Hooke's Law states that in an elastic material, strain is proportional to stress. The point at which a material ceases to obey Hooke's Law is known as its elastic limit.
"I'm not saying you have to," Rodney said and let John's cock slip out of his mouth with a wet pop. "I'm just saying it would mean a lot to me if you did, and I mean really a lot."
"Rodney," John protested in a voice that was definitely not a whine. In his opinion, whatever Rodney had on his mind could wait until after the blowjob. He raised his hips a little, nudging the head of his dick against Rodney's swollen lips, moaning as Rodney opened up and did that swirly thing with his tongue.
And then stopped again, the goddamn bastard. "I know you don't like being in the public eye and all, but it's not going to be a big deal, no one reads those things anyway and…"
"Rodney!" All right, now John was whining. "Can't it wait until later or are you trying to kill me here?"
Rodney blinked and licked his lips as if he just remembered what he'd been doing. "Oh. Right, sorry. I got a little distracted."
"That your way of telling me you're getting bored, McKay?" John drawled and raised his head from the pillow to glare down at where Rodney was lying between his spread legs, completely ignoring the very erect dick right in front of his face.
"Um, no?" Rodney cocked his head to the side and licked his lips, making them glisten with saliva.
John couldn't hold back a groan and his hips jerked, fucking up into thin air. His cock twitched, desperate to get Rodney's mouth back around it. "Please," he gasped. "Please, please, suck me, Rodney, I need…"
Rodney grinned, leaned forward and took John into the wet heat of his mouth. He sucked once, twice and then pulled off again with a slurp.
"Damnit, Rodney, don't tease," John growled, reaching for Rodney's head to get his mouth back where he needed it.
Rodney ducked his head and kept grinning, looking positively evil. "Pushy," he said, shifting his arms so he could cradle John's balls in one hand. "You should see yourself. How bad do you want to come right now?"
"Nngh," John groaned as Rodney slid a finger back and pressed against the spot right behind John's balls that sent jolts of pleasure like electricity through his body. "Rodney please, I'll do anything, just get me off."
"Well, since you're asking so nicely," Rodney said and sucked John in again.
This time, he didn't stop and he didn't tease. Rodney set up a slow rhythm of sucks and licks, using one hand to keep John's hips pinned to the bed and the other to gently part his cheeks so he could rub his knuckles against John's hole.
John could feel his voice spiral out of control as the combination of sensations ran over him. He couldn't find coherent words any longer; the only thing that made it over his lips was a panted litany of "Yes, yes, yes!"
Then two of Rodney's fingers joined John's cock in his mouth and the next John knew, they were pressing into him, going straight for his prostate. At the same time, Rodney went as far down on John's dick as he could manage and swallowed.
John came so hard that his vision greyed out around the edges. Rodney coaxed him through the orgasm, still working his throat and stroking him inside. When John was done shaking and could breathe again, he looked up to see Rodney's lips red and swollen, and a trail of come running from the corner of his mouth and down his chin.
"Oh god," Rodney panted, rising to his knees and fisting his own weeping erection. "That was so hot, John, you have no idea, wish you could see what you look like right now."
John could very well imagine. He stretched lazily, running a hand over the sensitive cock softening against his thigh. They were going to do this in front of a mirror some time, he decided. Rodney was always talking about what John looked like when they were having sex, and John would like to see it for himself. He let his legs fall apart and spread them a little, not taking his eyes off Rodney's hand moving faster and faster over his cock "Want to fuck me?" he asked and was rewarded by that hitch in Rodney's breathing that meant he was close.
"Yes, yes, god yes." Rodney's hand sped up even more and he was panting hard, eyes dark with lust. "I want to, god, but I… I don't think I can hold it… John, I'm… oh fuck, I'm going to…"
John smiled. "Yeah," he whispered in the low voice Rodney liked. "Come on, Rodney, do it. Come on me."
Rodney froze above him, fucking into his fist one, two, three times. Then he threw his head back and came, eyes closed and mouth slack with pleasure. Spurts of come covered John's thighs and belly and he ran two fingers through the warm fluid and brought them to his lips, wanting to taste…
"You are… seriously, you are…" Rodney rasped, too out of breath to finish the sentence. His eyes were open again and he looked drunk and flushed in the face, staring down at John like he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
It had been almost four years, and it still came as a complete surprise sometimes, the way Rodney looked at him. Like John's knobbly, hairy body, with all its scars and calluses, was beautiful. Like his too-visible ribs and the lines around his eyes that got deeper and deeper each year, were things to be treasured and adored. Rodney would run his fingers curiously over the gray hairs on John's temples. He'd caress John's little finger, the one that had never healed quite straight after he'd broken it on a tour long ago. And he'd smile that smile he had, the one that made John believe that, for Rodney, he was better than freshly brewed coffee, crisp new unread journals, supernovas, electronmicroscopes and classic episodes of Doctor Who all rolled up together.
John pulled Rodney down for a kiss, thrust his tongue slowly into Rodney's mouth, tasting himself there, mixed with Rodney's own special flavour. Rodney kissed him back and they lay there for a long time, legs tangled together, breathing into each other's mouths.
A little later, when they had cleaned up and brushed their teeth and were back in bed, cuddled together under the covers, Rodney spoke up.
"So," he said smugly, combing his fingers through the hair on John's chest. "You'd do anything, huh?"
John's still sex-fogged brain vaguely recalled that Rodney had asked him for something earlier, something he wanted John to do for him. John had been hesitant but then there had been the blowjob that easily went on the top-ten-list and John might have let slip…
Oh shit. He was so screwed.
The numbers on John's watch were slowly nearing three o'clock. He would have to leave soon if he was going to be on time. They had talked on the radio about a big accident holding up traffic and that meant John was going to have to plan a little better than usual if he was going to make it. Unless he wanted to be late, in which case the accident would be the perfect excuse. 'Sorry Rodney, I did my best but I got stuck in traffic. Not much to do about it, eh?'
John rubbed the bridge of his nose. No. That would be a shitty thing to do, especially as he had promised. Rodney didn't ask for things unless he really, really wanted them, and John didn't say yes unless he knew he was going to be able to keep his promises.
It wasn't even a big thing. He should be happy and proud that Rodney wanted to include him in this. John knew he didn't have a lot to show to the world. He wasn't rich and he wasn't successful. He loved his job and did the best he could, but the youth center would never make him famous and he didn't want it to.
The minutes ticked by. John should leave now. He had to get home and shower and change before the reporter showed up. So why couldn't he seem to get up from the chair?
There was a light knock on the doorframe and John looked up to find his boss there.
"Nervous, Sheppard?" Hal Lindberg asked with a grin as he dragged his large frame into John's tiny office.
"No," John said without thinking about it, and then, when Hal's grin grew wider, he shook his head and said, "Yes."
"Thought so," Hal said and sank down into the chair on the other side of John's desk. It really was a small office, miniscule as Rodney had called it during a visit, but John liked it. Until a few months ago, it had been a storage room and not even a coat of paint and some furniture could disguise its original use. John still liked it. It reminded him of his old apartment, which had been old and small and in desperate need of a renovation but still John's.
"I finished the sponsorship letters," John said, trying to change the subject. He pushed a sheet of paper fresh from the printer over the desk towards Hal. "Wanna take a look at it and make sure I haven't screwed up?"
"Doubt it, son," Hal answered, but he reached out for the letter anyway. He still looked tired, John noted, and felt a little guilty for heaping more work on his boss. It was six months since Hal had suffered a bad heart attack that had frightened both his family and his friends. He was slowly getting better, but he had been forced to drastically cut back on his work hours and that said something, as Hal had been known for working around the clock.
In theory, Hal was still the manager of the youth center, but lately he had been stepping back, letting John slide into the vacated spaces. The youth center got part of its funding from the city and the local churches, but the biggest contributions came from the general public. The donations came from both companies and private persons, and one of John's new duties was to hunt down new contributors and take good care of the old. He enjoyed his new responsibilities, and not only because they meant an increase in pay. The youth center was his new mission in life, a chance to create something good and maybe begin to make up for all the lives he had taken. He would gladly do everything Hal asked of him and more.
"Weren't you supposed to be out of here by now?" Hal asked, nodding significantly at the clock on the wall.
John glared at it. Yep, he was late. Even if he left now and hurried, he would probably still be late and Rodney would get that disappointed and hurt expression that John hated to put on his face.
"Shit," he muttered, banging a fist against his thigh. "Shit!"
Hal grinned. "Cadman's waiting for you outside," he said, tossing John his jacket. "Relax, Sheppard, it can't be that bad."
"I'll let you know tomorrow," John said, hurriedly gathering up his stuff and running out the door, but not before shouting back, "Thank you, Hal!"
Laura Cadman was Rodney's personal assistant and publicist, with the soul of a drill sergeant and the patience of a saint. Just like Hal had said, she was waiting outside in the parking lot, leaning against the side of her car. She was dressed smartly as usual, business casual in a pair of slacks and a jacket to match, looking professional like she always did while she was working.
"You didn't have to pick me up," John told her sheepishly as he hurried around the car and opened the passenger door.
Laura made a big show of checking her wrist watch. "Look me in the eye and tell me you were going to be on time. You're worse than he is when there's something you don't want to do." There was a smile in her voice though, and she didn't seem stressed at all when she got into the car and started the engine. That was probably a pretty good sign that things were going according to plan. Laura was hired to keep Rodney's professional life running smoothly and John was fairly certain there was no one else in the world who could do it so well without going insane. Rodney McKay personified the stereotypical image of the absent-minded writer and Laura often joked that if it wasn't for her, Rodney would probably have starved to death before John entered his life.
"Nervous?" Laura asked, looking over at John with a smile.
"Everyone keeps asking me that today," John scowled and then, "Whoa, eyes on the road, Cadman!"
Laura deftly swerved to avoid the SUV that went past with a blaring of horns and John breathed out. He disliked riding with Rodney, who didn't know a straight line from a hole in the road, but Cadman was a thousand times worse. In her opinion, traffic rules were more like suggestions and other cars better keep out of her way or face the consequences.
"You don't have to be," Laura said when imminent death was no longer imminent, "Diane is a great journalist. She doesn't want to uncover any dark secrets, she wants to do an author portrait. You don't have to answer any questions if you don't want to." She laughed a little. "If I know Rodney, you won't get the chance to say much at all."
"So I'll just sit there and be pretty?" John asked. He was beginning to get a little annoyed with the way everyone seemed to be trying to calm him down. He had been in close combat, he had no reason to freak out over an interview. It wasn't even his interview, for god's sake, it was Rodney's.
"But you're so very good at it!" Laura exclaimed, completely ignoring John's glare. Then she went serious. "I hope he's not making you do something that'll make you feel uncomfortable. I know how he can be."
"It's okay," John muttered. "It's not a big thing." He had been trying to convince himself of just that for the past week. "If he wants me to be there, it's fine."
"I can't say I blame him," Laura grinned back. "If you were my boyfriend, I'd want to show you off too."
Her eyes were glittering with humour and John felt his face get hot. "I'm telling Carson you said that," he growled.
Laura burst out laughing and between her and Hal, John actually felt a little better and a little less like the world was about to swallow him up and dump him in a dark hole.
The first time Rodney asked John to move in with him, he had panicked. It wasn't that he didn't want to live with Rodney, but he couldn't stand the thought of not having a place of his own. They had kept separate apartments for years and even though John had spent most of his free time at Rodney's place, it had always been Rodney's home and not his, and he couldn't really see that changing.
But Rodney had tired of the arrangement and suggested a compromise – that they look for a new place together. In the end, they had decided to move out to Rosemont, not to far from the University.
The house had been described as a 'renovation project' in the ad and that was probably the nicest thing you could say about it. It was a single story building with an adjacent garage, surrounded by a small garden and protected on all sides by high hedges. When they had bought it, it had been rather sad to look at with the flaking paint and the sagging roof. There had been a tiny pond in the garden filled with greenish sludge, and the tiles on the patio had been cracked and covered in weeds and moss.
Now, four months and a lot of work later, it was beginning to look less like the hovel Rodney likened it to and more like a home. John had fixed the roof and replaced the rotten wood in the front porch and had just started to scrape the old paint off the window sills. It wouldn't be their dream home for a long time yet, but John hadn't wanted a house that was perfect from the beginning. He'd wanted something he could fix up himself, a place he could shape with his own hands. He'd wanted to create something new for both himself and for Rodney
They hadn't lived there long, but it already felt like home.
Laura parked her car in the driveway and hurried ahead towards the front door. John lingered, purposefully dragging his feet. He wouldn't admit it to anyone else, but he could at least be honest with himself - he was nervous.
John didn't often think about the fact that he had a famous boyfriend. To him, Rodney was Rodney - brilliant, a little eccentric and occasionally a jerk. To the rest of the world, Rodney was M. R. McKay, author of several bestselling novels, two collections of short stories and one children's book. He was the recipient of countless prestigious awards. The critics who had never been exposed to him in person loved him. The critics who had met him still admired his writing. John knew all that, but it was still a little difficult to think of the guy he shared a bathroom and a bed with as a celebrity.
But the rest of the world had a way of knocking on the door and demanding to be let in. Rodney had a new book coming out soon and at the same time, he'd received some prize which was apparently a big deal. (John tried not to get too involved in all that - it gave him a headache and Rodney's ego was big enough as it was.) His publisher wanted to make a huge thing out of the book launch and that meant plenty of media exposure.
The interview today was for a small California-based literary magazine. The journalist, Diane Fowler, was a friend of Laura's from college who specialised in author portraits. According to what she had told them beforehand, she wanted to portrait Rodney's life, not just his writing.
Rodney's life included John.
So yes, he was nervous. This was just everyday stuff to Rodney, but John wasn't used to being examined by the public, even if it was just as the boyfriend of their favourite author. If it hadn't been for Rodney begging, he would just have said to hell with it, let Rodney have his interview and leave John alone. But Rodney had asked, repeatedly, insistently, and John had eventually caved. Right now he regretted it deeply.
Sighing to himself, John walked up the steps of the front porch and opened the door. Well, too late to back out now. He would just have to grit his teeth and get through the rest of the afternoon and hopefully not make an ass of himself. How did boyfriends of famous authors generally behave anyway? He didn't really know of any so he had no way of knowing if he was doing it right.
John hung his jacket up on its designated hook in the hall and went hunting for Rodney and Laura, following the sound of their voices. The house was in its usual Rodney-induced chaos. There were books everywhere. Tables and counters were littered with open journals which had scribbled comments in the margins along the lines of 'moron' and 'author should be permanently banned from using words' and 'must write scathing reply'. There was the half-graded course work from the Creative Writing classes Rodney taught at Sac State. There were discarded clothes and dirty dishes and empty candy bar wrappers. And then there were the coffee mugs. They seemed to accumulate everywhere. John suspected that Rodney was secretly training an army of sentient coffee mugs to take over the world.
He found Rodney and Laura in the living room. Rodney had clearly spent the day working, apparently with little success because his thinning hair was mussed from where he had been running his fingers through it in frustration. He was reaching for the closed laptop in Laura's arms, making a desperate attempt to snatch it away from her.
"Hi honey, I'm home," John said, smiling at the sight. It wasn't the first time he'd witnessed the two of them fighting over a computer, or a pencil and a notepad.
"Can you tell this harpy to give me back my laptop?" Rodney responded, making another grab for the computer.
"You were supposed to clean up this mess!" Laura chided, putting the laptop away on a shelf.
Rodney sputtered. "I… you… there were words in my head and they had to be written down before they went flowing away as words so often do. Brilliant thoughts, lost forever!"
Laura turned to John. "Can I strangle him with the power cord?"
"You'd be out of a job," John told her and then turned to Rodney. "Where's Lady?"
"Your creature is in the garden," Rodney said, throwing calculating looks towards the lost computer. "She was making a racket and upsetting Newton and you know I can't work when they're chasing each other all over the house."
John sighed. "So you left her unattended in the garden? You know Mr Jurgensen threatened to drown her in the pool if she got into his flowerbeds again."
"Words!" Rodney shouted. "Lost! Forever!"
"All right." Laura clapped her hands. "We don't have time for this. John, shower. You're sweaty and you smell. Rodney, you've got a coffee stain on your shirt, go change."
"I do not!" Rodney protested, and then looked down at his chest. "Oh, I have. Where did that come from?"
"Change," Laura repeated. "Take the blue shirt, it goes well with your eyes and it matches John's sweater."
"Sweater's in the laundry!" John shouted on his way to the bathroom.
"Not anymore it isn't!" Laura shouted back. "Hurry up, both of you! Diane will be here in half an hour. I'll go get the damn dog. And if she gets hair on my pants, I will drown her in Mr Jurgensen's pool."
Twenty-five minutes later, the house looked presentable. John had showered and was dressed in his now miraculously clean sweater, Rodney had a fresh shirt on and Lady, John's newly acquired lab mix, was sulking in the garage, having been interrupted while digging interesting holes in the garden. Whatever Rodney paid Laura, John reflected, it wasn't enough.
"Tell him that when it's time for my Christmas bonus," was Laura's response before she disappeared into the kitchen to start a fresh pot of coffee.
"Nightmare," Rodney muttered. Then he looked up at John, as if really seeing him for the first time since John had stepped through the door. "Hi. Um. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," John answered with what he hoped was a confident smile.
"Fine fine or Sheppard fine?" Rodney asked. "There's a rather big difference. You should make a spreadsheet or something."
John had to laugh a little at that. "I'm good. Don't worry." He had been nervous and still was, but once he'd stepped through the door everything had been reassuringly normal and he didn't feel quite as intimidated by the prospect of having his home invaded by journalists anymore.
Rodney studied him for a moment as if trying to figure out if he was truthful or not. "Okay. I'm asking because it has been pointed out to me that I might have been a little too… me about this."
"You mean the famous McKay bulldozer imitation?" John asked, grinning. "Nah, it's okay."
"Oh, that's good, that's excellent!" Rodney smiled, looking excited and happy now instead of hesitant. "Just for the record, it means a lot to me that you agreed to this and have I told you how much I love you today?"
Just then, they were interrupted by the doorbell. John placed a kiss on the corner of Rodney's mouth and then decided to take the bull by the horns and go and open the door.
Outside was a large woman about Laura's age, with long dark hair in braids falling around her shoulders. Behind her loomed a tall man with a sullen expression and a camera around his neck. When John opened the door, the woman smiled widely, revealing a mouthful of extremely white teeth and extended a hand adorned by several silver rings. "Hi, I'm Diane Fowler!"
"John Sheppard," John said and reached out to shake her hand. "Come on in. Rodney's in the living room."
He led the way into the house, through the hall and past the Johnny Cash poster he refused to let Rodney throw away. Diane chatted away the whole time while the photographer, who hadn't introduced himself, remained silent. Laura came hurrying out of the kitchen and John decided to make himself scarce while the introductions were taken care of, so he went to set the table on the patio and pour the coffee.
It was a beautiful day and Newton, Rodney's big grey cat, was sunbathing on the patio. He had taken the move from Rodney's apartment to the house with feline grace but remained very much an indoor cat. The edge of the patio was as far as he would go, and there he would sit down and study the grass with much suspicion, occasionally batting at a blade with a furry paw, as if trying to figure out what strange new thing it was. John hunched down to scratch his belly, wincing a little when his knee twinged, and waited for the others to come out and join him.
He didn't have to wait long. A few minutes later the patio door opened and Rodney stepped outside, hands flailing mid-sentence, already half-way through a rant about the quality of the popular culture of today. Diane and the photographer followed, and the journalist looked a bit taken aback. Laura must have warned her about Rodney's forceful personality, but no number of warnings could really prepare you for the genuine McKay experience. John hid his smile as the small group sat down around the table. Rodney did not stop talking for one moment and Diane kept trying to get a word in but with no success. It wasn't until Laura threw him a particularly sharp look that Rodney seemed to realise that the purpose of an interview was to answer questions and finally shut up.
They talked for a little while about this and that, mostly Rodney's new book and his award, and the move to the new house. Diane was very good at her job, John noted. It didn't feel much like an interview, but more like a conversation between friends, and he didn't feel uncomfortable at all answering her questions.
They talked a little about the youth center and John did his best to promote the place because they needed all the good publicity they could get. Rodney babbled away about his students, most of whom were mediocre, but there were some who had some talent and might be worth keeping an eye on in the future.
Eventually, Diane turned to John. "So, John. Is it all right if I call you John?" At John's nod, she continued. "How did you two meet? I understand you were in the Air Force at that time?"
John cleared his throat. "That's right. I was stationed at McMurdo, that's in Antarctica, flying helicopters. I was bored and found a book in a break room and, well, that was that."
"There must be more to the story than that," Diane laughed. "I'm a romantic, I want to know more!"
"Well…" John smiled as he thought back to the first time he'd met Rodney. "I was in Houston for a family thing and came across this little bookstore. There was a poster in the window about a book signing and I recognised the name and went in."
"And mistook Laura for me," Rodney piped up.
"The sign said 'Meredith', what was I supposed to think?" John defended himself. "Anyway, he called me a hobo, insulted my hair and spilled coffee all over himself."
"He said I was a jerk," Rodney said, blustering.
John ignored him. "Then I told him I liked his book and he thought I was a groupie and asked me out to dinner," he told Diane with a grin.
"And were you? A groupie I mean?" Diane asked jokingly, her dark eyes glittering with mirth. Rodney almost choked on his doughnut and Laura got an attack of the giggles.
"Not then," John laughed. He reached out to pound Rodney's back to prevent boyfriend suffocation. "We had dinner, talked until midnight and then I went back to Antarctica."
He proceeded to tell the rest of the story. How Rodney had somehow found out his address and sent him his latest book with a request for feedback and how it had led to an e-mail and postcard based friendship. Rodney kept up his commentary until John came to the part with the helicopter crash. Then he went very quiet and reached out to rest his hand possessively on John's thigh.
John didn't remember much about that day. He could recall the smell of smoke and burning rubber, the chill of the ice he'd been lying on, the thoughts about how no-one would really care if he died out there in the cold. The next he knew, he'd been stateside with a hopelessly busted up leg and a half-hysteric writer reaming him out.
"That must've been tough," Diane said softly, the humour in her voice replaced with sympathy. John shrugged. He didn't like talking about his injuries from the crash and the medical discharge they had led to. Rodney didn't like talking about the crash at all and always got angry when he did, even after all the years that had passed since.
"It was a difficult time," Laura finally said. "It was almost two weeks of silence until we found out what had happened to John. We were all very worried."
"Change of subject please?" Rodney muttered. He had paled a little, clearly re-living those weeks, and John took his hand and gave it a squeeze.
Diane nodded. "Of course. I'm sorry." She turned to John. "You came to live here in Sacramento after that?"
"I wasn't going to let him out of my sight," Rodney interrupted. "Every time I do, he manages to find new ways to get himself hurt. Seriously, he has the self-preservation instinct of a lemming!"
"That one got old the second time you used it, McKay," John drawled and went on to tell Diane about his move to Sacramento. How he'd spent a couple of weeks on Rodney's couch before he'd found his own place and how their friendship had turned into more. He didn't go into details about how it had happened. There were things that didn't belong in print, at least not in family-friendly publications.
"And how did your friends and your co-workers take it?" Diane asked. "It can't have been easy, what with the American military's views of homosexuality." The last was said with a slight sneer that told quite clearly what she thought about those views.
"Well," John said slowly, not really wanting to get into a debate about it. "Most of them have been great about it. They're good people."
Truth to be told, there weren't that many of John's old friends from the Air Force who knew about his new life and his relationship with Rodney. He had told his best friend, Rudy 'Hawk' Hawkins, a few years ago and Hawk and his wife Megan had reacted with nothing but acceptance, being the great people they were. John knew about a few others who had found out and reacted with shrugs, 'told-you-so's and disbelief respectively. There were also a few Christmas cards that had stopped arriving, but even though it stung, it didn't feel important.
And then there was Sokolski, John's other old-time friend from the Academy. Chad still didn't know and John hadn't been able to work up the courage to tell him. Chad was one of those people who never showed what he really thought, much like John himself used to be when he was younger. Sokolski was easy-going and fun-loving and his life still consisted of women and parties. He had a quick temper and not much patience, but he was, and had always been, fiercely loyal to his friends, just the kind of guy you wanted backing you up in a fight. John valued his friendship with Chad almost as much as his friendship with Hawk, and that's why he hadn't yet found the guts to spill about Rodney.
He wasn't going to tell Diane that though. It was no one's business but John's own and he didn't want it to spoil the moment. Everything had gone great so far, but now he was beginning to feel a little awkward. He'd known it would probably come up, but he didn't want to talk about it, not at all. Luckily Diane was every inch a professional and quickly changed the subject.
"So," she knitted her fingers together and turned to Rodney. "You gave up a great career as an astrophysicist to write fiction. What was that like? I know your father was a big name in the scientific community, how did he react?"
Rodney scowled. "Nothing was ever good enough for him. I don't think it would've mattered what I did, he still would have been disappointed." John could see a hint of the dark shadow that always crept into Rodney's eyes when he talked about his overbearing father. Then Rodney shook his head and the look was gone again. "But enough about that. My so-called colleagues, on the other hand…"
John recognised all the signs of a long rant regarding the astrophysics field and its collective intelligence. He pushed his chair back and stood up. "I think I'll go let the dog out of the garage," he excused himself. While they had been talking, he had heard the occasional bark and whine which meant that Lady was a very unhappy dog and wanted to be where all the interesting people were.
He left Rodney, Laura and Diane on the patio. The photographer still hadn't said a word, but had taken out his camera half-way through the interview and had started snapping pictures of Rodney and of the house and the garden. John had tried to stay out of his way as best he could. Being interviewed was one thing, but he'd never liked being photographed, especially not by people he didn't know.
Lady was extremely happy to be let out of her garage prison and greeted John with slobbery enthusiasm.
John had always wanted a dog. There had been family dogs when he was a kid, but they had been hunting dogs and not very friendly. Then he'd joined the Air Force and never stayed in the same place long enough to have a pet. After he moved to Sacramento, he'd thought about it, but came to the conclusion that it wouldn't be fair to keep a dog in his small apartment.
With the new house, he hadn't had an excuse anymore. They had lots of space and Rodney worked mostly from home and could keep an eye on the dog while John was at the youth center. So, he'd gone to the animal shelter and come home with Lady.
According to Rodney, she was part lab, part bear, and part five-year-old on a sugar rush. In any case, she was 100% mutt, still with big-pawed puppy clumsiness and enormous amounts of energy and charm. John had imagined himself with a German Shepherd or maybe a Golden Retriever, but once he'd met Lady he had not been able to resist. She had been handed over to the shelter when her original owner had found out that small cute puppies didn't stay small and cute forever.
Both Rodney and Newton had been wary at first. Rodney had warmed up to Lady after a couple of days, while Newton graciously tolerated the new family member as long as Lady understood who was the master of the house.
John brought Lady out in the garden with him where she proceeded to charm Diane and beg for left-over doughnuts from the plate on the table. John went to get her well-chewed tennis ball and managed to lure the dog out onto the lawn for a game of fetch to let her work off some energy.
It was getting late when Diane proclaimed that she didn't have any more questions and thanked them all for their time. The photographer packed up his camera and shuffled out to their car, while Diane and Laura chatted for a while about old college memories and Rodney cleared the table. John tried to keep out of the way, but got dragged into a discussion about the youth center. Diane had some contacts, she said, and she was sure someone would love to write an article about the place, so John ended up with her card in his pocket and a promise to keep in touch and see what happened.
"That went well," Rodney said, once Diane had left with her unsociable photographer and the house was once again back to normal. "Don't you think it went well?"
"It did," Laura agreed. "I think you managed to convince her that you're not a complete ass. And you…" she turned to John with a proud grin, "You charmed the pants off of her! I can't believe you were so nervous about this!"
John ducked his head and scratched his neck and tried not to blush, but he couldn't hold back a smile. It had gone well, despite the few uncomfortable questions, and now that it was over with, he felt rather good about the whole thing.
"Well, I need to get going or Carson will think you decided to lock me up in a closet and keep me here," Laura said, gathering up her things. "I'll call you tomorrow about the book signing, Rodney. Good night, boys!"
Rodney followed her to the door while John put the dirty dishes into the dishwasher and went through their collection of take-out menus. After all the excitement of the day, he didn't have the energy to cook. They ordered pizza and ate in the kitchen. Rodney kept talking about nothing and everything while John chewed in silence, trying to digest the day with Rodney's babbling as familiar, comfortable background chatter.
They went for a walk after dinner, walking hand in hand through the neighbourhood with Lady dancing around their feet and chasing after the sticks John threw for her. The evening settled in John's belly, coming to rest like a warm heavy weight of familiarity. It felt good to be John Sheppard. It felt good to be in the middle of this life with Rodney, being one half of the whole they made up together.
"I'll try to get some work done," Rodney said when they got back home. "I didn't have the focus before, I was so busy trying not to imagine a complete disaster and I need to prepare the lectures for the next week." He was already heading for his study after a detour to get the laptop Laura had taken from him earlier.
"Okay," John answered. "I'll be in the garage."
Rodney McKay might be difficult in a lot of ways, but there were some things he just understood and John loved him all the more for it. John hadn't really wanted to give up his small apartment. It wasn't much, but it was his, a space where he alone called the shots. He'd gotten the apartment before his and Rodney's friendship had turned into a relationship, and he'd kept it afterwards because he'd needed his own place, somewhere he could go and be alone. Granted, he'd never been able to stand more than a couple of days at a time apart from Rodney, but it was the principle of the thing.
After many sleepless nights going over his budget, John had eventually been forced to admit that the cost for the apartment just wasn't reasonable, not with the new mortgage and all the additional things they needed to get for the house. He'd terminated the lease and returned the keys with a strange jittery feeling in his chest, like he'd just been caged and chained, locked in with no place to turn around.
The same evening, Rodney had presented him with the garage.
It was large, almost half the size of the house itself, and had probably been meant for at least two cars. John had had vague plans for the garage from the beginning as a potential workshop slash hobby room, and he'd spent some time with various catalogues, picking out tools he'd couldn't really afford. It had been another thing to dream of, something else to strive towards. In reality, John had planned for a workbench and some shelving, somewhere he could stash his old magazines and journals and the box of stuff that was the only thing that remained of his childhood home after his father's funeral.
Rodney had apparently had other ideas. He'd enlisted Carson's help and spent an entire day moving things around so that the garage now held both the workbench and the shelves, but also a desk and a stereo, a small TV and the couch from Rodney's old apartment that neither of them had had the heart to throw away. There was a space for John's guitar and his favourite CDs. Rodney had even taken the time to find posters of all the helicopters John had ever flown to tack up on the walls. He'd made it clear that while Rodney parked his car there, the rest of the garage was all John's, his own little oasis of calm where he could go when he needed to be alone.
It was absolutely perfect. That evening had been the first time since John had agreed to the whole cohabitation thing that he had found himself completely without doubts about whether or not he'd made the right choice.
Now, John sank down onto the couch, absentmindedly sliding his hand over the worn fabric. He thumbed on the TV without checking the channel and let it play on a low volume, enough to provide some background chatter to his thoughts. Lady went straight for her doggie bed under the desk, circled around a couple of times and then collapsed with a content yawn.
Five years ago, John had navigated the icy expanses of Antarctica, trying to convince himself that he was happy with his life, while really being so miserable that he hardly understood how he had been able to stand it. If someone had told him back then that he would one day find himself with a boyfriend, a house, a cat and a dog, a family, he would have laughed himself silly.
It had taken Rodney's writing to bring him out of that sad lonely existence. John had been truthful when he'd told Diane it was Rodney's books that had brought them together. What he hadn't told her was that he'd fallen in love with Rodney through the books, that he'd taken the words into his heart long before he'd even met the man himself. But it wasn't until after they'd finally met that John had realised that he had absolutely nothing to live for on the South Pole. There were times when he wondered if he wouldn't have found his way to Sacramento even without the crash. It had been inevitable somehow, the way they had found themselves fitting together.
Sometimes it surprised John, how natural everything seemed with Rodney. How easy it had been to fall in love with him, fall into a relationship with him. They had started out as friends, that much was true, but it was like those months had only been a transition period, like the both of them had just been waiting for the real thing to begin.
It still hit him out of nowhere sometimes, that he could have this. John had never really thought of himself as gay. It had never been important before, not back when he still had his wings. It had been easy to forget about awkward teenage fumblings when he had the sky. It had been easy to jump from fling to fling with girls, never questioning why it didn't feel quite right. It had been a price he'd had to pay to fly, burying that part of himself so deep that he forgot it was even there.
If M. R. McKay hadn't come along, if John had never found Entangled Particles on that table in that breakroom and fallen in love, where would he had been now? Dead on the ice? Rotting away in another posting somewhere, searching for thrills in a life that felt empty and flat every moment he couldn't spend in the air?
Maybe some things were impossibly to bury? Maybe some things found their ways to the surface, no matter how hard you tried to push them down again.
Losing the sky still hurt, a real, painful, tangible hurt that was there every second of every day. But John had never expected to find the same thrill and freedom in the sensation of Rodney's fingers against his skin and Rodney's lips against his. It was good, John decided. He'd found a place where he could belong, a place where he could be himself and begin to let go of old issues and masks.
There was a rather insistent knock on the door leading into the house and John found himself smiling. It was probably the only door in the world Rodney knocked on instead of just barging through.
"Yeah!" he called and the door opened.
Rodney had rolled up his sleeves and the shirt was open in the neck, the top button undone. He looked a lot more pleased with himself than he'd done when John had come home, a sure sign that he'd had a successful writing session.
"I'm going to bed," he said. "Are you coming?"
As always when Rodney was present, things seemed to fall into place. There were still worries and concerns, but they didn't feel quite as important as before. John got to his feet and went to meet Rodney in the doorway, his arm sliding around Rodney's waist like the most natural thing in the world. Rodney leaned over to steal a kiss, his lips warm and soft and tasting of coffee.
"Laura was proud of you," he said. "And I am too - really proud. Not that I didn't think you wouldn't make me proud, of course. But you were brilliant and everyone will be jealous of me for having the most handsome boyfriend in California."
"Only California?" John teased, returning the kiss. "Besides, I only did it because you promised sexual favours. I was thinking I might collect."
"Do you see me protesting?" Rodney asked, took John's hand, and led the way to the bedroom.
John worked three full days a week at the youth center now, in addition to the half days he'd had before. Mostly he still rode the bus, unless Rodney was too buried in his work to keep an eye on Lady. Those days he'd borrow Rodney's car and bring Lady with him. She wasn't allowed indoors because there were some kids who had allergies, but she was usually happy being tied up outdoors and the children loved playing with her and were only too happy to watch her.
Since his tasks were so varied, his days never looked the same and it was almost impossible to plan his work schedule. Usually when he sat down to wrestle with the budget or call around to contributors, someone would knock on his door because the toilet was clogged or a referee was needed for game of basketball, or because Jesse and Joaquin were fighting again.
He liked it that way though. Before, his life had been wrapped up in duty rosters, every hour scheduled and accounted for. Now, he pretty much took the day as it came and somehow managed to get everything done anyway, and even if he worked quite a few hours more than he was paid for, he was glad to do it. The youth center had given him back his life and sense of purpose, and he owed a lot to the place and to Hal who had always been more of a friend than a boss.
The center had no political or religious ties, something Hal had always been adamant about. Hal Lindberg was a barrel-chested giant of a man who wore his greying hair in a ponytail down his back. He was retired from a long career as a pro-football player and he had returned to his childhood neighbourhood to help other children get the chance in life he himself had once been given. Naturally, the center's activities were mostly sports-related, but there were also a lot of volunteers who came in every day to help out with homework. They had a theatre group and a role playing group and several bands came there to practice.
Hal preached tolerance and acceptance and his purpose with the center was for the kids to grow up to be strong and confident adults. John often wished that he'd had a place like this during his own childhood, a role model like Hal. Maybe things would've been different.
The weeks after the interview went on pretty much like usual. John kept himself busy at the center while Rodney and Laura had a lot to do preparing the book launch. There were going to be a series of lectures, both at Sac State and in town, as well as book readings and a big book signing in the city. John had asked for and got some time off for the occasion and was looking forward to it. Rodney travelled much in his work and John rarely had the opportunity to come with him. Now that all the big events were in Sacramento, it felt stupid not to be there.
He did try to keep away from the preparations as much as he could though. Laura was fiercely territorial when it came to her work and even a suggestion that John could help out had always been met with a definite 'no thank you' in the past. It was probably for the best - Laura was the one who knew best how to handle Rodney and run interference so he wouldn't upset the people he couldn't afford to upset.
So John didn't have much insight into the work Rodney and Laura did together every day. What he saw was Rodney writing and scribbling storyboards on every available surface. All the things around that, Laura handled.
That was why it came as a complete surprise when he came home early from work one day and found Rodney and Laura in the living room, sorting letters.
John knew that Rodney got fan mail. It was hard not to be aware of it, since Rodney enjoyed reading passages of praise out loud. However, he hadn't actually seen any of it. The letters came forwarded to Laura from Rodney's publisher and the e-mail came to a special account set up especially for the purpose. Laura made Rodney read and respond to everything, even if it was just with a standard letter and an autograph.
But all that had gone on in the periphery and John hadn't had anything to do with it so he was completely unprepared for what was coming when he opened the front door and stepped inside, hanging up his toolbelt where it usually went under the hat-rack.
"This definitely goes in the 'crazy' pile," he heard Rodney's voice from the living room. "Actually, I think we might need a 'psychotic' pile."
The comment caught John's interest so he walked through the hall into the living room where the sofa table was covered in letters and envelopes, sorted into different heaps. As he entered, both Rodney and Laura started and looked up. There was something vaguely guilty about their expressions, as if he'd caught them doing something they weren't supposed to.
"Hi!" Rodney exclaimed and jumped to his feet. "You're home early!"
"There wasn't much to do today," John said, eyeing the letter piles that Laura had quickly began putting away in cardboard boxes on the floor. "What are you doing? And what was that about psychos?"
"Nothing, nothing at all, just catching up on some correspondence, it's not important." Rodney had the worst poker face in the world, and now John was getting curious.
"Can I see?" he asked, reaching for one of the letters before Laura had time to snatch it away.
"No!" Rodney shouted, almost throwing himself over the table. "No, no, no, not that one! Give it back!"
"What is it, secret love letters?" John grinned and unfolded the paper.
His grin froze.
There were only three words, stark black against the pristine white paper. They stood out sharply and made John's stomach turn violently.
Die, filthy fag.
Rodney had sat down on the couch again, shoulders slumped. "You weren't supposed to see that," he said. "It's nothing to worry about, I swear. I get those things all the time."
John slowly folded the paper again and put it down on the table. "All of these?" he asked, motioning to the letter heap. He could barely make his lips shape the words.
"Those are in the minority," Laura said. She had stopped her hasty attempts to clean up. Getting rid of the evidence, John thought. "Especially those those." She motioned to the letter John had just put down.
"Look, I'm not the most likeable person in the word," Rodney said. "I'm kind of a jerk, remember? And well, it's never been a secret that I'm gay, and there are bigots everywhere just ready to pounce on you as soon as you mention the word homosexuality. Seriously, I got threats before I started writing too - people used to leave these little notes on my desk and they were good for a laugh but it never got any further than that and it's the same thing with this, I promise."
"You've been getting death threats for years and never said anything," John said, surprised that he was able to keep his voice so steady.
"Because it's nothing to worry about!" Rodney shouted, grabbing a handful of letters and crumpling them in his fist. "I bet half of these are sent anonymously by Kavanagh or someone else who's jealous of my great intellect. We're taking care of it!"
John tried to take deep breaths, tried to slow down his frantically beating heart, but it didn't seem to help any. He wanted to read the letters, find out what more they said. He wanted to hunt down the people who had written those things and make them hurt.
"I'm taking Lady for a walk," he said. Then he turned around and left, ignoring Rodney's pleas for him to come back.
Lady happily followed John outside, glad to be let out of the house. He stepped out through the front door, walked down the stairs and the garden path and out into the street, picking the direction with the flip of a coin.
John tried walking at first, moved his feet at a quick pace, just enough that he had to speed up his breathing a little bit. Lady danced around him, mouth open in a doggy smile of excitement.
Walking was what he did when he needed to think. John had always found that his brain worked better when he was moving, whether it was walking or driving. It helped when he needed to untangle his knotted up thoughts and bring some order to them, and he always felt better afterwards.
Right now though, he didn't even know where to start. It wasn't thinking he needed, it was not thinking and for that walking just didn't cut it.
John could run still. He could handle short distances, a few minutes at the time, just enough that it started to get fun before his leg began to protest. Nothing like before the crash, when he could jog for hours, losing himself in the rhythmic pounding of his own feet against the ground. That was all gone now, and trying to find that feeling again was a frustrating struggle for something that would forever be out of his reach.
But right now, he needed that feeling more than he could remember doing for a long time. His muscles and his mind craved the speed and the exertion.
He knew it was a stupid thing to do even as he sped up and began to jog along the road, but it felt so good in the beginning, his body working on pure instinct. Asphalt under the soles of his shoes, the sun glaring down, pulling air into his lungs in great heaving breaths. It began to hurt and John took the pain, acknowledged it, and put it away where he wouldn't allow it to bother him. He'd suffer for it later, but right now he didn't care.
Lady ran along with him, happy and excited, and John sped up even more. He lost track of time. Nothing existed but the road and the speed, the pounding of blood in his ears. Thoughtless and mindless, floating in a warm space where no worries could touch him, and it felt so good.
It felt like flying.
He couldn't go on like this forever, he knew it, but it still came as a surprise when he stumbled and his leg gave out, sending him sprawling to the ground. He rolled gracelessly, grunting when tiny pieces of gravel imbedded themselves in his palms, and then came to a stop, lying panting on the ground. The pain had caught up with him and his leg was now throbbing with a sharp ache, deep down into the bone.
The street was deserted and it looked like no one had witnessed his fall. John swore to himself, hit the ground, and swore again when it aggravated the rather impressive road rash on his hands. Lady had stopped and was nosing at him with worried whines, her wet cold nose all over his face.
"It's okay girl," John said, running his hand over her side. "I'm fine." He felt stupid and embarrassed and wondered how the hell he was going to get back home. A glance at his watch said that he'd been running for almost forty-five minutes and it was a long walk back.
Getting up from the ground was the first step, and it was far more difficult than it should have been. John's damn leg kept wanting to give out and he knew he'd probably done a number on it. He just hoped it wouldn't land him in the ER again like a few years ago when he'd torn a tendon in his knee. It didn't feel the same, but walking was painful and the leg didn't quite want to hold his full weight.
"So," John told Lady. "That was pretty stupid, wasn't it?"
Lady panted with her mouth open and her tongue hanging out. She looked like she agreed and thought that her human was very stupid indeed.
John started walking back, limping more and more heavily. It was several miles back home and it went slowly. Soon, he was wincing with every step, cursing himself. Lady trailed after him, clearly noticing that something was wrong because she didn't try to jump up at him like she usually did. He managed for twenty minutes until it was time to admit that he wouldn't make it home on his own. It still took him five more minutes until he had worked up the guts to call Rodney and ask for a ride.
"You are a moron," was the first thing Rodney said as he pulled up by the curb where John sat waiting, his bad leg stretched out in front of him. It was beginning to swell up and he was afraid he'd end up in the hospital anyway.
"Tell me something I don't know already," John muttered, trying to get up.
"No, no, no, don't do that!" Rodney flung the car door open and hurried out to help. "Could you please try not to get injured every time you stick your nose out the door? This is not good for my blood pressure!"
"All that coffee you drink isn't good for your blood pressure," John shot back, leaning on Rodney to get into the car. He knew he was being an asshole, but he was angry with himself for being thoughtless and angry with Rodney for starting it all in the first place.
"See, this is exactly why I didn't want to tell you," Rodney said when they were all settled inside the car. "I knew you would freak out about it."
John stared out of the window. He didn't feel like talking, was still too angry about Rodney keeping secrets from him. If they started to discuss it now, there would be an argument and things that shouldn't be said would slip out.
"Look, we're taking care of it," Rodney continued. "Those letters have been coming since before you came along, and they'll keep coming. Can I help that there are crazies who don't appreciate my brilliance and have nothing better to do than inform me of their disapproval? Okay, I must admit that I was a little peeved in the beginning but seriously, I got death threats long before I started writing! People are jealous, that's all! We just hand those letters over to the police and let them take care of it and nothing has happened so far and there's nothing to worry about!"
"Okay," John said. He wanted to say more, but held the words back.
There was a moment of silence. "Okay?" Rodney echoed. "Really? Just like that?"
"Yes, Rodney, just like that," John snapped. "Can we just leave it?"
"Fine!" Rodney shot back. He held the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles were going white.
They spent the rest of the ride home in silence, tension thick between them. Part of John wanted a row, a loud violent argument, some kind of discharge, but he knew better. Shouting at each other wouldn't resolve anything. Talking would, and John wasn't up to talking yet. He needed some time to figure this out and get it straight in his own head.
It wasn't that he didn't think Rodney and Laura could handle the letters. They apparently had been doing so for some time, long enough that it had become a routine. But just the thought that someone might want to harm Rodney made a terrible rage well up inside him in a way that he hadn't felt since Afghanistan. The reaction scared him, and he was pretty sure it would scare Rodney too if he found out. Rodney had seen many sides of John Sheppard, but not that one, not the single-minded determined bloodthirstiness, not the murderer. He knew he had issues and Rodney knew it too and had accepted them so far, but John didn't think Rodney would be able to accept the monster.
He had to close the cage again, chain it up and hide it away so he could deal with the situation in a rational manner. If only Rodney would stop making it so hard!
By the time they were home, John's leg had stiffened up and he had to limp inside holding onto Rodney's shoulder with Rodney's arm strong and sure around his waist.
"We should go to the hospital," Rodney said as he deposited John on the sofa.
John shook his head. "I'm not going to the hospital. Just get me an icepack and I'll be fine."
"You can't even walk," Rodney protested, but he seemed to realise that arguing the matter wouldn't help. "At least let me get Carson."
"It's fine."John repeated. Then he looked up at Rodney where he stood wringing his hands, worry written all over his face, and relented a little. "Look, if it's still the same tomorrow, I'll give him a call, okay? For now, all I need is an icepack and some rest."
Rodney grumbled, but went to get an icepack from the freezer, muttering all the way about boyfriends and their similarity to lemmings. He returned with both the promised icepack and two painkillers which John gratefully swallowed.
"You're angry," Rodney stated, plopping down on the couch by John's side.
"No," John answered as calmly as he could. "I'm not angry; I just don't want to talk about this right now."
"I can see you're angry." Rodney grabbed a couple of pillows and used them to prop John's leg up. "You're doing that thing with your jaw and your eye and that means you're angry. Would it help if I called that detective who's taking care of it and let you speak to him? I think he's like, twelve, but Laura says he's doing his job and she knows those things."
John thought about it and found that yes, it would help. "Okay," he said and then had to lunge to stop Rodney from going for the phone right away. "Not today. It can wait until tomorrow."
"But, but," Rodney's eyes went from the phone to the clock and then back to John. "All right. Tomorrow." He sagged back onto the couch. "Sorry, I just don't like it when you're angry."
"I'm not," John said again, and then at Rodney's dejected expression had to admit, "Fine, I'm a bit angry, but I don't want to fight about it, okay?"
"I like not fighting," Rodney said weakly. He looked like a balloon that half the air had seeped out of and John couldn't take that look on his face so he reached out and grabbed Rodney's hand. Rodney leaned against his side, putting his head on John's shoulder and they sat in silence like that for a while.
It probably wasn't anything to worry about, John thought. He was just being crazy and paranoid and needed his head examined. But he just couldn't shake the feeling that something terrible was going to happen.
John had to call in sick the next day. He was well enough to hobble around a bit, but he didn't think he'd be able to make it to work. He hadn't taken a sick day since his knee surgery two years before, and he felt like he was letting Hal down, but his boss took it calmly. "Take a couple of days," he said when John called. "Don't overdo it. I need you on your feet."
John didn't say anything about why his leg was acting up. In hindsight, it had been stupid and careless, reaction instead of action, and he deserved the pain and shame that followed. Hal must've realised something had happened but he didn't ask. Hal usually knew not to prod but wait until John was good and ready to talk.
Right now, he wasn't. Rodney had classes all day and left after breakfast. They hadn't talked about the day before, but when John came into the living room, there was cardboard box full of letters sitting on the sofa table.
Once Rodney's car had left the driveway, John sat down on the couch and turned the box upside down, dumping the letters on the table. He was probably ruining Laura's careful sorting but he didn't care. He was going to read every single one of those damn letters and make up his own mind. Threat assessment, he thought, knowing that he was slipping into a mindset he'd promised himself to leave behind.
He made himself a pot of coffee, sat down and began to read, trying to stay objective enough to keep the rage at bay. He did his best to forget that the letters were meant for Rodney, tried to imagine the addressee being some random guy he didn't know.
It didn't take long for a pattern to form. There were letters that were anti-gay, and then letters that were anti-Rodney. The earlier category seemed to be mostly nutcases and the vile words and suggestions made John feel sick to his stomach, but they weren't really personal. The second category was, like Rodney had said, crazy jealous people. They were more worrying, more spiteful, clearly directed at Rodney in person. John divided the letters into subcategories - the ones who thought Rodney didn't deserve his success and needed to be taught a lesson and the ones who disagreed with his writing and thought he should change the plots of his books in line with their wishes. There were a lot of nasty and hurtful comments, but John's gut instinct told him that they weren't a real cause for worry. If it was true what Rodney said, that he'd had letters like this even when he was still in astrophysics, then the people behind those letters probably weren't dangerous.
Then there was the third category, the one that made John's skin itch.
He knew about Rodney's fans and had even met some of them when he'd visited Rodney at Sac State. They were people like Mrs Williams from the physics department who made him apple cake for his birthday or the red-haired biology postgrad with the teeth, who had named a cactus after him once. They were nice, normal people who liked Rodney's books and had grown accustomed to Rodney himself, even though he frequently made his students cry.
Now these fans were something else. John wondered if this was the 'crazy' pile. Then again, knowing Rodney, he'd probably find these letters flattering. Some of them were just silly, with perfumed letter-paper, enclosed locks of hair and marriage proposals. John put those away, feeling only a little bit jealous.
The letters that really worried him all seemed to be written by the same person. At first glance, they looked perfectly sane, if maybe a little too familiar. There were well-wishes and congratulations for the award, some chatting about Rodney's lecture tours and surprisingly insightful commentary to his books. What set John's teeth at edge was how the letter writer seemed to know so much about Rodney and his life. There were small details, easy to miss at first glance, but it was very clear that whoever sent these letters knew where Rodney lived. They had known when he moved, knew what car he drove and how he dressed. They knew his mannerisms and how he talked, where he worked and who he worked with. The letters were anonymous, signed only 'Yours'.
They were postmarked Sacramento.
"That's just creepy," John told Newton, who had curled up on the coach beside him. The cat flicked his ears, rolled over and yawned, and went back to sleep.
John put the letters in a special heap and stared at them for a while, trying to figure out what to do. Then he got up and limped around the house, closing and locking doors and windows, pulling curtains shut. He felt watched, that special crawling feeling you got when you were under surveillance.
He wanted to call Rodney and tell him to come home, but Rodney was in class and probably had his cell turned off. Besides, it would be stupid. There were no threats in these letters, just some poor person who was probably a little too obsessed with Rodney for their own good.
You're getting paranoid, Sheppard, he told himself. Chill out and take a step back.
But it was difficult to do so. He couldn't settle down, and it was like he had a million ants crawling around under his skin. They didn't go away completely, not even when John went into the bedroom and buried his face in Rodney's pillow, breathing in his scent.
After lunch, John got a phone call. He didn't recognise the caller ID and almost didn't pick up, but then thought better of it and answered.
"Mr John Sheppard?" came a man's voice. He sounded very young, but the voice was strong and confident. "My name is Detective Roy Driscoll, Sac PD. I got a message from Ms Cadman asking me to give you a call. You're Mr McKay's partner?"
"Yeah," John answered, sitting down at the kitchen table. "Yeah, I am. It's about these letters. I'd like to know what's being done about them."
"Oh, right. Hold on a sec." John heard shuffling of papers on the other side of the line, and tapping on a keyboard, and then Detective Driscoll was back. "Okay, I've got the file here. I've got to tell you, I've only been on this case for a year and a half and during that time Ms Cadman has turned over threatening letters and e-mails from six individual persons. We've identified four of them and there's been two restraining orders issued. It's pretty much routine work, really. It's very difficult to do anything at all about these anonymous letters but we're doing our best."
"Okay." John nodded to himself. At least the detective sounded competent, even if Rodney had been right - he sounded like a teenager. "What about the other letters?"
"Other letters?" Driscoll asked. "Sorry, this is all I've got. Ms Cadman usually hands over two or three letters every month. As far as we've been able to determine, most of them are written by he same people."
John closed his eyes and held back a sigh. Of course Rodney wouldn't have viewed the creepy letters as invasive. He was a little surprised that Laura hadn't reacted, but in the end Rodney was the boss. "No, I mean…" he wasn't sure how to continue. "Look, I just found out about this yesterday and I sat down this morning to read everything through and there are some letters that are just…" he hesitated, unsure of how much he should say. "They make me uncomfortable, okay? It's like this person know everything about Rodney, like he's got a stalker or something."
"Really?" This was apparently news to Driscoll. "How many letters like that did you find?"
"Six that I've seen. There might be more." John had no idea how many letters there were in total - there had to be more than those in the cardboard box. "Should we be worried about them?"
There was a moment of silence and then Driscoll said, "I'll send someone over to pick them up and we'll take a look at them. It doesn't hurt to be cautious. If, and I say if, you're dealing with a stalker, the important thing is that you save all documentation. Don't throw away any letters or delete e-mail, they're evidence. Anything you think is unsettling or just feels wrong, you send right over to us. But Ms Cadman already knows all this."
"I'm sure she does," John muttered. Even though the worst anger had faded, it still stung that Rodney and Laura had kept the letters a secret.
He understood their reasoning and he had to admit that he was reacting exactly the way Rodney had thought he'd react, but still… he and Rodney never kept secrets from each other. If they had learned anything at all from their years together, it was that they had to be honest with each other, or they'd never been able to make this relationship work.
"Okay, good," Driscoll said, dragging John from his musings. "Don't hesitate to give us a call if you can think about anything else in relation to these letters. It's pretty rare that things like this escalate – most people just stick to the letters. But there's always the possibility, so keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. You know, if there's a car you're beginning to see a lot, or if you feel like you or Mr McKay are being followed. Keep your doors locked and don't leave any pets outside on their own. I take it you already have an alarm system?"
"Yeah, we do." Rodney had installed the thing itself and it was state-of-the art, more for the fun and the coolness of it than any real need for such a sophisticated system. Now, John was grateful for it, and vowed to make sure they used it properly. And the pets, Newton and Lady, he was going to have to keep a closer eye on them, especially Lady who was so friendly with strangers. And Laura and Carson, they needed to be more careful too…
Calm down, came the little voice in the back of his head again. Don't freak out, don't overreact. Don't scare Rodney.
"Great! All right, I'll have someone come over and pick up those letters ASAP, and we'll let you know if anything comes up. Do you have any more questions, Mr Sheppard?"
John shook his head. "No, not right now. Thanks for calling, Detective, I appreciate it."
"No problem. You have a good day now, and let us know if you need further assistance with the issue."
"Will do. Thanks again." John hung up, trying to wrap his mind around the conversation. Driscoll did sound very young, but it was clear that he had some experience with the matter. He'd sounded like he knew what he was talking about, and John was prepared to believe him. But he couldn't shake off that persistent feeling of being watched…
He went out into the garden and let Lady play around with her ball for a while, sitting on the patio and throwing it away for her to fetch. He was grateful for the high hedges that protected the house and shielded it from sight. It was probably nothing, he told himself. He was making a mountain out of a molehill. Most of it was probably residual irritation at Rodney for not telling him about the letters. There was no reason to be worried.
So why couldn't he convince himself of that?
Rodney McKay was a genius, but he was also the most annoyingly stubborn, infuriating man in the galaxy. Possibly several galaxies. It wasn't really news – John had known all this from the beginning and been fully aware of what he was signing up for.
It didn't change the fact that Rodney was a bull-headed, single-minded idiot, and that there were times when John just wanted to punch him in the face to stop words from coming out of his mouth.
"You're worried about those letters?" Rodney asked, like the very idea was so far beyond unthinkable that it was ridiculous. "I always thought they were rather nice. I mean, this person is obviously bright enough to appreciate my work appropriately."
"This person also know where you live, what kind of car you drive, and what kind of food you give your cat," John said, in what he thought was a very calm and reasonable voice. It was evening, Rodney had just come home from work, and they were sitting in the kitchen, eating left over Thai food from the weekend.
"But you can find all that out on the internet!" Rodney exclaimed, hands waving wildly about. Any time now, he was going to knock something over, and John was not cleaning it up. "You wouldn't believe the kind of stuff there is out there! I check on a couple of forums and newsletters and things like that, under a pseudonym of course, just to get ideas for marketing and the like. Did you know that if you go to the right places, you can find out pretty much anything about anyone without even leaving your house?"
"And that doesn't bother you at all?" The thought was mind-boggling. There were people out there, compiling information on Rodney to put on the 'net? Was that even legal?
And would you care if it was anyone else than Rodney?
"Why should it?" Rodney looked positively gleeful. "It's just letters, there's no harm done! I send a polite response – seriously, I have at least a dozen generic ones, I just have to pick one at random, and the fans keep buying my books. Everybody wins!"
"Well." John didn't know what to say to make Rodney see the seriousness of the situation. "It bothers me. Maybe you shouldn't respond to those letters anymore."
"And get even more of a reputation as an arrogant bastard? Don't you think you're overreacting a little bit? Or is this some kind of twisted jealousy thing?"
Really? Isn't it? Aren't you at least a little bit jealous?
"No," John repeated. "It's not that. I can't explain it; I just have a bad feeling about this. Can we leave it at that?"
Rodney got up to rinse off the dishes and throw the empty food containers away. "All right, if that's what you want. Also, did you have to say 'I have a bad feeling about this'? Now I've got a hankering for Star Wars, and I really don't have time for it." He looked at the digital clock on the microwave. "Well, maybe one of them. What do you say, The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi?"
"Empire," John decided, glad for the change of topic. He hadn't really wanted to have the conversation with Rodney in the first place, and now that they'd had it, he could see how little good it had done. He would just have to do the best he could on his own, making sure Rodney was safe.
Rodney's smiled the smile of child-like joy that could only be brought out by Star Wars. "Great! You make popcorn, I'll start the DVD-player!"
It turned out to be a nice evening on the couch, Rodney's arm around John's shoulders as they mouthed the lines along with the characters on the screen. John did his famous Vader impression (which Rodney claimed sounded like an asthmatic Doberman) and they ate three whole bowls of popcorn.
When the film had ended, Rodney went into his study to get some work done and John took Lady on a slow, limping walk. He couldn't help keeping watch on all sides, looking out for unfamiliar cars or people he didn't recognise. It was difficult to see into the house from the street, he noted, but it wasn't impossible. The living room window was facing the garden, and both their bedroom and Rodney's study had windows on the side of the house, but the kitchen window and the frosted window of the bathroom faced the street. Maybe they should get new curtains for the kitchen, something that could be pulled shut.
And maybe you're being a little too paranoid about this?
Maybe he was. But could he afford to take the risk?
Lady took her time, used to a much longer walk in the evening, and she kept looking expectantly of John as if she was waiting for a repeat of yesterday's run.
"Sorry girl," John told her. "Not today. You can come with me to work some day and Allen can take you for a run."
Lady didn't look too impressed at that, but eventually she finished her business and John could take her back inside, looking over his shoulder as he stepped through the door and locked it behind them. Just for good measure, he walked around to check all the other doors and windows, most of which were already closed and locked from earlier. Then he set the alarm, fed Newton, brushed his teeth, washed up and went to bed where he lay reading for a while, waiting for Rodney to get done with his daily quota of words and come to bed.
It took a little longer than usual and John had already dozed off by the time Rodney crawled into bed. He woke briefly as Rodney's arm settled around his waist, and just had time to register the sensation of warm boyfriend pressed up against his back, and then he was asleep again.
It shouldn't have been a surprise that John dreamt that night. The nightmares were less frequent these days, but they still made an appearance now and then and they always would. They were part of him, part of his history and the person he was. John would probably be more worried if he didn't have the nightmares. That would mean that the events leading up to them had lost their meaning and their impact.
As always, there was sand and a punishing hot sun. There was blood dried into his skin and his clothes, the metal of his gun burning against his palm. His muscles were strained to the point of complete exhaustion, but somehow he found the strength to keep going. He had to keep going, had to finish the job he'd risked his life and his career for. Holland was still breathing; there was still life in those weary eyes. As long as there was life, John could not stop fighting.
The enemy weren't people anymore. They were phantoms with Kalashnikovs, vague shapes draped in cloth, dark eyes glittering through slits in the fabric. John fired and fired, should've run out of bullets long ago, but somehow there was always one more. Hiding in their pathetic cover, he was outmanned and outgunned, and there was no one coming for them, no one even knew where they were; he'd lost contact with the base shortly after he'd decided to defy orders and come after Holland, even though it had seemed to be a lost cause.
Not until there was no more life, John vowed. Not until there was no more breath in his body. Until that moment, John would protect Holland, even if it meant giving up his own life.
Bullets kept flying, bouncing off the rocks, sending sharp shards of stone into John's face. The Taliban was closing in on them, and he was running out of ammo…
"Ngh, not with the whale," Rodney said and John started awake and sat up in bed, struggling to breathe.
He'd had the same dream before, many, many times, but he never got used to this particular one. He leaned back against the headboard, his panting impossibly loud in the dark room. He didn't dare close his eyes again, scared to find himself face to face with the Taliban, or with Holland's lifeless, accusing eyes.
"Shit," he muttered to himself. Rodney was fast asleep, curled around his pillow, a string of drool running from his slack mouth. The walls were getting closer; it was too hard to breathe. John could almost feel the dark spots forming in his vision.
He rolled out of bed, the bad leg giving way under him and sending him crashing to the floor, but he climbed to his feet and hurried out of the room and into the hallway outside, using the walls to guide him through the dark house. He must've woken Rodney because he could hear the sound of his voice, the worried questions, but it sounded distant and far away. All John knew was that he had to get away and out, find a place where he could breathe again, where the air wasn't stifling and heavy and full of darkness.
John didn't remember stumbling through the hall and the passageway, or going through the door, but the next time he looked up, he was sitting on the garage floor beside the sofa, with his back pressed up against the wall. He could feel the panic slowly beginning to drain out of his body, leaving him shaky and his muscles weak. Lady, who usually slept out there, was sitting beside him with her head tucked into his armpit, and John had his arm around her neck and his face buried in her soft fur.
It was a moment or two before he could bring himself to let go of her. "Sorry girl," he muttered. "I'm freaking all over the place these days, aren't I?"
Lady bumped her head against his shoulder, whining a little, and John stroked her neck and that place behind her ears that she liked while he tried to get his breathing under control. There were a few long moments of silence and then a knock on the door. John couldn't quite bring himself to acknowledge it. There was a brief pause, and then another knock. When John still didn't answer, the door opened a crack and Rodney peered in.
"John? Are you okay?"
John didn't trust his voice so he just nodded. Rodney didn't look convinced.
"Can I come in?" he asked, waiting for John's second nod before he opened the door and stepped inside. He was dressed in the t-shirt and boxers he had gone to sleep in and looked newly-awakened with pillow creases on his face.
John tried to stand up, but his muscles seemed to have decided they'd had enough because he couldn't seem to make them move. Rodney padded over the floor on bare feet, grabbed an old surplus blanket from the couch, and sat down beside John, wrapping the blanket around his shoulders. "Bad dream?" he asked.
Again, John nodded, and then cleared his throat, trying to find his voice again. "Sorry," he managed. "Didn't mean to wake you up."
Rodney huffed and smoothed out the fabric of the blanket. "Yes, because me getting my eight hours sleep is more important than making sure you're all right after having nightmares that send you running for cover. Which one was it? Move, mutt! You're drooling on my shirt!" The last was said to Lady, who was trying to climb into Rodney's lap, wanting to be in the middle of things.
John had to smile a little. "The only drool on that shirt is your own, McKay." He closed his eyes for a little while, trying to sort through the time between waking up and now. "It was Afghanistan," he said then. "Holland. Sorry, I shouldn't have lost it like that."
Rodney nodded. He knew the bare bones of the story, everything that John had been able to tell. "Don't ever apologise for that," he said, pulling John closer. "It wasn't your fault. You did everything you could and they screwed you over."
It was only half the truth, but it was the truth Rodney knew, and it was a truth John could live with for the moment. He leaned into Rodney's embrace, drawing strength and comfort from his body, and just breathed for a little while as Rodney held him tight. It felt so good, so safe, and part of him just wanted to stay here like this forever.
"This thing with the letters really threw you for a loop, didn't it?" Rodney said softly after a while. "If I'd known it bothered you this much, I never would have…" he trailed off, seemingly unsure of what to say.
It appeared Rodney knew John better than he knew himself. He hadn't drawn the connection between the nightmare and the situation at hand, trying to protect his people and failing. It was true, John realised. He was terrified of something happening to Rodney, scared to death that he wouldn't be able to do anything if, when, something did happen.
"I guess," he mumbled, feeling his face go hot with shame. Apparently, he was more messed up in the head than he'd thought.
"So, what do you want me to do?" Rodney asked. "You know, I'm actually very safety conscious already, I just didn't think of those letters as, you know, harmful. But if you say so I guess I'll have to believe you. Do you think I need a bodyguard or something? Because that would be cool, but also extremely awkward and I'd never get anything done, and besides I've already got Laura. Did you know she knocked a mugger unconscious with her shoe once? He sued her, but then he dropped the charges because he was scared she'd do it again."
John started to laugh. He'd heard the story before and knew that Rodney liked to embellish it, but right now he needed to laugh. He pressed his face into Rodney's shoulder and shook and hiccupped until he'd managed to get a grip on himself again and look up. "No bodyguard," he said. "Just… be careful, okay? I… I don't think I…." He swallowed, forcing out the words that needed to be said, that Rodney needed to hear. "I couldn't take it if something happened to you."
"God, John, me too." Rodney's eyes widened at the thought. "I will be careful, I promise. No walking around in dark alleys at night. Not that I ever do that anyway because it would be stupid and suicidal."
"Okay." It wasn't perfect. John knew that Rodney was just humouring him, and that he didn't really believe there was anything to worry about, but at least it was something, as good as it was going to get. Besides, what was perfect? Locking Rodney up somewhere and never letting him out? Keeping him in sight 24/7? It couldn't be done, and John was going to have to be content with what he could get.
Rodney nodded. "Are you going to be able to sleep any more tonight?" he asked.
John wasn't sure, but he said, "Yeah, I think so," and let Rodney help him get up from the chilly concrete floor. He hadn't realised how cold he was, and he kept the blanket as they went back into the house. Lady was very unhappy about being left in the garage, so John relented and let her come with them. They were probably going to wake up at five o'clock in the morning from her barking and Newton's hissing, but right now he didn't have the energy to deal with her disappointment at being left behind while her humans went other interesting places.
They went back to bed, curled together under the covers, and Rodney soon fell back asleep. John lay awake long after that, listening to Rodney's breathing, until the sun was beginning to rise outside the window.
The magazine with Diane's article came out about a week after John found out about the letters. She had done an excellent job at portraying Rodney, making him out to be every bit the brilliant man he was while not leaving out his more difficult character traits. The photographer might not be very good with people, but he was very good at his job. The pictures captured Rodney perfectly, with all his characteristic expressions and gestures. John had managed to stay out of most of the pictures, but there was one of him that he couldn't help admitting was pretty good. The photographer had caught him playing with Lady, grinning at her while holding her tennis ball out of reach for her, ready to throw it. He looked relaxed and happy. Rodney went straight for the phone, calling the magazine to ask for a copy.
Rodney had told him no-one read the magazine, but news got around and it seemed everyone in their circle of acquaintances soon got a copy. Gloria, the lady who came in five times a week to clean at the youth center, cut out the entire article and pinned it up on the bulletin board. When John took it down, she got another copy and put it up again. This time, John let it be, figuring that he could at least save a couple of trees that way.
Most surprising was the phone call from the East coast a few days after the magazine came out. "It was gorgeous!" chirped the bright voice of Megan Hawkins. "I'm putting this in my family album!"
"You mean that thing you started collecting things for ten years ago and never will get as far as buying the glue?" John asked, smiling. "How are you guys?"
He usually spoke to Hawk and Meg over the phone once or twice a month, and he and Rodney had been to visit them in Fayetteville three times during the past two years. It was the kind of friendship that could withstand the distance and they always looked forward to the times when they could catch up with each other.
"Oh, you know," John could almost hear Megan waving her hand around. "Busy, busy, busy. I'd forgotten how much work it was to teach! But Anna seems to be settling into day care just fine. What's going on with you?"
John told her about Rodney's book launch which was getting close now and assured her that there was an autographed copy of Paradigm Shift, the new novel, reserved for her and Hawk. They chatted a bit about Anna, Hawk and Meg's two-year-old daughter, and about Megan's piano students and John's kids at the center. Then Hawk took the phone and proceeded to tease John about his new-found fame. They talked for almost an hour, Hawk and Meg switching the phone back and forth between them, and it felt so good to hear their voices that John almost managed to forget about the letters for a while.
There had been another one that had arrived the day after the article had been published. It had come addressed to the house and not Rodney's publisher and that had made something cold settle in the pit of John's stomach. What was even more worrying was that the tone had changed. While the previous letters had been admiring and friendly, this one started with the words, 'I am very disappointed.' The writer didn't seem hostile, but more chastising and kept talking about how he or she knew 'the truth'. It wasn't clear exactly what the truth was, but Rodney was apparently expected to know. John wasn't sure if it was the article about him and Rodney that had brought about the change, but it was a valid theory. Laura had sent it over to Sac PD right away and Detective Driscoll had called again to inform them that he and his partner were working on analysing the letters.
John didn't tell Hawk and Megan anything about it. Part of him wanted to - they had always been there for him when he needed them, and just knowing that they existed made him feel better about the world. But they had their own problems, juggling two full-time jobs, a toddler, and a house, and John also knew that Meg's beloved father had been ill lately. He didn't want to add his own worries to all that.
They were just about to hang up when Hawk said, seemingly in passing, "Got a call from Chad the other day. He's been surfing on Hawaii. He was asking about you."
"Oh." John felt his stomach knot itself together. "What did you tell him?"
Hawk's shrug was almost audible. "The usual. That you're doing well." There was a moment of silence and then Hawk cleared his throat. "You thought any more about telling him?"
"Every day." John sighed. He should've told Chad Sokolski about him and Rodney long ago and he knew it. But did Hawk really have to bring it up now? It wasn't like he didn't have enough on his mind already.
"It'll get worse the longer you wait." Hawk observed. It wasn't nagging – Hawk didn't do that. But John knew his friend was getting tired of being stuck in the middle.
"Tell me something I don't know," John muttered. "Look, I've been thinking about it, but I… I've got a lot going on right now with Rodney's book and everything. Maybe after that."
"That's what you said last year," Hawk noted dryly and then chuckled. "With a little luck he'll know before we all retire."
"Yeah." John grinned. "And with a little luck I'll already have lost all my teeth by then so he won't have anything to punch out."
Hawk laughed at the other end of the line and thankfully dropped the matter. They said goodbye and promised each other to get in touch soon again, and John hung up feeling better than he'd done in weeks. Talking to Hawk and Megan always had that effect on him.
"How are they?" Rodney asked when John put the receiver down. "You did remember to say hi to Megan from me, didn't you?" Rodney and Meg shared a love for classic music and had become fast friends during John and Rodney's first visit in Fayetteville.
"Of course I did," John answered. "She can't wait to read your book. And Anna's talking now." He couldn't quite keep the smile from his face. He felt honoured to be Anna's 'Uncle John' and followed her development like she was his own kid.
"Really?" Rodney looked up from his journal with interest. "Did she say anything worth listening to?"
John sat down on the couch beside him and grinned as he reached for the remote. "She likes helicopters and Hawk blames me. Like it's my fault she's a smart kid."
Rodney frowned. "I did send her a copy of Ferris Wheels, didn't I? With a family like that, she needs to start her education early or she'll turn out to be just another daredevil."
"Yes you did," John laughed. The Physics of Ferris Wheels was the children's book Rodney had written a few years earlier. "Two copies. But she won't be old enough to read it for another couple of years."
"I read when I was two," Rodney responded haughtily.
"I'm sure you did, genius. Wanna see what's on TV?"
The following week, two things happened that rattled John's balance even more than before. The first thing was at the youth center. It was the end of the day and he was helping Jo Hernandez with her math project when Hal came up, looking drawn and tired, weary beyond reason.
"John? Can I speak to you for a moment? My office."
John looked up, puzzled. Whatever it was, it had to be something serious. Hal never called him by his given name, it was always 'Sheppard' or 'son'. "Sure," he said and followed Hal into his office, raising his eyebrows and shrugging at Jo's questioning look.
Apart from his garage, Hal's office was one of John's favourite places to be. The room seemed to have shaped itself around the big man in a way that made his presence linger even when he wasn't there. John'd had the option to work out of Hal's office during the manager's long stay at the hospital after his heart attack, but in the end he'd chosen to clean out the storage room and use that instead. It was just unthinkable for anyone other than Hal to occupy this room.
Like the rest of the center, Hal's office was a mess of mis-matched second hand furniture. He had a chaotic desk, two chairs, a couple of walls' worth of bookshelves, and a ratty sofa in a corner. Money was always tight at the center, and whatever funds they got could be used for better purposes than decoration. John had always known this, and had an even better understanding for it now that he was handling most of the center's finances. Hal's walls were covered in football posters and hand-drawn pictures, gifts from the kids. There was a miserable little potted plant on his desk that would have died long ago if Gloria hadn't watered it whenever she came to clean.
Hal sank down into his desk chair and John sat down in the chair opposite, the one usually reserved for any child or adult who needed to talk. Hal sat silent for a long time, running his fingers through his long grey hair, staring into space as if trying to figure out what to say.
"I got a call from one of the members of the board today," Hal said finally. He looked up at John, solemn-faced and serious. "First of all, John, I want you to know that I need you here. You've done a lot of good work. The kids like you and respect you. Since I've been… well, since I've been ill, you've stepped up and kept this place running. I can't even begin to tell you how lucky we are to have you."
John was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. He liked knowing that he was doing a good job, but it wasn't like Hal to tell him this way. Hal Lindberg was a man of action, not of words and he showed his appreciation mainly through a pat on the back and a muttered 'Good work, son'.
"Okay?" he said, a little uncertainly. What could possibly have happened for Hal to have this talk with him?
Hal looked straight at John. "I'm telling you because there's been a complaint made against you. It's a stupid, bigoted complaint and I have agreed with the board to back you up all the way."
John felt his stomach try to turn itself inside out. "Is it about me and Rodney?" he asked even though he already knew the answer. Should've known it was too good to last, he thought. Coming out had been relatively painless so far and John had spent years waiting for the other shoe to drop. It seemed like the time had come.
"I suppose you could say that." Hal sighed and leaned back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling and the lazily spinning fan there. It struck John that he had never seen his boss look so old before. Hal was well over fifty but had always been so full of vitality and strength that he'd seemed no older than the children he was working with every day. Now, the lines in his face were deeper and his shoulders were slumped in a new way. "Like I say, it's stupid, but you have the right to know what it's all about. One of the parents came in a few days ago and saw the article Gloria pinned up. He doesn't like the thought of a gay man being around his son and he's threatening to withdraw his contributions to the center unless you're fired." Hal leaned forward again, resting his weight on his elbows against the desk, and now his eyes were burning with the righteous anger John had learned to recognise and respect. "Listen, son. We both know it's wrong. It's against everything we stand for here, and I won't allow it. Whatever happens, I want you to stay."
All John could think of was the budget he had half-finished on his own desk. "Which one is it?" he asked. "How much money are we talking about here?"
Hal shook his head. "It doesn't matter. Don't ever think I'd sell you out for money. If he pulls back his donations, we'll find the funds elsewhere."
"Yeah, that's been going well lately," John muttered. Of the letters he'd sent out he'd had a grand total of two answers, both of them local companies willing to make small one-time donations. When he'd called around to follow up, he was mostly met by polite telephone operators telling him that Mr. So and So unfortunately wasn't in at the moment, could she take a message?
The center was sorely needed and that was a fact. The neighbourhood was run down and most of the families who lived here were poor. For a lot of the kids, this was the only place they had to go after school where there were adults around. Some of the children practically lived here. And they were always, always short of money. The roof on the sports equipment shed was leaking and needed to get fixed. The freezer in the kitchen had been dying slowly for the past year and wouldn't work much longer. The one drum set the center owned needed a new bass drum. The theatre group wanted to go to an improvisation festival in L.A. and couldn't afford to pay for the whole trip on their own. John could see all that money trickling away and no new money at all coming in. If he was the cause of that, maybe it was better…
"Sheppard," Hal said in that voice that meant that the subject wasn't open for discussion. "You're staying and that's my final word."
"Even if it's the end of us?" John asked, the damn budget still dancing in front of his eyes. He couldn't take it personally, not just yet while the anger was still fresh.
Hal nodded. "Even then. But it won't be. Trust me, we've had worse things happen. You just let me take care of this and don't worry."
Don't worry. Everyone seemed to be telling him that lately. Hal. Rodney and Laura. Detective Driscoll. He was sure that if he'd told Hawk about the damn stalker letters, he would've been told not to worry about it.
John did worry. He couldn't make himself not worry, not when it concerned his people. Rodney and the youth center were the things that meant the most to him and now both of them were threatened. How could he stop worrying about something like that?
"Okay," he said slowly. "I guess I'll have to work harder on the sponsorship letters then."
"You do that," Hal said with a smile that broke through the concern. "You're doing excellent work here, son. Don't ever let anyone tell you different."
John stood up. "I'm not the only one," he told Hal, hoping that the big man would understand the sentiments behind the words. "Thanks, Hal." He reached out to shake Hal's hand and got a firm grip and a fleeting smile in return.
The thoughts chased each other through John's head as he left Hal's office and went back out to the main room with its chairs and tables and couches. Children in various ages were hanging around, doing their homework, playing games, or just talking or watching TV. He knew all of them by name, knew most of their stories and just how much the youth center meant to them all.
John felt how the anger was beginning to bleed through the wall he'd put up around it. Didn't life owe him a break? How was it fair to have something like this happen, something that wouldn't just affect him but everyone and everything he cared about as well? He'd been lucky so far, he knew. Both he and Rodney had been blissfully spared from prejudice. John had heard stories about things that had happened to others, couples who had been terrorised for showing their love openly, and it had always made him angry on their behalf, but he had never really made the connection to himself and Rodney. He'd kept a low profile at work and in public, figuring that if straight people didn't have to introduce themselves as heterosexual to everyone they met, why should he have to introduce himself as gay? If asked, he would answer truthfully, but otherwise he'd just let people believe whatever they wanted. Now, it looked like he was out for good. What if this particular parent wasn't the first? Several churches made contributions to the center, both with money and volunteers. What if they decided to withdraw their help?
If it came to the point where the center's existence was dependent on John staying or leaving, would he have the conscience to stick around just to prove a point? On the other hand – why should he have to leave the job he loved, all the work he had put into the place, just because there were people who didn't approve of who he was sleeping with? No matter how he looked at it, he was going to lose.
"What was that about?" Jo asked, looking up from her numbers.
John shook his head, shoving the dark thoughts aside again. "Nothing," he said. "Listen, can we continue this tomorrow? It's getting late and I've got to pick up Rodney, we're having guests over tonight."
He really didn't have to leave for another half an hour, but he knew he wouldn't be able to concentrate on math right now. Better to go to Sac State and catch the end of Rodney's lecture. Listening to Rodney talk always made him feel better.
Jo agreed and started to pack up her things. John went to get his jacket and got ready to leave, but as he was about to walk out the door, Jo's voice stopped him.
He turned around, meeting her dark eyes. Fourteen-year-old Jo Hernandez was one of the brightest kids John had ever known and if anyone would notice that something was wrong, it was her.
"Yeah?" he said, trying to make his voice light and carefree. He didn't want to worry Jo, and he didn't want the word to spread.
"Did something happen? Something bad?"
What was he supposed to tell her? That he might be risking the future of the center just by being there and being him? Eventually, he shook his head and smiled at her. "Nothing to worry about. See you tomorrow?"
He could tell from Jo's expression that she didn't believe a word he was saying, but she smiled back and said, "Sure! Say hi to Rodney from me!"
John hated to make her concerned. If there was anyone at the center who'd had enough worries, it was Jo.
Jo Hernandez and her older brother Allen were excellent examples of all the good work the center was doing. Their father had been in and out of prison since before Allen was born and their mother had problems with drugs and alcohol and wasn't fit to take care of her children. They lived with their grandmother who was a widow, and seventeen-year-old Allen struggled with school while at the same time working two extra jobs to help support his sister. He wanted to go to college and was hoping to get a football scholarship, but it was difficult for him to find the time to practice. Even so, he somehow managed to help out at the center several times every week, coaching the younger kids at sports. John knew it was hard for him to keep going at the pace he did, but Allen never complained.
As for Jo, she was sharp as a razor and dreamed about being an astronaut when she grew up. Unfortunately, her high school didn't have the resources to give her the stimulus she needed to nurture her intellectual gifts. John did the best he could to help her with the math, and when that hadn't been enough, he'd introduced her to Rodney. Despite Rodney's self-proclaimed dislike for children, the two of them had found each other instantly and Rodney had helped Jo with more than one award-winning science project, most of them involving things smoking and bubbling and exploding.
What would happen to Jo if the center had to close? Where would she find the support and encouragement she needed? And Allen – from where would he get the resolve and the inspiration to keep fighting to create a future for himself? They were only two of all the kids who desperately needed the youth center.
It was with a dark mind he collected Lady from her long leash outside the building, and got her into the car. Laura and Carson were coming over for dinner and John didn't feel like socialising at all. Most of all he wanted to go home and hide in the garage, maybe beat his knuckles bloody against the wall, anything to get rid of the frustration he was feeling.
But Rodney wouldn't like that, not at all, and they had all been looking forward to a quiet evening together. The preparations for the book launch were coming together and the worst stress was over – all that remained was the last minute things. It was even John who had suggested that they get some steaks and beer and celebrate, he couldn't back out now.
Rodney had a parking permit so he parked in the faculty parking lot where he managed to find a spot in the shadow. He rolled down the windows enough that he could leave Lady in the car while he went inside to find Rodney.
Considering Rodney's teaching style, it was always a surprise to find his lecture halls packed. His classes were popular and had a long waiting list, even though he had a reputation of being impatient and sometimes condescending to the students he didn't deem worthy of his time. John would've expected McKay's poor students to hate him and mock him behind his back, but instead it had somehow become a challenge among them to gain Rodney's favour.
John slipped into the lecture hall and found a spot in the back near the door where he sat down to listen to the last minutes of the class. The lecture was over and now the students were doing their best to come up with the cleverest questions to get Rodney's attention. It was amusing to watch and for a short moment, John almost forgot about his conversation with Hal.
The questions and the following discussion lasted for about twenty minutes and after that, the students began to trickle out. Rodney was busy collecting his notes up front and it took another couple of minutes before he looked up and discovered John. When he did, his face lit up like the sun and he grabbed his briefcase and hurried to the back.
"Hi, you're early!" he said, placing a quick peck on John's cheek. "Where's your creature?"
"She's waiting in the car," John said, smiling. "We'd better get going before she decides to start chewing on the upholstery."
"Oh! You're right, let's hurry up. Remember what she did to my dress shoes?"
They were just about to leave when two girls came up, clearly wanting Rodney's attention. They looked like ordinary college students, both pretty and well dressed. One was blond, the other a very fake redhead.
"Mr McKay?" the redhead asked. "Do you have a minute? We were having some questions about the assignment."
Rodney turned around. "Yes, of course, only I'm in a bit of a hurry so make it quick. Oh, by the way, this is my… this is John, my John. And this is…" Rodney waved his hand around for a moment before he gave up. "Whatever, I can never remember your names anyway. Introduce yourselves."
"Hi," the redhead said, flashing a brilliant smile and reaching out her hand for John to shake. She was clearly the dominant of the two. "Nice to meet you, Mr Sheppard. I'm Rose Kincaid."
"Erika Meyer," said the blonde shyly, peering up over the edge of her glasses.
John said hello to the both of them and then waited while they discussed their assignment with Rodney. Rose was doing most of the talking while Erika only got in a word here and there. The girls had to be among Rodney's favourite students because he answered their questions with very few dry remarks and he seemed genuinely interested in their ideas.
The discussion would have gotten lengthy if John had not stepped in to remind Rodney of the dog they had waiting in the car and the dinner party they had to prepare for at home. Rodney quickly finished up and said goodbye to the girls. John could hear them whispering together as he and Rodney left.
"Do you know them well?" John asked when they were walking back to the car.
"Huh?" Rodney had apparently been deep in thought. "Those two? No better than any other students, I guess. They're not completely dense and they seem to have an original thought or two in their heads when they're not busy thinking about parties and shoes."
"Rose knows my name," John noted. It had been niggling at him since the girls had introduced himself and it made him a little uneasy.
"So?" Rodney raised an eyebrow. "It's not like I deny all knowledge of you. I…um, I might be talking quite a lot about you, as a matter of fact. And she's a fan, she probably read the article."
And they were back to the damn article. John sighed. He'd almost forgotten all about it for a while. "About that," he started, unsure about how to tell Rodney about his day. "I had a talk with Hal today."
"There are… there seem to be people who have a problem with me." He took a deep breath and told the whole story and what Hal had said.
When he was finished, Rodney was completely livid. "Who is it?" he demanded to know. "You need to report him to the police, that's discrimination, they can't do that!"
"I haven't got a name," John said. He had a pretty good idea, but he hadn't had a chance to confirm it. "And it's not illegal to take back a donation. He hasn't made any accusations; he just doesn't like me working with his kid."
"Yes, because all gay men are paedophiles," Rodney spat out. He was red in the face and his hands were moving more wildly the more agitated he got. "So what are you going to do about it? Are you just going to let it slide? It's, it's, it's wrong and stupid and, and, completely ridiculous! Do they have any idea how much work you're putting into that place?"
Rodney was getting loud and people were turning around to watch them. It made John uncomfortable. "There's not much to do," he muttered. "I'll just wait and see what happens, I guess. Hal's backing me up anyway. Who knows, it might turn out to be nothing." It was hard to believe in his own words, even as they left his mouth.
"People are morons," Rodney said, a downcast expression all over his face. "This was shaping up to be such a good day, and now this."
"Yeah, I know." John sighed. "Not much we can do about it now in any case. Let's go home. Laura and Carson will be coming soon."
The corner of Rodney's mouth was still downturned, but he didn't protest. He grabbed John's hand and they walked back to the car with their fingers knitted together. If people were looking, John didn't care. He'd earned this and right now he didn't care what anyone else thought.
When they got home, they had made a silent agreement not to speak about it anymore. John went out on the patio to fire up the grill while Rodney made a salad and put a couple of six-packs into the fridge to get cold. When Laura and Carson arrived an hour later, John had almost managed to put the events of the day away and forget about them. He didn't want to think about any of it right now, not when he was in the company of good friends.
It turned out to be a nice evening. John grilled the steaks, they ate on the patio and then sat there with a couple of beers until it began to get chilly and they moved into the living room. John didn't mention anything about the conversation he'd had with Hal. Sooner or later, he'd have to tell Laura and Carson about it. They were among his best friends, and they deserved to know. But he knew them both well enough to realise that if he did tell them the bad news, the entire evening would be ruined. Laura would be angry, Carson would be uncomfortable, they would both be overly concerned. The book launch also played into to John's decision. Laura handled bad things by organising and making plans for how to fix them. She had a lot of connections and strings to pull, and John didn't want her to, at least not now that she had enough work already, planning and making sure everything was set up for the launch and Rodney's lectures, the book signing and the reading. He'd wait until afterwards, he decided. The disgruntled parent couldn't possibly have the time to bring down the youth center in two weeks.
Instead, John concentrated on trying to forget all about it and having a good time in company of his friends. Rodney did the same, even though John could tell he was still angry. Earlier, he'd been attacking the salad and the potatoes with a violent fervour and they had both drunk a little more than they should have during the course of the evening.
If Laura or Carson noticed that anything was off, they didn't speak of it. John noticed a few puzzled glances from Laura, and Carson's ever-present look of concern was a little more pronounced than usual, but thankfully they both let it slide, left the worries for another day.
Since the whole purpose of the evening had been to give Rodney and Laura a break from their work, and John didn't feel like talking about his own, it was Carson who got to speak at length about his latest projects. He was originally a geneticist, born and bred in Edinburgh, but he'd come to the states to develop a gene therapy that would be important in the treatment of several viruses. John didn't get half of it, while Rodney, despite his hypochondria, viewed medical science as voodoo, so Carson was happy to get the rare chance to talk about the work he was doing at what Rodney had dubbed 'Frankenstein's lab'.
Carson always took Rodney's taunting with good humour. He and Laura had met just after the first time John ran into Rodney in the bookstore in Houston, and it seemed like he had realised that if he wanted to be with Laura, he had to learn to get along with her employer. So despite their differences, Carson and Rodney had become the best of friends and John knew Laura was deeply grateful for it.
"I think it's about time we said good night," Laura finally said, looking at her watch.
They had talked for so long that they'd forgotten about the time, but it was getting late and both the beer and Rodney's hidden stash of wine was gone. The food had been eaten and the dirty dishes stood on the kitchen counter, waiting to be loaded into the dishwasher. John was trying to discourage Rodney from having another cup of coffee, or he'd never be able to go to sleep.
Carson helped cleaning away the mess from the living room table while Laura and Rodney rinsed off the dishes and John took Lady for a quick evening walk. He had already taken her out earlier so they just went around the block, and by the time he got back to the house, Laura and Carson stood in the hall, getting ready to leave. The front door was open and light streamed out over the porch. John could hear their voices from the distance and hurried up the driveway so he'd have a chance to say goodbye before they left.
He hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary during the walk, even though he'd made a new habit of keeping an eye out for anything unfamiliar or out of place. By the time he had the house in sight, he was too focussed on the open door to pay attention to anything that happened behind him. In hindsight, he should've kept better watch, should've realised that the feeling of having a target on his back had intensified somewhat during the walk, but he'd been mellow from the beer and relaxed after the nice evening, so he just didn't notice.
It was Lady who first did, turning around and barking loudly. Carson had just stepped out onto the porch so he was looking in John's direction. John saw his eyes narrow and then go wide with alarm.
"John, look out!" he shouted, running down the steps of porch towards John. John didn't even think, he stepped off the driveway out onto the lawn just in time to avoid the projectile that was hurled from the street. The big rock hit the wooden planks of the porch, bounced once, and then came to a stop right in front of Rodney's feet where he stood in the open door, clearly outlined by the light from inside the house.
Carson ran past John, down the driveway and out into the street, and John quickly thrust Lady's leash into Rodney's hand as he came down the porch steps, and followed. At that point, it was just reaction, and part old instincts. If the person who had thrown the rock was still in the street, the mild-mannered doctor wouldn't stand a chance.
But the street beyond the hedges was empty when John and Carson got there. Somewhere, John could hear the sound of an engine starting and a car speeding away, but it was out of sight.
"Bloody hell!" Carson panted. "I didn't see him; it was just a shadow behind the hedge!"
John swore loudly. Up until now, there had just been letters and while they were creepy, they had come from a distance. Tonight, someone had come to their house to attack Rodney. It was up close and personal, and it was terrifying.
"Are you all right?" Carson asked, studying John with no small amount of concern. "I thought he was going to hit you with that rock!"
"He was aiming for Rodney," John heard himself say. Why hadn't he noticed something was wrong? The unknown attacker could have been lying in wait all evening, just waiting for Rodney to step outside, out in the open. John was trained to pay attention to things like that, so why hadn't he?
The neighbourhood had stirred with the excitement of their shouting. Lady was barking loudly and doors and windows were opening on the houses nearby, their inhabitants curious to find out what all the noise was about.
"I'm fine," John muttered, turning to walk back to the house. Part of him wanted to keep looking, search every inch of the city until he found the person who had did this, but he knew it would be futile. Whoever had thrown the rock had clearly planned this and hurried to get away immediately after the attack. Maybe if he went to ask the neighbours if they had seen anything, or noticed any strange cars around?
"I'm calling the cops," Laura said from the porch and disappeared into the house again. She was pale and looked extremely shaken up.
John leaned down and examined the rock. There was a piece of paper wrapped around it, fastened with some string. John knew he should leave it for the cops, but he had to know what it said. He slowly untied the knot and unfolded the paper, careful to only touch it at the edges, and then smoothed it out to lie flat on the porch floor.
It was a printed note with three big black words.
No more lies.
"What the hell?" Rodney said, peering over John's shoulder to read, while struggling to hold onto Lady's leash. "What does that even mean?"
"It means that someone doesn't like you, Rodney," John growled. "Will you get inside before they come back?"
He knew they probably wouldn't, not tonight, but seeing Rodney standing there outside where anyone could get to him made John's heart pound faster in his chest. He quickly ushered Rodney, Lady and Carson inside, and closed the door behind them. Then he sat down on the porch steps and rested his head in his hands. The note shone white in the edge of his vision, and it made him feel sick.
Damn! He had known something like this would happen. If Rodney had stood just two steps further out on the porch, he would have been hit by that rock. If the attacker had thrown just a little bit harder. The thought was enough to turn John's stomach inside out and he had to breathe deeply to keep from throwing up.
He sat there until he heard the sound of sirens and then he went out into the street again to meet up with the cops and show them the right place. It was just one squad car with two uniformed police officers. They looked bored, like they were probably expecting some domestic dispute, and only gave the note a fleeting glance before stating that there wasn't much they could do since the person who threw the rock was already gone.
John bit back the anger and told them about the threatening letters Rodney had gotten and how there was already a detective on the case, but he knew he wasn't making the best impression, upset and still a little drunk. The officers looked at each other, shrugged, and said that Driscoll would be informed as soon as he came in the following morning, and to stay inside in the meantime. They bagged up the rock and the letter and left, leaving John with a hard lump of anxiety in the pit of his stomach. He'd liked to grab the two officers and drag them back, make them understand exactly how serious this was. Someone had come to his and Rodney's home. Someone had tried to hurt Rodney, someone who knew where to find him. Someone who might try again.
It probably wouldn't do much good. Instead, John went back inside, deciding to call Roy Driscoll himself the first thing in the morning. At least the detective seemed to be taking the matter seriously.
Rodney, Laura and Carson were gathered in the kitchen. They had gotten Lady to quiet down, and were sitting around the kitchen table.
"Maybe it would be best," John heard Laura say as he entered the kitchen.
Rodney looked like she'd just claimed to believe that the earth was flat. "I'm not cancelling! The lectures are sold out and all the books are ordered! Do you have any idea what the fans would say!"
"Good lord, man, someone just threw a rock at you!" Carson exclaimed. "I think the fans would understand!"
Rodney scoffed. "Believe me, I've had worse things thrown at me. We're going through with it, and that's it. Who knows, maybe this was just a one time thing?" Then he looked up and caught sight of John. "Hi! What did the cops say? I wanted to go out and talk to them but Laura said they might lock me up for being loud and obnoxious, like that's a crime."
"They took my statement and left," John said. "I'll call Detective Driscoll tomorrow. What were you talking about?"
"Laura wants to cancel everything!" Rodney pushed his chair back, got to his feet and began to pace around the kitchen. "Which, even if we could, would be stupid. My publisher would kill me to begin with, and think of all the people who've been looking forward to this! I'm not going to just let this… this person scare me off!"
John thought about all the hoopla that was planned around the book launch. The lectures and the book reading, where Rodney would be in front of hundreds of unknown people. The book signing when anyone could get the chance to get close to him. "Sounds like a good idea," he said. "Cancelling, I mean. It's not safe."
Rodney stopped on the middle of the floor and threw his hands up in the air. "Read my lips: I. Am. Not. Cancelling!"
"Damnit, Rodney!" John shouted. It was too late to get a hold of the anger now. "I get it, you like the attention, but this is the wrong kind!"
He knew the moment he said the words that he should have stayed quiet, because Rodney's eyes got that hurt expression. John hated to be the one to put it there.
"That's what you think?" Rodney asked, raising his voice even more. "That I'm doing all this for the attention? You think I like writing autographs until my wrist hurts and spending hours speaking to people too stupid to understand a word of what I'm trying to say?"
"So why do you?" John shot back. "Why do you do it? What can possibly be so important about all this that it's worth your life?"
The vein in Rodney's neck was throbbing and he was red in the face as he shouted, "If you can't see that maybe you shouldn't… maybe you should…"
"Should do what, Rodney? Leave? Is that what you're saying?"
Rodney went still and silent, just like that, and so did John. He knew he'd said too much, had put words to fears that were better deeply buried and ignored.
Laura and Carson were looking at each other and John felt a brief pang of guilt for making them listen to this. Laura had to deal with enough of Rodney's crap as it was, and Carson always went out of his way to avoid any kind of conflict.
"We should leave," Laura said and stood up. "I'll call tomorrow."
"Yes, yes, fine." Rodney flailed around a little, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
"Sorry guys," John said, following them to the door. This time, he kept one eye on the street beyond the hedge, half expecting another shadowy figure brandishing rocks. "You shouldn't have had to hear that."
"It's okay, we understand." Laura hesitated a little, and then said, "Don't be stupid about this, okay? And that goes for the both of you."
John nodded. He could hear Rodney moving around in the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher, slamming the plates and glasses around angrily. "Yeah, I'll… we'll try. Good night."
Laura and Carson also said good night and left, and John went back into the kitchen where Rodney was attacking the sticking kitchen drawer like it was a mortal enemy. Lady was cowering under the table, apparently wondering why her humans were being so loud and angry, and if any of it was her fault.
"I'm sorry," John said the moment he stepped into the kitchen. One of them was going to have to be the first to apologise, and it might just as well be him since he'd been the first to raise his voice.
Rodney turned around, holding a grill fork in one hand and a big ladle in the other. "Don't leave," he said. "I didn't mean… I never…" He had to swallow a couple of times before he found his voice again. "Anything but that, John. I couldn't take it if you left."
"I'm not." John crossed the floor in three big steps, walked right up to Rodney, and Rodney wrapped his arms around him, fork and ladle and all.
"Promise," he said, mumbling the words into John's shirt.
"I promise. Not leaving." John grinned, probably a little too wide, but it felt like it was that or bursting into tears. "I haven't even started painting the house yet."
Rodney started to laugh quietly, his shoulders shaking a little, and John just held him close and wished the terrible evening and all the mean words away. He'd overreacted, that was all, fallen back on old instincts that didn't apply to this life.
"You need to apologize to Laura and Carson," John said at last.
"Yes, I know. Tomorrow, after we've talked to the police." Rodney was silent for a while, resting his head against John's shoulder, as if trying to assure himself that John was still there. "Can we have sex?" he asked then. "I'd really like that right now."
John thought about it and found that it was just what he wanted too, getting lost in Rodney's body, trying to wash away the stain of the argument. "Okay," he said. "As long as you leave the cutlery in the kitchen; I'm not that kinky."
Rodney made a grimace and threw the fork and the ladle onto the counter where they landed with a clang.
"Tomorrow," he repeated when John made a motion to put them in their proper places. "Sex now."
John didn't protest. He let Rodney lead him to the bedroom and undress him and lower him to the bed, and if their lovemaking was a little bit more frantic than usual, if their kisses were a little harder and their fingers a little more desperate for touch, neither of them mentioned it.
As it turned out, John didn't have time to call the police the next morning. He and Rodney slept late and didn't wake up until Lady climbed into the bed, slobbering all over John's face, very eager to go on her morning walk.
John groaned and rolled out of bed, sore and a little hungover. He'd slept badly, having woken up in the small hours of the morning with the urge to walk around the house and check the locks and the alarm, and after he'd done that, he'd found himself repeating the round once more. That was when he'd finally been able to get a grip and go back to bed. Now, he got dressed in t-shirt and sweatpants, placed a kiss on Rodney's forehead, and took Lady outside.
When he got back, Rodney was up. He'd made coffee and prepared breakfast, and they sat down to eat, not talking about the day before. Between Hal's bad news and the unknown assailant with the rock, there was too much to deal with this early in the morning. Instead, they made small talk; discussing what kind of birds they had in the hedge, and how long it would take Mr Choi, their neighbour to the left, to scratch the paint of his new SUV.
They were just about finished with breakfast and Rodney was starting a second pot of coffee to take into his study when the doorbell rang. They looked at each other, silently wondering who it could be – no company was expected and Laura always called before she showed up since the incident just after they'd moved to the new house when Rodney had gotten into his head that he and John needed to christen the kitchen table.
John went to open the door, wincing a little as he walked. He had a finger-shaped bruise on his hip from the night before, and the waistband of his jeans was rubbing against it with every step he took.
There was an unfamiliar man and woman on the porch.
"Mr Sheppard?" the man asked, holding up a badge. "Detective Roy Driscoll. We spoke earlier. This is my partner, detective Regina Garcia. We got the report about last night and thought we'd better come over and check on you and Mr McKay."
Detective Driscoll looked older than he'd sounded over the phone, but he still had to be at least ten years John's junior. He was tall and gangly with bright red hair – natural redhead, John noted, not out of a bottle like Rose Kincaid. His face was covered with freckles, his eyes were very dark blue and he had an open, easy-going expression. He was the kind of man you immediately liked and trusted, something he must be able to take advantage of in his chosen profession.
Driscoll's partner was a short, Hispanic woman of indeterminate age. She could have been anywhere between twenty and forty. Her dark curly hair was cut in a short, practical style and even though she wasn't a big woman, she looked solid. Her shoulders were broad underneath her leather jacket, her hips were wide, and there was a lot of muscle on her small frame. Where Driscoll looked friendly, her face was grumpy and seemingly filled with suspicion for everything around her. She didn't smile when she reached out to shake John's hand, and her grip was firm, bordering on crushing.
John had to hold back an amused smile. The couple was the very stereotype of good cop/bad cop. He wondered if they knew what they looked like to the outsider and knowingly played along to enhance the image.
He invited the two detectives in and they stepped into the hall and followed him to the kitchen where Rodney was waiting. Driscoll introduced himself and his partner again while Garcia let her dark eyes roam the room, clearly not missing one single detail. John felt uncomfortable, having his kitchen scrutinised so closely, especially as they still hadn't had time to clean up everything from the day before.
John offered up some of Rodney's freshly brewed coffee which Garcia quickly accepted. Driscoll declined and asked for a glass of water instead.
"So, I understand there was a bit of excitement here yesterday?" Driscoll began, sitting down at the kitchen table. He fished a little black notebook out of his pocket and put it down. Garcia remained standing, leaning against the counter opposite John.
"That's an understatement," Rodney said. He didn't look very pleased with the early-morning surprise visit from the police. "I suppose next you'll call the Pacific Ocean a bit of a puddle?"
Detective Driscoll wisely ignored the remark, while Garcia frowned, looking very displeased. John could already see her forming an opinion of Rodney and wondered if it was going to help their case. Considering Rodney's usual charming manner with all kind of authority figures, probably not.
"I told the officers last night everything," John said, sending Rodney a look, willing him to shut up. "What else do you want to know?"
Driscoll took a pen out of the pocket of his tailored suit jacket and opened the notebook. "Everything, if you don't mind. Just take it from the beginning."
John sighed, not really wanting to re-live the previous evening. Then he told the story again, trying to remember all the details. He'd thought everything would've been etched into his mind, but now, so many hours afterwards, he found that his memories were embarrassingly vague.
"It all happened very fast," he excused himself. "I know you probably hear that all the time but…"
"It's quite all right," Driscoll smiled. "Your statement is better than most." He turned to Rodney. "Mr McKay, do you have anything to add? Is there anyone you can think of who might be involved?"
"Well." Rodney waved a hand in John's direction. "What he said. I was inside, in the hall, and I didn't see anything until I had a rock thrown at my person. Who would do that? I mean, I'm not saying people haven't made attempts at my life before - I had a fellow student try to stab me with a pair of compasses when I was in college - but I don't think I've done anything lately that would make someone want to bash my head in. Have I?"
He turned to John, who shook his head. Not that he hadn't had the occasional urge himself, but he didn't think Rodney had any enemies as such. Unless you counted Kavanagh, the literature critic who loved to drag Rodney's work through the dirt in his reviews. But even Kavanagh had to be above rock-throwing.
"It has to be connected to those letters," John said. He was absolutely certain of it, could feel it in his gut. "Did you read the last one?"
"We did," Garcia answered, somewhat impatiently. "The woman who wrote those letters does fulfil at least some of the requirements of a stalker, but she has not shown any violent tendencies so far. For now, we're treating yesterday's assault as an isolated incident." She spoke with a noticeable Spanish accent, but sounded perfectly comfortable with English.
"Really?" Rodney said. "Does that mean there's two lunatics out there wanting to get to me?"
"Why?" John demanded. "And how do you know that it's a woman?"
"Handwriting and language analysis," Driscoll filled in. "We're still investigating the letters and we are looking into the possibility that they are connected to what happened yesterday." He threw a glance at Garcia, like this was something he and his partner were disagreeing about. John wanted to side with Driscoll on this one. Garcia seemed to have made up her mind already.
"Yes, can we return to the letters?" Rodney asked. "Because I just don't get it. Why me? I mean, there's no denying my brilliance, and anyone with half a brain would be at least a little interested." John saw Garcia's mouth twitch and kept back a smile as Rodney continued. "But I'm a writer, not some kind of anorexic movie star or pop singer. It's not like I ever get invited to any of those fancy premiers, the gossip rags aren't interested in me and I don't think I've ever been hunted by paparazzi so, well, why?"
Garcia shrugged and said, "Hard to say. Could be any reason."
"The letters implies a certain amount of familiarity," Driscoll filled in. "There's a high probability that the person who wrote them knows you in real life - someone with the opportunity to get close to you and further feed their delusion that the two of you have a personal relationship. It might be someone you work with, a neighbour, a clerk in a store you frequent. Have you noticed anyone behaving oddly?"
"No!" Rodney got up from his chair and went over to the counter to re-fill his coffee mug, hands waving wildly all the way. "And even if they had, I probably wouldn't notice. I mean, I'm a writer. Most of us tend to be a little odd. And the rest of my time, I spend in academia, which is like a breeding ground for oddity. I'm surrounded by odd!"
"Nothing at all that pinged your weird-o-meter, McKay?" John drawled, wishing Rodney could at least make an effort to be a little more co-operative. Granted, Garcia hadn't done much to inspire trust, but Driscoll seemed to be willing to help.
"You ping my weird-o-meter," Rodney said, glaring over the rim of the mug. "Are we done here? I have work to do."
"Mr Sheppard?" Dricoll turned to John. "Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary?"
John thought about Rose Kincaid and how she'd made his inner alarm go off, but he figured it wouldn't be fair to call the cops on a college girl just because she happened to know his last name.
"No," he said. "Nothing that I can think of. I've been keeping an eye out since we spoke on the phone, but I haven't seen anything. Not until last night."
"When you didn't actually see the attacker?" Garcia chimed in. John was getting more than a little annoyed with her attitude. She clearly had some kind of problem with him, and he wondered what it was.
"No, I didn't. It was dark and I had my back turned. The one who got the best look was Carson, that's Dr Carson Beckett, Ms Cadman's husband, and he only saw a shadow."
"And you had all been drinking?" It was probably meant as a clarifying question, but from Garcia's lips it sounded like an accusation.
"Yes," John grunted. "Look, I told you all this already, why does it matter?"
"We'll speak to Dr Beckett and Ms Cadman later," Driscoll said. He folded his notebook and put it back in his pocket before he stood up. "I think that's all for now. Let us know if anything else should happen."
"Should we expect it?" John asked. "Is there a risk that this might escalate?"
"It's not like they'll try to actually kill me, will they?" Rodney piped up. "We're not going to get any bombs in the mailbox or someone trying to set fire to the house or things like that?"
Driscoll smiled, a professionally reassuring smile that didn't quite convince John. "Most likely not. Just be careful and attentive to anything happening around you. We'll get back to you as soon as we know anything."
Then he and Garcia left, leaving John still worried and more than a little irritated. Driscoll had sounded nice over the phone, but now John was beginning to doubt that he was taking this seriously. And Garcia clearly had an attitude problem the size of Rodney's ego. Maybe she was the one holding Driscoll back? Maybe he wanted to help and she, for whatever reason, was trying to discredit his theories. More homophobia? Garcia didn't quite look like the type, but you never knew.
"Well, that helped," Rodney muttered when the two detectives were gone. "Did you see how that woman was looking at me? She looked like she wanted to bite my head off. Maybe we should look into that bodyguard after all?"
"You won't need a bodyguard, McKay," John said and began to clear the table after their interrupted breakfast. "You've got me."
Rodney looked at him for a long time, his expression unreadable. "Precisely," he said at last, so quietly that John had trouble hearing it, and he wasn't sure if the words were even meant for his ears. "That's exactly what I'm afraid of."
Laura called a little later and Rodney took the call in his study. John listened at the door for a few minutes and could tell from Rodney's raised voice that they had to be discussing the book launch. John hadn't mentioned it again, it was still too soon after the argument yesterday, but he had vague ideas about enlisting Laura and Carson's help to convince Rodney to cancel the whole thing. No matter what Rodney's reasons for going through with it were, they couldn't possibly be important enough for him to endanger his safety.
Rodney never ignored a dangerous situation and he never walked straight into them. It was true what he had said before – he was a very safety conscious person. Whenever John managed to talk him into a trip to the beach, he spent the day huddling under a huge umbrella, bitching about skin cancer. It was almost comical to watch him at the ATM, how he hunched his broad back and used one large hand to cover the other when he punched in the numbers, while suspiciously looking over his shoulder to make sure the person in line behind him couldn't see his code. He'd once spent fifteen minutes chewing John out for driving two blocks without his seat belt.
John couldn't see any reason for Rodney to willingly put himself in harm's way. It had to be an attention thing, he thought as he stepped away from the crack in the door and went to get ready for work. Rodney could protest all he wanted, but John knew him better than that. McKay did want the attention of the book launch. He loved the admiration from his fans and basked in it whenever he got the chance. If Rodney could only admit that to himself, maybe John would be able to make him see reason?
He got dressed in his work clothes and got his tool belt from the hook in the hall. He intended to tackle the equipment shed roof today, see what could be done and if it was possible to salvage any of it. He knew he should spend the afternoon chasing money, but he just couldn't work up the enthusiasm for it, so carpentry it was.
Before he left, he knocked on Rodney's study door and peeked in to say goodbye. Rodney had finished his call with Laura and was sitting at his desk, angrily tapping away on his keyboard. At this rate, he was going to break another one.
"I'm going to work," John said. "What did Laura say?"
Rodney looked up and huffed. "Those cops were there asking questions and I don't know what they told her because she just threatened to quit if I don't cancel the launch. Can you believe it? She's been working at this for over three months and now she just wants to… to surrender!"
"Well, maybe she's right." The words slipped out before John could stop them, and he could see Rodney's shoulders slumping dejectedly.
"Can we not talk about this right now?" he asked, giving John a pitiful look. "I'm not in the mood and if we start fighting now I won't get anything done today and I have to."
John didn't want to pick a quarrel, but he found that he just couldn't keep his mouth shut. If Laura had given an ultimatum like that, it meant she was deadly serious. She frequently cursed Rodney out and threatened him with violence, and on one or two painful occasions, John had found her crying from frustration, but she had never before said a word about quitting. What she and Rodney had together was more than a boss-employee relationship, it was also a deep friendship based on unwavering loyalty and mutual dependency. Laura kept Rodney in touch with the real world outside his writing chamber and smoothed out his abrasiveness when he had to make a good impression on people, while Rodney provided Laura with all the challenges she needed to thrive. Without each other, they would probably get by, but it wouldn't be the same.
"Do you really want to lose Laura over this?" John asked. "You'll never find someone as good as her."
"Tell me something I don't know! Why can't the two of you just…" Rodney raised his voice a little, ready to launch right into another argument, but then he quieted down and took three deep breaths. "Not now," he repeated. "Please?"
John never could resist that look on Rodney's face. Part of him wanted to have a violent, screaming row, make Rodney understand. He took that part and put it away under lock and key in his mind. It wouldn't resolve anything, just make it worse. Instead he nodded. "Okay. Later."
"Good, that's… that's good," Rodney said in a small voice. "See you tonight?"
It was a left-over line from before they'd been living together, back when John's first instinct after a fight had always been to run and hide and lick his wounds in solitude. He'd usually spent a few nights in his own apartment, giving the storm a chance to blow over. Now he didn't have that option anymore, and he distantly wondered where Rodney thought he'd disappear off to? It wasn't like he had anywhere else to go than home, their home.
"Sure," he said. Maybe he could spend the night in the garage? The couch there folded out into a bed - he'd spent his first two weeks in Sacramento on it. Rodney wouldn't bother him in the garage…
And the old patterns would just keep on repeating themselves. When he had agreed to start looking for a house together with Rodney, John had promised himself to make this work. He wouldn't run away this time. He couldn't. In his experience, good things just didn't happen to John Sheppard, and when they did, there was always a hitch somewhere. He'd always planned ahead, prepared himself for the day when everything would go to shit and he'd be kicked out again, left out in the cold. This was the first time in his life when he'd allowed himself to settle, to rest, and found that it felt good. If he let go of that, if he threw everything he had with Rodney away, he would end up alone for the rest of his life. He knew that with a certainty that was like granite.
He left Rodney to his writing and went to work. It was just after lunch and most of the kids wouldn't start arriving for another couple of hours. Allen Hernandez was there though, having found a rare free afternoon and he offered to help John fix the shed. The kid was handy and the help and company was appreciated. Talking to Allen about football and college applications helped John take his mind off the unpleasantness of the day before, and they had fun working together and John promised Allen that he'd get paid for the hours he put in.
John had often toyed with the idea of being able to offer Allen an extra job at the youth center. The boy was mature for his age and he'd learned responsibility the hard way. The younger kids loved him. He had an eye for what needed doing and never hesitated to lend a hand. What was even better; he'd be able to quit the fast food jobs that wore him out and didn't pay nearly enough. He'd be able to spend more time doing what he loved and it would free up more time for John and Hal to handle the administrative matters.
And it would cost money. As always, the budget reared its ugly head and put a stop to all John's good ideas. Hal, John and Gloria were the only paid members of the staff. They could afford to pay Allen for a couple of hours here and there, but another part-time salary? It just couldn't be done.
It was crushing, to want so much and be able to do so little.
After they'd done what they could for the roof, John went inside to look for Hal. He felt the need to talk to someone who would understand his troubles, and Hal was just the right person. Not to mention, he was a master of finding solutions where there seemed to be none. Maybe he'd be able to pull a rabbit out of his hat?
But a look inside Hal's office told John that probably wasn't the case today. The manager was working with a dark look on his face and kept frowning at his computer screen, like whatever was on there was extremely displeasing.
John knocked on the doorframe and Hal looked up from the screen. "Sheppard," he said, nodding at John. "Any luck with that roof?"
"We did what we could. It'll hold for a while but we'll still need a new one in a couple of months." John watched the deep lines in Hal's face get a little deeper and quickly changed the subject. "I was going for a coffee break. Want some?"
"Tea, thanks," Hal said, making a grimace. "Maude made me promise to quit the coffee. Said it'd make me live longer, but I have my doubts."
"Really?" John chortled. So there was one of the reasons for why Hal had looked like a bear with a particularly sore head lately. "I think I'll have a chat with her. Maybe she can give me a tip or two on how to get McKay to cut down a bit. He'll give himself a stroke any day now."
"Don't you dare," Hal growled, stabbing a finger in John's direction. "I don't need the two of you ganging up on me."
John laughed and went to get them both drinks. When he came back to the office, Hal had turned his computer screen away and was watching the walls with much interest.
"Thanks," he said as John put the mug of tea down in front of him.
"No problem." John sat down in the other chair, sipping his coffee. "Any more news about yesterday?"
Hal shook his head. "Not yet. I've been meaning to call around and see if anyone knows anything but I keep putting it off. Hell of a thing to happen."
John nodded in agreement. "So, who is it?" he asked. He needed to know the name. That way, at least one of his faceless adversaries would be identified.
"Joe Bauer," Hal said, spitting the name out like a curse.
John sighed. He'd suspected as much, but had secretly hoped it would be someone else, someone with a little less influence. Joe Bauer was a fairly successful businessman, the kind of guy who was viewed as a pillar of the community. John hadn't met him in person, but had heard a thing or two from his son Jesse.
Jesse was one of the problem kids. His parents had gotten divorced recently and Jesse had not taken it well. He was twelve years old, and carried around a lot of frustration within his skinny frame. Jesse frequently cut classes and often got into fights with the other kids. He walked around with two sharpie pens in his pockets, and any clear surface turned into a canvas for him, even walls and tables. The only times when he dropped his sulky attitude was when Sheila, one of the volunteers who was an art student, came to hold one of her bi-monthly painting workshops. Those were the only times you would ever see Jesse smile instead of sneer.
His mother Doreen was doing her best, John knew, but the divorce settlement had not been in her favour and she had to work long hours to make ends meet. Mr Bauer, it seemed, was handling the issue by trying to throw money at it. Jesse often had expensive clothes and new cell phones and gadgets, but it was painfully clear how much he missed his dad. Mr Bauer travelled a lot in his work and only saw Jesse a couple of times every month.
If it hadn't been so tragic, it would have been almost ironic. Jesse was one of the kids who needed the youth center the most, kept turning up day after day, like it was his only lifeline. And now Jesse's father might destroy the place that kept his son afloat.
John shook his head. "I didn't think he'd ever show up here."
"Apparently Doreen made him come," Hal said. He took a sip of his tea and made a face. "Nope, I'll never get used to that." He pushed the mug away and continued. "She thought he ought to see the place and he turned up out of the blue, looked at the bulletin board and saw the article, and decided you're a menace to society."
"I should've made Gloria take it down," John said. It had all come down to bad timing and it was so unnecessary.
"No, you shouldn't." Hal said resolutely. "It stays up."
John drank his coffee in silence and Hal turned back to the computer. It was easy to see Hal's point and John agreed with him wholeheartedly. Why should he have to hide who he was? What message would it send to the kids? Gloria had put that article up partly to tease, but mostly because she'd been proud. John had been embarrassed at first, but after a while he'd gotten used to it, and it was nice seeing Rodney's face look back on him from the bulletin board every day. He didn't want to take it down.
"Should I give him a call?" John asked when he'd finished his coffee. "Maybe if I got a chance to talk to him…"
Hal shook his head. "No, he's made up his mind. Let me handle it, son. Wouldn't hurt if you got on searching for new donors though. I'm looking at numbers I don't like, and the board won't like them either."
"Okay." John stood up. "As long as you let me worry about the numbers. You've had enough hospital stays this year, old man."
"This old man can still kick your ass," Hal said with a smile. He pushed his abandoned tea mug over the desk. "Here, take this away too. I can't stand looking at it."
John went back to the kitchen with the mugs and washed them out. He was in half a mind to go to his own office and start calling around again, but just then Jo Hernandez arrived from school and John remembered his promise to keep helping her with her project today. The donors would have to wait until tomorrow.
It was easier to focus on math now that he didn't want to think about coming home and continuing the on-going argument with Rodney. Jo was in a good mood, laughing and joking, and bantering with Allen who never missed a chance to drop by their table to tease his sister. When it was getting time to close up, Jo was all but finished with her project and John felt like he'd done a good half-day's work. He still stayed behind as long as he could possibly justify, cleaning up after the kids and taking a look at a toilet door that didn't close properly, but soon the center was empty and he couldn't linger any more.
He willed the bus ride to drag on forever, and made several stops on his way home to do some shopping, buying things that they didn't really need, but might come in useful anyway. By the time he finally got home, it was at least two hours later than usual.
Rodney was standing in the hall when John stepped inside the door. He was still dressed in the same t-shirt and boxers he'd worn when John had left and he looked irritated and a little worried. "You didn't call," he said. "I thought we decided that we'd call if we were going to be late?"
He was right, they had decided that and Rodney had been unusually considerate about upholding it. John knew he should've called ahead, but he'd spent the entire trip home trying to decide how to play the rest of the evening and just plain forgot. It looked like he was screwed already.
"Sorry?" he tried, putting the shopping bags down on the floor. "I lost track of time."
"That's my line," Rodney said acidly. "There's pizza. I got tired of waiting." Then he turned around and walked into the living room. John could hear him talking to Newton in a low voice, and then footsteps as man and cat disappeared into Rodney's study and closed the door.
John sighed and took his stupid shopping into the kitchen, where a half-empty pizza box was lying on the counter. He put a couple of slices on a plate and put them in the microwave, but once they were finished, he didn't have any appetite and only managed a few bites before he threw away the rest.
Rodney's door was closed and locked, which only happened when Rodney was in the middle of some especially tricky passage and under no circumstances wanted to be disturbed. John knew where there was an extra key and he even went to get it and stood in front of Rodney's door for a moment, turning it over in his fingers. Should he try to force a confrontation now, or should he wait until Rodney had calmed down?
Eventually he put the key in his pocket and knocked on the door instead to check if Rodney would be willing to let him in. The only answer was a shout of, "Go away, I'm busy!"
No use then. John had been hoping to be able to make Rodney listen and see his point of view, but he'd put himself in a bad position from the very beginning. It looked like it was Rodney's turn to play the avoidance game that was usually John's forte.
Dammit, he never should've mentioned leaving. John knew that was one of Rodney's most deep-rooted fears. And then Laura had done the same thing the very next day. Poor Rodney, he had to be a mess right now. No wonder he'd rather confide in his cat than in John.
John wandered around the house for a little while, sat down to watch TV but couldn't concentrate. He took Lady for a long walk, leaving a note for Rodney on the kitchen counter telling where he'd went, just in case Rodney decided to come out of hiding while he was gone.
But the study door was still locked when John got back, and he didn't feel like sitting around staring at the walls. He went out into the garage instead, put on a record, and sat down at the desk, attempting to draw some sketches of the new railing he was planning to build for the porch. After he'd broken two pencils, he gave in and went to lie down on the couch instead, drifting a bit while he let Johnny Cash's deep voice wash over him. Lady sat beside the couch, resting her head on his stomach as he absentmindedly scratched her ears and neck.
What was he going to do about everything? He'd always been a pretty good tactician, seeing how a situation could play out and being able to turn it to his favour. 'Luck' some of his old pals used to call it when he'd returned alive from missions that should've killed him ten times over. John liked to think of it more as a gift for risk-taking, of seeing what needed to be done and how it could be achieved, even if his solutions usually were a little unorthodox. In any case, he'd always been capable of finding his way out of hairy situations. He'd always been able to see that little light, pointing in the right direction, the way he needed to take.
Right now, there was no such light. John was stuck, tied down, unable to move either forwards or backwards. He could continue his fight with Rodney, but it would probably last for all eternity. Neither of them was going to give, and they'd end up hating each other. That was unacceptable. He could just let the whole thing go, but he knew it would keep twisting its sharp edges under the surface, eating away at their relationship until it was unsalvageable.
And what was he supposed to do about Joe Bauer and the trouble he'd stirred up? Hal had said he was going to handle it, but John wasn't used to having other people fight his battles for him. Grateful that Hal was willing, yes, but it still felt wrong. Yet, Hal had told him to stay out of it, and Hal Lindberg was an excellent judge of character. If he thought John should not to try to contact Bauer, he was probably right.
The thoughts kept spinning round and round until he dozed off. He woke up an hour later with a crick in his neck and a wet patch on his t-shirt where Lady had slobbered.
The record had ended long ago, so John turned off his stereo and went to bed. Rodney was already there, asleep or pretending to be, and John desperately wanted to reach out and touch him, place his palm against Rodney's back, let his fingers comb through Rodney's hair.
Instead, he settled down on his side of the bed, closed his eyes, and tried to fall asleep. He was not successful.
* * *
Rodney kept up the silent treatment the next morning. When John decided that it was just stupid to lie in bed unable to sleep any longer, Rodney was still asleep. By the time John came back from a long morning walk with Lady, he was sitting in the kitchen with the paper and his first cup of coffee, but as soon as he heard John coming in, he went into his study again and closed the door.
Not even Newton was permitted inside this time, and he glared at John with penetrating yellow eyes from his usual place on top of the bookshelf in the living room. Great, now even Rodney's cat was making him feel guilty.
"Want some tuna, Newt?" he tried, but the cat just snorted and turned his back.
So, it really was possible to hide from each other in their own home. John poured a cup of coffee and stood in front of the open refrigerator door for a while, staring at the contents. When he didn't find anything he felt like eating, he closed it again and sat down at the table, staring at Rodney's vacated chair instead.
John didn't know what to do, so he did the only thing he could think of; he called Hawk.
He went out into the garage to make the call, not really sure why. He just knew that he didn't want Rodney to hear. It was still with slightly trembling fingers that he pushed speed dial 2 and heard the call go through to Hawk's cell.
The line rang for a long time; Hawk was on Eastern time, three hours ahead of John, and he was probably at work already. John was just about to hang up and call back later when Hawk picked up.
"Hi Shep, how's it going?"
Just hearing Hawk's voice made everything better. John slid down the wall to sit on the concrete floor and let the feeling of home, of safety and friendship and care wash over him.
"Not so good," he admitted. "We've got a bit of a situation over here."
"Yeah?" He could hear Hawk rustling about on the other side of the line. "Hold on for a moment, will you, I'll go get a chair."
That was Hawk, always ready to listen. John smiled, rubbing his burning eyes. Through the phone, he heard footsteps, a door closing, and then Hawk was back on the line. "Okay man, spill. What's going on?"
John stayed silent for a moment or two, trying to put words to his fears, but then it struck him that this was Hawk he was talking to, and then the whole story just came bubbling out, flowing from his lips and through the phone line like it was being pulled from him by some irresistible force. It came out jumbled up and in the wrong order, and probably didn't make much sense, but it just felt so good to be able to tell someone about it all, someone who wouldn't judge or try to give sententious advice.
"Ouch," Hawk said when he was finally done. "That's some tough shit. How're you holding up?"
"I don't know what to do," John confessed. "He won't listen to me."
There was a moment of silence from Hawk, and then his deep voice came through the line. "So how bad is it?"
"Something's going to happen," John said. "I know it."
"Okay," Hawk answered, not even questioning the statement. He knew something about instinct too, that way you sometimes just knew that a seemingly easy mission would go to shit. "You talk to the cops?"
John nodded, even though Hawk couldn't see it. "Yeah; they think I'm overreacting."
There was no accusation in the question and John took a moment to think about it. He had freaked out in the beginning, put things out of proportion, but that wasn't the case now. That familiar feeling of having a target painted on his back still hadn't left him. The intuition that had kept him alive in Afghanistan was screaming at him. Something was wrong.
"No," he said finally. "I don't think I am."
Again, Hawk went silent, assessing the situation. "Well," he said at last. "I've got leave to take out and Meg's been wanting to come visit for ages. When's the thing starting?"
John hadn't realise how off-balance he was until he hear those words and almost began to choke up, so immensely grateful that he had a friend like Hawk, someone willing to just let everything go with a moment's notice and come to his aid.
"You don't have to," he said, having to force out the words. He couldn't possibly demand from Hawk that he come, but still John wanted him there to watch his back, just like in the old days.
"Sure I do," was Hawk's calm response. "I'll talk to Meg and call you back. If we can get a flight, we'll be there by the weekend. Been planning to come down anyway, right?"
John was fairly certain that he didn't deserve a friend like Hawk, wouldn't even if he tried for a thousand years. And yet, by some weird stroke of luck, he'd ended up with him anyway.
"Thanks, man," was all he could manage to get out. His throat was getting very tight and his eyes were burning.
"Don't mention it," Hawk said. "You'd do the same for me. Got to get back to work now. I'll catch you later, okay?"
"Yeah, okay," John agreed. He was not going to start crying. He was a big tough veteran, and he was not tearing up just by having a friend offer help.
But apparently he was, because by the time Hawk had hung up, there were hot streaks running down his cheeks and he had to punch the concrete wall a few times until he was able to stop.
"You're making the bed in the guest room," Rodney said the next evening. It was the first words he'd spoken to John in two days. "Why are you making the bed in the guest room?"
John carefully smoothed out the sheets on the Queen size bed reserved for when Jeannie and Caleb came to visit. "Because Hawk and Megan are coming the day after tomorrow." Hawk had called the same day with their itinerary and John had promised to pick them up at the airport.
"Really?" Rodney seemed to consider the news for a moment. "Did you ask him to come?" It wasn't exactly an accusation, but the tone was definitely a little injured.
"No," John answered patiently and fluffed a pillow. "I called him. We talked. He offered to come down and I said yes. I would've told you earlier, but it was a little hard to do it through two inches of door."
"Oh. Are they bringing Anna with them? Because there's nothing in the fridge but cold pizza and beer and I don't think that's a suitable diet for a toddler. Actually, I have no idea what a suitable diet for a toddler is. And we need to childproof the house. Wait, I'll go call Jeannie."
He wandered off in search for the phone and John smiled to himself for what felt like the first time in days. Calling Hawk had been a good idea. They couldn't fight like cats in a bag while they had guests in the house, and Meg Hawkins was probably the most sensible person John knew. If she couldn't get Rodney to change his mind about the book launch, then no-one could. Yes, calling for reinforcements had been the right decision. John surveyed the bed and deemed it fit for sleeping in, and then went next door to ask the Chois if he could borrow their old toddler bed for a couple of days. It was big and clunky to get inside and Mr Choi had to help him get it through the door, but it fit into the guest room, and Mrs Choi came hurrying after them with a box of old toys as a bonus, even though John told her that Anna probably would bring her own toys.
Rodney watched the spectacle while on the phone with Jeannie and John found it hard to read his expression. Maybe he was pleased with the development, maybe he was just annoyed that John had invited people without asking him first. If it was the latter, he only had himself to blame - it wasn't John who had stayed locked into his room for two days.
When Mr and Mrs Choi had left, John made the small bed as well. He used Rodney's favourite Star Wars sheets, figuring that Anna was smart enough to appreciate them. She did like helicopters after all. Rodney spent some more time speaking to Jeannie and then came to stand in the door to the guestroom, watching as John arranged the stuffed toys in what he thought was a very artful display at the bottom of the bed.
"How was Jeannie?" John asked.
Rodney looked up, a little distractedly. "What? Oh, fine, just fine. She wanted to know if we're coming up this winter. I said we hadn't decided yet."
John recognised the unspoken question. Will there still be an us by then?
"Rodney," he said. "I told you, I'm not leaving. You're stuck with me."
There was a very faint, vaguely hopeful smile from Rodney. "I… I know that. I mean, I hoped that. But it helps. Knowing, I mean. And I'm sorry. I know I've been difficult these past few days."
"You can say that again." John took the last well-loved teddy bear out of the box and put it down on Anna's bed in the middle of the pillow. "But it's not all your fault. I shouldn't have pushed." He hesitated, wondering if it was the right time to bring it up, but he needed to know where they were standing. "Have you talked to Laura?"
Rodney shook his head and looked away. "No. I was… I will. Do you think she was serious?" When he finally met John's eyes again, he looked so subdued that John just wanted to go over and wrap his arms around him. It had been far too long since they had touched each other and John's skin itched for the intimacy.
"She's worried," he said instead. "We're all worried."
Rodney sighed. "I know I'm not usually the one to say this, but don't you think you worry a little too much? It's been three days, nothing else has happened. Maybe the cops were right, maybe it was just an isolated incident? Some kids playing around maybe?"
"Why would kids playing around leave a note like that?" John asked. He could hear irritation begin to creep into his voice and when he saw Rodney's downcast expression he quickly regretted his words. This wasn't leading anywhere. Right now, his best course of action was to call a cease-fire and wait and see if Megan would be able to beat some sense into Rodney's stubborn head. If she couldn't… well, they'd have to cross that bridge when they came to it. He swallowed any further arguments and took a few steps towards Rodney. "Let's stop this," he said. "I hate fighting with you."
"Me too." Both the corners of Rodney's mouth were down-turned now and that was a testament just how miserable he was feeling. John just couldn't take it, couldn't stand that look on Rodney's face, so he crossed the last few feet of floor between them and held out his arms.
"C'mere," he said, and it was like Rodney just melted into his embrace, let John take all his weight and hold him up. He was unshaven and smelled like he'd spent the past two days playing hermit in a locked room, and John couldn't get enough of him.
"I have my reasons," Rodney said quietly into his neck. "And they're good ones. I just wish you'd take my word for it."
John sighed, stroking his hands down Rodney's back to come to rest around his waist. "Okay," he said. "Fair enough." Rodney had gone along with enough of John's peculiarities. He could return the favour, at least for now.
And it felt good to be close to Rodney again, like they'd been apart long enough for John's body to start to forget the way they fit together like two pieces of a puzzle. He held on harder, promising himself to never let that happen again.
John went to work with a much lighter heart the next day and spent most of the morning calling potential contributors. He managed to score two one-time donations that would get them the much needed roof for the equipment shed, and a tentative promise of a standing donation from a local design company. He spent some time sketching out some plans for some kind of poster or board where they could put up the names of all their sponsors. It would be good advertising for companies and private persons who wanted to have it known that they were contributing to a good cause. Maybe that could be a job for Sheila and the kids in the art group? John made a mental note to take it up with Hal later.
It was Friday and most of the kids quit school early, so John rounded up his phone calling session by noon and took Hal out to lunch to celebrate his success. They went to a nearby grill restaurant where John ordered a bacon cheeseburger and Hal reluctantly chose the salad and ate it while staring longingly at the dressing bottles on the table. His wife Maude had banned everything unhealthy from their lives and Hal didn't dare cross her. He'd told John that he suspected she had spies to keep track of him when he wasn't at home to make sure he didn't eat anything forbidden.
John didn't realise how famished he was until the food was put in front of him, and he dug into the meal in with a fervour that would have put Rodney to shame.
"What did that poor cow ever do to you?" Hal asked with a raised eyebrow as John devoured the last mouthful and started in on the fries. At this rate, he was going to end up ordering dessert as well.
"Just hungry, I guess. Haven't been able to eat much the past few days," he confessed. Nothing had tasted good and eating without Rodney's company wasn't much fun so he'd mostly lived on cereal and Ramen.
"Been fighting with McKay again, I take it?" Hal asked with a knowing grin. "I thought as much. You've been looking like your truck broke down and your dog ran away."
"Yeah." John ducked his head and finished his fries. "It's been a rough couple of days."
"Want to talk about it?"
"I don't know."
They sat silent for a while. Hal ate his salad, glaring at it like the tomatoes were trying to bite him instead of the other way around. John sipped his coke and tried not to think about anything at all.
"Is it Bauer?" Hal asked at last.
John made a face. "A bit. There's other stuff too."
It seemed like Hal had decided to make John talk whether he wanted it or not, and John knew better than to put up a fight. He picked up the salt shaker from its stand on the table and turned it over in his hands, so his fingers would have something to do while he told the story about Rodney's letters and the unknown assailant with the rock, and the lack of interest from the police. Hal listened without saying anything, and when John was done, he stayed silent for a long time. John looked away, put down the salt shaker, started ripping his paper napkin into pieces.
"That's some timing you've got there, son," Hal said finally. "How are you doing?"
"I'm okay." It was more or less true. At least he was better off today than the day before. "I've got some friends coming down tomorrow to help out."
Hal nodded to himself. "That's good. You should've told me before. I knew there was something amiss, but I never figured it'd be something like this."
"Didn't want to heap any more on you," John said. He couldn't quite bring himself to meet Hal's eyes.
"That's what I'm here for," Hal said. "And it won't change until this old ticker of mine gives up for good."
John smiled, grateful for Hal and his endless resources of empathy. He'd spent so many years trying to be an island, never letting anyone close. It was only after he'd met Rodney that he'd started to let people under his skin. Oh, he'd had friends before, both good friends like Hawk and Megan who knew him well enough that he didn't have to pretend, and friends like Chad and Mitch and Dex, where the bonds had been forged through war and other extremes.
But it wasn't until now that he was beginning to realise how few they had been. Out of the five people he'd been the closest to, two were dead. After moving to Sacramento, his friends, the people he trusted with his life and his innermost thoughts, had more than doubled.
"Thanks," John said. He didn't quite know how to convey to Hal just how much he appreciated the older man's support and friendship, but Hal nodded again and John knew he'd gotten the message.
John paid their check and they went back to the center, just in time for the first kids to start trickling in. John quickly found himself drawn into a basketball game and then spent the rest of the afternoon doing odd jobs around the place and admiring Joaquin's new skateboard. He didn't ask to try it out. Like Maude Lindberg, Rodney had a way of finding things out and he'd pitch a fit.
He got home early and he and Rodney went shopping. A survey of the kitchen had shown that there was absolutely nothing resembling food there. John hadn't eaten much during the terrible days of what he now termed 'the silent war' and Rodney had lived on frozen tv-dinners. They stocked up on milk, cereal, fruit and juice and other things that children liked, as well as plenty of adult food, since they had no idea when there would be time for shopping during the following week. When they were done, they had a mountain of food and it took two trips to carry it all out into the car.
"We'll never be able to eat all this." John said as they packed the last bag into the back.
Rodney looked at all the food with a thoughtful expression and then snapped his fingers. "Peanut butter!" he said. "I knew there was something I'd forgotten. Peanut butter and corn. And cheddar! Wait here, I'll be back in a minute!"
He hurried back into the store again, leaving John with a fond smile all over his face. He'd missed his Rodney.
"I talked to Laura," Rodney said on their way back home. John was behind the wheel and Rodney in the passenger seat, throwing frequent glances at the speedometer and yelping in warning every time John went the slightest fraction over the speed limit.
"What did she say?" John had wanted to ask all day but had found it best to wait until Rodney told him. He could've called Laura himself to ask what was going on, but he'd had the feeling that this was something private between the two of them and he hadn't wanted to butt in.
"Well," Rodney said, reaching into the back seat to grab a packet of cookies from one of the bags. "We talked. And then we talked some more. Seriously, there was a lot of talking going on. And maybe some yelling. All right, technically there was a lot of yelling. But she's not quitting."
"Good." That was a relief. John had been very anxious about the prospect of dealing with a Laura-less Rodney on a daily basis.
"She's not happy about the launch," Rodney continued.
"Mhm," John mumbled noncommittally. He wasn't happy about the launch either, but he'd promised both himself and Rodney to let it go for now, so it was probably best not to say anything about it.
"But she agreed to go through with it as long as there's not, you know, any more attempts at my life. Which there won't be," Rodney hurried to add. "And that reminds me, we forgot to buy salmon. I was going to ask her for the recipe of that non-lethal fish thing she makes. Megan and Rudy will probably be hungry when they arrive tomorrow. Do children eat fish? I couldn't eat fish until I was twenty two. It's the eyes, it's like they're watching you, never mind the fact that it's always drenched in lemon. What is it with people and seafood dishes? It's like they see a fish and there's some kind of sub-conscious response that says 'I must pour poison on this'…"
Rodney kept babbling away while munching on the cookies so that crumbles sprayed out of his mouth with every other word and John drove, and listened, and loved.
Getting the shopping out of the car and into the house was just as much work as getting it out of the store, especially as they had to keep dodging Lady who was running around and getting in the way, happy to be out of the car.
Once inside, John started to unpack while Rodney fished a can of tuna out of a bag and went off in search of Newton. It was a bit unusual for the cat not to come sauntering into the kitchen at the sound of the refrigerator door opening, but he was probably sleeping somewhere.
The cupboards and the fridge were packed to the point of bursting when Rodney returned with a slightly lost expression on his face and the tuna can still unopened in his hand. "I can't find him anywhere," he said. "He was with me earlier when I was working and now he's gone."
"He's not on the patio?" John asked.
Rodney shook his head. "No. I closed the door and locked it just before we left and he wasn't outside then and you know he never goes any further than that. I looked under the bed and behind the books in the shelf and in the laundry basket and he's gone."
"Did you look in the clean laundry?" To John's great annoyance, Newton liked to sleep in the laundry that came fresh out of the dryer, with the result that everything had to be washed again. Sometimes it felt like they spent all their free time doing laundry.
"I put everything away this morning, so unless he managed to get into the wardrobe…wait, I'll go check that." Rodney disappeared again and John could hear him tearing around in the bedroom. A few minutes later, he was back in the kitchen again. "No, he's not there. Did your monster eat him or something?"
"If that was the case it would probably be the other way around," John said, defending his dog. "Are you sure you checked everywhere? I'll go look in the garage, maybe he managed to sneak in there somehow."
The door that led from the house to the garage was always closed and Newton didn't like it in there, but it couldn't hurt to check so John went to investigate. Rodney followed, quickly going from worried to frantic.
When the search of the garage turned up nothing, John had run out of suggestions. In the back of his mind, Detective Driscoll's advice from earlier kept poking him for attention. Don't leave any pets out on their own.
Rodney loved his cat like a child and John feared for the day Newton wouldn't be with them anymore. He was almost twelve years old and cats didn't live forever. If something had happened to Newton now… John didn't want to think about it.
"Let's go check outside," he said. It was unlikely that Newton would be in the garden, but not impossible and anything was better than just standing here wondering.
But there were no sign of Newton in the garden or the street and Rodney was beginning to panic. "What if he's been run over by a car! What if he's lost, or some kid has stolen him and put little pink doll clothes on him and is driving him around in her doll carriage as we speak, remember when Maddie did that, how humiliated he was? Or what if… what if someone… what if…" He trailed off, clearly thinking along the same lines as John.
What if someone had hurt Newton to get to Rodney?
"He's got to be somewhere," John said. "I'm going to go ask the neighbours, maybe they've seen him."
"Oh, I bet it's Mr Jurgensen," Rodney "He hates animals, you can just see it. I bet he's been making evil plans ever since we moved in, he's like, like a pet murderer, he has a slaughterhouse in the basement with, with knifes and meathooks and…"
"Whoa McKay, rein in that imagination of yours a bit!" John put a hand on his shoulder, trying to calm him down. "He's a harmless old man who doesn't like it when Lady digs up his roses. I'll go and ask if he's seen anything. Why don't you go talk the Chois?"
"But, but… okay." Rodney closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, muttering about 'wide open fields', and then headed off in direction of the Chois' home. John went to speak to Mr Jurgensen, who seemed concerned about the possibility of another animal loose in his precious garden, but hadn't seen nose nor tail of Newton.
Rodney returned from the Chois with similar news, though Mrs Choi had promised to keep an eye out for Newton. They decided to continue asking around on the street and went their separate ways again, going in opposite directions to cover as much ground as possible. Rodney was really scared now, John could tell, and he kept calling John's cell babbling about the various grisly ways a lonely cat might meet his end out in the big cruel world.
The search remained cat-less and John was beginning to despair himself. As he walked between houses, knocking on doors, he was drawing up all kinds of horrific scenarios in his mind, only to force himself to wipe them away.
It's just a cat, he reminded himself. Cats disappear all the time.
But Newton wasn't just a cat. He was a beloved family member and losing him would break Rodney's heart. John just couldn't imagine the house without Newton dozing in a patch of sunlight or climbing up to lie in someone's lap in front of the TV. What would it be like trying to read a paper or a book without the large grey furball planting himself on top of the pages, demanding to be petted? What kind of stories would Rodney write without Newton lying on top of the old-school monitor, batting at the cursor with a playful paw?
It was unthinkable. They had to find Newton. Unless… no. John wasn't going to think about that. Not until he had undisputed proof that the stalker was involved.
When it got too dark to see, John decided that it was time to call off the search and think of other alternatives. Cats usually found their way home by themselves, right? There were stories about cats who walked hundreds of miles to get back to their families. He wasn't sure how much truth there was in those stories, but right now he was prepared to take what he could get.
He met up with Rodney outside Mr Jurgensen's house and he could see from the dejected slump of Rodney's shoulders that he hadn't had any luck either. Rodney was trying his best to hide it, but John could see that he was close to tears, sniffing and blinking and rubbing his eyes.
"He'll come back," John tried to comfort him.
Rodney had a dark look on his face when he looked up. "How can you be so sure of that? He's probably in some homeless person's cooking pot right now, or he's been hit by a car and is lying half-dead and suffering in a ditch somewhere, or an Animal Control officer found him and took him away to have him put down."
"Rodney," John interrupted. "He's chipped and he has a collar, if Animal Control finds him, they'll call us."
"In a perfect world!" Rodney shouted. "Which I think we can both agree on that this isn't."
John sighed. "Let's go back home," he said. "Maybe we forgot to look somewhere."
"I checked everywhere," Rodney responded petulantly. "Twice!"
But even Rodney had to admit that it would do them no good to stumble around in the dark and they walked back home, both of them quiet and subdued.
"Do you think…" Rodney said, and then trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.
John knew what he meant. "No," he answered, with a little more force than necessary.
As they reached their own driveway and garden path, Rodney suddenly grabbed John's arm and shook him.
John raised his head and felt a wide grin spread over his face. On the front porch, bathed in the light from the porch light, sat Newton. He was busy washing himself, but when John and Rodney hurried up the path, he looked up and mewled angrily, clearly upset over not being let into the house earlier.
"Newton!" Rodney almost ran up the steps to the porch and gathered the cat up in his arms. Newton yowled and squirmed, annoyed at being held so tightly. "Where have you been?" Rodney looked up at John. "He must've gone out while the back door was open. I didn't think to check the garden then, he never goes any further than the patio."
"You picked one hell of a time to go exploring, Newt," John said, scratching Newton's head. The cat purred, enjoying the attention for a little while until he'd decided he'd had enough and jumped out of Rodney's arms, meowing insistently until John unlocked the door and let him in.
There was a lot of tuna in Newton's dish that evening and both John and Rodney sat at the kitchen table, watching him eat. They didn't talk any more about what could have happened, but Rodney was visibly shaken and John silently wondered if he was beginning to have second thoughts. Maybe the scare of almost losing Newton would make Rodney see things from John's perspective. John certainly hoped so.
But Rodney didn't say anything and John didn't ask. They ate a late dinner of canned soup and grilled cheese sandwiches and then went to bed. Newton slept curled up around Rodney's feet.
John dreamed again that night, a new dream this time. He was walking through the house, searching for something, someone, while his whole being was screaming at him that he was too late. There were smears of blood marring the walls, drops of it on the floor, and he followed the tracks, carefully opening doors as he went and finding every room empty. Finally there was only one door left, the one leading into the bedroom. There was blood on the door handle, a crimson hand print on the cream-coloured wall next to the door frame. John pressed down the handle, wincing at the sticky, tacky feeling of the barely-dried blood. He pushed the door open, watched it swing inwards…
…and woke up gasping. He sat up and dragged a hand over his face, struggling to wake up and get back to the here and now. His heart was pounding and he was breathing hard, the horrible images from the dream still clear in his mind.
"What?" Rodney muttered, blinking owlishly into the dim room.
"Nothing." John made his voice calm and light, refusing to let any signs of the nightmare creep into it. He wasn't repeating that embarrassing experience. "Go back to sleep, McKay."
Rodney yawned and turned over, obviously not quite awake. "'Kay," he said and settled down again, one arm slung over John's stomach.
John lay back down and stared into the darkness. No matter how much he tried to relax and clear his mind, sleep would not return.
It was a very tired John who parked Rodney's car at Sacramento International Airport and went inside to try to figure out where Hawk and Megan would be arriving at. He hadn't been able to get any more rest the previous night and was operating on a grand total of three hours of sleep. The stress and the sleepless nights were beginning to add up and the world was getting a little hazy, but the expectation and relief of Hawk finally showing up helped him push the exhaustion aside.
Rodney had stayed home to prepare dinner and John harboured silent fears of what the kitchen would look like when he came back. Rodney was a pretty good cook but he hated cleaning up afterwards - this was the reason for the high frequency of takeout food in the McKay-Sheppard household.
The terminal was full of travellers and John tried to stay out of the worst of the masses. While he'd always loved planes of all sizes and shapes, he'd never been very fond of airports - too many people and too many families, both happy and sad. Airports were places where emotions ran high. Stressed businessmen, too convinced of their own superiority for their own good. Tired, crying children and equally tired parents trying to calm them down. The people who had spent a little too much time and money at the bar to cure their anxiousness over flying. Big groups of excited tourists on charter trips. It was a huge steaming melting pot and always made John always feel a bit overwhelmed. He stayed at a safe distance from the craziness and kept an eye out for his guests. Hawk was taller than most people, lanky and broad over the shoulders, and he was easy to spot in a crowd.
True enough, after a while he spotted Hawk's baseball-cap covered head and Megan's dark hair beside him. He waved and gave a shout, managing to get their attention despite the general noise and excitement of the terminal. Hawk was lugging a big suitcase and had several bags thrown over his shoulders, but still managed to raise his hand and wave at John with a big grin all over his face. Megan had her arms full of a squirming, complaining Anna, who apparently shared John's feelings about airports.
"Hey there, stickman!" Hawk said when they had reached John's little corner of the arrival hall. "Doesn't McKay feed you?" There were too many bags in the way for one of his characteristic bearhugs, but he managed to free an arm to shake John's hand.
John wanted to curse himself for all the meals he had skipped during his and Rodney's silent fight. He'd always had a fast metabolism. Nothing stayed on him and it didn't take many days of a poor diet for him to start losing weight.
Instead he smiled and shrugged it away. "You know me. One missed meal and I turn into a skeleton."
"You need to make sure you don't miss any," Megan admonished, poking him in the ribs. "Oh, it's good to see you!"
"You too," John agreed, giving her a one-armed hug, while trying not to squish Anna. The little girl looked at him with large dark eyes and he smiled at her. "Hi Anna, do you remember me?"
John tried to take Anna's small hand and shake it too, but she snagged it back and turned away, shyly hiding her face in Megan's shoulder.
"She's tired," Megan explained, stroking the little girl's hair. "She couldn't nap on the plane; there were so many interesting things to investigate."
"Let's go home then," John suggested. "I left Rodney unsupervised in the kitchen. There might be explosions."
He led the way to the car and helped Hawk shove the bags into the trunk while Megan strapped Anna into the car seat that John had made an emergency run to the Chois to borrow that morning. She fell asleep almost instantly with her head in what looked like a very uncomfortable position and John did his best to drive carefully so he wouldn't wake her up.
Rodney had managed to cook without disaster and Anna was in a much better mood after her nap in the car. She was growing so fast and the times when they met were so far between that every time John saw her it was like he got to learn to know her all over again. Like reported, she talked almost non-stop, even though it was sometimes a little difficult to decipher her conversations.
"She's been learning about animals," Megan said proudly. She kneeled down next to her daughter on the hallway floor and pointed at Lady. "What kind of animal is that, sweetheart?"
Anna looked from the dog to her mother and then beamed. "Cow!" she exclaimed triumphantly.
Rodney burst into helpless laughter and had to flee into the kitchen to catch his breath. "That is a smart kid," he said when he came back out, wiping tears from his eyes. "'Cow' indeed, I couldn't have said it better myself!"
John silently began to make plans for how he was best going to convince Anna that Newton was a pig.
They had dinner in the kitchen, all of them eating a little more than strictly healthy. Megan kept sneaking more food onto John's plate until he had to protest that he couldn't possibly eat another bite. It seemed like she had already made it her mission to spend the visit feeding him up again.
There were a lot of things to talk about and catch up on since the last time they had met and they sat talking for a long time after the last dish was empty. John deliberately steered the conversation away from all mention of Rodney's stalker and the letters. There would be time for that later, right now he just wanted to have a good time with his friends and forget about his worries for a while.
Anna quickly found the toys Mrs Choi had left for her and let out a little squeal of delight at all the stuffed animals. She picked out an armful and carried them into the living room where she sat down on the floor together with the 'cow' and began to play. The adults moved to the couch so they could keep an eye on child and dog. Lady was great with children, but she was still more or less a pup herself and didn't always understand that things and people could break if she wasn't careful.
"This really is a lovely house," Megan said, admiring the prints Rodney had put up on the walls. "You must have been so happy to find it!"
"Well," John drawled. He didn't want to admit that the prints were carefully positioned to cover the tears in the wallpaper. The renovations hadn't gotten as far as the living room yet. "It will be when we're finished with it."
"Trust me, you never will," Hawk laughed. "As soon as you think you're done, something new turns up that you need to take care of, or someone decides that she wants a pergola in the garden."
John turned to Rodney with a grin. "If you want a pergola in the garden you're building it yourself."
"I don't even know what a pergola is," Rodney snorted. "Hi Anna," he said then, trying to get the girl's attention. "What does the cow say?"
"Woof!" Anna answered promptly.
Hawk shook his head. "All those months we spent trying to teach her about animals," he sighed in mock dejection. "And then you two get three hours with her and all our hard work is undone."
"You need to get kids so we can get revenge," Megan nodded.
John didn't have a good answer for that. Meg had meant it as a joke, but without knowing it, she'd touched on something John had been thinking about. Nothing serious so far, nothing he'd talked to Rodney about. Hell, he didn't even know what two gay guys could do to get a kid together. Adoption? Surrogate mother? And Rodney probably didn't want children anyway. John quickly changed the subject.
"Do you want to learn about skateboards, Anna?" he asked.
"No!" came the unison answer from Megan and Rodney, while Anna's face lit up with a happy: "Yes!"
"Not until she's twenty-one," Megan said resolutely. "Possibly not even then."
"Death traps," Rodney agreed. "They are evil contraptions made only for the purpose of giving accident-prone boyfriends more chances to injure themselves."
"Hey, I haven't gotten hurt on a skateboard since I was sixteen," John protested. "Last time we were playing basketball, remember?"
"Don't even talk to me about basketball," Rodney muttered.
Anna got tired quickly after her long day so Hawk and Megan went to put her to bed and read her a story while John and Rodney cleaned up after dinner. John took Lady for her evening walk and when they got back home, Rodney, Hawk and Meg were sitting in the kitchen, talking in low voices.
"Is she asleep?" John asked quietly.
Hawk nodded. "Out like a light. She's had a lot of excitement today."
"And will be awake early tomorrow, I take it?" John chuckled. "Wanna see the garage?"
"Sure! Lead the way!"
Rodney and Megan were deeply engrossed in a discussion about teaching gifted children, so John grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge and he and Hawk left them to it and went out to the garage.
As John opened the door and invited his friend in, Hawk let out a low whistle. "Nice place you've got out here," he said. "You fix it up by yourself?"
"McKay did," John answered as he turned on the lights and cleaned up a little so they'd have somewhere to sit. "He thought I needed someplace I could have for myself."
"That man is good for you," Hawk said. "Let him go and I might have to hurt you."
John grinned. "I wasn't planning on it."
He opened the beers and handed one to Hawk while he kept the other and took a long swallow. He'd meant to tell Hawk about everything, ask him for advice and help to figure out what to do, but he didn't know where to start.
Hawk was sipping his own beer and studying John closely. "I hate to say it, Shep, but you look like hell," he said eventually.
"Yeah, I know." John scratched his neck and sat down on the couch with a sigh. "It's been a rough couple of weeks."
He'd avoided mirrors lately but Hawk was probably right. He knew he'd lost weight; his clothes were baggier than usual and his ribs more pronounced. He couldn't sleep for more than a few hours at a time, even though he was so tired that he'd been walking around in a daze for the last couple of days. It had to show in his face.
Hawk sat down beside him, running a hand through his hay-coloured hair. "What can we do to help? I've got your back, John; you don't have to handle this on your own."
"Can you get Rodney to cancel the launch?" John asked bitterly. "That would help."
Hawk shook his head and smiled sadly. "Don't think so. He's just as stubborn as you are. You talk to him?"
"I've tried." John sighed and leaned back into the sofa cushions, feeling himself sink into them. "He's not listening to me and he's not listening to Laura. I was hoping he'd listen to Meg but…" he trailed off and closed his eyes, suddenly so tired that he could barely keep them open.
"Doubt it," Hawk said. "If he won't do it for you, he won't do it for her. Face it Shep, whatever reason he has, it's something he needs to do."
John shook his head and tried to get his heavy limbs to move. "So what the hell do I do?" He cracked an eyelid open and peered up at Hawk.
"We keep an eye on him," Hawk said, turning the beer bottle over in his hands. "Make sure nothing happens. You trust the police?"
"Don't know." John took a deep breath and struggled upright again, body burning with exhaustion. He hadn't realised before just how tired he was. It was barely nine in the evening and he was ready to crash. "They don't seem to be all that worried."
Hawk nodded. "We better have a plan then," he said, and then, "Whoa, tomorrow!" when John reached for the yellow legal pad and the pencils on the desk. "After the day I've had, I need some rest, and you look like you could use a little shut-eye as well."
John had to agree. He really needed sleep, and with Hawk in the house, he might even be able to get some.
Lady got to stay by her own in the garage, or the following morning might be very interesting. The dog could get into enough of trouble if left to her own devices so who knew what ideas she could get in the company of Anna. It made her a very unhappy dog.
"Sorry furball, we want to sleep in tomorrow" John told her with a last goodnight scratch.
Lady whined and shuffled off to her bed, looking miserable and abandoned as only she could.
"She gonna be okay out here?" asked Hawk, whose love of animals was only overshadowed by his fur allergy - he'd loaded up on antihistamines for the trip and still kept sneezing and rubbing his eyes every time either pet came near him. One more reason for why he retained place #1 on John's list of 'best friends ever'.
"Yeah, she's fine," John assured him. "She's not supposed to be in the house at night anyway 'cause she fights with Newton. I'll let her out in the morning."
Rodney and Meg agreed that it was time to go to bed. They each took their turns in the bathroom, quietly so they wouldn't wake Anna, though they all had to remind Rodney of the sleeping child. It was a bit unusual, having a kid in the house. Jeannie and Caleb had visited with Maddie, of course, and Jo Hernandez was a frequent guest, so there had been children there before, but none as young as Anna. John wondered fleetingly if maybe it was something he and Rodney could get used to, some time in the future, and then chased the thought away, dismissing it as stupid and unrealistic. In any case, it wasn't something he ought to be thinking about now, when had so much else on his mind.
After some frantic hunting for still-packed toothbrushes and clean towels, they were all settled for the night, Hawk and Meg in the guest room, and John and Rodney in their bedroom at the other end of the hall. Rodney fell asleep in the middle of a sentence, apparently more tired than he'd looked. John closed his eyes, mashed his face into the pillow and tried to relax and let the comforting sound of Rodney's snores lull him to sleep.
It wasn't working.
John wanted nothing more than to just be unconscious, but every time he managed to drift into a light doze, something woke him. Rodney turning over in his sleep, the clicking and creaking from the old wood of the house, a car driving by outside in the street. By the time the red numbers on the alarm clock showed 2 am, he was prepared get out of bed and bang his head against the wall in the hopes of being able to knock himself out.
He got up twice during the night to make sure he'd set the alarm and checked all the locks. Rodney slept on, oblivious.
"You're not getting sick, are you?" Rodney asked suspiciously over the breakfast table. "If you are, you better stay away from me; I don't want to catch whatever plague you're carrying."
John blinked and yawned and waved him away. "'m fine. 's there more coffee?"
"Yes, about that…" Meg carefully moved the pot out of his reach. "How about some real food? Eggs? Bacon? This blackened thing I guess is meant to be toast?"
"Not my fault!" Rodney defended himself and pointed to John. "The master chef over there was in charge of the toast and I think he was still asleep when he made it."
"Was not," John protested, but he suspected the statement would've been more believable if he hadn't yawned again.
He hadn't been able to fall asleep until near sunrise, and Anna had woken up just a few hours later, eager to get up and explore the house. When Rodney had poked John awake and demanded he get up and feed his guests, John had honestly wanted to strangle him.
"Sleep well?" Hawk asked with a knowingly raised eyebrow while Meg heaped a big helping of food onto John's plate. He looked at the scrambled eggs and the bacon with the little pearls of congealed fat and couldn't work up any appetite for it.
John grunted something that might have been an answer and reached for a box of cereal instead. He would probably be able to eat that, if Anna had left any for him.
"Please tell me you weren't up all night again?" Rodney said, grabbing for the coffee Meg had unwittingly pushed in his direction. "How can you do that and not wake me up? I swear, you're like a ninja or something! Don't you think you should see a doctor about that? Not the ninja thing, that's, um, pretty hot actually, but the not-sleeping thing?"
"No, I don't." John pushed the milk away and stood up, leaving his bowl of cereal untouched. Suddenly he wasn't hungry at all. "I think I'm gonna grab a shower. Later."
So much for not upsetting Rodney. And speaking of Rodney, it wasn't like he had any right to talk. If there was one person in this household with unhealthy sleeping patterns, it was a certain M.R. McKay. He could stay up for days on end when he was working on a book, surviving on a few naps here and there, only to collapse and sleep for days after the deadline when the manuscript had been sent away for editing. So what if John was having a little trouble with insomnia? What good would a doctor's appointment do? They'd only give him sleeping pills and he hated taking those. It didn't feel like a natural sleep, and the thought of not being able to wake up from a nightmare was worse than the actual sleeplessness.
He just needed a shower, and some more coffee, and for this whole mess to be over so they could all relax and go back to normal again.
John leaned his forehead against the shower wall and stood under the spray long enough for it to turn cold, and then deemed himself awake enough to go out and face the day. He tried to ignore the worried looks he got from Rodney and Megan as he got out of the bathroom; Hawk knew well enough to keep his to himself.
"You all right?" was all Hawk said as the both of them sat down to go through Rodney's schedule for the week.
John just shook his head. "Don't want to talk about it," he said, and Hawk seemed to accept that at least, even though the bastard withheld the coffee until John'd had something to eat.
The schedule for the launch was packed. On both Monday and Tuesday, Rodney would be giving lectures at Sac State, both of them open to the public. Wednesday would be spent meeting the press, both local and national. On Thursday there were two more lectures and book readings in town and then there was an event planned for especially invited guests. Friday was the day Paradigm Shift would be officially released, and there would be a big book signing in a large bookstore.
The signing was the trickiest part, both John and Hawk agreed. There would be a lot of people coming, and keeping track of them all would be very difficult, not to mention how easy it would be for anyone to get close to Rodney.
"Shouldn't we speak to the police?" Hawk suggested. "This is a lot of ground to cover."
John thought about it, but he couldn't make up his mind. It was the right thing to do, the reasonable thing to do, and he knew a normal person wouldn't even have hesitated. But he wasn't sure what would happen if he contacted the police again. He was pretty sure Detective Driscoll would listen, but he didn't know nearly enough about Garcia to be able to trust her. Even from the start, she had been acting like she had something against him and Rodney, and before John knew exactly what it was, he wasn't going to trust her to keep Rodney safe. Maybe if it was just Driscoll… but at their visit John had gotten the impression that the two detectives came together. He doubted he'd be able to convince Driscoll to ditch his partner just because she made John uncomfortable.
"No," he said finally. "I don't think so. If they didn't believe me before, I don't think they will now."
Hawk shook his head. "They'll probably be pissed," he warned. "They don't like it when civilians get themselves mixed up in their business."
"I wouldn't have had to get mixed up in it if they'd listened to me in the first place," John argued. "I'll ask Laura to call and see if they have anything planned, but I don't want to leave it all in their hands."
It was clear that Hawk didn't like it and only agreed to go along with it because John said so, but he didn't have the same experience with authorities that John had. Sure, they might act friendly and assure you that everything would be just fine, but then you'd end up exiled to Antarctica with a black mark on your record. John wasn't about to give anyone a chance to dictate his actions again, not when it came to Rodney's safety.
Hawk was right though, making sure Rodney didn't come to any harm would be a big job for just the two of them and John had to admit he wasn't exactly at his best. He found it difficult to concentrate, kept getting lost in the discussion, and he knew that Hawk noticed. If they were going to do this, John just couldn't afford to be this exhausted. Back in the Air Force, he wouldn't have been allowed in the air in his current state.
"I need to get some rest," he muttered to himself, leaning back in his seat and rubbing his eyes. They felt like they were full of sand, like he was back in Afghanistan instead of in his living room in Sacramento.
"Yeah," Hawk agreed softly. "Yeah, you do."
Laura and Carson came over after lunch to meet the guests and were informed of John's plans. It felt almost like the living room had turned into a war council, like they were under siege. Maybe the comparison wasn't quite as bizarre as it sounded. It was the same feeling John'd had since the evening when the shadow behind the hedge had thrown the rock at Rodney, like they were living under a constant threat. The sane part of his mind knew that the insomnia and the compulsive checking of locks weren't normal behaviour. Back in the service, he would've handled it by letting his mind loose in the air, or shooting the hell out of a paper target, or running until every muscle ached. He didn't have any of those choices anymore and it was like his brain was trying to come up with new coping mechanisms on its own, without consulting John first.
Given how his head usually worked, it probably shouldn't be a surprise that it had picked the most screwed-up ways imaginable to cope with the situation.
A little bit later, Rodney joined them and briskly put a stop to the protection detail planning. He insisted on trying out his lectures on them, complete with cue cards and hand waving and John and Laura rolling their eyes behind his back when he got a little too dramatic. Hawk quickly excused himself, stating that he had to keep an eye on Anna and make sure she didn't come up with any bright ideas while the adults were busy.
John was in half a mind to go with Hawk and get a chance to spend a little time with his adopted niece, but his limbs were too heavy to move, and he listening to Rodney talk about quantum physics and literature and how the two were connected helped put his mind at ease somehow. His eyelids kept wanting to slide shut and soon he gave up trying to keep them open and just relaxed, concentrating on Rodney's voice and Megan and Laura's witty commentary.
It was the quiet that woke him up. He opened his eyes, disoriented and a little cold, and found the living room empty. John vaguely recalled drifting off, leaning against Rodney's shoulder while letting the sound of his friends' voices wash over him. A brief glance at the clock told him that it had been several hours since then and he was now alone, lying on his back on the sofa.
While he slept, someone had covered him with the afghan that was usually draped over the back of the couch, but when he sat up, he found that he was almost freezing and went in search for a sweater and the other residents of the house.
He was led to Rodney's study by the sound of the clicking keyboard. The door was open so he peered inside and discovered Rodney hunched over his desk in front of the computer, intensely focused on the screen. Newton was lying on top of a stack of books on the edge of the desk, his tail lazily swinging.
McKay was too deeply concentrated on his writing to have noticed John, so he just stood there for a little while, leaning against the door frame, drinking in the sight. It felt like he hadn't had the time lately to just take a moment to look and really see Rodney, the very essence of him, remind himself of why he was here in the first place.
Rodney's hair was getting a little long, curling softly around his ears, like the blond mop he'd had in his youth - Jeannie had shown all the embarrassing pictures. There was a light shadow of stubble on his cheeks and chin, just enough that John could imagine the rough scratch of it against his own skin. He really needed to do something about his posture, but John sort of liked that too - how the broad arch of his back and shoulders formed a base for his neck. And his hands, it never ceased to fascinate John how those large hands with the long blunt fingers could dance so gracefully over a keyboard. Rodney had a slight frown on his face and those bright blue eyes were stuck on the screen, completely focussed on the story that was growing there, flowing out of his brilliant mind through his fingertips to be caught and preserved.
Every sleepless night John had suffered because of this man, every fight, every thoughtless word said in anger, every second spent worrying, every doubt and every ugly moment of fear - it was all worth it just because of this. Rodney was beautiful and John loved every molecule of him.
He knocked lightly on the door frame, finally catching Rodney's attention, and Rodney looked up and met John's eyes with a soft smile. "Hi. Did you have a good nap? We thought it was best to just let you sleep."
John couldn't help but smile back. "Where's everyone?" he mumbled, still a little groggy with sleep.
"Oh, Meg and Rudy went home with Laura and Carson. We're going over later; Carson said he'd cook, so hopefully we won't be served haggis."
"When did he ever try to make you eat haggis?" John asked, trying to take in the information.
"Just you wait, I know he's been planning for the right moment to attack me with minced sheep's intestines." Rodney saved and closed the document he'd been working on and turned the computer off. "Are you feeling better now?"
John nodded, feeling embarrassed over his bad mood from earlier. It seemed like he'd really needed that nap. "Yeah," he said, stepping over the threshold. Rodney's study was like his garage, Rodney's own personal space, and he was just as careful invading it as Rodney was about going into the garage. "Sorry about this morning," he said. "I was an asshole."
"Yes, you were," came Rodney's prompt answer. "And I think you owe Megan an apology, but it's okay. Seriously, if I was functioning on as little sleep as you are right now, I don't think I would be able to keep a civil tone."
"I'll try to get some more sleep tonight," John promised. The way he felt right now, he would gladly go back to bed and sleep for another couple of hours. "What are you doing?"
"Oh!" Rodney's face lit up. "Well, I was working on something, and then I started thinking. If we hadn't been us, I mean, this us, here. Who do you think we would've been? Well, obviously we would be us, but which version of us? Or just… imagine a universe where things happened differently? You know the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, every possible outcome to every event exists in its own world? If that theory is true, then there are an infinite number of worlds out there, and everything that happened or didn't happen in the past - our past that is, happened in another way somewhere else! I mean, what if I had never written those books? What if you never quit the Air Force? Would we still have met somehow? Have you ever thought about that?"
"I don't know." John stepped up close and let his arms slide around Rodney's waist, immediately getting that feeling of rightness he always got from Rodney's warm body next to his. "I kinda like this version of us."
"Mmhmmm," Rodney muttered, nuzzling at his neck. "Me too. Could be a cool story though. Maybe I'll write it sometime."
"You do that, McKay." John held him closer, pressing his lips against Rodney's temple. "As long as you stay here with me and don't go off traipsing through universes trying to find alternative versions of us."
"Uh-uh," Rodney grinned, tapping a finger against his forehead. "Just in here. And I really doubt I'll ever find a better reality than this one."
Carson didn't serve haggis but tacos and Anna had a lot of fun chasing little pieces of grilled chicken and vegetables around her plate. Laura and Carson had found a nice condo right after they got married, and they had lived there for quite some time. Carson used to talk dreamily about big houses in the countryside for 'when they had children', but the sad reality was that the two of them had been trying for several years now without success. Anna had charmed the couple immediately and the amusement it caused to see her adoringly follow Carson around had a bittersweet quality.
John didn't say much during the evening. He was still tired, his brain felt a little behind and he didn't really have the energy to join in the conversation. It was easier to just go with the flow, smile at the jokes and agree when someone asked him a question. Rodney didn't stray from his side through the whole evening, sat next to him during dinner and then perched on the armrest of the sofa so that John could lean into his side, even though he kept bitching about how bad it was for his back to sit like that. Maybe Rodney had needed that moment too, that quiet reminder of why they were together, why they stayed together.
When this was over, John thought, they would take a vacation. He'd lock Rodney's computers away and ask for a couple of more days off and they'd rent a cabin somewhere out of the way, far away from people. They would do nothing but talk and have sex and just be with each other, stay in bed all day if they wanted to. Rodney would bitch about mosquitoes and miss the internet and maybe get a little sunburn on his nose and cheeks, and they would drink beer and banter and kiss.
"What are you thinking about?" Rodney asked, letting a hand slide down John's neck and come to rest on his shoulder.
John just smiled. "Nothing." He didn't want to tell Rodney about his plans just yet. It would be a surprise they both deserved.
He dozed off again in the car on the way home, and when Rodney gently shook him awake, the car was sitting in the driveway outside the house, and Hawk and Megan was already heading inside, Anna sleeping with her head on Hawk's shoulder.
Tomorrow seemed unreal, like it would be happening to someone else, and John didn't really mind the feeling. It would be different in the morning, he knew, but right now he was content just riding the flow of exhaustion, letting Rodney manhandle him inside and into bed. He fell asleep to the muted sound of the television in the living room and didn't even wake up when Rodney came to bed a little bit later.
It was morning when he woke up - very early morning, but morning still. Rodney was sleeping soundly and doing his imitation of a sawmill and John slid quietly out of bed and crept out of the bedroom. The TV was still on in the living room and John had to smile at that. It had to be Hawk who had left it on, knowing that when he was stressed, John slept better when there were sounds around him.
The rest of the house was quiet and John padded around trying not to bump into things. He took Lady for a short walk and then got the paper and went back in to get some breakfast. He was still tired, one good night's sleep wasn't nearly enough to make up for the countless he'd missed, but he felt more rested than he had in days.
John had closed the kitchen door so the sounds of him moving around in there wouldn't wake up the rest of the house, but just as he'd sat down with the paper and some coffee and toast, someone was pawing at the door handle from outside, trying to open it.
"Good morning, Anna," he said, opening the door to let her in. She was still in her pyjamas, her hair was mussed with sleep and she went directly for the cupboard where the breakfast cereal was kept, apparently having found that one out yesterday morning. "Where's your mom and dad?"
"'sleep," Anna said, standing on her toes to try to open the cupboard. John didn't want to risk any accidents so he opened it and got the cornflakes out and then went to get a bowl and a spoon for her.
She was a very independent little lady, refusing all help to climb up on her chair and pour cornflakes and milk. John kept an eye out for her, making sure she didn't fall, and cleaned up the mess when the milk went everywhere but the bowl. Weren't you supposed to encourage kids when they wanted to do things on their own? He really had no idea, but it seemed like something Meg would agree on.
Breakfast got a lot messier in Anna's company, but John enjoyed it nevertheless, engaging in a long conversation about teddy bears and trying to stop her from feeding her cornflakes to Lady who was lying under the table, excitedly waiting for something tasty to fall on the floor. They had half an hour to themselves before Megan turned up, dressed in her nightgown and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
"There you are, sweetheart," she said, giving Anna a hug while managing to avoid getting herself messy. It had to be some kind of special mother skill, John thought. His own t-shirt had milk all over it. Then Megan turned to him. "Good morning. Did you sleep well?"
"Shouldn't I be asking you that, you being the guest and all?" John said, giving her a sheepish grin. He still hadn't apologised to her for his behaviour yesterday and he felt guilty about it. Meg meant well.
"Not when you're the one who isn't sleeping," Megan answered, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I'm okay," John said, and gave her his best smile. "Really, I am. The TV helped."
"Rudy said it would." She sat down at the table and reached out to grab his hand in hers. "We're just worried about you, John. I know you don't like it when people are, but it comes with being family."
John looked down, wanting to pull his hand away and hold hers tighter at the same time. Family. The one he'd been issued at birth hadn't been much to celebrate so he'd had to create his own. "You don't have to be," he muttered.
Megan shook her head and made a frustrated little face. "I knew there was something going on when Rudy just told me out of nowhere that we were going down. I had to cancel a week's worth of classes on short notice, and… you stop that immediately!" she waved a finger in his face, apparently reading John's mind. "It was nothing you wouldn't have done for us and you know it. But you never ask for help so I knew it had to be something serious."
"You guys didn't have to come," John had to say despite her protests. "I'm glad you did, but…"
"Don't be stupid, of course we did," Meg interrupted him. She got up from the chair and walked around the table, wrapping her arms around John's shoulders. "You're the closest thing Rudy has to a brother. You know we're here for you whenever you need it."
"Yeah." John allowed himself to lean into her embrace, just a little bit. "Yeah, I… thank you."
"It's going to be all right," Megan said. She straightened up and gave his shoulder a little pat.
John looked up at her, not quite able to keep the doubt out of his voice. "I hope so."
"We're not going to let anything happen to either of you," Meg assured him and then lunged forward. "Oh, no sweetheart, don't do that!"
Anna was finished with her breakfast and had decided that the half-empty bowl looked better on the floor than on the table. The resulting puddle of milk and soggy cornflakes made Lady an extremely happy dog, and seriousness was replaced with laughter as John and Megan had to clean it all up.
Family. John had no idea what to do without them. He'd been lucky, he reflected as he poured a mug of coffee and went to wake Rodney. Most people had to make do with the one they had. It wasn't all bad - he knew Rodney loved his sister deeply despite their sometimes problematic relationship, but for John, who had burned all his bridges long ago, it was a rare gift to find himself with people he belonged to, people who cared enough about him to be concerned. It just took a little time getting used to.
Now if only they could get through the week without incident.
"See I told you, nothing to worry about!" Rodney said smugly the moment they got inside the door. "Not one murderous individual in sight! No nasty notes and no rocks and absolutely no unpleasantness of any kind. They even remembered not to put lemon slices in my water and they always do that! Honestly, don't you think you've been overreacting a little?"
"I guess." John felt a bit stupid. Maybe Rodney was right and he'd been stressed up over nothing. The day had gone off without a hitch and Rodney's lecture had been met with thunderous applause. Even Hawk, who was completely uninterested in everything academic unless it was somehow related to Military history, had been forced to admit that it had been a very good lecture. Rodney knew how to captivate an audience when he was speaking as well as when he was writing.
Laura had made a call to Sac PD to ask Detectives Driscoll and Garcia about the security around the event, but Campus police had been handling that. John had noted an officer in the lecture hall but not spoken to him. Instead, he and Hawk had gone with their plan, picking their seats so that no one could approach Rodney without passing one of them. John had stuck to Rodney like glue afterwards, possibly throwing a few too dark looks at people who came up to him and wanted to talk, but overall nothing had happened.
Rose Kincaid and her mousy friend had been in the audience and come up to speak to Rodney afterwards, and he'd exchanged a few words with them. John's hackles hadn't risen quite as much as the first time he'd met Rose and… what was her name again, Erin? Emma? Something starting with an E. He had probably been stupid to suspect they were up to something and come to think of it, he'd been upset over Hal's distressing news and oversensitive to anything out of the ordinary. Even so, he'd found his smile to be a little strained as he said hello to them, and he'd been relieved when they left.
Now, finally back home, John stretched his back to try to relieve some of the leftover tension from the day. He'd spent every minute painfully alert and it was taking its toll now.
"So, what are we eating?" Rodney asked, dumping his briefcase and jacket and heading for the kitchen. "There's spaghetti, I guess I could make a meat sauce if you do the dishes and… oh, for christ's sake, didn't you take out the garbage? It smells like fermented banana peels in here!"
"It was your turn," John said, trailing after him. Megan had occupied the bathroom the moment they got inside the door and Hawk and Anna was playing with Newton in the living room - to John's regret he hadn't been able to convince her that he was anything else than a cat.
"Whatever," Rodney said dismissively. "I'm feeding you so it's only fair that you take care of the trash, go on! And bring the mail while you're at it, I forgot this morning!"
"It's a wonder you remembered your pants this morning," John muttered and went to get the garbage. Rodney had been so distracted by his lecture notes that he'd been halfway to the car before he'd realised that he'd still had a towel slung around his shoulders.
He left Rodney to his dinner ministrations and went out to throw away the trash, and then headed for the mailbox. A little bit of the tension was beginning to seep out of his shoulders - everything had gone just fine today and hopefully the rest of the week would be the same.
There were a couple of envelopes in the mailbox and John quickly flipped through them. Bill, bill, credit card statement, junk mail and another bill - he let out a relieved breath. Getting the mail hadn't been the same lately. Every time he opened the mailbox, he expected to find another letter from the stalker.
But thankfully not today.
If John had been a little less tired he might have noticed something before the attack came, but he was still a bit off his game and when he heard the running footsteps, it was already too late. He didn't even have the time to turn around before someone slammed into him from behind and sent him sprawling to the ground.
He hit the rough tiles of the garden path hard and barely managed an ungraceful roll that brought him up on his feet again, swirling around and trying to keep his balance although his bad leg threatened to give out from under him.
Next came a fist to the face that sent him stumbling backwards, almost losing his footing again. John fought desperately to get his bearings back and defend himself, not to mention get a good look at the person who had jumped him. He shook his head, trying to get the ringing in his ears stopped, and got a blurry glimpse of the muscular blond guy heading for him with murder in his eyes, yelling, "You fucking asshole, I'm gonna kill you!"
John crouched into a defensive stance, holding his hand out. "C'mon Chad, wait a moment…" he managed, but didn't have time to say anything else before finding himself up close and personal with Major Chad Sokolski and his right hook again.
This time he ended up on his ass on the garden path, his head spinning and his nose throbbing. He could taste blood in his mouth.
Well, it seemed like he didn't have to worry about the best way to tell Chad about Rodney anymore. Obviously, he'd found out on his own.
"Can we talk about this?" he managed to get out, scrambling to get up again. It felt like he'd bit his lip too. Rodney would kill him. If Chad didn't finish the job first.
Chad circled around him, teeth bared and eyes glowing with anger. "I've got nothing to say to you," he growled. John barely had time to block his next swing and get to his feet again, feeling how the blood was beginning to drip from his nose. Damn, it hurt.
The front door was thrown open and John had to force himself not to turn around when he heard Rodney's, "Oh god, John!" He was pretty sure that if he turned his back on Chad, he'd end up in a stranglehold he wouldn't be able to break.
"Just stay out of this, McKay," he shouted back over his shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Rodney was brandishing John's old baseball bat and his cellphone.
"The hell I will! See? I have a blunt object and I will not hesitate to use it! And I'm calling the police right now!"
Rodney's voice was high and tight with fear. From inside the house, John could hear Anna wailing and Lady barking. The neighbours had to be wondering what was going on. John wouldn't be surprised if someone else had already called the cops.
Damnit, this was ending right here and right now.
Chad lunged for him again and John stepped to the side, barely avoiding him. Rodney was coming down the porch stairs and above everything else, John wanted to keep him out of this. He was the one who had fucked up and he was the one Chad wanted to beat to a pulp. John didn't even want to think about what would happen if McKay got involved. Rodney was many things, but he was not a brawler and he wouldn't stand a chance against Chad Sokolski.
It wasn't the first time John had fought him though, and he knew Chad's weak spots just as well as Chad knew his. He aimed for Sokolski's left shoulder, hit it with the side of his hand hard enough that there would be bruises. Chad yelped and spun around with murder in his eyes. John didn't duck fast enough. Before he knew it, Chad had grabbed hold of his shirt and pulled him closer, drawing his fist back for another punch.
John braced for the impact, prepared to roll with the hit and…
Chad froze. John did the same. Chad let go of his shirt and they both turned around.
There were very few times when John had seen Hawk truly furious. He was a large man, tall and strong, the kind of guy who couldn't walk into certain kind of bar without issuing a silent challenge to a certain kind of people. Hawk had learned how to control his temper. Even when he was angry, he still kept his voice down and his tone gentle, knowing full well how easy it was for a guy his size to inadvertently hurt someone.
Right at this moment, he was doing no such thing. Rudy Hawkins had an impressive voice, strong enough to be easily heard over a Blackhawk engine. Now, it thundered over the driveway as Hawk pushed Rodney out of the way like he weighed nothing and stepped down from the porch.
John swallowed noisily. Beside him, he could hear Chad draw in a sharp breath.
"You two," Hawk said, his voice deceptively calm and contained now. "Will stop what you're doing right now, and listen to me."
Oookay. John felt a sudden urge to go and bang his head against a convenient wall somewhere. Great. It looked like he'd managed to kill two friendships in one stroke, not to mention show Rodney a piece of himself that really shouldn't be allowed out to play.
"Hawk, I'm sorry," he tried, though he knew it was far too little and do late. "I…"
Hawk spun around. "Just. Shut up." The force of his look made John take a step back. "Sometimes, I get so fucking tired of your shit, Shep. When are you gonna learn that not everything is about you?"
"And you…" Hawk turned to Chad, "… ever stopped to think before you start waving your fists around? You're a fucking disgrace, man."
John glanced at Chad. He felt pretty much like that time when he was eleven and had tried to jump over the creek behind the stables on his bike. His mother had still been alive then and she had been able to lay on the guilt like nobody's business. Judging from the look on Chad's face, he had to be remembering a similar moment.
Hawk closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. "I'm going to go and calm my daughter now, and if either of you come inside before you've dealt with this, she will find herself two uncles short, got it?"
Chad winced openly and John felt his stomach grow cold. It looked like Hawk was deadly serious. He had to fix this somehow. He felt Chad look at him and then quickly look away again, like they were a pair of naughty schoolboys in front of the teacher.
Hawk turned his back to them and headed back into the house, dragging a protesting Rodney along with him.
"What, you're going to leave him out here alone with that… that brute who just tried to beat him to death with his bare hands? In what universe is that a good idea?"
"This one," Hawk rumbled and grabbed Rodney by the scruff of his neck, leading him towards the open front door. "Come on, they can join us when they've stopped acting like children."
John could almost see the anger fuming off him. Yep, he'd screwed this up, all right. The front door slammed shut and the sounds of screaming children and barking dogs became muffled.
"Whoa," Chad muttered and let out a low whistle. "Man, he is pissed."
John sucked air in between his teeth. Some of them felt a little loose when he prodded them with his tongue. "Yeah." He sank down on the porch steps, dabbing at his bloody nose with his shirtsleeve. A moment later, Chad sat down too, keeping quite a distance between them. Maybe he was afraid the gay was contagious, John thought, and then had to hold down a slightly hysterical giggle. Maybe Chad had hit him a little harder than he'd thought.
They sat quiet for a while. Chad was studying his knuckles where bruises were already forming.
"How did you find out?" John asked when the silence became too much to take.
Chad shrugged. "Met this chick in L.A. a couple of days ago. We were heading out and she was taking forever to get ready so I flipped through this magazine she had lying around and suddenly there's this huge article about you and some pansy-ass writer and I'm beginning to wonder who the hell you are anyway."
John snorted. It hurt his nose, so he stopped. "When I find that out, I'll send you a memo," he mumbled. "And don't call him that or I'll have to hit you back."
"Whatever." Chad sounded more sulky than angry now. "You're a massive asshole, that's who you are."
"Takes one to know one," John muttered. It wasn't like he was the only one to blame here and his nose had yet to stop bleeding.
"Ha." Chad scoffed. "You think you know a guy and it turns out he's been lying to you forever. Don't tell me you wouldn't be angry."
"I didn't lie," John defended himself. "Don't ask, don't tell, remember? So I didn't tell and I don't remember you asking."
Chad made a face. "Well, if I'd known there was something to ask, maybe I would've."
"No you wouldn't. I wouldn't have. We had careers to think about, remember? You still do."
There was a brief moment of silence. Chad chewed on his lip. "Wouldn't have had one if you hadn't saved my sorry ass that one time," he said finally. "But it was a hell of a way to find out." Chad turned his head, facing John now. "Do something like this again and I swear I'll kill you."
"Huh?" John was pretty sure he'd just lost track of the conversation. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that I haven't heard a word from you for fucking years, Shep." Chad raised his voice a little. "I've been goin' around wondering what the hell I did wrong to piss you off that much!"
John raised his head, taking in the hurt expression on Chad's face. "Nothing," he said. "You didn't do anything…" he cut off the sentence, suddenly angry himself. There was a reason for why he hadn't said anything to Sokolski from the beginning. John remembered all the years he'd been biting his tongue, listening to Chad's condescending comments about fags and cocksuckers. "You used to talk a lot of shit." he said.
Chad looked puzzled for a moment, but then it seemed like he was beginning to understand. The puzzlement gave way to be replaced with a slightly uncomfortable look. "Yeah, well. That was just talk, right? Everybody does it, it's not like it means anything."
"Means something to the people you're talking about," John muttered. He hadn't reflected much on why those remarks had always made him feel so bad, but he knew now.
There was a small headshake from Chad. "If you'd said something…" he started.
"Like I could." Bitterness laced John's voice and it almost came as a surprise to himself. He'd thought he'd been happy with the way things were back then. Now he realised how much resentment he'd been carrying around during all those years. "Hardly knew myself until I got out and met him," he said.
"Okay." Chad made a face. "So I was a jerk. Sorry."
John felt his mouth twitch into a smile. "You're still a jerk." That was probably never going to change.
But Chad didn't smile back, and he looked like he still had something unsaid. He cracked his fingers a couple of times before he spoke. "You told Hawk and you didn't tell me. That smarts, man. I thought you trusted me more than that."
"Yeah, well." John looked away. "I was reasonably sure he wasn't gonna bash my face in."
The corner of Chad's mouth finally turned upwards. "You got a point."
"So." John looked down, not really able to meet his eyes. "Are we… good?"
Chad grunted. "Let me get back to you on that." He was silent for a few more moments, a look of deep thought on his face. Then he blew out a breath and cocked his head to the side. "Yeah, okay."
"Okay?" John had to ask to make sure he'd heard it right. He knew Chad was just as quick to forgiveness as he was to anger, but he had expected at least a few more punches before the matter was settled.
Chad shrugged. "Sure, why not. If you want to take it up the ass, it's none of my business. Just don't expect me to sit around swapping sex stories with you."
John had to chuckle at bit at that. "No need to worry," he said. There was another brief moment of silence, and then he continued. "It's more than that, you know."
"More'n what?" Chad raised an eyebrow.
"Sex. It's more than that. Rodney's a good guy." There was no way John was going to let him believe anything else.
Chad shook his head, suddenly grinning. "No shit. Four years? Your previous record was what, six months?"
"Eight," John corrected. He had really liked Nancy. Sometimes he'd even thought that it would last. But in the end it hadn't worked out, just as usual. She was married to some guy in Washington now and was reportedly very happy.
"Any you were overseas for three of them," Chad noted.
John thought back on it. "I guess I was." As a matter of fact, most of his past relationships had worked best when he wasn't present. Rodney was the first person he'd ever wanted to stick around for.
"Can't say I can figure out what you see in that guy," Chad said using his head to motion back to the house. "But if you say he's good, I guess I'll have to take your word."
John shrugged and grinned a little. "Yeah well, he could probably kill you with his brain."
"I know some people like that. Can't stand 'em." Chad threw a quick glance in John's direction. "You 'kay?" he asked, pointing to John's face where the bruises were already forming. He was going to look like a racoon by morning.
"I think you broke my nose," John said and carefully felt along it, trying to find out how bad it was.
Chad snorted. "Stop being a whiny bitch, if I'd broken your nose you'd know it."
Maybe it had been too easy, but John wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. It was like it had used to be twenty years ago, getting into a fight after a few to many drinks and making up afterwards. But the friendly slap on the back didn't happen. John didn't know if it was because Chad knew he didn't like to be touched, or because of something else.
The police didn't show up after all. It was something of a surprise, actually. John opened the door and cautiously stepped inside, wondering if Hawk was still angry and if he was going to be locked out of his own house. It was a distinct possibility, especially considering that Rodney probably wasn't too happy with him either.
"Well," he told Chad. "Come on in. Make yourself at home and all that."
Chad's eyes roamed around the hall, took in the ugly wallpaper and the Johnny Cash poster and then he nodded to himself as if deciding that it was all right. He put his duffle bag on the floor – he'd dropped it earlier and went back to collect it while John was trying to figure out if it was safe to go back inside or not.
There were voices coming from the kitchen. John recognised Rodney's tone, that high and strained quality his voice got when he was upset as well as Megan's soft, soothing voice. At least Anna had stopped crying.
"D'you think it's clear?" Chad asked with a raised eyebrow.
John made a face. "We'd better find out," he said and carefully closed and locked the door before he headed in the direction of the kitchen.
Rodney and Megan were sitting at the table, talking. Anna was sitting in her mother's lap, clinging to her and sniffing a little, clearly still upset. They all looked up when John entered the kitchen.
"What's he doing here?" Rodney asked, glowering at Chad. "Shouldn't he be, I don't know, sitting in a cell somewhere for attempted murder?"
"Hey!" Chad exclaimed and John glared at him to shut him up. The evening had contained enough violence already and if Rodney and Chad got into it, there would without doubt be even more ugliness.
"It's all right, McKay," he told Rodney. "Nothing to worry about."
"Nothing to worry about?" Rodney's voice got shrill. "Have you looked at yourself in a mirror recently?"
"Rodney, it's fine. Fine fine." John gingerly prodded his nose again. Chad had been right, it wasn't broken, but he had a feeling he didn't look very pretty at the moment. He'd had worse though and it had stopped bleeding. He turned to Megan. "Where's Hawk? I've got to talk to him."
"He's in the garden and yes, you do," Meg agreed. "He's not very happy with you, John. You know he's too nice to say anything but this has been really hard for him." There was a sharpness to her tone that made John wince inwardly. It seemed like he'd managed to make all his friends angry with him, and all because he'd been such a coward.
"Wait, wait, wait," Rodney stood up so fast that his chair toppled over and fell to the floor with a loud crash and Anna started in Megan's arms, which caused her to send an arctic glare in Rodney's direction. It rolled off him like water on Teflon. "You're not seriously going to just let this go, are you?"
Anna looked like she was about to start crying again so John grabbed Rodney's arm and pulled him out of the kitchen. "It's okay, Rodney," he said. "Things got a little out of hand, that's all."
"He just about beat you to death; how is that okay?" Rodney hissed. He was almost shaking and John could see that he was more scared than angry. John didn't blame him. For a moment there he'd been pretty damn scared himself. Still was, as a matter of fact, but for completely different reasons. He knew that he had to fix all this somehow and the window of opportunity was looking pretty narrow. If only he hadn't been so tired…
"Rodney, go calm down," he said. "Go write something, listen to some music, yell at the cat, anything. I swear I'll explain but first I have to…" he trailed off, motioning toward the patio door, willing Rodney to understand.
Rodney snatched his arm out of John's grasp with a look that was positively lethal and stalked off to his study, slamming the door behind him. John sighed and leaned his head against the wall for a moment, trying to gather strength he wasn't sure he had. All he really wanted was to sleep, to curl up next to Rodney's warm body and just let the rest of the world fall away for a little while.
Instead, he straightened up again and headed for the garden. Hawk was sitting on the patio. He was smoking a cigarette and that was proof enough of just how badly John had screwed all this up. He hadn't seen Hawk smoke since their friend Pete Garfield's funeral three years ago and knew that Hawk had managed to quit before Anna was born.
John opened the patio door and stepped outside. "Hawk," he said.
Hawk looked up. "How did it go?"
"Fine." John took a deep breath and sat down. "I'm so fucking sorry, man."
There was a deep sigh from Hawk. He put out the cigarette and lit another one. John watched the smoke curl up and dissipate.
"It's okay," Hawk said finally.
John shook his head. "No, it's not. I should never have put you in this situation. I'm a selfish ass and I'm sorry."
Hawk studied him for a long time and John forced himself to keep his gaze steady and not look away. He'd never been very good with words and Hawk knew that, but sometimes the words just needed to be said.
Finally Hawk shrugged and waved it all away. "Water under the bridge," he said. "Would've preferred if you'd told him yourself but I guess this way worked too. Could've spared yourself a black eye though."
"Yeah, well." John ducked his head, then looked up again. "It still wasn't fair to you. You know I'm not… I have…" He didn't quite know how to finish the sentence.
"I know," Hawk nodded. "You've got control issues. Nothing new. Seems to be getting worse though, or you wouldn't be doing this to yourself."
"Doing what?" John asked, puzzled.
"Getting into this state. You're not acting like yourself, buddy. Even back when things were really shitty, you never stalled."
John shook his head. "You're wrong. I'm not stalling, I'm just… I'm trying to decide on the best course of action here, all right, and it's not so simple."
"That's not the John Sheppard I remember." Hawk said calmly. He finished the cigarette and leaned forward in his seat. "That man threw himself headfirst into everything and made it up as he went along. Didn't get it right all the time but it usually worked out. He didn't chicken out when things got tough, that's for damn sure."
"I'm not chickening out," John protested. Hawk didn't know what he was talking about, he had it all wrong.
"You put off speaking to Chad for four years," Hawk continued mercilessly. "You didn't tell Meg and me for over one and even then you couldn't just come out and say it, I had to work it out for myself. And this whole business with McKay's stalker? You're not acting, man, you're reacting. You haven't thought it through or we would've had a way better plan by now. This? It's only going to get the cops mad at us and you know it." John tried to look away but Hawk wouldn't let him. "So you don't like this detective? Go ask her what the hell her problem is. If it turns out it's the gay thing – and don't tell me you haven't considered that – you can get someone else on the case. If it's not, work it out, find a solution. Quit hiding."
"Dammit, I'm not hiding, Hawk!" John got up and started to pace around the patio. He couldn't think when he was sitting still and right now he had to get his mind moving. He'd known Hawk wouldn't make it easy on him but he hadn't expecting this. They were guys after all. Usually there were two ways of dealing with things – by fighting it out or glossing it over. But Hawk had never been one to go with either one of those solutions.
"So why didn't you tell Chad?" Hawk asked. "You knew he'd get angry and you knew he'd get over it. Why put it off for so long?"
"Because!" John had no idea what to say. "Look, I don't have an easy explanation, all right? It's… it's not…"
"Have you ever thought about talking to someone?" Hawk asked, his voice a little softer now.
"I talked to plenty of people, you know that." John held back a shudder, thinking of nondescript rooms and people doing their best to try to con him into letting his guard down.
Hawk snorted. "Yeah, you turned lying to service shrinks into an art form so they'd let you stay in the air. That's not what I meant."
"I'm not crazy," John spat. When the hell had the conversation taken this turn?
"Never said you were," Hawk said, leaning back in his seat again. "Listen, Shep. I know there are no easy explanations. I'm just saying that you've had a lot of things happening lately. McKay, your leg, being a civilian again - that'd throw anyone for a loop. There's no shame in needing a little help sorting it out. Believe me, I've been there myself."
"Sure you have." Like Hawk could ever understand. He'd always been the most stable guy John knew.
But Hawk shook his head and gave John a long steady look. "Yes, I have. Last time I got back from overseas, I was a mess. Blew up over stupid things, wouldn't talk to anyone for days, that sort of thing. Finally Meg told me she couldn't live with me anymore if it was going to be like that. She gave me an ultimatum – either I'd have to do something about it or she'd leave. Couldn't lose her so I did my best to fix it. You've got a good thing here, John. Don't throw it away, okay?"
John didn't know what to say. That had to have been at least six years ago and Hawk had never told him before. Then again, he'd probably had his reasons. It wasn't like John had been particularly forthcoming with personal information either.
"Sorry 'bout that, man," he muttered.
"Not a problem anymore," Hawk said, doing a little one-shoulder shrug. "Just think about it. You're good at fooling people into thinking you're okay. It's when you're trying to fool yourself that it gets dangerous. That's how lives get ruined."
John swallowed hard. Hawk had gone straight to the point, right to John's most deep-seated fears. What if Rodney should decide he'd had enough and walked away from their lives together? God knew they both had their issues, but at least Rodney was trying. He'd come a long way from the self-centered man John had met in that bookstore five years ago. John had made an effort too, but it looked like it hadn't been enough; Hawk's gift for telling the hard truth had shown him that now. And Hawk was right. John had thought that he was doing okay, that he was functioning pretty well. But functioning wasn't the same as balanced, recent events had made that far too clear.
"I will," he said quietly. "Thanks. And I really am sorry."
Then finally, Hawk smiled. "Hey, don't beat yourself up over it too much. Everyone makes mistakes now and then. Looks like you paid for it already," he said, gesturing to John's face. He could feel the bruises sting when he returned the smile.
"Yeah, guess I won't be winning any beauty contests for a while."
"Did you before?" Hawk asked with a grin. Then he stood up and tossed John his half-empty pack of cigarettes. "Throw those away for me, will you? Never should've started that shit up again."
John caught the packet and crumpled it in his fist, smelling the crushed tobacco with a sense of satisfaction. "I'll do that."
No one was in the mood for cooking anymore, so Meg called for take-out while John went to knock on the study door to see if Rodney would let him in. He'd fixed things with Hawk and was hopefully on his way to fixing them with Chad, but it was Rodney he was the most scared of losing.
"It's open," came Rodney's subdued voice from inside the room. John pushed the door open and stepped inside.
Rodney was sitting in his big armchair. Newton was lying in his lap and there was a record with classical music playing on a low volume. John anxiously searched Rodney's face for spare traces of anger but found only weariness and a little leftover fear.
"Sorry about before," he said. "I had to…"
"I understand." Rodney leaned his head against the high back of the chair and sighed. "Megan said… but it's not important. I was… I saw him attacking you and for a moment I thought…"
"Yeah, me too." John walked over the floor and eased himself down onto the floor next to the chair. "It was just bad timing, I guess."
Rodney reached out a hand and traced the edge of the bruise forming over John's cheek with his thumb, the corner of his mouth turned down in a bitter curve. "He hurt you," he said.
"I deserved it," John admitted. "I should've told him before and this never would've happened."
"I wanted to hurt him back," Rodney said, his voice low. "I didn't even know I could think things like that. I mean, I will admit to building the occasional bomb in my youth but I don't believe in violence, at least not when committed by me. And I wanted to hit him."
John leaned his head against Rodney's thigh and grabbed his fingers, squeezing them. "He probably would've deserved it too. Chad's a jackass."
"Is that what it's like for you?" Rodney asked. "Like… now? The person who's sending those letters, is it the same for you? I mean, I know that you have this whole big over-protective thing going on, but do you want to hurt them?"
John closed his eyes, concentrated on the warmth of Rodney's skin through his slacks. "Sometimes," he confessed. He'd never voiced those thoughts before, not where Rodney could hear.
"Okay." Rodney's other hand came to rest on the back of John's neck, his fingers running gently through his hair. "I should probably be a lot more freaked out by that than I am, but honestly? I don't think I mind. Just don't expect me to like your so-called friend."
John smiled. "Never did."
When John woke up the next morning, the rest of the house had already been up for quite some time. He didn't remember going to bed and falling asleep but it must've happened at some point because he was lying sprawled out half on top of the covers and half under them, the way he usually ended up when he got too hot to sleep. The sheets still held Rodney's scent and warmth and John just lay there for a while, half contemplating closing his eyes again. However he'd ended up in bed last night, he'd slept hard and it still didn't feel like he'd gotten enough rest.
But proper rest would have to wait until it was all over and Rodney was safe again. He dragged his aching body out of bed and into the bathroom where he winced at the colourful state of his face and did his best to shave around the bruises. The years had not made Chad's fists any softer.
They'd all taken some time to catch up the night before after the food Megan had ordered had arrived and the evening hadn't turned out so badly after all. Rodney had done his best to be at least civil to Chad, who, after having heard the whole story of the letters and the stalker, had immediately cancelled his plans for the rest of the week and decided to stay in Sacramento to help out. He was heading for a new posting but wasn't due there for another week and he thought the girl in L.A. had probably given up on him anyway since he'd just thrown his things together and left the moment he'd read the article and found out about John and Rodney. It was just like Chad, impulsive as always, but John was glad to have him there.
He had breakfast and took Lady for her walk, trying to get his mind back on track. Hawk had been right yesterday, he hadn't been thinking rationally the past few weeks. After the threat to Rodney had surfaced, it was like he'd just stopped thinking ahead altogether and gotten stuck in some kind of rut he couldn't seem to get out of. Was he feeling out of control? Maybe. It was possible he'd been feeling that way since he'd left the Air Force but managed to stay on top of it for Rodney's sake. That wasn't the big problem. He'd had the world pulled out from under his feet before and knew he could handle it and turn things around again. What really bothered him, he realised, was how powerless he'd been feeling lately. It was like he wasn't really in charge of his own life anymore, like everything was conspiring against him to bring him down. The stalker, Joe Bauer, his damn leg. Like Hawk had said, it wasn't like him to let things like that get the better of him. But what was he supposed to do? The problem with Bauer was in Hal's hands. The police was handling (or not handling, whichever the case might be) the stalker. His leg just was, a constant reminder of everything he'd lost and couldn't do anymore.
John was used to relying on his own ability to get himself out of hairy situations and now he had to trust others to do it. He didn't doubt Hal one bit, but the man hadn't seemed hopeful the last time they'd talked. The police… John didn't know how to deal with that problem. And he couldn't do a thing about his bad leg.
He wasn't any closer to a solution when he got back to the house. At least today would also be spent on campus and they'd handled it yesterday. There was no reason things would go any differently today.
Today's public lecture was going to take place in the evening, but Rodney had a workshop with his regular students so they headed for the university after lunch. Hawk and Megan took Anna for a walk around campus while John sat down in the back of the classroom with a cup of coffee. He wasn't planning on letting Rodney out of his sight, even if he was just with the students he knew and had taught for ages. Chad kept him company, telling him about his new job at Peterson where he would be headed by the end of the week.
"It's classified ten times to Sunday of course," Chad said, clearly itching to tell John anyway. "I'll be attached to a project at Cheyenne mountain. It's seriously cool, Shep. You should be there. You'd love it!" He had an enthusiastic grin all over his face.
"Aren't you getting a little old for test piloting?" John shot back, trying not to let on how much he wanted to be there.
"Nah, it's nothing like that. They call it deep space telemetry." Chad snorted. "All I know is that I was lucky to get in on it. Might even make it worth spending my days with a bunch of geeks."
He wasn't allowed to divulge much more than that though, and John was left with the itching feeling of what he was missing out on.
When the workshop was over, Laura showed up with sandwiches and salads and the work of preparing for the lecture started. Most of it was still set up from the day before so there wasn't really a lot to do but watch Rodney flail around on stage trying to find fault with the sound quality which had, according to him, mysteriously worsened since yesterday.
John appropriated his seat from the day before and watched the circus unfold. He might have zoned out a little bit, because the next moment he blinked his eyes open, Rodney was standing in front of him.
"You know, you could just go home and sleep," Rodney said. There was an amused little smile playing over his mouth and John just wanted to kiss him.
"I've slept worse places," he said instead and grabbed the front pockets of Rodney's pants, pulling him a little closer. The audience was beginning to trickle in and get seated and a glance at the clock told John that the lecture was about to get started. "Besides, I want to be here."
Rodney grinned and leaned down to press a chaste kiss against John's forehead. "I have been thinking," he said. "We need a vacation. Somewhere with room service and a really good massage therapist."
"I like the way you think, McKay." John didn't say anything about his own plans. Rodney's version of a get-away didn't sound all that bad either. "But scratch the massage therapist, no one's getting their hands on you but me."
Rodney opened his mouth to answer, but something in the corner of his eye caught John's attention. Among the people entering the lecture hall was Detective Garcia. "What's she doing here?" he muttered to himself.
Rodney followed his glance. "Oh, I don't know. Her job?"
"So why wasn't she here yesterday? And where's her partner?" There were no sign of Detective Driscoll and judging from the sour look on Garcia's face, she was less than pleased about her current whereabouts.
Rodney took a step back, away from John. "Aren't you being a little too suspicious? She's a cop, for christ's sake, not a criminal. Who knows, maybe she's here to listen? Policepersons have to read too! Don't you remember that cop show with the guy from Firefly?"
"I'm going to go talk to her," John said, getting ready to get out of his seat.
Rodney forcefully pushed him down again. "We're about to get started," he protested. "You can talk to her later, now sit here and listen and try not to fall asleep again."
John was about to get up anyway, but the audience had all but settled in and he didn't want to cause a scene. He stayed put instead, pulled Rodney down for another kiss for good luck, and then watched his boyfriend enter the stage to the sound of roaring applause. He couldn't quite concentrate on the lecture though, and kept looking over his shoulder to try to keep track of the detective. What the hell was she doing here?
He spent the entire first hour fiddling in his seat and when the time came for the break, during which snacks and beverages was served, he almost flew towards the back of the lecture hall. However, when he got there, the detective was nowhere to be seen. She must have slipped out when John wasn't looking and he wanted to know why.
Yes, maybe he was being overly suspicious, but it wasn't like he didn't have his reasons. Garcia had rubbed him the wrong way from the beginning.
"Sit still," Rodney hissed to him when the break was over and people were getting back to their seats again. "You look like you really need to go to the bathroom and it makes me need to go too and it's distracting."
John forced himself to sit still and listen to the second part of the lecture, but he couldn't make himself concentrate. Even when the whole thing was over and they were heading back home, he couldn't get detective Garcia out of his mind. What was her problem? Was it personal? Was she just another homophobe? There had been something curiously familiar about her posture and attitude during the two detectives' visit to the house, but John couldn't pin it down. He went to bed with the thoughts spinning around in his head and once again, he couldn't manage to fall asleep, even when Rodney started snoring beside him.
By the next morning, the bruises on John's face had darkened to a deep purple and he was sore all over. He'd spent most of the night tossing and turning, itching to get up to check the locks but not wanting to disturb Chad who was camping out on the couch in the living room. Today was Rodney's big day with the press and Laura rang the doorbell at eight o'clock sharp, looking fresh as a daisy and like she'd been up for several hours already. For all John knew, she had. He himself felt like one of Lady's well-chewed toys and would've given anything to be able to stay at home and take it easy today.
The day only got worse. He didn't have time for breakfast and Lady had an accident on the living room floor. They were supposed to meet up with the gaggle of journalists at a location hired through Rodney's publisher and there were far too many people and flashing cameras for John's taste. He, Hawk and Chad loomed in the background, trying to keep track of everyone and make sure no one got too close to Rodney. John felt his mood steadily get worsen and by lunchtime, a persistent throbbing headache had taken up residence right behind his eyes. He had the feeling that he wasn't making a very good impression, something that was confirmed when Laura swished past and hissed at him to stop scowling.
By the time all the interviews were done with and all the pictures taken, John just wanted to go home, and that was when Rodney told him that they needed to stop by the university on their way to pick up some coursework that he'd forgotten the day before.
John just wanted to scream and punch something.
"It's not my fault," Rodney complained when he tried to protest. "If you hadn't been so fidgety and weird yesterday I never would've forgotten!"
"Let's just get it over with," John growled back.
Laura offered to drive Hawk and Chad home so they wouldn't have to take the detour around campus. Meg had left earlier with Anna to find a playground more suitable for a two-year-old than a press conference.
At least Rodney knew exactly where he'd left his students' essays for once and didn't have to spend all night scouring the course administrator's office for them. It was still too late when they were ready to leave. John was tired and hungry and couldn't get out of there soon enough.
They walked back to the parking lot in silence. The empty campus was a bit eerie, so different from the bustling activity of the day. John spotted a few people here and there but on a whole it felt like they were completely alone. Their footsteps were echoing between the buildings and the yellow streetlights painted long shadows on the ground.
He felt a little on edge for some reason, but he couldn't quite figure out if it was because of the spooky atmosphere or something else. Once again, nothing out of the ordinary had happened during the day. With Laura's help, Rodney had managed to make a pretty good impression on the press and John had noted with satisfaction that he'd been more closemouthed about his personal life than usual. Maybe recent events really had made him think twice before babbling away.
"Let's just order in again," Rodney said, digging in his pocket for the car keys. "I could sleep for a week and I'm not cooking."
John nodded tiredly. He'd wanted to be home long ago and the extra delay of the trip to the university only served to remind him of how heavy his limbs felt, how much his leg ached and how gritty his eyes were. He really hoped he'd be able to sleep tonight. If not, he might have to give in and ask Carson for a prescription for sleeping pills after all.
He heard it before he saw it, the sound of a whining engine, and was glad to have had at least that warning before the car came around a corner, far too fast. He looked back over his shoulder and was blinded by bright headlights.
John reacted without thinking, threw himself into Rodney's side and rolled them both towards the line of parked cars, out of the open. He heard Rodney yelp as they hit the ground and felt something in his knee protest as it slammed into the asphalt, but the sensation was too far away to register as important. Behind them, the tires of the attacking car were screeching, coming back for another run, and John hurriedly pushed Rodney in between two parked vehicles, covering Rodney's body with his own.
For a moment, he couldn't hear anything at all except for the furious pounding of his own heart and Rodney's too-fast breathing. He held Rodney tight, just waiting for the sound of a car door opening, of footsteps coming closer, the safety of a gun being clicked off. He knew they had to move, he had to get McKay out of here, find better cover, call for back-up.
He couldn't bring himself to move.
Neither could Rodney, it seemed. John caught a glimpse of his face in the light of a streetlight and saw it frozen in fear, eyes wide and mouth open, and for a short nasty moment he found himself thinking 'Is this real to you now?' Then the moment passed, John could breathe again and his limbs obeyed his command well enough that he could stick his head up to peer over the hood of the closest car, still keeping Rodney pressed flat to the ground.
The parking lot was empty.
John climbed to his feet slowly, every sense wide open and every muscle tense, anticipating another attack. It didn't come. He looked around, searched the corners and the shadows, but couldn't see anything. It was like the car had never been there at all, a phantom attacker like something out of one of the bad horror stories Chad liked to read.
Rodney twisted on the ground, rolled over and sat up, rubbing his elbow, which must have slammed into the ground when John pushed him down. "Ow," he said, grimacing. "Was that… did that just happen?" He looked dazed and a little shell-shocked, but not seriously hurt so John left him there to get his bearings and stood up, breaking cover. His hand kept going to his side where there hadn't been a gun for the past five years, and it was deeply unsettling to feel his fingers close around empty air instead of trusted metal.
"John?" he heard Rodney say, distantly as if through a fog. "Are you okay? You're not hurt are you? Seriously, I do not believe this. We should… we should call the cops, and report this and, and maybe an ambulance because I think I might have broken my elbow and… oh no, this jacket was brand new and now there's a big rip in the… John? John? John!"
John turned his head. "Yeah, I'm fine." His tongue felt numb.
Rodney slowly got to his feet, wincing and grunting with every movement. "Of course you are. Someone just tried to kill us and you're fine. And not only did they try to kill us," he straightened up, waving his finger in John's face. "They tried to kill us with a pathetic cliché. I mean, running someone over in a deserted parking lot? It's been done over and over and over! Whoever is behind this gets zero points for originality!" He looked a little wild-eyed and shaky and he was still breathing too fast.
"Why don't you sit down again?" John said, putting his hands on Rodney's shoulders to guide him down to the ground. Rodney having a panic attack would help no one. "We'll call the cops, and we'll tell them what happened and then we can go home, okay?"
Rodney drew a couple of deep breaths and then seemed to relax, looking straight at John. "Hospital first. You're limping. Did you hurt your knee again?"
"I'm fine." The words left John's mouth before he could stop them. He couldn't care less about his leg. It was there and it was holding his weight, that would have to do.
"That phrase has completely lost its meaning," Rodney huffed. "Is your cell working? I think mine got crushed when you threw your 170 pounds of skin and bones on top of me. My back will never be the same again."
John let the sounds of Rodney complaining wash over him and ground him as he dialled 911 and calmly told the operator what had happened. Then he called Hawk and Laura, wrestled the phone away from Rodney before he had a chance to demand an ambulance, and went out in the empty lot, looking for traces and clues, anything that might tell him who their mysterious attacker had been.
The parking lot was reserved for staff and faculty and you had to have a special permit to be allowed to park here. It had been too dark to see if there had been a sticker on the windshield of the car.
It didn't take long for the police to show up, two officers in a squad car who took their statements. Rodney couldn't stop babbling and the cops kept glancing at each other like they were trying to come up with a good excuse to gag him. When they found out that John and Rodney were a couple, they gave each other the kind of significant look that made John grit his teeth. But at least they seemed to realise the severity of the situation and listened to John's story before they went to call in the incident.
Shortly after that, Carson's Audi rolled up with Hawk sitting in the passenger seat. They both got out with alarmed looked on their faces.
"Dear God, what happened, are you injured?" Carson exclaimed, hurrying up to them and reaching for John's arm.
John batted his hands away. "I'm fine, check on Rodney." Carson gave him a long steady look, but did what he was told and went to examine at Rodney's bruised elbow while John and Hawk took a closer look at the parking lot.
There were tire marks on the asphalt. John stood and watched them for a while. Cops could track things like that, right?
"Look over here!" Hawk called from beside one of the other parked cars and John limped over to him. The silver coloured car had been scratched and there were traces of dark blue paint there.
"Yeah, that's the right colour," he said.
Hawk nodded to himself, letting his hand hover over the side of the car without touching it. "Well, you're definitely not overreacting," he said. "This person is serious. How's McKay?"
"Pretty shocked." John looked over to where Rodney was yelling something at Carson. "I'd better go over there and save the doc," he said.
"You do that," Hawk agreed and then stood up and waved at the two cops, showing them his find.
A less patient person than Carson would probably have strangled Rodney by then, but between the two of them, he and John managed to ascertain that no ambulance was needed and that the most traumatic injury had been to Rodney's jacket. John watched the red and blue lights from the police car flicker over Rodney's pale face and felt ill. That had been too close.
Some amount of time passed. Hawk came over. "They said it's okay for you to leave. Want me to drive?" He held out his hand, apparently waiting for someone to hand over the car keys.
"No, it's okay," John said, reaching for the door on the driver's side of Rodney's car.
Carson's hand landed on his arm and held him back. "Look at your hands, lad."
John looked down. His hands were shaking. He hadn't even noticed, and no one had mentioned it. He handed Hawk the keys without a word, swallowing hard and trying to breathe even though the air was thick as syrup.
The next thing John knew, they were back in Rosemont, standing on the porch to the house. He had no recollection of the drive there and he was aware that he should be worried about that; losing time was a bad sign.
The house was full of people and John wanted them gone. Rodney, Hawk and Carson hovered around him as they stepped through the front door. Laura and Megan were crowded outside the kitchen, and Chad loomed in the open doorway to the living room. There were far too many people to fit in the narrow hallway and their collective concern was stifling. John felt ill.
"Oh my god what happened!" Meg exclaimed the moment she caught sight of them. "John, you look awful! And Rodney, your jacket… will someone tell me what in the world happened to you two?"
"'M fine," John mumbled, shying away from her eyes.
"We were almost run over by a car, that's what happened!" Rodney said, his voice nearing a shout. "And Mr Overprotective here apparently mistook the situation for a clothes fire because he did the 'drop, stop and roll' routine instead of just running for his life like any sensible person would have done!"
"Actually…" Hawk tried to interrupt, but was silenced by Rodney's finger waving in his face.
"You just be quiet, you weren't there! Fine lot of bodyguards you all turned out to be! I thought the job included things like, like guarding people against other people trying to run them over with cars!"
"Hey now, wait a minute…" Chad said and took a step forward. John recognised that look on his face. It usually meant that someone was going to get punched, probably Rodney.
"Stop it!" he said, with as much force he could muster. "Everyone just shut up, especially you McKay."
Six mouths closed and the chatter stopped, just like that. The hallway turned blissfully silent for a few seconds and if it hadn't been for all the eyes on him, John would've felt better. But his head was pounding and his knee aching and bile kept trying to rise in his throat.
"John?" Rodney asked, placing a reluctant hand on his shoulder. "Are you…"
"Fine," John interrupted. His stomach turned over and he felt more and more nauseous with every moment. Throwing up on the hallway didn't seem like a very good conclusion to the day. "Gotta go to the bathroom," he muttered, pointing with his thumb, and Laura and Megan parted to let him though, both giving him worried looks as he went and locked the door behind him.
The bathroom floor was hard and chilly and the porcelain bowl of the toilet wonderfully cold against his heated skin. John gave up trying to keep hold of his traitorous stomach and started to retch, his insides cramping as he threw up everything he'd eaten that day, possibly the entire week.
He knew they could hear him outside and felt himself burning with shame. If only he could stay locked in here for the rest of the evening. Maybe for the rest of his life. He swallowed against the sour taste in his mouth, flushed the toilet and then sank down onto the floor again, leaning his cheek against the cool tiles of the bathroom wall.
It was just an adrenaline crash, he told himself. He'd been through this before after close calls. The shakes, the nausea, it was nothing new, nothing out of the ordinary. Hawk and Chad knew that, they could tell the others he was all right, that there wasn't anything to worry about.
God, that car had been coming directly at Rodney. If he hadn't heard it, hadn't looked back at that exact moment…
John was back over the toilet again, riding out the spasms as his stomach tried to throw up things that weren't there. The water in the toilet bowl was just riddled with thin green strings of bile. It went on forever and when it was finally over, he didn't even have the energy to sit back against the wall. He stayed on his knees, resting his forehead against the seat of the toilet and just tried to get his breath back.
"Hey Sheppard!" That was Chad. John recognised the insistent knocking. "Tell me you haven't fallen in or I'll kick the door in. You know I can."
John tried to say something along the lines of 'Go away, I'm fine," but what came out didn't sound remotely like words.
"Not good enough, Shep." Chad again. John heard heavy steps outside, knew his friend was getting ready to break into the bathroom, that they were all going to see him like this. He couldn't bring himself to care.
Then Rodney's voice came through the door. "No no no, stop that at once! If you knew anything at all about locks you'd know that the best way to get one of these open is with a screwdriver, not brute violence. Now step aside before you do any damage."
If John hadn't been so worn out, he would've smiled. To think he'd been worried about Rodney not being able to hold his own against Chad… Rodney McKay was a power unto himself, beating all opposition into submission by the sheer force of his personality.
There were some scraping sounds in the lock as Rodney eased it open. John closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable embarrassment, the bathroom being crowded with people just as the hallway had been earlier.
But then the door opened and closed again, John could tell that only one person had come inside.
"Are you okay?" Rodney asked, kneeling beside him on the floor. "No, forget I asked that, I can see you're not." A large hand came to rest against John's neck, the thumb rubbing soothing circles against his skin. "Are you still feeling sick? You'll be more comfortable in bed and you need to let Carson look at your leg."
"Mhm," John managed to get out, a sound halfway between protest and agreement. "He check you out?"
"Yes he did, and I'm covered in bruises and sore all over and I will probably not be able to walk tomorrow and my new jacket is irreparably damaged - all of which I'm blaming on you by the way - but I'm not the one collapsed on the bathroom floor, which means it's your turn to see the doctor."
John didn't know what Rodney had done with everyone to get them out of the way, but the hallway was empty when they got out of the bathroom. Low voices could be heard from the kitchen as Rodney helped John hobble into the bedroom and lie down on the bed.
"Now stay here, and try not to do anything stupid," Rodney said. "I'll go get Carson."
He disappeared before John had the time to ask him to stay and John sank down onto the pillows, closing his eyes. The bed was soft and comfortable now that he'd finally gotten used to Rodney's mattress. Every part of him ached. Now that he thought about it, he might have banged up more things than his knee. It wasn't that bad, he could tell, but enough that he would be limping for a couple of days. The past few weeks hadn't been easy on his damn useless leg.
It might have been minutes or it might have been hours, John couldn't really tell, but Carson showed up a little later, carrying the first aid box from the kitchen.
"Now, let's see what you've done to yourself," he said, gently placing a hand on John's shoulder. "You're going to need to take those jeans off so I can get a better look at your leg."
John tried to sit up, to get his pants off, but his limbs didn't want to cooperate. His arms and legs were too heavy to lift and he had to endure Carson's help with shame burning on his cheeks.
"Sorry," he managed to get out, not really sure what he was apologising for.
"Ach, don't be." Carson sat down on the edge of the bed and gently felt along Johns lower leg and knee. It was swelling up again, John could tell from the tight feeling in the skin, and it hurt something fierce. "You've done a number on your knee again, lad," Carson said, reaching for the first aid box.
John sighed and closed his eyes. "How bad?" he asked. He couldn't go to the hospital, not now when Rodney needed him to be strong and healthy.
"Looks like it's just a sprain. I'm going to wrap it up and ice it for now and we'll see what it looks like tomorrow."
That was some good news at least. With a little luck, the swelling would have gone down by morning. "Rodney okay?" John mumbled, eyes still closed. Rodney had said that Carson had checked him out, but John wanted to hear it directly from the doctor.
"Aye," Carson said as he began to wrap John's knee in an Ace bandage. "Shaken up and a little bruised, but mostly he's worried about you."
When Carson next spoke, his voice was full of frustration and a little anger. "You are most certainly not 'fine'. John, you're exhausted, both physically and emotionally. If you don't wind down and get some rest, you will end up in the hospital, whether you want it or not. Do you understand me?"
John wanted to say tell Carson that it wasn't that bad, that all he needed was for all this to be over, but he didn't have the energy to argue with the doctor. Instead he nodded soundlessly, without opening his eyes.
"Good." The mattress shifted as Carson got to his feet. "I'll get you an icepack and something to take the edge off the pain. Try to get some sleep now."
He rested his hand on John's arm for a moment, and then he took the first aid box and left the room. John drifted for a while, trying to blank his mind enough to relax and get some rest, but sleep was elusive. He knew this feeling well, of being too exhausted to move but still too revved up to sleep. His head and his leg ached. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw blindingly bright head lights in the darkness.
The bedroom door was open enough for a thin strip of light to fall over the floor and when John strained his ears, he could hear muffled voices from the hall outside.
"…hasn't slept properly in days and I don't know what to do," Rodney's voice drifted through the crack in the door. John winced inwardly. He'd tried so hard to act like everything was fine, done everything he could to keep Rodney from worrying. It was clear that McKay had seen straight through him just as usual.
"He does that," Hawk said quietly. "He won't be able to relax until you're safe, McKay. Used to be the same back then. It's just the way he is."
"Even if it kills him?" Rodney's voice raised an octave. John held his breath, waiting for Hawk's answer. He'd always known his friend knew him well, he just hadn't realised how well.
There was a long pause, and then Hawk said, "Yes." John heard the sharp intake of breath from Rodney, but Hawk interrupted him. "So we'll just have to make sure that doesn't happen, all right? Go get some rest. I'll keep an eye on things."
John heard footsteps in the hall and then the door was creaking and he hurried to close his eyes and relax on the bed, feigning sleep. He knew it was Rodney without having to look, knew that unmistakable scent of coffee and hypoallergenic soap and stress, now laced with a hint of worry.
The mattress dipped under Rodney's weight as he sat down by John's side. "I know you're not asleep," he said.
John sighed and blinked his eyes open. Rodney held a glass of water in one hand and a blister pack of pills and an icepack in the other and he looked tired and scared, the corners of his mouth turned downwards in that sad, bitter expression John hated to see. It always made him want to hold Rodney close and soothe it away, kiss him until all the sadness had disappeared.
He couldn't seem to find the strength to move. "Sorry," he muttered instead, still not entirely sure what he was apologising for.
Rodney shook his head and held out the glass of water and the pills. "Carson wanted you to take these. It's just ibuprofen - for your leg."
John nodded and struggled to sit, but in the end Rodney had to help him into an upright position and hold the glass steady for him to swallow the pills. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so tired and he just wanted to lay down and sleep, but the thoughts kept spinning round and round in his head, chasing each other into a tangled mess.
"I…" Rodney started hesitantly, looking at the door, the walls, everywhere except at John. "Don't… don't be mad with me, okay? I talked to Rudy just now and…"
"I heard," John mumbled, too exhausted to be embarrassed over eavesdropping.
Rodney's head snapped around. "You did? You, you…" He swallowed a couple of times. "All right. Well, so you heard the rest of it too then? That you're supposed to get some rest? And… you don't have to do all of it yourself, okay? You have, seriously, you have like half an army out there watching our backs. It's okay to relax."
John sank down against the pillows again and sighed. The ache in his leg was beginning to subside. "Don't think two guys is enough to make up an army," he said, trying for a joke.
Rodney didn't smile. "I'm not letting you do this," he said. "I get that you're freaking out and that you're worried and… kind of… not really sane right now, and I get that you have this, this thing where everyone else is more important than you, but you're wrong." His hand drifted towards John's and found his fingers, grasping them tight. "I'm not just going to stand by and watch you run yourself into the ground just because you can't rely on other people."
"I'm sorry," John muttered, closing his eyes. He was too tired to deal with this right now. Some distant part of him knew that what he was doing couldn't exactly be considered healthy. The old doubts stuck their ugly heads up again, whispering about how he was far too screwed up in the head to deserve Rodney, to deserve anyone.
"Stop that, right now," Rodney said and John blinked his eyes open again. "I can tell what you're thinking and you're wrong." He squeezed John's fingers. "And, well, just for the record, you're important. There's no one more important than you so just stop trying to wrap your pathetic sleep-deprived brain around things you can't even figure out when you're not half out of your mind with exhaustion. Let someone else take care of things for a while."
John had to smile. He had a feeling it was a goofy, not-quite-with-it smile and something told him that should be bothering him, but there was no one here to see it but Rodney, and with Rodney there was no need to pretend. ''Kay," he sighed.
Rodney smiled back and leaned over to press a kiss against John's forehead. "Good. Go to sleep." Then he collected the empty water glass and stood up, preparing to leave the room, and that was just all kinds of wrong. John reached out and caught the hem of Rodney's sleeve, willing him to stay put where he was supposed to be.
"Stay with me?" he asked.
Rodney raised an eyebrow, but then his face grew soft and a little sad and he put the water glass back on the bedside table. "All right," he said and sat down again, stretched out beside John on the bed, and wrapped his arms around John's waist.
John closed his eyes and leaned his head against Rodney's shoulder, put a hand on his chest to feel the beat of his heart. He fell asleep like that, enveloped in Rodney, with the sound of Rodney breathing in his ear.
For a long time there was only soft, warm darkness. Then the sand came, and the wind, and the air turned hot and arid. The familiar scent of blood and gun oil filled John's nostrils and he found that he couldn't breathe, caught in the constricting grip of his memories.
"John!" Rodney's voice penetrated the terror and John opened his eyes, gasping.
He was sitting on the floor next to the bed, tangled in the sheets, his whole body wrecked with tremors. Rodney was kneeling in front of him, both hands cupping his face, and John was almost surprised to feel wetness burning his cheeks.
"It's okay," Rodney said, in the low frantic voice of someone who had repeated the phrase over and over without response. "You're okay, John; it was just a dream."
John leaned forward into the touch and tried to slow his breathing down. "Damn," he muttered. This was getting old.
"Was it bad?" Rodney asked, a touch of relief creeping into his voice now that John had answered. John swallowed and closed his eyes, focusing on Rodney's fingers against his skin, searching out the contact to help ground him in the here and now.
"Yeah," he rasped. "Sorry, I…" He didn't know how to continue.
"Don't apologise." Rodney moved even closer and pressed his lips against John's forehead and then his closed eyelids one at the time, kissing the hot tears away. John let his body go heavy and limp against Rodney, aware that he should feel ashamed of being so damn needy, but at the same time completely unable to muster the feeling.
"Would it help?" Rodney asked softly. "If we… you know? I totally understand if you're not in the mood, but maybe…"
John didn't trust his voice so he just nodded, desperate for Rodney's touch to ground him and bring him back to himself.
"Okay," Rodney said. "Okay, let me just… let me take care of you." He reached out, let his hand slide up John's arm and around his shoulder, pulling him closer until John's face was pressed against Rodney's neck. John closed his eyes, breathed in Rodney's scent, and tried to will his traitorous body to stop trembling. It helped that Rodney's large warm hands were now stroking down his back. It felt so good that it was almost too much, too intense, and still John couldn't stop himself from arching into the touch.
"Let's go back to bed," Rodney suggested. His voice was still so soft and low, so un-Rodney-like that it should have made John nervous. As it was, all he could manage was an affirmative noise somewhere halfway between a grunt and a sob, and then Rodney was leading him towards the bed, easing him down onto the mattress and proceeded to cover John's body with his own, chasing the dream away.
The silence woke John up. He blinked his eyes open and saw daylight try to trickle in through the curtains. Too much daylight. Rodney's side of the bed was empty and the little dent his body usually left in the ergonomic mattress was gone. All little details came together into the conclusion that it was late in the day.
John sat up and immediately regretted it. It was like every muscle in his body had locked up overnight. He was sore, mostly the tight, uncomfortable soreness of bruises and protesting joints even though the ghosts of Rodney's fingertips from last night also lingered on his skin.
He glanced at the clock, found that noon had come and gone, and rolled out of bed with a muffled curse and a wince when his swollen knee told him exactly what it thought of the endeavour.
The bedroom door was closed. John shrugged into his bathrobe and limped off to see what had happened while he'd been out.
There were voices coming from the living room and John recognised Rodney and Laura. Of their house guests, there was no sign. After an emergency visit to the bathroom, John headed for the kitchen to try to scare up something to eat. He didn't have the energy to cook anything so he settled for an apple, which he put in the pocket of the robe, and a handful of cornflakes out of the box. Then he went to the living room.
Both Rodney and Laura quieted down when he entered and looked up. It looked like they'd been having some kind of discussion; a serious one to judge from the look on their faces.
"You didn't wake me," John noted. Not that he was complaining. It seemed like he had needed the sleep and for some reason he actually felt a little better now despite what had happened the day before.
"Yes, maybe because you were actually sleeping for once?" Rodney answered with a scowl.
John held up his hands. "Whoa, McKay, I didn't say you should have. It's late, that's all. Aren't we supposed to be at the thing right now?"
"We cancelled the book readings," Laura said, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Rescheduled," Rodney said forcefully. It sounded like he'd repeated that word over and over for a long time, to convince either Laura or himself.
"Sounds like a good idea," John said. He sat down on the sofa and fished the apple out of his pocket. "Any news while I was out?" he asked Rodney. "And where the hell is everyone?"
"Megan and Rudy took Anna to the zoo. She wanted to see the tigers," Rodney answered. He didn't look happy at all and John figured that Laura had taken out the heavy artillery to get him to agree to cancel the day's activities. "I have no idea where your other friend is. He probably found someone else to beat up."
John took a bite of his apple. His mouth tasted like roadkill and he wished he'd taken the time to brush his teeth. "You okay?" he asked Rodney.
"My elbow hurts," Rodney said. "Carson says it's just a bruise but how can you possibly know that without an x-ray? It's probably broken and I'll have to amputate my arm. How am I supposed to write with only one arm, can you tell me that?"
John glanced at Laura, who rolled her eyes. "He's been like this all morning," she said. "Don't ask." Then the doorbell rang and she stood up. "I'll get it."
Rodney sank down into his seat with a deep sigh and closed his eyes. There were deep bags under his eyes, he hadn't shaved and looked about as tired as John felt. "Sorry," he said. "It's been a busy morning and you were sleeping and people have been hounding me from all sides to cancel everything and I can't; why won't they understand that?"
"Someone tried to kill you yesterday," John said, surprised to hear his own voice so calm. "Don't you think that's reason enough to cancel?"
"Don't start," Rodney said with a pleading look in his eyes. "I seriously can't have this conversation right now; I already had it with Laura and I don't want to get into a fight with you too, not now."
There were voices coming from the hallway and John recognised detective Garcia's accent. He didn't hear a male voice though and wondered where her partner was.
"Wonderful," Rodney muttered. "Just what I need, more inane questions."
The detective was dressed in the same leather jacket she'd had on her first visit and carried a motorcycle helmet in the crook of her arm.
"Have you caught her yet?" Rodney asked the moment she stepped into the living room. "If this is what my tax-money gets me, I am not impressed!"
"Rodney," John mumbled. He really didn't want this to turn into another fight.
Garcia looked less than amused. Laura offered her a seat but she remained standing. She went straight to the point. "We have a lead on the car from yesterday. It's registered to a David Meyer, is that name familiar to you?"
"David Meyer?" Rodney shook his head. "No, I don't know anyone by that name."
"No, me either." Then John ransacked his mind and remembered something. "Wait, no, that's not true."
"Oh?" Garcia raised an eyebrow.
"One of Rodney's students… damn, I can't remember her first name. E… something. Her name was Meyer. Could it be her?"
"What, Erika?" Rodney looked doubtful. "That's ridiculous, she couldn't hurt a fly! She never says a word in class. Always hands in her assignments on time, never causes any trouble. Granted, she has some talent for writing or she wouldn't be in my class, but she's nothing special!"
"It's still a possible lead." The detective searched through her pockets, came up with a pen and some tissue paper and made a note. "The car could be registered to a relative. We'll check it up."
John's thoughts were spinning. Miss Meyer, Rose Kincaids nondescript companion. She had acted so shy and barely said anything and it was difficult to believe that she could have done anything like this. But then again – why not? Maybe she'd just been hiding behind that quiet facade, using her outgoing friend as a distraction?
"So you think she did it?" he asked.
"I don't think anything at this point." Garcia turned her piercing gaze to John. "That's quite a shiner you got there. That didn't happen yesterday evening."
John remembered Garcia's presence at the lecture two days before. She must've seen his bruises then. "Just a misunderstanding," he said. "It's unrelated."
"Really?" Garcia gave him a hard stare. "Mr Sheppard, we've been keeping an eye on you. You have a house full of zoomies here and I got a feeling you didn't invite them to play scrabble."
"They're friends of the family," John answered, wondering where she was going with this.
"I'm sure they are," Garcia snorted. "We don't need people getting in our way. The best thing you can do is let us do our job."
Well, Hawk had been right again. It looked like John had succeeded in pissing off the police. But it wasn't like they had done anything stupid, like trying to go after the stalker themselves, or running their own investigation, so why was Garcia so worked up over it?
"Look," he said. "We haven't…"
"I don't have any more questions. Good day, gentlemen."
Garcia tucked her note back into her pocket and turned around to leave. John struggled to his feet, holding back a grimace as his knee protested. "Hold on, I'll walk you out." Maybe he would be able to get some answers out of the woman.
The detective just shrugged and kept walking. She was already half out the door when John caught up with her.
"Hey, wait a second!"
Garcia turned around, an impatient look on her face. "What?"
John figured it was best to just cut right to the point. He followed her out onto the porch and closed the door behind them, not wanting Rodney and Laura to overhear. "What's your problem, Detective? Is there any special reason for you to treat us like we're suspects?"
Garcia raised her chin and leaned back a little so she could look him straight in the eye. "I pulled your service record, Mr Sheppard. I know all about your black mark and I know your type. You go around tilting at windmills thinking you're some kind of hero and it gets good people killed. If you don't back off, I will have you arrested."
The words hit John like a punch in the gut. He didn't know who she had been speaking too, but it was clearly the wrong people. The way he saw it, he hadn't had any choice. Yes, he'd disobeyed a direct order, but a man's life had been at stake. What else could he have done?
Then again, good people had gotten killed. Maybe Garcia had a point after all.
"Look Detective," he said. "I don't want any trouble. I just want to make sure Rodney's safe."
"By running around playing vigilante?" Garcia had a sneer painted over her face. "Mr McKay 's safety is our responsibility, and so is yours." John didn't miss the look she gave his bad leg and that made him even angrier. "There's still no hard evidence that connects yesterday's incident to the person who wrote those letters."
"Someone tried to run him over, how much more proof do you need?"
Garcia put the hand not holding the helmet at her side. In doing so, she slid her jacket back to give John a glimpse of the gun in her shoulder holster.
"Which branch?" John asked. He realised now what had been niggling him about the woman, the familiarity to her posture and her attitude.
"It can't be Air Force, I'd know that. I'm guessing marine, am I right? Probably NCO. A sergeant? Is that why you have a problem with me?"
If Garcia was surprised, she didn't let it on. John recognised that blank expression and silently wondered why he hadn't caught on before. That was just how you looked when you thought a senior officer was a jackass and weren't allowed to say so out loud.
"I will only say this once more: stay out of my way." Garcia slid her hand into her pocket and came out with a battered pack of cigarettes. "I don't want any trouble from you, is that understood?
"Sure," John muttered. He didn't know if she believed him or not, and he didn't care. Let her think whatever she wanted about his motivations. She didn't know anything. Damn, of all the times for his old life to come back and bite him in the ass…
"I'll be keeping an eye on you, Mr Sheppard."
"You should be keeping an eye on Rodney."
Garcia gave him a humourless smile. "Oh, we'll be doing that too. Good day."
She turned and left, lighting a cigarette as she went. John stood on the driveway and watched her until long after she was gone.
Okay, so she's probably just trying to do her job, he thought. Yes, she could be doing it with a little more tact, but resenting her for that wouldn't change anything. But still, there was something about her, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. It was almost like she held a personal grudge against him. Did she know anyone from the Afghanistan debacle? Had she just heard things second-hand and formed an opinion on her own?
John went back inside, wondering if he'd been right to confront her. Maybe he'd just made things worse? He was pretty sure Garcia knew that he wouldn't just step aside and leave Rodney open to more attacks and her obvious hostility wouldn't stop him.
"You didn't get into a fight with her, did you?" Laura asked when John got back to the living room. "We do not need to antagonise the police at this point!"
"I didn't!" John tried to defend himself. "I just… I asked her what her problem was and she told me to back off and…"
"And you said no, didn't you? Jesus, John, sometimes I wonder why I even bother! You two don't need an assistant, you need a babysitter!" Laura threw her hands up in the air and stormed out of the room, heading for the garden.
"So, what is her problem?" Rodney asked tiredly.
"Don't know." John sighed. "I think she's ex-military. She said she'd pulled my records. Probably something about that."
"Should we call someone? Like, I don't know, the chief of police? Because I don't really feel comfortable having someone who clearly hates our guts working the case."
It was a possibility, and would probably be the smart thing to do, but John still hesitated. "It's okay, I guess," he said. "Besides, you cancelled everything. Maybe that's what the stalker was after? Who knows, she might back off now."
"No, no, no, wait a minute." Rodney turned around, almost falling out of the couch in the process. "The book signing tomorrow is still on; I'm not cancelling that."
Laura's unusually bad mood made a lot more sense now. John wondered if she'd threatened to quit again. Damn Rodney and his stubborn, stupid pride!
"I am not, I repeat, not backing out of this. John, I have to do it, can't you see that?"
"Why?" John asked. He couldn't even muster any anger right now, just a quiet and complete weariness. "I'm not the smartest guy around, Rodney. I can't read your mind."
"You said you'd take my word," Rodney muttered, sagging back. His voice had a hurt quality, but mostly he sounded just as tired as John felt.
"Yeah, I know." Something told John that nothing but pure and undiluted honesty would do right now. "I thought it would be enough, but it isn't. I'm sorry. If I was a better man, it might have been, but I'm not. I need to know, Rodney. Please?"
Rodney didn't say anything for a long time and John wondered if he'd said too much after all, if his failure to give Rodney his absolute trust was the final nail in the coffin, the thing that would break them up for good.
"Okay," Rodney said finally. He spoke slowly, as if he was trying to come to some kind of decision. "I see."
Then he got up and left the room without another word. He was gone for a long time and John had just come to the conclusion that he'd just screwed up worse than ever before and probably should go and pack his bags right away, when Rodney came back to the living room, holding a handful of envelopes.
He put them down on the table in front of John. "Read those," he said. "Maybe you'll understand then."
John glared at the envelopes. "More secrets?" he asked.
Rodney shook his head. "No secrets. Just… personal. Like that box you've got out in the garage that you never let me look in."
John thought of the small box of mementoes he kept out there. It was true, he'd never shown it to Rodney and Rodney had never asked to see it. It was private, something that was just John's, and that he needed to keep to himself. These letters had to be the same for Rodney, and now he was offering them to John. It was a show of trust that John couldn't refuse.
There were seven letters, spanning a period of fifteen years. John opened the first one and unfolded the paper inside. It was hand-written, blue ink in neat lines, and the words were easy to read.
Dear Mr McKay,
I'm writing this to let you know that your novel Attraction saved my life. I had lost everything, but your book gave me back my hope for the future.
John looked up with a raised eyebrow, but Rodney didn't say anything. He just motioned for John to continue, so John skimmed through the rest of the letter, finding the story of young woman who had spent several years in a psychiatric clinic, but was now slowly getting ready to live a normal life out in the world again.
The next letter was a printed out e-mail. It was short and to the point.
Meeting you in person made me want to spend more time on my own writing. I will get my first short story published soon, and I just wanted to thank you for inspiring me.
John put that one aside with the first and went through the small pile of letters, quickly finding a pattern. Rodney liked to read admiring and praise-filled letters out loud, but these, the grateful letters, he'd kept to himself.
Whenever I'm unhappy, I re-read Duality, and it always makes me feel better, said a cancer patient.
Another one was from a young mother: The Physics of Ferris Wheels helped my son take a new interest in school. I can't thank you enough for writing it.
"I don't save everything," Rodney said quietly. "Just the ones that are, you know, special. Sometimes when I'm having problems with a story and start wondering why I'm doing this, I take them out and read them through, just to remind me."
But John didn't answer. He'd gotten to the last letter, another printed out e-mail. It was only one word long, and when he read it, his stomach got achy and warm.
John recognised it. After their first meeting, Rodney had sent him a copy of Duality with a request for feedback. This e-mail was the response John had sent.
"Do you understand now?" Rodney asked when John looked up. "It's not that I don't realise the danger of going through with this. But there are people out there who need me to do this. They need to go to that signing and see me, and maybe shake my hand, and they'll spend the rest of the day being happy and I… I just can't let them down."
John had always known that Rodney was a good person underneath his brash, sarcastic surface. He'd known how much Rodney cared about those who were close to him and despite his frequent statements that people were stupid, mindless sheep, he also had an enormous social conscience. He bought fair trade and organic produce whenever he could. He donated money to Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace, as well as several local charities. John knew all that, and yet he'd never been as proud of Rodney as he was in this moment.
"Why didn't you tell me about this before?" he asked. "Does Laura know?"
Rodney gave him a helpless little look. "I told her before, when we were arguing. I… I didn't want you to think I was stupid and sentimental and things like that, it's just not very me. But I really need to do this, please."
John could see it now. It wasn't even a decision; it was just the way it had to be.
"Okay," he said. "Let's do this."
Rodney didn't smile, he just reached out over the table and grabbed John's hand, held onto his fingers hard. "Thank you."
There really shouldn't be anything sinister about a bookstore of all places, but John couldn't help but feel like the Borders on Fair Oaks Boulevard had a looming quality that set him on edge. There was a long line of people waiting outside even though the store wouldn't open for another hour and a half.
"I wonder what happened," Rodney muttered as he stepped out of the car. "Laura sounded upset on the phone."
"Guess we'll find out soon enough," John said and slammed the door shut. "Look, there she is." He pointed to the front door of the store where Laura stood, talking on her cell phone. When she caught sight of them, she ended her call and waved.
"What is it? What happened?" Rodney hurried up to her. "Please tell me there wasn't a bomb threat or anything?"
Laura sighed and shook her head. "You better see for yourselves. Come on."
They went inside. There weren't a lot of people in the store, but John could tell that something had happened from the general air of alarm inside. Nothing looked out of place though. In the middle of a floor was a large display of Rodney's book. Beside it was a table and a couple of chairs. There was also a full-size cardboard cut-out of Rodney, holding a copy of Paradigm Shift and grinning like a loon. John stared at it for a moment and then shook his head, hoping that McKay wouldn't insist on bringing it home.
Laura lead them through the store to the information counter where a small group of people were waiting. One of them was a tall woman dressed as a store employee. The other two were Detectives Driscoll and Garcia.
"Would anyone care to explain this?" Rodney asked, marching up to them. "I wasn't supposed to be here for another hour and I haven't had breakfast and I shouldn't have to tell you what that's doing for my blood sugar!"
Detective Driscoll picked up a brown envelope from the counter and handed it over to Rodney. "This note arrived here this morning," he said. "It's addressed to you, Mr McKay."
John's stomach turned to ice. He wanted to snatch the letter out of Rodney's hand and throw it away. He certainly didn't want to find out what it said.
But Rodney opened the envelope and slid out a sheet of paper and unfolded it. There were the same black letters standing out of the white surface as John read the note over Rodney's shoulder.
You have one more chance to tell the world about our love. There will be no more misses. The truth must be told.
"Anything you'd like to tell us, Mr McKay?" Garcia asked sardonically.
Rodney scanned through the text again, looking completely baffled. "What? Wait a minute - this is ridiculous! You don't really believe any of this crap, do you? It's insane!"
"So there's no truth to this?"
"No! What part of gay don't you understand? I'm not interested in women, at all, and even if I were, I would never be unfaithful to…" he swung around facing John. "You have to believe me! When would I find the time to have a sordid love affair? Whatever this insane woman thinks, it is not true!"
"Please, Mr McKay. We have to ask these questions," Driscoll said, trying to placate him.
"So ask them of someone who's actually guilty of something! Isn't that what cops are supposed to do?"
"Sure." Garcia turned to John, one eyebrow raised. "Are you the jealous type, Mr Sheppard?"
She sounded so smug that John wanted to punch her. "Now wait a minute, what exactly are you implying here…"
"Detective!" Laura looked like she wouldn't mind hitting the woman herself. "I can assure you that there's absolutely no ground for these accusations. Trust me, I would know."
"I'm terrible at keeping secrets!" Rodney exclaimed. "Seriously, I have no poker face at all; I wouldn't even know how to have an affair!"
"Rodney, I believe you." John grabbed the note and handed it back to Driscoll. "How about you find out who sent that thing and ask her? I don't appreciate what you're insinuating here. I'd never hurt Rodney."
"Of course not. We apologise." Driscoll glared at his partner, who didn't look sorry at all, and continued. "We're trying to locate Erika Meyer but she hasn't been home and her family is out of the country on vacation. But she drives a car that matches the one that almost ran you over, so right now she's our prime suspect."
"And clearly you're wrong about that as well," Rodney scoffed. "I'm telling you, she would not do something like this."
Garcia grabbed a pen from the desk. "And how well do you know her exactly, Mr McKay?"
"Regina," Driscoll muttered.
Rodney just rolled his eyes. "And it looks like we're back to the idiotic accusations. How many times to I have to say it? I. Am. Not. Having. An. Affair!"
"He really isn't," John added. "I can't think of anyone else who would put up with him."
"Exactly!" Rodney agreed, and then did a double-take as his brain caught up with his mouth. "Hey, wait a minute!"
"Rodney." Laura smiled a very tight smile and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Why don't we go over here for a moment?" She steered him away and the protesting slowly died down.
Garcia put the pen down again. "All right, I'll check the security footage." She turned to her partner. "You heading back to the station?"
"Yes, I'll keep you posted." Driscoll put his hands in his pockets as he watched her leave. "Your best option would really be to cancel," he told John. "But Ms Cadman says that's unlikely to happen."
John looked over to where Rodney and Laura were carrying out a whispered conversation, complete with flailing hands and murderous glares. Then he looked out the window at the line of people that had became even longer during the short time they had spent in the store. Several of them were carrying stacks of care-worn books. "Yeah," he said. "I think Rodney's made up his mind."
"In that case, detective Garcia will stay here and keep an eye on things. I don't have to say that it is a high-risk situation so you'd better be careful, all of you. We don't want anyone to get hurt."
John made a face. "Look, no offense, but I'm not sure we feel comfortable with Detective Garcia."
"I'm sorry, Mr Sheppard." Driscoll threw a glance over his shoulder back at his partner who was following the store employee into the back room. "Regina can be a little… difficult. But I assure you that she's extremely good at her job and you will be perfectly safe with her."
"All right." John didn't like it at all and the moment Driscoll was out of the way, he was calling Hawk and Chad for backup. The stakes just got a lot higher.
"Good." Driscoll checked his wristwatch. "I really must get going. Any sign of trouble, you let Regina know. You can trust her."
John still wasn't convinced, but he wasn't going to get into an argument with Garcia's partner as well. Having to deal with her attitude was enough as it was.
It was still an hour left until opening time. John called Hawk and then wandered around the store, trying to figure out the weak points. The shelves were low and there were no obvious hiding places. It would be reasonably easy to have a good view of the surroundings. The big issue was all the people who were going to be in here in a little while. John would have to stay by Rodney's side the entire time to make sure no one got too close, and that was going to be a problem. The whole idea of a book signing was to get close to the author.
It took Hawk and Chad half an hour to get there in Chad's rental. Megan would be coming later and they were all going to take shifts and keep an eye out. John told his friends what had happened and what his plan for the day was.
"This is one crazy chick," Chad said with a low whistle as John showed him the new letter. "Do the cops have any leads at all?"
"They're out looking for her right now," John answered.
"At least you know who it is now," Hawk said. "And we'll know who to look out for. What does she look like?"
John gave them a description, thinking to himself that it didn't really do much good. From what he remembered, Erika was just the kind of girl you completely overlooked. That was probably why she'd been able to get away with so much for so long. John hadn't suspected her for a second. Rodney still didn't. He just hoped she hadn't changed her hairstyle or gotten contacts or something, because he really wasn't sure he'd be able to pick Erika Meyer out of a crowd if she'd changed her appearance somehow.
Fifteen minutes before the store was due to open, everything was more or less set up. Someone had found Rodney a sandwich, which made him stop complaining for at least the time it took him to eat it. Garcia had called in a group of uniformed police officers who had taken up position in different places in the store, and she'd also sent for a bullet-proof vest for Rodney to wear underneath his shirt.
"I look ridiculous in this thing," Rodney whined when John helped him put it on. "Does it have to be so uncomfortable? Not to mention hot? I'll be dead from heat stroke before the day is out!"
"At least you won't be shot," Garcia snapped, looking like she wouldn't mind shooting Rodney herself. The security tape had contained footage of the person who had left the letter early in the morning, and it had clearly been a woman, but she'd been wearing a basketball cap and sunglasses and it was impossible to identify her. It could have been Erika Meyer, but it could also have been some other girl with the same height and build. Garcia wasn't happy and had spent almost the entire morning with her cell phone glued to her ear, yelling at people. She did seem to have things under control though, John had to give her that.
One of Erika Meyer's friends had procured a recent photograph that had been copied and handed out to every officer in the store, as well as the security guard. It was a pretty good picture. The girl had a sweet smile and was looking shyly right into the camera. It was hard to believe that she had tried to hurt Rodney twice and was threatening to do it a third time.
The moment the doors to the store opened, people started welling inside and it was a real struggle to keep track of them all. The store manager welcomed everyone with a short introduction of Rodney, and then let the customers queue up in a semi-orderly fashion. John carefully studied the face of every single person, comparing them to the picture of Erika, but came up short.
"Look," Rodney whispered to him between talking to two fans. "I'm still not convinced it is her. And if it is, she might not even show up! Stop glaring at people, you're scaring them away!"
"Who else could it be?" John hissed back, trying his best to not look too threatening. The old lady with the walking stick and a complete, dog-eared collection of Rodney's novels who was next in line was giving him strange looks. He smiled at her in what he thought was a friendly way. It didn't seem to help much. Possibly because of the bruises.
Megan and Anna showed up in time for lunch, as did Carson, who was dog-sitting for the day. He immediately hustled John into a back room to examine his knee, poking and prodding it until John just wanted to shout at him to stop.
"It looks better," was Carson's final assessment. "But you really have to be more careful. You've already had surgery on it once, and I don't have to tell you that the prognosis for a second surgery doesn't look good."
"Yeah, I know." John rolled down his jeans again and flexed the leg. It still hurt, but he could walk on it all right.
"Don't put too much weight on it now. And be careful, do you hear me? Now, how are you feeling otherwise?"
"I'm fine." Carson looked doubtful and John had to smile. "Really, I'm okay. I guess it all just caught up with me the other day. I'm feeling much better now."
It was the truth. Maybe that little breakdown had been just what he'd needed, because right now he felt better than he'd done in weeks. The stifling feeling of entrapment was all but gone, like he'd gotten his sense of purpose back again.
"If you say so, lad." Carson patted his shoulder. "Otherwise, you have to let us know. You can't take and chances with your health."
John grinned. "Tell that to Rodney; he's been mainlining coffee since he got out of bed this morning."
"Aye," Carson sighed. "I believe he's more stressed up over this than he wants to admit. I'll be glad when it's over."
"Yeah, me too," John agreed.
They had lunch from a nearby café, leaving the fans still in line waiting. When they came back to the store, Garcia was standing outside, smoking a cigarette and speaking on her phone. She looked a little tired, John thought.
The detective looked up when they approached and then, for some reason, a smile spread over her face. "Hello there!" she said, and got down on one knee.
Lady almost ripped the leash out of John's hand in her struggles to say hello to her, panting and drooling all over her face. Garcia laughed and scratched her ears and it was like she'd suddenly turned into a completely different woman.
Maybe John had been wrong about her? Someone who liked dogs couldn't be all that bad.
"Has there been any news?" Rodney asked, and Garcia quickly stood up again. The sour expression was back and there was not one trace of the earlier smile.
"We have a pretty solid lead on the girl," she said. "Roy's following it up right now. We'll know more in an hour or so."
"I still don't think…" Rodney started, but John showed an elbow into his side. "Ow! What do you have against my spleen? All right, all right, I'll be quiet, but that won't change the fact that you're completely and utterly wrong about Erika."
Five minutes later, Rodney was back at his table, basking in the adoration of his fans, and John was beginning to get fidgety. There were a lot more people now. It was Friday afternoon and people got off work early. The line was reaching out into the street and all the faces were beginning to blur together. It was beginning to get pretty hot in the store, and all the people were sucking the oxygen out of the room. John had been fighting off a headache since before lunch and now he was counting the minutes until the day was over and they could go back home again.
One hour later, Garcia still didn't have any news. Her mood hadn't improved one bit since the morning. John wondered if maybe he should've taken Lady off Carson's hands for the rest of the day and let her stay in the store. It was possible that it would've helped a little bit. The way it was, he kept out of Garcia's way as much as possible. Hawk had tried start a friendly conversation with her but had been effectively stone-walled. Chad had, true to form, tried to flirt with her and had almost been punched in the face.
The queue didn't seem to get any shorter and John was wondering how long they would have to stay here when Megan came up and tapped him on the shoulder. "Time for a break," she said in a voice that would accept no arguments. "How about we go get some drinks and snacks for everyone? I could kill for an iced tea."
"I should stay and keep an eye on Rodney," John protested, mostly for form's sake. He knew she'd get her way.
"No, you shouldn't. You look like you're about to hit someone. The boys can handle it."
"Bring me a coke, will you?" Hawk called from the magazine stand.
"And if you so much as think about sneaking me de-caf, they'll never find your body!" Rodney shouted after them.
There was a coffee shop in the store, but Megan insisted that they get away for a little while so they walked to the closest coffee place where Megan got enough drinks and doughnuts to feed half a platoon. John got stuck carrying it all.
"Should we get something for that detective?" she asked, studying the selection of pastries. "She is working awfully hard, I think she'd appreciate it."
John really couldn't care less, but he figured it couldn't hurt so Meg got an extra coffee and some more bottled water. It looked like no one would be thirsty or deprived of caffeine by the time she was finished.
There was still a few hours left until closing time when John and Megan got back from their coffee run and the queue hadn't gotten any shorter. Megan went around handing out the goodies while John grabbed his and Rodney's drinks and sat down next to his boyfriend, who was in the process of signing a whole stack of books for a young woman who had three young children clinging to her. John smiled and waved at them and the oldest one, a boy about the age of four dressed in a Batman t-shirt, waved back.
It was oddly fascinating to see the line of customers and fans pass by. The atmosphere in the store was almost festive. People who had probably never met before and were unlikely to meet again acted like they were the best of friends, talking and joking with each other, and there was surprisingly little fuss in the queue.
John could see that the long day was beginning to test Rodney's patience. His smile was getting strained and he practically inhaled the coffee and the blueberry muffin that John had brought him. Still, he took the time to exchange a few words with every person who came up, wrote personalised notes for those who wanted them, and even let people have their picture taken with him. John wasn't too fond of the last part, but he figured that if the stalker – Erika, he had to remind himself – was going to try something, the people on look-out would have time to see her long before she got a chance to get close to Rodney.
Megan finished her drink-and-pastry round at the children's section where Chad was reading to Anna. Then she headed through the store towards where Detective Garcia was standing next to the door. John saw her give Garcia the extra cup of coffee they'd picked up and offer a chocolate bar. Garcia took it, and to John's surprise there was another genuine smile on her face. It was very quick, and disappeared almost instantly, but it was there.
A cell phone rang and Garcia fished it out of her pocket and answered. She talked for a moment or two, and then elbowed her way through the line of people to come up to Rodney's table.
"We have Erika Meyer in custody," she said. "Roy's questioning her right now."
"Thank god!" Laura swished past and put down another stack of books on the table next to Rodney's elbow. "It's about time. Has she said anything yet?"
Garcia shook her head. "I'll have more news soon. Let's not relax just yet, okay?"
"Move out of the way please?" Rodney waved the detective aside to make place for the next people in line, a teenage boy and his father. "For the record, I still think you're wrong, not that anyone listens to what I'm saying. Hey, hey, stop pushing each other back there, someone could get hurt!"
It seemed like a minor argument had occurred a little further down the line. Garcia waved a uniformed officer over to break it up and then headed back to her post by the door. John saw her go outside, probably for another cigarette break.
It was getting late and the mass of people in the store was finally beginning to thin out a little. Everyone were exhausted. The store employees looked especially harried, but still in good cheer. To judge from the sheer amount of customers, it must've been an extremely profitable day, despite all the extra work.
The only remaining customers by closing time were a bunch of Rodney's fans who just wouldn't take the hint that it was time to leave and kept trying to snap pictures of him even though Laura had asked them repeatedly to stop, a young man in a hoodie browsing the travel book section, and a group of school kids who were looking at pencils.
Anna was getting tired and fussy so Megan took her out to get something to eat and then wait by the car, and Hawk and Chad were helping the security guard to convince the annoying fans to leave the store.
"What a day!" Rodney sighed after he'd signed the last book. He closed his eyes and rubbed his wrist. "I think I'm developing carpal tunnel syndrome. My back will never be the same again!"
"You loved every second," John told him with a smile. Laura was helping the store employees to clean up and put things in order and Rodney was furtively eyeing the cardboard cut-out of himself as if trying to figure out how best to steal it. "You're not bringing that thing home," John said. "It's creepy."
"Is that perhaps a little a hint of jealousy I'm detecting there?" Rodney asked. "I think it would look great in the living room!"
"Over my dead body."
Before the banter had time to escalate into an argument, Detective Garcia came up to Rodney's table, talking on her phone.
"Trouble?" John asked, not liking the look on her face.
Garcia held the phone away from her ear for a moment. "You could say that. It turns out Erika Meyer was not the person driving that car the other night. She let a friend borrow it that evening."
"I told you so!" Rodney exclaimed. "Did I not tell you that Erika didn't do it? But did any of you listen to me? Nooo!"
"Focus, Rodney," John growled, elbowing him in the side again. "Who did she lend the car to?"
"Hold on a minute." Garcia held up her hand and turned her back, speaking rapidly into the phone again.
After that, everything happened far too fast. The last customers were heading for the front door. John got out of his seat and stood up, feeling the small hairs on the back of his neck rising in anticipation. It was like his whole body was suddenly alerted to the fact that something was terribly wrong. He scanned the area, saw that the school kids were walking out the door, saw Chad try to prevent one of the more determined fans from coming back in again, saw Rodney push his chair back with a wide-eyed look of alarm on his face.
John turned around.
The travel-interested man in the hoodie was not a man at all but a young woman. John saw a flash of bright red hair, a shine of metal, and flung himself in front of Rodney before he even had time to think about it.
The world slowed down and got thick, like trying to run in deep sand. Someone was shouting something and it might have been him. Garcia's cell phone clattered to the floor and she swung around, gun in her her hand. There were screams and running feet and a streak of cold fire running down John's arm.
Then the scent of blood filled the air, sweet and coppery bright, and John could move again, grabbing the woman's arm before she had time to lift the big kitchen knife a second time. He couldn't feel any pain, not yet, and he didn't care.
Rodney was huddling behind the table, his face frozen in fear and John twisted around, trying to get the woman to let go of the knife. He only succeeded in pushing her away a few steps and lost his grip on her arm. The next moment she was coming for him again.
John was only vaguely aware that there was something wrong with the whole situation: there was absolutely no logic to her attack. She should've gone for Rodney, not John. The next moment, he had to duck to avoid getting cut again, and then move gave him the opportunity to slam his shoulder into her stomach, rendering off-balance. She let out a pained little grunt of disappointment and fell backwards, staring up at John.
He met her eyes and was surprised to see the hate there directed at him.
Rose Kincaid inched backwards, getting a firmer grip on her knife while trying to struggle to her feet again, shrieking, "Why won't you just die already?"
Then there was movement in the corner of John's eye. A motorcycle boot kicked the knife out of Rose's hand, and before he knew it, she was lying pinned to on the floor, snarling and sobbing while Detective Garcia cuffed her hands behind her back and read her her rights. Rose didn't seem to be listening, she just repeated the same words over and over again, "He wanted me to do it, he wanted me to!"
John's surroundings resumed their normal speed, neither too fast or too slow. One of the uniformed officers was speaking into his radio, calling for assistance. John quickly checked his arm and found a long shallow cut running from bicep to elbow. The knife had neatly sliced through his shirtsleeve and into skin and flesh and the wound was throbbing hotly but he could tell that it wasn't serious.
Then he hurried around the table to where Rodney had struggled to his feet, leaning heavily against the tabletop.
"Rodney, you okay?"
Rodney looked up, dazed and not all there. "Huh?" he said. "I'm… I don't feel so good, I think I need to sit down." What little colour he had left in his face drained away all at once and John reached his side just in time to keep him from dropping to the floor like a bag of bricks. He got a good grip on Rodney's arms, helped him to sit down, and pressed his head down between his knees.
"Breathe, McKay," he urged. "No fainting on me, okay? You're all right, you're gonna be just fine."
Rodney's breathing slowly evened out, but the next time he looked up, his skin was still pale and clammy - shock, John thought.
"God, John. It wasn't me," he whispered, his voice so hoarse that John could barely make out the words. "She wasn't trying to hurt me, she was after you. I think I'm going to be sick…"
Yes, John had gathered that much. What he couldn't figure out was why. Right then, it didn't even matter. He watched Garcia pull Rose Kincaid to her feet, maybe with a little bit more force than necessary, and march her toward the door. A police car with blinking red and blue lights had turned up outside the store, and through the window John could see Detective Driscoll stepping out of it, hurrying to his partner's side. The two of them put Rose in the back seat of the car and closed the door.
John breathed out, holding Rodney a little tighter against him. It was over.
There had been many times during the past few weeks when John had been extremely grateful for his friends, and this turned out to be yet another instance when that was true. He really had no idea how the aftermath had gone so smoothly, but he had the feeling that Laura and Hawk had a lot to do with it.
An ambulance turned up just after Garcia and Driscoll had taken Rose Kincaid away and John was now sitting in the back while a paramedic fussed over his arm. It wasn't bad, just as he'd first thought. There wasn't even any stitches needed, only a couple of butterfly bandages on the worst parts. It was beginning to hurt now though, with a burning, stinging ache and John had already resigned himself to adding another scar to his already impressive collection.
Rodney was sitting by his side, oddly quiet, with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He'd barely said a word since they'd been escorted out of the store, not even to demand a trip to the hospital, and it worried John. A Rodney who was not bitching and complaining in the face of adversity was clearly not well. He was still trembling slightly despite the blanket and hadn't even commented on John's injury. If Rodney'd been himself, he would be halfway through a rant of John's suicidal tendencies by now. He was staring blankly ahead and only answered questions with one-word responses.
John had far too much to think about and too few answers so he just pushed everything else aside and focused on Rodney instead, making sure he was warm enough and that someone found him some apple juice to drink. Adrenaline rushes tended to send his blood sugar through the floor and a hypoglycaemic episode wouldn't help with the shock.
Eventually, the paramedics declared them both healthy enough to go home and Laura reported that the cops were letting them leave. There would probably be a lot of questions later, but for now everything was under control. The stalker was caught and the immediate threat was over.
John didn't want to think about what it meant that Rose Kincaid had clearly made him her target instead of Rodney. He'd barely met her and couldn't remember having done anything that would merit an attempt on his life. Then again, she was clearly a very disturbed young woman. Why had no one noticed? How could she have spent so much time trying to harm them without anyone realising that something was wrong with her?
It felt something of an anticlimax. He'd imagined the stalker to be a lot more devious, evil even. Not a confused college girl. He couldn't even bring himself to hate her for all the trouble she'd caused. He just felt deeply sorry for her. She'd had her whole life waiting. What would become of her now?
He forced himself to stop thinking about it and grabbed Rodney's hand instead, finding some comfort in the feeling of their palms pressed together.
"Can we go home now, please?" Rodney asked, the first thing he'd said without prompting since they'd came out of the store.
"Yeah," John agreed. "Yeah, come on. Let's go home."
"I think we're going for a walk," Megan said as the car stopped in front of the garage door and they all tumbled out.
"Good idea," Hawk agreed.
"You do that," Chad said. "I wanna watch the news."
Megan shook her head and pinned him down with a piercing look. "No, Chad. We are all going for a walk. A long walk. We might be gone for hours."
Chad knew better than to argue with Meg when she used that tone of voice, and John had never loved her more than he did in that moment.
Their guests went off down the street while John got Rodney inside. He still had that dazed, glassy look in his eyes and was a little too pale for comfort. Minute shudders ran through his body as if he was freezing, and John just wanted to get him out of his wrinkled sweat-stained clothes and into bed to warm him up.
"C'mon, McKay, let's get you horizontal," he said and led Rodney into the bedroom. Rodney went without protest, shuffling his feet like an old man.
Once in the bedroom, he just stood uncertainly in the middle of the floor, as if he didn't know what to do. John pulled the bedspread off the bed and shoved it aside, rooted around in the chest of drawers for clean clothes and wondered if maybe a shower would help warm Rodney up and whether or not he could be trusted to take it on his own. The paramedics had told him not to get the bandage wet so the option of a tandem shower was unfortunately out.
When almost ten minutes had passed and Rodney still hadn't said a word or made any attempt to move, John figured he'd better do something.
"Hey, McKay. You're kinda scaring me," he said, stepping in front of Rodney. "Do you think you could give me something to work with here? Tell me what you need, okay?"
Rodney just let his head fall forward until it rested on John's shoulder and John let his arms come up and wrap around him, swaying a little bit from side to side. "Tell me," he repeated softly, murmuring the words into Rodney's hair.
"John, will you, could you fuck me, please? I need you to, I…" Rodney choked on the rest of the sentence and John held him a little tighter, stroking his the back of his head and his neck. He was still trembling and John was pretty sure that his support was the only thing that kept Rodney on his feet right now.
"Yeah, okay," he murmured, slowly shifting them towards the bed. It took a while since Rodney couldn't seem to let go of him, and their feet tangled together, causing them to stumble. Then they were finally there and John eased Rodney down on the mattress. "C'mere, I'll take care of you."
"Please," Rodney begged again, pulling John down to lie on top of him. John raised himself up on his elbows, looking down at Rodney's white face, his wide frightened eyes, and he didn't even know how to begin fixing this.
"We're okay, Rodney," he said and leaned down to press his lips against Rodney's. "We're fine; everything's gonna be all right now."
Rodney let out a strangled sob and pulled John's head back down, kissed him and kissed him until they both ran out of breath. Then he started tugging at John's shirt, struggling with clumsy desperate hands to pull it over John's head and get it off him. "Please, I need you," he gasped. "Need you so much; I don't know what to do if I lost you."
"Shhh." John took Rodney's hands in his and held them still. "Not going anywhere. Just relax, I've got you." He kissed Rodney again, slower this time, letting his tongue explore every inch of Rodney's mouth, swallowing his sobs, wiping the tears from his cheeks. Rodney just held onto him, moved with him in perfect rhythm. John undressed him, gently, carefully, until Rodney was naked, his pale body stretched out on the bed underneath John. He wasn't hard yet, his dick nestled small and soft between his legs, and John wrapped his fingers around it, softly stroking him and feeling him lengthen and fill in his hand.
Rodney moaned into his mouth and pressed closer, moving his hips insistently against John's own growing erection. "Fuck me now," he urged, almost frantic now, as if he couldn't wait another second.
"Soon," John soothed, reaching for the lube in the nightstand drawer. He didn't want to rush this. He wanted to take his time and give Rodney what he needed. He slicked up a couple of fingers and Rodney spread his legs wide, giving him easy access. "I love your ass," John told him as he slid one finger inside the tight heat. It drew a deep groan from Rodney.
"More," Rodney gasped, jerking his hips to force John deeper. "More, faster, John, I need…"
"I know," John tried to calm him, adding another finger. "I've got you, Rodney. Just let me take care of you."
They didn't do it like this very often. John usually preferred being on the bottom, and he knew how much Rodney liked fucking him. It worked out great for the both of them, especially as John had always been kind of lazy and was perfectly happy just lying back and let Rodney have his way with him. They did switch off now and then. Rodney had a gorgeous ass and there were times when John just longed to bury himself in that tight, slick heat, but Rodney had confessed that the sensation in itself didn't do much for him. When he let John fuck him, it had always been for John's pleasure.
This time was different. Right now, it wasn't the sex that Rodney needed; it was the intimacy, the knowledge that John was there, was close, and wouldn't leave.
John used his fingers to gently work Rodney open until his hole was loose and slick with lube and his erection straining toward his belly, leaving little smears of precome with every jerk of his hips. "Ready for me?" John asked, kneeling between Rodney's spread legs.
"Yes, yes, oh god yes, do it now, please," Rodney babbled, raising his hips. He'd lost his words some time ago and was now reduced to mindless moans and gasps. John loved to see him like this, loved to be the one who got to make Rodney look like this. Usually, it was the other way around, it was Rodney who drove John crazy with his fingers and his clever mouth. To make him lose control for once was unexpectedly hot and John had to tug at his dick to keep it from being too happy. He was nowhere near done with Rodney yet. He grabbed a pillow and tucked it under Rodney's ass, getting ready to replace his fingers with his cock.
"I'm going to fuck you now," he said, taking his cock in hand and guiding it to Rodney's opening. "I'll go nice and slow, okay? Want you do feel it."
"Pleasepleaseplease," Rodney begged, pushing back against him, and John had to gather all his restraint not to just sink into him, bury himself in Rodney's tightness with one long stroke. He had to be careful, give Rodney time to get used to him. If there was one thing he didn't want to do tonight, it was cause Rodney any kind of pain.
"Easy," John breathed, slowly beginning to rock his pelvis, working himself inside inch by inch. When he was past the first tight ring of muscle, he stopped to let Rodney adjust. "Is it good?" he asked, pressing kisses against Rodney's lips, against his cheeks and forehead.
"Mmhhmm," Rodney groaned, breathing hard. John took that as a yes and kept rocking gently until he felt Rodney open up around him, muscles relaxing to let him in. John sank the rest of the way in until he was balls-deep inside Rodney, and he had to close his eyes and catch his breath, overwhelmed by the fantastic tight heat pulsing around his cock. Rodney let out a soft, "Oh!" and began to roll his hips, urging John to move.
He did, as slow and gentle as he could, finding the right angle to let every stroke drag over Rodney's prostate. Rodney's cock rubbed against his belly, leaving a sticky trail of precome there and John felt his orgasm build, sweet and unhurried. He leaned down to kiss Rodney, let their tongues slide together, so hot and wet and intimate, like they were one single being.
Rodney's breaths came faster and rougher, the quick panted little gasps that heralded his climax, and John reached between them to wrap his hand around Rodney's dick and help it along. He ran his fingers over the silky skin, stroking and coaxing, pressing his lips against Rodney's throat and the place where his pulse beat hot and fast.
Rodney came, his body forming a perfect, beautiful curve. John held him through it, biting his lip to keep from going over the edge as Rodney clenched and shuddered around him. Not until his lover relaxed and sagged back onto the sheets, his body going soft and pliant, did John let go. He closed his eyes, pressed his face into Rodney's shoulder and spilled, deep inside Rodney's body.
They were quiet afterwards. For a long time they lay unmoving, tangled together, their hearts beating against each other. John softened and slipped out, followed by a trickle of come and Rodney winced, squirming a little. "Ew," he muttered. "That part, I don't like."
John smiled into his skin. "You never complain when it's you doing it to me," he observed. Then he raised himself up on his elbows and looked down. "Better?" he asked.
"Hmmm. A little, I think. How did you get so heavy? Seriously, you're nothing but skin and bones and yet you're crushing me. How is that even possible?"
The knot of worry John had carried around in his gut since the bookstore slowly began to untangle and smooth out. They were going to be okay, he was sure of it now.
Rodney slept. John had woken up some time ago to find him drooling on his shoulder, a heavy comfortable weight against his side. It was early still but the birds were awake and they were what had pulled John from his slumber. The first pale sunbeams of morning were painting patterns over the floor and the bed.
He was still tired, but this morning it was the good kind of tired, the way you felt after a thorough work-out. The house was still quiet. He'd heard the others come in last night but hadn't spoken to them. All his focus had been on Rodney, on making sure he was okay.
Rodney looked okay. The frightening pallor from yesterday was replaced with a more healthy colour. He was snoring softly, occasionally making those snuffling little noises John would never admit he found incredibly cute. John stayed still, afraid that any shifting around would wake Rodney up. He didn't want that yet. Not only because Rodney obviously needed his sleep, but mostly because he liked this. Right in this moment, the bedroom felt like a haven, a safe place where nothing could touch them. John knew that the moment Rodney woke up, the illusion would be broken and they'd have to deal with the rest of the world again. So for the moment, he just lay there, as still as he could, with his arm slung over Rodney's side.
He closed his eyes and breathed, taking stock of how he felt. The knife wound on his arm throbbed and his muscles ached. He was still bone-tired and probably would be for some time. The sleep debt he had right now wouldn't fix itself over night. The tight knot of terror and worry in his gut was still there but felt looser somehow, like if he could just find one end and pull, he'd be able to untangle it. With a little time, and possibly a little help.
Rodney sighed in his sleep and burrowed a little closer, cramming his face into the space between John's chin and collarbone. His hair tickled John's face and he drew in a sharp breath, trying to hold off a sneeze. The sound must've woken Rodney because he shifted a little and his eyelids fluttered open.
"Nrrggh," Rodney mumbled. He rolled over on his back and rubbed a hand over his face. "M'rning?"
"It's early still," John told him. "You can sleep some more." He didn't want the quiet moment to be over.
"Hmmm." Rodney blinked rapidly a couple of time as if trying to clear his eyes from sleep. "Great, now I'm wide awake. Were you watching me sleep?"
John ducked his head. "Maybe?"
"Okay, that's either sweet or creepy and I'll figure out which as soon as I've had coffee. What time is it?"
"Just after six. Rodney, it's Saturday morning. We don't have to be up yet."
Rodney grimaced. "Believe me, I know. If I could go back to sleep now, I would but that's obviously not going to happen so I might as well get up." He raised himself up on his elbow and peered down at John. "Are you okay? I mean, your arm and, and everything? I just realised I forgot to ask last night and I should've been more… um, caring? You were all injured and bleeding and I was absolutely no help at all, was I? You shouldn't have had to take care of me on top of everything."
"It's okay." John experimentally flexed his arm. "It's not bad."
"Which surely means you'll be dead from blood poisoning by tonight."
John ignored him. "I like taking care of you," he said.
"You were also almost killed." Rodney flopped back down again, staring up at the ceiling. "You were almost killed," he repeated, as if it was only now beginning to sink in.
This was exactly the reason for why John hadn't wanted Rodney to wake up. They had a lot of things to deal with today and this one was the one he was looking forward to the least. "Well, I'm still alive," he said. "Come on, McKay, stop thinking about that now. Let's go get you some coffee."
But it was clear that Rodney wouldn't stop thinking about it. He stayed quiet and distant all through breakfast. His spirits didn't even lift when Anna woke up and demanded to be told a story over the breakfast table. Yesterday's events seemed to have hit Rodney really hard and whatever was going on in that big brain of his, John was sure it was nothing good. When Rodney got stuck on a thought, he didn't let it go until he'd turned it over and inside out, looking at it from every possible direction to try to figure out everything that could've gone wrong, everything he could've done different. That was why writing was sometimes such a difficult and painful process for Rodney. He could obsess over a single scene for weeks, changing minute details and words, working himself into the ground to get it perfect.
But writing wasn't real life. You didn't get do-overs. When something went wrong, you couldn't just go back and change it to make it all better. All you could to was to take a good look on the past, deal with it, and go on living.
Laura and Carson arrived to check in on them as John was cleaning up after breakfast. Despite Rodney's pensive mood, there was a profound sense of relief in the house, like everyone was breathing a little easier.
Chad was trying to book a last-minute flight to Colorado. He was going to have to leave in the afternoon if he wanted to have time to settle in before he started his new job on Monday morning. "I'm going to have to be at my best if I'm going to catch any aliens," he joked.
John expected Rodney to launch into a rant on the ludicrousness of the idea of aliens existing and the United States Air Force working with them, but it never came. He wondered if he ought to be worried or if he'd just let Rodney get a chance to work through whatever it was he had on his mind by himself before he started pushing. He rather liked that thought because it meant that there wouldn't have to be any awkward conversations about feelings. On the other hand, who knew what Rodney might come up with if he was left to his own devices? Surely nothing good.
"Okay, what is it?" John asked when they finally had a moment to themselves, free from fussing and overly concerned friends.
"Huh? What are you talking about?"
"You've spent all morning looking like you're trying to solve world hunger so there's clearly something on your mind. What is it?"
Rodney was silent for a while, as if trying to work something out in his own head. "I'm going to stop writing," he said then.
John stared at him, completely baffled. "No you're not," he answered, but it came out more as a question than a statement.
"Yes. Yes I am." That look on Rodney's face couldn't be mistaken. He seemed to have made up his mind. "No more books, no more articles, no more stupid lectures and classes. I… I could be a consultant of some kind, or I could, I don't know, go back into astrophysics, maybe? Sam Carter has spent years hinting at some big project I've been missing out on. But I won't do anything else that might attract psychos; that part of our life is over."
John wasn't sure if he should give Rodney a well-placed head-slap, or try to prepare an argument for what a very bad idea this was, or maybe just concentrate on that fuzzy feeling that had settled behind his ribs when Rodney said 'our life'.
"How long until you get bored?" he asked.
"What?" Rodney blinked. "Are you… seriously, don't you understand? Someone tried to kill you because of me, because of who I am. What if, what if it happens again? There could be like a million insane people out there right now just waiting to go after you because they're jealous. I won't let that happen again, not a chance."
"A million?" John raised an eyebrow. "Really? That's a lot of insane people."
"And you are completely missing the point, just as usual. Do you even care? Or did you fail to get my point the other day when I told you that you're important? Did it even register in that ridiculous shaggy head of yours?"
"So what about those thank-you letters you showed me?" John asked. "You gonna sit down and write to all of them and explain that you're chickening out just because some crazy kid took a swipe at your boyfriend? Come on, McKay. We both know there's no force on Earth that could make you stop writing. Take a break if you feel like it, but don't quit."
"No." Rodney shook his head. "I will not write another book and there is nothing you can say to make me change my mind."
He scowled and crossed his arms and it was a pretty clear signal that the discussion was over. John didn't know what to say. He couldn't even imagine a Rodney who wasn't writing, the very thought was so fundamentally wrong that he couldn't put words on it. He had to make Rodney change his mind.
If he could only figure out how to do it.
There hadn't been much time for touristy things during the past week so they all headed for Old Sacramento after lunch. The State Historic Park was located along the Sacramento river and was a bustling mix of museums, restaurants, historical attractions and other entertainment. Hawk managed to convince the rest of them to visit the California State Military Museum and when they finally managed to drag him out of there, they went to the Railroad Museum where Anna decided that trains were way cooler than helicopters.
Chad had to leave pretty soon to return his rental car and catch his flight and John followed him to the car while the rest went to get ice cream.
"Keep in touch now," Chad said. "Or I'll come back here and kick your ass again."
John laughed and promised to do so. "Let me know if you run into any aliens," he joked.
"Will do!" Chad stepped into the car and turned on the radio, waving goodbye through the window. "Take care, Shep."
"You too," John told him and reached through the open window to shake his hand. "Thanks for the help."
Then Chad took off with screeching tires and John waved at him. Things would probably never be the same between them again. A fair bit of the trust from their old friendship was gone and he knew Chad would have a hard time adapting to the way things were in John's life now. But at least he was willing to give it a try, and for that John was grateful.
John, Rodney and the Hawkins family spent the rest of the day seeing the sights and the evening watching a movie. Rodney fell asleep halfway through with his head resting on John's shoulder and John focused less on the screen and more on the way he was breathing and snoring softly, anxiously looking out for signs of nightmares.
Hawk and Megan's flight left early the following morning and John drove them to the airport, yawning all the way. Things had been a little chaotic between packing and saying goodbye, and Anna was sleepy and a little whiny. It had been an eventful week for the little girl and John was actually a little surprised that she'd spent most of it in such a good mood.
"So, are you thinking about it?" Hawk asked when they were waiting to check in.
John should've known he wouldn't let him off the hook that easily. "Yeah, I am," he said.
Truth to be told, he was thinking about what Hawk had said in the garden, and he was pretty sure his friend was right. It was probably time to stop kicking himself over how messed up he was and try to do something about it instead. "Might take some time to get used to the idea," he admitted. Just the thought of talking to someone other than Rodney made his insides churn, and even Rodney didn't know everything about Afghanistan.
"Just as long as you do it," Hawk said. "Call if you need anything, okay? Anything."
"Call anyway," Megan interrupted. "And we'll be expecting you two for Anna's birthday so you better book the tickets right away."
Anna perked up a little at the mention of that and solemnly told John that she wanted a train for her birthday present. She was clutching the stuffed black puppy John had bought her the day before when she had been informed of the sad truth that she couldn't bring Lady home with her. Rodney had dubbed the toy Daisy and spent forty-five minutes convincing Anna that it said 'Moo'.
John helped Hawk carry their bags to the check in and then they all said good bye. "Take care of yourselves," Hawk said. "We'll get together soon again, okay?"
"Let's hope for a little less adventure next time," Megan laughed, and John could only agree with that. The next time, he didn't want any unnecessary excitement, he wanted to just take it easy and enjoy the time he got to spend with his friends, his family.
He stood and waited and waved until they were past the check-in counter and heading for the gate. Then he turned around, whistling a little as he went, and drove back home.
The house was unusually silent and when John stepped inside the door, he just stood in the hall for a moment, enjoying the peace and quiet. He'd been sad to see his friends leave but at the same time it was a relief that he and Rodney finally had the house to themselves again.
Rodney was sitting in his study, listening to music, the computer screen demonstratively dark. The notepads and heaps of reference literature that usually littered his desk had been put aside and the dry-erase board where Rodney drew up his storyboards had been wiped clean.
"Come on, Rodney," John said. "We both know you're not serious about this."
Rodney dumped a protesting Newton off of his lap and onto the floor. The cat gave him a yellow-eyed glare and then turned his back, starting to wash himself. "Oh, I am very, very serious," Rodney said. "You'll see. I'm calling my publisher first thing in the morning."
John had learned to recognise when something was open for discussion and when it wasn't, so he held back all the words that wanted to spill out of his mouth, mostly among the lines of 'stubborn idiot'. He wasn't completely stupid himself and he did understand that this was Rodney's way of dealing with everything that had happened. Maybe he just needed a little time to work through it.
And maybe he really is serious, whispered a treacherous little voice in the back of John's head. Rodney had never handled the thought of John getting hurt well, not since the helicopter crash. He'd once threatened to burn the skateboard ramp at the youth center if John even thought about getting on it.
So if Rodney though that his continued career as an author would put John at risk, he could very well go through with his hasty decision to stop writing.
That just wasn't acceptable.
John didn't know what to say though, so he kept his mouth shut for the time being, determined to find some way to get through to Rodney.
They had lunch together and then John dragged Rodney out of the house to take Lady for a long walk. It was overcast and the scent of rain hung heavy in the sky, but the air felt fresh. John still found himself looking over his shoulder now and then, but the tense anticipation from earlier in the week was gone, he was finally able to relax and let his guard down a little bit. His neck and shoulders were going to thank him for that, he thought. The knots forming there were well on their way to becoming permanent fixtures.
When they got back home, someone was sitting on the front porch.
It was a slight girl-shaped figure, curled in on herself with her arms wrapped around her drawn-up knees. When she looked up, John recognised Erika Meyer's bespectacled face. She looked dishevelled and tired and her eyes were red and swollen like she'd been crying a lot the past few days.
Lady started barking the moment she laid eyes on the girl and Erika started and jumped to her feet, skittish and nervous.
"Hey, hey! Down, girl! Lady, heel!" John admonished his dog, a firm grip on the leash to prevent her from scaring Erika even more.
Rodney hurried up the path to the door. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "You're not planning to exact some horrific revenge, are you? I swear, I told the police you were innocent the whole time, but they wouldn't listen to me!"
Erika hiccuped and shook her head violently. "No!" she squeaked. "I didn't mean to intrude, Mr McKay. I just, I needed to talk to you."
"Oh." Rodney frowned. "Well, I suppose you'd better come inside then."
He walked up the porch steps and unlocked the door, bidding her to enter. Erika gave him a shaky smile and stepped inside. She was a rather tall girl, but in her present state she looked small and almost fragile, like the slightest touch would shatter her. John silently wondered what the past few days had been like for her. What was going through your head when your friend was under arrest for attempted murder?
"Can I… um… get your anything?" Rodney asked once they were inside. "I was going to put some coffee on, but we have…" he looked at John. "What do we have? Tea? Hot chocolate? Juice?"
"Tea would be nice, thank you," Erika whispered. Her voice sounded raw and pained.
"All right, go and sit down in the living room, I'll be right there."
She did as ordered and Rodney headed for the kitchen to get them drinks while John went to lock Lady up in the garage since she was clearly making Erika nervous. Everyone couldn't like dogs.
When he passed by the kitchen, Rodney popped out and dragged him into the room. "Help!" he hissed. "What am I supposed to say to her? 'I'm sorry your friend went crazy and tried to kill my boyfriend'? What if she cries? I hate it when they cry!"
"Rodney, you make them cry on a regular basis," John said, swiftly fishing the teabag out of the mug Rodney had prepared before it became completely undrinkable.
"Only when they deserve it! I can't do this. You're the one who knows how to talk to kids."
"Hal knows how to talk to kids, I just clean up after them!" John shot back, and then he was stuck by the absurdness of the situation, how two grown men were close to panicking about having a conversation with a nineteen-year-old girl. "Okay, how about you don't say anything at all. Just listen."
"Listen." Rodney drew a deep breath. "All right, I can do that. But you're coming with me. If you leave me alone with her, I'll never forgive you."
Erika was sitting curled up on the couch when they came into the living room. Rodney put the mugs down on the table and sat down in the armchair. John hesitated for a moment but then he figured that Erika probably would feel more comfortable if she got the couch to herself, so he parked his ass on the armrest.
"So." Rodney grabbed one of the coffee mugs and took a deep gulp. "What was it you wanted to talk to me about?"
"Everything, I guess." Erika looked into her tea, her long hair falling like a curtain around her face. "I didn't know what Rose was going to do, I promise. I never realised anything was wrong. I mean, I knew she'd quit taking her meds but she was acting so normal! She told me she was dating someone but she couldn't tell me who because it was a big secret so I just figured he was married or something. I was happy for her!"
Detective Driscoll had called the previous day to inform them of what they had found out about Rose and the reasons for her actions. She had a history of mental disorders and had spent some periods in institutions when she was younger. According to her parents, she'd been getting a lot better with the help of drugs and therapy and had been living a normal life for several years. She'd been so happy to be able to go to college.
"It seems she had everyone fooled," John said in a low voice. He couldn't help feeling sorry for Rose. She had been enjoying her life, being just a girl like any other. If things had turned out just a little differently, she could still have been.
"She shouldn't have been able to fool me," Erika said. "She's been my best friend since we were nine. Even when she was sick…" she stopped, sniffing a little. John handed her a tissue from the box on the table. "Thank you. I know her better than anyone and I should have seen something was wrong."
"Well…" Rodney opened and closed his mouth a few times, clearly searching for the right words. "It was not your fault, all right?"
"It was no one's fault," John filled in before Rodney got a chance to start blaming himself. "Sometimes bad shi… uh, stuff just happens."
"Yes, I guess you're right." Erika swallowed. "I just don't understand why it had to happen to Rose. She's not a bad person, you know? She just got sick again, and it got out of control and… I should've seen something, I should've been there for her." A tear rolled down her cheek. "I understand if you hate me."
Rodney groaned. "Oh, don't do that. Just don't." He turned to John, whispering under his breath. "See, I told you she'd cry!"
"Shut up, Rodney," John whispered back and then smiled at Erika, hoping he didn't look too demented.
"Mr McKay, please don't kick me out of the class," Erika blurted out. She looked up at Rodney, pleadingly. "I completely understand if you don't want me there anymore, but… it's my favourite class and I know I'm nothing special but I've been having so much fun and I've learned so much from you. Please, let me stay?"
Rodney apparently tried to inhale his coffee and spent a long moment coughing until he'd caught his breath again. "Oh, believe me, if I was going to kick you out of class, it wouldn't be because of anything your friend did, it would be because there's no hope for you and you'd be a waste of space better filled by someone with more talent."
John felt the urge to go and bang his head against a wall, or maybe bang Rodney's head against a wall. There was bad with people, and then there was downright insensitive, and right now Rodney was definitively falling into the latter category.
"I'm sorry," Erika choked out, and Rodney's eyes widened.
"What, no! I didn't say you were! Oh for… will you stop crying, please? All right, you're not the brightest student I've ever had but you're not completely useless and there's a chance you could become something if you worked a little harder. A little more imagination and originality would be nice? You clearly have something similar to a brain in your head so don't be so afraid to show it. Boys appreciate intelligent girls, or so I've heard."
Erika looked completely taken aback, staring at Rodney like he was some kind of raving maniac. "Thank you?" she finally managed, seemingly trying to figure out if she'd just been insulted or complimented.
John had to hide a smile. Maybe a little shock therapy a la Rodney McKay had been just what she'd needed.
"I thought you were going to quit teaching too?" John asked Rodney innocently when Erika had left.
Rodney snorted. "Yes, well, obviously I can't leave on so short notice, there's no telling what kind of idiot they'd find to replace me with. I do have a responsibility to the next generation of writers, you know!"
"You most certainly do," John agreed. He wondered if he ought to say something about Rodney's responsibility to his readers and his fans, but figured it was still a little too early for that. It looked like Erika's visit had got him thinking, hopefully putting him on the right track. John could give him a little time to realise that there was no force on earth, or any other planet, that could stop Rodney McKay from being a writer.
John couldn't remember the last time he'd been so happy to be at work. He'd only been away for a week but it felt like an eternity, and the moment he laid eyes on the low ugly brick building he was filled with a feeling of rightness, almost the same way it felt when he held Rodney close.
If he'd ever doubted it before, he knew it now. He was going to fight for the center and his right to belong there.
The night before he'd spoken to Hal on the phone to fill him in on everything that had happened during the past week. They had talked for almost three hours while Rodney supplied him with comments of varying helpfulness in the background. John had almost been able to hear Hal shake his head in disbelief as he told the story of Rose Kincaid and what she had done, and he knew that Maude had been hovering at Hal's end of the line because he'd been able to hear her asking Hal to repeat every word John said.
With that over with, they had returned to more pressing matters – the problem of Joe Bauer and how they were going to handle him.
"I've tried to talk to him," Hal had said. "I've called and called but he won't budge. I have to be honest with you, son. I don't know what to do at this point."
But John'd had some time to think. The grateful letters Rodney had shown him had given him an idea and it was a pretty good one if he got to say so himself. He just hoped that Joe Bauer was the man John thought he was.
"I think I know what to do," he'd said to Hal. "Sheila's coming in tomorrow and I mailed her about that sponsor poster I was thinking about, remember? Why don't you give Mr Bauer a call and ask him to come by so I can talk to him in person?"
"I can try," Hal said. "Don't know how much good it'll do. What'd you have in mind?"
John had told him and Hal had been silent for a while, thinking about it. "All right," he said at last. "I can't think of anything else that might work. It's worth a shot."
That morning, John had been up early, trying to think of what he would say to Joe Bauer. He knew that he had to get this right or he'd never be able to get the man to listen. But if what he'd seen of Jesse and heard from Doreen was correct, he was probably on the right track. Even so, there was a whole slew of butterflies fluttering around in his stomach when he kissed Rodney goodbye and headed for the bus stop. This was his future at stake, and possibly the future of the youth center.
Once he'd arrived at work, he felt a little less nervous. He had a week's worth of maintenance work to catch up on and spent most of the afternoon fixing the leaking pipes under the kitchen sink and ordering material for the new equipment shed. The skateboard ramp had been off-limits for the past three days because of a broken board and mending it earned John both cheers and applause from the dozen boys and girls who frequented it. It felt good to be appreciated, reminded him of what he was doing here in the first place, and it only cemented his resolve to make Joe Bauer come to his senses.
Hal had set up the meeting at four o'clock when Sheila's art workshop started. Sheila herself arrived some time before that and came to say hi to John before she went to transform the main room into an art studio. He showed her a couple of clumsy sketches of what he had in mind for the sponsorship poster he wanted and then graciously allowed his ideas to be shot down in favour of her much better vision.
She headed out to the main room to start preparing for the workshop and John went back to work without really being able to concentrate on what he was doing. He counted the minutes until Bauer arrived. Even so, the knock on his open office door made him start. When he looked up, he saw Hal standing there, his large frame taking up almost the entire space. John got up and headed outside to meet his guest and adversary.
John knew Bauer by reputation only and the actual man was not quite what he'd expected. For the past few weeks, Bauer had been a faceless looming threat, not unlike the stalker. He'd imagined someone more malicious, more evil. Maybe Rodney's vivid imagination was rubbing off on him, but he certainly hadn't expected this.
Joe Bauer was a bit shorter than average and was carrying around quite a few extra pounds, something that gave him a vaguely square-shaped body. He had close-cropped hair, most likely to try to disguise the fact that he was well on his way to losing it. The bridge of his nose bore the marks of reading glasses, so his eyesight was probably going downhill too. There were bags under his eyes and he walked with his shoulders slightly hunched and not even the tailor-made suit and the silk tie could hide how tired he looked.
Somehow, John hadn't thought he'd look so human. He'd imagined some kind of heartless monster, not this weary middle-aged man who was quickly heading for the wrong side of fifty and looked like his entire life had passed him by without him really noticing until it was too late.
"Well," Hal said and cleared his throat. "Joe, this is John Sheppard. We thought it would be best if you could have a talk and try to find a solution to this."
John met the other man's eyes and saw suspicion and quite a bit of wariness there, but it was nothing like the burning hatred he'd seen in Rose Kincaid's eyes.
"Welcome," he said and reached out his hand. "I wasn't in the last time you were here."
Bauer's eyes went from John's outstretched fingers to his face and then back again before he too reached out and shook John's hand. His handshake was firm and swift, that of a businessman used to inspiring confidence.
"I don't really see the point of this, Mr Sheppard," Bauer said. "I've presented my view and my terms to the board and to Mr Lindberg here."
John smiled, doing his very best to look as unthreatening as possible. He could see from Bauer's posture that the man felt out of his depth here and if he'd read him correctly, Joe Bauer was the kind of man who would attempt to hide his unease by putting up a tough and unrelenting front. John didn't need him to feel the need to defend himself – if it came to that they'd lose this battle. "I was hoping we could discuss it face to face," he said. "Would you like some coffee? We can talk in the kitchen."
Bauer looked at his wristwatch. "If we can make it quick," he sighed impatiently. "I don't really have time for this."
"There's always time for our children," Hal said and slapped Bauer's back, causing him to stagger a little. "I'll go see how Sheila's doing; see you later."
John studied Bauer closely as the other man watched Hal's retreating back. For a moment he looked lost, uncertain, almost a little scared. Then it was like the little glimpse was hidden beneath a mask of self-importance and pompousness. "Let's get this over with then," Bauer muttered.
"Sure." John forced himself to sound calm and friendly. "This way, please."
He lead the way to the tiny little kitchen where a pot of coffee was already brewing. While John dug around in the cupboards for mugs that weren't too cracked and stained, Bauer remained standing behind him, eyes darting around the small room as if searching for escape routes.
"Milk and sugar?" John asked, pouring coffee into two mugs.
Bauer silently shook his head so John put the mugs on the small table and took a seat. Bauer hesitated for a moment before he pulled out the other chair. He sat down and immediately crossed both arms and legs, pushing the chair back a bit.
"So," John said, going for the direct approach. "I've been trying to figure of what it is I'm supposed to have done that should get me fired, but I can't think of anything. I was hoping you could explain."
Bauer stared at him for a split second. "Isn't that obvious?" he asked incredulously.
"Not really." John took a sip of his coffee. "I'm just trying to do my job here. I like to think I'm pretty good at it."
"I'm sure you do," Bauer sneered. "I know your kind, Mr Sheppard. It's not difficult to figure out what interest someone like you would have in a place like this."
"What kind?" John shot back. "The kind who served their country for twenty years? The kind who's been in a committed relationship for over four and counting?" He could hear the agitation begin to creep into his voice and forced himself to calm down. "I'm just a guy," he said, shrugging. "Whatever you expect me to be, I'm not. And as for your insinuations," he locked Bauer's gaze with his own and held it steady, putting all the force he could muster into the words. "I have never harmed a child in my life. I'd die before I let anything happen to any of these kids."
John knew he wasn't doing such a good job at keeping the anger away. Just the idea that he'd ever do something like that made him fume inside. He wanted to punch something, preferably Bauer's condescending ignorant face. Instead, he closed his eyes for a moment, pushing the anger away and chaining it up again where it belonged. When he opened them again, Bauer was looking at him, his expression doubtful and a little scared.
"Look," John said. "If you go through with this, a lot of kids are going to suffer, kids who need this place. Most of these children don't have anywhere to go after school, it's this or the streets." He was exaggerating a little, but he figured that the ends justified the means if he could only drive the point home. "For many of the kids out there, this place is the only stable thing they've got. I want to help them, Mr Bauer. I won't stop doing that just because you say so."
"All right." Bauer crossed knit his fingers together and rested his hands on the table, leaning forward a litte. "Then I will withdraw my donations, just like I said, and believe me, I know plenty of people who will do the same."
"And the kids will suffer for it," John told him. "Is that what you want? Do you want to put the center in danger just because you have a problem with me?" John paused to let it sink in, and then took out the big guns. "Mr Bauer, your son Jesse comes here every day. He's a good kid, but we can all see he's not happy with the way things have turned out for his family. There are a lot worse places he could be instead, places where people would take advantage of that unhappiness. Is that what you want for him?"
There was a flicker of something in Bauer's eyes, insult and anger and disbelief, and for a moment John was convinced that he'd gone too far.
Then, Bauer leaned back, his shoulders slumping a little where he sat. "We're grown men, Mr Sheppard. Try to see my point of view." Bauer sighed. "I know I haven't been the best father, but my son means everything to me. I don't want him exposed to any damaging influences."
John gritted his teeth around the comeback that wanted to slip out and stood up instead. "All right," he said. "Let's go take a look at those damaging influences."
He stood up and walked out of the kitchen, not looking around to see if Bauer was following. After a little while though, he could hear the sound of a chair pushed back, and then the other man's footsteps.
The main room was chaotic as always during one of Sheila's workshops. The smell of paint was heavy in the air and the tables were a mess, spread with large sheets of paper, pens and pencils, brushes and cakes of watercolour and tubes of acrylic paint. Sheila had pushed several smaller tables together to make a large one, and there she'd put a poster-sized sheet of paper. Several kids were sitting and standing around the table, working with great concentration. As John got closer, he could see that they had painted a big, detailed picture of the youth center. Sheila must have sketched the outlines, but all the kids had contributed, drawing buildings and people. Some of them had painted self-portraits. Joaquin had drawn a dinosaur and Patricia a pony and a robot. John recognised the miniature versions of Hal and himself in one corner. Jesse Bauer was right in the middle of it all, putting the finishing touches to the basketball court.
On the upper half of the picture where the sky was, Sheila had texted 'Thank you!' in big red letters, and underneath the words, a couple of kids were filling in the names of all the center's sponsors.
"That looks really good," John told Sheila, who looked up from where she was helping one of the kids text the name of a sponsor.
"Thanks," she said, giving him a bright smile. "I didn't do a lot, really. It's all them." She motioned to the group of children.
"We have some real artists here, I can see that," Hal rumbled. He was sitting beside Patricia, handing her crayons. "Can't even draw a stick figure myself." Then he stood up, looking past John, at Bauer who'd followed him into the main room.
"Well, Joe. We thought you might want to see a little of what we're doing around here. I'd like you to meet Sheila, one of our volunteers. She's studying to be an art teacher. Sheila, this is Jesse's dad."
"Nice to meet you," Sheila said with a smile, holding out her hand for Bauer to shake. "Jesse's really talented, it's so much fun to spend time with him."
"Hi Dad!" Jesse beamed and waved at his father, and John watched how Bauer's expression softened as he waved back. "Come and see what I drew! And look here, I saved the best spot for you!" He pointed to the space in the middle of the blue sky where a sponsor name was missing.
Bauer's face was a picture of conflicting emotions. John got the full force of his glare and had to keep himself from taking a step back. Then Jesse waved again, trying to get his father's attention, and Bauer stepped up to the table, looking over his son's shoulder at the picture that was growing there.
John let out a careful breath, taking a few steps back. He'd done what he could. The rest was out of his hands.
"John?" When he turned around, Jo Hernandez was standing in the doorway with an apologising smile. "Girl's toilet's clogged."
"Again? What do you guys eat, concrete?" He rolled his eyes at Hal, who grinned back. "I better take care of it before it gets worse."
"You do that," Hal told him, looking back at where Bauer was pulling up a chair to sit down beside his son and watch him work. "Looks like it's working the way you thought."
"We'll see," John said. He didn't want to get his hopes up just yet, even though it looked like his plan had been successful. At the table, Jesse was enthusiastically showing his dad the parts of the poster he'd made, while loudly bragging to his friends about where his dad's name was going to go.
Instead, he went to fix the toilet. When he was done, he washed up and went to take care of the used coffee mugs in the kitchen. He hesitated to go back into the main room, while at the same time itching for some kind of resolution. He'd always found the waiting to be the worst part. Action, he could handle, it was the suspense before and after that was torture.
When there wasn't anything else he could think of to do, he just went to stand in the hallway outside the main room, listening to the bright voices within. The kids sounded like they were having a great time. It was probably going to take forever to clean up after them. John didn't mind one bit.
He wasn't sure how long he was standing there. The minutes ticked by one by one. There was a spider's web in the corner between ceiling and wall, and John considered getting a broom to get rid of it, but changed his mind. He could deal with it later.
Then, finally, the door to the main room opened and the kids welled out, running for the entrance. Some of them had parents waiting to pick them up, John knew. Others were heading home to empty apartments and houses. Jesse was among them, and he stopped on his way to the door with a "Bye, Mr Sheppard!" before he headed for the parking lot. John gave him what felt like a very strained grin. He'd never been so nervous in his life.
Bauer came out last, looking thoughtful and more than a little irritated. He carefully closed the door behind him and then walked down the hallway, to where John was waiting. John hurriedly turned around, fiddling with the pictures pinned onto the wall, trying to make it look like he'd been in the process of making space for the new poster. Then Bauer reached him and cleared his throat, and John turned again.
"I should have known you'd be a manipulative son of a bitch. Using my son against me…" Bauer looked down and shook his head. "You've made your point, Mr Sheppard. I'll go along with it, for now." Then he raised his eyes again, looking straight at John. There was open hostility in his eyes now. "But I'm warning you. I'll be keeping my eyes open. I have contacts, I know people. The moment I hear you've done anything to any of these kids, anything at all, you'll be out of here so fast your head will spin."
"Won't happen," John told him. "And just so you know? I know people too. My partner has pretty good lawyers."
Bauer looked at him for a long time and John stared back, making sure Bauer got the message that he wasn't going to back down without a fight. Eventually, Bauer gave a short unhappy snort, turned on his heel, and walked out. John watched his back as he went, trying to muster up the anger again, but found that he didn't have the energy. It didn't matter anyway. Bauer wasn't going to change his mind about him, and John honestly didn't care what he thought, as long as he wasn't going to keep trying to cause trouble.
The moment the man had left the building, John sagged against the wall, suddenly feeling completely drained.
"Well?" Hal asked, coming up to lean against the wall beside him.
John grunted, having pretty much used up his words for the day. "Not bad," he said at last. "Not great either. But I think it'll be all right." His knees felt weak and he distantly wondered if they'd be good enough to walk on. Maybe he'd better just stay here for a while, holding the wall up.
Hal nodded. "I think so too. Well done, son."
"I doubt I made any new friends today," John muttered, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the wall. Bauer hadn't been happy with the way things turned out, that much was obvious. John wasn't really sure what he'd expected. That he'd be able to make the man change his mind about everything just by talking to him?
"Can't win them all," Hal said. "Sometimes you just have to take what you can get. He'll keep up the donations. Even wrote me a check for more art supplies. And he seemed to be listening when I told him it might be a good idea for him to spend some more time with Jesse."
"Yeah." John sighed. "We should be happy with that, I guess."
"No," Hal said. "We shouldn't be. It's not right what he's thinking about you, and it's not right that he could make good of those threats of his and people out there would agree with him. I don't know what can be done about that." Then he straightened up and patted the wall behind him. "I know what we can do though. We can hold onto this place and these kids and we can do everything in our power to prove him wrong. It'll be different in the future."
"Are you sure about that?" John asked. Right now he wasn't so certain himself. Maybe Bauer had caved for now, but John didn't know what kind of values he was teaching Jesse. Maybe it had all been for nothing?
"I have to hope," Hal said. "Can't do this kind of job without hope."
Rodney had insisted on picking John up after work and John was a little surprised that he hadn't already called a dozen times to ask for news. Rodney had been about as nervous as John had that morning, almost to the point of wanting to come with him to work and deal with Bauer himself. John was glad he'd been able to get Rodney to drop the idea. That would indeed have been a train wreck.
He was pretty sure that Rodney would be early for once, so he did his best to finish up in good time. He ended up being ready to leave almost fifteen minutes before closing time, so he thought he'd go outside and talk to the remaining kids. He'd made a habit of it, finding out what they were doing for the rest of the day, if they were heading home or somewhere else.
It came as a complete surprise to find Detective Garcia waiting outside. She was standing just outside the main entrance, smoking a cigarette despite the no smoking sign. She looked like she'd been there for a while.
"Detective," John said and closed the door behind him. "Did something happen? No bad news, I hope?"
Garcia shook her head. "No." She dropped the cigarette to the ground and crushed the still smoking butt under the sole of her boot. "Mr Sheppard, I owe you an apology. I've been acting unprofessionally."
Well, that was unexpected. John had not figured Garcia as the apologising type. Then again, he could see very clearly how difficult it was for her to say those words and thought that he ought to show some good will.
"I guess I wasn't making it too easy for you," he said. "Sorry if we caused you any trouble."
She shook her head. "I should've handled it better. I let my personal feelings get in the way of the job."
"Yeah, about that." John studied her a little closer. She'd been a thorn in his side for several weeks now and clearly the feeling had been mutual. He couldn't hold back his curiosity so he asked, "Is it a gay problem or an officer problem? I haven't been able to figure it out."
Garcia frowned. "I could take offence to that," she said. "The regs are stupid and discriminating and should've been history ages ago." She looked away, sighing deeply before she met John's eyes again. "I was in the marine corps, you were right about that. My CO made a bad call, I lost half my unit. Still got a bullet in my back."
"I'm sorry," John said. He was beginning to see where she was coming from, could understand her reasons for acting the way she'd been doing. Maybe the two of them were more alike than he'd thought?
"Not your fault," Garcia said. "I shouldn't have taken it out on you and I apologise."
"Me too." John grimaced. "I guess I over-reacted a little. I thought Rodney was the one in danger and I just… "
"Freaked. I know the feeling." Garcia suddenly grinned. "Takes a while to get used to, not being in the service anymore."
"I'm not arguing with that." John laughed and scratched his neck. "Thanks for coming, Detective. I appreciate it."
Garcia nodded solemnly. "Looks like you're doing some good here," she said, looking out over the playground and the basketball court. "Wish there'd been something like this where I grew up."
John studied her and found himself seeing her in a different light. She held her head high, but it wasn't in the painfully straight posture of a short woman trying to appear taller. Detective Garcia completely owned every inch of her body and then some. It was the look of a woman who had fought hard for the respect she commanded and who had earned it over and over again through pain and heartbreak, against overwhelming odds.
Detective Regina Garcia was, John suddenly realised, someone he would like to get to know better.
"We always need volunteers," he suggested. "I can go get you a folder if you like."
Garcia met his look with a raised eyebrow, and then shook her head. "Thanks. But I'm a shitty role model."
John motioned to the kids in the playground. "You're an adult who wants good things for them. That's all the qualification you need." He had a feeling he'd struck a point, and was satisfied to see Garcia pursing her lips in thought. "Think about it. We really could use you here. There's a lot of these kids who need to learn that the cops aren't their enemy."
"Haven't really got the time for it with the hours I work."
"Most of our volunteers don't," John told her. "They do it anyway, 'cause it's important. How about I go get you a folder and you give it some thought?"
Garcia bit her lip. "Damn. Yeah, okay. No promises though."
So John went to dig up a couple of folders and a contact information sheet and thought to himself that maybe he'd been wrong; it was possible he'd managed to make a new friend today after all.
By the time John had locked up everything and headed for the parking lot, he was a lot later than he'd planned, and he could see Rodney waiting anxiously by the car, pacing back and forth. When John approached, he swung around, hands moving wildly.
"What took you so long, I've been waiting forever! So how did it go? Did he give in? You didn't punch him, did you?"
"No I didn't," John reassured him. "Might've threatened him a little, but he threatened me first."
Rodney didn't look very amused at that. His mouth slanted downwards and he looked like he was on the verge of a rant, probably something concerning John's intelligence, levels of testosterone, and conflict handling skills.
"Really," John said before Rodney had time to open his mouth. "It'll be okay. I think he cares more about his kid than he cares about causing trouble for me." In John's eyes, that was pretty much Bauer's only redeeming feature.
"And if he doesn't?" Rodney asked. "With the luck we've been having lately, he ought to be bringing out the torches and pitchforks about now."
"Then we'll deal with that when it happens."
Rodney looked at him for a long time, as if searching for something in John that he wasn't even sure was there. It was that same look that caught him off-guard sometimes, the one that could make you think that he was precious and beautiful in Rodney's eyes. Maybe he was. He knew for sure what Rodney looked like in his, brilliant and difficult and flawed and unique in every way. John knew in that moment that it wouldn't have mattered what universe they were in. This, here, it was meant to be, inevitable and fated, and there was no power in the universe that could change that.
He stepped closer and gently pushed Rodney up to lean against the side of the car before kissing him, tasting sun and too much coffee. Rodney kissed him back, moving his hand up to curl around John's neck.
"What was that for?" Rodney asked when they parted for breath.
"Nothing," John said, grinning in what was probably a very sappy way. "I just love you, that's all. Come on, let's go home."
They got into the car. John drove and Rodney sat in the passenger seat, their arms brushing together now and then. Rodney talked about things of no consequence and John listened with half an ear, thinking about the Bed and Breakfasts he'd been checking up online.
He'd only won half a battle today, he knew. You couldn't change the way people were thinking over night, no matter how much he wanted to. For every Hal and Laura and Carson, for every Hawk and Megan, there would be a Chad, who meant well but just didn't understand. There would be a Joe Bauer who didn't want to understand. Rodney would keep getting hateful, nasty letters, and he'd keep turning them over to the police where hopefully someone like Driscoll or Garcia would take them seriously instead of just throwing them aside to be ignored.
People and streets swished by outside the car window and John watched them, tuning Rodney out a little more. It was like the rest of the world was a little bit more real today, a little more evident, and John felt his own place in it solidify and take shape. This was where he belonged, right here by Rodney's side, on their way home. There were people who wouldn't accept that, people with power and influence. People who'd do everything in their power to tear down and destroy what John had with Rodney, to make it small and dirty and cheap. Maybe it would change during their lifetime, John hoped with all his heart that it would, but he knew that it was not something he'd ever be able to ignore or forget about again. They'd have to live their lives the best they could, taking comfort in the existence of friends and family to ward off the ugliness.
All wasn't well with the world, but right here, right now, with Rodney mindlessly babbling away in the passenger seat, it was close enough.
Rodney didn't write a word for three weeks. The dry-erase board remained clean and his notebooks stayed in the desk drawers. He only used his computer to play games and refused to return the increasingly frantic calls from his publisher. John waited and plotted and dropped innocent comments about books he'd read and the flaws they had and how they could've been better, but Rodney didn't rise to the bait.
He was, however, growing steadily more restless, and there were several times when John caught him staring into thin air with a very familiar expression on his face. Usually, it was the kind of expression that heralded months and months of Rodney being lost in his own world, but this time John welcomed it.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked one evening when they were watching TV. Rodney had been unusually quiet all day and seemed deep in thought.
"Huh?" Rodney looked up. "Oh, nothing special. Just the many-worlds interpretation again, I can't seem to get those parallel universes out of my mind. Wouldn't it be neat if there was some way to find them and check in on our other selves, see what they're up to?"
"That'd be cool," John agreed. "You'd need to have a device to do it."
"Hmmm." Rodney absentmindedly traced a pattern on John's belly with his finger. "Some kind of mirror maybe? It could be connected to the multi-verse and… I don't know. Switch between the different worlds?"
"Couldn't you move between them as well?" John asked. It was fun, theorising like this, and even more fun since it was the first time in a long time Rodney had shown any interest for it. "Go have adventures with your alternate selves?"
"I haven't figured that out yet," Rodney said, pursing his lips. "It could be interesting. On the other hand, consider the emotional impact of just watching the events unfold in a parallel universe without being able to do anything about them? It would depend on the characters, of course."
John smiled and wrapped his arm around Rodney's shoulder. "That sounds like a good story," he said, nudging Rodney a little. "Someone should write it."
"Yes," Rodney murmured as he settled in and made himself comfortable against John's chest. "Maybe. Definitely maybe."
It only took two more days for the first notes to appear on the dry-erase board on Rodney's wall and two more before the house was littered with textbooks on quantum mechanics, though it wasn't until the next weekend that Rodney locked himself up in the study and didn't come out until dinner-time, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his hair on end, and his eyes lost in the tangle of whatever plot it was he was spinning.
John very carefully did not say 'I told you so'.