Word count on this part: ~6,000
EDIT: finished fic here
If Rodney’s sister hadn’t already been dead, he would’ve killed her. Which was in poor, very bad taste, of course, but he honestly couldn’t handle the pressure, and it’d only been three days.
He was brilliant, as close to all-knowing as a human could possibly be, and he was slowly being whittled down to a drooling half-wit by a big-eyed, eerily silent three-year-old, the smallest baby known to mankind, and a black and white rabbit that ate absolutely everything that happened to be on floor level, including tape, electrical wiring, carpet fibers, wood molding, and socks.
“Okay, please, please, for the love of all that’s holy, stop crying,” he begged, jostling tiny Tiffany – oh my god, why, Jeannie? Tiffany? - and his voice was hoarse enough to make himself wince. His head felt like it was split in two, and George just looked up at him from his matchbox cars with those big, sad eyes, and Rodney thought he was going to snap.
He couldn’t do it. He wasn’t dad material. He didn’t know the first thing about raising kids, and god knew he’d never really been one himself. Jeannie had to have been completely insane to name him guardian in her will, and didn’t Caleb have any family? Aunt, uncle, distant cousin?
The knock on the door was a surprise and a goddamn blessing, and he jumped for it, jerking it open without bothering to see who it was, hoping it was Cadman or even anyone with hands - and it was Dex, the large, hairy, two-handed man who lived in the attached house next door. The most important thing, though, was that Ronon was an adult. He actually spoke a language. Granted, it was a gruff language liberally peppered with grunts and snorts, but Rodney wasn’t going to be picky.
“You know what time it is, McKay?” the man asked, crossing his arms over his chest, and Rodney ignored the warning couched in his tone, shoving Tiffany at him. Dex’s eyes flew wide and he grabbed for the wailing seven-month-old as Rodney let her go.
“I love you,” Rodney said earnestly. He was aware he wasn’t exactly in his right mind. He didn’t care.
A smile almost played around Dex’s mouth. “That’s nice.”
“Yes, yes, it’s wonderful, you’re wonderful, now hold her forever, okay?” he demanded, voice tinged with desperation.
“Do you know what time it is?” Dex asked again, and since Rodney was almost ninety-five percent sure he wasn’t actually asking for the time – it was hard to tell how Dex’s mind worked, but a watch glinted on his wrist - he figured it was late.
Rodney nodded. “Hold her.” He jabbed a finger at him. “I’ll put George to bed.” A glance at the clock proved that it was past ten, so not late-late, but he was pretty sure George should’ve been in bed by seven – that seemed like a reasonable three-year-old bedtime to him, but, then again, what the hell did he know? – and that Tiffany, well. Babies probably screamed at all hours of the night. He was never going to sleep again.
Rodney swung George up into his arms with a groan – his back was never going to be the same – and trudged up the stairs and down the short hall. The second bedroom was small, but George’s little trundle bed still looked ridiculously tiny, pushed up against the wall under the single window, his tattered stuffed monkey perched on the pillow, one eye missing, tail long gone, the fur so worn it was nearly bald in patches.
It’d been his, first. And then Jeannie’s – she’d stolen it, the mouthy brat – and now it was George’s, and the sight of it these days seemed to punch his heart. He would’ve thrown it out, except he couldn’t do that to George. It was the same damn reason he had a house rabbit living in his kitchen - he’d had no idea how much mess a rabbit could make until Walter moved in.
He still wasn’t sure of the routine. There was probably tooth-brushing and baths, but they’d been there three days, and Rodney hadn’t had even five minutes to put together a shopping list, and someone, somewhere, had to know what these kids needed. He really wished there was a hotline. A red phone. A bat-sign, only nanny-shaped.
The part they had gotten down, though, was that George wanted his fuzzy footie pajamas, so Rodney cranked up the air conditioner and snuggled him into bed.
His eyes were so serious and he looked so lost, and damn it, Rodney was fucking lost himself.
With a sigh, he smoothed George’s hair off his forehead, the fine red-gold curls exactly like Jeannie’s. He didn’t look like a McKay, though. He had dark eyes, and a thin nose, and despite their penchant for baby-fat, no McKay had ever had dimples like his, one on each cheek, lightly denting the pale skin. He was cute, but then he figured most little kids were cute – if you disregarded their disturbingly leaky noses – and George was also family, so Rodney, while he’d never, ever been fond of kids, had to admit to being biased.
“It’ll be fine,” Rodney said, his voice and hand just the slightest bit shaky, because he’d always been a horrible liar.
He left the closet light on, cracking the door. He wasn’t sure if he needed it, but George wouldn’t say one way or the other, and Rodney remembered doing it for Jeannie occasionally. If there was ever an appropriate time for nightlights, this was most definitely it.
Down in the living room, Dex was still cradling Tiffany, staring at her, half-amused, and – here was the part Rodney was strongly considering kissing him for – she was quiet. She wasn’t crying.
“How…?” he whispered in awe. It was really, really hard to inspire awe in Rodney. Nothing much impressed him, since he was ten times better at everything than anybody else – well, everything worthwhile, at least – but Tiffany was not crying.
“Changed her,” Dex said. He shrugged a little, careful not to move her. “She likes that lamp, too.”
The stained-glass monstrosity was an old boyfriend’s. He hadn’t been interested enough in redecorating to get rid of it as he’d shuffled his life around, and he thanked the sweet baby Jesus for his horrendously bad taste. “Colors, light, dry diaper, check,” Rodney murmured absently.
He rubbed a palm over his mouth, and slumped down onto the couch. He really wanted to curl up and sleep for a month. Eyeing Dex speculatively, he asked, “When are you home?” waving a hand. “Because she hates me and obviously adores you, and if you stop by every evening to give me even just an hour of peace, I’ll pay you one hundred dollars.”
One eyebrow arched. “A day?”
“God, yes, anything. I mean, I meant a week, but I get giddy just thinking about whole blocks of time, so.” He could afford it, and if Dex could let him shower – oh, man, he totally couldn’t even remember what a shower felt like – he would pay him double that if he wanted.
“Make it a day and I’ll stay for two,” Dex said, clearly bemused, and Rodney almost cried, because he had a giant yeti for a babysitter now, and it was the best idea he’d ever had, and that was including the helper robot he and Radek had developed a year ago.
The yelling was loud, and got even louder as they made their way up the narrow set of rickety steps, but Cadman told him it wasn’t a big deal.
“This is nothing,” she tossed over her shoulder, chuckling. “It gets worse when they’ve got a deadline.”
“How do you know they don’t?” John mused. Some of the shouting wasn’t even in English, and most all of it sounded rude.
“Middle of the month. This is the easy stuff,” Cadman explained as they neared the top of the steps. She paused and turned to look down at him. “They usually get two warnings, and then a fine. They pay, they donate, we placate Miss Gloria when she calls to complain.” There was a thump, a shatter of glass, and Cadman winced.
“Kavanagh.” She stepped forward and knocked. “They both hate him.”
After a few moments heavily laden with even more thumps and curses and one very strident, “We are all infinitely dumber for even breathing your air!” the door jerked open with a sharp, “What?”
John leaned a hip against the top of the stair railing, shifting for a better view in the narrow vestibule.
A man with wispy hair and blue, blue eyes split a glower between them, half his mouth pulled down. “Cadman.” He held out his hand and snapped his fingers impatiently.
“Hi, Rodney. What’s shakin’?”
“I don’t have time for social niceties, you harpy,” he groused, but he stepped aside, letting her past. “Where’s Bates?” He eyed John curiously, and John straightened up, mouth sliding into a practiced, slow grin.
“Transferred out,” Cadman said happily, slapping his back. “We had a party.”
“John Sheppard,” John introduced himself, following Cadman into the... lab? There were a lot of mechanical devices and shiny metal surfaces and one enormous chalkboard packed with tiny, tiny calculations, and the room, despite being perched at the top of a loosely renovated old Victorian, slanted ceilings and all, was big and surprisingly open.
“Oh, my manners.” Cadman rolled her eyes. “Rodney, John. John, Rodney. And that little guy hiding under the desk is Radek—”
“Am busy!” he shouted. He peeked out to scowl at them, glasses askew and hair tufting out in every direction.
“Where’s Kavanagh?” Cadman asked, gazing around the room.
“Locked himself in the bathroom after I threw a wrench at his head,” Rodney said blithely. Then he held out a hand and said, “Dr. Rodney McKay,” and John shook it with a genuine smile.
He was kind of hot, in a rumpled professor sort of way, with his white lab coat and black-smudged khakis, and he was blatantly staring at John. John arched his brows, catching his eyes, and Rodney’s cheeks pinked just the slightest little bit before he turned back to Cadman.
“Warning or fine this time?” he demanded with a huff.
She picked up a round metal chip. “What’s this?”
“Don’t touch,” he snapped, lunging for her and wrestling it out of her hands. “Keep your grubby paws off everything, Cadman.”
Cadman wagged a finger at him. “Hey, no attacking an officer of the law,” she teased, then John watched her eyes melt and she placed a hand on Rodney’s arm, squeezing slightly. “You all right?”
Rodney darted a nervous look towards John, then nodded and rubbed a palm over his forehead. “Yeah,” he breathed. “It’s.” He paused. “It’s getting to be... really okay.”
Cadman grinned. “I hear the big guy’s been a help.”
Rodney’s mouth quirked up. “You wouldn’t think so to look at him,” he quipped, and then John blurted out incredulously, “Is that a robot?”
It was small and had about fifteen arms and looked a little like a metal octopus on wheels. While he watched, it grabbed a box full of tools and disappeared back under the desk next to Radek.
“That’s a HelperBot,” Rodney said, tipping his chin up, smug around the mouth.
“It’s cool.” John felt that cool was totally an understatement – because: robot! - but lately saying awesome made Daisy look at him funny, so he’d been trying to cut back.
Rodney snorted. “Of course it’s cool. It’s a semi-autonomous machine that responds to our specific voice patterns. Although,” he frowned, “it occasionally gets stuck in the closet, and we can’t figure out why.”
“I have been taking him home,” Radek said, popping out again, pushing his glasses up his nose with the blunt end of a phillips head. “He is scared of my wife’s yappy dog. Possible glitch in brain microchip.”
“We never gave him emotions,” Rodney pointed out, and John muttered, “Number five is alive,” under his breath.
Rodney jabbed a finger at him. “Semi-autonomous. It’s learning. Also, I’m choosing to overlook your Short Circuit reference. You may redeem yourself with any knowledge of implausible Star Trek sciences and/or a goodwill gift of chocolate for the entire lab. And by the entire lab, I mean me, and by chocolate, I mean actual chocolate, and not that cheap American waxy crap.”
“He’s officially Canadian,” Cadman said, grinning, “but Miss Gloria insists he sprang from the loins of Satan himself.”
“Ha, ha,” Rodney muttered darkly, and John set his hands on his hips, tilting his head to the side.
“I’ll get back to you about that redemption.”
“And you get a warning this time,” Cadman offered. “Miss Gloria wants jelly donuts tomorrow.”
“Crazy old bat,” Rodney grumbled, then went on pointedly, “If that’s all? Because we’d actually like to get some work done today—” The floorboards creaked towards the back of the lab, and Rodney shouted without turning around, “I am not done being angry beyond your possible comprehension!”
“Try to keep it down, guys,” Cadman admonished. She almost managed a straight face.
Radek waved a hand out of his hidey-hole. “Yes, bye, go away now.”
“They’re really quite sweet,” Cadman assured John earnestly, eyes twinkling. Then she pecked Rodney’s cheek and, bright red, Rodney growled, “Out, out,” and shoved her towards the door, grabbing John’s shoulder, pushing him along as well, and John, too stunned by Rodney’s firm grip and wide hands, stumbled docilely into the hall after Cadman.
Rodney slammed the door shut behind them, shaking the frame.
Cadman raised her voice and said, “I’ll drop by with some dinner tonight when I get off,” through the thin wood.
It snapped back open. “Something with cheese,” he advised seriously, then shut it again with only minutely less force.
Bemused, John gave her a half-smile. “So, you and him are...?” he asked leadingly.
“Friends and neighbors,” she answered, starting back down the stairs. “Plus, he breaks up the monotony of the day without resorting to actual crime.”
“He’s certainly... something,” John drawled.
“He’s an arrogant, egomaniacal genius,” she said, a hint of fondness in her tone.
“With a heart of gold,” John added wryly.
She laughed. “Well, I definitely wouldn’t go that far. He’s pretty cuddly when you get to know him, though.”
“Cuddly?” John echoed faintly, brows arched.
“Anyway,” Cadman went on, stepping out into the street, “this is a regular peace-keeping stop. Bates used to hate it, but then, he got on Rodney’s bad side right off the bat, and he’s hard to handle if he genuinely hates you.”
John nodded, slipping on his sunglasses to block out the bright afternoon sun. “And he likes me.”
“He thinks you’re hot, and probably not stupid,” Cadman clarified.
“I can live with that.”
East Wallingford wasn’t the worst place to end up. Daisy hated it, yeah, but she was fifteen, and John was pretty sure fifteen-year-olds had an obligation to hate everything. John was surprisingly okay with that.
It’d been a good move, he thought. Fresh, wholesome air, friendly folks, lots and lots of trees. He could get used to the solitude, used to the darkness spreading past his back porch at night, the buzzing chorus of cicadas and the drunken zigzags of late-summer fireflies.
And it wasn’t like they were out in the boonies. The houses on either side of his were only fifty, maybe sixty yards away. The Millers even had a pool. Heavily wooded suburbs weren’t exactly what they were used to, though. He’d caught a raccoon rummaging through their garbage two nights in a row, and the squirrels. The squirrels were almost evil out there, with their acorns and their deadly accurate aim.
The screen door creaked open behind him, and he smiled around the top of his beer bottle.
“I’m out,” Daisy said, diving past him down the porch steps, skateboard tucked under her arm, long dark hair twisted up in a messy ponytail.
She swung around when she hit the yard. “Out anywhere.”
“It’s dark,” he said pointedly, leaning against the railing.
“Wow, Dad, I’m frankly astounded by your observational skills,” she drawled, and John took no small amount of pride in the fact that Daisy clearly took after him, not Elizabeth.
“How about I veto your night cruising idea,” John countered.
“Oh, come on. What can happen? Bear mauling? I just want to check out the neighbors,” she wheedled, bouncing a little on the balls of her feet.
“Hey, I’m all for a good bear mauling,” John said reasonably, “but lets save the rest for daylight hours, k?”
Daisy pouted. “But—”
“Humor me. We’ll nuke some popcorn, watch a movie, practice the time-honored tradition of father-daughter bonding.” He went for the puppy eyes. She could never resist the puppy eyes.
“Not Back to the Future,” she groused, stomping up the steps.
“Your choice,” he offered, shrugging. “I wouldn’t mind a little Thunderdome action, though.”
“Two men enter,” she intoned blandly. “One man leaves.”
“I’ll take that as agreement,” he said cheerfully, opening the screen door.
Daisy pulled a face. “Sometimes I wish you weren’t such a dork.”
“I find that hard to believe,” he said, hooking an arm around her neck and reeling her close. He kissed the top of her head, and she ducked out of his grip, rolling her eyes.
“You love me,” he sing-songed, following her into the kitchen and pulling out a packet of microwave popcorn. He settled it on the carousel, punched in three minutes, then turned around to smirk at her, arms crossed over his chest.
“Please.” She grabbed a Pepsi from the fridge. “I tolerate you, since Mom’s a nut-job.”
“Don’t talk about your mom like that,” he reproved lightly, ‘cause, hell yeah, she was crazy. She’d rather broker third-world peace treaties and commune with goat-farming health gurus than raise her own baby girl.
“She called from a payphone in Nepal yesterday. I could hear sheep.”
“When aren’t sheep involved where your mother’s concerned?” he muttered absently.
Twisting the cap off her soda bottle, she went on with forced casualness, “She wants to fly in for my birthday.”
John’s brows went up. “Oh, really.”
“Yeah.” Daisy nodded, but wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I told her not to bother.”
“Like she’d have come anyway,” she cut him off, shrugging. “Something would’ve come up. Rampant goat disease, tribal war, weevils in the bread, whatever.”
John sighed. She was right, but that didn’t make him, or her, feel any better about it. “Hey, whatever you want, kiddo.”
She brightened immediately. “I want a car.”
He cocked a finger at her. “I hear ten-speeds are the new Jetas.”
“Dad,” she drew out, exasperated.
He grinned. “We’ll see.”
Anyone who walked through Rodney’s door got the baby. After a month, most people knew this, and avoided or visited him accordingly. The teenager on the front porch was a stranger, had her eyebrow pierced, and was rolling a skateboard back and forth with one foot, but that didn’t deter Rodney. She had capable, empty hands, and he shoved Tiffany at her with a gruff, “Make yourself useful or go away.”
“Gee, thanks,” she drawled, slipping a hand under the baby’s butt and hugging her towards her chest.
Satisfied by the easy handling, Rodney nodded once and waved her inside. “Come in, sit, don’t make her cry.”
“Are you always this pushy?”
Rodney glowered at her. “Are you going to go away?”
She tilted her head. “No.”
“Then you get the baby.” He jabbed a finger at her. “That’s how it works around here. Sit. She likes that lamp. God knows why, but I’ve found that babies, even ones related to geniuses, are astronomically simple-minded.”
The girl gaped at him. “She’s, like, less than a year old,” she stressed.
“Eight months,” he said with a measure of smug pride. He’d kept her alive and healthy for exactly twenty-eight days. Granted, the hairy giant had helped, and Lord knew he couldn’t have gone back to work without Teyla, and Cadman fed them regularly, but still. Alive! Thriving, even, if Carson could be believed.
“Officer Cadman said you had a car to sell,” she said, settling down on the couch and maneuvering Tiffany around on her knees.
Rodney gazed at her curiously as she bent down a bit, puffing out her cheeks, and made a buzzing sound close to the baby’s neck. Tiffany giggled, and her pudgy hands swung up to pat her chin. She grabbed hold of her lower lip and pulled, eliciting a wince, a calm extraction, and a half-coo. The girl was pretty good with her; a plus in Rodney’s book. It meant there was a high probability she’d be a return visitor.
“I have a death-trap to get rid of,” he corrected, because his sister’s old Firebird was possibly the most unreliable machine on the planet, no matter how much tinkering he did with it. Jeannie’d gotten it when she was just a teenager herself, and while they’d always claimed to be completely unsentimental, the McKays tended to hold on to a lot of junk. And Cadman always stuck her nose in where it didn’t belong. He hadn’t mentioned selling it; it’d been sitting in the unattached garage out back since Jeannie died. “I’m not so sure I should sell it to you.”
She gave him a slow grin, expression strangely familiar. “I’m totally trustworthy.”
Rodney snorted. “You bring an adult back with you, and I’ll consider it,” he capitulated.
“Cool.” She bounced Tiffany and nuzzled her face and murmured, “Don’t you want to know who I am, anyway?”
“Identities aren’t required for level one baby-holding,” he said, sprawling out in the chair across from her - level one being an extra pair of hands, but not necessarily good enough to be left alone with her.
“I’m Daisy,” she offered.
“Daisy the baby-holder. Has a nice ring to it.”
Daisy rolled her eyes. “Does she have a name?”
“Tiffany,” he said, and he was sick of defending that, because it really wasn’t his fault Jeannie’d been incredibly stubborn – that was clearly generations of McKay genes at work - and picked her unborn daughter’s name when she’d been ten, and in the end it was just blatant proof that the eighties had been a monumentally horrible idea all around.
She quirked her mouth up, expression teasing. “She doesn’t look like a Tiffany. She looks like a Christine. Or a Pepper.”
Rodney glared. Pepper? He’d had a dog named Pepper. Well, all right, he hadn’t actually had the dog, because dogs were loud and messy and woefully dependent – kind of like a baby, really – but there’d been a dog named Pepper. Somewhere. Once.
Before he could duly chastise her for her idiocy, though, the front door swung open and George careened in at a clumsy run, giggling. Dex shifted into the doorway, blotting out the midday sun.
Daisy whistled. “Wow. You’re tall.”
George stumbled to a stop in front of Rodney, blinking up at Daisy. Then he shuffled backwards, hands grabbing at Rodney’s knees.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Rodney said, cupping a hand over his head.
Dex ducked inside. “He had lunch.”
“Good, good. Naptime, then, eh George?” He was getting the hang of routines. It’d been rough, since he was used to making his own hours, losing track of sane time, but Dex was fairly good at keeping him on a manageable timetable.
During the week, Tiffany and George both spent the bulk of their days with Teyla in town, where she fed them organic vegetables and meditated and spoke in a calm, level, soothing voice, and if George didn’t come home practically glowing, Rodney wouldn’t have let them within ten feet of that holistic claptrap.
George hadn’t really spoken since Rodney’d taken custody, but he wasn’t exactly sure what a three-year-old’s vocabulary should actually be. He thought he at least should’ve gotten an Uncle Rodney out of him, since he’d practiced that often enough in the past, shouting it into the phone whenever Jeannie’d been feeling particularly evil. For the moment, though, Rodney was content to let George’s silence slide. Carson had suggested professional counseling more than once, but the kid was three, and he’d already been through an enormous amount of upheaval, and there was no way Rodney was going to subject him to psychoanalysis. He was going to make George feel normal, wanted and loved – to the best of his admittedly limited abilities - and he seriously doubted sending him off to visit a patronizing stranger would help.
“I’ll stay with the peanut if you need to take him upstairs,” Daisy offered Rodney, only she was staring up at Dex with wide, hazel eyes, mouth flirting at the edges, and Rodney snapped, “He’s way too old for you.”
Probably. Dex had a babyface under all his facial hair that made his age sort of ambiguous.
Dex grinned with teeth. “You interested, McKay?”
“What? Oh Jesus, you’re hitting on me.” Rodney flailed. “That’s so very wrong.”
“Why?” Daisy asked, head cocked. “He’s hot.”
“Yeah, McKay. Why?” Ronon echoed in a near growl, his expression darkly amused, and Rodney sputtered, “We’re not having this conversation,” covering George’s ears with his palms.
Daisy laughed. “You are so weird.”
Rodney pressed his lips together and scowled. “George and I are going upstairs,” he said huffily, then pointed at Dex. “You, don’t leave her alone with the baby. She’s only a level one.” Dex was a level fifteen, which meant that if anything ever happened to Rodney, Dex would be in full control of the family.
Dex didn’t actually know that, of course, because Rodney was fairly certain the large man would be completely horrified, but he was good with both kids and it was either him or Cadman, and the thought of Cadman raising little Tiffany and George to be gun-toting, uniformed government patsies was enough to make him physically ill.
Dex might teach them how to throw knives, though. Rodney had mixed feelings about that.
“You’ve got a bunny?” Daisy exclaimed as he was herding George towards the steps. There was an unsaid ‘oh my god, so cute!’ buried in her tone.
He glanced back and saw her crouched down in front of the baby gate, Tiffany propped on her thigh, fingers poking through. Walter had both paws up, begging for treats like the hussy he was, giving her his best, doe-eyed, they’re-starving-me! look.
Dex was eyeing Walter warily, looming over Daisy, arms crossed. He didn’t trust him, since the rabbit had gnawed a decent-sized hole at the hem of his favorite jeans, and always managed to trip him up with his mad dashes whenever he attempted to walk across the kitchen floor.
Rodney didn’t trust Walter because the toaster no longer worked, and he’d been through three telephone cords in the past month. Plus, Rodney wasn’t the neatest of workers, and Walter tended to make nests with his Very Important Papers.
“You let him out, you pay the price,” Rodney stated ominously. He’d lost him twice under the couch for hours, and Rodney suspected he could worm his way up into the cushions given enough time.
“He’s a bunny rabbit,” Daisy cooed, nuzzling Tiffany’s neck as she pet Walter, who’d lowered his head in the I’m-so-adorable-and-submissive routine he’d perfected to lull unsuspecting people into opening the gate. “What trouble could an itsty witsy buns—”
“Dear god, stop baby-talking to him,” Rodney snapped. Bunnies, toddlers, babies, giants, teenagers... what had his life come to?
George tugged on his pant leg and yawned.
Rodney ruffled his hair. “Okay, naptime, right, let’s go.” He pulled him up and fit him on his hip in a practiced movement. It was almost comfortable, having George’s small body tucked up against him, head tipped onto his shoulder. His world couldn’t get any weirder.
Rodney hastily shoved the Parents magazine under his pile of papers as someone slid into the booth across from him. His eyes widened in surprise when he glanced up to find Officer John Sheppard, complete with crisp blue uniform, hands cupping a mug of coffee, grinning at him. God, he was hot, with that half-effacing mouth, and the honestly pretty eyes, and hair just as messy as Radek’s, but somehow ten times sexier. “Seriously,” he said without preamble, “how do you get your hair to do that?”
“I have a metal plate in my head,” Sheppard deadpanned.
Rodney’s face scrunched up uncomfortably. “Really?”
“Oh.” Rodney’s neck got warm, flushing up his cheeks in subtle embarrassment, but Sheppard just sipped his coffee and nodded towards Rodney’s papers.
“What exactly is it that you do, Dr. McKay?” he asked, seeming genuinely curious.
“Oh, I’m. I’m an astrophysicist. Among other things, of course, since a man of my genius can hardly be expected to narrow his focus exclusively, but mainly right now I—”
“Physics,” Sheppard interrupted. “And robots.”
Rodney waved a hand. “Robotics is a side hobby for Radek.” The HelperBot – which had an amazing amount of human-like quirks for a machine – was originally supposed to resemble a monkey, but they hadn’t perfected a workable shell.
“Okay,” Sheppard drew out, lounging back against his seat, openly amused. “So why’re a bunch of scientists out here in the middle of nowhere, then?”
“It’s hardly the middle of nowhere,” Rodney scoffed, since he’d been in much more remote places than the bustling little mountain township of East Wallingford – a lonely outpost in Siberia came to mind – “and I’m here because I was recruited to teach AP Physics for a pittance, with the bonus of breaking as many young minds as I can—”
Sheppard’s eyes rounded. “Wait, you’re a high school teacher?”
Rodney scowled. “It’s fulfilling,” he snapped. Was that so hard to believe? High school kids were massively easier to handle than university undergrads, and most of them even appreciated a good verbal beating. Crying was minimal. For the most part.
“Radek’s here, of course,” Rodney went on, “because he can’t get along without me. Kavanagh’s here because he’s my own personal demon, and I probably couldn’t get rid of him even if I set him on fire and dropped him down a bottomless well.” Kavanagh was an idiot, but an idiot with a brain, which was the only reason Rodney hadn’t completely banned him from the lab. Yet.
“And you three are working on...?” Sheppard asked leadingly, brows arched, and Rodney recognized an interrogation face when he saw one, which probably said a lot about his past.
He narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “It’s classified.”
“Hey,” Sheppard held up his hands, “I was just curious.”
“Right.” Rodney started gathering up his papers, swallowing the bitter dregs of his coffee with a slight grimace. “I should go.”
“Wait, I wasn’t.” He caught Rodney’s wrist.
Rodney pointedly glared down where their hands met, and the sight of those long fingers wrapped over his pale skin was not hot. It really, really wasn’t.
Sheppard let him go with obvious reluctance, a sheepish pull at his lips. “McKay—”
“I’m sure I’ll see you around, Sheppard,” Rodney cut in as dismissively as he could, and he clenched his teeth against Sheppard’s ridiculous puppy eyes – what self-respecting grown man used puppy eyes, for god’s sake? – and stepped up to the diner counter, plopping his stuff down before rummaging for a few dollars to pay his check.
Chuck set a full to-go cup of coffee down in front of him – routine – and then he started off towards his lab, an officer of the law scrambling after – not routine, and Rodney tried very hard not to lose his temper. “Is there a reason you’re being this annoying?” he snapped, flashing Sheppard a sideways glare.
Sheppard shrugged. “Just figured I’d get to know you a little, since my daughter’s trying to talk me into letting her buy your car.”
Rodney stopped dead in his tracks. “You’re Daisy’s father?”
It fit, of course, because Daisy was just as persistent and stubborn underneath a similar veneer of indifference, and she’d weaseled her way into level three baby-holding status by the quirk of her lips and trust-me hazel eyes. Not that she didn’t deserve the standing, of course, since she’d survived feeding the terminally messy Tiffany with true affection. And, most importantly, she kept coming back. It was all well and good to be competently helpful once, but several return visits definitely warranted Rodney’s grudging respect.
“She’s a firecracker, isn’t she?” Sheppard teased.
Rodney rolled his eyes, then picked up his pace again. “The car isn’t worth much of anything as it is,” he said, “but if she pays for the parts, we can piece it together.”
“It’s road-safe, right?” Sheppard asked, a hint of worry in his voice.
Rodney snorted. “At the moment? Not even a little. It’s a bad deal, Sheppard,” he pointed out. He was still half-torn about getting rid of it in the first place. It was his last untouched refuge, and some evenings, when Dex gave him his solid two hours of solitude, he’d prop the garage doors open and slide onto the cracked leather, watching the hazy sky sink into twilight above the house, turning pinks and oranges and velvety purples, and he swore he could still feel Jeannie, still smell that cloying vanilla scent she always wore, still see her McKay blue eyes mocking him for his fancy in the rearview mirror. McKays didn’t believe in ghosts.
“You’ll teach her, though,” Sheppard said slowly, breaking Rodney’s reverie, and Rodney glanced at him again, noting the speculative gleam in his eyes.
“Oh god,” he groaned, “you’re going to foist her off on me for the rest of the summer, aren’t you?”
“Hey, no one’s foisting anything on anyone,” Sheppard protested, but he was grinning mischievously, the bastard. “I just think it’d be cool for her to learn about cars. I wanted to be a mechanic once.”
“Of course you did,” Rodney said dryly. Then, “Fine. She puts in the work, she gets the car.” Stopping just outside Miss Gloria’s old Victorian, he held out his hand. “Deal?”
“All right. Deal,” Sheppard drawled, sliding his palm against his, deliberately lingering as he caught Rodney’s eyes, and the grin that bloomed across his face was more open than any one he’d given him a glimpse of before.
Rodney’s breath hitched and he wrested his hand out of Sheppard’s grip, because flirting. Jesus, he missed flirting and dating and kissing, and it’d only been just over a month since Jeannie and Caleb had died, flipping his life inside out, but god. It felt like it’d been forever. He bit his lower lip, and Sheppard’s gaze automatically dropped to his mouth, and Rodney took a giant step backwards.
“Rodney,” Sheppard started, body coiled to follow his retreat.
Rodney shook his head. “I’ve got to. I mean,” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder, towards the side door leading upstairs to the attic lab. And then he fled.