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Spare a Thought (For Me)

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The best part about Rodney’s step-brother being part of the Stargate Program was that when he got his video call to the mainland to check in with family, he didn’t have to fumble through lies and excuses like the others did.

“You’ll never guess who I saw today,” Rodney said.

Evan was in his bedroom at his apartment in Colorado Springs, sprawled on his bed with a bowl of dip balanced on his unfairly ripped abs while he ate chips and dip. “Who?”

“John Sheppard.”

Evan raised his eyebrows. “As in - John Sheppard?”

Rodney nodded.

“Is he part of the Stargate Program now?”

“Yeah. He’s an Air Force pilot. Saved General O’Neill after Beckett almost shot down their chopper with a drone.”

Evan sat up straighter. “He’s a chopper pilot?”

Rodney nodded. “Yeah. Even better, he has the Gene. He sat down in the Chair and it just...came to life.”

“Huh. I always wondered, but I never thought -” Evan’s gaze went distant.

“Wondered what?” Rodney asked.

“When I was stationed in Kandahar doing logistics, there was this chopper pilot, Sheppard. Real good guy to have on the stick, but kind of a wild card. I thought they said his name was John Sheppard, but I never thought he was, you know, that John Sheppard. Maybe that was him.” Evan looked at the camera. “Did he remember you?”

“I didn’t remember him at first,” Rodney admitted. “I was just so surprised by the Chair even lighting up, and then I really looked at him.”

“Is he as good-looking as you remember?”

“He’s gotten even hotter.” Rodney sighed. “We were so young back then. We’ve changed. There’s no way he’d remember me.”

“Even if he did, he’s an Air Force pilot,” Evan said, wagging a chip at him. “We never did figure out if he liked boys, and even if he did, he wouldn’t do anything about it.”

“Says the man who’s dating Cammie Mitchell,” Rodney pointed out, because he’d forgotten - there were some things about his crush on John Sheppard that he’d kept from everyone, even Evan.

“Rodney!” Evan hissed.

He flapped a hand dismissively. “It’s a secure line. Speaking of, how is Major Mitchell?”

“Cam is fine, thank you,” Evan said. “Still in Bagram and still believing that I am an innocent surveyor.”

“On an alien planet,” Rodney said. He sighed again. “What am I going to do? I can’t be around John every day. You remember what it was like before.”

Evan laughed. “Yeah, I do.”

Rodney huffed. “If I were there, I’d hit you over the head with a pillow. You’re not helping.”

“My advice from back then still stands. Learn a Johnny Cash song, music snob.”

“I haven’t touched a piano since -”

Evan’s expression sobered. “I know. Maybe this is a sign. Start playing again. Even if things between you don’t work out - and chances are slim to none, him being a zoomie and all - music will be good for you again.”

Rodney looked away. “Maybe.”

Silence fell between them, heavy and contemplative but not awkward. They’d known each other too long for that.

Evan cleared his throat. “Want the latest on Jeannie and Madison and Kaleb?”

It was a strange day when news about Rodney’s estranged sister and her husband with a stupidly-spelled name was a less-painful topic of discussion.

*

“The Sheppards are coming,” Bobbie said.

Evan perked up. “When?”

“In three weeks,” Dad said.

Evan immediately flipped open the meticulous supply ledger he kept. He was twelve, and his control-freak tendencies should have been alarming, but at fourteen Rodney was the one who kept the books.

“That gives us plenty of lead time,” Evan said. “Tally, you should probably see about airing out the fine linens. Jeannie, you’re about Dave’s age. You should rearrange the game closet so games he’d like are more accessible to him.”

Rodney, who was second-oldest after Tally (but by far the smartest) rolled his eyes. “Why are you kicking up such a fuss? Who are the Sheppards?”

“Patrick Sheppard and his family are one of our longest-running customers,” Bobbie said. “They’ve been coming to the Wild Bluebell Inn since we first opened.”

“I’m pretty sure I have a separate notebook full of their favorite recipes.” Evan went to slide out of his chair and head for the shelf above the kitchen desk where Bobbie kept all the ledgers and recipe books, but she put a hand on his wrist.

“It’s going to be different this time,” Bobbie said. “Mrs. Sheppard passed away. Cancer.”

Tally’s expression turned sympathetic. “Oh. That’s so sad.”

“So - tread lightly.” Bobbie patted Evan’s hand. “It’s nice of you to think of them, though. That idea about the game closet is a good one.”

Jeannie nodded. “Okay. I’ll fix the games.”

“Just - remember not everyone is as smart as you are, dear,” Dad said. He’d never admit it, but Rodney and Jeannie being as smart as they were was why he and Mom had broken up. Mom wanted to treat them like little kids. Dad knew they were special.

Bobbie’s kids, Evan and Tally, were special in their own way. Neither of them were particularly bright, but Evan and Tally could draw anything they wanted and make it look real, like it was going to come alive. Also Evan could make anything he wanted in the kitchen.

Grandma McKay was best friends with Nana Novak, and after Dad and Mom broke up she had to move somewhere else, so she moved in with Nana Novak - who lived with her daughter and two grandchildren at the Wild Bluebell Inn, and they all ran it together.

“What Dad’s saying is pick games you like, then pick games that are about two levels dumber,” Rodney said.

Evan nudged him. “Be nice.”

Rodney rolled his eyes. “Nice won’t help Dave Sheppard enjoy games that are too hard for him.”

“I can figure out age-appropriate games for other children to play,” Jeannie said peevishly.

“What about John?” Evan asked. “He’s about the same age as me.”

Rodney resisted the urge to ask if John was as simple as Evan. He knew Evan wasn’t actually simple, but everyone besides Jeannie seemed to think so slowly in comparison.

“I’m sure we’ll think of something,” Bobbie said. “Now, about the cleaning rotation.”

Rodney groaned. Because he was allergic to citrus, he was pretty much banished from the kitchen even though Evan and Bobbie and Nana went to great lengths to make food he could eat. Tally hated cooking, and Jeannie wasn’t much interested in it either, so it fell to the three of them, along with Dad, to do the majority of the cleaning while Evan, Bobbie, and Nana ran the kitchen.

Grandma had reclaimed her baby grand piano that she’d loaned to Dad, and now during mealtimes Rodney played for the guests. That cut down on his share of the cleaning rotation, but he still hated it.

For the three weeks leading up to the Sheppards’ arrival, they had a few guests, and everyone was focused on the Sheppards.

Rodney wondered what was so special about them, other than the fact that they were mega-rich, or so Tally said. Evan said it was because Mrs. Sheppard had always been very nice. What would the family be like, without her? (Rodney’s family was better without Mom. The jury was still out on whether it was better now that Dad and Bobbie were living together and probably looking to get married - Evan and Tally’s dad had died before Evan was born.)

On the day the Sheppards arrived, Bobbie and Dad went to greet them, while everyone else was supposed to stay hidden in the kitchens. Of course, Evan knew all the nooks and crannies of the grand manor that was now the Wild Bluebell Inn, and he showed Jeannie and Rodney a place to hide where they could watch the guests arrive.

Mr. Sheppard was tall, broad-shouldered, with dark hair, a square jaw, and blue eyes. His younger son, Dave, looked like a miniature version of him, down to the neat slacks and soft cream sweater. John Sheppard was Evan’s age, and he looked nothing like his father and brother, though he had dark hair. It stuck up all over the place, and his eyes were some kind of gray or green or hazel that Rodney couldn’t quite make out. His face was longer, narrower.

“He has ears like an elf,” Jeannie said.

Tally hushed her gently.

John Sheppard was beautiful.

Rodney had known from an early age that he liked boys as well as girls. (Evan was the same. They’d kissed one time, and it had been just like kissing a sibling, so they swore off it, but they’d had to try, because who else did they know who was like them?) Rodney had also learned from an early age that he had to keep that kind of thing quiet (except around Evan, who said he was pretty chill about it because his mom and sister and Nana were, but Rodney wasn’t brave enough to talk to them about it yet, because Dad and Jeannie didn’t even know).

Rodney wanted John Sheppard to like him.

But unlike Mr. Sheppard, who liked to talk to Dad about politics and economics, or Dave, who always looked like he was two seconds from crying unless Jeannie and Tally were willing to play a game with him, John went off on his own. Wandered the gardens of the estate - gardens that Evan, Rodney, and Dad put a lot of work into as well - or stayed in his room and read.

He emerged for mealtimes, sat on his father’s right hand and nodded while his father spoke. Sometimes he’d help Dave, cut Dave’s food for him if he couldn’t manage.

Rodney, at the piano and working his way through Chopin and Debussy and Liszt, was horribly jealous of Tally and Evan, who were waiting the table for the Sheppard family.

There was a stable near the inn, and John would go horse riding there sometimes. The first time Rodney saw him leaving the house in his riding gear, in the breeches and boots and jacket, helmet tucked under one arm, he nearly fainted.

And then one night, after supper, Rodney was still at the piano, contemplating Rhapsody in Blue (his goal was to be able to play it from memory) when someone tapped his shoulder.

He started, surprised, and twisted around, expecting Evan or Tally (because Jeannie just plopped on the bench beside him and dug an elbow into his ribs when she wanted attention).

It was John Sheppard.

“You know any songs by someone who isn’t dead?” he asked.

“You can speak,” Rodney said.

The corner of John’s mouth curved up in amusement. “Yeah. So - newer songs?”

“Four-chord banality isn’t really my forte,” Rodney said.

“As opposed to five-chord doo-wop or six-chord blues or three-chord punk?” John asked.

“You know music theory.”

“I go to a fancy private school and they teach us music theory. Sometimes I listen,” John said.

“Well - no. I’m sorry. I don’t know anything by anyone who isn’t dead,” Rodney said.

John shrugged. “Oh well. It was worth asking.”

Rodney asked, “What kind of music do you like to listen to?”

“Johnny Cash.”

Rodney had heard of the man but never gone out of his way to listen to the man’s songs. “The country singer?”

“The legend,” John said firmly. “Later.” He turned and walked away.

That night, in the attic bedroom Rodney shared with Evan (that had a little upright piano he used for practice), Rodney bemoaned his crush.

“You should learn a Johnny Cash song, obviously,” Evan said.

Rodney flung a pillow at him. “You’re no help. And that’ll be so obvious.”

“You responding to a guest’s reasonable inquiry is hardly obvious,” Evan said primly, and for one moment he sounded so much like Dad.

“What if he doesn’t like me?” Rodney asked.

“I don’t like you,” Evan said. “Shut up and let me go to sleep. I’m on breakfast tomorrow.”

Rodney sighed and turned out the lamp, crawled under his blankets. “But you were on dinner tonight.”

“No rest for the wicked.”

“You are wicked if you don’t like me.” Rodney peered through the darkness at Evan’s bed. He had the enviable gift of being able to fall asleep no matter what. “Do you like me?”

“Yes, Rodney, I like you. We’re brothers now. But really - shut up and go to sleep.”

Rodney spent the rest of the Sheppard family’s visit avoiding them as much as possible, even when Dave and Jeannie wanted to play a game.

But he stood at the window and watched them go and wondered when they’d be back. And if he could learn and arrange a piano cover of a Johnny Cash song in the meantime.

*

Unfortunately for the SGC - but fortunately for Rodney - there was some kind of SNAFU in John Sheppard’s paperwork, so he had to stay on as a cab driver of the sky for Big Air Force a little longer before he could start working with the program full time, which gave Rodney the opportunity to arrange things in the lab so he spent as little time as possible around John.

Between Daniel Jackson figuring out the gate address to the Lost City of Atlantis and the SGC greenlighting an expedition to find the city, Rodney had a lot of big-picture things to arrange, like helping build a science team, select key personnel for it, and optimize the amount of equipment and research supplies the expedition would need. Which meant Czech Guy and British Guy were reasonably given the task of running Chair diagnostics while John lit it up.

“I can’t believe you,” Evan said, during another of their video chats. “You have harbored a mega-crush on the super-dreamy John Sheppard ever since we were kids, and now that he’s around full time you’re giving him the brush off?”

“I wouldn’t classify it as a mega crush,” Rodney said. He was curled up in his bunk, shivering and freezing and stupidly grateful for the hand-knitted afghan Evan had sent him from Cam. “And I never said he was super-dreamy. And as you pointed out, he’s a military officer, so what’s the point?”

Evan, sitting at his kitchen bar and cleaning his sidearm, raised an eyebrow at the camera. “As you pointed out, some of us officers are willing to take risks for people we love.”

“He doesn’t love me,” Rodney said, rolling his eyes. “He doesn’t even remember me.”

“But he could love you.”

Rodney flinched.

Evan sighed, set down his gun, leaned in. “Rodney, people love you. Jeannie loves you even though she’s mad at you. Alan loves you. My mom loves you. Nana loves you. Tally loves you. Grandma loved you. You’re my brother and I love you. Other people can love you.”

Rodney looked away for a moment. “I just -”

“Not everyone’s your mom.”

“Says the guy whose daddy issues fill an ocean.” It was a cheap shot and Rodney knew it and he felt bad immediately after he said it, but his mother was one of those places where they weren’t supposed to go.

“Yeah, well, my daddy issues haven’t stopped me from building relationships with people.” Evan fixed Rodney with an unimpressed look. “Look, either go for it while you have the chance, or find someone else and move on.”

“I dated other people. Laura Geldar -”

“Atlantis could be a one-way trip, right? If that happens, well, you’ve got nothing to lose and neither does he. I don’t want it to be a one-way trip, but if it is…” It was Evan’s turn to look away for a moment. “Be happy. And for stars’ sake, come home and have a goodbye dinner with Jeannie and Madison and Kaleb before you go.”

Rodney glared at him.

“You have to come home to say goodbye to Mr. Bojangles anyway.”

“That’s not my cat’s name.”

“Oppenheimer’s an ostentatious name for a cat and you know it. If I’m keeping him I can call him what I want.” Evan smirked and resumed cleaning his gun.

How Rodney had survived to adulthood without ever being able to say no to Evan Lorne, he’d never know. “Yes, fine, I’ll come to dinner. But you better make something nice.”

*

Between Dad winning some kind of gardening prize with some roses he’d bred and Nana Novak winning some kind of cooking prize with a recipe she’d submitted to a cooking magazine, business at the Inn picked up. Guests came to stay and enjoy the gardens, to sample the cooking, and also see local attractions. Jeannie and Bobbie had come up with several touristy options, listing local attractions and then grouping them by category, so there was a nature walk, an ocean walk, an antiquing walk, and other ways tourists could enjoy their time at the inn and also in the surrounding areas. Between Rodney and Dad, Bobbie finally managed to wrangle some kind of deal with the stable owner next door so guests could ride horses for discounted prices.

During the school year things were slower, and Rodney and Evan managed to come up with a plan to have Nana Novak, Grandma McKay, and Bobbie cater small events to keep money coming in, especially now that there were additional mouths to feed.

Rodney barely noticed when fall break rolled around, because he’d had midterm exams at school, and then he, Jeannie, Evan, and Tally would all be on deck full time to cater to guests coming to enjoy their break at the Inn.

So when the Sheppards arrived, Rodney didn’t even expect it. He and Jeannie played chess together all the time, and there was a community chessboard on the coffee table in the reading room that was always mid-game, and Rodney was contemplating his next move - he was black this time - when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

He spun around, and there was John Sheppard. Who’d gotten taller - taller than Evan - and was even better-looking than before.

“Are there any other chess boards?” John asked. “Or do you want to play a game?”

“There are other boards,” Rodney said, because there were. “Nicer boards, for guests.”

The McKay family chessboard, which was now the community board, had been the victim of some of Rodney and Jeannie’s less than finer moments when they lost games as small children.

Rodney blinked, because John was standing kind of close to him, and this close his eyes were bright green, and -

“I’ll go get one from the game closet, shall I?” John started toward it.

“No, I’ve got it. You just - sit. And do you want some coffee? No, you’re too young for coffee. Tea?”

“Orange juice would be nice,” John said.

Rodney flinched. He never went near the orange juice. “Yes. Of course. I’ll get the chessboard, and I’ll make sure someone brings you orange juice.”

He nearly brought the entire contents of the game closet down on his own head, trying to get to the nice glass chess set. He could feel John watching him the whole time, radiating amusement.

“Are you sure you don’t want a hand?” John asked after a box of Candyland hit Rodney in the shoulder.

“No, no, I’m fine.” Rodney found the chessboard, handed it to John, then bustled into the kitchen and asked for a glass of orange juice.

Evan went to pour it automatically, then paused. “What? Rodney - are you feeling suicidal?”

(Bobbie had finally sat Evan down and told him what really happened to his father, and now Evan saw suicidal ideation in everyone.)

“No, it’s not for me, it’s for a guest.”

“Oh. Right. Well, I’ll deliver this. Where is the guest?”

“In the reading room.”

Evan nodded, found a small serving tray and a coaster, and left the kitchen. When he returned, he said,

“John wants to see you.”

“Why?”

Evan shrugged. “Just conveying a guest request.”

Rodney ventured back into the reading room. He was supposed to be helping Dad with the books. “Evan said you wanted to see me?”

“Just wondered if you were interested in a game,” John said. He’d set up the chessboard.

Before Rodney realized what he was doing, he said, “Sure,” and sat down opposite John.

They’d barely made it past the opening game when Patrick Sheppard found them, berated John for mingling with the help and being late for supper and ruining his supper by snacking, and ordered John into the dining room.

John said nothing, merely nodded his head, rose, and followed his father out of the room.

Supper. Already? Rodney hadn’t heard the bell.

He glanced at his watch, swore in French, and scrambled for the dining room, made a beeline for the piano. His hands shook as he hit the opening notes of the theme to Swan Lake.

He and John avoided each other for the rest of the Sheppards’ stay.

When Rodney went to clean John’s room after they left, he found a single chess piece on John’s pillow, a glass knight.

*

If Rodney thought gearing up to go back to the mainland was insane, gearing up to go through the Stargate to Atlantis would be even worse, but he figured if he conquered this small insanity, he’d be prepared to handle the bigger insanity to come.

His sleep schedule was pretty messed up, because they were constantly on the line with the SGC back in Colorado, working out the logistics of getting the research team back there and prepping for integrating some of them into the Expedition ranks. Half the time Rodney was awake when the others were asleep, he missed all the meal times at the cafeteria, and he was living on coffee and ramen like he was a teenager in grad school again.

He stumbled into the cafeteria in search of said coffee and ramen. He stood by the coffee maker and microwave, waiting for sustenance to be at least minimally palatable. Once he had a mug full of coffee and a steaming styrofoam bowl of ramen, he headed over to a table - the cafeteria was otherwise deserted - and plopped down.

Rodney was less nervous about a possibly one-way trip through the Stargate than he was about dinner with his family. Evan had only mentioned Jeannie and her family, but he knew Evan would invite everyone, including Dad and Nana Novak and Tally and Bobbie. Evan had much more practice at covering for being in the Stargate Program, had been scooped up into it right around the time he made captain, and Bobbie had always been grudgingly accepting of things like classified and national security. Rodney knew he had an easier time of it than some of the other civilians because Evan was there to back him up, but still. Dinner with the family, ever since Jeannie’s precipitous marriage to Kaleb, was awkward.

Rodney glanced at his watch. He was due for his regular call with Evan in a few hours. He ought to try to get some kind of shut-eye before then.

“Hey, wanna play a game of chess?”

Rodney lifted his head sharply.

John stood beside his table, an old chessboard tucked under one arm. “No one else will play with me.”

“And you’re asking me because you’re desperate?”

“No one else was a challenge,” John said. “Heard tell that you’re the smartest man on the planet.”

“That doesn’t make me a good chess player, especially not against a trained military officer,” Rodney said, because for all that Evan seemed like a hippie artist baker, he was a strategy game fiend.

John slid into the chair opposite him, began setting up the chess board. “You make it a habit to play chess against trained military officers? Seems like you scientists keep to yourselves.”

“Not supposed to mingle with the help,” Rodney said waspishly, and then regretted it, because what if John remembered him?

John laughed. “Pretty sure the Marines would take exception to that.”

“All they do around here is haul boxes,” Rodney said. “I’ll grant you that what Air Force officers I’ve known have been smarter than the average jarhead.”

John had graceful hands as he laid the pieces out in their proper spots. He wore a curious black wristband on his right wrist. Rodney remembered that he’d always had something around his right wrist, like a cheap woven hemp bracelet or chunky beads that looked at odds with the fancy clothes his father bought for him. One time Jeannie made a bracelet for a school project and John had worn it after everyone else in the house refused to (most of them because the bracelet would get in the way of cooking or chores, Rodney because it was ugly).

“You know a lot of Air Force officers?”

“This is the SGC,” Rodney said. “It’s Air Force-heavy, if you know what I mean.”

John finished setting up the chessboard and turned it around so Rodney could play white.

Rodney cleared his throat. “Also my step-brother is an Air Force officer, and he always decimates me at chess, so - you’re going to regret asking me.”

“Really? What rank?”

“O-4, like you.”

“He a pilot?”

“F-16, C-130, F-302,” Rodney said.

John’s eyebrows went up. “You mean he’s -”

“With the SGC? Yes. He was recruited for it before me. Independently of me. Has been since O-3.”

John hummed thoughtfully. “I’ve got my F-16 wings. Don’t recall any McKays in flight school, though.”

“We’re step-brothers. Don’t have the same last name.”

“Oh. Well, that explains it. Your step-brother’s pretty good at chess, though?”

“He prefers go.”

John whistled. “That’s a lot harder.”

“So he keeps telling me. I can’t even beat a computer on the easiest setting, so -” Rodney moved a pawn.

“Weir tells me I’m going to be out of the chain of command, that I’ll basically be Walking Gene for the labs,” John said. “You’re going to be the Chief Science Officer, right?”

“If the SGC knows what’s good for them and Major Carter doesn’t agree to a potential one-way trip, yes,” Rodney said.

“So basically you’ll be my boss.”

“Not really, no.”

“But we’ll be working closely together.”

“Sometimes,” Rodney hedged. What was John getting at? Besides trying to distract him from their chess game.

“I feel like I don’t know you at all,” John said. “They taught me, in officer training school, that building rapport is important for smooth team functioning.”

“Is that what this is? Rapport-building?”

“Figured it was a start,” John said. He took one of Rodney’s pawns.

Just for that, Rodney took one of his knights.

“What else do you want to know?” Rodney asked. “About how my mother walked out on me and my sister when I was twelve? We can cut straight to the chase.”

“Your dad remarried, then? Since you have a step-brother.”

“Yeah. Step-brother and step-sister in addition to my younger sister.”

“I have a younger brother,” John offered. He didn’t say anything about his parents.

“So,” Rodney said, “why the Air Force?”

Sheppard Men went to Harvard and then took over the family business, or so Patrick Sheppard had said. What was John doing here?

“Because,” John said, “I love to fly.”

*

The next time the Sheppards came to stay - and Rodney couldn’t figure out why they did, since Mr. Sheppard seemed to hate the country and never did anything with his sons but then scolded them for mingling with the help - it was spring break. Didn’t they have somewhere else to go? Sunny beaches, maybe. Evan and Tally both knew how to surf, would borrow boards and go any time the family took a trip to the beach.

(Rodney refused to learn on principle, because his brain was a precious commodity, and if he did himself an injury he’d be ruining his chances at a Nobel Prize.)

It was nice out. Dave went to the stables a lot to ride, and more often than not, John went with him. But he’d also duck out of his father’s sight and slide across the dining room to where Rodney and Tally were cleaning up the breakfast dishes while Evan, Bobbie, and Nana Novak prepped for lunch.

“So, what’s fun to do around here?” John asked.

Jeannie, who was sweeping past with a tray full of dishes, paused. “There’s the ocean walk, and the nature walk, and -”

“C’mon.” John lowered his voice. “What do you guys do for fun?”

Rodney said, “We go to school, and then we work here. I play piano. Tally draws.”

“I like math puzzles,” Jeannie said, and she batted her eyelashes at John.

She was only eleven. Rodney nudged her sharply. She scowled at him.

“What kind of math puzzles?” John asked.

“They’re really hard,” Jeannie said.

John said, “I’m pretty good at math.”

“Jeannie,” Rodney said, “finish cleaning up.” To John he said, “I can give you directions to the shop in town where we get puzzle books for Jeannie, if you like.”

He didn’t add that even if John was pretty good at math, it was highly unlikely he was even close to Rodney and Jeannie’s level.

“Could you show me the way?” John asked.

Rodney, even though he knew better, said, “Yes.”

Tally cleared her throat pointedly. Rodney was supposed to be helping her in the garden today. He shot her a look.

She rolled her eyes and then, when John’s back was to her, made a kissy face at Rodney, and then bolted into the kitchen before he could protest.

“Thanks,” John said. “I need some air.”

Rodney finished delivering the dishes to the kitchen, dashed up to his room. He gave Tally five bucks so she’d finish his share of doing the post-breakfast clean-up and shift in the garden, promised to buy Jeannie a puzzle book, and then he and John ducked out of the house.

John was about as tall as Rodney even though he was the same age as Evan, who was looking like he was doomed to be short all his life, so Rodney let John borrow Tally’s bike, and together they rode into town.

The lady who ran the bookstore knew Rodney, greeted him with a warm smile. She showed him the newest stack of puzzle books that had been delivered. Rodney bought one for Jeannie, then stood aside so John could buy one for himself.

“Jeannie can really do these?” John asked.

“She’s exceptionally bright,” Rodney said.

John smiled. “Cool.”

They put their purchases in the basket on Tally’s bike, and then John said, “How’s the ice cream there?” He pointed to the little creamery down the road from the bookshop.

“Good,” Rodney said. “Nana Novak uses it for some of her desserts sometimes, so it’s got to be pretty good quality.”

“Want to get some?” John asked. “My treat.”

“Won’t your dad get mad at you for mingling with the help?”

“Don’t care,” John said.

Rodney didn’t care much for adult authority when the adults around him were stupid and trying to impede his brilliance, but despite his tendency to yell back when people yelled at him, he didn’t like getting yelled out. John never seemed to care when his dad yelled at him, though. Rodney got the sense that Mr. Sheppard yelled at his sons all the time. John was probably used to it. Rodney had never gotten used to it. Even though Nana Novak and Bobbie never yelled, he was always nervous about getting yelled at when he did something wrong.

But - John was beautiful, was better-looking every time Rodney saw him, and for once Rodney got John all to himself. So he said yes.

They walked their bikes over to the creamery. The old man behind the counter knew Rodney because Rodney was the fastest of his siblings on a bike and picked up deliveries from town, so he made sure Rodney’s ice cream was citrus free. Rodney’s favorite flavor was Rocky Road. John asked for the honey lavender, because he was feeling adventurous. He paid for the both of them, and then they started back on the path toward the house, walking their bikes and enjoying their ice cream cones.

“Thank you,” Rodney said. “You didn’t have to do this.”

“I wanted to,” John said.

“You do what you want all the time?” Rodney asked.

John huffed. “Hardly. Besides, you saved me from hours of boredom. I can only read Les Miserables so many times before I go insane.”

“You’re reading Les Mis? For fun?” Rodney glanced at him sidelong. That wasn’t an easy book even in English. If John thought he could do the same kinds of puzzles as Jeannie, maybe he was brighter than he looked.

Not that attractive people couldn’t also be smart. It was just - rare. And unfair. Rodney knew what he looked like, all crooked mouth and too-big eyes. But he was smart and would be smart long after everyone around him ceased being pretty.

“In the original French,” John said.

“You know French that well?”

“Private schools, remember?”

“I know French that well, and I didn’t go to private schools,” Rodney said. “But Canadian schools are better than American schools.”

“You’re Canadian?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you miss it?”

Rodney thought about it. “Not really.” He didn’t miss his old house where his parents screamed at each other all the time, or the school where he was picked on.

They walked, and they finished off their cones, but instead of climbing back on their bikes, they kept walking for some reason.

“It’s nice here,” John said. “Pretty. Peaceful.”

“Spring is nice here,” Rodney agreed. “Will you be back in summer?”

“Dad likes to send us to Hawaii for the summer,” John said. “Or somewhere else beach-y. Phuket. Cebu. Bali.”

“Oh. Well - have fun getting skin cancer,” Rodney said.

John laughed.

“What? It’s a serious risk.”

“I know. Just - you’re so serious all the time. Lighten up.”

Rodney eyed him. “You hardly know me.”

John said, “I know enough.”

*

John still did fiendishly hard math puzzles, tended to keep a puzzle book folded up in one pocket, would fish it out whenever things got slow in the labs. Czech Guy and British Guy and Japanese Girl noticed, and they started thinking up puzzles for John to do, had a new one on one of the whiteboards every morning for him. John solved them every time.

He was reading War and Peace, too, hadn’t lost his taste in classical literature. He seemed to be making slow progress in it even though he was reading an English translation.

Rodney stopped going out of his way to completely avoid John, since they’d be dealing with each other on the other side of the Stargate on what really could be a one-way trip. If they were going to work together, Rodney ought to be professional with him, and that meant interacting with the man on a friendly, if not personal level, including the occasional game of chess, chats over meals, and projects in the lab.

Finally Rodney gave in, took a turn designing a math puzzle for John.

He couldn’t help but feel a little pleased when he showed up around lunchtime and John, Czech Guy, British Guy, and Japanese Girl were all clustered around the whiteboard together, silent.

Puzzled.

“That’s gonna take me a while,” John admitted. “Anyone got a pen and paper to spare?”

“You’ll probably want to use pencil,” Czech Guy said, and Japanese Girl nodded her agreement.

Rodney cleared his throat. “These Ancient devices aren’t going to analyze themselves.”

“Right.” John broke away from the group. “What are we initializing today?”

The Marines were always digging up strange new Ancient gizmos, and Rodney had an entire box full. He handed them to John one at a time, and they tried to activate them. Most failed. John could only tell why about a third of the time. Of the ones that did activate, they didn’t last long, but John could tell what they were and why they were broken.

They stopped for lunch - and for John to have another turn at the puzzle.

Rodney was the king of the lab. His puzzle kept John stumped for two whole days.

On the third day, when Rodney got to the lab, there it was, the solution, elegant and clean, reduced down to its simplest form.

“I think,” John said, “this merits some kind of prize, don’t you?”

Rodney started violently and almost knocked over British Guy’s laptop. “Jeez! Don’t scare me like that.”

“Sorry,” John drawled, totally unapologetic. “Military stealth. You know how it is.”

Rodney did, because Evan used it all the time. “Yes, you solved the puzzle, fine. We’ll get some ice cream. Or something.”

“Ice cream? In Antarctica?” Czech Guy asked. “Seems more like a punishment.”

Dr. Weir swept into the lab before the discussion could devolve further. Timetable had been moved up. They were shipping back to the SGC five days early.

Time to scramble.

There was a mad dash to get everything squared away so all of the vital equipment made it back to the SGC. When Rodney finally had a chance to call Evan, he was trying to pack all his personal belongings.

“Don’t forget that afghan,” Evan said. “Cam made that for me and I just loaned it to you and I want it back. Also do you remember how I showed you to fold your shirts? One foot square -”

“I’m a functioning adult, I can pack my own clothes,” Rodney snapped.

“Well, you’re an adult,” Evan said.

“I hate you,” Rodney said.

“I know. It’s my dimples. Your face just can’t compare.” Evan never missed a beat. “So, dinner. Since you’re coming in five days early, you and I will have some time to prepare.”

“You mean you’re cooking. Why can’t we have this meal at a restaurant? That’s neutral territory, and then if someone needs to storm out, it’s less awkward.” Rodney did remember how to fold his clothes one foot square, thank you very much. How Evan coped with constantly moving around, Rodney didn’t know. No wonder he’d jumped at the chance to join the SGC. Home base was Colorado Springs, and the SGC held onto people till they died or proved unequal to the task.

Rodney was proud that he was equal to the task of the SGC, and he was proud of Evan too.

Bobbie was less than proud of her son going off and joining the military, doing the thing that had pretty much gotten his father killed. Rodney, like Bobbie, had been relieved when Evan took the post with Deep Space Telemetry.

“No more combat,” Evan had said. “Surveying. Like I went to school for.”

And then Rodney joined the SGC and ran into Evan in one of the many corridors under the Mountain and there’d been a whole lot of You? You too? You lied to me! Well, you lied to me! I had to! So did I!

Now Rodney didn’t go home for family holidays unless Evan was there as well so someone else could share the burden of all the awkwardness.

“I don’t see why you have to make the meal,” Rodney said.

“Because,” Evan said with exaggerated patience, “restaurants don’t take your allergy seriously, and I’m making all your favorites. Think of it as a last supper.”

“Now I feel like a prisoner on Death Row,” Rodney snapped.

“Rodney. Merry. Please.”

Dammit. Evan had broken out the pet names.

Rodney sighed. “Fine. But you better make your tiramisu.”

“I’ve got cocoa powder and everything.”

And then Rodney had to hang up and sort out a dispute between Japanese Girl and a stubborn Marine and it would be a miracle if all the right pieces made it back Stateside.

After a long and uncomfortable chopper flight - which John did not pilot - and an even longer flight on a military transport, plus a couple of stops to let people off and bring people on and refuel, they made it to the hallowed cement halls of the SGC. It was Evan who came to find Rodney after the end of two days of no sleep, while Rodney was finishing unloading his gear in the lab set aside for the Atlantis Expedition.

“Hey,” Evan said. “C’mon. You can crash with me. It’ll beat staying in on-base housing.”

“You just want that afghan back.”

“Maybe.” Evan smiled at him. “I brought you coffee.” He held up a travel mug.

Rodney knew it was the good stuff, not the cheap swill from the commissary. He reached for it, cradled it in his hands. “I still hate you.”

“I know.”

“Major!”

Evan straightened up, turned. But it was Carson and not some other military official.

“Dr. Beckett,” Evan said. “What can I do for you?”

“The test came back positive. You’ve the Gene,” Carson said.

“So I can be a human light switch?” Evan asked.

Carson grinned at him. “So you’re eligible for a spot on the Expedition. The only people who have higher Gene scores are Colonel O’Neill, Major Sheppard, and myself. Dr. Weir asked me to give you the good news personally.”

Evan swallowed hard. “Thanks, Doc.”

“She’ll be wanting an answer soon,” Carson said. “Hello, Rodney. You’re here late. Tch, is that coffee? You’ll never sleep.”

“You can pry this coffee from my cold dead hands,” Rodney said.

Carson laughed. “Aye, I believe that.” To Evan he said, “Think about it, Major. I know you’re an excellent officer.” And he departed.

Rodney turned to him. “You can’t go too. No way. Bobbie and Jeannie and Tally would freak.”

“And Alan?”

“Dad would be worried too,” Rodney said, “but you know him. He never fights for anything.”

“He fought for you and Jeannie.”

Rodney frowned. “Not hard enough for Jeannie.”

“Hey,” Evan said sharply. “She made her choice, and it’s a valid one. Like I made mine.”

Rodney said nothing. This was something they’d never agree on.

Evan sighed. “Come on. Let’s go home.”

“Let’s,” Rodney agreed. He followed Evan out of the lab.

“I do want that afghan, by the way.”

“It’s in my suitcase.”

“Have you done it, by the way?” Evan asked, once they were in the elevator.

“Done what?”

“Learned a Johnny Cash song on the piano.”

Since there was no one around to see them, Rodney shoved Evan in the shoulder. Hard.

*

Rodney did his best not to think of John Sheppard during the summer, instead focused on his independent studies, tried all of Bobbie’s ridiculous herbal remedies for his growing pains because his shins hurt all the time, and spent a lot of time holding very still for Evan, who wanted to get good at drawing people. He was good at drawing things, but people were harder.

Then the school year started, and there was another round of negotiations between Bobbie, Dad, and the school district to make sure Rodney and Jeannie received challenging work but were kept with age-appropriate peers.

Rodney knew the Sheppards were scheduled to spend fall break at the Inn, and he noticed when preparations for their arrival were underway, because Evan went to find his very special cookbook, and Jeannie rearranged the game closet, and Tally aired out the best linens. Tally was less help this year, because she was seventeen and had her driver’s license and also a boyfriend, so she begged off her shifts as often as possible, bribing Rodney and Evan with comic books, art supplies, and cold hard cash to cover for her. On the day of the Sheppards’ arrival, Tally was out with one of her many boyfriends, so there was no one to mock Rodney while he, Evan, and Jeannie crouched on the landing above the foyer to watch.

John had gotten taller, was golden-tanned from a summer in the sun, his wild hair windswept. There was a strip of pale skin around his right wrist from whatever bracelet he’d been wearing before. He was wearing a hemp-and-conch affair now, probably from whatever exotic, beach-y place he’d spent the summer riding the waves and probably flirting with girls in bikinis.

Dave had also gotten taller, was no longer half-hiding behind John, and he looked even more like his father, not just in his features but in the way he held himself.

Bobbie checked them in, and Dad carried their luggage up to their rooms. Bobbie explained the evening’s menu and when dinner would be served - it was always at the same time, as if the Sheppards would forget - and also that some new stores that had opened up in town and the neighboring stable had some new horses, if John and Dave were interested.

Mr. Sheppard thanked her with frosty politeness, told his sons to go dress for dinner - a long day traveling was no excuse for slovenliness - and then excused himself to head to his own room to change.

“Yes, Father,” Dave said, deferential, and headed for the stairs.

John said nothing, followed his brother for the stairs.

Rodney, Evan, and Jeannie retreated for the old servants’ stairs - now called the back stairs - but Rodney peeked over the banister one last time and saw John looking back up at him.

Rodney played piano at dinner, taking requests - he’d learned some more modern songs, usually schmaltzy ballads or love songs or easy listening - and was hyperaware of the fact that the Sheppards were sitting at the table right next to the piano and John was watching him play.

John said, “He’s pretty good.”

Rodney was pleased when his hands remained steady.

“Who?” Dave asked.

“The piano player,” John said.

“I guess,” Dave said.

“David,” John said, not without irony in his voice, “a good Sheppard Man should be aware of his surroundings and also be able to express an informed opinion about the arts.”

“Oh. Um.”

“Don’t say um,” Mr. Sheppard said.

Dave cleared his throat. “The song sounds...nice? The pianist has steady hands. And his notes are - clear.”

John clicked his tongue. “What are you learning in music class?”

“John,” Mr. Sheppard said, tone warning.

“Father,” John said, “I do believe the song currently festooning the air is an Elton John classic, Candle in the Wind, a threnody in honor of Marilyn Monroe. It’s performed in E major.”

John had an impressive ear.

“You took your lessons well,” Mr. Sheppard, grudgingly.

“I take your investment in my education seriously,” John said, and while he sounded perfectly serious, Rodney was pretty sure he wasn’t serious at all.

Sure enough, fall break proceeded like the previous spring break, John sneaking away to spend time with Rodney and Evan, riding bicycles along the country paths, going into town for ice cream and comic books, sometimes just finding a secluded corner of the garden and talking. Evan knew to leave Rodney and John alone sometimes, especially when they set to conversing in French or working through math puzzles in the same puzzle book.

Rodney couldn’t help it - he basked in John’s presence, soaking up his attention, was loath to share it, had to rein himself in so he didn’t snap whenever Jeannie or Tally or Evan smiled at him. John wasn’t just incredibly good-looking; he was brilliant, and he had low-key, sarcastic wit. Like Rodney, he felt out of step with the world around him, and they were both doing their best to fit in - for the sake of their families, for the sake of their own dreams, so they could stay under the radar long enough to get what they wanted.

Which was to be free.

During spring break, Rodney showed John all the back staircases, so he could move through the house undetected more easily. John and Rodney spent more time together, just the two of them. John helped Rodney puzzle out some of the equations in his advanced physics textbooks, and they dreamed about what the universe was really like. Once, Evan helped them make their own ice cream in the middle of the night. They sneaked into the kitchens and made a huge mess, but they each had a pint of rose raspberry ice cream to show for their efforts, and if they all felt a little sick the next morning, it was worth it.

“You really like him,” Evan said, as he stood at the window with Rodney and watched the Sheppards’ sleek dark sedan pull out of the front driveway.

“He’s smarter than I thought at first,” Rodney said.

“You like like him.”

“Who do you think I am, Jeannie?”

“It’ll be another six months. Think you can wait that long?” Evan asked.

“Do I have a choice?”

Evan said, “I could draw him for you, if you like. I studied him a lot. When you let me hang out with you.”

Rodney shoved him in the shoulder. “Shut up.” He spun on his heel and went inside.

And moped.

And asked Evan to draw him a portrait of John.

And then, a few weeks before the end of summer, while everyone was in the kitchen, shoveling down dinner between serving guests, Bobbie said,

“The Sheppards are coming.”

Evan nodded. “For fall break. So?”

Bobbie shook her head. “In one week.”

“What? Why?” Evan was out of his chair and headed for the cookbooks.

“Mr. Sheppard didn’t say.”

“It’s because I’m going to boarding school this year,” John said, that first night after the Sheppards arrived, he and Rodney tucked into a quiet corner of the garden. “This is my last big hurrah, or whatever. Because Dad will leave me there all year except for summer.”

“Boarding school,” Rodney echoed.

John said, “It’s what Sheppard Men do.”

“So after this summer -”

“You won’t see me again. I doubt you’ll see Dave either. Dad kept on coming here because Mom liked it. He thought it’d help Dave or something. But Dad’s not big on sentimentality, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

Rodney nodded. “Might as well enjoy this stay while you can.”

John said, “Yeah.”

As it turned out, John played the guitar, and he’d play and sing Johnny Cash songs for Rodney and whoever else wanted to listen. Jeannie loved A Boy Named Sue. Evan really liked the song about being a Wichita Lineman. Rodney, for some stupid sentimental reason, really liked He Stopped Loving Her Today.

When they weren’t playing music together, they rode their bikes everywhere, had far too much ice cream, and sometimes they got lost in the woods near the house, wandering through the trees and stopping whenever something interesting caught their eye.

On the Sheppards’ last night at the house, Bobbie, Evan, and Nana Novak went all out, making a veritable feast for the family and everyone else who was there. There was champagne, and Mr. Sheppard raised a toast to his son. John, wearing a sleek dark three-piece suit and a little bowtie, looked beautiful - and hollow.

But all of the kids got to sneak sips of champagne, and then there was delicious food and creme brulee for dessert that Evan got to use the torch on himself. After the meal, Rodney played music, and Jeannie and Dad and Grandma McKay sang, and there was dancing.

Mr. Sheppard led the rest of the guests out of the dining room and onto the patio, and Grandma McKay turned on her old victrola and found some of her big band records, and there was yet more music and dancing. Evan, Tally, Jeannie, and Rodney melted back into the shadows, because it was time to clean up.

Only John stayed with them. He grabbed Rodney by the wrist, tossed a twenty at Tally for her trouble, and then they ran. Through the maze of the back stairs and out into the far reaches of the garden, where the lights from the house were as dim as a single match flame, where the sound of the party was barely more than a whisper.

“John?” Rodney asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Tomorrow we leave,” John said. “We go back home, and the maids will hand me the suitcases they’ve packed, and Dad’ll put me on a plane, and off to school I’ll go. Childhood over. On the irrevocable path toward being a Sheppard Man.”

“So?” Rodney asked.

“So I don’t want to be the perfect Sheppard Man. I’m just - I’m John.”

They paused on the bottom of the stairs that led up to the attic, to the room that Evan and Rodney shared.

Rodney was afraid. He’d never seen John like this, practically thrumming with energy. John was always relaxed, cool, casual - too casual for his father’s liking. But he was never hurried or worried or anxious.

“Well, Just John,” Rodney said as calmly as possible, “what do you want to do with your last night of freedom?”

John leaned in and kissed him.

*

Dinner with the family went about as well as expected, which was tense and awkward, punctuated by bright moments of humor. Evan did his best to talk about everything but his work, which meant he mostly recited all of the things he’d cooked, and for whom, and when. He practically interrogated Tally about how things were going at the tattoo parlor, how her pregnancy was coming along. Kaleb said nothing more than pass the salt the entire evening, and Jeannie glared daggers at Rodney every time he attempted to talk about his work without breaking classification.

Unfortunately, he let it slip that he’d been assigned to a pretty remote research outpost, and there was a chance it was going to be a one-way trip, because the journey was very perilous.

“Son,” Dad said, “are you sure this is a good idea?”

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’d be a fool to pass it up,” Rodney said.

“Motherhood,” Jeannie said to little Madison, who was barely one, “is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of people. Finding the right one and getting married isn’t easy.”

Madison babbled and smiled at her mother.

Bobbie cast Evan a look. “The military sees human life as just - resources. Numbers. They don’t care who lives or dies.”

“I’m eligible for the same mission, but I said no,” Evan offered.

Bobbie turned her glare on Rodney. “Then why are you going?”

“Rodney’s more important to the mission than I am,” Evan said hastily. “He’ll be the smartest man there. His intellect and skills are indispensable. Someone else can be the logistics officer.”

Bobbie turned her glare back on Evan. “I thought you were a surveyor.”

“I am. I’m also a logistics officer. I can be both. You taught me everything I know about keeping a team supplied and fed.” Evan tried a smile.

Bobbie was unmoved.

Dad frowned. “Does this mean you’ll have to learn how to use a gun, son?”

“What? No,” Rodney said. “I won’t be doing fieldwork.” It wasn’t an entirely stupid question, because Daniel Jackson was very handy with a firearm, but it wasn’t like Rodney could tell his family that.

Nana Novak, who was a bit of a rabble-rouser, said, “Evan, tell us about the lovely girl you’re seeing. Cammie, is it? Rodney tells us she knitted you that lovely afghan over there.”

Evan swallowed hard. “Ah, Nana, we’ve had this chat before. Cam isn’t actually a girl. He’s a fellow officer. We flew in Bagram together.”

Nana’s eyes lit up. “Oh! Is he very handsome?”

“I think so,” Evan offered.

Bobbie didn’t care that Evan was bisexual, but she thought it was stupid, that he had to hide it because he was in the military.

Then Nana’s expression turned sly, and she said, “Does he have a big -?”

Jeannie clapped a hand over her mouth. “Not in front of Madison.”

Kaleb looked like he wanted to die.

After the meal - which was exquisite, and that Evan had spent days planning and hours slaving over - Evan, Tally, Jeannie, and Rodney cleaned up, just like old times. After that, it was time for Madison to go to bed, and Tally was tired because her baby (she called it my little parasite, to Kaleb’s dismay) was stealing all her energy, and no one really stuck around for conversation.

But Bobbie, Nana, and Dad all hugged Rodney very tightly before they left.

Once everyone had departed back to their various hotels, Rodney went back to base. Technically he was staying in Evan’s spare room, but after three hours of walking on eggshells and minefields, he needed to get out of Evan’s apartment.

So he went to the rec room and plopped down at the piano and set about tinkering. He warmed up his hands first, scales and arpeggios, and then he settled on a song. Key of A minor, chords that sounded like accidentals, slow and stark to mimic an acoustic guitar. Rodney had never been the singer in his family, though he was better than Evan and Tally by far, but he knew the lyrics to this song off by heart.

The chorus always rang a little too true for him.

What have I become,
My sweetest friend?
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end.

And you could have it all,
My empire of dirt.
I will let you down.
I will make you hurt.

Mom had left, unable to handle Rodney and his brilliance and his impatience (and all the worst parts of that he’d been unconsciously teaching to Jeannie). Jeannie had left, because she wanted a normal family like she’d never had, happy mommy and daddy and baby. Evan had gone off to the Air Force, because he wanted to fly, because he was searching for that part of himself that his father had taken when he’d committed suicide all those years ago.

And now Rodney was the one who was going, leaving, on a possible one-way trip, because what did he have to lose?

“So you play Johnny Cash.”

Rodney yanked his hands off the keys and turned.

John stood in the doorway, hands in his pockets, looking cool and casual even though he was still in black house BDUs.

“Sometimes I do deign to descend to four-chord banality,” Rodney said, defensive. He’d heard the song on the radio and been struck by it, had to pick it apart and rebuild it for himself, and when he’d learned it was a Johnny Cash song, well, hanging around the rec room piano and learning it hadn’t been a bad idea.

Evan was right. Rodney had missed music. Music had missed him.

If Rodney went to Atlantis and never came back, he’d miss Evan and Jeannie and all of his family, however broken and dysfunctional they were.

“I wondered,” John said, “if you recognized me.” He stepped into the room, closed the door behind him.

Rodney turned to him fully. “What do you mean?”

“There was this place my family used to go when I was a kid, this random manor tucked into the countryside in Point Reyes. The Wild Bluebell Inn, it was called. For the longest time it was run by this single woman and her two kids and mother, and the year my mom died, she remarried. My dad hated it there, but my mom loved it, so he kept taking us there anyway. One of the boys - his name was Rodney. He was the first boy I ever kissed. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“That was a long time ago.”

“I see it now.” John crossed the room, stood beside him. “Why didn’t I see it before?”

“I’m hardly memorable,” Rodney said, turning away.

“A first kiss is kind of a big deal.”

“You weren’t my first kiss,” Rodney said.

“When did you recognize me?” John asked.

“As soon as I saw your name on your uniform.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“We were young, then. Innocent. And you didn’t seem to remember me, so -” Rodney shrugged. “What was the point in digging up the past? You’re a military officer. It’s not like we could have a repeat.”

“Why not?” John asked. “I can keep a secret if you can. Everyone can. This is the SGC. Everything is built on secrets.”

“You don’t even really like me.”

John tilted his head, frowned. “What makes you say that?”

“I’m not handsome like Evan or charming and friendly like Carson.”

“I don’t know who Evan is, and I don’t find Carson and his endless poking with needles either charming or friendly,” John said. He leaned in, lowered his voice. “However, you are handsome and brilliant, and you took the time to design a math puzzle for me that was an actual challenge. You played chess with me. And, from the sounds of it, you learned a Johnny Cash song for me. What’s not to like?”

“You really don’t know me at all,” Rodney said.

John said, “I know enough,” and kissed him again.