Solitary man
Big Bang 2009.   Anything goes.
John Sheppard was used to being on his own.  He'd been booted out of the Air Force, was estranged from his family and was haunted by the guilt of everyone he'd ever let down.  Then a wrong turn on a snowy night changed his life forever.
Word Count
40700 words
This has been a wonderful writing experience, and I want to say a huge thank you to my fabulous betas - lantean_drift, sgamadison, the_cephalopod and xanthelj - for their invaluable help and support.  Thanks also to team_bigbang and to my ever-patient flist for all of their advice and cheerleading.
This story has warnings; they are listed at the end of the story.
Jump to the warnings.
Companion Artwork
  • Music was kind of like Rodney's sky. by Trystings
  • Solitary Man by Genie

Part one

It had been snowing for hours.

The first flurries had started after lunch, quickly turning into a solid wall of white in front of the windshield, and now the light was fading too. John flicked on the headlamps of the battered old SUV, but they hardly made a dent; the beams barely able to light six feet of snow-packed road in front of the hood. Even the wipers working full out didn't help, and the thick stands of pines pressing in on the edges of the single lane pretty much obscured the last of the light as night began to fall.

The tyres slipped as the snow compacted under them, and he wished again that he'd actually had chains to fit when he'd seen that turnout all those miles back at the exit for the mountain. He'd realised his mistake around about the time he'd also figured out that he must have taken a wrong turn somewhere on the winding road up to the peak. Directions never had been his strong suit, but that's why pilots had navigators after all.

"Good job, John," he snorted. "Lost in a blizzard on a mountain. Nice going."

He'd come up to Washington to do a little skiing and snowboarding - another stop on the madcap ride that was his 'what the hell am I going to do now?' ruin of a life. A journey that had started three months ago on the day he'd gotten thrown out of the service.

"Honourable discharge, my ass," he muttered and gripped the wheel tighter, sliding tyres threatening to wrench it from his hands on the narrow road. There were no route markers, no lights, no houses - nothing but dark, looming trees and swirling, battering snow. Okay, so it was probably a good idea to find somewhere to turn around and try to get back; this was definitely looking like a dead-end.

Suddenly the headlamps caught the startled face of a big elk standing in the middle of the road, and John reacted on instinct, hauling on the wheel and slewing the SUV sharply to the right.

"Son of a bitch!"

He had a second to see the elk disappearing into the forest, and then the SUV lurched forward. He fought to keep control, but it was no good and everything came to a grating, squealing stop - with the hood deep in a ditch and the wheels spinning uselessly.

"Well, fuck."

He sat back in his seat and huffed out a long breath, the familiar rush of adrenaline still burning through him. His head was hurting; he must have given it a whack, but the seat belt had - hopefully - stopped anything more serious. He'd bet good money he was going to have some nice bruises in the morning though.

The engine had cut out, and he could see from here that he was going nowhere without a tow. The air was eerily still except for the loud ticks and sighs as the engine started to cool down.

Okay - he needed to do something. The temperature was already dropping now the heater was off, and he reached in the back for his jacket. He checked his cell phone but wasn't surprised to see there was no signal. He stuffed it into his pocket anyway and loaded a bag of trail-mix and some water into his backpack. It looked like he was going to have to find some help.

The cold bit into his body as he walked back down the mountain, and he huddled further into his jacket, grateful for his knitted cap and gloves but kicking himself for not bringing a ski suit on the trip. He'd been planning to get one at the lodge - it's not like it had exactly been necessary attire while he'd been surfing in Malibu.

His torch wasn't helping much, but after about a mile of stumbling through snow drifts - fresh fall had quickly obliterated his tyre tracks - he noticed a gap in the trees.

It was a side road. He must have driven right by it before - which wasn't surprising as the track was barely a car width across and hemmed in on either side by thick trees. It looked like there was a faint light through the branches ahead. He'd already been walking for over an hour, the snow up to his knees in places and making the going slow and difficult, and his head was throbbing. He shivered miserably - at least that was a good sign - but he needed to find shelter soon or hypothermia was definitely on the cards. The snow was making it difficult to judge any kind of distance, but he decided to aim for the light - hopefully there was someone there who could help him.

He trudged forward, eyes straining to keep the light in view, but after awhile his steps began to slow and he realised that he'd lost track of how long he'd been walking. His head was pounding now and he felt sluggish and confused, but he forced himself on, one lurching foot in front of the other. He'd survived war zones, the Taliban, and supercilious, stuck-up-their-own-ass generals who didn't know that you never left a man behind - he'd be damned if he was going to freeze to death because he got lost snow-boarding.

He battled on, head down as the blizzard gradually grew worse, the wind and snow howling and buffeting against him. Suddenly his foot collided with something solid and he fell to his knees, hands hitting a smooth surface as they pushed through the snow.

He raised his head, trying to focus through the grogginess, and was shocked to see a neat snow-covered porch in front of him. There was a light in the window, and he dragged himself to his feet and over to the door. He knocked as loudly as he could, but his arms felt like silly putty, and he hardly had the strength to keep his head up.

He had no idea how long he stood there, propped against the wall, before a welcoming rush of warm air hit him in the face. He managed to crack open his eyelids and found himself staring helplessly into a pair of shockingly beautiful blue eyes. He had a second to think 'wow' and 'huh' and then his vision greyed out, his legs folded under him, and he was out for the count.

John slowly started to regain consciousness, immediately recognising that he was out of the storm and feeling much warmer. In the distance he could hear a buzzing sound, and as his brain finally lurched into gear he realised that the sound was a voice - an annoyed, male voice - yapping out an impressive diatribe at high volume and with virtually no repeats or pauses for breath.

"… just lying there on my couch! Oh, yes, thank you very much. What is this? Some kind of early Christmas present? A frozen, delirious vagrant with more hair than brains falling into my arms during the worst storm in a decade and then just expecting me to look after him. Do I look like The Red Cross? No! Here I was, perfectly happy, thank you, and definitely not in need of the distraction of an, admittedly gorgeous, hobo stumbling into my house and destroying my carefully constructed peace. Who the hell goes hiking on a night like this anyway, and really - no one should have skin that good. What is there - a picture in an attic somewhere? Because that's just not fair, and anyway, homeless, wandering, chilled Adonises - Adoni? Whatever! - should not just fall over my threshold willy-nilly, and I really…."

"Did you just call me an Adonis?" John asked blearily, trying to sit up and clear his head.

The stream of chatter stopped abruptly, and John looked across to see the guy from the doorway. He was standing like a deer caught in the headlights - and wasn't that just so ironic? - and as John watched he snapped his mouth tightly shut.

John raised an eyebrow and waited.

"Um, no?" the guy said and then added more firmly, "Of course I didn't call you anything of the sort. Adonis? Please! You're clearly delusional from hypothermia." He cleared his throat self-consciously and then looked intently at John, worry suddenly transparent on his face. "Oh my God, you're not are you? What about frostbite? You didn't get frostbite out there, did you? It can happen remarkably quickly, and I don't want you to start shedding digits."

John flexed his hands and feet reflexively and then grinned and gave a little wave. "Nah, ten fingers, ten toes - I'll check the rest later."

He made a show of looking under the blanket draped over his legs and was a little surprised to see that his jeans had been removed. His boxers were still in place but the lack of chilled, wet denim was a definite relief. His grin widened as a perfect pink blush coloured the guy's cheeks.

"So, I guess I have you to thank for rescuing me, huh?"

"I could hardly leave you lying there. Anyway, you were blocking the doorway and letting the snow in," the guy sniffed, but there was a hint of a smile twisting at his slanted mouth and John wanted to smile right back.

"John," John said, adding when the guy looked blank, "my name's John - John Sheppard. Thanks for hauling me out of the snow." He extended his hand and waggled it until the guy got the picture and shook it. He had big hands, soft and really warm.

"Oh, yes… well. You're welcome," the guy said, looking at his hand for a second and then tucking it hurriedly into the pocket of the ratty, oversize cardigan he was wearing.

"And you are? I kinda like to know a guy's name before he takes my pants off." Another blush bloomed across the guy's fair skin, and John couldn't resist adding, "but I can be flexible."

"They were freezing to you," the guy blurted out and then said a little shyly, "McKay… um, Doctor Rodney McKay."

"Nice to meet you, Doc." John smiled and was surprised to find that he really meant it.

"I'm not a medical doctor," McKay said, and a strange look flitted across his face. "I'm a doctor of music."

"So, I guess it's no use asking you to take a look at my trick knee then?" John joked, and there was that crooked half-smile again.


There was a pause, and McKay looked at John a little awkwardly, like he was back to freaking out at having some half-dressed stranger on his couch.

"Look, thanks again. I don't know what I would've done if I hadn't found this place," John said. "My car went into a ditch a mile or so back."

"What were you doing out there anyway? The TV says all major routes are closed due to the snow and you thought, what? That it would be a nice night for a drive?"

"Not exactly," John laughed. "I was driving up to Bear Ridge and must've got turned around somehow. The next thing the snow's coming down so fast I can't see a thing - until I swerve to avoid a damn big elk in the road and end up in a ditch."

"Wow, your directions are for shit. Bear's way round the other side of the mountain."

John laughed at McKay's lack of bullshit, and McKay looked surprised.

"Oh, um, sorry - I mean, are you alright? Are you hurt?" he asked. "Can I get you anything?"

"I'm okay; just a few bruises. Nothin' that a good shot of scotch wouldn't cure."

"I don't think you should have any alcohol - you might have a concussion. I'll put some coffee on."

"And here's you saying you aren't a medical doctor," John grinned.

McKay just rolled his eyes and headed towards what John assumed was the kitchen. "I'll go and see to the coffee. Don't collapse or fall off the couch and give yourself another concussion while I'm gone."

John cocked a finger at him and winked. "You got it, Doc."

He settled back onto the couch with a sigh. His whole body ached, but his head had cleared to leave just a dull throbbing behind his eyes, and he didn't feel too bad, considering. He didn't have a concussion - he knew what that felt like - though he wouldn't have lasted much longer out in the storm. It was just dumb luck he'd stumbled onto McKay's place - and it had probably saved his life.

He heard the echo of Holland's laughter like it was yesterday, 'You've got more lives than a damn cat, Shep'.

"Coffee." McKay was a welcome interruption.

John gathered the blanket around him and took the mug, the warmth feeling good on his chilled hands. "Thanks."

"So, it looks like you'll have to stay here tonight," McKay said. "I'll find you some dry clothes. There's no point going back out in this; this side of the mountain always get the worst of it, and the weather report says it won't stop for at least another day. Not that meteorology is much of a science, but I'm sure they must get something from their chicken bones and crystal balls."

John grinned. There was something refreshing about McKay's candour - plus he was funny in an oddball kind of a way.

"I have a guest room. I'll get you some sheets and what-not, and you can stay there." McKay pointed sternly at him. "Though I must warn you that I know our local sheriff very well. The man's a seven foot behemoth, and so if you've got any homicidal ideas or plans to ransack my property then you'd better think again, alright?"

John laughed - he couldn't help it. He was liking this guy more and more.

"What? What?" McKay asked, perplexed.

"Nothing," John chuckled. "I promise that I'm not an escaped lunatic or crazed sociopath, and that I have no designs upon your person." He paused as McKay's ears turned pink and continued with a smile. "I really am grateful, Doc - you've probably saved my life."

McKay's eyes widened - they really were incredibly blue - and then he smiled, a little tentatively but with a warmth that made his whole face shine. "Oh, well, that's… um, that is to say…. You're very welcome… and it's Rodney. You can call me Rodney."

John returned the smile. "Thanks, Rodney."

John woke suddenly, sweat-soaked and trembling, and sat up with a lurch. His heart hammered frantically in his chest as he looked quickly around the room, and then he remembered. He'd got lost on the mountain and was at McKay's place. He scrubbed a shaky hand across his face and breathed steadily until his heart slowed to something approaching normal. He tossed the covers back and walked over to the window - there wasn't much to see. It was still dark - nearly four by the glowing display of his watch - with clouds covering the stars and thick snow still falling relentlessly.

He rested his head against the cool of the pane and closed his eyes.

He'd had the dream again. He hadn't had it for a while and had begun to think that it might be gone, but perhaps the accident earlier had jogged something lose in his brain. In a sick way he was glad it had come back; he'd failed and a man, a friend who had trusted him, had died - so why should he have it easy? It hadn't been easy for Holland, was never going to be easy for the wife and kid he left behind - so why should he be the lucky one?

'You've got more lives than a damn cat, Shep.'

Maybe he had. He just wasn't sure he deserved them.

He turned and shuffled to the bathroom. His shoulder was aching like a son of a bitch from where it had strained against the seat belt, and he swallowed a couple of Tylenol he found in the cabinet. McKay had loaned him an old tee - stretched out and soft with age, with faded 'Mr Fantastic' lettering across the chest - and he lifted it gingerly. Oh yeah, his shoulder and chest were bruising up nicely. He pulled the tee shirt back down.

It was nothing - he'd live. Didn't he always?

He turned off the light without bothering to check the mirror - he already knew what he'd see staring back at him from hollow eyes - and then he crawled back into bed and lay awake until dawn.

It was still snowing when John got up, but it didn't look as heavy as the day before and the sky seemed lighter. He took a quick shower and was glad for the hot water as it eased away some of the tenderness in his neck and back. McKay had loaned him a pair of sweatpants, but they were a little short in the leg and kept slipping down his hips. He'd thrown his jeans over the heater last night, and they were pretty much dry so he put them on instead. He pulled McKay's tee back on and then followed the smell of fresh coffee and bacon.

He found McKay in the kitchen and paused in the doorway. "Mornin'."

McKay spun around with a squeak, spatula in hand. "Oh my God! You nearly gave me a heart attack. Stop sneaking around like that."

"I only said hi," John shrugged.

"Yes, yes, using stealthy, ninja-type skills to creep up on me, no doubt."

"Nope, just blame it on damp boots," John said and lifted a socked foot in evidence.

"Hmmph. A stealthy, sock-footed ninja," McKay muttered, but John was starting to realise that his bark was definitely worse than his bite - plus there was a smile curling at his strangely appealing, crooked mouth.

"Okay, how about I promise no ninja stealth-sneaking in exchange for some of that coffee?" John held up his hands and grinned. "Deal?"

McKay snorted but pointed at the pot on the side. "Help yourself. Scrambled eggs, okay?"

"Sounds good." John smiled in thanks and poured a mug of coffee. He spotted a half-empty cup at McKay's elbow and topped it off.

"Oh, um, thanks." McKay looked surprised but pleased in a shy way.

John sat at the big, oak table in the centre of the kitchen. It was a large, bright room leading through to the living room that he'd seen the night before, and it had wide windows that would probably offer a great view down the mountain if it weren't for the snow.

McKay slid a hugely heaped plate in front of him and then sat down with a similarly loaded plate of his own. He didn't stand on ceremony but just started shovelling the food away like it was going out of style. John suddenly realised that he hadn't eaten anything since the crappy burger he'd had for lunch the previous day and that he was pretty hungry too. He tucked in and immediately felt better - McKay made damn good eggs.

They ate in companionable silence. John had always had the ability to make small talk - a hold over from all the schmoosing his father had insisted on - but he usually only ever interacted with people on a strictly impersonal level. What was weird about being with McKay was how relaxed and happy he felt around him - even if they weren't talking - and how he didn't feel like he needed to put on a polite front. It felt kind of good.

McKay finished his breakfast - jeez, the guy could eat - and sat back with a happy-sounding sigh. "So, I spoke to the sheriff."

"Huh?" The abrupt shift caught John by surprise, and he hastily swallowed a mouthful of bacon.

"He said there are no reports of escaped criminals or dangerous psychopaths in the vicinity." McKay only looked half-serious.

John winked and tried to look as non-threatening as possible. "Good to know."

McKay just rolled his eyes and continued. "He also said that the roads are still blocked, and they're only ploughing the main routes. The snow is supposed to ease off by tomorrow and then they might be able to start clearing the minor roads. So it looks like you're stuck here for now anyway."

"I don't want to put you out," John said. It really was a bit much to expect McKay to put him up until the snow cleared; the guy wasn't a hotel. "Maybe it's not as bad as they say?"

"Oh, please! This is the worst snowfall in this area for over ten years, not to mention being virtually unprecedented so early in the season. Dex - the sheriff - says nothing's moving and it's best to stay put. There's no way that you can go out there and not turn into a stupid, spiky-haired icicle within half an hour."

John smothered a grin.

"I realise that I may not be the kind of company that you'd choose to spend any amount of time with," McKay continued, and he looked a little resigned, like he was used to people not wanting him around, "but I'm sure that you can manage when imminent death is the only other likely possibility."

"Oh, hey - no! Rodney - I didn't mean it like that," John said. He wasn't sure why it was so important, but he didn't want McKay thinking that way. "I just don't want to impose. I mean, you didn't exactly invite me, and I don't want to get in your way. I get the feeling that you like the quiet life - what with living here in your fortress of solitude and all."

Rodney's eyes widened and a small smile warmed his face. "Well, it's not quite the Arctic or even Antarctica…" he said, his voice tinged with a kind of hopeful anticipation.

John smirked. "And definitely not Metropolis."

McKay gave a delighted grin and just like that they were off - arguing the veracity of some the later editions of the Superman comics and then getting into a heated discussion on the merits of Superman versus Batman. The morning wore happily on with the perennial, thorny problem of 'Batman - superhero or just a rich guy with cool toys? Discuss', and John couldn't remember the last time he'd had so much fun.

John went to bed that night still feeling achy but remarkably content. He felt weirdly comfortable around McKay, and somehow it didn't seem so bad that he'd crashed his car and was stuck on a mountain with some guy he'd only just met. They'd discovered not only a common passion for comic books but also a shared love of sci-fi - the cheesy kind especially. They'd spent an absorbing afternoon and evening watching movies and TV shows on McKay's huge plasma screen - seriously, the thing was the size of a football field - courtesy of a seemingly endless supply of DVD box sets and the biggest satellite dish that John had ever seen outside of NASA. The snow had battered away at the windows, but they'd just argued and poked fun at the worst of the plot holes - McKay knew a lot about science and well, kind of everything actually - and it had been a total blast.

McKay was a funny kind of guy. He was loud and opinionated, and John was learning that he had no problem telling you if he thought that you were an idiot, but he could also be unexpectedly hesitant and shy. He'd seemed genuinely bemused when John had told him that he'd had a good time hanging out, and the warmth of his smile had literally made his face light up.

John was pretty certain that McKay was gay, or at least bi - he hadn't missed all those blushes or forgotten that whole Adonis thing. He'd done a little harmless flirting, more out of habit than anything, just his default 'charming John Sheppard' setting - but as the day had worn on he'd found himself getting genuinely interested. McKay had the most amazing blue eyes and an ass to die for, but - without sounding like a copy of Cosmo - it was his personality that John really found himself attracted to. He was the polar opposite of his usual bar room pickups - a hazy parade of nameless, quickly faceless guys with hard bodies, who he never saw or thought about again. McKay was different; he was smart and he challenged John to think, and he made him laugh - and there was something incredibly seductive about that.

The problem was that John was pretty sure McKay could turn out to be unforgettable, and that was dangerous - for both of them. John didn't get attached or do relationships - hell, avoidance was practically his middle name. It worked out better that way.

He liked sex - who didn't? - but it never meant anything. Sex was just a good way of keeping the world at arm's length for a while - it was that or crawling into the bottom of a whisky bottle.

The thing was though that he really liked McKay - and he was stuck here with him for however long until the snow cleared. He'd just have to make sure that he didn't do anything stupid and fuck things up.

He turned over and punched his pillow into shape.

Yeah, because that plan had always worked out so well for him in the past.

It was still early when John woke up. The snow had stopped sometime during the night, but there were big drifts in the yard and even higher ones out towards the trees.

He headed to the kitchen and found everything quiet; McKay clearly wasn't up yet. He started a pot of coffee, and somehow it didn't feel weird to be treating McKay's kitchen as if it were his own.

Of course, it wasn't like he had a kitchen - or anything else - of his own right now. He'd moved around the world for most of his adult life, from one posting to the next, and so had never really put down roots or acquired that much stuff, and what he did have was in storage for now. He'd bought a beat-up old SUV when he was discharged - just big enough to hold his surfboard and skis, and a few other essentials, and for the last three months he'd lived out of that and a string of featureless motels.

He supposed he ought to start making plans for something more permanent - it's not like he was exactly short of money - but there were a lot of sky dives to make and slopes to ski, not to mention all the sweet waves he still needed to ride and rapids he had left to raft. Okay, some people might say that he was running away from something, or that he was avoiding taking responsibility for his life. They might say that he was substituting extreme sports for losing the sky, or even that he had survivor's guilt and some kind of unconscious death wish.

Yeah, well they could just go and shove it. He'd heard it all before from the Air Force shrinks with their 'addicted to high risk activities' and 'self-destructive personality' bullshit, and what the hell did they know anyway? So what if he just happened to get bored easily and liked doing cool stuff? What was the big deal? Okay, so that wasn't exactly the whole story, but he'd never been much for self-reflection, and he sure as hell wasn't going to start now.

The coffee maker made one last, perfectly timed, distracting gurgle and he grabbed a cup and headed into the living room.

It was a large room with picture windows and a comfortable, lived-in feel. There was a big, leather couch, angled to get the warmth of the fire and still have a perfect view of the plasma screen, and the walls were lined with crowded bookcases and shelves. McKay was obviously a voracious reader, and he wasn't surprised to see scientific journals mingling with history and music, as well as an extensive comic book collection.

From talking to McKay it was obvious the guy was some kind of genius - plus he was more than happy to point it out on a fairly regular basis - but John really didn't have any idea what he did. For someone who talked so much, McKay had said very little about himself in terms of personal details. Beyond the fact that he had a doctorate in music, and was a sci-fi geek who obviously liked living in the middle of nowhere, John didn't know that much about him.

Usually this would suit him just fine. He didn't want to get to know people on any kind of meaningful level - superficial was okay with him - but there was something about McKay that he found intriguing, and it wasn't just those broad shoulders and surprisingly firm-looking biceps.

He wandered through a doorway on the far side of the room. He wasn't spying exactly – it wasn't like he was going to start rifling through McKay's closets - he was just curious. He'd got the feeling that McKay was kind of lonely living up here all by himself, and it made him wonder why he did.

He walked down a hallway and found himself in another large, well-lit room, the windows looking out to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Unlike the other rooms in the house, this had an almost stale, unlived-in air and was kind of empty. There were a few old packing boxes piled haphazardly in the corners, and some had been tipped over and their contents scattered on the floor. He glanced into one open box and saw a stack of concert programmes; they were the fancy kind for symphonies at places like Carnegie Hall. John was more of a steel guitar and sawdust kind of guy himself.

The only other thing in the room was a large dust cloth swathed 'something' sitting in a pool of sunlight off to one side near the windows. John pulled the edge of the sheet back and wasn't exactly surprised to find a grand piano, sleek and black with a high shine polished into the wood. It made sense, with the doctorate and stuff; McKay was obviously a musician. It was clear though that this room, and the piano, hadn't been used in a long while - there was a dusty, neglected feel to it all. So why had McKay stopped playing?

John lifted the lid of the keyboard and tapped out an awkward little scale. There was a muffled noise behind him, and he turned around to see McKay standing in the doorway. His face was pale, and he was staring at the place where John's hand still hovered over the keys.

"Oh, hey. Sorry," John said. "I was just looking around."

McKay swallowed. "I, um… I don't use this room anymore."

He looked a little shaky, and John quickly closed the lid and tugged the dust cloth back into place. He walked over to where McKay was standing, motionless and still staring at the piano. He had a sudden urge to put his arm around his shoulders and pull him into a hug - but he didn't. "You okay there, buddy?"

McKay dragged his gaze away from the piano and glanced quickly at John before turning away. He muttered a quiet, "I'm fine," and hurried off down the hall.

John paused for a moment, unsure what had just happened, and then followed after him. When he got to the kitchen McKay was busy - very deliberately busy - making breakfast.

"Look, Rodney - I'm sorry if I crossed a line back there."

McKay waved an irritated looking hand over his shoulder. "It's nothing. Forget it. How do you want your eggs?"

There was something off - with the tone and gesture - but it was obvious that McKay didn't want to talk about it. John could understand that - it wasn't like he'd exactly been a Chatty Cathy himself. So he let it go, but it didn't stop him from wishing that he could help somehow. Despite only knowing McKay for a little while it was clear the guy was in pain, and John hated that he couldn't help.

They ate breakfast and made stilted small talk, both carefully avoiding any mention of what had just happened. It all felt horribly wrong after the ease of the day before and the way they'd kind of just clicked. McKay was still pale, and his eyes had a lost, haunted look that made John's chest ache when he looked at him.

After they were done McKay went and checked for any news, and John took care of the dishes.

McKay came back and reported that snowploughs were out on the major routes. "I doubt they'll even bother trying to get up here though," he added. "There's really not much on this road except this place and a hiking shelter further up the mountain. They'll clear the road up to Bear Ridge for the resort, but it looks like waiting for a thaw or relying on snow tyres on this side."

"Yeah, that was kind of my problem," John sighed. "I wasn't expecting it to be so bad, and I didn't have any chains or snow tyres. Plus I'm going to need a tow to get out of that ditch."

"I have some spare chains, if you want them," McKay said, but he sounded reluctant. "I think it might be safer if you waited a little longer though - the road back down is going to be treacherous. People always underestimate how dangerous it can be."

"Yeah, but I think I'm going to hike up to the road and see how it looks. I ought to check on my ride too - make sure it's still there."

"Unless a posse of bears, who've spontaneously acquired opposable thumbs and an overwhelming desire to take a road trip, have happened along then it should be perfectly safe. I told you - nothing's moving out there for a while yet," McKay snorted, and John was glad to see that some of the tightness had faded from around his eyes. "Not to mention that hardly anyone comes up this way anyway."

"Hey! That would be pretty cool - with the bears," John grinned. "I'd better fetch a change of clothes though. I can't keep wearing yours forever."

McKay glanced at the tee shirt John was wearing. "I don't mind - you look good in them," he murmured and then his ears turned a little pink. "I mean, I have plenty of clothes - it's no problem if you need to borrow any more."

"Even so," John smiled, wanting to make sure that McKay understood it wasn't anything personal, "I'd kind of like to go up and take a look."

"Oh, alright," McKay huffed, but he was smiling a little too. "I'm going with you though. We can take my Jeep. It's an all-terrain, all-weather monster that I got especially for living here, and it should be able to get us as far as your car. It has a winch too, if it looks like we can get you back onto the road ready for when the snow clears."

"Thanks, Rodney. I appreciate it."

"Yes, yes," McKay harrumphed. "So - is there some place you need to get back to? Apart from risking your neck in stupidly dangerous snow-related activities up at Bear, that is?"

"Nah, not really." John shrugged. "I'm kind of taking a break and considering my options right now."

"Is that your way of saying that you got fired?"

John didn't flinch though McKay was uncannily close. "Not exactly." It had been an honourable discharge - mainly because of the list of commendations filling his jacket - but it wasn't like he'd been given much of a choice. They'd told him he could leave, or fly a desk and shuffle paper for the rest of his career. He hadn't even had to think about it. There was no way he was a desk jockey, and he really didn't want to work for people who put the balance sheet above going back to rescue a comrade. Not that he was about to tell McKay any of that. "It was time for a career change, and I'm just having a little fun in the meantime."

"Oh my God," McKay groaned. "You're not having some kind of mid-life crisis, are you? Buying a sports car or some huge motorbike and sleeping around with people half your age? And getting regrettable tattoos in inappropriate places, and buying leather pants to try and recapture your lost youth? Not that you look like you need to and, I mean, seriously? With that ass you'd probably actually be able to carry off the damn pants and…." He snapped his mouth shut and went abruptly pink. "Or, you know, um… whatever."

John stared at him for a second, digesting this latest stream of McKay consciousness, and then hooted out a laugh. "Jeez, McKay."

McKay ducked his head. "Yes, well… I, um…." He paused. "Look, I thought you wanted to go and check on your car?" he added sharply.

"Sure!" John threw up his hands in surrender and chuckled.

McKay tutted, but John could see the trace of a smile.

McKay hadn't been kidding about the Jeep - the thing was built like a fucking tank. They made their way up the track to the road fairly easily, with just a few tricky moments where the snow had drifted particularly deep. It was obvious that trying it in anything else would have been useless - they'd have probably been bogged down, axels deep, after the first few yards.

"Studded snow tyres," McKay said smugly and flicked on the heated chair controls. "Can't beat 'em up here."

"No kidding," John whistled. He was pretty damn impressed. "You lived here long? Don't get me wrong, but you don't exactly seem like a backwoods kind of a guy."

"I like the quiet."

"Still, it must get kind of lonely."

"I like it," McKay said, but John wasn't convinced - McKay seemed pretty lonely to him. " I bought this place as a retreat - somewhere I could come and work when I needed to focus and not be interrupted." He paused and then seemed to slump. "Then I… moved here permanently… five years ago."

"So you work from home then?" John wondered what a musician who didn't play anymore did.

"No. I, um… I'm retired." He looked uncomfortable.

"I think it should be just up here." John changed the subject, not wanting to push it any further. "I think I remember that bend and then - there! Oh, yeah. There she is."

They pulled up behind John's SUV. It looked pretty forlorn. The hood was in a ditch and snow had drifted and covered half the roof.

"God," McKay muttered and his face drained of colour. "You could have been killed." He looked pretty freaked out.

"It looks worse than it is," John soothed. "I think it'll be fine if we can just get it back on the road."

McKay stared at the SUV for a moment longer, a strange expression on his face, and then seemed to snap out of it. "Right! Right! We'd better take a look then." He bustled out of the Jeep, clapping his gloved hands briskly. "Come on. Chop, chop! We haven't got all day."

John got out. The snow was deep, and he sank down, his jeans immediately growing wet and heavy against his legs. It was cold, but the trees provided some shelter from the wind and it could have been a lot worse; at least it had stopped snowing. "You got the winch?"

"Yes," McKay nodded and opened the back.

John went around to help and as he got there he saw McKay turn and then begin to slip, arms flailing. He reached out and caught McKay's shoulders - they were broad and firm under his hands, even through the thick, padded jacket - and McKay grabbed onto his waist as he found his footing.

All around them the forest was still, and they stood like that for a moment, frozen, face-to-face in each other's space, their breath mingling in the frigid air. McKay's eyes were huge and impossibly blue as he stared up at John.

John licked his lips, and he saw McKay drop his gaze to watch. He swayed a fraction closer, moving on instinct. It would be so easy to take that last step and press his cold lips to the heat of that enticingly crooked mouth.

Above them a red-tailed hawk screeched out a loud call as it flew overhead and the moment was broken. John dropped his hands from McKay's shoulders.

McKay took a hurried step back. "I'll, um, just sort out the winch," he stuttered and then busied himself, not meeting John's eyes.

"Yeah, good idea." John swallowed. Jesus! That had been close - and really, really stupid.

He grabbed a shovel from the Jeep and began to clear the snow from around the SUV, but he couldn't stop himself from imagining what it would have been like if he'd actually done it. If he'd framed McKay's face in his hands and pressed in close, teased at those curiously slanted lips and just made himself at home.

He shook his head and concentrated on shifting more snow.

A few minutes later McKay had got the winch into place, and John helped him to hook it up to the SUV. They cleared the worst of the snow from around the wheels, and John got in to steer. Then they slowly began to haul it out of the ditch with only a few false starts and the occasional encouraging kick from McKay when things got stubborn.

"It doesn't look too bad," John said, checking around the SUV once it was firmly on four wheels again. The hood had a few extra dents, one fender was kind of crushed, and the front bumper was hanging off on one side, but the headlamps were in one piece and the engine turned over when he tried it.

"That's good," McKay nodded, but he still looked a little stiff and awkward.

They attached the snow chains that they'd brought up with them, but the snow was still fairly deep, and McKay got pretty agitated when John suggested trying to make it down the mountain. He did have a point - the road was steep and narrow and the going looked rough.

"I just think it would be safer if you waited for it to clear," McKay said. He really sounded worried about it. "They're saying there should be a thaw in a day or so - perhaps even overnight."

"Well, if you don't mind having a houseguest a while longer." It did make sense, and he'd just have to make sure that he stuck to his plan and didn't do anything stupid - like nearly kissing McKay again.

"Obviously, you're a complete inconvenience," McKay snorted, but he wasn't fooling anyone - John could see the relief in his eyes. "You're not completely stupid though, so there is that at least."

John grinned and opened the back of the SUV to grab his bag. "Careful, Rodney - or all these compliments will start going to my head."

McKay waved him off and then peered into the trunk. "Oh my God! I take it back. You're a total idiot! You came up here with a surfboard and all this junk - but no snow tyres, chains or even a shovel?" He pointed accusingly at John's golf clubs. "What were you planning to do? Dig your way out of a snow drift with a nine iron?"

John stared for a moment at McKay's outraged expression and then burst out laughing. He couldn't help himself. "Nah, thought I'd use a wedge."

"I can't believe I'm giving shelter to a moron," McKay groaned, but he was starting to chuckle. "I distinctly remember you promising me that you aren't a lunatic!"

"I said I wasn't an - escaped - lunatic," John smirked and closed up the SUV.

"I'm doomed," McKay complained. "I just hope it isn't contagious… the loss to the world would be incalculable…." he added, but he was smiling - and John had to smile back.

They got into the Jeep and headed back down the mountain, McKay still grumbling as they went.

They spent the afternoon having a Battlestar Galactica - the new version - marathon and eating way too much junk food. Well, they were snowed-in and there really wasn't much else to do - besides, it was fun to hear McKay spluttering over the lameness of certain members of the final five.

It had gotten dark, but they hadn't bothered switching on the lamps and the room was lit by the glow from the huge-ass TV screen. The latest disc had finished playing, scrolling through the final credits and warnings, and it was quiet except for the hiss and spit of the logs in the hearth. They sat for a while in comfortable silence, and John thought McKay had nodded into an Oreo-induced doze.

"I wish sometimes," McKay murmured unexpectedly, "that there really were resurrection ships." The comment and tone were at odds with the lightness of their earlier banter.

"You want to keep coming back and living forever?"

"No, not for me." McKay sounded like he was lost in thought.

John didn't know what to say to that.

"You asked me before about why I lived here," McKay continued quietly. "I used to be a musician - a pianist. They said I was a genius, and my sister," he swallowed. "My sister - Jeannie - she played the violin, and she was even better, not that I'd ever tell her that, of course. But she was… she was brilliant. Sometimes we played together - concerts all around the world. Then she got married and, just like that, her priorities changed. She told me she was giving it all up to start a family. I couldn't believe it - all that talent and…."

McKay paused and even in the hard, blue light of the TV, John could see a lingering confusion and pain in his eyes.

"We argued - there was no one like Jeannie when it came to a knock-down, drag-out fight," he chuckled softly and then caught his breath. "Neither of us would budge and I was so… so angry at her." He sounded bewildered. "It wasn't about me. I wanted… I couldn't make her see that she was letting all that talent - her gift - just go to waste and…."

McKay's voice broke and the pain in it went straight through John. Suddenly he wanted him to stop, had to make him stop. This was too much, too personal, and he didn't want to hear any more. Rodney shouldn't trust him this way - he wasn't that guy. "Look, Rodney…."

"She died," Rodney blurted. "We were in the car; Jeannie, her husband - Kaleb - and me. We were sitting at a stoplight and this drunk driver just came out of nowhere and hit us. It was head-on…."

"Rodney…." John faltered again. He had to stop this, but McKay kept on talking like he hadn't even heard.

"We'd been out to dinner, and we'd started arguing about it again - right there in the car. It was so stupid; sitting at the intersection still fighting and then suddenly the car was just sort of rammed…. Out of nowhere we were sliding, and there was all this noise and screaming. I blacked out, I think - I don't know - and then I opened my eyes and she was… dead." McKay's voice was almost a whisper now. "Jeannie was dead - Kaleb too - and there was blood everywhere. They were dead, and I wasn't and…."

McKay sounded lost, like he still couldn't understand what had happened. "I couldn't play after that, couldn't even look at a piano. I'd had this place for a while and came up here, and I just… never went back." He looked at John, eyes wide and so, so blue. "I'm sorry. I don't usually talk about this. I'm not very good with people - at getting close or trusting them - and it's just easier to stay away. These past few days with you, though - I don't know why, but you make me feel…."

That was it. John couldn't stand it anymore, couldn't listen. He was the wrong person for McKay to choose for this - to trust in, to confide in. He had to shut him up somehow.

"Rodney… please." John grabbed at McKay's shoulders and pulled him close, closer still. He just wanted to make him stop talking… and then suddenly McKay wasn't talking anymore - and they were… kissing. Christ! John had pressed their mouths together in a rough, silencing - oh, God, yes - perfect kiss.

Rodney's mouth was warm and soft, a surprised 'oh' shaping his lips, and John felt the moment when he just melted into his arms. It was amazing and right and… what the hell was he doing? Rodney wasn't some random pickup. He may have only known him for a couple of days, but he already knew that this wouldn't be the kind of no-strings, stress relief he usually went looking for. There was nothing easy - nothing casual - about Rodney McKay. Jesus, what was he doing? He couldn't risk this.

John pulled away, breaking the kiss even though he ached for more. "Rodney, wait. I…."

Rodney looked at him, his eyes bright with amazement. He smiled shyly, and John felt his heart clench like a damn Harlequin cliché.

"I can't believe you want this - want me." Rodney sounded incredulous and a little breathless. "Oh my God. Yes, yes - please. When I first saw you - with the ridiculous hair and those eyes, and then the comic books, and the talking and laughing… wow. I mean, I never do this. I never…."

He surged forward and kissed John, a little off centre and too eager, but John couldn't help but groan and open his mouth. Jesus! It was just a kiss, but he couldn't remember anything ever feeling this good. It was totally insane.

"Really, I never, ever do this," Rodney murmured against his lips, disbelieving and delighted.

"Me neither," John moaned, but he had the feeling they were talking about different things. He'd had plenty of sex with people he'd just met, but he never did this - he never had sex with someone who meant something to him, someone he cared about. It was freaking him out. This was dangerous - Rodney was dangerous - and he should just put a stop to it right now before things got completely out of hand, but, oh God, Rodney's mouth was amazing.

"Rodney, stop," he panted, dragging his mouth away and then helplessly pressing back for more.

"I know, I know," Rodney muttered between kisses. "We should take this to the bedroom - it'll be much more comfortable."

John groaned and tried to protest but every time he opened his mouth, Rodney kissed him - or he kissed Rodney. He couldn't stop himself. The rational part of him was shouting 'no' but the rest of him - his heart especially - just shouted 'oh, hell yes' even louder.

Rodney was moaning into their kisses and pulling at John, urging him up off the couch, and John couldn't fight it. They stood, somehow still wrapped around each other and without breaking their kiss.

John cupped Rodney's face with his hands. Now. He was going to put a stop to it right now.

Rodney moaned and slid his hands around John's waist, fisting the back of his tee shirt as he pushed closer.

John's hips seemed to have a mind of their own and pushed up against the solid heat of Rodney's body. He gasped a moan into their kiss. Really. Right now. He was going to ease away gently and explain that he couldn't do this. He was going to tell Rodney that this was a bad idea and that they should stop - right now.

Rodney moved against John and suddenly there was the blunt shaft of Rodney's cock against his hip. He pushed forward helplessly, groaning as his cock rubbed across Rodney's - both of them hard and hot, and with too many layers separating them.

Rodney broke their kiss and sucked in a whooping gulp of air. "Oh my God. We have to get naked!" He kissed John again, quick and hard, and then grabbed his hand and started hauling him towards the bedroom.

John groaned as his cock chaffed in his pants, and he'd never been so glad for a one-storey house in his life; stairs would have been torture. Wait. He was supposed to be doing something. He had to tell Rodney that they couldn't do this….

Rodney dragged him through a doorway and then stopped. They were in a bedroom - Rodney's bedroom - and Rodney suddenly looked a little unsure.

"Look. I've got to tell you," he started, "well, it's been a while. For me. You know?" He dropped his gaze, and his long eyelashes fanned out, dark and delicate, across his skin.

Rodney was beautiful, and John wanted him - and he was suddenly so damn tired of fighting.

He paused and then shrugged away all the reasons that he shouldn't get to have this and took Rodney's face in his hands. He urged him to look up and then smiled when their gazes met. "Yeah," he nodded. "Been a while for me too."

Rodney smiled. "Yeah?"

He brushed his thumb across Rodney's mouth. He couldn't even remember the last time that sex had actually meant something. "Yeah." It really, really had.

"So." Rodney tipped his head a little nervously towards the bed. "You, um… want to?"

"Oh, yeah," John grinned, his heart suddenly lighter, and pulled Rodney closer and kissed him.

They made their way across the room - stopping for frequent, urgent kisses and to toe off pants and socks. John bumped into the side of the bed and then sat down, dragging Rodney with him. He swallowed Rodney's surprised squawk with a kiss, and rolled them over until he was covering Rodney and pressing him into the mattress.

Rodney moaned and slid his hands up the back of John's tee shirt, stroking his skin and leaning up to scatter kisses across his neck.

John's hips bucked, and he shuddered as Rodney teased the skin behind his ear. He could feel the solid outline of Rodney's cock through the flimsy fabric of their shorts, and it made him crazy. He sat up, kneeling across Rodney's thighs, and peeled off his tee shirt. He smiled at Rodney's flattering little gasp, and then repaid the favour as Rodney discarded his own shirt.

Rodney had a gorgeous, broad chest with a smattering of fine hair and pert little nipples that just cried out to be sucked. John leaned forward and kissed his way from one to the other and then sucked and teased at the hardened points. Rodney gasped and squirmed under him, and John could feel the hard ridge of his cock rubbing against his ass.

He shimmied down the bed, dropping more kisses to Rodney's chest and belly as he went, and grabbed at the waistband of Rodney's boxers and hurriedly pulled them down and off.

Rodney's cock was beautiful, and it sprang up, hard and red, against his belly. John glanced up and saw Rodney watching him with wide eyes. He grinned and then leaned in and swiped his tongue along the hot length of Rodney's shaft.

Rodney cried out and his hips jerked up. John smoothed his hands over the soft skin of Rodney's thighs and across the curve of his hipbones, pressing down lightly as he leaned in and sucked Rodney's cock into his mouth. Oh, God! It tasted so good - sweet, clean skin over throbbing heat - and it filled his mouth perfectly. Rodney moaned and panted above him, and John glanced up to see a look of astonished joy on his face.

John smiled around the cock in his mouth and continued to suck slowly, feeling the tremors building in Rodney's hips as he fought not to thrust. John swirled his tongue around the head, precum making his mouth water, and he took Rodney deeper, desperate for more of that taste.

Rodney made a harsh, strangled cry and began pushing frantically at John's shoulders. John lifted his head and wrapped his hand around Rodney's cock. It only took a couple of quick jerks and Rodney was coming - thick spurts of hot come painting his belly and sliding down John's hand.

"Oh my God," Rodney panted, falling back against the bed breathless and voice full of wonder. "That was… oh, wow - that was just incredible. I mean, that was beyond good. I can't even describe it. Seriously, I think you may have broken something. I'm not sure I've ever come that hard and…."

John slid back up the bed and lay propped on one elbow, watching as Rodney rambled on with a bemused, overjoyed smile lighting his face like a beacon.

"… I don't even know how you did that thing - you know, the thing with the swirly licking? - and… oh, hi," he said, as if suddenly seeing John, and his smile grew even brighter. "There you are."

"Here I am," John smirked and then almost swallowed his tongue as Rodney rolled over and pushed him flat on his back, stripped off his shorts and sucked in his cock in the space of about three seconds. Jesus, Rodney was like guided missile and the target was John's cock - not that he was complaining.

Rodney's mouth was like a furnace, and John moaned as Rodney licked and sucked around the head and slid his hand along the shaft and squeezed. John got the impression that Rodney hadn't had a lot of experience giving head - a couple of times he went too deep and choked a little and had to back off - but he didn't care; it felt amazing.

John lifted his head and watched, entranced, as Rodney's mouth stretched wide and sweet around his cock. His face was a mix of fierce concentration and hunger, and in an embarrassingly short time, John was wheezing and gasping and pushing him away.

Rodney wrapped his hand around the shaft again and redoubled his efforts, stroking firmly and making John's balls tighten. He slid his thumb over the head on an upward stroke, and John groaned, digging his heels into the mattress. His whole body tensed and spasmed and then he was coming, heat spreading along every nerve, and his cock spewing so hard that things went kind of hazy for a second.

"Wow," John moaned when he was finally able to get his tongue working again. His body was lax and after-shocks of pleasure zinged through him as he sagged back against the bed. He felt weirdly boneless and content.

"Absolutely." Rodney's voice was slurred.

John craned his neck and peered down the bed. Rodney was collapsed with his arms wrapped around John's legs, and his face was mashed up against his hip. His eyes were closed, and he had the biggest, sappiest smile lighting his whole face.

John grinned happily and then the smile slid abruptly from his face. Oh, shit. He'd had sex with Rodney. He'd known it wasn't a good idea, and he'd gone ahead and done it anyway. Fuck!

Rodney opened his eyes.

"Um, was that okay?" Rodney looked a little anxious, though he still had a kind of post-sex glow about him, and John's chest got tight. "Like I said, um… it's been a while."

"It was amazing, Rodney," John said, and he meant it. He didn't need to lie; it had been amazing - amazing and wonderful and way too much. It shouldn't have happened.

Rodney crawled back up the bed, groaning a little as he plopped down at John's side, and then he made himself comfortable with one arm flung across John's chest. He leaned over and dropped an almost shy kiss to John's mouth, and John couldn't help but return it. Jesus - he was so screwed.

He'd had great sex before - in fact he'd had better sex than this - but it had never made him feel this way. This wasn't even about the sex. Sex was usually a quick, mutual gratification with no expectation of anything more. This had been different though; with Rodney there'd been something else, something deeper, and that… that scared the shit out of him because there was no way this could work out. He'd only screw things up - he always did.

Rodney settled with his head on John's shoulder. He had a dreamy look softening his face, and John had never seen him look so open before.

"I can't believe we just did that," Rodney murmured softly. "It was just so… so incredible, and you're incredible too. Thank you, thank you so much," he said in a rush.

"Don't thank me," John whispered and wrapped an arm around Rodney's shoulders. He didn't want to hear this - he didn't deserve thanks; he deserved a kick in the ass.

"I just can't believe the way things have worked out. I mean if you hadn't got lost in the snow and run your car off the road, and then found your way here," Rodney rambled on happily, "then we'd never have met."

"Yeah." John stared up at the ceiling. Shit. It would probably have been better if they hadn't because he had a horrible feeling that someone - Rodney - was going to end up getting hurt here.

"I know we towed your car out, but… I mean, there's really no need for you to rush off," Rodney said, his voice sounding sleepy now the post-sex high was fading. "The roads are still really bad, and I have plenty of room here, and now we've gotten together, well…" He yawned and cuddled in more closely. "You could always just stay…."

Rodney's head grew heavy on John's shoulder, and in the next second soft snores were warming his skin as Rodney fell asleep.

'You could always just stay….'

John sighed. Christ! What a mess. One night stands and random pick-ups were one thing, but this was something completely different.

It wasn't like he hadn't seen the warning signals. The problem was he'd gotten too comfortable and had let himself relax. It had been so easy, and Rodney - with his loud mouth and ego, and that freakily appealing geekiness, had slid right on in under his defences. That disarming mix of honesty and vulnerability, and those big, blue eyes and that perfectly crooked mouth had just slipped right past him.

He should have known better - did know better - but somehow it had only taken one weird, reclusive pianist and a shitload of snow to bring everything crashing down. What if there hadn't been the storm though, trapping him here and forcing him into a corner? Would this have happened? And what did he really see happening here anyway? Rodney had said stay, and so what? He was just going to drop everything and move in? Was that what Rodney even meant, or was he just so lonely that he was grasping at straws? Jesus! What if he did stay - how long before he messed things up and let Rodney down? How long before Rodney got hurt?

A small part of him really wanted to say, 'the hell with everything, just give it a shot, you dumb fuck'. The trouble was that no matter how hard he tried he knew that, one way or another, he always fucked things up in the end. He'd been doing it all of his life, and it was kind of hard to ignore past experience, even if he wanted to.

Rodney murmured a nonsensical snuffle as he slept and snuggled closer. He looked so happy and content, and John tried to burn the memory of his warm skin and sleeping smile into his brain.

He stayed like that, indulging himself a while longer, and then let out a long breath. He knew what he had to do.

He gently eased away from Rodney, pulling the covers up around his shoulders, and got soundlessly of bed. He gathered his scattered clothes from the floor and got dressed quickly.

Rodney sighed and burrowed down a little more deeply into his pillow, and John stood by the bed for a moment and just watched him sleep. Then he smiled sadly and leaned over and pressed one last kiss to Rodney's cheek.

He wasn't sure if he was the world's biggest coward or if he deserved a medal for self-sacrifice - maybe both - he just knew that he had to leave. People who trusted John Sheppard got hurt - or worse - and he didn't want that happening to Rodney.

He took one last look at Rodney, sleeping peacefully and looking so damn happy, and then turned and walked quietly out of the door.

John trudged up the track towards the road, sliding and stumbling in the deep snow, and trying to walk in the tracks that Rodney's Jeep had made earlier. The night was crisp and still, and the moonlight reflected eerily off the drifted snow banks making strange shadowed shapes. The stars were visible now the storm clouds had passed, and the sky looked huge and was scattered with bright pinpoints of light.

The wind picked up, and he tucked his head down and pulled his scarf a little tighter around his neck. He made his way to the road, but the snow was icy in places now the temperature had fallen and it took longer than he'd expected. His face felt frozen, and his hands were cold despite his gloves, but he finally made it to the SUV.

The snow was still pretty deep on the road, and he was probably crazy to even try and get down the mountain in these conditions, but he had no choice. He needed to get away now.

The engine caught first time, and he thanked whatever saint it was that looked out for screw-ups, and then eased away, keeping it in low gear and glad of the extra traction from the chains Rodney had given him.

He couldn't help but imagine Rodney's face when he woke in the morning and found that he'd gone. It was killing him - he could just see the bemused look in Rodney's eyes and the way it would slowly turn to hurt and maybe disbelief, and then probably to anger.

He hadn't even left a note to explain. He'd started to write one and then tossed it away; what the hell was he supposed to say? He knew that running out like this in the middle of the night was going to hurt Rodney, but he also knew that he'd only end up hurting him more if he stayed.

The SUV slewed wildly as he took a bend, and he grabbed the wheel tighter and swore under his breath. Of course, he might just end up killing himself and then he wouldn't have to worry about any of it. The phrase 'unconscious death wish' popped into his mind, and he choked out an empty laugh - maybe those shrinks hadn't been talking out their asses the whole time, after all.

He was doing the right thing though. Rodney might not realise it, but he was better off without him and this really was for the best. Rodney would soon forget that he'd ever been here, and everything would go back to normal. That's what John was going to do - he was going to forget all about Rodney and get on with his life. Hell, there were still all those waves and mountains and rivers out there….

He switched on the radio and fixed his eyes firmly on the road ahead. An old Johnny Cash track started to play, and he began to sing along loudly, determined not to think about Rodney at all.

Part two

John put down his empty bottle and signalled to the bartender who was laughing with a couple of guys down the other end of the bar. A fresh Bud arrived, and he nodded his thanks and took a long swallow.

He was in California. His original plan had been to spend a month up at Bear Ridge, but he'd headed south as soon as he'd gotten down off the mountain, hitting the Five and putting all that snow, and car-hating elks, and the memory of big, blue eyes firmly in the rear-view mirror.

He'd stopped when he reached San Francisco and had spent the last few weeks trying out the waves. He'd moved down the coast to Half Moon Bay today. The surf here was usually junk because it was too exposed, but he'd heard they'd got an offshore wind that was mixing with some good-sized swells and he'd gotten lucky. He kinda liked it here anyway. The beaches were quiet, and he pretty much had them to himself - which suited him fine as he wasn't feeling particularly sociable right now.

It was cold enough that he needed a full suit, but he'd still stayed in the water until his hands were numb, and he could hardly lift his arms to pick up his board. He'd only called it a day once the light began to fade. Then he'd realised that he hadn't eaten since breakfast, and so he'd found a little place off the PCH that did great ribs and had eaten until barbeque sauce was ready to come out of his ears. After that he'd headed to a bar. It wasn't gay oriented - and he wasn't looking - but they were close enough to San Francisco to be plenty tolerant, and there was a good mix of people hanging out or using the jukebox and tiny dance floor.

His body ached from the hours in the water, and he was feeling pretty buzzed from the beer. It wasn't enough though; he could still see Rodney's face every time he closed his damn eyes - and it was killing him.

It was crazy. He'd only known the guy for a couple of days, but it was like Rodney had gotten under his skin and he couldn't shake him. It wasn't so bad during the day when he could push his body hard enough that he didn't have time to think about much of anything, but it was different at night. He tried hard not to but he couldn't stop himself from wondering how Rodney was doing and just how badly he'd managed to fuck him up.

That was why he'd had to leave - because eventually he always hurt the people who trusted him, and under all that bluster Rodney was actually kind of fragile. He just hoped that he'd gotten out quickly enough and that he hadn't hurt him too badly.

He was bad news - and at least Rodney knew that now.

"Hey, can I get you another?"

John looked up. A good-looking blond guy, maybe early thirties and with a honey tan and bright smile, was standing next to him. He looked at ease with himself, and his smile was just a little bit flirty. There was no mistaking the invitation in his eyes, and he was exactly John's type - or had been anyway.

John smiled politely and raised his half full beer. "No thanks, I'm okay."

The guy moved a little closer. "You sure?"

He knew that all it would take was a nod and a smile and he could be leaving with the guy right now - no questions, no promises, no risk - and a month ago he'd have done exactly that.

He shook his head again. "I'm sure."

"Well, if you change your mind…." The guy winked and headed back into the crowd.

John finished his beer and nodded to the bartender. "Scotch."

If he wasn't going to have some meaningless, anonymous sex it looked like he'd better try and find some peace - or what passed for it anyway - in a bottle. Maybe if he was drunk enough he'd be able to forget Rodney, and the stupid ache in his gut whenever he thought about him.

A car door slammed, startling John awake, and he opened his eyes and groaned as his head throbbed painfully. Disgustingly bright sunlight was streaming through a gap in the curtains, and there was a noisy squeak and rattle as the housekeeping trolley trundled past his door.

He rolled over and instantly regretted it, his stomach doing a 9G loop and threatening to force its way out through his throat. He swallowed heavily and then groped for the glass on the nightstand and gulped down a couple of Advil. He groaned again pitifully and lay back down to try and let his stomach settle. Hopefully the jet engine vibrating through his skull would quieten down too.

Jesus! He shouldn't have drunk so much last night. Thank God his motel was in stumbling distance of the bar, or he'd probably be sleeping it off in the backseat of his car - or in a ditch somewhere - and he kind of liked his spine aligned how it was. At least the scotch had helped him pass out into a night of dreamless oblivion - with no taunting memories of a slanted mouth and vulnerable, blue eyes.

Okay, lying in bed with a stinking hangover was one thing but lying here and mooning over a guy he'd only known for a couple of days was actually kind of pathetic, and he really didn't need any help with that. Christ, it wasn't like he didn't already have enough guilt and accusations to fill his nights - Rodney should just take a number and get in line.

He sat up slowly and - when there was no further rebellion from his stomach - swung his legs over the side of the bed. He squinted at his watch. It was only a little after six, but some habits were hard to break, and so he got up and walked gingerly to the bathroom. A long shower and a vigorous tooth brushing later and he felt vaguely human. What he really needed though was coffee - and not the freeze-dried crap provided 'for your enjoyment' by the motel management.

He swiped a towel over his hair and grabbed a tee shirt from his duffle. He stopped - it was Rodney's Mr Fantastic shirt. He'd just shoved everything into his pack that night, and in his hurry to get away it must have gotten caught up with his stuff. He stared at it for a moment, his stomach flip-flopping in a way that had nothing to do with the scotch, and then stuffed it back into his bag and pulled out another shirt at random and got dressed. Oh, yeah - he had all the bases covered when it came to pathetic.

There was a diner next to the motel, a little Ma and Pa place decked out like a barnyard with plastic pigs and china chickens crowding the shelves. He wore his sunglasses and sat in a shaded booth and ordered coffee - with a side of coffee. Two refills later and he finally felt less crappy. He also realised that he felt kind of hungry and took off his glasses and squinted at the menu.

He had the breakfast special on the recommendation of the kind, matronly waitress with the impressive beehive hair - 'Call me Bonnie, honey' - who seemed to have gotten the idea that he needed looking after. Perhaps it was the wrinkled clothes, three-day-old growth of beard and the bags the size of Portland under his eyes.

He cleared his plate - the hash browns really were as good as Bonnie had said - and then smiled goodbye, leaving a good tip and taking more coffee to go.

He headed out to his car. The day was shaping up to be a warm one, though there was a sharp breeze carrying the tang of the ocean, and he decided to drive back out to El Granada and see if his luck was still holding.

His cell phone rang as he got to the SUV, and he fumbled it out of his pocket with one hand, juggling his coffee and keys in the other. "Yeah?"

"John? Is that you?"

"Dave?" He hadn't spoken to his brother in over six years - not since that last time he'd been home.

"Yeah, it's me. Look - it's Dad."

"What about him?" Not that a call out of the blue meant anything good. With the way he and his father had left things, he knew Dave wouldn't be calling to invite him to a surprise birthday party.

"He's sick, John," Dave said, sounding awkward. "You should come see him."

"Look. I don't think a visit from me is going to help him feel any better," he said, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

There was a pause.

"He's not going to get better, John."

Dave's voice broke, and for an instant John was a big brother again after so many years as a stranger.

"It'll be okay, Davey. I'm coming home."

Dave coughed, and John could literally hear him pulling himself together.

"That's good." There was another pause, and then he continued, smooth and in control again, "He's at the house. Let me know when you're arriving, and I'll send a car to the airport."

Of course he'd send a car - a chauffeur-driven limo, no doubt. "Don't worry, I know the way." This time he didn't bother trying to hide the bitterness.

John checked out of his room and drove up to San Francisco airport. He grabbed his duffle and left the SUV in long-term parking. He had no idea how long he was going to be away. Dave hadn't told him any details, but it was obvious that things were looking bad if he'd called him.

The last time he'd seen or spoken to his father had been nearly seven years ago when he'd gone back for Dave's wedding.

Things had been strained between them for years, pretty much since the summer his mom had died. He'd left for Stanford a couple of years later, only going home for obligatory holiday visits. Then he'd joined the Air Force right out of college, going overseas straight after basic training, and even when he was Stateside he'd hardly ever visited.

Dave was four years younger than him, and he'd only been twelve when they'd lost their mom. He'd kind of clung on to their father after that.

John had been so busy fighting with their father that somewhere along the way he and Dave had drifted apart. Dave had eventually taken the place in the company originally earmarked for him - if he'd toed the Sheppard family line and done what his father expected - and it had gotten that they were little more than polite strangers.

He'd almost been surprised when Dave had invited him to be a groomsman at his wedding - not his best man, of course, he'd asked a college buddy to be that - though John had wondered if he'd only been included to avoid the gossip his omission would have caused. He was still the groom's brother, after all, and the cats at the country club would have had a field day with that.

The wedding had gone smoothly. Dave had looked really happy, and his new wife seemed sweet. For a while John had wondered if it maybe wasn't too late to build a few bridges but then his father had started in as usual, and there'd been too many old sins casting bitter shadows. He and his father had had one hell of a row, and he'd left. He hadn't spoken to his father - or Dave - since.

So yeah, things must be pretty bad if the black sheep was being called home.

He got a seat on the first available flight to Virginia - there was a connection through Detroit but it would still get him there by evening - and he was airborne in under an hour.

It was the first time he'd flown since his discharge. He supposed he ought to feel something - regret or anger or whatever else the shrinks scribbled in their leather-bound note pads - but he didn't. There was already a hole in his gut where the sky should be, and he lived with it every day - he didn't need a reminder of what he'd lost. Besides, sitting in a big Airbus surrounded by chattering commuters was so far from the cockpit of an F-22, or flying an Osprey or an Apache, that it was hardly even flying. This was mass transport and felt more like taking the bus than being in the sky.

A flight attendant came by with the drinks cart, tiny bottles of bourbon and scotch tinkling with each step, but it was a little too early - even with his recent track record - and he just had a soda.

The plane was pretty empty, and he had a row to himself, so at least he could stretch out a little. There were a couple of guys sitting across the aisle from him, and he noticed that they were holding hands and smiling at each other, their heads bent close together. They looked happy.

He turned away abruptly and finished his drink; maybe he should have had that scotch after all. Then he reclined his seat and closed his eyes, and tried really hard not to think about Rodney, or his father, or flying - or any damn thing at all.

It was dark when they landed in Charlottesville. John picked up a rental car at the airport and headed north. The traffic was fairly light, and he made good time - things hadn't changed much since the last time he'd driven this route - and all too soon he was turning into the long, sweeping driveway that lead up to his father's house. He'd called it home once, but it hadn't really felt that way for a long time and now it was very much his father's house.

He drove up to the familiar Colonial style mansion. It was large and imposing - like the man who owned it - a solid square building consisting of two symmetrical wings and with fancy columns on either side of the door. The windows were all brightly lit, but the house looked cold - everything too perfect, like a showplace - or maybe he was just projecting.

He parked off to the side near the separate garage block and got out of the car. His breath misted the air; it was cold and smelt like snow. Jeez, please God don't let there be another snowstorm - there was no way he could stand being cooped up in this old mausoleum.

The memory of popcorn and a shy, crooked smile teased at him, and he slammed the car door shut with a little more force than necessary and turned towards the house.

A woman answered the door. She was blonde and pretty, and it took John a moment to recognise her - it was Dave's wife, Cindy.

"John!" She smiled warmly and gestured him in. "Come in out of the cold. We thought you'd call from the airport. Dave had a car ready."

"No need. I got a rental."

"I'm so glad you're here. Dave will be relieved, and Patrick has been asking for you."

John shot her a look, but she seemed to mean it. He remembered liking her when he'd met her at the wedding and was suddenly glad that Dave had found someone so nice.

"Where's your bag? I thought you could have your old room - if that's okay? We've been staying here for the last few weeks, and you know what Dave's like about this kind of thing. So it seems to have fallen to me to sort out the practicalities."

John didn't say that he really didn't know what Dave was like anymore - in fact, he was kind of surprised that Dave wasn't Mr Hands-On-In-Control at home too, like he was at the office. "I left my bag in the car - I was just going to get a hotel later." He hadn't decided if that was because he wanted to - or if he hadn't been sure that he'd get the offer to stay.

Cindy touched his elbow lightly. "Do stay - I know it'll mean a lot to them both."

He wasn't sure about that, but Cindy obviously believed it and so he nodded. "Okay."

"Honey? Have you seen my…." Dave came into the hallway and stopped. "John. You're here." He smiled, and it was polite and meaningless and John mirrored it.

"I just got here."

There was a pause.

"Well, I don't know why we're all standing and talking in the hallway," Cindy said brightly, breaking the awkward silence, and John liked her even more. "Let's go into the sitting room. John - can I get you something to eat or a drink? I know you must have been travelling a while."

"I ate on the plane, thanks." He grinned as Cindy made a little moue and shook her head.

"Well, that's not exactly what I'd call food."

He smiled. "No, really - I'm okay."

They headed into the sitting room. It had been decorated since the last time John had been here, but the style was still the same - money and lots of it. There was a fire burning in the large, ornamental fireplace, and he wandered over.

"I'm just going to check on Patrick," Cindy said. "I'll leave you to catch up." She held Dave's gaze for a while and then pressed a kiss to his cheek and left.

Silence stretched out between them, and Dave walked over to a long side table. He held up a decanter. "Scotch?"


Dave poured out two good measures.

"Thanks," John nodded. The glass tumbler was heavy and cool in his hand, and the scotch warmed him as he swallowed. It tasted old and mellow and very expensive - not that he would have expected anything else.

They stood in front of the fire drinking their scotch and avoiding eye contact.

"So how is he?" John finally asked.

Dave turned, and John got his first good look at him. He seemed older - not just what six or seven years would do, but like he was weary and worn out. His eyes looked tired too, and there were deep lines etched in his brow.


"It's cancer," Dave said, suddenly looking exhausted.

John nodded at the couch, and they both sat down. "Tell me."

"It started about three months ago - he couldn't always catch his breath and was getting tired easily. It didn't seem too serious, and he laughed it off as old age and wouldn't see the doctor. Then it got worse, and he finally got it checked out. It was lung cancer - inoperable." Dave took a drink. "It wouldn't have mattered if he'd gone sooner - they say it must have been there for a while before the symptoms showed. It happens that way sometimes. They tried chemotherapy - to give him some more time - but it was no good. It just made him sick and so they stopped - it wasn't doing any good anyway."

John swallowed. "How long?"

"Not long now - few days, maybe a week. He's gone downhill pretty fast the last couple of days."

John had a sudden memory of being four years old and learning to ride a bicycle for the first time. His dad had taken the training wheels off his little blue bike and was running alongside him as he wobbled along. Then somehow they'd both ended up in a confused heap on the lawn, and his dad had swung him up in the air laughing and cheering, 'You did it, Johnny. You did it!'

John blinked, a rush of heat behind his eyes. "I'm, ah," he coughed. "I'm glad you called."

"Jesus, John!" Dave said angrily, getting up and pacing in front of the fireplace. "Did you really think that I wouldn't? You're the one that's stayed away all these years."

"Well, I think the old man made it pretty clear how he felt about me at your wedding."

"It started way before that, and you know it! You started pulling away after Mom died."

"You were young, Dave. You don't know what it was like and the way he was. I couldn't be what he wanted me to be. I had to leave."

"And what about me? Did you ever think about me when you walked out of our lives like that? Stanford, then the Air Force, and then God knows what postings around the world? Christ! You were being sent into war zones, and we were lucky to hear from you once in a blue moon - and we saw you even less."

"It wasn't like you needed me. You had Dad."

"You have no idea what I needed, or how I felt! I hated it when you two fought."

"You were quick enough to take his side." John stood up, suddenly angry at having the past dragged out. He was no good at this; he'd never been able to put what he was feeling into words.

"Because I was terrified that I'd lose him too! I was only a kid, and I thought that maybe he'd leave - or die just like Mom did!" Dave shouted and then the anger seemed to drain out of him. "That didn't mean that I didn't want my big brother - but you just left."

"I'm sorry." Jesus, he hadn't known that Dave felt this way. "There was a lot of stuff I couldn't tell you back then, and I just needed to get away."

"Yeah, well you certainly did that, John," Dave sighed and turned away and stared into the fire.

He didn't have an answer to that.

Cindy came in, and John saw her glance at them both - Dave standing tensely by the fire and him by the couch. "John? Would you like to see Patrick? I've told him that you're here."

He was pretty certain that he really didn't want to see his father right now, but he nodded anyway. "Thanks, Cindy. I'll go on up."

John headed up the wide, curving staircase, his footsteps eerily silent on the thick pile of the carpet.

Cindy had said that his father was in the master suite, and that they'd hired a live-in nurse. It figured - only the very rich and the very poor could afford to die in their own homes.

He walked slowly down the hallway and paused at the door to his father's room, his hand resting on the heavy brass handle. It felt kind of unreal to be back in this house after so long.

Finally he tapped lightly, too much of a stranger to just walk on in, and then pushed the door open and stood in the doorway. The lights were turned down low, and there was a large bed dominating the room.

His father had always been a big man, in stature and personality. He was tall and broad, with a shock of dark hair that had turned to silver over the years and sharp eyes that never missed a trick.

The man lying in the bed looked small though, almost shrunken. His eyes were closed, and his hair was thin and sticking up in wispy patches, and his pale skin looked like it was stretched too tightly over the prominent bones of his skull.

This man didn't look like his father at all.

There was an oxygen tank at the side of the bed, with its mask looped over the side, and a metal trolley with various pieces of neatly arranged medical equipment. A young man in a nurse's uniform came through from the adjoining room. He nodded when he saw John and came over.

"I'm John Sheppard… his son," John said uncomfortably. He felt like he needed to explain what he was doing here.

The nurse just smiled kindly. "He'll be really happy that you're here."

His surprise must have shown because the nurse smiled again. "He's been talking about you a lot."

"How is he?" He nodded towards the bed. His father looked so still, but he could hear the laboured rasp of his breathing.

"He's just sleeping. He falls in and out of sleep fairly quickly these days, but if you want to go and sit with him I'm sure he'll wake up soon." The nurse gestured next door. "I'll be right through here if you need me. I'm Tony - just call out."

The nurse left, the soft click of the door sounding loud in the quiet of the room, and John took a deep breath and walked over to the bed.

Now that he was closer he could see the familiar lines of his father's brow and nose, and the firm set of his mouth - its stubbornness only slightly diminished by illness. His cheeks were hollow though, and his eyes seemed to have sunk deep into his skull.

He stood awkwardly for a minute and then sat down in a chair at the side of the bed.

It felt weird. He'd spent so long butting heads with this man, and now here he was watching him sleep, for God's sake. And he was dying, and pretty soon he'd be gone. It just didn't make sense.

When he was young all he'd wanted was to get away and be who he wanted to be. It had seemed like he and his father had always been on opposite sides, and the divide between them had grown wider and wider until it was as if they didn't even know each other anymore.

In spite of that though, he'd always known that his father was still there - even if they didn't see or speak to each other. It was hard to get his head around the idea that it wasn't always going to be that way.

He'd always had this vague kind of notion in the back of his mind that there was plenty of time and that maybe one day they'd straighten things out. Only now it looked like that time was running out. Perhaps it was already too late.

He'd hated the way his father had tried to control his life after his mom had died. It was like he'd wanted to make all his decisions for him, and he'd felt like he was suffocating. So the tighter his father had held on, the more he had fought. His father had had it all mapped out for him - the right Ivy League college, the right degree and then a position in the company until he was finally ready to take over - but John hadn't wanted any of that. He wasn't interested in being some corporate suit who sat behind a desk all day, tied down and under his father's eye.

So he'd left and chosen the life that he'd wanted instead, and he'd lived it his way. He may have fucked up along the road - but at least he'd done it on his own terms.

Except now he was sitting here and wondering if it had all been worth it. He didn't regret the path his life had taken - but could he have done some things differently?

His father was a difficult, uncompromising man who couldn't - and wouldn't - tolerate dissent. John had raged against his restrictions and left, but had that teenage rebellion coloured his adulthood, and were all those years of mistrust and estrangement really just him tilting at windmills? Had there been some middle ground that they could have tried to meet on?

He sighed. He had no fucking idea.

His father shifted in the bed and coughed, and suddenly John was staring into eyes that were the same colour as his own, though rheumy and faded now.

"John." His father's voice was weak but still clear, and he sounded pleased. "You're here."

"It's good to see you, Dad."

"Now that's a damn lie," his father snorted. "I look like shit. Not that you look much better. Lost your razor?"

Yeah, see this was how it always started. "I just flew in. Sorry I'm not up to the dress code." He wasn't going to let his father get to him.

His father smiled faintly at that. "I'm glad you could come. I didn't know if you could get away. You were heading to Iraq last time I saw you." He swallowed awkwardly, and John didn't know if it was due to the memory or if he was in pain. "So where have they got you stationed now?"

The last time they'd spoken he'd been due to ship out for his second tour in Balad - right after Dave's wedding. Then after that it had been three tours in Afghanistan - before it had all gone to hell and he'd been shipped back and discharged. He could lie about it, make up some bullshit about everything being fine, but the one thing he'd always been able to count on his father for was brutal honesty. He owed him the same.

"I was in Afghanistan… but I'm not in the Air Force anymore. I got discharged a few months back. They kicked me out. You can go ahead and say I told you so. I know you've been wanting to for nearly twenty years."

His father looked shocked and shook his head. "No, John…. I know I didn't agree with what you wanted to do with your life, but you have to know - I was always proud of you, son."

That was news to him. "When was I supposed to know that, Dad? When you were telling me about what a disappointment I was and how I was letting you and the company down? Or when you were comparing me to Dave and telling me how you were glad that at least one of your sons wasn't a washout and understood the meaning of family responsibility?"

His father sighed, his breath rattling painfully as he exhaled. "You know, if dying does one thing for a man, it cuts through all of the bullshit and lets him see what's important in life." He caught his breath and then carried on, "I've done and said a lot of things that I regret, son - especially where you're concerned. I've always been stubborn - it's where you get it from - but I want you to know that I only ever wanted what was best for you."

"What was best for you, you mean. You wanted me to do everything you wanted, but I was never good enough. I couldn't be the son you wanted." Christ! His father could still make him sound like that sulky seventeen year-old again.

"No! That wasn't it. I wanted to keep you close, son - to hold onto you. After your mother died I was terrified of losing you and your brother. You started on with all that talk about flying and the military, and I got scared - I just wanted to keep you safe."

"By controlling my life and trying to make me do what you wanted? Why couldn't you just have told me? Said something?" This was the first time he'd heard any of this. His father had never exactly been a caring and sharing kind of guy.

His father nodded, the effort making his breath wheeze painfully. "I know now that I was wrong. The harder I tried to hold onto you, the harder you pulled away until you just slipped right through my damn fingers and were gone. But you were always my son and I was - am - proud of you."

That was a lie. "That's not true! You made it perfectly clear how you felt about me at Dave's wedding, Dad."

He'd never forget that night. Things had been tense over the weekend - like they always were whenever he saw his father - but he'd tried hard to keep things polite for Dave and Cindy's sake. He hadn't wanted to spoil their big day.

Then he and his father had been standing out on a terrace, the reception going on full swing in the ballroom inside, and his father had started. He'd dredged up all of the old arguments and grievances and then he'd gotten onto the perennial favourite about John not being married yet. Why couldn't John be more like his brother and settle down and start a family? Someone had to carry on the Sheppard name and think about the company. He was over thirty, and he hadn't even brought a date to his brother's wedding. What about Nancy when he'd been in college? She was a nice girl, and he'd gone and messed that up. Did he know that she still sent Christmas cards and stayed in touch? That she was married to a big-shot lawyer up in D.C. and had three kids now? And how in hell had he managed to fuck things up with her anyway?

It had been like a tired, old holiday re-run, wheeled out every Thanksgiving and Christmas, and he'd heard it all before. Only this time he'd finally had enough, and he'd just turned around and shouted, 'Jesus Christ, Dad! Because I'm gay!'

His father's face had gone slack - with horror or disgust or some other offended WASPish emotion - and John had just smiled grimly, 'That's something else for you to add to your long list of disappointments.' He'd walked away, and they hadn't spoken since.

John was brought back to the present by his father grasping at his arm; his grip was weak and his hand felt cold.

"I'm sorry, son. I truly regret what happened then and the way I reacted. I guess I'd always wondered a little - the way you never brought any girls home after you broke up with Nancy or talked about anyone - but I hadn't wanted to think about it too closely. Then when you told me that you were… are… gay." He coughed and swallowed a couple of times, and John reached for a cup of water. His father waved it away. "Well, when you told me - I was shocked and scared too. It seemed like this was another way that I couldn't keep you safe and…."

His father still didn't understand. "It's who I am, Dad - not something you need to protect me from."

"I know. It hasn't been an easy thing for me to accept though - things were different when I grew up - but I'm trying. Like I said, dying can really help put things into perspective that way. I just don't want to see you getting hurt."

"I'm a grown man, Dad."

"You'll always be my boy, Johnny."

John's chest tightened; his father hadn't called him that in years.

"I'm sorry, son. I'm a stupid, stubborn, old man. I was scared and angry for so damn long that I forgot how to be anything else. But I am proud of you - in every way. I know that I should have told you that years ago - it's just another regret I have. I've missed out on so much of your life and… I've missed you."

John didn't know what to say. Everything he thought he'd known about his father seemed to have been flipped upside down. "I wish we could have talked like this before."

"Too much stubborn pride," his father snorted.

John nodded. His father was right - but they were both stubborn and it wasn't fair to lay all the blame on him. "There's a lot of that around."

A flicker of something crossed his father's face. "Ah, did they discharge you because you're, you know? Don't Ask Don't Tell?"

"Because I'm gay? No, it wasn't that. They just don't like pilots who disobey orders and trash expensive helicopters going behind enemy lines on unauthorised rescue missions."

His father looked a little taken aback and then he smiled. "You always did go your own way, son," he said fondly.

Yeah, but he'd still managed to fuck it up. "It didn't matter. I failed - he didn't make it, died on the ride home."

"I'm sorry. Was he a… friend?" There was sympathy and a hint of something else in his father's voice.

"A good friend, Dad - but just a friend - and now there's another widow, and a kid growing up without a father."

"I know you did your best, Johnny," his father said gently. "Even when you were young, you never did do anything by half."

"But it wasn't enough."

"Sometimes all you can do is try, son…."

He had tried - flown his Osprey right into a Taliban hotspot and dragged Holland out of the wreckage of his downed bird. They'd almost made it clear, but they'd taken fire – a lucky shot to the tail rotor - and he couldn't keep them in the air. He'd crawled out alive, but Holland hadn't made it and he'd carried his body through the foothills until he'd finally been picked up by a US patrol.

It hadn't been enough - Holland had died - and now his father was dying too, and he couldn't do anything about that either.

He glanced across the bed, but his father had drifted off to sleep again. His arm was lying on top of the comforter, and John reached over. His father's hand felt frail and fragile in his own, the bones at his wrist and knuckles jutting against the paper-thin translucency of his skin. John tucked it back under the warmth of the cover and then just sat for a while in the quiet and listened to his father breathe.

John sighed as he slid gratefully into bed. It had been a long day since he'd gotten up on the other side of the country, and his mind felt like it was racing.

His father hadn't woken again after their conversation, but he'd sat there with him for a long time and now it was late. He'd gone out to the car and grabbed his duffle, but the house had been quiet and so he'd just made his way up to his old room. He'd been kind of glad not to see anyone. He was still trying to make sense of being here and of everything he and his father had talked about. He wasn't sure he could've handled anything else.

All his life - since his mom had died anyway - he and his father had been at odds which each other. He'd blamed his father for trying to control his life, and for disapproving of the choices he'd made and of the man he'd become. The thing was though, deep down he'd always blamed himself a little too - for failing his father and not being the son he'd wanted him to be. Sure, he'd still gone out and made his own way in the world, but a piece of him had always felt guilty - like he'd let his father down somehow.

Now, after all these years, he was finally beginning to see both sides of the story. He still didn't agree with what his father had done, but he could at least understand some of his reasons. He'd been a man who'd lost his wife and who'd wanted to hold on to what he had left - his sons. He was also wealthy and powerful - the head of an international corporation - and he was used to getting his own way.

Unfortunately, John was a chip off the old block when it came to some things, and he'd never reacted well to taking orders that he didn't agree with - something the Air Force quickly discovered too - and so the sparks had flown.

They were both so stubborn and proud that neither of them had been able to bend. For all of his attempts to hold on, his father had lost his son anyway - one of them at least. That was something else that John was beginning to realise too; there'd been some collateral damage in the battleground between him and his father - Dave.

He sighed heavily and thumped the pillow into shape.

He and Dave had always been close, despite the four-year age gap, and Dave had pretty much hero-worshipped him when they were young. When John had first left for college and had been coming home more regularly, Dave had always been so happy to see him. He'd still been a kid then and had wanted to hear all about what he was doing, excited at the grown-up life his big brother was leading.

Then things had started to change. John and his father argued more and more, and so John came home less and less - and when he was at home, Dave seemed more distant. When John had announced that he'd joined the Air Force - and Jesus, hadn't that been fun - things had got exponentially worse. On his next visit home it was clear that Dave was being groomed to take over the company when their father retired, and he hardly even recognised his little brother. He was more serious and focussed, starting at Harvard and discussing the stock market and share options with their father like a Wall Street pro.

John didn't care about the company. Dave could have it, if that was what he wanted and if it made him happy. He just wasn't sure if that was what Dave wanted, or if he was just doing what their father told him. As the years had passed Dave had grown into someone that John didn't know, and the distance between them had just yawned wider.

He didn't know if it was too late, but maybe it was time to try and close that gap. There were people who would never get the chance to make things right with a lost brother - or sister - and maybe he shouldn't let any more time go to waste.

He turned off the lamp and closed his eyes. The memory of Rodney's vulnerable smile filled his mind, and he rolled over and tried to push it away.

Sleep was a long time coming.

John woke early the next morning.

He'd wondered, when Cindy had suggested he sleep in his old room, if it would be like walking into a time capsule. He'd almost expected to open the door and find everything exactly as he'd left it - right down to his high school sports trophies, collection of Star Wars action figures, and the posters of Duran Duran on the walls. Of course, it hadn't been like that - the room had been redecorated and looked like a standard guest room in any upscale house. Even after their conversation the night before, he couldn't really see his father keeping some kind of sentimental shrine to him - though he did wonder what had happened to his stuff. Not that it really mattered - what was he going to do with old yearbooks and an Evel Knievel stunt cycle anyway?

He shaved and took a shower and then sorted through his duffle. From what he'd seen of Dave the preppy, country club look was definitely in, but as he pretty much only owned tee shirts and jeans, they would have to do - unless he went down to breakfast in board shorts.

He thought about looking in on his father, but he wasn't sure if he could handle another emotional knockabout without any coffee. The previous evening had been a step towards clearing the air between them, but there was still a way to go and it was kind of confusing after all the years of estrangement. There was also a part of him that didn't want to chance his luck too much - what if he walked in today and it was all back to normal with the old man hating his guts? Okay, he didn't really believe that, but it was all still too fresh and raw right now and so he headed downstairs instead.

The house was quiet. He went through to the kitchen and found fresh coffee in the pot, but there was no one around so he just helped himself and went out onto the terrace.

It was cold. The sun was shining brightly in a clear sky, but winter was taking a firm grip and he was glad he'd grabbed his fleece on his way from his room, and he shrugged it on.

The immaculately kept lawns were crisp with a heavy dusting of frost, and he followed the paved path that lead down towards the stables. He didn't know if his father still kept horses anymore. They'd always ridden when they were kids, but John's last horse, Wimsey, had died years before, and he didn't know what had happened to the others.

He walked over to the top paddock and leaned his arms against the sturdy, white railing and drank his coffee. A pair of dappled grey ponies were grazing on the far side of the field, and they lifted their heads when they saw him and cantered over.

"Hey, pretty ladies," John smiled and patted their necks. They were about ten or eleven hands and both had dainty little faces. They snuffled their noses eagerly into his hands, and he laughed. "Sorry, girls - I'm all out of sugar cubes."

There was a crunch of footsteps on the gravel behind him, and he turned - it was Dave. He was dressed for riding and looked like he'd just come from the barn. He stopped when he saw John and nodded stiffly.

"Dave," John said and then paused. He knew they ought to try and talk, but talking really wasn't his strong suit. He had no idea how to start. "Been out for a ride?"

Dave walked over to the railing, and the ponies whinnied excitedly. He scratched their noses. "Yeah, we keep a few horses here, and Dad bought these for the girls on their birthday this year. They're not really old enough yet, but he said it was a Grandpa's prerogative to buy his grandkids their first ponies. I suppose he wanted to do it while he still had the chance - he knew he wouldn't be around to see them grow up and ride them."

There was something just so damn sad about that. Then he realised what else Dave had said. "Wow, you have kids now?"

Dave gave him a hard look. "Twin girls - they've just gone three. They're staying over with Cindy's parents while we're here. I tried to get in touch when Cindy was pregnant but didn't hear back from you - just like the times I tried after we got married. I didn't bother trying again."

He was an uncle and hadn't even known. What a mess. He had to try and explain. "Look, Dave - I did get your messages after the wedding, but I didn't know what to say to you after the whole bust-up with the old man and what I'd told him. But I promise you, I never got any other message. I was out in Afghanistan after Iraq and things weren't always stable - it wasn't the kind of place where UPS delivered, you know? I'm sorry though - I can't believe you're a dad. What are their names?"

Dave seemed to unbend a fraction. "Martha and Rosie." He took a wallet from his pocket and opened it to a picture of two laughing little blonde girls.

John looked at the photograph and smiled. "They're beautiful. I think they have Mom's eyes." Dave had inherited their mother's colouring, and it looked like he'd passed it on to his daughters.

Dave turned and smiled, just a little. "Yeah, they do."

John nodded. He could still picture his mother - she'd been beautiful.

"What did you mean when you said you told Dad something during the bust-up at our wedding?" Dave asked. "Dad wouldn't tell me what happened, and you'd just vanished. I know that you'd never liked coming home much, but we didn't hear from you or see you again after that. I got worried and tried to contact you, but it was like you just dropped off the radar. I only figured you weren't dead because the Air Force would have notified us," he added tersely.

John felt pretty shitty. He hadn't even thought that Dave might be worried about him. He'd just been so damn angry with his father.

"I had to pull strings just to get your number to call you about Dad," Dave said angrily.

Communications in Iraq hadn't been all that reliable, but he had eventually gotten his brother's messages after the wedding. He'd been sure that his father would have told Dave that John was gay. He'd had to hide so much of who he was back then, and he just hadn't wanted to face rehashing the whole damn thing with Dave as well, and so he'd taken the coward's way out and hadn't replied. Shit! Dave had been concerned enough to try and call him, and he'd just blown him off. No wonder he was so pissed.

"I thought he would have told you," John said.

"He wouldn't talk about it. He was really angry at first, even though he didn't say what it was about, and then he just went quiet and didn't mention it again. I know you two have never got along, but what the hell did you say to him?"

"You know what he's like," John sighed. "He'd started in on me again about the whole not being married thing. I just told him the truth about why I hadn't brought a date to your wedding, and why I wasn't married and giving him the grandchildren he wanted."

Dave looked at him. "Because you're gay?"

John's eyes widened in surprise. "You knew?"

Dave shrugged. He didn't seem bothered by the news. "I guessed. I'd always wondered - you never seemed that interested in girls and when you brought Nancy home those couple of times the two of you seemed more like friends."

"Yeah, we pretty much were. I wish I could've told you," John sighed. Perhaps things would have been different all this time if he'd just gotten his head out of his damn ass and tried to talk to his brother instead of letting them drift apart. "I wish we'd talked about a lot of stuff."

"Yeah, me too," Dave said quietly and then turned and started walking back towards the house.

John watched him go. Maybe it was too late for them.

Cindy was sitting with his father when John went up to see him.

"Oh, sorry." He fidgeted by the door. "I'll come back later."

"Don't be silly," Cindy smiled and stood up. "I'm glad you're here - I was just heading over to pick up the girls." She straightened the comforter and patted his father's hand. "They want to come and see their Grandpa."

"And their Grandpa wants to see them," his father said happily, though his voice seemed weaker than the night before and his breathing was more laboured and ragged.

"Oh, you just want to tell them another one of your tall tales," Cindy teased.

John realised with a start that she genuinely cared for his father. He'd spent so much of his life hating, disregarding or raging against the man, and it was strange to think that other people could see him so differently.

Cindy walked over to the door. "He's not doing so well today," she said quietly, "but we'd already arranged to bring the girls over, and I don't want to disappoint him."

"Look, if he's not feeling well then maybe I should just go," John said quickly. He still didn't feel exactly comfortable around his father.

Cindy squeezed his arm gently. "Stay with him, John. I know he wants to spend time with you." She didn't need to add the 'before it's too late'.

He nodded stiffly. "Yeah, okay."

Cindy smiled and then turned and waved cheerily. "Be back soon, Patrick!" She smiled at John again and then left.

John walked over and sat down by the bed. His father's skin had a greyish tinge to it, and his breathing was heavy. He definitely looked worse today. John struggled for something to say. "So twins, huh?"

"They're beautiful," his father smiled, and he pointed shakily at a cluster of framed photographs on the nightstand that John had missed the night before.

There was a photograph of two little girls playing in a garden and propped against it was a picture drawn in a childish splash of crayon and glitter. It looked like it was maybe supposed to be horses - though they were purple and green. An adult hand had written 'For Grandpa P, love Martha and Rosie' and there were two sloppily drawn X's that were clearly kisses from the artists.

Behind this were several photographs showing his father with Dave and Cindy and the kids. There was also a black and white photograph of his mother - it looked like it had been taken around the time they'd gotten married. John smiled and then looked in surprise - in amongst the collection was a photograph of him. He must have been about sixteen, and he recognised it as being taken the last Christmas his mother had been alive. He was grinning at the camera, his hair flopping over his face, and he looked like a dork, but he looked happy too.

He turned back to his father.

"Family is important, John, and I know that I screwed things up with you after your Mom went. She was always the calm one, and the one who knew the right thing to say. Lord, I bet she's going to give me hell when I see her again."

John felt his throat catch.

His father coughed, a rough, rasping sound, but he seemed determined to speak. "I wish that I'd done things differently. I'm so sorry for everything that I've missed with you, son."

John nodded. "Yeah, well - it wasn't just you, Dad." They were too alike, and that had always been part of the problem.

"I was the one that drove you away," his father said quietly. "And it's my biggest regret. I only wanted to keep you safe and happy, but everything I did just pushed you further away…." He coughed again, more violently this time, his body trembling with the strain.

"I'm home now, Dad," John said quickly. He didn't know what else to say. They'd wasted all those years, and now there was so little time left. It wasn't enough, but it was all they had.

"I'm glad." His father smiled, but he looked haggard. He pointed weakly towards the oxygen. "Can you?"

"Do you need some air?" John stood up. "I'll get Tony."

"No need," his father said. "You do it. Just turn it halfway."

John looked dubiously at the cylinder for a moment and then grabbed the mask and helped settle it over his father's nose and mouth. He turned the dial, and his father immediately seemed to breathe a little more easily.


His father nodded and closed his eyes, breathing shallowly but steadily. He lay like that for a while, and John thought that he'd fallen asleep, but then he opened his eyes again and waved at the mask.

"You had enough?" John leaned over and carefully lifted the mask away. "Sure?"

His father nodded. John turned the tank off, and his father's ponderous breathing suddenly sounded loud without the background hiss of the oxygen.

"Can I ask you something, son?"

He sounded hesitant, almost diffident, and John was instantly wary, but he nodded.

"Do you have someone? In your life?"

John immediately flashed on Rodney's face, but he shook his head. "No, not really."

His father cocked a questioning eyebrow and it was a look he recognised from his own face - no guessing where he'd got that from.

"There could be, maybe," John hedged and then sighed, "I kinda fucked it up though."

He expected his father to jump on that, but he was surprised when instead he asked softly, "Tell me about him, son…."

Him - his father had specifically said him. It was only a small thing, but he'd acknowledged it and John knew what a big step that was. It felt good - like maybe they'd come a little closer together.

He thought about Rodney - those amazing blue eyes that had snared him the first time he'd see them, and that weirdly slanted mouth that tasted better than anything he could ever have imagined. Then there was the way that Rodney made him laugh and made him think - and all that vulnerability and heart hidden behind a wall of bravado.

He ducked his head and smiled softly. "He's smart and funny - and I guess he's kind of an oddball too."

He looked across at his father, unsure what his reaction would be. His father looked serious, but there was a warmth to his gaze. "But do you love him, Johnny?"

Jesus! Love him? Did he love Rodney? They'd only known each other a few days and then he'd turned tail and run and hadn't stopped until he'd put a thousand miles between them. Love Rodney?

"Yeah, Dad," he admitted, surprising himself, and he smiled again. "I think maybe I do."

His father reached for John's hand. "Then that's all that matters, son. Don't waste it."

John wasn't sure, but right here and now it almost did seem that simple - like it was all just about love and life… and death. Like maybe that was all that really mattered in the world.

"He have a name?"

"Rodney," John said, and swallowed against a sudden tightness in his throat. He couldn't believe that he was sitting here telling his father about a man… about Rodney. "But it's complicated. I screwed things up and left. He probably never wants to see me again. We're not together - weren't really ever together."

"Then maybe you'd better do something about that." His father's gaze was shrewd, despite the ravages of pain clouding his eyes.

"The people I love always end up getting hurt," John said slowly, and he saw a flash of understanding and regret cross his father's face. "I don't want to hurt him too."

"Sounds like you've already done that." Trust the old man to cut through the crap and get to the heart of it.

"Yeah, well - old habits…."

"Horseshit!" His father snapped and then coughed painfully. "You never were a quitter, son, and remember - I know just how damn stubborn you can be."

John nodded. His father knew better than most.

"You only get one life - you have to go out there and live it. Don't let the people you love slip though your fingers, son."

His father was right, and John knew that he wasn't only talking about Rodney.

"Yeah, I know what you mean, Dad." It's just that things weren't always that simple.

His father smiled and closed his eyes. A few minutes later he'd fallen asleep, and John left, his head buzzing.

Cindy arrived back with the kids just after lunch. Martha and Rosie were bubbly and bright, and John found himself melting when they smiled shyly at him and called him 'Uncle John'.

He followed upstairs as Cindy took them to see his father. Dave was already sitting with him, and John hung back by the door.

He watched as the girls ran over and Dave lifted them to sit on the bed. His father was weak, but he could see him rally as the girls babbled on happily, telling him all about helping Grandma Silvie to bake cookies especially for him.

John smiled as his father chuckled and said that he bet they were the best cookies in the whole world.

Then Martha and Rosie got out a picture they'd drawn for him of the last time they all went to the zoo and began carefully showing him all of the animals.

This was a family moment, and he didn't have a place here. He'd been away for so long that he couldn't quite figure where he fit in anymore, or if he ever would.

He opened the door and slipped quietly from the room.

John woke abruptly. He could hear noises in the hallway. He checked his watch - it was two-thirty in the morning. This couldn't be good.

He got out of bed, quickly slipping on his jeans and grabbing the tee he'd tossed over the chair when he'd undressed earlier. He went out into the hallway and practically ran into Dave. He looked terrible - he was wearing an obviously hastily thrown on bathrobe and his hair was a mess.

"What's happening? What is it?"

"It's Dad," Dave said. "You need to come now." His eyes were red-rimmed, and his voice was wavering.

They both hurried to the master suite. Cindy was sitting at the side of the bed, holding his father's hand and talking to him quietly. They walked over, and Tony nodded sadly and moved away from the bed.

"It's time," he said softly. "He's going."

Dave made a desperate, choked sound, and John squeezed his shoulder and guided him to the chair beside Cindy. She smiled tremulously - her cheeks were wet - and Dave reached out and they both held on tightly to his father's hand.

John swallowed, his throat dry, and he moved around to perch on the other side of the bed.

His father looked so small and fragile against the stark white of the sheets, and his breathing was faint and irregular - a series of short, struggling gasps through barely-parted, blue-tinged lips.

John reached out and took his hand. His eyelids flickered but didn't open.

"We're here, Dad," Dave said, and John could see him squeezing his father's hand. "We're all here."

"We love you, Patrick," Cindy said, her voice choked with tears. "So very much."

John blinked, his eyes burning. He couldn't think, couldn't believe that after everything it had all come down to this one moment. He squeezed the hand lying limply in his own. "I'm sorry, Dad…."

He thought he felt his father's hand twitch, just a brief pressure against his palm, and he squeezed back.

A few seconds later there was a long, rattling sigh. His father's head slipped gently to one side, and the room was suddenly silent.

Dave shook his father's hand, grasping it frantically. "Dad? Dad?" He was crying now, fat tears spilling down his face, and Cindy was holding him, crying too.

Tony moved out of the shadows and nodded respectfully at John and then crossed over to the bed. "He's gone," he said softly and stepped away. "I'm so very sorry for your loss. I'll give you some privacy."

John nodded numbly as he let his father's lax hand slide slowly from his grip.

He'd seen people die before - in combat, with blood and screams choking the air until he could hardly breathe - but this was different. He'd just watched his father die, and he had no clue what to think or feel. Bizarrely his mind flashed to the cookies that little Martha and Rosie had baked and how his father would never get to try them now.

He watched as Cindy held on tightly to Dave, and suddenly he was so damn lonely it was like a physical hurt. He felt like he was missing a limb, and in that moment all he could think was that he wished that Rodney were here. He was so tired of being alone.

He looked at his father; his face was strangely peaceful.

'Don't let the people you love slip though your fingers, son.'

But that was the problem, wasn't it? He already had.

He leaned over and touched his lips to the soft, fragile skin of his father's forehead. "'Bye, Dad."

He stepped away from the bed. Dave and Cindy were still holding each other, and he turned away. He didn't belong here.

He left quietly and walked back towards his room. He heard the door open behind him and turned to see Dave standing in the hallway.

"Where are you going?" Dave's voice was thick with grief, and he cleared his throat.

"I thought you'd want some time alone," he said softly, walking back to where Dave was standing. "Do you want me to do anything? Call anyone?" He knew that there would be arrangements to make and people to notify, but he didn't know if Dave would want him involved with that. It was hardly his place and hadn't been for years. "Look, I don't want to intrude…."

"Intrude?" Dave scrubbed a hand across the wetness of his eyes, and he looked so young, like the little brother that John had lost all those years ago.

"I don't want to get in your way. I know I don't really belong here."

"Jesus, John!" Dave shouted hoarsely. "Does everything always have to be about you?"

"What? No! I just don't want to make things worse or…."

"Dad's dead. I'm not sure how things can get any worse right now," Dave snapped and then his face seemed to crumple and his voice wavered, "Dad's dead, Johnny. He's gone."

John nodded and put his arm around Dave's shoulders. Dave sagged against him, and he pulled him into a hug. "I know, Davey… I know."

"I know you two had your differences," Dave murmured. "But he was a good man, and I loved him."

"I know you did, Davey," John said softly, and now that all the pain and acrimony had finally been stripped away he realised that he had too. He'd loved the man who'd taught him how to ride that bicycle, and who'd held him tightly when his mom had died, and even the man who had tried so hard to hold onto him that he'd eventually driven him away. "I know you did."

They stood like that for a moment and then Dave straightened and stepped away. He looked calmer and a little more distant again. "I should get back to Cindy."

"Yeah." John nodded. "Do you need me to do anything?"

Dave shook his head. "No. It's okay - I can handle it."

"Yeah, sure. I'll leave you to it," John said quickly.

"I'll see you later?" Dave asked, and John wondered if he expected him to leave now. He'd done it often enough, after all.

"I'll be here."

"Right," Dave said.

John nodded. There was an awkward pause and then Dave turned and went back into his father's room.

John watched him go and then headed down the hallway.

He closed the door to his room behind him and checked his watch. It was only three o'clock, but it felt much later. It seemed wrong somehow that it could all be over so quickly - his father's life gone in the blink of an eye.

There was no way that he'd be able to go back to sleep. He needed to be outside - he wanted fresh air and the sky. He'd go out and take a walk.

He opened the closet door to get his fleece. He usually just threw it over the nearest chair, but the maid was tidier than he was. It had slipped off the hanger and fallen down the back, and as he reached for it he noticed a couple of big boxes piled in the corner. The labels caught his eye - it was his name.

He dragged the first box out and opened it up. He couldn't believe it. It was filled with all of his old stuff - books and trophies, rolled up posters stowed in tubes, old cassette tapes and football pennants - everything that he'd left behind.

He lifted out a battered cardboard box held together with scotch tape - it was Evel Knievel and his fucking stunt cycle. Jesus! His father really had kept his things for all of these years.

He sat heavily on the side of the bed with the plastic motorcycle clutched fiercely in his hands. His eyes were burning again, and this time his face was wet.

John sipped his scotch and stared into the flames as he sat by the fireplace.

His father had been buried today.

It didn't feel right to say that they'd buried his father today, as he really hadn't had much to do with it. Dave had taken care of everything, and all that John had needed to do was buy a suit and turn up.

He'd briefly flirted with the idea of wearing his dress blues - his father had said that he'd been proud, after all - but in the end he'd decided against it. He didn't want to draw that much attention to himself or spend the day fending off awkward questions.

Anyway, it wasn't like he really deserved it - the last time he'd worn his uniform had been at Holland's memorial service, and every ribbon had felt like a damning brand on his chest. No, a dark suit had been fine.

Patrick Sheppard's funeral had been a large, perfectly orchestrated affair attended by some of the country's most powerful corporate and political players, as well as family and friends, and John had felt like the stranger he pretty much was with all of them. There'd been a few distantly remembered faces offering their condolences, but he hadn't been able to shake the feeling that they'd all just been sizing him up and nodding, 'So, this is the wayward son.'

The one person he had been pleasantly surprised to see was Nancy. They'd been good friends in college and had tried dating before Nancy had broken it off and gently suggested that maybe she wasn't the person - or gender - he was looking for. After that, she'd been the first one he'd come out to - confessing that he thought that he maybe, might be, perhaps, kind of gay - and he realised now just how lucky he'd been. She'd been supportive and kind and had been someone he could talk to when he felt he had no one else. It had been good to see her again, and he regretted that their friendship had fallen away after college.

He was roused from his thoughts as the door opened and Dave came in. Cindy had gone back home with the children, but Dave was still staying at the house while he dealt with things. He paused for a moment when he saw John and then poured himself a drink and sat in the wing-backed chair on the opposite side of the fireplace that was the twin for John's own.

John hadn't seen much of his brother this past week. Dave had been busy with the funeral arrangements and dealing with the company. John had tried not to get in his way but had also tried to be there if Dave had wanted to talk - which he hadn't. In fact, this was the first time they'd been alone together since the night their father had died.

Silence stretched between them, and the fire hissed and popped quietly in the grate.

"I spoke to Stephenson," Dave said abruptly. "He's drawing up the papers regarding Dad's will."

Frankly John had been astonished to find that he'd been included in his father's will at all as he'd assumed he'd been cut out years ago. In fact, his father had left him a considerable legacy, including shares in Sheppard Industries, and the family ranch in Montana.

"There'll be some things you'll need to sign. I'm assuming you'll be leaving now the funeral's over?" Dave asked flatly.

"Unless you want me to stay?"

Dave gave him a sharp look but didn't answer. "We're going to start packing up the house. Is there anything you want to take?"

"Nah." John shook his head and then remembered. "Oh, yeah - I did find a couple of boxes of my old stuff in the closet of my room. I wouldn't mind hanging on to them." He could put them in storage with his other stuff until he figured out what he was going to do with his life. "Though I'm not sure how much use the Batmobile's going to be or a Steve Austin with view-through bionic eye."

"You still have that stuff?" Dave asked, looking surprised.

"It's all in the boxes. I'm assuming Dad got someone to pack my stuff up when I left, and they didn't know what to throw away."

Dave shook his head. "He did it himself. I remember coming home one weekend, and he was in your old room. I asked him about it, and he just said the room was being redecorated and needed clearing. I didn't know that he'd kept it all though."

Wow. His father still kept on surprising him.

"Is the Evel Knievel stunt bike there?" Dave asked, his voice sounding warmer.

John chuckled. "Complete with ring of fire and launcher."

"I remember that!" Dave pointed at him with a smile. "We used to shoot it off the top of the staircase and see how far it would go."

"Until that time it shot straight into the dining room and landed in the punch bowl," John laughed.

"Oh, yeah! We weren't too popular that day," Dave snorted. He was grinning and suddenly looked years younger. John couldn't remember the last time they'd laughed together like this.

Their laughter died away, and Dave sighed sadly. "What the hell happened to us, John? How did we get from there to here?"

John shrugged. "I fucked up," he said. "I guess I was so busy running away from Dad and what he wanted that I forgot that I was running out on you too." He paused. "I wish I could change things, Davey. I really do. I guess things can never be like they used to be between us…."

Dave nodded. "Probably not."

John's heart sank. He hadn't even realised how much he'd been hoping there might be some chance to make things right between them.

"Maybe we can try though?" Dave said softly.

John felt a rush of relief. "I'd really like that."

"Perhaps we can start with not leaving it seven years until the next time we see each other?" Dave asked, but he was smiling.

"Sounds like a plan," John grinned.

Dave reached across, holding his glass up in a toast. "To family?"

"To family." John touched their glasses together. "And to Dad," he added softly.

Dave stared at him for a second and then nodded. "Yeah, to Dad."

They both drank and then settled back into their chairs, and this time the silence seemed more relaxed.

"Do you have anyone to go back to, John?" Dave asked after a while.

The question startled him a little. "You know, Dad asked me pretty much the same thing."


"There is someone - could be someone," he started. "But you know my track record - I screwed things up. It's over."

"Is it really too late?"

"Probably," John said. He remembered Rodney's face the first time they'd kissed and then that soft, sleepy, 'You could always just stay…'. "I don't know."

"Then maybe you ought to find out one way or another."

Maybe. Or maybe Rodney was better off without him. Just because he'd found some peace with his father before the end, and it looked like things might be getting better between him and Dave, it didn't mean that he could make things right with Rodney. Or that he even had the right to try.

"I don't know," he repeated. "I don't think that he'll be able to forgive me."

"You might be surprised."

Well, that was certainly true - his father and now Dave had shown him that much.

"You won't know until you try," Dave said. "But I think that maybe you need to forgive yourself first. You have to accept that there are some things that are outside of your control, John, and that you can't always predict the outcome of everything." He smiled gently. "It's not always your fault, you know, and even if it is - sometimes people do the wrong things for the right reasons."

John looked up sharply.

"I talked with Dad before he went, and I think I understand things a little better now," Dave said and then added, "Are you happy, Johnny?"

Happy? He wasn't sure that he even knew what that was. "I guess. I don't know," he hedged and then sighed. "No, not really."

"Does he - what's his name anyway?" Dave asked quickly. "I can't keep calling him 'he'."


"So," Dave said. "Does Rodney make you happy?"

John couldn't help a little smile. "Yeah, he does."

"Then what's stopping you?"

That was the real question. He'd told his father that he loved Rodney and - despite his initial surprise - he'd realised that he really did. He loved Rodney and Rodney made him happy, so Dave was right - what was stopping him? Well, what if he went back and Rodney just refused to see him? Or shut the door in his face? Or if he just made things worse and hurt Rodney even more? Or… oh, just about a million things.

"I'm scared." That was the plain, honest truth.

"Yeah, you know love can be like that," Dave said gently and poured another measure of scotch into John's glass. "But it can be worth it too, and sometimes you just have to take that risk."

Was it? Was love worth all the pain and heartache? He'd been in enough war zones and fire-fights to get scared plenty of times in his life, but he'd never turned his back and run away from any of them. What made this feel so much worse?

He stared into the fire and drank his scotch. Fucked if he knew.

John left the next day, promising Dave that he'd be in touch soon and with Dave threatening him that he'd better be. They still had a long way to go, but things felt a little easier between them and it was good to have made a start on the journey.

He got a flight back to San Francisco and took the shuttle out to the parking lot. His SUV was right where he'd left it, and he threw his duffle in the back and got in.

He grabbed the wheel and stared out of the windshield.

So. What next? Or should that be where and who?

He'd been moving around since he'd been discharged - surfing, skiing, mountain climbing, scuba diving. Was he moving on, or just running away?

He had plenty to run away from. There was Holland and his guilt that he hadn't been able to save him, and his father and Dave and the way he'd shut them out of his life for so long.

And then there was Rodney.

In one way or another they'd all trusted him, and he'd let them all down… and he hated himself for it.

Dave had said that he should try and forgive himself. Was he ready to do that?

He was glad he'd had chance to see his father one last time, and it looked like maybe he and Dave were finally starting to mend some of those old, broken bridges. It was all still pretty overwhelming though.

The Air Force had taught him that you never left a man behind, and he'd tried, but there'd been Holland, and his father and Dave, and now Rodney.

He thought that somewhere along the way that he'd maybe kind of left himself behind as well.

'Don't let the people you love slip though your fingers, son.'

'You've got more lives than a damn cat, Shep.'

Maybe they were all right. Maybe it was time - to cut himself some slack, and to live his damn life, and to go after what he wanted. He had enough ghosts and regrets in his life, and he didn't want Rodney to become another.

"Oh, fuck it!"

He fired the ignition and headed out of the parking lot towards the interstate.

He was going north.

Part three

John drove for over fifteen hours straight. He covered a thousand miles, and every mile took him that little bit closer to Rodney. He'd hoped that the journey would give him time to come up with an idea of how to handle things, or at least some clue as to what to say, but as he reached the turnoff to the mountain he still had nothing.

It was only early evening, but it was already dark as he headed up the narrow road that wound up the mountainside. There was plenty of snow around, but the road was thankfully clear and the going was a lot easier than the last time he'd been here. He still almost missed the turn to Rodney's place though, but he eventually found himself pulling in next to the familiar bulk of Rodney's monster Jeep.

He turned off the engine, and everything was suddenly quiet after all the hours on the road. He sat frozen behind the wheel and began to silently freak out.

What the fuck was he doing here? This was crazy. All that bullshit about forgiving himself and living his life had seemed such a great idea back in California, but now he was here - sitting outside Rodney's fucking front door - and he had no clue what he was going to say or do. Maybe he should just turn the car around and get the hell out of here - just like he'd done the last time.

He took a deep breath.

Running would be the easy option, in fact it had pretty much been his MO for way too many years, but he'd tried it with Rodney before and it hadn't worked. He still couldn't get him out of his damn head.

So maybe it was time to stop running.

This thing with Rodney might not work out - hell, Rodney might not even let him in the door - but didn't he owe it to himself to give it a try?

'Don't let the people you love slip though your fingers, son.'

He nodded. Yeah, maybe it was time.

He got out of the car and walked over to the house. The night was still and silent around him, and his breath froze in the air. He shivered a little, though not just from the cold.

Light was spilling from behind the curtained windows and making a welcoming yellow glow as he climbed the porch steps. He hesitated for a second, his heart lodged in his throat, and then knocked on the door.

It was quiet and then he could hear a voice - Rodney's voice - getting louder.

"… at this time of night and right in the middle of this week's episode too! Thank God for Tivo. It had better be Girl Scouts or some other right-wing-quasi-religious fanatics who happen to sell delicious cookies because I seriously do not appreciate having my carefully planned evening disrupted for…."

The door opened, and John felt a curious sense of déjà vu.

Rodney was standing in the doorway. He was wearing that same old, ratty cardigan, and his mouth was hanging open and his eyes were as wide as saucers.

John stared back helplessly; Rodney's eyes were just as blue as they were in his dreams.

"Hi, Rodney," he said hoarsely. His throat was suddenly dry for some reason.

Rodney stared at him for a moment and then abruptly closed his mouth.

"Um, is it okay if I come in?"

Rodney hesitated, and John thought that he was going to say no and slam the door in his face. Then he nodded, though he looked pretty reluctant, and stood to one side. It wasn't exactly an open arms welcome, but he figured it was more than he deserved and stepped inside.

He closed the door behind him and stood awkwardly on the mat. Rodney was still staring at him, and John couldn't even guess what he was thinking as his face looked weirdly blank and expressionless. It was strange as Rodney was usually so animated, wearing his heart pretty much on his sleeve.

They stood like that for a few seconds, neither of them speaking, and then Rodney cleared his throat and nodded. "Well, I suppose you'd better come through." His voice was flat, and his movements were jerky as he headed towards the kitchen.

So… this was going well.

John trailed uncomfortably along behind him.

The kitchen was as warm and bright as he'd remembered, but Rodney looked stiff and unhappy as he stood hunched by the counter.

"Look, Rodney. I…."

"What are you doing here?" Rodney interrupted. He sounded angry and upset.

"I wanted to talk to you… to try and see if there was a chance…" he tailed off awkwardly. He really was shit at trying to put this stuff into words. "Look, I just wanted to say that I'm sorry, Rodney. I didn't mean for any of that stuff to happen - it was an accident - and then when I realised…."

"An accident?" Rodney said incredulously. "What was an accident? When your lips accidentally knocked into mine? Or was it when your cock accidentally fell into my mouth? No wait, I know - it must have been when you accidentally left in the middle of the night!"

It sounded so cheap, and the hurt was practically radiating off Rodney in waves.

Fuck! John had known from the start that Rodney didn't do casual. What had happened between them had really meant something to him, and now he thought that John was trying to blow it off and say it was nothing.

Christ - it was ironic. His whole problem, and the reason that he was here now, was because it really had meant something to him too.

"No! That isn't what I meant. I mean, yeah, at first it was maybe, but then it was different. It mattered to me and that doesn't happen… ever. I didn't know what to do…."

Rodney was still staring at him with those huge, damn eyes, but he just didn't have the stupid words to make him understand. He didn't know how to say what he meant. He just wanted to make things right.

"I got scared, okay?" he sighed, angry with himself and frustrated beyond all hell. "I got scared, and I fucked up… and I'm really, really sorry. I just want you to know that."

Rodney stared at him for a while longer and then nodded sharply. "Yes, well, thank you for that," he said, his tone clipped and bitter. "So now you've apologised, and that makes everything okay, and I think it's best if you go now."

John could see the hurt that Rodney was trying to hide, and he hated it - and hated himself because he was the cause.

"I didn't come here to hurt you, Rodney."

"Yes, yes. You came here to salve a guilty conscience and to work through the next step in your twelve-step programme - or whatever it is that handsome, lothario daredevils with time to kill between conquests do," Rodney said quickly, his mouth a hard, unhappy line. "Okay - you've done that, and I'm sure you feel better. So, chop, chop! Now you can put this whole, horrible mistake out of your mind and go back to forgetting that I ever existed again, and frankly that's probably the best thing for everyone. I've got a lot to do - busy man here - and so if you can just go now please. Thank you."

Pain was bleeding from every hurried word, and John knew that he'd fucked it up again.

"It wasn't like that," he said desperately. He needed to make Rodney understand. "That's the problem, don't you see? I couldn't forget about you - can't forget - you're in my head, and I can't stop thinking about you."

Rodney looked shocked for a moment, but he shook his head. "I can't do this. I don't know what you think happened between us, or what you think you're feeling now, but I just can't do this. I really need you to leave… please." He sounded broken and tired and looked like he was going to fall down where he stood.

Shit, it wasn't bad enough that he'd caused all that pain - now he was badgering the guy too.

"Okay, Rodney. I'll go," John said quietly, "but I need you to know something. What happened between us really did mean something to me. I'm just sorry that I screwed it up for both of us." That was the honest-to-God truth, and it was the only thing that he could offer Rodney.

Rodney stared at him, his eyes almost luminous in his pale face, and for a second he thought that he'd got through to him but then Rodney dropped his gaze.

"Me too…. Goodbye, John."

John felt his heart sink - he'd fucked it up again. "Okay, yeah." He nodded sadly. "'Bye, Rodney."

He turned and walked away slowly, and Rodney didn't try and stop him.

So, he'd blown it. It wasn't a surprise really, and he couldn't blame Rodney for reacting the way he had. Jesus, it hurt though!

He got back into his car and began to drive down the mountain. Part of him wanted to turn right around and make Rodney believe him, but Rodney had seemed so fragile, and he didn't want to hurt him any more than he already had.

What the hell was he supposed to do now? His plan - not that it had actually been much of a plan - had been to come up here and tell Rodney that he was sorry and that he wanted to try again. Unfortunately he hadn't thought of what might happen after that. He'd also pretty much only thought about himself and what he wanted. He hadn't thought about Rodney, or what this might mean for him. Christ! He'd just gone and screwed things up even more. This was why he didn't get involved - he always fucked things up and people got hurt. He was just so damn tired of it.

A sudden wave of exhaustion swept over him. Jeez, his whole body was aching, and he could hardly keep his eyes open.

He managed to make it off the mountain and into the nearest town. He sighed with relief as he saw the green neon sign of a motel up ahead. He'd find a room, get some sleep, and then try and figure out what to do next. All he knew was that he wanted Rodney and didn't want to give up.

There was only one problem with that – Rodney didn't want him.

John woke to a loud banging at the door. He checked his watch blearily and was shocked to see that it was past noon. He must have been really wiped to sleep this late.

He got out of bed with a groan, his body still protesting the long drive, and stumbled over to the door. He was only wearing a tee shirt and boxer shorts, but he figured he was decent enough not to scare the maid or whoever else it was banging up a storm outside.

"Okay, okay. 'M comin'."

He opened the door and was nearly bowled over as Rodney charged into the room, already speaking at full-throttle and waving his hands in emphasis.

"Right, okay, so the thing is… I may have had time to reflect on some of the things you said last night and on - well, reflection - I think that perhaps there are things that still need clarification. It's hardly the sign of a rigorous mind, or, well, common sense even, to draw conclusions without access to all of the facts and so, in hindsight, I think it may be wise if…."

John's brain was still making the adjustment from asleep to wake-the-hell-up-now and was having problems keeping up with the rapid-fire delivery and wildly pointing fingers.

"Rodney, what are you talking about?"

Rodney seemed to deflate mid-sentence, and he sat heavily on the uncomfortable looking armchair near the TV. "It's been driving me crazy all night. I just need to understand…" he sighed and then asked plaintively, "Why are you here?"

He looked so utterly bewildered that John couldn't help but smile.

"Because I love you, genius!"

Rodney's face was a picture perfect mix of stunned shock and surprise. Of course, John knew his own face probably didn't look much better - he honestly hadn't known he wasn't going to say that. It was true, but he hadn't intended to just blurt it out like that - or even, probably, say it out loud ever - and now Rodney was going to think he was some creepy stalker and be scared away for good.

"Um, what?" Rodney asked in a small voice, his eyes impossibly wide.

"I…. Well, yeah, um…. What I said," John mumbled, dropping his head and pulling at the edge of his tee shirt. He wasn't going to take it back, but he wasn't going to say it again. Jeez!

"Wow," Rodney said, sounding kind of spaced out. "Yeah, that's what I thought you said."

"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get all heavy on you, and I know that I screwed things up before. I just - look, can we at least try and talk about this?"

"I, ah, that sounds good?" Rodney said cautiously, looking kind of skittish.

"Great!" He'd got another shot. Now all he needed to do was actually put meaningful words into vaguely coherent sentences and not screw it up again. "How about I take you to dinner?" Where he'd try really hard not to put his foot in his damn mouth.

"Like there's any place where our entire conversation wouldn't be all over town before we'd even finished our appetisers and then in the Gazette by morning. I would like us to have a degree of privacy," Rodney said, sounding irritated and definitely more like himself. Then he added, a little shyly, "Um, you could always come to my place? If you like?"

"That sounds great." All he wanted was a chance to talk. Well, that wasn't exactly true - what he really wanted was to kiss all that insecurity and uncertainty right off Rodney's face, but he didn't want to scare him off. He knew that he'd have to take things easy if he had any hope of regaining Rodney's trust.

"Right, okay then," Rodney said awkwardly and then he stared at John like he'd only just seen him. "Hey! Is that my shirt?"

John looked down - he was wearing Rodney's Mr Fantastic tee shirt. Okay, so he'd felt a little down last night and had decided to wear it. It wasn't a big deal. Anyway, he really needed to do laundry, and so what if he was wearing it? He liked it - it was soft and kind of snuggly… and yeah, okay, it made him feel kind of closer to Rodney too.

"Oh, yeah. I must have picked it up with my stuff," he said, trying to sound casual.

Rodney gave a pleased little smile, and suddenly he didn't feel quite so lame.

"How did you know I was here, anyway?" he asked, his tired brain finally catching up.

"Oh, Dex told me," Rodney said airily, still looking at the shirt and smiling.

Who? Oh, yeah - he remembered. "Dex - as in the sheriff? What did you do, put an APB out on me?"

"What? Don't be ridiculous!" Rodney snapped. "He recognised your car and mentioned it when I happened to call him this morning about another completely unrelated, totally separate matter - because not everything is about you, you know - and anyway…."

John grinned - Rodney had wanted to find out if he was still in town. "Yeah, but how does the sheriff know what car I drive?"

The smile dropped from Rodney's face. "Because I had him checking for road accidents when you left that last time," he said flatly.

The relaxed atmosphere that had been growing between them suddenly vanished, and John could have kicked himself. He'd never even considered that Rodney would have been worried when he ran out like that. The roads had been treacherous, and he must have gotten the sheriff checking to see that the SUV hadn't ended up going off the side of the mountain. Shit! After everything Rodney had told him about losing his sister and he still hadn't thought. Rodney must have been out of his mind.

"Oh, right," John said awkwardly.

"It doesn't matter," Rodney said, but John knew that it did. It was another thing he was going to have to try and make right. A quick apology really wasn't going to cut it. "Yes, well. So, I'll expect you at about seven?"

"Seven," John nodded, relieved that the reminder of his previous stupidity hadn't made Rodney change his mind.

Rodney walked to the door and then turned. He looked serious. "Did you mean it? What you said before?"

John knew exactly what he was referring to. "Yeah, Rodney, I did," he said softly. "I really do."

Rodney's ears turned a little red. "Right. I - ah - right!" He looked like he was about to say something but then changed his mind. "So I'll see you tonight," he said hurriedly and fled.

John smiled at the closed door and let himself hope - just a little.

He was seeing Rodney tonight!

They had a hell of a long way to go, but at least this was a start.

He stripped off his clothes and headed for the shower, whistling 'Orange Blossom Special' softly and kind of off-key.

He hadn't been kidding about needing to do laundry, and so he grabbed his duffle and headed for the motel's small laundry room. He left the machine going - hell, if anyone was desperate enough to steal his motley collection of old tee shirts and threadbare underwear then they were welcome to it - and walked out onto the street and got his bearings.

Granite was a small town, and he guessed that most of the tourists coming to the mountain for the skiing, or summer hiking, went around to the northeast side and the big resort up at Bear Ridge. There were only two stoplights in the whole place, and the one motel. There was a small school, a doctor's office, a combined fire and sheriff station, some municipal buildings, a gas station, and a selection of well-kept stores on the main street. He couldn't see any of the big franchises, not even a Starbucks or a McDonalds, and he headed for a tidy-looking diner called Beckett's.

There were already a few people sitting at the counter, so he slid into a booth and checked out the menu. A few heads turned to look at him - Granite was clearly the kind of place where everybody knew everybody - but they looked friendly enough, and he nodded back.

The waitress came over and offered him coffee. He smiled gratefully and drank half of it straight off. She smiled - her nametag said Katie, and she seemed sweet if a little timid - and poured him a refill without asking. He thanked her and then ordered a cheeseburger as he'd already missed breakfast.

He was waiting for his burger to arrive when a shadow fell across the table. He looked up - and up - to see a tall guy in a sheriff's uniform staring down at him. He must have been well over six feet and was built like a linebacker, and somehow John doubted Granite had much in the way of crime. The guy dropped his hat onto the table and slid into the other side of the booth.

"Afternoon, Sheriff," John said politely.

"Afternoon," the sheriff said impassively. He had a deep voice and a small tattoo on the side of his neck that looked tribal.

John waited for him to continue, but the sheriff - Dex - just sat there and stared at him. He'd been stared at by a lot of COs trying to intimidate him and had never backed down, but this guy was good. John held his gaze.

"McKay's a good guy," Dex said finally. "He talks a lot, but he's a good guy."

John nodded, expecting more, and then realised that the sheriff had told him exactly what he intended. Basically, hurt McKay and he'd be answering to him. It was kind of touching - in a scary sort of way - and John was glad that Rodney had someone looking out for him.

"Yeah he is," John nodded, knowing that Dex would understand.

Dex looked at him for a while longer and then nodded. "See you around, Sheppard." He got up and left, smiling at Katie who was hurrying over with John's food.

"I hope so," John murmured to himself. "I really hope so."

It was a little before seven when he knocked at Rodney's door. He breathed deeply and tried to unravel the knots in his stomach, and repeated the mantra that had been chanting in his head all day. "Don't fuck this up, don't fuck this up…."

The door opened abruptly. Rodney was standing in the doorway looking as nervous as he felt and also kind of surprised - like he hadn't quite expected him to show up. "Oh, right! It's you. Yes. Come in," he said quickly. "Come in."

John stepped inside and thrust a bottle towards him. "Um, I got this," he said, feeling like an idiot. "It's for you. It's wine."

He hadn't known whether he should bring anything, and it seemed weird to buy Rodney flowers or chocolates. It wasn't like this was a date exactly, but there again, Rodney might be thinking that it was. In fact Rodney was looking really good - the stretched-out old cardigan with holes at the elbows had been replaced by a smart blue shirt over a pair of neat khaki pants - and so maybe he did think this was a date. Plus he had asked Rodney to dinner, and that definitely kind of sounded like a date and… hell, this was so far out of his comfort zone that he had no fucking clue.

Anyway, he'd spent way too much time trying to decide - so much that he'd wondered if he ought to check that he hadn't regressed into puberty - and in the end he'd just gone ahead and gotten some wine and hoped for the best. At least he knew that it was a halfway decent bottle - that was something he'd learned from his dad.

"Oh! Thanks," Rodney said, sounding startled, and he took the bottle, looking as unsure as John felt. For some reason that made him feel a little better.

"It's just pizza," Rodney said. "Um… do you want this now? I think I have a corkscrew somewhere. I, ah, don't exactly entertain, but I'm sure that I remember seeing one, um, I can just…."

"You know what?" John said quickly. "A beer would be great - if you've got one?"

Rodney's shoulders relaxed as the unexpected complication of the wine was removed.

"Beer! Right!" Rodney nodded vigorously and led the way into the kitchen. "I thought we could eat in here? There is a dining room, but I never use it - it's pretty formal - unless you wanted to?"

"The kitchen is fine," John said and wondered which one of them was going to stroke out first.

Thankfully things began to relax as they ate, and the pizza was great.

"No one would deliver this far up the mountain when I first moved in," Rodney said around a mouthful of pepperoni and cheese.

John knew just what a bitter pill that must have been. "Tough break, buddy."

"Fortunately extreme and unrelenting obstinacy is one of my many gifts. That, and the fact that I'm prepared to tip extremely generously, finally convinced the Granite Pizzeria to make an exception to their frankly draconian and anti-humanitarian policy, and so now I can have pizza whenever I want - weather permitting."

John grinned and helped himself to another slice.

Rodney must have been pretty damn successful before he gave everything up and moved out here. A big place like this - in this location - would have a hefty price tag, and he'd bet getting someone to drive three-quarters of the way up a damn mountain to deliver pizza would need more than your average tip. He had the feeling that Rodney was a fairly wealthy guy. Jeez, now all he needed was for him to think that he was some kind of a gold-digger.

He paused and gave himself a mental slap when he realised that he'd actually used the term gold-digger, even if it was just in his stupid head. Things would probably go a lot better if he just stopped thinking so damn much and concentrated on getting his fair share of pizza before Rodney put away the lot.

So that's what he did. Unfortunately things grew tense again once the distraction of the pizza was over.

John stalled for time and helped Rodney to clear the plates away and stack the dishwasher. He'd come here knowing that they needed to work things out, but now that it was time he didn't know what the hell he was going to say.

They moved into the living room and sat down on the couch.

Rodney looked nervous and immediately jumped back up. "Oh, coffee? Did you want coffee?" He was beginning to babble. "I can make coffee, or did you want another beer? Or should I open the wine? I can always…."

"Rodney, it's fine," John said, trying to sound calm, although his stomach was churning. "Why don't you sit down, and we can talk, okay?" Actually he'd have preferred to have hot needles inserted under his fingernails, but they needed to do this.

Rodney looked equally as terrified by the prospect. "Right, yes - talk. We should, ah, we should do that," he said and sat down abruptly.

They looked at each other for a long time and then John sighed. "Jesus, Rodney. I suck at this. I don't even know what to say to you, except that I'm sorry. I'm so damn sorry."

"What are you sorry about?" Rodney didn't sound pissed or flippant, more like he was genuinely curious.

John looked up in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Are you sorry that you met me? Or that what happened between us happened?"

"No! None of that. I'm sorry that I fucked it up, and that I ran away. I'm sorry that I hurt you. Jesus, Rodney - I'm just so damn sorry for everything."

"It meant, well - it meant a lot to me," Rodney said awkwardly. "The time we spent together, I mean."

"That's the one thing I'm not sorry about." He needed Rodney to understand.

"You've probably realised that I'm, ah… not exactly good with people," Rodney said, and he sounded resigned. "I've always been a little, um, difficult? I find it hard to connect, and I don't really go out much, especially since…."

Rodney got up and walked over to the fireplace.

"Losing Jeannie hurt so much," he said, looking into the flames, "and everyone kept wanting me to talk about it and 'share my grief'," the air quotes let John know exactly what he thought of that. He could relate - he wasn't a fan of all that touchy-feely, 'get to know the inner you' crap himself, and there were plenty of Air Force shrinks who could testify to that.

Rodney carried on. "They tell you that it'll make it easier, and that you'll feel better." He looked over at John. "But they're wrong. It doesn't."

John knew that he'd been spared a lot of this. In some ways he'd lost his dad a long time ago, and so the grief he was feeling now was more a sorrow at what might have been - and at least he'd had the chance to say goodbye. That was something that Rodney had never had.

"So I decided to get away from everything and come here," Rodney said, "and there was no one to ask me how I was feeling, or wanting me to talk about it. There was no one to care, and I could just be alone. I suppose that sounds pretty cowardly…."

Not to him; he was the king of running away. "Not really."

Rodney smiled tiredly. "You know, after you left I began to wonder if I'd imagined it all. If you were real and had actually been here - and if we'd been together like that."

"Oh, Rodney…" Christ! He was such a shit. He'd known how vulnerable Rodney was, but he'd still cleared out without a word. He'd only been thinking about himself.

"No, it's okay. I knew it had been real. I wasn't actually delusional - and anyway I had your note," Rodney snorted. "Well, I had your scribbled attempt at a note that you'd thrown away."

"I'm sorry, I…."

"I know you are. It's just that I've spent years shielding myself from getting too close to anyone and from opening up and getting hurt. And then you came along - and I know I sound like an idiot now, but I think you swept me off my feet a little." He laughed, and there was an edge of bitterness. "It was like something out of some old romance with the handsome stranger lost in a storm. You were gorgeous and charming but kind of a dork too, and you made me laugh and watched stupid TV shows with me - and you, you seemed to like me." He paused and then added sadly, "That kind of thing just doesn't happen to me. I suppose I should have realised that it was all too good to be true and then, of course, it was - because you left."

John got up and walked over to the fireplace. "Rodney…"

Rodney shook his head and laughed again, mocking himself. "That first morning? When I woke up and you were gone? I thought you were making coffee, or were in the bathroom or something. Christ! I sound pathetic." He looked at John, and his eyes were wide with confusion. "I know what you said back at the motel, and a part of me really wants to believe it - but I just don't know if I can. I still don't really understand why you've come back."

"Because I made a mistake, Rodney," John sighed. "A huge, fucking mistake. I know it took a while for me to realise it, but I finally figured it out and here I am."

"Yes, but why? What do you want?"

At last - something so simple that even he could put that into words. He tried to pour all of his sincerity into his answer. "You, Rodney - I just want you."

Rodney blinked.

"You've probably already figured out that I'm kind of a fuck-up," John said, "and I should tell you that I don't exactly have a great track record with this kind of thing. But the thing is I tried fighting it and running away, and it was no good. I can't run anymore, Rodney," he sighed, "and I don't want to."

Rodney shook his head slowly. "I want to believe you, John, I really do. I didn't invite you up here tonight to lead you on, or to be deliberately hurtful, or to try to punish you. But now that you're here, I just don't know if I can do this." He looked into John's eyes. "I do want this - want you - but what happens when you get bored, or you decide that you've made another mistake and leave again? What happens to me then?"

At that moment all he wanted to do was drag Rodney into his arms and kiss him. He wanted to promise that something like that was never going to happen and tell him that they were going to make this work and be happy forever.

Unfortunately this was the real world and not a fairytale - there was no magic wand, and a kiss wasn't going to miraculously make everything better. It was time to dig out all of those emotions they'd obviously both been burying for years and try to work this thing out between them. It wasn't going to be easy, but he really wanted to try - Rodney was worth it.

"Look, I can't promise that I won't do dumb things - hell, I can promise you that I probably will - but I won't run out like that again. I know you don't have a lot of reasons to trust me, and I'm no good at saying any of this stuff, Rodney - but I want to try. I really think that we have a shot."

Rodney's mouth was pressed into a thin line, and John didn't want to back him into a corner and have him say no.

"I know that I hurt you and that you're scared I'll do it again. I have a hell of a lot to try and prove to you, Rodney, and all I'm asking for is a chance," he said intently. "How about we just take things slowly? You don't have to make any decisions right now. We can take our time, get to know each other a little better and see how things go?"

He could see the hope warring with uncertainty in Rodney's eyes. It was obvious that he desperately wanted to try but was scared of getting hurt again.

"Well, I suppose there's no harm in taking things slowly…." Rodney said finally, though he still looked nervous.

"Glacial," John promised happily. He wasn't going to waste this second chance. He wouldn't let Rodney slip through his fingers again. "Just one step at a time. So, first step - what do folks do for fun round here?"

"Um, I have absolutely no idea," Rodney said blankly. "I don't really socialise much. But I do have the latest Doctor Who on DVD, um, if you're interested?" he added hesitantly.

"Sounds great!"

He'd missed out on a lot of stuff when he'd been overseas, but they'd watched some of the new Who when he'd been here last, and he'd really enjoyed it. Of course, Rodney could have suggested that they sit and watch paint drying - or worse, reality TV - and he would still have agreed. He was glad of any chance to spend more time together. He knew he'd have to work hard to regain Rodney's trust, and he didn't want to waste a second. However, it was already pretty late, and he didn't want to push things any further tonight. He'd said slowly, and he meant to stick to his word.

"When should I come by?"

"Oh, er, tomorrow?" Rodney said. "You could come for lunch if you wanted?" he added cautiously. "Unless that's too soon, or you have things to do, or.…"

John grinned. "No, that's perfect. I'll bring the popcorn."

There was a slightly awkward pause, and John decided this would probably be a good time to quit while he was ahead. "Look, it's getting late - I ought to be going…."

"Oh, right, yes," Rodney nodded, but he sounded a little surprised. "Of course. I don't want to keep you.…"

"This isn't because I don't want to stay, you know that right?" John asked. "This is just going slow."

"Slow. Right," Rodney said and gave him a relieved smile. "Yes. Thank you."

John grabbed his fleece, and they walked to the door.

"So, until, um, tomorrow," Rodney said. "Oh, and watch out for the first bend once you're back on the road – there's a tricky adverse camber and with these conditions it's easy to over-steer if you're not used to it and…." he rambled nervously.


Rodney looked up at him, and his eyes were huge. "Yes?"

"Thank you," John said quietly and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek.

Rodney blinked and then smiled - a small, pleased smile - and watched as John got into his car. He gave a little wave and then closed the front door.

John pulled away with a hopeful feeling.

It was definitely a start.

John woke a little after six.

He felt good - the sun was shining and he was seeing Rodney later. He was still kind of stiff though, after the long haul from California, and decided to go for a run.

It was a crisp morning and his breath hung in the frigid air, but the sky was a cloudless blue and he soon felt himself warming up. The mountains made a pretty spectacular backdrop, and all of the peaks were white over. Rodney's mountain was closest, standing to the east of the town, and John smiled as he looked over at it.

He ran down Main Street, but it was still early and there were only a few people around making a start to their day. They nodded at him pleasantly, and he waved back. Granite seemed like a nice place, and he reckoned that he could maybe get to like it here. He grinned when he realised that the idea didn't freak him out either.

He ran out beyond the edge of town and found a trail that followed the river. There was snow covering the banks, but the path was clear enough and the ground was frozen firm, and so he lengthened his stride and pushed himself a little harder. The air was fresh, and everywhere was alive with the chatter of birds and the rushing of the water. It looked like the rapids might get pretty high and make for some good rafting here in the spring.

He was looking forward to seeing Rodney, but at the same time it felt a little weird too. His life had been kind of confusing lately. There'd been the discharge, the thing with his dad, and then, of course, Rodney. So much had happened, and it was like one minute he was under fire in Helmand and the next he was here in rural Washington and he and Rodney were basically dating. It was kind of a big change.

Not that he was complaining. It was just a lot to figure out.

He liked the way that he and Rodney could be so open though. He'd always had to hide his sexuality when he was in the Air Force, which meant that he'd hidden it for most of his adult life. Of course, it hadn't been so much of an issue when all he was having was one-night stands and anonymous hook-ups. It had been easy enough to go to out of town bars and keep it quiet - as long as he was careful. It was new territory for him now that he could be so open about seeing someone.

Of course, he'd never particularly wanted to make this - or any - kind of commitment before, and he was kind of surprised at how easy it felt. He didn't want to hide what he and Rodney - hopefully - had, or run away from what it might build into.

Yeah, it felt weird, but it was a good weird. He just had to make sure that he didn't fuck things up. Rodney was putting a lot on the line, and he wasn't going to hurt him again.

He followed the meandering path of the river for another three or four miles, enjoying the chill of the morning air in his lungs as he ran, and then turned around and headed back to town.

He cooled down, took a quick shower and then headed straight for Beckett's. It was still busy with the breakfast crowd, but Katie smiled in recognition when she saw him and poured him a cup of coffee as soon as he sat down. He grinned in thanks and ordered the 'Hungry Man Special', which he then demolished - proving that he really was.

After he was done he wandered around town for a while, calling at the grocery store and picking up an extra large bag of the peanut butter and chocolate popcorn that Rodney liked - they'd eaten a tonne of the stuff when he'd been there during the blizzard - and then finally it was time. He got in the SUV and drove up the mountain.

Rodney opened the door before John could knock. He looked a little nervous, but he was smiling as he ushered John inside.

"Hey, Rodney," John smiled. He would have liked to kiss him but decided against it - Rodney seemed a little spooked. He hoped he wasn't having second thoughts. "Everything okay?"

"What? Oh, yes, fine," Rodney nodded, "Sorry, I was just checking the weather service, and there may be a low pressure system moving into the area that might bring more snow. I didn't want you to get caught on your way here."

It looked like Rodney really did get freaked out over anything that could cause problems with the roads - though it was understandable. John made a promise to himself that he'd never do anything stupid to make Rodney worry like that again.

"Nah, it's all clear, blue skies so far. It was great when I went out for a run this morning."

"You ran? In this? Are you insane? It must be at least two or three below, even down in the valley," Rodney squawked, but John had the feeling this was a reaction to the idea of exercising rather than any real worry over the conditions.

"It was cool, Rodney. I had fun."

"Fun? Are you sure that the weight of all that hair hasn't caused a catastrophic brain injury? Because you're clearly impaired in some way."

"Gee, thanks," John grinned, but the bantering felt good and he was glad to see that Rodney was smiling.

Things were going okay, and they both seemed to be relaxing. He could do this. Just one step at a time.

They settled on the couch and turned on the TV. They spent a pleasant few hours time travelling and complemented it with a couple of foot-long subs for lunch.

"I don't really cook," Rodney said, looking a little embarrassed, "and I didn't want to just zap something in the microwave. So, as the roads are still good I got take-out. I mean I did invite you here and so…."

"This is great," John cut in. "I'm not much of a cook either, believe me. Pizza is pretty much one of the main food groups in my book."

"Oh?" Rodney smiled. "Well, that's good as I was planning to reheat last night's leftovers for dinner."

"Sounds good to me," John grinned. It did - he got pizza, and it meant that Rodney was expecting him to stay for dinner.

They went back to watching the TV, and it was dark by the time the last of the credits were rolling. Rodney muttered something urgent about 'too much soda' and headed off, presumably to the bathroom.

John gathered the debris from lunch and their TV snacking and took it through to the kitchen. He dumped it in the trash and then went out into the yard to check on the weather. He didn't want Rodney worrying.

The yard had been swept clear, but the surrounding trees were all heavy with fallen snow. He'd read somewhere - probably on the placemat at the diner - that they got more annual snowfall here than any place else in the state; it looked it too. The sky was clear though, and it didn't look like they'd be getting any more snow tonight. Still, it was pretty cold. It felt good though; the air was fresh and clean - heavy with the scent of the trees - and the night was quiet except for the occasional hoot from a distant owl.

He took a few steps away from the house and gazed up. There was virtually no light pollution up here, and the sky stretched huge and open above him. The moon was waning, but the stars were dazzlingly bright in the blackness. He felt like he could almost reach up and touch. It was as if he was in the sky - he could be flying.

His chest tightened a little, and he pushed the thought away. Things were going good - he and Rodney were doing okay - and he wasn't going to ruin that by thinking about what he couldn't have.

The door opened behind him, and he turned around.

"What are you doing out in the cold?" Rodney asked, hurrying over with John's black fleece. He was already muffled up in a fleece of his own. It was a loud, ugly shade of orange, and John was sure the colour could never be found in nature - it was enough to make bees go blind.

"Just looking." John smiled in thanks and shrugged his fleece on.

Rodney looked up and nodded. "It is impressive, isn't it? It's one of the things I love about living here - it's like I have the whole sky to myself. I imagine sometimes what it must be like to be able to go up there and explore."

"I flew in space once."

Rodney swung around in surprise.

"Well, the closest you can get without completely leaving Earth's atmosphere. 70,000 feet in a U-2 - right on the edge."

"You're with NASA?" Rodney yelped.

"Nah, regular Air Force," John said. "I knew a guy though…" He and Cam had met back in flight school and had stayed friends. He'd arranged for John to go up as an observer one time. It had been amazing. They'd been looking down on the Earth, way above the clouds, and when he'd looked up there'd been nothing above them but the black expanse of space. "It was pretty cool."

"I can imagine," Rodney said softly. "So you're in the Air Force?" he asked a little diffidently, and John realised that Rodney really didn't know anything about him.

"I was, not anymore."

"Why?" Rodney asked and then shook his head. "Sorry. You don't have to tell me."

"No, it's okay. I want to." And weirdly, he did. If they had any hope of making this work then Rodney deserved to know the man that he was. He didn't want to hide anymore. "I was a pilot - helicopters mostly. I moved around a lot; my last few tours were in Afghanistan."

Rodney sucked in a sharp breath but didn't say anything.

"Things were pretty rough. A buddy of mine went down, and the brass wouldn't authorise a rescue mission."

"What happened?" Rodney asked quietly.

"Let's just say that I didn't agree with their tactical assessment of the situation," he snorted. "So I went anyway, but my friend didn't make it." It didn't make it any easier, but it was good to tell Rodney. Hopefully one day he could tell him more.

"I'm sorry." Rodney moved closer, and he could feel a line of warmth where their arms were pressed together. It felt good.

"Yeah," John sighed. "I was given a couple of options, and I chose the one that didn't involve me flying a desk for the rest of my career."

"When was all this?"

"A few months back. I was kind of bouncing around from one place to another when I came up here the first time and ended up in that ditch. I hadn't exactly decided what to do next - still haven't really. The Air Force is all I've known since college, and I'd never planned to leave." Unless it was in a body bag, but he didn't say that to Rodney.

"Oh," Rodney nodded. "And so you'll just carry on bouncing around until you decide?" It sounded like he was aiming for casual, but he really wasn't pulling it off. John could hear the unease in his voice.

"I hope not," John said softly. "Look, Rodney. I know this is all new - for both of us - and I meant what I said about taking this slowly. I'm not putting any pressure on you, okay, but I just need you to believe that I'm not planning on leaving unless you decide you don't want this and you tell me to go."

Rodney was silent for a moment and then he turned. "And if I ask you to stay?" He looked nervous but determined.

"You don't have to do anything you don't want, Rodney." He didn't want him to feel like his hand was being forced. "But, just so you know, if you did ask me, then I'd say yes."

"Oh," Rodney said, sounding kind of shocked. He obviously hadn't expected that answer. "Well, that's, um, good to know." He smiled, and his eyes shone a little more brightly.

He was gorgeous, and John wanted to kiss him, but he didn't. He just smiled instead. "Yeah."

Rodney held his gaze and then it was as if he was reading his mind. "I think I want to kiss you now," he whispered.

John only had time to think 'please!' and then Rodney's soft lips were pressing against his. The warmth was shocking after the chill of the night air, and John gasped, his eyes closing as his mouth opened. Rodney's tongue teased at his parted lips, and John welcomed it in and traced it with his own.

Rodney sighed and pulled back just a little. "I was wrong," he whispered. "I definitely want to kiss you. A lot."

John laughed with relief. "Yeah, me too."

He reached up and cupped Rodney's face in his hands and pressed in closer. Rodney's hands slipped around his waist, and there was a solid wall of heat where their bodies met.

Rodney's mouth fit perfectly against his, and it was everything that he'd remembered. He deepened the kiss and lost himself a little - it felt so damn good.

Rodney shivered, and John pulled away, but he still held Rodney's face, sliding his thumbs down the sides of his neck and stroking softly. "You're cold."

"Hmmm? It's cold?" Rodney asked, distracted.

He was staring at John's mouth, and John felt a jolt of heat go straight to his cock. Slow - he had to remember that they were taking things slow. "Yeah. You were shivering."

"I was?" Rodney sounded surprised. "I hadn't noticed." He smiled up at John, and he looked so damn happy. "You know where's warm? Bed."

John swallowed. Jesus! "I thought we were going to take things slow," he croaked.

"So did I," Rodney grinned, "but I think I've changed my mind. I can be a pretty spontaneous kind of guy, you know."


Rodney laughed a little. "Well, no - not really, but I still want to do this."

All John wanted was to agree and just go ahead and jump Rodney, but he had to check. "You're sure?"

"Yes." Rodney nodded. "Definitely."

He pulled John closer and kissed him, sweet and warm, and John lost himself again. Yeah, Rodney seemed pretty damn sure.

He moaned as Rodney pulled away.

"Let's go inside. Please?" Rodney asked, and there was just a flicker of unease, as if he thought that John might not want this - him - after all.

John kissed him quickly but firmly and then grabbed his hand. The apprehension melted from Rodney's face, and they headed inside.

They reached for each other as soon as they stepped into the bedroom, both of them pressing forward hurriedly, and then they were kissing again.

There was a sense of urgency, but at the same time John didn't want to rush and miss anything. He'd only had that one brief night with Rodney, and now he wanted to take his time a little. He didn't want to think about why - like what if this turned out to be a one-time thing - and concentrated instead on the sweetness of Rodney's enticingly slanted mouth.

He pushed his fingers up into Rodney's hair - it was so soft - and stroked down the strong slope of his neck. Then he pulled back a little and kissed his way to his ear, nuzzling and sucking lightly at the skin behind it.

Rodney groaned and tilted his head, and the collar of his shirt gaped open, showing a tease of pale skin where his neck met his shoulder, and John wanted to bury his face there and taste it. He reached for Rodney's shirt and began to quickly undo the buttons. He needed to get to that skin.

"Oh, good idea," Rodney breathed, and started to do the same with John's shirt.

John finished the last button and pulled the shirt away, exposing Rodney's shoulders. They were just as broad as he remembered, and he ran his hands across them slowly and then pressed his face against the smooth skin and breathed in deeply.

Rodney's hands faltered.

John kissed a trail from one shoulder to the other and then lifted his head and watched as he stroked his hands along the firm, inviting curve of Rodney's biceps, taking the shirt with him and letting it fall to the floor. His hands slid over Rodney's wrists, and he linked their fingers together, pressing closer. His own shirt was hanging open, and he gasped when his skin touched the heat of Rodney's chest.

He'd never felt anything like this before – this was about so much more than sex.

"Oh, God," Rodney moaned and reached impatiently for John's shirt again, quickly stripping it off and then stepping back into his arms.

Rodney took John's face in his hands and kissed him, pushing in closer, and it felt incredible. It was like a live wire sparking across his skin wherever they touched - and he could feel the hard ridge of Rodney's cock pressing against his own through the fabric of their pants.

John reached down and eased open Rodney's zipper. Rodney sighed into their kiss and rubbed against him, making his cock ache even more.

John reached up and stroked his hands down the solid plane of Rodney's back. His skin was pale and smooth, and he loved to feel the play of muscle under his hands.

Rodney made a satisfied little sound and moulded himself even closer to John's body. He could feel the hard points of Rodney's nipples nudging at his chest, and it was driving him crazy. He pulled Rodney in and kissed him again - he just couldn't get enough.

He trailed his hands down the gentle arch at the small of Rodney's back and then slipped them lower between fabric and skin. He cupped the full, warm curves of Rodney's ass in his palms and squeezed gently. Rodney had the most amazing ass.

Rodney moaned and pushed up against him. "You're trying to kill me," he mumbled through the kiss.

John pulled back for just a second. "I'm really not," he smirked and then groaned as Rodney hauled him back in and rubbed up hard against his cock. Jesus! That felt so good.

He lost track of how long they stood there, just holding each other and kissing, but eventually he pulled away. It wasn't like he didn't want to keep doing it forever - it was just that he had plans.

He silenced Rodney's little huff of disapproval with a smile and a quick kiss and then slid smoothly to his knees and pushed Rodney's pants and boxers to the floor.

Rodney watched him with very wide eyes.

John grinned and then quickly stripped off everything else Rodney was wearing until he was standing naked in front of him. Christ! Rodney was gorgeous.

"Oh my God," Rodney croaked.

His cock was practically standing up against the little swell of his belly, and it was red and already leaking.

John licked his lips, and Rodney moaned brokenly, his eyes fixed on John's face.

"Killing me," he mumbled hoarsely and then he shouted as John leant forward and sucked his cock straight down.

John sighed around the hard flesh filling his mouth. He loved this. Rodney's cock was big and sweet, and the tang of pre-come teased at his tongue.

He slid his hands up Rodney's thighs, loving the scattering of soft hair and the firm muscles tensing under his fingers, and he stroked over the gentle flex of hipbones and around to Rodney's ass. He grasped the yielding handfuls and squeezed, pressing his face into the sweet curls of Rodney's groin and taking his cock down deeper.

"Jesus, John!" Rodney sounded choked.

John eased back slowly and let Rodney's cock slide from his mouth, giving one last lick to the weeping head. He looked up through his lashes and smiled - not a leer or a tease but a genuine smile. He was so damn happy.

Rodney was staring at him. His eyes were wide and shining, and he looked almost feverish. His legs were beginning to shake. Luckily they were close to the bed.

"Lie down, Rodney."

"Good idea," Rodney panted and flopped heavily onto the mattress. "Because you," he grinned and pointed feebly, "are definitely trying to kill me."

"Only a little," John smirked.

He quickly stripped off his clothes, and Rodney watched him, moaning softly when John's cock sprang free. "Killing me. Definitely," he whined, but clicked his fingers impatiently. "Come on, come on! Dying man here!"

John laughed and climbed onto the bed and kneed his way between Rodney's legs.

Rodney let them fall open with a heartfelt sigh. "Finally."

John grinned and let his gaze travel the length of Rodney's body. He was broad and solid - and totally fucking gorgeous. "Now where was I?"

Rodney smiled, only a little shyly, and waved in the direction of his cock. "Um, somewhere around here I think…"

"Mmm," John grinned. "Yeah, I remember…."

He leant in and licked a broad stripe along the hot, hard length and then sucked it back down with a satisfied moan. Rodney's hips bucked up helplessly, and John threw his arm across his thighs. He could feel his own cock throbbing, and he rubbed it against Rodney's shin, grateful for the friction.

He sucked and licked, swallowing Rodney's cock almost to the root and then backing off and teasing at the head with tiny kisses. Rodney's moans began to grow louder, and he was obviously trying not to push up too hard. John slipped a hand between Rodney's legs and stroked his balls. Rodney cried out, and John could feel the sac tightening in his palm.

"John," Rodney panted. "Come up here… I want… together. Please?"

He felt kind of drunk. He was lost in the taste and feel of Rodney's cock, and the delicious ache in his balls as he rubbed himself off.

"John! Please!"

Rodney pushed at his shoulders, and John snapped out of it, quickly crawling up and covering Rodney's heaving body. God! It felt like fire. Rodney was so warm, and John moaned as their cocks rubbed together, sliding together slickly as their pre-come mixed.

John was suddenly so close, and he pressed his hand between them and dragged their cocks into his fist and squeezed. Rodney groaned, and reached down, lacing their fingers together. There wasn't enough space and the angle was all wrong - but it was perfect.

"'M close," he panted, pressing his face into Rodney's neck. He was teetering on the brink.

Rodney nodded frantically and wrapped a leg around John's thighs, pulling them even closer together. "Me too."

It only took another couple of seconds and then John could feel his balls clenching. His cock got impossibly harder, and he gave one final thrust and then his whole body was spasming, and he was coming.

He shouted - a raw, unintelligible sound - and then Rodney was shouting too. He could feel him writhing under him and spurting fluid was gushing and mixing with his own, and he could feel it covering their cocks and hands and bellies.

Things were kind of confused for a while after that. There was a lot of panting and sloppy kisses dropped on shoulders and cheeks - and on one of John's elbows for some reason - and then some groaning, with the sacrifice of a pair of boxers in the name of clean-up - John thought they might be his, and if so it looked like he'd be borrowing a pair in the morning - and then a lot of huffing and rearranging of arms and legs. Then suddenly it was done, and they were lying under the covers; Rodney had one arm and a leg thrown over John, and his head was pillowed on John's shoulder. Huh. Neat.

"Oh God," Rodney sighed, and it was a lush and extremely well satisfied sound. "I think you really did kill me." He stretched and settled his head a little more comfortably. "Mmm… next time I want you inside me."

John's completely spent and shrivelled cock twitched valiantly. "Jesus, Rodney," he moaned. "I think it's you killing me here."

Rodney looked up with a pleased, little grin and then he frowned. "Not that I'm complaining about what we've just done, of course - that was incredible, monumental even - I just thought that you might like to… if you wanted to, that is. It's not important. We can just forget that I said anything.…" he tailed off. There was a line of insecurity furrowing his brow.

John shifted over. Rodney kind of deserved a head-slap for that, but he just smacked a reassuring kiss to his mouth instead. "Of course I want to, doofus, and I want you to fuck me too."

Rodney's eyes grew wide, and his cheeks flushed endearingly. "Oh, well, yes," he spluttered. "I don't think that, ah, should be a problem."

He was smiling again though, and John just grinned and lay back, guiding Rodney's head down to his shoulder again.

They lay like that for a while, not talking, just content and lax in the post-sex haze. Rodney's head gradually grew heavier, and his breathing deepened, and then he began to snore softly.

John liked the sounds that Rodney made when he was asleep - they were oddly comforting - and he smiled to himself, wrapping his arms around Rodney just a little more tightly. He felt relaxed and happy, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this way. He wondered if he ever really had.

It wasn't just about Rodney - though this thing that was happening between them was huge - but it was like his whole life was changing. He was changing.

The last few months had made him face up and deal with a lot of the crap that he'd been holding onto over the years. It wasn't like everything was all suddenly perfect - not by a long way - but at least now he'd figured out some of the stuff that he could - and couldn't - fix, and that was a start.

It still hurt when he thought about Holland, but he was finally coming around to the idea that it hadn't been his fault. He'd tried, but the odds had been against them. That didn't make it better, but maybe it made it a little easier to live with.

Then there was his dad. He still had a lifetime of regrets and what-ifs there, and he always would have, but at least they'd managed to find a little piece of common ground before it had been too late. He was glad that they'd found that, and that they'd gotten to have that time together. It was never going to have been enough - they'd wasted too many years - but it had been something.

Going home had helped him to find the brother that he'd lost too. He'd gotten the chance to see Dave's side of things, and he was starting to feel that he did still have a family - even after all these years - and that maybe there was a place for him.

Rodney made a soft, snuffling sound and shifted closer, tucking his face into John's side. John eased his arm free and stroked Rodney's shoulder gently.

Rodney had been perhaps the biggest change - the biggest revelation - of all.

He'd been shocked by the way that Rodney had made him feel - shocked that he could even have these kind of emotions after spending so much of his life trying to pretty much not feel anything at all. It had scared him, and he'd tried to run. He'd thought that the farther away he went, the easier it would be.

Jeez, had he been wrong. It didn't seem to matter how far he got - the feelings were still there. It was simple physics really - he couldn't outrun himself. All that the distance had done was make him realise how empty his life was - how empty he was.

There were no guarantees that he and Rodney would work out. Rodney could tell him to leave tomorrow, and he'd have to respect that - and he would - but if that did happen he knew that he wouldn't - couldn't - go back to his old life. He'd never go back to the casual pick-ups and nameless faces. Being with Rodney had shown him a side of himself that he hadn't known existed. Rodney had helped him to feel something, and now he didn't feel so apart - so alone - anymore.

Rodney had given him that. Rodney - who was kind of broken himself, but who'd been brave enough to risk his heart with John, and who'd then given him a second chance when he'd screwed it up the first time.

It was still early days, and they had a long way to go yet, but he hoped they could do this. The two of them together just felt so right somehow.

Rodney yawned beside him and opened his eyes. "Oh, sorry. Did I fall asleep?" he mumbled, lifting his head and rubbing his knuckles tiredly across his eyes. His hair was sticking up at crazy angles, and he had a crease line down his cheek from where he'd been mashed up against John's side.

John felt a ridiculously happy kind of lightness squeezing at his chest. He was going to do everything that he could to make sure that he didn't throw this second chance away.

"I wasn't snoring, was I?" Rodney yawned again.

John nodded. "Like a trumpeting bull elephant," he said seriously, trying to keep a straight face. "Dex called and said there'd been complaints from over at Little Deer."

"I was not!" Rodney huffed and then added a little uncertainly, "Was I?"

"Relax, Rodney," John grinned and pecked a kiss to his nose. "I was just kidding - it was only as far as Moose Bend."

Rodney looked momentarily outraged and then he slapped John's arm. "Oh, shut up. Anyway, if I do snore then you'll just have to put up with it," he added a little shyly.

Putting up with Rodney - and his snoring - sounded like a pretty sweet deal. "Okay," he smiled, and he was probably looking like a big sap but he really didn't care.

Rodney smiled back, a big, beaming smile, and John just had to kiss him. Yeah, there might still be a long way to go, but they were going to be okay - he could feel it.

They kissed for a while longer, until they were both yawning, and then they settled back down. Rodney huffed and fussed a little more and turned onto his side and dragged John to lie behind him, his back pressed firmly to John's chest. John grinned and wrapped his arms around Rodney's waist and buried his face contentedly against his neck. Rodney clearly approved and patted his arm.

John was just falling into a doze when he felt Rodney tense a little.

"I was thinking," Rodney said quietly. "You know that thing you said back at the motel?" He sounded nervous but oddly defiant.

"Yeah," John whispered. He'd told Rodney that he loved him - and he meant it.

"Well…" Rodney paused and then said with a firm nod. "Me too."

John's stomach kind of flip-flopped - though it may actually have been a little higher than his stomach, more in the region of his heart maybe - and he squeezed Rodney tighter. "That's, ah, good to know," he coughed. "I'm glad it's not just me."

Rodney rolled over. His eyes were shining very blue in the moonlight filtering through the window. "It was never just you," he said quietly.

John had thought - hoped - that Rodney felt that way, and he smiled, relieved and nervous at the same time.

"I know I'm kind of a fuck-up, Rodney, and that I've made some mistakes. I'll probably make a lot more too, but even when I do, please don't ever doubt that I, you know, okay?"

It was hardly very eloquent - or even that comprehensible - but bizarrely Rodney seemed to understand what he was saying.

"It's hardly like I'm an expert at this kind of thing," Rodney said, "and, as much as I like to think that I'm perfect, I know that I'm not. Far from it. But I do, ah, you know, what I said before. I really do. That has to count for something, hmm?"

John nodded. "From where I'm standing it counts for everything," he smiled.

In an odd kind of way the two of them were actually a pretty good match. They both had their scars and found it hard to trust, but despite this they'd found each other and wanted to give this thing a try.

Okay, neither of them could actually say 'I love you' out loud - well, not on purpose - and they didn't really have much of a clue what they were doing. Maybe that didn't matter all that much though, and they'd just figure it out as they went along - together.

Rodney took a deep breath. "Stay?" he asked, voice wavering just a little, and there he was again - willing to step up and put it all on the line.

John's chest tightened, but he nodded without any hesitation. "Yes." He pulled Rodney closer and pressed the word into the softness of his lips. "Yes."


One year later

John drifted awake by degrees. He was warm and comfortable, and he had no place to be for a while except right here.

Life was pretty damn good.

He gave a long, satisfied yawn and stretched lazily under the extra-thick-could-survive-in-the-artic-polar-bears-wish-they-were-this-well-insulated comforter that Rodney had insisted on putting on the bed as soon as the first snowflake of the season had dared to drift past their window.

Mmm, Rodney. He rolled over and wrapped his hand around… bare sheet.

He opened his eyes and looked over - the other side of the bed was empty.

"Oh, good - you're awake."

John looked over his shoulder and smiled as Rodney came bustling in through the door. He was swaddled in his favourite blue bathrobe and was carrying two steaming cups of coffee.

"Not that I'm complaining," John grinned as Rodney put the coffee on the nightstand and shucked his robe, "but how come you're up at," he glanced at the clock - it wasn't even six yet, "wow, o-dark-thirty, making coffee?"

Even when Rodney did wake first, he always tended to lie in bed and let John make the coffee rather than actually getting up and doing it himself. Not that John minded - he liked waking up to a warm, pliant Rodney. It was one of his favourite things.

"Couldn't sleep." Rodney slipped under the covers and then added as John raised an eyebrow, "Nothing to worry about. I just woke up early and decided I needed coffee. That's all."

John opened his arms, and Rodney wriggled over and wrapped himself around him.

He was glad it was nothing more serious than that - Rodney still got nightmares sometimes about losing his sister, and they could get pretty rough. When that happened, John just made sure that he was there, pulling Rodney into his arms and holding on until the shaking stopped.

Of course, Rodney repaid the favour on the nights when Afghanistan - or sometimes Iraq - haunted John's dreams. Somehow having Rodney's sturdy warmth wrapped around him made it that little bit easier to look those demons in the face.

"Hmm, it is nice to be waited on."

"Well don't get used to it," Rodney snorted, but he dropped a kiss to John's shoulder. "By the way, what time are you on duty today?"

"Not 'til this afternoon - 's just a half-shift."

It was strange how things turned out sometimes.

A year ago Rodney had asked him to stay, and he had - quite literally. He hadn't exactly moved in - more like he'd just never left.

First of all, he'd fetched his duffle from the motel and pretty much lived out of that for a few weeks. Then he'd happened to mention that he had an original copy of the first appearance of The Green Lantern, and of course Rodney had demanded to see it, and so he'd arranged to get his stuff out of storage and had it all shipped up here.

Neither of them had really said anything about the fact that they were now basically living together, and that seemed to work just fine. John's books were tucked in next to Rodney's on the shelves, his clothes were hanging in their shared closet, and his Batmobile was sitting alongside Rodney's Bat Signal on the dresser.

Rodney did roll his eyes when John first hauled his surfboard in from the car, muttering something about good luck with finding a beach in the mountains, and there was the occasional hissy fit when he tripped over John's skateboard, or his skis, or pretty much all the other stuff that he tended to leave lying around the place.

Apart from that though, things had gone pretty smoothly. Well, smoothly for two guys with enough emotional baggage to fill the luggage department of JC Penney, anyway.

Yeah, they fought sometimes, but it was mainly about stupid stuff like who ate the last bag of Cheetos or who forgot to empty the dryer, and then they made up - which usually involved some spectacular sex - and they were good again.

Okay, so it was hardly Dr. Phil, but it worked for them, and John was a big fan of the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' school of thought. He was still pretty much amazed with the way things had worked out, and there was a little bit of him that didn't want to risk jinxing it by saying something stupid. They were doing okay just as they were.

It wasn't just the thing with him and Rodney that had worked out so well though.

Granite was a small town - not just in size but in the way that everybody tended to know everybody else, and their business. One evening, a couple of months after he'd gotten here, he'd been down at the town's only Mexican place getting take-out, and Dex had come by. The sheriff was a man of few words, but it was clear he'd been doing some digging. He'd mentioned that he was looking for a deputy and that with the ski resort nearby, he needed someone who could double as a pilot for search and rescue too.

Rodney had said that he was the only man in the world who could go out for chimichangas - extra sour cream, hold the guacamole - and come back with a job.

John hadn't really said anything - he'd been pretty much stunned. He was flying again.

He'd actually been kind of surprised at how much he liked the job. Obviously getting the sky back was huge, but he found that he liked doing the other stuff too. Plus Dex was a cool guy when you got to know him, and they'd become pretty good friends along the way.

It didn't hurt that Rodney really seemed to have a thing for seeing him in his uniform either. Something about the thigh holster….

So just like that he'd gotten a home and a job… and, most importantly, Rodney.

"Oh, this afternoon's good," Rodney said. "I'll ride down with you. I need to see Teyla about a few things before next week and then there's the rehearsal, of course. I should be done by the time you're finished though. We can have dinner in town if you like? I could definitely go for some ribs.…"

Something else that they hadn't really talked about but that was also pretty damn huge was that Rodney was playing the piano again. It wasn't Carnegie Hall - just tutoring some of the local kids and accompanying the grade schoolers for their holiday pageant - but John could see how happy it made him. In fact, he hadn't realised how much of a part music had played in Rodney's life - and the void that it had left behind - until Rodney began to play again.

Music was kind of like Rodney's sky.

It had been back in the spring, and John had woken in the middle of the night to find the bed empty. It had been even rarer back then for Rodney to get out of bed before him and, although he'd never mentioned it, he had wondered if it had anything to do with Rodney still being wary that John might not be there one time when he woke up. He always slept wrapped around John - throwing an arm or leg over him - and maybe that was his subconscious's way of making sure that John didn't leave like he had that first time.

John didn't mind - he had enough quirks of his own - and anyway, he figured the simplest way to prove to Rodney that he had nothing to worry about was just to always be there.

So waking up to find Rodney gone had been weird. He'd dragged on some boxers and wandered down the hallway, and that's when he'd heard the music. He'd followed the sound and found Rodney in the sunroom. The dust cover had been thrown off the piano, and he was sitting there, playing. The lights were off, but there was a full moon shining outside, and there'd been no sign of hesitation as his hands had moved gracefully over the stark black and white of the keys.

Rodney's head had been bowed, and John hadn't really been able to see much of his face behind the darkly smudged shadows that stretched across the room.

John had stood in the doorway and listened. He didn't know much about classical music and had no clue what the piece was, but he knew that Rodney playing again after so long really meant something - and that made it the best sound in the world.

Rodney had finished and then turned to him. He'd looked thoughtful - and just a little melancholy too. 'I'm rusty, and this needs tuning,' he'd shrugged.

John had smiled. 'Sounds pretty good to me.'

Rodney had snorted. 'Says the man who thinks the height of musical endeavour is someone wailing along to a steel guitar about how their wife has left them and their dog got run over by a truck.' But he'd been smiling.

John had gone over and made him nudge along until he could sit down next to him and then he'd kissed him. They'd sat together, and John had soaked up the warmth where Rodney was pressed against him, and he'd listened as Rodney had played until the sun came up.

They hadn't talked about it, but after that Rodney had started to play regularly. He'd slip away when the mood took him, and John would find him lost in whatever he was playing and then he'd smile and make room, and John would sit beside him and listen. Sometimes he'd play things he'd written himself, and he'd explain what the compositions meant to him or what his inspiration had been. He talked about Jeannie sometimes too, and John wondered if rediscovering the music was maybe helping him to deal with her loss a little more.

So, it had started off with him just playing at home - and then one day John had happened to mention something to Dex, and the next thing Rodney was being asked to help out with the kids in town. Of course, he'd groused and whined about it, but John knew he enjoyed it really.

He hadn't mentioned anything about wanting to go back to his career, and maybe he never would, but he was happy - and that was all that John cared about.

Next week was the big holiday concert, and Rodney had been hard at work helping Teyla - the principal of Granite's small school - with the music.

"Oh, hey," John said, suddenly remembering. "Lorne asked if I could help with the scenery - can you see when he wants me to stop by?" Lorne was the Phys. Ed. coach plus the arts, math and science teacher - it really was a small school. His partner, David, was a professor down at WSU, and they had a nice place down near the river.

"Hmm? Okay, yes. I'll check. You know, I'll be glad when this thing is finally over," Rodney sighed and wrapped his arm around John's waist. "Apparently Woolsey is trying to get KCTS to cover the show now. Can you believe it? I mean, I know it's public service but even so…. That man takes being Mayor to a whole new level. Honestly, I'm sure there's less fuss for a full-scale production at La Scala."

"Oh, admit it," John grinned. "You're loving it."

"Well, that might be going a little far," Rodney sniffed, but his mouth was twisting suspiciously. "Let's just say that I'm incredibly civic minded and take my responsibilities to the community very seriously."

Actually he did. Now that he'd started to open up a little and get to know a few people, Rodney was making friends - they both were. It was kind of nice to feel like they belonged.

"I know you are, buddy. The all-you-can-eat brownies that the PTA provides at the rehearsals have absolutely nothing to do with it," he deadpanned.

"Of course not!" Rodney huffed and then grinned, "Well, maybe - just a little."

They both chuckled, and Rodney smiled - his face was open and happy - and he leaned over and dropped a kiss to John's mouth.

It started out casual, just a light pressing of lips, but then John sighed happily and Rodney slipped his tongue into his mouth and things started to heat up.

"Coffee's getting cold," John whispered as one kiss turned into twenty. Not that he really cared - Rodney's kisses tasted better than any damn coffee.

"There's more in the pot," Rodney mumbled and slid over to lie on top of him, pinning him down and sucking John's tongue into his mouth.

John groaned. Rodney's cock was already hard - he could feel it pressing against his thigh - and he shuddered, his own cock nudging hopefully at Rodney's hip.

"Good point," he nodded and suddenly coffee was the last thing on his mind. He wrapped his arms around Rodney and pulled them closer together.

Rodney slipped a hand between them and stroked John's cock, making him moan, and then he rolled to one side, giving himself better access to John's body.

John was all for this and spread himself out helpfully for whatever Rodney had in mind.

Rodney stared down at him for a moment, and John could see everything that Rodney felt for him right there in his eyes.

Rodney had been a little hesitant the first few times that they'd had sex - like he couldn't quite believe that he got to be with John like this - and even now he could be, sort of, diffident at first. It was weird – and not something that he'd say out loud - but Rodney always made him feel kind of, well, cherished. It was pretty awesome actually.

Rodney touched his hand to John's chest and slowly traced the trail of hair that arrowed down to his groin, finally sliding his hand between John's legs and squeezing his balls gently. He weighed them in his palm and then stroked his fingers back to carefully tease between John's cheeks.

"I really want…."

The touch electrified John's whole body, and suddenly he couldn't wait to feel Rodney inside him. "Jesus! Please… yes, yes."

He groped blindly in the nightstand and hurriedly slapped the lube on the bed.

"Now would be really, really good."

Rodney's gaze went hot. He pressed a quick kiss to John's mouth and then picked up the tube and slicked his fingers.

Rodney had big hands, and John always loved to feel them on him - and especially inside of him.

Rodney touched one finger to his hole and pressed in carefully. It felt amazing, but he wanted more.

"That feels…. I want you…."

"I know, I know." Rodney kissed him and pressed back in with two fingers. "I want to be inside you so much."

John moaned, he could definitely get behind that - well, underneath, or in front of… whatever. He just wanted Rodney – right now.

"I'm good," John choked, nodding. "Do it."

"You sure?" Rodney was always careful, checking that he was ready, but John felt like he'd explode if he didn't get Rodney inside of him.

"I'm sure," John gasped and pulled Rodney into a long, dirty kiss to show him just how sure he was.

"Right, yes," Rodney panted. "Very sure…." He eased back and grabbed the lube again, this time spreading it over his cock, his movements a little bit clumsy as he hurried.

John reached and wrapped his fingers around the solid, familiar heat of Rodney's cock and helped to stroke the slick fluid up and down the hard length.

Rodney groaned loudly. "God, much more of that and it'll be over before it's started."

John snatched his hand back as if he'd been burnt, and they both choked out a laugh. Then Rodney nudged forward, and suddenly he was pushing in and the laughter turned to moans.

Christ! Rodney felt huge and hot inside him, and it was absolutely-goddamn-fucking-perfect.

He wrapped his legs over the back of Rodney's thighs, and Rodney slid in the last couple of inches with a huff of surprised breath.

"Oh my God…." Rodney moaned, his forehead pressed to John's chest and his arms trembling as he held himself still.

John flexed his ass, and Rodney cried out, his head jerking up.

"What is it with you and sex? Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" He looked a little wild around the eyes.

"No," John smirked and flexed his ass again. "Just trying to get you to move."

Rodney groaned and then muttered darkly, "Oh, I'll move." His gaze was hot, but his mouth was twisting into a grin, and then he was sliding out and pushing back in with a long, smooth thrust that wiped the smirk from John's face and had his eyes rolling back in his head.

Oh, God - Rodney was fucking him hard now and hitting every hot spot that John had ever known he had and - damn! - a few more besides. This was going to be over in an embarrassingly short time, and he really ought to give a shit, but his brain was pretty much melting and getting ready to shoot out of his dick. So, yeah… he was surprisingly okay with it.

He pulled Rodney's head down and kissed him hard.

"I. Am. So. Close…." he panted helplessly against Rodney's mouth.

Rodney nodded and began to thrust faster, and suddenly John was right-the-fuck-there. He hung suspended for a timeless moment in a jumble of mindless pleasure and then he was falling back to Earth with his cock spitting and his ass clenching hard around Rodney.

There was a possibility that he may have, perhaps, kind of blacked out for a second there and then suddenly he was back, and reality was rushing in at him at a million miles an hour.

Rodney was shouting something - it sounded like John's name along with an impressive string of obscenities and calls to a higher power - and then he was coming too, panting and thrusting crazily. John pressed his face into Rodney's neck and held on.

Rodney eventually stopped shuddering, and he slid into a graceless, groaning heap at John's side. "Nnmmfrgh…."

"Right back at ya, buddy." John pointed a wavering finger and lay back with a no doubt dopey grin plastered across his face. He felt a little like he'd been run over by an eighteen-wheeler - but in a good kind of way.

"I may never move again," Rodney moaned, at the same time stretching and throwing an arm over John's chest. "In fact I'll probably need traction for the rest of my life."

"That bad, huh?"

Rodney shook his head and beamed happily. "That good."

"Oh, yeah." It really had been - and definitely not too shabby for a couple of guys pushing forty. Of course, a nap might be nice around about now too. "It's still early - we can sleep a little longer if you want?"

"Mmm," Rodney mumbled, clearly totally behind that idea and pretty much putting it straight into practice.

John grinned and used the edge of the sheet to do a sketchy clean up - they could do laundry later - and then settled them both under the covers. Rodney snuffled a sleepy something and snuggled up in his usual position with his head on John's shoulder.

Rodney's lashes were dark smudges against his pale skin, and the soft exhalations of his breath tickled gently at John's neck. His hair was sticking up in soft little spikes, and John smiled and stroked it back down.

Yeah, it was kind of strange how things worked out sometimes.

He could hardly even recognise that guy who'd come back from Afghanistan.

His life was so totally different. He was here, living openly - and happily - with Rodney, and he was doing a job that he enjoyed and getting to fly too. He had friends, and he was getting to know Dave again - he and Rodney had just been out for Thanksgiving - and finding that he still had a family as well.

It wasn't like he'd gotten everything worked out - he kind of doubted that he ever would - but he was definitely making progress. He wasn't that angry, lonely guy who deflected anything real with a slouch and a smile. The past year had shown him a hell of a lot about who he was, and maybe what he was capable of too if he just gave himself - and other people - a chance.

He still had a lot of regrets about the way that he and his dad had let things go wrong between them, and looking back he could see that he'd maybe let some of that failure bleed through into other areas of his life too. It was ironic though that in the end it was his dad who had helped him to see that there are some things that really are worth fighting for - some things that you just couldn't let slip though your fingers. You had to fight - even when it was hard and it hurt… maybe especially then.

So he'd taken that leap of faith, and bizarrely, amazingly - wonderfully - Rodney had been right there with him - leaping out into the unknown at his side.

Maybe they did make a kind of unlikely pair, but Rodney had filled a gap somewhere deep inside of him and made a connection that made him feel so damn alive. He couldn't explain it - and it was a tired, old cliché - but things just seemed better when Rodney was around. It was like he was John's touchstone, or maybe they were both a touchstone for each other.

The two of them together probably shouldn't work, but they just did. Maybe it was because they were both kind of messed up and still had a lot of healing to do, or maybe it was whatever the hell else. He didn't know the answer to that, and he didn't much care. What really mattered was that they'd been willing to take a chance on each other, and things were going good. They were both still a couple of works in progress, but they were getting there.

He couldn't ever remember being so happy.

Rodney mumbled something in his sleep and then made a contented little sound and pressed his face into the curve of John's bicep.

John smiled and dropped a kiss to the top of Rodney's head and snuggled in closer.

Life could take some unexpected twists and turns, and he'd never dreamed that his would work out this way.

He had Rodney, who he loved and who loved him right back, and it really didn't get any better than that.

Thank God for snowstorms and slick tyres….

The End
AU, death of a secondary character
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