All along the drive up from Boston, Rodney McKay needed no radio or CD, for the soothing sounds of his own cursing kept him company from Cambridge to Kennebunkport. He'd spent thousands of dollars in therapy bills and far too much time convincing himself that he didn't owe the world a damned thing, but one five minute call from a stranger in Maine erased all that hard work. Within an hour, he had arranged an emergency leave with his producer, packed his bags, left his cat with a neighbor and was navigating his Golf through the treacherous waters of the I-95 at breakneck speed.
The Portland hospital was – well, not all that different from any other hospital, only smaller. The hallway floors were polished to a degree mere mortals seemed unworthy to achieve, and the chief nurse on the floor was a terror in white sneakers, all of Rodney's old, evil governesses rolled into one stubborn package. She reiterated the rules concerning visiting hours every one of the six times he asked her for Sasha's room number; finally, Rodney yelled, “Sasha! Where the hell are they holding you hostage?” - voice echoing down the halls – and hared off in the direction of Sasha's weaker reply: “Raaadney, ò istenem, save me from the Philistines!”
Sasha opened his arms when Rodney burst into his room, and Rodney went without hesitation – he was not, as a rule, a hugger, but fifteen years of conditioning from the crazy, overly affectionate Hungarian lying in the hospital bed meant that he made certain important exceptions.
“Tell me you brought me pierogi,” Sasha murmured, almost filthily, in Rodney's ear as they embraced.
Rodney pulled back, stiffening. “Yes, along with some petit fours, a bottle of Chablis and half a roast duck,” he snapped.
Sasha eyed him. “I take it from your tone there is no pierogi.”
“You were dying!” Rodney shouted, waving his arms. “You think I took the time to cook you a seven-course meal?”
“Of all the times to cook, when your friends are dying, this is the best time,” Sasha huffed, folding his own arms across his ample middle.
“Oh, for God's sake,” Rodney muttered. “You're the most exasperating...” He trailed off, the adrenalin of the last few hours suddenly draining away, sapping his strength. “How are you, really?” Rodney murmured, taking a step forward, his hand awkwardly stealing toward Sasha's shoulder, then finally closing over it.
Rodney felt the shrug that Sasha unleashed. “I am not dying yet, édes fiú,” he admitted softly. “Even so, the doctor, she thinks I will be here little while.”
Rodney closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them again, he had to blink a few times to clear his vision. “Okay, well, that's – not great, but not dying, that's – yes.”
“Rodney,” Sasha said slowly, taking the hand that rested on his shoulder and placing it between both of his own, “I need a favor.”
“Anything, you know I'll do anything,” Rodney said immediately. “Do you want me to cook for you while you're here? Say the word and I'll smuggle food in past that battleaxe every day if I have to.”
Sasha sighed and patted his hand. “Tempting, so tempting. You know what will happen. They will steam everything – ” he shuddered expressively “– and there will be no butter, no fat, no flavor, but it is good for me, I know this. That is not what worries me.”
“Then what? What can I do?”
Sasha looked up at him with large, liquid eyes, and Rodney knew fear for a split second before his old mentor and dearest friend spoke.
“Run my restaurant while I am away.”
Rodney opened his mouth, closed it again. “I – ”
Sasha's lower lip trembled. Just a hair, but it was enough; Rodney folded like a card table in a hurricane.
“Yes, yes, of course, anything. I said anything, and I meant anything.”
Sasha smiled and squeezed his hand. “It will be good for you, Rodney. You look pale, not so healthy. You need to get out of that television studio and back to the trenches.”
Rodney nodded, mechanically, and tried to smile back. He felt his face creak with the effort.
Oh God, he thought. I am so screwed.
“Rodney,” Elizabeth said – actually, it sounded more like 'Rkkkkkkkhhhhdnphhhhzzzzzt' thanks to the shitty cell phone connection – “you’re kidding me, right?”
“I wish I was!” Rodney shouted. “Does this look like a joke to you?” He held out the phone and waved it as though his producer could see as well as hear; if she could, she would have beheld Rodney standing on the deck of the rattiest excuse for a ferry that had ever sailed. He was no expert, but he would have sworn it had been used to transport part of Washington's army across the Delaware. Currently, it was holding himself, his Golf, and three other vehicles, including a huge black pickup that would probably be the death of them all; there was no way a boat this old could carry that much weight. Above him, a gaggle of what might have been geese or seagulls or vultures, for all Rodney knew, circled menacingly. He glared at them, willing them to crap on him; it would be the perfect end to the day. Placing the phone back against his ear, he added, “Actually, I wish I were in Hell with my back broken! Oh wait, I already am!”
“Rodney, this connfffffFFFFhhhhHHH-ot very good. What did you say?”
“Never mind! I need four weeks, do you hear me? Four weeks!”
“We tttttzzzzzzzhhhh middle of shooting the season!”
“So put on reruns! The viewers will survive!”
“kkkhhhhney, this is not going to help you beat Ming in the ratings.”
“Oh, marvellous! Rub it in, why don't you?” Rodney held the phone away from his ear so he could stare at it; there was nothing but static emerging from it now. “Look, I'll call you later when I get to a land line!” he yelled at it, not knowing if Elizabeth could even still hear him.
Gull Island, Maine was about as far from civilization as you could get without leaving New England (did Maine count as part of New England? Rodney was never sure) but it was Sasha’s chosen semi-retirement home. Therefore, he had to endure both it and the interminable ferry ride that got him there. God only knew why one of the greatest chefs in the history of the known universe had chosen to spend his golden years in the armpit of nowhere, but it wasn’t the question that was uppermost in Rodney’s mind right now. No, what he was wondering about at the moment was what the disheveled-looking guy in overalls currently lounging against the side of the humongous pickup truck was staring at. Oh, God, were they going to hit an iceberg? Weren’t there icebergs this far north in the Atlantic? Rodney turned to look behind him, but there was nothing. He turned back, puzzled. The guy’s mouth was curled now in a half-smile.
Rodney glared back, deciding as usual that the best defense was a good offence. When the guy just kept looking at him without saying anything, Rodney finally snapped, “Yes? Can I help you?”
The man slowly shook his head once in a lazy form of negation. “Just watching to see if that vein on your head’s going to pop.”
Rodney’s hand flew to his forehead. “What vein?”
Another half-shake of the head, which was topped by a ridiculously tousled mop of black hair. “Never mind. Now that you’ve stopped screaming, it’s getting smaller.”
“I was not – all right, fine, whatever.” Rodney realized he was still gripping his cell phone; he flipped it shut and jammed it into the pocket of his jeans. The man’s gaze dipped briefly, then rose again.
No, Rodney thought, eyes widening slightly before he managed to contain his shock. He couldn’t be. He was some sort of – fisherman or handyman or something; they didn’t make gay fishermen, did they? Certainly not in Maine, anyway.
“Well, this has been fun,” Rodney began, then realized he had nowhere to go on this tiny, overburdened ferry. He contemplated stalking off to sulk in his car, but that would be childish. Also, he didn’t want to be trapped inside a vehicle if and when the boat chose to topple over.
“Going somewhere?” One of the man's eyebrows arched à la Spock, and Jesus, Rodney did not just feel a strange little thrill at that.
“No, I suppose not,” Rodney growled, to cover his embarrassing reaction. “Unless I feel like swimming.”
The guy scratched absently at the back of his neck. “Water's still kind of cold this time of year. The beaches are pretty nice in August, though.”
A fat lot of good that did him in early June. “That's nice to know, thank you, but I won't be here in August.”
“Hm,” the guy said, noncommittally, as though Rodney might end up staying on this rock another two months. Not bloody likely.
“Well,” the guy drawled, and it finally occurred to Rodney that his voice sounded familiar, but there was certainly no chance they'd ever met, “I hope you enjoy the time you do spend on Gull Island, Mr...?”
This guy's as subtle as an avalanche, Rodney thought, but he remembered his rusty manners just in time to step forward and extend his hand. “McKay. Rodney McKay.” He didn't expect this hick to recognize him; it was doubtful that a Maine fisher/handyman/something-or-other working-class watched public television, let alone shows on advanced fusion cookery.
The man nodded, mock-seriously, and wrapped his long fingers around Rodney's blunter ones. His grip was strong but not too strong, dry and warm. “Sheppard. John Sheppard,” he mimicked, biting back what was no doubt a ridiculous smirk. “Actually, I already know who you are.”
Rodney blinked, surprised. “Oh. Well, I'm always glad to meet a fan.”
This time both eyebrows went up. “I'm sure you are. But I know you because we spoke on the phone this morning.” When Rodney just stared at him, Sheppard added, “About Sasha? He asked me to call you from the hospital.”
Obviously the salt air, the threat of capsizing and the long hours driving down winding seaside roads had crippled Rodney's brain, because it took him a full three and a half seconds to process what Sheppard had said. “You're the one who called me!” he crowed, finally placing the voice.
This time the smirk could not be contained. “Nothing gets past you, McKay.”
“You're a friend of Sasha's?”
The smirk morphed into a full, honest smile, and Rodney sucked in a breath, unprepared for the sheer beauty of it. “You'd be hard pressed to find anyone on the island who isn't a friend of Sasha's.”
Rodney tried to contain his surprise; hicks they might be, but obviously even the residents of an isolated backwater were capable of recognizing greatness in their midst. “Well. It's good to know he's appreciated.”
“He sure is. When Martha retired, we didn't know who was going to take over the Roadkill Grill.”
“The – excuse me?”
“Only restaurant on the island, unless you count the hot dog stand down by the beach. But that's only open in the tourist season.”
“Are you telling me,” Rodney said slowly, “that Sasha Rabinovitch owns a restaurant called the – the Roadkill Grill?”
“He thought about changing the name, but we convinced him to stick with the old one. No point in messing with success, we all said.”
Rodney nodded weakly, then pointed at the water. “Pardon me, won't you?”
“Where are you going now?”
“I've decided,” Rodney said grimly, “that I'm going to throw myself over the side and end it all now.”
Sheppard beamed. “Yeah, he said you'd say something like that.”
An hour later, Rodney was convinced he had journeyed into a strange, alien world in which nothing made sense.
“Pretty nice, huh?” Sheppard asked.
Rodney turned slowly in the middle of the kitchen. It was marginally less horrifying than the dining room, which featured gingham curtains, plastic lobster salt and pepper shakers, and a huge fish net hanging from the ceiling filled with – with things that had no doubt been dredged from the bottom of the ocean.
The kitchen was – better. Spotless, of course – Sasha wouldn't have had it any other way – but the equipment was so antiquated and utilitarian as to be a joke. There was a wide expanse of grill, an industrial stove that looked like it dated to the industrial revolution, and a freezer unit that made Rodney shudder when he looked inside. Ore Ida, for God's sake.
“Dare I ask what's on the menu?”
Sheppard shrugged with one shoulder, since the other was propping him up as he leaned against the doorframe. Oh yes, not only was there no door between the kitchen and the dining room, there was a yawning open space in the top half of the wall separating them, a monstrous pass-through allowing anyone and their mother to see what was going on inside the kitchen. “Standard stuff. Hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks. Sasha buys a lot of local fish. His chowder's delicious.”
“I'm glad you approve,” Rodney sneered. Sasha was cooking hot dogs and frozen French fries for hicks in rubber boots who wouldn't appreciate gourmet food if it were rammed down their throats. Sasha had obviously lost his mind, but what had caused him to lose it? Weeks before leaving for this backwater a little over a year ago, he'd still been one of Manhattan's most celebrated chefs, owner of Terroir. He'd passed most of the major responsibilities of running the kitchen on to his sous-chef, and seemed to be enjoying his role as the restaurant's raconteur. He'd had the condo overlooking Central Park, the holidays in Tuscany and Barcelona, the undying respect of fellow chefs and raving adulation of foodies everywhere.
And then, fourteen months ago, he'd sold the restaurant and the condo and disappeared off the face of the Earth. Rodney had been frantic for weeks until Sasha had shown up one day at the WGBH studios, looking ten years younger and thirty pounds lighter.
“It is fresh sea air!” That had been his only explanation for his transformation, and Rodney's every effort to find out exactly what the hell had happened went unrewarded. Sasha was determined to be mysterious, though he did invite him to visit him and his new restaurant on Gull Island anytime he liked. Rodney had merely nodded at that point, numbly, knowing that the likelihood of him ending up on someplace called Gull Island was about as high as his traveling to another galaxy.
Rodney was yanked from his reverie from the sound of the bell over the front door (of course there was a bell over the front door). He brushed past Sheppard, who was still leaning, and saw a middle-aged man in a plaid shirt and a hunting cap standing just inside the darkened restaurant.
“John,” the man said, nodding. “How's Sasha?”
“Doing as well as can be expected,” Sheppard said. “We'll know more in a few days.”
“Give him my best next time you're talkin' to him.”
The man peered at Rodney. “This Sasha's friend?” Rodney opened his mouth, then realized he wasn't being addressed.
“Yup. George Henderson, meet Rodney McKay.”
Rodney was treated to the same nod Sheppard had received. “He gonna be opening the restaurant tonight?”
“Don't know about tonight,” Sheppard answered, before Rodney could even draw breath. “Tomorrow, probably. Sasha had me put in an order for supplies; should be getting here in the morning.”
Henderson grunted. “I always take my supper here on Wednesdays,” he grumbled.
Sheppard chuckled. “You'll live, George. Thursday's as good as Wednesday.”
“I never thought so,” Henderson muttered, turning to go.
Rodney gaped for a moment at the now-closed door, then turned back to Sheppard. “Please tell me they're not all like that,” he said desperately.
A smile tugged at the corner of Sheppard's mouth and mischief gathered in his eyes. “George is kinda special,” he admitted, “but I wouldn't say he's unusual.”
“Oh, God, I want to go home,” Rodney moaned.
“Well, you can't.” Rodney looked up, startled as much by the sudden steel in Sheppard's tone as he was by the words. Sheppard was standing without assistance, advancing on him like a panther, and Rodney suddenly had forgotten how to move. Up until now, he honestly hadn't thought of Sheppard as anything but a nuisance; to see him like this, prowling and predatory, made Rodney's stomach perform odd feats of terpsichore. It might have been a pas de deux; he wasn't sure.
“I don't know what kind of a guy you are,” Sheppard said, stopping about eight inches from Rodney and leaning in just enough to be menacing, “but Sasha obviously thinks he can count on you. And you're not going to disappoint him.”
“Of course I'm not going to disappoint him. I made a commitment, and I intend to honor it.” Rodney folded his arms. “And pardon me, but what business is it of yours?”
Sheppard pulled back slowly, his frosty expression melting away to reveal the previous look of lazy affability. Rodney wondered absently which one was the mask. “We've all – kind of adopted Sasha as one of our own,” Sheppard said. “And we like to look out for our own up here.”
“That's a – lovely sentiment,” Rodney said weakly, even as his brain was whizzing in about a hundred different directions, assembling facts like jigsaw pieces. Fact one: Sheppard had called Rodney on Sasha's behalf from the hospital. Fact two: Sheppard had ordered supplies for the restaurant on Sasha's instructions. Fact three: from both word and deed, it was clear that Sheppard seemed to regard the restaurant – and Sasha – as his own personal possessions.
Oh, God. Could this be why Sasha had abandoned civilization last year? Was he pursuing some kind of May-November romance with this – small-town Lothario? Now that Rodney took a moment to look him over, Sheppard was certainly comely enough to make this a possibility, though still an unlikely candidate for the consort of a distinguished chef. On the other hand, great sex had made fools of men before, and Sasha was only human. Doubtless sex with Sheppard would be incendiary, if his display of flashing-eyed righteous anger was any indication of his more passionate side.
“Hm?” Rodney grunted, returning to reality with a loud thump.
Sheppard was wearing the expression Rodney was already starting to think of as his look of perpetual amusement. “What's going on in your head?”
“Nothing! I was just” – contemplating what sex with you would be like, Rodney did not say – “ah, wool-gathering?”
“Okay, well look, why don't I show you Sasha's place, and then you can get yourself settled in? You've had a pretty long day, and tomorrow's going to be busy.”
“Fine, yes, good,” Rodney babbled, nodding and waving a hand at the door. “Lead on.”
Rodney arrived at the restaurant at six in the morning after a restless night. He'd spent three hours when he should have been in bed searching Sasha's seaside bungalow for evidence of Sheppard's presence – a photograph on the bedside table, an extra toothbrush or a bottle of Aqua Velva in the medicine cabinet, a pair of rubber boots in the closet – only to come up empty-handed and exhausted. As soon as he entered the restaurant's kitchen, he made himself a pot of coffee (oh God, Nabob) and began inhaling it as soon as it was ready. At six twenty-nine, he deemed himself sufficiently awake to begin inventorying the contents of the kitchen.
At six fifty-eight, there was a knock on the front door. Rodney considered ignoring it, then decided it would be more fun to berate whoever was on the other side. Of course it was Sheppard, standing there loose-limbed with his hands in the pockets of a different pair of overalls, this set more worn and smelling faintly of salt.
“Hey,” he said, “saw the light on in the kitchen and thought I'd check to see how you were settling in.”
“As well as can be expected considering I had to drink coffee liberally laced with additives and chicory,” Rodney snapped. “Doesn't Sasha stock any real coffee?”
There was that amused tilt of the lips again, which at seven o'clock in the morning was practically beyond bearing. “He tried to get people on that fancy stuff when he came here, but everybody liked what they'd always been drinking,” Sheppard explained. “I think he still orders some in for the tourists now and again.”
Rodney made a mental note to check the incoming delivery from top to bottom for decent coffee, then folded his arms. “Well, thank you for that heartening bit of news,” Rodney said, “and now, if you'll excuse me...”
Right at that moment, a wizened head poked itself in the open door. “So, you're on for breakfast?” it asked in a high, chirpy voice. It didn't seem to be exactly a question, though, because before Rodney could tell it no, it crossed the threshold, along with a matching, stooped body. Three other heads and bodies, in advanced states of age, followed along behind it and took places by the front window.
“Um,” Rodney said.
“Ladies,” Sheppard said, nodding. “Glad to see you.”
“John, dear.” The most rotund of the bunch laid a hand on Sheppard's arm and stretched her wattled neck to give him a kiss on the cheek. “You're always a sight for sore eyes.”
“He's a sight for any eyes that aren't dead,” one of the other biddies said, setting off a round of cackling.
“Now, Martha,” Sheppard chided, “don't scare off the new fella before he even starts.”
“Why don't you introduce us to the new fella, then,” Martha said archly, “and we'll see what we can do?”
Please kill me, Rodney willed silently, shuffling over to the table at Sheppard's urging.
“Rodney, meet Martha, Beatrice, Helen and Norma. They play bridge together here every Sunday afternoon.”
“That's – nice,” Rodney said, nodding.
“You play bridge, young man?” Martha demanded.
“No, I'm afraid not. Chess is more my game.”
“John here plays chess,” Martha said archly. “Be nice if he had someone to play with – 'sides himself.”
“Martha,” Sheppard warned, over the ensuing howls of laughter. Rodney felt his cheeks grow hot.
“What'd I say?” Martha asked, all mock innocence.
Sheppard smiled, obviously brought up to be polite to the nearly dead. “Now, why don't you ladies chat for a while. Rodney'll pour you some coffee and fire up the grill, but you're his first customers, so show him some of that famous Gull Island hospitality, won't you?”
There was a mumble of chastised assent from the table, and then Sheppard was steering Rodney back toward the kitchen, one hand under his elbow as though he was escorting his grandmother across the street. Rodney felt his arm tingle.
Sheppard leaned close to murmur in his ear, and the tingle spread everywhere. How about I call Shelley for you? She helps out Sasha most mornings.”
Rodney closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again, the aged flock was still sitting perched in the window. “Yes,” he croaked. “Thank you.”
Shelley turned out to be a stocky peasant girl built like a linebacker, with hands that could successfully manage fourteen plates apiece. This turned out to be a godsend, because within twenty minutes of the arrival of Martha and her dirty-minded bridge club, what had to constitute the entire population of Gull Island was sitting in the dining room of the Roadkill Grill, demanding to chow down on eggs, bacon, and hash browns. Rodney despaired of the state of their cardiovascular systems, but kept pace with the crowd's insatiable hunger as best he could. He'd always recalled the summer he'd served as a short order cook during college with a shudder and no fondness at all, but he was grateful now for even that limited experience, because like riding a bicycle, the rhythm came back to him almost instantly. Only one person complained their eggs were overcooked, and Shelley whispered to him not to worry, that George Henderson always complained about his eggs. Somehow, this didn't come as much of a surprise.
The restaurant was empty by nine, and Rodney plunked down on one of the stools by the counter, then laid his head on the chipped faux marble melamine.
“Hey, I haven't wiped that yet,” Shelley admonished.
Rodney felt the grit of spilled salt against his forehead as he rolled it back and forth. “Don't care,” he whined, “sleep now.”
There was an undignified snort from Shelley, who Rodney could hear clumping off toward the kitchen. “You sleep. I'll start scrubbing that grill.” The clumping stopped. “You know, it's not usually that bad. People just wanted to come get a good look at you.”
“Thank God for small mercies,” Rodney mumbled into the counter.
“Of course, there'll be another whole new crowd at lunchtime,” Shelley mused, “but don't worry, that won't be for another couple of hours.”
Rodney groaned and started gently whacking his forehead against the counter.
By the time the last of the supper crowd had ordered their meals, Rodney's lower back was loudly protesting its ill treatment, he'd burned his hands in sixteen different places, and he was so covered in sweat his clothes were clinging to him like soggy dishrags. He hadn't worked so hard in one day since he'd been a sous-chef at the Tavern on the Green, and he was going to have to get up again in the morning and do it all over again. Hopefully, their curiosity would be satisfied enough that he wouldn't have the huge crowds he'd dealt with today, but he wasn't betting on it. Doubtless they were like some kind of culinary scourge, demanding more and more hot turkey sandwiches and burgers until he broke and ran screaming into the night.
Sheppard had been nowhere to be seen all day, and Rodney had been surprised to find himself watching for his face among the supper crowd, hoping for the solace of a familiar face, albeit one that always seemed to be mocking him gently. He was hoping for the chance to ask Sheppard some leading questions that would answer once and for all the question of whether or not he was involved with Sasha; the thought niggled at the back of his brain all day, irritating him at odd moments.
He bade farewell to Shelley after lunch, but another stalwart young woman named Ruth appeared just before the supper crowd began pouring in. She was accompanied by a slip of a thing named Rae Ann, who didn't appear strong enough to carry a glass of water to a table, let alone the heaping plates she managed for the next three hours. They kept him from going stark raving mad, because they were his first line of defense against the customers. Still, the wide pass-through evidently meant that the clientele felt free to try to engage Rodney in conversation while he was cooking. The subtle approach obviously didn't work, because they totally ignored his hints that he was incapable of preparing their meals and socializing at the same time.
“Don't worry, young fella,” George Henderson (who had been here for lunch and complained about the thickness of the tomato slices in his BLT) said, “nobody here is in any rush to get anyplace. It's not like we're headin' off to the thea-tah after this.” Rodney wasn't sure if the pronunciation was a quirk of the Maine accent or Henderson's attempt at mocking culture, and he really didn't give a shit. He managed to bite his tongue, however, before saying so.
At seven-oh-one, Rodney latched the front door behind the last customer and leaned against it. Luckily, part of Ruth and Rae Ann's job was to clean up and bake the pies, desserts and muffins for the next day, so Rodney could, after thirteen hours locked up in here, finally escape. He was about to bid them goodnight when a loud rapping on the door made him jump out of his skin.
“We're closed!” Rodney shouted.
“Oh, it's okay, Mr. M,” Rae Ann said, “that's just the boys here for their poker game.”
“They play poker every Thursday night,” Ruth elaborated. “Let 'em in, will yuh?”
Numbly, Rodney unlatched the door again, then stepped back just in time to avoid being struck as the door was flung open. “Hey there,” a huge, burly man said, taking Rodney's hand and pumping it, “you must be Sasha's friend. Good to know you. I'm Sam Ross, Ruth's husband.” Three other equally huge men followed behind them, one of whom was as bald as a cue ball.
“Likewise, I'm sure,” Rodney murmured. His hand was shaken five more times, until he felt like it had spent far too long in a bear trap.
“Get yourself home now, Mr. M,” Rae Ann said, steering him toward the door. “We'll make 'em some sandwiches and keep an eye on 'em.”
“You're not joinin' us?” the bald man asked, clearly disappointed and looming over Rodney in what Rodney prayed was a non-threatening fashion.
“Sasha always plays a few hands,” Sam said, by way of explanation.
“Leave him be, Sam. Mr. M's not used to working so hard. He needs to rest.”
“Oh,” Sam said, nodding, as Rodney drew breath to splutter in indignation. “Well, you take care of yourself, hear? And don't worry; you'll get used to 'er.”
“'Night, Mr. M,” Ruth called, waving at him from the kitchen. Finally deciding that retreat was the better form of valor, Rodney abandoned the field to the enemy. As he headed out the door, he heard Bald Man asking if Ruth could make them some of those nice cucumber sandwiches Sasha always made – “You know, the ones with the crusts cut off?”
Rodney drove in a fog down the winding lane to Sasha's house, nearly running over a raccoon in the process and scaring himself half to death. By the time he parked his car, he didn't even question the fact that there was a light on in the kitchen; he must have left it on this morning before he'd left. But when he opened the door, the heavenly aroma of boiling lobster struck him like a wall, throwing all of his abused senses into high alert.
“Hey,” Sheppard said affably as Rodney stared at him. His smile was one of the natural ones, though there was a quality of hesitancy to it, as though he wasn't sure of his welcome. “Figured you hadn't had time to eat, so I thought I'd bring you some dinner.”
Rodney made his way slowly to the stove. “Thank you, but you didn't have to – ”
“Yeah, I did. I felt kinda bad throwing you in head first like that.” Sheppard ducked his head, then looked up at him almost shyly from beneath his lashes.
“It wasn't your fault,” Rodney said, strangely suspended between lust and a warmth that had nothing to do with sexual attraction.
“Still,” Sheppard said quietly, turning back to the stove, “I promised Sasha I'd look out for you.”
Oh, God, for a few moments he'd actually forgotten about that. “Sasha seems to – depend on you for a lot,” Rodney ventured.
“He's done a lot for me,” Sheppard said easily. “I'm just returning the favor.”
“I'm sure you are,” Rodney muttered.
“Nothing,” Rodney said. “Have you melted any butter?”
“I was just about to,” Sheppard said. “Wasn't sure if you liked lemon in it or not.”
“God, no! Never lemon.”
Sheppard glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “That some kind of chef thing?”
“That's some kind of touch-citrus-and-I die thing,” Rodney answered. “Plain butter is just fine, thank you.” He lifted the lid on one of the pots and saw steaming asparagus; the smallest pot on the stove contained – “Rice pilaf?”
Sheppard snorted. “Don't sound so shocked, McKay. You don't have to live in a big city to know how to cook.”
Rodney shook his head. “I didn't think anyone here knew what rice was. It's very reassuring.”
“You calling us hicks?” Sheppard said, eyebrows raised.
“No,” Rodney said swiftly. At the twinkle in Sheppard's eye, Rodney heard himself adding, “Well, not to your face...”
“Just for that, you can melt your own damn butter,” Sheppard said, but there was a smile in it.
“Shelley said she'd come in early tomorrow to help you with the roast beef for tomorrow night's special,” Sheppard said. “Five-thirty okay with you?”
“I suppose it'll have to be,” Rodney murmured. He was the one leaning in the doorframe now, though it wasn't so much an affectation as a way to hold himself upright. He was listing dangerously to port and needed to go to bed soon or he'd slide down the wall and sleep right there on the floor. “Thanks for supper.”
“Don't mention it,” John – at some point in the evening Rodney had started thinking of him as John – said. “It wasn't anything one neighbor wouldn't do for another.”
“You know – odd as it may sound – I've never had a single neighbor drop in and cook me a lobster dinner,” Rodney drawled.
“Guess you just need a better class of neighbor, McKay.” John's voice had lowered, or maybe Rodney's hearing was starting to go; either way, Rodney found it soothing, like the faint sound of the waves lapping against the rocky breakwater beyond the front porch.
“Maybe,” Rodney conceded. He was aware he was smiling a little goofily, and then he blinked, because John's face was close to his and it would be easy to lean forward and –
– and, most probably, topple over on his face because he was so fucking tired. Worse, if John and Sasha were an item, he'd be guilty of making a pass at his dearest friend's – friend. Any way you sliced it, it would be a disaster.
John – Sheppard, Sheppard – reached out then, and Rodney sucked in a breath. His hand landed on Rodney's shoulder and squeezed briefly, and Rodney felt the warmth of it all the way to his toes. “Get some sleep, huh?” Sheppard murmured. Rodney nodded dumbly, and then Sheppard was turning and heading down the broad steps to the beach.
Groaning, Rodney shoved himself away from the wall with great effort, then shambled down the hall and collapsed on the bed. He fell asleep immediately, and didn't awaken until the rising sun poured in through the bedroom window and jabbed him in the eye.
There was a huge ceramic clock hanging on the wall by the door of the Roadkill Grill, its hands permanently stuck at 4:30. It was in the shape of a grizzled old (probably pederastic) fisherman wearing a sou'wester and an appropriately forbidding expression. The clock face was embedded in his stomach, just like the one belonging to Captain Hook's crocodile. Rodney wanted to smash it, but this would probably cause the populace to come after him with harpoons.
True to Shelley's prediction, the crowds had diminished somewhat after the first day; although the restaurant was still hopping, it had settled down to a level where Rodney actually didn't fear he was going to have a coronary. By the time Sunday rolled around, he was afraid to say he was starting to fall into a rhythm.
He'd managed to placate Elizabeth by promising to drive back to Boston that night; the restaurant was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so he arranged to shoot three episodes back-to-back before dropping in to see Sasha in the hospital and returning to Gull Island on the last ferry Tuesday night. It was a bitch of a commute – four and a half hours each way over mostly winding roads – but there was nothing else to be done. Not if he wanted to still have a career in four weeks.
Shelley was proving her worth by helping him with the next week's order. She promised to look after the delivery in his absence, and he would in turn give her a raise out of his own pocket if she managed not to screw it up. Good help, Rodney knew, was hard to find, and here in the wilderness it was practically a miracle.
John was the only real monkey wrench in the works. He hadn't cooked Rodney any more dinners, thank God; in fact, he hadn't set foot in the restaurant since that first day. Rodney saw him every morning as he opened up – he drove by in his pickup truck on the way to the wharf, always slowing to wish Rodney good luck with the day – but apart from that, they didn't see one another. Rodney was just beginning to wonder if John was avoiding him when Martha showed up in the early afternoon with her bridge crowd – and Sheppard – in tow.
“Look who I found hanging around out in the street,” Martha said, loudly. Luckily, Rodney and the girls were the only ones in the restaurant besides old Mr. Kelly, who was so deaf he was beyond even Martha's shrill voice. “And look what he brought with him.”
Rodney turned his full attention to John, who he realized resembled nothing so much as a little boy who'd been caught doing something naughty. Privately, Rodney had to admit it was a good look on him. Under one arm, John was carrying a long wooden box and a folded board.
Rodney's heart actually skipped a beat. He hadn't known that was possible.
John shrugged. “Thought you were probably ready for some time off.”
With a loud huff, Martha got behind John and shoved him forward. “Go on, already.”
“Martha,” Helen sighed.
“Oh, hush,” Martha shot back, undaunted. “I haven't got as many years left as this boy'll take on his own.” She poked at John's free arm. “Go on and set up your board.”
“Yes'm,” John said, his gaze shyly darting to Rodney, who could feel his feet getting warm, of all things. “If you want to,” he added.
“'Course he wants to,” Martha admonished. “He thinks he's gonna wipe the floor with you 'cuz you're a hick.”
Rodney gaped. “I – no! That's not true!” But something must have shown on his face or in his tone, because John's eyes narrowed and he moved to a clean table, where he laid out the board and opened the box.
Rodney looked down at the pieces as John took them out; they were beautifully aged and burnished wood, intricately carved. “Are these hand-made?” Rodney asked, walking over to pick up a bishop.
John picked up a pawn and placed it on the board. “Yeah. My granddad made 'em, then handed them down to my uncle, and he handed them down to me.”
Rodney reached into the box, his eyes on a black rook, but his hand collided with John's, who reached into the box at the same moment. Their fingers tangled together, sliding in an intimate, electrifying way that made Rodney want to do things he really shouldn't be contemplating in front of Martha and her crew. He raised his gaze reluctantly to John's face to find that John was determinedly staring at some nondescript piece of the tabletop, even as his fingertips were blazing fiery trails over Rodney's knuckles.
Rodney sucked in a steadying breath, drew his hand out of the box slowly, then sat watching John's fingers grasp and release the smoothly turned wooden pieces as he set up the rest of the board.
Rodney scowled at the board. “That's – I don't even know – ”
“Let me guess,” John said, smiling crookedly. “You didn't see it coming.”
Rodney tipped his king over with an index finger. “You're a ringer,” he accused.
John barked a short laugh. “You sulk when you lose.”
“I'm sorry I'm such a disappointment,” Rodney muttered.
“Don't be. It's kind of cute.” Rodney jerked his chin up to stare at John, who seemed to have only just realized what he'd said. Looking away, John pressed his lips together and began carefully placing the pieces back into the box.
Over at the bridge table in the window, things were getting lively. Rodney let the hoots and the raucous laughter distract him as he watched John. It was sorely needed, because if he'd been able to concentrate one hundred percent of his attention on Sheppard, he knew he'd be lost.
“Norma, m'dear, I swear that you can make a dummy hand look like Einstein,” Helen sighed.
Martha's cackling laugh drowned out Norma's scathing reply. “Now, ladies, if you want to get feisty you'll need your good teeth.”
“For the love of God, somebody deal the cards,” growled Beatrice.
Rodney shuddered a little, then caught John's wink and grin out of the corner of his eye. Giving up, Rodney asked, “Are they always like this?”
Sheppard nodded. “They're pretty democratic about insulting one another, though. Next week it'll be Helen's turn.”
Rodney made a face, then broke into an unexpected and enormous yawn.
“Wow, Rodney, you've sure got healthy tonsils,” John deadpanned.
“Oh, leave me alone, I'm exhausted,” Rodney whined, leaning forward until he could rest his head on the table. “I haven't worked this hard in fifteen years.”
“I thought TV show schedules were pretty gruelling.”
Rodney yawned again. “This is a cooking show, not the latest sci-fi actioner, and public television besides. Everyone's in a real union, and they like their civilized working hours.”
“Eight to four usually, but they're making an exception for me tomorrow – they're going to start rolling at six.”
A small line appeared between John's eyebrows. “Tomorrow?”
Rodney waved a hand unenthusiastically. “The restaurant's normally closed Monday and Tuesday, so I'm driving down tonight and taking the last ferry back.”
John went into all-out frown mode, and Rodney was horrified to realize he found it appealing. “You're dead on your feet now, and it's four hours from closing time. And then you're going to try to drive all the way back to Boston?”
Rodney pressed his lips together before responding. “I'm afraid I don't have much of a choice, do I? It's this or ruin my career, and in case you haven't noticed I'm fond of eating regularly and having a roof over my head.”
John rolled his eyes. “Don't be so dramatic. There are other ways to get back to Boston from here.”
“Such as what? Seagull? Right whale?”
“I'll drive you.”
Derailed in mid-tirade, Rodney took a moment to gather himself. “You – what?”
Sheppard had the gall to look amused. “I'll. Drive. You,” he said, making the accompanying hand motions as he enunciated each word.
“But why would you?”
Sheppard raised his eyebrows. “Because like I said, I promised Sasha I would look out for you. If you go and get yourself wrapped around a tree, I'll feel kinda responsible.”
“Oh, for heaven's sake. I'm a grown man, I'm perfectly capable of – ”
“There are moose all over the road on the mainland at dusk. Even if you don't fall asleep at the wheel, I don't think you've got the reaction time you need to avoid one if it decides to park itself on the highway in front of you.”
Rodney's eyes went wide. “Oh, God. Maine has killer moose?”
“They're notorious.” John leaned forward. “C'mon, Rodney. Even if you managed to make it back in one piece, you're not gonna do Sasha any good if you wear yourself out.”
Rodney shook his head slowly. “But you don't want to go to Boston.”
“Sure I do. I go there every couple of months anyway, and I'm about due.” And with that, the last of Rodney's resistance fell apart like a wet cookie.
“Oh, yes, fine. I mean – thank you.”
John grinned. “Good. I'll pick you up in half an hour.”
Rodney stared at him. “Half an hour? But the restaurant doesn't close for another four hours.”
“Martha can spell you for the rest of the day,” John countered easily. “She used to own the place.” Turning, he called, “Martha, can you take the wheel? Rodney here needs to get back to Boston tonight.”
Martha nodded without looking up from her hand. “Ayup.” She waved at Rodney in a shooing motion. “Go on along. John'll take care of you.”
“She's the one who decided to call it the Roadkill Grill, isn't she?” Rodney hissed, as he followed John out of the diner.
“Yep,” John said happily. “C'mon, admit it. The name's growing on you.”
“Like a fungus,” Rodney snapped. He made it halfway to his Golf before he spun around and stared at John. “Wait a minute,” he said, snapping and pointing an accusing finger. “You knew I was on TV!”
John made an odd face, halfway between a grimace and a pout. “Yeah. Sasha told me you had a cooking show.”
“Did you ever watch it?”
John hitched a shoulder. “Maybe. Once or twice.”
“Oh, well, that's – ” Rodney frowned. “Wait, I'm really bad at this. Does that mean you liked it and don't want me to know, or you didn't like it and don't want me to know?”
John stared at him for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Rodney, never, ever change,” he said, and then he waved and headed off toward his own pickup.
Despite the fear John had instilled in him regarding the killer moose, Rodney slept most of the way to Boston, face plastered against the side window of John's pickup. John had made the case against the Golf, arguing that a full grown bull could shear the top half of a small car clean off if it was hit square on at highway speed.
– “The legs stay behind, but the body keeps going. Inertia is a terrible thing.”
“Jesus, please stop talking now,” Rodney had said.–
He was awakened by an insistent shaking of his shoulder. “Hey, we're here.”
Rodney pried his face off the window. “Mmmnnngggg,” he said.
There was a brief, barely-there touch to his hair, so gentle that Rodney half thought he'd imagined it. “You gonna make it up to your apartment okay?” Sheppard asked.
“I think so,” Rodney said, impressed that he managed to string so many words together. He rubbed at his eyes and turned to look at John. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” John said, smiling. “What time you want me to pick you up on Tuesday?”
“I don't know yet. Can I call you?”
John hesitated for a moment, his smile disappearing, then said, “Sure.” Reaching across Rodney to open the glove compartment, he pulled out a pen and a small pad of paper and scribbled a phone number on it. “I'll be staying there,” he said. Rodney felt a brief twinge of guilt for forcing Sheppard to spend money on a hotel while he was in town; it hadn't even occurred to him to offer his spare bedroom. He opened his mouth to say as much, then closed it abruptly when he realized that this would be a very, very bad idea.
“Okay, well, see you,” Rodney said lamely, reaching for the door handle and letting himself out as quickly as possible. He felt like he was sixteen again – awkward, obsessed with making the perfect soufflé when the rest of his classmates were trying to figure out how to get laid. It wasn't that he never thought about sex – he did, with as much frequency as any healthy male of the species. It was just that he'd never been very good at the steps that led up to it, and the steps that led to getting it on a regular basis with the same person.
“See you,” John said, and it seemed to Rodney that there was an added dollop of warmth in it that he kept wrapped around himself all the way up the front steps, into the elevator and through his silent apartment all the way into bed.
The next day passed in a whirlwind of activity. Rodney woke feeling nearly refreshed, despite having a nightmare around midnight. In it, John had been wearing the same bright yellow outfit worn by the restaurant's ceramic fisherman, and when Rodney had undressed him, he found a clock in the middle of John's belly. He'd woken up thrashing and groaning, the consequence of imagining himself screaming and running for his life as John the Naked Clock hunted him down like the Terminator.
He took a taxi to the studios and checked in with Elizabeth, who came around her desk and gave him a hug. “I'm so sorry about Sasha.”
“Well, he's fine, he's going to be fine,” Rodney murmured, hugging her back. “I'm going to visit him tomorrow on my way back.”
Elizabeth raised a pensive eyebrow. “So you're going back.”
“Yes. I have to, Elizabeth. Sasha is counting on me.”
Elizabeth waved a hand. “Rodney, every restaurateur east of the Mississippi knows that Sasha sold Terroir for a fortune. He's got a dozen award-winning cookbooks in print, most of which are still on the top non-fiction list. Do you seriously think he needs the income from that place?”
“I don't know! Maybe, maybe not. For all I know, he could've squandered every penny playing the slots in Vegas – we've sort of lost touch since he moved to the armpit of nowhere. The point is, he asked me to do this, so I'm doing it.”
Elizabeth held out her hands palm up. “All right, Rodney. But you've got fifteen more episodes to shoot after this, and I don't know how you're going to juggle both responsibilities.”
“You can't give me three more weeks?” Rodney pleaded. “As soon I'm done up there I swear I'll chain myself to the studio.”
Elizabeth blew out a breath. “All right. Let me talk to the network.”
Rodney practically sagged with relief. “Thank you. Really.”
She smiled at him wryly. “I should be able to convince them. After all, it's not like you've ever asked for time off for personal reasons before this.” When she said it like that, it sounded like a strength, a testament to his work ethic, not a reflection of the fact that he didn't have a personal life that would make those sorts of requests common. He had to admire her diplomatic talent, but it still stung, oddly. His somewhat single-minded dedication to his work had never bothered him before. So what if he was the only person on New Year's Eve who was happier in the kitchen instead of drunkenly groping his date like every other idiot?
Rodney plowed through two episodes that day, even though he kept flubbing his lines, and ended up wasting over a dozen eggs just trying to get one good break on film. By the time the day was done, he never wanted to look at another egg again.
They finished up a little after nine, and Rodney wound up calling John from the back of the taxi, since he didn't want to risk phoning him too late. Those outdoor types were early to bed and early to rise, or so he'd heard.
Rodney paused. That wasn't John's voice; it was gravely and gruff. “Oh, I'm sorry. I must have the wrong number.”
“Who you lookin' for?”
“I - I was looking for a John Sheppard.”
“Hang on,” Mr. Gruff said. “John!” Rodney waited, heart hammering for no good reason, while he waited for John to come to the phone.
“Hey there.” John's voice this time. “How'd it go at the studio?”
Rodney frowned. “How did you know it was me?”
“Well, Rodney,” John said, sounding amused, “you're the only one I gave this number to, so I used my powers of deduction.”
“Oh.” Rodney opened his mouth, then closed it again. None of the thoughts racing through his head could be spoken aloud. I thought you'd be staying in a hotel. You're not. Who is that man? What have you been doing with him all day?
“Did you find out when you're going to be done tomorrow?”
“I think around five,” Rodney said. He was distracted by thoughts of Gruff Guy, of what he might look like. He sounded young, a hell of a lot younger than Sasha, anyway. That was just great; Sasha was lying in a hospital bed, and John was doing God knows what with some young Adonis –
“Want me to pick you up at the studio?”
Rodney blinked, confused. “Do you know where that is?”
“Then how – oh,” Rodney deflated, because of course he could tell John where the studio was.
There was a definite chuckle in John's voice now. “Rodney, you're a little loopy, aren't you?”
Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose. “Just a little.”
“Well, get some sleep, okay? Remember, you have to look pretty for the cameras.”
“Yes, thank you for that,” Rodney snapped. John was still chuckling when Rodney cut the connection.
By the time they wrapped the next day, Rodney had worked up a whole scenario in his head, fueled by his somewhat detailed voyeuristic dreams of the night before, in which John had been cheating on Sasha from the beginning with Gruff Guy, telling Sasha he was going to Boston on business when he was really screwing his nubile, flexible young lover every chance he got.
True to his word, John was there waiting for him outside the studio, leaning against his pickup. He'd eschewed the overalls and plaid for attire more appropriate to an urban setting: dark wash jeans, a tight black t-shirt and matching leather boots. Rodney resolved not to find him attractive, not his crooked smile or his ridiculous hair or his obviously well-defined chest and thighs.
“You okay?” Rodney looked up to see John radiating concern.
“Yes, of course. Why wouldn't I be?”
“You look kind of flushed.”
Rodney scrubbed at his cheeks. “Makeup. I didn't bother to take it off.” He froze, startled, when John reached up and his fingers brushed Rodney's cheek.
“Why do they need to put makeup on you?” John murmured.
“Because I'm unnaturally pale, and the lights just make it worse. Also, I happen to have freckles, if you must know.”
“I happen to like your freckles, if you must know,” John said, still in that same low tone. Rodney looked up and their gazes caught and held, and suddenly Rodney forgot about Sasha, John's trysts with Gruff Guy, everything that should have mattered. All he knew was that he was standing in the middle of Brighton and he couldn't think of anything he'd rather do than kiss John Sheppard.
John, God help him, seemed to be thinking the same thing, because he stared at Rodney for far longer than was necessary to ensure himself that his freckles were still there. After a few moments, or possibly a few years, John drew back, a slightly dazed expression on his face. Rodney let out a breath he'd forgotten he was holding.
“Better hit the road,” John said. “Last ferry's at eleven, and we still want to see Sasha yet.”
“Right, yes, good,” Rodney said, taking a step back and gripping the truck's door handle so hard he thought the metal might dent.
They stopped at a drive-through window in Portland, and Rodney crammed a truly execrable burger in his face as John drove to the hospital. John ate his intermittently at the stoplights, and by the time they reached the hospital Rodney was feeling the first waves of indigestion.
“What do you mean he's not here?” Rodney demanded, scowling at the evil governess-cum-nurse who had tormented him the week before. The nurse scowled back, and while Rodney set considerable store by his scowl, he couldn't even start to compete with that.
“He's gone upstairs for testing,” the nurse said, “and no, you may not wait. They'll be up there for two hours.”
“Dammit,” Rodney growled, checking his watch even though he knew it was pointless. “All right, fine. Would you please give him a message for us, at least?”
The nurse scowled at him for a couple of extra seconds, then handed him a pencil and a pad of paper.
Rodney flashed her his Level I Glare, then snatched the items from her hand and scribbled a note to Sasha. “Thank you,” he drawled, handing them back. Fuming, he spun on his heel and stalked toward the elevators, not particularly caring at that point if John was behind him.
He was, though, and the two of them rode down the elevator in silence. They also walked to the car in silence, drove out of town in silence, and traveled a good thirty or forty miles down the highway in silence. Rodney kept waiting for Sheppard to break, but he seemed to be just fine with not saying anything, and soon Rodney wanted very desperately to strangle him.
They made it a little past Camden before Rodney finally broke. He supposed it was a victory of sorts. “I notice you didn't seem too broken up that we couldn't see Sasha,” he snapped.
Sheppard turned his head briefly before returning his gaze to the road. “If you want to drive back down to see him tomorrow, I'm sure Martha would be fine to take the Grill for a few hours,” he said, his voice practically oozing sincerity.
Rodney stared at him. “Don't you want to see him?”
Sheppard nodded. “Sure, it'd be great, only I can't tomorrow. I've got some tourists coming in, and I'm supposed to be taking them around in the boat for the afternoon. It's kind of a side business I'm working on – ”
“I don't believe you!” Rodney exclaimed. “Sasha is lying in a hospital bed, on possibly his death bed, and you're thinking of business?”
John frowned. “The nurse told me he was doing a lot better.”
“When? When did you hear that? She never said that!”
“Yeah, she did,” John drawled, “after you stomped off like a drama queen.”
“You – I – you!” Rodney spluttered; he felt like he was about to have a stroke. Muttering an oath, John flipped the turn signal and pulled over to the side of the road. He threw the truck into park, then turned to Rodney.
“Would you mind telling me what crawled up your ass?” John asked. “I couldn't help but notice you've been a little weird since the hospital. Well, weirder than usual.”
Rodney stiffened; his fists clenched and he could feel adrenaline racing to every part of his body. “Nothing has – crawled up my ass,” he snarled, “and nothing will, thank you very much.”
“Then what's your problem?”
Rodney folded his arms. “I have a problem with – with people who take advantage of other people.” There, he'd said it; it was a relief to finally have it out in the open.
“Okay...” John said, his brow wrinkling in apparent confusion.
“Oh, for God's sake! Do I have to spell it out for you?”
“Maybe just the first few letters,” John said.
“Let's keep it simple, then: alphabetical order, hmm?” Rodney began ticking off points on his fingers. “A: Sasha is one of my oldest and dearest friends.”
John pointed at him. “Okay, I knew that one already.”
“B: I will personally kneecap anyone who hurts him.”
“Wow, I didn't know you did Pesci impersonations.”
“C,” Rodney continued, “Sasha needs people around him who care about him, not people who are going to run out on him after the first sign of trouble.”
“You've got no argument from me there,” John said, nodding.
Oh, God, Rodney was going to run out of letters before John understood what the hell he was talking about. Opening his mouth, he let the words tumble out of him in a rush. “All right, fine, D: I think that as soon as Sasha's well enough, you owe it to him to tell him.”
“To tell him,” John said slowly, as if English wasn't his first language and the words made no sense. “What am I going to tell him, exactly?”
“That you're incapable of being faithful!” Rodney exploded. “For fuck's sake, are you mentally deficient?”
John stared at him, expression completely blank. “Was that E and F, or just E?” he asked hollowly after a moment.
“I mean, all right, yes, to be fair, if I looked like you, I would be probably be tempted to stray from the path of monogamy myself. I'm sure that the man in Boston, the fellow with the gruff voice – ”
“His name is Gene,” John said, still looking stunned.
“ – Gene, yes, whatever – Gene, Bob, Tom, Dick, Harry, I'm sure there have been hundreds – ”
“Oh, thousands,” John said blithely.
“– and they were all inexplicably hot, but Sasha is – ”
“– actually really great in bed, you have no idea – ”
Rodney gaped at him, momentarily derailed. “Oh my God, what did you just say?”
John waggled his eyebrows. “Well, let's just say those couple of extra decades of experience really pay off. There's this thing he does with a pair of salad tongs and a rolling pin that just –”
“Jesus Christ on a crutch, stop!” Rodney wailed, slapping his hands over his ears and screwing his eyes shut. He thought he'd managed to drown out the sound of John's voice, but in reality he had actually stopped talking. After a few seconds, Rodney could hear the braying sound of Sheppard's laughter through the barriers of his fingers. Slowly, he opened his eyes, only to find John nearly doubled over, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.
“What the hell – ”
John held up a hand and flapped it at Rodney weakly. “If you say anything else I think I'm going to pull something,” he wheezed. “Really, just – give me a – chance to breathe.”
Rodney folded his arms and scowled, but did as he was asked. After a few moments, Sheppard wiped at his eyes and blew out a breath. “Okay. First of all, Sasha and I are not, nor have we ever been, a couple.”
Rodney opened his mouth, but Sheppard held up another quelling hand. “Because Sasha, as far as I know, is straight.” Rodney's lips clamped shut. “How come you don't know that, anyway?”
Rodney's cheeks reddened. “We never discussed it.” Truth be told, Rodney hadn't given it much thought; Sasha had been his mentor, more of a father than his own father had been. Talking about sex wasn't something they'd ever done.
“Okay, well, he and Martha have been seeing one another for a while now, and I don't ask what they do when they're alone, but when I caught her pinching his ass in the kitchen one day, that was more than I needed to know.”
“God, did she put him in the hospital?” Rodney asked, gaping.
John barked a short laugh. “No, I don't think so,” he said.
“Oh,” Rodney murmured. It was occurring to him that he had just made a gigantic ass of himself by the side of a rural highway in Maine, and really, there was no good reason why John shouldn't kick him out of the truck and leave him there to be trampled by homicidal moose.
“So,” John said, cocking his head, “all this time you thought I'd been sleeping with Sasha. That explains a lot.”
“E-explains what?” Rodney stammered, because John was suddenly much closer, or maybe the cab had magically shrunk. Either prospect was equally disconcerting.
“The way you'd look at me sometimes, like you were trying to figure something out.” Rodney could practically feel Sheppard's gaze on his skin. “The way you'd look like maybe you were going to say something, or do something, and then hold yourself back.”
“I – it's not – ”
“Not what?” John mumbled, but he couldn't have been all that interested in the answer, because he leaned in and closed the last few inches between them. Rodney's hands clenched and unclenched at his sides until he felt one of John's hands cup his cheek, and then he slid one of his own around John's lean hips until it rested at the small of his back.
“Gene's an old friend,” John murmured, pulling back, “just a friend, and shit, I have no idea why I'm telling you that – ”
“Don't care, just – ” Rodney tried to tug John closer on the bench seat. John groaned and dove into another kiss, hungry and open-mouthed where the other one had been tentative and almost sweet, and Rodney did his best to feed that hunger.
“Okay, wait,” John panted, breaking away, “I, uh, maybe, listen – ”
“That's my line, isn't it?” Rodney was feeling positively giddy, and it took him a few seconds to process John's shuttered look, the way his gaze was not quite meeting Rodney's eyes. “Oh, what – you don't – ”
“Rodney, I'm no good at explaining stuff like this.” A tractor-trailer chose that moment to roar by them, making both of them wince. “But I don't think we should let this go any further.”
“Why not?” Rodney was aware he sounded whiny, but dammit, he hadn't had sex with another person in so long he was beginning to forget how much fun it was. Now he had John, who actually made his toes sweat, and he was pulling the plug before they'd even gotten started.
“Because I'm too old for casual fucks,” John snapped, “and you'll be gone in three weeks.”
Rodney reeled back as though he'd been slapped. He was still feeling stunned when John briefly squeezed his shoulder and murmured, “See? Told you I was no good at this. We'd better get going if we want to make that last ferry.”
Rodney nodded dumbly and slid back over to his side of the cab, and when John finally said good night as Rodney slid out after they'd reached Sasha's bungalow, it was the first time either of them had spoken to one another in over an hour.
“You okay, Mister M?”
Rodney turned from the grill, where he was currently trying to flip pancakes. “Why do you ask?” he snapped.
Shelley's only reaction to his tone was to cock one hip against the counter. Holding out the plate he'd just handed her a minute ago, she said, “Well, this is the third breakfast you've gotten wrong this morning” – she nodded at the grill – “and your flapjacks are black on one side.”
Rodney turned back to the grill, only to see she was absolutely right. “Shit, shit,” he growled.
“Hey, it's no biggie. Ray likes his bacon a little crispy anyway.”
Cursing, Rodney switched off the grill, then grabbed a plate from the shelf and swiftly began shoveling overdone pancakes onto it. “Can you – ”
“Already on it,” Shelley said, the picture of efficiency, snagging the scrubber and giving the grill a few efficient strokes to clear the worst of the blackened bits. “Hey, why don't you switch with me for a while? I'll take the grill and you can swing your hips in the dining room.”
Rodney hung his head. “With my luck, I'll spill coffee all over everyone.”
Shelley patted him genially on the back. “Oh, honey, I do that every morning. Don't worry about it.”
Considering he'd never worked as a waiter, Rodney was sure he was going to be as incompetent at bussing tables as he was at frying eggs, but the pace in the diner was mercifully slow, and he managed not to drop any plates or scald anyone with hot liquid. The few customers that were there were openly encouraging, smiling and chatting with him, helping to distract him from thinking endlessly about what had happened out there on the highway.
He'd spent most of the night trying to figure out what the hell he'd done wrong, if he could have approached things any differently, but then John had been the one to kiss him, after all. Rodney really wasn't very good at reading people, but John had seemed more angry at himself than he'd been at Rodney. And the simple fact was that John had been right; come hell or high water, Rodney was leaving Gull Island in three weeks. The question of whether or not Rodney would be perfectly happy with a brief yet incendiary affair with what had to be the hottest lobster fisherman in Maine was moot if said fisherman turned him down.
After an hour, the breakfast crowd had nearly disappeared, leaving only Martha and Helen, who'd arrived at the tail end of the rush. “Rodney, sweets, you pour yourself a cup of coffee and sit your tail down here beside me,” Martha said, patting the bench. Rodney was just exhausted enough by then to take her up on it without protest; after a minute or two, Shelley emerged, joining them with her own empty mug. Rodney tipped the last of the coffee into it; their gazes met, and he silently nodded his thanks. She smiled and nodded back.
“Sasha called me this morning,” Martha said. “He said he's sorry he missed you, and he's feeling fine.”
“Does he think they might let him out sooner than expected?” Rodney asked.
Martha shrugged. “You know how doctors are. They say one thing one day, and another thing the next. They still have a lot of tests they want to do on him.”
“I'm going to call him,” Rodney said, but Martha laid a hand on his arm.
“He was – tired from all that testing yesterday. Let him rest. He says he'll call you tomorrow night.”
“Oh,” Rodney said, deflating.
Martha's smile was kind. “You care about him a lot, I know. And he's thinking of you, believe me. You're both in the place you need to be right now.”
Rodney frowned at that odd statement, but when Shelley cleared her throat, it distracted him. “Did you and John spend any time together in Boston?” she asked.
Martha's hand clenched on Rodney's arm, nails digging in briefly before she realized what she was doing and released him. “Oh, I'm sorry, sweetie,” she said, shooting an inexplicable glare at Shelley, who straightened.
“Well, not really – you see, I was busy at the studio – ”
“Right, sure,” Shelley said, staring at her coffee cup as Martha continued to eye her.
“I hope you don't mind us being forward,” Martha said soothingly. “We're a little hard-pressed for entertainment around here, even in the summertime. John's the prettiest thing to hit this town in sixty years, and we just naturally take an interest. We don't mean anything by it.”
Hit this town – “Do you mean he wasn't born here?”
Martha shook her head. “His mother's people are Dohertys, and there are lots of them round these parts, but no, he wasn't born on the island. Spent his summers here, though, with his uncle, and when Adam passed on and left the boat and the license to him, he came back to stay.”
Rodney took a sip of his coffee, trying to hide his curiosity. “How long ago was that?”
“'Bout three years ago, wasn't it, Shelley?” Shelley nodded. “He was in the Air Force before that,” she added, answering Rodney's next question before he'd asked it. While Rodney was still reeling from that revelation, Martha mused, “Never was sure why he left. Some said he wanted a safer life, but I said lobsterin' can be as dangerous as flying a jet plane, and why would he want to leave one for t'other? But he's never said, and it wouldn't be right to ask, so we don't.”
Rodney took a long sip of his coffee to hide his shock. In thirty seconds, he'd learned more about John Sheppard than he had in nearly a week, and he had to admit he was fascinated and more than a little turned on at the thought of the fisherman having a military past. He'd always had this thing for uniforms – well hell, what gay man didn't, really – but it was the element of mystery that intrigued him. There was a lot more to John than met the eye, obviously, and for the first time, Rodney truly regretted that his stay on Gull Island wasn't going to be longer.
He was nearly down to the bottom of his mug when the screen door of the restaurant banged open. Startled, Rodney jerked his head up and saw the silhouette of a man actually fill the open doorway.
“Wow,” he breathed, blinking to clear his vision in case it was a mirage. No matter how much he blinked, though, the immense shadow was still there, and it was getting more immense because oh God, he was coming closer.
As Rodney scrambled to his feet, Shelley turned and smiled. “Why hello, Ronon.”
“Shelley,” the giant rumbled. He was caramel-skinned and dreadlocked, his eyes a piercing shade of green, his beard trimmed in a way that would have looked utterly stupid on Rodney. It was only sixty-five degrees outside, but he looked perfectly comfortable in a sleeveless shirt that shamelessly displayed large but not artificially defined biceps. “Mrs. Henderson, Mrs. Malone. How's Sasha doing?”
“Much better, thank you, son,” Martha said. “Allow me to introduce Sasha's dear friend, Rodney McKay.”
Ronon nodded at Rodney and extended his hand; Rodney was proud of the fact that he only hesitated for a couple of seconds before taking it. The handshake was – as he expected – bruising, but he imagined he'd be sufficiently recovered in a couple of hours to flip burgers. “Pleasure,” Ronon rumbled. “Sasha tell you about the compost?”
Rodney frowned. “Um. No?”
Ronon stared at Rodney stonily as though this were somehow all his fault. Thankfully, Martha chose to translate. “I'm sorry, Ronon, I forgot to mention it to him. But I think Shelley's been taking care of things for you.”
“Sure have,” Shelley piped up.
Ronon nodded. “Much obliged.” He turned to go.
“You need any help?” Shelley called out.
“No, thanks,” Ronon said, waving a hand as he disappeared out the door.
When Rodney had assured himself the man mountain had gone, he pointed out the doorway. “Pardon my bluntness, but what the hell was that?”
“That would be the second-prettiest thing to hit Gull Island in sixty years,” Shelley sighed. “Unfortunately, he's spoken for.”
“Mmm, yes indeed,” Helen agreed, sighing like a schoolgirl.
“I wasn't so much asking about him as what he wanted with my compost,” Rodney said, a little petulantly.
Shelley was the first to stir from her estrogen-induced stupor. “Oh. Well, he and Teyla – that's his wife, or, uh – ”
“We think she's his wife,” Martha corrected.
“But nobody asks. I get it,” Rodney muttered.
“– anyway,” continued Shelley, “they moved here last year. Bought a place on the far side of the island, and they're trying their hand at organic gardening. Teyla showed me what they want, so I put that in a separate bin for them.”
“And they use the garbage from the restaurant as compost?”
“Mm-hmm. Not just the restaurant; they've got a lot of people on the island recycling now. Ronon uses the extra to get methane to power his truck.”
Rodney stared at her for a moment. “He powers his truck with methane.” He had a fairly good idea of what it took to work with compressed gas, having used liquid nitrogen in his brief flirtation with molecular gastronomy. Actually, the science part of it had been extremely cool – the lasers, analyzing the chemistry of flavor – but the pretension of edible menus and trying to sell people foam pretending to be food got to be too much for him.
Martha nodded. “Says it's the wave of the future.”
Rodney raised his eyebrows. Gull Island wasn't turning out to be as parochial and uninteresting as he'd first thought. Unfortunately, it didn't look like he'd be around long enough to find out exactly how interesting it was.
That night he closed up the restaurant and decided to take a stroll along the waterfront. He tried to convince himself he was merely seeing the sights, doing his best to take in the ambience of small-town life, but he knew he was full of shit.
The town itself wasn't much by Boston standards, but was fairly well evolved for what he imagined a small fishing town would look like. The place wasn't big enough for a Wal-Mart or a KFC, consisting as it did of one main street and a few short sidestreets, but there was – as promised – a locally owned hot dog stand down on the beach and even a small internet café that stayed open to ten on the weekends. There was a post office, a beauty shop and tanning salon, an elementary school (anyone who made it past the sixth grade was evidently voted off the island) two bed and breakfasts, a combination pharmacy and general store that sold everything from aspirin to almanacs, and a bandstand in the park. There were no bars, no McDonald's, and no traffic lights. By the time Rodney reached the government wharf at the far end of the main street, he realized he didn't much miss them.
The boats that lined the edges of the wharf were either tied up and quiescent or going through their final shutdown for the night. All visual evidence of the day's catch was gone, leaving only neatly coiled lengths of rope and long, brightly tipped poles sitting on the decks. However, the unmistakable smell of freshly caught seafood hung in the air around the boats, clung to their hulls and wafted around the last of the men as they worked.
It wasn't hard to find John's boat; it was dark sea green, the name painted on its side a tribute to Sheppard's inner geek. John himself was still working, and as Rodney approached he could see him swabbing the deck with a huge gray mop that looked like it had seen its best days around the same time Melville had been writing Moby Dick.
“I can't believe you named your ship the Solo.”
John didn't pause in his swabbing of the deck. “Didn't. By the summer of '78, I'd seen Star Wars sixteen times. After I spent most of a day telling Uncle Adam all about my favorite character, he started calling me Solo. He bought a new boat the next year.”
Rodney smiled. “I had a crush on Harrison Ford, too.”
John snorted; finishing off the last of the deck, he wrung out the mop in the bucket, then wiped his hands on a rag. “Listen, Rodney – ”
Feeling suddenly foolish, Rodney held up his hands. “I'm sorry. I'll just – I'll leave you alone.”
John frowned. “You don't know what I was going to say.”
“In my experience, conversations that begin with 'Listen, Rodney' never end well.”
“I was going to apologize for being an asshole last night.”
“Oh. Really? Well, you weren't exactly an asshole...”
John rubbed at the back of his neck. “Okay, maybe just an ass.”
Rodney smiled again. “All right, if you insist.”
John mock-glared at him for a moment, then jerked his head sideways. “C'mon.”
Twenty minutes later, Rodney was wading through the surf, his shoes and socks off and his pant legs rolled up, helping John haul the small rowboat up on the shores of the long, low sandbar that stretched out in a curve, protecting the mouth of the harbor. Rodney could see the bar from Sasha's cottage, but he'd had no desire to go exploring.
He still didn't, to be honest – the water was bloody freezing – but John had wanted him to come, and he couldn't turn that chance down, because he was afraid he wouldn't get another one. He didn't exactly know what the hell he was doing with John, but he'd felt partially hollow all day, like one of those cheap chocolate Easter bunnies, and he was tired of feeling that way.
Rodney and John dragged the boat up past the high water mark, and then they walked over the crest of the dune to watch the first stars appear on the horizon as the sun set at their backs. The stars didn't so much appear, though, as spring into existence, especially after the last rays disappeared. Within half an hour, the broad belt of the Milky Way slashed brilliantly across the sky.
“I've never seen so many stars without a telescope,” Rodney breathed.
“City boy, hm?”
Rodney nodded, knowing John wouldn't see him. Toronto, Vancouver, Paris, New York, Boston – yes, he was most definitely a city boy, and always had been. Until he'd been ten, his idea of an untamed wilderness had been Stanley Park. “I've been to Martha's Vineyard. Does that count?”
“No,” John said, a chuckle under his voice.
Rodney settled back on his elbows so that he could take in more of the sky. “I was always good at science as a kid – my father was a physicist, a professor.”
“Why didn't you pursue it?”
Rodney shrugged. “When I was eight, my parents divorced, and Dad didn't waste any time starting a new family. Jeanie – my sister – and I didn't see much of him after that.” He paused. “I suppose, subconsciously, I wanted to punish him for leaving us. He'd always been the one who'd pushed me to enrol in the science fairs and the competitions.”
“Wow, they have science fairs in Canada for eight-year-olds?”
“No, they were high school level,” Rodney said absently, distracted by an old memory. Pointing to his right, he said, “That's Cassiopeia, isn't it?”
John turned to follow the direction of his finger, then nodded. “Yup.”
“And – Perseus, and Draco, and – don't tell me – Cepheus?”
“Right, right and right.” Rodney could hear the smile in John's voice.
“Wow, I'd totally forgotten how much I loved this,” Rodney breathed. He grinned up at the night sky, feeling a little like he'd felt a very long time ago, when space was the final frontier and the myriad paths his life might take were murky with possibility. It had been simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. “Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” John said softly, and God, Rodney felt it then, the near-irresistible tug of awareness that told him he was going to be in very deep trouble in a very short time. Summoning all of his willpower, he shoved himself to a sitting position.
“Getting kind of cold,” Rodney said, wrapping his arms around himself in a totally unconvincing manner. John's eyes went flat and expressionless at that, and then Rodney really did feel a chill.
Back at Sasha's cottage later that night, Rodney turned off all the lights, grabbed a blanket and a flashlight, and crept down to the water's edge, where he sat and stared up at the stars, remembering constellations until his eyes watered with the strain.
“No, no, God, no!”
Shelley came running into the kitchen. “What's the matter?” she demanded, concerned. “Did you cut yourself? Burn yourself?”
“No and no,” Rodney snapped. Seriously, some mornings he wondered why he even got out of bed. Reaching into the box that had been delivered this morning, he gathered a handful of the contents and held it out to her.
“Oh,” she said, face falling.
“Yes, oh,” Rodney said. “These are not herbs, these are brown, wilted weeds. How am I supposed to work with these?”
“I'm sorry, Mr. M. They usually deliver a good product, but lately they haven't been consistent. Sasha bawled them out once or twice, but...”
“Don't apologize; you didn't grow them. Just tell me where I can get more.”
Shelley shook her head. “That's just the problem – there is no place else. This is the only supplier that can give us all the herbs you want.”
“That's ridiculous,” Rodney said flatly. “There must be dozens – ”
“In Boston, maybe. Not here.”
Rodney's shoulders sagged. “God, I hate Maine.”
“You don't mean that.”
“Right now, yes, I do. I really, really do.” It served Rodney right; this morning, he'd awoken strangely energized despite his emotionally draining night and with a vague, half-formed recipe in his head for a seafood casserole – sort of an Indochinese jambalaya. However, it all depended on the successful delivery of fresh herbs in this morning's shipment, and now the nebulous ideas he'd been clinging to were dissipating like so much smoke from the grill. He sat down heavily on a stool at the lunch counter.
“What would you like me to do with these?” Shelley asked, holding up the box.
Rodney waved a tired hand. “Throw them in the compost.” His head snapped up. “The compost.”
“I heard you the first time.”
Rodney leapt to his feet. “No, no, no, the compost guy! What was his name and where does he live?”
Shelley raised an eyebrow. “Ronon Dex, and he lives down at the other end of the western shore road. Why?”
Rodney was already on his way out the door. “I'll be back! Call Ruth and see if she can come in for a couple of hours.”
He drove like a maniac, and twenty minutes later he was rounding the last bend and praying for a greenhouse.
“Oh, thank God,” Rodney breathed, when a small, rounded greenhouse appeared as he turned down the driveway. Dex was nowhere to be seen, but there was a petite, attractive woman working in the garden, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail. As Rodney pulled to a stop, she rose and walked toward the car.
“Hello, Mr. McKay,” she said, extending a hand to a nonplussed Rodney. “It is good to finally meet you.”
“Oh, I – yes. I'm sorry, I don't know your name.”
“I am Teyla Emmagen. You have met Ronon, I believe.”
“Yes, I – had that pleasure.” Rodney cleared his throat. “I'm sorry to bother you – ”
“It is no bother to meet neighbors.”
“Right, yes, well, I've come to – borrow a cup of sugar, as it were.”
Teyla raised an eyebrow, and Rodney took a deep breath and dove in head first.
At lunchtime, they were lined up outside the restaurant, waiting to get in. This may have had something to do with the fact that Rodney had opened the windows in the kitchen, allowing the scent of his latest creation to waft out on the early summer air.
Ruth, Rae Ann and Shelley were all kept busy, though thankfully the orders were simple: “I'll have what he's having” was elevated to the level of mantra. Within half an hour, however, it was clear to Rodney he was going to run out long before the demand was satisfied, and who knew what a crowd of Maine hicks would do if denied their gustatory awakening.
Putting Shelley in charge, he ran at full speed to the docks, hoping to find an incoming boat. Insane as it might sound, the small grocery in town offered nothing but frozen fish, since the fishermen sold nearly all their catches to the large fish plant on the mainland at the end of each day. Still, where there was life there was hope, and Rodney was still alive – for now.
He nearly kissed the wharf in gratitude when he spied the Solo tied up alongside. He called out, still running, and after a moment John's messy head poked up. As Rodney neared, the expression on John's face went from startled to amused.
“Yes, yes, let it out if you must,” Rodney panted, coming to a halt just before he pitched off the edge of the wharf. He knew he must look like a freak, with his hair wild and his cheeks doubtless redder than a glass of Beaujolais nouveau.
“Something on your mind, Rodney?” John drawled, crossing his arms and leaning one hip against the gunwale of his boat, and God, there was no way any man should look that hot in overalls.
“Have you got any fish on the boat?”
“Shellfish,” John qualified. “About eighty pounds of lobster, some scallops, and half a crate of quahogs.”
“I'll take the lot,” Rodney said.
John frowned. “It's already sold. There's a bunch of tourists down at the Shorebird Inn having a beach party tonight – ”
Rodney waved off the explanation. “All right, you can slip me twenty pounds of the lobster and a couple of bags of scallops. They'll never know the difference.”
“Please,” Rodney said. “I'm desperate.” Stretching out his arms, he pleaded, “Help me, Obi-Wan, you're my only hope.”
John stared at him for a moment, then ducked his head to hide an explosive, braying laugh.
“Does that mean yes?”
John looked up at him with an exasperated twinkle in his eye. “Give me a couple of Ruth's pies. That should shut 'em up.”
“Done,” Rodney said, beaming at him. John stared at him for a few seconds more, just long enough for Rodney to feel the heat rise in his face again, and then he was turning to gather up an empty crate to fill with seafood.
“So you add the garlic first?” John asked, peering over Rodney's shoulder.
Rodney swatted at John as though he were an annoying fly. “Will you stop hovering?” he complained. “This is a very delicate stage.”
“Do you tell your TV audiences to fuck off, too?”
“I don't have a studio audience while I cook,” Rodney shot back. “As it should be.”
“Oh, I don't know,” Martha said from her perch at the counter. “Great recipes are meant to be shared, after all.”
Rodney snorted. “You're not getting this recipe, old woman.”
“You're not really a man of the people, are you?” John smirked.
“Not when I'm creating. Now please step aside.”
“Yessshh, Mahrschter,” John said, in what was easily the most pathetic Igor impression Rodney had ever heard.
It was also cute, although there was no way in hell Rodney would ever admit that aloud. He'd invited John to share a special encore of the casserole after the restaurant closed, along with Ronon, Teyla, Martha, Shelley, Rae Ann and Ruth. It was small payment for helping make this day a success, a day that, much as Rodney loathed to admit it, had been one of the more memorable of his career.
He'd been a successful chef for nearly twenty years now, lauded as a prodigy from the day he started at the Cordon Bleu, and had been a household name for four, as the star of a highly regarded cooking show. He'd written three cookbooks and could walk into nearly any five-star restaurant in the world and find it filled with obsequious toadies who wanted nothing more than to lick his boots and give him the golden key to their kitchens. And yet here he was, working with outmoded equipment in a backwater where most people had probably never seen a five-star restaurant, let alone eaten in one, and he was feeling a greater sense of accomplishment than he had in years. The warm, sincere approval of an entire town felt surprisingly good after the claustrophobia of a studio. Somehow, he'd forgotten the exhilaration that accompanied the pressure to get it right the first time, the high you got when you actually did manage to pull a rabbit out of your skillet.
John dug into his jambalaya like it was going out of style, and Rodney suppressed a smile as he snuck glances at him. “So, any good?”
John made a small noise that was probably illegal in several Southern states, and Rodney felt his stomach do an odd, backwards flip. He suddenly found his own food fascinating, and concentrated his gaze and his attention on his plate.
“This is excellent, Rodney,” Teyla informed him solemnly after a few moments of mute appreciation. “You are truly gifted.”
“Oh, well – thank you,” Rodney said, smiling. It was about the thousandth time he'd heard a compliment like that, but for some reason the sincerity of her words made him color a little. There were other murmurs of agreement and compliments, and Rodney's smile became a full-out grin. When he looked at John, he found him staring at Rodney with an intensity that made Rodney's already dizzy stomach take a nosedive and try to jam itself into his left shoe. Both his grin and his appetite, not surprisingly, deserted him after that.
When dinner was over, they all helped with the washing up, and then Ruth and Rae Ann shooed them out of the kitchen so that they could start their baking. The next thing Rodney knew, he was standing in the warm evening air, the light breeze from the water hinting at a cooler night.
He bade good night to Teyla, Ronon, Martha and Shelley, then turned to say the same to John, only to find him halfway down the street, headed to his truck. “Wait!” Rodney called, and John spun around, startled.
Feeling like an idiot, Rodney jogged to catch up to him, then stopped. “What did I do now?”
John shook his head; there was a faint smile on his face that wasn't the least bit convincing. “You didn't do anything, Rodney,” he murmured. “Thanks for a great dinner.”
“I suppose that makes it your turn again,” Rodney said, and shit, that was flirting, he was flirting, and he'd sworn he wouldn't do that.
John's gaze darkened; evidently he'd picked up on Rodney's smooth-as-a-sledgehammer approach, too. “Rodney, I don't – ”
“I know, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean –”
“For Christ's sake, stop apologizing for every damned thing,” John growled, taking a step forward. “I'm not a fragile little flower who's going to wilt every time you make a pass.”
“Yes, thank you,” Rodney said, stung. “I've already been told more than once in my life that I'm completely resistible, so you don't have to bother – ”
“Who told you that?” John snapped. Rodney looked up; John was very close again, and how the hell did he keep doing that? Was it something they taught you in the military: Stealth Looming 101?
“Do I really need to name names?” Rodney shot back.
“No,” John said, gaze darting from Rodney's left ear to his chin to his right eyebrow and back again, “it's just that – oh, fuck it,” and Rodney felt John's hand slide around the back of his head a split second before he felt John's mouth come down on his, hard. Rodney resisted for all of six tenths of a second, and then he started helping instead of hindering.
They both stumbled the remaining fifteen feet to John's pickup, kissing as they went. Thank God all the stores they passed on the main street were long closed; the late-night Internet café was up at the other end of the street. Doubtless, though, there were a dozen busybodies peering out of darkened windows, peeking from behind lace curtains; this was a small town, after all, and the party lines would be burning up tonight from overuse –
“Wait, wait,” Rodney panted, pulling back. “Do you really want it to get around the island that you're – ”
John pulled back and stared at him, offering no help at all. Rodney flapped a hand. “Well, that you're – you know,” he managed. “Not of the body.”
John stared at him some more, just long enough for Rodney to wonder if he'd had some kind of seizure. “Rodney,” he said, “it's not exactly a secret. My uncle knew before I did. Christ, Martha showed me how to use a condom when I was fourteen.”
Now it was Rodney's turn to stare. “Ew,” he said finally.
John shrugged. “She was worried about me. Scared the shit out of me, though – for a few months I thought your first time with another guy had to involve bananas.”
“Ew,” Rodney said again.
“My point is, it's not a big deal. Nobody talks about it; it's not polite to talk about your neighbor's sex life.” He looked away. “Not that there'd be much to tell lately.”
“You – oh, that's – ” Rodney's brain short-circuited at the thought of a John Sheppard bubbling over with pent-up sexual desires and plain old horny energy. It was almost too much to contemplate.
“You okay in there?” John murmured, tapping Rodney's temple gently with the tip of a finger.
“What made you change your mind?” Rodney blurted. “I thought you – ”
“You blushed,” John said simply.
“I – what?”
John ran his finger down to Rodney's cheek. “You can still blush when somebody gives you a compliment about your cooking,” he murmured. “I like that.” He leaned in and kissed Rodney again, his lips clinging to Rodney's as he slowly drew back. “I like that a lot.”
“Oh, God,” Rodney breathed, “can we please go somewhere where people aren't staring at us?”
“Yeah,” John rasped. “Yeah, okay.”
John's home was – fittingly – an old storey-and-a-half fisherman's home on the shore a few minutes out of town. The interior was filled with some good quality antiques, along with an assortment of oddball mementoes and unfortunate decorating choices, including a ship's bell hanging by the kitchen door, a truly hideous collection of brightly colored salt and pepper shakers, and a coffee table that consisted of a glass top perched on a base of driftwood. Rodney knew he was far gone when none of these items perturbed him in the slightest.
They fumbled with one another's clothes as they stumbled up the stairs, and then John was pushing him down onto the bed, still trying to unbutton Rodney's pants as he went. “Here, here,” Rodney murmured, taking care of the unbuttoning and unzipping while John moved to his ankles and tried to yank his pants off by the cuffs. Unfortunately, he only succeeded in tugging Rodney halfway off the bed; Rodney yelped, alarmed, his hands flying to grab at the comforter.
“Sorry,” John muttered. “Jeez, are these glued on?”
“Look, I have an idea: why don't you undress you and I'll undress me, and – ” He yelped again as John took his hands firmly in his own and pulled him unceremoniously to his feet.
“'Cause it's more fun when you mix up the pronouns,” John drawled, sliding gracefully to his knees in front of Rodney. His hands rose to caress Rodney's bared hips, then glided down his thighs to finish the work they'd started.
“Oh, well,” Rodney said, weakly, “I see the validity of that argument, too – oh, m-my God – ” he stammered, because John had just leaned forward and breathed hotly against his dick through the thin cotton of his briefs.
“Rodney,” John whispered, “I haven't done this in a while.”
“Do – do you still remember what to do?”
Rodney could almost feel his smile. “I think so.” A brief nuzzle, and then those talented hands were urging him to lift one foot, then the other, freeing him from his pants. Rodney stepped out of them, feeling oddly cherished when John's hand lingered for a few moments on his ankle. And then he felt something else when John made an inarticulate noise and slowly peeled his briefs down, fingers gliding over every inch of skin they revealed.
“You're killing me,” Rodney gasped.
One of John's fingers dipped into Rodney's cleft, and Rodney whimpered.
“If it's any consolation, I'm killing myself,” John breathed.
“Great, so we'll both be dea – oh – ” Rodney trailed off into incoherence as John wrapped a hand around Rodney's cock and laved the head with his tongue. To his credit, Rodney managed to stiffen his stance just before his knees buckled, but it was close. When John quit teasing and just opened his mouth wide and sucked Rodney in, though, Rodney did wobble, because it had been a while for him, too.
John pulled away with a loud pop, then urged Rodney backwards until his calves hit the bed. Gratefully, Rodney collapsed onto the mattress, and John shouldered his way between Rodney's knees and took him in again.
“John,” Rodney moaned, and that was the last coherent thing he said for a while. John sucked his cock like he'd been thinking about it since the moment they met, like he'd been devoting large quantities of free time to figuring out how to drive Rodney out of his mind. The idea of that made Rodney almost as excited as the fact of John's mouth on him. It wasn't long before he was gasping a warning to John, one that was ignored. Feebly, he reached for John's shoulder, but John only captured Rodney's hand in his and gripped it tightly as Rodney groaned and spilled helplessly into John's welcoming mouth.
As soon as he could coordinate his limbs again, Rodney dragged John up onto the bed with him, then allowed his inner glutton free rein. He tasted every part of John's mouth, savoring the fusion of his own flavors mingled with John's, then took a culinary tour of John's chin, jaw and neck. John obliged, throwing his head back, and Rodney licked his Adam's apple in reward.
“Rodney, c'mon,” John growled, and Rodney grinned and bit the skin over John's collarbone. John produced a needy, desperate noise and rutted against Rodney's hip; taking pity on him, Rodney reached down and closed his hand around John's cock.
“This okay?” Rodney murmured, pressing a kiss to John's temple.
“Yeah, God, perfect.” John breathed hot and quick against Rodney's neck, his lips skating over Rodney's jugular, making him shiver. Rodney quickened his pace, and John's breath stuttered and caught in his throat. When he felt John begin to come apart, Rodney wrapped his free arm around him, feeling a little ridiculous but unable to help himself.
They lay there in silence for a couple of minutes, until John made a rusty groan and pulled away from him. He went out the door, and Rodney saw a light go on, presumably in the bathroom. Ignoring the sharp sting of disappointment, Rodney sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Well, that was that, he thought, as he leaned down and began fumbling around on the floor for his underwear; it wasn't as though he'd expected –
“Where're you going?” Rodney looked up to see John silhouetted in the doorway.
“I – um. Nowhere?”
John nodded over his left shoulder. “Bathroom's the first door on the left if you need it.” He took a step forward, brandishing a washcloth. “I just thought I'd – ”
“Oh, well, thank you – ” Rodney reached for the washcloth, but John shook his head.
“Lie back down,” he commanded, voice husky. “I'll do it.”
Rodney was shocked to find himself obeying, scrambling back up on the bed and lying as ordered on John's bed. John kneeled on the mattress, holding himself still over Rodney for a moment before gently swiping the cloth over Rodney's chest and belly. He picked up Rodney's right hand and cleaned it, too, passing the cloth between his fingers and over his palm before setting it on the night table.
Rodney still wasn't sure what the etiquette was in this situation, but luckily John simplified things for him by pulling the covers up over them both and settling in beside him.
“Thank you,” Rodney said.
John's shrug was practically audible. “Least I could do, considering I got you messy in the first place.”
“Well, it's still very – considerate,” Rodney said lamely.
“Hmmmm,” John answered, rolling on his side toward Rodney and throwing an arm across his chest. Rodney took a deep breath, then cupped his hand over John's forearm and closed his eyes.
After that, John and Rodney swiftly fell into a pattern. They'd wake before dawn and drive into town in separate vehicles. Then John would open up the restaurant with him and help him start the coffee, and Rodney would make him the Hungry Fisherman's Breakfast, with bacon, sausage, ham and baked beans. John would kiss him goodbye before Shelley and the first customers arrived and head off to work on his boat. At the end of the day, he'd show up at John's place, or John would show up at his, and they'd spend the night together.
It was a little frightening for Rodney to discover how – comfortable the routine was becoming, especially since he was only going to be here a couple of more weeks, but it wasn't nearly frightening enough for him to want to stop.
On the following Monday, John had promised Ronon he'd help him replace the radiator in the Cadillac, and it hadn't taken much persuasion for Rodney to agree to be dragged along. Truth be told, he'd been wanting to get a better look at Teyla and Ronon's garden operation, but he hadn't been sure how to go about it.
Teyla and Ronon seemed not at all surprised to see Rodney tagging along with John, and Teyla took him on an extensive tour of their gardens while the others sweated over the car.
“This is amazing,” Rodney said, fingers brushing the young Thai basil leaves, sprouting in neat rows next to the anise and chervil. “It's a shame you're not closer to Boston.”
“Maine is better suited to our goals,” Teyla said easily. “There is so much educational work to be done on the topic of sustainable prosperity and organic farming. Commercially, locally grown organic produce is still uncommon, and too expensive for the average consumer. We are hoping to change that.”
Rodney bit his tongue, not wanting to burst her bubble. He hadn't gotten the impression that there was any demand for environmentally friendly products in this pre-processed, deep fried culture. “Well, I applaud your pioneer spirit,” he said, straightening. “You certainly saved my life the other day.”
“Have you considered introducing other dishes?” Teyla asked, arching her brows inquisitively.
Rodney blinked. He hadn't been thinking much about new recipes lately, seeing as how his main objective these past few days had been to screw John as often as possible. Not that he could tell her that, of course. “Well...”
“I had thought your jambalaya might be the start of a trend,” she continued, undaunted by his hesitation. “After all, Gull Island is obviously appreciative of your efforts. How wonderful would it be if you were to feature a new, special dish on the menu each day?”
Rodney opened his mouth, then closed it. Come to think of it, that was a terrific idea. Not only would he end up with a host of new ideas for his next round of episodes, but from the way the first dish had been a success, he'd be freed from having to prepare dozens of different meals every day. “I'd need quite a lot more of your herbs,” Rodney said, biting back a smile. “Do you think you could spare them?”
“I think we have enough early plants in the greenhouse to satisfy your demand,” Teyla said, the sparkle in her eye revealing her for the horse trader she was.
“Good,” Rodney said, his mind already whirring with new possibilities. Hmm, yes – that could work – and so could that – but he'd need to make several important changes to the week's food order. Taking out his cell phone, he said, “Excuse me, won't you? I have to make a call.”
Teyla inclined her head, leaving him alone to try to explain what he needed to Sasha's hapless supplier, when he'd only half worked it out himself.
Ten minutes later he was feeling happier and more relaxed than he'd been since getting the call from John about Sasha's hospitalization. He picked his way through the vegetable plot, recognizing cauliflower, Swiss chard and bok choi. This was going to be a major operation, that was certain; he certainly hoped they could make a success of it.
He stopped dead when he rounded the corner of the small potting shed and saw Ronon, Teyla and John all clustered around the car. The day was turning hot, and since this side of the island faced the mainland, it was sheltered from the cooling breezes coming off the ocean. Undoubtedly, they'd chosen the location for the slightly longer growing season the increased temperatures would give them, but Rodney really didn't care, because John was naked.
Well, half-naked, really, and it wasn't as though he hadn't seen all of John before, but never in daylight, and not like this. They were taking a break, or perhaps they were finished whatever they'd been doing, and now the three of them were drinking beers and talking together. John was leaning back against the hood of the Cadillac, his tanned, sweat-damp skin looking almost burnished in the sunlight. From this distance, Rodney could truly appreciate the long, lean lines of his torso, the sharp geometry of his hips peeking above the too-low waistband. As Rodney watched, they all erupted in laughter, and John's dirty chuckle, his easy grin that made his eyes crinkle at the corners, caused something in Rodney to shift sideways in an unpleasant fashion.
Suddenly he felt a stabbing, white-hot rage, directed partly at Sasha for having his damned heart attack and forcing him into this situation, but most of all at himself. He was the one who'd let his hormones lead him around by the dick, and in less than two weeks he was going to pack his bags and probably never see John again, or worse, see him at irregular intervals whenever John could find it in his heart to satisfy the inappropriate and fierce attachment Rodney had formed, because God help him, he had, and there was no use denying it any longer, at least to himself. John was undeniable, inevitable, and Rodney had no more defense against him than he did against a Krispy Kreme dulche de leche donut, though he'd never admit he was addicted to the damned things.
Something made John look up then, and the change in his grin as he registered Rodney's presence made Rodney's heart stop. It was still as radiant as ever, but there were fifteen other ingredients in there, a complex mixture of lust, amusement, fondness, and a heaping tablespoon of regret that ruined the taste of it when Rodney strode forward and kissed him.
John lifted his head, surprise obvious in his features even in the dim light. “What?”
“You heard me,” Rodney growled. Ten hours later he was still angry, and this was no time for John to play adorably dumb. Rolling onto his side, he fumbled in the drawer for the condoms he'd bought on the mainland that afternoon, when he'd claimed he was going to shop for a new roasting pan.
John stared at the package Rodney held out to him as though he'd never seen one before. Rodney shook the package at him impatiently, and John took it from him.
“Are you sure?” he asked, still looking at the package instead of Rodney. “It's not – I mean, we don't – ”
“For God's sake,” Rodney snapped, “it's not like we haven't done everything else two gay men can do with one another that doesn't involve elaborate harnesses. I fail to see what's so uniquely special about the act of penetrative sex.”
John scrunched up his face. “Wow, way to set the mood there.”
Incensed, Rodney sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. “Well, I'm sorry you have to get in the mood to fuck me – ”
The next thing he knew, Rodney was flat on his back again and staring up at John's face, which was very close to his. John was breathing shallowly through his nose, and his expression was a void, like the dark interior of a brick oven. “I've wanted to fuck you since the second I laid eyes on you,” he murmured against Rodney's ear, and Rodney suddenly felt singed, broiled, incinerated – “so the mood isn't exactly a problem for me.”
“Please,” Rodney gasped, finding oxygen somewhere, and John, still with that grim, intent mask plastered on his face, lifted himself off Rodney and rolled him over onto his stomach with enough roughness that Rodney whimpered. He whimpered again when John kneed his way between Rodney's legs, spreading them so wide that Rodney felt exposed, vulnerable, a little afraid. Burying his face in the pillow, he waited for John to do whatever he was going to do, not even caring if John just pushed inside and started fucking him. At least it might finally smother this rage, give him something else to focus on besides his own spectacular stupidity.
But John didn't push inside him. There was a long, breathless pause, in which Rodney would have wondered if John was still there if not for the bony press of his knees against the insides of Rodney's splayed thighs. Just when he was about to ask what the hell was going on, he felt John lean forward and plant a soft kiss on Rodney's right shoulder blade.
Rodney bit the pillow to stifle his gasp, and John, perhaps encouraged by Rodney's uncharacteristic silence, continued his ministrations, kissing Rodney's back in a vague zigzag pattern that continued all the way down his spine to the top of his ass. There was another pause; Rodney turned his head and rested his cheek on the pillow so that he could breathe, though he kept his eyes closed, unable to bear any additional sensory input right now.
And then Rodney felt John's fingers gently spread him before a delicious, warm pressure made him clutch at the sheets. Oh, God, that was John's tongue, touching him with a shocking, unbelievable tenderness, and he couldn't, he hadn't been expecting –
Rodney turned his face into the pillow again and groaned, because it was more acceptable than the more embarrassing reaction that was making his throat tighten and his body shake.
The next morning, Rodney woke alone. He hadn't really been expecting anything else, so he told himself he wasn't disappointed. That lasted about two minutes, and then he was swamped with a memory from last night, John pushing into him with dizzying care, taking Rodney apart by slow, meticulous inches.
Annoyed at himself again, he slouched into the shower, shaved, dressed, and was on the eight o'clock ferry. The radio carried the warning of a summer storm moving swiftly up the coast; the morning was bright and clear and already promising sultry temperatures. By the time Rodney was halfway to Portland, he had the air conditioning going full blast.
The nurse Rodney had been dealing with must have gone home to hang upside-down from the ceiling, because there was a younger nurse in her place obviously fresh out of school.
“No, Mr. Rabinovitch isn't in his room at the moment,” she said, avoiding Rodney's gaze.
“Then, and please pardon my French, would you mind telling me where the hell he is?” Rodney snarled. He hadn't seen Sasha since that first day, and his two conversations with him had been odd, to say the least; Sasha had called him both times, and both times the connection had been terrible. Rodney knew that Gull Island was the armpit of nowhere, but he'd called Elizabeth several times now and gotten a crystal-clear connection.
“I believe he's taking a tour of the grounds,” she said, attempting some of the old bat's haughtiness and failing miserably.
“Alone?” Rodney demanded.
Her gaze lifted to his, startled. “N-no,” she stammered. “He's with – his physical therapist.”
Rodney leaned in. “I realize you don't know this about me,” he murmured conspiratorially, “but I am not known for my patience. And what little I had ran out nearly two weeks ago. So: let's try this again, shall we? Where. The hell. Is Sasha.”
Afterwards, Rodney was surprised he managed to drive all the way to Boston without crashing the car, because he was so furious he was sure he'd pop a blood vessel and stroke out long before he reached home. Nevertheless, he made it back to his apartment, where he dug a week's worth of mail out of his box – bills he'd already paid online, ads from mayoral candidates he couldn't vote for, a package of coupons offering him two for one Whoppers and free carpet cleaning provided he signed up to have his entire house Simonized – trudged up three flights of stairs because the damned elevator was broken again, and phoned Elizabeth to tell her he was back in Boston for good.
“So Sasha's fully recovered, then?” she asked.
“You could say that,” Rodney muttered. “I hear he's in Barcelona.”
Rodney shook his head, suddenly feeling immensely old. “I really don't want to talk about it right now. I'll be at the studio in the morning.”
“I'll see you at ten,” Elizabeth said. “Get some sleep, Rodney.”
“Yes, I must look pretty for the cameras.”
Elizabeth laughed. “If that's what you like to tell yourself, sure,” she said, hanging up.
Rodney hung up the phone and stared at it for a while. He felt a momentary twinge of remorse; by all rights, he should at least call Shelley and explain what was going on, but for all he knew, the whole island had been in on the ruse Sasha had perpetrated. He'd certainly bribed the hospital staff to lie to Rodney about his condition, which turned out to have been no more serious than a particularly painful bout of indigestion. At the time Rodney had seen him in the hospital, Sasha had been ready to be discharged, and he knew it, but instead of telling him, he'd deceived Rodney, worried him sick and put his entire career in jeopardy, all for the sake of a vacation. It made Rodney's stomach twist to think of his oldest and dearest friend using him so callously.
And what about John's part in all this? He'd been the one to call Rodney from the hospital. Most likely he'd known from the beginning that Sasha's condition wasn't serious, but why would he have been so heartless as to keep the knowledge from Rodney? After last night, Rodney would have sworn there was something between them, but there was no way to be sure without going back and confronting John, and Rodney had never been less in the mood for a confrontation.
In the end, it took his own personal Valium, Take Home Chef, to put him to sleep, but it was fitful and full of uneasy dreams as the first wave of the promised storm battered the windows.
In the morning, the monsoon was in full swing, and Rodney decided to take the T to work rather than driving. Of course, he should have guessed it would be impossible to get a taxi from the subway, so he ended up walking the ten blocks to the studio. He resembled nothing so much as a drowned rat as he dripped his way into Elizabeth's office half an hour late.
She wasn't alone. When Rodney saw who her guest was, he remembered that his day always had the potential to get worse.
“Rodney,” Elizabeth said, as he turned to go. Her voice wasn't steel-edged, as it usually was whenever he did something that pissed her off, but soft and understanding. That ticked him off even more, so he spun back around.
“Oh, what?” he demanded, folding his arms. “Tell me, I'd love to hear it. What line of bullshit has he fed you?”
“Rodney,” Sasha said, rising to his feet. “I will apologize later. For now, there is no time.”
“And why is that?” Rodney snapped.
Sasha spread his hands. “Because John's boat – it is missing. It has been missing since last night.”
“I am not speaking to you,” Rodney said, hands clenched on the steering wheel. “If I speak to you, I will get even angrier than I am now, and I will have a stroke, a real one, mind you, and I will crash this car.”
Sasha sighed and subsided in the passenger seat, while Rodney concentrated on navigating his Golf around the dozens of stupid people in their stupid cars who did not understand that he had to get to Maine right now.
“Tell me something,” Rodney said, when they were finally on the goddamned interstate and he felt marginally less homicidal than he had a half hour ago, “why did you sell Terroir? Feel free to make up a story if the truth isn't interesting enough.”
“They told me I have six months to live,” Sasha said.
Rodney couldn't help it; he laughed. “That's not even a good cliché.”
“That is what I told them, but they say to me it is true, I am dying, put my affairs in order. So I do. I sell the restaurant, I spend a month in Provence, but it is – feh, I am tired of the same thing, the same people. I do not remember how I end up in Maine; I was drunk very much of the time. But I am there, and there are very nice people who leave me alone until one night I am on the beach, and I start taking off my clothes, because that is what you do, yes?”
Rodney gripped the wheel so tightly he thought he might be leaving fingerprints embedded in the vinyl. He didn't want to believe this, for more reasons than merely the selfish ones.
“And then I hear a voice. It says, 'I've always wondered why people do that before they try to drown themselves.'”
In spite of everything, in spite of the fact that he was trying very hard at this moment not to think about John, Rodney smiled at that.
“Yes, it was John. And as you can see, I am still here, no drowning. When he heard my tale of woe, he took me to see a very good doctor, one who had worked for the Air Force, and she told me the doctors who say to me I am dying are – how can I say this in English? Fucking idiots.”
Rodney flicked a glance at him. “So you're...”
“Healthy as horses, yes. When I found this out, I was very joyful, and perhaps little crazy, and I decided to stay on Gull Island. I bought the house, and when Martha said she wanted to sell the restaurant, I buy it. I miss the business, and I need to feel close to the food, close to the people again.”
“You bought a restaurant named the Roadkill Grill and you didn't change the name,” Rodney said.
“I did say I was little crazy, yes? Besides, I like the name.”
“All right, everyone else likes the name, so I keep it. What is the harm? Do you mean to tell me you did not make friends while you were – ”
“Don't you dare,” Rodney snarled, fighting down a wave of nausea so strong it nearly overwhelmed him. “You do not get to play that card, not now of all times – ”
Sasha held up his hands. “Please, please, please, I am sorry, Rodney, édes fiú, I am so sorry – ”
“Just tell me why you did this,” Rodney whispered. “Just tell me why.”
“Because you, Rodney, are so dear to me, like a son, and John is like my second son, and my sons, they were so lonely.”
“Well, congratulations, Mrs. Levi,” Rodney said scratchily, staring out at the drowned world beyond the thin barrier of glass, “you've made one hell of a match.”
By the time they got to the island, it seemed as though most of the population had gathered in the gymnasium of the elementary school. Shelley, Rae Ann and Ruth were brewing endless pots of coffee for the residents, while Martha and her bridge crew were passing out sandwiches with the crusts cut off. The hall was eerily silent, funereal, the occasional sounds of sniffles and quiet crying emerging from huddled groups, and Rodney's gut churned. When Martha saw Rodney and Sasha, she drew both of them into a hug, then led them into a small office off the gym.
“They found the boat half an hour ago, capsized,” she said, without preamble. “I'm sorry.”
“My God, oh my God,” Sasha murmured, burying his face in his hands.
“Did they find any bodies?” Rodney snapped. Martha stared at him, startled. “Well, did they?”
“No, Rodney,” she said, gently, “but you have to know – ”
“I know there's still hope,” Rodney gritted. “That's all I know.”
He didn't need to look at Martha to see the pity in her eyes or at Sasha to see the astonishment in his; rising to his feet, he turned and walked out without saying a word to anyone.
Rodney had no idea how long he sat in the empty restaurant, but after a while he noticed it was a lot darker than it had been before. He contemplated turning on a light, but discarded the idea when he realized it would take too much effort.
Of course, he cycled through various insane thoughts, the ones you were supposed to have when you were trying to delay the inevitable. John wasn't lost, he'd been carried north on the Gulf Stream in a life raft and was now rowing for Nova Scotia; he'd washed ashore on an island full of friendly puffins; he'd been swimming in near-frigid water for a day and a fucking half, and God, who was he kidding? Rodney had literally fallen in love with a man in twelve days and now he'd been taken by the sea and Jesus, if this was a movie for the Lifetime Network he'd be throwing things at the TV screen by now.
Leaning forward on the cold lunch counter, he rested his head on his folded arms and closed his eyes, but the silent tears still leaked through. This sucked, and just for this he was not going to John's funeral, because he'd be wailing even more than the women, and would probably do something embarrassing like throw himself on the coffin, and John would laugh at him from the afterlife, or say something stupid like –
“Hey, buddy, it isn't that bad, is it?”
Rodney raised his head and turned around so quickly his ass slid right off the stool. He managed to catch himself just in time with a steadying hand gripping the counter. It turned out he needed that hand, because there was a man standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the faint light coming from the one weak street lamp outside the restaurant. His hair was spiky, even more askew than usual, and fuck, now his Lifetime movie of the week was turning into a bad rip-off of Ghost.
Then the silhouette turned toward the wall for a moment, and the restaurant was awash with light. Rodney squinted against the sudden brightness, and when he could see again he beheld his ghost in full Technicolor, complete with battered sou'wester and a weariness around the eyes that couldn't be anything but real.
“Don't I even get a 'welcome back, John'?” Sheppard asked softly.
Rodney choked back a sob, and in three strides John was there, his very warm, living hands clamped around Rodney's upper arms, holding him upright. “Hey, hey,” John soothed, “it's okay, I'm here.”
“You – how did you – ”
“We got picked up by a Portuguese boat right before the Solo went tango uniform,” John explained, easing Rodney back onto his stool, which was a good idea because his legs were trembling like saplings in a hurricane. “They were nice guys, but they didn't speak a word of English and their radio was screwed, so we couldn't get word to the Coast Guard. I finally got them to find me a chart and showed them where they needed to drop us off.”
“Another boat,” Rodney murmured, “I didn't think of that one. Did you go over to the school first?”
John shook his head. “Rob and Jamie went; I'm not up for the tearful hugs just yet.”
Rodney wiped furiously at his eyes. “I'm sorry – ” but John's hand clamped firmly around his wrist, drawing his hand away.
“Don't,” he said fiercely. “Don't ever be sorry for that.”
“Sasha's there,” Rodney said, and John frowned, so utterly confused that Rodney knew immediately he hadn't known anything about the deception. He closed his eyes briefly, the final knot in his chest loosening. “I'll explain later. Just know that he's fine, and he's going to be the one that hugs the hardest.”
“I'll be careful,” John promised, one corner of his mouth lifting. “What about you? Why aren't you hugging me already?”
Rodney took a deep breath. “Because if I start, I don't know if I'll be able to let go.”
The other corner of John's mouth rose to match the first one. “I think I can live with that,” he said gently, a thumb stroking across Rodney's damp cheek.
Rodney drew him into his arms, holding on more tightly than he'd ever dared hold onto anything, until John made a small 'oof'ing noise and hugged him back just as hard.
“I'm in love with you,” Rodney whispered. “I was before I thought you were dead, if that matters.”
“Good to know,” John answered, “'cause I loved you before I thought I was dead, too.”
“Okay, then you probably won't mind if I do this,” Rodney breathed, and promptly smacked John on the back of the head.
“Ow! What the fuck, Rodney?” John complained, releasing him and rubbing at his offended scalp.
“Don't you ever scare me like that again!” Rodney yelled. “Jesus Christ, I was ready to fling myself on your coffin!”
“It's not like I did it on purpose!” John yelled back.
Rodney only glared at him.
“Okay, so maybe I wasn't thinking as clearly as I could have been out there,” John admitted, voice more than a little whiny.
Rodney's expression softened; it was a victory of sorts. “Well,” he said, “admitting you're an asshole is always the first step.”
“Hey, I wasn't an asshole, I was an ass.”
“Oh, no. This time, you definitely qualify for the upgrade.”
“Would you just please kiss me now so that I can gather the strength to face a room full of crying people?” John wheedled.
Willing to be magnanimous, Rodney settled his hands on John's waist and leaned in. “All right,” he said, “since you ask so nicely.”
Six Months Later
The Roadkill Grill was filled to bursting on New Year's Eve, the heavenly smells of over two dozen different kinds of hors d'oeuvres wafting through the air. Rodney could only claim responsibility for a small number of dishes, however; in the months since he and Sasha had been running the restaurant together, the seeds of culinary rebellion had been sown throughout the island, and now even the most traditional grandmother was trying her hand at Thai crab cakes with peanut sauce. Helen's sushi was still a little, well, frightening, but for the most part the broadening of Gull Island's culinary horizons had been a roaring success.
Teyla and Ronon were finally back home, fresh from their triumphant tour of the state's public schools. They'd won a contract to bring green-focused education to the young minds of Maine, providing them with a decent source of income during the winter months. Certainly their message was important, but Ronon's imposing presence and Teyla's regal bearing, not to mention their almost unspeakable beauty, must have gone a long way to converting the youngsters to the joys of recycling, reducing and reusing. A pudgy, balding professor in a cardigan wasn't a fit salesman of ideals to the Gap generation.
Rodney had finished filming the remainder of the season, then sold his condo and most of his furniture and moved into John's house. This was his first attempt at cohabitation in over a decade, and he wasn't going to screw it up; the driftwood coffee table was met with no direct competition from Rodney's few remaining sticks of furniture. Still, John made room for him, clearing off a shelf of salt and pepper shakers so that Rodney could display his collection of original Thunderbirds toys, and bringing his cat a smelly, disgusting fish head every day until she began to love him more than Rodney and Rodney had to ask him to stop.
Martha married Sasha in September, and they promptly left on a month-long honeymoon in Europe. Rae Ann ran off with a girl from Monterey who had spent a year backpacking across the country and claimed to have memorized everything Kerouac had ever written, a fact that Rodney found disturbing. Still, there wasn't much to be said when love whacked you upside the head; this was a truth he knew well, and so he'd hugged her and wished her well. He found he was getting better at hugging people these days.
His Experimental Thursdays were a huge hit with the islanders, and he was now more than halfway to finishing a new cookbook featuring the most successful recipes from those nights. His contract was up for renewal with PBS, and he was considering pitching a different kind of series this time, perhaps one with a more bucolic island setting where he shared the limelight with other aspiring culinary geniuses.
God, Rodney was turning him into a communist in his middle age, but somehow he couldn't get too worked up about it. Life was too damned short.
“Hey.” Rodney spun around to see John smirking at him from the open doorway of the kitchen. “Party's out there, in case you haven't noticed.”
Rodney glanced at the dining room, where several dozen couples were swaying to to Ella Fitzgerald's What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? He shook his head. “I've never been much for dancing,” he said.
“That's not dancing,” John said, that sly, lopsided smile on his face as he nodded at the crowd. “That's permission to grope your partner in public.”
“Oh,” Rodney said, fighting back a matching smile as John drew nearer. “Well, since you put it that way. I do so enjoy groping you, and official sanction only makes it dirtier somehow.”
John's pornographic chuckle was soft in Rodney's ear as they stepped into one another's arms. “Rodney, never, ever change.”
“No promises,” Rodney said, planting a kiss on John's neck as the two of them shuffled in a slow, aimless pattern from the fridge to the grill to the sink and back again.