It was Fleet Week again, and John told himself he wasn't going to do the usual routine this year—no drinking tequila at oh-nine-hundred so he'd be blasted enough by noon to ignore the tearing thunder of the Blue Angels cutting the skies overhead. He'd end up paying for it later in puke and misery over the crapper, and he was getting a little too old to crawl up from the mess and still make the swing shift at the roastery.
No, this year, he'd decided he would just put on some headphones and crank Johnny Cash loud enough to drown out the sounds. A bad plan, as it turned out, because he could still hear the planes roaring by at just under Mach one, and found himself rolling off the couch and limping up the stairs to the roof—usually he was too damned drunk to do it, to go up there and track the contrails to the source, watch the dips and dives and precise cuts as the fighters tore in graceful unison across the pale blue sky. He stood there, ripping his heart to fucking shreds while he turned under them to keep them in view for as long as possible.
Pathetic, old man. You made your deal; now buck up.
He was a mess when he finally rolled down the hill and locked his bike in front of the Fair Trade Roastery and Coffee House, grit still chafing under the band of his boxers from stretching out on the roof while the planes punished him with sound and speed. His cheeks felt tight, like a little kid who'd been crying for hours until the salt stretched his skin dry.
Crying would be a relief, maybe, but he'd left that guy at the Afghan border. He'd clocked too many hours of iron discipline to let go, even now when it was no longer needed.
He was no longer needed.
He waved hello to Sandi on his way to the office, where he grabbed his apron and tied it on. Then he went into the back room. The smell of roasting coffee greeted him, making his stomach twist with craving. As soon as he relieved Zeke he'd get a nice big cup, he promised himself.
"Hey, boss," Zeke drawled, the ever-present toothpick hanging from the corner of his mouth. "Here's where we're at: we've got some Kona just starting to pale in the Loring."
John nodded and went to the sink to wash his hands. "Sounds like Little Nemo is in First Crack."
"Yeah. That's the Sumatra. Don't fuck it up or that crazy professor will give you all sorts of shit. He knows his bean."
Frowning, John dried off his hands. "What crazy professor?"
"Some guy, he lectures us about everything. He moved into the neighborhood a week ago and has practically been living in the café. The latest Customer Zero." Zeke tapped the whiteboard. "So, I wrote up the next loads but, you know, if you want to change anything—"
"You know I trust your nose, Zeke."
"Yeah, yeah." Zeke ducked his head and waved a hand. "Okay, I'm out of here."
"Cool. Have a good one."
Zeke took off, and John went over to check on the Kona. The Loring roaster was a sweet machine, all digital, environmentally-friendly—it practically took care of itself. John wished he could afford to replace the older machines, but his retirement pension had only gone so far, in spite of the build up of all his combat pay and his VA comp.
The hip wasn't so bad today, he thought as stretched up to hit the handle and dump some Arabica into the hopper. He screened the beans and ran his gloved fingers over them, relishing their heavy coolness. After he'd screened out all the debris he dumped the hopper into roaster four, which Zeke had nick-named "Simba." Zeke had named all the roasters after Disney characters. John let him get away with it, all except for the Loring, which John liked to call the DeLorean.
After starting the roast, he went out front, where Sandi was busy cleaning the counter.
"Mornin'," he mumbled. Sandi was so damned young and fresh-faced, he always felt like an old dog around her because he couldn't help noticing how pretty she was, even with the pink hair.
"Good morning, boss. Looks like you could use a good cup." Sandi pulled down John's personal mug, the big twenty-ouncer, and filled it to the top before handing it to him.
"Thanks. You're the best." John took a big sip. The nicely toasted flavor washed over his tongue. A good roast.
"Just remember that come bonus time," Sandi said, winking to show she was kidding.
John gave her a smirk then grabbed a section of the paper that was lying on one of the tables and went to sit in his favorite corner. The afternoon sun was just catching in an oblique triangle that cut across the thickly padded seat. It was a little embarrassing, so John hoped no one had noticed he'd brought in a special cushion for the corner bench, plush enough to ease his aching hip and leg. The warm sun helped, too, which was another reason why John usually sat here when he wasn't in the back tending to the roasting.
A cranky voice interrupted his perusal of the crossword puzzle. "You're in my seat."
"Come again?" John said automatically, raising his eyes to see a balding guy with bright blue eyes and a slanted mouth. He was holding one of their extra-large, ceramic cups in his right hand.
"I was sitting there. I only just left for a few minutes. And since you're wearing an apron, I assume you are part of the 'hired help.' Which means, as I am the 'valued customer' in this scenario, I'd appreciate it if you would choose somewhere else to be." Cranky Guy snapped his fingers. "Here's an idea—how about somewhere behind the counter, working, perhaps?"
Jesus, the cojones on this guy. John suspected he'd just met the new Customer Zero.
"I'm on my break," John said, dry as he could make it, putting a little undertone of fuck off in there for good measure. "Take it up with the management." He took a slow sip of his coffee and watched Zero's eyes widen with outrage.
"Oh, don't think I won't, you rooster-haired, wanna-be bohemian, you."
John snorted back a laugh. No one had ever called him bohemian before. He kind of liked it.
Zero stomped off to go to the counter. John watched with interest as Sandi fielded his ire with the laid-back, hippie aplomb that was her birthright. Zero's voice got louder, and John saw Sandi point at John's corner and say something quietly with a serene smile on her face.
Zero came trundling back. His lips were wet, and John wondered if he should offer a guy a napkin before he ended up getting splattered.
"I'm told by Granola Sunshine over there that you are the management, which makes me wonder at your business practices. You're sure you didn't flunk barista school?"
"Pretty sure," John drawled, then made a show of scratching his head. "What's a barista again?"
"Oh, for the love of Pete!" Zero's outrage made his coffee slosh over the edge of the cup, and he yelped and switched hands, sucking his burnt finger into his mouth.
John stifled a laugh. "Look, Mister—"
"Doctor. Dr. Rodney McKay, P—"
"Yeah, whatever. There are plenty of very nice tables here, most of which are unoccupied at the moment. Please feel free to sit down somewhere before you end up suing us for burning your fingers."
McKay's lower lip protruded. "But I like that seat. That's the one with the good cushion." He looked down at where John had carefully propped up his bad leg on the bench, and frowned a little.
The scrutiny made John uncomfortable, and really, as much fun as it was baiting the cranky customers, he should go check on the Sumatra. "Fine. It's all yours, Dr. Doom," he said, using his hand to help his leg off the bench before standing up. Thankfully, the hip wasn't too bad—no painful pop of his thigh bone shifting back into place—and he managed to stand up pretty normally. He grabbed his crossword and his coffee.
McKay had backed away from the table and was looking a little disconcerted by his easy win. John brushed by him without a word and stepped around the counter to go into the back.
He had a lot of paperwork this week, anyway, and after he dumped the Sumatra on the cooling tray and made some notes to himself about inventory, he sat down in his office and took another sip of his coffee before rolling up his sleeves.
God, he hated paperwork.
John surfaced an hour or so later when he heard the alarm, and went into the back to unload the DeLorean. The roast was perfect, and he slid the hot, oily beans into the cooling tray. As usual, the smell made him want a fresh cup himself, and he walked back in front, lurching a little after sitting on the small office chair for so long.
Ahsarvat had taken over for Sandi and was talking to Dr. Emmagan at the counter.
"Hey, Ahsarvat. Hi, Doc," John said, wincing a smile. He'd been hoping he wouldn't run into her today.
"John," Dr. Emmagan said, raising an eyebrow. Ahs looked at them both and then made himself scarce.
"So, uh." John ducked his head and rubbed at the back of his neck. "Can I get you a pastry?"
"No, thank you. Just my regular."
"Double half-caff latte, no foam, with a dash of vanilla, coming right up." John busied himself at the espresso machine, studying it intently as if it took all of his concentration. It didn't do any good, though, because the doc was just patiently biding her time. As soon as he handed her her change, she pounced.
"So, I have not seen you in a while, John, and Dr. Dex tells me you missed your last appointment with him, as well."
"Yeah, well—hey, are you guys supposed to talk about your patients like that? Isn't there supposed to be confidentiality or something?"
The doc was too polite to roll her eyes, but she did arch one eyebrow. "We have to share information when the patient is a joint responsibility, John. And Ronon knows I live nearby, so—"
"So I guess you're not just here for coffee, Dr. Emmagan," John said a little stiffly.
Dr. Emmagan went over to the condiment table and put two sugars in her latte. "I've asked you before to call me Teyla, John. Come, sit with me."
John went around the counter, trying his best to walk without a limp. But getting himself down into a chair wasn't as easy, and he saw Teyla's eyes watching him carefully.
He looked around idly, trying the beat his flush down. It looked like the cranky Dr. McKay was working on one of the café's grilled paninis. He had the sandwich in one hand and was typing with the other.
"I know what you're gonna say."
"Ronon is concerned your hip hasn't recovered full mobility."
"Yeah, and so what? I'm never going to be able to do the things I want to do, anyway."
Teyla looked alarmed. "That is very short-sighted, John."
"Look, he said if it didn't get better he was going to have to cut me open again. He said the Air Force surgeon screwed the pooch."
Hiding a smile behind her coffee cup, Teyla said, "That's an...interesting way of phrasing it."
"Well, maybe he put it differently."
"And you do not wish to have surgery, even if it could repair the problem?"
John had to ease the grip he had on his bad leg. "I don't want to go under the knife again."
Teyla frowned, her brown eyes going gentle. "John, Ronon is an excellent surgeon. I wouldn't have referred you to him otherwise."
"I'm sure he's great. That's not the problem. I can't go through all that again. I've got—" John waved at the room, "a business to run. I'm barely making it as it is, and I can't afford to take six weeks off to get back on my feet." What he didn't say was, I live at the top of sixty-seven stairs with no elevator. And I've got no one at home to help me through it except a one-eyed cat.
"I understand it would be an inconvenience, but this is your life, John. It may not feel like much of a handicap right now, but I guarantee you in twenty years you will be incapacitated if you don't have this surgery while you are still young enough to recover easily."
"Easily—" John bit down on his next words and said, more quietly, "Thanks, Doc. I'll think about it."
Teyla leaned back and sipped her coffee. "Let us speak of other things, then. It has been a long time since I saw you last."
John tried not to slump in relief. "Do you wanna work on the crossword?" It was something they liked to do whenever Teyla dropped by the café. "It's a real tough one. I could use your help. "
Teyla arched one eyebrow and reached into her bag for a pen. "We will not let it defeat us."
John went to fetch the Sunday magazine from his office. When he came back out, Dr. McKay was at the counter again waiting impatiently. Figuring Ahsarvat had gone to the bathroom or something, John stepped up and said, "What can I get you?"
"Oh! A refill please." McKay pushed his cup over. "Have you ever considered simply offering a carafe and letting people pay by honor system? It seems a waste of time and effort to make us wait at the counter for every refill."
"Yeah, I thought about it, but the coffee wouldn't be fresh or stay hot enough. We don't let any of our coffee sit for longer than thirty minutes."
McKay looked startled, and then a pleased smile drifted over his face for a second. "I guess that explains why your coffee is so good."
"Yeah, that, and we roast it all fresh."
"I knew that," McKay snapped. "Do you think I would risk my taste buds on pre-roast?"
"I never imagined it for a second," John said, completely deadpan, and was gratified by McKay's double-take. "That'll be seventy-five cents," John added, pushing back McKay's cup.
McKay dug up three quarter and handed them to John before turning. John expected him to go right back to the highly-prized corner table, but McKay spun suddenly and said abruptly, "If you want your table back, I can move."
John was taken aback. "Why?" he said suspiciously. "Weren't you planning on reporting me to the Better Business Bureau?"
McKay bit his lip, looking twice as awkward. "It just occurred to me that you might need—might be more comfortable—"
John felt himself stiffening with anger.
"—that is, it was obviously your spot to begin with," McKay backpedaled hastily, "and really, first-come, first-serve and all that. Fair play," he finished, and his jaw jutted out in weird sort of challenge. But John had already figured it out—McKay must've overheard his conversation with the doc—and he barely kept himself from punching McKay on that pointy little chin of his.
"No, thanks," John said slowly. "Possession is nine-tenths and all that." He snatched his crossword from the counter, the thin, glossy pages crumpling a little under his fingers, and went back to Teyla's table.
It was an early closing that night, being Sunday, and John got out by ten-thirty. He turned on the little flasher he kept clipped to his bike bag and started up the hill.
He'd discovered bike riding as part of his physical therapy. At first they kept him on a stationary bike, but as soon as he shipped out of Landstuhl he'd bought a cheap-ass junker and started using it to get around. It was much easier than walking, which had hurt like goddamned blazes the first six months after the crash.
It seemed so damned ironic to John how, after having to eject from an F-16 once, and then walking away from a chopper crash, it was a fucking jeep that almost killed him, that cracked his pelvis and grounded him.
It was a fair trade, though, even if he never flew again. Holland was worth it, and every time things got really bad, like on the nights when he couldn't sleep because of the hot twinges of pain, or times like now when he was struggling to make it up eight hundred feet of hill, he just remembered the disbelieving smile on Holland's face when he'd woken up in the hospital next to John.
"You know, I could've sworn I was gonna wake up dead today."
"Always looking on the positive side, huh, buddy? I told you we'd make it."
"You did. You crazy son of a bitch." Holland peered over at him. "But why are you in here with me?"
"Let's just say the Taliban's jeeps are not built Ford tough."
"You stole us an effin' jeep? I don't remember that."
"Yeah. And we took a hit just half a mile west of the safe zone."
Holland winced, and then turned it into an evil grin. "You sure you don't mean east?"
John threw his head back on his pillow. "Just for that, I'm not giving you my jello."
It was dark out by the time John crested the hill and rode back down into his side of town. He stopped at the soup kitchen to deliver the bag of day-old pastries, then walked his bike to his garage and locked it up. He then started climbing the sixty-seven stairs to his apartment.
He'd known there was no elevator when he bought the place, and figured the stairs would keep him honest in terms of exercise, but he hadn't accounted for maybe needing surgery again. He just couldn't see how he could do it. There was a limit to how much help he could ask from his neighbors; all of them were so busy they barely said hello in the common areas. And his friends all lived in the outer reaches of town. He was the only one cheap enough and dumb enough to live in this neighborhood.
Punk was already making little mewing sounds when John rounded the second landing and paused to give his leg a rest.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm coming," John muttered, and started up again. He had bad days and good days, and today was definitely not on the top ten list. He rated it a four-and-a-half out of eleven in his head, eleven being Superman and one being "don't bother crawling out of bed."
As soon as he got the front door open he picked up the pencil hanging on the string and marked his chart with a 4.5. It had been Dr. Dex's idea to start keeping a chart of his progress. And looking at it now, John could see why the doc was worried. The steady stream of twos and threes had risen jaggedly to fours and fives before hitting his top one day, a six. But now he was stuck on fives and the occasional four, with too many threes stuck in there for comfort.
He wasn't getting any better. He'd had a feeling he wasn't, but had turned a blind eye to the chart until Teyla brought the whole thing up. She was right; he needed to deal with this. He just didn't fucking know how he could swing it.
Punk bumped insistently against John's leg, and he broke out of his funk to go feed her. Punk was the weirdest cat he'd ever met—she drooled like a dog when he petted her, hated the smell of tuna, and liked to play fetch. Which was good, because John could just collapse on his couch and throw the little fake mouse to give Punk her exercise.
She always brought it back, usually covered in more drool.
Getting the cat was also Teyla's idea, and he'd thought she was nuts to suggest it, but it was kind of nice having someone else to worry about. Otherwise, he'd just spend all his free time online dorking around the webcrosswords website or in the mathpuzzlers community.
Which reminded him: someone should have responded by now to the solution he'd posted the night before.
John sat on the couch and put a pillow underneath his right thigh before balancing laptop on his left. It was awkward, but he couldn't handle the weight or pressure right now. He logged into the puzzlers' community and quickly located his posting. Scrolling up, he grinned when he saw the first response was from the group moderator, Doubledoc. Doubledoc was an angry, angry man who just hated it when anyone, especially John, solved his puzzles too fast—in fact, pissing Doubledoc off was what had kept John engaged in the group back when his math was still too rusty to keep up. If John hadn't been trapped in a hospital bed at the time, he probably would have quit anyway, but these days it was pretty much the most fun he had.
Doubledoc was really pissed, all right. His response to John's nine golfer solution denounced him, Blackhawk, as a "Mr. Cheaty McCheat," accused him of cribbing his solution from the Kirkman Triple System, and called for a show of work.
Fine. It was a half an hour before midnight, John still hadn't eaten dinner, and instead of doing something about it he found himself digging up his scribbled notes from the previous evening and slapping them on his scanner. He attached the images to his response, the body of his message containing only the words, "So there."
John grinned when he imagined Doubledoc's fury.
After he finished reading the other puzzlers' congratulations, John sent a group "Thanks," and promised to work up his own puzzle challenge by the next evening. He then heated up a bowl of spaghettios, took some ibuprofen, threw the fake mouse for a while until Punk got bored, and then John fell asleep on the couch before he could muster the energy to go to bed.
He woke up way too early. If he were still normal—he couldn't help thinking about it that way, no matter what Dr. Dex said—this would be the time to go for a jog. It was early enough that the fog would have left a faint sheen on the surface of the sidewalk, the air cool and damp. Sometimes John missed running as much as he missed flying. The best thing was to drag himself into the shower and eat a bowl of cereal, then make himself go out for a ride.
The morning was just like he'd expected; the streets were still a little slick from the fog, and he rode carefully until he reached the base of the hill. The last thing he needed was another injury.
His hip wasn't so bad this morning, more a low ache, and his leg felt a little bit stronger as he pumped his uneven way up the hill. It was a little humiliating to have to use the granny gear, but he still got a good workout, heart beating hard and the muscles of his legs feeling tight as he pedaled up and over, then turned and did it again from the steeper, west side of the hill. Sixteen hundred feet was nothing to sneeze at, and he'd have to climb it again in a couple of hours. He stopped on the way back at the local grocery and picked up a couple of bagels for lunch.
Sitting at the kitchen table with his toasted bagel with fresh, sliced tomatoes, John nudged his computer awake and found a private email from Doubledoc sitting in his mailbox.
John's heart sped a little faster. He had to admit the insults flying back and forth between them on the list were fun, but he liked it even better when Doubledoc condescended to email him privately. John opened the message:
Subject: Okay, you're not a moron
So, you solved it fair and square, and I take back the Cheaty McCheat comment, even though a guy who names himself 'Blackhawk' and obsesses about *airplanes* can safely be assumed to be infantile enough to take a short cut now and then. You probably use cheat codes for video games, as well.
Also, your handwriting is well-nigh illegible and your equations look like chicken-scratchings. I assume whatever school you attended is heavily into athletic scholarships.
John grinned at the obvious play for more information couched inside the insults. He quickly hit reply, and without letting himself think about it, wrote back:
A Black Hawk is a helicopter, not an airplane.
Get your eyes checked, genius.
John hit send, snapped his laptop closed and headed off to work.
McKay was sitting in John's corner again. Jesus, the guy appeared to live on coffee and pastries. He was obviously in a bad mood, too, or a worse one, John amended, because he was was hunched over his coffee cup as if aliens were about to swoop in and snatch it from his hands.
John gave him a wide berth on his way in, shooting Sandi a rueful look.
Zeke was just unloading Little Nemo, and John nodded at him and then checked the whiteboard. No other roasts were planned for today—not a rare occurrence, seeing as it was Monday. John just signed off and gave Zeke a clap on the shoulder before going to grab a cup of coffee.
He'd slogged through enough paperwork the day before that he could chill out today, so he dug up the entertainment section from the paper and sat down with a pen to work the crossword. Taking a sip of his coffee, he heard a rueful laugh that lifted his head. McKay had his laptop open and was grinning at his computer screen, so maybe he wasn't in such a bad mood after all. John was glad for Sandi's sake.
He wondered what kind of job the guy had that he could afford to sit in a café all day. John went back to his crossword with a mental shrug. He was almost finished when a shadow blocked his light.
"You do your crossword in pen?" It was McKay, going back for a refill, looked like.
"I like the challenge." John kept his voice uninviting, but after McKay got his refill he came back to John's table and hovered for a second.
John looked up and frowned. McKay was leaning over and staring at his crossword like it held the mysteries of the universe.
"Something I can do you for?"
McKay jerked up. "No, I—not at all. Carry on." He waved his hand and then went back to the corner.
John suppressed a sigh. He could really have used his cushy seat today. Maybe he should invest in more comfortable chairs for the café, because if McKay was going to beat him in every day, he'd never get his seat back.
"Boss, delivery truck is out back," Sandi called.
"Got it." As John pushed himself up, the chair slid out from under him at the wrong moment, making him grab the edge of the table for support. It made a screeching sound as it dragged across the floor, and John felt his face go hot as everyone in the place looked over at him. He quickly stepped into the back and opened the delivery door.
"Hey, Keith. What do you have for me today?"
Keith hauled open the back of the truck and slapped a big burlap sack. "Fifty pounds of Fair Trade Moloka'i, fresh off the plane."
"Outstanding." John had wanted to start experimenting with Hawaiian coffees beyond their basic stock of Kona. "What else?"
"Never happy, are you?" Keith grinned. "Just a little Haleakala Maui."
"Oh, another fifty pounds."
"You dog. That's perfect." John held the door open while Keith passed him hauling the first fifty pound sack. Eying the other one, John had barely taken five steps toward the truck before Keith appeared again and cleared his throat in warning.
"You know what," Keith said, scratching his sandy hair. "Zeke would have my hide."
Sometimes it just didn't pay having such a small circle of acquaintances. John shook his head and let Keith carry the other bag inside, then followed him in to grab his checkbook.
"Eleven hundred, even."
"That seems a little low, buddy."
Keith shrugged. "I got lucky."
"Better watch it or you'll get the other wholesalers pissed off."
"Naw. I got my beat, and they got theirs. It's all friendly."
John ripped off the check and passed it over, then held out his hand for a shake. "See you next week?"
Letting the door close behind Keith, John walked over to look at his prizes. Keith had stacked both bags just in front of the DeLorean. Not the best place for them, but his first, tentative pull on the top sack reminded him all over again why Zeke had set up the trolley system for John to do easy loading and unloading. The Hawaiian would have to wait until tomorrow, when Zeke could pour them into the upper loading bins.
John made some careful notes on the whiteboard about how he wanted to roast the first two batches, one pure and the other a blend. He did some paperwork, partially interrupted by coming up with a new challenge puzzle for the group, after which he went back out into the café; it was time for a snack.
McKay was gone, John was pleased to note, so he grabbed one of Sandi's wrapped sandwiches and a glass of water and went to sit in his window seat. He liked to sit there and watch people passing by. A great thing about this town was it sure was filled with some pretty interesting people. One of them was passing the window right now, and it took a moment for John to recognize Dr. Dex in jeans and a T-shirt instead of his business shirt and white smock. Dex's head turned, and when he saw John, his face split into a grin. A kind of evil grin, to tell the truth.
John waited for him to open the door before drawling, "Hey, Doctor Dex. What a surprise."
"Is it?" Dex said, dry as the desert.
John made a face. "Sandi," he called out, "Do me a favor and bring the doc some coffee."
"Sure thing, boss," Sandi chirped.
"So, what brings you around?" John asked lazily. He was conscious of his leg propped up in plain sight on the cushioned bench. But Dex wasn't looking at John's leg; he was staring into John's face, eyes intent behind his small, wire-rimmed glasses. His short hair twisted out in tiny dreadlocks around his head.
"Teyla mentioned she ran into you; said you had some questions about your recovery."
"My lack of recovery, you mean," John muttered.
"Yeah, that too."
"So you came all the way over to this side of town to hunt me down? Seems kind of weird, I mean, you could've just picked up the phone."
Dex's eyes narrowed. "But then I couldn't scare you into doing what I tell you."
John snorted a laugh, and a smile creased Dex's eyelids.
"Look, Sheppard—I know you don't want the surgery. Nobody wants surgery. But I promised Haloran I'd look after you when he shipped you out here. You're not letting me do my job."
What the hell. "You know Haloran?"
"Teyla and I both do. We served in his Doctors Without Borders campaign for two years."
John took a second to think about it. "So it wasn't just chance that Teyla referred me to you."
"Nope." Dex looked up; Sandi had snuck up with his coffee and was standing there staring at him.
"Thanks, Sandi," John said.
She didn't move until Dex reached up and took the cup, then she broke into a shy smile.
John sighed. "Sandi, this is Dr. Dex. Dex—Sandi, my right-hand here at the roastery."
"Ronon," Dex corrected him. "Nice to meet you, Sandi."
"Likewise," she said, then seemed to snap out of it. "Uh, enjoy your coffee. Boss, you want a cup?"
"She's cute," Dex said after Sandi was out of earshot.
"She's the best. And no, you can't have her as an assistant."
Dex leaned against the wall and smirked at him. "I've already got an assistant."
"Good," John said sullenly.
"You know, you're gonna ask me sooner or later."
"Fine—what the hell did Haloran tell you?"
Dex crossed his arms. "He told me you went back into a hot zone for your friend, and managed to get blown up in a jeep."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know." Dex's eyebrows drew together. "I already told you—he asked me to take you on and patch you back up. Their arthroscope wasn't functioning when they brought you in, and Hal figured they could ship you home and go back in later if you needed it. But it's time, Sheppard. You already have ligament damage and adhesions that will take a while to clean up, and the longer you don't take care of this, the worse it will get, until your hip is completely locked up. You want that? You want to stop walking entirely? Or riding your bike?"
Coldness spread like jelly in John's gut. "I don't—"
"No, you don't." Dex took a sip of his coffee, then said casually, "Hal told me you were a pilot. The best damned pilot he ever saw. When did he see you fly?"
"I dunno. Probably when I was flying medevac."
Dex glared over the top of his glasses.
"Okay, yeah—I flew Hal out one time with three wounded."
"According to him, you went in and brought them out through enemy fire."
"Could be it was a little rough."
"He told me you saved his life."
John managed to unclench his teeth long enough to put on a thin smile. "He was exaggerating. You know doctors—everything is a disaster with them."
"Sure, that's Hal—a real panicky guy." Dex laughed, and John couldn't help snorting, remembering Hal with blood up to his elbows trying to get one of the wounded stabilized while shells dropped all around them, way too close. John had put down suppressing fire while Hal slid the IV in sweet as you please, not a tremor in his hands.
"He's a good guy."
"Yeah, you could say that." Dex gave him an appraising look, then said, "He's the one that got me through med school. Made sure I got a chance at every scholarship and fellowship I needed to make it."
"Yeah. 'Oh.' So you can see why I feel like I owe him. And Hal thinks he owes you. So you know where that puts you, John?"
"In the hot seat, I'm thinking," John said glumly.
"Yup," Dex said, grinning toothily.
John got it now. There was no way Dex would give up on this, no way he would settle for anything less than making John a hundred percent again. And even though that made John feel good—warmer, somehow, like he wasn't out in the dark—it also pissed him off, because he had his pride, and there was still no way of getting around the main problem.
"I'll think about it," he said. "That's all I can promise."
Dex frowned again. Really, he was kind of terrifying when he did that, but after a second his expression cleared, turning into a smile. He was looking over John's shoulder.
"Hey, Sandi," Dex said.
"Ronon—I noticed you needed a refill, and I thought you guys might be hungry—boss never eats anything until around this time."
John looked down at his still-wrapped turkey sandwich, and then at the plates Sandi had brought holding two grilled paninis.
"That looks great, Sandi," Ronon said, flashing that smile again.
Ease up, buddy, you don't want her to implode, John thought, reaching to accept his plate.
"It's turkey and jack—your favorite, boss," Sandi said, a little 'v' between her eyebrows, as if she were worried he wouldn't like it.
"You need to eat more."
John looked at Dex, who wasn't looking at Sandi, but was staring at John again.
Jesus Christ, he was surrounded by mother-hens.
Sandi gave them both an uncertain smile and then left again.
"So, you'll think about it. Seriously?"
"Sure thing, Dr. Dex."
"Call me Ronon," Dex said. "I want your promise, John. I know you're the kind of man who keeps them. So, shake on it." He held out his hand, and John had to hurriedly swallow down the lump in his throat.
John took Ronon's hand. "I promise."
"Good. That's good." Ronon gave his hand a squeeze and then slapped his palm on the table. "So, let's eat, because this smells amazing."
John did as he was told.
That night, as if John's hip were weighing in on the argument, he had to stop midway up the hill when a flash of pain almost made him fall over. He stood next to his bike until the worst of it passed, and then slowly limped the rest of the way up. When he reached the top he mounted up again, but pain had made him shaky and he took it slow going down the hill, going for the smoothest parts of the road to avoid jostling anything back into screaming mode.
Then there were the stairs, and tallying his three on the board, then feeding Punk, and John was goddamned grateful for the wrapped sandwich he'd stuck in his pocket, because once he was on the couch he didn't plan on getting up again.
The only bright spot to the evening was when he noticed he had another off-list reply from Doubledoc.
Subject: Okay, turns out you *are* a moron
You must think you're pretty hot stuff, posting a variation on the Fano Plane for your challenge, but I can find the 13 4-switches that can connect 13 numbers in my *sleep*, Hawkeye, and that's on Nyquil.
Oh, and a passion for helicopters is only slightly more moronic than a love of airplanes, considering the U.S. helicopter accident rate is 30% higher than the U.S. general aviation accident rate.
Tell me you're not a pilot.
John had been grinning until he read the last line. Then he sat and stared at the screen for a good long while before typing a short reply:
He almost canceled the message three times before he hit send.
Thursday was roasting day—two full rotations of the roasters in preparation for the weekend. Their outside sales were increasing, and they also sold more beans in-house on Saturday and Sunday than the rest of the week combined. John was pretty proud to note, as he charted their weekly inventory, that his little roastery was doing pretty damned good. They must be getting a reputation, because lately he'd noticed a lot more regulars, many of them carting friends along.
Also on Thursday was open mic night, which tended to bring in a small crowd, with a larger flood appearing during the folk music sets on Friday and Saturday nights.
But on Thursday morning came John's very favorite part of the week, because that was when Mario's grandson brought by Mario's famous fresh-made apple turnovers. Once a week Mario woke up at an ungodly hour and rolled the light, flaky dough by hand, then interleaved it with the fresh apples, cinnamon and sugar that, combined, pretty much melted on the tongue. There was always a rush, and they tended to run out by eleven a.m. at the latest, so John always came in early on Thursdays, just in case. He told himself Sandi would always save him one, but so far John hadn't taken the chance.
He noticed that McKay showed up soon after him, but John was already seated happily in his corner with a fresh cup and a piping hot turnover. That didn't stop McKay, though, who got his own cup and pastry and plunked them down on the table right across from John.
John raised an eyebrow, but didn't stop eating.
"I suppose you have a contingency plan for when Mario kicks the bucket?"
"McKay! Jesus," John said, a little horrified. "Mario's in great health."
"Mario is eighty-two if he's a day, and he comes from the Old Country, where they aren't really known for their medical acumen."
"That must be why you see all those hundred year-old grandmothers in black shawls littering the hills of Sicily."
"Ah!" McKay raised his finger, his mouth still full of pastry, "But you'll notice it's only the women who survive to such a ripe old age."
John rolled his eyes. "You win, McKay. We're all doomed to be apple turnover-less in a cardiac minute."
McKay grinned as if he'd won the lotto. "Turnover doom aside, I think it was a brilliant idea getting Mario to sell you his pastries. I know he used to have a little café of his own before he got too far along."
"How do you know so much about Mario?" It suddenly occurred to John he was having an actual conversation with McKay, which just seemed weird.
"Oh, I know everything."
"You do? So you know, say, what the internal bean temperature is for a Full City roast?"
"Four hundred and forty-six degrees," McKay said promptly. "Four sixty-five for a Vienna."
John blinked a couple of times. McKay smirked. They both looked down and finished their pastries.
"What do you do for a living, anyway?" John asked after wiping his mouth with a napkin. "Other than drink my coffee all day, I mean."
"It's good coffee!" McKay suddenly looked embarrassed. "Or, as good as it can be, I suppose, considering —"
"Considering what?" John asked dangerously.
"Er, considering, well—not that your coffee isn't really the finest I've found in this city, and believe me, I have made an exhaustive census of all the roasteries in the area and graded them absolutely based on—"
"McKay. Considering what?"
"Well, I prefer the varieties of Hawaiian, to tell you the truth, and you don't seem to have the connections necessary to acquire anything but Kona."
John found himself grinning helplessly. "I've got twenty pounds of pure Moloka'i roasting right now in the back."
"Oh! Oh!" McKay said, looking almost like he was seeing Jesus.
"I'll brew us a pot as soon as it's cooled down."
"You, my friend, are a good man." McKay's eyes shone at him.
"Yeah, yeah," John waved a hand, "Anyway, you were gonna tell me what you do other than drink coffee."
"Ah. Well, I am a scientist." McKay paused strangely. "These days, I create interactive exhibits for science museums: the Exploratorium, the Museums of Science and Industry in Chicago, Los Angeles, et cetera."
"Sounds like a pretty cool job," John said, but by McKay's expression he didn't a hundred percent agree.
"It's interesting. But of course it's not rocket science." For some reason McKay's mouth twisted ironically. "I do most of my work on the computer using AutoCad, so you see, I can pretty much work anywhere during the design stage."
"Hence, the sitting in my café snorfing my power and tormenting my hired help."
"I tip well!"
John laughed. "I'm sure you do."
"So," John replied awkwardly. The conversation seemed to have hit a ditch. "I better go check on the Moloka'i." He didn't need to, actually; Zeke had loaded it into the DeLorean, which hardly needed any monitoring at all. John pretty much just had to wait for the damned thing to go ding.
"I'll, um. I'll save you your seat."
John paused and stared hard at McKay, who was looking intently at his coffee.
"I don't need your pity, McKay," John said in a low voice. "And anyway, it's my goddamned table, and it's my goddamned café—"
"Don't be ridiculous," McKay snapped. "It's not pity if a friend—well, an acquaintance, really—offers to save your seat."
John knew it wasn't as innocuous as that, but he also knew he'd embarrassed himself enough by showing his anger. Besides, up 'til now it had been a pretty interesting conversation.
"Fine." John pulled his leg off the cushion and rose to his feet. "I'll get you a fresh cup on my way back."
For some reason that made McKay smile.
What made McKay smile even wider, and close his eyes and hum in bliss, was the first cup of Moloka'i John brewed fresh off the cooling pan. When McKay opened his eyes again they were bright with glee and something else that made John want to back away. He didn't know this guy. He didn't know why or how he'd gotten suckered into talking with him—usually people steered clear of getting too close to John. He guessed it was because he wanted it that way. So if McKay was sticking around, there was either a flaw in John's thinking, or he liked McKay's company and was showing it.
They did the Thursday crossword, then McKay went back to his typing while John went into the back to sort and sack. It was monotonous work, but John kind of liked the way it didn't take up much of attention. It was a good time to think.
If he did have the surgery, maybe he could save up enough beforehand to hire someone to help him. All he really needed was someone to bring him food occasionally; probably he would be able to maneuver around on crutches well enough that he wouldn't need a hired nurse. And he imagined for the first couple of days he'd be staying in the hospital.
God, he did not want to go back to the hospital. He remembered those months like a delirium dream, probably because he was delirious in the beginning while he was fighting off the infection. And then, when he was awake, all he could think about was how this would ground him; he'd never fly again.
Ironically, Holland had been released after only a week, leaving John alone with his dark mood. If he hadn't had the use of Hal's spare laptop, he probably would have lost his mind. But he'd had his puzzles, and enough human-type interaction to keep him interested. And some inhuman interaction in the form of Doubledoc, who seemed to sense John really needed the group to keep from losing his sanity. It was probably obvious, considering how much time John was spending online, going back through old puzzles and giving belated responses to discussions.
He'd never told Doubledoc or anyone else in the group what his situation was. Now he regretted it a little, because by now Doubledoc had gotten the reply and with his talk about helicopter crashes probably had it all figured out. He was a goddamned genius, after all.
John finished sealing up the last bag of beans and dropped it on the trolley to push it into the storeroom. Everything had been arranged so neatly by Zeke that even a cripple could handle the necessary tasks.
If John had the surgery, maybe he would get better.
But he'd have to save more than enough to pay for help at home—he'd also have to pay for hiring someone in his absence. And he didn't know how to go about finding a roaster with a good eye. Not just a good eye—it had to be someone who really cared about coffee. Who cared about every damned bean that passed through their gloved fingers. And people who cared like that cost big money.
It was hopeless.
When John returned to his corner, McKay was muttering at his laptop.
"What's up, McKay?" John asked.
McKay looked up and glared at him. "I thought I told you to call me by my first name. What, are we in boarding school?"
"Fine. What's up, Rodney?"
Rodney humphed and pointed at the screen. "The same problem I was having two cups ago—I can't figure out how to show what I need to show."
John snuck a peek over his shoulder. On the screen was an awesome animation of a metallic-looking stretch of ribbon rotating in space. Then the ribbon twisted and connected to itself, becoming a Möebius strip. It rotated a few times before disconnecting itself and lying flat again.
"Looks great; what's the problem?"
"This is just fine—for the video portion. But for the physical exhibit I don't know how to demonstrate, in a way kids will understand, that the Möebius strip has one, continuous surface."
John stared at the rotating loop. It looked a little bit like the Hot Wheels tracks he'd played with as a kid.
"What about a car?"
"What?" Rodney's eyes looked a little harried, and John wondered if maybe he'd been drinking too much coffee lately.
"Have a little car run along the surface on a track, you know? So they can watch it looping the loop without stopping."
"Oh my God," Rodney said, and John drew back thinking he should get ready for another lecture on the depth of his moronitude. But then Rodney looked up, and his eyes were bright and admiring. "You're a genius. Seriously, John, that's perfect. The kids will love it."
John felt a weird flutter in his gut at the pleasure in Rodney's voice. "Well, we aim to please," John said weakly before Rodney hunched over his laptop again and started typing with a singular fury.
The day went quickly after that, what with the continuing conversations with Rodney; well, "conversations" was a little bit of an exaggeration, considering Rodney could fit more words into a sentence than Proust, only with fewer commas.
Before he left, Rodney bought three pounds of the Moloka'i, and demanded John roast the Haleakala Maui as soon as possible in order to make "a scientifically accurate taste-test. We can't let the Moloka'i go stale before we've had a chance to compare it to the Haleakala," Rodney explained earnestly.
John smiled thinking about it on the way home—Customer Zero had turned out to be a big softie. All you had to do was supply him with a rare good bean.
After making himself eat dinner, John played with Punk for a little while before reluctantly hauling out his laptop. Sure enough, there was a personal reply waiting for him from Doubledoc. The subject was, "You never said," so John knew right away that Doubledoc had figured it out.
Subject: You never said
You mentioned a couple of things that made me suspicious, like when we held the timed round-robin and you told us you had an unfair advantage, being stuck in front of the computer 24/7. Or that time you made us work out the the air capacity of a pair of surgical gloves (I still protest the tensile limit of a pair of latex gloves is much lower than you attested.)
I suppose I even imagined, when you claimed to be working on the Riemann Hypothesis, that you were appropriately being held in a loony-bin somewhere. But you never said you were in a regular hospital, as I am now assuming you were, considering your response to my ham-handed recital of aviation accident statistics.
Was it a helicopter crash?
John stared at the screen. This was it. He could blow it off or he could reply, but if he did reply he'd be getting into something deeper with Doubledoc than their fun little snark-fests.
He realized with some surprise that he wanted that. He wanted to reach out to Doubledoc and find out more about the guy—find out why someone as brilliant as him was dinking around with an Internet math puzzle group when he obviously could be doing better things with his time.
John hit reply.
It was a jeep, actually. *After* the helicopter crash. I got retired with VA compensation and they kicked me back Stateside.
What's a certified genius like you doing hanging around this dump when you could be determining whether NP-problems are actually P-problems?
John didn't say that, if it hadn't been for Holland testifying at his court martial, John's medical discharge probably would have been a dishonorable. At the very least they would have demoted him and sent him somewhere cold to sit behind a desk.
His computer dinged not five minutes after he sent his reply, making his palms a little sweaty as he exited Bejeweled and pulled up his mail program.
Subject: Air Force?
Air Force or Navy?
I've worked for them both, by the way, and they are terrible institutions filled with the most appalling wastes of cranial space.
And I'll have you know I created "this dump" back when we were all sending porn in multiple attachments on Usenet, so I will thank you to show my baby the proper respect.
John grinned, cracked his knuckles, and started typing.
Good one. But since I'm out of the service you can't call me that anymore.
I've heard rumors about this stuff called "porn" on the Internet that is degrading young minds. All your fault, then?
Maybe you should send me some as proof.
But when John opened the attachment in Doubledoc's next email, it was an illustration from a Spider-man comic, with the mocking text in the body:
I think this is more your speed, little man.
"Right," John said to Punk, who stared at him curiously. "This means war."
It was tough pulling himself out of bed the next morning. He and Doubledoc had kept up the back-and-forth until way too late, going from full on battle to philosophical debate to what John almost thought was flirting, and then back to bickering again.
John had to dry swallow a couple of the ibuprofen before he even made it to bathroom, and after coffee and a stale bagel, he maneuvered himself onto his bike and did a little easy riding to warm himself up before he hit the hill.
He called it the Mountain in his head sometimes, but it really was just a hill. Maybe if Ronon fixed him up, John would be able to ride up Mount Tamalpais. Now there was a real challenge. Actually, there were a lot of things he could do if Ronon fixed him. For one thing, John could maybe get laid. Nobody wanted to fuck a gimp; that was for sure.
It being Friday, Ahsarvat was manning the counter and Sandi was out picking up pastries and quiches and the like to prepare for the bigger crowd coming. They had some local singer/songwriters scheduled for tonight, popular enough that John planned to make himself scarce come eight p.m.
But first, he had one little errand to run. So, after he freed Zeke, John went down the street to the Pottery Barn to do some shopping.
By the time McKay showed up John had already unbagged his purchase and put it in place.
McKay made a beeline straight for the counter, not even noticing John as he strode in. But as soon as he had taken two huge gulps of his coffee he turned around and targeted John's corner. John lifted his coffee with a grin, and watched Rodney's eyes widen as he took in the brand-new, plush cushion sitting on the bench opposite John's seat.
"I see you've upgraded," Rodney said as he approached. "A wise decision on your part—" he cleared his throat, "—keeping the customer happy, I mean."
John rolled his eyes. "PR is my life."
"Obviously, considering the amount of time you must spend on your hair."
Blinking in surprise, John started to raise an outraged hand toward his hair before dropping it. "It does this on its own," he protested.
"Yes, yes, I'm sure," Rodney said dismissively and started in on his chocolate-chip croissant. "I know it's Friday when there are still croissants left when I get here."
"Fridays are good," John agreed, munching on his ham-and-cheese croissant.
Rodney smirked at him, a little flake of pastry caught on his lower lip, and John felt a sudden urge to reach out and brush it off, which he stifled with a start.
He didn't know when he'd started thinking of Customer Zero as an attractive guy. Probably around the time he became Rodney, John thought. But there was no way he could pursue anything at this point, even assuming Rodney was interested in him like that. John definitely got a little ping off him, but then he considered Rodney's "I'm with genius" T-shirt mismatched against his—were those plaid?—yellow and green pants, and thought maybe he was imagining the way Rodney seemed to be scoping him out every so often.
It was moot, anyway. John was a gimp, with the scars to prove it. The last time he'd had sex was a hurried blowjob in a supply tent on the airfield at Kandahar, just one day before his life took a serious left turn.
"So, there's music tonight?" Rodney said.
"Yeah, couple of local kids. They're pretty good, if you're interested."
"Me? No, I have...plans."
"Oh. Okay." John sipped his coffee to cover his sudden disappointment.
"Nothing urgent," Rodney blurted suddenly, then blushed.
John swallowed too fast and almost burned his throat. "That's cool. Hey, do you like chess?"
Which was how John ended up spending the rest of the afternoon popping between the roasters and the café's chess set. He could tell Rodney was taken aback the first time John had him on the ropes, and his blue eyes sharpened as he leaned over the board.
The day went by pretty fast after that, with them trading wins and talking trash, and then Ahsarvat started moving tables and chairs around to make room for the performers.
"Tomorrow we'll have the tie-breaker," Rodney said as he packed up the chess set.
"Tie-breaker? I'm up by one."
"Yes, but everyone knows it's best five out of seven."
"Uh-huh." John stretched a little and tried to crack his back, but a sudden twinge from his hip made him suck in a sharp breath. "Well, I guess I'll see you tomorrow then," he said, wanting Rodney to be gone before he tried to get up.
Rodney cocked his head, then nodded abruptly and took off.
John couldn't help with the tables, but he did help Sandi fill the display case before going into his office. His computer here was a rusty old thing, but it could still manage email.
There was nothing from Doubledoc, though, and, disappointed, John buzzed through a Sudoko website and printed out some puzzles to keep himself occupied.
Fridays were a late closing, and he crashed so quickly that night he didn't even have the energy to check his email again when he got home. In fact, he could barely keep his eyes open while brushing his teeth, and fell face-first into sleep with Punk still dangling the mouse against his arm.
The next morning he felt better than he had in a long time. He wasn't sure why, but he had this sense there was something to look forward to. Then he remembered he'd forgotten to check his email the night before, and he got up and tapped his computer awake.
Punk was asleep on the couch and gave him a sleepy yawn before closing her eye again.
Subject: Re: Batman versus Spider-man
My rebuttal to your ridiculous arguments in re: who would win in a fight.
1. Batman isn't a whiny school kid.
But neither is Batman a well-educated scientist.
2. Batman is a billionaire. While this might not have a direct outcome on any battle, obviously Batman's equipment is superior, plus the bat-cave is a more excellent place to practice his moves than some dinky, one-room apartment.
Regardless your opinion on Batman's "equipment," and, yes, those are quotation marks, the bat-cave, need I remind you, is FILLED WITH BATS. As well as, I'm sure, no small amount of air-borne molds and pathogens.
It's a wonder the poor man hasn't perished already from guano-related histoplasmosis.
3. Batman wears black. Need I say more?
Oh, yes, because fashion is the deadliest of weapons.
(And, btw, I understand your choice in logins much more clearly now.)
4. Batman doesn't need anyone. He's a loner. His parents were killed, leaving him free of social constraints. Also, there's the burning rage factor (so Parker's uncle got shot. Big deal.)
You are a blood-thirty bastard, aren't you? I suppose it would have been better for Parker's battle-fu if he'd seen his parents gunned down in front of him?
I remind you that Spider-man accidentally killed his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. Batman never kills the female supervillains. He just ties them up and then lets them wiggle free after sex.
>5. Batman's stuff explodes. Spider-man's is just...sticky.
I'm not touching that one with a ten-foot pole. Unless, well.
>6. Batman trained in Tibet. Spider-man trained in clown school.
Now you're just being insulting. And I remind you that Batman is known to use hallucinogens and also probably has venereal disease on top of the histoplasmosis. I'm surprised he can get out of bed without his dick falling off.
Yours most sincerely,
John snorted out loud, startling Punk into flopping over and giving him a dirty look. Ten-foot pole, huh? John thought, and wondered a little idly where Doubledoc lived. Not that it mattered. People were never as interesting in person as they were online.
But a little flirting never hurt.
There was another message from later with the subject, "Are you there? Is my argument perhaps too compelling? <eom>". John replied to that one first.
I'm here. Late night at work on Fridays. Tonight, too.
(No, I'm not a bartender. Or a stripper.)
I will respond to your completely insane comments in re: Batman after I've had my morning coffee. But you are going *down*, buddy.
John was still grinning when he settled down to do his free-weight routine. He'd never lifted weights before his injury, but after he lost so much muscle mass in the hospital, he'd made an effort to at least build his arms and shoulders back up. It gave him a small amount of satisfaction to know he was still strong in one area, at least. He followed the weights with some crunches, and then showered and got ready for work.
McKay wasn't there when John arrived, so John went straight into the back to check the whiteboard. Zeke didn't work Saturdays, but he usually left a couple of jobs for John to roast.
John added his own little blending experiment to the board—another small, ten-pound roast combining the two Hawaiians with some aged Sumatra. He didn't allow himself to think about how they were Rodney's three favorite beans, and that maybe John was a little invested in getting another one of Rodney's blissed-out smiles like from the day before.
After he'd loaded and set the start of the roast, he went out front for his morning coffee, lifting a raspberry scone from under Sandi's nose.
"Hey! That's the last one!"
"Mr. Kreutchfeld comes in on Saturdays and always wants a scone," Ahsarvat explained.
John swallowed quickly. "Then give him a currant."
"He prefers raspberry," Sandi said archly.
"Yeah, I know. So do I," John said, grinning and accepting the punch in the arm. "So, has McKay been in?" he asked casually. It was almost noon.
"You mean your new best friend? Nope, I haven't seen him today."
"He's not my—I just met the guy!"
"Well, you seem pretty buddy-buddy to me. Which is good," Sandi added hastily at his expression, "because he's a lot nicer to have hanging around here, lately."
Ahsarvat nodded frantically.
John rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry if he's been a pain," he said, wondering even as he said it why he was defending Rodney of all people to his team.
"No, he's no pain. He tips very nicely," Ahsarvat said, grinning.
"Oh, well, then," John replied, complete with an eye-roll.
"I'll be in the office if anyone needs me," John said, trying to be nonchalant.
"I'll tell him where to find you."
John bit his tongue on his sharp reply and went back into his office, where he painstakingly composed a response to Doubledoc's spurious slander of his favorite comic book character, ending with:
Plus, Spider-man smells.
McKay didn't show up all day, not that John was checking or anything. When he pulled out the blended roast he packaged two pounds of carefully selected beans into one of Fair Trade's waxed bags and put a sticky note on it that said, "For McKay." He didn't feel like putting it out under the counter, though, so he just stashed it in the storeroom.
That night they had a good musician playing, a regular favorite named Monica. She was a pretty girl, with long black hair and big brown eyes, and she even knew a couple of Cash tunes, and always played them with a wink for John. She had a sweet, high voice, which he'd thought would sound weird on "Solitary Man" the first time she started it, but now it was a favorite of his. Something about her singing those silvery notes way up there made it sound more wistful, somehow. Less hurtful.
As he listened, he thought about Nancy, and how she'd called him only once while he was in the hospital, and could barely find three words to say to him. Then he thought about Holland asking him where the rest of his crew was. But John had come alone. He hadn't asked the rest of his team, didn't want them risking their lives when it was pretty much a lost cause.
But he'd brought Holland home after all. He'd brought him home, and sometimes when Holland called him up to shoot the shit or talk about his son, John would think what a good deal he'd gotten; in spite of the bad hip and the bum leg, even after losing the sky, he'd do it all over again.
He'd always do it again.
Monica was singing "Beautiful Disaster" now, and John almost laughed at how she seemed to be reading his mind.
After the show he tried to help Ahsarvat clean up but got shooed away, so he sat in his corner and talked to Monica while she counted up her tips and laid her beautiful guitar in its velvet-lined case.
"You ever think about going pro?" he asked her, and she shot him a rueful look.
"Sure, if I wanna give up everything I really love about this. All that shit—promo tours and letting some producer muck around with my 'sound' until there's nothing left of me in there? No way. I'm gonna record my album in my boyfriend's basement."
John barked a laugh. "Seriously?"
"Yeah. It's easy now, anyway—software is cheap and all you need is a couple of really good mics, and you can mix it all in the program."
"What about all the rest of it?"
"Sandi says she'll do the artwork."
"Really?" John craned his head to look at Sandi, who was steaming clean the espresso machine.
"Really. She's awesome."
"Oh, I know—she did our logo, you know. I just didn't know you guys knew each other."
"John. Seriously? We've all been hanging out in your café for two years now—everybody knows everybody."
"Yeah." Monica grinned. "We all know each other's secrets, too, so..."
John laughed uneasily. "Hey, don't look at me—I don't have any."
"Sure," she said, drawing it out. "Right." She snapped her guitar case closed and stood up. "Thanks again for the good space."
"Thanks for the music," John said, meaning it.
Ahsarvat and Sandi converged on the front door just as Monica was leaving, so he followed them out and locked up behind them.
"Solitary Man" was still running through his head as he rode home.
He couldn't shake his mood, even after a night's sleep. He didn't know what was wrong—or maybe he did, a little. What Monica said about secrets, well, John had a doozy. He'd been keeping it since before the Air Force, and only let that side of him out to play every so often.
And he was itching for it now for some reason. Not just sex, but sex with a man. One guy in particular, actually—as abrasive and cantankerous as Rodney was, John liked him. Maybe even because of that. And he liked the way Rodney's hands moved when he talked, urgent and expressive. John could imagine Rodney doing amazing things to him with those hands.
But Rodney hadn't shown up. Not that he was obligated to stop by every day, but John had gotten used to it in such a short time, and that was a kick in the head, really. He didn't even know where Rodney lived or what his phone number was. Hell, he didn't even have Rodney's email address, so he couldn't do the ultimately casual thing and drop him a note.
John popped open his laptop.
Subject: cf. Excuse me, but Batman smells. And Robin laid an egg.
(Not that I ascribe to childish nursery rhymes, but proof is proof, I suppose.)
So, you claim you're not a stripper. Nor a late night caped crusader? And yet, I haven't heard any more from you today. Of course, I'm sure you have a very busy social schedule, what with the Mensa coffee klatches and your Puzzlers Anonymous meetings.
Actually, I find I want to know more about you than what I've gleaned from your postings. I want to know why you never told us you were in the hospital when you first joined the group. For how long? Why were you really in there?
Quid pro quo, if you're interested.
Today I spent the entire day trapped in boring meetings where useless people argued around and around on decisions they had no business making. So, please, give me something to get this awful taste out of my mouth.
John felt the strain of wanting to tell, but knowing how he'd feel afterwards—like he'd lost something, or given it away, making it cheap. But he made himself hit reply anyway, and started typing.
I didn't tell you guys because I didn't want a bunch of fake sympathy.
They had me in there for 2.5 months. Some not-so-friendlies hit the road in front of us with an RPG, and I rolled the jeep.
It's okay--it was stolen, anyway.
My buddy got thrown free, but I got trapped underneath. Some of our guys came zooming in and dug me out, but I took some damage.
I guess that's all I want to say about that, except I think your puzzles saved my sanity when I was in the hospital. I never said thanks for that. So, thanks.
QPQ: why's a smarty-pants like you diddling around with a puzzle group? You're way too smart to be wasting time with us.
(I think I need a .sig.)
John hit send without letting himself think about it. Digging the fuzzy mouse out from behind the cushions, he threw it for Punk in a low arc just over her head. She jumped up and batted it down, then savaged it by shaking her head before trotting back over and dropping it on the couch next to John's leg.
John picked it up by the tail and swung it in the air a couple of times, trying to fake her out, but she waited to start running until he released it, and then knocked it around the carpet for a little while before bringing it back.
He'd just tossed it again when his computer binged. That meant Doubledoc had to be online.
Subject: you're a dunce
That sounds like a nightmare. I hate hospitals. For one thing, they're usually filled with sick people, notorious vectors for all kinds of hideous diseases. I'm amazed you didn't die of cholera your second day there.
And by the way, the others don't have to know you to feel badly for you, Hawkeye. Yes, yes, that isn't your name. But since Blackhawk isn't either, let me have my fun. Anyway, you might've told me. At least I could've made you some extra puzzles to keep you from going stir-crazy.
Are you all better now?
Re: my QPQ--ouch. You really know where to stick the knife. And I can't tell you the whole thing, because believe me, the people with interest are probably still paying attention. But suffice to say yes, I am brilliant. I'm so brilliant I made something I shouldn't have. For all the right reasons, I promise you--I was trying to solve this little problem we call global warming. But it went bad, and we barely managed to shut the prototype down in time, and I was booted from the scientific community with extreme prejudice.
That's why I use a pseudonym. No one would take me seriously as a scientist anymore. I'm not sure I don't agree with them.
QPQ: straight, gay, or bi?
Oh, man. Doubledoc didn't miss a trick. John responded quickly.
Bi. At least, as far as I can remember. It's been a while since I've gotten any.
QPQ: gay or bi? (see how I'm not accepting straight for an answer.)
And, Jesus, DD, what's this about a prototype that, from the sound of it, could have blown up in your face?
You realize if you had died you wouldn't have been around to drag my head out of my ass when I was in Landstuhl? Pretty selfish of you, buddy.
It doesn't matter what those yahoos think, anyway. You're still the smartest guy I know.
>Are you all better now?
Not really. My hip is in bad shape. Doc says I could get better if I went back in for more surgery. But I don't know what I'd do about my business (I own a coffee roastery. Best beans this side of the Pacific.) I'd be out of commission for six weeks, at least, and I can't afford the extra help.
Speaking of which, I'm going to have to cut this short. Have to be up early tomorrow since my morning guy is taking the day off.
"Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
John put his computer to sleep with the uneasy feeling he'd revealed too much. It always felt like that when he really connected with someone. Maybe that was why he was so pissed at Rodney for not showing up today. They'd had a good thing going, and him not showing up felt like he was throwing it all in John's face.
Which was stupid. The guy probably had to work, or maybe his cat got sick—he'd told John he had an annoying cat with a hairball fetish.
John washed up and crawled into bed, but his body was buzzing a little, so he reached into his boxers and palmed his dick. Yeah, definitely something going on there. He gripped himself and started stroking, shuffling through his fantasies for a good one. Like the one where his first D.I., Peterson, was hazing him when he was just a nugget, but instead of making John drop and give him fifty, he'd make John drop his pants and bend over his chute pack.
John thought of Peterson spreading his cheeks and fingering his asshole. Yeah, that's good, airman. That's a nice, tight little ass. And maybe he'd work his finger in on a some spit and loosen John up so he could fuck him.
God, he really needed to be fucked. Needed to feel wanted like that, like he was the hottest thing going. And John would open right up, take those fingers, take that heavy cock even if it was a tough fit. Feel it stroking inside his ass, rubbing up against his sweet spot—
John groaned and cupped his hand over the head of his cock to catch it as he shot. Christ, that feels good. He didn't know why he didn't jack off more often, except that afterward it always felt the same. Like he'd never have that again.
Grabbing a tissue from his nightstand, he wiped off and then set his alarm before going to sleep.
John woke up at six with Punk's ass in his face. Not a great start, which he followed with almost slipping in the shower, giving his hip a nice wrench when he caught himself.
He was careful in the kitchen getting his cereal, and eased himself down on the couch to eat while he checked his mail. A couple of new messages were waiting from Doubledoc, which made John smile until he opened the first one.
Where do you live????
No quid pro quo, no response to John's screed, just that one question. A sinking feeling hit John in the gut before he fully realized what it meant. What it had to mean. He opened the second message, sent not a minute later.
John? Is that you?
And then all the clues John had been ignoring clicked into place. Because he was an idiot, wasn't he? Not nearly as smart as Doubledoc. Not as smart as Rodney. Both of them scientists, brilliant and perpetually annoyed and hilarious and interesting. Both of them the kind of guy he was always attracted to.
Doubledoc was Rodney. Rodney was Doubledoc.
John was twice as screwed. Because now he wanted Rodney twice as bad, but John had told more to Doubledoc because it was safer, and then Doubledoc flirted with him anyway so what the hell did that mean about his chances with Rodney?
He had to know.
John was out the door before he remembered to feed Punk, and then had to walk halfway up again, his heart hammering in his chest. He beat his personal best climbing the hill, though, the adrenaline enough to make the trip almost painless. On his way down he had to focus on using the brakes, on watching the street surface, thinking impossible thoughts about corny Hollywood movies where the hero is killed in a horrible accident on the way home to seeing his sweetheart.
Maybe Rodney could be that for him. Maybe he wanted to be. On the other hand, maybe Rodney didn't want a boyfriend who couldn't walk very well. He hadn't given John any real signs.
John guessed he'd find out.
Fair Trade was all locked up, of course, because he was opening today. Except he was an hour early, and besides, Rodney never rolled in until nine at the earliest.
The thought calmed John down a little bit, and he went through the motions of flicking on lights, powering up the espresso machine and setting down all the chairs. Probably a couple of people would drift in, even though it was early, so he started some coffee brewing and opened the register.
The bell above the door rang, and Rodney walked in.
For a second John just stared at him, completely helpless to do anything, to say anything. It was like all the words in the universe had been sucked into a black hole.
"I—I was waiting. Over at—at the newsstand," Rodney stammered, his cheeks flushed pink. Then he frowned, his hands rising to make an outraged gesture. "Of course it's you. Of course. Because you are the most singularly annoying man, except there were two of you, equally annoying—"
"Oh, I'm annoying—?"
"Yes, very. Which is why I didn't think—but of course, because you are brilliant at chess, which is a dead giveaway, and the Douglas Adams thing, which we have discussed in the past, as I recall, and you probably still hold to the ridiculous notion that So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish is the best book in the series—"
"So? I like dolphins!"
Rodney's mouth snapped shut suddenly, and then he started to smile, really wide, wider than John had ever seen him smile. Maybe John should have known after all, because he'd always been the only one who could reduce Doubledoc to babbling in outrage, and the same thing was true of Rodney.
"I really like you," Rodney said. "And I realize you haven't evinced any interest in my—well, my corporeal form—"
"Oh, shut up and get over here." John eased around the counter and stood waiting with his heart climbing his throat. Rodney didn't disappoint him; he hurried closer, and then he was there, so solid, right in front of John.
That was good, because John was going to kiss him now.
"I'm gonna—" he started to say, but Rodney was already kissing him. Soft, warm kisses, not nasty, but with the potential definitely there in the curl of Rodney's tongue against his, and the way his mouth was slick and pushy and everything John wanted. John's dick jumped to immediate attention, but he told himself to back off, because he hadn't even asked Rodney what his thoughts were on guys who weren't normal. Who couldn't maybe do the things Rodney might want to do.
"Wait," John said, pulling back, and that's when the bell rang again and some customers walked in.
"Shit," Rodney said under his breath.
John couldn't help grinning—kind of goofily, probably, but he didn't care.
"May I help you?" he said to Rodney, stepping back behind the counter.
Rodney chimed in with, "Yes, please. Do you have any coffee?"
"Why, certainly, sir. It's a coffee shop."
"You didn't just quote Monty Python at me," Rodney whispered furiously. "Now I really, really want to f—"
"Your coffee, sir," John said loudly, hoping to drown Rodney out. Rodney took his cup and offered John some cash, but John just frowned at him.
"Very well," Rodney said, putting the money back in his pocket, "but you realize you're setting a very poor precedent."
"I'm sure I'll regret it," John said agreeable. "Now let me take care of these nice people."
The customers were familiar, a couple that came by the shop on the weekends. "Hi," John said, wishing he was better at remembering names. "Latte, extra foam, dash of chocolate?"
"Yes, thanks," the taller one said. Anton, that was his name.
"And just black for you, right?"
The other guy nodded, "Both to go, thanks."
John handed over the regular coffee and got to work on the latte, conscious the whole time of Rodney leaning against the pillar by the bathroom, watching his every move.
John almost burned himself with the steamer.
"Here you go. That'll be three seventy-five."
"You're not usually open this early," Anton said as he paid. "It was nice to see the lights on." He flicked a glance over to Rodney and then smiled innocently at John.
John felt his face heat. "Yeah, special occasion," he said, and then almost bit off his own tongue.
"Congratulations," Anton said, the teasing note gone, and his partner added seriously, "Mazel tov."
"Thanks." They were very nice, but John really wanted them to leave already.
Rodney seemed to be of the same mind, because he followed them to the door to lock it behind them, and then flipped the OPEN sign back over.
"Rodney," John protested half-heartedly.
"What? It's only," Rodney peered at his watch, "seven-ten. You guys don't open until eight. Besides," he continued, looking a little uncertain, "I want you to show me the roasting room."
"Yes. I've heard it's really very nice. And private." Rodney waggled his eyebrows ridiculously.
"Well. Most of the equipment is old. Worn out," John said cautiously. "In fact, some of it doesn't even...work right."
Rodney's eyes softened. John didn't even know Rodney could look like that.
"That's okay," Rodney said gently. Then he rolled his eyes. "I can't believe we're talking about your 'equipment.'"
"We're not!" John said, his voice almost breaking into a squeak. "I mean, not that equipment. Jesus!"
"So, you're saying Batman's stuff still explodes?" Rodney said slyly.
"Oh, for the love of—"
"Come on. Show me," Rodney said, and John couldn't think of any reason not to, so he led the way back toward the roaster room, taking a small side-trip into the store room and flicking on the light.
"Here," he said gruffly, handing Rodney the bag. "Made this for you."
Rodney looked at the sticky note then pulled it off, smiling when he saw what was written underneath. "'Rodney's Blend?'"
"Well, yeah," John said, the heat in his ears almost painful. "Except now I think I'll call it 'Doubledoc.' Has a better ring to it."
"Now, of course, I'm going to have to blow you."
"Yeah?" John said weakly.
"You named coffee after me." And then Rodney put the bag down and pushed John deeper into the storeroom before pulling the door closed. "Sit," he said, sounding a little breathless.
John sat on a stack of beans, spreading his legs so Rodney could stand between them. Rodney leaned down and kissed him, his tongue pushing into John's mouth, and John tilted his head back and let him in, giving up breathing in favor of kissing back the best he could. God, Rodney tasted amazing, and it wasn't just because he'd been drinking John's coffee.
"Okay." Rodney pulled back. "Now comes the part where I blow you for naming a coffee after me. Seriously, that's practicallly a Nobel Prize," he said as he got down on his knees and started tugging at John's belt. John helped him get his pants open, and then Rodney was pushing down his boxers far enough to take John's cock in his hand.
"Oh, God," John said before he could stop himself. Rodney just grinned, his blue eyes gleaming, and bent to tilt John's cock into his mouth.
John's hands flew back to brace himself against the sensation as Rodney started sucking him.
"Yeah, Rodney," John moaned and tried to thrust up, but his hip immediately complained, making him hiss.
Rodney raised his head. "That wasn't a good sound. I know my good sounds and that wasn't one."
"Sorry," John gritted. "Remember I warned you about the broken equipment."
"So? This seems to be working fine," Rodney said, giving John's cock a quick stroke. "Why don't you let me handle the hard part?"
John groaned at the pun, and then groaned even louder when Rodney sucked him back in, his tongue working hard against the underside of John's cock. The instinct to thrust hit him again, but he made himself relax, his thighs going loose, and Rodney made a happy, approving sound as he sucked and licked, fingering John's balls at the same time.
"Jesus God that's good," John mumbled, "Use your hand. Use your hand, Rodney, I'm so close—"
Rodney hummed in agreement and started jacking John's cock with his hand while he sucked and slurped over the head, and John felt his nuts draw up right before the pleasure hit him and he started to come. He moaned and jerked a little when he felt Rodney swallowing, his teeth brushing a little against the shaft and making John peak again.
"Christ," John said when he was done, and he passed shaking fingers over Rodney's thinning hair. "Thank you. Thanks."
"No, thank you," Rodney said, and pushed himself to his feet with a little groan.
"No. I think I bent my dick in half," Rodney said ruefully. John grabbed him and pulled him down for a kiss, then reached for Rodney's fly.
"Think I can fix that," John said. "Kiss it better or something."
"Oh, do. By all means," Rodney said, sounding like he was laughing, but there was more to it. He sounded blissed out, almost giddy.
John knew how he felt. He got a nice whiff of Rodney's scent, the smell of male arousal, and it made him eager to get Rodney's cock in his mouth, make him feel even a little of what John had felt looking down at Rodney's head moving over his cock.
"Come closer," John complained, tugging at him, and then pushed Rodney's pants and boxers down.
Rodney's cock was a thing of beauty, a deep pink flushing the puffy head. He had a foreskin snugged like a wrapper at the base of the crown, and John rubbed it curiously. He'd never sucked a guy with a foreskin before.
"Mmmm," Rodney said. "Yes, please. Like that."
"How the hell does this thing work?" John said, partially under his breath, making Rodney bark out a laugh.
"Spider-man's stuff is slightly different," he explained, and John thwapped him on the hip just to make him yelp.
Well, there was only one way to figure it out, and that was to do it. John pulled Rodney forward by the hips and ran his tongue over the crown of Rodney's cock, dipping lightly into the slit before slipping down under the foreskin.
Rodney made an unholy sound and set his hand on John's hair, lightly, but pushing a little as if he wanted John to take him deeper. John obliged, and sucked Rodney deeper into his mouth, then put his hand over Rodney's to show him. Yeah, like this. Fuck my mouth.
And Rodney did—started fucking John's mouth, slowly at first, and then really pulling John down onto his cock, over and over, those same sweet sounds spilling from Rodney's lips and making John wish he could get hard all over again.
Come in my mouth. I want to taste you, John thought. I bet you taste good.
He did, John discovered when Rodney sighed and started to come, his cock twitching in John's mouth. Rodney tasted like green grass after a hard rain. He tasted like bitter grounds and winter snow. John swallowed as much as he could before he had to pull back and take over with his hand. It had been a long time and maybe he was out of practice, or maybe Rodney always came like this, because he was still groaning and his cock jerked again, spitting come on John's T-shirt.
"Oh," Rodney said, his eyes closed, the same expression on his face that he'd had when he took that first sip of Moloka'i.
John's dick gave a half-hearted twitch, like it wanted to go another round but couldn't predict the outcome.
Rodney leaned over him and gave him a hot kiss. John could taste himself there, his come in Rodney's mouth. They kissed until Rodney complained of neck pain and straightened up.
"You're going to have to change shirts," Rodney said, not looking guilty at all.
John looked down at the spatter of come drying on his chest, and sighed before pulling his shirt off. "It's okay, I've got a spare set of clothes I keep in the office."
"For just this occasion?" Rodney asked, but he sounded a little remote, and John looked up hastily.
Rodney was staring at John's crotch; or maybe at the scar noodling its angry way from his hip to under his jeans. The scars got worse under there, and he was a little glad he hadn't dropped his pants all the way.
"Not so pretty, huh?" John said, dropping his T-shirt onto his lap. "Ronon—he's my orthopedic surgeon—wants to make a couple more cuts to finish the job."
Rodney dropped down to his knees again, and John could no longer avoid his eyes.
"You told me," Rodney said quietly, his hands on John's thighs. "Remember?"
"Right...I told Doubledoc," John said, distracted again by how odd that was.
"Are you planning to go through with it?"
"Not—I'm not sure. I don't know. I told you, there's no one to—I can't just—" The words tangled in a traffic jam, an accident waiting to happen, and he bit his tongue before it could do anymore damage.
Rodney gave him a narrow look, but didn't say anything.
John bent his head and started fixing himself up. "I should get ready," he said. "Opening up soon, and all that."
"Yes, of course," Rodney said, weirdly formal, but when John started to try to get up, Rodney's hand was there on offer, and John took it and let Rodney haul him to his feet.
"Thanks." John leaned forward and kissed him, just because he could, and Rodney's mouth curved in a smile even as he kissed back.
"This was nice."
"Real nice," John agreed, and couldn't resist kissing Rodney's slanted mouth one more time. Unfortunately, the delivery bell rang a second later, and John pulled away with a rueful grin. "Back to work."
"Back to work. Hopefully later you can show me the rest of the room. I want my promised tour. Oh! And my coffee," Rodney said and bent to retrieve it, giving John an excellent rear view.
Soon, John thought as he snagged his spare shirt from the office and then walked over to the delivery door. He had to struggle to get his arms in the holes, he was so dazed by the surprise sex, and the surprise of Rodney, and the idea of "soon." And now John had someone—well, he was pretty sure he did, anyway, and for the first time in a long time he had something to look forward to.
He took the morning pastry delivery and cradled the big pink boxes in his arms to carry them into the front. Rodney had served himself coffee and was lounging with a newspaper on his bench. John could tell he'd be hard at work keeping Rodney in coffee, and the idea made him grin while he worked.
He'd just finished filling the display case when Sandi buzzed in, her pink hair a little wild and her eyeliner smudged.
"Rough night?" he asked mockingly, and she smirked at him.
"It depends on what you mean by 'rough.'"
John rubbed the back of his neck and hid a smirk of his own. He looked over at their corner, and Rodney raised his head. His face brightened into a brilliant smile, and John couldn't help smiling back.
Sandi followed his gaze and said, "You seem like you're in a good mood."
"Yeah, well, it's been a good week," John said.
"I'm glad, boss."
John's face heated, but he returned her smile.
"A really good week," he repeated softly to himself, and sauntered over to where Rodney was waiting.
Teyla showed up soon after with Ronon in tow, and Sandi squealed and went charging over.
John got it when Ronon caught her and gave her a kiss.
"Hi, guys," John said. He looked across at Rodney, who was watching him intently. "Uh, this is Rodney McKay. Rodney, this is Dr. Teyla Emmagan and Dr. Ronon Dex."
"I've seen you here before, I believe," Teyla said, walking over to offer her hand. "Please, call me Teyla."
"Hi, Teyla," Rodney said. He turned back to John and mouthed, wow.
"And I'm Ronon." Ronon nodded at Rodney and gave John a wolfish smile.
"Teyla likes to do the crossword," John said hurriedly, then added under his breath, "And embarrass me whenever possible."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, John. But may we join you?"
So that's how they all ended up in John's corner working on the Sunday crossword together while Sandi buzzed around them plying them with coffee and pastries.
It was kind of nice, John had to admit once he'd stopped flushing. It felt friendly. Eventually, though, he had to leave them all alone together to check on the roasts, and when he came back it was painfully obvious they'd been talking about him.
One thing was for damned sure: Rodney couldn't do 'innocent' even with the help of ten vestal virgins and a pound of stage makeup.
"So," John said darkly. Ronon coughed
After an awkward moment, Rodney looked down and crowed "Smew! On eleven across," and everything felt all right again.
John made Rodney come home with him after closing, since Punk was waiting for her dinner. To hear Rodney complain about it, the hill to John's house was practically Kilimanjaro.
"Tell me, seriously," Rodney said, huffing between words, "you like doing this?"
"Keeps me in shape," John said. He was in granny gear, biking slowly next to Rodney because it was way easier than walking.
"Yes, I can tell. The way you barely fill out your jeans—"
"You saying my ass is substandard?"
"What? No. Of course not! You have a very nice ass," he said primly, "—for a beanpole," he added, and John resisted the temptation to whack him on the head. Not out of politeness, but because John didn't want to risk losing his balance.
They crested the hill and started down the other side. John pointed out the organic grocery, and Rodney wanted to stop inside. John noticed him filling his cart with breakfast-type items, and wondered what that meant—whether Rodney planned on spending the night with him.
He'd like that. He'd like to have Rodney stretched out on his big bed, to undress him and have the opportunity to explore him head to toe.
John adjusted himself in his jeans and waited for Rodney to check out.
"I'm just up here," John said as they approached his building. "I have to warn you, there's no elevator."
"Unbelievable," Rodney muttered. John couldn't tell if he was going slow for John's sake, or if he really was that out of shape, but Rodney only stopped complaining about halfway up to cock his head and say, "What's that sound?"
"That is my weird cat. Her name is Punk."
"You have a cat? I have a cat, too. Her name is Ada, after Ada Lovelace."
"You mentioned you had one. Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer, right? A good mathematician, too," John said, and caught Rodney's surprised smile.
"I keep forgetting," he said as John unlocked the door.
"That you're him. That you're Blackhawk."
"Yeah, me, too," John said, his voice a little husky. "I always wondered where you got your login."
"Oh, that. I have two doctorates," Rodney said off-handedly, as if it were no big deal.
"Two?" John raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, what? Oh. Well—" Rodney grimaced, "—not like they're doing me much good anymore."
"I know what you mean," John said quietly. He turned and opened Punk's food bag to scoop some into her bowl. "Thousands of hours of flight time, and all I have to show for it is a bum hip." John leaned on the counter.
Rodney set down the bag of groceries and put his hand on John's side. He hesitated, then brushed a kiss over John's mouth. "Can I see?"
"No, I mean—can I see?"
John nodded, swallowing hard, and led Rodney to the bedroom.
They undressed almost silently, like it was some weird rite. John could practically still feel Rodney's mouth around him in the storeroom, the smell of coffee rising as the beans shifted under him. He wanted Rodney's mouth again, but he also wanted skin—Rodney's skin, which it turned out was pale and smooth. He had pink nipples, and a sprinkling of hair on his chest. He was definitely John's type, solidly built with a little roundness to his belly, and John felt a little self-conscious taking off his shirt, his jeans opened loosely. Rodney came over to him, wearing just his boxers now, and put his hand right over John's scar.
"Come on," Rodney said, pushing John's pants down and giving him something to hold onto while he kicked them off his feet.
John nudged Rodney onto the bed, not wanting to have to explain that he couldn't support Rodney's weight on him. He knelt between Rodney's legs and lowered himself down, biting his lip against the rush of feeling all that warm skin under his, Rodney's body like the perfect cushion.
"God, you feel good," John said helplessly. "And you smell good." He leaned down and sniffed along Rodney's collarbone before laying kisses there, following the ridge to the hollow of Rodney's throat. "So good."
"I smell like coffee," Rodney said, and John snickered.
"Must be why." He tilted his head back and looked into Rodney's amused eyes.
Rodney's expression changed suddenly when John reached down and took his cock in hand. John worked the foreskin up and down over the head, still a little fascinated. Rodney moaned in his ear, and John shivered, then bent down and licked across Rodney's nipple before sucking it into his mouth.
He likes that, John thought, adding it to his mental notes, along with how a slight nibble made Rodney suck in his breath, his cock jerking in John's hand. He liked gentle bites on his neck, too, and when John nuzzled under his jaw, Rodney tilted his head all the way back and made a blissful sound.
John started stroking him, focusing on the feel of Rodney's cock gliding in his palm, the way rubbing a thumb right where the foreskin made a frill had Rodney's hips jerking almost frantically. Speeding up the tempo, John leaned down again and this time bit down a little harder on Rodney's hot pink nipple, and Rodney clutched at John's head and came, his jizz leaking between John's fingers and onto the back of his hand.
Rodney sighed, and then twitched a little in warning, so John eased his grip and the raised his sticky fingers up to his mouth to clean them off with his tongue. He thought maybe Rodney had caught him doing it, because he closed his eyes and licked his own lips.
"You are so hot," John whispered helplessly. "I can't believe you're in my bed."
"You're a fruitcake," Rodney responded, and gave him a weak thwap. "Obviously, your vision was damaged at some point in a freak roasting accident."
"Still 20/20, McKay. Five-by-five."
"Oh, God, with the military talk." Rodney pushed him over suddenly, making John hold his breath, anticipating the jolt. But his hip was doing okay, maybe because right now he was high on Rodney and the way this was making him feel. Rodney's hands rubbed over his chest, teasing his nipples, and then Rodney hitched himself downward. John bit his lip, eager for Rodney to suck him, but instead Rodney veered east and kissed his hip.
John shifted, a little uncomfortable with the direction, but Rodney persisted, his hand clasping John's when John tried to nudge him away. Then Rodney's soft lips traced a slow line of worship that freed something in John's chest, making him feel hot and liquid, like he was mainlining the very best drug.
"Rodney," John sighed.
"Mmm," Rodney replied, lifting his head. John was expected it, but still jumped at the sensation of Rodney's mouth on his cock, hand curling around him and lifting him into deep, wet suction.
"Jesus Christ," John muttered. It was just like this morning, but even better, because he could spread his thighs and urge Rodney's hand between his legs, feel the pads of Rodney's fingers pressing up behind his balls.
It didn't take much, just some soft, hot pressure, and that wicked tongue—it had been so pushy in his mouth, and was even pushier on his cock, rubbing hard under the crown until John groaned and shot toward the edge. He felt Rodney rhythmically pressing a palm behind his balls, and he made a helpless sound and started to come, dizzy with the pleasure of it.
"What the hell was that?" John groaned, feeling completely wasted.
"Just a little trick I picked up in a Nevada brothel."
John shot him a look.
"Come here. Now." John tugged on Rodney's shoulder, not that he could do much without leverage, but Rodney came easily to lay himself along John's left side, whether by chance or intent, John didn't know. He set a kiss on Rodney's jaw, on the soft rise of his cheek, and brushed his lips over Rodney's arching eyebrow, feeling a little ridiculous as he did it, but helpless to stop himself. All he knew was it was good like this—he was feeling no pain at all for the first time in weeks.
"Definitely seven today," John said, almost mumbling.
"What? That better not be out of ten!" Rodney's outrage was only halfway believable, considering he was playing with John's hair, running his fingers into it and fluffing it up again.
John shook his head slightly, not wanting to explain. "Tell you later sometime. It's about...it's about my hip."
"Later?" Suddenly Rodney's face was right there hanging in front of his, and John smiled what he was sure was the goofiest smile in existence.
"Later," he said. "I will."
"Okay, then." Rodney harrumphed as he settled back down, and John let his fingers run over the soft skin of his shoulder. "About that, though..."
"Not that I have any right to say anything, but then again that's hardly stopped me in the past, and though I realize it's a jump to be making...plans per se, but then again, if you're talking about 'later,' then maybe it is appropriate to, well—"
"The thing is, if you needed someone to help out—just temporarily, and I'm only extrapolating on your email and your earlier incoherency about not having the resources to take care of the problem. And you need to. So—well. If you did?"
"If I did?" John said, frowning a little.
"I just wanted to point out that I'm offering. To help."
John turned his head, pulling his hair away from Rodney's fingers. "I couldn't pay you," John said flatly.
"Excuse me?" Rodney huffed. "Did I ask to be paid?"
"I wouldn't take it in charity, either," John said, starting to get angry.
"Of course not. But how about in trade?"
John felt his mouth drop open about the same time Rodney laughed—more of a snort, really.
"Ha! You should see your face. No, not as my sex slave; appealing as the idea is, I'm pretty sure you'd volunteer without me having to bribe you."
"Oh." John's brain whipsawed between what the fuck? and hello, hard-on. "What?"
"I meant you could trade me in coffee. I can easily drink my weight in a single day, but at wholesale prices, my labor would be well worth it. Also, I'd like to learn how to do it."
There was a secret hidden in Rodney's voice, but John was too relieved to try to puzzle it out. All he knew was this could work. But when he didn't answer right away, Rodney started talking even faster.
"I'm not the only one who wants to help out, you know. The others feel the same way. And, anyway, you seem to have a lot of down time between tending the machines; I could work on my own projects then. So, you see, it's really not that much of a burden."
"Wow," John said when Rodney finally ran out of steam.
"That's all you have to say?"
"That, and...yeah, you're right, that would be—that might work." John swallowed thickly. "Thanks. Just...thanks."
Rodney made a pleased grunt. "Of course I'm right," he said, and unselfconsciously arranged his head on John's pillow while John squeezed his eyes shut, his brain reeling with the sudden possibilities.
He could have this. Have Rodney, and maybe get his life back. Not the flying, but everything else he'd given up, including the possibility of energetic sex with his brand-new, coffee-loving boyfriend.
It was a little too much to take in, and John had to curl around Rodney and brush his lips over Rodney's shoulder to make sure he was real.
Just then Punk batted at John's toes and then jumped up onto the bed, making Rodney yelp. She delicately navigated her way over their tangled limbs and dropped her spit-soaked mouse right under Rodney's chin.
"Um, thank you?" Rodney said.
"Back at you," John murmured, meaning it.
Because as Rodney's breathing slowed to a deep purr beside him, it occurred to John he'd gotten a pretty sweet deal.
A/N: Punk is named after runpunkrun, in thanks for creating the Doctor Rodney's Science Corner universe and letting crysothemis play in it, leading to me getting hopped up on the idea of Rodney designing science experiments for kids.
Base of cover image created by Grape Frogg.
To quote the Wikipedia entry, "Fair trade is an organized social movement and market-based approach to empowering developing country producers and promoting sustainability." That means, among other things, if you buy coffees or other agricultural products with the Fair Trade seal you know you are paying the workers a fair wage for their efforts, without them suffering the effects of working crippling hours or with dangerous pesticides, the focus being on sustainability of the business and the environments people live and work in. To have a coffee shop devoted to selling only Fair Trade coffees would mean John would have to struggle a little more as an owner but, considering the neighborhood I put him in, it wouldn't be impossible to have a viable concern under those conditions. And I think he would do it, if only because he's such a stubborn cuss.
Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Café. You have to show up by 10am or you are SOL for getting one of Mario's famous apple turnovers.
The Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park used to have a Möebius strip exhibit with a little arrow that ran on a track.