Pairing: John/Rodney, Ronon/Melena,
Disclaimer: I am sad to announce that nothing here belongs to me.
Author's Notes: For temaris who gave me a whole list of things to pick and choose from. I couldn't get them all in here, but I think I managed at least half of them ;) Thank you sgamadison for the fast beta, and alyse and moonlettuce for organising the challenge again and being patient with lame writers who can't seem to get their stories in on time...
Summary: John's hair was problematic.
John's hair was problematic. When it looked good, it looked really good, but mostly it was just a source of endless annoyance. It was sticking up where it was supposed to lie flat, and lying flat where it was supposed to stick up, and on the few occassions he'd tried growing it out it had this weird floppy thing going on. Most people tended to assume that he used gallons of product to make it look the way it did, but the sad truth was, it just grew that way. That was how he explained it to Mike, the company mechanic, when John finally got tired of all the teasing.
”Huh,” Mike said, looking thoughtful. Then he scribbled something on the back of a greasy scrap of paper. ”Hey, my wife swears by this guy. She says he's a magician when it comes to hair. Maybe you should look him up?”
John took the note and managed to decipher Mike's chicken scratch into the words 'Halling's Hairboutique', and an address.
That was where it all began.
* * *
John called and made an appointment on his next day off. The place was a little off the beaten track, but it was not too hard to find the large red, white and black sign. The salon looked ordinary enough, not like the trendy hairdressers that seemed to be in fashion these days.
Just as he was about to go inside, the door opened and a little old lady came out. Her hair was dyed a very bright shade of sapphire blue and she looked a little shell-shocked. John did his very best not to stare and was just about to turn around and go back home. Then he thought, what the hell. If this Halling guy could do something about his hair, it was probably worth the risk. He could always run if it looked like they were taking out the hair dye.
He gave the lady a polite nod, and then pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The place was pretty small. There was a counter with a cash machine and behind it three barber chairs, of which two were occupied. A customer was sitting in the chair closest to the counter, and a gorgeous woman with honey-brown skin was cutting his hair. The chair in the middle was empty, and in the next one, a huge man with dreadlocks was sprawling and talking to the woman.
The door bell rang when John entered the salon, and the woman turned his head, looked at him, and smiled.
"Welcome," she said. "Do you have an appointment?"
"Um... yeah." John glanced at his watch. He was a little early. "For three o'clock. John Sheppard."
She smiled again. John liked her smile. It was warm and earnest and really made him feel welcome. "Halling will be with you in just a moment," she said. "Please take a seat." She motioned to the unoccupied chair.
John went to sit down and did his best to make himself comfortable. There was no way to look good in those mirrors.
"So," he said, looking for something to say to avoid awkward silences. "You're not going to turn my hair blue, are you?"
The customer in the other chair let out a half-strangled little snort, and the woman laughed.
"Not your colour," said the dreadlocked giant. He cocked his head and gave John a calculating look. "Green would suit you better."
"Be nice, Ronon," the woman said, and then turned to John. "There is no need to worry. Your hair will be safe with Halling." Then she winked at him, and John had to grin back at her. He already liked this place.
* * *
Ten minutes later, John had an unflattering bright pink cloth cover wrapped around his neck. It rustled when he moved. The legendary Halling had showed up, and from where John was sitting it was difficult to imagine him as a genius hairdresser. He was extremely tall, had a short scruffy beard, and his hair looked like he'd cut it with nail clippers. He seemed to be a gentle and polite man, at least until he got the first good look at John's hair.
"I do not believe I have ever seen so many cowlicks on the same person," Halling said, running his fingers through it in utter fascination, and John wondered if he should apologise or be proud to be so special.
"Got them from mom," he said instead. At least she had been able to keep her hair long, until the chemo made it fall off altogether. "Can you do anything about them?"
"I believe I can," Halling said, reached for the scissors, and went to work.
John soon found out that the woman's name was Teyla and that she was Halling's niece and co-owner of the salon. They lived on the floor above the salon with Halling's son Jinto. Teyla had moved in with them just recently after her boyfriend had disappeared off the face of the earth when she'd found out she was pregnant. Ronon rented a chair, but was saving up for a full partnership. His background was similar to John's, he'd spent seven years as an Army Ranger before he'd ended up in the town of Atlantis by mere accident and decided to stick around. They all seemed to be very close, and John felt a distant ache somewhere near his heart, aching for that kind of friendship again.
The customer in the other chair put his physics journal aside and introduced himself as Dr Rodney McKay. He had very nice eyes, John noticed, and then forced himself to un-notice it because he wasn't going down that road again now that he'd just begun to get his life sorted out. Then he realised that the Air Force had no say in what he did or didn't notice anymore and that he could flirt with whoever he wanted. But on second glance, McKay didn't really looked like the type who would accept flirting from someone like John, and it would probably just complicate things anyway so John put it all out of his mind and tried to forget about it.
It turned out Halling lived up to his reputation. When he was done, John's hair looked amazing. As soon as the pink cover came off, he stood up and studied himself in the mirror from every angle. Teyla smiled, and McKay let out another little snort.
"It will need regular upkeep," Halling said when John took out his wallet to pay. "I would recommend bi-monthly appointments. We have special rates for regular customers.”
John thought that since he didn't have anything better to spend his money on, he could as well spend it on his hair. So he made another appointment two weeks later, said goodbye to everyone, and went home, happily glancing at his own reflection in every window he passed.
* * *
John had spent a couple of months after his discharge wondering what he was supposed to do with his life. There hadn't been a lot of options. He'd lived out of his car, driving around aimlessly, just trying to figure out who he was now. He'd had some money saved but he didn't want to use it all up before he had some kind of plan for the future.
He had thought about calling his dad and ask for a job. He had thought about it for exactly three minutes before deciding that he'd rather starve to death. There had to be some way to make a living that wouldn't require selling his soul.
The turning point came the day he drove into the small town of Atlantis, Nevada, stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank, and saw a flyer pinned up to the window announcing that a small local air charter company was looking for a pilot.
It had taken him less than two minutes to make that decision.
So now he had a job. It mostly consisted of ferrying tourists and businessmen around, and the occasional cargo run, but it paid the bills and he got to fly. He had a small two-room apartment, some cheap second-hand furniture, and when he got his first paycheck he went out to buy the biggest plasma tv he could find.
"That sounds wonderful, sweetheart, but are you happy?" his mom asked when she called.
John thought about it for a second or two. He wasn't sure of the answer, couldn't really remember the last time he'd been really happy. But it felt like he was beginning to get his life back on track again, get a fresh start and carve out a little piece of existence for himself in this sleepy little town.
"I'm okay," he said then. He'd never been able to lie to his mom.
"You know I just want you to be happy," she said.
John swallowed around the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. "Yeah," he rasped. "I know."
He wasn't happy, but he was content with his life and that was something at least. It was a lot more than he'd had before.
* * *
John went back for his second appointment at Halling's two weeks later. He'd been looking forward to it, almost to the point where it felt a little weird. But when he stepped through the door and Teyla smiled at him like she was honestly glad to see him and Ronon asked how he'd been, it was almost a little bit like coming home. John couldn't remember the last time he'd had that feeling.
Ronon was working on a set of extensions for a teenage girl and Teyla was waiting for her next customer, who was running late. John had barely sat down in the chair before the conversation they'd had the last time he'd been there was picked up again, like no time had passed at all.
Halfway through the appointment, the doorbell tingled and McKay barged through the door, yelling into his cell phone, "...do without me to hold your hand for an hour. Where did you get your degree, a cereal box?" John only caught the end of the call, but he still felt sorry for whoever was on the other end of the line.
McKay sank down in the waiting chair with a deep sigh. "Sorry I'm late," he said to Teyla. "I work with morons." He looked tired and a little rough around the edges, dark circles under his eyes whispering of too little sleep and too much coffee.
"What do you do?" John asked, curious. He knew McKay was an astrophycisist and an actual genius, that much he had said the last time they'd met. But he hadn't said anything about where he worked, and with what.
McKay swallowed and cleared his throat. "I'm a consultant," he said quickly. "I...consult. On... consulting things."
John recognised the shifty look of someone who had signed far too many non-disclosure agreements, and considering how close Area 51 was, he decided not to ask any more questions. He kept talking martial arts with Ronon instead and got an invite to the Capoeira class the big guy was teaching in his off time.
Once he sat down and Teyla started to wash his hair, McKay seemed to relax a little, and by the time Halling was done with John's touch-up, he was almost pleasant to be around. John didn't have anywhere else to be for the rest of the afternoon so he decided to stay for a while and watch how Ronon transformed the teenage girl's mousy brown hair into a cascade of red and purple that had her looking thrilled.
John helped Teyla move a few heavy boxes of hair product and got the opportunity to say hi to Jinto when the kid came home from school and sat down at the counter next to the cash machine to do his homework. He was a little surprised when closing time rolled along and he realised that several hours had passed, and no one had kicked him out and even more surprised that McKay had stayed behind as well, to explain a math problem to Jinto.
"Would you like the same time slots next time? Wednesday afternoon?" Teyla asked the two of them when John booked his next appointment.
John nodded and said, "Sure," and McKay's eyes darted around the room for a little while before he too agreed.
"See you in two weeks then, I guess" John told McKay when they were standing on the street outside.
McKay swallowed, looking almost a little nervous. "Yes, yes of course," he answered. "If I can make it, I'm a very busy man, you see, so I don't normally have time for... well, this."
"Right," John said, trying not to sound sarcastic. He didn't really doubt McKay would show up. It wasn't like the guy had enough hair to merit a haircut every other week so he figured McKay's reasons for going to Halling's were similar to John's reasons for coming back - the opportunity to be around people who cared, people who seemed to like him, despite everything.
* * *
"How are you doing, sweetheart?" John's mom asked when she called two months later.
John thought about it, and then said, "I'm pretty good."
It was true. The past months had flown by in two-week intervals. He'd been right about Rodney showing up for his appointments, and the more time John got to spend in his company, the more interested did he get. He'd been thinking about asking the guy out for coffee, but he didn't know if McKay would be interested in a date. He was a bit of a mystery - annoyingly confident about some things and terribly insecure about others. He could rant about the stupidity of his co-workers for hours, only to start stuttering a moment later when someone asked him a personal question. John wanted to find out more, but wasn't sure how.
He went to Ronon's Capoeira class when he could and they went running together a couple of times every week. They hung out after work sometimes and were beginning to become pretty good friends, good enough that John had felt confident enough to tell Ronon about Mitch and how he'd left the Air Force. About the medal that burned in his sock drawer and the heavy hints about how much better if would look on his resume if he left voluntarily instead of on a discharge under DADT. Ronon had not judged, and not asked any of the usual clueless straight guy questions, and for that John was grateful.
Sometime during the time that had passed since his first visit to Halling's, he'd started to drop by the salon even when he didn't have an appointment, just to talk for a while. He'd arrived one morning to find a group of high-school kids scrubbing graffiti from the front window.
"What happened out there?" he asked in puzzlement as he stepped inside.
Ronon looked like he'd spent a considerable time laughing. "Teyla caught them when she opened up this morning," he said. "She ran after them and dragged them back to apologise and clean up."
John started laughing himself, regretting that he'd missed the show, and then had to stay and watch the young vandals clean up their mess while Teyla oversaw their work and then sent them off to school with threats to call their parents if she ever found them doing something similar again.
"Your friends sound great, John," his mom said when he told her all this.
"Yeah," he said, unable to hold back the smile. "They are."
He'd come to Atlantis feeling detatched and alone, and spent the first few months there only socialising with his co-workers. Now, he had friends again, and it was a great feeling.
* * *
John didn't exactly have a history of making smart decisions. He'd always been impulsive and usually got to suffer the consequenses. He always knew when he was about to do something stupid, but for some reason, he never could stop himself.
Ronon saved up enough money for a co-ownership of the salon, and he and his fiancé Melena, who was a med-student doing her internship at the local hospital, invited the Wednesday afternoon crowd out to celebrate. John accepted immediately, while Rodney protested that he didn't have time, that he had an important project due, and then he predictably showed up anyway.
They all went out for dinner and bowling. Ronon spent the whole time at the restaurant talking about how they needed a new name for the salon.
"How about 'Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow'?" he suggested. "McKay can be our mascot."
"Ha ha, that's very funny," Rodney shot back, a self-conscious hand going to his head. "Clearly you've missed your true calling as a stand up comedian."
"You can call it 'Curl Up and Dye'," John said, feeling like he should make a contribution.
"Maybe 'Hairitage'?" Teyla said with a little giggle.
"There is no need for a new name," Halling determined, spoiling their fun.
Even seven months pregnant, Teyla crushed them all at bowling. Halling and Jinto left early since it was past Jinto's bedtime, while the rest of them stayed to play another round. After that, Melena dragged Ronon away and they went home together, clearly planning a little private celebration if the looks on their faces were anything to go on.
John, Rodney and Teyla turned their bowling shoes in and then stood on the street outside the bowling hall for a little while, talking, until Teyla announced that she was cold and was
going to go home as well.
She left John and Rodney looking at each other with something like electricity in the air between them.
"I should get going," John said.
"Yes, me too. I have... um, that project, it's very important," Rodney said, colouring a little bit.
They stood in silence for a little while, neither of them leaving. John really didn't want to go home to his empty apartment.
"Want to go get a drink or something?" he asked finally.
Rodney nodded frantically, looking both relieved and a little hopeful.
* * *
"I'm... kind of on probation," Rodney admitted, staring into his drink. It was getting late and the empty glasses and bottles were gathering on the table. The evening had reached the awkward secrets stage. John had already told Rodney about how going behind enemy lines to save a comrade apparently wasn't a heroic thing to do if you were sleeping together with said comrade. Mitch still hadn't forgiven him.
Now it was McKay's turn. "I almost got someone killed," he said. John remained silent, wondering what exactly Rodney was doing for a living. McKay looked up, his expression crushed and more than a little guilty. "The theory was sound! I mean, it shouldn't have worked, my calculations were correct!" He was getting worked up, hands gesticulating wildly. John moved his beer bottle out of reach so it wouldn't get knocked over.
"So what happened?" he asked. He knew Rodney wouldn't be able to give him any details, but this was clearly something he needed to talk about so John was going to listen.
Rodney sighed and looked down again. "I was wrong," he said. "Sa... um, someone found a way to save him."
"Hey," John said. "Everyone screws up. At least he didn't die, right?"
Rodney glared at him. "They were going to send me to Siberia," he said. "I had to beg them to let me stay. Do you know how unpleasant Siberia is?"
John thought about that. He had never been to Siberia, but he could imagine what it was like. Most importantly, it was not here. "Well," he said, knowing that he'd never be able to make himself say the words sober. "I'm glad you're not in Siberia."
"Oh?" Rodney's face softened a little bit and he took another drink from his glass and swallowed hard before he answered. "I'm... I'm glad I'm not in Siberia too."
* * *
John had a pretty good buzz going on when they left the bar, and he and Rodney were in the middle of an interesting discussion about classic versus new Battlestar Galactica. They decided to split a cab, but when they reached Rodney's house, the discussion had reached the point where empirical evidence was needed, and Rodney invited him in.
Rodney's hall was small and very cramped and when they stepped inside the door, John stumbled on a stray sneaker. He would probably have fallen on his face if Rodney hadn't caught him and righted him against the wall, and then they were suddenly standing very close together, breathing hard, and John did what he'd been wanting to do all night and leaned forward and kissed Rodney.
He was just sober enough to realise what a very stupid thing it was to do, but drunk enough to do it anyway. McKay tasted like the vodka martinis he'd been drinking all evening, and for a moment there was enough hesitation that John was convinced he'd made the worst mistake of his life, but then Rodney's hand curled around his neck and he started kissing John back.
It was unbelievably good. John closed his eyes, sank into the kiss until his whole world consisted of Rodney's lips and Rodney's incredibly talented tongue. If it hadn't been for things like the need for oxygen, he could've stayed there forever. He was achingly hard in his pants, and felt Rodney's answering erection against his thigh.
"I'm..." Rodney panted when they had to come up for air. He was looking a little wide-eyed, his lips were swollen and there were tiny drops of sweat on his brow. "I don't usually..."
But when John reached for him again, he went willingly, and when John dazedly stated that he was too old to do it against a wall, Rodney led the way to the bedroom.
* * *
John woke up at five thirty in the morning, hungover and sore, felt Rodney's arm wrapped around his waist, and for lack of a better word, panicked.
It was another one of those situations where he knew he should have acted differently. It was very clear in his mind, exactly what he should do. He should wait for Rodney to wake up. They should have what was probably going to be a very uncomfortable talk. Rodney had been pretty drunk last night, and he'd been sad and a bit vulnerable, and John had been an asshole and taken advantage.
McKay was sleeping deeply, completely dead to the world. John didn't really blame him, considering some of the more acrobatic things they'd been doing a few hours ago. He should stay. He should apologise and hope they could still stay friends.
Instead he carefully disentangled himself from Rodney's embrace, quietly went to find his clothes, called a cab, and left. He might have tripped over Rodney's cat on the way out.
* * *
He was going to call Rodney. John promised himself that the moment he got home and hopped into the shower to wash away the remnants of the night. There were finger-shaped bruises on his thighs, and the memory of how they'd ended up there was enough to send an echo of want through his body.
He had to call Rodney, had to explain. Leaving him like this was a shitty thing to do, it wasn't the way John's mom had taught him to behave.
But it had been so hard to breathe, Rodney's bedroom walls had looked so different in the morning light. John had acted on instinct, and that instinct had told him to flee. He was going to make it up to Rodney as soon as he thought McKay was awake.
It wasn't until he got out of the shower that he realised that he didn't have Rodney's number. He could call Teyla or Ronon and ask, but that meant he would have to explain why he needed the number and the thought made him cringe.
He dried off, put some clothes on, and sat down on his couch. He could always go back. Tell McKay he'd just gone out to buy breakfast or something like that. Yeah, right, because people who went out for bagels usually went home to shower and change clothes on the way.
I looked like he was screwed no matter what he did, so he stayed on the couch, doing his best to figure out where the hell everything had went so very wrong.
* * *
The phone woke him up for the second time that day. John almost rolled off the couch, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and went to hunt down his cell, hoping it was Rodney and at the same time terrified that it might be.
It was John's boss who needed him at work. It wasn't like he could say no.
John went to get his car keys and drove to work, telling himself that as soon as he was done with this, he would find a way to contact Rodney and try to make everything right.
The work emergency, however, involved some missing paperwork that it took all day and most of the evening to find. By the time John got home again, it was far too late to call anyone. He was going to fix it tomorrow, he thought as he brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. As soon as the salon opened, he was going to go there and get McKay's number.
But the next day, there was new work emergency. The other pilot had managed to give herself food poisoning and John had to fly a group of businessmen to Denver for a meeting and then back again. He was going to be out of town for two days.
It was like everything conspired against him. Maybe he was fated to mess up everything he touched? It was beginning to look that way.
* * *
John had never been anxious about going to Halling's before, but today he was. It was Wednesday afternoon, time for his regular appointment, and he still hadn't talked to Rodney. It looked like he was going to have to do it now, whether he wanted to or not.
He was a little late, having spent half an hour debating with himself if he should call and cancel or not. In the end, he'd decided to go anyway. Talking to Rodney in public might be awkward, but they did need to talk and they might as well do it among friends. Hell, for all John knew, Rodney had already told Ronon and Teyla everything.
By the time he'd gotten home from Denver, he'd been nervous enough that he'd kept putting off getting in touch with Rodney. He knew it was stupid and childish, and he was beginning to feel disturbingly much like his father, who had always dealt with difficult things by trying to avoid and ignore them. It had been the reason for the divorce. After John's mom got ill, his dad had basically moved out of the house. It was as if he thought that if he pretended she didn't exist, the disease would disappear too.
In the end, she chose to leave him despite the scandal it meant. She still loved him, she'd told John. But she couldn't forgive him for not being there for her when she'd needed him the most.
Damn, he really was turning into his dad.
When he opened the door and stepped into the salon, he immediately knew something was wrong. The atmosphere was subdued, and Teyla had a worried little wrinkle between her eyebrows.
"Hey," John said. "What's going on?" Then he noticed the empty chair. "Where's McKay? I thought he had the usual appointment?"
"He did," Teyla said. "He called and cancelled this morning. Rodney has not cancelled an appointment in ten months."
"Oh." John swallowed. "Did he say why? Maybe he's sick or something."
"Said he was busy at work," Ronon rumbled. The little bluehaired lady John had encountered the first time he'd visited Halling's was back. This time, Ronon was dyeing her hair a magnificent shade of magenta.
"I don't recall Dr McKay being busy enough to have to cancel before," Halling said as he went to work on John's hair.
John remained silent. He was pretty sure nothing had changed
for Rodney at work. He just didn't want to see John, and John could understand why. Damnit, he had to try to find a way to fix this. But he didn't want to confess what he'd done in front of Ronon's customer, and by the time she had left, Jinto had arrived, and he didn't want to say anything that the kid might hear either.
Instead he sat still with guilt and concern gnawing at his gut, hoping Rodney was okay.
* * *
"Do you have McKay's number?" John asked Teyla when the last customer had left and she and Ronon were closing up.
She turned around very slowly and John felt a cold shiver run down his spine.
"Yes, I do," she said. Her eyes were blazing and John felt like the kids with the spraycans must've done when faced with her anger. "Why do you ask, John?"
John cleared his throat. "I need to talk to him, that's all." He tried to make himself meet her look, but wasn't very successful. Instead he glanced out of the window and scratched his neck a little. "Just something I have to explain."
Teyla walked up to the counter, took out the appointment book, and wrote down a number on a piece of paper. "I will give you this, but first you will tell me exactly what happened."
While they had been talking, Ronon had snuck behind John's back and locked the door. It looked like he didn't have much choice, and he really needed that number, so he sat down in a chair, drew a deep breath, and told them the whole story.
"Look, I know I screwed up, okay," he said when he was done.
"Rodney has had a very difficult year," Teyla said. It wasn't technically an accusation, but to John it sounded like one, and he had to declare himself guilty.
"I know," he said. "I'm trying to fix it, but I need to get hold of him first."
Teyla looked at him for a long time and it wasn't until John started to squirm a little in the chair that she handed over the piece of paper.
Once he'd managed to escape, he called Rodney's number and heard the signals go through. It rang and rang, and eventually he was transferred to Rodney's voicemail. John thought about leaving a message, but he'd never liked talking to those things, so he just hung up and decided to try again later.
He must've called at least three times that evening, and then came to the conclusion that Rodney was probably screening his calls. He did leave a message then, something lame like "Call me, we need to talk." But the days passed and Rodney never called back.
Two weeks later, Rodney cancelled another appointment. John almost did the same, not wanting to see Teyla's disappointed looks being aimed at him, but at the same time he knew he deserved them.
"Did you talk to him?" Ronon asked as soon as John stuck his nose inside the door.
"He won't return my calls," John said, dejectedly slumping down in the chair.
"Hm." Ronon kept stirring the hair dye he was mixing together. ”Thought about going to see him?”
John leaned his head back and sighed. He had thought about it, even went so far as to drive by Rodney's house a couple of times, but the windows had always been dark and then he'd started feeling like some creepy stalker and given up on it. ”I don't think that'll work,” he said instead.
”Give it a little time, Sheppard,” Ronon said. ”It'll be okay. It'd better be, or I will turn your hair green.”
* * *
The next time John saw Rodney it was a complete surprise. He'd more or less accepted the fact that he'd screwed things up beyond repair and that McKay didn't want to have anything more to do with him.
When John doorbell rang one afternoon, he really didn't expect to find Rodney outside.
"Hey," John said dumbly. His tongue felt like sandpaper in his mouth.
Rodney looked terrible, worn down and hollow. His shoulders were slumped and his mouth stretched thin and bitter. Did I do this? John thought. He wanted to kick himself hard.
"Hi," Rodney muttered, and then cleared his throat. "I... um, I need to go out of town for a few days. Work emergency, it can't wait, and I need someone to watch my cat. Jinto's allergic and Ronon's busy this weekend and I don't have anyone..." he swallowed around the last word.
Now John saw the plastic cat-carrier and the bag on the floor in the hallway.
"Yes, of course," he said. He didn't know a thing about cats, but it wasn't like he was going to refuse to help Rodney out after the way he'd treated the poor guy. "Listen," he said then, deciding to take the bull by the horns. "About that time, after the bowling... I didn't..."
Rodney shook his head. "Please don't, not now. I don't have time right now, I have to go. Thank you for..." he motioned to the cat-carrier and the increasingly angry sounds that were coming from inside it. "I don't know when I'll be back but it shouldn't be more than a few days and if I'm not, it won't matter anyway..." Rodney stopped abruptly, as if he'd suddenly realised what he'd just said. "Ignore that last bit, will you?" he asked. "I'll be back in a couple of days, three at the most. He likes tuna."
Then he turned around and hurried down the hallway before John had the time to say anything else. John stood frozen on the spot for a few moments before he followed, wondering where the hell the fire was, but when he got outside, Rodney was gone, like the ground had swallowed him up.
John went back inside and moved the cat carrier and the bag into his apartment. He peered in through the metal bars of the carrier and saw a black cat with bright yellow eyes hissing at him. When he investigated the bag, he found a container of cat litter and a few toys.
"Well, I guess you want out of there," John told the cat and opened the door. The cat let out a yowl and threw itself out of the cage and through the door to the living room where it proceeded to hide underneath the bookcase.
"I didn't mean to step on you, you know!" he shouted after the cat. Then he sighed to himself, feeling even more rotten. There were a lot of things he hadn't meant to do that morning.
* * *
The first day Rodney was away, John spent several hours trying to get the cat out from under the bookcase. It refused to move, no matter how much turkey John dangled in front of its nose. He did try to reach underneath and just grab the thing and drag it out, but he only tried it once and then had to use up most of the rubbing alcohol in the medicine cabinet to clean the resulting scratches on his arm. It was just like Rodney to have a difficult and stubborn and slightly murderous pet.
Finally, John gave up and laid down on the floor next to the bookcase. He turned his head to the side and looked at the cat, who had backed as far up against the wall it could come. It glared at him with angry yellow eyes and John was pretty sure that any attempt to try to get it out with force would result in him getting his face clawed off.
"It's not like I'm happy with this situation either," John told it. "You don't have to look at me like that."
The cat didn't answer. Instead it started to emit a low, threatening growl. John sighed, climbed to his feet, and went to make himself a sandwich. Just because the cat didn't want his delicious turkey it didn't mean John was going to throw it away.
* * *
The second day Rodney was away, John woke up at dawn to the sound of soft feet padding around the living room. For a few disoriented seconds he was prepared to roll out of bed to deal with whatever burglar had broken into his apartment while he slept. Then his brain woke up and he thought, Rodney, and Rodney's cat and damn all in rapid succession. Well, at least it seemed to have left its hiding place under the bookcase.
He got up and made breakfast. By the time he had sat down with a cup of coffee and the paper, the cat was peering in through the open door. It stood there and stared at him for a moment before it let out a questioning little mewl.
John took out a small bowl and opened a can of tuna he found gathering dust in a cupboard. He put it down on the floor and re-filled the water dish he'd put out the night before. "Is that good enough for you?" he asked.
The cat carefully stepped into the kitchen, but didn't make a move for the food until John had returned to the table. Then, it went over, inhaled the tuna in five minutes flat, and sat down to look at John. He thought it looked unhappy.
"I miss him too, you know," John told the cat, and then wondered why exactly he had said that, before he realised that it was true. It had been three weeks since he'd screwed things up with Rodney, and he couldn't help feeling like something very important had gone missing from his life.
He didn't want to think about that, so he changed the subject instead.
"I can't keep calling you 'cat'," he said. The cat cocked its head, looked at John for a moment, and then started washing itself. John stayed at the table, sipped his coffee, and tried to figure out which name someone like McKay might have chosen to give his pet. He came up blank. "How about Bob?" John said out loud. "You kinda look like a Bob." The cat looked up, huffed a little, and then sauntered out of the kitchen, without doubt to try to find some piece of furniture to sharpen its claws on.
* * *
The third day Rodney was away, the sky caught on fire. John didn't have any flights scheduled so he'd holed up with a couple of DVD:s and a bag of cheez doodles. He probably wouldn't have noticed anything at all but when his phone started ringing, he answered and heard Ronon's voice on the other end.
"Hey Sheppard, are you seeing this?"
"Seeing what?" John asked and held a cheez doodle out to Bob, who gingerly caught it and started to gnaw on it. He and Bob were getting along okay now, even though the side of John's couch would never be the same again.
"You inside? Look out of the window."
John went to open the blinds and saw how the entire sky was ablaze with red and yellow, like fireworks gone seriously wrong. "Wow," he said. "That's different."
"What d'you think it is?" Ronon asked. John thought about an answer but couldn't come up with one that wasn't completely redundant. Ronon had been a Ranger, he knew what a big-ass explosion looked like just as well as John did. What he was really asking was 'What do you think is going on?' and to that question, John had no answer.
"Hell if I know," he said. Then he realised something else. "What are you doing? I thought you were busy this weekend."
"Change of plans," Ronon said, with just a hint of a chuckle in his voice. "How's McKay's cat?"
John took a moment or two to mentally curse his friend, and then said, "I hate you."
"You'll thank me later," Ronon said and hung up.
The bright blossoms of fire were fading from the sky. John watched them for a little bit longer and then he went back to the couch where Bob had climbed halfway into the bag of cheez doodles in search of more treats. John fished the cat out of the bag and sat down, staring at the paused movie on the tv while he wondered what had just happened, and what Rodney was doing right now.
* * *
Rodney came back on the fourth day. It was late in the evening and John was just about to go to bed when the doorbell rang. He put on a t-shirt and went to open.
If he'd thought McKay had looked bad before, he looked half-dead now. He was still wearing the same clothes he'd had on the last time John saw him. His face was very pale and had about two day's worth of stubble. He was tapping his fingers against his leg in an unconscious gesture that John regognised - that need to stay in constant motion you got when you were exhausted to the point of near collapse, but couldn't afford to collapse just yet.
”You're back,” John said intelligibly.
Rodney glared at him, but it seemed to be mostly out of habit. ”Yes, very observant of you.”
”Where have you been?”
”Oh, I just had to save the world from total annihilation since a race of hostile aliens were in the process of invading Earth.”
John rolled his eyes. ”You know, you could just say 'classified'. No need to make up stories.”
There was a weary sigh. ”Look,” Rodney said. ”I just came to pick up my cat and then I'll be out of your hair.”
”Come in,” John said and stepped aside to let Rodney past.
Rodney stepped over the threshold slowly, like it took conscious effort to remember how to move his feet. John knew that feeling too, how heavy and clumsy your body became, how difficult it was to move. ”Take a seat,” he said, pointing to the couch. ”I'll go find the beast.”
When John left the living room, Rodney was still standing in the middle of the floor, staring vaugely at the couch, but by the time he'd found Bob curled up and shedding hair on his pillow and collected the cat toys that the past few days had seen strewn around the apartment, Rodney had sat down and conked out. John figured it was just best to let him take a nap so he could be trusted to get himself and Bob home safely, so he found a blanket, draped it over Rodney's lax body and went to sit in the kitchen and do a couple of sudoku puzzles.
Bob followed and sat down looking insistently between John and the fridge so John relented and fed him some tuna.
After two hours had passed, it was pretty clear that Rodney wasn't going anywhere. He was still out for the count, resting in what seemed to be a very uncomfortable position. He also still had his coat on and John couldn't in good conscience leave him like that all night.
Rodney didn't wake up when John poked him in the shoulder, and it took some pretty rough shaking before his eyelids flickered open.
”What?” he muttered, eyes still at half-mast. Then he blinked rapidly a few times, stared at John and exclaimed, ”The ships! How close are they?”
”Hey, it's okay, it's all over now,” John said. He had no idea what 'it' was but he was beginning to get the feeling that Rodney might not have been making up stories after all. He'd had some time to think about it, and that had been a pretty impressive explosion in the sky yesterday.
Rodney blinked again and seemed to focus on John. ”Oh, it's you,” he said. ”Did I fall asleep?”
”Yeah you did. I thought you'd be more comfortable in bed.”
The look Rodney gave him was very tired. ”I'm not... I don't...” he began, and John felt his stomach go cold. What kind of a bastard did Rodney think he was anyway?
”Just to sleep, McKay,” he hurried to say. ”You're gonna hurt your neck if you stay like that and you alway bitch about your back.” He reached out to take Rodney's hand and pull him to his feet, ready to steady him when he swayed. ”Come on,” he said as gently as he could.
Rodney followed, stumbling a little, and had it not been for John's guiding hand on his elbow he would have walked into the doorframe. Once in the bedroom, John peeled him out of his coat and suit jacket and freed him of his shoes, and then made him crawl under the covers. He wanted to help McKay out of his pants and shirt too, but he really didn't want Rodney to get the wrong impression, not now when he finally had a chance to try to make things right again.
With Rodney settled in bed, John went to lie down on the couch. He'd slept there before, when he'd fallen asleep in front of the tv, and he usually didn't have any problems with it. But this night, he just couldn't seem to get any rest. Instead he lay awake, listening to Rodney's snores through the closed bedroom door.
* * *
John must've fallen asleep at some point, because he woke up from the sun shining in through the living room window. The bedroom door was closed so he figured Rodney was still sleeping. A quick visit to the bathroom later, John put on a pot of coffee and wondered how he was going to tackle all this.
It would have been so much easier if he'd had the chance to talk to Rodney earlier, while everything was still fresh. Now, it was like it had settled a little bit and John didn't want to rip it all up again.
”What do you think?” he asked Bob, who had come strutting into the kitchen at the sound of the opening fridge door. ”Does he still hate me?”
Bob didn't answer, just sat here flicking his tail a couple of times before he began to wash himself. ”Bob,” John said, trying to get the cat's attention. ”Hey, you're not much help, do you know that?”
There was a shuffling sound from the doorway and then a voice. ”Bob?” Rodney said incredulously. ”Did you re-christen my cat?”
”You never told me his name,” John defended himself.
”For your information, it's Archie,” Rodney said. He still looked tired, and he'd apparently taken off his pants sometime during the night, and was now wearing a white shirt and boxers with small pirate flags on them. ”Who names a cat Bob?”
”Who names a cat Archie?” John shot back. ”Do you want coffee?” he asked then.
Rodney stuck his chin out. ”It's short for Archimedes,” he said. ”Also, yes please. And no, I don't hate you. Was I supposed to?”
John got up from his chair to pour Rodney a mug. He wondered how you wer supposed to start a conversation like this, but decided to just go straight to the point.
”I want to apologise for being an asshole,” he said as he turned around. ”I shouldn't have left that morning. And... I just wanted to say that... well, I understand that you don't want to be around me anymore and, well, I'll find another hairdresser. You went to Halling's long before I did so it's only fair you get to continue.”
Rodney sat down at the table and rubbed his eyes. ”I might still be extremely sleep-deprived,” he said. ”Or you're exceptionally simple, and I think I'm going to go with the second alternative. Did you just promise not to come between me and my hair salon?”
John winced a little. It had sounded a lot better in his head than spoken out loud. ”Well,” he said. ”You haven't been there in three weeks and I thought...” He carefully put a coffeemug down in front of Rodney.
”I wasn't going to throw your drunken mistakes back in your face,” Rodney said. ”I hate it when people do that to me, and, well...” he trailed off, grabbing for the coffee and downing half the mug in one gulp.
”My drunken mistakes?” John repeated. ”But I wasn't... you said that you didn't usually... I thought you meant...”
Rodney put the mug down, looking a little bit more awake now. ”That I don't usually sleep with men? That I don't usually bring a guy home after the first date? What did you think?”
”What did you mean?” John retorted. He was beginning to get the feeling that everything had just been one big misunderstanding and he didn't know if he should laugh or cry.
”I meant...” Rodney drew a deep breath. ”I meant that I don't usually let my crushes know I like them. The last time I did, it didn't end well.”
”You had a crush on me?” John asked, gaping. He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
”Why did you think I kept booking my appointments at the same time you booked yours?” Rodney inhaled the last of his coffee and held the mug out for a refill. John took it wordlessly. ”Granted, my approach to dating hasn't changed a lot since high school, but it was the only thing I could think of at the time.”
John filled the mug again. ”Well, it kinda worked,” he admitted. ”And then I had to go and ruin it all. It wasn't a drunken mistake, I swear. The only mistake I did that night was when I left without saying anything. I don't even know why I did it, I just... freaked out, I guess. And then work was... I tried to call.”
”I know.” Rodney made a grimace. ”I didn't pick up. I was too embarrassed.”
John went to sit down next to Rodney and handed the mug back to him, ”I'm sorry I screwed up,” he said. ”We could've avoided all this... ” he waved his hand, trying to indicate the entire mess. ”But I'd like to try to make it up to you, if you'd let me.”
”I'm not very good at relationships,” Rodney murmured, his voice so low that John had to strain his ears to make out the words.
John thought about Mitch, who he had saved and let down at the same time. He thought about Nancy, who he hadn't been able to give what she'd deserved. He thought about how much he hated being lonely and how quickly Rodney had managed to get under his skin. ”Me neither,” he admitted. ”But I'd like to give this one a try.”
This time, Rodney's kiss was slow and tentative instead of heated, but it was no less good, and it was full of hope.
* * *
”Hi sweetheart, how are you?” John's mom asked the next time she called.
John didn't answer at first. Instead he looked over at the other end of the couch, where Rodney was sitting, muttering something at the screen of his laptop. Archie-Bob was lying beside him, studying how his fingers danced over the keyboard. It hadn't been easy, sorting through all the misunderstandings and the assumptions and the faulty conclusions, but it had been worth it in the end.
”John? Are you still there?” his mom asked.
”Yeah mom,” he answered. ”I'm here. And I'm happy.”
- fin -
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