Rodney had worked very hard at not making this house his home. I mean, he'd always been rather sparse with the decorations even back on Atlantis. It wasn't a minimalist streak so much as that genius brain of his being too busy solving the mysteries of the cosmos to be bothered with accessorizing it. But even there he had had pictures of himself and his awards and his cat. Hell, in one rather bizarre photograph he had all three. But here there was nothing. His bedroom was lived in... rumpled sheets on the bed, rumpled clothes on the floor, rumpled paper in and around the trashcan...but there was nothing that indicated it was Rodney's rumple as opposed to some nameless stranger’s rumple.
Not until I saw them.
We had taken a rental car and driven to the top of Pike's Peak. Late spring sun warmed the car to the point that we had the windows cracked, but the thick drifts of snow on the sides of the road showed that winter still held the higher elevations firmly in its icy grasp. I had had my meeting with Walburton that morning, and even though Rodney was complaining about the way his lips were tingling in the thinner atmosphere as I parked the car in the gravel lot at the top I still thought this was a better idea than breaking the news to him in the SGC.
"Seriously, Sheppard, we live at sea level... literally. I'm honestly surprised we don't suffer the bends just from stepping through the gate whenever we come back to Cheyenne Mountain. I will be amazed if we don't collapse from altitude sickness in the gift shop and have to be airlifted out of here."
Forcing a grin and trying not to think about how much I was going to miss his whiny ass, I hitched my head toward the structure that he predicted was going to be our demise. "Come on, I'll buy you a donut and make it all worthwhile."
"I'm not sure any donut is worth dying over," he grumbled, pushing past a stream of tourists making their way out the same door we were trying to get in. I placed my hand in the small of his back, ostensibly to keep from losing him in the press of people, but the quick flash of blue over his shoulder let me know he knew exactly what I was doing. We had done this for years, snuck a touch when no one was looking, always when neither of us could do anything more than acknowledge the act with a glance or a quick brush in return. He did just that, his fingers wrapping around my wrist as he reached back behind him as we maneuvered our way through the throng. It was our own unspoken reminder of what we meant to each other, what we couldn't do now but would do someday. And I tried to convince myself the chill that ran through me when he released my hand as the crowd thinned was due to the cool air and not the thought of never being able to go beyond that simple touch.
Ordering donuts and coffee, we worked our way out of the packed gift shop and down to a boulder where we could watch the tourists loading back onto the tram down the mountain. Rodney chose a small rock for our perch, so we had to sit shoulder to shoulder while we ate our snack.
"So, I take it you wanted to come up here for more than just an overrated donut and bad coffee."
I watched as a couple asked a young mother to take their picture in front of the Pike's Peak sign. They wrapped arms around each other, planted an exaggerated kiss, pulled away when the guy had to explain how the camera worked to the woman, then resumed their pose as the camera clicked. Even without the military regulations I lived under we never would have been able to do that, but it didn't stop me from observing, "We should've brought a camera."
"You're such a sentimentalist." He blew across his Styrofoam cup of coffee even as he huddled close over it for the warmth.
Moving a little closer, I shrugged against him. "Maybe I'm just a commemorativist."
"I'm not sure that's even a word. But tell me, what are we commemorating?"
"An entire afternoon alone with you."
Even as he rolled his eyes he couldn't hide the glimmer of pleasure the words brought. "I take it back; you're a romantic. Either that or the lack of oxygen has finally starved your already malnourished brain cells. Are you feeling euphoric? That's a sure sign of hypoxia."
"What can I say, McKay? I'm a sucker for a warm donut."
"Okay, so not going there. Are you going to tell me what Walburton said that was so horrible you had to drive me to the top of the world to break it to me?"
Taking a sip of coffee, I scanned the valley below us. Colorado Springs was a nice little town. The type of place you could settle in, do a little hiking, some mountain biking, hang out at some of the local brew pubs. It was the type of town that would bore Rodney to tears. Although, the Mountain was within easy driving distance, so that wouldn't be too bad. But home would always be on the opposite side of the universe. Pushing away that momentary thought of happily ever after, I took a deep breath and told him. "The committee believes it has enough evidence to charge me; dereliction of duty and destruction of government property."
As I expected, the response was explosive. The donut fell unnoticed on the ground and coffee went flying. "They obviously have their collective head up their ass because that is the only place they could come up with such complete and utter bullshit. I tell you what we're going to do: we’re contacting Elizabeth during the next data transfer. And then, then we're getting every damn member of my staff and every damn member of the military and every damn alien race that you have saved over the last four years and we are descending on the SGC to let them know..."
"Walburton offered me a deal."
It took him a second to stop in his description of the massive Atlantean labor strike and letter writing campaign he was planning for the science department as my words sunk in. "A deal? What kind of deal?"
"He'll delay the charges until I take my retirement when I become eligible in four months. If I'm gone, then he arranges it so that the charges never come."
"Why would he do that? Why does he want you gone?"
"I evidently offend his moral sensibility. He thinks I'm too attached to a certain person that I work with." Letting my eyes slide to look at the man sitting next too me, I couldn't deny the General's assessment. "A certain male person."
"But we've never done..." His mouth opened and closed in outrage. "All this time and we never..."
"Ironic, huh?" I sipped bitterly on my stale coffee.
"What the hell happened to 'don't ask, don't tell'? I mean nothing we've done has even come close to violating those rules."
"He wasn't asking, Rodney. He didn't need to. He has other means of getting rid of me if he wants and he knows I know it.” I shook my head with a snort. “He thinks I’m too reckless around you. That I put you before my duties as an officer.”
"But that's blackmail. He's blackmailing you over something he thinks is morally objectionable?"
"Once again, the whole situation is sublime in its irony. Hell, maybe he’s right."
"So, what are we going to do?" I’d seen that same panicked expression on numerous missions when we thought we were up against impossible odds. We’d always managed to work ourselves out of those situations, but this wasn't something Rodney could fix with a screwdriver and wire cutters and it wasn't something I could shoot our way out of. Although that last option was more than tempting.
I stood and hitched my head toward the car. I could tell from Rodney’s face that my smile was unconvincing. "We're going to check into the best hotel in town, do things to each other we've only dreamed about until our eyes cross, sleep in late, then do those things again before we go back to Atlantis on the Daedalus tomorrow and keep doing those things until I retire in four months. No reason not to now."
"And then we leave Atlantis and everything we worked for four years, just like that?"
"No, I leave Atlantis. You still have a year and a half on your contract."
"Screw the contract. I'll break the contract."
"And ruin your career? Rodney, you'd go into a seizure if you didn't have a gaggle of MENSA members to run herd over. Besides, they'd be sucking their thumbs in the corner without you to guide them; you said so yourself. You can't just leave like that."
"What about the defense systems we just found? It could take months just to identify them all. Then we'll need you for the testing and establishing safety controls so we don't have a repeat of Pylos."
"Atlantis will be fine without me. There are plenty of others now that can do what I do."
"There are other things on Atlantis that need you besides the technology."
Challenging blue eyes bored into me and all I could think was you have no fucking idea how much I need them, as well, but now was no time to let my fears of what this would mean to us come into play. "You'll have leave in there somewhere and you can come visit. I'll use the time to find a job, find us a home and when your contract is up, you'll come join me." Or his feelings for me would fade and he'd stay on Atlantis and I'd be stuck on Earth without him. And there was something in the way his face changed, the way it went from desperate to resolved in the span of a few seconds, that made my stomach knot to see it.
"You already have a job and a home." That stubborn jaw jutted as angrily as the finger that jabbed into my chest. "And I am not going to let them take those from you."
We never got that hotel room, or the ride back to Atlantis together, for that matter. Rodney struck a deal himself. He convinced Walburton that we were just friends, close friends to be sure, but if we were more would he volunteer to stay behind while I went back to Atlantis? Of course, he didn't tell me that. Instead he boarded the Daedalus like everything was fine, remembered that he had left his laptop in the lab he had been using and conveniently left to retrieve it, never to return. We were on the far side of the Milky Way before I realized what he had done. And I was on Atlantis for over two weeks before he finally sent a personal message to Radek asking him to forward his things to the address in Mexico. He never sent anything to me, for the same reason I never sent anything to him: the messages between Earth and Atlantis went through a derivative classifier before they were released from the SGC, and I wasn't sure I could send an email and not say how much I missed him, how I felt like I was trapped in that fucking time dilation field again and how I was counting the days until my retirement. Because even though he thought he was doing what was best for me, I knew he was what was best for me. No, I never wrote him a letter, but I did send him a message. One I hoped would slip through, seeing as it was mixed in with his personal belongings.
Elizabeth had asked if I wanted to pack his things. So I had. Pictures, clothes, a couple of trinkets he had picked up, a few scientific journals and reference material he kept around. I placed them quickly and efficiently in the boxes I had, not lingering over them, not trying to place memory to item, just stacked them to prevent jarring and taped up the box. Except the last one. Before I sealed that box I slipped off my dog tags and dropped them in. I'm not sure what I meant by it: a promise, an invitation, a token of the romantic sentimentality he had accused me of. All I knew is that I wanted him to have them. Those of us in the military wear them because we know that if something happens to us they're our best chance, one way or another, of getting home. Taping the box closed, I just hoped that eventually I'd catch up with them and the only home I wanted.
And now I was looking at them resting on top of a post-it note pad, the chain intermingled with the paperclips in the desk caddy in Rodney's room. It made me wonder if maybe Rodney was waiting for me before he made this place a home, too.
Dressing in the clean clothes Rodney had brought up from my rental car, I took my toiletry kit back into the bathroom to shave. I wiped away the condensation on the mirror with my towel, frowning at the seventies-era sink and vanity in the bathroom. After the paint job I was going to have to tackle this bathroom. The tile was okay, but the gold-flecked fake marble of the counter had to go. I wondered if Rodney liked Mission-style furniture...dark woods, simple lines... it seemed like something he could appreciate.
I asked him at dinner later.
"Mission-style? I don't know. I've never really thought about it." He took a bite of pork that I had taste-tested for any contraband lime juice prior to his sitting down at the table. "Why are you so interested in furniture?"
"I was thinking of redoing the upstairs bathroom in that style."
"Sheppard, you are certifiable, you do realize that, don't you? I mean, I wouldn't want you to be too terribly shocked when the men in white coats show up and haul you away. Because there is no way in hell that you are going to redecorate my bathroom."
Taking another bite myself, I ignored him and instead smiled at Alita, who sat at the opposite end of the table. "This is great."
"It would be better con las limas," she mumbled with a sideways look at McKay who, momentarily distracted from the bathroom issue, used his fork to accentuate his sarcasm.
"Yes, a meal is always better when one of the diners' windpipes swells shut and he turns purple where he sits gasping for breath."
Stabbing a piece of her own meal, Alita smiled sweetly. "That es una bonificaciónin my book."
"Then I'll do my best not to disturb your plate when I'm rolling on the table in my death throes."
Interrupting their argument, I smiled at them both. "Well, I think it's delicious even without the lime." Seeing those dog tags had cheered me to no end, and I wasn't about to let these two spoil it.
"You would," she grumbled as she took in Rodney then shook her head in absolute bewilderment.
Not that I could really blame her, sometimes it bewildered even me why McKay was the one that had done what no one else could and had me thinking of the rest of my life and not just the rest of the night. And maybe that's why I was able to have gone this long without the physical part of the relationship. I had no intention of hitting that and moving on. I didn't want to do that, which is why I didn't jump at the offer Rodney had made... although a rather critical part did twitch at the thought. But we were back on Earth now, and the threats we lived under in Pegasus were gone. It gave me the feeling that we had all the time in the world, that I could wait him out until he realized he wanted what I did.
We spent the rest of the meal that way, Rodney and Alita snapping at each other, me calmly responding to any snide remarks that came my way and growing more and more content with the way McKay and I fell into the old rhythm of the way things had been. After dinner Rodney drove Alita home, bitching that he already paid her too much and to throw in taxi service on top of everything else was pushing his generosity to the limit. But the winds had picked up; it was pretty clear that weather was moving in, and she refused to walk home in a potential thunderstorm. And the thought of two unwanted houseguests was enough to have Rodney searching for the keys to the car he evidently rarely drove. I told him to take the rental, and about twenty minutes later heard the car pulling up outside. A minute after that I heard him call to me through the dark house.
He found me sitting on the back patio watching the lightning backlight the clouds in the distance. "Looks like that tropical depression isn't going to miss us after all."
He didn't move from the doorway, and I finally assured him, "I promise I won't bite, McKay. You can come and sit down if you want."
"It's not your teeth that I'm worried about." The sky glowed in a flash of pink as another bolt of electricity jumped from one cloud to the next, and he still didn't move.
I couldn't help my grin. "You're in for a surprise when you finally give in and sleep with me, then." I patted the decking beside me. "Seriously, Rodney, I won't try anything, I promise. I just... I realized tonight eating dinner that I've missed you. I mean, just hanging out with you, talking with you, watching you snarl at anyone that comes within five feet of you."
He walked to where I sat on the edge of the porch. "Including you?"
Finally sitting at the perimeter of his designated three-foot safety zone, he stared out at the approaching storm. "Well, I've missed doing it. Alita is a poor substitute, although she's the only housekeeper I've found that can tolerate it."
"She seems capable of holding her own."
"Yeah, but she's not you."
"It's the breasts, huh? It's hard to take the scathing insults too seriously when you're staring at her boobs."
A flash closer than the last illuminated his smirk. "Hardly. She's more hot-tempered. It's kind of like arguing with Radek without the physics, Spanish instead of Czech rants, and more hair on her head and less on her body."
Something dawned on me and I asked, "So, does she have a clearance? Because you've been talking pretty openly around her about some rather classified things."
He grinned and looked at me for the first time since sitting down. "She thinks I'm a Hollywood producer. Atlantis is the name of the movie studio I work for, the Daedalus is the private corporate jet, Walburton is the CEO. She probably thinks you're some actor or director or writer that I've worked with in the past that got fired. I honestly think it's why she's put up with me as long as she has. That and the fact that she's evidently ripping me off with her salary."
I laughed out loud at the thought of Rodney McKay, Hollywood golden boy. "So, maybe I should have had my people call your people before I came down here."
"A heads-up would have been nice. My first thought when I saw you was that Atlantis had been destroyed. Scared me almost as much as finding those dog tags. When I saw them I woke Sam up in the middle of the night and had her make sure you were okay."
Blinking in realization of what he must have thought, I apologized. "Oh, Christ, Rodney, I never meant for you to think that. I should have sent a note but I was afraid the SGC would find it and..."
"Sheppard, it's okay. I felt kind of stupid afterward. I mean, Radek or Carson or Elizabeth would have notified me before the Daedalus could get back here with my things. It was just an emotional, irrational overreaction. Like I said, stupid of me... especially me."
"What's it say about me that I sent them?" He shrugged and I reached over and punched his shoulder. "Fine, I'll keep that in mind: no more romantic notions with Rodney McKay. For our anniversary I'll buy you an external hard drive and some rewritable CDs. For the really special occasions I'll even sign the card, Best Regards, John."
A rumble of thunder had us both looking up to the sky, and Rodney shook his head. "You just don't give up, do you, Sheppard?"
"Not something I'm known for."
The first drops of rain started to fall and he stood abruptly. I rose more slowly, kind of enjoying the feel of warm rain. The downpours on Atlantis were chilly, even in the warmer months; this was something I could get used to... all of it. "Come on, I'll show you to your room."
My eyebrows rose in surprise. "You mean I don't have to sleep on the couch?"
"I'm not a heartless bastard, no matter what the last set of staff reviews said."
He led me up the stairs, the sound of rain pounding on the roof escalating as we reached the second floor. Even though I knew better, I still felt a twinge of disappointment when he passed his room and walked the length of the hallway, where he opened a set of double doors that led into a large master suite. I had to wonder why he had chosen the smaller bedroom instead of this much larger and more elaborate one. My duffle already sat on the foot of the large king-sized bed, along with a fresh towel. With a confused twist of lips I told him, "Wow, this place is huge. I could get lost in the bed alone. I might get lonely in here."
My attempt at humor had him wincing minutely. "It's why I sleep down the hall," he mumbled, then more loudly, "You know where everything is if you need it." He turned abruptly, halting only long enough to close the doors.
"Good night, McKay," I called before the doors shut completely.
A muffled, "Good night," came in return from the other side.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, I ran a hand over the elaborately colored bedspread. He must have bought all the furnishings and bedding with the place, because even Rodney didn't have taste this tacky. Propping the pillow up against the outdated black enameled, brass-trimmed headboard, I leaned back and listened to the rain. Another rumble of thunder had me thinking out the lights, only to remember I couldn't do that here. Reaching out, I clicked off the lamp and smiled. There was something almost reassuring about the fact that McKay wasn't the only thing I had to work for here. Something satisfying about the thought of doing things by hand, taking the time to do it right. Something encouraging about adding the master bedroom to the growing list of things that needed fixing here. Closing my eyes, I drifted to the sounds of the growing storm and the thought that Rodney was still at the top of that list.
* * * *
The storm died off in the middle of the night, but the rain still lingered in the morning, slow and lazy just like Sheppard when he made his way down the stairs. I was already halfway through my second cup of coffee before he staggered sleepily into the kitchen wearing low-slung cargo shorts and nothing else. He scrubbed a hand through tousled hair and made me curse myself for thinking the word tousled was the perfect description for all of him, and that tousled was quickly ranking up there with slither on the hot meter. He took the cup I had already set out for him and filled it with strong Mexican coffee before diluting it with cream and sugar, then went to stare out the kitchen window.
"So much for getting to the trim color today," he observed of the drizzle that was making its way through the branches of the tree in the courtyard.
"Maybe Alita knows someone that can finish it up once you're gone."
My observation just had him frowning even more than he was before. "Hey, McKay, why do you have the motorcycle?"
"Oh, it came with the house like everything else here. The previous owner evidently died under some rather suspicious circumstances."
"Here in the house?" he grimaced.
"No, they didn't find any of the parts here."
"Christ. You do have a gun, don't you? There's no telling what sort of people might show up here."
I rolled my eyes at the worry I saw in his. "Please, do you think I paid so little attention to what you taught me on Atlantis?"
"Still, we need to put a better lock on this door. Last thing I want to do is have to shoot our way out when a drug cartel shows up on our doorstep."
"Sheppard, do me a favor and stop doing that, okay?"
"Doing what?" he asked innocently, but his smirk told me he knew exactly what he was doing. When I glared and started to stand to leave the room he grinned more, but said, "Okay, okay, tell me about the bike. You plan to play the Peter Fonda or Jack Nicholson role?"
“Neither,” I mumbled into my coffee cup.
“Then why are you rebuilding it?”
It was a simple enough question, but not a simple answer. How do you explain that, in a moment of weakness two weeks after arriving in a foreign country all alone, you’d been ready to chuck everything you had done and beg him to come back to Earth even if it meant going AWOL, and you were willing to build him a fucking motorcycle to sweeten the pot? I had spent a day and a half stripping the thing down before I had kicked the carburetor against the wall and locked myself in my room until the feeling passed, and I hadn’t touched the bike since.
Shrugging, I told him simply, “Hobby. I am supposed to be semi-retired, after all.”
“Didn’t get very far with the rebuild,” he observed with another sip of coffee.
“Kind of lost interest.”
“Why?” He still stood staring out the window, not looking back at me.
It was getting harder to evade the questions with generic answers, so I bristled in response. “Sheppard, why are you so interested in the bike?”
“I’m not interested in the bike, Rodney, I’m interested in you. But I’m not allowed to talk about you with you so I’m talking about the bike instead. Besides, it’s a nice bike.”
I couldn’t help but perk up at that last comment. “Really? You like it?”
“Well, it definitely needs some work, but I can see the potential in it.” He turned and gave me an odd grin before turning his attention back out the window. “What is it? A Triumph?”
“Yeah, a 1963 Cub.”
“You up for working on it again?”
“What, today? In the rain?”
“Afraid you’re going to melt? It’s not coming down that hard, especially under the tree. Besides, I can’t paint, so if we don’t you’ll just be trapped in here with me all day… alone.” The grin turned provocative. I realized he was right; I wouldn’t even have Alita to run interference, since she was off on Sundays. Although I honestly wasn’t sure if it was to attend Mass or skulk in the shadows and hiss at the parishioners as they passed.
“Fine.” My acquiescence was more out of self-preservation than anything else. “Let me get dressed and we can get started.”
So we worked on the bike. There were times I thought maybe I had made a mistake in my assessment of the safety of the situation, because a shirtless John Sheppard with rainwater running off sun-browned shoulders was anything but safe. And the infectious way he would smile over at me while we worked had me clearing my throat to clear away the smile on my own face. But by lunchtime we had most of the parts cleaned, and by late afternoon we were finishing up the process of separating the functional from the repairable from the replaceable.
Sheppard was actually rather mechanically inclined, on a nuts and bolts level. I mean, I didn’t expect him to rebuild the circuitry on a motherboard for a laptop, and he showed no inclination to try. But I had worked with him numerous times before on the larger gear that we had run across in Pegasus and he had always caught on to exactly what I was trying to accomplish without me having to explain in mind-numbing detail. I really did appreciate that about him, but more than that, I respected it. And working the entire morning on the Triumph with him had me realizing how much I had missed it and how simple it was to slip back into the easy routine we had maintained back on Atlantis.
“These seals are completely shot,” he observed before passing them over to me.
I turned the rotting pieces in my hand before chucking them to the side on the table where the growing pile of unusables was accumulating. “They shouldn’t be too hard to find back on Earth.” Blinking as I realized what I had said, I looked up at him in embarrassment. “I mean, in the States. Probably on eBay or someplace like that.”
His mouth twisted into something between amusement and sympathy. “Must be kind of hard getting used to having everything you need right when you need it.”
“Not everything,” I admitted quietly. His expression unchanged, he moved his hand forward a few inches and extended long fingers to brush along my knuckles. As if of its own volition my own hand opened to run along his palm before our fingers tangled momentarily. It would be so easy, I thought. So goddamn easy just to tug on his hand, pull him over the table and intertwine more than our hands. To taste the rainwater on his face, feel my hands slide over his slick skin, hear him suck in a breath as I touched his sun-reddened back that was already darkening to brown. To just do what I wanted for a change, consequences be damned. But nothing is ever easy; Atlantis had taught me that on more than one occasion.
Pulling away stiffly, I picked up one of the seals again. “I mean, it’s not like I can just run out to the market and pick up motorcycle parts.” He didn’t even attempt to return the forced smile I gave him, didn’t try to hide the disappointment, just stood and walked away from the table. “John, I’m…” What? What was I? Sorry, regretful, frustrated? What? Because I honestly couldn’t put words to how I was feeling at that moment.
Fortunately, he didn’t want to hear what I had to say about what I was. He walked purposefully toward the bramble of weeds that had been the garden and shook his head. “You know, this is a real waste, Rodney. You could have a nice little vegetable patch if you took the time. Hell, there are tomatoes in here right now. All you’d have to do is weed it.” He started pulling with gusto at the overgrown grass and wild flowers that were choking the plants.
“I’ve never been any good with making things grow,” I confessed.
“You don’t give yourself enough credit, McKay.” A particularly large plant was tossed behind him, root ball and all. “Hell, if you put half as much energy into making things grow as you’re putting into trying to kill them off you would have something pretty fucking amazing on your hands.” A thick tangle of grass went flying. “But you don’t want to do that, do you? You’d rather sit here in your own little tropical martyrdom all by yourself and watch the tomatoes rot on the goddamn vine.”
“John…” I started, but was cut off with a curse on his end as he grabbed his hand. “What? What’s wrong?” I moved to pull his hand out to see what he had done, only to have it yanked away.
“Thorns. Son of a bitch—I can’t win for losing around here.”
“Here, let’s go inside and I’ll get the tweezers.”
He stepped away from the hand I put on his arm to lead him inside. “I’ve been taking care of myself for four months now, Rodney,” he said, spitting my own words back at me. “I don’t need you to start doing it again now.” He walked quickly toward the house. “I’m going to shower and hit the hay. If you’re right, I’ve got a long trip ahead of me tomorrow.”
I watched him go with that same gut-wrenching combination of relief and horror that I had when I was trapped in that rising water on Pylos. It had taken a bit of work to get him to go then, work to lie that the grate would probably open if he shut down the city, work to hide the absolute terror of water rushing in, work to keep working and try to stop it from where I was trapped.
But I wasn’t the only one scared out of his wits and trying to cover it. He had found a metal rod and was using it to try and pry the bars over my head free. It was an absolutely futile effort, but I think if he hadn’t had anything to at least attempt he would have gone absolutely nuts where he stood. “At least there isn’t anything swimming around in the water with you, McKay,” he grunted as he put all his weight on his lever.
“Well, there’s one silver lining I forgot to count,” I snapped, trying to keep the panic at bay with cynicism. Pulling another crystal, I held it in shaking hands, trying to see the symbols on it through the spray of water.
“Think we need every one we can find right now, and the lack of sea creatures slithering around your legs is a definite plus.”
“Slither, now there’s an interesting word.” I gritted my jaw against the cold as I replaced the crystal and pulled another one. “Every single sound in it is sultry and soft and curvaceous.”
“I never really thought of it that way. It’s always come across as just creepy to me.”
“And that’s the irony of it, the way it’s absolutely erotic and terrifying all at the same time. I mean, listen to it, say it. Slither.” I elongated the syllables as best I could with chattering teeth, never stopping my search for the control crystal. “There’s just something about the way your breath hisses over your lips then your tongue slides across the roof of your mouth to tease your teeth and end in that final lingering groan. Slither,” I repeated before shivering, this time only partially from the icy water. “How can one word warm you to the core and chill you to the bone all at the same time?”
I looked up to see John staring down at me, breathing a little fast, the bar sitting unnoticed in his hands. “Damn, McKay, don’t make me climb down in there with you.”
“You’re welcome to if you can figure out how.” I choked out a laugh, because the word slither wasn’t the only thing erotic and terrifying on my mind at that moment. The irony of a word that was all soft curves and lithesome turns being applied to a man who was all hard lines and sharp angles wasn’t lost on me. And neither was the fear that at that moment I wanted to know how it could, how I was ready to throw all restraint and control out the window and have him slither around me for an eternity or two. Unfortunately, the window had bars across it and within a few minutes I’d be dead.
That’s when I’d sent him away. Not because I thought he had a chance in hell of saving me, but because he didn’t have a chance in hell of saving me and the last thing I wanted was for John to watch me die. So I lied. I told him the city would let me out if he shut her down, I watched him leave, and then I drowned alone.
That’s what it felt like standing there in my backyard, rain running down my face and John running through the back door. It felt like I was drowning all over again. And finishing weeding the garden didn’t change that. Nor did showering and sitting in my bed with my knees tucked under my chin until the sun went down and the rains finally stopped. Eventually hunger won out and I went down to the kitchen to find something to eat. With my newly made sandwich in hand, I walked outside, breathing in the scent of damp earth, carburetor cleaner and tropical flowers. I gathered the tools from around the bike, not wanting them to rust in the moist air, then hefted the carburetor that sat on the ground beside them. It might take a little work, but I was pretty sure I could rebuild it. According to Sheppard, I could rebuild anything. According to him, I could grow anything. Looking over my shoulder, I could see the ripe tomatoes that had been exposed by my gardening efforts. No, that wasn’t exactly right… our gardening efforts.
Me and John. John and I. Us. We. Ours. Together.
And that…that was exactly right.
Placing the motorcycle part on the table, I headed back inside and upstairs. I might be drowning, I decided, but there was no reason I needed to do it alone.
* * * *
It was instinct that had my hand darting out and gripping the one that touched my head. I’d been deep asleep when the hand landed, having dozed off resigned to the fact that Rodney was just going to keep pulling away no matter what I did and that I honestly had no clue what to do with the rest of my life if he refused to be part of it. I couldn’t go back to Atlantis, no matter what sort of deal McKay thought he could broker with Walburton. Atlantis was ours. With just me there it felt as lifeless as he did when I finally fished him out of the water, and that was one feeling I never wanted to experience again. So I had retreated into sleep in order to avoid thinking about just what the fuck I was going to do with myself. But years of living on the edge of danger had me awake in an instant and my fingers holding tight to the threatening wrist when it appeared.
And for once Rodney didn’t pull away when I latched onto him. He simply sat next to me on the bed and kneaded his fingers in my scalp with a look of scrutiny he usually reserved for some Ancient trinket whose function he had no clue about but was intent on figuring out.
“I always wanted to do this.”
His voice was quietly curious, and the way my heart pounded had less to do with the start I had received when I woke and more to do with where he was going with this. “But I never could find an excuse to do it.”
His fingers continued their movement in my hair, the touch sending icy hot tendrils vibrating through my skull, but I didn’t let go. In fact, I barely breathed, afraid that I might scare him off like a skittish animal if I so much as blinked.
“It was always an excuse with us, wasn’t it? Always a reason why not and never a reason why.” Finally, his eyes shifted to meet mine, the faint moonlight revealing dark pupils in watery blue and I swallowed thickly when I saw what was there. “I’m tired of excuses.”
“Rodney…” The hoarseness in my voice seemed to break the ice that held us. For a split second I was afraid he was going to leave again, and I found myself wracking my brain and tightening my grip in a panic to figure out how to make him stay.
Instead he leaned forward until I could feel his breath hissing over my lips as he whispered, “Slither, John,” before moving in all the way and taking mine away.
I had always thought my first time with Rodney would be fast and tight. That we would eventually not be able to say no to our wants anymore, and would find ourselves crammed in a utility closet, frantically rushing to work out all the sexual tension that had been building for years before someone came along and caught us. But here there was no one but us and a giant bed, and we took advantage of both.
Slow, lingering kisses that had my belly burning for more and my chest aching in dread for the moment they would end. Broad hands moving leisurely over my body in ways that had me shivering in regret when they left one spot and in anticipation of their reaching another. Murmured words that had me answering in kind with meandering lips and intertwined legs and stuttering gasps as he took me beyond anything I had ever known before. I took my time as well, retracing unknown paths with the tip of my tongue, rediscovering unfamiliar places with the pads of my fingers, relearning the sound of my own name when Rodney finally arched in my arms and moaned it against my neck. Drifting off sharing sleepy kisses and lazy caresses, to wake a few hours later with a smile and the feel of teeth nipping down my abdomen and a head of soft brown hair to tangle in my fingers. The first streaks of sunlight across the bed had me awake and returning the favor, the multicolored bedspread kicked down to the foot of the bed, my hands holding his hips down against the mattress, and his hands gripping down into my sunburned shoulders until we were both crying out at the end.
But it was worth it. Every single touch, every single taste, every single sound was making up for the last four years. And I was so content in that feeling that even when I woke up alone hours later I didn’t panic until I realized it was Monday and Walburton would be back in his office.
Sitting up in bed, I called out a hesitant, “Rodney?” My eyes darted to the pile of his clothes on the floor to confirm that I hadn’t just dreamed it all up when I received no answer. Pulling on my shorts, I made my way downstairs to find Alita in the kitchen. She looked up when I walked in, rolling her eyes in disbelief at the goofy smile that spread across my face when I saw Rodney sitting outside at the table under the tree.
“Dios mio, it is true then. No soy seguro si I should have you locked up for being loco or say gracias for putting him in such a good mood.” Taking the cup of coffee she offered, I just smiled more broadly at her assessment. She shook her head and turned back to her task of slicing tomatoes. “Loco, definitivamente loco.”
“Where did those come from?” I asked, inclining my head toward the tomatoes.
“He brought them in. Wanted que yo los cortara...” She exaggerated the slicing motion to translate what she had said. “…wanted they would be ready for you when you woke.”
I picked up one that sat whole beside the cutting board, feeling the warmth of the sunshine still trapped in the soft flesh. Taking the plate she had just placed the slices on, I smiled warmly in return. “Gracias, Alita.”
“De nada, Señor John. Ésta es la primera mañanaI have come here y era ennice to be around.”
“It may have been the first morning,” I agreed pleasantly. “But here’s hoping it won’t be the last.”
Snagging a fork from the drawer, I walked out to the courtyard where Rodney was working on the carburetor. I dropped a kiss on the nape of his neck and waited until he lifted his head to receive one on his lips before silently taking the seat across from him and smiling like a goddamn fool. He did the same before turning back to the part he was working on and hooking his ankle with mine under the table. I cut a slice of tomato in half, thinking as I chewed that some squash and peppers would probably grow pretty well in our garden, thinking that I had no basis for that assumption whatsoever, seeing as I had never planted a garden in my life, but thinking at that moment there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.
That was until I heard Rodney’s cell phone ring inside the house. Alita’s voice answered in a surprisingly professional manner, and a few seconds later she was standing in the doorway. “Es General Walburton returning your call.”
Rodney looked from his housekeeper back to me, my heart throbbing at the frown I saw on his face until it softened into a canary-eating grin. “Tell him I can’t come to the phone. We’re too busy working on home improvements.” Alita disappeared back into the house, and he returned his concentration to the mechanism he was working on.
“So, Mission-style, huh?”
I grinned. “Mission-style,” I confirmed, my foot running slowly behind his calf.
He didn’t look up, just stretched his leg out further toward me and continued to tinker with the part. “Do you think we could get a matching bedroom set for the master suite?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“You really think this place has potential?”
“I think it has it in spades,” I assured him as I traced his inner thigh with my foot.
“And you won’t be bored just sitting around here remodeling a house and rebuilding a motorcycle?”
“I’m sure we’ll find other ways to pass the time.”
Sliding the plate across the table, I slid my foot up further and flexed my toes. I watched the way his eyes went unfocused for a split-second; I watched as the flicker of a smile teased at the corners of his mouth; I watched as he put down the part and took the offered fork.
I watched as potential became reality.
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