Rodney McKay, third and insignificant heir to an unimportant estate (and who cared anyway because it wasn't like he had any interest in land) struggled against the hands holding him and shouted more muffled insults through the smelly bag that was currently over his head. Then he kicked hard in a likely direction and grinned smugly when he connected with something and heard a grunt of pain.
"Goddamn!" The satisfaction died slightly when he felt himself slammed back into something solid. Perhaps that had not been the best idea.
"Oi! Don't hurt him!" snapped the second of his captors, his voice slightly deeper than the first man's.
"Why the bloody hell not? He kicked me."
"Because that flash gent is paying us a bleeding fortune to deliver him unharmed, that's why not."
Rodney considered trying to offer them more money to just let him go, not that he could outbid the man who he suspected was behind this outrage, but someone else spoke from behind his shoulder before he could. "And unharmed being specified, you should unhand the man. Now, if you please gentlemen."
The hands dropped from Rodney's arms almost immediately, obedient to the strange voice. He vaguely heard one of the ruffians muttering something about not getting angry as he dragged the sack from his head and then he turned, blinked in the suddenly dazzling sunlight, and smacked his fist into the jaw of the man behind him as hard as he could. There was no way on this earth he was just going to let someone kidnap him.
The man staggered back, hit his head on a tree branch and went down, dropping a pistol on the ground. Rodney snatched it up and pointed it determinedly at the other two men, roughly-dressed and unshaven and looking every bit the low criminal class he had assumed from their speech. "Go away. Very, very far away and don't come back, or I will shoot you."
They glared and exchanged glances then the shorter one shrugged. "Caper was more trouble than it was worth anyway."
"Wait," Rodney called as they turned to leave. "What about him?"
"What about him? He ain't with us."
"What?" Rodney shrieked, "He's not the man who hired you?"
"Till you punched him, he was the one pointing the iron at us. And I don't reckon he'll be very happy with you when he wakes up neither," the big man replied and smirked nastily at Rodney's shock before they both ran off.
Oh damn. It appeared Rodney, with his usual good fortune, had attacked his rescuer by mistake. He'd been so sure that it had been Lord Gennington behind him, though now that he had time to think, the voice hadn't sounded particularly the same. He sat down beside the still-stunned man, who didn't even look like his supposed kidnapper. He was too tall for a start, and much more finely built, with the kind of long, slender legs that actually looked good in the current fashion for tight breeches. He was younger too, about Rodney's own age, with a smooth-shaven narrow face, slightly crooked nose, soft-looking lips and straight dark brows under tousled dark brown hair.
He looked, in fact, like the kind of man Rodney had always secretly wanted just a little bit to be, even while openly decrying them. Handsome, roguish, the kind of man who caused scandalous occurrences and had beautiful women sighing over him wherever he went, just like Rodney's cousins. Inveterate rakes, the lot of them.
He reached out and turned the man's head gently to the side to check for injuries. Rodney was not a small man and did not punch lightly, but he suspected that it was the knock from the branch that had done the real damage in this case. There was a large bump on the back of his skull but it wasn't bleeding so hopefully Rodney hadn't caused him any serious injury and wouldn't have to beg for his life when he woke up. He pulled the stranger's head into his lap, and settled down to wait, idly stroking his hand through the soft hair while he went over some ideas he'd had before he'd been so rudely interrupted by inconvenient abductions.
Sometime later, while Rodney was talking his way aloud through a particularly tricky formula, he looked down and nearly bit his tongue at seeing amused hazel eyes watching him. "You're awake!" he yelped, and jerked his hand away. What had he been thinking, stroking him like that, he wasn't a cat. The man simply grinned infuriatingly and gave a brief nod and a wince. "Why didn't you say something?" Rodney demanded.
"I wanted to see how long it would take you to notice," the man drawled, and Rodney sputtered for a minute before realising that he should probably be apologising instead of getting annoyed, no matter how aggravating his would-be rescuer was.
"Well, I had a great deal on my mind, after being abducted and forced to listen to my captors' witless conversation all that time, but I do appreciate you trying to rescue me. At least, I assume that is what you were trying to do, however it turned out."
"Yes, you are fortunate I heard you yelling for help," the man said, finally sitting up from Rodney's lap.
"I wasn't yelling for help, I was telling them what I thought of their ancestry," Rodney said, slightly indignant. "I would have found a way out of the situation myself quite handily if you hadn't turned up."
"When I turned up you had your head in a sack and were pinned to a tree. If I hadn't intervened, you would still be a prisoner," the man replied, rising carefully to his feet and stretching out a hand. Rodney took it automatically and found himself pulled to his feet before he was quite ready. He stumbled slightly and the man wrapped his arms round him and pulled Rodney close until he pushed away, feeling a little unnerved and more off-balance than before.
"Yes, all right, your ability to act as a minor distraction was useful, but I managed just fine after that without your help. In fact, I had to rescue myself in the end anyway."
"Only because you hit me," the stranger said pointedly, retrieving his gun from the ground.
That certainly brought Rodney up short; he'd almost forgotten that it was entirely his fault the rescue had gone less than perfectly. "Ah. Yes. I apologise for that. When I couldn't see you, I thought you were the man who paid for my abduction, but you're much too good-looking."
"Well, that's flattering," said the stranger, the infuriating grin reappearing while Rodney flushed red and wished the ground would open. That hadn't been what he had meant to say at all. "Though I'm going to assume that you believe you know who was behind this plot, rather than you believe morality and aesthetics to be intrinsically entwined."
Rodney opened his mouth to reply but thought better of it. The conversation was getting out of hand. He had no proof other than his instincts and he had lost enough dignity and been unsettled enough for one day. "I thank you for your assistance, but I do not believe that is any of your concern. If you will excuse me, I have had a very, very trying day and I would like to return home."
He stepped forward then stopped, seeing only trees and bushes in every direction. When he turned around, his unsettling rescuer was propped on one arm against a tree and watching him with amusement. He raised an eyebrow and waited until Rodney sighed and gave in. "Where is home? And how did you happen to find me in the middle of the woods anyway?" That was actually quite suspicious, what if his apparent rescuer was a double-bluff and he was really in league with the villains? "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"My name is John Sheppard, I was travelling to London, we're only a few yards from a road and you were shouting quite loudly. I'm afraid I can't answer the other question until you tell me who you are, but if it helps we're currently not far from Cornwall. I think the nearest town is probably Launceston."
"London? Then you can take me back with you," Rodney decided. Despite owning a small amount of land there, the only acquaintance he had in Cornwall was Lord Gennington, a fact that simply lent credence to his theory that the man had tried to have him kidnapped, and he knew next to nothing of the country. He could give this man the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, he would have to since he had no other way home.
"Oh really," said Sheppard, crossing his arms over his chest and smirking. "I thought you didn't need my help?"
"What is that supposed to mean? You can't just leave me stranded here, it's the middle of nowhere, it's completely uncivilized, there are probably bandits and ruffians everywhere! What kind of rescuer are you?"
"So you admit I rescued you?"
"Is that what this is about? You're going to leave me here because I criticized your technique? That is very petty and incredibly stupid and just the kind of behaviour I would expect from someone who looks like you," Rodney fumed.
"You wound me," Sheppard replied drily, placing a hand dramatically over his heart. "I thought you liked the way I looked. Also, insulting me is not the best way to inspire me to help you and you still haven't told me your name."
Rodney threw up his hands in frustration, "What does that have to with the issue?"
"I like to know the names of the people I save from uncertain fates," Sheppard shrugged. "A little quirk of mine."
Rodney gave him one of his best glares. It was the one that always caused his servants to scurry off like frightened rabbits, but all Sheppard did was raise his eyebrows expressively again. "Fine. My name is Rodney McKay. You rescued me beautifully, now will you take me with you?"
"Oh, I was always going to take you with me. I just wanted you to acknowledge that I rescued you," said Sheppard and smiled sweetly and strolled off before Rodney could come up with a response. "Come along Rodney," called what was clearly the most aggravating man in the world and Rodney stomped after him, wishing fervently that he had had the foresight to hit him much harder earlier.
It turned out that Sheppard's description of the thoroughfare in question as a road was highly optimistic. To Rodney's eyes, it more closely resembled a narrow track, suggesting his abductors had made an effort to get off the beaten path. On the track there stood a team of extremely good horses attached to an expensive-looking light phaeton carriage, presumably belonging to Sheppard since the men who had snatched Rodney were unlikely to be able to afford such a conveyance.
"Aren't you travelling with a groom?" asked Rodney.
"He caught a terrible cold in his head so I left him to recover. I assure you, I'm quite capable of handling the team myself though," Sheppard replied, hopping agilely up.
Rodney found he was strangely reluctant to take the hand that Sheppard reached down to him, but the step was high and he was quite tired. He was pulled up so enthusiastically that he very nearly landed in Sheppard's lap and for a second he found himself looking into the man's eyes from just a couple of inches away.
He had very long eyelashes and Rodney didn't think he had seen any other eyes that particular mix of colours before.
Not that he went around gazing into people's eyes as a matter of course, and he really ought to sit down properly and stop gazing into Sheppard's eyes before he decided Rodney was a half-wit. He shifted back fully onto his side of the carriage and fussed with his coat a little. When he sneaked a look sideways, Sheppard didn't appear annoyed by his clumsiness or to be looking askance at his behaviour; in fact he was smiling slightly, an expression Rodney had already noticed he favoured.
They bowled along in pleasant silence long enough for Rodney to relax and start to feel hungry before Sheppard spoke again. "I'm curious as to how you found yourself in such a predicament, McKay. How did your former companions take you prisoner?"
"I was at a social engagement and received a note purporting to be from a friend of mine wishing to speak with me in the gardens. I realise now that it was a ruse, but at the time I had no reason to be suspicious so I went outside and some large, smelly men grabbed me. Before I knew what was happening, I was in very uncomfortable carriage with a bag over my head and a pistol pressed into my ribs. We travelled a long time and then they told me to get out and that they were taking me to meet someone."
"It seems England is a more dangerous place than I remember. I suppose they were going to ransom you?" asked Sheppard.
"Hardly," Rodney snorted. "My family is nowhere near rich enough and most of my nearest and dearest relations would be too delighted at getting rid of me to even consider paying."
"How decidedly odd of them," was the bland reply to that unguarded remark, causing Rodney to look at his companion suspiciously for signs of mockery; but for once Sheppard seemed quite serious. "Though, it is true that in my experience, families very rarely act as they should."
To Rodney's relief, the topic of his kidnapping was dropped after that as Sheppard concentrated on the road and horses. His own theory as to the reason and likely culprit still lacked a great deal of information, for example a rational motive, and the evidence he did have was not the sort he felt comfortable sharing. He also didn't want to dwell on his own stupidity and weakness in being captured more than he had to; he was sure that Sheppard probably thought he should have fought them off and he hated feeling incapable.
With nothing else to do, Rodney found himself concentrating once more on the emptiness of his stomach. To his embarrassment, it rumbled loudly but before any comment could be made, it was echoed by a much larger rumble and Rodney turned to see a bank of dark clouds piling up in the sky behind them. "Oh, wonderful. Now I can get drenched and die of pneumonia. The perfect end to a perfect day."
"Cheerful aren't you? I admit we won't reach the inn I had intended to spend the night in before that hits but there is a welcoming barn over there that will do equally as well."
Rodney stared at Sheppard. "A barn? You want to shelter for the night in a barn? How wrong I was to despair, my health will obviously be completely safe in a dusty, filthy cowshed."
Sheppard barely gave a shrug in answer, already turning the phaeton towards the rough building. "If you'd rather stay outside, that's up to you, but the horses and I will be quite happy under a roof." He jumped down as they arrived, pulled the door open then led the horses in.
Once he was inside, Rodney had to concede that it wasn't as bad as he had expected. It was a hay barn rather than a byre and though there was indeed enough dust to make him sneeze several times, it merely smelled of sweet hay and earth. He climbed down as Sheppard unhitched the animals, talking softly to them and rubbing their necks, and then found his way up a crude ladder into the hayloft. It was a shame he couldn't munch down hay like the horses were below. How unfair that the weather had caused him to miss out on the prospect of an inn.
By the time Sheppard climbed up to join him, Rodney had shaped himself a rough chair of hay and was listening to the rain that had started in earnest outside. "Feeling comfortable?" Sheppard asked.
"Oh absolutely, nothing could compare to such luxury. Except possibly a hayloft with supper included."
"Allow me to make your joy complete," Sheppard smirked and tossed a packet to him. When he opened it to find actual sustenance, in the form of bread and cheese, Rodney decided that the other man might be a hero after all.
He did remember his manners enough to share the food between them both. Sheppard ate neatly and sparingly, giving Rodney back roughly a third of his share and passing over a water flask at the same time. By the time they had finished, the combination of the storm and night drawing in had made the interior of the barn too dark for Rodney to make out the other man's features clearly. When Sheppard suggested that they might as well get some rest, Rodney agreed readily. He felt like he had been awake for roughly a fortnight and the hay was positively inviting.
He settled down, expecting to fall asleep straight away. But though the hay was surprisingly comfortable, he found himself unable to relax. The clothes he had been wearing when he was abducted were suitable for a drawing room, but not roaming around the countryside and the temperature had dropped with the storm. He rolled up in his jacket as best he could but he was forced to move about every so often to try and generate more warmth.
"McKay, would you please stop rustling like that? I'm trying to sleep," Sheppard finally growled.
"So am I!"
"Lie still then."
"I can't. I'm too cold," Rodney muttered. The only reply he got was a sigh, before Sheppard's silhouette moved suddenly and the hay dipped as he flopped down right next to Rodney. "What are you doing?"
"Allowing us both to get some rest," Sheppard said, rolling Rodney onto his side and spooning up behind him. "Now, close your eyes and count fluffy little sheep."
He slung an arm round Rodney, pulling him back into his chest. Rodney tensed at the feel of Sheppard's breath against the back of his neck but gradually the warmth of the other man's body seeped through their clothing and Rodney relaxed. The sound of Sheppard's breathing evening out into the steady rhythm of sleep soothed him into a doze and soon he was fast asleep himself.
Rodney screwed his eyes up against the daylight and burrowed into his bedclothes. He was warm and comfortable and not ready to get up just yet and the fact he could hear the dawn chorus of birds meant it was far too early to even consider doing so. He was just dozing off once again when an unwelcome thought intruded: his bed was moving slightly and that was not usual.
Memory returning all at once, he opened his eyes to find he was lying half on top of Sheppard, with one hand wrapped in the other man's shirt, their legs tangled together and his head tucked on Sheppard's shoulder. He shifted slightly, feeling Sheppard's encircling arm slide a little further down his back, and Rodney found himself looking at Sheppard's bare throat from scarcely an inch away. Sheppard had loosened his collar so the little hollow between the ends of his collarbones was exposed. Rodney could see his pulse beating strongly and steadily, could smell the scent rising off his skin and suddenly Rodney's face was burning and his heart was hammering in his chest.
He rolled away frantically, and sat facing in the other direction with his head in his hands until he could breathe normally again. There was nothing to panic about. He hadn't done anything wrong, nothing had happened. He'd been asleep and confused and that was all there was to it.
A rustling from behind made him freeze but then Rodney made himself turn around. Sheppard was still sprawled in the hay, comfortable as a cat and rubbing a hand lazily back through his hair while he yawned. Rodney could feel himself flushing again as he met Sheppard's eyes but the other man simply smiled at him and Rodney began to calm down. Sheppard must have been fast asleep until Rodney had moved away; he would surely not be looking so relaxed if he had been awake and aware.
"Good morning, Rodney," Sheppard said in a voice still rough from sleep.
Rodney chose to ignore the fact that he had to clear his throat several times in order to reply. He was thirsty, that was why his mouth was dry. He also ignored the way Sheppard had used his Christian name despite the impropriety of such intimacy on their short acquaintance.
But in the back of his mind he was deeply grateful for the knowledge that once they reached London, he and Sheppard would most likely never cross paths again. It was clear from Sheppard's accoutrements and style that he belonged to the most fashionable sets of society, a fully-fledged member of the ton. He would be welcomed into the type of clubs that wouldn't even consider Rodney, and he would be invited to all the glittering occasions that Rodney detested and avoided as much as possible.
He kept telling himself this was a good thing while he held the horses for Sheppard to harness them back to the phaeton and while they set off on the road again. Sheppard looked curiously at him a few times but Rodney was not inclined to conversation and responded shortly to his comments until he gave up and they both fell silent.
Rodney found himself dwelling on calculations for astronomical theory as time went on. There was a particularly tricky problem that was bothering him and though he had been trying to solve it for a while now, it was refusing to behave.
He would never admit it out loud, but on the night he had been kidnapped he had been eager to see Count Zelenka at the Natural Philosophy Society in order to discuss his progress. The foreign nobleman was not quite as idiotic as the rest of the members and while he was nowhere near as brilliant as Rodney himself, he did occasionally manage to spark an observation that Rodney could work with. Since the note Rodney had received had obviously not been from Zelenka and he had not seen the man inside, it would appear he was still out of town. He could vaguely remember being told that Zelenka was going to the country to pursue what he called a "most interesting acquaintance". It was very inconvenient altogether.
He was roused from his reverie by the carriage stopping and he looked up to discover they were in the courtyard of a coach inn. "What's going on?"
Sheppard gave him a blank look. "We're at an inn."
"Yes, my eyes do actually work. I meant, why are we stopping so soon? I would like to return to my home as quickly as possible."
"We're stopping after nearly three hours because I could personally be inclined towards cleaning up a little and having some breakfast. You don't have to join me if you do not wish to, of course," and Sheppard's eyes were mocking as he said that, no doubt perfectly aware that Rodney was starving.
"I suppose that is an acceptable plan," he muttered. Sheppard simply smiled and jumped down, handing over the reins to a groom. Rodney clambered down as well and followed him into the building. The innkeeper took one look at Sheppard's obviously expensive clothing and showed them into what looked like the best private dining room, telling them that breakfast would be with them shortly, sirs. At Sheppard's request he also agreed to provide hot water and soap, something Rodney had far less interest in, though a wash would prove welcome.
The food appeared first, trays covered in teapots and plates with bacon, sausages, kippers and rolls with pots of jam. Rodney barely held himself back from grabbing it off the serving maid, who spent far too long giving Sheppard saucy smiles and looks before finally putting everything on the table and swinging her hips back out of the door. He was about to pounce on the feast when a thought occurred that left him staring at it gloomily.
"Something wrong, McKay?" asked Sheppard, while he nibbled at a sausage. "The food's going to get cold and all you're doing is gazing at it longingly."
"I am not gazing longingly." Rodney replied loftily.
"Would you prefer mooning like a lovesick maiden?" Sheppard inquired politely. "I know you're hungry, I can hear your stomach complaining from here."
Rodney squirmed. He had been hoping it wasn't that obvious. He sighed and gave in. "I am simply experiencing slight pecuniary embarrassment. I'm afraid I don't have any money to settle my half of the bill."
Sheppard's eyebrows shot up and he put down the sausage. "Let me see if I understand this correctly. You are quite content to punch me in the face, complain about my rescuing style and appropriate my phaeton to convey you home…"
"You were going to London anyway! And I did apologise about the punch," Rodney protested, trying not to look at the bruise darkening Sheppard's jaw.
"But you are overcome with scruples at the thought of my buying you breakfast? I think my purse can stand the expense." He filled a plate up with food and shoved it towards Rodney. "Eat, or I'll have to stop too to be polite and I'm really hungry."
Rodney wavered slightly, trying to hold onto his willpower, but the delicious bacon scent was too enticing. "I'll reimburse you once I am home," he said and shoved a forkful in his mouth, closing his eyes in appreciation of the taste. He heard a choked snort of laughter from the other side of the table and opened his eyes to find Sheppard watching him with a sort of exasperated amusement.
"You are being ridiculous," he sighed.
Rodney raised his chin stubbornly. "It may seem ridiculous to you, but it is my policy to always settle my debts. A man must have some principles after all."
Sheppard opened his mouth to reply, then apparently changed his mind and nodded instead while eating some bread and jam with a thoughtful look on his face.
Rodney suddenly had the feeling that he had said rather too much, but it wasn't like his family's circumstances were a secret. His father's gaming had saddled them with frighteningly large debts on his death and his mismanagement of the land they had inherited from their mother's side meant it had taken Rodney and his siblings several years to pay them off and regain some semblance of social standing. It would have been far easier to sell off the land, but their mother would not hear of such a thing and threatened hysteria and swooning at the very mention. Fortunately, Henry and Edward had both recently managed advantageous marriages so there was little chance of their fortunes reversing once more and Rodney could finally concentrate on his own pursuits and not have to think about boring money problems. Even more fortunately, his brothers were both still out of the country on their wedding tours so Rodney wasn't currently forced to deal with their disdain for his interests or lectures on his behaviour.
The remainder of the meal passed with no more meaningful conversation than remarks on the food and the likely weather prospects. Rodney was slightly dismayed when Sheppard pointed out that even travelling all that day, they would not reach London before nightfall and would have to avail themselves of another inn. He had not thought he had been travelling for that long after he had been snatched from the meeting, but after the immediate panic had receded he had rather lost track of time. He knew he had occasionally succumbed to exhaustion and fallen into brief restless dozes and the bag over his head had made it difficult to judge the hours passing.
The washing supplies were brought in just as they were finishing up the last fragments of food. Rodney was annoyed to see that the same flirtatious maid that had served the meal accompanied the men with the basin, water jugs and shaving mirror. He was sure they could have managed the soap and towels as well without her help and she clearly saw it as an opportunity to attract Sheppard's attention, lingering long after the other servants had left. Indeed, she was so blatant about her intentions that Rodney was beginning to wonder about the respectability of the inn.
Sheppard didn't seem to mind her behaviour at all, of course. He simply smiled at her coy glances and let her touch his arm and lean in to his body when she handed over the towels. It was disgraceful. He had opened his mouth to say as much when he noticed that Sheppard had somehow manoeuvred her over to the door and with a last "thank you very much," he was nudging her through it. She was still twittering on about him needing any more help when he casually closed the door in her face and Rodney found himself gaping at the smoothness of it.
Sheppard leaned against the door and sighed. "I thought she'd never leave," he said and grinned and Rodney grinned back. "After you," Sheppard added, gesturing at the basin.
"No please, you go ahead," Rodney replied. It was the polite thing to do and besides, there were still some rolls on the table and the jam was really very good. He turned away from Sheppard's pleased look and busied himself with the butter knife.
A moment later, the sounds of splashing and a sigh of pleasure made him look up and then Rodney stared, unable to look away from the sight of a shirtless Sheppard bent over the basin to wash his face. He was slender enough for Rodney to see the shape of ribs underneath skin but he looked strong too, with smooth muscles shifting in his arms and back as he moved. Rodney's eyes drifted down the line of his spine and past the waistband of his trousers before he could stop himself. He was just thinking that Sheppard had clearly been made to wear the tight trousers when the rest of his brain caught up with how inappropriate that thought was and he jerked his eyes back to his plate.
Please, please let Sheppard not notice that he was blushing and breathing hard. If he could only have that one moment of grace, he might even reconsider the non-existence of God.
He had just got himself under control when Sheppard wandered past him, still shirtless, and propped the mirror on the windowsill to start shaving. "Water's all yours," he said, and Rodney didn't notice the line of hair crossing Sheppard's flat stomach or the way his chest moved as he breathed, before he fled from the table to the basin. He didn't notice them at all and his hands were not shaking as he washed his face and hid in the towel for a few minutes.
Thankfully for Rodney's shaky composure, Sheppard had replaced his shirt by the time he re-emerged from the towel. He'd moved away from the window so he was much closer to Rodney though, something that made Rodney a little nervous.
"Here, McKay, you can borrow my razor if you want to shave," he said.
In Rodney's current mood, even such a commonplace object as a razor seemed to take on an unsettling intimacy and he declined the offer quickly. "Thank you, but I would prefer to wait for less primitive conditions and I have a little longer before I need to shave for appearances sake."
"Hm," Sheppard said, tilting his head slightly to one side and looking at him consideringly. Then he stepped closer, reached out and stroked the tips of his fingers lightly down the side of Rodney's face.
The simple gesture completely undid Rodney. He was frozen into immobility, unable even to breathe at the feeling of Sheppard touching his skin. All he was capable of was staring into Sheppard's face and waiting for the axe to fall, for the ever-present warm amusement lurking in the back of the other man's eyes to turn into cold disgust.
He was saved by a knock at the door and the wonderful voice of the serving-maid enquiring whether the gentlemen were finished with their breakfast. Sheppard's head turned away from him, his fingers trailing from Rodney's jaw as he moved back towards the table and Rodney could breathe again.
"I think you are right, Rodney. You can wait a little longer," Sheppard said and called for the maid to come in.
Less than ten minutes later, Sheppard had settled their account with the innkeeper and they were once again on the road. Rodney huddled as far as he could into the side of the carriage and panicked very quietly.
Did Sheppard know? He didn't seem to be treating Rodney any differently than before, which argued for an optimistic outlook, but Rodney knew that his behaviour would have seemed odd at the very least. He was sure that if he hadn't been slightly overset by the ordeal of being kidnapped he would have better control, or if he had only been aided by someone ordinary, who didn't have such pretty eyes or a smiling mouth and a lazy teasing voice.
It just wasn't fair; he'd always been so careful. It was not uncommon for boys at boarding school to experiment with the acts of pleasure, but to wish to do so as an adult was unpardonable and showed that one possessed what he had heard termed le vice allemande, though why it should be considered particularly German Rodney had no idea.
He preferred the Platonic term Uranian, but there were other less palatable descriptions too. Sodomite. Buggerer. Names descriptive of activities that would earn a man a trip to the hangman's noose. Rodney had known for years his tendencies leaned that way but he had never dared to so much as visit a Molly-house and he'd prided himself on his willpower and ability to resist his desires, when all along he had simply never known what desire truly was.
Now he knew. It was the feel of Sheppard's hair against his fingers, the way looking in his eyes made Rodney quiver inside, the way a glimpse of his skin dried Rodney's mouth and quickened his pulse, and a touch heated his blood.
He was completely lost already and he still had to survive another day and a half before he could escape. It would take a miracle for him to reach London without ruining himself.
After a while, Sheppard's voice broke into his muddled thoughts. "What was that you were muttering over my head while I was unconscious yesterday, McKay? For a moment I thought I'd really damaged something and then I realised you were apparently just speaking in tongues."
"What? Oh, yes, that. I was trying to work something out and it sometimes helps me to think aloud." He tried to remember what it was he had been thinking at the time but it was unfortunately gone. Not that it had been any better than his previous attempts to solve that particular problem, but it was annoying that he had forgotten.
"Well?" asked Sheppard after a few minutes, sounding slightly impatient.
"Well what?" Rodney replied absently, still trying to remember how he'd been trying to refine the equation.
"What were you saying?" Sheppard repeated, turning in Rodney's direction and poking him in the arm with a finger.
"Ow! There was no need to poke me," said Rodney, rubbing his arm ostentatiously and provoking a glare from Sheppard. "If you must know, I was working on some aspects of astronomical theory."
"Astronomy? Isn't that akin to fortune-telling? You don't look much like a spiritualist."
Rodney gaped at him in horror. "Oh, good God! That's astrology, you, you nincompoop. Astronomy is an exact and beautiful science, not meaningless hocus-pocus! It is the study of heavenly bodies through mathematics and ingenious telescopic inventions, and an attempt to understand the indescribable majesty of the universe that we inhabit. It is not anything to do with gypsies or charlatans who try to remove money from idiots by telling them they are going to meet a dark stranger and go on a journey, though anyone who is stupid enough to pay for such irrational advice deserves to be gulled in my opinion."
"That seems a little unfair on the gypsies. If one had told you that yesterday, they would have been perfectly correct," Sheppard returned.
"Only by pure coincidence!" sputtered Rodney. "And since none did, that remark is a complete irrelevance, and please tell me you don't actually believe in that rubbish, because if you do, I will be forced to conclude that you were either dropped on your head as a child or that you lack all capacity for rational thought."
Rodney took a breath to continue, almost relieved to discover such a flaw in the man beside him then stopped, suddenly noticing that Sheppard was shaking with suppressed laughter. "You! You knew perfectly well what the difference was, didn't you?" he accused, folding his arms and glaring as Sheppard dissolved, laughing so hard he nearly slid off the seat.
"Oh," Sheppard said, wiping his eyes, "You should have seen your face! I've never seen anyone look so horrified; it was like I'd accused you of enjoying unnatural congress with farm animals."
"Your sense of humour is vile," Rodney said, huffing with exasperation and trying not to notice how Sheppard became even more ridiculously good-looking when he was lit up with laughter like that.
Sheppard nodded with a grin. "Yes, it is. So, I assume that you have been following the findings of Herschel?"
"Yes," Rodney said, surprised. "His work on double stars is proving most useful since I'm occupied with the problem of stellar parallaxes at the present time. Not that I suppose you know what that is."
"You would be correct in that assumption, I'm afraid. I'm aware of some of his discoveries, but astronomy is not one of my particular pursuits. It isn't every day I wake up with someone reciting calculus over my head, though. I was curious to discover why."
"Well, I'm happy to satisfy you," Rodney retorted, too unsettled by Sheppard's knowledge, however limited, of his overriding interest to realise what he had said until Sheppard grinned at him again and Rodney found himself blushing. "What's so funny now?" he asked defensively.
"I was just wondering what would have happened if one of the locals had come across you muttering formulae over an unconscious man. They'd most likely have assumed you were practicing witchcraft." Sheppard gave him a teasing, sidelong look as he went on, "Are you sure you didn't put a spell on me with your exact and beautiful science, McKay?"
"Ha, ha, most amusing," Rodney said, giving up and smiling back. He supposed it would have appeared rather odd behaviour to a bystander, but he hadn't had anything else to do while he had waited for Sheppard to wake up. He didn't particularly wish to dwell on such an embarrassing incident however, and sought for a way to turn the conversation.
"What are your particular pursuits, then?" Sheppard's grin turned positively wicked at his question and he rephrased hurriedly, "I mean, what were you doing in the country?"
"I was visiting my estate at Weston. I had intended to leave for town rather sooner, but events necessitated a longer stay than I had anticipated," Sheppard replied, frowning slightly.
Weston. The name made a connection in Rodney's memory. "Oh. You're the new Earl. I'm sorry, my lord."
"For what?" Sheppard asked, surprised.
"For the loss of your brother," said Rodney. It was his brother, wasn't it? He had a memory of an Earl of Weston gaining quite a reputation in town a few years back and he was fairly sure that man hadn't been old enough to be Sheppard's, Lord Weston's father despite his death a year ago. And hadn't there been some scandal to do with the younger son, some reason he had been absent? Rodney suddenly wished he had paid more attention to the endless rounds of gossip.
"Thank you. But we were not close. Stephen was several years my elder and we had very little in common aside from our parentage. He was always my father's favourite; the old man would have been horrified to see what Stephen did with the estates after his death. I was surprised myself and I had very few expectations to be disappointed."
That sounded rather like Rodney's experience of inheritance. "He mismanaged his responsibilities?"
"To say the least," Sheppard, no Weston said, looking irritated. "He turned over control and management of our family affairs to unscrupulous and untrustworthy agents and then proceeded to enjoy himself in town while the Hall fell into disrepair and ruin around my mother. She and the servants did the best they could, but in the last few years arthritis has confined her to a few rooms and there was little enough that could be done. My sister tried as well, but she had no authority with the agents and when she criticized Stephen's decisions too openly he simply removed her to London."
"It sounds like your home is in quite a state."
"Oh yes, but I won't let it stay that way for long. I call the tunes now," Sheppard smirked. "I intend to undo every bad decision, put back everything the way it was. No, I intend to better things. I'll make the Hall glorious, a triumph of a residence and fit for a king to live in."
Rodney stared at him in surprise. He hadn't thought Sheppard capable of such determination as was evidenced by his voice when describing his plans. His perpetual air of lazy repose had suggested that he was unlikely to feel particularly strongly about anything, but clearly he was very invested in the restoration of his family home. Though Rodney couldn't even imagine the expense of achieving a glorious restoration, considering how difficult just reaching respectability had proved in his own family.
And why couldn't he think of the man by his proper title? He just couldn't seem to call him anything but Sheppard.
"Well, that will certainly keep you occupied enough to not require any other pursuits for several years at least. Or are you fleeing to the city because you have realised the magnitude of the task?" Rodney hadn't been intending to let the sarcasm slip out, but the memory of struggling with his idiot brothers over what to do with his father's mess was fresh in his mind.
It seemed to simply slide off Sheppard though. He just smiled and shook his head. "I need to change the management of the estates to a more respectable agent and I decided it would be best to conduct such affairs in person. Though I will admit to curiosity over how London and society has changed, and I have some acquaintance there I would like to see again."
Rodney was sure that he had. A man like Sheppard would have been the catch of any season and he would have had any number of beauties vying either to be his mistress or his wife. "Not exclusively a business trip then," he said, keeping his tone even with an effort.
"No," drawled Sheppard with a serious face and dancing eyes, "I'm hoping for my fair share of pleasure too."
Rodney could imagine only too well what Sheppard meant by that and he dragged his eyes away from Sheppard's, trying to disguise the breathlessness that had been caused by meeting such a joyfully mischievous look. Neither emotion was meant for him, and he would do well to remember it.
He could see Sheppard watching him out of the corner of his eye, and he tried desperately to stop picturing Sheppard making love with some beautiful, sophisticated woman and think of something else to say.
"I assume from your remarks that you have not been in London for some time, my lord?"
"Please don't call me that," Sheppard said with a pained expression.
"What, my lord? But it's your title," Rodney said, confused. His brothers might claim he had no more idea of proper etiquette than a chicken, but he did know how to address someone of rank.
"But not one I ever anticipated having and it doesn't particularly feel like you're talking to me when you use it. Sheppard will do, or Weston if you really must though I doubt I'll remember to answer to it."
Rodney wasn't sure how to react to this. The way Sheppard called him McKay or occasionally even Rodney had suggested he had a preference for more familiar forms of address, but to be invited to speak to him on the terms of intimate friendship was unexpected to say the least, especially considering their disparity of social class. Not that Sheppard apparently paid much attention to the conventions or propriety, seeing as he had even introduced himself without a mention of his title. An unusual attitude in Rodney's experience, though he could understand how Sheppard might still be unused to having the right to it.
"As you wish, of course," he finally replied. "But you will have to get used to it sooner or later, or you will spend a lot of time ignoring and offending people who wish to converse with you. I imagine behaviour like that would cause your re-entry into the ton to be a rather interesting experience."
"Hm," Sheppard said, apparently unconvinced. "But it would also be a marvellous excuse for avoiding all sorts of tedious conversations and so make the social round more engaging." He must have observed Rodney's surprise at his words, for he carried on, "From what I recall, a large number of the so-called events of the Season are unutterably dull, don't you agree?"
"Well, yes," Rodney admitted. "I don't much intersect with the high ton social set though, so I would probably miss the more interesting ones anyway."
"You are fortunate. No, that is unfair; there are plenty of entertaining people and a good portion of enjoyment to be had. I am simply out of practice with the way of things."
That reminded Rodney that Sheppard had never actually answered him. "Which brings us back to my original question: where have you been if not in London, or England?" He realised a little late that if it had indeed been a scandal that had removed him from fashionable places, Sheppard might have been avoiding answering on purpose.
Sheppard didn't seem uncomfortable as he answered, however. "The Colonies, for the most part. I left four years ago and returned only a few weeks ago."
Well that certainly explained Sheppard's unfashionably tanned skin. Rodney had seen back in the inn that the pale golden brown of Sheppard's hands and face, expected from travelling in summer, extended down his torso but he had been far too distracted by actually seeing his skin to take notice of the oddity. He was not going to start thinking about Sheppard's naked back and chest again now, either. He was not.
"Where in the Colonies?" he asked hurriedly. "India? The Caribbean Islands?"
"Pulau Pinang, or Prince of Wales Island. It's off the Malay coast in the Strait of Malacca."
"That sounds indescribably exotic," Rodney sighed wistfully. The furthest from home he had ever been was for his sister Jeannie's wedding to Mr. Beckett, one of the Scottish gentry, and with the best will in the world, no-one would think to describe Lanarkshire as exotic.
"It's wonderful," Sheppard agreed softly. "It is more lush and beautiful than you can imagine, Rodney, nothing like English countryside at all. The plants look like they belong in the most fanciful descriptions of Paradise and they seem to spring up in a night so that every day a fresh beauty meets the eyes. In the evenings, the air is sweet with the scent of flowers and spices and the morning breeze carries the tang of the sea. The days are hot and filled with sunshine and even the rain in the wet season is warm, not like here where it freezes you to your bones. There are the most spectacular storms too, loud enough to make it seem like the place is being pounded by siege guns and the lightning illuminates everything so brightly that for a second it feels like the beginning of the universe when light was created for the first time, pure and perfect."
Rodney was left speechless by Sheppard's account of the island. It sounded unlike anything he had ever experienced and he was suddenly filled with a longing to see the place that had provoked such moving words and images from Sheppard. He wanted to hear more, but Sheppard seemed embarrassed by his sudden flight into lyricism and ducked his head under Rodney's gaze self-consciously.
Rodney tried to think of a way to convey some of what the description had made him feel without sounding like an idiot, but in the end all he could come up with was, "I would like to see it one day."
Sheppard seemed to have regained his usual composure while Rodney had searched for words and he met Rodney's eyes again with an oddly serious look. "I hope that you do," was all he said.
A strangely intense moment followed when they simply looked into each other's eyes. It made Rodney feel a little light-headed and hot, like he was starting a fever, but then one of the horses threw up its head with a snort and Sheppard's attention was jerked back to driving.
Sheppard did not seem inclined to continue the conversation after that and Rodney decided it would be safer for his own feelings to allow the other man his silence. The day was warm and the motion of the carriage gradually lulled him into a light doze, filled with dreams of fabulous flowers and clear blue skies.
The rest of the journey proved uneventful. Rodney had woken after a few hours to find he was using Sheppard's shoulder as a substitute pillow and Sheppard had laughed at his embarrassed apology and compared him to a dormouse "all curled up and snoozing".
They had picnicked under a shady tree upon cold meats and bread provided by the Exeter innkeeper and Sheppard had fallen asleep for an hour himself, something that Rodney was not going to let him forget about after the indignity of being compared to a small rodent. Rodney had offered to drive, if Sheppard was so tired, and been indignantly refused, then blandly ignored when he wondered aloud about entrusting his safety to someone who was apparently so exhausted that he could fall asleep on a rock. Sheppard had finally cracked a smile when Rodney began describing how the cat he'd had as a boy had snored just like Sheppard had.
He still didn't let Rodney take the reins, but Rodney knew perfectly well that no gentleman entrusted his horses to another while conscious. Since he'd only been offering to see Sheppard twitch it made no odds. Sheppard didn't really snore either, but he felt the aghast look Sheppard had given him before the other man caught up to the humour made up for a lot of the teasing Sheppard had subjected him to.
The conversation had stayed fixed on various boyhood experiences, with Sheppard apparently fascinated by Rodney's commonplace descriptions of his pets and the stupidity of his schoolmasters and fellow pupils. He did not contribute many stories himself, Rodney noticed, saying merely that he had studied with private tutors and not been sent away to school like his brother. But Sheppard seemed to enjoy Rodney's lecture on the many failings of his schoolmasters, who Rodney declared "wouldn't recognise a logical conclusion if one slapped them in the face and who had no understanding of scientific thought whatsoever."
From there, talk had turned to Rodney's involvement in the Natural Philosophy Society and it was clear from the questions that Sheppard asked that he did have some understanding of science, though apparently little background knowledge. But he had encouraged Rodney to describe his work and the other members with enthusiasm and laughed for several minutes at Rodney's tales of the "irretrievably pea-brained, lack-witted and dangerously incompetent ninnyhammer" Lord Kavanagh and Rodney's inevitable vanquishing of his "completely erroneous, idiotic conclusions, honestly, any three-year old child could do better."
In all, the afternoon passed away pleasantly enough and Rodney managed to put quite out of his mind how ridiculously warm and tender he had felt at watching Sheppard asleep and vulnerable on the grass beside him earlier.
They reached a small town called Farnham in the evening and Sheppard proposed they stop there for the night. Rodney agreed readily, he had no wish to spend the night outdoors or travelling again and he would gladly put up with the shared accommodation provided by most inns for the sake of an actual bed.
At the inn, Sheppard went off with the horses to see them properly settled while Rodney was escorted into a small dining-room by another maid who had completely succumbed to Sheppard's charms, though this one at least seemed too overcome to talk, let alone flirt.
Sheppard came bounding into the room when Rodney was about halfway though his first helping of food and he sat down and pulled a plate towards him with a smug grin. "Good news McKay, the inn had one private bedroom left so we won't need to share with any strangers."
Rodney stared at him in dismay; he had been counting on the security of having others present to get him through a second night in Sheppard's distracting company. "Oh good," he said faintly.
"Your enthusiasm overwhelms me," Sheppard replied, studying him carefully so Rodney busied himself with eating potatoes and trying to look cheerful. "You have some difficulty with the idea of sharing quarters with me?"
"No," Rodney lied, hastily swallowing his mouthful to refute the idea before Sheppard could start wondering why that might be the case. He cast about frantically for a safe reason why he hadn't greeted Sheppard's news with the delight he would normally. "I, it's just that, um, aren't private rooms more expensive?"
"Back to that pecuniary embarrassment, then?" Sheppard smiled. "Consider it a gift in gratitude for making my journey so unusually interesting."
"Oh. Thank you, that is very kind," Rodney said, unsure if Sheppard was serious or not but deciding it was safer to just agree.
"Not very, I'm afraid. Selfish motivations on my part overcame consideration of your pride," Sheppard said, leaning back in his chair and regarding Rodney over the rim of his wine glass.
What on earth did that mean? "Excuse me?"
"I have got to get out of these clothes, I simply can't bear the thought of sleeping in them for another night," came the drawled reply.
Oh dear God.
Rodney's heart very nearly stopped and he dropped his fork and had to fumble after it with fingers that weren't working properly. Sheppard was going to undress and he was going to have to be there and see him and then stay with him (naked, Rodney's mind provided helpfully) for the night when just seeing him shirtless had nearly led to disaster.
"I would imagine you would be grateful for the opportunity as well," Sheppard went on and Rodney's knuckles turned white around his cutlery as he desperately avoided the other man's eyes. No. He couldn't do this, he couldn't take off his clothes with Sheppard in the same room, he couldn't. But how could he possibly avoid it when the other man knew full well he had been in them at least two nights and a day?
"Are you quite well, Rodney? You look a little flushed," Sheppard enquired after a little pause and Rodney lifted his eyes to find Sheppard leaning towards him in concern.
"I'm fine," he squeaked, then forced his voice back under control to continue, "Fine! Just, uh, I put a little too much pepper on my potatoes."
"Good, I would hate to think you are coming down with something, especially since we'll be sharing a bed later."
Rodney immediately choked on the wine he had been drinking in an attempt to recover his composure. Sheppard came round the table and patted him helpfully on the back, though Rodney felt like waving him off because it would really save an awful lot of trouble if he just died now. He hadn't even considered the fact that there would likely only be one bed in the room. Fate was really intent on torturing him, it seemed.
When he recovered, Sheppard was kneeling on the floor beside his chair, one hand still resting lightly on Rodney's back. He could feel each finger, separate and distinct, and Sheppard's palm burned against his spine. Rodney knew he was dreadfully flushed again, but at least that could be attributed to the pepper and coughing.
"All right, now?" Sheppard murmured and Rodney found he couldn't look away from Sheppard's face. He wasn't smiling, but he looked like he should be and Rodney nodded absently as he tried to understand the expression in Sheppard's eyes. "Good," Sheppard said, and rose to his feet, his hand trailing up Rodney's back to grip his shoulder gently. "Here, have some more wine," and he leaned one hip on the table and filled Rodney's glass back up to the brim.
His hand was still on Rodney's shoulder, but Rodney couldn't decide whether shrugging it off would seem suspicious so he ignored it and sipped the wine Sheppard handed him instead.
"As I was saying," Sheppard continued, "Mr Porteous, our good innkeeper, was dreadfully apologetic about his accommodation, but sharing a large, comfortable bed is not precisely a hardship, is it? We managed well enough in the hay last night, after all."
"Indeed," Rodney managed to get out, though he could have happily gone without the reminder. He could feel Sheppard looking down at him, but when Rodney picked up his knife and fork to start eating again, Sheppard finally returned to his own chair.
Rodney swore he could still feel the imprint of his hand for several minutes afterwards and he had completely lost his appetite.
In contrast to Rodney's hesitant picking at the food, Sheppard was now eating with gusto and making contented noises every so often. Rodney couldn't help watching him when he did, but Sheppard just smiled whenever their eyes caught and made a comment about the various dishes. He eventually seemed to give up on the cutlery and used a piece of bread to mop up the last of the gravy instead.
Rodney watched him pop the morsel in his mouth and lick his fingers clean, unable to tear his attention from the way Sheppard's fingers slid softly between his lips and then back out, glistening slightly in the light.
Rodney was still looking at Sheppard's mouth when the other man licked his lips and he was only recalled to his senses when Sheppard raised his glass to him in a toasting gesture and swallowed down the last of his wine. Rodney looked down at his own glass, seeing with surprise that he had nearly finished it without noticing. He had to stop letting himself get distracted in this way. Sheppard was oblivious however; he was staring into his empty glass with a slight smile, more a pleased twist of the lips really, and seemed to be paying no attention to Rodney's behaviour.
Despite feeling that it might be far more sensible to keep a sober head, Rodney poured himself another glass. The alcohol was at least calming his nerves over what was to come when they retired, and at present he would take whatever relief he could get. Also, the longer they lingered at the table, the longer he would have before his self-control was put to the test.
After a little time, the inn's servants came to clear away the detritus of their meal. Sheppard shifted his chair around to Rodney's side of the table to be out of the way, moving close enough that their arms brushed, and Rodney would have jumped if he hadn't been slightly fogged with drink by then.
Sheppard didn't move back after the servants had left, and he must have been feeling the effects of the drink too because when he put down his glass, he slid his other arm along the back of Rodney's chair for balance and leaned into him a little as he reached forward. When he moved back he turned his head so their eyes met and Rodney stared back at him, feeling hot all along his shoulders and the side of his arm where they were touching.
Sheppard's eyes moved slowly over Rodney's face and then he looked in Rodney's eyes again and smiled, and Rodney smiled back because he couldn't help it. Sheppard's lips were just parting to say something when there was a loud knock at the door and Rodney startled and looked around. He heard a soft sigh from next to him and he was abruptly cold all down one side again as Sheppard stood, picked up his wine and moved over to lean on the mantelpiece.
"Come in," he called and a little round man came bustling in, wringing his hands and looking flustered.
"Oh, my lord, I'm so sorry to disturb you," he said, practically bowing his head onto his knees to Sheppard and sparing Rodney a distracted, though respectful, nod.
"No, not at all, Porteous" Sheppard replied, polite and smiling though it seemed a little forced to Rodney. "Is something the matter?"
The innkeeper nodded. "Yes, my lord, I'm afraid so. We've just had a large party come in by post-chaise and there's three ladies travelling, you see, and they want to stay the night. And not having any rooms left, I says that might be a bit difficult, only one of them is in what you might call an interesting condition and she's not feeling that well, and…"
Oh, Fate loved Rodney after all. He was saved. "You want us to give up our room?" he interrupted the other man's rambling explanation.
Porteous nodded. "Yes, sir, my lord. If you would be so good, I thought you being gentlemen you wouldn't mind obliging the ladies. There's room in one of the larger shared rooms, free of charge of course, and they're just as comfortable if I do say so myself."
"Yes, of course. Certainly. We would be glad to be of service," said Rodney and beamed at the excellent fellow.
"Indeed," Sheppard agreed from behind him. "Please give our compliments to the ladies, and I'm sure all your rooms are in excellent condition."
"Thank you, thank you very much, my lord," Porteous said, backing out of the room and looking much happier. "I'll just get the maid to put in clean sheets and some more pillows for you. You'll have to share between six of you, but the beds are very roomy, never had any complaints about the beds, no sir."
Rodney dropped his head as the door closed and smiled at his knees in sheer relief. Sheppard was silent for a moment then he moved back to the table and dropped onto his seat.
"Well," he said with an ironic smile. "It seems we'll miss out on that privacy after all."
"Mm," said Rodney trying to look at least a little disappointed. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he wasn't fooling Sheppard at all since the other man just shook his head at him, but he was too elated at his escape to really worry.
One more night and a few hours travel and he would be safe home. He might just make it after all.
The next morning, Rodney wasn't quite so sure that he would make it anywhere. He had a pounding headache and his eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. He'd barely eaten any breakfast and Sheppard had been watching him in concern ever since. He'd even asked if Rodney felt he needed a doctor, saying that he'd never seen anyone look so white. Rodney had refused, insisting that they continue the journey since by now he desperately wanted to be home.
Sheppard looked dubious but Rodney was adamant. He wanted this ridiculous escapade to be over. When they returned to their carriage, Sheppard produced a blanket from somewhere, tucked it round Rodney solicitously and told him to rest, and Rodney ignored the traitorous warmth he felt at Sheppard's consideration and the way none of Rodney's sharp responses had altered it. He shut Sheppard's face out by closing his eyes and curled up. Not like a dormouse, but like a miserable man.
It was his own fault, partly, for overindulgence in the wine the night before, but in the main the blame lay with the man sitting beside him. It was because of Sheppard that Rodney had barely slept a wink.
They had stayed only briefly in the dining room after Porteous had departed. Rodney's uneasy feeling that he had come extremely close to disaster had prompted him into suggesting that they retire and hopefully claim the best of their new quarters before the other guests.
The room had been decent enough, if a little cramped, with two wide beds and a table with a basin of water and one chair taking up the majority of the space. The innkeeper had obviously made an effort to provide his noble guest with comfort, since one of the beds was noticeably better made and piled high with pillows and blankets at one side.
"Looks a little uneven, doesn't it?" Sheppard had commented, staring at it with a bemused look. "Come on, help me move some of these to the other bed."
"And ruin our good host's attempt to keep you in the luxury you are accustomed to?" Rodney had said, even while Sheppard threw a few pillows into his arms. "You'll upset the man and he'll wring his hands at you again."
"I can assure you, McKay, I am not so used to luxury that I require four pillows for my exclusive use," Sheppard had replied, spreading spare pillows and blankets over the second bed. Rodney had to admit it looked rather more balanced that way. "Right, that's much fairer," said Sheppard, moving back towards their side of the room. He'd sat on the bed to pull off his boots then fallen back onto it with a sigh of relief. "Mmm. A feather mattress is luxury enough for anyone."
Rodney had looked at him spread out across the coverlet, relaxed and smiling like a feather bed was a special kind of pleasure, and he'd had to swallow hard before he could sit down on the chair to remove his own shoes. It had felt good and he'd wiggled his toes against the floor happily.
When he'd looked up again, Sheppard had stood up, leaving jacket and waistcoat on the bed and was in the process of removing his trousers.
"What are you doing?" Rodney had hissed, scandalised.
"What does it look like?" Sheppard had retorted, standing up straight again and Rodney had been incredibly grateful to discover that Sheppard had been wearing drawers underneath and wasn't just in his shirt as men often went in the summer months. "I told you, I'm not spending another night trying to sleep in these trousers. Idiotic fashions."
"But, but you can't!" Rodney had protested, trying not to look too noticeably at Sheppard's bare, brown calves and ankles.
"This is a public, shared, guestroom! You can't be naked," Rodney had snapped, somehow managing not to squeak on 'naked'. "Besides, you'll probably catch something from the bed."
"No, I won't. He had clean sheets put on, remember? And since the idea of me unclothed seems to bother you so, I shall point out that I was intending to stay as I am. I trust you have no objections to that?" Sheppard had shot back, putting his hands on his hips and looking irritated.
"I am not bothered," Rodney had denied with vehemence, "and you might find that our fellow guests have objections to your plan."
Sheppard had crossed his arms over his chest, head slightly tilted as he'd studied Rodney before giving a wolfish smirk that had made Rodney tense with sudden worry. "Well, then. You shall simply have to protect me from them by sleeping in the middle, won't you, Rodney? Since you aren't bothered."
Rodney had gaped at him in horror, gaze moving from Sheppard to the bed and back again. He'd been intending to find a reason he should sleep in the other available bed ever since the innkeeper had mentioned there were two. Admittedly, he hadn't managed to come up with anything that didn't sound totally insane, but he was a brilliant man and he was sure he could have thought of something. He had been completely unable to think of anything at that moment, however, and Sheppard had simply nodded in satisfaction, taking his silence as agreement.
Rodney had been forced to acknowledge that he had lost that argument as Sheppard splashed his face with water from the basin and dried himself off with the tail of his shirt, giving Rodney a tantalising glimpse of the stomach he'd practically memorised from the last inn.
Rodney had pulled his jacket off and done the same himself, intensely aware of Sheppard sitting on the end of the bed and watching him. He had been unable to keep from sneaking sideways looks at the other man and had found himself thinking that the loose shirt and bare feet looked even better on Sheppard than his fashionable clothes had, impossible though that seemed.
Like Rodney, Sheppard had merely loosely knotted his cravat rather than trying for any style after the night in the barn, but after Exeter he had managed to tie it properly and Rodney had been able to forget being so close to Sheppard's bare throat the first morning. But that night, the barrier had gone again and Sheppard had loosened his collar, exposing a v-shape of skin and the beginnings of soft, dark hair. It had taken a real effort for Rodney to not turn and stare outright and to keep his breathing under control.
It was an unusual experience to see so much skin; while the society women were often almost more unclothed than not, the men tended to be much more covered up. In fact, Rodney didn't think he had been near another man in a state of undress since his school days as he did not engage in any of the sporting activities that required less formal clothing. It had been distinctly unnerving, not least because thinking about it had caused a hot little tremble in Rodney's belly that he had tried very hard to class as fear and not excitement.
He had stared when Sheppard had crawled up the bed to push his folded clothes under the pillows, but he didn't think anyone could have looked away from that.
"There," Sheppard had said, sounding pleased.
"There where? I mean, there what? Why did you do that?" Rodney had asked, confused by Sheppard's actions.
"As you keep reminding me, we are about to share accommodation with four strangers and I'd rather not expose my belongings to possible tampering. You should probably put yours under your pillow too."
"I have nothing on me worth stealing, remember?" Rodney had shrugged, folding his jacket over the back of the chair. When he had turned, Sheppard had been sitting up in the bed, blankets pulled over his legs and his arms around his knees. Rodney had hesitated then moved to get in the other side.
"Stop right there, McKay," Sheppard had suddenly said, nearly causing Rodney's heart to stop in his chest at the stern tone. He had immediately feared that Sheppard had realised his inappropriate feelings but the other man had waved a hand lightly at him with a smile and carried on, "You can't possibly be intending to come to bed in your waistcoat and breeches."
Oh, for heaven's sake. The man was going to drive Rodney insane and science would lose one of its finest minds before morning. "Some of us are aware of the proper behaviour in these establishments."
"And some of us are clearly going to spend the night very uncomfortably and be far too hot. For God's sake, take them off. I promise, if anyone declares you an uncouth barbarian I'll defend your honour."
"I can defend my own honour quite capably, I'll have you know," Rodney had said indignantly,
"Prove it," Sheppard had retorted with a wicked look, and Rodney had realised he'd managed to trap himself again by speaking without considering the consequences. Damn that wine, it was obviously clouding his judgement. "Take them off," Sheppard had gone on, and Rodney had flushed up to the roots of his hair in confusion. He'd briefly considered just ignoring Sheppard's taunts but the dare in Sheppard's eyes was blatant, and deeply annoying. He had found himself jerking off his waistcoat before he'd really realised that he had no intention of backing down.
Irritation had carried him through removing his breeches and blowing out some of the candles, but he had found himself hesitating again before actually getting into the bed, not quite ready for the final step. "That's much better," Sheppard had said approvingly, but Rodney hadn't wanted to look away from the pillows to see his expression. He'd shuffled himself gingerly under the covers and lain on his back, so tense it very nearly hurt.
He had heard a rustling next to him as Sheppard shifted about and seen out of the corner of his eye that Sheppard had rolled to face him. "You might want to move a bit closer Rodney," he'd drawled after a moment.
"What?" Rodney had asked breathlessly, turning his head slightly.
"There's another person to fit in this bed, remember, and with you all the way over there it will be a little difficult. I don't have fleas, you know. Unless you gave them to me last night, anyway."
"I don't have fleas either," Rodney had muttered furiously, scrunching more into the middle of the bed. "If you're itching, it's because we slept in hay and nothing to do with me."
Sheppard hadn't said anything for a minute and then he had reached up and squeezed Rodney's shoulder gently. "Good night, then."
"Good night," Rodney had replied as Sheppard had closed his eyes and snuggled into a pillow. His hand had let go of Rodney's arm, but it had rested on the mattress close enough for Rodney to feel its presence so he'd rolled until he was facing away and shut his own eyes.
Unfortunately, sleep had eluded him. He had been intensely aware of Sheppard's presence behind him and had kept convincing himself that he could feel the heat from Sheppard's body, even though they weren't touching anywhere. He had been able to hear Sheppard breathing and the little shh noises of movement when he shifted position very slightly and every time Rodney had held his breath, half fearing and half hoping that this shift would be the one that left them touching in reality and not just his imagination.
He had moved onto his back after a while, telling himself that it was because he had never been able to sleep on his side and for no other reason whatsoever. It certainly had nothing to do with the way he could now turn his head to see Sheppard's sleeping face in the dim candlelight and the curl of his body towards Rodney under the blankets. Sheppard had looked so peaceful that Rodney had ached with desire and loneliness just looking at his calm face and slightly parted lips.
The candles had burned down significantly before Rodney's longing had eventually overcome his fear of the risk and he had begun to reach out, wanting to take just one moment, one memory of smooth skin and strength under his hand. His fingers had hovered over the wide-open collar of Sheppard's shirt and Rodney's breath had quickened at the tantalising brush of hair against his fingertips.
A quick look back up at Sheppard's face had convinced Rodney he was still sleeping soundly, but just as Rodney had gathered his courage to move his hand that final increment, he had become aware of footsteps and voices approaching in the corridor and he had pulled back in alarm as the door to the room had been pushed open and their fellow guests had arrived at last.
From the way the four men had stumbled into the room it was immediately apparent that they had spent a good portion of the night in the taproom. One had sung quietly (and surprisingly tunefully) while the other two muttered and supported a third who was already snoring despite being still vaguely upright. The singer had shut the door behind them with a thump and Sheppard had roused beside Rodney, lifting his head and blinking before subsiding again with a wordless grumble and pulling the blankets over his head so that only a shock of dark hair could be seen. Rodney had been struck with the realisation that if he had been slightly braver, or the new arrivals slightly tardier, Sheppard would have woken up with Rodney's hand touching his chest and he sat suddenly upright in terror at his narrow escape.
The singer had apparently thought that Rodney had just woken up because he had given him a nod and apologised for the noise while he had helped the two mutterers roll the fourth man into the other bed. Rodney had managed an annoyed nod in reply and had lain back down, trying to control his pounding heart. A few moments later, he had felt the mattress dip beside him as one of the men joined him and Sheppard in the bed and shortly after that various drunken snoring sounds had filled the formerly quiet chamber.
The man to Rodney's left had been a much more restless sleeper than Sheppard, constantly tugging on the blankets and moving about. Rodney had tried to maintain his own position, but he had gradually found himself edging into Sheppard's portion of the bed to avoid being kicked or jabbed with a bony elbow. When he had nudged up against Sheppard's legs and out-stretched arm, Rodney had frozen in place. He had tried to pull back, but found that Sheppard had curled his fingers firmly into Rodney's sleeve and when he had tried to tug himself free, the other man had just wriggled closer and flung his leg over Rodney's.
Caught, Rodney had subsided, afraid that struggling further would wake Sheppard or the other occupant. Sheppard's bare leg and foot against his own had felt like they were branding him and Rodney had spent most of the rest of the night alternately glorying in the feeling and miserably cursing himself for his weakness before finally drifting into a doze a few hours before dawn.
When the morning light had awoken him what felt like five minutes later, Sheppard had been plastered all down the right side of his body. Rodney had felt the hair-roughened skin of Sheppard's belly against his forearm where Sheppard's shirt had rucked up and the weight of Sheppard's arm across his chest. Rodney's hand had been resting on his own hip, and when he stretched his fingers out they had grazed Sheppard's hip-bone through warm, thin linen, Sheppard's leg still wrapped cosily around his. At that touch Rodney had felt heat fall through his body, coalescing in the hardening, needy flesh at his groin.
He'd wanted so much to turn and press more closely into Sheppard's body, but at the same time he had wanted to panic and run and the conflicting desires had kept him immobile for a long torturous moment. Sheppard had stirred next to him, beginning to wake up, and Rodney had been forced to bite his lip to keep from groaning when his body interpreted the innocent brush of sensation at Sheppard's movement as a caress.
Sheppard had finally rolled away and Rodney had curled into a ball on his side as the other man yawned and began to open his eyes. Sheer panic at the thought that Sheppard might be able to discern Rodney's arousal proved to be as effective as cold water at quenching his desire and Rodney had been able to reply to his "good morning" with something approaching composure.
He'd been unable to find the willpower to keep from watching Sheppard get dressed however, and with the scent of Sheppard still in the bedclothes and the memory of touching him fresh in Rodney's mind, he had been forced to pretend to be dozing until Sheppard had announced he was going in search of breakfast since apparently not even the threat of imminent discovery had been enough to control a resurgence in ardour. Indeed, an actual application of cold water had proved to be necessary once Sheppard had left the room.
The other guests had still been dead to the world as Rodney had left the chamber, feeling more tired than he had the night before. A combination of sleeplessness, headache and anger at himself for his own foolishness had turned the food into ashes and led to his current position of pretending to sleep in the carriage, while actually still futilely torturing himself with pointless reminiscence. Something that would have to stop right now, Rodney decided. He turned his thoughts firmly away from Sheppard's body to more soothing heavenly bodies and, while sleep still proved beyond his reach, he was eventually able to achieve something approaching peace.
The noise around the carriage had been increasing for some time, but until they stopped moving, Rodney had been able to ignore it. He opened his eyes as the carriage came to a halt to find Sheppard leaning in to shake him awake and looked around to see they were in a side-street with a busy thoroughfare at one end.
"Morning sleepyhead," Sheppard said, irritatingly cheerfully in Rodney's opinion as he still had a headache and had calculated during the trip that he had now lost a night and a half of sleep since being kidnapped three nights previously. "We're back in London."
"Imagine that. I never would have guessed from the noise, the large buildings, the traffic and the smell," Rodney muttered, shaking Sheppard's hand off irritably. "Did you wake me up just to state the obvious or was there something resembling a valid reason passing through your mind?"
Sheppard smothered his smile at Rodney's glare but his eyes still looked amused. "As it happens, yes."
"Well what?" Sheppard replied, eyes widening innocently.
"Which statement were you answering yes to?" Rodney gritted out, in no mood for the other man's evasiveness.
"Both," was Sheppard's reply. "I was stating the obvious purely for my own entertainment, but I do also need to know where you live so that I may take you home."
"Oh. Um, Cavendish Square," Rodney said. It seemed their journey was nearly over. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. In some ways it would be a relief, but try as Rodney might to make himself believe that it would be best if he never saw Sheppard again and despite the worry that being around Sheppard had caused him, he was not looking forward to the actual moment of parting. It was foolish, he knew, but he couldn't seem to help it.
"Excellent, we're not very far from there at all," Sheppard said, moving the phaeton skilfully out into the usual London traffic.
Rodney began to recognise the streets after a little while. As it was nearing the middle of the day, they were bustling with all kinds of carriages and carts as well as pedestrians and their progress was slow and punctuated by rude comments from Sheppard on several men's driving techniques. They were nearly at the square when they came to a complete halt, the traffic in front of them at a standstill and too tightly packed for even Sheppard to find a way through.
"I wonder what's happened here," Sheppard said, and stood up in the high carriage, craning his neck to try and see. "Wait a moment, McKay," and he handed the reins over to Rodney and jumped down before threading his way through the mess. A few moments later he returned looking as annoyed as Rodney had ever seen him.
"Some bloody fool's overturned his curricle trying to go too fast round a corner," Sheppard replied, his normally lazy voice tight and clipped. "They're probably going to have to shoot the horse," he went on, retrieving the reins. "A beautiful little grey mare and the reckless idiot has killed her simply to show off."
"That's shameful," Rodney said, knowing it was inadequate but feeling a little lost at Sheppard's anger.
"Yes it is," and Sheppard leaned back in his seat looking tired now instead of angry, something that wasn't really an improvement in Rodney's view because he still had a ridiculous impulse to try and make him feel better without any idea how. He fidgeted for a moment uncomfortably, then he reached out awkwardly and squeezed Sheppard's arm for a second.
He saw Sheppard turn towards him with a startled expression and he looked away hurriedly and cleared his throat. "Rodney…" Sheppard began just as Rodney was hit by a realisation and stood up. "What are you doing?" Sheppard asked sharply as Rodney began to climb out of the carriage.
"It occurred to me that it would be easiest for me to walk home from here," Rodney explained as he reached the ground. "I've put you to a great deal of inconvenience already and it is clear that we will be waiting for the road to clear for some time."
"Truly, it is no inconvenience," said Sheppard, getting out of the phaeton as well to stand facing him. "I am in no particular hurry."
"All the same, it is not fair to you," Rodney said firmly.
"But you were quite ill this morning, I don't know that I would feel entirely easy in my mind just letting you wander off now," Sheppard argued, face set stubbornly.
"It is only two streets away!" Rodney protested. Why was Sheppard being so difficult about this? "And I feel much better. I am very grateful to you for your assistance," he went on as Sheppard looked like he was about to speak again, "but I cannot put you to anymore trouble on my behalf." Rodney shook his head and folded his arms across his chest resolutely.
Sheppard looked a little unhappy as he replied, "Very well, I can see I will not persuade you." He put out his hand and Rodney swallowed and shook it. "It's been a pleasure, Rodney McKay. Until our next meeting then," Sheppard said, still holding onto Rodney's hand.
"Goodbye, Lord Weston," Rodney replied, feeling very sure that they wouldn't be meeting any time soon. He pulled away and walked quickly down the street, ignoring the lingering feel of Sheppard's fingers stroking over his palm as Sheppard had let go. He looked back once to see Sheppard leaning on the side of the carriage and watching him, and then Rodney turned the corner and the other man was gone.
He was going home at last, and he would be glad. He would.
Rodney did not quite manage gladness when he finally reached the steps of the townhouse, but he was sincerely relieved. It seemed a very long time indeed since he had had the comforts of home. Or as near to a home as Rodney possessed.
He gave a nod to the footman who let him in and stood in the hall for a moment, feeling a little disorientated. A rustle from the gallery and a feminine cry of "at last!" made him look up and he smiled slightly as Lady Samantha flew energetically down the stairs in a flurry of skirts and blonde hair.
"We've been looking for you for days, Rodney McKay! And here you are, looking like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards, strolling calmly in the front door. Just what do you have to say for yourself?" she said, coming to a halt at the bottom and fixing him with a stern look.
Well, really. "It was scarcely my fault!" Rodney protested, but she was already shaking her head and smiling at him.
"Come along, we have to go and tell my husband to call off the search parties," Lady Samantha said and grabbed Rodney's arm to hustle him along the corridor.
"You were searching for me?" Rodney asked as they entered the drawing room.
"Well, of course we were. You vanished into thin air after your last meeting and that is most unlike you. We were all quite worried," and this time when she smiled at him, Rodney could see the relief.
"Actually, some of us were enjoying the peace and quiet," a sarcastic voice interjected and Rodney turned to see the Honourable Jack O'Neill, his eldest cousin and husband to Lady Samantha, rising from the chaise longue.
"Ignore him, I always do," Lady Samantha advised cheerfully over her shoulder as O'Neill scooped up her hand for a quick kiss
Rodney simply sighed and flopped down onto the nearest seat, discreetly ignoring the way O'Neill lingered before releasing Lady Samantha's hand and her tender smile as she brushed his greying hair back off his brow. He was well used to his cousin's remarks and he hadn't missed the way O'Neill's sharp brown eyes had looked him swiftly up and down before he had turned to his wife. His nearer relations might only have noticed with pleasure if Rodney had disappeared for a few months, but at least in this household there were people who were concerned for him.
"Winwick!" O'Neill called, reseating himself next to Lady Samantha, and a second later the butler appeared. "Have word sent to my brothers that our little lost lamb has returned, will you?"
"Of course, sir," the man murmured and vanished again while Rodney eyed his cousin with annoyance.
"Lamb? Since when do I resemble a fluffy little sheep?" he said. He would have carried on, but he was suddenly distracted by the memory of Sheppard wrapping around him in the barn and telling him to count those exact same creatures and he lost the thread.
"You're right," O'Neill nodded judiciously. "You're much more like a little lost hedgehog. Or thistle. Something prickly anyway."
"Jack, behave," Lady Samantha murmured. "What happened to you, McKay? Where have you been?" she carried on.
"Ah, Devon," Rodney said. "Then Exeter and Farnham and finally back here."
"Devon," O'Neill repeated. "But you hate the country."
"Well, it wasn't exactly a voluntary excursion," Rodney replied. "Some men stuffed me in a sack when I came out of the meeting and carried me off."
"Good heavens! You were kidnapped?" Lady Samantha cried.
"Apparently, yes. Though I still can't imagine why."
"No, it is rather odd," O'Neill agreed, his dark eyes looking serious for once.
"But who could it have been?" Lady Samantha asked, looking puzzled. "If the motive was financial, there are far more attractive targets."
"You said Devon, did you not?" O'Neill asked. "Devon is next to Cornwall, if I remember my geography lessons correctly." Rodney nodded in reply, relieved that O'Neill seemed to be reaching the same conclusion as he had.
"Cornwall? Why is that… oh no," Lady Samantha said, looking between them. "You can't be suggesting that Lord Gennington was involved, surely? It makes no sense."
"But he lives in Cornwall, he's ruthless enough and if we are talking odd behaviour, Gennington has been behaving oddly towards my cousin for some little time."
"He wishes McKay to marry his ward, as well you know."
"See? That's odd right there," O'Neill pointed out triumphantly.
"Jack! There is nothing strange about someone wanting to marry McKay." Lady Samantha frowned at O'Neill and then cast an apologetic look towards Rodney.
"No, he's right. It is strange," Rodney said, shrugging. "He has been extremely persistent, even intimidating, and it simply doesn't make any rational sense. Lady Sora is a young, attractive heiress and could certainly make a far better match. Not to mention that I would undoubtedly be a terrible husband."
Lady Samantha studied him for a moment before nodding. "Very well, I will concede that it is a little curious. But I will not accept the second point. You are a good man, Rodney McKay, and I think you would make the right woman a very good husband."
Rodney flushed and muttered a thank you, finding it ironic she should express such sentiments mere hours after Sheppard had made it clear to Rodney that there was no right woman for him. He knew now that he would never achieve such a union.
He had thought once that Lady Samantha, beautiful and intelligent, sometimes he believed nearly as intelligent as Rodney himself, might make him a match. Rodney had always known that he was unable to compete with his dashing cousin, who had taken one look at Lady Samantha and fallen with an almost audible thump, but for a while he had fancied himself to be in love. It had taken meeting Sheppard to show him how wrong he was.
"I don't suppose your kidnappers said anything useful like "Haha, wait until we get you to Lord Gennington" or anything else equally incriminating?" O'Neill enquired hopefully, breaking into Rodney's thoughts.
"Unfortunately not. They were taking me to meet someone, but they never gave any indication as to who it was."
"Pity," O'Neill sighed. "And obviously you never got as far as meeting the mysterious mastermind. How did you get back here, by the way? I'm assuming they didn't just get bored and let you go."
Rodney hesitated. He really didn't want to go into all the embarrassing details of Sheppard's intervention or the subsequent journey. "They were… interrupted by a passer-by," he finally said. "I took advantage of their distraction to get away and the man who had interrupted helped my return to civilisation."
"Well. You have returned safely this time, but I think it may be an idea to take some precautions in the future. Without knowing the motive, it is impossible to say whether they will try again but they certainly didn't get what they wanted this time." O'Neill rose to his feet, bringing Lady Samantha up too and forcing Rodney to stand just as he was really beginning to appreciate the soft cushions.
"I can protect myself," he protested.
"Clearly, or you would not be here. But letting one's relatives be abducted sets such a bad precedent. I feel I should discourage it," O'Neill replied with a smirk.
"Please, McKay. Don't make us worry about you," Lady Samantha added and Rodney surrendered and nodded. He hadn't considered that he might still be in danger but they did have a point and O'Neill acknowledging that he was capable of taking care of himself had soothed his pride.
"Excellent. We can discuss it over luncheon, in an hour. I think you might appreciate the time to freshen up? You look like…"
"I know, like I've been dragged through a hedge backwards," Rodney said, interrupting O'Neill.
"I was going to say something the cat dragged in, but that will do," he replied with a shrug. "An hour, then."
Rodney nodded in agreement and headed upstairs to his room, already debating whether he had enough time for a quick bath. Sheppard had been right in Farnham, getting out of these clothes would be bliss.
Damn it. Now all he could think of was whether Sheppard was having a bath right now somewhere in London. He had to stop this, it was pointless.
He had to put Sheppard out of his mind and move on.
In the event, Rodney had decided simply to wash, shave and change prior to the midday meal, a decision that now allowed him lots of time to wallow in a tub full of hot water and appreciate the experience properly.
They had discussed his situation some more over the food, but had come to no real plan other than O'Neill insisting that he always travel in one of the family carriages from then on. It had obviously frustrated O'Neill that there was no more definite action he could take; he had always been more of an elder brother to Rodney than either of his real brothers, going back to Rodney's early schooldays when it had been O'Neill who had seen off the nastier bullies to come after the studious, sarcastic Rodney and it had been O'Neill who had taught him how to punch. He had always pretended that his interventions had nothing to do with protecting Rodney, of course, but even Rodney wasn't unskilled enough at reading people to be fooled.
It really wasn't surprising that Rodney felt more at home with his cousins than his own family. O'Neill and Cameron might be inclined to the active pursuits and joys of society clubs that Rodney found tedious, but they had never mocked Rodney for his more cerebral interests as Henry and Edward had. Well, that wasn't strictly true, they mocked all the time but not unkindly and they treated their youngest brother, Daniel, exactly the same for his fascination with ancient history and languages. Daniel and Rodney were of an age and it was Daniel with whom Rodney really had the most in common; though the areas of their obsessions differed greatly they shared a thirst for knowledge and single-mindedness in obtaining it.
But even bookish Daniel fitted more easily into London society than Rodney. All his cousins were annoyingly handsome and charming and regarded as catches, either as husbands or lovers. O'Neill had obviously settled down now but there were several infamously outrageous escapades in his past, Cameron was building a similar reputation as a rake and Daniel had beautiful girls sighing over him wherever he went for his shy air and gentle manners. If anyone had asked Rodney, which they had not, he would have pointed out that it wasn't shyness but distracted disinterest and that Daniel's beautiful politeness simply concealed a stubborn streak a mile wide. In fact, the only reason Daniel wasn't as notorious as his elder brothers was that he generally managed to be far more discreet in his affairs and his innocent appearance meant any rumours that did surface were simply dismissed. It was really extremely cunning of him, and the subject of much teasing from O'Neill and Cameron.
Be that as it may, when Rodney's brothers had shut up their London residences on leaving for the continent, Rodney had accepted O'Neill's invitation to stay with them with alacrity. He could have reopened one of his family's houses of course, but then he would have had all the bother of servants and domestic decisions. In Cavendish Square, he had all the benefits of a well-run household and congenial company with no effort. He could also take advantage of his cousins' excellent valets since he had been forced to dismiss his own just prior to his Devonshire adventure. Rodney could put up with his cravats being pilfered, indeed it had taken him six months to even notice, but having important notations used as firestarters had been the last straw.
Rodney dunked his head under the water briefly and wondered idly if Daniel and Cameron would be at dinner or if they would still be out gallivanting. They had sent word earlier to say that since the search was cancelled and Rodney safe, they intended to take luncheon at one of their clubs so they were likely to turn up again anytime within the next three days. Cameron had once gone out to dine and returned half a week later dressed as a shepherdess, and before marriage to Lady Samantha, O'Neill had frequently been capable of going out for a quick drive and then sending back a message from an entirely different country. Rodney supposed that such antics added to the air of excitement that his cousins seemed to have in most people's eyes, but it wasn't always convenient for those left behind to clean up after them.
He supposed Sheppard got up to similar mischief; he certainly had the same atmosphere of possibility hanging around him. From Rodney's dim memories of the scandal in the Weston family, he was no doubt every bit as much a rake as O'Neill had been and Cameron still was, irresistibly attractive to women who should know better and with mistresses on every side.
Well, that was impressive. Rodney had nearly managed to go an hour without thinking about John Sheppard. No that was incorrect: he had thought about Sheppard earlier when he had been remembering O'Neill's fighting lessons, since without them he would never have been able to punch the other man with any degree of success.
This was ridiculous. Rodney's brain had always done what he wished of it before. When he didn't want to think about something, he had always been able to focus his considerable powers of concentration on something else and the original thought was forgotten, along with mealtimes, appointments and correspondence. But for some reason he simply couldn't force Sheppard out of his mind with any of his usual methods and he was starting to resent this betrayal by his previously most-trusted organ. Rodney's one consolation was that time would eventually take care of the problem for him. Out of sight, out of mind was the saying after all and clichés might be trite but they only became clichés because they were true. He just needed to manage until it became true for him that was all. Hopefully it would happen quickly and before his brain deteriorated altogether.
Rodney dried off, wrapped up in a robe and rang the bell for Daniel's valet to come and dress him. He had a few hours before dinner, he might as well attempt to spend them usefully in the library, and if he spent the time staring into nothing instead there was unlikely to be anyone else there to notice.
The distraction did work for a time, and when Winwick came to call him in to dinner, Rodney was engrossed in reading a deeply flawed mathematical treatise and planning the scathing rebuttal he would have to send the author before they perpetrated any more crimes against logic.
He could hear his cousin Cameron's voice as he crossed the hall and he entered the drawing room just as he was saying, "…so when our baby brother and his Oxonian friend started talking in Greek I left them to it and came home. But look who I found to replace him at the table."
Rodney turned in the direction Cameron was gesturing and stopped short in disbelief as he saw the last person he had expected standing by the window. "Sheppard!" he blurted.
"Well now. Rodney McKay, what an unexpected pleasure," Sheppard replied with a bright grin.
"That's a surprise," Cameron said, brows lifting above his green eyes as he looked at Rodney. "I wasn't aware you were acquainted with my cousin, Major Sheppard."
Rodney blushed furiously in confusion as O'Neill and Lady Samantha turned towards him too. He was never going to hear the end of it once he was forced to explain.
"Oh, we're old friends," Sheppard cut in smoothly, "and I wasn't aware that you were acquainted with such a vision of loveliness, Major O'Neill," and everyone's attention moved back to him as he kissed the air above Lady Samantha's hand.
"My goodness," she breathed. "He's very nearly as charming as you," she said, smiling impudently at O'Neill as he captured her hand back with a wry headshake.
"All right, Weston. Unhand my sister-in-law, you reprobate," Cameron grinned as he finally remembered his manners enough to perform introductions. "Lady Samantha, the incorrigible flirt in front of you is the Earl of Weston, who I met during the Peninsular Campaign. Weston, may I present the Lady Samantha, who showed the questionable judgement to accept my brother, the Honourable Jack O'Neill, as her husband but aside from that minor lapse is as intelligent as she is beautiful and has improved my brother out of all recognition." Sheppard and O'Neill nodded politely, a gesture slightly marred by O'Neill smacking Cameron on the back of the head and Sheppard's twitching lips. "Since you already know McKay, my social obligations are fulfilled," Cameron finished, bowing to everyone with a flourish as Lady Samantha shook her head at him in resignation.
"Please excuse my brother-in-law's manners, my lord," she said. "The prevailing theory is that he was somehow lost from the family nursery and raised by wolves instead of people like the rest of us."
"There is no need to apologise, my lady. Considering that the last time I saw the Major he was much engaged in introducing his face to a large puddle of mud, I am only capable of seeing how exposure to better society has advanced him since then."
"Vile calumny," Cameron responded to Sheppard's wicked smirk, shaking his head sadly. "You always were prone to strange hallucinations at times."
"And the horrors of war have clearly addled your mind and recollections," Sheppard returned catching Rodney's eye and flashing a merry grin his way for an instant. "It is sad to see it, but with time and patience you may yet regain your former measure of intelligence. We can at least console ourselves with the thought that such a small measure should not take long to return."
"I think that I shall assert my social obligations and suggest that we adjourn to the dining room before we descend into name-calling," O'Neill interrupted with a grin as Cameron laughed and raised his glass in acknowledgement of Sheppard's sally.
A moment later, Rodney found himself walking beside Sheppard as they all moved to the table and he couldn't help glancing sideways, jerking his eyes back to the front when he realised that Sheppard was already watching him. Since there was no way to avoid it, Rodney ended up sitting opposite Sheppard and next to Cameron. He would have preferred a little more distance, but the table was set up for an intimate family meal rather than a formal dinner engagement and there was no hope of avoiding talking to Sheppard. So much for Rodney's plan to forget his feelings. He hadn't been able to ignore Sheppard when he wasn't even present; there was no chance of him managing to do so when he could look right into Sheppard's smiling hazel eyes.
Conversation was slightly more restrained once they began to eat, remaining on the level of the usual small talk regarding upcoming social events and Town gossip as they ate the soup, but as the servants cleared away the first course and poured the wine for the second, Cameron asked the question Rodney had been dreading.
"So how exactly did you and my cousin become old friends, Weston? You don't share any pastimes as far as I know, McKay wasn't involved in the War and you've been out of the country since shortly after Waterloo."
"It's an interesting story," Sheppard began, leaning back to allow the footman to place the fish course before him.
"No it isn't," Rodney interrupted quickly, "and we are not old friends, we scarcely know each other."
"I'm hurt, McKay," Sheppard drawled, twirling his wine glass as Cameron and O'Neill grinned at Rodney's discomfiture and Lady Samantha looked interested. "After we shared so much too. Did the hay mean nothing to you?"
"It sounds like this is an interesting story," Lady Samantha laughed as Rodney tried to think of a retort. "Come on, McKay. Tell us everything, I insist."
"Um, well," Rodney managed then he stopped and looked pleadingly at Sheppard. He couldn't go through the whole story; he was bound to give too much away, like he always did when he was nervous or felt strongly.
Sheppard let him squirm under their gazes for a minute before taking pity and speaking up. "Perhaps new friends would be a better term, then. We met for the first time a few days ago in Devonshire when I was visiting my estate there." Rodney was impressed with the misleading vagueness of the reply and it would likely have sufficed if Rodney hadn't already told the story of his abduction, but O'Neill was unfortunately rather good at making connections.
"Oh ho, so you're the passer-by who rescued my kidnapped relative? It seems we owe you some thanks."
"And I would be pleased to accept, but I'm afraid McKay had already rescued himself quite handily when I turned up. Not that I wouldn't have been delighted to help, but sadly I was entirely superfluous," Sheppard said ruefully.
"You mean McKay got away by himself?" Cameron asked, unflatteringly though not unjustifiably surprised.
"Certainly. Your cousin has quite the right hook." Rodney just had time to convert his taken aback expression at Sheppard's version of events into one of confidence as they all turned to him, O'Neill with pleased approval and the others with varying degrees of wonder. "I'm afraid all I did was provide McKay with transport back to Town and some wholly inadequate accommodation in a hayloft during a thunderstorm," Sheppard finished, nodding to Rodney with a smile. He simply nodded in return, still a little surprised that instead of entertaining the others with Rodney's helplessness when Sheppard had arrived and his subsequent attack on his rescuer, Sheppard had played down his own part and made Rodney's sound so much better.
"I suppose we'll just have to thank you for the use of your carriage then," O'Neill said.
"I enjoyed the company," Sheppard replied with a shrug as Rodney glared at his cousin.
"I did thank him myself, you know. Unlike Cameron, I was brought up correctly."
"Yes, but you so seldom remember to show it, McKay," Cameron said with a smile, pushing his plate away and leaning back in his chair. "Were you on your estate long, Weston?"
"No, not really. Just over a fortnight in the end." Sheppard replied and from there the talk moved on to discussion of land and estate management. It was a topic on which everyone had a lot to say, since Lady Samantha had essentially run her father's estates for years and O'Neill and Cameron were much involved in looking after their own. Even Rodney contributed several stories about his struggles with recalcitrant agents and managers. Everyone also had a lot of advice for Sheppard on the agents he should engage for his affairs and he listened to it all with a polite smile. Rodney noticed that Sheppard never mentioned the mess his brother had left for him, he just talked about the plans he had for the future and the changes he intended to make. He supposed it wasn't the kind of story that was shared with new acquaintances, though this did rather beg the question of why he had shared it with Rodney.
They were finishing up the dessert course when the conversation finally moved on to other matters.
"My brother said that you met during the Peninsular Campaign?" O'Neill enquired of Sheppard.
"That's correct," Sheppard nodded. "It was spring of 1812, was it not?"
"Just after Badajoz, yes," Cameron said. "And we ran into each other a few times in the course of that year."
"Excuse me, gentlemen," Lady Samantha said and they all stood as she rose from the foot of the table. "Much as I normally enjoy military reminiscence, I am rather fatigued and I believe I will retire for the night. It was a pleasure to meet you, my lord," and Sheppard bowed as she curtsied and swept from the room.
"Badajoz. Now that was a bloody battle," O'Neill continued once Lady Samantha had gone. He shook his head and moved to retrieve the port from the sideboard, filling up his glass and passing the bottle down the table.
"Sieges always are once they come to it," Sheppard agreed, "but night attacks seem to be particularly hellish. It is the way the artillery lights up the sky, I believe. I know the Major here was there with the 85th, but I take it you were as well?"
"I was commanding the 14th Regiment by then, in Picton's 3rd division."
Sheppard pursed his lips in a silent whistle when O'Neill finished speaking. "So, one of you was in the diversionary attack and the other storming the breaches in the main assault. You're lucky to have both survived."
"It was a bad one, certainly," Cameron agreed, "and trying to keep control of the men once we got into the city was almost worse. Hellish is a good description for what went on then. It had been such a long, hard fight and we lost so many; I've never been so happy to hear Jack yelling as I was when I went past a garden and found him haranguing half his battalion."
Rodney shifted in his seat and sipped at his port. He never understood why those involved in the War would want to talk about it once it was over. Just hearing about the dangers and battles was unpleasant enough and he never knew what to say in response to their tales. He had never been in a battle and he couldn't find the pattern in the way the discussions would go from jokes to black seriousness and back again.
"Is it true that Nosey cried afterwards?" Sheppard asked curiously just as the momentary silence began to turn uncomfortable.
"Oh yes," O'Neill nodded, mood clearly lightening again as he drank more port. "He was furious at the numbers we lost and he cursed the Parliament for fully five minutes for not giving him more resources. I wish I had been able to write some of them down, I've never heard such creative insults."
"You've obviously never heard McKay describing his fellow natural philosophers then," Cameron put in with a wink in Rodney's direction. "He could give Wellington some competition in that area."
Sheppard smiled a little and shook his head almost fondly. "I can't imagine it. The crying, that is, I have a great deal of experience of Wellington's ability to curse."
"That's where I recognise you from," O'Neill suddenly said, clicking his fingers and sitting up straight. "You were one of his aides at Waterloo, weren't you?"
"I had that honour, yes. Though I think it wasn't so much an honour from the point of view of my Colonel as an opportunity to get rid of me. We never did see eye to eye on much," Sheppard shrugged. "Your regiments distinguished themselves in that battle, didn't they?"
"We held the line," Cameron replied. "But I think the 85th achieved more glory at Salamanca."
"I think my boys did best at Vitoria," O'Neill said and shortly afterwards Rodney's cousins were embroiled in an argument over which battle had been more important for the eventual victory and therefore which of them had made the greatest contribution to winning the war.
Rodney simply sat back and listened, wondering if he ought to try and change the topic before the argument became heated. Sheppard didn't join in on either side, but he did interject several times with subtle analyses of the conflict, usually pointing up an aspect that O'Neill and Cameron were choosing to ignore. The discussion eventually widened into a consideration of all the major battles of the Peninsular War, mainly at Sheppard's instigation, and became more general. It was quite interesting to hear the different views of the three men around him, but Rodney noticed after a time that while Sheppard was encouraging his cousins to describe their experiences and arguing strategy and tactics with a will, none of his contributions were personal memories and that made him curious enough to speak up.
"You never said which regiment you belonged to, Lord Weston." The three men turned toward him in surprise and then O'Neill looked towards Sheppard and raised an eyebrow interrogatively, apparently realising the lack of information for the first time.
"The Queen's Own Hussars," Sheppard replied shortly, meeting Rodney's eyes briefly before looking back to O'Neill.
"Light cavalry?" O'Neill said. It sounded disapproving to Rodney's ears and he suddenly remembered from other discussions that infantrymen did not hold the cavalry in high regard.
"Not like you're thinking, Jack" Cameron put in quickly, obviously thinking the same thing as Rodney. "As I recall, Weston was barely with them enough to learn the names of his superior officers."
"Really? So what exactly were you doing in the Peninsula if you weren't fighting with your regiment? My lord," O'Neill drawled and Rodney started anxiously calculating how much had been drunk since the port came out, since the only thing O'Neill liked less than cavalry officers, who he had once described as overdressed idiots with less brains than their mounts, was officers who had somehow avoided doing any fighting. Rodney couldn't imagine that Sheppard had been a coward, not if Cameron considered him a friend, but he was beginning to wish he'd never asked the question because Sheppard might still be smiling but his eyes weren't looking any friendlier than O'Neill's.
"I was an Exploring Officer, sir," Sheppard drawled right back just as Rodney was finishing his calculation.
Oh. Definitely not a coward. "You mean you were one of those suicidal idiots who spied behind enemy lines?" he said without thinking as O'Neill's eyebrows shot up again in surprised respect.
"Not exactly," Sheppard said, genuine amusement appearing again in his eyes as he looked to Rodney. "Spies work in secret; Exploring Officers rode behind the French lines in full uniform."
"Alone," added Cameron, with a pointed look at his brother.
"Well thank you for pointing out the difference and confirming the first part of my question! Do you have no sense of self-preservation at all?" Rodney asked.
"On the contrary, McKay, my instinct for survival is extremely good, else I would not be here today," and Sheppard had the gall to grin as he replied.
"You must have had a great deal of contact with the Partisans?" O'Neill asked, leaning forward curiously, the earlier tension forgotten.
"Of course. The maps we brought back we found or made ourselves, but the Partisan bands were the main source of captured despatches. Without them, our intelligence on the French movements and plans would have been greatly lacking and they performed amazing deeds to get them. The French would send their messengers into the hills protected by four hundred sabres and the despatches would still end up on Nosey's desk," Sheppard said.
"As I heard it, the despatches the Partisans obtained for us would often be delivered still encrusted with blood," Cameron said, mouth twisting in distaste. "The guerrillas didn't exactly follow the codes of civilised warfare."
"They weren't fighting a civilised war, Major, they were fighting for their homes and families," Sheppard pointed out, rotating his wine glass idly.
"Still. Some of the acts I heard of… How could you work with them?" O'Neill asked.
"Were the Partisans really that bad?" Rodney asked before Sheppard could answer. "The newspapers carried stories of the battles and there were mentions of the Spanish people's fight, but no details."
"There were a lot of brutalities," Sheppard finally said, his voice and face nearly expressionless. "Those they captured did not die well and I witnessed skinnings, castrations… The anfrancesados died even harder when they were caught, but that is always the way for traitors. And the horrors were not all performed by the Partisans. The French raped and killed the Spanish women and tortured the men they captured to death. It was a war of attrition, of revenge, in the hills and neither side behaved with what we would call honour." He paused for a drink before he carried on, meeting O'Neill's gaze steadily with shadowed eyes. "As to how I could work with them, it was my duty. The information and support they gave us was crucial and, for all the battles we talked of earlier, I do not believe we would have won the war without them."
O'Neill shook his head but didn't argue the point. "I don't think I could have done your duty," he said after a moment. "And to be so isolated must have been difficult too."
"It didn't suit everyone," Sheppard agreed. "But there was a freedom in it, to be alone in that grand countryside. There's nothing quite like coming up over a ridge at dawn, just me, my horse and three hundred French cavalry," and he grinned as Rodney shook his head in disbelief.
"He isn't joking about the cavalry, either," Cameron said from where he was slouched back in his chair.
"They chased me a lot, but they never caught me," Sheppard nodded in confirmation.
"It was close that time near the Esla river," Cameron said, waving his glass for emphasis. "We'd been sent to meet up with Major Sheppard here and collect the information for Headquarters, only crossing the river took a little longer than we'd intended so we wound up at the bottom of a wooded gully when we should have been at the top. We were just about to start climbing up when the scouts yell and we look up to see Weston galloping along the top of the ridge about twenty paces in front of half a regiment of Cuirassiers,"
"It was almost a whole regiment, actually," Sheppard interjected.
"We were sure that he was dead," Cameron went on, ignoring him, "they were out of range and we didn't have time to climb up. And then Weston turns his horse and comes straight down the side of the gully at full tilt. About ten of the French follow him and the rest decide that it's clearly insane,"
"It sounds like it was," O'Neill said.
"The gully wasn't that steep," Sheppard shrugged, looking slightly embarrassed.
"Clearly insane, I was saying," Cameron said pointing a finger at him, "so they stop at the top. All we can hear is a lot of crashing from the trees. Two minutes later, this lunatic rides out at the bottom and says 'Morning, lads. Nice day for a ride'!"
"I told you, it wasn't that steep," Sheppard protested.
"It was covered in trees, and rocks and random holes," Cameron argued. "And none of the French who followed you made it out again!"
By this point O'Neill was grinning and Rodney was staring at Sheppard in wide-eyed horror. The man really was a lunatic. Sheppard caught Rodney's eye and looked even more embarrassed.
"It was either that or get caught," he argued, rallying, "and while we're on the subject of military misadventures, I seem to remember some of yours that would be worth repeating."
Rodney abruptly decided that he had heard enough for one night. From the way Cameron was now shouting Sheppard down, there would be little more sensible conversation anyway and his plan to forget Sheppard, something that had slipped his mind in the interest of the conversation, would not be well served by spending the night watching him. He rose to his feet and made to leave.
"You're not leaving us McKay? I was just about to be revenged on your cousin and you'll miss it," Sheppard said.
"I'm afraid so, my lord," Rodney replied. He saw a flash of irritation on Sheppard's face as he used the honorific but the other man didn't correct him this time. "I am still a little tired from my country adventure."
"Of course. Good night," Sheppard said and was echoed by O'Neill and Cameron as he left the room.
Rodney made his way up to bed feeling slightly depressed. From everything he had heard, Sheppard wasn't just a high-born, charming, handsome man, he was also intelligent and brave. None of those adjectives aside from intelligence could be applied to Rodney and though he had known that Sheppard was out of his reach before, he now seemed further away than ever.
The following morning found Rodney breakfasting alone, the other members of the household apparently still recovering from the previous evening's entertainment. It was pleasant to have the room to himself as Rodney did not feel much like conversing with his sharp-eyed relatives at present. He had slept deeply but with powerful, confusing dreams and he had felt restless enough on waking to rise early instead of wallowing in the comfort of his bed.
O'Neill entered the room as Rodney was contemplating another round of toast. He looked rather the worse for wear and merely grunted in response to Rodney's greeting as he sank down into a chair and pulled the bacon towards his plate. There were several moments of concentrated chewing from both their sides of the table before the food apparently revived O'Neill enough to speak.
"Interesting fellow, that Weston," he mumbled around a mouthful.
"Er, yes," Rodney said uneasily. "Yes, I suppose he is."
"No supposing about it," O'Neill replied, "anyone that both you and Cameron call a friend obviously has something going for him."
"I, we really don't know each other that well," Rodney said, "I don't know that you could call us friends." He liked Sheppard, certainly, but friendship was a far too mild term for what Rodney felt and he was sure that now they were back in London, Sheppard would soon be too caught up with more fashionable acquaintances to even think about Rodney.
"He says you are, and you talk to each other like it," O'Neill said with a shrug, taking Rodney slightly aback as he wondered what O'Neill had seen in their interactions. "I never did approve of his brother. Not congenial company at all and he never seemed able to live up to his aspirations," O'Neill went on, pouring some tea and refilling Rodney's cup while he was at it.
"Aspirations?" Rodney asked, confused. There was something higher than being an Earl to aim for?
"Mm," O'Neill said as he swallowed. "He thought he could establish himself as a rake but he simply didn't have the wit, style or charisma to carry it off and ended up merely behaving badly instead."
"I always had the impression that rakes were meant to behave badly," Rodney said drily before sipping his tea. He couldn't quite see how some of his cousins' exploits could be described as anything else, yet they were considered rakish in the extreme.
"To a degree, but we have our own codes of conduct and the previous Lord Weston lacked both integrity and personal honour," O'Neill replied with a wry grimace. "I don't believe the same could be said of the present Earl, despite those old rumours."
"What rumours?" Rodney asked interestedly. He was right, there had been a scandal involving Sheppard. Perhaps O'Neill knew more of the details.
"Oh, I don't really remember all of it," O'Neill mused, gazing absently at the teapot. "Some pretty little debutante kicking up a fuss, claiming Sheppard had dishonoured her or something. I remember Cameron saying he didn't believe a word of it though and after meeting the man, I'm inclined to agree."
That was certainly more than Rodney had remembered, but about what he had assumed would be the case, considering Sheppard's looks and manner. That must have been why he left England four years ago, though it would surely have been easier to just marry his lover and avoid the scandal. He wondered what she had been like; he was sure Sheppard would be attracted to the most beautiful and he couldn't see Sheppard as being anything other than bored if she wasn't also intelligent, but perhaps he gave the man too much credit there. Sheppard certainly wouldn't be the first to be distracted by a pretty face, after all.
O'Neill finishing up his breakfast and departing with a nod in his direction shook Rodney out of his reverie. This line of thought was scarcely productive and also failed to follow his plan of not thinking about Sheppard. Rodney decided that he could use some soothing activity, and he abandoned his cooling tea and moved into the music room. The piano was always kept in tune, though none of Rodney's cousins played and Lady Samantha preferred the harp, and Rodney sat down at it with a sense of relief.
He hesitated over what to play for a moment then launched into the delicate introduction to a Beethoven concerto. As the piece continued, the notes rippled away from under his fingers in a perfect stream and he found himself falling into the music as always, everything else fading into the background in the face of the glorious sounds.
He found it hard to understand why some people dismissed Beethoven as indulgently emotional when Rodney could perceive the intelligence and logic at work in the compositions so clearly, the notes following precise patterns in order to build the themes. It simply went to prove that most people were incapable of paying proper attention to the world around them, or of bothering to analyse it correctly, just as Rodney had always suspected.
The complex music demanded his concentration fully and when he reached the final decisive chords of the first movement he was calmer than he had felt for days and smiling with exhilaration.
"That was wonderful," a familiar voice said quietly from behind Rodney as he was taking a moment to flex and stretch his fingers before he started the second movement, and he jumped around in surprise.
Sheppard was leaning in the doorway to the room, eyes still soft with sleep and a little awed and Rodney flushed in confusion as he stammered out a greeting. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," Sheppard went on, moving further into the room and putting out a tentative hand to run his finger slowly along the curve of the piano lid.
"No, that's all right, I just didn't realise you were there," Rodney said, wondering just how long Sheppard had been listening to him play. "Or that you were still here at all, actually."
"We were up rather late, your cousins and me. Or rather early when I come to think of it, and they insisted that my leaving would be too much bother so I wound up in one of the guest rooms," Sheppard said, swaying a little as he shrugged and catching himself on the piano. "And given that I am apparently still a little fuddled now, it's possible they were right," he added, looking slightly sheepish at his clumsiness. He did seem less focused than he usually was and his face was relaxed and gentle, like it had been when Rodney had watched him sleeping. "Was it Beethoven?" Sheppard asked after a moment.
"Yes," Rodney answered, "His piano concerto in G major."
Sheppard gave a satisfied smile and nodded vigorously to himself several times until he swayed again and Rodney smothered his own smile behind his hand. He liked this version of Sheppard, his normal easy confidence and edge softened a little from the night's drinking. "I thought it was," Sheppard went blithely on, leaning more firmly against the instrument and waving a hand about lazily. "His music always makes so much sense, as if the notes couldn't possibly have been put together in any other way, but at the same time it's always so unexpected."
Rodney blinked in surprise and he found he was grinning at Sheppard in pleasure. "Yes, that's what I've always thought too," he agreed and saw Sheppard's face light up in an answering grin.
"Would you play some more?" Sheppard asked after a moment, his hand moving aimlessly over the piano lid again.
Rodney hesitated, thinking it over. He'd never really liked playing for an audience, he found the attention intrusive and he detested the way people would talk over it and make inane comments afterwards, and everyone knew better than to ask him to by now. Except for Sheppard, who had ducked his head and was looking at the keys a little wistfully, as though he'd lost something important there. And Sheppard liked Beethoven.
He placed his hands back on the keys, took some calming breaths and began to play the second movement, Andante con moto. He was a little self-conscious at first, but Sheppard was looking at the top of the instrument, not watching Rodney and the melody soon swept him away, the notes flowing gently around them.
He saw Sheppard smile out of the corner of his eye as he began the Rondo vivace, the jaunty tune of the third movement seeming to lift his spirits. Rodney kept sneaking glances at him as he continued to play, watching as Sheppard closed his eyes and relaxed fully, his expression turning peaceful again as he listened to the music.
When Rodney reached the end of the concerto, he let his fingers linger in the shape of the final chord for a moment then looked up to see Sheppard just opening his eyes with a sigh. "You play very well," he said, his voice quiet and with a little of the wistful quality Rodney had seen in his face earlier apparent in the tone.
"Thank you," Rodney replied equally softly, still caught up in the feel of the music. "Do you play an instrument?"
"No," Sheppard said, moving round so he stood next to Rodney's seat and touching a finger delicately onto one of the keys, too lightly to make any sound. "I would have liked to, but my father did not believe that studying music was appropriate for his son so I was not allowed to learn."
"Oh," said Rodney, fighting the urge to insult Sheppard's dead father.
"My sister plays though," Sheppard continued with a tight little smile. "Not so well as you, but she doesn't have your reach," and he laid his hand over Rodney's on the keyboard as if to measure the size and Rodney sucked in his breath, caught off-guard by the sudden action. Sheppard gave a little chuckle and slid his fingers between Rodney's as he broke out into a sweat at the intimate gesture and looked desperately at the piano lid. "Your hands are bigger than mine," Sheppard murmured, "and strong to play those chords, no wonder you could knock me out with one punch."
"That was the tree branch," Rodney forced out from his dry mouth, feeling his pulse start to pound as his blood heated up.
"No, I think it was you that stunned me," Sheppard said and Rodney looked up helplessly to find serious eyes fixed on his. He felt Sheppard's hand slide off his, making the skin tingle, and he swallowed convulsively and closed his eyes in despair, knowing how terrible he was at hiding his feelings. Why had he agreed to play for Sheppard? He could have avoided this so easily, but it was too late. If Sheppard hadn't already guessed Rodney's inclinations, he surely would have now.
"Rodney," Sheppard said, and Rodney braced himself, but before the other man could continue, Rodney heard rapid footsteps in the hall and he jumped up and away as the door was flung open.
"Weston, there you are!" Cameron called as he breezed in, obviously also still inebriated. "Morning, McKay. I just got word from my brother that he's found some horse racing action in the Row," he went on, looking at Sheppard again. "Come on, I'll put you up on my black gelding and we can clean up."
"I don't know if that's such a good plan," Sheppard said, voice even. Rodney risked a look and found that his face was completely blank, nothing remaining of the ease he had been showing earlier and Rodney turned away to stare out the window so he didn't have to look at him.
"Of course it is," Cameron said in affront, "It's one of mine. No-one there is going to know how good you are and my black is one of the best horses in London."
There was a pause and then Sheppard gave in. "Very well, I suppose it could be amusing."
"Excellent. You coming along, McKay?"
"No. No, I have things I want to do today and that doesn't include mindless gambling with reckless idiots," Rodney snapped, still staring blindly out at the garden.
"Please yourself," Cameron replied and Rodney heard them walking towards the door. He twisted to watch them leave and Sheppard turned just as he reached the door, holding Rodney's eyes for a moment with an indecipherable look and then he was gone.
Rodney took a shaky breath and sank down onto his chair with his head in his hands. Not even Beethoven was going to be enough to soothe this turmoil.
He sat miserably in the music room for a while, wondering if Sheppard would confront him or would simply refuse to ever acknowledge his existence again. At this point, Rodney really wasn't sure which he would prefer, as either option would be painful and lead to comment from his relatives. Oh God, what if Sheppard told Cameron? Surely he wouldn't destroy Rodney like that, wouldn't be so cruel. Rodney had not actually done anything after all; it had always been Sheppard who had touched him not the other way around, except for when he was asleep and Sheppard surely couldn't hold that against him.
Not that it really mattered in the end. Rodney was going to experience abject humiliation in any case; it was just a question of degree. Rodney was either going to be forced to endure the abhorrence of everyone whose opinion mattered to him or the disgust of the one person who was beginning to matter the most, and there was nothing he could do to decide the course of events or stop the fall.
It was all down to Sheppard now, and Rodney had no idea what the other man was going to choose.
Rodney spent the rest of the day wandering miserably around the house, unable to concentrate on anything and with a steadily worsening mood. He snapped bad-tempered replies to every attempt O'Neill and Lady Samantha made to bring him into conversation at lunch, a lunch he barely tasted, and fled to the library in the afternoon. By the time evening fell, he had a headache and had managed to annoy the others into leaving him strictly alone. It was a relief to get out of the house and go to the Natural Philosophy Society meeting; at least there he would have a chance to think of something other than his inevitable ruin.
The meetings were held in the library at Gresham College and Rodney looked around for Zelenka as he entered the room, wondering if the Count had returned from his trip yet. He really would appreciate some sensible conversation for once. He skimmed his eyes over the book-filled shelves that reached from floor to ceiling, recalling that Zelenka was often to be found eight feet up a ladder searching for a particular tome, but there was no-one perched precariously there tonight and he couldn't see him seated or walking about the room either. Most of the other usual members were there, however, and he could see Grodin, Gaul and Parrish arguing amicably at a table and others of his acquaintance scattered about the room. Unfortunately, Lord Kavanagh was also present, to Rodney's dismay. He was not in a mood for dealing with the other man's false arrogance tonight and had harboured a hope that he would be busy with other engagements.
Rodney headed to the opposite side of the room from Kavanagh, pulled out a chair next to Grodin and dived into the discussion of Volta's work on batteries and its implications. The others had not got very far yet and he was soon enjoying the opportunity to correct their thinking and argue with Gaul over the mathematics and whose interpretation was the best. Finally, something to take his mind off Sheppard.
It worked quite well for a time, but when Parrish finally succeeded in turning the discussion towards botany, a subject in which Rodney had little interest, he found he was dwelling once more on what had occurred that morning and his bad mood returned. He hated not knowing what was going to happen and trying to guess how another person would react to something; he was far better in the realm of cold fact than emotion.
He became aware that Lord Kavanagh was now behind him with some of his cronies, the whining voice intruding annoyingly on Rodney's thoughts. He listened with half an ear and then with rather more interest as he realised that Kavanagh was expounding on Newton's theories of gravitation. He was shaking his head over the mistakes of logic the other man was making in his arguments just as Kavanagh realised that he was listening.
"Following the discussion adequately, Mr. McKay?" he sneered. "Perhaps if you listen longer, you'll learn something."
"I doubt that very much, my lord," Rodney replied dismissively. As if a pasty-faced ninny like Kavanagh could tell him anything about Newton's work.
"Yes, I am sure the concepts I have put forth are rather difficult for you to comprehend," Kavanagh said archly and his sycophants sniggered obediently.
"Indeed, I did find it difficult to comprehend how you could possibly have understood the theory so badly," Rodney replied standing up to face the other man, his temper finding a target at last. He saw the flash of anger in Kavanagh's eyes, but before the other man could reply Rodney launched himself into an excoriating rebuttal of everything he had heard Kavanagh say in the last few minutes.
Every attempt Kavanagh made to interrupt him simply made Rodney angrier and in a few minutes they were snarling at each other in the middle of the library, all the other society members turning to watch in dismay. Their previous battles over science were well known to everyone, but even Rodney was aware that they had never reached this level of viciousness before. Kavanagh seemed to be spoiling for a fight as much as Rodney was and wasn't even pretending to listen to Rodney's reasons why he was wrong. Instead he simply kept going with his stupid theories until Rodney finally just gave up and yelled his opinion of Kavanagh's intelligence.
"Shut up! It's just as well you have servants and a wife to dress you, you'd never manage something so complicated yourself, in fact I'm surprised you have the wit to walk and breathe at the same time without someone to remind you how. I've never heard such lack-brained dribbling in all my life, the inmates at Bedlam have more intelligence, you snivel-nosed, empty-headed idiot."
He stopped to catch his breath, realising that he might have gone too far as a shocked murmur rose from their audience and Kavanagh went completely scarlet with fury. Before anyone could gather the wit to say anything, they were interrupted by the arrival of supper and someone grabbed Rodney's arm and pulled him towards the back door to the library. He could see Grodin and some others hurriedly starting up strained conversations and Lord Kavanagh's companions scurrying after him as he stormed out the front and then Rodney was in a quiet anteroom and he turned to find that it was Count Zelenka who had dragged him away.
"Sit, and calm down," Zelenka ordered him brusquely and Rodney sat abruptly, too shaken to protest now that the target for his anger had left. Zelenka nodded, his messy hair shaking about his face before he spun around and left the room with a quick mutter that he would be back, and Rodney was alone. He breathed deeply, forcing his heartbeat to slow down and his emotions back under control as he closed his eyes and pretended that he was somewhere else. After a moment, Zelenka reappeared with food and drink for them both. He sat next to Rodney in soothing silence as Rodney gratefully nibbled and sipped. There was silence for a little longer after they had both finished and then Rodney spoke.
"When did you arrive?"
"I entered as you and Lord Kavanagh began your theatrics. A most dramatic scene," Zelenka replied in a sarcastic tone, shaking his head at Rodney.
"Did you hear what he was saying? He had completely misinterpreted the mathematics and he was acting like he understood the theory better than, than Newton himself," Rodney said, getting indignant again.
"Yes, I heard and there were certainly mistakes in his words. But to respond so was not wise of you," Zelenka replied. "You offended Lord Kavanagh deeply."
"Oh please," Rodney scoffed, hiding his slight sense of shame at his loss of temper. "What is Kavanagh going to do to me?"
"I do not know, maybe nothing," Zelenka shrugged, but his eyes were worried behind his round spectacles. "You were antagonists before, but you did not humiliate him so before and I do not think he is a good enemy to have. He is rich and powerful, after all, and that sort does not take kindly to being insulted in public. You are lucky that he did not challenge you to a duel."
"Oh God, I never thought of that," Rodney said in a panic. "Do you think he will? I don't know how to fight, I'll get killed."
"No, I do not think so," Zelenka said after a moment's thought.
"Of course I'll get killed," Rodney moaned, "He's going to want pistols at dawn and I can't hit something that's twenty feet away, especially not at that hour of the morning."
"I meant I do not think he will want a duel," said Zelenka, shaking his head at Rodney.
"But I insulted him," Rodney said.
"Yes. Very much," Zelenka agreed. "Still, your status is far enough below his that it probably would make him look more ridiculous to respond so. And he is not particularly martial either. Perhaps you will be lucky."
"Yes, that's true," Rodney said, brightening up.
"And perhaps he will hire men to break your head in a dark alley one night," Zelenka said equally cheerfully and Rodney glared at him. "You should be careful, my friend," he went on in a more serious tone.
"Oh, thank you for that completely unnecessary advice," Rodney snapped, but inside he was glad that O'Neill had sent him off with one of his carriages and grooms earlier, though at the time it had made him feel guilty for snapping at his cousin all day. Wonderful, now he had two enemies to worry about, his mysterious kidnapper and Lord Kavanagh. Unless it was actually just one enemy… No, that didn't make any sense.
"My pleasure," Zelenka said imperturbably. "I would miss our discussions if you were to get, what is the term, nobbled?"
"Well, I shall certainly do my best to avoid it. Where have you been anyway?" Rodney asked, reminded by Zelenka's last comment that he had not been present when Rodney wanted to talk to him last week.
"I was in Devon," the other man replied in a morose tone.
Devon? That was an odd coincidence. "It doesn't sound like you had a good time," Rodney said.
"I was hoping to see someone, but it did not work out as I wished." Zelenka said wistfully.
"I didn't know you had acquaintances down there," Rodney said, still surprised that they had ended up in the same county, however briefly on Rodney's part.
"Just one," Zelenka sighed. "But such a one, truly she is the most important friendship I have made."
"Wait, were you courting?" Rodney spluttered as he saw the glazed, happy look in Zelenka's eyes and the way he was waving his hands about.
"Yes," Zelenka said defiantly in response to Rodney's question. "Or attempting to, anyway. I have waited for the period of mourning to end, but now her other brother returns and the family was not at home to visitors, so I waited again. But then Lady Elizabeth returned to town so I followed. Perhaps I will have a chance to see her here instead."
Oh no. That sounded far too familiar a tale of family troubles for Rodney's peace of mind. "Lady Elizabeth?" he asked faintly.
"Ano, Lady Elizabeth Weston," Zelenka said, his accent thickening with emotion and his eyes shining as he said her name and he babbled on happily while Rodney nodded numbly. He couldn't get away from Sheppard anywhere it seemed, even here. It wasn't fair. If it wasn't the man himself popping up all over his cousins' house, his relatives were appearing out of the woodwork just when Rodney thought he was safe.
"She is most marvellous woman I have ever met," said Zelenka, still singing her praises. "Beautiful, intelligent, kind. I meet her in Europe when she was on the Grand Tour and I knew instantly that she was the only one. She is the reason I come to London, just in hope of seeing her again."
"Wait a minute," Rodney said as he started listening again. "You said you came to London because you had heard that it was the centre of scientific thought for the civilised world and contained the finest minds in Europe."
"No, that is why you said I must have come here," Zelenka replied tartly. "I simply did not disagree with you."
Rodney muttered indignantly about deceiving Europeans but Zelenka just grinned annoyingly at him so he waved his hands in resignation and gave up. "I suppose you want to marry this paragon then?"
"Oh yes, very much," Zelenka sighed, looking wistful again. "But, I do not know if it is possible. I have rank, but from a different country, and my family is very far from being rich. In comparison to the Westons, we are simple farmers. Your society would frown on such a match, I think."
"Oh," said Rodney, feeling a mix of emotions somewhere between pleased that someone else was troubled like he was, guilty for feeling pleased and sympathy for his despondent friend. "Well, you haven't asked her yet," he pointed out. "You never know, she might say yes."
"That is very true," Zelenka said, looking at Rodney in surprise. "I will not give up hope yet." After that comment, Zelenka sat staring into space with a happier expression on his face than before, no doubt thinking of his lady and Rodney found he couldn't help thinking of his member of the Weston family, wondering if Sheppard would allow his sister to marry someone like Zelenka or if the lack of obvious advantages would blind him to all Zelenka's good qualities.
A moment later, Zelenka roused himself and turned his attention back to Rodney. "I think the discussions have begun again. Shall we return to the debate?"
Rodney shook his head, no longer in the mood after everything that had occurred. "No, I think I will return home now."
"As you wish," said Zelenka, following him back into the library. "Perhaps I will see you at Lady Camoyne's ball tomorrow?"
Rodney gave a snort and shook his head. "Yes, of course, because a noisy, sweaty ball is my idea of a perfect evening."
"Good night then," Zelenka said with a smile and Rodney nodded to him and headed out of the building, ignoring the looks from the rest of the men there.
He sent one of the college servants in search of his groom and then climbed thankfully into the carriage when it arrived, slumping back in the seat and closing his eyes.
His headache was back and he wanted to go to bed and forget this day had ever happened.
Most of my knowledge of the Peninsular War is straight out of the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. I took some notes quickly from a couple of his books when I was writing this, and I thought I had used my own words when I wrote the section with John, Rodney, Cameron and Jack discussing the War. But it seems my memory for phrasing is better than I realised so apologies to Mr Cornwell because some of the phrases in that bit belong to him and not me.
Given Rodney's avowed hatred of balls, he was most irritated to find himself walking into the hall of the Camoyne's palace in Westminster in a mass of over-excited revellers the night after the Natural Philosophy Society's meeting.
It was all O'Neill's fault he was here. Well, that wasn't precisely true, it was Lady Samantha that had insisted on Rodney accompanying the rest of the family but it was O'Neill that had threatened to drag Rodney by the hair if he kept refusing to go willingly. "I don't know why my wife wishes you to join us, you've been in a foul mood ever since you got back from being kidnapped," he had said, "but she seems to think it will cheer you up. Or possibly she just wants to torture you, and that is an impulse I can understand so you are coming with us whether you like it or not."
Rodney had protested, of course, but seeing O'Neill was on the verge of genuinely losing his temper he had finally given in. He was aware that his behaviour over the last few days had been a poor return for their many kindnesses to him and if suffering through this occasion was required in recompense, it was no less than he deserved. At least the ball was a large event and he would be able to lose himself in the crowds with little difficulty and avoid any need to be sociable.
His cousins had all gone on into the main areas of the house as Rodney had lingered in the entrance hall and he sighed and headed up the stairs after them, threading through the packed groups of the other guests. He was inclined to agree with O'Neill that Lady Samantha's intent was to punish him since she knew perfectly well what he thought of all the diversions available at balls. Rodney had no desire to dance, less inclination to make polite conversation and he lacked the temperament and bottomless pockets required to be a successful gambler so the card tables held no appeal either.
He would have a look around for Count Zelenka, and if he couldn't find him Rodney would simply find a quiet corner out of the way where he could listen to the music until supper was served. Lady Camoyne never hired any but the best musicians so that should be bearable at least and hopefully he wouldn't run into anyone else he knew.
He turned right at the top of the staircase, intending to check out the card rooms first and ran into Grodin almost straight away. "Mr. McKay," the other man blurted in surprise. "What on earth are you doing here?"
"It was entirely involuntary, I assure you."
"Well for heaven's sake, don't go in the card rooms," Grodin said urgently. "Lord Kavanagh is playing vingt-et-un in there and you should stay away from him."
Rodney stared at him in dismay. He hadn't even thought about avoiding Kavanagh tonight, he had been too busy worrying that Sheppard would be here. "Oh. Thank you Grodin, I'll go the other way."
"Yes, I think that's a good idea. I heard it took his little friends several hours to persuade him that it was not worth the risk of being arrested to challenge you over your insults. I don't know how he'll react to seeing you again so soon, but it would be best if he didn't, especially if he happens to lose the game."
"I agree," Rodney said fervently and Grodin gave him a nod and a wry smile and moved on to catch up his own party. Rodney found his way a little shakily down the corridor as well and ducked behind a statue to steady his nerves.
Kavanagh had actually been considering a duel then. Rodney hadn't thought the other man would have that much gumption, despite Zelenka's worry. Perhaps he should swallow his pride a little and write a formal apology to Kavanagh tomorrow. Not for correcting his science of course, anyone that wrong really needed to be set to rights, but it wouldn't kill Rodney to apologise for the insults and avoid anymore nasty scenes.
He took another moment of relative peace and then forced himself into the crush at the entrance to the ballroom. As usual, there were far too many people at the ball. Lady Camoyne must have invited every person in London who was even remotely eligible. He spotted Cameron on the other side of the large room and headed vaguely in that direction round the outskirts, trying to avoid running into the backs of the dancers and looking around for Zelenka as he went.
He found him about half way across the shorter side of the room. Or more accurately, Zelenka found him, since the other man was hiding on the wrong side of a pillar and grabbed Rodney by the arm as he went past, making Rodney yelp in fright. "Don't do that," he snapped when he had his breath back. "I thought you were Kavanagh."
"Sorry," Zelenka said with an unrepentant shrug. "I said your name, but it is noisy in here."
"Yes, you're very convincingly contrite. Why are you hiding behind a pillar anyway? I thought you would have been off somewhere in the thick of the party trying to woo your lady-love. Or is she not here?" Rodney asked hopefully.
"No, she is here," Zelenka replied. Damn. Still, it didn't mean Sheppard was, just because his sister had come to the ball.
"So what?" Zelenka asked, crossing his arms across his chest and glaring slightly.
"Why aren't you talking to her, or dancing or whatever else it is people who're romantically inclined do?"
"It is not so simple as you suggest," Zelenka muttered, fussing uncomfortably with his spectacles.
"Why not? Wait, you have actually spoken to her before haven't you?" Rodney asked suspiciously. "Because the idea of love at first sight and then pining from afar is ridiculous on so many levels I don't even know where to start."
"Yes of course I have spoken to her and I am not pining," Zelenka snapped back.
"Really? What are you doing then?"
"I'm, I'm… oh, devil take it, I'm pining. But I have good reason, look," and Zelenka pulled them both round the pillar and pointed across the corner.
"What am I looking at?" Rodney said in irritation after a moment.
"About a third of the way along the long back wall. The dancers are in the way now, but Lady Elizabeth is the beautiful dark-haired woman in the dark red dress. If that does not help, she is also the one laughing and looking very happily at a tall, annoyingly handsome man who I have not seen before," Zelenka said, starting off in a determined tone and finishing with a depressed little sigh.
"What?" Rodney said and then the lines of dancers shifted their pattern again and he could see them.
Lady Elizabeth was strikingly beautiful, but Rodney's attention was instantly fixed on her companion. Tall and slender, cream trousers and dark blue jacket fitting so perfectly they must have been sewn on, beautiful smile and dark hair as messy as ever.
Rodney felt dizzy and the room went dark everywhere except where Sheppard stood. The roaring in his ears subsided after a moment when he remembered to breathe again and he heard Zelenka muttering miserably to himself over Rodney's shoulder.
"…so now you see. I had hopes but now there is no hope. How can I compete with that? And she looks so happy too."
What on earth was he rabbiting on about? Of course she was happy; Sheppard had been away for years…oh. "Oh, don't be pathetic, that's her brother," Rodney sighed.
"Her brother?" Zelenka said, grabbing onto Rodney's shoulder unnecessarily hard. "Are you certain?"
"Of course I'm certain. John Sheppard, Earl of Weston," Rodney said and gestured towards them. He turned his head as he did and his eyes met Sheppard's with an impact he felt all the way down to his toes. Sheppard nodded and raised a hand and Rodney gulped in alarm and nodded back as Sheppard bent his head to say something to his sister.
"You know him?" Zelenka asked, inhaling sharply.
"A little," Rodney winced.
"You must introduce me," Zelenka said, nodding insistently and grabbing onto Rodney's arm again.
"What? No," Rodney protested.
"Yes, yes you must. If ever we are friends at all…"
"We're not, I don't even like you," Rodney said. He needed to stay away from Sheppard, damn it.
"McKay! This is no time for stupid games. This is my whole future happiness," Zelenka hissed, refusing to let go when Rodney tried to back away.
"Don't be ridiculous, it is not."
"Please, like I could hope to marry Lady Elizabeth without her brother's approval? But maybe it is possible, just barely, that I have a chance if he likes me," and Zelenka frowned behind his spectacles, "and if you ruin it for me by behaving like, like you, Lord Kavanagh will be the very least of your problems."
"I am not going to ruin it," Rodney said with dignity, before snapping, "because I am not going to do anything. I am not going over there and it won't exactly make a good impression if you drag me, will it?"
"I do not need to," Zelenka replied with a smug look. "Lord Weston is coming over here."
Rodney's stomach went hollow with dread and he looked around frantically to see Sheppard just turning the corner, sliding easily through the crowds watching the dancers, and obviously heading right for them.
Oh God. It was too late to run, even if Zelenka hadn't still been holding onto Rodney's arm.
Sheppard was standing with them at the pillar far too soon for Rodney's liking and Rodney gathered all his courage and looked up from his intense contemplation of his own shoes. His courage ran out somewhere about Sheppard's chest though, so he found he was staring at the other man's cravat rather than his face.
"This is a surprise McKay. I didn't have the impression that balls were really your thing," Rodney heard and he had to look up at that because Sheppard's voice was exactly the same as always, light and amused.
When he raised his eyes, Sheppard was grinning at him and he found himself stammering out some kind of answer in a state of shock. He stumbled to a halt and simply blinked at the man, wondering what he had just said. There was a little pause as he watched Sheppard's grin widen and then Zelenka coughed meaningfully at his side and Rodney jumped.
"Oh. Um, my lord may I introduce Count Radek Zelenka of Bohemia. Count Zelenka, Lord Weston."
Sheppard and Zelenka bowed to each other and Rodney sighed gratefully as Zelenka began to speak, keeping Sheppard's attention.
"It is a very great pleasure to meet you, my lord."
"Likewise, Count Zelenka. I have heard a great deal about you lately," Sheppard replied, shooting a quick glance at Rodney.
"You have?" Zelenka asked following Sheppard's glance, looking like he wasn't sure whether to be pleased or alarmed and Rodney tried to remember what he had told Sheppard about the other man.
"Indeed," Sheppard drawled. "Don't worry, McKay here was most complimentary."
"Truly?" Zelenka said in surprise, turning to Rodney who frowned at him. It wasn't that surprising; he was quite capable of saying nice things about people sometimes.
"Yes," Sheppard replied, hazel eyes dancing in a way that made Rodney wince in anticipation. "I believe he said that you weren't quite an idiot and bearable enough company," he went on thoughtfully and Rodney found himself the recipient of an outraged glare from Zelenka.
"Did he," Zelenka gritted out, accent growing stronger in annoyance.
"Oh yes," Sheppard said. "A statement I interpreted to mean that you're extremely intelligent and a good friend. Correct, McKay?"
"Well, yes. Actually," Rodney managed, gaining a mollified pleased look from Zelenka in response. That was what he had meant, but he wasn't sure how Sheppard had known to translate it like that. And why was Sheppard being so easy with him; where were the contempt and the anger he had expected?
"Of course, I've heard the most about you from my sister. Elizabeth speaks very highly of you," Sheppard said. "And at length," he added with an innocent expression as Zelenka was apparently struck dumb by his first statement.
"Oh," Zelenka said eventually, his whole face lighting up in delight. "Well, that's very, very… I am sure that she is too kind."
"I've always found her a fine judge of character," Sheppard shrugged and Zelenka went pink and bounced a little while Rodney shook his head. Zelenka wasn't just in love he was besotted. "She has also declared herself in need of some intelligent conversation tonight and sent me off in search of it," Sheppard trailed off leadingly and Zelenka beamed.
"Ah, perhaps I will see if I am able to meet the case," he said.
"Good idea. I think she has some spaces left on her dance card as well," Sheppard added and Zelenka gave Rodney a blinding grin and hurried off into the crowd, almost dancing already.
Rodney turned back to Sheppard, uneasy again as the distraction of Zelenka was removed. "Well, I think that I should go… somewhere," he said rather desperately.
"Don't you dare, McKay," Sheppard said, shaking his head. "You're not abandoning me here, I claim sanctuary."
"What?" Rodney said stupidly. Sheppard should have left after Zelenka did; his manner with Rodney had surely been a front for the benefit of the other man.
"I need protection, Rodney," Sheppard said with a rueful grin. "The matchmakers are out in force tonight. I feel like a fox that has just been sighted by the hounds."
"I thought you were used to being hunted?" Rodney said, trying to hide his confusion at Sheppard's friendly tone.
"Believe me, these ladies are far more dangerous than the French."
"And you want me to protect you?" Rodney asked. This was just too strange. Unless. Perhaps Rodney hadn't been as obvious as he had thought that morning? Sheppard was acting just as if nothing had happened; maybe as far as he was concerned nothing had. That must be it. There was no way Sheppard could talk to him like this if he knew. Rodney went light-headed with relief and leaned against the pillar behind him.
"Absolutely. Talking to you lets me avoid all the endless introductions to the daughters of every woman who can claim the slightest acquaintance with Elizabeth and if they do track me down, you can at least divert some of the attention."
"Very well," Rodney agreed, knowing even as he said it that it was a mistake to linger with Sheppard, but unable to resist the temptation of spending a little more time with him. He was in a crowded ballroom after all. There would be no possibility of any dangerous intimacy and he might just be able to keep Sheppard's friendship a little longer.
"Your cousins forced you to attend tonight, you said?" Sheppard asked after a moment.
"Yes," Rodney replied. Apparently he had managed a coherent answer to Sheppard's greeting earlier after all. "Lady Samantha insisted on my presence. She seems to feel I need more exposure to society."
"We have that in common then. My sister did the same to me," Sheppard said with a wry headshake.
"You didn't want to come either?" Rodney asked in surprise.
"No, not particularly. I find I prefer quieter gatherings now. Though I admit I am no longer finding it quite as tedious as I had anticipated. As long as I can avoid the matchmakers, it may even turn out to be fun."
Rodney smiled at the face Sheppard pulled as he mentioned the eager mothers hunting him. "You won't be able to avoid them forever, you know," he pointed out.
"I don't see why not," Sheppard said, plucking two glasses of wine from the tray of a passing servant and handing one to Rodney. "I'll have you know that I am very stubborn. We'll see who gives up first, me or the mamas."
"But you'll have to get married eventually. Estates need heirs and all that," Rodney said, sipping at his wine as Sheppard gave him a strange look.
"That might be so. But I can assure you that if I was looking to bind myself to another, a simpering debutante is the last kind of person I would choose. They are not to my taste," Sheppard said and grinned at Rodney before swallowing the last of his own glass.
Rodney decided that he should probably try and turn the conversation to less personal topics before Sheppard could decide to tell him what was to his taste. He was just starting to ask whether Sheppard had found a firm of agents for his estates yet when he was interrupted.
"My dear Lord Weston," a smooth female voice said, "How delightful to see you again," and a pretty, buxom, brown-haired woman, definitely not a debutante judging by the extremely low cut of her dress, insinuated herself between them and fixed her attention on Sheppard, ignoring Rodney completely. "Just in time too," she added with a coy tilt of her head and a flutter of lashes over brown eyes, "for I seem to be unaccountably lacking a partner for the waltz."
Well, that was the end of their conversation then.
"Thank you for the information," Sheppard replied nearly flatly, "But as you can see, I am otherwise engaged at present." That wasn't the answer Rodney had expected him to give and the woman was clearly surprised as well because she gave a quick frown before trying again.
"Oh, I am sure that your companion will gladly spare you to spend some time with an old friend," she said with a dismissive glance at Rodney. "We have so much to say to each other after all this time apart," and she laid a gloved hand enticingly on Sheppard's arm.
"Really," Sheppard said, stepping away from her and closer to Rodney and Rodney shivered at the blankness of his face. He hadn't realised until now how much Sheppard usually expressed with his mobile features, but the difference between the closed stillness now and the way he had been with Rodney earlier and on other occasions was a little unnerving.
It didn't seem to deter the woman, though. "Yes, indeed. I am simply dying to hear all your news. It really was naughty of you not to let me know of your return sooner," she said with a flirtatious glance and then gave a little laugh. "Oh, but of course, you wouldn't know. I am Lady Kavanagh now."
Lady Kavanagh? Rodney nearly dropped his wine glass in surprise. Sheppard had a history with Kavanagh's wife?
"I find that very hard to believe," Sheppard said and Rodney jumped again at the echoing of his own thought.
"I know darling, I can never quite believe in the reality of my marriage vows either," Lady Kavanagh purred with a meaningful look and Rodney gaped at her in disbelief. Good lord, she was propositioning Sheppard right in front of him.
"You misunderstand me," Sheppard said, his calm expression finally changing to one of blatant insolence. "I was questioning your claim to the title of lady, not the likelihood of you finally ensnaring a man." He smirked at her coldly as she gasped and flushed in outrage before he went on, "I must remember to offer my commiserations to Lord Kavanagh though from what I've heard of his character you deserve each other. Now, if you will excuse us, I feel in need of some fresh air." He bowed ironically and steered Rodney away from her with a firm hand on his elbow. Rodney looked back once to see her glaring after them in fury and then Sheppard drew him through the tall glass doors and onto the terrace overlooking the gardens.
The terrace was quiet with only a few other guests outside. Sheppard guided them down to the darker end and let go of Rodney to pace up and down while Rodney watched him and wondered what all that had been about. After a minute, Sheppard stopped pacing and leant back against the stone balustrade next to Rodney.
"I apologise for subjecting you to that scene, Rodney," he said quietly and Rodney saw that he was looking a little embarrassed.
"I'm sure you had your reasons," Rodney said and realised he meant it at the same time. He couldn't imagine Sheppard behaving like that to anyone without cause.
Sheppard gave a small snort of laughter and shook his head. "Oh yes, you could say that. I thought I was better prepared, that I had lost the bitterness towards her, but it seems I was mistaken."
Bitterness? "Oh, wait. Was she the one who, I mean that, um…" and Rodney stopped, unsure how to put his question tactfully.
Sheppard turned his head to face him, eyebrows lifting curiously as Rodney babbled and then he gave a rueful smile. "I see you've heard that story then. Yes, Lady Kavanagh, or Miss Chaya Carlow as she was then, was the scheming little minx who contrived to have me banished from England. She pursued me relentlessly for most of a Season and then accused me of seducing her, to the disgust of my father. He demanded I marry her, of course."
"And you refused? Wouldn't it have been easier to agree?" Rodney asked, not sure if Sheppard would be angry at the question but too curious to resist asking it.
"Since I had never laid a hand on her and didn't much want to, I didn't feel it would be," Sheppard said, his mouth drawing into a grim line. "I hate liars and I won't be blackmailed. Unfortunately I had something of a reputation then and no-one except Elizabeth believed my protestation of innocence."
Rodney found he believed Sheppard now, despite what he had assumed when O'Neill had told him the tale earlier. Sheppard was so clearly disgusted by Lady Kavanagh and there was a glimmer of hurt in his eyes when he spoke of his family's disbelief that was more convincing than any of his words.
"Then they were idiots," he declared. He felt a little guilty for jumping to the wrong conclusion himself, but he hadn't spoken to Sheppard then and if he could see Sheppard was telling the truth about it, Sheppard' family should certainly have known him well enough to trust his word.
Sheppard looked slightly startled at Rodney's vehemence, but then he smiled more genuinely than he had since Lady Kavanagh had accosted them, the usual animation returning to his face at last. "Thank you," he said in an amused tone. "I quite agree."
"She's even more of an idiot though," Rodney continued. "How could either of you have been happy in a marriage that you were forced into? It isn't rational at all; she must have known you would despise her for it."
"I'm sure she thought she could reconcile me once I could no longer escape her attentions," Sheppard said. "But since her main objective was achieving a title and a place in the first rank of society, I doubt she would have cared over much if I was happy with the situation or not."
"That's so cold," Rodney mused. "I know it happens all the time, but it seems sad that marriages aren't just about love. I wouldn't want to spend my whole life with someone for any other reason."
"I didn't know you were such a romantic, Rodney," Sheppard said and Rodney squirmed and blushed as Sheppard gave him a teasing smile.
"I, well, that's just what I think," he muttered.
"Don't be embarrassed," Sheppard said softly, twisting to face Rodney more fully and catching his wrist to stop him looking away. "I think the same," and he squeezed gently before he let go, making Rodney flush even more.
"That is why you went to the Colonies, then?" he said a little breathlessly, trying to distract Sheppard's attention from his reactions before he could get himself into trouble again.
"My father gave me a choice," Sheppard said, leaning one hand on the balustrade and looking out over the dark gardens. "Marry her or be packed off to my mother's brother in the East Indies. You know which I chose." He was silent a moment then gave an amused chuckle. "I was just thinking," Sheppard said in response to Rodney's curious look. "I really should have thanked her. I would have missed out on much I value in my life if I had stayed in England."
"Exile was a reward, then, rather than a punishment?" Rodney asked.
"My father would have been so disappointed," Sheppard said, still chuckling. "He thought my Uncle Sumner would teach me the error of my ways and return me chastened to the family fold. Instead he took me to Pinang and left me to my own devices and I've been happier there than anywhere."
"Perhaps you could tell me more about the island in the supper room?" Rodney suggested, suddenly inspired with a reason to leave the relative seclusion of the terrace and a safe change of topic, though he did genuinely wish to hear more about Sheppard's stay in exotic climes.
"The supper room?" Sheppard queried hesitantly. "I thought we might stay out here. It is a pleasant night and it is so crowded and stuffy in there."
"You're just afraid of the ravening hordes of marriage-minded females," Rodney teased, provoking a mock-glare from Sheppard. "Besides, I'm hungry."
"As you wish," Sheppard shrugged, standing straight again. "Lead on, McKay."
"I hope that wasn't an attempt to be witty," Rodney groaned as they walked back towards the doors together. "I've heard it all before, you know."
"Excuse me?" Sheppard said with a baffled look at him.
"Macbeth?" Rodney pointed out resignedly. "I was always getting it at school, lord knows why because the name is totally different and I don't even spell the 'mc' part of it the same."
"If it comes to that, the quote is wrong as well," Sheppard replied. "The actual words are 'lay on, Macduff, and damned be him that first cries hold enough'. But I wasn't thinking of that anyway so you can put your hackles down," he finished and bumped Rodney's shoulder with his playfully.
"Just as well for you," Rodney retorted. "My revenge is well known to be swift and deadly."
"Oh, I'm sure it is," Sheppard said with an obviously fake look of fear. "I'm quivering, McKay, quivering in terror." Rodney tried to convert his laugh into a cough but knew he had failed when Sheppard smirked at him smugly.
"My cousin is right, you are a lunatic," he said with a smile. Sheppard laughed in return and then Rodney had to turn his attention from the other man to finding a path through the ballroom.
"Wait a minute, Rodney," Sheppard said as they moved further indoors. "I should probably do my brotherly duty and see if Elizabeth requires an escort to the tables."
Rodney slowed down in response to Sheppard's words and the hand on his shoulder and they spent a minute looking around the room and watching the lines of dancers.
"I don't see her anywhere," Rodney said.
"Neither do I. Good," said Sheppard. "With any luck, your friend Zelenka has seized the day and discharged my duties for me."
"You seem pleased by the idea, considering you just met the Count tonight," Rodney said, wondering if he had an opportunity to put in a good word for Zelenka. Though, if Sheppard was this complacent about the attentions being paid to his sister, Rodney might not need to.
"Elizabeth likes him, you like him," Sheppard shrugged. "That's a good enough recommendation for me."
"He's in love with your sister, you realise," Rodney said, knowing he was overstepping the bounds of polite conversation but wanting to know if Sheppard was going to object to Zelenka's suit before his friend became even more hopelessly smitten.
"Truly? I'd been wondering what his moony-eyes, blushing, stammering and bouncing had all been about. Thank you so much for clearing that up for me," Sheppard said sarcastically, "since it wouldn't have been immediately obvious to a two-year old."
"And you don't mind?"
"Considering that I have heard his name mentioned at least once a day since I returned, I think it is a very good thing. Why would I mind that he isn't toying with my sister's affections?" Sheppard said with an inquiring look as they continued making their way out of the ballroom.
"I'm sure your sister is expected to make a much higher match than a foreigner with little fortune to recommend him," Rodney said with a shrug. "Society will look askance."
"And why should I care what anyone else expects? I have no intention of letting gossips or mere convention keep my sister from being happy," Sheppard replied. "Rules are made to be broken, if you ask me, and that goes doubly for those randomly imposed by the ton."
"Oh. Well, that's good," Rodney said, pleased that Zelenka apparently had nothing to worry about after all.
The supper room was a crush of people when they reached it, noisy with an indistinguishable mess of voices and laughter. Sheppard actually winced as they walked in and Rodney had to admit that the assault on his eardrums was a little much after the quiet of the terrace. It seemed worse than the ballroom, even, possibly because this room was smaller or because of the lack of music to drown the people out.
He spotted Zelenka and Lady Elizabeth sitting across the room, apparently engrossed in an amusing conversation judging by their mutual smiles, but there were no seats free near them.
"I think we'll have to find somewhere else to sit," Sheppard said, looking in the same direction.
"Never mind sitting, we're going to need a whole regiment plus artillery to get through to the supper table," Rodney said, gesturing to where the crowd was thickest.
"Right," Sheppard said, nodding briskly. "You go and claim that little table in the alcove over there," he said pointing towards the back of the room, "I'll raid the table and meet you in a few minutes." He gave Rodney a little push in the right direction as he spoke and vanished into the chattering mob, slipping between people surprisingly easily and far more gracefully than Rodney would have managed.
Rodney made it to the table easily enough as most people were towards the other end of the room. He was just defending the other available chair by glaring at a garishly dressed fop who was giving it covetous looks when Sheppard arrived looking harried and flopped down onto it with a sigh, placing a plate of cold gaming pie and lobster patties on the table.
"Oh excellent," Rodney said and bit happily into a piece of pie. "So, tell me about Pulau Pinang," he said as he finished off his mouthful. Sheppard brightened up immediately and started describing the harbour and ships, the great merchant houses, the local people's customs and food, and Rodney listened and nodded and ate. Sheppard's enthusiasm was infectious and he found he was smiling as he listened, or maybe that was in response to Sheppard's endearing little grins whenever Rodney asked an interested question about something he had mentioned.
"What did you do there? Did you live in Georgetown?" he asked eventually as Sheppard was nibbling on some lobster.
Sheppard shook his head as he swallowed. "No, my uncle does, when he is not on the mainland. I have some land at the north end of the island and a house there. We're just starting to cultivate nutmeg, and we grow cloves of course."
"Nutmeg?" Rodney asked. "I thought that only grew in the Spice Islands."
"Cole brought trees and soil with him when he left Banda. Most of the other plantation owners who acquired some are finding it difficult to grow, but Teyla and Ronon are very knowledgeable and we're having rather more success," Sheppard said looking smug.
"Teyla and Ronon?" Rodney queried. Those were unusual names.
"Some very good friends of mine," Sheppard smiled fondly. "I was fortunate that they were looking for work at a time when I was in search of people who knew rather more than I did about spices. And that I was able to persuade them I was offering a legitimate opportunity and not attempting to make Teyla my mistress, something I gather had been offered by several others, much to her annoyance and Ronon's disgust," he finished with a wry smile.
"So they work on the plantation then?"
"Say rather that they run the plantation. I provide the land and the connections with the merchants, they do everything else," Sheppard said, with an easy shrug. "It's a good arrangement."
"It certainly sounds it," Rodney agreed. He supposed that Sheppard would leave them in charge out there now that he was back, or send someone out to take over. "What will you do with the plantation now?" he asked, but Sheppard wasn't listening and his eyes were far away, gazing at the supper room but plainly seeing something else. "Sheppard?" he said.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Sheppard said, "I was miles away."
"On Pinang?" Rodney asked and Sheppard nodded with a sheepish grin. "You miss it, don't you?"
"Yes, very much," Sheppard said. "It's like nowhere else I've ever been. Are you finished?" he went on and Rodney blinked at him in confusion. "With the food," Sheppard clarified, "because if you are, we can escape all the commotion and actually go and talk somewhere we can hear ourselves think."
"I, well, yes I suppose so," Rodney said. He'd thought that after supper Sheppard would go back to his party, despite his stated lack of preference for large gatherings, but Sheppard smiled at him as they stood and Rodney decided that it would be all right if they spent a little more time together. Sheppard would find his feet in society again soon enough and Rodney doubted that he would spend much time in Sheppard's company then. There was no harm in making the most of it when he knew it was only temporary.
They had made their way back out into the corridor when Rodney became aware of a presence looming at his shoulder.
"Good evening Lord Weston, Mr. McKay," said the man, and Rodney's heart sank in dismay as he recognised the rough voice.
"Good evening Lord Gennington," Sheppard said in answer, and Rodney turned round to find Lord Gennington's dark eyes fixed on him unnervingly.
"My lord," he said with a bow and found himself looking at Lord Gennington's scarred face in order to avoid his eyes, though this evidence of violence experienced was not precisely reassuring.
"I did not expect to see you here, Mr. McKay," Lord Gennington continued. "I had heard that you were to be… out of town," and Rodney did look up at that.
"I am not fond of the country," he said tightly, seeing the irritation in the other man's square face.
"Really? I found my recent visit to my estates rather restful. Much quieter than I had anticipated," Lord Gennington replied, smiling at Rodney without any humour. "But since we are fortunate enough to be graced with your presence here instead, perhaps you will find the time to dance with my ward. I'm sure Lady Sora would appreciate it."
"Perhaps," Rodney said, making a note to avoid the ballroom like it was full of plague carriers for the rest of the night and taking comfort in the knowledge that Lord Gennington could scarcely force him onto the dance floor.
"Good. Why don't you accompany me back to my party now, McKay?" Lord Gennington said with a predatory smirk and Rodney gulped. He didn't want to go with him and he didn't want to dance with Lady Sora.
"My apologies, Lord Gennington," Sheppard cut in smoothly while Rodney was trying to think of an excuse, "But I'm afraid I have a prior claim on Mr. McKay's time. We were just on our way to introduce him to my sister. She wishes to meet with him most particularly."
"Indeed," Lord Gennington growled, locking his eyes on Sheppard's with a look that would have made Rodney quail, but Sheppard merely smiled blandly at him. There was a pause while they stared at each other and Lord Gennington was the first to look away. "Later then," he said, with an annoyed frown at Rodney. "Lord Weston," he nodded to Sheppard then he spun on his heel and left them.
Rodney sighed in relief as he watched him walk away before frowning thoughtfully. Judging by Lord Gennington's words it would seem Rodney's suspicions had been correct and he was the one responsible for Rodney's abduction. He'd been in Cornwall recently, he'd expected Rodney to be out of town and the significant pause… it still wasn't proof and Rodney still had no idea why but it was seeming much more likely that it was so.
"Well, that was odd," Sheppard said in a bemused tone. "Whatever have you done to Lord Gennington, Rodney?"
"More like what he's done to me," Rodney muttered abstractedly then cursed his inattention as Sheppard pulled him around and gaped at him.
"Wait, what do you…" he paused and sucked in a breath. "You think he's the man who had you kidnapped? That's…"
"Insane? Ridiculous?" Rodney interrupted defensively at the surprise on Sheppard's face.
"I was going to say highly likely, considering your recent conversation," Sheppard replied giving Rodney a slightly annoyed look.
"Oh." Rodney had rather been hoping that Sheppard would convince him he was mistaken. Lord Gennington was not someone to be trifled with and Rodney had heard all kinds of rumours about his murky past and exploits in His Majesty's Army. "Oh God, I'm doomed," he moaned, grabbing a glass of wine off a passing servant and downing it in one gulp.
"I wouldn't go that far," Sheppard said, steering them into a curtained alcove at the top of the stairs and looking irritatingly amused at Rodney's plight. "There are far worse people in the world than Gennington; I'm quite relieved that he's the one responsible."
"Yes, well, you're not the one he's after, are you?" Rodney snapped. "And there might be far worse, but the stories I've heard about Lord Gennington make your Spanish guerrillas look like little friendly kittens! Or are you going to tell me that his incredible ruthlessness is just a rumour?"
"No, I'm not. I know exactly how ruthless he can be-"
"Oh God" Rodney whimpered and Sheppard shook him gently.
"…breathe Rodney, before you pass out," and Rodney sucked in air and leaned against the wall as Sheppard watched him in concern, stroking a hand gently up and down Rodney's arm. "Now, as I was saying, I've heard all the stories and I've seen for myself how ruthless he can be. He was as hard on the men he commanded as on the enemy. But I also know that every single one of his men would have followed him willingly into Hell, and that kind of loyalty can't be bought with fear."
"Is that supposed to be reassuring?" Rodney asked in disbelief.
"Yes. Because he's a hard man, I agree, but he's also honourable and whatever it is he wants from you, I don't believe you're in physical danger from him. Remember, the men who grabbed you were told to deliver you unhurt."
"And maybe that was just because he wanted to hurt me himself," Rodney retorted, slightly reassured by Sheppard's assessment but still unnerved.
"Well, barring you having killed, ruined or otherwise dishonoured a member of his family, and I'm assuming here that you haven't," Sheppard said raising his eyebrow and carrying on when Rodney gave him an exasperated look and a headshake, "no, I can't see it. He's certainly trying to intimidate you though. I don't suppose you have any ideas why?"
"I know what he says, not that it makes a great deal of sense," Rodney said.
"Well? What does he say?"
"He wants me to marry Lady Sora," Rodney admitted and Sheppard blinked at him.
"He wants you to marry his ward? And you think that doesn't make sense as a motive?" Sheppard said.
"What, you think it's a completely rational motive?" Rodney asked.
"Well, if you're this reluctant and he's that determined it makes as much sense as any other reason. The marriage market is always hard to fathom."
"Yes, but why is he that determined?"
"Why are you this reluctant?" Sheppard retorted mischievously. "I met her earlier, pretty little blonde thing, correct? And an heiress as well."
Rodney choked at Sheppard's first question then recovered enough to snap back, "Because it doesn't make any sense. Because she is an heiress, and beautiful-"
"Did you think so?" Sheppard interrupted musingly. "I wasn't that impressed, but then I've always found ringlets vaguely disquieting."
Rodney stared at him for a moment before he remembered the rest of his thought, "…and I'm an heir to not very much and with no great name; and you are a little odd, do you know that?"
"Only a little?" Sheppard grinned. "Ah well, you haven't known me very long yet. But that is beside the point. Perhaps it is as simple as the girl being in love with you and Gennington wishing her to be happy."
"Oh please," Rodney scoffed. "I've barely spoken to her."
Sheppard smiled. "Sometimes it doesn't take much, Rodney. A look in someone's eyes, a gesture, a word… Maybe she's been pining for you from afar," he finished with a teasing lilt.
"Yes, I'm sure that happens to you all the time," Rodney said bitingly, "but do I look like the kind of man young debutantes pine away for?" and he flushed hotly with anger and confusion as Sheppard actually stepped back and looked him slowly up and down.
"You seem handsome enough to me," Sheppard finally said, and Rodney felt even angrier because he knew what he looked like. His clothes were good but he was too broad and solid for the current fashions to really suit him, his eyes were a boring blue and he had a crooked mouth and how dare Sheppard stand there looking glorious and laughing at him.
"Don't mock me," he snapped out. He moved forward, intending to leave but Sheppard stopped him with a hand on his chest.
"I'm not mocking you," he said seriously and Rodney shook his head with a sneer, though he stopped trying to get past Sheppard. "Rodney, I'm not," Sheppard insisted and when Rodney looked at him, his eyes were completely steady, no amusement at all, and he felt his anger die away as Sheppard's hand moved up to clasp his shoulder.
"Oh," Rodney said, feeling a little embarrassed.
"Yes, 'oh'," Sheppard teased and his hand slid down Rodney's arm until their hands touched and Rodney froze, heart stopping and then speeding into double time as Sheppard's thumb stroked slowly over the inside of his wrist.
Rodney was transfixed, like a bird hypnotised by a snake, staring at Sheppard and unable to turn away. He trembled in a mixture of fear and desire but then the satisfied smile that crept over Sheppard's face as Rodney shook broke the spell and he jerked away in shock.
"Rodney?" Sheppard said in a confused voice as Rodney stumbled back and just stared at him in disbelief, thinking back to the other morning and what had just happened now in a whirling jumble. Sheppard was… he was doing this to Rodney on purpose.
"You, you-" he stuttered out, fear and anger and betrayal all rising up into his throat to choke his words and as Sheppard stepped towards him with a frown, Rodney just shoved past him out of the alcove and fled.
"McKay, wait," he heard Sheppard call behind him, but he didn't look back, just stormed blindly through the knots of guests. He found himself out on the terrace again and looked around dazedly before heading down the stairs and into the comforting darkness of the garden, not thinking anything beyond getting away.
He skirted around a few sets of trysting couples and ducked into a deserted avenue of trees, lit at intervals by lamps, then a hand grabbed at him and he swung around to find Sheppard had caught him up. "Rodney, what are you doing?" he asked.
"What am I doing? What am I doing?" Rodney ranted. "What are you doing? How dare you, how dare you play with me like that?"
"Play with you?" Sheppard repeated blankly, "Rodney-"
"Just because I have feelings that aren't appropriate, and you don't even know that for certain anyway-"
"- and even if I did, I would have thought better of you than this. Have me arrested or, or cut me dead yes, but to use it against me is just, just-"
"Rodney, listen-" Sheppard interrupted again as Rodney stammered over his words.
"- just cruel!" Rodney glared, "How can it amuse you to torment me so? I haven't even done anything and it's not fair."
He took a deep breath, ready to continue, but Sheppard pushed him none too gently back into a tree and Rodney was bracing himself for a blow when Sheppard pinned him there with his body, wrapped his hands around the sides of his head and kissed him and Rodney's mind simply stopped working in shock.
Lips, he thought hazily. There were lips, Sheppard's lips, pressing warm and hard against his and those were Sheppard's eyes right in front of his own so he couldn't see anything else.
When Sheppard let go and stepped back, all Rodney could say was "What?" unable to believe what had just happened.
"I wasn't playing with you, you idiot," Sheppard said.
"I'm not an idiot," Rodney protested, "and, and you weren't?"
"No," Sheppard said quietly, smoothing his hand gently over Rodney's cheek. "If we hadn't been interrupted by that bloody innkeeper, I'd have kissed you in Farnham."
"Oh," Rodney said, half his mind on the feel of Sheppard's hand touching him and sliding into his hair, relief slowly dawning as he suddenly saw all the things Sheppard had done in a new light. "Oh. Oh, I got it all wrong."
"Yes," Sheppard smiled, "yes, you did," and he kissed Rodney again, lightly and quickly and Rodney relaxed a little more.
"You could have said something, you know," Rodney said as they separated, feeling indignant at all the time he had spent worrying over nothing.
"I thought I was being obvious," Sheppard said ruefully. "I could tell you were nervous, but I thought you simply hadn't done this before. I'm sorry; I truly didn't mean to torment you."
Rodney looked at his contrite expression for a moment then wrapped his arms around Sheppard's waist. "I'll forgive you if you kiss me again," he said daringly and saw Sheppard grin brightly before he leaned in and Rodney let his eyes fall closed, breath quickening as Sheppard's lips hovered over his for a second before he tilted his head just enough to touch them softly together and they both sighed.
It was different from the last two kisses, slow and teasing, and Rodney quivered with a little burst of heat when he felt Sheppard's tongue slide gently along the seam of his lips. He gave a little murmur of protest when Sheppard lifted away slightly and shuddered as Sheppard sucked lightly at his lower lip.
"Let me in Rodney," Sheppard breathed, letting go, and when Rodney gasped at the desire in his voice he felt Sheppard's tongue slip past his lips. It stroked tantalisingly at sensitive surfaces and pressed against his own tongue, coaxing him to respond in a hot sliding game that made Rodney pull Sheppard in tighter so they were pressed full-length and he burned at the low groan Sheppard gave as he melted against Rodney.
When they pulled apart, minutes, hours later, they were both panting for breath and Sheppard rested his forehead against Rodney's and rubbed his thumb across Rodney's lips until they tingled. "Rodney," he said raggedly, "Come home with me."
Rodney looked into his eyes, feeling strong muscles shift under his hands, feeling Sheppard pressed hard against his hip so close to his own aching desire. "Yes," he said and kissed Sheppard's thumb. "Yes."
Rodney followed Sheppard back into the house in a daze, unable to take his eyes off the other man for more than about a second at a time. Sheppard seemed every bit as distracted but once they were in the entrance hall again he pulled himself together and took charge, sending one servant to collect his carriage and another with a message for O'Neill that Rodney was coming to his residence to inspect his new telescope.
"You have a telescope?" Rodney asked interestedly.
"No," Sheppard said with a grin, "but he doesn't know that, does he? And I'm sure we'll find something else to occupy our time," and Rodney blushed and went hastily out the door and into the cool night air.
He felt a hand on his arm as Sheppard joined him and sneaked a sideways look to find Sheppard studying him carefully. "Are you all right?" he asked softly.
Rodney blushed even more as he nodded and stared helplessly at Sheppard's lips. He wanted to feel them on his again and he would because they were going back to Sheppard's house to become lovers and it was too much to take in.
"Good," Sheppard said and Rodney saw his lips curve up into a smile before he managed to drag his gaze away. They stood a little longer in silence and then a closed carriage arrived with the Weston crest on the door and Sheppard gestured Rodney inside.
Rodney wasn't sure if he leaned forward or if Sheppard did, but they were kissing again as soon as the carriage started moving, enclosed in swaying darkness. Rodney braced one arm on the seat to keep from sliding off, curled his other hand around Sheppard's arm and lost himself in the feel of Sheppard's lush mouth against his until Sheppard pulled back with a strangled gasp.
"Where are you going?" Rodney muttered in protest as Sheppard's hands lifted away from his waist.
"We should wait until we arrive," Sheppard murmured.
"I don't want to," Rodney said and he slid his hand up Sheppard's thigh, swallowing hard at how the firm muscle felt under his fingers and the way Sheppard panted harshly before he gave a low groan and twisted away, grabbing onto both of Rodney's hands.
"Christ, Rodney. Not here," he said.
"Why not?" Rodney asked. "I… I thought you wanted…"
"I do. God, I do," Sheppard said and he brought Rodney's hands up to his lips and nuzzled gently at the knuckles. "But I also want to be able to get out of this carriage and into the house when we arrive, and if we keep touching I doubt either of us will be in a fit state to do so," he finished with a wry chuckle.
"Oh," Rodney said, suddenly intensely aware of the way the material of his trousers was straining across his aching groin. "Um. Yes. I suppose you are right."
He turned back into a more normal sitting position and tried to calm his breathing. Sheppard let go of his hands with a last squeeze and then leaned into him as he settled and whispered in his ear, "Besides, the anticipation will make it that much better," and Rodney curled his hands into the seat to stay still.
"You're not helping," he ground out when he could talk again.
"Sorry," Sheppard said in a distinctly unrepentant tone. "I'll behave."
"I'll believe that when I see it," Rodney said, trying for disgruntled but only managing breathless and Sheppard chuckled again as he shifted to leave more room between them.
They didn't talk after that, or touch again, but the atmosphere was still intimate and Rodney was very aware of Sheppard's presence beside him. Eventually he did manage to calm down to a respectable state once more, mainly through concentrating extremely hard on calculus problems, but his skin was tingling in anticipation and he knew all it would take was one touch from Sheppard to arouse him again.
When the carriage finally drew to a stop, Rodney's stomach jumped in excitement and nervousness and Sheppard sighed "At last," in a relieved tone. Rodney flinched as the carriage door suddenly opened then took a fortifying breath and followed Sheppard out onto the pavement, looking around to see they were in Berkeley Square.
"Good evening, Ford," Sheppard said and Rodney turned to see a young black-skinned man holding the carriage door.
"Sir," the young man replied with a bright grin as he shut the door and nodded cheerfully to Rodney as the carriage moved off to the mews. "The others have all gone to bed," Ford went on as he led them up the steps to the house and bowed them in the door, his voice friendly rather than deferential. "Is there anything you require before I do the same?" he added as they came to a halt in the hall.
"No, thank you," Sheppard said. "But you can let the maids know tomorrow that Mr. McKay spent the night in the Green Room."
"I'll do that sir," Ford replied. "Sweet dreams then," he said as he turned to go, meaningfully enough to make Rodney blush painfully hard.
"Good night Ford," Sheppard said firmly but with amusement lurking underneath.
Rodney watched Ford walking away and felt a rush of fear. He hadn't thought anything beyond getting here and being able to touch Sheppard at last but he was reminded now of the need for discretion and this was far too dangerous a situation for them both. He shouldn't have come.
"Come on," Sheppard said and tugged at Rodney's arm to pull him up the stairs, but Rodney pulled free and stopped at the foot. "Rodney?" Sheppard asked and moved back towards him looking anxious. "You've changed your mind?"
"Yes," Rodney said, then quickly, "no," at the flash of hurt on Sheppard's face. "I don't… this is dangerous," he pleaded to Sheppard's confused eyes. "Your servants…"
"Are all in safely in bed," Sheppard interrupted, "They're not going to know."
"Ford does," Rodney argued.
"Ford is different," Sheppard said, reaching out and taking Rodney's hand again. "He came with me from Pinang and I might call him my valet here but he's really more of a friend than a servant. Besides, he thinks I saved his life and I would trust him with my own without hesitation."
"But the others?" Rodney asked, wanting to trust but still afraid.
"Ford will wake us before they arise so you can move rooms," Sheppard said. "Rodney. I would never put you at risk. Stay." He brushed the fingers of his other hand along Rodney's jaw and Rodney closed his eyes and nodded, tilting his head into Sheppard's hand for a moment.
Sheppard smiled at him when he opened his eyes and then guided him upstairs. Rodney climbed two before he stopped again suddenly. "Wait. You never told Ford to wake us."
"I didn't need to; he knows the plan."
"There's a plan?" Rodney asked. He knew Sheppard would have done this before, but knowing he was prepared to the extent of having a plan bothered Rodney. "How long has there been a plan for?"
"Since I met you again at your cousins' house," Sheppard said, meeting Rodney's suspicious look with surprise.
"Sure of yourself, weren't you?" Rodney muttered feeling mollified and irritated at the same time but Sheppard just grinned.
"I'm an optimist," he said with a shrug and tugged at Rodney's hand to get him moving again. Rodney opened his mouth to reply but subsided at the gleam of desire he saw in Sheppard's eyes and simply licked his lips and followed him up instead.
The fear of discovery had diminished but he could feel the tension in the pit of his stomach increasing with every step and by the time they reached the top, he was breathing hard and hot in a way that had nothing to do with climbing the stairs. Rodney would have been embarrassed but when they halted at a door, he saw that Sheppard was every bit as flushed as he felt.
Sheppard leaned in to kiss him and Rodney responded eagerly, leaning back against the door and wrapping his arms around Sheppard's torso as they tasted each other's mouths again. When Sheppard pulled back to open the door, his eyes were dark and his lips were swollen and Rodney couldn't look away as they went into the room.
He walked backwards letting Sheppard's hands on his hips guide him until he felt something against his legs and looked around to find he was standing next to a large luxurious bed, lamps and candles around the room giving everything a golden glow. His heart pounded and his mouth went dry and he was unable to take his eyes away from the bedclothes until Sheppard's hand slid under his chin and made Rodney look at him again.
"Still with me?" he asked and Rodney let the warmth in his voice and eyes reassure him and nodded in response. Sheppard smiled at him and said, "Ready to get a little more comfortable?" and pulled off his jacket. Rodney just watched him for a moment as he bent to remove his shoes, remembering Sheppard undressing in the inns, and it felt so strange to know that he was allowed to watch now, that there was nothing to fear anymore.
He had just fumbled out of his own jacket when Sheppard straightened again. "You're lagging behind, Rodney," Sheppard teased and then he laughed as Rodney struggled with the little buttons on his waistcoat and glared at them in disgust. "Let me help," he said and Rodney glared at him instead, only to jump in shock when Sheppard slid down to kneel on the floor in front of him. Sheppard's hands closed warmly around his calf as they smoothed Rodney's stocking down and Rodney stifled a groan at the sensation and stared down at Sheppard's dark head as his shoe was removed at the same time.
He rested his hands on Sheppard's shoulders for balance while the process was repeated on his left foot and stroked them gently, feeling muscles shift as Sheppard moved. Sheppard tilted his head to smirk up at him and suddenly tickled the sole of his foot and Rodney jerked with a yelp of surprise.
"What was that for?"
"Sorry, I couldn't resist," Sheppard said with a mischievous glance.
"Try harder," Rodney said and then he gasped and swayed, fingers tightening their grip on Sheppard's shoulders, as Sheppard stroked his fingers slowly up and down the skin he had just bared. Sheppard's expression changed from teasing to hungry as he looked up at Rodney and when Rodney let a quiet moan escape, Sheppard surged back up off the floor and kissed him hard, his tongue thrusting possessively inside until Rodney was clutching at him and moaning again. Sheppard's hands were roaming restlessly over Rodney's back, soothing and exciting at the same time, and he'd just decided he wouldn't mind staying like this forever when Sheppard gave a frustrated growl and broke away.
"No, come back," Rodney complained, chasing after his mouth impatiently, but Sheppard fended him off.
"Waistcoat," he gasped, attacking Rodney's remaining buttons. "It has to go."
Rodney couldn't argue with that. Less clothing definitely sounded like a really good idea. He shrugged off his waistcoat and started helping Sheppard unfasten his but then he got distracted and went after Sheppard's cravat, tugging and pulling until it unravelled and fell to the floor. Rodney leaned in helplessly to mouth and kiss the soft skin of Sheppard's throat and felt a thrill run through him as Sheppard shivered and groaned and tilted his head so Rodney had more room. It was intoxicating, hearing Sheppard's sounds of pleasure as Rodney licked and sucked, feeling the way Sheppard's fingers went clumsy as he undid Rodney's own cravat and knowing that he was making Sheppard feel the same desperation Rodney was. He wanted more.
Rodney tried to pull Sheppard's shirt off at the same moment as Sheppard went for his and they got caught in a tangle of cloth and arms. "That was less than successful," Sheppard said, grinning at Rodney with bright, hot eyes and Rodney laughed breathlessly.
"They say great minds think alike," he huffed and then Sheppard let go of Rodney's shirt and twisted lithely until he stood there half-naked and Rodney was left speechless and staring. He'd caught glimpses of Sheppard's chest before, but not like this. He took in firm, taut muscle dusted with soft dark hair rising and falling with Sheppard's rapid breaths and let his eyes follow the line of hair down Sheppard's stomach to his waistband, then lower to the hard shape that the cloth of Sheppard's trousers did nothing at all to hide and Rodney caught his breath as his knees turned to water.
"Your turn Rodney," Sheppard said, sounding breathless himself, and Rodney closed his eyes as he felt Sheppard's hands move beneath his loosened shirt and push it up, stroking smoothly up over his ribs. He sucked in a shocked breath at the intense burst of pleasure when Sheppard's fingers teased over his nipples and raised his hands to let his shirt be pulled completely off.
"Rodney. God. You look…" and Rodney was being kissed again, but this time he could feel bare skin all the way down to his waist and Sheppard's hardness rubbing tantalisingly against his as their hips pressed together and he felt a surge of desire so strong that it almost hurt.
"Oh, please, I need…" he moaned and he was tumbled on his back on the bed and Sheppard was pulling desperately at his breeches, shoving them and his drawers down his legs and off as Rodney shuddered and lifted into his hands. Sheppard's mouth was hot on the skin of Rodney's chest and sending waves of pleasure through him that made him arch up, eager for more. "Ah, Sheppard…"
"John" Sheppard said, lifting up and Rodney forced his eyes open to find out why he'd stopped.
"What?" he asked.
"Say my name Rodney," Sheppard breathed, staring at Rodney insistently.
"John," Rodney whispered, voice cracking so he cleared his throat and said it again, watching Sheppard close his eyes and shudder, breathing hard. His head dropped and Rodney felt his lips close hot and wet around one of his nipples and Sheppard's hand slid down between his legs and wrapped around him and Rodney was dimly aware he was gasping "John, John, John," over and over, chanting it in a broken stream. John's mouth sucked and nibbled and his hand stroked and pulled and Rodney throbbed in time, faster and higher until he finally fell over the edge into the most intensely pleasurable release he'd ever known.
He collapsed back onto the bed and panted as his heartbeat began to calm, feeling little waves of sensation still rolling through his body as John curled in closely to his side, one hand stroking soothingly over Rodney's stomach.
After taking a moment more to recover, Rodney twisted onto his side, pushed John over onto his back and kissed him as deeply as he could, not letting up until John moaned and pulled him close, fingers grabbing onto Rodney hard enough to bruise.
"Rodney," John gasped as he lifted his head. "Touch me, please," and Rodney nodded and kissed him again, his hand already exploring John's chest.
"Show me how," he whispered against John's lips and John groaned and pulled gently at his hand, guiding it. Rodney followed where John led and learned the feel of John's heart pounding under his fingers, hair softly tickling his palm, the way John twisted and sighed when Rodney stroked over his hips and the inside of his lean thighs as he pulled off John's remaining clothes and laid him bare. John gasped "there, right there" and "yes, just like that" and when Rodney played curiously with his nipples, watching them grow harder and darker under his fingers, he arched up into it, letting his hand fall back onto the bed as he shivered
John stopped using words to guide him after that, but Rodney found the moans and gasps his touch produced just as effective, even when they were muffled by his mouth. When he finally reached down and took John into his hand, stroking firmly along hard heated flesh, John cried out and Rodney pulled back, wanting to see the pleasure on his face. He followed the ragged thrusts of John's hips with his hand and when John sobbed out his name as he climaxed, the ecstasy washing over his face was the most beautiful thing Rodney had ever seen.
He couldn't resist kissing John softly afterwards and John wrapped his arms lazily around him and kissed back just as gently. When their lips finally drifted apart, Rodney found he was blinking sleepily and he had to smother an unexpected yawn against John's shoulder. "Sorry," he said as he yawned again and John smiled at him affectionately.
"Hush now," he murmured and manoeuvred them both up onto the pillows and under the blankets. He kissed Rodney's jaw lightly and snuggled in so their legs brushed and slung his arm over Rodney's waist. "Let's get some sleep; we've time before dawn."
Rodney nodded in agreement and leaned more into John's body, and then he lay quietly, watching John's eyes slowly fall closed and his face relax into sleep in the warm candlelight; and Rodney felt contentment wash through his whole body as he floated off into peaceful sleep himself.
The afternoon of the day following Lady Camoyne's ball found Rodney back at Cavendish Square once more, but in a mood far better than when he had left his cousins' residence. He had arrived in time to join the late luncheon with the rest of the family and had gained some bemused looks from Jack and Cameron at his cheerful demeanour and a faintly smug one from Lady Samantha who seemed to believe the ball had cured his former moodiness. The true cure was obviously Sheppard, but since Rodney could scarcely say that he allowed Lady Samantha her triumph for forcing his attendance, and broadly speaking he supposed she was right. He would have been miserable for longer if he had not gone, though given Sheppard's propensity for teasing him Rodney had no doubt that they would have had a similar confrontation and resolution sooner or later.
The meal over, Rodney retreated to the library and settled himself at a window with a pile of journals. To an outsider, he would have looked as studious as always, but he was actually solely occupied in gazing blindly out at the garden and recalling every moment he could of the night.
He had slumbered briefly but then woken once more with a start, unable to work out where he was until he had turned his head and seen John's sleeping face and then Rodney had remembered and felt a wave of happiness sweep over him. The still-burning candles had painted John's exposed skin in golden light and Rodney had inched the sheet down, wanting to see more, until it had been tangled around John's ankles and he was gloriously naked and Rodney had enjoyed the strong lines of his legs and hips, wondered at the occasional scar and grown hot and flushed again when his eyes were drawn back to John's quiescent penis as Rodney remembered the feel of it hard in his hand.
Rodney had reached out after a moment to pet John's chest like he had wanted to in the Exeter inn and he hadn't quite been able to restrain a laugh at how different things seemed to then. John had made a little whuffling noise as he shifted further into Rodney's hand and his eyes had blinked open slowly and he had smiled sleepily at Rodney.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you," Rodney had said, but John had caught his hand as he pulled away and placed it back on his chest.
"No, it feels nice," and Rodney had grinned and gone back to carding his hand gently through the curly hair there until John had muttered "Come here," and pulled him in for a long soft kiss, wrapping around Rodney until they were pressed together. Rodney had moaned as desire began to build once more and at the feel of John's arousal pressed against his belly; and then John had rolled them so that Rodney was on his back and rocked his hips so that they stroked against each other, hardness to hardness, and Rodney had clutched John to him even more tightly and swallowed John's gasp in another kiss. They had kept kissing as they moved, stoking pleasure higher and higher until Rodney had nearly been frantic with it. He had stroked his hands feverishly over John's back and lower onto the firm buttocks he'd been admiring since they had met, squeezing and stroking and pulling John in hard against him until John had broken the kiss to moan out Rodney's name as he shuddered and his hips jerked, heat flooding between them; and Rodney had whimpered and bucked up, eyes closing as he followed John into his own climax, feeling so wracked with bliss he had barely been able to breathe afterwards, let alone think.
John had shifted to one side, one leg still thrown across Rodney's. "That was good," he managed between pants and Rodney had simply nodded with his eyes closed and smiled, the smile broadening into a helpless grin as he felt one of John's fingers trace lightly across his lips. "You look happy," John had said after a moment and Rodney had sighed out a 'yes' and then fallen asleep as John had curled in close and stroked idly across his collarbone.
The next thing he had known, Ford was knocking at the door and he had stumbled blearily across the hall to the room opposite and collapsed on the cool bed there, a last lingering kiss from John still tingling on his lips. Rodney had missed the heat of John next to him but he had slept again eventually and been woken at about midmorning by Ford once more, coming to dress him for breakfast. Rodney had been bright red with embarrassment for the whole process, not knowing how to deal with Ford knowing that he and John were lovers, but aside from a cheeky wink when he left, Ford had behaved perfectly professionally and Rodney had begun to relax.
At breakfast, he and John had smiled foolishly across the table a lot and talked of inconsequential things. Rodney would have been quite happy to spend the day like that but unfortunately John's afternoon was full of appointments with agents and men of business and after planning that Rodney would call around again that evening, they had reluctantly parted.
Rodney sighed and glanced up at the clock in the library. It was still only mid-afternoon. He was just wondering how early he could decently turn up at John's for dinner when Winwick entered the library.
"Lord Kavanagh, sir," he announced, bowing, and Rodney jumped out of his chair in shock as Lord Kavanagh marched in.
"Um, good afternoon, my lord," Rodney said. Kavanagh simply nodded in response as Winwick departed, pulling the door shut behind him, and then stood glaring at Rodney with his arms crossed over his chest, something that did little for Rodney's peace of mind. "I'm honoured by your visit," he babbled trying to fill the silence and lying through his teeth.
"Really? I doubt you will remain so, McKay," Kavanagh replied.
Oh damn. He was going to challenge Rodney after all. Perhaps if he… "Indeed. I had intended to write you a letter of apology for my part in our altercation the other night, but now I am able to tell you in person. I apologise for insulting you," Rodney said in as dignified a manner as he could manage considering that he was saying sorry to a man he despised. Though since Kavanagh had been an equal partner in the fight, it did give Rodney the edge of moral superiority by apologising and that was a slight comfort. Hopefully Kavanagh wouldn't notice he hadn't apologised for saying Kavanagh was wrong, since Rodney had no intention of taking that back.
"Oh, I don't think that is going to be good enough," Kavanagh said with an unpleasant smirk. "I think only your complete obliteration will make up for your behaviour."
"Obliteration?" Rodney said faintly. "But, but… a duel with me would not be good for your reputation, and anyway there is no guarantee you would win."
"Much as it would give me pleasure to run you through and rid the world of an intolerable creature, I would tend to agree. So I have something else in mind. I believe, I hope, that you will find it equally as painful, and even better, you are the cause of your own suffering."
Rodney stared at him blankly, beginning to wonder if the man was intoxicated because he certainly wasn't making a great deal of sense. "I don't understand you."
"You are going to leave, and leave London for ever, so that I am never forced to endure your presence or hear your voice again or even hear anyone mention you. You will resign from the Natural Philosophy Society and take no part in any related activities, nor publish any of your theories, nor continue to be any part of the scientific sphere, and your self-proclaimed brilliance can rot with you in hell," Kavanagh replied viciously.
"What? I'm not going to do that!" Science was what Rodney did, had Kavanagh gone quite mad?
"Oh, you will. I was at Lady Camoyne's ball last night, you know."
"Yes, what does that have to do with anything?" Rodney asked impatiently.
"I was leaving the card room when the Earl of Weston went past in quite a hurry. Given how pleased my virtuous wife was by his return to polite society, I found myself suspicious of his purpose and followed him into the gardens," Kavanagh said, drawing the last three words out so slowly and deliberately that Rodney had time to feel the dread rising slowly up and then hit him like a punch at the end.
He swayed a little where he stood and then forced himself to draw a breath and try to speak, though he had no idea what he could say. But Kavanagh kept on with his hateful little monologue, "It was quite a scene I found. Such disgusting, depraved behaviour as to make me feel quite sick." Oh no, no, no. "I could see you hanged for this, you filthy little catamite."
"No, you couldn't," Rodney managed weakly through the fear, knowing he had to fight back somehow. "The law only applies that sentence to, to buggery, not to, not anything else."
"But I witnessed you kissing. I could have seen more," Kavanagh insinuated and Rodney felt his temper rise a little at the thought Kavanagh might lie about what he'd seen.
"It's your word against ours, and everyone knows you have a grudge against me," he fired back.
"And my manservant followed you out of the ball, saw you enter Weston's house and witnessed the fact that you did not leave again until late this morning."
"So?" Rodney said, even as his heart sank a little more in dismay. "You have no proof that we did anything more than look at the stars with Joh… with Lord Weston's telescope," he declared pugnaciously, despite a flinch at his slip on John's name.
"No. But I don't need proof, do I? True, it would be satisfying to drag you both through a trial and see you hung for your perversities, or perhaps merely imprisoned if Weston's influence could extend so far, but I do not need to go to such lengths. The rumour of this will destroy you both as thoroughly and leave my name out of the matter entirely," Kavanagh sneered. "Or do you think your so-tolerant cousins will tolerate even this? That your family won't cast you off and out, penniless, friendless and shamed and left with nothing? And as for your noble lover," he spat, "his reputation is by no means spotless enough to survive another public slip, especially one so far from all decency. Society will shun him completely and because of you, he will lose everything he has recently regained."
"No," Rodney blurted. "You can't. You can't do this."
"I can and I will," Kavanagh retorted, triumph clear in his voice. "Unless you do as I say and remove yourself from my world. You have until tomorrow night to decide; if you have not left by then I will know how to act."
He gave Rodney one more contemptuous look and then turned on his heel and went to the door. "There's only one thing I regret in this," he added, glancing back, "and that is it will cause Weston no more pain than the inconvenience of replacing you. I doubt it will take long; Lord knows how he could bear to touch you in the first place. Still, at least it is unlikely to involve my wife, and that and thinking how much it will hurt you almost makes up for it." and with that last parting shot, Lord Kavanagh opened the door and left at last.
Rodney collapsed into a nearby chair and stared blankly at the bookshelves. He was vaguely aware that he was shaking but beyond that his thoughts were nothing but a chaotic mess. Someone knew. Someone knew, and not just any someone, but the worst person possible, and what was he going to do?
His first instinct was to go to John, tell him everything, let out all his fear and anger and lean on the other man's strength for a while. But what could John do? Rodney couldn't help remembering the conversation at the ball about Lady Kavanagh, seeing again the flat cold look in John's eyes as he had said that he wouldn't be blackmailed; he would want Rodney to defy Kavanagh and it would ruin them. Society gossip was an invisible enemy with no targets to hit and a story like this would be unstoppably vicious.
No. This was Rodney's mess. He would deal with it and he would keep John as free of it as possible.
That was as much as Rodney could decide before his mind filled up again with the look of revulsion in Kavanagh's eyes and his hateful triumphant words and he sat there feeling colder and colder with misery.
Rodney could have been sitting there for an hour or an age when the library door opened once more and his cousin Daniel wandered in. "Ah. Rodney. What's all this about being kidnapped?" he asked. Rodney shrugged and looked at the floor, his misadventure so far removed from his thoughts he could barely comprehend the question, and there was a pause before Daniel spoke again. "Rodney? Are you quite well? You look…" and his voice trailed off in a worried manner.
Rodney made himself look up and found he was being studied by concerned eyes. "No. I've done something… really stupid," he replied hoarsely, and Daniel pulled a chair in close, sat down and leaned forward intently.
"Tell me," he said.
Rodney wrung his hands together unhappily for a minute and then found a place to start, knowing Daniel's stubbornness well enough to be sure he would not let this go. "I lost my temper with Lord Kavanagh the other night. I was… rude and offended him deeply and now he is taking his revenge."
"What has he done to you?"
"He. He is making me leave. Be a recluse. Have nothing to do with science anymore," Rodney muttered tonelessly and saw Daniel frown.
"Making you? Rodney, if he is threatening to hurt you, we can prevent him easily, you know my brothers and I would never tolerate that."
Rodney sobbed a laugh and sank further back in his chair. "No, not physically. He's blackmailing me and there isn't anything you could do."
"Blackmail? Rodney…" and Rodney shut his eyes tightly and shook his head. "Rodney. Look at me please." There was a long pause before Rodney forced his eyes open again and raised them to Daniel's face. "You can tell me," Daniel said gently.
Rodney really wanted that to be true. Holding this inside was too much, it hurt too much and this was Daniel who had been there all his life nearly. And it wasn't as though things could get much worse anyway.
"If I don't do as he says, he will ruin me and L-lord Weston by making sure the world knows we are… that we are… lovers," he finally said in a near whisper.
"What?" Daniel said incredulously. "But that's ridiculous, deny it and he'll be branded a liar." Rodney gave him a hopeless, miserable look in response and saw realisation hit Daniel as he sat up straight suddenly. "Oh."
"He's not lying," Rodney confirmed. No point in half measures when confessing, after all.
"Oh, Rodney," Daniel sighed, rubbing his forehead distractedly.
"Don't hate me, please don't hate me," Rodney said desperately. "I couldn't help… I don't know how… just please don't."
"Don't be a ninny," Daniel replied in an offended tone. "Why would I suddenly hate you?"
"Many people would."
"Well, remember which cultures I spend most of my time immersed in. I know you've read the unexpurgated Greek classics; the concept of manly love is not precisely new and shocking to me."
"You're sure?" Rodney asked, wanting to believe but needing more reassurance.
Daniel nodded then reached out and clasped Rodney's shoulder gently. "Yes. I'm surprised, but I'm not shocked or repulsed. You're my cousin and friend, that hasn't changed."
"Thank you," Rodney said, "but I doubt very much whether any others will take such a tack if Kavanagh does as he threatens."
Daniel conceded the point with a resigned shrug and leaned back in his chair again. "If you call his bluff and face it out… you would not be alone in it. I would back you and so would Weston, if merely for the sake of his own reputation."
"I'm a terrible bluffer," Rodney pointed out. "I blush and stammer and everyone can read what I'm thinking on my face, no matter how hard I try to conceal it. You know I can't lie to save my life. And if I push him, it may just come to that."
"Does he have enough proof to involve the law courts?" Daniel asked in surprise. "I would not have thought Lord Weston would be so indiscreet."
"He witnessed an… embrace," Rodney admitted, "and he could prove I spent the night at Weston's. But the actual proof is immaterial; simply making the accusation public will ruin us both as surely as spreading the slander would, no matter the outcome of any trial. You know Lord Kavanagh's temper. He is malicious and vindictive and, because I could not guard my tongue, determined to hurt me by whatever method he can. To do as he wishes will be the least shameful path for everyone."
"What does Lord Weston think about this?" Daniel asked after a moment's silence.
"I have not told him, and I will not."
"Rodney, do you think that is wise?"
"I will not expose him to Kavanagh's spite more than I already have," Rodney snapped. "He has all these plans; he's just got his family and life back. If I leave, break all contact, Kavanagh may leave him be, he'll have no reason to go after him. I couldn't stand it if I. If I lost him all that," he said, voice breaking on the last few words.
Daniel looked away discreetly, giving Rodney time to regain control. "It is your decision of course. So you will leave, then?"
"Yes," Rodney nodded tiredly. "I will leave. I will go to the property in Cornwall; no-one will think to look for me there."
"Very well. I'll arrange to have one of the carriages take you as far as the first changing post."
"Thank you, Daniel," Rodney said, trying to convey all the gratitude he felt at his cousin's understanding in just a few words. Daniel squeezed his shoulder again and then got up to leave. "Please, think up something reasonable to tell the rest of the family?" Rodney added as Daniel reached the door. Daniel nodded back once gravely and then he was gone.
Rodney sank his head into his hands feeling more alone and unhappy than he had ever known was possible. In a minute he would have to go and pack to leave all that he loved in his life behind him. But first he had to write something to explain his disappearance to John.
And he had no idea what to say.
Rodney sat back in the carriage he'd hired to take him on the last stage if his journey and gazed out the window without seeing any of the passing countryside. Nothing around him was capable of breaking into his thoughts, even the frequent jostles and bumps from the uneven road were unable to distract him though the discomfort would normally have occupied a good deal of Rodney's attention.
He had made good time on leaving London, travelling through the night in one of his cousins' carriages, though there had been a delay of several hours at an inn in the morning before he had managed to transfer to a post-chaise and he'd had to stop for a second night at another inn due to a broken axle. The difficulties and his turbulent emotions had combined to make it by far the most unpleasant journey he had ever made. Rodney had tried not to dwell on all that he was losing by fleeing in this manner, but his mind inevitably returned to John no matter what he did. He was also very tired since the few times he had managed to doze off, he had suffered from nightmare visions of Kavanagh repeating his speech in front of all their acquaintance and of John being led to the gallows while Rodney watched helplessly from gaol, and he'd jerked awake again gasping for air in terror.
Thankfully the other passengers on the post-chaise had been few and had paid no attention to his behaviour and he was now not far from his destination. Rodney had sent an express on from the first inn to warn his Cornish housekeeper of his arrival and as the cottage was too small to require much in the way of upkeep and servants, he had hopes that everything would be at least ready for him to take up residence, if not of the highest standard of comfort. Not that Rodney expected to ever find his exile pleasant, but he would do his best to make it civilised.
He was just beginning to wonder if he should arrange to have the latest scientific publications sent down or if that would make his situation more unbearable when the carriage motion suddenly halted, startling him out of his thoughts. Finally, the journey was over and he could rest comfortably.
Rodney opened the door and climbed out of the carriage then paused in confusion. Instead of a basic cottage, he was facing a small stone church. What was the driver doing, bringing him here? He had been more than clear on his destination. Rodney was turning to remonstrate with the idiot when the door to the church opened and Rodney realised that his day could in fact get worse as Lord Gennington emerged into the sunlight.
"Good day, Mr. McKay," Lord Gennington said in a mocking tone.
"You?" Rodney managed. "What are you doing here?"
"Abducting you," Gennington replied. "You made it much simpler by coming most of the way yourself, I'm very grateful."
"But how did you know I was travelling this way?"
"Sheer coincidence," Gennington said with a shrug. "Our coach stopped at the same inn as yours and I overheard you trying to arrange passage on the chaise. It was a simple matter to arrive in Cornwall before you did and arrange for my man to pick you up for the last part of your journey."
Rodney just stared at him in dismay. He hadn't noticed Gennington's carriage at all; he'd barely noticed the inn. "And you brought me to a church because?" he asked faintly. Gennington simply smiled and gestured back towards the entrance and Rodney groaned as he made out a female shape surmounted by a halo of ringlets.
"Cheer up, McKay, it's your wedding day," Gennington said grabbing Rodney's arm and pulling him towards the church. Rodney was so shocked by the unexpected turn of events that he didn't even resist at first, but as they reached the porch and came level with Lady Sora he found the strength to dig his heels in and protest.
"Oh no. It most definitely is not my wedding day. I refuse and object and it is not going to happen."
"Oh yes it is," Gennington growled. "It would have happened last week if you hadn't been so slippery and you are not going to evade me again."
Rodney quailed at his tone and the confirmation that Gennington had arranged the previous kidnap attempt. "But, the banns?" he protested. "This isn't legal."
"The Bishop of Devizes owes me a favour. I've had a licence prepared and ready for weeks," Gennington replied smugly.
Rodney blinked in dismay as he realised how thoroughly he was trapped, but then he caught Lady Sora's eye and saw that the resigned displeasure there matched his own and his curiosity reasserted itself. "But why, for God's sake?"
"What does it matter? You are gaining a very advantageous match from it, far better than you could expect."
"It matters because I don't want it and neither does Lady Sora," Rodney said.
"Yes she does," Gennington disagreed flatly.
"Please, look at her, I've seen happier faces at funerals," Rodney snapped back and jerked away from Gennington's grip as he tried to pull Rodney closer to the church door.
"Sora, go in the church," Gennington said, grabbing Rodney again and Rodney winced, knowing he was going to have bruises later.
"But, Uncle -"
"Now," Gennington snarled and as soon as Sora flounced through the door, he threw Rodney up against the wall of the porch, pinning him there by the shoulders. Rodney began to struggle but froze when a knife suddenly appeared in front of his face. "I don't think you want to defy me on this, McKay," he heard Gennington saying, but it seemed very far away and all Rodney could see was the light glinting off the blade, the sudden terror a cold ball inside his chest.
Gennington let go of Rodney abruptly and he sagged against the wall, panting for breath as the knife vanished again into Gennington's clothing. "That's better," Gennington said calmly and when he pushed Rodney through the church door, a hand firmly on his back to propel him down the aisle, Rodney simply couldn't summon the strength to resist.
He found himself standing in front of the altar next to Lady Sora in a frightened daze as a country minister with fluffy white hair began the traditional greeting. It wasn't until the minister turned to him and started the declaration of intentions that Rodney finally managed to get his brain to work again.
"- honour and keep her in sickness and in health and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?" the minister droned to a close and looked expectantly at Rodney.
There was a pause. Rodney glanced at Lady Sora, who was glaring at the ground, and took a deep breath. "No," he said. Lady Sora jerked her head towards him with a startled expression and the minister gave him a confused look as he heard a growl of 'McKay' from behind.
"I beg your pardon?" the minister asked.
"I said no," Rodney repeated determinedly. "I won't."
"McKay, what the hell are you doing?" Gennington said, swinging Rodney around to face him.
"My lord, please, this is God's house," the minister protested in a shocked voice.
"I don't care," Gennington snarled and shook Rodney hard. "You are going to marry my niece, and you are going to marry her now."
"No," Rodney insisted stubbornly. It was a risk, he knew, but at this point he didn't much care. Gennington could hardly kill Rodney and still achieve his aim after all and Rodney had very little else left to lose. "I don't want to marry her and she doesn't want to marry me. This whole thing is a farce."
"My child, is that true?" the minister asked Lady Sora. Indecision flickered over her face and then she looked Gennington right in the eye and replied.
"It's true. I don't want to marry him."
"Sora!" Gennington yelled as the minister spluttered.
"Well, I don't, and I don't see why I should have to," she shouted back and then plunked down in a pew, glaring at them indiscriminately as Rodney sighed in relief that she had joined his defiance.
Gennington looked furious with them all, but before he could say anything the minister spoke up again. "My lord, I don't know what is happening here but I think that you should leave until this matter is resolved. I will not be marrying these two people today."
Gennington growled and dragged Rodney back down the aisle and out of the church, Lady Sora chasing after them, and Rodney just had time to take a steadying breath before the door closed behind them again and he found himself back up against the wall with an enraged Gennington looming over him like the wrath of God.
"How dare you disobey me like that? You might have felt very brave in there, McKay, but believe me when I'm finished with you, you will be begging to marry my ward."
"I won't, not ever," Rodney vowed.
"Uncle, please," Lady Sora interrupted, trying to pull Gennington away, but he shook her off.
"I could make you," he threatened, shaking Rodney again. "You have no idea how much I could hurt you, McKay."
Rodney closed his eyes, swallowed hard and prayed that John's assessment of Gennington as an honourable man was correct. Then he lifted his chin and forced his eyes to meet Gennington's furious dark look when he spoke. "No. You couldn't make me. No matter what you did, and I don't believe that you would take it that far."
Gennington's face twisted up in frustrated anger and he slammed Rodney into the wall hard before shoving away. "Why the hell won't you just do it?" he shouted.
"Because it's insane," Rodney snapped back. "Lady Sora could do far better, why on earth are you trying to throw her away on a match with me?"
"Just tell him, Uncle," Lady Sora said, sounding nearly as bitter as Rodney felt. "Tell him why you are trying to ruin my life."
Gennington glared at them both impartially for a moment and then nodded. "Fine. It makes no difference now. I want control of your land, McKay."
"My what? What land?" Rodney protested. "Your estates are huge, what do you need any of mine for?"
"The land you own in Cornwall. I own most of the mines in the area but my surveyors have detected the purest tin deposits in your land and I want access."
Rodney gaped at him in astonishment. "You want to build mines. On my land. And you think I have to marry your ward for it to happen? Why didn't you just make me an offer for the land like a sane person would?"
"I did," Gennington snapped back. "I was informed that McKay land stayed McKay land no matter what and that your family would never sell or lease so much as a yard of it. So it will stay McKay land, and once you and Sora are married, it and you will be under my thumb and I will do as I please with it."
"What? Who informed you? Was it my brother Henry?" Rodney asked and felt his temper start to go when Gennington nodded. "That interfering, numbskulled, overbearing, pompous ass! How dare he speak for me?"
Gennington had looked like he was going to grab Rodney again and manhandle him through the door when he finished his explanation but now he leaned back against the wall and raised an eyebrow. "Am I to take it that you don't agree with his sentiments?"
"Yes you may take it. In fact, you can take this too: I couldn't care less what land is owned by my family and if it wasn't for my mother's overreaction I would happily have sold it all off years ago. And the Cornish portion is owned by me personally in any case."
"How interesting," Gennington replied. "So if I were to offer you five hundred pounds for it, you would consider it?"
"I would consider it a ridiculously small offer, considering your likely profits, but it is a start," Rodney said.
Gennington frowned in annoyance at his answer. "On the other hand, I'm sure there is a minister around here that would be less picky about matters than this one, and I could save a lot of money if I were to knock you out and marry the two of you while you were unconscious."
Lady Sora, who had been looking much more cheerful as it seemed that the marriage was cancelled, cried out in protest, "Uncle! Please don't start that again, I wouldn't agree now in any case."
Rodney nodded in vigorous agreement, "Look, neither of us wants to marry the other, you want the land, and I want rid of it. Just make me an offer that isn't insultingly low and then we'll all be happy."
Gennington paused a moment and then shrugged. "Very well; I was prepared to pay more when I originally approached your family. Come, let us sit down and discuss what you would consider a fair offer."
"Certainly," Rodney agreed and followed him into the church. Unlikely as it seemed, this meeting had managed to improve his day. His life might still be in ruins, but at least he wouldn't have to worry about impromptu abductions and mysterious enemies anymore.
One hour later Rodney was back in the carriage and on his way to the cottage again. The price that had finally been agreed on was probably still too low but Rodney wasn't terribly bothered. It was more than enough for him to live comfortably and he had been able to keep the house, since Lord Gennington was only interested in the mining possibilities, so he still had a place to live during his retreat. The negotiations concluded, Gennington had sent Rodney off with his man as driver again, saying it was the least he could do for bringing Rodney so far out of his way. All in all, he had turned out to be a far more reasonable man than Rodney had expected. The irony was that Rodney had spent all this time being afraid of him when Lord Kavanagh had been the true, unexpected enemy.
It took a couple of hours for Rodney to reach his final destination as the detour had added several miles to his journey. By the time he climbed down out of the carriage at his cottage, he was exhausted and hungry and all he wanted to do was rest. The housekeeper, Mrs Rinsey, came out to meet him, clucking in a motherly fashion as she led him back into the building, talking all the time about the rooms, the food she was preparing and when the rest of his luggage would arrive from London.
"Oh, and your friend is here already of course, sir. He's waiting for you in the parlour," she suddenly added.
"Excuse me?" Rodney asked in confusion.
"Through here, sir," she said as she guided him through a door and then Rodney stopped dead.
Standing in front of the fireplace, arms crossed and glaring, was John Sheppard.
"John," Rodney blurted out as Mrs Rinsey left and closed the door. "What… how…"
"McKay," John replied in a forbidding tone. "I came to return something," and he uncrossed his arms and tossed something towards Rodney. He caught it, realising that it was his purse just as John went on conversationally, "You know, I've been called a lot of things, but this is the first time anyone's ever implied I was a whore."
Rodney stared in dismay at the fury in John's eyes and then stuttered into an awkward protest. "No! No, that's not, I didn't… I don't, I -"
"Concise and eloquent as always, I see," John mocked.
"I…" Rodney managed then gulped, fought for his composure and forced out, "There was a note too, didn't you read the note?"
"Ah, yes. The note," John said, the biting sarcasm in his tone making Rodney wince. "Let's see what it says, shall we?" John went on, pulling a sheet of paper from his jacket and holding it up. "'Dear Lord Weston, I can't ever see you again. Here's the money I owe you. Sorry, Rodney.' And, attached, one purse containing a few guineas. Tell me, is that the current fee for a swiving these days? I'd have valued it more highly myself, but I'm clearly out of date."
"That's not what I meant!" Rodney cried.
"Then what, exactly, did you mean?"
"It was for the inns, the breakfast," Rodney explained hurriedly unable to keep a pleading tone out of his voice, "I meant to give it to you before, at my cousins', but it slipped my mind." He certainly hadn't meant any insult by it and he really hoped that John would calm down a bit now, because having him so angry with Rodney was making Rodney's stomach churn unpleasantly.
"I see. And the rest of it?" John inquired, the contrast between his even, polite tone and his glare making Rodney even more uneasy. John had never looked at him like that before.
"What about the rest of it?" Rodney said, finding some bravado at last. "I thought it was self-explanatory."
"Well, I'm afraid you're going to have to explain it a little more, because it doesn't make any sense that I can see," John drawled, fixing Rodney's eyes with his until Rodney bit his lip and looked away. "You said you can't see me. Why not?"
"I, I just can't, that's all."
"That's not an explanation, McKay. That's an evasion," John said, prowling a few steps forward and Rodney backed up towards the door.
"It's wrong, it's a sin," Rodney said rather desperately. He was not going to pull John into this mire with him. Rodney had to make him go away.
"You're an atheist," John growled, crumpling the note as he clenched his hand into a fist. "And it didn't seem to bother you when you were begging for me to touch you."
"No, but I've ch-changed my mind. I don't want to anymore," Rodney said as his back hit the door.
"Oh really?" John said, moving even closer so that they were nearly touching and trapping Rodney there with a hand either side of his head.
"Yes, really," he gasped, closing his eyes and turning his head away as John leaned in until Rodney could feel John's breath against his skin and the warmth of his body.
"So you don't want this?" John said softly right into Rodney's ear, making him shiver helplessly and tense with the effort of not reaching out. "You don't want me?"
"No," Rodney whispered and then his eyes flew open in shock as John cupped his hand over Rodney's groin, where he was hard with arousal despite all his best efforts.
"Liar" John hissed, angry eyes staring into his and Rodney broke.
"Stop it," he begged, shoving John away hard enough to make him stumble. This was too much, he felt like his chest was being squeezed in with every breath. "You don't understand, I can't, I… Kavanagh… you have to…" and then the room spun dizzily around Rodney's head and everything went black.
When Rodney opened his eyes, there was a moment where he had absolutely no idea where he was. He could see a ceiling and he was lying down on something soft. He turned his head and saw John Sheppard sitting on a chair about a foot away, studying him intently. Rodney looked back dazedly for a minute and then remembered where he was and the recent confrontation and turned away again, swallowing. He was lying on the parlour sofa, he realised, but he didn't know how he had got there.
"When was the last time you ate anything?" he heard John say and Rodney turned back to him in surprise, not able to hear any anger in John's voice.
"What?" he asked in confusion. "What happened?"
"You passed out," John explained, the neutral expression on his face confusing Rodney even more. "And you don't really look that well. So, when did you last take refreshment?"
"I… can't remember," Rodney admitted.
John nodded thoughtfully, all the anger Rodney remembered from earlier apparently gone. "That's what I thought. I had your housekeeper bring in the tea things," he went on gesturing to a table laid out with cups and plates. "If you can sit up, I'll pass them over."
"Of course I can sit up, and I can get them myself," Rodney snapped feeling hopelessly off balance. John's anger had been difficult to deal with but this sudden change to controlled attentiveness was even more unsettling. He shoved up into a sitting position and immediately regretted the speed of his movement as the room swam slightly in his vision again.
"Of course you can," John muttered, raising his eyebrow annoyingly. "Here," he passed over a tea cup, "drink that. Slowly, McKay, and I'll give you a crumpet if your stomach stays settled."
Rodney mustered strength enough for a glare and then sipped at his tea. He felt like gulping it down just to make a point, but though it tasted good, the first sip did make him feel a little queasy and he was forced to unwilling obedience. After a little while, he felt better and drank down the last of the cup eagerly. John took the cup from him in exchange for a plate with a hot crumpet, then pulled the table close enough for Rodney to reach as well and filled up both their cups again as Rodney ate, the food reviving him rapidly.
They ate and drank in silence for a while. It wasn't exactly comfortable but Rodney had realised now just how hungry he was and even the uncertainty over what would happen wasn't enough to put him off.
When he had finally eaten his fill, Rodney reluctantly put down his plate and cleared his throat nervously, darting a look towards John. He had been watching Rodney through most of the meal and now he sighed and leaned back in his chair, stretching his long legs out casually before him.
"Now then, Rodney. I think it is time you told me the real reason you left, and what Lord Kavanagh has to do with it all."
"How do you know he's involved?" Rodney asked, looking towards John in surprise.
"You mentioned his name right before you fainted," John answered.
"I didn't faint, that's what silly debutantes do. Men don't faint they, they-"
"Swoon?" John interrupted sarcastically. "And stop trying to avoid the question." Rodney sighed reluctantly and looked down at his hands. "Rodney," John said gently after a moment, "just tell me the truth. Please."
Rodney nodded, still looking down. He knew he had to now but he was ashamed. The story did not reflect any great credit on him, quite the reverse, and he was worried about what action John would want to take once he knew everything. He sighed again and started at the beginning. "Lord Kavanagh hates me. He's always resented that I dispute with him in the Natural Philosophy Society; he thinks that being a Lord means that he is never wrong and I have proved the opposite many times. We have always argued, but this week it was different. I was confused and upset over… over what was happening between us," Rodney said meeting John's eyes long enough to see him nodding in comprehension and possible sympathy, before continuing, "and he was already angry when he arrived, I think, though I don't know… oh! Of course, it was you," Rodney said, looking back at John again, who now looked a little confused.
"Me? I've never met the man," he protested.
"You and his wife," Rodney said eagerly, feeling the pieces fall into place. "He said something about her being so pleased to hear you were back, it must have been before the meeting, so you're really partly to blame as well."
"Excuse me? There is no me and his wife, as you well know, and I am not responsible for whatever behaviour she exhibits," John said in an annoyed tone.
Rodney had to admit that was true. It had been nice to think for a moment that the responsibility was not his alone though. "No, you're correct. None of this was your fault," he agreed glumly.
"Go on," John prompted. "Lord Kavanagh was angry, you were upset. Not a good combination I imagine."
"To say the least. We fought, much more fiercely than we had before, and some of the things I said to him were… Well, extremely insulting. Zelenka said I was lucky to escape a duel and I know Kavanagh had to be persuaded out of making a challenge," Rodney continued. "He was at Lady Camoyne's ball the next night, and when I went storming off he followed you into the gardens."
"Hell," John muttered feelingly. "He saw us kissing?"
"The whole thing," Rodney nodded.
"So you left because Lord Kavanagh saw us?" John asked. "I'm sorry Rodney."
"It was me that he followed. I take the blame for that, I should have been more careful. And I told you I would never put you at risk," John finished ruefully.
"And if I had ever made any effort towards understanding other people at all, I wouldn't have misinterpreted your actions and gone running off like an idiot," Rodney countered. "If I wasn't so blind, we would never have been in the gardens to start with and you wouldn't have had to kiss me before I realised what was going on. Anyway, Kavanagh paid me a visit the next day."
"He blackmailed you," John said flatly.
"Yes," Rodney sighed, looking down again. "I know I should have tried to stand up to him, but I didn't see what I could do. He detests me, if I hadn't left like he wanted, he'd have spread the rumour and it would have destroyed you, and it would have been all my fault. I couldn't think how else to stop him from doing that."
"It would have damaged your standing just as much, Rodney," John pointed out and Rodney waved his hand dismissively.
"But you'd have lost so much and you've only just got it back, all those plans for your home, your place in society, your family… I couldn't let it happen," he said and looked up to find John smiling at him. "What?" he asked. "What's funny?"
"Nothing is funny, Rodney," John said, still smiling. "Thank you for telling me. I'm glad that you did and you've given me a lot to think about."
"But you do understand why I can't see you now, yes? I can't risk Lord Kavanagh finding out, not when he'll probably leave you alone now that I'm gone. It would be best if you left in the morning," Rodney said, steeling himself in order to say it. He didn't want John to leave but it was the way it had to be. "Or maybe you could find an inn for tonight as well, just to be safe."
"I don't think I can agree with you there, Rodney," John drawled, then lifted his hand to still Rodney's protest, "But we can discuss it later, you look exhausted and I think you should get some rest. And don't go worrying about my staying. Nobody else knows I'm here except your housekeeper and your cousin Daniel, so there's no way Lord Kavanagh could find out."
"Daniel?" Rodney spluttered in surprise.
"How did you think I knew where to find you?" John smirked at him.
"He told you? That little sneak, I'll kill him," Rodney fumed. Daniel knew he hadn't wanted John to be involved.
"Ah now," John grinned, "I can't let you do that when I found him so helpful, not that I was in a mood to appreciate it at the time. And technically he didn't break your confidence."
"I went round to your cousins' house after I got your note," John continued, still looking amused, "Daniel was the only one at home. He took one look at me and said 'I don't know where Rodney is, but he definitely, absolutely has not gone to his house in Cornwall, the one near Redruth that could be reached much faster than the coach routes if you know the land, here's a map, you could probably beat him there, if he had gone there, which he obviously hasn't.' So you see, he definitely didn't tell me you were here, quite the opposite," he finished, lips twitching and Rodney could hear the laughter trying to break through in his voice.
"Oh, he's a walking corpse," Rodney muttered in disgust and John laughed out loud and shook his head.
"Come on Rodney," he coaxed, "Would you really rather I wasn't here? Really?"
"No, I suppose not," Rodney conceded, and then yawned hugely.
"I think that's enough for just now," John said decisively. "Why don't you go to bed and we can discuss this further when you are feeling more yourself?"
"I… yes. That's probably the best plan," Rodney agreed. He'd be able to convince John that he should leave much more readily when he had all his wits about him. With that idea firmly in mind, he said goodnight and headed up the stairs, gathering his bag on the way and then settling down in the first bedroom he came across.
They could sort it all out in the morning.
Rodney had anticipated that he would spend his first night at the cottage tossing and turning in misery, but in actuality the relief of dealing with Gennington and yes, he would admit it, of having John there and apparently not hating him, had improved his feelings so much that he fell asleep almost as soon as he lay down.
Some time later, Rodney startled awake and turned his head to see the glow of candles near the door and a nightshirt-clad John closing it behind him. "John?" he breathed, wondering if he was really dreaming, "what are you doing?"
"I got lonely," John replied with a shrug. "Move over," he said, placing the candlestick in his hand on the cabinet at the end of the bed and inserting himself under the sheets with a shiver. "These floors are cold."
"I'm not sure that this is a good idea," Rodney muttered, even while he found himself inching nearer to John's heat.
"Maybe you aren't, but I am. And I thought if you were awake enough we might talk," John said, snuggling down on his side so that he was facing Rodney
Rodney nodded absently. He knew that John still thought there were things to settle but he didn't think that this was the best place for it personally. Still, there were some things he should say while he had the chance. "I'm sorry," he said, settling back onto his pillow. "I shouldn't have left like I did, without explaining. And I am truly sorry that you thought I was insulting you, that was never my intention."
"Thank you. I'm sorry too."
"For lying to you when I said I came in here to talk," John murmured and then he was leaning over Rodney and kissing away his gasp of surprise. Rodney did his best to remember that this was something he couldn't have anymore, but John's lips were warm and soft and it felt so good that it took less than a minute for him to surrender and kiss back, pulling John in close and burying a hand in his unruly hair.
Rodney felt their legs tangle together as John plastered himself all down Rodney's side. He rubbed his leg against John's a little just to feel the slide of skin on skin and was rewarded with a soft moan before John broke the kiss.
"Stupid nightshirt, I'm all tangled up," he said with a chuckle and pulled away from Rodney to struggle out of it. He threw it on the floor and rolled back in. "That's much better."
"Yes," Rodney agreed breathlessly, pressing his hand to John's naked chest and stroking it greedily as John started rucking up his nightshirt impatiently. Rodney pulled it quickly over his head and then he was tugged down and over so that he was lying almost on top of John and they both moaned in appreciation.
They were kissing again in an instant, tongues thrusting eagerly into each others' mouths, and John squirmed underneath Rodney, making him groan as he wound up between John's legs, their hips pressed tightly together. John wrapped a leg up round Rodney's hip and ran his hands up Rodney's back, pulling him in even closer and Rodney jerked back with a wince.
"Ow," he said in surprise.
"Ow?" John repeated curiously and then pressed with his hand again.
"Ow, don't do that," Rodney protested. "I have bruises there."
"Bruises?" John asked, his tone going dangerous, and he slid out from underneath Rodney and pressed him gently onto his front on the mattress, his hand stroking much more lightly over Rodney's back as he leaned in to look.
"Um, John?" Rodney said after a minute of silence where John had done nothing but hover over him, his hand still on Rodney's ribs.
"That scabby bastard," John growled. "How dare he lay a hand on you, why didn't you tell me he hurt you too?"
"I forgot," Rodney said. The whole episode with Gennington and Lady Sora had completely slipped his mind in the shock of seeing John again.
"You forgot? Lord shitting Kavanagh, I'll kill him," John went on and Rodney rolled over onto his back again in surprise.
"What? No, no, no, those are from Lord Gennington."
"Then I'll kill him too," John snapped, glaring ferociously, before Rodney's words apparently penetrated and his frown turned to one of confusion. "Wait, what? Gennington?"
"You can't kill him," Rodney argued, "he just agreed to buy my land. And you were right, he's really not that bad a person."
"Rodney?" John asked after a moment of just staring at Rodney like he had gone quite mad. "What on earth are you talking about?"
"Gennington grabbed me again on the way here, took me to a church and tried to make me marry Lady Sora," Rodney explained.
"So it was him that kidnapped you the first time? But now you think he's not that bad?" John said incredulously. "And how did you get out of it? You did get out of it, didn't you? Rodney, please tell me you aren't married to Lady Sora."
"Well of course I'm not," Rodney said indignantly. "As if I would ever have agreed to that, when it was so patently ridiculous a proposition."
"What did he do to you?" John asked anxiously.
"He just shoved me against the wall once or twice," Rodney said. "It wasn't much fun at the time, but I'd forgotten all about it until now. Anyway, it eventually came out that he only wanted the marriage to get control of the tin deposits under my land here, so I sold it to him instead and we parted amicably and with me still completely unmarried."
"Well, that's good. Really good," John said in a much happier tone of voice before frowning again. "He still hurt you though. Are you sure you wouldn't like me to kill him?"
"Ye-es," Rodney said, drawing the word out patiently, "If you do that he won't buy my land and you'll get arrested. Not a good outcome at all."
"I suppose," John muttered, looking sulky.
"You could say nasty things about him though. If you wanted," Rodney offered. "I mean, he did give me bruises."
"Good plan," John said, smiling again at last, "Or maybe I can just kiss them all better," and Rodney's breath caught at the wicked look in his eyes.
"Or, yes, you could do that instead," Rodney agreed and let John roll him back over onto his front. There was a momentary pause and then he felt John's lips brush lightly against his shoulder blade and he shivered pleasantly. Rodney felt John lift up again and then there was another kiss over his spine, butterfly-light, another on his ribs with a quick fluttering lick. John kept going, scattering kisses and the occasional little suck at the skin over Rodney's back until he was sighing with pleasure and arching up into the sensations.
"Turn over," John murmured after a while and when Rodney did, he shifted so he was straddling Rodney's thighs and leaned in for a long, teasing kiss. "Where else?"
"Um, my arms," Rodney managed and John spread his arms out against the bed and ducked down to nuzzle the finger-bruises on his biceps, then worked his way up the sensitive underarm to bite gently at his side so that Rodney shuddered. John did the opposite on Rodney's left arm, working his mouth down from the shoulder until he was sucking a kiss on the thin skin of Rodney's inner wrist and Rodney just lay there gasping at how good it all felt.
He reached out, wanting to have John close again and touch him in return, but John slid further down the bed and started laying kisses over his stomach and Rodney melted into the bed. "I don't think there are any bruises down there," he panted after a moment.
"Mm. Best to be thorough, though," John replied and Rodney closed his eyes and bit his lip on a moan when he felt John lick lightly down his hipbone.
He muttered a protest as John's weight lifted off him, but groaned again as John's hands stroked up his inner thighs, guiding them apart, and when he opened his eyes, it was to find John kneeling between his legs and looking down at Rodney's naked body with such obvious desire that Rodney shook all over.
John was obviously just as aroused, panting for breath, looking as rock-hard as Rodney felt and so very beautiful that Rodney almost couldn't stand it. "John, come here," he said, but John shook his head with a grin.
"Hold on, Rodney. You're going to like this," and he swooped down and licked a broad stripe right up Rodney's achingly hard penis, from root to tip. Rodney cried out at how shockingly good it felt, and sobbed in pleasure as John held down his hips and licked and kissed all over the sensitive head.
"Oh, oh, please, John," he gasped and John's mouth closed over him, hot and wet and he sucked as he slid further down and Rodney clutched at the sheets and jerked, climaxing so strongly that it almost made him pass out once again.
"Rodney, I have to…" he heard John saying, his voice rough and then he was lying over Rodney and rocking against him restlessly.
"Anything," Rodney gasped out, trying to catch his breath, "Anything, oh my God that felt so good."
John groaned against Rodney's neck and moved again, shifting them both. A moment later Rodney felt him slide hard and hot between his thighs and when he wrapped his arms around John and closed his legs a little tighter, John sighed his name and started thrusting. Every stroked rubbed him up against Rodney's testicles and that made Rodney quiver and squeeze more tightly and it was barely a minute before John's hips bucked out of control and he spent himself between Rodney's legs, shuddering and muffling a cry against Rodney's chest.
Rodney held him close for a moment longer, enjoying the weight pressing him into the bed and then John rolled off and he turned on his side so that they were facing each other. He studied John's face for a moment, trying to memorise the relaxed, satiated expression.
"Something wrong?" John asked. "You look a little sad."
"I don't want to lose this. Lose you," Rodney said quietly.
"You're not going to, Rodney," John said, reaching out and cupping his hand round Rodney's cheek.
"I am. You have to go, Kavanagh wants me to be miserable and if he ever found out you visited me he'd probably try to destroy us both out of spite."
"Rodney, my estate is not that far away from Cornwall and spending time down here is not precisely suspicious behaviour on my part," John pointed out. "And does he even know that you came here?"
Rodney shook his head, dislodging John's hand. "But it's not impossible he would find out, and it isn't just him. Don't you see how dangerous this is for you? Even if Kavanagh does nothing, what if someone else finds out? You would still be shunned and it would still be my fault if you lost everything again."
He was taken aback to see John smile with genuine amusement at his protest. Couldn't he see how serious it was?
"Rodney, first of all, I do appreciate that you wish to protect me. But there is really no need. When did I ever give you the impression that I cared two figs what society thought of me?" Rodney gaped at him in surprise as he went on, "In fact, I've never had any intention of remaining in England. As soon as Elizabeth is settled and able to oversee affairs on the estate with my new agents, and the restoration of the Hall, I will be going back to the Colonies."
"You… what?" Rodney said. "But what about all those plans for the Hall? You seemed so invested in it."
"For my mother's sake, and Elizabeth's and whatever family pride I retain only. It's never really been a home for me. My home is on Pinang, and I want to go back there. Elizabeth will take far better care of things here than I ever would, especially with a good man like Zelenka at her side," John shrugged.
"Oh," Rodney said, a little stunned at having his assumptions overturned so suddenly. He hadn't had much time to consider what future he and John might have before Lord Kavanagh had interfered, but he had thought that John would be staying, that even if they did not stay lovers he might still be able to have John's friendship and would at least see him occasionally. His most optimistic scenario had been that John would eventually get married but that Rodney would be his… well, mistress was the wrong word, but the concept fitted.
Kavanagh had destroyed all those dreams, but with John here in Cornwall Rodney had begun to allow himself to hope once again, despite his awareness of the dangers, for the possibility of a friendly correspondence if nothing else. And even when he had thought that he would never come in to contact with John again, he had known that he would have the small consolation of news of him from his cousins. But with John on the other side of the world, they would truly be sundered, parted by distance and the length of time taken for any news to travel across it.
No wonder that John was not worried about the consequences since it seemed that all he was proposing was a brief affair before he departed again. Rodney had been foolish to imagine that it could ever have been anything more, even if John had intended to stay. He swallowed down his dismay and asked, "When will you leave?" in a rather choked tone, wanting to know how long he would be able to count on before he was alone once more.
"One or two months, I expect. I would like to see Elizabeth happily married first, and that does rather depend on your friend getting up the courage to ask her," John said with a little smile.
"Oh," Rodney said again, almost soundlessly, looking down at the bedclothes to avoid John's eyes. That wasn't much time at all.
"Rodney," John started, then hesitated and Rodney tried to school his expression to one that wouldn't give away how unhappy he was feeling. He didn't want John to feel pity for him, no he definitely did not. "Rodney, would you, um… I don't suppose you…" he trailed off.
"What?" Rodney said rather snappishly.
"Come with me?" John said and Rodney lifted his eyes again to find John biting his lip and watching him with uncertain eyes.
"Come with… to Pinang?" he asked, wondering if he had heard that correctly.
"Yes," John nodded, moving closer and wrapping an arm around Rodney. "You would like it there I think, there would be no-one to interfere with us and," he flushed a little, "I would like it very much if you did."
"I, I, um," Rodney managed, starting to hope again and John, who had been watching his face closely, brightened up.
"Say you'll come," he said, kissing Rodney quickly before going on, "the piano and telescope I just ordered to take back will go to waste otherwise, because I certainly don't know how to use them."
He'd bought Rodney a piano and a telescope? Rodney smiled and then frowned quickly. "You don't need to keep me, you know," he pointed out. "Even if Gennington hadn't just agreed to pay me a large amount of money, I am capable of paying my own way and for my own things."
"I know that," John agreed rapidly. "I'm not trying to keep you. Bribe you, maybe," he finished with a little deprecating grin.
"Oh, um, you don't really need to. Bribe me, I mean."
"I might," John said seriously. "It's a long way away from your Natural Philosophers and publications. It can take the latest news up to a year to reach the island, and the same length of time for our news to cross back to Europe. Not that there aren't those interested in science around, and the stars are very fine, but you would be isolated from anything happening here."
Rodney considered that for a minute. It would be difficult, but he had already agreed to give most of that up once by capitulating to Kavanagh. At least on the other side of the world, he could work as he pleased and there was little Kavanagh's influence could do to stop him trying to publish from there, especially if he went through Zelenka… but all he said to John was, "I'm three years ahead of everyone here anyway. This would simply give them the chance to catch up enough to understand my work when I send it back."
"So is that a yes?" John asked eagerly.
"Yes, of course it is," Rodney said impatiently and was rewarded with the happiest smile he'd seen yet from John and a long, tender kiss. Rodney relaxed into it, pulling John as close as he could and just letting the glow of happiness wash through him.
Chapter 7: Epilogue
Three months later, Rodney stood on the deck of a merchant ship called the Anna Maria and watched the last boxes being brought on board.
He had stayed in Cornwall for the duration, but John had been a very frequent visitor under the guise of overseeing work on his estate, and he had also received visits from an incredibly happy Zelenka and an irritatingly smug Daniel, so he had found that his exile was actually the most enjoyable season of his life so far.
Elizabeth and Zelenka had been married a few weeks previously, blithely ignoring all the gossiping of society over whether it was a suitable match, and John had already arranged with his lawyers that the majority of his inheritance would pass to their children, should he die without issue. That would certainly be the case if Rodney had any say in the matter; there was no way he was going to give up John now, something that was made easy by the fact that John had no desire to be given up anyway. The title would pass to some distant cousin, John had said with a careless shrug, and good luck to him.
So now they were off. Rodney had been wished good luck by his cousins, who thought he was travelling in search of a bit of adventure. Well, that was what Rodney had told them anyway. The looks O'Neill and Cameron had given them when they all came to see them off the previous night suggested that they weren't entirely fooled but they had given no other sign and shaken Rodney and John's hands heartily when they had parted, and Daniel had simply grinned and hugged Rodney. Aside from Rodney's cousins, Elizabeth and Zelenka, no-one was aware that Rodney was leaving. Discretion was the better part of valour after all.
Rodney leaned on the rail and looked down at the water a trifle unhappily. The voyage was going to last months and he just knew he was going to be sea-sick the whole way, no matter what John had said about it getting easier after a few days. And there would be bad weather, and storms around the Cape, and terrible food, and here Rodney was changing his entire life and about to sail into the unknown on top of it all.
He felt a brush against his arm and looked up to see John leaning back on his elbows on the rail next to him, sliding his arm along enough so that they could touch.
Oh yes. Rodney had never made such a wise decision in his life. He was exactly where he was meant to be, and with John by his side he was going to enjoy every minute, sea-sickness and all.
Oh yes, he thought again, meeting John's eyes and returning the joyous grin he saw with one of his own.
Time to go home.