It is not enough for a man to know how to ride; he must know how to fall.
Blue's bridle jingled when the stallion shook his head from side to side, frustrated that Rodney had halted him at the edge of the woods. There was a gate there with a rusted padlock older than Blue that they regularly jumped, but the sun was rising, burning the ground fog white where it rolled off the hill, and Rodney couldn't see the landing.
Technically, they were trespassing, but no one cared if he rode through the low pastures and overgrown trails of Pegasus Farm's back eighty. Rodney had been doing it anyway two or three mornings a week since he arrived at the neighboring Archangel Equestrian Boarding and Training Stables almost two decades ago. Margaret 'Peg' Dean had owned Pegasus then, and foxhunts had poured wild as a flood across Pegasus Farm's fields and over its fences, with Mrs. Dean right behind the master of the hunt. Rodney had even been introduced to her at one of Elizabeth's parties once, but since she'd died the one hundred sixty acres of Maryland woods and pasture had been in legal limbo while the lawyers fought it out over who would inherit. He figured he might as well take advantage while he still could. Mrs. Dean would have approved of every jump.
Blue's head came up, ears pricked forward and turned to the hill to the east. Rodney looked as well, following the line of his mount's interest.
The silhouette of a horse and rider crested the hill outlined in incandescent light.
Rodney set his hand against the warmth of Blue's neck to remind him to stay calm and hoped he wouldn't neigh and betray their presence. Blue's roan coat had remained dark and Rodney had on jeans and a navy windbreaker. He doubted the rider could pick them out against the darkness of the trees unless they gave themselves away.
He watched as the apparition resolved into something only faintly more mundane. Horse and rider floated down the hill and over the low pasture. The knee-high uncut grass parted and rippled as they cantered over the flat. Rodney cringed because he knew the rider couldn't see the horse's footing.
The mist retreated to the shadows and low stretches. Birds called and a fox barked once, in the distance. Steam whispered off gleaming hindquarters into the cool, still air. The rider worked his mount in long, loose figure eights. The swish of the grass carried, the bellows-breath of the horse, and the pound of his hoof beats.
Rodney could make out more detail now. He recognized the horse, Atlantis, one of the few still owned by Pegasus Farm, a seven-year-old, seventeen-and-a-half hand, black Dutch Warmblood/Thoroughbred cross that probably should have been gelded, only the current manager was too lazy or cheap to get Zelenka or any other vet out to do it. Cam Mitchell had been riding him in competition until his crippling fall at Badminton the year before. Since then the stud had been riderless, prone to jumping fences when turned out, so that someone from Archangel had to catch and return him each time. All complaints had been ignored, of course — the manager just referred them up the line to the lawyers, who didn't care.
The man in the saddle wore a green tweed hacking jacket and faded jeans tucked into English riding boots, no gloves and no helmet. Rodney could make out crow-black hair and tanned skin, a narrow face and acceptably even features, but paid more attention to the horse.
He couldn't keep from analyzing once the first magic of the moment faded, taking in the powerful, easy movement and the way the rider used his expertise to compensate for not knowing his horse. He had a dressage seat that kept his legs down in the longer stirrups, offering more stability and contact. He kept his aids simple to avoid confusing his mount and the black horse responded eagerly. His neck arched proudly, with his ears pricked forward, and his mouth on the bit. Moving into a trot, the stud remained collected and balanced, exhibiting the true beauty of dressage. He floated. His legs scythed through the ground fog switching leads every two strides. They were just getting used to each other, and some day those switches could be with every stride, but the potential to become extraordinary made something in Rodney's throat ache.
Like banners of black smoke, Atlantis' long, unkempt mane and tail lifted with the speed of the horse and rider's passage. Stainless steel stirrups, rings and pieces of bit glittered dim silver. The rider seemed preternaturally still and his back remained ramrod straight as the horse moved over grass brightening from gray to green as the dawn picked out colors and shadows across the pasture. He'd seen Cam Mitchell on Atlantis' back; it had never been like this. Man and horse had been made for each other.
Rodney enjoyed and liked Blue and thought he might be the key to taking Rodney back to winning at CCI four-star level three-day eventing — Concours Complet International — after years of training and coaching others, but he hadn't had that special connection with a horse since he'd been in his twenties. Every time he had a horse he thought might be the one, something happened, whether an injury or the owner taking a dislike to him or just having to sell and Rodney would be forced to start over. It was disheartening.
The lesson wound down before the black horse stopped enjoying himself. The nameless pair turned toward the hill they'd arrived over and disappeared in the direction of the Pegasus barns.
Silence followed until Blue jerked his head back and forth in irritation, breaking the spell at the same time he shifted one hind leg and broke wind.
Rodney blinked and looked around, wondering if he'd imagined the entire thing. A quick check of his watch showed he'd lost forty-five minutes and run out of time to give Blue any more exercise.
He patted Blue's neck apologetically and turned him to head back to the Archangel stables. These morning rides were his indulgence and he had to get back to his responsibilities. Mysterious riders and golden mists belonged in story books, not his life. A fire inspector was scheduled to check the barns and sign off on the safety measures that were in place in order to satisfy the insurance company. Assurance, Inc. were bastards and he couldn't figure out why Elizabeth stayed with them other than the CEO boarding a couple of his horses with Archangel.
It didn't matter. His job was keeping the stables running, not figuring out Ambassador Weir's reasons for anything. She'd been good to him when no one else would hire him.
Blue snorted and Rodney gave in to his impatience, letting him stretch his legs out in an easy canter. The enigmatic rider was dismissed from his thoughts in favor of composing a rant meant for the manager of the feedstore to the rhythm of Blue's thundering hooves.
Cowgirl: A better-looking cowboy with brains.
Rodney slowed Blue to a walk that cooled him down before he rode into the stable yard. He untacked the stallion, rubbed him down and turned him out for the day. The other trainer, Cadman, spotted him and waved her finger at him from where she was working, a messy braid flipped over the shoulder of her black-and-red tee shirt and a hoof pick in one hand.
"You're late, Rodney," she called as she ducked under the neck of the bay she was grooming. "Did you get lost?"
"I remembered you were here and it took a while to marshal the will to return."
Cadman flipped him off and went back to work on Fiddler. Rodney left her to it. Cadman was a pain in the ass, but he knew he could trust her to do her job right without being watched every minute. Shifting some of his responsibilities to her was part of his plan to ride and compete more. Cadman just didn't know about it yet.
He took a walk through the barns, checking for anything left undone or in need of repair and writing a note on the clipboard he kept at the doors next to the fire extinguisher and flashlight to assign someone more trustworthy to the cobweb cleaning schedule. Bob was either skipping or doing a half-assed job. Covered rubber feed buckets with mid-day and evening mixes already portioned into them sat beside each stall and the air smelled like shavings and hay and horse, all fresh and clean for the day. He checked his watch again, muttered a curse at himself, and headed for the offices, going straight upstairs to his apartment, where he showered and changed, grabbed a cup of good coffee and went down again.
He still loved competition and even teaching, would always love riding — at eleven, sulking because he had to give up piano so Jeannie could ride, the mastery of his body and the horse had been a revelation, one that had never paled — but running the stables was work. Work Rodney hated; USEA paperwork, FEI paperwork, county, state, federal and international paperwork, taxes, permits, budgets, orders, inventory, registrations, passports, rent, board, travel, schedules, entry forms, accounting, insurance, and the worst: phone calls to shmooze or remind owners they needed to make out the check and send it. They'd get their car payments and electricity bills paid, but they all figured the stable would go on taking care of their horses if they were late. After all, what else could he do? Starve the animals, which were innocent? Horses couldn't just be let loose and left to wander like Maryland was the damned Wild West.
In any just world, Rodney would have had a full time assistant and a secretary to do this, but instead he had the choice of doing it in the morning himself or delegating to Cadman, who once threatened to blow up a client's garage if they didn't pay their arrears, which had left Rodney having to explain to Weir why her dear friends the Cannidays had moved their horses to another farm. He owed Elizabeth — though not money — but he'd never been able to parse the dichotomy between how she would let her social set get away with leaving bills unpaid for months and her ability to pinch every penny regarding Archangel until it screamed and bled. Miko Kusanagi came in to handle receptionist duties in the office afternoons. She was actually the farm's accountant, but she worked the office Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in exchange for free lessons and board for her Arab mare.
Cadman was just going to have to give up the bomb threats and begin pulling more weight.
He checked the calendar as he sat down and powered on the office's dinosaur of a desktop. The photo for the month showed one of the current crop of Canadian eventing riders going over a monster oxer on a horse Rodney had schooled before the owner sold it on. As always, it gave him a weird, mixed jolt to see that: resentment the horse had been taken from him and pride in the work that led to it being sold for big money.
Aside from the fire inspector, who would show up whenever it was convenient, he had appointments to work with Anne Teldy and then a younger rider before noon and Jennifer would be there in the afternoon. Cadman handled all the Western Pleasure training and coaching and had blocked out the indoor arena for barrel racing from two o'clock on. Three clients with Quarter Horses boarded with Archangel and as long as Cadman dealt with them Rodney was happy; they paid their bills on time. If they wanted to learn cutting, they'd have to head for Oklahoma or Kansas; at least Rodney wished they would. Harriman Feed was supposed to deliver a truckload of timothy, too.
The dinosaur succeeded in booting one more time. Rodney opened Billing and began his first round of phone calls. A single fly buzzed behind the blinds at the window. He'd taken the ripped screen down a week ago, so he didn't open the window to circulate some air into the stuffy office, instead flicking on the inadequate oscillating fan he'd brought back from the hardware store. The hum joined the fly buzz and the compressor to the refrigerator that held everything from Cadman's lunch to antibiotics. The fan fluttered the papers piled over Rodney's desk on a three count.
First two tries netted Rodney only answering machines. He left messages. The third time he connected with a person.
"Hello, this is Rodney McKay with Archangel Stables. Are you aware you are in arrears for two months on three horses here?" At eight hundred dollars a month per horse for full stall boarding the fees were adding up fast. "Yes, I understand times are difficult. However, we are not a charity organization and if our fees are too steep, then you need to rethink keeping your horses here and make different arrangements for them." He paused and listened to the excuses while making a note in the file that he had contacted and spoken with the client. "You might want to consider switching to field board, which is four hundred dollars cheaper."
"Ma'am, right now we feed, stall, groom, medicate and everything else for you. A single 50 lb. bag of high quality feed — the only sort Archangel buys — runs to thirty dollars. Not only are your fees buying that, they are buying the facilities to store that feed. I don't believe we overcharge, but if you do, you are always free to relocate your horses, providing you pay your overdue bills."
Rodney rubbed his forehead.
"Look, why don't you pay one month now and a half of last month's fees along with next month's and the same the month after?"
He made another note in the file.
"Yes, all right," he said, biting back anything he really wanted to say since he'd already been blunter than Weir would have approved, "thank you. Good-bye."
Paperwork. Show entries needed to be submitted in time, but not before Rodney was sure the horses and their riders would be ready. He wanted to start entering Blue this year and that came straight from his own pocket. Weir wouldn't object to Rodney trailering his horse in the farm trailer to and from as long as Blue didn't displace a paying client's horse at least. Rodney spent another hour going over the possibilities, juggling his own budget and bank balance to find the money, and filling in forms. He finished his first cup of coffee and the dregs from the office pot and put on a new pot.
Cadman ducked inside to use the office washroom to neaten up, snagged a Mountain Dew from the refrigerator, and went out again. "Bob's smoking behind Barn Two again," she said on her way out.
"Tell him is ass is fired," Rodney snapped. "And yours too if you don't start doing your own paperwork!"
"Yeah, yeah," she replied, "talk to the hand."
He fielded two calls inquiring about places for horses and told them the stable was full at the moment, but took numbers and names since he expected at least two of the clients in arrears would be removing their animals, freeing up several stalls. Another call from Ben Ingram in Lincolnshire alerted him that Peter Grodin was looking to sell Doctor Doctor, one of his younger event horses, to pay some bills. Rodney regretfully told Ben he didn't have any rider at present with the strength to handle Doctor Doctor. Doctor Doctor had placed fifth at Puhnui and fourth at Adelaide, but he hadn't performed well since being shipped to the UK. But the gelding was just too big for either Anne or Jennifer, and Rodney couldn't see persuading any of the owners he rode for to purchase another horse he didn't have time to ride.
The clock pushed him into finishing everything else he could and heading out to the barns again after making sure the answering machine was programmed. The farm had a website and email address. He usually checked the inbox while eating lunch.
First up, he had a lesson with Anne Teldy, who was hoping to make the US Equestrian team for the next Olympics. She wasn't quite there yet, mostly because she hadn't had a horse that could perform on that level, but Rodney had found El Cid, a Dutch Warmblood/Thoroughbred, six months before. Horse and rider had clicked nearly audibly. O.B. Roth, the Assurance CEO, actually owned the stallion, but Rodney had already told Anne to find the money to buy him from the insurance magnate. He'd been burned when Salamanca's owner yanked him despite their informal agreement that Rodney had right of first refusal if he decided to sell. He didn't want to see Anne go through the same misery.
It made Rodney feel a little wistful. He'd had that magic connection with Salamanca and not once since. Maybe it only came once in a lifetime. He put a little more effort into his work with Anne and El Cid as a consequence.
He headed back to the rear of Barn Two first, to check for signs of Bob's smoking. A cigarette butt in the dirt raised Rodney's blood pressure through the roof. The idiot really had been smoking and left the evidence on the day of their fire inspection.
He stamped into the barn and found Bob.
"Get out," he said, holding up the butt for Bob to see.
"Hey, that could have been from someone — "
"You were seen," Rodney dismissed the protest.
Bob straightened to his full, freakish height and towered over Rodney. Rodney didn't flinch.
"Put in your hours and get out," he told Bob. "You'll get your pay and two weeks severance. Don't ask for a reference."
"You'll regret this," Bob threatened. "You fire me? Steve walks too."
Steve was Bob's equally tall and alarming brother, nearly albino blond and fond of dressing like a Goth reject when not working. It didn't scare the horses, so Rodney had never given a damn.
"No loss," Rodney replied.
Bob made a fist. Rodney looked at it and sneered. "You want an arrest for assault on your record? I mean another one?"
Bob pulled his hand back, then kicked over a bucket of soapy water, splashing Rodney's expensive English riding boots, while the rest drained into the middle of the barn's main corridor. He bared his teeth at Rodney. "Ooops."
"Asshole," Rodney muttered as Bob strolled out, long white-blond hair haloed by the sun as he passed from the relative shade of the barn into the sun. He found a rag in the tack room and wiped his boots off, then cleaned up Bob's mess. He could ask around to try and find a couple of new grooms, but Cadman had mentioned another ex-marine buddy of hers was looking for a job. Even if Cadman's friend knew nothing about horses, it might work. As another plus, Cadman would owe Rodney.
In the meantime, he'd just left himself with roughly triple the work he'd had when he got up at five that morning.
If training has not made a horse more beautiful, nobler in carriage, more
attentive in his behavior, revealing pleasure in his own
accomplishment…then he has not truly been schooled in dressage.
attentive in his behavior, revealing pleasure in his own
accomplishment…then he has not truly been schooled in dressage.
"Concentrate," Rodney snapped at Anne Teldy. "You look like a sack of rotten potatoes today."
Anne shifted, straightening her back and balancing herself on El Cid rather than just draping her ass on the saddle. Her lips thinned and her nostrils flared, but she said nothing and her hands didn't shift on the reins. Rodney nodded to himself. He liked working with Anne because no matter how he insulted her or how angry she might feel, she never passed it on to her horse.
She hadn't even needed to read Xenophon to learn that lesson, either.
Nor did she didn't snivel or apologize.
"Again," he told her.
Anne took El Cid back around to the entry point for the 20 by 60 meter dressage area Rodney had marked out in the outdoor arena. They paused there and Rodney let her have a moment to gather her poise and ready herself. He watched El Cid while they waited. Sweat darkened the blood bay's gleaming red coat to a deeper color. His ears were forward. He wasn't mouthing the bit any longer. Rodney wouldn't put up with misbehavior, but he believed a horse's moods were important. A normally well-mannered animal that acted reluctant or fearful or angry might be in pain from an undiscovered injury or picking up on a confusing signal from the rider. His first lesson was always: pay attention to what the horse is telling you.
"Calm, forward, straight," Rodney called, quoting L'Hotte's motto from Questions Equestres like a mantra for Anne. "Begin."
Rodney started his stopwatch and made notes on a clipboard as well as any penalties a judge would mark; he always remembered everything, but the notes were useful records for Anne's file and helped going over the lesson with her, too. Seeing everything written out sometimes revealed a pattern to a problem.
Anne and El Cid entered at a collected canter and halted at the center. Anne saluted Rodney in the place of the imaginary judges, then proceeded with the trot to the end of the area and turned El Cid left. They turned left a second time and crossed from the corner diagonally to the opposite corner. Rodney watched their transitions carefully.
El Cid's movements were fluid and balanced, weight to his rear legs, and still ears forward. He had the quality prized among dressage aficionados: expressiveness. With Anne in the saddle, El Cid didn't appear to be working so much as enjoying himself, as natural as if he had no weight on his back at all. Rodney nodded to himself. No sign of crookedness or evasion; El Cid was using his hindquarters to the full extent of his conformation. Now that Anne had her head in the game, they both looked much better. Collected trot, extended trot, all displaying the suppleness that was one of the goals of dressage.
Travers, half-pass right in trot and then half-pass in left. Rodney felt passably satisfied with the longitudinal flexion. Next lesson they would work on the jumps. The new jump layout he'd designed would be in place by then and El Cid would be faced with a route that wasn't memorized and almost reflexive. Anne too. She was still too slow, though Rodney approved of her care for her mount. Better to accumulate time faults than knock downs. He was still hammering that into Jennifer's head. The differences between the two riders resulted from the disciplines they had learned before moving into eventing: Anne had always been a dressage rider, while Jennifer had been a hunter-jumper.
This particular routine was a beautiful display, beginning with the very simplest actions, walking and stopping in place. Anne appeared motionless throughout, keeping her cues subtle and her hands light on the reins. It never resorted to the melodramatic and likely wouldn't thrill most watchers. It ended where it began, at the center of the area set aside as the dressage arena, El Cid still and proud as a statue, neck set in a curve that displayed muscle and flexibility, with Anne poker straight in the saddle.
One error grated on Rodney's nerves like the squall of a cat in heat.
"Unacceptable," Rodney told her, ignoring his pleasure in what had gone right. "You bobbled a lead change three quarters through. We're going to work on that. You know this, you need to practice it more."
"Whatever you say, Mr. McKay."
The rest of the hour passed swiftly. The sun felt merciless out in the open. Sweat ran down Rodney's back and Anne's face under her protective helmet shone red. She was wearing a golf shirt and her bare forearms were pink with sunburn because she always forgot her sunscreen. Puffs of dirt billowed up under El Cid's hooves and coated the blue wraps around his legs.
"Enough. Looking at you is starting to hurt my eyes," he said finally. Standing too long without moving had begun to bother his back, too. "You're too tired to improve at this point. Get out of the saddle before you hurt something; something meaning the horse as you've already damaged my will to live." He said it with that half twist to his mouth that smart riders like Anne Teldy learned meant he was more pleased than not. Current thought said to praise rather than insult students, but Rodney didn't give a damn. He believed if they weren't smart or confident enough to know when they were doing it right, they didn't belong on a horse in the first place.
"You're tougher than that, Mr. McKay."
Rodney snorted out his nose, a habit he'd picked up from his first instructor, not a horse, no matter what rumor said. "Come into the office when you've finished cooling him out. I want to talk to you about the show schedule and money."
"Don't worry, I have your check," Anne teased.
"You'd better. I don't put up with you for the pleasure of it," Rodney replied and headed back to the office while Anne found Simpson and they took care of El Cid. He switched the fan back on, drink another cup of rank coffee and swallowed two Tylenol from his desk bottle, then got out the forms he needed to go over with Anne. She'd be a while.
He fished a bottle of lotion out and handed it to her as soon as she came in. "Here. You look like a stoplight."
"You say the sweetest things," Anne laughed as she smoothed the lotion onto her arms first. She helped herself to a cold drink from the refrigerator too, but Anne always brought a six-pack of something with her and left it along with her check for lessons. They spent the next half hour discussing possible shows she could enter and her plans, which depended on how successful she and El Cid were and finances. It was always finances.
"In Europe, they would pay you to ride," Rodney grumbled as he added up the fees and travels costs for another possibility.
"Wouldn't that be great?" Anne agreed. She sat down on the beat up couch and sighed. "I wish I was rich. I'd buy Pegasus when they sell it. Do you suppose the new owner will keep it going?"
Rodney frowned at the calculator. "Eh? What?" That couldn't be right. That was an insane amount of money. You shouldn't need to take out a bank loan to pay entry fees. Had he entered something more than once? More than one something? He cleared the result and began tapping in the costs again.
Anne sat up, bright-eyed with the excitement of holding a choice piece of gossip and an unknowing listener. "Haven't you heard?"
"Heard what? Pegasus was sold to someone? I suppose it was that bastard Rathe."
Todd Rathe, of HVE, could afford to buy any horse he wanted to ride and rode brilliantly, both of which frustrated Rodney no end. It was like he sucked the life out of his mounts; they never lasted more than a year or two and never performed the same for anyone else after. At least he'd never outscored any horse or rider Rodney had trained in dressage. No one produced more polished dressage competitors than he did. Of course, dressage was the true art in eventing; throwing your horse over higher and higher jumps or racing cross-country were hardly true tests of horsemanship. Well, other than the art of conditioning for day after day stamina for endurance.
Never seeing Todd again would be too much to hope for, Rodney knew, the guy wasn't as bad as some people, but he did so anyway. Instead they were probably going to be neighbors. The horror, the horror.
"No. Wow. There's one of those legal announcements in the Galacky Observer. You know, the ones in the Classifieds, in the little tiny print?" Anne said. "The estate's finally been settled."
Rodney set down the calculator. He supposed that meant the farm would finally sell and that bastard Rathe would likely buy it. He'd been nosing around the property for years and always asked about Pegasus when Rodney ran into him at shows.
"Everyone is talking about it. I heard from Jenny Hailey that the new owner even already moved in."
"I wondered if you'd seen anything, what with being neighbors," Anne added. "Jen said he stayed a night at her aunt's B&B. His name's John Sheppard."
"No," Rodney said absently. John Sheppard. The name sounded familiar, but he couldn't place it. He wondered how anyone could move into Pegasus though. The mansion, according to rumors fueled by grooms who worked there, was a wreck, with many rooms completely unlivable. Landry had let everything go to hell without Mitchell around to guilt him into doing right by it. The mansion might not have been technically Landry's responsibility.
No one liked thinking about what happened to Cam Mitchell the year before. The flip when Go Go Indigo had caught a foreleg in the log rails of the Normandy Bank had been catastrophic, the ugliest fall in years, and encapsulated every rider's nightmare. Cam had come out of the saddle and slammed into the ground, only to have Go Go Indigo cartwheel over onto him. Go Go Indigo had shattered both forelegs. The horse had been groaning, trying to stand, and rolling on Mitchell's unconscious body in front of the horrified crowd and the cameras.
Go Go Indigo had been put down on the course, while Mitchell survived, paralyzed from the waist down and facing years of surgery and physiotherapy with little hope of recovering any more mobility.
Rodney had had his own share of bad falls and injuries. He knew only luck had left him still walking and riding and Mitchell in a wheelchair. Horses were a dangerous business.
The sound of tires on gravel snagged his attention. His second morning lesson would arrive in fifteen minutes if Gall could make it on time for once. Brakes didn't screech however, so Rodney knew Gall hadn't changed his ways yet. Miko's green Prius pulled up quietly outside the office next to Anne's Lexus and the Mule and that was his cue to get the hell out of the office and let her take over.
"I think we should be ready for the Maryland Horse Trials in July," he said. "Pennsylvania after that and these two Area 1 events. Two stars only, but good warm ups for qualifying you and Cid." He used El Cid's barn name with Anne. With the owner, he'd sometimes use a barn name and sometimes the one on the horse's registration papers. It depended on the owner.
"Really?" Anne leaned forward. Pegasus Farm and John Sheppard — why did Rodney think he knew that name? — were forgotten.
Miko knocked before coming in. She took her brown bag lunch to the refrigerator and held up a second one. "I brought you sandwiches, Mr. McKay. No citrus."
"Stick'em in the fridge," he said. Cadman insisted Miko had a crush on him, but Rodney thought she just wanted to fit in and stay on his good side. "I'll be out of here in a minute." He'd eat the sandwiches after Gall's lesson. He'd need the fuel by then. "I've got a sheet here with the costs," he told Anne. "Go over it and we'll make out the entries on Friday after your lesson."
Miko said she was going to start on the quarterly taxes and Rodney fled.
Rodney didn't think of of the rider from the morning again until he crawled into bed after the last barn check, when he finally closed his eyes. The image that formed of the man and horse silhouetted by the sun almost startled him from his doze along with a sudden curiosity.
Who had that been?
A horse is worth more than riches.
John didn't need the hassle of another inheritance. He barely remembered Peg Dean — they weren't even really related — she'd been his mother's aunt's husband's cousin. He only remembered her at all because the Thanksgiving when his mother invited her, Mrs. Dean had told his father he was a cast-iron prick after several martinis. Hard to forget the expression on everyone's face. He'd walked her around the barns earlier in the day, pointing out his old Connemara pony and all his favorites, but he'd never seen her again after that. That's what he told Woolsey when the lawyer tracked him down in Florida. He was living off the money his maternal grandfather had left him. He didn't need more; he'd never bothered even trying to access the trust funds left by his other grandfather or his mother. That would have meant dealing with his father or Dave and their lawyers.
"Well, you must have made an impression on her. She left you Pegasus Farm and all her money in her last will," Woolsey observed.
"I don't care."
"I, however, do."
John had poured himself another drink. His third — fourth? — in the time Woolsey had been talking to him. Woolsey sniffed in disapproval.
"Look, didn't you get it from the years of ignored calls and ignored letters?" John rolled his eyes. "I didn't want it. I still don't."
"I didn't spend three years defending that will and Mrs. Dean's intentions from her great grand-daughter to have you ignore the responsibility now that you have it," Woolsey said. "If you don't want a farm, fine. Sell it. But don't leave it in limbo any longer."
"You can't make me," John slurred out and headed for the casino again.
He didn't care what Woolsey thought of him. He ignored the way the man's mouth folded down in disappointment or the flash of what he feared had been pity in Woolsey's eyes. To hell with him and everyone else. John had every intention of continuing on the road to hell his own way.
A bottle of bourbon, the worst run of luck ever at the Indian casino and an ill-considered pass changed his mind. The bruises from the beating in the parking lot would fade; he'd been hurt worse many times. Hell, he'd been playing polo for Reynaldo the last five years and a two-ambulance match was considered easy-going and well-mannered, not to mention all the jumping falls he'd endured since childhood. The incident reminded him that without something to do every day, he got himself in trouble fast.
He hadn't done anything since leaving Argentina and had no prospects for employment. All his skills revolved around horses in one way or another. They were straight out. He'd had enough and made the decision of no more before boarding the plane to the US. No more polo, no more eventing, no more horses. He needed to get away from how much he hurt.
Just thinking about about what Reynaldo had done made him want to reach for a bottle and that scared John more than anything. That time his mother cracked up the Mercedes, the oak tree hadn't leaped out in front of her, no matter what story Dad's lawyers had paid to have put out. Just because she'd been a sweet drunk didn't change that his mother had been an alcoholic for years before her death from cancer. One more reason he'd only used uppers and downers now and then and stayed away from coke completely out of fear he'd like it way too much. Besides, he'd never wanted to get tossed out of his sport for testing positive. It was just too stupid. Booze was his regular poison, but he knew himself well enough to see how easily he could become a drunk. It ran in the family.
His gaydar had always been for shit. Usually, he let himself get picked up. If he hadn't been drunk, he wouldn't have put the moves on that guy in the casino bar. He'd had enough bourbon sloshing through his system that he likely couldn't have got it up with a crane to help if the answer had been yes rather than 'get away from me, you faggot' anyway. Getting punched and rolled for his wallet's contents later on had probably been lucky compared to what might have happened under the circumstances.
He'd finally started thinking instead of reacting after he sobered up and the hangover gave way to general aches and pains.
Woolsey had left his card and, after a couple days subsisting on room service while the worst of the bruising faded, John found it and called him.
Turned out there was money to go along with the property. Not really enough to turn Pegasus Farm around, but more than enough to walk into a dealership and drive out with a jade green Porsche after all the papers were signed at Woolsey's Silver Spring office. Despite John telling him to fuck off originally, Woolsey had everything handled except for John's signature. John didn't know whether to be annoyed or impressed and settled on grateful he didn't have to waste any time on red tape. He wrote Woolsey a big check and promised to wait a week before putting the farm on the market.
"The land is worth a fortune, of course," Woolsey told him. "There are several standing offers from Assurance and HVE. Plus a group called GeneEye. It will sell immediately." His tone was as carefully neutral as his good but never flashy suit. He handed John a ribbon-bound, brown file folder with the deed and other information inside.
"That's nice," John said. He didn't want to hold onto it long enough to face paying the taxes.
"You should look the place over before you sell," Woolsey advised him. "There are still some horses and you'll need to let the manager and the other workers there know their jobs are ending. Luckily, none of them live on site."
John scowled. He hated playing bad guy and telling someone their job was history definitely qualified. He opened his mouth to ask Woolsey to do it, but shut it. That was the sort of thing Dad always did. John liked to think he was better than that.
"Okay," he told Woolsey instead. "I'll call you after I've checked everything out."
"You'll need these then," Woolsey said and handed over several sets of keys and a map.
John shoved them into his pocket.
The map had a route highlighted from Silver Spring to Pegasus Farm. John stuffed it under the file folder's ribbon. He wondered if Woolsey had known Peg Dean personally. He'd put a lot of work into getting the courts to uphold that handwritten will in John's favor of Helia Dean-Truscott, the natural heir if the old lady had died intestate, would have won out.
There was someone John hoped he never had to meet.
"Do you always get your way?" he asked.
Woolsey folded his hands together and smiled tightly. "That is what I am paid obscene amounts of money to do."
"If you're half as good at manipulating the legal system as you are me, then you're worth it," John said grudgingly.
"I like to think so. Good luck, Mr. Sheppard. Margie will call a taxi for you."
The Porsche was an impulse. He'd driven a rattletrap Toyota the entire time he'd lived in Argentina and gone without a car entirely while he tramped around Europe. He'd missed driving something fast and powerful. Plus, he hated rental crap.
It made the drive to Galacky, Maryland more than a chore at least. Without a clue to the state of the house or whether it even had electricity, John checked into a pleasant looking bed-and-breakfast. The woman at the check-in was the owner. She asked what brought John to town and he answered, asking for directions, even though he guessed that she'd be on the phone with the news five minutes after he went through the door.
Actually, she was already on the phone as he left. He flashed her a smile and waved; a little pink in the face, she waved back.
Maryland was green. Spring sliding into summer. Greener than John was used to, in a different way from the near tropical heat and color in Florida or the carefully groomed polo grounds in Argentina. Not like the UK or Europe either, when he compared them. The air felt different, even inside the Porsche's air-conditioned confines. It felt good. It felt like Virginia, actually, where he grew up. That ought to have bothered him, considering the way he took off over a decade before and never looked back. But he hadn't hated Virginia itself. He'd missed the States.
Funny, he hadn't realized that in Florida. Maybe he'd still been reeling from Reynaldo's disaster when he arrived. John doubted he'd ever come to terms with what Reynaldo had done. Thirty-five horses dead, the entire string, thanks to one man's greed. He'd had to get out. Miami had just been the first place he ran to after bailing on Argentina.
He was good at running. Maybe when he had the money from selling the land, he'd try out Fiji. He'd already visited every continent except Antarctica. Time to start on the islands.
He turned the Porsche down the last road before reaching Pegasus, spotting a red-and-black winged-W on the sign as he drove by. Weir, it read in small letters centered above the much larger Archangel and Equestrian Board and Training Stable. Slick and professional design. The red gates were freshly painted and the drive sported fresh blacktop. He wondered if they were among those offering to buy Pegasus, if they were that successful or if the sign was just a façade. Down the hill and up the hill and around a curve and he saw the mailbox and locked gate to the Pegasus Farm drive, just the way his acquaintance at the bed-and-breakfast had described.
The gate was closed but not locked, though it wouldn't matter since Woolsey gave him a key to it too. John parked the Porsche, opened the gate, drove through, stopped and closed it behind him.
The two lane drive needed repaving. John would have kept his speed down anyway, but it was a necessity to steer the Porsche around the potholes instead of tearing out the transmission. The trees planted on either side were older than him, older than his father, and likely older than his dead grandfather too. Gold coin sunshine flickered through the shade of their leaves down to the weed-choked verge. The fences on the other side of the trees were dingy gray instead of the white they'd been once. John noticed more than one place in need of repairs beyond a coat of paint. The pastures were overgrown or bare in places and empty of stock.
He wound the Porsche up the lane to the house. The gray field stone and bricks were weathered but still attractive. Ivy hid a multitude of problems, but the roof had an actual bow in it which John noticed despite his architectural ignorance. That would cut into the value. Of course, no one wanted to buy the property for the house. A shame because a bolt of longing went through him as he looked at it, imagining it in good repair and occupied. He stuffed the feeling back down, parked next to a gray stationwagon and got out, looking around at the rest of the buildings as he stretched his shoulders.
Despite himself, despite the dilapidation, John couldn't help being impressed. Pegasus had been something else in its heyday, he could see that. Not just a boarding or training barn, but a breeding farm. Aside from the main barn and a smaller one, the stud barn and breeding shed were also built from the same soft gray field stone as the house. A foaling barn and a well house were constructed in half-timbered style, as were even more buildings whose purpose John didn't recognize immediately. Outdoor arenas and at least one indoors. Polo fields that made him wince. Paddocks and beyond them more pastures, dotted with majestic shade trees, then rolling hills that appeared to have been in hay, but hadn't been cut, and then old woods. One hundred sixty acres of the prettiest land John had ever seen. Weeds everywhere, but it still made his heart beat faster.
He'd never set foot on Pegasus before, but it felt like home.
The thought of the beautiful old barns and buildings coming down and being replaced by a soulless industrial complex rubbed him all wrong.
There were horses turned out in the paddocks. Woolsey had mentioned the farm still had some stock. He'd pushed it out of his mind. John looked at them for a long moment before he found his legs carrying him over to them without having made a decision.
Automatically, he checked the hay rack and the water. John leaned closer and sniffed the hay, then drew back, deeply unhappy. His nose wrinkled at the quality of the hay.
"Hey!" someone yelled. "Hey, you, this is private property. What the hell do you think you're doing?"
John turned and spotted a heavy-set man hurrying toward him.
"You're trespassing, asshole," the man said. The puffing and wheezing interfered with the threatening effect. Salt-and-pepper gray hair in a brush-cut stood up on his head and matched his eyebrows.
John leaned back against the paddock fence and smirked. "I'm not."
"You want me to get the cops out here?"
"Sure. Then you can explain why you wasted their time," John replied. He didn't have any real reason to taunt the man, except he reminded John a little too much of his father. "Since I'm the owner."
"John Sheppard." John offered him his hand. "I'll assume you're Hank Landry? Didn't the lawyers let you know?"
"I got a call from Woolsey's office," Landry said. He took John's hand and shook it unenthusiastically. "No one said anything about you showing up. Figured you'd sell or, I don't know, be one of those absentee owners."
"I haven't made my mind up yet," John replied. He had made his mind up and wondered why he wasn't saying so. He still meant to sell Pegasus, didn't he?
"You want me to show you around?" Landry asked, radiating reluctance.
"Thanks, I think I'll handle that myself," John told him. He had a feeling he'd see a lot more without Landry steering him away from anything questionable. "Just point out the office, would you?"
Landry indicated the smallish building John had taken for a guesthouse.
"Used to be the mother-in-law house," Landry said. "Old Mrs. Dean's manager used to live in it. I use it for an office and live in town."
John stayed by the paddock until Landry got the silent message and left him. Then he began wandering. There were hay barns in the distance, a building holding the farm's tractors and other equipment, all of it rusting and likely not running. Another barn at the far end of the pastures, almost out of sight, puzzled John. He'd have ask about it.
The remains of an extensive garden surrounded the house. Money and work could put it to rights before the end of summer. The lawn and the interior of the racing oval needed to be re-turfed.
The lawyers and executor must have provided some kind of operating and maintenance budget for the farm since Margaret Dean died, otherwise Landry wouldn't have a job. John wondered what it had been spent on besides taxes, because it looked like nothing had been taken care of for the last eight years. He'd have to go over the farm books and use some of what he'd learned in those damn business classes his father had made him take in college to figure out what had been going on.
Landry wouldn't like that.
John smiled to himself, a little nastily, and stuck his hands in his pockets, heading back to the paddocks.
The horses there watched him curiously.
He studied them while leaning his forearms over the top rail. They looked like they hadn't seen a barn or a curry comb in months. The paddocks needed cleaning out too. No halters on any of them but that was normal procedure.
They weren't bad looking horses, John thought. Cleaned up, some of them would be very, very good. His attention was taken especially by the young black stud in the farthest paddock. The horse watched John warily as he ambled down that way, but didn't shy away.
John studied the black stud. He picked a long splinter out of the top rail, where some bored horse had chewed the paint away.
The stallion kept pacing the paddock restlessly, radiating boredom and unspent energy, but moving so smoothly it mesmerized John. Seventeen-and-a-half hands at the withers, he estimated, and probably half Thoroughbred, he had the conformation John had always looked for in an event horse. A little too tall for a polo pony, of course. John would have bet he could jump like a proverbial Pegasus flew — why else put him in the paddock with the highest fences on the farm? Six or seven years old at least.
He wondered who had trained the stallion. The way he moved gave away dressage experience, though maybe not recently. Landry would know, even if there weren't any records.
John wanted to ride him.
The only fault John could find with him were the stud's rather long ears, which would have looked mulish on a smaller animal. They weren't pinned back, though. He saw no signs of mistreatment or rogue temperament.
John began talking to him in an easy voice.
"Hey, there, buddy. Sorry I haven't got any treats on me. Didn't know you were going to be here. Gonna come on over and get acquainted? I sure like your looks. I bet you can really fly when you want to, huh?" Closer and closer, so that John could see the delicate flushed skin in his nostrils, count the whiskers on that fine velvet muzzle and the sweep of ridiculously long eye lashes over liquid eyes. The stud's ears twitched forward as he listened to John murmur nonsense. He edged closer, blowing softly, taking in John's scent.
"What's your name then? Something silly, I bet, something embarrassing, right? I'm going to find out. We're going to be friends, you and me, buddy. How'd you like to get out of this paddock and do something? Get out there and move? The two of us, just flying wherever we want, doesn't that sound good? Like we'd never stop." He'd always felt like that on horseback, like they could go and never come back. Escape. It never lasted, but it fed the soul until the next time.
The black stud was right up at the fence now, inhaling John's scent and watching him. The horse shook his head a little, parting a long, tangled forelock, and sidled closer. John had always been able to sweet talk horses. He stayed where the horse could see him and his movement easily.
"Yeah, I'm going to find some tack and get out here in the morning," John promised them both. He'd bring carrots and apples too, not being above bribery. "You and I are going fly."
In the meantime, he'd head up to the office and go over the accounts, find out more from Landry. John smiled at the horse. He'd forgotten his vow to have nothing more to do with horses.
He was in love.
One man's wrong lead is another man's counter-canter.
Elizabeth swept in the next morning, while Rodney was on the phone to Harriman's trying to find out where his feed delivery was, since it wasn't, for the third day in a row, at Archangel. He only noticed her arrival as she came inside the office. He waved at her and snapped into the telephone receiver, "Don't make me come down there and talk to the manager. If that feed isn't here by this afternoon, I will make your life hell. Do you understand?"
He thumped the receiver down and tried to smile for his boss.
Both her eyebrows were up, but Elizabeth was smiling. She'd brokered two different peace agreements in Africa before her appointment as Ambassador to Malta and continued working for the State Department after the Malta posting. Underneath her Chanel suits, she had a tough mind and a will of steel. She'd strong-armed plenty of people in addition to sweet talking them. Rodney's ways didn't shock or bother her.
"Problems, Rodney?" she asked. She lifted a stack of magazines from a chair and seated herself.
"The usual," he dismissed the subject. "Idiots."
Elizabeth smiled with real warmth.
"I'm sure you'll straighten them out."
"Not that you aren't the highlight of any man's day," Rodney said, "but what brings you here?"
"Oh, that was good. Have you been practicing?"
"What do you think?" Rodney asked.
"That makes it even better." She sat with the same exquisite posture she brought to horseback riding. It made her appear attentive, even fascinated, in many social settings. "I stopped by to make sure you remember to come to my soirée."
Rodney made a face. "Do I have to?"
"In a tuxedo."
"Why?" he asked with put-on piteousness. "You know I hate those things. Also, I'm awful at them."
"Yes, but you're also the farm's greatest draw. By the way, how is O.B.'s horse working out?"
"You mean El Cid? He and Teldy have really clicked. I suppose you want me to sell him on her riding him, don't you?"
"That would be part of it," Elizabeth agreed.
It wasn't like there had ever been any choice. Elizabeth may have couched it has a request, but Rodney knew an order when he got one. He even had his own Armani tuxedo. Elizabeth had been the one to tell him where to go to buy it and have it tailored to perfection. The cost still made him gag, but he'd gone for a classic look that didn't date.
Elizabeth stood and crossed around behind the desk. She bent and bussed Rodney's cheek. "Maybe you'll meet someone interesting."
"Maybe I'll sprout devil horns and a forked tail."
"I invited our new neighbor."
"Our… Oh. Pegasus." Rodney had to credit Elizabeth. This guy had only been on the scene three, maybe four, days and she had already latched onto him.
He'd still swear he knew that name…Rodney snapped his fingers and began digging through a pile of magazines until he found one with a shot of three polo ponies and their riders on the cover. The number four rider on the brown horse had sped between two defenders and hung to the side, his mallet just contacting the ball to hit it toward a goal. The cover article was on the pro riders of the polo circuit. The nine and ten goal handicap superstars were all interviewed, but the picture was of John Sheppard, who had an eight goal handicap and rode for a team supported by an oil-rich Argentinian named Reynaldo Vega. When he wasn't on the polo field, Sheppard was riding event horses in Europe for several other wealthy South American owners. Jesus. The guy probably drove Formula One on weekends, dated supermodels, and stood in for James Bond on the weekends. It had to be the same guy.
"That's it." He waved the magazine at Elizabeth. "That's him."
A polo rider of all damn things, Rodney thought with a hint of scorn. A rich, handsome daredevil. Rodney already hated him.
"Wonderful!" Elizabeth exclaimed. She snagged the magazine away from Rodney. "You'll have something to talk about together."
Rodney looked at her in complete horror. She wanted him to make nice with a polo goon? And he'd thought wearing the tux and shmoozing rich owners would be the limit of his evening's misery.
I am still under the impression that there is nothing alive quite so beautiful as a thoroughbred horse.
Landry hadn't wanted to let John see the accounts. Small wonder. They just confirmed John's suspicions. More than one boondoggle was hidden in the numbers. The hay and feed were sub par, but Landry had been paying premium prices for it. Likely a nice kick-back arranged between Landry and the feed supplier. Maybe some outright fraud going on too, but John didn't know enough accounting to spot that. According to the books, Landry had been buying shavings for the barn, but all John saw was the cheapest kind of straw and not much of that; it didn't look like Landry even brought the horses in most nights. None of them had been ridden in over a year.
John read silently. Landry fidgeted. The office had been the front room of the little house. The windows still had faded chintz curtains and some of the furniture looked to date back to when it had been occupied too. Landry perched on a straight chair that had been shoved into a corner. John used the desk chair between trips to the file cabinets. Nothing was in order; the mess seemed almost deliberate.
Pegasus still owned ten horses. All of them were foaled from horses Margaret Dean chose and bought or bred on the farm. The black stud's papers identified him as Pegasus Farm's Atlantis Night. Landry had let one of the old studs get in with the mares eight years back and one of them had caught — smelling her had likely been why the old stud jumped the fence.
John found a file of letters from the farm manager at Archangel, complaining about the same stud getting out. The signatures were all M.R. McKay and, like the words, betrayed frustration and growing anger, but the letters had stopped eventually, so either Landry had finally put up better fences or something had happened to the stallion. A receipt for fencing materials relieved him.
He wondered if Atlantis had inherited his sire's jumping ability until he found the paperwork on the stud. Cam Mitchell had been aiming Atlantis at the CCI★★★ events, training him up and qualifying him just before the disaster at Badminton. Atlantis hadn't been there, none of Pegasus Farm's horses had been because of the costs. Mitchell had been riding as part of 302 Farm's unofficial team instead. Poor bastard probably wished he'd stayed home too.
John flattened his hand over the papers in the file before him. He studied Landry, who looked sour and constipated.
"You must have thought no one would ever compare what's here," John said and tapped the papers, then went on, "with what's really here," as he pointed out the window to the barns.
"You don't know what it costs to take care of a place like this. Horses are expensive," Landry said.
John raised his eyebrows.
"Yes," he agreed, "they are."
Landry's expression brightened. "If you aren't going to sell this place, then you need someone that knows what he's doing. I could stay on. Under the right circumstances."
Circumstances that would let him go on robbing John as blind as he had the estate.
John smiled at him.
"I'm an eight goal polo player," he said. "I've spent the last five years managing a pro-am team. I've been riding three-day events since I was sixteen. I can assure you, Mr. Landry, that I do know what I'm doing when it comes to horses."
"I know what you've been doing too," John added.
He could see the oh shit run through Landry's thoughts like a neon marquee across his forehead.
"You — "
"So, thanks for the generous offer to stay on, but I don't think we'd get along," John finished. "Do you?"
"You sonovabitch," Landry muttered. He levered himself onto his feet. "You giving me two weeks notice?"
John shrugged. "Sure."
"What about Paul and Stubbs?"
The two grooms, of which John had seen neither hide nor hair during his tour. He doubted he'd be keeping them on either. They probably had their own scams going and certainly had to have been aware of what Landry was pulling. He wouldn't fire them until he had someone else to take over, though.
"I don't know yet," John said.
Landry headed for the door and walked out without another word. John shrugged and began searching for a phonebook to look up a different feed supplier. He found it and located a business in Galacky, close enough a same day delivery would be possible. Even if he did sell the farm, until then, the horses deserved something better than cheap hay that stank of mold. He reached someone in the office and got a promise that if he came in he could check out what they had and get it trucked out and unloaded, though they wanted cash upfront since they didn't know John from Adam. He got the feeling they might be selling him something someone else had been scheduled to receive, but didn't let it bother him.
The rest of the afternoon went to arranging other deliveries and beginning a preliminary list of repairs the farm had to have done immediately. Stubbs, an older man in greasy coveralls and straw hat, showed up and they put the horses up for the night in the smaller barn together. Stubbs had a key to the tack room too and revealed he'd been taking care of everything inside pretty much on his own account.
"Plenty of these were custom made," he said as he patted a saddle. The heady scents of leather and oil soap mixed with liniment in the tack room. It was the first place on Pegasus John had found in good shape. "Made me sick seeing it all go to hell."
According to Stubbs, Paul was a lazy shit who sucked up to Landry and did as little as possible. Stubbs told John that Landry hadn't been half bad early on, but Landry had steadily let things go after the first couple years, once he became convinced like everyone else that the farm would eventually end up in the hands of some big corporation or real estate developer.
Stubbs even knew where the breaker boxes were and they shut off the electricity to the barns. Arranging an electrician to come out, inspect and repair the wiring went on John's ever expanding list. The smaller barn had been kept up, but the bigger one was cobwebbed and cluttered; John didn't trust that some rat hadn't chewed away at the wiring. Shutting off the electricity as a precaution was a practice at many barns. John had seldom seen an instance where it made better sense.
John gave up on the office and locked up around nine-thirty. He picked up a pizza and took it back to the bed-and-breakfast with him, where he ate it while working on his laptop.
Checking through his email, he realized he hadn't sent Teyla anything since before he'd left Argentina the month before. He wondered what she'd think of Pegasus and his abrupt decision to rehabilitate the place. One way to find out, he knew, and proceeded to explain how he ended up owning a chunk of Maryland horse country. He ended the email with a sincere invitation to her to come and stay and bring anyone from her extended family and friends too.
The thought of Landry's expression if John had pulled into Pegasus with an entire circus with him behind him kept him smiling all the way into sleep.
Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyways.
If Torren hadn't been crying, Teyla thought she might have.
It was all gone, everything her family had built over five generations, wiped out by a combination of the times, her own stupidity, bad luck and Michael Kenmore's malice. She held Torren close as she watched the last trailer pull away with the last pieces of what had been the Athos Family Flying Circus. Gravel crunched under the tires before the vehicles rolled onto the blacktop. It was bad, but not as bad as the auction that had sold it all; maybe she'd already accepted the inevitable then.
All she had left were three horses, a six-horse stock trailer and an eleven-year-old King Cab truck with a fifth wheel hitch. She'd sold the trailer she'd lived in with Torren and Kanaan in order to buy back the stock trailer and truck. All the good memories their little home on wheels had held were tainted by Kanaan's betrayal. Kanaan was still Torren's father, so she didn't want him dead, but she hoped something happened to him while working for Kenmore's Hybrid Circus & Carnival that hurt him as much as he'd hurt her.
She still didn't understand how he could have used her trust to embezzle Athos' emergency funds, leaving them broke and stranded just outside Sacramento. Athos had been his home, its people his people, too, not just hers.
The sinking feeling that came when she'd gone to pay for the rental of the space where the circus had been set up and her business credit card had been rejected would come back in her nightmares, she knew. Every cent, gone. There had been days of dealing with the police and the bank and then realizing it had been Kanaan who had helped Michael wreck them. Until all she could do was sell off everything to find the money to pay the circus' debts.
All of her things were stuffed in the first two stalls of the stock trailer.
She leaned back against the hood of the truck and hefted Torren higher in her arms. He was so used to being on the road, packing up and rolling along to the next engagement that she didn't think he understood that this leave taking was different. She wanted to give him the chance to wave good-bye to everyone as the various friends and acts scattered to the winds. Teyla worried she'd never see some of them again, despite promises to meet again when they all wintered in Florida. The truth was some of them wouldn't show up. They'd find normal jobs and give up the nomadic life in exchange.
Teyla understood the call of security. She wanted it for herself too. It had begun while she still carried Torren inside her. She'd given up life as Teyla the Terrific, Queen of the Trapeze and committed herself to managing Athos instead. Maybe that was when things had gone bad with Kanaan. He hadn't wanted to split up their act. King Kanaan didn't impress the crowds half so much without his queen to catch high above the center ring.
It turned out the act meant more to Kanaan than she and Torren had. Without it, there hadn't been much to their relationship except familiarity. She'd never understand what Michael Kenmore, that bastard, could have offered Kanaan that compared to the community and history they'd all shared, growing up as part of Athos, but it must have involved getting back at her somehow.
She'd never understand Michael either or why he'd fixated on her to the point he'd gone so far to ruin Athos. They'd only dated three times. She'd got together with Kanaan after that.
Teyla vowed to herself she wouldn't let Torren become the sort of man who would treat anyone the way Kanaan had her.
Anyway. It was done. The Athos Family Flying Circus had folded its tents for the last time. The fading banner painted on the side of the stock trailer was all that marked that it had existed up until two weeks ago. How many people would remember that once they'd crisscrossed Europe and smuggled twenty-two people out of Germany just before World War II? Teyla almost wished they'd stayed in Europe the last time, but Michael would have followed them there too.
Time to do something else. It would help if she had any skills beyond trick riding and the trapeze. She doubted managing a failed business would attract any employers when she submitted a resumé. Working at McDonalds wasn't going to pay for her and Torren, much less feed and board Taffy, Caramel and old Jumper.
Sweat ran down the valley between her breasts. Later in the day it would darken the gray tank top at the small of her back. Teyla felt sick. She didn't like California much, for no more reason than that this had happened in the state. She wouldn't miss the temperatures in summer. Eight o'clock in the morning and it was eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit and rising. Merciless bright sunshine glared off every chrome detail and stretch of windshield glass. She would need to stop regularly to make sure the horses had water back in the trailer; it wasn't some rich man's toy with an air-conditioner attached.
Not that the truck had air-conditioning either, but she figured that just made it a little less likely to overheat.
Torren whimpered and she realized she was hugging him too tight.
The only vehicles left on the lot were Halling's Winnebago, his equally aged VW bus with the faded psychedelic paint job that had lasted since the sixties, and Davos' vintage 1955 silver Mercedes.
The Mercedes stopped alongside Teyla and Torren. Davos rolled the window down and leaned his silvery head out. "Don't worry so much, Teyla," he told her. "Everything is going to be better."
"I hope so." Teyla told him. "I'll miss you."
"Don't worry, we'll see each other before the year is over," Davos assured her with a smile.
"Have you seen that, Davos?"
The psychic smiled wider. "I have."
Teyla didn't bother asking him what else he had seen. Davos had an act he performed with 'clients', but his real visions were often enigmatic or even misleading. He tended to be closemouthed rather than precipitate ill-informed decisions. As a teenager, Teyla had asked him for a reading and he had shared a vision of herself with a baby she now knew was Torren. Davos had told her she would raise her child in a happy home. Of course, she'd assumed that meant Athos Circus and that Kanaan would be with them. Looking back, Davos hadn't said that at all.
"So where are you going now?" she asked.
"Oh, I thought I'd visit with my daughter for a while. Until she throws me out."
"Good luck, Davos."
"Head for the morning, Teyla," he told her and drove away.
And that just left Halling and his fourteen year old son Jinto.
A rusty, forlorn cough from inside the Winnebago made Teyla correct herself: Halling, Jinto and Pablo the Lion, who was twenty-seven years old, older than Teyla, and had been born into the circus just like her. Halling had let go of all the other big cats from his act, but no one wanted a half-blind, tottering old lion that needed to have his food ground up before he ate. Or maybe Halling just couldn't bear to part with the old boy. And now he was inside the Winnebago.
Halling looked as lost as Teyla felt. He'd been with Athos since he ran away from the commune his hippie parents had raised him in. He'd been a cat trainer and later their ringmaster. Teyla couldn't imagine where he'd go. He still dressed in tie-dye shirts and bell bottoms when he wasn't playing ringmaster in a bespangled top hat and tails. There was no gentler man on Earth, Teyla knew, but where could he fit now?
He ambled over to her, leaving Jinto leaning against the VW bus, arms folded and a mulish pout marring his features.
"Teyla, good morning," Halling said.
"I don't know how you can say that," she snapped, despite herself.
Halling just shrugged. "Because I still have Jinto and you still have Torren?"
She smiled at him. Halling gave her a one-armed hug and snuffled against the top of Torren's head, making him squeal happily. Sometimes Halling could be exceedingly wise.
"Now, if only I had any idea where to go," she murmured when Torren had quieted.
"What about your friend John?" Halling asked. "Didn't you tell me he had emailed you an invitation to visit and stay with him?"
"Me, yes," Teyla replied, thinking of John's unexpected and welcome email of the night before. She had been too caught up in her own disasters to worry over her friend, despite guessing at the pain written between the lines of the message he'd sent her after the polo horses he'd loved and cared for had been poisoned. "I'm not sure he meant me, Torren, three horses and everything we still own."
"So, call him," Halling suggested. "Ask."
Teyla lifted her eyebrow but obediently handed Torren to Halling and plucked her cell phone out of her jeans. John had relayed a telephone number along with his email. She'd immediately programmed it into her contacts out of relief to have any way of connecting with him.
"Hello? John? It's Teyla," she said into the phone.
"Teyla," John nearly whooped. "Tell me you're somewhere on the east coast. I want to see you. I need your help."
"I'm in California."
His heartfelt, "Damn," made her laugh.
"John, do you have room for me and Torren and three horses?"
It was John's turn to laugh.
"Teyla, I have room for the entire Athos Circus."
Teyla caught her breath and looked at Halling and then Jinto and finally the Winnebago containing Pablo.
"That's…That…Can Halling and Jinto come too?"
"Sure. Jinto must be almost ready for high school, right?"
"Yes," she choked out. "Thank you, John."
"Teyla? Are you okay?"
"I'm coming to stay with you," she choked out. "I'll tell you everything when we get there."
Halling caught her hand and squeezed it while smiling at her, mouthing the same words John said over the phone.
"It's going to be okay."
Maybe it was.
Speak your mind, but ride a fast horse.
"You what!?" Rodney heard his voice rise into embarrassing heights and couldn't help it. "How could you sell it to someone else? It was a special order!"
The sweet, comforting smells of alfalfa and timothy hays among others mixed with the sharper scents of cedar shavings and sawdust and filtered into the storefront portion of the building from the open barn in back, mixing with leather from the various pieces of tack on sale. The tack hung on the side wall along with brightly colored webbing and shining new metal chains and buckles. Aisles filled with heavy paper 50 lb. bags of animal feed for everything from rabbits and dogs to sheep as well as the more obvious horses and cattle were piled to eye level. Familiar names like Nutrena Feed™, Sweetlix™, and Cargill Feed™ abounded. The opposite wall held refrigeration units with glass doors and locks. A pyramid of salt blocks stood before the front doors advertising a sale. The linoleum itself was swept clean of dirt and bits of hay that customers tended to carry in on their boots and the front window shone. Harriman's was the best run feed store in three counties, which was why Rodney purchased everything he could from them, but he felt positively betrayed at the moment.
"I've been special ordering feed mixes from you for the last eight years, Archangel is never late with payment, and you let some upstart jackass waltz in here and hijack a truckload of organically grown grain and my monthly shipment of timothy?"
Siler just shrugged at him. Rodney would have questioned why Harriman kept Siler on with an attitude like that, except for the heavy crescent wrench he always had to hand and the well known fact that Siler had never met a piece of farm equipment he couldn't repair. Harvesters, hay-balers, forklifts and tractors all perked up and purred for Siler. Rodney did almost all the mechanical repairs at Archangel, but when he didn't have the time, he called in Siler. He just had a knack, like some demi-god bastard of John Deere.
"Who the hell did you sell it to, anyway?" he demanded.
Siler just shrugged. He'd been nearly as uncommunicative over the telephone, saying only the shipment had been diverted, when Rodney called for the third day in a row, prompting Rodney to drive the Mule, his aged and eccentric Ford F150, nicknamed for its refusal to quit, into Galacky over his lunch hour to straighten out whatever mess Harriman's had made in person.
"That would have been me," a lazy voice interrupted from behind Rodney.
He spun around and glared at the lanky man standing in the doorway between the store and the storage warehouse, next to a display of mineral supplements and vitamins. The man was squinting against the fluorescent lights inside, blinded by the contrast from the dim depths of the warehouse, and Rodney couldn't make out his eye color. He recognized him anyway from the magazine cover. The white polo shirt and the deep tan were exactly the same.
Polo Guy smiled, all white teeth and amusement; whether the smile was aimed at Rodney or Siler, Rodney couldn't tell, but either way, he wanted to sock him one.
"You!" he growled, groping for the name he'd dismissed from his mind once Elizabeth left.
He rolled his eyes. "Wonderful. It's the bastard child of George Hamilton and a hedgehog."
The protest still sounded amused, so Rodney felt safe enough turning his back and facing Siler again. He needed to expend some of his frustration on the manager and owner. "I want an explanation for this sort of treatment! Where's Walter?"
"I had to get rid of the crap the manager had been foisting off on the estate so I called around," Polo Guy said from behind Rodney. "Harriman's had a truck loaded up and were willing to sell it to me for a little extra."
So at least Polo Guy recognized Landry's essential uselessness. Rodney hoped he'd fired Landry. One of his passing fantasies was never having to see that fat ass good ol' boy again. Not that he hadn't gotten the best of him any time they locked horns, but it was always a waste of Rodney's valuable time.
A waste, as was this farrago.
"That's all very well," Rodney said, then pointed at Siler, "But haven't you heard of the customer comes first?"
Polo Guy strolled over and leaned against the check out counter. "First come, first served?"
Rodney gritted his teeth. He wanted to threaten to take his business elsewhere, but Harriman's was the best. He ignored Polo Guy and addressed Siler. "When can you get another shipment in?"
"That's not soon enough," Rodney protested. "What am I supposed to feed in the mean time?" He'd deliberately let the normal hay volume drop over the last month. It made for nice, neat, not too tall double aisles and impressed the fire inspector when he finally deigned to show. He was running low as a consequence however.
"You might have thought of that before you let yourself run out," Polo Guy commented.
There went another layer of enamel.
"You, shut up. I wouldn't be out if someone hadn't hijacked my feed the day of delivery." Rodney sniffed. "Keeping too much feed on hand is a fire hazard, you know."
"Hmm. Starving your animals is a legal offense, you know."
"I'm not starving my animals!" Rodney shouted before grabbing onto his temper and holding onto it with both metaphorical hands. "That's libel! Or, or slander. I can't remember which one is which." He glared and lifted his chin. "That's a lie, is what it is."
"Okay, okay, no starving."
Siler had begun entering Rodney's order into the computer, thank God.
"Better double that order," Polo Guy said. He flashed a sideways grin at Rodney. "I wouldn't want to hijack anyone's feed again."
"You wouldn't dare."
The low, easy laugh invited Rodney to join in. Rodney didn't, but he felt the pull. His quick burst of temper receded under it.
"Listen, if it's that big a thing, and the next shipment really will only be here next week — " There Polo Guy paused and looked at Siler who nodded a gloomy confirmation. " — I'll sell you half of the truckload I bought. Same price. Just send someone over to load it," he offered.
Rodney stared at him and calculated how much more time and money it would cost to buy a load of hay from somewhere else. "Deal," he said.
Polo Guy extended his hand and Rodney shook on it. They had the same calluses. Rodney's hand was broader, Polo Guy's fingers were longer, but they fit easily.
He'd send Cadman and Collins over with a stock trailer and a check. Which reminded him… He turned on Siler. "You better make damn sure I'm not charged for that shipment," he said.
Polo Guy laughed.
"You need to know where to come get the hay?"
That was Rodney's turn to laugh. "Come on. You're at Pegasus."
"Right then. I'll be there all afternoon."
Rodney waved absently. "You may as well load a dozen of those salt blocks into my truck," he said to Siler. He fished a crumpled list of sundries out of his pants and consulted it. "We've got a new boarder in. The owner has a multi-supplement blend she wants fed every evening, so we may as well add it to the standing weekly order too."
"See ya soon, buddy," Polo Guy said and strolled out.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Rodney replied. He needed to explain to this woman that you could over supplement your horse and it could even result in toxic levels of minerals and vitamins. Supplements were not a magic wand anyone could wave at their horse and turn it into a winner. Why were people all such morons anyway? There should be a test they had to pass before they could buy a horse.
What in hell did this list say? Rodney tipped the wrinkled paper one way and then the other, squinting.
Cadman had taken the call and scratched out the list while on the phone. The ink had smeared. Rodney could barely read her chicken scratch hieroglyphics anyway. Finally the shorthand resolved itself into sense.
What the hell was that, some holistic crap? Crystals. The owner wanted crystals hung in her horse's stall. Did Cadman really think Rodney was going to go buy crystals? He was going to make her pay for this.
What next? Aromatherapy for the horses?
Why didn't these people just all move to Sedona anyway?
At its finest, rider and horse are joined not by tack but by trust. Each is totally reliant upon the other… Each is the selfless guardian of the others very well being.
It wasn't a conscious decision, but on some level Rodney must have known he meant to ride onto Pegasus land again. Otherwise, he would have ridden Blue. Instead he saddled Kepler, the brown gelding Elizabeth rode when the County Hunt met, and pulled on a dark windbreaker instead of his usual waxed jacket.
He'd powered through the morning feed regime and mucking out, even taking up Bob and Steve's slack, and Cadman, who had showed up without Rodney asking, declared, "Good fucking riddance," which made Rodney laugh even as he brought out his saddle and began tacking up Kepler.
"You aren't taking Blue?"
"Jennifer is going to school on him this afternoon," Rodney told her. "Jumps."
"Ooooh, it's Jennifer, is it?"
Cadman waggled her eyebrows and then cocked her hip. She hadn't bothered with make-up. It made her look weirdly naked. Rodney was used to the mascara and lipstick she usually wore during the day. He supposed it was just too damn early. The sun hadn't come up yet, just teased with soft grays and mauves and the palest green shade at the eastern horizon.
"Just remember, after she's had a real stallion between her legs, she's not going to — "
"God, you have a filthy mind. Get it out of the sewer and up to the gutter at least."
Cadman rolled her eyes and Rodney stepped up into the saddle. His back didn't even twinge; the half a hand higher Blue stood next to Kepler made a difference he despised acknowledging. Of course on a bad day, it made no difference at all; everything hurt. But not today, despite taking a turn helping unload the stock trailer the afternoon before. He'd had his back support on, though, the same one he wore while competing. It helped sometimes.
"I know she's a good rider, but I still don't get why you let her ride him. He's not exactly a rental hack, after all."
Jennifer was the best rider coming to Archangel and Blue was the best horse. Rodney loved riding and competing, but stepping back and watching Jennifer work with Blue let him see things he couldn't from Blue's back. Putting her up on Blue was teaching her more than riding her own horse. Blue wasn't as polished and Jennifer was learning right along with him. He wasn't sure why Cadman didn't like her much and had decided ignorance was bliss. Women were often incomprehensibly strange about each other in his experience.
"You call that friend of yours?" he asked.
"Yeah. Dusty said she'd be here tomorrow. I told her she could bunk with me until she finds a place."
Rodney nodded. He hoped Cadman and this Dusty got along, because Archangel didn't pay well enough to give anyone an easy choice among Galacky's limited and overpriced residences. Rodney wasn't getting rich and he got free rent and a heftier paycheck than any groom.
Kepler enjoyed getting out. His ground-eating trot took them east into a trail that wound through the woods and after cutting through one pasture, to the edge of Pegasus Farm. Rodney dismounted short of the treeline this time, slipped a lead from his pocket and snapped it onto the halter he'd left under the bridle. He used the lead to tie up the gelding out of sight, then walked to the fence.
Eyes might claim that the horse and rider already working around and across the field never touched the earth, but, boots on the ground, Rodney could feel the impact of each hoof vibrate through the soil. 1,300 lbs. of muscle and bone couldn't help make noise, either. Rodney propped his arms on the gate and watched. The stallion had been clipped and groomed to an oiled sheen since the last time. Wraps protected his legs, shocking white as the polo shirt his rider wore.
Dressage used the same terms as ballet. Like ballet, it was meant to look effortless, but up close the stage shivered and shuddered and the dancers shook and sweated. The horse in the pasture blew like a dragon while steam curled off his hindquarters.
Rodney bit back the impulse to call out to the rider, to tell him to slow up and ease up, because his mount hadn't been ridden regularly in too long and the stallion simply wasn't conditioned for extensive exercise. He didn't have to. Sheppard — and Polo Guy was Sheppard — allowed his mount to slow and relax into a slower pace.
Rodney faded back from the fence, preferring to remain unseen, as the sun finally restored color to the world.
He had no time to ride out the next morning and Cadman's gum-chewing ex-marine Dusty showed in the afternoon. She wore cowboy boots, a snap-front shirt with the sleeves cut off and had a fouler mouth than Cadman herself. She did as much as Bob and Steve together. Rodney assigned her to Pal and Trumpy and Dr. Porter's Saddlebred once he was satisfied that she knew what she was doing. He wondered if he could recruit any more ex-marines as grooms.
Dusty had snapped her gum and said, "I worked at a farm outside Flagstaff in high school. Same one my dad worked at. Doing the same thing: shoveling shit." She shrugged and added more quietly, "I didn't get it then."
Rodney didn't ask what she meant. Every job meant shoveling shit on some level, after all.
He rode Kepler out the next morning and watched Sheppard work with the stallion. It almost broke his heart. The horse was going to be great and Sheppard was already better than a polo player had any right to be. Better than Anne Teldy, better than Jennifer Keller, better than Rodney's sister Jeannie, who belonged in the Olympics and would have been on the Canadian team if she hadn't been bumped one year and pregnant the next time. Sheppard wasn't as good as Rodney, of course, but like his mount, he had the potential.
Of course, Rodney himself had had the potential twenty years ago. He still did, despite lately beginning to wonder if he still had the obsessive commitment necessary to reach the Olympics or even continue participating in the CCI★★★ levels. Maybe it just wasn't meant to be for him. That had a part in how hard he was working with Jennifer. Maybe she would be his legacy to the sport instead of his own achievements.
Every morning he could, Rodney watched their progress, wondering what Sheppard meant to do or if he meant to do anything beyond riding and training his horse to please himself. He couldn't guess and he found himself not caring. He found a special peace in just watching.
Life is too short for a bad horse, bad dog, or bad man.
The Naugahyde seat stuck to the back of Teyla's thighs right through her jeans. A broken spring had been stabbing her left ass cheek since Oklahoma. Her fingers were cramped into claws from curling around the steering wheel hours on end. She saw the sign and turn-off ahead, sighed in gratitude, flicked on her blinker and shifted down to brake and take the turn. Behind her, the VW bus' blinker started flashing, reflecting in her truck's side mirrors. The Winnebago loomed behind it, slowing too.
They'd kept Jinto sandwiched between Teyla's truck and trailer and Halling in the Winnebago all the way from California, praying they'd never be stopped. The highway patrol or state police and Pablo wouldn't have been a good mix, and Jinto was too young to have a license. Luck and careful driving had kept them under the radar and they'd made it to Maryland.
Teyla had a sinking feeling their success meant Jinto was going to think he got to drive from now on. She'd leave telling him differently to Halling.
It wasn't possible to miss how much work Pegasus Farm needed, but Teyla fell in love anyway. It felt right to her the way nothing had for months. The buildings with their soft gray field stone reminded her of Europe, as did the green everywhere. After the drive across the dry, brown expanses of the Mid-West, it relieved her eyes and even her skin.
John greeted her in his reserved way, the not-a-hug touch of forehead to forehead they'd come up with because the sequins on her trapeze costume always caught on his shirts otherwise. The quick curl of his mouth into a smile made her smile back.
"Where's Torren?" John asked as Jinto parked the VW next to Teyla's truck. The Winnebago chugged up the road. "You're going to stay, right? The house needs to be remodeled, but there's electricity and hot water and the roof doesn't actually leak no matter how bad it looks." He headed for the truck and opened the door behind the front passenger's, where Teyla had Torren strapped into his car seat. He'd been colicky and unhappy through most of the drive. Of course now, he'd gone right to sleep. John peered in but didn't touch him. "Wow. I knew you'd make a good looking kid."
Teyla flushed. She'd had a tiny, foolish crush on John when he worked for Athos Circus. That had been a decade back, while she'd still been a teenager. She'd got over it and they'd become friends instead, somehow holding onto their connection and staying in touch even after Athos left for America and John went his own way. Even knowing John had never been interested in her, the indirect compliment still pleased her.
"He has his father's temper," she said before thinking.
John twisted around and raised his eyebrows at her, silently asking where Kanaan was. John's reticence made him a comfortable friend; he seldom pushed for more than Teyla or anyone wanted to share, content to accept only what was freely offered. If she didn't answer, he wouldn't put the question into words.
"Kanaan has joined Kenmore's," she answered, keeping it short.
John's face blanked and then he casually shifted the conversation away from the sore spot.
"So, the house has more rooms than a hotel. What do you say?"
"Are there beds?" she asked.
Halling climbed down out of the Winnebago after parking and wandered over to them, joined by Jinto. His face creased into a smile as John laughed.
"There are even sheets."
"I'm staying," Halling declared.
Jinto spun on his heel, taking in the farm, and commented, "You own this? Wow."
"Lock, stock, and tax assessment."
"Cool." His gaze settled on the green Porsche and his face lit up. "That's yours too? Can I drive it?"
"No!" John, Halling and Teyla chorused together.
Jinto looked sulky and put upon.
"I drove the bus."
"You're not old enough."
"Hypocrite," Jinto told Halling.
John pointed at Torren, who hadn't even stirred.
"You want to take him inside, pick out a room for him?"
"Oh, hey, I can pick my own room?" Jinto asked eagerly, forgetting to pout as fast as he'd started.
"Sure," John told him. "Knock yourself out. Mine's got a couple of suitcases by the bed. Everything else is up for grabs."
Jinto took off for the house, while Teyla bent inside the truck and released the straps securing Torren in his seat. Torren didn't even wake up. Teyla gave her child a cross look. Now he slept? After crying and fussing for what felt like the entire trip?
She handed him to John just to enjoy the faintly horrified look of panic on his face. She loved the way his features twisted and moved so much, despite his efforts to play the stone-faced one.
"Jeez, he's heavy."
"I know," Teyla told him. "Eight and a half pounds at birth."
John looked abashed.
"You know Jinto's is going to commandeer the biggest bedroom in the house?" Halling asked.
That didn't bother John, obviously. He just grinned lazily and hiked Torren higher in his arms.
"Hell, I've been sleeping on the couch in the den. It's closer to the kitchen. Seems kinda crazy to go all the way upstairs just to sleep, you know? Downstairs is actually in good shape."
They started toward the front veranda of the house. The finials on the columns framing the steps were carved stone horse heads, proud as anything in Rome or Versailles, but mottled with lichen. John patted the arched neck of one as they passed. Furtively, Teyla did the same. Halling didn't even hide his touch, stroking over where the stone was already worn just a little smoother than the rest. It felt like good luck.
John had the door open when an unhappy roar echoed from the Winnebago. Torren woke and began struggling; he didn't like waking in a stranger's arms. Horses, but not Teyla's three, began neighing down in the nearer paddocks. John just avoided a black eye from one of Torren's flailing fists and thrust him out at Teyla.
"Here, buddy, here's mommy," he blurted. "Was that —?"
Teyla accepted Torren.
Halling looked shamefaced.
"Pablo," Halling admitted.
John blinked at him.
"Pablo the Lion?"
"You remember him?" Halling asked.
Jinto thundered up behind John and squeezed by him. "He needs a walk," he said.
"Jinto, wait," Teyla called, suddenly worried that while John was willing to take in herself, Halling, Jinto and a baby, even three more horses, he might not welcome a senile lion.
John was staring at the Winnebago with wide hazel eyes. "You drove cross country with a lion in a Winnebago."
"We couldn't just have him put down," Jinto declared scornfully.
"No one would buy or take him," Halling apologized.
Pablo let out another roar. The Pegasus horses freaked out and ran up and down the paddock fences neighing.
"Crap," John muttered.
Teyla waited for him to tell them Pablo had to go. His eyes had narrowed, while his thin face gave away concentrated thought.
"Okay," he said. "The horses here are not used to big cats, but we can deal. This is a big farm and when it was built someone put up a six-horse quarantine barn. You can't see it from here. We can set up Pablo there and bring in some chain-link to lion-proof one of the paddocks out there so he can spend some time outside."
Halling looked ready to cry in relief.
John turned to Teyla. "Why don't you take Torren on inside, fix him up and Jinto can keep an eye on him. I'll walk you down to the barn and whistle up Stubbs. He can help you unload your horses. Meanwhile, Halling and I can drive Pablo out to his new home. Okay?"
Reluctantly, Jinto stopped halfway down the veranda stairs.
"Go ahead and get Torren's things from the backseat," Teyla called to him.
Jinto's shoulders slumped, a virtual pantomime of 'do I have to?' that made Teyla smile to herself.
"Thank you again, John," she said.
By evening, they were all ensconced in the large living room with the remains of three large pizzas, too much soda, and ice cream, spread over the coffee and side tables. Torren was asleep in John's lap, having been introduced successfully, and Jinto was half asleep and leaning against his father. Teyla had stretched herself out on one of the sinfully comfortable, extra-long sofas — she understood why John would sleep on them now — and Halling had his feet up. A brand new, large screen plasma TV had been set up in front of a disused fireplace and was playing something with too many explosions, the sound muted.
"Once I find a job — " Halling started to say.
John waved his free hand in dismissal. "Forget it. You see this place. I'm glad you're here."
"Look, even with you here, we're all going to rattle around in here. Besides, I was hoping I could get you to help me start fixing it up," John interrupted. He glanced at Teyla. "I had to fire the manager the estate had."
"I don't know," Teyla said.
"Come on, you managed a circus."
"Right into the ground."
She'd told John the whole sordid story of the end of the Athos Family Circus over the pizza. Halling had added a few facts Teyla hadn't been aware of, including some of the poison Michael had sown with Kanaan and several others, so John knew it all. She'd trusted the wrong person and now John wanted to trust her.
"No, Kenmore got Kanaan to sabotage you."
"I should have seen it."
John slid down in the couch so that Torren was resting against his chest.
"John is right," Halling said. He shook Jinto's arm until Jinto roused. "C'mon, brat, I'm not a pillow. Bed."
Blinking and yawning, Jinto wordlessly staggered to his feet and off toward the stairs.
"Despite being raised by me and a pride of big cats, he usually has more manners than that," Halling said. He levered his long, tall body up and scraped his gray hair back over his shoulders. "Good night, Teyla. Good night, John."
John and Teyla watched more explosions on the TV after Halling left.
"I could use a farm manager," John said at last. "And a friend."
"Do you miss them?" Teyla asked.
"Yeah," he replied. "I miss them, but Mitch and Dex and Holland decided they were going to stay and keep riding for Reynaldo…and I couldn't do that. Not knowing what I knew."
"And now everyone believes you were behind what Reynaldo did."
John leaned back against the supple leather of the couch and closed his eyes. "Yeah, taking off the way I did looked kinda guilty to a lot of people."
"Could you ride for someone else, maybe here in the States?"
"No, being suspected of poisoning an entire string of polo ponies is the kind of black mark that pretty much ends careers."
Teyla made herself get up and retrieve Torren. He'd drooled a wet spot through John's shirt. John was watching her intently, obviously waiting to see if she got it. She wasn't the only one who had to start over after losing something. She wasn't even the only one who had been betrayed by someone they loved and trusted.
"You will have to show me the office in the morning," she said.
Just because you can jump a fence going north doesn't mean you can jump it going south.
There had been no reason to think of Sheppard and Atlantis' morning work-out as Rodney's private show. He hadn't even talked to the man beyond a few insults thrown out at Harriman's. He certainly hadn't mentioned his trespassing and voyeurism. He'd wanted that hay, after all, not a restraining order.
It still felt like a betrayal when he walked to his place at the fence and someone else, another rider, was in the pasture with Sheppard.
That it was a pretty, petite woman on the wide back of a nearly white hack Rodney hadn't seen before disillusioned him even more. She followed Sheppard over the top of the hill and down into the still shadowy gray pasture, halted, and just sat comfortably in her saddle, letting the white horse graze.
Rodney squinted. Yes. She just had a hackamore on the white horse, though a bit wouldn't stop most horses anyway. The rising sun gleamed bronze over her smooth hair.
Sheppard began working with the black horse, mostly ignoring his companion.
Rodney couldn't concentrate on horse or rider. He kept wondering about the woman. Who was she? Why had Sheppard brought her to what had seemed to be a private moment in his day? Why her? Why now? Where had she come from? Rodney conveniently ignored that his own observations hadn't been invited. He felt suddenly excluded and a little angry. This had been his secret, the highlight of his own day sometimes, and now there was an interloper.
There didn't seem to be any reason to stay now. The sense of something magical and otherworldly had been destroyed.
With a resentful sigh, Rodney turned his back and walked to where he'd left Kepler. He gathered the reins in one hand and swung into the saddle, castigating himself for being foolish and romantic and ridiculous. He needed to find another riding path. He needed to be riding Blue and making out entries for Fair Hill and half dozen other USEF/USEA recognized events as well as figuring out where he'd get the money for those entries, hotels, stable and board, diesel for the truck and a new pair of riding boots.
Dusty was working out: she got along with Simpson, and together with Cadman they formed an unholy female trio he'd dubbed the Furies. He still needed to find one more groom. He needed to answer Jeannie's phone call from the night before. He'd let it go to the answering machine even though he'd been in the apartment; he'd been too tired to contend with his sister.
Life went on and he had things to do.
No doubt he'd run into Sheppard again if the man stayed at Pegasus. That didn't mean Rodney needed to watch him train any horses. It didn't mean they had some special connection. The only connections Rodney believed in were between horse and rider.
He didn't let himself look back.
O, for a morning in May… filled with the beauty of horses, soft with light of heaven.
Teyla watched something drain out of John half way through the schooling session. He didn't stop, but he lost some indefinable eagerness she'd noted as they rode out. She patted Jumper's neck and sighed. John's enthusiasm had been a balm to her heart. Seeing it disappear so quickly worried her.
He finished Atlantis' lesson and joined her.
"So, what do you think?" he asked.
"He is beautiful," Teyla told him. "You need to find someone who knows more than I do to help you. Trick riding isn't quite what you want to teach him, is it?"
"No," John sighed. He shoved one hand through his hair. "I was hoping…"
"That seeing you here would make him realize he could join me."
Teyla frowned. "Who?"
John nodded to the fence and the trees to the west of the pasture. "The trainer/instructor from the next farm over. McKay. He's been watching me and Atlantis since the first morning I rode out here." John looked charmingly shamefaced. "That's why I keep coming out here instead of using the arena."
"Is he very famous?" Teyla asked.
John chuckled and replied, "No more than I am. I don't know why he never made the Canadian Equestrian team, but he's been training horses and schooling riders for years now. I could use his help."
"And you hoped, because he returned to watch you, that he was interested?"
A shrug and a nod answered her. John let Atlantis turn toward the farm and Jumper followed without Teyla doing anything. The gelding moved at a slow walk. John slowed Atlantis to match his pace. Teyla smiled at the picture they must make, the white horse and the black, gilt touched by the rising sun.
"Perhaps he couldn't watch this morning?"
"No," John said, "he was there. He left."
"He's never left early before."
Teyla opened a gate. John and Atlantis went through. Teyla and Jumper followed. She closed and latched the gate carefully while considering the morning's events. She hadn't even seen this McKay, though she hadn't been looking for him the way John obviously had. It seemed doubtful that McKay had known John was aware of his presence.
"I think Jumper and I are a distraction," she said. "Tomorrow you should go alone."
"You didn't like it?" John sounded hurt.
"Of course I did, but Jumper is too old to ride every day."
"You could ride one of the other horses."
"You've said they all need schooling," Teyla pointed out. "I need to meditate and do my own exercises in the morning." Just because she'd given up the trapeze didn't mean she wasn't going to stay in shape.
"You could join me," Teyla added slyly.
"No thanks," John said.
She'd tried to get him up on the trapeze when he worked for the circus. John had been game, but not willing to practice enough to become good. He'd also complained that he ended up hurting more than when he'd been thrown, so Teyla knew he'd refuse her offer to work-out with her in the mornings. Perhaps if he hadn't met Reynaldo around the same time…
"Perhaps you'd care to check on Pablo then?"
"I think that's Jinto's job. He needs something to occupy him until the school year starts, anyway."
Teyla wanted no part of that fight when it came. Jinto had been home-schooled all his life. Halling had talked about sending him to a local public school. She anticipated outright refusal from Jinto and troubles when Halling insisted.
"You still need to show me the office, too," she said.
The horses picked up speed as they saw the barns.
"Work," John drawled mournfully, "work, work. You're no fun," making Teyla laugh.
He doth nothing but talk of his horses.
William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice
William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice
"John Sheppard, this is Rodney McKay," Elizabeth introduced them.
Sheppard extended his hand to shake and Rodney took it half reluctantly while wondering where the girlfriend was. Maybe she'd gone back wherever she'd come from. He dropped his gaze to their hands. Sheppard's fingers were tanned rather than freckled like Rodney's. Freckles were the bane of all fair-skinned people, Rodney in particular.
Sheppard's mouth quirked into an amused grin, either at Rodney's sour expression or his less than enthusiastic handshake.
"We've actually met."
"Really?" Elizabeth asked.
"At the feedstore," Sheppard expanded, drawling, sardonic. "McKay here accused me of hijacking his hay." He toasted Rodney with the crystal flute of champagne in his other hand. He wore Ralph Lauren as though he'd been born to it; considering he'd inherited Pegasus, no doubt he had.
For once, Rodney appreciated the atrociously expensive tux he was wearing. It kept him from feeling so outclassed. Not that he was, but looking like a poor relation didn't impress the sort of people Elizabeth hobnobbed with regularly, and he owed it to her to do his part. Sheppard was all dark, suave elegance, but at least Rodney didn't look like a hayseed next to him.
"You did," Rodney snapped.
"I don't think we got as far as the formal introductions, " Sheppard continued, smiling at Elizabeth, clearly at ease in his tailored tuxedo and the elegant surroundings of her DC townhouse. Rodney couldn't tell if he was mocking him or himself or Elizabeth. It took a lot of gall to mock Elizabeth though, especially in that red, off-one-shoulder, 'oh, it's just an old de la Renta' dress, so Rodney discounted that last possibility.
"Well," Elizabeth said delicately, indecisive only briefly, though clearly at a loss to what else to say. "I'll just have to find someone else new to introduce you to." Her hand was light as a feather on Sheppard's arm, but there was no way any man would ever shrug her off. She'd decided to separate them. Sheppard let her lead him away from Rodney with just another amused look.
Rodney snagged another canapé from a passing waiter. Mushrooms in pastry. He popped it into his mouth and locked his head into suck-up mode. O.B. Roth was present and so were several others who kept their horses at Archangel. There were others with money in their pockets and nothing better to do with it than buy a few hay-burners. Rodney knew how to talk up the thrill of attending the World Equestrian Games or the Pan American Games or Lexington Rolex, always holding out the possibility of owning the mount someone would ride in the Olympics. They all got that acquisitive glint in their eyes when he started talking about gold medals. In the case of the rich, those who couldn't do, bought.
Not all of them, of course. Rodney excused Elizabeth from that estimation, and several others who he would admit loved horses and the sport without being riders themselves. Without them there would be no eventing at all, any more. There were never enough sponsors.
He even managed to find a few minutes to spend with Jennifer and remembered to compliment her dress. Rodney wasn't sure it really did look good; fashion was a foreign country to him. He'd learned from Jeannie to always say a woman made the dress look good. That pleased Jennifer.
"We could have come together," Jennifer said.
"Next time," Rodney blurted. Was she actually standing closer to him than women usually did? He thought so. Alina used to lean toward him. He thought she had done so in retrospect, but didn't feel sure of it any longer. He'd always been awkward with women. Men were probably easier. Not that he'd ever considered that other than theoretically. It had been a decade since the divorce and he hadn't dated much since, so he'd thought of a lot of things. Theoretically. Even trying to get back with Alina, but she was off studying Quinta-something the last Rodney had heard, after flitting from one empty-brained pseudo-religion to the next for years.
Alina had been disappointed in Rodney when he bowed out of contention for the Canadian riding team to take care of his parent's estate and make sure Jeannie got through college. She'd wanted to be married to the Olympian rider, not the struggling farm manager drowning in the debts his parents had left. The whole thing had soured him on relationships.
It could be different with Jennifer, he thought. She was a rider. She'd understand. And they were already working together. The thought kept rolling around in the back of his head even after she was drawn away by Todd Rathe. Rodney faded back as fast as he could. Something about Todd Rathe's personality — wealthy, gracile rider turned corporate raider — made his skin crawl. Jennifer didn't seem to have the same reaction and let him persuade her to dance.
Rodney grumpily decided they looked ridiculous together. Todd was insanely tall and Jennifer was almost petite. He hated dancing anyway. He always stepped on someone's feet, even his own sometimes.
The buffet still had an appealing array of treats, so Rodney headed that way. He'd done enough mingling in his opinion.
The buffet waited, alluring and without hidden agenda, only steps away when Rodney noticed O.B. Roth had Sheppard nearly cornered. Avoiding them meant veering distinctly off course. Debating that, he caught the slightly taunting note to the end of O.B.'s words.
"Argentina? Wasn't there some kind of scandal in Buenos Aires recently? Some rider poisoned a polo string?"
From the way Sheppard's features went blank as a mask, O.B. had hit a sore spot.
"Yes," Sheppard replied, tight-lipped, "and no."
"I hear you're a rider too."
"I'm in insurance, you see. Risk reward. That polo thing, that makes a man think twice."
Sheppard looked past O.B. into some unfathomable distance. Rodney could see the attitude pushing O.B.'s buttons.
"I'd have to advise people with horses insured with our company not to employ a rider like that."
Fucker, Rodney thought.
O.B. chuckled and pressed one big hand down on Sheppard's shoulder, hard enough that Rodney could see Sheppard stiffen against him. O.B.'s gaze caught on Rodney then and he let up. "McKay," he greeted.
Rodney obediently joined them. Sheppard's knuckles were white where he held his champagne flute.
"How's that horse of mine doing?" O.B. asked.
"You're not riding him yourself?"
Rodney shrugged. "Some horses work better for women. Anne brings out the best in him."
"Too busy riding your own horse, are you?" O.B. scowled. "I'm not paying you and Elizabeth just to keep that animal in hay. I expect results."
Rodney had an answer for that. "Actually, I've got Jennifer Keller riding Damascus lately. I expect she'll get better results than I would, the same as Anne will with El Cid."
O.B. peered at him, seeming to judge whether Rodney was lying or not, then laughed. "Well, I'll have to take your word for it, won't I?" He eyed Sheppard. "Interesting meeting you," O.B. said and left them abruptly.
"And people say I have the manners of a rhino," Rodney muttered.
He eyed Sheppard sidelong until he saw him relax.
"People say all kinds of things," Sheppard commented. "Most of it's crap."
Including rumors from Buenos Aires, Rodney heard between the lines.
"O.B. has some kind of thing for Elizabeth I've never figured out," Rodney said. He edged around Sheppard and finally made it to the buffet.
Sheppard followed him and picked up a plate too.
"So that was…what?"
"Marking his territory?" Rodney shrugged and began loading his plate. Elizabeth's caterers always had little, elegantly penned cards next to each dish listing its ingredients for the benefit of those with sensitivities. It made avoiding everything with citrus much easier.
"The pastry things are good," Rodney said.
Sheppard snagged the last two. He followed Rodney until Rodney stopped and glared at him. "What are you, a puppy?"
Sheppard had hazel eyes. There were laugh lines around them. He winced at Rodney's words and stepped back. "Why the hell are you pissed with me anyway?" he demanded a breath later.
"What? I'm not pissed at you."
The little sound that escaped Sheppard held a world of disbelief.
"So why'd you stop watching me and Atlantis?"
A mouth hanging open, especially one filled with the shrimp and pimento thing Rodney had just shoveled in, was never attractive. Rodney snapped his closed, chewed and swallowed. He wondered if he was about to choke to death when the shrimp hung up painfully halfway down his throat, and hoped Sheppard knew the Heimlich maneuver. He swallowed again desperately and then snatched Sheppard's champagne and gulped it.
"Hey, you okay?" Sheppard asked.
Rodney waved him away and concentrated on breathing again. His throat hurt a little. "Fine, I'm fine."
"Didn't your mother teach you to chew your food?"
Even the glare of death that cowed Rodney's most successful or wealthy students just bounced off Sheppard. "No, she didn't. Haven't you heard? I was raised by wolves."
"I guess that explains it," Sheppard said agreeably.
Choking to death now just a receding worry, Rodney's thoughts circled round to the revelation that Sheppard had known Rodney was watching him ride.
"You don't have to worry, I won't be trespassing any more," he assured Sheppard.
Sheppard frowned at him. "I don't care."
"It never seemed to matter before. Landry never kept any stock in the back pastures," Rodney said. "It's different now."
Sheppard poked at something wrapped in a grapeleaf with his fork. "I kind liked it. I thought…Anyway, feel free to ride on Pegasus whenever you want. You don't have to join me."
"It looked like you already had someone with you," Rodney blurted without thinking.
"That was Teyla. She's the new manager. But she's got other things to do most mornings. It's just me out there now."
Sheppard tapped the tines of his fork against the china plate. "I'm out of practice."
Sheppard looked up and met Rodney's gaze. He had a thin face, rather ridiculously handsome, though not in the cookie cutter way Rodney loathed in men and women. "I kinda hoped you'd give me some pointers."
"I usually charge for that," Rodney pointed out.
He could see Sheppard considering that, his head cocked to the side, and then a smile tipped one side of his mouth.
"Yeah," he said, "I know. But you never had a chance at working with a horse like Atlantis."
Rodney had no argument to answer that.
"We'll see," he said grumpily.
He already knew he'd be there in the morning.
A polo handicap is a person's ticket to the world.
Sir Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Churchill
When he'd walked away from Virginia, his family and the engagement to Nancy, John hadn't left competitive riding behind. He'd come close. For months before that he'd been so miserable he'd been oblivious to anyone outside his own tight circle.
He didn't remember Rodney McKay, though they'd been contemporaries. McKay had been riding in Canada and John had confined himself to the Area 1, 2 and 3 East Coast meets in order to stay closer to his mother as she grew sicker and sicker.
McKay had been going through his own troubles.
John had seen him watching from the back of a blue roan the first morning at Pegasus. John had been sitting uncomfortably in on of the saddles Stubbs had maintained and had immediately, weirdly, felt settled, despite the previous sensation of sitting on top of living dynamite. Atlantis hadn't been too sure about having a man on his back again after so long. John had only meant to tour some of Pegasus' back pastures and check the state of the fences, but the presence of a watcher, a man sitting in a dressage seat, had lit John up inside. He couldn't show off, because Atlantis was still too unknown, but he'd begun the simplest exercises anyway, until the vibration of the cellphone he'd tucked in his shirt pocket had reminded him he had a full day ahead of him.
He hadn't known who the watcher had been until seeing him in Harriman's. Some cautious questions and the natural human desire to talk if someone will listen had revealed there was only one blue roan dressage horse in the area: Rodney McKay's Damascus. McKay managed the barns on the farm next to Pegasus, as well as coaching and training. One glimpse of McKay's shoulders in an orange fleece jacket from the rear had confirmed John's deductions.
His bad wrist was aching again, so he picked up a brace while he was there. It looked a little like a black sweatband, but offered considerable support. By the next day, he had a better idea of what Pegasus needed and was back at Harriman's.
The offer to sell back half of the hay load had been proffered with the hope that grumpy, snappy, intriguing McKay would come along to pick it up, but no such luck.
John had been pleased to realize he was back, watching again, the next morning. He'd almost called out to him, but then held his tongue and put Atlantis through his paces instead, the patient practice of the basics that would underlie everything else he ever asked of the horse. Losing himself in that had been easy; he'd forgotten McKay until the end.
McKay hadn't said anything. Maybe that made him more intriguing. John himself had always been contrary according to everyone who really knew him. He wouldn't have abandoned the life that had been mapped out for him since childhood if it weren't true.
Sitting on the brown leather couch he'd taken to sleeping on the second night at Pegasus, John propped his sock-clad feet against one cushion, balanced his laptop against his knees, and began searching. The house was huge, even for a large, extended family, and painfully silent in its near emptiness. A TV and satellite had been first on his list of immediate renovations just for the noise factor. He left the lights on in the kitchen — all stainless steel and black granite; it looked like it belonged in a space age restaurant — after Halling and Teyla retired just to provide himself a navigation point when he woke in the night.
It occurred to him that a dog would be nice. There were at least two barn cats he'd glimpsed already, but they were half-feral and needed in the barns to discourage rodents.
His laptop and the Internet provided information, if not answers to the all things he really wanted to know, after a few searches. McKay was a year younger than John and had a sister who still competed in Canada, while he rode mostly in the States. He had been working at Archangel for more than ten years. McKay had never gone to the Olympics, though everyone had considered him to be a shoo-in for the same year John would have gone.
John contemplated that and wondered how much it had hurt McKay to give that up. John had been too messed up to realize how much not going had hurt him until later, when he agreed to ride two horses belonging to Reynaldo's friend Caterina Peres and discovered he'd missed eventing.
McKay had been married to Alina Duggan, daughter of the man who owned his best horse at the time, John read. He wondered how that had worked out; not well, evidently, as the marriage ended in divorce several years later. Old Man Duggan put another rider on Salamanca, the horse seized up at a trial, kept tightening up, then fell disastrously in cross-country and was put down within a year of the change in riders. John winced. Every horseman knew how much losing a beloved mount hurt. Seeing one put down, as inevitably one did over the years, hurt worse.
He kept digging, reading old articles from the time, grimacing at some of the speculation that had run rampant. McKay was having an affair, McKay had a drug problem, a gambling problem, a serious injury, a debilitating disease, was caught doping his horses, had lost his nerve, had been blackballed by the Canadian community for blowing the whistle on someone else's dirty doings. No evidence of any of that ever came to light.
John tabbed back and picked out the time line. McKay had been the ascendant star of Canadian riding, along with his sister Jean. Then their parents died in a car crash. They weren't wealthy people and following their deaths, McKay had stopped competing. His sister went on riding while attending university. Salamanca was put down, Jean McKay married, McKay divorced, and finally he took the farm manager position with Archangel Stables.
It had all been about money; in retrospect John could see the pattern no one else had. Competitive riding was expensive; there hadn't been enough to support McKay's career and his sister's.
Jean McKay-Miller had a university degree and great prospects for the Canadian Equestrian Team going to the next Olympics after missing the Beijing games due to a pregnancy.
Rodney McKay trained horses and coached riders for a decade after moving to the States and only competed enough to maintain his standing and qualifications. When he did compete, he placed or won regularly. He certainly hadn't lost his skills or nerve.
John set the laptop on the coffee table and sat back on the couch. He looked up at the shadowy ceiling. Did Jean McKay-Miller have a clue? John couldn't imagine his own brother making a sacrifice like that and not making sure John knew all about it. Of course, he couldn't imagine Dave giving up a tee time for him.
He had no way of really knowing what went on between the McKay siblings, admittedly. While Rodney McKay had been struggling to keep his head above water financially and maritally, John had been watching his mother slip away, eaten up by cancer, and pretending for all he was worth that everything would be okay. He'd faked it for his mother, faked it with Nancy, wore a mask with his father and Dave and everyone else. The only time he let himself come out had been on horseback, throwing himself and his mount over the jumps, racing forward as if enough speed would let him fly away from the lies.
John let his hand rest over his belly and tucked his other behind his head.
He hadn't known it at the time, but he'd been having a breakdown behind that mask. No one had noticed.
A week after his mother's funeral, which had been attended by hundreds in awe of Patrick Sheppard's money, John had driven from Virginia to Pennsylvania to win at Radnor. Afterward, he'd climbed back in his car and started the drive home in order to attend the engagement party his father had insisted they shouldn't reschedule. There had been a truck stop along the way and a blow job that left his knees and jaw both aching while he dressed for the party later. He'd gargled with mouthwash over and over, but it didn't matter anyway; Nancy insisted on only air kisses rather than muss her lipstick.
Sometime after midnight, lightheaded with exhaustion, John had stepped outside for the fresh air, started walking, and never turned back.
He'd made it to Europe before his money ran out and taken a job as a groom. It never occurred to him to go home.
John had bummed around Europe for years, working as a groom and rider, even taken the job with Athos circus, and then spent five years with Reynaldo's polo team, living in Argentina and regularly riding in polo matches held everywhere from the Hamptons to Florida. He'd kept his eventing qualifications more through luck than a plan, but he had, so he hadn't exactly been invisible. Neither Dave or his father had ever reached out to contact him.
Even after Reynaldo, John never considered going back to Virginia. He could imagine his father's reaction. Dave's too, come to that. They'd think he was crawling back because of what happened in Argentina. They'd consider him a shameful failure.
Of course, there were the trust funds. If he meant to keep Pegasus, he'd need them.
He'd bet McKay wouldn't have turned his back on all that money.
McKay was probably smarter than him.
John squeezed his eyes shut. McKay was no doubt straight too. He shouldn't be thinking about the way he'd looked in the photographs John had found on the Internet or the way he'd looked on horseback or even in that feedstore, with his slanted mouth and waving hands. If John needed to get his rocks off, he could drive to DC or even Baltimore to find a one-night stand. McKay, he needed to help coach him and train Atlantis. Nothing more. Nothing else.
Jesus, McKay wasn't even his type.
He should be keeping a low profile.
It wasn't like he'd been flagrantly out in Buenos Aires. The affair with Reynaldo had fizzled into a friendship and left just the job riding Reynaldo's polo ponies several years back. He'd had his teammates and a comfortable life where no one asked more of him than John wanted to give. It still made his stomach twist in unhappiness as he realized stepping back into circles he'd left behind would mean moving back into the closet, at least until he'd established himself firmly enough to weather any reactions. Maybe it wasn't true, maybe he didn't need to hide that part of himself, maybe he'd be accepted without question, but he'd never been comfortable putting himself on display and never wanted anyone pointing him out or talking about him. When it happened — and it would, he knew — he wanted people talk about his riding and not what or who he did in bed.
John did mean to come out eventually. He wasn't sure why, unless it was still about spiting his family. That was a crap reason to do anything. It wasn't about Margaret Dean, either, whatever she'd wanted from leaving him the farm. A better reason was making Pegasus into a successful business and home for Teyla and Torren, because they needed it as much as John did.
Making a home and taking care of his friends mattered more than fantasizing about a romance with someone he barely knew. He was going to need every friend he could get.
God, he was lonely. He was lonely and the house was too big and too quiet at night. That was all.
He really needed to get that dog.
Silence takes on a new quality when the only sound is that of regular and smooth hoof beats….
He took Kepler over to Pegasus after finishing in the barns.
"I suppose this means you'll be in better mood now?" Cadman commented. She was coming in every morning now. Carpooling with Dusty and doing more once she arrived.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Rodney replied. He would never admit he'd been grumpier than usual after curtailing his observations of Sheppard and the black horse.
He arrived before Sheppard, but the gate had been unlocked, which Rodney took as the invitation it surely was. The quiet, broken only by Kepler snorting and bird cries, soaked into Rodney, settling his nerves. He opened the gate and rode through. His saddle creaked as he bent and latched the gate without dismounting. He just spotted the white-tipped russet whisk of a fox's brush disappearing through the far fence and into the long grass as he looked up.
"Hey," Sheppard said when he arrived.
"So," Rodney waved his hand toward the pasture. "Do your thing."
Sheppard was simply working on shoulder-fore and position, as patient and natural in the saddle as any rider Rodney had ever observed. Sheppard and Atlantis were tailored to each other. The black horse's conformation and height fit Sheppard's body type and size. Rodney tried to watch critically. The muscles in Atlantis' back needed strengthening, which the advanced dressage work would address. In addition, Atlantis needed further conditioning to improve his endurance before facing the exertion of a three-day event. Rodney's gaze sharpened on the stud, noting that he moved gingerly over the pasture's uncertain ground. Still, the quick way he responded to Sheppard promised that once the work was done, the pay-off would be magnificent.
"Are you working him on the lunge line?" he asked.
"In the afternoon," Sheppard replied.
"Any bad habits?"
"None so far. Or were you asking about me?"
"Should I?" Rodney knew any rider of Sheppard's age and experience would have accumulated a few eccentricities and short cuts, but he hadn't spotted them yet. He hadn't seen Sheppard put a horse over a jump yet or go cross-country either, but he could tell Sheppard would excel at the breakneck cross-country racing.
Grass whispered around Atlantis' fetlocks. Little flecks of it clung, wet and dark, to the horse's hooves, explaining the faint hitch Rodney had detected in his movement. The dew on the grass made the going slippery and the horse cautious.
Sheppard was taking him around in a long, easy circle. He waited to answer until they were nearing Rodney again rather than raise his voice or turn his head. Atlantis would respond to the delicate shift in weight of a tipped or turned head of his rider. Not even every Lipizzaner that went through the Spanish Riding School became that sensitive, but Atlantis would be aware of the movement and Rodney approved of Sheppard's awareness.
"Probably," Sheppard said. "Dressage is always my weak point."
He watched Sheppard circle again.
Sheppard halted Atlantis obediently.
"Take him around the other way. Just walk."
Atlantis went around patiently.
"Okay, doing this out here may be all pretty and romantic, but if we're really doing this, we need to work on a level surface in an arena. The pasture grass is too slick for good footing," Rodney declared eventually.
"Are we doing this?" Sheppard asked as they came around again. Atlantis came to a halt on cue. Sheppard stroked his shoulder. One long, neat ear flicked back toward him, then forward. When Rodney raised his gaze from Atlantis' head, he met Sheppard's piercing hazel gaze.
"Yeah," Rodney answered. "We are."
"Pegasus has its own arena. Halling and I can put it to rights, get it ready by day after tomorrow."
"I'll ride over in the morning and look it over," Rodney offered.
"Great. You can have breakfast with us. I'll introduce you to Halling and Teyla." Sheppard's smile threatened to blind Rodney. "Jinto too."
"That's not necessary," Rodney said, then added, "I'm allergic to citrus," since he hated cooking for himself and a free breakfast was always a good thing.
Sheppard laughed. "Okay."
Rodney fidgeted before breaking the quiet between them. "I should get back."
"Oh. Okay. Uhm, can you recommend the best farrier around here?"
"Wilford, but good luck getting him," Rodney replied promptly. "He's pretty well booked up."
Rodney shrugged. "Stay away from Anson Kell, he's an asshole. A couple of perfectly well-behaved boarders went foot-shy after he'd worked on them. I won't have him out at Archangel."
"Gotcha. I guess I'll try Wilford and cross my fingers."
"I'll check around," Rodney offered. He snapped his fingers, remembering. "Oh. The caveman."
"Guy that apprenticed with Wilford. He has a card up at Harriman's. I saw it when I was in there. Rowan. No, Ronon. Dex. Huge guy. Dreadlocks. Good with the horses."
"Thanks," Sheppard said. "I'll call Harriman's and have them get his number for me."
Rodney started back to the gate where he'd tethered Kepler. Sheppard and Atlantis followed, but not too close. Rodney mounted, hiding a little wince. The drive back from DC had done a number on his back, despite using the farm's truck instead of the clattering old heap he affectionately called the Mule.
Sheppard switched the reins to one hand and offered his hand. Rodney prompted Kepler closer and took Sheppard's hand, shaking it. Their knees brushed as Kepler shifted his weight impatiently.
"I'll have a check for the first six months ready in the morning," Sheppard said.
Rodney felt stunned. He had a reputation as a penny-pinching sonovabitch throughout the equestrian world. He never let anyone slide on paying for his coaching or the training of a horse. Yet he hadn't even considered charging Sheppard.
"Sure," he mumbled. "That's fine. Or we can work something out."
Sheppard smiled again. "McKay, money's the one problem I don't have."
Rodney bit back his immediate retort that he didn't know about problems then, because even he knew better. Just because money had been his bête noire didn't mean others hadn't suffered in different ways.
"Well, that makes one of us," he muttered instead, making Sheppard laugh.
"If you're riding over," Sheppard said, "steer away from the quarantine barn."
Rodney's eyes narrowed. "You have a sick horse? Have you called Zelenka?"
"No sick horses," Sheppard replied. He looked…embarrassed. Amused too. It was an odd expression. "Is Zelenka your vet?"
"Yes. He's a pigeon-obsessed Czech lunatic, but he's a damned good vet." If there was anyone in the world Rodney considered a friend, it was Radek Zelenka. Not that he had any intention of ever admitting it to him. The crazy bastard would probably want to hug him or name one of his pigeons after him. Or, God, give him a pigeon. Rodney grimaced, reminded of something Zelenka had said the week before on his regular visit to Archangel. The lease on the clinic Zelenka operated was up. Old Doc Vitter wanted to set up his nephew in business and wouldn't renew it. Zelenka was trying to find someplace else, but if it ended up too far from Galacky, he might end up having to relocate his practice and give up patients that were simply too far away. Finding somewhere he could live and keep his pigeons complicated the issue. "I hope we don't lose him."
"Huh." Sheppard sounded thoughtful.
"So what's in the quarantine barn?" Rodney asked. "Drugs? White slaves? The hidden entrance to your secret supervillain lair?"
"Not quite. Halling's cat."
Rodney stared at him. "A cat. I'm not exactly an ailurophobe. What's the problem?"
"It's a kind of big cat."
"How big?" Rodney frowned. "You mean a big cat?"
"You have a lion in your quarantine barn."
"Well, it's better than the Winnebago."
Rodney couldn't argue that point.
"Tell me you've got permits," was all he could think to say.
"My lawyer's working on it," Sheppard admitted. "Anyway, I thought I should warn you, since so many horses freak when they catch poor old Pablo's scent. Well, any big predator's scent, really."
"No kidding?" Rodney said as sarcastically as he knew how, and then to himself in disbelief, Poor old Pablo. That really beat out Mrs. Wheiler and her crystals and stall feng shui.
"I'll introduce you tomorrow," Sheppard said. "He's really a sweetie."
Sheppard chuckled. "I know it's insane, but it's the barn or have him put down. He's too old for a zoo or another circus."
Rodney just shook his head.
"I'll see you in the morning. No need to introduce me to Pedro."
"Pablo, Pedro, Pinky, whatever," Rodney said. "I have to go."
A lion, he thought to himself as he trotted Kepler away, what other insanity would he find at Pegasus? It made him grin as he thought of how horrified the people of Galacky would be if they knew. Except for Cadman and Mehra. Those two would think a neighbor keeping lions would be great. Tigers and bears, too, no doubt.
He'd never admit it, but Rodney did too.
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
They had already developed a routine. Halling or John cooked breakfast; Jinto and Teyla didn't. Their offerings on morning rotation were restricted to toast, yoghurt (Teyla), cereals, and Poptarts (Jinto). Everyone washed up their own mess and the last person in the kitchen started the dishwasher. Evenings weren't any different, other than John's habit of driving to Galacky and coming back with a pizza, Kentucky Fried, or Chinese. Lunch was catch as catch can. The microwave saw a lot of use.
John conned Halling into cooking the morning McKay came over the first time.
Teyla didn't see why John liked him.
In fact, she disliked him immediately.
He struck her as mannerless and dismissive. He complained nonstop from the instant he walked into the kitchen. He complained about the dressage arena. He complained about the ride over. He complained about the people who worked for him in the most insulting terms she'd heard in years. He whined about Pablo — she couldn't imagine why John had told him about Pablo. He insulted John. He called Jinto a budding juvenile delinquent, Halling a hippie goofball, and Teyla a sequin queen. He accused them all of trying to kill him when Jinto poured himself a glass of orange juice. He ate and ate and ate and never stopped chewing while he talked.
To Teyla's disgust, he even pulled off his right riding boot and grubbed his hand deep inside, averring that something had poked through the sole inside, then went right back to eating right in front of everyone.
When McKay emptied the syrup bottle on his waffles without checking to see if everyone else had had any first, Halling brought powdered sugar and whipped cream to the table. McKay's eyes lit up and Teyla considered stabbing him with a fork as he reached for those too.
"Oooh, I could get used to this."
Teyla sincerely hoped he wouldn't have the chance. Not once did he thank Halling for cooking or John for the invitation, either.
John just sat back and looked amused. No, fond. The more obnoxious McKay became, the more John relaxed. Teyla didn't understand it at all.
"If he is not a genius," Teyla quietly told Halling as she rinsed off her breakfast plate standing next to him at the double sink under the south window, "then I do not understand why someone hasn't run him down with a hay-baler."
"Not everyone has access to a hay-baler," Halling said.
Teyla added her plate to those already in the dishwasher. "We do," she commented.
"I'm not sure it works."
"I could find a mechanic."
McKay and John headed out, then Jinto and Halling. Teyla retreated to the office, where she was making slow progress getting a handle on everything that had to be done, needed to be done soon, should be done but could be put off, and sorting out Landry's peculiar method of filing. She also had to talk to Woolsey about the permits necessary to keep Pablo on the farm. She had a better grasp of that than most thanks to years with the circus, but Woolsey had at least one paralegal researching zoning restrictions in their Maryland county.
McKay came to breakfast the next day and the next. Teyla continued to dislike him. He started avoiding her. At least she thought he was avoiding her until she realized he was just completely oblivious to her. But when she walked out and watched him work with John and Atlantis, soon followed by a chestnut mare with the barn name of Poppy as well, she realized McKay was a genius. He got on Poppy's back and illustrated everything he wanted John to do with Atlantis and exactly how he cued the mare to do it.
John watched and listened. Teyla didn't know three-day eventing, but she could see old instincts and skills coming back to him with each day, life rushing in to fill dry, empty places that even as his friend she'd never known were there. He smiled more and more honestly. He talked about the future, his dark head bent close to McKay's sandy brown, both of them intently arguing over upcoming events, schedules, and what sort of chances Atlantis would have to qualify, dozens of papers spread over the kitchen table between plates of cold pizza and an open laptop. They were shoulder to shoulder and gleeful as children. Teyla had never seen John so unconsciously physically comfortable near anyone, not even Reynaldo Vega the one time she met the man. John had certainly never bantered and snickered and laughed with Reynaldo the way he did with McKay.
Remembering Reynaldo made her re-evaluate. She'd been charmed by Reynaldo, who had been a physical match for John, dark and handsome and smoothly charming, but she'd never really seen anything but his public face. Had there been real affection in his brown eyes when he looked at John? She'd thought so, anyway.
Teyla determined to hold her tongue.
After all, she'd thought Kanaan loved her too, and look how that had worked out. She didn't want to see John hurt, but had to admit that maybe she just felt jealous. When she'd arrived here, she and John had both been walking wounded, bracing each other against the cruel vagaries of romance. Now John was moving on and part of Teyla felt a little displaced.
Thank God she hadn't spoken up before. That reaction shamed her.
She began watching them together while trying to filter out her own feelings.
John just laughed when McKay rudely told him, "Don't be ridiculous. You have so much more work to do. You're not going to the World Equestrian Games at Lexington this year except to spectate. We'll be lucky if we make it to Rolex next year."
John smiled at him and said, "We'll make it."
McKay held up his hand and extended his index finger. "You could get hurt." Middle finger. "Atlantis could be injured." John kept smiling and shaking his head as McKay added another finger. "I could get hurt." Pinky. "Rolex could be canceled." Thumb. "A super meteor could impact the Earth ushering in nuclear winter and an ecological and technological apocalypse."
"You watch too much Sci-Fi," John told him.
"Like I have any time to watch TV at all," McKay snapped back. "Also, it was all that was on last night."
McKay didn't stop being obnoxious after Teyla's realization. She just started noticing the other side of his personality. Acerbic as his commentary was, very little of the vitriol held real malice. His anger flared fast and didn't linger; it never surfaced near a horse. Mistakes were his mistakes, made by John because McKay had failed to 'drill it through your hair gel helmet', and never the fault of the horse. He was a patient man under the veneer of impatience he presented on the surface.
He ogled her breasts at least once a day but with an honest admiration that amused instead of angered her.
"You're gorgeous and you have to know it and I'm not dead or blind," he told her. "I also know you'd do something awful and potentially painful and permanent to me if I ever touched you." He blinked and added thoughtfully, "And then John and Halling would chop me into hamburger and feed me to Pablo."
Pablo was the reason she realized McKay was a decent and surprisingly kind man beneath the bluster. Woolsey was having fits trying to get the permits. News of Pablo had got out, probably by way of the man Teyla had made arrangements to buy Pablo's food through, and the locals were not happy.
McKay dropped two crumpled lists on her desk one morning while stealing a cup of coffee. "Here," he said. "That's a list of all the good suppliers around here. The ones with the big no next to them are all crooked as a goat's hind leg."
Teyla carefully put the list away. McKay had been successfully — as in profitably — managing Archangel for a decade. He'd given her a wonderful leg up by sharing his local knowledge.
"That other list's people around here who are breaking one zoning law or another. Most of them have pull. Give it to John's lawyer."
"How do you know — "
"Hmm." He was poking through the file cabinet with an absolute lack of shame or any hint of awareness that the contents might not be for public perusal. Not that Teyla could think of anything inside that wasn't fit to be seen, but still… McKay had the manners of a porcupine. He added, "People talk. They don't think I'm paying attention."
Teyla folded her hands together. "I shall not make that mistake."
McKay threw her bright, blue-eyed glance. His lopsided mouth quirked up into a smile. "I'll bet you won't."
John swore McKay could be smooth and charming — schmooze was the word he'd used — and, if so, then Teyla had come to believe that McKay's blunt obliviousness was in fact a sign of respect. He wasn't contemptuously faking around her.
She couldn't explain it, but by the time a month had rolled around, Teyla decided she did like Rodney McKay. She even deigned to call him by his first name, not that he gave any sign of noticing the change.
Liking him didn't relieve Teyla's apprehension. Instead, she worried more because she could see what John was attracted to in Rodney, but she feared it could only end in pain for both men. All she could do was stand by and hope. She knew she wouldn't have listened if anyone had warned her about Kanaan, and in the end if she weighed Torren against Athos, she would make the same choices. There was no malice in Rodney McKay that she could see; she would have to rely on that.
Maybe, she hoped, whatever happened, John would consider the outcome worth what it would cost too.
There is something about jumping a horse over a fence, something that makes you feel good. Perhaps it's the risk, the gamble. In any event it's a thing I need.
Thursday morning, Rodney supervised and lent a hand wherever needed as Simpson and Chuck loaded the big fifth-wheel trailer with all the tack, feed, medicines, and miscellaneous gear five horses would need for a long, working weekend. Morning sun gleamed off the freshly washed and waxed navy-and-red paint jobs on the vehicles. His suitcases joined the two grooms and Anne Teldy's next to stacked Rubbermaid boxes filled with fly repellant, hoof picks, clippers, shoe studs, leg wraps, hoof polish, equine shampoo and saddle soap. He made sure to stow his laptop and briefcase full of papers on the horses and their entries in the Archangel Stables truck.
After that, he carefully backed the truck up and hooked the horse trailer to it with Simpson giving him tips.
He ran through a checklist with Jennifer Keller to make sure she had everything she needed in her truck and trailer, along with clear directions in case the little caravan became separated, then they loaded her gelding, Cappy.
With everything else in place, they finally loaded the five horses they were taking to Pennsylvania.
"Cellphones," Rodney said, holding his up and waiting for everyone traveling with him to do the same. "Batteries? Chargers? Good. Let's move out."
His cell trilled and he checked. John.
"McKay here," he answered.
"Just wanted to wish you good luck," John said easily.
"I don't need luck because I am good."
"You are full of shit. Okay. I'm going to call that guy you told me about and get him out here this weekend, so you'll have to tell me about how you do."
"Go get 'em, tiger."
Rodney ended the call, shaking his head at John's ridiculous sayings.
He made sure his apartment was locked then double-checked in the office, making sure he'd left the particulars on the motel they'd be using along with the location of the event and a list of telephone numbers for Cadman.
A quick check of his watch and Rodney winced. He'd wanted to get out on the road a half hour ago.
Anne left her old clunker parked at the farm and rode with Rodney, Chuck, and Simpson. Unlike Jennifer, she didn't own her own truck and horse trailer. In fact, she wouldn't even be riding a horse she owned. Besides El Cid, Rodney had her riding another horse. The experience would benefit both horse and rider.
Chuck and Simpson took the backseat of the crew cab. Simpson pulled out a paperback romance and began reading, while Chuck listened to his iPod with his eyes shut. Anne took the front passenger seat.
"Nice to have a daddy who foots the bills," Anne said of Jennifer.
Rodney grunted a noise that could have been agreement or disagreement.
It felt unfair to Jennifer, but Rodney understood Anne's attitude. Jennifer's father paid for whatever she said she needed. She was an only child and after her mother's death nothing was too good for his baby. Her gear was the most expensive possible. The luxurious SUV and two-horse trailer she drove had been customized to match each other and probably cost almost as much as her mount, Capability. The eight-year-old horse had been purchased in Belgium for just under $115,000.
Sure, there were riders who made it to the top from a start mucking and training, but Jennifer wasn't one of them. If she hadn't been so determinedly nice, it would have been easy to hate her.
Rodney had tried. Jennifer just ignored his nastiest barbs and smiled. After a while, he'd found himself being nicer to her just to save himself the irritation of seeing his worst insults utterly ignored.
He ignored Anne's chatter while envying Chuck's his ear buds while he drove and kept Jennifer's vehicle in the rearview mirror.
The ache in his back from driving made Rodney grumpier than ever once they arrived. Jennifer wanted to go out to dinner with several other riders. Rodney begged off. Instead he called Cadman from his motel room to check on things back home. He wanted to call John too, just to talk, but argued himself out of it and took a painkiller so he could sleep through the night instead.
Friday began just as early as it would have at the farm.
"One hundred ninety points," Rodney muttered to himself on the way to the barns. "One hundred ninety."
No one scored a perfect dressage round. Rodney wouldn't, though both of his young mounts were three-star qualified horses he was grooming for CCI four-star events some day — next year maybe if they stayed sound. He always worked toward that goal whether he was riding in an important event or a training level that should come easy, because failing to try for perfection was cheating in his mind.
Anne and Jennifer wouldn't be riding perfect rounds either, but again, he'd brought them to the T3DE competition to get the experience.
Of course, everyone else could have lousy days. He and Anne and Jennifer would all ride to win.
Rodney didn't really suffer from nerves any longer. Part of him was running through the dressage test in his head all morning; the rest of him kept busy along with Chuck and Simpson, getting all six horses ready for their first day. He fit a bagel and coffee for breakfast in there while checking all his tack meticulously and then started the task of keeping Anne and Jennifer on even keels.
El Cid and Champers were jumping out of their skins with excess energy. Cappy had a calmer temperament, but each horse had been conditioned for this. They felt the excitement and trepidation of being in a new place, surrounded by strangers and strange horses, and it all contributed, until Rodney thought he could feel them vibrate.
Anne would be riding All Trumps, one of Elizabeth's horses, early, then El Cid after noon. Rodney had Champagne Bentley — barn name Champers — a horse belonging to the Beekers, then Spartan Party, with another rider scheduled to test between Champers and Spartan Party. Jennifer was scheduled to ride both Cappy and Blue late in the afternoon.
The timing for Jennifer's rides pleased Rodney. By then, both horses would have calmed down a little and be less likely to make mistakes in the arena. Unfortunately, it meant that Jennifer would have most of the day to work herself into a wreck.
While Anne had a basic steadiness that served her well, Jennifer was insecure about performing despite her natural talent and the skills she'd gained under Rodney's tutelage. Sooner or later, she'd develop a certain amount of arrogance or she'd quit the circuit.
Saturday morning, after inspecting the dressage arena, Rodney found Jennifer and Anne sitting on the farm truck's tailgate. Jennifer was plaiting Anne's sandy hair into a French braid, but they were both ready otherwise. Rodney watched them for a moment before retrieving his riding coat. He didn't put it on; the summer morning was already heating up. Instead, he used one of the truck's side mirrors to fix his white stock at his throat, determined to look as put together as his mounts. Chuck and Simpson were putting the last finishing touches on All Trumps and Champers, turning out the already glossy horses so they'd be picture perfect.
The day turned out to be mixed bag for the Archangel competitors.
Anne scraped through dressage. All Trumps tested her control because he hadn't settled down in time for the test. He always had to push his rider over who was boss before giving in and giving his best. In this case, Anne hadn't worked with him long enough and the contest played out in the arena. He was too fresh and it showed.
Rodney chalked that one up as his fault, too. He should have had her in the saddle sooner, taking the edge off, instead of having her keep Jennifer off the boil.
Anne and El Cid performed far better, much as Rodney had expected.
Jennifer and Cappy were abysmal, however; her nerves took over and the gelding stiffened up in response, turning in a jerky, reluctant looking performance.
Rodney didn't have time to give her a pep talk before his own first dressage test. He and Champers were up and he had to keep his mind on his own ride. Simpson was walking and trotting Spats to keep him warmed up and ready.
Champers had passed the vet inspection, but Rodney felt something wrong through out the test. He expected worse marks than he got, but didn't see much chance of placing in the top five with what they did receive.
"I want to take a close look at him later," he told Chuck as he handed over the reins. Anne handed him a bottle of water, which Rodney took a gulp from as he headed over to Simpson and Spats. "Did he look lame to you?" he asked her.
"He was hesitating," she said.
Simpson gave Spats' head a last polish with a cloth while Rodney double-checked the girth on his saddle and the stirrup length. He patted Spats' sleek neck, then swung up into the saddle. Spats' ears came forward. Rodney felt the quiver of reined-in energy in the body between his legs and smiled. He tugged the lapels of his coat straight and then ran his finger under the stock at his neck.
"Ready?" Simpson asked him. "'Cause Spats is."
Rodney could feel it.
"Ready," he answered with a nod.
"Rodney McKay riding Spartan Party, owned by Mrs. Alice Tinney."
Rodney schooled his expression into neutrality as he and Spats reached the center of the single arena, but wanted to hum in pleasure. The bright sun heated his black coat over his shoulders and his back felt loose and good. He and Spats were in perfect synch. He'd been riding Spats for two years and the horse had turned a corner. Today he was going to show what he had.
He ran through the test in his head a last time, picturing the two of them in relation to the barely ankle-high white fence edging the dressage area, along with the decorative flower pots set along the other side. The spectators, he ignored; there was just Rodney, Spats, and the test. If they got it right, the judges would do their part.
Spats outdid himself.
Rodney knew it without needing to see their score.
"Oh, you beauty, you absolute marvel," Simpson cooed at her charge afterward. She glanced back at Rodney. "Nice, McKay."
"I can't do that," Jennifer whispered.
"You better try," Rodney told her.
She managed a far superior job with Blue than she had with Cappy and ended the day in fourth place. Todd Rathe and Dart tested after her and Rodney had to admit, the gray horse moved like a feather floating on a breeze. Some rumors said Rathe paid over two hundred thousand dollars for Dart. Dart was definitely better than Blue — for the moment — but it wasn't all the horse. Todd Rathe was a better rider than Anne or Jennifer were.
They ended the day with Rodney and Spats in the lead, but Champers withdrawn from the rest of the event; a swollen knot on his left hock made an appearance. Chuck was miserable with worry it would be a serious injury, though the local vet thought Champers had likely just knocked himself against the side of his stall, maybe because its dimensions were strange to him.
Jennifer's nerves were worse on Saturday morning, maybe because she and Blue were just below the top five riders. Dew soaked their shoes and pants cuffs as they walked the course and plotted riding strategies for each jump, checking out the approaches and the far sides. Rodney liked to poke his finger in to the earth and get a real feel for it, so that he could figure out how the footing would change through the day as it dried out and how soon the grass would be beaten down.
She listened to his advice and nodded, but Rodney already knew she was going to blow it on Cappy before she reached the in-gate. Cappy's smoothness hid when he was getting lazy; to win, he needed a more aggressive rider than Jennifer, someone who would force him to give his all.
Anne was oblivious, chattering and full of fresh gossip.
"So you've met the new neighbor, right?" Anne asked. "Laura said you know him."
"Mmm," he said, barely listening as Jennifer was announced.
Jennifer queued Cappy into his best trot. Rodney had been sipping a coffee through the warm up. Now he demanded Anne's field glasses to focus on the pair. The number on Jennifer's back fluttered. Cappy's ears pricked forward and he quickened into the gallop. Rodney held his breath. Jennifer guided Cappy into taking an extra stride before his first jump, but they went over clear. For a second Rodney thought she'd lost control and Cappy was bolting, but they had gathered together and headed for the second jump.
"So you know the story?" Anne asked.
"Oh." He only vaguely registered the delight in her voice. "Well, let me tell you what I heard."
Anne had heard John came from a rich family in Virginia, but that he'd got involved with drugs and run off rather than face failing a test or being forced into rehab by his family. Either that or his fiancée had caught him in bed with a groom. A male groom. Rodney had grunted when he heard that part. John was too smart to use drugs or get caught with his pants down in a tack room.
"That's crap. Come on, Jennifer, pick it up. Jesus, she's gone from too reckless to too careful, damn it. She's riding like an old granny."
"I mean, not that I care," Anne ended. She frowned. "Cappy can go faster than that."
Rodney would have rolled his eyes if he hadn't been intent on Jennifer and Cappy still. The course had been laid out to ultimately circle back to the staging area. From there, trees, fences and low hills obscured several sections of the course from direct observation even with binoculars. Rodney could only guess at what Jennifer was doing until she came into sight again.
Phase C was roads and tracks again, letting the horse recover from the speed and effort put forth through B. Despite the break in all out exertion, it took stamina on the part of horse and rider. They couldn't afford to slow down too much; the clock was still ticking. This was also where they'd spend ten minutes in the Vet Box as the veterinarian examined each horse for exhaustion, lameness or any other injuries.
Jennifer got sloppy and slow through Phase C and looked tired. He'd have to chide her about conditioning herself. That's why they were at a T3DE trial. The Olympics no longer had this extensive an endurance test, but it was still a test of both athletes, horse and rider. Jennifer was never going to reach CCI★★★★ or stand on a podium for the US if she thought only the horse had to give its all.
Jimmy Wofford thought the IOC wanted equestrian sports out of the Olympics. Jennifer's attitude would be why. If only she wasn't so damned talented a rider. Not to mention someone Rodney thought he just might date if he could get up the nerve to ask her out.
Chuck was waiting at the Vet Box to whip off Cappy's tack, wash him down, and do his own soundness check of the horse the groom considered 'his' in addition to the course vet's check. He would clue Jennifer into anything useful he'd heard or noticed and then re-tack Cappy before they faced the final cross-country phase.
He'd checked the clock as she left the Vet Box.
"You look ticked, McKay," a smooth voice had interrupted his concentration.
Rodney lowered the field glasses and glanced at the tall man who had slithered up next him.
"I've told you to call me Todd," Rathe said with a smile.
"I'll call you Todd when I invite you to use my first name," Rodney told him.
Todd laughed easily.
"Don't you need to get ready?" Anne asked him.
"Oh, in a minute," Todd said. He and Dart were second behind Rodney and Spats after the dressage portion and would ride just before him. The man had no nerves as far as Rodney had ever been able to determine. He admired Rathe's confidence in himself, while fully intending to put him in his place.
And since Rodney was riding last, he'd know what he had to beat. That made for a definite advantage.
Todd aimed his own binoculars at the course and studied Jennifer and Cappy. "That's her horse, isn't it?"
"You know, it's kind of funny, you've always been all about the dressage, but you're still training like the old days when the cross-country was more important."
"It's all important," Rodney said. "Endurance makes for a good third day jumper."
"I think you're just arbitrary," Todd said. "Hey, if I buy Pegasus, we'll be neighbors."
Rodney twitched. What a horrible, horrible thought that was. He'd swear Todd mentioned it just to psych him out.
"I could always ride in Canada," he snapped. He often wondered why he hadn't gone back, but he'd never contemplated it seriously. Jeannie and he got along best at a distance and Archangel suited him. He'd made it his own, even if Elizabeth held the title to it.
Todd had laughed again.
"See you later."
"Good luck," Anne had called.
"I don't need luck," Todd replied with a laugh as he'd walked away.
Rodney glared after him before turning back to watch Jennifer take Cappy into Phase D, the exhausting final race through hills, meadows, swales and trails and over twenty-nine jumps and a water hazard on this particular course, all of them solid, up to four feet wide, and none of which Cappy had encountered before. It was a marathon. Rodney knew he'd conditioned Cappy to hold the course. His eyes were on Jennifer and he could see her tiring faster than her mount. She was letting him slow and another glance at the clock made Rodney frown sourly.
"Too slow, too slow, too slow," he muttered, watching the clock tick down as Jennifer took the gelding through the cross-country. They had managed the steeplechase on time, but he could see she was being too careful now. He hoped Chuck had given her a heads up on the clock when she'd reached the ten minute box. Otherwise, she'd knock herself out of the contention.
Jennifer brought Cappy to the finish without running into any trouble, but incurred several time penalties.
"No refusals or trouble," Anne said, looking on the bright side, and she was right — Rodney would always prefer a slow time to seeing a horse and rider get hurt.
"I guess it's going to be up to you to make us look like winners," Anne said.
Rodney gritted his teeth, because he'd woken up stiff, with his back warning him any wrong move could result in a sharp jolt of pain.
Rodney liked the true, long three three-day events that tested horsemanship and endurance rather than the shortened form the Olympics had used since Athens in '04. He was a purist. But, for once, he wished to not face the full, exhausting cross-country test himself.
Spats would pass a vet box half way through, but Rodney didn't know if he would.
He'd always done it before, but his back didn't care about that. Spats and Champers belonged to paying boarders who expected the farm's best rider on their horses, which meant Rodney. Like most riders, Rodney rode when he was hurt, but he hated pain. He hadn't believed he would have enough strength left to give Blue the ride he deserved and fulfill his obligations to his paying job. That was why he had Jennifer riding Blue. Now Rodney doubted he could have even managed the cross-country twice. He felt relieved and guilty over not needing to try with Champers scratched, but the last thing he wanted was to end up writhing along the side of the trail from a back spasm for everyone to see. He'd end up being trucked off to the hospital. That sort of thing was for polo players.
He'd thought of asking John to ride for him, but gone with Jennifer instead, certain enough of her skills and familiarity with Blue. Paying boarder and owner too, so it pleased Elizabeth.
Elizabeth didn't have to rein in the urge to shake her sometimes, of course. She had likely experienced much the same feeling as a diplomat dealing with politicians however.
Rodney kept telling Jennifer, over and over, as the day shifted to afternoon, "Look, if I didn't know you could ride him, do you think I'd have you in Blue's saddle?" Simpson had Spats ready and waiting for him, thankfully, so he could baby Jennifer along.
She still looked uncertain as her start time approached. "Maybe he's too much horse for me. I'm not as strong as you."
The words unearthed his memory of Alina telling him why she had filed for their divorce. 'You want someone as strong as you and I'm not.' Rodney pushed the memory away. It wasn't as easy as usual, but concentrating on his job always worked.
"He's trained," Rodney said. "By me. Just like you. And you're both good at this."
"Thank you, Rodney," she told him with a sweet smile that had someone flashing a picture of her after she swung up into the saddle.
Jennifer did make a gorgeous picture in her riding gear, even with an ugly big competition number pinned to her chest and a jumping vest bulking out her slender torso. Chuck handed her helmet to her. She held it in one hand, the reins in her other and the bright sun shone almost chestnut from her smooth hair.
Rodney found himself wanting to blurt something embarrassing about how pretty she looked. It almost made him gag. Luckily, Anne was there. He'd never say anything in front of her, it would get back to Cadman, not to mention the entire east coast.
"Just don't embarrass us," Anne told her with a cheeky grin. "Or we'll all suffer on the drive home."
"You held Cappy back a little too much," he said. "Stay aware of the clock." He'd never been touchy-feely, but he patted her knee before checking Blue's girth again, even though Jennifer had just done the same. Blue wasn't a windsucker, but equipment shifted and stretched and stitches came out and Rodney didn't usually get nervous, but he was working his way up to it thanks to Jennifer.
"My watch quit," Jennifer said. She held up her wrist. A brand new Rolex gleamed there, no doubt paid for with Daddy's credit card too. Rodney hoped to hell Jennifer never found herself stuck with her father's debt load. He knew how that went and where he hadn't gone as a result. "I got another one."
"Come back safe," he said and stepped out of the way. The starter gave the command and the sixth place horse and rider were away.
"Good ride," Anne added as Jennifer headed for the start box.
She handed Rodney a bottle of water, keeping a Gatorade for herself. They were both sweating in the summer heat. Staying hydrated was as important for a rider as the horses. Anne was flushed pink too, under a gloss of sunscreen.
He hoped she'd used the strong stuff; Rodney had slathered it on himself. The active protective ingredient smelled awful and he couldn't tell if the scent came from him or her.
Anne had a set of field glasses hanging around her neck too. She'd already had both her turns at the cross-country. She'd moved up in the standings with no time faults, falls or refusals with both All Trumps and El Cid, and was pleased and relaxed as a result.
Rodney accepted the bottle and sipped while watching as Jennifer waited at the start of Phase A.
"Number Fourteen, Jennifer Keller, riding Damascus, owned by Rodney McKay."
"I heard some stuff from a couple of riders during the vet check earlier," Anne said.
"They said your new neighbor rides CCI- four star in the European events."
Rodney wasn't really listening. It was how he dealt with Anne.
"And he used to be a top rider in the US," Anne said.
Rodney's mind was on the cross-country facing Jennifer. Phase A was road and tracks. Three and half miles of walking and trotting that served as a warm up. It would segue directly into Phase B, the steeplechase race track, where Jennifer would gallop Blue over eight steeplechase fences. They'd average twenty-four miles an hour if Jennifer didn't lose track of the clock again. Blue had speed to burn thanks to his breeding.
It was out of his hands. He had his own ride to worry about anyway. He headed over to Simpson and Spats.
Anne followed, still talking.
"Do you think he's going to be riding against us now?"
"Something like that," Rodney mumbled. He crouched and checked Spats shoes. It had nothing to do with not trusting Simpson. His ride was his responsibility. He'd ridden cross-country once on a horse with the wrong studs in because a groom had misunderstood his instructions. Never again. "I've got to mount up."
He glanced up at Simpson.
"Keep an eye on Jennifer."
"Don't worry," Simpson assured him. "Go ride. Anything happens, we'll take care of her and leave Chuck here for you."
"See you in the ten-minute box."
Once in the saddle, he walked Spats in a loose circle, while he tightened and relaxed the muscles in his own back in an effort to loosen up. Spats pranced a bit. He'd liked the extra attention and approval from Simpson and Rodney from yesterday.
"Attention whore," Rodney told him. One of Spats' ears swiveled back, listening, Rodney knew, to his tone rather than his words.
Mrs. Tinney would be over the moon with a win if he could manage it. Cross-country was Spats' weak link, and Todd's Trahkener would excel as usual. But Spats would shine in the show jumping on Sunday.
Concentration came harder than usual. Rodney's mental run through the course kept tripping up on other thoughts, like: If John was gay, he'd likely fall for Todd, who made no bones about his preferences. Rodney didn't like Todd, but there were worse guys out there. Providing that rumor was even true.
Rodney didn't know exactly why, but he thought it might be.
He wondered if John had moved Teyla and Torren in as cover. No, that wasn't like John. John just wouldn't answer if anyone asked something he didn't want to talk about. Rodney had already learned to wait through John's silences. Besides, he'd moved Halling and Jinto in too.
He pushed it all to the back of his mind. He had to get his head in the game. He'd figure out what he thought about John being gay later.
Much later, maybe on the drive back to Maryland.
Rodney's head cleared as he focused on the course and how he meant to handle it. Spats didn't like jumping blind, but training had upped his confidence. Rodney thought he could take their speed up a notch and Spats would make the jumps because he trusted Rodney.
He visualized each phase and how they'd handle it. Spats was a good horse. Once he knew he could do something, he'd do it for Rodney every time and he had all the heart anyone could want in a horse. Rodney believed he could win.
Rodney started his mental movie again and this time stuck through it to the end and was ready when he and Spats started out. Then it was just pacing and flying over the jumps and ignoring the stabs of pain in his back.
He dismounted at the ten-minute box while the vet checked Spats, quick and professional. Simpson had Spats' tack off and washed him down fast, while Rodney answered a couple of questions and gulped down some water. Simpson slathered fresh Vaseline up and down Spats' legs to protect them after tacking him up again. Cleared to continue by the vet, Rodney swung back into the saddle. He had enough adrenaline coursing through his own veins to mask the sharp twinge in his back this time and did it without a wince.
The wind burned his face as they thundered through Phase D, racing through flats, down a vicious bank and over the water obstacle, then up and over a massive carved fox framed by brush. Grass blurred green in Rodney's peripheral vision and the spectators were to be ignored unless they'd wandered into the way, their voices lost in the pounding of his heart and Spats' feet as they raced forward, always forward, moving as one, working together, nearly flying with the thrill of it.
They beat Todd's time by a quarter of a second.
Sunday morning, Rodney still reeked of the liniment he'd rubbed into his back the night before, even after two hot showers.
Rodney liked the show jumping lay-out immediately. The designer had created a challenging set of fences, but with an eye to not discouraging the horses. Rodney put together the jumps at Archangel and thought he understood the designer's intention. The cross-country left all the horses wanting a good run at the jumps. The show jumps had been set in place to accommodate that.
The loose earth under his boots was a little sandy, but Rodney preferred that to too much dust. When things got dusty, someone always tried watering it down, but it would be bone dry again within an hour or two.
He walked between each jump, calculating how many strides Spats would take, where Spats would see the next jump and where they'd take off. The verticals were poles painted white and green; the triple was white and hazard orange. The wide oxer had sculpted brushes framing it on each side that gave a nice visual cue to its width. The double oxer had panels painted to look like stone. It exited in a corner and resulted in the lay-out's first real challenge to the riders: make a sharp turn, save ground and time and ask their mount to face the pond immediately or swing in a wide circle and approach it on a straight line.
The pond offered another challenge. The day before, they all jumped their mounts over a triple in the cross-country water hazard, splashing through it. Today they had to clear the water, though it had no pole over it.
The in-and-out looked simple, but the horses would face it when they were tiring and the riders would be tempted to focus on setting up for the penultimate combination and the triple bar vertical finishing jump as well as thinking about their time. The temptation would be take it too fast and make up a few fractions of a second, but there wasn't really enough room to accelerate.
True to Rodney's expectations, the in-and-out seemed jinxed.
"Take the time penalty," he told Anne. "Everyone is hurrying into that jump and fouling on it."
He gave Anne a leg up then and she trotted El Cid to the collecting ring. The big bay looked daisy fresh. He thought she'd have a very good round.
Anne didn't disappoint. She gambled on the short route to the water jump and El Cid lifted over it like he had wings. The time she saved let her approach the bad luck in-and-out, which had seen poles come tumbling down every time, steady and collected.
El Cid's ears flickered and he swished his tail as the spectators applauded Anne and him. They were the first riders of the day to conquer the innocuous-looking in-and-out.
Anne kept her head and took El Cid through the triple combination with the same poise, kicking him into a faster pace afterward, when they had a straight approach to the triple-bar vertical.
Cid jumped it big, sailing over it and finishing clear without any time penalties.
Anne's smile was blinding as they came back. She pumped her fist. "First clean round!"
"I was holding my breath," Jennifer told her. "You looked like a star."
Anne grinned harder.
"Now you've got to do it again on All Trumps," Rodney reminded her.
"You're right about that in-and-out," she told Rodney. "But if you take the panel jump before it at a diagonal, you'll be lined up straight to it and save some time."
"Think you can manage it on Trumpy?" Rodney asked.
Anne shook her head. All Trumps jumped well, but had trouble if his rider didn't line him up straight to the jump. He was a fussy horse.
"Your call," Rodney told her.
Anne muttered, "I just hope no one's purse-dog gets loose because you know how Trumpy is."
Trumpy hated small dogs. Given any chance, he would send one flying like a football kicker going for a three point score. If one showed up during the show jump, he'd lose all concentration.
"I saw a couple whippets but they were on leashes," Jennifer told her.
Anne played it safe with All Trumps and rode another clean round, just squeaking through under the buzzer.
Anne's success buoyed Jennifer's nerves. She took the long way to the water jump, but didn't try to hurry too much and completed clean rounds on both Cappy and Blue.
Rodney had to fight to hide how proud he was of both of them. Rather than fall apart after suffering setbacks, they'd pulled themselves together and improved.
It didn't matter that Todd beat their times. Todd was at the top of the game. Anne and Jennifer were just beginning their careers. They'd outshine the current veterans someday.
Simpson had braided Spats mane and brushed his tail until it fell past his hocks like a silky tassel. Rodney thought the gloss on his coat could be used for a mirror. If anything, Spats looked better than he had for the dressage test. She'd even combed a perfect checkerboard pattern on his hindquarters.
"I want him to look his best when they take the picture of the winner," Simpson said.
"God, you'll jinx us."
"Spats can beat anyone today," she insisted. "I can feel it."
Rodney dug his own iPod out and listened to Beethoven, ignoring everything and everyone around him until it was time to head for the collecting ring.
He didn't believe anyone could will anything into happening, but he did believe in planning. He mapped out every stride Spats would take before they started and when the bell sounded, rode to the plan.
He knew he would have to take every jump aggressively in order to beat Todd's time. Spats felt it and responded, his long stride eating up the ground between jumps. The dressage work paid off, because Spats had confidence in Rodney's instructions and his own power and balance. They shaved off fractions when they took the short route to the water jump and went over it with contemptuous ease.
Rodney had a chronometer on his wrist, but he couldn't read it or check the judge's clock. He had to rely on the time-keeper in his head, the same way jockeys did. It told him they were still behind Todd's time.
He urged Spats faster and took the angle Anne had mentioned as they approached the panel fence preceding the in-and-out. Spats never hesitated. He lofted over the fence on the wider diagonal. At the height of the jump, Rodney felt the muscles in Spats back flex as he arched to lift his hind feet high and clear the top and he couldn't help the grin that bared his teeth. They landed and raced for the in-and-out faster than anyone else had, but with the space to make it work, no fumbling to fit in an awkward extra stride or clearing the first part just to tangle in the second.
In and out, just like they called it, and it felt almost like the steeplechase because they barely slowed at all until they were facing the triple combination.
All Rodney had to do was remind himself not to let Spats get too excited. Fatigue was starting to effect them both, but Spats was still jumping strong. Rodney didn't hear the crowd, didn't hear anything but hoof beats and Spats' breathing, felt nothing but the wind in his face and the heat rising from Spats' body, didn't see anything but the last two jumps.
He felt Spats put a foot wrong in the loose dirt and steadied him, gathered him up again and Spats showed what he was made of, responding like a champion. He found his balance, fit a short stride in where he shouldn't have been able to and scrambled over the first part of the triple. Rodney knew it hadn't been pretty, but they didn't touch and Spats took the next two parts perfectly.
Rodney urged Spats into a gallop.
The triple-bar vertical loomed closer and closer. It looked higher than it had when he was on foot.
Spats ears went forward. He gathered himself and launched upward. All Rodney had to do was not mess him up.
And they were over, applause almost obscuring the buzzer and when Rodney looked up at the clock, he laughed.
He'd beaten Todd by a full second.
Farriers are like cats. They don't like to go out in the rain and they don't come when you call them.
Ronon picked up his mail at the Post Office and made out his bills — insurance and cellphone, without which he'd be screwed — at the library. He showered at the gym every morning. No one raised any eyebrows at a single man using a laundromat to do his clothes. He grabbed breakfast from a drive-through most mornings and ate sandwiches the rest of the time. He'd always traveled light. When he got sick of the camper, he rented a motel room, but he'd basically lived out of his truck since Melena died and no one even realized.
Or maybe they just didn't care.
There had been people who wanted to help him. A couple of good foster families, the counselor that worked to get him that scholarship to vet school, Melena's folks before…
He'd blown it all. Ended up learning to shoe horses out in New Mexico instead and then Wilford had taught him a hell of lot after Ronon drifted back east again. Wilford was recommending him to people too — a lot of them mentioned it when they called Ronon. A little longer and he'd be more than getting by, which almost scared him. It had been seven years since he stuck anywhere as long as he had Galacky. Hell, he had a business license and the third-hand farrier's customized shoeing body on his truck — again thanks to Wilford harrying him. A couple more good months and he'd have Wilford paid off and could think about renting an apartment.
If he wanted to.
After his work out, he checked his voice-mail, hoping for a pick up job. He'd made up some cards at Kinko's and Harriman had let him leave them out at the feedstore. He had a message, so after calling back, on his way he swung by the Burger King drive-thru to buy his breakfast.
He ate the first egg sandwich before reaching the town limits, steering with one hand, and finished the second well before he reached his destination, scowling at the way the sun glared through his dirty windshield. The voice-mail had been welcome. A woman's calm, melodious voice asking him to come by Pegasus Farm when he was free.
Ronon was pretty damn free.
Luckily, he knew where Pegasus was.
The gates were open so he drove right on in and parked in front of the office, shaking his head at the itty-bitty green sports car parked next to a truck and a faded but still psychedelic VW bus. There were a couple more trucks parked down by the barns, but the lady had laughed on the phone and said, "Stop into the office first so we can work out how you want to be paid. You can't miss it. John's Porsche is parked out front."
He knocked and waited for the, "It's open!" before ambling inside.
The woman at the desk startled him.
She was bent over a playpen set up in the corner of the office as Ronon stepped inside, so that he saw her from the rear first. A really great rear, he couldn't help noticing. When she straightened and turned, her gaze found his truck outside the window before she smiled. "You must be Mr. Dex." She held out her hand. "Don't worry about Torren; he could sleep through a destruction derby."
He hadn't really had any picture of the voice on the phone, but if he had, he wouldn't have thought of her. She was tiny, but the fuchsia tank top and faded jeans she wore showed off toned arms and a gymnast's body. Her dark cloud of hair had been pulled away from her face with a headband out of the sixties. Gold ankhs dangled from her earlobes.
Ronon took her small hand and shook. "Just Dex." The strength in her fingers and the hard calluses surprised him. Of course, so did the kid sleeping in the playpen, maybe a shade lighter than his mother, and her beauty, and that she wasn't just another white face. It was a little something extra to his morning, something to smile about, but counterbalanced by a moment's irritation with himself for assuming she would be white, though most were. "Or Ronon."
"So," she said, letting go of Ronon's hand and walking back around her desk. "I'm Teyla Emmagan, we spoke on the phone earlier."
"We've got ten horses here. John — the owner — wants all of them shod."
"Will they stand?"
"Yeah." Ronon shifted uncomfortably. "Anything special I should know?"
"John's down at the barn. I think I'll let him explain. We're all new here."
Ronon shrugged. He'd handle it, whatever happened.
"Anyway, I need to get some information from you and put it on the computer." She gestured to the shiny laptop on the desk.
Teyla asked him for the usual information, business operating name, what Ronon charged, tax crap, typing it into the laptop, and adding once she finished, "I can cut you a check on the farm account when you've finished or pay with a credit card…?"
Ronon shook his head. "No credit cards." Did he look like he could afford a credit card reader? Maybe she was just being nice and pretending he did.
Teyla smiled back at him.
"I suppose if you want cash, I can drive into the bank and get it while you're working," she offered. She glanced around the office ruefully. "I'm not sure how much John keeps on hand."
"Check's fine," Ronon said.
"Then I guess I'll just walk you over to the barns. John's interviewing a couple of possible grooms."
Teyla retrieved the kid, sleepily protesting, and brought him with her as they left the office. Instead of walking, they got in Ronon's truck and moved it to the smaller of the two main barns, since he'd be working there.
John turned out to be the dark-haired man talking to a blond man. He nodded to Teyla and Ronon, then turned back to the other man briefly and finished their conversation. "Tell your friend to come out tomorrow and we'll talk."
"You'll like him," the blond man promised. He shifted and nodded to Ronon.
"John Sheppard," Teyla introduced them, "this is Ronon Dex."
Sheppard shook hands easily and led them into the barn, naming each horse and laying out what he wanted Ronon to do for each of them and why. The man knew horses, but not these horses he explained, since he'd recently inherited them with the farm.
Ronon reflected it must be nice being born rich and getting richer when someone died instead of poorer. Hell of a different way from how he'd grown up. Sheppard seemed all right.
"I don't know if any of them are problems," Sheppard finished, "but Stackhouse here and I will give you a hand if they act up."
Ronon didn't generally have trouble with the horses he shod. Didn't hurt to have someone around to help.
"Any problems with that?" Sheppard asked.
"I'll leave you all to it," Teyla said.
Stackhouse laughed when Ronon tied his dreads back from his face after opening up the back of his truck and setting up. Sheppard and he laughed again as they wrapped the horses' long tails. Ronon had had a face full of horse hair enough times he appreciated their efforts along with the warning that they didn't know if any of the animals were touchy about being shod. None of them offered any problems; each horse stood through the procedures calmly as if bored with it all. One bay mare gave out a big sigh and leaned her weight onto Ronon, but that was it.
Sheppard assumed Ronon would have lunch with them and surprised Ronon by bringing both him and Stackhouse along with another groom up to the main house. Ronon's ears still rang with the rhythm of his hammer on his anvil. He knew he smelled of hot iron, sweating horse and sweating man. Sheppard just walked them into a big mud room with a laundry sink where they could wash up and then into the kitchen.
Teyla was already there, along with her son, and another man introduced as Halling. A teenager ambled in a few minutes later. Sandwiches were assembled and eaten informally right in the kitchen. Ronon watched and listened, slowly putting together a picture of how everyone related to each other. Halling and Jinto argued about enrolling into school at the end of the summer. Teyla told Sheppard she'd found a pediatrician for Torren and would be gone Thursday afternoon and that someone named Woolsey had called and he had an appointment in Silver Spring the next week to go over the terms of the trusts. She added that he needed to get her some petty cash since not everyone would be as happy to take a check as Ronon. Sheppard nodded and agreed and grinned into his tall glass of iced tea, saying, "I told you you'd be good at this."
Teyla gave him a narrow-eyed look in return, but it turned fond the instant Stackhouse drew Sheppard's attention away.
At first Ronon thought Teyla was with Sheppard but it seemed they weren't; they were just easy with each other, the same way she was comfortable with Halling and Jinto.
Ronon was finishing up by putting a shoe on the big eventing horse's left rear, one that would let Sheppard or whoever rode him screw in the different studs used in dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping, when a white Mercedes pulled into the yard. He didn't pay too much attention. Sheppard handed the stallion's lead over to Stackhouse and ambled toward the man getting out of the expensive car. Ronon didn't look at them until he'd secured the shoe and straightened up. The small of his back ached and his shoulders; sometimes his height wasn't a benefit.
Sheppard and the visitor walked over. The guy was taller than Ronon, but leaner and with pale hair. Everything about him looked like money. He checked out the black stud with an expert's eye, ignoring Ronon and Stackhouse.
"You're going to compete him?" he asked Sheppard.
"Then I suppose I wasted my time coming here?"
"Afraid so," Sheppard drawled. "I'm not selling."
"Well, if you change your mind, let me know, would you? HVE will give you the best price. Better than GeneEye, certainly."
"Will do. But I'm not selling."
"If money — "
"Money's not a problem."
Sheppard's visitor checked his watch and sighed. "I really need to get back. Show jumping tomorrow, after all."
"I used the corporate helicopter. I suppose I shall see you around the circuit then. We should have dinner."
Ronon decided he'd heard enough and busied himself with double-checking the fit of the final shoe against the stud's right rear hoof. Fuckers with too much money bored him.
Stackhouse sighed five minutes later as the Mercedes left. "Whooo. Thought the job was going to disappear just as soon as I got it."
Ronon grunted. Sweat ran under his arms and down his back. The muscles in his thighs and calves and biceps and forearms all burned —a good burn that would leave him tired enough to sleep without dreaming, even without taking a long run first.
Sheppard insisted on Ronon having a cold drink inside while Teyla made out his check afterward and even gave a hand closing up the truck. "You willing to be on call?" he asked as Ronon settled into the driver's seat. He noted the rolled up sleeping bag on the back seat, leaning against the door, arms folded and resting on the lip of the rolled down window. "We could use someone like you."
"What do you mean?" Ronon asked cautiously.
Sheppard shrugged. "I could pay you a retainer. Not much. We call, you come."
"The same day," he clarified.
"I'll think about it," Ronon said. He started his truck.
"Okay," Sheppard said. His eyes flicked to the back seat again. "We've got more room than we need around here. I was thinking about an on-site farrier, actually. No waiting."
"Said I'll think about," Ronon told him. He couldn't see moving into the house with Teyla and Sheppard and Halling, plus the two kids, and didn't figure bunking in a barn would be any better than the back of his truck.
Sheppard slapped the roof of the truck and stepped back.
"Okay," he said. "Think about it the next time you're hanging your feet out the window to keep from sleeping in a pretzel knot."
Ronon snorted with laughter and shifted the truck into gear to head for his next call.
When the horses dies, dismount.
John didn't know quite how to feel about Rodney's win in Pennsylvania. Rodney came back all smiles and insults toward everyone else who rode there — including Rathe and his own students — but he also came back wearing that back support he thought no one saw. He drove over to Pegasus in the Mule every morning instead of riding. It bothered John and made him want to ask if Rodney had seen a doctor, but that would have been overstepping the invisible bounds of their friendship as it stood.
Stackhouse had brought his buddy Markham out and after talking to him, walking him through the barns and watching him with the horses, John told Teyla put him on the payroll. When Rodney heard, he pissed and moaned about needing good grooms at Archangel and John stealing them all away. Everyone except Stackhouse and Markham just rolled their eyes at him, well used after more than a month, to Rodney's rants over breakfast by now.
"You got a farrier out," Rodney noticed as John worked with Atlantis.
"Yeah. The guy you mentioned."
"Teyla liked him."
"Well, obviously, you need to adopt him then," Rodney sniped.
John laughed because Ronon Dex was such a big guy and so obviously his own man. John had checked the information Teyla got from him and discovered it only included a cellphone and P.O. box. He had a couple of ideas about Ronon, recognized something about him that resonated, and Rodney's gibe might turn out closer to reality than not.
Rodney's eyes suddenly widened and he demanded, "Hey, they aren't going to start dating or anything, are they?"
"She met him once, Rodney."
"Well, yeah, but I've seen Man Mountain Dex a couple of times. He could turn the head of a woman. I mean, if I was a woman, not that I think he's attractive, other than the obvious objective criteria…" Rodney sputtered to a stop. His face had gone shiny pink. His chin came up and he added, "I just would not like to see Teyla hurt. By anyone. She is a quality person."
John made a note to relay that to Teyla. He was still laughing to himself over the first bit and his shaking shoulders confused Atlantis' and he broke stride.
"Oh, for God's sake, would you concentrate? I'm not standing out here for my health," Rodney griped.
John dutifully concentrated. Atlantis made a sound like a horsey raspberry however and Rodney huffed.
He'd gotten used to Rodney driving over in every morning after just a week. The growling, uneven rattle of the Mule had become familiar to everyone at Pegasus. A space was left for him to park it next to the Porsche. Rodney missing a morning session with Atlantis would have left John irritable, but Rodney missing breakfast — when he wasn't away — made him worried, though he pretended not to be.
No one said anything about John checking the answering machine and his voice mail or picking at his meal while he listened for Rodney's truck.
The sound of an unfamiliar vehicle parking outside had him on his feet and headed for the door.
John narrowed his eyes at the panel van that came to stop in Rodney's usual place. He skidded to a halt as Rodney exited the passenger door. Sandy hair stuck up in sweaty clumps and he looked bruised, gray-faced with exhaustion. An equally tired looking man came around the front of the van.
"You look like shit," John told Rodney.
"What a surprise," Rodney replied. He waved at his companion. "This is Zelenka."
John had deduced that from the blue lettering on the van. Zelenka Veterinary Service. Zelenka turned out to be a slight man, with longish hair that flew up and glasses he perched on his nose. He needed a shave and his blue coveralls were stained and showed the fading of repeated bleaching. He glanced around with a sort of bright curiosity.
"I want coffee," Rodney declared and stomped past John.
"Ah," Zelenka said after Rodney had abandoned the two of them. "Rodney insisted I drive him here."
"That's fine," John said. He waved toward the door. "Come on inside. There's coffee. And breakfast…stuff." It was Jinto's morning, which meant Poptarts or microwavable frozen breakfast things. Teyla, no doubt, would have some of her yoghurt stashed in the fridge too.
Zelenka pushed his glasses up his nose. "Rodney can live off coffee. I am afraid my stomach is not quite so strong."
Teyla had tea. She had more teas than John had realized existed. There was cabinet with neatly labeled canisters of teas now. Assam, Earl Grey, Peppermint, Chamomile, Green, Black…John expected to find something tiger-striped or purple next. He figured she'd be willing to share.
"Ah, tea, that would be very good." Zelenka pushed his glasses up. "Thank you."
"What happened?" John asked as Zelenka passed him.
Sharp eyes inspected him.
"Rodney and I were up all night." Zelenka grimaced. "Colic," he explained as they walked through the door into the mudroom.
"Volvulus," Rodney called back through the open door — he never worried about letting out all the heat — as though insisting on a technical term would change the result.
John winced, thinking of what a horse faced when its large intestine twisted. Sometimes there was no guessing what caused it. Sometimes the horse died.
He let Zelenka wipe his feet on the mat, then followed and pulled the door closed.
Rodney was drying his hands next to the laundry sink.
"We had to put Mossy down," he said.
Crap. John squeezed his eyes shut, then snapped them open before he could picture his favorite polo pony down in his stall. Jazz hadn't been put down. It might have been kinder and certainly would have been faster than the way the gelding had died. The stab of hurt felt almost as bad as it had at the time. He set his hand on Rodney's shoulder and squeezed. "Sucks," he managed to get out, his voice hoarse, and gave Rodney a little push for the kitchen. Teyla was cleaning up Torren, a post-breakfast routine that Rodney usually found amusing. It would distract him a little, John hoped.
Zelenka prepared his own tea and sipped it sleepily while Rodney wolfed his way through two egg-sausage-biscuits, a bowl of cereal and a strawberry Poptart.
When he'd finished eating, Rodney seemed to run down, the last spark of energy expended on refueling.
"He'd had colic before," Rodney said. "Spasmodic."
"Resolved with Banamine," Zelenka added wearily.
"Dusty caught it on the last walk through the barn and called Radek and then me. We walked him until Radek got there, since it seemed to calm him down before, even if it didn't really help," Rodney explained to Teyla and Halling, who were listening too.
"Like pacing with a toothache," Halling said.
"I tend to think so," Zelenka agreed. "It can help in some mild cases."
He glanced at Rodney, who continued the story. "Torsion. Dusty was right." He waved at Zelenka. "According to him, a text book case." He put on a bad accent meant to mimic Zelenka's. "Large intestine distended with gas. No gut motility."
"Digestion sounds," Zelenka clarified for Jinto, who looked in typical teenage fashion equally horrified and fascinated.
"Not as gross as the rectal exam," John murmured while thinking of barn experiences of his own. He startled a laugh out of Zelenka.
"Up his butt?" Jinto asked and made a face. "Yuck."
"Very," Zelenka agreed.
Rodney looked at Zelenka expectantly until he offered a little more detail. "Very well. Mucus membranes in the mouth were very pale. I gave a painkiller and inserted a nasogastric tube to relieve pressure in the stomach. Rodney called the owner while I made transport arrangements and alerted the colic surgery team."
"In Pennsylvania," Rodney muttered. "I had to drive through Annapolis and Baltimore."
"As you would have to reach Virginia too," Zelenka pointed out. "It is the closest hospital that does equine surgery," he added before sipping his tea. "The surgery was difficult."
"The colon had rotated completely in a sector they couldn't pull out to cut away the dead tissue," Rodney said.
Teyla set her hand on his for a moment.
"I had to call Jack Mortimer and tell him Mossy needed to be put down," he finished, his tone dull and his eyes distant and blank. "Of course, he'll still get a hell of a bill."
"It was not Dr. Williams' fault, Rodney," Zelenka said, "Or yours."
"Two hours in the trailer didn't help things," Rodney snarled. He looked bleak. "I couldn't find the right exit because it was closed for road work."
Zelenka sighed loudly.
"And so, we were there most of the night and only returned an hour ago. Rodney insisted it was time to show me how to find my way here." He sipped his tea again. "As if I could not find my way."
"We should have gone to Leesburg."
"I don't think it would have made a difference."
Rodney sucked in a deep breath, slapped his palms down on the table top, then slowly blew out. His shoulders finally relaxed and he slumped down in his chair. "Okay. I know."
"You look like you need some sleep, buddy," John said. "Why don't you catch an hour or two here?"
Rodney was already shaking his head, but John went on, "I'll drive you back to Archangel later and Doc Zee here can head home if he wants to."
Zelenka began nodding.
"That, yes, would be a great relief."
"I should get back," Rodney said half-heartedly.
"Does Cadman know where you are?"
"Yes," he said.
"She'll call if they need you."
"Anne has an appointment."
"She can work without you one day. She'll have to eventually."
Rodney smothered a yawn, finished with a grumpy sound, and got to his feet. "Two hours," he mumbled and shuffled off to the den and couch.
Zelenka slowly finished his tea. "I should go," he said. "My birds must be seen to and I have appointments."
John thought he'd pass on having a vet reduced to zombie-status by exhaustion do anything and just reschedule if he'd had an appointment with Zelenka.
"I need a partner," Zelenka went on, then shrugged, adding, "Of course, in a few months I will not even have a clinic or a home."
"I must move. Right now I live in an apartment over the clinic — which is good most of the time. But it is hard finding a new location and a new place."
He rose and rinsed his tea cup out. John walked out with him. Zelenka looked around. "You are restoring the farm?" he asked. "Rodney mentioned this."
"Yeah," John answered. "Want a tour?"
"I would like that."
John had thought Zelenka would pass, but he nodded and began walking to the barns, pointing out other buildings, mentioning the gatehouse at the other side of the property, where a backroad offered a secondary access that didn't take everything past the main house. It was in the worst repair of anything on the farm. Zelenka made a few comments, then his expression lit up.
"Is that a dovecote?" he asked.
"Yeah, but it's empty." John steered them over to it and let Zelenka examine it since he was interested, then finally bid him good-bye and let him drive away. He stopped in the small barn and talked to Atlantis for a few minutes, letting the big horse butt his head against John's chest and scratching just behind his ears. The barn was cool and dark and smelled of fresh bedding. Seeing everyone in it healthy and content soothed John's nerves.
Back in the house, he toed off his yard boots in the mud room and walked inside in his socks. Rodney was stretched where John often slept, one leg bent at the knee, making little snuffling snores. John watched him for a moment, not letting his gaze linger long enough to be creepy, and then sat down in one of the chairs. His laptop was on the coffee table. He opened it and began reading Teyla's emails on local landscapers and construction businesses.
Families break up when people take hints you don't intend and miss hints you do intend.
Teyla listened to the hiss of static from the old phone, waiting for the caller to say anything. She watched the clock. When a full minute had passed, she set the receiver back in place. She'd tried talking to whoever kept calling, but they never replied. Not even with heavy breathing. She was tired of the nonsense. She made a note to have caller ID added to the farm's landlines. Once she had it, she'd stop picking up for unidentified callers. In the mean time she'd hang up next time this happened.
What the colt learns in youth he continues in old age.
"What, I can't visit my one and only brother where he's wasting his life?" Jeannie demanded. She'd parked herself on the outside stairs that led up to his apartment. She had a paperback — a romance of all things — in her hands. The brat was moseying around the tiny bit of landscaping that masqueraded as a yard.
Rodney rubbed the back of his neck — he knew where he'd picked up that mannerism — and bit back a groan. He didn't bother holding back the sarcasm. "No, you can't. You're probably in the country illegally. Besides, you never show up unless you want something."
Jeannie kept her index finger in the book, marking her place, and tried to look wounded. Despite the big blue eyes and blond curls, it didn't work on Rodney. He'd grown up with her, after all. Hell, he'd taught her that using that look would melt their parents. He was immune.
"Mer — "
"Using a name I always disliked and quit answering to when I was seven isn't going to help your case," he interrupted. He decided the fastest way to deal with Jeannie would be just walking up the steps past her. She wasn't crazy enough to actually trip him.
"Fine," she snapped. She closed the book and put aside with her tapestry bag and got to her feet. "Madison!"
Rodney started up the steps and Jeannie stopped him with her hand on his chest.
The squirt popped around a bush and dashed up the steps.
"You remember Uncle Rodney, don't you?"
Rodney looked up into Jeannie's face. His sister had a certain resemblance to him, but she was beautiful too, classic as a Grecian bust. He could always read her. "No," he told her.
"For two weeks, while I go to — "
"No," he said again. "I can't — "
"Oh, come on, Rodney," Jeannie said. "It's not like you're really competing anymore. I have a chance to train in Lincolnshire this year. I just need time to find a place and set up Madison's care."
Madison was right there, just two steps down from Rodney, and he knew kids heard so much more than adults thought they did. He gritted back the first words that he wanted to say and asked instead, "Where's Kaleb?"
Jeannie's face tightened. "He's busy."
Right, Rodney thought viciously, and he was the Good Fairy. Jeannie's precious English major must have got tired of being house husband, child carer, and all around dogsbody. So now Jeannie had to find someone else to take care of things while she pursued gold. He'd been a little shocked when she married Kaleb and got pregnant just in time to louse up her chances of going to Beijing for the Olympics. He wasn't at all surprised that she was going after a medal now that Madison was a little older.
"She's three, Jeannie, and I live alone. I have a job that starts before dawn and lasts until dark."
"Rodney, come on," Jeannie protested. "You can delegate."
"I do. So that I can compete."
"Oh, like you're ever going to make an Olympic team again," Jeannie said carelessly. "I need this."
"You can't just drop her off with no warning!" Rodney looked down at Madison, who was clutching at one stair baluster, and frowning up at him with her lower lip pushed out and wet. "Sorry, squirt, you're great, but your Mom's been making some unwarranted assumptions."
"Well, it wouldn't be without warning if you'd picked up the phone or returned my calls," Jeannie snapped.
"Maybe you should have interpreted that as an indication that I was busy."
Jeannie stared at him and Rodney glared back.
"You always — "
"That's right," Rodney interrupted, an old, bitter anger suddenly rising up through him and spilling out. "I always. I always give up what's important to me so you get what you want. I gave up piano, because you wanted riding lessons. I gave up my chance at the Olympics to get a job and pay off the debt Mom and Dad went into to buy your mounts and to keep you in college. I paid off your credit card debt three years ago. I loaned you the money for your wedding — by the way, how are you doing on paying that back?" He sucked in a deep breath then dropped his voice. "I think Madison is a great kid, but I suck with kids. She's needs you, not me, and if you leave her here, it won't be two weeks, it will two months, and then two years, and maybe you'll make the Olympic riding team and maybe you won't, but either way, you'll finally decide to show up and be a mommy again. That's not fair to me and it sure as hell isn't fair to Madison."
Rodney's head snapped to the side with the force of Jeannie's slap. His face burned hot and he could taste blood in his mouth where a tooth had cut into the inside of his cheek. Jeannie had strong arms. He watched silently as she scooped up her bag and Madison and stalked away.
Madison waved at Rodney over her shoulder.
He raised his hand and waggled his fingers in answer.
A horse which stops dead just before a jump and thus propels its rider into a graceful arc provides a splendid excuse for general merriment.
Duke of Edinburgh
Duke of Edinburgh
Woolsey mentioned that three different offers had been tendered for Pegasus while he and John went over the papers necessary to begin their efforts to access the trust funds he should have inherited at twenty-five and thirty respectively.
"Do you think your father will attempt to block you?" Woolsey had asked when John explained what he wanted from the lawyer.
"I have no idea, since I haven't spoken with him for over a decade."
"But you're hiring me."
"I think you can handle it if he does."
"I've done some checking," Woolsey commented. He'd offered John refreshments and seated him in a green-leather club chair in front of his antique desk. His tie looked as pristine as it must have when he dressed in the morning. His shoes, when John glimpsed them, were shined to a high gloss. A single manila folder was centered on the desk's leather blotter next to a yellow legal pad. A Mont Blanc fountain pen rested on the legal pad. John would have snickered over the 'respected and dignified attorney' ambiance if Woolsey hadn't inhabited it so comfortably. He got the feeling all it was there because Woolsey liked it, not as a scene set to impress any clients.
"I notice that the inheritance and trust fund you receive from your paternal grandfather includes a significant block of voting stock in Sheppard Power & Industry. The proxy is currently be voted by your father."
"He and Dave can outvote me," John said.
"Yes, but your block is large enough to upset the balance of the current board of directors if your were to withdraw the proxy and use it to support one of the other major shareholders." Woolsey picked up the pen and turned it in his fingers. "This is why I asked if your father might not wish for you to exert control over the stock and therefore the trust."
"I'm not interested in SPI," John said, feeling tired. "I've never been interested in it."
Woolsey hummed noncommittally.
"In the meantime, I should inform you that there have been three serious offers for the Pegasus land. Assurance, Incorporated contacted my office last week. So did HVE. And GeneEye tendered an offer on Monday."
"Not interested," John told him, the same as he'd told Todd Rathe in person.
"Nonetheless," Woolsey said, "I would be derelict in my duty as your attorney if I did not inform you of the terms."
John waved his hands. "Print it all up and I'll read it later, but go ahead and tell them I'm not interested in selling. I'm not trying to drive up the price." If Assurance was O.B. Roth's outfit, Roth had pretty much shot himself in the foot at Elizabeth Weir's get-together. At least Todd Rathe hadn't brought up Argentina. Hell, he'd practically been flirting before he left.
They finished the rest of the appointment's business. John invited Woolsey to visit Pegasus sometime as they shook hands and surprised himself by meaning it. Woolsey surprised him by smiling and accepting. "One of these days," he said. "I find myself wishing to see Pegasus after all the time I've put into safeguarding it for you."
"And for Margaret Dean," John pointed out.
"Yes," Woolsey admitted, "I try to do the right thing."
John refrained from making a lawyer joke. Woolsey meant it. His father — and SPI's — lawyers were going to choke on Woolsey's integrity. It made him smile.
He went to South Carolina to watch Rodney and Anne Teldy ride two weeks later. It was an FEI rules competition, a three-star level, with the short cross-country, but the humidity still did a number on the horses and riders. John ended up running errands for Simpson and Chuck. He also watched the brawny chestnut gelding Rodney wanted him to look at and decided that he would buy him, even if they did fly to the UK and buy Grodin's horse too. Since he'd kept up his own qualifications, the additional mounts would give him something to ride at the higher levels until he had Atlantis and Poppy qualified.
Watching Rodney compete on Prince Fyodor and Nanking, two of Elizabeth's horses, made John hold his breath in something close to awe. Half a morning riding Prince before going into the dressage arena, gleaming and shining and right on the bit, all that firecracker energy perfectly in control and Rodney looked like he was asleep in the saddle, his aids nearly invisible, like he could have done it all bareback and bridleless. No one watching the way Prince Fyodor moved could miss that Rodney had trained him far past the levels necessary for an event horse. Not that John needed to guess. He'd started following Rodney back over to Archangel in the afternoons and had watched him school Prince Fyodor in a hell of lot more than a damned counter-counter, some of it useless for an event horse, but still breathtakingly beautiful, just because Prince had a talent for it. Just because Rodney could. Just because they both loved it.
Rodney and Prince Fyodor showed exactly what a horse trained to a flying lead change could do on the cross-country the next day, taking the demanding, direct route between two difficult fences and clearing the second without so much as scrape, the first and only horse of the day to manage that, and finished the course without a single fault.
Of course, every good trainer did what Rodney did. Just as every good rider knew what Rodney knew. But Rodney brought something intangible to it. The horses he trained and rode were artists as well as athletes. Just watching them became a privilege.
A rush of inappropriate pride hit John then. He stuffed it down. Rodney wasn't great because of him. If anything, it would be the reverse: John and Atlantis were going to be great thanks to Rodney. Out of twenty-five riders, Rodney was among five going into the show jumping portion with a chance to finish on their dressage score.
Even Rodney couldn't make every horse look great, of course. Nanking was the exception that proved the rule that weekend.
Nanking bucked, tried to bolt, and then balked at the water jump, but Rodney stayed aboard — unlike several other riders that day — and managed to scramble him over it and onward. "I'd tell Elizabeth to sell him," Rodney declared after they finished, "but no one would would buy him for more than dogfood after seeing him today." He still patted Nanking's shoulder as he and Simpson untacked him. "Poor bastard. Hates traveling. Hates shows and crowds."
John knew what he meant. Not every horse that had the physical talent for eventing had the right personality. Nanking was just too high-strung.
Around noon, a rain shower turned the downward approach to the pond and its two jumps, already worn down to bare dirt, into an slide worthy of an otter. Topography hid the state of the trail from approaching riders. As Anne and Sigmund See came over the hill and down, Siggy's front legs slid right out from under him. The horse instinctively tried to speed up and keep his feet. His head jerked forward onto the bit, jarring Anne's grip on the reins loose, and she fell forward into Siggy's neck.
"Ow," John grunted as he saw that. She'd either hit her chin or her nose, despite the protection of her helmet. A dismayed murmur ran through the crowd, gathered as always to watch the water obstacles.
As they hit the water, Siggy's head came down and Anne lost her stirrups and went over, smacking into the water front first. Siggy lost the fight with gravity and inertia and slipped, smashing down on his side. It all happened in seconds. Water sprayed up. Siggy kicked and scrambled his way back onto his feet.
"Jesus," Chuck muttered from beside John.
"At least he didn't come down on her."
John watched Siggy fling more water around as he got out of the water. The gelding looked okay on the surface. Water darkened his coat to black and streamed off him. Once on dry ground again, he shook like a giant dog, before before giving out a pained grunt. John had expected Siggy to keep going; it would have been typical. Seeing him just stand rather than wander away started John worrying.
Anne levered herself up onto hands and knees and knelt in the water for a few moments, before staggering to her feet and splashing out of the pond to Siggy. Blood covered her chin, but she caught up Siggy's reins and began checking him out. Her hands slowed over Siggy's left shoulder, finding something invisible from the distance.
"That's it for them," Chuck said.
That was it for the rest of the day for the Archangel contingent. Siggy went to the vet and Anne went to the doctor. The blood running down her chin proved to be from cutting the inside of her mouth; she'd broken one of her front teeth right off. Without Siggy to ride, Anne didn't have a pressing reason to stay for the final day, but she wanted to. John volunteered to drive her after an emergency appointment with a local dentist was organized. Glazed over with pain killers, Anne patted the Porsche's leather seat and then John's thigh with a giggle, slurring that it was almost worth a tooth to ride around with him. He was relieved to pass her care over to Simpson when they got to motel.
Simpson stayed in the room to keep an eye on Anne and Chuck elected to bunk in the trailer so that he could be near the horses, so it was just Rodney and John at dinner. They finished their steaks and began analyzing Rodney's chances against the other four who had made it through the cross-country without adding any penalties. John stifled the urge to ask Rodney about his back again, swallowing back his worry and answering his cellphone instead.
"I'll take this outside, okay?" he told Rodney as he held up the cell.
Rodney shoveled another fork full of chocolate cake into his mouth and nodded. John figured he knew where he stood in Rodney's scheme of things. His presence wasn't really necessary when Rodney had cake. With a grin, he left the table and the restaurant, stopping just outside the doors.
Even over the speakers of a cellphone, Teyla's voice held a warmth.
"I am not sure," Teyla said.
"The horses are all okay?" John figured Teyla would have said if anything had happened to Torren or anyone.
"Yes," Teyla replied immediately. "It isn't serious." He could hear the uncertainty in her voice. "Annoyances."
"Annoyances?" John echoed.
"Thursday we were visited by the police," she explained. "An animal neglect complaint."
"You're kidding me."
"Stackhouse and I showed Officer Banks and Sgt. Reynolds around the farm. They were satisfied the complaint was groundless." Teyla added, "They were very polite. I do not believe the difficulty lies with the local police department." Athos Circus had had problems with the local law at times. Circus workers, like carnies, weren't always sterling paragons. Teyla had dealt with both good and bad law enforcement.
"What else?" John asked. Teyla wouldn't be calling over a single incident.
"Friday there was a noise complaint."
John laughed despite Teyla's outrage at the ridiculousness of it. "Did they send the cops again?"
"Yes." Teyla chuckled with him. "I believe that Officer Banks and I may become friends. She was kind enough to recommend the gym where she works out."
"Today I called the police department," Teyla admitted. "Someone rammed the mailbox and knocked it over, then began using an air horn. Amelia — Officer Banks — said they weren't able to catch them, but the mailbox is serious enough they will look into it."
John wondered if Landry or the groom he'd fired could be behind the petty harassment.
"She'd like to interview you once you're back," Teyla added.
He'd mention Landry and the groom, though neither seemed like candidates for knocking over a mailbox. He couldn't buy Landry with the air horn. The farm manager had been corrupt and semi-incompetent, but the damage to Pegasus Farm had all been benign neglect, nothing had been stolen or vandalized. The air horn seemed too full of malice to fit Hank Landry.
"Rodney and Prince Fyodor are still in the running. They cleared the course with no penalties earlier."
"I'm sure he will place first tomorrow," Teyla said. "Or second."
"I'll just tell him the first part."
Rodney would have finished his cake by now. John hoped he ordered coffee. He wanted to get back inside and snag the bill. Rodney could be pig stubborn about money, but would never notice if John took care of it before it showed at the table.
"Poppy threw a shoe today, so I called Ronon," Teyla said.
John groaned, "Again? How the hell does she do that?"
"Ronon recommended a different shoe. He said it would still be fine for eventing. I told him to go ahead."
"He was here when the air horn went off."
"You'd have told me if a horse spooked and kicked him in the head, right?"
"Yes, John. He offered to stay here tonight."
"Good. You did say yes, right?"
"Okay, tell him he can have the gatehouse if bunking at the house freaks him out too much, and then light a fire under the contractor and get it fixed up," John told her. "I've got to go."
"Very well. You will be returning on Monday?"
"Good night, John. Wish Rodney the best luck tomorrow."
"I will. Bye, Teyla."
Walking back into the restaurant, he snagged their waitress and handed over his credit card, before rejoining Rodney.
"So, that was kind of a long call," Rodney said.
"Teyla wanted the play by play of your ride."
"You can't lie worth shit."
John sat back down and relaxed. "Some jackass ran over our mailbox."
"High school dickheads," Rodney declared. "They're always using the backroads to see how fast they can drive before they wrap their car around a tree. There's at least one wreck on that road every year." He wiped his mouth one last time and tossed the napkin on the table. "Can we get out of here? I want to go by and check the horses."
"Sure, let's go," John agreed easily.
Love means attention, which means looking after the things we love. We call this stable management.
George H. Morris, The American Jumping Style
George H. Morris, The American Jumping Style
The scent of bacon frying filled the Pegasus kitchen.
"There's someone from Brown Landscaping parked in my spot," Rodney griped as he walked into the kitchen. Halling left the frying pan on the burner and pulled the packages of eggs and bacon out of the refrigerator.
"The early bird gets the parking spot, Rodney," John drawled. He had his laptop open on the table to the side of his empty plate. Teyla had already given up on breaking him of reading the news off the Internet, a habit he'd picked up while living outside the US. Instead, Halling cooked his breakfast last and served it after he closed the laptop.
Rodney gave him a sly, pleased look. "Someone spilled fertilizer all over your compensation mechanism."
"There's crap on your Porsche," Rodney clarified.
John's chair screeched as he pushed it back and bolted out of the kitchen.
Rodney smiled and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Halling, why don't you give me that bacon and eggs while it's still hot," he said.
All was fair in business and breakfast, Rodney thought to himself. John waylaid his hay and Rodney hijacked his bacon and eggs.
John retaliated by making oatmeal for breakfast the next day and raising his eyebrows at Rodney when he complained.
"You want to take a turn cooking?" he asked.
"You really don't want to eat my cooking," Rodney replied.
"Then quit whining and tell me what to do about Poppy."
Poppy — her registered name was Popstar Princess, which Rodney believed should be grounds for prosecution — had the kind of looks that stuck in the mind. Very delicate looking, with an Arab head, very wide between the eyes, and a dark gold coat. She did all right at dressage without being a really quality mover, sucked at cross-country, and shone in the show jumping stadium, lofting over the most intimidating jumps with a contemptuous whisk of her tail as she landed.
She had a nasty habit of finding something — anything — to wedge her hooves against and try to work her shoes off, however.
John ended up getting Zelenka in to consult with Ronon on how to stop her, since they couldn't keep her in a pry-proofed stall all the time. After two months of experimenting, they settled on a super-light shoe and high-tech epoxies and only used nails before events.
She still failed at cross-country, throwing John into the second fence of a combination and lighting out for the barns at the very next event. A spectator ended up catching her.
"Sell her as a show jumper," Rodney told John. "She's too nervy for eventing."
John leaned against the horse trailer, looking mulish and cradling his wrist, which he insisted wasn't sprained. "Look, I've sprained it before, okay? I know." Which explained the black brace he wore all the time on the wrist opposite his stopwatch chronometer. A bruise had begun purpling his cheekbone and there would be others under his grass-stained shirt and breeches.
Inside the trailer, Poppy nickered.
"Oh, shut up," Rodney muttered at her, then casually thumped the side of the trailer with the flat of his hand for emphasis.
He caught John hiding a grin.
"I thought you didn't talk to horses."
Rodney scowled. "I don't fool myself that they understand English," he replied in a lofty tone.
"Right," John drawled.
"Sell her and buy Grodin's horse," Rodney said in an attempt to redirect the conversation. "There's a couple of other horses you should look at over there, too."
John groaned and said, "Lincolnshire in two weeks?"
Rodney smiled brightly at him. "Lincolnshire and a couple of side trips. How long since you've been to Ireland?"
John groaned again. "I never should have told you I'm rich."
Rodney didn't really think about John being rich often. John didn't worry about paying for things, but he didn't lord it over anyone and worked as hard in the barns as Stubbs or Stackhouse and Markham. His tastes in entertainment were definitely work-a-day. A DVD, a bowl of popcorn or a bag of chips along with a longneck beer were his end of the day preference.
Rodney knew because he found himself sprawled in John's den, watching mindless TV and talking about something meaningless and fun, three or four evenings out of the week. It had become routine, with the others joining them sometimes after dinner and sometimes not.
John held up two different DVD boxes. Rodney read the titles and covered his face with his hands. "No, no, no," he moaned. "Not International Velvet! It's a crime against cinema. I don't even want to know you if you like that."
John grinned and dropped one of the boxes into the garbage. "I knew you had good taste."
"Of course I have good taste. I'm not the one playing Johnny Cash in the barns."
"There's nothing wrong with Johnny Cash," John said defensively. "Besides, Cadman told me about the time she caught you singing along to Phil Collins."
"I was mucking out," Rodney protested. John just grinned at him. "Fine, fine, what do you want to watch?"
"No one really has eyes that color without contacts."
"The Black Stallion?"
"I should have known."
"Aw, c'mon, Rodney," John coaxed.
"It's Disney!" Rodney hissed. "I hate Disney movies."
"God. Fine. Utter depression is better than sugar-coated stupidity."
Sometime later, after John Hurt had been diagnosed with cancer, Rodney turned to John, who had the other end of the couch and remarked, "Have you noticed how almost all movies about animals are tragic?" He waved his hand at the screen. "Even when they aren't really about the animals."
John blinked at him and then nodded slowly. He said, "The Red Pony."
"Where the Red Fern Grows," John said. "We had to read it in school and then our teacher showed us the movie. Twenty-eight nine-year-olds sobbing their hearts out, what a great idea."
Rodney raised his bottle to Old Dan and Little Ann. He searched his memory and came up with another.
"Bambi," Rodney stated. "Mom gets killed right before his eyes."
"Yeah, my dad would have shot her too," John muttered before finishing his beer.
"Your dad sucks," Rodney said.
"You know, he really does."
John contemplated his bottle. He turned it one way and then the other. "You ever see The Yearling?"
Rodney finished his beer. If they kept this up he was going end up slitting his own throat. "Yes. I need another. You?"
He picked up two beers for both of them, along with a bag of chips he carried back clenched between his teeth. John accepted his bottles, set one on the coffee table and popped the lid off the other. He took a long drink while Rodney tore open the chip bag, took a handful and then shoved it John's way.
"Kes," John said.
"Movie," he mumbled. "Kid raises a falcon…"
"It all goes bad in the end," Rodney finished for him. "Missed that one."
"Sam in I Am Legend."
"I hate that goddamn movie and the jackass who wrote the script." Rodney defiantly ate another handful of chips. Somehow they'd begun competing over remembering horrible movies that made them want to cry. Animals should never be in movies. Look at the poor dog in Terminator 2. He searched his memory for another cinematic trauma and found it. "Fuck," he sniffed. "Artax in The Neverending Story."
"Are you crying?"
John nodded and said, "Mad Max's dog."
"Crap, I really liked that dog, you know?"
"That's 'cause you're just like him."
Rodney sniffed again, stuffed a chip in his mouth and then another so he had an excuse to swallow.
"Scrappy," John explained. He was staring at the TV but not seeing it.
Rodney glared at him. John had compared him to a dog. Granted, a cool, tough dog from a good movie, but still a dog. A dog that got killed in the movie. Rodney considered himself much more like a cat. He didn't really like most people and only put up with them because he had no choice. "Just don't call me Scrappy Doo."
John froze and then snorted beer out his nose. When he finally recovered, he started singing in a horribly scratchy voice, "Scooby dooby doo, where are you — "
Rodney threw potato chips at him.
Jinto told him he ought to pick out a bedroom if he was going to keep sleeping over on the couch the next morning.
Spending as much time as he did at Pegasus did mean turning more and more responsibility over the Cadman. Sooner or later, Elizabeth had to notice and she did. Rodney tried not to feel guilty when she stopped by the office to ask him what was going on.
The August calendar showed Peter Grodin at Badminton. Rodney didn't pay any attention to it. He had to deal with Elizabeth. She was too good at manipulating him to do what she wanted. He'd never really fought it before, because on the whole Elizabeth's intentions for him and anyone else were always good. Good for her, but good for the person in question too.
"Two weeks, Rodney, really?" she asked. "Are you sure Cadman can handle things here that long?"
"I'm pretty sure Cadman could handle things here permanently," he said. He looked up from the desk. "I just don't think she'd put up with being asked to do it all."
"What do you mean?"
"We need an office manager."
"You've always handled it before."
"At the expense of riding myself."
Elizabeth lifted her eyebrows in that 'I'm disappointed in you' look she'd perfected on the Russians. It had worked on Rodney before, but this time he just noted it, unaffected. He'd said no to Jeannie; after that, Elizabeth was easy. She wasn't going to hit him, after all.
"You're spending more time at Pegasus lately," Elizabeth said.
She opened her mouth, but closed it without saying more.
"If you'll excuse me, I need to pack," Rodney said.
Elizabeth tipped her head to the side, then smiled. "Of course." She paused and he knew she was about to whammy him. "I believe you're right. Archangel does need an office manager. It's unfortunate you won't be here to consult with me over who I hire."
He'd been afraid to threaten to quit for so many years that the old sick feeling balled up in his stomach again, but this time Rodney ignored it. Jeannie could take care of herself. He didn't have any real debt left to pay off. He owned Blue and he had two recent wins. He could ride over to Pegasus; John would let Rodney keep Blue there indefinitely.
"It would be a shame if you couldn't get along," Elizabeth added.
"Then I guess one of us would have to go," Rodney said.
The shock on Elizabeth's face was sweet. He liked and respected her, but the freedom to ignore her little manipulations meant Rodney could finally breathe again. His friendship with John satisfied things in Rodney he had never even been aware of, they just got each other, but being able to finally best Elizabeth, that was the cherry on top of the whipped cream on top of the whole sundae.
Rodney got out while the getting was good.
A penny saved is a penny you can spend on your next horse.
Rodney had a feeling if the Concorde had still been flying, John would have booked them on it. He'd always flown coach. John probably didn't even know there was anything on a plane except first class. He wasn't above enjoying the upgrade in circumstances, however, since John had insisted on buying the tickets for both of them, claiming, "I hate being crowded."
"I could — "
"Hey, you're my, uh, consultant," John had explained. "Don't worry about it."
Rodney decided to go with the flow and enjoy.
Customs glanced at his passport and then John's, asked what they were in the UK for, business or pleasure, and waved them through with a "Good luck and enjoy your stay," when John answered, "Buying horses." Once they had their bags and had exchanged their currency, John guided them to the Tube, navigating with the ease of familiarity, until they exited at the Old Street Station in Shoreditch.
John managed to surprise Rodney again. The Hoxton Urban Lodge was four-star, but edgier than Rodney had expected, bright with color and hosting an interesting array of artwork. The lit-up reindeer were particularly appealing. They checked in without difficulty, went up to their rooms and settled in. Rodney used the wi-fi to send a quick email off to Cadman, reminding her to keep an eye out for problems if the weather turned particularly hot and humid. All Trumps had tied up — all his muscles seizing painfully — the summer before after a vigorous session on particularly muggy day. He sat down next to the window and began making a list of calls beginning with Peter Grodin, just to confirm their appointment to look at Doctor Doctor at his yard the next day.
Grodin extolled Doctor Doctor's qualities and Rodney tuned him out, wondering tiredly if he shouldn't have followed the example of John's declared intention to shower away the film of exhaustion left behind by hours of travel. Rodney fished a water bottle out of the fridge; he had a headache exacerbated by the dehydration he suffered whenever he flew in anything big enough to be pressurized.
"Peter, we wouldn't have flown across the Atlantic if we weren't serious about looking at him," he interrupted while twisting the lid off the bottle. "We'll be there tomorrow."
"I'm being an idiot, aren't I?" Grodin murmured in self-deprecating amusement. "No one's buying a horse sight unseen over the phone."
Rodney sipped the water and silently agreed on both points.
"I've got to call my sister, so if you'll have him ready to look at sometime in the afternoon, I think John's arranged a car," he said to finish the call.
"You'll take a look around the rest of the yard while you're here, won't you?"
Goodbyes said, Rodney terminated the call and finished his water. Calling Jeannie didn't really appeal. Maybe he could let it wait a few days. Whatever plans John had made might preclude a visit to Lincolnshire. Rodney hoped they would, at least. He called two more trainers he knew casually and arranged to go by their yards during the coming week. Then he gave in to grime and took a shower under the rain-style head in the very luxurious bathroom. The Hoxton definitely wasn't cheap where it mattered. Dressed again afterward, he dropped down in the orange-upholstered, modernist styled chair next to the window and wondered how much of a mistake it would be to take a nap.
John knocked on his door, jerking him out of a doze and saving him from a painful neck crick. Rodney glanced at his watch as he went to the door. It had only been fifteen minutes. Long enough to remind him he was tired without getting any real rest. He glared at John in reaction. John, shaved and bright-eyed, grinned back and asked, "Want to check out the nightlife around here?" He waved the guide to local attractions provided with the room.
Rodney gave him a scornful glare. "Like those things are ever worth the paper they're printed on. Besides, I'm not twenty. If you want to go pick up some hot young thing and whatever you can catch, go right ahead."
John made an ewww face. "Rodney. You popped all the other kids' birthday balloons when you were a kid, didn't you?"
"Well, at least they had them," Rodney snapped back. He still hadn't called Jeannie and was beginning to feel guilty. Of course, Jeannie had had birthday balloons. Birthday parties, sleepovers, riding lessons…He wanted to slap himself. They were grown ups now. Sulking over childhood slights was immature if not downright neurotic.
She really had been their parents' favorite.
"Poor baby," John said without a hint of sympathy. He clapped his hand around Rodney's arm. "Come on, we can at least go out and get something to eat."
Rodney stomach chose to grumble audibly at that point, so there was little point in protesting.
Getting something to eat in John-speak apparently meant dining in a restaurant Rodney had never heard of, where the food tasted too delicious to believe and probably cost an obscene amount. Rodney never saw the bill. John made sure of that. He made sure Rodney never felt an instant of awkwardness too, mocking the other diners and even the decor — chandeliers and statuary peacocks, swans, and tigers prompted a hissed, "It's the Victorian Raj," from John in a low voice meant only for Rodney.
"Hey, you're the one who picked the Trey Amigos," Rodney replied, deliberately mangling the restaurant's French name.
Mockery didn't preclude savoring starters of pan-seared foie gras with cherries and foie gras caramel, of course. Or trying a taste of John's fricassée d’artichaut avec gnocci et son caillé de chèvre aux herbes. John just grinned and kicked Rodney's ankle when he made a noise of bliss loud enough to draw the attention of the other diners.
"He's auditioning for the remake of When Harry Met Sally," John told one affronted man.
Rodney kicked John's shin in retaliation. John forked up a sample of Rodney's foie gras. He nodded in approval before swallowing.
"All right," Rodney admitted, "the food is good, but I'd swear that was a stuffed bulldog with a Stetson on its head over on the side wall." John cocked his head and squinted. "Come to think of it, I don't know which I'd find more unhygienic, actually," Rodney went on, "a live dog or a taxidermied one."
"The swan appears to have a tiny crown too," John observed.
"I think the monkey is watching me," Rodney told him gravely.
"Maybe he thinks we're up to some kind of monkey business."
They both annoyed everyone near them by cracking up. Lack of sleep made them both punchy enough to think they were great wits at that point. The main courses arrived before they could get any sillier. Veal loin for Rodney and saddle of rabbit for John, both presented with accompanying vegetables and sauces that Rodney had forgotten the names of before he even finished ordering earlier. He admired his food for a moment before assaying the first bite.
John, who tended to eat like Jinto shoveled the walk from house to barns — as a job best done as fast as possible — or picked and stirred things around without swallowing much, lingered over his meal, obviously savoring the polenta served with it, even licking his lips once. The flick of pink tongue transfixed Rodney with his fork in the air and he stared. John had a really lush mouth. Lips meant for kissing, Cadman had said and Rodney hadn't thought about it, but she was right. The way they glistened almost mesmerized Rodney. He felt lightheaded, trying not to imagine John kissing…anyone. Anyone. Not him, certainly, and Rodney didn't want to watch him kissing someone else obviously, because that would be wrong. Why else did something tighten in his gut at the thought?
"What?" John asked.
"Uh." Rodney pointed to the side his own mouth. "Missed."
John wiped with the napkin this time, much to Rodney's relief.
"No problem," Rodney said and choked down the saffron linguini without tasting it. He kept his eyes on his plate after that. The advent of dessert, John's tiramisu and a chocolate hazelnut sponge cake accompanied with tea ice cream for Rodney, drove all other thoughts out of his head soon after.
Satiated, Rodney agreed that a walk would do him some good and followed John to a club called Plastic People and from there to Cargo before winding their way back toward the Hoxton. They passed the pink painted Sh!, which had Rodney backtracking to squint at it.
"See something you want, Rodney?" John breathed into his ear.
Rodney valiantly did not jump out of his skin. He pointed at the window instead. "Is that — are they selling the sort of thing I think they are?"
They started walking again. Rodney bumped his shoulder into John's. "Dare you to buy something for Teyla in there."
"I've got no problem buying something in there, Rodney," John told him. "But I think you should be the one to give it to her."
"Oh, no. No. No." Rodney semaphored his hands in the international sign for stop. "Nooooo."
"In person," John added evilly.
"Come on. It might change her mind about you."
"Why would she need to change her mind about me?" Rodney demanded.
"No reason," John told him. "Let's get back to the hotel."
Rodney stopped on the sidewalk. He folded his arms. "What do you mean 'change her mind'?" he yelled.
John turned and shrugged. "Nothing."
Rodney glared at him.
"McKay," John coaxed. "Hotel. Bed. Sleep."
He'd tried out the bed at the Hoxton. It had been heavenly, Rodney remembered. He decided he could pester John about what Teyla thought of him on the drive to Grodin's yard the next day. That duck down duvet was calling him.
"Fine," he said and began walking again. "But I'm not giving her a sex toy."
John chuckled, low and with a pleasantly dirty tone, murmuring, "Too bad. I would have loved to have seen her face before she flattened you."
Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.
John knew better. He knew the difference between fantasy and reality and the dangers of basing the former on the latter to any genuine relationship. He knew, but he was just drunk enough, just tired and hopeful enough that he let himself close his eyes in the shower and imagine someone else touching him. He stopped himself, when someone became someone specific.
He felt too wired to sleep.
Padding out of the bathroom and pulling on a pair of red boxers, he considered whether it would be worth it to dress and go downstairs where he could buy a hot cocoa and sit in the lounge. It seemed like too much trouble. The room's minifridge held a bottle of milk along with water. He drank half that, flipped off the lights and slid between the sinfully smooth sheets.
Closing his eyes didn't help.
Jerking off would leave him sleepy and relaxed.
He decided if he meant to do this, he'd do it slowly. He wouldn't think about anyone or anything. Just how good his own hands felt. He pushed the sheets and duvet down. Light from the city beyond the drawn curtains kept the room from real darkness. He could make out his own body, dark against the pale sheets, with shadowed valleys and dark hair like bruises everywhere. He pushed away any speculation whether Rodney would like or dislike that.
John tucked one arm behind his head and slid his right hand down his chest. He ran the callused pad of his index around his nipples, then licked it and touched the peaks, so they tightened further. He lingered, teasing himself, until the sensations threatened to tip over into discomfort. Stroking two fingers down his sternum and over his belly down to his navel, he squirmed a little at the sensation when he stirred the line of hair just above the wrong way, then combed it back down.
He arched his hips and wiggled out of his boxers.
His hand made its way further down to where he'd already hardened and circled his cock in a loose grip. He didn't have lube with him and didn't want to stop and look for something to take its place, so he teased and teased until his hips were shifting out of his control and precum slipped down the shaft.
A quiet moan slipped between his lips.
John bit back the next moan and whimpered instead. He didn't intend anyone on the other side of the hotel wall to have a free audio introduction to the what he was doing. Not even if Rodney had been in one of those rooms rather than across the corridor.
His breath caught at that thought. Rodney was probably already asleep. John sped his hand as he imagined Rodney sprawled across the bed, the breadth of his back and the smooth shape of his ass. He wanted to stop, he'd told himself he wouldn't fantasize about Rodney, but the picture was in his head and his body was taking over. He pushed his other hand down between his legs and rolled his balls as he worked his cock. For an instant, he pictured Rodney's hands there and it was enough to make his hips jerk hard as he came with a strangled groan.
After a couple heaving breaths, John forced himself up and back into the bathroom to wipe himself down.
He found his boxers lying on the floor.
So long as he focused on actions, he kept himself from thinking about how much he wished he was walking back into a bedroom with Rodney waiting in the bed, no doubt complaining about wet spots and ending up glued to the sheets. A smile crossed John's face as he imagined it.
John squeezed his eyes shut.
He knew better than this. He really did. Rodney was straight. Finding the idea of Rodney complaining endearing was even worse than jerking off to a fantasy of him, because his emotions were getting involved along with his libido.
"Damn it," he muttered and flopped back onto the bed and pulled the sheet up.
He really wished Rodney wasn't straight.
If Rodney was at least a little bi, John could pull out all the stops and convince him being with someone who knew and liked him for who he was would be better than dating a woman, even one as pretty and painfully nice as Jennifer Keller.
That was the stupidest fantasy of all. John couldn't change Rodney or who Rodney wanted.
Which wasn't him.
He couldn't help flirting a little though. It wouldn't hurt. Rodney wouldn't even notice anyway.
One white foot buy it, two white feet try it, three white feet shy it, four white feet fry it.
Doctor Doctor shone even under the gray light of a cloudy day. A freckled redhead led him out and walked him around. She pushed his nose back without much effort when he tried to nibble the end of her braid. Doctor Doctor held his head high and looked around the yard, even neighed back to one of the other horses in the stalls, and in general made a good first impression.
"We'd need a vet certificate, obviously," Rodney told Peter Grodin.
John strolled around the big horse while Rodney and Peter talked. They'd agreed on the strategy on the drive. Peter knew Rodney at least casually. He'd concentrate on selling to him, while John quizzed the groom.
"He looks good though."
Peter folded his arms. "He is, but I've never managed to get him to perform up to his potential." He nodded toward the barn and a gray horse there. "And now I have High Spear and Doodlebug. I just don't have the time handle Doc too."
John walked around behind Doctor Doctor.
One ear flicked back to listen then both pinned. The lead shank jingled. The groom muttered, "Don't you dare — "
Doctor Doctor lashed out with both feet, but John had seen something and danced back out of range.
"Amy!" Peter yelled. "Did you warn him?"
"Sorry, sir," the groom called back. She walked Doctor Doctor forward a couple of steps and swore quietly at him.
Doctor Doctor's shoes clattered on the cobblestones that had to have been in place hundreds of years. Rodney privately thought they should have been torn out; cobblestones were a terrible surface for horses.
"Shit," John laughed. "That was close."
"Is that a habit we should know about?" Rodney asked. His heartbeat had jumped to double time.
Peter gave a shamefaced nod. "It's just people. He's done it since I bought him."
"Must make shoeing an experience," Rodney observed. He was knocking thousands off Doctor Doctor's price and getting an idea of why Peter didn't want to keep him. Peter didn't want to bother breaking the horse of a dangerous habit.
"Not really," Peter averred.
John had approached the groom at Doctor Doctor's head again. She handed him a hoof pick out of her pocket. He laid one hand on Doctor Doctor's shoulder, then crouched and picked up his hoof. Doctor Doctor stood stock still as John examined his hoof, checking the frog was in good health and the hoof wall sound and just fooling around with the pick to see how the horse reacted to it.
John kept one hand on Doctor Doctor after releasing his hoof. He kept talking to the groom, letting his voice and presence become known to the horse, then worked his way back to Doctor Doctor's hindquarters. Rodney could see John was ready to dodge if Doctor Doctor lashed out with a side kick, but nothing happened. Eventually, John ran his hand down over Doctor Doctor's hock to his fetlock, bent over the way a farrier would, and lifted the hind hoof. Doctor Doctor's ears twitched, but he stayed calm and allowed John to check without problems.
John patted him, then circled forward where Doctor Doctor could see him and repeated the process on the other side.
"He knows what he's doing," Peter observed.
"You thought he wouldn't?"
Peter gave Rodney a sidelong look. "Rumor has it you latched onto this guy pretty fast."
"Latched on?" John's head swiveled toward them at the spike in Rodney's voice. Rodney shook his head at him. He faced Peter a second later. "What rumor?"
Peter shrugged at him. "Just some talk that you wanted back into regular competition and had found an owner to pay for it." His cheeks colored a little. "You know how people gossip."
"I don't know whether to be insulted or complimented," Rodney muttered. "No one's ever accused me of being a gigolo before." He waved at John. "Now, he's got the looks for it."
Peter gave Rodney an odd look.
"And if I did decide to stoop that low, I'd have started before this. Maybe with Catherine Langford. Or, I suppose, if I'd been that desperate, Todd Rathe."
It bothered him, he admitted to himself, that anyone thought he was trying to use John that way. More than the idea that anyone thought Rodney was gay. He'd been paying his way — and Jeannie's — most of his life. Why would he change now?
The way John had been flashing his money on this trip probably hadn't helped the situation, either.
"I'll need to ride him before I make up my mind," John said a moment later as he joined them. Curiosity shone in his hazel eyes, but he didn't ask what had Rodney upset. No doubt he'd ask later, in the rented Land Rover, as they drove back to London. "Have you got any other horses we could look at?"
"Actually, yes," Peter replied smoothly. "Let me show you Magellan, while Amy tacks up Doc."
Sibling relationships […] outlast marriages, survive the death of parents, resurface after quarrels that would sink any friendship. They flourish in a thousand incarnations of closeness and distance, warmth, loyalty and distrust.
Erica E. Goode, "The Secret World of Siblings," U.S. News & World Report, 10 January 1994
Erica E. Goode, "The Secret World of Siblings," U.S. News & World Report, 10 January 1994
Rodney had quarreled with his sister and wanted to bury the hatchet. John had no problems trailing along with him, providing unspoken support or acting as referee if necessary. The buying trip had been extremely successful, besides the two horses from Grodin's yard, they'd spent three days in Ireland and he'd bought a dapple gray gelding. He'd never have heard of the small stud farm in Country Wicklow if Rodney hadn't guided him there. In between visiting various farms, he'd done his best to show Rodney a good time. But they were flying home in two days, so the invitation to dinner with the Millers couldn't be blown off.
John knew he was biased, but Jeannie McKay-Miller annoyed him. She really had no clue about her brother.
He could see why Jeannie was the darling of the Canadian riding set: tall, with curling blond hair, and Rodney's blue eyes in an attractive face. Her personality animated her features into beauty, the same way Rodney's made him handsome. She smiled and shook hands with John when they arrived at the small house the Millers were renting while Jeannie trained with one of Britain's most prestigious riders, then hugged Rodney. Both actions were too pro forma for John's taste.
Kaleb, he liked, and her little girl. Madison sat down on the chintz-covered sofa next to John and showed him all her pictures. She was pretty good with a crayon, he thought. She'd drawn Mommy with her horse, Mommy riding, Mommy jumping fences and cars and even their little rented house — with Daddy and Madison waving from the windows inside. All the rest of the pictures were of Madison and Kaleb. School or pre-school — John wasn't sure when little girls started school in England — and shopping and gardening and driving in the Mini-Cooper. It wasn't hard to see that Kaleb did all the work of keeping the family functioning.
Back in kindergarten, Dave had drawn the Sheppard family without their father, precipitating a nasty, low-toned fight that ended with their mother passed out in her bedroom, John remembered. She'd never been happy; Patrick loved SPI more than he had his wife. He wondered if Jeannie loved competing more than her family.
Jeannie cornered Rodney and began talking shop, so John asked Kaleb about English Literature and moving to England. Kaleb had a wry smile that flashed before he answered.
Between them, John and Kaleb kept a conversation going without letting it devolve into a nasty sibling fight, and no one started slinging mashed potatoes, but John found himself thinking longingly of the frozen, reticent silences of his own family's disagreements.
Also, Jeannie wasn't a great cook. She'd taken over cooking for the night and even abandoned her family's normal vegetarian fare for Rodney, which was touching, but the meal might have tasted better if Kaleb had handled preparing their dinner. John liked carrots fine, but he preferred them either raw or cooked, not somewhere in between, with some pieces falling apart around the tine of his fork and others threatening to go flying off the plate when he tried to spear them. The rest of the meal was just as uneven.
Rodney pronounced it, "Just like Mom's."
"So, you're a polo player," Jeannie said to John.
He told himself she hadn't deliberately made it sound like he extorted money from little old ladies and cripples.
"I'm eventing now," he replied.
"Levels?" she demanded.
"Jeannie," Rodney hissed.
"Three-star," John answered. "I let my four-star quals lapse a couple of years ago, but I'll be back by next year."
Nonplussed, Jeannie stared at him. "Oh. John Sheppard. Some of the riders here have mentioned you." Her smile warmed and Rodney looked relieved, but John felt less friendly than ever. "So who are you buying for?"
"John owns Pegasus Farm now," Rodney added. "The big place next to Archangel. Cam Mitchell used to ride for them before his accident."
"You're an owner too?" Jeannie asked.
"I didn't realize when Rodney said you were over here buying horses that you were buying them yourself."
Kaleb coughed into his napkin. Rodney looked pained. Jeannie smiled.
"I could introduce you around to some of the farms here," she said. "I know a couple have some fantastic horses for sale. And if you're looking for another rider — "
"I'd put Rodney up," John interrupted.
Jeannie's mouth thinned into an unattractive line.
"Well, if you aren't interested in supporting a full-time competitor," she muttered.
"I ride my own horses," John said.
"I suppose if you can afford it, that sort of amateur riding is wonderful," Jeannie sniped. "Rodney still competes sometimes, even though he's holding down a full time job."
John schooled his face into a neutral blank. Rodney's 'full time job' had paid to let Jeannie ride professionally, not to mention that it included riding competitively himself.
"It does seem a little odd that you're here with him," Jeannie added. She glanced at Rodney. "How does Elizabeth feel about that?"
"I do get vacation time," Rodney said. "It's not actually her business."
Or yours, John kept himself from saying.
"Busman's holiday, then?" Kaleb offered.
"It got me a chance to come see you, too," Rodney replied sardonically. "How could I pass that up?"
John ate his carrots, kept his opinions to himself, and followed Rodney's lead, letting Jeannie dominate the rest of the evening.
We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
"If you won't let me buy Pegasus, at least let me buy you dinner."
John couldn't think of any reason to say no to Todd.
The trouble with spending two weeks essentially alone with Rodney was adapting to sharing him again once they returned. John found himself at loose ends. He'd pushed as hard as he dared, but Rodney remained oblivious — maybe deliberately. It was time to move on, before he sabotaged their friendship.
Todd Rathe made no bones about which way he swung or his attraction to John.
Teyla raised an eyebrow when John came downstairs in one of his good suits. "You have a date?" she asked.
"Yes." John hesitated then added, "With Todd Rathe."
Teyla accepted the information without comment. Ronon grunted and muttered, "Don't trust him," but Ronon didn't trust many people. John wasn't sure Ronon trusted him.
"John knows what he's doing," Halling told Ronon.
John hoped so.
If he'd tried to show Rodney some fun with having money, then Todd was illustrating that money also translated into power. A limo picked John up and the driver made sure to mention he'd been hired for the entire night as he handed John a beeper he could use whenever he wanted to call on the car. Todd joined him outside the HVE Building in DC.
"Business," Todd said once the limousine was inching through the tight traffic. "I'm trying to pull together an alliance of companies with a shared interest. Most of the people I'm trying to work with would be happy to take over HVE and suck the life out of it."
"I've heard that's what you do," John said. "Hostile takeovers are a specialty of yours, aren't they?"
Todd gave him a thoughtful look. "They are, but I pride myself on keeping my word too."
John slouched deeper into the leather seat. "Of course, it's up to whoever's dealing with you to make sure that you are giving your word."
Todd's rapacious grin flashed.
"True. I'm as bad an enemy as I am a good friend."
"I hope we'll be friends, then," John said lightly.
"I hope we can be more than that."
Dusk had set in outside the smoked windows of the limo. Streetlights, headlights, a thousand signs and windows, twinkled in the darkening blue light of the evening. Business seemed too boring a subject to linger on.
"Where are we going?" John asked.
Todd named an expensive and elite dinery. John was glad he'd gone with the Italian-tailored suit. Anyone walking through the door with less than a thousand dollars on their back would stand out like a sore thumb. Rodney would condemn the whole thing as pretentious and a waste of money.
"Nice," John commented when they were seated at Todd's reserved table.
Old habits came back easily. The restaurant would have left many people uncomfortable and unsure of themselves, but John had been raised to take places like it for granted. That confidence obviously met with Todd's approval. John found himself talking politics, something he hadn't done since the old days when his father was still grooming him for important things, before John blew Patrick Sheppard's Kennedy-esque delusions out of the water.
"I suppose you're a Log Cabin Republican?" he asked Todd to make him laugh.
"I don't consider myself part of any party," Todd replied. "Except the Party of Todd."
"At least you're honest about it."
Talk petered out as they ate. Silver clinked delicately on china and crystal chimed, punctuating the murmur of voices from the other diners. A string quartet played in a corner, just loud enough to mask the conversation at one linen-draped table from the next. Todd and John were the subject of more than one surreptitious look. Todd was as well known in the DC shark tank as New York and made no bones about his preferences. Anyone dining with him alone must therefore be a 'date' and someone of interest in the perpetual hunt for some new useful tidbit. John ignored the looks.
"Nice wine," John commented eventually in the lull between their meal and dessert.
"Only the best when I'm trying to seduce someone."
"Am I succeeding?" Todd asked. "We could go back to my penthouse."
John was at odds with himself. He hadn't been pursued by anyone as interesting as Todd in too long. But Todd wasn't who he wanted and saying yes would feel dishonest.
"You're succeeding in making me like you," he answered.
The message was received. "I'm patient," Todd replied. "Another night, perhaps?"
John gave him a weak smile.
Todd had his hand at the small of John's back as they left the restaurant though, subtly possessive, and John didn't shrug him off. The muggy heat made him spring out in a sweat the instant they stepped from the restaurant's air conditioning into the night outside. Even in a 'good' part of town, the air stank compared to the air at the farm. He was abruptly impatient to return to Galacky and home. He scanned the street for the limousine.
The hand at his back communicated a hesitation that stopped John and returned his attention to the sidewalk.
"David," Todd said. He held out his hand to the man who had stopped him. Amusement threaded through his deep voice. "Good to see you."
"Rathe. Still planning to take down Cowan?"
"With or without your backing," Todd confirmed.
John waited for the conversation to end and David's attention to switch to Todd's companion. He knew he'd been dismissed as unimportant and wondered if he'd be recognized at all.
"And this is…?" David asked politely.
Todd laughed and said, "I think you know each other."
David's face paled. John said tonelessly, "Hey, Dave."
John looked at his brother and waited for anything else, but Dave stayed silent. The limousine pulled up while they stood on the sidewalk. The driver came around and opened the door, then stood waiting. Todd's hand stayed warm on his back. He almost leaned back into it, to taunt Dave and steady himself, but held himself still instead.
"Good to see you, Dave," John said finally.
"Yes," Dave choked out. "I've got reservations."
John nodded. "Don't let me keep you."
"Our driver's blocking traffic," Todd added. "We'll talk some other time."
"Some other time," Dave said. "Sure. Good night."
"Good night," John added dutifully before retreating into the limousine.
Todd joined him a minute later. He delved into the built-in bar and poured John a bourbon. He handed the tumbler to John and fixed himself a drink too.
"That wasn't planned," he said.
John sipped his drink.
Todd swirled his. "Believe me. I was trying to set a mood. That…that obviously would have wrecked it if I had been successful."
A chuckle slipped out of John.
"Well," Todd said and clinked his tumbler against John's, "here's to a pleasant, if aborted, evening. We must do it again sometime. Sans family."
"Sounds good," John told him and meant it.
He wouldn't have wanted to run into his brother without someone there to support him. Todd had managed that without actually saying anything insulting to Dave. John knew Dave would report back to their father that John had been out with Todd. The cat was well and truly out of the bag, but John couldn't regret that. He'd known accepting Todd's invitation amounted to officially coming out of the closet, just as hiring Woolsey to access his trust funds meant dealing with his family sooner or later. The two sort of went together. If he was going to make a go of it at Pegasus, John needed to stop hiding who he was.
Todd wanted that person. It felt good to be wanted, to be seen and known. John wasn't ready to shut down that avenue yet, even if he was hung up on Rodney McKay.
He mulled it over silently until the limo stopped in front of the HVE building again.
"Are you attending Elizabeth's fundraiser?" Todd asked.
"I look forward to seeing you there."
Todd brushed his hand over John's chest lightly, some how as intimate as a kiss, then exited the limo, leaving John to ride home alone.
A horse shoe that clatters needs a nail.
Teyla had answered the majority of the threatening phone calls, before they installed Caller ID, because she picked up the phone in the office, but John had listened to his share of voice-masked, "Get out. You better sell. Your kind doesn't belong here," messages left on the answering machines at the house and the office. He'd turned over copies of the recordings of the insinuated threats, including, "Bad things happen to bad people. Better leave while you can," to the police department until the calls finally ended.
Teyla's silent calls sounded like the creepy shit Michael Kenmore had gone in for according to Halling. John mentioned it to Amelia since he knew Teyla wouldn't, just to be on the safe side.
John had finally met Officer Banks. True to her promise to Teyla, she'd added their road to her patrol and often came into the farm itself on nights when John wasn't there. Coming back from dinner in town or at Rodney's, John had caught her leaning against her patrol car, chatting with Ronon, a couple of times. She promised to check Kenmore out, but apparently the sleaze was in Mexico.
Tracing the calls had been a bust. The numbers just came back to Baltimore or Silver Spring or even DC; all were from throw-away cells. John's brain glazed over about five minutes into Amelia's lecture on cloned numbers and websites that spoofed Caller ID. Since the caller always told them to sell at some point in the call, he figured it had to be someone working for one of the outfits that were offering to buy Pegasus and dismissed the matter as the least of their problems.
More annoying and serious were the vandalism and thefts that slowed down the restoration of the gatehouse and cost John one contractor. Ronon parked his truck at the site and slept there and that finally stopped intruders coming into the farm through the back gate at night. The next contractor hired a nightwatchman on John's dime after Ronon agreed to stay at the house.
Rodney managed a third and a fifth place with Blue in Virginia and New York.
Halling registered Jinto for school and began dating a receptionist from the school board offices. Watching him head out, wearing stiff new clothes, with his long graying hair brushed smooth as one of the horses' tails, sent Jinto into gales of giggles. John and Teyla both agreed: "Any woman willing to be seen in Halling's bus is likely a keeper."
John began working with and competing on the horses bought in Europe. Taking second in a Florida event with Magellan had all the people who had been ignoring him before flocking around.
Woolsey reported that he would have the trust funds accessible by the first of the year.
"We will have a party," Teyla said. "For New Year's." Her eyes glinted as John groaned. "You will return Elizabeth Weir's generous invitations."
"I don't know anyone around here."
"You know Rodney."
"And he's such a social creature."
"Then I will handle the invitations."
"I'm not getting out of this, am I?"
Halling shook his head at John.
"It's not even Thanksgiving yet," John whined.
"Have you invited Rodney to join us?" Teyla immediately asked.
"He's Canadian, they don't have it on the same day," John retorted.
Rodney had no problems eating an American Thanksgiving feast.
"As long as Halling or some catering outfit is doing it," he added after a considering look at John. There was no question about Teyla doing the cooking.
"What about Stubbs and the other grooms? We should invite Laura as well."
"I'm sure they have families to eat with," John muttered. He disliked holiday dinners along with most society gatherings. Other than the one Peg Dean had attended — which she must have enjoyed too, since she'd remembered him. Of course, based on the rest of his family, she might have just wanted to spite all her closer relatives even in death. He caught an odd expression on Teyla's face and wondered what his own had given away.
"We will invite them and they will come if they wish," Teyla told him.
John gave in — he was always going to and they both knew it. Hell, he'd even invite Woolsey. The thought of Rodney and the attorney facing off against each over mashed potatoes and gravy appealed to John's sense of humor. "Fine, I'm going to go down to the barns."
Three mornings later, Stubbs pounced on him as soon as he walked into the Little Barn. "We got a problem."
John glanced around and noticed the horses were restless. Markham and Stackhouse were mucking out stalls farther down the wide main aisle, but no one had fed the horses yet. Heads poked over stall doors, nodding and whickering unhappily. The other end of the barn had been opened for the day, with the seldom padlocked doors thrown open to air out the building through both ends, rather than just one. Dust motes glinted where the morning light splashed inside.
"What?" he asked.
"Something's screwy with the new feed," the older man declared gloomily.
"Looks different. Thought you'd want to take a look."
John followed him to the locker where they kept the bags of feed and various supplements. The lock was designed to keep out a horse, not a human. No horse would founder at Pegasus because it got into the grain, but no real measures had been taken against intruders.
Stubbs stepped in ahead of him and pointed at the bags of feed. One had been opened and emptied into freshly cleaned and dry bin. John peered at it and frowned. The pellets were a close match to the color he was used too, but they were slightly larger. He sniffed, but the feed smelled all right.
He checked the bag, looking for any marketing crap about new formulas or pellet shapes. The bag looked exactly the same as they'd been feeding since the first delivery from Harriman's.
"I got a funny feeling about it," Stubbs said.
John picked up a handful of pellets. He couldn't see anything wrong with them, but a bad feeling crawled along his skin, making the hair on his forearms stand up. "I'm going to call Harriman's and ask them if there's been a change."
"Maybe you oughta look at this too," Stubbs growled. With the door swung inward, the metal door knob caught the light from the bare electrical bulb illuminated the feed room. Score marks and fresh scratches shone bright and obvious around the keyhole. John caught the door and peered closer at the lock. A screwdriver or something similar had been used to pry at it. When he checked the door jamb, there were pry marks there too.
"Shit," he muttered.
"I can't tell if anything's been messed with," Stubbs said, looking around. He scratched under the shoulder strap of his ancient coveralls.
John pinched the bridge of his nose. "Okay," he said. "Have you fed them anything from in here?"
"Naw," Stubbs said. He surveyed the room and the feed bins and scowled. "Like I said. Something funny's going on."
John waited for him to expand on that.
Stubbs scratched his unshaven jaw and then grunted. "Didn't steal nothing I can see. Bags look the same, but I don't trust that feed."
A glance at the bins, the shelves behind them, and the rest of the room forced John to agree. Nothing seemed to have been tampered with, but there were a hundred ways to do something that would never show. He opened the refrigerator where they kept heat-sensitive supplements and glanced inside. Nothing looked disturbed there either, but some wary instinct had been tripped — John wouldn't trust any of them any longer.
"Thought you was crazy worrying about the feed," Stubbs went on with an apologetic look to John, "locking up that door, but now I gotta figure, if someone went to the trouble of breaking in and didn't take nothing, then they must've left something."
Or changed it.
John let the pellets still in his hand pour back into the bin and winced as he considered the expense, but made the decision. He'd never forget Jazz and the rest of the polo string. "Shit," he repeated. "I'm getting Teyla down here to inventory and we're tossing everything." He stopped and considered, biting his lip. "Samples. We need samples."
Zelenka would know where the samples could be tested. John pulled his cellphone out of his pocket and called Teyla first.
Rodney showed up halfway through the afternoon, following one of Harriman's delivery trucks into the yard and parking the Mule with an explosive death rattle between the locksmith's truck and one of the farm trucks John and he had had entirely too much fun buying. He marched into the barn and shook his head at the work being done. New locks for the feed lockers, the hay barn and the rest of the buildings.
"I'd accuse you of paranoia, if you were anyone else," he said to John. Obviously he, too, was thinking about Argentina. "What did you do with the rest of it?"
"Trucked it to the landfill," John said.
Siler had confirmed that none of their bags of pellets were a different shape or color after John called the feedstore. The suppliers hadn't changed anything.
"Are you going to put a security system in the house?"
"Yeah, as soon as I can find someone." He wanted an alarm system for the house as well as security cameras in the barns. He had a hard time imagining anyone crazy enough to actually hurt any of them over selling the farm, but the idea of Teyla facing off against an intruder, maybe alone in the house with just Torren, freaked him out. He'd never forgive himself if he'd brought her to Pegasus only to get hurt. The house had good locks on the doors, but there were windows everywhere and an asthmatic six-year-old could climb up to the second floor without any trouble. It hadn't been built to keep out burglars or other intruders.
"Call Elizabeth. She'll know whoever does her places."
John figured Rodney was right, except if he talked to Weir, he knew she'd finagle him into attending her next fundraiser. Still, she was an former Ambassador and her position with State meant she had to know people in the security business.
"I'll do that."
Rodney's mouth slanted over to the side.
"So, is the Thanksgiving feed still on?"
John gave him a surprised glance. "Of course."
"Cadman won't come without Dusty."
"Bring her. I'll tell Teyla, she'll tell the caterer."
"They're living together. Or, roommates, whatever. I don't ask." Rodney rolled his eyes. "Cadman started to tell me. I had to stick my fingers in my ears and sing to make her stop. I don't know why she thought I'd want to know."
"Okay," John said slowly. He wasn't sure if he was missing something or not. Did Rodney want him to refuse them? Rodney wouldn't meet his gaze. He'd missed a spot shaving that morning, the same spot he always missed, right there where he had a mole under his jawline. His shoulders hunched forward a little. Maybe Rodney was trying in his way to be tactful and tell John something. Like he was okay with lesbians, but he wasn't interested in John. Because John was a guy and Rodney was straight. But John had known that anyway. Rodney didn't need to worry.
He added, "The more the better. I mean, otherwise, the whole catering thing seems silly, if it's just the same people who eat here every night."
"Mmm, that's true," Rodney agreed.
A sidelong glance showed Rodney looking happy again. Of course, Rodney didn't know John was gay, so maybe John was making something out of nothing and Rodney just wanted to John to know about Cadman and Mehra in case he had some problem…Rodney really didn't do subtle very well. John was probably hearing something that wasn't really there.
"Okay, good, that's settled," John said. He watched past Rodney's shoulder as Ronon's overloaded truck pulled into the yard. "Let's go back up to the house. Ronon's here, so it must be lunch time."
Baseball is like driving, it's the one who gets home safely that counts.
Davos called a week after Thanksgiving. Teyla didn't even wonder how he'd found the farm's number. He chatted about his holiday with his daughter and heading for Florida without once mentioning not seeing Teyla there, all without once asking what she was doing now. She'd long since accepted that Davos knew what he knew through unfathomable forces.
"Listen to me, Teyla," he said at last. "You must hold the course. You and your friends. Don't give in. And whatever you do — don't stop."
He bid her good-bye after that and Teyla wished him well in Florida and with which carnival or circus he joined. She put the phone down and forgot his advice in the scramble to deal with the latest vandalism and theft: the copper wiring and pipes to the pumps in the irrigation wells, along with the wiring in to different barns, had been stripped over night.
It remained out of her mind through the rest of the day and an evening work out at the gym Amelia had invited her to join.
"Lorne's got a line on the guys that stole the wiring," Amelia mentioned while spotting Teyla at the weights. "Probably not related to the creeps the slashed your tires and the rest of the trouble you're having. They've hit several other businesses and one school. Copper's still through the roof and they're selling it at the scrapyards."
Teyla finished her set and wiped her face and neck with a towel before letting Amelia take her place. "I would rather deal with simple thieves than whoever keeps calling. Sometimes they say nothing at all. Even the threats are less disturbing."
She frowned and added, "I do not see why they think this would make a man like John sell the farm."
"Some people scare easier than others," Amelia said between reps.
"But it is his home."
Amelia finished. Still sitting on the bench, she said, "Maybe, but he hasn't been there that long. He doesn't exactly have roots here, you know? I got the idea from some of the stuff I've heard that he's kind of a rolling stone." She pushed sweaty hair off her forehead. "When the going gets tough, he gets going?"
Teyla pursed her lips but had no answer. John had acted that way in his past. She thought he should have done more to bring Reynaldo Vega to justice for the deaths of his polo string, but it was his choice. Perhaps he hadn't believed there was anything he could do.
She knew he'd changed since coming to Pegasus. Changed since meeting Rodney, too.
"He's stubborn," she told Amelia finally.
"Well, there is that," Amelia admitted.
They cooled down and walked to the parking lot together. Teyla waited until she saw Amelia in her car, with it running, before waving and driving out of the parking lot.
The headlights in the rearview mirror reflected off Teyla's mirror, threatening to blind her. They'd been behind her since somewhere in town, but she hadn't noticed them in particular until turning onto the county road. The road quickly emptied of other cars as the blacktop narrowed. Her truck's lights reflected from fences and looming trees, road signs, mailboxes and the faded yellow center line. Farm houses were set far back from the road; dots of light and the distant fume of halogen exterior lights revealing a world beyond the claustrophobic scope of her headlights and the black wall of the night. Like the flare of some wild animal's eyes on the verge, they only pointed out her sudden isolation.
The vehicle behind her surged closer and closer.
Annoyed, Teyla slowed her truck and drifted a little to the right, hoping the driver would take the hint and pass her. The headlights stayed directly behind her, lighting up her rearview mirror and the cab, high enough she thought the vehicle behind her had to be a truck too. She cursed the idiot driving it and shifted her mirror out of adjustment to save her eyes.
Her hands tightened on the wheel as she realized the truck wasn't going to pass or slow down. The county road didn't offer much in the way of verge. The blacktop crumpled into dirt and ditch with no place to pull off. The first trickle of fear slid down her spine. Teyla pushed her foot down on the accelerator.
The old truck jerked forward, the frame shaking as she fed it gas and worked the stick and clutch. The whole body jolted as the abused and worn-out transmission finally shifted with an ugly clunk and the stressed-out engine began to rattle and cough, but it tore down the road. Her purse slid off the passenger seat and spilled over the floorboards. Teyla felt every pot hole and ridge as she sped down the road. The broken spring in the seat poked her with every bounce. The speedometer crept twenty, then thirty miles faster than the speed limit. Much too fast for the state of the road.
She checked her side mirror, but the headlights behind her hadn't fallen back at all. Her follower kept tailgating her, accelerating closer any time she slacked her speed off, highbeams glaring maliciously through the back window glass.
The knuckles of her hands ached.
This was the most overtly threatening act yet, much more frightening than the slashed tires a week before or the break-in to the feed locker. That it was another episode in the campaign of harassment Pegasus had been suffering seemed sure.
The needle of the engine temp gauge edged closer and closer to the redline. She really wished she'd taken the time to check the oil before driving in to town. If the truck ran out of oil and the engine cooked and seized, there would no way to avoid a crash, not at her current speed.
Teyla gritted her teeth.
They were escalating, whoever they were, this was an overt attack, but she was angry now too and not about to be intimidated, run off from Pegasus, or even run off the damn road. Bastards, she thought to herself. Of course, they picked her and her old truck to frighten or even hurt. They thought she would be the easier target. They wouldn't even have been able to keep up if they'd tried this against John in his Porsche.
Next time she went to the evening gym class and John offered her the keys, she was definitely taking the Porsche.
The headlights were still too close behind her. Teyla concentrated on steering and the road before her. A curve turn was coming up, obscured by trees, and she looked for any gleam of lights through them, praying no one was coming the other way. She couldn't slow down and had to slew around the sharp turn, drifting wide into the opposite lane, and gunning out of it.
There would be black rubber tracks across the pavement come morning.
She began watching for the familiar mailboxes. After the two white ones, there would be Archangel Farm's entrance, and after that, Pegasus Farm's. She'd have to hope she could make the turn without hitting the new fence. It wouldn't even be possible if the drive hadn't been paved and not gravel. She hoped that would be the end of this and her follower would go on, but at least she knew John and Halling and Ronon were all home. Whoever was following her probably wouldn't want to face off against so many others.
The truck shuddered and bucked as Teyla pushed it to its limits. It would have tossed her half out of her seat if she hadn't been compulsive about buckling herself in. Between the belt and her white-knuckle grip of the steering wheel she stayed in control — barely.
The two mailboxes were set back from the road, blurs of white, passed almost before Teyla registered them. She tensed, watching for the red Archangel sign. It loomed out of the darkness, crimson and black in the harsh double glare of her and her followers' lights.
Teyla floorboarded the truck, trying to open a little space between herself and the truck behind her. The reflective flare of the address numbers on Pegasus' mailbox appeared ahead of her. She let off the gas just a little. The headlights behind her rushed closer.
If she didn't get this right, she was going smash the driver's side of the truck into a massive oak. In a contest between a fast moving truck and an oak, the oak was going to win. If she could have let go of the wheel with one hand, she would have cranked the window down to save herself getting showered in glass. She couldn't; even with power steering it took both hands to handle the truck.
She sucked in a deep breath and began cranking the wheel opposite the way she meant to turn, slipping into the opposite lane to ease the angle of her turn. Instinct screamed at her to slow down, but if she did, the other truck would come up on the right and block her turn.
Just like the trapeze, she told herself as she yanked the wheel to the right and hit the gas again. She just had to trust herself and go for it.
The tires screamed and the truck went sideways. Teyla snapped to the side; her head smacked against the driver's window glass. A metallic shriek accompanied the truck knocking over the mailbox and then the fence. The driver's side side mirror tore off with a screech. Teyla fought with the steering wheel. The truck rocked all its weight onto the driver's side and she flashed on the possibility it could flip, but it was a heavy old thing and settled back onto all four wheels. The wheels caught and control returned enough to swerve further right and hold onto control.
Like her hands slapping into her partner's, high above the ring, in the instant before she'd fall.
Teyla registered that the headlights that had forced her into this were gone, but she had too much adrenaline still racing through her to feel much relief. She finally let up on the gas and rattled down the farm drive into the yard. The truck jerked and wobbled and she wondered exactly what damage had been been done to it and if it would ever start again once she stopped.
She let the engine die in the center of the paved turn around and just sat as the truck shuddered into stillness. Her foot still pressed down on the brake now that she could finally use it. The dimming yellow headlights reflected off the glass windows of the office building. She listened to her heart hammer, unable to pry her hands away from the wheel, while overheated metal ticked and popped. The truck slowly settled forward on the left as the tire there flattened.
Her cheek stung, something wet dribbling down onto it and and her ear.
Lights went on in the house and the back door opened. John came out, followed by Halling's distinctive silhouette and then Ronon. Halling had a heavy Maglite in one hand and Ronon carried a sledgehammer like a militant forge god.
John carried nothing and reached her first. He tapped the windshield and peered in, his face a mask of worry, until Teyla focused on him.
"You need to open the passenger side," he said.
Teyla blinked, nodded, then forced her hands open. She fumbled her seat belt off while John went around the truck. She slid across the old bench seat and unlocked the door. The interior light came on against all expectation as he pulled the door open with a creak.
"Are you okay?" he asked. His scrutiny stalled and intensified suddenly. "You're bleeding."
Teyla made herself sound calm, but her voice shook a little, like her hands. "I am not." She would know if she were bleeding.
"You are," John insisted. He reached for her temple. Just the brush of his fingers made Teyla wince. His fingers came away red.
Teyla stared and put the blood together with the pain from hitting the door window. The stickiness on her ear was blood. She explored the swelling and cut in her hair with tentative fingers. It didn't feel bad, just a scuff. "I am all right," she declared.
"Sure," John said. "Let's get you in the house and check you out. Then we'll call that doctor friend of Rodney's. Becker."
"Beckett," Ronon corrected him.
"Does it matter?" John snapped at him. "I haven't met the man."
"Wastes time, calling the wrong person," Ronon pointed out. He checked out Teyla and seemed satisfied she wasn't about to die in front of them. He added, "I've got his number."
Halling was examining the front driver's side of the truck. He shone his flashlight over the damage.
Jinto came out, clutching John's cell phone. "Should I call the cops?"
"No," Teyla said. "Go back inside, Jinto. We'll be there in a minute."
He hesitated, but Halling nodded and said, "Go. You have school tomorrow."
Jinto scowled and trudged back inside.
"What happened?" Ronon asked.
"I owe you another mailbox and maybe some fence," Teyla told John.
"Screw that," he dismissed, still watching her intently, ready to catch her as she jumped down from the truck. Her legs were good though. "Something happened. What?"
"You're a careful driver, Teyla," Halling added. "I taught you. Please. Tell us."
"When we're inside," she said, giving in. She refused to be the damsel in distress, though, and shrugged off the three men's offers of steadying hands as she walked to the house. She kept her head high. The act — and the last dash of adrenaline — kept her going until she stepped into the brightly lit kitchen.
Jinto was there, cola can and open chip bag on the counter along with the unused cellphone. He took one look at her and dropped the cola, spilling it everywhere. Teyla's hand went to her cheek again, slick with blood, and she decided she had to sit down right then.
Ronon shoved a kitchen chair under when she would have folded right down to the tiled floor otherwise.
"Tell," he demanded.
John appeared with one of the huge emergency medical kits that he'd bought for the house and all the barns and vehicles. Teyla wondered when she'd lost track of him. He'd been right beside her, hadn't he?
"You can talk while I clean this up," John ordered, taking command.
"I left my purse in the truck," Teyla said stupidly, suddenly remembering it spilling everywhere. Her ID and credit cards were in it. She started to get up and go get them.
"Down, girl," John said, not unkindly. Ronon's hand on her shoulder kept her in her seat. Halling — where had he been? — brought a bowl of warm water to the table.
He began, "Jinto — "
"I'll go get it," Jinto said.
Halling handed him the Maglite.
Teyla described her drive home as John cleaned the blood from her face and hair and then disinfected the cut, dabbed it with Betadine and closed it with butterfly bandages. He had a deft touch, honed on horses, riders and himself over the years.
Halling called the cops so she could make a report, but Teyla knew there was no chance of catching whoever had tried to make her crash. Teyla walked — carefully — upstairs and looked in on Torren while they were waiting.
Amelia arrived in her patrol car ten minutes later. A plain clothes cop wearing a crumpled sport coat arrived right behind her. He flashed his badge and trailed after Amelia, letting her take the lead.
"Officer Banks," Ronon greeted her, that little extra something in his voice that Teyla half-wished she sparked in him.
Amelia introduced the other police officer. "This is Detective Sergeant Lorne."
Lorne smiled at everyone, but his eyes were sharp. He took in the cut on Teyla's face without comment. He refused an offer of tea or coffee from Halling.
Amelia, on the other hand, planted her hands on her hips and shook her head at Teyla. "How could you get in trouble between the gym and home?" she asked.
Teyla sighed and sipped the tea Halling had finally brewed for her.
"I did not 'get' in trouble," she corrected Amelia, "I survived it."
Amelia eyed the bandage on Teyla's temple. "Tell us everything. This is starting to get too serious."
Lorne pulled a notebook out of his coat and made neat notes, interjecting questions whenever Teyla tried to gloss over the events. He coaxed her into telling him about the calls she'd been receiving too and promised to have them traced if at all possible.
Something about his quiet, unassuming confidence convinced Teyla Lorne would do as he said. She could see John and Ronon relax as he questioned them too before talking to Halling.
Beside her, Amelia leaned close and murmured, "Lorne's the best guy in the department."
Teyla thought maybe she'd knocked her head harder than she'd thought when she almost blurted out that he had a nice smile too.
What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others.
John leaned against the fence for support as he listened to Radek Zelenka on the phone.
"I have received the results of the lab tests on the feed samples you gave me," Zelenka said.
"Commercial cattle feed, good quality, but not the equine feed you bought or that originally filled those bags."
"Originally?" John asked.
"Because contamination at the mills where more than one variety of feed is manufactured is a danger, there are tests as well as internal monitoring," Zelenka explained. "Vets are often the first to become aware of problem. I was able to contact someone with expertise. The bags you provided me with were examined. They had been opened and refilled, then stitched closed again. There were traces from the original feed caught in the material. A close examination of the bags showed a difference in the thread and paper used — it was not a match to anything that manufacturer used."
"Sonovabitch," John said.
Someone had gone to a lot of trouble.
"You are quite sure that the feed in question did not reach any of your horses?"
"Pretty damn certain," John said.
"I'm relieved. I'll want to do more tests on all of your horses to be certain, but I think there would be obvious symptoms by now if they'd been exposed."
"Exposed to what?" John snapped. "What did you find?"
"An antibiotic used as a cattle feed additive to encourage weight gain," Zelenka replied. "Trade names are Rumensin, Lasolocid, and Naracin. Commonly used in cattle and poultry feeds. Several years ago it killed twelve Belgians in Wisconsin. Ingesting feed containing it is disastrous for horses."
John scrubbed his free hand through his hair and shivered. A slow drizzle had begun. The damp seeped through his hoodie and the quilted zip vest he wore underneath. Someone had tried to poison his horses. They'd done it very deliberately, in a way guaranteed to hurt, by making everyone at the farm unknowing accomplices.
He turned his face up to the unsteady rain. He stared up at the gray cloud cover and the pale circle where the sun hid. He swallowed hard and tried to pull himself together. He'd had moments when he thought he had to be wrong. It seemed so incredible that anyone would replace the bags of feed with a substitute. Whoever had done it had gone to the length of packaging it in the same manufacturer's bags and sewing them back up. If they'd been better lock picks, if Stubbs hadn't been humoring John's mania for precautions, then no one would have noticed. Manufacturers changed pellet styles sometimes.
"Mr. Sheppard," Zelenka said. "This was not a manufacturer fault. The feed in those bags was not one made in the same mill. In fact, the brand you buy does not make cattle feed at all for just these reasons."
"This is not a prank. You must report it to the police. If this substitution is not caught and is done at some other barn, many horses could suffer and die."
"I don't think it's going to happen anywhere else," John said. He would warn Rodney, of course, about what Zelenka had found, but no one was trying to make Elizabeth sell her land. That he knew about, anyway. He might ask her if she'd been approached and, if so, by whom at her USEA fundraiser later in the week. Archangel might be next on the agenda if Pegasus were sold.
He tried to imagine staying and going on if all the horses were poisoned. He'd left Argentina for the same reason. Someone thought they had his number. Pegasus was different. He had Teyla and Torren and Halling and Jinto here, plus Stubbs and Stacks and Markham working for him, and there was Rodney just down the road. He wouldn't be driven out. But it would have hurt, it would have hurt him and all of them too.
Whenever difficulties appear, the rider must ask himself: does the horse not want to execute my demands, does he not understand what I want, or is he physically unable to carry them out? The rider's conscience must find the answer.
"Goddamn sonovabitch," Rodney bit out.
El Cid stood in the area, head hanging in an abnormal position, blood bay hide dark with sweat, with a tremble visible through the skin from twenty feet away. He was blowing hard; his sides moving in and out like great bellows.
Anne had her saddle off him. It lay on the dirt, dropped carelessly, stirrups trapped under the pad. The high flush on her face came from the humid heat, as usual, but he could see she was near tears.
"Have you tried to move him?" Rodney demanded.
Anne shook her head. "No," she answered. "I got off because something was wrong. We were working at a trot and his stride shortened up."
Rodney nodded. He hadn't been on a horse when it happened, but he knew what she meant. He'd seen it happen to Salamanca once, ages ago, when he'd been barely more than a novice himself.
"By the time I pulled him up I could feel him going stiff," she added.
The sound of running feet heralded Cadman's arrival, followed by Simpson, and she sucked in a harsh breath as she skidded to a stop next to Rodney. He automatically grabbed her arm to steady her. "Monday morning disease?" Cadman blurted. "He's never — "
With a grim nod, Rodney agreed. It was an old term for the suffering of draft horses after a Sabbath without exercise. Today was Tuesday, but it made painful sense anyway.
"He's tying up," he said.
El Cid had done so damn well at the three-day event in Tennessee, too. But, of course, that was it. He'd pushed past the limits of his conditioning Saturday and Sunday in the midst of a heatwave, then they'd trailered back to Maryland on Monday. Summer traffic had been a nightmare of holiday travelers and an accident on the interstate had backed up it for hours. They'd pulled into Archangel's yard past seven o'clock in the evening and El Cid had gone from the trailer straight to his stall instead of receiving any exercise.
"Call Zelenka," he told Cadman.
He walked over to El Cid and began gently examining the horse, trying to determine just how bad the episode would be and if they could get him back to his stall or would need to set up and take care of him all night right where they were. Severely affected horses sometimes couldn't even support their own weight. Just his touch made the horse shudder. The muscles in his hindquarters were knotted hard.
"Go get a bucket of water," he told Anne. He wouldn't try to move El Cid until Radek arrived and administered something to ease the pain and loosen up the seizing muscles. Radek would likely start an IV too; meanwhile, they'd try to coax Cid into drinking to stave off dehydration and its dangers.
"This is my fault, isn't it?" Anne said when she returned.
"Yes and no," Rodney told her. He considered it just as much his fault, but El Cid had never tied up before.
"Crap," she muttered. "O.B. will find out and I'll never get to ride him again."
"Then you'll ride some other horse and O.B. will lose to you," Rodney snapped. O.B. could jump in a well as far as he was concerned. The horse came first, then the rider, and an absentee owner in the sport for the bragging rights came a long third in his estimation.
Cid shifted and then postured as if about to urinate. Rodney whispered to him and waited. If Cid did let loose, he needed to check it out. Dark, red-brown urine was one of the bad signs; the result of a protein from the muscles breaking down then entering the bloodstream and thence the kidneys. It became even more urgent to keep the horse hydrated then or there could be permanent organ damage. Posturing without urination was characteristic of tying up too.
Anne needed a distraction in the mean time.
"Go ahead and pick up your tack, get it cleaned up," he told her and waved to Simpson. "Get me a halter and lead so we can take this bridle off too."
He stroked Cid's neck after both women took off. "You'll be fine," he told the horse. Cid was still sweating heavily. Rodney offered the bucket of water and patted Cid again when he drank a little. "That's it." They were out in the direct sun, which didn't help the problem of cooling Cid down without moving him.
Cid shifted stiffly and postured again, this time loosing a stream of urine that Rodney noted happily was darker than normal but in no way red-brown.
"Exertional rhabdomyolysis," Radek confirmed once he arrived and examined El Cid. He thanked Rodney for not confusing the issue by beginning treatment with anything else. Anne and Simpson hovered out of the way, but listening, while Rodney and he talked. "Has he urinated?"
Rodney described the color.
"Good, good. No myoglobinuria." Radek's pleasure matched Rodney's own. "We will monitor, of course." He began the process of taking a blood sample for serum testing. It would be far from the last.
Rodney knew he'd be up with El Cid all night. Unless Radek stayed, he'd need to do a blood draw several times so they could chart when the creatine kinase activity peaked before dropping back to normal levels.
"He hasn't done this before, has he?" Radek murmured as he worked. "I'm going to check for anything else. Sometimes an infection can trigger it."
"I'll keep an eye out for anything going through the rest of the barn," Rodney agreed. Just like sending kids to school exposed them to all sorts of germs, competition meant traveling, with stays in strange barns and the chance to catch something from other horses.
After he'd stowed the vials of blood samples, Radek said, "Now we will do something about the pain and anxiety."
"Acepromazine?" Rodney asked, mentioning one of the commonest sedatives used in veterinary medicine.
"An anti-inflammatory first, yes," Radek said, "then the sedative." He glanced up, glasses glinting. The lenses were smeared with something and dusty, as always. In a moment he'd take the glasses off and polish them, but they would dirty again almost instantly. "It will help calm his breathing and heart rate."
Radek felt that moving Cid to the clinic would result in more stress and possibly exacerbate the problem they were trying to alleviate. Radek didn't believe in moving horses unless absolutely necessary; Rodney agreed. Getting a sick horse in a trailer was hard enough and the chance of catching something else while at a clinic was higher too.
Rodney didn't like doctors' waiting rooms or emergency departments at hospitals either.
When Radek's cocktail of drugs finally began having some effect, Simpson and Rodney very, very slowly walked Cid back to the barn and one of the extra large stalls. Simpson already had it ready. Once inside, Radek finally hooked up the IV Rodney had expected.
"I never use steroids until I know there is no viral or bacterial element," Radek explained to Anne when she asked about his drug choices. "They suppress the immune system — just as they do in humans." He left eventually to return to his clinic and check on his other patients there.
Simpson brought in a flake of hay and triple checked the water before offering to stay the night. Rodney told her to check on her other charges and finish up, but then go home. "You aren't paid enough for all night vigils."
"Overtime?" Simpson mentioned.
Rodney snorted. "Get out of here."
Anne offered to stay too, obviously still feeling guilty, along with Cadman. Rodney nearly took Cadman up on her offer, but there was no use both of them sitting up over night in the barn and no matter how he trusted Cadman, as manager it was his responsibility. He wouldn't be able to go back to his apartment over the office and sleep even if she was there.
He wouldn't be able to go by Pegasus and have dinner there before going over the paperwork necessary to enter Atlantis in his first three-day event of the year. John wanted to enter at least one CCI★★★ event before 2010, but they hadn't agreed on which one yet. They hadn't settled on a training and competition regime for Doctor Doctor or Gramercy Park, the Irish horse they'd purchased on the buying trip. Neither horse had recovered yet from the trip across the Atlantic and the upset of changing barns and routines, though Magellan had come on strong enough to compete after clearing quarantine.
"Crap," Rodney muttered.
He groped for his cell phone and remembered it was in his jacket, which he'd left in the office when Chuck came pelting in with the news about El Cid.
"Hey, can you stop in the office, grab my jacket and bring it back out here before you go?" he asked Cadman.
"Sure. I'll call your boyfriend too."
She disappeared and Rodney settled himself down on an old chair retrieved from the tack room. The chrome legs were rust pocked and duct tape sealed a dozen cracks in the plastic cover of the cushion, obscuring the cheap, gold-flecked green. It rocked unpleasantly under his weight thanks to a missing foot on a back leg, but the straight back let him sit and rest his head against the wall opposite Cid's stall.
Rodney closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the barn. Cid was still breathing faster than normal and standing still. The other horses moved in the stalls. He could hear the closest one chewing his evening hay. A distinctive braying neigh sounded from one of the stalls. Rodney sometimes wondered if the hunter didn't have a bit of mule in him. He opened his eyes and checked Cid again. Radek had helped him, but the horse still looked miserable. They would have to change El Cid's exercise routines once he recovered and could begin the long process of reconditioning. No more high carb diet meant to fuel the extraordinary exertion of the three-day event. More fiber in the form of forage. Low stress and as little excitement as possible. Radek had mentioned medicating him with Dantrium but if diet and routine failed, Rodney would tell O.B. to sell Cid. That would suck donkey balls, but the drug wasn't allowed under USEA rules.
Rodney jerked and flailed. The chair under him rocked and he nearly fell off, only to be caught by a hand on his shoulder. He blinked and realized he'd dropped into a doze. It was John's hand on his shoulder.
"Shit," Rodney muttered as he looked to El Cid.
"He's doing all right," John said.
Rodney thumbed the gluey crud from his eyes and focused on John, who stood silhouetted between him and the bare light bulb hanging on its wire above them.
"What are you doing here?"
John held up a pizza box. "Delivering dinner?"
"Cadman called me."
John turned an empty bucket over and set the pizza box on it.
"Back in a second."
Rodney took the opportunity to step in the stall and check El Cid more closely. A check of his watch showed he'd slept almost two and half hours. Cadman must have come back at some point. His jacket — with the cell in one pocket — had been hung on one of the tack hooks next to the stall door. Cid hadn't moved much. He nosed at Rodney's chest briefly.
John came back with a six-pack of soda, a thermos, and a purple lap blanket with the Baltimore Ravens logo on it. He draped the blanket over the hay bale next to Rodney's chair, set the six-pack and thermos down and seated himself.
Rodney took his chair again and opened the pizza box. "You didn't have to do this."
"Yeah, I know."
John opened a soda with a snap and hiss. His throat worked as he took a long swallow.
Rodney picked out a piece of pizza, folded it, and took a big bite. John leaned over and snagged a piece for himself. "I figured you could use some company," he said.
They finished half the pizza and Rodney drank most of the coffee in the thermos, before John wandered back out of the barn only to return with a foil-covered plate containing several of Halling's brownies.
"You know, if my wife had brought me brownies like this, we might still be married," Rodney said without thinking.
John's eyebrows bounced up his forehead before he drawled, "Are you saying you'd marry for chocolate?"
"No, but I'd probably put out."
"I'll keep that in mind." John nudged the plate closer to Rodney. "More?"
Rodney grabbed the last brownie and had a mouthful before he'd processed. He kept chewing and didn't choke, but something in his expression made John frown.
"Hey, everything okay?"
Rodney nodded and made himself swallow. John was — maybe not coming on to him, but definitely flirting. John was interested. Rodney had no idea how to deal with that. They were friends. John was easily the best friend Rodney had ever had, including Radek, because they'd clicked from the beginning, but Rodney wasn't interested in him that way. He wasn't gay. Waking up hard from a dream that might have involved John back in London meant nothing; he'd had sex on his mind after he and John had egged each other on into going into the women's sex toy store in Shoreditch. He just really needed to get his act together, ask Jennifer out, and get laid.
He grabbed for his coffee and slurped it down as an excuse to not say anything.
Grodin had implied Rodney would trade sexual favors for a chance at the top again, but he wouldn't. He never had. He certainly wouldn't offer homosexual ones, not to anyone, not even John. He was straight. If he noticed John was a handsome man, that was Anne's fault for telling him that stupid rumor. He couldn't help thinking about it once he knew. Knowing John was gay was like having a pink elephant in the middle of the room. He could hardly not think about it, could he?
He hadn't done anything to make John think he was, had he?
Cadman calling John his boyfriend was just Cadman being her usual teasing self.
"So, I figured I'd spell you for a while," John said when Rodney started hearing things again. He was leaning back against the wall too, his long legs in their faded jeans stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. "That way you won't be a complete zombie at Elizabeth's party tomorrow night."
"That's — that's — yes, thanks, Jennifer's going to be there, you know."
"I know," John agreed amiably. "But I figure since I'll be driving you down there, you'll be my date."
Oh, no. No, no, no, Rodney thought. How the hell was he going to tell John they weren't dating, that he wasn't interested in John that way, without utterly lousing up their friendship?
Rodney scowled at the thermos cap in his hand.
Damn John for confusing him and making him feel guilty about not being gay anyway.
Time is a circus always packing up and moving away.
The huge old house belonged to Teyla and Torren for the night. With all the men gone for the evening, there was no one to object if she slotted Mansfield Park into the DVD player and no one to hog the popcorn she meant to fix for herself. She loved them all, but her housemates could be exhausting and private time for herself remained as rare as when she ran Athos.
Torren tottered around and played with his toys, tired enough after a long day to be quiet. Tornado Torren — John's nickname for him — had blown himself out.
Teyla stretched and wiggled her toes. The quiet soaked in and soothed her nerves. A small blessing, but one she appreciated. John had left half of Halling's brownies too. She meant to eat it before Ronon came home from his date with Amelia or Halling from seeing Clara. Provided either of them came back before morning. John had let her know he anticipated helping Rodney all night with a sick horse and Jinto's overnight at a friend's had been planned all week.
When Torren grew a little more tired, Teyla took him upstairs. Bath and teeth brushing didn't take too long and then she lay down in his little boy's bed with him next to her and read to him. It always had to be something short enough to finish in one sitting; Torren never fell asleep during a story, only afterward. The thin, red-bound illustrated The Black Stallion was already Torren's favorite. He had many of the pages memorized and recited them in gabbled Torren-speak with Teyla as she read. She had a strong suspicion Uncle John would be providing a pony as soon as Torren was big enough to ride by himself.
She finished the book and closed it. Torren's eyelids were heavy. Teyla set the book aside and carefully slid out of the bed, then tucked Torren in. She kissed his forehead, then touched hers to his, murmuring, "Time to sleep now."
"'Nigh," Torren mumbled. He squirmed his arms free and hugged her neck. "Liffu, mama."
"I love you, Torren," Teyla told him softly. "Sleep safe."
Torren nodded and closed his eyes. She straightened the sheet and blanket again, then brushed the fringe of hair off his forehead, an old habit of checking for fever or sweats she doubted she'd break any time soon. When she heard his breath slow into the rhythm of sleep, she turned out everything but the nightlight and left the room.
A strong knock on the back door startled her halfway through the movie. She'd been on the phone with the security company John had chosen with Elizabeth Weir's advice, but nothing had been done yet. She really wished it had; she hadn't heard a car and suddenly being alone for the evening in a big house full of expensive art work didn't seem as appealing as it had earlier.
She retrieved her cell phone from her purse and slid it into her pocket. After the truck incident, she'd programmed 9-1-1 into it and practiced switching it on and hitting the button to automatically dial it with one hand without looking.
The backdoor into the mudroom entrance to the kitchen was locked. She stopped at the door and called out, "Who is it?"
"Teyla," came a very familiar voice. "It's me. Kanaan."
Teyla rested her hand on the wall to steady herself.
"Kanaan? What are you doing here?"
"Could you let me in? Please. I just want to talk to you," he said. He had to raise his voice to be heard through the door. "Please, Teyla." Then he pulled out the big guns. "I'd like to see Torren."
Teyla still hesitated a moment before unlocking the door and opening it.
"Kanaan," she murmured again as he stepped inside and she saw him in the light.
Still dark-haired and dark-eyed, still lithely fit as befitted his profession with the circus, and still breathtakingly handsome to her. Looking at him made her stomach flutter. Ignoring it, she led him into the kitchen with its almost harsh lights. They gave Kanaan's skin a gray tone and let her see he was gaunter than before, with years etched into his face since she'd seen him. The impulse to take him in her arms and hug him gave way as she remembered exactly how he'd left her and the consequences.
"How did you find me?"
"I went down to Florida and asked everyone I could find until I ran into Tilly Olson. Davos gave her your address. I tricked her into giving it to me," Kanaan admitted.
"Because I was wrong, I let Michael poison me against you and I'm so, so sorry," Kanaan answered.
Teyla folded her arms. That wasn't enough. Sorry didn't pay the rent as the saying went.
"And now, you what? Think we can go back to what we had before?" Teyla asked. "Athos is gone. My parents and my grandparents and their parents all worked their entire lives to keep that circus going. It was home. Torren's never going to know that. Because of you."
"Because of Michael," Kanaan said.
"No, because of you," Teyla insisted. "You made the decision to betray me."
Kanaan squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I know," he mumbled.
Teyla waited him out.
"I want you back. I want you and Torren," Kanaan said at last. "We can get a job with a different circus. Our act was always the biggest draw Athos had. Or even…maybe Vegas. We could try out for Cirque de Soleil."
"You can do that without me," Teyla told him while her heart sank. Kanaan wanted, Kanaan needed, because a trapeze catcher without a partner wasn't much of a draw. He hadn't said a word about loving her or Torren. She guessed he'd only mentioned Torren to remind her of the ties that connected them. Kanaan had learned manipulation from Michael; it must have been Michael, the man she'd loved hadn't been a user.
"Teyla — "
"I'm happy here," she insisted.
"Are you sleeping with him?" Kanaan demanded suddenly, striding around the table toward her, his mood abruptly dark.
Teyla shoved her hand into her pocket and turned on her phone.
"Sheppard," Kanaan accused. "You're sleeping with him, letting him raise my son, living in this fancy house. The minute I was gone you went running to him."
"Thanks to you I had nowhere else to go," Teyla snapped at him. She held up her free hand. "Don't come any closer to me."
"You think I'd hurt you?"
"You already did," she declared.
Kanaan backed away from her. "I just want my family back." He indicated the black granite and stainless steel kitchen with its high tech gadgetry and cold track lighting. "This isn't you. You don't belong here."
"No, Kanaan," Teyla told him gently, "you don't belong here."
He scowled at her. "Someone tried to run you off the road!"
Teyla tightened her grip on the cell phone. Why would Kanaan know that? The sick possibility that he'd been behind it and the phone calls, the silent ones, hit her. Was it a coincidence that Kanaan had come to the house when only she and Torren were home?
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Kanaan asked.
"Was it you?"
Kanaan went gray.
"You were making those calls, weren't you?"
"I just wanted to hear your voice."
She was going to cry until she was sick once he left. If he left. Her heartbeat thumped in Teyla's ears. The tips of her fingers tingled. She had never been so frightened while on the trapeze. She'd trusted Kanaan then. She didn't know the man he'd become. Torren was upstairs. What if Kanaan decided he wanted to take him? She would have to stop him. She wasn't a fighter, tai chi wasn't about that, and the dirty tricks she did know were learned from the same teachers Kanaan had had.
"I think you should leave," Teyla told him. She struggled to keep her voice smooth and her face from giving away the creeping fear he made her feel now. "I'm going to call the police if you don't."
The utter bewilderment on Kanaan's face reassured her a little, but he wasn't moving.
"I asked you to leave," Teyla said.
"I — "
Holding up his empty hands, Kanaan began backing away to the mudroom. Teyla stayed in the doorway of the kitchen, still clutching the phone, until he reached the door.
"Hit the lock and go out," she ordered him.
"I'm sorry," Kanaan said again as he did as she'd said.
The instant the lock clicked, Teyla rushed over and shot the security bolt. Then she ran upstairs to Torren's room and checked him by the dim nightlight. She didn't want Kanaan to look up and guess which room she was in by the light coming on.
Her son was sleeping undisturbed.
Teyla sank down on the floor next to his bed.
She made herself breathe in and out, in and out, then looked up the number Detective Lorne had left with her and called him.
I consider it a mark of great prudence in a man to abstain from threats or any contemptuous expressions, for neither of these weaken the enemy, but threats make him more cautious, and the other excites his hatred, and a desire to revenge himself.
Niccolo Machiavelli The Prince
Niccolo Machiavelli The Prince
Elizabeth's Christmas fundraiser pulled in too many people for even her to try introducing everyone. John only attended — rather than just writing her a check — because Rodney was going. They drove down in the Porsche and John teased Rodney with the keys when he stopped for gasoline.
"You clean up good," he told Rodney. "Want to take the wheel?"
Rodney looked fantastic in his Armani. John told himself not to stare.
"You mean it?" he squeaked.
John pulled back the keys. "Nope."
John laughed and nodded. It was something about getting into the tuxedo and facing the society crap; it brought out the very worst in him. He was merely starting early, warming up on Rodney, who didn't deserve it but had the misfortune to be there. Most of the people John would subtly insult at the party wouldn't deserve his sarcasm and contempt either, but he couldn't control it. He'd have been pushing and provoking Teyla if she'd been with him.
He didn't even want to control it with Rodney. Rodney was pissing him off. He had that squirrelly, guilty, don't-touch-me vibe going on that John recognized from other guys panicking over John being homosexual. Most guys got over it. But Rodney had been flirting back with him up until the night before. That left John confused and acting out his annoyance with Rodney for reacting this way and himself for crossing the line.
Back in the Porsche, he broke the speed limit, despite his reluctance to arrive at the damned party.
Rodney clutched the door and his seatbelt strap and squeaked as John wove through traffic with the same reckless abandon he would have in Rome or Buenos Aires.
Rodney muttered, "It's a wonder you're even alive."
"Going to this thing makes me want to kill myself."
"I don't," Rodney snapped at him.
John slowed down incrementally and stayed in one lane through the rest of the drive, finding a place to leave the Porsche safely and the walk to Elizabeth's townhouse. "That slow enough for you?" he asked as they headed up the steps, annoyed by the way Rodney had been wordlessly stomping and the stiffness in his carriage.
"Thank you," Rodney told him sarcastically, "for keeping it under the sound barrier. Just so you know, I think I'll strap a rocket to my ass and just aim myself north after the fundraiser. I'll be safer. Though I'm sure I won't get there as soon as you."
"Don't be such a wuss," John said to him.
"Fuck you," Rodney replied. "Take your issues out on someone else. I'm serious. I'll find my own way back to Archangel."
John stopped half way up the steps and stared at him. "Rodney — "
Rodney waved his hand at him, interrupting to say, "I'm not your whipping boy, Sheppard. I'll see you tomorrow, when I don't want to hit you."
"If my driving is so bad, fine, you can drive back," John drawled. He fished out his keys and threw them to Rodney.
Rodney let them fall to the steps. Anger stirred through John. He gritted his teeth against it.
"You're making a big deal out of nothing."
"No, I'm not."
The sinking sensation in his gut told John he'd screwed up. He'd flirted and pushed until Rodney couldn't ignore him any longer. He had no clue how to undo that. Speeding in the Porsche would have been easy to deal with; Rodney turning out to be a homophobe after all wasn't. John didn't want to even think about that. He faked a smile and said lightly, "Fine. I apologize for driving fast and teasing you. Now, can we go inside and have some fun?"
"Fun?" Rodney repeated scornfully. "As if."
"C'mon. You gotta leave with the one that brought you."
Rodney pushed closer to John and hissed, "This isn't a date. Get that straight. If you can."
The sick feeling coalesced into cold certainty.
"Rodney," John said, "Don't…" He didn't even know how to finish that. Don't do this? Don't throw away our friendship? Don't hate me for something that isn't a matter of choice? For being who I am? Anything he said would be too humiliating.
"Don't talk to me," Rodney said and left John standing there.
John finally picked up the keys.
"Fuck you too, McKay," he mumbled to himself, equally angry with Rodney for calling him on being an asshole and with himself for being one. He almost turned back and left without going inside. A Christmas party was no place to be while miserable. It guaranteed he'd end up in a black mood. But if he backed out, he'd be giving in.
The keys went into his pocket and he strode inside holding his head high while smiling a broad, fake smile.
The evening just got better. He ran into Roth and into Rodney's perfect goddamn student, Jennifer Keller, one after the other. Roth grumbled and made nasty noises and John just smirked at him, the same smirk he'd had since he was a teenager. Roth offered to buy Pegasus again, but looked blank when John mentioned the feed incident and disgusted by Teyla's harassment. John believed he really hadn't had anything to do with those incidents and managed to finish their conversation civilly while still refusing to sell.
Talking to Keller was just painful: she seemed so relieved to find anyone she knew even slightly.
"Hey, Mr. Sheppard."
"John," he corrected her. Rodney had introduced them when John finally followed him back to Archangel one day. He hated admitting it, but she was a good rider.
She was smart and pretty and nice as well.
He wanted to hate her, but she made it impossible. Besides, he knew the difference between what he wanted and what was. He'd seen the mating dance before and Rodney was definitely all postures and nerves around her.
Not torturing himself was another reason he stayed away from Archangel most of the time.
"Is Rodney here?" she asked.
John tossed back his champagne and traded it for a new flute as a waiter passed.
"Yeah, and it turns out he needs a ride back," he said.
If he couldn't have what he wanted, then maybe Rodney could.
She looked around hopefully and John, ever helpful, pointed to where Rodney was talking with a couple he thought were owners. He'd spotted Rodney's back and shoulders not long after he followed him inside and kept track of him since then.
"I wanted to talk to him about Blue anyway," Keller said.
"He'd probably be grateful," John remarked. He wasn't really sabotaging himself, because he had no chance anyway. Falling for a straight guy was the stupid part and he'd already done that somewhere along the way. This was more like torturing himself. Because it feels so good when I stop, wasn't that the punchline?
Keller thanked him and made a bee line toward Rodney. Once they were deep in conversation, John made himself look away.
The live band took a break and a recording started of The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. John wanted to find the speakers to the sound system and rip them out of the walls. He'd thought he'd have Rodney around to mock everything with and had only himself to blame for driving him away. It left him feeling bitter. He hated these things.
The food was good, but word that he had money had made its way through the same crowd that hadn't known what to make of him a few months ago. On top of his being at any kind of fundraiser, that had the charity whores homing in on him like a swarm of buzzing mosquitoes.
Champagne didn't cut it under the circumstances. He slipped away from a woman wearing the equivalent of the GNP of a small African country and lecturing him about supporting PETA after making some noncommittal hums and nods. He reoriented himself in the room and found the bar. He'd just swallowed half his bourbon and begun searching the crowd for Rodney — out of habit, because he had enough sense to realize confronting his friend again could only result in a serious fight — when someone tapped his shoulder.
John turned and studied the man accosting him. Curly hair, broad face, little eyes, broad smile, Anglo-Irish probably from the hint of accent he'd heard shape his own name, and very definitely not his type. He'd been a little obvious in his once over, another product of his spiteful mood, and the stranger caught it. He shifted back a step in reaction, which made John smile in a nasty way. "Something I can do for you?" he asked.
"Gene Cowan," the man introduced himself. He held out his hand to shake. John lifted his tumbler of bourbon and didn't take it. "CEO of GeneEye."
"Wow. Does that get you a lot of dates?" John heard himself ask.
Cowan's eyes narrowed. He kept smiling, but the bonhomie was all faked. John recognized a corporate shark when he saw one. The smiles and back-slaps were old tools of his father's too and he'd seen them plenty of times.
"A time or two, lad."
"I recognize the name. Your corporation offered to buy land I own. I told my lawyer to tell you I'm not interested in selling," John said. He sipped his scotch. "I'm still not."
"Can't blame a fellow for trying. I thought you might be getting bored with playing gentleman farmer. I'd make you a good deal."
Cowan's posture tightened. John wondered if he'd been a brawler in his youth. He had the sort of body and carriage that made him think of boxers. Or maybe Cowan had just been a smart thug. John raised his eyebrows at him.
"I think you should think about it," Cowan said.
The only thing John would think about was having Woolsey background check Cowan and GeneEye. He'd give Pegasus to the government before he handed it over to whoever had been behind nearly running Teyla off the road. He kept thinking 'what if she'd had Torren with her?' though Teyla would have had her son in his child safety seat.
John turned his tumbler, rocking the skim of amber liquid on the bottom. "You do?" he prompted.
Cowan smiled at him.
"Horse are so delicate. Things happen. Sometimes it just isn't worth starting over from scratch."
He walked into the crowd of black tuxedos and tropical bird dresses before John could muster a response. He was still staring after the sonovabitch when Todd breathed into his ear.
"You should watch out for him."
John turned enough to see Todd's sharp features.
"Did you hear him?"
Todd shrugged. "I didn't hear anything that couldn't be accounted to party chit chat," he answered. "Our lawyers have tangled with GeneEye's. Cowan is very good at saying things that mean something else."
"I wanted to sock him in the nose."
Todd's raspy laughter had several nearby partiers eying him and John. "Yes," he said, "he has that effect. But he keeps his hands clean. His brother-in-law, Acastus Kolya, does the dirty work."
John frowned at Todd. "How do you know?"
Todd plucked the empty tumbler from John's hand and set it on the bar, then gestured to the bartender for another and one for himself.
"I said we'd run into him before. HVE had him investigated."
When the new drinks arrived, Todd took his and tossed it back, very uncharacteristically. He caught John's skeptical look.
"Five years ago, I was kidnapped while riding in Italy," Todd said. "HVE paid over four million dollars in ransom. GeneEye came up with the funds to set up in competition with us a month later. A 'silent' investor." When John didn't pick up his new drink, Todd snagged it. He sipped this time. "I never saw my kidnapper's face, but I heard him. I've heard recordings of Kolya since then. It was him."
"Why haven't the cops arrested him, then?"
"Cowan, his wife and his lawyer, Ladon Radim," Todd said, "alibi him. According to his passport, he never left the US and has never been in Italy."
Todd didn't strike John as the forgive and forget type. His spidery fingers settled on John's sleeve and squeezed. "Just a warning, John. Don't do business with Gene Cowan. Don't sell to HVE; I don't care. But don't sell to GeneEye or we will be enemies." His yellowish eyes narrowed. "GeneEye is leveraged to the limit. They need Pegasus to complete a deal and save themselves."
"From you?" John asked, though he'd guessed the answer.
Todd raised his tumbler in a toast.
John clinked his tumbler against Todd's.
Todd eyed him.
"Did you come alone?"
"No, but McKay's finding his own way home," John replied. He smiled at Todd. So Rodney didn't want anything to do with him? So what? "Want to take a second crack at that seduction scene?"
Make yourself necessary to somebody.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Pablo didn't know what to make of snow. Of course, the lion wasn't alone; the unusually early and heavy snowfall had everyone in a tizzy. Schools had closed and runs had been made on emergency supplies in the stores when the weather forecasters began predicting more.
John liked it.
John leaned against the fence and watched the old lion pace the outdoor enclosure. The chain-link bit into his shoulder and hip. It didn't hurt any more than the bruises — fading reminders that he and Todd had been almost too rough with each other during their night together — and the bruises didn't hurt compared to how John felt. The lion didn't care much for the cold, of course, but it was the snow that baffled him.
He'd worn a muddy path from the door into his stall-turned-den to the outdoor water trough and the three tree trunks along with the big landscaping rocks they'd put in to give him something to climb on, and back to the padlocked gate. Every so often, Pablo would stop and paw at the snow lying next to his path. He'd cough and growl and then draw his paw back and shake the cold stinging stuff off. His tail tip would twitch in annoyance. Next he'd sniff his paw and lick it. He'd licked the snow once and then smacked it when it hurt his tongue.
Pablo didn't seem to get how something that didn't really smell like anything but water could hurt him and he kept coming back to it.
He'd come out to the quarantine barn to escape the chaos of the Little Barn, where some ex-Air Force colonel and his buddy Murray were overseeing the installation of the custom security system. The house was just as bad. O'Neill's tech-geek was overseeing turning one of the housekeeper's quarters into a control room that would eventually have monitors hooked up to every building on the farm and revamping the house system too.
O'Neill promised to have the house and the first test with the Little Barn finished and operating before Christmas in exchange for a hefty bonus. Apparently he had plans to go home to Minnesota.
At least someone was looking forward to Christmas.
John curled his fingers into the chain-link
That wasn't fair. He was the one in a sour, anti-holiday mood. Everyone else seemed to be in great spirits. The sun was shining, but the snow would last through until New Year's, giving everyone a white Christmas. Ronon had been wearing a ridiculous red Santa hat with bells for the last week.
The cold from the metal bit into John's bare fingers. Pablo leaped onto one of the tree trunks and settled where he could stare at John. One ear swiveled to the side. The lion no doubt could hear voices and engines and whatever else was running back at the Little Barn. As long as nothing got loud enough for John to hear, everything was probably all right. The horses were turned out in blankets or moved over with the overflow into the Big Barn, despite its state of lesser repair. They'd bring them back in once O'Neill's people finished their work.
His fingers were getting numb. Too bad the rest of him wasn't.
Rodney had said he'd come to Christmas. John had invited Cadman and Mehra too and they'd said they were coming. If Rodney wouldn't come, the other two might beg off in a gesture of solidarity. He should probably mention that to Teyla and Halling.
Woolsey had RSVPed. Of course he had. The stationary had been heavy, the note written in Woolsey's own copperplate. John figured that meant Woolsey's life was pretty empty outside his law practice. No family to spend Christmas with, anyway. John meant to talk to him about Dave's kids and his SPI shares, but it could wait until after New Year's. It wasn't like the Sheppards were expecting to hear anything from John.
Pablo yawned, revealing yellow teeth worn and channeled by age. He settled himself on his side in order to laze in the thin warmth of the winter sun.
Maybe he should have invited Todd. He'd invited his lawyer and all the grooms and a crazy, pigeon-raising vet, so why not his… Whatever Todd was. Almost friend, one-night-stand, sometime competitor? Not lover, because that meant more than just spitefully scratching an itch once, which was all their night together had added up to in the morning. Not Todd's fault. John had been the one who screwed up.
He wanted Rodney and Rodney didn't want him. Not only didn't want him, but didn't want anything to do with John. So it hurt and he'd had sex with someone else and it still hurt afterward. Something he'd known going in. Lucky Todd wasn't exactly emotionally invested or things might have turned messy.
A shiver hit him and John tightened his grip on the fence.
God damn it.
This was where he usually left. Packed up and went somewhere else where he wouldn't have to see whoever or whatever reminded him of however he'd fucked up.
He wasn't going this time. You had to stop somewhere. Pegasus was it for John.
Pegasus would have to be enough, it and the people he'd gathered there with him. Taking care of them was something he could do. Pegasus needed him.
Where else would Pablo have gone if John hadn't owned the farm? Where would any of them be? He had a duty to his friends to stick, so he would.
"You don't know how lucky you are, buddy," he told the lion.
Pablo began snoring.
John laughed despite himself. The snow would melt eventually. Maybe Rodney would get over his anger or his fear. All John could do was take each day as it came and wait. He could have had it worse.
When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.
Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell
Saturday night saw the new, hip, seafood restaurant packed and the service less than helpful in Rodney's opinion. It brought out the worst in him. The noise added to his irritation. Jennifer had already given her order and now the waitress was waiting on him, almost visibly shifting on her feet and smiling the fakest smile Rodney had ever seen.
Rodney pointed to the surf-and-turf entré and asked the waitress, "Does the sauce have citrus any it?"
"I don't know." She poised her pen over her pad and gave him an impatient look. Rodney ignored her and checked up the menu again desperately.
"Is there anything on the menu that doesn't have citrus of some kind in or on it?"
Jennifer had suggested the new seafood restaurant and Rodney had agreed against his own instincts. He'd thought he'd be able to find something he could safely eat. Maybe the bread rolls, if he ate them dry, without the house specialty lemon-garlic butter.
"I don't know," the waitress said.
Rodney slapped the menu down and glared at her.
"Apparently you don't know anything. I'm sure it would be wonderful for this place's reputation if I suffered an anaphylactic reaction and died right here."
"Rodney — " Jennifer said. She reached across the table and set her hand on his arm. "Don't yell at her." Her face was pink with embarrassment and her eyes were hunted. He saw the waitress give her a sympathetic look.
"Fine," he muttered. "Just bring me a steak. No lemon on anything or I swear I'll sue."
"I'll be sure to tell the cook," the waitress snapped and hurried off.
"It's not her fault," Jennifer told him.
"Let's just forget it," Rodney replied. If he was careful, he could cut the outside of the steak away and eat the rest. Damn it, he'd forgotten to tell the waitress that he wanted his steak well-done. No doubt they'd bring him something that was still mooing.
He resigned himself to a dinner of bread rolls and listened as Jennifer told him about something so completely boring he couldn't actually follow it. Rodney nodded, smiled, hmmed and agreed Jennifer was right through the entire ordeal. He'd forgotten how much of an ordeal dates were.
The salad that arrived had mandarin orange slices in it.
Rodney tore open a bread roll and asked for a beer. Lemon slices decorated all the water glasses. He thought longingly of the Furnace in London, the pizza place he and John had eaten at several times. John hadn't once taken Rodney some place where he had a problem getting citrus-free food. It couldn't be a coincidence.
If he'd been out with John, they would have been kidding each other. John would have made fun of the guy three tables away who kept looking like he meant to dive into his date's cleavage. Jennifer, however, wouldn't appreciate it if Rodney quipped about sky-diving into the Grand Canyon.
Rodney drank some more of his beer. Jennifer frowned. "You're driving," she reminded him.
"Maybe I'll walk home, since I'm stuck back in the Middle Ages where the water isn't safe to drink," he snapped.
The hurt look she cast him made Rodney immediately apologize.
"I'll hire a cab."
John would have laughed.
He had to stop comparing his date to John. He had to stop obsessing over John. That's why he'd asked Jennifer out at the fundraiser in the first place.
Jennifer sighed and said, "Are you even listening to me?"
"Of course I am," Rodney lied. He was a shitty liar and could see she didn't believe him.
Jennifer refolded her napkin and sighed. Rodney knew that sigh. It was the 'why did I agree to go out with this guy' sigh.
Rodney signaled for another beer.
Things got better when they began discussing the next riding event. Rodney thought she and Blue would do well and advised her to ride Cappy more aggressively. The Oldenberg gelding was a little complacent unless pushed.
"Maybe I should ride more like Mr. Rathe," Jennifer said. "He does win."
Rodney stared at her. "Are you mad? You can't ride like Todd Rathe," he told her. "He wins because he buys the best mounts. A real rider improves their horse."
"You shouldn't say things like that," Jennifer said.
"What?" He'd just told the truth. Todd was a decent rider, but he won because he could afford to buy horses someone else — like Rodney — had worked themselves to the bone to make great.
"I'm sure you and Mr. Rathe could become friends if you would just try."
"Why would I want to?" Rodney asked in genuine bewilderment.
Jennifer sighed again.
"Really, why? He's an arrogant jackass and — " and too interested in John, " — too hard on his horses."
Their plates arrived, saving Rodney from completely ruining their date with a rant about Todd and owner riders with too much money and the lack of respect for trainers who did the real work.
His steak was well done. Not that it mattered, since it was also swimming in a sauce that smelled so strongly of citrus Rodney's tongue felt tingly and thick in his mouth just from inhaling. He waved it away with a grimace.
"You haven't tasted it," the waitress protested.
Jennifer looked embarrassed again.
"Deathly citrus allergy," Rodney snarled. "Just bring me some more damn bread rolls."
The waitress flounced away with the plate.
"You really didn't have to be mean to her."
"She didn't have to try to kill me."
"You should be kinder to people," Jennifer said. "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar."
"Why on earth would I want to catch flies?" Rodney jabbed back. "I spend too much money on fly repellant as it is."
The third sigh was Rodney's breaking point. The date was a disaster. Working with Jennifer, he found her sweet nature and temperament a benefit, but the idea of being in a relationship with someone who would constantly be correcting him for his manner or his words when they weren't nice enough threatened to make him break out in hives. Jennifer was just too…delicate.
He wanted to want her. She was lovely, but the heat he should have felt wasn't there. Rodney didn't understand it.
"So," he forced himself to ask, "are you going home to your Dad's for Christmas?"
"Oh!" Jennifer smiled widely. "Yes. I'm looking forward to it."
He let her talk about Christmas and Wisconsin and reviewed what he had in his freezer. There was microwavable cheese burrito, Rodney thought. He'd eat that when he got home. His mind drifted and he imagined describing the date to John and laughing over it. Except, maybe John wouldn't laugh. Maybe he wouldn't even smile. Not with the way Rodney had treated him. Or worse, maybe John was out with Todd right now and would want to share the details of their date.
Rodney's stomach did a slow roll.
He smiled at Jennifer and said, "Tell me more."
Maybe he wouldn't have that burrito after all. There was a bottle of Pepto in his refrigerator. That would ease the nausea he felt. He'd chug the pink stuff down, get out of this damn suit, and go to sleep. That's what he needed. Sleep. The barns and the horses couldn't wait and he had to be up early in the morning.
Jennifer would understand that they had to make an early evening of it.
He should probably check the barns again before going to bed too.
He stopped drinking half way through the second beer and felt all right to drive Jennifer home by the time they left the restaurant. There had at least been coffee and dessert. He helped her into the truck and then, before he could turn the key, Jennifer took the initiative and leaned into Rodney, clearly meaning to kiss him.
Rodney turned his cheek.
"Sorry," he muttered, "but you had lemon on your fish."
He really didn't want to kiss her. He didn't want to think about what that meant.
"Ooops. I didn't think of that. You're really that sensitive to it?" Jennifer laughed.
"I really am."
She hugged him when they reached her place and Rodney watched until she was safely inside, before putting the truck in gear again and driving back to Archangel. Her perfume clung to him, but it faded as he walked through the barns, replaced with the familiar scents of hay and horses and sawdust. He snagged a Powerbar from the box he kept in the tack room when he checked it.
He dreamed that John finished first at Lexington. John jumped off Atlantis and grabbed Rodney in a tight hug. He smelled of sweat and horse. Then he let go of Rodney and Todd was there, kissing John in front of Rodney and the crowd. Everyone applauded as John and Todd walked away together, while Rodney held Atlantis' reins, left behind.
Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful.
John heard the engine hum from the barn. A quick glance at his watch revealed it was earlier than it felt, just a quarter after five, though the sun had already set. He gave Atlantis a last pat before going outside into the blue winter twilight.
Headlights flared across the snow and the house windows from a limousine. The driver stopped at the formal front entrance. Only strangers went to Pegasus' front door these days. That meant he'd have to talk to whoever it was.
Too much to hope they were lost and really looking for Archangel Farm. John didn't feel like dealing with anyone. He'd passed on the invitation to the staff Christmas party at Archangel and told Teyla and Halling to go instead. Ronon was probably there too. It wasn't the sort of gathering that would anyone would go to in a limousine.
Maybe it was Todd, come to whisk John away from Pegasus. John smirked to himself. At least Todd didn't give a damn that John batted for the home team. John had gone home with him the night of that shitty fundraiser. The penthouse had a little too much purple and red for his tastes and Todd liked pain more than John did, but they'd parted in the morning as friends.
He figured Rodney had heard about that from Anne or someone else who had been there, if he hadn't noticed them leaving together himself.
Snow crunched under his feet. He blew out a heavy sigh that turned to mist. He still really didn't know what he'd done to piss off Rodney, since they'd quarreled before his one-night-stand with Todd. He didn't think reckless driving explained how his friendship with Rodney was withering. They were still working together, but it wasn't the same. They didn't joke, they didn't even talk; Rodney gave instruction and John and Atlantis followed it. Rodney didn't even insult him any longer.
The house loomed up and he lost sight of the limo. They would have to wait until he had his boots off and could get to the front door; Jinto had some late school thing going and Teyla had taken Torren with her — not that Torren could answer the door anyway — but that left no one else home.
He shed his coat, left the yard boots by the door, then jammed his feet into an old pair of sneakers before washing his hands. He could hear the bell ringing, but anyone riding around in a limo likely wouldn't want to shake hands with someone stinking of horse.
The marble-floored foyer was cold and unlit. John flicked on the overhead chandelier then reached for the door. The black-and-white floor reflected the light with a mirror shine thanks to everyone avoiding using the foyer. He pulled the door open and stared.
His father scowled at him from the other side.
"You look the same," John said.
Patrick Sheppard had always been built heavier than his sons. His hair had gone grayer, but nothing else about him had changed. The camel hair overcoat, long scarf and leather gloves were identical to ones John remembered.
"Are you going to invite me in?"
With an ironic little bow, John stepped back. His father walked in. He looked around briefly before focusing on John again. "So all it would have taken to get you back was more money?"
John closed the door behind him. The chauffeur would be all right in the limo; he'd keep it running. Patrick Sheppard hated being kept waiting, after all, and he would expect his vehicle to be warm when he went back to it. He looked back at his father, who was removing his gloves.
"You never asked, so you'll never know."
"The one good thing I could say about you was that you never came to me for money."
His father gave him a sharp look, one meant to intimidate. It had, when John was a boy, even when he was a young man. He straightened despite himself, but kept his reply mild. "I still haven't."
Patrick grunted a dismissal.
"You got a lawyer."
"Dave told me he'd seen you with Rathe."
"I thought he would."
Patrick began walking through the foyer to the hall, examining everything from the vase on the delicate side table under the Manet to the faded silk wallpaper, before turning into the front parlor. It was another room they didn't use and no one had done anything to restore it beyond cleaning. The colors were lemon yellow and pale apple green and it looked sick when Patrick casually clicked on a lamp.
"Make yourself at home," John said. "Have a seat."
Patrick still had his gloves in one hand. He stayed on his feet.
"Woolsey is entirely too good, as well as his firm, according to our lawyers," he stated. "You'll have your inheritance and the SPI shares by the new year."
He'd known why his father had come. It still hurt.
"I kept track of you, you know."
"It couldn't have been hard," John replied. "I rode in the Hamptons and Florida and kept up my FEI quals. I wasn't in hiding."
"You're a blot on our name."
The words were quiet, a world away from the shouting matches Patrick and John had had all through his adolescence.
Since they didn't use it, the heating to the front parlor had been shut off. John wished he hadn't taken off his coat. He didn't want to shiver in front of his father. The silence of the big house only made it feel colder. Too much like John remembered the houses he grew up in — all of them. Each new house had been bigger, and despite everything in them, emptier.
He reached for his old anger, but just found the old pain.
"It's my name too."
"You won't pass it on."
Of course his father knew. He'd obviously hired people to find John and find out how he was living. It hadn't been a secret for a long time, though John didn't flaunt it either.
"Dave took care of that."
Patrick wasn't the only Sheppard to hire someone to report on the family. John hadn't gone to Dave's wedding — hadn't been invited — or sent anything when his brother's two children were born. But he knew about them. He'd half intended to have Woolsey arrange to give them each half of his SPI shares for Christmas, but the mess had dragged out too long.
"At least I have one son who is a man."
Well, that confirmed what John had been expecting.
"So what brings you to my door seven days before Christmas?" he asked through gritted teeth. Part of him managed to be grateful no one was around to hear this. It made him wonder if Patrick had some how engineered that.
"I want to buy your SPI shares."
Of course he did. John smirked and folded his arms over his chest. "Yeah? Why should I sell? SPI's a nice investment. Even in today's market, I could unload them for a lot. If I wanted to."
"Sheppard Power and Industry," his father said. "The company has been in family control for four generations. I don't want you wrecking that."
"Wow, so…what? I'm not part of the family?" John commented, then winced in anticipation of Patrick's reply. "Last time I checked my birth certificate it said Sheppard. Mother Marion. Father Patrick."
"You're not my son any more," Patrick snapped in disgust. "I won't have a son that's a dirty little faggot."
John hid his flinch.
"You forgot the cocksucking part," he said. "And you did a piss poor job of convincing me to sell to you."
He watched his father's hand curl into a fist. His throat felt painfully tight. He had to force the next words out.
"Since I'm not your son, I think you'd better leave."
Patrick drew his gloves back on.
"My lawyers will contact yours."
"Don't hold your breath," John said.
"I wish you'd never been born."
John watched him leave the room. He heard his steps on the foyer floor and then the sound of the door opening and closing. He turned enough to look out the diamond-paned windows and follow the dark shape of the limousine as it rolled away, until the red flicker of its tail lights disappeared around a curve in the drive.
His eyes burned, so he squeezed them shut.
His father had lifted him onto the bare back of his first pony. He'd kissed John's forehead each night before John went to sleep and come into the bedroom and done the same without waking John or Dave nights he came home too late — sometimes John had made himself stay awake, only pretending to sleep.
Nothing he hadn't expected, he told himself. But he'd always been afraid of this day. He'd nearly married Nancy to postpone it and had run away entirely rather than face explaining why he couldn't bear to marry her.
Wetness tickled at John's cheeks. He scrubbed it away with the heel of his hand.
"Merry fucking Christmas, John," he said to the empty room.
Care, and not fine stables, makes a good horse.
Cadman had put up multi-colored Christmas lights around the office windows. They were plugged in and twinkling on and off while Bing Crosby crooned about a White Christmas from a mix CD on the barn boombox. The party had been surprisingly fun, but everyone had cleared out early in deference to rising early the next day. Mucking out with a hangover sucked.
If a certain spiky-haired person hadn't been there, Rodney certainly didn't care and hadn't been looking for him.
The man was an ass. A rich, handsome, talented jerk who belonged hanging out with the Todds and Elizabeths of the world, not Rodney McKay.
Cadman and Dusty were washing dishes in Rodney's kitchen. Rodney poked around the office downstairs, checking for any plates, glasses or other lost bits and pieces to add to the clean up, restless and pissed at himself. He'd deny to his dying day that he'd missed having John around.
He picked up the phone on the first ring.
"Archangel Farm. McKay," he said.
"This is Teyla."
She'd left early, along with Halling, when Torren started getting cranky. Rodney hadn't worried about them making it back to Pegasus. Ronon had left at the same time to follow her.
Someone had left a Mountain Dew can with a purple lipstick print on his desk. Right on the Badminton schedule printout for next year. The interlocking rings made for a near Venn diagram. The printout was still readable, so he left it and dropped the can into the trash.
"Rodney, could you…"
He'd never known Teyla to sound so uncertain. It frightened Rodney. In the half year since they'd met, she'd become like bedrock to him. Even the harassment aimed at driving John into selling hadn't phased Teyla. Nearly being run off the road had only made her mad. Hearing a tremor in her voice made him grab onto the edge of the desk to steady himself.
Torren was crying and hiccuping fretfully in the background. He heard Ronon's low rumble.
"What's wrong?" he blurted.
Cadman ducked her head through the door. "Hey, we're getting out of here now, you can handle the rest, right?" she said.
Rodney held up his hand.
"Teyla?" he asked.
"While we were gone, John's father was here," Teyla said. He could hear how carefully she'd picked those words.
"I'm guessing he didn't stop by to play Santa?"
"I do not think so," Teyla replied. "John is…John is drunk."
"Okay, that sucks, but why did you call me?" If anyone could deal with an emotional meltdown following a family confrontation, it would be Teyla. On a list of people best suited to that, her name would be on top. Rodney's wouldn't be on it at all: there would just be an asterisk next to 'get a dog' that lead to a note that if you couldn't do that, then you could try McKay.
He heard her pull in a breath full of frustration.
"Halling went to town to pick up Jinto. Torren is throwing up and running a fever. Ronon is going to drive us into the clinic, but I do not want to leave John here alone."
Crap. Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose.
Cadman mouthed a silent question: did he need her to stay?
Rodney shook his head. She lingered in the doorway. Snow dusted on the shoulders of her blue parka. If it kept coming down, driving back to Galacky would become dangerous. He waved at her to go.
"Go. I'll be right over," he promised.
"You know where the keys are. John is in the den."
"Yeah, yeah, just go."
"I'm afraid it is the flu," Teyla apologized.
"Then keep him away from me," Rodney said. "I have a very delicate immune system. It would be just like your spawn to infect me with some mutant strain of H1N1."
"Torren would never do such a thing…deliberately. Thank you, Rodney."
Ronon rumbled something again.
"I have to go."
"Right." Rodney set the handset into the phone cradle.
"You're about as delicate as bulldozer," Cadman said.
"Quit listening in to my calls."
"What's up?" Cadman asked.
"Nothing you can do anything about," Rodney answered through his distraction. "Uh, unless you could follow me over to Pegasus?" The snow outside looked a lot thicker when he thought about driving the Mule through it.
"No problemo," Cadman said. She waggled her eyebrows at him. "Gonna go see Johnny-boy?"
"Err, something like that. Let me lock up and then we'll go."
"Good going, Rodney," she congratulated him. "I'll tell Dusty to hold on a minute."
Rodney unplugged the Christmas lights, then locked up the office. He stomped up the outside stairs to his apartment, left one lamp on in the kitchen — noting Cadman and Dusty had done a marine standard spic-n-span clean up — grabbed up coat, gloves and overshoes, his keys, wallet and heavy flashlight, then headed back down. The door locked behind him.
He got the Mule running and left it to warm up while he walked through the barns one last time.
Cadman and Dusty were in her car, white plumes of exhaust pumping from the tail pipe and mixing with the black smoke the Mule coughed out when he got back. Rodney waved at them, got into the old truck and started out. Their headlights stayed close behind him until he turned into the Pegasus driveway, where they went on to town with a honk of their horn.
The Mule made it up the drive without problems — Rodney could see the tracks where Ronon's truck had come out in the cone of his own headlights. The outdoor lights were on, shining blue off the snow and painting everything beyond them darker than dark. He parked and switched off the ignition, sitting in the rapidly chilling truck cab as the engine dieseled for a long minute then backfired.
If John didn't know Rodney had arrived after that, then he'd already passed out.
The key to the backdoor was still where John had showed him it would be. Rodney punched in the security code on the new panel and it went green. The mudroom was empty, though the lights were on, as he stepped inside. He locked the door behind him and reset the system, before getting out of his coat.
He hung it next to John's.
The sound of the TV drew Rodney through the kitchen to the den. The blue light flickered through the open doorway. He hesitated there before spotting John's pale socks. His feet were propped on the arm of one of the couches. Rodney considered whether maybe John had passed out. The feet moved though, shifting as John reached down to the floor and groped for a bottle.
Rodney walked in and took a seat across from John.
"Hey," he said, because he couldn't think of a damn thing else to say.
John juggled the bourbon bottle in surprise. He didn't drop it, so maybe he wasn't as drunk as Teyla had thought. He looked like he'd been thrown into a fence, like just breathing hurt.
"McKay," he slurred.
John scrambled backward, getting his back against the arm of the couch and his legs bent in front of him. Rodney felt bad that John didn't feel comfortable enough with him now to stay sprawled on the couch with him there.
"So why're you here?" John mumbled at him. He squinted at Rodney. "Gonna tell me, blot on…" he waved his hand, "…whatever. Got it. I got it. Not friends anymore." He blinked fast, then put his hand over his eyes while letting his head drop back. "Shit."
Rodney felt disgustingly small. He'd picked the fight with John. It seemed idiotic in retrospect. John didn't give a damn about money; hell, he was the softest touch Rodney'd ever seen. Zelenka's damn pigeons were set up in the Pegasus dovecote because John would do just about anything for someone he thought was a friend. Not that Zelenka wasn't a friend, but Rodney knew someone would take advantage of John's easy generosity sooner or later. He'd sat in the Porsche and started feeling like that was him and then he'd gotten mad at John for making him feel guilty and it spiraled out of control before he could make himself shut up.
Words weren't going to do it. Rodney got up and went to the other couch, sitting down beside John, close enough the alcohol fumes coming off John burned his nostrils. Teyla had been right: John was drunk; he just held it well. The leather-covered cushion still held the warmth of John's body. He shifted John's feet off the couch to the floor, then took hold of his narrow shoulders and pulled him into a one-sided hug. "Idiot."
John went rigid.
"Don't," he muttered. He tried futilely to pull away but lacked the necessary coordination. Plus, Rodney's arms were strong, so was his whole upper body. So was John; controlling horses took muscle. But John had undone his strength with the booze. John batted at him uselessly. "You don't…"
"What did your dad say?" Rodney asked.
"Blot off –on– the Sheppard name," John mumbled. He kept his face turned away from Rodney. The fight had gone out of him, but he remained rigid wherever Rodney touched him.
"He's stupid a jackass," Rodney said. He squeezed John closer. "You're a good man."
No answer, so Rodney squeezed him again. John's breath hitched. Rodney prayed he wasn't about to start a drunken crying jag.
Not a whisper, but not loud. It's didn't sound like much, just a word. But plastic explosive didn't look impressive either. John had stopped breathing, as though the words were just as explosive and he was waiting for Rodney to detonate.
All Rodney could think was, so, Anne's rumors had been right.
"And so?" Rodney asked nonchalantly.
He'd never been grateful for his student's gossip-mongering before, but this time it meant surprise hadn't left him floundering or saying the worst possible thing.
A long gasping breath preceded John relaxing fractionally before turning to search Rodney's face.
"You don't care?"
"You can do better than Todd Rathe," Rodney told him.
"It was just one night," John slurred sullenly. "He's not so bad."
The dim reflections from the TV softened John's features, limning an illusion of what he'd looked like as a teenager, all dark eyes and vulnerability.
"You really are incredibly stupid," Rodney said affectionately. "It's good thing you're pretty and rich."
John brayed out a laugh, choking on the end of it, still watching Rodney uncertainly. Rodney waved the rank cloud of alcohol fumes away with his free hand.
"You're also going to have a murderous hangover."
"I always pretended that as long as he didn't know, there was a chance… you know… that he wouldn't hate me," John said quietly. "So I never went back."
"You're like an emotional Schrodinger's cat."
John melted against Rodney's side. "Why'd you leave?" he asked, child-like.
"I'm right here."
John shrugged. "You were here, but you weren't. You didn't like me anymore."
"I thought someone told you and that was it."
Rodney leaned forward and retrieved the bourbon. He took a swallow. His mouth was still dry afterward.
"I still liked you," he said. "I was just mad at you for having money. It was stupid. And then I was ashamed of myself, which made me mad at you because I hate feeling guilty, not that I feel that way often, because really I almost never do anything to feel guilty about." The next mouthful of bourbon burned going down too. "But I did."
John's head angled over and his cheek rested against Rodney's shoulder.
"I hate talking about feelings," he mumbled.
"Oh, God, me too," Rodney blurted out. "Can we not now?"
He felt John nod.
They were quiet after that and John's weight slumped further and further over onto Rodney's side as he fell asleep. Rodney sipped at the bourbon and watched as the eleven o'clock news came on. The weather reporter promised a white Christmas. The snow drifting silently down outside the windows confirmed his predictions. It muffled the sound of a motor until it was very close.
Rodney listened as Teyla and Ronon came in. Teyla had Torren in her arms and looked tired but relieved as she checked inside the den.
Rodney nodded to her burden.
"Yes. He as an ear infection, so you need not worry about catching influenza from him," she replied.
Ronon clomped up behind her. "Halling left a message on the machine," he said. "He and Jinto are staying the night at his girlfriend's." He raised an eyebrow at Rodney and John. "You two back together?"
"We're not 'together' together," Rodney hissed at him.
Ronon snorted. "Whatever."
Riding a polo pony is like driving a 911 with brains.
Morning arrived with a collection of aches and pains Rodney could have done without. Insistent messages from his bladder had him cracking one eyelid open. The den at Pegasus resolved into focus eventually, still lit by the unsteady glow of the television. Someone had covered the two of them with the fleece blanket. Freeing his numb-to-the-shoulder arm from the heavy weight on it revealed his watch and the hour. Ungodly early even for him. The windows were black and would stay that way for hours.
Next to him, John snuffled and then groaned, "Ow," before hiding his face against Rodney's shoulder again.
Rodney took a certain satisfaction in that. As uncomfortable as he felt, John would be suffering much, much more when he came around, between the hangover and the inevitable embarrassment. Maybe the physical misery would serve as a distraction.
After prying himself the rest of the way free of John — and gently straightening his body into a non-crippling position on the couch since he'd gone back to sleep, lap blanket over his legs at least — Rodney staggered his way to the bathroom. Urgent needs met, he washed hands and face and then rinsed his mouth out, using a finger to scrub at his teeth. His reflection showed tufts of hair standing up in strange directions, bags under his eyes, and his beard coming in heavy and dark along his jaw — unfortunately less defined than it had once been. He looked heavy and tired. Hard to believe he'd once been whip-thin and hyper-active.
When had he gotten old, damn it?
He splashed more cold water on his face and reached for the hand towel to blot it away. His back spasmed as he twisted to rehang it. Rodney grabbed the edge of the sink counter and panted his way through the pain.
Still braced with some of his weight on his hands, he let his head hang. He'd been ignoring it, hoping the sharp twinges would ease up the way the pins and needles in his arm had. The spasm let up and he knew he'd be able to walk out of the bathroom, but the pangs in his back would be back. Beckett had reluctantly prescribed him painkillers in lieu of surgery, but they were in his apartment. He'd already gone through most of them anyway and didn't relish asking for another script.
Biting back a gasp, Rodney pushed himself upright and headed for the kitchen. John kept aspirin there. He swallowed three — a compromise between a normal dose and how many he wanted to take — and began setting up the coffeemaker. He moved with a certain extra care without anyone awake to see.
Without Halling around and John out for the count, Rodney figured breakfast would be catch-as-catch-can, so he nosed through the freezer and then found Jinto's Poptart cache. He munched down two before snagging the coffee carafe long enough to pour out that first, precious cup. A couple of drips hit the empty plate and sizzled away, but Rodney thought the smell was worth it.
Night still held sway outside as Ronon shuffled into the kitchen, already dressed. Rodney hadn't discovered yet if Ronon could cook.
"Early," Ronon grunted at him.
"I need to get back to Archangel for the morning feed."
Ronon grunted again and pulled out what Rodney thought of as Halling's frying pan. Butter was plopped into it and it went on the burner unceremoniously. Ronon snagged a carton of eggs from the fridge and cracked four of them into the pan as the butter melted down.
Rodney got out another mug and poured Ronon the second cup of coffee.
Ronon accepted it, drank half, and commented, "Blacker than the inside of a witch's ass out there."
That got him a brief baring of remarkably white teeth.
"Snow on the road."
"Wonderful," Rodney said.
Cadman and the grooms would be late if the roads were very bad. That made it more necessary that he get back himself.
Ronon produced bread, putting it in the toaster, butter, jelly, ham that went into another pan on a second burner. His ease impressed Rodney.
"You want some eggs?" Ronon asked as he slid the four he'd just cooked onto one plate. Obviously he meant to eat all of them himself.
"Yes, since you ask."
Four more eggs went into the frying pan. Another slice of ham flipped into the second pan. Rodney managed to feed the toaster more bread himself. Ronon ate his meal at the counter as he cooked the rest.
Teyla arrived in time to accept two of the eggs and a slice of toast.
"I see John is still asleep," she said. She'd likely been the one to get them the blanket. Sometimes she treated John just like Torren, only larger and too awkward to pick up. Each time she did, John froze up for a second, then pretended to protest, but Rodney had observed that he smiled wider after a dose of Teyla's affection.
Rodney slid the jam across the table to her. She looked as tired as he felt, with dark circles under her eyes. The Christmas sweater she'd pulled on failed to make her look energetic.
"So what was with him?" Ronon asked. "He do this often?"
Teyla shook her head.
"Don't ask," Rodney told him and added, "Family."
Ronon's gaze flickered to the doorway, then down, prompting Rodney to look. John hesitated just inside the kitchen, then nodded once to Rodney, acknowledging him, before shuffling in. He pulled a glass down from one cabinet, filled it from the tap, and gulped most of it down, before fumbling open the same aspirin bottle Rodney had resorted to.
John settled into a chair between Rodney and Teyla.
"Torren okay?" he asked, proving he hadn't been completely wrapped up in his own head the night before.
"Fussed all night."
"Toast?" Ronon asked.
"Dry," John answered after swallowing.
Rodney finished his coffee. He set the cup down and pushed his seat back.
"I've got to get home."
John hadn't been looking at him in a pretty obvious way, but he cocked his head to the side and met Rodney's gaze.
"Later, McKay," he said.
"Dinner? Here?" Rodney asked.
"If we can get Halling back to cook."
"Okay," Rodney agreed, feeling better for no reason considering he faced doing most of his muck out and the feeding by himself if Cadman and the others didn't show. It was being on good terms with John again. He tensed against his back acting up before standing, then headed for the mudroom to retrieve his coat.
Ronon ambled after him a few minutes later.
"You left your dishes."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I put myself out to look out for our drunken friend last night. He can wash my dishes."
Rodney opened the back door and cursed. The cold smashed into his exposed face like two-by-four. "Motherfucker," he muttered. Behind him, Ronon laughed.
The Mule's door had frozen shut. Rodney banged it with the flat of his hand a couple times and it gave away. He automatically smoothed down the duct tape curling away from splits in the old bench seat before getting in. Key in the ignition, gear shift pulled all the way to the left, one pump of gas to prime the cranky old engine, then he turned the key.
Rodney frowned, returned the key to upright and yanked the gearshift over as far as it would go, then tried again.
Wary of flooding the engine, he pumped the gas pedal once more, then tried the key again. Nothing.
He twisted the key the other way and turned on his headlights. They reflected off the snow and didn't dim. Rodney switched them off, thumped the heel of his hand against the steering wheel, then reached down and pulled the hood release. The door stuck so that he needed to give it a kick — which he felt like doing anyway — before it opened. He snagged his flashlight from under the seat and got out.
Ronon joined him as he stared at the engine, aiming the flashlight methodically, hoping to spot something obvious and easy.
Rodney pointed the light at the battery. "I've got juice."
"Behind the seat, driver's side," Rodney told him.
They checked the spark plugs and the wires first. Except for the one that always gummed up with leaking oil, they all looked good.
John joined them, bundled into a parka and carrying a fluorescent lantern. He squinted against an obvious headache.
"Distributor?" he suggested.
"Get in and try to turn it over," Ronon suggested.
John handed Rodney the lantern.
"You've got to pull the gearshift all the way over when you start it," Rodney told him.
John tried it.
This time, standing with the hood up, Rodney heard a distinctive clickclickclick. Ronon heard it too.
He thumped Rodney's shoulder. "Could be worse."
Ronon exchanged some look Rodney couldn't interpret with John.
"I gotta go."
Rodney sighed as Ronon took off. Minutes later, one of John's grooms chugged up the drive.
It wasn't that bad. The solenoid could be replaced in fifteen or twenty minutes once he had it. The cost wouldn't break him. He still felt like stamping his feet and yelling at the sky. Why him? Why him every damn time.
"Hey," John said. He caught Rodney's hand and folded it around a set of keys. "I gotta go help Stacks."
At first Rodney thought John had handed him his own keys, but the fob was different. He opened his hand and realized John had given him the Porsche keys.
"You — "
"Teyla drives it."
Rodney glared at him.
"You wouldn't let me drive it before."
"Yeah, I was being an asshole."
Rodney weighed the keys. "Yeah, you were." He headed for the green car.
"Hey, you were too!"
Any thrill of driving a Porsche pretty much disappeared when navigating a snowy, unploughed drive and then the country road. Rodney didn't care much for being slung so low either. Pickups or horseback, he'd become used to being able to see further than he could from the sports car. Though it purred with untapped horsepower, he couldn't have any fun with it without skidding into a ditch.
Cadman and Mehra showed up forty minutes after Rodney made it back. They joined him without comment on the Porsche, though Rodney didn't fool himself that Cadman hadn't noted it. Simpson and Chuck straggled in half an hour later and they finished both barns. The horses were bored and restless; none of them were being turned out and most weren't being ridden either, courtesy of weather and impending holidays.
Rodney spent an hour on the phone with a woman who wanted to buy her daughter a horse for Christmas, convincing her a pony would be better to begin with and providing the name of the local Pony Club. Cadman had plugged in the twinkly lights again. He found himself looking at them and wondering what kind of jerk disowned a son for sexual preferences. What would his parents have thought, if they'd been alive and Rodney or Jeannie had gone to them with a bombshell like that?
Because Rodney wouldn't have hidden it or pretended the way John had.
He scrubbed at his face, felling sticky and gritty.
That wasn't fair.
Why should John have to announce to anyone he was gay? Rodney didn't have to tell people he liked women.
Basically, he decided, it all sucked.
Meanwhile, he needed to get to town, find an open parts store, and get that damn solenoid. Six days before Christmas, it was going to be a nightmare.
"You're in charge until I get back," he told Cadman.
"Sure," she said. She followed him out to the Porsche, which she patted on the hood with a grin. "So? Borrowing the boyfriend's toy, hunh?"
She looked at the Porsche knowingly.
"The damn Mule wouldn't start this morning!" Rodney protested, somehow knowing that his argument wasn't going to serve against Cadman's smirk.
"Hmn," she said. She glanced around ostentatiously. "Funny. I don't see it."
"It's at John's."
"Where it wouldn't start," she repeated. "This morning."
She was the most exasperating woman on the planet.
"This morning, when you went to start it, after staying over night at his place," she clarified in a voice dripping innuendo.
"Where he passed out drunk, Torren cried all night because of an ear infection, and I slept on the couch," Rodney replied. "Don't make things up."
Cadman rolled her eyes.
"Fine. I'm glad you kissed and made up, anyway."
"Hmph." He hated it when people acted like they knew something he didn't.
"I've got to get a part and put it in the Mule," Rodney said. "Can you handle evening feed if I'm not back?"
She tapped her chin in mock thought. "Wow. Maybe. It'll be hard, but I think I'll manage."
"Then get off John's car so I can get out of here."
His mind was still on Cadman and the boyfriend remark as he steered the Porsche along, maybe five miles an hour faster than was really safe, but it ran so smooth the speed just kept creeping up. All that horsepower was a little like riding, only the Porsche didn't have a brain. A horse at least had some sense of self-preservation.
He'd moved on from horsepower to gas mileage and begun calculating if the Porsche got better or worse mileage than the Mule. Theoretically it was possible. Not likely, but possible, and Rodney would feel better if he could at least call the sports car a gas hog.
It didn't burn oil like the Mule. He'd buy a case while he was at the parts store. Maybe if he was lucky, he could combine this with finding presents. Ronon looked like the kind of guy who would appreciate a giant crescent wrench. John, though…what did you buy for someone who could afford to loan out a Porsche? It would serve him right if Rodney bought him a tree-shaped air freshener. Maybe a AAA membership. John wasn't really mechanically inclined…but then he might think it was some kind of dig after the whole gay confession.
Rodney ground his teeth together. This was why he hated non-professional relationships. There were too many variables. He would do something and of course it would be taken all wrong.
The tree-lined left curve ahead would require slowing down. Not a problem, except for the white pickup barreling up behind him. Rodney scowled at the rearview mirror. "Big truck, little dick," he muttered to himself. He slowed down as much as he could. The snow filling the ditch made it impossible to let the idiot pass before reaching the curve.
The white pickup accelerated closer.
Rodney goosed the gas rather than be rear-ended, then cursed as the Porsche sped into the slick curve. He wrestled with the wheel, fighting for control as it began sliding to the side. The stupid truck was right there and then it was roaring up into the inside lane.
"What the hell — "
He almost had control back, but the white truck steered out and its side slammed into the rear end of the Porsche. The jolt snapped Rodney's head forward. He felt it in his wrists, transmitted from the steering wheel he clutched. Metal screamed between the two vehicles. He slammed his foot onto the brake, but the Porsche was being pushed by the truck and it did no good at all.
It felt like a fall while jumping. Rodney felt the moment he lost all control. He had time to register the huge trunk of an oak looming up, to let go of the wheel, duck his head and try to cover his face with his arms. He felt the car hit the tree, heard the tearing shriek of crumbling metal, registered as his body hit the limits of his seat belt and the explosive pop of the airbag. His neck made an cracking sound that echoed in his skull.
There came a moment of stillness after that. Clumps of snow from the oak pattered down onto the smashed hood of the Porsche. The engined hissed. Rodney batted at the airbag, wondering if it might end up smothering him. His ears rang and then roared.
No, that was an engine. He tried to make sense of that, while too shocked to put his thoughts together. The truck was reversing away. They had run him off the road and they were leaving him.
Those bastards. It had to be the ones who had tried to scare Teyla off.
There was something he was supposed to do after an accident. Rodney tried to remember. Something about fire. Oh! His ribs hurt as he fumbled for the ignition and turned the key off. Breathing made him whimper and his ears were roaring again.
Not his ears.
They were coming back.
Rodney tried to free himself from the seatbelt.
He screamed when the driver's door folded under the force of the white truck slamming into it.
It is the difficult horses that have the most to give you.
"You're a great honking idiot!"
Not what John expected to hear a doctor telling a patient. Well, unless the patient was Rodney McKay. He hesitated in the hall outside Rodney's hospital room with his fingers resting on the door, just under its little window. A soft murmur and the ring of a telephone sounded from the nurses' station behind him.
"You can't make me," he heard Rodney snap back. Well, that sounded like he was back to his normal self. He'd been dulled with painkillers and shock the first two days after the crash.
John called it the crash. It sure as hell hadn't been an accident. It didn't take a forensics genius to see the burned rubber marks on the blacktop. Rodney had been run off the road and then the bastards had backtracked and run into the side of the Porsche, pinning it to a tree, before leaving him there.
"Knock-knock?" John said, pushing the door to the hospital room all the way open to emphasize his presence. He ducked his head in. Sunshine reflecting off a snow-covered flat roof a floor below reflected through the window. The thin yellow privacy curtain had been yanked back since the bed next to Rodney's didn't have an occupant.
The doctor glared at him and Rodney looked hopeful. "Are you getting me out of here?"
"That's the plan," John answered.
"It's about time!"
"Rodney, I've told you, you need to have this seen to — "
"Yes, yes," Rodney waved his hand at the doctor, dismissing his protest, "You've told me, but you can't be sure of anything. Medicine is just voodoo dressed up in white lab coats."
His doctor unconsciously jerked his lab coat straighter. John hid a smile.
"I've broken bones before," Rodney went on airily. "I don't need to be in a hospital for them to heal."
"Idiot," the doctor muttered. "You'll be on crutches and you live in an upstairs apartment. You have no one to look after you."
"He can stay with me," John said. "Us. Between Teyla and Halling and Ronon and me, that's got to be enough people, right? And we can make up a room on the ground floor."
"Mmph." The doctor's sour acceptance was aimed more at Rodney than John.
"I knew I liked you for some reason," Rodney said. He frowned. "Say, how are you getting back there? Your car's — "
"History?" John grimaced at the thought of the Porsche. He'd seen the smashed can crumple of it, still in place against the immoveable old oak, after emergency personnel had cut Rodney out of it. "I've a got a rental for the moment."
"Ah, then you'd be John Sheppard?" the doctor said. He held out his hand. John shook it. "Since Rodney has the manners of bear with a toothache and didn't introduce us, I'm Carson Beckett." He glanced at Rodney to include him in the joke. "Voodoo Priest."
John grinned at him.
"I was visiting my mother in Scotland or I'd have been here before today," Beckett explained.
"Rodney's mentioned you a few times," John told him. He had a feeling Beckett had cut his Christmas visit home short in order to return and treat Rodney. Which made him a good friend in John's book.
"Carson's my doctor. Of course I've mentioned him. He's actually half way competent."
"Which would be why you're not listening to my advice?"
"I said half way. In this case, you are wrong, wrong, wrong."
Beckett raised his hands in despair. "You're the one in pain, Rodney."
Rodney replied flatly, "I'd rather be in pain than crippled."
"The risk compared to the quality of life you could have pain free — "
"Doesn't measure up the risk to my quote unquote quality of life if I come out of surgery paralyzed. I'm not doing it."
John watched them argue without interrupting. The sick feeling in his gut that had grown bigger and bigger since Lorne had called inquiring whether the Porsche had been stolen or loaned ballooned. Rodney wouldn't be facing surgery if he hadn't been driving John's car.
"Sooner or later, Rodney, you're going to have to," Beckett insisted.
Rodney scowled. "You've been telling me that for a year."
"And you've been ignoring me!"
"And I'm going to go on ignoring you!" Rodney yelled. He scooted to the edge of the bed, got his good leg down on the floor and snapped his fingers at John. "Clothes. Wheelchair. Discharge papers."
Beckett snarled under his breath. "Fine, you stubborn jackass." He stomped past John. "I'll get your damned paperwork. I could still be fishing in the Highlands and looking forward to eating my mam's Christmas dinner, you know, instead of here."
"No one made you come back!" Rodney yelled at him, but looked embarrassed and sorry the instant the door closed behind Beckett. "Crap."
"So, surgery?" John asked after Beckett had come and gone again.
John hefted the gym bag in his hand.
"Fine, yes, my back is screwed up, it's been screwed, no, the accident didn't do anything to it, and, yes, I suppose that eventually I'll have to give in to the bead-rattlers and let them slice me open," Rodney said.
John set the bag on the bed beside him.
Rodney unzipped it and pulled out the button-down shirt John had brought, along with an eye-searing orange-fleece that showed the sort of wear that went with being a favorite, and faded gray sweatpants.
"No underwear?" he griped.
John leaned against the doorway and shook his head. "Not going there, pal."
"Hmph. Some friend."
"Actually, yes, you are," he said abruptly. "You were here when I woke up."
"Didn't think you remembered that."
Rodney had come out of the anesthesia after the surgery on his ankle groggy and confused, mumbling about his mom and dad, and asking for Jeannie. John had told him everyone was okay and he'd fallen back asleep. John hadn't thought he'd remember.
"Cops talk to you yet?" Rodney asked as he wrestled the sweatpants on first. He still had a lot of bruising and had to stop and breathe several times.
"Some detective named Lorne was here this morning, asking about the yahoos that ran me off the road." Pants defeated, he took a break before fighting off the hospital gown. Brutal blue and black bruising covered Rodney's chest and back. "He said they found a truck that had green, what did he call it," finger snap and he pointed at John, "transfer from your Porsche. It was stolen, but he seemed to think he'd get fingerprints from it."
"Great," John said, still stunned by the marks littering Rodney's body.
"He wanted to know if I could identify the drivers. Like they stopped to introduce themselves first."
John would like to be introduced to them. He'd like to make them suffer or at least see them thrown in jail until they rotted.
Rodney carefully pulled on the shirt and buttoned it, then the soft fleece hoodie. He hummed with contentment, then speared John with his bright gaze. "You don't really have to put me up."
"You come over for breakfast, you come over for dinner, you may as well sleep over. Teyla would kill me if I didn't invite you anyway."
Rodney smiled at him. The sunshine caught in his eyes, bluer than the blue sky. "Yes, she would, wouldn't she? I like that about Teyla."
John smiled back helplessly.
If you aren't fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.
"You're firing me?"
Elizabeth folded her hands together on her lap. She glanced around the den where John had left Rodney with his broken leg comfortably propped up, the TV remote, a laptop, and a king's ransom in snacks all within easy reach. Also his crutches. John never moved Rodney's crutches out of reach.
"Rodney — "
"No, really, you're firing me because I was run off the road?" he demanded.
"Perhaps if you thought of it as a vacation — "
"Yes, an unpaid one. It's called unemployment," Rodney said bitterly.
Elizabeth's hands tightened on each other. So she was upset. Rodney could pay attention. He knew her. When her lips pressed together and thinned, she was getting angry.
"Rodney, try to see this from my viewpoint. I've had to hire an office manager, while Laura is doing some of the training, but her expertise is Western Pleasure, and now I have no rider either."
"You think all I do is ride? I can still train. Anne and Jennifer can ride."
"I think that your…interest…has shifted. You spend more time and effort on Pegasus than you do at Archangel. That's not what I pay you for."
"You're serious." His bruises and incisions all hurt, but he wished he hadn't taken the painkillers Carson had prescribed. They made his thoughts too woolly. "I've never given you less than my best."
"I don't enjoy this, Rodney, but really," Elizabeth said, "I think it's clear. You're here."
"Yes." He pointed at the cast on his leg. "I'm on crutches and I live in an upstairs apartment. Outside stairs. Alone. I don't make enough money and my insurance doesn't run to hiring a nurse." He glared at her. "Oh, wait. I don't make any money. Great, and even with COBRA, I'll be stuck with a higher insurance premium. Unless you plan to claim you fired me for gross misconduct."
Elizabeth flushed in embarrassment. "Of course not, Rodney."
Rodney still sulked, feeling betrayed.
"So, who did you hire to replace me?"
Well, wasn't that just grand. He was being replaced by a snot-nosed junkie. Rodney dug his fingers into the arm of the couch to keep from throwing something. He thought he understood Elizabeth's motives, at least. She didn't think Rodney needed her any longer and she'd found someone else she could help. It served him right in some ways. Only a few months before, when he went to England with John, he'd gloated to himself that he could finally risk going against Elizabeth's wishes.
"Oh, that's wonderful. I wish you and him well with the nonstop dope testing, then."
"Come on, he's been in and out of rehab more times than Bobby Brown."
"That doesn't preclude giving him a second chance, Rodney," Elizabeth reprimanded him. "The same chance I gave you."
Well, if Ford had anything left of his soul that he hadn't sold for drugs, he'd better get ready to hand it over to Elizabeth, Rodney thought sourly, because she expected explicit gratitude and twenty-four/seven devotion three hundred sixty-five days a year when she put forth the Lady Bountiful act. He almost felt sorry for his replacement.
Calling Ford a junkie was probably unfair. Ford had been a rising star, as well as a genuinely likable kid, five years back and people had expected him to become the Tiger Woods of three-day eventing. Ford's career had fallen apart after one of his rides tested positive for a performance enhancer. After that had been cleared up, Ford had been caught buying cocaine. He'd spiraled down, cleaned up, fucked up again, rehabbed, sworn he was clean to anyone who would still talk to him, and then disappeared. Rodney hadn't heard anything about him for over two years.
He gritted his teeth and forced out a few, almost gracious words. Ford wasn't to blame for Elizabeth booting Rodney.
"I really hope it goes well for him."
He couldn't make himself say the same for Elizabeth. He still thought her timing sucked. If she noticed, she didn't show it.
Elizabeth smiled. "And I hope everything goes well for you, Rodney. If you could have your things out of the apartment in two weeks? I've told Aiden the apartment will be available after the first of the new year — "
"One of the perks of the job," Rodney said. He'd forgotten. And he still hadn't managed to have the Mule repaired either.
After a glance at her watch, Elizabeth got to her feet. "I'm sorry, Rodney, but I need to get back to DC. Take care of yourself."
"Sure," he replied. "I'll get Blue out of the barn by the end of the week too."
"Oh, don't worry about that, Rodney," Elizabeth told him as she bent and bussed his cheek. Chanel Number Five tickled his nose. "I know Jennifer has been riding him."
And she wouldn't want Jennifer following Blue to some other barn. She might move Cappy. She might say something about that to some other owner. Had she considered she couldn't just have Ford take over riding all the horses at Archangel Rodney rode? He had private agreements with several owners. Though Elizabeth could likely sweet talk them into anything. It was her specialty.
"I know this seems unkind, but you have friends now, and Aiden desperately needs a place where he can begin again. No one else will give him a chance."
Arggh. If he let Elizabeth talk much longer, he'd start thinking she'd done him a favor.
"I'd tell you to take care of yourself, Rodney," Elizabeth told him, "but I think John will do that for you if you let him."
Rodney let his head sag back against the couch. John might think he was having a sucky Christmas season, but it didn't compare. Just a few weeks ago, Rodney had thought his life had finally turned around. Now he was jobless, homeless, laid up with a broken leg, and even his ex-boss thought he had something going with John.
Plus, he needed to pee and Elizabeth had moved his goddamn crutches.
"The universe hates me."
A sibling may be the keeper of one's identity, the only person with the keys to one's unfettered, more fundamental self.
"I hope they gave you the good drugs," Jeannie said from the door to the den. Rodney jerked and blinked out of a painkiller doze and she added, "Because it looks like it must have hurt."
"What are you doing here?" he asked. He fumbled for the remote and shut off the TV.
Jeannie walked over to him and cuffed the back of his head. "Stupid question."
Rodney rubbed the back of his head and glared.
"How did you get here?" he demanded. "Days before Christmas? And who let you in?"
"I climbed on my broom and flew," Jeannie replied. "Some teenager opened the door and showed me in. This place is a maze. Mer…"
He stared at her, easily reading the worry and exhaustion in her eyes. "You didn't need to come."
Jeannie raised her hand to to cuff him again. Rodney scooted down the couch out of reach. The movement woke the dull ache in his ankle.
"Hey, hey, wounded man here," he protested.
"That's right," Jeannie said. "Of course I came as soon as I could book a flight, you jerk. I practically had to blow the ticket agent to get a seat in coach, by the way, and any chance I'll ever pay off the money you loaned me for the wedding is history."
Rodney waved one hand. "Like I ever expected it."
"You should," she told him seriously.
"Well." He felt his face heating. "I could use the money. I just got fired. But John's putting me up. It'll be okay."
The shock on his sister's face made Rodney feel a little better. So did her immediate hug — even if his bruises protested how tight she held him. Strands of her hair caught in his two-day beard. It had been a long time since Jeannie hugged him so close. Rodney tightened his arms around her too and clung for an extra instant. The fading scent of her perfume folded around him like her warm, strong arms.
Once she'd sat back, Jeannie declared, "That bitch." Then she wrinkled her nose and added, "Do you need help taking a bath? 'Cause you sort of stink there, Mer."
"I just got out of the hospital! Carson told me to keep my cast and incisions dry." Rodney let loose a hiccuping laugh and decided he had to defend Elizabeth a little. "Elizabeth's…don't knock her. She sort of paid your way through college. Halfway, at least." He couldn't resist the little dig at the end. After all, she'd just told him he stank.
Jeannie leaned back and looked at him seriously. "Mer, about that. I thought Mom and Dad left some money — "
Rodney shook his head. "They didn't leave anything, Jean Jeannie." He waited for her to swat him for calling her by the childhood name, but she didn't.
Instead, she looked thoughtful.
"I thought you were just being an asshole when I quit school and married Kaleb, but it looks kind of different if you were working to pay for it all."
"I didn't mind," Rodney said. Jeannie's silence made him amend that to, "Nobody made me do it."
She shook her head and then leaned back against the sofa back. "I always thought you were kind of a shitty brother. I mean, as soon as Mom and Dad died, you sold the house and moved to the States and you were always on me about money. Wow, was I an idiot."
"I had to sell the house to pay off their debts, but I didn't want you to worry or to know how bad Mom and Dad had screwed up."
"Thanks for coming."
"I can't believe you thought I wouldn't."
"It's not like I was dying," Rodney said. It was almost Christmas. It must have been hell trying to make arrangements. It proved Jeannie cared much more than Rodney had thought she did. It felt good.
"Your friend John certainly made it sound like you were," she told him. "In his disapproving, laconic way."
She glanced around the den. "He's rich rich, isn't he? I didn't really get that when you visited."
"Disgustingly rich," Rodney agreed. John didn't care about impressing people with his wealth or fulfilling anyone's expectations. Rodney couldn't have been comfortable around him otherwise. "I wouldn't trade families with him, though."
Jeannie grinned at him. "I don't know…I kind of think he's adopted you." She twisted around, fished up her tapestry bag and pulled badly wrapped package out. She set it on the coffee table. "From Maddy." Rodney reached for it and she gave him a minatory look. "Not to be opened until Christmas morning. Which is when I have to be back home. I promised her."
Rodney snatched his hand back.
"I never managed to shop," Rodney replied with a groan. "Crap. I suck as an uncle."
"You get a pass this year," Jeannie said. "I'll pick her out something from you." She curled her legs under her and studied him critically. "I'm booked on a flight out at two am, so let's make this time count, Mer."
If he felt disappointed that Jeannie meant to leave so soon after arriving, Rodney knew that it would mean more for her to be home with Madison than with him.
"Tell me you've finally got a social life," Jeannie said.
Rodney hunched his shoulders. "Sorta?"
"Sorta," Jeannie repeated. "What's that mean? What about Jennifer Keller? Did you at least finally ask her out?"
Just the memory of that awful date made Rodney cringe.
"Yes," he answered reluctantly.
"So? Marriage material?" Jeannie asked. "You're not getting any younger, Mer. If you don't want to end up as crazy Uncle Mer, who lives alone and talks to animals, you need to get serious about someone."
"Well, it won't be Jennifer."
"Do you think you're going to find someone better?"
"No, it's not that," he answered sullenly. He didn't understand why Jennifer had been interested in him if she didn't like who he was. She saw how Rodney was; he'd thought she'd seen how all the good parts outweighed the rest. John liked him fine and Rodney insulted him all the time. Of course, John could be just as sarcastic in response, so their friendship evened out.
"Because you're not," Jeannie teased.
"Thanks a lot."
"Well, what's wrong with her?" Jeannie demanded in exasperation. "The fact that you found a nice girl who's willing to put up with all your many little flaws is a miracle."
"She's too nice!" Rodney blurted. Jennifer wasn't genuinely willing to put up with his 'flaws'. Not that Rodney considered an honest response to the soul-killing stupidity of most people a flaw, but Jennifer had obviously found it humiliating. He could imagine a lifetime with her of swallowing back everything he really thought and slowly choking to death rather than embarrassing her. If Jeannie wanted to talk flaws, Rodney considered that a big one. "She wants me to be nice."
"How horrible of her," Jeannie replied after a startled pause.
"I know, I know," Rodney said. He scrubbed his hands over his face. "She'd want to change me and I'm too old to try being someone else."
Jeannie patted his arm.
"Well, what about Laura Cadman?"
"Now, you're just being mean."
"I'm just saying, Mer…You might want to adjust your ambitions. Plus, physically… Well, how do I put this? You're no John Sheppard."
"Let's just go back to how I'm a shitty brother," Rodney snapped. "How many people look like John anyway? Somehow the human race still manages to pop out enough brats to replace itself."
He shifted and leaned over the arm of the sofa to open the minifridge. "You want a drink?" He pulled out a bottle of water for himself. According to his watch, it was time for his next dose of meds and he needed something to help swallow them.
He handed her another bottle.
Jeannie stayed quiet while Rodney opened the bottles of medication and shook out the pills Carson insisted he take. The throb in his leg made him look forward to the painkiller at least, but the antibiotics made him nauseous unless he ate too. John had taken care of that. The minifridge held a covered plate with little sandwiches. They were made with the really finely sliced ham Rodney liked best, too. He popped one into his mouth whole — Jeannie winced — and chewed happily.
"M'favorite," he mumbled and offered her the plate.
Jeannie waved it off.
Rodney swallowed and said, "John makes good sandwiches."
"John made them?"
Jeannie studied Rodney, then smiled. "Okay. I just want you to be happy, Mer."
Gratitude warmed him, but Rodney gave her a bewildered look because he knew he'd just missed something.
"What? I'm touched by that, but there's something you aren't saying."
Jeannie sighed, but kept smiling, and said, "I love you."
Rodney looked at the floor, then up again. Jeannie glared at him expectantly.
Rodney set the water bottle on the minifridge. Talking about feelings always made him awkward. "Yeah?" He shrugged. "Fine. I love you too. But I'm not dying, so this conversation is starting to freak me out. Can we get back our more normal interaction, where you call me a jerk and I call you a selfish brat?"
Jeannie grinned at him.
"That's just like you, Meredith, wrecking it every time I try to have a moment with you."
Rodney grinned back at her.
"Yadda, yadda, yadda, it's always all about you, isn't it? And stop calling me Meredith!"
Now garden honey's overmild
To satisfy the sharpened taste
Of one who's eaten of the waste
I know a hunger never filled.
Leah Bodine Drake Honey From the Lion
To satisfy the sharpened taste
Of one who's eaten of the waste
I know a hunger never filled.
Leah Bodine Drake Honey From the Lion
Sometime after the idiots with the air horns moved on to other efforts at getting Sheppard to sell, Halling told Ronon to stop being a jackass. "You've got a bed here. Use it." Sheppard never said anything after he and McKay got back from Europe and that was it: Ronon was living at Pegasus and not in the unfinished gatehouse. There was an inevitability about it that Ronon gave up on fighting. He figured they needed him around. The lot of them, even McKay, were naive compared to Ronon. They had no idea how nasty a scare campaign could get.
It didn't surprise him at all to find himself in Sheppard's new SUV, empty trailer rattling behind them, going down the road to Archangel to pick up McKay's horse and pack his stuff on Christmas Eve.
Sheppard's white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel gave away how pissed he was, but he didn't say anything.
Laura Cadman met them. Under the smart ass attitude, she looked frazzled. Her hair was working itself loose from a braid and stuffing was working its way out of a tear in her puffy yellow parka. She greeted McKay with a sarcastic remark and a grin, then stood back while Sheppard steadied him as he struggled up the stairs.
"I'll start boxing up stuff here," Sheppard said. He turned the charm on Cadman, something Ronon hadn't seen him do before, and asked her, "Could you show Ronon Rodney's tack? We'll get all of that this trip too."
Along with McKay's horse, he meant. They could use the empty horse trailer on a second trip to carry McKay's furniture and other crap. So the new guy could move in. The apartment as part of the job was sweet until you lost the job. Of course, McKay could always sleep in the Mule, the way Ronon had in his truck. After they'd been assured McKay would be okay, Ronon had spent the evening putting a new solenoid and starter into McKay's truck, while Sheppard stayed on the phone to England until McKay's sister finally answered.
"Yeah, we've got that," Cadman answered.
Sheppard gave her a big smile before joining McKay in the apartment. McKay's voice drifted out. Ronon couldn't make out all the words, just, "I'm not being petty; I bought that mattress. It's a special prescription for my back and I'm not — " before the door closed.
He'd met Cadman a few times, while he was working for Wilford, enough to talk to anyway.
"You know, you get used to being shit on from a great height working with horses, and I'm not talking about by the horses," Cadman said as she took them into the tack room to pick up McKay's personal gear. "But this was a real heads up. I find another job, I'm out of here. McKay's never been Mr. Charming but canning him right before Christmas, when he's hurt? That's an extra special level of suck."
The heady smell of leather hung in the tack room. It was almost scarily organized, which Ronon figured was down to McKay.
Cadman stood with her hands on her hips as she surveyed the saddles. She blew out a heavy breath, stirring the strand of loose hair falling over her forehead and nearly into her eyes. "The new guy gives me a creepy vibe."
"That one and that one and the sweet custom job over there," Cadman said. She pointed out three different saddles, then picked up the first one, a gleaming black dressage saddle. She settled it into Ronon's arms. Her hands were red and rough.
"I mean, not creepy like Bob and Steve," she went on as she picked out a bridle. "Not kidnap you and leave you naked and dead in a ditch somewhere creepy. Just buzzy. He smiles too much."
Ronon kind of thought almost anyone would seem too smiley after McKay.
Sheppard had the back of the SUV filled with McKay's clothes and more tack he must have had in the apartment. Cadman fetched McKay's horse and had him loaded in the trailer before Ronon finished bringing out the rest of the saddles and other gear.
She handed McKay a brightly wrapped package after he'd clumped carefully down the stairs and made it into the back seat of the SUV again. His face had already gone pink from exertion and weakness, so Ronon couldn't decide if he blushed or not, but he did stroke his fingers over the slick, silver-patterned paper and stutter out an obviously surprised and genuine thanks.
Cadman thumped the top of the SUV and told them to get the hell out or she was going to come with them.
Sheppard opened his mouth and McKay kicked the back of the seat with good foot. "Don't even say it!" McKay told Sheppard loudly.
Ronon wondered about that later while helping Jinto feed Pablo and clean up his beefed-up enclosure. Zelenka's truck was parked outside the dovecote where he'd moved all his pigeons in. The vet waved as the two of them drove past. No doubt he'd be eating dinner with them too. Sheppard's invitations were open-ended.
Except for Jinto and Teyla's kid, no one at Pegasus had any family locally. Sheppard's father's appearance must have been a disaster considering how he dived into the bottle afterward. McKay's sister only showed up after he left the hospital and she had already headed back across the Atlantic. Ronon didn't know much about the vet, but he guessed Zelenka's relatives were all back in the Czech Republic. Ronon himself hadn't had anyone since Melena. They were an odd bunch, but they'd all chosen each other to patch together like an old crazy quilt.
He thought about that while feeding Pablo. The old lion had lost most of his mane, but it had been almost black once. There were nicks in his ears and bare places in his coat where it hadn't grown back over old scars. The old orange tomcat that ruled the Little Barn had similar marks from his hard, half-feral life. Ronon wondered if Pablo had started his life in the wild or been born in captivity. Did he miss freedom? In Africa, Pablo would have been reduced to a wisp of that mane tangled in the long grass, bones stripped by carrion eaters and bleached by the sun. Here, he spent most of his time in the warmth of the quarantine barn Halling and Jinto had converted into a den.
Pablo patted a chunk of meat with his paw. It flipped out of the big stainless steel tray Jinto had filled. Pablo poked at it, sniffed it, and flipped it again before eating it. A spark of pleasure showed in his round golden eyes, in the fathomless darkness of his slit pupils. He let out a rough, roaring cough filled with satisfaction, then lifted his massive head, listening for any answer.
None came, of course.
Just Jinto, finished with clearing the snow from Pablo's outside pen, along with the old cat's scat. He stowed his shovel and eyed the big tray.
"He'll probably eat some more later," Jinto remarked. "We'll leave the tray and pick it up tomorrow. If anything's left, we should ask Dr. Zelenka to check on him."
Pablo knew Jinto's voice. He padded over the converted stall's door and rubbed against it. Ronon would have expected him to purr, but Jinto had told him most big cats didn't. Jinto had also warned Ronon not to try petting him. Pablo's eyesight and hearing weren't good anymore and it made him cranky and unpredictable, another reason the circus couldn't find another place for him when it folded.
Zelenka had bemusedly done an exam of the lion after warning them his training had not included much experience with large felines when he studied in Prague or when he received his veterinary license in the US. Halling had far more practical experience. Halling and Zelenka had got along perfectly after that. Zelenka had quizzed Halling, consulted several other vets, and provided a supplement program that had Pablo perkier than he'd been in years according to Teyla.
Ronon considered Pablo again. If anyone were to unlock the gate on his enclosure, Pablo would likely wander out into the snow. He might even freeze or end up run down on the road; possibly he might be shot by animal control or a panicked home owner if he wandered as far as someone else's yard. Instinct would push Pablo to go, despite his comfort and safety.
"Are you coming or staying?" Jinto asked impatiently from the doorway.
He let Jinto drive and decided he would snag some of the leftovers out of the refrigerator and eat them while watching Frosty the Snowman. Maybe he would give Amelia a call too.
The one best precept–the golden rule in dealing with a horse–is never to approach him angrily. Anger is so
devoid of forethought that it will often drive a man to do
things which in a calmer mood he will regret.
devoid of forethought that it will often drive a man to do
things which in a calmer mood he will regret.
"You're working on Christmas?" Rodney demanded of Lorne. He'd progressed to gimping around on his crutches and nearly lost it on the foyer marble — that slick polished floor was a safety hazard! — answering the bell since Ronon and Halling had drafted Teyla, Jinto, and John as kitchen serfs. He peered down to the drive and spotted an unprepossessing blue sedan with snow already settling on the roof where Lorne had parked it. "Are you nuts? Back door, remember?"
Lorne replied with a self-deprecating shrug, "I'm divorced and the rest of my family is in San Francisco." Big flakes of snow were floating down and melting on Lorne's short hair and the shoulders of his coat.
"You gave me the wrong address."
Rodney managed to clump back out of the way so Lorne could come inside.
"I didn't. I ended up homeless after you talked to me the first time."
Lorne raised his eyebrows but didn't comment. He closed the big door for Rodney. "Some place we can talk?" he asked instead.
"Uh, yeah, come on." Rodney balanced on his good foot and one crutch, locked the door, and then punched in the code reactivating the alarm on the front door. He waited for the green light to flip back on. "Just follow me. Keep the coat, you can hang it up in the mudroom."
Lorne sniffed, catching the scent of good things cooking, as they approached the kitchen. John looked up from his job peeling potatoes when they came through. Teyla was frosting cookies. (John had started frosting cookies, but Halling had switched them because John ate more than he frosted, unlike Teyla.) "Hey," he said. A spiraled peel hung from the potato in his hand. Ronon, his dreads tied back and covered with a kerchief that made him look like a pirate, had one of the ovens open and was basting the huge turkey he'd brined the night before and then done obscene things to before starting to roast it. Rodney still wasn't sure he wanted to eat anything that had had Ronon's huge hands up inside it, but it smelled fantastic.
"Sorry to interrupt you folks' Christmas," Lorne said.
"Don't worry about it," John told him. He went back to peeling, though Rodney knew that he'd be listening if they didn't talk somewhere else than the kitchen.
"I actually needed to talk you too, Mr. Sheppard."
Halling gave something on the stove a vigorous whisk and pulled it off the burner before ducking his head out the kitchen door into the hall. "Jinto! Get in here!"
Sounds of protest sounded from the den, louder and louder, until Jinto appeared.
"Take over peeling the potatoes," Halling told him. "John needs to talk to Detective Lorne."
Jinto sulked but followed his orders.
Rodney nodded to the mudroom doorway. Lorne followed his gesture and slipped inside to get rid of his coat. Teyla handed him a sugar cookie when returned to the kitchen.
"Thanks," Lorne told her appreciatively. He bit into the cookie and made an approving sound despite his full mouth. Once it was gone, he gave her the best anime eyes Rodney had seen outside an actual cartoon. "You made these? They're fantastic!"
All the men in the kitchen paused, looking at Teyla, wondering what she'd do if they laughed.
"Halling baked them," Teyla said.
"That's why you can eat them instead of using them for floor tiles," Jinto added.
Teyla pulled the trays of frosted cookies out of Jinto's reach.
"Come on, we'll talk in the den," John said.
Teyla pushed two more cookies into Lorne's hand and smiled at him. "You're welcome to stay and eat with us. Dr. Zelenka, Laura and Dusty and Stacks and Jamie are all going to join us."
"I'm not sure — "
"Plenty of food," Ronon said. "Amelia's at her parents in Keyser."
Lorne looked confused. Rodney decided to take pity on him. He was in charge of catching the jerks who had tried to kill Rodney after all. It might pay to be nice.
"His girlfriend. She was going to come and then her parents changed their mind about having a big family Christmas thing."
"It kind of balances out," Jinto offered. "Since you're both cops."
"Wait," Lorne said. "Amelia Banks?"
Lorne thought that over. "I shouldn't."
"Why not? I don't think a plate of turkey can qualify as a bribe," Rodney asked. He turned himself on the crutches and headed for the doorway. John got out of his way. They'd tangled together and hit the floor once. Rodney's bruises were too colorful to tell if he'd added more, but he figured John had acquired a few. Rodney had landed on him. He'd been warm and solid under Rodney as one of the horses. Obsessively replaying the feeling of John's body pressed under him had had Rodney squirming in the nights since.
He made it to the couch and dropped with graceless relief. Riding kept him fit, but he was still sore and weak and using crutches made him work muscles he hadn't known existed. He lifted his casted leg onto the pillow Teyla had taped to the coffee table so it wouldn't slip out from under his foot.
John and Lorne picked seats equidistant to each other and Rodney. The little Christmas tree Teyla had put up the night before glittered with light and tinsel in the corner.
"So, what brings you out here?" John asked.
"We identified two sets of finger prints from the stolen truck that ran Mr. McKay here off the road," Lorne said. He focused his attention on Rodney. "Robert and Steven Lucazetti."
Rodney jerked upright.
"Bob and Steve!?"
"Who?" John asked before glaring at Rodney and demanding, "Wait, you know them?"
"I fired them!" Rodney retorted. "Well, I fired Bob, because he was lazy and smoking in the barns, and Steve walked because they're brothers. Not that I'm sorry, because Steve was even weirder than Bob and I ended up hiring Dusty to replace them, which made Cadman so happy she cut out half of her efforts at making me miserable."
Lorne took a small notebook out of his jacket and began writing down.
"Can you tell me when that was?"
"June," Rodney replied. He glanced at John. He remembered the day clearly; he'd seen John on Atlantis, silhouetted against shining morning mist, for the first time.
"So just before Mr. Sheppard moved in here."
"The same day."
John shook his head.
"So the crash, that was two jerks with a grudge against Rodney?"
Lorne closed his notebook. "It could be," he said. "I'm still not convinced. You've had a lot of harassment and vandalism here. It was your car, Mr. Sheppard. There's the incident with a truck following Ms. Emmagan from town, too. I don't put much stock in coincidence."
Neither did Rodney.
"It could have been a two-for-one special," he speculated. "The Porsche was pretty distinctive around here. They could have been after John and when it turned out I was driving it instead, they decided to combine it with getting a little revenge."
"Very possible," Lorne remarked. "I thought you should know their identities just in case."
John tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. "I never met either of these guys though, so they must have some other reason if they're the ones behind all the nasty pranks and threats."
"Someone could have hired them," Lorne said. He ruffled the pages of the notebook. "Do you have any enemies?"
"He just moved here," Rodney protested.
"Maybe someone followed him?" Lorne suggested. He watched John, who was frowning. "Mr. Sheppard? Any jilted girlfriends? Boyfriends? Business partners?"
"No, no girlfriends or partners," John answered.
"What about Vega?" Rodney asked.
Rodney added, "You said he poisoned those horses and someone switched the feed you bought."
Lorne looked interested. "Who is Vega?"
"Reynaldo Vega," John explained wearily. "I rode polo ponies for him." He looked at Rodney. "Why would he do anything? I quit. He knows I had no proof of what he did." He sighed. "I can't believe it."
"That's what victims always say," Lorne muttered. "Can you give me his name?"
"Reynaldo Vega," Rodney repeated for him.
"He's in Argentina, for Christ sake," John snapped. He jumped to his feet and paced over to the Christmas tree. "You might as well accuse my father. He'd love to see me in trouble so that I'd have to sell my SPI shares back to the family." He swung around and pointed at Lorne. "Don't you dare put him down as a suspect or whatever. He's a sonovabitch, but he wouldn't…besides, it all started months before I decided to take control of the shares."
"Okay," Lorne agreed.
Rodney figured he'd fill Lorne in on the Sheppards, as much as he knew from the stiff, terse explanation John had offered him recently, when they were alone.
Lorne made a face. "Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"I've had some…aggressive offers to buy the farm since I moved in," John said.
"HVE, Assurance Incorporated and some outfit called GeneEye." John paused then added, "Todd Rathe warned me the people in charge of GeneEye were willing to play dirty to get what they want."
"I'll look into them all. Todd Rathe? Doesn't he have something to do with this HVE?"
"Yes," John answered. "He's the CEO."
Rodney bit his tongue. If John wanted to hang out with slimy Todd Rathe, Rodney had no rights to protest. The rich stuck together. But he didn't want to think about them together, no, he really didn't. He swung his foot off the cushion, grabbed his crutches and levered himself to his feet with a grunt. "Is that it?"
"I suppose so." Lorne tucked his notebook away. "We'll catch the Lucazettis and they'll spill their guts."
The sound of a car engine heralded Cadman arriving with Dusty in tow and John headed out to greet them, leaving Rodney and Lorne to talk a little. Stackhouse and Jamie Markham showed up next, towing Markham's grandmother, who brought an amazing glazed ham that had Rodney salivating, and eventually Radek arrived with vodka and a German Shepherd puppy that Teyla had arranged for him to get for John. Dinner in the formal dining room became a free-for-all in the kitchen and den after the puppy cried piteously from his new bed in the mudroom until John folded like a piece of wet cardboard and brought him in.
Rodney bitched and moaned that the pup was sure to trip and kill him and he would not be helping clean up any of the inevitable 'accidents', including the puddle already on the kitchen tiles, and then snuck bits of turkey to the pup through out the rest of the afternoon.
Baron — named by Jinto — fell asleep on John's lap and Rodney acknowledged that the fight to keep him an 'outside' dog had been lost before it ever began.
It didn't bother him in the least.
In a dark time, the eye begins to see.
The pulsing shriek brought John thrashing into wakefulness. The windows showed only darkness outside and his clock claimed it was just past two-thirty am. He slapped at the alarm off button, which did no good, even when he repeated the action. He squinted at it in perplexity until his brain kicked into gear and he realized the alarm came from the security system wired to the Little Barn. It had been giving them trouble since just after Christmas.
"Shit," he grumbled to himself. He untangled his blankets and stumbled for the door. On his way, he snagged a worn out black T-shirt sporting his favorite panda off the back of a chair to go with his loose old track pants. He pulled it over his head as he padded barefoot down stairs to the housekeeper's room that had been re-purposed by O'Neill et al. The Big Barn was next on the agenda, once they'd worked out the kinks in the Little Barn's equipment.
Currently those kinks included going off in the middle of the night. Two nights before it had been the old orange tomcat chasing down a rat. Carter, O'Neill's best tech, had been out and dialed down the sensitivity on the motion sensor since, but apparently not enough.
John rubbed his arms against the chill and peered at the monitor showing the main aisle of the Little Barn. They had gone with the infrared optical sensor alarm system in addition to the motion sensor at the door because it combined protection against intruders, an animal getting loose, and and served in lieu of a smoke detector. Regular smoke detectors either clogged up or went off all the time thanks to the amount of dust in constant circulation in a barn.
He expected to see either the tomcat or one of the horses out in the aisle. Doctor Doctor had a knack for opening latches and even untying ropes, though he hadn't managed to get a stall open yet. Tonight was probably the night. Instead, all ten horses all showed as in their stalls, five on each side of the main aisle. The infrared showed them as white-hot centers outlined in yellow and orange. They were moving more than usual, showing they were awake.
A thunk scuffff thunk heralded Rodney arriving on his crutches. Pillow creases marked his cheek and his hair stuck out in crazy clumps. Scruffy beard darkened his chin and jaw. John's hand went to his own head. His cowlicks were out of control, but he ran his fingers through his hair anyway. Nothing he could do about his own beard, but Rodney wasn't interested anyway, he reminded himself.
"Can you shut that noise off?" Rodney demanded. "Teyla's not going to be happy if it wakes Torren up again."
John switched off the alarm speakers. Sleep-deprived Teyla turned out to be scary.
Rodney looked past him at the monitor and asked, "So what is it this time? Raccoons? A barn owl? Oh, I know, I bet it's a fox."
John glanced back at the monitor and froze.
Rodney swung himself closer. "Shit," he breathed next to John's ear, his breath moist and warm. A shiver ran through John in response. Rodney braced one hand against John's back. Heat soaked from his fingers through the thin cotton of John's T-shirt.
Two human figures were moving up and down the aisle. They bent every few strides. Pouring something.
"Do you think that's Bob and Steve?"
John didn't care who they were; they didn't belong in his barn in the middle of the night.
"Call the fire department and the cops," John snapped. "Get Ronon and Halling up and tell them I'm heading to the Little Barn."
"You're insane!" Rodney shouted as John headed for the door. "You can't go all by yourself!"
"The hell I can't," John replied without slowing down.
Behind him, Rodney dropped one of his crutches, cursed and then began yelling at the top of his lungs for Ronon and Halling to get their asses down stairs. John ran through the kitchen and paused in the mudroom only long enough to shove his bare feet in the first pair of boots he found and pull on a coat before running outside. Baron yipped and tried to follow him, but he shut the door before the pup could get out.
Trouble is a part of life, and if you don't share it, you don't give the person who loves you enough chance to love you enough.
"You're not Batman!" Rodney shouted after John. "You'll get yourself killed!" And Rodney would never get over it, he realized.
John didn't listen, of course, instead disappearing through the kitchen. "Shit!" He awkwardly retrieved his crutch and hobbled into the hallway. "Ronon! Halling! God damn it, wake up, you lazy bastards!"
Ronon thundered down the stairs. "What?" he demanded.
"Intruders in the barn," Rodney told him. "John's gone — "
Ronon growled and was gone before Rodney could finish telling him to go after John. Which was what Rodney wanted, but still frustrating. Ronon would back John up, but Rodney would have preferred they face off against Bob and Steve, if it was the Lucazettis, with overwhelming numbers. Cops would be good too.
Lorne's number was supposed to be on speed dial in the security room. John had shown Rodney all the codes when they moved Blue over from Archangel. Rodney had a house key now too.
Halling had pulled on everything but a coat. "Where?" he asked as he reached the bottom of the stairs. Teyla was right behind him.
"The Little Barn," Rodney told them sourly.
"Everything will be all right," Teyla reassured him, pausing the squeeze Rodney's arm.
"Sure it will."
He whacked the leg of a priceless side table, rocking the vase of flowers on it, in frustration, and clumped back into the security room. The monitor showed three, then four human-sized hot spots in the Little Barn.
Rodney picked up the phone and called Lorne.
Jinto came in as he told the detective, "No one asked me whether they should confront them, okay?"
Two of the white-red blobs came together on the screen. Since he doubted they were in a romantic clinch, Rodney figured they were fighting.
"Can you just get the cops out here as soon as possible?"
"As soon as I'm off the phone with you, Mr. McKay," Lorne assured him. "I'll be on my way too."
"Thanks, I — "
The infrared monitor showed the wash of heat as spreading across the floors and walls of the barn.
"Oh Christ," Rodney whispered. "The barn's on fire."
He cut the connection to Lorne and hit the speed dial for the fire department and began talking as soon as it picked up. "This is Rodney McKay at Pegasus Farm. There's a barn fire. There's intruders and they've lit one of the barns. There are horses and people inside."
Jinto had been looking at the monitor without realizing what it showed. His head came up and he started to bolt for the door. Rodney dropped a crutch and grabbed the boy's shoulder. He swayed and almost fell over, but held on while shaking his head at Jinto.
The calm voice at the other end of the line asked for the address and Rodney's mind went blank. All he could remember was Archangel's address, which he'd memorized against just such a moment. "It's — " He dropped his gaze and tried to find something with the Pegasus address on it, finally spotting an invoice from the security company. Rodney grabbed the envelope clipped to it and read off the address.
He hung up the phone so the operator could ring back and confirm the report.
He pulled Jinto around and squeezed his shoulder hard. "Jinto. Listen to me. You need to go get Torren and take one of the trucks out to the gate to wait for the fire department to make sure they find us."
"Why do I need to take Torren?" Jinto asked.
"Because I said so," Rodney snapped.
He didn't want to explain that he was scared there might be someone else out there, like Teyla's ex, who would take advantage of them leaving the kid alone. Or that the fire might somehow spread to the house.
John had an evacuation plan for the horses. Rodney needed to get down to the barn and help out however he could, despite being half-crippled. Christ, someone had to call Radek and get him to come over in case any of the horses were burned, too.
He almost fell again without Jinto to hold onto, but his casted foot took his weight despite Carson's warnings, even if it did hurt like a sonovabitch.
The phone rang and Rodney snatched it up. "Yes, this is Pegasus Farm. Yes, there's a fire. There'll be a truck at the gate with flashers on so you can't miss it," he snapped. He finished talking to the fire department as Jinto raced back downstairs carrying Torren. The kid's wails had the puppy in the mud room howling in a minute.
"God, take the dog too!" Rodney yelled at Jinto.
The monitor on the Little Barn showed nothing but white.
He heard an engine roar and then the screaming of gears. Headlights lit up and swept across the house through the windows as Jinto burned rubber down the drive.
Rodney dialed Radek's emergency number by memory.
"Is middle of night," Radek mumbled on the third ring. "I will find and kill you if this is joke."
"The Little Barn's burning at Pegasus," Rodney told him. "Get over here."
He hung up on a string of Czech curses, trusting Radek was on his way.
Rodney left the door open behind him as he hobbled out, cursing because Jinto had taken Ronon's truck and that left him with the Mule. It started with the first turn of the key. Rodney grimaced and worked the clutch with his casted foot. The fire would have knocked out the electricity at the Little Barn; if nothing else he could provide some light with the truck.
Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.
Jinto had shoveled a path from the back of the house down to the barns. John took it. He realized the outside light that lit the barn doors was out as he sprinted through the dark. The snow reflected starlight and lights were coming on in the house behind him.
The barn doors were open. Four gasoline cans, one lying on its side, stood just outside.
The air reeked of gas.
Ronon reached him as John reached them. His big hand clamped on John's shoulder before he could race inside. Light steps sounded and Teyla arrived at his other side. She had a snow shovel in one hand and one of the six-cell Maglites. She handed the heavy flashlight over to John. He felt a little better hefting it; it made a good club. That left Ronon the only one unarmed, but then again, Ronon's arms were big enough to give anyone not on drugs pause.
John really hoped these guys weren't on drugs.
"If we turn on the lights, we will blind them," Teyla whispered.
"We can't," John hissed back. "I can smell the gas fumes out here." He pointed toward the disabled outside light. "They could have screwed with the wiring. We'll have to use the flashlight." He sucked in a deep breath and added in case Ronon or Teyla hadn't noticed on previous trips to the barn, "There's another one mounted next to the fire extinguisher and the switches." He hoped the flashlights were still there.
One of the horses neighed loudly inside. John jerked forward. This time Ronon let him go. Teyla and he followed John in. Another horse had begun kicking the wall. The noise masked the sound of their entrance, but not one of the intruder's voices.
"Come on, when this thing goes up someone's going to notice!"
John flicked the Maglite on and aimed it at the voice.
A tall, gaunt man spun and squinted into the light. He still had a gas can in one hand.
"Don't move," John snapped.
But someone did. A shadow moved at the edge of his vision and Ronon dived after it. The second man and he hit the floor, wrestling for supremacy with fists and feet and one head butt that knocked against the floor with a hollow, ugly crack.
"The police are in route," Teyla said from behind John. "Do not act any more foolishly." She hefted the snow shovel like a bat. Atlantis stuck his head over the top of his stall in response to their familiar voices and neighed. His large, liquid eye reflected the beam from the Maglite. The other horses were restless too; the break in routine, the tension and sudden violence, in conjunction with the choking reek of gasoline, disturbed them.
John kept his light on the first man, but imagined he could see the dark, wet puddles spreading from where the gasoline had been splashed along the walls, despite the thick darkness in the barn.
Ronon pinned his man, growling, "Stay down."
"Steve!" Ronon's man yelled.
"Fuck this," Steve said. He bared his teeth at John. "Fuck you. Kolya ain't paying me enough to go to jail." A swing brought the gas can up and flying at John.
John blocked the can with the Maglite. It jolted from his hand and tumbled to the floor, sending the light wheeling wildly before hitting a wall. The flashlight came to rest with its beam lighting up the floor, where puddles of gasoline glinted wetly.
The hiss and flare of a match froze John's blood. He yelled, "No!" as it arced up and hit a puddle.
The flame flashed blue-edged yellow and flared over the gasoline puddle, then roared up the wall where the fuel had splashed.
Steve tackled John to the ground. They rolled dangerously close to another puddle. John punched his fist into Steve's solar plexus; Steve pounded his knee down on John's thigh, then slammed his forearm across John's neck before shoving himself to his feet and bolting for the doors.
Atlantis neighed and the other horses responded in kind. Hooves hit the stalls. The noise of the disturbed horses cut through the rustle-crackle-hiss of the spreading flames. The aged wood caught fast and smoke hazed the light from the fire already.
John rolled on to his side and then to his feet. Flames crawled along the walls and raced up support poles to the beams bearing the roof and the empty hayloft. Their flickering light showed Teyla using the snow shovel as a quarterstaff to hold Steve at bay. John grabbed up the fallen Maglite, hissing at the already hot metal case, and slammed it into the back of Steve's head.
Steve crumpled to the ground and behind them Bob yelled an angry obscenity.
The horses were whinnying non-stop; fear driving them wild. The twenty-pound ABC fire extinguishers mounted on the walls wouldn't put a dent in the fire eating up the barn — the building dated back over a century, its beams were thicker than anything milled any longer and would take time to burn through, but they would — because the gasoline had been splashed everywhere. At the far end of the barn, Poppy started neighing. Hot smoke began filling the barn as flames followed the lines of gasoline splashed against the walls.
It seemed impossible it could happen so fast.
Ronon grabbed Bob's wrists and began dragging him toward the doors.
Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.
A chestnut mare plunged out of the night right in front of the Mule. Smoke trailed from her singed tail. Rodney locked up the brakes and the old truck slewed to the side on the wet road where it ended at the Little Barn. The big side mirror on the passenger side hit the mare's haunch and tore away with a scream she echoed. Rodney's heart went on trying to hammer its way free of his chest in the aftermath of the near accident. He straightened the truck and aimed the highbeams at the doorway.
Ronon backed out dragging a body.
Rodney scrambled out as best he could, hoping and hating himself for hoping it was John, but he recognized Bob Lucazetti's long pale hair as he reached Ronon.
"Need something to tie up the sonovabitch," Ronon grunted.
Two more horses came out of the barn and milled between it and the Mule uncertainly. Rodney hoped they wouldn't run back into the barn.
Rodney tottered back to the truck and found a couple of leads, including his favorite leather one, stuffed behind the bench seat. Ronon heaved Steve into the bed of the Mule and hog-tied him with the speed of a professional steer wrestler.
Teyla had Bob half way out the doors as they finished.
"Halling and John are getting the other horses!" she shouted before turning back inside.
Stupid, Rodney thought, so stupid. Of course they were. They were going to get killed and he wouldn't be able to help them thanks to his damned leg. He knew, without reflecting on it, that he couldn't stop any of them. Not while they thought they had a chance to save any of the horses.
Ronon hauled Steve over to the truck.
"I've got him," Rodney said and began tying up the second Lucazetti. "I'll get the horses to the second paddock too."
Ronon nodded and ran back to the barn.
With Steve tied up too, Rodney grabbed his crutches and hobbled through the dirty, churned up snow and mud as fast as he could, slipping and jolting his leg more than once, but never pausing until he had the two loose horses secured safely.
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.
John slapped open the latches on the two nearest stalls and urged the horses within to head for the open barn doors, before running for the end stalls. He pulled the sleeve of his coat over his hand to grab the last stall latch and threw it open. Poppy erupted out of the stall, her coat dark with sweat, long tail on fire. Her shoulder brushed John back into the field stone back wall and knocked the breath from his lungs. A wave of heat followed her, wildly eddying the choking smoke.
Poppy bolted for the open doors. He hoped the cooler, damp air outside would extinguish the fire caught in her tail.
John dropped to his knees and gasped in three desperate breaths where the air was better. The Maglite was gone. He scrabbled over to the opposite stall and grabbed the halter and lead hanging beside it. Magellan, the horse inside, backed up to the rear of the stall: a huge, heaving shadow, eyes reflecting the flames behind John, too frightened to leave the safety of the stall.
"C'mon, c'mon, that's it, we gotta get outta here," John crooned as he worked his way closer. "That's it, good boy, you just gotta trust me." He forced the halter over Magellan's head past his ears. Magellan kept bobbing and shifting and John knew those big, delicate nostrils were filled with smoke just the way his own lungs were. He could feel the fear rolling off the trembling gelding. He stifled a cough and kept up the soothing patter as he managed the buckle and snapped the lead on.
Magellan balked for an instant as John tugged him to the stall door, then clattered and shoved his way out. His eyes rolled at the sight of the flames.
John thanked the memory of whoever had built the barn with a massively wide aisle. He led Magellan to the center and ran toward the door. Halling had Gramercy Park on a lead coming from the next last stall as they passed.
He didn't see Steve on the ground as they reached the door. Rodney's Mule was parked back and to the side, with the headlights on to provide some badly needed illumination. The highbeams caught in the black smoke roiling out the open barn doors.
The fire plan called for evacuating the horses to the second paddock between the Little Barn and the Big Barn. All the horses would go there so a count could be kept. John trotted Magellan to the paddock gate, squinting as he realized someone was also there.
Rodney, John realized, by the white of his cast. Closer, he could make out the crutches propped against the fence. Rodney had one hand on the gate. The dark forms of at least two horses moved beyond him.
"Here," Rodney said. He reached for Magellan's lead. "I've got the gate. Get the others out. Fire department's en-route. So's Radek. Jinto's got Torren; he took Ronon's truck to the gate to make sure they find the right place."
"How many horses?" John panted. He couldn't count them in the dark as they shifted restlessly. Magellan, Poppy, and Gramercy were three…
"With you, three."
Five then, unless they'd caught Poppy. The plan had already gone to hell. John coughed helplessly then remembered there were other concerns beyond the horses.
"Where're the two guys — "
"Ronon tied them up and left them in the back of the Mule."
One less worry. John let his fingers slide over Rodney's as he turned over Magellan's lead. "Thanks," he croaked.
He thought Rodney's hand held onto his a moment longer than necessary, but he was already turning away and pulling loose.
"Be careful, damn it," Rodney called after him.
Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up.
Rodney caught Magellan's lead from John, glimpsed his face and knew: he'd been the unforgivably stupid one, because the sight of John, narrow face stubble dark, grim and committed to saving everyone, made Rodney ache to grab him and hold on, to keep him from going back into the rapidly growing inferno of the Little Barn, to keep him safe. He hadn't thought to stop Ronon or Halling or even Teyla, but he could barely let John go. Part of him would wither into ash along with the burning barn if John didn't come back from it. Only knowing John and that John could never live with giving less than his all made Rodney let go.
If he could have done anything other than endanger John, Rodney would have followed him right into the fire.
He'd been so caught up in the dream of a normal future, with a wife and kids, with a family, that he hadn't realized he already had the family part and the rest of it didn't really matter to him. It never had or he would have found a way to have it sooner. Rodney had been blaming Jeannie for all his sacrifices all this time, but he'd made every decision, not her. She would have found her way without him; when he had finally said no, she was fine. He'd seen that in Lincolnshire.
All these years he'd fooled himself.
He'd fooled himself into thinking he wanted Jennifer, lied to himself that he didn't want John, and why? Because he was afraid. It wasn't even the gay thing, though Rodney knew that came with its own set of problems; it was loving someone that much.
The stupidest part, the thing that made him call himself an idiot, was: he already did love John.
He'd been trying to pull away, to push John away, because he loved him.
He loved him and if John just once had said he loved Rodney — and he did, Rodney knew that, the way he knew how to breathe, the way gravity kept him on the ground — Rodney would have been unable to deny John. No matter what he'd told himself, that he was trying to protect John from the pain of rejection, Rodney had only been trying to protect himself.
But he couldn't. No one could protect themselves from their own heart.
John had snuck into Rodney's heart and life and made a place for himself that no one else would ever fill, and without him, Rodney would never be completely whole again.
No wonder he'd been terrified.
He let John go back to the burning barn. He cursed himself and fate and the idiots who had started the fire in the first place, then turned Magellan out into the paddock. It was all he could do, except wait and hope.
He opened the gate for Gramercy when Halling loomed out of the darkness and then Ronon with Atlantis and watched for John, counting horses and holding on.
Our relatives are ours by chance, but we can choose our friends.
John staggered back toward the barn, passing Halling with Gramercy and Ronon with Atlantis — his heart beat faster in gratitude on seeing his favorite unharmed — which meant four horses left. If any of them died trapped in the barn, he was going to throw Steve and Bob back into it to burn too.
Flames were curling out of the hayloft and lighting the black smoke billowing into the sky.
He reached the doors, pulled his T-shirt neck over his nose and mouth, raised one forearm over his eyes to shield them, and ran inside. Sparks showered down from overheard. Smoke masked the far end of the barn. Waves of heat hit him along with the noise. John had never understood before how loud a fire was. It cracked and popped, whistled and roared and boomed, as it consumed the barn from the inside out. It breathed like a great beast. The last four horses were squealing in terror.
John ducked low, hoping for a little better air, and ran for the fourth stall.
A horse loomed out of the smoke, eyes rolling white, rearing and pulling Teyla off her feet. John latched onto the cheek strap of the halter and helped pull his head down. A wide white blaze identified Doctor Doctor. John helped Teyla control and get him to the doors, where Ronon appeared — he must have run back from the paddock too.
"Have you got him?" John choked out to Teyla.
"Yes," she coughed. The fire lit her loose hair red. She must have come straight from her bed: she had on pajama bottoms and a worn sweatshirt advertising the Athos Circus. He hadn't noticed that before.
He registered a spark catching her sweatshirt's arm on fire and slapped it, making her stumble from shock before she understood what he'd done. "Don't go back in, no matter what!" he yelled at her, then stumbled back inside with Ronon beside him.
The smoke had grown worse. John knew that there wouldn't be time to come back even one more time. He thought he could hear sirens, but the engines wouldn't arrive soon enough. When they did, he knew the firefighters wouldn't let anyone back in the barn.
"Take the first stall!" he shouted at Ronon.
It was closest to the doors. Ronon would have the best chance to get back out from there.
John staggered into the smoke, trying to reach one of the mares, Honeypot, in the third stall. He smacked at his parka as sparks landed on it and began smolder. Sharp pricks of pain came from his hands and face where more landed. He couldn't get enough air in his laboring lungs; only the flames ahead of him kept him from staggering in a dazed circle.
The lead and halter hung beside the stall door were burning when John reached for them. The latch seared his fingers and John had to hammer at it with the heel of his hand to get it loose. Honey kept striking at the door with her forefeet on the other side, letting out bugling neighs. The wood shuddered under each blow, which made his job harder. He tore the door open and dodged out of the way of Honey's hooves coming down. With no halter or lead, John had to wrap his hand in her loose mane, but Honey wanted out, unlike Magellan. She didn't know which way to go in the smoke, but John aimed away from the worst of flames where they engulfed the far end of the barn. Only his hold on the mare kept him upright and moving; black spots dappled his vision, blotting out even the flames.
He lost his grip on Honey's mane just outside the barn, stumbling and dropping to his knees. Revolving red lights lit the night. Honey bolted into the lit up yard as the first fire engine braked to a screeching halt, sounding its horn. The mare was silhouetted in the headlights for a terrifying instant, head thrown high, eyes rolling white, blinded and panicked, but the fire truck stopped. Honey kept running.
John breathed a prayer of thanks while wondering if he was going to throw up.
Through the cacophony of the fire and the fire engines, a horse screamed.
John tried to push himself up and bit back a cry of pain as his palms touched the ground. He yanked his hands up and started to fall forward. Small hands caught his shoulders, and helped him up. Teyla steadied him and John marveled at her strength. Her size fooled him as well as most other men. He turned and saw Ronon fighting for control of the horse he'd heard. The fire engine's headlights illuminated the seared and bloody burns on Boojum's chest and shoulder.
A fireman in full turn-out gear reached Teyla and John. "I'm looking for John Sheppard."
John nodded and pointed at his chest while trying to suck in enough air to clean the smoke out of his lungs. He couldn't talk yet.
"Anyone or any more animals inside?" he demanded.
John searched the sudden chaos of the night, suddenly terrified someone could have been lost inside. More engines were arriving. Spotlights were aimed at the barn. He found Halling trying to keep Bonny Boy calm at the edge of paddock one. Rodney was at paddock two. That was everyone.
John sagged in relief.
He coughed and nodded.
Teyla answered, "All of our people are accounted for and the horses are out. Thank you."
John waved a hand to stop the firefighter as he lifted a radio mike to his mouth. "Two horses are loose, they got — " The arrival of an ambulance overwhelmed his breathless words.
"I'll let the incoming drivers know," the fireman said. He caught John's arm and steadied him, then steered him toward the ambulance. "You need to let the EMTs check you out." He began rapping out information through the radio. The EMS techs caught sight of them and hurried forward to take John and Teyla off his hands.
Still coughing, John croaked, "The two guys who started it are in the back of the blue pick-up."
The fireman did a double-take, then nodded.
"The keys are in it," Teyla added. "Rodney called the police too."
"That would be Rodney McKay?"
"Yeah," John said raggedly. "He's at the paddock."
"We'll be moving the truck out of the way."
John stripped out of his charred coat — which was really Rodney's rated-for-Antarctica parka, he realized — and accepted an oxygen mask gratefully. He sank down on the running board of the ambulance and sucked in clean tasting air while Teyla answered questions for both of them. Someone draped an emergency blanket over his shoulders.
Ronon appeared out of the darkness with Zelenka in tow and John remembered Rodney had called for the vet too.
They'd been lucky; without the new alarm system the night would have ended in tragedy while Bob and Steve got away.
"I took the one with burns to a separate paddock," Ronon told John, "and let McKay know. Got the one you lost too."
Honey. Thank God. She wouldn't end up hit by a car after escaping the hell of the fire. That just left Poppy loose.
Teyla touched Ronon's arm, avoiding all the little burns deftly, in a silent gesture of gratitude. John wished he could do the same, but he was still hunched over and waiting for his chest to stop aching. The muscle in his thigh where that bastard Steve had landed on him hurt like a bitch too. In addition, the palms of his hands were blistered; looking at them reminded John how much they hurt.
"I will start treating the burns," Zelenka added. "If they are not too bad, we may avoid him going into shock. We will leave him outside. I am more worried about the respiratory damage."
Fuck. Fuck. Smoke inhalation, suffocation…the last horses they'd got out might still be ruined. John squeezed his eyes shut. At least they hadn't burned alive.
"Perhaps you will be lucky," Zelenka said gently.
John lifted the oxygen mask aside and said, his voice hoarse, "Poppy was burned too. We need to find her."
"You need to stay here, sir," one of the EMTs said.
"We will find her, John," Teyla assured him.
The EMT caught sight of Ronon's arms and hands. "You too, sir. I need to treat you."
"I've had worse," Ronon stated.
The second EMT paused, then came around Ronon with a tray of bandages and took John's hand. "That's no reason to take chances now," she said. She managed to out stare Ronon and added pragmatically, "Or suffer. Sit down and shut up."
Ronon's eyes widened and then he obeyed by dropping down next to John. Their shoulders touched.
John exchanged a surprised glance with Teyla. The EMT's name tag identified her as Marie Ko and John made a note of it. Anyone who could order Ronon around deserved his respect. He'd been about to protest he didn't need anything more than the oxygen, but not now. He let Marie work on his hands obediently.
Zelenka gave John a bobbing sort of nod and hurried back to his own work.
Two patrol cars arrived; their light bars added an oscillating blue tint to the scene.
The fire department was just knocking down the fire, still pouring water into and on the Little Barn, but it looked like parts of it might still survive. The field stone foundation and some of the huge beams would be charred but whole come morning. The associated tack room contents were a real loss, including John's saddles, but he'd happily have torched them all himself to guarantee the safety of his people and the horses. Many of the yellow-coated men were gathered in groups, either talking to each other or on radios.
He gritted his teeth while Marie cleaned his palms and disinfected them before wrapping his hands in gauze. Watching the firefighters work hurt too in a different way so John turned away from the collapsing form of the Little Barn and watched the flickering light reflect off the snow in the east pasture instead. The red glow on the horizon resembled the glow of an Halloween moon rising. John credited it to light pollution from Galacky at first. He blamed the adrenaline crash for how long it took to click into realization.
Marie almost fell on her ass when John pulled away from her, tore off the oxygen mask, and then jerked to his feet.
"The quarantine barn," he croaked and pointed. Gauze trailed from his hand and fluttered.
"Sonovabitch," Ronon growled. He pulled away from Marie's partner to stare too.
John ran for the nearest fire truck. Two uniformed police officers were talking to the firefighters there.
"There's another barn," John gasped as he reached the nearest group. He pointed again. The light on the horizon rose above the trees that masked a direct sight line.
"They must have lit it before coming here to the horse barns," Teyla said as she arrived beside them. She lifted her hand to her mouth. "Pablo."
Ronon followed behind Teyla. His hands curled into fists.
John looked to the east again. Fingers of fire back lit a curtain of black smoke rising to blot out the dim gleam of light from Galacky. He knew beyond any doubt they were too late. The quarantine barn had been burning all along while they fought fire in the Little Barn.
"I'm going to kill those two shits," Ronon growled.
"You leave them to me," came Lorne's voice from behind them. John hadn't known he was there, but he must have called in because of the APBs on the Lucazettis.
The fireman John had just accosted grabbed his arm when he started to turn to Lorne. "Where is it?"
"Other side of the barn, turn left, straight down the road," John told him. "They used to keep sick horses there."
"Any in there now?" the firefighter demanded.
"We turned it into a lion pen," John said.
"A lion pen?"
"A retired circus animal," Teyla explained. "Very old." Tears tracked down her cheeks, cutting through smears of soot. "He couldn't get out."
A Fire Department truck and two engines jerked out of the line facing the Little Barn and rolled past it to take the left turn.
Lorne said, "I need to get statements from all of you."
"I need to find Poppy," John said. He spotted Halling standing next to the paddock fence with Rodney and Jinto. Jinto had Torren in his arms. Ignoring Lorne, John limped away to join them.
Rodney balanced on one crutch and reached for John, his face naked with worry, as soon as he came within reach. John took a step closer, telling himself it was to let Rodney steady himself and not the other way around. Exhaustion, shock and the anticipation of pain to come gutted him; he swayed in his boots.
"Are you okay?" Rodney blurted. The intensity of his gaze had John shivering. Had Rodney ever looked at him like that before? "Shouldn't you be in the ambulance or going to the hospital? We found Poppy, she circled around trying to get with the others — thank God horses are social creatures — she's with Boojum. They can keep each other company. Zelenka's working on her now. Where's your coat? You've got to be freezing."
John made a ragged sound.
Teyla took Torren from Jinto and cradled him to her; close enough he stirred and made a discomforted sound of protest.
"Jinto," she said.
"What? I left Baron in your truck, Ronon, I'm sorry," Jinto blurted apprehensively. "Rodney said we couldn't leave Torren alone in the house in case there was someone else with those guys and I didn't want him burning either — "
"You did right," Ronon stated.
"Yes," Teyla said. She blinked back more tears. "Jinto. They — they burned Pablo's barn too."
Jinto looked uncomprehending for a moment, then his face crumpled. Halling pulled him into his arms and held on. John wished someone would hold onto him. He had Rodney, though, holding him up despite being on crutches himself. It forced him to pull himself together.
John turned away, blinking hard and blaming it on the smoke. Sun-up would reveal the extent of the damage. Not enough to destroy Pegasus. Once they knew it was safe, they'd move the horses into the Big Barn. Teyla's Jumper and the two draft horses were already there, so too were two of his Irish purchases. John had always meant to shift the others over there eventually, but only after some repairs. Now he would have no choice.
"I need to drive over there," John said. The quarantine barn, he meant. Pablo's barn. "In case…" In case what, he didn't know, but he needed to see.
Rodney squeezed his arm. He nodded and John followed his gesture, spotting Lorne's anonymous blue sedan and another patrol car. Two figures were secured in the backseat of behind a grill. The Lucazettis. They hadn't got away.
"Lorne's got them," Rodney said. His arm was warm around John's side. They were pressed hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder. He kept tightening his hold on John. It felt wonderful and confusing. "We can use my truck. It's already here. You'll have to drive."
John nodded slowly.
Torren coughed. Teyla lifted him higher in her arms. She said, "I am taking Torren back to the house. The smoke is bad for him and it is growing colder."
Halling kept rubbing Jinto's back. "Someone should make coffee…"
"I'll go with them," Ronon said. "You take my truck."
"How'd you get it down here?" John asked Rodney.
Rodney grimaced. "I drove. I may have cracked my cast, too."
"Don't be stupid," Rodney told him. John stayed close as they made their uneven way over to the Mule. Ronon followed silently. He helped Rodney into the cab, handed in the crutches, and squeezed in next to him. John circled around and took the driver's seat. Someone had shut off the motor and the lights, but the Mule started easily thanks to the work Ronon had put into it before Christmas.
It jerked as John put it in gear and felt like it might shake apart as he hit the gas.
"It's not a Maserati," Rodney complained. "You've got to be gentle with it." His hand was resting on John's thigh, but the cab was a tight fit for three big men. It didn't have to mean anything, but it felt good. It helped John ignore the pain in his hands.
They hit a bump.
"Ow!" Rodney yelped. "Careful. I'm wounded here, you know."
They passed the line of trees that hid the quarantine barn from the rest of the buildings. John slacked off the gas without meaning too and let the truck coast forward.
The barn was almost completely gone, just blackened timbers and the same stone foundation as every other Pegasus building. It had burned to the ground. There was nothing for them to do, nothing they could do.
They were too late.
"You got the horses out, John," Rodney said. His hand tightened on John's thigh. "If you had been here, you would have lost them."
"McKay's right," Ronon confirmed.
John knew they were right. It just didn't help much when he thought of Pablo. It would, eventually, he knew, because he'd keep moving forward. But for just a moment, he had to sit and grieve for an old lion dying alone.
My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.
Halling's wrist had swollen to the size of a grapefruit by morning. Rodney's ankle felt like a red-hot basketball had replaced the joint and threatened to burst his skin open. His cast was filthy and cracked too. Teyla drove them both to Beckett's office while John stayed to deal with the fire investigators, Lorne and the inevitable insurance paperwork.
Rodney figured he was getting off easy.
Beckett diagnosed Halling with a severe sprain after taking an X-ray and wrapped him up. He turned his attention to Rodney afterward and with a lot less bedside manner.
"What have you done now, you bloody idiot," was the nicest thing Carson had to say to him, but listening to him bitch over the abuse to Rodney's still healing leg relaxed Rodney. He tuned back as Carson began blathering about physical therapy. It couldn't be that hard; he hadn't exactly been lolling in bed being fed bonbons and peeled grapes since crashing John's Porsche. He didn't have a paying job anymore, but he'd still gone down to the barns as soon as he mastered his crutches. He'd done his part during the fire without getting in the way.
His leg did look like a pasty, hairy stick when Carson took off the cracked cast.
Carson eventually sent Rodney on his way with a new cast, a new prescription, and an appointment to come back in two weeks to have the cast off. He admitted the incisions where the pins had gone in were healing well, at least.
Sitting in Halling's VW bus with him while Teyla had their various prescriptions filled afterward, Rodney groped for anything sympathetic to say.
"I had a cat once," he offered. "For a while."
"What happened?" Halling asked.
"Oh, ah, my ex-wife. She took him in the divorce."
The truth was the cat had been Alina's, but Rodney had liked him better than she ever had. He'd missed Getty more than he had Alina. She'd become obsessed with some animal freedom fringe group a couple years later and abandoned Getty somewhere in the country to 'live a natural life'. Getty had spent his life in a house. Rodney had informed Alina in rather brutal terms exactly what had likely happened to Getty, sending her into the arms of her latest tennis instructor/spiritual guru, and they hadn't spoken since. It occurred to him that telling Halling that story would not actually make the man feel any better.
"I still miss him," Rodney said.
Halling gave him a keen look, one that made Rodney suspect the other man heard much more of the truth than Rodney had revealed with the words.
"Yes," Halling murmured. "I will miss Pablo. Thank you, Rodney."
Teyla opened the driver's door and handed each of them a paper bag holding their prescriptions. No sign of the exhaustion the rest of them felt showed on her face. She moved with the same collected grace Rodney always admired as she started the old van, then turned it back toward Pegasus.
"John called while I was in the pharmacy," she told them. "Evan Lorne is at the house along with an investigator from the fire department. They would like to interview us after John."
"Perfect," Rodney muttered. So it was Evan now? Teyla liked the detective, it seemed.
He wasn't able to tell Lorne or the arson investigator anything useful. Heat signatures weren't exactly identifiable. Lorne seemed pleased anyway; he confided that Bob was already singing like the jailbird he was destined to become and had given up the name of the man behind the arson and vandalism.
"APB on him's already out," Lorne told him. "Kolya will be indicted on felony arson charges just to begin with and probably attempted murder if he was behind the Lucazettis running you off the road."
He saw John and talked to him more than once throughout the morning, but didn't find him alone until the afternoon. John was in the Big Barn, in Atlantis' new stall, grooming the big horse. From the shine on Atlantis' black coat, he'd been at it for a while. The rhythmic movement and routine likely soothed John as much as Atlantis.
The barn was peaceful and dark inside. The exhausted horses had settled into their new stalls and were quiet. It smelled the way a barn should, though Rodney noticed the lingering taint of smoke drifted in with the draft from the open doors. On the ledge of a window, where the watery winter sunshine warmed him, the orange tomcat lifted his head and observed Rodney from green eyes. The white tip of his tail twitched.
Rodney made a note to bring down a can of tuna for the lucky feline. He felt grateful to spot another survivor of the night.
He leaned on the lower half of the stall door and watched John, the easy way he moved, the way his faded jeans and the soft, red-plaid flannel shirt stretched, the way one narrow hand always rested easily on Atlantis' neck or back. The bandages the EMTs had wrapped around John's hands the night before were grubby, but still contrasted against his tan.
John's hands would be as sure and gentle on Rodney. A pleasant flutter started in Rodney's gut at the thought. His face felt warm.
John ducked under Atlantis' neck and began working on his far side. He hesitated when he glimpsed Rodney.
"Hey," Rodney said.
John began moving again, smoothing the oval brush over Atlantis' back now.
"Keep polishing him and he's going to be the first Maryland Hairless horse competing in a three-day event," Rodney observed.
The corner of John's mouth creased upward. "Okay, okay," he said. His voice still sounded rusty from the smoke inhalation. "You're right." He ducked under Atlantis' neck again and came over to the stall door. Rodney got his crutches under him again and swung out of the way.
"I'm always right," Rodney said automatically, then grimaced at himself. "Except when I really screw up. You know, go big or go home."
His palms were sweating against the crutch grips.
John latched the stall and double-checked it. He stomped his boots to knock off the loose shavings sticking to his yard boots, then cast Rodney an almost shy glance through his lashes.
"You didn't screw up last night, Rodney," John told him. "And home's where — "
" — When you have to go there, they have to take you in."
Rodney turned in place as John dodged around him to take the brush back to the tack room and then conscientiously lock it up too.
"Not last night," he said. "With Jennifer." He knew his mouth was drooping to one side.
John had his back to him, but Rodney still saw the flinch.
"It should have been you."
John turned and leaned back against the worn wooden door with his arms crossed. His shoulders were drawn in and tensed, but he didn't move as Rodney thumped his way over and stopped with the foot of one crutch alongside John's boot. His lips parted, but he didn't say anything either. The pale sunshine turned his hazel eyes the green of spring oak leaves.
Go big or go home, Rodney reminded himself. It was his move.
The crutches made it difficult to keep his balance, especially as he squeezed one under his armpit to free his hand and bring it up. John's hands shot out and settled on Rodney's hips, steadying him.
John's pupils expanded, darkening his eyes.
Rodney brushed the pad of his thumb over John's cheekbone, then down along the crease where he smiled, down to his throat where the collar of his loose shirt fell back and showed a hint of collarbone. John swallowed hard; his Adam's apple moved under Rodney's thumb. He'd shaved sometime during the day, but the prickle of his beard coming in caught against Rodney's calluses. Rodney wanted to feel it against his lips.
He curled his hand back around John's neck, where the nape was bare and damp with sweat.
"Oh God," John groaned. His eyes fluttered, like he wanted to close them, but didn't dare. "Really?"
"Home is where you are," Rodney muttered, sincere and embarrassed in equal portions.
John's hands tightened on his hips. The warmth Rodney always felt around him turned to melting heat. Rodney canted forward to finally touch his lips to John's mouth.
His crutch slid out from his armpit with a clatter. It hit and tipped over a red rubber feed bucket and startled Blue into kicking his stall with a squeal.
Rodney didn't notice. He'd fallen into John and their first kiss. His chest was pressed against John's, his tongue was in John's slick, hot mouth, and his free hand was threaded into John's hair, protecting the back of his head from hitting the wall. John spread his legs and took Rodney's weight with a rough sound that vibrated into Rodney's mouth. He rocked his hips against Rodney's and Rodney twisted precariously to fit his erection against John's, rubbing against each other through layers of denim and boxers like two teenagers.
The kiss finally ended, but Rodney stayed plastered to John, clutching at his shoulder now, breathing deep through his nose until his body calmed down a little. John ran his hands up and down Rodney's back. Rodney let his head rest against the crook of John's lovely, long neck.
"I can't believe it," John murmured eventually.
Rodney sniffed, then licked the spot under John's jaw, just the way he'd wanted to. John shuddered all over.
"Believe it," Rodney ordered. "And, God, help me get my crutch. I think I'm going to fall down. I've only got one good leg, you know, and you made my knee go weak."
John laughed then turned his head enough to kiss Rodney's temple.
"Let's go back to the house."
"There are people there," Rodney complained. He really needed at least five minutes or everyone looking at him would know what they'd been doing. Except, he reflected, why should he care? They were all going to know soon enough and he wasn't ashamed. "Never mind. There's beds."
"And no audience," John added.
Rodney lifted his head.
John nodded toward the rows of stalls. Several of the horses had their heads poked through the open top halves of their stall doors. Atlantis was watching them with his ears pricked forward. He bobbed his head in what Rodney had to take as approval. Blue snorted, the spoilsport.
Rodney glared at them briefly, then laughed too. "Let 'em watch." He abandoned his other crutch and let John hold him up as Rodney kissed him again.
I don't mind where people make love, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses.
Mrs. Patrick Campbell
Mrs. Patrick Campbell
- Summary: Three-day event rider John Sheppard inherits Pegasus Farm and decides to build a new life there with old friend Teyla Emmagan and her son. When he meets prickly horse trainer Rodney McKay, he falls hard for him, while John's friendship shakes up Rodney's life, making him want to take chances again. A harassment campaign aimed at making John sell the farm soon turns violent though and endangers everyone before they can figure out what and who they really want.
- Fandom: SGA
- Rating: R
- Warnings: None apply. Please email me with any questions regarding possible triggering content.
- Author Notes: 2009 SGA Big Bang story
- Date: November 14, 2009
- Length: 84,044 words, 522 KB
- Genre: AU, romance, mystery
- Category: m/m
- Cast: John Sheppard, Rodney McKay, Teyla Emmagan, Ronon Dex, Halling, Jinto, Radek Zelenka, Elizabeth Weir, Laura Cadman, Dusty Mehra, Todd, Richard Woolsey, Anne Teldy, Amelia Banks, Evan Lorne, Kanaan, Torren Emmagan.
- Betas: dossier, mecurtin, enviropony and mirabile_dictu.
- Disclaimer: Not for profit. Transformative work written for private entertainment.