By the time Sheppard arrives at the scene, the situation has gone from bad, to worse, to explosive, with Agent Carter speaking in a ginger, clipped tone which meant he was on the verge of committing justified manslaughter. His voice carries brokenly over the din of the crowd, of the police cars flanking the street and sidewalk, over the crackle of police and SWAT radios and every tourist in Colorado, all gathered around to gawk in the steamy summer heat.
Sheppard winces as he spots one, two, three different television vans, and speeds up his steps, ducking into a safe perimeter of yellow crime tape, flashing his badge, yelling out, "Somebody want to explain to me what exactly happened out here?"
Colin Henderson, the man with an eight handicap, whirls around, throws up his hands in frustration and yells, "Where the hell were you? We've been waiting for an hour! Carter's going to kill somebody!"
And Agent John Sheppard grins, low and easy, flicking his sunglasses off of his face, folding them into his pocket. He says, "It's a beautiful morning, Colin. Isn't it a beautiful morning?"
"John," Henderson says sincerely, "I swear to God, Allah, Jaweh, and Elvis that I will put my foot so far up your backside."
Henderson's got three kids and a heart problem, so John holds up his hands in a peacekeeping gesture, explaining as he does how his car's busted, how he had to get a ride in, how his wife don't understand him and how somebody stole his pickup truck. He is deeply, deeply tempted to add that he doesn't know where all the cowboys have gone.
"Just get over there," Henderson says, stalking toward a few bomb squad agents, standing around puzzled and a little put out.
John rubs his hands together and approaches the ambulance, where Carter is clutching his notepad with inhuman force, dwarfing the small book with his huge, brown, boxer's hands, with scarred knuckles and calloused palms. Sitting on the tailgate--is it a tailgate? John should know, he's sat on enough of them over the years, bleeding and disoriented and reeking of smoke, still trying to give orders and do his job--of the ambulance, holding an icepack to his head and scowling furiously was a stocky, middle-aged man with thin brown hair. He's wearing a button-down, short-sleeved shirt and ugly khaki pants.
Analyst, John thinks, and put a gentling hand on Carter's shoulder. "Agent Carter."
"John," Carter says, relief overwhelming his brusque voice. "Thank God."
"God nothing!" the man in the ambulance snaps, precise and irritated, spots of red on his cheeks. "You load of morons should be falling all over yourselves to thank and apologize to me--if I hadn't dismantled the bomb we all would have--!"
Carter ignores him. He shoves the notepad in John's face desperately, his eyes wild. "I asked him if he knew anybody who would want to get rid of him," Carter babbles, he indicates the two columns of names, scribbled fast and in increasingly bewildered shorthand. "This is page three," he finished in a quiet wail.
Carter writes neatly, along the lines on the standard, bureau-issued pads and in a whirl of numbers John realizes that's a list of one hundred and fifteen and growing names. He cocks one eyebrow at--he looks at Carter, and Carter says, "Rodney McKay," even as Rodney yells, "That's Doctor Rodney McKay!"--Rodney, who John figures is either paranoid, delusional, or has a very high opinion of himself.
Paranoia and arrogance are as obvious as the dissatisfied sulk on Rodney's face, so John says, "Thank you, Agent Carter, good work--"
"'Good work'?" Rodney demands, infuriated. "He's been sitting there interrogating me like a common criminal for hours! And I don't know if your pathetic agents know it yet but I'm not even a citizen of your little 'grand political ex--'"
"--here. Head back to the office and run checks on these guys, I'll get the rest of the names," John continues blithely and pauses to glance at Rodney, saying, "I'm assuming there're more names?"
Rodney puffs up. "I'm a redwood amongst scientific weeds! Of course there're more! If I were to be detailed I could draw up lists that would include the entire physics and math departments of all the most prestigious learning institutions in the world!"
"So there're more names," John compromises, and waves Carter off. "Go ahead, and watch out, there's an awful wreck on Martin."
Carter looks momentarily confused. "I thought you got a ride."
"Weirdly, so does Henderson," John glosses, and turns back to Rodney, who's settled into a slouching pout, no longer the center of attention, and John takes the opportunity to study him as Carter's heavy footsteps grow lighter in the background.
Rodney is thickly built, with fast hands and a mouth set in a seemingly-permanent downward scowl, bright, round eyes and a ruddy face. John knew guys like this in high school and college, guys who told him, "Join the math club" or asked, "Why do you know that?" and said, "Yeah, well, I could do differential equations without a calculator, too, if I tried." Rodney's hair is thin, from self-induced stress, John figures, and Rodney smells like coffee and sweat, skin glistening from the early-morning heat. It's suffocating, and John thinks that asshole or not, it's not really fair to make the guy deal with an explosive and crushing heat all in one morning.
"How's your head?" John asks diplomatically.
Rodney glares. "It hurts, Agent--" he pauses and looks at John meaningfully.
"Sheppard," John supplies easily. "Agent John Sheppard."
"It's been a fantastic day so far, Agent Sheppard, would you like to know why?" Rodney snaps.
John is bright-eyed and supremely interested, slipping his hands casually into his pockets.
"My car transmission was acting up, something happened with my bank and all the money in my household accounts went into my Swiss bonds but nobody bothered to tell me so I wrote my landlord a rent check yesterday and it's going to bounce today when that penny-pinching jerk goes to cash it, which he probably did, as soon as I left the premises," Rodney lists, voice increasing in pitch. "Then, I hit the morning crush on the road, at which point I tried to turn on my car CD player to soothe my already frazzled nerves which was when I heard a click and something under the hood started to tick. Oh, oh," Rodney yells, waving his free hand, eyes furious, "so when I stop my car by the side of the road--close enough to a military base to make me a terrorist but not close enough for anybody to recognize that I have full access by the way--to check it out, I hear some twelve year old security guard shouting at me to move my vehicle immediately."
"That's unfortunate," John sympathizes.
"And then!" Rodney bellows, reaching the climax of his tale of woe, "When I tell him to drop dead and I pop the hood and find a bomb nestled next to my engine, the guy starts threatening me! So there I was, frantically trying to dismantle the bomb while my brain is going nuts figuring out the chances that this guy's actually going to shoot me and thinking that all of Colorado would deserve it if I died before I managed to fix this and then they died four seconds later!"
John nods earnestly.
"Oh, so I finally dismantle the bomb just as this moron, this ape, jumps on me while I'm shouting about how there's a bombin the car and how I just saved his life and he tackles me to the ground and now I have this earsplitting, agonizing,unbearable pain in my head!" Rodney finishes in a shriek, huffing for breath, face completely red.
"I thought you said your head just hurt," John prevaricated.
"I was downplaying my earsplitting, agonizing, unbearable, pain in a manly way!" Rodney barks.
John looks at him for a moment before he says, "I see. Well, it's going to be about ninety-three degrees today, and most of tourist population of Colorado is taking stupid vacation photos of this crime scene. You look like you could use a cup of coffee--" Rodney's entire face changes at the mention, eyes softening into an expression that borders on affection "--so how about we take this conversation to the office?" John grins, and puts the shades back on, adding, "We've got air conditioning."
"Okay," Rodney mutters grudgingly, "not to sound easy or anything, but. Lead the way."
John gestures toward his car, safely out of sight of Henderson, who's doing his best to clean up the circus. Forensics is busy collecting the car, which is fine, and the bomb squad is standing around, presumably discussing feelings of job insecurity.
"Hey," John says to the nearby EMT, who is making marks on a clipboard and muttering under his breath. John can't help but smile at that; Rodney seems to have left a wake a mile wide. When the EMT looks up, he scowls at Rodney but answers:
"Is he free to go?" John asks. "Any problems? Shock?"
The EMT rolls his eyes. "He's free to go--as far as possible, preferably."
Rodney makes a choked sound at that, and John ignores it in favor of catching Henderson's attention and saying, "I'm taking Dr. McKay back to the office."
"Got it," Henderson says, "just get him off my crime scene."
"Hey!" Rodney shouts, jumping up.
John puts a hand between Rodney's shoulder blades, guiding him toward John's car, saying soothingly, "It's very, very good coffee."
"You lied," Rodney accuses, though his hands are still latched around the Styrofoam cup of coffee, thick fingers like brown bands across the bleach white.
"Pardon?" John asks charmingly, leaning back in his own seat, left ankle on his right knee. His side-holster is a familiar jab against his ribs and he's taken off his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves. It's his office, his floor, his department, and he feels comfortable here.
"About the coffee," Rodney says, sulking. "This is disgusting."
"I think it's delicious," John says, feigning hurt.
He's waiting for Carter to show up with the short list of potential suspects. Most of the names Rodney ticked off were doctorates who'd earned that title by the skins of their teeth, men who'd had Rodney McKay sitting opposite their thesis defense. John never even thought about sticking it out in academia, though he'd gone to one of those schools where he'd seen enough guys get crushed by their orals to be crushed for life. Rodney's not a popular guy, John gets this, but there's thinking Rodney's an asshole and then there's putting a bomb in his car, which despite Rodney probably isn't a natural progression.
Rodney narrows his eyes. "Then why are you drinking water?"
John smiles winningly. "I'm saving the coffee for you," he tells Rodney cheerfully.
"Jesus Christ," Rodney says, and then becomes quiet, jiggling his knee and inspecting the room and frowning at random corners.
John thinks that maybe his first assessment was wrong; Rodney's too calm to be an analyst, and the paramedics at the scene said he wasn't in shock. The ice pack is off of Rodney's head now and John, despite careful observation, has yet to see so much as the suggestion of bruising, so he ratchets up his suspicions of "paranoia" and crosses out "analyst," and jots down "hyper" in his mental tally instead.
John's about to run out of semi-Southern charm when Carter ducks into the room, saying, "I got that list you asked for, John." He holds up a folder and looks at Rodney strangely. "You listed a lot of very, very weird people, Dr. McKay."
"They're sick, they're deranged, they're deadly jealous of my genius," Rodney supplies helpfully, and then his eyes get huge and he sets the coffee cup on the table with an empty, artificial "thock!" "Is it Terrence Darcy? Is it? I knew it--I knew he wanted to kill me. You make somebody cry a mere two times at their thesis defense and they have it out for you for life."
Carter almost smiles. "Mr. Darcy didn't actually make it onto the short list, Dr. McKay." Consulting the file briefly before passing it to John, he says, "Anyway, he's a geneticist."
Rodney falls restless and moody, and John just doesn't know what to think of this guy.
"True," Rodney says, frowning. "And anyway, his lack of understanding of the real, chemical world is one of the primary, if not only, reasons, I made sure he was utterly and completely blasted during his orals. I can't believe they gave him the title anyway--nor can I possibly fathom what St. Louis was thinking when they gave him that adjunct--"
"Thanks Carter," John finally interrupts, smiling again, and Carter, smirking, shakes his head and leaves the room again, mouthing, Yeah, good luck with that one.
"I don't think you really understand the severity of this," Rodney says suddenly, his voice damning. He scowls at John, who is settling the folder between his hands, looking politely interested in Rodney's most recent crisis. "I mean--I almost died this morning. Died. Before nine--before two cups of coffee, even," Rodney emphasizes, growing increasingly horrified at his brush with mortality. "And you, you keep smiling your little I Grew Up South Of The Mason-Dixon Line smile! Can we have a little professionalism? Can we have a little focus?" Rodney frowned down at his Styrofoam cup, and held it up again. "Also, can I have a little more coffee?"
John's a little amazed, torn between insult and hilarity, and decides Rodney's too weird to go one way or the other, and settles for bemusement.
He says, "Sure, I'll go refill that for you and remind everybody who won the War of Northern Aggression while I'm out there--happy, Dr. McKay?"
As he's stepping out of the interview room, Rodney yells after him, "Okay, sorry, sorry, cheap shot! And, if you must know, I'm Canadian anyway!"
Rodney's just very high-strung, hypoglycemic, and suffers from acute and deadly allergies to lemons, bees, and stupid people, of which there are a hundred thousand plus anywhere in his immediate vicinity, according to Rodney once John gets him a plate of cheese Danish and lulls him into a false sense of security.
"I mean," Rodney says messily, around a mouthful of pastry, "it's not going to be anybody from work--they do far too much background checking and psych screening for it to go down like that. Plus there's that whole thing where I'm just this huge, ridiculous intellectual and monetary investment and wow--I don't even want to think about what would happen to the project I'm working on if I was offed."
Rodney pauses to reflect on that, and John takes the opportunity to say, "Well, Agent Carter is currently narrowing the list you provided down even more, but in the meantime, I think it'd be wise to look in a few more avenues--maybe things you haven't thought about." John waves one hand. "Has there been anybody following you recently? Did you change your schedule? Any work done on your car? Any checkups? Has your car been parked anywhere unfamiliar?"
Rodney starts shaking his head about halfway through what John says, and forces himself to swallow so he can say:
"My schedule's always the same, and all the work done on my car is done at my place of business. It's really fantastic when you have an entire technical crew that's so cowed by--uh," Rodney interrupts himself, and starts again sheepishly, saying, "Anyway--no, I mostly just go from work to home and home to work again--oh, and sometimes I go to Roland’s, it's out past Friendship--"
"I know where it is, Dr. McKay,"
John purses his mouth. He's starting to fidget, never learned how to stay still. "What about people following you?"
Rodney sighed. "I'm employed by the Air Force, I'm sure I'm tailed twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. After all, I am the most valuable member of their program."
John barely keeps himself from rolling his eyes.
Two more hours of questioning and feeding Dr. Rodney McKay later, John knows the following:
Rodney owns one (1) tabby cat who has recently had a nasty bout of tapeworm; Rodney's not worried about the expense of the veterinarian recommended treatment, he's just horrified by the side effects, among which he counts his suspicions that of said cat loving him less.
Rodney really is an important Air Force employee, which John discovered uncomfortably when two airmen inserted themselves into his interview room and two more set themselves outside the door. He is certain there are more at random intervals throughout the building. They assure John that they're only following orders, that Dr. McKay's health and safety is one of their utmost concerns, and that while they will not interfere with John's investigation, he must be prepared to accept occasional inconveniences--oh, and they'll be needing a copy of everything he says or does in regards to these recent events. The only reason John doesn't reach and touch somebody with malicious intent when all of this goes down there is one bright, funny airman, named Lt. Aiden Ford, sir, who says slyly:
"So how long is that list of people who wanna off Dr. McKay?"
To which John replies dryly, "Very."
The Lieutenant finds this more funny than he probably should, which is why Sheppard decides he likes him, and offers the two officers in the interview room coffee--the stuff he brings for himself and hides in his desk.
Rodney also has a nose like a bloodhound--at least when it comes to coffee--and whines until he gets a cup of John's coffee, too.
Rodney McKay has bounced around from the faculties of MIT, UNC-CH, CalTech, and a number of other universities with extremely prestigious Astronomy and Astrophysics departments. He's worked at the SALT observatory and literally cannot stop complaining about leaving UNC just as they get first dibs on some gigantic new telescope that will allow people to see deeper into space than ever imagined. John cannot help but care a little more. He wonders if Rodney did any undergraduate work at CalTech, if they were ever in any of the same classes--and then dismisses it because John can't imagine not remembering this guy.
Rodney may or may not be involved in some sort of seedy workplace relationship with one Samantha Carter, who John wants to look up but figures ifshe's also Air Force, he doesn't have a chance of getting any reliable information. He does, however, ask Lt. Ford if this is a possibility as Rodney is gathering up his things and complaining as he leaves. Ford says, "I mean, not that she wouldn't want to kill him, but a carbomb is a little plebian for her. Also, she's not allowed." It figures that Rodney would be with that kind of woman.
Finally, John says, "All right. Thanks for your time, Dr. McKay."
He says, "Yeah, sure, whatever--look, when can I get my car back?"
In a surprise twist, Rodney's is a remarkably easy case. It takes John a little less than two days to solve it, and Carter just can't get over how stupid the most brilliant people in America can be, muttering to himself at the coffee maker about how "people don't know about fingerprints when they're rewriting the fabric of the cosmos." Angry, despondent Ph.D candidate from when Rodney had tenure at CalTech, sobbed all the way into the office, cried through his confession, cried through his arrest, and is presumably still crying now. John hates the weepers.
So when the military calls for the four billionth time at the hour on the hour to ask for an update and to demand any additional materials, John says that they can rest easy, the culprit's been apprehended, pretty-much red-handed, and would they mind patching him through to Dr. McKay? John explains that Rodney wants his car back, and privately thinks, God, why bother? Rodney's car is a total piece of shit. John is ashamed being in the same building as it.
"Good news, Dr. McKay," John says into the phone, cradled between his shoulder and his ear, flipping idly through a stack of files which magically appeared on his desk overnight. "We've found the culprit; Agent Carter brought him in this afternoon and he confessed to everything."
"About time, I was about to petition the military court to step in on my behalf," Rodney says, impatient, and there's a crackle on the line that makes John remember that Rodney's working in Cheyenne Mountain. "When can I come get my car?"
John makes a note in one of the margins on a document in the file and says distractedly, "Anytime. You'll just need to fill out some paperwork."
"Fine," Rodney says, and pauses long enough to ask, "Uh, will you be there?"
"If it's before seven," John says, frowning at the page. He hates cases with kids. This case involves four. It's going to be a bad day.
"Okay," Rodney says. "All right. I'll see you at six."
John doesn't have time to explain that the evidence is in lockup and no longer his concern before Rodney hangs up on him. John just rolls his eyes and sets the receiver down, twirling a pencil between his fingers. There are four little girls smiling up at him, eyes bright and round, huge and hugely innocent--all of them are missing.
He smoothes a hand over his face and gets distracted when he hears a hum outside the window, and when he turns, he sees a Blackhawk helicopter crawling across the sky, and he cannot, cannot look away.
At five fifty-five, when John is emerging out of the cube farm on the second floor to go to the break room on the first to grab a Diet Coke, he sees Dr. Rodney McKay bitching at reception, saying, "Yes of course I have an appointment!"
"You're not listed, Dr. McKay, and Agent Sheppard is--"
"Right here," he interrupts, smiling apologetically at Sasha who works the desk. She has an expression of supreme gratitude on her face, and when John turns back to look at Rodney all he catches is a scowl instead. "Sorry about that, Sasha. I didn't know Dr. McKay would be coming."
Rodney narrows his eyes. "I said I'd be here at six."
John blinks at him, and then his eyes widen. He says, "You meant you'd see me."
Rodney throws up his hands. "Are you sure this federal government of yours screens employees before they put them on the payroll?" Rodney snaps. "I mean, honestly, Agent Sheppard I don't think I could have been any clearer on the telephone earlier with you. Frankly, for that matter--"
"I think we're gonna move this one outside, Sasha," John says diplomatically, drops a hand on Rodney's shoulder, and steers the sullen man toward the doors of the building.
"That woman is really appallingly incompetent."
"Sasha is a very intelligent woman, Dr. McKay, I hadn't realized you meant you were looking to speak to me," John says, forcing himself to remain polite. He spent the better part of today looking at grotesque photos of crime scenes, the childish, nude bodies of young girls slashed with deep grooves and gore. He's not in the mood. Dr. McKay is only funny sometimes.
Dr. McKay waves his hand dismissively. "Whatever," he snaps. And then looking John up and down, he takes a deep breath and says, "Look, I wanted to..."
John watches him expectantly. "You wanted…?"
Dr. McKay shakes himself, frowns, mouth slanting downward, like he's castigating himself in his head and John thinks, why do the crazy ones always imprint on me? and wonders if he'll get back upstairs in time to keep Carter from stealing his case files and making him go home.
His mother taught him long ago that consulting your watch during conversation is basically one of the rudest most appalling behaviors ever, and John just can't make himself do it. It ranks right up there with not taking off his hat indoors, not holding open doors for ladies and letting his dates get out of the driver's side seat on their own. Still, John rubs his left wrist with his right hand and watches Dr. McKay wrestle some huge, insurmountable inner demon and counts to ten, over and over again.
"Dr. McKay, I've really got to--" he finally starts.
"Have dinner with me!" the scientist finally yelps, eyes huge, face red.
John blinks, his mind hits the brakes, and it takes him a whole thirty seconds before he can say, "Are you asking me out?"
Rodney looks momentarily torn. "Yes," he finally says, agonized.
"Wow," John observes.
Dr. McKay scowls. "Okay, while cutely befuddled is a very good look on you, Agent Sheppard, I think you should know that given my current heart rate and blood pressure, not to mention the fact that I was forced to skip lunch due to gross incompetence in this moron named Kavanagh at work and my hypoglycemia is making itself well known to all my bodily functions at the moment, which is basically leading up to a massive coronary for which you will be resp--"
"You," John interrupts him with raised brows, "talk a lot when you're nervous."
Rodney shuts his mouth with a click, frowns some more.
"And why did you assume I was gay, anyway?" John asked innocently, basically fucking with Dr. McKay at this point, fighting back hysterical laughter.
Rodney's face gets pinched and he snaps, "Well, there's the fact that you're revoltingly well-groomed--"
"Thank you," John says.
"--and you knew where Colorado Springs' premier gay bar was and I put two and two together and got homosexual," Rodney finishes with a scowl. John has to give the guy points for the single most unique and simultaneously the worst attempt at picking somebody up, ever.
"Knowing the geographic location of a given place of business doesn't actually dictate my sexual orientation, Dr. McKay," John says serenely, his smile placid and giving nothing away.
Rodney tilts his chin up with a haughty, fragile dignity, and says, "I see. Sorry for wasting your time," and starts to walk away, at which point John grins and says to Rodney's stiff back:
"I'll be off work in an hour. Where should I meet you?"
Rodney whirls around, his eyes bugging out of his skull.
John cocks his eyebrow. "It'd better be good. It's been a hell of a day."
Rodney apparently made reservations in four (4) separate restaurants, and spends some serious time freaking out at John's "it'd better be good" comment before John said, "Rodney. Shut up and just pick a place."
And that's how they end up meeting at Windows NT, a hip little place barely half a year old with a brief but respectable wine list that John barely looks at before he says, "Just bring me a Pellegrino." Rodney makes some horrified face at John's beverage choice but manages not to say anything when John narrows his eyes.
When John had sat down at the table, twenty minutes late, he had said, "Sorry about that," and "You changed clothes," and "You picked a restaurant named after a crappy operating system?"
Rodney's answers were, "Well, I knew you'd be late. You seem like that kind of person. Out of respect for that, I arrived ten minutes late myself in order to compensate, that and I figured if I was going to go into some sort of panic attack they'd have enough time to give me a brown paper bag to breathe into so I could fake normalcy when you got here." And "Don't read into it, Agent Sheppard, can I call you John? Don't read into it, John. I mean, you work sixteen hours a day with a group of brilliant scientists with no social skills--" and didn't even pause to see the irony in that "--and you realize what you're going to look like if you don't take a shower and change." He'd tugged at his collar and said, "Is this tie okay?" And lastly, "Well, okay, NT was crap, but so is every Windows OS. Real systems, ones that matter, run on Linux but the hipster queer-identified vegan Buddhists who run this place are clearly one with their cruddy laptops they stole from work or whatever and thought it'd be good idea."
John had stared at him for a long time, amazed, and then leaned in to ask, "Really--do you have gills? How do you get oxygen when you do that?"
Rodney had been saved from having to answer when the waiter brought their beverages.
Windows NT really is a hipster, queer-identified, vegan Buddhist type of restaurant. The tables are slick and austere, all the art is deco, and the laps are nebulous, plastic shapes that throw off soft, colored light. The dining room is packed and they're sitting in a corner booth, near a large purple plant in a white ceramic pot, and all of the flatware and plates on the pale green tablecloth are artfully mismatched. John kind of likes this place, it's trying to do something, and even if it's all artificial, it's brave; the only downside is that John has to be the only person in the room drinking water, and a cursory glance settles it: house wines and infused fruit and vegetable juices as far as the eye can see.
"Aren't you just a regular comedian," Rodney says, but without much venom, sulking into his white wine.
It's a nice picture, John thinks distantly. Rodney's a fair-skinned man and his thick hands look alien on the narrow stem of the wine glass. Rodney's eyes are very blue, and he's still flushed from a combination of embarrassment and nervousness and it makes a strangely attractive combination.
So now John is sipping his water, zoning out, figuring that he's being probably the worst date in history, getting a free meal and an opportunity to get out of his head and giving nothing back. John can't help but smirk--he's never been good at being nervous, he just comes off mellow.
"Um, so," Rodney says awkwardly. "John, how did you come into your line of work?"
John tries very, very hard not to roll his eyes. "Recruited out of college," he says easily.
"Though, you know, bad background, I'm a sketchy one."
The story is much longer than that, but Rodney's a crazy, lonely scientist and John's not interested in becoming anybody's boyfriend. It's dinner, and it'll be a nice break, but tomorrow he's got to go back to work, and he doesn't want to talk about moving from base to base, about F-16s and Ospreys, about vertical liftoff and wanting to do one thing all your life and not having the opportunity to even try.
"Bad background?" Rodney says, intrigued. "What'd you do?"
John smirks. "Something about arson," he says lightly, and before Rodney can ask further, John says, "What about you? What brings you to Cheyenne?"
"Top secret," Rodney says smugly, leaning back in his seat.
John cocks one eyebrow. "That line get you an in with a lot of people?"
Rodney deflates. "Sometimes," he says defensively.
After they've ordered--John: chorizo and cucumbers, doing the mental math about sugars and carbs; Rodney: salmon and avocado, thinking how badly they'll clash on his plate--Rodney talks about the stuff he's allowed to talk about, primarily, stuff that probably should be classified but isn't.
"We've literally got hundreds of the brightest people in the world working on the project," Rodney says smugly, digging into salmon once their food is whisked to them.
Predictably, John's chorizo and cucumbers don't really go together, but he picks all the cucumbers out and tells the waiter to bring him a salad and makes do, listening to Rodney babble about string theory and non-linear geometry, things John hasn't thought about much since college, things that really don't have much applied use in his every day life. But he smiles, low and easy, when Rodney starts explaining branes and infinite possibility to him, and says:
"Then you're a string theorist, believe in the eleven dimensions, vibrations dictating matter?"
Rodney's eyes go big for a moment, and there's something that flickers in them, before he says, "Well, I wouldn't necessarily simplify it like that. I believe certain parts of String Theory are probably valid, though the gross oversimplification that they buzz you through in like, basic Astronomy is--"
"I majored in physics, Rodney," John says.
"--Astrophysics then," Rodney continues, "is hardly worth talking about at length and you majored in physics?"
The rest of dinner is lighthearted and fast-talking, with Rodney throwing out math and experimental physics and John doing his very best to keep up, the math is easier than the physics, but it's all interesting, and Rodney seems more and more interested--which, John worries, may have been a tactical error on his part.
When the dessert cart rolls around Rodney gets the biggest piece of chocolate cake that John has ever seen his entire life and makes ecstatic porn noises while eating it and harangues John about declining after dinner sweets. "What, you're not one of those femme boys who worries about his weight, are you?" Rodney demands, and John leans back enough that his suit jacket falls open to show off his shoulder holster, the gleam of the butt of his gun and Rodney says, "Okay, okay, maybe not," looking a little more turned on than he should.
John ends up driving Rodney home because Rodney got a ride from some Air Force personnel and his car's still in lockup--forensics isn't quite done with it. Rodney doesn't even complain, which is John's personal indicator that Rodney apparently thinks he's going to get some.
"Thanks for dinner," John says, pulling up to an unremarkable apartment complex in a dark parking lot all shadowed by trees.
Rodney twitches in a way that might be shaking his head if played in slow motion.
"It's fine--I, I really enjoyed that," Rodney says, sounding so out of his element that John almost feels bad for him.
Rodney twists his hands in his lap for a while before he seems to brace himself, leans over, and presses an awkward, hard kiss to the corner of John's mouth. He says, "You're uh, good. Really good."
John touches his mouth, and thinks, huh. He says, "Thanks, I guess."
Rodney stares at him for a second, eyes bright. "Do you wanna come up?"
John cocks his eyebrow. "Now, Dr. McKay, I'm not that kind of girl."
Rodney clams up, and before he can break something trying to explain, John says gently, "I've got to get back to the office."
"Oh." Rodney's face falls, and John can't help but to feel a bit guilty about that.
"You're not going to get blown up again, are you?" John jokes, playing with his keys. "Try to get my attention by using various, illegal explosives and other such shiny diversions?"
Rodney only rolls his eyes and gets out of the car, saying, "Very funny."
Later, John pulls into the parking lot of the bland office complex, two stories and sprawling, the brand new Colorado FBI bureau, stocked with ATF, FBI, and the occasional CIA floater with malfunctioning office equipment and "networked" computers that never seemed to recognize one another on said network. There are still a few lights on inside and the sky is heavy and blue overhead, shining from stars. John grew up on army bases, where the burnt orange of street lights obscured most everything above his head and Colorado's still a religious experience, like being close enough to touch the very heavenly bodies he'd wanted to fly up to.
At four in the morning on Friday, John goes home, takes a shower, changes his clothes, and goes back to the office around eight, only to find on his desk a very large, obnoxious package. When he opens it, he finds a very large, obnoxious gift from Dr. Rodney McKay, who is nothing if not subtle like a skull fracture.
"What the hell is that?" Carter asks, holding a cup of coffee and staring at John's desk.
Henderson is a few steps behind and pauses in the doorway, shakes his head and blinks, says, "You know what? I don't even want to know," before walking off into the labs.
John can't help but laugh and play with it for the rest of the day, because how many people go on a crappy date, don't put out, and still get 3D representations of String Theory the next day--with fine, luminous strings which move when John shakes the black, lacquer box.
There's a note in the box that John doesn't find until after lunch, and it says, "Now are you that kind of girl?" and John nearly fucks up an interrogation trying not to laugh.
John has dinner with Rodney again, and this time, lets Rodney slip him a little tongue in the parking lot, but draws the line at any really undignified pawing, and he's not sure if it's because he's never really done this with another guy or because this is his bureau-issued Ford, and nothing kills a hard-on like thinking about explaining weird stains on his next requisition form.
"You're killing me," Rodney gasps, clutching his own thighs.
John is tucking his shirt back in primly. "If you really love me, you'll wait," he says facetiously.
The day after that, there is another huge obnoxious package that contains a huge obnoxious clock.
"I always used to think guys like you picked up cool chicks," Carter said sadly over lunch.
John snorts so hard he gets diet Coke in his nostril and spends ten minutes in the men's room cursing Rodney's name and that case four months ago that had him lurking around Roland's. It's fate, misfortune, he thinks heatedly, an intersection of factors that is meant to drive him around the fucking bend.
Even if Rodney and Rodney's gifts are distracting, John's getting less and less chances to play the mostly-straight cocktease, because this case with the four little girls has become five, and his head hurts so much he sometimes thinks it's not worth getting up in the morning.
They are named Angela, Bethany, Catherine, Danielle, and Elizabeth and John has this crazy desire to tell everybody who named their daughters something that start with F to hide them away. He actually floats the idea around but is thoroughly reassured that he's batshit insane and that he hasn't been sleeping enough.
John needs to hurry, because if this guy stays on his pattern that means John has about sixteen days before another little girl goes missing and John doesn't want that on his watch. John was always the guy the base mothers trusted their daughters with, the one they'd wink at and say, "Now, don't keep her out too late--but, well, if you do," and giggle and he misses how simple that was. He misses being able to tell the assholes from the football team to back off Sarah in the hallway, or the school pretty boy to lay off Michelle, he misses the fucking chess team at this point, because he turned thirty-four at somewhere in the middle there and it's exhausting.
On Thursday, Rodney invites himself over to John's apartment, which is either a sign that this relationship is going in a Bad Direction or endearing, in a court-order sort of way--John can't quite decide. It's above his mental facilities at two thirty in the afternoon when he hasn't slept in close to thirty hours and is only home to wash and change before he heads back to the office.
So he's standing in his doorway, squinting at Rodney who is staring at him.
"What are you doing here?" John asks. He realized about three days into whatever this is that one of the few benefits of dating Rodney is that he never, ever has to be polite.
Rodney is very red, and John imagines the fact that he is standing in his doorway in a towel still dripping wet may have something to do with it, but John knows for a fact that his hair is plastered to his face in a really unattractive way, so he doesn't worry too much.
"You're--um," Rodney seems to lose his train of thought before shaking his head and saying firmly, "I haven't heard from you in days. Somebody at your office implied that you were trying to kill yourself with work." Rodney narrows his eyes. "Are you going to invite me in?"
"No," John says easily. "Because I am going to close this door, with you on the outside, put on my pants, drive to the office, and beat the hell out of whoever has been gossiping with you instead of canvassing the great state of Colorado looking for what I told them to."
Then John closes the door, with Rodney on the outside, puts on his pants, and drives to the office. While he does not beat the hell out of Carter--who does seem at least a little contrite--for telling on him, he does make Carter fetch him a lot of coffee that afternoon.
At seven fifteen, John is staring at the map, with all its yellow flags to indicate where the bodies were found and all the red dots to indicate where the victims were taken from and thinks that there's no way he can ever solve this.
When nobody is looking, he covers his face and puts his head down on the table, because he's been in this killer's head for so long that he's started to eye parking lots, bus depots, local schools, eyes flirting at the hems of little girls' dresses, thinking, "How beautiful."
But that's quitting, John knows, and fucked up besides.
So he shakes his head, hauls out all the forensic evidence again, pulls the map off the wall and puts it beneath his fingers, so he can press his shaky hands to the tired paper.
John's mother had been an amazing cook, made pastries from scratch. And when he'd been little, he'd tried to mimic her busy, nimble hands; his father had albums and albums of photographs of John and his mother together in the kitchen, making cakes neither of them could eat.
She had John's smile and John's heart and John and his father had revolved around her, been satellites, because home was always moving, and she had always made it home. From one anonymous, Air Force-assigned house to another, she'd cheerfully put up her curtains and put away her dishes and pots and rolled up her sleeves, stewed things and broiled things and filled the house with so many good smells that John forgot that he'd be starting in a new school, that they'd go faster than his old one or be much slower and he'd get all turned around again.
She wasn't perfect, and she cried sometimes, deep, gasping sobs that made something in John shake and shatter and he'd stalk the house, hiding in corners and coming up to his mother sometimes to offer tissues and his stuttering attempts to comfort her. She yelled at John's father, angry, furious, high-pitched words that echoed all through the timbers of their many roofs. She had many failed dreams, and John remembers being told that like all mothers, she'd put them away, and it was harder and harder not to let her mind wander to their secret hiding places.
The day it happened, it was pouring down rain in Texas, and they were skidding, hydroplaning on the highway toward Lackland Air Force Base, watching the gray-blue sky blur ahead of them. The radio was on an oldies station and John was listening to the Beatles. John had been ten then, old enough to be quiet but not enough to be scared, and when his mother had swerved to avoid an oncoming driver, slid them straight off the road--
John has a painfully vivid sense memory, of a single split second of warmth, where his mother's soft, fleshy hand was pressed against his shoulder, warm through his t-shirt, against his collarbone, when she'd thrown her arm in front of him to protect him.
When John wakes up from where he's passed out on his desk it's to his phone shrieking and a few minutes later he is speeding down the highway, fast enough to break the sound barrier, driving, driving, because another little girl has been reported missing and her name is Francesca Sidel.
It takes the combined miracles of a surprise find in trace, the magic of forensic accounting, and the horrifying second autopsies of the three bodies still in FBI custody before John finds all the indications of the wordless pattern he's been chasing in his head. He fingers the pages and draws figure-eights on paper and frowns hard at the tickling beginnings of something that he must define within forty-eight hours--and literally on the fortieth hour he yells, "It's the bus guy! He works for the school system! He doesn't have direct contact with children so he isn't--"
And Carter interrupts, eyes huge and bright, "--so he wasn't on the list of--!"
"We have to go now!" John shouts, grabbing his jacket and bolting toward the parking lot. "Call SWAT, call whoever, I'm going in first!"
John does, waving his gun, but Carter's at his back, and it's times like these, his knee throbbing from kicking down a door that John thinks that it's good to have friends. And then he is in a dark and dank and frightening townhouse that smells strongly of feces and blood and he's not so sure he wants anybody else to ever have to see this. But he's got an ocean of armed personnel on his side so when John yells and breaks into the back bedroom, Oliver Henry who designs bus routes for the local school system only drops the knife and backs away.
Francesca is on the ground, naked with her wild, dark hair fanned out around her whitening face. John forgets all about the suspect--being tackled to the ground by a small army of disgusted grown men--holsters his gun and falls to his knees at Francesca's side, puts his hands on her profusely bleeding wound.
There's a dark, horrible gash on her stomach, red and gushing like a breaking heart and John touches her face with his left hand, ignoring the way it streaks blood on her cheek and says, "Hey, hey, stay with me, Francesca--you're safe now. I've got you."
Her eyes are glassy and very blue and John falls in love with her, watching her die under his hands, feeling her body shake. She gasps a little. "Who are you?" she says, slurring.
"My name's John Sheppard," he says, apropos of nothing, hearing the scream of an ambulance in the distance. It's close, but this is a stomach wound, a slow, painful way to die and there is blood from the carpet soaking into his knees, crusting on his fingers. She's been here a long time. He wasn't fast enough. His thumb is on the butterfly of her ribs, touching the innocent, budding curve of a breast, and John is horrified that so much of something so beautiful can be disappearing like this.
"I'm an FBI agent," he adds, babbling now. "We've been looking for you, you had us worried there for a bit." He forces himself to smile at her and it's all crazy, because she smiles back, disconnected and strangely peaceful, like she believes him or wants to so much that she can't tell the difference.
"Thanks," she says, with an exotic curve to her voice at the 's', and then she fades, eyes closing and heart slowing and the EMTs push through, shove John out of their way.
They apply pressure bandages and shout a lot but John knows it's useless, because he's still watching her beautiful, heart-shaped face, with streaks of blood from his hands as she dies, as the EMTs say, "She's gone."
There is, even after death, a lifetime's worth of work to be done, and John, with his hands washed clean in a nearby sink shuffles around the scene, picking around Francesca's body, collecting forensic evidence. He finds clothing from the other victims, some photographs, shockingly and revoltingly tasteful, of long lashes shut in sleep, of flowery, lacy dresses and shiny white shoes, Sunday church polished. He finds knives, dozens of them.
He goes outside, into the wild mess of greenery behind the small townhouse. He smells metallic, there's splatter on his face, he thinks he can taste it in his mouth, and he wonders what's so attractive about this--what makes this sexy and desirable and what drives a man to end life, like breaking the wings of a bird.
And then there is the sound of rustling leaves and John nearly jumps out of his skin when he sees Marla Horton of Action News 14, of "Well, the AMBER alert wasn't working, anyway," fame just before she comes out of the tangled shrubbery and shoves a microphone in his face.
There is a piercing light from behind her that means there's a camera on him and John will never, never know how reporters who chase stories like these sleep at night. He scowls and puts on his game face, says, "This is a crime scene, Horton. That yellow tape's out there for a reason."
He's in shock, it's the only reason he's holding himself together so well, he thinks.
"I'm persistent," she compromises, her green eyes huge, hair a halo of red around her face. "I'd just like a comment."
"My comment, as always," John bites out, "is no comment, now please escort yourselves from the premises before I have somebody do it for you."
Then Marla Horton is looking at John's knees, eyes huge and round and horrified and John follows her gaze to see the blood stiff and dark in the shape of strange continents on his slacks and he starts yelling for somebody to get these people the fuck off of his crime scene.
About twenty minutes later, when the coroner's van arrives for Francesca, John is busy puking up his guts in the ambulance en route to the hospital.
Somebody says that he's in shock, that he's breaking out into a cold sweat. John wants to be an asshole and say that he knew that twenty minutes ago, but he's got his head in a wax-covered bag and he totally does not have the higher ground here. The EMTs look at his medic alert bracelet, frown, ask him how long since he's eaten and had insulin and John is too busy dry heaving to say that he was due for a shot about ten minutes ago.
At the hospital, they give him some nice, synthetic insulin to level out his body chemistry and a nurse hands him a cup of some vile, orange-flavored crap to get his electrolytes up, then, to totally contradict the insulin, they make him eat jello. They let him take a shower in the locker room and he watches all the blood from his skin, burnt sienna and brown and dark red, wash pale and swirl down the drain. He feels completely numb, and stays that way as he changes into the scrubs somebody left for him.
Somebody gives him a lift back to the office where he spends the rest of the day doing follow-up paperwork in sea-green scrubs.
At a little past four Rodney bursts in, takes one look at him, and drags John out into the sunlight, into Rodney's crappy little car, all the way back to Rodney's crappy apartment.
"How did you get in?" John demands, more than a little weirded out by the way that Rodney is determinedly not making eye contact with him while steering John up the stairs of the complex.
"I have higher security clearance than you," Rodney says simply. "If only you would put two and two together--"
"Like you did the basic math about me liking dick," John mutters.
"--then you'd think that maybe my working on a top-secret project at Cheyenne would afford me a little more access than the common field agent," Rodney finishes with a snap, scowling and shuffling around his pockets for his keys.
When he finds them, John feels the first note of alarm, but before he can finish saying, "Hey," Rodney's shoved John through the door of Rodney's apartment. It's cluttered and surprisingly comfortable, and if it weren't for the half-eaten bags of Cheetos and crispy onion rings laying around everywhere John might actually compliment the place.
Instead, John says, "Geez, Rodney."
Then, Rodney's pushing John toward a half-opened doorway, which when John gets close enough he sees is the bedroom, which makes his whole face turn red. Rodney makes him sit on the edge of the bed and John is still feeling numb all over, tingly and strange and thinks maybe that if Rodney fucks him now it wouldn't be so bad.
John feels muffled, like talking underwater, and wonders what Rodney's got planned and if it'll push him to the surface.
John's reaching for Rodney's belt loop when Rodney says, "Strip."
Which totally kills the mood, so John blanches and says, "God, McKay, do you have a one-track mind or what?" because it's not like Rodney can know what John was just thinking.
Rodney scowls some more, which John is starting to find disturbingly endearing. Then, he says, "Oh, don't flatter yourself, agent. Your hair dried sideways, you're dressed in creased surgical scrubs, and you look like utter shit, there's no way I'd fuck you when you're looking like that."
John's brows knit together. He must be sick, because that almost seemed sweet.
Rodney deflates. "Okay, well, maybe I would," he admits, and then adds, "but not in this current situation. I mean, given the circumstances and despite the fact that you're you know, sitting on my bed and all vulnerable and stuff, sex is really the last thing on my mind."
"You're a real saint, Rodney," John manages, and he's digging his nails into his knees, because oh my God, he's just remembered what's happened and he feels nauseated, dizzy, hot.
"Hey, hey," Rodney says, putting his big palms on John's cheeks, forcing his face up to look into Rodney's blue eyes. He looks alarmed and his hands are surprisingly gentle. "Stop that--I've got you, okay?"
It makes John bolt into the nearest bathroom, makes him throw up a sickly combination of bile and the orange stuff the nurse made him drink and green jello and leaves him weak-kneed and trembling, collapsed next to the toilet with Rodney stroking the back of his neck, making soothing noises. John tries to bat him away with his hand but he can't seem to move on his own, so he just goes with it when Rodney helps him up, leads him back to the bed, starts tugging off the scrubs.
John doesn't have time to get any more smart-alecky comments in before he can feel exhaustion, bone-deep, sucking him under, and he remembers in a blurry, hazy way being undressed--having cool, soft sheets pulled around him.
When John wakes up he's more tired than when he went to sleep, and it takes about forty seconds to collate his thoughts enough to come to a conclusion as to why he feels crappier now than before. He checks the clock and realizes that it's only been twenty minutes since Rodney so kindly put him to bed, which was a nice thought, but not a nice thing to do to a type I diabetic who'd just gotten a shot of insulin and puked up his guts.
It makes him groan, curse himself for not being a more vigilant patient, and roll out of Rodney's incredibly comfortable bed. Rodney may whine a whole bunch about everything and think with his dick but the man has good taste in mattresses, which is a shame because now John has to go back to his house or his office and take nasty glucose tablets and eat a cupcake before he goes into a diabetic coma. He doesn't feel sick but he doesn't want to take the risk, and he has been avoiding sleep, regular food intake and all other hallmarks of a healthy lifestyle for a good four weeks now.
Of course, his car's still at the crime scene (probably) and his wallet's at the office (probably) and Rodney is (definitely) passed out like he's the one in a diabetic coma on his living room couch.
He's drooling in his sleep for a split second John can't get over the fact that just two hours earlier, he was seriously considering going there.
And sure, John feels sort of bad about it, but it's criminally easy to steal Rodney's car keys and leave him a note, saying, "Thanks for the nap. Gotta go. I'll bring back your--Christ, is this an I'M WITH GENIUS t-shirt? You sick fuck. J."
Rodney's car has horrible suspension and automatic transmission. The seats are all weird, lumpy and uncomfortable and Rodney's clearly never suffered the indignity of a stakeout his entire life, or he'd appreciate bucket seats a lot more. Plus, there's that thing where it's this hideous 70's-esque shade of bronze-orange and John tries to hunch down in the front seat so nobody sees him.
By the time he's pulled up to the FBI field office he's starting to feel a little clammy and figures that he got out just in time, because the very, very last thing he needs tonight is for Rodney to call an ambulance for John because he was a moron. Night security waves him through and glares at him like John's a recalcitrant child, which John figures he is.
It's about half an hour later when John's eating a Hostess cupcake, moaning around the fake chocolate which is finally masking the powdery, chalky taste of the glucose tablets, that his desk phone rings. John stares at it for a little bit before he checks the clock, which reads 10:35 PM. He narrows his eyes and picks it up carefully, because there are only three people who would be calling this late and John has a sinking sensation it's going to be Rodney, shouting:
"You stole my car! You stole my car and you took my favorite t-shirt and you stole my car!"
John can't help but smile. He leans back in his desk chair, leather squeaking under his weight. "It's not a very nice car, Rodney."
"You stole my car! You also stole my t-shirt!"
"Does it really count as stealing if I left you a note saying I'd bring them back?" John muses out loud.
"And then you left me a rude message!"
"Your t-shirt is lame," John deadpans, palming the chest and feeling the faded crackle of the printing against the worn-soft cotton. It's a good feeling, like his high school football shirt, his college tees, which were totally sports unaffiliated. CalTech was the first place he'd ever been where his ability to factor in his head was cooler than catching a really long pass. John thinks he should go back sometime, get out of his own head. Fall asleep in the library some more.
"My t-shirt is not lame--look, that is not even the point," Rodney snaps. "Why did you steal my car and my shirt and leave me a rude message? Because for a whole forty minutes there I had a very sweet and bankable--oh, and I'd better still get the brownie points there for being a good significant other, you jackass, because I wasn't the one who kicked you out--moment with a capital 'M' between us there!"
John rolls his eyes. "Because, Rodney, I had just gotten a shot of insulin at the hospital and then I puked everything up at your house and figured I'd be safer going to work and getting my glucose pills than waiting for you to find me comatose on your bathroom floor."
Rodney makes a noise John's only ever heard in bovine being castrated.
"Firstly, you never said you were diabetic! You moron! And secondly: you imbecile!" Rodney yells. "I have a glucagon kit in every room of the house and I have six rooms!" There is a brief pause. "Are you okay?"
John blinks. "You're--?"
"I'm hypoglycemic," Rodney sniffs delicately.
John cocks his brow, because he's seen Rodney eat. "You are not."
"I most certainly am!" Rodney protests.
John smirks, turns around in his chair until he's watching the deep night inky across his window. He says, "Did you get those by prescription, or did you harass somebody into giving them to you--"
"I most certainly--!"
"--and if it's the latter have you checked the expiration dates?" John finishes innocently.
Rodney is quiet a very long time. "I'm a very important asset of the United States Military, John. They're not going to poison me and the only real difference between having a prescription and not having a prescription is that some doctors believe you and others don't and furthermore--"
"Furthermore," John cuts in gently, rubbing his palm against the flannel pajama pants Rodney lent him, which are loose and soft and hang low on his hips, "it's late, and I shouldn't have put you out of your bed, anyway. Thanks for the thought, and if I gave brownie points, you'd totally still have them."
John can hear Rodney turn red over the phone. For no good reason, it makes him smile.
"You still stole my car," Rodney says sulkily.
"And as an apology," John says, wondering why the hell he's even offering, "how about I pick you up and we get breakfast. My treat."
Rodney's silent for a really long time before he mutters, "I don't wanna seem easy or anything..."
John laughs. "Oh, trust me, Rodney. If there's anything you're not, it's easy."
"Hey," Rodney says feelingly.
About twenty minutes later, when John feels his body even out, breathing a sigh of relief at restored balance, he drives his own car back to his house. He smoothes one hand over the hood in the driveway: she's a totally delicious black Miata, low to the ground with curves the likes of which--well, if he keeps dating Rodney--he's never going to see live. He kicks off his shoes in the doorway and shuts the door behind him, wanders down the hall and into the second door on the right, collapses into his bed and sleeps, one hand clutched in the soft cotton hem of Rodney's t-shirt, and sleeps, dreamless.
He wakes up on Sunday morning feeling lazy and good, drowses in his bed for a few hours, reminding his pounding heart that it's Sunday, that it's over, that he's got nowhere to go, and when he sees Francesca, the peach of her skin and the parabola of rising flesh, budding in girlhood, John covers his face with a pillow.
The night of the accident, there'd been a tropical storm battering Texas, broiling the Gulf of Mexico. Its long, ghostly arms had reached out over the belly of Texas until it'd touched the highways leading into Lackland Air Force base and John had complained until his mother agreed to change the station from the local news, which was crackling and staticky, to the Beatles, who were also crackling and staticky, but at least they were singing Daytripper. The sky had been gray and thick and mean, like a schoolyard bully and when the thunder started to shake the ground and the car and rattle in John's head, he'd gotten quiet and the music had been drowned out by the howl of the wind outside.
"Be quiet and let me concentrate, okay, John?" his mother had said, even though John hadn't said a word. He'd nodded, and remembered staring at the side of her face, not exactly afraid, but tense, because he knew driving like this was hard.
His mother had gotten her license in California, when they'd finally lived in one place long enough for her to try, and John had learned surfing; these accomplishments were important to them, roads and the ocean, two things that seemed endless.
They had three feet of visibility in front of them with the highbeams and the wipers were useless. John's mother had squinted into the glass and huffed in irritation, and five miles out from Lackland she'd crawled to thirty miles an hour, then twenty-five, then twenty, and was too afraid to go any slower for the luminous circles of other highbeams around her.
John didn't know the math them, but John knows the math now, that when the other driver had swiped their car--and he'll never forget the feel of her hand on his shoulder, the weight of her arm on his chest--he had to have been going fast enough to propel them into the electrical post, to make them hit at thirty-five miles per hour so that his mother had died on impact.
Between the rain and the low visibility and electricity going down all over Texas and what with predating cellular phones, John had sat in the car with his mother for six hours before anybody came. She'd been still and cold and the blood on her face was a horrible, drying brown.
Later, people told him he was in shock, that the combined stress of the accident, the concussion, and his broken arm and leg and rib had all contributed to the moment he could swear she had moved, and that was why they zipped her into the black bag--rain still pouring down like a draining ocean--instead of putting her in the ambulance, despite John's half-hysterical screams when they'd started to drive him away.
John hasn't made it this far by killing himself over things he can't fix, so around ten thirty he gets out of bed, takes a long, hot shower, and changes into his most comfortable pair of jeans. They're worn white in the knee and the back of the thighs and frayed along the seams and John has had them since college, when he wore them with leather flip-flops and had a mullet and thank God--no inclination to be photographed.
He studies himself in front of the mirror for a second, pursing his lips at his flat stomach, the dark matt of hair across his chest, the paleness of his arms, and wonders what Rodney sees in him. John's no prize, but hell, John thinks with a grin, neither is Rodney.
John pulls on a gray FBI softball team t-shirt that says FEDERALISTS WILL UNIFY YOU HARD across the back and pockets his keys and wallet.
On the way to Rodney's crappy apartment, John stops off at the Trader Joe's and stocks up, more than a little depressed that he's got this whole pre, in medias, post case cycle that the forty-three year old divorced cashier in lane 3 seems to have memorized. She smirks at him and checks out his case of San Pellegrino and his Irish Oatmeal and his gluten-free dried pasta and says, "Good to see you again." John ducks his head in embarrassment and passes her his credit card. She grins at him in the way that all John's teachers in high school did: the way older women do at younger men on whom they have rueful crushes.
On the way out, he sees a display of orange juice and wonders if he should get juice or anything, but he figures that with the way that he's seen Rodney eat and huff when he walks fast, Rodney should probably cut down on the sugars, too.
Plus, there's that whole thing where Rodney's allergic to everything. As much as it'd be funny to see Rodney bitch and pick through everything John bought, John figures it's bad if he commits grand theft auto, burgles the guy, and tries to poison him in the same day.
It's a nice day in Colorado, with a great breeze and gorgeous scenery and the tourist wave has died down, climbed up into the mountain ski resorts and John grins, flicks on his Ray-bans and drives. John feels the sun warm and draping on his skin, the oxygen bubbling up into this throat. He feels light and free and brand new.
He drives too fast and the Miata corners like it's on rails and he doesn't think about Francesca or the dim shadow of his own face, pale and horrified and washed-out, reflected across the eleven o'clock news, Francesca's blood in his mouth.
Rodney's waiting in the parking lot--God, John thinks, how did this guy ever lose his virginity?--when John pulls up, and he scowls at the Miata for a whole thirty seconds before he climbs awkwardly into the passenger seat, snarling, "You're still stealing my car!"
"Good morning, sunshine," John says sweetly.
Snorting, Rodney mutters, "Yeah, whatever, and I'm amazed, you found the shiniest penis extension ever, Agent Sheppard. This car is just so you."
"Why, thank you, Rodney," John says amicably, puts his brick foot down on his willing accelerator, and the last thing he hears for a long time is Rodney shrieking in his right ear.
John's house is white clapboard, the kind of house that looks like it belongs in an East Coast vacation traps like Martha's Vineyard or Cape Cod, except for three things:
One, John's house is one story, with creaky plank flooring that Rodney studies, eyes skating past the braided rugs. The walls are a cracked eggshell color left over from the last owners, and it didn't clash with anything so John started hanging up his own collection of crap without any further prelude when he'd moved in six years ago. There are photographs of all the places he'd lived as a kid--and that alone sprawled through the house like a glossy series of vines,--paintings he'd gotten on the sides of highways during his college road trips, with brown and red and turquoise tempera colors outlining women with closed eyes, Johnny Cash posters, and old vinyl records in shiny black frames. There is, in the living room, a framed news clipping of his father, proud in his dress uniform. Rodney seems to take in all of this quietly, following John through the house with surprising meekness. John had totally expected mocking for the Cash poster, which would erupt into an argument over Rodney's taste in music, which, if his personality was any indication, was probably Bach and Alanis Morissette. To be honest, John hasn't completely dismissed this possibility, since Rodney, God bless him, was an ornery little bastard.
Two, John's house is much smaller, with only six large, airy rooms, furnished in a cluttered, junky way. He's not trendy (at least not on purpose) but his ex-girlfriends have traditionally treated his place like an interior decorating project, gushing about beautiful natural light and showing up on the weekends with new finds from the flea market that they put up. John got used to finding big mirrors where there hadn't been any before and quirky end-tables to stub his toes on. He's a mellow guy, though, so he got over the mirrors and he kind of likes the end-table, especially its beach-glass mosaic top, perfect for coasterless beer-placement.
And three, John's house is tricked out with an enormous plasma television, a designer sound system that had cost him an arm and a leg, satellite cable with about a billion channels, and a Playstation 2 with a small mountain of games piled around it, most of them involving flying stuff to kill aliens. John's not a subtle guy.
When Rodney gets to the kitchen with its pale red, Spanish-tiled walls, sits down at the kitchen table he says, "I hope you aren't planning on making anything with citrus in it."
John unpacks the Trader Joe bags into his fridge and smirks, saying, "I was thinking more like omelets, or does your majesty have an allergy to eggs, too?"
"Ha ha, very funny," Rodney says acidly, fidgeting in his seat so hard John's momentarily worried that his cheap, on-sale-at-the-Wicker-Store breakfast chair is going to break. "You don't see me making fun of your systemic disorder."
Rolling his eyes, John pulls a bowl out of the cabinets.
It's half an hour later, when Rodney is tucking into his green pepper, mushroom, and cheese omelet voraciously, like a starving man, that John clears his throat and figures it's about time to get some things out in the air between them. He's not really looking forward to Rodney's input but it seems kind of unavoidable. But he's a petty man, so John waits until Rodney's moaning around a particularly huge bite before he says solemnly:
Rodney eyes him and makes a noise that sounds kind of like, "Yes, what? Can't you see that I'm busy having a slightly creepy and all the same weirdly cute orgasm over your mediocre cooking?"
John rubs the back of his head. "So thanks. You know, for keeping my head out of the toilet and for letting me sleep at your house and lending me some clothes and stuff."
Rodney waves his free hand dismissively, stuffing more omelet in his face. John's a little amazed by Rodney's sheer pace. He's seen threshers consume less in more time.
"Just give me back my car and my t-shirt," Rodney mumbles around the food, and swallowing noisily, adds with an almost-affectionate tone, "I mean, come on, it's the least I can do for you."
Rodney's eyes are kind and it makes John blush.
"That's the other thing," John says, ranking this conversation in the top three most embarrassing he's ever had in his entire life, and that's including the time his father had explained the birds and the bees to him by using air craft carriers and F-16s as examples. "I've um."
"Just spit it out," Rodney says.
"Well," John finally decides, "I've never really been gay before."
In response, Rodney nearly chokes to death on the piece of toast he's trying to fit into his mouth.
First, Rodney says, "What do you mean you've 'never been gay before'?"
And then he yells, "That's absolutely preposterous! Have you seen your hair? Your clothes? For God sakes, your car?"
Finally, with his cheeks puffing out from toast that was still in his mouth--and wow, how attractive was that, John thinks depressingly, women never do that--Rodney insists, "Oh, and this house is super gay, too!"
John frowns. "Hey! My house is not gay."
Rodney swallows painfully and waves his hands. "Hello? Hello? Are we focusing on the most salient point here? Who cares if the house is gay. (The house is totally gay, by the way.) "
And John marvels that he can actually hear the parentheses in Rodney's voice for a whole minute before Rodney's babble registers as (a) highly defensive and (b) hurt. John opens his hands in a conciliatory gesture and says soothingly, "Hey, Rodney, I didn't mean--"
"What? To lead me on?" Rodney demands, righteously infuriated. He has a gleam in his eye that makes John worry that his car is going to be forced to suffer any number of nerd-retributory behaviors that he'd only entertained in passing while in college.
"Oh, no, you didn't at all, you just you know, ate the food I bought you in restaurants when we were ondates and drove me home and let my flesh touch your--" Rodney makes the finger quotes, which makes John want to hit him "--'heterosexual' flesh and oh, let's get into the fun relationship-y rollercoaster that was seeing your stupid, crushed up face on the news yesterday and calling around like some crazy person only to find out that you were still at work like an even crazier person and--"
John has plenty of experience with people who like the sound of their own voice, he grew up on Air Force bases and his dad eventually went to teach at the Air Force academy whereby he became a general instantly and got to listen to himself talk and give orders all damn day.
John also knows the only real way to stop somebody in the middle of a rant is by either making an even larger scene and leaving dramatically (John Sheppard ages birth through 19) or muffling the noise.
So he reaches across the breakfast table and slaps a hand over Rodney's very animated mouth and says in slow, clear words:
"What I was trying to tell you, and what you would have heard if you had put off your freaking out by like, twelve seconds, was that I was sorry I hadn't told you before--" Rodney scrabbles at John's hand frantically "--but note also that I did not in any way, shape, or form imply that I wanted to stop whatever-ing you."
John pulls his hand away and wipes it on his jeans. "Now, breathe," he instructs.
Rodney is red and off-put and confused, which is apparently an all new feeling for him or something because he snaps, "I--stop whatevering me?"
Leaning back in his chair, John squints his eyes. "I dunno, can this be called dating? Mostly we just insult each other over food you make fun of while you complain about your fake hypoglycemia."
"It's not fake!" Rodney argues.
John narrows his eyes. "Rodney, has a medical professional ever diagnosed you with hypoglycemia?"
"Doctors shouldn't even count as scientists and with my--"
"In fifth grade I was told I was peaky," Rodney says stubbornly, face flaming. "I was clearly told that it might be blood-sugar related."
John looks at him for a long time before he says, "Wow."
"Look, we've clearly gotten off track," Rodney says with a scowl. "My point was..." He trails off, looking distracted, and then furious when he jumps out with, "I don't even remember what my point was! Look at what you've done! I'm one of the greatest minds of this century and I can't even put a sentence together around you--what are you, contagious?"
"Yes," John deadpans. "And I think you were trying to talk about our relationship."
Rodney's face gets white and horrified and agonized.
"And I was also trying to tell you that despite all logical reasons," John says, feeling a little bit agonized himself, "I do like you."
Rodney blinks at him, and blurts out, "Why?"
John grins and slides Rodney the last slice of toast. "You know, I have no idea."
After breakfast, John goes to his room to change.
Rodney says, "Can I watch?" leering.
John narrows his eyes, stomps down the hall, and locks his bedroom door. He suddenly feels a weird kinship with women, because if men are all this bad, then he totally gets the bra burning and exhibition lesbianism.
He comes back down in black slacks and a blue shirt and a tie and doesn't look at Rodney's eyes, because John's in his armor again, and it feels weird for Rodney to see him all blocked into himself.
So he clears his throat and feels around for his keys and looks at everything and anything but Rodney, saying, "All right, let me just give you a lift over and get your car. I've got to--"
"Why are you dressed up? It's Sunday," Rodney interrupts, and John can hear Rodney's expression in his voice. It's sour and puckered and annoyed.
"We just closed a big case, Rodney, there's a bunch of follow-up we need to do," John says.
It's true, there is. His AD said he could take the weekend off, but John doesn't really need it. He has gotten a good night's rest and eaten breakfast and given himself a shot on time and all things considered, he is probably healthier at this exact moment than he's been in years and--
The problem with not looking Rodney in the eye is that John's not looking at Rodney at all, because every time John looks at Rodney John looks Rodney in the face, so John's caught completely off guard when Rodney puts his hands on John's wrists, and pushes him against a wall. When John looks up, feeling the soft palms of Rodney's hands hot and slightly damp on his skin, close enough to feel the way that his pulse is racing, he sees Rodney's eyes are just as blue as they've always been, electric and angry and worried sick.
"Rodney," John says.
Rodney frowns. "What are you doing?"
John's mouth is dry. Something is going to happen. "I'm--kind of standing here, Rodney."
"What are you doing?" Rodney asks again, and his voice is lower, his mouth suddenly tired and frowning, drawing down in one corner, sagging in worry. It's not really a very attractive look, and it makes something in John unhappy to see it.
"I'm just doing my job," John compromises.
When Rodney leans in, John has a single moment of fearfulness that fans out across his body, sends his heart into fits, because he's kissed Rodney before, but never with intent. It's always been something he does at the end of the evening, something he thinks about later, laying in his bed, staring at his ceiling, going, "What the fuck am I doing?"
But now, he feels like some stupid sixteen year old girl at her junior prom, in the backseat of somebody's car and John finally figures out what that whole mess about "consequences" and "wait" and "I'm not ready" is all about.
But Rodney's not the captain of the football team and John's not wearing a pink dress and they're both adults, so John thinks, "suck it up," and then Rodney's mouth is on his, angry and hard and a little mean, like he's yelling at John in a new way, since all the old ones don't really work. John feels his fingers loosen, curl up helplessly, the nails of his hands brushing the cradle of skin between Rodney's thumb and forefinger and he kisses back, because he doesn't know what else to do to make the desperate, worried noise in the back of Rodney's throat go away.
John wants to say, I'm fine, it's okay, but it's not true and Rodney's a genius, he'd figure it out, figure John out, like a thousand other complicated math problems.
So he says--in the way that he lets Rodney lick his mouth open, the way that he slips his tongue next to Rodney's, flicks it over Rodney's teeth and then bites down with his own, scraping against Rodney's lower lip, soft and flesh-sweet--sorry I'm making you worry, sorry I can't be better about this, smarter, like you, but this is what I do, and you have to respect that.
John's never known he could kiss in English, kiss in apologies, but apparently he can because Rodney lets go of his wrists and catches his hands on John's hips instead, pulling him closer, in a protective, needy way.
So John puts his hands on Rodney's cheeks and kisses his upper lip, his lower lip, and the corners of his mouth, saying in between them in hot, humid breaths, "It's fine, Rodney. It's really okay."
John's not sure if Rodney really believes him, because Rodney won't look at him all the way to the FBI office, but that afternoon, Rodney calls him and tells John that they're going to eat dinner at the hipster queer-identified vegan Buddhist place again since it's apparently their two month anniversary.
"Are we counting this from the day somebody tried to blow you up, or from the day I went to dinner with you the first time?" John asks, flipping through a few new case files that have made their way onto his desk: fraud, a rape, drugs.
"You're not keeping track?"
John rolls his eyes. "No, Rodney, see, when I was a fetus, testosterone flooded the embryo an--"
"I'd just like to say for the record," Rodney points out hotly, "I've never dated anybody this long without having any sex of any kind whatsoever."
John rolls his eyes. "That makes me feel real special, Rodney."
"I'm just pointing it out," Rodney argues.
"I'm going to point out that the restaurant owners aren't actually hipster queer-identified vegan Buddhists," John says tartly.
Carter's looking at him funny from the other side of the room, but from what John can tell, Carter's got this weird, incestuous fixation on his older sister, so John's not particularly worried about outing himself or anything. At least if he and Rodney mated, nobody would be born with club feet or webbed eyes or anything.
"Of course it's not," Rodney snaps. "They have meat and eggs and dairy on their menu. I'm just being an asshole."
John smiles, and it's genuine. He flips his pen between his fingers, and says, "I know."
The next day John goes to the office and has to be himself again, away from Rodney's distracting and weirdly endearing behavior, away from all the familiar corners of his house, where he feels safe and comfortable and where he can hear airplanes overhead when he wakes up in the morning--when he falls asleep at night.
And in the aftermath of everything, after the obsessive legwork and interrogations, the endless cups of coffee, come the confessions signed in shaky hands filled with gory details.
John stands behind a wall of one-way glass and watches Oliver Henry explain what he did dully, without any real remorse and without any pride. Oliver's probably a sociopath, doesn't know what he did, would do it again or maybe not, unpredictable, and not important; Oliver's going to die in jail, and if John was a betting man--and he is--it will not be from old age. Child molesters aren't particularly popular in prisons. People have always stratified themselves, making artificial differences, they might all be in maximum security, but fuckin'-A if they're going to be the sick cocksucker who dicks little boys and rapes little girls, that shit has the laundry-room lunge coming to him. And John thinks about all of this with a detached sort of acceptance.
Rodney calls, three times during lunch and two toward the end of the day, reminding John to eat and saying explicitly every time that he hit the wrong buttons on his phone and it's not like a world-renowned physicist had the petty time to waste worrying about FBI agents who can't get their own heads on right.
It had been so stupid and sweet in such a middle school way that John had said:
"Hey, Rodney, I Googled you, but, you know, nothing came up." John had squinted at his computer monitor, a blue DOS page from the FBI database about Oliver, an all new file for an all new predator and John is writing it because he knows the facts the best. "Unless of course, you starred in a few embarrassing adult videos involving wearing a kilt back in your wild college years," John had added innocently, staring at the blinking cursor, a rectangular block of white that flickered over the letter "d." At the end of the word "molested."
Rodney had snorted and hung up on him.
What John really wants to tell Rodney is that this, too, shall pass. That he's seen worse and that he will see worse and that after he left college and joined the bureau and saw the real world he learned that the universe was not the elegant symphony of numbers and jarring theory, moving in different time signatures, relativity and spacetime and shimmering, vibrating strings teasing out a wail as beautiful as that of a single, solo violin. John's heard the way that tremulous atoms turn into molecules which build into screams and crescendos and blood on John's hands.
John wants to say, don't worry--my heart's been broken all this time, and I've been fine.
John wants to get out of the office, get out of the depositions, get out of this town, and take Rodney down winding highways, till the sun gets hot and dry and the earth cracks like terra cotta, red like a naked blush along black marker-lines of asphalt. John wants to take Rodney to Barksdale in Louisiana, Cannon in New Mexico, where John kissed his first girl, Beale in California, where John had learned to surf. He wants to take Rodney to Seymour Johnson in North Carolina, where John had seen aerial stunts and loved them, spent the whole night not-crying, thinking how he'd never be in those planes, cutting through sky. John wants to take Rodney to Lackland and say, my mother died in a car accident, and I couldn't join the Air Force.
But instead, he sits with public prosecutors and a couple of long-suffering lawyers and they hack out all the details. Oliver will plead guilty, there will be no request for bail on recognizance, not that it would have been granted, they will not use the insanity defense, Oliver is ambivalent to his sentencing.
At the end of the day, John feels hollow and a little brittle, is off the hook until this all goes to trial, and he leaves the office at five past five and drives straight to Rodney's crappy apartment in his crappy neighborhood where out front of his building there a conspicuous absence of a crappy car. John smiles and parks his bureau-issued Ford, and sits and thinks for a long time before he realizes that he doesn't feel sixteen anymore, that he's still a little scared and a lot nervous, but that he might be sort of ready.
He looks at himself in the rear view mirror and tries the word out in his mouth: "Gay."
He stares a bit, at his face, his features, his hair, and smirks, puts the car in gear and drives home.
John was raised in hurricane country, where crackling radio was your only real alert to the sudden shift of moods and wind speed that turned a wicked storm into a tornado of rain. And John grew up watching them, and thinks that the same principle applies to Rodney: who has all the potential to explode, pour down on him, buffet John left and right, but just circles around, like the patient eye of a very large storm.
John doesn't want to be rushed, and doesn't really know what to do. But he knows that Rodney has very blue eyes, and a soft mouth, that Rodney's large hands feel good on his neck, his shoulders, the dip of his back when Rodney touches him and they kiss, hotter and slicker and more comfortably with every day.
John knows that this is going somewhere, he can see the writing on the Cartesian plane--and if Rodney wants slope then John is keeping a careful eye on rate, because Rodney can run as far as he wants, but John's going to walk at his own damn pace.
Two days later, Rodney will have an incredibly late night, and John's house is closer to Cheyenne than Rodney's apartment, so Rodney will stumble into John's foyer pissing and moaning about how he's underpaid for his unparalleled genius. John will humor him for all of three minutes before he shoves Rodney against a wall and kisses him silent and still and dewy, and then they'll go down the hall and Rodney will ask John, "Oh my God--are you sure? No, wait, I don't even care. Well, okay, yes I do. Are you sure?" at least twelve times. John says "Yes," with caveats, and Rodney says, "Okay. I accept these terms."
Rodney sleeps on his left side, and drools a little, snaps awake with the suddenness of an electrical spark, and John smirks when Rodney's first word is , "Cool."
And for a little while, they're good like that.
John, who grew up being taught always to open the door for ladies and never letting his date exit a car by herself, to eat pizza with a fork and knife, to keep a handkerchief, and curse by saying, "Well," is suddenly initiated into the wonderful world of Rodney McKay.
Rodney grew up in Toronto, is allergic to everything--which John figures is fair since everybody else seems allergic to Rodney--and has a disgusted running commentary for everything. John's even been to the harmless parts of Rodney's office now (read: the cold, sterile, little-bit terrifying gunmetal waiting tank where three Marines scowl at you from the door until McKay shows up--at which point they scowl at McKay).
"Wow, does this make this a real relationship?" John drawls, checking his mirror and changing lanes. He thought that drastically changing his sexual orientation would be filled with middle-aged trauma, since he's like, thirty-something and figuring out that maybe he likes tab A almost as much as slot B. Rodney has a very nice tab A, though John knows better than to compliment Rodney about anything at this point.
"You're very funny," Rodney sneers. "Did they give you that sense of humor along with a little pass that says, I'm vaguely homosexual and won't let anybody get into my pants?"
John snorts. "Well, if nothing else, your blunt-force approach to courtship seems to have busted the second part of that right out of the water."
Rodney smiles at him fondly. "It did, didn't it? Sometimes I'm just amazed by myself--"
"But I dunno, the more you talk, the more I feel like putting it back in," John interrupts tartly, taking a left onto a quiet street and then another to reach his own, where he'll park his car in his driveway and rub his hands into the cloth of his pants and try not to be nervous.
"You know, some of the scientists at work want to take photos of my nether regions," Rodney complains. "They're saying that my testicles are a yet unknown shade of blue, and that's a major discovery in particle physics. They say light just has never behaved this way before."
"Your life is so tragic, Rodney," John sympathizes.
As much as Rodney complains about how sexually constipated he is and how John is a dirty little cocktease, he never pushes when it's just the two of them together, hands and mouths and figuring out how this whole thing should work. Rodney just says things like, "Wow. You're even more revoltingly attractive than I initially thought," and looks depressed for a little bit before turning smug, and saying, "Wait until Kavanagh sees you. He'll be so jealous he'll spontaneously turn gay just to try and steal you."
Rodney complains all the way into the house, while he's taking off his shoes, as John's walking into the kitchen and passing Rodney a beer. John never kept beer in the house before Rodney started coming over here way more than whatevering qualified a need for, but John's surprisingly okay with that--he's okay with a lot of this stuff he didn't plan for.
He's even okay with it when Rodney kicks his feet up onto the coffee table and switches on the television to ESPN, where they're showing the National Spelling Bee. John makes popcorn and munches, drowsy and comfortable while Rodney heckles the children mercilessly.
They're down to the final round before John puts his head on Rodney's shoulder and closes his eyes, and just before he falls asleep, he feels Rodney's hand on his hair, and Rodney's mouth smiling against his temple.
About four months after that, Rodney says, "Speaking of work, there's something I want to talk to you about."
John ignores him because the stack of files on his kitchen table is about a mile high and the very, very last thing he needs right now is to listen to Rodney throw another temper tantrum about his coworkers, or wax poetic about somebody he seems to think was a dumb blond. John figures if Rodney says the words "Colonel Carter" at any point during this conversation, John will throw Rodney out of his house--along with the supply of lubes and condoms Rodney gave John for his birthday.
"Thanks," John had said, scowling.
Rodney had been bouncing enthusiastically. "But that's only the first half of the gift! The second is interactive."
"You know, I think I'm suddenly coming down with a headache," John had said, but then they'd had sex anyway, because John's a guy and he knows his own limitations.
"Look, this is important, so pay attention," Rodney snaps.
John highlights something in the file and says, "You have my complete and undivided attention."
Rodney huffs, snatches the file out of John's hand, and throws it across the kitchen, where it hits the wall with a gruesome, paper crackle and flops to the ground with a loud slap against the tiles. John stares at Rodney, the way his shoulders are tense and his eyes are bloodshot and the hard tilt his mouth is in; John puts down his highlighter.
"Okay, fine," he concedes.
"I'm going to--" Rodney cuts himself off. "There's a research project. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. It's in Antarctica."
After Rodney fucked him for the first time, Rodney told John about science, about how much he loved it. He talked about the art and artistry of science the same way the best teachers John had ever known talked about back in college, soaking in their numbers and theories. Rodney talked about getting a telescope and wanting to go and study every place he can see in the night sky and all the places he can't even imagine. He talked about wanting to go into space and how even though he hates every single person he has to work with he loves his work. He talked about how he's never been humbled before anything but science, and when he falls to his knees then, it's out of worship, awe, amazement at the possibilities.
And John had said, "I wanted to join the Air Force--my whole life." John talked about his father and how he'd flown fighter planes and then bossed John around a lot before going to teach at the Air Force Academy and dying of a heart attack a few years back. John talked about watching the planes on bases his whole life, about being allowed to peek into cockpits, about running his small fingers over the old consoles, before the Air Force had upgraded and all the controls had been mounted on stick control. John talked about building model planes when he was little and going up to his dad and saying he wanted to follow right in his father's footsteps. John talked about his dad, who was a frequently a hardass but hadn't had the heart to tell his stupid kid that he'd been medically disqualified from joining the Air Force since he was born. "I think," John had said, "I'd give anything to fly--give up anything."
But the point is, John knows, and if Rodney's asking permission, then he's had it, since day one.
So John puts a huge smile on his face and says, "Yeah?" and "That's fantastic!" and "I guess you can't tell me what you're doing, can you?" and "Look, that's great. I'll help you pack up. When are you headed out? Do you have somebody to look after your cat?"
Rodney looks like somebody hit him over the head with a baseball bat, and it takes a few stops and starts before he says, "Yeah," and "It's pretty exciting," and "Not really," and "Um. I don't really need all that much. My neighbor says she'll take Doug."
John's upbeat and excited for him and insists that they go eat at Over Easy, where they have a totally vegan breakfast at half past nine at night and Rodney tries to stump John at prime not prime and then they get bored with that and talk about what Rodney should bring as his one allowed personal object to Antarctica.
"It seems a little cruel you only get one," John muses.
Rodney waves his hand dismissively. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime, and besides, I see no reason to adhere to their Nazi policies. I'm a genius, I'll build extra, hidden pockets or something."
John smirks and drinks another glass of orange juice.
That night, John curls Rodney's hands over the backboard of his bed and murmurs into Rodney's collarbone, "Don't let go." Rodney makes a strangled noise that probably means yes, so John pushes Rodney's knees to his chest, pushes them together, and kisses Rodney hard as they rock at one another, like slow sailboats, lazy and languorous and hot, skin flushed and red. Rodney comes first, with a low, shaking gasp, his whole body stiff for a moment before melting into the mattress beneath him.
When John comes, he buries his face in Rodney's neck and Rodney takes his hands off the headboard wraps them around John's shoulders, saying, "Oh, God, oh God--I'm sorry. You don't have to wait for me. Please don't wait for me. I'm so sorry."
Rodney leaves for Antarctica on the first day of winter, and John spends the rest of that week sorting out Rodney's stuff from his own, tossing it all in a box and then putting it in his attic in a spot right above his bed. He thinks, out of sight, out of mind--but at night, when he can't sleep because he keeps seeing Francesca's body or his mother's face, he stares at his ceiling and thinks about Rodney's toothbrush, his pendulum, his collector's edition copy of the Evil Dead.
John thinks, I never should have let him take me to dinner. John thinks, What a bastard, I could do better! John thinks, I was heterosexual before him!
But hindsight is, at best, only twenty/twenty, and when John sees Rodney, he sees Rodney bitching and moaning and being brilliant in Antarctica, and the distance smoothes all of Rodney's rough edges away until all John can do is sigh, roll out of bed, and go back to work.
On the upside, his solve rate's never been higher.
Every few days there's a letter in John's mailbox in Rodney's distracted handwriting, and he reads it, smirking. Rodney has a tendency to start sentences and drift off, going into some bizarre tangent, so the first and second parts of the sentence will be grammatically correct independent of one another, but completely wrong when locked together as dependent clauses. John reads them and puts them in a basket he bought and put next to his kitchen phone. He hasn't got a filing system, he's not clutching them as he sleeps, but he does reread, because Rodney commits the most horrible character defamation and never fails to make John laugh.
Eventually though, the letters get scarcer until they stop altogether, and John looks at the basket on his kitchen counter ruefully, spilling over with now-dusty paper, and gets on with his life.
If Rodney has any luck, Col. Carter has finally learned to appreciate his advances--or given him a severe head wound. John, who spends a few days sullen and prickly and checking his mail too frequently, is rooting for the latter.
And with Rodney gone John falls into his old patterns again, of fourteen hour workdays because nobody is going to call him at three minute intervals if he's ten minutes late. He solves a lot of cases and agonizes over the ones who get away, and he and Carter spend a lot of time in a bar near their office carefully talking about anything but their respective, fucked-up relationships.
John still watches helicopters, watches planes, reaches his hand out of his car window when he's driving home late at night and early in the morning and feels the wind on his skin and thinks that it must be like that, wrapped around his body like a cold, moving cloud, to fly.
Three months after, John knocks a can of organic fava beans into a very pretty girl's face at the supermarket, and spends about half an hour apologizing. Somehow, she finds him funny and charming and sticks out her hand, saying, "My name's Sarah."
Sarah is twenty-seven and a graphic designer. She thinks John's hair is hilarious and John learns a lot about art in a totally non-intimidating way, listening to her talk about it over dinner at Windows NT, ignoring the way that the manager comes out onto the floor at one point during the night and stares at John disapprovingly. She flips her hair and doesn't like gum and grew up in South Carolina, so she and John talk about hurricanes all through their entrees.
"I had a really good time," Sarah says, when John drives her to her house.
"Yeah," he says, half-surprised himself. "I did, too."
She grins, and kisses the corner of his mouth before she gets out of the car, winking.
"Let me make you dinner sometime," she says.
John blinks at her. "I'm diabetic," he warns, and feels a twinge in his stomach, like somehow, somewhere, Rodney McKay is locking a large, nuclear warhead onto poor Sarah.
She winks, all bright and full of possibility and says, "I'll get a new cookbook. Good night, John."
It turns out that relationships with women can be just as uncomplicated as relationships with men, and two months into dating Sarah, John almost forgets that Rodney's stuff is in his attic. He's cutting back his hours at work again, throwing a box of condoms in with the rest of his purchases during drug-store runs, buying Sarah funny things he sees in the checkout aisle he thinks she'd like: mechanical crayons, markers that smell like flowers. It's easy to be with her, to not think about Rodney and Antarctica and being second best.
In the letters Rodney wrote, he never talked about anybody else in a romantic context, didn't mention pining for Col. Carter, and filled up all the pages with mindless, banal jabber that barely even got censored. He was offensive and funny and very much himself. When John wrote back, he slipped in the latest world news, talked about the latest bizarre crimes that shored up on his desk, about football just to be obnoxious, and all the food he got to eat that Rodney didn't. The last part was a little futile, because even though John had constant access to Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Mars Bars and Snickers, he wasn't a big fan of the diabetic coma.
In the last letter that John ever wrote into the yawning, stretching void of silence that had built between them, he hadn't written about Sarah and Rodney never wrote back, so after a while, John tells Sarah to just leave a toothbrush at John's house, to stay the weekend. Because this slow separation from Rodney is leaving him drained and it's selfish but he wants Sarah to fill in all the spaces she can.
She's happy to do it, and John finds he is happy, period.
The problem is that the relationship never really goes anywhere, John might be happy with the status quo but he figures in one way or another he's kind of biding his time, which is a totally asshole thing to do. Sarah's nice enough but she hates his hours, and doesn't want to talk about his work, which is fine, but it's hard not to come home all fucked up sometimes, and John doesn't get why Sarah doesn't get that.
By Christmas of the next year John finds himself in a really mean screaming match, the kind that he was always afraid to have with her, in his living room. She wants him to go home with her, John doesn't think it's such a good idea. He has all these reasons, but a lot of them involve explaining Rodney's Evil Dead fixation, and he just doesn't want to make this any worse than it already is.
She's waving her hands and yelling, frustrated from a mountain of things and John's not doing much better when suddenly Rodney's in his God damn living room, looking pudgier than John remembers with a wicked scowl on his face, fingers tight on the strap of a battered duffle bag.
"Who the fuck are you?" Rodney shouts at Sarah.
Rodney looks at John in revulsion. "Oh! Oh! That's very nice! I leave for ten months and you backtrack into heterosexuality!" Rodney throws a duffle bag on the ground and stalks into the kitchen throwing over his shoulder, "Would you two please finish breaking up so I can go to sleep? The plane was awful and I never want to see snow again for the rest of my life. Also, John Franklin Sheppard if anything happened to my Evil Dead DVD!"
Sarah and John stare after Rodney for a long minute before they turn back to each other.
"You!" Sarah yells.
"Wait!" John argues.
"I knew it!" she shouts. "I totally knew it!"
John stares at her, perplexed. "Knew what?" Oh my God, he thinks, Rodney's in the kitchen. Rodney's inhis kitchen and not Antarctica and how did that happen?
Sarah is starting to cry, her eyes getting red and huge and watery, cheeks pinched and unhappy, mottled and when Rodney stalks back out of the kitchen, he looks the same way, pinched and miserable and betrayed and he is shaking a cookbook in fury.
"What the hell is this?" Rodney yells, and John finally sees that it's the Cooking with Diabetes book that Sarah bought and started leaving at his house.
"Hey! That's mine!" Sarah yells.
John just has absolutely no idea what the fuck he's supposed to do here. This is why people tell you not to be gay, he thinks depressively, you take one brief detour into homosexuality, and then people go to Antarctica and come back to ruin your attempts at having a real life. Fuck.
"I'm not talking to you, you hussy!" Rodney snaps, scowling at Sarah before he turns back to glare at John. "You keep my letters in the kitchen?" Rodney yells. "Hello, night table? Under your pillow?"
Sarah covers her face and wails, "Oh my God, he's the guy who used to write to you?"
Rodney's eyes go huge and round and angry. "What do you mean, 'that guy'? I was 'that guy' a million years before he even knew you were--"
"Oh, please!" Sarah shrieks. "Don't kid yourself that John and I have been playing Monopoly or something--"
John rubs at his temples and yells, "Shut the fuck up!"
Amazingly, Rodney and Sarah do, just wheel around to stare at him dolefully.
John points at Sarah first. He says, "Firstly, whatever you 'knew'? You're wrong, I wasn't doing anything and if you really think about it, hello, letters--postmarked McMurdo which is in Antarctica so yeah, thanks for the accusation of long-distance infidelity."
John points at Rodney next. He says, "Secondly, you are supposed to be in God damn Antarctica, and I'm not in any mood to deal with your little insecurity hissy-fit because even if you don't remember our little conversation I do and the point about testosterone flooding the womb still stands so no, the letters are not under my pillow."
He narrows his eyes at both of them and says, "Okay. Now you two may speak."
They stare at him for a second.
Sarah shrieks, "It's over!"
Rodney yells, "Where's my stuff?"
John covers his face and sits down on the couch. He moans, "I give up."
It takes about twelve seconds for Rodney to go up into John's attic and find his stuff, during which time Sarah runs around the house grabbing all her personal belongings and stuffing them in grocery bags, tears running down her face. Rodney yells about how could John have put his things up in the attic and Sarah yells that she hates John and that she wants her CDs back.
Then, Rodney comes down from the attic covered in dust, hauling his box, still furious and yelling, calling Sarah a homewrecker down the hall where Sarah is pulling her clothes out of John's closet, shouting that Rodney's a whore.
John just sits on the living room couch and stares out his window, because seriously, what the fuck is he supposed to do in this kind of situation? This isn't anything they covered in sex-ed.
Finally, Sarah stomps back into the living room, her face gray and tired with runny mascara and John feels like total shit, stumbles up from his seat on the couch and reaches out to her, grabs her arm with his hand, feels the delicate curve of her elbow.
"Sarah, wait," he says, though he has no idea what she's waiting for.
But the thing is, John's kissed the skin on the inside of the elbow he's holding, touched the bumps of her collarbones, smiled at her first thing in the morning. He doesn't want her to leave like this. He wants to tell her it wasn't like that, but hell, John's not even sure it wasn't, and he can't lie to her face. She stares at him, all open and bleeding for a while before she shoves him away, says, "Forget it. Keep the God damn cookbook." And then the door's slamming.
John's going to feel really awful about this in the morning, but at the moment, he's mostly numb.
Rodney's staring at him from the corner, with a naked and horrible look on his face for a really long minute before he turns back to his box, to his things that John put away, touching them as little as possible, dragging around his own damn house like his hamster just died. And maybe it's kind of like that, because Rodney had burst into John's life, impolite, unyielding, surprising and surprisingly beautiful, kinetic like the shivering electrical orchestra of a storm, and suddenly he'd gone and John had stared up at clear blue skies and icy sun and felt alone.
So John is standing in his living room, wordless, watching Hurricane Rodney limp back into his life, with a weird tension in his shoulders and a tightness around his eyes and a grayer shadow to his irises than John remembers from before.
Rodney pulls out his toothbrush, his SPF 100 sunscreen, his copy of The Elegant Universe he kept to ridicule, his collector's edition DVD of the Evil Dead, his Gameboy, three bottles of expired allergy pills and sets them on the floor of John's living room, cards, shoes, some socks, a pair of boxers and a few t-shirts, all neatly folded. John kept everything, even if he couldn't look at it. Rodney's hands are shaking and his heart looks broken, kneeling there on John's living room floor in the sudden, artificial quiet after a fight.
John takes a few steps over to him and says, "I--when did you get back?"
Rodney stares at the box, at the TI-89+ calculator at the bottom of it. He touches a copy of Football for Dummies that John bought him from the bargain bin of a local bookstore.
"I didn't mean to. Sorry about. You don't have to break up with your girlfriend," Rodney finally blurts out, looking up at John with pleading eyes.
John manages to keep his composure for all of a minute before he doubles over laughing, fighting hard for oxygen and losing, until he's sitting on the ground, gasping for air while saying, "Are you fucking with me?"
Rodney looks hurt. "I'm--I'm telling the truth! Stop laughing!"
John's just keeping himself from pounding on the ground.
"You bust into my house, you start shouting at her that she's a homewrecker, you all but throw her out--ofcourse I don't have to break up with her, Rodney, you did it for me," John says, laughing hoarsely, hysterically, because what the fuck? Seriously, what the fuck? Carter and his weird sister-fixation isn't even this fucked up.
"Well excuse me very much, Special Agent John Franklin Sheppard," Rodney snaps, using John's full title like a shield, like he's always done, "because I for one spent ten really crappy months not sleeping and thinking about you and hoping you had ignored me but also hoping you hadn't so fuck you very much! I'm not very good at keeping promises but I tried really hard this time around!"
John catches his breath, and looking at Rodney, he thinks, hey, what happened? John scoots forward, and when he puts his hand on Rodney's arm, he thinks he sees Rodney's whole body go boneless, fall forward, and John pulls Rodney in, murmuring stuff that means absolutely nothing, petting Rodney's hair, letting Rodney wrap his arms around John's waist, until they're all tangled together on the living room floor.
"Hey, I grade for effort, okay?" John says quietly.
"Then I get an A plus," Rodney insists, muffled in John's stomach, against the black t-shirt cotton, all washed-soft. It was Rodney's favorite shirt, he’d always liked to run his hands down John's sides when John wore it, like Rodney was petting his most favorite cat.
"Then you get an A plus," John says indulgently. He strokes the back of Rodney's neck for a bit before he says gently, "What happened, Rodney?"
Rodney's quiet, fitful, and then he says, in one long, breath, "It didn't work. We--we were traveling, through space and through galaxies and we got to this place and it wouldn't turn on. None of the lights would work, the whole city--this whole city--was at our fingertips and it was just dead and dark and miserable, like a skeleton or a hollow shell or something somebody throws away when it's no use anymore. I tried everything. I jacked every energy source we had, I did everything I could, but it didn't do anything. Nothing would come on. There wasn't any art, there weren't any relics. There was nothing at all. We stayed there for a while until we started running low on food. And so Elizabeth--that's my boss, sort of, she's okay--then Elizabeth says, We did good, guys, and made me hook up sixteen naquadah generators and do something totally impossible according to the normal laws of physics and we came back to fucking Earth all empty handed and miserable and disappointed and I've never fucked up this badly before and itsucks."
John stares at the tense line of Rodney's back and says finally, "That is a crappy day."
Rodney looks up at him, bewildered.
"That is a totally crappy day," John says again, smiling gently. "That sounds like probably one of the crappiest days ever. Bad commute, crummy lunch, just all around awful, backwards waste of time if you ask me. And," he goes on, "if you ask me, what you need is a good night's sleep and a good breakfast and it'll be fine tomorrow."
"Are you insane?" Rodney demands.
"No," John says blithely. He hauls Rodney up and starts pushing him down the hall.
"I--you--all of that was top secret!" Rodney says. "We went to an alien world!"
"So the ride must have been a bitch," John sympathizes, and sits Rodney down on the foot of his bed, unzipping whatever the hell it is that Rodney's wearing. It's gray and has blue panels and would probably be hot on Rodney if it wasn't so wrinkled. "Here, help me out here," John says.
So Rodney helps John help him undress, until he's down to his undershirt and a pair of gray boxers, and John's pulling the blankets around him. John thinks, this must be some kind of payback, but mostly he just watches Rodney watch him as John sheds his zip-up hoodie, his black t-shirt, his jeans, and crawls in next to Rodney, puts a hand on Rodney's neck.
Rodney says, annoyed, "You're taking this entirely too well."
"It helps that I think you're nuts," John says kindly. "Go to sleep."
And John closes his eyes, listening to Rodney's even breathing for a while before Rodney jerks, and says, "Wait a minute--did you and that gutterslut have sex in this bed?"
John groans. "Are you joking?"
"Have you changed the sheets? Bleached or purchased a new mattress since?" Rodney demands.
They end up sleeping on the pull-out couch in the living room. John makes Rodney stay on the side where all the coils dig into your back as punishment for being totally fucking insane, and they fall asleep to the multicolored lights of John's Christmas tree. The room is small and warm, with flickering red and blue and orange lights burning against the darkness and staining the comforter Rodney had dug out of the linen closet in watery, diffuse shades.
Rodney throws his leg over John's hip and John strokes one soothing hand over Rodney's stomach as they curl around one another.
"I am sorry," Rodney says, drowsy. "I really didn't think I was coming back."
"I know," John murmurs, and just before he drifts off, he adds, "I'm still going to scream at you tomorrow morning."
Rodney says, "Figures," and they sleep.
John yells at Rodney for exactly twenty minutes the next morning for being an asshole and disappearing and for going on suicide missions and not calling before he showed up. Rodney fakes contrition and says, "You should buy new sheets." At that point, John gives up and boxes up the last of Sarah's stuff and drives it to her apartment. She weeps at him for a little and hugs him and tells him she understands, that he was in a difficult position, too. She says that she's glad they're not seeing one another again and then she slaps him, "You know, just to get it out of my system," she promises. John rubs his face and leaves, bewildered.
It's December twentieth and all the shopping malls are total hell but John ventures out anyway. He's a little apprehensive, leaving Rodney to his own devices in John's house, but hell, maybe when John comes back all the lights will be wired to respond to mind-control, so who knows.
John buys a lot of food and a six-pack of good, Canadian beer and the lady at the Trader Joe's smirks at him and says, "Oh, your friend is back." John wants to ask her how women do that, but he's kind of afraid of the answer so he just grimaces and leaves, stops off at the Best Buy to pick up a few DVDs that Rodney's missed during his trip to Antarctica and drives back home to find Rodney moving himself into John's house, forcefully making room in John's closet for ratty jean jackets and sweatshirts.
"You seem to be forgetting that I haven't said you could live here," John says from his bedroom doorway.
Rodney rolls his eyes. "Don't be stupid." He points at a box and snaps his fingers. "Pass me those, will you?"
John doesn't move. He does say, "You can't gloss over everything, Rodney."
When Rodney turns around to look at him, Rodney's eyes are blue and gray and very deep, like parts of the ocean John has seen that look like melted steel, with whitecaps rolling lazily over the shaky surface between air and sea.
"I asked," Rodney says, quickly and precisely. "I asked before I left if I could take you as my one personal object--I asked them from the moment they started to talk about the project and I asked everybody and examined every single loophole. And then when they said no with great finality I thought about not going and I was pissed at you."
John frowns. "Pissed at--?"
"It's a really weird feeling, okay?" Rodney says. "It's weird and it's terrifying to be insulated your whole life and suddenly have somebody that makes you want to do things that will make you less happy if it will make them more happy. These are very strange concepts to me and it was a brave new world I was coming to. If you'd said not to go, I don't know what I would have done," Rodney says awkwardly. "And I don't know if you're looking for a big romantic confession--which you're totally not getting--or if you want me just to be honest with you but I can tell you and be totally truthful that I stayed up nights for two weeks before I told you about Antarctica killing myself over what I'd do if you'd looked at me and asked me not to go."
Shaking his head, John says, "I never would have--I couldn't ask you something like that."
Rodney looks like he's drowning. "I know," he says softly. "I knew that, and I figure that's about the same time I figured out that I'm in love with you."
John says, "Oh."
Rodney tilts his chin up, proud and scared and blustery. "Yeah."
John smiles--and passes Rodney his box.
On Christmas Day, Rodney bounces John awake at ten thirty in the morning.
"Ow!" John complains and shoves Rodney off. "What the hell do you want?"
"Good morning to you, too," Rodney says affectionately. John regrets ever letting him have his stupid box. If that's all it took to unleash peppy, even more easily excitable Rodney, then John should have kept his own damn closet space.
John covers his face with a pillow and mumbles into it.
"Get up!" Rodney says, pulling the pillow away. "Come on! Get up! I've got something to show you."
"Rodney, it's early. I'm tired. You're a very whiny person and you take forever to--"
"Hey," Rodney says warningly. "Last night was the culmination of a year's worth of not getting laid and no judgment should be passed upon it. Now--get up!"
Rodney hauls him out of bed, forces him to dress, and harasses John until he admits that he put snow-tires on the pick-up he has in the garage and they drive out to an aircraft hangar. John is, despite the very cute way that Rodney is all flushed with excitement, seriously considering killing him. He misses the turn three times and almost crashes them into a minivan trying to change lanes, which is also Rodney's fault because he kept John up all night the night before and keeps making distracting, high-pitched noises from the passenger seat now.
"Rodney, I swear to God," John says, yawning and tumbling out of the driver's seat once they park, and Rodney is still bouncing up and down, clutching something in his hands.
"Okay, yes, threats, complaints, etc. etc.," Rodney glosses, and his smile ratchets up three hundred percent before he says, "Catch."
John reaches up automatically, to grab the gunmetal blur out of the sky and when he looks into his hands he sees a set of keys. John stares at them for a little bit before he scowls up at Rodney, "You bought me acar? Look, Rodney, I'm not your kept woman or anything."
Rodney rolls his eyes and says, "Oh my God, you're totally retarded," before trotting over to one of the hangars, keying in a security code, and watching in satisfaction as the doors rolled open, from cloaking darkness to coy shadows to--
To the slick, sleek lines of a Socata TBM 700, the Porsche 911 Turbo of the sky.
It's beautiful and seats four and has a smooth, tapering design with dark elements that John knows with great familiarity since it's his screensaver at work. He's only ever seen pictures of it, shot against a stunning background of red earth and blue sky and he's never been this close to it before. His mouth must be hanging open but he can't seem to shut it, and when he finally gets his jaw working he yells:
"You bought me a plane?"
Rodney opens his arms. "Surprise! I asked around! Somebody said this one was nice--I mean, it didn't have the integrated parachute system but I figure I can build that and soup it up with a few nicely illegal naquadah generators and install some inertial dampening so--"
"You bought me a plane?"
John's afraid to go up to it. He's got this weird, queasy feeling that it'll just disappear.
"Yes," Rodney says smugly, "and it holds world records for the fastest single-engine transatlantic and around-the-world flights and--"
"And it cruises at 345 mph at 26,000 feet. It has a Pratt & Whitney PT6 engine and a range of 2,000 miles and a ceiling of 31,000 feet," John snaps. "And while we're quoting from the webpage, this plane costs 2.5 million dollars, Rodney!"
Rodney looks at him cloyingly. "What's a little frivolous spending between us, eh?"
John waves his hands in the air, schools his expression, resists the urge to shove Rodney out of the way and leap onto the plane, rub himself all over it. He says, "Look, I--okay, obviously, I love it, but the point is that it's 2.5 million dollars, and there's no way I could keep it so just ask the nice men for your kidney and lung back and you can buy me a book, okay?"
Rolling his eyes, Rodney walks toward the plane, saying, "John, I'm a Defense Department contractor--several large, private firms and the US Government got into a bidding war when I said that I'd be willing to leave my tenure-track position at CalTech. Seriously, this is pocket change, all right? I could buy you a fleet of these if you'd--"
Rodney never gets to finish his sentence because John's tackling him to the ground, laughing and saying, "Oh my God! You bought me a plane! I love you! It's a Socata!"
And then John's picking himself up off of the cold, concrete floor of the hangar and scrambling into the cockpit of the TBM700, fumbling with keys and turning non-essential systems on and he can hear Rodney shouting about his permanent spinal cord injury in the background.
But the interior of the plane is beautiful, all leather and polished wood, gleaming and inviting like its been waiting for John since it rolled off the production line--since the frame was first built. John rubs his hands together and strokes it over the control panel and touches the stick and puts his thumb on the windshield glass and cannot wipe the big stupid smile off of his face, especially when he sees Rodney struggling to get to his feet and shaking his fist at John, yelling something that's probably really mean.
Eventually, Rodney manages to get up to the plane bitching with every single step about his new bruises and filing domestic violence papers but he only gets so far as seeing the look on John's face before he gets all silent and shy.
"Thank you," John says, and his voice feels rough and new. "Just--thanks."
Rodney doesn't say anything, just puts his hand on the back of John's neck, and they sit like that for a while until John digs out the pilot's manual and Rodney starts rooting around in back of the plane, complaining about second-class safety measures and not being able to break Mach 1.
There's this whole long ordeal during which John renews his pilot's license and Rodney spends a lot of time yelling at people at work for not having the proper genetic composition for making dead cities glow. John just takes all of this in stride, because he is fervently pretending that all of this is just military code for things that are not insane. Plus, he's distracted by his airplane (which he has named Loretta) so he just nods in what he hopes is a sympathetic way.
By the time spring rolls around, John's taken Loretta out for more than one joyride, and always comes back glassy and rumpled, like he's just had inappropriate relations with his airplane mid-flight. Rodney is starting to get suspicious but John doesn't really care. Sure, he likes Rodney but oh my God, Loretta.
Spring also means law enforcement softball league, and predictably, it's down to the S and FBI real quick--especially since dirty recruiting from the local police force has gotten increasingly popular since John moved to Colorado and pioneered the effort.
It's a beautiful day, sun streaming on green grass and a perfect breeze in the air. Wives and husbands and best friends have all turned out to the field and there're coolers scattered everywhere, hotdogs on portable grills--and Rodney, with his very own mask and air purifier and nasal spray, sneezing up a storm. It doesn't stop him from having like, four hotdogs and three sodas and tucking in an astounding amount of popcorn. All of the other FBI supporters are giving him a wide berth, and John would be embarrassed if it weren't so funny.
"You didn't have to come," John says.
Rodney sneezes violently. "Oh shut up. I refuse to be the bad boyfriend."
John takes a step away, wincing. "Oh, you're doing great," he mutters sarcastically.
The SBI Anti-Federalists are scattered around the field in their obnoxious red jerseys, and John grins, cracks his gum in the most obnoxious way possible. He hasn't been this happy to whip the SBI since his first year in the bureau, and part of it must be that he's showing off for Rodney, who doesn't particularly like softball but seems weirdly hypnotized when John gets sweaty.
"You're lucky the mascots aren't here this year," John says mildly. Rodney stares at him blankly.
"Last year," John adds, "the guys in the Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall costumes got into a huge fight and ripped up each other's wigs."
Rodney makes a horrible face. "What on Earth are you talking about? Are you suffering heatstroke?"
John smiles at Rodney tolerantly. "It's so cute that you think you're a genius, Rodney."
And as John strides away forward the field, sun fracturing overhead like a diamond, Rodney yells after him, "Hey! Hey! What the hell is that supposed to mean? Agent Sheppard you get back here immediately!"
When the leaves turn and Colorado hunkers down for another long chill, John has a sudden shock of amazement, and stops shoving wrinkled, brown leaves into a paper bag long enough to look at Rodney, who is cussing at John's leafblower in the corner of the backyard. At some point, when John wasn't looking, all of these things happened and people bought airplanes and John signed some legal documents and Rodney yelled at him about the living will and now they're stuck with each other forever and ever.
John suffers a certain sense of vertigo and he sits down on the grass, stares up at the sky in sheer terror for a moment until Rodney stomps up to him, looks down in sweaty concern, and says, "What's wrong?"
"I think we might be married," John croaks.
Rodney rolls his eyes and starts stomping back toward the leaf blower. "I can't believe you only just figured this out. If you ever have a legitimate crisis, I promise I'll care, but for the moment, will you come exorcise this piece of crap?"
After a few more minutes of feeling shaky and sorry for himself, John gets up and kicks the leafblower until it starts working, which promptly blows about three pounds of dead yard waste up Rodney's sweatshirt, which is funny to a degree inversely proportional to how much Rodney must be scaring the neighbors with his filthy, filthy mouth.
"Are you sure we should be doing this?" Rodney says, his voice reedy and scared. "I mean, you've only had your pilot's license for almost no time at all and frankly, I think I'm getting a little altitude sick already and--!"
"Rodney, I've had my pilot's license since I was twenty," John says, flicking on his sunglasses and grinning. It took three months of careful planning, a whole bunch of lying, and a lot of oral sex, but Rodney is finally in John's plane.
Rodney braces himself in the passenger seat. "Oh my God, what was that? There was a thunk."
They're taxiing on the small, private air field and John has just a short trip planned, over Colorado, down the Rocky Mountains, so Rodney can see how amazing it is to be weightless.
"Well, Rodney," John says tolerantly, "I don't know about any thunk, but there's been this big metal flappy thing on the right wing that's been blowing around in the wind for a while--"
Rodney makes a hissing noise and pastes himself to his window, trying to see.
"--but I figure it's fine," John barely finishes, bursting into laughter.
"You are a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person!" Rodney is shouting, throwing himself back into his seat, tightening the seatbelt again with one free hand and fumbling for his pocket with another. "You're just crap all around! Oh God, I'm going to die. I'm going to die and I've never passed on my genes--the world will just be bereft and--"
John's about to come up with some snappy comeback about how Rodney can go perpetuate himself genetically as much as he wants but John's keeping the jewelry when he sees Rodney clutching a huge, ugly green brooch in his hands and muttering to himself.
"What the hell is that?" he asks.
"Eyes on the road, eyes on the road!" Rodney says, high-pitched.
"Oh, for," John says, and reaches over to snatch the damn thing out of Rodney's hands. He doesn’t know when Rodney started to believe in good luck charms and voodoo but damned if John's going to put up with such a lack of faith in his abilities to fly. His instructor had said he was a natural and Loretta loves him, anyway.
"Hey, that's very delicate equi--" Rodney starts and then stops abruptly.
John follows Rodney's huge, disbelieving gaze and sees the brooch glowing neon in his hands.
Several things happen very quickly afterward:
First, John yells, "Holy shit! What is this thing?"
And then Rodney yells, "Oh my God, we're going to die! Hit the brakes, hit the brakes!"
John drops the damn thing like a hot coal and it clunks down into the cabin of the plane, which makes Rodney squeak and dive for it and John jerk the plane around slowing their taxi until they're sitting in the grass, slowly powering down and John thinks, of course, of course this would happen if Rodney got in Loretta. They must be natural enemies, or something.
Finally, when everything stops moving and Rodney stops rooting around for his Gothic jewelry and John's sure that everything is fine, he says, "Rodney, are you okay?"
At which point Rodney sits back up again and shoves the brooch in his face, wraps John's hands around it and watches it glow again while John watches Rodney's face, which melts from shock to disbelief to awe to something like the way that Rodney watches him when he thinks John's not paying attention: like he's falling in love all over again.
"Rodney?" John asks carefully. "Rodney!"
"I knew it," Rodney says finally, grinning like a madman, his hair sticking up everywhere and his eyes feverish. "I knew I should have snuck you in for a quickie--I could have saved myself so much hassle."
John says, "Um."
Rodney says, "Get out. We're going to Cheyenne Mountain."
Years later, after many other attempts on Rodney's life which only come in part from his colleagues, John will still remember the steamy, suffocating heat of Colorado that day and how Rodney looked infuriated and annoyed sitting in the ambulance. He'll remember Rodney's crappy car and long for his Miata and give serious consideration to writing letters to Loretta, left in Carter's wardship nearly a decade ago now.
But mostly, he'll remember his first night here, listening to water lapping against the curves and edges of the city and how it felt when he stepped into a puddlejumper for the first time, like the world was rising to meet him--and then there's nothing but the sense memory of air, wrapped around his body like a cold, moving cloud and Rodney's face, shining like the Atlantean sun.