Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us, and to die)
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan.
—Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Man,
Epistle I—Of the Nature and State of Man,
with Respect to the Universe"
"I appreciate you doing this, John. It's a relief to get it taken care of."
John caught himself staring at his brother's hand on the door handle and looked away. Dave wouldn't want him to notice the way it was shaking a little.
"Sure, no problem," he said finally, since Dave seemed to want an answer.
After a moment, Dave smiled a little and pushed open the door. "Nobody's actually lived here since Dad passed away, of course, but I had a service come in and clean the place."
John followed his brother in. It was strange being back in the house he'd grown up in for the first time in—what? Fourteen months, he realized. It had been more than a year since his father died, and the last time he'd seen Dave. He hadn't even noticed the anniversary.
If he didn't count that brief trip for his father's funeral then it was something like ten years since he'd last visited here. John had left his father's house for Stanford and the Air Force and rarely looked back.
The inside of the house was nearly unrecognizable now. The floor-length drapes had been removed from the Blue Room's windows, making the late afternoon sun drift through in a weirdly diffident manner, as though it was reluctant to disturb the constant gloom John remembered from his childhood. There was a smell of must—was a year long enough for that?—and all the furniture had been draped with long white coverings that made the sofas and armchairs look like short misshapen ghosts. The Ghosts of Antiques Past, John thought, and realized he was getting loopy.
"You okay?" Dave asked.
John didn't exactly have a good answer for that, but Dave was looking at him funny, so he shrugged. "Just a little hungry, I guess."
Dave brightened. "I took care of that too. The kitchen's fully stocked. I, uh, couldn't remember what you liked, so I just told them to get everything."
John snorted, which made Dave shoot him a nervous look. He replaced it quickly with a bland smile, but John had noticed, of course. He'd always been able to read Dave, ever since they were kids and Dave's hero worship of his older brother had shined out of every pore.
John took a good look at his brother. Dave's smile grew tighter under the scrutiny. God, Dave was trying so hard, and John was being an asshole, like always. John sighed and whipped one of the furniture covers off, revealing an armchair he'd never seen before. It was big and dark brown leather and probably worth a hundred-thousand dollars. He sat. "You can go. I got this."
Dave looked torn. He perched on a covered sofa. "Really? I thought maybe we ought to go out to dinner. Or try to fix some food here."
"Go." John smiled to soften his words. It felt fake on his face, and he doubted Dave believed it. But nice as Dave was trying to be, he was dying to leave his nutso brother, John could tell.
"I do have a long drive. And Joanna doesn't like being in the house at night with just the girls."
John waited for him to get through whatever justifications he needed to make to himself. "Well," Dave finished. "If you're sure you'll be okay."
John just raised an eyebrow. Dave suddenly laughed. It sounded small and bitter. "Yeah. I guess you can take care of yourself."
Dave wanted him to get the estate in order to be sold. That's what he had said at least, and they'd both pretended to believe it. Dave had managed to get all the other Sheppard properties sold without John's help, his lawyer handling the splitting of the money between the brothers, and some of those had been in far worse shape. Dave had never been sentimental about their childhood home—if he truly believed this house needed special care, he would have hired someone.
John knew there wasn't much to do to get ready to sell anyway. The house hadn't been abandoned long. The grounds needed some attention, and he should probably call a few of the auction houses to come take a look at what furniture was left. The horses were already gone.
No, Dave was helping, in his typically misguided way. He was trying to give John something to do. And John had agreed, because—well, he didn't have anything better to do since the retirement. Coming to Virginia was easier than arguing.
Not for the first time John wondered if he had made a mistake leaving the Air Force. He hadn't been discharged, even with the bum leg, just strongly urged to retire by the right people. It had all gone to hell the last couple of years in the service, ever since he'd disobeyed orders to rescue a friend who was already dead. He'd been lucky to avoid an official reprimand for that stunt, and while his crash the next year at Arghandab hadn't fucked him up bad enough for a medical discharge, no one really wanted Major John Sheppard sticking around. The sight of uniforms had started making him sick to his stomach, anyway.
John opened up a couple of rooms in the house for personal use—a guest bedroom and bath, the kitchen, a little space that didn't know if was an office or a sitting room—and got down to some serious drinking. After about three days of that he got bored and called Ronon.
"Sorry, man," Ronon sounded sympathetic over the phone, though still amused. "Too much going on for me to come down there now."
"Then what the hell's the good of having a friend who owns a landscaping business? I could pay you ridiculous amounts of money."
Ronon snorted out a laugh. John heard a faint scratching start then stop. He could picture Ronon twisting a dreadlock around a pencil. "I'm already making ridiculous amounts of money. I got projects I can't cancel, Sheppard. I could probably send a crew there in a month, if you want. Maybe two months."
John considered. He wasn't in any hurry. It had been more than a year since they'd started to think about putting the house on the market. He wasn't there out of any sense of urgency, but because of Dave's busywork. The grounds could wait another couple of months, no problem.
But what the hell, he needed something to do. "No thanks. Think I'll do it myself."
The laugh this time was louder. "Sheppard, you have, what? Sixty acres there?"
"Sixty-five," John said. "Why?"
"No reason." Ronon was still laughing. "I'll send some guys when I can."
"Cool," John said.
John refused Ronon's offer to recommend another landscaping company and the next day went down to the John Deere dealership in town and purchased a ProTrak Z900 riding mower with two cylinders and 37 horsepower. It was undoubtedly overpriced, but John couldn't bring himself to care.
Next he headed across the street to the gardening supply warehouse for a gas powered leaf-blower and an assortment of pruning shears, tree saws, and rakes, throwing in some gloves as an afterthought. He'd think about a tractor later.
He had a pastrami sandwich at a little place he used to haunt during school breaks—amazingly still there and nearly the same as he remembered it—and then bought the biggest pickup truck he could find in town, a Chevy 3500 Silverado. Blue wasn't his first choice of colors, but it was used so he couldn't be picky. It had four-wheel drive, at least, and a six-liter V8 engine.
John considered that enough for one day. He could always ask Ronon what else he would need later, if he was willing to put up with the big guy laughing at him. So it was sixty-five acres. He wasn't hacking through a jungle, just cleaning things up a little. And the whole estate didn't need attention. He could ignore the several acres that were woods. Probably.
It wasn't like it actually mattered how it came out. He and Dave were selling the house. Let someone else deal with the grounds if they didn't like John's work.
Besides he'd always wanted a riding mower.
The mower was awesome. It was shiny and painted a deep forest green with yellow highlights. It could go twelve miles an hour, and it made a deeply satisfying roar as it chugged along. The first day John got the whole South Meadow mowed so fast he considered doing it again, just for fun.
He thought about riding the mower out to the lake where he'd seen a year's worth of decomposing leaves and branches gunking up the dock, but in the end he took the Chevy. De-gunking turned out to be far less fun than mowing, and much smellier. It would take a lot more than just one afternoon. John thought about hiring someone local for the messy stuff or waiting for Ronon's guys, but now that he'd started, he found that he didn't want anyone else on the job. Groundskeeping was a good excuse for solitude, and he liked working with his hands.
John put almost five hours into clearing the dock and surrounding area, which got him maybe a quarter of the way done and made his bad leg throb. He managed to keep the most disgusting bits of vegetable material off his work clothes, but he was still glad to get home and turn up the shower as hot as he could stand it before falling into bed.
It was hot—the heat pressed in on him like hundreds of sharp-fingered hands, and there was sand in his eyes, blinding him. He tried to sort through the fog in his head. He couldn't remember getting hit, but he must have been, because the scent of blood was everywhere, overwhelming. There were gallons of it, judging by the smell, and when he went to wipe the sand away from his eyes, his hands came away red.
He'd been in the sand a minute ago, but now he was on a narrow street of packed dirt, a burrow of connected passageways, and he'd seen Holland—just for a moment, but it was him, bleeding, being dragged away by Taliban, their faces covered.
John tried to follow the direction he'd seen the men take, but his leg hurt like hell, and he could barely move it. It dragged behind him, slowing him down like an anchor.
There! Someone was disappearing around a corner. He couldn't let the men get away—John knew what happened to soldiers captured by the Taliban. He swallowed back a sudden flood of nausea. There wasn't time for getting sick to his stomach.
Except this wasn't how it had been. John had been in a Pave Hawk, sand whipping through his rotor wash, not on foot in a village he'd never seen. And Holland was already dead by the time John got anywhere near him, not gaping back with frightened, betrayed eyes as his captors yanked him away. John's leg pulsed with a sudden stab of white-hot pain.
He held back a scream, biting down on his tongue. His mouth filled with blood, and he spit it out in a red gush against the dirt. It didn't matter that John knew that this was a dream, that he knew perfectly well he hadn't hurt his leg until months after Holland's death. All that mattered was that right now he could save Holland, he knew he could. If he could just get to him. If he could just move.
When John woke up, a beer for breakfast sounded like a hell of a good idea, so he had two. His leg still hurt like fuck, so he decided to go for a walk on the grounds, carrying a third beer with him. He didn't feel like working, but maybe he could cover all sixty-five acres, get his leg good and sore until it was swollen and useless. Until it pulsed with a constant ache, sharp as a knife-gouge.
John could take the day off. He could take the week and the month and the year off, if he wanted.
He walked a gravel path he remembered his mother having someone lay out when he was ten. It wound through what his family had always called the Forest—a twenty-acre plot of white pine and Carolina hemlock, with some rocks strewn artistically throughout. The trees had been planted by a Sheppard ancestor and allowed to grow mostly wild for several generations. Even so, they were as perfectly shaped as everything in the Sheppard household was expected to be, and they smelled of Christmas. John could remember one being cut down every December.
After a while he started to get sick of himself and let the pine scent calm him, just a little. The sun beat down on his neck, even through the tree cover. His knee throbbed, which was what he had intended when he started this walk, but which was now seeming like a pretty stupid plan.
By the time John emerged into the open field of the West Lawn, he was wishing for the Chevy or the mower or even the cane he never allowed himself to use. With none of those at hand, he eased himself gingerly to the grass. The heat from the sun-warmed lawn seeped into the sore spot on his leg, on the back of his thigh just above his left knee where the shrapnel had hit. It almost felt good.
He tried to remember the last time he'd been to the West Lawn. When he was a kid, it had been his mother's favorite place to host summer parties. His fathered preferred holding gatherings in the house, where business acquaintances could be cowed by the wealth on display, but his mother liked a tent on the lawn and girls in summer dresses, men in shirtsleeves.
If it were a daytime party, the kids were usually allowed. John had spent many afternoons racing the children of his parents' friends up and down the stretch of lawn beyond the party tents, and rolling in the grass until Marda, who had been his favorite nanny, was hopelessly scandalized by the stains on his party clothes. His mother had never done anything but laugh, though, and run her hands through his hair.
John used to sneak away to the West Lawn a lot when he was a kid. It stretched flatly between the Forest and the back of the house—five acres of nothing but grassy field, perfect for model airplanes and dreaming. He was struck now with a vivid memory from his childhood—a memory of being ten and standing here one April evening when he should have been inside doing schoolwork. He remembered spinning around slowly, eyes wide open to take everything in, and having the strange realization that everything he could see from his place at the center of the lawn would eventually be his—the house, the trees, the lawn, the stables. It was suddenly clear to him in a way it had never been before that someday he'd be able to do what he wanted with this place that seemed so very much his father's right now. Someday he'd be able to throw his own parties if he wanted, put in an airfield, have twenty horses, fifty.
Even as his ten-year-old self had the thought, John knew it was stupid. He wasn't going to make his life in Loudoun County, Virginia. He wouldn't be entering the family business. John didn't know what he was going to do, but whatever it was, it was going to be somewhere the hell out of here.
But this place would still be his.
John had toured Europe with his family the summer before, when he was still nine. His parents had dragged him and his brother to museums and monuments and what they called the Stately Homes of England—giant historic mansions that could hold twenty Sheppard houses, where Dukes and Princesses and Counts had lived and died, or something. The houses had bored Dave and him senseless, but they always had huge gardens to play in.
John thought about those gardens—that night when he was ten and first realized the house and grounds were his, and later, nearing forty and sitting on the West Lawn with an aching leg and an empty beer bottle. He remembered thinking about a feature he'd seen in a few of those gardens in Europe, and resolving at age ten to put one in someday, just because he could. He'd nurtured the plan with an adolescent intensity for a few years, until his mother died and he'd left for prep school. He hadn't thought about it since.
John laid back on the ground and let the heat of the sun-warmed field seep into his spine. He closed his eyes. It really was his estate now. For a while.
"You want to put in a what?" And oh yeah, Ronon was laughing at him again.
"A—a thing. A maze," John repeated. "You know, out of—bushes." John racked his brain for the right word. "Hedges."
Ronon's laughter only got louder. Good thing John wasn't the sensitive type. "You want a garden maze. Out of giant hedges. Like in The Shining."
"Exactly." John nodded. "And not some half-assed path with a few bushes. I want a real maze. A big one."
"You still selling the place?" Ronon asked when he finally stopped cackling.
John knew most people would have questions. Why a maze, of all the crazy things John could want? And if he was selling, who was he even putting it in for? But the main reason John was friends with Ronon was because he didn't give a shit about things like that. Ronon just grunted.
"You know anyone?" John asked.
"It's not the seventeenth century, Sheppard. People don't make those anymore."
"All right," Ronon said. "There's one guy."
There really was only one guy, it turned out. Doctor Rodney McKay was some kind of mathematician and puzzle-maker who had designed most of the permanent large-scale outdoor mazes built in the last fifteen years. Ronon sent John a prospectus and the guy's portfolio to look over. McKay had built mazes all over the world in parks and botanical gardens, in zoos, even a few on the grounds of private mansions—owned by crazy people like himself, John supposed.
John looked at the pictures. McKay clearly wasn't interested in showing off the gardening. You couldn't even tell the mazes were made of hedges in the glossy overhead views Ronon had sent. The pictures were all about the passageways—or lack thereof—through the wickedly twisting corridors. Vortexes spiraled into central junctions, and passages that looked like sure ways out turned out to be blind alleys or hopeless dead ends. John couldn't find the exits with his finger on the paper, never mind what the life-sized versions would be like.
John took his finger away and tried to follow the paths with his eyes alone. It made him feel like he was flying, twisting through one spiral after another. He felt a little dizzy, like he needed to catch his breath.
He leaned back in his chair. Yeah, that was what he wanted.
McKay couldn't make it for two weeks. John was apparently lucky he could come at all, if the letter sent in reply to John's inquiry was to be trusted. According to his correspondence, McKay was a busy man of vital importance. John just shrugged and signed the contracts McKay had sent.
There were lawns to mow and dead branches to clear in the meantime. A girl at the garden store batted her eyes at him and sold him some yellow and orange flowers she said were low-maintenance annuals. John planted them in the flower beds at the foot of the terrace. They looked a little sad by themselves and kind of raggedy out of the store. Maybe if he went back the girl could recommend some other flowers to fill in. John had kind of liked the pink things.
He settled into a routine—mowing in the mornings, afternoons spent pruning the row of birches that lined the main drive or raking decomposing leaves from where they'd amassed in the gullies and culverts. He was forming some pretty good calluses on his hands, despite remembering to wear gloves at least half the time. There hadn't been any nightmares in a while, but he suspected that had something to do with the three or four extra beers he allowed himself on nights when he could feel one coming on.
He was riding on the West Lawn and wondering if he should name the mower—Betsy seemed solid and traditional, or he kind of liked Rita? Then again why should everything mechanical get a girl's name? John had followed that convention in the Air Force, but he was a free agent now—when there was suddenly a small blond person in his path.
John stepped hard on the clutch and yanked the parking brake, which made the mower shudder sickeningly before drifting to a stop ten yards later. Luckily the kid was still a good twenty feet away at the tree-line. Maybe John had overreacted, but he'd been shocked to see anyone here, let alone a child.
John jumped off the mower. The kid stood his ground, staring at John as he approached. He wondered who the heck the kid was and how he'd gotten there. There weren't any neighbors with small children, as far as he knew, and no neighbors at all within walking distance.
"You lost?" he asked when he was about ten feet away.
The kid narrowed his eyes and gave him the most vicious scowl John had ever seen on someone that small. And whoa, kids always loved John Sheppard. What had he done to offend this one?
John was close enough now to get a good look. The kid was about seven or eight, John supposed, with the sort of blond curls female relatives called "angelic," but which got you beat up on the playground if you didn't have a big brother looking after you. John knew firsthand—looking at him now it was hard to believe, but Dave had had those same curls once. This kid had bright blue eyes and wasn't one to stand on the small-minded tradition of color coordination, based on the way his Batman t-shirt went—or didn't—with the purple and green-striped long-sleeve shirt he wore underneath. And he hadn't stopped glaring.
John was getting a little tired of the staring contest. "What's your name?"
The boy took his time answering, looking John up and down. "Linus," he said finally.
"Linus? " John almost, but not quite, controlled his laugh. The kid glared harder. "Like from Peanuts?"
"No," Linus said. "And your lawnmower is stupid."
"Hey! Leave Betsy out of this."
"Betsy?" Linus's voice dripped with disdain.
"Or not. It's a work in progress." John didn't need this kid judging him. "Do you belong somewhere?"
"Everyone belongs somewhere."
A lot you know, John wanted to say. Instead he asked, "Then where do you belong?"
The kid was saved from existential contemplations by what sounded like a herd of elephants breaking through the woods behind him.
Instead of elephants, a furious-looking man about John's age burst through the trees. "Just what do you think you're doing to my son?"
"Nothing," John said, startled into an answer.
The man gave him a look, and oh yeah, he was Linus Sr., all right. He shared the kid's fashion sense, for one thing, and his blue-eyed glare was the twin of the one the little twerp was still sending John's way. His hair was straighter than Linus's, and the kind of indiscriminate brown that had almost certainly been blond thirty years ago. It was also clearly thinning on top. John felt a surge of possibly inappropriate satisfaction at the thought that little Linus might be bald someday.
"Are you one of those backwoods bumpkins who gets their kicks from 'socializing' with little boys?" The man fixed John with an almost comically suspicious look and drew Linus behind him protectively. He kept one hand on the kid's shoulder, and whipped out a smart-phone with the other, waving it at John like Indiana Jones keeping away the snakes. "You should know I have 9-1-1 on speed dial. I can have the police or the sheriff—" He removed the hand from his son's shoulder to snap his fingers several times in rapid succession. "Or—or the troopers or whatever the law in Appalachia is here in five minutes. As long as I can get a signal, which admittedly might be a problem in this godforsaken wilderness."
"This isn't Appalachia," he said when he was sure the man was done. He felt his burgeoning annoyance being replaced with a wry amusement. This was likely to be the most entertaining thing to happen all week. He put extra drawl in his words. "And it's not the wilderness." He cocked his head back toward the house, gray and imposing. "I'm pretty sure you can find a phone if you need one."
"Yes, well." The man's posture relaxed, though his eyes remained wary. "I still don't know what you were doing with Linus."
"Hey," John spread his arms in what he hoped was a peaceful gesture. "I was just mowing the lawn."
The last of the man's defensiveness fled so rapidly it was like it had never been there. He glanced behind John at the riding mower with some relief. "Oh, you're the gardener." He turned to the kid sternly. "Linus, what have I told you about bothering people while they're working?" He turned back to John and sighed. "I'm sorry. He wanted to go to Disneyworld."
John wasn't sure what he was supposed to say to that, but the man was already sticking out his hand. "Doctor Rodney McKay. Do you know where the owner is? John—Miller? Or... Thatcher?"
"John Sheppard," John said, shaking his hand. So this was Rodney McKay.
"Yes, well, I knew the name was some medieval job or another. Do you know where he is?"
John blinked again. He needed to stop doing that before he convinced McKay he'd been right in his original estimation of him as a backwards yokel.
"I knocked at the door," McKay said. "But no one answered. This is the Sheppard estate, isn't it? Do you know where he is?"
All John had to do was correct McKay's mistake. It would be entertaining to watch him bluster, and then John could be gracious and charming, just like the Sheppard he'd been brought up to be. Perfectly understandable, Doctor McKay. I should have made myself clear.
It was a simple mistake, easily corrected. Instead, John heard himself saying, "Sheppard's not home."
"I got that," McKay said slowly. "When I knocked on the door and no one answered. Do you know when he's coming back?"
"No idea," John said, and felt suddenly lighter. "Could be weeks."
"Oh," McKay looked disconcerted.
"But I can handle anything to do with the grounds—including the maze," John added, because okay, maybe he was having a psychotic break, but that was no reason to blow his plans for a hedge maze.
"Hmm," McKay said. "You won't need to. The contracts are signed. The check's cleared." He smiled suddenly, transforming his whole face. "Might be pleasant to work without a client for once. You have no idea how much of a strain it is to be nice all the time."
John grinned at him, feeling weirdly buoyant. "For you? Couldn't be."
McKay hummed noncommittally. "Well, I'm sure you have gardening things to do. Linus, apologize to..."
John realized McKay was waiting for a name. "John," he said after a moment.
McKay looked at him quizzically. John shrugged. "Most common name in the English language."
McKay seemed satisfied. "Apologize to John for disturbing him."
"No," Linus said, and remained unmoved by the glare McKay gave him.
After a moment, McKay sighed. "Linus is very sorry for bothering you."
"Am not," Linus said.
McKay grabbed Linus's hand. "We'll just go settle in."
To his surprise, John found that he didn't want McKay to leave. He wanted to talk to him—ask him stuff about mazes, and what kind of doctor he was, and just what he meant by "settling in." He couldn't remember the last time he'd been curious about anyone.
Instead he gave McKay a jaunty little salute and watched him drag the kid away.
"Settling in" turned out to mean McKay parking his ultra-light forty-five foot trailer in a back corner of the West Lawn, along with the enormous beige SUV with Canadian plates that McKay used to pull it. The grass would grow back someday, John supposed.
McKay's trailer was white with stylized blue and red swoops painted on the side. Even from the outside, John could tell it was fully tricked-out. Pull-out rooms bulged from either side like it had mumps. Apparently, McKay would both live and work from there, along with his son.
John helped McKay run a water line to an old outbuilding the gardeners had used when he was growing up—the trailer had its own generator—and spent the rest of his first day watching him surreptitiously from the Sun Room. McKay paced the entire lawn, all five acres, with an almost excruciating slowness, stopping now and then to stare up into the sky, or bend down to examine the ground. John expected him to have blueprints or plans with him, but instead he carried a tablet computer. Every once in a while he paused to glare at it, or type something furiously.
John felt pretty stupid, now that sanity had regained a foothold. He couldn't understand what he'd been thinking. It had just felt good not to be Major John Sheppard, with all his bullshit, for a few minutes. To McKay he'd been the gardener, just someone else working on the estate, and that had been... freeing, somehow. It was the first time he'd enjoyed talking to somebody in months.
And just suppose he decided to keep up the masquerade. What would it hurt, anyhow? It's not like it mattered to McKay who he was. McKay could do his work, and John could do his, and if he felt like taking a vacation from John Sheppard, total fuck-up, that was nobody's business but his own.
John shook his head hard to clear it. He was being ridiculous. Normal people didn't do things like that, and he wasn't far enough around the bend to want to drag McKay into his psycho-dramas. He laughed a little to himself. What would Dave think?
No. John didn't know why he'd lied to McKay in the first place, but it was absurd to continue. He needed to tell McKay who he really was. McKay would probably be pissed, but John would throw some more money at him and pretend it was all some rich guy asshole prank, or something. Maybe it had been.
He would tell McKay the truth. The next time he saw him. Tomorrow, maybe. Or the day after.
The next day neither McKay nor Linus emerged from the trailer, despite John hopefully (and unnecessarily) mowing the West Lawn again, taking special care to make the mower its loudest at the patch of grass nearest their temporary home.
When the afternoon of the third day arrived without any McKays showing themselves, John realized he would have to take matters into his own hands. He knocked on the trailer door, fully prepared to apologize and make himself into the asshole. Maybe he could offer McKay and Linus bedrooms in the house as a way to make up for lying to them. The trailer was nice, but it couldn't be comfortable enough to stay in for as many consecutive hours as they had.
There was no answer. John knocked again. He couldn't have missed them leaving, could he? The SUV was still there.
After long enough for John to seriously contemplate chickening-out, the trailer's door finally swung open. McKay stood there with messy hair and a distracted look. He seemed to look straight through John before his blue eyes tracked and suddenly focused. "Oh, thank God," he said, and yanked John inside by his shirt collar.
That was unexpected. John struggled to avoid jamming his knee from tripping over the threshold.
McKay let go of his shirt when they were all the way inside the trailer. "Tricked-out" didn't begin to describe it. Once through the door, John found himself in the kitchen facing cabinets of what looked like burnished-steel set into the wall over a double sink and range-top oven. A full-sized refrigerator with a door in the same dark metal fit closely into an alcove at his left. Somehow there was still space for a huge microwave and coffee-maker, all built into the wall. It was on the small side, but that just made it space-age and cool, as far as John was concerned.
To his right was an open door leading to a bedroom big enough to fit what was at least a queen bed. It was unmade. John guessed McKay wasn't the neat type.
John followed McKay further in. The refrigerator had partially obscured the rest of the trailer, but now he had a full view of the living area. "Wow," John said.
"Hmm?" McKay sounded distant. "Oh yes, it's like the TARDIS. Bigger on the inside."
McKay was right. From in here the pull-out rooms expanded the floor space without seeming swollen, the way they did when you were outside. There was a kitchen nook with chairs, a bunk-type bed, and a coffee table. John gave the coffee table a little shove, just to test it. It didn't move. Everything was bolted to the floor or wall like on a ship. John thought it was maybe the coolest thing he'd ever seen.
Linus was here, hunched over on an enormous fuzzy blue sofa that took advantage of the extra room in one of the pull-outs. He spun a Wii wheel controller rapidly in his hands. A huge plasma TV mounted into the wall across from him showed Yoshi navigating the Mario Kart track. John watched for a moment. Linus was pretty good, but he needed to work on avoiding the banana peels. Along with the Wii, there was a DVD player and a bunch of movies in the entertainment center in the wall next to the TV. John was pretty sure he saw a PlayStation in there, too.
Linus inclined his head to the rear of the trailer without looking away from the TV. "If you let Dad start talking about the maze, you'll be in there all day."
"Oh," John said, because he couldn't think of anything else.
"All day," Linus repeated, nodding. "I'm just telling you."
John was about to answer... something, when Yoshi wiped out on a curve, apparently requiring Linus's full attention.
"Yes, thank you, Linus, I'm sure John is grateful for the warning." McKay beckoned him toward a folding door in what looked like the rear wall of the trailer. "I'm glad you came. Working without clients or minions has been refreshing, but I didn't realize how much I'd miss sharing my genius with someone." He stopped in front of the closed door, and bounced a little on the balls of his feet, smirking.
McKay had just called himself a genius without a trace of irony, but his enthusiasm was infectious. John felt himself grinning back. McKay slid the door open with a flourish.
The summer before John had gone to college, it had been a fleeting trend for small groups from his prep school to go in on one of these kinds of trailers together. They called them "toy haulers" and used them to cart around the expensive motorcycles and ATVs they'd requested—and received—for graduation presents. By that time John had hated pretty much everyone at Exeter, so he never went on one of those road trips, but he knew the toy haulers always had a cargo or garage-type space in the rear.
McKay had converted his cargo space into an office, with a drafting table on one side and what looked like a small electronics store on the other. John counted four laptops, all open and showing various screensavers, along with the tablet he'd seen before, and a desktop computer that had been shoved unceremoniously to the rear of a lab bench. Equipment for which John couldn't begin to guess the purpose was stacked in a corner.
McKay gestured John impatiently over to the drafting table. It had a large white paper clipped to it, maybe three feet high by two feet wide, printed with a blue grid like oversized graph paper. Sketched in pencil over the grid were the plans for John's maze.
John stepped forward, his breath catching a little. McKay was some kind of artist, or something, because the thing was beautifully drawn—all clean lines and precision shading. John reached out to touch it. He managed to drag a thumb lightly over one of the penciled-in hedges before McKay squeaked and he drew his hand back quickly.
"Sorry," he mumbled. He was only vaguely aware of McKay's indignant face; most of his attention was consumed by the maze in front of him.
"Yes, well, try to control yourself," he heard McKay say.
John rubbed his thumb against his index finger, feeling the oily slide of the pencil grit. He leaned closer to the paper, mesmerized.
McKay's maze started simply. The bottom corners were right angles, and the same opening served as both entrance and exit. You entered into a sort of a open circle, were immediately forced to the left, and had to find your way in a roughly counter-clockwise pattern around the maze and back.
But that was the end to the straightforwardness of McKay's design. That first left turn led you into a deceptively straight passageway that before long opened into a muddle of curves and diagonal lines. John was able to follow the spiral that led out, but soon lost his way in the arcs and detached lines that made no sense up close, but revealed themselves to be gracefully curving corridors, or sharply angled switchbacks when John stepped back and tried to take the whole thing in.
It was amazing, and dizzying, and John realized he'd forgotten to breathe when he heard himself gulp for air, and start to choke.
McKay pounded him on the back with a kind of manic glee until John stepped away in self defense.
"Yes, exactly," McKay said, though John wasn't sure in response to what. "It's going to be almost a whole acre, which is huge for a private residence. There's nearly two-and-a-half kilometers of pathway."
"Cool," John said.
McKay rolled his eyes. "Oh, don't even try to pretend you aren't impressed. You're looking at landmark maze technology, my friend, soon to become the most innovative life-size maze in this or any other country and win me many prestigious design awards. I realize you don't have a base-line, but trust me when I say this is brilliant even for me."
"Very cool," John said, but he couldn't keep himself from smiling.
McKay harrumphed in what John was pretty sure was a pleased manner. "It's mostly a matter of applied graph theory, though of course that's like saying the Mona Lisa is a matter of applied oil paint. Do you know how to make a maze?"
He turned to John, waiting for an answer. John felt more than a little speared by that intense blue gaze. He wondered when the last time was that McKay had slept.
McKay snapped his fingers. "Come on, come on. No wrong answers."
John sincerely doubted that. "You... draw a path? And, uh, draw branches off from it?"
"Ha, maybe that's what you would do. You could also try giving a pencil to a thousand monkeys."
John thought it would probably be better to give the monkeys a thousand pencils, unless you wanted monkey wars, but he decided to keep it to himself. McKay moved toward the computers. "Do you happen to know anything about math? No, of course you don't."
He had an almost overwhelming urge to tell McKay that as a matter of fact, he did know how to both add and subtract, and he'd actually picked up a little thing called a Minor in Mathematics when he was at Stanford. He bit the impulse back, horrified to recognize it as a desire to impress McKay.
McKay typed rapidly into one of the laptops. "Now, one way to make a maze is to use some form of Kruskal's Algorithm to start with, or maybe a randomized Prim, but those produce mazes that are far too easy to solve. That's good enough for the people who are impressed by walls made out of giant bushes, but let's presume that this Sheppard has some intelligence, hmm? As evidenced by the fact that he hired me."
John winced, a little, on the inside. He'd almost forgotten he'd come here to tell McKay the truth about who he was. Now was the right time, probably, but McKay was already talking again.
"McKay's Algorithm, on the other hand, begins with no walls. Think of the whole maze as one chamber."
He gestured John closer to look at the screen, which showed blank white space. McKay hit a single key and a straight line bisected the empty field.
"You divide the chamber with a wall—anywhere you want, really. Now you've made two chambers. Are you following so far?"
John looked at the lone black line dividing the screen in two. "Yeah, McKay, I think I can just keep up."
"Hmm," McKay said, unfazed by the sarcasm. "You'd be surprised how many people can't."
As McKay typed, more and more walls appeared, until dozens criss-crossed the screen. "But the genius of the algorithm comes when you take the walls of certain chambers and bend them at a precise angle I call the McKay Constant."
The image on the screen altered so subtly that John almost didn't notice, transforming into the southeastern corner of McKay's sketch.
"You see?" McKay asked. "You're looking at math. It's fascinating, really."
McKay leaned back against the trailer wall, settling in. He seemed to want to talk, which was okay with John, who let the words wash over him. McKay spoke about distance matrices, and subgraph isomorphism. He told John there were common maze-solving algorithms too, though none, of course, that would work on a McKay maze. He discussed topology, and how it had been pioneered by Leonhard Euler—a man whose genius, he conceded, might equal his own. He touched on binary trees and how it had taken a hundred and thirty years to solve the four-color problem.
He didn't seem to need any conversational input from John which was just fine—John didn't want to say a word. If he spoke, there would be no excuse not to say what he'd come here to tell McKay, and John suddenly wanted to delay that as long as he could. He was enjoying being with McKay. He liked hearing about set theory, and theoretical math problems, and how the applications of McKay's Algorithm transcended mazes. Another day he might have had questions, might have wanted to dig into the math and get his hands dirty, but for now he was content to listen, and watch McKay's hands fly through the air as he flitted from point to point. The rapid cadence of McKay's voice warmed him, somehow, made it a little easier not to think for a while.
McKay was wrapping it up, probably—confessing to John that loathe as he was to admit it there came a time in the maze designing process when the math had done all it could and something he refused to call "art" came into play—when he tilted his head and peered at John. "Are you okay?"
John came back to himself with a jolt. He'd been staring with unfocused eyes, he realized, somewhere over McKay's shoulder.
"I've been talking too much." McKay sounded embarrassed. "I tend to do that when no one stops me. According to my sister, anyway."
He glanced over his shoulder toward where John had been looking. His face brightened and he moved to the bookshelf that happened to be in John's line of sight. Running a finger along the books, he selected one and pressed it into John's hands. "Go ahead and take it. You seem to have a genuine interest."
John should have told him that he hadn't been looking at the books at all. He should have said that he had been staring into space wondering how to tell him something. That he'd decided the best way was just to say it.
Instead he looked down at the book in his hands. The cover was a collage of colorful mazes with "The Amazing Book of Mazes" written in green type. A little further down were the words, "by Dr. Rodney McKay."
"You write books?"
"Of course." McKay sounded surprised at the question. "Mazes are much better experienced in person, but not everyone has the money to build one, obviously. Are you sure you're all right?"
John should have told him then, but McKay pushed a button on the wall, producing a kind of buzzing noise, and the back wall of the office slowly canted outward from the ceiling and lowered itself to the ground outside to form a ramp. That was so cool John had to stop and watch, and before he knew it, McKay had a warm hand on his shoulder, and was ushering him out.
"Well, still lots of work for me to do, and you look like you could use some rest, John." He paused for a moment on the ramp. "John... You never did tell me your last name."
"Landry," John said, which was the both the name of one of the assholes who'd wanted him out of the Air Force, and also of John's favorite football coach.
McKay seemed to be thinking the name over. "Call me John," John added.
"Sure," McKay said, turning back to the draft table.
"And I'll call you Rodney." John felt almost giddy.
"Yes, fine," McKay said. "Working time now." But he threw John a quick smile before lowering his head to peer at the maze plans.
It was sunset by the time John reached the house, and he didn't feel bad for lying, not at all.
The book Rodney had given him turned out to be filled with overhead views of the world's great mazes. In what seemed to John to be a touching show of modesty, only half of them had been designed by Rodney. Some were hundreds of years old, like the one at Hampton Court, which John remembered playing in on his childhood trip to England. Some were mazes that no longer existed, like the one at the Palace of Versailles, which Rodney had recreated from historical documents, and still others were mazes Rodney had had to imagine, like the Cretan Labyrinth. Rodney had put a tiny minotaur at the center of that one, John noted with a smile. There was even a section of mazes Rodney had designed that couldn't be built in real life, including one that took up several pages and used plus and minus signs to indicate the fourth dimension.
The best part of the book was that it was spiral bound, so it lay perfectly flat when opened, and had acetate overlays between every page that you could write on. John spent the morning trying to solve the mazes with a wipe-off pen. Rodney's were the most difficult, of course.
John hadn't worked at all the day before, so he thought he probably ought to see about pruning the birches. He went out with the best of intentions, but it was hot and boring, and after a few hours he tossed some stuff in the back of the Chevy and headed to the West Lawn. Maybe Rodney needed some leaves blown out of his way, or something. He'd glanced out a window earlier, just to check if anything was going on, and had seen Rodney outside the trailer fussing with equipment.
He drove straight to Rodney's trailer, figuring that part of the lawn was toast anyway. Rodney and Linus were both outside. Rodney was fiddling with an apparatus that John thought looked sort of like someone had taken an old-time camera, complete with tripod, and slapped a facade of titanium and black rubber on top of it. At the same time he held out a can of spray-paint to Linus enticingly.
"Think of it as a bonding opportunity," Rodney was saying as John approached.
Linus gave him one of the best eye-rolls John had ever seen, and took off across the lawn, planting himself in a lawn chair Rodney had set up several yards away under an awning.
"Or think of it as illegal child labor, I don't care!" Rodney yelled after him.
"Not sure that's the best way to get him to cooperate," John said as he reached him.
"Did I ask for unsolicited advice?" Rodney ran a hand through his hair. The sweat on his fingers made half of it stick up. "Are you a parent?"
"Nope. But I was a bratty kid from way back."
"Why am I not surprised? Okay, what do you suggest?"
John hesitated. He didn't actually have any advice. He hadn't meant to insert himself in the first place; he'd just wanted to make a smartass remark to Rodney.
"Don't give him a hard time," John said after a moment. "You and I can work on whatever this is. After he sees us for a while, maybe he'll want to help on his own."
Rodney shot him an incredulous look. "What, like Tom Sawyer and the fence?"
Rodney sighed. "Fine. It's not like anything else is working."
"Great!" John said. He wasn't sure where his feeling of unexpected excitement was coming from, but he decided to go with it. "What are we doing?"
"Surveying." Rodney indicated the weird camera-looking thing.
"Cool," John said, because it really was.
"Yes, very cool," Rodney said with an echo of Linus's eye-roll. He shoved his tablet and a bunch of technological doodads in a backpack.
John thought they were ready to start, but Rodney was still rummaging around in the pack, after a minute coming out with a small case. When he unzipped it, a lime green blur sprang violently out and landed at John's feet.
John bent over to pick the object up. It was a nylon sun hat with a foldable wire sewn into the enormous brim. John dangled it off a finger. "Lose something, Rodney?"
"Some of us respect the power of the sun." Rodney made a swipe for the hat, but John pulled it away. "Very mature. Maybe you'd like to teach Linus that move."
John smiled and stepped forward to place the hat on Rodney's head, taking a moment to adjust it to sit straight. Rodney fidgeted uncomfortably. "Hold still," John told him.
John was close enough feel the heat coming off Rodney's body and to smell something... odd. He leaned into Rodney's neck and sniffed. "Cocoa butter?"
The embarrassed look that had been on Rodney's face quickly changed to one of pride. "Sunscreen," he said. "100 SPF. You can't buy protection like this. I have to make it myself."
"You make your own sunscreen?"
"Yes," Rodney said as if that were completely normal. "You want some?" He pulled a tub of white gunk out of the backpack and waved it in John's face. "Your funeral," he said as John stepped quickly out of reach. "For someone who works outdoors, you really don't take care of your skin very well."
John touched his cheek. It felt a little rough. He'd been getting a good tan over the past few weeks, but maybe he should think about wearing a baseball cap or something.
"Why do you make your own sunscreen? I thought you were a mathematician."
"I'm not allowed to have hobbies?" Rodney spread some of the sunscreen on his nose, making it look like a little white triangle. John had to smile. "If you must know, my advanced degrees are in math, but I have undergraduate degrees in chemistry and physics, as well. Satisfied?"
No, John really wasn't. He wanted to know why Rodney had chosen mazes, and not... academics or... world domination, or whatever you did with degrees like that. He thought about asking, but Rodney had already slipped his backpack over his shoulder, and was walking off. John was so transfixed by the sight of the giant lime-green hat bouncing up and down that he forgot to follow until Rodney turned around and made an impatient gesture. "Well, come on."
He trailed Rodney out to a spot a hundred yards or so from the house. John had offered to carry the surveyor-thing (a "theodolite," Rodney informed him, but he refused to call it that on the grounds of the name being too silly too say out loud), but Rodney just clutched it to himself like a baby and thrust a couple of spray paint cans at him instead. The thing probably wasn't that heavy, anyway—Rodney seemed to be able to handle it and his full-to-bursting backpack at the same time.
When they reached a place Rodney seemed satisfied with, he adjusted the tripod to a low angle and aimed the lens in the direction of the house. John followed him forward about twenty more yards, then watched as Rodney pulled something out of his backpack that looked like a Rubik's cube covered in reflective tape—but probably wasn't—and set in on the ground. He did something with his tablet, and that seemed to be it.
Rodney scooped up the Rubik's Cube. "Make an 'X.'"
"An 'X.' Two diagonal lines that cross in the middle. Looks like a crooked plus sign? Right there." He snapped his fingers twice and pointed at the ground.
John mentally shrugged and shook one of the spray-paint cans. The mark the neon orange paint made on the grass was strangely satisfying. He looked up to check if Rodney was okay with the placement, but he was already striding off. John scrambled to follow. Rodney found another place he seemed to like, placed the Rubik's Cube carefully on the grass and started fiddling with the tablet again. John was about to point out that the lens of the surveyor-thingy was pointing the wrong way, and offer to go turn it, when the thing suddenly spun slowly around to face them.
John's surprise must have shown on his face because Rodney smiled. "It's robotic. And it has an electronic distance monitor. And GPS. With the right equipment, surveying is not actually a two person job anymore." He sighed. "I really was hoping to connect with Linus, not conscript him."
John couldn't help but feel for Rodney. He took a surreptitious glance over the other man's shoulder toward the awning where Linus had been sitting. The kid was out of the chair now, and had moved a little closer to Rodney and John. He was peering at them with what seemed to John to be curiosity.
"Speaking of Linus," John said. "Don't look now, but he's watching."
"Really?" Rodney asked with hope in his voice, and of course he had to turn his head to look in his son's direction.
As soon as he did, Linus turned and stalked into the trailer. John didn't know if those doors could slam, but he was sure Linus had given it his best effort.
Rodney sighed. "I'm the world's worst father, aren't I?"
Please. Based on John's experience, he doubted Rodney could crack the top ten. "Why is he so angry?" he asked, then kicked himself internally for asking something that was so clearly none of his business.
Rodney sighed again, but didn't seem upset by the prying. "The easy answer is that I promised to take him to Disneyworld, but I accepted this job instead."
John deliberately didn't ask what the hard answer was. He wasn't at all surprised when Rodney told him anyway.
"The real answer is he's angry with his mother for leaving us, and angry at me for letting her." Rodney scooped up the reflective cube and turned it over in his hands. "And probably angry at himself, too. The counselor said he would be."
That was a lot of mad for a little kid. John resolved to be nicer to him, the next time they met. "I'm sorry," he said, because he couldn't think of anything else to say.
Rodney smiled wryly. "Christine moved away almost a year ago. I'd hoped Linus and I would be—well, not over it by now, but at least better with each other. It's my fault. I'm not an easy person to get along with. I'd sort of hoped we might get closer if we worked on a maze together."
Maybe pretending to be someone else was changing his personality, or something. John Sheppard normally made sure to be somewhere far away if it looked like there was the danger of a conversation about feelings breaking out, but for some reason he felt an urge now to do something, to help if he could. Rodney was trying. Just like Dave had tried. Like John and his father never had.
There was nothing he could do, of course. Except maybe try to make Rodney feel better, for whatever that was worth. He cast his mind around for something to change the subject, but came up empty. He bumped Rodney companionably with a shoulder instead, and they started walking again, further this time.
"So why the name Linus?" John asked after a few minutes. "You a secret Charlie Brown fan, Rodney?"
"Hmm?" Rodney was busy with his tablet. "No, his mother was a chemist—is a chemist."
"Ah," John said. "Linus Pauling."
Rodney looked up. "Yes. Most people don't get it that quickly."
He gave John an expression of pleased surprise, and John couldn't help feeling like he'd done something good. "That why you got the chemistry degree, McKay?" he asked, feeling bold. "To impress a girl?"
"Actually, yes." Rodney nodded. "With mixed results as you can see."
John watched little pools of green dance across Rodney's cheeks and shoulders where the sun shone through the brim of his hat and felt weirdly happy. He wasn't sure what his own face showed, but whatever it was made Rodney smile at him—the first genuine smile he'd seen from him all day, reaching all the way to his crinkling eyes. John tried not to let that smile keep him warm for the rest of the day.
It turned out Rodney was hitting the reflector cube with a laser, which John could not believe he didn't bother telling him until the second day of surveying.
"It's not like you can see it," Rodney protested.
"That's even worse." John put every ounce of mournful sorrow he could manage into his voice. "Invisible lasers. And you didn't even tell me."
"I'm telling you now," Rodney said irritably, then grinned. "It is pretty cool, isn't it?"
John just shook his head sadly.
By the third day, a portion of the West Lawn was covered in neon-colored X's and mysterious little notes Rodney had painted on the grass—some were numbers John thought probably represented angles, but some were words that only made sense to Rodney. From the distance of the upstairs bedrooms, the whole thing looked like a kindergarten art project. John knew his father would have gone apoplectic at the mess. The thought made him smile and feel almost warm toward the old man for a moment before he caught himself.
John still worked mornings on gardening jobs—more for form's sake than anything else—but he spent every afternoon watching the progress of the maze. Rodney grumbled, and asked if he didn't have his own work, and why did he insist on hanging around and distracting Rodney from his? He even managed to get in a few potshots at John's hair, but he always let John walk along with him, and found something for him to do.
Rodney liked having him around, no matter how much he groused. He was too impatient to be a natural teacher, but he liked explaining things, and John was a willing listener. He liked hearing the history of mazes, about how the ancient world's first were unicursal—only one path, and thus couldn't properly be termed mazes in the modern sense. They talked as they worked, and John learned about braid mazes which had many paths but no dead ends, and delta mazes, made completely of interlocking triangles.
John didn't have to ask why Rodney had chosen mazes anymore. The love bled through every word he said, and John was caught up in his enthusiasm, despite himself. He hadn't started this out of any great affection for puzzles. His urge for a maze was just another in an endless line of ill-thought out decisions. He couldn't categorize this choice in the long list of John Sheppard mistakes and regrets, though, not with Rodney beside him, hands flying as he spoke about his fruitless dream of building a fourth dimensional maze in real life—the math was there, but the parallel universes refused to cooperate.
It took three days for the site to be surveyed to Rodney's satisfaction, after which Rodney took a few days to mark the placement for the hedges—painting lines on the grass with a nifty handled roller-ball thing. When the lines of the maze were nearly complete, John arrived one afternoon to find Rodney crouched dead center in the planned maze, staring down at the painted grass like it had done him wrong.
John bent down to join him. "What's up, Rodney?"
By now he'd known Rodney long enough not to be surprised when a scowl was all he received for an answer. He knew all he had to do was wait.
It didn't take long. "If you must know, something here's not right. It doesn't fit."
John, who had studied the plans, knew for a fact that everything in this section was perfect. "Did you make a mistake?" he asked anyway, regretting the words as soon as they were out of his mouth.
"I don't make mistakes," Rodney said matter-of-factly, his faith in his infallibility apparently too strong for him to take offense. "No, it's—off. Too much. The paths are all—cramped together. Something feels wrong."
John knew better than to accuse Rodney of having an artistic temperament. He bumped his shoulder. "If you need more space, maybe you can put in a tunnel."
Rodney glared at him until John raised his hands in the universal gesture of just-a-joke, then suddenly leaped up, pointing at the ground. "No, no, no, no. I mean yes, but no. Not tunnels, bridges."
John stood up too, brushing the knee of his jeans which had picked up some pink spray paint. It didn't help. "Bridges?" he asked, feeling bemused.
Rodney turned to him, the maniacal light of creative genius in his eyes. It was a look John was getting used to. "Bridges," he confirmed. He raised his hand, still pointing at the ground, until it pointed at John and narrowed his eyes accusingly. "You! I knew you were smart."
John grinned at him. He hadn't smiled so much in months, he realized, but something about Rodney made him goofy. "Thanks for the compliment."
"Yes, well, don't get used to it." Rodney was too giddy to put any bite into the words. "I'll see you in two days," he said, already striding back to the trailer.
John was so surprised he just stood there watching Rodney walk away. "Wait. What?" he asked when he'd recovered himself enough to follow.
"Lots of work to do, John," Rodney said, making little shoo-ing motions in his direction. "Scat. Don't make me revise my opinion of your intellect."
There wasn't anything else to do but stand his ground and watch Rodney disappear into the trailer. Two days.
Well that sucked.
True to his word, Rodney didn't emerge from the trailer once the next day. John spent the morning puttering around the house, and glancing at the trailer through a rear window from time to time, feeling annoyed with himself every time he did. To make matters worse, his leg—which had felt great during all the walking he'd done with Rodney—was picking this morning to start aching again. He must have been pushing himself too hard.
It was as good an excuse as any to drive into town for lunch instead of getting any work done. John had three slices of pizza at some place that was a Chinese restaurant last he remembered, and drove home still vaguely dissatisfied.
The restless feeling lasted all the way to the next morning. John thought maybe the solitude was getting to him after all. For a few moments he thought about calling Dave, but what would he say? That he was feeling lonely? Dave wasn't who he wanted to talk to anyway.
John drove out to the lake and spent the morning working on the long-neglected de-gunking of the dock. Maybe next summer he could have a small wooden boat out here, the way he and Dave used to when they were kids. Except they were selling the place.
By that time his smell about matched his mood, which was nicely poetic, but John still drove back to the house and showered the dead leaf scum off before taking the riding mower out to the flat patch of grass that ran along the northeastern border of the property.
John had only been mowing twenty minutes or so when he saw Linus walking along the edge of the road toward the field. This time John had plenty of time to stop the mower. He still half expected Linus to ignore him and walk right by. He wondered whether he should go after Linus himself or try to find Rodney.
But instead of ignoring him, Linus walked right to the front of the mower and stood there, staring.
"This seems familiar," John said finally.
"I want to ride the mower."
I thought you said it was stupid, John did not say, remembering his resolution to be nice to the kid. Instead he put what he hoped was a sympathetic smile on his face. "There's only one seat. Sorry."
"Okay," Linus said. "I'll drive."
"You will not!" John said before he could stop himself. He sighed and scooted over in the seat to make room. "All right. I guess you're pretty little."
"I am not little," Linus said, even as he was climbing in. "I'm nine."
John winced. It had been too long since he was a kid if he didn't know better than to say something like that. But Linus was small. He fit perfectly into the seat with John. He looked at least a few years younger than nine—that along with the blond curls couldn't make it easy to fit in. John pulled the single seat belt over them, which earned him a glare, and turned the key.
John kept his eyes on the field as he drove, not really wanting to engage with the little ball of anger beside him. But Linus was so close John could feel the unhappiness coming off him in waves. That had to be exhausting for a little kid.
Maybe it was because John could see Rodney in the kid's hunched shoulders, or maybe being John the gardener was fundamentally altering his emotional DNA. Maybe he was just remembering being nine years old and feeling alone. For whatever reason, he felt the urge to talk to the kid, see if he couldn't get him to unwind a little. No kid was unhappy all the time, right?
If he drove the mower slowly enough, John only had to shout a little to make himself heard. He gazed down at Linus's blond head. "So what do you do besides video games?"
Linus stared. "You mean like for a job?"
John sighed. "No, I meant for fun."
"Then you should have said that." He looked back at the field.
"Okay," John said, because he wasn't going to let this kid defeat him that easily. "I'm saying it now."
Linus paused. He squinted his eyes a little at John, as if wasn't sure he could trust him. "I like math puzzles," he said finally. "And drawing. But not mazes," he added firmly. He looked at John curiously. "Do you know any math puzzles?"
John racked his brain for something suitable for a nine-year-old. Maybe he'd remember one later. At least now they were getting somewhere. "How about skate-boarding? The back terrace here makes a great course."
"No thank you. I like my brains inside my head, not all over the cement."
John smiled. That had to come from Rodney. "You like anything else?" he asked.
Linus considered a long moment . "No."
John almost laughed at the certainty in his voice, but caught himself in time. Math puzzles and drawing. Well, he supposed he could find the kid a piece of paper.
They rode in silence for a while, John musing over some way to draw Linus out of his shell. Rodney probably knew great math puzzles. Maybe he and John and Linus could all—
"How about you?"
"Huh?" John snapped back to reality, surprised at Linus speaking voluntarily.
"What do you do for fun?" Linus folded his arms and tapped his fingers, another Rodney move that meant he was annoyed at having to repeat the question.
"When I was a kid, I used to ride horses and build model airplanes. Oh, and skateboard." John smiled, remembering.
"Hmm." Linus's hum said he wasn't satisfied with John's answer. "And what do you do for fun now?"
Drinking didn't seem like an appropriate response. John didn't have an answer, of course, but he was still surprised how thrown he was by Linus asking the question. He looked over at Linus, who gazed back, blue eyes wide and knowing. He clearly thought he'd figured something out about John. He was smart enough that he was probably right.
Linus seemed to relax after that, looking around at the field as they drove, and gazing sometimes at the sky. He wasn't so bad, thought John, when he was taking some time off from being angry. It was kind of nice being out here with him, with the sun on his shoulders and the smell of fresh-cut grass in the air. It was probably good for the kid, too. Healthy or something.
"I like Batman."
John was startled by the sudden voice. He'd almost been dozing, he realized, and brought the mower to a stop—they'd been going over the same ground for a while anyway. "What?"
Linus shrugged. "That's something else I like. You asked."
"Cool," John said. "Me too."
"Dad says we can get the new animated movie when he's less busy with the maze."
John was pleased with this new, talkative Linus. "It's pretty good, " he said to encourage him.
"You have it?"
John nodded, about to offer to let Linus borrow the DVD when a loud engine noise told him a vehicle was approaching. John looked up to see Rodney's SUV barreling down the road. It barely rolled to a stop in front of the field before Rodney jumped out. The look of relief on his face was obvious even from several yards away.
"Oh thank God," Rodney said well before he reached them. "Linus, I thought you were playing video games. Why did you—I was—Just tell me if you want to go out, okay? Thank you," he added to John quietly.
Rodney looked pretty shaken up. Even Linus must have thought so, because to his credit he didn't pull away when Rodney yanked him into a hug.
"John has the new Batman," he said into Rodney's chest.
"What?" Rodney asked distractedly.
Linus pulled his head back. "Can we go over to his place and watch?"
"Together? You want to—really?"
And whoa, that wasn't what John had been offering. But Rodney was looking ridiculously hopeful at the idea of his son voluntarily spending time with him, and Linus was already pulling away and shrugging nonchalantly. What the hell, he'd been wanting to talk to Rodney anyway. About the maze. Maybe if he'd finished revising the design he could bring it over and show John.
"Sounds like a plan," he said.
"Really?" Rodney's smile sent a little thrill through his stomach that John immediately tried to tamp down.
"Tonight?" asked Linus.
"Linus!" Rodney said admonishingly, but his smile was still doing weird things to John.
"Sure, why not?" he heard himself saying. "If Rodney doesn't need to work."
"I finished about an hour ago. And then Linus was gone, and—anyway, I'm done."
"Great then," John said with more heartiness than he suddenly felt. "I'm at the big house."
"The big house?" Rodney asked with some confusion.
Put like that Rodney probably thought he was in jail. "The main house," John clarified. "Here on the property. I'm sort of the... caretaker."
John's words sounded squeaky and implausible to his own ears. He tensed in anticipation, but Rodney merely nodded. "Ah. I'd wondered why you never seemed to leave. Tonight then?"
"Yeah," John said. "Okay. Tonight." And because he was all in anyway, he added, "I'll make dinner."
Spaghetti was about all John knew how to cook, but Rodney seemed to like it, digging in with gusto, and licking the sauce off his fork. Linus wasn't a picky eater, thank God, or maybe it was just that all kids liked spaghetti. It was pretty good, John thought, even with the sauce out of a jar.
Watching Rodney pop a meatball whole into his mouth, John thought maybe he was doing his good deed for the day. It couldn't be easy to cook in the trailer's tiny kitchen. He said as much to Rodney, who blinked.
"I don't cook. Before we left I hired someone to make a month's worth of food and freeze it."
This was somehow completely unsurprising.
"Dad still has to make breakfast," Linus said.
Rodney nodded. "You can't freeze Cheerios."
"Maybe someday," John said encouragingly, which made Linus honest-to-God laugh, and Rodney turn a delighted smile first on his son and then on John.
Having Rodney and Linus over was probably a bad idea, but it was far from his first. There wasn't a chance of Rodney realizing it was his house, even if he hadn't been oblivious to everything but his work. The cleaning service had packed up all the personal items and knickknacks. John sincerely doubted his father had any pictures of him anyway. He hadn't seen any the last time he'd been here. And once Rodney and Linus had arrived, it was surprisingly easy to ignore the apprehension he'd felt at the thought that letting them into his house was somehow letting them into his life.
After dinner, they moved to the TV room. For a while John's father had tried to call it the Media Room, but Dave had been unable to pronounce "media" when he was small and it had never taken. The room hadn't been much to speak of when John was growing up, but the old man must have upgraded it not long before he died. The lights worked on a remote-controlled dimmer now, and there was new furniture—an expensive-looking black leather sofa with matching armchairs. An enormous flat-screen television took up nearly the whole front wall, with an entertainment console built into the wall beside it. John wondered if Linus might like to plug one of his video game systems in here sometime. Somebody ought to get some use out of the place.
Rodney was suitably impressed by the room, which pleased John for some indefinable reason. John watched him settle down with a sigh on the big black sofa and stretch his back like a cat. Linus took an armchair—delighted when he figured out how to make the footrest pop up—which left John with the choice of the obvious space Rodney had left on the sofa or an armchair nearly across the room from his guests. Rodney looked at him expectantly, and John wasn't in the mood to hear whatever crack he would make about personal space if John took the chair. He slid onto the sofa. He'd already put the DVD in earlier, so all he had to do was hit play on the central remote.
John would have happily bet a large portion of his inheritance that Rodney was the kind of person who talked during movies. It was a shame there was no one around to take that action, because of course Rodney proved him right. He sat quietly enough during the opening sequence, but began to grumble during Batman's first fight.
"You realize it's physically impossible for the Batsuit to have that kind of elasticity and still stop bullets."
"I'm just saying the materials required for bullet resistance are—"
"He's Batman. He can make anything he wants."
John looked over at Linus. He was leaning out of his chair to face his father, with a look on his face of utter humiliation that he was even related to Rodney. But his eyes were shining, and he couldn't help his smile slipping through a little.
Rodney himself was in fine form. John got the idea it was an argument they'd had before. "I love Batman as much as you do, but even the vast resources of the Wayne empire can't change the laws of physics."
Rodney settled back into the sofa, raising his finger to his mouth in the universal gesture of "shh" as he turned to grin at John. "This is serious business," he murmured.
"I can tell," John whispered back, feeling unaccountably happy.
Rodney was quiet for the rest of the movie—sort of—just snorting a few times, and once muttering something about how you'd think one of the professional thugs would be able to hit Batman in his completely unprotected mouth sometime. He watched Linus as much as he did the movie, which wasn't exactly subtle, but Linus was too caught up in the movie to care. The few times he did notice his dad staring all he did was smile, which invariably made Rodney turn to share a smile with John.
Sitting there watching the movie John felt... content, which was such a bizarre experience he almost didn't recognize it. It was easy to be here in this moment with Rodney radiating warmth beside him. He could feel every minute shift Rodney made, could sense the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. There was something comfortable about that in a way that John didn't want to analyze. John Sheppard couldn't have this—there was too much noise in his head, too much living in the future or the past—but the John that he was tonight was allowed to feel this way. It was... nice.
When the movie ended, John wasn't ready for Rodney and Linus to go, so he suggested a Star Wars movie. Rodney, who'd been looking a little tired, immediately perked up. He and John lobbied hard for the original trilogy, but Linus wanted Revenge of the Sith, and Rodney wanted to make Linus happy.
Despite the noise and fury Linus was asleep in less than an hour. Rodney covered him with a chenille throw from the sofa and beckoned John out of the room. They walked back to the kitchen, where Rodney had stashed a tube with the rolled-up maze plans before dinner. John's eyes weren't ready for full brightness after the dark of the TV room so he turned the light up halfway and grabbed them a couple of beers out of the refrigerator. Rodney made sure the table was clean, then spread the new plans on it.
Just like before John was struck by the lines of the thing. They seemed almost to move now in the soft light, twisting and turning just as John thought he found a through path. He handed Rodney a beer and leaned towards the paper. "Are those the bridges?"
Rodney nodded. John traced the two evenly-spaced rectangles near the center of the maze, keeping his finger a careful inch above the paper. They didn't look like much on the two-dimensional plane of the plans, but as John stared something shifted in his brain and he could suddenly see how it worked—how the bridges and paths fit together three-dimensionally in a way that was perfectly right.
"Wow," John said.
For once Rodney didn't crow or call himself a genius. He was so silent and still that John looked up just to make sure he was still there. "Rodney?"
"Thank you," Rodney said.
Apparently New John wasn't as comfortable with feelings as he'd thought he was, because the look of gratitude on Rodney's face made him want to be somewhere far away very quickly. He didn't deserve the admiration and gratefulness in those unguarded blue eyes.
"For what?" he asked gruffly, though he didn't really want to hear the answer.
"For this." Rodney waved a hand. "Everything. You made Linus happy tonight. It was almost like the old days. I just wanted to say... it means a lot." He took a swig of beer. "Oh for heaven's sake, stop looking like you're a kitten I'm about to flatten with a ten-ton truck. I'm just trying to express my appreciation."
"Okay." John forced his shoulders to relax, and smiled in a way he doubted inspired confidence. "Are we done with that?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Sure," he said, but then suddenly reached out and gripped John's arm just below the shoulder, squeezing briefly before letting go.
John felt the warm touch long after Rodney stepped back. He stood there a moment, looking a little sad, and somehow distant, though they weren't more than a few feet from each other. John pursed his lips. God, he was being an asshole again. "Linus is a great kid," he said to try to make up for it. "You're good with him. I mean it," he added when Rodney snorted.
Rodney smiled with half his mouth. "I can't seem to help doing everything wrong."
John felt on stronger ground. The defeated look on Rodney's face seemed unnatural and wrong. It made him feel like he'd do a lot to make it go away. "Linus knows you care. That's more than some kids ever get from their dads."
Rodney sighed and leaned back against the table. "Obviously it's not enough." He took a drink of beer, then scraped at a corner of the label. "You don't want to hear about this."
John found he didn't mind talking about feelings so much when they had nothing to do with him. Rodney seemed to want to talk, and John wanted to chase away the dullness that was suddenly clouding his eyes. Even the gratitude would be better. He leaned back against the nearest wall, took a swig of beer, and raised his eyebrows in what he hoped was an encouraging manner .
It earned him a half-smile from Rodney. "When Christine and I got married, my design business was just taking off. I started taking jobs all over the world. She had her own life; she didn't usually come with me. We got used to that, I think, and when Linus was born, I handed her the responsibility of raising him, without even realizing what I was doing. I'm not exactly emotionally literate; everything always seemed fine to me, when I was home. We were happy, I thought."
Rodney tilted his beer back, frowning slightly when he realized it was empty. He set to work peeling the label off. "It was bad for at least a few years before Christine left. She tried to talk to me, I think. It probably won't surprise you that I didn't listen."
"Rodney," John said, because he didn't want Rodney to keep beating himself up.
Rodney raised a hand. "If I were easier to get along with, things probably would have been different. She took a position with a British pharmaceutical company a year ago. I didn't get the divorce papers until after she'd moved to London."
John wanted to tell Rodney that what Christine had done was unfair—that no matter how much Rodney thought he was to blame, it took two people to be in a marriage—but he didn't seem to have the words. Instead he got Rodney a new beer, tangling their fingers a little as he passed it to him. He stayed close, leaning against the table.
Rodney took a drink. "I've thought about moving Linus there, but Christine has made it clear she doesn't want me around, and I can't give him up. Is that selfish? That's probably selfish." He sighed, not meeting John's eyes, as though he was afraid what the answer would be.
"Jesus, Rodney, no." John felt a sudden wave of protectiveness so strong he almost staggered with it—toward Linus, who'd been dealt a hand he didn't deserve, and to Rodney, who didn't have a fucking clue, but was trying anyway. He gripped the edge of the table with one hand and closed his eyes for a second, hoping the feeling would pass, or at least stop being so overwhelming. He opened them again and took a step toward Rodney, unsure what he was going to do, but unable to stop, feeling drawn in as inescapably as if there were a magnetic pull.
"John?" Rodney's eyes were wide.
John never had to find out what he was going to say, or do, because there was a flutter of movement in the corner of his eye and Linus was suddenly there in the kitchen with them, holding the chenille blanket and looking sleepy, but pissed.
"You left," he said to Rodney.
"I didn't go far," Rodney said in a cheerful tone, casting an odd look at John. "You ready to go home?"
Linus nodded, and let Rodney take his hand and they were gone so quickly John didn't even have time to think that it was late and maybe he should have offered to let them stay in the house.
He stayed in the kitchen and drank another beer after they left. He told himself he was glad Linus had interrupted whatever had been going on between him and Rodney. It was true enough. By his third beer he almost believed it.
The next step in maze-building was digging trenches where the hedges would be planted. Rodney wanted nothing to do with this except in a supervisory capacity, and hired a crew of four after first checking with John to see if he wanted the job.
It turned out that a professional landscaping crew was far more efficient than John and Rodney fooling around with high-tech equipment and spray-paint, and in two days an acre of the West Lawn looked very much like Rodney's two-dimensional rendering of the maze.
Which didn't mean it was easy to understand. The trenches were mostly spaced to leave grass pathways about six feet wide. John spent a long time walking through the maze, trying to picture hedge walls instead of holes in the ground. That didn't help much. The paths were still hopelessly confusing.
Rodney—who seemed completely normal and unaffected after the kitchen incident, which made John the weird one, as usual—at first refused to show him through the maze, insisting he'd ruin the experience if he didn't wait for actual walls. He finally relented after growing increasingly frustrated at the sight of John cheating by jumping over trenches whenever he got confused, and agreed to guide John through one corner only. After some consideration, John selected the northwest corner, which was filled with mysterious curving figures.
Rodney picked a seemingly arbitrary starting point, then shooed John ahead, following a few steps behind on a circular path of increasingly tight left turns. Rodney helped him stay within the corridors, but he wasn't interested in showing him the right path. He let John muddle his way through, sometimes on a true path, mostly not. John soon discovered the maze had a devious way of confronting him with junctions that made the choice between two paths seem obvious. One passageway would look straightforward and easy; the other would twist quite clearly in the wrong direction. But when John took what seemed to be the easier way, he would more often than not end up in a looping passage that meandered needlessly for several turns—the path to the solution always seeming tantalizingly around just one more bend, until he would reach the end and realize it had been a blind alley all along. Then there was nothing for it but to retrace his steps back all the way to the junction where it had begun and make what had seemed like the harder choice.
After half an hour Rodney declared that John had seen enough of the incomplete maze. John didn't argue. He sensed Rodney was uncomfortable showing off his creation in this state—for him it must have been like his maze was out in public without any clothes.
They stood to the front of the dug-up area in a companionable silence. The sun was just starting to set over the trees, making the whole West Lawn glow softly orange. When the maze was finally done it was going to be a hell of a sight. John might not want to keep the house for himself, but he couldn't help feeling a pang.
Rodney must have been thinking something along the same lines. "In five years or so this is really going to be remarkable."
John couldn't have heard that right. "Five years?"
"Hmm." Rodney hummed thoughtfully. "Maybe ten. Depends on the rainfall, and the nitrogen level in the soil, and the... sun's love. What do I know about gardening?"
John remembered just in time that he was supposed to know something about gardening, and waited until that night to call Ronon, who confirmed that boxwood hedges did indeed take several years to get to size.
"Did you think they started out ten feet tall?"
John kind of had, mainly because he hadn't thought about it at all. "I don't have five years, Ronon."
"Not that I know of."
"Then you have five years."
John sighed. "Okay, I don't want to wait five years."
"Don't think the hedges care what you want, Sheppard."
It was a four beer night. Maybe five. Not because it was going to take years to have the maze of his dreams. That was just another thing he hadn't thought through. But John was feeling sick to hell of himself tonight, and that was when the dreams came.
Sometime around the third beer he started thinking about Rodney. About how they were buddies—sort of—and how he wasn't being fair. How if he was a decent person he'd tell Rodney the truth about himself.
Maybe he should go knock on that trailer right now. It would be satisfying to watch Rodney's eyes get all big and betrayed, just like Holland's had. Or hadn't. John dropped his head to the kitchen table. What the hell was the point of drinking if the dreams were going to bleed into his waking hours?
John had never meant to like Rodney. He hadn't come to his father's house to make friends, but he had somehow, and now it was just one more thing he was going to fuck up. One way or the other Rodney was going to get hurt, just like John eventually hurt everyone he cared about.
God, feeling sorry for himself was exhausting. He crawled off to bed after the third beer, and if he dreamed, he didn't remember it.
The next morning John was woken up by the doorbell, which was novel enough to make him leap out of bed and stub his toe on the floor. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and stumbled downstairs to find Rodney waiting for him on the other side of the door.
"Everything okay?" John tried to shake himself awake.
Rodney looked a little embarrassed. When he spoke it was to somewhere over John's right shoulder. "I'm here to extend an invitation."
John blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I think it's obvious by now that I have no parental backbone, or I'd have made him do it himself."
"Do what himself?" John asked when Rodney didn't seem inclined to go on.
"Linus would like to invite you over for an evening of video games. Tonight. I'm to microwave a pizza, according to his program."
John looked at Rodney, whose cheeks were pink and who seemed to want to look at anything but John. He stomach dropped. It wasn't surprising Rodney felt uncomfortable. He must have been remembering John's weirdness at the end of the last evening they'd spent together.
John rubbed the back of his neck. "Listen, Rodney, I don't think—"
"We'll be leaving soon. I mean, the project's almost over, and Linus really likes you."
Rodney nodded. "It would mean a lot to me—to both of us if you came. It's good for him to spend time with other adults."
John knew he couldn't say no, not when it was put like that. His mind was so busy running through all the ways it could go wrong that it took him a moment to hear what Rodney had said. "You're leaving soon?"
"Well, yes." Rodney sounded surprised. "The bridges are being custom-built—they're almost finished, and then the hedges have to be planted. I'll stay long enough to make sure it's done right. The whole thing shouldn't take longer than—three or four days?"
"Oh," John said.
"So tonight? Linus requests your presence at seven."
John pasted on one of his unconvincing smiles. "I'll be there."
"Great!" Rodney said, taking a step back. His cheerfulness was probably just as fake.
After Rodney left John figured he might as well get some serious gardening done for once. He mowed every large patch of grass—except the West Lawn—by noon, then finished the de-gunking job at the lake. After that he threw a ladder in the back of the Chevy and drove out to the farthest end of the drive to prune the taller branches on the birches he'd been avoiding. Climbing the ladder for the better part of the afternoon made his leg ache—sharp, like he'd strained something—but the trees weren't going to take care of themselves.
At seven he walked over to the trailer, feeling weirdly like he should bring a bottle of wine or something.
Linus answered the door when he knocked. "Thank you for coming."
He sounded oddly formal, and he'd even dressed up, a little— no t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt all buttoned up—so John stuck out his hand. Linus shook it, his face lighting up before he schooled his features into something more serious, and led John into the trailer.
They had to squeeze past Rodney, who was in the kitchen fussing with a pizza that could not have been that complicated, seeing as all he had to do was stick it in the microwave. John sat down on the couch, expecting Linus to join him—a Wii wheel and nunchucks were already sitting ready on the coffee table—but Linus hovered close by instead. "Can I get you something?"
At first John didn't understand what he meant. When he realized Linus wanted to get him a drink his first instinct was to refuse, but Linus was bouncing on his toes, clearly anxious to be a good host. John let him bring him a grape juice.
Rodney was still in the kitchen, so he and Linus started a round of Mario Winter Olympics. Linus had obviously been putting in a lot of time with the game—John didn't even have to try to let him win. John was pretty sure he could kick Rodney's butt, if he ever came out of the kitchen, but Rodney seemed determined to hide in there as long as he could.
John lasted about ten more minutes before he couldn't take it anymore. He leaned conspiratorially toward Linus and spoke loudly enough for Rodney to hear. "I think your dad might be intimidated by our mad video game skills."
The only sound from the kitchen was the soft click of a cabinet door. Linus, however, turned to him like he was the biggest dork in the world—which was more or less what John had expected, just from the wrong McKay. "Did you say 'mad video game skills'?"
"I did." John nodded.
"Can you leave me out of that?"
John pretended to think. "Nope. Sorry."
Linus rolled his eyes, but he was smiling, too. John smiled back, and Linus took advantage to cut him off on the 500m short track. If that was the way he was going to play it, the gloves were coming off.
John was doing pretty well—even if Linus totally had the good controller—until Rodney finally came out of the kitchen, and John's Luigi wiped out spectacularly on a ski jump. Rodney stood to the side, watching them play, and John's hands felt suddenly too big. He was pretty sure Rodney thought he was losing to his son on purpose—he kept shooting John little happy, grateful looks when he thought Linus wasn't watching. John did his best to ignore them, but it was still kind of nice.
After pizza, whatever nervousness Rodney had been feeling seemed to disappear. He refused to jump around with a nunchuck in his hand, but he happily offered tips and critiques from the couch. That got old pretty quick, and Rodney didn't object when John handed him a PlayStation controller and stuck in Battlefront. He turned out not to have much in the way of natural coordination, which didn't make it any less fun to wipe the floor with him.
Without even noticing John had slipped again into that strange place where he felt comfortable in his skin. He was surprised when Linus started listing sideways on the couch—somehow three hours had already passed. Linus slept in a bunk in the living area, which meant the evening was over. Rodney woke his son up enough to put him to bed, then followed John outside to say goodnight.
"Tonight was fun," John said when Rodney closed the door behind him. "Tell Linus he's an excellent host."
Rodney leaned back against the trailer wall. "I will."
The trailer had an external light that was just bright enough to subtly change the planes of Rodney's face and cast long eyelash shadows against his cheeks. He looked almost like a different person, yet still so familiar it made something in John's chest ache a little. He joined Rodney against the trailer, facing toward the maze. It was too dark to see anything.
"You know," Rodney said after a long moment. "If I didn't think you would freak out, I'd tell you how much I've enjoyed being here and working on this job. Because of you."
"You would?" John's voice sounded funny to his ears.
"Mmm." Rodney nodded in John's peripheral vision. "I would. But you clearly can't accept a compliment."
John thought about protesting, but figured there wasn't a point. The metal of the trailer felt cool against his back, and Rodney's voice was warm. He wished he would talk some more. It didn't matter what he said.
He felt Rodney shift a little beside him. "So since I can't tell you what you've meant to me, I think I'm just going to have to do this."
He detached himself from the trailer and moved slowly into John's space. John looked down at his feet, hyperaware of every movement of Rodney's body. He'd known exactly how this would feel, even if he hadn't let himself imagine it. He could sense the heat as Rodney got close, warm and easy as Rodney's voice had been. John looked up. Rodney froze in place, only inches away, until John leaned forward to close the distance.
The kiss was tentative at first, like Rodney wasn't quite sure how he'd be received. Rodney's mouth was soft and warm against his and John bit Rodney's lower lip, holding it until it dragged between his teeth as Rodney pulled away. John caught a quick flash of a smile before he felt Rodney's lips on his again, surer this time, and his hand on the back of John's neck, pulling him close.
John closed his eyes and let Rodney back him against the trailer, and it was so good, it was everything he hadn't let himself want, everything Sheppard wouldn't let himself have. But John could give himself this, and for the first time in weeks he felt the disconnect between who he was and who he'd claimed to be dissolve like smoke. He was just John now, and for the moment that was enough.
John's hips were stuttering against Rodney's, and he didn't want to stop, not for anything, but Rodney was saying something, his lips pressed against John's ear.
"We can't, John. Not with Linus right there."
"I can't leave him alone."
Which John had known, but it wasn't easy to think. Rodney wasn't helping, not with his mouth hot against John's neck, his tongue licking a path along John's throat. John forced himself to pull back as much as he could stand and look into Rodney's eyes.
Rodney looked back at him—eyes filled with affection and trust, so goddamn happy John couldn't stand it. The blood started to pound in his head, softly at first, then too strong to ignore. What the hell was he doing? He was lying to Rodney, had been lying to him for weeks, and now he was taking the worst kind of advantage. The level of shit John Sheppard was capable of should have stopped surprising him by now, but this was Rodney. He deserved better than this.
John wrenched himself away from the trailer. The happy light in Rodney's eyes faded, replaced by a look of confusion. "John?"
"I can't. I'm sorry."
John said some other things, but he didn't know what, couldn't hear them above the blood rushing in his ears. He only knew he had to get out of there, away from Rodney with his blue eyes full of trust and admiration. He took a step back, then another, then turned and strode away, barely able to keep himself from running. He didn't stop until he was inside the house.
John didn't avoid Rodney the next day. He went out like always and did whatever jobs he could pull from the noise in his head—pruning the bushes by the empty stables, digging up the flower beds, pulling weeds from the cracks in the drive. He wasn't hard to find. If Rodney wanted answers, John would give him what he could. He wasn't surprised when Rodney left him alone.
It was better this way. Rodney was leaving in a few days. His and Linus's life was far away from here. If their departure left a hole in John's life like a gut wound, well, that was only what he deserved.
More than once he had to fight the urge to go to Rodney and tell him the truth. What was the point? He was a selfish asshole who only wanted to relieve his own feelings. He didn't need to hurt Rodney more than he already had. The truth would make Rodney feel foolish, when he was anything but. It would make Rodney hate him for lying since the moment they'd met. John already hated himself enough for the both of them. But the white-hot sting that he was feeling now would dull, probably. It always had before.
Rodney might not be looking for him, but John couldn't keep himself from checking Rodney's trailer from a distance every once in a while, like worrying a sore tooth for that perfect rush of pain. He never saw Rodney or Linus, which should have felt like a relief, but didn't.
John worked until he was pulling out weeds more from touch than anything else. It was early for bed, but he was so fucking tired. The last thing he did before he went to sleep was call the realtor's number Dave had left and officially list the house for sale.
Holland was screaming. John didn't think he'd ever heard his voice in the dream before, but now he was calling John's name over and over in a raw, ugly pitch. It sounded like they were killing him.
John tried to go after him, but he couldn't see anything through the blood in his eyes. He stumbled to where he thought he'd heard the voice coming from, but there was no one there, and now the blood was in his throat, choking him.
He couldn't breathe, and there was a loud noise coming from... somewhere, except John was awake suddenly, and the noise hadn't stopped. Someone was banging on the door, John realized, struggling up from sleep.
John yanked on yesterday's discarded pair of jeans as he ran downstairs with his heart in his throat. It could only be Rodney, of course. Something was wrong.
Rodney was shaking a little when he finally got to the door, not even trying to hide it. "John," he said, and John thought his heart might break then and there, but he could already tell there wasn't time for that.
Rodney looked unfocused, so John put a hand on his arm. "Rodney, what's wrong? What happened?"
"I can't find Linus. He's not in the trailer, and I've looked all over the grounds, and I can't find him. I should call the police, right? God, it's time to call the police. Can you help me look for him?"
Shit. Of course the problem was with Linus. John tamped down the feeling of incipient fear he could feel coiling in his stomach. Rodney was on the verge of full-blown panic; that wasn't going to help his son.
"Rodney. We'll find him. You need to try to calm down."
Rodney looked like he wanted to argue, but then visibly gathered himself and nodded. John checked the watch he hadn't bothered taking off before he fell asleep. It was only nine-thirty. It hadn't been truly dark for more than an hour; that was good. "Tell me what happened."
Rodney swallowed, looking wobbly but relieved to talk. "I was working. He was playing games and I got an idea. Not even for the maze here, just a goddamn random inspiration that was so important I had to go to the back and work on it right that second." He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "When I finally thought to check on him, he was gone. That was... two hours ago. Two-and-a half by now, probably. I've been driving all over looking for him. I'm calling the police."
"Yeah," John said, slipping on some shoes and fumbling in his pocket for the keys to the Chevy. "Do that. That's good. But we'll find him."
He had Rodney out of the house and halfway to the truck before Rodney looked around, seeming just to have noticed what was going on.
"Thank you," Rodney said.
John swallowed past the lump in his throat. "We'll find him."
Rodney called 9-1-1 from the truck. The police wanted someone to wait at the house for them, but neither he nor Rodney were in any state to stay still. They made a quick stop at the trailer— Linus hadn't come back—and then set out, high beams on. John knew Rodney had probably driven these same roads looking for Linus, but he had to do a sweep first. If they didn't see anything, they could start looking on foot.
"God," Rodney said. "He wanted me to stop working so much, and now he's run away, and—He's just a kid, John. He thinks he can do anything. He doesn't know there's dangerous things out there. Dangerous... people."
John squeezed Rodney's leg, which was the only part of him he could reach easily while he was driving. "He probably just went out to play and got lost. I used to do it all the time."
They drove around slowly for twenty minutes, scanning every direction they could without seeing anything. Rodney hadn't said anything for half that time, which was a bad sign, and John was just starting to wonder where the goddamn cops were when they heard sirens. It wasn't fair to blame the police, John knew his place wasn't easy to get to, but he wasn't exactly feeling rational.
He pulled over when he saw the four cop cars and let Rodney meet them in the road. One of the cops was young, John noted, his mind clutching onto the insignificant details. He looked more like a boy scout than a policeman. He was blond, like Linus, and looked eager and sincere in the beams of John's truck. John saw Rodney hand him something. Papers, it looked like.
Oh. Rodney was giving the police pictures of Linus. They couldn't be at that stage yet—Linus still had to be on the property, didn't he?—but John hoped it would make Rodney feel better.
Rodney looked shaken when he made it back to the truck.
"Hey, buddy," John said. Rodney swiveled his head to look at him. His eyes were hollow. "What do you think? Let's let the cops drive around."
John always carried a flashlight in the backseat— a good one with a high-powered beam and a handle on top. He pulled it out now and handed it to Rodney, who took it gratefully and nodded.
John didn't bother asking where Rodney wanted to look, just drove to the field where he and Linus had driven the mower and parked facing it with the headlights on full. John had his own little maglite, recovered from junk stuffed in the glove compartment, and they covered the field thoroughly. There was no sign of Linus.
"The lake," Rodney said in a low voice when they were getting back in the truck. "Do you suppose he could have gone there?"
"No," John said, both because he didn't, and because he didn't want Rodney hurting himself with thoughts like that. "No. I have an idea."
He drove to the Forest, because that's where he would be if he were nine, and lost. He and Rodney split up, because twenty acres was big. John's flashlight didn't illuminate much, but he knew these woods as well as he did any place on Earth. His military training was finally good for something, because he knew how to search on a grid, and he called out Linus's name every minute or so. Twenty acres wasn't so big that every once in a while he couldn't hear Rodney doing the same.
John hadn't found anything after fifteen minutes. He'd been so sure Linus would be here.
And even through all this, through the worry and the fear, John's stupid brain kept returning to Rodney's scared face when he'd told him Linus was missing and getting it all mixed up with his betrayed eyes when John had pulled away from their kiss. Just then John would have given anything in the world to have told Rodney the truth from the beginning. He hated himself for spending even a second thinking about this now, but he seemed to have lost control of his mind, even as his eyes and ears strained for any signs of Linus.
Then suddenly Rodney was shouting something, not just calling Linus's name anymore, and John ran. He saw Rodney first, standing on a small hill, aiming his flashlight down. Linus was at the bottom of a shallow gully, his small leg unnaturally twisted underneath him.
But his eyes were open, and he reached out his arms as Rodney stumbled down to him and pulled him into a fierce hug.
The EMTs said that Linus's ankle was sprained, not broken, and an X-ray could wait until tomorrow if Rodney didn't want to make his son spend the night in the hospital. Linus had gotten wet, though, and lost fluid, so they wanted to give him an IV. There wasn't enough room in the back of the ambulance for the EMTs and Linus and Rodney, at least not when he was in overprotective hover mode, so John gently guided him out of the ambulance to a spot on the West Lawn where they could watch.
John wished Rodney would sit—he was practically boneless with relief and exhaustion— but that was probably too much to hope for. He was honestly afraid Rodney would fall down if John didn't keep a steady hand on his shoulder. He should probably feel guilty for enjoying the touch, but he was too exhausted. Maybe tomorrow, after he'd gotten some sleep.
Rodney had been full of manic energy, blustering at the cops, at the EMTs—but now he was silent. John was starting to wonder if maybe he'd fallen asleep where he stood, when he felt Rodney's shoulder tense under his hand.
"John," Rodney said, and John was getting sick to death of the sound of his name. Rodney was using that grateful, relieved voice he'd heard too many times already. John knew he was going to thank him again, and something in him just broke.
"I'm John Sheppard," John said, staring deliberately toward the ambulance, away from Rodney.
Rodney was silent, so John tried again.
"I'm John Sheppard. This is my house. I've been lying to you since the day we met."
There. That should derail any gratitude Rodney had been feeling. John waited to feel a rush of relief at finally, finally telling the truth. It didn't come. Neither did any reaction from Rodney. After a long moment of silence, John turned to look at him, wanting to get it over with, whatever it would be.
Rodney was staring at him like he was an idiot. "I know that. You think I don't know that?"
"You're staying in the big house. You're overinvested in the maze. Besides which I know how to use Google. God, John. You're probably the worst liar I've ever met. I've known since the day you tried to give me that fake last name. You honestly thought I didn't?"
"Yes," John said, kicking up some dirt with one foot. He felt stubborn, and stupid, and somehow robbed of his grand confession.
"I don't care," Rodney said. "Be whoever you want, what business is it of mine?" He stepped closer to John. "Just stop being stupid, okay?"
John kicked the dirt again. "I don't know if I can guarantee that."
Rodney rolled his eyes, moving even closer. "You're not stupid. But you're stupidly stubborn, and self-sacrificing."
John felt his body reacting to Rodney's closeness. He wanted to take him in his arms, to bury his face in Rodney's neck, but that wasn't right. Rodney couldn't know what he was getting himself into, or he wouldn't be offering. Maybe Rodney could get over the lie, but that barely mattered. John would still end up hurting him, somehow, and he couldn't stand that.
He forced himself to speak. "Rodney, I don't—"
"Just try it, all right?" Rodney took his hand, lacing their fingers together and squeezed, hard enough to hurt.
John looked at Rodney, who was staring fiercely at him. And he knew there were reasons why he was no good for Rodney, why Rodney should get out while he could, but in that moment he couldn't think of a single one. It had been a hell of a day, after all.
He squeezed back.
Three months later, the boxwood hedges had finally grown together enough for Rodney to consent to an opening party. He still looked sad whenever he came across a tiny bare patch, and cast baleful looks at John.
John knew the maze walls would have grown in more solidly if he'd been willing to wait, but he couldn't stand the thought of having little baby hedges in the maze, even after he'd decided to keep the house. Ronon—who could do anything when encouraged—had found an old hospital that was being torn down and didn't mind selling their several miles of ten-foot-tall hedges. Getting the plants here had been a son of a bitch, but the fact that they were from an abandoned hospital made it totally worth it. Secretly John hoped they were haunted.
Rodney wasn't patient by nature either, so John didn't feel too bad about rushing the hedges. He'd spent the last three months trying to make it up to him anyway—mostly in bed, but he was happy to take Linus out if Rodney needed to work. He hoped Rodney would start working more soon—he was starting to drive Linus crazy with over-protectiveness. John and Linus had had a private talk about that, and the kid was being a pretty good sport, all things considered. Besides, Rodney would probably get over it the next time he had a big commission.
Which was how John found himself in a tent on the West Lawn watching Linus run up and down a strip of grass with Dave's two daughters and Rodney's niece Madison. Most of the party guests were still in the maze—Ronon's laughter was easy to pick out as it drifted across the lawn—but Rodney had caught Madison plucking boxwood leaves and banned her until further notice. Rodney and his sister Jeannie were off discussing the matter somewhere. Having met Jeannie earlier that day, John was pretty sure Madison's ban would be short-lived. She didn't seem to mind it anyway, running and screaming with the other children.
Unofficially the party was also to celebrate Linus and Rodney moving in to the house with John, so John couldn't blame Rodney for feeling nervous. He was a little apprehensive himself at having Dave and his wife and so many other people over, but he figured it was good for him. Probably.
"May I sit with you?"
John away from the kids to see Teyla Emmagan standing above him. "Of course." He stood and adjusted a chair for her which was hopelessly old-fashioned but made Teyla smile.
"Have you been through the maze already?" he asked her, sitting down again.
"Yes. It was most interesting."
"You're the first person to finish. Don't tell Rodney you did it so quickly. He'd be devastated."
Teyla's laugh was as beautiful as the rest of her. "Oh, no. I found it quite challenging. Truly."
They watched the children. Teyla didn't seem to feel the need to fill the silence, which was one of the things John liked about her.
After John had bought out Dave's share of the house, he'd been in a spending mood. Endowing a foundation had seemed like a good idea, and Teyla had come highly recommended as the right person to run it. Naming the foundation after his father had been an act of perversity on John's part—it was the old man's money, after all—but John thought his father might have been amused. Maybe even pleased.
He hadn't wanted anything to do with the foundation—he'd had some vague notion of giving money to help orphans and puppies—but Teyla had had other ideas. She'd made it clear that John was to work—to show up and be involved day-to-day. She'd looked at him like she expected things of him, and John was surprised to find he didn't mind. He'd been too long without a purpose. He didn't know if this was it, but it had promise.
"John, we have much to talk about."
"We do?" He tried to hide his disappointment, but he hadn't even been through the maze yet. He'd been waiting for Rodney.
Teyla's smile showed he hadn't fooled her. "Yes, but not now. I just wanted to make sure you would be in the office at eight tomorrow."
"In the morning?"
Teyla just looked at him. He raised his hands. "I'll be there."
"Good." She gave him another smile. Maybe he was easy, but it warmed him from the inside Something in the distance caught her eye. "Here comes Doctor McKay. Tomorrow, then."
She drifted off somewhere—maybe to hit Dave up for money in that graceful but firm way she had. John only felt a little sorry for him.
He looked in the direction Teyla had been facing. Rodney and Jeannie were parting ways, peacefully, it seemed. Jeannie even gave him a peck on the cheek as she looked over at John and then headed toward the children. John got up to meet Rodney, greeting him with a kiss, just because he could.
John would never get over how kissing him always left Rodney a little dazed, but there wasn't time for that now. "I want to do the maze."
"What?" Rodney snapped out of his kiss-haze. "Oh, don't even pretend you haven't been sneaking off to go in there every chance you've gotten since the hedges arrived."
That was true, but not the point. "I want to do the maze with you."
Rodney let John drag him toward the entrance. The tall hedges really were impressive, but they hid all the mysteries inside. John supposed that was the point, but he'd still have to look into building an observation tower of some sort—seeing the big picture was important too.
John took Rodney's arm and tugged—aware that he was acting like a little kid, but not caring. "Come on."
"Yes, I suppose with your sense of direction, you need me along to keep you from getting hopelessly lost."
That wasn't why John had waited for Rodney, but he didn't need to feed the man's ego. Rodney would figure it out when John found them a private nook and kissed him senseless.
Instead he bumped his shoulder. "Rodney, the whole point of a maze is to spend some time getting lost."
Rodney stopped in his tracks, looking at him with something like horror. "The point of a maze is to find your way through."
"Hmm," John said. "I suppose it depends on your mood."
He gave Rodney his best smile, the one that always made Rodney roll his eyes and sigh, but come along. It worked now, and John couldn't help feeling a thrill as Rodney followed him into the entrance. Grinning, he reached out grabbed Rodney's hand, reveling in the feeling of the soft skin against his. He'd show Rodney there were worse things than getting lost for a while.