Rodney was as ready as he was ever going to be. He'd practiced over the short season break, long hours in the pool at the Y, sprints and distance and strength work – he knew he'd worked harder than anyone else, even though he was pretty much a shoo-in for the spot.
Rodney had been waiting two long years for Jimmy Barnes to graduate so he could quit doing the backstroke in the medley relay and do freestyle. He'd been working on his free for the last six months in practices, and he made Coach enter him in the short races along with Jimmy and Ronon and everyone except Aiden, who was pretty much exclusively a breast stroker.
He'd done well, too – not as well as Jimmy but better than Ronon, and that had made Coach look at him a little differently. Ronon was always going to be best at butterfly, Rodney thought, the shoulders and the long body meant he was going to kick everyone's asses until the end of time at that. But he'd never worked at freestyle, and there were some tricks to it that you needed to know – and Rodney was never telling.
He walked on deck, catching the eye of Aiden and Ronon and waving to them. They were standing with a new kid, someone he'd never seen before, some weird, lanky guy with dark spiky hair. Alarm bells went off in Rodney's head. He ignored them, putting on his best show face and heading over.
"Rodney," Aiden said, smiling his usual puppy dog smile, "this is John Sheppard. He's new in town."
Sheppard stuck his hand out amicably, and Rodney hesitantly took it. "Nice to meet you," Sheppard said, with a slow, smiling drawl. He kept shaking Rodney's hand, beyond the "three shakes and let go" rule Rodney always assumed was a given.
"Rodney's our backstroker," Aiden said, and Rodney glared at him.
"Awesome." Sheppard seemed impressed, still shaking Rodney's hand. "I suck at backstroke. That's why I can't do IMs."
"Pity," Rodney said, taking his hand back and crossing his arms across his chest. "I'm trying out for free on the medley relay."
"Oh." Sheppard glanced at Aiden a little uncomfortably. "Good luck."
"John's a freestyler, too," Ronon said, grinning down at Rodney. Rodney always had the feeling that Ronon was smiling at his discomfort. It'd taken a year to stop jumping when Ronon grinned toothily, and longer than that to believe he was actually a friend, beyond a teammate.
Teyla wandered over, another new kid in tow. "Hey guys," she said, looking Sheppard up and down. "This is Evan Lorne. He just moved here."
"Hey, me too," Sheppard said, holding out his hand to Lorne in a disgustingly friendly manner. "John Sheppard," he said, holding his hand out to Teyla when he was done.
"Nice to meet you," Teyla said, shaking his hand and extracting herself without half the trouble Rodney'd had. "I have to stretch before we get in the water, so I'll see you after."
"After?" Sheppard asked, looking around their little group. Rodney groaned internally. He'd never been popular, but when he made the medley relay A team, he'd been invited along to their post-practice pig-outs at the local Denny's. It had been a personal triumph. And now they were inviting Sheppard and Lorne without even having seen them in the water.
"Yeah," Ronon said, grinning. "We go to Denny's and eat our way through half the restaurant. I'm always starving after practice."
Rodney rolled his eyes and announced, "I'm going to go stretch with Teyla."
"Good idea," Sheppard said, and fell into step with him as he walked toward the mats. "I always do better if I'm loose before I start."
"Terrific," Rodney said, and plopped down next to Teyla on the mats.
Teyla was quiet, at least, and Sheppard seemed to get that you don't bother Teyla when she's concentrating, so there was blessed silence while they stretched out their hamstrings and backs. Teyla stood, pinwheeling her arms. "Rodney, would you?"
Rodney got up quicker than a shot and grabbed her arms, pulling them behind her until they looked like they were going to pop out of her sockets. "More?" he asked, because she hadn't said anything yet, and she usually either told him to stop or keep going.
"It's good right there," she said, sighing. Rodney blushed, because Teyla was the prettiest and most popular girl on the team, and for some reason, she liked Rodney. He'd never asked her out because he got the feeling he'd get the "just friends" speech, and hearing that from Teyla would probably kill him.
He glanced down at Sheppard, who was pulling his own arms across his chest, and he looked distinctly unhappy. "You okay, Sheppard?" Rodney asked. "No puking in the pool – I am not swimming in your vomit."
Sheppard grinned up at him uneasily. "Nope, no puking. Just nervous. Happens every time I join a new team."
"Have you moved around that much?" Teyla asked, turning her head to look at him. "Thank you, Rodney, that's enough," she added, sliding her long arms out of his hands. He'd loosened his grip on her – he couldn't remember doing that.
Sheppard nodded. "Usually I'm joining in the middle of a season, though, so it's even worse. At least this is the top of the season and everyone's getting a fresh start."
Coach walked in, hauling the white board behind him, and blew his whistle. "In the water! Get a start on your IMs."
Rodney heard Sheppard groan and gloated a little.
"How long?" Sheppard asked. There wasn't anything written on the board, but there never was – the individual medleys were done by age group.
"How old are you?" Rodney asked stupidly, because it was clear Sheppard was in his age group and should be doing a 400 IM.
"It's by age category," Rodney answered. "400 IM."
Sheppard grinned at him, hauling himself off the floor and saying, "Last one in's a rotten egg," as he took a running dive into the fast lane.
When Rodney turned to look at Teyla, she had one eyebrow raised at him. Then she took two steps and dove in herself, a smooth dive that caught her up to Sheppard in that one motion. Rodney stared at Sheppard a while, his flailing butterfly looking pretty awful, and walked to the end of the fast lane, where Ronon and Aiden were already 25 meters ahead of him. He dove in and started his butterfly, trying to pace himself to Ronon and failing miserably. He passed Sheppard and then Aiden – whose butterfly looked only marginally better than Sheppard's – and then stayed as close as he could to Ronon. If he stayed on Ronon's heels, he could get ahead of Ronon on the backstroke, and then the race was over. No one could catch Rodney on the back half of an IM if he'd gotten a lead on the backstroke.
He lapped Sheppard twice, once on backstroke and once on breast stroke, and the relief was palpable. In all the places Sheppard had trained before, no one had ever bothered to teach him how to swim decently. Rodney was still a shoo-in for the freestyle spot. He finished up his IM first, pulling himself out of the water to get out of the way and take a look at the rest of the swimmers. Ronon wasn't too far behind him, so he climbed out too, commenting on Evan's awful breast stroke form and Elizabeth's freestyle, which looked as elegant and perfect as ever.
Then Sheppard turned the corner, finally finishing breast stroke and starting in on freestyle, and they all turned to stare. Sheppard looked like an entirely different swimmer – he practically glided through the water, barely breaking the surface to breathe, and executing a perfect flip turn at the end of the pool.
Teyla had climbed out to stand with them and they all watched Sheppard complete the four lengths of freestyle in utter silence.
In the home stretch, Aiden let out a low whistle. "Sorry, Rodney," he said, and suddenly Rodney's season looked absolutely miserable – playing second fiddle to someone else again. There was zero chance that Rodney was going to get the freestyle spot on the relay. Sure, he was the best backstroker in the state, but backstroke wasn't freestyle, and if you weren't the best at freestyle, you weren't the best. It was a source of endless frustration.
The rest of the workout went fairly easily. It was written on the board and all the swimmers did it in their own strokes, so there wasn't much more racing to be had, much less talking or socializing. Rodney was thankful for that.
He was less thankful when they'd finished and Coach said, "Time for relays. We're going to do 50 free in heats; top boy and girl in the heat get to pick a relay team. All right, first heat."
They all milled around, waiting to see who was going to step up first – no one wanted to step up to the blocks just to have someone older and better step up at the last minute. Elizabeth finally stepped up, and Rodney groaned. No girl was going to go up against Elizabeth unless they were in the 8 and under age group, stupid, or so bad they'd never have a chance in hell of winning against anyone.
"You, Sheppard," Coach said. "Get up there." That was the final death knell – no one else was going to get up there unless Coach dragged them bodily. Eventually a couple of the younger kids and a few non-freestyle girls finally stepped up. That left one block, right next to Sheppard. Sheppard turned around to look at the guys, Rodney, Ronon, Aiden, Evan, Carson, Radek, and Chuck all standing in a tight knot together. He made a face at Rodney, one that looked like please don't make me swim against all girls and kids. Rodney was planning on waiting until Sheppard and Elizabeth were done – without them he could win against any of these jokers. Sheppard kept looking at him, though, giving him those pleading eyes, and finally Rodney rolled his eyes, sighed, and climbed onto the last block.
"Thank you," Sheppard whispered, and Rodney frowned sourly.
"You owe me."
"I'll pick you first," Sheppard said, and that was just enough to piss Rodney off. He'd practiced his ass off the last month, and Sheppard thought he was going to breeze in here and just blow Rodney away? Rodney'd see about that.
"All right," Coach said, picking up the whistle that hung around his neck. "Take your marks, get set…"
The whistle was right on time – Coach was remarkably predictable – and that meant Rodney and Elizabeth got off the blocks before Sheppard, soaring through the air in perfectly controlled shallow dives.
Rodney surfaced after a quarter-length. Elizabeth and Sheppard were both still underwater, but he didn't have the same body as them – too stocky to make good headway underwater. He needed to get his arms and legs moving.
He started up with a solid six-kick and stretched his arms as far as he could, making sure to get every inch of distance out of each stroke. He stayed ahead of Sheppard until the turn. He had no idea what happened; he was ahead of Sheppard going into the turn and then when he pushed off the wall, he could see Sheppard ahead of him in the next lane, still underwater.
Elizabeth was neck and neck with him, and Rodney wouldn't mind losing to her – she had the fastest 50 free in the state for a girl – but he was absolutely horrified to be behind Sheppard when he'd led for a whole length.
He kicked up his speed, sacrificing a little efficiency for a higher stroke-to-second ratio, but it didn't help – Sheppard gained and gained on him, and by the time he was halfway down the lane, Sheppard was nearly finished.
Disgusted, he flipped onto his back and leisurely backstroked the rest of the way in, feeling pissy. Elizabeth was grinning widely down a couple of lanes, and when Rodney finally hit the wall – coming in last, even behind Harmony and Wex – Sheppard was smiling down at him.
"That was a great first length," Sheppard said. "How do you get off the blocks so fast?"
"Out," Coach said, and the next heat stepped up. Ronon got on the blocks this time, and they went through the same hemming and hawing as the group of guys didn't want to go up against him. "What are you, afraid?" Coach asked, and finally Aiden stepped up.
It wasn't even a contest. Teyla and Ronon wiped the floor with everyone else, and Aiden finished nearly a half-length behind Ronon.
There were only two more races – and Rodney really should have figured that out, as there were only eight lanes, so there could only be eight teams. Chuck, Radek, and Evan all missed their chance to swim, and Jinto made captain of one of the teams by sheer luck of being the only boy that stepped up in a heat of girls.
"All right," Coach said, lining the captains up behind their blocks. The rest of the team was on the side of the pool, waiting to be picked. "Sheppard, your pick."
"Rodney," Sheppard said, grinning broadly. Rodney rolled his eyes but walked over to join Sheppard's team.
"I was going to pick you, too," Elizabeth said as he walked by, and then called, "Evan."
All the oldest boys and girls were picked first; they were lucky enough to get Amelia, the last of the top tier fifteen to eighteen-year-olds. After that, Sheppard tilted his head down to listen to Rodney's advice on which of the younger kids to pick. He went for kids that had endurance – most of the fourteen-and-under group hadn't yet learned how to sustain and it was too frustrating watching someone burst out of the gate only to lose steam and have to drag themselves to the finish line.
With himself, Sheppard, and Amelia, Rodney knew they were going to win. Unless something went really wrong, there was no way they could lose. There was one extra person, a seven-year-old girl named Henrietta, and Coach waved her over to join Sheppard's team. "Wait," Rodney said, dismayed, "are all the other teams going to have someone swim twice?"
"No," Coach said, grinning at Rodney evilly. "Your team has two choices. Either you or Sheppard swim one lap for all the other teams, or you just swim with twelve people and everyone else swims with eleven."
Rodney felt his eyes bug out. "Are you serious? A whole extra 50? How is that fair?"
"You and Sheppard can each swim for the other teams," Coach said. "And you get the two last laps for your team, so no cheating. If you don't swim fast enough for the other teams to get back for your lap, you forfeit."
"Oh, come on," Rodney said, but Sheppard elbowed him.
"I think we should swim with twelve," Sheppard said. "Assuming we've got the fastest in each age group, all you have to do is get me 22 seconds. If we can get that far ahead of the other teams, we can win."
Rodney gaped at Sheppard. "You cannot do 50 free in 22 seconds. That's practically the world record."
"I can," Sheppard said. "I've been hovering at 23 seconds for months – I can totally do it in a race."
Rodney quickly calculated how many seconds they could gain – it depended on what order the other teams swam in, but it was possible. "Are you sure?"
Sheppard nodded his head madly. "I can do it."
Rodney sighed. "All right," he told Coach. "We'll swim with twelve."
They were given five minutes to sort out the order – Sheppard didn't even say anything, just let Rodney handle that part. He decided to swim first, put Sheppard on anchor, and Amelia second to give them a solid lead that would keep the youngsters from getting nervous. After that, he alternated slowest with fastest, hoping to catch up time in between, or at least confuse the heck out of their teammates.
After the order was decided, Rodney gave a quick lecture on proper technique, hoping maybe he could gain them a few seconds by getting Harmony to cup her hands and Sora to extend her reach.
Coach blew the whistle and the teams lined up in order behind the blocks. Rodney climbed on, looking down the line at who he'd be swimming against. Evan, Laura, Aiden, Jinto, Chuck, Carson, and Dusty. He didn't know how Evan swam yet, but Carson would likely be his toughest competition, and Rodney knew he could beat Carson by at least a half-length. If he really turned it on, maybe three-quarters.
Another whistle had Rodney stepping forward, gripping the block with his toes and leaning down to grab the front of the block with his hand. "On your mark," Coach said, "get set…"
The whistle was right on time and Rodney was off the blocks way ahead of everyone else, already hitting the water before Evan was even in the air. He swam so fast he could feel his heart pounding in his ears, above the rush of the water. When he did his flip turn, he could clearly see Evan was already more than a quarter-length behind him. He pushed harder, kicking with all his might. He swam right into the end of the lane, not slowing at all, and slapped in hard. The Y didn't have electronic timers, but it was best to keep up good habits. He pulled his legs in and looked up to see Amelia had gotten a perfect start.
Sheppard put down a hand and hauled Rodney out of the water. "That looked great," he said. "I could teach you a trick on your flip, though…" He glanced at Rodney sidelong. "If you'll teach me how you get off the blocks so fast."
Rodney wanted to balk, his flip turns were impeccable – he'd spent hours practicing – but it was obvious Sheppard was going to be on the A relay teams and it was best to teach him everything Rodney knew for the benefit of the team. It was the first time he'd really seen it that way – and that made him feel guilty for never teaching Ronon and Aiden. "Fine," Rodney said, rolling his eyes. "We should probably set up a relay team practice to work on basic skills."
Sheppard grinned for half a second before putting four fingers in his mouth and whistling. "Come on, Amelia!"
Amelia didn't really need the cheering – when she tapped in and Harmony soared off the blocks, they were already a length ahead. John cheered and encouraged everybody, and Rodney gave them tips as they stood on the blocks, waiting their turn.
"Extend," he told Sora, and to Wex he said, "Push off the block – use your arms and legs like a spring to get further." Little Henrietta surprised them – she was up against much older kids and didn't seem intimidated at all.
"You can do it," Sheppard told her. "We've still got a little bit of a lead – and all you have to do is not come in last."
"I won't come in last," she said, seeming supremely confident. Rodney had never seen her swim, so he had no advice to give, but she had been listening to the rest of his advice, it sounded like, because her dive was timed perfectly, and she had nearly perfect form – incredible in a swimmer so young. The other teams had older kids going up against her, though, so they lost their lead, and one by one, the other teams passed little Henrietta – all except Jinto's team, which had the disadvantage of only having one older kid – Radek – on it.
Sheppard climbed onto the blocks, and Rodney gave him a quick lesson in taking off the blocks. "Curl your toes around the end. Use your hands as additional leverage. Spring off the block as soon as you see her touch the wall."
Sheppard nodded, looking down at Henrietta making her way to the end of the lane. Ronon dove in first, when Henrietta was still a quarter-length away, and Rodney had his doubts about Sheppard catching them. Elizabeth was next, and she was John's real competition. She had at least two strokes on him, and that was more than enough to crush them unless Sheppard did something unbelievable.
"Come on, Henrietta," Rodney called. "You can do it! Push!"
As if she could hear him, Henrietta surged to the end of the lane, and Sheppard sprang off the blocks, his first decent start in the short time Rodney'd known him. He stayed underwater for a half-length, making up at least one stroke's worth of distance on Elizabeth. She'd already gotten ahead of Ronon, so the race was really down to the two of them, two perfect, long freestyle machines. Sheppard had more muscle than Elizabeth, though, so with each stroke, he was gaining on her. Wex handed Rodney the stopwatch, ticking up the numbers on Sheppard's split, and they were impossibly low as he steamed in to the finish line. Twenty seconds, twenty-one, twenty-two – and Sheppard's hand came in on the lane, a split-second before Elizabeth and at an impossibly fast 22.64 seconds.
"Oh my god," Rodney said, offering a hand to pull Sheppard out of the water. "You did it! 22.64!"
Sheppard grinned, grabbed Rodney's hand, and yanked him into the water. Rodney came up sputtering, but Sheppard just slung an arm around him and grabbed the hand with the stopwatch in it to see for himself.
"Denny's is on me," Sheppard yelled, and Rodney rolled his eyes.
The whole team was going to come now… and then Rodney thought maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. Maybe the season wouldn't be a complete disaster after all. He wrapped his arms around Sheppard's stomach, lifted him off his feet, and dunked him with extreme prejudice.