that annoying smirk off Cam’s face but also wouldn’t end up hurting Rodney, especially if he happened to be watching. Damn, sometimes he really hated that NASCAR was always broadcasting things like this live.
Ladon whirled back to face him, microphone in John’s face and a gleam in his eye. “New boyfriend? How long have you two been together? When did you meet? How did you meet? What is he like? What’s he a doctor of? Your adoring fans want to know, John.”
It was an effort to force his lips to stretch in an approximation of a friendly smile. “He’s an astrophysicist.”
Cam added derisively, “And a teacher.”
“University professor,” John calmly corrected. “We met a few months ago, at an event we’d been separately invited to. We hit it off and the rest is history.”
Ladon pouted. “Oh, come on. You can do better than that!”
Eyebrow raised, John replied, “I answered your questions.”
“Barely. Where does he teach?”
John shook his head. “Nuh uh. I don’t want you pestering him, Radim.”
“You know I’ll find out eventually.”
“And my agent will have my lawyer on speed dial,” John said easily, his gaze hard while his tone was light.
Ladon lowered the microphone, recognizing and respecting the warning, then turned back to Cam. He wore a glare that was quickly banished when he saw the camera back on him. “Cam, how did you find out? How do you feel about John having someone new in his life?”
John shifted, studying him. That was an excellent question. How did Cam find out about Rodney?
Cam said airily, “Oh, you know how it is with gossip, Ladon. And the ex is almost always the first to know. I’m just sorry John’s been forced to settle for a teacher, after all this time.”
John gritted his teeth, feeling his hands start to curl into fists. If he insulted Rodney’s career choice one more time . . . An idea hit him. “Aw, Cam, are you jealous because Rodney’s smarter than you?” John smirked. “Oh, but wait, so am I. So I guess that means I was settling when I dated you.”
When Cam’s face turned red and his eyes flashed, John knew he’d scored a hit.
Ladon’s head swiveled between them, as if wondering who to talk to next. Thankfully, Ronon walked up at that exact moment. Ladon shrunk back as Ronon approached—he was a big man which typically intimidated a lot of people and right now, John was supremely grateful for it.
“Sheppard,” Ronon’s deep bass voice rumbled, “need you in the pit.”
John tossed a two-fingered salute at the others and said, “Sorry, Ladon, but it looks like we’re going to have to cut this short. See you on the track, Cam.” He and Ronon walked away without waiting for a response. As they stepped out from under the awning and into the sunshine, John muttered, “Thanks for that.”
“Lorne thought you might need an escape.”
God bless that man. John fished his sunglasses out of a pocket and slid them on, nodding at a couple other racers. They headed down the fence a bit, where Lorne, Ford and Teyla were standing a little ways away from the rest of the people. John stepped over to Lorne and said, “Thanks.”
Lorne nodded back. “No problem. What did Radim want?”
John leaned against the fence between Ronon and Lorne. “Gossip.”
“About?” Lorne pushed.
“My love life.”
Lorne grinned. “You did ask him out, then. Wait, how did Radim know about it?”
John sighed heavily. “Because someone got a photo of us kissing and passed it around.”
Ford grinned. “Got caught making out, huh, Shep?”
Lorne leaned over to smack the back of his head. “Not now, kid.”
Ronon added, “Mitchell was there when I arrived.”
Lorne’s expression instantly went taut. “Mitchell? What did he want?”
John slouched further against the fence. “He knew. Somehow, he knew about . . .” For some reason, John was reluctantly to give Rodney’s name out, even to his friends.
Teyla frowned. “John, you should perhaps call your boyfriend and give him a heads up on what has happened. He should be aware that Mitchell has just informed your fans of who he is.”
Lorne said, “She’s right, Shep. He needs to be warned that Cam knows who he is. You don’t know what that man will do to ruin you.”
John ran a hand through his hair. “This sucks,” he said to no one in particular.
Lorne clapped a hand on his shoulder. “I know. Now go call him.”
Rodney was still trying to figure out what this all meant for him when his cell phone started to ring. He dashed to the table and saw John’s name light up the screen. “Are you okay?” he asked before John could say anything.
“You saw.” John’s voice was resigned.
Rodney sat down at the table. “Alex was watching when the photo popped up and called me over. Are you okay?”
John breathed loudly against the phone, the sound huffing in Rodney’s ear. “More concerned about you at the moment. I’m sorry, I have no idea how Cam knew who you were.”
“Because he took the photo.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“It’s the only explanation that makes any logical sense.” When John didn’t respond, Rodney continued, “Look. It’s been a couple days since we went on our first official date. I don’t remember seeing anyone overtly interested in us. It hasn’t hit any of the news outlets until today. That reporter knew exactly what he was talking about and Cam was most likely just out of your sightline, waiting for his dramatic entrance to arrive. He planned this, to mess with your head, psych you out.”
“You’ve thought a lot about this.” Another heavy sigh. “God, I hate him. He’s never going to leave me alone, is he? And now I’ve dragged you into the whole fucking mess.”
“Hey!” Rodney interjected. “I was not dragged into anything. Yes, we were outed before either of us were really ready for it. Am I unhappy about that? Well, I’m not exactly thrilled but I knew it had to happen eventually, as I’m sure you did. The time table was just sped up, is all.”
“It’s not the end. Cam won’t stop with this. You don’t know him like I do.”
Rodney’s chest went tight. He swallowed. “You’re not trying to talk yourself out of this, are you?”
John didn’t answer for a minute. “I don’t want my screwed up life to mess with yours. I just,” he sighed. “You don’t deserve that.”
“Now you listen to me, John Sheppard, I have dealt with assholes my entire life. It’s a side effect of being smarter than everyone around you. So do you really think one more jerk is going to scare me off? I’ll answer that for you: no. Now shove your misplaced guilt aside and tell me honestly: do you still want to do this? Be an us.”
“I do. I want an us, Rodney.” John’s voice was soft but Rodney could hear a smile in it.
Rodney nodded sharply, aware that John couldn’t see it. “Good. Now get out there, beat his ass, and then come back so I can kiss you. Also, there’s a Star Trek: The Next Generation marathon on this weekend and I need someone to watch with me.”
John chuckled. “Gotta admire your priorities there, McKay.”
“My priorities are exactly how they need to be,” he bristled but was secretly pleased he’d managed to make John laugh. “Although they might have been different if you were actually here.”
“One more day,” John promised. “I’ll swing by your office for lunch?”
“It’s a date.”
John was definitely smiling as he replied, “It’s a date.”
Rodney hung up then moved back to the couch. “Okay,” he said to the kids. “Time to watch your uncle win.”