Big Bang 2009.   Anything goes.
Engineer Rodney McKay went to North Carolina's Crystal Coast to help his sister design a series of bridges.  He hoped to rebuild his career following a professional disaster; he didn't expect to be drawn into the small community of Athos Island, where he found friendship and perhaps something more with helicopter pilot John Sheppard.    But when Rodney tries to learn more about John's past, what he discovers might tear them apart.  (non-Stargate AU)
John/Rodney (past Rodney/Katie) (Jeannie/Kaleb, Teyla/Kanaan, Jack/Daniel)
Word Count
52260 words
Many thanks to my support group: gblvr, kate, meansgirl, scheherezhad, and scifi_fangirl; my cheerleader, T.; and my trio of betas: schemingreader, irinamarenco, and emeraldsword.  This was an enormous project, and without their encouragement and insight I'd have been lost.  The good is good because of them; the bad is mine alone.
This story has warnings; they are listed at the end of the story.
Jump to the warnings.
Companion Artwork
  • Bridges  by Antares

Structural Failure

Rodney's first glimpse of North Carolina's Crystal Coast from the air was as the plane from Charlotte circled down into Wilmington. He had been sitting on the aisle, next to Kaleb, and the window had shown mostly glare from the late afternoon sun and lazy arcs of blue sky. When a band of water sparkled below, just for a moment, from two rows in front Madison shouted, "We're home," and Jeannie shushed her, talking about how they had flown all the way to another ocean, one Madison had never seen before.

Rodney had almost agreed with Madison's enthusiasm for home. He could have told the Starr and Gates people to just send him the data; Jeannie was the one who insisted that they visit the proposed bridge sites and work with the design team in the Pegasus Bay office. Get a feel for the land and the people, she'd said, and went on to other topics that Rodney automatically tuned out: community and heritage and environment, whatever. He didn't care if the bridges were ugly or whether they needed to be built in the habitats of endangered species.

His job, he told Jeannie, back in March when Jeannie had just won the fight to have the SGC include him in the project, was just to make sure the bridges didn't fall down.

Jeannie said something tangential about her seventh wedding anniversary coming up and mentioned that she'd never had a honeymoon. Kaleb had been staring Rodney down over the dinner table during that particular heated discussion; otherwise Rodney might have reminded Jeannie that she had had the smallest possible civil wedding because she'd been saving every penny for Madison's impending birth. He might have added that she and Kaleb had been graduate students and therefore naturally poor, and that he still thought Jeannie putting all the money she inherited from their parents into a house in suburbia was a waste. She should have finished her second doctorate.

That would probably have gone over badly, especially as Rodney was living in Jeannie's spare bedroom and eating more meals than he, technically, was paying for.

So Rodney shut up about the ridiculousness of traveling across a continent just so they could spend a few months in the beachfront condo that the SGC was subsidizing, probably to hide the fact that Jeannie and Rodney were being underpaid for their collective genius and skills. At least, Jeannie was being underpaid; Rodney was being allowed to trail along in her wake. Employed on mutual sufferance. Rodney could admit that to himself. It still burned.

Jeannie drove the rental car north from the airport, relying on Rodney to follow the directions and map the SGC had mailed in their information package, along with several kilos of bound contracts and confidentiality agreements and rules and regulations. He found the coastal landscape surprisingly desolate. Between the small towns and clusters of giant subdivisions built around golf courses, there was nothing but thin pine forest and swamps, with the occasional wide stretch of sickly-looking weeds. The ocean was not visible at all from the highway, but almost every sign pointing east was for Something-or-Other Beach.

"It's unnerving," he told Jeannie as she followed the road signs to bear left as the road they'd followed down from Holly Ridge split into two.

"What is?" she asked. Rounding the corner, they were suddenly in picture-postcard-land. A sign at the side of the road in faux-antique style announced that they were entering Pegasus Bay (population 1200). Trees lined both sides of the road, and old houses sat in fresh coats of white paint on neat green lawns. Nearly every house had a front porch, and every front porch had a flag and a rocking chair and a pot or two of flowers in bloom.

"I saw a Stephen King film in a place like this once," Rodney said, crossing his arms and glowering out as Jeannie slowed to half the speed limit to get a good look at the colorful shops at the next intersection.

"Nothing makes you happy, does it?" Jeannie said; she didn't sound as if she was complaining, just stating a fact. "Where do I turn for the ferry, Mer?" Rodney gestured and pointed, Jeannie drove even slower, and suddenly they were out from the shade of trees and on a road that looped past a wide green waterside park, with fishing piers and walking trails and gazebos with swings overlooking the blindingly blue water.

Everyone in the car besides Rodney said ooh in chorus. Rodney slumped down further in his seat and crossed his arms. He bet that there were sunset concerts in the park involving amateur tuba players, just like in the movies.

There was barely a queue for the next ferry; Jeannie was being waved up the boarding ramp almost as soon as she got off the phone with the real estate agent. The ferry rocked across the Intracoastal Waterway, which was dotted with sailboats, in keeping with the whole impression that everything was being staged. As the ferry rounded Sateda Banks the captain announced that passengers with keen eyes might see some of the wild horses. Madison of course immediately pointed to what Rodney thought was an overgrown shrub and yelled horse, starting a flurry of gawking tourists with their digital cameras.

When they arrived on Athos Island, Rodney had no clue where to go: his directions had ended on the mainland. But the woman from the real estate agency was waiting for them. She introduced herself as Teyla Something-or-other, and she drove them to the condo and walked them through all the rooms, pointing out features and amenities and giving very precise instructions on how to put the garbage out.

"This is so kind of you to take the time to get us settled in," Jeannie said, insisting that Teyla sit while she prepared tea and snacks. The kitchen had been stocked with basic groceries; on the plus side, that meant they didn't have to live out of whatever ancient processed foods the island's one convenience store sold. On the minus side, everything in the refrigerator was vegetarian and healthy, consisting entirely of soy products, whole grains, and organic cruelty-free free-range produce.

The tea was some kind of boiled herb, but the cookies were Newman's Own. Rodney grabbed a handful. Just to make sure he got his fair share.

Jeannie and Teyla were laughing and talking about trimesters and gynecologists and maternity yoga, which made Rodney put two and two together and realize that the reason for Jeannie's solicitousness and the herbal tea, and probably also for Teyla wearing sneakers that didn't really go with her smart business suit, was that she was pregnant. He started edging out of the kitchen, hoping he would be able to get the PlayStation hooked up in his room before someone (Kaleb, for example) insisted it went in the living room.

"So, are you from around here?" Jeannie asked, pouring mugs of tea, and gave Rodney an irritated look and told him to sit and stop skulking. He took the chair nearest the sliding doors that led out to the deck. The building was designed so that the ground floor was a parking area for two cars, with the first floor above that, elevated so that if in a hurricane the dunes were breached, the storm surge would hopefully pass beneath. This also meant that there was a stunning ocean view from the whole south side of the house: the living room, the kitchen, and the two upstairs bedrooms that the Millers had claimed.

Teyla smiled at Jeannie and said yes, she was Athosian, and then she asked about Madison: how old was she, did she like to swim, had she ever been to an aquarium?

Madison let Jeannie answer for her. She was busy guarding her own pile of cookies; when Rodney caught her eye, he gave her a wink for encouragement.

"If she likes pirates," Teyla said, sipping her tea and giving Jeannie an amused look, "you should visit Beaufort, where Blackbeard's ship was discovered."

"She's a bit young," Jeannie admitted. "We rented — " Jeannie wrote Peter Pan on the tabletop with her left index finger — "and it was too scary to watch."

Teyla made a graceful roll with her hand. "It's also racist."

Jeannie and Teyla exchanged a look that made Rodney feel suddenly out of the loop. "Yes," Jeannie said. "Yes, it is." Madison tugged on Jeannie's arm, and she had to give her the kindergarten definition of racism. Madison wrinkled her nose and said that was stupid, and then asked Jeannie if Teyla's baby was a boy or a girl.

"It is too early to tell," Teyla said. "And I would like to be surprised." She pulled a map from the Welcome folder. "Did you know that turtles lay their eggs in the warm beach sand? Just this morning I noticed that there was a nest just a little ways down." She slid the map towards Madison and circled the spot with the tip of her finger.

"In my school, we had caterpillars and they made chrysalises and they opened and there were butterflies," Madison said, sitting very straight as if she were trying to look adult.

Teyla smiled. "Did you take them in the garden?"

Madison nodded, palmed a cookie, and slid off her chair, heading for the stairs and yelling for her dad.

"She likes living things," Jeannie said, matter-of-fact and making no excuses for Madison's behavior. "She was really excited about the horses, She'll probably want to watch the eggs until they hatch."

"Oh, dear," Teyla said, and then pointed past Rodney, out the window. He twisted around to see a sloppy line of enormous birds flop past, heading west. "Has she ever seen pelicans?"

Jeannie was already out of her seat, taking the stairs at a run. Rodney could hear her telling Kaleb to get Madison out on the deck quick.

"I hope you enjoy your stay here," Teyla said, and Rodney jerked back around, frowning. "We are very. . . relieved that community interests are being given such careful consideration in the planning of the bridges."

Rodney decided that he shouldn't mention he still thought that the best site for the bridge from Pegasus Bay was the hill currently occupied by a cemetery with graves dating back centuries. Jeannie had told him this wasn't even a possibility.

"The bridges are meant to improve quality of life. And help your community," Rodney said, paraphrasing the SGC's promotional video. "Modernize transportation, for better access to schools and shops, not to mention provide safety and security in an emergency."

"We have always been isolated," Teyla said, with a small shrug. "It will be difficult to adjust, at first."

"But, ultimately, you will," Rodney said impatiently. "The unstoppable march of progress and all that."

Teyla raised her eyebrows in neat, challenging arcs, and asked Rodney how he planned to incorporate measures to preserve the natural habitats on both Sateda Banks and Athos Island in the design of the bridges and in their construction.

Rodney bit back the impulse to say something about cruelty-free cement. Mouth tight, he took a deep breath and started reciting the list of environmental concerns being taken into account, hoping for Jeannie to stop communing with nature and rescue him.

Rodney got lost twice trying to find the airfield where he had been assured the Lidar surveying would be conducted professionally and efficiently; apparently, these professionals couldn't afford large, visible road signs. He had arrived in a bad mood, and now, two tedious hours later, his list of all the official complaints he planned on making was three mental pages long, single spaced.

"You hate me, don't you," Rodney said, staring at the latest frustration, a red flight suit being held out towards him.

John Sheppard, the helicopter pilot he'd had the misfortune to be assigned, smiled tightly. Rodney just knew he wanted to say something scathing but was afraid Rodney would have him fired. Rodney wasn't sure that he shouldn't be fired: the man had terrible people skills. He was tall and thin, short-tempered and impatient. When Rodney arrived in North Carolina, he had been put in communication with the owner of O'Neill's Aerial Imaging, who had been breezily confident that Rodney would have no problems collecting data for the survey of the proposed sites for the Pegasus Bay Bridges.

Rodney planned to have words with Jack O'Neill when he eventually showed up. He suspected the man was hiding, well aware that Rodney would not be easy to work with. Rodney set a high bar for unquestioning obedience to his demands, and he'd made sure O'Neill knew those demands, through detailed daily (sometimes twice daily) e-mail updates.

In contrast to O'Neill's absence, Sheppard had spent the whole morning with Rodney, propping his chin up with the palm of his hand during the mission briefing, asking annoying questions that showed more interest in maintaining the integrity of the company equipment than in meeting Rodney's needs, and now insisting on protective outerwear when Rodney was already starting to sweat in his shirt and khakis. Rodney had no doubts that once he gave in Sheppard would try and make him wear a helmet as well. Which was why they were currently butting heads in Hanger One instead of getting on with things.

"I'm not asking you to make a fashion statement," Sheppard said. "You can stay on the ground." He'd been saying all morning that he could make the flights alone once he plugged the memory card with the flight lines into the airborne system.

"Ha," Rodney said, sullen. He was fairly sure that everyone at the SGC knew that he had been hired because Jeannie had pulled strings; he could just imagine the humiliation of her having to apologize for him not being a team player.

Rodney grudgingly decided that he could put up with the annoying helicopter pilot for Jeannie's sake, and grabbed the flight suit with as much ill-grace and ire as he could muster. Sheppard grinned and leaned up against the wall to watch Rodney stuff his arms and legs in and zip the front up.

"There, now you're fireproof," Sheppard said, way too cheerfully. He probably crashed helicopters all the time. Rodney swallowed down a biting remark on the flammability of Sheppard's hair, which stuck up as if he wanted to create the impression that belonged to a slacker hippie cult that didn't believe in combs. Sheppard opened a locker and took out a life vest, which he handed over and Rodney accepted with resignation.

"This is your way of telling me that you're a really bad pilot, isn't it?" he muttered, trying to figure out the straps and the latches and where the light and whistle were. "We're going to end up on some deserted island and I won't even be able to vote you off."

Sheppard nodded. "Happens all the time around here. Excuse me." He took a step forward and quickly checked that Rodney had everything right, tightening the belt and adjusting something that pulled Rodney's shoulders back, not unlike his grandmother's supportive corset. "You need help with this stuff?" he asked, hefting Rodney's computer case and carrying it off towards the helicopter with long, impatient strides. Rodney had to chase after him, shouting threats about what would happen if it got dropped, or jostled, or set down too hard, or breathed on wrong.

"Right," Sheppard said, waving at Rodney to get in the back of the helicopter where the Lidar operator's station was, and then handing the case in. "Because you're going to bring something that delicate with you on a helicopter."

"Isn't the customer always supposed to be right?" Rodney asked, thumbing the locks open and getting the cables out.

"I'm sure you never tell anyone they're wrong," Sheppard said, and gave Rodney half of a smile. He shut the door and walked around to the pilot's seat. Rodney tethered the laptop to the seatbelt and booted it up, using the minute or so that it took to watch Sheppard as he strapped a notepad around his thigh with Velcro, tugging a bit at his own flight suit — which was black, a much more attractive color, for a flight suit — to get comfortable before climbing in and starting his preflight.

Rodney didn't like helicopters because of personal experience with some of the worst pilots and the worst flying conditions. In many of the countries where he'd worked, he suspected that pilot's licenses came from cereal boxes — or more likely, from indifferent bureaucrats who took bribes. Rodney knew enough about the physics and mechanics of autorotation to not worry unduly about falling out of the sky, but there were always things that could go wrong, especially when flying lines at low altitudes and a velocity that put them just outside the deadman's curve. Sheppard would have very little time to switch to Plan B (saving Rodney's life) in an emergency.

O'Neill had assured him, both over the phone and with reference to the pilots' backgrounds as posted on the company's webpage, that he only employed people with at least ten years of piloting experience. O'Neill was ex-military, Rodney remembered that; he didn't remember what the webpage said about Sheppard.

He didn't seem the type to be very good at flying a helicopter, Rodney thought, taking a breath and sighing it out again. He hoped the SGC had enough in their budget to afford two or three more days if Sheppard needed to refly the lines so Rodney got consistent data that actually meant something.

Sheppard leaned around from the pilot's seat. He was wearing aviator sunglasses and a helmet, which made him look a bit too much like a bug creature, or a kid playing superhero. Rodney took the helmet that Sheppard passed back, and sighed his way through the explanation of how to work the intercom.

"You okay flying?" Sheppard asked. When only his mouth and nose were visible, it made his annoying smirk doubly so.

"I am just fine flying," Rodney said stiffly. "I don't know about flying with you. Try not to make this working relationship like a circle of hell."

Sheppard shrugged, turning back around, and started up the rotors. There was a bit of a pause in the conversation, and Rodney hoped that John wasn't sulking. He loathed sulking.

"I'm just saying," Sheppard went on a minute later, with a lazy slowness that made Rodney wonder if he was being fucked with. "If you're scared of heights or something, you should tell me. There's ways of working with that."

"Yes, and most of them involve staying on the ground, I imagine." Rodney did his own quick inventory check, and then looked at his watch. "I don't like unsafe heights, I don't like trusting my life to complete strangers, and drowning is not something I want to do, ever. And if you don't get in the air soon, don't even bother, because we have a very tight time schedule. The readings I need are all tidal dependent — "

"I'm hurt that you consider me a complete stranger when we've known each other for almost three hours, now," Sheppard said, and then the helicopter was rising and turning towards the runway, and Sheppard was reporting in to UNICOM. They picked up speed and height, the sandy ground alongside the runway falling away, and then the flat coastal landscape opened up all around them: fingers of pine forests fading into white sand dunes, and the ocean shining like broken bottle glass, the brilliant blue nearly impossible to believe real.

"So," Rodney said, the monotony of flying back and forth along carefully calculated parallel lines starting to eat into his brain. He coughed. "Do you do this a lot?"

"What?" Sheppard said; not so much as if he really wanted to give Rodney a good answer, but more as if Rodney was interrupting — or worse, as if he'd forgotten Rodney was there at all.

"Never mind," Rodney bit out. Maybe next time he'd bring the draft for his book to proofread in between checking the real-times to make sure that Sheppard was doing what he was supposed to.

Rodney would be less bored if Sheppard screwed up more. He'd expected a lot less of the man.

"Are you from around here?" he asked when they reached the end of the current line and Sheppard was maneuvering the helicopter around. Sheppard shot Rodney a couple of glares in between checking the GPS and the inertial measurement unit and the flight guidance system. Rodney glared right back.

"Been here three years," Sheppard said finally. "Best surfing on the Carolina coast. Friendly people. Great little place."

"Surfing," Rodney said, feeling a bit pleased with himself, because that fit right in with his theory of Sheppard. As did the terse, incomplete sentences, like Sheppard was saving up his nouns and verbs for a rainy day.

"Yeah, well," Sheppard said, holding the helicopter steady before easing it slowly into the next line. "Beats the hell out of Antarctica."

Which was so utterly random that Rodney didn't even know how to respond. "What were you doing in Antarctica?"

Sheppard sighed; over the intercom, it sounded harsh and painfully loud. "Pissing people off," he said. "Flying back and forth."

Rodney couldn't help laughing at Sheppard for that. "Which you're still doing," he pointed out. "I'm sure if I dug up your resume online those would be your top two skills."

"Hole in one," Sheppard said. "Look, if you don't mind. . . ."

"Oh, am I bothering you?" Rodney said, and lapsed into a bitter silence that lasted until they were on the ground and he was babying the removable hard drive with all his shiny new data.

"See you tomorrow," Sheppard said, raising a hand and taking a couple of slow, careless steps backwards as Rodney got into his car. Rodney waved absently with the back of his hand.

Rodney's shirt was sticking to his chest with sweat that had leached down from his armpits, and he was worried that the seat of his pants was also wet. He had shoved all his hair up as soon as he got the helmet off, and a quick glance in the rear-view mirror showed that he looked like a newly-hatched chicken. Tomorrow, he would bring a change of clothes. Today, he decided grimly, the people at the SGC would just have to live with him smelling like a locker room.

Rodney settled into his workstation with his data, did some deep breathing to get himself into the zone, and then hooked it all up to be cleaned and polished and assembled into a digital elevation model built from the thousands of three-dimensional ground coordinates. The survey was being conducted in blocks of lines, each block slightly overlapping the others. The redundancy would result in a greater degree of accuracy; it also would take a while, which meant that he had enough time to walk across the road to Subways and buy a sandwich constructed entirely of meat, with an exception for pickles and olives.

He had to eat in the storeroom that doubled as a lounge, with its one sagging sofa and vending machine that sold plastic bottles of drinks that sounded terrifying. Zelenka from Materials wandered in while Rodney was savoring the tangy end of the sandwich, the bread soaked with some kind of brownish sandwich sauce. He bought something called a Vita-C!, which Rodney would have renamed Citrus Death Juice. Rodney made Zelenka sit at the far end of the sofa and not breathe in his direction, just to be safe.

Zelenka wanted to know how the disaster simulations would be integrated into the software once the digital elevation model was constructed, and Rodney had been just waiting for someone to ask him that. Half an hour and two whiteboards full of algorithms later, Zelenka had ceased to look shell-shocked and worshipful and was starting to point out potential bugs and problems.

Rodney dragged him back to his workstation, grabbed the DEM from the day's block, and let Zelenka smash virtual Pegasus Bay with hurricanes from Category 1 to Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

Zelenka admitted, adjusting his glasses as he compared storm surge predictions, that the disaster simulator was pretty cool.

Rodney let him play with a couple of tornadoes and a model of the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake that he'd built when he had been consulting on the Honshu-Shikoku Bridges Project.

"I always did enjoy the monster movies as a boy," Zelenka said, with a faraway look.

Somehow, the conversation devolved into an increasingly vociferous debate in which Rodney tried very hard to refuse to watch any of Jan Svankmajer's greatest cinematic moments. He was saved by the Pegasus Bay project manager, Elizabeth Weir, knocking on his open door and interrupting with a firmly polite, "Gentlemen."

She had a way of saying things that would normally be innocuous in a firm, low tone that made them seem like orders, or occasionally threats. She often used that tone when she said Rodney. Zelenka looked abashed; Rodney supposed that he was a good boy and was rarely asked to stay after school.

"How is it going?" Elizabeth asked, and there it was again. Rodney interpreted that to mean that she wasn't making a casual inquiry: she wanted a progress report and a status update. Her one raised eyebrow as she looked at Rodney's monitor seemed to suggest that the apocalyptic combination of hurricane, tornado, and earthquake being visited on the town was juvenile bordering on disturbing.

Rodney coughed and looked pointedly at Zelenka, who was still in the hotseat, his hands snatched guiltily away from the keyboard.

The presentation Rodney gave Elizabeth wasn't polished and might have been gleeful around the edges, but she managed to tease out of him his tentative opinions of the proposed mainland building sites. Two would probably wash away in the next twenty years, but the other three might still be around in a hundred.

"Keep me updated once you're done with Sateda Banks," Elizabeth said, like a mother nagging about homework, as if she didn't know that Rodney was so far perfectly on schedule.

She only slipped out of her intense professional focus when Rodney mentioned that John Sheppard had been his pilot.

"Oh, John," Elizabeth said, cocking her head to the side and smiling as if reminiscing about good times. "Oh, you're in good hands, then."

"He'll probably try to kill you," Zelenka muttered darkly. He gave Rodney a considering look, as if death by pilot might be fitting for someone who denigrated Czech cinema. "Do not take it personally."

"He is a character," Elizabeth agreed, giving the word a diplomatic spin that made Sheppard sound like a mischievous child and not a potential murderer. She shifted her weight back on one hip in a casual fashion-model pose, and gave Zelenka a knowing smile. "Remember the Methodist children's camp?"

"It haunts my nightmares still, yes." Zelenka frowned, and leaned over to call up the main menu. The program was still in beta: Rodney hoped that the final graphics and fonts would be less plainly functional, so that even people who didn't understand how incredibly brilliant the coding was would be impressed by the elegant, user-friendly interface. "You do have video data as well, do you not?"

Elizabeth watched for another ten minutes as Zelenka made Rodney walk him through the design components, her arms crossed. Finally, she nodded goodbye. Rodney carefully shut the door after her, took a deep breath, and released all the shouting he'd been suppressing.

It felt remarkably good.

The next day, when Sheppard delivered an ominously dark good morning, Rodney gave him a challenging smile and said, "Everyone at the SGC talks about you," and suddenly realized that in his head, now, he thought of Sheppard as John, spoken in Elizabeth's indulgent tone.

Sheppard — John — was wearing his sunglasses, but Rodney thought he saw him stiffen, in a nervous kind of way.

"Apparently," Rodney went on, working his way into the flight suit again, "you tried to kill Zelenka."

John rolled his shoulders. "Only once or twice. He's not that fond of heights."

Rodney eyed him. "I thought I just had to worry about you being sloppy — " John's eyebrows shot up; Rodney waved at the boots, still untied, and the hair — "and now I have to worry about you being homicidal as well."

John nodded and gave Rodney a smile that was not in the least comforting as he handed over the life vest. More like an impatient serial killer's smile. "Only until my second cup of coffee, after that, I'm a regular Pollyanna."

Rodney had no idea what John was talking about. "Is that American for pain in the ass?"

"Hey," John said. "Just what stories did they tell you?"

"Nothing good," Rodney assured him.

"Huh," John said, and that was it for conversation. Maybe for the whole day, Rodney thought, trying to decide between rereading his chapter on foundations or the one on ground failure. He had to admit, he loved ground failure a little too much, and he worried that his descriptions of liquefaction and lateral spreading and landslides and so on read more like a trashy romance novel than groundbreaking science. He looked down at Sateda Banks, but all the wild horses had better sense than to graze right under a helicopter that was bouncing lasers off the bottom of the ocean and up the shoreline.

"So what about you?" John said over the intercom, making Rodney lose his train of thought. He said What? loudly and with great irritation, and John made a quick flick of his fingers. It wasn't enough to send the helicopter spinning out of control, but it did remind Rodney that while it was an incredibly boring job it required a tedious level of concentration. "Tell me one thing I should know about you," John said, and he sounded like he was trying to reel the words back as soon as he spoke them. "Seeing as I've got no secrets."

"I'm probably the smartest person you'll ever meet," Rodney said, and John made a noise that might have been a snort or a laugh. "But in one year, I broke off my sure-thing relationship, tanked my career, and moved in with my sister, who's probably my best friend, but only because of the shared genetic material thing." Rodney tried to count, but lost track. "How many things is that?"

"I think that's five things," John said.

"I guess I win, then." Rodney shifted. "Are you at all interested in soil liquefaction?"

"Make it interesting," John said, sounding as if he doubted Rodney could.

Rodney ran John though the basics first, quizzing him to make sure he knew what a water table was, and what the difference between a viscous liquid and a solid was. "Seriously," Rodney said, when John mumbled through a definition that sounded more like a question, "this is elementary school science. My six-year-old niece can do better than that. Don't take this the wrong way, but if you're ever tempted to build a skyscraper in an earthquake-prone area? Don't."

"Earthquakes suck," John said, sounding as if he was agreeing with Rodney, who asked him what earthquakes he'd seen. He'd expected John to talk about this one time he'd been in California, the way most people did, but John paused and then said, "Bam," adding, "You probably don't know where that it, it's — "

"Iran," Rodney cut in. "Any natural disaster that occurred in recorded history I probably know something about, and that was. Well. The Bam earthquake isn't a very good example for this conversation because while the local soil was very fine grain sediment, the ground water level was low, except around the river. The 1985 Mexico City earthquake is more like what I'm talking about. What were you doing in Iran?"

John shrugged, or Rodney thought he did: he saw one shoulder twitch, at any rate. "Air Force. Flying helicopters. That time was air support for relief efforts."

"Huh," Rodney said. Air Force made a lot of scary sense. He knew the military had developed lots of top secret applications for Lidar and other surveying technologies; maybe John hadn't exactly fallen into the job. Maybe he knew more than he was letting on. "Ever fly over North Korea?" he asked, thinking about nuclear testing and long-range missiles being built.

"The Air Force doesn't fly a lot of relief missions there, no," John said. "You should keep an eye on the ocean, sometimes you can see sharks down there."

"And you got your undergraduate degree in subtle, I see," Rodney said, and hmphed; John shrugged again. "So it's your turn to pick a topic for conversation.".

John didn't say anything right away. Rodney looked down, checking for sharks. He didn't see any.

"Okay," John said finally. "Favorite Batman movie."

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Rodney said. "Look, there are levels and levels of complexity and interpretation to be considered, and also do not talk to me about Val Kilmer."

"He was hot in Top Gun."

Rodney had to use both of his hands to explain what was wrong with that reasoning. "When we are talking about the world's most homoerotic airplane movies, you can bring up the embarrassing teenaged crush you had on Val Kilmer that changed the whole course of your life, and considering your life, I guess I mean that literally. Did you want to be his wingman?"

"Maybe," John said, and it was nearly impossible to get subtleties of tone over the intercom, but Rodney thought he heard something.

"So you're gay?"

"Sometimes," John said, and the short answer was a big hint that John didn't want follow that line of conversation.

"Okay," Rodney said, and redirected the conversation back to a discussion of the failings of film directors and a tangent about the miserable mess of Catwoman.

Rodney didn't get to learn anything new about John for the rest of the week, because there were strong winds and thundershowers on Thursday and the rain was still spitting, cold and sullen, all of Friday morning. He went to the SGC instead and worked on the virtual models, running a few hurricane simulations just because he could. It was kind of neat to learn that nine out of ten storms Category 3 or larger would flood Pegasus Bay at least to the war memorial and possibly to the last traffic light; at least, until he remembered that that would put the really good ice cream shop out of business, not to mention make a mess of the ferry system, which would leave him stranded. Or more likely, evacuated to go sleep on some scratchy government-agency issued blanket in a school gymnasium and subsist on instant noodles.

O'Neill called Friday afternoon, which — now that Rodney had seen his operation — more likely meant that he couldn't afford a full-time receptionist than he considered Rodney an important client. There were scheduling conflicts, O'Neill said vaguely, that meant John was flying up to Virginia over the weekend and wouldn't be back until next Wednesday.

Rodney grumbled but agreed that it would be fine by him if John canceled his days off and finished up the SGC survey at the end of the next week.

"Or someone else could take you up," O'Neill ventured, but Rodney wasn't going to work on the survey for the longest of the three proposed bridges with a new pilot in a different plane (seeing as the helicopter would be in Virginia).

"I like John," Rodney said. "Sheppard," he added, and then made a face at himself. O'Neill obviously knew the man's first name, and he probably didn't think it was weird for Rodney to be using it. He wondered if he'd ever feel comfortable calling O'Neill Jack. He doubted it. "So, you know, thank you. He's good," Rodney added.

"He is, isn't he," O'Neill said, and there was an odd, awkward pause that made Rodney wonder if he were on speakerphone, and if John was listening in. "Good eyesight, strong teeth. Excellent hearing," O'Neill said thoughtfully, which pretty much confirmed that Rodney's soft underbelly was being exposed.

Rodney tried to work up a good head of wrath about that, but O'Neill didn't seem to intend cruelty; he sounded amused, but perhaps that was because Rodney's effusive praise was sending John into paroxysms of embarrassment. Rodney wouldn't mind that. "I don't even have to yell at him much," he said. "He's not as stupid as the majority of people."

"Then you might want to thank him," O'Neill suggested, and asked Rodney to send on the revised mission plans ASAP.

Rodney assured the man that a minion would be in touch, and hung up feeling as though he'd successfully navigated an obstacle course.

The last two days were the most intensive, as Rodney needed the measurements for the bridge which would span from Athos Island over to Topsail Beach. It would be twice as long as the bridge between Sateda and Athos, would cross over the deepest water, where the channel cut out from the Intracoastal Waterway, and would be the only bridge actually facing the ocean. Any storms that came would hit the Athosian bridge first.

Rodney spent the entire flight over to the first line explaining just how important the measurements were, until John finally snapped at him, saying, "I get it, okay? Have I screwed up anything so far?"

Rodney had to admit that John was maybe one of the most competent pilots he'd ever worked with.

"Thank you," John said, exasperated.

"I don't normally give compliments," Rodney told him, chin up and ready to be argumentative. "They encourage laxity and carelessness."

"Yeah, well," John said sharply. "Feel free to kick my ass if I get careless, but not before then."

"Bad week?" Rodney asked, because in his (admittedly limited) experience, John wasn't usually bitchy.

John sighed. "There's not that much thrill in flying power lines," he admitted. "Or sleeping in motels where a continental breakfast means instant coffee with instant milk and day-old pastries."

"Maybe you should cultivate a new set of skills," Rodney said. "If you're sick of all the back and forthing."

"Weirdly enough, the flying pays the bills and the mortgage." John waved his hand, giving Rodney minor heart palpitations. He didn't really trust the helicopter to stay in the air without John holding it up, and he didn't want to find out if the flight suit really was fireproof, or the life vest actually floated. "I do a hell of a lot less paperwork now than I did in the military. That's an improvement."

"You don't look like the paperwork type," Rodney agreed, and pointed out that they were practically in position for the first line, and he'd appreciate John keeping to the same skilful, steady lines that he was so good at, and not try flying in circles or spirals or heart shapes.

"We could practice autorotation afterwards," John suggested. Rodney thought this was a joke, but John actually sounded enthusiastic about the idea.

Rodney told him to stop being a smartass and just do his boring job.

At the end of the second day, when the last lines of the last block were finished and saved (and Rodney had checked and checked again that the data was all where it was supposed to be), John stretched out in increments, one leg, then the other, then his arms, and finally cracked his neck side to side.

"All done," John said. Rodney couldn't figure out if he sounded regretful or relieved. "Want to take a little tour, while we're here?"

"A tour of what, water?" Rodney said.

John grinned at him again, and pulled the helicopter away from Topsail in a lazy smooth arc out over the ocean. "Have a look down on your right-hand side, there's a sunken German U-boat."

Rodney wasn't sure he'd recognize a U-boat, but there was definitely something down under the water, a long dark shadow. A white boat was stopped next to it, and Rodney could make out the tiny figures of people in the water. Jeannie went on and on about how clear the ocean was here, and Rodney knew that there were solid, scientific reasons for today's good visibility: the wind blowing in gently from the northeast and the falling tide. But the sparkle of blue water over the never-ending white sand was — Rodney would never admit this out loud — pretty.

"In World War Two this area was called Torpedo Junction," John said. "A lot of people don't know that. That boat down there, that's one of the wreck divers. Most of the sea life around here's on the wrecks, so summers a lot of people go diving."

"Do you know a girl named Teyla?" Rodney asked: he was fairly sure that Teyla'd said her husband was a diver. Or maybe a shrimp fisherman, or possibly a swimsuit model. Something to do with boats, at any rate.

John made an exaggerated gesture of negation, and Rodney yelped.

"I bought my house from a woman named Teyla," John said. "She teaches martial arts in the civic hall, you might want to watch how you talk about her. I know she can beat the crap out of me."

"She seemed very. . . ." Rodney sighed remembering Jeannie's admonishments about his people skills. "Nice, I suppose."

"Oh, yeah." Rodney recognized that tone by now: it was the verbal equivalent of an eyeroll. "I don't know if that's their boat or not. I'd take you lower but I don't want to scare off the fish more than I already have. You should go out diving while you're here," John added, as if after a week of listening to Rodney talking about himself John hadn't figured out that doing dangerous and athletic things outdoors, in the water and the direct sun, was absolutely not Rodney's idea of fun. The helicopter moved out easily over open water; Rodney concentrated on watching for Athos to come into view. "Want to see something weird?" John asked, sounding almost excited.

"No," Rodney said, but he looked down anyway. There was nothing there, just water, shallower in some places than in others.

"You're probably not into New Age stuff," John said, raising his voice at the end to make it a bit of a question.

Rodney snorted, but even with the radio on he doubted that would convey the full brunt of his scorn. "Yeah, right, no."

"Heh," John said, almost a laugh, more like he was mentally awarding himself points. "This guy I know thinks there was an island down there once, with a city built by a mysterious advanced civilization who worshipped pyramids. It's called the Atlantis of the East. He's an archaeologist," John added, as if that made the claim credible.

"He's a nut." Rodney frowned. "There could have been an island. They do tend to get washed away in hurricanes. If I were extending the survey and computer model out this far, I could probably even draw you a map and tell you when this theoretical island sank. But I might throw up in your nice shiny helicopter if you tell me any more. Unless there are space aliens involved," he added, considering. "Flaky insane people are more palatable when combined with alien conspiracy theories."

"Aztecs, not aliens," John said. "Hey, look, there's people surfing out off Genny Point." He pronounced it the way Teyla had, gen-eye, and Rodney realized that compared to hers John's accent wasn't local at all. He wondered where he'd come from, and why on earth he stayed here, at the unraveled edge of the continent. "Hey, you want to fly over your house?"

"Sure," Rodney said. He told John where he was staying. It turned out John knew the owner of the condos, who hired the kid who lived in the one-room apartment on John's first floor for odd jobs and lawn care. "Small world," Rodney said, trying to quell any more gossip. The small lives of small people in this small town didn't matter to him at all. "How do you not go crazy when everyone knows everything about you? Horror movies take place in seaside towns like this. Either the isolation will lead to people committing murder to prevent their ugly secrets from coming to light, or enraged sharks or giant squid will rampage. It's inevitable."

He looked down, trying to find Kaleb and Madison on the beach. He saw several people who might have been them, but there were kids playing all up and down the beach, dozens of families with umbrellas and kites and sand forts. He did spot their rental condo, with both balconies full of laundry snapping in the sea breeze. Jeannie believed in air-drying, and now all the neighbors knew everything about Rodney's taste in underwear.

"People are pretty accepting around here," John said. "You're judged mostly by what you do. And say," he added, a bit loudly even considering the general volume of their conversation.

"Is that your polite way of telling me I'm screwed?" Rodney crossed his arms. "That's why I don't do people."

"My boss likes you. Well." John turned just enough for Rodney to see a flash of smile, but not enough for Rodney to feel his life was in danger. "To be honest. He said you were the sort of refreshing change I needed in my life. He has this. . . sense of humor."

"Which one of us is he getting his twisted revenge on?" Rodney asked. "Me for being insulting, or you for — " He waved a hand. "Whatever."

"No clue," John said, bringing the helicopter around high over the Intracoastal Waterway. Far below, sailboats flashed white on the water. "It's been a trip working with you, anyway.."

"You're going to cry when I'm gone," Rodney assured him, and had to turn the intercom volume way down when John burst out laughing.

The back deck of the rental condo had steps leading down to a communal boardwalk that led to what the brochure called exclusive beach access. This sounded a lot more impressive if the prospective renter didn't know that a) the whole side of the island was white sand beach, and b) there were four or five public access points, one every three blocks or so. It wasn't like anyone ever had to fight for a good spot on the beach: there was plenty of sand to go around.

Rodney liked the beach access boardwalk, though. The condos were set back a bit because of zoning or dune protection or something. The walkway went out over the dunes and ended in two staircases onto the beach. In the middle, up over the tangle of sea oats and morning glories and running beachgrass that anchored the dunes, there were two small gazebo-like shelters set diagonally to each other. Each had built-in benches that ran around in a semi-circle. Probably, they were supposed to be romantic. The beach mostly faced southeast, but there was a decent view of the sunset, for people who liked that kind of thing. A person with binoculars could also watch the dolphins as they followed the trawlers, or the pelicans as they flapped westwards every morning and back east in the evening.

Rodney found, to his annoyance, that he worked really well seated in the gazebo closest to the beach. He went out as soon as the sky started getting light, taking his laptop and sketchbooks and a few good-sized rocks to keep his papers from blowing away. The beach offered very few distractions in the early morning, and the ocean was restful on his eyes.

He was never disturbed. That early in the morning, people who wanted to sit and ocean-gaze did so on their own balconies, nursing mugs of coffee or tea. Health maniacs and middle-aged shellseekers and children still in their pajamas never stopped and wanted to chat: they occasionally said Hi as they went by, and Rodney just grunted something back. Madison and Jeannie and Kaleb liked to sleep in and rarely went beach-combing before breakfast. Rodney found that he could get in a few good hours of solitude and peace, and then wander back to the condo to find coffee already made and, usually, the table set with food waiting.

He hadn't been down past the gazebos yet. Jeannie kept telling him that someday he'd have to go down to the beach and get his toes wet. Rodney doubted that. He loathed the idea of getting sand all over, sunlight was unhealthy, and he distrusted the ocean.

Jeannie laughed at him like she couldn't believe he was serious. The water was so shallow that the breaking waves — four meters from the shore on average — hit an adult at the backs of their legs, she pointed out. Madison said it was warm like a bathtub. Kaleb didn't say anything. Rodney suspected that he secretly expressed his disdain for Rodney in free verse: wasn't that what English majors who taught creative writing did?

Rodney told them that the shallow water was why the Crystal Coast area was famous as the graveyard of the Atlantic. He'd been unwillingly educated about a lot of the local history by John, who thought it was pretty impressive that a thousand or so ships had crashed on the offshore sandbars. John had even told him a few ghost stories, before Rodney had forced him to stop. John was a terrible, terrible storyteller but he didn't seem to know this about himself, and his earnestness had been painful. John had also told Rodney about the local sharks, alligators, and jellyfish, which were three very good reasons for not going in the water.

One Saturday morning Rodney was out, sitting with his feet braced against the opposite bench and his laptop balanced on his knees while he tried to work on chapter five of his book. He was writing about materials, moving on from the advantages of retrofitting structures with externally bonded fiber reinforced polymer laminates and bars to an explanation of the actions of prestressed and reinforced concrete under environmental stress.

Jeannie had been helping him out, because materials were her area of specialty. Rodney loathed asking for help; Jeannie loved lording her knowledge over him. He was glad she was still asleep, and wouldn't be able to critique his writing for another few hours.

Rodney wondered whether or not to include a sidebar on the history of prestressing. He would have to take out at least one of his pictures from the Kobe-Awaji Earthquake, but his editor was always telling him to use fewer photographs, anyway. He made a sidebar box, and then realized he could add the chart he'd cut out of chapter three. Which he did, feeling pleased with the aesthetic effect and the visual flow of information.

He put the computer on the bench next to him and stretched his arms overhead, twisting to release the stress that settled in his back and shoulders. The beach was starting to show the usual morning traffic: people with bags, collecting shells; well-trained dogs obeying sharp orders to leave this or that washed up dead thing alone; and the day's first children running down to the water and shrieking when it turned out to be cold, surprise surprise. There was a jogger heading east and two coming down from the Point. Rodney sat up and looked closer. He didn't know the tall man with his dreadlocks tied back, but he was practically positive that the man failing to keep up with him was John Sheppard.

Running seemed in character for John, now that Rodney thought of it. John liked sports, and sportspeople liked to run, or so Rodney thought. He didn't have much first-hand experience. He watched as they made their way down under the pier and kept going — to the second water tower, Rodney guessed. He was amused by John's running shorts and t-shirt: he associated John with a flight suit and sunglasses and helmet. Very modest, in that barely any skin showed, but still somehow cool. John's shorts were green and ridiculous, and his shirt was eighties-style preppy, making him look like he'd jogged off the shoot for the Sears catalogue.

Rodney gave himself a mental shake when he realized he'd been staring at John and John's shorts, and picked up the computer again. He still had a few cutting words to say about the dangers of non-ductile structures and brittle failure. He added two pages (not including footnotes) and told himself that he wasn't watching the beach to see if John came back. He was just resting his eyes, and it was a total coincidence that he just happened to be resting his eyes in the direction of the pier when first the dreadlocked guy appeared, and then John, trailing even further behind.

Rodney didn't mean to do anything, but he found himself shouting, "Sheppard," just because he could, without fully considering the circumstances. John stopped short, his sneakers kicking up sand, and looked up. Rodney tried to give a friendly but unencouraging wave. John's friend stopped and circled back, and John said something that earned him a hearty slap on the shoulder as the other man took off with long strides, alone.

John jogged up the beach, slowed just a bit when the hard damp sand gave way to the higher and dryer area near the dunes. He took the wooden steps two at a time — showing off, Rodney thought — and bore down on the gazebo. Rodney snapped his computer shut in alarm and swept all his papers back into his laptop bag.

"Dr McKay," John said, letting a smile tug his mouth up even though he was still breathing hard. He pointed at the laptop and raised an eyebrow. "Out communing with nature?"

"Not everyone can get their asses handed to them by hot young men." Rodney shrugged. "The rest of us muddle through somehow."

John leaned back against the railing and used the shoulder of his shirt to wipe the sweat off his face . He flashed Rodney with his navel and sweat-dark swirls of hair sticking to his skin and the elastic for his underwear as he did so. Rodney wasn't sure if this was meant to be sexy or if it demonstrated a companionable lack of social awareness.

"Yeah, well," John said, shoving his damp hair straight up and leaving it there, apparently satisfied. He rested his elbows on the railing and shook out one leg, and then the other. "Ronon's nearly half my age. He tells me I do good for an old man."

Rodney had a lot of scathing things to say about that, and he could probably suggest some creative revenges, but he didn't want to risk insulting the guy who maybe put the spring in John's step. "Boyfriend?" he asked, stuffing the laptop in the bag, Velcroing it down and zipping up instead of watching John.

"Friend. Tenant," John said, sounding scandalized. "He's just starting college in September."

Rodney turned his head to give John a flat, incredulous stare. He'd spent enough time in higher education to know all about the appeal of undergraduates.

"He's straight. He rents my first-floor apartment. He's not my type." John ticked off each point with a finger, looking annoyed. "So. Are you working on the survey stuff?"

Rodney shook his head and stood. "No, I'd need a few more terabytes to run the kinds of simulations I'm doing and just — no. I'm finishing another chapter for the book. You remember."

"Cool," John said, which was the ultimate in indiscriminate enthusiasm. He didn't ask for details; Rodney told himself that John had already demonstrated that he wouldn't understand anyway.

"So do you live near here?" Rodney asked, feeling the conversation dissolving into awkwardness but having no idea how to explain that he hadn't meant to call John over and had no idea what to do with him, now that he was here.

"Down that way." John jerked a thumb towards the Point. He took a breath and bit his lip. "I should maybe — "

"Look," Rodney interrupted. "I'm starving and I haven't had coffee in at least an hour. Did you eat? If you don't mind high fiber and whole grains, I know how to make toast. There might be some yogurt, but I can't guarantee that there are actual dairy products in it."

"I could go for coffee," John said, shifting uncertainly on his feet. "If it's not any trouble."

Rodney pointed at the bench. "Carry my rocks for me, I spent a whole five minutes finding ones that were just the right size and I'd hate for some idiot child to throw them in the ocean." He waited until John had a rock in each hand and then started back up the walkway. "I'll have to introduce you to my sister and her family. I have an embarrassing first name. They're the only ones who get to use it. On pain of, well, hideous pain."

"Okay," John said, dragging the word out, obviously amused.

When Jeannie walked into the kitchen in her nightie and found John juggling toast and coffee while Rodney dug dishes out of the cupboard, she yelled "Meredith" loud enough to be heard on the other side of the ocean.

"You're always walking around half-naked, I thought you believed in liberating your thighs," Rodney shouted up the stairs, where she'd vanished in pursuit of pants — and maybe a bra. Rodney never really thought about his sister's breasts, but he supposed she had something to keep them in line.

John was pretending hard that he hadn't got an eyeful, but his ears were red. Though it might be sunburn.

"That was the name, by the way," Rodney said, and John muttered, "Yeah, I figured," giving Rodney a dirty look that lasted until their eyes met. Then John exploded into laughter, trying hard to drop everything on the table before he wound up throwing coffee all over himself. His laughter set Rodney off, and it was very hard to get a suitably apologetic breakfast on the table in this vicious circle of hysteria. The phrase thigh liberation front might have been mentioned; this might have led to John spitting coffee all over himself.

"You drive me nuts," Jeannie said, reappearing in khaki shorts and layered purple tanktops, with her hair in a messy ponytail. She smacked Rodney in the back of the head as she passed behind him.

"I am so sorry," John said to Jeannie, struggling to keep his face straight. "I didn't mean to — "

Jeannie waved the apology off. "Mer should know better, but he doesn't. Jeannie Miller." She held out her hand, and John shook, introducing himself in a suavely smiling way that made Rodney want to protest that Jeannie was married.

Madison slipped into the room in Jeannie's wake and crawled under the table to her seat, her head popping up as if she'd appeared by magic. She grabbed her spoon and held on tight as Rodney grudgingly poured her a bowl of the Honey Nut Cheerios that he'd paid for with his own money because Jeannie only ate muesli. He set the bowl down with ill grace and helped Madison slosh milk on, telling her the joke about the fulcrum again, even though Jeannie always rolled her eyes and insisted that it wasn't funny.

John, left to his own devices, kept pouring cups of coffee and setting them out, like the barista version of the water-carrying brooms in Fantasia (Rodney made a mental note to stop watching movies with Madison), until Rodney ordered him to sit and eat his toast already.

"Don't I get sugar cereal?" John asked. Rodney snapped no; Jeannie offered her date-fortified muesli; and John sat, looking embarrassed, and said he'd been joking, toast was fine.

Jeannie, who'd been halfway sitting herself, jumped up to go get the jam.

"Sit," Rodney said, when John tensed as if he was about to stand. "McKays are genetically inclined to nervous fussing. Our great-aunt Sofie never sat down in her whole life. She didn't even like to be in the same room as a chair. Thought they were the Devil's work."

"It's true." Jeannie set the jar of jam down on the table, almost sat again, and then dashed off to get John a knife. "When she finally died, they sewed her burial dress to the lining of the coffin, just to make sure she stayed down."

"Eating, here," Rodney said, glaring, and changed the subject. "John's the helicopter pilot."

"Mer talks about you all the time," Jeannie said, adding, because this was apparently the only small-talk question allowed on the island, "Do you live around here?"

John was caught right in the middle of a bite of toast, and started chewing faster and rolling his hands significantly to indicate his apologies. Rodney grinned. "He lives up by the Point, he does not have a dog, he has a sexy young roommate he's not sleeping with, and he's smarter than he looks."

"I'm sure he means that as a compliment," Jeannie added quickly, and kicked Rodney under the table.

"Do you have kids?" Madison asked hopefully.

John shook his head and swallowed. "No kids," he admitted, and gave his toast a quick longing glance before asking Madison how old she was and how her vacation was so far. Madison was going on about the skates and rays she'd fed the other day at the nature center when Kaleb wandered in, wearing jeans instead of underwear for a change. John's presence was having a very civilizing effect on Rodney's family.

John kept a friendly, social smile on his face and played another round of twenty questions. Jeannie poured him more coffee and cleared away his half-eaten toast while Kaleb was talking about the latest poems he'd written, or something; John was either really good at faking interest or he had some kind of shady liberal arts background.

Rodney had thought that John had turned on the charm for Jeannie, but he still hadn't turned it off, so Rodney revised his theory. Either John was not only bisexual but also possessed no standards (Rodney's head still hurt when he tried to think of what Jeannie saw in Kaleb: two words, English major), or this was John's way of keeping up a polite front. Rodney bet John held open doors for the elderly and said sir and ma'am and had nightmares about being on one of those reality-TV shows with hidden cameras in the showers.

John had been neither suffocatingly polite nor charming with Rodney. He had, in fact, been irritated, snappish, annoyed, grumpy, and occasionally gleefully conspiratorial. Rodney liked the idea that John had a special place for him. Or at least, a different place from Kaleb.

Jeannie refused to let John do the cleaning up, so Kaleb and Madison and Rodney walked him down to the beach, outfitted with big floppy hats and a thick layer of sunscreen. Madison ignored John as soon as they hit the sand, running at full speed for the water. Kaleb shook John's hand goodbye, which Rodney thought was weird, and trotted after his daughter.

"You're shy or something, aren't you," Rodney said. "Jeannie's family is definitely an acquired taste."

"Nah." John scuffed the sand and bent to tug a shell loose. "They're nice," and Rodney coughed in disbelief. He'd seen John freeze when Jeannie hugged him goodbye. Still, John looked awkward about being so awkward, so.

"You don't like talking about yourself," Rodney amended. "And you're not used to kids or the whole family dynamic. Trust me, I'm exactly the same, except I talk all the time, so for me, the aura of mystery thing is a lot harder to maintain. I do occasionally by which I mean all the time rely on the fact that people probably don't listen to everything I say." Rodney squinted around the beach and tugged his wide-brimmed floppy hat lower. "Do you feel weirdly compelled to spend time with me because my company paid your company a lot of money?"

John scooped up more shells and sorted them, letting the broken ones fall through his fingers. "No," he said, dragging the word out long. Probably, if he knew Rodney better, he'd have rolled his eyes as well. Instead, he gave Rodney a serious, squinting look, and then said, "Most people, they come here with their wives and kids. It's kind of sweet that you're here with your sister, don't get me wrong. But you don't really seem like the sort of guy who does sweet."

"Yes, well, there's a very long and not so funny story about that," Rodney said. "The Reader's Digest condensed version is, I meant to have a wife and kids and a large measure of professional success, and it didn't work out. On a spectacularly colossal level of disaster that really took genius to achieve."

"Huh," John said. He was walking closer to the water, and every now and then had to take a few quick steps up the beach to avoid getting his sneakers soaked. The latest wave did catch him, and John swore and tried to kick the water out of his shoe and didn't move back away from Rodney when he had given up and resigned himself to being squelchy in the toes. "That's too bad."

"I thought so at the time," Rodney admitted. "You remember that movie about the kid who sees dead people. Well. As long as I can remember I've been able to see. . . I don't know if there's a word for it. I look at a landscape — " he waved his hand around at the beach — "and I know how the land will move, in a storm or an earthquake or a windstorm or if a glacier came pushing down. I was a real terror in the sandbox, apparently. In grade six I was taken into custody by the police after making a science fair display about the structural integrity of downtown Vancouver in a magnitude 7 earthquake, with these great little 1/20 scale models of the twisted wreckage of the new Harbour Centre and the Royal Bank Tower."

"The Canadian police didn't have anything better to do?" John asked, giving Rodney the eyebrows of disbelief.

"I found two major structural flaws that had been built in," Rodney said flatly. "They were just lucky that I was more interested in winning the dumb contest than in blowing up buildings."

"I guess so," John said. "Good thing you didn't get recruited by terrorists."

Rodney scowled. "My mother made me quit the Beaver Scouts and take up piano instead. I could have gone to the best music schools in Canada," he added, "and yes, Canada has excellent music schools. But I went into engineering, because I was young and naïve and hadn't really thought about how hard it would be to convince people that what I know intuitively is true. Everyone wanted hard data. Facts, statistics, computer models, Lidar surveys and all that."

"You seem to have muddled through somehow," John said dryly.

"I learned to speak fluent idiot and I was still always right," Rodney snapped. "I've consulted on many of the most significant engineering projects of the last twenty years. Everyone in the industry acknowledges that if you want to know if winds over 70 kph will destabilize your structure, or if the foundation will sink in an earthquake, you ask me."

"I'm not feeling sorry for you yet," John said.

"The thing is," Rodney said, "I had two projects, to marry the girl I'd been dating for a year and a half and to get the abandoned Soviet hydro-electric dam on the Doranda River operational. Jeannie kept telling me I shouldn't let Katie get away, that I wasn't going to find anyone better and I certainly wasn't getting any younger, and I got as far as buying a ring with a conflict-free diamond when I had this epiphany that someday someone would ask me why we got married and I'd say desperation."

Rodney had known he was a bad boyfriend, but he'd tried to make Katie happy, in his own way. The thought of having to play up to the role of good husband — possibly even good father — for the rest of the years of his life had grown more nightmarish the more he had thought about it. He didn't really want to confess that much to John, though. It seemed cowardly, or weak, or pathologically indecisive; Jeannie had given him a copy of a pop psychology book about men who never grow out of their adolescence and the sad, lonely futures awaiting them.

Rodney glanced over at John, who was frowning down at the sand, his forehead lined as if in concentration. Rodney didn't know if that meant he was listening or not. "So breaking up was like a pre-emptive divorce, I guess. I think I was already getting on Katie's nerves by then anyway. She was a botanist and she kept naming things with thorns after me."

"I got married once," John said, talking down to the sand. "Mostly to make my father happy. I hear a lot of people do it for love."

Rodney waved that idea away. "They do it because of peer pressure, or because English majors get them pregnant." He rolled his hands, trying to get back on track. "Doranda. You must have seen it on the news. In my defense, the dam failed because poor construction materials were substituted for good, earning someone a nice profit, and not because my plans were at fault, but — well, dam failure is a pretty fucking huge engineering disaster. I spent months basically on trial, every single decision questioned by people who were ecstatic to see me get mine. When I crawled out of that mess, I told Jeannie I was coming to visit for a weekend and I kind of moved into her house. Um. Last December. Being here is her attempt to evict me gently with sand and surf." Rodney shrugged. "The work is interesting."

"You seem like the kind of person who has workaholic tendencies," John said, finally shaking himself out of his reverie. He cocked his head and squinted sideways, and then moved over to a strata of broken shells and pulled out a perfect pair of coquina shells, still hinged. It looked like a pale purple butterfly that had lit on John's finger. "Or, you know, passion."

"I'm passionate about disasters," Rodney corrected.

"That's not a bad thing." John reached down and realized that he didn't have pockets a second later, leaving his hand lost in the air, still holding the shell. He offered it to Rodney, who didn't collect shells, had never collected shells, and hated the idea of getting sand on his clothes. He took the shell anyway, for no obvious reason, sliding it into the breast pocket of his overshirt.

"Unless and until your whole life is a disaster. Are you having your own mid-life crisis?" Rodney asked, amused by John's random tangents and eager to have the soul-baring done with. "Is the thrill of flying back and forth finally wearing off?"

"I went into the Air Force right after college. I love flying."

"Back and forth," Rodney repeated, adding a helpful little hand gesture to illustrate. "I've read your company webpage. You do the surveying thing and check power lines and, for even more excitement, ferry real estate photographers around. You're basically a taxi driver."

John twitched his shoulders up in a bad impression of a diffident shrug.

"Can you imagine doing the same thing when you're sixty?" Rodney asked. He knew about himself that he always needed new challenges, but not everyone did. He tried to avoid people who were in ruts and liked it. He had standards.

"When I was in Afghanistan," John said, looking out at the ocean, "my friends' helicopter was shot down in Khabour. They died, but I didn't find that out until I had disobeyed orders and tried to go get them, bring them home." John kicked at the sand. "I was sent to do taxi flights in Antarctica with no hope of ever being promoted or relocated. It's a nice place, bit chilly, but as long as I was flying, I was okay. Then a friend of mine in the States wrote saying he knew a place that was hiring. Said I should apply for a job, go where it's warm."

"Are you still grateful enough that you're allowed to fly that you're willing to put up with the job dissatisfaction?"

"Yes," John said. "No. Jeez. I get why your sister smacks you around." He sighed. "Four years ago, when I came here, this is what I wanted." He waved around, a bit wildly. "Best surfing on the Crystal Coast, friendly neighbors, decent job and good paycheck."

"Cute surfer boyfriend?" Rodney suggested, and jabbed at John with his elbow.

"I said, he's not my — you're a dick," John said, twisting away and grabbing Rodney's arm and giving him a little shove forwards. Rough, but not angry; John sounded like he was smiling.

"Yup," Rodney agreed. "But apparently you like dick. So."

The sun was too bright to tell for sure, but Rodney thought John was blushing. Either that, or he was adding another layer of sunburn to his already sun-damaged skin.

Rodney dug out his bottle of sunblock and handed it to John with instructions to cover every bit of exposed skin, with an exasperated admonishment about the dangers of exposure to solar radiation. He glared until John complied, in a slipshod way that reminded Rodney of Madison in one of her better sulks. "Oh, and don't tell me your sex life's as boring as your flying. It will destroy my already diminished faith in humanity."

John snorted and flipped the bottle back underhanded. He had white streaks on his nose. "I can get laid anytime I go down to Wilmington."

"And let me guess, the thrill of back-room blowjobs also wore off years ago, but you're not quite desperate enough to put an ad in the paper, Mr. Single White Male."

"I'm thinking about getting a dog," John said, deadpan, and then turned halfway around, taking in their surroundings. "Bet this is a little farther than your usual walks on the beach."

Rodney didn't think it looked different from any other part of the beach: dunes and sea oats and a scattering of houses beyond. He did notice that the water tower was a couple of blocks behind them, and that the row of houses ended and a wind-twisted forest of prickly-looking scrub and pine picked up where the dunes left off.

"This is my first time on the beach," he said absently, noting that the high-tide line was down far enough to suggest that the water was shallow quite far out and that the Point provided a measure of shelter from erosion. His mind, after a moment, provided an overlay of what he knew about air and water currents for the Point, and its underwater topography.

John blinked at Rodney in bafflement. "You've been here weeks."

"And I have resisted the urge to get sand everywhere and have salt drying on my skin, not to mention winding up with horrible blistering sunburn in all the places that the sunblock didn't reach."

John walked a bit further on, kicking at the sand. "Bizarre."

Rodney watched a line of pelicans flap lazy and low over the waves. "I wouldn't say so."

"So hey," John started after a long minute of doing nothing but walking towards the pines, insulting the pelicans, and looking for dolphins following the trawler that crept along way beyond the breaking waves. "My house is just over that way. I can grab a shower, and then I can drive you home."

Rodney thought that sounded like a fine idea, especially since John was pointing up and off the beach. Rodney's shoes were heavy with sand. The weight was making his back twinge.

Though of course what John meant by over that way was really a good fifteen minute walk that started on paved blacktop, but turned onto successively narrower and badly-kept roads as they went. Rodney wondered out loud whether the state actually believed that mixing gravel with sand was an efficient paving technique, and also expressed out loud his hopes that John wasn't a serial killer.

John just rolled his eyes and said, "Well, here we are."

The house was in a clearing in the pines, which were wind-stunted and prickly-looking. Like most of the houses that Rodney had seen on the island, the first floor was mostly open garage space, with one side enclosed — the apartment, John said, that he rented out to college kids who lived on the island summers, working the tourist trade. A flight of wooden stairs went up to a wraparound deck, and the rails were so thick with morning glory that they were basically useless. John either had a green thumb or the vines were plotting to creep in his window and kill him in his sleep. North Carolina was famous for its carnivorous plants, as Rodney had learned the last time he took Madison to the nature center.

John's house was a slate blue-grey. Rodney doubted that he could have kept up an acquaintance with someone who lived in coral red, or melon green, or flamingo pink.

He needled John about the flowers while taking in the view from the deck — pines and ocean, ocean and pines — as John swung open the unlocked front door.

"Go ahead and insult the decorating now and get it over with," John said, sounding amused and not angry. "I know you'll want to, sooner or later." Rodney relaxed fractionally, and took a look around with interest.

The house wasn't new: Rodney suspected that walls had been removed to combine several small dark rooms into one big central space. There was a kitchen to the left, with a table and four chairs; a sofa set and a television arranged around a coffee table on the right; and a whole lot of empty space around those two clusters of furniture. John had an actual color scheme, which was mildly hilarious: Rodney didn't know anyone whose house looked so much like it had been copied from Canadian House & Home. The walls were mossy green with orange trim, and between the windows there were framed prints that looked like abstract stained glass windows, in yellow and teal and a rusty kind of red.

John walked around, opening the windows to let the air in, and pulled the chains to get the ceiling fans going.

"Those things make me nervous," Rodney warned, pointing and moving away from under the lazily whirling blades.

"You saw Indiana Jones at an impressionable age?" John asked, with a raised eyebrow.

Rodney ignored him and studied John's curtains. They were more like long strips of gauze that looped around in graceful drapes and trailed down to brush against the floor. They certainly did not look like the curtains of a man who flew helicopters and ran on the beach and seemed comfortable in his own sweat. Then again, John also owned several tastefully scattered iron candelabras, so what did Rodney know?

"I'm going to guess this whole place came out of the twisted imagination of a former boyfriend," Rodney said. "Who had you completely at his mercy, hence the candles and the World Market furniture. Also, you have a nubbly hand-woven thing on your sofa. He probably left you do good deeds in Kolkata." Rodney looked around and nodded. He didn't think he could be far wrong.

"Nice try," John said, smirking. "But no." He flapped a hand at the nubbly sofa thing. "Teyla decorated for the open house, and I figured it was easier to buy the place furnished. If it was up to me, I'd probably have a bunch of tag-sale crap and maybe some of those plastic milk crates."

"And an indoors basketball hoop," Rodney said, and narrowed his eyes at John. "Or is that not your sport?"

John shrugged. "I have a surfboard and a skateboard in the guest room," he offered. "If that helps put me in my place."

"Possibly," Rodney allowed, moving a little closer to John's AV equipment. "PlayStation and Nintendo?"

"Tiger Woods PGA Tour?" John asked, looking hopeful until Rodney glared his hopes into fiery death. "I'll just go shower, then," John said, possibly sulking again. Rodney waved him off and started pulling out games. He finally settled on WraithRising! 2, which he'd never gotten around to playing because it had been released while Rodney was recovering from the Doranda debacle by pretending that the outside world didn't exist.

When John came out, damp and smelling like minty scalp-revitalizing shampoo, he was not happy with what Rodney had done to his high score (singular). Rodney said it was his own fault.

"It's a game of skill," Rodney said smugly, pausing the game quickly before all the jostling John was doing, pulling off sofa cushions and making a pile on the floor to sit on and moving the game equipment all around, caused him to lose points on Level 3. "You probably just shoot things and hope for the best."

"Do not," John said, hooking up the other game controller.

"Which is why Ronon had all the top high scores and you were just clinging to the bottom with your fingernails. Until I booted you off."

"Ronon's a total badass. Plus it's his game."

Rodney grinned. "Yeah. You play golf. Just admit that you suck."

"Bring it," John said, which was one of those weird phrases that no one had ever said to Rodney before. He was pretty sure it was a sports thing.

Rodney started a new two-player game, and had John's strategy figured out in five minutes. John valued enemy kills over his own lives, which was an easily exploitable weakness.

"One more game," John said, scowling as his player character died. He played the woman Marine, because she was good at blowing shit up, John said, but Rodney thought it was because she had the same kind of hair, sticking out at all angles, neither respectably short nor long enough to keep the cowlicks down.

Rodney was wondering if he ought to suggest playing something else, so that maybe John could save a tiny bit of dignity, when there were heavy steps on the deck.

"Hey," someone said, knocking and walking in at the same time, and Rodney blinked to see that it was Ronon, the downstairs tenant-not-boyfriend. He was tall enough that Rodney started worrying about the ceiling fans all over again.

John dropped his head back on the sofa, arching to look up even though everything must seem upside-down and surreally skewed. "Oh, hey," he said, and then slid up to his feet with a twist and a stumble. "Lunch, I totally — " He gestured at the TV and Rodney. "Rodney, Ronon Dex, the guy downstairs. Ronon, Rodney."

"You tell him if he beats my scores I'll kick his ass?" Ronon asked, dragging over a chair while John padded off into the kitchen.

"Nope," John said cheerfully. "Totally forgot. Stir-fry sound good?"

Rodney followed John to explain at length about his citrus allergy. Obviously, he wasn't carrying an epipen with him, because he hadn't expected to be eating out. "I could just go home," he said, looking wistfully at the wok John was oiling. "I don't really want to suffocate to death today."

John snorted and opened the refrigerator, taking out Chinese cabbage and carrots and green peppers and all his other ingredients and making a line along the counter. Then he took out spices and lined them up as well. "Just take out whatever you can't eat," he said, and pulled two dripping bowls out of the fridge. "Do you want it with tofu or shrimp?"

"Do I look like I eat tofu?" Rodney snapped. John gave him a faux earnest look-over and then slowly shook his head. Rodney threw a mushroom at him; John caught it easily. Rodney got rid of a few things that he either wasn't sure of or didn't like, gave John Jeannie's cell phone number in case he did collapse in breathless agony, and then magnanimously told John that he was free to cook now.

Rodney went back to join Ronon and let him win on Level 4: partly because he wasn't sure how much of the banter about physical violence was a joke, and partly because it was easy to be distracted when what John was making smelled so good. When John called for Ronon to pick his lazy ass up and set the table, Rodney was right there, ready and helpful.

Rodney inhaled his first serving of shrimp stir-fry without making any pretence of joining in the conversation, which was about things he didn't know anyway. He emerged from a haze of food bliss when there wasn't even a bean sprout left on the plate. Usually he didn't care one way or the other about vegetables, but John was good with spices.

"There's plenty more," John said, with a sharp kind of smile that made Rodney suspect he was leaving things unsaid. "Rice is in the rice cooker."

"Does he do this a lot?" Rodney asked Ronon, who was also filling up his dish for round two. "Most landlords can't even fix a leaky faucet."

"I cook sometimes," Ronon said, and John snorted.

"You heat shit up."

Ronon shoved John in the head with his elbow as he crossed behind him heading to his seat. "It's hot, you eat it. I cook."

"Ow," John said, and rubbed his head with the heel of his hand.

At first, Rodney was secretly rather touched that John had invited him over. Over the next few weeks, however, he discovered that John's house wasn't a Fortress of Solitude. It was more like a community center. John rarely if ever locked his door, and people walked in at all hours of the day, regardless of whether he was home or not. Sometimes people came in well-defined groups, like roving herds of golfers or surfers or (once, disturbingly) Oprah-watching knitters. Other times people just dropped in singly or in twos and ate John's food, read his books, and blew things up on his television.

Rodney liked the open-door policy, because Jeannie was getting more militant about kicking him out of the nest. Rodney was talking with Elizabeth about working for the SGC on a permanent basis, either out of Pegasus Bay or the Atlanta home office. Whether or not a reasonable job offer came out of it, he doubted that he'd be heading back to Vancouver at the end of August with the Miller family. He supposed that was healthy, psychologically, but it was also rather terrifyingly lonely if he thought too hard about it.

So he was glad (sometimes) for the distractions provided at John's. Teyla the real estate agent was a regular visitor. Sometimes she came over on the weekend when John and Ronon and her husband, Kanaan, went surfing together. Rodney got the impression that Teyla used to join them, before the baby, and that she tried not to show how much she disliked being benched. Today she was stopping by after work, probably was waiting for her husband to return from a dive or a fishing trip or whatever he did on boats.

"Hello, Rodney," she said, dropping her huge shoulder bag onto the sofa and breezing into the kitchen to make tea. Every time he saw her she had a different hairstyle and a bigger baby bump tented under her weird leather and brocade maternity wear. Today, her hair was at least twenty centimeters shorter, unbraided, and held back with a colorful scarf.

Rodney grumbled a greeting at her from his seat at the kitchen table, trying not to feel hair disadvantaged, and shuffled around his laptop and his latest notes for what to add to the book to make room for her.

She poured him a cup of tea, like always, which never failed to make him feel comforted. Though he'd never tell her that.

She didn't seem to mind if Rodney just ignored her and kept working, but she was an interesting person to talk to, he'd found. She knew something about everyone on the island.. "Oh, look," he said, pointing out the window at the sky-blue Volkswagen bus that crunched up the gravel to stop in John's yard. "Hippies."

Teyla leaned around him to look. "That is Brother Halling," she corrected. "Of the Open Skies church."

"The place with the day camp that Madison goes to?" Rodney asked, and Teyla smiled and nodded. "He picked my brain about science experiments for kids the last time I had to go pick her up. I kept telling him to just let them blow stuff up, kids love that. I think he made them grow bean plans in paper cups instead."

Teyla got up to put the tea kettle on again. Rodney watched as Brother Halling — long-haired and austere, wearing loose clothes and Birkenstocks — strode off on the path through the woods that led to the town's athletic park. "His son, Jinto, is in the youth skateboarding group that John volunteers with."

"I wouldn't call it volunteering," Rodney said, keeping his voice low so he could, if necessary, protest that he was talking to himself. "The kids just give him a good excuse to behave in a manner wildly inappropriate for his age." Taking about the kids reminded Rodney of the often-depleted bowl of snacks that John kept out on the counter. He went to check what was available and settled on a bag of Terra Chips, which he upended into a white enamel mixing bowl and set in the middle of the table. "Which one of the herd is Jimbo?"

"Jinto," Teyla corrected. "It is Japanese for child of God, I believe."

Rodney rolled his eyes; he couldn't remember any of the skateboarders looking Asian. "Because Brother Halling is, of course, Japanese."

Teyla rapped the back of his hand with a tea spoon, and then looked chagrined. "I am sorry. But you must not say such a thing. It was Jinto's mother, I believe, and she died when he was just a child, and things. . . were not so easy, with Brother Halling and his son. He believes a child needs love, and faith, and strict rules. But Jinto was so angry, feeling different from his friends. John spoke with Brother Halling and persuaded him to let Jinto join in the sports the other children play, like this skateboarding club."

"John never talks about his family," Rodney said. "I get the impression that — " He waved his hand in the air.

"Yes," Teyla said, answering vagueness in kind. She gave Rodney a knowing look. "John said that Brother Halling is a good man who doesn't want to lose his son and is willing to listen and change. I think that. . . sometimes it can be too easy to do wrong in the name of right."

Rodney suspected that Teyla was also religious, but she tended to lead by quiet example and had never made him nervous yet with quotations from Scripture.

"You'll be an okay mother," he said, offhand. He wasn't decided yet about what kind of parent Kanaan would be: he reminded Rodney too much of Kaleb, bland and quiet and yet somehow enthralling an intelligent woman into pregnancy. "You're good with people. You should have John teach you how to cook," he added, because Teyla was even more useless in the kitchen than Ronon. "Apparently, children need to eat."

"I have heard so, too," Teyla said dryly, and then there was a thunder on the stairs that made Rodney grab reflexively for his papers and his computer.

The door flew open and the skateboarders flooded in, shouting and shoving each other into the furniture. Brother Halling and John followed after; it looked as though John was being lectured about something. He kept nodding, easy and acquiescent, but when he saw Rodney and Teyla at the table, he gave them an eyebrow lift and a quick grin.

The kids opened the refrigerator, dug through the snacks, and pillaged every empty calorie in the house. Rodney had never seen such carnage. But when Brother Halling clapped his hands and announced that it was time to do homework, all the kids grabbed their backpacks and flopped down with notebooks and pencils. Rodney felt as if he'd been sucked into the Disney Channel and tried very hard to look as if he would never lower himself to answer questions about Grade Seven math. It didn't work.

Because the door was always open, Rodney had worried on John's behalf that he'd be robbed or murdered in his sleep, until one day when he was playing Katamari Damacy with Teyla's husband and the entire Athosian division of the Pegasus Bay police force — Officers Bates and Ford — walked in to mooch dinner and talk about the weather and crime rate and tourists.

Rodney had still been blinking with shock when they left. "So, is this one of those small-town things?" he asked John, who had busied himself making the good coffee and handing it around. Rodney helped himself to a cup, because it looked as though John was running low.

"It's a tight-knit community," John said, shrugging. "Hey, a bunch of the guys are coming over Sunday afternoon to drink beer and watch the game." He gave Rodney a look that made it clear that this was an invitation. Rodney felt much the same way he did when the cat he'd had in graduate school had proudly delivered some dead headless creature to his doorstep.

"No. Thank you, but. No." He didn't even know what game John meant. It wasn't hockey season, and even then he couldn't have said socially appropriate things about the Carolina Hurricanes even if John paid him. "Not my thing."

"You busy Saturday?" John asked without even hesitating. "We could maybe go out for the day. I'm sure there's places you haven't been to yet." John kept his chin tucked down as he looked up. It was a really flirtatious look, which was strange, because John normally didn't flirt with Rodney any more than he did with Ronon.

"Like on a date?" Rodney asked, needing to clarify. He'd got the impression that John didn't date; that John liked casual sex every now and then, but wasn't a relationship person.

But John smiled, the right side of his mouth and his left eyebrow both going up, another goofy John expression for Rodney's growing collection.

"Like a date, yeah."

Rodney wondered what John Sheppard considered a hot date. He suspected it would be either geeky, involving a pilgrimage to Kitty Hawk, or athletic and dangerous, like water skiing or wreck diving. He would have liked to find out.

"I can't," he said, and every quirk evaporated from John's expression, even though he started nodding easy, probably on the verge of saying It's cool and nagging Rodney to play golf please. "I promised Jeannie I'd babysit while she and Kaleb — actually, I have no idea what their plans are. They didn't tell me. Wedding anniversary, taking the weekend off. So I'm going to have the spawn around."

"Bring her with," John said. "I don't mind." He turned on the water and started rinsing off all the cups in his dishpan, setting them on the drainboard in rows. Rodney pretended not to notice the dishtowel hanging from the ring on the wall.

"Nothing dangerous," Rodney qualified. "She's only in kindergarten, and she's spoiled rotten, and my sister can be terrifying."

John's eyebrows both went up as he gave Rodney a wide-eyed look of wounded surprise that Rodney thought was mostly fake. "You don't trust me."

"Maybe we could go see a movie." Rodney thought about that. "Something animated, preferably with cute animals, forgettable musical numbers, and a strong female lead."

"We are not doing Disney," John said, and smothered a yawn theatrically with the back of his wrist, turning the gesture into a stretch and a crack of his neck. He acted for all the world as if the middle shelf of his entertainment center wasn't mostly full of Pixar DVDs and videotapes of old eighties kids' shows. "I think I'll take you to my favorite biker bar."

"You're an idiot," Rodney said. "I don't know why I like you."

John snorted. "I'm pretty sure it's my cooking," and Rodney said, "Yeah, that's probably it." John flicked water from his fingers at him, grinning.

The restaurant John chose for lunch really was more like a biker bar than any place Rodney had ever been to in his life, if he could judge by the dozen or so motorcycles in front. It was in a run-down strip mall with a potholed parking lot, sandwiched between a comic book shop slash game center and a store which advertised leather and exotic lingerie. He would have been incredibly nervous if the bikers hadn't all looked like middle-aged professionals, sports-gym fit, the men balding with neat mustaches and the women laughing with each other and showing perfect white teeth. Though if John was right about what the motorcycles cost, Rodney imagined that only someone with a six-digit income could afford one.

The service was friendly: the waitress brought Madison a busy set of crayons and photocopied coloring pages of pirates, the meal portions were huge, and there was a whole vegetarian menu to choose Madison's food from. John took care to impress on the waitress that Rodney's citrus allergy was a serious health risk. She made a note and brought him an unopened bottle of Evian instead of pouring his water from the pitcher, and the cook herself delivered Rodney's bacon three-cheeseburger to the table. Rodney was happy and well-fed, enjoying his walk on the mild side of wild.

After sharing out three desserts (chocolate pie, angel food cake, and some kind of nut pudding), John handed over his credit card while Rodney left one of the biggest tips he'd ever given in his life.

Stepping back outside into the heat, John looked down and raised his eyebrows all the way up and asked Madison if she wanted to go play pinball. Madison, being a smart kid, refused to go into the game center without clinging to Rodney's hand. Less, Rodney thought, because she was scared and more because she knew her uncle was the best person to teach her. Even the most basic knowledge of physics, math, and probability gave a definite edge in most games, and Madison, not to brag, probably knew at least as much as John did, because she was being raised to think about these problems intuitively.

Rodney hadn't played pinball since junior high school; he was much better at the game now. He kicked John's ass, even teamed up with Madison, who used the flippers more to express her excitement than to control the speed and trajectory of the ball. John didn't seem to mind, and went on to introduce Madison to air hockey and skeeball.

John was insanely good at getting the wooden skeeballs into the high-points rings — just a matter of wrist control, he said, and made his false modesty sound like innuendo. Madison wound up with huge loops of game tickets dangling from both hands, and Rodney took her over to the shop to go collect prizes while John excused himself, ducking into the comic store and reappearing with a heavy plastic bag.

"ElfQuest graphic novels?" Rodney asked, eyeing the bag as John tossed it on the back seat.

"Not even," John said, sounding repulsed.

"Hey," Rodney said. "ElfQuest is single-handedly responsible for teaching a generation of geeks that there is such a thing as bisexuality. Also, orgies."

"John Constantine," John said. Rodney could see the lines of tension at the corners of his eyes, even with his sunglasses on.

"Constantine never had orgies," Rodney shot back, and then stopped short. "Did he? I only read a couple issues before I had a severe allergic reaction to the occult and had to go soothe my eyes with theoretical physics."

"What?" Madison said, and kicked John's chair.

"We're talking about sex," Rodney said. John jerked as though he'd been stabbed between the shoulders and hissed Rodney, with the Rod part coming out loud and harsh.

"Like Jeannie doesn't show her the videotape of her own delivery every birthday," Rodney said dismissively. "I never saw my own mother barefoot, much less imagined that she had any female parts under her clothes. I mean. Ew. Jeannie's a lot. . . freer about nudity."

"No," Madison said, still kicking.

Rodney looked at the clock, considered how much time had elapsed since Madison had ingested sugar, and then frowned at John. "Are we there yet, wherever there is?"

"Pretty much," John said, glancing over as if assessing the situation. "The natives are restless?"

"She gave up naptime, which is a pity. I think you need to pull over and let her run."

"Here," John said, and fished a cell phone out of his shirt pocket. "See if you can find the map."

The phone was sleek and black and looked like it was probably still new in Japan. "This phone doesn't fit your slacker lifestyle at all," Rodney told John, poking at the little buttons and probably committing gross breeches of privacy with his insatiable gadget curiosity.

"Hey," John said, and stuck out his hand with an impatient twitch of his fingertips.

"No," Rodney said, grinning. "Can this make international calls?"

John's jaw clenched, and Rodney thought that maybe naps all around would be a good idea.

"Turn left onto Main Street, and no, I have no idea which of these crossroads is Main, so you might want to slow the. . . heck down," he said, waving the back of his hand at the intersections they kept zipping through. John's fingers drummed on the steering wheel, out of rhythm with the soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast that was playing via Madison's iPod and an adapter stuck in John's cassette deck. "Did you look this up on the internet?" Rodney asked, a bit quieter and a shade less gleeful. "Places to take kids, I mean. You probably don't hang out with kindergarteners that much."

One of John's shoulders rose and fell. "I asked Halling. Of course, Jinto's older than Madison."

"You didn't mean to sign on for this, when you asked me out. I mean. It's not even like she's my kid and you have to buy her affection."

"I guess I'm just cool like that," John said, slow and lazy. "That look like a Main Street to you?"

"No," Rodney said, because the road was lined with wearily sagging old houses and enormous trees that completely shadowed the road. "But it says it is, so left here."

John slid the car into a turn without really braking, but it wasn't as if there was any oncoming traffic. Even this far inland the land was still so flat and empty that the sky seemed overly large: the occasional trees and houses appeared oddly flattened, and the fields oppressively large. Rodney was reminded of the parts of Canada he really disliked, like Winnipeg. After the town's one traffic light, there was the one official traffic sign announcing that they were entering Aurora.

"Aurora?" Rodney said, poking at John's phone for any reason that he wanted to be here. All the houses were sagging; all the stores were either boarded up or were gaping open and dark.

"Just down the road from the phosphorous mine," John said as if in agreement, and Rodney started telling him all the reasons why he would never let John drag his sister's baby girl around a mine.

John parked badly on the wrong side of the road right by a tiny town park and gave Rodney a huge grin.

"This is awesome," John said, popping the trunk and getting out with bounce in his step. He pointed at the park, which had a small white gazebo overlooking. . . well, it looked like a gravel pit.

"I hate to break it to you," Rodney said, unbuckling Madison and giving her a hand down to the sidewalk. "Kids these days play on swings and slides."

John slammed the trunk shut and handed each of them a battered sieve and a trowel. "This is a bunch of mine tailings they bring in," he said, boosting Madison up onto the wall. "It's full of shark teeth and fossils and a bunch of really, really cool things. So what you want to do," he told Madison, "is get some of the dirt on here and just shake it around and see if you can find anything good."

Madison filled her sieve with a thin layer of gravel and dirt and shook it gingerly. John leaning over her shoulder, watching as intently as if he expected parthenogenesis to take place any second now. "This one?" she asked, and John squinted.

"Think that's a rock," he said, and shot Rodney a glance. "What do you think, rock?"

Rodney threw his hands up and stomped over the dirt to go inspect Madison's rock. Which was a rock, and she tossed it back, looking confused.

"But this triangle one," John said, pushing it free, "is a shark's tooth." He fished a plastic sandwich bag out of his back pocket and held it open for Madison to drop the tooth into. "It's really old," he added. "This whole area used to be under the ocean, millions of years ago. So where we're standing now, I bet sharks used to swim."

"Look," Madison said, completely ignoring John and shoving her sieve up towards Rodney, "I got another one."

Rodney grabbed the sandwich bag and took charge of her growing collection. "I think these are from different kinds of sharks," he said, zipping the bag shut carefully and nodding John aside for a quick conference. "Are we allowed to do this?" he asked, keeping his voice low. "Just walk in here and dig up their fossils?"

John shrugged. "That's what it's here for. There's a fee for the museum across the way, though, if you wanted to identify your stuff."

Rodney looked around, trying to calculate the volume of dirt and how long it would take for Madison (I got more! she said, holding out her hand impatiently) to grow bored. "Okay, you get lots of babysitter points for this."

"I've kind of always wanted to come here," John admitted. "Having a kid's a good excuse."

"That's why people have kids," Rodney said. "Go, find her more good stuff."

An hour later, Madison announced that she wanted to go to the museum instead. Rodney guessed that she had nearly a hundred teeth from sharks and dolphins, as well as skate plates and urchin spines and coprolites (which she belly-laughed about, when Rodney explained what they were). Inside, Rodney got a commemorative picture of her standing in a giant replica shark's jaw, and John bought Madison a book and a coloring book and a t-shirt, all with a general theme of ancient sharks and how cool they were.

They were all a lot dirtier when they got back into John's car, but John said he didn't care: it wasn't like the car was new. Rodney sat in the back, so he could read the shark book to Madison, and John sneakily put on his own music, which Rodney would have protested except he was sick of listening to Madison's soundtrack collection. The trip home felt faster, even though Rodney kept an eye on the speedometer and knew that they were travelling at the same barely-legal speed.

John asked if Rodney wanted to do anything for supper, but Madison was getting cranky. She had her book held up around her like a screen, sulking because Rodney thought that the one big grey tooth that she had found was from a great white and not a megalodon.

"I should get the junior paleontologist home," Rodney said. "Before there's a — " he spelled out meltdown.

"Sorry," John said, looking at Rodney in the rear view mirror. "Long day for a little kid."

Rodney shrugged. "It was educational. Jeannie'll be jealous. I enjoyed watching you show off your inner ten year old."

"Yeah?" John said, sounding pleased for a second before protesting, "Hey."

"Don't worry," Rodney assured him. "It's not like I thought you were cool to begin with."

"Hey," John repeated. "No insulting the driver."

"I'll just sit here and read your comic books, then, shall I," Rodney said, opening John's bag and rifling through the titles. "I guess you like your men in spandex."

John turned the music up.

When they got to Jeannie's, Rodney carried Madison in and John brought all her loot up.

"I really need to feed her and throw her in bed," Rodney said, hands on his hips as Madison turned the TV on and the volume up as she cycled through all of the channels, again and again and again. "Um. I had a nice day but I'm kicking you out now."

"Good luck," John said. Rodney thought for a moment that John might try for a kiss, but then he took a step backwards and opened the door, giving Rodney a nod and a grin. "See you around, okay?"

"If I survive the infomercials," Rodney said, grimacing.

"Oh, hey, this is for you," John said, taking a small bag out of his pocket and flipping it over to Rodney, who fumbled and nearly dropped it. When he looked up, John was gone, the door shut, and Rodney was holding his present.

It turned out to be a plastic key ring that said I dig sharks and was in the shape of a shark. Rodney thought it was ridiculous, but he put his keys on it anyway, after dinner when Madison was in the bath.

Building Bridges

Jeannie enjoyed hanging out at John's and watching old episodes of the Kroft Super Power Hour and Strawberry Shortcake, but she always felt compelled to issue a reciprocal invitation. John found out the hard way that Jeannie was terrible at hosting meals. She fussed over the food so that it was traumatized and inedible by the time it reached the table, and she made continuous trips back and forth between her seat and the kitchen, so that everyone became sympathetically restless. Jeannie was a little better with lunches — it was hard to ruin cheese mac or sandwiches or soup — but trying to coordinate Jeannie's and Rodney's and John's work schedules into a formal thing was a pain. "Why don't I just drop in for coffee sometime?" John finally said in desperation, and they ended up with a semi-regular breakfast meeting, for which Jeannie wore clothes and John brought muffins (lying obviously when he said they weren't home baked, even if they were still warm from the oven).

Trying to meet the end-of-month deadline for the 20-year shoreline erosion projections, Rodney put in a late night at work, waving Jeannie off as she backed for the door, apologizing for deserting him. He'd told her that her input would be minimal at best, which was true, but she probably would have stopped him from fiddling with the data until they were not only perfect but also shined up for the head office; by then, when he finally looked at a clock, he'd missed the last ferry and was stuck on the mainland.

"This wouldn't happen if there was a bridge," he complained to Zelenka, who offered to take him home and give him a sofa to sleep on.

"Your gratitude overwhelms me," Zelenka said, straight-faced, and then warned Rodney not to wake up the pigeons he raised in coops on his terrace.

In the morning, Rodney left Zelenka's in time to catch the first ferry over to Athos, feeling rumpled and stiff and desperate to wash off the smell of bird dander. He saw John's car in front of the rental condo, but his rotten mood only increased when he found John rushing out the door to catch the ferry to work.

"Hey there," John said. "Living la vida loca again?" He turned in the doorway and called back, "Thanks again for breakfast."

"Come again," Jeannie said, standing in the hallway with a wet plate in one hand and a dishcloth in the other.

"Oh," John said, taking back the three steps he'd made down the stairs and looking right at Rodney even though he was obviously speaking to Jeannie. "I'm having a thing next weekend. A bunch of people are showing up starting Friday afternoon, and with luck I'll get the stragglers out by Tuesday, Wednesday. People'll probably sleep in Saturday and head off to church Sunday morning, but feel free to drop in any other time."

"It's not a love-in, is it?" Rodney asked, suspicious. "Nudity and folk music?"

Jeannie threw the dishcloth at him, which Rodney sidestepped, letting it fall to the stair landing boards.

"Music, yeah," John said, and shrugged, loose, as if music was inevitable.

"Is there some occasion?" Jeannie asked. "Should I bring something — wine, salad, cake?"

John laughed and gave Rodney a sly look that caused some of the edge to his foul temper to burn off. "Bring Tupperware, last year we broke a table with all the food."

Rodney was more than happy to take John at his word, but Jeannie had spoken to Brother Halling when she picked Madison up from summer camp. She came home and immediately started rooting about in the kitchen cabinets, piling things on the counter and making a list.

Rodney told her she was overreacting and channeling their horrible aunts, who had swooped down on every disaster with pound cake, three-bean salad, and unwanted advice.

"It's John's family reunion," Jeannie said, looking resolute but putting back a can of kidney beans. "Everyone's going."

"Newsflash, Brother Halling is not John's real brother." Rodney frowned. "He's probably the only person around here without a bazillion relatives, come to think of it."

Jeannie shoved her list at him. "Thank you for volunteering to go shopping."

Rodney decided that shutting up was probably the best way to survive the next few days.

Jeannie pulled her last batch of cupcakes out of the oven at half past three on Saturday, and made Kaleb drive so that she could hold the (non-citrus, non-dairy, no egg) blueberry pie in her lap. Rodney was likewise pinned down by ridiculously healthy baked goods, but he would be the first to admit that cake was the best thing to ever happen to a carrot.

They had to park far away from John's house, at the end of a long line of cars and trucks along the road. At the turn-off, there was a bunch of balloons tied to John's mailbox, and coming around the bend Rodney could see a volleyball net set up on one side of the front yard and a tarp strung up between the trees on the other side. In the tarp's shade were three inflatable pools, one full of kids, one full of water guns and super-soakers, and one full of drinks and watermelons.

One of the volleyball players detached herself from the game, turning out to be Dr. Someone-or-Other Simpson from the SGC. Rodney hadn't recognized her without her trademark blue lab coat.

She gave Jeannie a hug and Jeannie hugged back as best she could, considering the baked goods, and said, "Lori," as if they hadn't seen each other in ages.

Lori Simpson (Rodney made a mental note of that) directed them into the house, saying they could drop all the food in the kitchen, and that they should just go on through, John was out back getting the grills going.

Rodney lost Kaleb and Madison to the swimming pools and Jeannie to the kitchen, so he was all by himself when he walked through the living room and out to the back deck. The house was high enough up that he could see the ocean through gaps in the surrounding trees, and the ground was mostly thick gray sand held down with spiny grasses and bushes that everyone assured him were really and truly called yaupon. Rodney thought that sounded like a lie that you'd tell foreigners so that you could laugh at them later; he felt superior to John for not falling for it.

The inside of the house had been nearly empty of furniture, but that seemed to be because it had all been hauled outside. Rodney spotted Teyla in the yard, curled up on the sofa with a bottle of Fanta, watching as people set up the grill; she smiled up at him and said something quiet to John, who gave Rodney a wide and somewhat manic grin.

Rodney went down the back stairs feeling rather as if he were headed into the lions' den.

John tossed off quick introductions to the other men standing around. None of them were Sheppards, but Rodney had figured that the family reunion thing was another in-joke like the yaupon bush. Rodney didn't get it, but then he didn't expect to. He felt out of place and had already forgotten everyone's names (why couldn't people just wear name tags?), but all anyone wanted to know about him was whether he was good at blowing things up.

"Because anyone can get a grill lit," John said, as if this was really important.

"But not everyone can make the fireball visible from space," Teyla finished, with a roll of her eyes. "Yes, John, we know."

"Did you soak the charcoal in lighter fluid?" Rodney asked, taking a few healthy steps back.

"You afraid of fire?" Ronon asked. He was building a professional-looking pyramid of charcoal. He had his very flammable-looking dreadlocks tied back with a bandana.

"I once vaporized a grill," Rodney said, with scorn. "Of course, that was using liquid oxygen."

"He's an engineer," John said, toasting Rodney with his beer bottle. He sounded almost proud, and he gave Rodney a conspiratorial grin.

"Just start, already," said the annoyed-looking man in the Love the Sin, Love the Sinner shirt. He was holding the sprayer nozzle of the hose and perched on the arm of an overstuffed chair that Rodney didn't recognize. Maybe this was the kind of party where people brought their own furniture. The chair was occupied by — ah — John's boss, who was drinking his beer from a can and appeared to have his hand up the back of the other man's shirt.

Huh, Rodney thought, trying to look at them without looking like he was looking. Jack was probably older by a good ten years, but it wasn't exactly cradle robbing. The two men didn't look as though they had anything in common. Jack was laid-back and easygoing, with a weird streak of alert awareness; his boyfriend looked like he said controversial things just so he could bitch at the people who argued with him. Rodney wondered how long they'd been together.

Someone yelled Fire in the hole and Rodney's attention snapped back to the grill. Even Ronon retreated as a match was flicked in and flames shot up with an earsplitting whump. Blistering heat hit Rodney as high-fives were exchanged, with Jack's boyfriend shouting over all of them to check and make sure that they hadn't melted through the metal at the bottom. Again, he added loudly, and Ronon and John burst out laughing while three or four reminiscent conversations started up.

Actual cooking was finally starting to be discussed, people being sent to get coolers full of meat and plates of vegetables and who knows what. Rodney thought that was a good time to escape. He didn't want to fuss with the preparation of the food, he just wanted to eat when delicious things appeared before him. He went back inside, where John's television was occupied by a group of teenagers, girls in a group on the left, boys on the right, taking turns jumping around on a homemade dance pad set up in the middle, which was probably scratching John's floor raw. The music from the game had been put through John's stereo speakers, and it was not unlike a circle of hell.

Rodney found Jeannie out on the front lawn, talking earnestly with a group of wiry older women in nearly identical outfits of tan trousers and dark button-down checked shirts. Rodney tried to edge around them, but Jeannie grabbed him and made introductions. Rodney tried not to offend anyone: apparently, the women were church volunteers and historical society members and gardening club members. They were admiring John's morning glories.

Rodney mentioned, rather weakly, how nice the flowers along the main road were, even though he'd always wondered if they were supposed to be that overgrown, and whether they caused allergies.

He got a lecture about native plants and alien ones. He could see Jeannie on the verge of bringing up Katie in some way: My brother used to date a botanist, she'd say, He's got a cactus named for him, and Rodney just knew he would be unable to stop himself from blurting out that he'd dumped her.

He was saved by John, who appeared suddenly from around the corner of the house and said Hello to everyone, smiling and holding a large pump-action water cannon in one hand. He was obviously trying to be polite despite being in flight from other idiots with water pistols He was dripping wet, his hair shoved carelessly back and sticking up in sharp spikes, and every other second he looked around quickly.

"Having fun?" Rodney asked, meaning to sound sarcastic. It was hard, because John looked so utterly ridiculous that the corners of Rodney's mouth kept trying to rise into a smile.

John nodded seriously at Jeannie. "Your kid has wicked good aim. She took out Teyla's husband and about four teenagers."

"Who got you?" Jeannie asked, eyes crinkling with laughter.

"A whole — " John blinked at the civic leaders of his small town and exerted self-censorship — "darn kiddie pool." John gave an exaggerated scowl and shouldered his weapon like he was Schwarzenegger. "I'm out for revenge. Any of you want to join forces?"

Jeannie gave Rodney a shove. "Take my brother. He was arrested for destroying a city as a kid."

"A model," Rodney corrected, wondering if John liked bad disaster movies. He suspected he did.

John gave him a salute with the water cannon. He fished another gun out of his cargo pants, flashing Rodney and everyone else with a couple inches of underwear as he wrestled with the sodden material. He wasn't irreparably-stupid drunk, but Rodney imagined that he'd be feeling the embarrassment tomorrow.

John let Rodney choose which gun he preferred, and Rodney grabbed the cannon. It was big and looked kickass and hadn't been down John's pants. John just shrugged and made some seriously military-looking hand gestures to indicate that the enemy was at the side of the house and that they should therefore sneak through the woods to circle around.

Of course, the woods were full of people with guns, and at least a third of them were military, down from Camp Lejeune, if the severe haircuts were anything to go by. Someone had made water balloons, and that had progressed into water bolas and even water landmines. Fortunately, John was always able to find water for ammunition, and it was hilarious watching John becoming progressively dirtier. He had leaves in his hair and sandy mud up to his knees and grass stains all along his arms. Rodney hadn't had this much fun since that one time he'd dated a hardcore LARPer during his first PhD program, who'd spoken to Rodney in a Russian accent and traded sex for microfilm copies of past exams.

The water fight finally ended when they walked into an ambush. A clearing in the woods had been rigged with tripwires, and Rodney found himself knocked flat, with buckets of water raining down.

Rodney wasn't about to get taken captive, though. He managed to take shelter behind a tree and crouch down. John wasn't so lucky. He'd been laughing so hard at the trap and trying to wring water out of his shirt that Jack and the other guy from the airfield — Maury? Murray? — were able to grab him and carry him off easily.

Judging by the subsequent screams and the uninhibited cursing, they'd thrown John in the pool full of ice and beverages, this time.

When the laughter and threats died down, Rodney heard a woman announce that if they were finally done acting like badly behaved children, it was time to get clean and eat, already.

Someone had thoughtfully put a big stack of towels and a jumble of random dry clothing on the front deck. All the other men who'd been playing were stripping down to their underwear and changing; Rodney went with the flow. He supposed the women were inside. They'd probably commandeered the shower and the hair dryer and were probably sending each other cell phone pictures of all the men being humiliated.

Rodney pulled on a pair of oversized sweatpants and a Sanitary Fish Market t-shirt and squeezed the water half-heartedly out of his pants and shirt before slapping them over the deck rail to dry.

Jack, over in the corner, had his head stuck in his shirt and was trying to yank it off. He kept saying Daniel, sounding hopeful. His boyfriend — Daniel — was delivering a lecture that kept going back to the theme of, and how old are you again, twelve?

"Old enough to know what's good for me, young enough not to do it," Jack said, finally wresting one elbow free. "Daniel?"

Rodney made himself look away. His heart didn't twist up anymore when he saw happy couples doing couple-y things — Jeannie and Kaleb had desensitized him — but he was still envious.

It did not help that he found himself looking at John, only an arm's length away and shrugging into a faded black hoodie with the bottom hem ripped out. John's lips were blue, but Rodney wasn't very surprised. John wasn't all that well insulated.

"Let me guess," he said, watching as John gingerly picked up his clothes and hung them up to drip. "You don't deal well with cold."

"Are you having a Canadian national pride moment?" John asked, sticking his hands in his pockets and rubbing his legs through the material in a very distracting way. "You and your sister going to laugh at me for getting my ass thoroughly iced?"

"We probably will," Rodney said with a straight face. "Mostly because you didn't do it in the traditional manly way, in a hockey rink. You got iced in a SpongeBob SquarePool."

"Hey." John gave Rodney a sideways look with raised eyebrows, mock injured pride. "I have the coolest SquarePool on the block."

"You keep telling yourself that," Rodney said, amused all over again that John was so good at defensive flirtation but so utterly incompetent at it when he (maybe, perhaps, possibly) meant it.

"Come on, you don't want to miss the food," John said, waving Rodney ahead of him and killing the moment just when Rodney felt as if he were on the verge of finally fitting pieces into a framework of understanding.

Rodney was immediately prepared to bitch if it turned out that he had missed the food. He hadn't realized until they made their way around back again that enough food had been prepared for a small army.

He counted five tables, set up in a rough U shape — there was a whole table devoted to pie. Rodney wondered if that was a local tradition, of if John just liked — Rodney cataloged — cherry pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, key lime pie, pecan pie, rhubarb pie, green tomato pie, Jeannie's blueberry pie, and something labeled Miss Yolanda's Chocolate Coconut Pie.

Rodney lost John in the feeding frenzy, but he did find Madison just in time to teach her the important skills of all-you-can-eat: proper portion control and plate-balancing technique. They also worked on developing the quick judgment and reflexes needed to identify and hoard the best stuff. Because Madison was small and cute and said please and thank you, ma'am, Rodney used her to get a whole extra portion of the sweet potato lasagna that people were queuing for.

Rodney was very glad that he'd borrowed pants with an elastic waistband.

He didn't know what time it was, but he assumed nearly eight. He had grabbed a seat on the sofa, and Madison had settled in his lap, clutching a plate still half-full of pie. Up in the house, the teenagers had been displaced by live music and dancing, either samba or karate or some weird mix of the two. Lots of drumming, at any rate, which seemed to have a mesmerizing effect on Madison. She kept yawning, and Rodney was afraid that she'd swallow mosquitoes and develop some kind of horrible internal rash, not to mention malaria. He thought that if he just sat still, digesting, at some point Kaleb and Jeannie would be bound to swoop down and carry off their daughter.

They were probably dancing. Rodney had noticed that the longer he was around, the more time Jeannie and Kaleb demanded in babysitting. Rodney told himself that this was because he was making Madison develop her full intellectual potential, because the alternative was simply humiliating.

The sofa sagged more towards the middle as the empty half was suddenly occupied by John's boss' boyfriend.

"Daniel Jackson," he said, holding out his hand. Rodney waved the three fingers that weren't trapped in lieu of shaking. Daniel cocked his head, and looked down, and then dropped his hand with a flash of an awkward deprecating smile. "I was talking to your brother-in-law about your work." He bit his lip. "Actually, I'm interested in whether the program you've developed to predict changes in the coastline could be used to show what this area looked like five hundred or so years ago. Ocean currents. That kind of thing."

Rodney had a horrible déjà vu-like feeling that he knew where the conversation was headed. "Tell me you're not the nut who's looking for the sunken lost island of Atlantis."

"Lantea," Daniel corrected. "Or probably originally Atzcallan, because of the shells that washed up on the beaches." He pulled out a business card, held it up as Rodney gestured again with three-fingered annoyance, and set it down on the sofa between them. "I teach maritime archeology and linguistics up the road, at East Carolina, but I find this area fascinating. Linguistically, the language spoken by the Athosians has always been assumed to be influenced by some undetermined West African dialect used by the Africans who escaped to refuge here. But then why are some words obviously Spanish? And why were the Athosian place names, before they were replaced with odd bits of classical mythology, so similar to Nahuatl?"

"Why indeed." Rodney was trying not to yawn, but the need was burrowing into his skull. His jaw ached from being clenched, and he wasn't really sure that he needed to be polite to Daniel, anyway, except for him being the boyfriend of Jack, who was the boss of John. Rodney didn't want John being hassled if he said something rude; he also didn't want John being disappointed in him. It was all twisted into a tangle of interconnectedness that suddenly made the family part of John's family reunion make a lot more sense. Rodney shifted Madison, thinking that perhaps he shouldn't have fed her so much. She seemed to have doubled her body weight. "So you have a theory."

Daniel got the Monty Python reference. He made a sour face. His theory was probably orgasm-inducing to linguistics groupies, and Daniel could probably talk about it for hours.

"Yes," Daniel said, stiffly. "But a friend of mine studying Tlaxcalan shipbuilding recently uncovered some documents which — well." Daniel took off his glasses, rubbed them on the hem of his shirt, and shoved them back on, carelessly. "We think it's a record of the ships which sailed here, one or both of which sank between Atzcallan and Acaltecoyan — Athos — in the storm which washed Atzcallan into the ocean and stranded the Aztec and Spanish sailors here. Although they might not have planned to ever return home."

Rodney's head hurt. "You want me to. . . ."

"Help me find the ships," Daniel said, with a flash of a boyish smile. "Or at least, where they would have been likely to sink."

"Do you have grant money for this project?" Rodney asked, feeling his stomach sink, because he knew he could do just what Daniel wanted, and — even worse — he felt the hitch in his thinking as his brain latched onto the problem with curiosity and interest.

Daniel pulled his eyebrows together. "I'm looking for evidence of Aztec settlement of coastal North Carolina, based on linguistic evidence," he said, enunciating slowly, so that every syllable sounded like no. Rodney bet that people laughed at him a lot. Maybe even to his face.

"You also used the word Atlantis in the title of your book," Rodney said helpfully. He didn't think that working with Daniel Jackson would help his career; he'd end up tarred with the same mockery. He wondered what kind of a mess Daniel's publisher would make of his own book. "There were pyramids on the cover. That puts you square in Chariots of the Gods land."

"And I have a history of mental illness," Daniel concluded, looking as though only the thin veneer of black humor kept him from raging. "None of that, however, means that I'm wrong."

"I'd need more data," Rodney said, cursing himself for not being able to refuse an interesting problem. "It wouldn't be cheap. Although it was clever of you to start sleeping with someone who owns an aerial surveying company. Good planning."

"I'm quite thorough when I whore myself out for my research." Daniel's tone was just a shade lighter than snide, and Rodney suddenly realized that Daniel probably hated having to go begging for help for his chance at professional redemption. Rodney found it humiliating to get help from his baby sister, but while she was annoying she was genetically compelled to love him. Asking a complete stranger must be magnitudes worse. This didn't make Rodney like Daniel any better: he still found him grating, with a very off sense of humor. But he didn't think he could ignore him, either.

"Taking up a new hobby?" Jack O'Neill asked, coming up from the back of the sofa and perching on the arm behind Daniel, looking loose and relaxed, one foot swinging idly. His eyes on Rodney, however, seemed to be assessing him for threat. He had two bottles of beer in one hand; he passed one to Daniel, and offered the other, silently, to Rodney.

Rodney used his three fingers, again, to indicate that he was trapped by a small child and unable to do anything. Including, sadly, escape.

Jack smiled.

"Rodney was just offering to help with the search for the ships," Daniel said. "Well. For a fee."

"Ah," Jack said. "The world's oldest ships, the world's oldest profession. Joke," he added, hands coming up as Daniel twisted around to look up at him. "I can live happily without ever knowing anything more about the history of boats, thank you."

"Come here," Daniel said, and pulled Jack down with one hand. He kissed him, smartly matter-of-fact, and then patted him on the knee. "Can you find the Millers, tell them Cinderella needs to get home?"

Jack stood, shaking his head. "Pretty sure you mean Sleeping Beauty," he said as a parting shot.

Daniel gave Rodney a look that was almost apologetic. "He was in the military. He gets protective."

"Yes, I look so threatening, especially armed with twenty kilos of kid." Rodney scowled. "Or did he think I was hitting on you?"

Daniel shrugged. "It's kind of funny, because that's another reason I wanted to talk to you." He paused, breathing in through his nose and pursing his mouth, and Rodney wondered if no one had ever told him how spectacularly unattractive that expression was. "John's. . . a friend of mine."

Rodney put his head back a notch to stare at Daniel through narrowed eyes.

"Platonic friend," Daniel emphasized. "It's just, he doesn't need to be hurt again."

"None of us do," Rodney snapped back, and Daniel said, "Exactly," and they glared at each other for a long moment. Rodney did consider flinging Madison at him hard enough to maybe knock him down, but he'd never be able to explain that to Jeannie.

Who appeared right that minute, like the machinery of the gods, sweeping in to apologize (to Rodney) and cuddle (Madison) and snap orders (at Kaleb: plates to be collected, bags to be found, thanks to be given). She tucked Madison's head neatly on her shoulder: Madison's feet dangled almost down to Jeannie's knees. Rodney hauled himself up out of the sofa and stretched, his back and shoulders cracking, his knees rusty. When he was done putting the pieces of himself back where they belonged, at least as best he could without the help of a professional masseur, Daniel was gone and Kaleb was back, carrying a bottom-heavy canvas bag and most of a carrot cake done up in miles of plastic cling wrap.

"You coming?" Jeannie asked. She managed to make the words a sigh; Rodney suspected she was repeating herself. "You look tired."

"I'll — " Rodney waved up at the house, thinking serious thoughts about getting drunk — "stay a while longer."

"O-kay," Jeannie said, with a little diffident shrug. "You have your key?" When Rodney nodded she reached over and gave his shoulder a squeeze. "Don't wake us up when you come in."

"You're so caring," he told her, and she tightened her grip on Madison, giving Rodney the finger as she did so. "You're a sisterly paragon." She waved goodbye and started for the road, Kaleb keeping one hand at her waist, bag hanging off his shoulder, and juggling the carrot cake with a flashlight.

Rodney sneaked into the house looking for anything resembling a bar. There wasn't one. He did find half a bottle of white wine and a stack of paper cups in the kitchen, and he sneaked back out with the bottle and one paper cup, feeling a little pathetic. He wasn't about to flaunt his pathos to an audience, so he went to sit on the railroad tie steps at the back of the yard that went down into darkness. He could hear the ocean moving against the shore somewhere in front of him and see stars in between the dark pine branches. The wine was very good at sharpening all the edges of melancholy.

And he was well on his way to being drunk, if the random poetic frame of mind could be considered a symptom.

"Hey," John said, from somewhere behind and to the right. Rodney raised a hand without bothering to turn around. John sounded as if he were smiling, amused maybe, and not like, hey, who stole the good wine.

Rodney let himself imagine that John was glad to have serendipitously found him. He was glad to have been found; at least, by John and not Daniel.

"Am I interrupting? Are you escaping the crowd?" John asked, a little closer, and Rodney shook his head and then patted the railroad tie he was sitting on in invitation.

"Are you?" Rodney asked, as John settled down next to him. John did well until he was almost seated, and then his movements became discombobulated, dropping him down heavily. John was carrying his own bottle — beer — and his instinct was to cradle the bottle instead of protect his own ass.

"Well, yeah," John said, and Rodney saw his cheeks round up in a smile. His face was mostly in shadow, but Rodney thought he could extrapolate expressions from what he knew of John. John didn't crowd up against Rodney, but he did bump his knee as he shifted, trying to get comfortable, and he apologized. "I'm a little drunk," John confided, putting his hands on the grass of the step behind him and leaning back to stare up at the sky.

"Well, stop the world," Rodney said, trying to convey a roll of his eyes with his voice. "You mad fool you."

John lolled his head sideways to give Rodney a narrow-eyed look, and Rodney realized that he was close enough to make out John's expression. He watched as John's eyes, then his mouth, even his hair and the slant of his eyebrows all conveyed consternation.

"So," John said, his voice rough with forced unnatural heartiness, and Rodney just knew that he was going to suggest they go join the line dancers or the people burning marshmallows over the grill.

"You knew that I was bi when you asked me out, right?" Rodney said, keeping his eyes on John's.

John froze, and then looked away to cough against the back of his hand. "Yeah."

"You're not really my type," Rodney went on. He liked, in general, people who were grateful for his attention, and people who weren't complex systems. It wasn't entirely that his enormous ego needed constant inflation, although he supposed — in part — that was true. But he assumed that people who looked up to him were less likely to be turned off by his flaws. At least, not immediately.

John nodded sideways, equanimous, like they were discussing something he didn't really have an opinion about.

"I like you, though," Rodney said, and reached out to rub his knuckles over the knee of John's jeans. John didn't move away. "I find it very weird. I wasn't prepared for you."

The words fell into an awkward silence, sounding small and incomplete, so Rodney leaned a bit. John moved to meet him, one hand coming up to curl under Rodney's ear. The gentle pressure of his fingers indicated Rodney should tilt left, and when he did John's mouth brushed over his so softly that, at first, it was less than a breath that passed between them. Then John's hand tightened, and John shifted, hitching up sideways on one hip, the kiss between them acting as a fulcrum.

Rodney was drunk enough, and relaxed enough, and turned on enough, that when his brain started making all kinds of nervous mechanical advantage puns, he managed to ignore them all. John was kissing him open-mouthed, now, with little flicks of his tongue along Rodney's lips, and Rodney had two hands free. He found himself pulling John closer, sliding fingers into John's hair, his other hand catching the back of the leg John had braced his weight on and curling his fingers around his thigh.

John's breathing turned harsh. Rodney tried licking his way into John's mouth and John caught his tongue with his teeth and sucked, stroking the underside with the tip of his tongue, and Rodney had to shift his hips to get comfortable because he was imagining John doing that to his dick.

Rodney felt John smile as he let his tongue go, chasing after it briefly and then going back to wet, breathy kisses that wandered from Rodney's mouth to his jawline and down his neck.

Rodney got a hand up the back of the hooded sweatshirt and found himself touching bare skin, taut over the hard bumps of vertebrae. John jerked, pressing down, and Rodney could feel the hardness of John's dick pressed up against his leg.

John lay his forehead between Rodney's shoulder and neck and just breathed for a very long moment.

"I'm not much of an exhibitionist," Rodney said, not sure if he was defensive or apologetic. He played with John's hair, reminded of the cat he used to have.

"Sorry," John said, pulling back. "Drunk, here."

Rodney tried not to get dislodged entirely. He would up with his hand around John's waist, fingers curling onto John's stomach. "Is this what you do with guys?" he had to ask, because he didn't really understand about John's sex life.

John shook his head, no.

"This is good," Rodney suggested. He wasn't so much fishing for compliments as trying to figure out what direction they were moving in. Well. He wouldn't turn compliments away. "Kissing. Making out? Except you've got the entire ladies' social aid and bakery society from church around here, not to mention Marines, and the police department again, even though with all the food you give them you should probably be arrested for bribery."

"They're all friends," John said. "But yeah, doesn't mean — " He kissed Rodney again, fast and rough, as though he was working against a deadline. Rodney gave in to it, just for a minute or two, really dirty, wet, heavy-breathing kissing. John's hands touched him all over, everywhere except his dick, which wasn't as much of a mercy as a tease, it felt like.

"I should go home," Rodney said the next time they took a breather. "I'm not coming in someone's borrowed pants, that's too weird. I could use a good twenty-minute walk."

"McKay," John said, sounding as if he were resentful of his firm grip on self-control. As if he wished he could just do what he wanted, right now, no consequences, hot sweaty sex in the back yard.

It made Rodney smile: he liked being the object of someone's desperation. "Sheppard," Rodney shot back. He pulled his clothes back straight, and ran a hand over his hair. "Rain check."

"Yeahokay," John said, mumbling it into one word, sullen, like a teenager. He stood and offered Rodney a hand up. Rodney could see the outline of John's dick, and hoped that John would be able to lose the erection before he went back to the party. "Rodney," he said, and Rodney realized that John was still stuck trying to carry on some earlier part of the conversation. "I don't do this." John moved his hand between them like a shuttle. "With guys." He breathed in and sighed, noisily. "Just the easy stuff, you know?"

Rodney shrugged. "You can do that if you want. But not with me. I mean. . . that's not where I'm going. Assuming I'm going somewhere. With this."

"That's not what I want," John said. "But it's easy."

Rodney nearly said, No, you're easy, but he figured that John knew that already. "If you were my student — if I were still teaching, which I don't because, in general, I hate students — I'd fail you for saying that. I was petty that way." There had been relief on both sides when he'd decided not to stay with teaching. "But you don't really want slacker engineers building skyscrapers." He shrugged. "Easy is a bad foundation for anything."

Weirdly, John looked pleased at this. Or at least thoughtfully drunk. But Rodney often suspected John's outward easygoing appearance of being a carefully constructed lie. John was careless about many things: his house and his possessions, who ate his food, how bad his hair looked on any given day. But the things he valued were mostly intangible — friendships and community and flying, Rodney thought — and he gave the impression that he'd protect them in the same uncompromising way he treated passengers in his helicopter. Or maybe even with the same recklessness he had in playing video games.

"I'm probably staying," Rodney said abruptly. "I mean, Elizabeth's offered me a contract, and Jeannie would probably cry if I followed her home again, and there's nothing for me to do in Vancouver anyway. If I say yes, and right now chances are really, really good I will, I'd work here — Pegasus Bay here — until the bridges are done, at least, and after that maybe Atlanta, or Charlotte, or Florida, who knows. Though North Carolina needs a lot of bridges. Parts of the old ones keep falling into the sea, and that's not good for tourism."

"Cool," John said, and put a hand on Rodney's shoulder to steer him out towards the road in a wide arc that skirted the light from the still-flickering fire. "Staying, I mean, not the bridges thing."

"Is it?" Rodney asked, sounding too loud and contentious to his own ears. "Because maybe you liked knowing I was leaving."

John walked into a soft patch of sand and had to windmill his arms for a moment. Rodney took a precautionary step away. He had a healthy sense of self-preservation "Thanks for that," John said, getting his balance back and giving Rodney a glare. "Lori's girlfriend's got a travel place, I asked already how much it was to Vancouver for Christmas."

"Huh," Rodney said, after a long moment in which the words failed to process.

"Huh," John agreed, and shoved Rodney's shoulder with the heel of his hand before sliding it over to cup the back of Rodney's neck. He looked around for a moment, as if maybe they'd gotten lost somehow, and then leaned in to steal a kiss while nudging Rodney towards the road and away from the scrubby edge of the lot.

"I'm going to need everything," Rodney realized, pulling back before the kissing got out of control again. "I don't have a house, I don't have a kitchen, I don't even own a coffee maker."

"Figures that's the first thing you think of," John muttered, trying to walk and nuzzle at the same time and managing to do both really badly, because the front yard was a mess of tents and pools and water guns and nets and balls and wet towels and cardboard boxes full of drink cans. Rodney pushed John off and didn't feel that bad about it: he didn't want to fall and break his neck. "Talk to Teyla," he added. "And I'll take you Wal-Marting for your kitchen crap."

"And a car," Rodney went on. "Do you think I rate a company car?" He frowned and stopped walking just at the end of John's driveway, by the scraggly half-dead butterfly plant that Ronon had rescued from someone's compost heap and was nursing back to health. "I should probably go home and add a few terms to my contract."

"Mr. Coffee subsidy," John said, and whiffed his hand through Rodney's hair with a baffled expression.

"So. Um," Rodney said, his mental wheels looking for traction. "We'll have to do this again. Soon."

"You going to be able to get home okay by yourself?" John asked, lines of concern on his forehead but sounding amused.

"Possibly," Rodney said. If I don't fall into the ocean."

"Here's a tip," John said. He leaned in a bit to impart his wisdom. "Walk on the road, not the beach."

"Ass," Rodney said, and aimed a slap at John's ass just because he could. It was unfair that even drunk John managed to twist out of the way, laughing. "Go back to your party."

"Good night kiss first," John said, looking hopeful.

Who was Rodney to deny hope?

Rodney didn't mean to do what he did next; or rather, he didn't mean for it to have the effect it did.

Their first kiss led to a second which led to a third which led to a marathon make-out session on John's sofa the night before Rodney had to fly down to Atlanta with Elizabeth and Jeannie and Zelenka to make a presentation at the home office. He liked John, so dating him was fun and starting to say my boyfriend in conversations instead of just John was nerve-wracking but pretty cool. John seemed to really like dating and taking things slow. Rodney suspected that might get frustrating after a while, but with the rush to finish the design phase of the bridge project by the end of August, slow fit into his schedule pretty well.

Not much changed; while most of the people who hung out at John's figured out that he and Rodney were together, it didn't seem to be a big deal. Rodney hadn't really realized just how gay-friendly the circle of John's acquaintances was until he was on the gay side of it. He expected everything to be a lot more fraught, in the state which named highways after the evangelist preacher Billy Graham and elected Jesse Helms (who was racist and homophobic) to five terms in the U.S. Senate. Walking with Teyla from her office in front of the ferry terminal to the first rental property on his short list to view, Rodney asked her if Athos was just different, somehow, and she looked at him as if he'd missed some large part of the bigger picture.

"Our history is of being outcasts," she said finally, choosing her words in a way that reminded Rodney of when he was trying to explain complex concepts to people with small minds. "The Native peoples on the mainland were absorbed into the new culture of the Ancestors, who Dr. Jackson calls the Lanteans, which in turn was influenced by the Spanish-born blacks who came with them." She spread her hands. "Enslaved people came here to be free. Pirates and criminals had a haven here as long as they respected the Athosian ways." She gave Rodney a steady, level look. "The last surviving words in the languages of the Athosian people and the Ancestors are prayers and hymns. We have a faith-based way of thinking, and it's hard for us to go against that. But it is harder to go against our history." She tilted her head to the side. "The new bridges will end centuries of isolation. It's good for us to learn to adapt and change, because the world will not stay still for us."

Rodney frowned. He tended to think of advantages like reductions in travel times and the convenience of being able to shop at Wal-Mart and McDonalds 24/7, and the practical life-saving ease of hurricane evacuation. Even simple things like taking a bus to school or going to the hospital by ambulance would be so much easier without worrying over ferry schedules Elizabeth had mentioned that there had been opposition to the bridge project from some local residents, but being diplomatic with protesters and tree-huggers and eminent domain problems was her job, not Rodney's, so he'd ignored her.

He wondered, for the first time, how long it would take after the bridges opened before Athos had its own fast food restaurants and traffic jams. More tourists would come; more rental housing would be built; the expanse of beach would have to be shared with more people. Maybe it wouldn't be such a good place to raise for children anymore.

"But it's safe here," he asked finally, and Teyla rolled her eyes.

"As safe as Canada, I'm sure," she said. "We pride ourselves on a similar culture of good manners."

"I'm an atypical Canadian," Rodney shot back, scowling, and Teyla raised her eyebrows and bit back a smile.

"You are unique," she assured him. "You are honest," and Rodney had to wave his arms and tell her to keep her affirmations to herself, he had no interest in validating his self-esteem and his skepticism was as Teflon to positive mental stimulation. "Your commission will help me finish decorating the nursery," she said with a wicked grin, and Rodney told her that he appreciated a strong mercenary streak.

"In that case," Teyla said, indicating that they should turn into a small parking lot in front of a row of shops, each door framed by potted geraniums, "I also get a percentage on furniture made by a friend."

Rodney agreed to look at catalogs, but managed — barely — to avoid making any binding promises. He did find a decent apartment, or at least the best he supposed he was going to find. It was the fourth that Teyla showed him, and he'd been eager to get the process finished.

After the conversation with Teyla, Rodney started to notice that John seemed to follow all kinds of unspoken rules. No public displays of affection was one, which was fine, Rodney was bad enough at getting things right without an audience to perform for. John also didn't go for cute couple-y conversations or pet names or double entendres. The most annoying thing about John was that he kept a distance, as if Rodney wasn't entirely trusted yet. He wanted to know more about John, and John treated personal questions like live grenades. Learning more about John was mostly due to serendipity, or possibly subterfuge.

From a day Rodney spent under a beach umbrella and a layer of SPF 100 sunscreen watching John build sandcastles with Madison, Rodney learned that the sudden appearance of a sand crab made John shout and fall over himself backing away. Rodney liked needling John about his phobia until a few days later when John literally could not use the bathroom after Jeannie said she'd killed a roach in there that morning. Teasing felt a lot less like fun and more like bullying when Rodney figured out that John really was phobic about crabs and bugs and other crawling things (being surprised was John's tripwire: it's just when they come at me he'd said, trying to explain why this was no big deal, except that sneaking around and being disgusting was what bugs did).

Nearly a week later, while they were watching a B grade horror movie with Ronon and Ford and Teyla, John finally told the story of how he'd been bitten by some deadly poisonous scorpion and had gone through excruciating pain and partial paralysis and had nearly died before he was taken to a hospital with the antidote.

"That's where I got the scar," John said, and Teyla leaned in to look at the spot on his neck that John poked at with a finger. Rodney hadn't even noticed that there was a scar, but of course after it was pointed out he found himself morbidly drawn to tracing it with a finger, the visible mark of how he'd nearly never met John because of a bug.

The second week of August, Ronon was in a terrible mood because he had to pay his university fees, in full. Rodney sympathized with Ronon's financial worries: Ronon held down at least three summer jobs, but he also had rent and car payments, and the cheapest university meal plan wouldn't begin to cover the amount that he ate. Rodney didn't have anything constructive to say, other than to offer stories about how he paid for university, which he mostly hadn't, thanks to his parents and financial aid. He had the bad luck to be napping on the sofa the day before Ronon had to go fork over his life's savings to the cashier, when Ronon and John got into an explosive argument because John wanted to give Ronon the money. Rodney pretended to be asleep and inadvertently learned that John's father was dead.

"Just take the damn money," John shouted, sounding about a step away from throwing something through a window.

"Yeah, your dad would be so pissed if he knew what you were doing with your inheritance," Ronon rumbled back as he paced the length of the living room.

Rodney peeked when John didn't say anything to that. John was leaning in the hallway doorframe, watching Ronon, arms crossed with his hands tucked under, as if he were cold. "It's not about trying to make him spin in his grave," he said finally, after having made aborted attempts to piece together what he wanted to say. "It's not about it being Sheppard money at all. It's because it's my money, and I want to use it for something good."

"So start a fucking scholarship," Ronon said, and stared John down. Rodney didn't know anything about scholarships except how to apply for them, but he was starting to get the idea that John had inherited a lot of money.

"Yeah, well, maybe I will," John muttered belligerently, and that seemed to make everything fine again.

Over dinner that night, Ronon brought up the fact that he'd gone with John to his dad's funeral. "I buried both my parents," Ronon said as an aside to Rodney, who fell back on making what he hoped was a sympathetic expression, even though he felt blindsided. "You don't want to be alone at a thing like that." He went on to add that John had an older brother who was an asshole. "He spent the whole time looking from me, to John, and back at me," Ronon said, demonstrating by sliding his eyes between John and Rodney.

Rodney shrugged. "Well. I thought you two were together, too, at first." John excused himself to go bang things in the kitchen as Ronon grinned wolfishly.

"Nah. He pulled John to the side and hassled him because he thought I was his son."

Rodney did a bit of mental math. "You weren't a precocious teenager, were you?" he called after John, who threw him a rude gesture.

"It was still really fun to fuck with the guy's head, though," Ronon said, and dug into his soup with enthusiasm.

That was the conversation that prompted Rodney to do what he was surprised he hadn't done before. He liked to play with the internet at work because of the high-speed connection, so the next day during his lunch break he typed John's name into Google.

There turned out to be hundreds of John Sheppards, but Rodney knew how to work a search engine. He found the obituary for John's father pretty easily. He also found a blog which mentioned the writer's having wintered over in Antarctica with a Major John Sheppard. Rodney hit dead ends trying to find John's resume or his high school class, but following his military career was a little easier. The most intriguing thing he found was a footnote in a PDF article titled America's Shameful Legacy. The note cited an incident which the government had allegedly suppressed, in which a Lieutenant John Sheppard had been kidnapped and tortured by a splinter group of a rebel faction that had been heavily funded by the US. The article's author ranted about censorship, because while the government denied the incident, a videotape had recently come to light.

In general, Rodney thought the woman sounded like a conspiracy theorist and a flake, but she worked at UMass, and he had a contact there, Bill Lee, who'd worked with him on the Chicago sewer project. He made a few calls and promised to look over a paper on permafrost in return for Bill's trudging over to Political Science and asking for a copy of the video.

Rodney had thought of this happening sometime in the distant, unshaped future, and therefore hadn't thought the whole idea through. He was curious, but he wasn't sure that this level of stalker-like curiosity was healthy, or that John would forgive him. If he had had to cool down for a week while waiting for a package to arrive from Massachusetts, he might have just thrown it away.

But this was the age of the internet, and Bill sent him the video file that evening, with an amused what the fuck note. Rodney downloaded it and wrote back thank you. He nearly added something about saying hi to the wife and kids, except he thought that Bill might have mentioned that his marriage had fallen apart. Maybe.

Bill Lee had also written that he hoped Rodney wasn't researching new motivational techniques for his minions.

That was the thing about torture, Rodney thought distantly as the image on his laptop screen broke into static and then started again with a new timestamp a few hours after the first demands had been made. Waiting for the latest season of Lost to be released on DVD was described as torture. Having to listen to Britney Spears in the mall was called torture. It was hyperbole to the point of being an overdone joke.

But there was nothing funny about hearing John scream through a dirty gag. It was horrifying, even though Rodney knew rationally that he was watching the past, and John seemed to have come out of the experience no worse for wear.

He didn't even have any scars; not that Rodney had noticed, at any rate. But that was one of the benefits of using electricity in torture. You could cause excruciating pain and yet leave no marks.

Rodney called the UMass professor, who talked to him as if they were partners in their battle against government oppression or whatever. Rodney asked what had happened after. She said the rebel group had continued to be US allies and get funding from Congress; no one was ever tried for war crimes that had officially never happened. She said she didn't know what happened to Lieutenant Sheppard, other than he escaped and stayed in the military, which she sounded disappointed about. If he'd denounced the American military, she'd probably have invited him to give talks, but in the end, John was tangential to her thesis. A footnote.

After that, Rodney needed to talk to Jeannie. He couldn't tell her what he had done. He had to say, "Suppose you were looking around in someone's closet — metaphorical closet — and you found something bad."

Jeannie went all parental on him and said he shouldn't have in the first place. She asked if he was talking about John, and then she asked if it was something bad that someone did, like drugs or gambling, or something that had happened, like a car accident or cancer.

"Something that someone did to John, to hurt him," Rodney said. He was afraid to be more specific, because otherwise he'd spill everything.

"It's really not your business," Jeannie said. Her face had those sympathetic lines across the forehead that she got. "I mean, you probably should tell him you were sneaking around, but I have to say, I'd be furious if Kaleb did that to me."

"Do you have horrible secrets?" Rodney asked, alarmed.

"No," Jeannie said, as if Rodney was missing the point. "If you're going to obsess, confess. But really you should try to forget. And I hope you learned your lesson," she said loudly in closing, as Rodney got up to go.

Rodney changed the name of the file, and the extension, and password-protected it, and put it in a password-protected folder.

He knew he was a terrible liar, but he'd worked on enough projects where confidentiality was essential that he had work-arounds. John knew that Rodney was nervous; Rodney just let him assume that he was nervous for the obvious reason, which was that they were probably going to move beyond making out and start having sex soon.

It stood to reason. He liked John and John for some reason seemed to like him (though he didn't know about the creepy stalker-like invasion of privacy, and hopefully he never would).

The biggest barrier for Rodney to get over, mentally, was that John fucked guys he didn't know in the backs of nightclubs in Wilmington. Not all the time, John had said, looking as if it pained him physically to talk about his sex life. A couple times a year, maybe. Rodney had smirked and implied that John must watch a lot of porn, and John said what else was there to do when you didn't have cable, and then he said, I haven't — I mean, I'm with you now and You're not like that, I'm taking my time with you.

"I don't even know how it's possible to have good sex on a one night stand," Rodney said, and okay, Jeannie was right, he did have obsessive tendencies.

John shrugged, looking even more awkward and more like he wanted to run away than ever have sex. "Why it's called getting lucky."

But a few days later Rodney went to get a Coke from John's refrigerator and found John's test results attached to the freezer with magnets. Rodney pocketed the whole envelope, glad to not have to talk it over and glad to not have to ask where a good clinic was. When he got his own certification of being disease-free he left it on the same place when Jeannie sent him over to return a casserole dish.

"Oh, hey, thanks," John had said, catching Rodney with magnets in hand.

"It was a good casserole," Rodney said with as much dignity as he could muster. He straightened the corners of the envelope and stepped back. "For something involving eggplant, that is. Jeannie wants the recipe."

"Sure," John said, easy. He pulled open the deep drawer which was full of tools, tape and glue, and stationery debris, and started rummaging. "I'll write it down. Let me just get a pen."

Rodney didn't say anything, just went to lean against the counter so his arm was up against John's side, and it was just a natural progression to slide his hand over John's stomach.

"Writing, here," John said.

Rodney lifted his hand to wave impatiently. "So write."

"You're distracting me."

"Well." Rodney didn't need to think too hard about that. "Yes. Yes, I am. It's not so much that I don't want my sister cooking eggplant, although that might be affecting my actions subconsciously, but more — you know."

"What, this?" John said, dropping the pen and shifting his weight smoothly so that he sort of slid right into Rodney's personal space. "Or maybe more like this?" and he pressed up with his leg, rubbing Rodney's dick through his pants.

Rodney grinned. "That too," and he leaned forward to kiss John, pushing into him and getting pushed right back into the counter. John kissed back like it was a competitive sport, trying to take over Rodney's mouth and groaning when Rodney went on the offensive, catching his tongue with his teeth before letting it go. John had to reach down to adjust himself in his jeans, and he palmed Rodney's dick as well, getting a good feel for it before pressing his hips forward so that his dick slid against Rodney's.

"You're clean, right?" John said, and he sounded hungry. "Because I want — "

Rodney wasn't surprised that John could be hot and stupidly reckless at the same time. "You shouldn't trust people to tell you the truth," he said, hunching a little as he tried to get his breath while John eased his zipper down. "That's the whole point of the, the thing. From the place."

"If you lie to me, I know where you live and I could tell your sister," John said, sounding amused as he slid down to his knees. "Or get Teyla to hit you with sticks." He pushed Rodney's pants down enough to be out of the way and rubbed his cheek against the ridge of Rodney's dick in his boxers. "I've been thinking about how much I wanted your dick in my mouth. About what you'd taste like. What you'd look like when you come."

"John," Rodney said. He meant it as a warning, and was annoyed that his voice came out much less threatening than breathless.

"Can I?" John asked, looking up, and Rodney used the hand that wasn't clinging hard to the edge of the counter to tug his boxers down. John caught Rodney's dick in one hand, looping his thumb and fingers around it loosely, and traced the head over his lips like he was putting on lip-gloss. Which he kind of was; the shine of precome on John's mouth was obscene and devastating and made Rodney shove forward before he could check himself, apologizing as his dick slid along John's cheek. "It's okay," John said, mouthing up Rodney's dick, "you can fuck my mouth, that's good," and he opened those wet lips and swallowed Rodney down until his mouth met his fist.

Rodney groaned and concentrated on not coming right away, even though he could have, from the heat of John's mouth and the way his tongue curled and the habit John had of tipping his head to the side. John slid one and then his other hand to the backs of Rodney's legs, just below his ass, and tugged Rodney forward like an invitation. Rodney didn't know that real people did this outside of porn: it seemed as if it would be uncomfortable, and he hated having to apologize during sex. But he wasn't capable of discussing oral sex etiquette rationally, not now, not with John's fingers curling again, insistent and encouraging. Rodney pushed in slowly, watching as John stilled, watching his dick disappear, then pulled back and thrust in again, harder.

"Mmn," John said, low down in his throat, and the vibration was so good that Rodney chased it with a sharp shove of his hips. John didn't even gag, but his eyes slid shut, and he pulled tight with his hands. Rodney barely had time to think that he was fucking John's throat before he pulled back and almost all the way out, the tight ring of John's mouth holding him as he felt John breathe and swallow and arc to meet the next thrust.

Rodney felt like he was falling into some sci-fi phenomenon, like a time vortex, something where time slowed down to the point where small details and sensations became huge and mesmerizing, but at the same time there seemed to be no time, just a headlong rush towards completion that shook through him like an earthquake, with the same roaring in his ears and the same vertigo. He could feel John swallowing, and swallowing, and pulling back while still swallowing, and finally sitting all the way back and pulling Rodney's boxers up over his hips while his dick was still wet and sensitive.

John had to pull himself up with one hand on the counter, clumsy and breathing hard. His mouth was wet and red and Rodney had to kiss him, even though he hadn't come all the way back down yet and all his movements were expansive. He kissed over John's mouth, licking at the taste of himself, and sucked on John's lower lip. John slid a hand roughly down Rodney's arm, found his hand, and pressed it over the tight outline of his erection in his jeans.

Rodney's head was clearing, so he was able to better appreciate John as he started to gasp and growl and swear as he fought to get the jeans unbuttoned.

"Has anybody ever told you that you're impatient?" Rodney asked, shoving John's hand away so he could rub John's dick first through his underwear, and then pulling the waistband out with his thumb so he could slide his hand in all the way to his wrist, fingertips sliding down to brush over the softness of John's balls before curling around to get a good grip. By which time John was too uncoordinated to kiss, even, breathing heavy into Rodney's shoulder. "How do you want to do this?"

"Need to come," John said, sounding frantic. Rodney was about to give John the pull-down menu of his options (handjob, blowjob, rubbing off on Rodney's leg, maybe even fucking Rodney, though he thought it was too soon) when the loud slam of a car door came right through the open window.

John's head shot up and he gave Rodney a comically horrified look. Rodney's hand tightened around his dick involuntarily. John swore, came all over Rodney's hand and his pants, and executed a high-speed disappearance into his bathroom.

Rodney was at the sink washing his hands when Ronon walked in, saying hey there and dropping three canvas sacks of groceries on the table.

Ronon gave Rodney a knowing smile when he turned around, drying his hands on John's dishtowel.

"Give me a hand getting this stuff put away, will you," Ronon said, opening the bottom cabinet where big and heavy things went and moving boxes around until there was room for several tall stacks of cans.

"Spaghetti-o's?" Rodney asked, fitting two loaves of bread in the refrigerator and stuffing the ham and sliced cheese behind the condiments on the door. It reminded him of playing Tetris.

"Stuff I'm taking with me," Ronon explained. "Don't know if any of my housemates cook. Got some ramen, too."

"You're breaking my heart," John said, wandering in wearing a clean pair of pants and a look of false innocence. Ronon stared at him — or maybe at the red mark on the side of John's neck — and then his eyebrows curled up along with his smile. John narrowed his eyes. "How can you be too lazy to cook spaghetti?"

"Nothing's as good as home cooking," Ronon said, stuffing two of the empty bags into the third and hanging them on the hook above the crockery potato pot.

John threw up his hands and cracked the refrigerator to dig out three beers, which he passed around. "Yeah, well, you could get the yard cleaned up while I'm making dinner."

"Rodney said he'd help me," Ronon said, toasting Rodney with his can.

"Uh-huh," John said, and things got very confused for a moment as Rodney tried to glare at Ronon while John was looking between the two of them trying to figure out what was up. Ronon gave Rodney a look with one eyebrow that reminded him, in a bad way, of mafia movies.

"I wanted to make sure that everything's safe in case the hurricane off Cuba decides to ravage its way north instead of heading for Alabama," Rodney said, lying but thinking, as he spoke, that hurricane-proofing the yard might be a good idea anyway. "You'd be upset if you got guillotined by your clothesline."

"I think you mean garroted," John said, rolling his eyes and waving them out of the house with admonishments about some ground cover being better than no ground cover.

"He plays golf and he can't tell grass from weeds," Ronon said, heading for the storage room and pulling out a bunch of serious-looking gardening implements. "You should have seen this place before I moved in. It was bad." He handed Rodney a big plastic garbage bag. "Pretty much paid my first three months of rent with landscaping. You know I ran away, right?"

Rodney blinked. "From what?"

Ronon shrugged and walked out. He set his beer down on the back steps and gestured for Rodney to follow suit. He looked around for a moment before heading for a clump of. . . green stuff. Probably weeds, given the quick way Ronon wrapped one gloved hand around the stems and yanked.

"I grew up on Sateda. Had my family there, and friends. When Floyd came through, the kids were sent to the mainland, and our parents stayed. No one knows what happened. People went over after the storm passed and there were no houses, no people, just. . . swallowed up by the ocean. I was fifteen, I couldn't stay, went across the country twice before coming back here. I knew Halling and Teyla. They got John to rent me his room, even though I was broke." He held out a handful of uprooted weeds, and Rodney opened the bag so they could be stuffed in. "I thought John'd expect me to pay with sex. Don't tell him that, though."

"Never," Rodney said, feeling bludgeoned. "He'd be — " He sketched the air, trying to describe how that would affect John.

"Yeah," Ronon said, and qualified that with, "he's a good guy." He moved along to a shrub that had overgrown raggedly, and took out a large knife. Rodney stopped a prudent distance away. "Weird, but." He shrugged. "He never brought anyone home before."

"Oh, wait," Rodney said, the lightbulb going on. "So you are asking me about my intentions?"

"Like I don't know what you guys intend," and the last word was weighted not so much with innuendo as fact. Ronon worked quickly, the knife flashing through the branches, removing all the unruly growth. "I want to know if I'm in the way. I could move out."

"Oh, that would go over well," Rodney said, quick and sarcastic before he could restrain himself. "Yes, my whole plan here had been to replace you in his affections. I've always aspired to be the evil stepmother in a dysfunctional gay family. I thought you had to be smart to get into university."

"You weren't smart enough to lock the door before fooling around," Ronon countered, but he looked amused. "If you're going to stay, there's stuff you should know," he started. Rodney made a strangled noise and threw his hands up as best he could without launching the bag. Ronon grinned and kicked at something with his boot. "This stuff. It's full of thorns and it takes over in no time. Just rip it all out. Get the roots, too."

"Do I look like I do yardwork?" Rodney asked. Ronon gave him a flat level stare. "No. No, I do not."

Ronon shrugged, his shoulders rolling with menacing slowness. "John wouldn't notice, but if I came home one weekend and found this shit all over. . . ."

"On the other hand," Rodney said, drawing himself up, "there are definite advantages to being evil," and he handed Ronon the garbage bag, collected his beer, and stalked off to go inspect the clothesline and the mailbox and anything else that even a 65 knot wind might send flying.

For some reason, this seemed to convince Ronon that Rodney was also an okay kind of guy, to the point where he felt able to pound Rodney on the back to empathize points in conversation and offer to swap surfing lessons for tutoring in statistics. Rodney agreed to the tutoring if Ronon promised to not teach him surfing.

Ronon packed his car and headed off on the twentieth, which gave John a week to mope around the empty nest before he had to come help Rodney move into his new apartment. Rodney was busy; he hoped that was a good excuse to not be emotionally supportive. He bought John new games for his DS instead, and sent him rambling text messages about how badly-built bridges failed, structurally.

Rodney and Jeannie had reached the final stages of the design process, entering a stage of consciousness that was beyond caffeinated sleeplessness to the point of approaching Zen enlightenment. They didn't just finish each other's sentences; they could start them. Kaleb said for Jeannie to call him when she was sane again. She waved him off distractedly and spent the next three days in the office living off granola bars.

Virtual caissons were erected, and virtual base units and pier shafts and massive, 180 meter long main-span box girders. The main box girders were linked together with 60 meter drop-in spans to form the three arches, low enough to blend in harmoniously with the environment but high enough to avoid storm-surge damage and to allow traffic from the Intracoastal Waterway to pass below. The whole structure was virtually subjected to storm tests, extreme weather tests, aging, and once (it had been very, very late at night) attack by a virtual squid the size of the CN Tower that Rodney had built after rewatching Tentacles. Zelenka wandered in and out talking about the availability of barge-mounted cranes, or locations where girders could be cast offsite, and occasionally making suggestions that were all the more maddening for being correct.

Everything was done and delivered a full day before deadline, which felt less like a major accomplishment than a bone-deep exhaustion. Elizabeth held a meeting about signage, and Rodney didn't have a clue what that was until he was staring at slides of street signs dotting the virtual lanes of the road on the bridge. The slides used footage from the drive-through simulation, showing the pristine pavement curving up out of Pegasus Bay, dipping down to Sateda Banks (where little simulated horses grazed) and then flying out over the blue to Athos and on to Topsail.

It looked real, and Rodney was absolutely speechless. By the stunned expressions on Jeannie and Zelenka's faces as well, they hadn't realized that the bridges were real, either: not built, yet, but real enough to have a speed limit and yield signs.

Elizabeth took them all out to celebrate at a restaurant with heavy white tablecloths, but Rodney didn't remember anything about the evening except ordering the most expensive steak off the menu, agreeing to assess repairs to a Georgia highway damaged in the recent hurricane, and being driven home by Kaleb, with Madison in the front seat while Rodney and Jeannie fell asleep on each other in the back.

"Do I know you?" was the first thing John said, staring at Rodney narrow-eyed and sarcastic, when Rodney showed up Thursday night. He followed that up with, "You need to shave," while steering Rodney towards the bathroom, "and take a shower."

"We're done," Rodney explained, wrestling his way out of a t-shirt that he couldn't remember putting on. "We have signage."

"That's awesome," John said, clearly clueless but faking enthusiasm anyway. "Take what you need, okay?" he added, pulling a box out from under the sink full of plastic wrapped toothbrushes and razors and little sample-sizes of cheap shampoo all marked with the names of chain motels. When Rodney finished blissing out in the hot water and enjoying the soft feeling of not being layered in stale sweat and Cheeto powder, he dried off with one of John's horrible hibiscus beach towels and found that his own disgusting clothes had been replaced by a clean pair of cargo shorts and a bright purple ECU football sweatshirt, complete with a picture of a pirate.

Rodney spent ten minutes denigrating John's taste in clothes and expounding on the dangers of recasting pirates as romantic figures, for which he largely blamed Johnny Depp. John nodded along as he heated up soup and put the biscuits in the oven, making the occasional infuriating comment like purple brings out your eyes or you don't think Jack Sparrow's hot?.

"I think you're hot," Rodney interrupted himself to say, and John leaned over to kiss him. Rodney pulled John closer by his apron strings, and John gave a breathy sigh into the kiss and sort of melted, tension draining out of him all in a rush. Rodney was too strung out on the aftermath of stress to have the coordination or the inclination to do more, but John wasn't pushing for more. He seemed happy enough to slide his fingers into Rodney's wet hair and kiss slowly, until the oven timer went off.

They ate on the sofa, getting crumbs all over the nubbly blanket while watching a Monty Python marathon on TV. Sometime after John took the dishes into the kitchen, possibly during a Dennis Lupin sketch, Rodney fell asleep, sagging sideways into John until John muttered and shifted about and settled with Rodney's head on his leg and one hand on Rodney's arm. Rodney had the vague feeling that people kept coming and going; at some point the TV was shut off and — possibly — a board game was played in the kitchen.

He didn't wake up until nearly ten the next morning, when John shook him and shoved him upright, pressing a mug into his hands and telling him to get a move on, the furniture delivery truck would be at the new apartment in half an hour and Teyla was. . . not frantic, she didn't do frantic, but very firmly insistent that Rodney be there.

"Yeah, okay, right," Rodney said, hanging onto the nearest part of John available, which was the knee of his jeans. Two thirds of the way into his coffee, the words finally registered. "What?"

"I have the keys," John explained, digging them out of his pocket. He'd attached them to the ridiculous shark, and dangled the ring around his finger. "I went over to Jeannie's this morning and picked up your stuff. It's in the car."

"What day is today?" Rodney asked, trying to pull John down. John resisted, grinning as it turned into a tug of war.

"Jeannie got you a basket of stuff to give Teyla, okay?" John said, liberating the coffee cup and hauling Rodney up. His back cracked in protest, and he glared. "She figured you wouldn't have anything prepared."

"Just tell me what to do," Rodney said, figuring that was the safest course of action, and aimed himself at John's bathroom.

John took him literally, and Rodney found himself being steered through the placement of furniture and the tipping of the delivery people who carried it upstairs, the complimenting of Teyla's choices for wall colors and curtains and the presentation of the basket of stuff (which earned Rodney a hug) and the unpacking of the one suitcase and the cardboard box that contained all Rodney's belongings aside from the computer.

John told Rodney to take Teyla out to eat, and he tagged along even though they were going to the seafood place with the big crab tank that creeped John out. This meant that Rodney had to pretend to be interested when Teyla talked about the plans for the Fall Festival.

"We were written up in Southern Living last year," Teyla said, leaning forward as if she were trying to unobtrusively stretch her back. The baby bump was very obvious and slowed her down, which made people treat her in a way Rodney could tell annoyed her. Her eyes got very flinty and her chin stuck out every time, for example, John tried to usher her to the nearest chair. "I have never dealt with so many people wanting to stay on the island through late October."

"It could be global warming, too," Rodney offered. "You might end up with year-round swimming, as long as melting glaciers don't raise the ocean levels a few more feet. Super storms might wash the islands away before that, though."

Teyla gave him a severe look. "I hope not. I am negotiating with a buyer about a large oceanfront lot. She wishes to build four duplex units."

"Tell her to build them high," Rodney said, pointing at her for emphasis. "Also consider renaming the festival Oktoberfest, so that you'll be ready for year-long summer."

Teyla sipped her water and then looked pointedly at John and started talking about locally-made pottery and textiles and other goods that would be sold at the Fall Festival. John made a lot of affirmative conversational noises that probably meant he'd be heading home from the festival with another nubbly thing to drape artistically over his furniture.

"You will enjoy the musical performances," Teyla told Rodney, with a challenging smile. "The stage for the afternoon concerts will be in the park across from your apartment."

"Oh, God," Rodney said, realizing that he hadn't considered the potential danger of the white gazebo that he could see from the bedroom. "Are there tubas in bluegrass?"

John was still laughing at him for that as they walked down the main street to Rodney's apartment after escorting Teyla back to her office (John insisted that he would have done so even if she wasn't pregnant; Teyla still looked as if the courtesy burned). The apartment that Teyla had found for Rodney was simple, with one bedroom and a shower that looked like a phone booth, but it was centrally located two blocks east of the ferry terminal, over the beauty and nail salon. Like Ronon's apartment, it was usually rented out to students who came to the island to work summers, and it had come with furniture that was duct-taped together. Rodney told the owner — an intimidating woman who lived on the mainland — that he'd pay to replace everything and would leave it behind when he left. In the end, she'd even agreed to reduce the rent, providing he did his own plumbing.

Rodney climbed the stairs and got the door open while John grabbed still more stuff from the car. Rodney found himself wandering around in a state of bemused disbelief, trailing his fingers over the new bed, with fresh new sheets and a very colorful comforter, and stroking the mostly empty shelves of the bookcase, and rubbing the bright stripes on the sofa fabric as if they might rub off. He was used to living out of a suitcase and spending weeks or months just glad to have his own space to sleep. This new apartment was bright and tastefully decorated; he felt he shouldn't complain about it not feeling like home, especially since he hadn't had a home in, what, twenty years? Something like that.

"I guess we have to break this place in," John said, pushing through the front door with a bag of groceries in one arm and clutching a frying pan. "Here, this is yours," he said, and handed it over to Rodney, who nearly dropped it.

"Is this thing solid iron?" Rodney asked, and John smirked and said that he knew Rodney wouldn't want crappy Teflon-covered aluminum.

Rodney put the frying pan on the kitchen counter with a loud thunk. "Why can't I have a normal boyfriend?"

"They were sold out," John said, straight-faced and earnest.

Rodney grabbed him and kissed him until John got to the point where when Rodney told him to get on the table, John just said okay, his voice rough and his better judgment shot. Rodney got between John's legs, which he was tenting with his feet propped up on the chairs, and pulled his jeans down. John muffled his groans with his forearm as Rodney went down on him and came hard, shaking, with his other hand tangled in Rodney's hair.

"Sofa," John said, almost as soon as Rodney pulled off, rolling to his feet with only a bit of unbalanced stumbling as he hitched his boxers and jeans up.

"Sexy," Rodney said, meaning the exact opposite, but a moment later, when John was spreading him out over the sofa with his clothes all half-undone, he did think that John's intensity was pretty hot. John sucked on his nipples and bit his earlobes and licked all of his fingers and made Rodney come a good fifteen minutes after he started demanding his orgasm now, damn it.

John was smug about this, and Rodney told him he was lucky that Rodney was temporarily incapacitated with sexual lethargy.

John looked even more self-satisfied at that. "I'll give you another minute of afterglow, and then I'll drive you back to Jeannie's," he said. "She was kind of frantic this morning, packing and saying her goodbyes and all."

"She likes being busy," Rodney muttered, but rolled up to sitting anyway, grumbling about how John got his clothes all wrinkled.

"Fashionably distressed," John corrected.

"I'll give you fashionably distressed," Rodney said. He pushed to his feet and got right into John's space, busy with kissing until he realized that John was holding himself at an awkward angle because he was hard again. "What, seriously, once isn't good enough for you?" Rodney said, grinning as he pushed John back against the living room wall and got his leg between John's. John's hips rocked forward into the pressure while John's head fell back, leaving Rodney with an expanse of neck to lick while John curled his hands around Rodney's waist and fucked himself to a second orgasm.

John claimed Rodney's mouth with sloppy, enthusiastic kisses until his breathing was back to normal and he wasn't so limp that Rodney suspected he'd just melt to the floor if not for the way he was hanging on.

"Do you do that a lot?" Rodney asked, taking a step back and checking that John was able to stand on his own. When John didn't collapse — which would have been hilarious; Rodney certainly wouldn't have let John live it down — Rodney gave him a bright ha, so there grin.

"Only if I've been listening to you beg," John said, frowning as if he wanted to be annoyed but didn't quite have the energy. He locked himself in Rodney's bathroom trying to reclaim some dignity, or failing that, at least wash off.

There wasn't really any way to fix the tell-tale dampness on John's jeans, though, so when he pulled up at Jeannie's and Rodney asked if John wanted to come in for coffee, or snacks, or something, John just gave him a very accusatory close-mouthed smile and said no, thanks.

"But you'll come by before they leave on Sunday, right?" Rodney asked. "And by leave I mean insanely early from Wilmington, first ferry over and all that."

"I'll be there," John said. He meant that literally, Rodney found out, driving all the way down with them to the airport and manfully dealing with hugs from all three Millers, as well as carrying their enormous suitcases. He drove Rodney back with a kind of sympathetic silence, asking Rodney to choose the radio station, and he let Rodney skulk around his house in a foul mood for a couple of days before forcing him to call Jeannie and admit that he missed her.

"We'll see you at Christmas," Jeannie assured him. "Madison won't stop talking about you to her school friends, everything's 'my Uncle Mer this' or 'my Uncle Mer that'. She told Kaleb she wanted to be a paleontologist when she grew up."

"Did he write bad poetry about it?" Rodney asked, and Jeannie yelled loudly for John to hit him.

John fortunately just heard the squawking and not the words, but he still gave Rodney a look like he'd been a bad, bad boy.

Right before hanging up, Jeannie made Rodney tell her that he loved her and Madison, and that even Kaleb wasn't so bad. Jeannie made kissing noises into the phone and told him to give one to John. Which Rodney did.

September was an incredibly busy month, to the point where after John and Rodney compared schedules they had to actually pencil in tentative times when they could see each other. Rodney had the Pegasus Bay bridges project, which had already begun the 'build' phase of design/build, the highway work in Georgia that Elizabeth had tricked him into accepting when he was blissed out on good food, and the ridiculous search for Daniel's lost Aztec settlement, which had come into money from somewhere. The only thing that Rodney didn't have to worry about, much, was his book, which had been sent off to the publisher. But Rodney anticipated that the editing process would be a protracted bloodbath.

John had finally gotten the balls to talk to O'Neill about how bored he was, and O'Neill had promptly taken advantage of him. In return for flying Daniel around looking for Aztec remains and in addition to his regular workload, O'Neill was loaning John out to some aerial filming company.

Rodney hadn't even known that a ridiculous number of American films and television shows were filmed and produced in Wilmington, and now he was dating someone who was starting to drop Hollywood slang into otherwise normal conversations.

"They need a pilot who can — " John spread his hands, making a swooping motion that was probably meant to look exciting and not deadly — "handle pretty much any kind of picture ship, military or civilian. They make a lot of police and medical dramas and that miniseries about the war."

"Oh, that one," Rodney said, rolling his eyes and doing some quick math. "You're going to spend more time in the air than sleeping."

John grinned. "I know." He rubbed his palms down the tops of his thighs. "Jack said he's been thinking of expanding into TV and video. I mean, Wilmington, right?"

Rodney was wondering if they'd make John wear costumes, which might be hilarious, or if they'd ask him to crash into things. John was already bruised from coaching Jinto and a handful of his friends for the Jacksonville skateboard competition in October. He didn't listen when Rodney suggested that he could do all his coaching from the comfort of a folding chair; Rodney was sure that if the film people asked John to, say, hover at a few hundred feet and basically thumb his nose at death, he probably would.

So with all the things going on, Rodney wasn't surprised to make it all the way to the end of the month before he walked into the SGC one morning with two dozen Krispy Kreme donuts purchased to fundraise for skateboarders, said "Hey there" to the receptionist, and made it as far as Zelenka's cubicle before having the epiphany that he'd not only relocated to North Carolina but that he seemed to be fine with it. This was accompanied by sudden vertigo and the need to explain that he had no idea what had happened to the person he thought he was.

"I'm living on an island with a population of five hundred where the big idea of local culture is surfing and outdoor concerts and an annual crafts fair," he said, speaking loud enough to turn heads across the room. "I should be breaking out in hives."

Zelenka rubbed his glasses on the tail of his shirt, shoved them back on, and lifted the donut bag away gently. "It is not so bad," Zelenka said. "Look, everyone, donuts!"

In the feeding frenzy that followed, Zelenka told Rodney his dramatic tale of immigration, and Simpson laughed at both of them. She was from some microscopic town in Mississippi and argued that North Carolina wasn't Southern at all because of all the northerners who'd moved there. This started a minor cultural war, in which it turned out that only one person in the office was native to Carteret County.

The rabble drew Elizabeth from her office, and she looked around at her staff like a kindergarten teacher on playground duty. "Bloom where you're planted," she said dryly, after a long moment heavy with abashed silence. "Focus, people."

The crowd dispersed; Rodney continued on to his workstation; and over lunch he and Zelenka made a pact that if either caught the other ever saying y'all, there would be endless humiliation.

"So where's the big guy?" Rodney asked, after wandering in after work and spending a few pleasurable minutes watching John organize the ingredients for dinner, lay out two chopping boards, and mull over knives. As far as he could tell, they were the only two people in the house, which was rare. When Rodney needed to be antisocial, they usually ended up at his apartment, but he liked hanging out at John's and being part of the ebb and flow of friends, acquaintances, and occasional random strangers. He was used to going over Ronon's statistics homework on the weekends, but today there had only been John's car downstairs.

John flashed him a quick glance before getting back to work. "He's not coming home. Some game or a party or maybe both."

Just like that, Rodney had trouble breathing, as if all the air in John's kitchen had become heavily charged with potential sex. John didn't seem to notice: he just kept on dicing things like carrots and zucchinis and eggplants, long hard phallic things, thin strong fingers holding them down, each stroke of the knife fast and sure, with precise and perfect wrist control.

Rodney felt cold between his shoulder blades, probably as a result of the nervous sweating reflex. He was so turned on he couldn't think of anything to distract himself.

"I'm," he said. John paused, looking around. He was wearing his apron with the strings tied in front, tight around his waist, and while objectively Rodney knew it should look dorky, it really, really didn't. He pointed at the door. "I'm going out on the deck."

"Yeah, okay," John said, easy. He was in the cooking zone, focused on food and as a result distant and distracted. "This'll be done in a bit."

The only thing Rodney could think of to say to that was God, you're sexy in your apron. He restrained himself, and fled.

He went around to the ocean side of the deck not just to get out the line of view of the kitchen, but so he could watch the curve of ocean visible beyond the pines. Behind him, over past the top of the softball field's wire fence, the sun was setting. The last heavy gold sunlight flashed along the crests of the waves, but the troughs were already filled with darkness and shadow. Rodney spotted the first two stars and wondered if any of the x-rated thoughts he had could be wished on stars.

"Sorry," John said, after a while, appearing at Rodney's side and leaning his forearms on the deck rail. "I forget how boring it is to watch someone cook."

Rodney snorted. "Yeah, boring? Not so much. Try really hot."

John coughed a laugh and bumped his shoulder against Rodney's. "Uh, huh."

"No really. I've developed an apron kink."

John did a quarter turn, still leaning but now giving Rodney an incredulous tilt of the eyebrows. "I cook for you all the time."

"Ronon's not home," Rodney said, weighing each word with significance, and John's eyebrows went up even higher, like an unspoken oh. "He's nice — I like him — but he's not home. And there's nobody else here, and I discovered that the lock on your door actually does work. So we could — you know."

John was still, digesting this. Rodney considered his options and then put an arm around John's waist.

"There's supper," John said, slowly.

"There's your bedroom," Rodney whipped back. "I mean — it's just you and me, and we've been so busy that we've never even been naked together, doesn't that seem a little weird to you?" He stopped and nudged John with his knuckles. "If you, you maybe don't have condoms and lube, I do, I could run home because I — "

"But I'm hungry," John said, and Rodney had to stop and pull back to stare at him to check if he was being fucked with. John looked perfectly normal. "Supper first?"

"O-kay," Rodney said, drawing the word out in disbelief. "You're not a virgin, are you?"

"Not so much," John said, and took his apron and himself back inside.

To hide, Rodney thought uncharitably. That was the problem with the slow approach to dating: there was always the danger of discovering, after a time investment of months and months, that you were horribly sexually incompatible with someone who was otherwise perfect.

He thought about this while eating, as he watched John pull a Jeannie, not managing to sit still for more than two bites, which meant that John mostly ate nothing, which meant that he'd been lying about being hungry. Rodney hoped, selfishly, that it wasn't him, that he wasn't the problem.

John insisted on washing the dishes after supper, tipping his mostly uneaten food into the garbage, and when the washing up was mostly done John picked a fight.

He did this so skillfully that Rodney didn't even catch on that he had been manipulated until he found himself shouting at John without really knowing why. He stopped, leaned back against the kitchen counter, and studied John.

John looked really, inappropriately sexy when he was furious, arms crossed and glaring.

"You could just tell me if you don't want to sleep with me," Rodney said. "I mean. I can't promise to hold your hand and understand, but this — " he shuttled his hand in the air between them — "is ridiculous. John."

John's jaw clenched. "I'm trying, here. Rodney."

Rodney threw his hands up. "I don't really find it flattering that you'll go to all this effort to avoid having sex with me."

If John's jaw got any tighter, he'd be grinding his teeth, Rodney thought.

"Let me dumb this down for you," Rodney said. He pictured John as one of the occasional idiots who'd come to his office hours when he was teaching with the vaguest of ideas for a thesis, hoping Rodney would be so kind as to flesh it out for them, spoon-feed them what they were too lazy to sweat out themselves. They always left in tears. Occasionally they left the program entirely. "You need to give me something, here. Because otherwise I'm lost, and I'm not going to live like that."

John swallowed hard. His face had slid from hard and defiant, into something close to wounded, but he was still standing straight and looking Rodney, if not in the eyes, at least in the face. "I need to," John started, stopped, breathed. "I'm going to take a walk."

By the way motion seemed to be trapped under John's skin, his hands restless and his weight shifting from one leg to the other, by walk he meant run.

Rodney sighed, blowing the air out slowly. "Take your phone," he said. "Because maybe there's someone not me who you can talk to." John made a face, but picked it up from the coffee table and tucked it into his pocket. He took a couple of steps backwards, towards the door. "Do you want me here or gone when you come back?"

"Christ." John's face was losing layers and layers of protection. Rodney felt like a voyeur for watching him fall to pieces. "Stay?"

"Staying," Rodney agreed. John nodded, and then was out the door. Rodney watched him take long strides down the drive to the road, shoulders hunched.

Rodney called Jeannie. He talked a lot and she made little listening noises. When he was finished, she said, "Oh, Mer," and sighed, and then said, "I could go down there and beat him up for you."

"You're so sweet," Rodney said, grinning.

"It just sucks that the guy you fell in love with has trust issues."

Trust issues, Rodney pondered. He wondered if he ought to read women's magazines: he didn't have any of the useful relationship vocabulary that he probably needed. "I'm not in love with him," he said. Which was true.

"But you could be. Or else you wouldn't care."

"Did I say I cared? I just — we're good together. I thought he wanted to sleep with me, it seemed like it might be easy. Up until now, he's been. Well. Is it dumb to say he treats me like I'm special?"

"Ah," Jeannie said, in a way that made Rodney picture her sitting up straight. "He's in love with you."

Rodney huffed. "That's not impossible, you know. I'm lovable. In my own way."

"Oh, Mer," Jeannie said, "of course you are. Now I just want to go down there and give John a big hug."

"You have freakish mood swings. I hear there's medication for that. Also, John hates being touched." Rodney remembered Daniel cornering him and being annoyingly cryptic about that. He hated circumlocution. He wondered if Daniel knew about John's past, and if so why John hadn't told Rodney. "The military screwed him over again and again, and when he was so messed up he didn't know up from down they sent him to Antarctica."

Jeannie sighed, not moving the phone far enough out of the way, so that the rush of air made a god-awful rushing noise, like birds taking flight. "I'm not saying this to be cruel. I want you to be happy, Mer. But are you sure this is what you want? Because Katie — " Rodney made a noise, and Jeannie snapped, "Shut up, I'm allowed to talk about Katie. I thought that her being so uncomplicated was good for you. John's. . . asking a lot from you, and you've never been the giving sort." Rodney tried to protest; Jeannie argued him down. "I'm not just talking about starting a gay relationship, which won't be easy, Mer, don't think it will be, not where you're living, not even here. If John's asking you to commit your heart it's not going to work if you're just in it for the sex. Sweetheart, you didn't even get why I wanted to get married and start a family."

"I get it now," Rodney said, with as much dignity as he could manage. "Katie made me feel like nothing I did was right. Like I wasn't trying hard enough. I did try," he added, aware that he sounded petulant. "I tried, with Katie."

"I know you did." Rodney could hear warmth in Jeannie's voice. "But you didn't love her and you hurt her in the end anyway."

"I'm comfortable with John," Rodney said. He had trouble imagining what it would feel like to not be friends with John: an achy, lost feeling, he imagined.

"Well," Jeannie said, and Rodney heard amusement and resignation and sisterly affection. "You tell John that I wish him luck. Oh, and if he breaks your heart, he'll have me to answer to."

"Seriously," Rodney said. "Your violent tendencies disturb me. You're supposed to be the cute one." He sighed loudly at Jeannie, and she squawked Mer in annoyance. "Talking about work, now."

There was a pause; thankfully, Jeannie knew him enough to know when he was at the end of his patience. "You were supposed to send me the subcontractor files yesterday, and I still don't have them," she started. Arguing about the project was a relief. An hour later, there had been yelling and cursing and Jeannie had told him repeatedly that he was thick-skulled and fat-headed. Rodney felt much better. He told Jeannie so, and she laughed at him and made him promise to keep her updated.

"Whatever," Rodney said. "Goodbye."

He thought he heard Jeannie say love you as he hung up. He thought that he ought to have remembered to say that to her. Maybe next time.

Rodney sat on the sofa and watched a program about the Aztec language on the Boring Channel. When it finished he thought about opening a beer and drinking it on the deck, but he figured that no matter how soulfully he posed, like in the beer commercials, he'd just look pathetically drunk to John when he came home.

He settled for a bottle of water and wandering around looking at all John's stuff and thinking about John. He had more thoughts than John had stuff, which was sad. A man shouldn't make it to forty without diplomas on the wall, pictures in frames, awards and trophies, even horrible souvenirs from other people's vacations. Everything John had was functional: furniture, toys, books, or things used for cooking and cleaning. It was ridiculous.

Rodney was paying hideous fees every month to a storage place in Vancouver, and he had had to beg Jeannie to let him keep the crate with his diplomas, medals, trophies, and commemorative photos at her house, safe from mold and mice. He'd even made tentative plans to have all his junk shipped down, at huge expense, even though he had no idea how it would all fit in his apartment. And here was John, with a color scheme and a nubbly thing on his sofa and one framed picture tucked into the bookcase, of John as a kid with some guy dressed in motorcycle leathers.

Rodney found himself going through the shoebox where John kept his Nintendo games, putting the little cartridges back in their cases and boggling over some of the titles. John owned a game where you could be the owner of a virtual Chihuahua. Rodney smirked, wondering how he could make John show him his secret virtual pet, when John walked in, damp and dirty.

"Oh, my God," Rodney said, tossing the games back onto the lowest shelf in the entertainment center and stumbling to his feet. "You've been in a bar fight. Did you get arrested?"

John brushed sand off his shirt; Rodney could hear it hitting the floor and tried to remember where John kept the vacuum. "I fell in a hole some kid dug on the beach," he said, rolling his eyes, and then wincing and rubbing his forehead.

"Take a shower," Rodney said. "What do you mean, hole? Did you hit your head?"

John made a noise instead of an answer, walking across the room while pulling off his shirt and dumping more sand onto the floor. He kicked his shoes off in the direction of the bookcase, and had his pants unbuttoned and unzipped and hanging just barely on his hips as he went to grab himself a change of clothes from the bedroom.

John didn't even bother shutting the bathroom door. Rodney found a broom in the hallway closet, so he opened the door and swept as much sand out as he could until John reappeared, in his ragged hoodie and a pair of striped shorts.

"I called Jeannie," Rodney said, banging the broom on the doorsill to make sure all the sand was knocked off before shutting (and locking) the door and replacing the broom in the closet. "She says if you break my heart, they'll never find your body."

John's shoulders dropped, and he gave Rodney a betrayed look. "You talked to Jeannie?" His eyes narrowed. "What did you say?"

"We spent an hour talking about subcontractors and schedules and reinforced concrete."

"Yeah, well," John said, rubbing the heel of his hand into first one eye and then the other. "I'm dead on my feet. I'm going to bed. Are you staying?"

"I said I would," Rodney snapped back.

John cocked his head, conceding the point. "I put a new toothbrush out on the sink. Your other one got used to clean the drain, sorry. I can't sleep with someone at my back. Do you wear pajamas?"

"Only those given to me by Jeannie and worn around her house because otherwise she pouts," Rodney answered, and headed off to brush his teeth.

When he wandered back out, wearing his boxers and t-shirt, the only light came from John's bedside lamp. John was lying curled on his side, cheek propped up in the palm of one hand, reading one of his comic books.

"I feel like an idiot," John said, as Rodney got under the covers and settled, forcing John to flip the comic onto the nightstand to keep it from being crushed. Rodney turned out the light. He still wasn't entirely used to how dark the island could be: generally, there were clouds, encouraging a warm glow of light pollution. But when it was dark, it was can't-see-a-hand-in-front-of-the-face dark. In this case, Rodney couldn't see John, who was close enough that Rodney felt himself tilting in John's direction because of mattress displacement.

"Compared to me, everyone's an idiot," Rodney said. "I've learned to live with it." He reached over and found John's arm. He walked his fingers up and over until he reached the far side of John's neck, and then he hitched over enough that kissing was a possibility, and then a certainty. "We're going to talk in the morning," he said, and John made a noise, but it wasn't entirely disagreement.

"So," Rodney said, after John had woken him by staggering noisily out of bed and spending three minutes being loud in the bathroom before wandering back in as if he were facing his doom. He'd done a good bit of thinking before falling asleep, and he had woken up thinking. "Here's what we're going to do. First, you need to get me off."

"Great plan," John said, dropping himself face-first into a pillow.

Rodney tugged on John's ear just enough to make him grumble and half turn over. "And then I'm going to get you off. Only. . . you're going to be naked, and I'm going to do a bit of surveying."

John dropped one forearm over his eyes with a groan, and planted his other palm on Rodney's chest to hold him back. "No kinky engineering sex. Please, God."

Rodney pulled John's hand up and planted a kiss right over the lines that formed an M in the center. "Very good," he said, in the same chipper tone Jeannie used when toilet-training Madison. John moved his arm just enough to glare at Rodney with one eye. "I want you to give me some idea of your boundaries," he qualified. "It would be best to have a scale of readings, say one to ten, with one being what you hate and ten being orgasmic."

"No," John said again, and even with the arm in the way Rodney could tell he was making a horrible face. He pulled his knees up. "Can't we just have sex?"

"I won't be making any judgments," Rodney said, to clarify, and saw John's nose wrinkle in disbelief or doubt. "You do the same thing to me all the time when you're cooking. Do I like broccoli steamed or boiled, steak well-done, tofu when hell freezes over, and I know the only reason you buy pistachio ice cream is because I hate it."

"If I buy what you like it's gone before I ever get a bite," John protested, but he was smirking.

"In general," Rodney continued, "when you're not feeling pleased by what a dick you're being by denying me my just desserts, you want to give me stuff that I'll eat. Enjoy eating," he amended. "You see where this metaphor is going."

"Why not one to five?" John asked, and Rodney grinned.

"I'd rather be a ten than a five. It's just one of those things."

"Let me practice on you," John said, rolling over and sitting up so that he was nearly nose to nose with Rodney. He smiled, the corners of his mouth rising slowly in a way that was probably meant to be intimidating.

"Seven," Rodney said. "That's a pretty hot look on you."

"Cool," John said. "I get points without even touching you?"

"You get points for turning me on." Rodney pulled off his shirt and dropped back on the bed. "Go for it."

"I want lots of points," John said, and stretched over to lick straight across one nipple.

"That's a good start," Rodney said, even though John was totally misconstruing the whole purpose of the exercise. Who was he to discourage enthusiasm? "Nipples, five points each. Dick, ten."

Rodney gave up and stopped counting points when John pulled his boxers off and tugged him around so he could swallow Rodney's dick down his throat. "You win," he managed to croak out. It was devastatingly sexy to watch John's lips slide right down to the base of his dick, even though part of Rodney always recalled that John had picked up this skill by practice (lots of practice) on other guys. John had a rhythm that allowed him to take sneaky little breaths while stroking along Rodney's dick with his tongue, and then easing him back. Rodney watched John's eyes lower and shut when his air was cut off; Rodney could put a hand on John's neck and feel his dick there. He liked to fuck John's throat, but only when he wasn't ready to come. He needed to have some self-control. He didn't want to hurt John; John would probably let him, that was the thing.

When he got too close, he pulled back, working his dick hard with his hand while John sucked on the head and tried not to get punched in the mouth accidentally (it had been known to happen). Rodney never knew if orgasm would hit with a silent white-out of everything except waves of sensation, shaking him, or whether he would find himself tachylalic, with every part of pleasure filtered through his mouth.

Katie had once said, completely out of the blue, I don't mind when you talk dirty, which had been disturbing because Rodney had never considered his babbling dirty talk and because Katie saying she didn't mind sounded suspiciously like it wasn't something she enjoyed, but rather tolerated. On the other hand, John occasionally smirked afterwards, repeating his favorite bits — so, I hear you like my cock or for an atheist, you bring up God a lot or I am pretty hot on my knees, aren't I?. Rodney honestly didn't have any idea where some of the things he said came from: the residue of twenty years of porn, probably.

He felt the words coming, the need to talk and the need to come building like pressure behind a dam, and when it burst he felt freed. It was only in the spiraling down, when he pulled his dick out and got come all over John's mouth and chin and heard himself telling John how hot that was, and how he wanted to see John lick himself clean, and John actually did it — that was when he felt filled to overflow with perfect calm. He heard himself trying to explain to John that it was like the axis of a top.

John just said, "Come here," and got Rodney straightened out on the bed, playing with Rodney's chest hair while Rodney tried to get his breathing back to normal.

"So that was worth about a billion points," John said. His voice was rough, and he was trying to not make a big deal out of the fact that he had to keep clearing his throat. "Feel free to pay me back in sexual favors."

"Glass of water?" Rodney said, trying to look too tired to get up. John snorted but rolled out of bed, because he was a good boyfriend. Rodney made himself follow suit a moment later to rummage through John's drawers for a clean pair of boxers and a t-shirt.

"Hey," John said, returning with Rodney's drink and sounding put out. "My clothes."

"Mine got wrinkled when you threw them on the floor." Rodney swallowed down half the water, wiped his mouth on the shoulder of John's shirt, and stuck the glass on the bedside table. "Your turn. Strip and lie down on your back." He'd tried giving John a backrub once, and John had turned into a hard knot of shoulder-hunching tension. Right now, Rodney figured he would have more than enough to do anyway with John's front, and John probably wanted to keep an eye on him.

"Zero," John said, crossing his arms. "You're taking the sexual out of sexual experimentation."

"What, you want wooing?" Rodney asked. "Come here and let me kiss you and call you baby."

"Can I give you negative numbers?" John muttered, even though he complied with the kissing. He tasted like the mint gargling stuff and not come, and he grumbled into the kiss when Rodney used his proximity as an invitation to push John's shorts off.

"There," Rodney said, finishing off the kiss with a tug on John's lower lip before stepping back and pulling John's shirt neatly over his head. He wanted to look at John all over, just because he could for the first time, but he planned on taking his time. He put his hands over John's shoulders and bumped him backwards towards the bed with nudges of his hip. "This is a fact-finding mission, not sales. If you say you don't like something, I'll say hmm and move on."

"Everybody says that," John said, making a horrible apologetic face as if he knew how tacky it was to lump Rodney in with everybody. He was tensing up again. "But once there's this, this mood, they think I can be persuaded."

"Persuasion is a turn-off."

"Persuasion is a deal-breaker," John corrected, looking angry and then chagrined. "It's not you."

"Those three little words that I so love to hear," Rodney said dryly, and John half-laughed, at least managing a grin. Rodney pushed him back the one step to the bed, and then got John to stretch out. "Think of this as an investment in the future quality of your sex life."

"Think of this as the chance to put your sex life on hold indefinitely," John shot back, but he was still managing to smile through his nervousness.

Rodney ran his thumb over John's mouth, tracing his lips. John's mouth opened, just slightly, but enough for Rodney to remember just how talented John was with his mouth. John's mouth was a turn-on for him, and he was sure that it showed on his face when he traced a finger over John's lips, because John's breath hitched and his eyelids lowered.

Rodney asked, and John shrugged and gave his mouth a tentative seven. That was fair enough, considering that the mouth was fairly ambiguous (it had so many uses) and it was the first number Rodney'd asked for. John had no real opinion about his cheeks or his eyebrows or his nose, except for glaring at Rodney as if he was being fucked with. He liked having his jaw held and hated having his ears touched, unless teeth were involved.

"You like being bitten," Rodney said, trying not to sound excited that John had actually volunteered information.

John looked alarmed and added, "But not hard, and if you bite my nose I'll probably just walk out. And laugh at you."

John loved (at least to a score of eight, possibly nine) having teeth scraped along his jawline.

He didn't like having his hair pulled or his head scratched. He liked having fingers run through his hair counter to the direction of growth, which was very hard to do, given that his hair grew in every possible direction.

Rodney moved downwards slowly, from neck to shoulders to arms before a perfunctory survey of John's chest. John was half aroused already, and Rodney didn't want to have to call everything off just for someone's premature orgasm.

Rodney was relaxed and moved slowly, with precision. John made fewer and fewer smartass comments the further down Rodney went. When Rodney finally reached the end of the bed and ran his thumbnail up the arch of John's foot, John's whole body shook, and he made a strangled, gasping sound.

Rodney did it again. "Yes, no, tickles, good?"

"If I come from you scratching my feet," John said, sounding like he was about to fall apart, shuddering as though Rodney'd struck active fault lines, "I'll never talk to you again."

"It's okay to have a kink or two or three," Rodney said. He looked up the length of John's body. He was able to picture all the numbers as dots of varying brightness mapped over John's skin, demarcating areas of pleasure, and not, and neutral nothing. He ran his palms up the insides of John's legs as he shifted back up the bed, letting his fingers press against the sensitive spots behind John's knees before gentling the touch as his fingers spread out over John's thighs. "How do you want to come?"

John grabbed Rodney's hand and pulled it up to cover his balls.

"Ten," John grit out, teeth together as he pushed himself up on his elbows to watch.

John's dick jerked like it had a very different idea of what it wanted, but — John was asking for this, so Rodney used his other hand to hold John's dick out of the way and started exploring. Rodney didn't enjoy swallowing pubic hair, but he really wanted to see John's reaction to having his balls licked, slid back along his tongue, and taken into his mouth, one by one and then together. He really didn't think John could handle any suction, but he thought that sloppy wet and hot might work.

John's mouth fell slack, forming words that weren't words, just the dirty, dirty language of desperation. John's head rolled back and he half-collapsed, one hand grabbing for Rodney's shoulder and squeezing hard. Rodney didn't understand what that meant, but then John came with a shout and Rodney backed off fast. He didn't want to get kneed in the jaw or anywhere else when John had no control over his body.

Rodney didn't exactly consider it a hardship to watch wild spurts of come arc up John's chest while John tensed as if fighting against some great pressure forcing him down, breathing hard, eyes shut so tight that Rodney could see tears catching in the corners.

Watching John come was like the best part of music, Rodney thought. If John hadn't taken care of him first, just watching John lose himself would have been enough to push Rodney over the edge; John was that compelling.

When John seemed to be spiraling down, his breathing fast but not frantic, Rodney reached over to trail a finger through the come pooling on John's stomach, and John flinched hard.

"Sorry," Rodney said, jerking his hand back, and John bit out, "One," his voice raw, "one," with his eyes shut, turning a quarter of the way onto his side so he faced away from Rodney, sliding one knee up.

"My fault," Rodney said, words tumbling out fast and disarrayed. "I hope you know that, that was the hottest thing I've ever seen, and I'm just going to get you some water, I'll be back in a minute." He got up, collected his glass, and padded into the kitchen. John's floorboards were always warm; Rodney had a theory about that. The kitchen tiles, though, were cool enough to make his toes curl as he got out another glass and filled both of them, with ice in his and none in John's. On his way back, he grabbed a couple of raisin snack packs from John's always-full countertop bowl of healthy snack products.

He found John still sprawled out like a marionette with cut strings, the only change being that John had flung his forearm over his face.

"I brought you room-temperature tap water," Rodney said, holding it out. When John just peered at him stupidly from under his arm, Rodney snorted and thumped the glass down on the nightstand, not quite hard enough to slosh.

John pushed himself backwards with his feet until he was sitting with his back to the wall, one knee up and the sheet pulled up to his waist. He looked at the glass before reaching for it, and drank half of it down before lowering it with a swipe of his mouth over the back of his hand. "Ew," he said, not quite looking at Rodney, who had sat on the edge of the bed, close but not touching. "Thank you. Sorry."

"Politeness after insanely hot sex is unnerving. It makes me feel like I'm waiting to get the scores from the judges."

John's mouth curled in a faint knowing smile. "Chances are the Americans will give you a ten."

"And well they should," Rodney agreed, giving the ice cubes in his glass a rattle before putting the glass down and rubbing his hands on the bed sheet to warm them up with friction. "I blew every one of your circuits. I dissolved you with ecstasy. I'm damn good."

John looked into his cup, swirling the last bit of water around. "I'm fucked up."

"But yet you fuck just fine," Rodney countered sharply, and at that John's head snapped up. He met John's gaze and let smugness overtake his expression. "Fucked up, down, sideways, backwards, I don't really care."

"I don't understand why you'd want this," John said. "We both know it's not what you wanted."

Rodney stared. Dumping water over John's head would probably be counterproductive, if temporarily satisfying. Unfortunately. "It really bugs me when you act like a dumbass when you're smart enough to, oh, figure out why we did what we just did."

"Dr. Rodney McKay, sex therapist," John said, only sounding slightly bitter.

"Generally, I prefer compliments to insults," Rodney said. "That was good sex. Yes?"

John opened his mouth to say something; he shut it again, biting his lips together, and then gave Rodney a sidelong measuring look. "The numbers do it for you, don't they?"

"It's not so much the ten itself, as the way you say it." Rodney gave John a significant look and John's cheeks actually went red.

Rodney almost felt sorry for the ex-wife John had mentioned only once, awkwardly, in passing. Katie had liked to be held after sex, but not gently: she'd liked long firm strokes with the palms of Rodney's hands to bring her back down. Sex made Jeannie high: once when Rodney'd stumbled into the kitchen for a late night glass of milk he'd found her there, listening to music on headphones and writing equations on the backs of calendar pages that were scattered all over the room. I got energized, she'd said, eyes bright and manic, and Rodney fled. He'd been unable to look at Kaleb for a week after. But Rodney would have bet anything that when he was married John had never thought to ask to be touched in a certain way or told her what he hated.

Of course, maybe John had been normal when they got married. Maybe everything had changed because of what had happened to John; but there was no possible way he could ask John that. John had the whole there's nothing wrong with me, I'm fine, move along routine down so perfect that Rodney had to wonder how many years he'd been working on it.

"Hey," John said, and shifted forward so that he was sitting behind Rodney. After a moment, he slid one arm around Rodney's waist and hooked his chin over Rodney's shoulder. "Are those raisins?"

"No," Rodney said, opening one of the boxes. John opened his mouth and said ah, waiting for Rodney to feed him, which was supremely, deliciously ludicrous.

Rodney made him do it for each raisin, until John got fed up and tried to wrestle the box away. He ended up with raisins all over the bed and Rodney hovering over him, trying to stuff the cardboard box in his mouth. John sabotaged all Rodney's efforts to gain the upper hand by pushing himself up and kissing Rodney, twisting his head to the side and stroking his tongue along Rodney's lips.

"I like kissing," John said, speaking low against Rodney's skin as though it was a secret. Maybe it was.

"Coincidentally, so do I." And Rodney put a kiss on John's forehead. "Scoot." He brushed away the raisins so he could lie down next to John, who immediately wrapped a hand around the back of Rodney's neck and started kissing his way up from Rodney's neck to his mouth. Rodney didn't think John was trying for a second round; he knew he wasn't, but he enjoyed lazing about in bed. He hadn't been certain that John did that. It was nice, for once, to be proven wrong, especially with slow, lingering kisses and John's fingers in his hair.

Storm Surge

Rodney should have known that the happiness wouldn't last. If he learned one thing from the Doranda debacle, he hoped it was that he was fallible and that he therefore should beware over-confidence and hubris and optimism and hope. They served as the harbingers of his personal Armageddon.

He would have liked to blame everything that happened on Hurricane Michael. Jeannie said that she could always tell when a storm was coming because Madison started acting up. Rodney thought this sounded like pseudoscience, a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument, and it made him start reading Madison essays by Carl Sagan before bed. But when Michael turned north from its Caribbean path, everyone on the island suddenly started acting differently. Sentences became shorter, everyone was suddenly busy, every television and radio was tuned to the weather, and a heavy sense of anticipation and dread seemed to hang over everything, even the preparations for the (likely to be cancelled) festival.

Rodney knew how hurricanes formed and how they moved. He knew the kinds of damages that could be expected from wind speeds ranging from seventy to two hundred and fifty knots and from storm surges that could rise as much as five and a half meters in a category five hurricane. He knew that because the Crystal Coast had been inundated with autumn rain, even if the storm made its predicted landfall in Georgia there would probably still be flooding.

He had seen the aftermaths of several hurricanes and typhoons, but he had never been in the path of one before.

It made him nervous.

He had thought that spending all of his free time at John's would keep him from overthinking the storm. After the first weekend of rain, card tables had sprouted around John's living room, each with a jigsaw puzzle in some stage of completion, and there was a box next to the sofa full of magazines and paperbacks for exchange. But as Michael rolled slowly landward, pushed ever further north by a deep high-pressure center in the southeast, fewer people dropped in, and those who did were volunteer firefighters and the church's shut-in outreach society and people who wanted Rodney to use John's crappy internet service to find them mainland accommodations which accepted cats slash dogs slash small domestic farm animals.

Almost everyone asked Rodney about the bridges: when they'd be finished, if the construction sites were hurricane-proof, how long it would take to drive from Athos to the mainland when they were done. From what Rodney gathered, the current evacuation plan for the island relied on the ferry, which meant that it took at least a day to get everyone off the island in an orderly and civilized fashion, and there was always the danger of someone being left behind and completely cut off.

John got snappish when Rodney talked about the weather; Rodney assumed that it was because he was unable to fly because of the rain, and had instead been relegated to putting helicopters in hangers and anchoring them down, or whatever was done to helicopters in a storm. Or it might have been because the skateboarding thing had been postponed twice already, and the kids who had been training were restless and liked to take over the living room and watch slasher DVDs that were probably banned at their homes. Or it might have been because his homeowner's insurance probably wouldn't begin to cover the damages incurred by a major storm.

Possibly, all of that and more.

On the morning that John came back from his run and turned on the weather to find that the new predicted landfall of Hurricane Michael (a solid category two storm) was right on the border between the Carolinas, Rodney was feeling sluggish, as if all the water had gone to his brain.

"Huh," he said when John appeared in the bedroom doorway to announce that mandatory evacuations were probably going to start. "When?"

"Today," John said, giving Rodney a look that suggested John was being forcibly patient.

Rodney got out of bed and crossed the room so that he could kiss John good morning before whacking him in the back of the head. His hair was unpleasantly wet. "When is predicted landfall?"

"Ow." John rubbed his head and glowered; Rodney kissed him again. "Wednesday evening. The tide'll be coming in then."

"Well, that sucks," Rodney said. "Damn."

"Damn and breakfast," John said, and headed for the shower.

Rodney got dressed and made coffee. When John walked into the kitchen, clean and dressed, he took one look at Rodney, sitting hunched over the steam of his coffee, and became very sarcastic.

"This," he said, naming the things he pulled out of the fridge, "is an egg. And here we have cheese. And, oh look, mushrooms."

"And bacon," Rodney suggested, leaning back to watch John throw together an omelet. John even managed to crack the eggs sarcastically. "If you're not cooking healthy, I demand bacon."

"I was saving that," John said, shooting Rodney a look that was just a bit too indecisive to be a glare.

"Those asparagus things?" Rodney asked. John shrugged, which meant yes, because John was perverse that way. "I can wait for my daily dose of bacon."

"What really sucks is that you're a lousy tipper," John said, hefting his own black iron frying pan into place and heating the oil. "I don't know why I bother."

"I'm grateful," Rodney contradicted. "If it wasn't for you, I'd be like Ronon, living off frozen Weightwatchers dinners and tinned pasta."

"Nasty," John said. He got out his spatula, set it on the side, and poured the egg mixture into the pan, stirring it with chopsticks and watching it carefully. "Get up and set the table."

"Yeah, see, that," Rodney said, sliding a hand across John's shoulders as he passed behind him on the way to the cabinet. "I don't even know if I'm a customer or an employee or what." He got down plates, and then found forks and knives, and then announced that he was making toast and did John want any? Which John did, but not the every-wholegrain-known-to-mankind bread, the sourdough, which was in the freezer. "You look so easy," Rodney said mournfully. "You look like you wouldn't care what you ate as long as it wasn't crawling off your plate. Do we need ketchup?" he added, just to make John turn to give him a look of exasperated horror.

"It's good," Rodney said, and John muttered that he still hadn't recovered from the shock of discovering that Rodney ate French toast with ketchup. "One of these days," Rodney said, taking the Heinz 57 out and setting it in the center of the table just to be perverse, "I'm going to tie you down and spoon-feed you ketchup until you like it."

If Rodney hadn't been watching John closely, he would have missed the way John's shoulders went up suddenly, or the way the hand holding the spatula dropped to the counter and pressed there, just for a moment. He mentally rewound what he'd just said, winced, and thought that maybe Jeannie was right about his lack of human relations skills.

"Crap," Rodney said. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean — "

John went very, very still, and then he carefully and deliberately turned the burner off, transferred the omelet to the platter, and set it on the table, all without once looking in Rodney's direction.

"Didn't mean what?" John asked, in a voice that sounded just like the calm before a storm, and he looked straight over at Rodney, eyes hard.

Rodney considered lying. If he were better at it, he probably would have tried. But he knew that John would recognize a lie, especially a desperate, pathetic one, and that the truth he was ashamed about was probably better. If still not especially forgivable.

"I Googled you," Rodney said, quick like ripping off a band aid. John was motionless, eyes narrowed and calculating. "I was — I don't know — looking for your secret MySpace shrine to Johnny Cash or dumb photos from your high school yearbook. But there was this article, and I followed the links and made a phone call, and there was this video of, ah, ransom demands?"

John looked like that optical illusion where an object appeared to be receding even though it was stationary. "That's classified."

"Obviously not." Rodney crossed his arms.

John tucked his chin down. "How long ago. . . how long have you known?"

"Since the summer."

"And you weren't going to say anything."

Rodney threw his hands out, fingers opening wide. "There's not really a good way to bring up that kind of invasion of privacy in regular conversation. Over dinner? While you're driving? God forbid, in bed." He swallowed. "You were tortured. That's what the video was, you being tortured. I wish. . . I wish that had never happened to you."

"It's not — " John said, and swallowed. He jerked his head to the side and bit his lip, looking frustrated. "They just wanted me to make noise," he continued, speaking as if he were considering each word. Rodney wouldn't have described John's gag-muffled screams as noise, but he supposed John needed distance and some measure of control over the past. "It sucked, but I'm not traumatized."

Rodney couldn't help himself; he saw patterns in complex systems. He wondered if John remembered how he'd described the scorpion's sting as like being electrocuted; wondered if some subconscious part of John recalled a sense-memory of agony every time a spider or a crab or a roach scurried suddenly into view. "You're only alive because you escaped, and you had to escape because your military didn't bother to rescue you and they didn't even retire you, they sent you off to another continent and another war."

"I didn't want to retire," John snapped. "Jesus, McKay."

"Did you think you were going to die?" Rodney asked, keeping his voice a perfect monotone, emotionless.

"I'm not afraid of dying," John half-shouted, curling tensely upright, hands clenching like he wanted to fight. "It's better to die doing the right thing than live with — " He started walking, a fast pace to the rain-splattered window and back. "You think what the Air Force thought," John said, furiously, making sharp, vicious little chops with his hand to make it clear that he meant the words as an insult. "And here I was so fucking glad to be in a place where people didn't look at me like they thought they knew." His voice was low and cold and raw, and he flung his arm out as if throwing something hard enough to shatter. "Like it was an excuse for fucking up. My trauma didn't fail. I failed."

Well. Rodney hadn't seen that coming, but all the pieces fit. "You wanted to rescue those people. Your friends."

John looked at Rodney as if he were stupid. "Yes."

"You knew they'd want to be rescued." John didn't say anything. "Because you'd wanted to be rescued, but no one came for you."

John sagged, weariness hitting him hard, making him look old and beaten. "They just had bad intel. They raided the wrong secret hideout."

Rodney pulled in a breath. "You forgave them."

"Forgiveness wasn't even an issue. It was a fucking screw-up." John's eyes were dark and intent. "Mitch and Dex aren't ever going to forgive me." John put his hands to the back of his neck, pulling his head down, and spun in a tight half-circle of frustration.

"Are you going to forgive me? Because I'll tell you," Rodney said, and he felt overcome with a horrible dizzy feeling. "I think I'm falling in love with you."

John was struck speechless, his mouth opening only to shut again, as if he couldn't access whatever arguments or protests came to mind. Finally, he wrapped his hands tight around his elbows and said, sounding dispassionate, "Yeah, well, that's too bad because I don't see that this thing between us is going to work." John took a breath. "It's not just that I trusted you and you did this behind my back. More like I was free."

"I understand about fresh starts," Rodney said, wincing even as he said the words.

John shook his head. "If you did you'd understand what, how — I don't want to look at you, I sure as hell don't want to touch you, I don't want you in my house." He bit his lower lip, looking at Rodney like there was a language barrier and he wasn't sure he was understood. Rodney wondered if John would ever let anyone touch him again, wondered how he'd wound up doing John harm after all. "I'm sorry," John said.

"So am I." Rodney forced his shoulders down from where they'd hunched up in misery, nearly to his ears. "I should, um. Get my stuff together. Go back to my place."

John opened his mouth, shut it again without saying anything, and gave a jerky sideways nod.

In the bedroom, Rodney had to shut the door and sit down on the bed and put his arms over his head, hunching over as if he were trying to protect himself from physical blows.

He needed to talk to Jeannie. He'd pay to fly her out here again so he could see her again, or maybe he should go back to Vancouver.

Just for a while. Rodney wasn't going to let John get in the way of his work. In fact, he might even talk to Elizabeth about transferring to the head office in Atlanta. His skills and genius were being wasted in Pegasus Bay. He was sure of that.

He got up, wiping his wet hands down the sides of his pants, and realized that he didn't have a suitcase even though the room was full of his stuff. He opened the closet and grabbed John's gym duffel. He'd give it back, he told himself. Maybe by then John would be talking to him again

He had seven t-shirts, three button-down shirts, three pairs of pants, five pairs of underpants, and nine mismatched socks, all jumbled together with John's clothes. Plus his hat. His jacket was hanging on the peg next to John's by the front door. He had the nearly overwhelming impulse to steal John's orange checked shirt, but he told himself that he would be better off without compounding his crimes.

He went into the bathroom and collected his toothbrush and dental floss and shampoo and razor. He wondered if it would seem too callous to ask John for his epipen back, even though John wouldn't need it when Rodney wasn't around.

John was on the phone when Rodney came out into the living room, pacing from the deck doors to the kitchen with his head pressed down by one hand dragging on his neck. He glanced up to look at Rodney, but his eyes caught on the bag.

"I'll give it back," Rodney said, feeling sick and angry enough that he wanted to throw the damn thing at John's head. He went into the kitchen and swept all his vitamins and supplements off the counter to fall haphazard in with his clothes.

"Rodney," John said, and for one sweet moment Rodney was even more furious, white-hot rage clearing his head, because he thought John was going to apologize. "The mayor's ordered the island evacuated," John said, standing at an angle that let him almost look natural as he avoided looking at Rodney. "I have to go, Bates needs my help doing the door-to-door and helping the older people get out. Board up windows. I can. . . I'll drop you off at your place."

Rodney nearly asked who was going to get John's house ready for the hurricane, but then he remembered, with a sensation like jabbing a bruise, that he didn't need to worry about that anymore.

"I'm ready," he said, and then remembered his laptop in its bag, next to the TV. He collected it, and pulled on his coat, and John grabbed his keys and his own coat, and everything was so perfectly awkward, so horribly desperate, that Rodney just wanted to balk, to say What the hell are we doing? and make John. . . except, of course, he couldn't force John to do anything. He wouldn't want to, not really. No matter how much he wanted to be forgiven.

Instead, they got in the car, and John drove Rodney back to the apartment that Rodney hadn't learned to call home, because John's place was home, or it had been, and he didn't need this.

"Be careful," John said, prying one hand off the steering wheel to rake through his wet hair.

"I'm so angry at you right now that I'm afraid if I look at you I'll try to hurt you, which I don't want to do, because I'm trying to do this stupid, stupid thing with as much dignity as possible, under the circumstances, which are that you just dumped me," Rodney said all in a rush, pulling his hood up and tight around his face, and getting a good grip on the bag before opening the door. "But, you know, you too, with the taking care," he added, and slammed the door hard to cut off anything that John might have said.

Packing up the apartment didn't take much more time than packing at John's. Rodney supposed that made sense, considering that he hadn't slept at the apartment for more than a couple of nights a week for the past month. He packed all his stuff in the trunk of his car, pulled down the storm shutters on the porch doors and windows, and drove over to the ferry. Or at least as close as he could get: the line of cars was backed up as far as the downtown traffic light, and when he pulled into the queue the young police officer, Ford, came banging on his window to give him a laminated card for the dash.

"What does this mean?" Rodney asked, because what it said was that he was being given a place on the fourth ferry, which — he calculated thirty-eight minutes to the mainland and back again — meant he'd be sitting in his car for over four hours.

"Most people just leave their cars here while they go board up their windows," Ford said helpfully. "You should turn the engine off."

Rodney complained that this was a ridiculous way to run an evacuation; Ford just shrugged, and moved on to the cars that had pulled up behind Rodney.

Rodney had expected panic and chaos; he'd anticipated being able to match his own foul mood to that of everyone around him. But people were being neighborly and efficient and bustling, clearing the way for the senior center busses and helping each other maneuver window-sized pieces of plywood through the wind. There was a chain of people sandbagging all the shops along the main road. Rodney still thought that Hurricane Michael would be downgraded to a tropical storm — it simply wasn't that powerful — but because it was slow-moving and bouncing itself off the coastal pressure system, the storm surge was going to be bad. Particularly when the ground was already soaked with nearly a week's worth of rain.

He could see, as clear as any of his computer simulations, the water rising, breaching the dunes and filling the streets. Maybe it would rise more, so waves broke against the sides of houses or washed them off their foundations. No one could stop the coming devastation; it was ridiculous that people had been allowed to build and live here in the first place.

Rodney had hoped that thinking about the disaster professionally would give him some distance. Instead, it just made him feel helpless and weary, as well as wet and cold and hungry.

He got out of the car, leaving the keys in the ignition as Ford had requested, and half-ran through the downpour to the convenience store on the corner. He found nearly all the food sold out, except for a small pile of tins at the end of one bare shelf. He wasn't sure he was hungry enough to eat Spam and green beans, and he didn't have a can opener, anyway.

"Try the bakery," the woman at the register said. She was wearing a heavy oilskin coat and kept shifting back and forth as if she couldn't keep still. "They had coffee."

Rodney ran there as well. He'd given up on staying dry — he'd probably never feel dry again in his life; he could already feel his toes starting to grow webbing — but he was impelled by fear that someone would get the last of the coffee before he did.

When he shoved through the bakery doors, there was only a short line, mostly of people who looked like emergency workers, in big dirty boots and workbelts. He recognized some of them, from daily commutes on the ferry or from around town. Some of them he'd seen at John's at one point or another. They nodded to him; someone called him Doc, and someone else said they wished like hell the bridge was already built.

The coffee was fifty cents for a good-sized paper cupful, and had been made in vast quantities. Rodney drank one cup standing there, talking about storm surges and whether Michael would hit the island or not. One of the older men asked about John, and Rodney was glad to be able to say that John was with the police, with Bates. He would have been mortified to have to admit that he didn't know, or that from now on maybe he didn't have the right to know where John was. He hoped it wouldn't come to that. After the storm had passed, he thought, things would be calmer. He'd think of what to say.

He said his goodbyes and walked out, planning to go sit in the car and be jittery for the next few hours, and nearly got knocked down by Ronon, who was wearing a bright green rain poncho with Wilmington's Best Lite Rock across the chest.

"McKay," Ronon said, grinning and clapping a hand to Rodney's shoulder, and Rodney got angry at John all over again. They hadn't even talked about visiting rights, and Rodney hated to think how they'd divide up their mutual friends, who had all been John's friends first.

"It's over," he said to Ronon, who gave him an exaggerated look of confusion and said What? and Where are you parked?. Rodney pointed out the car and Ronon followed him, folding into the passenger seat with an effort that sent water splashing over the dashboard. Rodney opened his mouth to complain about the evacuation and found himself telling Ronon the censored version of how John had basically kicked him out.

"Huh," Ronon said, and, "That sucks." He crossed his arms. "Want me to kick his ass for being a dick?"

"Yes," Rodney said, relaxing in relief as he took the offer as some kind of comfort. "No. I don't know. It was my fault, I admit that, I, ah, violated his privacy. But I said I was sorry. At least I think I did, but I might have forgotten because we were fighting. He said he couldn't forgive me."

"Sounds like he's scared." Ronon shrugged. "Maybe you need think more about making amends than half-assed apologies."

"Thank you, Mister Core Requirements in Liberal Arts, I'll keep that in mind."

"Take me on to the house," Ronon rumbled, pulling his seatbelt on. "I've got to move all my crap upstairs. You can smash a few windows with the hammer accidentally while helping board up if it'd help." Rodney slapped the steering wheel with his palms, thinking that he didn't want to go because then he'd have to leave again.

Ronon stared at him. Rodney turned the engine on.

"John's not there," Rodney said, pulling out of the line and turning the car awkwardly around in the road. "He went out with Bates."

"Yeah. The police like strong young volunteers, go figure."

"Don't look at me," Rodney snapped. "I'm a rock and an island and I don't care for anyone if no one cares for me and all that. I have strong and possibly disturbing opinions about who deserves to drown."

"Just I heard you were an engineer," Ronon said. "You don't need to be ashamed to say your skills are basically useless."

"If I were only fractionally more intelligent, I'd be able to kill you with my mind," Rodney muttered. The road to John's house was practically quicksand; Rodney had trouble finding a spot to park where he wouldn't step out into a puddle. He managed to maintain a prickly silence all through packing up Ronon's belongings in boxes and garbage bags and dumping them in a huge wet pile in the middle of John's living room. At least the addition of Ronon's stuff, and the surfboards and bikes from the storage area, made the room look a lot less like the place where Rodney had memories of laughter and kissing and blowjobs.

He did break a window, but it wasn't his fault at all. Ronon's hands had slipped on the wet plywood. Ronon swept up the glass and balled it in newspaper and duct tape, and wrote Sorry, R. D. in black marker on the inside of the plywood.

"I'll pay for that," Rodney felt obliged to say, but Ronon just waved a hand.

"He hates talking about it, but Sheppard's got money. He's got, like, stocks and shit from when his dad died. He can buy new windows," Ronon said, stretching loose and easy. He looked really young in the half-dark, his face shining with water. "Come on, we're done here." And he headed down the stairs without looking back.

The line of cars was almost entirely gone by the time they got back to the port. The cars that remained weren't inside the double yellow lines for the queue, but were instead parked haphazardly outside Teyla's real estate office.

"Something's up," Ronon said, and then grunted as the headlights picked out John's car, pulled halfway up on the sidewalk and pinning a small ornamental shrub against her sign. "Pull over. You can stay in the car," he added, and Rodney snapped that he wasn't a coward and got out.

"Am I glad to see you," John said, turning when Ronon walked in. When Rodney followed, arms crossed and face scrunched up in unhappiness, he amended that to, "Both of you," and looked as if someone had kicked him, hard.

"Have you seen any children?" Teyla asked. Her eyes were bright and intent, as if even though she was holding herself together with self-discipline, the finite edge of her patience was rapidly approaching.

Ronon shook his head. "Nope. Who's missing?"

Bates had one of the big foldout tourist maps of the island taped to the wall and was coloring sections in with markers. "The mainland radioed us that Mr. Halling's son was supposed to have taken the ferry with his friend's family. Apparently neither boy left the island. Police Chief Ellis is keeping their families in Pegasus Bay, and we're having no luck."

"We've been all over the whole eastern ocean side," John said, and he shoved his hair back so that it made unattractive damp furrows. The lines at the corners of his eyes were tight and made him look haunted and angry and weary, all at once. "The last ferry's going in like ten minutes, so we're going to lose half our vehicles."

"I know a few places kids go," Ronon said, and pulled up the hood of his poncho. "You come with me," he said to John, and nodded to Bates. "You and Ford going to secure this area?"

"Kanaan is coming," Teyla said, low and urgent. "And I — "

"McKay." Ronon stopped John from heading out the door with a hand on the scruff of his neck, like a mother cat and a recalcitrant kitten. "Can you make sure the ferry gets off okay, and help Kanaan get his boat in?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, because the kayaking badge I earned at summer camp when I was ten made me nautical minded for life."

"You only need to do as I say," Teyla snapped. Even Bates, Rodney noted out of the corner of his eye, straightened and looked guilty at her tone. "I don't need a minder," she added, raising her chin to glare at Ronon. "I wish. . . there were anything I could do to help."

"You're securing our evacuation route," John said, sounding more freaked by her pregnancy than usual, perhaps because her due date was impending and her stomach was huge. "Rodney's. . . you can trust Rodney. Let him do the heavy lifting."

"Men," Teyla said with contempt, and Bates took that as his cue to throw on his raingear and follow Ronon and John out into the storm. "I am not a child," she told Rodney, and frowned so hard that her eyes squeezed shut. Rodney rocked a little on his toes, not sure whether offering to get her a glass of water would be considered an act of patronizing testosterone-driven alpha male behavior. "Get on the radio," Teyla said finally, opening her eyes and staring Rodney down. "I need to talk to Kanaan."

"What radio?" Rodney said. Teyla looked as if she wanted to throw things, but pushed herself up from her desk chair, with one hand on the desk and the other clenched into a fist, digging into her lower back.

"Fine," Teyla said. Rodney knew that when Jeannie used that particular vicious tone she always meant the opposite of what she was saying. "I'll do it myself. Go drive your car onto the ferry unless you want it washed away."

"Yes, ma'am," Rodney said, flinching back to the door reflexively.

He was very glad that Teyla didn't have the power to kill with her mind.

The ferry didn't leave until Rodney had gone over a spreadsheet printout and verified the names and addresses of the people staying on the island. He didn't know where anyone besides John and Ronon lived, so he had to run back to get Teyla to sign off on everything, and then run down to hand the papers over and have his hand pumped heartily, as if Rodney was being brave on purpose, instead of being volunteered for duty by his stupid ex-boyfriend.

He told Teyla about John when he banged back into the office, shoved by a violent gust of wind that nearly knocked him off his feet. He had hoped that she would be at least a little sympathetic. John sounded much more unreasonable when Rodney censored out the reason John had been so angry, so he thought Teyla might have a gentle word for his damaged heart, but she just glowered at him, breathing hard.

"I'll just go sit over there and sing the theme to Titanic to cheer myself up, shall I," he said, and Teyla grabbed his arm.

She didn't say anything, just panted through grit teeth and dug her fingers in so hard that Rodney could feel the bruises forming. She looked as if. . . .

"Oh, no no no no no," Rodney said in horror. "You can't have the baby now. The ferry just left. You need a medical doctor, I'm an engineer, it's not the same thing at all."

"Believe me, I have been trying," Teyla said through sharp pants for air, "to tell my child to wait." She shook her head. "He's coming, Rodney, and Kanaan said he'd be with me but he's not here." Teyla looked furious, but after a moment she released Rodney's arm. "The contractions. . . are so close now."

"Maybe you should lie down," Rodney suggested. Teyla shook her head and leaned over her desk instead, hands curled around the edges. Rodney's head was a whirl of all the things Teyla needed that they didn't have: a doctor, a crib, diapers, booties, Goodnight Moon, warm flannel pajamas — he snapped the fingers of both hands quickly, getting the closest thing to a good idea as he thought was possible, under the circumstances. "Where do you keep the linens for the rental houses?" he asked, walking around the far side of the desk to try the door marked Private. It pulled open onto a dark corridor.

"Storage room," Teyla bit out. She cried out as another contraction hit, and Rodney ran.

He found the employee's bathroom first, but the next door down was full of the big canvas bags for clean sheets and towels. A high shelf that ran along the far wall was piled with pillows and blankets in thin plastic wrap. He made two trips back to the office, making a pallet on the floor with the blankets and pillows and putting the sheets over, and telling Teyla that he thought everything was sterile as possible while he rummaged through her desk for anything useful. She had four rolls of duct tape in the bottom drawer of her desk, and Rodney finally got a grip on his panic. He could do anything, as long as he had duct tape.

"You need to look," Teyla said, and she glared at Rodney as if she hated him, "and see. The baby — "

As terrified as he was, Rodney suddenly realized just how much worse it was for Teyla. Not only was she having her baby without any advanced medical treatments like painkillers, she was going to have to suffer through having Rodney handle her private parts. In her office. With a storm bearing down on them and the entire island police force (also male) likely to walk in the door at any time. He couldn't really imagine a day being any worse than that.

"I need to wash my hands," he told her, and ran back to do that, and ran out to find Teyla in another contraction. "I'm sorry," he said, helpless as she groaned through the pain. When it was done, he helped her down onto the bedding. She wasn't wearing underwear, and she stared at him so hard that he knew if he mentioned it she would probably snap his neck like a string bean. "Okay," he said, looking, and this was absolutely nothing like the last time he'd gone down on Katie. The whole childbirth thing seemed like a terrible idea: Teyla was swollen and stretched and, "Oh, my god, I can see a head," Rodney said, and Teyla pushed up on her elbows as if she wanted to see for herself.

"That's good," Teyla said, "that's a good thing, you'll need to catch him."

"I have a towel," Rodney said. He had a lot of towels; the ones spread under Teyla's hips were already stained.

Teyla shouted; Rodney could see her whole body shake with the effort of pushing, and he thought that the baby was definitely coming, that no one could survive being through this kind of agony more than once. But the baby didn't come on the first, or the second, or even the third push, and Teyla wasn't able to speak by the time the baby slid out, first one shoulder, then a turn and the rest of him.

In the movies, babies usually came out too quiet, everyone panicked, and the nurse had to jiggle them to make them cry. Rodney supposed that was a dramatic convention: Teyla's baby took one look at him and started making the most bizarre sound, more like a cat than a child crying. The whole of the baby fit in both of Rodney's hands, and he wrapped him up quickly in towels. Towel plus duct-tape made a slightly baggy diaper; towel tied on with the around-the-neck tether cut off a USB memory stick made a futuristic baby sarong.

Teyla started up with her breastfeeding, and Rodney supported her with that decision: breastfeeding was good for the baby and big full breasts were visually appealing and he doubted that a newborn baby could handle vending machine coffee just yet. He excused himself to the bathroom, though, to give Teyla some privacy, and also to throw up, wash his face, and sit on the toilet lid shaking. He was just calming himself down with deep breaths and the consolation that even Kaleb hadn't done more to bring Madison into the world, when Teyla called for him.

Rodney's heart rate shot way up even before he started running, but it turned out Teyla had read a book and she just wanted to share her knowledge of uterine contractions.

"Oh, not again," Rodney said. "Seriously, enough. I mean — gah, Teyla, what am I supposed to do?"

"People have been doing this for thousands of years," Teyla snapped. She sounded a shade more amused than she had during the actual delivery (when she'd said terrible, terrible things about men, all men, especially Kanaan, but also Rodney). When the afterbirth came out, Rodney put it in a towel, in case Teyla wanted it later. She shivered hard as Rodney cleaned her up — again — and packed clean towels between her legs. He tied off the umbilical cord where Teyla indicated and wrapped her and the baby up in another layer of blankets, just to be on the safe side.

"Are you done now?" Rodney asked. "Because I for one was not prepared for this by any of my previous life experiences. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made it through my first PhD program if there had been body fluids involved, or small bald people peeing on me."

"Thank you," Teyla said. She looked exhausted: shell-shocked, Rodney thought. He hoped he wasn't supposed to tell her how radiant she was (from all the sweating and yelling) or how beautiful the baby was (he was messy and wrinkly and scratched anyone who got close with his weirdly long fingernails).

"That was amazing," Rodney said, honestly. "I've, ah, only seen that on videotape, and then there were doctors. But." He became aware that he was talking with his hands, expansively, and dropped them, self-conscious. "The whole circle of life." He felt his face going red. "I know you wanted Kanaan with you, and I know I'm probably the last person you'd have chosen, but — can I be selfish and say I'm glad that, you know, I could help?"

"I could not have done it without you," Teyla said, gravely. "You are not a bad person."

Rodney shrugged. "No. I'm not. Strangely, a lot of people get that wrong."

"May I tell you something about John?" Teyla asked. She looked half asleep; the baby had burped and dropped off, propped against her chest. "It is not a confidence, but I have never told anyone besides Kanaan."

Rodney frowned and stuck his hands as far in his pockets as he could. "I don't know," he said, pressing his mouth together.

Teyla nodded. "When John was house hunting, he told me that he chose this agency because I am Black and a woman. He said he hoped I might understand that he wanted to live where he was welcome. I told him that my people are very welcoming of anyone, no matter their race or nationality or sexual preference. But I. . . am finally growing out hair I have relaxed and colored since high school because I thought I needed that image to be successful. And I think John does the same thing. We welcomed him as long as he did not talk about being gay, or act gay, or date, or start a family. I know I have made sure to introduce him to my single girlfriends, and I did not. . . when Ronon moved in with John, people talked, and I said nothing." She tilted her head to the side. "I asked John to be the baby's godfather. He is part of my family. I will talk to him for you, if you want to try and fix whatever happened."

"You could hit him with sticks first," Rodney said, and then waved the words away. "He doesn't want to forgive me."

"Men," Teyla said again, with a sigh. Rodney coughed, and she gave him a very judgmental look that made him squirm. Teyla closed her eyes and leaned back, and then opened her eyes wide and alert. "I hear an engine."

"It's only the wind," Rodney said, quoting eight million very bad horror films, but he pulled on his raincoat and opened the door. With the storm whipping the downpour into sheets, he could barely see across the street, much less down to the dock but — "I see lights," he announced, stepping back in and looking for his hat and a flashlight. "Down by the water — it's either Kanaan or someone else in a boat, boats are good, we'll get you to a hospital with real doctors and good drugs. Maybe a bit late for the drugs, though." He pulled everything down around his face as tightly as he could. "You'll be okay here?"

"We are fine," Teyla said. She looked impatient; Rodney was relieved that she did not make an attempt to get up. "Go now."

Rodney went, shouting as soon as he was close, and Kanaan shouted back, something about a rope that Rodney didn't quite get. Kanaan threw him the rope anyway, a big loop that could have pulled Rodney into the water, if he hadn't been so fast to shove it around the nearest thing that looked like ropes went on it. A great blob of a man was pulling hard on the heavy canvas tarps that were stretched over the open passenger seating area on Kanaan's boat, trying to keep them from snapping loose in the wind. Rodney supposed it was a nice thought, but also a lost cause. The rain got into everything.

Kanaan jumped down onto the dock, wearing a ridiculous pair of boots. "We need a doctor and a hospital and an ambulance," Rodney yelled as Kanaan started doing more things with rope to hold the boat steady in the battering waves.

"I know," Kanaan shouted back.

Rodney waved his arm in an arc. "Teyla had the baby," he said, enunciating very clearly. "What do you mean you know? It just happened. Pop, whoosh, baby."

"Teyla?" Kanaan said, taking a couple of menacing-looking steps towards Rodney. "Teyla what?"

"She's fine," Rodney said, squaring his shoulders. "The baby's fine. They're sleeping, up there, in the office, so, you know, everything's fine but a doctor would make it finer."

Kanaan was already jogging up towards the dim beckoning light of the office, and Rodney had to chase after him. There was a police car parked out front, which was new, but Rodney hoped that meant that the boys had been found and they were ready to leave, already.

The wind send the door swinging back hard towards Kanaan, who was all googly-eyed with shock. Rodney caught the door and walked in. The baby was looking a lot more like a baby: a lot of the wrinkles had plumped out, which went to show that there was something to breastfeeding. Teyla smiled wide at Kanaan, who went and nearly dripped all over the both of them, before good sense kicked in and he stepped back, right into Bates, who said Congratulations, man even though Kanaan hadn't done any work at all.

Rodney was just about to point this out, and also mention that he had been the one to catch the baby, when John, who was sitting on Teyla's desk, said, "You did good." His voice was raw, almost as if he were in awe. Or, Rodney realized, looking at John a bit less superficially, in pain.

"Is that blood?" he asked sharply. John's shirt was pulled up, and Ronon was pressing one of the towels hard against John's side. There was a slight chance that the dark stains on the towel were from rain or mud or oil, but — John's face was scratched and the hair at the front was stuck to his forehead with more blood. "Did you let somebody stab you?"

"Yeah, Rodney," John said. The sarcasm was comforting and familiar, but the breathlessness was worrying. "House fell on us when we were getting the kids out."

"He got about five inches of rebar jammed into his side," Ronon said. He looked pretty beat up as well. "We sent Jinto and Wex for help — "

"They said really bad words," one of the boys said, wide-eyed. Rodney couldn't tell the two boys apart: they both had long wet hair and were wrapped up in blankets.

"So we got Mr. Bates and Mr. Ford," the other boy said, and started to cry. Probably he had been crying, on and off, because no one said anything. Ford just grabbed a big handful of Kleenex from a box and handed it over.

"Jinto, here," Bates said, pointing with his chin at the boy who wasn't crying, "has been keeping a stray dog out on Genny Point, the old Radim place. Dog had puppies, and the kids've been scared to tell their folks, thinking the dogs'll be put down. Been stealing food, too," he added, and the boys stared at the floor. "Guess they planned on staying out the strom."

"A dog and a secret clubhouse," John said. "All any kid needs." He looked feverish: pale with glittery, unfocused eyes. Ronon added another towel, pulled John's shirt down, and started winding duct tape around John's stomach to keep the towels in place. John made little involuntary whimpering noises.

"Come on, old man," Ronon said, bringing the end of the tape around and pulling it tight. "Yeah?" he asked, looking down at John, and John nodded sideways with a wryly resolute expression. "Let's do this, then."

Bates and Ford took charge of a kid each, Kanaan tucked the baby under his rain gear, Ronon carried Teyla, and John only made it three steps out of the office before grabbing Rodney and leaning hard.

"I'm sorry," John said. "Rodney, I'm sorry."

"Me, too." Rodney pulled John's arm up over his shoulders and held on; his other arm he wrapped around John's waist. "Once your sorry self isn't bleeding I'm going to yell at you for taking risks."

John started walking, each step as slow and considered as if he were drunk. "Fair enough," he said. "You're the man. You caught the baby."

"You would be amazed at what the human vagina can do," Rodney confided, and John choked and stumbled. "Stop that," Rodney ordered. "This isn't third grade. And if you expectorate a lung, don't think I'm stopping to go back and get it."

"That'll teach me," John said

"It didn't take that baby any time at all to figure out what breasts are for," Rodney said. "He could be a genius. We'll see if he retains that skill into his teens." Rodney tugged up on John's belt, trying to keep his legs from turning to spaghetti with each step. "I took a bunch of pictures on Teyla's cell phone. For her baby book. I'll have to show you. It was like a Discovery Channel special."

"Miracle of life," John agreed, and reeled to a stop at the edge of the dock. He glared at Ronon, standing ready to help him into the boat, and for a moment Rodney thought he was going to protest that he could do it on his own. But then John sagged and waved a hand loosely through the air. "Be gentle with me," he said, joking.

"It'd suck to have to get a new landlord," Ronon said with a grin. "Doing it on three," he added, giving John just enough time to brace himself before picking him up and swinging him over.

Rodney followed, completely graceless but at least not falling down on his face, and ducked into the passenger area and the protection of the tarps. It was crowded, and the smell of wet dogs was overpowering. The boys sat on one bench, wrapped in blankets and holding puppies; the mother dog was collared and leashed and vociferously unhappy.

"I cannot wait for the bridge to be finished," Teyla said, trying to put on her life vest in a way that accommodated the baby and the nest of blankets that Kanaan had built around them.

"Bridges are useful. You could hire a diaper service," Rodney said. "Order pizza. Call an ambulance." He collected John from Ronon and discovered that John couldn't really sit because it was excruciatingly painful and he couldn't lie down because he couldn't breathe. "You are just more trouble than you're worth," he said, straddling one of the benches so John could recline against him, John's back to Rodney's chest. Ronon packed John in with blankets. "I'm really furious with you right now for making me worry when you're breaking my heart."

"Ronon said I was being a dumbass," John said, talking with his jaw clenched.

"So did Teyla. She promised to hit you with sticks and had a metaphor comparing you to her hair."

John thought about this for a moment before coming up with, "Braided?"

"Shut up. It was very insightful but I wouldn't expect you to understand."

"We found those kids," John said. He put his hand over Rodney's wrist and leaned his head back on Rodney's shoulder. "We got them out just right as the roof fell in."

"Big damn hero," Rodney said, and John shook his head impatiently.

"Everything went right," John said, speaking very softly. Rodney didn't know if that was because John wanted the privacy, even though everyone else was busy pretending they weren't listening in, or because John was trying to save his strength. "The kids, nothing happened to them. I'd forgotten how amazing that feels. Like things could go right. And I really, really wanted, I want, I want us to be like that."

"Amazing?" Rodney asked. "That's crazy DC heroes talk."

"I want us to be right," John said. He took a few quick shallow breaths. Rodney shifted a bit so he could see John's face. John's eyes were half-shut, as though he couldn't make the effort open them all the way. "Free? And good," he added, and then smiled lazily. "Right after I realized that, getting the kids out, Ronon carrying out this armload of puppies, that was when the whole roof fell in. I was fucking glowing, I was invulnerable, I owned the future, everything came down and still. . . it was. . . . It was my first successful rescue mission since, and I was — " He stopped and shut his eyes.

"Sounds heroic to me," Rodney said, quietly.

"Right then, I was so in love with you I would have asked you to marry me," John said, and then wrinkled his forehead. "That sounds weird."

"I'm Canadian," Rodney said. "It sounds like a proposal."

"I couldn't move, I kept telling Ronon to go. I told him goodbye. But the weird thing is, I felt this metal rod going into me, I couldn't get my breath, I knew I was fucked up, it hurt wicked bad, but I still had this, this happiness in me. Like being an egg cracked open, is what I thought, but I was kind of crazy at the time."

"On the one hand, I'm really very happy for you and your psychological health," Rodney said, tartly. "On the other hand, I still want to smack you around. A lot."

John smiled, looking weary and battered and sweet. "I figured you would. I'm hoping that there was something in your Scout code about being gentle with invalids."

"It was more like Love, Honor, Respect. Or maybe Obey, but I'm pretty sure it was Respect. There was a song we had to sing — anyway." Rodney coughed. "Also a lot of stuff about protecting the environment." He looked down at John's hand in his. "If near-death experiences are what it takes to get you to forgive me. . . I can't live with that. I didn't think I had deal-breakers, but lucky you, you found one."

"The whole time I was bleeding to death," John said, his voice perfectly even, as if he were reading from a teleprompter about something that didn't affect him in the least, "all I wanted was to be alive. Go home. Be with you. Trust me, if I need my ass kicked again, I would definitely choose therapy over this." He tugged at Rodney's hand. "I wanted to touch you," he said.

"You have a horrible undiagnosed head injury, don't you?" Rodney said, wrapping his fingers around John's wrist, and John beamed sideways at him in a way that could only be described as pure smart-ass. "You should see your eyes. They're glittering unhealthily." John rubbed his knuckles against Rodney's arm, shifting his feet on the floor and twisting his shoulders in an attempt to get comfortable that left him short-breathed with pain and frustration. Rodney ran his palms over John's arms and wished deeply and sincerely for psychic healing superpowers. "You're an adoptive uncle now, so you have to be a good role model. Did I tell you about the baby?"

"Will you be here when I wake up?" John asked. He sounded as if he was trying to pass the words off as a joke, but his head was back far enough that he could fix his eyes on Rodney's, staring at him with fear and hope. "I didn't mean what I said. Jesus, Rodney, if you believe anything believe that. I just hate knowing that you know. I hate looking at you and feeling them touch me. You just — I'm angry and disappointed but we, I think we're stronger than stupidity."

""God, I hope so," Rodney got out, even though his throat was tight and dry. "I'm sorry, I really am, I'd undo what I did if I could but I can't. Hey. Look, it's a cliché, but stop falling asleep, okay?" He rubbed John's arm under the blanket. "Just keep babbling, and I'll try not to hold it against you when you're normal-you again."

"I'm not going to be scared anymore," John announced. "I decided that."

Rodney blinked, blindsided. "Of bugs?"

John waved a hand, and Rodney had to grab it before all the blankets were pushed away. "No. Still hate the little fuckers." He took a breath. "Of trying. With you. Might yell, but. Trying."

"Yell at me when this is over," Rodney said, and John nodded, as loosely uncoordinated as a marionette. "No sleeping."

"No," John agreed, but then fell silent.

Teyla murmured something soft to the two boys, and they shook their heads, hunching down into their blankets. She looked over at Rodney, her face wry. "The time would go faster if we sang a song," she said, and Rodney thought he hadn't heard a worse idea, ever. "Do you know any lullabies?"

"Yes, that's what I got my other degree in," Rodney snapped. "Because in my free time I enjoy sing-alongs with acoustic guitar and making balloon animals for children out of the kindness of my heart."

"I think John will like this one," Teyla said. "He has a sly sense of humor."

"Do not," John said, trying to look over at Teyla, who smiled back serenely and started singing Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.

"Hello, not in Sunday school," Rodney muttered, but there was no denying that the human brain had a tendency to become superstitious in a crisis, hence the old saying about there not being any atheists in foxholes. He would never, ever admit it, but he wished that people respected a deep and abiding faith in the laws of physics as much as they did a reliance on the mystical — not so much because he wanted to rewire world religions (someone should, he thought, but not him) but because he wouldn't mind having a cult following of his own.

"It was sung by the slaves of Port Royal," Teyla said, interrupting herself between verses. "It's about meeting your family in heaven, but when I was a girl, I thought it was about how my family protected me." She moved her shoulders with fluid grace and started another verse, encouraging the boys to join in on the hallelujahs, which they did, haltingly at first and then loudly, elbowing each other in the ribs. The mother dog whined; the puppies joined in. Even John started to hum along.

"Stop that," Rodney hissed. "You can't carry a tune on a good day. Also, it's going to be hard enough that every time I hear this song I'll be thinking of being on a damn boat and you dying and the wind and the rain. Why aren't you giving me emotional support, here? I'm musically sensitive. I have good taste and perfect pitch. Enough with the trumpets sounding and the River Jordan."

"Not dying tonight," John said, and reached up. He misjudged the angle and nearly jabbed Rodney in the eye with his fingers before he managed to pat Rodney's cheek. "If I kicked it I'd never know if we got back together or not."

"John," Teyla said. "Be nice."

"Rodney started it," John muttered, probably too low for Teyla to hear, but she cleared her throat ominously before starting to sing again. John coughed, and Rodney looked down, afraid that he'd see blood on John's mouth, but John was just breathing hard through clenched teeth again, his eyes shut. "Rodney," John said finally, almost clearly, and smiled. "Gonna buy a helicopter," he continued; at least, Rodney thought that was what he said. It wasn't quite the romantic declaration he'd hoped for, but John seemed satisfied and fell asleep before he even shut his eyes, so Rodney had a creepy view of John's eyeballs rolling around.

John didn't wake up again until they reached the Pegasus Bay port and the paramedics were transferring him to a stretcher. "Rodney?" John said, sounding breathless and confused.

"Don't worry," Rodney said, trying to sound like John was being unreasonable. "I'll be right behind you, all the way."

Solid Foundations

"So, good morning," John said, sounding as chipper as if he hadn't just woken Rodney up with a lot of naked rubbing and mutual orgasms. "Nice shouting. I'll bet you woke all the guests up."

"It's too early to be alive," Rodney said, mouth still pressed up under John's shoulder. He worked one sticky hand out from between them and wiped it one the sheets. "Do we have houseguests?"

"It's more like. . . tent guests," John said, because he was a smartass. He shifted his knees just a bit to hold his weight up off Rodney, shivering as his dick dragged against Rodney's again.

John was incredibly laid back about the whole family reunion thing. Rodney supposed it was because he didn't worry about details like who was there at any given time, or whether they were entertained or fed or crashing on the sofa or floor or in one of the tents on the front lawn. Rodney resented having had nervous habits drilled into him by three generations of McKay women. He felt vague, persistent guilt for not making sure that the guests in his charge were not pandered to. Not that he would ever stoop to pandering — he liked the idea of a fully self-service party where he didn't need to do anything but eat the food people gave him — but he felt ghostly prods from ancestral elbows when he found guests heating things up in the microwave or hanging out loads of laundry.

Of course, with Jeannie visiting, most of the irritated nudges were real and accompanied by sharp little whispers of Mer-edith. Rodney was glad that the Millers were staying at Teyla's house this summer. He liked having Jeannie around, and Madison was smarter than ever, and Kaleb had dedicated some poems in his latest chapbook to Rodney which Ronon read and said were pretty good; but Rodney was out of practice at dealing with Jeannie all the time.

"Oh, God," he said, memory kicking in, "we invited a million people over for breakfast, didn't we?"

"Pancakes," John agreed. "And waffles. With real all-the-way-from-Canada maple syrup."

"Might be worth getting up for," Rodney mumbled, and patted the back of John's leg thoughtfully.

"Come on," John said, dipping his head to yawn loudly against Rodney's chest before sliding off to the side. He stood and stretched, rolling his shoulders, and grabbed Rodney's hand and pulled him out of bed and all the way to the shower.

Rodney put his foot down at shower sex: water plus tiles plus flailing equaled embarrassing trip to the emergency room, in his opinion. But showering together was a good way to conserve water, and it had become habit over the past few months. He liked washing John's hair. John liked being washed: it made him look all shy with pleasure.

John's horrible scars were a lot less distracting than they had been, but they were still there, despite the silicone strips and the diligent application of vitamin E and sunblock. The one that bothered Rodney the most was the thin silver scar right below John's hairline that somehow always managed to peek out from the curl of his hair. The scars on John's side were big and violent-looking, but they were hidden most of the time. Rodney hated that mark on John's face because anyone could see it. He didn't tell John that, though.

He slopped soapy foam down John's chest with the washcloth, just to make him squirm and protest, and then worked the soap all around with broad, circular strokes, covering the scars and John's nipples and creating a pretty good simulation of what all that chest hair would look like when it was completely grey.

"Okay, rinse," he said, stepping back so John could scoot past to the water. John sluiced himself off with both hands, efficiently, and Rodney watched.

"Hurry up," John said, tossing a handful of water in Rodney's direction. ""Stop perving over my body." He ducked out under the shower curtain, and Rodney yelped at him to drip on the bathmat this time, damn it, because getting the floor all wet was not only disgusting but dangerous.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," John said. "That only happened the one time, with the dog, and that was an accident."

"I was accidentally bruised for weeks," Rodney said, lathering up with his own shampoo and moving under the spray, which John had set up to be one degree short of scalding. "Where is the menace to society, anyway?" Ronon had found homes for the puppies with college friends, but John had agreed to house Jinto's dog, who had a mild temperament and a wicked subversive streak. With John, she did as she was told when she felt like it, which baffled him. Rodney thought this was good for him.

"I think Ronon took her out for a run," John said, and Rodney heard him moving away. He peeked around the edge of the curtain, just in time to catch a glimpse of very nice shoulders and a very nice ass. "I'm going to start things going, okay?"

"Whatever," Rodney shouted after him. He hadn't planned on cooking anything, anyway. John had basically laughed him out of the kitchen after the time he'd gotten the pizza stuck to the bottom of the frying pan. He assumed that John would expect him to make the coffee, which was the only thing Rodney was confident he could do.

He toweled off and got dressed and followed his nose to the kitchen, where John had the big spaghetti pot full of pancake batter and was already stacking the first batch of fluffy golden pancakes onto a platter.

"Want one?" John asked, holding one up with a knowing kind of leer.

Rodney let himself be fed, holding onto John's wrist with one hand and sliding the other up under John's apron strings to the small of his back.

"Ith ga," he said, and gave John a thumbs up as he dug out the coffee beans for grinding. The noise and the smells wafting out the open windows into the pale early-morning air attracted the first wave of breakfasters. Rodney hadn't remembered who was in the guest bedroom, but he wasn't surprised to see Zelenka stumbling out, squinting. Jack and Daniel had stayed in one of the tents, a group of female Marines in the other, and the members of the skateboarding club who had parental permission to sleep over in the third.

The madness couldn't be contained in the kitchen; people overflowed into the living room and out onto the deck. Rodney found himself nudged out of the way until he was leaning against the window frame, clutching his coffee and only able to hope that John was saving him some of the blueberry pancakes. He looked down and saw Teyla's SUV pulling up at the same time as Ronon came jogging up the road with Xena the wonder dog on his heels.

He pushed his way over to John and announced that Teyla was here, and John handed the spatula to Zelenka, who had been first in line for more pancakes, with a sharp warning not to let anything burn. John took the stairs down two at a time; Rodney followed, just in time to hear John tell Ronon to make sure to clean up and knock all the sand off the dog. Rodney had sworn off vacuuming for the next year after the previous day's dry cereal incident — the reason everyone was eating pancakes this morning.

Rodney overheard Ronon mutter that John was whipped. Rodney glared at his retreating back, and then realized that Teyla and Jeannie were doing the same.

"Uncle Mer," Madison shouted, and grabbed Rodney's hands. He held his arms out obligingly, and she threw herself into a foot-over-head aerial somersault.

"Oh, come on," Rodney protested when she did it again. "Pancakes are now, Olympics tryouts not for another ten years."

"'kay," Madison said, and stuck to him like a limpet, arms half-strangling him.

Rodney turned to see if he could foist her off on John — his back was twinging — but John was holding Torren.

When John was just home from the hospital, the best way to make him take a nap had been to make him lie down with Torren. Rodney had tons of adorable pictures of the two of them sleeping. He also had one video of Torren working himself into a rage, nuzzling into John's chest in search of a breast and finally waking John up by beating him with his fat baby fists.

"I can't believe you filmed that," John had said. "Why didn't you get Teyla?"

"She was doing yoga," Rodney said. "Plus, it was really funny."

Back then, John hadn't been allowed to pick Torren up because he'd been recovering from surgery. Now here he was swinging eight months of baby up into the air recklessly. Rodney hoped Torren didn't throw up on him again.

Kaleb and Kanaan were talking excitedly about the day's main event, a trip out to dive at the site where Daniel had found the wreckage of his Spanish-Azetc ships. As everyone made their way upstairs, Madison fortunately abandoning Rodney in favor of running as fast as she could for the kitchen, Rodney had a horrible premonition that Daniel was going to join in the discussion and go into lecture mode again. Daniel's book about the Aztecs was higher ranked on Amazon than Rodney's much more useful book about disasters. Sometimes Rodney couldn't stand the sound of Daniel's voice, so he pulled John aside just short of the door.

"Foist the kid off on someone," he said, and John handed Torren over to Kanaan with a querying look at Rodney. "Come on," Rodney said, and nudged John over to where the view of the ocean had been improved by the loss of three pine trees to the Michael's winds. Michael had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time the worst of it hit the island, but there had still been considerable damage, especially on the ocean side where water had breached the dunes. John's house had been fine; his yard had been a mess.

Out in the ocean, two-thirds of the way to the horizon, there was now a smudge of sand that poked up, nearly making an island at low tide. Daniel said that it was the lost island of Lantea, risen from the depths. Rodney just shrugged; he didn't think it was worth arguing over.

"Nice morning," John said, leaning on the railing and looking out. "Going to get hot, though." Rodney nearly snapped at him to stop saying obvious and dumb things, but then John reached over and curled his hand in the waistband of Rodney's pants, pulling him so they stood hip to hip.

"You and your sexual innuendo," he said instead. "Let's kick everybody out and go back to bed."

"Did I know you were this territorial when I let you move in?" John asked, his thumb sliding against Rodney's bare skin in a very distracting way.

"You — " and Rodney stopped himself from saying begged me to move in. It would have all the wrong connotations in the conversation.

When John had recovered enough to go back to work, Rodney had waffled on whether to start spending more time back at his apartment to give John more space. He didn't want to, but he didn't want to get in John's way, either.

One day, John looked over at Rodney when they were watching one of the Terminator movies and asked, "Do you still have that video? The bad one. Of me."

Rodney paused, hoping he hadn't somehow fucked up again. "Yes." He'd hidden it so that no one else could find it, but the knowledge of where it was on his computer was acid-etched in his mind.

"Get rid of it," John said, reaching over Rodney to grab the last of the Twizzlers. "I don't want it in my house, and it's time you stopped wasting money on rent when you're here most of the time anyway."

"Wait, are we talking about cohabitation?" Rodney'd said, and then before John could snark back, "You'd be okay with that?"

John shrugged. "I figure we're there, where we can — " he made a vague you know gesture with the candy — "so if you wanted to put your name on the mailbox, that's cool."

John tasted like cherry licorice when Rodney kissed him. "I have a frightening amount of stuff," he said, and John just kissed him back and said Bring it. So Rodney did.

"What?" John said now.

"Sorry," Rodney said. "I was just thinking about kissing you."

"Oh, yeah?" John leaned closer and ran a line of kisses down the side of Rodney's neck.

Rodney slid one hand up John's back to his shoulder to pull him a little closer.

"Why don't you have rocking chairs?" Rodney asked, and nudged John's single cheap plastic deck chair with his foot. "I thought they were mandatory by state law. Rocking chairs and a flag and potted geraniums."

John shrugged. "Never thought about it."

"You need two," Rodney said. "I'll get you one for Christmas and one for your birthday and that will take care of the whole year. Plus, they're romantic."

John snorted. "News to me."

"Philistine," Rodney said. "You need two, so that we can bring our coffee out here in the morning and watch the water, and the boats, and things, without even having to talk, just rock and wake up. And so that we can leave the dishes in the sink after dinner and sit out here and just breathe. Maybe hold hands. I imagine," he added, giving John a wry look, "that you'll be a nervous rocker. You'll probably stick one knee under your chin with some paperback thriller propped up on it and use your other foot to achieve escape velocity. The cat will learn to stay the hell away from you."

"What, now we're getting a cat?" John said, leaning in for a proper kiss this time, right on the mouth.

Rodney let himself be kissed and kissed John back hard, with a little over-the-clothes groping. John pressed in close and slid his hands up Rodney's neck to slide into his hair, holding Rodney still until he finally pulled back, with a slow sweet smile and a nod towards the door, where the sounds of breakfast were turning into the sounds of washing up.

"Christmas," Rodney said. "Birthdays. I have lots of them coming up."

"I'm never going to get to the end of your wish list, am I?" John said, sounding sorry for himself.

Rodney nodded and gave him a push. "There's plenty of time. I wouldn't worry."

"Okay," John said, lacing his fingers with Rodney's, "okay, then."

The End
references Common Ground (torture) and Search and Rescue (childbirth)
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