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.”
Chapter 7: Chapter Seven
John, Ronon, Lorne, and Ford ducked into the local bar, dodging people as they made their way to a booth along the far wall. Lorne tossed his hat on the table and said, “I’m ordering a couple rounds of shots. Anyone want anything extra?”
John slid across until he could put his back to the wall and answered, “Guinness.” Ronon seconded it and Ford eagerly nodded. Lorne disappeared as Ford took the spot next to John and Ronon sat across from him. John was already feeling buzzed without alcohol, couldn’t fight the grin that kept spreading across his face.
He’d won every race this month. Best he’d done so far this season. He had a sneaking suspicion he knew why but didn’t really feel like examining it too closely. Best to just ride the wave at the moment.
Lorne returned, Ford bouncing up to help him set the drinks down. Lorne then took the spot between Ronon and the wall and slid John a shot of whiskey. He held it up, the rest of them doing the same. Lorne grinned and said proudly, “To Shep! First place four weeks running! Damn, that feels good!”
John chuckled and tossed it back. The whiskey burned his throat, but damn it felt good to finally have a reason to celebrate something in his life. He reached for another shot, raised it, and said, “To the best damn pit crew and crew chief in NASCAR!”
Ford whooped as they clinked glasses, spilling a few drops on the table before they all tossed it back. John blew out his breath, ran a hand through his hair. A night out with the guys, a run of good luck, and Rodney waiting for him when he got home.
Life was good.
He let his friends’ conversations wash over him, not really participating but just enjoying the rare moment of happiness.
After a while—they were on their second round of actual drinks—Ford nudged John’s shoulder. “Hey, Shep, be my wingman.”
John cocked an eyebrow. “No.”
“Aw, come on,” Ford whined, his eyes already bright from the alcohol. “You gotta! Ronon’ll scare all the women away and Lorne’ll take all the attention away from me.”
Lorne snorted. “And you think Shep won’t take attention away from you, pretty boy that he is?”
Ford stuck his tongue out at Lorne. Lorne sniggered. John took a swig of beer and replied, “No way, kid. And go easy on the drinks. I’m not dragging your drunk ass back to the hotel.”
“Me neither,” Ronon added.
Ford pouted but tried one last time. “Pleeeease? I promise not to make you agree to a date this time.”
John shook his head, chuckling. “Okay, A) Last time I was your wingman, we ended up having to call Teyla to bail us out. Not happening again. And B)” he took another sip, “I’m taken.”
Lorne leaned his elbows on the table and said, “Yeah, so when are we gonna meet this guy, Shep? All we know is the soundbite you gave Radim last month that they play before every race. You won’t tell us anything about him or how you met.”
John reached for a handful of peanuts from the bowl on the table, popped them in his mouth, and shrugged. “I’m trying to keep him out of the craziness.”
Ronon said, “Lies.”
John scowled as the others laughed. “Hey, I’m not lying!”
Ford responded, “Oh yeah? So then why haven’t we met him?”
Ronon interjected, “Way I figure it, there’s a couple of reasons. One, the guy’s just a fling, a way to get back into the dating scene and you don’t want anyone to think it’s real, including him. Unlikely, based on what I know of you, and what I’ve seen the past few months. Or two, he really means something to you and you’re afraid to bring him into this part of your life because you don’t want to fuck it up.”
John gritted his teeth and didn’t respond, taking a drink. Lorne, Ford, and Ronon all looked at each other and chorused, “That one!”
John choked on his drink as they laughed. He scowled, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Geez,” he said, “when did you become such girls?”
This time they all laughed and Ronon ordered another round of shots. Lorne said, “Bring him to the track one day, Shep. Let us meet him.”
“I don’t know,” John hedged, reluctant to introduce them.
Ronon said pragmatically, “He’s gonna have to meet us sooner or later.”
John frowned slightly. Yeah, he supposed they were right.
The next round of shots came and then Ford decided he was drunk enough to not need a wingman and they all got a great laugh out of watching Ford make a fool out of himself with a few of the local ladies.
But as the night wore on, John found his thoughts drifting. Wondering about what Rodney was doing right then, if the kids were behaving.
Rodney sat back against the couch cushions, glanced around his living room, and nodded to himself in satisfaction. This was the third time he’d had John’s niece and nephew over for the weekend and he felt pretty good that he had finally gotten this whole babysitting thing down. A half-empty pizza box sat on the table due to his reluctance to cook after dealing with the Registrar earlier. Why they couldn’t just let him teach what he wanted to frustrated him.
Nicole was sitting on the floor of the living room, playing with her Barbie dolls and his Star Wars action figures (the duplicates. He’d never allow her to use the mint condition ones!).
Alex sat cross-legged in the armchair, frowning in concentration at the chess board on the coffee table between them. Rodney reached for his coffee mug, hiding a smile. Alex had reluctantly agreed to learn originally but when Rodney mentioned that John played, oh boy was he eager. Rodney went easy on him, of course. No reason to discourage him right off the bat. He could always beat the boy later.
Alex reached for his bishop, his bottom lip caught between his teeth as he twisted the piece between his fingers. Such a John move, Rodney thought and felt a little wistful pang, wishing John were here. But he was hundreds of miles away, winning fame for Atlantis Racing.
Rodney wondered what it would be like to watch John race in person, not just on the television.
“Alex, don’t run so far ahead!” John called out. Nicole skipped along and Alex stopped just before the corner to wait for them to catch up.
Rodney wrung his hands and asked for the umpteenth time, “Are you sure they’ll like me? I mean, I want your friends to like me but I’m not exactly a likeable person.”
For the umpteenth time, John replied, “I’m sure, Rodney. I like you. Alex and Nikki like you. Don’t worry so much.” He liked when Rodney showed his insecure side; he found it endearing. Most of the time.
Rodney heaved a heavy sigh but managed a small smile. “If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure.” Now if only John could take his own advice. He honestly had no idea how the guys would react to meeting Rodney for the first time. At least he could hide his anxiety better.
They rounded the corner to the locker rooms, hearing voices echoing off the concrete walls. John pushed the door open and Alex darted under his arm, calling out, “Ronon, catch!”
John chuckled as his nephew launched himself at Ronon who pushed away from the locker he’d been leaning against to grab him and dangle Alex upside down over his shoulder. Alex laughed. Ford straddled the bench, laughing along. Nicole hovered in the doorway as John and Rodney walked in.
Ronon caught John’s eye, flicked his gaze to Rodney, and asked, “This him?”
John nodded, reaching for Rodney’s hand and drawing Rodney to his side. Rodney’s hand gripped his tight and John was suddenly worried because Ronon and Ford weren’t saying anything. Then Alex wiggled and managed to get his head up enough to turn around and say, “Rodney’s smarter than Stephen Hawking!”
John smiled a little. After all this time, Alex was still excited about that fact.
Ronon studied Rodney but didn’t say anything, just lowered Alex to the bench. Ford said, “Hawking? So, you’re, like, super smart, then?”
Rodney gave a half-shrug, said in an uncharacteristically subdued tone, “I guess, yeah.”
John frowned at him. There was insecure and then there was worryingly down on himself. John refused to let Rodney downplay his talents. “You’re a genius, Rodney. Don’t sell yourself short.” Then he directed his frown at Ford. “Chewie, Ford, this is Dr. Rodney McKay. Rodney, that’s Aiden Ford and Ronon Dex aka Chewie. They’re part of my pit crew.”
Rodney nodded. “Nice to meet you.”
Ford finally got up from the bench, walked over and held out a hand. After a second, Rodney pulled his hand free of John’s, took a step forward and shook his hand. “Nice to finally meet you, doc.”
Rodney nodded again.
Ronon grunted, “Hey.”
The door opened behind them before it could get any more awkward and in walked Lorne. “Ah, good, you’re all in here. Dex, Ford, get your asses out to the track and make sure Sheppard’s car is ready to go. Shep, what the hell are you doing? Why aren’t you in your jumpsuit? We’ve got—” He came to a full stop, both speaking and moving. Lorne stared then grinned at John.
John felt his face heating. Damn it all to hell. He’d been hoping to ease Rodney into things, introduce them one at a time, not all at once.
Lorne said impishly, “You must be Rodney. Hi, I’m Evan Lorne, Shep’s crew chief. Great to finally meet you.”
Rodney threw John a quick look—probably wondering why he was blushing—then shook Lorne’s hand. “Hi. Yeah, nice to meet you too. Um, how—?”
“I told Shep to ask you out months ago. ‘bout time he finally took my advice off the track.”
Rodney turned to face John, an eyebrow arched. “Oh, really?” Rodney said, his tone lightly teasing. He was clearly feeling more comfortable if he felt that he could tease John. “Months ago, hmm?”
Lorne wore a shit-eating grin and John heard Ford biting back a snicker. John rubbed the back of his neck and said defensively, “I was being cautious.”
Rodney snorted and crossed his arms. “Cautious? Please, Sheppard, you’d been flirting with me since we first met. We passed cautious months ago.”
John scowled at him then glared at Lorne for good measure. He blew out his breath in a huff and said firmly, “I hate you all.”
Lorne said lightly, “Old news, Shep.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Come on boys, and girl. Shep’s gotta change.” Ronon and Ford filed out, Alex pulling Nikki along after them. Lorne added pointedly, “Ten minutes, John. And counting.” Then he left and pulled the door shut.
Alone in the locker room, John could feel the awkwardness rising again and said, “So, uh . . . yeah. That’s, uh, that’s my team. Well, some of them. And you still haven’t met Teyla, my agent, who is probably out on the track. I’ll introduce you to her when we get out on the track or maybe later sometime, it’s—”
“John,” Rodney gently interrupted him. “It’s okay. Although I don’t think the big one likes me.”
John shook his head. “Nah, they just got to get to know you first. Lorne likes you, I know. Ford, too. Ronon’ll take a little while, yeah, but he’s just like that. Took him a while to warm up to me, too.”
Rodney nodded, taking it in, then shifted closer. “So since we have a moment alone . . . .”
John grinned, following Rodney’s logic perfectly, and tugged him in for a kiss. Rodney sighed against his mouth as he pulled away and John followed, kissing him again. And again. And again. Until finally, John murmured against Rodney’s lips, “I really do have to change because Lorne will hunt me down. He's a stickler about being on time.”
Rodney chuckled, his breath ghosting across John’s lips and sending a shot of desire straight to his lower belly. “Is that why he made the ten minute comment?”
“Yeah,” John answered, a little breathless. God, he wanted Rodney so bad right now. But he had to keep his head on straight. They really shouldn’t do anything in the locker room where anyone could walk in. “And I’ve probably got about half that time left.”
Rodney hummed thoughtfully then kissed him. John let it go a little longer than he should have before pulling away this time. “I really do need to change,” he said reluctantly. “See you on the track?”
“Sure. Just make it fast, hmm? Don’t really fancy being left alone with Conan out there.”
John laughed and Rodney gave him a lopsided smile before heading out into hall. Once the door slid shut, John ran a hand over his face, through his hair, and stared at the door. He was starting to realize he was in love with Rodney. And not what he’d thought was love with Cam. No, this was head over heels, ruin your life kind of love.
It was as dizzying as it was terrifying.
Rodney sagged against the wall, feeling like he’d just run a marathon from the way he couldn’t catch his breath. The way John made him feel . . . he was starting to think it was love.
“Are you all right?”
He started at the voice. Rodney turned to see a woman standing a couple feet away, Nicole next to her. Rodney narrowed his eyes, suddenly paranoid that this was Mitchell trying something. Admittedly, he hadn’t yet met the bane of John’s existence but from what he’d heard, anything was possible. “Nikki, aren’t you supposed to be with your brother?” he asked pointedly.
Nicole beamed at him then at the woman next to her. “I was,” she said brightly, “and then I found Auntie Teyla!”
The woman—Teyla—smiled down at her. He’d been unaware that John had a sister. Rodney repeated, “Auntie . . . Teyla?”
“I am not her biological aunt,” the woman explained, turning her smile on him now. “My name is Teyla Emmagan. I have been John’s agent for a number of years now and have grown quite fond of the children in that time. I do not mind it.”
“Oh.” Rodney straightened, pulling away from the wall. John’s agent. Right. Gotta make a good impression. He stuck his hand out. “Nice to meet you. I’m Rodney McKay.”
She took his hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Rodney. We have heard very little about you.”
“And I’ve heard very little about all of you,” Rodney replied, pulling his hand back. “John likes to keep things close to his vest, apparently. Would have been nice to know a bit about his friends before just springing me on them.”
Teyla’s smile widened. “You are on your way to the track, yes?”
“Wonderful. I will walk with you. Perhaps you’d like to hear how John and I first met?”
Rodney fell into step on Nicole’s other side, her little hand sliding into his. “I’d like that.”
John was only half listening to Lorne’s pre-practice lecture; his attention kept shifting to the other side of the garage where Alex was excitedly showing Rodney John’s racecar. He couldn’t hear what they were saying but Alex’s face was lit up and his mouth was going a mile a minute. Nikki trailed along, her stuffed unicorn in one hand, her other wrapped around Rodney’s.
His chest hurt at how familiar the sight had become—Rodney and the kids, together. He’d never expected to find this and John was determined not to lose it.
Alex suddenly reached out to grab Rodney’s hand and pull him forward. As they headed off, Rodney glanced over and caught John watching them. Rodney smiled—he couldn’t wave with both kids holding his hands—and John waved back with a smile, feeling himself blush even as he did so.
“Oh, yeah. You’ve got it bad.”
John started and tuned back in to the conversation. “What?” When had Ronon arrived? “Got what bad?”
Lorne chuckled. “McKay. Kids seem to like him alright.”
John glanced back over at the trio—Alex had convinced Ford to lift the hood and Rodney was actually looking interested—and felt a sense of real happiness wash over him at the sight of his two worlds mixing easily together. He couldn’t remember feeling this happy in years. He lifted one shoulder in a half shrug and replied, “He’s great with them.”
Ronon clapped him on the shoulder, hard enough to knock John slightly off balance. “’s’long as you and the kids are happy, we’re happy for you. ‘bout time you caught a break.”
“Now, if I could have your attention for real this time.” Lorne’s tone was pointed yet lightly teasing and John pointedly turned his back to Rodney, determined not to get distracted. “Thank you. Now, you’re still getting too close to the wall on your turns. I don’t want to give any of the other drivers an opportunity to squish you. And do try to keep the car in one piece, if you don’t mind. The mechanics are starting to get irritated.”
John rolled his eyes. “You know I can’t always stay on the inside, Lorne. If I see a shot, I take it. Sometimes it takes me high. And the mechanics are always irritated. You’d think they’d be happy to have something different to do every now and then.”
“And therein lies the problem. You have to learn to trust me and your spotters. If we say that it’s no good, you need to listen and not try to force your way through. That’s how you end up denting your car.”
John bristled. “I do listen! It’s just—”
“Just that you think you know better?” Lorne retorted. “How many years have I been your crew chief, Sheppard?”
John’s jaw tightened. So much for the feeling of happiness. “Going on six.”
Lorne’s expression brooked no argument. “Exactly. I got you out of that rut you were in, got you a trophy. So you’re going to listen to me when I say listen to your damn spotters!”
John bit his tongue to keep from saying something he’d wind up regretting. “Fine,” he bit out, then turned and stalked away. He zipped up his jumpsuit, snagged his helmet and nearly ran right into Rodney.
“Hey,” Rodney said, looking at him with concern. “Everything okay?”
John ran a hand through his hair and blew out his breath. He forced a smile. “Just some creative differences. Happens from time to time.” Rodney didn’t appear to believe him and opened his mouth. John cut him off, “You coming out to watch me practice?”
Rodney blinked, startled at the sudden change of topic. “Yeah. Yeah, Alex says he knows the perfect spot to watch from.”
John nodded. “Cool.” Surprisingly, he felt his temper improving. His next smile felt more normal. “Good. What d’you say we go out for dinner after? The four of us?”
Rodney nodded. “Sounds good to me.”
“Great.” John leaned over to kiss Rodney lightly on the lips then headed for his car, slinging his legs through the window and dropping into the seat. Tossing his helmet to the side, John started the car and listened to the engine rumble for a bit, letting the familiarity and the vibrations settle him. He hated arguing with Lorne. The man was seriously a saint and it took some doing to piss him off—figures it’d be John himself pissing Lorne off.
John yanked the gear shift and drove slowly out of the garage, keeping an eye out for pedestrians. He kept it slow until he was sitting at the starting line, then he put his helmet on and said into the earpiece, “Ready when you are.”
Lorne’s voice came back, “Go when ready.”
John closed his eyes, took a slow deep breath, and made a valiant effort to push everything out of his mind except the feel of the machine around and beneath him, the sound of the engine growling in his ears.
He opened his eyes, dropped one hand to the gear shift. Imagined he could see the lights changing. Green. His foot shot down on the pedal a split second after he shifted gears.
The car took off like a shot . . . .
Rodney shifted on the bench as he watched John’s car go around a corner. He smiled to himself. He hadn’t realized how worked up John got after racing but it led to a very pleasurable side effect . . . once the kids were in bed. Unfortunately, he didn’t think they’d be able to do anything during this trip. A result of bringing the kids along to New York meant that John and Rodney didn’t get their own room this time. He did, however, very much enjoy sharing a bed with John.
Rodney usually didn’t do too well with intimate actions like cuddling or spooning. He felt uncomfortable and awkward, typically. John didn’t make him feel that way. Lying in bed with him felt like the most natural thing in the world and Rodney was rapidly becoming addicted.
“Hey, Alex,” Nicole said as Rodney quickly slammed a hand down on his papers to keep them from flying off in the wind. He was multi-tasking: watching the kids, watching John, and grading. After the first few rounds of the track, Rodney had gotten a little bored. John stopped every now and then, had a chat with Lorne, then went back out. To his untrained eye, it looked like nothing changed but hey, what did he know?
Alex said, “What, Nik?”
Rodney didn’t bother to look and see what she was talking about—he figured it was one of the pages in her coloring book. She was always showing Rodney her completed pages. For some reason, she seemed to need validation from him when she was done.
Alex asked, “Hey, Rodney?”
“Hmm?” Rodney said absently, swiping his red pen through a horribly incorrectly balanced equation. Honestly, Alex could do better and he was in middle school!
“Can I borrow your cell phone for a minute? I wanna ask Uncle John something.”
“Isn’t he racing?” Rodney shot a glance at the track to check. John had actually pulled into the pit while his back was turned. Rodney dug his phone out of his bag and handed it to the kid then went back to grading.
Barely a minute later, Alex handed it back with a quick, “Thanks.”
Rodney dropped it back in his bag. He had just flipped to the next person’s homework—after scrawling a large red “D” at the top of the previous worksheet—when he heard Alex say urgently, “Nikki, put your stuff away.”
Rodney looked up, frowning. “What are you two do--” He stopped when a shadow fell over the group. Twisting around, he looked up to see a man standing directly behind them. He had to crane his neck back as he squinted against the sun, trying to see if he recognized the guy. He wore a black and yellow racing jumpsuit, and sunglasses. Other than that, Rodney could see he was fit and had dark, maybe brown, hair. The sun made it hard to identify him.
“So you’re Johnny’s new guy, huh? That picture definitely made you look better on camera, but then again, the photo did only show half of you. Guess it was your good side, huh?”
What the hell? Who was this jerk? “Who the hell are you?” Rodney asked bluntly.
He laughed. “Cameron Mitchell. Maybe you’ve heard of me? Oh, but maybe not. I know teachers don’t really get out all that much.” He shot a disdainful look at Rodney’s pile of papers. “Stuck inside trying to teach idiots their ABC’s. Ever heard of Sesame Street? It probably does a better job than an actual teacher.”
Rodney bristled. “Excuse me?”
Mitchell cocked an eyebrow and said, “I see he’s got you playing babysitter already. You sure you’re actually dating Sheppard or is he just fucking the help? What’s the answer, kiddies—is he a good replacement daddy?”
That’s it. Rodney stood up and snapped, “Leave them alone!”
Mitchell sneered. “Oh, look, prof’s got balls. I did wonder.”
Rodney didn’t mind Mitchell insulting him—he’d dealt with it for years—but those children certainly did not need to be reminded of their loss. Especially not by this jackass. Intending to rip into him, Rodney clenched his hands into fists and said acidly , “Now, you listen to me, jackass—” but he didn’t get much further than that before he was stopped by the feel of a hand on his wrist.
John angrily said, “How the hell d’you get in here, Cam? I asked for a closed practice.”
John’s hand tightened on Rodney’s wrist, tugging him close. Rodney caught a whiff of John’s scent—that oh so wonderful concoction of sweat/leather/smoke and a hint of gasoline—and had to force himself to focus on the situation at hand but it was hard because he loved when John smelled like that.
Mitchell’s eyes flicked down to where John’s hand rested on Rodney’s wrist, then back up to John’s face but didn’t say anything. He simply crossed his arms and smirked.
Rodney’s gaze flitted between the two racers, feeling the tension climbing. He could feel how tightly wound John was, how tight a grip John had on him, and wondered if it was going to turn into a fist fight.
Mitchell suddenly shrugged and said, “Just wanted to meet the guy you attempted to replace me with, that’s all. No big deal, Sheppard.”
John said tightly, “Rodney’s not a replacement. If anything, he’s an upgrade. Now get the hell out of here, Cam, before I call security . . . or Ronon.”
Mitchell scowled. “Seriously, Sheppard? You know you can do better than . . . this.” He made a disgusted face and gestured in Rodney’s direction.
Rodney tried not to react but it was hard. Disgust wasn’t something he had directed at him often. Annoyance, hatred, irritation, jealousy . . . those were all emotions he was more than familiar with. John replied, “Jealousy is not a good look on you, Cam. Get out.”
“As if I need to stay. We both know I’m gonna kick your ass tomorrow.” Mitchell headed off.
Once he was out of sight, John’s grip relaxed and he turned to Rodney. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t want him anywhere near us.” He scowled. “Closed practice, my ass. If their definition of “closed” means any racer who wants to can get in, then that’s not closed! I’ll have to have Teyla talk with security.” He ran a hand through his sweaty hair and blew out a breath. Cam was his past. He had to remember that nothing Cam said or did mattered or could affect him.
But it was getting easier to do with Rodney at his side. Right, Rodney. John reached out and took his hand, giving it a squeeze. Rodney asked, “How’d you get here so quickly?”
John gave him a weird look. “You texted me he was here.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“It came from your phone.”
“Oh. Oh! No, no, I let Alex borrow it. He said he wanted to ask you something.” Rodney twisted around to see the kids. “Alex, why didn’t you just tell me he was here?”
John took a step to the side. Alex had an arm around his sister, whose eyes were red. “Alex, Nik, you guys okay? Did he say anything to you?”
Alex answered quietly, “He just asked if Rodney . . . if he was a good replacement for Dad.”
Nikki sniffled and John’s heart sank. He let go of Rodney’s hand and stepped forward. “Ah, Christ. Come here, kiddo.” He hauled her up into his arms and she wrapped her arms around his neck. He rubbed her back. “It’s okay.”
She mumbled something into his shoulder.
“Sorry, kiddo, can’t understand you. What was that?”
Nicole lifted her head slightly and repeated in a wobbly voice, “I miss Mommy and Daddy.”
Crap. John met Rodney’s gaze over the top of her head. He squeezed her tighter. “I know, sweetie, I know. I miss them, too.”
Rodney reached out and ran a hand tentatively down her back. “You know, Nikki, there’s a theory that says that when a loved one—like a parent—dies, they get reborn as an animal and watch over you. Now I never really believed that because I didn’t like my parents and they definitely didn’t like me, but I’m sure your parents loved you and are somewhere nearby, keeping an eye on you and Alex.”
Nikki lifted her head to look at Rodney, sniffling. “You mean, Mommy and Daddy are still here?”
Rodney shrugged, looking awkward. “Well, not physically. But their spirits are.” He frowned. “Is this making any sense?”
“Yes,” Alex answered, climbing down the bleachers to join their little huddle. “Nik, think of it like this—you know those mirrors on that one show you watch? The ones that people can talk through?” She nodded, a thumb in her mouth. “Well, it’s like Mom and Dad have an invisible mirror and they can see us but we can’t see them.”
John found himself feeling surprised and grateful. Surprised by Alex’s maturity and by Rodney’s theory about loved ones being reborn. And extremely grateful that Rodney stepped in. John shifted Nikki in his arms to his other side so he could lean over and kiss Rodney. Yeah, he was in love.
Rodney fit so well into their little makeshift family unit, it was hard to figure out how they’d managed without him.
John was feeling pretty good about his position. He knew the Michigan track like the back of his hand, having driven on it multiple times before now. Lorne’s voice was a calm, steady presence in his ear, letting him know about warning spots, about changes in the lineup. They were around 215 laps into the 300-lap race and John was in the top five, just waiting for a slot to open up so he could make his move for the lead.
Four laps later and nothing had changed. Not one little bit. He was still stuck in fifth. John gritted his teeth, eyes darting around as he tried to find an opening. He tried to get around the car in front of him, climbing up towards the wall despite Lorne’s constant pleas not to. A car pulled up on either side of him, keeping him stuck behind the number 27 car in front of him. A quick glance out his windows had him scowling.
John flexed his fingers, trying to relax them and get some blood flowing, and said into his headset, “Lorne, Cam and Kolya just pulled up on either side. They’re boxing me in. I’m never gonna move ahead if I can’t get past 27. Any ideas?”
He shot a glare through the window at his rivals. Kolya smirked at him and turned his wheel. Kolya’s car slammed into the left side of John’s, forcing John’s head to jerk to the side along with his car. Before he could straighten his car out, he was knocked back towards Kolya, courtesy of Cameron Mitchell on his right.
“I’m looking. Give me a minute. Just hang on.”
Kolya slammed into him again and John shifted gears, dropping back a little to avoid the rebound from Cam. It worked as they rounded the turn but then both Kolya and Cam dropped back to ride next to John, narrowing the space between the three cars. John had a death grip on the wheel as they jockeyed back and forth, playing pinball with him. His attention was split between the two cars he was sandwiched between and the car in front of him, trying not to lose too much control. “I may not have a goddamned minute, Lorne!”
Another minute passed. They rolled into the next lap. Kolya and Cam were practically glued to his sides.
"Gas it when I say so.”
“What?! Where the hell do you think I’m gonna go?”
“Just trust me, John.”
John gritted his teeth and hung on as he kept getting slammed from both sides. 27 was still in front of him. Was the driver working with them? Lorne had to have seen something, some opening that John couldn’t since he was trapped. He shook his head a little. Well, he’d gotten this far in his career by trusting Lorne; why change things now?
“Hope this works,” John muttered.
Just then Lorne ordered, “Now!”
Here goes. John shoved the gas pedal to the floor, shifting gears as his car shot forward. He winced preemptively as 27’s rear bumper loomed . . .
. . . and peeled off into the pits. John laughed in relief and finally broke free and into the lead. Lorne had somehow figured that 27 would pull in, thereby allowing John a chance to pull ahead. Brilliant!
“Yes!” he crowed, slamming a palm on his wheel. “Evan, you’re a genius! I love you, man!”
John’s head snapped to the side. The world flipped. He could hear metal screeching. Lorne’s voice sounded faintly in his ear, asking something he couldn’t quite make out. John’s hands flew off the steering wheel. Gravity pinned him to his seat as the world flipped again. He struggled to brace himself against the car.
His vision was a riot of constantly shifting colors. Blue. Green. Rainbow. Blue, green, bluegreenrainbowgreen.
His head hurt like a mother fucker. John blinked dazedly. His stomach lurched. His breath escaped him in brief pants; it became a struggle for anything deeper. He blinked again, feeling wetness trickle down his forehead. He shook his head a little, trying to focus. The riot of color was starting to settle down into a sort of rainbow with blue at the bottom. What was the rainbow?
Shouting voices reached him through the haze and he realized he was upside down. Right, right. Blue equals sky. He reached for his seatbelt, fumbling with the buckle. It was like he couldn’t get the fingers of his right hand to work properly. Someone shoved his hands away then pushed against John’s shoulders.
The buckle came undone and John slid a few inches before someone else grabbed hold of him. Right, upside down. If he’d taken the seatbelt off himself, he’d have slammed his head into the roof of his car. Not good, even with a helmet. Someone grabbed hold of his right arm and the added flare of pain made his vision white out momentarily.
He knew he was being hauled out of the car. Someone pulled his helmet off, asking . . . something. John vaguely registered Lorne’s worried face before his knees buckled and he passed out.
Rodney answered Jeannie’s text about whether he, John, and the kids could come to dinner at the Millers’ on Wednesday—why she wanted to make plans now, he had no idea, but he wasn’t going to commit without asking John. John’s practice schedule changed weekly, it seemed like. And Rodney had still had classes he needed to prepare for, what with fall semester starting in a couple weeks. He and the registrar were arguing again, something about his refusal to take on more than three grad students for the semester. Whatever; he only had a finite amount of patience for grad students, and that patience dried up quickly depending on what their theses were. That didn’t include the limited patience he had for his regular students.
“Uh oh,” Alex said beside him. “Looks like Uncle John’s in trouble.”
Rodney looked up from shoving his phone back in his bag and frowned. “How can you tell?” He never could figure out where in the group John was; all the damn cars looked the same to him at 200mph.
Alex pointed up at one of the Jumbotrons. “He’s boxed in.”
Rodney squinted, placing a hand against his forehead to block the sun. “What? By who?”
Alex leaned forward on the bench. “Uh . . . ooh. Uh oh. It’s Cam and Kolya.”
On the Jumbotron, the cameras zoomed in to show John’s car was getting knocked back and forth. “Is that legal?”
“Yeah. Not much is illegal in racing, unless it causes a driver to crash. But Uncle John’s good.”
“Let’s hope so.” Rodney alternated between watching the Jumbotron and the track. The racecars were rounding the corner just before the entrance to the pits. He honestly expected John to pull in but instead the car in front of him did and John kept going.
The crowd gasped as it happened.
Rodney was on his feet, watching in horror as John’s racecar went sideways on the track, slid, hit something, flipped, and rolled across the infield. John’s car literally rolled several times. Rodney’s knuckles were white where they gripped the railing, panic gripping his chest tight. Nothing good could come from something like that. Drivers didn’t roll their cars and come out unhurt.
People raced across the field, hopping the fence that separated the field from the pits. Okay, good, John’s crew was on their way to John . . . who was in a car that was upside down. Oh god.
An ambulance drove out from the ramp. Thankfully the car hadn’t caught fire. Rodney wasn’t normally one for praying—religion being a totally useless practice—but he prayed now, prayed for John to climb out of that car, to walk to the ambulance. To be okay.
He needed John to be okay. He didn’t know what he would do if John . . . no, he’d be okay.
He had to be.
The ambulance stopped at the car, now surrounded by people, and two paramedics hopped out. Rodney flicked his gaze up to the Jumbotron and sucked in a shaky breath. Oh thank god. John was climbing out of the car’s window. Supported on both sides, but nevertheless standing.
Then he dropped. Rodney recognized Lorne before the cameras were blocked by bodies. So much for that fleeting sense of relief.
A hand landed on his, making him start in surprise. Rodney looked down and saw Alex standing next to him. “Grab your sister and get your stuff together. We’ll meet them at the hospital.” Alex nodded, his face pale, and went back to where they’d been sitting.
Rodney turned his attention back to the track. The ambulance was driving away and the crowd was starting to disperse. The announcers were saying something but all Rodney could focus on at the moment was the trail of tire marks, glass, and car parts that led to the wrecked car lying upside down in the grass.
“Please be okay,” Rodney whispered before reaching for Nicole’s hand and heading down the tunnel to the parking lot. Alex came up on Nikki’s other side, gripping her hand tightly.
Rodney parked as close to the hospital as he could and still be legal then hurriedly rushed the kids inside. Teyla had texted him the hospital name and room number, having ridden in the ambulance with John. He knew he could bypass pretty much anything the employees said to keep him out thanks to having the kids with him. Family was the magic word in a hospital. Nikki had a death grip on his hand as they took the elevator up but he didn’t really mind the pain; it grounded him when his fears started to take over. Rodney stepped out of the elevator and scanned the directional signs to figure out which way to go—he really didn’t want to have to talk to the nurse at the desk. Hospital staff were not the friendliest.
“Okay,” he said, “this way.” Dodging staff and visitors and patients in their crappy dresses that showed their naked behinds—why were they wandering the floor anyway? Weren’t they in the hospital for a reason?—he headed down a hall, glancing at door numbers as he went. 303 . . . 305 . . . 307 . . . 309 . . . 311 . . .
Rodney cautiously pushed the door to 313 open, afraid of what he’d find inside.
A nurse was in there, holding a clipboard and talking to John, who was partially lying down on the single bed in the room. Teyla was nowhere to be seen. Shouldn’t she have stayed with him? What if John needed something and the nurse was too stupid to realize it?
Wait. John was talking to the nurse. John was awake.
John was okay.
Rodney felt almost faint with relief. He sagged against the doorjamb and ran a shaky hand over his face, covered his mouth. Oh, thank god.
Nikki cried, “Uncle John!” and shoved past Rodney to run over to the bed, Alex on her heels. John and the nurse turned at the sound, John reaching a hand out to the little girl as the nurse walked towards the door.
Rodney hung back, stopping the nurse on her way out. “How bad is it?” he asked in an undertone.
She offered a reassuring smile. “He’s going to be just fine. Couple bumps and bruises. Fractured wrist. Mild concussion. He’ll be out of here in no time.”
She nodded and left and Rodney walked over to the bed, standing at the foot of it. He gripped the footboard, needing something to anchor himself. Be just fine . . . out of here in no time. Thank god for that. When he saw John’s car flip . . . he didn’t mind admitting to himself that he’d been scared. Terrified, even. John had come to mean a hell of a lot to him in the few months they’d been together.
A laugh broke into his thoughts and he focused on the little family reunion happening in front of him. Nikki lay curled up against John’s right side, Alex sitting on John’s left, and John was laughing. Laughing, as if nothing was wrong! As if they weren’t in a hospital room right now. As if John didn’t have a bandage on his head and a cast on his arm!
Alex asked eagerly, “Uncle John, can I help work on your racecar when we get home? I’ve been learning a bit about mechanical engineering from Rodney and I really think I could do a good job.”
John grinned and reached over to ruffle the boy’s hair. Alex made a face and fixed it. “Sure you can, kiddo. We’ve got to make sure she’s ready for next week’s race, right?”
“Right!” Alex beamed.
Rodney felt his mouth drop open, his face paling. What?
Was he serious?
He couldn’t be. It had to be a result of the concussion. Yeah, that’s it. Because there was no way in hell that John was sitting in a hospital bed after a major crash and planning to do it again in less than a week.
Rodney found himself interrupting them before he even realized it, his voice a little high-pitched. “Next week’s race?”
Alex twisted around to look at him in confusion. Rodney didn’t pay him any attention, too focused on the frown gently creasing John’s face and the sudden tightness occurring around the vicinity of his own poor heart. He hadn’t heard wrong, had he? he thought with a sinking feeling.
John said slowly, “Alex, can you take Nik into the hall for a minute? Rodney and I need to talk about—about grown-up stuff, ‘kay?”
Alex looked between the two of them, his confusion shifting into worry, but he reached for his sister, dragging her over John’s legs and out of the room.
Neither adult moved or spoke until the door had swung shut behind the kids. Then John asked, “What’s wrong?”
Rodney stared at him in disbelief, his eyebrows raised. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?! You are lying in a hospital bed after a car crash and you have the gall to ask me what’s wrong?!” Crap, he was starting to sound a little hysterical but damn it he felt hysterical! It was like the man had a death wish Rodney had been unaware of until now. He shook his head. “John, your car was totaled and you’re talking about racing again like this is nothing. Did you hit your head harder than I thought?”
“Next week’s race?”
John responded slowly, still frowning. “I don’t understand why you’re so upset. I’m fine.”
Rodney threw his hands in the air. “Seriously? You’re. In. The. Hospital!”
“Yes. That has been established.” John shifted. “It’s not the first time I’ve been injured racing and it’s certainly not going to be the last. Actually, by normal standards, this was nothing. My mechanics should have the car ready to go in no time. And I’ll be discharged in the morning.”
Rodney just stared. “By normal—How can you do that? How can you talk about this like—like you’re picking out what toppings to put on your pizza? This is your life, John! Don’t you care about it?”
John shook his head, wincing a little at the action. “Every racer winds up here at one point or another, Rodney. Sometimes multiple times. You have to accept that there’s a certain amount of danger inherent in racing. I mean, look how fast we go, how things can change in an instant. If a racer doesn’t accept that in the beginning, then they’re always going to hold back. You’re crippled by worry and fear. A racer has to acknowledge the risk and probability of getting injured, accept it, and move on. If you don’t,” John shrugged one shoulder, “you’ll never get anywhere in the sport.”
“And you don’t see something wrong with that?”
“This is what I do, Rodney. This is who I am. I thought you understood that.” John was getting testy now.
Rodney shook his head, his heart sinking. “I thought I did. I thought I knew you. But then I watched your car roll several yards at top speed. I wondered if you would even live. And now I find out that you don’t care if you live or not so long as you can get to the next race. God, you risk your life every time you go out on that track. Why? Why do you need to put your life on the line every week? Is this some leftover teenage rebellion? Do you need the adrenaline rush? Why?” His voice cracked slightly on the final word.
John sat up all the way, pushing against the hospital mattress with his uninjured hand, the lines on his face deepening with pain. The light pallor of his skin matched the bandage wrapped around his forehead, a faint spot of red peeking through on the left temple. A painful reminder to Rodney of what could happen next time. Of what Rodney stood to lose. John supported himself with his left hand and asked angrily, “What the hell else am I supposed to do, Rodney? Sit at home on the couch, play at being Mr. Mom? That’s not me. That’s not ever going to be me. I can’t do that. I won’t.”
“So that’s it, then. And just when I thought—never mind.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Rodney shook his head, his mind made up. “I can’t do this, John.” He started for the door.
“Can’t do what? What are you talking about?”
“This, John!” Rodney snapped, whirling around. He gestured at the space between them, at the room they were in. “You’re throwing your life away! And I’m not going to stick around and watch. I can’t. I can’t watch you do this again.” It hurts too much. “I’m sorry, John. I love you but I can’t do this again.” His voice broke completely and he turned back to the door.
Rodney stopped a couple feet from the door and reluctantly turned around. Fear played in John’s eyes as John leaned towards him. “Don’t do this. Don’t walk out that door. Please. We can . . . we can figure something out.”
Rodney closed his eyes briefly and swallowed past the lump in his throat. He said quietly, “I have to. I refuse to stand on the sidelines and watch you try to kill yourself on a weekly basis. Goodbye, John.” He resolutely turned around and reached for the doorknob.
“Rodney, I love you, too; please just talk to me about this.”
Rodney ignored him as he opened the door and stepped into the hall.
Another step, the door closing behind him.
The door closed and so did Rodney’s eyes. Not knowing if John was stupid enough to get out of the bed with his injuries, Rodney didn’t stop to grieve, hurrying down the hall, though the tears threatened to fall anyway. Ending things between them was the right thing to do. It was better this way. If John wanted to kill himself, well, now he was free to do so. Rodney wasn’t required to stick around and witness it if he didn’t want to.
Didn’t mean it didn’t hurt.
Rodney stopped when he reached the reception area, taking a moment to collect himself. John’s team was there, apparently waiting for Rodney. Lorne leaned against the wall, arms crossed, while Ford and Ronon sat on a couple of chairs. Teyla sat on a backless bench nearby, Nicole curled against her chest, while Alex sat next to her, his hands gripping the edge of the bench.
Lorne noticed Rodney’s arrival first and pushed off from the wall. “How is he?”
Shouldn’t he have already learned that from Teyla? Why did he have to tell them? “He’s fine,” he said, his voice a tad shaky. “Apparently nothing life-threatening.”
Lorne ran a hand through his hair. “That’s a relief. When he collapsed . . .”
Teyla looked up at him, a light frown wrinkling her forehead. “You are not with him.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Rodney muttered then raised his voice. “No. I’m actually headed out.” He gestured behind him down the hall. “Room 313; I assume he can have visitors.”
Alex asked, “Are you gonna bring Uncle John something to change into before he leaves?”
Rodney looked at the teen, thinking that, yes, that would be a normal question to ask someone’s significant other when they left the hospital alone. But he wasn’t John’s significant other. Not anymore. He shook his head. “No,” he told Alex. “I’m not.”
Ford offered, “Hey, if you’re going on a coffee run, I can help carry?”
“No. I am not going on a coffee run. If you want coffee, you can be an adult and go get some of the disgusting hospital coffee they have in the cafeteria,” Rodney sniped, glowering at Ford. Why couldn’t they understand that he needed to leave? “I am not bringing John a change of clothes. I am not staying. Can you understand that or do I need to dumb it down even more?”
Alex slid off the bench, coming to stand next to Lorne. “Did you and Uncle John break up?”
Rodney blew out his breath, forcibly curtailing his emotions. When he got this way, he lashed out and the kid had become somewhat important to him. Christ, when had he gotten so damn attached to these kids? “I . . . yeah. Yeah, we did. Sorry, kid.”
Very much aware of his audience, Rodney answered simply, “We disagreed on something rather important.” Or, at least, Rodney thought it was important. Apparently, John did not. “We need some time to figure things out.”
“So you’re leaving. Are we going to see you again?”
“Of course. We’ve still got the after school club, right?” Alex didn’t look appeased so Rodney gave in and tugged the teen into a quick hug. “You’ll be okay. Promise. Now go on back into the room, okay?”
Alex rubbed his eyes as he pulled back. “Okay,” he said quietly.
Rodney waited until Teyla—disapproving look in place—had gone down the hall with Nicole, Alex, Ford and Ronon. Then he started towards the bank of elevators.
“McKay, wait up!”
Rodney jabbed at the down button, trying to ignore Lorne. The door opened and he stepped in, reaching for the button for the lobby. Lorne slammed his hand against the sensor, keeping the door open. Rodney scowled at him. “What?”
“You can’t just walk away like this.”
“Watch me.” He pointedly jabbed at the button again.
“Why’d you end things?”
“Why do you care?”
“Because I’ve seen how he looks at you. How you look at him. And I’m sure he’s just as gutted as you are right now. So why? Why end things?”
Giving up on the button for the moment, Rodney crossed his arms and retorted, “Maybe I prefer my boyfriends to actually give a damn about their wellbeing.”
“Shep’s one of the most careful drivers I’ve seen.”
Rodney cocked an eyebrow. “You do realize where we are right now, don’t you?” The elevator started to ding, complaining about the door still being open.
Lorne shook his head and said dismissively, “This isn’t on him. He did everything he could to avoid the crash. This is on Kolya and Mitchell and I’m sure as hell going to make sure they’re penalized because of it.”
“Oh, great. That makes me feel so much better. Because a timeout or a fine is going to make up for the fact that they could have killed John!” Rodney said sarcastically.
Lorne said knowingly, “So that’s why.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“You’re afraid to lose him. I get it. The kids were, too, until Shep let them in the garage, took them out in the car. Showed them that he was as safe as he could possibly be.” Lorne caught his gaze, held it for a long moment. “Shep’s lost a lot this past year. I’m not sure he can lose you, too, McKay.”
Rodney’s arms dropped to dangle at his side, feeling unaccountably guilty. “He’ll move on. One boyfriend’s as good as the next, right? He’s famous; he’ll find someone else in no time.”
Lorne shook his head. “If you truly think that—and I doubt it—then you don’t know John Sheppard as well as I thought. Look, I’ll let you go but I’m asking you to think about this. Really think about it. I know it seems scary right now but it’s really not as bad as you think. And you really shouldn’t be making these kinds of decisions when you’re both too emotional.”
Rodney scowled at him, his emotions locked back up. “What are you, Dr. Phil?”
Lorne chuckled lightly. “Think about what I said.” He took a step back, letting go of the elevator. “See you around.”
The elevator door slid closed, leaving Rodney with Lorne’s echoing words and his thoughts.
You didn't think I wasn't going to throw a wrinkle into their relationship, did you? *evil author chuckle* :)
Chapter 9: Chapter Nine
John sat on a bench at the park, his legs stretched out in front of him, and looked around. Alex was sitting under a tree away from the main playground area, reading a book that Rodney had given him and no doubt still sulking. He sighed. He’d thought he’d taken the breakup hard, but Alex had practically idolized Rodney. It didn’t help that Alex apparently thought that John should have done something to keep Rodney from leaving. But what could he have done differently? After all, he had been lying in a hospital bed, fighting a concussion, when Rodney sprung the whole thing on him. By the time he’d managed to get out of bed without the floor tilting under him, Teyla was walking in with the kids and his friends in tow.
When Lorne had come in a few minutes later, Rodney had not been with him.
John shifted his focus and glanced around for his niece. He smiled a little when he saw her on the swing set. His palm itched and he regretted the fact that he didn’t have a pencil to shove inside to alleviate the itch.
A shadow blocked the sun that had been glaring down on him from the left and he looked up to see Jeannie. She wore a sympathetic expression as she said, “Hi, John.”
As she sat next to him, he saw Maddie dashing across the park to Nikki. Nikki jumped off her swing, the girls hugged, then they hurried over to the monkey bars.
“How are you doing?” Jeannie asked quietly.
John shrugged. “Oh, you know . . .” and trailed off. He reached up to absently rub a finger across the fading scar across his brow.
Jeannie made a sympathetic sound. “If it makes you feel any better, Mer’s not handling things well, either.”
John didn’t respond. Because no, that didn’t make things better. This wasn’t the type of misery loves company thing. This was . . . he didn’t know what this was. He’d tried several times over the past week to get in touch with Rodney, to try and talk to him about what happened. But Rodney was ignoring him and it hurt.
Not as much as watching Rodney walk away from him, but still. It hurt.
If only he just knew why.
Why had Rodney panicked like that? Why did he walk out? Why did Rodney break up with him? Sometimes he wondered if he’d made a mistake not dating someone who knew the racing world, who could truly understand that part of him. But then he thought about how well they’d fit together, how easily Rodney understood him, and his confusion at Rodney’s exit returned.
He felt he maybe could have handled it better if he could simply understand.
Jeannie reached over to squeeze his uninjured hand. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Won’t do any good.” John shot her a quick apologetic look. “Not that I don’t like talking to you, but you are the sister of my ex and it would be incredibly awkward.”
She smiled. “Yeah, I guess so.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Then Jeannie said thoughtfully, “You know, I never expected you and Mer to hit it off like you did. Total opposites. It’s why I never tried to set the two of you up.” She laughed a little. “Turns out you did that anyway. I’ve never seen him happier than when he was with you.”
John’s throat felt tight. “Feeling was mutual,” he managed.
She nodded and said softly, “Yeah. I noticed.” She paused then asked “How are the kids handling it?”
Good. Better territory. “I don’t think Nikki quite understands but Alex does and he’s hurt. And pissed. And currently sulking because apparently it’s all my fault Rodney is no longer around all the time to teach him physics.”
Jeannie chuckled. “Ah, the absolutes of youth. He’s only mad at you because you’re here and Mer’s not, you know.”
John sighed. “I know. Doesn’t help that I keep going back over things, trying to figure out where it all came from or what I could have done to keep it from happening. He never seemed to care one way or the other before so I just . . . I don’t know why he suddenly freaked out.”
“Don’t do that. Don’t beat yourself up over what-ifs.” Jeannie’s voice was stern. He knew the what-if game intimately, had played it for months after Dave’s death. After Cam’s betrayal. “Mer will come around. He just needs some time to process things and if he takes too long, well,” she grinned, “I will be more than happy to boot him in the ass to help move things along.”
Her comment did what he thought it was intended to do. His laugh rang out across the park, drawing Alex’s attention briefly.
John shifted on the bench, his wrist itching again. “You wouldn’t happen to have a pencil handy, would you?”
She shook her head. “But I can find you a stick, if you think it’ll help?”
“Please. This thing itches like crazy.”
She laughed and got up.
John crossed his ankles. Rodney needed time to process things, huh? Alright. He could wait a bit. But John was not going to let Rodney think John had given up on talking. They needed to hash this out if things were going to change.
Hopefully it wouldn’t take too long, he thought as Jeannie walked back over, holding up a thin twig with a triumphant air.
Lorne ordered him to pull in when he spun out again. As soon as the noise of the engine echoing against the garage walls cut off, Lorne showed up next to the car, demanding, “What the hell are you doing out there, John? I know this is practice but you’re driving like you’ve never been in a racecar before!”
John scowled at him as he climbed out. “Maybe if I wasn’t driving a piece of shit car, I’d do better.”
“Piece of . . . this is a top of the line Formula One racecar, Sheppard!”
John yanked his helmet clean off and tossed it to the side, not paying attention to where it landed or what it hit on its path. People skittered out of its way while he just pointed back at the car. “Piece. Of. Shit.” Then he stalked away, unzipping his jumpsuit as he went. He was done.
Lorne followed. “It’s not the car that’s the problem. Your head’s not in the game. Hasn’t been for a while.”
“And why do you think that is?” John asked archly, squinting against the bright sunlight. He didn’t have his sunglasses on him, damn it all. He fucking hated Virginia—clear skies, sunlight shining, a beautiful 75 degrees Fahrenheit out, and the stands were sparsely filled with press, all there to watch him fail.
“Have you called him?”
John shoved the jumpsuit down his arms, letting it dangle around his waist, feeling the breeze chill the sweat on his skin. Ignoring Lorne’s question, John answered his own, “The problem, Evan, is the fact that my so-called mechanics can’t do their jobs properly.”
“No. The problem, John, is that you need to talk to Rodney.”
John spun on the grass, startling Lorne slightly, and jabbed a finger at him. “Rodney made his feelings very clear. He ended things. I’ve moved on. The end.”
Lorne huffed. “You have not moved on. If you had, you wouldn’t have been barely scraping by in the last couple races even with the advantage of pulling ahead in points thanks to the penalties Kolya and Mitchell got slammed with after your crash. Kolya is so far down the board there’s no way he can catch you now. Won’t even be able to pass you. But Mitchell is gaining traction again and your losses are not helping things!”
John shook his head and resumed stalking away. He needed to get out of here, away from all the eyes. “Drop it, Evan,” he warned.
“It’s affecting your racing, which in turn affects your life, so no. I will not drop it.” Lorne kept pace with him. “You need to talk to him.”
John stopped again. “He doesn’t want to talk to me! I tried, okay?” He ran a hand through his sweaty hair. “He won’t answer my calls, he won’t even come out of the school until Alex and I are in the car . . . I mean, there’s nothing I can do, Evan.” He felt suddenly exhausted. Everything felt wrong, off kilter, and he was trying really hard not to put the blame on Rodney. At least not until he found out why. “He wants nothing do with me.”
Lorne reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “He just needs some time. Don’t give up.”
John huffed out a bitter laugh. “Give him time? I’ve given him three weeks, Evan. He’s not gonna change his mind.”
“Look, I appreciate the optimism, but it’s really not necessary. I don’t need a shrink, or a relationship counselor right now. I need my crew chief to listen to me and get that damn car in shape.”
Lorne set his jaw. “Fine. If it will make you happy, I will talk to the mechanics.” He jabbed a finger into John’s chest and added, “But get your damn head on straight before you wind up back in the hospital. You hear me? This is your crew chief talking, so you better fucking listen.”
John set his own jaw. “Fine.” He turned and crossed the track. After changing, he intended to find the closest bar and get flat out wasted. Ronon would find him, drag his drunk ass back to the hotel. He could race with a hangover; wouldn’t be the first time.
Rodney rested his elbow on the back of his sister’s couch, leaning his cheek on the palm of his hand. He was watching pre-race coverage on her television, sort of listening to the commentators as they blathered on about names he didn’t recognize. Background footage of the action at the track was playing on half the screen.
Press and spectators were everywhere. Racers gathered in pairs to catch up, or hurried to their garages. Some were getting one on one interviews. Rodney just let it all wash over him, not really paying attention but not wanting to change the channel.
Then he heard John’s name mentioned, instantly demanding his full attention. He fumbled for the remote, turning up the volume.
“. . . sure how Sheppard’s going to finish the season, Drew. He’s been having a rough month. That crash back in Michigan was a hell of a thing and he’s been damn lucky to finish races in the shape he’s been in.”
The TV switched cameras to one focused on Atlantis Racing’s garage. Rodney leaned forward slightly as he saw John and Lorne in the doorway, talking.
“Tell me about it. You gotta wonder what Atlantis is thinking, you know? If Sheppard keeps going like he is right now . . . will they keep him on for next season or drop him? He’s only got a couple more months to try and place but I just don’t know if he can do it.”
“Hey,” Drew said, “whatever happened to that scientist Sheppard was dating? I haven’t seen him around lately.”
“Oh yeah, him! Maybe they broke up. Maybe that’s got something to do with it?”
“Who knows? But he better get his head in the game or he’s going to lose more than just a race.”
The camera switched again to another racer and the commentators followed suit with barely a pause in their dialogue but Rodney had stopped listening.
It was the first time he’d been able to bring himself to watch the race coverage since the break-up. He knew John had been having a little trouble, but he never imagined . . . racing was everything to John. If Atlantis dropped him . . .
He started, his head jerking around to find his sister standing at the opposite end of the couch, frowning. How many times had she called his name? “What?”
“Did you want to stay for dinner? Caleb and I are making vegan tacos.”
Rodney turned back to the TV. “Yeah, I guess,” he answered reluctantly.
The couch dipped as she sat next to him. “Why are you watching this? I thought you broke up with John weeks ago.”
He shrugged. “Guess I find it interesting.”
She hummed skeptically but tucked her legs under her and leaned against his side, watching with him as the cars were pushed onto the track. A cameraman stationed at the entrance to the track caught each racer as they headed out with their cars and pit crews. John’s car was being pushed by Lorne, Ford, Ronon, and a couple others Rodney recognized but couldn’t remember the names of. John walked a few feet behind them, helmet dangling from his right hand, sunglasses hiding his expression.
Things weren’t right.
He’d honestly never felt the way he had when he was with John and the realization that he could have lost John. And in an instant. Rodney had never felt so scared in his life and that scared him even more.
Trying to distract himself from such thoughts, Rodney bit the inside of his cheek, wondering just how much of what the commentators had said was true. Yeah, John hadn’t been on top like he’d been before . . . before, but it wasn’t like he was epically losing. He was still placing.
Then all the cars were on the track, the lights flashing red . . . yellow . . . green. The flag dropped and 40 cars took off.
It was much easier to keep track of John’s car on the screen than in person, he thought, an eerie reminder of his thoughts from that day. The box in the lower left kept track of the top ten—John was sixth, currently. Not bad, but also not his best.
Rodney and Jeannie watched mostly in silence. Finally, the silence broke when Rodney couldn’t stand it anymore and yelled at John through the TV. Halfway through the race, and John was barely hanging on to his fourth place position.
“Get your ass in gear!” he shouted after John’s second pit stop, startling Jeannie. Oops, he’d actually forgotten she was there. “God, find your goddamn gas pedal, John!”
“Mer, you do know he can’t hear you, right?” Jeannie asked, sounding amused.
He ignored her, scowling at the TV. A few more laps passed and John finally, finally, moved into third. Cam was just ahead of him. “Pass him! Come on, you missed your shot!” He threw his hands in the air and added, “Oh I bet Lorne is chewing your ear off right now for not listening to him.”
Twenty laps to go. Rodney was so frustrated with John right now. The idiot was driving like a granny! Where was that need to risk his life that so terrified Rodney? Now he drives like a granny? “There you go!” Rodney huffed out a breath as John squeaked into first. “Ugh, you should have had that spot 200 laps ago,” he informed the television. “Now just keep it and don’t go into the pits again, you and I both know your car is fine.”
“How do you know that? It’s his car, Mer.”
He spared a glance for his sister. “Hello, genius? Plus, I’ve seen him drive and this is not how he usually races.”
Shit, was that his fault?
He felt as if part of himself was missing and he knew he was distracted in his classes. Was John equally affected?
Fuck, what had he done?
John crossed the finish line with Cam right on his bumper. Rodney slumped back against the couch, frowning. That was too close. He could only imagine what Lorne would say. God, had things been this bad since the break-up?
Jeannie said, “I have to admit, I thought you’d be there with him, cheering him on from the sidelines like you used to.”
Rodney shot her a quick look, asked quietly, “Do you think I made a mistake?”
Jeannie shifted to face him, sitting cross-legged on the couch cushion. She said, “If you’re asking that, then I think you already know the answer.”
He sighed. “I hate when you’re all logical like this.” He paused, fighting with himself then reluctantly asked, “What do you think I should do?”
“I think you have two options,” Jeannie promptly answered. “You can turn the TV off, stop watching John race, stop moping around my house, and move on with your life.”
Rodney made a face. “I am not moping.”
“You are.” She grinned briefly at his scowl then continued, “Or you can pick option two.”
“Which is?” he asked warily.
“Happily ever after.”
He scoffed and turned back to the TV. “That doesn’t exist.”
“It did for me and Caleb. It could for you and John. All you need to do is find a way to accept that John’s chosen career has a certain amount of danger involved with it, find a way to be okay with it, then go talk to him. Get back together and I guarantee you’ll find your happily ever after.”
Rodney’s mouth twisted, but whether in consideration or disgust at the thought of fairy tales, he wasn’t sure. He did know he was annoyed that she was almost repeating word for word what John had said to him when he . . . well. When Rodney dumped him. Jeannie leaned over to kiss him on the cheek then got up and left. He turned the volume up on the TV.
The on-site reporter was heading down to the winner’s circle, where the cameras showed John being hugged and congratulated by his team. He had Nicole on his hip, Alex beaming up at him. Rodney felt a pang in his heart, thinking he should be there. No. No, he ended things because John didn’t care about the danger he put himself in.
But the way he drove today . . . that was the most careful Rodney had ever seen John drive. So it was possible to find a modicum of safety in that mess.
Plus, he really missed John. Missed going to the movies, joking with him, how John would just randomly show up at his office.
The reporter called, “John! John Sheppard, can I have a couple minutes?”
John glanced over, set Nicole down and hopped off the platform to join her. Up close, Rodney could see that his hair was sweaty and clinging to his forehead. Damn, he looked handsome, all flushed and excitement shining in his eyes.
“Congratulations, John! What’s this mean to you? You’ve been having some trouble the last few weeks, and this was so close, right up to the end. What are you feeling right now?”
John answered with a wide grin, “Thanks. God, I just—I’m just happy. You know? It’s been a rough year—rough couple of months—but I love racing and winning’s not just about me—although it does feel pretty awesome to be the first car across that finish line after 300 laps—but about my team. I couldn’t do this alone. I’ve got a great crew and an amazing crew chief. I couldn’t do what I do without them.” He turned and tossed a wave back to where Lorne, Ronon and the others were standing up on the platform.
She smiled at him and asked, “You had a pretty bad crash a few weeks back and you were driving rather conservatively out there today. Did the crash affect your driving, do you think you were subconsciously holding back, afraid it might happen again?”
John tilted his head to the side, ran a hand through his hair. “Well, I mean.” He pressed his lips together, the excitement fading a little. His expression was shifting into that neutral look he got when he didn’t want to talk about something. “Everyone fears crashing, whether you’re driving to the grocery store or on a racetrack, and you’re definitely going to be wary of it happening again. It’s all about getting out of that headspace, about not letting fear rule you. Do I still think about that day? Well, yeah, of course! It was a hell of a day and, yeah, I’m still coming to terms with everything that happened that day, for sure.” John shrugged.
Rodney grimaced. John was talking about their break-up. As blasé as he was about being injured, that had to be it. At least he wasn’t the only one still thinking about it.
Actually, it seemed to be the only thing on his mind some days.
The reporter asked, “How do you feel about your standings? Do you feel you’re in a good place in the race for the trophy?”
“Oh, you know, it’s not about trophies for me. I’m in this sport for the joy of racing and the rush of winning. Trophies aren’t all that important to me. At the end of the day, if I’ve done right by Atlantis, then that’s good with me. They gave me my big break, took a chance on me and I’m going to do my best to represent them well and obviously winning is a big part of that so I hope that I can keep winning and show them what their support means to me.”
“Thank you, John. I won’t take up anymore of your time. Go; celebrate with your friends and family.”
John thanked her and headed back to the platform. Hopping up, he grabbed Alex from behind and swung him around, making him laugh.
Rodney missed John.
He missed the damn kids.
He dropped his face into his hands. How was he supposed to get past the death wish and the danger, the near-death experiences? How did people do that? Live with their partner being seconds away from dying all the time?
“Hey, Rodney,” Caleb called from the kitchen, “dinner’s ready!”
If there was a way for John to be safe—or as safe as possible—while racing, like he was today . . . . was it possible that Rodney had overreacted?
Yes, duh. That was his kneejerk response, always. But he was still in the right that John had a death wish. Wasn’t he?
There had to be a way for him to have John and the kids in his life without worrying that some asshole driver was going to knock John into a wall. There had to be.
Rodney shut the TV off and headed for the kitchen, an idea starting to form in his mind. He needed to talk to Jeannie.
John was at a loss as to what to do with himself. For the first time in a long time, he found himself home alone on a Friday night. He had a race Sunday, but it was a late enough time and close enough that he didn’t need to fly out until early the morning of the race. Nikki was spending the night at the Millers’ and Alex was having some sort of slumber party with the tech club. He smiled a little. Alex insisted it wasn’t a slumber party because they weren’t a bunch of girls.
He didn’t really have much interest in doing anything. There was some half-eaten takeout sitting on his coffee table next to an empty beer bottle, the television was playing a football game but he just couldn’t bring himself to pay much attention to it. With a shrug, he figured he might as well do some cleaning since he didn’t have the kids underfoot for once. God, maybe he was turning into Mr. Mom, a bit.
Fifteen minutes later, there came a knock at his front door. Sighing, John tossed the dustpan in the kitchen and leaned the broom against the wall before heading for the door. He was pretty sure he knew who was on the other side. It could only be one of three people still willing to deal with his sorry ass—Ronon, Teyla, or Lorne. His money was on Lorne, personally.
John tugged the door open, already snapping out, “I swear to God, Evan, I am doing just fi—” John cut himself off, staring with wide eyes. “Rodney,” he said in a stunned tone. Why was Rodney on his front step?
Rodney shifted. “Hi, John. Can I come in?”
“Uh—y—yeah. Yeah,” he stammered a little. He stepped back, shoving the door wide, still wondering what Rodney was doing here. “Um, come on in.”
Rodney’s arm brushed against John’s chest as he walked in. “Thanks.”
John’s breath hitched and he hurriedly turned to close the door so Rodney couldn’t see his reaction. Rodney ended things, he reminded himself as he followed Rodney further into his house. John awkwardly offered, “D’you . . . want anything to drink? Beer or something?”
Rodney shook his head. “No. No, I want us both clear-headed for this.”
John furrowed his brow in confusion as he put a few feet of distance between them. “Clear headed for what? What do you want, Rodney?”
Rodney faced him and said, “Okay, look, I came here to say something and I want to get it out before you respond so please, just—don’t interrupt me, okay?”
John raised an eyebrow but shrugged. Moving so he could lean his back against the counter, he crossed his arms and said, “Okay.” He was slightly curious now.
Rodney nodded. “Okay.” He started pacing. “Okay. Alright, so, look I didn’t, I didn’t plan on this.” He gestured between them and John chose to interpret that as meaning their former relationship instead of the distance—physical and emotional—between them. “I had everything set; I knew what I wanted, where I was going. It was all planned out. Jeannie used to laugh at me, tell me I couldn’t plan my life but I refused to listen because it was all going to plan anyway so she was wrong. And then you showed up with—with your hair, and your smarts, and your snark, and your charm, and I just—” Rodney stopped and ran a hand through his hair.
John arched an eyebrow, mildly amused at the list of attributes that included his hair, of all things.
But then Rodney huffed a breath and resumed pacing. “I’m getting off topic. Right. So I went with it and it was fun and the more time went by, the more I liked you. And then you liked me and what we had . . . it was good. I mean, I was happy. I assume you were happy.”
John interjected softly, with a hint of regret in his tone, “I was happy.”
Rodney’s steps faltered and John saw his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. He steadied and kept going. “And I guess I never really—well I was never a sports person. I mean, come on, can you see me playing football or some other muscle-related activity? Yeah, no. So perhaps that’s on me. But I watched you practice and I watched you race and I guess it never really occurred to me that anything would happen. You always seemed so competent and in control. Which was stupid of me, in hindsight. Nothing in life is ever truly safe. Especially because I knew you were driving at over 200 miles per hour with 40-some other crazy drivers also going 200 miles per hour so how could I expect nothing to go wrong? Stupid. It’s not like you’re Superman or something. You’re still human. Everyone is. And humans make mistakes. It’s a fact of life. God knows I make enough of them.”
John was rather amused that Rodney appeared to be having a conversation with himself. Was Rodney still talking to him or was this more like a stream of consciousness? He also wondered if Rodney knew his hands had not stopped moving since he started talking. He loved how expressive Rodney’s hands were. Focus, he reminded himself. He wasn’t supposed to be thinking that way.
It was hard, though, when Rodney was right there.
Rodney continued, ignorant of the track John’s thoughts were on, “So when you crashed back in August . . . well, I panicked. I’m not proud of the way I handled that, not at all. And I’m not,” he made a frustrated sound, “I’m not good with stressful situations like that and seeing you in the hospital with bandages and everything, it just struck home how dangerous racing is and made it so much more real to me in a way that it wasn’t before. And you were going to keep doing it! I couldn’t believe it. And I—I couldn’t handle that, I didn’t know how to handle that, then. So I panicked, like I do, and I did what I thought I needed to do. I left. Went back to what I knew, back to the plan. To certainty and safety.”
So that was what had happened. It had been bugging him ever since Rodney walked out on him. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. He opened his mouth to tell Rodney that he understood; that it was okay to panic when someone you cared about got hurt, but he’d have preferred that Rodney had told him that at the time. That way they could have avoided this whole mess.
Rodney stopped pacing and wagged a finger at him. “I said don’t interrupt.”
John arched an eyebrow then lifted a hand to mime zipping his mouth shut. Rodney’s lips twitched as if he fought a smile and John fought his own. He was still waiting to see what the point of this was. Yeah, it was nice to finally get an explanation for things but was there a point beyond that? Explanations still didn’t change the fact of their non-relationship.
“Anyway, I watched you race in Richmond a couple weeks ago and it really got me to thinking.” He took a step forward and said accusingly, “What the hell was that?!” John started in surprise. “You were playing it safe! You should have been in the lead, should have won by at least—at least—half a lap on Kolya and Mitchell. There’s no excuse for that, that’s not you. Well,” Rodney started pacing again and John blinked at the switch. “That’s on me, too, isn’t it? I ruined a good thing, just like Mitchell did, and it affected your racing which could have affected your life. I should have known better. But it also showed me that it is possible to be safe while racing, to a point. I guess I do owe my sister a thank you. She told me, well, basically she said I was an idiot. But then she said that I had two options. I could move on with my life and try to forget about you, or I could get off my ass and fix what I never should have broken.”
John’s throat tightened. Was he saying what John thought he was saying? He didn’t dare hope but did Rodney want—?
Rodney stopped pacing and took a couple of steps towards John, looking hesitant. “John, I know I royally fucked up but I know better now.” John didn’t move, couldn’t move, as Rodney came to a stop just a couple of feet from him. His mouth was dry. Rodney met his gaze, held it, as he said softly, “I want you, John.”
John’s breath hitched.
“I want to watch you race, and win. I want the kids. God, I never thought I’d like kids but I like Alex and Nikki. I want to be there to see Alex get into MIT or Stanford because he’s so damn smart. I want to take Nikki to her ballet recitals, find out what she wants to do with her life and help her do whatever she wants. I want everything, a life, with you. With them. I’m sorry I panicked before but I know what I’m getting into now and I can handle it. I just hope you can forgive me.”
John stared at him, taken completely by surprise. He knew what he wanted, he’d always wanted Rodney. But could he take Rodney back? Did Rodney truly understand what he was “getting into”?
When John didn’t respond for a couple minutes, Rodney said pointedly, “Well?”
John replied, “You told me not to talk.”
Rodney scowled at him but it was half-hearted. In that moment, John knew the answer. Whatever happened, they’d figure it out. Together. He lowered his arms and said softly, “I want you, too, Rodney. All of the above, forever.”
Rodney’s expression softened then he leaned forward and kissed John gently. Rodney cupped his cheek as he pulled away. Something occurred to John and he frowned. “Wait a second.”
“What?” Rodney asked as he peeled off his jacket and draped it over the back of a chair.
John eyed him. “How long were you waiting outside?”
Rodney gave him a look. “What?”
“You planned this, didn’t you? Alex’s club slumber party, Nikki sleeping over at Maddie’s,” John accused, but he was fighting a smile. The fact that Rodney went to all that trouble to get John alone so he could apologize was so sweet and so unlike him. “You planned this whole evening.”
Rodney rubbed the back of his neck, looking simultaneously sheepish and smug. “Well, Jeannie helped . . . and so did Alex.”
John shook his head, chuckling then reached forward and tugged Rodney into another kiss. Rodney’s hand slid up his shoulder to play with the hair at the nape of his neck and John tilted his head, pushing slightly until Rodney’s lips parted and he could slide his tongue in.
Rodney broke it off, said somewhat breathlessly, “I can’t promise I won’t panic if you get hurt again. Just so you know.”
John kissed his way down Rodney’s neck. “I’m not gonna promise I won’t get hurt. I can’t make that promise, but as long as you don’t run away from me again, we can handle it.”
“Okay.” Rodney gasped as John slid a hand under the hem of Rodney’s shirt, feeling the warm skin beneath.
John grinned and kissed him again. “No more talking, yeah?”
Rodney nodded fervently. “Yeah.”
John kissed him again and again, until his growing erection forced him to stop for a second. Hesitantly, John said, “My room’s just down the hall.” He wasn’t sure how far he could push things. It wasn’t their first time, but it was their first time in John’s house and he suddenly felt nervous.
Rodney said, “Lead the way.”
He practically dragged Rodney down the hall, kicked his door shut, then pushed Rodney against it and proceeded to kiss Rodney thoroughly enough to leave them both out of breath. John tugged at the hem of Rodney’s T-shirt and Rodney obligingly lifted his arms so John could pull it over his head. John bent slightly and pressed his lips against Rodney’s chest, making Rodney shiver.
“Quid pro quo,” Rodney said on a gasp as John’s lips met his nipple. He yanked John’s shirt out of the waistband of his jeans.
“Hmm?” John hummed, reaching back up to kiss him.
Rodney ordered breathily, “Shirt. Off.”
“Bossy.” John shot him a quick grin and stripped his shirt off in one fluid motion. Rodney’s mouth dropped open and John’s grin turned into a smirk.
Rodney reached out and yanked John close, so their bare chests were touching and it was like a match ignited. They couldn’t stop touching, their kisses getting messier. John stumbled and fell backwards onto his bed. When had they moved?
Rodney straddled him, kissing him again, and rolled his hips. John moaned, his fingers digging into Rodney’s jean-clad ass. He needed Rodney to be naked, right now. He popped the button on Rodney’s jeans, yanked the zipper, and started to shove them down off Rodney’s hips.
When Rodney got up, John nearly whined at the loss of contact but he was instantly distracted by the image of Rodney kicking off his shoes and socks then dropping his jeans and boxers to the floor. Rodney caught him staring and smirked, “Like what you see?”
“Oh yeah.” John quickly shimmied out of the rest of his clothes and pulled Rodney back into his lap, murmured against his lips, “God, you’re hot.”
“Pot, kettle,” Rodney mumbled, then put his hands on John’s chest and pushed until they were lying down. John chuckled a little, panting slightly. Rodney kissed him then started to slowly slide down John’s body, kissing his chest every couple of inches. John’s hard-on was nearly painful by this point. When Rodney reached John’s erection, he paused and looked up.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any lube or anything nearby, would you?”
John shook his head, disappointment settling in. Fuck. He threw his arm over his eyes. So much for sex.
The feel of Rodney’s tongue across the length of his cock startled him. John jerked, eyes flying open, and he fisted his hands in the covers. “Jesus Christ,” he breathed out. Rodney shot him a wicked grin and licked him again, slower this time and god, it felt so damn good.
Rodney did it again, then wrapped his hand around John’s cock and started to stroke it. John almost wished Rodney had just kept going with his mouth and then Rodney bent down to flick his tongue against the head of his cock and John stopped thinking.
Rodney alternated stroking with his hand with strokes of his tongue, keeping John lubed up. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough. He needed more. John snapped, “Damn it, McKay, faster!”
Rodney licked the tip and moved his hand faster. “Yes,” John moaned.
A couple minutes later, he grunted, “I’m close.” Rodney stopped and John growled but then Rodney was kissing him, his hand moving again. John let loose a wordless cry as he came all over Rodney’s hand. Rodney kissed his neck as he came down from the high.
Rodney started to pull away but John wasn’t having that. He managed to flip them, kissing Rodney hard as he rolled to straddle Rodney. Rodney looked up at him, his gaze startled yet anticipatory and John used his ejaculation as lube to stroke Rodney’s cock. As John moved his hand, he watched Rodney. Watched and memorized his every reaction.
Rodney was close after making John come and it didn’t take long before John felt Rodney shudder and come. He slid off of Rodney, lying next to him. After a moment, John pushed himself up onto his elbow and kissed him. Rodney gave him a tired smile. John returned it, then dropped his head onto the pillow. He reached out, snagged Rodney by the waist and pulled him close, back to chest.
Rodney rested a hand on his and John kissed the back of his neck. “Love you, Rodney,” he murmured.
“Love you, too, John.”
Something was tickling him. Rodney shifted, trying to get it to stop so he could go back to sleep, but a throaty chuckle stopped him. He twisted, rolling onto his back and looking up at a grinning John Sheppard.
John bent and kissed him. “Now I could get used to this.”
Rodney hummed, reaching up to run a hand through John’s mussed hair. It was less spiky then usual and he rather liked this John. The sleepy, slightly mussed, lazy John. “What time is it?”
John shrugged and rolled onto his back. “Morning.”
Rodney huffed. “Yes, I assumed that, thank you, Captain Obvious.”
John laughed. “My alarm clock is on your side and my phone is somewhere in the living room.”
“Ugh,” Rodney muttered, lifting himself a bit to see the clock. Analog. For god’s sake . . . “Analog?” he complained. “Really? Why don’t you have a digital clock?”
John made a sound that Rodney took to mean he didn’t have an answer. “What time is it?”
Rodney sat up, the covers dropping to his waist. “Almost nine.” He shivered a little. “God, do you have a window open or something?”
“Well, you are naked, McKay,” John drawled, sounding amused. Rodney shot him a look. John had tucked his arms under his head and was grinning at him. The covers had fallen down his chest when Rodney sat up, leaving his chest on display.
And what a fine view that was.
He was sorely tempted. But he didn’t know what time Alex or Nikki were coming home and he absolutely did not want them to walk in on their uncle and his boyfriend going at it. “Okay if I use your shower?” he asked.
John quirked an eyebrow. “Want company?”
“Tempting. Extremely tempting.” Rodney leaned over to kiss him. “Maybe later.”
John wrapped a hand around his neck and pulled him in for a deeper kiss before letting him go. “I’m holding you to that.”
It was hard but Rodney forced himself to climb out of John’s very comfy bed and into the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, he returned to an empty bedroom and hurriedly pulled yesterday’s clothes on. Heading down the hall, he found John in the kitchen, pouring coffee into two mugs.
“Hey,” John said with a smile, “just in time. Coffee’s ready. Sugar’s in the cupboard over the microwave. Don’t have cream, though; milk okay?”
Rodney blinked. He had a feeling he would always be pleasantly surprised by the things John remembered about him. “Yeah, yeah, milk’s fine. Thanks.”
“No problem.” John set the pot back on the stove as Rodney pulled the sugar out. John handed him a spoon and he set about making the black coffee palatable. Not that he had anything against John’s coffee, per say, but he preferred his coffee a certain way. He knew John was watching him, knew John was amused but he didn’t say a word.
Rodney followed John to the couch. John made a face. “Shit,” John muttered, “left the TV on all night.”
Rodney settled next to him and said airily, “Eh, you can afford it.”
John huffed a laugh and nudged him. “Oh, I see. You’re just with me for my money,” John teased.
Rodney grinned. “Exactly! Now change the channel to something that won’t make my ears bleed.”
“It’s the Sports Network; how bad could it be?”
“Seriously? Did you not hear me say just last night about how I am not a sporty person?”
John rolled his eyes but grabbed the remote and flipped it to . . .
“The Game Show Network?” Rodney said incredulously. “How is that any better?”
“McKay, it is nine o’clock in the morning,” John replied, a touch exasperated. “What do you think is on besides talk shows and sports?”
Rodney made a face and reluctantly muttered, “Fine. Flip it back to sports then. At least I don’t have to deal with their stupidity. Honestly, I swear game shows purposely find the most stupid people and put them on for ratings.”
John shook his head, but didn’t respond as he changed it to college baseball.
Half an hour later, the front door opened and closed. Rodney shook his head. “You didn’t lock the door after I arrived, did you?”
John shrugged. “I had other things on my mind.” He called out, “Hello?”
“Hey, Uncle John,” Alex said as he walked into the living room, “whose car is in the drive . . . way?” Alex stopped and stared.
Rodney lifted a hand in an awkward sort of wave. “Hi.”
Alex’s gaze flicked between them a few times then a grin spread across his face. “It worked,” he said.
Rodney returned his grin, settling a little more comfortably against John’s side. “It did, indeed.”
Looking between them, John said, “Wait, Alex, you were in on this? I mean, Rodney said something about you helping but I guess I just thought . . .”
Alex shrugged. “You weren’t happy. We missed Rodney. He missed us. We had to do something.”
“I’ve lost all control over my life,” John said with a long-suffering sigh. Rodney slid a hand onto John’s thigh and John rested his hand atop Rodney’s, lacing their fingers together.
Rodney said, “Stop whining; you know you like it.”
“True enough,” John said, leaning over to kiss him.
Alex said, “Good. Now don’t mess it up again.”
Rodney eyed him then said in aside to John, “He’s bossy.”
“Umhmm,” John murmured, running his thumb along the back of Rodney’s hand. “I’m blaming you for that.”
“You can’t blame me; I didn’t raise him. That’s all on you.”
“Uh uh, you can’t say that anymore.” John smirked. “Or do I need to remind you of what you said last night?”
Rodney kissed him and said softly, “All of the above, forever.”
John smiled and said, “The kid’s right, you know. We better not mess things up this time.”
“Don’t worry,” Rodney answered, tossing a glance at Alex to make sure he knew his next sentence was for both Sheppards, “you’re not getting rid of me anytime soon.”
“Promise?” Alex asked.
“Yeah, Rodney,” John said quietly, “promise?”
“I promise,” Rodney said firmly and then firmly pressed his mouth to John’s. He was exactly where he wanted to be and nothing was going to budge him.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 8 years later ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Has he answered yet?”
“No,” John said, not even bothering to check his phone, and leaned back against the railing. “I just let him know we were here a couple minutes ago. He’s probably busy, just like I used to be.”
Rodney huffed a breath and craned his neck to try and see over the crowds. “He knew we were coming; why wasn’t he waiting for us at the entrance?”
“Come on, you know how crazy things can get before a race. Give the kid a break.”
Rodney gave him a rueful smile. “I know. I just miss him.”
John smiled back. “I miss him, too. It’s been far too long.”
“Yeah, whose brilliant idea was it to let him go to college halfway across the country?”
John arched an eyebrow. “I believe you were the one who refused to let him give up a full ride to MIT, Rodney.”
Rodney scowled at him. “You agreed with me!”
“And it was what he wanted. Be happy he’s home for longer than a couple weeks.”
“If we ever get to see him,” Rodney muttered petulantly. Rodney leaned his head on John’s shoulder with a sigh. “How are we ever going to handle Nikki going off to college next year? It was bad enough when Alex left.”
John slid his arm around Rodney’s waist and dropped a kiss on the top of his head. Rodney was such a softie underneath and John found it incredibly attractive. “For someone who insisted he hated kids, you got pretty attached to mine really fast.”
Rodney grumbled, “It helps when they’re not idiots.” He lifted his head and looked around again. “Where are they, anyway?”
“Uncle John! Rodney!” They both turned their heads to the left and John lifted his hand to wave at the young man making his way through the crowd to them.
As soon as Alex reached them, John pulled him into a hug. “Good to see you, kiddo.”
Alex hugged him back then turned to Rodney and hugged him. “Glad you could make it.”
“Are you kidding?” John asked. “You think we’d miss this? No way.”
Alex grinned and John was taken aback by how like Dave the kid looked in that moment. Rodney’s hand slid against his and squeezed. John shot him a quick smile. He loved that Rodney kept surprising him.
“Hey,” Alex said, looking around, “where’s Nikki? I thought she was coming with you?”
“Oh, she’s around here somewhere.” John pulled out his phone and called her cell.
Rodney complained, “I don’t know why we bothered getting her one; she never answers it.”
“She answers me,” John replied, grinning when Rodney shot him a glare. Nikki picked up on the fourth ring. “Hey, sweetie, your brother’s here. Come say hi.”
“Uncle Jooohn, don’t call me that! Where are you?”
At seventeen years old, Nikki hated when John called her sweetie so of course he did it as often as possible. “Over by the souvenir stands, so both of you stop flirting with the drivers and get over here.”
“We’re on our way,” she answered sullenly and he could tell by her tone that he’d guessed correctly.
He returned his phone to his pocket and asked, “So, how you feeling?”
“Nervous. Were you this nervous before your first race?”
“Definitely. But I didn’t have the benefit of actually having designed the car I was gonna be driving. You’ve got one on me there.”
Alex smiled weakly. “I really hope it survives its first real race.”
“It will,” John reassured him.
“I’ve 50 bucks says it won’t make it past the first lap.”
They all turned at the new voice and John sighed wearily. “Don’t you have anything better to do than cause trouble, Cam?”
Cam stood opposite them, sneering. “Letting kids work for them. How far the mighty have fallen. Although, one could say Atlantis Racing had already hit the bottom of the barrel when they had you, John.”
Alex scowled and started forward. John threw his arm out, catching the young man across the chest. “Whoa, there, kiddo,” John warned him. “Don’t sink to his level.”
Alex’s hands fisted at his sides but he stayed where he was. Cam was still racing but Kolya had retired a few years earlier, thankfully. John turned back to Cam only to find Cam’s gaze riveted on John’s hand. Confused, John looked. The sun glinted off the gold band on his ring finger.
Feeling a little like rubbing it in Cam’s face, John purposely turned his other hand—the one holding Rodney’s left—to show the matching band. Cam’s face flushed red then he stalked off without another word. John dropped his hand from Alex’s chest.
Rodney asked, “Was it necessary to antagonize him?”
John shrugged. “Not my fault if he finds offense with our happiness.”
Rodney shook his head but gave John’s hand a squeeze.
“Hey, Uncle John?” Alex asked, his voice quiet. “Can I ask you something?”
Alex bit his lip. “Do . . . do you . . . do you think Mom and Dad would be proud of me?”
John’s chest hurt and he pulled Alex into a tight hug, his throat tight. “Oh, Alex . . . you’re doing something you’re passionate about. You’re an amazing designer and I don’t think that your parents would be any prouder of you than I am right now. Trust me, kiddo, they’re looking down on you with smiles on their faces.”
As Alex buried his face in John’s shoulder, his shoulders shaking slightly, John glanced over at Rodney who was looking back at him with love and pride on his face. John looked up at the sky for a brief moment, thinking of his brother. He hoped Dave was happy with the way John had taken care of his kids, how their lives had turned out. He knew Linda would not have wanted Alex to follow John into racing, but he loved it and he wasn’t actually racing. He just designed cars.
John did wish he’d had family able to attend when he married Rodney seven years ago.
Alex pulled back, wiping his face, then his eyes lit up. “Nik!” He bolted across the intervening distance to hug his sister tight.
John took the opportunity to wipe his own eyes then he and Rodney strolled over to join the kids. He bit back a laugh at the awkward half-hug Alex gave Maddie. Now that had been a fun year; had given him plenty to tease Rodney about.
Rodney had been absolutely horrified when his niece had started dating his adopted son and it amused John to no end. He had found great joy in reminding Rodney that there wasn’t anything wrong with it since they weren’t biologically related but Rodney had still refused to accept it.
“Nice of you to join us,” Rodney said archly.
Maddie rolled her eyes. “Relax, Uncle Rodney. Nicole and I were just checking out the best place to see the race from.”
Grinning widely, Alex said, “Don’t worry about that. I’ve got you covered.” He dug into his pocket, pulled out four lanyards, and passed them out.
“VIP?” John asked in surprise, looking down at the ID tag in his hands.
“Yeah.” Alex looked a little smug. “Mr. Lorne helped me get ‘em. Said to tell you you were welcome in the pit, so long as Rodney doesn’t yell at his driver.”
“One time!” Rodney defended and they all laughed. “I stole the headset one time! And it was worth it because your uncle here needed to find the gas pedal.”
“Hey!” John said, insulted. “I knew exactly where the pedal was; I was just waiting for Lorne to tell me it was all clear.”
“Oh, sure, that’s what you say now.”
John narrowed his eyes. “It was true then and it’s true now. And if you don’t believe me, we can just ask Lorne.” Rodney huffed and John shot Alex a grin. “Aren’t you glad to have your family here, kiddo?”
Alex nodded, his expression serious. “I am. I’ve really missed you. Massachusetts is nice, but it’s not really home.”
Nikki said, “Can we go see everyone? I want to see if Ronon can still throw Alex over his shoulders!”
Alex rolled his eyes and led the way down to the track. “He hasn’t done that since I hit high school, Nik, come on. If anything, he’s gonna throw you over his shoulder.”
“I’d like to see him try,” she bristled and tossed her hair over her shoulders.
Oy, John thought, kids. They drove him crazy. He reached out a hand, snagged Rodney by the waist and tugged him close.
Rodney slid a hand into the back pocket of John’s jeans as they followed a few feet behind the kids. “Do you miss it much?”
He knew what Rodney meant. John kissed his temple and said, “What, and miss Alex’s big day? Not a chance.”
Rodney eyed him askance. “Four years since you retired and you’re sure you don’t miss it?”
“No,” John answered honestly. Over the years, John had gotten into several more accidents but he and Rodney had made it through each one stronger than before. John’s decision to retire had come a year or so after Alex went off to college, when he’d barely squeaked through an epic multi-car crash. That was when he’d decided he’d had enough. “I mean, I miss the guys, but I keep in contact. We still see each other around. And before you ask, no, I don’t miss the rush of racing. I’ve got a new source of adrenaline now and that’s fine by me.”
Rodney smiled and kissed him. Rodney had actually tried to talk him into continuing to race, which had surprised John at the time. But he meant it. John didn’t need to race to feel something, to be himself. He had all of that with Rodney and Atlantis kept him on as a consultant and backup coach, anyway.
They lifted their lanyards to the security guarding the entrance to the track and walked at a far more sedate pace behind Alex, Nicole, and Madison. As they approached Atlantis’ section, John thought his life may not have turned out even remotely how he’d originally planned but it had given him exactly what he needed. He was damn lucky to have what he did and he intended to make sure he didn’t have any regrets.
Life was too short to have regrets.
So that's it. The end. Quite bittersweet, especially for me. I've loved reading your comments and thank you to everyone who read and followed and commented. You made me so happy.
I hope it was a satisfactory ending.
This also contains my very first smut scene so I hope it was okay.
Thanks again for reading and I hope you'll check out whatever I end up posting next! :)