The sun was just starting to tinge the east in pink as Rodney fought with his keys to get the shop door open. It didn't help that his arms were full of books and that his other hand was taken up with a large cup of coffee from Starbucks. Normally, Rodney hated buying coffee from some place so commercial, but he was having a bad morning and the damn things were convenient enough that you couldn't help but trip over them. A quick check up and down the street from the front window told him that he was the only one up this early as usual. Most of the chain stores didn't open until nine. There wasn't any point without customers really, but Rodney cherished his early mornings. It was possibly the one thing he had in common with Starbucks. He quickly emptied his full arms on the counter and started turning on lights, unlocking the front door, and flipping over the open sign. Rodney paused to take a deep breath and smell the shop as he did every morning. As usual, the smell of paper, wood, and a little dust washed over him. It was odd how the shop felt more like home than his cramped, piled little apartment did. Of course, it could just be because he spent more time there than he did at home.
Rodney took a sip of his coffee and climbed the large staircase to the second floor. Kepler was curled up in his basket and barely opened one eye to acknowledge him. As the mascot of Event Horizon, independent bookstore, Kepler was doing a fine job of being a lazy library cat. Rodney returned the favor and ignored him. There was a pile of books on the floor from the night before that Rodney wanted to get reshelved before he bothered to get comfortable behind the counter. It only took him a few minutes of fussing and arranging to get the job done, but somehow all of his coffee had managed to disappear in the process. He stared at the dregs at the bottom of the white cup. The day wasn't getting much better. Rodney levered himself to his feet and went back downstairs to start brewing his own. The sky was much lighter than it had been and Rodney peered out the front window while waiting on his coffee. There were a few people milling around the street. He was surprised by a pack of teens walking past in neoprene and cut off camos carrying surfboards. He had hoped that 4th street was far enough away from the beach crowd, but they seemed to be encroaching on his territory. Then again back when he was working in Pasadena there had been surfers walking around and that was a good twenty-five miles inland. Perhaps it was just a California thing. Rodney took a moment to shake his head at a Canadian like himself getting by in Santa Monica.
The smell of coffee drew him back into his insular little shop where he could ignore the sunshine and big breasted blondes of the world outside. He powered up his MacBook and sat down in his comfortable chair behind the counter. More than likely, he wouldn't have to move for anything until at least after eleven. Of course, it was at that moment that the bells over the door jangled. Rodney sighed and hoped that it wasn't one of the little surfer snots dripping on his carpet. Perhaps if he ignored whoever it was they would do the looking and not buying thing that was so popular at his store.
"Uh, hey," someone said, leaning over the counter.
Rodney sighed again and reminded himself that hitting a customer with his laptop would be wrong. After all, he might damage his Mac. Rodney looked up to see who dared to bother him. He was surprised by what he saw. Partly, it was the bed head, but mostly it was the man's age. He had expected a just barely legal surfer boy and instead got a guy about his own age with a grin that set off his impeccable tan.
"Yes?" Rodney asked.
"Do you have a few dollars worth of quarters that you can spare? I'm out," the man said holding out a few dollar bills.
"I'm sure the arcade is breathlessly awaiting your return. Asteroids just isn't the same without you."
The man chuckled but didn't seem bothered by Rodney's rudeness. Rodney levered to his feet. He went over to cash register and realized he hadn't even bothered to turn it on yet. Rodney fished around in the drawer under the counter for the key. Once it was found, he hit the no sale button with a little more force than was necessary.
"I have an extra roll, do you have a ten?"
"Yeah, hang on a sec."
From his standing position, Rodney got a better look at the man. Almost hidden in the mess of dark brown hair was a pair of aviator sunglasses. Rodney's eyes slipped past the down turned face and long arch of neck. The stranger was wearing a faded blue T-shirt whose logo had lost the battle with too many washings. He watched as the man fished in the pocket of his low slung cut off jeans. The shorts frayed off at the knee and exposed skinny, tan legs that ended in a pair of skater type sneakers. The sneakers, much like the shirt, had seen better days.
"Here you go," the man said and Rodney snapped his eyes back up to the grinning face.
He took the ten from the man's hand like it was contaminated and slipped it under the stack of tens already in the cash drawer. He pulled out the extra roll of quarters and plopped it into the man's hand. The not-really customer had already moved on from the exchange and was looking around the shop curiously.
"Nice place. I haven't been in here yet."
Rodney didn't feel a need to acknowledge that. He merely watched the early morning interruption wander over to the nearest shelf, the short one by the door, and tilt his head to read the titles.
"Is there a reason you have Art filed beside Self-help?" the man asked.
"I could explain, but I doubt you could fathom it."
Instead of getting upset like most customers did when faced with Rodney's personal filing system, the not-really customer just grinned again. When he moved over to the shelves along the wall, Rodney grew impatient. He knew full well that if he sat down the guy would want something, or ask a question, or breathe funny. There was no way he could focus on his computer with someone in the shop. Not this early in the morning anyway.
"Is there something you wanted?" Rodney asked, crossing his arms.
"Not really. You been here long?"
"I've been here almost an hour."
The man smiled and turned away from the Political Science section, which was right beside Humor. "No, I mean the shop. Have you been in business here long?"
"I've been here four years now, why?"
"Oh, I just opened the Seahawk Surf Shop two doors down."
Rodney hadn't noticed that the empty store next to Babette's disgustingly trendy clothes shop had been rented. Not that he would notice that kind of thing seeing as how he usually came in early and left late. The guy was just bursting with pride. Rodney decided that sneering would be a waste of his time. Plus, his second cup of coffee was finally hitting his system.
"Isn't that a baseball team?"
The man's grin changed slightly and Rodney had the sudden inspiration that he probably had a separate grin for almost every emotion. "The Seattle Seahawks are a football team, but it's not named after them."
"I'm sure they're very happy to hear that."
"You're not a morning person, are you?"
"Whatever gave you that impression?"
"If you don't like mornings, why don't you open later?"
Rodney narrowed his eyes at the intruder. It was one thing to have to deal with a customer before he was fully ready to in the morning, it was another to have some 'moon doggie' question his business. "Why do you open so early when you aren't prepared?" Rodney snapped.
The man shrugged casually and said, "The hardcore surfers are first light kind of people. Plus, I like to watch the sun come up. It's not my fault the bank doesn't feel the same way."
He turned around and headed for the back of the shop still perusing the shelves. Rodney just couldn't make heads or tails of the man. Most people would have stormed out by now. Perhaps he should have sneered at the man's shop more. Rodney paused for a moment and wondered if he was getting soft. A chuckle from the far end of the store brought him back to the moment. Rodney stepped around the counter to make sure the heathen wasn't touching anything he shouldn't. He found the guy in front of the Military section.
"I get it now," the guy said. "You're funny."
"What?" Rodney practically barked.
"The shelving. You put them together for a reason."
He didn't feel the need to explain himself. It was his shop after all. Rodney merely crossed his arms and glared at the guy. Hopefully, his hostility would penetrate the guy's fuzzy head.
"Military next to the Pets section. Nice."
"Shouldn't you be going? I mean, there must be someone desperately waiting for their change."
"Huh?" the man asked distractedly, flipping through a book on military aviation. "Oh, Pete? He's probably spinning his latest lies to the guys. You know, 'The wave was this big!' That sort of thing." The man accompanied his explanation with a large gesture while still managing to hold on to the book.
Rodney snatched the book out of his hand and put it back in its proper place. The man cocked an eyebrow at him for his trouble.
"I was looking at that," he said. "I might have bought it."
"Oh please, I just took what was most likely your last ten and that book is twenty dollars or better."
The infuriating man's grin slid sideways into a smirk. He said, "My name's John, by the way, John Sheppard."
"How wonderful for you. I'm sure 'Pete and the guys' are probably missing you right now, Sheppard. It doesn't do well to leave children to their own devices. So why don't you run along? I have things I need to be doing."
"You know, that was the part where you were supposed to tell me your name. That's how conversations work. You might have read about it," Sheppard said gesturing to the books around them.
"You're not going away until I tell you, are you?"
"Nope." Rodney received yet another grin.
"Nice to meet you, Rodney."
Rodney snorted at him. Sheppard shook his head and slouched back towards the front. Rodney waited to hear the jingle of the bells above the door before he bothered to follow. He poured himself a cup of coffee and went back to his computer. Woe to anyone who tried to bother him until at least lunch time. Fortunately, the shop was quiet for the rest of the morning.
Event Horizon was the most unique bookstore in Santa Monica, possibly even in the larger metropolis of Los Angeles. The store itself wasn't that remarkable at first glance. It looked like the bookstores and libraries of old with shelves that were made out of a sturdy wood, stained to a dark chestnut color. The unique thing about Event Horizon, and something Rodney was quite proud of, was that the store itself was a physical representation of the mind of its owner. The filing system that had so amused Sheppard served a greater purpose. The problem was that Rodney hadn't yet figured out just what that purpose was. He only knew that he liked things a certain way. If one took a moment to piece the filing system together, they would realize that it told the story of one man, perched behind his counter, trying to fend off the world.
The rest of the week was quiet. There were the usual tourists that Rodney shot dirty looks at because they didn't buy anything. He did have some regulars that either preferred to buy their books from an independent store, or just liked the fact that he pretty much left them alone. Occasionally, there were book collectors that had their eyes out for first editions and the like. Rodney kept these items behind the counter and not many people knew that he also dealt in the collectible market. Most Saturdays, the store was closed in the mornings because he went to estate sales and auctions looking for these finds. Sunday, the store was officially closed, but he was usually there taking care of housekeeping, bills, ordering, and whatnot. Sunday afternoons were lazy. Sometimes Rodney would go to the movies, sometimes he would go out to eat, and sometimes he'd drive up to Pasadena and sit in the parking lot closest to Robinson Laboratory, CalTech's astrophysics department. He usually only did this when he was really depressed. It struck him as pathetic that he was a grown man stalking a building, but no one knew about it so Rodney figured there wasn't any harm.
On the following Tuesday morning, Rodney was feeding Kepler when the bells over the door sounded. He didn't bother to turn from his task because feeding time was one of the few times that Kepler actually deigned to let Rodney pet him.
"Nice cat. What's her name?"
Rodney turned to see Sheppard leaned casually on his hip against one of the short shelves. Rodney straightened quickly.
"His name is Kepler."
"Cool. Listen, I'm looking for a book and I thought, 'I bet Rodney could help me.'"
"Well, this is a bookstore. What are you looking for?"
"I don't know."
Rodney rolled his eyes and went behind the counter to put away the cat food. There was something about Sheppard that just got under his skin. The man was a menace, and yet no matter how horribly Rodney treated him, he just refused to take it personally.
Sheppard continued, "No, I'm serious. I need a good book to read when it's slow. I thought you could recommend something."
"Shouldn't you be manning your store? There are probably hoodlums walking off with wax for dubious uses as we speak."
"Nah, I got Motor working for me part time now."
"You left your store in the hands of someone named Motor?" Rodney asked, incredulously.
"He's a good kid, and I think his mom's been having trouble lately so he could use the extra cash."
Rodney stared at the man. It was like looking at a grinning alien. He marched around the counter to the Literature section (filed beside Crafts and Hobbies) and grabbed the nearest book without a glance. With a flick of the wrist, he slapped the heavy tome against Sheppard's chest which got him a rather satisfying grunt.
"Aw, come on! You didn't even look," Sheppard said.
"I don't have to. War and Peace by Tolstoy. That should take you a while."
Sheppard looked down at the cover and then back up at Rodney. He gave a surprised little quirk of his lips. "Thanks, but if you don't mind, I'll also look around some myself."
"Oh please, take your time. I'm sure Motor hasn't walked off with the till just yet."
Sheppard merely shot him another of his grins and wandered further into the shop.
"Horror next to the Children's section? Nice. I'm guessing you don't like kids much."
Rodney leaned back against the counter with his arms crossed. He didn't answer. There was no way he was going to do anything to prolong this little visit. Plus, his childhood wasn't anybody's business. Sheppard didn't seem to mind the silent treatment and just kept on talking.
"Do you really know every book in here?" he asked and his voice sounded skeptical.
Rodney stared daggers through the shelves at the man's voice.
"Try me," he said, breaking his silence.
"Health and Fitness beside Fantasy. It's nice to know you're an optimist."
"Yes, yes, get on with it."
"Fantasy, third shelf down, sixth book from the left."
"Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke."
"Okay," Sheppard said, drawing out the word. "That was an easy one."
Rodney scoffed, "Then pick a hard one."
He listened as Sheppard shuffled around a bit.
"Are you sure there aren't any video cameras or mirrors in here?"
"As if I could read the tiny book titles even if there were. I just know my store. I bet you have to ask Motor where things are over at the Seahawk, which is a ridiculous name, by the way."
"It's a type of helicopter. It's the Navy version of a Blackhawk. Besides, it's not like Event Horizon is any better. At least mine has 'sea' in it. Yours sounds more like a gay bar than a bookstore."
"Oh, so that's why you came in here. Disappointed were you?" Rodney replied. He could hear Sheppard chuckle.
"Poetry, second shelf, third book to the right."
"Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings edited by J. D. McClatchy."
"What do you mean, 'nope?'?"
"I have Longfellow in my hand. I took it out."
Rodney stalked across the store and circled the shelf. "You're cheating!"
"Why is Poetry by itself?" Sheppard asked. He leaned back to hide the shelf behind him.
"So it won't contaminate the other books of course."
Sheppard gave a small huff of laughter at that and said, "Third book."
"Hiawatha's Childhood by Longfellow, or at least it is until you put the other back."
"Do you have a photographic memory, or do you just spend way too much time in this store?"
"Are you going to buy that?" Rodney countered, narrowing his eyes.
"Nah," Sheppard replied, reshelving it. "I'll take the War and Peace."
Rodney closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. When he opened them, Sheppard was gone. A quick look around the store found him sitting on the bottom of the stairs petting Kepler. Rodney watched the man's long fingers slide through the cat's gray fur over and over. Kepler arched up into the touch and had his eyes closed in utter contentment. He shot the cat a traitorous look, not that the stupid thing was paying him any attention.
"He really is a nice cat," Sheppard said.
"Not to me."
Rodney grabbed the book and went to the counter to ring it up. He tapped his fingers impatiently on the countertop until Sheppard got up and came over to pay in cash. Rodney gave him his change.
"Why did you come in here? And don't tell me it was for literature, Sheppard," Rodney said.
"Motor, Pete, and the guys are nice enough, but sometimes I need a little adult conversation. Thanks for the book, Rodney, and you can call me John if you want."
Rodney watched him hold up the book like a prize, wearing his ever present grin. With that parting shot, he strolled back out. Rodney stared at the door for some time afterward. The rest of the day was rather boring in comparison, which annoyed him immensely. The day hadn't been different from any other day, discounting Sheppard. There was no reason for it to seem boring. Rodney stared at his laptop screen and thought about his strange new neighbor. He'd made only two visits and had already managed to shake up Rodney's simple little world. The man certainly made an impression. Who in their right mind hired someone because their family needed help? That was no basis for employment. Plus, that departing crack about adult conversation made no sense considering the two of them seemed to bring out the obnoxious child in each other. Rodney shook himself from thoughts about the surfer and focused on his electronic journals. Surely Sheppard would eventually get bored with annoying him and things could go back to normal.
Friday afternoon, Rodney sat on the floor in front of Drama (which was filed right after History) inserting the Mysteries at the end of the section. He was behind a shelf, so when the store bells jingled, Rodney didn't see who had entered until a shadow covered him. Rodney looked up into the smirk of John Sheppard.
"Mysteries next to Drama and History?" Sheppard asked.
"Mystery gets moved once a week," Rodney explained, though he wasn't sure why.
"So you have to go looking for it?"
"It's only fair."
Sheppard held out a hand for him, and Rodney stared at it a moment. The other man waited patiently until he finally took the hand with a sour look. Sheppard gave him one of his many grins as Rodney got to his feet.
"I need your help."
Rodney lied, "I don't have any quarters."
"Not that kind of help."
Sheppard tugged him around the shelf before Rodney could balk. On the other side stood a young man in low slung cargo pants and a black tank top. He had the dark complexion of his obviously Hispanic origins. The kid looked him up and down with obvious distaste. Rodney returned it in kind.
"This is Pete," Sheppard said by way of introduction.
"The infamous 'it was this big,' Pete?"
"Man, Shep!" Pete said with a scowl. "What have you been tellin' people about me?"
"Nothing someone couldn't figure out after five minutes with you," Sheppard replied. He looked back at Rodney. "Pete here is attending Santa Monica College on a scholarship."
"Really?" Rodney asked.
"Yeah, what's the matter? You think only white people are supposed to go to college?" Pete asked, taking a step towards Rodney. Sheppard pushed him back with a forearm across the chest.
"I don't care if you're purple. I'm just wondering how this information affects me."
"I was getting to that," Sheppard replied. "Because of the scholarship, Pete here has to keep a certain grade point average. If he doesn't, then no more scholarship. No more scholarship means no more school."
"Still not seeing why you're telling me all of this."
"Well, Rodney, I thought maybe you could help Pete with a little tutoring."
"I've been helping him with his statistics class, but he's taking astronomy as his science. When I was here the other day, I couldn't help but notice the nice sheepskin you have framed on the wall behind the counter there."
Rodney looked over at his doctorate. He scowled at it. The memories that always surfaced when he looked at it distracted him. Pete obviously took it as some kind of disgust.
"Forget it, Shep. This guy isn't going to help me. You said you could help me with the math part of it."
"Yeah, but Rodney here is an expert and I'm not. Pete, they don't give astrophysics PhD's out to just anybody."
Rodney snapped out of his thoughts and frowned at the two of them. "Spoken like someone who hasn't met my contemporaries. What on Earth makes you think that you can bring in some kid off the street and that I'll just drop everything to help him? I hardly know you, and I know even less about him."
Sheppard crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at Rodney. It was an appraising kind of look. "Because you want to educate people. Why else would you own a bookstore?"
Rodney gaped at him. The man was seriously demented.
"Dude, can you help me or not?" Pete growled.
Rodney opened his mouth to tell him where the door was and said, "What kind of astronomy?" Needless to say, he was quite surprised by the lack of connection between his vocal chords and his brain.
"It's an intro class basically," Sheppard replied. "Mostly observational with a light amount of math. Nothing you can't handle."
"Are you serious about this?" Rodney asked Pete. "I'm not about to waste my time here."
"I want to know it. I could have signed up for geology which I heard was a crip course, but I didn't. It’s just that,” he paused uncomfortably, “it doesn't make any sense.” Pete looked away, obviously not used to admitting his ignorance.
Rodney looked over at his doctorate again and frowned at it. He knew full well what it was like having something to prove. He turned back at Pete until the young man looked him in the eyes. There was a hunger there looking back at him, a hunger he knew far too well.
"Fine. Twice a week and we do it here. I don't want your little buddies over at Sheppard's distracting you. Bring your stuff tomorrow and I'll look over it. We'll figure out a schedule then."
Sheppard looked happier than Pete. "Thanks, Rodney. I really appreciate this."
"Yeah, thanks, um..." Pete said, trailing off.
"You can call me Dr. McKay. Now by all means, get out of my store. I'm busy."
Pete gave a small smirk, but looked all too happy to be leaving. Sheppard on the other hand had broken out into a full fledged smile. It was odd compared to his usual grin, but it made his face light up in new and interesting ways. He slapped Rodney on the back of the shoulder and headed for the door. Rodney rubbed the spot with the grimace. How long ago was it that he was hoping Sheppard would get bored with him? Rodney sighed and went back to his wandering Mysteries.
The next afternoon, good to his word, Pete showed up with his texts and class notes. He reminded Rodney of an over-enthusiastic terrier. While Rodney looked through his textbook with an ever-increasing contorted face, Pete contented himself by petting Kepler. He didn't even bother to frown at the cat trying his best to crawl into Pete's lap.
"I can see why you'd have trouble. A stoned monkey could write a better Astronomy text book," Rodney said stepping away from the counter and headed back to the Science section which was filed after Education. "I have some books that should help."
"Uh, Dr. McKay, I can't really..." Pete started, standing up.
Rodney turned to look at him for a moment and waited for him to finish the sentence impatiently. He noticed that the kid refused to look at him. He was twisting his head all around the shop and his hands were buried deep in his pockets. Then Rodney got it. Pete couldn't afford to pay for new books. He probably barely managed to scrape money together for the piece of crap text sitting on the counter.
"Don't worry about it. You can read them while you're here. They're not difficult."
Rodney pulled the two books free and handed them to Pete. He went behind the counter, through the door to his small office, and pulled out the chair from in there. He placed it beside his own.
"Here," he said, "sit here and read the first two chapters in that bigger book. We can talk about it after."
Pete looked up surprised. "I thought we were going to do a schedule."
"I need to know how much you know, how much you understand, and how quickly you understand it before I make any kind of schedule. If you catch on quick we'll need less time together, if not..."
Pete sighed but sat down and began to do as he was asked. Rodney went back to his computer and tried not to contemplate the strangeness of his life. He kept an eye on the clock and noticed that it took Pete about an hour to go through two chapters. Rodney could read them in about half the time. He tried not to let this show on his face when Pete looked up from the book. Rodney was an arrogant asshole, but he couldn't fault anyone for honestly wanting to learn something. At least Pete was a clean slate. The last time he'd taught it was to a bunch of undergrads who thought they knew everything.
"What was the first chapter about?" Rodney asked.
"A bunch of old dead guys."
Rodney shot him a dark look. "What about the old dead guys?"
"They were astronomers. I think we did some of that in class. Why do we have to remember these guys anyway? I mean most all of them were proven wrong, right?"
"That's the thing about science, ninety percent of the time you're wrong until you get the inspiration that leads to the other ten percent when you're right. Either that or you're right and no one believes you," Rodney said sounding bitter even to his own ears.
"Like that guy that thought the Earth revolved around the sun instead of the other way round?"
"Did someone not believe you? Is that why you aren't teaching at some big college somewhere?"
Rodney narrowed his eyes at the boy, but Pete was obviously a tough street kid. He wasn't about to be intimidated by a pudgy bookstore owner. Rodney finally said, "No, it was nothing like that."
"But something bad did happen?"
"Do you want to learn astronomy or talk about me?" Rodney snapped.
"You learn about the old dead guys that were wrong to give you a basis to understand what is right. Now tell me about the second chapter."
"It talks about how the universe started. The Big Bang and all that."
"What evidence is there that supports the Big Bang theory?"
Pete look flustered for a second. Rodney waited. Finally, Pete said, "The galaxies and stuff are all moving away from us and there was something about heat that didn't make any sense."
Rodney nodded. "Good. Is Big Bang the only theory?"
"No, there are some others but it's the most popular."
"There. You've just summed up your first three lectures according to your notes."
"So I remembered, it doesn't mean that I understood it."
Rodney leaned back in surprise. Pete must have seen it on his face because he suddenly got very cross.
"Yes," the kid barked, "I want to understand it. I'm not an idiot, you know. Remembering stuff will help me pass tests, but our professor wants us to do papers and stuff. I can't fake that."
"Relax. I'm just surprised that you want to learn because most kids your age don't give a damn."
"Well, I do."
"Fine. Take that book home. Don't get it dirty. Don't bend the pages. I want it back in pristine condition. You're just borrowing it, understand?" Rodney said, waiting for a nod from the boy before continuing. "Your classes are on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday so we should meet Tuesdays and Thursdays. Read the rest of the book before Tuesday. Write down any questions you have. We'll talk about it then. Leave the other book here. You can look at it later. Oh, and be sure to tell your professor his choice in textbooks is appalling. Now go on."
Pete snatched his stuff up and headed out the door, probably to the Seahawk to complain. Rodney didn't care. He was already regretting letting Sheppard talk him into this. He didn't need any distractions disrupting his life. Rodney twisted in his chair to look up at the doctorate displayed, most would think, proudly on his wall behind the counter. He distinctly remembered putting it there because it meant that most of the time his back was to it and he didn't have to look at the thing. Kepler nudged his ankle and seemed to be looking around for his new friend.
"Judas," Rodney whispered to the feline and rubbed his tired eyes.
The next three weeks went by fairly quickly. The days were pretty normal except for Tuesdays and Thursdays when Pete would show up in the afternoons and they would talk about astronomy. The kid was smarter than he let on, and Rodney was sure that a lot of his problem was that he didn't have any faith in himself. It was like someone had told him that he wasn't good in astronomy and he had believed them. During their forth session, Rodney discovered just who that person had been. Pete explained that his sixth grade teacher had told him that he just didn't have any aptitude in science. Well, Pete hadn't used those exact words, but Rodney got the picture. He thought back on his own days of piano lessons and disappointment. He then told Pete that his sixth grade teacher was full of shit.
Saturday was rainy and Rodney had decided not to bother with the auction he had circled in the paper the day before. Instead, he stayed open and did some cleaning. There were only a couple of customers for the day, the rain having sent everyone scurrying for cover. Rodney propped the door open to air the place out, something he rarely did because he wasn't about the air condition the whole neighborhood. He was playing minesweeper on his MacBook late that afternoon when a movement made him look up. Pete, a little damp, was standing on the other side of the counter with a frown.
"Friday's class," was all he replied.
Rodney rolled his eyes and went into the office to pull out what he was absolutely refusing to call 'Pete's chair.' They went over what had been discussed in the class and what Pete was having trouble with. Finally, Rodney got him to understand the concept. Doing so involved a demonstration featuring a piece of string, one of Kepler's cat toys, and a copy of Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America that just happened to be lying on the counter. Rodney cleaned up the mess while Pete disappeared into the office toward the small bathroom. He took the book back to the Biography section which was upstairs beside True Crime. When he came back down, Pete was eyeing him funny.
"You sure do have a lot of pills in there. Are you sick or something?" he asked.
Rodney frowned at him. "I have allergies," he said. He motioned for Pete to put the chair back in the office.
Just as he was about to sit, Rodney looked over at the door. Several young men slouched into the bookstore, shaking off the rain. The door was still open so bells did not herald their appearance, but their sheer volume did. They were laughing and talking, and the biggest one had one of the smaller ones in a headlock. Rodney was about to start yelling when Sheppard slouched in behind them.
"Hey guys!" Pete said coming back out of the office.
"Pete, man, we're going to go get some food," the big one said never bothering to release the struggling boy mashed into his armpit.
"Rodney," Sheppard said with a nod.
"What...you... Hey! Don't touch that!" Rodney yelled at the blonde haired boy poking around one of the shelves.
"I was just looking!" the kid smarted back.
"Leave it, David. Rodney is fussy about his books," Sheppard explained.
"So you're the Doc, huh?" David asked, abandoning the shelves to get a good look at Rodney.
"Oh!" Sheppard said. "Let me introduce you to the guys. That there is David. The big one is Motor, I've told you about him. And the little guy who Motor is going to let go of right now," Sheppard gave Motor a look, and the smallest boy was released, "is Motor's little brother, Andrew."
Rodney eyed Motor. The kid was pretty big, probably in his early twenties, easily older than the others. He was wearing a black T-shirt with ripped off sleeves and baggy black shorts that went past his knee. There was a big chain, from a wallet maybe, slung off his hip. His hair was dyed the darkest bottle black and was arrayed in messy spikes. This was who Sheppard was helping out? He looked like Sid Vicious out on parole. His little brother, on the other hand, looked like your average fourteen year old with mousy brown hair and an easy smile. He obviously adored Motor which was just unsettling. David was the standard bleached blond surfer boy type with hair all in his eyes. Rodney rocked back as David leaned over the counter to get a look at him.
"Huh," the kid said, "don't look like he's walking on water."
"What?" Rodney asked. He put a finger on David's forehead and pushed him back to his side of the counter.
The kid shook it off with a frown and said, "Well, the way Pete goes on, I was beginning to wonder. He's always, 'Doc said this’ and ‘Doc said that.'"
"Shut up, man," Pete yelped.
Rodney looked over at Pete in surprise, but found the boy distinctly not looking at him. Sheppard grinned and quickly changed the subject.
"We're going over to Bandido's. Get your stuff and come on."
"I don't know, Shep," Pete said softly. The others had started investigating the store leaving the three of them relatively alone.
"Hey, don't worry about it. I'll spot you."
"You spotted me last time. No, okay. My papa didn't raise me to be no freeloader. Maybe next time."
Rodney was only half listening to the conversation as he kept an eye on the other boys. It was Sheppard's tired sounding sigh that made him pay attention. He looked between the two of them as they had a little battle of wills.
"Oh, hell, I'll spot you if you get these hooligans out of my shop."
"I'm not taking money from you either, Dr. McKay."
"It's not a hand out. It's a reward for doing well on that test Wednesday. Please!" Rodney said, gesturing to the boys.
"Okay, okay," Pete said and went to get the others.
Sheppard nodded at him. "Nice, Rodney. He's a proud kid."
"Now you get to go with us!"
"What?" Rodney asked him in surprise.
Sheppard threw his arm around Rodney's shoulders as if they were bosom buddies. Rodney looked at the man, and his funny hair, with a disturbed expression. Sheppard only laughed at him.
"How else are you going to spot him? You know he won't take cash. You'll have to go with us."
"My God, it's almost like you planned it."
Sheppard chuckled some more. "Yes, Rodney, because all I do all day is sit around and dream up ways of getting you to eat dinner with me and my four hooligans. By the way, hooligans?"
"I haven't heard that word since I drove my bike across my grandfather's marigolds when I was ten."
"Shut up," Rodney growled and went to get his coat. Sheppard and the boys all stood at the door and waited till he had turned everything off and was ready to lock up.
The sky was still gray and spitting out a fine mist of rain on and off. It was already starting to get dark. They kept close to the buildings darting from awning to awning, the kids less so than Sheppard and Rodney. For most of the walk Rodney complained about allergies, asthma, and catching his death of cold, but no one paid much attention to him. Every once in a while, he would catch the small smile on Sheppard's face as they'd pass through the light of a store window. One block up and one block East was a little Mexican restaurant tucked away in a corner. Rodney followed the others inside and eyed the place speculatively. It was obviously a homespun family establishment. Inside, the atmosphere was authentically Mexican instead of the cheap Americanized version that most restaurants had. They were seated quickly by an attractive young woman that had the boys staring.
"It's not polite to drool until the food gets here, guys," Sheppard said and gave Rodney a knowing smirk.
They were seated at a large round table towards the center of the room. The boys grouped together on one side and immediately started discussing surfing. Rodney was lost after a few syllables. Sheppard seemed to take pity on him and scooted his chair closer.
"So how's the book business?"
"I really appreciate you helping out Pete. It's made a real difference in him. He's even doing better with his Statistics."
Rodney took a sip of his water as he watched Pete pull out a pen and start marking something on his napkin with the other boys looking on. He then looked over at Sheppard and realized how close the other man was. Their shoulders brushed whenever either of them moved a bit in their chairs.
"Why do you care?" he asked.
"Most people buy their stuff at Rip Curl on the Promenade. These guys gave me a shot. They told their friends."
"So it's just business?" Rodney asked with surprise.
"No. These kids don't have much. Pete's got a good family, but they don't have a lot of money. He's trying to make something of himself. Motor and Andrew are good kids. They don't have a dad, and their mom works her ass off at two jobs just to keep their little family going. David...well, David is another thing entirely. He's a rich kid whose parents don't give a crap. I worry about him the most. I think he's running drugs for Dove."
Rodney's eyes shot over to the blonde smartass who was laid back in his chair listening to the others with only half an ear. David noticed Rodney's look and his eyes narrowed in response. Rodney looked back down at his menu.
"Do you think he's using? Dealing?"
"Nah, Dove's careful. He has them delivering stuff first until he knows he can trust them."
"Who the hell is Dove?" Rodney whispered not looking up from the menu. He caught Sheppard's incredulous look out of the corner of his eye.
"Dove De La Pena, he's our local drug lord. You've been here four years and you haven't heard about him?"
"I'm sorry if I haven't been keeping up with the local trafficking trade," Rodney said snidely.
"Well, you are kind of a square, so it doesn't really surprise me I suppose."
Rodney looked at Sheppard's ever present smirk out of the corner of his eye, but decided to let the jibe slide. Their waitress finally decided to grace them with her presence. The boys started ordering all at the same time and it took her a bit to get it all straight. Finally, she looked over at the two of them. She was much friendlier as she took Sheppard's order. Rodney frowned at him. When it was his turn, he ordered and gave the girl a four minute diatribe about the dangers of any sort of citrus coming in contact with his food. For some reason, her manner was a lot less friendly. When she walked away, Rodney looked over to see all four of the boys looking at him.
"What? It could kill me. I have to be careful."
Somehow, he didn't think he was getting any sympathy. Pete went back to scribbling on his napkin. Motor and David got Sheppard into a conversation about something or other. Rodney just looked around at the restaurant before Andrew's voice caught his attention.
"Hey, Pete. What's that?"
"It's nothing," Pete said wadding up the napkin. Andrew deftly snatched it away and Pete lunged across Motor's lap to get it back. The bigger boy pushed him away, keeping him from his prize.
"Hey, what is this anyway?" Andrew asked. He turned the napkin around and around with a confused look.
"I told you it's nothing. Give it back."
"Let me see," Sheppard asked, and the napkin was rewadded and tossed at him. He caught it with one hand and flattened it out on the table. Rodney leaned over and looked at the figure drawn there.
"It's a sine wave," Rodney said and leaned back.
"I've never surfed in Sine, are the waves good?" Andrew asked.
David snorted at the younger boy, and received a punch in the arm from Pete.
"It's basic physics. I didn't know you were interested in that, Pete," Sheppard replied.
"Me either," Rodney agreed.
"I'm not. It's just we were talking about electromagnetic waves and stuff, and I thought maybe it could, like...help my surfing if I understood it better."
Sheppard looked over at Rodney with a small pleased looking grin. For his part, Rodney was very surprised. He knew that Pete wanted to understand his Astronomy, and to some existent his Statistics, but to actively go out and learn a piece of physics that applied to his every day life was unexpected.
"It might," Sheppard agreed.
"You'll have to take his word for it," Rodney said. "I don't know the first thing about surfing."
Pete's eyes glowed for a moment and he gave off a hundred watt smile. Rodney almost flinched away.
"You should come with us, Doctor McKay. You know all that physics stuff. It should be easy for you."
The other boys paused as if trying to imagine Rodney on a surfboard. His own mind was flailing away from the very same image. Sheppard sat up like someone had poked him.
"Hey, there's an idea!" he said excitedly.
"No. Never. Not in a million years. Absolutely not."
"Oh, come on, Rodney. It'd be fun."
Thankfully, the argument was tabled as their food arrived. Rodney breathed a small sigh of relief, but he couldn't help but notice the twinkling in Sheppard's eyes. Somehow, he was sure the conversation was going to come back around and bite him in the ass eventually. Rodney took to his food with an abandon that was matched only by the teens across the table from him. Sheppard ate mechanically watching the five of them with a slightly disgusted look on his face.
Rodney pushed his plate back with a deep pleased sigh when he was finished. Sheppard was still picking at his food, and the boys, who had been done for a short while, were arguing about how fried ice cream was made. Rodney felt a strange sort of contentment. He looked over to smile at Sheppard, but the expression quickly faltered. Sheppard gave him a confused look until he turned to see the man standing over his shoulder.
Rodney tossed his napkin on the table and wondered at how quickly his good mood could get trampled.
"Radek," he replied coolly.
"How are you? It's been a while," Radek said, and Rodney couldn't help but notice that his accent was thinner than he remembered.
Sheppard was looking back and forth between them. The tension was obvious even to the boys. Rodney saw Pete scoot his chair back out of the corner of his eye. Radek noticed the movement as well and stepped back a bit. Sheppard shot Pete a dark look, and then moved it over to their intruder. Rodney got a warm feeling from all the sudden protection. This was what it was like to have friends that backed you up. He viciously hoped that Radek was learning from the experience. Radek opened his mouth to say something else, but Rodney interrupted him by quickly getting to his feet.
"I wish I could say it was nice seeing you again, Radek."
"I'll get the check," he said to no one in particular and walked stiffly towards the wait station at the front. He was in such a hurry to escape that he ended up paying for all of them. Outside, the rain had stopped and the air was humid. He could smell the sharp, salty scent of the ocean as he took deep breath after deep breath, trying to calm his jangled nerves. Rodney heard the door open behind him and turned to see Sheppard's worried expression. Pete was right on his heels.
"Are you okay, Dr. McKay?"
"Fine. We headed back then?"
The other boys filtered out, and Motor and Sheppard exchanged a look. The larger boy threw his arms around Andrew and David's shoulders and led them on down the sidewalk towards the shops without a word. Rodney felt somewhat grateful to the punk. Sheppard was also trying to work the look on Pete, but having much less success. Rodney didn't mind because there was no way he wanted to talk about it. Of course the not talking about it plan went out the window as Radek stepped out the door behind them.
"Rodney, please, let me speak," Radek said, ignoring the hostile looks he was getting from Sheppard and Pete.
Rodney crossed his arms and scoffed. "Now you want to speak? Funny how you didn't seem to want to do so before."
Radek's voice grew sharp in response. "That is not fair! Surely you don't think that I—"
"Fair? You want to talk about fair? They ruined my life! And you stood by and let them!"
"And would they have believed me, Rodney? How many times had you insulted the Dean to his face? Did you honestly think it was about Kavanaugh?"
Rodney turned his back. His hands clutched at his hair, trying to tamp down the anger that he had kept buried for years. He didn't want to hear what his former friend had to say. He didn't want to think about CalTech at all. Rodney had started over. He had built a life where he didn't have to deal with it anymore.
Radek's voice softened as he continued. "Do you think I did nothing while they railroaded you out of your position? Rodney, you were my friend! I went to the board, but it was no use. You'd burned too many bridges. There is no way you didn't see it coming."
"So it was all my fault?" Rodney asked turning back on him in a fury.
"No. I have no doubt about who is at fault in this, and it wasn't you. You are a very intelligent man. Possibly the brightest I have ever met. But when the government started throwing money at your research, you became a target. I wish...I wish a lot of things had been different, but most of all, I wish that we could have challenged the nature of the universe together. I am sorry for what happened."
Radek reached into his coat and pulled out a card. He held it out to Rodney who refused to look at it, much less take it. Instead Radek sighed and turned to hand it to Sheppard. "My home number is on the back. I find myself missing our conversations, as infuriating as they usually were. It is up to you. I would like to put the past behind me."
They watched as the slight man stepped back through the restaurant door. Rodney's fury had burned away leaving him feeling empty inside. He slumped back against the small wall that encircled the empty patio. Pete looked like he wanted to say something but a hand on his shoulder from Sheppard stopped him.
"Pete, you'd better catch up with the others."
Rodney wasn't sure, but it was most likely the please that made the boy move. He gave Rodney a little upset expression as he jogged after the others. Sheppard flipped the card through his fingers like a magician would a playing card. Rodney was mesmerized by the motion and couldn't pull his eyes away.
"You want me to toss this?" Sheppard asked quietly.
"I don't care what you do with it."
"Then I'll hold on to it for a while for you."
Rodney gave him a sour look. He pushed away from the wall and started down the sidewalk. Sheppard caught up with him in a few steps, walking close so that occasionally their shoulders brushed. Rodney didn't know whether to be annoyed or grateful for the subtle attempt at comfort. The boys had pulled away and were a good half a block or more ahead of them. There weren't many other people out and Rodney felt isolated as they slipped through the pools of streetlights and the bright promises of window displays. To his credit, Sheppard waited a full block. As they turned the corner to head down towards the shops, he finally spoke.
"So, you going to fill me in on what all that was about, or shall I add it to your air of mystery?"
"I have an air?"
"Well, maybe I should have said 'grump of mystery.' That suits you better."
"Oh, thank you," Rodney replied sarcastically and couldn't stop the little smirk that slipped out afterward.
Sheppard seemed to take that as encouragement and tried again. "So I was right about them not giving out astrophysics degrees to just anyone."
"I used to teach at CalTech. Bad things happened. I don't anymore. The end."
"You said whatever it was ruined your life. That sounds a little worse than 'bad things happened.'"
Rodney sighed. "What part of the 'don't want to talk about' it vibe are you not picking up?"
"You know, I've always been terrible with vibes. I think it stems from my distaste for ambiance or maybe gypsies. I've never been sure how that works."
Rodney glanced over and scowled at Sheppard's thoughtful look.
"You also suck at direct requests."
Sheppard's thoughtful look drooped into an honest to God pout. His lip was stuck out and everything. Rodney rolled his eyes. He quickened his pace, not that it did him any good because Sheppard kept up easily.
"Maybe you need to talk about it. Avoidance only works so long."
Rodney stopped and whirled on him. "And why would I talk about it with you? I don't even know you!"
"Sure you do. I'm John, remember?" he asked with his usual grin.
"Stop it. Just stop."
"No! Listen, I don't know what your deal is but I'm tired of you and your brats bothering me. Just...just leave me alone, all right?" Rodney barked and walked away. Sheppard didn't try to catch up with him.
Rodney spent most of Sunday in bed. He didn't feel like going to the shop for the first time in ages. Around three o'clock he just got disgusted with himself for his wallowing and finally got up to get a shower. The rain from the day before had moved on leaving the sky blue and picturesque. There was hardly any pollution haze and the sun was warm but not too hot. All in all, it was just another beautiful day in sunny Southern California. Rodney spent the afternoon in a dark movie theater hiding from it. One of the older cinemas in town was having a classic kung fu film festival, and while it was hardly Rodney's favorite genre, it was a cheap ticket and a way to escape.
Monday, Rodney didn't show up at the shop until his posted opening time, something that happened rarely. He didn't see any point in coming in early, and he was hoping to avoid Sheppard and his cohorts. Surprisingly, the day was quiet and there wasn't an unkempt head in sight. Rodney tried to tell himself that he wasn't disappointed. The next day was much the same, but Rodney found himself watching the clock as the afternoon wore on. It was Tuesday, and he had seen no sign of Pete. At first, he tried to tell himself that it was a good thing. He hadn't wanted to teach the boy in the first place. But as time wore on and the sun grew low in the sky, Rodney found his limited patience wearing thin. Finally, realizing that he wasn't making any sales because he kept snapping at the few customers that were trailing in, Rodney decided to close early. He told himself he needed a walk. So instead of going out the back to his car, he locked up from the front and stood on the sidewalk a moment before turning right and heading around the block. If he just happened to pass by Seahawk Surf Shop on his way, well that was merely coincidence.
The sidewalk was full of long shadows. Across the street, the windows were golden mirrors reflecting the late afternoon sun as it slowly sank to the horizon. Rodney slowed his pace to look inside the surf shop. There was a short counter to the right of the door, opposite of where Rodney had his counter in the bookstore. It was glass on three sides and looked more like a display case than a proper counter. Inside were lots of little items, necklaces, stickers, key chains and the like. On top, off to one side, was the register. Sheppard was bent over the glass next to it leaning on his elbows. His feet were spread wide keeping him stable. Rodney's eyes followed the tan legs up to the navy blue athletic shorts and white v-neck T-shirt that bunched up at his hips. Sheppard had a bright smile on his face as he watched a teen talking excitedly and waving his arms around. Rodney pulled his eyes away from the man's profile to see who else was in the store. He didn't recognize the kid talking, but he did see Motor in the back bent over a long table with a surfboard lying on its center. More boards bracketed the wall behind him. The young man's face was covered with a protective mask and it looked like he was airbrushing or stenciling something onto the surfboard. Rodney took a few steps back to see the far left of the store through the window. That side was filled with shirts, shorts, and more specific kinds of clothing. He saw Pete and Andrew sitting at a table by the wall almost hidden by a freestanding rack of shiny nylon looking shirts.
Rodney frowned and looked down at the sidewalk. In the back of his mind, he had been hoping that maybe something had come up and that Pete had a good excuse for blowing off his tutoring. Not that he cared, his mind quickly added. He hadn't wanted to deal with the kid in the first place, right? Rodney was trying to convince himself that it was better for everyone if he and Pete didn't waste each other's time when a light thunking noise made him look up. Standing at the window, looking right at him, was Sheppard. He was knocking on the glass with a bent knuckle. Rodney flushed at being caught. Sheppard took no notice and merely tossed his head back a little bit in invitation. Rodney sighed. He realized how foolish he'd look if he just kept on walking, so he braced himself and opened the door. His ears were immediately assaulted by a thrumming bass line as some music blasted its way to freedom out the open glass door. He grimaced at Sheppard and stepped inside. Thankfully, the man took pity on him and reached over to the stereo on the wall to turn the music down.
"Rodney," Sheppard said in greeting.
Motor looked up from the back before returning to his task. Andrew gave Rodney a little wave from the table. Pete looked up from a book he was reading and looked about as disconcerted as Rodney felt. The other boy was long gone. He must have passed Rodney on the sidewalk, and he berated himself for not even noticing.
"Uh, hi," Rodney finally said.
"So what brings you down here?" Sheppard asked, looking far too pleased with himself.
"I closed early and decided to take a walk."
Sheppard tilted his head to the side slightly. Rodney quailed a bit at the scrutiny he felt coming from the other man. Thankfully, Pete provided a distraction when he got up and came over.
"Uh, I'm sorry about not showing up today," he said. "Sh—I thought that maybe you were still upset and needed a break."
Rodney snapped his head around to do a little scrutinizing of his own. Sheppard didn't seem to mind. Rodney cocked an eyebrow at him and only got a shrug in response. His usual irritation welled up and he felt a little more on his game.
"Well, next time call or something," Rodney said quickly.
Pete smiled at him. The next thing he knew he was half sitting on the table looking over Pete's latest homework. They had an impromptu tutoring session as they discussed the paper topics for the essay that was due at the end of the month. The whole time, Rodney avoided looking back at Sheppard. He was afraid just what smarmy expression he was likely to find. The time passed quickly, and Rodney hardly noticed. He didn't even look up until he heard a sharp accented voice barking out something. Pete paled and turned around in his chair.
"Papa!" Pete yelped.
"Pedro! Finally, here you are! You were supposed to be home hours ago to help your mother. We do not work and slave so that you can hang out with your loser surfer friends!" Pete's father yelled.
"Papa, it's not—"
"No! I don't want to hear it. You're in college now. You must not let anything distract you. Do you want to end up putting out produce at the grocery every day like I do? Do you want to clean toilets like your mother? Pedro, you have the chance that I never had. I will not let you throw it away for this surfing business!"
"It's not like that," Pete yelled back.
The argument quickly descended into rapid fire Spanish with Pete's father's voice getting louder as they progressed. Pete was lucky to get a word every few minutes. Sheppard tried to interrupt, but was flatly ignored. They were speaking so quickly, that Rodney felt like he was being washed away in a sea of rolling vowels. Finally, he'd had enough.
"Quiet!" Rodney bellowed causing everyone but Sheppard to jump. "First of all, I'm Canadian so I speak French or English. Pick one of those two, please. Secondly, you have no idea what you're talking about so perhaps you should be choosing silence in French or English."
"And who are you?" Pete's father snapped.
"I'm Doctor Rodney McKay. I'm your son's tutor. And you are?"
Pete's father seemed surprised and he looked back and forth between the two of them.
"I'm Erberto Gutierrez."
"Well, Mr. Gutierrez, it's nice to finally meet you. You must be very proud of your son."
Pete looked decidedly uncomfortable at the praise while his father continued to look baffled. Mr. Gutierrez stepped up to Rodney, who refused to back up, no matter how much he wanted to. The other man was about half an inch shorter, but much better built. He was probably just shy of fifty and yet seemed in quite good shape. There was a touch of gray sprinkled at his temples and in the neat mustache on his face. Rodney wondered how many children Mr. Gutierrez had, but he had no doubt that Pete was the oldest.
"Doctor?" the man asked.
"Yes, I'm a Doctor of Astrophysics. I run the bookstore two doors up. Pete—" Rodney paused looking over at the boy, "Pedro, has shown an interest in his Astronomy class and asked me to help him with some of the finer points. He's bright and very dedicated. Considering the fact I find most people abhorrently dull, that's saying something."
Pete cringed at the name change and appeared to be hoping a hole would open up beneath his feet. Sheppard slapped the boy lightly on the back of the shoulder. Rodney didn't look away from Mr. Gutierrez to return the grin he could feel Sheppard sending his way.
"He's been spending his time studying with you?"
Rodney nodded. "I see him Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I'm not sure what he does the other days, but I do know that Mr. Sheppard here has been tutoring him in Statistics."
Gutierrez turned to look at the other adult. Sheppard held out his hand.
"John Sheppard. I own the shop."
Rodney watched them shake hands. Pete's father looked from Sheppard to his son and back again.
"Why didn't you tell me about this?" Gutierrez asked Pete.
Pete looked at the floor and replied quietly, "I didn't want you to know I needed help."
"There is nothing wrong with asking for help, son. It is better than getting in trouble at school." Gutierrez's face softened. He turned to look at Rodney and Sheppard in turn. "Thank you for helping my son with his school work. It means a lot to his mother and me that he is going on with his education. Neither of us had such opportunities growing up."
"We're happy to help, Mr. Gutierrez," Sheppard said.
Gutierrez nodded. "Pedro, your mother is waiting...if you are done here?"
"Yeah, I'm done, papa. I'm sorry. I didn't realize how late it was."
"I'm not the one you should apologize to. I expect you to do a little groveling with your mama when we get home, or no one will go to bed happy tonight."
Pete rolled his eyes and went to gather his things. He gave Rodney a thankful smile before he followed his father out into the early evening dusk. Rodney felt a little awkward standing there now that his student was gone. He looked over at Sheppard, but before he could say anything, Motor walked up.
"It is getting late, Shep. Me and Andrew have to get home. Mom's actually off tonight. I'm going to make her some dinner."
"Ooh! Can we have macaroni and cheese?" Andrew asked, practically hopping in place.
"Yeah, I think we'll have to stop and get some milk though."
Sheppard ruffled Andrew's hair and asked, "You guys want me to give you a ride?"
"Nah, bus should be here in a minute," Motor said and tugged his brother out the door.
Rodney suddenly felt odd without Pete or the other boys around. Sheppard started closing up and Rodney stepped back out to the sidewalk to take a breath of fresh air. Sheppard joined him after a few minutes. They stood around looking at each other for a while before the quiet got too much for Rodney.
"Well, I guess I'd better get back to my walk."
"Huh? Oh yeah, your walk. Wouldn't want to interrupt that," Sheppard said smugly.
Rodney replied wryly, "Yes, yes, make fun of the geek."
"I'd never do that, Rodney. You hungry?"
Sheppard put his hands in his pockets and slouched a bit. He looked around with a practiced casualness that was stunning really. Rodney hated him for it, but only a bit.
"I was going to head to Kaiten Sushi over on the Promenade. I just thought you might like to join me. It'd be a good walk. We could have an adult meal instead of one with...what was it again? Oh yeah, hooligans."
Rodney rolled his eyes and shouldered past Sheppard. He had made it a few feet before he realized that Sheppard wasn't following. Rodney turned and looked back at the man. He was staring at the toes of his sneakers.
"Are you going to stand there all night? I'm hungry. I have to eat. I might die of hypoglycemia waiting for you, you know."
Sheppard immediately perked up and caught up. There was another of his grins plastered on his face. Rodney would guess this one to be pleased. He shook his head as they walked.
"You're like a little kid."
"It's a good thing you don't mind hooligans then, hm?"
Rodney was surprised that Sheppard had called ahead for reservations. They were seated quickly at the bar. They both watched the dishes float by for a few minutes before they got down to actually choosing.
"You only come here because of the magic flying plates," Rodney said.
"Well, you've got to admit it's kind of cool."
"It's just magnets."
They ate in silence for a few minutes. Every once in a while one or the other would point out a dish of something interesting as it floated by. Just when Rodney started to get comfortable Sheppard mumbled around his sashimi.
"I've still got that card, if you want it."
"Ah, so that's what this is about."
Sheppard put down his fork and turned on his stool to give Rodney his full attention. There was something dark and serious behind the hazel eyes. Rodney swallowed.
"No, this is about me wanting to have dinner with my friend. I also wanted to let him know about something I was holding for him until he was ready, and I really wish he'd stop being such a jackass."
"I'm always a jackass. I thought you would have figured that out by now," Rodney replied. Sheppard just stared at him some more. After a moment, Rodney felt something stir in his stomach and he really hoped it wasn't the maki. "It's one of my more redeeming features, really," he finished lamely.
"Listen, I'll explain it to you if you promise to get off my back about it."
"Only if you want to tell me, Rodney."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh, like you haven't dragged this out of me. Listen, I promise I'll tell you, but not here, not now."
Sheppard nodded and they went back to their meals. It was only later that night, when he was alone in his too quiet apartment that Rodney realized that Sheppard had called him a friend. The way his stomach felt, he was sure the maki was making a comeback.
The following Wednesday was surprisingly busy at the shop. Rodney spent most of the day fending off customers and searching for specific books for people he didn't automatically despise. He had a feeling that Sheppard had wandered in at some point, but he hadn't actually seen more than a tuft of askew hair over the top of one of the shelves. That night, after he had closed up, there was a dark shape sitting on the hood of his car.
"That better be you, Sheppard."
"How'd you guess?"
"Well, you're the only stalker I have."
He heard Sheppard's deep chuckle even if he couldn't see the grin he knew must be there.
"That's surprising considering your sparkling personality."
Rodney grumbled to himself and tripped the car door locks with his key fob. "Oh, shut up and get in."
Sheppard looked surprised when Rodney finally got a look at him in the interior lights. They drove north out of town on the costal highway. If Sheppard was curious about their destination, he didn't show it. They chit chatted about business that day, and Rodney didn't mention the hair sighting. Thirty minutes up the road, he pulled into a small seafood place that stood on a cliff over the water.
"I only come here on Wednesdays," Rodney advised. "The buffet is really good and not half as expensive as the menu."
They sat on the back deck over looking the ocean. With the sun down and a cool breeze picking up, there was only one other couple outside. The two of them gorged themselves on crab legs, fried clams, and a variety of fish. Sheppard obediently tasted everything on Rodney's plate looking for a hint of deadly citrus. When they were done, he ordered a glass of wine while Rodney stuck to coffee. The stars came out in full force and they both fell quiet for a time.
"Do you like the stars?" Sheppard asked eventually. "Is that why you studied astrophysics?"
"I never really look at them. It was the math that got me. I have a thing for order."
"I've been in your store, Rodney. I think I got that."
Rodney looked away from the stars to give him a wry look, but Sheppard's eyes were still skyward. He was framed by the glowing fairy lights on the trellis behind him. Rodney admired his profile for a few beats before becoming absorbed by his coffee.
"I was a prodigy. Dare I say it, a genius. My parents didn't really know what to do with me. High school was horrible. It wasn't until I got to university that everything made sense. When I graduated, I was offered a prestigious position at CalTech to continue the work on wormholes that I had done for my graduate studies. Even the government was interested. I got a fat grant, an amazing lab, wrote some revolutionary papers, and did a lot of screaming at undergrads. I was the astrophysics equivalent of a rock star." Rodney looked up to find Sheppard smiling at that. "I don't know if you've noticed, but some people say that I have a bit of an ego."
"No!" Sheppard drawled in mock surprise.
"Let's just say that I wasn't universally liked. I stepped on a lot of toes. Radek, the guy whose card you have, and I were working on some ground breaking stuff. One of the other professors, a guy named Kavanagh, came forward and said that my theories were groundless and that I was unstable. I'd been having a hard time right before we were ready to publish because my mother became ill and died. The University decided to have this big presentation where I was going to justify my theory. The government grant board attended. It was a big deal. There was only one copy of my paper. Radek and I agreed it was the only way to keep it secure. When I went to give my speech, it was gone. I checked my office and all my notes were gone too. It would have taken me months to redo my proofs. I lost the grant. It took the Dean a whole ten minutes to decide to fire me. With that kind of black mark on me, no other university would hire me. Well, at least no university worth going to. I can't even publish now because no one would take me seriously, no matter how sound my theory."
"You blamed this Radek guy?"
"No, I blamed Kavanagh, but Radek was the only one who had seen my work. He didn't back me up. He—"
"It sounded to me like he tried, but they didn't listen."
Rodney looked away. "It doesn't matter. It's over. I have my books now."
Sheppard gave a derisive grunt, but didn't say anything more. Rodney picked up the check since Sheppard had paid for the sushi the night before. He felt a pang of worry as they climbed back into the car. He knew that he was getting far too used to this. Getting close to Sheppard would only end badly he was sure, but there was a bright spark of something inside him that refused to go along with the rational caution that had ruled his life for so long. For some reason, it was the spark he was listening to. Rodney only hoped that he wouldn't get burnt.
Thursday at the store was quiet, and Rodney was grateful when Pete showed up at his usual time. He was surprised to see that the boy had already started gathering research for his paper. They talked a bit about good sources, and Rodney was incensed to discover that the college's library was missing some key texts that Pete could use. The local public libraries also wouldn't have anything so specialized. Rodney knew that the CalTech library had the journals and books Pete needed. He wondered if Pete was being too ambitious, if maybe Rodney was doing a little vicarious living.
"Man, are you kidding? It's one thing if I don't understand this stuff. If you were doing this paper, my professor wouldn't understand it," Pete said with a snort when Rodney admitted his fears. "Besides, I picked out the topic. It's one of the ones I'm strong in. You would have picked something more theoretical."
Rodney admitted that he had a point. He knew he could order the materials himself and get rush delivery so that Pete could use them. After all, they weren't that expensive to him, but he knew Pete wouldn't agree. He'd see it as charity.
"If there was only some way we could get you access to the books at CalTech..." Rodney frowned slightly before looking at Pete seriously. "Go over to the surf shop and tell Sheppard I need my card. He'll know what I mean."
A few minutes after Pete left, he returned with Sheppard on his heels. Sheppard gave him an unreadable look. He pulled Radek's card out of his wallet and handed it over. Rodney stared at the clean print with Radek's name, department, phone numbers, and email address. He flipped the card over and smiled. The writing on the back was practically illegible. He'd almost forgotten how messy the man's writing was. Radek had the tendency to throw accent marks into his English as if he was spelling Czech which made his chicken scratch even more cluttered. Rodney dialed the number. He got an answering machine and hung up.
"It's three in the afternoon," Rodney mumbled. "Like he'd really be home." He didn't bother to flip over the card because he still knew the office number by heart. The phone rang again and when it was picked up, Rodney felt a moment of panic.
"Supernovae, pah! What do they know of supernovae? Yes?"
The tension eased as he fought the urge to laugh. Rodney had forgotten what Radek was like on the phone. They both had a bad tendency to carry on their own thoughts or arguments long before they realized they were holding the receiver. He'd had some of his best theoretical debates with the man thanks to those kinds of greetings. Hours later, they'd hang up and Rodney never would remember what he had originally called about.
"Fermilabs giving you shit again?" he asked.
The silence that greeted this did make Rodney chuckle. He looked over to see Sheppard giving him a pleased smile.
"Rodney?" Radek asked with surprise.
"How many times do I have to tell you not to get so worked up over those amateurs?"
"Ha! Spoken like someone who hasn't seen the latest prospectus from their division head."
"Oh, like that's going to be worth the paper it's printed on. Hell, in today's market, the paper probably costs more."
There was another quiet pause before Radek said, "It's good to hear from you. I didn't think—"
"Yeah well, I can only be bitter for so long. Plus, it's hard to find intelligent conversation in Santa Monica, let me tell you," Rodney interrupted. He saw the cross look Sheppard was giving him and just smirked back. Rodney and Radek chatted for a bit before Pete started giving him dirty looks. “Listen, there was a reason for me calling.”
“You want to get back to work? I think we can both piece together the proofs and—“
“Radek, Radek slow down. As much as I appreciate the thought, all that’s over now. I’ve put the past behind me. I really just wanted to ask a favor. I’ve been working with a young man, doing some tutoring, and I was wondering if you could get him access to the university library. He’s doing a research paper and is having some trouble finding good sources around here.”
“Of course, of course, what is his name? I can add it to my guest list.”
“Pedro Gutierrez,” Rodney replied and then spelled it out. Radek insisted that Rodney had to accompany Pete on his visit so that they could catch up. He was reluctant to agree. The last thing he wanted to do was bump into anyone he knew. Fortunately, Radek was also a genius because he quickly came up with the idea of them getting coffee off campus somewhere. Rodney agreed, and after conferring with Pete, set a time for that evening. He hung up the phone a little happier, but with a hint of nerves.
“Want some back up?” Sheppard asked.
“I appreciate the thought, but you’d be bored to tears with us. We’ll have Pete to confuse, so I wouldn’t want to put you out too.”
“It’s no trouble you know. I can always bring my book.”
“How far along are you anyway?” Rodney asked. He’d completely forgotten about Sheppard buying War and Peacefrom him weeks before.
“I’m right on schedule. I should be finishing page twenty-seven tonight.”
Rodney stared at him.
“What?” he asked innocently. It was disgusting how bad he was at it.
Sheppard wandered back to his own shop with a bit of a smug air about him. Somehow, Rodney was sure he’d never live down asking for the card. Instead of thinking about it too much, he closed up early and shuffled Pete into his car. The drive East was maddening through all the traffic. Pete seemed entertained at Rodney’s verbal abuse of all the other drivers around him. Rodney did lend his cell to the boy to call home and explain he’d be late. Both of them wanted to avoid another scene like the one in the Seahawk. Fortunately, the rapid Spanish slowed at the mention of Rodney’s name. The fact that someone would actually trust him with their child was almost mind-boggling. Rodney suddenly grasped that he was more that just a tutor now, he was a mentor. The realization almost made him miss his turn and he ended up cutting off a semi and possibly expanding his knowledge of Spanish curses if the tone of Pete’s voice was any clue.
Campus was just the same. As they walked across the South West corner, Rodney pointed out various buildings. He didn’t so much as glance at Robinson Laboratory as they passed on their way to the Millikan Library. It had been over a month since he had driven up to Pasadena just to sit in the parking lot and stare at the building of his former employment. Rodney wondered at the change in his life. The change brought upon by a scruffy surfer dude and his academically challenged hoodlum. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to strangle Sheppard or thank him.
“Doc, you okay?” Pete asked. Rodney blinked and turned to look at him in confusion. “It’s just, you were talking and then it was like you were miles away.”
Before Rodney could answer, he saw Radek on the library steps waving them over. He quickened his pace, but he could tell that Pete wasn’t satisfied. The three of them went inside and Rodney groaned out loud when he saw the woman behind the desk.
“Doctor McKay. You aren’t authorized to use this facility.”
“Hello to you too, Agnes. How’s the husband?” Rodney paused smarmily. “Oh that’s right! You’re not married. My mistake.”
The woman shot him a venomous look that he hardly acknowledged. The two of them had been bitter enemies ever since he’d first got his position. Librarians like her had long memories and short lists. Rodney was well on top of hers next to infamous book burners. Thankfully, Radek stepped in before it could get really ugly. Pete was signed in as a guest. The two of them escorted him to the journals library and Radek quickly went over the computerized catalogue, but Pete shooed them away. Rodney scribbled down directions to the little coffee shop a couple of blocks south, and they left him to it.
The walk was pleasant as the two of them caught up. Radek dished on all the behind the scenes astrophysics gossip, and was pleased to hear that Rodney was keeping up with the journals.
“I moved to Santa Monica, Radek, I didn’t die,” Rodney said wryly.
Radek replied darkly, “I was beginning to wonder.” When he saw Rodney’s helpless look at that, he quickly brightened. “You seem much happier now. Please, tell me about what you’ve been doing.”
Rodney went into detail about his bookstore as they waited in line to order their coffee. Radek gaped at him for a moment.
“What?” Rodney barked.
“You, a crabby bookstore owner? This I must see.”
Rodney quickly demurred. If anyone could understand his unique filing system, it would be Radek. The man knew more about him than almost anyone. Rodney had never been ashamed of his store before, but the truth was that over the past month or more, he had changed. It was obviously time to move some of the subjects around in the store. Rodney quickly made a comment about the latest drivel coming out of Purdue. He was pretty sure that Radek saw through the whole thing. He just wasn’t used to dealing with other geniuses anymore.
“I think I’m getting soft,” he mumbled.
Radek looked down at Rodney’s midsection and nodded. Rodney shot him a dirty look. The rest of the evening progressed about the same until Pete showed up looking like a starving wolf. Radek graciously took them out to dinner and the two of them tried to see who could possibly confuse the poor boy the most without ever actually agreeing on the fact that this was what they were doing. Rodney took Pete home later that night with a sense of ease he hadn’t felt in ages.
Friday afternoon, as Rodney was rearranging some things in the store, Sheppard appeared and hovered over him. Rodney looked up with a smile, but it quickly faltered when he saw the expression on the man’s face.
"Rodney, I need your help with something."
"Elaboration is your friend," he replied testily.
"David hasn't been around in a week. The guys haven't seen him on the beach either."
"So, maybe he got grounded."
Sheppard sighed and crossed his arms. "I don't think David's parents even understand that concept. Sometimes I'm not sure they even realize they have a son."
"You don't think..."
There was a dark look in Sheppard's eyes. It wasn't like any other expression he'd seen before. Rodney bit his lip.
"I know one person I could ask," Sheppard said.
After a few seconds, Rodney caught on. "Oh my god, you're going after the drug dealer. Are you nuts?"
"I'm just going to talk to him."
The bookstore was quiet for a few moments.
"You want me to go with you, don't you?"
Sheppard looked sheepish before nodding.
"I'm too smart to get shot!" Rodney yelped.
"No one's going to get shot! We're just going to go to that little taco place that Dove likes to hang out at and have a little chat."
"And then get shot."
"Rodney," Sheppard warned.
"Why do you want me to go with you? What possible reason—"
"You're not exactly intimidating. Which is good because we want him to be at ease," Sheppard said. Then mumbled, "Plus, he's less likely to kill two of us."
Rodney gaped at him. He was crazy. It was stupid and suicidal, and Rodney looked into those hopeful eyes and realized he was going.
He closed up the shop early, grumbling about lost business. Not that he had any customers, but it was the principle of the thing. Sheppard looked unimpressed and headed for his car in the back lot. It turned out to be a black Jeep Wrangler with the top open. The floorboards were covered in sand. Rodney held on to the roll bar for dear life as Sheppard pulled into traffic with little regard for other drivers. He cycled through the gears like a race car driver.
"Dove won't get the chance to kill us if you don't slow down!" Rodney barked.
John was still wearing his serious face from the shop and didn't even crack a smile. That worried Rodney more than anything.
There was a small restaurant off a back street that was little more than a closed in taco stand. Only two tables fit out in front of the bar. Two big guys and one skinny one were flanking the door. Sheppard flashed them a grin that had none of its usual warmth.
"Can I help you?" the skinny guy asked suspiciously.
"Do you guys have good burritos, 'cause I'm in a burrito mood," Sheppard said before looking at his companion. "Rodney?"
Rodney blinked. He took one look at the stand and knew he wouldn't touch the food if naked Victoria's Secret models brought it out to him on diamond encrusted trays. "I love burritos," he said, rather unconvincingly.
The three thugs looked at them like they were crazy. Rodney wasn't quite sure they were wrong about Sheppard's assessment.
"Why don't you try the Mexican place down the street?" one of the big ones said.
"But we're here," Sheppard replied simply.
"Let them by," a voice interrupted from inside the shade of the store. "He's here to see me, aren't you Major Sheppard?"
Rodney stepped past the guards and took in the speaker. He was a Hispanic man in white pants and a loose fitting white shirt. He looked like he should be sitting Miami nightclub sipping an exotic looking drink, not crowded in the back of a dingy taco stand. The 'Major' didn't go unnoticed either. Rodney shot Sheppard a quick look out of the corner of his eye, but the man's face was blank and stony.
"Don't call me that," he said with the smile that wasn't a smile.
"That's right. You're no longer with the Air Force, are you? Shame that."
"Let's cut the pleasantries, Dove," Sheppard said quickly. Rodney was still trying to figure out what he'd gotten himself into, and he wasn't sure there was anything pleasant about the conversation so far. He tried to imagine Sheppard in the military, but the easy going smile just wouldn't synch up with a uniform.
"Let's," Dove said, giving a grin that would do a shark proud. He didn't offer either of them a seat. "What can I do for you and Doctor McKay?"
Rodney startled. "Wait. How do you know my name?"
"You're in my territory, just like Sheppard here. I take an interest in this community." Sheppard snorted. Dove's eyes narrowed a bit, but his slick grin didn't waver. "Let me guess. This is about David. I know he's one of your regulars. He talks about you sometimes. Funny how he never mentions anything about your military service."
Sheppard said flatly, "I guess it never came up."
"No wonder, considering the things I've heard. I have quite a few friends in the military."
"Um, David?" Rodney asked, stopping the conversation from going to a bad place. Dove was obviously baiting Sheppard. He wasn't sure what would happen if Sheppard took the bait, and since he didn't feel like getting dead, Rodney thought it best to keep them on topic.
"Where is he?" Sheppard asked.
Dove looked surprised. "That's what I would like to know. He was making a delivery for me and never showed. I assumed he'd come to his senses and sent you to negotiate for him."
"I haven't seen him."
"That's not good," Rodney mumbled.
"He's not been home either. I've checked," Dove added.
Something about that sent chills up Rodney's spine. It didn’t apparently do much for Sheppard either, because he foolishly took a threatening step forward. De La Pena didn’t look concerned, and when Rodney glanced over his shoulder, he saw why. The three thugs were reaching for weapons. He quickly grabbed Sheppard’s elbow.
“What if we get your drugs back?” he yelped.
Sheppard gave him a hard look, but Dove raised an eyebrow.
Rodney continued, “He’s more likely to trust us than he is your goons. Who knows what he might do to your…product if he’s startled. We’ll get him to give the drugs back, if you promise not to hurt him. ”
“You’re really going to take his word?” Sheppard barked.
“Why not? He’s just a businessman like you and me. Am I right Mr. De La Pena?”
Dove smirked and gave a gracious nod. Rodney could practically hear Sheppard grinding his teeth. “You have two hours. I’m afraid I can’t wait any longer than that.”
Rodney kept a hold of Sheppard’s elbow until they were safely outside. They didn’t get two paces before it was jerked out of his grasp.
“What the hell do you think you were doing in there?” Sheppard said. His voice was quiet and menacing. Rodney would have preferred yelling.
“I think I was keeping you from doing something stupid enough to get us both killed! What were you thinking, trying to make a move on him with three of his goons there ready to gun us down!”
“So what, instead you plan on getting him his poison back so he can shoot us and still make a profit?”
Sheppard whipped around and headed for his Jeep. Rodney trotted to keep up.
“I didn’t want to even come on this little adventure, but I’m glad that I did or I’d probably be reading about the tragedy in the morning paper!” Rodney took a deep breath and put on his seatbelt. Sheppard screeched out of the parking lot and headed back towards Forth Street. “Listen, you and I both know that he’d kill David in a heartbeat. If we get his drugs back, maybe we can make a deal or something.”
“Rodney, when Dove gets those drugs back David is as good as dead. There’s no way he’s going to lose face like this. Not only that, but now he’ll likely kill us too just to prove a point.”
Rodney looked out at the palm trees whizzing by. “At least this way, we have time to come up with something better. Dying in a blaze of glory in that taco stand wouldn’t have done David much good.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Sheppard finally conceded after a few beats.
It was quiet for a bit. They were stopped at a red light before Rodney finally broke.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Oh. I see.”
Sheppard looked over at him, and even if the sunglasses were blocking his eyes, Rodney could tell the man was giving him a cross look.
“What does that tone mean?”
“You couldn’t wait for me to spill my guts, but the first time I ask anything about you, you don’t want to talk about it.”
Sheppard’s mouth worked a few seconds without making any sound. A loud horn went off behind them to let them know that they’d stayed half a second too long at the green light. Rodney looked away as they rolled through the intersection. He realized that he knew next to nothing about this man other than his passion for surfing and his bleeding heart.
The Seahawk was empty when they arrived. Sheppard looked concerned and headed toward the rear. The back door to the alley was propped open. The moment Sheppard stuck his head through, a fist grabbed his shirt. Rodney yelled and forced his way out the door. A contrite looking Motor was outside.
“Sorry, Shep. I thought you might be trouble.”
Rodney was confused until he looked over and saw David behind him. Sheppard noticed at the same time.
“David! Where the hell have you been? I’ve been trying to find you, and Dove’s got his guys scoping out your place.”
“I’m sorry, Shep, man. I didn’t want to get you in to this,” David said, sagging back against the wall.
“Just tell me what happened.”
“I got cold feet. I’ve just been running little errands for Dove. Yesterday morning, he gives me this big package. He asked me to take it to some really nasty guys. I knew it was something big. I just…I couldn’t do it. I was scared.”
“Where’s the package now?” Rodney asked.
“I hid it in that spot up on the Promenade. You know, Motor, that place where we hid the beer from the cops that time.”
Motor nodded. “Yeah, I remember.”
“Good,” Sheppard interrupted, “go get it. David should stay here out of sight.”
“But, Shep, you know that Dove’s guys are going to come looking here,” Motor said.
“You let me worry about that.”
Motor went back in the shop and out the front door. Sheppard followed him and locked up. He came out the back and locked that door as well.
“Come on, it’s probably a better idea to head over to the bookstore.”
“Yes,” Rodney said heading over to his own back door and pulling out his keys, “by all means let’s let my place get shot up.” He turned around to find only David behind him. Sheppard was digging around in his Jeep. He jogged back over to them, tucking something in the back of his pants. The three of them stepped inside. Kepler looked up at Rodney accusingly.
“Well excuse me for forgetting to feed you, I’ve been a little busy.”
They waited fifteen minutes or more, and Motor hadn’t returned. Sheppard was getting antsy, and David was looking sick. In the silence, Rodney made conversation with his cat. The next thing he knew, the front door was rattling. Assuming it was Motor returning, Rodney stepped out past the shelves. He didn’t realize he’d given himself away until he heard Sheppard hiss a warning. There was a large Hispanic man beyond the glass. He had no trouble kicking it in.
“Back door! Move!” Sheppard yelled. David sprinted past both of them. Rodney froze for a second, looking at all the glass lying across his usually spotless carpet. The man at the door reached through to unlock it. “Rodney!” Sheppard barked, and it snapped him to attention. He turned to run.
They hadn’t made two steps into the alley when they saw Dove casually leaning against the Seahawk’s door. The thug blocked their exit the other way when he dashed out after them.
“I knew I could count on you gentlemen,” Dove said softly. He reached up and patted David on the head, but he didn’t bother to address the boy. He looked at Sheppard instead. “Where is it?”
“We don’t have it yet.”
“I think you’re lying.”
“I think you’re garbage, but you don’t see me accusing—“ Sheppard paused and pulled a face. “Well, maybe you do.”
He lost his smirk when Dove pulled out a gun and pointed it at him. David nearly choked on the breath he’d been taking.
“If you kill us,” Rodney said in a panic, “you’ll never find your stuff.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure that if I shoot you, David will be more than happy to provide me with the answers I want. Won’t you, David?”
About that time, Motor came running around the corner into the alley behind Dove. He skidded up short when he saw what was happening. Sheppard tried to warn the boy with his eyes, but it didn’t do any good. The goon behind them called out.
“Boss, behind you.”
Dove turned and motioned Motor over with the barrel of his revolver. The older boy gave Sheppard an apologetic look, but joined them.
“I believe you have something of mine,” Dove said.
Motor pulled a brown paper package out from under his long T-shirt. It looked like a stunted loaf of bread and must have weighed four or five pounds. Rodney stared at it as Dove tried to shuffle it into the back of his pants while still holding his gun. The move meant it wasn’t pointing at them. Sheppard reached behind him. Before Rodney really knew what was happening, the tide had turned. Sheppard was holding an automatic pistol inches from Dove’s head. The dealer wasn’t the only one surprised.
“Now, how about you drop it?” Sheppard said.
Rodney gaped. “A gun? You have a gun?”
“Yes, Rodney, I have a gun.”
“But, but…God! I don’t even know you at all do I? I mean, first you decline to mention anything about your past, and now you’re waving around firearms?”
“Can we talk about this later?” Sheppard snapped, never taking his eyes off of Dove. “Now, drop the gun,” he said to the man.
“I think you’d better drop yours,” Dove said, coolly.
“I don’t think you realize who’s in charge here.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure I do.”
Rodney heard a loud click next to his ear. Slowly he turned his head to see the goon that had broken his door was holding a gun to his head. His eyes traveled up the man’s arm to the piercing dark eyes that were staring at him. He found no remorse in them at all. It wasn’t a happy discovery.
“What is it with this country? Does everyone have a gun?” he whined.
Sheppard debated for a moment. Rodney could see the indecision in his eyes. The goon gave a quick jab at his head with the barrel of his pistol for emphasis. It must have been a good argument, because Sheppard uncocked his weapon and turned the butt towards Dove.
The man smiled and took the offered gun and slipped it into the front of his pants. There was no way out. They were as good as dead. Sheppard had been right about Rodney’s plan to make a deal. Their lives were worthless now that Dove had his drugs. The dealer raised his gun and pointed it at Sheppard.
Rodney felt like he should say something before they both died, something intelligent and full of feeling, something to let Sheppard know just what an impact he had had on Rodney’s life lately. Instead, the words that tumbled out of his mouth were, “Guess you’ll never know what happens at the end of War and Peace.”
Sheppard chuckled. “I read the last two pages first.”
“I hate people that do that,” Dove said.
Rodney agreed, “Yeah, that’s really obnoxious, but given the circumstances, I can’t fault your logic.”
Dove pushed his gun closer to Sheppard and began to fire, but a loud noise interrupted. They all looked towards the end of the alley where a large group of boys were marching towards them. They were yelling and kicking over trashcans, and generally being a bunch of hoodlums.
Rodney heard the goon behind him say, “What the—?” and he turned to see even more boys coming up the other end of the alley as well. He and Sheppard glanced at Motor. The boy just shrugged.
“I ran into some guys on the Promenade and told them what was up. I guess they told some friends.”
Dove and his thug were outnumbered, but they were both still holding guns. The dealer started waving his around menacingly. He didn’t fully have time to threaten anyone before a short whoop of a siren startled him. The group of surfer boys parted to let a police cruiser through. Dove stashed his revolver as a balding man with a serious face and a uniformed officer got out of the car.
“De La Pena,” the serious man said in greeting. He was wearing a suit and had a badge and gun clipped to his belt. “What exactly is this disturbance about?”
No one seemed to be speaking up, so Rodney did. “This man was trying to sell one of my customers drugs. When I told them not to come around my store, his friend here kicked in my door. I was trying to get the customer and myself to safety when they chased us out here. Be careful, I think he has a weapon.”
Dove turned to give Rodney an angry glance, but it was already too late. The uniformed officer had pulled his gun to cover the detective. Dove gave the man a sneer as he was searched. The two guns, his and Sheppard’s, and the drugs were quickly discovered.
“You do have licenses for these guns, right? And what do we have here?” the detective asked dryly and checked the package. “This appears to be a large quantity of crack cocaine.”
It was at this point that Rodney looked over smugly at Sheppard. His grin was back in place at full force, but it twisted slightly as he looked over Rodney’s shoulder. There wasn’t even much of a warning, just a solid body knocking into his own. Rodney went down hard on the pavement, with Sheppard on top of him. He couldn’t fully grasp what was happening until he heard yelling and three loud cracks of gunfire. There was silence after the noise. Rodney’s heart was slamming somewhere up around his ears. Sheppard pushed up onto his hands and looked down at him.
“You alright, Rodney?”
“You saved my life. Sheppard, you just saved my life!” he said and he could hear the high panicky tone of his own voice.
“Don’t make a big deal about it. And you know, I’m pretty sure that saving your life entitles me to be called by my first name, don’t you?”
Sheppard got to his feet and held out a hand for Rodney. The pair of them looked around in the aftermath. The goon that had apparently been ready to shoot them was on the ground bleeding. The uniformed officer was kicking away the man’s gun while pointing his own. Dove lay sprawled on the ground on his stomach. The detective had one knee planted in his back and was handcuffing him. Motor and David were squatting against the wall of the shops and most of the other boys were down on the ground as well.
“Anybody hurt?” Sheppard called out. He got a lot of shaking heads and negative responses. Rodney watched him walk out into the mass of boys checking scrapes here and patting shoulders there. All the boys centered around him, the hero of the hour. “Listen, I really appreciate you guys showing up like you did, but that wasn’t to smart.”
“You’d do it for us,” Motor said quietly and was backed up vehemently by the others.
“You’re the coolest grown up ever,” one of the younger boys said suddenly, which got a surprised barking laugh out of Sheppard.
“I’ll have to grudgingly agree with that Shep—John,” Rodney said.
“Now you’re just making me blush.”
“Soak it up while you can, in about ten minutes the fear endorphins will wear off and I’ll remember that I’m mad at you.”
They waited for an ambulance and more police. There were questions and more questions. They ended up having to go down to the station and fill out reports. It was all very tedious. It didn’t help that they ended up separated. John was lead off for more questioning when it was discovered that one of the guns Dove had been holding was registered to him. Rodney split his time between yelling at stupid policemen and yelling into the phone at his landlord to get someone to board up the front door before he was looted. The police assured him that they had left an officer on the scene to prevent that, but Rodney was not buying it. He spent most of the evening at the police station. He didn’t see John again that night, but he did see David sitting with what he assumed were his parents. The man was in a tuxedo and the woman was wearing a sparkling blue evening gown. Neither one looked very happy to be there. Rodney gave him a regretful look, but David merely gave a small “What are you going to do?” shrug.
A police cruiser dropped him off in front of his shop. A board was nailed up over the opening in the front door. All the large pieces of broken glass were gone, but when he stepped inside, the streetlights showed a glittering carpet.
“Oh, for the love of—Kepler? Kepler?” Rodney rushed upstairs to find his cat sleeping in his basket. He checked the paws for any cuts or glass and got a disgruntled swipe of the claws for the effort. “Fine then,” Rodney muttered and went downstairs to vacuum the carpet. It was after midnight before he finally flipped off the lights and headed home.
Saturday Rodney slept in. He woke up a little before noon and spent several hours trying to find a glazier that was open on weekends and would be able to put the glass in at his shop that day. He found one that wasn’t charging an arm and a leg, but he couldn’t get to it until Monday. Rodney set up a time and climbed back into bed with his computer. There was no use going in to the shop. He wasted a few hours on the computer before finally deciding to get up and take a shower. He was half way through getting dressed when the phone rang.
“Hello?” Rodney said, expecting it to be the police.
“Doctor McKay! Are you all right? I just heard about what happened. Motor called me this morning and told me not to bother coming over to the shop.”
“John’s not opening up either?”
“John?” Pete asked with surprise.
“Shut up and answer the question.”
“No, Motor said that he took the day off. The police need him back this afternoon for something and he said he was going to get out for a while. I think he’s in one of his moods.”
Rodney balked at this. “He has moods?”
“Yeah, every once in a while he’ll just get all quiet and close up the shop. He’s usually only gone for a day. He won’t talk about it. I think he goes out surfing, but he doesn’t do it at the beach here. He must have some remote spot he likes to go to. Whatever he does, Shep shows up back the next day same as always.”
“Do you have any idea why?”
“Nah. Motor says he has ghosts.”
Rodney frowned at this and then changed the subject to Pete’s research paper. The two of them talked about the resources he had dug up at the University’s library. Pete admitted that he had called Radek the day before for help with something when he couldn’t get a hold of Rodney.
“Is that okay?” Pete asked.
“It’s always okay to ask for help. At least you picked someone who knows what they’re talking about most of the time.”
“Funny, that’s what he said about you.”
“Ha ha. Get back to work. I may be out later this afternoon, so if you have any questions, call my cell.”
“Je vous en prie.”
Rodney finished getting ready and headed over to the police station. He sat out in his car with a book and waited. It was a couple of hours before a familiar Jeep pulled into the visitor parking area near him. Rodney put away his book and got out. John’s hair was damp, but he couldn’t tell if it was from surfing or if he’d just taken a shower.
“Hey,” Rodney called out before he could head inside.
“Hey,” John said back and waited for him to catch up. “They call you back too?”
“No, I just heard through the grapevine that you were going to be here.”
“The grapevine?” John asked. He looked tired. Gone was the conquering hero from the day before. Rodney wondered if Motor was right, if Sheppard really had ghosts in his past.
“Yes, Motor told Pete who told me. Unlike some people, I prefer to do my stalking from the comfort of my home.”
John grinned at that. “I just have to sign some paperwork that they didn’t have ready last night. It shouldn’t take me but a minute or two.”
“Have you eaten yet? We could grab something when you’re done, if you like.”
“Sounds good. I’ll be right back.”
Rodney sat on a bench and cast a speculative eye at the station’s robust landscaping. Did hardened criminals really need to see African daisies on their way to the slammer? Would that make them better people? It wasn’t long before John came out with a small bag. Rodney followed him over to his Jeep where he pulled a lock box out from under the seat. The bag held his gun and ammo clip. John checked both and made sure there wasn’t a bullet in the chamber before putting it in the lock box and slipping that back under the seat.
He turned with a bright if somewhat fake smile and said, “So dinner?”
Rodney looked pointedly at where the gun was stashed and then at John. With a frown he walked around and got in the passenger side.
“So I’m driving then?” John said to no one, and jumped into the Jeep.
Rodney pointed up the Pacific Coast Highway. And they drove out of town. John seemed to know where they were going and pulled in at the seafood place where Rodney had bared his soul.
“I thought you said only to come here on Wednesdays.”
Rodney shot him a look. “I said the buffet was cheaper on Wednesdays. Seeing as how I owe you, I think I can spring for it.”
“You don’t owe me anything, Rodney. This isn’t something that you have to pay back.”
“What? Saving my life? No, I don’t think I can ever repay a debt like that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the gesture. By all means, feel free to save my life any time it’s warranted. Of course,” Rodney said as they waited for a table, “I wouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place if you hadn’t dragged me along.”
John gave a sardonic grin. “Are we here to celebrate, or is this an intervention?”
Rodney cocked his head to the side. “A little of both I think. You owe me an explanation. I feel like buying you a nice dinner. Everybody wins.”
“Great,” John muttered, but Rodney ignored it and followed the hostess to their table. Again they were seated out on the porch overlooking the coast. This time there were more people, which made sense seeing as how it was a nice day and the sunset would probably be spectacular.
John looked uncomfortable, but Rodney wasn’t about to let him back down. Since there was no buffet, they ordered off the menu. He went into his normal discussion about his citrus allergy with the waitress, which took some time. John hardly looked at the menu, before picking something simple. They sat in silence for a while. Rodney was perfectly willing to wait him out, but he wasn’t sure which of them was more stubborn.
“Did the police have any problem about the gun?” Rodney finally asked.
“No, I have a license, and considering the situation they seemed to think it was all right that I had protection. They weren’t too happy that we hadn’t come straight to them.”
“I gathered that. Is David in much trouble?”
“I don’t know. He’s turning evidence against Dove, and his dad’s a lawyer, so he should be fine. The police have been trying to nab Dove for something for a while. Hopefully, they’ll drop any charges against David for his help.”
“Why didn’t you say anything to him? You knew he was mixed up in all that.”
John looked cross. “Don’t you think I tried? I’m hoping that the reason he froze up this time was that I had gotten to him, finally.”
“You really care about all of them, don’t you?”
“Someone has to look out for them, and if they feel safer talking about stuff with me, than their parents, then fine.”
“This protective streak is interesting. Who did you lose?”
“Don’t psychoanalyze me, Rodney. It’s not your field,” John snapped. He gave a long pull on his beer. Rodney looked away. They didn’t speak until their food arrived.
They ate for a few minutes before Rodney took another chance. “So which branch?”
John didn’t bother pretending that he didn’t know what Rodney was asking.
“I used to be in the Air Force. Bad things happened. I’m not anymore. The end.”
Rodney cringed at having his own words flung back at him like that. John’s voice was flat and his face revealed nothing. He made a mental note to never play cards with him.
“Why a surf shop?”
“Because I love it. It’s the closest I can get to—“
“To what?” Rodney asked, but John had already looked away at the sunset. The sky was golden and orange. A young woman behind them gasped as her dining companion got down on his knee by the table. “To flying. That’s what you were going to say, wasn’t it? What happened? You’ve got this great easy going guy front that everyone seems to buy, but why do you need it?”
“You’re hardly one to point fingers.”
“I’ve never been easygoing in my life. You think I’m like this because of what happened at CalTech? I’ll have you know, I was always like this. That just made me…”
“Bitter? Callus? Obnoxious?” John offered.
John sighed and played with his fork. Rodney let him be for a moment as he finished off his plate. When he looked up again, John was back looking out over the ocean.
“Afghanistan,” He finally said. Rodney braced himself. “We were on a routine med-evac outside of Kabul. There wasn’t any intel about any Afghan resurgence in the area. We thought it was a clean drop, that they’d moved the wounded out of the fighting. My friends Mitch and Dex took an RPG as soon as they touched down. It got hairy for a while. My Blackhawk had taken some shrapnel from the explosion. I was ordered to pull out. There were still wounded waiting to be rescued. I was right there, and they wanted me to leave them. I stayed until everyone was loaded before I got out. I had a five-man crew when we landed. Only me and one other made it out alive. I saved six people at the total cost of eight lives. If I’d brought everybody home, Mitch and Dex included, I would have received honors. Instead, there wasn’t even enough of my friends to put in a body bag, and they brought me up on charges. I had the choice of getting sent off to nowhere or walking out. I had my pride, and I lost my wings.”
“Doing the right thing is nothing to be ashamed of, John.”
“I’m not ashamed! I’m angry and, and…”
“Bitter? Callus? Obnoxious?” John gave him a disapproving look that just made Rodney smile a little wider. “But look at you now. You have your shop, which I understand nothing about, and all these kids look up to you. You’re the cool Uncle that everyone wants, but instead gets fat Uncle Morty who thinks the ‘pull my finger’ joke is funny.”
“You are going somewhere with this, right?”
“Yes. Where was I?”
“Your issues with your Uncle Morty, I think.”
Rodney frowned and regrouped. “What I’m saying is, it doesn’t seem like a fair trade off. God, I know it wasn’t for me. To lose the astrophysics and just have a bunch of books instead, it was like losing a limb. Flying is the same for you, but you know, after a while you learn to get by with the prosthetic. I wouldn’t give up my bookstore now. I was walking around in this half-life, but you changed that.”
“I just tackled you. It wasn’t any big deal. You would have done the same.”
“I’m not talking about that. You saved my life long before that. I had my books, but I didn’t appreciate them until you wedged into my life and dragged Pete along and made me see things clearer.”
“I just wanted to thank you. And I wanted to tell you that if you ever drag me into a life or death situation again, I will wring your neck long before anyone can shoot us. Okay?”
“Good. Now let’s order dessert.”
That seemed to be an end to any sentiment. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying the last of the sunrise, and talking about business and trivial things. Rodney paid as promised and the ride back was in silence but not an uncomfortable one. The cool wind through the Jeep, and the twilight above them was almost comforting enough that Rodney only had to yell at John to slow down once or twice. When they pulled back in to the police station parking lot, Rodney didn’t hurry to get out.
Finally, John said, “I don’t think I’m going to open up tomorrow either. After everything, I think I deserve the weekend off.”
“Yeah, I can’t get my door fixed until Monday, so there’s really no point going in.”
The two of them sat there for a few more minutes of not looking at each other before Rodney got out.
“Well,” he said awkwardly, “I’ll see you then.”
“See you, Rodney,” John said with a nod, and then pulled out.
Rodney stared after him for a moment before heading to his car. The feeling that he had forgotten or had missed something was strong, but he paid it no heed. The rest of the night he spent in bed catching up on some books he hadn’t finished before finally dropping off to sleep mid-paragraph.
Sunday morning, the phone woke Rodney from a dead sleep. He slapped at the bedside table trying to make the noise go away. His fingers brushed the receiver and he nearly toppled off the side of the bed trying to get the thing to his ear. Books tumbled off his comforter in every direction.
"What?" he growled.
"Hey, get up and get ready."
It took Rodney a few moments to realize that it was John on the other end. He'd never spoken to the man over the phone, but the soft smirking tone of the voice couldn’t have been anyone else.
"How did you get this number?"
"Pete. What's your address?"
"The waves are up."
“What are you talking about?”
“Surfing. Pete and I have been discussing it, and I think it’s time.”
Rodney pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at the receiver for a second. He had the vague notion that it could all possibly be a dream, but his back was giving its usual morning twinge, screwing with the illusion.
"What time is it?" he whined, flopping his head back on the pillow.
A soft chuckle was the only answer to his question. "Address, Rodney."
Rodney hissed directions at him and hung up. The phone rang again and he snatched it up menacingly.
"I'll be there in an hour. Get ready, Rodney. Surf's up."
Rodney slammed the phone down a second time. He stared up at his ceiling for a few moments before rolling over and sitting up on the edge of the bed. He knew better than to try and go back to sleep. John didn't give up easily. If he tried to ignore the demand, he'd just have the smirking man pounding on his door in an hour. Rodney shuffled off to the shower with a sigh. He felt much better after a few minutes of hot water and a nice shave. Dressing was more difficult. He'd never been surfing and had no idea what he was supposed to wear. John sold specialty clothing in his shop, but Rodney wasn't sure if it was required or anything. He finally gave up and pulled on his seldom used red swim trunks and a white T-shirt. He took one look at himself in the mirror and shook his head. He looked like one of the pale, god awful tourists that he liked to run out of his store. He had to crawl around on the floor and dig his flip-flops out from under the bed where he'd kicked them the last time he'd bothered to wear them. By the time he'd found his special one hundred SPF lotion out of the bathroom, there was already a soft knock at the door.
Rodney opened the door with one hand while digging in the basket on the hall table with the other. The smell of coffee made him turn from the sunglasses he was trying to find. John was looking far too perky for as early as it was, but Rodney didn't mind seeing as how he was holding out a cup of coffee.
"Bless you," Rodney said, snatching the cup. He burnt his tongue on the first swallow, but it didn't matter.
"Good morning to you too, Rodney. Still not much of a morning person, I see."
Rodney grumbled at him over the lip of the cup and went back to digging for his sunglasses. He was happy to see that John wasn't wearing any special gear. He too was just in trunks and a T-shirt, though his feet were bare. He found the shades under some old keys and mail from the week before.
"You realize this is the most ridiculous idea since... I don't know—something ridiculous."
"Have you ever surfed before?" John asked pleasantly.
"You know I haven't."
"Then how do you know you won't like it?"
Rodney gave him a scathing look but followed him out onto the steps. John's Jeep was parked behind his car. Strapped across the roll bars at the top were two surf boards. Rodney could make out some of Motor's artistic designs painted on them. He climbed in the passenger seat and looked up at them trying not to think of the statistics of surfers and shark attacks. John caught him looking and patted his knee.
"Relax, no one expects you to be Laird Hamilton first thing."
John laughed and slipped the Jeep into reverse. Rodney closed his eyes and let the cool morning wind calm him. He drank more of his coffee and watched the world whiz by at a rapid pace. Apparently, John always drove fast not just when he was in a bad mood or heading towards certain doom. Normally, Rodney would have snapped at him to slow down, but the rush of wind through the open vehicle and the slowly lightening sky soothed him. He laid his head back on the seat and rolled it to look over at John. Gusts of air were twisting his already riotous hair into new and more convoluted designs. There was a smile at the corners of his mouth trying to break out. Rodney could hear little snatches of humming behind the whistling sound of the wind. He couldn't seem to pull his eyes away. If John noticed that he was staring, he didn't acknowledge it.
They pulled into a parking area near the beach beside a beat up Toyota. Motor was sitting on the hood staring out at the surf. He nodded at John and hopped down to help him with the boards. Rodney stepped back out of the way and saw that Andrew was curled up in the backseat of the car asleep. It wasn't much longer before Pete came strolling up the beach with a board tucked under his arm.
"What's up, vatos?" Pete yelled. "We surfing or not?"
"Oh god," Rodney said feeling slightly ill.
"Relax, Dr. McKay. It's all physics, right?" Andrew, who had clamored out of the car, said followed by a big yawn.
"Okay, Rodney. Rule one: carry your own board," John said, shoving the piece of fiberglass into his hands.
It wasn't as heavy as he thought it would be, if a bit unwieldy. Rodney carefully sat it on its end and ran his hand along the top of it. Scrawled across in a fancy airbrushed design were formulas. He glanced up at the others to see John and Motor grinning at him.
"You like it?" Motor asked. "Shep had to help me with the math part of it. I don't know what it means, but it looks good."
"I... Thank you, you really shouldn't have."
John shrugged almost dislodging the towels slung across his shoulder. "Well, I just thought if it had a bit of you on it, it'd make you feel more comfortable. Pete gave me the idea."
Rodney looked between John and Pete. "Thank you, really."
"No problem, Doc. Now let's show you some real wave functions!" Pete yelled and took off across the sand. Andrew quickly caught up behind him carrying a much smaller blunt board.
Motor picked up his own board which had been lying across the hood of the Toyota. It looked different than Rodney's and he saw John nodding.
"Long board today?" John asked.
"Thought I'd go a little old school."
"Cool. Come on, Rodney. Time to get wet."
Rodney followed slowly behind, reading the math on his board. He chuckled when he realized they were gravitational wave formulas. He looked up to catch John looking back at him over his shoulder.
"You have a terrible sense of humor. Now all I'm going to think about is falling down."
John laughed and shucked off his shirt. There was a pile of clothes and shoes where the boys had been. Rodney toed off his flip-flops, dropped his sunglasses, but left his shirt on. The water was cool in the morning air. He shivered as the waves lapped against his legs. The boys were already well into the surf having leaped in with wild abandon. Rodney stared out over the vast distance of the Pacific and felt small. John was at his side before he could back out completely.
"Shouldn't I practice on land?" Rodney asked.
"Seeing as how it's a water sport, I don't think that'd help."
"What do I do?"
John showed him how to lie on the board and paddle out past the surf. It was fine until he got into the big waves and the first good sized one toppled him. Rodney broke the surface gasping for air. He rolled with the waves back toward the beach until he finally managed to get his feet under him. The tethered board bobbed along and smacked against his shins. Rodney glowered at it.
"Maybe I should have showed you how to duck dive before we went out," John said after he had caught up.
Rodney turned the glower to him. The water sparkled across his bare shoulders. He lost most of the ducking explanation watching the rivulets glide down John's tan back.
"You're going to get me killed," he whispered, and he wasn't sure if he meant the surfing at all.
John clapped him on the shoulder and dove back into the water. Rodney composed himself and followed. This time, he made it under the next wave, albeit much less gracefully than his instructor. The boys were waiting out beyond the waves. They sat in the water straddling their boards like cowboys in a flood. Andrew was nowhere in sight.
"He brought his body board. He'll be in the surf close to the beach all day," Motor explained when Rodney asked.
The four of them bobbed in the water. Pete and John tried to explain the basics of surfing. Pete broke into a rather flawed physics example before Rodney cut him off with some large hand waving that almost made him fall off his board. John tried his turn by breaking into some Zen mumbo jumbo that managed to both confuse and annoy. Finally, Rodney looked over at Motor whose dyed black hair was plastered wetly to his forehead.
"Don't fall off," was his only advice.
Motor's was the only instruction that made sense. It was a shame that Rodney couldn’t seem to follow it no matter what. After making a fool of himself for a good hour, he waded back onto the shore and sat next to Andrew who looked done in already. They watched Pete, Motor, and John take wave after wave. Andrew explained the action patiently, stopping to explain each bit of surfer lingo when Rodney got lost. Andrew's voice always got a little reverent when John was gliding across the water.
"He knows how to rip. When he first showed up at the beach a lot of the guys kept calling him a FOG and stuff, but then we saw him surf. I don't know where he came from, but where ever it was, he must have been a crewmaster for sure. He always takes the waves Conan style."
"Okay, try all that again, but in English," Rodney said without looking away from Pete thrashing his board through the top of a wave.
"FOG, frickin' old guy. He's old, but brave."
Rodney frowned at the old remark, but he had to admit if John was anything it was brave. Unfortunately, there was a fine line between brave and foolhardy. It wasn't much longer that the waves started to die down. John was the first to come in, and he sat by Rodney watching Pete and Motor try to work with what was left. Finally, even the boys admitted defeat and came out of the water. Pete stood over them tired and dripping.
"Breakfast?" John asked.
Pete nodded. "Let's grind."
"Grind?" Rodney asked.
"Eat. You're favorite part," John replied with a grin.
Rodney raised and eyebrow and asked, "Are FOGs like us allowed to grind with the grommets?"
John and Pete blinked at him in surprise while Andrew fell back into the sand laughing like mad. Motor only shook his head and walked toward the parking lot. Rodney got to his feet and helped pull John up.
"What have you been teaching him?" Pete asked, smacking Andrew with his board.
John drove to a diner with an all day breakfast menu. It was nearing closer to lunch, but Rodney just couldn’t turn down the opportunity to have silver dollar pancakes. The boys seemed to think it was a wonderful idea and they ended up getting a round for everybody. John and Rodney sat on one side of the booth, bumping arms and shooting sideways glances at each other when either of them said something funny. The boys managed to squeeze in on the other side of the booth with Andrew in the middle. They talked about the surfing that morning, often breaking off into stories of this wave or that. As they were finishing up, Andrew starting telling a wild tale of John wiping out from a huge wave onto a dangerous reef that left him with a bad scar on his knee. When Rodney looked over at him, he just shrugged. As soon as the boys had stepped outside leaving the two of them with the check, John explained.
“I really just tripped on my shoe laces and fell on my concrete back step. I don’t know how the reef story got started, but every time I hear some kid tell it, the wave is at least five to ten feet taller than the last.”
Rodney chuckled. “Well as long as you don’t start believing your own press, I think you’re okay. It must be good for business anyway.”
“Yeah, main reason I haven’t cleared the whole thing up.”
Outside, everyone said their goodbyes. Motor drove off with the boys, and Rodney hopped back into the Jeep, pausing a moment to look at his surfboard again. They drove north, the opposite direction of his apartment. Rodney didn’t ask where they were headed. John took a winding road into the hills before pulling off a side street and parking in front of a small house. He started pulling the boards off, and Rodney, remembering rule one, helped. Inside the little house was dark, but cool. He could hear the clicking of an air conditioner somewhere towards the back. There was a blank wall next to the door with widely spaced pegs that looked like coat hooks. Sheppard balanced his board between two of them, and Rodney followed suit.
“You want something to drink?” John asked heading over into the little kitchen past the living area.
“Some water would be nice.”
He nosed around the living room with interest. The first thing he looked at was, of course, the bookshelf. It was filled with the usual suspense and thriller titles, but mixed in were aeronautics books and a couple of coffee table books with photos of aircraft. John came back in holding a cold bottle of water. Rodney put back the book he was flipping through and took it from him.
“Do I pass muster, Professor?”
“Where’s the book you bought from me?”
“On my night stand. I like to read before I go to bed. I bet your place is covered in books. I didn’t really see.”
“Pretty much. I think I used to have a couch. I’m not sure, I haven’t seen it in a while.”
John smirked around the mouth of a beer. It was a little early in the day for one. Still, he seemed strained so Rodney didn’t mention it. He wandered just what it was that John wanted. They sat down on the couch, and Rodney realized there was no television. The view from the couch was of the surfboards leaning by the door. There was a quiet tension in the room that was awkward.
“You know, I never sit in here. Let’s go out on the patio,” John said jumping to his feet.
Rodney couldn’t help but notice him finishing off his beer in the process. He’d barely taken a swallow of his own water yet. Out through the kitchen was a sliding glass door that opened onto a postage stamp sized yard. A tall fence surrounded it, but vines and other greenery softened the effect. A small area by the door was marked off as a patio by large concrete paving stones. Rodney eyed the infamous concrete step as he made his way out onto the patio. Some well-worn outdoor furniture covered most of the space. Rodney set his water down and looked around. In one corner of the yard was a little vegetable patch. Rodney raised an eyebrow at it speculatively.
John shrugged when he saw the look. “I never really settled down anywhere when I was in the military. When I bought this place, I thought, ‘This is it. You’re tied to the land now. So, why not a garden?’ Of course, I don’t have the best green thumb, I’ve discovered. At least it gives me something to do in the afternoons. I could tell you stories of slugs that would curl your hair,” John said earnestly.
Rodney couldn’t help but laugh at that. The very thought of the ultra cool John Sheppard freaking out over common garden slugs was ridiculous. He turned his head to let out a good-sized chuckle, and when he turned back, John was a lot closer than he had been. His hazel eyes were very soft and there was a new kind of grin on his face, which Rodney hadn’t seen before.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said.”
“What I said when?” Rodney asked.
“Last night when you talked about me making things clearer for you. I think—“ Rodney waited, but John didn’t seem in any hurry to finish the thought. Instead, he leaned forward and slowly pressed his lips to Rodney’s. It was a soft and quite chaste kiss. John pulled back after only just a moment and said, “I thought maybe I hadn’t been making myself clear enough.”
“Is that a good oh or a bad oh?”
“It’s a surprised oh.”
“How can you be surprised, Rodney? We’ve been dating for weeks.”
John gave a short huff of laughter. “You’ve got to either be straight or clueless.”
“Hey!” Rodney said in self-defense. “It’s just… You’re— and I’m—“ He paused to gather his thoughts. “Why didn’t you say something!”
“Well, I had hoped you knew.”
Rodney gave a tight sigh and grabbed the front of John’s T-shirt and said, “Honestly, even a genius needs help sometimes.” He pulled the other man closer and gave him a real kiss.
He smelled like seawater and a little beer, plus he kissed like he’d been thinking about it for a while. Rodney couldn’t have been happier. John’s empty bottle was tossed casually away. Rodney pulled back to watch it roll off the patio into the grass that needed weeding. John used the opportunity to move past his lips and explored the edge of his jaw with a clever tongue. His newly freed hand grasped at the small hairs on the back of Rodney’s neck.
He found himself gasping for breath at John’s assault. It had been a long time since he had felt like this. Rodney had forgotten the intensity of being close to someone, of feeling their heat. A thousand chemical reactions were racing in his body. Normally he’d hate the lack of control, but John made it feel so easy.
“Want to go back inside?” he whispered against Rodney’s ear. The warm air tickled against his hair.
“Yes,” Rodney replied, and could scarcely recognize his own voice.
How long had he wanted this, and why hadn’t he seen it sooner? The questions still buzzed in the back of his mind as John took his hand and led them back into the house. They turned off the kitchen down a short hallway that ended in a dark bedroom. The air conditioner he had heard before was happily chugging away in the window. The room was much colder than the rest of the house, and after the warmth of the morning sun outside, the air prickled against his skin. John let go of his hand and casually pulled off his T-shirt. His skin was rough with flecks of sand and the salty residue of dried seawater. The dark hairs on his chest almost sparkled in the faint light coming from the partially covered window. Rodney leaned forward and kissed a pebbled nipple. John gave a soft grunt and ran a hand over Rodney’s hip and under his shirt. The cotton was rough after his hard morning in the water, so he pulled away to rid himself of it. As soon as it passed his face, John was on him again, kissing him deeply. Rodney dropped the shirt and pressed against his body.
They tussled for a bit before Rodney pulled back. He looked John in the eye. His eyes were dark with lust and it was almost too much. Rodney sank to his knees pulling John’s swim trunks down as he went. John took a deep breath and held it. They’re eyes never left each other as Rodney nuzzled the soft skin below John’s belly button. Rough fingertips slid over Rodney’s shoulders as he focused his attention on the swelling cock inches from his face. He leaned forward and took it into his mouth. The salt from their morning’s activity only heightened the experience as Rodney sucked greedily. John’s breathing grew erratic in counterpoint to the chugging air conditioner. It wasn’t long before John was pushing him away. Rodney started to protest but the words halted as he watched John grab himself and finish in one rough stroke. Getting to watch this beautiful, infuriating man at his most vulnerable was definitely worth some reverent silence. Rodney stood as John panted, trying to pull himself together.
“No fair,” John gasped.
The intense look he received in response made the smirk on his face soften a bit. John grabbed his shoulders and pulled. The two of them landed crossways on the bed in a heap. Rodney wriggled out of his own confining swimwear, and let John manhandle him. He was surprised when John pulled him on top. It seemed the man had a plan. John attacked his mouth with a deep kiss wholly unlike the ones they’d shared so far. There was something needy and almost frightened in the way that John was kissing him. Rodney social skills were never his strongest suit, but even so, he could pick up that something was wrong.
Rodney pulled away enough to murmur, “It’s okay. It’s all right.”
“I almost got you killed. I knew how it was going to turn out and I still took you anyway.”
“I just couldn’t do it alone. Why couldn’t I do it alone?” John whispered, and Rodney was pretty sure that the question wasn’t aimed at him.
“Because we don’t have to anymore. Don’t you get it? That’s the whole point.”
John rolled them so that they were closer to the head of the bed and kissed Rodney fiercely again. He slid down Rodney’s body, half off the bed and proceeded to suck him as if his life depended on it. It was like he needed Rodney in a way he couldn’t fully show. Not that Rodney minded. The rough coverlet crinkled beneath him as his hips rose over and over again in shallow little thrusts. John road out the movement and accelerated his pace. It was all Rodney could do but to hang on until he finally climaxed, groping at John’s pillows. He had enough sense of mind to pull John back up onto the bed before closing his eyes for a few moments.
Rodney woke in a strange place and it took him a few moments before he remembered. John. Sex with John. Amazing sex with John. John, who was not in the bedroom. Rodney sat up and rubbed his face. He was sore and stiff from the surfing, physical activity that he was pretty sure he’d never get used to. The shower was running in the bathroom off of the master bedroom. Rodney pulled on his trunks and wandered back out onto the patio to retrieve his water. He stood staring at the vegetable garden for a few moments before John wandered out in a towel with a concerned look on his face.
“I thought you left.”
“Thirsty,” Rodney replied holding up the bottle.
John smiled and stepped up for a kiss. He pulled back and looked Rodney up and down.
“I think you need a shower.”
“I think you’re right.”
Rodney followed him inside and went to take a shower. The itchy dried seawater was easy to ignore in the face of sex, but now it was just irritating his sensitive skin. He took longer than needed and well past the capacity of the hot water heater, already taxed from one shower. John was dressed and sitting at the patio table when Rodney wandered out wearing borrowed shorts and a T-shirt that had been waiting on the bed for him.
Rodney sighed, “This week I’ve mended fences and had my first surfing lesson. You’ve faced down certain doom and had your wicked way with me. Oh, and together we apparently fight crime. How the hell are we supposed to top that?”
John laughed softly and said, “I have no idea, but I’m kind of interested to see how it turns out.”
“Must be a new experience for you not looking at the last pages first.”
Rodney got a wry look in response.
“I’m tainted forever for you now, aren’t I?”
Radek sat at the desk with a small smile and signed the book that was handed to him. Rodney held back some of the more acerbic comments that he wanted to yell out amongst the fans mulling around his shop causing havoc. How he’d ever let the sneaky Czech talk him into having a book signing at Event Horizon was beyond him. Rodney glanced over behind the counter where David was ringing up a sale. There was a small line waiting for check out. Perhaps it wasn’t all that bad really. John entered the front door with Motor and Andrew close behind. He must have closed the Seahawk early, Rodney thought, if only to make sure he got his share of the hors d'oeuvres before the grazing masses could reduce them to crumbs.
“Wow, pretty good turn out,” John said as he approached.
“People are buying things. I can’t get used to it.”
Motor snorted and dragged his brother behind the counter out of the way. David immediately enlisted them as baggers, despite the fact that neither of them worked there. John eyed the new clerk with a smile.
“So how’s David working out?” John asked.
“I haven’t killed him yet. It’s a small thing. Do I really want to know how you talked his parents into this?”
John glanced away and replied, “Probably not.”
“His father gives me funny looks whenever he comes to pick him up. I think he thinks I’m some kind of pervert.”
“Well, he’s not to far off there.”
Rodney scoffed and ignored John’s wiggling eyebrows. Pete came out of the office with another box of books for Radek, and he nodded at them as he passed. The front of the signing line laughed at whatever Radek said to him as he was replacing the books on the table.
“Why do I have the feeling they’re talking about me?”
“Because you’re paranoid?” John asked, bending down to pick up Kepler. The cat always managed to zero in on John whenever he was in the store.
Rodney really should have had a comeback ready, but he was too tired to bother. Watching Radek and his, god save him, fans were making a little lump in Rodney’s stomach tighten.
“That should be me, you know.”
“I thought you said the book was ‘purulent trash meant to please the masses and had no real scientific function outside of entertaining monkeys who wouldn’t know physics if an apple dropped on their collective heads.’”
Rodney eyed his lover with a frown.
“What were you, a parrot in another life?”
John shrugged. “Just saying.”
“What I meant was, my life should have been very different from how it turned out, is all.”
“Is it so bad?” John asked and there was an edge of something in his voice that made Rodney turn. Kepler was batting his head against the underside of John’s unshaven chin. The aviator glasses that Rodney had seen the first time they had met were again pushed up into his riotous hair. John’s hazel eyes were intense as they stared back at Rodney.
“Not bad at all,” he said softly. The moment was broken by the sound of something being knocked over. Before he could turn and start yelling, Pete had pushed past the crowd and started helping the clumsy customer pick up the books scattered on the floor. The young man even went so far as to recommend one of the astronomy books in his hand to the woman as they straightened the toppled display. Rodney recognized it as one of the books he’d forced Pete to read when they first met. There was a warm sense of pride that filled him whenever he looked at Pete, one that couldn’t be dampened by the fact that the boy had chosen one of the soft sciences as his major. At least Pete still needed him, if only to blow his physics professor out of the water with the guest lecture he was planning on giving Pete’s class. How the hooligan had convinced him to get back into the teaching saddle was another of the current mysteries in his life he wasn’t working to hard to solve. He was pretty sure that Radek and Pete were double teaming him in their own obnoxious, well-meaning way.
Rodney turned his attention back to John who was grinning at him dopily and he had a bad feeling that he was grinning back at him the same way. He just hoped that John hadn’t noticed some of the recent rearranging he’d done. If he saw the newly ordered surfing books sharing space with the romance section, Rodney was sure he’d never live it down.