Being dropped off in front of his rooming house was the second most awful day in John's life. The day he was injured in Afghanistan was still the worst. But this came close.
Both Norah and Donna sniffled as they hugged him goodbye. The four of them had a long talk the night before. Both Norah and Donna had looked particularly smug when Rodney finally stumbled through an explanation about their fledgling relationship.
They stood back against the car while Rodney held him close for a moment before letting go.
"You'll call?" Rodney asked.
"Yes," John promised. "Soon as I get a phone." He gave a small grin.
"And keep in touch," Rodney persisted.
"Rodney," John sighed. "Take the girls home. Be their dad. I'll be back."
Rodney reached out a moment, then pulled back. They both knew if they started at all, they'd never stop.
"You better," Rodney growled.
John watched as they drove away, Norah and Donna waving out the back window of the car.
First thing the next morning, John gave in to the inevitable and bought a car. Nothing special, with over 100,000 miles on it, but mechanically sound. He needed to be more mobile and in Western New York, only a car would make that possible.
Having a car made it easier to attend the small funeral service for Donna's mother. He hugged Donna and Norah and then sat in the back of the funeral home, letting the words of the service wash over him. He let the other attendees, mostly friends of Donna and Norah from school, monopolize their attention, so he could leave without a fuss.
The Verizon phone store was a mine field. He finally talked the too-chipper young lady down from the multi-feature smart phone and got an inexpensive flip phone. She gave in to his requirements semi-graciously in the end, knowing a sale was a sale.
Now mobile and connected, John decided he should visit Norah's grandparents.
He called Rodney. "Hey!"
"Don't sound so surprised," John chided.
"Sorry," Rodney apologized. "I was just worried."
"How are the girls?" John asked.
"Doing good, actually," Rodney replied. He went off to talk about school, homework, and the science fair -- which went especially well thanks to John's advice.
"Any problem with custody?" John asked.
"Too early to tell, unfortunately," Rodney said.
"I was thinking I'd visit Norah's grandparents soon," John said.
"Let me know when and I'll make the call," Rodney promised.
"Sure," John replied.
There was silence. There was too much to say and none of it came easy to them.
"I... gotta go," John said.
"Call again?" Rodney asked.
"Yeah," John replied.
By the end of the next week, John had visited Rodney's in-laws. They were alternately horrified at John's story of what had happened to them all and doting. John wasn't sure which was worse.
The best thing Rodney's in-laws did was help him find a job. Emily and Walter were outwardly charming, but he could see their impulse to 'help', which John automatically resisted. But Walter gave him a serious lead, as well as a recommendation, to the local community college. It was working maintenance, second shift, but it was a real job, with real benefits.
John went back to Buffalo, packed up his room, and found a room to rent not too far from the college. The landlord was used to renting to college students, and was grateful to rent to an adult rather than a student.
John talked to Rodney regularly. Rodney gave him updates on the custody case with Donna, which was progressing reasonably well. He talked about his classes, a possible commission that he felt like he owed Peter for the help with the house, and fretted over how the girls were doing.
They were all seeing a psychiatrist. Partly to keep the social workers from the Child Services department happy but also, Rodney knew, they needed to work through what had happened to them all. Donna needed help dealing with her mother's death and while Norah loved having Donna with them, there was a thread of jealousy in having to share more of Rodney's time with someone else than she was used to. None of it was earth shattering, just life that needed to be dealt with.
Christmas came and went. John volunteered to work any overtime that came along, to keep busy. One day he got talking to Margaret, the woman who ran the tutoring center and when she realized he had a science background, she handed him the books for the courses she desperately needed tutors for. John took the books, not sure what he wanted to do.
Margaret -- politely -- harassed him until he agreed to do a couple hours a week of tutoring with some of the international students. John was surprised by the number of international students at a community college in the middle of nowhere-New York.
John talked mostly to Rodney but Norah and Donna called occasionally. Sometimes it was a "can you believe what dad did?" sort of call, other times, it was just to talk about what was going on.
Even without being there, John felt like a part of a family.
One night, Rodney asked, "Umm... can you get away for a few days?"
"Probably," John replied. "As long as I can give some notice. What do you have in mind?"
"Well, see, it's going to be Spring Break here in two weeks and, I was thinking, maybe, we could meet somewhere," Rodney sputtered. "The girls are going to spend the week at Norah's grandparents. So... well, I thought of you. And me. Together."
"You smooth talker," John teased.
"Hey!" Rodney protested.
"For you, sure," John answered. "I have to check the schedule, though. I'll let you know tomorrow?"
"Okay, yeah," Rodney's grin could be heard over the phone.
Since Donna's custody was still in process, Rodney proposed that they go somewhere they could be anonymous. John had replied that nothing would be more anonymous than New York City.
John took the train. It was actually an interesting trip, going across the state to Albany and then southward along the Hudson to Grand Central Station. He took a cab to the hotel that Rodney had booked.
Rodney had come to the city by air that morning and had checked in. They had talked while John was on the train and John went right up to the room.
He tapped on the door and it opened immediately. They looked at each other for a moment and John walked right into Rodney's arms.
"I was afraid you weren't real," Rodney murmured into his ear. "Like you were a figment of my imagination."
"Nah," John said, holding tight. "Very real."
They just stood there for a long time, holding on.
"I want... so much," Rodney said.
"Anything," John replied.
Rodney broke his hug, but took hold of John's hand, dragging him to the bedroom. The room wasn't extravagant, but it boasted a small sitting room, outside of the bedroom.
"I.. umm, don't want to be too forward, but, well, thought maybe we could try some things," Rodney babbled.
John drew him in for a kiss. "Breathe," he said gently. "We have plenty of time."
"Then we need to be naked," Rodney said. "I want to spend as much naked time with you as I can."
John couldn't help it, he laughed at Rodney's eagerness. Not that he wasn't interested, but the honesty of Rodney's emotions was both humbling and reassuring.
To John's amusement, Rodney had what seemed like an entire drug store display of condoms and lube.
"We can use any of this that you think," Rodney went on while taking off his clothes. "I don't want to risk anything. But I got myself tested, just in case. But you're the first person I've had sex with in, well, a long time. I tested clean. But, well, I got the condoms anyway. I didn't know there were so many types. And different types of lube, too," Rodney went on.
"I really hope you didn't buy these all in one place," John teased.
Rodney blushed. "No," he said. "I got nervous waiting and so I walked around. There's like a drug store on every other corner around here. So I stopped in them all." He considered. "Well, four or five anyway."
"You're amazing," John snickered. He had taken off his own clothes as Rodney was talking. "And I got tested, too. Although, Uncle Sam does that routinely. So, I'm clean," he admitted.
"Oh, good," Rodney said, climbing into the bed. "Come here!"
They ended up in the middle of the bed, kissing. But it wasn't long before hands started wandering, holding each other close and wanting to touch.
It didn't take much to bring John over the edge. The anticipation alone had made him eager and ready. Rodney wasn't far behind him.
Rodney leaned over the edge of the bed to grab a towel. "Prepared," he panted.
They wiped up the worst of the mess, then fell asleep tangled together.
The first time they tried anal sex, they actually had to flip a coin to decide who would do what to whom. In the end, John prepared Rodney, using his fingers as Rodney babbled at him. When John hit Rodney's prostate, they both knew it. Sinking into Rodney the first time, John had to hold his breath to not go off before they even got started.
It took them a couple of tries before they really got the hand of it. But they had fun experimenting.
"We walk funny," John commented as they went out to dinner later.
"Umm, yeah, you think so?" Rodney asked.
It hadn't been uncomfortable, and in the end some of it had been very good, but there were muscles -- in many locations -- that had never been used quite this way before.
"A hot shower at some point, maybe," John suggested.
"A hot bath," Rodney countered.
"I suspect that tub's not big enough to hold both of us," John grinned.
The blush was charming. "Umm... I guess not," Rodney replied.
It ended much too soon. Rodney went to the airport to fly home, and John dozed on the train ride back. It had been a great long weekend.
While Rodney's custody of Donna had never been in doubt, there were social workers galore to meet with and please. It just took time.
It seemed like forever.
When the social worker announced that they were done, there was a celebration. It was at the same time that the new house Rodney had designed was completed. Even with the repairs and the clean up, they all knew what had happened. The family rooms blinds had never been opened since that day.
So, with input from Norah and Donna, Rodney had a new house built. He built it for them all, providing Norah and Donna with their own rooms on one side of the house, and the master suite, office, and a small guest room on the other side. The living spaces were in the middle -- living room, dining room and over size kitchen. There was room for a pool in the back yard, but that would be a summer project.
About two weeks after the notice from Family Court arrived -- one should really give reasonable notice, after all -- John knocked on a bright yellow door. The house was cheery and sophisticated looking without being over bearing.
The door opened to Norah calling, "I got it!" to whomever else was in the kitchen. Her eyes got big and she threw herself into John's arms.
Without letting go, she called, "Dad! It's for you!"
Rodney came to the door, a bright smile on his face.