Chapter 1: Chapter One
Oxygen was slipping out of him as the water tumbled him end over end. His questing hand touched something and he struggled to grab on to it. John kicked out wildly, desperate to have a handhold of any sort. He managed to grip a piece of submerged rock with one hand, his body still being tossed about, legs pulled in different directions.
He flung his other hand out, fighting the current to get a firmer grip on the rock, and tried to look around. Air bubbles streamed out of his mouth and nose, but he thought it looked lighter in one direction. Using the rock, John moved slowly towards the light. His lungs burned, the last of his oxygen escaping. His muscles were screaming with the effort of keeping his body moving. After the exertion he’d already put his body through, it was hard. Harder than it should have been. The light beckoned, the tantalizing knowledge of air just above the surface. Just a little further.
John lost his grip on the rock and went tumbling, panic taking over as he realized he was about to die. He flailed, trying to find out where the rock had gone. John’s mouth opened, water rushing in as his body frantically sought oxygen. He couldn’t feel the rock. He needed that to orient himself, to find the surface. If he didn’t get a breath in soon . . .
Something wrapped around his chest. He stopped tumbling end over end, found himself being towed in only one direction now.
“Breathe. Slow breaths, there you go.”
John coughed, sucking in precious, vital, gulps of oxygen even as he expelled the water that had found its way in. Water streamed down his face and he reached a shaking hand up to wipe it away, slicking his hair back so he could see.
Sunlight and waves greeted him. That was right about the time that John realized someone was holding him afloat in the water. He was above water. Saved.
“That’s it. Teyla, over here! What’s your name?”
“John,” he answered, his voice a bit raspy, and coughed again, spitting out more water.
“John. My name’s Ronon. Don’t worry; I’ve got you. Let me do the work, ‘kay?”
A boat pulled up beside them a moment later and a woman with dark skin and her hair pulled back in a ponytail leaned over the side, hand outstretched. John took it and, with Ronon pushing from behind, John was lifted into the boat. He sat on the floor and leaned back against the side, still struggling to catch his breath. The boat rocked slightly as Ronon hauled himself in, water cascading off him. He had similar dark skin, wearing only a pair of red swim trunks.
The woman, in a matching red one-piece swimsuit, knelt next to John, draped a towel over his shoulders, and said reassuringly, “Everything is okay. You are safe. I am Teyla.”
“Thanks.” John used a corner of the towel to wipe his face.
Teyla smiled at him then stood and headed for the controls. Ronon dropped down next to him and asked, “How’d you end up in that situation?”
John shook his head, his wet hair sticking to his forehead. His breathing had started to even out to something resembling normal. His heart rate was starting to come back down, the terror of his near death experience receding. “I was . . . out swimming. Same path I’ve been taking but something . . . something wasn’t right. I thought I could make it out but—I don’t know. I—I must have caught a—a current or something. Next thing I knew I was underwater and couldn’t find my way back up.”
“Yeah, well, lesson one: the ocean is never the same from one day to the next. Sometimes from one moment to the next.”
John glanced from Ronon to Teyla, noticing the matching horse-shaped logo on their swimsuits. “You guys saved my life.”
Ronon grinned at him. “It’s what we do.” John must have looked confused because he added, “We’re lifeguards.”
“How’d you know I was in trouble?”
“Couple surfers saw you go down. When you didn’t come back up, they went for shore and alerted our colleague. Teyla and I were already out here in the patrol boat so we headed right over. Rest; we’ll be back on land in a few minutes.” Ronon clapped him on the shoulder before getting to his feet.
John watched him go talk to Teyla before picking up a radio and speaking into it. Watching the waves break upon the surface as the boat skimmed along, John realized he was damn lucky to be alive. If they hadn’t been out on the water, if those surfers hadn’t seen him go down and not come up, hadn’t gone for help . . . .
Not exactly how he’d intended this trip of his to go.
The wind rustled the pages of a magazine, trying to rip them out of his hands. Feet propped up on a table, ankles crossed, John lounged in his chair and simply enjoyed the quiet. It was nice out here. Just him and the sun and—
His cell phone rang. Flipping a page, John picked it up from where it lay in his lap and answered absently, “Sheppard Air. Where can I fly you today?”
“Sheppard, it’s Ronon.”
John’s voice warmed and he lifted his focus from the article he was skimming. “Hey, man. What’s up?”
“Teyla and I are almost to you. We need your chopper. You busy?”
John’s feet dropped to the ground with a thunk. “No. I’ve got nothing on the calendar. What’s going on?”
“Got a distress signal from a boat out in the ocean. Coast Guard’s mobilizing but they’re not going to get there anytime soon. Elizabeth’s on her way in the scarab but—”
“But you could use some air support,” John finished, tossing his magazine on the table and heading for the cockpit. “I’m on it. What’s your ETA?”
“’bout ten minutes. Thanks, man.”
“Hey, happy to help.” John hung up, climbed into the pilot’s seat, and started his preflight check.
Less than ten minutes later, a red pickup pulled up next to John’s beat up Jeep and Ronon and Teyla hopped out. John started the engine and put his headset on as they grabbed their gear and hurried over. Ronon took the front, Teyla the back, and as soon as they were in, John lifted the chopper up.
John pointed to the second headset as he swung out to sea. “Where am I going?”
Ronon slid it over his head and replied, “South. Out near Gate Point.”
Gate Point was a popular spot, amongst tourists and locals alike. Surfers, fishers, folks just wanting to spend a few hours out on the water . . . it was one of John’s favorite spots to take his own vessel out to. John angled the chopper to the south, scanning the water as they drew closer. Fifteen minutes after takeoff, something appeared in the distance. John flew lower, slowing down a bit to get a better view. It was a boat. A walkaround and it was dead in the water. No sign of any passengers but that didn’t mean anything. They could be inside, unconscious, injured, or they could be in the water, in need of rescue.
Teyla opened the side door, wind whipping through the cockpit as she and Ronon readied themselves for the jump. John brought the chopper to a hover a few meters from the boat, as low as he could go without making the conditions unsafe for his friends. Opening his door, Ronon turned to John before jumping and said, “Radio Weir! Let her know we found the boat and we’re going in!”
John nodded as the lifeguards jumped out of his helicopter, leaning forward to watch them hit the water’s surface. The water was churning, waves rolling out from the force of the air his rotors were pushing out. Waiting for them to come up, John toggled his radio. “Sheppard to Weir, we’ve located the boat. Teyla and Ronon are in the water. Repeat, we’ve found the boat. Teyla and Ronon are in the water.”
Ronon and Teyla surfaced and swam for the boat. John let out a little breath of relief. He would never understand how they could put their fear aside and do crazy shit like that. Then again, maybe it wasn’t as crazy as what he’d done four years ago. Ronon reached the boat first, climbed aboard, then leaned over to help Teyla up and over the side. She went up while Ronon headed below decks, both disappearing from sight quickly.
Elizabeth’s voice crackled through his headset. “Copy that, John. Glad to hear you’re in the air. Any sign of the passengers?”
John shook his head. “Negative, but Ronon and Teyla have boarded the boat. Should have confirmation soon, either way.”
“Understood. We’ll be there soon to help.”
“Copy that,” John replied. He looked around, hoping to catch sight of the bright yellow scarab but the view was solid blue as far as he could see.
Teyla reappeared briefly then went below. John waited, fighting the urge to fidget. He’d watched them perform dozens of rescues like this and yet he always worried about them. He glanced around again—still no sign of the scarab. Or the Coast Guard. How far away were they?
Teyla came back into view, this time supporting a woman, Ronon behind them. John squinted, trying to see if the woman was injured. He didn’t have the equipment like Atlantis or the Coast Guard did, but they could try to jury rig something to get her up so he could fly her to the hospital if needed.
Ronon dove over the side.
“Shit,” John muttered, rising and moving away a bit to try and calm the waters. There was someone overboard. He raised Elizabeth again. “Sheppard to Weir, what’s your ETA?”
A moment later, she replied, “Couple minutes out. We have you in sight.”
Teyla had the woman sitting, an arm around her shoulders. She looked up, waved to get his attention, then gave him a thumbs-up.
“Be advised,” John responded, “Ronon is underwater. Teyla has a woman, appears to be uninjured.”
“Understood.” He could hear the concern in her tone and knew she was already pushing the scarab as fast as it could safely go. Ronon came up for air and immediately went back down.
They really had to come up with a way for John to contact the team on the ground—or in the water, in this case—in situations like this. Hand gestures were all well and good but they didn’t tell him nearly enough. And he could only respond with one hand, the other needed on the joystick. Hell, even just a walkie that could connect to his headset would work.
A glint of yellow in his peripheral sent relief rushing through John. The scarab had arrived, Elizabeth at the helm. Even as he turned his head in their direction, two bodies dived overboard, slicing through the water to get to the walkaround. One climbed up to join Teyla and the woman, the other going under to join Ronon in his search for the other person.
Teyla and the other lifeguard helped the woman into the scarab. She was unsteady on her feet, had some trouble making the crossing. “Weir to Sheppard.”
“She’s fine. Shaken, scared, but she’s gonna be fine.”
John blew out his breath, a quick smile. “Good.”
Ronon came back up, supporting another woman. The other lifeguard surfaced a second later and the three of them made their way to the scarab. Once they were all safely inside, John called down, “Anything I can do?”
“No,” Elizabeth replied. “Thanks, John, but we’ve got it from here.” She was already turning the scarab around to head back to shore.
“Alright. I’ll let the Coast Guard know they’ll need to tow the boat in.”
“Hey, Sheppard,” Ronon jumped in just before John switched frequencies. “Thanks, man.”
John grinned down at his friends. “Happy to help, you know that. Drinks later? First round’s on me.”
He could see Ronon laugh even as it pulsed through his headset. “You’re on! See you later.”
“Over and out,” John replied with a laugh and turned the stick, spinning around to head back to shore himself. He toyed with following them but dismissed it almost immediately. He’d done his part. So John aimed for his landing pad and contacted the Coast Guard to update them on the situation.
John had a, uh, interesting relationship with the local USCG base. They didn’t like that he assisted with nautical rescues but didn’t exactly tell him not to help. There was a certain amount of tension and derision whenever they interacted. They were military and stuff like this was what they were trained to do. He was a civilian, untrained, but unwilling to stand on the sidelines when he could help. Standing on the sidelines had been a large part of why he’d ended up out here.
John caught one last glimpse of the yellow scarab full of people and remembered his first time in it. Four years ago, he’d been in a similar situation. Trapped by water, unable to help himself . . . he’d have died if it hadn’t been for Ronon and Teyla and he never forgot it. Teyla insisted he didn’t owe them anything, but he did. Oh, he did.
For more than they could ever know. And he prayed they wouldn’t.
But sometimes, he knew, the past had a way of catching up to you.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, look!”
“Madison, be careful!”
John closed the door to the engine and wiped his hands on a rag, turning to his tour group. A little blonde girl was running down the path to him, the rest of her family right behind. He tucked the rag in his back pocket and slid his sunglasses back on.
The girl came skidding to a stop a couple feet from him and stared up with her mouth open. “Wow, are we going in that?”
John grinned down at her. “We sure are. You ever been in a helicopter before?”
She shook her head. “Uh uh. Is it scary?”
“Nah.” John bent down to her level. “Trust me, once you see the view, you’ll never want to come back down.”
She smiled at him. “I’m Madison.”
He stuck out his hand as the adults joined them. “John. Nice to meet you, Madison.” Straightening, John greeted the group. “John Sheppard. I’m guessing you’re the Millers?”
Madison’s mom—must be, from the matching looks—nodded. “I’m Jeannie. This is my husband Kaleb, and brother—”
“Rodney,” the brother interjected, darting a frown at her. “Rodney McKay.”
John raised an eyebrow. Right, something happening there. Something that he did not need to be involved in. “Great to meet you. Let’s get the paperwork out of the way right off the bat so you can enjoy your flight. Sound good?”
John headed into the little office building, the quartet on his heels. He headed behind the counter and started looking for their file. Had Jinto been by yet this week? Judging from the mess, John would have to go with no.
“I still can’t believe you’re making me do this. You know how much I hate flying,” John heard the brother, Rodney, mutter. “And look at this place! It’s a mess! What if he flies as messily as he keeps his workspace?”
“Mer, you said you would be open to new experiences,” the sister replied in an undertone, clearly trying to keep John from hearing. Mer? “He had the best reputation when I asked around so just be nice and try to have fun? Okay?”
“. . . fine.”
A pile of papers toppled. Whoops. John scrambled to keep them from hitting the floor then grinned as he saw “Miller” scribbled on the label of one. “Got it!” he said, turning back around.
Jeannie turned to him, her face slightly flushed with either annoyance at Rodney or embarrassment that John heard what he’d said. “Great. Just tell me what I need to sign.”
They went over the paperwork, she handed over a credit card, he ignored Rodney’s huffing and then they were heading back out to the helicopter. Madison skipped along at his side. John looked down and fought another smile. Little kids were fun. John pulled open the side door then the copilot door. “Who wants to sit up front?”
“Me!” Madison jumped at the question.
John looked to Jeannie. “There’s room for her and an adult, if that’s okay with you.”
Jeannie nodded, clearly relieved. “I’ll sit with her. Mer won’t sit up front, anyway.”
“Forgive me if I’d prefer not to have a front seat view to my impending doom,” Rodney retorted.
“Alright,” John replied. “Kaleb, Rodney, you’ll find seatbelts and headsets for each of you in the back. Seatbelts are self-explanatory; headsets are for communication and protection from the noise.” As the men started to climb in, John hoisted Madison up into the cockpit. “Up we go. Careful not to touch anything, ‘kay?”
She slid into the seat, already engrossed in the instrument panel. John offered Jeannie a hand then shut the doors, making sure they wouldn’t open in the middle of the flight, then he headed around to take his own seat. Jeannie was buckling Madison in as he sat down and slid his headset on, starting the preflight check.
John asked, “Everyone all set?”
“You are trained, yes?” Rodney asked. “Like, you went to pilot school and everything?”
“Well, if I’m going to be forced into the air, then I’d at least like to know my pilot knows what he’s doing!”
Always gotta be one, he thought with annoyance. As used to it as he was, John still felt the irrational need to defend himself. “I’ve had my pilot’s license for going on seven years now. I’ve been flying these tours for four of those years and I’ve never crashed, never come back with any problems. I even help out the local lifeguards in their rescues. Good enough resume for you?”
Rodney muttered, “Better than what I expected.” He sighed. “Alright, yes, fine, get on with it.”
John shook his head slightly but started her up. Madison leaned forward, Jeannie’s arm across her chest, as he lifted off.
Despite McKay’s attitude, it was one of the more fun tours John had done. Madison’s wide-eyed enthusiasm was infectious ad John found himself finding ways to keep that smile and look of wonder on her face as long as he could. He took them past beaches filled with swimmers, sunbathers, and surfers. He took them out to the islands, showed them lighthouses, cities, uninhabited locales . . . he even tried soaring out to sea in order to try and find a pod of dolphins but no luck.
When he brought them in for a landing an hour later, John was actually a little sorry to see them go. Rodney and Kaleb got out with no trouble, Rodney grumbling something under his breath that John couldn’t catch. Deciding to ignore it, he helped Jeannie down then swung Madison out. She threw her arms around his waist, hugging him tightly. John awkwardly patted her on the head.
“That was wonderful,” Jeannie said as Madison let go. “Thank you, John.”
John nodded, sliding his hands in his pockets. “Glad you had a good time. How long are you staying on the island?”
Kaleb answered, “Couple weeks. Family vacation, you know?”
John replied, “Picked a great place for it. If you want another flight, or a lift somewhere, let me know. And enjoy your vacation.”
Jeannie smiled, reaching for her husband’s hand. “It is beautiful here. Thank you again, John. Have a good day!”
John lifted one hand in a goodbye gesture as the little group walked away. Interesting group, he thought as he returned to his chair.
John had a rare afternoon off, no tours scheduled, his friends working. So he decided to take his dog out for a walk. Tail wagging happily, Cash had started sniffing at something on the sidewalk when John spotted McKay and grinned. Seeing the laptop resting on the table in front of him, totally engrossed in whatever was on the screen and completely ignoring the absolute beauty of the island around him, John couldn’t help but mess with him a bit.
John sidled up to him then leaned over his shoulder and said, “You get porn on there?”
“What the—!” McKay jumped.
John laughed and moved around to his side, Cash following without argument. “Hey, sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
McKay glared at him. “What the hell—wait, I know you.” He snapped his fingers several times then pointed. “The pilot! What are you doing here?”
“Walking my dog.”
“And sneaking up on people. You think that was funny?”
“Guilty,” John said cheerfully then motioned at the chair opposite. “Mind if I join you?”
Rodney shook his head and closed the lid of his laptop, gesturing at the empty chair.
“Yeah, but you can call me Rodney.”
“John.” He sat down and said “I was just teasing about the whole porn thing, you know.”
“I figured, considering you could see the screen.” Cash put his muzzle on Rodney’s leg and whined. Rodney’s mouth quirked in a little smile and he ran a hand over the Labrador’s head, scratched his ears. “Who’s this guy?”
John raised an eyebrow as his dog jumped up, putting his paws on the edge of the chair so he could reach Rodney’s face and started licking. “This is Cash.”
Rodney wasn’t pushing Cash away or making a disgusted face. John’s brow furrowed. Dogs were good judges of character and Cash was trained more than most dogs were. He was also usually reticent about new people, so to see him so friendly with Rodney . . . John rested a foot on his knee and mentally revised his opinion of McKay’s character. Maybe there was something Cash sensed that hadn’t been made apparent yet.
After a minute, John whistled. “Come on, boy. Leave the guy alone.” Cash jumped down and came over to sit next to John, his head tilted to the side, tongue out. John rolled his eyes and rested a hand on the lab’s head. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You get no attention at all, no one ever pets you. Not like you’re totally spoiled at all.” He rolled his eyes at his dog’s pleas for attention.
Rodney chuckled and John’s gaze shot back to him in surprise. Again, not the reaction John had expected. “All dogs are like that. Always looking for attention. Does Cash go flying with you?”
“Sometimes.” John continued studying McKay, looping the length of leash around his wrist to keep Cash from wandering. “You waiting on your sister?”
“Avoiding her, more like.”
“Ah, yeah, kinda got that there’s some, shall we say, tension between you two?” Cash scooted over to Rodney again, the leash taut.
Rodney petted him as he answered, “Yeah, that’s one word for it. We had a huge fight a few years back and it kind of ruined our relationship for a while. This whole thing was her idea. Reconnecting and shit.”
The conversation stalled after that but oddly, John didn’t mind. Usually when the awkward silence fell, he made some sort of excuse and left. But Cash liked Rodney and John didn’t have anywhere to be. His only plan was to chill on the beach, maybe go for a swim before dinner. If Ronon and Teyla were free, maybe they’d take his boat out.
“Is there good money in it? Flying tours of the area?” Rodney asked abruptly.
John shrugged. “Good enough.” He wasn’t in it for the money, didn’t need an income, but he didn’t say that. He didn’t need to burden a stranger with his drama. “I like to fly. Area’s pretty enough to warrant aerial tours.”
“Oh.” Rodney tapped his fingers on his closed laptop. “So, uh . . . you—do you do ground tours, too, or just in your helicopter?”
“I’ve been known to give recommendations,” John replied slowly. Where was he going with this?
“It’s just you and Cash, then?”
Was Rodney hitting on him? “For the most part, yeah.” John eyed him with renewed interest. Never would’ve guessed he swung that way. But he was kinda handsome and he had the most amazing blue eyes. John could get lost in those eyes, if he wanted. “Friends come by, occasional overnight guest, but yeah. Me and Cash do just fine.”
“So you just . . . fly people around, recommend places, and what? Do nothing?”
“I live my life the way I want to.” John felt his jaw tense. Aaaand, so much for flirting. He had a feeling he knew where this was going. “I run my own business, no one bothers me, I’m happy.”
Rodney leaned forward. “And that’s all you want? You have no ambitions? There’s nothing you want to do or accomplish in life? You’re content to just sit on the beach and fly whenever someone hires you?”
John slid out of the chair. “You know what, if you’re gonna judge my life choices, then I’m gonna leave. Enjoy your family vacation, McKay. Cash!” John tugged on the leash, the Lab reluctantly leaving Rodney’s side. “Let’s go, boy. Time to leave.”
John went home, put Cash inside, then changed into shorts and went for a run.
Cash went crashing through the surf, head bobbing as he chased the rope-and-ball toy. John waited, one hand in his pocket, for Cash to grab his toy and come back. Sand clung to his fur and paws as Cash bounded up to John and dropped the rope on the sand before him. John picked it up and sent it arcing through the air back into the water. Cash went gamely after it.
John looked over briefly. “McKay. Enjoying your vacation?” he asked, keeping his tone neutral.
Cash raced up, dropped the rope. John bent down to pick it up and threw it again.
McKay cleared his throat and said, “Um, so I, uh, I wanted to apologize if I offended you. You know, before.”
“Before,” John drawled. He decided to have a little fun with it. He bore no ill will towards the man; after all, it wasn’t anything he hadn’t run into before. And they barely knew each other; of course McKay had an opinion based on a first impression. “Oh, you mean that time you implied that I’m nothing more than a lazy beach bum! Yeah, no, I love having my life choices questioned by someone who doesn’t know me.”
Cash raced up, dropping his toy in front of McKay this time. When McKay didn’t immediately throw it, Cash barked once at him. “He wants you to throw it,” John pointed out.
McKay shot him a look that said he knew very well what the dog wanted then bent down to pick up the sodden rope-and-ball toy. He made a face then threw it. It was a pretty good throw, too, John noted as his dog shot after it. “I have a tendency to speak without thinking and I end up offending most people I talk to. It’s not personal. I just, well—I felt bad.”
“’You felt bad,’” John repeated, fighting a grin. “Wow, do I feel special.”
“Hey, look,” McKay said, starting to sound annoyed, “I’m trying to make nice here. That’s not something I normally do. Waste of time worrying about other people’s feelings, if you ask me. So . . . yes. I guess you are? Special?”
John laughed, turning to face McKay as Cash came back. “Alright, alright, I’m just messing with you. Apology accepted, man.”
McKay scowled at him. “How long were you going to let me go on before stopping me?”
John reached for the dog toy and shrugged. “I dunno. I was enjoying the whole “special” discussion.”
“I take it back.”
“Nope. No takebacks. Here,” John shoved the toy at him. “You get to throw it again.”
Rodney took it with the minimum amount of contact, his mouth screwed up in disgust, and flung it away from him. John laughed. “So, seriously, are you enjoying this trip at all or have you been so focused on your computer that you’re missing what a beautiful place this is?”
“Oh, that was a serious question earlier.” Rodney crossed his arms. “Well, I guess. I mean, I’ve seen beaches. Lots of beaches. And a couple, you know, tourist-y sites. And then I’ve been drafted as babysitter far more than I’d like.”
“Oh man, you haven’t even seen the good stuff!”
“Yeah, um,” Rodney hedged, “well, that was kind of the other reason I came over when I saw you here.”
“Yeah. You said you give recommendations. Got any for a family outing that’s also actually interesting?”
Cash came back, moving a little slower now, but his tail was wagging like crazy. He sat on the sand, dropped the toy, and panted. John rubbed the dog’s head, ears flopping, as he thought. Discarded a couple based on the kid. “You been out on the water yet?”
“Did you miss the part where I said we’ve done a lot of beaches?”
“No,” John replied, “I don’t mean swimming or wading. I mean out on the water. Past the break. You can charter a boat, make an afternoon or a day of it. Maybe get lucky and catch some dolphins. Head out to Gate Point—one of my favorite spots. Absolutely beautiful out there.”
“That sounds . . . actually pretty nice.” Rodney bit his lip then asked, “Where would I find a boat to charter?”
John gave him a sideways onceover, a crazy thought crossing his mind. But what would McKay think of it? Cash flopped onto his back, rolling in the sand, and John shoved a hand into his pocket. He pulled out a crumpled business card, flipped it over, and scribbled an address on the back. He stared at it for a few seconds while Rodney tried to keep the wet Lab from jumping on him then held it out before he could change his mind. “Show up here around ten on Saturday. Guarantee everyone’ll have a great time.”
Rodney shoved Cash away again then took the card with an eyebrow raised. He read the address then flipped it over to see John’s business logo then went back to the address. “And this would be the address to . . .?”
John grabbed Cash’s collar, dragging his dog over to clip his leash on. “A charter.”
“Uh huh. And who will be driving the boat? Where are we going? How much will it cost?” Rodney asked, skepticism out in full force.
John picked up the sodden dog toy, his heart pounding in his chest for no apparent reason. “Piloting, McKay. It’s called piloting.”
“Semantics,” Rodney responded, waving a hand in dismissal.
“As for the rest of your questions,” John shrugged. “Gate Point. And don’t worry about it.”
Rodney stared at him. “You know the dr—pilot?” he corrected himself.
John nodded—the pilot was him but he wasn’t saying that.
“And why won’t I need to worry about the cost?”
“Because I can guarantee the pilot won’t take anything in payment. He’ll love the opportunity to take people out to see one of his favorite places around here.” It was a little weird, talking about himself in the third person, but he wasn’t sure Rodney would show up if he knew John was the pilot. He didn’t understand why it was important that Rodney show up but was spared from thinking too hard on it by Cash barking.
Rodney absently reached down to pat him on the head, still staring at John. Finally, Rodney said, “Okay. I guess I’ll tell Jeannie we have plans for Saturday. You’re sure this guy’s okay with you volunteering him?”
John grinned. “Definitely.”
How's that for Rodney's entrance? You like it? ;)
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
“Anything else coming aboard, John?”
Locking his door, John half twisted to see Kanaan had returned. John cast a quick glance around. “Ah . . . no, looks like we got everything. Just waiting on the client.” John finished locking things up, tugged his sunglasses on, ignoring the barking of Cash inside the house, and took the couple steps down to the ground. Jinto would swing by and check on him that afternoon so he’d be fine.
John still felt guilty, though, leaving the dog behind. Cash went pretty much everywhere with him, loved being on the Man but John didn’t want to risk seeing how he’d deal with two kids on board.
Teyla called out, “John, I believe your guests are here!”
John took a breath then walked over to join her as she hoisted Torren onto her hip. John ruffled the kid’s hair, making him giggle, then set his feet firmly on the ground as the rental car pulled up next to Teyla’s car.
Jeannie appeared first, climbing out of the passenger seat and looking around. She saw John and smiled, waving at him as Madison slid out of the backseat. Kaleb and Rodney got out next and John saw the instant Rodney connected the dots.
“You’re the pilot?!” Rodney demanded, striding over to him. “Why the hell did you tell me it was someone else?”
“Mer,” Jeannie chastised then smiled at John. “John, I didn’t know you did boat charters as well.”
John ignored the accusatory look and shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t. But Rodney and I bumped into each other the other day and he mentioned you guys hadn’t really seen any of the really amazing places.” He glanced quickly at Rodney. “I didn’t mean to mislead you, I just . . . wasn’t sure how you’d feel about having me as your pilot again.”
Rodney crossed his arms. “I recall apologizing.”
“For insinuating I do nothing but laze about. There was no apology about insulting my ability to fly.”
“Do you fly a boat?” Rodney asked, a note of curiosity in his voice this time.
John found himself grinning. “If you do it right,” he answered with a wink.
Rodney rolled his eyes but there was a hint of a smile on his lips.
Teyla cleared her throat and John winced. Whoops, right. “So these are some friends of mine I invited along, hope that’s okay. This is Teyla, her life partner Kanaan, and their son Torren. Guys, this is Jeannie, her husband Kaleb, their daughter Madison, and annoying relative Rodney.” John grinned at Rodney, this time getting a full smile, brief though it was.
Teyla extended a hand to each of them in turn. “It is a pleasure to meet you. You have met John before?”
Kaleb shook hands with Kanaan. “Yeah, we took one of his aerial tours. The island is beautiful.”
“I believe that one should live in a place that offers peace to one’s soul,” Teyla answered.
Jeannie tilted her head, thinking that over. “That’s lovely.” Teyla smiled at her.
John clapped his hands together. “Right!” he said loudly, getting everyone’s attention. They needed to get going before the conversation went any further. “I’ve got everything we’ll need on board, so let’s get going!”
John tipped his head back, draining the last of the beer in the bottle, and set it down by his feet. He leaned forward to see over the edge of the bridge and smiled. Inviting Teyla had been a good idea, it looked like. She and Jeannie had quickly fallen into conversation and were sitting on a bench. The husbands had paired up as well, McKay had been with them but John didn’t see him. But, from his perch, John caught a whiff of the coconut sunblock McKay had instantly slathered himself with as soon as they were under way. John still hadn’t quite made up his mind about the guy. One minute he was cool, the next he complained about anything and everything.
It might be a problem that John was finding the grumbling amusing rather than annoying.
Laughter drew John’s attention to the bow and Madison and Torren went running by. John grinned. Torren had spent a lot of time on the Solitary Man through the course of his young life but it looked like Madison had gotten her sea legs the fastest out of all the Millers.
“Hey.” There’s McKay. He’d come up the stairs to the bridge without John hearing him and was currently holding out a beer. John took it with a nod of thanks, condensation already starting to bead along the bottle’s side. Speaking of getting their sea legs . . . .
“I see you’ve stopped puking your guts up over the side.” John smirked and took a drink.
Rodney scowled at him then sighed as he leaned back against the rail, opposite John. John studied him, noting that he was still pretty pale but at least he had the good sense not to have anything that would upset his already queasy stomach. He had a bottle of water in hand. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s all mock the city boy for not being used to the ocean. I’m used to it. Everyone else makes fun of me, why not you?”
John blinked. “Whoa, hang on a sec. That is—I was just teasing. Who makes fun of you? And for what?”
Rodney gave him an incredulous look. “I am smarter than everyone I meet and that’s not me boasting. I actually am. My IQ is over 200. I was in high school before I was ten, college when I hit my teenage years. And then, to balance the staggering intellect I was given, the universe went and gave me zero social skills. You do the math from there.”
John let out a low whistle. High school at ten? John had a hard time and he was the typical age in high school. “That had to have been hard,” he finally said, knowing it was inadequate.
Rodney shrugged and sipped his water. “Making friends when you’re younger than all of your classmates and have a tendency to show up everyone—including your professors? Yeah, hard does not begin to describe it. I learned fairly early on in life that most people don’t like it when you tell them you’re smarter than them and then proceed to prove it.”
“Still, though,” John pushed, “you—you had to have had some friends, right?”
Rodney raised an eyebrow. “Really? You have noticed that I am the stereotypical description of “geek,” right?”
“Ah,” John hedged. He didn’t want to say yes because that would be incredibly rude but . . . yeah, he kinda did.
“Yeah.” Rodney ran his gaze down the length of John’s body and up again. John started to feel a bit warm. “Let me guess: jock? High school star athlete?”
John bristled, warmth gone in a flash. “Yeah.”
“Oh don’t get your underwear in a twist,” Rodney said with a dismissive wave of his hand. The discussion seemed to be distracting him from his upset stomach; there was a distinct flush in his cheeks. “It’s a thousand percent easier for athletes. Everyone loves a jock, doesn’t matter what sport. Built-in friend group, similar tastes. Virtually impossible to be hated unless you screw up the winning game. Geeks on the other hand? Automatic outcast. And yet, I managed to be an outcast within the outcasts. Yay me.”
John didn’t know what to say to that. Sounded like Rodney had had a hard time growing up but he also felt like he had John pegged. And John didn’t like being shoved into boxes. By anyone. So he found himself talking about something he didn’t really share all that often. “I understand more than you think.” The words slipped out.
Rodney gestured for him to go on, but skepticism lurked in his blue eyes.
John checked their heading and speed then settled against the rail and looked out at the water, waves rolling by. The breeze from the cloudless blue sky ruffled his hair. “I was a jock, yeah, you got that part right. But that was because it was expected of me. I was a military brat, a new school every year or two. As a perpetual new kid, the surefire way to be liked is to join a sports team. But I was good at math. I enjoyed math. But stereotypes said that I couldn’t be star athlete and be good at math. So, after a few fights at school and home, I decided to go with just the dumb jock at the next school and stuck with it. It was easier. You, though—you didn’t hide your smarts. You’re braver than I am.”
Rodney laughed a tad bitterly. “Brave? Me? Please.”
Glancing back at him, their eyes met and John felt that hint of warmth again. “Come on, high school at ten?” John asked, a hint of a grin. “Brave.”
“More like, I didn’t have the common sense to know when to shut up.”
“I do seem to recall you saying you have a tendency to speak before thinking.”
Rodney sighed. “Yes. A tendency that has given me much trouble in my life. One benefit of graduating high school early, though? No lockers big enough to fit a grown man.”
John let the grin out. “I don’t know,” he drawled teasingly, “I’m pretty sure I could find something if you really wanted to reminisce.”
Rodney shot him a sharp look then seemed to realize John was teasing and rolled his eyes. “Ass,” he replied, but the tone was—dare he say, fond? Had they gotten to that point already?
“So what do you do when you’re not heaving over the side of my boat?” John asked.
Rodney drank some water and said, “I do consulting work for the government.”
“Tell me you have to kill me stuff?”
“Something like that.”
“Well,” Rodney shifted his weight, “in keeping with my stereotype, I’m a fan of classic science fiction.”
John grinned and swigged some beer, reaching to turn the wheel a few inches to port. “We talking Trek vs Wars or classic Who vs new Who?”
That did it. Rodney jumped on the conversational topic with hardly any hesitation beyond asking if John was serious. They went careening down a long, long discussion over the merits of ‘80s science fiction shows.
It was fun.
Far more fun than John had expected to have with the man who complained about everything. John pointedly ignored the knowing look Teyla aimed up at him whenever their conversations got a bit too loud or when John sent Rodney down for drinks, claiming he couldn’t leave the bridge unattended when Rodney asked why he didn’t go get his own drink. Which led to John offering to teach him the basics of piloting the Man.
John leaned against the rail, arms crossed, and repeated, “Easy. She’ll do the work for you; just turn the wheel. Gently. There you go.”
It turned out Rodney was a pretty quick learner and his background in engineering gave him an aptitude for understanding the instruments. John had given him a crash course then let him start messing around with the controls—under John’s supervision, of course. The Solitary Man was his baby, after all.
Rodney shot him a quick grin, clearly pleased at his skill at piloting a boat for the first time. “Okay, I think I’m starting to see why you like this.”
“You feel it, right? The growl of the engines under your feet. The wind in your hair? It’s one of my favorite sensations.” John returned the grin and said, “Okay, straighten out. Remember, slowly.”
Rodney turned the wheel slowly back to center. Face slightly sunburned despite the sunblock, hair wind tossed, Rodney looked—hot. Desire shot through him so fast it damn near took his breath away, as unexpected as it was fierce. John cleared his throat, turning away, and hoped Rodney didn’t catch the fact that he was semi-hard in his jeans. Finding someone to talk about sci-fi had been a delightful surprise, especially when Rodney didn’t act like it was somehow wrong for a jock to like Star Trek. He found himself wishing Rodney could hang out a bit. Ronon preferred action movies with tons of explosions and Teyla only barely tolerated most of what they watched, preferring classics and musicals.
Cash, of course, had no opinion other than what food John had while he watched TV and whether he was willing to share it.
A scream ruined the moment, dragging John from his less than virtuous thoughts. Several splashes followed. John jerked forward off the rail, looking in the direction of the sounds just in time to see Teyla jump overboard. What the—?
“What was that?” Rodney asked, sounding startled.
“Don’t know,” John answered, heading for the stairs down to the deck to investigate.
“John!” Kanaan shouted.
John nearly bumped into Kanaan rounding the corner as John’s shoes hit the deck.
“John, you have to do something!”
“Whoa, hang on.” John grabbed Kanaan’s forearms, to steady himself but also to get the man to get a grip. “Take a breath, Kanaan. Okay? Now tell me what happened.”
Kanaan took a deep breath. “Madison. She—she was climbing up the rail, trying to show Torren something. Kaleb told her to get down but she wasn’t listening.” Kaleb shook his head, panic lacing his voice. “He went over to get her but she—she must have lost her balance or slipped and she fell into the water! He went in after her and Teyla jumped in, too, but, John—she can’t . . . not both of them.”
Fuck. No time to call for help. By the time they got here, Madison and Kaleb could be dead. Teyla was damn good, but even she would have trouble with a freaked out kid and parent. He’d have to go in to help. John reached for the laces on his shoes, shouted up the stairs, “McKay, hit the brakes like I showed you!” He leaned against Kanaan as he pulled his shoes off then headed for the rail. John yanked his shirt over his head, dropped it to the deck as he climbed up. The Man juddered to a stop.
He heard Rodney’s feet on the steps, then his voice called out, “John? What’s going on?”
John left Kanaan to break the news as he grabbed the rail and vaulted over, the water closing over his head. Knowing Teyla would go to the highest risk first—Madison—John broke the surface and scanned the area for Kaleb.
Splashing drew his attention but he only saw the girls. Where was Kaleb? “Kaleb!” John yelled, treading water as he twisted in a circle. “KALEB!”
“Here!” a faint voice reached him. “Over here!”
John’s head whipped around and he swam a few feet out, looking, looking. “Kaleb, say something! I’m trying to locate you!”
“. . . here, John! I’m here!”
Gotcha. John struck out in Kaleb’s direction. It was a matter of minutes to reach what he’d thought had been the spot Kaleb had called out from but he wasn’t there. “God—” John shook his head, took a couple bracing breaths and ducked under.
The world went mute, the only sound the bubbles coming from John as he searched. He had to have gone under just before John reached him so he couldn’t be too far down.
His lungs strained. John surfaced, sucked in another deep breath, and slipped back under the water. Come on, come on, where are you?
Wait, was that—? Yes. John swam rapidly over to Kaleb, wrapped an arm around his chest, and started up. John grimaced, bubbles spilling out past his lips as he struggled. Kaleb’s sodden clothing weighed them down, not helped by the fact that John was already tired. Just a little further.
They broke the surface, both gratefully sucking in air. Kaleb coughed.
“Easy,” John wheezed, working on keeping them both up. “Easy. Just—just let me—let me take it from here, yeah?”
Kaleb coughed, “Y—yeah.”
John looked around, half hoping to spot Teyla but knowing she’d be preoccupied with Madison. He spotted the Solitary Man in the distance and bit back a groan. Christ, how had they gotten so far away so fast? With a sigh, John started back to his boat, towing Kaleb with him.
“M—Maddie.” Kaleb had gotten his breath back. “She fell in. Is she—did she—”
John answered, “She’s okay. Just worry about yourself now.” He actually didn’t know that for sure, but it was Teyla. If he’d needed rescuing, Teyla and Ronon would be his first choices. God, his arms already hurt. “How good a swimmer are you?”
It turned out, not that good. At least, not good enough to help but good enough to keep from actively hindering John. But it was taking too long to get to the boat and John’s muscles were burning. But, but the boat was moving.
The Solitary Man approached slowly and John went nearly limp with relief as he saw Kanaan reaching over the rail to them. “Come on, John,” he called out. “Nearly there! Come on, just a little further!”
Should make that his motto: just a little further.
Steeling himself, John summoned up his last reserves of strength and plowed through the final few feet to the boat. “Take Kaleb!” John called up.
Kaleb grabbed Kanaan’s hands, Kanaan gripped him tight and—with John helping from the water—hauled him up and over the rail. John sunk below the surface for a moment then forced his body back up. Shaking his head, water dripping into his eyes and mouth, John grabbed the next hand that reached down to him.
“Damn, you’re heavy,” McKay grunted. Feet braced against the side, Rodney somehow managed to drag John into the boat, both of them falling to the deck in an undignified heap.
John just lay there for a minute, catching his breath. He patted Rodney’s leg a couple times. “Thanks, man.”
Sitting up, John moved to put his back to the rail, and a towel was dropped in his lap. Shooting Rodney a quick look, John wiped his face then tried to dry his hair. “Kaleb?”
“Being checked out by Teyla,” Rodney answered, moving to sit next to him. Their shoulders touched, a spot of warmth that John found himself leaning into.
“Madison?” If Teyla was with Kaleb, then surely . . .
Rodney pointed and John followed his finger to see a blanket-encased little girl in Jeannie’s lap, Jeannie’s face pressed into the girl’s hair. “Very freaked out and soaked, but she’s gonna be okay, Teyla says.”
Relief flooded him. “Good.” John had been sure that Teyla would reach the kid in time but it was nice to have the confirmation. He scrubbed his head with the towel again and leaned a little further into Rodney’s warm body as a slight shiver ran through him.
“Are you okay?” Rodney asked, a bit hesitant.
John nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Just not used to the exertion.”
Kaleb joined Jeannie, a towel draped over his shoulders, kissed her head then Madison’s. Teyla walked into view, squeezing water out of her hair. She shot John a forbidding frown and he winced, knowing that a lecture was coming. Fun. Maybe she’d go easy on him.
“Who are you people?” Rodney asked quietly after a couple minutes had passed. Teyla had knelt down to check on Maddie again.
John glanced sidelong at him. “Whatcha mean?”
“I mean, you and Teyla.”
“What about us?” John glanced over at Teyla and the Millers then back to Rodney, confused.
“She just—she just jumped right in after Kaleb and Madison.” Rodney shook his head then shifted to face him. John instantly missed the warmth and dragged the towel through his hair again. “And you . . . you didn’t even hesitate! You went in after her!”
“Well, yeah,” John replied, nonplussed. “Teyla was gonna go after Madison which left no one to help Kaleb. I’m a fairly decent swimmer and there wasn’t time to call Atlantis for assistance.”
“Is this—is this something else you do? Save people? And what’s Atlantis?”
John huffed a laugh, uncomfortable with both the scrutiny and the awe. He didn’t deserve it. “No, no. No way. Well . . . I mean, if I’m helping, it’s from my chopper. Atlantis is the lifeguard program around here. Teyla works for them and occasionally they call me for extra assistance but I don’t go in the water. That’s Teyla’s thing.”
“And you should have left it as my ‘thing,’ as you say,” Teyla’s stern voice cut in.
They both looked up. “Hey, Teyla,” John greeted her warily, wondering what form his lecture would come in. Stern but forgiving? Disapproving? Angry? She was impossible to read sometimes. “Kaleb and the kid okay?”
“They will be fine.” Teyla knelt next to them and studied John, concern in her eyes. “How are you?”
“Fine, Teyla. No need to fuss. Just catching my breath.”
Her mouth twisted. “You will catch a chill, sitting here.” She turned to Rodney. “Can you find another towel?”
Rodney shot John a quick, unreadable look, but got up and left.
Once he was gone, Teyla shook her head. “John, what were you thinking?”
“I was thinking, two people, one Teyla.” John shrugged. “Out of all the people on the boat, I’m the best equipped to help you.”
“But you have not been trained on water rescue, John!” Teyla sighed heavily. “What if something had happened?”
“But it didn’t. And we’re good.”
Her frown intensified. “But if it had? And I had to rescue you as well? Or one of you had been severely injured? What then?”
John used the towel to scrub his hair, thereby avoiding the disapproving look. Yeah, yeah, it could have gone badly. But how could he let her do this on her own? He hadn’t even thought about it past his first gut instinct to help Teyla. “Sorry,” he finally said. “That didn’t occur to me.”
“Clearly.” Teyla’s expression finally softened, apparently having gotten her message across. “How do you really feel?”
He rolled his eyes. “Turn off the Mom gene, Teyla, I’m fine. Wet, tired, a little chilled. Seriously, just focus on the kid. She’s really okay?”
Teyla sighed, capitulating. “Madison should see a doctor just in case but I believe she will suffer no ill effects from her impromptu swim. Would you mind heading back to shore early?”
“Not at all.” John got to his feet just as Rodney returned.
“Uh . . .” Rodney said, looking between them. “Couldn’t find any more towels.”
Teyla put a hand on John’s arm. “John, you should put on some dry clothing. I know there is nothing small enough for Madison on board, but I believe Kaleb is a similar size to you. Could he borrow something to wear?”
John ran a hand through his hair and shivered as a gust of wind blew past. Dry clothes sounded nice. “Yeah.” He nodded. “Yeah, I can do that. Come on, McKay, help me out?”
They left Teyla and went downstairs, making their way through the narrow corridor to the one bedroom. John dropped his wet towel on the floor and pulled open a dresser drawer.
“So, uh,” Rodney started, “what am I supposed to be helping with? And do you really sleep in here?”
John pulled out a pair of shorts that were loose on him but should fit Kaleb well enough and a pair of worn jeans with a hole in one of the knees for himself. He pulled open another drawer full of shirts. Riffled through the options. “Sometimes. When I need space to think.” He pulled out a t-shirt and held it out. “You think Kaleb can fit in this?”
Rodney gave him a helpless look. “I don’t know. Yes? I guess?”
“Cool.” John tossed it on the bed with the shorts, tugged out a dry shirt for himself then started to shimmy out of his wet jeans.
Rodney swore. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Changing. Despite what you may think, wet jeans are very uncomfortable.” The denim clung to his boxers, tugging them down, too. He heard movement and assumed Rodney had turned his back to him. John grinned. Propriety? No, McKay had said he had zero social skills so maybe he was interested in John, too? Leaving the sodden clothing in a lump on the floor, John quickly swept the towel down his body then quickly dressed. “You can turn around now,” John said, amused, as he pulled the shirt over his head.
“A little warning would have been nice,” Rodney grumbled.
John picked up the change of clothes for Kaleb—he drew the line at sharing underwear—and headed for the door, shooting Rodney a smirk. “What else did you think I was going to do down here, in my bedroom?”
Rodney followed him out, griping, “Oh, I don’t know, give me the change of clothes for Kaleb, send me back out, then close the door before stripping naked?”
John grinned over his shoulder as he started up the stairs. “What’s the matter, you see something you like?”
John tossed the dry clothes to Kaleb then went up to the bridge, set a course for shore. He didn’t know why he suddenly decided to flirt with McKay. Maybe he’d swallowed too much salt water and wasn’t thinking straight. He pushed the accelerator down. John was attracted to Rodney, that much was clear. And it appeared that perhaps Rodney was attracted to him, as well.
But he was only visiting. No point in starting something that was doomed to end.
The local doctor, Jen, was waiting for them when John pulled in at the little dock by his house. She was Atlantis’ go-to doctor in the field and she’d sort of become John’s de facto personal doctor as well over the years. She was competent, had a good bedside manner, didn’t lecture him all that much when he and Ronon did stupid shit and got hurt. Which was fairly often. Jen would make sure the kid was okay.
He killed the engines as Jen walked up, her med bag over one shoulder. She lifted a hand in greeting and he returned it before heading down the stairs. Madison was still wrapped in towels, huddled in Kaleb’s arms. Kanaan hopped onto the dock then reached back over to help the rest of the group over, John assisting from inside. Teyla was first out, Torren in her arms, and she set him down with a stern order to stay put before going to greet Jen.
“Hi, Teyla!” Jen called out with a bright smile and they hugged. “John said you had a water rescue?”
“Yes,” Teyla confirmed, turning back to wave Kaleb forward. “Young Madison fell overboard, her father went in after her, but John and I retrieved them before too long. There should not be anything wrong but I just want to be certain.”
Jen nodded. “Of course. Happy to help.”
John sat on the rail, legs swinging above the wood of the dock. “Hey, doc. Thanks for coming out. Been waiting long?”
“Hi, John. No, not too long. Do you need me to check you and Teyla out, too?”
“Nah, we’re good.” Jen raised a skeptical eyebrow at him and he grinned. Raising his hands, John said, “No stupid shit today. Promise.”
She laughed. “I think Teyla would disagree but okay.”
Kaleb set his daughter down on the dock and she clung to his hand as Jen knelt in front of her and smiled gently. “Hi, sweetie. My name’s Jennifer. What’s yours?”
“Okay, Madison.” Jennifer riffled through her bag and pulled out a stethoscope. “I’m just going to make sure that you’re breathing okay. It won’t hurt, promise.”
Jen did some doctor-y things, stood and did the same to Kaleb, then smiled at them both. “I think that what you both need is some well-deserved rest. I don’t see anything obviously wrong but if something changes—and I’m not saying it will—get in touch with John or Teyla and they’ll call me.”
Jeannie nodded. “Thank you, Dr. Jennifer. I appreciate you coming all the way out here.”
Jen repacked her bag. “Oh it’s no problem. Not my first time getting a call from John out of the blue.” Leaning over, she gave John a pointed look to which he shrugged.
Rodney glanced at him and John shrugged again. “I get bored,” he offered by way of explanation, “and I have a friend who likes to tempt fate.”
“They keep me in business,” Jen added with a little frown.
“Yeah yeah,” John said. “Kid good?”
“Yup.” Jen looked down at Madison then unzipped a pocket on her bag, drew out a lollipop and handed it to the girl. “I hope you enjoy your time here.”
“Thanks,” Madison said, sticking it in her mouth.
“Alright, so we’re all set. John, Teyla, Kanaan, wonderful to see you. If you’re certain you don’t want a quick check, I’ll be on my way.”
Teyla glanced at John then back to Jen. “We are certain. Thank you again, Jennifer, for coming out.”
“My pleasure.” Jen waved. “Bye!”
After she left, Jeannie handed John back the towels Madison had been using and they all walked back to where their rental car was parked. Kaleb and Jeannie fussed over making sure Madison was settled in the car while John said bye to Rodney and Teyla, Kanaan, and Torren. He ruffled the boy’s hair, got a giggle, then touched foreheads with Teyla. She and Kanaan went to say bye to the Millers. John turned to Rodney and tried for something bland enough to say. “Well, I hope this hasn’t ruined your opinion of Athos. It really is a great place, and you haven’t even seen some of the best stuff yet.”
“Well,” Rodney said with a quick grin, “I didn’t have to go swimming in the ocean fully dressed so that’s a point in Athos’ favor.”
John laughed. “Right. Well, enjoy your vacation.”
Rodney got in the car as Kanaan drove away. John waved bye then went to open his front door, letting Cash out. He knelt on the ground and ruffled the dog’s floppy ears. “Hey, boy, Jinto come by and entertain you?”
John looked over his shoulder to find Jeannie walking over. Frowning—was something the matter?—John stood. “What is it, Jeannie?”
Jeannie pulled him into a tight hug. Caught by surprise, John just stood there, arms dangling awkwardly at his sides. As a rule, he didn’t hug. The forehead thing with Teyla was the closest he got to friendly touches other than what Ronon did. Ronon didn’t give a shit about John’s aversion to touch but it was still somehow okay. The bear hugs were okay, surprisingly. After a minute, Jeannie pulled back and looked up at him, her eyes bright with tears. “Thank you.”
John blinked. “Uh . . .”
“For what you did for us. Today was wonderful, even with—what happened. I just . . thank you.” She kissed his cheek, a tear sliding down her own.
Throat tight, John nodded. He didn’t know what to say. You’re welcome seemed inadequate.
Jeannie smiled briefly, patted Cash on the head, then returned to her waiting family.
John watched them drive off, still feeling unsettled, then looked down at his dog. “You wanna go for a run, bud?”
“Yeah, me too.” A run was just what the doctor ordered. Running cleared his mind, grounded him. Yeah, a run on the beach sounded good.
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
Sundays were lazy days, according to the Bible.
John wasn’t religious, but he definitely followed this. Sundays were the only days he slept in a couple extra hours, didn’t go surfing or anything with Ronon, definitely didn’t answer his phone, spent the day doing whatever he felt like doing—which mostly consisted of lounging on his boat while it floated at the end of the dock or watching movies on the couch, Cash’s head in his lap.
He was in the middle of a rewatch of the Back to the Future trilogy when Cash suddenly raised his head and stared at the front door. John frowned, reaching for the remote to pause the movie. He asked quietly, “What is it, boy?”
Cash jumped off the couch and ran to the door, pawed at it, whining just a little.
John slowly got to his feet. Cash wasn’t barking. Was it someone he knew? But his friends knew how he liked to spend Sundays and hadn’t interrupted in a while. John turned the knob and Cash nosed his way outside, John behind him.
Headlights lit up the darkening evening and John’s stomach flipped. Shit, had he finally been located?
Cash barked as a car pulled to a stop next to John’s Jeep. John stayed by the door, one hand still holding it open. No matter how many years passed, the need for an escape route never really left him. Cash stood in front of John, tail down, watching the car. John watched, too. It wasn’t Ronon or Teyla. He didn’t recognize the car. And they’d call beforehand. Just because he didn’t answer didn’t mean he didn’t look at the caller ID. It was a request he’d made shortly after moving out here, no explanations asked nor given. They just . . . accepted it. He still didn’t know why but it worked for him.
But who was it, then?
It didn’t mean anything, he told himself. Maybe someone was lost, saw his house and thought they’d come ask for directions.
His dog’s reaction meant nothing.
The car shut down, lights turning off. The driver’s side door opened and in the light spilling out the front door, John saw—
“McKay?” he called, baffled. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Rodney started towards him, a bag in his hand.
John remained where he was, watching him warily. Cash sat down. Interesting.
Rodney didn’t speak until he was a couple feet away then held out the bag and said, “Brought your clothes back.”
Oh. John’s muscles relaxed and he let the door close, stepping forward to take the bag. Well didn’t he feel like an idiot. “Thanks but, uh, you didn’t have to come all the way out here. Especially at night.” He glanced inside and, yup, there were the shorts and tee he’d given Kaleb.
“I wanted to come by earlier but I didn’t know if you had plans and you didn’t answer your phone so I figured I’d just swing by when there was the highest probability you’d be home. Jeannie washed ‘em, by the way. In case you were wondering. She says thanks, again, and told me to tell you that she wished she could do something more.”
John shook his head. “Tell her not to worry about it. Seriously, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
“I’ll tell her but I can’t promise she won’t just show up and convince you to take something.” Rodney shuffled his feet but made no move to leave.
After a moment, John raised an eyebrow. “Something on your mind?”
Rodney bit his lip. “Um, I—I think I may have left something on your boat. Do—do you mind letting me look?”
John glanced back through the screen, thinking about the movie paused, then sighed. “Yeah, alright. Just give me a sec.” John ushered Cash back inside, tossed the bag after him, then closed and locked the front door. No sense giving the dog a chance to escape and decide to go for a late night swim.
They walked down to the Solitary Man, climbed aboard and John turned on one of the flood lamps, illuminating the deck. “You remember where you last saw it?”
“Up in the bridge, maybe?”
So up to the bridge, they went. John had cleaned the boat up after their outing and he didn’t remember seeing anything that didn’t belong or wasn’t his but maybe he hadn’t looked close enough. They poked around a bit, John even got down on his knees to look under the control panels but he didn’t see anything. “Rodney,” he said, getting to his feet. “You sure it was up here, this thing you’re looking for?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure,” Rodney said quietly.
John dusted his hands off and turned around. “Well, I don’t see anyth—” He stopped talking.
Rodney was maybe a foot from him in the small space, his blue eyes full of such burning want that John’s heart went ba-dump inside his chest and his breath caught in his throat, the words dying on his lips. Desire rolled through him and John thought faintly, Oh, so that’s what he was looking for.
Rodney leaned forward, pressed his mouth to John’s for a second or two then pulled back and studied him, waiting for his reaction. John’s heart pounded in his chest and John suddenly very much did not want him to leave. So he took hold of Rodney’s jacket before he could back away and tugged him into a second kiss. Rodney’s hand looped around his neck, fingers playing with the strands of hair, and John tilted his head to the side, teased Rodney’s mouth open.
His body screamed yes as John slid his tongue in. Rodney moaned into it and John went rock hard in his pants. God, he hadn’t felt lust this strong in a long time. John reached around, gripped Rodney’s ass, and yanked their bodies flush together.
Rodney broke the kiss first. “I—I want—”
John kissed up Rodney’s jawline, nipped his earlobe. “I got a bed downstairs.”
Rodney tilted his head, giving John better access. He kissed his way down to Rodney’s collarbone. “God . . . oh god. Yes. Yes. Bed sounds good. Yes.”
John kissed him again then dragged him down the stairs. Rodney’s hand slid inside John’s waistband almost as soon as they entered the bedroom. John pinned him to the wall and kissed the breath from him. When they came up for air, they worked to undress each other while also trying not to lose contact.
Clothes fell haphazardly onto the floor and then John was on his back on top of the covers, Rodney sliding on top of him and kissing his way up John’s chest. God, it felt so good. Rodney’s cock was warm and hard, pressing into John’s thigh. John slid a hand through his hair, roughly tugging Rodney’s mouth up to his. John very nearly came from just the feel of another naked body on his, of a hand not his own wrapping around the base of his cock.
Rodney pulled back, looked down at him. “Got anything I can use for lube in here?”
John licked his lips, panting. His mind felt scrambled already. “Um, uh, y—yeah. In the bathroom. Should be some lotion or something in there.”
Rodney kissed him hard then left, returning a moment later with a bottle in his hand. Rodney popped the top, squirted some on his hand, then gripped John’s cock with a firm hand, stroking slowly from base to tip.
John gasped, “Harder. Yeah. Yeah, just—just like that.” He threw his head back, eyes closed against the rush of sensation. He wasn’t going to last more than a minute, it had been so long since he—his back arched as his orgasm hit. “Fuck.”
He groaned, limbs trembling as Rodney worked him through the end of the orgasm. Rodney climbed up his body to kiss him. When he could move again, John reached down between them, swiped his hand through his own come, and gripped Rodney’s cock. Rodney grunted, burying his face in John’s neck as John’s hand moved up and down. He flicked a finger over the tip and then Rodney was coming.
He collapsed on top of John, panting, his warm breath on John’s neck. And for a minute, they just laid there, tangled together, and John found himself wondering how the hell he’d just had some of the best sex of his life with a man he’d known barely three days.
“So,” Rodney started after a while, “I’ve never had sex in a boat before. I thought there’d be more, you know, rocking involved.”
John ran a hand over his face, laughing a little. He slid a hand up Rodney’s thigh, then rolled onto his side and kissed him. “Give me some time to recover and then I’ll give you rocking.”
He’d meant it to come out teasing but it came out low, throaty, and sexy as fuck if the look on Rodney’s face was anything to go by. John rolled on top of Rodney, grabbed the lube, and put words to action.
“You are so fucking gorgeous, you know that?” Rodney murmured into John’s neck as they curled together on the bed after round two, sated and sleepy.
“You’re one to talk.” John pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Seeing you steer my boat . . . So hot. God, I wanted you so badly right then.”
Rodney kissed his mouth, draped an arm over his chest. “As flattering as that is, you are definitely the good-looking one in this relationship.”
John chuckled, rolling onto his side and closing his eyes. Rodney slid closer, pressing against John’s back.
Rodney kissed the back of his neck. “And then you had to go and have brains and like Star Trek. Pretty, smart and geeky—a deadly combination.”
John’s eyes flew open. Wait, did he just say . . .? Oh no, no that was not what this was. John didn’t do relationships. “McKay,” John started and then realized he had no idea how to say it without coming off a complete jackass.
Eh, he’d bring it up in the morning. “Didn’t know you had a math kink,” John said instead, like the coward he was.
That got him a low chuckle and Rodney tightened his arm around John’s waist, making it so that there was no space between them. “I told you I’m a genius, right? I could never be with someone who was stupid.”
“Right.” John closed his eyes again. “Night, McKay.”
Rodney didn’t respond for a moment, then John heard his quiet voice, “Goodnight, John.”
John propped his hip on the railing, sipped his coffee, and watched the sunrise. The sky was lightening to reds and oranges when he heard shuffling feet on the stairs. Turning, he grinned at the sight of Rodney stumbling up onto deck, squinting into the light.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” John said.
John bent over, picked up the cup he’d set down, then straightened and handed it to Rodney when he walked over. Rodney eyed it warily, like John had just handed him a cup of poison. “It’s coffee, McKay. Wasn’t sure how you took it so I just kept it black.”
Rodney took it, drank half of it in one go, then scowled at him. “You are disturbingly chipper. You’re a morning person, aren’t you? God, why did I have to pick a morning person?”
John shrugged, sipped his coffee. For a while they just stood there, watching the sunrise and drinking coffee. It wasn’t awkward like John had thought it might be. It was actually . . . surprisingly romantic. After a few minutes, John said, “So, you didn’t actually leave anything on the boat, did you?”
Rodney glanced sidelong at him, sheepish. “No, I—I did. Really. It just . . . it wasn’t.” He sighed heavily. “Okay, fine. No, I didn’t. I’d wanted to kiss you all afternoon but I didn’t want to do it with my sister as possible witness and then there was the whole rescue thing and, yeah. It would have been weird to go for it after that. Wouldn’t it?”
A smile tugged at his lips, thinking about the fact that he also had a potential witness to any attempted romantic endeavors, and he winked at Rodney. “Well,” he drawled, “considering how our evening went, I’d have to say things worked out the way they were supposed to. And, yeah, I get not wanting your sister to witness. Teyla’s pointed looks were uncomfortable enough, and she’s like the sister I never had.”
“Good.” Rodney glanced at him again, bit his lip, then asked, “Can I kiss you or is that pushing this into the awkward zone?”
John actually thought about it, about how he was adamantly opposed to relationships. But he liked kissing. And who knew when he’d get laid again? “Yeah, alright,” he agreed and met Rodney halfway, tasting the coffee on his tongue.
When they pulled apart, Rodney hummed and shifted closer. John turned back to the sunrise, seeing the reds and oranges changing into pinks and yellows, the sun peeking over the horizon and setting the water sparkling as far as the eye could see. Rodney let out a low whistle. “Wow,” he breathed. “That is something.”
John replied quietly, “Yeah. It’s my favorite time of day. Just you and nature, no one to bother you.”
“Is that why you named your boat the Solitary Man?”
“Hmm?” John shook his head. “Oh, no. No, I named her for my favorite Johnny Cash song.”
Rodney raised an eyebrow, amusement dancing in his eyes. “And your dog, too?”
John couldn’t help it. “I’ll get you my pretty!”
Rodney laughed and leaned against him. John shifted his feet, taking Rodney’s weight. It was nice, actually. And maybe it was a byproduct of being alone for so long, but having Rodney on his boat, sharing in one of John’s private moments . . . it was nice.
Like up in the bridge, just the two of them, talking. It was easy, something John hadn’t found in a long time. His friends were great but there was always that invisible wall between them. With Rodney, John’s wall was pretty much nonexistent.
And it had to end. Right now. There was no room in his life for a relationship, no matter how easy it was. And besides, Rodney wasn’t staying. He was a tourist, leaving once the hotel bill came in. Just in case Rodney was maybe getting the wrong idea, John opened his mouth to tell Rodney this couldn’t be anything more, that the word “relationship” had no business entering into any conversation they had.
“Where is Cash?”
John blinked a few times, derailed. “What?”
“Your dog? Where is he? I assumed we’d get interrupted at least once.” Rodney scanned the boat and dock as if the Lab might suddenly appear out of nowhere.
“Oh, he’s probably out wandering the property. I let him out when I went up to make coffee. He was most likely in my bed last night, thrilled he didn’t have to share.”
Rodney set his cup down firmly. “So he’s not likely to come down here anytime soon?”
John shrugged. “Doubtful. He likes to chase seagulls, dig in the dirt. You know, dog things.”
“Good.” Rodney plucked John’s nearly empty cup from his hands, set it aside, and kissed him. “Having my own hotel room has its benefits. No bed checks, and Jeannie won’t be expecting me to show up for breakfast for a couple more hours, at the very least.”
“So what you’re saying,” John said, deciding to forego the whole “not a relationship” discussion, “is that you have time before she starts looking for you.”
Rodney grinned. “Exactly,” he said, wrapping a hand around the back of John’s neck and drawing John’s mouth to his.
Pulling his threadbare jeans back on, John kept glancing over at Rodney, getting dressed on the other side of the room. Just rip the Band-Aid off, John, he told himself several times before he finally said out loud, “You know this isn’t a thing, right?”
Rodney paused in the act of dressing, the hickey on his neck in full view as his shirt dangled from his hands. John swallowed hard and averted his gaze. “A thing?” Rodney repeated.
“Yeah,” John said.
“And by thing you mean . . . ?”
John waved a hand vaguely between them. Christ, maybe he should have kept his mouth shut. Maybe he was starting a conversation that never should have happened. “You know, this. You. Me. A thing. I’m not—not looking for anything, you know, serious or—or permanent.”
To John’s immense surprise, Rodney started laughing. John stared at him in astonishment. What was funny about this? Rodney said, still laughing a little, “Oh god, this is you trying to be all delicate and sparing my feelings and shit, isn’t it? Oh that is too funny. You clearly don’t know me well at all.”
“But—last night. You said this was a relationship.”
Finally pulling his shirt over his head, Rodney continued, “Trust me, Sheppard, I am under no illusions that this was any more than what it was. We had sex. It was good, great, even. But that’s all it was.”
John sat on his bed, relieved. “Great. So we’re agreed: this was just a one-time thing.”
“Yup,” Rodney agreed. He came over to stand in front of John, cupped his face with both hands and kissed him. Boundaries set, John let himself fall into the kiss one last time. Rodney was a great kisser. “I’m gonna go,” Rodney murmured when he pulled back.
“Ye—” John cleared his throat, feeling hot under the white tee he wore. “Yeah, that’s—that’s probably a good idea. Your sister’s gonna be looking for you soon and—and I’ve gotta get to work and . . . yeah.”
Another brief kiss, a soft goodbye, and then John was watching Rodney walk away. He found himself trailing after Rodney but he made himself stop before getting off the boat. Rodney waved then climbed into his car and drove off.
It was surprisingly hard to watch Rodney leave. It shouldn’t have been. John was the king of no strings attached sex and he’d never had issues leaving his partners or watching his partners leave.
It just felt . . . John didn’t know how he felt. Especially since Rodney had apparently anticipated the talk and assured him that Rodney didn’t want anything more out of this than sex.
So why couldn’t John stop thinking about it?
He sighed, ran his hands over his face, and made himself go back to the house. He needed to get to work.
The morning flew by. John did a couple short tours up the beaches, dropped a couple off at the airport, caught up on some paperwork and had lunch with Ronon in town. He lost track of time so it was later than usual by the time he made it back to his office. The mail was sticking out of the box and he grabbed it before heading inside. John flipped through it absently, turning on lights. Bill. Ad. Thank you card, aw that’s nice.
He dumped the mail on the counter and hit the playback button on the phone console, continuing to flip through the envelopes. Newsletter. Oh, two for one coupon, nice. He put that aside and paused to listen to the first voicemail. Someone wanting info on prices and types of tours. He hit save on that one.
The rest of the mail was ads, which John dumped in the trash can. The next voicemail was someone confirming their flight time—he’d call them back in a minute.
The third had John’s full attention. An island hop request. Interesting. And from Dagan which meant . . .
John grinned. This was gonna be fun.
Athos was one of a chain of islands in the Pacific. It was small enough that John could still remain fairly hidden, but not big enough to warrant a major airport. In order to get to Athos, a person had to fly into one of the bigger islands who had major airports. From there, there were three ways to get to the other islands in the chain.
- Take the ferry, if your chosen island was close enough;
- Get a ride on a smaller plane, usually two- or four-seaters; or
- Take a chopper ride across the ocean.
The other part of John’s business was doing island hops for singles, locals, and people who didn’t want to take the ferry or another plane ride.
His afternoon was slower than his morning, only a couple tours and a lot of down time in between. John lounged outside, music playing, reading through a magazine or book as the mood took him. But his mind refused to stay focused on the words, choosing instead to present him with images of Rodney. Face flushed, hair mussed, eyes bright . . .
The way Rodney kissed him . . .
John had to keep yanking his mind back to the present, reminding himself that just because it had been a while since he’d been with someone didn’t mean that he had to fixate on Rodney. It was a one-time thing, Rodney agreed, and that was that. But god, Rodney’s hands . . .
Fuck he was screwed.
Chapter 5: Chapter Five
John brought his helo in, landing in the middle of the landing pad, and powered down. Hopping out, he was greeted by an employee.
“Hey, Sheppard. See your bird’s still flying.”
John grinned and patted the metal. “Katana. See you’re still as stuck-up as ever. My girl may be an older model but she’s still as good as anything you fly.”
Katana Le Brae was a brilliant pilot. She and John routinely argued over who was the better pilot, neither one willing to bend their own egos. She wore green coveralls and her hair was tied back in a ponytail, a smear of grease on her cheek. “Need a fill-up?” she asked, jerking a thumb at his helicopter.
John raised an eyebrow. “Gonna give me the good stuff?”
She fell in step with him on his way to the building. “Only if you say I’m the best.”
John leaned over to murmur in her ear, “Katana, you are . . . never going to be the best.”
Katana slapped his arm and he laughed. “Just for that, you’re getting the dregs.”
“Yeah, sure, like you guys keep dregs around here.” Katana left him at the door. He pulled it open, slipping his sunglasses off and tucking them into his shirt collar as he stepped inside.
Teasing Katana was always fun. Actually, visiting Travelers was always fun. Travelers was the main air transport on Dagan Island and it was run by an all-female staff and crew. Helicopters and small planes were their business whereas he just had the one helo and his staff included him and a teenage boy who did his paperwork a couple days a week. A couple of the other pilots looked over at his entrance and he was treated to whistles and onceovers as he walked in. John grinned. Man, if he’d ever been even remotely interested in women, he’d never be at a loss for bed partners.
“Well, well, well,” a voice drawled and John turned to see the boss of the outfit leaning in her office doorway. “John Sheppard, ‘bout time you showed up.”
John gave her his most charming smile, the one that made all the ladies swoon at his feet, and swept her a little bow. A smirk curled at her mouth as he greeted her. “Larrin, lovely to see you, as always.”
Larrin swaggered out into the lobby. “Always the smooth-talking charmer, aren’t you, John? I didn’t get a phone call; Mila wasn’t sure if you’d even got the invitation to come by.”
John leaned against the counter, cocked a hip. “Aww, are you offended I didn’t call and ask for permission to enter the premises?”
Larrin chuckled, a deep-throated laugh. “Speaking of invitations, have you thought any about my offer?”
John laced his fingers together, resting an elbow on the counter. Mila, at the desk, completely ignored him. In four years, she’d probably looked at him maybe five times? She was the only one in here who didn’t act like he was sex on a stick. Maybe she thought she was doing him a favor? “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t wonder what it would be like to join you, Larrin,” John drawled and waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
Larrin laughed again, shaking her head. “Yeah, alright, point to you.”
Ever since he’d set up his business, Larrin had been trying to get John to join her operation . . . and her bed. He’d made it clear he was gay but they both enjoyed the flirting. They were birds of a feather, neither one looking for anything to tie them down. He had entertained the idea of bedding her, once, briefly. Very briefly, at a point in his life where he was feeling rather despondent, but rejected it almost instantly. Larrin had a sadistic streak under all that swagger and innuendo. John had no interest in power games in the bedroom and it was for damn sure Larrin liked being in control.
“So,” John said, switching to professional voice, “where’s the hopper?”
“He had a minor hiccup at the airport but should be here soon.” Larrin nodded at Mila. “There’s the usual stuff to sign and I, unfortunately, have actual work to do.” A smirk and then she was gone.
John signed the required documents then settled in a chair with his travel Sudoku book and a pen to wait for his rider.
Minutes passed. John was working on his third puzzle when a shadow fell over him.
“Excuse me, are you John Sheppard?”
John looked up. A bald, middle-aged man with dark-rimmed glasses stood in front of him. Wearing khakis and a light blue dress shirt—one button undone at the neck—John instantly pegged him as a businessman attempting to be on vacation but not sure what to wear outside the office. Saw it all the time. John offered a friendly smile. “That’s me. I take it you’re the gentleman needing a lift to Athos?”
The businessman nodded as John stood, tucking his puzzle book and pen back into a pocket. “Richard Woolsey. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Help you with your luggage?” John asked then noticed that he didn’t have much. A brown briefcase was slung over one shoulder and a small leather rolling suitcase stood next to him.
John took custody of the suitcase, opened the door for Woolsey, then led the way to his helicopter. “Here we are. Passenger seat’s all yours.” John tucked the suitcase in the back, hooked a seatbelt around it to keep it in place, then made sure Woolsey’s door was secure before heading around to climb into his own seat.
As the rotors started up, John inspected the fuel gauge, pleasantly surprised to find it full. Katana had actually filled her up. Damn, now he owed her. John explained to Woolsey about the headsets and made sure his seatbelt was buckled, noting that Woolsey had his briefcase in his lap, arms wrapped around it. What was in there that was so important he couldn’t let go of it?
John checked his own safety, spoke into the radio mouthpiece, “Sheppard to Travelers, are we clear for liftoff?”
A pause, then, “You are clear for liftoff, Sheppard. Safe travels and thank you for visiting,” Larrin replied and he could hear the smile in her voice.
He rolled his eyes, gripped the joystick and took off. God, he never got tired of that feeling, that first moment when his chopper fought the gravity, engines thrumming beneath and around him. It was a rush every time.
Woolsey broke the silence about forty-five minutes into the trip. “There’s something I need to tell you, Mr. Sheppard.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“I work for the legal side of Sheppard Industries.”
It was only years of training that kept John from jerking the joystick and sending them spinning. His head whipped around to face Woolsey, a flurry of emotions racing through him at the sound of the company name. Shock. Betrayal. Surprise. Annoyance, resignation. Then finally a simmering anger that made his knuckles whiten around the joystick. Of course. Just when he finally got his own life, his family had to come fuck him over again. Facing forward and focusing on the waters below, John’s voice was tight as he demanded, “You what?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Woolsey look over. “I am sorry to have sprung this on you but I needed to talk to you in a place where you wouldn’t, shall we say, run off.”
“Oh no,” John said sarcastically, “why would I do that? Certainly not because you hired me under false pretenses and work for someone who wants nothing to do with me nor me with them.”
“Let’s just say, I was forewarned about your tendencies when it comes to the family business. I do need to talk to you. And you are a hard man to find, Mr. Sheppard.”
“Clearly not hard enough,” John muttered then sighed. “I cut ties with my family when I wouldn’t let them run my life. So whatever message you’re about to impart on behalf of my father—don’t.”
“It was not your father who sent me, Mr. Sheppard.”
“John. My name is John. And if my father didn’t send you, who did?”
John did a double take. “W—what? Dave? Dave sent you. God, what the hell does he want now? He got what he wanted! I left and he got the company! What the hell else could he want from me?”
“That would be why he sent me . . . John.” Woolsey was obviously uncomfortable using John’s first name. “May I continue?”
“Don’t exactly have a choice, now do I?” He knew his father had a hand in this, despite what Woolsey said. Dave never did anything without dear old Dad’s permission. How had they found him? He must have slipped up somewhere. Christ, that damn bastard never could leave him in peace.
“Ah, well, I will get right down to it, then.”
“I would appreciate that.”
“Your brother wants to talk to you. He would like you to come home and rejoin the company.”
John shot him a startled look. His brother, not his father? Why would Dave want him back? He had what he wanted. Nope, nope, he was out of that hellhole and nothing was sucking him back in. Although, he reflected, he really should have expected something like this to happen eventually. “If Dave wanted to talk to me, he had plenty of years to drag his head out of our father’s ass and done so. I never wanted to be part of that company and they never wanted me. So you can tell my brother that I am never returning nor will I be taking on any sort of position with SI, no matter how many threats or bribes they sent you with. Athos has become my home and I am quite happy here.” John glanced sidelong at him. “Care to give up now? I’ve got enough fuel to turn around. Save you a plane ticket.”
Woolsey gave him a tight smile. “Unfortunately, I cannot. There are legal documents we need to go over and I do have—”
“My answer won’t change.”
“Be that as it may, there are still things we need to discuss. Your inheritance from your mother, for one thing.”
“You leave my mother out of this!” John snapped. His mother was the only one who had cared about what he wanted, growing up, and when she died John lost his only ally in the family.
Undeterred, Woolsey continued, “And you do still have stock in Sheppard Industries, even if you refuse to take a company position. There are—”
“Tell you what,” John interrupted. He’d had just about enough of this. Every minute of every day planned, every second of his life planned like it was just another part of the company. John had hated it. The corporate bullshit was one of the reasons he’d left in the first place, among other things. “When we get to Athos, I’ll get you a ride to the airport and you can fly back to my brother and tell him fuck off. It’ll sound better coming from you. What d’you think? Sound good?”
“I need radio silence from here on out,” John cut him off and focused on the joystick under his hands. It was a dick move but he just could not have this conversation. Not now, not ever. He took a deep breath, trying to calm the anger vibrating through his body.
Four years was apparently the longest he could go without contact with his family. His family that never actually bothered to find out what he wanted to do and be. Anything that sullied the image was not mentioned. And John did his damndest to mess with that image growing up.
Woolsey didn’t appear to take offense to John’s outbursts and he remained quiet during the rest of the flight. He thanked John for the ride then declined John’s offer of a ride to the airport, saying he had a room booked at a hotel.
John had a feeling he’d be seeing Woolsey again.
Life went back to normal, thankfully, for the next couple days. John did his tours, played with his dog, hung out with Teyla and Ronon and avoided doing paperwork.
So of course it was time for the universe to shit on him again.
“What is this?” John asked, holding up a receipt tucked in amongst the papers he was supposed to be sorting for Jinto’s folders. It was a slow day and the sun was hidden behind clouds. Things had been piling up since Jinto’s last visit and John felt guilty enough to help sort.
Jinto made a hole in the pile of folders in front of him and asked, “What is it?”
“A receipt for,” John peered at it, “bird food? Jinto, why do I have a receipt for bird food? Please tell me you’re not feeding the seagulls again.”
“Cash likes to chase them!” Jinto defended.
John sighed. “Yeah, I know. I’m trying to get him to stop. So no more feeding the seagulls, okay?”
Jinto’s shoulders dropped. “Okay.”
“Good.” John balled up the receipt and tossed it in the trash then turned to the next paper in the stack. It was a confirmation email for . . . god, last year. He handed it over. “Toss or file?”
Jinto took it, inspected it, then said, “File.”
John watched him tug a folder from yet another pile and said, “Do you throw anything away?”
Jinto shook his head. “My dad says you never know when you might need something.”
John frowned then shook his head and went back to sorting. He went through a few more papers, set a handwritten inventory list aside to go through later—it was about time to put an order through—and stretched, rolling his neck. He rubbed it and hopped off the desk to use the bathroom.
When he came back out, Jinto was talking to someone. John hoped it was a customer—he really didn’t want to keep sorting papers. But it wasn’t. At least, it wasn’t anymore.
“McKay?” John asked, raising an eyebrow. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to understand why you have a teenager organizing your paperwork. Although, in retrospect, it’s probably better that someone other than you organizes this place considering what it looked like when I was last here,” Rodney answered, like it was the most obvious thing and John should have known that. “Does he belong to you? He kinda reminds me of you.”
John stared at him. “What?”
Rodney rolled his eyes and turned to Jinto. “Are you Sheppard’s kid?”
Jinto laughed, looking from Rodney to John. “No. My father is Halling. He is a great fisherman.”
“Uh huh,” Rodney said skeptically. “You sure? Because your organizational skills are clearly no better than Sheppard’s.”
“Mr. John had no system before I started working here.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.” Rodney shook his head and went around the desk. “What are you using for sorting? Alphabetical? Chronological?”
As Jinto started enthusiastically explaining, John felt his world slipping sideways. It was a very uncomfortable sensation. It grew stronger as Rodney started shaking his head and grabbing labels. “No no no no no,” McKay was saying to Jinto. “That won’t work in the long run. Okay, yes, it may work as a broad categorization but you’re going to have to be more specific within the categories.”
“What are you doing?” John heard himself ask.
McKay barely glanced up at him. “Try this,” he said to Jinto and wrote something on a label. “One drawer for each category. Then sort the folders inside—”
“Chronologically so Mr. John can find papers by tour date!” Jinto finished, pleased.
“Exactly! You know,” Rodney said, finally looking at John, “you could help.”
John was at a complete loss as to what he was supposed to be doing . . . . or feeling. This felt disturbingly like the beginnings of a relationship and he’d thought they’d agreed it wouldn’t be. So why was McKay at his place of business and . . . working?
Rodney snapped his fingers in John’s face. “Hello? Earth to Sheppard? This is your business, maybe you should make an effort to be involved?”
“Why are you here, McKay?” John asked, this time with a little more firmness to it. “You’re on vacation.”
“Huh? Oh. Um, well,” Rodney shifted his feet. “I may have gotten into a rather ugly fight with my sister about her husband’s choice of career—English professor, can you believe it? Well, apparently that was a bad decision to bring it up while we’re supposedly attempting to get along and, well . . . do you mind if I hang out here for a while?”
“Great. But you are going to help, right? I mean, you really should learn how your paperwork is organized in order to make your business more efficient.” Rodney handed him a stack of empty folders and ordered, “Start relabeling these by the month. No year. That’ll be somewhere else.”
Slightly dazed, John pulled the top folder to him and slid the label out. Jinto handed him a black Sharpie to use.
“Does he pay you at all?” Rodney asked Jinto and John fought the urge to laugh somewhat hysterically.
Chapter 6: Chapter Six
Rodney showed up the next day, as well. Jinto wasn’t there but it wasn’t awkward, just the two of them. But then Rodney showed up again the next day. John had tours planned so he left Rodney and Jinto talking about what sort of schooling Jinto got on the island. He spent the time away trying to wrap his brain around the fact that Rodney was starting to become a fixture at the office.
It was getting harder to keep the distance between them because Rodney’s repeated presence brought back memories of their night together.
The third time Rodney showed up, this time with his laptop, John just couldn’t fight it anymore. “Hey, I’m hungry,” John said abruptly after a couple hours. “You guys want something to eat?”
Jinto nodded agreeably, but Rodney looked up and said, suspiciously, “What were you planning to order? Because I am deathly allergic to citrus and I can’t have my food in the vicinity of anything citrus or I’ll end up in the hospital.”
“Yes, really,” McKay snapped. “My tongue swells up and my throat closes up and then I pass out and—”
“Okay!” John held up his hands. “Okay. No citrus. You good with burgers?”
Rodney eyed him. “Nothing weird on it?”
“Plain hamburger, McKay. You in or out?”
He returned to his laptop. “In. As long as you can guarantee that there will no citrus anywhere near before, during, and after meal prep—and that includes lemon juice, Sheppard. I know a lot of restaurants like to add it to meals and that will send me into anaphylactic shock.”
John raised an eyebrow then hid a grin. That was perfect, actually. Exactly what he needed. He grabbed a scrap piece of paper and scribbled down his usual order, then wrote Rodney’s underneath with NO CITRUS written next to it in all caps and underlined several times for good measure. Pulling out his wallet, John extracted a few bills, wrapped them in the paper and turned to Jinto. “Alright, kid,” he said. “Your mission, should you choose to accept—”
Jinto laughed and McKay rolled his eyes.
John continued, “Head to Keras’ place and give him our orders. Get whatever you want—within reason—and make sure that they all understand that they can’t put citrus anywhere near our food. Got it?”
Jinto took the paper and cash and nodded, his expression serious. “I accept this mission but you do understand that Keras isn't gonna want to take your money, right?”
John sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Four years he’d been fighting this. And it wasn’t just Keras, which was the frustrating part. It was the whole damn community. It was “your money’s no good here” and “we’ll just put it on your tab” but they never called his tab in. He insisted on paying and they just kept refusing. “. . . . put it in the damn tip jar, then.” John leveled a finger at him. “Do not come back with change, understand?”
Jinto grinned and said, “Sure thing, Mr. John! I’ll just make sure they don’t see me doing it.”
Jinto left and Rodney asked, “What was that all about?”
John walked over to the door and slid it closed, locking it. “What was what all about?”
“Why won’t this Keras person take your money? And why did you lock the door? How’s the kid going to get back in with our food?”
John turned to see Rodney now standing and looking curiously over at him. His heart was pounding. This was such a bad idea but he’d had bad ideas before. Things had worked out then and they’d work out now. He just couldn’t be in the same room with Rodney and fight this . . . whatever this was, any longer. “Long story. And don’t worry; it’ll be open by the time he gets back.”
John crossed the room, rounding the desk.
“Then . . . why lock it?”
John ignored the question, crowding into Rodney’s personal space.
“. . . . Sheppard?” Rodney asked, sounding confused.
John grabbed his face with both hands and kissed him.
Rodney made a startled mmph sort of sound and pulled back. His expression and voice filled with shock, he demanded, “What the—what are you doing? I thought we agreed this wasn’t a thing. You said—”
“I know what I said,” John replied, darting back in for another kiss, this time feeling Rodney get with the program. Rodney kissed him back, setting his hands on John’s waist as he leaned into it. God, yes. John had been craving Rodney’s touch since he’d walked back into John’s life. He’d tried and tried to keep his distance and it was such a bad idea to start this but John just couldn’t resist the pull any longer.
They came up for air some minutes later. “So this is, what?” Rodney asked, breath ragged and face flushed. “You’re horny, I’m nearby? Is that it? Because while I’m certainly willing, we both agreed this wasn’t going to go anywhere, right?”
John shook his head, his own breathing just as ragged. “Yes? But also, no.”
“Oh, that’s wonderfully helpful,” Rodney snarked.
“I don’t—I mean.” John made a helpless, frustrated sound and kissed him again. He had no answers, at least none that made sense. “You keep showing up and you’re bossy and smart and, god help me, but I want you,” John finally said. “And it’s not a thing. It’s not. It’s . . . it’s—”
“Not a thing?” Rodney said on a gasp, tipping his head back as John kissed his way down to where Rodney’s skin disappeared beneath his shirt collar.
“Exactly. You know, if that’s okay with you?” He wanted a repeat of that night, and maybe it was because he knew Rodney wouldn’t be staying on Athos that John let himself ask for it.
Rodney laughed under his breath. “‘Not a thing,’ he says while making out with me and asking me to be his fuck buddy.”
John drew back, hurt. “If you don’t want that—”
Rodney immediately yanked him back in and kissed him hard. “No, no. I do want that. God, do I want that.” Rodney wrapped his arms more firmly around John’s waist and kissed him. “Not a thing is fine by me.” Another kiss, longer, and John relaxed into it, reassured that Rodney wasn’t rejecting him.
“Can’t do much more than this right now, though. Don’t know how long it’ll take to put our food together.”
“I’m fine with just kissing. Kissing is good.”
“Good.” John sat on the edge of the desk and pulled Rodney in between his legs, angling his mouth up for another kiss.
He didn’t know how long they remained like that, bodies close and mouths locked together, but the abrupt squeal of bicycle brakes on tires forced them back into the real world. Clothes and hair mussed, lips swollen, John and Rodney looked at each other then Rodney asked, breathless, “Is that . . . Jinto?”
“Mmm, most likely,” John hummed, rubbing their noses together. He felt calmer, less like he’d jump out of his skin, now that he’d gotten to touch.
“The door’s still locked.”
“Mmhmm.” John kissed his nose.
“Jo-hn,” Rodney said, the word gaining a syllable when John kissed the side of his neck, just below his ear. It was apparently a sensitive spot and John had quickly decided he loved Rodney’s reaction when he kissed it, how he shivered and his breath stuttered.
Rodney tried again. “John. Door. Locked. Kid. Coming.”
It didn’t register with him for a minute then he drew back sharply. Jinto was going to try the door and find it locked and then there’d be all kinds of questions that John didn’t want to answer. “Shit.”
“Yeah, shit.” Rodney eyed him and added, “So, here’s a thought. Send Jinto home, close up the office, then we continue this back at your place, say . . . without clothes?”
They kissed again then John reluctantly pulled away, putting space between them. “Much as I’d love to, I do have a tour scheduled for later this afternoon and I can’t cancel.”
“Damn.” Rodney frowned then smiled a little and reached out to try and flatten John’s hair. “You look like you’ve been making out with me. Does your hair ever lie flat?”
John laughed and responded, “Never.” He stood, shoved his shirt back in his pants and kissed him briefly. “Hold onto that thought,” John promised. “Later. Okay?”
Rodney nodded and set about trying to straighten his own clothing while John hurried over to unlock the door. “Okay.”
Just in time.
John had flipped the lock and taken all of three steps back to the desk where Rodney was sitting back in his rolling chair when the door opened and Jinto walked in.
Quickly, John ran a critical eye over Rodney. He’d returned to the rolling desk chair and was logging back into his computer. He’d fixed his clothes but his face was still flushed, lips reddened. John found himself grinning and wondered if he looked as fucked as McKay did.
Jinto held up a large bag in triumph, a grease stain on the bottom. “I watched every step, Dr. McKay!” he called as he walked over. “No citrus came in the vicinity of your food. And,” he added, looking at John, “I made sure to put the money in Cleo’s tip jar before I left.”
John took the bag and started pulling out food. “Good job. Thanks, kiddo.” He checked labels then tossed a foil-wrapped sandwich McKay’s direction. “Catch!”
Rodney caught it, surprise on his face quickly followed by wariness as he unwrapped it and inspected the sandwich.
John stuck a French fry in his mouth and pulled out the rest of their food. Then he frowned. “Where are the drinks?”
Jinto lifted his other hand, containing a cardboard container with three soft drinks in it. “Right here. Cleo thought this would be easier than trying to put them in a bag.”
John and Jinto settled in with their food and John noticed that Rodney seemed to have decided that his burger was satisfactorily citrus-free. He couldn’t keep his eyes off Rodney, though, and Rodney noticed. He shot John not very subtle glances every few minutes and John had to adjust himself more than once. Yeah, this was a bad idea.
John was quite relieved to have that tour scheduled for later or he might actually do something stupid, like send Jinto home and fuck Rodney at his desk . . . or in the helicopter.
John tilted his head, studying Rodney, as he thought that. He bit his lip as the image coalesced in his head. Hmmm . . .
Rodney caught him looking and raised an eyebrow. Then smirked and mouthed later.
How had he—? John flushed and averted his gaze.
Jinto, thankfully, seemed oblivious to the looks and growing tension between them.
The day passed like that and the sun eventually started its arc down below the horizon. Rodney had left to have dinner with his family. John sent Jinto home, closed and locked up, and headed home to feed Cash and take him for a walk.
It was as they were returning from their evening stroll down the beach that Cash suddenly barked loudly and pulled away from him. John frowned and ran after him, catching up only to see Cash greeting Rodney with avid attempts at licking his face. John slowed down as he joined them. “Corrupting my dog, McKay?”
Rodney looked up at him then stood. He cocked an eyebrow and said, “I stopped by to see if you wanted to finish what you started earlier. And also, I’d really like to know what you were thinking about earlier that put that look on your face.”
John felt himself go semi-hard in his pants at the reminder of his sudden desire to have sex with Rodney in his helicopter. He cleared his throat and said in a low tone, “I always finish what I start.”
And that’s how John ended up sleeping with Rodney again, the sheets on the bed on the Solitary Man tangled up with their bodies as they brought each other to orgasm again, and again.
“Excuse me, Mr. Sheppard?”
The desk phone stuck between his ear and shoulder, John held up a finger. “Just a sec,” he said to whoever it was. He had his back to the door, hip propped up against the desk, in the middle of a call. He was severely annoyed. “No, look, Bates, if I wanted to order that pansy-ass shit, then I’d ask for the pansy-ass shit! I want what I ordered. No, I am not paying that price! That’s obscene!”
Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Rodney give him a curious look from where he was typing rapidly at his laptop but John shook his head slightly. He scribbled some notes on the notepad in his lap. It was fine. Went like this all the time. Bates was an ass but he had the good stuff for reasonable prices. Usually. John said into the phone, “I’m paying what I always pay and I expect to get what I ordered when I ordered it. I don’t care if you want to give me something else. I can always take my business elsewhere. I just figured I’d help out the local guys but if you don’t want that—”
Straightening, John grinned as Bates suddenly started backpedaling on the other end. “Now that’s more like it. Pleasure doing business with you, Bates.” John hung up and turned to face his visitor. “Sorry ‘bout that. What can I—”
He cut himself off and felt his good mood at winning fade instantly. Mr. Woolsey stood on the other side of the desk, wearing another of those casual business outfits. “Hello, Mr. Sheppard.”
John growled, “Woolsey. I thought I made my feelings quite clear the other day.”
“And I understand that but as I told you, I do have a job to do. Do you have time to talk?”
Woolsey tried again, “Mr. Sheppard, this is extremely important and rather time sensitive. I gave you a few days but I’m afraid that’s all the time I can give you. We need to talk.”
He was suddenly very much aware that he wasn’t alone. That Rodney was watching the interaction with a mix of curiosity and concern. John blew out his breath, ran a hand through his hair, and scowled. Woolsey looked like he was going to stand there until John let him talk. “Fine,” he finally said. John walked around the desk, grabbed Woolsey’s arm and dragged him outside. If he had to have this talk, then he wanted it with the minimum amount of witnesses.
Slamming the door shut behind him, John stabbed a finger in Woolsey’s chest and snapped, “Here’s the only thing you’re going to get from me: Fuck. Off. There. Talk done.”
Woolsey responded calmly, “Before you send me away again, there is someone who wants to talk to you.”
John studied him then sighed and made a get-on-with-it gesture. Crossing his arms, he waited as Woolsey pulled a small laptop out of his briefcase, set it on the folding table John used when he lounged outside, and opened it up.
After a few clicks, a face filled the screen.
A very familiar face.
John’s gut tightened painfully at the sight and his arms dropped.
“You know, I have to admit,” John’s younger brother greeted him, “I know Mr. Woolsey said he’d located you but up until this point, I hadn’t really expected him to actually find you. It’s been so long, I started to figure you were dead or something.” He smiled a little, the expression strained. “Hello, John. It’s good to see you.”
John’s fists clenched. He glared at Woolsey—for springing this on him—then at his brother, at the screen that kept him from landing a very satisfying punch in his brother’s face. “Dave,” he said, voice tight with suppressed emotion. “Still sending the company minions after me, I see.”
Dave frowned slightly. “Well, if you had kept in touch after your disappearing act, I wouldn’t have had to enlist Mr. Woolsey in this. I could have just called you but you made that impossible.”
“I cut ties with SI for a reason.”
Dave waved a hand, the movement a blur at the bottom of the screen, his tone dismissive. “Yes, yes, you and Dad had some fight over something stupid as usual and you left. But you see, John, you left a huge hole that Dad and I had to scramble to fill when it became clear you weren’t coming back this time.”
John flicked his gaze to Woolsey, absently wondering what he thought about this little family reunion. Woolsey’s expression was carefully neutral. John returned to his brother. “I take it Dad didn’t tell you the reason I left?”
“I thought it was,” John muttered.
“John,” Dave sighed. “God, you’re frustrating. Look, you need to come home. Get your head out of your ass, stop playing island runaway, and come back home where you belong. Help me run the company.”
John scrubbed his face with both hands, feeling unaccountably tired. Tired of running, tired of fighting, just all around tired of dealing with his family entirely. All he wanted was to live his life on his own terms, was that so much to ask? According to his father, it was. “Dave,” John replied, “I’m not coming back. You don’t need me. You never needed me. Dad may have been grooming me to take over but you and I both know I was never interested in that. You were the one who should have been trailing after him into meetings.”
Dave sighed again, the heavy sound reverberating through the laptop’s speakers. “I was always Dad’s second choice, John, you know that. No matter what you said or did, Dad always felt that you were the one who was supposed to do it. I was never cutthroat enough to take over when Dad finally retires. He wanted you and when you left, well . . .”
John narrowed his eyes. “Well, what, Dave?”
“Dad’s taken on a partner.”
John blinked. “But—but Dad swore he’d never do that.”
“Yeah, well, apparently having his protégé disappear on him changed his mind,” Dave shot back.
The bitterness in his brother’s voice made him cringe slightly. “I take it that means you’re not in line to take over, then?”
Dave’s mouth twisted. “No. This new partner is. And Dad’s fawning all over him. See, but the thing is, John, if you come back—”
“No.” John shook his head emphatically. “Nope, not happening. I am not coming back. And I’m sure as hell not taking a position in the company!”
“John, I need you to do this! Would you just do this one thing for me for once in your life?”
Dave losing his composure like that? It did what his words could not and actually made John look past his own anger and bitterness. John peered at the screen, studying his brother as best as he could. Dave looked tired, defeated. “Dave, what’s really going on?”
Dave looked away for a moment, focusing on something off screen. When he turned back, there was a light of determination in his eyes. “Johnny, have you ever heard of the Genii?”
His nickname, now? Damn, this must be bad. “Can’t say that I have,” John hedged.
“They manufacture technology, advanced stuff. We could probably use some upgrades in the field and Genii has some good models. Their work is . . . well, I could never understand it; not like you. You always were better at math and science than I was.”
Ignoring the attempt at a compliment, John asked, “What do they have to do with SI? We’re utilities, not tech. Even if we need upgrades, that doesn’t necessitate partnering up.”
“Yeah, well, that’s where the CEO of Genii comes in. His name is Acastus Kolya and he somehow charmed Dad. They met last year at some conference, hit it off, and all of a sudden Dad’s giving this guy the full tour and keys to the kingdom. It’s weird.”
“Well, weird doesn’t mean bad,” John said, thinking of McKay. The thing developing between them despite John’s attempts to avoid it was weird but it felt so damn good. Like he’d noticed before, things were easy with Rodney. John hadn’t had anything easy in years.
“Maybe not,” Dave conceded, “and I admit, I kinda liked the guy at the start. He’s smart, business savvy, he seemed like maybe a good fit if we were actually going to partner with another company. But then, about three months ago, a document crossed my desk. I still have no idea how or where it came from or who gave it to me but . . . John, it was plans for a complete takeover. Of Sheppard Industries. Without us.”
John felt his mouth open a bit. He didn’t care about the business—never really had—but holy shit. “Hostile takeover?”
“And this—Kolya guy. He’s been planning this for a while, then.”
“Holy shit. Does Dad know? What did he say?”
“That’s the weirdest thing!” Dave shook his head in frustration. “Dad knew! Said he had to protect the future of the company and with you gone, he needed to make sure it was in good hands. He told me meeting Kolya was fate and that he knew Kolya would take care of SI for years to come.”
John winced, feeling bad for his brother. Dave had to have been reeling from that for a while. “Dave . . . I’m sorry, man. That’s—that’s gotta smart.”
“Yeah . . . it did. Still does. But you see why I need your help, right? If Dad goes through with this, with putting the future of SI in Kolya’s hands . . . I can’t even imagine what he’ll do with it. With me.” Dave paused then shifted closer to the webcam, his profile getting larger. “I’ve been trying and trying to find a way to stop this and I think I’ve found something. The thing is, it needs you. It needs both of us, but mainly you.”
John eyed his brother warily. “And this grand plan is . . .?”
Dave took a long breath, let it out slowly, then laid it out. “Come back. No, no no,” he said rapidly to stave off John’s refusal, “just—just hear me out. You own half the company. Dad hasn’t taken that away yet nor have you signed it away. You have a greater say in the future of SI than I do. I’ve been slowly buying up shares but I don’t have more than a quarter or so. But if we combine that, we have the power to force Kolya out, to overrule whatever decisions Dad or the board makes! Admittedly, you would have to come back and take up a position to prove your dedication to the company but that shouldn’t need to be more than a year. Two, tops. Just long enough to undo whatever Kolya’s done to Dad. Long enough to save our company for the future of our family, of my family. Please, Johnny. I need you to do this.”
That was a lot of information to take in quickly.
John walked away, over to his helicopter. Trailing a hand along the side, he did a slow circuit and thought. Dave was younger by three years. He’d always been fascinated by the business, always wanted to learn more about it. John, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to escape lessons to go outside. He rode horses, his skateboard, played sports, anything and everything that could give him a thrill.
And if it happened to piss his father off? Well, that was just a bonus.
Dave was the logical choice to run the company; he knew it inside and out. John had figured that would have been the first thing to happen when he left. But now that he knew it wasn’t . . . man, how much Dave must have hated him. And to come asking for his help? Things must be desperate, indeed.
Kolya couldn’t be as bad as Dave described, right? Maybe his point of view was just colored due to the fact that he’d been passed over again? And Dad had been through lots of ups and downs in the business and people could do crazy things that weren’t necessarily bad ideas.
Movement in his peripheral caught his attention and John turned to see McKay hovering at the window, watching him circle his helicopter. John lifted a hand in a wave of acknowledgement and thought, amused, case in point: whatever this thing was between him and Rodney was crazy but it wasn’t bad.
John turned away, returned his thoughts to his brother’s call. He should do something. If Dave had unbent far enough to ask for John’s help, then he really shouldn’t turn him down completely. John was not going back, that was one thing he refused to budge on. But if this Kolya guy really was as bad as Dave said . . . . well, maybe there was a way to help his brother without compromising his own wants.
He needed more information, that was what he needed.
Decision made, John returned to Woolsey and the laptop and braced his hands on either side of the laptop, crouching so he could look his brother in the eye. “Okay, look, Dave. I am not coming back. I don’t care what sort of grand scheme you’ve got in the works, whatever you wanted . . . I’m staying here. I have a life here. I have friends here. I’m not giving that up for the corporate life, okay?”
Dave opened his mouth, clearly intending to argue, but John overrode him, “But.”
Dave closed his mouth.
“But,” John continued, “I will look at whatever this Woolsey guy says he has for me. I will be doing my own investigation into Acastus Kolya. If he’s as bad as you say, then—and only then—will I agree to do something with my share of the company. But my going back to work at SI? Off the table, now and forever. Deal?”
Dave clearly did not like John’s counteroffer but he also knew when he was beat. His mouth twisted and he said reluctantly, “Deal. It’s more than I expected, if I’m being honest. You heard me out, actually considered it, so . . . Thanks. Thanks, Johnny, for not slamming the computer closed on me.”
John gave him a quick tense smile. “Oh, I was tempted. Believe me. Woolsey has a way to contact you?”
Dave nodded. “Yeah. He has my personal contact info as well as work. He’ll be staying on Athos until you make your decision. I hope to hear from you soon, John.”
The connection went dark. Woolsey reached out to close the laptop and slid it back in his briefcase. “Now, Mr. Sheppard, if you have the time, we can begin to go over the documents your brother sent out with me.”
“No,” John corrected. “Now, I go back to work. I also have some research to do. When I’m satisfied that I am actually needed, I’ll call you. I assume you have a business card?”
Woolsey pulled one out of his briefcase and handed it over.
John took it and nodded. “Bye.”
Woolsey looked faintly startled at the abrupt dismissal but he nodded briskly to John and left.
John watched him go then blew out his breath and looked down at the card. Richard Woolsey, Attorney at Law. Sheppard Industries. Office and cell phone numbers were at the bottom. And now he had some calls to make.
The office door opened and Rodney ventured, “Are you okay?”
John shoved his feelings aside, and gave Rodney a quick smile, shoving the business card in his jeans pocket. “Fine. Anything happening inside?”
Rodney frowned. “Just idiots who don’t know how to carry the one in basic multiplication. Are you sure? Because that didn’t look all that good from where I was standing.”
“Yeah, it’s nothing. Just family drama I thought I’d left behind.” John glanced at his watch. “So, listen, I need to head out. Someone I need to talk to. You wanna come?”
Rodney was studying him, as if he were perfectly aware that John wasn’t telling him the whole truth, though John wasn’t sure he could possibly know him well enough to tell. Rodney shook his head. “No, I’m kind of in the groove here. Is it okay if I stay and finish what I’m working on? Promise I’ll lock up when I’m done.”
John nodded, mind already shooting ahead to what he was going to say. “Yeah, that’s fine. See you later?”
Rodney nodded. “Count on it.”
They kissed, John grabbed his jacket and headed for his chopper. The rotors started up a moment later, the engine roaring as John lifted off. Glancing back down, he saw McKay in the office doorway, one hand at his brow to ward off the downdraft, watching John. His chest tightened and there was a flip in his stomach. He quickly looked away.
John needed information on Kolya and there was one person he knew could get him info that wasn’t readily available on the web.