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On Life and Living

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It's been more than a year, and John still can't believe that Elizabeth's gone. Every morning he wakes up and feels his heart skip a beat as he realizes that he's alone in their bed, and every night as he falls asleep the little sounds in the room -- the faint hum of the clock, the sounds of cars on the street outside -- that don't include her steady breathing make him want to cry.

He doesn't, though. He learned his lesson on that one.

At first, right after she died, it wasn't so hard. They'd been waiting for it, preparing, and when it finally came he knew what he had to do. There was a list four pages long of calls to make, errands to run, ideas for distracting Kayla from the worst of other people's emotions, and being able to check off each item was what kept John going from day to day. He'd thought there'd be a sense of relief when he'd finished, made that last check mark, but he was wrong; that was when it really started to hit him. He couldn't indulge, though, not when there was Kayla to think of. Mature beyond her years and able to keep her own emotions in check, his eight year old daughter falls apart completely when other people cry.

John stuffs his emotions until she's in bed, then runs on the treadmill for an hour, sometimes two, until he's soaked with sweat and dehydrated enough that tears won't fill his eyes no matter what he thinks of. Not the long months of watching Elizabeth lose weight until she was practically skeletal, so fragile-looking that John was afraid to do more than touch her. Not the last month at home, hospice workers taking their house away from them and turning it into an almost-hospital that, in the end, John was hardly sure made it worth it.

He stopped working shortly after Elizabeth first got sick, and there's no way he can go back now. It was always a dangerous job, but Elizabeth had seen the look in John's eyes when he got home and never asked him to stop, not even when Kayla was born.

John wishes, in retrospect, that he had stopped then. Losing both Elizabeth -- little by little -- and flying in the same few months was so hard that it still feels, half the time, like he can't breathe.

Anyway, it's not like he can go back to it now. Single parents have to be ultra-responsible, careful. They can't take risks the way other, less encumbered people can. Even thinking that makes John feel sick -- disgusted with himself, because he loves his daughter and wouldn't trade her for the world. It's just that there's this little part of him that misses it so strongly that it hurts; it's a different kind of missing than the way he misses Elizabeth.

You can learn to live without a limb, without a best friend. There are moments John's still not sure he can learn to live without flying.

This morning, while he's still waking up, Kayla comes in and gets in bed with him. It's his side of the bed, really, because even though a new mattress was one of the first things on the list after Elizabeth was gone, he'd switched to her side then and never gone back.

"Is it Saturday?" Kayla asks.

"Yup," John confirms.

"Yay!" Kayla yawns immediately after that exclamation, and John laughs. "Can we have pancakes?"

"Sure." It's a tradition started years ago, pancakes on weekends, and one of a whole collection of things that they still do.

Kayla sits up. "Now?"

"Okay, okay." John gets up and pulls on a t-shirt. "Slippers," he tells Kayla, who's poised at the top of the stairs, and she sighs and goes off down the hallway to her room to get them.

By the time she finds her bathrobe and comes downstairs, John's got a pot of coffee going -- he drinks too much of it but can't bring himself to cut back, not yet. He keeps telling himself that next week he'll start, or stop, or whatever. Not completely, but something less than 12 cups a day would probably be a good idea.

"Can we go to the science museum today?" Kayla asks, dragging a chair over to the countertop so she can reach the cupboard where they keep the plates.

"Today?" John mulls it over. He'd been thinking they'd go to the grocery store, then stop at the drug store for more of Kayla's vitamins, but they can do both of those things tomorrow instead.

"Pleeeease?" Kayla says. "I promise I won't ask to stay at the fish tank simulator all day."

"Don't make promises you aren't gonna keep," John tells her.

"I will!" Kayla turns, two plates balanced in her hands, and carefully sits down on the chair before taking them over to the table.

"All right, fine. But you have to eat real food for lunch, not just Dipping Dots." John has an unreasonable dislike for them despite -- or maybe because of -- Kayla's insistence that 'space-age technology' means that they're healthier than real ice cream.

"But I can still have them, right? As long as I eat something else too?" Kayla steps back just in time as John moves to the cupboard to get down the flour.

"As long as it's at least one vegetable," John says, and, the deal struck, they move on to the spatula part of the weekend morning ritual.

* * *

Saturday's a good day to drive in to the city. There's hardly any traffic, and they're pulling into the parking garage of the museum less than half an hour after they got into the car.

"Put the ticket in your pocket," Kayla reminds him as he pushes the button on the machine.

"I know, I know," John says. Of course, last time he'd forgotten and they'd had to go all the way up to the car for it before they'd been able to leave, so it's not like she doesn't have a point.

She dances beside him as they walk down the hall between the garage and the museum, unable to decide if she wants to hold his hand or run on ahead. "You have the card, right?" she asks, walking backwards. If the hall wasn't empty, John would have admonished her to watch where she was going.

"Yeah, I've got the card." John doesn't like the ultra-responsible phase she's been going through; she's eight, she shouldn't have to worry about stuff, not even stuff as relatively unimportant as whether or not he's remembered the membership card.

"Good." It's early enough that there's no line; only people with small kids or, John notes, young couples who look like they never went to bed the night before are crazy enough to go to museums at 9 in the morning. They get their hand stamps and they're through, and Kayla darts around the museum employee standing near the info desk and into the hall with the animal habitat exhibits.

There's always this little clench of fear in John's chest when they're out and he loses sight of her, even in this case when he knows she's just around the corner. "Hey," he calls. "Wait for me!"

She ignores him and is already at the seabird exhibit when he catches up, pushing the buttons that light up the different birds. "Black-backed gull," Kayla mutters under her breath, glancing up to see it. "Foster's tern."

"Forster's," John corrects absently, and she repeats it. "Listen, you've got to stay with me, okay? No taking off."

"Okay," Kayla says. He doesn't think she's really listening, though, and reminds himself to have a more serious conversation with her later. "Northern Gannet." And another bird, dead and stuffed, lights up in the display case. "Can we get a bird book?"

"Sure. Let's go to the library and get one this afternoon, if we have time."

"No, I meant can we buy one?" Kayla looks up at him.

"If we can find a good one," John says. Finances are becoming increasingly tight these days; he and Elizabeth both had hefty life insurance policies, him because of his job and Elizabeth because her dad had been killed in an accident when she was in her teens. Her mother had insisted that responsible adults had plenty of life insurance 'just in case,' but he's been home with Kayla since Elizabeth died and they're spending more than he earns even with social security -- which is a joke -- and the part time jobs he's worked during school hours. He tries to keep the worries about money from Kayla, though; the last thing she needs after what she's been through is to be lying awake at night thinking that the bank is going to come and take their house away, and that's exactly the kind of thing she'd do.

Fifteen minutes in the animal habitat hall is enough for Kayla, and they go up the back staircase to Human Body Connection, which is right next to the Tamarin Monkey exhibit that John likes even though Kayla has no interest in it. It's weird, because John always thought all kids liked monkeys, but Kayla would rather spend time taking apart the models of human organs and then piecing them back together like a demented jigsaw puzzle than watch the delicate little creatures jumping from branch to branch.

"Ooh, Daddy! Chicks!"

Sure enough, the chick hatchery holds a dozen eggs and three tiny, still-damp chicks. Two are the more traditional yellow and the last one is a dusty black. Kayla mashes her nose against the glass and coos at them; the chicks, inches away, are oblivious to her presence, little wind-up toys dashing back and forth, then stopping and occasionally collapsing to lie, exhausted, on the shavings beneath them.

"We should get chickens," Kayla says.

"Where'd we keep them?" John asks.

"We could get a cage in the back yard," Kayla says. "A coop, right? A chicken coop?"

"Uh-huh," John says. "And no. We're not getting chickens. They'd freeze in the wintertime." He deliberately refrains from using the word 'death' and is acutely aware of the casual way other people use it in day to day conversation.

"We could buy them a heater," Kayla says, but she's already moving past the hatchery and into the room, fingers tracing over a plastic model of a brain.

In the middle of the room is an island of countertops with an open center; one of the museum employees, dressed in the standard red shirt, is in there. The guy is bent over a thick book, one hand furiously scribbling something into a notebook. John doesn't think he's so much as glanced at them, which is kind of unusual. Usually the museum staff are super friendly, to the point where one of them spent almost an hour answering Kayla's questions one time. This guy ignores them, frowning. He's got a thinning spot in his hair and the slightly curved spine that broadcasts that he's spent most of the past however many years hunched over a desk.

He follows Kayla over to the exercise bike that's hooked up to a matching one with a working, wired-together skeleton astride it. She hops on and begins to peddle, and the skeleton mirrors her -- or it would if it didn't go so slowly. John isn't unaware of the somewhat disturbing nature of it, even if it's interesting, and he has to swallow hard and look down at the floor until Kayla stops and moves away.

She's sitting at a computer, clicking the mouse carefully, so John wanders over and experiments with a card that lets you locate your blind spot. One eye closed, the other open; it feels familiar. "Hey, Kayla, come try this."

"In a second," she says.

"Do you mind," the man behind the counter says. "People are trying to work here."

John gives him an incredulous look, but the guy is already looking at his notes again. "Aren't you..." he starts, then tries again. "Don't you work here?"

"Not really." The guy frowns at him, sharp blue eyes narrowed. The tag pinned to his shirt, John notes, reads 'Rodney McKay' and looks like it's been scribbled in with a sharpie by someone who didn't give a shit. "Kayla? Isn't that a dog's name?"

John glances sharply at Kayla, but she's engrossed in the computer screen and doesn't seem to be paying any attention to the conversation. "No," John says. "Are you always this big an asshole?"

"Oh, please, like I care what you think of me," McKay says.

Kayla appears at John's elbow. "The computer says to ask a volunteer for help with the PTC strips," she announces. She looks at McKay. "Are you a volunteer?"

"Not in the strictest sense," McKay says.

"But you're wearing the shirt," Kayla says with confidence. "And you have a name tag. Rodney McKay," she reads slowly. "Hey! That's like the squirrel on that cartoon."

"Yes, well, that's rich coming from a girl named after a --" Rodney starts hotly, but John interrupts him before he can finish.

"Go on back to the computer and we'll be right there with the strips, okay?" he says, giving Kayla a gentle push in the right direction and glaring at McKay, who surprisingly shuts up. John leans forward and growls, "Get the strips and stop being such a jerk or I'll find your supervisor and get your fired."

McKay smirks. "Technically, I don't work here. I'm filling in for someone I used to work with; I owed her a favor."

"You're gonna owe her a bigger one if I have to go talk to whoever agreed to you being here," John says, crossing his arms and smiling tightly so that if Kayla looks over she won't know what's going on.

"Fine," McKay says, rolling his eyes and slapping his notebook shut. "But it'll be your fault if some major breakthrough in my research is delayed."

"I think I can live with that." John waits for McKay to come out from behind the counter and then follows him over to where Kayla is sitting. McKay takes a small vial out of the pocket of his shirt and opens it, handing a small strip of paper to Kayla, who just looks at it.

"Put it in your mouth," McKay says impatiently. "If you don't have the PTC gene, you won't taste anything. If you do, the paper will taste bitter. Of course, that's an extremely simplified description -- the ability to taste the substance phenylthiocarbamide is -- oh, yes, that's just great." This is in reaction to the fact that Kayla puts the paper into her mouth and almost immediately spits it back out. "Typical."

John gives McKay a dirty look and holds out his hand for the damp strip; Kayla gives it to him, looking uncertain.

"So that means I have the gene?" she asks.

"Yes, unfortunately for me," McKay mutters.

"What about you, Daddy? Do you have it?"

"I don't know," John says, looking at McKay, who takes out another paper and gives it to him. He puts it onto his tongue and his mouth is quickly flooded with saliva at the bitter taste. He manages not to gag but takes the paper back out as fast as he can. "No wonder you spit it out," he tells Kayla. "That's pretty gross."

"It is," Kayla says, but she looks disappointed. "That means there's no way to know if Mommy did, right?"

John is momentarily stunned by the leap of logic she's made; he'd had no idea that kind of thing was going through her head.

"Well, all you have to do is bring her in the next time you come and have her..." McKay trails off, looking from one of them to the other. "Oh."

"My mommy died," Kayla says. Her face is shuttered, her eyes -- so like Elizabeth's that sometimes John can hardly bear it -- wary. "I'm going to look at the chicks again," she says, and turns away.

John puts his hands into his pockets, trying to look like anything but a grieving widower because he's heard it all before; the stammered apologies, the questions he doesn't want to answer but that people can't seem to help but ask.

But strangely, all McKay says is, "Sorry. I didn't know."

"It's okay. It's not like you could." John sounds a little hollow. Kayla is over watching the chicks again. She'll be fine again in ten minutes -- on the outside, anyway.

"No, but... I'm still sorry." McKay's eyes are astonishingly gentle for a moment or two, and he actually reaches out and touches John's arm, just for a split second.

"Thanks," John says. He looks down at McKay's hand as it falls away; the ends of McKay's fingers are blunt, almost square.

When he looks up again, toward the chick hatchery, Kayla's gone.

"Kayla?" He raises his voice, ignoring the clench of fear and telling himself that she'll reappear from around the corner any second now as he moves quickly over to the hatchery. John steps out into the wide hallway and looks in both directions. He calls her again, more loudly.

But she doesn't answer, and there's no sign of her.

"Kayla!" John shouts again.

"For god's sake, she's probably in the Tamarin room," McKay says, from behind John. "Go check there."

"She doesn't like monkeys," John says, but goes anyway, jogging through the front quarter of the room with his heart pounding in his ears. There's a little voice inside him telling him he's freaking out over nothing, that Kayla will be there and all this terror will evaporate into relief.

But she's not in the Tamarin room.

"Call security," John snaps at McKay, who looks startled.

"It's not like she's been kidnapped," McKay says. "She just wandered off. She'll probably wander back any second." He looks hopefully around, but there's still no sign of her, and now John's clench of fear is starting to feel more like he's going to be sick.

"Just call them," he says.

He makes his way through the exhibit across the hall and the one next to that. There aren't enough people around to block his view, and there's a lump in his throat and sweat prickling his palms as he steps into the hallway, looks both ways, and heads toward where the floor opens up to show the ones above and below, connected by a series of escalators. Jesus, there's so much space, and enough people that it's impossible to easily spot one little girl.

"They're going to make an announcement," McKay says, appearing at his elbow and keeping up with him as he strides forward. "What was she wearing?"

The past tense in that almost makes John retch. "Is," he snarls. He's not going to explain. "She's wearing, um, a pink shirt. With flowers. I think." God, why hadn't he paid attention? It's the kind of thing Elizabeth would have pointed out as they were walking in from the parking garage. "Okay, Kayla's wearing a purple shirt with butterflies," she'd have said, under her breath so as not to give Kayla a reason to worry. Then, in a louder voice, she'd have announced that if anyone got separated from the group they should all meet at the information desk.

His hands are clutching the top of the railing that surrounds the giant balcony, and he's shaking. He feels very small and very scared.

Someone touches his back. "Easy," McKay says. "We'll find her. Come on. You go that way and I'll go this way." Without waiting for John to respond, he goes, and in that moment a rush of hope floods John and gives him the strength to push away from the railing and start walking again.

This isn't happening. This can't be happening. In a decent world a man doesn't lose his wife and then his daughter a year later. It would be a comforting monologue if John didn't know better; as it is, he's hyperventilating, acutely aware of the fact that the soles of his sneakers are too thin, that he should have insisted Kayla wear a jacket because it's almost fall, for fuck's sake, and she's just a little girl. The announcement comes over the loudspeaker, finally, but John can hardly listen to it because it's like a sick joke, not real, not real.

He's halfway around from where he started and McKay is coming toward him, looking worried.

Still, John asks, "Did you see her?"

"No," McKay says. "Do you think there's any chance she might have gone back to the entrance? She seemed like a smart kid, she must know -- "

And then the loudspeaker is repeating John's name, telling him that his daughter is waiting for him at the information desk, and all the strength goes out of John like a switch has been flipped. He wobbles on his feet, the only thing keeping him from sitting right down on the floor McKay's hand under his elbow.

"Oh, I see, you're one of those," McKay says, like that means something. "Figures. Come on, John Sheppard."

McKay walks him over to the elevator and then toward the entrance, keeping hold of him the whole time. They're thirty yards from the booth when John sees her, her cheeks pink, and she breaks away from the woman in the red museum shirt standing beside her and runs to him. John bends as she flings herself at him and they both end up on the floor, John holding her tightly.

"Never do that to me again," he scolds, stroking her hair as she trembles. "Do you hear me?"

"I'm sorry," Kayla mumbles against his chest. John can feel her tears soaking into his shirt. "I thought you were right behind me, and then I turned around and you weren't there. And then I thought that you'd be here, at the information place like Mommy always said, but you weren't. Why weren't you here?"

"I'm sorry, baby," John says. They're making a scene, probably, but he doesn't care. "I forgot. I forgot that's what you'd know to do."

"I'm not a baby," Kayla says through her tears, indignant, and John laughs a little bit and tucks her hair back behind her ears.

"No, you're not," he tells her. "You're a big girl, and you were really smart to remember what Mommy said."

"I go to school and everything." Kayla pulls away and gets up, the trauma already forgotten in the face of John's insult.

He looks up at Rodney McKay, who's standing a couple of feet away watching them. "You want to give me a hand?" John asks.

McKay hesitates, then reaches out and grabs onto John's wrist and pulls.

"Thanks," John says. There's a part of him that wants to blame McKay for having distracted him into taking his eyes off Kayla just long enough to lose sight of her, but among other things John likes to think he's a fair man, and what happened is his own fault, not McKay's.

"You're welcome," McKay says.

"Can we see the dinosaurs now?" Kayla asks, tugging at John's pant leg.

"Sure," John says. His heart is still beating too fast, but he knows from previous experience that it'll calm down in a couple of minutes. "Well," he says to McKay, suddenly awkward.

"Yes, yes. Have fun," McKay says, and walks off.

The dinosaurs keep Kayla's attention for about half an hour, and then they end up right back at Fish, Fads and Fireflies where they always do. It's Kayla's favorite exhibit, and John figures if nothing else they've gotten their money's worth out of the museum membership he bought back in February, because they've spent hours here over the summer. By the time he manages to pry her away from the fish tank simulator it's almost lunchtime, so they go back down and make their way to the cafeteria through the growing crowds. There's another argument about the stupid Dipping Dots, an argument that John participates in because he should and not because he particularly wants to. The mood he's in, he'd rather just agree to let her eat nothing but ice cream for the rest of her life as long as she doesn't disappear on him like that ever, ever again.

But Kayla finally agrees to pizza -- no pepperoni -- and she goes to claim a table in John's line of sight while he waits in line to pay.

"Watch where you're going," a familiar voice snaps off to John's right, and he can't help it -- he glances over to see Rodney McKay waiting impatiently in the line next to his. Their eyes meet. "You again," McKay says, and takes note of the fact that Kayla's not there. "Don't tell me you lost her again."

"She's right there," John says, gesturing with his chin.

McKay steps back, almost colliding with the man behind him, as two little boys chase each other around their mother, who is accepting her change from the cashier and looking harried. "This isn't a children's museum, you know," McKay tells her.

She gives him an annoyed look -- John doesn't blame her -- and collects her kids. It's John's turn to pay; he smiles at Kayla, who's kneeling in her chair and waving at him.

"Come sit with us," he offers to McKay, surprising himself. It's not like he even likes the guy -- who would? -- but he'd tried to help when Kayla was missing, and that meant something.

"Oh, yes, because after being surrounded by obnoxious children all day that's what I want to do with my lunch hour, sit with another one," McKay says, but he sounds almost pleased to be asked despite the sarcasm in his voice, and he comes along and sits down across from John.

"Hi," Kayla says, reaching for the little cup of ice cream beads eagerly.

"Pizza," John reminds her. He sets the plate in front of her.

"You didn't say I had to eat it first," Kayla says, but picks it up and takes a bite anyway. She looks at McKay curiously. "I want to get chickens," she tells him.

"Yes, well, they look cute in the hatchery," McKay says. "But believe me, they make a hell of a... heck of a mess." As bad-language saves go it's not much of one, but it makes John smile anyway.

"It's okay to say hell," Kayla tells him. "It's just a place that some people believe in." She looks at John. "Daddy doesn't believe in hell. But he believes in heaven." She looks at him for confirmation.

John is finally starting to lose the last of the pounding adrenaline that had been coursing through him when Kayla was missing; he feels loose-limbed and relaxed. "That's right," he says. "I do."

McKay rolls his eyes and finishes chewing a huge bite of what might be a burrito. "I make it a policy never to discuss religion over lunch," he says. "Or any time, actually."

"Probably not a bad idea," John says.

"Two more months until my birthday," Kayla announces. "You could come to my party if you want to. Mommy's friend Sam comes. He's gay, too."

McKay chokes spectacularly, and his face turns deep red. Just as John is preparing to get up and clap him on the back, the coughing becomes sputtering that John is pretty sure has more to do with indignation than food. "Excuse me?" he manages, swallowing. "What makes you think I'm gay?"

"You do that same thing with your mouth that Sam does," Kayla says, and John collapses into helpless laughter while McKay's scowl deepens.

"You can't say stuff like that to people, Kayla," John tells her, still laughing.

"How come? There's nothing wrong with being gay. You and Mommy said so."

"I know. That's why you can't say stuff like that. It makes it sound like there is something wrong." John wishes he could explain it more clearly; she might not be old enough to understand.

"But I didn't mean it like that." Kayla is frowning, worried. She looks at McKay. "I wasn't trying to be rude."

McKay grumbles something under his breath. Kayla must understand him, though, because she looks relieved and goes back to eating her pizza.

"Sorry," John says insincerely.

"Yes, I can tell," McKay says sourly. "I'm glad you find this so amusing."

"So does that mean you are gay?" Kayla pipes up.

McKay puts his hand over his face. "Fabulous," he says, getting the intonation just right, and that sets John off again. He laughs until he cries, and Kayla takes advantage of his distraction and eats all of her ice cream, leaving the pizza to get cold and hard on the paper plate. McKay finally says that if she doesn't want it he'll eat it, since otherwise it's just going to go to waste, and after all it's the least she can do considering that she feels perfectly comfortable discussing his sexuality in the middle of a crowded cafeteria.

John leans back in his chair, his throat and chest aching, and realizes it's been more than a year since he laughed so hard.

He's not sure how he feels about that.


On the way out of the cafeteria, Kayla looks at Rodney -- John can't think of him as McKay anymore, not after laughing like that. "So will you?"

"Will I what?" Rodney asks.

"Come to my birthday party? Because you should. Daddy likes you." Kayla grins.

"That might be stretching it," John tells her.

"You do," Kayla says with confidence. "I can tell."

"I think you're both crazy," Rodney says, as the same kid that had been in line before darts past, almost tripping him. "Just like everyone else around here!" he shouts.

Kayla is grinning when John looks at her; she actually likes Rodney, which is pretty surprising considering she's not usually a big fan of people who are loud and obnoxious.

"Do you have a card?" Rodney's asking.


"A card. A business card? You aren't brain damaged, are you?" Rodney looks at him strangely.

"No. I'm... I haven't been working." John doesn't want to go into it right then.

So of course Rodney asks, "Why not?"

"He takes care of me," Kayla says. "Until school starts."

"Oh. Right." Rodney is looking at him, watching him, and it makes John want to squirm. He doesn't, just on principle. "But you do have a phone?"

"Yes," John says, drawling a little bit. "Yes, we have a phone."

Rodney sighs, short and impatient. "And you're going to give me your number?" he says, eyebrows lifted.

Oh, so that's what the card thing was all about. "Sure," John says. They're right near the gift shop, and Kayla's tugging him in that direction. "I don't have a pen. Come in with us and I'll borrow one, okay?" He tilts his head toward the shop, and Rodney nods and follows them. He waits until Kayla is kneeling next to a display of stuffed animals before he steps back a little and says to Rodney, in a low voice, "Look, don't act like you're going to come to her party if you won't, okay? She's kind of sensitive about stuff like that."

Rodney's shoulders go tense. "What makes you think I won't come?"

"I don't know. It's just... it doesn't seem like you like kids that much." Kayla's brown hair is shiny as she examines a bright blue animal -- not many come in those colors in nature. "She's kind of been through a lot, what with her mom and everything." It's easier to talk about Elizabeth this way -- to think about her as Kayla's mother and not as John's wife.

"What happened?" Rodney asks quietly.

"Cancer." That's enough; John can't do more. Kayla gets up and moves on; they shadow her, hanging back far enough that they can talk. She seems completely unaware of them in a way that makes John's throat tight, because it means that even despite what happened only a couple of hours ago she feels secure, trusts him to be there.

"We don't have to talk about it," Rodney says.

"Thanks." It always happens like this. One minute John is fine, totally normal, and then something reminds him and he's teetering right back on the edge again.

"Daddy? Can I get something?" Kayla asks hopefully, providing a welcome distraction.

"Not today," John says. Part of him wants to say yes, but he's been trying to ignore their financial situation for too long. "Maybe next time, okay?"

"Pleeeease?" Kayla says.

Before John can answer, Rodney offers, "I'll buy you something. But it has to be educational."

"Yay!" Kayla claps her hands together and spins back around to start examining the shelves again.

"Consider it an early birthday present," Rodney says, when John gives him a look.

"You don't have to," John says, even though now he kind of does, since he's offered and Kayla's excited about it.

"No, no, I don't mind." Rodney shifts his weight, looking uncomfortable. "Spending money on people is one of the few ways I seem to be able to interact with them successfully."

John isn't sure where he's going with that. "Yeah? Who else do you spend money on?"

"Oh, you know. Family, mostly," Rodney says. He's embarrassed, John thinks. "My sister and her kids. My mother."

"What about this?" Kayla asks, holding up a kid-sized microscope kit complete with prepared slides.

"Only if you promise not to look at anything stupid," Rodney tells her. "No magnifying dumb, girly stuff like... glitter and rhinestones and feathers."

Kayla looks confused. "Feathers are birdy, not girly," she says. "Anyway, I like dinosaurs. And white blood cells. They're cool."

"Oh." Rodney blinks. "Well. Good. Come on, bring it over to the cash register and I'll pay for it."

While the cashier runs Rodney's credit card, John borrows a pen from the counter and scribbles their number down on the back of a flyer. "Here."

"Thanks." Rodney pockets the paper and takes the pen from John's fingers to sign the credit card slip. The warmth of his skin lingers on John's as they leave the gift shop.

Standing outside in the hallway, Kayla clutching the box to her chest -- she'd refused both a bag and John's offer of carrying the microscope -- John isn't sure what to say. He's not much of a talker, really, never has been, but Rodney seems to have more than enough words for both of them.

"So I'll call you," he's saying. "Unless you'd rather call me? Because I could give you my number. If you want it. I mean, not that you wouldn't want it, because you strike me as the kind of person who probably collects friends like most people collect, I don't know, whatever it is that people with an IQ below 130 collect. I wouldn't know." Rodney smirks, so pleased with himself that it makes John grin.

"Yeah, me neither," he says, and while Rodney's still standing there in stunned silence, he nudges Kayla. "Say thank you for the microscope."

"Thank you," Kayla says obediently.

"See ya," John says, and waves before leading Kayla back toward the entrance.

Rodney is wrong about one thing; John doesn't have a lot of friends. Some, of course, because it would be weird not to have any, but most of his closer friends had been people he worked with, and that all changed when Elizabeth got sick. There's still Sam, who started out as Elizabeth's friend and somehow, along the way, became John's, and he's friendly with the parents of some of Kayla's friends, but really, he's pretty isolated. He knows that's not good long-term, but he hasn't figured out yet where the line is between short term and long term. Maybe he's already crossed it. But there are enough other things to worry about -- money, for one -- that whether or not he should have more adult socialization is pretty far down on the list.

He figures Rodney will call the next day, but there's no call. Kayla starts school and John starts looking for a job again. It's not easy; most places expect potential employees to be available more than 25 hours a week, and aren't all that understanding when you need a week off so you can stay home with your kid during school vacation.

Sitting at the kitchen table one morning, he sighs and sets down his pen. The list of possible jobs is smaller than it was three days ago, and he's no closer to actually finding one. Not to mention he feels like shit. He's still in his bathrobe; he'd put on his jacket to walk Kayla to the bus stop, but when he got back to the house he slipped the robe on again.

Frustrated and shivering, John goes to lie down on the couch. It makes him feel like a jerk, lying down in the daytime, but he's obviously coming down with something and he's just going to rest for five minutes. Ten, tops.

He wakes up an hour and a half later to the shrill of the phone ringing. His head hurts and his bones ache and even his hair hurts, which shouldn't be possible. He staggers to the phone and picks it up.

"Hello?" he croaks.

"What the hell happened to you?" Rodney McKay asks.

"I was sleeping," John says. Shit, his throat is sore. Is it possible for kids to bring germs home from school and give their parents colds without actually being sick themselves?

"It's after noon," Rodney says. "Were you... oh God, did I interrupt some mid-day tryst?"

"What?" John says. "No. I think I'm sick."

Rodney becomes all business like a switch has been flipped. "Do you have a fever?"

"I don't know. Maybe." He can't remember where the thermometer is. He shivers. "Yes."

"Headache? Sore throat? Cough?"

"Um... yes, yes, no." John's chest feels tight, though, like coughing could be right around the corner.

"You should go to the doctor," Rodney says.

"I don't have time," John says. His eyes move to the clock, which actually reads closer to one than twelve. "I have to meet Kayla at the bus stop in a couple of hours."

Rodney makes a small sound John can't translate. "You shouldn't be walking around outside in this weather if you're sick. It's raining."

"It is?" It hadn't been a few hours before.

"Have you been living under a rock?" Rodney asks. "Yes; there's a cold front coming in. Look, go lie back down, okay? I'll be there in a little while." He hangs up.

John listens to the dial tone for a few seconds, then puts the phone down. He must have misheard, because there's no way Rodney's coming over. Rodney doesn't even know where he lives.

He's huddled in front of the stove waiting for water to boil when there's a knock at the door. Weirdly, he's not all that surprised to see Rodney McKay standing on his porch. Behind John, the tea kettle starts to whistle.

"You should be lying down," Rodney tells him, coming in. "Go to bed. I'll get that."

John follows him, though, into the kitchen, and watches while Rodney unpacks the plastic shopping bag he's brought along with him, setting a can down on the table. "You brought soup?"

"You're supposed to have soup when you're sick," Rodney says, sounding a little bit defensive.

"Yeah, I know, I just... how did you get here?"

"I flew," Rodney says, rolling his eyes. "Didn't I tell you? I'm actually a were-flamingo."

John is definitely sick, because it takes him a few long seconds to realize that's a joke. "Do flamingos even fly?"

"Of course they fly," Rodney says. "It's penguins that don't."

"Right. Penguins." John shivers.

Concern doesn't seem like a look Rodney wears very often, but John still recognizes it. "You really are sick," he says, and comes over and feels John's forehead -- one hand on the back of John's neck to steady him, the other with the palm pressed to his forehead. Rodney's hands are big and cool, and his touch makes John weak in the knees.

Of course, he is running a fever.

"You're burning up," Rodney says, letting go. "Not literally, of course, but go to bed. Now. I'll bring you some soup in a few minutes. Where's the bedroom, upstairs?"

"Uh huh." John shuffles off upstairs and collapses onto the bed, not even bothering to pull up the covers. The pillowcase feels cool against his cheek, and when he opens his eyes again Rodney is standing over him with a tray that he'd forgotten he even had.

"What are you, four?" Rodney asks. "Sit up."

John does, and Rodney puts the tray down across his lap. "You didn't have to do this, you know. But thanks."

"Yes, well, don't think I don't realize that I'm doing you a serious favor here. I'll expect you to repay me at some point in the future." But Rodney grins a little, like he's not really serious. "Here, take these. You'll feel better if we can get your fever down." He hands over two pills and John takes them without protest.

He can barely keep his eyes open long enough to eat the soup. "I have to meet Kayla when she gets off the bus," he says as Rodney takes the tray away and pulls the covers up over him.

"I'll do it." Rodney says. "Where and when?"

"At the end of the street, where it meets the main road. At three." John forces his eyes open. "I should go."

"No, you should stay here and rest," Rodney says. "It'll be okay. Trust me."

And, strangely enough, John realizes as he drifts back off to sleep, he does.

* * * * *

John wakes up to the sound of voices downstairs. It takes him a minute to realize what the hell is going on, but Kayla's familiar, cheerful voice floats up the stairs reassures him before he can even start to worry.

He feels better. Not great, but he aches less and he's not shivering.

Slowly, he gets up. He's still wearing his bathrobe, so all he has to do is pull it more tightly around himself before padding down the stairs in his stocking feet. Kayla and Rodney are in the kitchen, the microscope he bought her on the table and the prepared slides pushed to one side in favor of a small collection of ones they've obviously put together themselves. The little clear plastic things -- John can't remember what they're called, if he ever knew -- are scattered all over the place, and one of them is caught in the ends of Kayla's hair.

"Daddy," she says, getting up and coming over to hug him. He leans over her and kisses the top of her head. "Do you have a cold?"

"I guess I do," John says.

"Poor daddy." Kayla pats his leg. "Rodney met me at the bus stop. I was surprised."

"I'll bet you were."

She goes and sits back down again. "Rodney said you were sick. He said it's really important to take care of yourself when you're sick, because when your immune system is compromised you're more prone to con... contacting other infections?" Kayla looks at Rodney.

"Contracting," Rodney says. "Speaking of which, you might not want to touch these slides."

"We were seeing if there was any bacteria in our spit," Kayla says solemnly.

"Oh." After years of raising a child, the thought of saliva is pretty low on the list of things that gross John out. He sits down, leaning his forearms on the table. "Those are all spit?"

"No. Just these two." Kayla points.

"Should I be afraid to ask what the other ones are?" John asks, raising an eyebrow at Rodney.

"Probably," Rodney says. "You look better. Less glassy-eyed."

"Yeah? I feel better. Not that I'm planning on running any marathons in the next couple of days."

Rodney shudders dramatically. "I hope not. You do realize that that kind of high-impact exercise erodes your joints, don't you?"

John grins. "I guess I never thought about it."

"Well, you should. You've got to take care of yourself."

"Daddy, Rodney said we can have pizza," Kayla says.

"My treat," Rodney adds. He looks at John thoughtfully. "Although maybe that wouldn't be the best choice, considering..."

"You promised!" Kayla protests.

"Kayla," John says with reproach.

She pouts, crossing her arms. "Okay, okay," she says. "He didn't promise, but he said."

John wonders how long it's going to be before he's tired of hearing 'Rodney said.' "Don't be rude," he warns her.

"I wasn't being rude, I was explaining," Kayla says, but John's expression makes her capitulate. "Sorry."

"Pizza sounds good," John says, more to Rodney than to Kayla. "It's not a stomach thing."

"Thank God." Rodney looks relieved.

"So spitting all over slides is okay as long as you don't have to be near people who might throw up?" John asks.

"This is scientific," Rodney says.

Kayla is tugging on Rodney's sleeve, requesting his attention, and he sighs and gives it to her. "Yes, what do you want?" He sounds impatient, but Kayla just beams.

"Can we do blood?" she asks.

"Not mine," Rodney says. He leans back in the chair as the two of them start to discuss the merits of viewing fresh blood on slides compared to the prepared one that came with the kit. He seems comfortable in John's kitchen, and John decides he likes having him there. Rodney seems solid -- and sure, that might have something to do with his physical build, which is sturdy and padded, but John thinks it has more to do with something that he exudes, confidence and reliability. Something that's been missing from John's life, maybe.

"We could use Daddy's," Kayla suggests.

Rodney yelps in dismay. "No! No, no, no. Not when he's sick. Do you want to get sick, too?"

"She probably will anyway," John says. "We kind of tend to pass stuff back and forth." He remembers Kayla's terror the first time they'd both been sick after Elizabeth had died; she'd been afraid that they had cancer, too, and insisted on sleeping in John's bed for three nights until he'd been able to reassure her that he wasn't going to die, that he was fine, see, everything was okay.

"They do make this stuff nowadays, you know. Maybe you've heard of it? It's called soap." Rodney's completely serious, which makes John smile again even though he's starting to feel kind of crappy again. Rodney notices right away. "Go on back to bed. We're fine here." He glances at Kayla, who nods.

"It's okay, Daddy. We'll bring you pizza later." This is clearly meant to be a bribe of some kind.

"Sure," John says. "Thanks." It feels like an incredible luxury to be able to leave Kayla in someone else's care.

He takes another nap. Later, they all have pizza -- John and Rodney split an order of onion rings, which Kayla declares 'icky' -- and watch The Grimm Adventures of Billy and Mandy. Rodney and John laugh at the same jokes, usually ones that go over Kayla's head, and on three occasions their fingers touch when reaching for another onion ring. They grin at each other, only a little bit awkward, and then Kayla lies down across both their laps, her head on John's thigh and her legs draped over Rodney's.

"Oh, yes, just pretend I'm furniture," Rodney says, but he sounds shy and a little bit pleased.

John falls asleep there, with the tv still on and Rodney and Kayla laughing softly like background music.





He forces his eyes open and sees Rodney sitting in front of him. "What time's it?"

"After eight." Rodney's hand is on John's knee, which seems like kind of an intimate place for it to be. "Kayla's in bed. Don't worry, I made her brush her teeth first."

"I'll bet you did." John stretches and yawns, and his throat protests with a sharp *zing* of pain. "Ow."

"You should take some more ibuprofen," Rodney says. He leans closer and touches John's forehead again, the same way he had before; one hand on John's head and the other at the back of his neck. It puts their faces close together, and John can see how incredible blue Rodney's eyes are. Rodney hesitates, then pulls back again. "And you shouldn't sleep here. No wonder your neck hurts."

"It's not my neck, it's my throat," John explains. There's a little fleece blanket that's Kayla's -- purple, with white snowflakes -- across his lap, and he remembers something he'd been thinking about earlier. "Hey, how did you get here, anyway?"

"Didn't we already have this conversation?" Rodney asks, looking away.

"Yeah; just not the part of it where you actually answer me." John waits. He's a dad; he's pretty good at being patient.

Rodney sighs. "Okay, yes, fine. I went into the museum's computer system and looked you up."

"Went into?" John echoes.

"Fine, fine, broke into. Does that make you feel better?" Rodney says.

"It's a little more honest," John says.

"I thought from the way Kayla was talking that you were probably members -- people who go often enough to remember the layout and have favorite exhibits would. And I had your name and phone number. I suppose I could have done a reverse lookup online, but it wouldn't have saved more than a minute or two and, well, I like a challenge."

"Yeah, I guess you do." John doesn't realize how that's going to sound until after he says it. There's an awkward silence. "Sorry," he offers.

Rodney doesn't say anything right away. Then, "Will you be all right?"

It's a question John's heard, in slightly different forms, a thousand times since Elizabeth died. John's always answered it with reassurance. Of course he'll be okay. Yes, he's lucky to have Kayla (with the implied but never spoken 'to live for' loudly missing from the end of that sentence.) No, no one has to worry about him. It's not easy, but he's taking it one day at a time. (A certain contingent of the population really likes that one, to the point where John feels lucky that the only thing he's ever been addicted to is coffee. Well, and flying, but sometimes you have to go cold turkey whether you want to or not.) One of the questions -- one aimed at Kayla -- he doesn't like: You're going to take care of your Daddy, aren't you? Kayla always say yes, and John always tells her, ignoring the asker of the question, that she doesn't have to take care of him, that's he's the Daddy and it's his job to take care of her. No one's asked it twice.

The answers have always felt just a little bit hollow. Always left a bit of an ache in his chest.

This time, though -- maybe because enough time has finally passed, maybe because the scent of Elizabeth's shampoo on the sheets has faded, maybe because Kayla looks more and more like her mother every day -- when John answers, it feels like the truth. "Yeah," he says roughly, not caring that there are tears in his eyes. "Yeah. I'll be okay."

* * * * *

Rodney starts calling after that. A lot. He seems to like talking on the phone, even if sometimes it seems like anyone on the other end of the line would do as well as John because a one or two word response is enough to send him off into another long, rambling monologue about some project that he's working on. The weird thing is, John still hasn't figured out exactly what it is Rodney does -- he just knows it has something to do with physics and possibly quantum physics. Rodney talks a lot about quantum mechanics and electromagnetic radiation and something called quantum gravity. He goes on and on about em theory until John, in desperation, goes to the library and discovers that it's actually M-theory -- he'd thought em was the shortened form of some longer word, and anyway he needs to be able to contribute something to the conversation a little more intelligent than "The guy's name is Duff? Like Duff beer?" because Rodney doesn't watch "The Simpsons."

One afternoon John and Rodney meet for lunch, and John gets a perverse sort of pleasure out of dumping a whole bunch of what he's been reading into the conversation and watching Rodney blink and stammer in surprise.

"I got a few books from the library," John says modestly, looking down at his plate.

"Oh, you're revolting when you're smug," Rodney snaps.

"Hey, I just wanted to be able to keep up!" Feeling unreasonably -- and unfairly -- attacked, John holds up both hands. "Don't tell me you'd like it better if I had no idea what you were talking about half the time."

"Well, no, of course not." Rodney looks annoyed, then sheepish. "But it's not like I thought you'd go read a bunch of books about quantum theory just so you could have conversations with me."

"I like having conversations with you," John says, fiddling with the parsley that had garnished his meal rather than meeting Rodney's gaze. He's uncomfortable, so out of his element that it's not even funny, but there's a little part of him that likes being out of his element. It's probably why he likes flying.

That's kind of what this is like, except when he's flying John's the one in control.

When he finally looks up, Rodney is smiling that funny smile, the one that's scared and joyful at the same time, the one that reveals that there are a whole bunch of things in his past that John can't even guess at and some, probably, that'll tick John off. Not at Rodney -- because even in the month or so since they became friends John has learned that once you get past the gruff, often rude exterior Rodney's got a heart of gold -- but at whoever it was that taught Rodney that even despite his incredible IQ he's not worth much.

Rodney's smile falters under John's scrutiny. "What?"

"Nothing," John says, and reaches across the table to pat Rodney's hand. "We're good. Okay?"

Rodney nods. "Okay." He takes another sip of his drink, then leans forward, looking serious. "Now, please tell me that you understand that Witten's M-theory hasn't been mathematically verified."


Outside, standing on the sidewalk in the sunshine -- there's still an hour until he has to meet Kayla at the bus stop, so he's not in a hurry -- John finds himself watching Rodney's closely as he talks. The conversation is always invigoratingly quick, and Rodney talks with his hands a lot in big gestures that make everyone walking by on the sidewalk give them a wide berth. Rodney's oblivious to it, most of his attention caught up in his thoughts and the rest, every once in a while, directed at John with an intensity that's both flattering and a little bit disconcerting.

"Thanks for lunch," John says, when Rodney finally grinds to a halt.

"No problem," Rodney says. "I usually work right through, so I'm sure my assistants would be grateful to you."

Would be, John notes, which means they aren't. Because they don't know? "Aw, come on. You're not so bad."

Rodney looks very, very pleased. "Yes, well. I doubt they'd agree with that assessment."

"Then they aren't smart enough to be working for you," John says, watching as Rodney's eyes brighten even more.

There's a moment of silence. Then, suddenly, like he's been thinking about asking for a while and trying to steel himself to actually do it, Rodney asks, "Do you want to go out this weekend? Um, I mean you and Kayla. Obviously. We could go to the zoo. On Saturday? Unless you're one of those people who has ethical issues with the confinement of animals, but really, some of those species are endangered in the wild and captive breeding programs are their only chance of -- "

"Yes," John says, laughing. "Yes, okay? Fine. No, I don't have anything against zoos. What I do have something against is you babbling on and on like that. Your lips are starting to turn blue."

"Oh, yes, everyone loves a comedian," Rodney grumbles. "I'll drive; I'll be there to pick you up at nine, so be ready because I don't like waiting."

"You? Impatient?" John feigns astonishment.

Rodney rolls his eyes. "You're very annoying; you know that, don't you? I have no idea why I like you so much." He looks worried again then, afraid he's revealed too much, so John pats him on the shoulder.

"See you Saturday," he says, and goes to get into his car feeling lighthearted and younger than he has in a long, long time.

* * * * *

For all his warnings, Rodney is fifteen minutes late on Saturday and pretends that he doesn't even notice. But it works out fine, because John and Kayla are finally ready at ten past and they're waiting on the front steps when Rodney pulls up. His car is shiny and new; it makes John's look kind of cruddy even though it's not, really.

John helps Kayla get strapped in the back and then sits beside Rodney. He's achingly aware that the last time he rode in a car without being the driver was on the way to Elizabeth's funeral, and he presses his temple to the cool glass of the window for just a second, trying to push the memory back in where he can ignore it.

"You don't get car sick, do you?" Rodney asks.

"No," John says. "Do you know how to get there?"

"GPS," Rodney says, gesturing at it.

"Gee, what?" Kayla pipes up from the back seat.

"G. P. S." Rodney repeats it a little more slowly. "It stands for Global Positioning System."

"It's like MapQuest," John says. "Only in your car."

"Cool. Can I see?"

"There isn't anything to see," Rodney says as they near the end of the street. "Just listen." The slightly tinny voice of the GPS has a British accent as it directs them to turn right.

"It sounds like that lady on SuperNanny," Kayla says.

She's right. "Somehow I doubt Nanny Jo does voice work." John grins at Rodney, who looks at him like he's crazy. "What, you've never seen SuperNanny?"

"I only watch TV that actually has some educational merit," Rodney says loftily.

"Uh-huh," John says. "What about Star Trek?"

Rodney flushes. "Star Trek is a classic," he says, and then somehow the three of them are all talking about Captain Picard and Geordie LaForge -- who Rodney insists wasn't nearly as intelligent as the show wanted viewers to believe, and proceeds to give a list of examples until John tells him enough already, they believe him.

The zoo is crowded, even this early in the day. The animals seem to be enjoying what might be the last warm day of the season; they don't just lie around like they sometimes do when you visit the zoo. The elephant plays with what looks like a heavy bag -- and might be -- until the support chain collapses, which Kayla finds hilariously funny. She laughs so hard that she can barely stand up, and John has to physically drag her away until she can recover.

"Will they fix it?" she asks five minutes later, when they're standing in front of the otter exhibit. The little animals are diving and swimming like they're on uppers.

"Fix what?" John asks.

"The elephant's toy."

"Of course they will," Rodney says, answering the tone of Kayla's voice. He sounds so confident that it's immensely reassuring. "They're probably fixing it right now."

"Good," Kayla says.

They have lunch at the restaurant, which is more like a cafeteria than anything else. Rodney pays for everything even when John tells him he doesn't have to. The next stop is the gift shop, where Kayla would happily spend an hour at least. She looks at books, videos, stuffed animals, bath toys, magnets, sticker sets, and postcards until Rodney finally sighs and gives her a twenty dollar bill. "I don't care what you buy as long as I don't have to stand here and observe the process," he says, and goes outside in a huff.

John frowns. There are two employees in the gift shop, both middle aged women, and only a few other people shopping, but he can't leave Kayla in there on her own even though it's probably completely safe.

"Is Rodney mad?" she asks, coming over and taking John's hand. "I don't have to buy anything."

"No, it's okay," he says. "Go on and choose something, okay? Just try not to take too long."

"Okay." In a minute or two, Kayla settles on a pair of stuffed white Bengal tigers and pays for them, taking the change solemnly. They go outside, where Rodney is throwing little feed pellets for some ducks that have waddled over from the nearby pond display. "This one's for you," Kayla says, offering Rodney one of the little tigers.

Rodney swallows and slowly takes it. "Thanks," he says. The ducks quack and wander around in confusion, wondering where the food is, but Rodney isn't paying any attention to them. "Sorry," he mutters. "I guess I'm not very good at this."

"Hey, it's nice to know there's something you're not good at," John says.

"I think you're good at it," Kayla says. She slips her hand into Rodney's and looks up at him trustingly. "Can we go see the tigers now? The white ones?"

There's a slight possibility, John thinks, that Rodney's eyes are shining with more than emotion. "Yes," Rodney says. "Let's go see the tigers."

Her other hand, the one holding the stuffed tiger, takes John's, and the three of them head off.


So of course John gets sunburned at the zoo. He doesn't notice until they're sitting at a wooden picnic table eating ice cream and Rodney reaches across and touches the tip of his nose.

"Ow," John says.

"What are you, five?" Rodney asks. "You don't have the sense to put sun-block on?"

"I put it on Kayla," John protests. There's a list somewhere -- he's lost track of it now, it might be in the top drawer of his bureau, he should find it -- of things he promised Elizabeth he'd remember to do for Kayla. Put on sun-block. Make sure she wears a helmet when she's riding her bike. Remember to make her take her multivitamins. He doesn't forget.

"I'm sure you'd put her oxygen mask on first when they fall down from that ceiling panel, too," Rodney grumbles. "You should at least have a hat. Here, hold this." He gets up, hands his ice cream cone to John and walks off, John and Kayla watching him with what are probably matching expressions of confusion until they see him go into the gift shop.

Kayla licks her ice cream, which is melting down over her knuckles and dripping onto her shorts. Good thing she only likes vanilla. "Is he buying you a hat, Daddy?"

"I think so." They sit there for a few minutes, John taking a couple of furtive licks of Rodney's ice cream when it starts running over the edge of the cone, until Rodney comes back and plunks a beach hat -- a pink beach hat with the zoo's logo on it -- down onto John's head.

"I was right," Rodney says, bouncing on his heels a little bit and looking disgustingly smug. "That's a good color for you."

"It's pink," John says.

"Pink is for girls," Kayla chimes in.

"That's the sort of genderist thinking that's damaging our society," Rodney tells her. "Besides, it wasn't even true until some time in the 50s." He takes his cone back from John and fits the whole, albeit half-melted, scoop of ice cream into his mouth, slurping it obscenely.

John gapes at him, swallows; just then Kayla drops what's left of her ice cream onto the pavement, providing a welcome distraction. "Jeez," John says, taking the stack of napkins out of his pocket and handing a couple of them to Kayla.

"It's okay, Daddy," Kayla says. "I was almost done anyway." Some little birds appear as if from nowhere and cluster around, looking eagerly from them to the cone and back again as if asking them to get the hell out of the way so they can have their treat.

"You can't have that," John tells them. "Ice cream isn't good for birds." He picks up what he can with the rest of the napkins and tips the whole thing into a nearby trash bin along with what remains of his own cone.

"Oh, what, you're an ornithologist now?" Rodney says.

John wipes his hands on his pants and frowns, then takes off the hat and looks at it. "It's pink," he says again. "You got me a pink hat."

"It looks good on you," Rodney says. He seems to have finished with his little porno ice cream eating demonstration, thank God. It's been way too long since John had sex.

"I don't wear pink," John says.

"Well, sometimes change can be good." Rodney tosses the last inch of his cone, still in the little paper wrapper, into the trash and takes the hat from John. Slowly, giving John time to stop him if he wants to, he settles the hat onto John's head again, adjusting it for him and then just looking at him, meeting his eyes hopefully, and there's no universe in which John would do anything to dash those hopes.

"Yeah," he says gruffly. "Sometimes change is good."

* * * * *

The next weekend Rodney invites them to his house for dinner. By the time they get into the car Saturday afternoon Kayla is delirious with excitement, wondering what Rodney's house is like -- will he have a real grown-up microscope? does he have any pets? -- and John deals with it as good-naturedly as he can until he finally has to point out that he doesn't know, he's never been to Rodney's house either.

It turns out to be an enormous house, twice as big as theirs and built in a neighborhood surrounded by other houses pretty much just like it. There's a two car garage attached and one of the doors is open, which John takes as a sign that he should park there. They knock on the door between the garage and the house and about five seconds later Rodney yanks the door open and stands there grinning like an idiot. "You found it!"

"Uh-huh. Before GPS, there were these things called 'maps.' Maybe you've heard of them?" John grins back, probably looking like just as big an idiot, and they go inside. Kayla hangs by his hip, suddenly shy.

"Rodney?" she says.

"Yes, what? Are you hungry? I should probably show you where the bathroom is." Rodney sounds aggrieved.

"She's eight, not four," John says.

"And?" Rodney says.

"And what she really wants to know is if you have any pets."

"Oh! Actually, I do have a cat, although I have no idea where he is. Sometimes he sleeps in the guest room, which is upstairs. Here, let me show you." Rodney takes them up the wide, carpeted staircase to the second floor.

"White carpet," John says.

Rodney nods. "I know, it's not very practical, but it came with the house and I haven't had time to deal with changing it. Well, of course I've had time, it's just not a priority." He gestures at the guest room and they go in, which is decorated sort of like a hotel room -- one color scheme, pictures of landscapes on the walls in pale pastels. "Don't look at the room; the housekeeper decorated it. I obviously wasn't specific enough."

"It's not so bad," John says as Kayla goes over to the bed where an orange tiger cat is sleeping curled up near the pillows.

"Of course it is; it's terrible."

"What's her name?" Kayla asks. She's already petting the cat; it looks bored, but like it will tolerate the attention.

"It's a him," Rodney says. "He doesn't have a name."

"He doesn't have a name?" John echoes. "What, that wasn't a priority either?"

"It's not like I went out and chose him," Rodney says. "He just showed up at the door one night, meowing, and when I opened it to tell him to go away and bother someone else he came in like he owned the place."

"He's had his shots, right?" John looks at the cat doubtfully.

"Yes, yes, of course. I don't want to contract rabies any more than the next person." Rodney glances at Kayla, who seems content, then says, "Come on, I'll show you the rest of the house. Well, the upstairs."

The master bedroom looks like Rodney might have decorated it himself, if the haphazard combination of patterns means anything, but it's a nicer room than the guest room. There's a huge bathroom off of it, another bathroom in the hallway beside the guest room, and a large office on the other side. There are four computer desks and five computers in the office.

"Do you work from home?" John asks, even though he's sure the answer is no.

Rodney shakes his head. "No. Why would you -- oh, the computers? No, these are just so in case I get an idea in the middle of the night or something."

"You need five computers in case you get an idea in the middle of the night?" John asks in disbelief.

"Seven, actually," Rodney says, rubbing the back of his neck. "There are two laptops around somewhere too."

"And you actually use them all?"

"For the most part, yes," Rodney says, and John realizes that work has pretty much been Rodney's life for the past however many years, and that maybe hanging out with him and Kayla has been the closest thing to a social life Rodney's had in a long time. Rodney is watching him; steps closer, reaches out and runs a fingertip down John's nose gently. "You're peeling," he says.

"Yeah," John agrees. Jesus, Rodney's eyes are so blue, and he's standing really close. Something in John yearns for him, wants to be even closer, wants to press against him.

"I want to kiss you," Rodney says hoarsely.

John can only nod.

Rodney slips his hand around to the back of John's neck, the way he did when he was checking John's temperature, and kisses him. It's barely a kiss -- a brush of lips, like the fleeting kiss a parent gives a child's forehead. John makes a little sound in protest and leans in, needing more, and Rodney's big hand cradles the back of his skull and gives it. His mouth opens against John's, his other hand settling at John's waist. John feels a huge rush of relief and longing and lust, so strong that he clings to Rodney and kisses him back even harder.

"Daddy?" John hears Kayla's voice from the hall and pulls away, pulls himself together.

Rodney wipes his mouth and steps back, too. "So here's the office," he says as Kayla appears in the doorway.

Her eyes go wide. "You have a lot of computers," she says in awe.

"He has too many computers," John corrects her, still reeling from the kiss.

"You could give one to me," Kayla says.

"No, he couldn't." John is firm about that, and it helps ground him a little bit. "Kayla."

She flushes, knowing she's been rude, but Rodney says, "No, it's okay. It's good to say what you're thinking. Maybe not always, like for example to your boss, or to your grandmother when she gives you one of those incredibly ugly sweaters at Christmas time, but if you can't be honest with your friends, who can you be honest with?"

John thinks he lost track of Rodney's line of thought somewhere in the middle there, but at least by the time he finishes he's caught up again. Maybe. "It's still not okay to ask for stuff like that," he tells Kayla, and she nods, looking miserable, which makes John feel guilty. But it was another thing on Elizabeth's list that he agreed to: Don't let her get away with too much just because her mother died. Something on his face must give him away, because Rodney quickly takes over.

"Kayla, have you ever played GameCube?"

Somehow they end up downstairs in front of a huge TV with Kayla playing video games. Once she's entranced, Rodney gives John the rest of the tour, which doesn't take long because it's a pretty open floor plan, one room flowing smoothly into the next. The kitchen is huge, the appliances high end and gleaming. It looks like a display kitchen, not one that someone actually cooks in. John says as much.

"Oh, I don't," Rodney says. "Well, I use the microwave to reheat stuff. But mostly I just order out. Which is what I was planning to do tonight, by the way, because if I cooked for you that would guarantee that you'd never come over again, and I really want you to -- "

John stops the babbling by kissing him. "Relax," he says. "Okay? I like you, and being able to cook isn't high on my wish list."

Rodney smiles tentatively. "You have a wish list?"

"Mmhm." John strokes his hand along Rodney's lower back just as Kayla calls him from the living room. He sighs and calls back that he'll be right there. "One thing that is on it is someone to watch Kayla for a couple of hours so we can have some time alone."

"Really?" Rodney says.

"Really. Don't worry, though; I'll figure something out." There aren't many people John is comfortable leaving Kayla with, but maybe Sam would be willing to take her out to a movie or something.

"Daddy! This game is so cool!"

"Okay! I'm coming to see it!"

The three of them spend the rest of the evening playing video games and eating the Chinese food that Rodney orders from a place that delivers. Rodney's kind of like a kid himself -- he doesn't warn them to be careful not to spill food on the white carpet, and he waves away John's concern that Kayla's soda bottle might tip over.

"They come and clean the rugs whenever they need to," he says, biting into a crab rangoon.

"And how often is that?" John asks.

Rodney shrugs. "I don't know. The housekeeper takes care of it."

"What's a housekeeper?" Kayla asks through a mouthful of lo mein.

"It's someone you pay to clean your house," John says.

"Why don't you just clean it yourself?" she asks Rodney.

"I'm too busy," Rodney says. "And to be perfectly honest, I'm not very good at it."

"But you're smart," Kayla says, brow furrowed.

"Being smart doesn't automatically mean you're good at everything," Rodney says.

"It doesn't?"

"No. Don't get me wrong; I'm sure I could be good at cleaning. I'd just rather do other things with my time."

Kayla seems to understand that. "I don't like cleaning my room," she says.

"No one does. Thus, why I have a housekeeper." Rodney looks into the paper carton he's holding, spears one last pea pod, and eats it. "Want to watch a movie?"

It takes a while to find something they can agree on -- most of Rodney's DVDs aren't appropriate for an eight year old. Eventually they settle on Star Wars. Twenty minutes in, John glances back over his shoulder at Kayla to find her asleep on the couch; he's sitting on the floor leaning against it, and Rodney's in a leather chair that he insists is chiropractic even though in the next breath he'd muttered something about doctors being quacks.

"I suppose it is more a guy movie," Rodney says with regret.

"On the other hand, it put her to sleep." John runs a hand through his hair, which he's aware makes it stick up in crazy but interesting ways.

"Are we dating?" Rodney asks out of nowhere.

"What?" John says. "Wait, weren't we kissing a little while ago?"

"Yes, yes, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything, and I know you're... well, you were straight. When this started out I didn't think it was possible for it to go anywhere -- don't get me wrong, I liked you and I hoped we'd be friends, and I'd be lying if I said that deep down I didn't want more -- but now... I'm not sure what's going on, and did I mention that I'm not good at this?" Rodney looks at him plaintively.

"You're doing fine," John says. "I've sort of made a practice of... not talking about stuff. I didn't even ask Elizabeth to marry me; I left the ring on the kitchen table where she'd see it, then waited until she picked it up and said, 'What do you think?'" It feels weird, remembering, but strangely not like a betrayal. He'd thought it would. "Yeah, I think we might be."

"Might be what?" Rodney asks.

"Dating," John says. No one's more surprised than him; he still doesn't even understand why it's happening. Why now? He has to assume that it's because there's something about Rodney he's specifically attracted to, but he can't figure out what that is, and really he's not even sure if he cares. For whatever reason, there's this spark between them, and he's going to hold onto it for all he's worth.

"Good," Rodney says, grinning. "Great. That's great."

"Yeah," John says. "It kind of is."


The more John thinks about it -- the fact that he's sort of becoming Rodney's boyfriend, and all that comes with it -- the more nervous he gets. He's past the point of being able to be freaked out by anything but death anymore -- watching your wife die by bits and pieces will do that to you -- but nervous is definitely still in his repertoire, and he admits to himself, if not to Rodney, that he needs a little bit of time. There are a couple of times when he and Rodney have a chance to get together when something could happen, but it doesn't because John side-steps the opportunity neatly. Ten minutes later, of course, he feels like the world's stupidest asshole, but in the moment it's like there's nothing else he can do.

At night, he lies awake, horny in ways he hasn't been in years. remembering what it feels like to kiss Rodney and wishing he could do it again. But then Rodney's right there, when they're having lunch or hanging out in the evenings, and somehow it doesn't happen. John can see what it's doing to Rodney, can see the doubt in his eyes, and he hates himself for being the one to put it there, but somehow he can't figure out how to stop.

Rodney takes him out to lunch on Tuesday. The restaurant is just down the street from Rodney's office; John meets him there, mostly out of a sense of curiosity about the people Rodney works with. Or the people who work for Rodney, which is how Rodney puts it.

The office is a bigger version of Rodney's home office, only with a whole bunch of machines that are either ultra-high-tech computers or something else John can't even begin to understand. Rodney, typical of him, is so busy working that he's totally lost track of time and doesn't even look up when John comes into the room.

"Radek! Where the hell are those numbers I asked you for?" Rodney snaps, still staring intently at his computer screen and typing at the speed of light.

"Here." A little guy with glasses and longish hair crosses the room and hands Rodney a clipboard; Rodney looks at it, frowning, and he looks so intense and focused and brilliant that John wants to go over and hug him.

"Good," Rodney says, not looking up. "Good, good. This is..."

Radek -- John isn't sure what kind of name that is. Polish? -- does, though, and sees John. "Rodney," he says.

"Maybe not exactly the figures we were hoping for, but -- "

"Rodney," Radek says, and Rodney looks up.

"Yes, yes, what?"

Radek tilts his head in John's direction, and Rodney looks and sees John. And smiles.

"John!" he says, pushing the clipboard into Radek hand. "Sorry; I didn't realize how late it was."

"It's okay," John says. He'd had an interview the day before, but he's still not working, so he doesn't have anywhere to be until the bus drops Kayla off. "I can wait, if you need to..." He waves at the room, since he's not sure exactly what Rodney's working on right now.

"No, no, this is a good place for me to stop." Rodney looks around. "Hang on, just let me..." He turns and starts to shut down one of the computer programs.

John shifts back onto his heels and grins at Radek, who's standing there looking at him like he's some kind of wonder of nature. "Hi," John says after fifteen seconds or so of scrutiny, offering his hand. "John Sheppard."

"Yes. Hello. Radek Zelenka." Radek shakes his hand, glancing nervously from Rodney back to the station where he'd been working before. "Excuse me; I should get back to work."

"Sure." John steps over behind Rodney and leans in, bracing himself on the edge of the desk, looking at what Rodney's doing. "This isn't top secret or anything, is it?"

Rodney gives a little bark of laughter. "If it was, don't you think we'd have some kind of security to keep people from just waltzing in here?"

"Yeah, I guess."

Lowering his voice, Rodney adds, "Give me a couple of months. I'm on the verge of a serious breakthrough."

They have lunch, including a couple of beers, which is a first. John doesn't have anything against drinking, he just doesn't do it that often anymore, but Rodney suggests it, a little bit diffidently, and John agrees and decides to have a burger to go along with it. Of course, the beer goes right through him, and he has to excuse himself halfway through the meal to go to the bathroom. He takes care of that and is washing his hands when Rodney comes in.

"You, too, huh?" John asks, looking at Rodney in the mirror.

"No," Rodney says. He slips an arm around John's waist from behind and kisses the back of his neck, then the edge of his ear. "Sorry, I'm sorry, I just had to -- God, it's killing me being so close to you and not being able to touch you. I have to -- " His lips are warm along the side of John's throat; John feels his cock swell inside his pants, and Rodney slides his hand down and rubs it. "Please tell me this okay," Rodney begs, bringing him to full hardness in seconds. "Tell me you haven't changed your mind, because I -- "

John gasps and arches forward into Rodney's touch, unbearably turned on by everything about this -- Rodney's wet mouth on his neck, Rodney's solid body pressed up against him -- but most of all the sight of Rodney's hand on him, rubbing, thumb tracing the outline of his cock through his pants. "Jesus," he manages to croak out. "Rodney."

"I'll stop if you want me to," Rodney mumbles. His teeth scrape a sensitive spot underneath John's ear. "God, please don't want me to. Please."

"No," John says, closing his eyes and letting Rodney take over. "No, don't stop." He can feel Rodney's erection against his ass, and instead of freaking him out it just turns him on more. He's half a minute from coming, tops.

Rodney's fingers are fumbling with John's zipper when there's the sound of footsteps in the hall outside. They jump away from each other; John goes back to washing his hands and Rodney disappears into a stall and shuts the door -- three times before he manages to latch it -- as the door opens and a guy comes in and stands in front of one of the urinals.

John glances at himself in the mirror. His face is flushed and his cock visible through the fabric of his pants. He pulls his t-shirt free of his waistband and down to cover it as best he can, then goes back to the table.

A minute later Rodney comes back, too. "Well," he says. "That was embarrassing."

"Would have been worse if we hadn't stopped when we did," John points out.

Rodney's cheeks are pink. "Yes."

"I'm sorry," John says, and Rodney looks up at him, horrified. "No, not like that," John explains quickly. "I... didn't mean to give you the wrong impression. Before. I'm just... this is all pretty new to me. But I don't want you thinking I've changed my mind. I haven't."

"Oh." Rodney relaxes visibly. "Oh, thank God. I thought you were breaking up with me."

"I'd have to be pretty stupid to do that," John says.

"Well, good. Because you're definitely not stupid. Not as smart as me -- but then, who is? Oh, right, no one." Rodney's on a roll now, so John just leans back in his chair and enjoys it. At least it provides a welcome distraction from his cock, which is finally getting the message that there isn't going to be any more fun right away. "Speaking of being smart, though, I know a guy who's looking for a part time lab assistant if you're interested."

That gets John's attention in a big way. "Really?"

"No, I'm making it up." Rodney rolls his eyes. "Yes, really. He's got a grant so the pay's pretty good, and the hours are flexible; you wouldn't necessarily have to be there when he is. There's a catch, of course, which is that he's a biologist."

"Isn't that the kind of thing you need a degree for?" John asks.

"No, it's the kind of thing you need more than half a dozen brain cells for," Rodney says. "You're more than qualified, believe me. I already told him all about you -- "

"You did?"

"Yes, and if you're interested I'll give him your number so he can set something up. It wouldn't be an interview so much as a training shift."

"You really did tell him about me," John says, grinning.

"But you aren't allowed to do that when you're working for him," Rodney says.

"Do what?"

Rodney waves his hand in a circle, gesturing at John. "That... that smiling thing you do."

"So now you get to tell me not to smile?" John asks.

"In this case I do. This is a colleague of mine, and the last thing I want is people thinking that you're... you're..." For once, Rodney seems to be out of words.

"That I'm what?"

"Sex on legs!" Rodney yells.

John drops his face down into his hands.

"Look, I'm sorry," Rodney says in a stage whisper. "But you don't know what scientists can be like. Eighty percent of them haven't had sex in the past five years, and the other twenty percent are still virgins!"

"So what you're telling me is, they'll fuck anything that moves? Somehow I'm not finding that very flattering." John gets what's happening -- Rodney's jealous. There's something about that that John finds completely adorable.

"No, I'm telling you that you're the hottest thing any of them will ever see and I don't want Grodin getting the wrong idea." Rodney's starting to look kind of unhappy, though, so John knows it's time to put a stop to this.

"I can't promise that I won't smile," John tells him, sliding his foot forward under the table until it makes contact with Rodney's. "But I can promise I won't let anyone get the wrong idea. Okay?"

Rodney looks down at the table. "You should feel free to smack me if I'm being an asshole. As long as you don't do it too hard; I bruise easily."

"Thanks," John says. He nudges Rodney's calf with his foot. "But I'll pass. You haven't really crossed over into asshole territory yet, plus I think the whole getting me a job thing leaves you with some points in the positive column."

"Oh. Well, good." Rodney sounds relieved, but still not totally happy.

Taking a deep breath, John decides he should make the offer he's been thinking about all day. "What are you doing this weekend?"

"I don't know. Something with you?" Rodney says hopefully.

"Kayla's got this birthday party to go to on Saturday night. It's a slumber party; I don't have to pick her up until the next morning. So, if you wanted, I was thinking maybe we could... hang out." And fool around remains unspoken, but he can tell by the look on Rodney's face that he knows exactly what he's talking about.

"That sounds great," Rodney says. "We can have dinner? Don't worry, I won't cook. And we could... well. You know."

"Yeah," John says fondly. "I know."

Now, if he can just prevent himself from freaking out about it, everything will be fine.


John's palms are damp when he knocks on Rodney's door. One of his hands is behind his back, fisted tightly around the stems of the plastic-wrapped flowers that he's having serious second thoughts about bringing, and there's got to be at least one rose in the bunch because he can feel the thorn digging into the fleshy pad at the base of his index finger.

The door opens. "Hi," Rodney says. He's wearing a blue shirt that makes his eyes even more startlingly blue.

"Hi," John says, and thrusts the flowers at him.

Startled, Rodney takes them. "You brought me flowers," he says.

"Uh-huh." John puts his hands on his hips and looks at them -- they're mostly oranges and yellows, and if there's such a thing as masculine flowers they're probably the closest you're gonna get. "I thought... yeah. Pretty stupid, huh."

"No," Rodney says quickly. "No, not stupid at all. Come on in -- I'll have to find a vase or something..." He's already disappearing into the kitchen, so John follows him and watches as he rummages through multiple cupboards, then half a dozen more. "I don't think I have a vase. Not that I would, because I have never have flowers." He frowns. "I suppose a glass would work."

John unwraps the flowers and Rodney finds a large glass and fills it with water, and they stick the flowers into the glass. The stems are too long and as far as flower arrangements go it looks like crap, but Rodney either doesn't notice or doesn't care.

"Thanks," Rodney says. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," John says. He hesitates, not sure what they're supposed to do next.

"Do you want some wine?" Rodney asks.

"Um... yeah, okay." John leans against the counter as Rodney gets out a bottle of wine and a corkscrew. Rodney peels off the foil and starts to fight with the corkscrew. "Why don't you let me do that," John says, reaching for it. "You get some glasses."

"Okay." Rodney sniffles, then sneezes. "Uh oh."

"What, you think you're coming down with a cold?"

Rodney sneezes again, more vigorously. "No, I think I might be ah-ah--" He sneezes three more times, turning his head into his sleeve. "Allergic."

"To the flowers?" John asks, and Rodney nods and sneezes again. "Shit. Hang on, okay? I'll take them outside."

When he comes back in, Rodney's still sneezing and his face is starting to look really blotchy.

"Sorry," Rodney says. "It's been so long since I was around cut flowers that it didn't even occur to me, and I -- " sneeze " -- I've got to take some antihistamines."

John trails along after him as he goes upstairs and takes three little white pills. "I didn't know."

"It's okay. It's not like you were trying to kill me." Rodney sneezes again and grabs a box of tissues off a shelf. "I'll be okay once these kick in, but I'm not going to be very much fun. Maybe we should reschedule." He blows his nose loudly, which should probably be gross but somehow isn't.

"I'll go if you want me to, but I don't mind sticking around." John tries to think. "You want some of that wine?"

Rodney eyes him suspiciously. "Maybe you are trying to kill me. You can't mix antihistamines with alcohol."


"I'm telling you, you might as well go." Rodney wanders into his bedroom and lies down on top of the comforter, sneezes a couple more times, blows his nose, then lies there looking miserable, hugging the box of tissues to his chest.

John goes over and sits down on the side of the bed. Tentatively, he reaches out and rubs Rodney's back, and after a minute Rodney sighs and makes a sad little sound.

"It'll be okay, buddy," John says. "We've got plenty of time, right?"

"Oh, yes, because after seeing me like this you'll be exceedingly anxious to have sex with me," Rodney says.

"You saw me all feverish and miserable, and you still like me," John points out.

Rodney whimpers and pulls a pillow over his face. "Yes, but you're much more attractive than I am," he says, voice muffled.

John laughs a little bit. "That's not true." He strokes his hand along Rodney's spine, feeling the bone through shirt and skin. "Besides, what matters is how attractive I think you are, not how attractive you think you are."

"You think I'm attractive?" Rodney says, still from underneath the pillow.

"Yeah," John says. He smiles when Rodney sneezes again, torn between feeling guilty and finding Rodney utterly adorable. "And I'm really, really sorry about the flowers. I wouldn't have brought them if I'd realized."

"I know. I should have told you." Rodney's quiet for a few seconds, then offers, "I'm allergic to flowers."

"Really?" John says, amused.

"Yes. Also rabbits, horses, and citrus." Rodney sniffles endearingly.

John tries to think of something they can do. "You want to watch TV?"

Pause. "Okay." Rodney comes out from under the pillow and shifts until he's lying sideways on the bed, and John gets up and goes over to turn on the TV. "There's a remote somewhere," Rodney says. "You could lie down with me."

"Well, if it'd make you feel better," John drawls. He finds the remote and curls up behind Rodney, one arm around his waist. It feels good, being close to him like this. He flicks the channels around until he finds a Star Trek rerun. They watch Star Trek, and John listens to the sound of Rodney's sniffles, and maybe it's not as good as what he'd had planned for the evening, but it's pretty damned close.

Forty five minutes later, Rodney's not only asleep but also snoring loudly. John shuts off the TV and slowly eases himself off the bed. His cell phone jabs him in the hip -- he'd forgotten it was in his pocket -- so he takes it out and checks it, but he hasn't missed any calls, which means Kayla's fine at her friend's house. Putting the phone down on the bedside table, he moves around to where he can see Rodney's face. He's peaceful, sleeping, relaxed. His nose is kind of red, but otherwise he seems okay. John finds himself unable to look away; he lies down next to Rodney again, only this time facing him, and watches him sleep. He'd like to touch him, to trace his lips and brow, to smooth back his thinning hair, but he doesn't want to wake him up, so he just watches, and after a while he falls asleep too.

* * * * *

In the morning, Rodney's annoyed and kind of unpleasant. "It's all your fault, you know," he says, finishing wrestling with the coffee machine and pushing the button.

"I know," John says, already tired of the conversation. "You've told me like a hundred times. If I promise I'll never bring you flowers again, will you shut up about it?"

"Fine," Rodney says. His eyes are rimmed with red like he's been crying; John knows he hasn't, because he was the one who'd woken up first, with Rodney following about thirty seconds later, fully awake instantly.

"Look," John says, going over and putting his arms around him. "I'm sorry, okay?"

Rodney sighs and leans against him, resting his chin on John's shoulder. "Okay." They stand there like that, with their arms around each other and the morning sunshine streaming in through the windows, until the coffee machine beeps. Then Rodney sighs again and pulls away.

The first taste of Rodney's coffee makes John moan. Rodney looks at him sharply. "What?"

"Coffee," John says with reverence, and takes another sip. He moans again. "Good."

"Apparently so, if it reduces you to one word at a time," Rodney says, sounding distracted.

John inhales the scent of the coffee, the rich bitterness of it drifting over him, and he knows it's been way too long since he bought the good coffee beans.

"I didn't realize you were such a coffee fanatic," Rodney says.

"I try not to drink it after noon," John says absently, which explains it. He sips again and sighs. "This stuff is incredible." He gives Rodney a look of adoration for sharing, and discovers to his surprise that Rodney is staring at him. "What?" he says, more than a little bit defensive. "It's good."

"I know it's good," Rodney says. "If I'd realized you were going to react this way, I would have made you some sooner." Coming closer, Rodney rests his hands on John's hips and turns him slightly, then backs him up against the countertop and kisses him. He tastes like the coffee, only sweeter -- he must have added sugar to his -- and jeez does he know how to kiss. It turns John's knees weak and makes him lightheaded.

"I'm gonna drop the coffee," John murmurs as Rodney's lips find his ear.

Very carefully, Rodney takes the cup away from him and sets it down on the counter. "Wouldn't want that," he says, and kisses John again, sliding his hands up under John's shirt and rubbing his bare skin until he shivers.

"Rodney," John whispers. He gasps against Rodney's lips when Rodney pinches one nipple -- he's not sensitive there usually, but it's been so fucking long since anyone's touched him that he thinks he might die if Rodney stops.

"Take this off," Rodney says, pushing his shirt higher, and John lifts his arms cooperatively as Rodney removes it and drops it to the floor. "There. Yes, yes, good." It's more Rodney talking to himself than to John, but it still makes John shudder and groan. Rodney touches him everywhere, palms gliding over John's naked skin,

His whole body is sensitized, wanting. He reaches for Rodney and does all the things he wanted to do last night -- runs his fingers through Rodney's hair, traces his nose and lips. Rodney's pressed up against him, and John realizes that the hard thing against his hip is Rodney's erection.

"I want to fuck you," Rodney mutters. His teeth bite down on John's shoulder at the same time his hand finds John's cock and squeezes it, and John's lost in such a haze of pleasure that right then he'll agree to anything -- yes, yes, put your dick in my ass, in my mouth, anything, anywhere, just don't stop touching me. "We could move upstairs," Rodney suggests. "How do you feel about blow jobs?"

"Mmph." John isn't even sure that's an answer. He's too turned on to do anything but twist against Rodney's hand and imagine what it would be like to have Rodney's mouth on his cock, sucking, hot and wet.

"I'd be more comfortable on the bed," Rodney adds, before sucking on John's lower lip. His fingers -- oh God, even his fingers are smart, is there any part of him that's not brilliant? -- undo John's pants and he slips his hand inside, touches John's bare cock for the first time, and John cries out and comes in a flash of bright light like a solar flare, like looking into the sun. It burns through him so fast that it's over before he can really enjoy it, leaving him panting and clutching at Rodney and feeling a little embarrassed.

"You are so fucking hot," Rodney whispers, reassuring him. He kisses John and John kisses him back fiercely, shocked and grateful, wishing there was a way to stop time because he doesn't want this to end, not ever.

He wants to make Rodney come, wants to see the same pleasure he feels on Rodney's face. He reaches for the button on Rodney's pants, not caring that he's about to touch a dick that's not his own because it's Rodney and that's all that matters, and is surprised when Rodney's hand, still slick with John's come, stops him. "Don't you want...?" John asks.

"Of course I do; don't be stupid," Rodney says. His eyes are dark with arousal and his cock certainly seems interested enough when he holds John's hand to it. "Just... upstairs, okay? I want to take off all your clothes and look at you."

And Rodney has asked so little of John, really, that all John can do is nod and say, "Okay."


It's not until they get upstairs and into the bedroom that John starts to freak out -- not in a spectacular way, because it's a little late for that now that he's already come all over Rodney McKay's hand, but enough that Rodney notices.

"Hey," Rodney says, his voice surprisingly gentle as he pulls John into his arms. He doesn't try to kiss him. "Don't freak out. It's not like we're going to do anything you don't want to do. Okay?"

John tries to force himself to relax, which as far as ideas go is both stupid and impossible. "I know," he says.

"Yes, very convincing," Rodney says dryly. "Trust me?"

"Yeah," John says. "I do."

"Take off your pants and lie down on the bed," Rodney says, and somehow John finds himself obeying. Rodney pulls down the covers -- they spent the night on top of the still-made bed -- and shoves the pillows back into position, then yanks his own shirt off over his head, totally unselfconscious now that he apparently has a plan in mind.

John kicks his pants off; they end up halfway under the bed and he reminds himself to remember that they're there. He sits on the edge of the bed. For about six seconds he feels like an idiot, but then Rodney starts undoing the front of his pants and he ends up distracted. Rodney's wearing boxers with some kind of fruit on them -- limes? kiwis? they're a weird color somewhere between yellow and green -- and he shoves them down over his hips to reveal his cock, which is erect and flushed the same way Rodney's cheeks get flushed when he's excited about something. He's solid and strong, like he's going to live forever, and just looking at him makes John ache. Rodney stops, though, when he realizes how intently John is watching him, pants around his ankles.

"What?" he says.

John shakes his head. "Keep going," he says softly.

More slowly now, Rodney steps out of his clothes and comes over, sitting down next to John on the bed. He reaches for John just as slowly, one hand on John's jaw, turning him for a kiss. "You're not very good at following orders, are you?" Rodney asks.

"Not really," John says.

"Lie down." And Rodney eases John back onto the bed, still kissing him. His cock rubs against the outside of John's thigh and his hand rubs the inside -- just his thumb, really, brushing the fine hairs on John's leg, making them stand up and then smoothing them down again. When John finally shivers and gasps against Rodney's mouth, Rodney slides down and takes John's dick into his mouth.

John opens his eyes wide and stares up at the ceiling as Rodney sucks him. His mouth is hot and wet, just like John has imagined it would be, and he knows exactly what to do with it. No one's ever sucked him with this kind of determination before, not after he's already come, and it makes John feel... kind of weird, actually. Like he's not sure if it's for his own pleasure -- because how can it be, when he already came? -- or Rodney's. Rodney sure seems to be enjoying it, one hand steadying the base of John's cock as he sucks, making soft little grunts at the back of his throat when he takes John in extra deep, and John realizes that Rodney does like doing this to him. He moans as he starts to get hard again, overcome with the knowledge that Rodney is turned on by sucking dick, that Rodney likes sucking his dick, and it's so fucking hot that he can hardly stand it.

"Jesus," he says. "Rodney."

"Let me," Rodney says, like John is asking him to stop.

John's breath catches. "Okay," he says stupidly, his voice cracking on the single word, and he laughs. His heels are pressing into the mattress with more and more force as his body tightens, and his balls hurt -- he probably hasn't had a recovery time this short since high school, and his body is protesting in the only way it can. Not that he cares.

Rodney keeps at it until John thinks he's going to explode, but every time he gets close to the edge, Rodney backs off, licking at him, nuzzling his balls. The fourth time he does this John growls in frustration.


"Oh, what? Did you want to come?" Rodney looks up at him innocently.

"Yes," John says.

"Okay." But instead of going back to John's cock, Rodney gets up onto his hands and knees and reaches over John for the bedside table drawer. Refusing to let himself get freaked out again, John wraps an arm around Rodney's waist and pulls him down on top of him, groaning a little bit when Rodney's weight lands on him -- he's pretty much just as heavy as he looks.

"Hey," John says.

"Hi." Rodney sets a bottle of lube down beside the pillow, shuts the drawer, and kisses John. In this position, their dicks are right next to each other, and it feels better than John could have imagined. He shudders and grabs onto Rodney's ass, thrusting up against him. The head of Rodney's cock is so slick it's wet, dampening John's skin, and Rodney braces his arms on either side of John and takes his weight on them. John looks up at him; Rodney's eyes are closed, his lips parted and pink, and as John's watching him he rolls his hips and makes a little gasped whimper.

John kisses him, and Rodney leans down into it eagerly, lower lip catching between John's teeth for a second. Rodney makes that whimpering sound again. "What do you want to do?" John whispers.

"Everything," Rodney says between kisses. "I want to fuck you, I want to come in your mouth, I want... John. John." He shudders, panting, and John knows he's on the verge of coming just from talking about sex, just from thinking about it. He recovers and licks John's ear, his breath hot. "Not today. It's too soon, but I want to show you that it can be good. You can trust me."

"I know," John says.

He thinks they're going to do it there, right like that, but Rodney moves, kneels down between John's thighs and uses both hands to spread them wider. Runs his big hands over John's skin. Rodney tips some lube into his palm, then slicks John's cock -- and wow does that make John gasp and arch up -- before trailing his fingers lower, teasing at John's asshole. Christ, it's hard not to tense up at that, but Rodney is patient -- who the hell would have thought this would be the one thing Rodney is capable of patience with? -- and doesn't push him. He rubs wetness into John's skin, his touch light, and after a couple of minutes it's like John's body starts to want it despite himself. He shifts his hips, pushing his lower back flat, asking for more.

Rodney gives it. He presses a fingertip into John, then just... waits.

"What are you -- " John starts.

"Easy," Rodney says, and distracts him by playing with his cock with his other hand for a few seconds. Then stops and waits again.

This time John doesn't say anything; he feels his body relax, and Rodney's finger pushes inside him. It's a shock, an invasion, and he tenses up again immediately. There's an uncomfortable feeling low in his gut warning him that this is wrong; he can't help it.

"Trust me," Rodney says again, and John nods a little bit, lets out his breath in a long, slow stream. Rodney eases his finger in further and finds John's prostate -- hey, he's not an idiot, plus he might have 'borrowed' a book from Sam's apartment a week ago except it was more like stealing because Sam doesn't know -- and John feels pressure and warmth and his cock obviously likes it because it gives a strong throb. A drop of fluid forms at the tip, and Rodney leans down and licks it off. John groans, Rodney slides his lips down over John's dick and sucks on it, and John groans again.

"Fuck," he says. "Jesus."

Rodney doesn't comment on the inappropriateness of these two words together; he's too busy sucking John's dick and fucking him slowly and wetly with just that one finger, which has stopped feeling weird and started just feeling amazing. John can feel his toes curling, and his bottom lip is tingling, probably because he's hyperventilating, and godfuckingdamnit Rodney's incredible mouth is pulling away from him again, and he gives a desperate moan of protest.

"No," Rodney says, kneeling up. "Here. Touch me. Please, John..." He grabs John's hand and puts it on his cock, and John closes his hand around the swollen flesh automatically. Rodney gasps and takes John's cock in his own hand, stroking it hard and fast as his finger presses John's prostate, not sliding in and out of him anymore, just pressing, and Rodney's other hand is jerking him off, and John cries out, so close, so close. His hand tightens on Rodney's dick; he wants to do more, but he can't. A shudder runs through him, and he's alive, God, he's so fucking alive that he wants to laugh and sob at the same time, and all he can do is come and come and come.

When it's over, there are tears in his eyes and Rodney is smiling at him. It's a tight smile, though, and John swallows and sits up and curls around before he can chicken out, change his mind.

This close up, Rodney's cock is more than a little intimidating, but John tells himself that all he has to do is touch it. The head is shiny with precome and it looks huge, but it's Rodney.

"John," Rodney says, sounding breathless and turned on and uncertain. "You don't have to -- " It turns into a gasp when John rubs his jaw against Rodney's shaft, blowing warm air over the skin. That's not as scary as actually taking it into his mouth, which he's not sure he can do. He strokes it with his hand instead, base to tip and back down again, watching the skin move with his hand, and Rodney whimpers.

John thinks about telling Rodney to lie down, because being on top of him might make things seem a little less out of his control. But he doesn't want to be afraid, not of any of this. "So you'd like to fuck me, huh?" he asks, taking up a slow rhythm with his hand.

"What? Yes. Yes, of course I'd like to -- " John rubs his thumb over the slick clear fluid at the end of Rodney's dick and Rodney moans. "Not now, obviously, because we'll both be lucky if having your hand on me isn't enough to give me heart failure, but -- " He moans again, eyes closing, and there's something so sexy about the way he's loving this that it almost tempts John to do more.

"Tell me," John says. Without letting go of Rodney's erection, John kneels up in front of him and kisses him, putting everything he's ever learned about kissing into it; soft lips teasing Rodney's, a little bit of tongue, the fingers of his other hand threaded through Rodney's soft hair. He slips his hand lower and plays with Rodney's balls, feeling the warm weight of them, feeling them tighten up at his touch. And you know, it's not all that strange, touching another man's cock, plus the way Rodney's moaning and holding onto him, one arm around his waist, is really nice.

"John, I don't know if I can..." Rodney inhales shakily.

"If you can what?" John murmurs. "Come? I'm pretty sure you can." He twists his wrist a little bit on the next stroke, a move that he likes himself, and Rodney makes a startled, eager sound.

"Just don't stop." Rodney mouths at his neck. "Please don't stop, John. Did you know I've had dreams about this?"

"About me jerking you off?"

"About you. About everything. About sucking you, tasting you, every inch of your skin." Rodney's on a roll now; John loves listening to him talk, especially like this. "Oh God, yes, like that, please..."

"Yeah," John says, moving his hand a little bit faster. "Just like that. More."

Rodney gasps, his hand tightening on John's ass. "I want to feel your mouth on me," he says. "I want to... want to fuck your mouth, want to come in your -- God, John -- want to see your face when I fuck you for the first time -- " He goes silent then, eyes closed, tensing, and John watches as he comes all over both of them, and the look on Rodney's face... it makes John feel good. Better than good, actually.

Kind of great.

Rodney collapses down onto the bed and groans blissfully. He's lying on his stomach, face turned to the side with his ass kind of sticking up in the air, and it's so adorable that John wishes he could take a picture. "God, I knew you were going to be amazing in bed," Rodney mutters.

"Yeah?" John lies down next to him and rubs his back.

"Mmhm. Amazing." Rodney opens his eyes and looks at him and smiles, totally blissed out. "You don't have to go right away, do you?"

John glances at the clock; he's got more than two hours until he needs to pick up Kayla. "No -- not for a couple of hours."

"Oh good." Rodney hitches closer to John and snuggles -- there's no other word for it -- up to him. "You don't mind?"

"No," John says, kissing Rodney's mussed up hair. "I don't mind."


John gets the job that Rodney sets up for him, of course, and it turns out great. It's just what he needed -- an understanding boss who gets why he has to have flexible hours, decent pay. He even has the option of picking up health insurance after three months, which is good because you never know when you might get sick with something more serious than a cold.

That's a lesson John has learned well.

He waits until the end of his first week before he talks to Kayla about Rodney. He knows he has to do it soon, before she starts to wonder if there's something going on and draws her own conclusions, but it takes him a while to figure out how to do it. In the end, though, he sort of flies by the seat of his pants and just jumps into the conversation as they're walking back from the bus stop.

"We've been spending kind of a lot of time with Rodney," John says.

"He's nice," Kayla says.

John looks at her, one eyebrow raised. "Nice?" It's definitely not first -- or even fifth -- on the list of words he thinks people would apply to Rodney, even Kayla.

"Yeah." Kayla hands him her backpack, turns around, and starts walking backward up the street, occasionally jumping like she's playing some crazy form of invisible hopscotch, a game that John is way too familiar with. "I like his house."

"You like his GameCube," John says, grinning.

"And Mister Mew."

"Mister Mew?"

"Rodney's cat." Kayla jumps again, then turns around and starts walking the normal way again, only with both arms held out, walking a tightrope.

"I thought he didn't have a name." John isn't really confused because he knows Kayla better than that by now.

"He does now. I gave him one. He needs a name, don't you think? You can't just call him 'cat.' That's stupid."

John slings the little backpack over one shoulder. "And Rodney's not stupid."

"No. He's probably the smartest person we know." They're within sight of their house; Kayla breaks into a run and charges up onto the porch. "Can we get a cat?"

It's always been a dog she's asked for before -- a puppy, actually -- but John isn't surprised that she's focused on cats now. "I don't think so. When I'm working the house is empty for a long time. I think a cat would get lonely, don't you?"

"We could get two," Kayla says. John unlocks the door and they go inside. "A boy and girl! Then they could have kittens!"

"Yeah, that's just what we need," John says dryly. "A whole house full of cats."

"But they wouldn't be lonely." Kayla's teasing him now.

"Could you even come up with that many names for that many cats?" John asks.

"Uh-huh." She starts to count them off on her fingers. "Abby, Barney... um, Callie, Dallie, Eeallie."

John sets her backpack down and grabs her, tickling her until she collapses in giggles. "Now you're just being silly."

"Fallie," Kayla gasps. "Gallie."

"Galley's part of a ship, not a cat's name," John tells her.

"Hallie! Like Halle Berry."

John hadn't realized Kayla knows that Halle Berry exists. He stops tickling her and sets her on her feet again. "Do you want a snack?"

"Okay. What do we have?"

They go into the kitchen and John opens the cabinet where they keep the crackers and things. "Pretzels?"

"Are they the big ones or the little ones?"

"Big," John says.

Kayla shakes her head. "No. What else?"

Ah, John thinks; it's going to be one of those days. "Wheat thins?"

"Are those the round ones?" Kayla asks thoughtfully.

"No, they're square."

"I'm only eating round things today," she announces. "Do we have any round crackers?"

"I don't think so." John digs around in the cabinet some more. "What about a rice cake? They're round." They're also months old and probably completely stale, since the top of the bag isn't closed, but he's discovered that kids are surprisingly oblivious to stuff like that.

"Okay. Can I have peanut butter?"

"Sure." John gets the peanut butter out of the fridge -- that was on Elizabeth's list, too, only organic peanut butter, the regular kind is full of hydrogenated fats -- and spreads some on a rice cake. They sit at the table while Kayla eats. "So, about Rodney."

"Is he coming over?"

"No, not tonight, he has to work." John plays with the fringe on the edge of the place-mat in front of him, ruffling it up and then smoothing it down. "So, you like him?"

"He's nice," Kayla says again. "Did you know that Mrs Carpenter's going to have a baby?"

John would give a lot right then for the ability to have a linear conversation with his daughter. "Yeah -- they told the parents about a month ago, before school started."

"She's only going to be my teacher until after Christmas. Then we'll have a different teacher because she has to stay home to take care of the baby." Kayla takes another bite of rice cake and talks with her mouth full. "If it's a girl, she's going to name it Selena. Like that singer who died. Did she have cancer?"

Christ, John thinks. She is growing up way too fast. "No, I don't think so. I think she was in accident or something." Cancer's enough for an almost-nine year old to deal with; she doesn't need to know about people flipping out and killing other people, and he can barely deal with explaining about Rodney, let alone about obsessed fans. "About Rodney..."

"What?" Kayla says, impatient. "You keep saying that."

"That's because I'm trying to tell you something."

She's watching him, gaze steady. She doesn't look upset. "Is he your boyfriend now?"

John can feel his mouth hanging open and has to deliberately close it. He swallows. "Um... yeah. Kind of."

"I thought you were straight," Kayla says. "That means that you have romantic feelings for and fall in love with women." She's echoing what John and Elizabeth have told her dozens of times since she was small.

"Well, I thought I was. I had romantic feelings for Mommy, and for some girlfriends I had before Mommy."

"You had girlfriends before Mommy?!" Kayla is scandalized at the concept.

"I didn't meet your mom until I was 22," John says. "I had other girlfriends in high school and college."

"Did you have boyfriends?" Okay, maybe she's a little more into this conversation than John is comfortable with.

"No. Never. I never had feelings like that about another man."

"But now you do? About Rodney?"

"Yeah. I'm not sure why. I mean, I'm not sure why now and not before."

"So are you straight? Or are you gay?" Kayla frowns in confusion. John can't blame her.

"I don't know," he says honestly. "I guess maybe I'm bisexual. That's someone who has romantic feelings for girls and boys."

"At the same time?" Kayla asks.

John resists the urge to bash his head against the table. "No," he says, because there's only so much he can explain at one time. "Not at the same time."

Kayla uses her fingernail to detach little crumbs off the bottom of the rice cake. They look more like styrofoam than food. She doesn't say anything, but she looks like she's thinking, so John stays quiet and lets her. "Do you still..." she starts finally.

"What?" John asks, keeping his voice gentle.

Her eyes flicker up to meet his for a second or two. "Do you still love Mommy?" She sounds much younger than she is.

"Yes," John says immediately. "I still love Mommy. I'll always love her, no matter what happens. Even if I fall in love with other people. And I'll always love you. Nothing going to change that, okay?"

"Okay." Reassured, Kayla takes another bite of rice cake, and peanut butter clings to her upper lip. "Does that mean you love Rodney?"

That's the big question, isn't it? It's one of the things that's been running around in John's head for the past week or two. "Maybe," he says. "I think so. But it's been a long time since I... fell in love with someone. I kind of forget what it's like."

"If you love him and he loves you, will you get married?"

"Probably not." John can't imagine ever getting married again.

"I could be in the wedding," Kayla says hopefully.

"We can talk about that some other time," John says. He doesn't want to go into why it's not legal for people to marry someone of the same gender because 1) it wouldn't be a short conversation and 2) he doesn't understand it, himself.

Kayla gets up, gets herself a glass of water, and sits down again. "I wonder what Mrs Carpenter will name the baby if it's a boy," she says, and this time John gratefully lets the conversation veer away from his love life, feeling like he's gotten off way too easy.

* * * * *

John celebrates his first paycheck by taking Kayla and Rodney out for dinner at one of those places where they cook the food in front of you on a big grill, which Rodney immediately declares ostentatious and, once he sees the way the chefs throw the knives around, dangerous. Kayla loves it, though, and John gets a real kick out of the way her eyes light up when the chef sets the little tower of onion rings on fire.

"You're just lucky I'm not allergic to shellfish," Rodney says sulkily as he eats his shrimp.

"If you were, we would have gone somewhere else," John says. He's used to Rodney's eccentricities by now.

"People are allergic to shrimp?" Kayla asks.

"People can be allergic to pretty much anything," John says.

"Food allergies are the worst," Rodney says. "You never know when what you're allergic to might turn up in something you're eating."

"Do you have one of those shot things?" Kayla's interested.

"What are you talking about?" Rodney frowns at her.

"You know, those things in case you get allergic."

"Are you talking about an epi-pen?" Rodney rolls his eyes. "What are they teaching you in school?" He sounds so dismissive that John would be irritated on Kayla's behalf if she didn't seem to think that Rodney's being funny. Heck, maybe he is being funny. "Yes, I have one."

John's startled. "You do?"

"People with life threatening allergies are generally prescribed epinephrine auto-injectors, yes," Rodney says. "Please tell me you didn't think I was kidding about the allergies."

"I didn't think you were kidding," John says. He'd been there during the massive sneezing attack, after all. "Maybe, you know, exaggerating a little." He's known Rodney long enough to have learned how to forestall the potential argument that's looming. "I was wrong. I get that."

"Good," Rodney says. He's just about to put another piece of steak into his mouth when his phone rings in his pocket. He sighs loudly, rolling his eyes. "Probably work," he says, even though from what John's seen Rodney's the one more likely to be calling the people who work for him than the other way around. "If it's Radek, I'm not answering." He flips open his phone and glances at the screen, looks immediately worried, and stands up. "I have to take this." He walks away from the table.

Kayla doesn't seem to realize that anything's wrong; she sips at her ginger ale as John turns to watch Rodney, who's standing over near the wall, one hand over the ear that isn't pressed to the phone. The line of his back and shoulders is tense, damn it.

Even while John watches, Rodney turns around and comes back over to the table, shutting his phone. He doesn't meet John's eyes. "I have to go. There's something I have to take care of."

"What?" John's standing up too, reaching for Rodney, but Rodney pulls away. "Hey. Rodney. Talk to me."

"I just have to go, okay? I don't have time to explain." Rodney's jaw is set; he's stressed, but he's keeping it together. "I'll get a cab."

"Rodney." John doesn't know what to say, and it's obvious this isn't the time to talk about it. Instead, he takes his keys out of his pocket and gives them to Rodney. "Here."

Rodney looks at the keys blankly. "How will you get home?"

"Don't worry about it," John says. "We'll be fine. Just tell me where you're going in case I need to find you." He doesn't point out that he'd be able to call, and hopes Rodney is distracted enough that he'll fall for it.

It works. Rodney takes out his wallet and gives John a business card. "I'll call you." He tightens his hand around the keys. "Thanks."

And he's gone, leaving John standing there wondering what the hell is going on.


Sam picks John and Kayla up at the restaurant about forty minutes later. John's spent the time since Rodney left telling Kayla funny stories about his new job, as much to keep himself distracted as her, and he looks at Sam gratefully when he comes in. "Thanks," he says.

"No problem," Sam says. He's aware of the appreciative looks he gets everywhere he goes, but he doesn't make a big deal about them. Sam is six foot something and 220 pounds of sheer muscle, glowing golden skin and long dreadlocks. Next to him, John feels like an ugly stepchild. "You've bailed me out a couple of times. I owe you."

"That was a long time ago," John says. He's still trying to figure out how to explain what's going on when he doesn't know himself, plus there's the whole part where he hasn't gotten around to telling Sam about him and Rodney yet. Not that Sam, being gay, is likely to react badly. Heck, he's more likely to laugh at John and punch his shoulder.

"Sam!" Kayla jumps up and down until Sam picks her up, and she gives him a big hug around the neck that would make anyone else gasp for air. "Rodney took Daddy's car," she explains.

"I gave him the car," John says, just so there's no confusion. "He had some kind of emergency."

Sam shrugs -- he might be curious, but he'll never let on. "You guys done eating?"

"Yeah, we can go." John pays and Sam drives them home. It's a good thing Sam's got the spare key to their house, because John's house key is on the keychain with his car keys.

"You're worried," Sam says, watching as John hangs up Kayla's coat.

Wordlessly, John takes the business card Rodney gave him out of his pocket -- he's read it two dozen times since -- Meadowood Nursing Home -- and shows it to Sam.

Sam looks at it. "That where he went?"

"Yeah. He's mentioned his mom a couple of times, so I'm thinking maybe it's her, but I don't know." John shakes his head.

"Well, go on," Sam says, patting him on the back and handing over the keys to his truck. "Me and Kayla'll be fine for a couple of hours, and it sounds like he probably needs you."

"Thanks," John says. "I really, really appreciate it." He rubs his neck and looks at Kayla, then crouches down in front of her. "I'm just gonna go make sure Rodney's okay. I don't know if I'll be back before bedtime. Be good for Sam, okay?"

"I will." Kayla hugs him, then kisses his cheek. "Sam, do you want to play a game? Spongebob Life?"

"Sure," Sam says. "You go set it up and I'll be right there." Kayla disappears into the living room, and Sam adds, "At least it's not that shopping mall one. So, are you and Rodney an item, or what?"

"An item?" John says. "Does anyone still talk like that?"

"Me," Sam says. "Is that a yes?"

"Pretty much," John says, and Sam grins, showing off his even, white teeth.

"Thought so."

"Yeah, well, you can gloat later, okay? I've gotta go." John's not really mad, and Sam knows it. "Thanks, Sam."

"Stop thanking me and get the hell out of here," Sam says.

John goes. He can hear Sam locking the door behind him -- good man, in more ways than one. He has to adjust the seat before he can drive Sam's truck; Sam's got a good four or five inches on him. Luckily, he already knows where the nursing home is, just because Elizabeth had worked at an office on the same street back when they first met. It's been a long time since he's been in that part of town, and going back, not to mention going back after dark when everything looks different, is kind of weird, like stepping back in time.

The parking lot at the nursing home is almost empty except for one section down at the end that's designated for employee parking; there's something very depressing about that. John's car is there, though. He parks Sam's truck next to it and gets out. His heart is thudding nervously in his chest as he goes inside. The whole building is a lot nicer than he was expecting, this is clearly a nursing home for people with plenty of money, everything brass and glowing wood. There's a desk not far from the front door -- he goes over to it, and a woman in a blue blouse comes out of the room behind it and looks at him with some surprise.

"Well, hello," she says, smiling. She has short brown hair with reddish highlights and teeth that match Sam's -- perfect, white, shiny. "Can I help you?"

"A friend of mine's here," John says. "Somewhere. Um, not here here. Visiting here. The thing is, I'm not sure who."

"All right." The woman is frowning thoughtfully. "Maybe you can tell me what she looks like? That might help."

"He," John says. "He's about my height, wide shoulders, light brown hair. He's kind of twitchy and sarcastic."

"Oh, you mean Dr McKay," she says, nodding, and it should probably freak John out that she knows who he is just by that description. "I didn't realize he was here. His mother is on the 3rd floor, east wing."

"Okay, thanks. The elevator's...?" John points in both directions at once.

"Right down there."

"Great. Thank you." John takes the elevator up to the third floor and follows the sign to the east wing.

The whole place is kind creepy, with a faint, lingering smell of disinfectant and pale, pale pastels on the walls. When he steps from the main hallway into the east wing, there's another long hallway, with thick plush carpeting that his shoes sink down into as he walks. If he didn't know better, he'd think this was a really nice hotel.

He turns a corner. Fifty feet down the hallway, Rodney's sitting on a small sofa. His shoulders are hunched and his hand is covering his eyes, and he doesn't seem to hear John approaching. He looks small and sad, and John's heart feels fit to burst. "Hey, buddy," he says, stopping in front of Rodney, and Rodney lifts his face and looks up at him with that vague, lost look people get when they run into someone somewhere totally unexpected. "How's it going?"

"What are you doing here?" Rodney asks. It's the kind of thing that usually sounds sharp and annoyed coming from him, but this time it's just confused.

"I was worried," John says.

"Yes, well, your car's fine," Rodney snaps.

John just looks at him, secure in the fact that even if he doesn't know what's going on exactly, he sure as hell understands Rodney when he's acting like this. "I was worried about you."

All the fight goes out of Rodney. John sits down next to him, waiting to see what it is Rodney needs. The place is quiet as hell; there's a clock on the opposite wall and John can hear the click as the minute hand moves from twelve to thirteen.

"Well?" Rodney says.

"Well, what?"

"Aren't you going to ask me what I'm doing here?" Rodney sounds tired.

"I figure you're gonna tell me when you're ready," John says.

"Oh, fine. Be all reasonable." Turning a little bit, Rodney looks at him. His eyes are rimmed with red the way they were after his allergy attack, only John's pretty sure that this time there's a different reason. "How the hell did you get here? I have your car. And where's Kayla?"

"I borrowed a friend's," John says. "He's watching Kayla. Nice attempt at redirection, by the way."

Rodney sighs. "You really can be an incredible jerk."

"Yeah, but I'm your incredible jerk," John says, and settles his hand at the back of Rodney's neck, gives a little squeeze. His voice is soft and rough when he asks, "What's going on?"

"Nothing," Rodney says. He turns his head so he's looking at the wall across from them instead of at John, like it's easier that way. "I know I don't... talk about my family much, but... did I ever tell you my mother was a genius? I mean, really. Different from me -- her talent lay in mathematics -- but she was brilliant in her own way." He glances at John. "She has Alzheimer's. She had this exceptional mind, and now it's gone, all of it. One day she was fine, and then she started... forgetting things. Just little things at first -- repeating stories she'd already told me, stuff like that. But it got worse, and worse, and now... now she doesn't even know who I am."

"I'm sorry," John says. He runs his hand down and rubs Rodney's back.

"Yes, well. So am I," Rodney says, resigned. "Sometimes, a couple times a year, she wakes up from a nap and for a while -- an hour, maybe two -- she remembers me. She asks for me by name. I've told the nurses to call no matter what time it is, just so I can... I don't know. I just thought, if I could talk to her, really talk, and have it mean something..." He shakes his head; there are tears in his eyes, and he sounds like shit. "Anyway. I was too late."

John leans over and rests his chin on Rodney's shoulder, arm around his waist. "I'm sorry," he says again. Rodney is tense and miserable against him.

A nurse comes out of the room to their left, shutting the door behind her softly, and John straightens up -- not because he's embarrassed, but because it seems more respectful, somehow. "She's sleeping," the nurse says to Rodney. "I doubt she'll wake up again before morning."

"Okay," Rodney says, nodding. He stands up, and so does John. "We might as well go."

"Sure." John sticks close as they walk back toward the elevator. It isn't until the elevator door slides closed that Rodney turns to him and hugs him. John puts both arms around him and holds on; he can feeling Rodney trembling, hot tears against the side of his neck, and when the elevator gets to the ground floor and the doors open, neither of them moves. After a minute the doors close again, and the elevator just sits there. "It's gonna be okay," John says, sorry that he can't come up with anything better because Rodney sure as hell deserves it.

Rodney doesn't say anything. And really, John gets that, because he's been there. Sometimes there's nothing to say, and having somebody be there for you is the best you can hope for.

Finally, Rodney pulls away, swiping almost angrily at his eyes as he stretches out a hand toward the 'Door open' button on the elevator panel; John reaches out, faster, and grabs his wrist. "Wait," John says, and kisses him very gently, tasting the salt on his lips and cradling his crumpled, beloved face in both hands. He keeps kissing him, too, until Rodney gives a little sigh and puts his arms around him again.

"Thanks," Rodney says, one last press of lips to John's. "I'm... well, okay would be an exaggeration. Obviously. But better."

"Good," John says.

They go out past the desk, where the same woman from before opens her mouth to say something, sees Rodney's face, and nods instead. It's dark out, the street lights over the parking lot creating long shadows like towers on the pavement.

"Follow me back to the house so I can give Sam his truck back, and then I'll give you a ride home, okay?" John watches Rodney, but it's hard to know what he's thinking.


The ride home seems longer than it is. John shuts Sam's radio off, and he almost never drives without music. He thinks about Rodney losing his mother piece by piece, almost the same way he lost Elizabeth, and it leaves him feeling profoundly shaken because at least when Elizabeth was gone, she was gone. Rodney's mother is still there, a constant reminder of what Rodney has lost. Her body isn't cold, won't be buried, but Rodney is in mourning for her just as surely as John has been -- is -- mourning Elizabeth.

He's barely put the truck in park in front of the house when he's out onto the street and striding over to the driveway, where Rodney is just shutting off his car. John opens the car door and pulls a startled Rodney out and kisses him as fiercely as their last kiss was gentle. Rodney responds, then, when John pulls back, blinks and touches John's face uncertainly.

"I just want you to know," John tells him. "I understand what it's like. Okay? I get it."

Rodney, still unsure, nods. "I know," he says, even though it's completely obvious that he has no idea what John is talking about. "Of course you do."

John looks toward the house in time to see Kayla pulling aside the curtain; she waves to them, and John grins at her. "Come on in and meet Sam, then we'll see about getting you home. You want something to eat? You didn't get a chance to finish your dinner."

"I am kind of hungry," Rodney admits, and John slings an arm around his neck, yanking off balance so he stumbles. "Hey! Trying to walk, here. Do you want to give me a slipped disc?"

"Yeah," John says. "That's exactly what I want, a boyfriend in traction. I like a challenge."

Rodney stops, and John turns to look at him.

"What?" John says. It's not the first time he's referred to Rodney as his boyfriend, so it can't be that.

"You are one piece of work, John Sheppard," Rodney says admiringly.

"Right back at ya, buddy," John says, and they start up onto the porch as Kayla flings the front door open and calls behind her, "They're home!"


"My parents are flying in for Kayla's birthday," John tells Rodney.

They're draped across the couch recovering after sex -- or the only kind of sex you can have with a kid in the house, even when she's been asleep upstairs for more than an hour. Rodney is sitting up against the back of the couch, and John's lying down with his head pillowed on Rodney's thigh. They're both mostly dressed because that's the only way John can relax enough to fool around with Kayla under the same roof.

"That's nice," Rodney says, in the tone of voice that means he's not sure it actually is.

John scratches his belly and squirms a little bit, trying to get more comfortable. "Yeah. They came last year, too, and... well, let's just say it wasn't the best weekend ever."

It had only been a couple of months after Elizabeth's death, which meant they'd been there not long before for the funeral, and all of it was too fresh for John and Kayla at that point. Everywhere they'd turned they'd seen Elizabeth, remembered the party that she'd organized the year before, when they hadn't even known yet that she was sick, and John's attempts at a party had fallen so short of the mark that Kayla had gone to her room in tears an hour in. In a parenting moment that John hoped would be his worst ever he'd refused to go after her, saying that if she couldn't appreciate the effort he'd gone to then she was a spoiled brat and deserved to miss the party. His mother gave him a reproachful, disappointed look and went to Kayla's bedroom to comfort her, and his father took John into the kitchen, looked into his eyes, and told him that he was being a dick -- although maybe not in exactly those words -- and that he needed to snap out of it and fast. John still remembers with painful clarity the sick, weak feeling that had washed over him as he realized that his little girl, just turned eight and still mourning her mother, was doing the best she could, and that he had to do better no matter what it cost him. And since then, he likes to think he has.

"Hey," Rodney says softly, breaking him out of his reverie. He touches John's hair, smoothes it down.

Sighing, John wraps his arm around Rodney's legs and hugs him awkwardly. "Anyway," he says, "I was thinking maybe your sister and her family could come. To Kayla's party. You know, if that wouldn't be too weird?"

Rodney's hand stills. "You want your parents to meet my sister?"

Lifting his head and looking at Rodney, John asks, "Too soon?"

"No, no, of course not." Rodney looks worried, though. "Well, yes. Maybe."

"We don't have to," John reassures him.

"Can I think about it?" Rodney asks. "Because there are times when I don't think Jeannie even likes me all that much. Asking her to meet my boyfriend and his daughter and parents all at the same time could very well be a recipe for disaster."

"I promise I'll be on my best behavior," John says.

"It's not you I'm worried about," Rodney says. He traces the edge of John's ear -- he seems to have a strange fascination with John's ears actually -- and sighs. "All right, all right. Fine. But when things start to go south -- and I assure you they will -- you aren't allowed to break up with me."

John sits up and grabs a fold of Rodney's t-shirt in his hand, yanking it back and forth a little bit. "Good to know you have so much faith in me."

"Again, it doesn't have anything to do with you. Do I need to remind you that you haven't actually met Jeannie?" Rodney's getting worked up now, and not in the good way. "Have you even told your parents about us?"

"Actually, yeah," John says. He hadn't wanted his mother and father to show up and have the shock of discovering that their previously straight son is embracing the gay lifestyle. "Last night."

"Really? And how did they take it?"

"They were kind of surprised," John admits. He knows them, though, and overall they'd pretty much reacted the way he'd expected them to. A little shocked, then there'd been a whole barrage of questions, mostly from his father, and then his mom had played peacemaker between the two of them until things had smoothed out. He's not fooling himself -- he knows his dad's not thrilled -- but he also knows that in the end it's all going to work out okay.

"Kind of surprised?" Rodney says, obviously disbelieving. "What, did you win the amazing parent lottery? No one's parents are just 'kind of surprised' when their only son comes out."

"Well, they didn't threaten to disown me," John says. He can't help but wonder if this is coming from somewhere more personal than an after-school special.

"Oh, please, that only happens on television," Rodney says snappishly.

Instead of pulling away -- which is probably what Rodney expects him to do, because John knows by now that Rodney's sarcasm is about driving people away before they can reject him -- John smoothes his hand over Rodney's chest. "How did your parents react?" he asks.

"They didn't," Rodney says. "My dad died before I could tell him, and my mother... well. There isn't any point in telling her now, is there. It wouldn't mean anything."

"Yeah." John doesn't think it's fair to get Rodney's hopes up in that department. He shifts over and tugs Rodney down to lie across his lap, rubbing his shoulder. "Whatever you want to do," he says. "If it's too soon, we can wait."

"No, no, it's fine," Rodney says, apparently to John's knee. "We might as well get it over with."

"Don't worry," John says. "It'll be fine. You'll see."

* * * * *

John's mom, it turns out, loves Rodney. John thinks it might be because of this weird quirk some women seem to have, where they want to help a kind of fucked up, socially backward guy pull himself together and have a good life. Or maybe Kayla is more like her grandmother than he'd previously realized. Either way, his mother doesn't seem to notice when Rodney's being a jerk, and on the rare occasion she does she seems to think it's funny.

"Are you sure she's not brain damaged?" Rodney whispers, after John's mom has patted Rodney's arm and told him he's adorable.

John smacks him. "No, but you will be if you keep this up."

On the other side of the parental coin, John's father seems to find Rodney puzzling. He spends a lot of time watching Rodney when he talks, studying him, and Rodney is, unsurprisingly, oblivious to the fact that he's the subject of scrutiny.

Kayla is over the moon about her grandparents' visit, not to mention her birthday party on Saturday afternoon. John's pulled himself together this year and gone all out, even leasing a pony for the kids to ride, and Kayla and his mom waste a good hour putting the finishing touches on the huge pink birthday cake while John, his dad and Rodney hang the streamers.

"This isn't straight," Rodney complains, standing back and looking at them with his hands on his hips.

John's dad gives him a look.

"Yeah, well, it's not the only thing," John says, grinning.

"Just because you think it's just fine and dandy for things to be imperfect doesn't mean it is," Rodney says. He gestures impatiently at the hot pink and purple crepe paper. "Get back up on that chair and fix it."

"You see what I put up with?" John tells his father, who moves closer with the roll of clear plastic tape.

"At least he tells you what he's thinking," his dad says. "Your mother expects me to be able to read her mind. You'd think she'd know better by now."

"I heard that," his mom calls from the kitchen.

"Of course you did," John's father calls back. "I love you."

"You're a horrible, horrible man." John's mom sounds amused and John can't help but grin; they've been having the same conversation since he was a kid. Kayla says something he can't quite hear, and his mom answers her.

The doorbell rings.

John's father looks at the clock. "I thought we still had half an hour."

"We do," John says, jumping down from the chair. The floor shudders slightly. "Well, we did." He goes to see who it is. The woman standing on the porch is blonde and obviously Rodney's sister Jeannie -- they have the same wide, generous mouth and sharp eyes.

"Hi," Jeannie says, holding out her hand over the head of the shorter of the two kids standing in front of her. "I know we're early, but the kids were crazy. You know how they are about parties. This is Madison -- " the little girl -- "she's seven -- and this is Derek. He's three. Oh, and I'm Jeannie Miller. My husband was supposed to come but he got called in to work -- some kind of emergency, but if you're dating Rodney then I'm sure you know all about that -- but I told him I didn't care, we were going without him because there was no way I was going to miss out on a chance to meet the guy who was brave enough to take my brother on." She grins at him and thrusts out a brightly colored gift bag.

"I want to meet Kayla," Derek says.

"Right," John says. He shouldn't be surprised that Rodney's sister can be just as overwhelming as Rodney. "Come on in."

The kids, equipped with the instincts of the young, run into the kitchen, where John can hear them talking to Kayla and his mom. "Rodney," he says. "Your sister's -- "

"Hi," Rodney says, appearing at John's elbow. He's got a double handful of streamer rolls and is practically vibrating with tension.

"Hi," Jeannie says.

Rodney's eyebrows are drawn down a little bit. "Um... long time no see."

"Uh-huh. Which, I'd like to point out, is not my fault." Jeannie doesn't sound as annoyed as she might, though.

Still, Rodney seems upset by it. "Hey! I send money."

"Oh, right, because that goes a long way toward building a deep and meaningful relationship." Jeannie rolls her eyes.

"At least it's something," Rodney says, just as John's dad comes around the corner. "I have to finish putting these up," he mutters, like he's been the one doing the work all the time and not just supervising, and goes back into the living room. John's father gives John a meaningful look and follows Rodney.

John and Jeannie look at each other warily. "He's trying," John says quietly.

"I know," Jeannie says. She sighs. "Just... sometimes it's too little too late." She starts to walk past him and he stops her, one hand on her arm above her elbow. Gentle, so she knows he's not the one in charge here.

"It's not too late," he tells her, and she lifts her eyes to his, wide and open and a little bit afraid -- not of him, of... the world, maybe, and how easy it is to be hurt. John recognizes that look, because it's Rodney's, too. "As long as you're both still alive, it's not too late to make things better."

Jeannie swallows. Licks her lips. Then, slowly, nods. "Okay," she whispers, smiling tentatively at him.

John lets go and grins at her. "Come on back to the kitchen and get something to drink," he says. "Then we'll see how Rodney's doing with the streamers."

Three hours, twelve adults and thirteen kids later, the house looks like it's been hit by a tornado. John is crouched in front of the open fridge trying to fit leftovers in. The only benefit to this kind of puzzle is the cool air drifting out of the refrigerator; he'd forgotten how hot the house gets when it's full of people. Rodney is washing dishes at the sink.

"Are you sure you won't let me buy you a new dishwasher?" Rodney asks.

"Really not necessary," John tells him, not for the first time. He'll buy himself a new one in a couple of weeks when he's got a better handle on the whole finances thing. In the meantime, hand washing a few dishes isn't going to kill him. He can hear his parents with Kayla and Jeannie's kids in the living room.

"Rodney?" Jeannie's voice behind him. "I could... do you want me to dry?"

John stays where he is, not wanting to interrupt a potential moment between them.

"Sure," Rodney says. "That'd be... thanks."

Cramming the bowl of fruit salad onto the bottom shelf, John gets up and shuts the fridge, gesturing toward the living room. "I think I'll just -- "

"No." Rodney looks at him, alarmed, hands soapy to the wrists. "Stay."

"Oh, now you don't want to be alone with me?" Jeannie says.

"Well it's not as if we have a history of friendly conversation," Rodney says. He rinses off a plate and gives it to her.

"That's because you never have anything to say after the obligatory reassurance that you're putting another check in the mail," Jeannie says. "Which I'll point out is one of the reasons Kaleb doesn't like you. We don't need your money, Rodney. We're fine without it."

Rodney's shoulders are tense. "I know. That's not the point."

Jeannie turns and leans against the countertop, looking at him. "It's not?" She sounds surprised, like this is the furthest they've ever taken this conversation.

"Obviously not," Rodney says.

"Then what is?" Jeannie waits, and when Rodney doesn't answer right away, she tugs at his sleeve. "Rodney?"

Her brother sighs roughly. "Look, we're not... we're not friends, okay? You don't even like me, but -- you're my sister, and I just... it's the only thing I know how to do."

"You could talk to me," Jeannie says. "You know? Call me up and say hey, how's it going, how are you? You could do that."

"I'm no good at that," Rodney says miserably, and John can't stand it anymore -- he goes over and stands on Rodney's other side, puts an arm around his waist and hugs him.

"You could try," Jeannie says. "I know it's not easy, and things weren't always good between us when we were growing up, but... just try. Okay?"

"Okay," Rodney says. John can feel him relax a little bit; he pats John's arm, pulls away, and hugs Jeannie, who looks startled but not, in the end, unhappy. "I'll try."

"That's all I want, Rodney," she says, tears in her eyes, and John takes that as his cue to slip from the kitchen and give them a couple of minutes alone.


"Oh great, it's snowing like a bitch out there," Rodney says, looking out the kitchen window.

Kayla crows with delight. "Rodney said the B word!"

"Please," Rodney says. "If you're old enough to know what the word is, you're old enough to repeat it when chastising me."

"I am?" Kayla looks at John doubtfully.

"Maybe," John says. "At home. But you don't have to." He doesn't really want his nine year old running around cursing, but on the other hand Rodney sort of has a point. He gets up from the table and goes over to look out the window. To Rodney, he says, "You can always spend the night if it sounds like the roads are gonna be bad."

"Really?" Rodney sounds surprised enough that John turns to look at him.

Sure, Rodney hasn't actually ever spent the night. In fact, the most they've ever done is fool around half-dressed on the couch after 9 p.m., because John has this unreasonable fear that Kayla will wake up and walk in on them. But until right then John hasn't realized that it's a thing. "Yeah," John says, because Rodney's still waiting for him to answer.

"If Rodney sleeps over, can we have pancakes in the morning?" Kayla asks hopefully, and John can see that she's already counting on tomorrow being a snow day.

"Okay," John says. "But only if there's no school." Otherwise they won't have time; getting her to the bus stop on time is a challenge enough without adding having to make pancakes to the routine.

"Yay!" Kayla gets up, dumping her Scrabble tiles back into the box. "I don't want to play anymore. I want to see the snow." This means she wants to go out onto the front porch and stick her fingers in the snow.

"It's too early in the year for it to be snowing like this," Rodney's complaining, but he stops and frowns. "Hey!" he calls after Kayla. "You just want to stop because I was winning."

"You always win," John tells him fondly.

"There's no point in playing if you don't try to win," Rodney says.

John grins. "Rodney, it's Scrabble Junior."

"I know," Rodney says, looking a little bit offended. The screen door slams behind Kayla as she goes out onto the porch. "I really think you should make her finish what she starts," he goes on. "Otherwise she'll end up shiftless and unemployed."

"She's nine," John points out. From anyone else, he'd be annoyed to be getting parenting advice that he didn't ask for, but with Rodney you have to be willing to cut a certain amount of slack. "It's normal for kids to have a short attention span." He starts sliding the rest of the tiles into the box, straightening up, but Rodney seems to have other ideas; he comes up behind John and slides both hands up underneath John's shirt, warm fingers sliding over John's bare skin. He gets hard right away. "Rodney." It's half pleasure, half warning.

"I know, I know," Rodney says. He removes his hands, tugs John's shirt down into place again, and gives him a quick hug. "I should probably get going," he says, moving to the window and looking out again. "It looks like it's just going to get worse."

"I thought you were going to stay over." John says it mildly enough, but he's discovered that he wants Rodney to sleep over. They've only woken up together in bed twice, and the first time had been when Rodney was still half-drugged on antihistamines and sulky about the fact that they hadn't had sex the night before.

The second time had been much, much better.

Rodney's looking at him. "I don't know if that's a good idea."

"It is," John says automatically, because there's something about Rodney that makes him like that -- contrary and sure that he's right, which is a heck of a nice change from the first year after Elizabeth died when it felt like he was doing everything wrong. He can see Rodney doesn't buy it, though, so he goes over and gives him a quick kiss. "It is," he says again, persuasive. "I want you to stay over. Okay?"

"Okay." Rodney's big hand caresses John's ass, which feels almost shockingly good through the worn jeans he's wearing.

The screen door opens. "Daddy?"

"Yeah?" John says.

"Can I have a bowl?"


Kayla groans. John can picture the expression on her face; it's the one that she's too young for by a couple of years at least. "Daddy. Will you get me a bowl? Please?"

"You have snow on your slippers, don't you," John says, but he's already moving to get one of the battered metal bowls -- Kayla used them as drums when she was a toddler, three cheap bowls and two wooden spoons would keep her busy for an hour -- from under the stove. He anticipates her next request and brings a big serving spoon, too.

He and Rodney stand on the porch with Kayla as she scoops up snow, taking it carefully from the topmost layer building up on the railing so that she only gets the clean stuff. It's dark; the sun set almost two hours ago, and the streetlight three houses away casts an eerie but beautiful glow. The falling snow is illuminated, and even though John's feet are bare -- not to mention freezing -- he can't help but feel an almost overwhelming sense of peace.

Kayla eats her bowl of snow with a sprinkle of colored sugar and then goes to bed, after being reminded at least three times to brush her teeth. John goes up to tuck her in. "Pancakes if there's no school?" she says, yawning as John turns on her radio to the soft rock station she likes to listen to as she goes to sleep.

"Yes," John promises, and shuts her door softly on the way out.

Rodney's waiting in the hallway, just at the top of the stairs. John can tell by the look on his face that he's thinking about sex -- which is good, because John spends a lot of time thinking about sex himself, and as far as he's concerned the fact that their sex drives match up so perfectly is one of the best things about being with another guy in general and Rodney in particular.

"Come on," John says. He takes Rodney's hand and leads him into the bedroom, where they've had conversations but never, ever done more, not even kissed, because the bedroom hasn't been a place for JohnandRodney. Until now.

That's all John will let himself think -- more than that is too much -- before he locks the door. Rodney turns him around and kisses him, hot and sweet at the same time, one hand moving down to cup John's cock and fondle him to hardness. John groans. He loves how Rodney touches him, loves the way Rodney kisses, the way Rodney's skin feels against his, loves...

"Is this okay?" Rodney mutters into his neck. "I know we haven't..."

"I'm the one who brought you in here," John tells him. "And hey, look. Who's that taking off your shirt?" He tugs it up over Rodney's head and tosses it to the floor.

"Yes, fine, I get your point." Rodney's impatient now, undressing John, touching his cock. There's something about Rodney's impatience that John likes, and something about it in this particular situation that turns him on. He grapples for Rodney's dick, palming it through his slacks, and Rodney gasps and says his name that way he has, "John," breathless and desperate like John is everything to him, and white hot lust rushes through John, erasing most of the world and leaving just him and Rodney behind.

When he calms down again, just a little bit, they're both naked and lying on the bed. John's underneath -- he loves having Rodney's solid weight on top of him, holding him down -- and Rodney's dick is working along the crease between thigh and groin, damp with sweat and precome. John grabs onto Rodney's ass and grinds up against him, shuddering, aching.

"God, I want to be inside you," Rodney whispers. His breath is hot in John's ear.

They haven't done that yet, and John wonders if that's what he's aching for, the one thing he wants but hasn't been able to define. Rodney shifts his weight and the head of his cock nudges the strip of skin beneath John's balls, and John throws caution to the winds and says, "Yeah. Okay. Do it."

Rodney's eyes widen. "You... do you really want to? Don't say you want to if you don't. We don't have to yet. We don't have to ever, not if you don't want to. I mean, don't get me wrong, I want to. I really, really want to. But we don't -- "

John stops Rodney with a hand over his mouth. "I want to," he says. "Yes, okay? Yes." And Rodney kisses his palm, his fingers, his mouth, his jaw.

"Okay," Rodney says, then looks alarmed. "I don't have any condoms."

"You don't?" John almost laughs, but doesn't let himself because Rodney looks so disappointed. "Well, one of us is prepared, at least. I do; they're in the top drawer of the dresser with the lube." He'd bought them a week ago, with his heart beating too fast and a furtive glance around him like people watching would somehow be able to tell that he was buying them so he could have gay sex.

Rodney gets up and brings the lube and the box of condoms back to the bed. He tears the box in his haste to open it, and his hands are shaking as he slicks his fingers and then pushes one into John, kissing him and whispering, "This is going to be so good, it will, I promise you. All you have to do is relax."

"I think -- I think I can do that," John says, taking a deep breath when Rodney finds his prostate. Even that's good, so good that he can hardly imagine anything better, especially when Rodney leans down and sucks his dick. "Jesus. Rodney."

Another finger. They've done this much before, Rodney's hot mouth on John's cock and two fingers up his ass, with John wondering if he's going to explode. This time's no different; he grabs onto Rodney's shoulder and tries not to thrust into his mouth.

"Rodney. Rodney." He has to keep saying it, like it's the only thing keeping him from going completely crazy. He whimpers when Rodney withdraws, feeling empty. His wet dick is cold and he aches.

"Here, turn around. Like this. It's not how I'd do it, but it'll be better the first time..." Rodney rolls him onto his side. John can hear the sound of the condom wrapper being torn open -- it's been a long time since he used a condom, but it's not the kind of sound you forget -- and then Rodney's pressing against him from behind. He shivers, and Rodney ghosts a hand over his chest, finding his nipples tight and pebbled. "You're cold."

"A little," John says. He's also turned on and kind of scared.

Rodney pulls the blankets up over them, and that helps. He kisses the back of John's neck, his shoulder, and strokes his cock until John moans with need, then nudges his cock into place. The condom feels weird, smooth. "Easy," Rodney says, and for a second John's not sure which one of them he's talking to. "Just relax, okay? I'm not going to hurt you."

John's not cold anymore when Rodney presses into him. Patience doesn't come easy for Rodney, John knows that, but somehow when they're having sex he manages it. When John's body finally relaxes, Rodney pushes in a little bit deeper. There's a lot of lube, so everything's wet; Rodney's cock still feels too big, though, and John has to breathe through it until the urge to tell Rodney no, it's too much, he's not ready, passes. Rodney's hand strokes the front of John's thigh, not touching his cock, which has apparently decided that this is a very bad idea that it's not at all interested in, thank you very much.

"Okay?" Rodney asks, mouthing the back of John's neck.

"I think," John says. To his own ears, he sounds more scared than he is. Maybe. "Give me a minute."

Rodney stays still. "As long as you need. We can stop if you want to." It's a hell of a lot more generous than John thinks he'd be able to be if he was the one waiting to do the fucking.

"No," he says. "No, just..." John forces himself to tense around Rodney's dick a little bit, which takes the edge of discomfort closer to actual pain than he'd thought it would, but when he relaxes again, it's better. He does it again.

"If you keep doing that, this is going to be the most impressive example of premature ejaculation in history," Rodney grates out.

Sympathetic, John rocks his hips a little bit, experimentally, and nothing hurts. The sensation that Rodney's dick is somewhere it doesn't belong fades, replaced by a warm feeling in his own cock and balls. "Come on, then," he says. "Fuck me."

"Oh God," Rodney says, in the smallest voice John's ever heard from him, and thrusts into John slowly, carefully, like he's afraid of breaking him. He shudders, hand tightening on John's thigh. "God, John, you feel so good. You're so..." He pulls back and thrusts again.

John's dick is hard now, but he's too focused on what Rodney's cock is doing in his ass to pay it any attention just then. He lifts his right thigh a little, opening himself up more, and gasps when Rodney pushes into him again, startled at how good it suddenly feels. Rodney's hand moves around to the back of his thigh, then the inside from behind, spreading him even wider, cock stroking over John's prostate on the next thrust. "Yeah," John says, barely aware that he's talking. "God, yeah, Rodney, God, God."

And Rodney's fucking him harder, which seems pretty talented of him considering he can't have a whole lot of leverage given the position they're in, and it feels incredible, so much better than John thought it would, Rodney's cock moving inside him. "Yes, yes," Rodney gasps. "John." He lets go of John's thigh and reaches around to take hold of his dick instead, and John has to grab a pillow and hold it to his face to stifle his moans. He can feel it when he's about to come, a gathering together of every nerve ending from the waist down until he gives an impossibly long, low groan and comes in Rodney's hand, shaking all over. He can feel his body tightening around Rodney's cock in rhythmic pulses, and Rodney just keeps moving, but slower, keeps fucking him through it until all the tension leaves John at once.

Then Rodney rolls him onto his stomach and really fucks him, thrusting hard and fast with his hands braced on either side of John. John can feel sweat on his lower back, and then, finally, Rodney stiffens and comes, his cock throbbing inside of John.

Rodney collapses on top of him, panting. "God," he says, full of wonder. "God, John."

"Your elbow's in my ribs," John says, wincing.

"Oh. Sorry." Rodney gets a hand between them and pulls out, which leaves John feeling damp and sore, but at least Rodney's elbow isn't digging into him anymore. When Rodney's done throwing out the condom, he comes back and gets into bed again, snuggling up to John, who has decided he's not going to care about the wet spot, not tonight. "That was quite possibly the best sex I've ever had," Rodney murmurs against his hair.

"Yeah?" John likes the idea of that.

"Now you're supposed to tell me how amazing it was on your end," Rodney prompts.

"It was," John says. Then, because he doesn't want Rodney worrying about it, he shifts and looks into Rodney's eyes. "It was amazing," he says honestly. "I had no idea it was going to be like that. Seriously."

Rodney looks absurdly pleased, but it's a look that John likes on him. "Then we can do it again?"

"Yes." John gets more comfortable, feels a twinge. "Tomorrow, maybe."

Worried, Rodney says, "I didn't hurt you, did I? You should have said something. I didn't want to -- "

This time, John shuts him up by kissing him. "You didn't," he says firmly. "I'm good."

"Just good?" Rodney asks.

"Better than good," John says, closing his eyes and putting an arm around Rodney. He can hear the hiss of the snow against the bedroom window, but he's warm and sated. "Great. I'm great."


He can hear Elizabeth's voice. In the house. She's calling him, calling his name, but no matter where he goes he can't find her. The house expands so that the hallway goes on for miles. John opens every door he comes to. Some of the rooms are tiny and empty. Others are huge and packed the furniture, other doors, and he gets lost as he searches. He keeps telling himself he'll go back, that after this door he'll return to the previous room, but no matter how hard he tries he can't keep track of where he's been and where he still needs to look.

John finds a door he can't open. It's not locked -- he can turn the handle -- but he can't force it open. He slams his shoulder against it, kicks it. "Elizabeth!" he shouts, certain she's on the other side, and he hears her voice from the opposite direction.

He whirls and runs. Downstairs, he thinks. All he has to do is get downstairs and he'll find her, and once he gets his hands on her he's never, ever letting her go again. All this time thinking she was dead and she's only been lost. He's breathing heavily as he runs, his chest aching with it.

Kayla is standing at the top of the stairs, wearing a white nightgown John hasn't seen for years. Her hair is long and loose. She blinks up at him, catches at his hand. "Mommy's lost," she says.

"I'm going to find her," John says, trying to pull away, but Kayla won't let go.

"You can't find her," Kayla says. Her voice is little and far away. "That's what being lost means."

"Then she's not lost," John says fiercely, desperate. The walls are moving on either side of him, swirling like oil on water, and the floor is dark like blood. "Because I'm going to find her. I have to... I have to find her."

"You can't," Kayla says again. "But it's okay. We'll be okay."

Hearing this makes John unbelievably angry, but he doesn't have to yank free because Kayla lets go of him, stepping back, holding her hands up to show him that he can go. She doesn't look frightened, just sad.

He runs down the stairs, shouting Elizabeth's name, but when he gets to the living room he discovers that the house is his again, small, with nowhere for anyone to hide. He sinks down onto the floor weeping in sorrow and frustration. "Elizabeth," he whispers. "Where are you?"

The house is quiet. There's no answer.

John gets up and starts looking for her again. The upstairs is normal, the bedroom the way it is now. He stubs his bare toes on the footboard as he heads for the closet. The closet. He hadn't looked there before -- it's one of the only places he didn't look. She has to be in the closet. But, like before, he can't get the door open. Tears sting his eyes, and he's cold -- freezing cold, Christ, did he leave a window open? -- and his hands are clumsy. He can't open the door.

"John," someone says. There are warm hands on his shoulders. "John."

"I have to find her," he whispers, turning toward the source of warmth.

"Who?" Worried. "Kayla?"

"Elizabeth." John's throat aches and the room settles into its normal shape around him, and Rodney's the one steadying him. The small lamp on the bedside table is on. "Rodney."

"You're freezing," Rodney says, guiding him away from the closet and back to the bed. "Get in before you catch pneumonia. Do you usually walk in your sleep?"

John shakes his head and crawls in between the sheets, seeking out the warmest spot by instinct. "I don't think so." He's shaking, and not just with the cold.

"Come here." Rodney lies down next to him and pulls him closer. "God, your feet are like ice. You're lucky I like you, you know." Slowly, Rodney starts to run his fingers through John's hair, and even more slowly John begins to relax.

"I was dreaming," he says. His voice is hoarse as if he really has been screaming Elizabeth's name. He turns his face toward the pillow and inhales the scent of the sheets, hoping to catch even the faintest lingering whiff of her shampoo. Then he remembers that these are new sheets, ones that Elizabeth never slept on, and it hits him that she's gone forever.

"About Elizabeth," Rodney says gently.

"Yeah." John presses closer, wishing he could crawl inside Rodney. "It was... she was lost. I could hear her, but I couldn't find her."

"I guess that explains the whole thing with the closet," Rodney says.

John squirms and shuts his eyes. He's kind of crazy, still half dreaming and unable to bear the feel of his own skin; he bites down on Rodney's collar bone.

"Ow!" Rodney says. "Please tell me you're not actually awake right now, because the only other alternative is that you're completely insane."

"I want you to fuck me," John says.

Rodney blinks. "Hm, yes, well. Maybe not completely insane."

"Come on, Rodney," John says, cajoling. He reaches for Rodney's dick, which has already started to get with the program, but Rodney stops him. Actually stops him, takes his hand and moves it away from his cock.

"No," Rodney says. "For one thing, if I do you aren't going to be able to walk tomorrow, and as much as I'd enjoy watching you try to explain that to your daughter I really don't want to turn you off of sex forever. And for another, I'm not exactly sure what's going on, and I really, really don't like not knowing what's going on. So at the risk of sounding like a prying boyfriend, talk to me."

John's head feels like it's going to explode; his hands are clenched into fists. He wants to break things. "She's dead, Rodney."

"I know." Rodney's voice is impossibly gentle, a verbal caress. "I'm sorry. It must have been terrible when she got sick."

That's pretty much everything Rodney knows, John realizes. And then there are the things they didn't tell anyone, things that now only John knows, and he doesn't want the burden of keeping these secrets anymore. "We thought she was pregnant," he blurts out, and God, those words hurt.

Rodney must be able to tell how close he is to breaking, because he doesn't say anything -- not to encourage him to speak, not to comfort him.

John takes a shaky breath, remembering details he's tried his best to forget. "She couldn't keep anything down. She was sick all the time, and then she was... late. We didn't even get a pregnancy test, we were so sure. We'd been trying for a long time. She was so happy. Even when she was in the bathroom puking her guts out, she was happy. She kept saying she'd..." He swallows through tears. "She'd go see the doctor and get it confirmed once she got past the first eight weeks. That's when she stopped being sick when she was pregnant with Kayla." He can remember the way Elizabeth's eyes glowed with joy even in her pale face. "She was so happy," he whispers again, and then he's crying.

"John." Rodney holds him, rubs his back.

For the first time in more than a year, John lets go. He sobs until he starts to hyperventilate, then through the lightheadedness and back out the other side. He cries until Rodney's skin is damp with his tears, until his eyes burn from the salt and his throat feels raw. It finally tapers off after what seems like forever; there are a few last hitched sobs and then John gasps and exhales, long and uneven.

He's too exhausted to feel embarrassed, but he reaches for a handful of tissues and scrubs his eyes and nose wearily. Then, noticing Rodney's chest, he wipes that off, too. "Sorry," he says. His voice sounds like someone else's.

Normally Rodney would complain about germs, but he just says, "It's okay," and pets John's hair when John settles his head on Rodney's shoulder.

Now that he's emotionally spent, John tells Rodney everything. About how Elizabeth kept throwing up way past the eight week deadline, and how he threatened her that he was going to call and make an appointment for her himself if she didn't do it. Not that he'd believed anything was really wrong, because he hadn't, but he'd thought there must be something they could give her to quell the nausea. About the night Elizabeth woke up in pain, cramping, in a pool of blood, and how terrified they'd both been, thinking that she was losing a baby that had never actually existed, because she hadn't been pregnant at all. It was cancer, the doctors told them. A tumor that had probably started in her uterus but had spread, fast and deadly. By the time they found it, it was too late to do anything -- it was all through her, everywhere. About how Elizabeth had insisted on rigorous chemotherapy and radiation even though the doctors, to John's surprise, had gently suggested that it wasn't likely to buy her any time. And how, in the end, it hadn't done any good.

"I thought... if I'd made her go to the doctor right away, maybe they would have found it in time," John says. His hand is resting flat on Rodney's belly, moving up and down with Rodney's breathing. It's comforting. "The doctors said no, but..."

"Well, normally I'd be the first in line to tell you that most of them are quacks, but in this case I think they're right," Rodney says.

It's funny how hearing Rodney say something like that, dismissive and arrogant, can make John feel better. It doesn't take away the bad memories -- Elizabeth's face and the sinking feeling, cold and bitter, in his own stomach when they'd been told that the good news was she wasn't pregnant, and that that was the good news because if she had been the baby would have died with her -- but somehow it makes them a little more bearable. "I love you," John says.

Rodney goes very still.

"It's okay," John says, even though he's not sure it is. He's so worn out that he's pretty numb at that point. "You don't have to -- "

"No." Rodney doesn't move. His voice is hoarse. "Say it again. Please."

John hitches himself up onto his elbow and looks down at Rodney. Snow is falling outside; the wind has that muffled quality that it gets where there's a foot of it blanketing the roof. Rodney's eyes are darker in the low light from the lamp, and he looks... scared. Why does he look scared? "I love you," John says again, hoping against hope that he's getting it right.

If the look on Rodney's face means anything, he is. "Oh, thank God," Rodney says, running his hand up John's chest to his jaw. "Are you sure? Not that I want to talk you out of it -- clearly you're the best thing that's ever happened to me and I'm much too intelligent not to take advantage of that -- but I'm still trying to absorb the fact that you want anything to do with me, let alone that you're my boyfriend, and -- "

"Rodney," John says. "Breathe."

Rodney does, eyes searching John's with a hint of doubt. "You... you really love me?"

"Yeah," John says tenderly. "I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it."

Rodney wraps a hand around the back of John's neck and pulls him down for an eager kiss that seems to have more to do with joy than passion. "Oh God," Rodney says, stopping and looking at him. "I didn't say it back. John. You know I do?"

"Know you do, what?" John asks, because he figures he deserves to hear it, too, and even if he doesn't he sure as hell wants to.

"Love you," Rodney says. "I love you."

They kiss a little more after that, but they're both pretty tired and John at least is as emotionally wrung out as he can remember being. And when Rodney turns out the light and they start to drop off to sleep, arms around each other, John knows he's finally ready to move on.


"Your house is bigger," John points out.

"Yes, and yours has a history," Rodney says. "The bus is coming some time today, isn't it? Because I really don't want to end up with frostbite."

"It's not that cold," John says, rolling his eyes. "Look, it's not that I have some burning desire to live in your house or anything. I just don't want you to regret it later."

"I think it's safe to say that I won't." Rodney claps his mittened hands against his arms, his breath a plume of white in the air. Huh -- maybe it is that cold. "Anyway, I don't know why we're talking about this now -- I thought we were waiting until spring."

John tries, again unsuccessfully, to imagine just the stuff in Rodney's home office fitting into his little house. "Yeah, you're right. We can talk about this later."

"Which is your oh-so-clever way of saying you want to talk about it now." Rodney straightens up as the yellow school bus turns onto the street. "Oh good, here she is."

Grateful for the enforced break in the discussion, John grins at the bus driver when the door opens and then staggers when Kayla rockets down the steps and throws herself at him. "Little excited there?" he asks.

"Christmas vacation!" Kayla lets go of him, thrusts her backpack into his arms, and takes Rodney's hand.

"Hey, what am I, chopped liver?" John says, even though it gives him a secret thrill to see how much she likes Rodney.

Her hat is on crooked. It's the one Elizabeth knit about a month before she died. She'd been working on a tiny sweater -- only at night, in bed, while she watched TV, because they'd agreed not to tell Kayla about the baby until Elizabeth had started to show. After they'd gotten the bad news, she'd deliberately torn out the knitting and then waited to throw the yarn from the abandoned project away until John was in the room. "See?" she'd said, stuffing the wrinkled yarn into the trash. Resolutely, she'd started a new line of yarn on the needle. "I don't want you to look at this hat I'm making for Kayla and think it was meant for anyone but her."

It's a bittersweet memory that makes John smile.

At the house, they all dump their coats, hats and mittens into a big pile just inside the door before going into the kitchen. Today's afternoon snack is freshly baked cookies that John and Rodney made while Kayla was at school. Well, made in the sense that they put the balls of cookie dough onto the baking sheets and then put the sheets in the oven. They came close to burning them when they got distracted, but that's a story most definitely not for Kayla's ears. When she asks about the singed edges, Rodney clears his throat and lies. "Yes, yes, the thermostat in the oven is obviously miscalibrated. We'll have to see if that's something that can be fixed or if the whole stove needs to be replaced."

John knows which way Rodney would lean if given the option -- he seems to like nothing better than spending as much money on them as John will allow. The new dishwasher was a belated 'birthday present' to Kayla -- "She's nine," John had said with disbelief. "Well, I don't want her growing up thinking that people in the modern world still wash their dishes by hand," Rodney shot back. "This isn't the dark ages, you know." -- and Rodney has, with John's reluctant permission, bought her a top of the line computer for Christmas. It's stashed in the back of John's closet, the big box already wrapped at the store because Rodney's the last person to do his own gift wrapping.

"Two more days," Kayla is saying happily, munching on a sugar cookie that's supposed to be shaped like a wreath.

"How was school?" John asks. It's another of the things from Elizabeth's list: Ask her about her day when she gets home. Yes, even when she's 15.

Kayla slurps hot chocolate -- the gourmet kind, because Rodney found a grocery store that delivers and keeps ordering weird stuff at random times -- and says, "Good. Oh! I made a picture." She runs to find it, and John smiles at Rodney. She comes back with a somewhat crumpled drawing and puts it on the table, smoothing it out with her hands. "It's our family on Christmas Eve."

John looks. The picture is busy to the point where there's barely any white left on the paper at all. There's a Christmas tree, a huge stack of presents with bows, brightly colored lights, and a carefully drawn orange cat with a red ribbon and what might be a bell around its neck. "I hope this isn't a hint," John says, pointing at the cat.

"He can be here for Christmas, can't he? For Christmas?" Kayla says the word like it's everything. Rodney gets up and takes another cookie, then stops to look over John's shoulder at the picture.

"I don't think Rodney's cat -- "

"Mister Mew," Kayla says.

John turn his head and grins at Rodney, who is horrified at the name Kayla has given his cat. "I don't think Mister Mew," he says, "would like being a strange place, even for Christmas. He'd probably hide under the couch and refuse to come out."

"He'd probably claw up the couch and then throw up on your bed," Rodney corrects him, taking a bite of cookie. Crumbs rain down over John and bounce onto the picture. John brushes them off and opens his mouth to say something, but Rodney's hand settles onto his shoulder suddenly, squeezes, and when John looks up at his face it's open and vulnerable in ways he hasn't often seen it.

Kayla, clueless, points to the three crooked people to the right of the crooked tree. "And that's me," she says. "And that's Daddy -- " the one with dark hair sticking up all over and a coffee mug in its hand -- "and that's Rodney." Rodney has lighter brown hair and a big smile.

"What is this a picture of again?" Rodney asks.

"Our family on Christmas Eve," Kayla tells him.

Rodney's eyes look wet. He clears his throat and sits back down. "Well," he says gruffly. "I think that you could have branched out as far as colors go, and your perspective definitely needs some work, but..."

"What he's trying to say," John tells Kayla, "is that it's a nice picture."

She looks at Rodney for confirmation. "Yes," Rodney says. "It's a very nice picture. Good work." And Kayla beams.

The next two days are crazy, with John and Rodney taking turns hanging out with Kayla while the other goes out 'just to get a few more things.' At nine o'clock on Christmas Eve, standing in the middle of the living room surveying the stacks of gifts -- half of which still need wrapping -- John puts his hands on his hips and frowns. "We're going to need a new house at this rate," he says. "You didn't bankrupt yourself, did you?"

"Of course not," Rodney says. He's sprawled out on the couch with the remote control resting on his belly even though the TV's not on. "I should be asking you the same question."

"Yeah, well, I'll point out that only half the stuff here is mine, and none of it is a two thousand dollar computer." John's starting to wish he'd had stuff wrapped as he went along like Rodney did. "You're going to help me wrap these, right?"

Rodney laughs. "No."

"Aw, come on." John tries to think of something convincing. "If you don't, I'm going to be up all night doing it and you know what that means."

"That you're going to be a jerk tomorrow?" Rodney suggests.

John starts peeling the thin cellophane off a roll of wrapping paper. "I was going to say no sex."

"Hm. Yes. Good point." Rodney sighs, sets the remote control down on the arm of the couch, and gets up. "I'm not very good at wrapping," he warns.

"That's okay," John says. "We'll blame Santa."

"She doesn't believe in Santa," Rodney says.

"She says she doesn't believe in Santa." John sits on the floor and uses his foot to shove a tape dispenser toward Rodney. "I'm pretty sure part of her still does. Otherwise why would she have been so insistent about leaving a snack out?"

"Sheer greed," Rodney says, gesturing at the plate with one perfectly square brownie on it, glass of milk set beside it. "It's a form of bribery, that's all it is. Kids bribe Santa so they'll have more presents to open on Christmas day."

"Sounds like you're speaking from experience," John says. He starts wrapping a box with a pair of ice skates in it.

"Please," Rodney says, snorting. "Like you weren't a greedy little bastard when you were a kid. All kids are. It's par for the course."

"Says a man who's never played golf," John says, and Rodney goes quiet. "What. Don't tell me you play golf?"

Rodney pretends to be concentrating really hard on putting a piece of tape onto the books he's wrapping. "You'd better not give me a hard time when the ones I do end up looking like shit," he says.

"Wow," John says dryly. "What were we talking about again?" When Rodney looks up at him, he makes his eyes wide and innocent.

"Fuck you," Rodney says, and kicks him.

"Yeah, I was hoping," John says. "But not until all of these are wrapped and under the tree."

They wrap in comparative silence for a minute or two, then Rodney sighs. "Yes, yes," he says, like John's been bugging him about it. "I play golf. Well, I used to."

"Maybe you can teach me some time," John says. He reaches for another box, this one a board game that he knows will drive Rodney crazy, not that that's why he bought it. "I mean, how hard can it be?"

"It's surprisingly simple for someone with a solid grasp of physics," Rodney says. "As long as you're able to understand that the relationship between the speed of the club head and the initial velocity of the ball depends on the coefficient of restitution of the ball, that is."

"Uh-huh." John decides to let Rodney warm to the subject, and the next forty five minutes is spent wrapping the rest of the presents and listening to Rodney expound on the physics of golf. They cram the scraps of wrapping paper into a trash bag and shove it into the mud room, stack the presents under the tree. They're halfway up the stairs when John remembers Santa's snack -- he runs back down, pours the milk into the sink, runs water for a few seconds, and eats the brownie in two huge bites.

Rodney looks up at him as he comes into the bedroom, shutting the door behind him. "You have chocolate on your mouth."

"Mm'naw sprised," John manages, and swallows.

"Come here." Rodney reaches out for John's hand, tangling their fingers together, and tows John toward him. They kiss, Rodney's tongue warm in John's mouth and his hands warm on John's ass. "Please tell me we can go to bed now."

"Yeah, we can go to bed now," John says.

Rodney gets under the covers and John undresses. He's already half hard when he climbs into bed; his cock knows the routine as well he does, and it's just as eager as he is to have a round of mind-blowing sex with Rodney.

Tonight, Rodney fucks him with John on his knees, his face pressed to the mattress because there's no way his arms can support him when Rodney's driving into him like that, long and slick and hard. It hasn't taken long for John to perfect the art of being fucked, which from his perspective works out best if he lets as many of his muscles relax as possible and just takes it, and it doesn't take long for him to come, either, groaning open-mouthed into the sheets as his dick jerks in Rodney's hand.

Then Rodney pulls out and turns him over, kissing him while John's still shuddering with aftershocks, and slides into him again. "God, John," Rodney whispers. "You're so -- God, yes." He keeps thrusting, a slow rocking of his hips, until he comes with a gasp.

John puts his arms around Rodney and holds on. They still have to get dressed again before they can go to sleep -- he doesn't really want Kayla coming in all excited in the morning to find them both naked -- but that can wait. "Merry Christmas," he whispers against Rodney's hair.

* * * * *

The next morning, John wakes up while Rodney and Kayla are still sleeping. His big present to Rodney, ironically small, is in his bureau drawer underneath his socks -- in the darkness, he slips from bed and finds it by feel alone, then wraps his bathrobe around himself and goes downstairs, intending to prop the envelope up on the branches of the Christmas tree. The lights on the tree are enough to see by along with the first rays of sunshine that are filtering in through the window; John discovers that he's holding more than just Rodney's envelope in his hand.

John puts the envelope on the tree and sits down on the bottom step, slowly unfolding a piece of note paper he hasn't looked at in at least six months.

Elizabeth's handwriting is as familiar to him as his own, even though she'd been so weak when she wrote this list.

Put on sun-block.
Make sure she wears a helmet when she's riding her bike.
Remember to make her take her multivitamins.
No trampolines. Those things are death traps.
Ask her about her day when she gets home. Yes, even when she's 15.
Don't let her get away with too much just because her mother died.
Only organic peanut butter, the regular kind is full of hydrogenated fats.
No dating until she's 16. No exceptions.
No piercings until she's 18.

There are more, but John's eyes are drawn to the bottom of the page, where there are three more lines separate from the rest.

Fall in love again.
Be happy.

"I did," John whispers, hoping Elizabeth can hear him. "I am." He folds the paper up again and holds it to his lips, blinking back tears. Upstairs, there's the sound of Kayla's door opening and padding across the hall to his bedroom.

"It's Christmas!" she says, and in that moment her voice sounds so much like her mother's that it makes John ache.

He hears Rodney groan, then speak through what sounds like his pillow. "It's too early!"

John stands up, slips the note paper into his pocket, and goes upstairs to his family.