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Milk Run

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Publish or perish.

Rodney was sure his ears were taking in the dual-tone chimes of the kitchen doorbell, but his brain immediately translated the sound into—

Publish or perish.

That. Like he really needed reminding. Maybe if he ignored the racket, the button-mashing pest making it would go away. 

He squinted at the laptop screen, trying to find a journal article he’d saved, the one by that Czech scientist whose name he could never—

Publish or perish.

Rodney upgraded the squint to a glare, muttering, “That blasted summoning device is not a toy.”

He finally tracked down the file in question and launched the PDF viewer with a snappy double-click. While it loaded with all the speed of a torpid, grain-fed cow, Rodney cursed the insufficiently advanced technology, wishing he’d brought along his—

Publish or perish.

Damn it! It was the middle of the night, didn’t small-town types, you know, sleep, or at least stay indoors where they wouldn’t interru—

Publish or perish.

Oh, that was it!

He launched himself out of the wooden rolly chair and stomped through the mostly dark eat-in kitchen to the back door. Fumbling with the once-familiar locks and knob, Rodney yanked it open, all but shouting, “Yes, what?!” at the person standing on the unlit back porch.

Who jerked back, one foot landing off the doormat, almost as if they hadn’t been expecting an explosion of irate astrophysicist.  Way to charm the locals, McKay.

Rodney dropped his head and raised a forestalling hand, mumbling, “Um, hang on, sorry.”

With a sigh, he flipped up all the light switches by the door, turning on the kitchen light, the porch light, and presumably some third thing he couldn’t currently detect. Why couldn’t he remember what that one powered?

Rodney shook his head to clear it, then looked through the screen door at a lean man about his own age and height. He had a shock of dark, unruly hair above a perplexed expression and seemed to be waiting for something. Oh, right. Rodney let his hand fall and tried again. “Right. I, um, I forgot to turn on the porch light there, I’m not used to having to manually…  I’m sorry, who are you?”

“I’m John.” The man gave a little wave and a quirky kind of half-smile that had no right looking so appealing on someone who abused doorbell privileges. “I saw a light on, so I thought somebody was up and about. Didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“Yes yes yes, that’s fine, but, um,” Rodney rubbed the pad of his thumb over the tips of his index and middle fingers as he tried to summon up the name he’d just heard, “John, the better question now is: why are you disturbing me?”

“Well, I thought if someone had moved into the old Reed place,” and for some reason John lightly touched the doorframe, “they might want to arrange for their milk.” John gestured with his chin at something off to his right. It showed off the long line of his neck and an oddly delicate-looking ear peeking out of his shaggy hair.

Milk.

Huh.

Rodney stood there blinking for a moment as he tried to wrap his head around the fact that this rakish apparition was offering him… milk.

“I thought people were supposed to leave saucers of milk out for the elves, not the other way 'round.” John’s eyebrows vaulted up as Rodney’s stomach did something twisty and fell.   Oh, shit, I totally said that out loud, didn’t I? In what world did that seem reasonable—no no no, hold on, maybe reason has nothing to do with it, because this, this is a dream, just a horrible dream!

Trying to ignore the flush already crawling over his cheeks, Rodney hastily checked himself for pants, then gave his forearm a brisk pinch that elicited a soft, startled yelp and reproachful frown. “Okay, then. It would seem that I’m fully dressed and not waking up, even though that’s definitely going to leave a mark, so… this probably isn’t a dream and I really did say that just now, which—” Rodney’s horrified gaze snapped back up to John’s face as words kept on rushing right out of his mouth. “—oh my God, I’m still talking aren’t I? Was I talking this whole time ?—nonononono, not important, never mind, I-I’m pretty sure I need to apologize…”  

His whole face was burning with the stinging heat of mortification, but he’d completely run out of air, and could only waggle one hand vaguely at the other man.

“And I’m pretty sure you need to breathe before you pass out or something.”

Aww, the pretty, rumpled elf looks concerned, Rodney thought just as everything flickered and spun out of focus.

* * *

Before Rodney could quite work out how he’d wound up sitting on one of the slightly undersized chairs in the kitchen, a strong hand squeezed his right shoulder. 

Ah, yes, of course, he’d just set a new speed record for making an ass of himself in front of a perfect stranger, and then, instead of spontaneously combusting from sheer embarrassment as would have happened in a well-ordered universe, he’d keeled over. And given that only his ego felt bruised, he had to presume that same stranger caught him before he hit the floor, thus putting paid to any hope for salvaging even a shred of dignity from the situation. 

Especially since, by now, John probably thought Rodney had suffered some kind of stroke.  Before he succumbed to the urge to crawl under the table for the duration, he looked up into John’s face with an uncertain smile. 

“Hiya,” John drawled as he gave Rodney’s shoulder another brief squeeze. “You doin' okay, buddy?” 

Rodney couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like John was genuinely concerned, and in a friendly way.  It flew in the face of both experience and expectation, but he needed to stop with the analysis now and offer some kind of sensible response. Was that really so much to ask?

“Hypoglycemia! And, and no sleep. Thanks for…” Rodney waved his hand in a loop that encompassed John and himself and the chair he was on and the linoleum he wasn’t.  Oh God, his life had just devolved into a French farce with associated miming.

John nodded amiably, as though Rodney had actually just been coherent, and fished something out of his jacket pocket. “Here, I’ve got just the thing for low blood sugar.”

When he held out a modest wax-paper-covered lump, the scents of yeast and cinnamon and molasses wafted into the kitchen, coalescing into a richness that greeted Rodney like a long-lost friend. 

“Is that…?”  Rodney sniffed the air again.

“Sure is.” Peeling back the wrapping, John grinned conspiratorially, like he was holding some sort of illicit substance rather than a baked good.

“Sticky buns,” Rodney breathed reverently.

“Well, just one. Plain & Fancy’s finest, oven-warm.” John’s hazel eyes were positively dancing with mischievous glee. 

Now, to the uninitiated, that might not make sense, but Rodney knew from long, happy experience that those pastries were no ordinary cinnamon rolls.  Inelegantly wrinkled and fairly oozing with a thick, caramelized topping, they were addictive little bundles of scrumptiousness that won prizes and tasted like his childhood memories said they should, prompting otherwise sensible people to wax rhapsodic and squabble over who got the last piece.  For all he knew, Plain & Fancy actually baked nostalgia and rainbows into the damn things, they were just that good.

And judging by the specimen on offer, John liked his stickies the way Nature intended: without any nuts or other additions that only served to interfere with each bite melting on the tongue.  Rodney’s mouth watered at the thought.

On any given day, Rodney would totally hug any consenting adult bearing a fresh tray of Plain & Fancy sticky buns. At this exact moment, John could have a hug, a kiss — could pick any base he liked, actually — in gratitude for that pastry and Rodney would have absolutely no regrets. Which might have as much to do with the fact that John was gorgeous and kind as that he was offering a tasty delight. Plus, Rodney’s love life was a vast, howling wasteland that didn’t bear contemplating.

Rodney literally bit his lip to keep anything fatuous from burbling out.

John grinned and set the bun in its little wax-paper nest down on the kitchen table. “I’ve got to get back on my milk run, now, it’ll be dawn soon.”

“Oh, really…?”  Rodney awarded himself points for arguably topical brevity as he pulled off a bite-sized piece of gooey goodness.

John pointed to the little embroidered emblem on the front of his jacket. The words “Moyer Family Dairy” arched over a stylized trio of barnyard animals.

Ohhh, of course… the whole milk thing made a hell of a lot more sense now. And, crap, was it really tomorrow morning already?  No wonder his blood sugar had crashed so hard. 

Rodney popped the syrupy morsel in his mouth and let out a hum of appreciation that may have drifted into fairly suggestive territory. Which might be the least socially awkward thing he’d done since barreling into the kitchen, given that John was clearly a fellow Plain & Fancier who understood about sticky buns and the proper appreciation thereof.

In fact, John was grinning again as he backed toward the door. “Tell you what, I’ll leave you two alone while I finish my route, then I’ll come back this afternoon and we can discuss your order.”  

The little noise Rodney made at that point was entirely chewing related and had nothing to do with John, the doorbell-ringing milkman with his strong hands and sticky buns, coming here later and taking orders. Nope, not a thing.

John held the screen door open after he stepped down to the porch. “In the meantime, you should probably get some sleep, okay buddy?”

Rodney pointed at John and bounced his whole hand up and down a couple times. “Not Buddy — Rodney. I mean, I’m Rodney!” And now he was pointing at himself.  Jesus. Maybe he really should get some sleep. 

He cleared his throat and attempted to sound, you know, sane.  “Buddy was my sister’s idiot guinea pig.”

Oh, yeah, that settled the question of his sanity, all right. He manfully refrained from wincing.

But John’s laugh sounded affable as he let the screen door swing to. “Gotcha. See you 'round, Rodney.”

“Later, John.” Rodney took a healthy bite of pastry, mostly so he would stop talking right exactly now, and watched John walk off the porch, out of sight. 

Left with only a dwindling morsel of food to distract him, Rodney suddenly realized that, yeah, he was really, really tired, to the point where he was maybe three seconds away from faceplanting right here on the table. His bed upstairs was a much more appealing prospect, so he pushed to his feet with a full second to spare, and crossed to the sink. 

As he navigated little mundanities on his way to the glorious indulgence of a nap, Rodney drifted into a pleasant reverie, savoring the lingering taste of kindness and the soft glow of summers long past. Finally, he fell across the bed, sinking into the effervescent feeling of laughing hazel eyes until his consciousness gently dissolved around the smile he had pressed into the well-worn cotton pillowcase.