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Title: Out Of Bounds: WIP
Author name: Icarus
Author email: icarus_ancalion@yahoo.com
Count:
Category: Slash
Sub Category: So very AU
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: John/Rodney
Summary: aka the 'skating fic.' An utter self-indulgent cliche. John's a rebellious figure skater who after twelve years of competition has one last shot. Rodney's the former World Champion, shattered by defeat (can't you just hear the Olympic theme song?) who can make it happen. But first....
DISCLAIMER: The characters in this story originate from MGM, Showtime, Gekko, Double Secret. No infringement on their copyright is implied. What belongs to me are the words, the character backgrounds, and the universe described. Copyright © 2006-2008 All rights reserved. This story may not be reproduced in whole or part without the author's explicit permission. Ask, guys. I'm easy to reach and usually generous.
Author notes: Thank you to Ngaio and Stellahobbit -- and Perfica -- for advice and support. This is as yet unbeta'd.
Special Note: Many have informed me that there were no 1986 Olympics. Yes, yes, I know. I've invented an Olympics out of respect for the real Olympic medalists. I will not take the second place silver away from Erik Johnsen of Norway, nor the fifth place finish from Grzegorz Filipowski of Poland, even in fiction.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Jump to most recent update.

Out Of Bounds
by Icarus

January, 1999

His scores echoed throughout the rink, loud and unintelligible like an airport announcement, canceling each other out while young skaters scoured the ice for thrown flowers and dropped gloves. The crowd was noisy and disinterested, with a smattering of applause for John, biding their time impatiently for the big names.

In the center of the ice, John Sheppard let his hands drop. He didn't look up, his shoulders heaving as he shut his eyes and skated tiredly to the Kiss-and-Cry. He accepted a bottle of water from Ed, his coach, then dropped his head to his knees, running his fingers through sweaty dark hair, which made it stand up even more, half his bangs stuck to his forehead. He was still breathing heavily.

"Five three … four point six …

"That was good, Sheppard," someone said, his footsteps loud and hollow on the raised wooden platform. John didn't notice who it was, just nodded as he slumped back against the wall, staring up at the lights as disembodied voices declared he'd moved up to thirteenth place after the freeskate. The next skater warmed up on the ice in front of him, hands tracing graceful arabesques.

"Pretty good, John," that was his coach's gravelly voice, "if Yong Suk's injuries pan out you could place as high as eighth this year."

"Yeah. Thanks," John said. He took a swallow of water so he didn't have to say more. Then picked at an ugly blue sequin on his sleeve and flicked it away.

"Better than last year," his coach added. He was met with silence. John snapped the plastic guards over the blades of his skates.

"Your jumps are good," he continued, in a determined voice. "Really very good. Not many can pull off a quad."

"Yeah," John said, squinting at the next skater who glided to center ice in a flame-red costume with trailing sleeves, head down in concentration, just as John's had been five long minutes earlier.

And that was it. John's coach patted him on the arm and John blinked up. They gathered their gear to leave the Kiss-and-Cry as Scheherazade began. The next skater made a sweeping gesture. They stepped over duct-taped microphone and camera wires and found a space on the nearest available bench. An overweight man in a warm-up jacket got up and edged by them, angling towards the snack stand. John leaned back, pulling his gear out of the way.

There was a patter of applause as the other skater did his first double-triple combination.

"We'll work with your strengths, aim for the quad flip," his coach was saying.

John's breath misted as he let out a sigh. He bent his head and pulled a battered pair of sneakers from his bag.

"If you want to hang in there, that is. You've been at it ten years now. You might want to think about going pro." John's narrow shoulders tensed a moment in a barely perceptible pause but he didn't answer, keeping his eyes on the floor as he dug carefully around in his gym bag. "The kids sure like you."

"You think I'm doing good." John winced, unlacing his skates. He'd have to ice the knee tonight. He licked his lips as he watched his numbers disappear from the scoreboard.

"Yeah, you're good," the coach said, earnest and encouraging. "John, these are the best in the country. Few people make it this far. Eighth place, hell, even thirteenth is better than I ever hoped for."

John pursed his lips and stared off over the rink, nodding his head slowly. He got the picture. "Don't take this the wrong way, but," he said in a calm, thoughtful tone as if the idea had just occurred to him, "You're fired."

~*~*~

"Yes, well, I have to spend more time with her because she's better than all three of you put together!" Rodney explained with a sweeping gesture.

Rodney McKay, former world champion, perhaps a little chunkier than he'd been ten years ago, with a hairline going north faster than any thirty-year-old would care to admit, surveyed the beneficiaries of his years of experience and knowledge. Four young mournful faces looked up at him.

He knew he was in trouble when the pouts began. His wide shoulders slumped. No, no, no, not with the pouting....

"Aw, come on, it's not like I said you were terrible!" He attempted a reasonable tone, hands spread. "You'll all be perfectly adequate skaters one day, I'm sure, it's just that when there's real talent at hand, I need to focus my efforts—"

Logic wasn't working. It never worked on nine-year-olds. Even their little pigtails seemed to droop as the pouts deepened and their eyes started to shine with tears.

"Mr. McKay!" a woman's voice called out from the edge of the rink.

"Go away, I'm busy!" he shouted, casting an impatient wave over his shoulder. "No, no, you don't – Stop looking at me like that, it's not like I ran over your puppy! It's just...." One of the girls sniffled and there was a little gasp of a smothered sob from the other.

"...Oh, no...." he whimpered, his blue eyes going wide, his mobile face desperate.

"Mr. McKay?" the same voice repeated.

"What?!" He spun around and indicated the girls. "Yes, yes, I realize I screwed up here – it's pretty obvious since they're all crying." He turned to his star pupil who was biting a quivering lip, his voice turning scornful. "Oh, now what are you crying about? I just complimented you!"

Her shoulders started to shake with sobs. Then the other three followed suit, crying openly, their faces red, tears leaking down their cheeks.

"Oh, God." Rodney put his face in his hand.

"Mr. McKay?!" the woman said again more insistently.

"What?!" he snarled.

"Telephone!" The woman wore a blue suit and held out the cordless phone from the press box.

"Oh."

Who would call him on that line?

Rodney pressed his hand to his forehead as if he had a headache, then ran his hand through his hair and rolled his eyes skyward. He sliced the air with a dramatic cutting gesture. "That's it! Cancel all my group classes – I'm doing private lessons only from here on out."

He stabbed a finger at a tiny little girl with freckles and a complete inability keep time with the music. "You! Spins."

"You—" He pointed at the tall thin girl with long dark hair who spent more time falling than skating. "—get the music, I want to see your entire short program.

"And you." He indicated the one who day-dreamed and didn't care about skating, forced to live out her mother's fantasy. He waved a hand vaguely at her. "...I dunno, practice jumps or something."

Then he turned to Bethany, his star, her frizzy hair up in a tight braid and eyes wide and scared. "And you, toughen up. You're going to beat girls twice as good as they are and they'll all cry." He clapped his hands several times as the dispirited girls didn't respond, still wracked with tears. "If you have energy to cry, you have energy to skate!" he declared as he slid to the edge of the rink to accept the call.

Gliding to a stop with a sigh, he shouldered the phone and said brightly, "Rodney McKay, Evil Overlord and skating coach."

"Evil Overlord?" a man's slightly nasal voice puzzled.

"I work part-time." He lifted his face from the phone and shouted, "I don't see much skating, girls! Thank you." They started shuffling along the ice, though it barely qualified as movement, let alone figure skating.

"Personally, I was mostly interested in the skating coach end of the deal, but you should hang onto that Evil Overlord gig. I hear it's a growth industry."

"I'm sorry. And you are...?" Rodney squinted at the phone.

"John Sheppard. I was at Nationals this year."

"Never heard of you," Rodney said.

"Yeah. That would be part of the problem."

~*~*~

They met at a coffee shop a block from Rodney McKay's favorite little rink. John wasn't hard to spot, wearing battered warm-ups with his skates tied together and slung over his shoulder like a teenager. He had a firm handshake, was ridiculously good-looking, tall for a skater, with a shock of unruly brown hair and sharp, intelligent eyes. He was also easily in his late twenties sliding towards thirty, not much younger than Rodney.

"Nice to meet you," John said with a polite nod and diffident smile.

He didn't have a shot in hell.

"I take it Ed Wilcoxin thought you should be taken to the glue factory," Rodney answered with an amused gleam, returning the handshake with interest.

His new student -- because of course Rodney was going to take him on -- covered his laugh with a cough, his shoulders relaxing as he scuffed the floor. "Yes. That pretty much sums it up."

Except that wasn't the half of it.

~*~*~

John slowly glided to edge of the rink, hands on his knees as he panted, the black jumpsuit a stark contrast to the ice. He cut a sharp edge when he reached Rodney, spraying him with ice, clearly more pissed off than injured. Several other early morning skaters cast him curious glances then went about their business.

"Get back out there," Rodney said quietly in his calmest, brooks-no-nonsense sort of voice, chin out and raised, holding onto his authority with both hands. Barely.

"No. I'm taking up hockey. It'll hurt less." John glared at him, eyebrows drawn together over hazel eyes.

"Aw. Did baby fall down and go boom?" Rodney mocked him. "Stop complaining. You're not good enough yet. You're nothing more than a gymnast on skates. Skate, skate, jump! Skate, skate, jump! Have you even noticed there's music playing?"

"At least I'm not a fifth-place failure who washed out of the Olympics at seventeen."

Rodney looked sucker-punched but he took it in stride, chin high. He'd had a week to learn John always lashed out viciously after a bad practice. He silently counted to ten and said with controlled calm, "At least I made it. Thus, I know what it takes to get there."

John dug in harder, his voice dry and mean. "You couldn't lay down the big moves. Couldn't take the pressure."

"And yet, strangely enough, somehow I got there. You've been competing for, what? Ten years? And you haven't even touched what I reached in grade twelve." Rodney pulled off his jacket and adjusted his gloves with a long-suffering sigh. He stepped onto the ice and skated backwards, forcing John to reluctantly follow. Gaining some speed, Rodney laid down the pattern of footwork he'd asked of John.

John stopped, arms folded, eyes narrowed in annoyance. He shouted to Rodney halfway across the rink, "It's easy."

"Prove it!" Rodney shouted back.

With an eye roll, John picked up speed with two quick strokes, then turned around and repeated Rodney's pattern. Sloppy edges, hands careless, all elbows, he didn't point his toes, ice spray everywhere... then he threw in a perfect triple Lutz at the end. He skated back to Rodney with a bright grin.

"That was shitty," Rodney said about everything but the jump.

"Whatever."

John held and stretched one leg behind him, touching his skate nearly to his shoulder in an enviable display of careless balance and flexibility. Anyone watching would think he was a great skater, could see his potential, that effortless strength and grace. Rodney stared, mouth open with undisguised awe.

Then John let his leg fall. "I'm giving hockey some serious thought." He nodded to himself as if this were a great idea.

"You'll look better with all your teeth," Rodney answered with a little flippant wave. "Besides, the thought of you cooperating in a team is ludicrous: you don't even cooperate with me, and you're paying me to listen to you whine." He didn't let John get a word in edgewise, gliding closer to skate in a tight circle around him. "But you're right, it is easy. Why can't you do it?"

"Fuck these transitions." He flung an arm out in a frustrated gesture. "They throw everything off! I never missed a quad until you showed up."

"Your coaches were all morons and should be shot. They let you get away with murder and they've practically ruined you as a skater. You're lucky I turned up."

"They were working with my strengths," John muttered to his skates.

Rodney snorted, then pursed his lips and thought very quickly, frozen in place as he scanned the distance unseeingly. He bobbed his head once in agreement with his own genius and raised a hand, announcing, "All right. New rule: you're not to do any jumps."

"What?!"

"You are to only skate to music -- pick something you like -- and I want you to skate in a pair." Rodney ticked his rules off on gloved fingers.

"What? How am I supposed to keep in form on my jumps, pairs are a completely different type of skating, where am I supposed to find someone to skate with -- and are you out of your mind?" John growled, leaning closer. "The jumps are all I've got."

Rodney blinked. He hadn't realized John knew that. Even though everyone else did.

It suddenly made sense why he'd hired Rodney McKay, who had a reputation as an artist who couldn't keep up as the jumps progressed from doubles to triples to quads, becoming more and more important to the sport; John's complete opposite.

Welcome back to the 1986 Olympic Games, the men’s final freeskate. Next up -- Canada’s Rodney McKay!

McKay's a solid skater, Frank, not a single wasted motion. His sense of timing is like a metronome. Look at that gesture, very unique, wonderful choreography, great speed... he's so smooth you hardly know a jump is coming.

Oh-! That was supposed to be a triple and he doubled it.

That's going to cost him.

He's just not built for the jumps, Anne. He's stockier than the other skaters and it works against him. Those broad shoulders; I tell you, he's built more like a middle linebacker!

I remember him from Nationals two years ago. He was fifteen, so light on the ice, such fire! But Frank, and this happens to a lot of young skaters: as they grow their bodies just change. And there's nothing you can do about it.

Rodney's spectacular falls and litany of injuries had made news for the next two years. He'd never landed a quad in competition. Photos of his miserable expression when he finished fifth, sweat plastering longish curls to his forehead as he skated off the ice, had made Sports Illustrated. It was the most common photo to turn up if you Googled his name. Rodney hated that picture.

"I don't believe that's true. You can do more than just jump." Rodney's voice came out a little hesitant, but he squared his shoulders in defiance against John's reputation. He added a little desperately, "You have to try. If it is true, then you're wasting your time and you might as well get your teeth knocked out in hockey."

"I thought you said I'd look terrible without my teeth." John skated away from him a moment and threw a quick rebellious single jump.

Rodney watched him, shaking his head with an exaggerated huff. "Coaching is the sixth circle of hell. The Catholics were right. This is payment for something I did horribly wrong."

"How's not-jumping supposed to help me?"

"Just... trust me? For a change?" Rodney complained, letting his arms fall to his sides in frustration. "As for who you'll skate with: I'll skate with you."

John's eyebrows raised as he glided backwards with tiny little pushes, heading for the edge of the rink. "Are you hitting on me?"

"You'll have to pay me a lot more for that." Rodney skated behind him. As they reached their stuff, John threw Rodney a towel and Rodney mopped his forehead. "Besides -- and more to the point -- you're out of my league."

John paused and frowned, staring straight ahead. "What makes you think I'm...."

"Oh, please. A straight figure skater is about as common as a straight dancer."

John pursed his lips and then conceded the point with an amiable tip of his head.

"Breakfast?" Rodney suggested, brightening.

"You like food too much. You probably only lost because you gained weight," John noted. He slung his skates over his shoulder.

"I'm off the clock, therefore not coaching, therefore I don't have to put up with your crap now, thank you very much," Rodney pointed out. "And bear in mind that if you don't improve I'm your only brush with greatness, so show some respect."

John wrinkled his nose and made a face.

~*~*~

"So why do we have to skate in the nude again?" John peered at Rodney doubtfully for a moment before stripping off his tee-shirt.

"Improved aerodynamics," Rodney explained, hands on his hips. He was already naked, except for the skates of course.

John rolled off his pants, taking his underwear with them. Then he glided out onto the ice, practicing a leg extension, long and lean, with his toe -- thank god -- pointed. Already he was improving under Rodney's masterful care. "I think you're just trying to freeze my nuts off."

"No, ah, those should probably stay attached," Rodney said, looking his fill.

A loud pounding noise made Rodney turn his head.

The skating rink evaporated around him as he sat up, suddenly aware that he was chilly. He'd fallen asleep on the couch with no blanket and the TV was blaring a three am infomercial. "Executrex! I've no idea what I did without you!"

The pounding repeated, louder this time.

"Rodney!" John's voice was muffled through the door. "I've been waiting in the car for twenty minutes!"

Rodney had known it was a dream, or how else did John get his pants off over his skates? But it had been such a nice dream. "Coming, coming!" He scrambled to find a clean shirt, dirty underwear, swiped a quick roll of deodorant under his armpits and sniffed--

"Rodney…" John complained.

"Hang on a sec!" Rodney pulled on his capilene warm-ups, socks, sneakers, slung his skates over his shoulder, and snatched up a hat to cover his dirty hair. He grabbed his coat, not bothering to turn off the TV, yanking the door open.

He found the object of his bleary fantasy leaned against the doorjamb, looking bright-eyed and irritated, his dark hair deliberately tousled. John seemed to sparkle and had a kind of playful intensity about him even at his worst. Unlike a lot of skaters his charisma on the ice carried over in person. He wore a thick jacket and loose jeans, but he might as well have been nude as far as Rodney was concerned, with that dream still fresh in his mind. Rodney paused, dazed, and his breath made a puff of white mist.

John flipped his car keys in his hands. "Took you long enough. What did you do in there? It sounded like you were tearing the house down."

Rodney ignored the question. "Like you've never been late -- look, can we get some food on the way in? Tim Horton's?"

It was all that was open at this hour.

"If you're buying."

"Good, good," Rodney said absently, fumbling with the lock as his screen door squeaked and tried to close on him.

He turned, and found John was giving him an assessing up-and-down glance that turned into a slow smirk. Rodney realized he must look like hell -- and probably still smelled like sex after his dream.

"Late night?" John drawled with a little smile.

"Oh. Well, being a superstar and all that," Rodney breathed, hunching his shoulders and wishing desperately that he'd showered, "life in the fast lane."

"Right," John said, a little too sarcastically.

~*~*~

Rodney sighed with satisfaction as he bit into a lovely warm muffin, humming a little. He heard John snicker and glanced up. John slouched in the vinyl booth across from him, toying with a cup of coffee which he didn't seem particularly interested in. Outside the window a street lamp glowed with a frozen halo. It was a bitter night in Ontario.

"So, why do you want me to skate pairs?" John opened, narrowing his eyes in a puzzled expression. "I mean, the lifts look pretty hard but…."

"What? Oh, I thought you knew," Rodney said with his mouth full. He quickly swallowed his bite. "Pairs is far more difficult. Twice the weight means twice the speed, and you have to match each other. It demands precision." He wiped his mouth with his napkin and picked up a few crumbs off the table with a fingertip. "I started out as a pairs skater myself. Part of why I'm so good."

"Really? You? Throwing the girls around? That's hard to picture."

"Oh yes. I started skating with my sister actually. I was six, she was five." Rodney bit into his egg sandwich, talking with his mouth full. "Our parents thought we were getting too chunky so they signed us up for skating lessons."

"Chunky, huh? Can't imagine," John said wryly, eyes skimming him.

"Shut up." Rodney scowled over his breakfast. "She was bigger than me and a full five pounds heavier yet they still made me do all the lifts just because I was the boy." Rodney was indignant even decades later, chewing noisily. "She should have been carrying me."

"You were doing lifts when you were six?"

"Well, more like eight, but yes." Rodney continued with an evil gleam and a smirk, "I admit, I dropped her. A lot. And not always by accident. Although she'd get me back. Have you any idea what a skate in the stomach feels like?"

John shook his head, bemused. "Can't say that I do."

"They should never allow brothers and sisters to skate together."

"I always thought it seemed, well, a little incestuous. I mean, skating's kinda sexy," John observed.

"Hmph." Rodney thought about this, tilting his head. "Jeannie was more dangerous than anything else." He finished the last of his sandwich with a smack of his lips. "Anyhow, she had no talent whatsoever and I was brilliant. By the time I was competing in singles I was so relieved not to have to carry her, it was a breeze."

Rodney glanced at his grape juice and realized it was gone. John still hadn't touched his coffee. "Are you gonna drink that or just admire it from afar?"

"I don't really like coffee," John admitted. "I just feel obligated to buy it for some strange reason."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "I'll drink it."

He settled comfortably against the booth and watched John. He really didn't feel like skating today and it was taking every effort to move. "So… what about you? How'd you start skating?"

"Well," John began with a shy tip of his head, "there was this pond out back behind my parent's house. It had a little rise above it with a tire swing that we used to climb, swing out across the pond, and then see if we could land on the ice without falling."

John paused. Rodney's coffee cup had stopped halfway to his mouth. He squinted at John.

"How high was this thing?" Rodney asked, verging on appalled. He set the cup down without taking a sip.

"Oh, I dunno. Six or eight feet?"

"You're insane."

"Well, stupid more like. A few people got hurt, though I only fell through the ice the one time. Now that--" John squirmed in the booth. "--was the definition of cold. I discovered you really had to wait till it was frozen solid." He balled up his paper napkin. "Anyhow, when we moved we didn't have the pond anymore, so my parents let me go to the ice rink. I imitated the kids' jumps there." He shrugged, one-shouldered and casual. "A coach saw and wanted me to try out. Only they didn't tell me there was gonna be an audience at the competitions."

"You're kidding. You didn't know? How could you not know?"

"I'd never heard of figure skating. The Olympics was all ice hockey and skiing as far as I was concerned."

"What on earth did you expect?"

"I just wanted it to be like the practices."

"Huh." Rodney chortled. "I guess it didn't go very well then, eh?"

"No, I did pretty good. Didn't want to embarrass myself. But boy, I was pissed." Sheppard grinned. "Of course once I saw my scores and realized I did better than everyone else I decided to stick around."

"Are you glad you did?" Rodney asked with a canny glance.

"Well. Sometimes."

It was an honest answer, and Rodney liked him for it. "So you didn't even start figure skating until you were a teenager?"

"Does it make a difference?" John's tone was challenging, eyebrow raised.

It did, but Rodney didn't answer, tapping the side of his cup speculatively as he stared off at a pyramid of ugly logo mugs for sale. He had a sneaking suspicion John's coaches had forgotten he was so new to the sport. John's late climb in the standings began to make a little more sense. Rodney stood and put a fist in his back, stretching. "Ready to suffer?"

John simply sighed.

Rodney dropped a tip in the jar as they headed for the door. He'd worked a lot of these jobs in his years as a skater, scraping by, and tried to be generous when he could.

"I've one question that's bugged me for years," John said, zipping up his coat. "Why is it traditional to skate at these godawful hours in the morning? Why not ten o'clock? Or noon?"

"I have a theory about that." Rodney held up a finger, the line of his mouth in a thin, smug smile. "It's to prepare you for the inherent masochism of the sport. If you're willing to get up at three am to skate, you have the capacity to skate through injuries, cracked ribs, torn ACLs, pulled muscles -- not to mention falling regularly on ice that's as hard as concrete."

"So what you're saying is the skating gods are sadists."

"No. I'm saying the coaches are sadists. But it's revenge really." Rodney smirked at him. "We all hate you because you still get to compete."

They laughed and John held the door for Rodney. The sky had lightened to faint gray-blue, and the brisk pre-dawn wind cut through their clothes.

"So. You think skating's sexy?" Rodney teased him, chafing his hands while John warmed up his Chevy. The thought amused him for some inexplicable reason.

"Not my skating, no, I just like the jumps. But everyone else's? Sure. Don't you?"

"Think your skating is sexy?" Rodney considered. He'd been watching John for weeks now but hadn't thought about it from this angle. "No," he said, wonderingly, voice soft with surprise. "You're not."

There was definitely something wrong with that.

~*~*~

Their first session had gone rather well, Rodney thought, though it had just consisted of a standard warm-up, with a few laps around the rink and then some spins.

It annoyed Rodney that John seemed to have a natural talent for spins since he'd always struggled with them himself -- though that was probably Jeannie's fault for throwing them off-balance. He'd once believed she'd done it on purpose, but after teaching talentless kids for the last few years, he'd decided that some people were pathologically incapable of finding a center of gravity, doomed to flop around like ragdolls.

John was antsy throughout the entire practice, until he admitted that he'd never hit the ice without doing jumps. "I feel like I haven't even skated," he complained, shaking his foot. "They usually are my warm-up."

"You'll be fine." Rodney snorted.

Naturally, John had brought the boombox but had forgotten to bring any of his music.

Rodney set to familiarizing John with some standard holds and positions for pairs, but the morning was more theory than actual work. John cast some embarrassed shifty-eyed glances around the rink as he gingerly held Rodney's hip.

Rodney snapped his fingers in John's face. "Hey! Eyes front and center! I'm not going to explain this twice."

"But people can see us…" John muttered under his breath, gazing after a young skater who passed them, her leg extended angelically.

"She's twelve, and obviously I'm your coach. Don't worry about it." Though Rodney beamed and didn't bother to hide the fact he found John's shyness endearing.

At the end of their session John took off for the showers. Rodney rolled his shoulders, skating a slow lap around the deserted rink. He felt tight himself, like he hadn't really skated either.

They had a good ten minutes before the hockey team showed up… and he almost never got to have fun these days, what with all his attention devoted to his "protégés." Speeding up, Rodney glided to his bag. He had the tape -- lucky thing that -- and slammed it into the boombox.

He hurried to the center of the rink, mentally peopling it with the soft roar of an audience. He struck his starting pose.

The trumpets of Stravinsky's "Danse Infernale" began and Rodney started powerful backward stroking, working up speed, circling the rink nearly to the wall, the wind whipping his face.

He threw himself into a double toe-loop as the orchestra struck. Then the second, unexpected, on the next high note. He bobbled the landing a little bit, but recovered, with speed to spare. The music was unforgiving because of the time-signature changes, and the judges knew it.

Slowing a little, he carved light footwork on the clarinet solo, dainty steps on the tips of his skates -- Scott Hamilton was his hero -- then stretched his arms for maximum velocity for the surprising surge in the tempo. He hopped up into a spin, which he cut short to pop into a second spin… losing speed was the big danger here… then he let himself wobble as if off-balance to mimic the barely in-control strings, and pulled himself upright.

That always got people clapping. A roar of approval from the announcers, over something that wasn't a jump. Very rare. That took strength!

His twizzle steps followed the whirl of the orchestra as it changed time signatures again, forward stroking, playful now.

Then the startling long legato as the wash of music turned into a waltz, where he rested in a long extension… his leg wasn't as high as it should be… he pushed it… there! Changed positions and then…

The soft build to gain speed again. He bounced into the splits, just for style points. Then he turned around and circled with his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth like a sailor on a ship as he prepared for a final jump late into his program. Grimacing, with a grunt he landed a double; that's all he could do right now.

Arms outstretched as the trumpets drove him on, just as he was getting tired and feeling his legs scream, the power of the music increasing. He dove into a tight sit-spin and dragged his arms in, fighting centrifugal force, stood and increased the speed to a dizzying crescendo.

He nailed the stop. Foot out, arm flung upward dramatically.

Right on the beat.

God, he was good. Rodney grinned.

His chest heaved, he panted, his mouth open, and he finally felt the sweat trickling down his back. Not bad, not bad for not having done it a while.

Someone clapped. What was the sound of one man clapping? Rodney looked around, dazed, still more in his body than in his mind, only slowly registering John's presence where he was a dark splotch propped up against the wall.

With a happy breath, Rodney skated to the edge of the rink.

"I always think of a ship lost at sea when I skate that," Rodney said, cheerfully grabbing a towel and burying his head in it. He scrubbed the sweat out of his hair. "It's been too long."

"Wow. You're really good!" John said. Rodney pulled the towel over his shoulders to catch John blinking in astonishment. "Really good."

"Well, of course I am."

John ignored him, babbling, "I mean, everyone said told me that you were 'The Artist' and would be able to help me with my program, but jeeze, toss in a few big jumps and you'll have it."

"You didn't think I was any good?" Rodney said in disbelief.

"Well, what I saw was that fif--"

"--fifth place finish," Rodney interrupted wearily, putting his head in hands. He said between his fingers, "That was me 'tossing in a few jumps.'"

"Have I said something wrong?" John scowled. "Because I thought I just said you were good."

"I'm immortalized for the worst performance of my career," Rodney said bleakly, throwing the towel into the stands.

Rodney felt a warm hand on his shoulder. He looked up to find John had leaned closer. John pressed his hand for emphasis on each point. "I said you were good."

And he finally got it. "Yeah. Yeah, I am." He took a deep breath. "Glad you finally noticed."

~*~*~

John's one-bedroom apartment was on the ground floor of a building that used to be a hotel, complete with lobby, paneled walls and an old-fashioned elevator that didn't work. Rodney didn't need to look at the room numbers to find him: there was only one person who'd be playing Creedence Clearwater Revival that thumping loud at three o'clock in the afternoon. Rodney wondered if John knew "Mustang Sally" was a favorite with strippers the world over.

John's door was unlocked. His floors were uneven worn wood, and John had a canoe mounted to the wall, while a ten-speed and a pair of sneakers blocked the hallway. Aside from an unmade futon in the corner and a stack of milk crates there was no furniture in the main room, just scattered work-out equipment.

Broad windows let in gray light where John was silhouetted in the kitchen, doing a handstand.

"Okay, okay, enough fooling around," Rodney clapped twice and John dropped to the floor.

"Hey, Rodney. Just having a little fun." He grinned.

"Work-outs aren't fun. They're a necessary evil to keep yourself from breaking something in competition."

John snorted. "With that attitude no wonder you're a little tubby."

"I'm in terrific shape for a man my age." Rodney tossed his coat on John's bed and kicked off his shoes. "I'm assuming you've already done your stretches?"

He set his water bottle next to himself on the floor and pulled his sweatshirt over his head. It followed his coat in an arc onto the bed.

"Well… if you count handstands…" John equivocated in a mild amused voice.

"On the floor." Rodney already had his heel drawn in to his crotch, the other leg stretched along the floor, feeling the slow pull as he pressed his chest towards his knee. John slid effortlessly into the splits.

Rodney winced. "Don't do that."

"Relax, Rodney."

"No, I mean it! How did you manage to avoid learning any discipline at all?" Rodney snapped.

"I'm disciplined."

"You could easily pull a groin muscle if you do that without warming up first, and let me tell you, it hurts!"

"I've been doing handstands."

"You could set us back for weeks." John sighed at him. "I'll make you practice through any injuries you sustain as your just desserts." It was an idle threat; Rodney would do no such thing. "And don't forget to breathe."

"I always breathe," John snarled, but he let out a long exhalation as he bent over his knee, touching his forehead to the floor.

"Picture it going into your muscles wherever it's tight, melting that spot like butter," Rodney murmured.

"What are you, some kind of guru now?" John eyed him.

"It's a rolphing technique," Rodney purred. "I love stretches. I could practically fall asleep like this."

"Okay." John rolled, pushing himself up from the floor. He bobbed his chin to the music and made his way to the weight bench. "I'll spot you. Two sets of ten and then the leg lifts?"

Rodney stood and bounced on the soles of his feet. He shook out his fingers. "I don't lift weights," he said, blinking primly.

"How can you get any strength with the jumps if you don't…" John paused, a light dawning in his eyes.

"This isn't about me, this is about you!" Rodney snapped, suddenly irritable and defensive. "Now up. I need a leg extension from you, as pretty as a ballerina. C'mon, c'mon, we don't have all day."

John complied, lips tightly locked but he gave Rodney a meaningful look that spoke volumes. Rodney ignored the intense guilt-inducing stare.

At Rodney's direction he did a waltz step, then the Lutz, bouncing up and landing facing the opposite direction, one foot extended. "Now watch me carefully," Rodney said, and he did the same.

John frowned in confusion. "So?"

"Get my timing down perfectly. Cross-step, cross-step, then one – two – three!" Rodney landed. "Now together."

After several tries John still stumbled, landing slightly after Rodney who looked him over critically, like John was a car he planned to buy. "You're really not much of a dancer."

John's shoulders slumped. "Give it a chance, will you? You take such teenie steps."

"I was trying to make it easy for you."

"Well stop, you're making it harder!"

"Here." Rodney huffed a sigh and tucked an arm around John's waist. "Now don't be shy." He smirked.

John rolled his eyes. They repeated the cross-steps pressed hip-to-warm hip, this time working out a happy medium in their strides. John watched his feet carefully, tongue between his teeth in concentration.

Rodney chucked him under the chin, shaking his head. "Don't look at my feet. Trust me when I say you'll never get it that way."

After several successful tries, Rodney varied the rhythm, forcing John to improvise. John chuckled, "Let me lead sometime, okay?"

Rodney grinned. He clapped his hands together. "Okay then, let's try this one more time. With the Lutz."

They separated. Then did the three cross-steps, stepped into the jump, one – two – three! John landed on a dime, dead even with Rodney, at least as far as Rodney could tell. And he even held the pose without slouching out of it. They breathed a long minute.

"Well," Rodney said, the line of his mouth pulled into a smug smile as he let his foot drop. "I'd say we made tolerable progress today."

"I'd say that was pretty damned good," John nodded slowly. He laced his fingers together over his head and stretched. "I can do my cardio later. Wanna stay for dinner?" he offered, padding in his bare feet over to a small sink and a cupboard. A card table was set against one wall by the windows. "We're having… either leftover pad thai or – ooo! – macaroni and cheese." John waggled his eyebrows.

"Much as the menu sounds enticing," Rodney slumped to the floor, legs outstretched like a two-year-old's, "I have a four o'clock lesson to give. Someone who isn't actually behind on paying me."

"Shit. Rodney—"

"No, no, don't worry about it," Rodney swiped the air lazily and leaned on an elbow with a sigh, crossing his ankles comfortably. "It's nice to coach someone who doesn't need me to tie their skates."

"No. Rodney," John gave him a funny look. "It's four thirty."

"Already?!" Rodney swore, scrambling up to grab his clothes. He hopped up and down as he put on his shoes. "How did this happen?"

"You need me to call? I can call for you, make up some kind of excuse… you were shot, run over by a bus…."

"It's a tiny little shoebox of a rink. They don't have a paging system! I can't believe this!" He flung John's door open and suddenly stopped and spun around, stabbing a finger in John's direction. "Tomorrow. Four am. Music, and the boombox. Don't forget this time!" Rodney was already running down the hall when John yelled after him, "Do you want a three am wake up call?"

Rodney's answer to this helpful suggestion really wasn't very nice, nor was the hand gesture he gave over his shoulder, not looking back. But John simply grinned and started heating water for macaroni and cheese, the dinner of champions, and cranked up the music.

~*~*~

The morning was off to a terrific start when Rodney slammed the door of John's Chevy, hopping onto the vinyl seats with a loud sigh -- and discovered it just as cold inside as outside. "Hey…."

"Sorry. Heater broke," John explained with a rueful cringe. He lifted his chin and peered into the rear view mirror, adjusting it.

"You need to win a competition or the lottery or something," Rodney complained, "so you can pay me and put your life back together."

"There's always male prostitution," John drawled.

Rodney's jaw dropped and his mouth went dry.

"Kidding, McKay."

"Oh," Rodney sighed and he started breathing again. "Of course you are."

But his mind was still reeling through the dangers of that. HIV, Hepatitis, assault and battery, John injured for life, wheelchairs, never able to skate again… John would leave a tragically good-looking corpse.

"My parents send me what they can but I don't like to ask. The apartment's subsidized so that helps…." John shrugged. "I worked as a dishwasher for a while before I got fired: four am skate times and late shifts just don't seem to mix."

"Well, if it gets too bad you can always move in with me."

Rodney froze, stunned at what had just come out of his mouth. No, stunned that he'd even thought it. John's work-out equipment would never fit, and that was just for starters.

John's expression went blank and oddly vulnerable. Not turning his head, he eyed Rodney. "Do you make that offer to all your students?"

"Not if they're under the age of nine, no. Their parents would find it very upsetting." Rodney tried to make light of it with a nervous little laugh. "So, ah, did you bring the music?" he added in a tight, desperate voice, eager to change the subject. "And the boombox?"

John blinked and handed Rodney a plastic bag of CDs. He reached up and made an irritated growl in the back of his throat, scrubbing the inside of the windshield with his sleeve; the heater being out apparently meant that the defroster didn't work either.

"I didn't mean for that to sound, um…" Rodney began, circling one hand as he held the bag limply in the other.

"No, it's all right. It's a generous offer." John flashed him a smile.

"I was just thinking about the wheelchairs…" Rodney said absently.

"What?" John twisted in his direction, brows furrowed.

But Rodney was already distracted as he stared into the bag. "What is this crap?"

"What crap?"

"Country music? Keith Urban? Johnny Cash? You can't skate to any of this!"

"You said pick out something I like," John frowned, a little petulant.

"That was founded on the assumption you had a modicum of taste and some concept of what makes appropriate skating music," Rodney said in exasperation. "I realize you learned how to skate at ma and pa's 'ce-ment swimming hole,' but surely you've been doing it long enough to know better." Rodney dug through the bag irritably.

"I hate classical…." John whined.

Rodney produced one CD, waving it in the air. "Aha! The Clash. Now we're getting somewhere."

John gave him an uncomfortable half-smile. "Well, that's more for listening than for skating."

"Obviously. But at least I can tolerate hearing it for months on end." He turned towards John, brandishing the CD. "Look, the rule of skating music is simple: pick out something you like but not something you love. That way you can live with it, but you don't ruin it for yourself by having to play it nine billion times."

John nodded once, decisive. "Take Johnny Cash out of there."

"We're gonna go one better." Rodney patted his shoulder. John stared at that spot, but Rodney ignored him and jerked his chin in the direction of his door. "C'mon, follow me. I should've done this to begin with."

Inside his house, Rodney tried the technique of pretending the mess was invisible. Ignore the piles of papers, medicine bottles, empty dishes and glasses on the coffee table, the dirty clothes strewn about the couch and on the floor, and hopefully your guest would be immediately struck blind. Naturally it didn't work on John.

John paused in the doorway, looking around hesitantly as he slipped the door shut behind him. He stood with his hands on his hips, his gaze openly taking in the wreckage.

"Nice place you've got here." He glanced up at the ceiling as he picked his way across the room. "I'm thinking of turning down your offer."

"Shut up, you people take up all my time," Rodney snapped as he crouched down and slid open his dusty stereo cabinet. "Though maybe if you paid me I could afford a cleaning lady."

"I'm guessing there're not a lot of guests rolling through here. Because something this impressive takes effort."

"Of course not."

"So… no parade of international stardom?" John said meaningfully.

Rodney gave him a hard look. "Ten years ago, yes. It's amazing I found any time to skate. Now, no. No one's interested in a slightly overweight has-been."

"Well. I wouldn't say no one."

Their eyes met for a moment.

"This is hero worship, isn't it?" Rodney asked calmly as he returned to digging through his CDs.

"You did just offer to be my sugar daddy," John said with a dry smirk.

Rodney sighed, shoulders hunching defensively. "I'm never going to hear the end of that, am I?"

John crouched beside Rodney with a satisfied little grunt. "Nope," he breathed. "Not a chance."

"Well, you're wasting time here! We're already late." Rodney gestured to the line of CDs he'd just reorganized by composer. "I've picked out the most likely candidates for your -- and please be aware I'm stretching the term -- 'style' of skating."

"Just now?"

"Well, I am a genius. I simply just chose to, oh," Rodney beamed beatifically at him, "follow my Muse."

John rolled his eyes in disgust, changing the subject as he scanned the entire cabinet. "That's a lot of CDs."

"I've an exceptional collection. Now. What do you like that doesn't include caterwauling about broken hearts and truck pulls? Tchaikovsky's always reliable -- 'Romeo and Juliet,' perhaps? You have to like it or this won't work."

John wrinkled his nose and shook his head. "Classical's boring."

"You clearly haven't heard the right kind of classical music. Handel is boring."

"I like drum solos… guitar solos…." John suggested doubtfully.

Rodney brightened, snapping his fingers. "Oh! I know just the thing." He grabbed a handful of CDs and gestured John to the door, checking his watch. "If we cut short your spins we can still try this."

"Try what? And I saw you pick up that Tchaikovsky, Rodney."

"Always have a back-up plan," Rodney sing-songed.

"Yeah, I've got a back-up plan," John said, following Rodney as they trampled loudly down the wooden steps to John's car. He said over the roof as he swung open the door, "If what you picked sucks I'm skating to Willie Nelson."

~*~*~

The sky was turning pink by the time they pulled into the nearly empty parking lot. Just inside the door they stamped their feet to warm up, gym bags in hand as Rodney followed John into the glaring lights of the rink. It was always too bright first thing in the morning. And quiet. A few people were down at the far end of rink, though not enough to disturb them. There was an echoing laugh as someone fell, and the soft scrape of blades.

Being late meant they were technically going to go over their skate time, but no one had ever made a move to throw Rodney out yet, and the hockey team wasn't scheduled today -- they were the only ones who needed the whole ice. The Hurwitzes, who owned the rink, were pleasant people who seemed to like John; besides, they got a lot of business from Rodney's clients. It wasn't often a coach of Rodney's caliber chose a rink so out of the way.

John hopped over a bench, kicked off his shoes and began pulling on and lacing up his skates with quick yanks. Rodney stripped off his coat and sweater, blinking and smothering a yawn.

John as usual was first on the ice, stretching his arms over his head. He turned the stretch into a half-spin.

He did a quick warm-up lap, then returned with slow gliding steps.

"So, we're going to skate together today?" John glanced nervously over his shoulder to the other skaters -- who were miles away.

"Actually, we're going to try something a little different."

Rodney hadn't really warmed up yet, but he pushed off the wall and with a few stiff strokes came up behind John and slowed, laying a hand on his back. "I want you to shut your eyes and just follow me. Trust me; I won't steer you into a wall."

John gave him a suspicious dark-eyed look, then sighed and did as he was told.

Rodney took two backward strokes holding John's shoulder, and John reluctantly followed.

"Okay," John said, his back tight and his eyes still squeezed shut. "Now what?"

"I want you to match my strokes." Rodney pushed off again with the lightest touch on John's shoulder.

John did two slow pushes, still complaining. "I can't see your—"

"Ah, ah!" Rodney cut him off. "Remember our work-out? I'm simply behind you at the moment, that's all."

"Then shouldn't we have practiced it like that?" John said sarcastically, his eyes open again. He cut an edge and spun around to face Rodney.

Rodney drew himself to a stop, thumping a finger on his own chest then pointing at John. "Me coach. You student. You keep forgetting that."

"I'm just saying."

"--That you can't do it," Rodney interrupted.

"No, I can do it. I can so do this." John's jaw was set and he closed his eyes again, turning to present his back. He fell still, as if preparing for a race. He shook his hands out like a boxer; then he was ready.

Rodney was careful not to smile, though sometimes, John could be refreshingly predictable. He started with a hand on John's shoulder again, at arms-length, skating backwards as he led John.

John matched his pace, his mouth in a firm line of concentration. Then, as he grew more accurate tracing the length of Rodney's steps, Rodney slid his hands to John's hips, just below his waist. John threw him a quick startled glance, but made no comment, matching his pace again.

They glided for several seconds, nothing more than that.

Rodney drew him in closer, shortening the distance by half. John blinked his eyes open and cleared his throat, saying, "This has to look bad."

"Eyes closed," Rodney demanded. "No one's watching."

He lied. Several people had taken notice; pairs skating did not usually involve two men. As they passed the most interested culprits, two girls in pastel skirts, Rodney spoke in an authoritative voice a little more loudly than necessary: "Good, that's good!"

"Ow. I'm right here." John winced.

Catching on that he was 'The CoachTM,' their spectators lost interest and went back to their business.

One more lap and John followed him smoothly, shortening his usual long strokes to match Rodney's. It was effortless. Rodney admired his clean lines accentuated by dark stretch-fleece.

"Crossovers," Rodney warned him, one hand on John's shoulder again, giving him more room as they crossed one foot over another, picking up speed in a slow broad circle. Confident John had it, though he did have his eyes open again, Rodney moved in closer to catch his hips. Their combined power and velocity sling-shotted them around the rink and Rodney caught a trace of a smile at the corner of John's mouth, though he had to pay more careful attention to what he was doing now.

Rodney cut a wide circle. "Let it glide," he ordered.

"No, let's go faster," John argued.

But Rodney let go of his hips and let the momentum carry him further until turning to coast a stop. Of course John stopped like a hockey player in a spray of ice. It would probably take a zamboni weeks to smooth out the gouge.

"Wow, you weren't kidding about the speed!" John said, catching his breath as he skated over, arms loose. "I felt like I was draughting behind a truck with you breaking all the wind resistance."

"Pairs skating has its advantages," Rodney agreed. "Though I've only done that with thirteen-year-old girls. I admit, I'd underestimated the sheer velocity when one's combined weight is over four hundred pounds -- and did you just compare me to a truck?"

"Four hundred," John's eyes were calculating, narrowed as he did the math. "You weigh over two hundred—?"

"Not the point, Sheppard." Rodney rolled his eyes and ended this line of questioning. "That was a good start. Now," he approached with two strokes, "I want you to lean back into my hands."

"You want me to do a layback?" John peered at him. "What's next? A dress?"

Rodney sighed at the prejudices of the sport. "More like slump into my hands. Pretend that you're unconscious."

John tipped his head to one side and shrugged, backing up to Rodney. "I'm really not seeing the point of all this."

"Coach here!" Rodney raised a hand in frustrated reminder.

On the first try, Rodney fumbled his grip and John set his weight back on his skates, barely catching himself before they fell. Rodney backed up awkwardly.

"Okay, not quite that unconscious." They stopped. "Just don't give me all your weight. Just some of it."

"A layback," John insisted, hard-eyed.

"All right, fine! Call it what you will. But do it without the arched back, please."

John cut his eyes to the side then nodded agreement, swiping at his mouth. This time, while his weight pushed them into a little wobbly glide, Rodney was able to hold him. He pushed backwards, keeping up a steady rhythm.

"Now melt like butter and just slide behind me…." Rodney murmured.

John had closed his eyes automatically, just like Rodney had hoped. He turned them gently into a curve. Easy does it.

John's eyelashes made little arcs on his cheeks, his face soft almost as if he were sleeping, except for the tight line of concentration across his brows. Rodney decided he had rather pouty lips.

Suddenly John stiffened up, jerked, his shoulder smacked the ice as he grabbed -- and yanked on Rodney's arm. Rodney tripped forward, spiraled and slammed to his hands and knees. Rodney skidded a little before coming to a complete stop.

Not for the first time Rodney wished there were a way to fall gracefully. He and John glanced around as if crowds of people were ready to point and laugh.

"What was that?" Rodney snapped, putting a hand on his thigh as he leveraged himself off the ice. He winced; that knee throbbed.

"Sorry. It just occurred to me that I wasn't the one driving. I didn't like it much," John sneered, dusting off the seat of his pants as he stood.

"Hmm. Interesting." Rodney's mouth tipped up into a smug smile.

"What's interesting?" John asked suspiciously.

"Nothing," Rodney said, but he beamed, positively brimming with insight. Being right was the best part of coaching; that little thrill of hypothesis and discovery when you saw what had been eluding you sitting there, directly under your nose. "Except that I was right, oh-so-frighteningly correct, as usual."

"What?"

"You can control the jumps. But everything else you keep oh, how do I say this? Outside of yourself if that makes any sense." He waved a hand. "You don't like the music to be in charge."

"No, that's not it," John corrected him patiently. "The jumps feel good. The other stuff's just boring filler."

"Well, it shouldn't be."

"What should it be then?"

"The other 'stuff,' as you call it, is the point." Rodney drew closer, drawing the number three on the ice as he turned on an edge. "It should be, hmm…" Rodney thought about his phrasing an instant, tipping his head in happy amusement. "Sexy."

He smirked and John snorted a laugh, looking skyward as he followed Rodney, his back straight.

"Try it again," Rodney said.

John was considerably more uncomfortable this time, arms stiff as he tried to lean back and stopped, pinwheeling. Rodney jerked away.

"Halfway's not good," he warned. Though it took everyone a moment to recover from a fall.

John's narrow eyes flicked to the side, glinting with suspicion. "I still don't see the point of all this."

"You will."

"Thanks for the clarification, Yoda."

But this time he leaned back, trusting his weight to Rodney again. Though it looked like he was holding his breath. Rodney shut his eyes briefly as his body registered its high opinion of their relative positions. He decided to ignore what John couldn't see. They moved into a slow glide.

For all that John was relatively tall, over six feet, a good two inches taller than Rodney, he was slim and very light. Narrow through the shoulders and chest, built delicately, enough so that Rodney briefly wondered if he had hollow bones like a bird -- well, most birds. No wonder he could practically fly.

"Jumping must be pretty easy for you," Rodney observed out loud over the grinding glide of their skates.

John's hazel eyes squinted up at him. "Of course it is."

Rodney brought them to a slow stop, tipping John back up to his feet, a little less gracefully than with most of his students, the majority of whom were female.

John blinked and rolled his shoulders. "Well, that was relaxing." He skated to the wall, picking up his water bottle.

"Hmm," Rodney hummed agreement. "Good. Means you're ready for the next step."

He turned his back to John to cover what the soft warm-ups did little to hide. He grabbed from the bench the over-sized pale blue sweatshirt and pulled it on, the hem brushing his thighs. John swept him with an amused glance before becoming conscientiously distracted by something non-existent on the other side of the rink. Rodney tugged his shirt lower. He wasn't fooling anyone but he didn't have to be obvious about it.

John winced, taking another sip. "You don't think people were watching us." It was half a question as he scanned the ice alertly.

"I didn't notice," Rodney admitted.

"You're going get me beat up by a hockey team," John complained, putting the cap on the water bottle, though he didn't seem too serious, Rodney thought.

Without ceremony Rodney popped in a CD and clicked play.

"Tchaikovsky?" John folded his arms defensively.

"We'll try something else first."

The complicated guitar work began, followed by the steady rolling drumbeat like a march.

John burst out laughing, bending almost double. He came back up with a smile. "It's a tango."

"Flamenco music's very masculine," Rodney pointed out.

"I need a red cape," John joked. But he was still grinning at Rodney, as amused as all heck.

"Olé," said Rodney, pushing off the wall and spinning around. "Now you lead."

"What do you mean?" John asked curiously, eyes still crinkled in a smile, following Rodney with a lazy step.

"Just… play with it. Here. Watch."

Rodney got himself up to tempo, one arm drawn up to his chest as if he were holding said cape. He winked at John, then did long crossover steps, scooping left than right in a serpentine pattern with the sway of the tango, then he circled back around. "Just make it up."

"I can't do that."

"Shy, eh?" Rodney smirked. "I'll make this easy for you. I need a shower. Bad. So the rink's all yours." He gestured dramatically to the empty ice.

"I thought I was paying you to coach." John squinted.

"Ah, leaving aside that whole 'payment' issue-? Your hour was up, oh," Rodney looked at a watch he wasn't wearing, "at least half an hour ago." He slapped John on the back. "Have fun."

Picking up his gym bag, he held up a cautioning finger. "Remember: No jumps!"

~*~*~

Rodney was wrapped in the telephone cord, one coil over his hip stretched tight as he reached up to grab the oregano. He slammed the cabinet door with an elbow. The water ran at full blast where he was washing dishes, multi-tasking, the steam rising -- Rodney believed in temperatures that could boil lobster. Several open cans of organic tomatoes from the co-op were on the counter, advertising 'No preservatives!' in bright letters.

"You wouldn't believe it!" Rodney fumed.

He readjusted the phone, giving the cord a good yank. He padded over to peer into his fridge. "Hold on, hold on, I can't find --" He grabbed a plastic bag of herbs from the back. "-- Never mind. Disaster averted."

"How much is this phone call costing you?" the voice on the other end wondered. "And what are you doing?"

He disentangled his arm, flopping his elbow impatiently to free it, and poured an enormous amount of oil into a pot the size of a small vat.

"It's cooking day," Rodney snapped into the phone. "I wouldn't have to do this if all the restaurants in town weren't out to kill me -- anyhow, you'd think someone could follow simple directions. All I said was 'skate.' A one-word instruction isn't overly complicated."

"Skate?" said the voice on the phone. "That is all?"

Rodney took a breath and started to explain, "He's one of those types that jumps—"

"Yes, yes, I've seen him, good jumps but not much—"

"Not much style, no," Rodney sighed. He dropped garlic into the pot and stirred it with a wooden spoon. The garlic sizzled. He leaned closer and decided to add more.

"Have you tried getting him to—"

"That was exactly what I was doing!" Rodney exclaimed, flailing the spoon. "I went to take a shower -- to give him a little privacy, to get into it of course."

"Of course, of course…."

"I came back out, and what was he doing? He was playing hockey with some twelve-year-old! Hockey!"

"What did you do?" The voice was suddenly wary.

"I threw my gym bag at him!" Rodney said, exasperated. "Radek, I don't have time to waste my talents on someone who doesn't have the brains to realize that by ignoring me, he's throwing away his entire career!" "You threw your gym bag at him?"

"And his! And the water bottle! I would have thrown the boombox next but the owners of the rink have been very nice to me and I didn't want to do any lasting damage." Rodney stirred the contents of the pot with unnecessary vigor, throwing in the oregano. "I told him that at least if he were paying me I might be getting something out of this."

"You threw things at him?"

"As it was, he was an endless black hole into which I throw my time and energy -- and nothing ever emerges!" Rodney banged the spoon on the edge of the pot.

He added in the sudden radio silence, "And don't think I don't know he's still doing the jumps, because he looked twitchy when I brought it up."

"Rodney… how much is this telephone call costing you?"

"I can never figure out Euros; they're not a real currency." Rodney brushed the question off with a gesture. "He even made me late for Mrs. Bevington's daughter, and yes, the kid will never reach John's level and probably give up skating to join the marching band, but having the little automatons do what I say is infinitely preferable to watching talent go down the drain."

"Rodney. Why is it you are calling me?"

"What?"

"Go out, Rodney."

"What?"

"Your house, it is probably a big mess and looks like shit—"

"It does not!"

"--and you have nothing in your life but these babies," the voice went on, undeterred. "Go out. See people."

"My house is fine!" Rodney said, clear-eyed and hurt.

The voice grumbled in Czech. Probably vivid swear words.

"Okay, maybe it could use a little tidying up."

"I will not say it again," the voice said with infinite patience.

"I miss you," Rodney said miserably.

"If I will be honest, I do not miss you. I want you, yes, sometimes. And I like you, so much. But you are crazy-making!"

"I'm disgustingly overweight and I'm eating more," Rodney switched the phone to his other ear, shifting his hip to slump against the counter. "I just got rid of a hot, hot student I would gladly molest on or off the ice, and now my ex doesn't love me any more."

"Yes. I do. Or else I would not accept your phone call. It is just safer on a different continent."

"How's the committee thing going?" Rodney changed the subject brightly, his voice a little high and desperate.

"It has been six months since you last called: I am not on the Olympic committee any more. Go out," Radek Zelenka said, as relentless as ever. "Promise me you will go out, please?"

~*~*~

January, 1986

The sky was bright blue, a cold wind breaking over the bluff.

Radek Zelenka squinted at the sun reflecting off the snow as he adjusted his skis, digging edges deeper into the side of slope. He stuck his ski poles through the sharp icy surface and adjusted the cold wire frames of his glasses on his face. He couldn't regret missing an afternoon of high school for this. He looked around and breathed, waiting. He lifted the cheap plastic Instamatic camera to his cheek. The wind lifted a dusting of snow in a vortex before it settled.

Conditions were perfect.

Up at the top of the track a voice shouted. The skier launched down the ramp, tucked tight, his poles buried under his arms. There was a shudder and thump as he hit the top curve of the ramp, and then silence as he flew, arched forward over skis angled like the vee of geese flying north. A new technique but it worked.

Mouth open in awe, Radek snapped photos in a series dull clicks, turning to follow his arc.

"Oh...." he said, not aware that he'd made a sound. He held his breath until his brother Jiri landed, skis sliding, splayed wide to snowplow to a stop. His brother spun a ski pole in the air with a whoop, pulling the World War I goggles to the top of his head.

Radek measured the distance with his eyes. He knew this course better than his own bedroom, and ski jumping better than most subjects at school -- and he was a top student, engineering ski designs in his mind. Radek was small enough to be a ski jumper himself but he'd always been the fragile scholar among the Zelenka boys.

The jump was easily 173 meters, landed clean. Only eighteen meters short of Finland's current 1985 record. The skis the government had provided his brother had made a tremendous difference. He put his camera away in his pocket, zipping it inside his coat. One day he'd see his brother break that record.

Shushing down the slope expertly on skis that were older than both of them, Radek's father stopped just up-slope from Radek.

"Good," he shook his head, his breathing harsh. "Very good."

"He will make the Olympic team for sure." Radek grinned. They both knew the politics involved, that talent wasn't the only consideration. Technically, the Czechoslovakian team was supposed to be picked by their own Olympic committee but the Soviets often made "suggestions" as to who should not be included.

Face red and wind-chapped, his father smiled, his voice a purr of pride. "I have a job for you. If your brother goes—"

"Oh, he will—" Radek gushed.

His father held up a finger for silence. "If he goes, I have a family friend who knows someone who can get you a job on the Olympic team. I want you to keep an eye on him." He nodded very seriously towards Radek's little brother. He took a deep breath, and then said, "If there's a chance...."

Radek's eyes widened in fear. His father didn't mean for them to defect? No one said it aloud, but travel to such events offered unprecedented opportunities.

"...Don't let him go," his father finished. "His mother needs him at home. It would kill her to lose him."

Relieved and frightened, Radek nodded. He waved to his brother who was shouting for their attention, annoyed at being ignored after a great jump.

His father patted his shoulder with a heavy gloved hand. "And keep him away from those crazy western women, eh?" he added with laugh, making a cupping gesture like holding two breasts. He turned to ski to his youngest son.

"Now you ask the impossible," Radek called after him, snickering.

Outside the "iron curtain." Standing on the empty ski slope, looking up at the sky, Radek let it sink in. He was going to the Olympics. The possibility had never even entered his mind.

~*~*~

January, 1999

"At least if you were paying me I'd be getting something out of this!"

John collected all the scattered stuff from his gym bag -- which had been open, thanks -- skating from one item to another. He left Rodney's crap all over the ice. Let him clean up his own mess. He turned to apologize to the kid on Rodney's behalf but, unsurprisingly, the kid was long gone. John skated to the edge of the rink and dumped the empty water bottle in the trash.

It was just hockey. But McKay treated it like it was a cardinal sin.

John got dressed in the locker room, skipping the shower. He didn't want to be there any longer than he had to be. Outside in the bright morning -- it was probably about seven o'clock -- John unlocked his car and tossed his stuff into the back seat. He cranked the engine, then reached over to turn on the heat.

It gave an unresponsive click.

John banged the steering wheel with both fists.

Shifting gears hard, he slammed the car into reverse. At the stop sign he put on The Clash, just to match his mood. Because his next stop wasn't likely to improve his day.

~*~*~

Clean and freshly shaved, Rodney pulled on a pair of tight jeans that hadn't been quite so hard to button when he'd first bought them, but still did the trick. The nice thing about having an ex a continent or two away is that he couldn't gloat if and when you actually followed his advice.

Rodney leaned closer to the hall mirror, baring his teeth to make sure he didn't have any oregano stuck between them. Then he stepped back and examined the merchandise, turning one hip towards the mirror, then the other.

"Not bad, not bad," Rodney told his reflection with a smile, puffing out his chest as he sucked in his stomach. "Still very hot. There's definitely something to be said for skating."

He slapped his back pocket to check for his wallet and then picked his jacket off the floor -- he'd been a little melodramatic and thrown it when he'd come home. Though he was feeling much better now.

He recalled he hadn't thrown his gym bag here, largely because he'd already done so at the rink. He'd have to get it back from John later.

Rodney frowned, his good mood momentarily disrupted by his rebellious protégé. But he put all thoughts of John Sheppard… his long legs, that little self-mocking smile… out of his mind and took a deep calming breath. The spaghetti sauce, set to a slow burbling simmer, made the whole house smell good; there was something about the smell of food, he thought, that helped make a house a home.

Rodney sighed, checked his watch, and decided he wouldn't be too early if he left now. Not owning a (working) car was inconvenient at times, but he'd be taking cabs for the rest of the night anyway.

Unless he got a ride home, which -- Rodney checked himself out in the mirror again, blue eyes gleaming as he swept at his hair -- looked to be a distinct possibility.

~*~*~

John swung his legs where he sat on the table, shoulders hunched as he leaned on his hands. He waited somewhat less than patiently for the doctor to return. He looked up as the door opened.

"Well, laddie, the pain is simple tendonitis. I can give you something for that; you merely need to--"

"Yeah, yeah, alternate hot and cold on it, I know the drill," John cut him off and made ready to leave, reaching for his coat.

"What I am more concerned about is your older injury." The doctor flipped through pages in his file.

John wrinkled his nose and narrowed an eye at the doctor warily. It was never a good sign when they actually read his medical record.

"You had surgery on a torn anterior cruciate ligament which is fairly serious," the doctor bobbed his head, earnest, his forehead creased with concern. "Given the tendonitis I am not convinced you are giving it the proper time to heal."

"I'm an athlete. I know how to take care of my body. It's very important to me," John said agreeably with his most charming 'trust me' smile, reaching for the script. It was pulled out of reach.

"Begging your pardon, but in my experience athletes are the worst ones when it comes to taking care of themselves," the doctor said in a pleasant apologetic voice, brimming with sincerity. His smile was knowing and rather affectionate. "I am not asking you to stop doing whatever sport it is you do."

"I'm a skater."

The doctor nodded as if unsurprised. "I only ask that you strengthen the muscles around that knee." He made a cupping gesture with his hands, holding John's gaze. "That will help support and allow the ligaments to heal."

"I'm doing the exercises," John nodded. He had been. Religiously.

"And are you avoiding undue stress to the injured leg?" John opened his mouth, but the doctor shot him a quelling look, his eyebrows raised. "Don't lie to me now. Because this," he held up his prescription, "tells me that you are not."

"It's my take-off leg. For my jumps. I need it to practice my quads -- the quad flip in particular," John explained. "I'm going to land it in competition. It's going to happen." John's jaw was set.

"I have no idea what that is, but you can't be doing any of this jumping for a while."

"I'll be all right."

"It could snap like a twig!" the doctor said with sudden intense concern, causing John to look up in surprise. "The human body is not designed to take that kind of punishment. And certain parts of your body are particularly fragile."

John smiled at him doubtfully. "I'm sure back when we were being chased by sabre-toothed tigers we did all kinds of neat tricks."

"Aye. And the average human life span for most of our history was thirty-five years, but I trust you want to walk a wee bit longer than that. And skate longer too," the doctor added, obviously determined to make an impression.

John considered his words in disturbed silence, opening his folded hands as he stared at them.

"Skate," the doctor said gently, urging him, "do your exercises. Both will help you build strength. But you will do better if you take care of this now." He held out the prescription to John. "I expect to see you in two weeks. We will talk about the jumping then."

As John reached take it from his hand, he found the doctor had gripped it tighter, waiting for a response.

John nodded once. Only then did the doctor release it.

"I will expect you to keep your word," the doctor frowned, quite serious. Then he smiled and indicated John's chart. "Besides. I know where you live. And I have a very scary secretary," he joked with a sympathetic smile. "Don't make me send her after you."

As John left the doctor's office, he paused outside the door and sighed, his hands in his pockets, digging at the sidewalk with his shoe. The little bell on the door jangled as another patient stepped through.

He pulled out the bottle of pills he needed to refill and dug a fingernail under the label, lifting an edge: John Sheppard. Age 28.

He'd been competing for twelve years now and felt the pressure of time. An athlete's body could only cope for so long before his game started to slide. Though a lot of doctors would have told him not to skate at all.

John looked up at the sky, then tossed the pills in the air and caught them with a little clattering sound. With a determined nod he set a course for Rodney's.

Well. The drugstore and then Rodney's.

~*~*~

Rodney brushed a hand in front of his face, wafting away the cigarette smoke. It was one of the few things he wasn't allergic to but that made it no less deadly. The bar wasn't crowded; it was a little too early on a Thursday night.

He squirmed in his seat impatiently.

The place had bad "classic" rock music and mediocre beer with a décor that was part Irish Pub and part tacky sports bar. But Rodney liked it because it was the favorite haunt of the "nervous virgin" -- college students, or men who thought they were straight but had always wanted… something else. The masculine atmosphere let them pretend they were in an ordinary bar, one that just happened to have only men. There was nothing like showing someone the ropes and that type almost never wanted your phone number. Though occasionally they ran so fast they left their underwear behind.

Ducking his face behind his mug, Rodney cast a look around, careful not to catch just anyone's eyes. He needed to be selective.

There was the man with the graying mustache chatting up the bartender; nicely dressed, but a little older than he liked. Rodney marked him down as a possible back-up, and returned his gaze to his drink before leaning back in his chair, sweeping the room with another casual glance under lowered lashes.

The front door opened and a young man with wavy manicured hair in a crewneck stepped through, good looking, but not too out of reach… and of course every eye in the room was drawn to him like a magnet, eloquently casual.

Then he held the door for his laughing friend. Rodney probably wasn't the only one who sighed.

A cluster of men in their late twenties leaned over the pool table in thin cotton chinos. Rodney raised an eyebrow and stole a gratuitous glimpse, enjoying the curve of the landscape even though they were all busy flirting with each other. It never hurt to look. Rodney visualized the four of them together and possibly leered, though he didn't care -- which meant he'd probably had a little too much. Rodney wasn't known for his ability to hold his alcohol, he was on his second drink, and he still hadn't seen anyone interesting.

"Hi." The table under his elbow shook.

Rodney glanced up to find a young Asian guy in a tight retro shirt pulling the chair out across from him. Slim, attractive, shorter than Rodney…. "Quiet night," his Asian friend began with a calculating smile.

Rodney's eyes lit up and he smiled, making sure his guest knew he was welcome. Of course, sometimes experience was good, too.

~*~*~

John rolled to a stop outside Rodney's house, putting it in park. The garbage cans had been dragged to the curb and there was a stack of recycled newspapers on the front porch -- signs that maybe Rodney cleaned when he was mad. There'd never been any signs he cleaned otherwise. Aside from the porch light, the house was dark, though it was pretty early for someone to be asleep.

Unless they'd been up since three-thirty in the morning, which he and Rodney both had.

John rubbed his face, felt the five o'clock shadow and sat behind the wheel wondering what to do. Finally, noticing he was just putting it off, he steeled himself and then got out and knocked, bouncing a little, his shoulders hunched against the cold as he listened for any signs of life. "C'mon…" John complained under his breath, then hammered on the door again.

There was no answer. John peered in through the windows and could see that the clutter had definitely been stirred up a bit. But there was no Rodney in front of the TV, or sitting in the kitchen.

He went back to the car, chafing his hands as he weighed going back to his apartment with waiting for Rodney. Because Rodney seemed like the type who'd hold a grudge, especially if you gave him time to get used to it, like a comfortable pair of old jeans. On the other hand, it was cold in the car and he'd just taken some painkillers and so should probably go home.

Wavering, John decided he'd give Rodney twenty minutes. He popped in a CD, pushed back the seat, and settled his hands in his pockets to wait. "Bad Moon Rising" should probably have seemed a bit more ominous. John shut his eyes, meditative.

~*~*~

Rodney's new Asian friend was a wonderful conversationalist, which was no mean feat as he was from Korea and English was definitely a second language. Kim, his name was. He had small tidy hands and efficient gestures and Rodney was eager to discover how this would play out in the bedroom.

They had a few more drinks, and Rodney leaned over the table and did his level best to charm him, laughing at all his jokes, agreeing with every stupid thing he said. Rodney made sure to mention that he was an athlete and an Olympic skater, international superstar, that sort of thing. The surprise was always so insulting, and Kim didn't look at all like he believed him. But his quick assessing glance up and down Rodney's body was definitely an affirmative. Rodney ran the cool edge of his glass over his lips to signal that the answer was yes, so please let's get to where, because the when was definitely now.

Kim was giving him a steady almond-eyed gaze, which made Rodney's breath turn ragged, but they seemed to be having a cross-cultural communication problem.

Rodney decided to clarify his position. "It's getting a little crowded in here, don't you think?" In truth, only a few more people had arrived.

"You do not like crowds?" Kim asked, sitting up straight, suddenly defensive.

"Well," Rodney rubbed his fingertips together, "there are times for crowds and then there are times that require a little more privacy." He drummed his fingers on the table, then stretched and ran a hand through his hair, looking around the bar. "I could use more of the latter right about now. Couldn't you?"

"You want to be alone?" Kim-the-unutterably-stupid asked.

"With you," Rodney huffed, unable to keep it polite. He thanked his lucky stars that IQ and nationality didn't matter at the moment.

Kim traced a finger along the edge of his glass. "I have a friend…."

Rodney's lips parted. His face fell and eyes filled with disappointment, shoulders drooping. He visualized ax-wielding jealous boyfriends, possibly skilled with numchucks and belonging to the Yakusa. He'd start with cutting off Rodney's fingers for even touching his boyfriend -- had he touched Kim yet? Tragically, no.

"He would like to be, ah, 'private' with us," Kim offered in a nervous shaky voice, not looking up from the table.

Rodney's imagination stopped and lurched in a new direction. A threesome. He could do that. He'd never had before, at least not in a premeditated fashion, it had simply happened due to sharing quarters and the circumstances and -- and… and Rodney realized his mouth was still open and he hadn't answered.

"Yes, I -- that would be, um, doable," he said, with eyes as wide as saucers.

Kim made a little bow and said, "Good. He is in the car. He is very shy."

~*~*~

Outside Rodney's house, the full hour of the CD clicked off in John's car.

John's face was soft and relaxed, the zipper of his jacket denting his full lower lip. The fabric there was a little darker where he'd drooled, and his closed eyes twitched at the barely noticed change in his environment. He rolled and snuggled his face closer into the corner between the seat and the car door, shifting the dangling seatbelt, his arms folded tight across his chest. With a little sigh, he settled back to sleep.

~*~*~

They got up from the table and Rodney paid for their drinks. He could be gracious with the nice man who was about to give him ridiculous amounts of moderately kinky sex with two slim-hipped Koreans. He moved carefully, fully cognizant of his obvious hard-on, but since that was the natural state of most men here he didn't worry about it. He staggered, however, as he held the glass door open with an exaggerated sweeping gesture, and he had that underwater feeling of way too much to drink. As he trailed Kim through the door, Rodney hoped he hadn't had so much as to mute his "performance."

Outside, the brisk air brought him to his senses. It had to be about ten degrees Fahrenheit, and Rodney realized they hadn't negotiated the rest of their evening. "So where--?"

"He is in the car," Kim nodded, misunderstanding the question. Rodney wrinkled his nose, squinting as he tried to imagine sitting in a car in this weather for what had to have been hours.

They turned the corner. Kim reached into his pocket, making that magical jingle of car keys, the sound that meant you had scored for the evening and -- thank God -- hadn't managed to screw it up. Rodney was feeling very satisfied with himself, humming inwardly. The sedan, comfortable-looking, not overly fancy, had its parking lights on, and there was clearly someone in the front passenger seat.

A very large someone. As they approached the car door Rodney's steps slowed. "What's this?"

The window rolled down. A monstrous behemoth in a leather jacket -- one that had to have taken a whole cow -- looked Rodney up and down through narrow, squinty eyes, checking him out. He wore a studded leather collar around an enormous neck, and a tiny old-fashioned 1970s biker cap.

Kim spoke hurriedly in Korean to his boyfriend, urgent, cutting quick glances at Rodney, who felt like he was suddenly up for sale.

"Oh, I get it," Rodney said sarcastically. He stabbed a finger at Kim and they paused in their monkey-chatter. "You're just the bait. It's really Ghengis Khan here who wants some action." He put his hands on his hips. "You're hoping that by the time you get someone out here they'll be desperate enough to follow through -- oh my God," he interrupted himself, eyes widening, "you kept me talking so I wouldn't find anyone else!"

"No, I—" Kim began, and started speaking rapidly in Korean, but the huge guy put up a hand and he stopped.

"I can't believe I thought that was conversation and I'm not that desperate! Okay, maybe I was desperate enough -- if you'd been willing to tell me! -- but now I don't know what you've got in your trunk," he snapped. "A chainsaw fetish?!"

Gathering his dignity, Rodney spun around. And he only staggered a little on his way back to the bar.

Halfway there, he recalled the Yakuza and the possibility of a sedan running him over, but a quick glance over his shoulder showed nobody behind him. He returned to inwardly grumbling about wasted time and cursing Radek's bad ideas which were always classic disasters that ended with them stumbling drunk on a train in northern Germany -- and nowhere near Amsterdam -- when the competition was in Stuttgart. He also remembered, belatedly, why he hated bars.

One hand on the door handle, Rodney paused, eyes shifting as he considered his next move. He didn't want anyone to think he'd struck out but that's exactly what this would look like. His chances would be depressingly small after that.

He needed to find another bar.

Rodney hung his head and checked his watch. It was a little after eleven-thirty, and while he didn't have his four am appointment with John -- and, oh, it hurt to think of him right then -- he did have another later in the morning. Rodney rubbed his nose, then stepped into the bar to call a cab.

~*~*~

Rodney shrank into the car seat at the glimpse of the sedan in his driveway and he almost asked the cab driver to circle the block -- until it occurred to him that the Korean duo had no way of knowing where he lived. As he drew closer he frowned, finally recognizing the dusty burgundy of John's beat-up Chevy Caprice.

What the hell?

Rodney paid the taxi driver and gave him what was probably too large a tip; then he stalked over to John's car and rapped on the window like a cop who'd caught some teenager necking.

John jumped and scrabbled gratifyingly, arms flailing, one knuckle cracking against the glass. Rodney took pity on him and yanked open the door. John jerked back as he nearly spilled out.

"What are you doing here?" Bright stunned eyes stared at Rodney, who remembered that John's heater was broken, among other things, and he suddenly realized why John was here. "Oh my God, you lost your apartment."

"What?" John said, still open-mouthed and bleary.

"You've been thrown out, you don't have a job -- and you think my offer's still good after your performance this morning?" Rodney caught his breath as the full ramifications sank in with a shock. "It's ten degrees out."

"What? Was it ever good?" John puzzled at him, obviously not quite awake.

"I was almost out all night with a gay leather threesome, it's ten degrees out, and you could have frozen in my driveway waiting for me!" Rodney yelled.

"I wasn't waiting..." John began to explain with an irritated confused scowl.

"Get inside, now." Rodney opened John's door the rest of the way and pointed at his house. "You'd think you'd have the intelligence to at least call ahead and see if I was home!"

"Gay leather threesome?" John asked, still three steps behind. He stayed where he was. "Look, I just wanted to talk. I guess I fell asleep. It's those damned painkillers -- are you drunk?" he interrupted himself as he peered up at Rodney, eyes narrowing to slits. "You smell like a brewery."

Rodney leaned on John's not very stable car door. "I might be. We'll know once I try the steps."

"Hang on." John ratcheted his seat upright and there was a jingle of car keys as he pulled them out of the ignition, pocketing them. "Let's get you inside."

John held out his hand for Rodney's house-keys, which was demanding, but Rodney didn't argue. They'd have to get off on the right footing -- if he was going to take John in. He hadn't really decided yet.

The house still smelled like spaghetti sauce and dish-washing soap. Rodney handed John the blanket from the couch, shaking out some Cheetos that clung to it -- John stared at these with a bemused expression -- then, quelling John's attempts at conversation, he brought out platefuls of spaghetti for them both. Since the kitchen table was still covered in cooking paraphernalia they ate at the couch, shoving aside Rodney's unpaid bills, the headphones, receipts, an oven mitt and stack of CDs.

"This sauce tastes like ketchup," John said, leaning over his plate to scoop up another mouthful more eagerly than his words suggested.

"I'm an excellent cook," Rodney corrected, licking a finger. "But this can be among your duties if you like. Though I would eventually expect you to find a job and pay part of the rent. An equitable amount; I'm obviously the bread-winner here."

He'd pretty much decided on the "John question." It would be a simple a matter of cleaning out the den and John could use the hide-a-bed for now. Fifty dollars to do a criminal background check of course, just in case, though certainly John would be more affluent if he were living a secret life of crime; not to mention it would give him less time to skate.

John stared at him quizzically before a light of understanding dawned in his eyes. "Oh." He finished his bite and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Look, about that." He leaned back, folding his arms behind his head. "It's not like I don't appreciate it or anything, but I haven't been thrown out of my apartment. I just wanted to talk. About skating."

"Ah. I see," Rodney said, relieved. He mentally took back his den and no longer had to worry about John's exercise equipment. This was more familiar ground. "Come to beg me on bended knee to take you back, eh?"

"Well, maybe not beg exactly…."

"I thought you might," Rodney said with a victorious flourish. He set down his plate with a firm thump, brushing his hands together. "The answer's no."

John was silent a long and very satisfying dumbfounded moment. Then he said, "You'd have me move in with you… but you won't coach me any more?"

"I'm sorry," Rodney explained to the poor, sad soul. "I'm not going to waste my time on someone who's pathologically incapable of listening."

"If it's about the money, I'll find a way—" John shook his head.

"Of course it's not about the money!" Rodney exploded. "If I cared about money I'd be, oh, a brilliant physicist or something, living off fat government contracts where I could charge whatever I wanted because no one understood my research. Then if I came up with anything deadly I'd bury it in the back yard and fill my notes with so much jargon they could never use it."

"That's pretty, uh, detailed." John blinked.

"I have a good imagination -- and I nearly won the science fair as a child. That was my back-up plan." Rodney went on. "But I'm an artiste. Figure skating at its best is… pure poetry. It's the perfect melding of movement and sound, clean and smoother than dance could ever imagine," Rodney breathed, his hands making a flat gliding motion. He sat up straighter. "I'm not going to throw away my legacy on people who don't appreciate me."

John's lips were parted. Then he swallowed. "I appreciate you."

"Yes. I could tell when I caught you playing hockey."

John leaned forward. "Look, Rodney." His mouth worked, then he sighed and put his foot up on the couch, knee bent. He let his hand drop to his lap, not looking at Rodney. "I dunno. I tried. It just felt weird… and then this kid showed up," John wrinkled his nose, "and I didn't want to do that in front of him. So, when he asked me to play hockey…." He gave an embarrassed shrug. "I didn't know what else to do."

"Someone showed up in the middle of your practice?" Rodney asked, surprised.

"Well, we were kinda over our skate-time," John pointed out.

"Huh," Rodney said, a tad mollified. Then his wide, straight lips made a hard line. "You're still doing the jumps. When I told you not to."

John didn't trouble to deny it. He reached into his pocket and tossed Rodney a phial of pills. Rodney caught them in mid-air.

"Mmmm… this is the good stuff," Rodney said with a raised eyebrow, reading the label and familiar prescription. "Tendonitis?"

"Laid on top of an old ACL injury," John admitted, glancing up with the cautious wince of someone taking a risk with that much honesty.

As indeed he was. There were people who would make him stay at home in bed for that, though Rodney wasn't one of them. Skaters were always injured. A skater who pulled out of competition because of an injury was simply saying they couldn't win with it, not that they couldn't skate. Although John wouldn't have any way of knowing Rodney's pragmatism on the subject.

"Is that the one that took you out of the Worlds two years ago?" Rodney tipped his head in distant clinical curiosity.

"I heard this pop and then I went down. Didn't hurt nearly as much as the tendonitis."

Rodney pursed his lips meditatively, studying the pills. "No, it doesn't. Tendonitis makes you want to saw off your knee."

"Yeah," John said. "I totally understand animals chewing off their limbs to get out of a trap."

"Would that it were that easy…." Rodney agreed. He handed them back to John. "So you won't be jumping either way."

"Nope."

"Though not because I said so." If Rodney were a cat his tail would have flicked.

"Does it matter why?"

"Yes, it matters!" Rodney huffed. He pressed his lips together. "But…" he said, much against his better judgment, "I'll think about it."

The truth was, John embodied everything he wanted to fix in the skating world, and John had come to him wanting to learn how to really skate. It was as if every soulless jumper who'd ever beaten Rodney had knocked on his door, begging forgiveness for their callous, unfair destruction of his artistry.

John heaved a sigh of relief, his shoulders slumping back into the couch. "That's all I ask."

"I haven't said yes!" Rodney insisted, and silently cursed himself for being weak. He decided he wouldn't tell Radek. He knew exactly what he'd say.

John's earlier complaints about his cooking were disproved once again as John accepted an offer of seconds, eagerly finishing a last bite to hand over his plate. Rodney gathered up their silverware and dirty napkins, demurring John's offer of help. If John wasn't planning on moving in then he was a guest in Rodney's book.

"So. Gay leather threesome-?" John prompted as he held out the plate, eyeing Rodney over it with a strange look on his face.

Rodney froze and tried to remember when he'd told him that. He must have been more drunk than he'd realized.

"I'm not really into that kind of thing," John said, sounding perplexed.

Rodney sighed wistfully, "No, neither am I."

He explained from the kitchen, chuckling as he called out over the sound of running water while he washed a couple glasses, "I was caught a little off-guard as a matter of fact. But I've never been one to say no to an experiment… and sex, well," he gave a self-satisfied little smile, "it's the 'spice of life' as they say. One can see why they selected me, I mean obviously I'm quite limber…."

He returned from the kitchen with two full plates of spaghetti, steaming hot… only to find John with his head tipped back on the cushion, mouth open, his long legs sprawled out under the coffee table… fast asleep.

~*~*~

February, 1986

The German disco was dim, barely populated, with a few bored patrons and over-excited American Top Ten music playing "One Night In Bangkok" at full volume. The skinny kid in glasses had mouse-brown hair that tumbled onto his face; he breathed a stream of smoke and stubbed out a cheap Russian cigarette. Radek's bored manner was well-practiced even as his eyes took in the room, bright with interest.

The western pop music was bouncy and electronic, and normally he wouldn't like it, but this was 1986, the Olympics, and to Radek it was a breath of freedom. The music meant the west, and fast cars, and best of all, a chance to see Prague and then fly on an airplane to Germany. He was far enough away from the Olympic village for some peace and quiet, and maybe a look at the world outside the Soviet bloc once he'd slipped his guided (re: guarded) "tour group." Risky, but he would just say he got lost. Radek was good at seeming innocent.

The kid who stepped through the door had over-styled greasy brown hair and wide scared eyes. He took in the disco like he'd just entered a dangerous western slum, the sort they'd heard about in Czechoslovakia that 'would never occur under communism.' He sat gingerly, two empty seats away from Radek, his blue eyes darting. And then ordered a rum and coke. Radek burst out laughing.

"What?" the kid said, managing to sound both hurt and irritated at the same time.

Radek grinned. "Even you old enough to be coming here?" He tapped the counter.

The kid's face fell, eyes wide with shock and fear. "Yes," he said in an uncertain waver.

Radek leaned forward, elbows on the counter, glinting with amusement. "You Americans. They have no age rule!" He made a broad gesture at the room. "You say freedom this, freedom that, but then? You scare of disco!"

"Hello? It sounds as though you think you're speaking English. And by the way," the kid pointed to himself, thumb to his chest and said in a clearly American accent, "Not American."

Introductions were exchanged. Rodney was seventeen and surprisingly didn't smoke -- everybody smoked! -- though he was willing to try and he let Radek order him a real drink. He obviously didn't like it, but pretended well. He insisted loudly that he was Canadian, his presence filling the dispirited disco, and they ignored everyone else to launch into a cheerful debate over whether America and Canada were the same thing. Radek found himself defending the very Soviet system that he'd just escaped, simply because he found Rodney so insulting.

Stumbling through the doors hours later, Rodney's limp arm draped over his shoulder, Radek discovered that not only did Rodney not smoke, he also did not drink. Only two glasses and he practically had to carry him! They made it back before curfew, and rescuing the "degenerate American" worked out to be a perfect excuse.

It turned out he really was from Canada.

~*~*~

January, 1999

John lay with his eyes shut, the sun warming his face. The breeze was cool and his sunglasses dented the bridge of his nose. He pushed them up a little further and sighed, suffused with an unaccountable sense of well-being. Though he figured part of that was probably the drugs.

Strands of grass tickled the backs of his arms through the aluminum lawn chair. The apartment manager hadn't really cut it before winter hit (they were slack about stuff like that) and it had sprung back up with the first unseasonably warm day, thawed and smelling green, cold, and wet. John could hear the chittering of either some kind of bird or a squirrel in the bushes behind him, though he couldn't be bothered to check what it was.

He'd wakened at McKay's house that morning and found himself wrapped in a blanket, curled up on the too-short couch. His shoes were tucked neatly under the coffee table. He didn't remember doing that, so Rodney must've taken them off.

John had been a good guest. He'd folded his blanket, washed and put away the plates they'd left out. Then, after opening the medicine cabinet and digging through a few drawers in the bathroom, he'd found the Tylenol. He'd grabbed the whole bottle plus a big glass of water and elbowed open the door to Rodney's room.

Rodney had been out cold, a rounded bare shoulder peeking out from an excessive pile of blankets, with an electric blanket turned on full. He slept in an aggressive sprawl, arm curled over his head, stretched out over ninety percent of his king-size bed. A stuffed unicorn poked out between the pillows. John had set the pills and water on the table next to him, using the bottom of the glass to shift aside some balled up dirty tissues. John wrinkled his nose.

One of Rodney's pillows had been knocked to the floor, so he'd picked that up and, after a moment's hesitation, set it on a wicker chair.

Then he'd thought about breakfast; but one sniff of the milk made him pull back abruptly and put that idea out of his mind. He was better off eating at home. So, quietly putting on his shoes, John had scribbled a quick note and left it on the kitchen table.

John's eyes glinted with humor, thinking he probably shouldn't have done that. His thumb stroked the cordless phone in his lap. Still, one could only be good for so long.

~*~*~

An ungodly racket woke Rodney. He panicked for a moment that he'd slept through his four am with John, until he managed to blearily recollect the rest of the facts. With one hand he reached for the radio alarm clock and shut it off with a badly aimed slam of his fist, sinking face-first into his pillow in weak relief. His eyes felt stuck to his eyelids.

Scrubbing a hand over his face, he rolled to a sitting position and sat on the edge of his bed in his underwear, face buried in his hands for a long minute. With a miserable groan, he moved again with a minimalist's economy of movement, balancing his head as if it were made of china.

Squinting near-sightedly, Rodney spied a tall glass of water on his nightstand. A note in an unfamiliar handwriting read "Drink Me." Beside it was a giant bottle of Tylenol with a note that said, "Eat Me." Rodney dimly noted the double-entendre and Alice In Wonderland references with a cough and cursed anyone who could make him laugh this morning. Then he lumbered forward and, barely opening his eyes, followed the directions to the letter. He set the glass down with miserable sick grunt.

Head still held in his hands, Rodney scuffed to the shower. But the sound of the water hitting the walls was way too loud, so he shut it off, leaning against the cool tile.

He decided camomile tea would be a good idea. And toast.

Dry toast.

He licked his lips. Opening his eyes just enough to make out vague furniture-like shapes, he shambled through the living room to the kitchen. He slumped into a chair and put his head on the table, arms bracketed over his aching head.

Running his hand over stubble, Rodney pried himself up and forced himself to turn on the teakettle. He stood in his underwear, swaying gently, waiting for it to steam. Even imagining it whistle hurt his head. At last, tea in hand, he scraped back the chair, where he spotted a note in that same unfamiliar handwriting.

Hey, Rodney. Tylenol's on the table next to your bed if you didn't see it. Drink at least two glasses of water.

I figure you're probably in no shape to skate today, so tomorrow, four am, right? I'll just take the day off. I would've hung around but I don't think I want to know what you're like with a hangover.

By the way, your milk's gone bad. Sniff at your own risk.

Rodney shut his eyes and wished John hadn't mentioned that. He swallowed the rising bile, then continued reading.

Thanks for the spaghetti last night. It still tastes like ketch--

Rodney skimmed it quickly.

Since I'm not around, I thought…maybe a few words to soothe your tender stomach:

Cat litter
Raw sewage
Diahrea
Congealed grease
Gray, rotted maggot-ridden decaying hamburger--

Rodney lurched, planting a hand over his mouth, and barely made it to the sink in time.

~*~*~

The phone rang in John's lap. He answered it with a cheerful grin. "Hello!"

"You bastard!" Rodney's voice spluttered.

"Hey Rodney…" John tried to say in a smooth, innocent voice, but he was already laughing, curled forward around the phone.

"Oh, you're very funny. I'm going to save some of this for you as a topping!" Rodney's voice snarled. "And by the way, your spelling? Atrocious!" The phone clicked.

John stretched, still shuddering with the occasional snickers. Yep. It was definitely a good day. Besides, Rodney seemed the type you had to be careful not to spoil.

~*~*~

John felt the swat of a rolled up newspaper on the bottom of his shoes at the same moment he realized someone was standing in his light. He squinted irritably at the intruder, responding deliberately slow. Then smiled when he realized it was Rodney.

"You think you're cute, don't you?" Rodney announced. He was wearing sunglasses and it made him look sort of ridiculous, like John Belushi in the Blue Brothers.

"Hey…." John yawned, turning towards him as lazy as a cat in the sun. "Still alive?"

"Yes, barely, no thanks to your adolescent flirting. Can you believe I actually had to work today?" Rodney said, his hands on his hips. "Preteens. Very painfully shrill."

He looked up at the sky, gazing off into the distance as if he imagined he was the squinting embodiment of cowboy cool. John watched him with admiring amusement.

"Could have used my gym bag." Rodney said it to the air as if commenting on the weather.

John blinked, weighed this and considered his options very, very quickly. "Uh, yeah…" He stretched to buy himself some time. "I'm not exactly sure where that is," he sighed, deliberately casual.

"The rink called. They tell me they have it in the lost and found," Rodney said accusingly.

"Oh, hey. That's lucky." John sat up, thinking it was lucky on a lot of levels.

"Empty."

John winced. Although Rodney had thrown the stuff at him….

"So, all that money you owe me?" Rodney did a complicated snapping gesture into his palm, his tone cheerfully vengeful.

John had a feeling he knew where this was headed. He grimaced up at Rodney, wrinkling his nose. "Yeah?"

"I take American Express." Rodney gave him a thin smile. "Or, more specifically, the malls do."

John considered this with a slow half nod, pursing his lips. What the hell. He could rack up a little more debt.

"How 'bout Visa?" John offered dryly, rolling to his feet.

It had been getting a little cold out there anyway. He swung his arms, working a crick out of his back, and then happily loped behind Rodney. It was still a good day.

~*~*~

To John, the best thing about his mirrored sunglasses was he could lean back and just seem like he was chilling out, when in fact he was watching everyone around him. Or more specifically, Rodney. The wide gestures as he talked, the little bounce to his step when he'd hopped up into the Queen Street trolley -- or streetcar, rather. His friends in college had laughed at the Yank calling it a trolley. Parking in downtown Toronto was something John hadn't wanted to bother with.

Of course, it probably looked a little strange that John was wearing them in the mall, but anyhow. John folded his arms firmly across his chest and pretended to examine a row of socks as Rodney scrabbled into an over-sized sweater with the eager air of a hen feathering its nest.

Rodney caught the direction of his gaze and peered over the wall of little hangers thoughtfully. "Should I get the socks? They're not really my usual brand…." He apparently took John's silence for a yes, because several pairs of socks made an appearance on top of the pile of clothes on the counter.

Rodney was one of those people who did a lot of touching, which John was not used to. His family wasn't the touchy-feely sort. Rodney's body had felt... tightly packed... as he bumped John's hip. Sliding into a seat on the streetcar, his arm brushed John's shoulder as he held open the glass door to the mall, and now he stood way inside the store clerk's personal space as they chatted about fall colors or something -- to Rodney, clerks were a cross between servants and free personal fashion consultants. He had his hand on her back, guiding her to the sale items, still talking. Rodney didn't seem to notice, and it was done with such careless enthusiasm that no one seemed to mind. Or have a choice, really. John shook his head with snort, looking away.

They rang up Rodney's purchases and John turned his back to fumble in his pockets, fingering the hard edge of the CD -- he'd managed a little extra stop while Rodney was busy in the dressing room.

John smiled tightly as he pulled out his credit card and mentally added up the damage. There was no way Rodney had fit all that into one gym bag. On the other hand, it was far short of what John owed, so Rodney was probably letting him off easy.

As they left the store John pulled out the CD and handed it to him. The teenie red stick-on bow he'd bought at the last second was still attached, if a little smushed.

"Here." John stuffed his hands back in his pockets, looking around, embarrassed.

"What's this?"

They stopped in the middle of the crowded mall, a rock in the stream of people. Afternoon shoppers passed around them, busy and distracted. A fountain tinkled behind John. He simply shrugged, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "You forgot something."

Rodney plucked off the bow and mutely turned it over. He read the cover of the CD and glanced up at John, obviously surprised.

"It was the Firebird Suite, wasn't it?" John asked, frowning in worry. He was pretty sure he'd gotten this right.

Rodney stared and then shook his head as if to clear it. "I never told you the title."

"Lucky guess then," John joked. When Rodney stared too long, he added with a small sarcastic smile, "I had the nice man at the record store help me out."

"What did you do? Hum it?"

John patiently slung the rattling paper bags over his shoulders. "You're welcome."

~*~*~

Rodney slated their next skating session for Sunday morning when the rink was closed.

The parking lot was empty, but Rodney held open a side door to the darkened rink and waved John inside. He wasn't supposed to have the keys, but then again, the grizzled, skinny custodian wasn't supposed to give him a bored nod as he kept mopping either. Rodney had a sneaking suspicion he'd just paid for the man's next fix, but that wasn't his problem.

He clicked on all the lights and John followed him slowly up a back stairway away from the ice, glancing behind them, his mystified frown deepening. What they found upstairs probably didn't answer any of John's questions either, or at least not from the weird look he gave Rodney.

"It's my fault, really," Rodney grunted as he carried his end of the long folding table down the steps. The door slammed shut behind them with an echoing clang. He looked over his shoulder, walking backward while John held his end up too high and kept trying to go faster.

They stopped mid-stair, and John gave Rodney a steady glare as Rodney tried to figure out how to maneuver around another landing. The coil of orange extension cord was slung over John's shoulder.

"You see, I'd assumed intelligence, creativity…" Rodney took a sharp breath and cringed as the table rang against the cinderblock wall, chipping the paint. "…and a capacity for imagination. Over the years I've discovered that that's far too great a leap for most people to make."

John rolled his eyes. They bumped through the double-doors to the rink, barking shins on table legs and wincing.

With a grunt, Rodney set his end of the table down on the ice. "There." He pulled the rest of it forward, sliding it along the glassy surface. "Now if you'll just help with the Leiko...." Rodney waved a hand in the general direction of the outlet without looking at John. "What one can't understand instinctively through talent one must approach intellectually."

"So... a table on the ice," John said doubtfully. He dropped the extension cord with a wet clatter and glanced around. "Are you sure you're allowed to do this?"

"Never question me." Rodney lifted and examined the bottom of the cylindrical stage light.

"I'll take that as a no," John said, scrabbling on his hands and knees under the benches. He'd apparently figured out where to plug in the cord. It skittered across the ice like an orange snake.

"Hmm... not a 'no' precisely." Rodney attached a last wire and dusted his hands off, standing away from his handiwork. The light blazed a white stripe across the ice. "Let's just say that it's difficult to keep up with creative genius. Most rules are created far too late to pose me any me inconvenience." He put his hands on his hips, then made a quick flicking gesture over his shoulder towards John. "Kill the other lights, will you?"

The rink went dark, except for the exit signs on the far corners and a tight brilliantly white beam across the middle of the rink. The sound of John's gym bag being unzipped seemed suddenly loud.

"Cool."

John's voice came from somewhere behind Rodney, his dark shape gliding onto the ice. The sharp whisk of his skates echoed as the he turned to do a shadowy spin, sweeping around to touch the ice with a hand.

Give John a spotlight and what does he do? Skate in the dark. Rodney watched him, bemused. Then he skidded to the edge in his sneakers and more slowly pulled on his own skates.

"So. Where'd you go the other night?" John asked him as he returned, shifting from the left to right edge in a bored serpentine glide. He slid to a stop.

"Mmm? Oh. Ah, Champions," Rodney admitted, stuffing his foot in a skate and settling his heel solidly in the back. He yanked the laces tight.

John snickered. "Dirty old man. You do know that the college kids don't really go there, right?"

"Well, there were plenty of kinky Koreans -- and I seem to recall that you have actual work to do?" Rodney laced up his other skate and stood, determined to ignore the teasing. "Okay. I want you as stand near the beam as possible without getting it in the eyes, with me between you and the light."

Rodney took several gliding steps toward the spotlight.

He stood in front of it and held up his arms. His giant shadow was projected over row upon row of seats. John slid comfortably over to the wall and settled an elbow on the edge of the boards, shading his eyes with his other hand.

"You're back-lit," John complained, "I can hardly see you."

"Good! That's what we want. Now, this part's a spectator sport. I want you to watch me and tell me what you see." Rodney skated out of the beam for a moment, thinking.

"Well, I have a feeling I'm going to see you, back-lit," John drawled.

Rodney turned in a slow circle behind the light, carefully stepping his skates over the extension cord. He sighed at John's willful ignorance. "It's sort of like charades. You guess what I'm trying to show you."

"Ah."

Rodney thought for a moment, a hand to his lip, head down. Then he stroked forward for a little speed, not too much. He tipped up into a leg extension, arms straight out and rigid, hands bent up sharply at the wrists. As he crossed the light he tipped his arms delicately, to the left then right. His shadow flickered across chairs and the rink. John laughed.

"That looked just like the American Airlines commercial."

"So, noun?" Rodney prompted, spinning his hand and snapping his fingers as he circled back on both skates. He let his arms fall and turned in John's direction, coming to a stop.

"Fly the friendly skies...." Not giving him the answer he wanted, but it was close enough.

"Airplane," Rodney said. "Right."

This time he needed a good head of steam. Rodney skated an entire circuit of the rink, arms pumping as he came around the turn and barreled towards the light, putting one knee down on the ice, the other edge out and sliding him into a spin. With one finger pointed in the air, Rodney came to a stop nearly dead center in the spotlight.

"John Travolta?" John guessed.

"Disco, but yes, good, good," Rodney said, getting enthusiastic now. He was still catching his breath so he just struck a pose for this next one, a hand on his hip, back arched, his head tipped back.

"Yeah, uh, I don't think you quite have the figure for that one," John commented.

"Nouns, please," Rodney reminded him, snappish.

"Fashion model? Sport Illustrated swimsuit issue?"

"Pin-up, but close enough." Rodney nodded once, curtly, and dropped the pose. He struck another pose in the light, this time bent over, chest parallel to the ice, one hand on his knee. John took a long moment before answering.

"You're in one of those sex slings…?" he said in a hesitant voice.

Rodney shut his eyes, and blinked once. "What?" He slumped as he stood back up, starting to laugh.

"Well, that's what it looked like," John said reluctantly.

Rodney skated away from him in two short steps, hands on his hips as looked up at the ceiling. He snorted, shaking his head in disbelief.

"What--they're comfortable!" John said defensively. "You just rock back and forth…."

"Moving right along…" Rodney said, his voice a tight squeak. "That was supposed to be a speed skater."

"That did not look like a speed skater," John argued. "You need to do that thing, you know, with your hand up."

"While skating," Rodney corrected him.

"Now see, that's the problem with charades. Everybody sees something different," John explained in an amiable tone.

"Aha!" Rodney skated closer. "But you didn't! You got most of these. Well. In the ballpark anyway." Rodney beamed. "That means I was doing something right."

John nodded, his eyes clearly uncomprehending. "Yeah. So what? I win?"

"No. I win," Rodney grinned at him. He held up two fingers as he skated back around the rink again, glancing over his shoulder at John, face alight with glee. "Two more!"

He didn't need as much speed for this one, but it was more impressive if you gave it some fire. Rodney nearly forgot about the extension cord so had to jump it at the last second, fumbling a step to catch himself. Then he came around the curve, legs straddled wide apart, hands clapped together over his head -- when he hit the light he caught a sudden edge and turned in a fast circle. His hands came down in a gun pointed directly at John.

"James Bond!" John announced, obviously pleased with himself.

Rodney spread his arms and bowed. "You got me." He held up a finger, eyes gleaming. "One more."

He skated through the beam from the left. Then he stopped suddenly, turned around, and skated through it from the right.

John squinted and stood away from the edge of the rink, his arms folded. Rodney coasted towards him.

"Hang on. I don't think I get that one." He nodded, pointing with his chin. "Do it again."

Rodney obliged, smirking. Left to right; then right to left.

John looked down and shook his head, digging the heel of his skate into the ice absently. "Nope. I gotta admit, it doesn't look like anything to me."

"That's you!" Rodney spun around and pointed at him. "Between the jumps and the elements, when you should be telling us something, you fall silent."

There was a long silence as this sank in. Then John stepped forward in a gliding step, hands on his hips with a thoughtful air. He took a hesitant breath, ducking his head. "Okay. Can I do 007?"

He tore off his track jacket, stripping down to a sleeveless t-shirt and the black fingerless gloves.

"Sure. Oh -- wait." Rodney skated hurriedly to the edge, stumbling off the ice. He fumbled in his bag. He'd brought the tape just in case John proved to be a little slow, though he needn't have worried. John was stubborn, yes, but stupid? No. "I have the perfect music for you."

With a smirk, Rodney clicked on the Theme from Get Smart. He turned to John, chin up with a beaming smirk, the cheesy trumpets blaring and interrupted by the sound effects of a squealing car crash and broken glass.

"Very funny," John said mildly, giving Rodney a wry look. His eyes glinted with mischief. "But I'm afraid I didn't bring my skate phone."

Rodney chuckled, picturing the skate in the face. "Ow. That sounds like something agent 86 would use."

"You know, I never figured out how he survived to the next episode?"

"A friend of mine said he's the most realistic CIA character but I suspect he was kidding." Rodney switched out the tapes and smirked. "Well, since you failed to come properly equipped, skate-phone-wise--" He pressed play.

Monty Norman's Theme from James Bond poured out of the boombox and John lit up with a boyish smile.

John glided low to the ice in a slow smooth circle, picking up speed, his movements silky and perfect for the song. He did have some musical sense after all. He visibly hesitated as he approached the electrical cord, tongue in the corner of his mouth, then swung his elbows and jumped it head on. Then popped up into the splits, landing with a stumble.

"Sorry, I forgot," he called out to Rodney.

Rodney shook his head at him and answered, "Give me poses, not jumps!"

John nodded but slowed now, his moves uncertain. He stood straight, legs straddled but too close together as he spun around once, hands together in a semi-gun, arms tucked in uncomfortably.

Rodney watched him. "Make it a real gun, John."

"This looked easier when you did it."

"You've got to believe it," Rodney explained.

"It’s silly," he said, letting his hands fall as he stopped.

Rodney sighed. "Don’t skate; just do the pose then. Here…."

John looked up at Rodney with trusting eyes as Rodney made him stand in front of the spotlight, watched as Rodney kicked his skates wider till they cooperated and were shoulder-width. "Don't look down!" Rodney scowled and John's eyes flicked back to his face.

He adjusted John's spine straight with a little push to his chest -- holding his hip so it was still, thank you -- then grabbed his shoulders and squared them. John was staring at him wide-eyed when Rodney clapped him on the shoulder, pushing off backward a few feet. "Now you're good to go."

John's gaze stayed on Rodney and followed him steadily, eyes intense.

"Gun, John." Rodney reminded him, throwing in his own spinning kick to the trumpets. "Though the smoldering is good. Very James Bond."

~*~*~

Rodney bought a steaming cup of coffee out of the machine, flicking a packet of sugar before dumping it in. Warming his hands on the styrofoam and sighing in the aroma, he swung by the front desk to locate his errant young student. Concrete block walls were hung with badly matted photos of hockey teams and oversized commercial pictures of speed skaters airbrushed in bold white and red.

The plump Mrs. Hurvitz, the rink owner's wife, was at the front desk today. She was already shaking her head when she saw Rodney coming. "Mrs. Weir called you; left a message when I came in. Something about a dead hamster-?"

"Preteen tragedies," Rodney snorted, amused as he took a too-hot sip. "Did they say they were going to be late or not coming at all?" He charged either way for last-minute cancellations.

She spread her hands helplessly.

Which left him waiting for the next hour. Rodney decided to give them twenty minutes and waved vaguely to Hurvitz, though she was already busy doing what looked to be some kind of scheduling or bookkeeping. And skimming a fashion magazine, which was incongruous for a woman whose hair was still lacquered in '80s Olivia Newton John curls.

"Oh, ah--" Rodney turned and quickly swallowed his next mouthful of coffee. He indicated the rink with the cup. "Do you mind if John takes--?"

"Time's paid," she said, still writing and not looking up. "We don't care who's in there, as long as the Weirs don't."

Rodney made his way up the back stairs and unlocked the carpeted press box, shutting the door behind him and bathing in the warmth of the heated room. There were substances that froze at room temperature and someday it might be cost effective to use them, but until then, ice rinks were cold. Only the press knew how to be comfortable, though he could do without the annoying Muzak (not that he'd ever minded the "Adagio For Strings" playing now -- Platoon was one of his favorite movies). Rodney sank into a padded leather chair and leaned his elbows on the sill, the glass window giving him a perfect view of the rink and the dark figure circling below. Students never thought to look up here.

John was practicing spins. Rodney had half expected to catch him doing jumps.

Or hockey.

He was in the midst of a sit-spin, not particularly fast. John raised his arm up mid-cycle, then stopped abruptly. He put his hands on his hips and his shoulders heaved with a heavy breath, head down, watching the ice. Then he skated a fast circuit and dipped into another sit-spin, tighter this time, standing up into it, knee angled out, shifting his balance, slowing as his arms spread….

Rodney's eyes narrowed, catching the telltale wobble of his take-off leg. The injury showed.

John stopped the spin, shaking his head. With a few strokes, he threw a quick single jump, his back leg extended, then picked up speed in a circuit again, dropping to a lower spin, much faster now, very nice, drilling into the ice. Men often had terrible spins, Rodney wasn't sure why -- higher center of gravity? -- but John looked like he could cut through the ice and hit water.

That had been the great thing about Hammill. She looked like she could drill all the way to China, though Rodney modeled his own looser style on John Curry.

John stood, arms spread, and held this spin much longer, head tipped back -- which was a new element. Rodney had never seen him do that before, nice detail. Rodney recognized it from one of his own programs. John let the spin carry him and slowed.

Then John stopped, squared his shoulders, and began again, throwing in some footwork first and a single jump again -- apparently John didn't count the single flips as "jumps" -- then dropped into the same spin. His skate skidded out from under him and down John went, smacking his hip, catching himself on his hand in a spray of ice.

Rodney shook his head. He could have told him he needed more recovery time from so many spins. But John practiced with the single-minded focus of a Marine.

John picked himself up, brushed at his thighs, then gathered speed for a much faster spin, skipping the jump this time. He wobbled, but the speed was there. Rodney had seen worse in competition. John brought up his knee, arms spread, and Rodney waited for the head-tip – but then John let it all fall apart, hands flopping loose as he dropped the spin altogether.

He gave a little half-wave and skated a warm-up circle, looking down at the ice with a sheepish smile. He coughed into his curled fist and then seemed to be talking to someone. That's when Rodney spotted the pint-sized little girl in a short powder blue skirt bounding onto the rink, and the dark-haired woman in a long trench coat standing rink-side.

Ah, yes. The Weirs.

He was going to give Mrs. Weir hell for being late. Just because he got a nice paid break out of it didn't mean he intended to encourage such behavior.

He opened the door in time to hear John's apologies, "Hey, I hope it's okay. No one was here so I just kinda kept going…."

Right. Rodney realized he probably should have told John he was good to skate.

"My, my, my," Rodney interrupted them, descending on the skaters. "Look what the cat dragged in."

"Rodney, I am so sorry…" Elizabeth Weir began.

"Oh no, it's not as though my time is as valuable as -- was it a hamster?"

~*~*~

The music started, 1940s and kicky. John bobbed his head in time with the beat of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," watching.

Rodney rocked his shoulders and glanced over at the little girl beside him, up on the front edge of her skates. He gave a sharp nod and they put their hands on their hips on the trumpet lead-in, then hands shoulder-high, shook them in the air with the reveille, wiggling their hips as they edged backwards into a broad circle. The boogie woogie piano kicked in, and they did a couple of easy half-turns as they picked up speed.

Beside John, the fashionably thin woman in the expensive looking coat and classy jewelry snickered. "She has a competition next week," she explained to John in proud purr. She was thin and nervous, with a sparkle in her eye and chin-length dark hair.

"Speed, keep up your speed!" Rodney clapped twice, circling out of the routine to watch. The little girl's dainty skirt ruffled in the breeze as her skates worked, forcing more energy into her routine. John remembered when he used to have to work at that, losing steam between elements. She popped up on "and now the company jumps!"

John smirked. "It's cute." He sat down and pulled off a skate.

"If you'd like to go longer…" the woman offered John with a gesture to the rink.

He demurred, sighing as his foot came free. "Nah, I've been at it for hours."

"Did I hear a benefactor? Offering skate time?" Rodney's sharp voice cut across the rink -- and how he’d heard, John had no idea. "He'd love to!"

"Slave driver." John snorted, weighing his skate in his hand with a smile. "If he could make me skate in my sleep he would."

"Who? Rodney?" The woman pursed her lips, blinking in surprise.

"Well, yeah," John spluttered.

"Huh." The woman gave a doubtful tilt of her head, watching the two skaters critically. The girl did a salute as she jumped into a spin, snapping it out in a sharp out-of-control gesture. "A lot of the parents think I should go with somebody tougher. But she really loves Rodney, and my husband and I feel the experience should be just as important as the competitions."

John didn't say anything.

"If you don't get more speed, I'll make you skate the Bette Midler version," Rodney called out, clapping the tempo for emphasis. "This isn't a dirge, Melanie!"

The Andrews Sisters sang "the boogie woogie bugle boy of company B!"

"So," Mrs. Weir turned towards John with polite curiosity. "What do you do, John Sheppard?"

"Skate." John grinned up at her impishly.

Her smile spread, amused. "I mean, besides skating of course."

They always asked. John pursed his lips and considered, making a show of giving it some thought. "Nope. Can't think of anything. Skating's pretty much it." At her expectant silence he finally gave in and shrugged. "I was in college for a while."

She brightened. "Oh, really? What were you studying?"

"Engineering." John left out the part about skipping all the classes and just taking the exams. It had worked -- and funded his training -- until the school figured it out. It should have been fine; you could either do the math or you couldn't, and John had never needed to study hard. She nodded, lips together with the usual impressed expression. "But now I just skate."

"Yes, we saw as we came in. You're pretty good. Are you in the Canadian Grand Prix or-?"

Now that was really polite of her. Only the top-ranked "Olympic-level" skaters were invited to the Grand Prix -- everyone else had to qualify at the lower echelon competitions. The top skaters mostly trained at the Schmidt Center anyway. Rodney was the only international class coach who chose this tiny rink, though John didn't know why.

"I'm American," he explained, deftly avoiding any question about his ranking.

"Well, then, the America Cup is coming up."

John grimaced and stared across the ice, thinking of his jumps. He licked his lips. "Yep." For him the season had already officially ended at the Nationals.

Mrs. Weir folded her arms on the guardrail and watched her daughter with a proprietary smug air. "I certainly hope Melanie will be as good as you are someday."

"It'll take a while," he smiled, with just an edge of competitiveness. She grinned at him.

"Freeskate!" Rodney announced. "We have some mystery music. I want you to skate whatever comes to you, all right?"

Mrs. Weir shook her head subtly, taking a breath and sounding frustrated. "Tsk. Now see, she can do that in her own time." She frowned, eyes narrowing as she folded her arms across her chest. "We're not paying him to baby sit for a play period."

"He's a good coach," John said defensively.

"Sheppard!" Rodney jerked his thumb towards the ice. "You can flirt with the ladies later!"

Slave. Driver. John mouthed to Mrs. Weir as he skated backward onto the ice, feeling achy and more than a little tired, and she laughed.

Rodney pointed to Mrs. Weir's daughter. "You think you can keep up with her?"

"Oh, I dunno…" John said, grinning at the beaming kid as he slowed his approach with a swing of one skate. A strand of long dark hair was plastered to her face but she glowed up at John, starry-eyed. John snorted, recognizing the instant little girl crush and shook his head as he glanced away.

"Good. Because I want you to copy everything that she does. Melanie, you're little Miss Choreographer today so make it hard."

~*~*~

In the dull gray light that filtered through the tiny stack of windows in John's bathroom, John stripped off his shirt and tossed it to the floor, running his hands tiredly over his face. He kicked off his underwear and winced, feeling every muscle in his body. He stooped to pick them up, then decided that, bending down too far-? Not a good thing.

He didn't bother to turn on the lights.

Sitting on the cold toilet seat he cringed and examined today's "collection." The big bruise on his knee was turning greenish-yellow, but it was overlaid with a smaller dark purple stab from the back of his blade. He tipped open his right thigh to follow the long scrape and dark indentation from a simple spin he'd done when he was too tired. Skate slid out and he went down while he was still in tuck.

It was the stupid ones that bugged him.

He twisted and examined the outside of his left thigh. The left leg always took less damage. There was nothing wrong with that knee.

The left elbow was another story. John turned it towards the light, feeling the almost-good-but-kinda-not soreness. No bruise, but there should be. He squinted at it and worried a second before he reached for the Arnica lotion his former coach had sworn by, slowly working it into the new tender areas that didn't show any damage, yet. John was never sure how or if homeopathy worked, but anything to avoid a trip to the doctor's.

He stood, slowly, his muscles stiff from sitting in the cold that long. With a limp he reached into the clawfoot tub. Cold then hot water spurted over his hand. He fiddled with the knobs but the old building never really got consistent temperatures.

As the water steamed, he groaned inwardly, letting his head tilt back, baring his neck as he remembered one other thing on the to-do list today with exasperation.

He left the water running and crossed the apartment to his closet -- and if anyone saw him naked it was their problem -- digging out an old suit with dusty shoulders. He brushed it off, then grabbed the laundry detergent and a pillowcase of clothes and tossed them into the bathroom. The suit he hung on the bathroom door. Steam should take care of most of the wrinkles.

Shampoo stung on cut knuckles he'd neglected, and John stood in the shower just letting the hot water run in rivulets down his back, an arm braced against the wall. He sighed as he felt tired muscles relax. Then he shut off the showerhead, and scrubbing a rough towel over his chest and arms, he tossed in the plug and let cooler water run. He emptied the pillowcase of clothes in the tub, letting it fill with splash of detergent. Saved hours at the Laundromat. The suit was still wrinkled but John didn't care all that much.

It was eleven o'clock, but he'd already been up for eight hours. An hour till lunch.

He sank into bed to take a nap.

~*~*~

The phone woke him forty-five minutes later. With a grimace, John, still flat on his back, reached for the receiver on the floor.

"'Lo…?" He listened quietly. "Job's filled?"

There was another long silence as John sat up, the blankets pooling in his lap. He sniffed, blinking, as he struggled to wake up. He rubbed his face, running his hands through rumpled hair, making it stand on end. "That's okay, yeah… thanks for letting me know."

He sighed with relief, dropped the phone, and then after a pause, swung out of bed, pulling on a pair of boxers. The first thing he did was cheerfully stuff the suit back into the closet.

The second phone call was completely expected and John picked it up halfway through the first ring.

"Hello? Hey, mom. Yep, she just called. Better luck next time." John wiped at his mouth, adjusting the phone on his shoulder, seeming to shrink in on himself as he stared up at the ceiling. "Well, I'll keep looking. Thanks for setting -- yeah, they're nice people."

He listened attentively, chewing his lower lip, nodding like a chastised child. "I liked the UPS gig. Okay, six years ago but … uh-huh." He chuckled. "The boxes were fine, good PT, the heavier the better … What? The knee?" John raised his eyebrows as he started to restlessly pace. The phone dragged across the floor behind him.

"That was last year. Ancient history," he assured her. "…Nope." He sucked in a breath through his teeth, leaning his back against the doorjamb between the kitchen and the bedroom. His head touched the wood with a light thump. "Haven't heard from Dad … No, I don't need any money, mom." John cringed. "I'm fine."

The room fell silent as John pushed away from the wall and hung up the phone. Then he squeaked open the mostly-empty kitchen cabinet and grabbed a can of Campbell's soup, dumping it into a pan.

He picked up his inline skates and set them on the table. They fell a little to the side but didn't roll off. Being a UPS driver had been great, nice people, but it had worked all the wrong muscle groups.

The phone rang again not half an hour later. With a wary glance John dropped his spoon and picked it up. "Hi, Dad."

"Dad?" Rodney's voice squawked in indignant confusion. John's shoulders relaxed. He could almost see the dismissive wave as Rodney ignored that. "I've a cancellation, and I figure since you're not paying me anyway you can afford to use your copious free-time to train."

"Yeah, let's get outta here." John put the inline skates back on the floor, leaned against a table leg. "But how 'bout we go to the Schmidt Center?" he suggested, thinking of Mrs. Weir's comments. "It's closer."

There was a pregnant pause. "Um. Okay."

~*~*~

December, 1981

Rodney was short for seventh grade, with wavy hair that fell past his ears, slim and smaller than the other kids, though at the beginning of the semester he'd picked up "Tiny" -- who weighed over a hundred and fifty pounds -- and spun him around on a dare. For once he'd stopped getting flicked on the back of the head by kids who didn't like him, and got flicked by people who liked him instead. His dad drove him to school every day after skating practice, which kept him a out of the social loop, but Rodney had made a few friends on the bus when he rode home in the afternoon.

Three of his friends waited on porch, hanging back, uncomfortable, having never been to Rodney's house before. "Jet" Bradley, his hands sticky and covered with dirt, hung onto the soccer ball, chewing gum as he leaned back against the wrought iron railing around the porch, while Dave and Andrea Phearson swung on the rail at the bottom step.

Rodney's house was nicer than theirs, but they were all good enough not to mention it.

Rodney dropped his book bag on the floor while his dad closed the heavy door, shutting his friends out of the conversation.

"—I'll be back in an hour, tops," Rodney urged his dad.

Rodney's father tipped his head at him, arms folded across his barrel of a chest. His wire frame glasses had slid halfway down his nose. "You have homework and a five a.m. skate time."

Rodney had expected this. He glanced over his shoulder at the door and licked his lips, hoping his friends were still there. "It won't take me but five minutes. I can do it when I get back from the park," he promised brightly.

"Do your homework first. You have to be in bed by eight o'clock."

"Dad! They're going now!"

"Four a.m. comes around faster than you think. No."

"But they're my friends!" Rodney's shoulders sank in desperation.

"Everyone has friends, Rodney. You have talent. And that means sacrifices, for all of us. Do you think I enjoy getting up this early in the morning? But I do this for you." His father stabbed a finger in his direction.

"But--!"

"No buts." His father sighed heavily, jaw squared and unrelenting. "Finish your homework first and then you can go."

Dispirited, Rodney slunk down the stairs to the sidewalk where his friends looked like they were ready to leave. They rolled their eyes as he promised to meet them later, not in the least bit surprised. "Jet" spun the soccer ball in his hands, lied and said they didn't mind. Rodney retreated back up the stairs, watching them through the lace curtains in the living room with a unhappy wave as they left, kicking the ball between them down the sidewalk and into street. They didn't notice his wave.

Rodney raced up the stairs, cursing his dad loud enough for him to hear. He slammed his door but he had his school books spread out on the little mahogany desk in seconds.

An hour later, the sound of heavy scuffing footsteps came up the wooden stairs. The door to Rodney's room creaked as his father pushed it open though it stopped halfway, caught by a pile of dirty clothes behind it.

Science equipment littered every dresser and tabletop, with more on the unused top bunk above Rodney's bed, while a telescope had fallen out of the closet onto the floor. Skating posters were tacked to every wall, with Rodney's favorites tacked to the wall by his bed -- all male figure skaters, with his very favorite hidden from view where it was taped to the bottom of the bunk overhead. Curled clippings about his own skating were taped to the closet mirror and the mirror in Rodney's bathroom where the light had been left on again.

Rodney's desk was set in front of the window, parting the curtains. Even though it was still daylight, Rodney was sprawled in his chair, face squashed against the textbook, fast asleep. There was a long blue pen mark along one cheek and his pen had rolled to the crack of the book.

His dad was careful not to wake him, footfalls silent on plush carpeting, murmuring in his ear. Rodney moved with his eyes mostly closed, almost sleep walking as his dad chivvied him out of his jeans and shoes, and into bed. Only the top of his brown head showed as he sighed and sniffed. He rolled over towards the wall, pulling the blankets with him.

Downstairs, his father stood in the kitchen and said, "Second time this week. With the Junior Worlds right around the corner. We need to move his supper earlier."

~*~*~

February, 1999

The gleaming black SUV purred in front of John's apartment building. Despite the cold, the tinted driver's side window rolled down, as smooth as black silk, while Rodney climbed out the side door.

"I wish you could come with us to Montreal…" the unfamiliar woman in red was saying, one gloved hand curled around the steering wheel. She was nearly invisible behind her dark glasses.

Rodney stood stiffly with his back to John, but his voice was clipped. "Well. You know my policy."

"C'mon, Rod-neeeeey…." A tiny little girl in a lilac snowsuit that almost hid her completely hopped down from the SUV. She was no higher than Rodney's hip as she tugged on his belt, leaning backward with her full weight. Rodney didn't budge a millimeter. "Pleeeeease?"

Rodney shook his head and tiredly pulled her upright. Steadying her hips, he knelt down on the sidewalk and held up a forefinger in front of her face. She raised her chin to see past the cinched hood of the snowsuit.

"Take some time before you skate, remember what I said," Rodney insisted with very adult intensity, waiting a moment to catch distracted eyes. "Don't compete the whole time!"

She nodded twice, decisive, chewing on the drawstring of her hood.

"Good. Now up--" Rodney lifted her easily under her arms, swinging her into the back seat of the SUV, then slid the door shut on well-oiled hinges. "And good luck," he said, perfunctory, with an insincere smile. He patted the door and waved to the woman as the window whirred back up. Rodney watched them as they pulled away.

"Policy-?" John prompted.

"I don't do competitions."

Rodney scowled after them as the vehicle reached the corner. The turn signal flashed. "That woman should get a dog and take it to shows."

"She looked like a pretty tough kid to me," John said just to mollify him. Actually what he really thought was that he didn't know skates even came that small.

"Tough?! Like hell!" Rodney squawked. "She's so fragile you could break her just by breathing wrong! I don't think she actually skates -- she just floats over the ice like a fruit fly!" His gestures flew. "Her mother wants her to 'get used to' the pressure of competing, as if that's possible. And of course -- of course! -- all her little friends are going, so she just has to follow like a little lemming. That way they can all have cartilage damage and arthritis in their thirties, chat about the good old days as they sit around in rocking chairs."

John stared at him quietly a moment. Then said, "Didn't you used to compete as a kid?"

Rodney didn't answer.

As they slid into the front seat of John's car, John chewed his lip and finally asked, with a pensive intake of breath, "You're going to my competitions, right?"

"Of course I am," Rodney said with an off-handed flutter of his fingers, then returned to chewing his thumbnail and staring out the side window. John nodded slowly as if this made sense, unwilling to push it as he put the car in gear.

~*~*~

A half-circle drive curved up to a series of broad shallow steps that led to a wall of glass doors. John backed into the parking lot, his arm slung around the back of Rodney's seat. His eyes flicked over to Rodney who didn't move once they came to a stop.

"You know, if this is a problem…." John began.

"No, no, it should be perfectly fine," Rodney said.

"If you don't think I'm ready for this level, just tell me," John said. "I can take it."

"Huh? No, it'll be fine." Rodney's hands tapped a rhythm on his knee before he nodded, and with a deep breath, got out.

It was a ridiculously long walk to the front entrance.

The picture was straight ahead right as visitors entered through the glass doors, framed over a display of local art: Mayor Schmidt holding a pair of oversized fake scissors, and next to him, a teenager with wide blue eyes and a familiar sardonic smile. The young Rodney had curly brown hair falling over his forehead and way too much mousse as he held up his half of the ribbon. Beside it was a plaque of dedication with the date: 1985.

Head down and not examining the picture, Rodney tugged on John's arm. "Come along, no distractions."

The lobby was white and echoed -- and they had plants. The receptionist was busy behind a modern angular counter and John gazed up at the skylights and all around, following Rodney, falling behind and then catching up as if he were pulled after him on a string.

Rodney guided them unerringly away from the main hall into what appeared to be a side route, cutting through a row of business offices with oak doors and brass name plates. The hallway was empty and hushed. Rodney rapped the button to a service elevator.

On the bottom floor, the elevator opened on a rink that was large, twice the size of Rodney's rink, brightly lit with a huge dome ceiling. Advertisements plastered every wall and all across the boards: Adidas, Campbell's Soup, a banner for Nestle hot cocoa. The section at the far end of the ice didn't have the flickering overhead light that John had grown used to, and the aisles circling the rink were comfortably wide. Benches for the audience were replaced with cushy fold-down padded seats. The concession stand was dark. Clusters of people in matching team jackets hovered rink-side, their murmurs and laughter echoing. On the far edge a trio of cameras were setting up to film a dark-haired woman in a sweater that almost covered her skirt.

John scanned the ice with sharp competitive eyes. Two or three skaters had staked out their corners. Not a nine-year-old in sight. One woman executed a really professional triple-toe loop with great speed and a solid landing, her skirt and brown ponytail flying. John gave a slow satisfied smile.

Rodney hurried them through a cluster of people, head down. "Okay, we'll, ah, go over there where it's quiet…." He edged gingerly towards a patch of empty stands.

A face glanced up at Rodney's voice, with a startled, "Is that--?"

She turned to her friend and whispered, and then two more bright, interested faces aimed their way. Rodney rubbed the back of his neck and moved a little faster.

"McKay?" asked a questioning female voice behind them, hoarse from cigarettes or a sex change, who knew. "You're Rodney McKay, aren't you?"

Rodney winced and turned around slowly with a forced smile.

"I saw you at Worlds -- Jesus, how long ago was that?" she swatted a darkly tanned woman in a pink sweater next to her. Her friend startled and then her face lit with recognition as she took in Rodney.

"Ten… twelve years?" she offered.

"1984. That's right," the first woman nodded.

A teenager next to them stopped sipping on her straw and chirped up, "Oh. Isn't he the same one in the picture--?"

"Shh! Don't be rude!" The woman with the gravelly voice cut her off. "Don't mind her. Skating's decayed so much since you left. Nothing but acrobatics now."

Rodney finally found his voice. "I… I saw it heading in that direction. Once they got rid of the compulsories…."

"Downhill from there," the woman nodded sagely.

"McKay?" A querying voice came from across the ice.

A man in warm-ups and artful blond highlights nodded to a younger skater and then turned their way, gliding to a stop. He eyed Rodney up and down, sharply appraising, his friendly, hearty tone not quite reaching his eyes. "I thought that was you. Careful, they've got the cameras out, doing establishing shots." He winked as if he and Rodney had some sort of inside joke. "Kyle Fletcher's practicing -- you know how it is."

"Yeah," Rodney said in a shaky voice. John had never seen Rodney so… shy.

There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence. "Hey, you've never met Paul, have you?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Paul!" He waved to the young skater who couldn't have been more than seventeen. The kid waved back and quickly skated over. "I'm sure you recognize--"

"Rodney McKay," the kid said, reaching over the barricade to shake his hand. "They have your picture on the wall."

"Yes. I'm aware of that," Rodney said wryly.

"I saw your stuff back in '83," the kid continued, bright-eyed. "You were really good. It was either Nationals or the Worlds … that Korsakov piece."

"I did the same program at both." Rodney gave him a funny look. "How old were you in…?"

"Mom's got the tape. Says you're a real artist. Seen it a million times."

"Ah."

"Uh-oh," the blond man said remorselessly, glancing over his shoulder. A man in a dark suit was working his way around the rink, chin raised and eyes fixed on Rodney, flanked by two assistants with cameras and microphones that he all but ignored as they trailed in his wake.

"Sorry, looks like I've blown your cover." Rodney's friend seemed unrepentant. "Brett Jordan's gotten wind of this. I'm making a break for it. See you around, McKay?" There was a doubtful note to his question.

Rodney just nodded absently, eyes fixed on the man in the suit. As he drew closer, John could see a square jaw and perfectly lacquered hair, not a strand out of place -- or moving for that matter. He approached with a broad and utterly professional smile.

"Rodney McKay. It's been a very long time." The man smelled like expensive cologne and had a deep, ringing voice like a baseball announcer's. He held out his hand and clasped Rodney's in a hearty handshake. "Come to watch Kyle Fletcher skate? I understand he's looking for a coach."

"Oh, I have my hands full right now," Rodney said, bouncing nervously on his toes with a quick look back at John. Brett Jordan followed Rodney's glance with a flick of his too-steady eyes.

"I'm sorry, and you are--?" he said, disinterested, distracted and looking somewhat through John, though he spoke with impeccable politeness.

"Sorry, sorry," Rodney waved a hand nervously. "John Sheppard, this is Brett Jordan. Channel… nine?"

"We're syndicated now."

John gave him a disingenuous smile and a brief nod.

"Is this someone we should be keeping an eye on?" Brett asked with a eagle-eyed sparkle that wasn't quite humor, no longer looking at Rodney. John suddenly felt like he had a gun to his head.

"Yes, sir," John said.

"Do we get to see you skate today?" Brett asked, and muttered casually to an assistant over his shoulder, "Camera two's free, right? We could use it for the lead-in. He could do a spin or something. It'd be perfect." He made a frame with his hands. "'Old favorites and new hopefuls here to watch Kyle Fletcher.'"

"Kyle could show any time," the cameraman complained.

"Uh," John said, blank-faced.

"No, no, I was just in the neighborhood, seeing the old haunts." Rodney swung his arms. "Showing off a little, you know me!"

Jordan's laugh was rich and, for a change, completely unforced. "We sure do! Well, keep in touch, Rodney." He patted Rodney's shoulder and then held out his hand to John, his smile warmer this time. "John Sheppard, nice to meet you. We'll be keeping an eye out for you in competition. Never forget to watch for the dark horse I've learned." He glanced at Rodney with mock accusation, elbowing him. "Or else some fifteen-year-old will upset everything at Worlds."

Rodney laughed, unnaturally high-pitched. John shot him a funny look.

It took two little girls in sneakers seeking autographs (their mom beamed and had Rodney sign the back of their t-shirts), several more old friends, a hug from a complete stranger, until they finally escaped.

Rodney sagged back against the wall outside the darkened business offices. The service elevator doors glided shut with a small ding.

John leaned on the other side, still blinking and stunned. "Thanks for getting me out of there."

"Sorry." Rodney cringed. "I thought they might have forgotten me by now."

John peered at him irritably. "Not likely. Your picture's on the damned wall."

"I can't ever get anything done in this place…. Never, ever open a skating center." Rodney raised a cautioning finger. John couldn't imagine ever needing this bit of advice. "Not even if the mayor's office calls -- although my mother was so excited, it might have been worth it." He sighed. "Luckily, it's all died down quite a bit."

John gave him a curious glance.

"I used to have to carry signed eight-by-tens."

~*~*~

February, 1986

A sound boom dangled in midair over the cluster of bored-looking reporters in new parkas, dragging wires and a collection of cameramen and technicians as they paced between events. The Soviet Union had threatened to boycott the 1986 Olympics but that story had died an early death. It had never been likely for the winter games anyhow, which had some of the eastern bloc's best events. A helicopter rolled across the gray skies high overhead, its cameras sweeping the Olympic village like a dragnet. The cluster at the front gate talked in several languages, brimming with carefully generated excitement the moment the cameras started rolling, but then they kicked tires once they were no longer "live." They'd been stuck filling airtime with "local color" that no one cared about: snow had postponed the Giant Slalom.

Unfortunately, there was only one exit from the Olympic village. Rodney filled his lungs and prepared a bright smile, signaling to Radek with a lift of his chin. Radek filtered off to the side, a frown of confusion furrowing his brow as he glanced back at Rodney.

Ducking his head, Rodney stepped out into the gray light, breath misting about him. Reporters scurried and soundmen swore as they redirected the boom. "McKay!" -- "Hey, Rodney!"

"Rodney," a reporter called out with false intimacy, "do you have a minute?" They'd take a minute whether he had one or not.

"How's it going, McKay?" said another -- and oh, Rodney struggled to remember the name. He was Canadian, though, so one of the good guys.

"Good, great in fact!" Rodney smiled, making sure his Canadian arm-patch was aimed towards the cameras. Flashbulbs left yellow spots dancing in front of his eyes. He stood in the crunchy hardened slush and shot Radek a fierce look to move.

No longer chasing a moving target, the reporters clustered around, cutting off Rodney's escape route. Cameramen could move amazingly fast, despite how much equipment they carried.

"How do you feel about the upcoming freeskate?"

"Well, I have to get through the compulsories first, don't you think?" Rodney said, skewering the woman's ignorance. More knowledgeable sportscasters chuckled. Just because they didn't film the figure eights didn't mean they didn't exist. Radek had stopped staring and started to -- thank god -- slip past the reporters, his hands in his pockets and head down.

"So you're not ready for the freeskate yet?" the woman said, a trifle vengefully, Rodney thought.

"Ask my competitors that question," Rodney laughed. "Where're you from? France? You're in -- what? -- tenth place, if that?" He pointedly turned to the Canadian reporter. The Canadian press always favored him.

He filled them in on the goings on in the Olympic village, including a cheerful story about a food fight the other morning that had them all laughing. People let off steam in the craziest ways. It was an undignified moment for some of the champions involved but Rodney grinned, alive and in his element. There was even a little romance brewing between the East German skater, Natalia, and a West German skater that the American press would kill for -- nothing like a little iron curtain drama -- but he kept that in his back pocket for later, because Radek had finally cleared the compound. He gave the grateful reporters a jaunty wave.

"Where are you going now?" that French reporter called after him.

"For a drink!" Rodney sang out over his shoulder, instantly regretting it while trying not to cringe. He saw the notepads and scribbling as the reporters turned their backs on him to recap their sound-bites to the international audience. A dozen different versions of "...Outside the Olympic village, Canadian skating sensation Rodney McKay granted us an exclusive interview…."

He zipped his jacket with surreptitious backward glance as he caught up with Radek at the edge of their little village in the Schwaebisch Alps. The French reporter followed Rodney with intense eyes.

"Keep walking," Rodney said under his breath, "pretend you don't know me. I will have to meet you there. I might have a hornet on my tail."

"A what?" Radek paused and stared. Rodney made a frustrated noise and urged him forward.

"A pissed off reporter. Go, go!" Rodney spluttered and jogged into the village.

He pulled on the headphones to his Walkman and prepared to ignore being shadowed, trying to work out the Japanese in Styx's "Mr. Roboto."

~*~*~

It was well over two hours later when Rodney climbed a dumpster behind a drab little hotel with a quick hop. He knocked on a window on the second floor. It slid part-way open. Rodney grabbed the window jamb and hauled himself up with a complaining breathless curse. Scrabbling to get an elbow in, he banged his head on the frame, legs still kicking.

"Open it all the way, you idiot!"

"Sorry," Radek said, moving too late as Rodney managed to wriggle through anyway and fell to the floor. He pulled off his hat then flopped onto the bed with a sigh, while Radek barred the window behind him with a sharp metallic click, drawing thick drapes.

"I thought maybe you were not coming," Radek admitted.

"Yeah, sorry about that. I hit every boring monument in the city." Rodney rolled onto his back and gazed up at Radek through smiling, half-slitted eyes. "Did you realize they must have a dozen museums?" he said with a tired wave. He yawned, glancing over in amusement that Radek's idea of 'sexy' for a tryst was an old-fashioned nightshirt. He kicked off his shoes. "I ran into some fans who bought me ice cream though."

Radek rolled his eyes. "Reporters... this is crazy." He paced, running his hand through his hair.

"I told you I was a skater," Rodney said.

"I will be followed by KGB because of you."

"You're small and mousy. I'm sure no one noticed you." He rolled over on his stomach and stretched to pull out two cigarettes from Radek's pack on the table, lighting them both, their ends glowing red. He handed one off with a breath of smoke to Radek to calm him down. "Besides, aren't you communist athletes all rock stars in your country?" Rodney worked on holding his cigarette so he looked cool.

Radek frowned down at him and said in amazement, "You see me naked and you think I'm athlete?" He paced more then sank to the bed. "Look, my brother is a ski jumper," Radek explained. "And my father, he wanted me to see the world, go with, so," he shrugged, "he got me the job with the judging."

"I thought you guys weren't allowed to leave," Rodney mused, mildly interested.

"My family is poor, but we have friends," Radek said, pursing his lips cynically. He peered at the drawn curtains. "It is how communism really works."

"Ah, yes. Nepotism at its best." Rodney stretched out his arms on the bed with a satisfied sigh, letting his legs fall open, tired muscles stretching. He smiled at Radek. "I'm guessing this is not quite what he had in mind, eh?"

Radek's smirk was filthy and embarrassed. "Probably, no."

As Radek slid rustling under the covers, Rodney grinned at the illicitness of it all, starting to breathe hard. "What do you judge?" he asked, watching with wide eyes as Radek pulled the nightshirt over his head, his thick blondish-brown hair rumpled and wild, blunt bangs falling onto his forehead. The glasses came off and were set on the table.

The wry look Radek shot him said 'you're an idiot' but he answered with a flat, "Ski jumping."

Rodney hurriedly began tearing off his own jacket and shirt. "Tsk. That's boring. I'll teach you all about figure skating." Radek helped Rodney with the buttons, getting a little in the way so Rodney brushed him aside with an impatient gesture to finish it himself, baring his narrow muscular chest. "That's much more of a challenge."

It wasn't until he was naked on top of Radek, kissing pleasantly, when it dawned on him. He pushed himself up on his arms, astonishment crossing his face with a thousand flickering emotions. "Wait-a-minute. You're judging your brother's event?"

Radek snickered with a broadening smile, shaking his head slowly, his expression a mixture of sarcasm and relief. His hand trailed down Rodney's bicep and he tapped Rodney's chest with each word. "You are. Very. Innocent." He made it sound like a compliment.

~*~*~

February, 1999

John shut his apartment door behind him, not bothering to lock it, and cast a look around the darkened room. The sun was low on the horizon, staining the sky pink and gold. Dirty dishes were soaking in the sink, the bed unmade. The laundry was still in the tub, ready for the "rinse" cycle.

He hadn't gotten jack done this afternoon.

His inline skates leaned against the table leg, one of them flat on the floor, right where he'd left them. There was still time; the afternoon didn't have to be a total wash. John alternated weight training days so he couldn't do that, but he hadn't yet done his cardio.

John grabbed the edge of the doorjamb leading to the kitchen that, once-upon-a-century had had French doors, doing a quick chin-up. Then he swung into the kitchen with a grunt and settled into the chair, kicking off his sneakers and lacing up the inline skates with quick fingers. There were certain muscle groups he only seemed work out in just the right way while actually skating.

The hall carpet felt mushy under the rollerblades and the manager hated it when he skated inside the building, but this way he wasn't encumbered by his shoes. He liked to go flat-out with no distractions. John held the door for his elderly neighbor, the plump Mrs. Hermann, who smiled, "Good afternoon, John," taking in the familiar skates with an indulgent twinkle. She switched a bag of groceries to her other hand and lumbered up the stair to the second floor.

He grabbed the banister and jumped the three steps to the sidewalk, hitting the pavement with a pleasant jolt that reverberated distantly in the injured knee. He sheared off the corner of the sidewalk, rustling shrubbery, the rumble of concrete turning into the near-silent hiss of blacktop as he tucked one arm behind his back, leaned low, and risked the street with smooth, long strokes.

Cutting between parked cars, John evaded the slow bounce of oncoming headlights, swept past a kid on a bike, then maneuvered through a rough patch of sidewalk till he approached the busy street – and saw ahead that he'd missed the light. It flashed red at him, the flood of cars released into his path. He cursed inwardly with a grimace, turned right rather than slow down, dodging around blurry annoyed shoppers, more parked cars, then bent sharply left at the next light, yellow-turning-red, a hand nearly touching the ground as he crossed to his favorite neighborhood.

He'd only just begun. His whole body sang with heat but he wasn't really working yet.

The gated community was marked by an opening speedbump which he ramped up, used the landing to skip ahead, climb the steep incline. Halfway up, John finally started to feel it, the fight with gravity costing him speed, making him struggle to maintain speed. He put his back into it, teeth bared, pushing it with firm strokes now, before it got truly steep.

And hit another momentum-killing speedbump, flying. He took the landing with his left leg, pushing off with the right the instant he felt that balance again, efficient and smooth, jaw set in grim smiling determination. The universe narrowed to a stretch of blacktop as John reached for that peak performance, unfaltering. In another galaxy the injured knee flared hot, but he'd hit the stride that meant he'd make the top, easy.

He struck the last speedbump and raced into the deepening blue sky, the cold wind sudden and sharp as he flew across the crest of the hill. John kept every ounce of momentum, not pausing as he hit the top of his downhill course. Here the road snaked like a crazy river to slow traffic, a little garden island nestled in each curve.

John hit the turns like a downhill skier, the wind whipping through his hair as he realized he'd forgotten the helmet. Knee bent close to the ground, skimming it sharply, the road disappeared behind an island than reappeared, the trees flashing by; John took the course for sheer love of speed.

It was frustrating but he stuck to only the ground, eschewed any flying spins at the bottom, keeping both feet on blacktop. How could speed skaters stand it?

But no helmet, doctor's orders -- John held himself to speed alone with sheer gut-wrenching will, letting his momentum bottom out into the wide open drive, tucked tight to shoot along the straightaway. The neighborhood here had almost no trees and short identical driveways blinked by. Rough pavement rumbled under his feet, grounding him with sound and texture.

John passed the distant, tempting sound of a basketball and glided to a slow, gradual stop, slumping to lean his hands on his knees, breathing hard. He wiped the spit from the corner of his mouth, his chest heaving. Sweat stung his eyes and cooled on his back and neck. He could almost feel the world spin as he remained breathing alone in the empty street. The air streamed white around him as he straightened, almost satiated. For now.

The sky was nearly dark, lighter blue to the west. Towards home. His knee let its presence be known, though well-being still surged and overwhelmed its distracting, complaining throb. Pain was good though. It let him know when he'd gone too far.

With a sigh of contentment, panting, John made for home.

~*~*~

"This is ridiculous," Rodney huffed, squirming in the passenger seat. The heater was blowing lukewarm air but at least it was better than nothing.

"We'll get there," John said. His eyebrows drew together, the only indication of his own irritation at traffic.

The car inched forward a few more feet and paused, the windshield wipers beating slowly. The tailpipe of the car in front of them steamed, wisps disappearing into the flat concrete gray sky as they pulled alongside a family sedan with a rumbling loud engine. Vehicles were lined up along the three-lane highway like off-center boxcars. Rodney shifted around to face the sedan.

"You are Canadians!" he told a family of four through two layers of glass and a lane of cars. They didn't so much as glance in his direction. "You're supposed to be used to snow."

"Freezing rain," John corrected off-handedly.

"Whatever. These people don't know how to drive."

Rush hour traffic came to a standstill, the sleet pocking off the windshield and wet road. Hands sliding uselessly from the steering wheel, John sighed and put it in park, torn between annoyance at Rodney and relief he'd never had a nine-to-five job. Annoyance won.

"This seems like a long way to go for groceries…." he grumbled.

"You offered," Rodney said. John tipped his head and rolled his eyes. It had been his way of apologizing for one of their worst practices ever. John knew he'd been a jerk. "There's only one co-op in the city that has my brand. Most the rest of the world is trying to kill me with citric acid."

"With-?" John frowned.

"It's a preservative. I'm allergic to citrus. Anaphylactic shock; not a pretty sight."

"Ah."

The cars beside them started moving forward again, slowly, but more steadily than the last twenty minutes. Their own lane remained at a standstill, a frustrating gap widening in front of the black Saab ahead.

"He's on his cell phone!" Rodney declared, vastly offended. John managed to shift lanes, crawling around the Saab while Rodney leaned on his window, glaring at the man who was chatting animatedly as they passed. "Oh, yes, we're all very impressed with your vapid conversation -- have you ever noticed what people say on those things? Loudly?" He twisted around towards John. "'I'm at the grocery store!' Right. Like they needed a cell phone to tell the world that."

"If you had one you'd probably be on it all the time," John pointed out in all fairness, leaning forward over the steering wheel. He slid back into the center lane, cutting off the Saab as the driver finally woke up and tried to surge forward. Too late. John smiled vengefully to himself, glancing back in his rearview mirror.

"No, I-- okay, probably true," Rodney admitted, tucking in his chin a little. "But I would have important things to say, and I would never tell anyone I was at the grocery store because that's just idiotic."

John slammed on the breaks as a pick-up truck dodged into their lane.

"Hey, watch it!" Rodney yelled. He reached over and hit the horn, blaring at the truck.

"Knock it off!" John slapped Rodney's arm away. He turned to Rodney with a taut smile, saying in a sarcastic sing-song voice meant for bad children who didn't know any better, "When I'm driving, I'm in charge of the horn."

The black Saab rode their bumper as John edged forward, hurriedly catching up to close the gap in traffic, but a VW Bug slipped into the space he'd left open while distracted.

"You aren't using it!" Rodney fumed.

"I'm taking the moral high road," John explained. He frowned. "It won't get us there any faster."

"How can you be so--so impossibly mellow?"

John slouched against the seat as the traffic came to a standstill again. He spared Rodney a frustrated glance. "I'm not. I just have… techniques."

"Techniques."

"Yeah." John nodded and pointed a forefinger at the back of the VW Bug. "An M-79 would probably have enough force to punch a grenade through that back window. They'd be toast."

"An M-what?"

"Grenade launcher. That pick-up's got his little back window open." John squinted, vindictive and amused. "If you aimed just right…."

"I see," Rodney said. "That's awfully… knowledgeable of you, military-wise."

"Didn't you have army men as a kid, Rodney?"

"G.I. Joe. But my sister played with it more than I did." Rodney said this with a little distant smile, eyes sparkling with remembrance.

John guessed the source of that guilty gleam. "You took his clothes off."

The smile spread, turning sheepish and naughty. "Not anatomically correct I'm afraid."

"Yeah, it's disappointing," John agreed, edging the car forward a few more feet.

"So, ah, military--?" Rodney pressed the question, giving him a knowing sideways smirk.

With a shimmy, John adjusted his shoulders into the seat. "My brother's Air Force. My folks wanted me to join but…." He made a small gesture, fingers falling to the steering wheel in a patter.

"Didn't want to?"

"Well," John drawled. He looked away, rubbing the back of his neck absently. "Once I started blowing guys in the school men's room I thought it would be a pretty stupid risk."

Rodney's eyes flickered in a fast blink at that. "So. Figure skating."

"Looks like." John didn't mention just who he'd been doing. In school he and his friends had laughingly called their skating club the "sex club" because of all the bed hopping. It wasn't all gay by any means, but his little corner was. It still brought a smile whenever he was introduced at competitions as John Sheppard of the Glen Ellyn Skating Club.

"Hey--!" Rodney startled, his head jerking in the direction of the sign for the off-ramp. "That's our turn off. You're never gonna make that in time!"

John scowled at him, clicking on the turn signal and ducking his head to scope for an opening. "Do you even have a driver's license?"

~*~*~

The shopping cart clattered and rang as John followed Rodney -- who kept up a pretty good clip, obviously familiar with the place -- wondering how his simple offer of a ride had turned into an expedition. The store was almost empty and smelled a little like hay bales and dusty burlap, like most co-ops. Rodney stopped them at the canned food aisle and began loading up the cart with huge cans of tomatoes.

Curious, John pursed his lips and tipped the square can already occupying the cart, reading the label. It looked like it could be turpentine but actually turned out to be olive oil. "More spaghetti?"

"Yep," Rodney grunted, his voice muffled where he was digging cans out from deep in the shelf, ass wriggling. He was cleaning them out of tomatoes, John noted with a snort. His stocky shoulders barely fit between the pinto beans and the oversized jars of garbanzos.

John raised his eyebrows. "Isn't that what you made a week ago?"

"I went through it faster than usual. You eat a lot, though you're so skinny I've no idea where you put it." Rodney scraped the last can into the cart with a heavy clang, then wiped his hands on his jeans. "Okay. Garlic. It's overpriced here but it'll save us a stop."

"Don't you know how to make anything besides spaghetti?"

"I'm an excellent cook," Rodney said, tipping his chin. "With a somewhat limited repertoire. The garlic's over there, by the way." He pointed.

But John had steered the cart towards the check out line. "Just a suggestion, but have you ever thought of eating something green?"

"Garlic-?" Rodney pointed back towards the produce section, his gesture surprised, sketching a vague, helpless circle in the air.

"I don't think so," John said, shaking his head, leaning in to push the cart. It was heavier now. "We're making another stop."

~*~*~

The waterfront was the last place you wanted to be in the winter especially as the sun set and the wind picked up over Lake Ontario. The Great Lakes didn't tend to freeze but they were cold any time of year, and fingers of icy wind clawed their way between the tall warehouses and down paved streets. Cheeks stinging, John turned his back to the sharp breeze as he pulled the car door handle, making sure it was locked. A woman held a little girl's hand as they crossed the street, hunched against a blast of cold air.

Shoppers emerged from the wide warehouse doors, plastic bags dangling from their mittens, hats pulled low as they braved the winter. Buckets of flowers cluttered the vestibule just inside the entryway, brought indoors for the season.

Rodney blew on his gloved hands, bouncing in place as John stuffed coins in the parking meter, his own gloves tucked between his knees as he mentally cursed the cold metal. They crossed to the brightly lit warehouse.

"It'll be a little picked over, it's better to come here in the mornings, but at least it won't be as busy," John said by way of explanation, though Rodney simply forged ahead, clearly more interested in getting where it was warm.

In the entryway they stepped on leaves and crushed muddy flower petals mashed onto the floor. John handed Rodney a basket as they dodged people and flower buckets. It was chilly inside, but not freezing, and filled with the sharp scent of green.

"I'm not on that, you know, 'whole foods' kick anymore," John said with a rueful tip of his head, leading Rodney out of the way. "But one thing I did learn is you can eat a lot—and cheap—from the farmers' markets."

"I thought farmers' markets were little wooden shacks by the side of the road." Rodney stood, gazing around, fascinated -- and still blocking the doorway.

"Not in Toronto." John grinned and took a chance, hooking a hand under his arm, drawing him forward.

Many of the stalls had shut down for the day but this market was more or less permanent with a coffee shop and bakery at either end working overtime during the winter, long lines trailing into the busy aisles. People in business suits wandered between tables in the open warehouse, several of which were empty at this late hour. Other shops had makeshift wooden walls on three sides and canvas displays, baskets of scented soaps and other local items spilling out into the aisles. The result was something of a maze as John threaded through lines of people and the entryway disappeared behind them.

They passed the warm scent of cinnamon rolls and John glanced back. He'd already lost Rodney. Four steps back and around a stack of baskets he found Rodney had hovered, lingering outside the bakery, before he caught sight of John with bright look and a nod, catching up. John made straight for one of the few remaining vegetable stands, ducking around a pretty busy crowd for a Friday night.

Sure enough, certain things were never popular. John scooped some beets into Rodney's basket, then fingered through bunches of greens. The spinach was wilted, though there were a few good batches he grabbed and.…

"What's that?"

"Arugula. It's good for you, trust me." John stuffed some into each of their baskets, ducking a hanging flower pot. It swung overhead as Rodney gazed up at it warily. Then John noticed the orange blooms and realized what it was. "Oh, hey, nasturtiums. Right on." He picked a small one in its little plastic pot and tucked it into Rodney's basket.

"Flowers?" Rodney gave him a doubtful look.

"Dinner." John grinned, waiting for the reaction.

"You eat flowers?" John popped an orange blossom into his mouth and chewed, watching Rodney's jaw drop. "They're good. Here." He handed one to Rodney, who glared at it suspiciously, then with a baleful glance at John, bit it in half.

"Okay." Rodney held up a finger as he squinted, looking for all the world like a dog eating peanut butter, his head tipped to the side with a strange expression. "The table decorations are not supposed to taste like that." He blinked rapidly. "It's… spicy. I need something to clear the taste out of my mouth."

"Don't like it?" John said, a bit disappointed. He reached for the plant to put it back.

"No, no, no, it's good," Rodney assured him, waving a hand. He gave an embarrassed lop-sided smile. "Just… I expected it to be sweet somehow."

"Because it's a flower," John nodded, understanding.

They made for the fruit stands across the aisle and John bought him some grapes, eating a handful with his head tipped back while he handed Rodney a bunch.

"So where'd you learn about all this… stuff?" Rodney asked, munching his grapes as they walked side by side, a half-full basket swinging in John's hand.

"I told you. I grew up on a farm," John drawled. "We cook. Or, well, my mom did, but it's not like I didn't learn anything."

The woman on the other side of a table pulled off empty plastic trays leaking water, stacking them with a brittle clatter. This vegetable stand looked it was closing soon, and they didn't have much competition, so John snagged some asparagus and few more items. Rodney paid for their purchases. Several stands past a tourist shop they found more fruit, and John loaded up on bunch after bunch of bananas, grabbing a second basket.

"There're only so many of those I can eat," Rodney stared, his expression halfway between amusement and a frown.

"Hey, you're not the only one shopping here today." He held up a bunch and shook it. "Protein shakes. Not mention potassium's pretty good for muscle cramps."

"Right." Rodney grabbed another bunch for himself. "Though your main problem's dehydration, you know."

They ducked around a more permanent flower shop with a glass countertop, the offerings nearest the aisle wilted and battered at this hour. Then cut between tables in what wasn't strictly a walkway, wet wood scraping along their jeans. The boxes on the next table had bright green labels announcing California Grown.

"Avocados?" John suggested, squeezing to see if they were ripe. They were a little on the high side.

"Are you kidding? Look at the prices on those things!"

"They're organic." John shrugged apologetically.

"I'm not paying for avocados like they're steak!"

John set them down with a little regret but he couldn't justify the expense either. If Rodney were buying on the other hand…. "Oh." John spotted a tiny low box, picked it up and sniffed the bottom. Sure enough… raspberries. Fresh. No fuzz, not squished. Perfect, in fact.

"What's that?" Rodney glanced at it with bright-eyed interest.

"Oh, no, nothing." He set it down, a hand lingering, trailing off the box. He gave a little shrug and a rueful smile. "They're out of season."

Rodney rolled his eyes with a dramatic sigh and picked them up, putting the little box in his basket.

They stopped for hot coffee, braving the lines and taking off their gloves to warm their hands. Then Rodney peered over at the cheese shop.

"Go on," John suggested with a smile, pointing with his chin.

"Uh, no," Rodney shook his head vigorously. He spread his hands in a gesture of denial. "There are some things I just can't have."

"C'mon. Why not?" John said.

He noticed they were going in, even as Rodney declared that, "Cheese is nothing but fat and dairy — and oh, that's brie." Rodney came to a dead stop, staring.

John grinned at him, setting down the basket and leaning both forearms on the glass countertop.

"Canadian triple cream," Rodney informed him.

"So you know your cheeses, huh?" John shared a gleaming conspiratorial smile with the woman behind the counter.

"Better than French brie--okay, almost as good. Not as expensive, but a lighter, more delicate flavor," Rodney explained.

"Well," John said, "It's a pity you can't have any." Rodney wavered visibly, and John's grin was almost fiendish.

"One quarter wheel of the triple cream," John finally told the clerk.

"Oh, no. I couldn't," Rodney spluttered, but his protest was half-hearted and giving way.

"A little bit's fine," John said, looking Rodney up and down.

"No. Such. Thing." He puffed his cheeks at John, demonstrating the results.

"You'll work it off. C'mon, we'll share. I'll make sure you don't pig out," John assured him. "In fact," he said smoothly, with a hint of a smirk, "I might even be persuaded to take the rest off your hands."

Rodney's mouth shut with a snap. "One eighth of a wheel," he corrected the clerk with a sharp glance at John, "and we'll share," he added.

As the clerk sliced and wrapped the cheese in heavy brown paper, tying it with string, John hovered around Rodney, as cheerful as a puppy. He relieved him of a few of the plastic bags as the smiling clerk handed the package over. "Bet it's great with the raspberries."

Retracing their steps through the emptying market, Rodney gave him a considering look. "You really do cook, don't you?"

John shrugged, gazing off across the wide ceilings. A final gleam from the evening sun filtered through the high dusty windows and was caught in the rafters. "Not for myself, no, not really."

Bundled up against the cold, it was dusk and the street lamps flickered by the time John fumbled with his keys. The meter had long since run out; they'd been in there a lot later than he'd planned, but they'd gotten away with it. Glancing at the bags of cans in the back seat, he swore. "You're gonna make me carry all this shit in, aren't you?"

"Oh, I'll help," Rodney offered as he climbed into the passenger seat with a sigh. He kicked off his shoes and started massaging the balls of his feet.

John snorted and shook his head as he slid into the driver's seat. "Gee. Thanks."

As the engine turned over with a loud rumble, Rodney said, sounding half-hopeful, "You're cooking, right?"

And John burst out laughing, leaning his head on the steering wheel.

~*~*~

Rodney hadn't left the porch light on, so they were swearing at each other in the dark and at the overly springy storm door that kept closing on them as Rodney fumbled through his keys. John struggled with the large box of tomato cans in his arms, regretting his decision to get the heavy stuff in first. Finally, John hefted it to his shoulder and onto his head, balancing it with one hand. Rodney popped open the door with a flourish, and John dipped under the doorjamb.

John crossed to the kitchen with a hip swing and a devilish look back at Rodney, eyes glittering.

"There!" Rodney pointed, the bags still tangled on his wrists swinging wildly. "That! That's what I meant today — why can't you do that on the ice?"

"I don't screw in public either, Rodney," John drawled. He dumped the box on the floor.

Rodney gave him a slow head tilt and a dirty smile. "Do you want me to go with the obvious innuendo or try for something more subtle?"

"You do subtle?"

~*~*~

The sultry music was apparently from a pairs routine Rodney performed when he was a little kid. It also reminded John of just why pairs skating under the age of fifteen had always seemed totally inappropriate.

"You skated to this with your little sister?" John said, appalled, both eyebrows raised.

"Shut up, she was twelve. It was cute."

Hand over hand, they changed positions. Rodney twirled his arm over John's head until they were facing each other, John gliding backwards.

"Good. You got the basics." Rodney bobbed his head in approval. "Now give me a little more hip. Make it hot."

Rodney demonstrated with his arms over his head, swinging his hip to the right, flowing into a quarter turn as his skates followed.

"No!" John's head dipped, and yes, okay, that was definitely a blush.

With an exasperated eye roll, Rodney reached for John's hips. "Look, I'll show you...."

And John backed away abruptly with a quick push out of reach. "Forget it, Rodney."

~*~*~

John bumped his ass on the storm door, bouncing it open as he brought in the fourth box. Rodney 'supervised.' "If you could just put that...." Without comment John dumped it on top of the other boxes on the floor, giving Rodney an intent look that dared him to say otherwise. "...or, alternatively, the floor will do," Rodney said with an air of utmost graciousness.

With a smirk, John checked over his shoulder then raised one arm and pirouetted clumsily, falling a little to one side and knocking into the doorjamb. Rodney's eyes went wide again.

"Yes, that's —" John kicked open the front door, the chill rushing in. "— no actually, that kind of sucked, but," Rodney called after him, raising his voice, "you're getting the idea!"

At the car, John bent over to get the last of the cans. Rodney wondered if his jeans were tighter than usual, admiring the curves.

John carried two boxes this time, one in each arm. The show off.

~*~*~

John held onto the edge of the boards, scowling with obvious annoyance as Rodney ran through the choreography.

"Now. Arch your arm, curved over your head like a delicate ballet." Rodney raised his arm and demonstrated.

John copied him, sketching the gesture half-hearted and sloppy. "I'm almost sure I've never seen this move." He let his hand drop.

"Technically, you are skating my little sister's part – John! John, get back here!" he shouted because John had rolled his head, turned and left without a millisecond's hesitation, gliding on long strokes towards the door. "Oh, come on, you can't expect me to skate her role! I don't know it the way I know my own, it's all backwards." He huffed. "Fine! But if I mess up and you get a skate in the face, it will be entirely your fault and I don't want to hear from you, your lawyer, or your reconstructive surgeon."

"How would I get a skate in the face?" John snowplowed to a stop and actually looked interested now, head turned to him quizzically. Leave it to John. If it was dangerous he invariably wanted to try it.

"From this—" And Rodney did a roundhouse tilted spin, head dipped almost to the ice as one leg carved the air.

"Cool!"

Rodney got them both back into position, an arm span apart and a hand on John's wrist. "Now. I pull you in, and roll you out with that little rumba hip shimmy...."

"This is pairs skating, not ice dancing. Right?" John eyed him up and down, lips pressed together sourly.

~*~*~

With a loud thump, John deposited the last of the cans on the floor. "I thought you'd be putting this stuff away or something."

"Away?"

"Yeah. Like in the cupboards?" John reached for the nearest cabinet handle.

"Wait, wait, I don't have room—" A dozen CDs tumbled out onto John, bounced off and clattered into the sink, scattering all over the counters and floor.

"Ah. Yes. I ran out of space in the living room." Rodney crouched down and started gathering them up in his arms like a guilty kid.

"No one can own that many CDs," John said, opening another door and then another, to gaze up in awe at row after row of CDs. Above those, a long line of old vinyl albums. And tapes. He even had a stack of old 8-tracks on the top shelf.

"Yes," said Rodney clutching the CDs to his chest with grateful desperation. "Thank god for mp3s."

~*~*~

It always felt good to be on the ice, even with recalcitrant students. Rodney brought his skates to a 'T,' smiling and shaking his head at John's idea of 'moving' his hips.

"My God, outside of the jumps, you're Al Gore on skates."

That earned him John's nastiest slant-eyed scowl, the one that said, "yes, in fact, I do have a weapon and would be happy to blow your head off." Rodney ignored it. Okay, his heart fluttered with fear and something a little more steamy, but outwardly he ignored it.

"It looks gay," John grumbled.

Rodney couldn't help the little laugh that escaped. And there was that hot glare again. "How did you end up figure skating in the first place?"

To his credit, John blushed. He said with a frustrated gesture, "Look. My first coach said I wouldn't have to do the whole frilly...." He circled a hand to fill in the blanks. "...routine."

"How old were you?" Rodney asked in a skeptical tone.

"I dunno. Fourteen, something like that." He shrugged.

"Congratulations, John," Rodney said. "That, at the tender of age of fourteen, was your first line."

John gave him a blank look.

"He lied. He wanted you."

There was a disbelieving silence. Then John shook the off idea. "Nah. There are things about skating that are more important. Athleticism, pushing your limits...." He emphasized each point with a brief slicing gesture. Rodney could almost hear the quote marks.

"Let me guess." Rodney folded his arms and tipped his head to the side in sarcastic humor. "He had a couple little artists and not one on his teenage 'dream team' who could land the jumps consistently."

"Carl could do the big jumps." John frowned. "Most of the time. Sometimes." His eyebrows drew down in a disgruntled expression as the facts slotted neatly, and very visibly, into place.

"I'm right, aren't I?"

"Shut up, I'm thinking."

Snickering, Rodney glided forward. "You really should have figured this out years ago. You were kind of a trusting kid, weren't you?"

"Shut up, Rodney."

"Okay. But can you give me some hip action now that all your delusions have been shattered?"

~*~*~

Steam rose from the bubbling water as John flipped a spatula end-over-end in one hand. He rocked his shoulders down, one, two, three, four, on the heavy descending bass line, bouncing and bobbing his head as he came back up.

Beside him, Rodney, with cautious attention, carefully sliced vegetables, having been informed he was to cut them smaller. Twice. He glanced over at John with amusement as John lip-synched the old punk song, his eyes nearly closed:

"I'm the Crusher!
King of the ring!"

He bit his lip as he bobbed his head, and then bent to lower the heat. He caught Rodney's gaze and smiled at him.

Rodney leaned closer and had to shout over the music, "Somehow, I don't believe you learned to cook Thai food down home on the farm!"

John's grin spread. He said loudly in Rodney's ear, "I'm a multi-faceted man."

~*~*~

The epiphany had not improved Sheppard's performance one iota.

"Congratulations," Rodney announced to a very surly looking Sheppard. "This marks our most unsuccessful lesson ever," he said, matching John's complete disgust and frustration. "And make no mistake, it's entirely your fault — or rather the fault of the closeted, homophobic, narrow-minded, mid-western American mindset of Ohio, or Peoria, or whatever two-bit backwater you hailed from."

"Illinois. And I hear Chicago's a pretty big town."

"That is so not the point!"

"I'm just not a dancer, Rodney."

~*~*~

Following dinner John made them wash the dishes right away. Then they kicked back in the warm light of the kitchen which after just twenty minutes of John had turned into the cleanest room in the house, boxes of cans notwithstanding.

With a contented sigh, Rodney nibbled a thin slice of brie, tipping his head back against his chair. John's fingers and lips were stained dark pink with raspberry juice, his elbows and forearms resting comfortably on the table. He'd scattered the berries artfully around the brie then proceeded to ignore the cheese as he hovered and pecked through them with the air of a pleased predator.

Rodney dangled a slice of brie, almost dripping from his fingers. "Please eat this, or else I'll never be able to do a jump tougher than a Wally."

"And crack the ice in the process," John agreed all too readily, sucking berry juice from his thumb with a smack of his lips. He dipped his head and accepted it as it practically oozed from Rodney's fingers, dipping his head underneath. He made a pleased grunt and said, wagging a raised forefinger, "Oh. Now that is good with the raspberries. Try it."

Rodney finished sucking the brie from his own thumb and indulged him, then cut himself another slice. He promised his conscience extra sit-ups tomorrow.

"So, what kind of music do you like, other than the Ramones and god-awful country?"

"Still teaching?" John regarded him with a bright eye and a smirk.

"Mmmm. Personal interest," Rodney hummed. "Humor me."

John wiped his hands on his jeans and stood. He opened the kitchen cabinet above the sink. "Well, I think I saw... yeah." He hid the CD behind his back with a playful look as he edged towards the door, and Rodney heard him stumble over something in the living room, cursing. Then came the satisfying click of the stereo.

Black Sabbath poured out as John returned to lean against the doorjamb with an evil victorious grin. His fists counted out the slow, heavy beat.

"I. Am. Ir-on. Man!"

"There's no dancing to that!" Rodney complained.

"Exactly!" John said, dropping to the chair. "That's what I mean. That's what I've been trying to tell you." He sat up and dragged over a box of canned tomatoes to use as a footstool, then leaned back and put his feet up with a sigh, hands folded behind his head.

Rodney mulled it over with a frown of suspicion, pulling up his own 'footstool.' He shook his head. "Everyone can dance," he decided.

That started a laugh out of John. He glanced over. "They can," he repeated, a world of doubt in his voice.

"Of course. All music is sexual in nature. Since sex is something anyone can do, based on the neanderthals you always see popping out babies, therefore, ergo, and tu whit--" Rodney swept a finger through the air to emphasize his point. "--everyone can dance."

John snorted doubtfully. "I think you're projecting."

Rodney continued, ignoring him. "This particular piece is less mutual, and more masturbatory."

John coughed, raspberry paused halfway to his mouth.

"Come on. You played air guitar to it. Everyone did. What do you think air guitar is?" He demonstrated, fingers flying. "What's that about?"

John pointed out, "Everything's sexual to you." He shook his head and leaned forward earnestly. "See, music's really about the lyrics. This song... is about disillusionment with the whole self-centered human race."

"No, lyrics are poetry. Pay attention to just the music."

They leaned back, listening meditatively.

"The music sounds angry to me," John said to the air.

"No, listen to the notes. That is so masturbation, bringing it right up to the cusp and not quite getting there."

John snorted and shook his head in disbelief.

After a long moment, Rodney him gave a confused frown. He turned to John. "Do you really think the entire human race is self-centered?"

"Huh?" John startled out of his contemplation of the song. "What? No. That's just the song."

"Well, you said I project so...."

John was a quiet for a second. "Okay. So some people won't give you the time of day. I mean, they might think you're good-looking and all, but you're still just a piece of meat in a UPS uniform. Unless you've done something special or different."

"People say I'm self-centered," Rodney said in a worried tone.

"No, you're not," John said with an off-handed wave.

"Huh." Rodney blinked a moment. "Okay."

They listened several minutes longer.

"Now that -- the electric guitar solo there...."

"All right, I can see that. But I think you're corrupting me is what's going on." He shut his eyes, leaning back as he folded his arms again. "It's more like oral sex, actually."

~*~*~

The song clicked off. John had forgotten it was that long. He stretched with a slow sigh, feeling well-fed and completely relaxed. Rodney stirred a moment later. It was late and John's knee was starting its dull throb that would get a lot worse if he ignored it.

Rodney demurred with a fluttery exaggerated wave when John offered to help with the last plates, insisting he'd clean up later. John didn't actually believe him.

Finally, they hovered at the door, the night cold and clear behind John. The city lights washed out the stars and stained the one a.m. sky a deep blue. John rocked the storm door back and forth between his hands, still standing in the doorway as Rodney braved the night air, arms wrapped around himself.

"I gotta go," John offered like an apology. "My meds are all back at my place." He thumbed over his shoulder but let his hand fall helplessly as he stayed on Rodney's porch, hip canted against the doorjamb.

"Oh. Does the knee hurt?" Rodney asked.

John rolled his eyes and laughed. Of course it did.

"Never mind. Stupid question." Rodney took a breath. "So, uh." He sniffed. "See you tomorrow? Four a.m., bright and early." He swung his arms.

"Well, it's Saturday, though I can probably swing it...."

"Oh, right, right, Saturday – I meant Monday, of course."

"Oh. Okay. Monday, then." John nodded, leaning his weight of his shoulder against the flimsy storm door.

"Four a.m. sharp," Rodney added.

John smiled, bright and white. "See you then."

He turned with a coy bob of his head, trundled down the steps, then turned around to walk backwards along the sidewalk, giving Rodney a dorky little wave. He jogged to his car, and cast a look back when he reached the door. Rodney fluttered his fingers at him. As the engine started, Rodney seemed to realize it was cold out, though he waited a moment longer watching John's taillights as he drove away.

~*~*~

John's apartment was dark and quiet, feeling very empty as his keys clinked on the counter. The streetlights through the kitchen window were enough to see by so he didn't bother turn on the overhead. John wasn't in the habit of staying out late, or even going out at all. It occurred to him that he didn't have much of a social life. Though he hadn't wanted one in quite a while. Most people got attached, then got in the way, expecting John to give more of himself than he'd planned.

He itched and ached, and made straight for the little pill bottle on the windowsill in the kitchen. He rattled out the dosage into his palm, downing the meds with water he drank straight from the tap, bent over, drops running down his cheek as he straightened. And then breathed.

One-fifteen a.m., man. He didn't know what to do with himself, wired past sleepiness. He knew he'd be awake at four a.m. from habit, like it or not.

He paced the kitchen, then wandered to the free weights in the other room and stopped, having to convince himself that even as restless as he felt, exercising at this hour was still a bad idea. He dismissed the thought of the inline skates. It was pretty cold out, and he knew from experience that it got ten degrees colder at dawn.

Not for the first time he wished he was a millionaire with a private skating rink where he just could work out all this energy anytime he wanted. Everything about that fantasy was hazy except for the open air rink itself, him strapping on his skates, arms stretched to the starred sky, legs straddled as he whisked along the curve of the ice. Trying out some of the footwork sequences Rodney suggested. He always added new moves to his imaginary rink.

His folks had always thought that he skated way too much, but they didn't realize that John skated twice as much in his mind.

By the time he hit the ice for real John knew the feel of every jump, just how his toe pick would launch himself into the air, how he'd pull his arms in tight, that suspended airborne moment, the feel of his hair flying in a circle, how he'd kick out his back leg as he landed, arms flung out for balance and stretch. Sometimes he'd know a new jump so well, it would surprise him when it didn't go perfectly on the first try.

John stretched in the empty circle of his bedroom, and tapped out a frustrated rhythm on his thighs. Then made for the TV he'd inherited from a former roommate two years ago. There was nothing on, and John told himself that, no, he was not calling Rodney at one-nineteen a.m. just because he was bored. Rodney probably had things to do tomorrow, important things that people with houses did, like, mow the lawn or clean the gutters or something.

He couldn't picture Rodney mowing the lawn for the life of him.

Clicking on the light, John pulled a cardboard box from under the bed and pawed through his videos, a collection that would make his parents roll their eyes, so he usually hid his tapes before they visited; they were mostly figure skating. He'd recently added several ice shows he'd found. Poor quality VHS recordings, although Viktor Petrenko, Toller Cranston, and Robin Cousins were always great. But what had caught his eye was the name Rodney McKay. He'd apparently done one summer tour after he retired. John had picked up some of Rodney's old Worlds programs of course, but this one he liked best because it was only eight years ago, in 1990, so Rodney had already started filling out, looking less like some teenage kid and more like he did now. Like Rodney. Except with a little more hair.

The camera started rolling with Rodney at the side of the rink, talking to a little guy with fuzzy, messy hair who wore an incongruent bow tie. Rodney leaned close, either to say something in his ear or to kiss him on the cheek, it was hard to say, then glanced up, startled as the announcer said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to ... Rodney McKay!"

Rodney skated to the center rink with a few quick strokes, leaning forward as his arms pumped. He bounced into a light circle, arms raised. He wore a ridiculous costume of white 18th century ruffles and obscenely tight, clingy aqua satin pants.

Which, when he turned around, was a pretty nice view, ugly color or not. The teenage Rodney didn't look like that. And in the front, the light color left nothing to the imagination. John made a mental note to never wear a white costume, ever. Jesus.

Smirking at the crowd Rodney tugged playfully on the ruffles on his sleeves, first the left then the right, nose high in mock snobbery. Then he struck a George Washington-crossing-the-Delaware pose, his chin up. It was funny.

John dipped a hand under his waistband, figuring Rodney would kill him if he knew he did this. And that his choice of performances was a little weird. The screen flashed Rodney's name and the name of the music: Dvorak's "Humoresque," 1894.

Hands still holding his lapels, Rodney began with dainty footwork in little mocking turns, his free leg swinging, ending with a bow to an imaginary partner. He repeated the whole thing, turning in little Wally jumps, then pushing himself into a gliding swan pose. The audience giggled. Then Rodney pushed off into a triple, smoothly landing it as if it were nothing, turning backward in a complicated transition. He gathered speed from nowhere, swinging his leg around in a sharp 360, then switching, his arms spread as the crowd clapped, suddenly taking him seriously.

He paused, feet coming together in a stop, his expression smug and amused at having tricked them. Then with a mincing gesture, he held his lapels again, and walked on his skates as if out for a Sunday stroll.

In the romantic surge of music, his arms embraced the audience, energy increasing with his speed. His motion solid, so fast and strong, edges dug into the ice clean like he was on solid ground. Then as he hit the end of the rink, he pulled a gorgeous, effortless double axel, gliding into a not-very-fast spin with perfect form on the high violin, touching his skate, catching the blade overhead. He sidled out of that, one hand tracing the air, then raised his free leg on the long legato, holding it high for the whole serpentine chain. A girly move that was an inside joke with skaters, and the audience sort of got it from Rodney's self mocking turn of his wrists, chuckling again.

Then Rodney stopped. With a grin he played an imaginary violin tucked under his chin, circling in very complicated footwork now. He ended on his toes, ankles crossed in a ballerina pose, hands up in a shrug. The crowd cheered and he dropped his head to bow.

John put it on pause as Rodney came back up, face glowing with praise. John tipped his head back on his pillow with a little smile and drifted off to sleep, all the lights still on, still dressed, with one hand still tucked in his pants.

~*~*~

John blinked blearily, fumbling for the clock on the floor, blinking at the glow of the digital numbers. He sniffed. Bright winter light poured from the kitchen window in the main room, which left him confused and wondering what day it was. The faint buzz from the TV told him he'd left it on all night. He sat up and tugged off his jeans, swearing at himself for staying up so late. He'd missed his morning work-out and now his routine was completely screwed up.

Annoyed at himself, he clicked the TV off, then changed his mind and switched it from VCR to television. He had illegally hijacked someone's ESPN -- it was for a good cause -- and the cable guy still hadn't figured it out. The sports scores rang out as he scuffed into the kitchen in his underwear, digging at the elastic band that was embedded into his skin. He returned with a bowl of cereal and ate it standing, one bare shoulder leaned against the cool wood of the kitchen doorjamb.

Football season was over. He missed that every year. Cruel of them to have the Superbowl the same day as Nationals. But basketball was still going strong. The spoon clinked against the bowl.

"Welcome back to sports center! Keith, the Pistons are looking good this season...."

"They suck," John told them with his mouth full. He swiped away a little dribble of milk at the corner of his mouth.

"Absolutely, Darron. The real question is: Can they keep it up?"

"Not a chance," John said.

"Now for the current standings in the run up to Nascar...."

"Who cares about Nascar?" John griped as he settled cross-legged on the bed, watching anyway, mesmerized by the buzz and roar of cars as they interviewed someone he'd never heard of.

"Back to you, Jessica."

"Thanks, Darron. Now everyone's heard the latest on the upcoming World Figure Skating Championships. Will Yvonne Shaeffer hang in there....?"

John sighed. As usual, ESPN treated figure skating as if it were a women's sport. He'd be lucky if the men were even mentioned.

"The two-time silver medalist has elected to not to compete at America Cup in Aspen, in order to focus on the World Championship...."

Letting out a breath, John shook his head. Now that everyone and their brother had an ex-Russian skating coach, they were picking up the Soviet habit of "saving yourself" like a virgin for the big competitions. Keeping your edge.

Ha. If it were him, he'd skate in every single one he possibly could, including the cheese-fests sponsored by Alpo or whatever corporation wanted to rain money on figure skating this year. But his season was over, coming in ninth at Nationals. Way over.

"She's not the only one. Just last night Kyle Fletcher withdrew from the America Cup as well, also to focus on the Worlds next month."

"It's highly competitive this year, Jessica. There's new pressure from the Japanese skating team-- let's have a look."

That was a perfect example of ESPN's crap coverage. Yvonne had just held onto the silver by her fingernails at last year's Worlds and barely stood a chance at the podium this year. Kyle on the other hand had the America Cup sewn up. John set down his empty cereal bowl in amazement. His gold was in the bag and he'd walked away. Granted, the America Cup had all the prestige of a go-cart race, but still.

That left an open playing field. And second place Mike Estey was down with a pulled groin muscle -- it was iffy he'd even make Worlds. Third place Jeff Kulka was going, last John heard. Fourth place William Haas retired after Nationals, wanting to go out on top. It was about time for him to pack it in.

John counted off on his fingers, snickering. Who was even left to compete?

David Bellamy had married Cherise Grant, an ice dancer, and they were probably on their honeymoon by now. Was it Todd Kaganoff or Christian Yong Suk in sixth? John couldn't recall. One was sixth, the other seventh.

Todd was definitely out of the game. He'd retired quietly, though he might come back for something like this. A shot at the gold? Yeah. That would tempt him. Christian was out with injuries John had read somewhere, though exactly what he didn't know.

He definitely knew who had taken eighth, of course, one up from his spot: Mark Svick.

So they had third place Kulka, good old Todd if he came out of retirement, eighth place Mark Svick and....

Holy shit. Ninth place... John sat up, jolted.

Was him.

Holy... But no one had contacted him.

John stood and circled his bedroom and paused, rubbing the back of his neck. Haas could come out of retirement, too. Hell, Belamy might cut short his honeymoon if gold were on the line. An ice dancer would understand. And maybe Christian's injuries weren't all that serious. There were a million things that could happen.

He shouldn't get his hopes up. There was no point in getting excited, John told himself. He continued to pace.

~*~*~

The doctor cocked an eyebrow at John, the expression crinkling his forehead with suspicious amusement. John leaned back on his arms and kicked his feet before forcing himself to sit still. Then the doctor returned his gaze to the clipboard in his hands and was quiet an awfully long time. John chewed his lip impatiently and tried to peer over at the clipboard even if there was no way he could read it, biting back the words.

The doctor took a deep breath and turned pages, making John even more antsy.

"Well," the doctor sighed at last. "There has been a marked improvement—" He shot John a quelling look. "—mind you, these take time to heal entirely…."

"Oh, I'm sure of that," John said, sitting up, eager to appear cooperative.

The suspicious glance returned, eyeing John up and down. "I admit, I did not expect you to return, laddie."

"Hey, I want to get better." John added his smoothest, most charming smile. The doctor warmed to him and almost laughed as he shook his head with a bemused snort.

"All right," he gave in, letting the pages fall. "You can do your jumping -- but!" He raised a finger, stopping John as he happily pulled his jacket over his shoulders. A smile lit John's face. "Take it slowly at first. If you feel any strain at all -- even a teeny twinge! -- you call us, do you understand me?" He leaned forward in a fatherly manner.

"You bet," John said.

John practically bounced off the table, ready to prove that his knee was fine, just fine, really. He turned on his toes at the door and paused, balancing neatly as he almost fell backward in his eagerness to leave. He gave a broad smirk. "Thanks, doc, um -- Doctor Beckett," he added with a nodding bow, remembering the name, testing the sound of it.

As Dr. Carson Beckett took notes on this visit, he heard the faint jingle of the bell on the front door, and the hiss as it shut behind John. He tipped his head and almost smiled.

Nurse Biro had watched him go, shaking her head. She peeked her head around the corner, looking over her glasses, disapproving. "Am I going to be taking X-rays of that knee next week?"

The doctor didn't even look up. "Most probably," he said lightly.

She shoved her horn-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. "I'd've lied to him. Made him wait it out another week, just to be on the safe side."

"It's better that he trust us." The doctor handed her Sheppard's file. "That way, the next time? He doesn't wait so long."

~*~*~

The nice thing about a little rink was that it wasn't hard to get skate time at short notice. Especially when the front desk was being manned by a cute co-ed from the University of Toronto, blond, wearing thick black mascara, who was always full of smiles for John whenever he came in. He'd fit in a quick phone call to his answering machine. There was still no news yet.

John all but draped over the counter, the edge pressed against his chest. "No kidding? I went to U of T myself."

"Oh?" she bubbled. "What were you studying?"

"Engineering, but," and here he tipped his head bashfully, lowering his voice, "skating's really my passion."

Her eyes brightened, sparkling as she said, "I skated for years off and on but I never really got the hang of the jumps. And the competitions are so high pressure."

"Yeah, well, maybe I can show you a few moves sometime," John suggested, waggling his eyebrows. She chuckled and blushed as she glanced away, shaking her head. Her little dangly silver heart earrings sparkled and bobbed.

"So, um," John breathed, leaning closer to peer at her schedule. It was the old fashioned paper type with little X's, penciled in names and pink smeared erasures. He saw Rodney's name all over it, along with his own regular 5 a.m. slot. "I don't suppose there are any free skate times this afternoon? Or this evening's okay, too," he added hurriedly, with a forestalling hand. "I'm not picky."

"Oh," she said. "Sorry. We're all booked up." By this time he had smoothed his way around the counter.

"Yeah, hmm." John's sharp eyes scoped out the schedule like a hawk spotting prey. "What about that blank space right there? That's now, isn't it?" He was behind her, hand brushing the fluff of blond hair on her shoulder as he pointed at that nice white spot on the calendar. He hadn't seen anyone on the ice either.

"There's only forty minutes left, it's not a full slot. And the zamboni has to resurface the ice before hockey practice." She looked up at him with smiling regret.

"Forty minutes, huh?" It wasn't much. "Well that sounds like just what the doctor ordered," John said.

She cringed, wrinkling her nose as she breathed in through her teeth with a hiss. "I'm only supposed to charge by the hour."

He dipped his hand into his back pocket for his wallet, looking down. He hated to be charged double for what was really a half hour slot but he told himself it was worth it. "You have to do what you have to do."

"No, I mean that I can't. I'll get in trouble if the schedule doesn't match the register."

He looked up and gave her an expressively blank look.

"Just go on in." She waved him onward. "It's not being used anyhow. But get out of the way when the zamboni comes or they'll run you over."

"Gee. Thanks," he said, his face lighting with a sincere smile, and she brightened even more.

John used the run down the stairs as part of his warm up, pounding the double doors open wide with his forearms to the almost empty ice. Times like these were the reason he'd learned to gear up lightning fast as he yanked off his sneakers and whipped the skates out of his bag. His fingers fumbled as he disentangled the strings and pulled them tight. John balled up his jacket, tossing it towards the bench, then stepped out onto the ice.

It felt as though he hadn't been here in a long time even though his last practice was just hours ago. But this was different. This was the real thing.

He picked up speed, carving a fast arc around the back of the rink. He stretched his arms out in a cutting gesture as he glanced back over his shoulder, and then flung himself into the air, knee bent gazelle-like, spinning in a double. It landed wobbly and uncertain.

That toe-loop was usually his easiest jump, too, sheer momentum and big air.

John scowled. Then gunned ahead, arms working as he leapt, his right foot stepping forward once and launching himself into a triple axel, his free leg a powerful pendulum swing as he pulled in tight for the extra half turn that made it skating's toughest jump. He straddled the landing, two-footing it, but forced himself into a second double. His head dipped as he felt the shock through his knee and he stepped out of it, pinwheeling and falling on his ass with a bounce.

Pushing himself up from the ice, John groaned out loud, grinding his teeth. He shelved his nascent plans to run through his whole short program.

Starting over, he went through his jumps, one by one, feeling them settle into his bones, become familiar again. He drew his foot back for the Lutz, his toe-pick catching the ice and launching him into a triple, landing clean in reverse, leg out. Perfect. But the dizzying salchow had never been his best. He hopped into it too early and found himself finishing it on the ground.

The groan and chug of the zamboni across the rink warned him that his time was almost up. He had one last question for himself. Gathering speed until he was skating backward, a slight ripple to his shirt, John swung his leg high behind him and nicked the ice, flinging himself into a tight spin, arms wrapped, one, two, three, four turns – and he landed, hard, as his skate wanted to slide out.

But he landed it.

John slid to a diagonal stop after the quad. Breathing hard, his chest rising and falling, he looked across the ice. A slow satisfied smirk spread across his face.

~*~*~

Sweat soaking his T-shirt and dripping into his eyes, John had to shoulder his way through a dozen teenage boys in padded hockey uniforms to find where his jacket and gym bag had been shoved out of the way. He found the jacket trampled on the floor and picked it up, shaking it. He grabbed an open bench in the back. He wondered if he'd ever been as young as these kids. They laughed and argued with each other as they geared up, shouting over the echoes of the rink. Sticks flailed in the air. John was fairly that sure that when he'd played, he'd never been allowed to use them for sword-fighting.

"Hey! Knock it off!"

Their coach, a balding man with fierce assessing eyes, hawk-like eyebrows and a strong chin appeared, yanking a stick out of one boy's hand. He wore an old satin baseball jacket and a whistle dangling around his neck. He glowered at the two boys, one of whom shrank away.

"Yes, sir," said the other, standing his ground with an insolent smirk, thick eyelashes flickering, hand out to accept his stick back.

John snickered down at his skates, earning a cynical glance from the coach.

"Okay, all of you, listen up! Your buddies here just earned everyone twenty-five penalty laps. This is a team. Which means when you screw up, everyone pays." He clapped several times and shouted, "Go, go now!" ignoring the explosion of foul language as his hockey team hit the ice, swearing and shoving each other in the hiss of skates, the clatter of hockey sticks on the ice.

"Maybe that'll get some of their energy out," the coach muttered to himself, his tone somewhere between amusement, irritation, and tired patience.

"I'd have made it thirty," John commented, coming up to the row of seats behind him.

The coach turned around, elbows on the boards, unwisely turning his back on his boys. "Was that you out on the ice earlier?" he asked, his tone wondering.

"Sorry if I made you wait," John said, smiling and not particularly apologetic.

The coach's eyebrows raised. "Pretty impressive. Figure skating seems to be turning into an actual sport."

"It's been an Olympic event longer than hockey," John said with just a little edge, bracing himself. He was too used to this argument. He'd had it with his dad and his brother every Christmas and Thanksgiving. Especially Thanksgiving when the Lion's game was on. He pursed his lips and mock shrugged. "About twenty years earlier, but then again, who's counting?"

"No, no, don't take it that way, it's a compliment." He made a brushing gesture and nodded to John. "The athleticism's improved. How many revolutions was that last one? It went too fast, I didn't catch it."

John beamed at him and his tight smile was smug. "That was a quad and, no, no one ever does. Except the judges, I hope."

The coach smiled and shook his head in amazement. Then held out his hand. "Stephen Caldwell. I'm the coach of the Cardinals here. We're having a winning season, though you certainly can't tell today." His other hand thumbed over his shoulder towards his team.

"John Sheppard." John shook his hand. "And, ah, just so you know, the jumps are only part of it," he said, a little defensive still. "Artistic merit counts for half the points. Without that you're pretty well screwed."

"Yeah, well, the Olympics aren't a dance competition," Caldwell snorted, giving John a cynical half-smile.

John frowned at him and said with a growl, "No offense, but the style's what makes the difference between a skater who's just good and one who's great."

"If you say so," Caldwell said, a world of doubt in his tone. "You're pretty decent on the ice. If you ever want to try hockey, you know, a real sport...." He smiled to take the sting out of it, though John could tell he meant it, too.

John threw his head back and laughed. Then said, making a face with a little squirming shrug, "Hockey's all about the puck. Figure skating, now, that's about the skating."

~*~*~

Rodney had only stepped away from the ice to place a phone call. Mrs. Hurwitz shot him a dirty look as he hogged the main line. He tapped his foot and rolled his eyes with a sigh as he sat on hold for what seemed like an hour.

He waved his cup of coffee, which was in all likelihood cold by now. "Look--Well, when will Sonja back from Brazil?" Mrs. Hurwitz's eyes widened at the mention of Brazil, probably picturing long distance charges, but Rodney ignored her. "No, that's not soon enough."

Rodney hung up without saying goodbye, grumbling to himself about incompetent assistants and inconvenient travel schedules. Before ice shows became so popular everyone he'd wanted had always been on tap and desperate for work in the off season. Now? Every top skater had a summer job at some cheesy ice circus.

Trampling down the stairs, Rodney resisted the urge to kick the doors to the rink open, but that was only because he happened to like the music playing. Someone had put on Tchaikovsky's "Arabian Dance." He sighed, leaned on the edge of the boards and decided to give himself a second to finish his coffee. It was lukewarm and only moderately horrible. To his surprise there was only one person on the rink.

Pausing, Rodney lowered his cup slowly as he watched.

John was looking down, then swung his leg to carry himself in a circle, arms trailing. Quietly carving the ice.

He began backward into a slow circle. Used his edge to push off. Then followed the direction of the free foot, turning in subtle serpentine steps. He shifted his weight to the back skate and then circled his foot up, letting his shoulder lean deep into the turn, arm towards the ice as if anchoring himself.

He lowered his head with the sweep of his other arm, then did a quarter-turn into a backward glide. Looking over his shoulder as the wind rippled his loose T-shirt. He did only a small hop where the jump was meant to be.

Then John picked up speed and stretched into a leg extension at shoulder-height and held the tension of the song, maintaining position, arm smoothed along his side. With the oboe phrase he shifted, let the leg fall, cutting into the ice behind him as he turned, his back to the audience, head down in concentration on the last pensive note.

He blinked up, caught sight of Rodney and shook himself out of it. He let it glide to a stop, eyes glazed and starry-eyed in that way skaters had when they were really into the music. "Hey, Rodney," he breathed. "Didn't know you were there."

"Tchaikovsky," Rodney said, victorious, snapping his fingers and pointing at John. "Works every time."

John frowned at him. "It's the fish song."

"What?" Rodney squinted, puzzled.

"You know, from that movie? I saw it when I was a little kid."

Rodney shut his eyes as he understood and snorted. "Oh. Fantasia."

"Yeah, they had these fish...."

"That's the Nutcracker, John," Rodney said in disgust, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

"Whatever."

John licked his lips, glancing over his shoulder like they were being watched. He'd been edgy all through their lesson, though Rodney couldn't fault his concentration. He'd rarely seen John so focused. John cracked his knuckles, then rapped his fist into his palm.

"So, uh. We done here for today?" He seemed to be holding his breath, watching Rodney with hopeful clear eyes.

"What? Well, I've got a few extra minutes before my next lesson, we can fit in a little more. I'd like to start to reworking your short program for next season -- you know it's a thing of horror, right? You and Brahms? Just say no." Rodney smirked with smug amusement. "Besides, Jessica's always late and a complete waste of my time -- so typical that the ones who can afford my services are the very ones who need a surgical talent implant."

John winced, sucking air through his teeth. He didn't seem to know what to do with his hands and finally stuck them in his pockets. He dug at the ice with his toe pick. "Yeah, I, uh, you see -- I kinda got an appointment." He shrugged in apology.

"What could be more important than skating?" Rodney asked him, blank-faced.

"I gotta be there at three," John explained, just shy of whining as he glanced towards the door again. "And I'm gonna be late as it is."

"Okay," Rodney said, drawing the word out, mystified. But John was already edging off the ice, plucking his jacket from where it was draped over the side of the rink.

"But I'll see you in the morning, right?" John said, turning to Rodney with sudden intensity, determined and leaning close.

Rodney blinked rapidly, then frowned, mouth tipping down. "Yes, of course. I've never missed a lesson."

"Good, good," John said, as if to himself, as he bent to pull off his skates.

~*~*~

John took the wide steps to the Schmidt center two at a time, one skate bouncing against his back. He had made himself even later by stopping at a payphone to check his answering machine -- still no word on the competition though it was probably too soon. He pushed through the glass doors to the front desk.

"I have a three o'clock skate time but I'm a little...."

She waved him off a sharp impatient gesture, pointing. "Take the elevator on the right."

That didn't quite answer his question, but okay. He avoided the eyes on the photo of Rodney, ducking underneath it. Then he gazed up at the numbers as the elevator descended, dinging as they passed each floor.

Moments later he was staring across acres of ice, his heart in his throat. Places like this looked like competitions to John. There were logos instead of hockey goal lines beneath him on the ice, which rumbled and hissed smoothly under his skates. The rink was a little busier than he was used to but it wasn't like there wasn't plenty of room.

Rodney's ideas—to be honest, experiments—were all well and good for the long term, but he needed his usual training regime to prepare himself for a competition. Working his arms, John rocketed around the rink, then slowed a little, concentrating to set up himself up for the single jumps.

The easy stuff first, working in Rodney's transitional moves between jumps because those had helped.

With the singles landed comfortably, he moved up to double-single combinations, then triple-double combinations, increasing the level of difficulty exponentially between each set. This worked for John, keeping him on a trajectory toward the quad.

The world narrowed to just the jumps, tension in every line of his body gathered -- and then released like a coiled spring. With a grunt he threw himself into a quad toe-loop. The landing leg was still a little wobbly, but he held it.

For the sake of efficiency, John broke his long program down into sections to get them down technically. He did the flying leap into a sit spin, finding his center to stand up into the fast spin, arms pulled in tight. A predictable combination but it looked good. He worked on getting the form exactly right on his camel spin, back leg extended perpendicular to the ground, and cursed himself as it traveled, wobbling off-center six inches across the ice.

John stopped himself and breathed. It felt almost... weird... to do his normal workout. He couldn't quite put his finger on what was different. It went really fast, for one thing. He put the strangeness out of his mind to concentrate on skating. Gathering speed he bent to the side and caught his back skate behind him, spinning like a top. Not quite the speed he needed, so he did it again, this time skating hot into it. It was fast enough to feel like the top of his head was going to pull off – which was more like it.

A half hour into his practice John took a breather, sliding to the boards to get some water. He slung a towel around his neck feeling oddly alone, like he'd just stepped off a plane into a foreign city. Everyone else here seemed to have two or three people with them, their coach, a choreographer, and some had a whole collection of people doing god knew what. John wiped his hair off his forehead – sweaty and wet, it tended to stick up even more – shoulders hunched as he gazed around, taking in the strange scenery.

A black and gray blur hissed by on the opposite side of the skating rink, as fast as a short track skater. He cleared the edge of the rink and whizzed by John, who vaguely remembered a gray distraction earlier while he'd been focused on his practice. At the far end the skater hit an impossibly high triple axel. And came out of it with the same blinding speed. Definitely an elite level athlete.

Eyes blinking, John tipped back his water to cover his confusion. He only knew one guy who hit the ice that hard after a jump.

On the next circuit John caught a glimpse of black hair and Asian features, the sixth ranked American skater. Yong Suk.

"What the hell is he doing here?" John wondered aloud.

One thing was for sure. He didn't look all that injured.

~*~*~

It was a surprise to find John at his little skating rink at six o'clock in the evening hovering over the payphone, the receiver to his ear as he slumped against the white concrete wall. Rodney studied him with amusement, balancing the too-thin paper plate draped over his palm, his pizza pocket steaming. He had his millionth cup of coffee in the other hand, not that it would do him much good after a long day like today.

John turned to face the phone, growled and hammered the receiver down. Twice. He leaned on both hands against the wall over the phone, fingers spread, and hung his head. John had developed an intimate relationship with the payphone over the last several days, making a beeline for it before and after every practice.

"Hmm. Last I noticed, you only needed to hang it up once to be effective," Rodney commented, quirking his head at John. "Although I suppose there's nothing wrong with being thorough."

John jolted, pulling away from the wall as he shrank in on himself. "Oh. Hey, Rodney. What are you doing here?"

Rodney held up exhibit A: his vending machine dinner. "The joys of coaching during the school year. They're available either at miserable o'clock in the morning, or from three to eight in the evening, and nothing in between." He hummed a musical little sigh. "I can never seem to nap satisfactorily in the afternoon either, I've never known why." He yawned, stretching and barely catching the pizza pocket before it slid off his plate.

He took a bite of his pizza and then recalled that John wasn't normally around at this hour: he was a five a.m. appointment. He added with his mouth full, "What about you?"

"Um. Trying to score some extra skate time. Not that it matters now." John sighed, folding his arms across his chest as he melted against the wall, staring up at the ceiling.

Rodney took a huge bite, holding the last bit as he waved the greasy plate. "Well, I can just as easily eat rink-side. They won't mind you on the ice if I'm around."

On their way down the hollow concrete stairs, John cleared his throat and said in a tight, rather high, strained voice, "I hear Christian Yong Suk's in town." He watched the ground as he said it.

Rodney leaned his back against the long door handle. After a fourteen hour day the rink doors weighed a ton. "Yes, yes." Rodney flapped a hand. "He's going to that Orville Redenbacher 'Reach for the Stars' challenge, or whatever it's called, in Buffalo. His coach wants to surprise everyone -- they've tweaked his short program yet again in their endless attempts to gild a dandelion."

"Yeah, well, I was pretty surprised," John said, straightening a little. He met Rodney's eyes. "Just a cheese-fest, huh?"

"Yep. Then it's off to the America Cup. They're using it as a warm-up."

"Oh," John said in a quiet, disappointed voice. He'd stopped mid-stair.

"Or at least that's his excuse. Of course the money never has anything to do with it." Rodney rolled his eyes.

"Well, I wouldn't sneeze at twenty grand either," John said, shaking his head as he continued down the steps.

"Thirty, actually," Rodney said.

"Jesus."

"Not that he stands a chance at first prize. Fletcher is going."

"Wait." John stopped cold on the bottom step, his mouth open in disbelief. "Fletcher's blowing off the America Cup, a real competition, for a cheese-fest?"

"At least they're humiliating the sport for sizeable sums, eh?" Rodney snorted. "Though to be fair, the America Cup has all the prestige of a go-cart race."

"I wouldn't say no to it," John mumbled.

~*~*~

Rodney snapped his fingers impatiently into his hand, rocking back on his heels next to the concierge. The gentle plunking of Japanese koto music mixed with the sound of fountains under the loud chatter and clatter of silverware on china. The place had trendy black marble floors which ruined the acoustics in Rodney's opinion, but the Asiatic was the hottest new restaurant in Toronto. It had been ridiculously difficult to get a reservation.

That would make Sonja happy.

Typically, she was late, but he hoped it was just the twenty-minute "I'm curious but I don't want to seem too interested" wait, rather than the hour-long "You never call, you never write, and I'm mad at you" version, in which case she'd turn up with a transparent excuse and not a trace of remorse. He was a veteran of the Argentinean skater's many moods.

"Rodney!" Sonja's delighted squeal carried from the doorway, her arms outstretched.

She had the leathery tan of too many years in the sun with sharp smile lines and bottle blond hair, gathering him in a bracing hug and then held his shoulders at arm's length. She pushed him back as she spread her hands to look him up and down. "Look at you! You are so plump, I could pinch you."

Blinking rapidly, Rodney gave her an awkward, "Hi. You look...." He quickly edited out words like 'older' and 'haggard' and tried, "...mature." Then cringed.

She swatted him. "Ah. You are cruel." She kept walking right past the hostess -- who did a confused double-take -- tossing her coat into Rodney's arms without a backward glance to see if he'd caught it.

"You still have nice legs," he assured her as he followed in her wake. The discomfited young hostess hurried to catch up and show them to their table.

The meal they ordered was breathtakingly expensive – Sonja was never less than mercenary, as every woman who skated against her quickly learned – and Rodney silently chanted to himself that it would all be worth it, or else a complete and utter waste of time, but at least this avenue would be explored. Not for the first time he wondered if she was the right choice for John, though the fact remained that she was the only choice. He splurged a little himself and ordered the deep fried kushikatsu. He had to keep her company after all.

"Tsk, tsk. So fattening, Rodney," she chided him, smiling over the straw she'd insisted on for her bubble tea.

"I'm not competing," Rodney said defensively.

"You should be," she pounced.

Rodney rolled his eyes, his expression wan.

"Okay, yes, yes, right now your body is more like a boxer than a skater. You'd land the jumps like an elephant. But I can slim you down. Work on a style that suits you as a grown man, not a little boy." She had that merciless gleam. "I'll get you back on the ice in no time, one year, two years tops. Though if you eat that," she pointed at the menu with a gold nail, "make it three."

"No." Just no. Rodney sighed. "I haven't competed since I was nineteen. Anyway, that's not why I wanted you."

"Mmm, my, my, Rodney." One eyebrow flicked up and she gave him an arch look. "I thought you liked boys."

"That's men, and you're not my type even if I didn't. No offense, but I like keep my balls attached," Rodney said with sheer earnestness.

"I like you. I promise, I would give them back." She laughed, slapping his knee under the table. She flipped her hair off her shoulder, leaning her elbow on the back of her chair, weighing him with her eyes. "So then. It's this John Sheppard."

Rodney took a breath and held it, squinting before he let it out in a rush. "You heard."

She tilted her head in a guilty shrug. "David told me. He heard it from his coach, who got it from her husband, who heard from the sportscaster, what-is-he, Brett Johnson --"

"—Brett Jordan. That gossip. I should never have gone to the Schmidt center... ever notice how the figure skating community is completely incestuous?" he complained, his voice turning plaintive.

"Yes. So? Everyone wants to know: Are you sleeping with him?"

"What? No!" Rodney spluttered. "And beat around the bush, will you?" he added with wide, shocked blue eyes.

"Pfft." She made a brusque brushing gesture. "No one will just ask. Life would be much simpler that way. Not so much pssst-psst-pssst." She made a talking mouth with her hands.

"God, you people are nosy. I just wanted to see if you'd choreograph him, that's it!" Rodney threw down his napkin. There. He'd said it. He babbled, "I mean, I can do my own programs and certainly I can choreograph a kid's, even a Junior worlds, but as brilliant as I am, this is an elite level and I can't be all things to all people -- though certainly people expect me to pull off miracles and... please, can you do this? You're not half bad. Besides, I can't ask anyone else to work for free," he laughed nervously. "You're pretty much my only shot."

"For money? I will teach a donkey to skate. Or if he's a top talent, sure." She shrugged, then traced the rim of her glass and grew serious for a moment, giving Rodney a piercing look. "He is a beautiful boy. Do you think he has a real chance or do you just want him?"

Rodney opened his mouth as if to be insulted, then leaned back in his chair, deflated. "Between you and me? I ask myself that question every day."

"Mmm. Do not encourage his false hopes," she sighed, shaking her head. "Don't break his heart but – I looked him up and I printed it at the library." Her eyes sparkled at her technological 'wizardry' as she dug into her purse, found and slapped a sheet of paper on the table between them. Then she turned it around as it was upside down.

John's standings. Rodney groaned inwardly as her nail traced the familiar numbers and tapped them.

"His personal best was two years ago. Since then he was 13th, this year 9th...."

Rodney cut her off with a tired flicking gesture. "He's in a holding pattern, yes, yes, I know. There was that injury--"

"No. If he were twenty-four maybe it would be just a setback. But he is twenty-eight years old. Next he will be 15th, then 20th... You men don't know when to quit. It's all about the winning for you," said the woman who'd aggressively chased gold for ten years. Rodney pressed his lips together and forced himself to say nothing. "He's good-looking. He should try acting -- or if he's stupid, then modeling. Or else get married and have some children, have a nice life." She stabbed a finger at Rodney, brows drawn together. "Now you, you could come back. You have a gold medal, a gold medal, a silver medal. Him? He has never won anything."

"He really wants it," Rodney said.

John had never mentioned anything but he could tell.

"He can have the heart of a champion, but if the body can't do? It can't do." She shrugged, as cold as they came.

The check arrived and Rodney unsuccessfully tried not to wince as he signed on the bottom line. Quick and painless, like pulling off a band aid. At least he'd tried. Maybe little Melanie Weir could choreograph John.

He tapped his fingers on the table as the waitress disappeared, staring blindly at the cloth napkin tossed carelessly on his plate. "Sometimes... I see something in him."

Sonja's chuckle at that was warm and suggestive as her lips closed around her straw again. "Mmm-hmm. I bet you do."

"Oh, be serious." Rodney bristled. "Okay, half the time I think he's an utter waste of effort and I want to wring his neck besides, but then, then he'll do something. It'll last for just a moment, but he has it. Maybe he is too old or maybe he's never worked with anyone as great as me but – " Rodney cut off. "I'm telling you, I think he's got something."

Sonja gave him a speculative look, uncharacteristically thoughtful as she lifted her cup. Then she said, after a pause, "I have a flight to San Diego tomorrow morning."

Rodney glanced up. "Wait." He blinked. "Does this mean you'll do it?"

~*~*~

John skated in a listless circle, his gestures careless, head down as he watched the ice rather than where he was going. A teenage girl in black warm-ups and a short bob practiced an inelegant spiral -- back leg extended, her arms out like a swan, or more like a duck in her case -- right into his path. She paused, dropped out of position and glared daggers at John, then circled around him with a continuous dark look when he didn't notice her. John's turns were too small and slightly behind the run of piano music that fell like a soft waterfall.

Sucking his teeth as he watched John, Rodney tried to think of where to even begin on the long list of what was wrong with this picture. Start with a bucket of cold water, perhaps?

He clapped his hands a few times until John shook himself and looked up. "Good morning! Did we not have our Wheaties today?"

John shrugged but skated over, head down, which Rodney chose to take as John hanging on his every word, no matter how unlikely this was.

"Pay attention to what you're doing. Music like this you have to live every note. At the very least finish your gestures, if you please." He grabbed John's loose right arm and pulled it in towards John's chest. "Start from the heart -- here -- then carry it through --" He extended John's arm in an upward sweep. "-- to here -- like you're painting the music in the air."

Seeing a blank look on John's face, Rodney heaved a melodramatic sigh.

"Watch me."

Rodney worked up some speed, calling out to John, "Long strokes to match the smooth glide of the music... arch your back...." He curved around the outer edge of the rink, then did the three step turns. "Now bend your head around..." Rodney demonstrated. "...then turn." He let the momentum of his head gesture carry him into a half turn.

"Now reach out with both hands and pull, grab the sky and pull it in to you. Tension, I want tension! Use your whole body, this music is lyrical."

With the build of the music he gathered more speed and stretched his arms up as he faced the stands, legs and arms in an X, skates pointed in opposite directions to carve a sharp edge. "Now open your body up. This circuit is as light as air and twice as open. Skate this as though you were a piece of thistle down caught in the wind."

He let his arms level out and then he carried the momentum into a spin, slow and easy, both arms wide as he circled down, wrapping around him as he stopped. "Down, now hold." Rodney held the position. "Don't hurry, two, three... now unwind like a spring, following your arm like it's leading you out." And he did so. "The goal is to enthrall the audience. Therefore every note counts."

John nodded once then followed suit, both arms wide -- if too stiff -- as he turned in a broad circle, his edges clean, though the line of his body was too aggressive and about light as a cannonball. Then he spun down to one knee, arms wrapping around himself. He held it this time, and spun back out -- leading with his shoulder instead of his arm.

Rodney sighed and went limp, dispirited. "The whole thing's boring. Your choreography's wonderful but it fits you like a pig on skates. I couldn't picture worse music for you if I tried."

"They let me pick the music."

"You picked Mendelssohn?" Rodney's eyebrows raised, astounded. "What are you, some kind of closet romantic?"

"It's nice," John said with a blink. "This is my long program from last year."

"That's the problem. You're listening to it instead of skating. The music's not for you to enjoy. It's for you to perform."

"Yeah, I had my worst finish ever with this -- placed thirteenth. Dumped the program fast after that."

They moved to center ice, John following with slow strokes, still moping.

Rodney finally turned in exasperation. "What is wrong with you today?"

John just tipped his head, noncommittal, barely even a shrug.

"You've been on fire for much of the week, then suddenly you have all the enthusiasm of a plate of wet lasagna. You made a modicum of progress and now we're back at square one. You're moving like a machine again: skate-skate spin, skate-skate turn. And your focus is completely blown."

"Progress?" John said, obviously listening selectively. "You never mentioned anything about any progress." He narrowed his eyes.

"Yes, well, I didn't want to jinx it, and that turns out to have been the right decision because clearly it was an aberration."

"I'm skating fine," John said, frowning at him.

"He's skating 'fine,'" Rodney said with little air quotes. "Eight months from now, when you're in the middle of the ice with all eyes upon you, who will be handing out the scores? People like you, who'll say you're skating 'just fine' -- give that guy a cookie ? Or people like me who are going to compare you to the top figure skaters in the country?"

John didn't answer.

Rodney snapped his fingers in quick succession. "What have you changed?"

"What?"

"Come on. Have you switched your diet? Stopped eating meat or carbs or something stupid like that?"

"No! What's that got to do with anything?"

"Had a bad break-up maybe? I saw you hammering on that phone the other night. It looked personal." John gave a disdainful roll of his head. "Anything can effect your performance, no matter how ridiculous; this is art, not science."

"I've done everything you've told me to, Rodney," John said, measuring his words out carefully. He took a breath, dipped his chin and added, "And then some."

"I'll be the judge of your going the extra mile," Rodney said with a snort. "Okay. You've an extra practice session this evening. I'll sit in."

John froze and looked up sharply, eyes fixed on Rodney, wary.

"I saw you on the schedule, don't look at me like that, I do in fact, read. I approve of the extra hours, by the way, we'll just have to use them more wisely."

John licked his lips and shifted, wincing. "I may have to cancel that session." He looked away. "Things aren't exactly turning out the way I'd hoped. It's been a rough week."

"Yes, and I'm tired of dragging you around the rink today," Rodney agreed, sagging. "Go home, get your head together. Call your boyfriend and fix whatever's going on. Tell him you either need him to get lost or to stay with you forever for the sake of your training."

"I don't have—" John glanced around, then leaned closer and said in an undertone, "I'm not with anybody, Rodney."

"Oh. Too bad. It would have been an easier solution than something being actually wrong with your training." Rodney let out a breath, shaking his head. "You need consistency. Eight months may seem like next year to you, but it's really not much time to work the near-miraculous changes you need. Learn to practice as if your next competition were only a month away."

John had bent his head. He seemed to be listening for a change. "A month? What about a week?" He looked up, interested.

"No, no. Everyone practices shitty the week before a competition. You either over train or work on all the wrong aspects."

~*~*~

At eight p.m. the lights in most of the rink's winding white halls were dimmed. The girl at the front desk wasn't anyone Rodney recognized. She only glanced up once, before she returned to a spread of open college textbooks, the equations easy first year physics from what Rodney could tell upside down. In the remaining lit hallway a woman with a heavy Russian face and green janitor's uniform emptied the trash, dragging a wheeled white cart behind her. The air smelled sharply of disinfectant and flat paper-soaked Pepsi.

The music from the ice downstairs was cranked loud enough to be heard as a faint hum in the parking lot. Louder inside, it wasn't exactly the Hurwitzes' usual combination of Frank Sinatra and Broadway show tunes, but the college student and the janitor ignored it, their shoulders hunched the heavy rhythm.

Scuffing down the steps to the rink, the thumping slow drumbeat and whine of electric guitar resolved and became more familiar to Rodney. He leaned folded elbows on the edge of the boards, calling out, "It figures you're a Hendrix fan."

John turned, shifting edges to a stop, one foot in midair as he skid. He grinned. "They've been playing Phantom of the Opera all afternoon. If I hear 'All I Ask Of You' one more time...."

"That's not so bad."

"'Let me be your shelter, let me be your light'?" John quoted.

"Well...."

"Barbra Streisand." John gave him a flat stare.

Rodney reached for the boom box and turned Hendrix up another notch without hesitation. "We'll have our revenge."

While Rodney put his skates on, John sprawled with a sigh on the bench next to him, his black T-shirt dark with sweat under his arms and in a vee down his chest, letting the electric squeal of Jimi Hendrix wash over them. It clicked over into his softer "Little Wing."

"Ready to go?" Rodney said, energized, pulling the last lace tight. He was by nature a night person.

"No hurry." John shrugged, staring up at the ceiling. He observed, one finger trailing over the seat back. "You know, my other coaches hardly set foot on the ice. Mostly they just directed me from the sidelines."

"Cowards." Rodney banged his heel into place with a pleased victorious smile over at John, chin up. "They just don't want to be shown up as washed up old has-beens, which I certainly am not."

"Oh?" John cocked an eyebrow.

"I could compete still if I chose to, or so I've been very recently informed." Rodney beamed.

"You think you could take me?" John stood, his eyes gleaming and sharp, a competitive edge to his smile.

"If I wanted to," Rodney hedged, shoulders squirming. "I'd have to get back into form."

"And lose about twenty pounds," John said, stepping over the edge onto the rink.

Rodney shot him a resentful, hurt look.

"We skating pairs today?" John spun around, an arm in the air like he'd circled a lasso.

"Sure, if you want."

"Good. I have an idea."

He caught Rodney's hand and dragged him out onto the ice, startling him. John's CD clicked over to the guitar licks of Hendrix's "Voodoo Child."

They circled the rink in a basic hold, Rodney's right arm curved around the small of John's back, hands clasped in front. They let go as the drum kit and bass line kicked in, separating around the corner with a little spinning hop, John slightly behind Rodney's beat. Rodney didn't waste time for more than a quick smirk, knee drawn up in a stance that looked like a four, arm high as he counted off their fast side-by-side twizzle steps, "One – two – three – four! You're off!"

Then he cut a diagonal line across the rink, varying his footwork and making it up as he went, forcing John to watch carefully. Getting it right wasn't the point anyway, though John fumbled through half of it.

He gave John a bit of straight line skating to catch his breath. John glided in smooth steps alongside him.

"You know that was impossible without a Vulcan mind meld, right?" John said, hands on his hips.

"Vulcan mind meld? You just blew about ten thousand cool points with that," Rodney answered.

"I have plenty to spare," John said, then followed Rodney as he prepped and tipped into their usual side by side camel spins.

As Rodney counted out loud on each turn, he had to admit that John was on the beat and he was the one going too fast.

"Okay, you've got that. Now some basic gestures."

He rolled his arms in a circle like a train as he stroked for some speed, watching John follow this easy one, then snapped his fingers, rocked his shoulders and turned to face the other way with a wally jump, John right behind him. Then Rodney drew his elbow back like he was drawing a bow, the other arm forward in a slicing gesture. He extended his skate like a karate kick and John followed. John straightened his leg a little more and cocked his elbow back further with a flickering glance at Rodney to check his position. They held it for a quarter of the rink.

Rodney let him drop the extension. "Now for something hard." Rodney snickered, because that last one hadn't exactly been simple.

John nodded. He knew this one. They separated and skated in opposite directions, completing two sides of a wide figure eight. As they met in the middle, John was grinning. They grabbed each other's hands and jerked into a spin as they squatted down, their outside skates angled up off the ice. This was faster than they usually did that maneuver. Gritting his teeth, John pulled in closer -- too close. There was a click as his skate nicked Rodney's and they collided. "Shit!" Rodney let go and sprawled out, skidding on his shoulder.

John laughed up at the ceiling as he lay flat on his back on the ice. "That one's hard on the knees," he explained as he rolled up, reaching over to help Rodney to his feet.

Rodney stayed where he was. "Ow. Never mind, I retire." Then he sat up. "And don't you have drugs for that?"

"I don't take them before I skate." In several quick pushes John skated to the edge of the rink. He tipped back the water bottle and wiped his mouth.

Rodney blinked at him. "You're insane," he concluded. He got up, dusting his ass off. "So. What was your idea?"

John swallowed quickly and beamed. "Teach me how to do a death spiral."

"I rest my case," Rodney said, circling over to him. "Start with the easy stuff, why don't you?"

"Too hard for you?" John said with an insufferable smirk, hands on his hips.

"I've done them," Rodney said, his jaw jutting out.

"Show me then."

"It's not that simple. A death spiral is really a controlled crash -- oh, look at you light up." Rodney rolled his eyes. "You don't need drugs, you're an adrenaline junkie," he spluttered, but John just continued to look interested. "Anyhow, my theory is the death spiral was discovered by accident when someone slid in a pairs spin and their partner just held on for dear life."

"Yeah?"

Rodney heaved a sigh and acquiesced against his better judgement. "Okay. But try to hang on this time."

He gripped John's forearm, just above the wrist. "Come straight at me and grip my wrist in the same—yeah, that's it." He pulled to test the lock of their grip.

He paused, a hand to his mouth, considering. "I don't suppose you have a bike helmet, because your head's going to be very close to the—" John glared at him. "—okay, I learned it before helmets existed and, fortunately, my sister isn't dead or paraplegic, so I can probably manage...."

"Rodney...." John growled.

"All right, fine, fine." He made a brushing gesture.

On the first pass, John yanked Rodney forward, off-balance.

"Well. That was a quarter turn at least."

On the second try, John's skates slid out, turning and slamming him to his knees. Mouth open and blinking, John said in a tight, pained voice, "Maybe knee pads wouldn't be a bad idea."

"You have to trust me and stretch your legs out."

The next try they made it three quarters of a circle, when Rodney suddenly let go, sending John sliding on his butt.

"Sorry, sorry," Rodney said, shaking his wrist. "I thought my arm was going to come out of its socket."

"Let's do it again," John said, determined.

"This really doesn't help your training much...." Rodney began, but caved at another annoyed look from John.

Their fourth pass, John pulled Rodney off his center. But they went two full revolutions, Rodney wobbling behind him before they slid to a stop.

"It's no use," Rodney said. "Your mass is too close to mine."

"No, keep trying. We'll get it right."

"It's not a matter of 'getting it right' -- it's a sheer impossibility."

"You mean you don't have the upper body strength," John sneered.

"Considering the angle of declination, the circumference of your swing resulting from the fact that you're taller than me, not to mention the added Gs from centrifugal forces, no, as a matter of fact, I do not," Rodney said. He snowplowed to a stop, making two fists with his hands. "Look. We can circle each other like two stars in a binary system but you can't circle me as a central point, not unless, well," he sniggered, "you lose an awful lot of weight."

"How much weight?"

"Thirty, forty pounds, give or take," Rodney offered brightly, head tipped in a cheerful smirk.

John rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah, anorexia's not really my thing."

They took a break, leaning on the boards. Rodney handed John's water bottle back to him.

"You seem to be getting into this pairs skating."

John smiled, shifting his hips and squirming a little as he shook his head. "It's easier when no one else is around."

He dug around in his backpack, pulling out a bottle of juice. He tossed it and caught in one hand, then drew out a sleeve of plastic cups. He quirked a questioning eyebrow at Rodney, who smiled and shrugged his answer.

As he poured, Rodney gave him an ironic smirk then clinked the edge of John's cup in a mock toast. He chuckled. "It's like a party."

"I like parties," John said.

"I highly doubt that." Rodney snorted.

"What?"

"Well, you're not the most sociable person I've ever met."

"I'm very friendly and sociable. I got all A's in fourth grade civics class. Besides--" He tapped Rodney's plastic cup with his own and gave him an ironic smile. "--your kind of party's sort of low key."

John tossed his back in one long swallow. He breathed and jumped to chuck his cup at a trash can by the back row. It tipped the edge then went in. "What about lifts? You think you can do one?"

Rodney snorted. "I used to be a pairs skater, of course I can do lots of -- oh." Rodney paused as he got it, long eye lashes fluttering in surprise. Then he scowled. "Do I look like I enjoy lifts? Why do I always have to do everything? Why can't you lift me?"

The look John gave him was doubtful.

"Okay, fine," Rodney snapped. "What do you weigh anyhow? 180... 190 pounds?"

"Um. 168." John blushed, looking down at his skates.

"No chance do you weigh—"

"Are you going to argue with my bathroom scale?"

"Really?" Rodney marveled. "You've got a head start on that anorexia -- you're a twig." He tossed his own cup at the garbage can and pretended to ignore it as it bounced off the edge and hit the floor, rolling in a little circle. "Hmm. I think I can do that. My sister weighed 130."

"130 pounds?" John's eyebrows raised.

"The other reason I gave up pairs."

Rodney pushed off from the wall.

"I need you to bounce in place, make yourself weightless."

"Like in the jumps." John nodded.

Of course John understood. "Exactly like that."

Rodney's hands clamped on his hips, narrow and solid, his eyes half-lidded with a pleased little smile. John licked his lips unconsciously. He wiped the sweat off his palms on his thighs.

John then leapt up, one leg ending up wrapped around Rodney's waist as he clung, his chest hard and warm, chin over his shoulder, clutching the back of Rodney's shirt. Rodney wobbled backward.

"I feel like you're gonna fall."

"I won't fall. Trust me," Rodney said with supreme confidence. "Just bounce straight up, like a jump."

John slid down Rodney's chest, his belt catching on Rodney's buttons.

"Need a little more height," John commented.

He skated back two steps this time. He jumped up into Rodney's hands, light for a moment. Then he was suddenly too heavy, too low, pulling Rodney forward. "Oh my god, you're heavy!" He slid off while Rodney caught himself with a wild corrective sweep of his arm.

"Again," Rodney said, tapping his chest to indicate where John needed to jump. "I need you up here for me to hold you -- any lower and we're going down."

John grunted and jumped, higher this time, his thighs and balls pressed against Rodney's chest, right in the sternum—and Rodney had him. Grinning, his teeth bared, arms bracketed under his round ass. They curved in a slight spin from the centrifugal force. Rodney held him as long as he could. John held his back straight without overbalancing, perfect, his eyes darkening as he looked down at Rodney's face with an unreadable expression.

Rodney looked up at him, breath short, not entirely from the effort, then he let John slide down his body, his gaze steady and still on Rodney. John gave him a slow smile, eyes sharp and glittering.

John did three spiraling steps away, marking out the rink, fast and alive. He popped up into a flying kick, taking it down to a fierce spin, before he came back around, carving the ice left in a fast glide.

Rodney just watched him, wondering if he was letting his own feelings color his judgement, or if he was really seeing what he thought he was seeing in the sudden intensity of John's skating. There was a sharpness to the edges, and fire to his movements, like a weapon that had just been drawn – quick, clean, and dangerous. He was different than anything Rodney had seen. He reminded Rodney not of a dancer, but of a kung-fu fighter.

John returned, cutting an edge at frightening speed, stopping so close Rodney had to force himself not to flinch.

Rodney said softly, his eyes speculative, "Do that again."

"Do what again?"

"What you just did."

John's face went blank. "I don't know what I just did."

Rodney rattled off the list of moves he could remember, counting them on his fingers. "Three twizzle steps, crossovers, a butterfly into a death drop, then complete the circuit."

John's forehead crinkled into a frown. "Okay...." he said, drawing the word out in confusion. He repeated the moves one by one.

But it was gone. Whatever that intangible quality was, it had vanished. Rodney tapped his lips, thinking.

~*~*~

It was daylight when Rodney yawned and stretched, then flung the tangle of blankets to the foot of the bed. He kicked aside the jeans he'd dropped on the floor last night into a pile of laundry he needed to do at some point, then clicked off the electric blanket. He grabbed his favorite bathrobe hanging on the doorknob. Stepping over boxes, clothes, a skate sharpener, and a pile of magazines that had been knocked over in a sprawl across the floor, Rodney made his way to the window to peer through the curtains.

Frost rimmed the grass, but in the dirt beneath his window the green buds of crocuses had begun to appear. That had always meant just one thing. The World Championships were soon. Rodney rubbed his hands together.

Since he and John had practiced so late, they'd decided to cancel his morning session. Rodney could sleep in for a change. He wondered that he of all people would choose a profession with six-day weeks, where "seven a.m." equaled "sleeping in." But it was still, hmm, pleasant, having a morning to himself.

Slipping on a loose magazine, he cleared the mess and stepped over to the clear path from the bed to the doorway, then to the bathroom. He decided on a bath instead of a shower.

Once he had the water running (he tipped a little scented cube into the tub), Rodney crossed through the living room to the kitchen, the TV flickering blue with the sound off from the night before. He'd sat up late, cracking peanut shells, worrying about the "Sheppard problem" and how to bring that performance back. He was no closer to a solution, though he'd finished the peanuts, the flakes of shell scattered across the coffee table.

Teapot on the burner, he tied his bathrobe and went to get the newspaper. The morning was colder than it looked. The mist of Rodney's breath caught in the breeze.

On the front doorstep, on top of the newspaper, was a round quart of cider. With a little paper party hat perched on top. It took Rodney a moment to get the reference to John's "low key party," and then he smiled, wondering when John had dropped it off.

Snickering, Rodney brought it inside. He turned off the teapot, carrying the cider and mug to the bathtub, putting the little hat on his forehead as he snuggled into the steaming water with a happy little hum.

~*~*~

Rodney waggled his fingers at his crew of four teenagers as they finished their lesson, the three girls chattering with each other as they pulled winter coats over their skating dresses. Girls looked so delicate on the ice and then the moment they touched dry land, they moved like jocks. The one lone guy had his hand on his girlfriend's shoulder, following her off the ice. Rodney had yet to figure out if he was just doing this for his girlfriend or using her as an excuse to figure skate. He was unexpectedly good.

His wiry black curly hair was visible over the edge of the boards as he left with the girls, head balanced and straight, posture perfect. Either figure skating or past dance lessons, Rodney decided. He'd know when he finally met the kid's mom. Figure skating moms were a breed apart and could not to be confused with the dance divas. With a name like "Aiden," Rodney's money was on the ex-dancer mom.

With strong smooth strokes, Rodney carved a circle through the center of the empty rink. This was one place he'd always felt secure, sure of himself. The girls all told him he looked beautiful out here. His sister envied him. Rodney smiled in satisfaction, threw his fists out in a dramatic gesture, and tossed in some footwork.

It was the quiet part of the afternoon. Too late for the lunchtime skaters with boring day jobs, too early for the younger kids, whose schools let out hours after the high schools. Rodney's blades hissed along the ice at a break in the music.

The "Music of the Night" came on, and Rodney shook his head. John had a point about them overdoing the Phantom of the Opera this week. At least it wasn't Streisand. She had a wonderful voice, but her singing was all about her -- Rodney tipped into an extension, letting his leg circle down -- and she was always just ever-so-slightly behind the beat. You couldn't grandstand when you were being upstaged by your own music. That's why it was a mistake to skate to the Star-spangled Banner.

Rodney took a quick glance around. No one was there, so he put a little more energy into his skate. He swung his leg around in a pendulum turn, building speed three-hundred and sixty degrees, head high, then stomped the ice, using the momentum to land a double salchow with a grunt, his leg swept out behind him.

Bent with both hands on his knees, Rodney caught his breath.

"You know," said a familiar voice, "if you'd spend a little less energy on your form and more on just getting into the air...."

John sat perched on the edge of the boards, swinging his skates and munching from a bag of popcorn.

"I didn't see you." Rodney blinked.

"I know that."

"I, ah, don't have any lessons right now." Rodney pointed vaguely in the direction of the doors. "Cancellation."

"I know that, too."

"How long have you been there?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" John hopped down onto the ice and slid over. "Though I think that black kid's full of shit. He's definitely taken figure skating before." He held out the popcorn.

"You're not supposed to eat on the ice," Rodney told him half-heartedly, taking a handful.

"Yeah. Popcorn's the worst, too," John agreed, digging into the bag. "One kernel can flatten you. Let's scatter it before the hockey team gets here."

"No practice scheduled today," Rodney was forced to point out.

"Foiled again." John smirked. He shook the bag. "Waste of good popcorn anyway."

"We can do a lot of toe-pick assisted jumps," Rodney suggested. "Same effect. Less wasteful of valuable resources." He scooped up another handful of popcorn.

"Now you're talking." John bobbed his head in satisfaction. "I can see why they call you a genius. Though I'd have to add 'evil' to that."

Rodney snickered into the back of his hand. "There are a few stories about me."

"All lies and exaggerations no doubt," John said.

"They can't prove a thing." Rodney beamed. "So, what are you doing here? Other than plotting the demise of hockey players, that is."

"I thought we covered that."

Rodney frowned in confusion, mentally rewinding their conversation and finding no clues. "No...."

"I wanted to hear the Phantom of the Opera again," John non-explained, with a slow smile. He skated back towards the boards, sliding side to side like a skier.

"Do you want more training time?" Rodney asked, mystified.

"I've been crowding into your schedule a lot lately."

"I can ask upstairs if they'll let you step on," Rodney suggested.

"Nah. I think I'll wait to wear out their welcome when an actual competition's on the line." John folded his arms behind his head. Then added with a wave like an afterthought, "As you were."

"Skating?"

"That's what it looked like. Thought I'd catch the live show." He held up the nearly empty bag and shook it. "I even brought the popcorn."

Rodney warmed to the idea, chest out and preening. "Any requests?"

John leaned forward with a smile, an elbow on his knee. "Well, I'm rather partial to that Worlds program...."

"The Rimsky-Korsakov?"

John sat back with a rich sigh. "Yeah. That's the one."

~*~*~

February, 1986

Rodney's hair was sweat-soaked, longish dark brown curls falling in his face as he stepped away from the Kiss-and-Cry. He raised a victorious hand to his fans, raising a shriek from the stands. Even at the Olympics only the really dedicated ones came to the compulsories. His coach lumbered behind him, a protective hand on Rodney's shoulder.

The predictable gantlet of reporters and cameras lay in wait for him on the way to the showers, the flashbulbs flickering as microphones extended in his direction. Rodney was still out of breath as the press peppered him with questions, bright lights shining in his face.

"Great work, Rodney," said a Canadian reporter with a Quebec accent. "All of Canada is cheering for you."

Rodney heaved a sigh, trying to catch his wind, beaming. "Thank you. I noticed." He waved again, raising another cheer, and grinned.

"Rodney," asked the tall gray-haired reporter from the British newspapers. "To what do you attribute your successful performance today?"

"A happy sex life," Rodney joked, and the reporters all chuckled. "No, no, just kidding -- discipline is the essence of the compulsories, though there was never any question that I'd do well here. They're more or less just a warm-up for me. But a lot of these new skaters don't have the basics down, and then come crying that we should get rid of the compulsories just because they don't know how to skate." He threw up his hands. "It's pathetic."

A gruff voice from the back with a heavy Germanic accent said, "What do you think of the East German threat?"

"Who? 'Hans and Franz,' the steroid twins?" Rodney snorted. The American reporter sniggered at the Saturday Night Live reference. "Oh, I'll admit they have some pretty impressive jumps, but that's not what skating is all about. In fact, it would be a tragedy for figure skating if they won. The real measure of a figure skater is: Artistic. Skill," Rodney said, emphasizing each word with a little bird-like okay sign. He smirked.

"What about the Russian team? They're known for their artistic presentation marks," said another, Rodney couldn't tell who, blinking at the lights.

"Well, they're very... traditional, aren't they? You can see the same moves in their ballet, and let's be honest: was Barishnikov any good before he defected? Not even." Rodney made a little brushing motion. "The soviet system crushes free will, and, in the process, any shadow of creativity."

Rodney's coach cut in, earning a glare from Rodney. "Rodney's always been a very confident skater." His grizzled head leaned down towards the microphones. "A confidence that shows on the ice with his World Championship record." He held up a hand. "No, no further questions today. Thank you." They edged between the cables and press of people and passed security, which held back the public.

As he dragged Rodney away from the cameras and down the long hallway towards the showers, his coach hissed, "Steroid twins?"

"What?" Rodney tittered. "Have you seen those two?"

"Do we need to have another talk about sportsmanship?" said his coach, his voice stern and belabored.

"Oh, please, if they can't take a little friendly competition they shouldn't be competing at this level. Though it's good you cut in when you did--"

"Yes."

"--I mean, I was having trouble ignoring the questions from the French reporter. That article she ran about me? Was positively catty." Rodney sniffed. "I am not 'pampered,' though if I were, I'd deserve it." He made a sweeping gesture back towards the ice. "I work hard out there!"

~*~*~

February, 1999

It was nearly nightfall when John pulled up to the curb by Rodney's place, the old Chevy rumbling. With a happy breath, Rodney stepped out, holding the passenger side door open with his hip. He swung his gym bag over one shoulder, moving with a cheerful bounce as he looked up at the sky.

"End of the line," Rodney beamed.

John dipped his head, leaning on one arm over the passenger seat, the other hand still on the steering wheel. "See you in the morning?"

"Four-thirty a.m." Rodney sighed in disappointment, adjusting his jacket with a tug. "It was nice sleeping in...."

John tilted his head in a sideways nod, lips pursed. "I can do tomorrow afternoon if you like."

"Oh!" Rodney snapped his fingers. "Then you can drive me home tomorrow too, perfect."

John gave him a funny look. He didn't recall volunteering his entire day. But Rodney had already shut the door so it was too late to complain.

A skip in his step, Rodney hopped up the short stair to his porch and looked back once he had the door open, chin tipped up with a smile. He gave a little wave. Those jeans were tight, and John wondered just when he'd switched from the sloppy pants he used to wear. John squinted and ran his tongue along the inside of his lower lip, thinking back. Their trip to the mall. And no more practices with dirty hair any more, either.

John reached over to turn on the heat. It gave a useless click, and he punched the dash. Forgot again.

The long rectangular windows to either side of Rodney's front door had lit up, and John could see the indistinct shadow shape of Rodney moving around in his living room. Then the overhead went on in the kitchen, lighting up the two big picture windows.

The kitchen was even more of a disaster zone than John remembered, every inch of counter space filled with dishes and boxes. He snorted to himself.

Rodney went to the sink and washed his hands, his back to John, then turned to stretch for the paper towels. His elbow clipped a bowl, knocking it off.

There was a pause as Rodney looked at it. Then, still wiping his hands on a paper towel, he crossed in front of the windows to the far right and opened a door -- ah. That's where the pantry was, okay. John made a mental note. He liked to get the lay of the land. Rodney returned with a broom and dustpan. This would be a good chance to sweep the entire... nope, Rodney just cleaned up the bowl and put the broom away. John shook his head. No wonder his place was a wreck.

The open refrigerator door now blocked the view of all but Rodney's ass, not that that was a bad thing, and then he hefted out... of course. The vat of spaghetti sauce.

Rodney rolled up his sleeves, revealing nice arms, something John never got a chance to see. He tugged at the base of a pile of dishes. The dishes slumped and collapsed deeper in the sink, but Rodney appeared to be pretty good at the tricky maneuver (John approved) as he unearthed a large pot, which he rinsed, filled with water, and put on to boil.

He dusted off his hands in satisfaction, wiping them on his thighs.

All of the sudden John felt like some kind of creepy stalker guy, and put the car in gear. This was going a bit beyond just watching Rodney in a video. As he left, he caught a glimpse of Rodney leaning to peer out the window with a bemused expression.

He drove away fast enough that he didn't see Rodney come to the porch to wave him in.

~*~*~

The sky was a darkening gray when John parked about a block from the beach, locking up in front of someone's house. He tucked his hands in his jacket pockets, head down against the breeze, the sound of water in his ears already; softer than the ocean, louder than a normal lake.

As he broke from under the tree cover the full force of the wind from across Lake Ontario hit him, rippling his dark blue coat, the clouds low and scalloped, some darker, oozing across the sky faster than the ones above them. Seagulls dipped in and out of waters too active and too deep to freeze.

John blinked against the wind, his nose red, eyes watery. The tips of his ears were pink and his messy hair was blown about chaotically.

It was cold but the wind helped to clear his head.

John dislodged a smooth flat stone from the dirt and tossed it into the soft wash of waves tearing away at the sand. The beach was frozen hard as concrete, littered with twigs and the flotsam of plastic bottles. They'd clean it up in the summer. The combination of snow and sand crunched underfoot.

Lake Ontario reminded John of Lake Michigan back home, only rougher and colder, more forbidding. More unfair.

To keep warm, John skipped into a jog down the dry hardpack. He picked up the pace, breaking into a run, a dark figure scattering a cloud of white and gray seagulls.

He hit the end of this section of beach at the lee of a rock pile, gasping, his lungs aching from the cold air. He took a moment to bask in the relative warmth out of the wind. Then he climbed the rocks and concrete block that reached out and down into the water. He edged towards low waves licking up onto the rocks, stepping over pockets of ice. He got as close to the water as he could, right up to where the rock surface started to become slippery and damp.

A cement block rocked under him, pitching him forward. John's arms swung. He stepped and caught himself, braced between two rocks.

"Way to go, John," John growled at himself, pissed off. "Just fall in and freeze to death, why don't you?"

He climbed back up. At the top, the wind buffeted him. John surveyed the beach, chewing his lower lip. Finally able to think.

He always got messed up when he got too close to friends. Granted, that covered pretty much all of his relationships, and the main problem was usually his skating -- but Rodney was still a bad idea. John picked up a handful of loose pebbles, and chucked one at the water. It skipped once into the waves.

And he wasn't a scary stalker guy, no matter what an ex said. He'd just wanted to see the guy without having to deal with his bullshit, and so parked outside the restaurant where he worked to watch him through the window, chin leaned on the steering wheel, trying to decide what to say. Miss you...? Sorry it didn't work out...? He didn't think he'd been there an hour.

Rodney was just a harmless fantasy. It simply needed to... not go beyond that.

So. Okay. Rodney was fun, reasonably attractive, and had a really nice ass (though almost every skater did). John tossed another rock, this one too light to skip.

And Rodney got to him with that wide quirky smile. He tried John's patience but he was as brilliant as he said he was. But he was still an unmannered child, like no one had ever bothered to tell Rodney no -- and hell if it wasn't cute.

John's breath deepened and shook. He scattered the rest of the rocks. He was screwed if what was supposed to switch him off turned him on instead.

He needed to cool it.

It had just... been a long time. This was partially Rodney's fault, too. He very obviously checked John out, flirted with him all the time, and John wasn't made of stone. Those lifts had been a bad idea. A really bad idea.

John nodded to himself. Yes. He needed to have it out with Rodney. Unless Rodney could produce a legitimate reason for the pairs skating -- and John was willing to bet that he couldn't -- it had to stop.

~*~*~

Rodney stood at center ice, hands on his hips, wondering what on earth was keeping John. Usually he couldn't wait to get on the ice but this time he'd dithered over his gym bag, head ducked down, delaying with his skates, plucking at the laces and retying them.

Rodney checked his watch with an audible – and loud – huff. He tipped his head, the wide line of his mouth dropping in a frown as he folded his arms, glaring across the ice to where John was apparently killing time.

John had mentioned over the phone that he had something to discuss. But when they'd met at the front reception desk after Rodney's last lesson, John had brushed him off saying, "It's cool."

John's eventual step onto the ice was slow, gradual, one leg swinging as he approached. He skated forward, hands on his hips, as he looked towards the ceiling. He took a deep breath.

"Um. Look, Rodney...." He swiped at his mouth nervously, scratching at the corner of his lip.

"Mmm?" Rodney blinked up.

The sound of the group of children reminded Rodney of the zoo, or a flock of birds in a tree. The double doors to the rink swung open with a clank, banging off the wall, and the noise swelled in decibel level, the giggling, chattering, shouting of little kids. Two of them ran ahead down the stair with peals of delighted laughter. "You're mean!" one small voice shrieked.

Rodney and John pivoted to watch the row of colorful yarn pom-poms on various winter hats bounce as a handful of children raced around, chasing each other, while others hung back, holding their teachers' hands as they walked down the too-high steps. They were herded into putting on their skates, the slowest rocking on the seats while the more aggressive tumbled onto the ice, skates on in no time, small legs working.

Wonderful. The grammar schools had let out.

Rodney made a wry face and wished for earplugs. This was the problem with his afternoon sessions. He was going to get nothing serious done today.

"You were saying?" Rodney prompted.

"Never mind," John mumbled, watching the kids.

So they kept to basics, running through aspects of choreography in John's programs from last year that John had never felt comfortable with. He was awkward and more wooden than usual, not meeting Rodney's eyes, though he played along. They were both on edge, standing close, voices rising to be heard over bright shrill laughter.

"That whole thing where I push my hips forward just seems too...."

"Blatant?" Rodney supplied, adding a helpful, "Lewd, perhaps?"

"Yeah...."

"Ah. That is what's known in the wild as 'terribulus choreographus,'" Rodney said sagely. "The move's been dead since the 70s -- which I suspect was the likely age of your choreographer."

They worked out an alternate rendition where John swung his hip to the left, punching his fist down as he did so. Which was anachronous and had been out of style since the 50s but at least it had a kitsch Fonzie appeal. Then Rodney set John to work on spins, which would keep him in form for his jumps while those were still off limits.

Fortunately, after only half an hour – there was some benefit to short attention spans – the munchkin herd was gathered towards the side of the rink again and rustled out of their skates, high voices complaining. One kid skated all around the rink, and the teacher shouted after him. The kid pretended not to hear.

The silence once they left almost rang. John finished a picture perfect scratch spin, skating over to Rodney, breathing hard, and offered, "Let's take a break. We need to talk." He winced as he said it.

Oh. Those were never good words, even without the wince. Rodney's eyelashes fluttered as his bright eyes darted about, glancing at the ice, the walls, at John. This wasn't something that he could discuss at the front desk?

His mind started spinning through possibilities. A relative had died and John was going to miss precious days of training? Was he going to push to do the jumps again? Question Rodney's authority?

The skating skills class wasn't slated to begin until two-thirty, but two girls arrived early, stepping onto the ice with an earnestness that came from an impending test. Rodney glanced over, automatically studying them as they began to repeat step sequences and basic crossovers -- their edges were weak, though the darker girl in warm ups had good power to her stroking. Waste of a test fee. Neither would be ready by Friday, Rodney deemed, though it was lucky for them he wasn't slated to judge it.

John and Rodney finished their break in silence. John capped his water bottle.

The rest of the class arrived, murmuring amongst themselves. Rodney saw why the two thought they were ready to test: they were significantly better than the rest of their group.

John circled back onto the ice, shifty-eyed and impatient.

They'd gone almost the entire session without hearing his mysterious pronouncement, and curiosity was starting to eat Rodney alive.

He couldn't afford Rodney any more? No, absurd; Rodney had deferred a lot of his fees.

Oh. Worse -- he'd found a job and would have to cut back on his skate time. He risked losing himself in a "career." Rodney had seen it a thousand times. The "career" always started small but then it "needed" his skaters, until figure skating became the hobby and this "career" their lives.

Or else he was giving up competing? He'd decided to turn pro and was taking all Rodney's clients based on looks alone? That would explain the guilty cringe.

Or maybe he'd had an MRI and the damage to his knee was irreparable. No, no, couldn't be, or John wouldn't be skating now.

Or. It hit him.

He was going to be fired.

A dismal look crossed Rodney's face as he realized it. He hated getting fired. But they hadn't made much progress; it was true. Rodney knew that. He'd had to experiment, feel his way. Teaching John to skate artistically was hardly scientific, required more than just tossing John into a dance class. It was a process of discovery, of unveiling something as unique to John as his personality. John knew how to skate already. He just didn't know who he was as a skater.

Now all that time and dedication was doomed to go down the drain, his efforts soon to be spoiled by some incompetent who'd placed 20th at Nationals -- once -- and thought she'd been treated "unfairly" by the judges, poor baby. He'd put more into John than any other student.

"Rodney...."

The rink was empty.

John had a serious expression on his face, his mouth in a tight straight line.

"Oh, no, no, you can't fire me!" Rodney said, cutting him off at the pass. "And if you do, trust me, I'll charge you for every millisecond of my wasted time." He swept his arm in a circle. "Both on and off the ice -- with interest!"

"Rodney--"

"Compounded retroactively!"

"Rodney, look...." John put out a conciliatory hand.

"You think I can't do that, but I can, because it's in the contract you probably never read, since the type of moron who hires a coach that they can't possibly afford never, ever reads the contract!"

John grabbed him by the lapels. "Rodney, shut up for a second."

Rodney staggered forward, weight lifted off his skates, his shirt sliding up his neck.

His heart fluttered. A skater had never been violent with him before. John was deranged. Rodney could see the headlines now: "Skating Legend Dies On Ice." He should have asked Sonja to write his eulogy; Radek would be too honest.

For a moment he hung there, panicked. And then John pulled him in and he felt John's lips on him, warm and devouring, tugging at his lower lip until Rodney unfroze, realized what was happening. Rodney stopped blinking and let his eyes close, tipped his head sideways, and held on to John's shoulders for dear life, soft and warm through his fleece, as the two of them turned lightly from centrifugal force.

With a shuddering breath, John let go. They pulled apart.

"That," John said, as if it were an explanation. Which it sort of was.

"So... not fired," Rodney said, his mind blank. He took John in, from his skates to the defensive set of his shoulders to the wary flicker in his eyes. How long had this been going on?

"Not today," John answered, his voice rough.

"Oh. Good."

They stared at each other, breathing hard. John had an intense look on his face, almost glaring, his lips parted.

John moved first, raising his arm to slowly wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. Rodney's heart thumped as he followed the gesture, melting forward. Then without explanation, John turned and broke for the edge of the rink, Rodney hard on his heels, hoping John wasn't going to run -- because he was his ride home tonight, for one thing. They unlaced their skates in silence, side by side, Rodney just barely able to keep up, glancing over furtively at John, who kept his eyes firmly on the far wall when he wasn't looking down at his skates. Then, slinging his gym bag on one shoulder, John took the steps out of the rink two at a time, Rodney close behind him.

They'd both neglected to put their coats on before they stepped outside despite the fact that it was below freezing, an addled moment that gave Rodney a surge of nervous hope. They blew on their hands as John unlocked his car door and cast a sharp look around the empty parking lot like he was doing recon. Rodney recognized his intent then with wide eyes. Sure enough, he reached for Rodney as they climbed in and they tumbled into the back seat.

John's hands slid up the inside of Rodney's shirt, kissing again, wet and sloppy, John tipping Rodney down against vinyl that was cold on his lower back, rolling them over. Rodney wanted to get as many of John's clothes off as possible before he came to his senses, frustrated as he dug under a fleece top and found yet another layer. John's thigh slid between Rodney's knees as they squirmed for a better position and Rodney tugged at John's belt buckle, trying to undo it. John braced himself up on one arm just next to Rodney's shoulder to give him room – Rodney lost precious seconds, captured by the sensual line of John's lower lip – and John's palm caught a fold of his shirt, pinning him uncomfortably. Then John tried to stretch out his long legs, his heel bumping the window as Rodney struggled to sit up, elbow scraping the headrest – and suddenly the back seat was very small, he was squished, and it was too hot with John's breath panting between them.

They paused, staring at each other and around at the back seat. There were bottle caps and a newspaper on the floor. The window above Rodney was already steamed over.

"My place is closer," Rodney suggested, chest rising and falling, blinking.

John lifted up on both arms now, looking down at Rodney. "My place is cleaner." Rodney slumped and gave the idiot an amazed look. "Right. Low priority."

John climbed between the two front seats, his belt still undone and jangling as he started the car. Rodney took a moment to yank his shirt back down and pull up his zipper, then scrabbled into the front seat. He braced himself on the dash and narrowly missed committing seppuku via stick shift as they lurched forward.

Rolling into Rodney's driveway, they left John's car unlocked. Rodney seized John's hand and tugged him into the house, drawing him into a kiss just inside the foyer. With a little moan, he mapped the warm press of John's chest and mentally revised every single last one of his fantasies as inaccurate. John kissed soft and eager, not at all rough. And he hadn't considered body heat, the humid pant of John kissing down the back of his neck, or the way John was a little taller and how his cock fit in the hollow of Rodney's hip. The glass storm door hissed to a close behind them, and Rodney's last doubt evaporated at that dainty click. Swinging the front door and hoping that maybe it had shut all the way, Rodney led John through the mess of the living room, John's hand on his waist, the heat of him just over Rodney's shoulder.

"This way," Rodney whispered.

"I know where it is," John murmured, leaning in close. "Getting there on the other hand...."

John's hand slid along his back once they reached the bedroom, turning Rodney. Kissing him again soft, with wet sounds, a huff of a sigh in his ear. John rubbed his cheek against Rodney's, the sweet scratch of five o'clock shadow, and he pulled Rodney's shirt up and off, looking down his chest avidly. John grabbed the collar of his own shirt, struggling out of it. His tee-shirt quickly followed, flung to the floor. Rodney whimpered, looking down more chest hair than expected to a dark teasing trail that led into his belt line. John gave him a raunchy grin.

The bed wasn't made, which made it easy for Rodney to kick the covers halfway off when they fell onto it with a gasp, John over him, cupped between his knees, and while there was much to be said for John's stretch fleece, the softness and the way it outlined his hard cock, with a little huff and squirm Rodney pulled it over the curve of John's ass.

John rocked forward, arms scooped under Rodney's shoulders as he lifted and slid him further up onto the bed which squeaked under them. "There you go," he said as he nuzzled into Rodney's ear. Rodney's hands met wide smooth elastic at John's waist and stroked down his bare ass.

"Have I ever told you how much I love dance belts?" Rodney hummed, peeling the elastic down. On his knees, John stepped over it, jostling the bed, then sat back on his heels and gave a sharp tug on Rodney's pants, jerking them once to his thighs and then off easily.

"Going commando, Rodney?" John's smile was sly, looking him over. Rodney felt suddenly vulnerable, naked, heels off the bed, with his dick hard and red against his stomach.

"I need to do laundry."

John leaned over him on his arms and bent down to kiss him again, settling between Rodney's thighs, his mouth open wide, exploring now. Rodney stretched up to meet him. His cock pressed rhythmically on Rodney's balls, silk-sleek, while Rodney greedily stroked all over his body, down his arms, across his back, then up again to hold John's head as he kissed, arching to press their cocks together with a gasp as he reached down to grip a handful of John's round ass.

With a sudden shaky breath of reaction, John deepened their kiss, and his tongue took up the rhythm of their motion as they rocked together. John tipped them sideways, a hand gliding down Rodney's hip. He paused meaningfully, asking. His thumb stroked a little circle on Rodney's hipbone.

Rodney's heart sped.

Seeming to read the "yes" in his silence, John bit Rodney's shoulder, a sharp pleasant sting as Rodney allowed himself be rolled onto his stomach in the soft sift of sheets, John's hand sliding down the crack of his ass. Pinned under John's weight, Rodney made a hum and helplessly pawed towards the end table drawer. John got the message, sliding over to dig around for the lube.

"It's over--" Rodney murmured.

"Got it, got it," John insisted. "Just a sec."

And he kept digging, shifting papers and clutter loudly, with a growing frown and what looked suspiciously like a pout. With a complaining huff of a sigh – wondering, did he have to do everything? – Rodney got up to help, found it easily, and handed him the lube and condoms with a graceful gesture and a sarcastic smirk.

"Better?"

Squirming his shoulders, John said, squinting and discomfited, "Thanks."

Rodney pillowed his chin on his arms and edged his hips into the sheets with a happy little sound, feeling the soft-slick trickle of oil. He sighed as John began to work his fingers in. Then John let go and rose up to slide his cock along the wet trail, teasing him. Rodney's hands fisted the pillow, John's hot gasp raising the short hairs on the back of his neck. John kneeled over Rodney, his warm body bracketing him. His palm dented the pillow next to Rodney's chin as he brushed his cheek through Rodney's hair and his fingers stroked in and out slowly. Rodney exhaled, letting him in.

Then Rodney blinked, startled. "This won't undermine my authority, will it?"

John's puff of laughter blew a strand of Rodney's hair.

"Yes, Rodney." He pressed his cock against Rodney's hip and leaned down to growl in his ear, "I fully intend to think of this moment every time you're an asshole."

Rodney's long lashes fluttered as he thought this over. "Okay," he sighed musically. "Just so we have clear..." He moaned as John's fingers drove in deeper. "...boundaries."

"Yeah, right. Boundaries," John echoed, his cock slick and sliding warm across his thigh as he moved behind Rodney. He bent down and nibbled both cheeks of Rodney's ass before he lined himself up. He had the head snubbed up against him, dipping just a little inside. "Ready?"

"For over a month now," Rodney confessed into his arms.

John's answer was a sultry, inarticulate moan as he sank in on a long, slow push. His chest hair was damp against Rodney's back. He slid back out an inch and grit his teeth on a breath just over Rodney's shoulder. Rodney arched his hips back against him as he squeezed back in.

John's groan was louder this time, more enthusiastic.

Rodney smiled. John was used to lazy, passive bottoms, was he? Rodney smirked and licked his lips devilishly. He lifted up on his elbows for more leverage as John started to give it to him hard, his strong arm gripped around Rodney's chest. Someone was going to learn a thing or two.

~*~*~

The light through Rodney's curtains had shifted from the bright stare of mid-afternoon to angle from somewhere behind the house, soft and indistinct. John had taken up residence on Rodney's spare pillow, still awake, breathing quietly as his hand explored down Rodney's bicep, sliding to find and trace the square of his palm. He trailed his hand down Rodney's side over the slight bump of love handles that made Rodney twitch.

Rodney wasn't sure if he could touch, a hesitation he couldn't explain, though he watched John, his whole body humming. John had a habit of folding his lower lip over his teeth and licking along the inside which he was doing now, eyes half-lidded. His hand slipped lower, reaching around to cup one of Rodney's better assets, and squeezed his ass with an appreciative sigh.

He sat up, kneeling, drawing Rodney up with him, the sheets whispering as he nudged Rodney on top and Rodney found himself straddling John's thighs, John's lips against his in small, teasing kisses.

Rodney whispered between kisses, in a voice like a confession, "I want you to keep doing what you're doing." They kissed again, Rodney's forearm sliding over John's back. "Really, hey, don't let me stop you." He leaned down for more kissing, John's tongue a gentle sweep inside before pulling back. "But let me be the first to admit that this is, um--" Rodney ducked his head, running his hand down John's arm. "--nothing less than foolhardy. Not to mention, ah--" his eyelashes fluttered as John took this opportunity to kiss and nibble down his neck. Rodney really, really liked that. "--staggeringly unprofessional on my part."

"Oh, I think you're a pro," John murmured, the laugh rumbling in his throat.

"Cute." Rodney gave him a sour look. "I'm sure someone is holding up the 'Applause' sign as we speak. And, yes, all right, your bedroom charms have more than measured up to my fantasies but that's not the subject at hand."

"Bedroom charms?" He could feel John's smile against the curve of his shoulder.

Rodney rolled his eyes in frustration. "You have the attention span of a gnat."

John took a deep luxurious breath. "Can we not talk about this now? I'm kind of busy." His hands stroked up Rodney's chest gliding delicately over his nipples.

"I find it impossible to concentrate when you do that."

John quirked an eyebrow at him and his smile was unsurprised. "Oh, really?" There was a smirk to his voice.

"When this ends in disaster I at least want credit for having predicted it."

"Let me handle that," John promised him, dipping Rodney back down to the pillow.

~*~*~

They'd talked about food, but it was a really long walk to the kitchen, and Rodney had made the pleasant discovery that he'd left half a box of saltines in his bedroom. They weren't too stale, so they nibbled those instead, getting crumbs on John's chest and all over the bed. John tried to sweep them off with quick whisking strokes, lifting himself up on his legs and one arm, looking for all the world like a pale, hairy, very male spider, but it was a lost cause.

Lazy as a cat, Rodney rolled onto his side, head tipped to one shoulder. He admired John's long waist, his rough hand draped across a flat stomach and one thigh raised, resting. He was sprawled out bonelessly, propped up on a pillow against the headboard. His already narrow eyes were puffy from lack of sleep, face greasy, and his hair looked like he'd been in a wind storm. Rodney stretched and sighed, probably in no better state.

John plucked a stuffed dingy white unicorn from between the pillows, turning it over in his hands. He prodded its pointy yellow vinyl horn experimentally and said, "This thing nearly took my eye out."

Rodney snatched it away, explaining, "That's valuable."

John dipped his chin and answered him with a raised eyebrow. "Collector's item?" There was a bit of a nervous waver in his voice.

Rodney's shoulder sagged as he rolled his eyes and gave a sarcastic snort. "Yes. I collect dolls and rainbows, and I hide the frightening 'Hello Kitty' collection in the attic like so many tribbles – no, of course not." He licked his lips and cringed, examining the toy. "It was my sister's. She loved this stupid thing."

Reluctantly, he continued with a sigh, waving a hand as if this weren't important. "It's from the Stuttgart Olympics. My family had missed the compulsories, but everyone was there for the final free skate. I mean everyone. Grandma, aunts and uncles, people who'd never watched me skate." He dropped his face to his hands and rubbed his eyes. "You know how well that went."

John winced appreciatively, wrinkling his nose. "I heard."

"Well, my dad even made my sister go, and she'd never forgiven me for being far better without her." He looked up and added hastily on a shaky laugh, blinking earnestly, "I mean, once I cut her loose, I went from 15th place mediocrity in Junior Pairs to stellar performances in Junior Men's, sweeping one title after another. We'd always known who the talented one was," he said with no little smugness.

"Anyhow, at the end of the free skate in Stuttgart everyone clapped and threw flowers and stuffed toys and whatnot, but I knew the truth." He held out the unicorn. "And when I started for the Kiss-and-Cry, feeling, oh, about as miserable as a human being can -- this was out there on the ice. I couldn't find her in the crowd but I recognized it right away.

"I probably looked ridiculous clutching a toy while I waited for them to announce my scores, and certainly I didn't want to talk to anyone afterward, but I was really glad it was there."

John was thoughtful a moment. He shifted, squinting his eyes. "It takes them a long time to read the scores."

"An eon."

~*~*~

February, 1986

The town just outside the Olympic village was small and overbooked, but Radek refused to stay in the same hotel twice, a habit Rodney called "ludicrous and paranoid" while Radek insisted it was simply "a wise precaution."

The Grand Marnier sloshed golden in the bottle as Rodney's enthusiastic smile broadened. He stood on the bed like a veritable Statue of Liberty, except he was Canadian. And in his underwear.

"You have to see Amsterdam while you're here! Other than it being a chance of a lifetime, it's – a what? A tradition. A rite of passage. C'mon," Rodney pounded Radek's shoulder where he sat cross-legged, still dressed, jostling him. "When are we ever going to be here again? Especially you."

Radek brightened cautiously, smiling up at Rodney. He settled his glasses back on his nose with an uneasy twitchy motion and rescued the bottle from Rodney's loose grasp. "I don't know, Rodney."

"Men's skating doesn't even start for another four days, the ski jump qualification's done, there's plenty of time." Rodney licked his lips and bounced down to the bed next to him, eyes bright. "It'll make your life."

~*~*~

The Stuttgart train schedules weren't humanly possible: 10:11 a.m., 10:17 a.m. Rodney shook his head in bemused amazement as one and then the next pulled to a stop at exactly the moment the second hand hit twelve on his watch. 10:11 on the dot. There was definitely something wrong with the Germans.

There were only two more morning express trains to Amsterdam left. Anything later would hit every stop between Stuttgart and Cologne. Lots of castles, yes, but not quite what Rodney had in mind. He huffed and rubbed his hands together in the chilly train station, feeling a sense of rising panic. Radek was just late, that was all. It was tough for him to sneak out.

He stuffed his hands under his armpits and leaned against the ugly concrete wall, bouncing a little. He switched and folded his arms across his chest and felt unaccountably lost. If very 'sophisticated' and 'European' in his trench coat.

The last train, unfortunately but of course, arrived exactly on time. Rodney hung back as he was ignored by commuters with folded newspapers and a young woman with a backpack clutching a pair of knitting needles. She slumped to a seat by the window and set to knitting right away.

Finally, Rodney stood just inside the train doors when they shut and he climbed the steps uncomfortably to look around the nearly empty seats. Too many options. The train lurched into motion.

He had no idea how Radek was going to catch up.

~*~*~

Radek had found that if he watched the figure skaters long enough, friends and other "interested parties" would soon filter away, bored. It would be only a matter of time before Radek could easily give them the slip. He checked his watch: 5:30 a.m. He and Rodney would be leaving for Amsterdam in a few hours. He leaned his chin on folded arms on the hard railing and watched Rodney from a dozen rows up in the stands. Though he would never tell Rodney that he did this, or else he would have too many questions about what he thought, was this good, was that good.

Rodney looked different skating. Strong. Radek couldn't tell if he was better than his Soviet competition, but he was definitely good, moving smoothly from one element to another, landing solidly.

He could see why Rodney was a star.

Radek did not like figure skating in his homeland. They were ballerinas on ice skates, their chins in the air, so serious. But Rodney, now, he made it look like fun.

His gestures were too exaggerated, almost funny, like he was teasing the other skaters. Or maybe even mocking figure skating itself. He skated a broad circle, one leg carving the ice, the other bent, an arm flung out dramatically as if greeting the sky. Radek snickered.

The music was suddenly cut off. "Now, Rodney…."

Rodney's coach was a big man, with rounded shoulders and wispy white hair, soft-voiced. And slightly shaky today. Radek burrowed his chin into his hands, leaning forward to listen.

"You have to give it your all. I want everything you have. These are the best of the best and you've only one shot at this. This isn't Worlds. There is no next year."

"Yes, yes," Rodney interrupted impatiently with a gesture like he was brushing away a fly.

But the man continued as relentless as a steamroller, clearly used to Rodney. "Four years from now who knows what you'll be doing -- or if I'll be your coach, or even in this world."

"Relax, Marc," Rodney laughed it off. "You're not planning on shuffling off this mortal coil today are you? This week? It'll be fine."

"Everything you've got, Rodney," he said in a gruff, strangled warning tone, wagging a finger. "If you have it, I want to see it."

A frown dented Radek's brow. He tucked in his chin as he drew away from his arms on the railing. The folding seat clicked a little as he straightened. It was not Radek's place to question, especially with a sport that he did not know as he knew ski jumping -- though he had never noticed that Rodney held back in anything. It was not Rodney's way. If anything Rodney went too far, risked too much.

But about one thing Radek was absolutely certain: Rodney should not be needing to reassure his own coach. That he had never seen. Had the man not been to the Olympics before?

Obviously, no. Radek shook his head as he pushed away from the railing. He would have just enough time to take a shower before he left for the train to Amsterdam. He should be able to beat Rodney to the station in Stuttgart, in fact. He made his way up the stairs to the back of the arena.

Amsterdam... speaking of Rodney and his crazy risks. The city was notorious, filled with sex and drugs and western corruption. Radek wanted a look. Though he should not take this chance. There would be no way he could say he'd just become lost and "accidentally" boarded a train out of the country. But it was only for the day, he could remove that page from his passport, plus he'd already been gone that long before. As Rodney had said, in Europe it was simply a little… further than usual.

Radek tucked his hands into his pockets and kept his head down in the busy corridor. Two German women ran vacuum cleaners over the carpets behind him, arguing cheerfully over the roar. A few workers in green overalls with the Olympic emblem staggered and swore under a huge plant they carried, tracking mud over the freshly cleaned halls.

He swallowed a smile over the impending fight, hunching down further to remain invisible.

"Mr. Zelenka?"

Radek turned with a startled if well-practiced innocent blink. A man and a woman wearing long overcoats came up smoothly to either side of him. He let his face go slack, suddenly conscious of his team jacket and the Czechoslovakian patch on his sleeve. They continued walking with him as Radek stared straight ahead.

"Come with us. The director would like a word."

He did not know the man but it was said in perfect unaccented Czech. He did recognize the director's sister-in-law. Her husband had privileges. Many privileges. And long-time friends in the Kremlin.

This could be very bad.

~*~*~

Amsterdam was a total bust. A naked woman posed in a storefront window as Rodney pretended not to be a somewhat shocked Canadian goggling that she was all-the-way naked. And in public. He aimed for jaded and came up with bored instead.

She changed positions, spreading her legs wider while Rodney glanced away. This was only going to be fun with Radek's cynical comments beside him, trapped in his untenable position that his country was both more sexually open and mature as well as uncorruptable and pure. Rodney couldn't win the argument when ninety percent of what he'd learned about sex (firsthand anyway) had been from Radek.

With a sigh he ducked through the door into a pub. He was handed a menu with scarcely a sidelong glance. No one recognized him. It was as if these people didn't even know the Olympics were underway. Rodney frowned down at the menu. A list of drugs, a lot of which he'd never even heard of. Though Radek probably had.

He handed it back to the waiter-or-whatever, saying, as if this were a personal affront, "Experimenting with unfamiliar drugs four days before a competition? Uh. Yeah. I don't think so."

He asked for a beer instead, and found they didn't serve that here. Which was absolutely ridiculous given what they did serve. He told them exactly what he thought of that and left to find a real bar.

It figured that he didn't get into trouble until he finally gave up on his little adventure and decided to go home. Radek would have told him to stay away from the airports, but Rodney had practically forgotten about the press by then.

~*~*~

The phone in the Olympic village room didn't often ring, so Rodney's coach already had a slack-jawed look of surprise before he answered it. The name on the other end left him puzzled.

"Mr. McKay?" he answered.

He was silent, then shook his head with a quick reassuring gesture that the older McKay calling from Canada couldn't see. "Amsterdam? No, Rodney is here," he said with assured patience, standing straighter, one hand on his hip. "His practice was just this--"

Interrupted, he nodded as fervently as any man who knew who paid the bills, wide shoulders hunched. "Yes, yes, I realize he's my responsibility… the news? Airport bar?" He switched the phone to his other ear. "You're kidding. Yes, Mr. McKa—I assure you, I had no idea. He was right here. I'll—I'll see to it. Of course he's grounded. Yes, sir, thank you for informing me."

He'd just hung up when Rodney came in, head down. He held up a tired hand. "Don't talk to me right now, I've had a very bad day."

"Just what the H.—E.—double-hockeysticks are you doing?! Why do you think you're even here?" He sounded more betrayed than angry.

Rodney goggled at him, lips parted. "But I might not get another chance."

~*~*~

February, 1999

Rodney's bathtub was built into the wall and John hesitated a moment, hand on the industrial green shower curtain, looking around at the ceiling before he turned on the water, testing it. It seemed Rodney's place had better water pressure than he had at home, although John couldn't find the soap and didn't know about how Rodney would feel about anyone using his shampoo, so he didn't.

The water echoed weirdly off of tile, instead of the pattering sound John was used to, and it was both colder and less airy than John's clawfoot tub with the curtains that gapped and always left a puddle oozing into the hall.

The lights suddenly shut off.

"Whoops. Sorry, sorry," he heard Rodney say through the door as the light came back on.

Rodney clicked a different switch. A loud fan started overhead and John glanced up. He heard the tinkle of Rodney taking a leak and wondered if Rodney was going to join him. He was sort of relieved when the toilet flushed and he didn't. It was 2 a.m. and he was tired.

He didn't discover that Rodney had no bath towels in there until he was dripping in the middle of the floor, so he wiped down with his tee-shirt instead.

The living room was dark by the time he popped open the door, a rush of cool air coming in. The only pool of light came from Rodney's room. The living room was cold and draughty, so John hurried through, carrying the damp tee-shirt he had planned to wear to bed.

He found Rodney out cold, flopped face down on his pillow, his jaw slack. With a little snort of laughter, he realized that Rodney hadn't left him any space on the bed. He ran a hand over his face, considering, but he was way too tired and bleary to even consider driving home.

He sat down, the mattress sagging under his weight and poked Rodney, whispering, "Hey. Move over, buddy."

Without waking up, Rodney rolled over, one arm flopping across the entire other half of the bed.

Good enough.

~*~*~

A few hours later, the dawn was just a bare hint of gray through the curtains, dusky, turning the refrigerator, boxes, and Rodney's overloaded kitchen table into vague angular shapes of shaded gray and black. There was just barely enough light to see by as John scuffed around. He blinked against the bright light of the refrigerator and grabbed the milk. He lifted the carton to his mouth out of sheer habit, then stopped. Looking around, he hunted for a glass, pulling open a cupboard – and just barely caught the line of CDs with his forearm before they fell, swearing under his breath. He'd forgotten Rodney's storage issues.

Shutting the cupboard, he surveyed the pile of dirty dishes doubtfully. Dropping his hand he gave up, sniffed the milk as a precaution, then drank directly from the carton and stuffed it into the fridge. The light shut off.

Back-lit against the kitchen window, John shrugged on his jacket and adjusted the shoulders. It turned out that pens were easy to scavenge in Rodney's piles of newspapers, envelopes, and open vitamin jars cluttering the kitchen table. John extracted what looked like a long grocery receipt from the pile. It curled under his hand as he flattened it and penned Rodney a note.

We slept through my practice. Sorry. Bet I shut off the alarm.
See you tomorrow, 4 a.m.?

John

He weighed it down with two vitamin jars and straightened this collar, leaning to peer out the window at his car in Rodney's driveway. The passenger side door was wide open.

"Fuck," John said, and hurried for the door.

Rodney's front door had also been left open a crack, Rodney's jacket was flung onto the floor, and John figured his underwear -- technically "dance belt" but same thing -- was in all likelihood tangled up in Rodney's sheets. Rodney was still out cold, probably slobbering like a big, friendly puppy.

Outside in the biting pre-dawn breeze, John missed his socks more than the underwear.

The car started, thank god for the broken dome light. John patted the Chevy's steering wheel affectionately and headed home, a smug satiated smile reflected on the inside of the windshield.

~*~*~

The sun peeked over the horizon, warming the frosted windows in his bathroom in pink and gold as John brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. It was almost full daylight outside, filling the kitchen and filtering into his main room by the time he lay back and folded his arms behind his head.

He shifted.

After five minutes, John found he couldn't sleep, his mind buzzing, his body hopped up on adrenaline like he'd had too much sugar.

By 6:30 a.m. he gave it up.

The rest of the day was spent in a kind of mental haze.

He ate, washed the dishes, and found himself cleaning the entire kitchen for reasons he couldn't explain. He stopped himself once he realized he'd started in on the freezer, squeezed the sponge out and tossed it in the sink.

After breakfast he turned on some music, his rock n' roll a little quieter than usual since it was eight o'clock in the morning. He pocketed his keys, and took a quick barefoot run down the hall of the apartment building, down the stairs and outside to the mailbox across cold pavement, and then back, using the trip for his warm up, legs feeling a little rubbery and tired. He tossed the mail on the table, ignoring the taut pull of certain clenched muscles on his inner thighs that he hadn't felt in way too long.

In the main room he pulled the weights away from the wall to the center of the floor, adjusting the workout bench. He picked a lighter set, spinning the wingnuts snug with a practiced gesture. He stretched out, lying back on the padded workout bench, feeling achy and tight everywhere. He yawned and sniffed. Then, frowning with concentration, he tried to force his shaky body into submission, a sharp exhale of breath as he started his first rep.

The bar wobbled on the way up.

~*~*~

It was a terrible day.

Rodney woke with a headache to a sore back, an empty bed and -- worst of all -- broad daylight. With a surge of panic Rodney grabbed his clock off the end table, peered at it, and swore, long and colorfully, dropping it onto the bed.

He was supposed to ride with John to the rink and now he was going to have to get a cab and, oh God, he had the Bevingtons again today. Plus he'd obviously missed John's skate time, not that either of them would have been of any use after last night.

Rodney allowed himself the luxury of gloating over that fact, even though, oh, this was very stupid of them. He lurched out of bed.

He saved time by brushing his teeth in the shower. And discovered he'd run out of bath towels -- this morning was getting better and better. John had probably used the last one. He was forced to use his tee-shirt, and rolled on deodorant, and then, with his shirt hanging open, he prowled into the kitchen. He opened a tub of peanut butter ate it straight from the jar with a spoon, leaving the open container on the counter while he dialed a cab.

~*~*~

John set the barbell down with a clank, vividly aware that around this time yesterday he'd been at the rink with Rodney and then practically running for the car, Rodney's warm chest under him as they'd— He blinked the image away.

He ran his hand through his hair and sat up. He really had to stop thinking about that. The exercises weren't all that effective if he couldn't pay attention and focus on the specific muscle groups. His mind just kept returning to the feel of Rodney under him, the flutter of his eyes closing and that little exhale when they had...

John pulled the hand towel from around his neck and wiped the sweat off his face. He let out his breath in a heavy sigh.

On the top shelf of his closet was a stack of thin white boxes. He pulled them out and stacked them on the bed. It was less than exciting but stuffing envelopes and sorting them by zip code was good for some grocery money. And it was something John could do when he was distracted.

~*~*~

Amanda Bevington was a perfect angel, at least according to her mother, so therefore her poor performance had nothing to do with her not practicing and everything to do with Rodney being five minutes late that morning. Of course.

Rodney had narrowly avoided the injudicious sarcasm that tended to lose him clients -- although it was a near squeak. He'd been up all night and therefore his notoriously limited patience was worn to a finely tuned thread. As it stood, his suggestion that her practice sessions be supervised – i.e. enforced – was not well received. Mrs. Bevington was a big woman with a haughty all-seeing air, certain that anyone who required her money would do as little for it as possible. Her mere presence was an insult.

"A glittering skating dress only makes you a make-believe skater," Rodney told Amanda, baring his teeth in a smile. He flickered his fingers like little sparkles rising.

All right, perhaps a teeny shred of sarcasm escaped.

~*~*~

The gears on John's ten speed whirred and clicked as he coasted to a stop in front of the nine-story building in downtown Toronto. He slung the overstuffed backpack to one shoulder while he went down on his knee to lock his bike. Gazing up the glass front of the office building, he slipped the pack onto his shoulders and tightened the belt. He swept past preoccupied people in business suits hurrying to lunch. Inside, he angled to the left, past the marble fountain in the lobby to the fire escape stairwell. He was only going to the fourth floor.

The office was small, with six or seven desks tucked away in a lilac and beige cubicle maze. Fortunately, Julia was still at her desk. John hated waiting around for her. Places like these made him feel like they were closing in on him, like they didn't have enough air. He leaned a hip against her cubicle wall and waited to be noticed.

Julia wore a loose tunic, little make up, and had long blond hair in deliberate waves that was starting to show brown at the roots. She glanced up from her computer and blinked at him in surprise, smiling. "Oh, hi, John. You're early."

~*~*~

As if to add a little "spice" to Rodney's day, he learned he had apparently lost someone's check and therefore had been teaching them gratis for weeks. Not only was it embarrassing, it gave him worrisome entertainment throughout his entire break, chasing through files till he found it, stapled to their application, right where it ought to be – after it was cashed. Annoyed with himself and rolling his eyes, Rodney pried the staple off the application.

He stumbled across his Skate Canada rule book in the search and took a moment to flip through and look up the policy on coaches sleeping with students – it had never been an issue before so he'd never bothered to read it. Who did? The rules printed in clear black and white made him swallow around a dry throat. Oh, no problem, John could just get him kicked out of coaching forever if he filed a complaint. Though it seemed like John would have to be the one to do it, or his parents if he were underage. How much could he trust John?

But his day was destined yet to improve. With a little negotiation and creativity with his fees, he'd been able to move the nine-year-old Bethany Morris, his impoverished young star, to private instruction. He planned to keep her at the Novice level as long as possible, cleaning everyone's clocks to build her confidence. She was his best hope for a Junior Worlds and had that rare combination: talent, and a willingness to work. If he'd realized how unusually dedicated he'd been as a teenager he would have made his coach spit-shine his skates.

It quickly became apparent Beth was not exactly in top form today. Her fluffy brown ponytail flew, fluffed like a Persian cat's tail as her legs slid out from under her and she hit the ice.

"Okay," Rodney said with barely suppressed laughter as he skated over to her. "Now that is the first time I've seen you fall while just standing at the boards."

"It's not my fault," she pouted, her small blue eyes squinting petulantly. "I have cramps."

Rodney gave an exasperated sigh. "I told you to warm up properly before class. It prevents injury to you and keeps me from dying of boredom." He pointed his thumb at his chest.

"Not that," she said. Then gave him a bug-eyed meaningful look that he apparently was supposed to interpret. When he didn't respond, she said, "The other kind." She blushed, the color deepening her freckles.

"What other kind?" Rodney puzzled. "Stop speaking in riddles. I don't enjoy guessing games."

She gave him a more wide-eyed exasperated meaningful look, tilting her head. Then he got it. Of course he did. Ninety-seven percent of his students were girls.

"That's impossible! You're only nine years old!"

Her mouth fell open in appalled offense. "I'm ten and a half!"

"Oh," Rodney said, disappointment and unhappiness sliding across his face, warring with his immediate sense of oh, great, not this and why me? From here on out they were doomed to have one week in four that was limited in its productiveness. He had no idea why it effected so many skaters' equilibrium. He slumped. "Um. Okay."

She looked up at him. "Can I just...?" She inclined her head towards the stands, her eyes wistful. He hoped it was only a moment of weakness.

"Are you out of your mind? Do you think all your future competitions will be scheduled around, around—" He waved a hand, feeling a little out of his depth. "—that, for your convenience? If I don't see a cast or the stump of a missing limb, you're skating!"

~*~*~

Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose as he dropped his keys on top of the pile of unopened mail on the kitchen table, contemplating dinner versus just going to bed. It was already nine p.m. and he was due to be up in less than eight hours. Then he remembered that it was John he was going to be teaching tomorrow and warmed at the thought.

As if on cue, the phone rang. It was ridiculously late so either it was Radek forgetting the time difference again, or... Rodney checked the caller ID... John. He fumbled the phone as he picked it up.

There was hard rock blasting in the background. It sounded like Metallica. The neighbors probably hated John.

"Hi," John said, a little breathless.

"Hi."

"Got my note?"

"Yes."

"Tomorrow then."

"Right."

"Okay." There was a reluctant pause. "See you then."

"Yeah."

"Bye."

"Bye."

They hung up. And such a brief conversation should not have left Rodney flying.

~*~*~

John leaned out the car window, the light up menu glowing orange on his face as he scanned it, exhaust steaming around him. "I'll have an Egg McMuffin, an order of hash browns ... you know what? Make that two hash browns. Large OJ." He ducked into the car. "What'll it be, Rodney? Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

"Sometimes you're depressingly American." Rodney folded his arms and refused to participate.

John smiled at the intercom, which was just bizarre because the speaker couldn't see him. "He'll have the same -- only coffee instead of OJ," he added quickly, holding up a hand to forestall Rodney's knee-jerk 'citrus allergy' complaint. "Large coffee. He's cranky." John nodded, beaming. "Maybe we should get him a Happy Meal."

"You do know you're talking to a machine, right?"

"There's a real person on the other end," John said as he drove around to the drive-thru window.

"Fast food employees are not real people. They are illiterate morons whose sole purpose in life is to give you tepid water for your tea, forget the sugar, and yet insist on giving you a little paper cup with a nice deadly slice of lemon."

"I worked for McDonald's once. I used to close for the extra dollar an hour." John grinned as he handed Rodney the warm paper sacks. Rodney rattled through them suspiciously, counting hash browns while John handed over the cash.

"A lifetime of screwed up fast food orders has just been explained. Although no doubt the little paper hat looked sweet."

"I refused to wear the hat after the first day." John didn't wait for Rodney to finish perusing the bags and pulled away.

They were halfway out of the drive-thru about to head for the rink when Rodney squawked, "Oh, I don't believe it!" He gave an exaggerated sigh, crumpling the bag between his knees. "Where are the napkins? God, these people can't get anything right."

John threw the car in reverse, arm slung over the seat looking over his shoulder as he backed up, fishtailing.

"Wait! You can't go backwards in a drive-thru! You're supposed to pull up to the side where they make you wait for special orders."

"No one's there, Rodney." John swerved to get a better angle of approach. "And it figures you'd be one of those assholes with the special orders."

The girl in the window stared, startled as they reappeared in reverse. John thumbed over at Rodney. "He needs napkins." He wrinkled his nose and said with a wide smirk, bobbing his head, "Messy eater."

Rodney made an annoyed sound in response without looking up. Then held up a forefinger, still staring into the bag. "Ketchup," he announced.

~*~*~

Their next skate went reasonably well.

Rodney gave instructions.

John listened, his eyes on the ice, a little quieter than normal, which actually was quite bizarre.

He glided out to the center of the rink, his left skate carving him into a gentle turn, and did exactly what he was told, without debate, which left Rodney even more surprised. It was as if John were determined to prove that the other night wouldn't effect his training.

It was having quite the opposite effect. Rodney was beginning to wish that they'd done this sooner, insane risks to Rodney's career notwithstanding. He visualized conversations with John's former coach in his mind, Oh? How did I get him to listen to me? All you have to do is sleep with him and it's surprising how cooperative he becomes. No doubt half his pissiness is pure sexual frustration. Of course, Ed Wilcoxin was straight so it would never have worked for him.

Nevertheless, Rodney set aside their pairs skating for the time being, and he made a point of not touching John the way he would normally, maintaining his focus on simple footwork and stroking, working on subtle shifts in his edges. It conveniently kept him in constant motion and halfway across the rink for the entire session.

Rodney waved his approval from a distance and spun his finger to signal John to repeat the circuit. John gave him a duck of his head and a nod, and continued.

The last thing they needed was to start necking in the middle of the rink. Again.

They didn't mention a thing about the other night until John returned, his hair tousled, face damp, smelling sharply of male sweat. As he wiped down his skates – Rodney was already in his street clothes – John said:

"So. Tonight?"

Rodney paused, heart stopping.

"Sure," he said in a voice that was almost a squeak, much less confident than he would have liked. "My– my place?" he added, cursing himself for sounding like a love-struck teenager.

"Good." John looked up with soft eyes and gave him an endearing relieved smile, and Rodney thought that no one would blame him.

~*~*~

Later that evening, Rodney's neighbors were outside doing yard work in the bright gold sunset that cast a stark latticework of tree-branch shadows all the way down Rodney's street, the patchy dark gray clouds and puddles edged with color. Their son dragged two large trash cans full of leaves and dead branches to the curb, the surly slump of his shoulders advertising his resentment.

A dusty burgundy Chevy pulled into Rodney's drive, John's loud music thrumming but muted through the car door. The engine cut off, silencing the music with it. After a moment John stepped out, looking freshly scrubbed, hair relatively tame, clean shaven, his narrow hazel eyes bright as he glanced up at the sky then pulled a daypack from the back seat.

There was a skip to his step as he climbed the stair to Rodney's porch and rang the bell.

~*~*~

At Tech Nine Audio in the mall, a wall of flickering big screen TVs were surrounded by banks of smaller sets that all showed the same commercial advertising Orville Redenbacher popcorn. They flashed to a swooping overhead view of Jamestown Savings Bank Ice Arena just outside of Buffalo, New York.

"Welcome back to the second annual Orville Redenbacher 'Reach For The Stars' Challenge, a who's who of figure skating's champions, plus a glimpse of our brightest rising young stars!"

Behind the two announcers, small, distant skaters warmed up on the ice.

"Yes, Ted. Everyone who's anyone is here today. Isn't it exciting?" gushed a woman with red mittens wrapped around her ABC microphone.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, John listened to the pre-competition commentary, shoulders hunched, looking much like a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons. A little plastic bag with a receipt and coiled extension cord in it slumped in his lap. He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced over.

"Come here often?" Rodney stood in the glass doorway of the store, regarding him with a curious eye and warm quirk of a smile. Lazy Saturday shoppers passed behind him with packages and paper bags in hand. Two kids carrying drippy ice cones stumbled after a tired looking woman pushing a stroller.

"Hey, stranger." John dipped his head and edged over to give him space against the carpeted cube he was using as a backrest. Rodney settled next to him, his own shopping bags rustling as dropped them on the floor with twin thumps. He pulled a small spiral bound notepad out of one and rested it on his knee.

"Better reception than my TV at home," John explained, giving the clerk a stray guilty glance. The young guy with glasses didn't look up from his magazine. "I tell them I'm waiting for my wife. Who's shopping." John leaned over conspiratorially. "If you say 'shopping' with just the right attitude, they'll let you stay as long as you like."

"And I thought I was the only one who did this." Rodney snickered. "Though I usually just buy something portable and expensive and tell them to get lost." He brushed his hands off and snuggled his back more comfortably into their carpeted cube. "A pity we can't find a sports bar that'll show figure skating."

"Yes. Dehydration's a definite danger." John pursed his lips and agreed, bobbing his head mockingly.

"—we have the current National Champion, Kyle Fletcher, here to start us off."

They hushed each other for the celebrity interviews. The cameras switched to Kyle Fletcher, rink-side.

Kyle always looked like a deer caught in headlights in front of cameras, warm puppy eyes with long lashes gazing past them with a distant distracted look, lips parted like someone had just woke him for a surprise interview, although it had to have been scheduled for weeks. He was the sort of guy who could walk around with his shirt half untucked all day and never notice. Everyone in the figure skating community knew that Kyle would rather eat a plate of his own shit than give an interview, but he had to do them all the time.

"So, Kyle, what do you think of your chances of taking the gold here today?"

He shifted uncomfortably, leaned in to the microphone, his shoulders tight, and said in a measured tone, "Uh. Probably pretty good."

"And what do you think of Jeff Kulka? They say he has the best shot at beating you this afternoon." The microphone returned to Kyle.

"Jeff's a nice guy," he said, an eye tracking the camera with a nervous glance.

The woman from ABC struggled to get interesting answers from the reticent Fletcher, asking tougher questions. She towered over the five foot nine inch, twenty-two year old skater.

"I understand many people are critical of your decision not to attend the America Cup next week."

"To go to a cheese-fest," John supplied for them in an undertone, and Rodney snorted.

"What is your response?"

"Uh."

Rodney shook his head. "If there was ever a kid who needed his mother to still dress him...."

"Now, now," John said. "Try not to bite." Though inwardly he agreed, fully aware that he was just seething with jealousy.

Once Kyle had set a new standard for vagueness, ABC thanked him and cut away to rave about his unique style.

They showed clips of Fletcher's performance at Nationals, skating to Duke Ellington's "Caravan," music that was as unusual as his skating. He jumped clockwise instead of counterclockwise, and his jumping technique was weird, had this little flail before he left the ice that should lose him points – but it didn't matter. That extra push launched him incredibly high, high enough that there was the risk of his losing the ice on the way down. But he never did. The hang time meant that each jump was on display, seeming to hit slow motion in the air.

Beautiful. John shook his head, envy evaporating into clear-eyed wonder.

John bent to Rodney and murmured, "I want a free pass," his eyes on the screen like a cat. "If I ever get a chance to do Fletcher...."

"He has a girlfriend," Rodney scoffed.

"I said 'if.'"

Rodney snorted. "I can hardly see why, beyond the natural aphrodisiac of fame." Then smirked. "And yes, but only if I get the same -- plus torrid photos of your whole affair. Close-ups," he added.

John waved a hand like a priest giving absolution. "You're forgiven, my wayward lamb." And got an elbow in the ribs for what he thought was a pretty good imitation of Obi-wan Kenobi.

The video froze with Fletcher still in mid-air, and the announcers talked about how even skaters who could do it avoided jumping so high because of the danger: it was that much harder to land on a quarter inch edge.

"Kyle's a high risk performer," said the woman with the red mittens.

He was musical, too, went to some kind of art school. But Fletcher only recently started landing his quads, and they didn't have the height and speed of his triple axel. That was the one area where John had him beat.

The television broke for a commercial -- more popcorn, they were making John hungry -- then returned to a montage of the women skaters and an interview with Heidi Pauwels, even though the women's event wasn't for another two hours.

The first skater up was Jeff Kulka, skating gracelessly to center ice. The rules were loose at this "competition," with lyrics and even props allowed, the performance aspect coming first. The point was to please the crowd. And sell popcorn.

Kulka simply used his long program from Nationals, though he got a rousing cheer for a back flip he threw in.

John snorted at the cheap thrill. "That's easy."

"Shh," said Rodney, taking notes.

Kulka skated conservatively, seeming bored. Some skaters needed the edge of a real competition to turn them on.

Then after still more popcorn commercials – you never forgot who the sponsor was, now did you? – the cameras abruptly and inexpertly cut to Mark Svick, wearing a purple Prince Valiant costume. He let out a breath and began backward stroking, a little ahead of his music. John couldn't help a small vicious smile at that. He had nothing personal against Mark, they'd been chasing each other's tail winds at various competitions for two years, but after his disappointment over the America Cup he resented anyone who was going. Though he'd been okay with it before.

He launched into his first combination jump, stepping into a beautiful triple salchow, then dug his toe pick into the ice and sprung into the double toe loop – and over rotated, landing with his skate almost sideways. John winced, a hiss through his teeth. Svick fell on his ass, and bounced back up, stroking to match the pace of his music. But he was already out of the running.

"Oh, that's such a shame...." said the announcer."

Rodney leaned forward, an elbow on his knee. He tapped his lower lip with a forefinger, and then held it up. "Medieval themes are a tad overused this season but I like the effect."

John glanced at him in surprise, realizing for the first time that Rodney was watching for very different reasons. Rodney's eyes flicked between his notepad and the screen as he took rapid fire notes with incomprehensible arrows and stick figures.

The rest of Mark's program was picture perfect, effortless. John could almost see the pressure come off his thin shoulders as he relaxed into it.

At the end, the crowd cheered, recognizing the great recovery he'd made. Mark's prominent Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, beaming, and took a bow.

"What a wonderful performance," the woman with the red mittens said.

"He may not have won here today but he has certainly won over this crowd," the other announcer said, laughing.

So there was a point to cheese-fests after all.

The next skater was someone from Australia whom John had never heard of – and then a Japanese skater doing his first international performance. They were clearly saving Fletcher for last. Kulka, despite his lame performance, turned out to be in the lead, and the announcers were trying to drum up some excitement that Kulka "--might catch the elusive Fletcher just this once. Can he do it?" As if Jeff's life goal were to beat Kyle, rather than the more practical aim of winning the fifteen grand slated for second place. John doubted even the television audience bought the phony tension. None of it mattered. All that was on the line was cash, not titles.

The skater right before Fletcher was the Korean-born American, Christian Yong Suk. The cheerful crowd hushed as he entered wearing head-to-toe black, with a black cape and white mask, straightening his leather gloves.

John perked up. He had to admit that the outfit was pretty cool. Everyone liked to play the bad guy. But Rodney had tipped his head in complete disdain, lips pressed together like he had a bad taste in his mouth, which John took to mean he'd shoot down any "cape" ideas in the near future.

The first strains of "O Fortuna" began, accompanied by drums and electric guitar -- John thought this was kick ass -- and Yong Suk took heavy spiraling steps, like a gladiator marching into the arena. Then he worked up his trademark intense speed, blazing around the far curve -- ABC had trouble switching cameras quick enough -- and slowed for his first triple-triple combination.

He hammered it. Sweet!

John caught the clerk and Rodney staring at him. He realized he might have said that aloud. "Sorry. Good jump."

"No, it wasn't," Rodney sniped.

"He nailed it," John said, turning to Rodney in annoyance.

"His coach shouldn't let him get away with that," Rodney said. "His shoulders hunched before the jump, he telegraphed it a mile beforehand, and then his landing was probably felt in Pittsburgh."

"He got his ass in the air and he was still standing afterward. That's a good jump." John began, a hand out, earnestly trying to explain this to Rodney. "Look. My brother's in the Air Force, right? The way he put it is this: a good landing is one you can walk away from. A great landing is one where you can reuse the plane."

Rodney's knowing chuckle was snide. "First, remind me to never fly with your brother, because the idea of anyone even remotely like you in control of a machine that's capable of a velocity of over four hundred miles per hour is terrifying. Second," Rodney said with a smile, "airline travel has no bearing on the artistry of a perfect salchow."

"You have to not worry about how you do it. The more you think, the more likely you are to screw it up."

"He's down! Christian Yong Suk is down!" the television shouted.

John and Rodney spun to the TV.

They found Yong Suk curled up on the ice, one hand wrapped around his knee, the shaky cameras zooming in as he tried to lever his shoulders off the ice with the other. People were hurrying onto the rink while cameras glided in close. Yong Suk shook his head, brushing them away.

"What happened?" Rodney turned to the clerk.

The young clerk shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose, staring in fascination. "I dunno, exactly. It looked pretty silly at first but then he didn't get back up."

"The judges are offering... Yes, if Christian is able to, he will be allowed restart his program," the woman announcer said.

"It is so difficult to perform after a fall like that. You've lost all momentum and it's really hard to put it out of your mind. Let's have a look at what happened."

Eyes wide, John watched as ABC replayed the scene in slow motion. Yong Suk's twizzle steps, spinning on one leg as he swept off the cape. But instead of it fanning out around him, the cape wrapped around an arm--

"He could have recovered there, but then—" the woman announcer began.

In slow motion they watched Yong Suk struggle to shake it off, and the cape dropped to the ground. The slo-mo paused here, the cape in midair, almost at his feet—

"—And that's where it tangled his skate," she ended.

The replay inched forward to when the lump of fabric fell. Yong Suk jerked to a stop and went down like he'd been hit by a middle linebacker, arms out, jaw cracking the ice. The instant replay froze as he curled around his leg.

"Falls are so common in figure skating. You feel yourself start to slide then try to control the landing. But here, something like this -- technically, he wasn't even on ice for that moment," the other announcer said in a gruff voice. "This is why props are not allowed in official competitions. One of the many, many, very good reasons."

The camera returned to Yong Suk in the present. He had an arm around his coach's shoulders, standing on the ice, his leg bent like a stork's. Officials and camera crews milled about him, cutting in front of the camera.

"He's not skating today," John said.

"The angle and speed he fell? I'd be worried about a hip fracture," Rodney responded. "They shouldn't be letting him stand on it."

"No. You got so much adrenaline pumping from the program and the fall, you can't feel what's going wrong," John agreed.

The woman broke in, "Well, we have the word now: Christian Yong Suk will not be restarting his program."

"We will have more information—and Kyle Fletcher—after a short commercial break."

"Is he going to be okay?" the clerk asked Rodney.

"The leg is still attached and he was able to stand, so he'll not be joining the society for the halt and lame anytime soon, no," Rodney said.

"But skating wise...." John broke in, shaking his head.

Rodney nodded. "His season's definitely over."

"Which..." John blinked once, face going blank. "...is a shame." And he was quiet a moment, before he added, "I mean, it--it could be a serious injury that affects him for the long haul. And that would be... really bad."

"Yes, it's quite sad," Rodney agreed. Then pointed out, reassuring John, "Although he was walking."

"Yeah. That's... good. Still, uh, I hope he's okay," John said, licking his lips.

"Oh, yes," Rodney said. "Me, too."

They were silent a long, pregnant moment.

Rodney took a deep breath and said in a tight voice, not looking at John, thumbing towards the TV, "You're aware that you're next in line for the America Cup at this point, right?"

"Yep."

"So we can stop pretending now?"

John let out the breath he was holding, face in his hands. "It's the best news all week."

~*~*~

February, 1986

"Welcome to the 1986 Winter Olympics! The excitement is building for the crown jewel of these Olympic games: women's figure skating. But first we have the men's event."

"Yes, Frank, and the star of the show is Canada's seventeen-year-old Rodney McKay."

"McKay has medaled in every major competition he's entered over the last three years, with the exception of the Grand Prix where he was beaten by veteran teammate Serge Martineau. But these are McKay's first Olympic games."

"The pressure is intense."

"He is expected to medal here. The question is: will it be silver or gold? Or will the Soviets push him back to bronze?"

~*~*~

The hotel was the nicest one near the Olympic village; three stories of intricate brickwork that clearly predated the bombing of WWII. The interior was modern brass and white with thick carpeting, and there was a guard at attention just inside the door. Clusters of well-dressed people carrying briefcases spoke together in whispers, and Radek was reminded of the embassy in Prague where he'd had to get his papers to go to the Olympic games.

He hadn't liked that experience either.

Radek's guide, the director's sister-in-law, left him with her friend, the man he didn't know, and leaned over the counter to speak with the front desk clerk. She gestured Radek over with a little clutching motion. He was asked to sign a book to be permitted in. He set the gold pen down and wrung his hands.

The elevator was new and worked as smooth as glass. Radek watched the numbers as if his life depended on them and evaded any conversation. Outside room number 322, his two guides paused in the hallway. The woman waved Radek in with an artificial smile.

The director of the Czechoslovakian Olympic Committee had a room with the same thick white carpeting, but overlaid with oriental rugs. It was smaller than Radek had expected, considering the lobby, with just a wide bed with two graceful bedside tables. There was a mahogany roll top desk against one wall, and curtains drawn over what looked to be the door to a balcony on the opposite side. The director sat on the balcony side of the bed with his shoes off and tie undone. He was a short man with dark slate-gray hair and a small round face, his brow furrowed with deep worry lines over deep set eyes.

"Hello, Mr. Zelenka, come in," he said, waving him in with the same cupping gesture his sister-in-law had used.

Radek wiped his feet outside the door. He was not usually called Mr. Zelenka, that was his father's name, but he obeyed, pausing at the foot of the bed.

"Please, have a seat," the director patted the spot next to himself. "It's Radek, isn't it?"

"Yes, Mr. Director," Radek said, sitting gingerly, upright and wary, hands folded in his lap. The director's black socks had crisscrossing diamond patterns on them.

"Please, call me Karl. There is no need to be formal." He pulled an old fashioned cigarette case out of his pocket. "Cigarette?"

"Ah. I have my own, thank you," Radek said, patting his pocket. He very carefully didn't use the director's name either.

The director brought out his own cigarette and lit it. Glancing over at him warily, Radek pulled out his battered cheaper packet. The director offered a light and Radek was forced to lean forward and accept, aware that this was meant to relax him. It didn't work. They sat back in silence, enjoying the smoke.

"So," the director began, blue smoke striping the air. "How are the Olympic games so far for you?"

Normally this line of conversation would get an enthusiastic response from Radek, spilling out detailed descriptions of all he'd seen and done, plus his views on everything from warm German beer to the current ski jump standings. And figure skating, too, now that he'd taken an interest.

"Good," was all Radek said.

"Glad to hear it," said the director.

They fell silent again.

"I understand from the other judges that your family would like you to be an engineer. That you show some promise." The director blew a puff of smoke. "Czechoslovakia could use more engineers. Building roads, bridges. It's a noble profession."

"Yes." Radek nodded, blinking behind his round glasses, not even trying to hide his nervousness.

"My son is an engineer." The director pointed with his cigarette. "Quite a good one. He could take you under his wing in the future. Help guide you in your career."

Radek could not think of anything he wanted less. "Thank you, that's... very kind."

"We help those who help us, in my family."

The director regarded him with a sharp eye now, and Radek shrank where he sat. Here it came. He listened with every pore for what was not being said.

"We could use your help," the director added.

"Mine?" Radek squeaked. He elected to play innocent. Ignorant on the other hand, was nothing less than the truth. The director was not prodding in the direction he had expected – and feared – with questions about his loyalty and hints regarding certain Canadian figure skaters. Consorting with Rodney could get him branded a dissident, though he was sure he'd been careful enough. Almost certain. "What for?"

The director sighed, world-weary and well acted. "With your brother.''

Radek's throat closed up in alarm. "Is he in any trouble?"

His mind flashed through dozens of possibilities, all of them entirely too likely. It was not without reason his father had sent Radek to watch his brother Jiri. He was too enthusiastic about the west and Glasnost, which was all well and good for the Kremlin, but the Czechoslovakian leaders were more... conservative. You couldn't say anything bad about Stalin.

"No, he isn't in any trouble. Although a sixteen year old boy, far from home? That is simply asking for problems. Wise of your father to send along his responsible engineer," the director patted Radek's knee twice at the word 'responsible,' hard enough to make Radek wince, "to keep an eye on his little brother."

This engineer talk was getting to be a little much for Radek. "I'm still in school, not in university yet. If I'm even a candidate next year."

"That will not be a problem," the director assured him, with a firm confidence that told Radek all he needed to know.

Whatever the director wanted, he wanted it badly enough to offer a bribe. Which meant that he would not accept a no. This was no mere favor. Now Radek was really nervous.

"Er, I do not understand," Radek said, dodging any agreement to the bribe. Especially when he did not know what it was for.

"I need you to convince your brother not to throw away his entire future for just one ski jump," the director said.

Radek asked, with growing trepidation, "Which ski jump do you mean?" This was much worse than he imagined.

"The large hill."

Radek dropped his face to his hands. He couldn't help it, he knew it was dangerous not to appear cooperative, but that was his brother's main event. Without it, he had no Olympics. They were taking it all away.

The director continued, his voice rising and obviously irritated, "He is just sixteen, with a long Olympic career ahead of him if he remains eligible. In four years he'll be twenty. There will be another Olympics. He should not jeopardize that for nothing." The director's eyes had darkened with alarm over Radek's reaction. "He's such a young boy, of course he lives just in the moment, for this one jump. He does not consider the future. But he needs to think of the wider implications." And that phrasing alone convinced Radek the Soviets were involved somehow; why, he didn't know. His brother had jeopardized their medal count? A Soviet jumper had powerful friends? "As his older brother you must have a better understanding. Someday he'll need to work, he'll want to be married – maybe even go to university like yourself. He needs to not ruin all this for himself, for you, and for your family, when just a little patience will make all the difference."

Radek pulled himself together, to ask, the words strangled, "You've spoken with him?"

He prayed his brother had not said no.

The director smiled, his voice tinged with relief. "We need you to talk to him." He spread his hands, the shadow of anger still on his face, but calmer now. "He does not know us. But he'll listen to his older brother."

Radek bowed his head. There was nothing to be done about it. "I'll do what I can."

He made no promises. Because he knew what his brother would have to say.

~*~*~

February, 1999

Monday morning, Rodney was at the door before John could even knock, pushing past John onto the porch. He turned and grabbed John's arm, pulling and shoving him towards the Chevy.

"In, in! Get in the car. We've already lost two days and the only reason I didn't make you skate yesterday is that my Sundays are sacred as the only day of the week I get off." He yanked open the car door.

"You've been getting off pretty much every night from what I've seen." John smirked, his eyes glittering with humor as he slid behind the steering wheel. Rodney slammed the passenger side door and snuggled his shoulders into the seat.

"Driving! I don't see you driving! Cheap jokes aren't going to get us to the rink any faster." He checked his watch, sitting forward and tapping his foot. "We're going to be three minutes late because of this time-wasting conversation alone."

"No, we won't." John looked over at him suspiciously as he stepped on the gas, speeding. "Have you slept?"

"You have a mere eight days to get ready for a major competition – no, make that seven days and twelve hours – you haven't performed a single one of your jumps in over a month, and you're worried about whether or not I've slept?" Rodney took a deep sip from his coffee mug.

"Okay. That's a no." John crouched over the steering wheel, shifty-eyed and looking anywhere but at Rodney. "I think we're gonna be fine."

"Well, pardon me if I don't find your utterly baseless confidence all that reassuring!"

At the rink, John discovered that his playful, relaxed, and imaginative coach of the last six weeks had vanished, to be replaced by Hitler. Rodney was already giving orders while they dressed, rink-side.

"When you wake up in the morning what is your first thought?" Rodney snapped his fingers when John didn't answer right away.

"That I need to go to the bathroom."

"No! Wrong. Your first thought is to run through your short program, visualizing every aspect of your choreography. I want you to imagine your program as if you were really there."

"While I'm going to the bathroom." John gave him a tired look.

Rodney huffed, almost whining. "If you must."

John was on the nearly empty ice before Rodney, beginning his warm up. Rodney shouted to him as he returned, rounding the first lap, "We won't have any time to work on the dance aspects so I want you to walk those out at home – with music! Never mind how it looks to the neighbors, in fact, it's better if the neighbors see you so you get a little practice performing."

John whizzed by him, thinking of the kind of speed Yong Suk had managed. He wondered if he could do it.

"But right now we'll need to focus on your more difficult elements, try to get you back up to speed. Sadly, we'll have to eschew music for this morning -- though tomorrow I want to see your entire long program, straight through."

Rodney stepped out onto the ice, straightening his orange warm-up jacket with a tug. John turned and stroked backwards, losing a little momentum. Yong Suk did favor forward jumps. He was beginning to see why.

"Now. We'll start with single jumps and work our way up. Don't be upset if it doesn't go as well as you remember. It's just like riding a bicycle—"

John swung his inside leg back, arms flung out in a slicing gesture as he nicked the ice with his toe pick, spinning tight into an effortless triple Lutz, landing backward again. It really was his favorite jump. Something about starting and ending backward, not knowing where you were headed and flying blind....

Rodney made a strangled sound off to his right. John glanced his direction to see if he was okay.

"Okay, okay, that's, uh, not bad for a first time out...." Rodney said, his voice a little high, gliding onto the ice behind him with a sharp clap. He rubbed his hands together. "Okay, then. Um. Let this be a lesson to you: if you ever have to stop the jumps for a while, always keep up with your spins. Then they'll return to you as natural as breathing." He frowned. "Apparently."

John returned, hands on his hips as he finished the curve of his momentum. He nodded, pursed his lips and said in a dry voice, "I'll try to remember that."

~*~*~

February, 1986

"And now for a word on the Canadian controversy... two days ago, seventeen-year-old figure skater, Rodney McKay, was spotted in an airport bar in Amsterdam, far from the Olympic games. Here's what some of his fans have to say."

"If he doesn't want to be there, I bet there are plenty of others who'd be glad to be at the Olympics. I'm just saying."

"Rodney's my favorite skater. I'm sure he had a good reason to be in Amsterdam. I mean, no one's said he was actually drinking."

"For me, I don't care what he does in his spare time, but while he's at the Olympics he's supposed to be representing us."

"What I wonder is who's keeping an eye on that boy? Where are his parents? And what were they doing serving alcohol to a minor in that airport? Something should be done about that."

"I usually think of the Olympics as being totally intense and stuff. But he's just a figure skater, so I guess that's easier than, like, skiing."

~*~*~

February, 1999

Squeezed into a tiny table at a Chinese take-out joint, Rodney dropped noodles from his chopsticks – John wrinkled his nose, watching him stuff his face – and they reviewed John's schedule. He crossed off John's laundry, his grocery shopping, and nixed two of his cardio sessions.

"Okay, I get why you don't want me to have a life -- though I don't see what you think I'm going to wear in Colorado -- but taking off the cardio?" John rumpled his eyebrows and shot him a funny look.

Rodney wolfed down noodles, pointing with a chopstick. He said, muffled through his mouthful, "Trust me, you'll have more cardio than you can stand, given the number of times I'm going to make you run through your program this week." He swallowed. "Now. How much anaerobic training do you do on average?"

With a grudging tip of his head, John admitted, "I train to near muscle failure about three or four times a week."

"On average?" Rodney leaned towards him with a puzzled expression.

"I like to see how far I can push it."

"Okay," Rodney breathed. "Your status as a complete masochist is confirmed. Good. Keep that up." His sharp eyes scanned the list for anything he'd missed. "And no, no, no." He sliced three big dark X's through all of John's training plans for Friday. "Nothing on Friday."

"If we go – and that's a big if – I won't be able to train Saturday," John complained.

"You still haven't heard from them?" Rodney asked, looking frazzled as he ran his hand through his short hair.

"Not a word."

"Hmm. That's disturbing...." Rodney muttered. He squared his shoulders in determination anyway. "Well. We must assume that you're going, and given that's the case, I want you to spoil like a racehorse for the Kentucky Derby on Friday. You are not to do anything."

"Can I do my laundry?"

Rodney frowned and thought about it, tipped back in his chair, running a knuckle along his lower lip. "How much laundry?" he asked, eyes slitted in suspicion.

John gave him a dirty look, head tilted at him, annoyed.

"All right, laundry's allowable." Rodney held up a finger. "But one load only."

~*~*~

The music cut off, leaving John in his final pose, his right fist punched into the air. It was the best moment of his choreography, and they were so fortunate it was at the end. Rodney clapped several times.

"Again," he said, biting into a sandwich from the other side of the boards. "This time straight through, no stopping for missed elements. You miss it, you miss it – move on. Leave it on the ice like a dog turd you don't want to clean up." He waved the hand with the sandwich as if magically making all mistakes disappear. "Don't even notice it."

John slid over with several sweeping strokes to slump in front of the boards. His long-sleeved red tee-shirt was stained dark with sweat halfway down his back and stuck to him. After a minute he reached for his water bottle, draping himself over the edge. He slanted his eyes at Rodney. "Didn't you just eat lunch?"

Rodney held the sandwich out, bemused, like it had sneaked up on him and leapt into his hands. "Um. I tend to eat when I'm nervous." He set the sandwich down on a bench and complained, hands rolled into fists. "And I hate this program, hate it, hate it, hate it. The only thing that's worse is your long program -- what possessed you to choose Holst for your music?"

"You know, I'm the one who's supposed to be a neurotic wreck," John noted.

"Well, I've got that covered it seems, so just... get out there and skate." Rodney made a wide brushing gesture. "This time with the jumps."

John moaned, dropping his head onto his folded arms. Rodney tried to ignore how much he sounded like that on other, far more intimate occasions, eyes going wide as he squirmed.

"Most people practice the jumps separate."

"And most people miss at least one of their jumps. Hmm...." Rodney tapped his chin, gazing up at the ceiling. "...I wonder if there's a connection...."

"You're killing me, Rodney."

Rodney's beaming response was smug. "Told you that you wouldn't need your cardio, Mr. I-Train-To-Muscle-Failure-Four-Times-A-Week."

"You're trying to prove something, aren't you?" John scowled at him.

But he finished his water and tossed the bottle into the trash, skating back out to center ice with quick smooth strokes. He struck his beginning pose, both palms in the small of his back. Rodney restarted the music and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to not think how similar this was to the starting pose for the Funky Chicken.

John began in a straight line step sequence, arms held in a circle as he bounced and turned like he was blown by the wind – right up into his first triple with the run of the violins.

It was a relief to see John jump, such great height, his evident delight. The piece had wonderful high notes to emphasize his jumps, too, in contrast to the unrelieved boredom of the rest of the program. Rodney could see why his former coach chose Brahms' "Hungarian Dance #5."

He realized he'd stopped watching, and forced his eyes back to John, scratching the back of his head. What made him so unwatchable when he wasn't in the air?

Rodney could feel the music and the choreography in his bones, how he himself would let his body turn first and let his head whip around after. How he'd fold his arms Cossack style and emphasize the low bounce of the cellos, bending his knees in his stroking, bring out the Slavic flavor. John was doing it right, yes, but the little touches just weren't there. He wasn't feeling it.

Machine-like, he drilled across the ice, and – ah! – another jump. It was like an oasis. John finished the program.

"How was that?" he asked, running his hands through wet sweat-slick hair.

Rodney took a breath. He'd learned from hard experience that one week before a competition was not the time for excessive honesty. "Accurate."

~*~*~

February, 1986

"Welcome to Sports Talk. A French reporter has revealed footage of Canadian skating star, Rodney McKay, slipping out at other points during the 1986 Olympic games when most athletes are preparing for their competitions. These photos show Rodney speaking with his fans—"

"Rodney always has a moment for his fans."

"—and going to museums in the town near the Olympic village."

"And another museum, and another museum... here's another one...."

"Ha. He must like museums. Maybe he was in Amsterdam for the Van Gogh?"

"Yeah right, maybe. Jeeze. I did less sightseeing on my vacation in Greece last year."

"While Rodney may have plenty of energy for his fans, he's declined to be interviewed on this matter – citing, get this, his rigorous training schedule."

"Guess he needs to make up for lost time."

~*~*~

Rodney was grounded. Grounded! Umteen thousand miles from home, he was in Europe for Christ's sakes, and his coach had him under lock and key. He stared up at the beige ceiling of his room – which didn't get any more interesting with familiarity – and folded his arms with a huff. The room was tiny and cheaply made, with aluminum trim around the windows. It was particularly stifling after the heady freedom he'd experienced over the last week. He had magazines he was allowed to read but the press was strictly off-limits in person. His coach-cum-jailer sat in the adjoining bedroom, turning pages like the steady tick of a clock. He was silently furious, giving off a storm cloud vibe that even Rodney knew to avoid.

Rodney did his best not to read the news, but curiosity got the best of him. He flung the newspaper across the room. Everything he'd said or done was getting twisted, and it was like the French press were out for blood!

"Rodney," his coach snapped, closing his magazine. "Do I need to come in there?"

"No."

Three times a day his coach accompanied Rodney to the cafeteria, stalking behind him, where Rodney was allowed to eat but not to interact with any of the other athletes sitting at the long tables. Not that there was any chance of that anyway.

Rodney glared back at the looks he was getting. A young girl with dark hair falling in her face, an Austrian skater he didn't know, gave him a pitying flick of her eyes before she looked away. But most people seemed all too smug. The Americans clustered together, laughing as a group, casting Rodney quick glances as they grinned. Rodney smothered a sigh as he looked at the ceiling. The topic of conversation was quite apparent. The east German, Hans-or-whatever-his-name-was, stood tall, radiating satisfaction as he picked up his tray. He didn't look in Rodney's direction as he went through the cafeteria line, though his shoulder was turned enough towards Rodney that it was obvious he was aware of his presence.

The other Canadian skaters pointedly sat at another table, pretending not to notice him. Rodney had never socialized with them anyway, he assured himself, surprised at how much it stung. What did he care? But these supposedly were his friends and teammates.

Huh. So much for that.

His practices were the only respite he had from the boredom and the skaters' gleeful disdain. But there it was impossible to avoid his coach. His heavy air of anger and disappointment hung over their sessions.

Other than the compulsories, Rodney hadn't even competed yet.

He threw himself into his training and did his best not to invite conversation. Or look at the newspapers. Though the headlines drew him....

After two days of misery -- it seemed like twelve -- Rodney managed to excuse himself during his morning practice to go to the bathroom. His coach had begun to relax enough that he was permitted to go on his own. Rodney climbed the flights of stairs through the stands. The bathrooms for the audiences were nicer than the ones for the athletes.

"Psst!" said a voice. "Rodney."

Cautious and worried that this might be some kind of prank or something to land him in even more hot water, Rodney looked around. It came from an alcove by the ladies bathroom.

"Rodney, please, I haven't much time."

Radek.

Rodney hesitated, then walked over, squinting in confusion. There Radek grabbed his arm and herded him into the ladies room, shooting a quick look over his shoulder. Inside, he pulled Rodney through another little door into a diaper changing room. Rodney had had no idea women's bathrooms had these. There was even a padded bench for a nap.

"They won't think to look in here," Radek said, twitching toward the door on tiptoe, gazing through the little window.

Rodney couldn't fathom why the press would follow him into the bathroom anyway, unless they wanted to report on how he smelled -- although he wouldn't put it past them at this point.

"I don't have time for any cozy moments, Marc will notice I'm gone -- and where have you been anyway?" Rodney started in on him. "I went all the way to Amsterdam – without you! Thanks for hanging me out to dry, by the way, you ruined the whole trip."

"Yes. I know. I heard. I could not go. The director of the Czech Olympic team wanted to speak with me, personally."

"Couldn't he wait? This was important!"

"Given what happened, I think it was a good thing I did not go."

"Great. Wonderful. So now you're avoiding me, too?" Rodney said. "I wondered why you disappeared. I made one tiny little mistake and it's not even relevant to my skating!"

Radek made a frantic panicky gesture. "Keep your voice down," he hissed.

"I'm getting ripped to shreds here! I'm not doing anything different, my practices are the same, but now every move I make is a bad one. And my coach won't even let me talk to the press so that makes me look even more guilty! They can say whatever they want."

"Rodney, I should not even be speaking to you now."

"Oh, thanks a lot!"

"Rodney," Radek said, hands down in an emphatic gesture. "The director is paying attention to me. They want my brother to not do his jump."

"Fine. Kick me when I'm down. My future's on the line here!"

"His is 'on the line' as you say, too! Through no fault of his own," Radek said, frowning.

Rodney's eyes went wide. "So you're saying I deserve this? I brought it on myself?"

"That is not what I said."

The door outside to the bathroom swung open and the click of high heels echoed off the tile. Rodney and Radek ducked below the little window in the changing room, crouching on the floor.

Several moments later, a toilet flushed. A faucet ran for a moment. Then the clicking heels walked by them again. The door squeaked open and the heavy outer door shut.

"You know what?" Rodney leaned close, pointing a finger at Radek's chest, his voice an undertone now. "I did it for you. So that just once in your insignificant little communist life you had a glimpse of the world outside, before they slammed the door shut for good and melted the key. But, fine, throw it all back in my face. See if I care."

Radek put his hands out in a forestalling gesture. "Rodney, I'm telling you, it is getting dangerous." He took a deep breath, and shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose, his voice soft and urgent. "My brother, he is going to win something. I've done the calculations and I don't know who is connected to who, but I know that after his first jump? The next, no matter what it is, will push the Soviet Union off the podium."

Rodney's face crumpled as he realized where this was headed.

He said unhappily, "I thought you were my friend."

"I cannot see you any more, Rodney. I'm sorry."

~*~*~

"Welcome back to the 1986 Winter Olympics. We've been talking to Stevie Owens, this year's downhill bronze medalist. So, Stevie, regarding our question in the first segment, what's it like in between events? Do our athletes usually stay in the Olympic village for the duration?"

"Either that or wherever you're training. A lot of the other skiers like to stay away from the Olympic village -- they complain about the food or say the press is around too much. Me, I'm training all the time so it doesn't matter."

"And the food?"

"Ha! Okay, you got me there. I bring in some of my own. I miss pizza back in the good ol' U. S. of A."

"It's unusual then to leave the grounds during the Olympics?"

"Oh. Yeah. I heard about McKay. I don't know about figure skaters myself, but for downhill, no, no way, there's just no time. I can see Europe after the Olympics."

"And get pizza?"

"You bet. They got pizza in Italy, right?"

~*~*~

February, 1999

"Go, go, go!" Rodney yelled. "You say you train so hard, but I'm not seeing any life out there! When we finally hear from the figure skating committee, you're going to be ready despite yourself."

John swept by, turned and stroked backward, arms out, shoulders tight, his lips pressed together as he eked out more speed, digging into the ice hard.

"You're not on a Merry-Go-Round – this should be fast!"

John flowed into the pause to set up his jump, shoulders squared, then threw himself into the toe loop, landing on the other foot.

"Yes!" Rodney called out, following behind him with two sharp strokes. "Much smoother. That transition was like glass. I guess we should've been working on your speed all along."

John put his hands on his hips and breathed, looking up at the ceiling with a relieved smile.

"What are you doing?" Rodney squawked, straightening, arms spread and palms up in a question. "Don't stop. Did I say stop?" He made an emphatic wide spiraling gesture, finger in the air. "Keep going! That's a very bad habit of yours. Think of a river: does it ever pause? There should be no breaks in your program."

Eyes sharp and focused, dead serious, John restarted his circuit.

~*~*~

John stretched his feet luxuriously, rolling onto his back. He slung an arm behind his head, his eyes mostly closed. Faint light from the street lamp outside John's kitchen window traced a bluish sheen across his skin and cast a square door-shaped pattern on the hardwood floor. Rodney lay on his side, pressed against the wall, squeezed into a corner of John's double futon. He was certain "double" really meant that it was designed for small children – if that – rather than full-grown men.

He couldn't get used to how empty John's place felt, as though he'd just moved in. Maybe it was because John didn't own very much. There was a hollow echo as John got up and walked naked to the kitchen, scratching the back of his head, footsteps scuffing.

"You want anything?" John offered, turning back, hand still on the back of his head.

John's sheet draped across his lap, Rodney sat up. He would never be that relaxed in the nude, but then again, he'd never look like that either.

"Anything in particular?" Rodney asked doubtfully. John's fridge was a study in Buddhist emptiness.

John disappeared into the kitchen. There was the rattle of bottles as the refrigerator door opened. "I dunno. A beer?" he called out.

"You're allowed to have that?"

John returned, twisting the bottle cap off as he stood in the doorway. "Well. Now that I'm off the meds, sure."

"You are?"

John sat down on the bed and handed Rodney his beer. He took a long draw from his own and sighed. "Yeah." His eyes sharpened, waking up a little. They flicked to the side. "I didn't tell you that?"

"Since when?"

John pursed his lips. "Couple weeks ago."

"And you didn't bother to tell me?"

"I was busy." John cringed, having the grace to look remorseful as he lay back down, slipping under the covers.

"When were you going to say something? We could have been working on your jumps last week." Rodney took a long sip from his own beer, dipping his head as he swallowed. He gestured with the bottle. "From here on out, you are to keep me informed of any and all health issues related to your skating -- and I can't believe I even have to explain this to you," he added, muttering to himself.

"Kind of like everything's supposed to be on a schedule now?"

There was a faint glimmer of amusement in John's sleepy, slitted eyes. He rubbed his feet together under the sheet, a slip-slide shifting sound of cotton.

"Well, obviously this was not on the agenda." He gestured to the bed.

"It was on mine." John snickered, taking another pull of his beer, and Rodney was close enough to feel his chest rumble with laughter. His skin was sticky with sweat and they still smelled like sex. He held up his beer and measured the remainder with his eyes.

"What time is it anyway?" Rodney cringed even as he asked.

Blinking himself a little more awake, John reached for his watch on the nightstand, picked it up and squinted. "One a.m."

"Oh, no...."

"Let's try to get some sleep," John said. He rolled to his side, up on one elbow to set his beer on the floor – Rodney imagined that would probably be knocked over in the morning – and then reached back for Rodney's, fingers wiggling. Rodney took a quick deep swallow and handed it over. Tugging at the covers, John pulled them over his shoulder and Rodney tucked in around behind him, arm awkwardly draped over John's waist.

They were quiet a long moment, their breathing shallow, still not sleeping.

Then Rodney complained, "Is that light always so bright?"

"Yes, Rodney," came John's mumble from the pillow.

Rodney tried to roll to his other side, and found himself squashed face first into the wall. He turned back around towards John.

"You sure you didn't shrink this bed in the wash? Cotton batting does shrink, you know."

"Good night, Rodney." John groaned.

~*~*~

February, 1986

"Czechoslovakian ski jumper, Jiri Zelenka, in third place after his initial jump, has withdrawn from the competition due to an injury incurred while skateboarding."

"That's good news for the Soviets."

"You know that Glasnost has arrived when an eastern bloc skier injures himself skateboarding."

~*~*~

February, 1999

Rodney rapped out a staccato on the bench, flicking a glance up at the clock on the rink wall behind him. He checked his watch as if it would tell him something different, stood and walked partway up the aisle, then returned.

The double door into the rink opened and John entered, his face alight, eyes looking past Rodney in a kind of happy wonder.

"I said you could take a break, not a vacation." Rodney scowled, tapping his watch for emphasis.

"Thought I'd make a little phone call," John said, tipping his head nonchalantly. Then he broke into a slow spreading smile, unable to contain himself. "Heard from the U.S. Figure Skating Association."

Rodney's eyebrows raised. "And-?" His hand spun impatiently at John's excruciating, slow unspooling of information. It was one of his more annoying traits.

"Seems they're having some sort of competition in Colorado." John's smile had turned to a grin. "Think we should go?"

Rodney rubbed his hands together. "Oh, I'll have to check my schedule."

"Let me know when you decide." John licked his lips, chuckling as he stepped out onto the ice. He bobbed his head, still grinning. "We're going to the America Cup."

~*~*~

February, 1986

"Canadian figure skating champion, Rodney McKay, struggled with his triple Lutz in his warm-up today, falling twice. Linda, what's going on with McKay?"

"It's very common to have a bad practice before a major competition. In fact, I consider it a good sign, working out those early jitters. You want to peak at the competition, not right before. I always did better when my last practice didn't go well: it motivated me to do my best."

~*~*~

February, 1999

On auto-pilot, John woke at three a.m. His bedroom was still dark, the thrumming quiet filled with anticipation. Outside a dog barked and John heard the street cleaners whir by, a steady grinding hum, just like every other morning.

But today there was no point in taking a shower yet. Rodney had called off their practice, and tomorrow they were scheduled for a 10 a.m. flight. The tickets had already arrived via overnight express. The America Cup committee had been annoyed that they had to pay thirty-five dollars because John didn't have a computer to print out an online ticket, and stunned he didn't even have an email address, but they'd made do, though not without telling him how to sign up for a free email that he'd never check.

Outside, moving down in the hallway, John heard the measured footsteps of his neighbor, the union guy, going to work. Then his quicker steps on the front stairs and squeak of the main doors as they shut behind him.

Right about now John would normally be toweling off his wet hair and grabbing some toast, maybe some eggs if he had time, before throwing on workout clothes and heading out to pick up Rodney.

John shut his eyes to try to sleep in, but it was like Christmas morning when he and his brother would end up whispering until 5 a.m., hovering at the top of the stairs to peek at the stacks of presents that had appeared magically overnight.

He gave in, and got up to go jogging to get this energy out of his system, running his hands over his eyes with a sniff. He clicked on the overhead and hunted for clean sweats -- until he remembered that a run was strictly off-limits, too. Damn. The prospect of an entire day with nothing to do stretched out before him.

With a sigh, John took a long shower, apologizing in his mind to the other tenants for using all the hot water.

A warm stripe of dawn slowly stained the sky pink as, towel wrapped around his waist, John forced himself to take the time to make an omelet with wilted chives, caramelizing the onions in a separate frying pan. He sat down at the kitchen table – normally he ate breakfast standing – and looked out the kitchen window at a time of day he didn't usually see, since he was supposed to be at the rink by now. Three or four kids, their breath steaming in golden morning, took a shortcut over the neighbor's lawn and jumped the fence to the road. A car sputtered, then started up in the driveway just past them. The sense of being late, of not being where he was supposed to be, itched under his skin.

John grabbed his plate and washed the dishes, then leaned his hand on the cupboard, head down, chewing his lip as he tried to think what else to do. The free weights came to mind and were discarded. Stretches were probably okay.

Laundry.

John had meant to save laundry for later, but he could get that started and then do stretches for forty-five minutes or so. Maybe an hour. Nothing wrong with doing stretches for an hour.

~*~*~

The laundry was draped on hangers off the kitchen curtain rod and across the kitchen chairs to dry. He had the second load in the tub and had stripped the sheets off the bed. Rodney was just being anal in insisting on only one load.

He had graduated to handstands next to the bed, but he'd been good: he caught himself right before he moved into pushups out of sheer habit.

It wasn't until 10 o'clock that John remembered the existence of television. ESPN had a ping-pong tournament. John couldn't see the point of watching a sport where you couldn't see the ball. It was translated from Chinese and every game point had to be shown in slow motion afterward. He changed channels, stretched out on his bare mattress. CTV was showing a marathon of "Upstairs/Downstairs," a show John could never follow. What was it with the Canadian obsession over an upper crust they were lucky not to have? He clicked through cooking shows and game shows and an early soap opera before he gave up and turned it off. He prowled his apartment, running his hands through his hair until it stuck up.

He needed to get out.

He put on a warm coat, hat, and sneakers, and went for a walk. There was nothing wrong with walking. Even if he felt like an old man, forcing himself not to run.

Outside on the concrete sidewalk, hands tucked in his pockets, John nodded to a big guy with a mustache in a hunter's orange scarf who was being pulled along in a stumble behind a huge Labrador retriever. The guy nodded back, preoccupied with his dog. The sky was bright, slate-gray, the kind of day where you had to squint even if you never saw the sun. The trees stretched their bare branches over the street. John reached the end of his block and turned onto the main drag. He passed little shops, a listless hair salon, a used bookstore with a sleeping cat stretched out in the window, a tea shop, and other stores he'd never noticed, and still didn't care about now.

He backed up and tapped on the window of the bookstore to get the cat's attention. He liked animals. Then noticed the sign that begged, "Please don't tap on the window."

He almost stopped in the bakery before he realized he hadn't thought to bring his wallet. Cars swept up and down the street. John wondered what other people did with their time if they didn't skate.

John returned to an empty apartment that smelled like soap and was more chaotic and messy than he was used to, laundry everywhere, sheets torn off and bundled at the end of the bed, the video box pulled out from when John had decided it would be torture to watch them today.

He'd made it to lunch. But he couldn't deal with his place like this, so he tidied up first, did a fourth load of laundry with the sheets, then used up the last of the greens for lunch so they wouldn't go bad.

Which reminded him he was going to be competing in less than forty-eight hours. His heart pounded; the nerves were starting early this time.

Fletcher wasn't going to be there, so if he could take Kulka on the technical scores, maybe... John clenched his fist and stopped that line of thought. The last thing he needed was to think about the other skaters. He had to stay focused on his own game.

It took him less than half an hour to pack.

The answering machine had no messages except the one from U.S. Figure Skating, which he didn't know why he'd kept since it made his breath turn shallow. John had gotten out of the habit of calling his parents about his competitions. It opened too much of a can of worms and he didn't need a discussion about his "future" right before he was going to be skating in front of several thousand people.

John leaned over his answering machine on the floor next to the bed which blinked red, one message, looked around his spotless apartment, noticed the inline skates propped up next to his bike, and said, "Fuck it."

He had the inline skates laced up in seconds. He'd take it easy.

~*~*~

Late afternoon, the sun had finally decided to show itself, bright golden streaks painted on the side of John's face. He lazily turned on the back edge of the inline skates, toes up. It wasn't as easy as skating, inlines wanted to go forward, but he could get one to one-and-a-half revolutions out of them, catching himself with his other skate.

He restricted himself to his own block to avoid the temptation of speed.

Instead, he skated down the apartment walkway and jumped the single step at the gate, turning sharply right before he hit a row of parked cars. He lost track of time, absorbed in perfecting his technique.

He tried again, with just a little more lift this time, swinging his arms right as he hit the step. He landed way too far out, turned in midair and slammed his hip into a car. The car alarm squawked, headlights flashing, the whine and wail of the siren drawing all eyes up and down the street. A woman with dark carefully curled hair glared at him from a third floor window. John gave a sheepish little wave and coughed into his fist as he slipped away.

He needed a spot that didn't have a damned obstacle course at the end.

He started with jumping the three steps by the front door of the apartment, grabbing the rail as he usually did to propel himself forward. He had the full walkway to finish out his momentum. Then he worked on getting both skates up on the rail and sliding down. On the third jump he missed the walkway completely and had to roll into the soft grass. But he'd almost made it. He just needed to extend his left foot more to control his balance.

The fourth try he had to abort. He grabbed the rail and swung himself up and over onto the grass.

The fifth he promised himself he'd hold onto. He jumped and knew immediately he'd fucked up as the skate slid out, clutching at the rail as it cracked his chest and his knee went down and hit the steps.

Breathless, he stayed where he was for a moment, his leg ringing like a bell -- not painful yet, oh no -- and tried not to measure the depths of his stupidity.

Pushing himself up off the steps, he decided to call it a day. And thought it was a good thing he still had some of his meds.

~*~*~

John and Rodney threaded their way through the airport terminal, edging between sliding glass doors that popped back open, bumping past busy travelers towards the Air Canada check-in. And it was totally Rodney's fault they were cutting it close.

John had his costumes in a garment bag slung over his shoulder, a backpack on the other arm as he trailed Rodney. He scowled in annoyance that they had to get in line because Rodney didn't know how to pack. Dressed in a comfortable sport jacket and button down shirt, Rodney had an snazzy leather carry-all on one shoulder plus two large suitcases, complete with the annoying little wheels. John just wore jeans and a gray sweatshirt. He didn't know why it bugged him when people didn't carry their own crap, but it did. He looked around the airport in frustration as they inched forward to check Rodney's bags. On his own he would be at the gate by now, parked in front of a window, watching the planes take off and land.

He shut his eyes and listened to the high rumble and whine of what was probably a DC-9 or DC-10. The 757s had a much lower and louder boom. The sound mixed with the nasal echo of an announcement, the squeak of some kid's tennis shoes, and the liquid murmur of chatter heard at a distance.

And fingers snapping next to his ear. "Earth to Sheppard," Rodney said.

John opened his eyes. The line had finally moved. "You know, they'll have towels at the hotel," he said.

"They use harsh detergents and my skin is very delicate." Rodney handed over his bags to be dropped on the conveyer. "At least I brought more than just a change of underwear -- how are your costumes holding up?"

They hadn't had time to run through John's programs in full costume.

John tipped his head, pursing his lips as they made their way down the dark stairs to the shuttle for terminal one. "I may have picked a few sequins off the sleeves but it's nothing anyone will notice. Of course, it is the end of the season."

"Meaning they could probably crawl to Colorado unaided?" Rodney quirked a smile back at him, taking the steps to the shuttle quickly at least.

"I'm more worried about setting off one of these fire alarms," John said, tongue in cheek, looking around at the ceiling over the stairs.

"Someday they'll invent a sequin that can be dry cleaned. Just don't unpack them in my hotel room."

They walked past bare drywall cordoned off with yellow tape, the floor dry and gritty underfoot from Toronto International Airport's never-ending construction.

"Weren't they renovating this section last year?" Rodney sniped.

John studied the walls. "Someone's milking it."

They reached the shuttle, only to watch it pull away, the soft ding as the doors closed. Of course they had to wait.

"Your hotel room?" John puzzled, with a little frown of disappointment as his mind caught up with what Rodney had said. "We have separate rooms?"

Rodney rolled his eyes in obvious exasperation.

"I'm courting enough trouble as it is," Rodney admonished him, adjusting the strap of his bag on his shoulder. "Skate Canada is tied to professional hockey -- which is big business in Canada -- but the U.S. Figure Skating Association?" He squinted at John, forehead creased in a worried expression. "They're little more than an elitist country club that makes it up as they go along. They'd probably invent a 'McKay Rule' just for me, kick me out of the country and portray me as some kind of child molester, never mind that you're twenty-eight years old and perfectly capable of making your own sexual decisions and only three years my junior."

The shuttle arrived, setting loose a flood of passengers. They boarded, Rodney dropping to a seat with huff. John held onto a rail. He didn't see the point of sitting down when they'd be at the terminal in a minute.

"I'm not messing with that," Rodney continued as if they hadn't been interrupted, crossing his legs, arm stretched across the back of the seat. "So, no, we're not sharing a room. And guess what else is off-limits for the duration."

"Too bad," John said, leaning closer. "I've had some good times on these trips."

Rodney sagged and looked mournful. "Don't tell me. I don't want to spend the entire competition jealous of your dozens of ex-lovers."

"Hundreds, even," John said. He raised his eyebrows and suggested with a little smile, "Some of them might be there, too."

They pulled up to the mid-field terminal. As they stepped off the shuttle, Rodney gave him a miserable backward glance.

John just beamed a smirk at him.

~*~*~

The midfield terminal one had a tall glass wall and John paused and looked across the airfield, starry-eyed. Other travelers had to walk around him. Outside, a cool-looking 727 taxied down the runway while right below them a Fokker F-27 was being loaded up with baggage, it's huge propellers still and waiting. The 50-passenger plane was probably bound for Montreal or someplace else close. John ignored Rodney... who mumbled something about "snacks" and "stay right here"... to find a seat by the window, setting his backpack on the floor, the garment bag all but forgotten on his shoulder as he identified aircraft.

A sweet L-1011 thundered, its powerful engines igniting as it took on the runway... and it was airborne. A large styrofoam cup with a straw cut across John's field of vision. John accepted the soda just to get it out of the way.

"You look approximately nine years old at the moment," Rodney commented.

John took a sip from the straw and let it trail across his lower lip, undistracted from the aircraft. "I always wanted to fly," he admitted with a sheepish glance up at Rodney.

Rodney motioned towards the door with a jerk his head, "Well, here's your chance. Time to board." John checked over his shoulder. The line had already started moving. "Looks like they've been boarding for several minutes though it seems I can't expect you to pay attention, despite the fact that I asked you to fetch me when they called our flight."

John picked up his pack and cut ahead of Rodney. "I call the window."

~*~*~

At thirty-six thousand feet, Rodney's head lolled to the side, his mouth slack.

"Rodney?" John said in a stage whisper. When he got no response, he stretched his leg and stood, staggering stiff-legged. Outside the restroom he leaned his shoulder against the wall to take the pressure off the right side.

"Are you all right, sir?" a blond stewardess with gentle eyes asked.

"Yeah. Long flights just make the knee act up." John shrugged. "Old war injury," he lied.

Inside the bathroom, John rattled several pills into his palm and swallowed them dry. He held the bottle up to examine the number he had left. He only needed to make it to the end of the competition.

By the time John returned to his seat, Rodney was awake and snacking on salted peanuts, the crumbs decorating his jacket. "How's it going?" he asked, smiling.

"Feeling no pain," John said, and sighed as he settled into his seat.

~*~*~

February, 1986

"Oh, there's no question that Rodney McKay has raw talent. But what McKay lacks is maturity. It shows in his dealings with the press, his attitudes towards other skaters like myself, and it shows on the ice, too. He doesn't have the consistency and control of a seasoned skater."

"Well. He has consistently won consecutive World titles."

"Yes, but the Olympics are different. The whole skating community watches the World Championships. The whole world watches the Olympics."

~*~*~

The ski lift allowed only Olympic competitors, their coaches, and support crew during the events, with spectators restricted to the stands at the base of the ramp. The judges, of course, had the best view of the actual landing site, sectioned off with fluttering ribbons. Most ski jumpers' support teams carried with them an alternate pair of skis, back-up ski poles, even ski boots, along with extra goggles, hats, gloves... there wouldn't be time to go back down the slope if they forgot anything, and no one was more superstitious than a ski jumper.

The small young man in a sky blue and red skintight jumpsuit skied off the lift alone, with nothing but his ski poles and the hat and goggles he was wearing. Two officials, clipboards in hand, bundled in parkas against the cold that made them look twice as imposing, checked his name and his country. There was some confusion at first until they found him on the injured list.

"You cut it close, kid," said a referee with an American accent and five interlocking rings on his coat. "You're not supposed to write on your number, you know," he added. Getting no answer, he glanced over to the windsock and waved the all clear signal to the group at the gate. They had taken this mess aside so that it wouldn't distract the current jumper from his intense concentration.

In the judges stand below, wishing he'd brought warmer gloves, Radek ducked his head and dutifully marked his scores as an assistant trial judge. It was hard being on the slope when his brother had been forced to withdraw, it was wrong, but it was also his job.

The primary Czech judge beside him poked him in the ribs with an elbow.

"Isn't that your little brother?"

Radek shook his head. "No. He's not coming today."

"No, I mean -- isn't that him?" The judge pointed to the top of the ski ramp.

Radek looked up and caught the glimpse of a sky blue and red jumpsuit disappearing into the starting gate. His mouth opened to say something that didn't come. It was not possible.

Up at the top of the slope, the ski jumper tightened the velcro on his gloves, and wrapped the straps of ski poles tightly around his hands, testing them. There was no coach to shout last minute encouragement, which for the officials made the starting gate strangely silent. Everyone else fell still in response.

The kid planted his ski poles in the slushy trampled ice at the top and got in tuck. He rocked forward, once, twice... on the bell, he was off. He stabbed the poles into the snow, fighting for speed, then tucked in tight, a blue and red blur rocketing down the ramp.

The loudspeaker had announced his name, Jiri Zelenka of Czechoslovakia, but Radek didn't hear it, his breath taken away. He sat frozen in horror and yet somehow impressed as his sixteen-year-old brother flew off the edge of the world.

Radek saw the landing, forward knee bent and perfect, though he couldn't score the jump if his life depended on it. He discovered himself standing, a hand pressed to his forehead, the crowd cheering around him, and remembered that he hadn't brought his camera, before he realized that the whole world would have this on film.

~*~*~

"After his lackluster performance in the short program yesterday, Canada's Rodney McKay needs to go for broke if he is to have any shot at the gold."

"Right now it's his technical scores in the compulsories that are keeping him afloat. Although many feel that the precision of the compulsories are the true measure of the best skater."

"Still, it's the freeskate that will determine the gold tonight."

"Absolutely. McKay's program does not have quite the level of technical difficulty as the Soviets, nor does he have the athletic power of the East German team, but what he does have is the artistic scores that often carry the day. Rodney McKay is a charismatic performer. It is truly something to see him skate in person."

~*~*~

Rodney's coach had both hands on Rodney's thin shoulders as Rodney bent over, coiled in on himself on the locker room bench.

"But they have better jumps than I do," Rodney said, dispirited.

"This is figure skating, not the high jump in track and field. No one cares if they put their footprints a little further on the ice – that's not a sign of real talent," his coach said. "You're better than all of them, and you've beaten them all before at Worlds."

Rodney's wide blue eyes flicked up, looking a shade desperate. "I have," he said, as if trying to remind himself.

"Now last night—"

"Last night was terrible!" Rodney wailed.

"Last night was good, you skated it clean, and almost everyone else made mistakes. Remember that. But these are the Olympics. You don't get a second chance. So skate like last night but this time put it all on the line," he said. "Give us everything, Rodney, and you'll do great." He thumped Rodney's back as he stood. They heard the thunder of applause even this far down the hall from the ice. The Russian skater must have done something amazing because the Soviets weren't popular in Germany.

Swallowing, Rodney stepped out of the locker room into the brightly lit concrete tunnel to the rink, the crowd noise rising as he approached for his final skate. They were cheering the Soviet skater as he bowed at center ice, arms sweeping up, flowers thrown in cellophane-wrapped bundles and stuffed animals bouncing to the ice. Through the opening of the tunnel he saw the Soviet star lean down to scoop up a turquoise dinosaur and hold it in the air with amusement as this prompted more cheers.

Rodney read him: loose-limbed and confident. He must have had a very good skate. He approached the edge of the rink, deliberately a little late, as he rested his chin on the boards, praying quietly. His hands on his hips, he warmed up with slow pushes, not practicing any hard moves.

The rink was huge, every seat full and blinking with flashbulbs. Rodney noticed one of the cameras aimed in his direction and affected not to care. He'd never performed in front of so many, not even at Worlds. The rink had a wet shine to it from the heat of the stage lighting. Fortunately, from here the acoustics were such that you couldn't hear the scores as they were announced. But the flood of cheers said a word or two on that account.

Then everything seemed to fall still and speed up at once. Rodney didn't hear his name called, but his coach pushed his shoulder forward and said, "Go on, Rodney." He'd forgotten he was there.

The crowd roared, cheered, and whistled, Canadian flags and banners waving as Rodney skated onto the ice for his final freeskate.

~*~*~

February, 1999

John was in the men's room bent over the toilet. The tile was a green-blue with rust between the edges, and the roll was out of toilet paper. He slowly eased up till he was standing, wiping his mouth and rocking back a little.

"Must be something I ate on the plane," he told Rodney.

"I throw up every time, too," Rodney said, and waved him away from the toilet. "Come on." Then backed up a step, hands up. "Whoa. I mean, if you're done."

"I think so," John said, wavering where he stood and still woozy. He cupped his hand under a faucet, rinsed and spat as he leaned on both arms over the sink.

Rodney led John to the locker room mirror by the elbow. "Let's get you fixed up."

Still recovering and spacey, John stood in front of the long wall-length mirror, the cropped cobalt blue spangled jacket of his costume draped across one of the benches behind him. He ignored the sweep of the little sponge as Rodney reapplied the pancake make-up over his nose and around his mouth, then added the dry fluff of the powder brush. John shook out first one foot, then the other, bouncing a little as he loosened his shoulders like a boxer.

Rubbing his fingers together with a quick flicking motion, Rodney picked up the black eye pencil from John's bag.

"I got that." John stopped him, slipping the eye pencil out of his hand. He stretched one eyelid, applying a thin line right above his eye lashes. "It's scary that we're all good with this stuff," he said, doing the other eye and blinking. Examining himself in the mirror, he smeared a small mistake away at the corner.

Rodney grimaced, scrunching his face. "I try not to think about it."

He put on the tiny cobalt blue sequined jacket over the white ruffled shirt and gave Rodney a death glare as Rodney pressed his lips together, eyes dancing, obviously trying hard not to laugh. He hadn't considered that they'd need to practice in costume just so Rodney could get it out of his system.

"One word...." John warned him in a low growl as he considered disemboweling Rodney if he lost it now.

"You look... great," Rodney lied. John appreciated the effort.

With a purposeful stride, Rodney led John out in the bare concrete hall, the noise of the crowd rising as they approached. John was as white as a sheet, drawn in on himself, sweat beading along his hairline.

They were reading the scores for the last skater as John had his final brief warm-up on the edge of the ice. He always did his best not to listen to those, hands on his hips, head down. Cameras flashed in his direction.

Moments later the announcer called, "Representing the Glen Ellyn Figure Skating Club of Chicago, Illinois... John Sheppard."

John skated out, pasting a tight smile on his face. To this day John could still hear his first coach's voice: Smile, John. You look like you're going to a funeral.

At center ice, his body struck the starting pose of its own accord. Now there was nothing left but to skate. Rodney was rink-side behind him, he knew, chewing his nails. Living through every moment of this with him. It was like a thin imaginary lifeline.

The arena was much colder, quieter than Nationals six weeks ago, all the seats down in front full but only a scattering of spectators in the upper stands. Two people alone, way up in the seats above the cavernous hole of the entryway, were having a conversation. The dark eye of a television camera pointed in his direction, which John tried hard not to think about. There were so many lights aimed at the ice that the stadium practically whited out.

The familiar music began, the music he'd skated to in every competition this season and countless practices over the last year. He'd never been more sick of a piece of music in his life. He moved, acting on pure muscle memory, and found himself spinning up into his first quad, landing it clean. A distant clapping sounded like someone shuffling a deck of cards.

Weird things were suddenly amplified as he moved into the straight line steps, left, right, turn, arms out, little stuff he never noticed: his posture wasn't good, his back had hunched as he jumped up into the next double. He knew it as it happened, yet couldn't help it on auto pilot, skating into a well-worn groove.

His favorite section, the low sliding steps with the double push to the outward edge went smoothly, he could feel it; he changed his footing and did the same on the inside edge and let himself glide up, bouncing and swinging his leg around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees into the half camels, switched legs and did the same. When he stabbed the ice with his toe pick for the triple flip, something wobbled. He spun around tight and landed it okay, but something was wrong.

Even though he skated like he'd always had, he suddenly knew none of it was right; it wasn't fixed. This was nothing like his skating with Rodney. It felt like going to kindergarten to sit in the back in too small a chair. For the first time he knew he hadn't made any progress.

Amazed, John lost his sense of the music, and the connection with his program vanished. He found himself going through the motions in the Russian step sequence – hit an edge wrong -- shit! -- his right skate tipped sideways for no good reason. He stumbled. And was skidding on his hands and knees. Stupid! Stupid!

He got back up but found himself chasing the music from then onward. It was all over very quickly as he found his last pose, not quite on his mark, his right fist punched in the air like he'd scored a victory.

The music stopped, after what seemed like three seconds on the ice, all of them that fall – in the easiest section of his program! – John wondered if the crowd was as floored as he was.

Then they started clapping. That was forgiving of them, he thought.

He forced himself to bow as if everything had gone perfectly, hands sweeping out, his eyes wide and stunned. Then, shoulders hunched and his head down, he turned to skate off the ice. His knee wouldn't cooperate, and felt leaden, like it had been injected with novocaine.

A moment later, while he struggling to get a little momentum going -- his face turning hot as he couldn't get off the ice in front of all these people -- a solid someone reached under his arm and grabbed him, wrapping John's arm over his shoulder. John looked over at a bald-headed burly guy in a white polo shirt, a whistle dangling and the skating rink logo over his pocket.

"Where does it hurt?" burly guy asked.

He was fine. He didn't need any help.

"It doesn't hurt at all," John heard himself saying. "It just won't work."

"Okay. You need to get your weight off your right leg... straighten your left leg and I'll pull you."

They started moving towards the cavernous exit.

"Um. I hate to be a back seat driver but the Kiss-and-Cry is over there," John pointed, casting a glance over his shoulder to the right. He scanned for Rodney, waiting for him, but didn't see anyone on the platform.

"I don't think you're going there."

Oh, good, John thought. He sure as hell didn't want to know his scores for that lousy performance. He looked again for Rodney but no dice.

The audience had grown a lot louder, their talk and chatter sounding like the ocean to John. Faces collected alongside the boards, pressing closer and, as he got off the ice, John was pretty sure there were a lot more people taking pictures of him now than earlier. The thought had a bitter ironic taste, though he also thought it was kind of funny. His knee twanged like a bow once they were on dry land and that's when the pain began, throbbing low and searing up his leg. Eyes watering, he wished the ice stretched all the way to the locker room where he could lie down. His pills were there, too, though this would probably require the rest of the bottle.

"Where are you taking him?" Rodney's familiar snappish voice, sharp with panic, was a balm. John's face spun towards him in relief. Rodney was forcing his way through the crowd, must have come all the way from the Kiss-N-Cry, rudely shouldering people aside with the grace of a linebacker.

"Hey, Rodney," John said with breezy calm he didn't feel. "My knee stopped working. And I missed the straight line steps, can you believe it?" he blurted out.

"Shut up, I wasn't talking to you," Rodney said to John, turning to the guy holding John up.

The burly guy answered, "That's your option. We have medical staff on hand or we can call 911 and have him taken to the hospital."

The crowd hummed and roared around them. The announcer said something; John couldn't tell what it was. It occurred to him that they were probably holding up the program.

"Hospital," Rodney rapped out without a second's hesitation.

"I don't think that's necessary, I'm fine," John interrupted.

"And you are-?" the burly guy asked Rodney.

Why were they both ignoring him?

"I'm his coach and therefore my word is law: hospital. Now."

"No, no, I just need to lie down," John said in a cheerful, strangely disconnected voice that seemed to come from a vast distance. He felt the truth of that as the energy drained out of him; it was taking everything he had to stand there with his leg on fire, waves of pain licking up his calf. Coupled with skating exhaustion, he felt like he could fall asleep on the spot, though usually it hit him in the Kiss-N-Cry when he came off the adrenaline.

The burly guy staggered a step under John's sudden full weight.

"Get him to a hospital, or I'll have you all sued within an inch of your lives at which point I'll buy this rink just for the satisfaction of seeing you fired!" Rodney said.

"Call 911," the burly guy said over his shoulder. He was a practical man.

They brought John a stretcher – which was embarrassing and unnecessary, John was sure, but they still weren't listening to him as they poured him onto it – and then two guys bounced him down a corridor. Watching the ceiling go by overhead, with the poorly painted pipes and ragged concrete, was a weird experience and John was sure he could have gone more smoothly and with fewer jogs of pain if they had just let him stand.

Outside in the wet parking lot, double-headed lamps made the slick asphalt shine. An ambulance was already silently waiting for him, its red lights blinking and flashing. It was cold in Colorado, crumbled brown snow shoved in every corner, and John shivered, still in just his costume. He was grateful when they finally shut the ambulance doors and he was staring at a new ceiling, white and curved.

The doors reopened, bringing a wash of cold air as Rodney bullied his way into the ambulance, raising holy hell when the paramedic didn't want him along. John caught the tail end of the argument as the doors shut behind Rodney. "...do I look like I carry an automobile in my pocket? How am I supposed to get there?"

The ambulance staff hunched away from him. Rodney wasn't winning any friends tonight, and John was so grateful.

Rodney yelled at him the whole way.

"Don't think I haven't figured out you were doing the jumps all along, because no one pulls a triple axel out of his ass after being grounded for five weeks, I don't care how talented they are...."

It was the first time Rodney had ever called him talented.

~*~*~

February, 1986

"The Czech officials have asked Jiri Zelenka to remove his number, which seems to have some writing on it. Looks like magic marker. They seem very upset. Let's have a closer look at that."

"I don't read Czech. You?"

"No. But there's a date on there. Let's see if we can get more infor.... We've just learned that it's the date of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia."

"Jiri Zelenka has certainly made a statement at these Olympic games."

"And currently he's in first place. But Finland is up next. They'll be tough to beat."

~*~*~

February, 1999

The hospital had speckled floors and white walls and brightly lit rooms that reminded John of something that nagged at the back of his mind, until he realized the lighting was a lot like the rink. He was laying on the hospital bed as strange hands cut away the pant leg of his costume and exposed him up to his thigh. Then those hands, warm and sure, touched his knee and rotated it gently.

"Agh!" John yelped, coming to full awareness. The doctor prodded him just below the knee. "Try that with a hot poker next because I don't think it hurt enough." He glared.

"You do have a medical license, right?" Rodney asked. "And your name's not Kevorkian?"

The doctor wore a sea-green hospital coat and was very young, with cropped curly hair and deep brown skin. He pulled a pen out of his pocket and wrote on a chart without comment, the pen scratching quietly.

"It's probably the ACL again," John said to fill the space.

"No. Your knee is not subluxated in full extension so the anterior cruciate ligament is not a likely culprit," the young doctor said in a clipped tenor, with just a little of an inner city blur in his voice. "Also, the pain would suggest another cause."

"Really?" Rodney said with an amazed expression, seeming to understand all that.

John just looked at the doc as if he'd just spouted Greek. Or Latin, which was probably closer to the truth.

"I've had ACL problems before," John said, mystified.

"Yes. We had your medical records faxed to us by the U.S. Figure Skating Association." The association had his medical records? John wondered about the legality of that but didn't have time to consider the implications. "It appears that the reconstructive surgery two years ago was a success, although all signs suggest an extreme amount of stress on the affected knee which we would prefer you'd avoid. For the current situation we'll need X-rays to confirm it," the doctor continued, clicking on an overhead light. John put his hand up to block it. "But your symptoms most likely indicate an anterior tibial stress fracture."

"A fracture?" John said.

"Have you engaged in an increased level of activity recently? Heavy, repetitive motions?"

"I've done a lot of jumping...." John said.

"Mmm-hmm. When did the pain first appear?" the doctor continued briskly, not looking at John.

"When I was rollerblading. I, uh, fell."

"It was related to a specific fall?" the doctor asked, frowning in sudden concern.

"Rollerblading?" Rodney squawked.

"And this was on-?"

John winced and squirmed, scrunching his face. "Can we not talk about that right now?"

"Did the pain first appear this evening or before?" the doctor continued relentlessly.

"Before," John admitted. "It started on Friday."

"Friday?" Rodney said.

John hung his head. "I really don't want to talk about this...."

"I can have him removed if you like," the doctor offered. His manner was professional and smooth, the sort of guy who worked very hard to be perfect, but it seemed he liked the idea as he finally raised his face from John's chart.

John's eyes widened in worry at the thought of Rodney leaving. "No, he can stay," he said, the casual words belied by his sharp tone.

Once the doctor left, Rodney started in on John. "Friday? Didn't I tell you to cool it on Friday?"

And with a complaining groan, John put his arm over his face.

~*~*~

February, 1986

Jeannie pounded on Rodney's door. She had moved past polite knocking to the full drum kit, but he was Not. Listening. He turned up his Walkman further and could easily ignore her till the cows came home.

"You can't stay locked in your room forever," came Jeannie's muffled voice.

"Oh, yes, I can," Rodney said into his pillow. He wasn't crying. He was avoiding the press in the most thorough way possible, and why did they have those vultures ready to pounce the moment you left the Kiss-n-Cry?

"Dad wants to talk to you," Jeannie added.

His little sister always loved to deliver bad news.

"Tell him to go away," Rodney said.

"And there's a letter here for you from someone called 'Dalek'...?"

"That's Radek," Rodney corrected. He stood, unlocked the door and yanked it open in a heartbeat, snatching the letter out of her hand with a quick swipe, then tried to close it again – but she threw her shoulder against it and held the door wide open, her feet braced against the doorjamb. His coach and his father were there in the adjoining room to Rodney's. His father's arms were crossed while his coach sat on his bed, wiping his forehead.

"Told you that would flush him out," Jeannie said to their dad with a victorious smile. Rodney was already tearing the letter open. A folded newspaper article fell out onto the floor and Rodney bent to pick it up. "Bet it's a love letter."

"Rodney...." his father began, his voice stern.

"Who's Radek?" his coach asked, puzzled.

Rodney made an impatient gesture. "He's a Czech ski jump...." He drifted into silence as he read Radek's note. It was short. Far too short. All it said was:

I'm sorry I could not come to see you skate. -

R.Z. -

Rodney turned his attention to the folded article, which was in English, thankfully. The headline said, Czech Protester Jumps to Silver.

"How do you know a Czech ski jumper?" his coach asked, mouth open.

"He's a ski jump judge, now will you all be quiet a second?" Rodney waved them off as his eyes scanned frantically down the page. He threw them a bone, adding with an off-handed gesture, "He was supposed to go to Amsterdam with me."

His father froze. He pulled the article firmly from Rodney's hand, his eyes growing wide as he read it. "You planned to go to Amsterdam with a Czechoslovakian dissident?"

Jeannie chortled, sidling close and shifting the article delicately from her father's hands. "What? You leading some kind of double life, Mer?"

Rodney snatched it from her. "That's mine." He started reading again. "And he's not a dissident – oh, my god, they're calling him a dissident! Well, from this newspaper it's a compliment, but still."

"How do you know this person?" Rodney's father asked, his intense eyes alarmed.

"That's what I'd like to know," his coach echoed wonderingly.

His sister snatched the article from Rodney's hands -- again -- and skimmed it. "Oh, he's the one that did that ski jump protest." Rodney's coach leaned over her shoulder to read it, frowning.

"You know about this?" Rodney looked up, squinting at her.

"It's all over the news. Where've you been?" Jeannie said.

"Skating!"

"...And going to Amsterdam," Jeannie muttered under her breath, quickly silenced by a dark look from her dad.

Rodney took advantage of her distraction to seize the article back. She held tight and he shouted, "Rip it and I'll disown you all!"

She let go.

"Rodney. I need to speak with you. Privately," his father said. His words fell on deaf ears as Rodney kept reading.

Then Rodney looked up, eyes wide with horror. "He's gone. They sent him back to Czechoslovakia yesterday."

The article fluttered to the bed.

"How did you meet this person?" his father asked, his brow furrowed.

"Oooo! Meredith has a boyfriend...." Jeannie teased.

"Oh, shut up, everyone knows I'm gay!" Rodney snapped at her.

Rodney's father fell completely still.

Rodney glanced around the room at the sudden silence. Jeannie's eyes circled warily to their dad.

"Um. Present company excepted, I guess." Rodney turned to his coach with a puzzled frown. "But I thought... Marc, didn't I ask you to tell dad?"

His coach had his face in his hands, rounded shoulders slumped. He ran his hands slowly down his face and let them drop his lap, saying, "I think I said that this is something you have to handle yourself, Rodney."

"Okay. Well. News flash!" He held his hands up and waggled his fingers. "I'm gay, gay, gay! Now that that's handled, can we get back to the point?"

"I knew...." Jeannie muttered.

His father turned to the window, his hand to his forehead like he had a headache. "What am I going to tell your mother?" Shoulders squared and stiff, he sighed and braced a forearm against the window frame. "Am I to understand that instead of hearing about you sneaking away to Amsterdam -- during the most important competition of your life -- we could have been hearing about you sneaking off to have a... relationship, a gay relationship," he seemed stuck on that point, reeling, "in Amsterdam. With a Czechoslovakian dissident?"

"You make it sound so terrible." Rodney blinked.

"So this is your boyfriend?" Jeannie interrupted gleefully, holding up the picture in the article.

"No," Rodney said with infinite disgust and patience. "That's his brother, Jiri."

"So you were with the criminal."

"No! He's not a criminal!"

"They said he cheated in the judging for his brother. The Czechoslovakians even want to give the medal back."

"Read it!" Rodney shouted, poking his finger at the article. "It says right here, bottom of the third paragraph: Radek was just a trial judge. The article says his scores wouldn't count towards the total. It's like a practice judge when you're new." He sighed heavily and sat on Marc's bed. "The Czech government was threatening him to make his brother not jump, because of the Russians. He told me. I just wasn't listening," Rodney said, slumped and miserable. Then an option dawned on him and he brightened. "I could go to the press."

Rodney's father watched this exchange like an impending train wreck. Then he finally said, with false soft-voiced calm, "Rodney. You are going to stay here. You are not to leave your room unless I say so." He speared Rodney with a look, his pale blue eyes bright and laser-sharp. "'Room' as defined by these four walls. 'Me' as defined as no one other than me. These are simple rules in clear language, Rodney, with no wiggle room whatsoever. Have I been understood? Nod and say yes to answer."

Rodney stared up at him with wide, frightened eyes. He nodded. "Yes," he said, careful not to add a single syllable to his instructions.

"Marc." He motioned for Rodney's coach to follow him. "I'd like a word." He stepped into the hallway without looking back.

Rodney's coach looked equally frightened, if resigned. As he and Rodney's father left, Marc cast a wan look back at Rodney. As the door hissed slowly shut behind them, his father's voice carried from the hall, "Explain to me how you didn't know about this...."

~*~*~

February, 1999

John shut the door to his apartment with his elbow and it banged too loud behind him. He fumbled the crutch back under his arm, and swung forward towards the kitchen, ignoring all the things that he wasn't going to be able to do right now. The sheets still stripped off the bed. The laundry still hanging off the rod in the kitchen, half-blocking the window.

Leaning against the kitchen counter, John plunked a saucepan of water on the stove and then, with a hop, pulled the hot dogs out of the fridge. He achieved splashdown, tossing one, and then the second hot dog into the pan from where he stood. The water sloshed and hissed onto the electric burner. The next toss landed the buns on the kitchen table. He was a pro with crutches.

He'd told Rodney the truth when he said he had food, but Rodney had fussed and insisted on going shopping tomorrow anyway -- though neither of them had figured out how that would work given Rodney didn't have a car. But he was the one who'd insisted on the most conservative treatment plan possible. Rodney spent most of the return trip following John around with a pen and notepad, forcing John sit in the aisle seat (saying loudly that it was so he could get up for the bathroom) and harassing the stewardesses with his demands that they be allowed to sit in the exit row for the extra leg room. John had smiled his apologies and made Rodney sit in their assigned seats.

John speared his hotdogs on a fork, carrying the ketchup bottle in his teeth. Experience had taught him that throwing the bottle only resulted in ketchup splatter.

He dropped the ketchup on the table, and got the hotdogs into buns, never mind a plate. John propped himself in front of the chair and turned around, using the table for balance. He leaned the crutches against the wall and eased himself down to the seat -- and bumped his foot on the table leg with a wince. He hated the weakness that came from hospital drugs and moving around with the pendulum of a cast.

John leaned his head on his elbow, trying to work out logistics. When he'd hurt his knee two years ago, ruining his chances at Worlds, he'd lived with roommates. That had made certain things easier.

A moment later, he shook himself awake and forced himself to eat.

~*~*~

March, 1997

None of his roommates from U of T gave a damn about figure skating. That helped. It cut down on the pity.

John edged his hips deeper into the couch, lifting himself up on his hands as he tried not to jostle the injured knee. He grimaced, then reached for the remote. Having roommates sucked and he couldn't wait to have his own pad again but he'd been saving money for--

John cut off that thought with a scowl, because it went places that hurt more than the leg. The electric buzz on the back of his knee felt like it had fallen asleep, though it was probably pain deadened by the drugs. He wrapped the ace bandage tighter, tugging at it. The doctor had mentioned surgery, given he was twenty-six and an athlete.

At least the guys had sprung for cable. John clicked on ESPN and lay back against the arm of the couch, not watching it, staring at the ceiling. The sharp pitch of a whistle sounded over the hiss and roar of the crowd. John idly identified it as football.

He popped the cap off a beer and sipped, his one rebellion against the meds. He was getting seriously dizzy and he couldn't figure out if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Pounding footsteps interrupted his haze.

His roommate, Nate, lumbered down the stairs, unshaven, wearing a sloppy stretched sweatshirt and a pair of boxers that just barely peeked out over hairy white legs. He stopped just before the last step, catching sight of John, hands trailing along the low ceiling.

"Sheppard?" He had that sour look of unpleasant surprise you got when a relative dropped by. "Aren't you supposed to be in, like, France or something?"

John supplied the translation: I thought I'd have the place to myself to screw my girlfriend.

"Ecuador, but close enough," John said with a deliberate easy gesture, dangling the beer from two fingers—and hating him with a passion. "Injured my leg. ACL."

Nate took in "ACL" with a blank look followed by a disinterested shrug. "Too bad. Sounded like a cool place. Better luck next year." He headed for the kitchen and John heard the fridge open and close.

"Yeah," John muttered to himself aloud. "Because I get picked for the U.S. Worlds team every year."

The TV switched to a blaring commercial, an electric guitar run and flashing images in the corner of John's eye. Then an announcer shouted, "Next up: Live coverage of the World's Championship men's figure skating short program! Will Kyle--"

With quick-draw speed, John switched the channel to a bad soap opera.

Even ESPN had betrayed him. He didn't throw the remote at the TV but it was a near thing.

The sound of the soap opera washed over him, barely sounding like English. He'd heard that they had Spanish soap operas in Ecuador that the skaters mocked in between practices.

He wished he could just as easily change the channel in his mind.

The doorbell rang, too close and loud to be on the TV. There was the voice of Nate's girlfriend, with that effusive "Hiiii...!" The sound of a wet kiss in the doorway. John shut his eyes and could almost feel the moment when she stopped cold just on the edge of the living room.

"John. Aren't you supposed to be in France or something?"

"Ecuador," John snapped, biting off the word. He tried to follow it with a smile. It wasn't her fault after all.

He heard them scamper up the stairs, her squeal and giggle at the top of the steps, and silently vowed to get really drunk this weekend. Maybe all week.

With a limp gesture he picked up one of the vials on the folding TV dinner tray, turning it in his fingers. The label warned in capital letters: DO NOT TAKE WITH ALCOHOL.

Drunk and stoned, he amended.

~*~*~

February, 1999

It took John several minutes to answer the door, as the knocking grew steadily louder and more impatient. With an irritated scowl, he unlocked it and backed up a step on the crutches before the door swung wide. Rodney stood in the hallway with four plastic bags of groceries dangling from his hands.

"Number one," he announced, "you need to give me a key. This is cantaloupe—" He held up one arm and jiggled the two bags. "—and therefore heavy, not to mention I start feeling rejected if I'm left standing in the hall forever. Number two, your convalescence is becoming painfully inconvenient for me, so let me borrow your car."

He slipped past John, head held high as he made a beeline for the kitchen and snapped on the lights. To Rodney's credit, he did put the groceries away, something he didn't always do for himself.

"Rodney, I've never even seen you drive."

"How hard can it be?"

John rolled his eyes as he followed more slowly to the kitchen.

"Kidding, just kidding," Rodney said as he stuffed lettuce into the crisper. John had him trained to put things where they belonged. More or less. "I have a Honda – the trouble is, it doesn't work." He swung around to John, eyes pleading. He narrowly missed clipping his head on the corner of an open cabinet. "Please? You don't understand what it's been like. You were my ride every morning, all I had to work out was Saturdays. Now my budget is spinning out of control what with all the cab rides—"

"Get somebody else to drive you," John said, settling himself in the chair Rodney usually used. He refused to feel guilty. It was Rodney who had insisted on the full cast.

"Well, it's not as though I'm on the way for everyone."

John decided not to mention that Rodney wasn't exactly on the way for him either. He just hadn't minded.

"And there are some people I can't ask, like, oh, the Bevingtons." He shuddered visibly. "And this." He brandished a bag of celery in his fist. "Is getting ridiculous. If I had a vehicle I could do it all in one trip a week, but the most I can carry when I get a ride is four bags and I'm really regretting that cantaloupe right about now." He rubbed his wrist. "I take back what I said about you eating like a bird, by the way: you consume your body weight daily. I just don't know where it goes."

John didn't want to admit that he didn't like the idea of seeing Rodney only once a week. It got really quiet during the day. He'd never had many distractions and all his hobbies were pretty similar: skateboarding, rollerblading, basketball – skiing back when he could afford it. He played chess.

"Rodney. Look around." John gestured at his apartment. "This is it. Everything you see here and that car is all I've got." He made a slicing gesture. "And I've never even seen you drive. No."

"I remember how!" Rodney swore to him.

"It's only a few more weeks. Or I can work something else out...." John began, rubbing the back of his head, though he had no idea what that would be.

"Yes, you and your thousands of friends. I noticed I had to fight my way through the flowers and crowds of well-wishers." Rodney gestured to the empty flower-free apartment, then huffed a heavy sigh as he clicked on the electric stove.

John couldn't tell his friends. One, most of them were back in the states, and two, they might slip and mention it to his parents. Then with alarm he noticed Rodney was cooking. "Wait... no, you don't have to do that...." He scrambled for his crutches, knocking one to the floor. It landed with a clatter.

Rodney picked up the crutch for him and leaned it against the wall. Out of reach. "I wouldn't dream of it. What are friends for?" He beamed, opening the cookbook. He studied it like a textbook. Then he bent to assemble the pots and pans he'd need.

On the one hand, Rodney didn't cook so much as overcook. Spaghetti really was the only thing he could manage, probably because you could simmer it for days. On the other hand, when he cooked he stayed and watched TV afterward with John, making fun of the dull documentaries on cable and "mindless American television, oh, this so explains Ronald Reagan...."

As ever, Rodney dismissed his suggestions as "interference" with his "culinary expertise." John sat with his hands folded in his lap, watching Rodney, and felling pretty pathetic.

~*~*~

It had worked that morning. John flipped through entire channels of gray fuzz searching for ESPN. Or The Movie Channel. Or anything. He finally realized he'd cycled through the same buttons on the remote several times with no response. He dropped the remote on the covers, snagging the crutches as he swung off the bed.

He hobbled over to the TV and circled it, bouncing as he moved around to check for wires that might have been knocked loose. He did bump into things these days.

Lifting his head, it dawned on him what must have happened.

"Oh, hell," John said. The cable man must have caught on to his illegal connection.

This was the last straw.

Determined, John walk-hopped with swinging steps towards the closet. Halfway there, he thought better of it and changed direction, rearranging himself to angle towards the kitchen.

Under the sink there was a ballooning collection of plastic grocery bags, and the garbage was getting ripe. He grabbed two bags. Returning to the closet, he leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb and used the end of his crutch to drag a cardboard box of tools across the wood floor of the closet. Clutter in the closet settled in a small landslide behind it, but he'd worry about putting it back later. Luckily, the most recently used tools were the very ones he'd needed the last time he'd set up the connection. Leaning a crutch against the wall, the spool of wire, flathead screwdriver, and tin-snips were lifted easily into the plastic bags. He tied them around the bend of his crutches, testing the balance and swing. Separated, they were both pretty light. John smiled at his cleverness.

He experimented with the whole set-up in a walk-hop to the kitchen, the two bags acting as awkward counterweights. Yep, this was going to work. Crutches clutched in one hand as he opened the fridge, John nabbed a bottle of water. Then snagged his keys from the little tray on the counter.

He stood on one leg as he pocketed the jingling key ring, then looked up to begin his trek, eyes narrowed and intent.

The cable box was on the third floor.

He left the door unlocked behind him. The main hall was carpeted in a green that had seen better days, though the walls were freshly painted. The main stair ran through the center of the building only a few doors down from his first floor studio. It wasn't far. John just didn't expect a traffic jam on the steps.

"Hi, John," said Mrs. Ebrey, a round woman in a blue flowered dress. She had a potted fern under one arm and stood on the bottom step, blocking his way. "Good to see you out and about. How's the leg?"

"Still in a cast." John stated the obvious, swinging it, tipping his head with rueful charm.

"I'll bet you've been going stir crazy in that apartment of yours." She smiled at him. Not moving from that step.

"Yeah," John said, wishing her gone.

They continued the pointless pleasantries while she somehow failed to notice that he was standing there on one leg and crutches. She finally cleared the stairway and waddled down the hall.

John breathed a sigh and gripped the handrail with the crutches under his arm, and quickly noticed a flaw in his plan. The bags now both swung on his left side, off-balance. He was guaranteed to drop the whole deal. He stopped on one leg with one shoulder against the wall to untie them, head dipped in concentration. He stretched the loops of the bags a little and swung them over his neck. It was less than ideal. If he fell... well, he'd just better not.

There was a tramping sound down the stairs. His upstairs neighbor appeared, the one with the habit of pacing late at night. He was older man in his late fifties, solidly built with slate-gray hair. He wore a jogging outfit, complete with racing stripes down the sides.

"What are you up to, John?" he said.

"Out for a little walk," John said, pressed against the banister.

"Good for you," the man said, completely disinterested as he headed for the front door. For the first time John regretted he lived in a building with a lot of retirees, who apparently were around all the time. Also, they were painfully healthy. He watched the guy jog down the front steps with ease.

Better balanced, John grabbed the handrail again, glad it was on the side by the injured leg, and tucked the crutches under his arm. He got them braced and then, hanging onto the rail, he hopped up a step, holding the cast up behind him. The tools bounced against his chest.

His right side was his take-off leg for jumps but otherwise this really wasn't all that different. Experience had taught him to take stairs fast, though.

He paused at the top of the first flight, balanced, a shoulder against the wall. Surprisingly, it was his arms that felt tired, missing his workouts. He should start using the free weights. He started to pull the bottled water out of the bag but blew it and dropped one of the crutches. Never mind. He gave up on the water – he'd reward himself with that on the top floor – and scraped the crutch closer. Finally, with a sigh, he focused on the next flight, turning into position.

Jaw clenched, he took the next series of hops easily, paused, then finished the flight. He didn't give himself time to think of the fact that he had still more to go, launching up the next steps.

Other than the nagging ache in his right leg, it felt good. A relief to be back in action. At the base of the last flight he steadied himself and focused, recognizing the wave of giddiness that came with pushing it while on the drugs. They messed with his balance. He had to remember that. He forced himself to rest, propped up against the wall. He set the crutches, handles down, against the wall and pulled out the bottle of water.

The gray metal cable box was at the top of the last flight. Target acquired.

With a grim smile, John put away the water and tucked the crutches back under his arm. Then took the quick series of swing-hops to the top. With a relieved breath, John propped his crutches up and leaned his back against the wall.

Down the stairway, several levels below, loud heavy footsteps echoed. He paused, wary. But whoever it was didn't come his way.

John slipped the two plastic grocery bags off his neck, then thought the better of it – what was he going to do? Put them out of reach on the floor? – and helped himself to more water. Recapping the bottle, he drew out the flathead screwdriver, smiling with mischief.

With one sharp look over his shoulder, he set to work.

Sure enough, the cable guy had replaced the old lock with a thicker Master lock. Nice try, but John didn't need to cut the lock when hinges were so much easier to remove. He pried the rusted pins out. They were even still loose from the last time.

The box swung open with a loud clattering crash, sagging on the Master lock like a hinge. Last time, John had caught and eased it down, but this time he had to just let it swing back and forth. He froze, listening for steps, eyes wide and hunted. He silently waited for it to finish as he pocketed the hinges.

Hopping closer to peer into the box, it wasn't difficult to figure out the switches. Not that they were marked or anything, but it was obvious, since only two were in the off position. That was a benefit of living in an apartment building with retirees. Everyone had cable. Shoulder against the hard edge of metal, he connected both just in case, although he was fairly sure he knew which was his.

The next stage was going to be the hard part, though last time it had been simple. One hand on the box, John grabbed the leaning cabinet door, staggering as he hopped back and swung it up to slam it shut with his shoulder.

Okay. That was stupid. That could have been a bad backward fall. He tapped the hinge-pins back in.

The stairway door swung open. John slid the screwdriver behind his hip. A guy in his thirties in a rumpled brown suit with blond hair falling in his eyes, peered around the door. John didn't recognize him, but he didn't know the people on the third floor.

"Loud out here. What are you doing?" the guy asked, taking in John's crutches. His accent sounded British.

John said, still clutching the box, "Holding on for dear life."

"Oh," the blond guy blinked. "You probably shouldn't be on the stair. You could fall."

"I needed the exercise," John said, truthfully, his heart pounding.

Looking concerned, the guy reached over and handed John his crutches.

"Sometimes I think they should put in a lift. You sure you can manage it all right?" he asked with a worried expression, glancing down the long stairs.

"Oh, I got this far," John said, then he reassured the nice guy. "Down is always a lot easier than up."

"Okay," he said doubtfully. "Don't slip." And he stayed on the top step watching as John hopped down the steps.

Down really was easier. After the second flight, John glanced back. The guy had gone. John let his head tip back with an audible sigh of relief.

He grinned as he turned the corner of the last landing.

At the bottom of the stretch of stairway was Rodney, staring up at John with an open-mouthed mystified expression. Several plastic bags of groceries dangled from his wrists.

~*~*~

"The bedroom of course you are already thoroughly familiar with." Rodney indicated his own room with a wave of his hand in the cheerful tone of a tour guide director on the Love Boat. "Your clothes are on hangers in the closet -- within easy reach you'll note -- while your toiletries—"

"Toiletries?" John echoed with a ghost of amusement.

"—Reside in the medicine cabinet. Left-hand side." Rodney's casual flick indicated the bathroom behind them. "You may go outside onto the porch to get some air, but!" He emphasized this with a raised forefinger. "You are not allowed under any circumstances to negotiate the front steps." There were only three steps. Rodney added, "And don't think I won't stoop to electronic surveillance because I most certainly will."

"Kinky," John commented with an approving nod. He rocked forward on his crutches and started to explore.

Rodney's clutter of boxes, scattered clothes, (skate guards, piles of magazines and newspapers, CDs, computer equipment and DVDs) hadn't been so much "cleaned up" as they'd been shoved against the livingroom walls to clear a wider path for John. He had to admit there was a lot more space than in his tiny apartment, which had never seemed so small. The coffee table had been pushed out of the way and it was now possible to reach the couch without having to step over anything. John looked around back towards the kitchen. Both chairs had been similarly cleared, while the piles of envelopes and whatnot had been moved from the table to the top of the boxes of cans -- that were still there, almost a month later.

"What if there's a fire?"

Rodney looked pained. "I'm speaking of actualities, as in you actually walking up three steep flights of stairs today, as opposed to hypotheticals, such as this house catching on fire – which hasn't happened in the ten years that I've lived here."

"So I'm allowed to run for my life?" John said, a smile starting at the corner of his mouth.

"It had better be dire, and you had better not be the one who started it."

Rodney followed John to the bathroom where John leaned a crutch under an arm, freeing his hand to click on the light. There were fluffy white towels on the towel rack. He opened the medicine cabinet. His toothbrush was right there next to Rodney's.

He backed out and tried the new path to the bedroom. So far his crutches cleared all the piles, though he thought this was far more hazardous than his nice, empty apartment. In the bedroom the path had been widened to leave a clear ring around both sides of the bed.

Rodney stood behind him in the doorway and wrung his hands. "Um. If you'd prefer, I can clean out the den and you can have the hide-a-bed and your own space... I don't mean to presume, there just hasn't been time...."

"Nah, this is all right," John said, and smiled at Rodney with a tiny shrug of one shoulder. "It's only a few weeks."

"Ah. Well. Don't think you get to loaf about eating bon-bons." Rodney clapped and rubbed his hands together. "It's pre-season so...."

"I know. Program design time." John bobbed his head. "As soon as you have it and I can skate again," he lifted his arms to indicate the crutches, "I'll try it out."

"What do you mean, as soon as I have it?" Rodney asked.

"As soon as you've got the general choreography, I'll run through it," John said. "It's okay. I know we're going to be behind and we'll probably have to tweak it here and there, but I have confidence in what you can do."

Rodney stared. "Have you never participated in the design of your programs?"

John gave him a sarcastic smile. "I'm not a choreographer, Rodney."

"Okay. I'll do that for a nine-year-old, just hand over a program, but even my preteens participate in their program design. How can you expect any trace of your personality to shine through if... wait. You know what?" Rodney cut himself off. "Never mind. I've seen what you skate, and, oh, this explains so much."

John tipped his head doubtfully and said in a sour voice, "Rodney. Maybe the kids you've had doing this since they were five are good at it, but I've had a few years to learn what I can and can't do." He rubbed an itchy spot on his nose with his shoulder and admitted, "It'll suck."

"I'm not going to have you do it from scratch. I can't even design an elite program -- not one that'll win anyway," Rodney admitted. "But you can't be passively handed a program and expect it to be anything more than just a reflection of the choreographer."

"I dunno...." John shook his head.

"Tomorrow, you start with the music," Rodney rolled right over him, ignoring his doubts. He smirked. "I trust I have a sufficient selection? Try not to blow out the speakers, they're expensive, and the neighbors," he twiddled his fingers in the air and tipped his head with a guilty wince, "well, they complain." That sounded a lot like personal experience, John thought. "Oh. And John...?" Rodney had a devilish glint and his smile didn't bode well. He picked up the television remote and placed it firmly in John's hand. "I have cable."

~*~*~

John's eyelashes flickered and he was dimly aware when Rodney flashed on the overhead light then mumbled, "Sorry, sorry, forgot—"

The light clicked off.

He heard Rodney stumble around in the dark, making twice as much noise as moments before. Then he tripped. Whatever it was went down with a clatter, and John blinked, recognizing the sound of his crutches. With a slightly irritated, slightly amused smile, John reached for the lamp and turned it on. Rodney crouched on the floor, looking up at him owl-eyed and apologetic, his foot through the handle of – yep – one of the crutches, the other flat. The clock read 5:12 a.m.

"Oops," Rodney whispered. "Um, it seems we need a nightlight."

John decided not to wake up all the way. He rolled to his side away from the light with a growl of a sigh.

The rest of his sleep hovered on the edge of awareness. The patter of Rodney's feet on the living room carpet. The click, a buzz, and then the faint hum of the television set in the next room turned down low. It sounded like the news. A tiny, sleepy frown furrowed John's brow as he tightened his grip on the pillow. The spurt and spatter of water as the shower started up on the other side of the bedroom wall.

John faded in and out of sleep, hazy and quiet. There was a shift in air currents that woke him again, a waft of humid moisture as Rodney left the bathroom, a whirring sound turning loud as he opened the door. The overhead fan still running.

John heard a distant clink of dishes. Rodney's next destination was the kitchen. The chug and hiss of the coffeemaker followed by a burble. Then the soft, warm smell of coffee began to permeate the house as Rodney returned to the living room, blue light flickering off the angles of the bedroom walls through the door. John scratched his hand through his hair and stretched till his elbow touched the headboard.

He rolled over, curious, as Rodney sat down at the couch, his head wrapped in a turban of fluffy white towel, another tucked around his waist. The mystery of why they ran through so many towels was solved. Rodney leaned forward and watched the news, carefully sipping his coffee. A half-eaten bagel sat ignored on the coffee table. The blue light caught on his eyelashes, his face open and innocent. His mouth pulled to one side over something the anchorman said, bright eyes taking it all in with sharp intelligence. John just watched him.

John gave up on sleep. He swung himself over, only to be surprised by the weight of his cast anchoring him. Right. Forgot.

Eyes blinking slowly, he debated getting up, then reached for the crutches, sliding the cast off the bed with a light thump as he sat up. He pushed himself off the bed with one hand then braced the crutches, bumping the door all the way open with the end.

Rodney sat up, the towel slipping over one eye. "Oh. I didn't mean to...."

"Bathroom," John said simply, raising a hand.

John returned moments later, and attempted to focus on the morning news show, trying to fathom the concept of the TV first thing in the morning. He watched the weather report, yawning, as the image of clouds drifted across the great lakes. Partly cloudy. Forty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. Warm day.

John realized he was staring at the TV, slack-jawed -- that thing couldn't be healthy. He shook his head and yawned again, rubbing his face with a sniff. He realized Rodney had stopped gazing at the TV and was looking at him. "What?"

"Aren't you... cold or something?" Rodney marveled.

"Huh?" John was a light sleeper, but it didn't mean he was as sharp as a tack right after he woke up.

"Well. If someone had told me a month ago that I'd have a naked man on crutches in my living room...."

"Oh. No," John said. He swung towards the kitchen and balanced, one crutch crushed in his armpit as he clicked on the light.

"That's a picture window," Rodney said.

"So?" John said, his head buried in the fridge. He pulled out the cold cuts. They didn't smell too off.

"So? The whole neighborhood can see you!"

John peered at the window and squinted. "Looks like the coast is clear to me." Truthfully, he couldn't see anything but his own reflection. He hopped to the kitchen chair, ignoring the crutches. "It's five a.m., Rodney."

"And the paperboy's due by any minute."

"And you're wearing a turban." John pointed at him with a floppy cold cut, then took a bite out of it.

"I fail to see how that's relevant," Rodney said, chin raised, lips together.

"I'm just saying... people with glass picture windows should not—you know what?" John said, an elbow on the kitchen table. "Let me take a rain check on this conversation till after I'm awake."

"You need to learn to drink coffee," Rodney said, standing with a smirk and taking a long sip. The towel made a mound around his waist and gapped above his thigh.

"Corrupting me already, huh?" John leaned back in the chair, stretching both arms over his head.

"Oh, I certainly hope so." Rodney's smirk turned into a salacious smile.

"You wanna cut class today?" John offered.

Rodney looked tempted and hesitated a moment. "Yes," he said emphatically, "but I can't. I have a lesson at six-thirty."

John gave him a funny look. "You'd better hurry up. It's after six."

"It's--? Oh!" Rodney scrambled away, stripping off and flinging both towels on the couch. At a leisurely pace, John got up, and with two swings across the kitchen had the phone in hand, dialing with an amused smile.

Rodney emerged from the bedroom not five minutes later, fully dressed and hopping on one foot as he put on a shoe. He looked up pleading and hopeful to where John had planted a shoulder against the wall by the phone. "Could you, um--?"

"Already called."

"I wish you'd let me drive your—"

"No."

Rodney huffed a dramatic sigh. "It would be so much easier, and faster, and in addition it would cost so much les—"

"No."

"It's a piece of—!"

"Don't say it, Rodney," John interrupted with a snarl. He crossed his arms, half-serious, with a glint in his eye. "You don't get to insult a man's car and then expect favors afterward."

The yellow body of a cab pulled up at the curb outside, its sign lit up against the deep blue of the morning.

Rodney flung the door open, walked two steps, then spun around to grab his gym bag just inside the entryway, stuffing it under his arm. Halfway down the walk he stumbled, walking backwards with a little wave, then he yanked the cab door open, gesturing wildly to the driver who appeared to be Indian and in no particular hurry. And hurrying even less the more Rodney yelled.

John eyed the clock over the stove. It was 6:20 a.m.

He might make it.

With an easy step, John swung to the bedroom where he rooted around for a pair of fleece pants and wool socks. A sweatshirt and his jacket off the back of the door came next.

He returned to the fridge. They were low on groceries as usual, but there was a half gallon of apple cider left. John set that on the counter and extracted a travel mug from the stack next to the sink. He no longer allowed Rodney to leave dirty dishes in the sink: it attracted ants. Though it was weird having to store dishes in piles on the countertop. He filled the mug, grabbed the box of cinnamon tea, dropped in a teabag, then popped on the lid and set the whole thing in the microwave. He leaned back with both elbows on the counter. He found the other half of Rodney's bagel – it was cold, but good enough – and finished that. The microwave dinged.

He grabbed the fanny pack he used for bicycling from where it was hung on the cabinet door and strapped it around his waist, then stuck the travel mug in a sleeve that was supposed to carry a water bottle. With a tired swinging hop, he crossed through the kitchen, ignored the still-muttering TV, and pulled open the front door.

He brushed a few leaves off the seat of a chair on the porch, then turned around to ease himself into it, the cast sliding on wood, scraping chipped paint. The plastic was cold through his fleece but warmed slowly, while a gentle breeze carried away the mist of John's breath.

John pulled out his mug – it had spattered, but then again, it always did – and took a long sip as he watched light gradually paint Rodney's neighborhood.

~*~*~

"Go long!"

John reached back and slung the Nerf ball into a perfect spiral, his elbow narrowly missing the arm of the chair. A stocky kid dove across Rodney's lawn, caught it and rolled into the damp grass and un-raked leaves, giggling. John stood up, balanced on his cast and gestured to his chest.

"I can't chase it, so bring it home, right here." He thumped his chest and held out his arms, ready.

The kid, who looked about ten years old, flung it end over end. It bounced off the corner of Rodney's house and into the rose bushes. John laughed and shook his head.

"You're gonna have to go get it now," he said, stumbling to peer over the porch railing.

The kid made a weird groaning sound like a small animal and then ran across sunset-streaked lawn. He rooted around for it and the ball flipped up into John's hands as if of its own accord while a taxi pulled into the drive.

Rodney stepped out and shaded his eyes.

The ball made a straight short line to the kid, who'd scampered out of the brush. He caught it with a huff, and raised his arms in victory. Rodney paid the cab driver, grabbed his gym bag out of the back and wandered up the sidewalk to John. The ball narrowly missed him as it returned.

"Where did you find the urchin?"

John pursed his lips in amusement. "He was just wandering by." He shrugged and pointed with his chin. "I saw the football and bet him he couldn't reach the porch. He missed, so we went for two out of three... five out of seven...." John tipped his head and grinned, tossing the Nerf ball from hand to hand. "I think he needs the practice."

"I trust we don't have to feed him."

"He looks well fed. Coat's shiny. I'm pretty sure he has a home." John slung the football to the kid and called, "Looks like it's dinner time for me!"

The kid made a disappointed noise, popped the football in the air and waved goodbye.

"You're the Pied Piper of the neighborhood," Rodney said, making it sound like a complaint. Then he brightened. "You said you made dinner?"

"Just a hint to the urchin, Rodney," John said, collecting his crutches.

"Fine. I'll order Chinese." Rodney held the door for him. "No doubt you've made startling progress on choosing your program music. Short program? Long program? Ring a bell?"

John winced. "Mostly I've been just sleeping."

Rodney frowned as the door shut behind them. A rumpled blanket hung half off the couch, one of the bedroom pillows stuffed at the end and still dented. John had a cleared a space on the coffee table for the remote, his meds, and a half-full glass of water. Rodney noted that the fine layer of dust on his collection of CDs lay almost completely undisturbed.

John swung by the table, plucking up the open bottle of meds. Rodney shot him a puzzled look.

"I'm supposed to take them with meals," John explained, slipping the bottle into a pocket. "Plus the cold..." He shrugged. "... it bugs the knee."

"Ah."

Later, picking at his Chinese food with his chopsticks, John admitted, staring into the depths of the box, "It's just kind of overwhelming." The chopsticks scraped. "I'd have an easier time in a record store. At least there it's organized."

"What? I have a highly sophisticated system of classification! The classical is organized by year and by opus," Rodney informed him.

"Yeah, see, that's not all that helpful." John's eyes seemed more green than hazel today as they flicked up over the box. "Given the only 'opus' I know is a cartoon character."

"The opus is the order in which the composer wrote each piece," Rodney explained.

"I know that – okay, I didn't know that. But it doesn't matter because it's just a number," John said. "The names aren't even all that descriptive. Beethoven's Symphony Number 6. Might as well be Chanel Number 5."

Rodney swallowed his bite, thinking. "No. I think the Pastoral Symphony is far too..." He wiggled his fingers as he scrunched his face and looked for the word. "... Something... for you...."

"Fruity?" John supplied, eyebrows raised.

"Balletic."

"Princess-y."

"It could only be performed in tights and those have been outlawed thanks to Brian Boitano," Rodney continued.

"God." John's laugh was breathy. "All you could watch was his nuts skating by."

"The cameras kept shifting to wide angle shots to keep it PG for the folks at home." Rodney snickered, his shoulders shaking.

"I know," John confessed with a devilish grin, tongue-in-cheek. "I've got the tape."

"Oh, everyone does."

John tapped his fingers. Licked his lips. "So. Anything I should consider for the top ten...?"

Rodney had already reached the bottom of his carton but he studiously avoided John's eyes. Every single one of his students was wracking their brains for music right now in the pre-season, humming snatches for their friends, "You remember the one that goes... hmmm, mmm, hmmm-aaah?" He'd spent the entire day fielding complaints. He'd discovered Mrs. Weir had picked out the music for her daughter – a definite no-no, it always showed – which put Melanie back to square one. He'd had to all but drag Melanie through the rest of the lesson by the hair.

John might be older than Rodney's "girls," but he didn't get to be the exception. It was a kind of torture he enjoyed, making them work for their programs. And, yes, even learn a little bit about classical music in the process. It wouldn't kill them. Rodney waited for it.

John continued, "I mean, I know a lot of music, it's just that it—"

Rodney lip synched the rest with John, rolling his eyes.

"—all has words."

Rodney pushed away from the table and gave him a sharp smile. "Let me know what you decide."

~*~*~

The bags of groceries cut into Rodney's hand as he struggled to get his wallet out of his back pocket to pay the cab. It was nine pm, not his latest night at the rink, but certainly later than most. The cold had seeped into his bones, so deep that he could still feel it radiating from his skin as he adjusted to normal temperatures. As a skater, the cold was brisk and refreshing, especially by the end of a work out. But as coach he spent more time standing on the ice than skating over it.

All the lights in the house were off.

With a sigh, Rodney briefly wished John would greet him at the door like a pet. Or at least open it when he knocked. He set the groceries down, making a face as he stretched with his fist in his back. Through the window he saw that the house wasn't completely dark. The television flickered like a strobe light.

"No, no, don't get up, don't strain yourself," Rodney said as he stumbled through, shouldering the door open.

But John was draped on the couch, out cold, head slumped into pillow, an arm across his stomach and the remote balanced on his chest. Based on his well-past-five-o'clock-shadow, it didn't look like he'd shaved. A few CDs were scattered on the coffee table, and the house, if possible, seemed messier than Rodney remembered, though he couldn't place how.

The television show was on mute. MTV. Oh, sure, "rap central" would help a lot with his music search. Rodney rolled his eyes, remorselessly flicking on the kitchen lights. The glare fell across the couch.

John didn't budge.

"No need to stir to help me with the groceries, I've got it," Rodney said, a little louder than before. "Although a simple 'hello, welcome home' wouldn't go amiss."

John sniffed, rolled over... and snuggled deeper into the couch. The remote thumped to the floor.

"Should've gotten a dog," Rodney muttered. He left the cans on the counter and put away the perishables.

Moments later, he retrieved a steaming plateful of spaghetti from the microwave. The noodles were still a little cold but good enough. He stirred the sauce to warm them up.

He heard a gulping sound from the living room as John downed some water, then the light clatter of the pill bottle being opened. Rodney stood in the kitchen doorway. John's hair had flattened to one side and stood almost straight on end over the part. It was quite a bizarre effect, reminding Rodney of Indian feathers. 'How,' his mind quipped, though he didn't think John was in the mood to get the joke.

John sat up, blinking at the kitchen light.

Holding up his plate to indicate dinner, Rodney said through a forkful, "Want some?"

John squinted at Rodney and shook his head. "S'alright," he said, then sighed back into the couch, the pill bottle still clutched in his hand.

Rodney stared at him a long moment, inwardly debating whether it was worth the effort to wake John and try to relocate him to the bedroom. He opted to finish dinner. Over the last week he'd learned the meaning of the phrase "immovable object."

Finally, he grew sick of the spasmodic MTV: the silent movie edition.

Muttering, Rodney shook John's shoulder. "Wakey, wakey, hands off snake-y...." Normally that got a adolescent snort from John, but the sleepy pout remained -- his eyelids didn't even flicker.

"C'mon, junior...." Rodney's hand rocked him a little more firmly. John's eyes tightened and he pulled away, rolling into the couch with a childish sniff, arms curling in on himself. Rodney chuckled and said in John's ear, sing-song, "It will get terribly cold out here...."

John's eyes slit open, not quite focusing. He groaned with a little hopeful note, "Hrmm... blanket?"

"No, no, no, not on your life. I'm not getting the quilt this time. But there's a nice soft down comforter in the bedroom. Just a few steps away...."

This percolated through John's sleepy mind, his eyes flicked to the side, puffy and resentful as he considered it.

He stretched up onto one elbow with a baleful, if vague, glare. He shook off the hand still resting on his arm and shambled to his feet, head bobbing like a new-born chick, seeking his crutches.

He made an unintelligible noise that Rodney somehow understood and answered, "Just use me. I'll bring them in later."

John nodded, accepting, and put far more weight than he normally would on Rodney as he wrapped an arm clumsily over his shoulder. Rodney grunted and staggered, righting them both. "You're going to have to wake up a little more than that or we're going to do a face plant – make that you, because I'm not going down with you."

"Bring the pills...?" John queried, sounding a tad more alert.

"They're in your hand, moron." Rodney tucked John's arm tight around his shoulder, leading him to the bedroom.

"Oh."

~*~*~

John had insisted on the window being open an inch. A trace of wind shifted the sheers, breathing them outward, then pulling them dark and tight, outlining the window frame.

Rodney stroked over soft flesh, fondled between the warm folds of John's balls, coarse hair tickling his hand. John's cock draped over his wrist. With two fingers, Rodney explored the line from his balls to the base of his ass and back again. He scraped nails lightly down the inside of John's thighs, raising goose bumps, but got no other response. Usually that maneuver was like hitting John's "on" switch. A firm pull found him pliable and still soft. And he could tell going down on him would be useless.

"This isn't working." Rodney huffed, releasing him. He sat back on his heels, the Sunday paper rustling under his hip. He swiped it off the bed onto the floor.

John looked down at him with half-lidded eyes, listless.

"What's the point of having you move in here if you can't perform your wifely duties?"

"What do you mean, can't? I'm just... a little spacey, is all."

"It's probably those drugs and, my god, I hate modern medicine right now," Rodney said. "Whatever happened to good old fashioned 'take two aspirin and call me in the morning'?"

Stretching the leg with the cast straight, John rolled onto his stomach. Leaning on his elbows, he suggested, "Why don't you do me?"

He angled his good knee up on the bed.

Rodney blinked and tried not to feel a little heartbroken as he swallowed his disappointment. He palmed John's hip, cupping his ass to get him in the mood. In massaging circles he teased down his crack, pulling away at the last second.

John grumbled, "Don't fiddle around. Just slam it in."

"You don't do that with me."

John said over his shoulder, "Most people don't like it the way I do."

Rodney grabbed the lube from the dresser anyway, warming a generous dab between his fingers. As John's glance over his shoulder turned into a glare, he delicately circled his thumb over the silky smooth pucker.

"Rodney..." John complained, pushing up so his thumb dipped in.

"I refuse to do damage," Rodney said, removing his hand to get more oil.

"If I weren't in a cast, I'd hurt you," he growled.

So Rodney grabbed his hips, squeezing. He lined himself up, then pressed forward. It was obvious John didn't do this often -- as in ever. Rodney reached down to readjust as he slid off, and tried again. Finally, he had his head snubbed in, biting his lip as he rocked in small pushes, trying to work John gently open.

John's hand clamped down on his hip, heavy and surprisingly strong.

"Harder," he said through gritted teeth, then exhaled and let go. He gasped as Rodney forced it.

John's head dipped between his arms and he panted, mouth open and unable to speak. His fist clenched on the pillow. Rodney bore down, all his weight squeezed forward and John's hand clenched again, making star shapes on the pillowcase. John was squashed flat under him, his free leg sprawled out at an awkward angle and he actually bit the sheets when Rodney began to put more energy into it.

Rodney rocked his whole body forward and John's hand released the pillow, at which point Rodney forgot to pay attention even out of the corner of his eye as it got really good, the heat building fast.

His forehead pressed against John's slick shoulder, he spiraled a long moment, lost in freefall.

He came back down, noticing first that John's back was rising and falling in harsh, rasping breaths. John licked his lips, and from the side Rodney could see his eyelashes looked wet, forehead beaded with sweat. John released a white-knuckled grip on the abused pillow and let out a long, heavy breath. A subtle shimmy of John's hips reminded Rodney that he had all his weight on him, and was in fact, still inside.

He slowly pulled out, wincing as his sensitive cock touched the blankets. He realized that he'd stupidly forgotten the condom, distracted as he was with John's demands. He took far too many chances with John.

John shifted to a more comfortable position, laying limp on one side. He swept the damp hair off his face with the inside of his arm.

"You didn't come," Rodney realized, bewildered. His eyes swept John's body. "You aren't even hard."

"Doesn't mean I didn't like it." John stretched, long and languid, with a naughty smirk. He murmured, his eyes glittering at Rodney, the smirk turning into a smug smile, "Only the bad boys get fucked." And he did look like a bad little boy who'd gotten away with a stolen cookie.

"You are twisted," Rodney said even as John wrapped an arm around his shoulders and rolled Rodney closer with a grunt. Rodney's foot kicked out, but John was stronger. "No, I'm not kidding. You have issues and clearly need psychiatric help."

Sticky with sweat, John pillowed his head in the crook of Rodney's arm and shoulder, nuzzling. Which was something he didn't usually do either. John had sharp elbows and used them when he wanted more room.

John mumbled happily into Rodney's chest, "I'll sleep 'em off." Then sighed. "Wake me when it's lunch time, will you?"

"Lunch was half an hour ago."

But John's eyelids fluttered once or twice more, and fell shut. Rodney was far from comfortable and suddenly aware that, yes, in fact, it was lunch, and yes, he was hungry. He looked down at the warm weight of John's cheek on his chest and decided he could wait fifteen minutes. Maybe even twenty.

~*~*~

Light blustery rain spattered on taxicab windshield, cold fat drops that blew into Rodney's face as he ducked away and struggled to open the umbrella. There was more wind than rain, and it threatened to turn his umbrella inside out as his wallet became another seven dollars lighter. He tried not to resent the taunting sight of John's car, parked on the street right in front of the house.

Before the cab could leave, it was blocked by a small Toyota that pulled in behind it, enthusiastic wipers beating unnecessarily fast. The passenger side door opened and an aluminum crutch got out, followed by John. He waved a breezy hand at a woman in the driver's seat as she backed away. John crumpled a small white bag in his hand. Freed, the cab sped off as if on a mission from God.

"That was my neighbor," Rodney accused him.

"Yeah. Nice lady," John said, watching as she left.

"What? The one that mutilated my shrubs without asking me?!"

"She didn't mention it." John pointed as he moved down the walk, passing Rodney. "But she did tell me about some impressively loud Beethoven...."

"Beethoven's 5th and Wagner should only be played at full volume; anything less undermines the intended impact of the music – and that woman is a menace with hedge trimmers. Don't be fooled for a moment by that smiling face. She didn't express one iota of remorse." He shook out the umbrella as John navigated the steps. "What were you doing anyway?"

John wrinkled his nose and complained, "Spilled my prescription. The pharmacist, though, she was nice enough to let me refill it."

Rodney snorted as he unlocked the door. "You and women." He stopped suddenly and John nearly walked into him. "Wait. Should I be worried here? I mean, you've never actually slept with one, have you?"

"Not intentionally," John said.

~*~*~

Rodney was never sure what prompted him to check. The white bag containing the prescription had been set on the coffee table, in the usual spot, while John went to the bathroom. Rodney had heaved the spaghetti sauce on the stove to reheat, pondered cleaning the kitchen, then dismissed it as a pointless waste of time. He clicked on the porch light, crossing to the living room. Then he probably meant to glance at the CDs John had listened to that day, but John's prescription had his name and the contents on a sticker on the outside of the bag. He leaned closer.

John emerged from the bathroom. Rodney already had the bag unstapled to check to see if there was some mistake. But it wasn't mislabeled. He held the bottle up, spinning towards a startled John.

"This isn't your prescription," Rodney said.

"Yes, it is. It's even got my name on it." John's smile was dry.

"This isn't what they gave you in Colorado," Rodney clarified with a sarcastic flutter of his eyelashes.

"That stuff didn't work for me." John nodded to it with his chin. "That's my old prescription."

Rodney's shoulders sagged. "How old?"

"It's actually milder, Rodney." John came closer and reached to pull it out of Rodney's hand.

Rodney held it away, over his head. "How old?"

John let his hand drop. "It's the same prescription from when they took me off the jumps. It's been working for weeks."

"Weeks? That was almost two months ago!" Rodney was aghast. "You didn't spill it, did you? How did you sweep them up, hmm?"

"Rodney...."

It took three angry steps for Rodney to fling the front door open. He struggled with the bottle with shaking hands for a moment, then scattered the contents in an arc across the lawn. They caught the light for a moment, then fell with a patter and vanished into the grass.

He turned, capping the bottle, his shoulders hunched, to find John regarding him with sardonic calm. John had one arm draped over his crutch as he balanced next to the couch.

"Thanks, Rodney. That was expensive."

He was too calm.

"You have another stash, don't you?" Rodney asked him, eyes darting over John's face.

~*~*~

John had never seen an SUV packed with quite that much stuff. He observed Rodney's preparations from the sidelines, his own single backpack already flung inside and buried. "You sure you can drive that thing? Because I could take over. Though I'd probably be a lead foot." He indicated the cast with a gentle swing.

"I assure you, I can drive," Rodney said, heaving another shoulder full of blankets into the back before slamming the door.

He opened it again and tossed in a cooler that he'd left on the ground outside, sliding it along the carpeted floor. The door slammed again.

"So... where are we going? Everest? K-2-? I think you forgot the oxygen bottles."

Rodney gave him a dismal look. "You are the first non-McKay to visit the family retreat, and I had to deal with Jeannie's mockery that I even wanted to go back there after years of swearing that I never would – all on your behalf! But someone has to get you away from the evils and temptations—" He waved a hand generally to indicate the quiet suburban Toronto neighborhood. "—of big city life."

"For a weekend," John said, dry with humor.

"It's all I could get!" Rodney's forehead crumpled in frustration and dismay. "We have a large family – hello? The Scottish McKays. We're known for that – and the Canadian summer is approximately three minutes long. So you're just going to have to... hurry up and recover from your drug addiction."

John rolled his eyes and refrained from pointing out that it was nowhere near summer. "I'm not addicted. I just like them."

The horrified look Rodney shot him convinced John to not pursue that topic of conversation further. He figured Rodney would completely freak out if he said anything along the lines of "I can stop any time I want."

Rodney walked around the side of the rented SUV and slid the side door shut. Then he hopped into the driver's seat and bounced until he was comfortable, adjusting the mirrors and steering wheel like he knew what he was doing. "Well? Get in."

John shrugged and climbed up. He leaned the crutches between the seats. "It's March. You're aware that the ice has probably just broken, right? And that it's going to be freezing cold?"

"Beggars can't be choosers," Rodney said, hunched down behind the wheel, not looking at John.

They weren't ten minutes outside the city, heading at exactly the speed limit in the left hand lane towards Kingston, when Rodney asked, eyes flicking to John with guarded fear and curiosity, "So. Feeling any cravings or...um...?"

A car came up on Rodney's bumper, flashed its lights, then went around him as it was ignored. A second car followed it. John sighed and leaned his forehead against the window. "I'm not a drug addict, Rodney."

It was going to be a long trip.

~*~*~

In a relaxing haze of road noise, John drifted, his head rocking gently against the headrest as they thumped over the regular lines of uneven pavement. Cars hummed around them, passing on the right. The scenery had been nothing special. Farms, fences, trees, farms, fences. Rocks. More trees. The SUV suddenly rumbled, shaking them both.

"Sorry," Rodney said, head ducked into his collar. He moved the vehicle back into the center of the lane. It figured he couldn't drive in a straight line.

John tried to adjust the seat further back, unsuccessfully – these new cars never had space for long legs, even without the cast – stretching for more room. It had turned out to be a good thing he had an extra supply ("stash" was an exaggeration), but John was determined to prove was not addicted by not taking them. He winced at his stiff knee, wondering about bathroom breaks even as Rodney hit the turn signal and slowed, looking nervously over his shoulder. He dodged into the next lane and then lurched towards the nearest exit. Rodney had refused to stop for fast food, skipping one rest stop sign after another. Now he steered the vehicle unerringly towards an old store with a few camper trucks parked in front, bouncing over potholes in the parking lot.

"It's still here," Rodney said, his face lit up and distant.

"Great. So we can do some grocery shopping," John said, though really, he was just glad they'd stopped.

"No, no, there's a little – well, I don't know if they still have it, but—" Without finishing his sentence, Rodney squirmed out from behind the wheel, dropping to the sandy pavement. "Well, come on. No, wait. Stay there. I forgot about the cast." And with that, he dashed towards the store.

John ignored his instructions and got out, gratefully rolling his shoulders, crutch tucked under one arm though he wasn't putting all his weight on it. Colder wind than he was used to brushed his hair. The air smelled like oil, dirt, and damp wood, things John associated with farms and camp outs. John glanced around. The little store adjoined a two-pump gas station and a more modern mini-mart with glass walls. Rodney poked his head out the front door of the store, beaming, and waved John over. John dragged his other crutch out of the car.

"It's still here," Rodney said, clearly excited.

"Oh. That's good to know," John said as Rodney held the door for him. He had no idea what Rodney was talking about.

"I recognized the exit immediately, and that's some memory I've got, because I haven't been here in what-? Fifteen? Twenty years?"

"Like a homing pigeon," John said, his smile snide. Rodney shot him a dirty look.

Stepping inside, John surveyed the dusty wooden shelves with lonely boxes of cereal and stacks of tuna fish cans, the refrigerator full of styrofoam bait containers, and all the fishing poles mounted to the wall. He nodded slowly. "This is a real find, Rodney."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "It's in the back."

The back had six or seven chipped formica tables and even in the middle of the afternoon it was busy, filled with what looked like locals; men in work jackets perched on old-fashioned soda fountain stools; a mother herding a toddler back to their table; a group of kids talking loudly as they blew straw wrappers at each other. A teenage girl in an apron swerved between the tables, holding a pot of coffee over her head as John and Rodney sat down.

The menu on the blackboard behind the grill was simple, but promising, and the food smelled great. Mentally, John already had his fork and knife in hand.

"This place is word of mouth," Rodney said proudly. "Only the locals know about it -- and, of course, yours truly."

Never let it be said that Rodney's bragging was without cause.

The platter for John's cheeseburger was the size of a trough, cheese dripping down the side of a burger that was actually medium rare. The home fries were crisp, and Rodney waved John off when he reached for the ketchup. "I realize this is sacrilege, but, try their gravy first." He pointed to a little ceramic cup. "I don't know what they do to it, but no doubt somebody's grandma won first prize at the county fair."

It was a little greasy and John had to wipe a drip off his chin but he suspected the moan conveyed his opinion, because Rodney grinned at him across the table before he dug in to his own lunch. Their coffee was ordinary, black, and perfect -- hot enough to burn your windpipe. It was also bottomless. The coffee pot circled like a dish at Thanksgiving dinner, in constant motion. Some of the men at the counter cradled mugs in their hands, seeming to thaw in place. The owner certainly knew how to keep the customers coming back.

Finally, with a sigh, John leaned away from his plate, thinking he might need a forklift to get back into the SUV. Rodney picked his teeth with a toothpick, slumped in his chair. They'd blown any semblance of a diet and John was grateful neither of them were competing any time soon.

"Dessert?" Rodney smirked at him.

John groaned and laughed, tipping his head back in a plea for mercy.

They stayed later than they should have, sipping coffee and shooting the breeze, soaking up the homey atmosphere. Outside, the gray skies and flecks of cold rain against the window seemed unwelcoming.

Rodney set down his cup and dug a folded sheet out of his pocket. "Now let's see what I'll have to endure this weekend."

John half expected a map – he doubted Rodney had actually driven to the family cottage when he was twelve – but it turned out to be some sort of pamphlet.

"'Symptoms of withdrawal....'" Rodney read aloud.

"Oh, way to spoil a good time, McKay," John snarled, leaning forward, hunched, elbows on the table. He glanced around the room and lowered his voice. "And would you keep it down? This is a family kind of place."

"Embarrassment, that's good. It's a step towards admitting you have a problem."

John scowled at him, eyes narrowed.

"Says so right here," Rodney added brightly, tipping the brochure towards him.

"I don't have a problem."

"One step forward, two steps back is the name of the game," Rodney said sagely with a shake of his head. He looked up from his reading. "That's in paragraph two."

"Gimme that," John said, snatching it out of his hands. He balled it up.

"Sure, keep that one. I have plenty," Rodney said, withdrawing another from an inside pocket. "They give these things out by the dozen."

John ran his hands through his bangs and gave in to the inevitable.

Rodney frowned, reading, his chin high, quick eyes skimming the page. "Hmm... remove the source, hello, obvious?... blah, blah, blah... avoid dehydration, yes, yes, taken care of that... no, I don't think a cavity search is entirely necessary..." John glared bloody murder at him and Rodney shifted nervously. "... Or wise. Ah! Here we go: Symptoms. Irritability... restlessness...." Rodney looked up and stared at John. "But-- how am I supposed to be able to tell?"

"Maybe when I come after you with an ax?" John suggested, turning his coffee cup.

"Oh, ha. Try not to hurt yourself when you fall off your crutches, Freddie Kruger."

"I don't know, I've seen some pretty scary villains who limped," John said.

Rodney rubbed an eye and huffed. "I guess the goal here is to return you to normal. You've been entirely too sanguine."

"Funny, I'm feeling irritable already."

"Oh? Really?" Rodney perked up. "Does this mean it's working?"

~*~*~

Rodney so richly deserved it. And he really should have known better with all that greasy food.

They bought "supplies." John figured this was how the little restaurant made its real money as Rodney tossed several bags of groceries and a couple of wrapped bundles of wood in the back. He assumed they must have a fireplace at that cabin of Rodney's, which did sound nice right about now with the cold seeping in around the doors. Rodney hopped into the cab, and they hit the road. John waited for his moment.

The SUV warmed up and there was good air circulation in the vehicle. Rodney rolled over to the left lane on the highway (John decided he must feel safer there) and proceeded to hog it again. Traffic spilled around them.

Then Rodney turned off the heater and the air went still. Perfect.

John eased off the seat a half inch or so.

Rodney twitched, sitting up straight. He muttered to himself, nose high, looking around through the windows, "... Must be a dairy farm around here somewhere." There were rocks to either side of the freeway. "Or an overturned port-o-potty. Kids do that sort of thing 'out in the country.'"

He shook his head to clear it. "God, that reeks!"

John couldn't help it, his shoulders started shaking. Rodney zeroed in on him.

"That's you?!" He fumbled with the buttons to roll down the window. His seat buzzed forward, the mirrors turned, before he finally hit one for the window.

John took a deep, voluptuous breath and then choked, his snickers exploding into laughter.

"I hate you!" Rodney said. His stuck head out the window, sucking down air.

John cracked his own window. He had to admit, it was pretty bad.

"You shall rue the day!" Rodney swore.

He was pretty sure that was true, since Rodney had eaten the same lunch. But John had won the element of surprise.

They weren't a hundred yards along the road before John rolled his window all the way down, one arm clawed over the side, gagging with laughter. "Oh, man, Rodney!"

~*~*~

The light was dim by the time they found the old dirt road, rutted enough to make John's teeth jangle. Fortunately, the ground was still pretty frozen. In a month or so John would bet any money they'd be sinking to the wheel wells in mud.

"Sure you know where we're going?" John asked for the third time.

"It was right here," Rodney complained, peering into the trees.

But then the road curved left and the trees cleared to the right, revealing an open sky and the bright chop of water reflecting twilight gray. The grade was at an angle and there was a strip of sandy gravel straight ahead, leading to moorings where there might be a dock come summer. Rodney turned the SUV sharply to the left and uphill, and John found himself looking at a cabin with dark windows like eyes, tucked into the hillside. John let his gaze trail up the crest where the trees were bent southeast from prevailing winds in the direction of the long lake.

With a huff of a sigh, Rodney shut off the engine.

The silence was almost surreal. No road noise. No hum of street lights. Just the hush of the water and faint hiss of wind. Briefly, John wanted to turn around and go home. This was about as far as he could get from his fantasies of curling up by a cozy fire. He zipped up his jacket instead and Rodney creaked the driver's side door open, the cold rushing in.

John's breath misted as he stepped out onto hard ground, ignoring the sound of Rodney's grumbling. Rodney bundled up a huge armload of blankets, slinging the strap of a bag over his shoulder. A blanket slid and dragged along the ground.

"Need a hand?" John asked, adjusting the crutch under his arm.

Rodney gave him a dismal look and snorted. "Just bang on the hood of the car."

"What?"

"In case a bear has broken into the cabin," Rodney said. "Of course it would only be a hazard if someone were idiotic enough to leave food there over the winter -- which, given my relatives I would not be surprised -- but I'd rather not risk being eaten alive."

"There are bears out here?" John growled, leaning closer, his head turning slowly towards Rodney.

"It's only happened once and our parents had us bang pots and pans and it swam away -- and did I not tell you that I had good reason to never want to come here again?"

John's mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. "And you didn't bring a .357?"

"What is it with you and the military thing?" Rodney adjusted his load of blankets. He made a flicking gesture. "Now. Bang away."

"Let's not. Instead, why don't we walk around the cabin and see if any doors or windows are broken in," John suggested with slow sarcasm. "Unless you think a bear would lock the door nicely behind him."

"Oh." Rodney blinked.

"And while we're at it, if we're going to be facing a bear I really don't think standing there with an arm full of blankets is such a hot idea," John pointed out. "Now. Why don't we start the engine. I'll leave the passenger side door open. Since I can't run from a bear, I'll sit in the driver's seat with my foot on the gas. If you come running, you jump in, shut the door, and we'll get the hell out of here."

"Oh." Rodney tipped his head quizzically at John. "You know, that sounds like a considerably better plan than what my parents had."

"Well, if we had a gun we could just shoot the bear."

"I like the idea of running better. No offense, but I'm not wearing hunter's orange and if you missed...."

"I wouldn't miss." He accepted the blankets from Rodney and dumped them in the back seat. "Check your shoelaces first. You don't want to trip."

Jacket zipped, shoelaces ready, Rodney hoisted a flashlight and shone it across the face of the cabin.

"Nothing there," he said, glancing back at John. "I think that's good enough, don't you? A bear's far more likely to enter on the southeast side from across the water since—"

"Rodney...."

"Okay. Going, going."

With mincing steps, Rodney edged around the side of the cabin, the light playing across the sides wildly. It cast up, highlighting the bare branches, then outlined the house shape, shining for a moment through the cabin windows. There was a nerve-wracking sound of snapping branches that was most likely Rodney pushing through the brush, but John's eyes widened.

Then Rodney reappeared on the opposite side of the cabin.

"Looks like everything's fine," he called out, brushing his hands on his jeans.

John froze. This was the point in a horror movie where a giant creature would launch out of a window at Rodney's throat.

But nothing happened. Rodney cheerfully jogged down the hill toward the car. "Maybe we can rig your backpack so you can help me haul in the wood." He thumbed over his shoulder. "And, god, I hope that was just mud I stepped in because there's no telling what's back there."

"Really? Do bears shit in the woods?" John grinned, and was rewarded with a roll of Rodney's eyes.

Rodney held the door open while John navigated up the four plank steps. And wasn't that going to be a joy if he had to use an outhouse every day.

As John stepped in, he automatically reached for a light switch and his hand swept along a bare wall. Rodney's flashlight shone jaggedly around the inside of the cabin. The floors were dusty wood, the ceilings vaulted with open beams. In the far right corner stood an old fashioned wood-burning stove. On the opposite side was a double bed with a bare mattress. A ladder next to the bed led up to a small loft. They stood in a kitchen which was nothing more than a long counter bisected by a sink and two cupboards overhead, with a picnic table shoved into the corner by a window.

It was as cold inside as it was outside.

"How about we build a fire?" John suggested. Rodney had his arms wrapped around himself and shuddered out loud, nodding.

But on his first trip he returned with the blankets and a second flashlight. "Bundle up," he said, dumping them on the bed.

John ignored this advice in favor of exploring, clicking the flashlight on. He shook it and scowled when it flickered.

By the time Rodney got back from the car, bumping and swearing through the door, John had found half a dozen oil lanterns and some damp matches that still worked. He'd lit the one by the bed. There was no stove, which shouldn't have been a surprise given the lack of electricity, but a cast iron skillet and teapot on the wood stove answered that one. It also promised to be a royal pain. The good news was the bathroom under the loft. With a shower, tub, and a toilet. This at the moment struck John as the lap of luxury as he shelved his dreary pictures of trying to maneuver an outhouse on crutches.

"Huh," Rodney said across the room. He'd lit an oil lamp in the kitchen, the wisp of kerosene scent filling the cabin. He stood in front of the sink, shutting the knobs on and off. Nothing came out. He sighed and slumped, hand pressed to his forehead like he had a headache. "They turned the water off for the winter."

John processed this, pausing. "That means the toilet doesn't work."

"No, no, it's composting, we put that in a couple years ago – well, technically my sister did and then, surprise! Forced everyone to cough up the money to pay her back. But I'll have to see how to turn the water on tomorrow; I'm not crawling around under the house in the dark. Let's just pray they thought to bleed out the pipes."

"So. No hot showers," John said, nodding. He could live with that for a night.

Rodney gave him a dismal look. "Did I say anything about hot water? This place is primitive."

"Cold showers then." John cast his flashlight over the loft again, peering up at what looked like another bed, possibly two. "Somehow I have trouble picturing you here."

"Again with the not listening! Need I remind you that I've not been here since childhood?"

"Need I remind you that this was your idea?"

"Yes, well, spending time in sub-human conditions with a recovering drug addict is sounding like less and less of a good idea."

"I'm not a drug addict."

The statement was automatic at this point. John no longer expected Rodney to believe him but he wasn't about to let it pass either. He hadn't taken a single one of his pills all day and his leg ached. His gaze fell on the two bundles of wood stacked inside the kitchen. "You want to get the rest of that?" John asked in a harassing tone.

"What?" Rodney blinked. His eyes flicked to the little stack of wood. "No, that's it."

"It's thirty degrees out. We'll go through that in a matter of hours."

"It's minus one degree, someday soon you shall discover the magic of the Celsius system, and," Rodney swept a finger triumphantly through the air, "the McKays plan better than that."

He led John to a door he hadn't paid attention to in his first sweep of the area. He walked backward as it opened onto a porch covered in green astroturf and explained, "Every spring we have a dozen or so cords of wood delivered. Then throughout the summer each family brings in wood and restocks as they leave. Granted, I didn't bring enough on the way in this time but I'll make up for it."

"Uh. Rodney."

The porch behind him was empty, aside from two huge unsplit logs, leaves, and scattered bark. An ax and splitting maul leaned against one wall.

Rodney ran his hand down his face, then tapped his lip with a forefinger. "It's always so much better in theory than in practice."

~*~*~

John sniffed and stirred.

"Rodney...."

"Hmm?"

"S'cold in here."

Rodney simply blinked, not quite awake yet.

"Fire's out," John said.

"Huh." Rodney thought about it a moment. "Any logs left?"

"Think so."

"Go check."

John burrowed deeper under the covers. "Fuck that."

"Are you hiding under the covers?"

"My ears are cold."

He felt John's warmth press close, then something as cold as an icicle tapped the bare skin just above his t-shirt. "Augh! Get your nose off the back of my neck!" Rodney squirmed. "That's wet, you're not a dog – wait. Did you just wipe your nose on me?"

"Relax," John mumbled. "I've got a little sniffle. It's cold in here."

"Ugh!" Rodney swiped back and forth at the slime on the back of his neck.

"Ah, ha, now you have cooties...." John sing-songed. He snuggled closer and spooned up behind Rodney's ass. "Don't assume this is a come on. I'm just looking for body heat."

"Uh-huh. And that's a heat-seeking missile, I presume?"

"I hate to break it to you but it's mostly a piss hard-on."

"Oh, yeah? Which part?" Rodney smoothed his hand back between them, digging down and squeezing John through his underwear.

"Keep checking. I'm not sure."

~*~*~

"We can always dish up and boil some lake water, Rodney," John said, peeking under the cabin. He dangled a steaming mug of instant coffee. "Here. Have some of mine."

The day was bright so Rodney could barely make him out between the struts of the cabin where he hunted for the water main, rooting through wet leaves. He spluttered. "I am not drinking purified algae and fish feces, thank you very much."

John took a long, thoughtful sip of his coffee. "Mmm. You know, I think it does taste kind of fishy."

Rodney silently cursed every relative he'd ever had – despite the fact that in this case they'd taken the proper and correct action in shutting off the water – then cursed the builder of their cabin that the valve was in the crawlspace. He finally found the yellow switch next to the tank he and his sister used to call "the yellow submarine." He scrambled out, squinting into the sun and brushing off wet leaves, to find Sheppard relaxing, leaned back on his elbows on the front stair.

"Nice they set this up so that by the time you get the water on, you desperately need a shower," Rodney said with distaste.

"So we have water?" John started to stretch and get up.

"Probably," Rodney hedged. It's not as though he'd ever done this before.

They returned to the cabin, shutting the door quickly behind them to save heat. Rodney turned the faucet away from their egg-covered sauce pan and washed his hands – and not incidentally rinsed the antifreeze in the pipes down the drain – while John made a beeline for the shower. Moments later the water spurted. There was a whoop of laughter.

"Oh, man, you weren't kidding about the cold!" John yelled through the wall.

"Let it run until the rust color goes away!" Rodney called back. He calmly filled a tin bucket of water, chin leaned on his fist, elbow on the counter, the sun on his face. He carried it in a waddle over to the wood stove and set it on top, slopping a little. The wood stove hissed at the dark wet spot vanished. Apparently John either didn't hear him or didn't listen, because he heard the shower curtain draw back, and there came another loud, "Jesus!"

Rodney poured out the tea kettle and refilled it with clean water, then set it on the wood stove as well. He broke open the last bundle of logs, stoking up the fire.

He was going to have to drive into town for more wood. To leave an injured and addicted John alone for two hours, or have John in his hair while he tried to get work done, that was the question....

John hobbled out of the bathroom, dripping wet. "Forgot my towel." Rodney grabbed it from the mess of their bed and John caught it. He started rubbing down his face and hair, then worked his way down his body. Until John, Rodney had never seen anyone use a towel quite so vigorously.

"Hoo boy," John breathed once he'd reached his hair again. It was a mass of wild dark brown spikes. He blinked. "I think diving in that lake would have been warmer."

"Mmm, yes, it's well water so no doubt it's at least several degrees colder." Rodney hefted the pail off the stove and shuffled towards the bathroom. "My turn, stand aside, coming through...."

"Wait. I freeze to death and you get a hot bath?"

"More like a quarter bath," Rodney said as he added cold water to the mix. "But yes, the smarter members of species Homo sapiens consider the materials at hand and devise a method that is both more effective and far more civilized."

John whipped the towel off from around his neck. "Make room."

~*~*~

A blaze of sun reflected off the lake and John squinted away, shading his eyes as he watched the back of Rodney's SUV rock and bump down the gravel road. While John was in the bath Rodney had offered to take him into town with him.

"What do people consider a town around here?" John had flicked a little water at him. They'd left the bathroom door open to let in the heat. He had his cast up on the edge of the tub while Rodney jutted his chin at the mirror, shaving.

"Mmm. A grocery store, antique shop, post office, and a gas station. More like a street," Rodney said.

"I'll pass."

Looking down the empty road, John kind of regretted staying.

The remains of the log Rodney had split were scattered around John in front of the cabin.

John wasn't sure if Rodney had tried it because he didn't want to go into town, or if he was afraid to leave John without wood, but he could have told Rodney those last two logs had been abandoned for good reason. He'd missed most of Rodney's attempts while he was pulling on a sweatshirt, feeling warm and relaxed for the first time in days, just heard the steady thwack of the ax and then suddenly a long stream of profanity.

By the time he got his crutches and reached the door, Rodney was dusting himself off. Though he was still swearing. There was a large, dark muddy patch on his rear and left knee. The ax was embedded in the log.

"Not one word," Rodney said, pointing.

John smiled. "A little knotty?"

"I swear to god, if I can get one end to squeeze into the grate that'll be good enough." He reached for the ax and the log lifted up with it. This was the best entertainment John had had since his injury.

Now John had one hand on his hip and an afternoon alone. By the shore, a blue tarp covered a rowboat up on sawhorses for the winter. If John weren't on crutches he'd see if he could get it cleaned out and in the water. The lake was deep and clear and curved just beyond an overgrown spit, leggy tree roots reaching into the water. Begging for exploration. Behind the cabin a faint trail led through the trees up the hill and promised a great view of the surrounding area. He wondered how big the lake was. It wasn't very far across, but seemed to stretch as long as a river.

Of course, since he was injured he couldn't do any of these things. He was starting to think Rodney had brought him out here just to torture him.

With a sigh, John hobbled inside.

Within the space of an hour, he had dinner simmering on the wood stove. Rodney had predictably bought spaghetti and the makings for sandwiches, but John dug around and discovered a bag of potatoes in a drawer. Most of them had grown to the point of looking like alien creatures, but he salvaged a few. Dusty cans of kidney beans joined the carrots Rodney had brought along with his ubiquitous canned tomatoes, making a simple minestrone.

Rodney would have to make the bed; that was beyond John right now, needed both hands and took too much off-center shifting around -- but he did scoop the clothes off the floor and fold them. Then it occurred to him there was something useful he could do. He swung over to the bright astroturf porch and cracked open the door. Sure enough, bark, twigs, and leaves were scattered all over the place.

He set to separating the kindling and tinder like he'd been taught back in cub scouts. It went slower than he would have liked, but using just one crutch worked pretty well.

After about forty-five minutes, he propped back against the wall and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, sweat cooling. He leaned his head on the smooth wood and thought of taking the meds, mind drifting. He frowned, his eyebrows going up as he tipped his head with a strange expression. His leg wasn't even bothering him that much; he'd practiced on worse.

~*~*~

At dusk, Rodney's SUV returned. John sat on the front steps, his leg stretched out in front of him. The clouds were stained orange and gold and reflected on the water save where the wind rippled the surface in a long v-shape. The little bay in front of the cabin was golden pink and nearly smooth. Just breaking the surface, a loon, its head like a dark periscope, crossed into the bay then turned in slow sentry duty.

John gazed after it, then returned to his task. He had a small hatchet buried into the top of a section of log, a pile of pale kindling at his feet. As Rodney watched, John slammed the log on the step, flaking off fleshy-white wood.

"You know, we weren't allowed to chop wood on the steps, something about the wholesale destruction of property," Rodney observed as he shut the door.

"I only clipped the step a couple of times," John smiled back at him.

"Just don't give Jeannie an excuse to replace the stairs," Rodney said as he walked up them to the door, edging around John, who leaned aside. "I don't think I can afford it this year – ooo." He lifted his nose at the scent of minestrone, paused with the door open, letting the heat out. "Hmph. Someone's been making himself useful today. I almost feel guilty – though I'm sure I'll feel considerably less so after an hour of menial labor, carrying in the wood."

"Yeah, well. I need to stay busy."

John slammed the hatchet into the log, breaking off another piece.

~*~*~

Shuddering under the covers, Rodney stirred. He curled towards John, burrowing into the pillows for warmth. His brow furrowed as he encountered an empty indentation, cool, the body heat dissipated, and his lips pursed in unconscious complaint. Rodney's eyelashes fluttered. He breathed in, blinking at the dark.

The glow from the wood burning stove had drifted down to trickles of orange behind the grate, most of the heat gone, while the sky outside the windows was pitch black. There was no moon.

Grumbling inwardly, Rodney pulled the comforter around himself like a child wearing a cape. He stopped to sit on the edge of the bed and pull on thick wool socks and his shoes to go look for John, rewrapping the comforter over his coat. He surfaced to full consciousness. John could not have gone far, stumping around in a cast.

The comforter scraped along the floorboards behind him, his footfalls loud on the wood floors.

On the front steps sat a dim figure cuddled in a sleeping bag, hand curled around a mug. Thirty feet away, the water spread out in front of them, dark and smooth, more a whispering, breathing sound than anything one could see, the wind quiet for a change. The landscape was edged with the vague black shadow-shapes of pine trees pointed upward. Rodney eased onto the step beside John with a little wriggle of his hips. He huffed and resettled the comforter around his shoulders.

John took a slow sip from the mug, steam curling around his face.

Rodney followed his gaze up to the sky.

Overhead a blanket of brilliant stars as big as Christmas ornaments enfolded them, seeming just out of reach, the sky dazzling and crowded, more than he'd ever seen from his telescope as a kid. The belt of Orion hovered above to his left. Rodney understood why ancient people named the constellations and relied on them, felt safe and protected in the dark, like they could touch them. He glanced over at John whose face was turned upward.

"Couldn't sleep," John said.

"Hmm," Rodney answered, nodding and not comprehending at all, too tired to bother. He motioned for John's mug. John glanced at him and then handed it over.

Rodney sipped the cocoa and paused, frowning at the mug. He licked a stinging cherry taste off his lips. "What's in this?"

"Found a stash of brandy." John chuckled as he took it back, eyes smiling in the glitter of the dim light. "My grandfather used to 'give it a little kick,'" he murmured. He sipped in silence.

Rodney took a deep breath. Sirius, the dog star, shone as large as a fist just above eye level. Rigel was an arms length away, that corner of the sky bright with light.

"It looks like Van Gogh's 'Starry Night'," Rodney breathed.

John's face turned towards him briefly. "I hadn't thought of that. Yeah."

Rodney pointed, his arm dark and outstretched. "That's Orion right there."

"Everyone knows that," John snorted.

"Ah. But did you know that there's a nebula there? Stars are being created as we speak."

"Is that why it's brighter?"

Rodney smiled. He leaned close, John's shoulder warm beside him. "You see Ursa Major, part of which is known colloquially as the Big Dipper?"

John nodded. "And over there's the Little Dipper, and the handle points to the north star." He said it without sarcasm.

"Ursa Minor. Okay. Good. Now follow the hand of the Big Dipper, like a drop of water falling off of it – well, going up at this angle." His finger pointed. "See that blurry spot?"

"The dim star?"

"That's no star. That's another galaxy," Rodney said smugly.

"Huh."

"It'll get brighter over time. It's spiraling its way towards us at 500 kilometers per second."

"Collision course?"

Rodney chuckled. "Possibly, if unlikely. But even if so, it'll take a while."

"What about that streetlight, there?"

"That?" Rodney pointed to Sirius.

John held Rodney's arm and dipped it lower on the horizon. "The big orange one."

"Oh. That's Arcturus. It's a high magnitude star, yes, but mostly what you're seeing is a lensing effect."

John's smile was amused and interested.

"You ever notice how the moon seems huge as it rises and sets and then grows smaller as it climbs? It has to do with the amount of atmosphere the light has to penetrate at that angle, which causes an optical illusion where it appears twice its normal size, like you're seeing it through coke bottle glasses." Rodney beamed. "Of course, all size and direction is relative in galactic terms. That's the only thing ye olde astrologers -- sad and inaccurate as they were -- got right."

"What's that?"

"That everything we see is relative to us as if we're the center of the universe," Rodney said. Wind bobbed a pine branch above him. "But that's not how it is."

"I dunno," John said in a gravelly voice, tipping his head to the side towards Rodney. He nudged him with his shoulder. "It seems like we're the center of the universe right now."

"Yes, but that's as much an illusion as—"

"Rodney," John cut him off.

"Oh." Rodney got it. "Right. Very romantic of you."

John snickered, his faced tipped back up to the stars.

~*~*~

John tossed sticks in the water from where he sprawled on the shore, watching them bob and gently spin. The loon shifted direction towards them, then turned around just as abruptly when it recognized what they were. Not food, John translated. He wondered if he should get some bread.

Rodney's grumbling had died down to a dull mutter as he tramped back and forth from the cabin to the car, repacking the SUV. He ignored it, content to breathe in the cold air, lifting his chin to feel the warmth of the sun on his face. Squinting, sunlight made rainbow dots of his eyelashes, the glitter of water just beyond. He heard the car door behind him slam and then the thrum and purr of the engine starting. He gathered his crutches and pushed himself up off the ground.

He and Rodney were quiet on the way out, retracing their route of just two days before. It seemed as if it had been much longer. When they reached the rushing urban noise of the highway, Rodney glanced both ways and floored it on the exit ramp, settling in the passing lane.

They swept by the exit to the little restaurant, neither of them inclined to stop. Finally, Rodney spoke, causing John to flash a glance in his direction.

"You know, that wasn't half as bad as I expected." He scrunched up his face. "I mean, you hear these horror stories about withdrawal, although I suppose it's all dreadfully exaggerated."

John let his head slump in Rodney's direction in a chiding gesture.

Rodney blinked rapidly, glancing around at the traffic unnecessarily. "In fact, I think it's fair to say you didn't have a single one of the symptoms on the list all weekend." His hands wrung the steering wheel.

John waited for him to come to his conclusion on his own, drumming his fingers on the armrest.

"So...." Rodney gave him a cringing smile. "Not so much of a problem?"

John gave him a determined smiling glare in answer.

"Okay, then."

He wanted to tell Rodney, yet again, that he wasn't a drug addict. But he couldn't quite bring himself to be dishonest when Rodney had just admitted he was wrong. John took a slow breath and licked his lips. He said, measuring his words carefully, "I was... getting into a bad habit." His eyes narrowed as he prayed Rodney wouldn't take that the wrong way.

Of course Rodney leapt on it immediately, leaning forward over the steering wheel, sounding relieved to be right. "Of course you were! You'd been on those things for what? Eight weeks? Your doctor should be shot."

"Rodney," John said. "The reason I had so many left over is that I didn't take them in the first place. Not as much as I was supposed to anyway." He answered Rodney's questioning look with a small one-shouldered shrug and a tip of his head, pursing his lips. "They made me light-headed. No equilibrium. Even spins were out. But once I was down for the count it didn't matter."

"So.... I saved you." Rodney practically bubbled with self-satisfied happiness. "From a horrible plight due to my perceptiveness and quick thinking in the face of danger."

"My hero."

~*~*~

Rodney's eyes were puffy and the wide line of his mouth pulled to the side in a little frown as he slept. The corner gapped a little and his breaths were almost loud enough to be a snore. The room was warm – and wow, John had learned to appreciate being warm. After they had tumbled in from the car, they'd crashed, falling asleep with the lights on. A book sprawled over John's chest, one page bent. John took in the room.

A bunch of magazines, with an inexplicable top hat balanced on top, were shoved up against the lamp on the bed side table, Rodney's usual snot rags wadded up in front of the clock. A few had been tossed towards the trash can by the closet in a little trail of near misses. On the floor a line of old record LPs leaned against the end table, book-ended by a pair of boots. More magazines had been knocked over in a slick at the end of the bed, blocking the closet, though a space was left clear from the bed to the door.

Rodney's underwear was in the middle of the floor, while his pants lay draped over the end of the bed. Alongside John's. He had to admit, he'd gotten into the habit, too. Not that there was anywhere else to put them: the hamper by the door was full and dirty clothes collected like a snow bank around it. That had become a hazard lately.

On the other side of the bed by the window was a rattan armchair piled with stuff in layers that would take an archeological dig to uncover. Beside it sat a wicker chest which supported a wilted plant. Threatening to overwhelm the plant was a stack of computer printouts on top of what looked like hand-labeled VHS tapes, audio tapes, and under those, more magazines. An overflowing box of photos sat in front of the chair. Magazines, shoes, a few stacks of books, some boxes, and more scattered clothes filled up the intervening space.

It was a lot messier than he remembered. Part of it was from packing but the rest... John had just gotten used to chaos. He marked his page in the book and set it on the floor (the only space available), and sat up on his elbow and watched Rodney a long moment, tuning out the visual noise. Then he eased deeper into the pillow. He shifted his hips to a more comfortable position, reached over and shut off the light.

~*~*~

Balanced on his crutches, John crossed through the living room, bumping the door open to Rodney's den. He peered around a pile of boxes. Rodney sat perched at a computer, crouched in a position that made John's back twinge in sympathy.

"You ever consider unpacking these?" John maneuvered around a precarious stack. They were still taped shut.

Rodney waved him in, not looking up. "What for? I don't need anything in them." He continued typing, eyes weirdly blue in the light from the computer. "I'll be finished in a minute – just doing some accounts. I am, after all, more or less in business for myself." He entered some information into the computer, tapping away, and the machine chirped in response. "Whoever designed Quicken knew just how to motivate people. A little happy sound every time you're nice and responsible." He beamed at John, who'd worked his way around the desk. "I try to send each of my clients a statement every month."

"I know. Your statements are painful," John peeked over his shoulder, then drew back. "Whoa. No way is your mortgage less than my rent."

"Hey! That's privileged information." Rodney blocked the screen with his shoulder. "Anyhow, I find that if I seem professional people tend to be more consistent about paying me. Present company excluded, of course." He rooted through the pile until he reached a sheet near the bottom. "Here's yours by the way." Rodney presented it magnanimously.

John winced.

"I can deduct the price of the stamp you just saved me if you like," Rodney offered.

"Don't bother."

John sat on the edge of Rodney's desk, shifting aside a stack of papers. "Rodney. I appreciate all you're doing, I really do, and I get that you mean well," John snorted, "but I can't stay here. I'm not even chipping in for groceries."

"Oh, but you can pay your rent in so many creative ways." Rodney grinned.

John gave him a dark look.

"It was a joke. A little lewd humor?"

"Rodney...."

"To lighten the mood?"

John sighed. "I admit, I like it here, but enough's enough," he said. Then assured him, "I promise I won't climb any more stairs or, you know, the other thing. Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye."

"You can help out with the food, that's no problem," Rodney said, looking anxious.

"It's more than that. I should be going home." John squirmed.

"But it's so much more convenient with you here. I only have to make one trip for the grocery shopping, no more hassle finding two rides in the afternoons, no bus trips...."

"You were taking the bus?"

"Sometimes," Rodney said. Then cringed and corrected himself, "Okay, just the once. Look. It's only a couple more weeks till you get your cast off. You can go home then."

"I can't live off you, Rodney." John rolled his eyes.

"But you just got here...." Rodney whined.

John looked down at his hands a long moment, then heaved a sigh like he was making a decision. Opened his mouth once, then stopped. Then he started again, looking around the room, opening his hands helplessly. "The rent's coming due on my place."

"So?"

"I haven't been working," John explained.

"You work?"

"By now, usually, yes. I've got my own business too."

"Really?"

"Kinda. Look, the point is, I haven't been doing it." John ran his fingers along the desk. It left two stripes in the dust, revealing darker wood. "So, I'm going to have to ask my family for help again – it's a loan," he added, before Rodney could say anything. "I can't ask my parents to help me keep my pad and then not even live there."

"How much is it?" Rodney asked, pushing away from the desk, turning slightly.

"You're not paying for my apartment, Rodney."

"You saw my mortgage." He waved to the computer. "It's not like it's any kind of hardship, I bought this place back when it in was the middle of nowhere, thank you suburban sprawl...."

"No."

Rodney frowned, flustered. "Um," he spluttered, forehead creased. "I hate to tell you this but a 28 year old man asking for money from mom and dad is just, well, pathetic."

"It's a loan," John said.

"Have you ever paid back any of your 'loans' from your parents?"

"That's none of your business." John shot him a dirty look. "And what the fuck else am I supposed to do? I've been injured." Again. Oh, god, he did not want to tell his folks. John shut his eyes. The lecture he was going to get from his dad – about responsibility and getting on with his life, relegating skating to a hobby – was nothing he wanted to hear.

"How attached are you to that apartment?"

John gave him a confused frown. Then he saw where Rodney was headed with this. "Now we're back to me living off you again."

"I'm sure we can come to an equitable arrangement. You can take care of the cooking, for example."

"Cook for you."

"Well. Maybe the dishes, too. You can be Kato." Rodney lit up with amusement.

"You realize that makes you Inspector Clouseau, right?" John smiled and shook his head slowly. "I dunno. I don't think I like the idea of being your little slave boy."

"Not into that kind of thing, eh?"

John snorted and his eyes slid away in an embarrassed expression. "Not in this context."

Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed them like a gun at John. "I have the perfect solution."

~*~*~

John sat in the passenger seat of his Chevy, shoulders tight, not liking this one bit. He dangled the keys in front of Rodney who sat on the driver's side and then pulled them away, wrapping them in his palm. "Now this deal is contingent on you being able to drive a stick," he said.

"I will not harm a single bolt, piston, or screw in your precious baby." Rodney patted the car, then wiggled his fingers, palm up. "Now gimme."

John hesitated even as he handed over the keys. "It's the transmission I'm worried about."

"You just spent an entire weekend watching me drive to hell and back. I'm a very safe driver."

The Chevy lurched forward into the street and yanked to a stop right before they hit the mailbox, jolting them like ragdolls. The engine died.

"Hang on, hang on, it's been a while!"

~*~*~

The thundering bass drum shook the front porch. Rodney could feel the storm door vibrating to the Terminator 2 theme music, the hum of the synthesizers. He switched the carry-out to his other hand as he shouldered into the door, tossing the keys onto the coffee table.

"What do you think?" John said, perking up from the couch. He turned the music down a touch.

"It's good for spins," Rodney said charitably, tipping his head. "Mmmm... I can see you doing this."

"Two minutes though... it's a little short," John admitted, ducking down as he restarted it. "But maybe there's a longer version somewhere." The CD cases clicked as he flipped through them. The hopeful synthesizers chimed in again.

The heavy bass line pounded to a close.

"Great ending," Rodney nodded.

"A little over dramatic," John said, the corners of his eyes flinching.

"Not for you it isn't." Rodney dropped his gym bag on the floor and sat with his hands braced on the deep windowsill as he sat on its edge. He brushed his hand along the sill to move things aside but found there was more room than normal. "Besides, you can never be too dramatic in figure skating. That's why Carmen is such a standard."

"And yet, the man nixed Star Wars...." John complained to the air.

Rodney snorted. "There's dramatic and then there's a sickening cliche."

"It was the Death Star theme! That one's cool."

"It's called the 'Imperial March' and you do not get to skate as a storm trooper. This is figure skating, not Halloween, difficult as it is to tell the difference sometimes." He tipped his head. "If you want to mix music, we can probably stretch the Terminator theme but it's probably better not to. Anyhow, I have a suggestion." Rodney waved a CD between his fingers. "I found this stuck in a file folder at work."

John stood and stacked the CD jewel cases neatly, picking up the keys with a jingle as he wiped down the coffee table with a sleeve. Rodney realized that the coffee table was completely clear except for the CDs. "Sure. Because I didn't have enough options as it is," he said sarcastically, but accepted the disk anyway. E. S. Posthumos. It was cued to "Harappa."

Over dinner they listened to the choral music. John shook his head, tapping his fork on his plate. It had been Rodney's turn to cook tonight, which meant spaghetti as usual. "I don't like it. I mean, it's nice, but the ending's limp."

"True. I remember it being different."

"This is getting frustrating. Can't we just... pick something at random?" John said. "I mean, it really is all about the choreography and skating. Great music isn't worth jack if you can't skate it, and anything can be made to look stupid."

"Try the next one."

John gave Rodney a doubtful frown over the table. The hushed strains of "Nara" played. The rocking beat grew steadily more intense.

"Oh. Now it's getting good," John said.

"Shh."

The volume increased with a subtle electric guitar riff and flute that reminded John of something Native American. Then it tapered off with a thrumming guitar.

He made a face, pursed his lips and shook his head. "That's a no."

"You sure?"

"Am I deciding or is this by committee?" John asked.

"I'm the president of this endeavor: I can propose legislation, I have the right to veto any crap – like Star Wars, and you should know that half of my twelve year-olds request it – but otherwise? It's your decision."

"Good. Then no."

Rodney sighed and put his head down on his arms. "Sonja's going to kill me if this takes much longer...."

"Who?" John asked. "Rodney, that was something you'd skate to. Let me do this."

~*~*~

John was a little surprised when the doorknob turned easily. The room was kept closed and John had never seen Rodney set foot in there. The central heating kicked on, startling him, stirring up golden dust motes to dance in morning sunbeams as he opened the door with a soft click.

He paused, waiting for a sound from Rodney’s bedroom; sudden footsteps on the hall carpet, a bleary shocked Rodney rubbing his eyes, asking, "What are you doing?" But there was nothing, just the feeling of warmth, of presence; Rodney took up a lot of space even when he was asleep.

John flinched as the door squeaked, and carefully shut it behind him. The room smelled dusty and close. It was on the north side, its only window buried behind a hedge and a pine tree, the screen dirty, the light filtered green.

Dust covered wooden shelves, row upon row of them. Grey fuzz filmed the top edges of gold plaques, dulled gold and silver trophies of varying heights, all etched with the year and the name: Rodney McKay.

John gazed around the room in awe, turning slowly.

Some of these dated back as far as 1975, tiny pairs skating medals when Rodney had to have been a little kid, because he really wasn’t that much older than John. Sectional and Regional wins. The Canadian Nationals. Newspaper clippings were matted in wooden frames. Hometown articles that used his first name in the headline. Skating magazines. A write-up in The Toronto Sun with a grinning 14-year-old Rodney McKay in 1983.

With a blink, John realized that a lot of the trophies had the same year.

The center wall was taken up by two framed medals in shadowboxes, one over the other. World Championship gold medals. Two years in a row. John wanted to touch them, drifted forward an inch, but stopped and stared breathlessly.

John had known Rodney’s bio of course. But this was different. No wonder he’d been a favorite to win at the Olympics.

The entire far left wall over a low dresser was dedicated to just one event: the Olympics. A red jacket with a maple leaf patch lovingly hung up. More newspaper articles. Photos from an interview on CNN. A bright-eyed Rodney squeezed between some movie celebrities at a restaurant, familiar faces John couldn't put a name to. Rodney at the airport in his bright red Team Canada uniform, beaming. More interviews, in several languages. Rodney with a lot more hair, cutting the ribbon on the new elite skating center, similar to the photo at the Schmidt center but taken at a different angle. No medals.

The top drawer of the dresser wasn't shut and slid open easily. John wasn’t surprised to find still more articles. An entire drawer full of them. These weren’t framed, but the yellowed newspapers and magazines were folded open to the photos of Rodney. A detailed page-long analysis of why Rodney fell, with a diagram of the triple Lutz and how Rodney had over-rotated. Questions about his conduct at the Olympic games. Dissections of his style: Has he peaked? Comparisons with other failed skaters. Questions of burn-out.

Then John skimmed other, nastier articles headlining that Rodney had been overrated all along, or that "life in the fast lane" had spoiled the "young Canadian star." Gossip from another skater about Rodney's drinking during the Olympics and a missed practice. Speculation about why Rodney's coach had been fired, "Coaches are often blamed for the failures of the skater." More gleeful articles about subsequent injuries, "Can McKay make a comeback?"

"Oh, c’mon," John said out loud. A comeback? After just one bad year? The change of coaches alone would explain that.

A USA Today piece on the top skaters for Worlds the following year titled, "In Like Flynn," with McKay listed on the bottom under the heading, "A Ghost Of A Chance." More injuries in smaller, shorter articles.

Two years later a short local piece on Rodney’s decision to turn pro so he could "grow as a skater," with some editorializing – "McKay can’t lay down the big moves any more." John winced, recognizing his own words from months ago. "McKay hasn’t outgrown the sport," the writer adds, "figure skating has outgrown McKay."

John shut the drawer, struck by how this was all going on back when John had only begun learning his first jumps. "Jesus. He was just a kid."

~*~*~

March 1990

Radek Zelenka wore a short tan jacket that was too warm for the New York spring, sweat sticking his over-long bangs together. At the crosswalk he paused and tried to look around to get his bearings, adjusting his glasses. He found himself jostled by the flood of humanity which shoved him a step sideways into the street. The crosswalk sign blinked: Walk. Unable to see around the mass of people, Radek crossed with the crowd, then slipped under an awning and sighted the billboard again.

Eight weeks in North America and he'd had no way to contact Rodney. The last thing he'd expected was to see a picture of him, three meters high, announcing "Skate with the stars!"

When Radek finally reached it there was no skating arena in sight. But he pulled out a pen and a crumpled receipt from his pocket and wrote down the address, the 800 number, and performance dates, looking back and forth from the billboard to his palm. A large man with bloodshot eyes stumbled forward.

"Hey! Hey, man, you got a quarter?"

"Um. No," Radek said, tucking his hands in his pockets.

"Well, fuck you, then."

Radek hurried, head down as he studiously ignored the man. He needed to learn not to answer.

~*~*~

The woman at the ticket counter sat behind plexiglass and spoke to Radek through a hole like the grate one would use for animals on a train.

"That'll be fifteen dollars," she said in a clipped voice.

"Oh." Radek's mouth made a small moue as he pretended to search for his wallet, patting his back pockets. He didn't have fifteen dollars. Somehow he'd hoped that he would be able to catch sight of Rodney nearby or else be let in as a friend.

"That's the matinee price. Twenty-three bucks for the evening show," she continued.

"What if you do not want to see the show?" he asked.

"Then don't buy the ticket," she said, flipping her hands upward as if he were the greatest idiot in the world.

There were several people waiting in line behind him, so he shuffled aside, looking over at the cardboard cutout of a bad picture of Rodney next to the glass doors. Rodney had gained weight, it seemed, and had a manic forced smile. But then it could just be a really terrible photo.

A small child brushed by him, running.

"Ian!" a sharp voice called out from the line.

The sound of a mother's voice was universal.

"Zustan u své mámy!" Radek ordered the child, catching the boy's arm before he could run into the street. New York was no place for a child alone.

The little boy, in a t-shirt and ball cap, paused to stare at him in surprise. Radek realized he must have slipped into Czech, blinked and shook his head as if to clear it. "Stay with your mother," he repeated firmly, this time in English.

A buxom woman in a hooded sweatshirt came rushing up, a smaller child and a huge diaper bag bouncing on her hip, a second child stumbling behind her in tow. A third older child followed more slowly, his attention diverted by a hand-held video game. It made small blipping noises. She snatched "Ian" away.

"I told you to say right there! Now we're late, we've lost our place in line, you could have been hit by a bus and what were you thinking?" She didn't wait for an answer but turned to Radek and gushed. "Thank you so much. I swear, they've been impossible today. Their father was supposed to be here but he changed his mind at the last minute and he thinks I don't know it's because he doesn't want to watch figure skating. Oh, I'm sorry," she interrupted herself. "I'm talking your ear off and I haven't even introduced myself." She held out her hand, clutching the smallest child in the crook of her elbow, and Radek shook it, bemused. "I'm Sue, this is Ian – of course you two have already met – and Brian," she motioned to the older boy who didn't look up, "and Britt." She bounced the little girl in her arms. She forgot to mention the middle child beside her. "It's about time I met a nice New Yorker, I tell you, these people are so rude—"

Radek gave a rueful chuckle. He'd noticed, but he hadn't been sure if all Americans were that way.

"—and I've had worst time getting here. Can you believe the traffic? You can't get from point A to point B and my rental has been worse than useless. I finally had to walk from the hotel. So much for pre-paid parking at the arena."

Radek found he'd walked with her back to the line. She hefted little Britt higher with a grunt. Her head suddenly jerked around. "Brian?"

"He's right there," Radek assured her. Brian had fallen behind, lost in his video game.

The line inched forward. Radek learned Sue was from Lansing, wherever that was, that her husband was in town on business, that she hated the hot weather and wished someone had told her about the garbage strike... and that she was a big fan of Rodney McKay.

Radek listened with interest as she described his injury – "It's either his back or his leg, no one's quite clear" – but that he was supposed to be returning to competition soon – "Of course, that's what they said last year." Then she speculated openly about his sexuality – "My best friend says that he flames. Does he seem gay to you? I can never tell" – leaving Radek feeling awkward. By then they had reached the ticket counter and Radek's least favorite ticket lady.

"Here," Sue said, and stuffed Britt into his arms. The child took it calmly, blowing a spit bubble and looking around dazed, as if used to being handed off to perfect strangers. Radek regarded the spit bubble with disgust and pulled his face out of range.

Sue dug around in the giant diaper bag. "They were right here," she told the irritated ticket lady as she rooted through it. Radek made his expression perfectly smooth but he was smiling on the inside.

From behind them came a soft thwack. Ian had knocked over the cardboard Rodney. Finally, Sue produced a long string of connected tickets like paper dolls – and demanded the ticket lady refund her pre-paid parking. "They told me on the 800 number that I had to do this in person!"

The line grew longer, patrons leaning to the side to catch a glimpse of the cause of the delay.

"You have to take of this at the central office," the ticket lady said. "You call the 800 number—"

"I already called the 800 number! They sent me to you," Sue said.

"Hey!" a man further back in line called out. "Give her the damned parking and let's get this show on the road. It's not like it's your money."

"Yeah, c'mon...." the woman in front of him said.

"Really."

It was the first time Radek had ever liked New Yorkers.

The ticket lady gave up, refunded the $10.50, and Radek found himself smug and inside, holding a diaper bag and a messy three-year-old child. They ascended several flights of stairs to the upper levels – Radek was unsurprised Sue had the cheaper seats – and found row 38.

"Oh, you probably need to find your own seat, don't you?" Sue said. "You have an accent. Are you Russian? Or former Soviet Union I guess I should say, wow, I couldn't believe it when the wall fell. I watched it on TV. My best friend says the Russians are the nicest people."

By now, Radek was used to people asking if he were Russian and no longer bristled at the insult. "No, I'm Czech. And we were rather surprised ourselves that it went so far, so quickly, although the signs were there...."

But she, like most Americans, was uninterested in discussing one of the seminal events of his life. Often they even sighed that they had missed seeing the Berlin wall, as if it were a lost treasure and not a symptom of everything that had been bad in Radek's life.

~*~*~

Radek worked his way down levels of stairs to the ice, squeezing around excited children and overweight women carrying tubs of popcorn. He felt like the ball in a wooden maze toy his brother had once had, caught in one dead end, then another, then finally finding a path through.

He tried to keep his head down and pretend he was where he belonged, shoulders hunched as he passed a security guard.

"Excuse me, sir—"

"Radek?" There was the slicing hiss of skates.

Radek spun at the familiar voice, brightening. "Rodney?"

"Sir, we'll need to see your badge...."

Rodney was warming up on the ice. He had gained weight, his hair was shorter, and he looked more solid, older and more sturdy. He wore a ridiculous lace ascot with skin-tight turquoise satin knickers. But those eyes were the same, bright and searching Radek's face in an expression of wonder and utter disbelief. "What are you doing here?"

Radek spread his arms. "I have a passport!" Rodney would understand how incredible that was.

"Sir, I just need—"

"Don't even think about it!" Rodney snapped at the guard with a stabbing gesture, and no, Rodney hadn't changed one bit. He tapped his chest with his thumb. "Recall that I'm the star here, and that," he pointed at Radek, "is my gay Czechoslovakian lover."

Radek looked at the floor.

The announcer intoned over the loudspeakers, "Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to ... Rodney McKay!"

"I'm on," Rodney said, then leaned over the boards to add in Radek's ear as cameras swept in his direction. "Get the name of anyone who doesn't throw rose petals at your feet, and I'll have their nuts embalmed." He winked, then skated to the spotlight at center ice.

He struck a pose holding his lapels, his chest out like a peacock, or the picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware. Rodney began with dainty footwork in little mocking turns, his free leg swinging, ending with a bow to an imaginary partner. He repeated the whole thing, turning in little jumps, then pushing himself into a gliding swan pose. The audience giggled. Then Rodney pushed off into a fast spinning jump, smoothly landing it as if it were nothing, turning backward in a complicated series of moves. He gathered speed from nowhere, swinging his leg around in a sharp circle, then switched, his arms spread as the crowd clapped, suddenly taking him seriously.

Radek clapped also, and took it as a good sign that Rodney was skating to "Humoresque" by Dvorak, 1894. A fine Czech composer.

~*~*~

March 1999

"Been keeping off the leg like a good lad, have you?" Doctor Beckett's eyes sparkled at John.

"After we shackled him to a chair," Rodney said with a snort. He brushed by the flustered nurse, who lifted her hands and let them fall in a hopeless gesture.

Doctor Beckett glanced from the nurse to Rodney to John, puzzled, so John indicated Rodney with a wave. "Doctor Beckett, meet Rodney McKay. He's my coach." And damn, he was going to have to learn to say that without the sudden warmth that hit him, or the blush, otherwise people were going to know what was going on.

"Charmed," the doc said, giving Rodney a doubtful look.

John gazed down at his leg in disappointment. The hair had mostly worn off his calf, the muscles thinner than the other one, skin a pasty grey-ish white. His take-off leg. It looked worse than it had after surgery.

"—It'll take some time to restore the muscle tissue," Doctor Beckett was saying, "so we don't want to give it any undue stress. Moderate exercise only." He waited till he had John's attention then held John's eyes and said, emphatically, "No. Jumping."

"Perhaps jesses would be in order," Rodney mused, thumbnail trailing along his lip. "I caught him climbing six flights of stairs."

John glared at the tattletale. Also—six flights? "It was three."

The doc didn't seem that impressed.

"They weren't very steep." John decided he handled the doc better when Rodney wasn't here.

"Low to no impact, please," Doctor Becket continued, sighing.

"Is stretching acceptable?" Rodney asked, his hand dropping away from his face. John had seen that look before. Rodney had an idea.

"Oh, yes, in fact that would be very good."

~*~*~

The place had wooden floors, bright red hangings, and smelled like a Grateful Dead concert; a mix of incense, patchouli, and that unmistakable whiff of pot. Behind the counter there was a brass statue of a naked lady with more arms than anyone needed draped with a pink Hawaiian lei.

At the sound of people in the next room intoning "Ommmmmm...." John was pretty much ready to turn around. Although Rodney had already driven off. Still, walking home was moderate exercise, right?

"You here for the free class?" a deep voice behind him asked.

John spun around to find a tanned, muscular guy with long dreadlocks behind the counter, bare-chested except for a necklace and a suede vest.

"Uh. Yeah," John said.

"That'll be forty bucks."

John paused. He hadn't even brought his wallet; even if he had the cash....

The big guy flashed him a white smile. "I'm just messing with your head."

He gestured with a jerk of his chin for John to follow. The sound of "Om" grew louder as he cracked open the door.

John hung back, swiping at his mouth with a nervous glance back at the street. "Do I, uh, do you have to do the whole 'Om-ing' thing?"

"Nope. But you're gonna wish you had." The big guy tapped his forehead. "Helps up here."

"I think I'll—" John caught sight of a framed poster of a newspaper review next to the door with a photo of the big guy looking even bigger and the name, Ronon Dex. "Wait. You're the yoga instructor?"

"You got a problem with that?"

"No, I just—" John cut himself off. "You know what? Never mind." He followed the guy into a room full of mostly women who had finished chanting and were now seated cross-legged, meditating. The big guy stalked to the front while John tiptoed like a nervous cat and found an empty mat in the back.

"No," Ronon said. The group startled, then turned around to stare at John, who froze, one hand on the mat, his knee still raised. "I want you to sit in the middle where you can watch everyone else."

~*~*~

March 1990

Radek's chest rose and fell in sweaty gasps, his glasses abandoned on the table next to the hotel lamp, his jacket dumped on the floor. The pillows behind his head were askew. "I take it you're not seeing anyone...."

Rodney fell to his side with an inelegant thump next to Radek. "If I were, he'd have to stand aside for old friends." He wiggled his legs until he managed to get them under the crumpled sheets.

Reaching for his glasses, Radek sat up. He reached down and fumbled in his jacket pocket for his cigarettes.

"Those cancer sticks will kill you." Rodney nodded to them.

"You used to smoke," Radek said, cupping his hand around the match as he lit one.

"That's when I was young and foolhardy," Rodney said. "Next month I'll even hit the drinking age. And it's about time."

"Oh? Do you still drink or have you become so virtuous?" Radek smiled at him, deliberately blowing smoke that Rodney wafted away from his face.

"I think I've adequately proved my lack of virtue on many fronts." Rodney rolled to his elbow and quirked his head at Radek. "So, what happened to you? You fell off the face of the earth."

"I was in a communist country," Radek reminded him. "But, in 1989 the wall came down...." He shrugged with his hands. "It changed many things."

"Oh, yeah... I heard about that," Rodney said in a musing tone, and Radek rolled his eyes. "What? The two years after I got back were hell!"

"How is your, ah, skating anyway?"

Rodney drew back, chin set, puffing out his chest. "Oh, much better, thank you, a hundred times better. I did pretty well at my last competition and I'm climbing the standings like a tiger."

"What about your injury?" Radek asked.

"Injury-?" Rodney asked in a faint voice.

"I was told you had not skated in over a year."

"How—? Who told you that?"

"It's not true?"

Rodney blinked rapidly and took a breath, his voice raising a little higher. "Well, I—at my last competition a couple years ago I did very well, and people thought I might even make a come back." He made brushing gesture with his hands. "I'm only... taking a bit of a break, that's all. I just need to get my bearings."

"I see."

"What about you, eh?" Rodney abruptly changed the subject. "What have you been up to?"

Radek looked at the blankets, drawing one up to his waist. "For two years it was ... very bad. For my whole family. My brother, though, he did not care."

"Selfish little prick," Rodney commented.

Radek shook his head, pursing his lips. "He's a hero these days. I think he believed that what he did was right, no matter what it cost, he had to do it."

"Yes, well, Olympic medalists get treated like gods. It goes to their heads if you ask me," Rodney sniffed.

"Oh no, no one cares about the medal. All that matters is that he jumped with that sign—during the worst of the cold war." Radek gave Rodney a little sad smile. "It meant a lot to my countrymen. Everyone remembers it."

He took a long thoughtful drag at the cigarette before stubbing it out.

"You realize this is a non-smoking room, right?"

Radek snickered.

"What are you doing nowadays? Here to get your Master's in engineering?" Rodney frowned. "I got that right, didn't I? It was engineering, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was. But, Rodney." He leveled a steady gaze over his glasses. "They did not even let me finish high school."

"What?"

"They moved my father's job, then they moved my mother's job," Radek said with a tired circle of his hand, "and then they lost my school records and I had to redo all my classes. And then they wouldn't let me take the final year because my marks weren't good enough."

"You were an 'A' student! You said so," Rodney squeaked.

"The instructors in the new district were ... very harsh," Radek said delicately. "I am a student now but I have to go to the junior college and then, maybe. Maybe."

Rodney let out a huff. He shook his head.

"Jesus. The Olympics really screwed us up."

"The Olympics were a disaster," Radek agreed. He turned thoughtful, gazing off into the distance, rubbing his chin with a knuckle. "Maybe the Olympics weren't meant for people like us. Maybe you need to be like my brother, where you will do anything."

"'Meant for'? What? When did you get so fatalistic?" Rodney said. "You sound like a Russian."

"Oh! No need to be insulting."

"Anyhow, he didn't pay. You did." Rodney waved a hand, continuing. "I mean, you, you were supposed to be an engineer while I was meant to win gold. Instead...."

"—Three years later, I just finished a general education degree and you're not even skating."

"I skate!" Rodney said, affronted.

"Lie to yourself, Rodney, but not to me."

Rodney scowled down at the bed. "They're destroying figure skating. They just eliminated the compulsories!" He made a broad flailing gesture. "I'm not even complaining because it's one of my best events that puts me solidly in the lead every single time—well, not only because of that—but, you see, the compulsories are our quality control. Without actually sitting on the ice and measuring the marks you made in your perfect figure eights with a slide rule, figure skating is just a circus: nothing but jumps and flash." He snorted in disgust. "It might as well be an ice show."

Radek shrugged. "So quit your circus and do something about it."

"Like what?"

"You could teach. You'd be good at it."

Rodney gave a nervous little snigger. "Can you picture me as a coach? They'd have me assassinated within a week."

"I didn't say they would like you. They need only to respect you."

"Huh." Rodney looked mystified as he considered it. "Respect would be a nice change of pace from being hated...."

"They did not hate you, Rodney," Zelenka said, tipping his head to the side. "They just enjoyed to see you fail."

"Well," Rodney said, his forefinger in the air. "I, for one don't ever want to see those people again."

Zelenka gave him a wary glance. "As a coach you would have to go to competitions."

"No, I wouldn't. If I'm the coach it'll be my rules. Mere students would just have to deal."

~*~*~

March 1999

"Gnnnhhhh," John groaned, letting himself flop onto the mat.

Ronon paced around him. "The girls are doing better than you," he taunted, with a smirk that somehow took the sting out of it. Well. Almost.

"I'll get it," John managed to say in a breezy tone, though it was hard to do through gritted teeth. Ronon flashed him a grin.

John lay flat on his back and let his head drop to the pad, ignoring the women who curled into the next pose as gracefully as cats. He tried not to think about the weakness in his take-off leg, or how many weeks it would take him to get it back into shape. He glanced around at the others as they lifted off their mats and then he pushed himself back up into position, wincing as the back of his calf muscles vibrated like harp strings. He could almost hear it, like the whine of an electric guitar.

He set his jaw and ignored the stream of mental complaints that invaded his mind. Om, he thought to himself with an inward snort of amusement. But the vibration calmed. He felt his knee relax into a deeper stretch.

Ronon stood over him. "Don't go that deep, not yet," he said. He grasped John's foot and adjusted his stance, placing his feet closer together. "I want you to hold it for as long as you can."

Like increasing the weight instead of the number of reps in weight lifting; going for strength. John got that, and nodded.

He soon discovered this was easier said than done. A trail of sweat slowly dripped into his eyes.

~*~*~

John ran his hand through his hair, his back slumped against the wall. He answered one of the other students' hello with a tired wave that was both a greeting and a brush-off and she let him be.

He was maimed for life. His leg was too wobbly to stand on right now, after less than an hour of just stretching. John was trying very hard not to be depressed.

As the little bell on the door rang behind the last of the yoga students, Ronon came over and crouched next to John.

"So. Let's see it," Ronon said. "You're injured. I can tell."

Squeezing his eyes shut, John slowly bent his knee and pulled the leg of his sweats up to his thigh. He expected a whistle or some kind of reaction – because it looked bad, it really did – but Ronon's face stayed impassive. He put his hand on John's knee, which raised John's eyebrows, but then he just tipped the knee left and right, delicately, like it was made out of glass, studying it like a doctor. Then he explained about "nahdees" and "bindoos" and "psychic winds" with a slow, earnest intensity. It made no sense at all to John except that it sounded like he was saying what John already knew: that his leg was really messed up.

Ronon seemed to read the disbelief or maybe noticed John's total blank look, because he stopped mid-sentence and stared into John's eyes for a moment. It was disconcerting. Then he patted John's other thigh with all the gentleness of a mountain lion, and stood, saying, "Never mind. Just do what I say and you'll be fine. You're coming back the day after tomorrow, right?"

He didn't say it like there was any question and John found himself answering, "Sure."

When John stepped out of the yoga center Rodney was waiting in the car, flipping through a magazine in the driver's seat. The exhaust from the tail pipe whipped away, white in the March wind. John hadn't zipped up his coat. He ducked into the passenger seat, wrapping it around him. He wished that they could get the heat fixed. The yoga place had been as warm as a sauna by comparison.

"So how was it?" Rodney asked, putting the magazine down.

John zipped his jacket and blew on his hands. He'd forgotten his gloves at home, too. He mentally spun through adjectives and came up with, "Interesting. Weird. Um. But okay, I guess." Then he gave Rodney a wide smirk. "Looks like I have a problem with my psychic winds though," he said, nodding with mock thoughtfulness.

The strange look Rodney gave him as he put it in gear was worth the entire day.

He was really going to have to listen to Ronon more carefully next time. He couldn't wait to hear what Rodney had to say about "bindoos."

~*~*~

March 1990

Rodney sighed heavily and climbed over Radek to pull open the drawer next to the second queen bed, which was unmade, as if Rodney had slept in both. "Sadly, the tour is too cheap to spring for a hotel with room service, even in New York."

He pulled out a set of take-out menus. Radek cooked on a hot plate in his room by the college; he could not afford restaurants or take-out and couldn't get over the American habit of spending far too much money on really bad food. Like McDonald's, for example. It was a mystery to Radek.

The doorknob rattled and Radek had only an instant's warning to dive under the covers as the door unlocked and swung wide. Radek saw through the sheet the vague figure of Rodney who still stood naked between the two beds as a woman swept in. "Hello, Rodney, I need a pair of my earrings."

Rodney grabbed Radek's sheet to cover himself – pulling it off Radek's head – Radek clutched at it and pulled it back over his waist. Then Rodney calmly sat down next to Radek, crossing his legs with his fingers laced around his knee. The woman paid no attention to them, heading straight for the bathroom. Radek caught a flash of blond hair. Her voice echoed hollowly off the tile walls. "If you will use the room as a masturbation hall then I will always be walking in on you. Do it in the shower like every other ma—oh." She had stepped out, putting in an earring. Her eyes fell on Radek. "What a cute little man."

It took Radek a moment to realize she meant himself.

"Mine, mine, hands off, mine," Rodney said, with a back and forth slapping gesture.

She brushed her long hair off her shoulder and put on the other earring. "So you are a homosexual, too?" she asked, looking the two naked men up and down. The earring was long and sparkled gold. Radek couldn't think of an answer, his mouth open like a fish's, and she shifted towards Rodney. "You may have one or two boys, Rodney, but the rest belong to me. Goodbye, little man," she said with a wave, swinging a long coat around her shoulders. She called out as she left, "It is New York. Don't wait up." The door shut behind her, the door chain rocking in a clicking swing.

Still open-mouthed, Radek turned to Rodney for an explanation. Who winced. "You lose all semblance of privacy on the road."

Rodney rolled his head and continued, "I'm a headliner so I'm supposed to have my own room but, well, Sonja just broke up with her partner of eleven years – broken off the relationship I mean, they're still skating together, and let me tell you, one should never get involved with anyone you skate with, it's always an unmitigated disaster – anyway, I had the double queen beds and she's not really a bad roommate. She doesn't wear my things, she's clean, and," Rodney added with a nervous snicker, "so far she just uses it as a closet."

Radek only blinked at him.

"It's not like anyone's going to gossip about the two of us," Rodney added. He held up a forefinger. "And for the record, she only caught me masturbating the one time. I've since learned to use the door chain." He glanced at the loose door chain and frowned. "Mostly."

"She saw me naked."

"We've all seen each other either naked or half-dr...." Rodney trailed off and let his hands drop to his lap. "I forget you're not a skater."

~*~*~

March 1999

"I've been meaning to ask you," John said, clicking the bedroom light on. He reached over and picked up the top hat on the nightstand, tapping the brim on his palm. "What's with the...?" He flicked the top hat and glanced over at Rodney with a glint of amusement.

Rodney had his sweater over his head, stripping off layers. He mumbled, "What?"

The sweater came off with the shirt underneath it and he tossed it onto the floor. John eyed the new pile as if it were an escaped rodent.

"Oh, that." Rodney tugged his t-shirt down, hands straightening the hem. "It's from a Nutcracker AIDS benefit I did back in the early 90s – although everyone participating called it the 'ball buster.' That's from the Dance of the Sugar Plum—" He wiggled his fingers in quote marks with a smirk. "—'Fairies.'"

"Oh, no...." John laughed.

"Oh yes, and virtually half my fans took my participation as confirmation that I was gay."

John flipped the top hat over in his hands. "Rodney, you're about as obvious as—"

"I know, I know, and I've made no secret of it, but you're not supposed to officially confirm it while you're competing. Not that I was competing much at that point." He sighed. "Anyhow, another portion of my fans thought it meant that I had AIDS."

John's smile slipped. "You're kidding."

"And the rest – in a remarkable show of obliviousness – decided that I was having a steamy affair with Sonja. Which proves that the skating fans' capacity to gossip far outstrips their powers of observation."

"Sonja?" John frowned, searching his mind for the name. He'd heard that somewhere....

Rodney spun his hand in an impatient circle, making a face. "She was my skating partner."

"Skating partner?" John's frown turned puzzled.

"Yes, I skated pairs for the benefit. Apparently we were pretty hot on the ice."

"Were you." John's eyes narrowed at Rodney and the hand toying with the top hat slipped lower.

"I have no idea!" Rodney said, wide-eyed. He pulled down his jeans and kicked them over to the pile, then reached around for the stack of dirty laundry behind the door. Which was gone, so Rodney pulled a fresh pair of sweatpants out of the dresser, leaving the drawer open. "I hadn't skated pairs in years – the choreographers went gaga when they learned I could do both – and it took every ounce of my concentration just to avoid making her a quadriplegic. You know that she was surprisingly light?" Rodney added with a fluffing gesture at the air, his expression wistful and pleased. "After lifting my sister she was like... thistledown."

"She was." Pairs skaters didn't always sleep with their partners, but it happened often enough that....

Rodney paused, finally looking at John. "You're not jealous of a skating partner I had six years ago, are you?" His wide smile tilted in amusement. He looked utterly charmed at the prospect.

"Only six?" John said, adding this up. Rodney had kept the top hat the same way he'd kept that stuffed unicorn....

"You are!" Rodney beamed.

"No, I'm not," John said quickly.

"Oh, here, I think I have the video around here someplace."

Rodney stepped over the bed into the no man's land on the other side. John cringed at the sound of the slip-n-slide of magazines Rodney knocked over, somehow zeroing in on a video at the bottom of a pile on the wicker chest. There was a small collapse of infrastructure as he removed it, though amazingly everything stayed on the basket.

"Are you actually enjoying this?" John crossed his arms. "Because I've been called a crazed stalker in the past, although to be fair he totally misjudged the situation." He leaned his hip against the dresser drawer and snapped it shut. "And how bad is this routine anyway?"

"Not just a routine," Rodney rocked the tape between his thumb and forefinger, taunting him, "an entire three-hour show." He plucked the top hat from John's hands and popped it onto John's head with a little pat. Too large, it slid sideways to one ear. John pulled it off. "We had a live big band. It was very well done. Count on the queers to be able to do flash with a touch of class. I spent weeks watching Gene Kelly films to get it just so." He pinched his fingers together.

Disgruntled, John settled on the couch, drawing both feet up protectively.

On the tape, the arena was dark as the band started. Four spotlights singled out Rodney in a top hat and tails, hands in his pockets, carving wide circles, swinging his skate casually like he was whistling and kicking rocks. He shifted edges, gaining speed as he curved around – then smoothly kicked himself up into a fast double toe, spinning tight in the air. He bounced into a quick tap dance move, spin-stepping sideways across the ice, hands low, arms away from his sides, the spatter kicked up from his blades catching the light. He stretched his back leg along the ice, skate dragging as he turned and dipped into jazz steps, left, and then right.

Then he pinwheeled into a Gene Kelly propeller spin, arms high and sweeping low.

With the blare of the trumpets, across the ice, a second group of spotlights picked out another skater in black skin tight shorts circling Rodney and....

"What is she wearing?" John said.

"We didn't go for period accuracy with the women's costumes. Though I thought the satin hot pants had a kind of—" Rodney rubbed his fingers together. On the screen, Rodney caught sight of Sonja and threw aside his top hat. "—Cabaret effect. But making the woman secondary and even bringing her in late is classic 1940s Hollywood. You just don't see that in pairs."

"Yeah, you like being the center of attention."

"Hey! I was the headliner! At the time she was only half of Gato and Michaels."

"What happened to her real partner?"

"Oh, he cheated on her."

"Ah."

"Then in retaliation she cheated on him."

"Yeah, I've heard this one before."

"It all escalated from there."

John frowned at the television, his gaze intent as Rodney approached her and swept his arms around her waist as he bent his knees for a pairs spin. "You're making eyes at each other."

Rodney rolled his eyes skyward. "It's called 'connection.' Eye contact is very important in pairs skating, and you know what? You should be very impressed with me right now." His hand swept towards the video. "I pulled that out of my ass after years of not doing pairs at all."

John had his arms wrapped around a throw pillow like it was a teddy bear and dented it with his chin. On the video, Rodney lifted her overhead into a difficult inverted leonine pose. Held it a long time, too. "Yeah. Very impressive. How come you've never told me about this 'connection'?"

"You're not a pairs skater."

"I'm skating pairs with you," John complained.

Rodney made a dismissive gesture. "That doesn't count."

John sighed heavily, slumping back into the couch.

"Anyhow, she and I only shared a hotel room," Rodney added. "It wasn't the big deal people made of it."

John's eyebrows raised now. "You shared a hotel room?" He turned to stare at Rodney.

"I was just helping her out! I was sleeping with Radek at the time."

"Who is...?"

"You're interrupting the show!"

Rodney and Sonja launched into a close side-by-side glide, legs extended, holding the spiral all the way across the ice. "You couldn't fit a credit card between the two of you," John growled.

"Yes." Rodney gazed off, dreamily. "She shifted edges so naturally. It was like breathing."

The number concluded with her draped backward across Rodney's bent knee, her breasts rising and falling. After a long moment – a very long moment in John's estimation – Rodney lifted her and spun her out, their hands joined for a bow, beaming together.

"That wasn't all that sexy," John said, his shoulders stiff, mouth tight. He slanted a quick glance at Rodney.

"It wasn't?"

"Nah," John said, looking away.

"Oh," Rodney said, blinking and crestfallen. "Everyone said it was—well," he interrupted himself, chin raised in forced dignity. His hands spread in an open shrug and he let them fall. "I hadn't competed in a while so I wasn't in top form those days. I had just decided to leave figure skating. It was my 'swan song,' so to speak." He made air quotes. "Amazing that I could even skate pairs after all those years."

"Yep," John nodded once, giving him that much. "Very impressive, Rodney."

"They might have been reading into it a tad."

"Absolutely."

~*~*~

Rodney rubbed the back of his neck as they sat in the car outside the studio. Young children in what looked like pajamas hurried behind their parents, and the glass door swung open and shut. "So. This is usually very expensive but Teyla owes me a favor or two having to do with the visa for her teacher, master whoever-it-is—it's convoluted, but anyway, she's accepting you as a student on a limited basis. She says that she will decide if she feels that you're teachable."

"Teachable?" John echoed.

"Yes, I know." Rodney winced. "Which probably means you'll get three lessons out of her, maybe five before she boots you to the curb, but perhaps that'll be enough to, oh," Rodney rolled his hands, circling over each other, "work into your regimen. Bring out your intensity."

"My what?"

Rodney ignored that and added, "She knows about the injury and promised she'd go easy on you. At first."

Inside, the studio looked like the set for every kung-fu movie John had ever seen. Except for the beautiful woman with dark skin and honey-colored hair who approached them.

"This must be John," she said, smiling serenely.

"You've told her about me," John said out of the corner of his mouth to Rodney, his own smile freezing.

"We've spoken at length," she agreed in that same even tone. "Rodney feels you will be an exceptional student," she added with a raised eyebrow. There was a faint trace of doubt in her voice.

"Well, I don't think he should lie to...." John blinked in pain as Rodney stepped on his foot.

"He has tremendous ... potential," Rodney managed, cringing. He was probably one of the worst liars in history. John gave her his best smile.

"I see."

Her own smile didn't waver but there was a sharp light in her eyes that made John suspect they weren't putting one over on her. He mentally adjusted his tenure here to two days, tops.

"Why don't we have you start with the first level students?" she said, drawing John aside. Her nod to Rodney was a polite dismissal.

"Yes, I'll, uh...." Rodney made a helpless gesture, turning in a half circle to scan the walls for a chair. "...I'll wait, uh, sit, uh... hmm." His hand went to his lips in consternation, then he thumbed over his shoulder. "I'll... be out in the car." He beat a hasty retreat.

Thus abandoned, John took in a nervous breath as he followed her, hanging back a step. "So, ah, what exactly, uh...?" he trailed off.

She gave him a quizzical look.

"I mean, are you like, the master of the dojo here?" John grinned. "You know, call me 'grasshopper' and stuff like that?"

Her face went blank, chin lowering as she gave him a flat stare. "You want me to call you 'grasshopper.'"

"No, no, no... I just... like Kung Fu, it was a TV show... you know what?" John said, licking his lips and letting his hand drop. "Never mind." He looked at the ceiling and revised his tenure to one day.

She gave John a folded white uniform and a white belt, directing him to the dressing room. John wasn't sure if he should leave his socks on or not, then decided they probably smelled so they were all better off with them gone. He stepped out of the dressing room shyly, feeling weirdly naked under the loose robes, like he was walking around in his underwear or the pajamas he wore as a kid.

"Good," Teyla said, as John followed her behind a long string of teenagers wearing blue and red belts, who encircled a pair that were sparring. A dark-haired girl did a high kick that the tall guy blocked with an upraised fist, knocking it aside. She turned and spun a side kick at his abdomen that connected before he could step away. John flinched. The wooden floor was cold under John's feet and he was starting to regret the sock decision.

Teyla opened a door to a larger back room where still another group of students waited, straightening like a military squadron as she entered.

Not one of the students stood higher than John's armpit.

"They are somewhat more advanced than you but I am sure you will catch up without difficulty," she said, without a trace of irony.

John couldn't figure if she'd done this on purpose or not. But he was willing to bet, from the calculated manner in which she looked away, that this was some kind of test. Smiling a little at the floor, he went to the end of the line of kids and folded his hands in front of himself without comment. They bowed to Teyla in unison, which somehow made John look at her a little differently.

"Let us begin."

He spent the rest of the hour being corrected and shown what to do by the Karate Little League.

~*~*~

John crunched happily on a handful of popcorn, his stocking feet on the coffee table as the closing credits of Pulp Fiction played. His socks were white, the elastic over-stretched and loose around his right ankle, gray footprint shapes on the bottom of his feet like he walked around in socks with no shoes a lot. Which was, in fact, true. Rodney was in a position to know now.

His foot bumped the stack of VHS videos and DVDs on the coffee table and Rodney caught them before they fell. They were bingeing on movies this afternoon, ignoring the fat raindrops against the windows. Late March in Toronto could be clear and cool, or it could be blustery and wet like today. (It could also snow but it was bad juju to mention the S-word in spring. Tempting fate, as it were.) Rodney set the stack upright.

"Oops, sorry," John said. He readjusted the too-large top hat at a rakish angle, eyes sparkling at Rodney as he downed another swallow of beer. He'd claimed the top hat as his own, which Rodney found endearing, if a little odd.

"So what's your favorite scene?" John set the beer on the coffee table.

"In Pulp Fiction? Oh," Rodney settled back next to John, hands on his stomach. "There are so many good ones."

"C'mon. No copping out now... the Royale with Cheese?"

"Okay," Rodney grinned. He reached behind him to shift aside the usual clean laundry that he draped on the couch—to keep it separate from the dirty laundry in the bedroom—and found it was unnecessary. The couch was clear. Huh.

"The dance contest. They're just so spectacularly bad. I mean, not awful but so average, not in communication with each other at all. He's dour and slow while she intense and flirty and just...." Rodney shook his head. "Then the inside joke of it being John Travolta, the king of Disco, is the icing on the cake. He's such a great dancer and when he does that weird tiptoe thing...." He sniggered.

"I like the Royale with Cheese. And them complaining about the mess in the car."

"I wanted him to shoot the screechy woman in the diner in the final scene," Rodney commented, grabbing a handful of popcorn out of the bowl in John's lap. He pulled it between them as the closing music of Pulp Fiction played. "Stop hogging it."

"She was the most dangerous person there," John agreed, turning to him with a smirk. He quoted, "'Who does the greatest swordsman in the world fear?'"

"The world's worst swordsman—and you clearly played too much Dungeons & Dragons as a kid."

John sighed with contentment and eyed the stack of videos, nudging them with a toe.

"What else do we have?"

"How about Mission Impossible? Tom Cruise is always easy on the eyes."

"The first was the best one," John agreed.

"And as it just so happens...." Rodney beamed and reached for the remote by John's feet.

"No, wait, not yet," John stopped him, snatching the remote first. He held it high. "I like this song."

"'Surf Rider'?"

"Yeah."

John leaned back, hands folded behind his head as the closing credits continued to roll. "I think that song makes the movie. I mean, they all learned to mellow out in the end, right? Even though they're still tough as nails."

After the laid-back 50's saxophone and airy guitar riffs trailed off, John backed the video to the beginning of the credits and played it once more. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.

"I could skate this," John said.

"I—" Rodney paused. Then tilted his head. "You know. I can see that."

~*~*~

It was Rodney's night to cook dinner, and he reached over for a can of tomatoes from the stack next to the counter. The cans had doubled as foot stools, additional table space, and additional counter space when the dishes were out of control, but slowly the stack had shrunk to a less useful height. He stooped and his hand caught air. He glanced over.

They were gone. Surely he hadn't used them so quickly. No, he distinctly remembered a knee-high stack... he squinted and struggled with the memory of the last sighting... yes, at least two days ago.

His eyes swept the kitchen as he spun around. John was in his usual chair between the picture window and the door, leaned back on two legs, newspaper in hand folded the way you'd read it on the bus.

"Where-?" Rodney began.

"In the pantry," John said, not looking up.

"What?"

"I figured that after eight weeks the cans weren't going to find it on their own. No idea why; they must not be quick on the uptake," John said.

By then Rodney had spotted the table, or rather, the surface of the table. It was wood, a lighter oak than he remembered. He looked around for the stack of papers that must have been moved. Important papers. They were nowhere in sight.

"Wait," Rodney said, one hand up, still searching for the papers, but he was interrupted by the sight of the sink. Which he'd noticed before had been empty of dishes, and yes, he'd figured that John had been washing them, of course, but... where were the clean dishes that had been stacked on the counter?

The counters were clean, too.

"Where did the dishes go?"

"It's funny," John said, "but if you work hard enough at it, you can usually find a spot."

"My music—" Rodney said, panicking. He flung open the cabinet doors. He'd spent hours organizing....

"Didn't move any. Amazing how little space you were using down below." John nodded his chin at the sink. "You can stop washing those same two dishes over and over, by the way. I'd wondered about that but it looks like you just didn't notice."

Blinking, Rodney continued his search, stepping into the living room, which had felt more airy and spacious of late.

He turned slowly, taking it all in. The coffee table was clean, and the only glass on it rested on a coaster that Rodney hadn't known he owned. Maybe it belonged to John. The overflow that usually existed in the shelf below the coffee table was now a tasteful fan of sports magazines and "skating porn," as they called the glossy figure skating mags. The laundry no longer piled across the arm of the couch – there was no sign of it, in fact – and a normally rumpled blanket was folded over the back. Instead of the bed pillow from the bedroom, there were two throw pillows, arranged like they'd been set there by a decorator with a slide rule. The rug under the coffee table was centered and the edges no longer curled up. It looked lighter in color, too. Rodney frowned. Tapes were no longer piled on the TV, the floor. No more stacks next to the stuffed chair.

The strange airy feeling came from the disappearance of things Rodney had grown used to seeing scattered on every surface, and took for granted: business cards, lip balm, gum wrappers, the odd piece of cutlery, teetering stacks of books, ripped envelopes, pens, batteries, watches he'd broken, blank CDs, half-finished cups of coffee with green floaters, sports bottles, toenail clippers, empty sunglass cases, binoculars, lap counters (broken and not), the odd item discarded from his wallet, catalogues, wadded up plastic bags... the usual clutter of his life... all gone.

That's when he realized the room must have been vacuumed – not today, no, there were no tell-tale vacuum scrapes along the rug – but recently.

Rodney staggered back to the kitchen, rubbing the back of his head. He asked, "When did this happen?"

"When did what happen?" John said. He refolded his newspaper, his chair on the ground now.

"My papers," Rodney indicated the kitchen table. "Where are they?

John looked up, hazel eyes seeming brown in this light. "Relax. They've migrated to your office." Then he added, tilting his head in that almost Indian way he had, raising his eyebrows, "By the way, you should pay that phone bill someday. Probably someday soon."

Rodney opened and closed his mouth, looking around helplessly. "I didn't pay it because I didn't see it because it wasn't on the table. I'm a responsible adult. I don't fall behind on bills like that."

"How could you see it?" John said. "It was buried under five layers."

"I know where everything is!"

John put down his newspaper. "I can tell. That's how you didn't notice they'd been moved."

"I—" Rodney began, then said, "—just. Don't move my stuff."

"Fine," John said. He stood, setting the newspaper down firmly like it was a poker hand. With scary calm. "I'll put everything back." He stalked across the kitchen towards the pantry. "We'll start with the fucking cans."

A 28 ounce can of tomatoes launched across the room. Rodney hunched aside. It dented the wall and bounced off.

"Are you crazy?! You could have hit me!" Rodney squawked.

Another can rolled across the floor, kicked. John stepped out of the pantry with an armload of cans and let them drop with a noise like bowling balls.

"You're insane!"

"I am! I gave up my apartment!" John stepped over the cans, brushing past Rodney for the door.

"Where are you going?"

"Away. Out." John grabbed his coat in one fist. "Before I commit justifiable homicide."

The door slammed behind him.

Rodney looked forlornly at the cans all over the kitchen. One slowly rolled to a stop over by the sink.

~*~*~

It was dark outside when John's keys rattled and turned in the lock. The cans were still on the floor – Rodney refused to pick them up in principle – and Rodney had his papers back on the table. In neat stacks. He was sitting in John's chair, and he'd sorted them by importance, thrown out the garbage, and was writing a check for the overdue phone bill.

The door shut with a quiet click in the next room.

John took his time. The sound of hangers heralded his hanging his coat in the closet instead of on the hook on the back of the door.

Rodney tried not to look up when he felt John's tall form behind him, leaning against the doorjamb. There was a long pause. Then John walked softly around the cans, pulled out Rodney's chair, and sat, his elbows on the table.

Rodney heard John sniff and glanced up with a confused frown. John hadn't been crying, had he? But John's eyes were clear, cheeks wind-burned and nose red. Nose running from the cold.

Rodney handed him a tissue.

"Thanks," John said. He blew his nose, sniffling again. After a long moment, he cleared his throat. "I wouldn't have hit you," he began.

"Okay."

"I mean it. I have very good aim." John wiped his nose on the back of his hand. "And... I'm sorry about the wall. The world just got ... a lot smaller. My options were limited."

Options? Rodney had no idea what he was talking about, but he got down to business. He'd been preparing his talk in case John came back.

"I need—" Somehow it was harder to say than he expected, with John staring intently at him across the table. The scruff of his five o'clock shadow seemed darker than usual, and his full lower lip was set in a surly line. "I need my bills out. Visible. I have to see them or else I forget. I am a busy man with a great deal on my mind and I have systems in place to make my life workable."

John huffed, a sound somewhere between sarcasm and humor. "Rodney. That thing's two months overdue. From before I even moved in here." He glanced around at the walls, at the dark window.

"All right," Rodney gave him that, his eyelashes fluttering rapidly, "sometimes the system doesn't work as well as it ought, optimally, but my point is, this is my home."

"Yeah," John said. "That's the problem."

This wasn't the negotiation Rodney had hoped for. "I don't mind your cleaning," he said, trying to define his terms more clearly. "I like it clean, even."

"Oh, really?" John's eyes widened in surprise and disbelief. "I seem to—"

"It's just the bills!" Rodney said. "Obviously I didn't mind because I didn't even notice, so therefore at the very least it didn't bother me."

John looked at Rodney, his head tilted in suspicion. "What about grocery receipts?"

"Trash."

"Catalogues?"

"Junk."

"Envelopes with phone numbers on them."

"Uh...." Rodney hesitated. John's eyes flashed in triumph. "Let me see them first. They could be potential clients. I tend to write things down on whatever's at hand."

"Oh, I, um, I thought they were dates and threw them out."

Rodney took a breath. "Okay. We'll start with a clean slate then."

John asked, "So I have carte blanche to toss anything except phone numbers and the bills?"

"Yes," Rodney said slowly and nodded, conceding more than he planned. "That sounds okay." He shook his head and squinted up at John, forehead rumpled in confusion. "I don't get it. I thought we weren't doing the Kato thing. I mean, you don't need to – the car's plenty."

"I can't live like this, Rodney."

"I'll do more of the cooking then," Rodney offered.

"Yeah. That's something else I can't live with." John tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling.

"Oh."

John nodded slowly. He licked his lips and said, wincing, "I'll fix the wall."

"Fix?"

"Yeah. A little spackle, sand it, and some paint – good as new. Well. Almost. The paint won't match exactly but it'll be close enough."

"You can do that sort of thing?"

"Yes, Rodney. People do home repair all the time."

"Wow," Rodney said, impressed. "You look pretty butch but I didn't realize you actually were."

John sat up a little straighter in his chair and glanced around at the mess on the floor. "I'll pick up the cans, too."

"Yep," Rodney said, looking down at his bills. He flipped one over primly.

John snorted. A weak laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. Then he bent to start on the cans.

"Oh," Rodney glanced up, startled. He leaned forward, reaching for John. "You don't have to do that instantly. They'll keep till tomorrow."

John gave him an exasperated look from where he knelt on the floor. "Rodney.... That's how these messes get started."

"Right, right. Okay, fine, Kato."

"Call me that again," John said, straightening to place a can on the countertop, "And I will jump you with a baseball bat, Inspector Clouseau."

Rodney tapped his fingers on the table a long moment as John worked. Glanced over at John. Then back at his hands. Then back at John, who had bent again to pick up the can that had rolled across the floor to the sink.

Finally, Rodney gave in and ducked down to get one of the cans under the kitchen table. It slipped his fingers and rolled out of reach, so he got off the chair to get a better grip. Then he handed cans off to John one at a time as he put them away in the pantry. That done, Rodney nudged into John's air space and John slung an arm over Rodney's shoulder with a soft sigh. John's spiky hair tickled the bald spot where Rodney's hairline had receded.

It was much tidier in the pantry. John had found a surprising amount of room.

~*~*~

John slid his leg off the table and tugged his pant leg back down. "So?" Doctor Beckett's hand cupped his chin as he considered the X-rays clipped to the light panel. Rodney stood behind him with his head tilted, the corner of his mouth drawn into a frown, studying them as if he were the one with the medical degree. The first set of X-rays showed a jagged thin fault line through the white of John's bones. The second set, below, showed a similar line, only now the line was white.

The doctor turned back to John and conceded with gentle tip of his head, "Well. One cannot fault your conservative choice of treatment. Completely immobilizing the leg is not what I would consider necessary."

Rodney smirked triumphantly at John.

"And it is quite clear that you've followed directions and given it plenty of time to heal." The raised eyebrows and sardonic blink showed his surprise.

"That's Rodney's fault," John drawled, his folded fingers hooked over his knee.

The doctor licked his lips, opened his hands and finally let them fall helplessly. He took a careful breath ... and gave in. "I can see no reason why not." John and Rodney shared an excited glance as he nodded confirmation, saying patiently, "Yes, you may continue your skating."

John had already hopped off the table, his windbreaker balled up in his hands.

"—But please," Doctor Beckett urged, his eyes wide and earnest. John pushed open the door and was halfway through. He looked back. "—Go easy at first."

"Oh, sure. Absolutely."

~*~*~

John jumped the curb, slamming the roller blades into blacktop with a grunt. He pushed off, carving the down slope from Rodney's house. Hitting his stride, he curved right to a side street, leaving startled kids in his wake as he cut through their ball game and in between and around teams jumping rope. That was fun. He almost wished for more kids to complicate the route.

He hit the bottom of the hill and bottomed out onto a one-way road, ducking low. He picked up speed—then a car came around the bend, grill barreling down. He dove out of the way. Didn't people pay attention to speed limits? He snarled inwardly and lost time on the gravel margin as he took to the residential streets again, stroking hard up tree-lined streets before he found another downhill grade.

A cluster of teenagers on bikes tracked him from the sidewalk. They hunched away as he flew up their speedbump ramp, feet together, arm swinging for balance, up one side and down the other like a teeter-totter. He popped off the end of the board without a glance back.

On flat ground John hopped into a backward glide, shoulder to the wind. Setting his blades in a curve, he whipped around, then again, his arm raised. He pumped forward, angling into a wide circle like he would at the rink.

Hands on his hips as he breathed, he spotted an overgrown yard with a "For Sale" sign.

He knew that house. He'd seen the backyard from his bedroom window.

He doubled back to that driveway with a quick check over his shoulder. Slowed by grassy ruts, he bumped across the limestone patio until, one hand gripping the edge, he hopped into the empty swimming pool. He let go and landed with a hollow thump. With a deep rumbling he ground over the curve of the walls as high as he could before turning, wheels placed precisely, to roll back down the other side, rocked with G's as he bent. Up the other side to gain momentum, turn, to roar back down, knees dipped.

Over the sound of echoing concrete there came a piercing steady bark. Close.

John's head peeked over the edge of the pool with a surprised glance in the direction of the suddenly not-so-unoccupied house. At a window not twenty feet away, a fluffy mop of a dog barked, shifting the curtains aside, going nuts.

John's shoulders reappeared up the glide of the shallow end and, grabbing the ladder as a handrail, he vaulted onto the lawn to get out of there, wide-eyed. He only hoped that no one was home. He squeezed through trash cans to an alley, and spotted, on the opposite side... paradise.

A cascading series of stairs, handicap ramps, and railings, that led all the way down to basketball and tennis courts and an elementary school parking lot.

~*~*~

Rodney sat in the car, elbow on the steering wheel, wondering if everyone who'd ever given him a ride was now going to ask him to return the favor, because if so, that was a very long list. But he couldn't very well refuse since the elementary school was, in fact, on his way. He sighed as Colleen squirmed in the front seat, slinging her little purse strap over her shoulder, gathering her bag with the skates. Then she scooped up some sort of musical instrument and held a dry-cleaning plastic bag with a pink dress over her head. She dropped her sheet music, scattering it all over the floor. "I got it! I got it!" she said, ducking down.

Maybe he should charge a fee for taxi service.

Across the cascading concrete terraces leading down to the school, a young man in a white sweatshirt and jeans blazed down a ramp. Great speed, intensity, and ... sheer presence.

Rodney watched with interest, adding balance to the list as the kid – he was eighteen or so, he guessed, though it was hard to tell at this distance – leapt up onto a rail and slid down it. On roller skates. Rodney straightened. With a center of gravity that solid, imagine what he could do with the jumps.

Then the kid hit a flat section and circled his skates into an 'L', turning his hips, left, right, kicking his leg out in a well-practiced choctaw. He was a figure skater. Though he lost the intensity on the complicated moves.

And that's when Rodney recognized the wild dark hair and pointed ears.

John dug up some more speed and flew, jumping an entire stair to land in the wet grass. And Rodney forgot to be mad at him somewhere between the jump and the landing.

~*~*~

John brushed the mud off his knee and got up, aiming for the blacktop of the school parking lot. He played with footwork, blades pigeon-toed as he step-turned, shifted to an easy crossover, kicked his foot out, and turned with the momentum, unaware of the curious eyes watching him.

At the other side of the circle, he stopped short. There was a familiar car parked in front of the school. On a Saturday.

His Chevy.

The passenger side door was open to let out a preteen carrying skates in one hand and a dry-cleaning plastic bag with a pink dress in the other. A high, perky voice was saying, "... I've got dress rehearsal for band and then—"

"Doesn't your mother leave you one millisecond unoccupied? To rot your brain with television -- or maybe a video game?" said a tired-sounding Rodney.

"What do you mean?" the little girl puzzled at him, her words so bird-quick John could barely make them out.

"Never mind."

The door shut behind her and the plastic rustled as she scurried to front door of the school. She rang the front bell to be let in, bouncing anxiously in place.

John glided over and trailed a foot behind him to stop. He knocked on Rodney's window -- disappointed when he didn't startle. Rodney's arm worked as he rolled down the window.

"You happen to notice a lunatic flying by on roller skates?" Rodney asked him with a dry smirk.

"Can't say that I have," John said, leaning his hip against the door. He dug the heel of his blade into the blacktop. "I'm on roller blades myself."

"So you can do choctaws on those?"

"That, and all my jumps except the Lutz."

"Hmm," Rodney said. "Hop in. We'll hit the sandwich place for lunch."

~*~*~

John ran his fingertips down the raised nail-marks over the slope of Rodney's shoulder. His skin was soft, pale, and Rodney had told the truth when he said that he bruised easily. He found the pale purple marks on his ribs just under his arms, noted the red hand prints slowly disappearing on his upper thighs. John stroked back up the nail marks and over the smooth curve of Rodney's rounded back where Rodney sat up in bed facing John, legs curled under him, elbows on his knees.

"Sorry about that." John smirked, not sounding sorry at all. He found more nail marks trailing down his lower back to his ass.

Rodney glanced over at him and his eyes flickered shyly as he looked away, a smile teasing at the corner of his mouth. "No, you're not."

~*~*~

Beep.

"Hi, John, it's me, Daniel at U of T. Glad to hear you're available again. I have a pick-up at 9 a.m. tomorrow. Give me a call and tell me how you're doing."

Beep.

"John, Jessica here at Max Printing, welcome back. If you can do a 10 o'clock, that would be great. Yes, it's the usual noon thing."

Beep.

"Hello? John Sheppard? I'm sorry, the message doesn't have your name; I hope this is the right number. I was told to call you for a same-day if you can do it...."

Rodney stared at his answering machine, nonplused. Twelve messages. He hit the button for the next one. It wasn't for him either.

John emerged from the bathroom in a wash of steam, towel around his neck, wearing nothing else. He slung the towel around his hips, his only concession to the picture windows in the kitchen.

"Um." Rodney made a strange face. "You seem to have a few messages."

"Cool."

John grabbed a pen, pad of paper and a chair, and rewound the messages, eagerly writing them down, eyes sharp, an elbow leaned on his knee.

"Old chums-?"

"Hmm? No," John said. "Well, sort of. You see, most companies don't care who delivers their packages just as long as they get there. So it's the secretaries who decide who they want to work with. And they like me." He gave a wide smirking grin and turned toward Rodney. "The bike messenger company I used to work for never figured it out. They always pitched to the head honchos when the decision makers were right in front of them."

"Bike messenger?"

"Yep. Got my ten speed tuned up today."

"You're not Canadian. Can you work—I mean, is that even legal?"

"Well. It was back when I had the visa in college." John winced. "I may have over-stayed that a little. But what they don't know won't hurt them."

~*~*~

The ten speed wobbled as John pushed off, the wheels hissing as he rode down wet pavement. He dipped his head to tuck a last strand of hair under his helmet, bent over the handle bars and stood into the wind. He was cold in the bike shorts but that wouldn't last.

His feet pumped at the pedals, circling, till he reached downtown. He glided between red taillights, car windshield wipers beating slowly. He went over the curb and hopped off, his breath steaming, a fine mist of sweat beading on his forehead. He skidded to a stop and slung the bike up onto his shoulder to race up a long series of steps. He ducked, the bike bouncing a little as he dropped it, and then swept the bike chain in place. He slipped past the night guard still on duty and impatiently paced in the elevator with the brass rails.

At seven a.m. the morning receptionist at Bogle & Folkes, Attorneys at Law, Ltd. was already at work. Her eyes went right past John's face to the messenger bag on his back. He signed for two packages to be delivered by nine a.m.

He unchained his bike. The next stop was on ground level, a direct door to the bright lights and hum of copy machines – a balding guy handed him a package, also due by nine. Of course all three were at opposite ends of the city. But at least the fourth pick up was on the way to one of the deliveries. Back on his bike, John settled into his ground-covering pace, cutting off a driver who couldn't make up his mind whether he was turning right or left, the turn signal switching. He ignored the guy's frustrated gesture, hunching his shoulders against the anger. As he learned in college when he worked for the professional messenger company, anyone who had time to park a car in Toronto didn't have their kind of deadline.

He checked in to his answering machine, an arm leaned on the cold payphone. Two calls, for a ten a.m. pick up and one at noon. He called them back and accepted, the pad of paper balanced on his knee, though he'd barely make the ten a.m. from where he was. But he couldn't afford to lose a client. The work was only a trickle right now.

He grabbed coffee and a sandwich at eleven.

After the lunch rush, he rolled his bike up to the yoga studio. Other than pulling off the messenger bag and windbreaker, John didn't change, just rolled out his mat in the back of the room. There were two other people in the early afternoon class.

Ronon wandered by, his dreadlocks hanging low as he adjusted John's knee. He said casually, "You stink."

John deepened his stretch, shifting his foot into the next position, arms over his head. "Sorry. Had to work."

Ronon nodded, accepting this. "Longer arms," he said. John shot him a funny look then tried to comply, stretching his arms more. "Good. Don't arch your neck."

Afterward, Ronon let him use the phone at the yoga studio, where it was nice and warm, to check his messages again. It was a long trip on his bike, swinging through downtown traffic to his next pick up, the wind rippling his windbreaker. A rush delivery paid him out of their petty cash and expected him to be able to break a twenty, wasting time in the confusion.

The sun came out in the late afternoon, striping the clouds gold and purple. He bent over the handlebars on a long downhill stretch into the wind to drop off a boutique package almost out of the city. The return was a long meandering thread through rush hour traffic, uphill, but with the wind at his back, sun on his face. With a sigh, he took off his bike helmet and stuffed it in his messenger bag, enjoying the wind in his sweaty hair.

It was a slow uphill ride to the skating rink.

His skates were in a locker at the rink, something he didn't pay for during the winter season. Dragging his gym bag out, he stuffed the messenger bag in and slammed it shut. He pulled fleece pants over the bicycle shorts and was still pulling on the sweatshirt as he trampled down the steps to the ice, skates in hand.

Rodney sat on the bench, rink-side, looking irritated and impatient.

"You're late," Rodney griped as he stood.

"Sorry," John said, lacing up fast. He'd had a week to learn Rodney would interrupt any explanation he gave. He slid out onto the ice and rolled his shoulders to get out the stiffness from hours bent over the bike.

"You getting enough cardio?" Rodney asked, reviewing his training schedule.

"Pretty sure," John said. He let Rodney's insistence that they return to his four a.m. skate time "when you're fresh; you're useless like this" wash over him.

John spun into the new circular sequence, a step and spin, arms wide as he stepped and turned again and again, kicking up ice spray behind him. Rodney gave up his tirade to hold John's arm and shoulder to sketch the dance move again. He glided backward with a nod for John to continue.

The following week was sunny and cold, the sharp wind biting his lungs.

His days alternated between bracing himself for the upwind routes and speeding along with the downwind routes, cheeks cold, grateful to dodge between buildings when he could. Lunch was too busy to eat, so he had a sandwich in hand when he showed up at the Tae Kwon Do school. He'd forgotten his uniform so Teyla loaned him one, ripping open the plastic bag. (Who knew you weren't allowed to do kung-fu out of uniform?)

He approached his sidekicks the way he approached his jumps, emptying his mind and focusing as he extended his foot and held it out.

"Good," she said. "But you are not breathing properly."

Both she and Ronon were big on breathing.

Back on his bike, John thought about breathing, letting the air empty from his lungs as he sat up straight, balanced easily on his bike – it had already become an extension of his body again – as he pedaled to his afternoon deliveries. But it was rush hour, when the drivers were particularly nasty, so he was forced to pay attention again. Outside a tall concrete office building he dropped to one knee and chained up, then threaded upstream through office workers in suits who only glanced at him briefly on their way home.

Five p.m. was the worst because the elevators were slow, stopping at every floor. After the pick up, John shouldered his messenger pack and took the eight flights of stairs at a run, jumping the last two at every turn.

Stepping outside after the last delivery, the sun had set, though the sky was still orange and gold on the horizon. John's breath steamed into the air as he looked up at the sky, considering Rodney's suggestion they go back to skating at four a.m. The phone was cold on his ear when he dialed Rodney, who was just as happy to cancel tonight.

He splurged and took the bus home, hooking the ten speed on the rack in front. He slumped in the seat and let himself soak in the welcome heat. Climbing off the bus into the dark, he walked his bike the last two blocks home, leaning it against the wall on the front porch.

Inside, Rodney had on some music and was bustling around the kitchen. John couldn't tell what he was doing though it seemed to involve him talking on the phone and waving around a sheet of paper. Arms folded on the kitchen doorjamb, John leaned his forehead against cool wood and let his mind go blank.

Moments later his arm was jostled in a warm grip. John blinked awake.

"I thought only horses slept standing," Rodney said. He waved a menu in John's face. "Thai?"

John just nodded and aimed himself in the direction of the couch, nodding yes to whatever Rodney ordered. He barely woke up at the tug on his foot, first one, then the other. The soft thump of his shoes.

Later, the room was dark when he opened his eyes again, fuzzy on what day it was, Rodney asleep at his side, his watch on the table by the bed. He was in bed. Rodney must have coaxed him from the couch. John narrowed his eyes and realized he was hungry. He couldn't remember eating.

Rodney's place was cold so he grabbed a random shirt and wandered to the kitchen. Shirt open and draped over his shoulders, John leaned his back against the kitchen counter as he ate Thai food direct from the container, digging into it with a fork. It was two a.m.

They had to be at the rink in a couple hours.

~*~*~

It wasn't that Rodney touched John a lot, although he did. He was just... different. He'd paint circles with his fingers around John's elbow, like it was special, rather than just kind of pointed. Then he'd adjust John's arm so he could feather across the smooth swathe inside, attending to areas that John never even thought about.

It caught him off guard. Like when they'd stopped at a traffic light, the road silent in all directions. John reached for the map in Rodney's lap. Rodney held their hands up and stroked down John's palm with his fingertips, and John shivered. Bizarrely, Rodney didn't even seem to notice the impact but just kept going until John had to look away out the window.

He'd once taken off John's habitual wristband, revealing damp, untanned skin underneath, and ran his chin over it.

With anyone else John would feel silly, old-fashioned and girlish, getting dragged by the hand into the coffee shop, lacing fingers together under the table, hands clasped and resting on John's knee. But Rodney made it matter of fact, so it was all right. John was used to, oh, a hand sliding up his thigh, something raunchy, which John would answer with a lascivious shimmy, smiling as he'd suggest they take it somewhere more private. John knew all his roles. But this thing with Rodney wasn't one of them. It was just... Rodney.

Out on the cement slab behind the house they sprawled in deck chairs, soaking up the sun, the muscles in John's calves still jumping from a last-minute Saturday delivery. Exhaustion broke his mind, left him buzzing, melty and unable to think in a straight line. John lay face first, limp, spread the wrong way on the chaise, his head on the down slope. The air was too cool for cut-offs but the sun made up for it. Skaters had their own definition of cold anyway. Rodney was fully dressed wearing sunglasses and enough sunscreen for the tropics. He smelled like a coconut. He'd pulled his deck chair close, and was absently stroking from the back of John's knees to his ass and then back down again. John didn't like to admit how good that felt, his eyes half-lidded as he zoned.

He knew he was in trouble here, but he couldn't bring himself to care.

Instead, John squinted up at Rodney, lifting his head off the deck chair. He could feel the plastic lines it left on his face. He focused on the cover of Rodney's book, blinking as the reflection flashed in his eyes a couple times. "Arthur C. Clark?" was all he said.

"I stick with the classics." Rodney turned a page and resumed his stroking. John nuzzled his face back into the chaise.

~*~*~

Rodney rooted through stacks of papers in the dank little hole of an office he shared with Caldwell, the hockey coach. There was nothing worse than coming back after just a few hours and finding everything moved. Caldwell's laconic, "Then don't leave your crap on the desk" didn't help at all. The old coot would probably have a heart attack if he saw Rodney manhandling his favorite baseball jacket but Rodney needed the chair free.

He put away stacks of papers as well, because he knew John would thumb down the pile and be distracted by them—and he needed John's full, undivided attention. In an official capacity.

There was a soft rap at the door and John peered in, slouching against the doorjamb. "Hey. I didn't even know you had an office."

"I don't," Rodney said, disgruntled, draping Caldwell's jacket over the desk chair. "Come in. I cleared a spot."

John edged around the door, which didn't quite have room to swing. It clanged into the trash can and hit the file cabinet behind it. Rodney moved the stack of file folders off the metal folding chair for John. He dumped them unceremoniously on the desk and sat on the edge, hands loosely clasped between his knees. This set him higher than John, which was unintentional but Rodney had read in a book somewhere—Swimming with the Sharks, perhaps?—that it was a good tactic for a confrontation so he stayed where he was. Of course, with actual sharks one would be struck from below but that was neither here nor there.

John somehow managed to slump bonelessly in the uncomfortable chair, giving Rodney a cautious look from under spiky black eyelashes, like he was suddenly aware that he'd been called to the principal's office. His response was calculated and casual though. "What's up?"

Rodney breathed. "I heard Ronon's message on the machine. You canceled your yoga session yesterday."

John snorted and leaned his elbow on the back of the chair. "I figured I was getting enough exercise."

"And you canceled your weekly tae kwon do class several days ago," Rodney said, building his case.

"I was running late. I knew I wasn't going to make it." John squirmed. Rodney remembered that an uncomfortable chair was another tactic. Who'd furnished this office, Niccolo Machiavelli? John's voice turned a shade defensive, his face pink. "I did call."

"Teyla was very upset." Rodney laced his hands together over one knee. "I got a lesson on self discipline and consistency."

"Why you?"

"Good question." Rodney gave a half laugh of disbelief. "But the fact of the matter is I happen to agree with her."

"Rodney. I have to work. Sometimes it's going to interfere," John said with a flippant wave, sitting up and sliding in the metal chair. "I haven't missed a single one of your sessions."

"Lucky me. I get to coach a dishrag on ice. You're here physically, but mentally?" He wiggled his fingers in the air, scrunching his face, squinting as if trying to make a difficult decision. "Hmm. Not so much." He let his hand drop.

John at rubbed the hollows of his eyes and leaned forward, sagged over his elbows on his knees. "I don't know what more you want from me," he said, looking up, chin balanced on his hands. "I suppose I could try skating on Sunday after I've had Saturday afternoon off...." He shook his head, obviously cognizant of the fact that this would never work.

"Please," Rodney said, brushing off the stupidity. "Human bodies need at least minimal time for recovery or else they'll be run completely into the ground."

John ran his hand over the top of his head like a tired teenager and stretched, looking at the ceiling with an exhausted sigh. "This is more training than I usually do during the summer." He made a vague gesture at the ceiling, probably referring to the skating rink above and around them. "I mean, not in terms of skating time, but everything else."

"Summer is the time when you develop your program. It sets up your entire year."

"I know that, Rodney. I just don't know what else to do." He considered. The chair creaked as he leaned back. "Maybe I can pick either the yoga or the martial arts, instead of both. I mean, we were only expecting her to keep me on for one or two classes."

"Yes, and that still amazes me, what with you being you."

"Thanks."

But Rodney let the sarcasm wash over him, assessing this very rational possibility which he hadn't considered, actually. He shook his head. "No. I want you to stick with them both." Going backwards in his training wasn't an option.

John rolled his head, and stood, the tilt of his smile exasperated and wan, clearly aware his training schedule was hopeless. Canceling his outside training was just John's way of managing it without consulting his coach, Rodney noted with rising irritation. "Well, if you don't mind, I need to get changed."

Rodney shook his head again and braced both palms on the desk, gripping it. "No. I want you to take tonight off. In fact, I want you to take the next two days off to recover some reserves." He let the fact that John had no reserves left go unspoken.

"I can't afford to lose the training time." And wasn't it telling that John didn't argue that he was at the end of his rope?

"Hear me out." Rodney settled himself more comfortably on the edge of the desk, preparing for the storm. "I want you take two days off completely. And then...." He took the plunge. "I want you to quit that job. Put away the ten speed... or, well, use it, but for anything other than delivering packages."

"Rodney...." John rolled his eyes, palms spread as he looked away. "I have to pay the rent somehow."

"Your rent is piddling and I haven't even cashed your checks."

John leveled a dark look at him. "I've noticed. I was hoping you were late."

"Nope," Rodney said defiantly. "Just... skip the pointless symbolic formalities, allow me to cover your pathetic and easily dealt with expenses so that you can skate."

"And what? I become your pool boy?" John had folded his arms and his long eyes had narrowed, jaw set and rebellious.

Rodney ignored John's deliberate distraction—they didn't have a pool—and stuck relentlessly with the point the way his own coach used to. "No. You become a real figure skater."

"I was just kidding with the sugar daddy jokes, Rodney."

"Your expenses are nothing!" Rodney persisted. "You have no student loans—you don't even own a credit card. I'm covering the car insurance. Aside from your quote unquote rent—which I don't need, by the way—what's left? Food?" Rodney's voice raised in frustration.

John kicked the door the rest of the way shut, and then said, "I pay my own way." He leaned close and threatening, one hand on the desk. "You don't seem to get it. This is how I pay my expenses for the rest of the year."

Rodney blinked. But he refused to be afraid of John when he got like this, because John only used anger as a defense mechanism, and to get his own way, and besides which Rodney hated to be bullied.

"No. You don't seem to get it." Rodney stabbed a pointer finger in his direction, invading his space and John straightened. Rodney pressed his advantage. "In case you've deluded yourself that you're making progress, let me clarify: you are dead in the water. You have been since you started this job."

He sat further back on the desk to give himself breathing room, folding his own arms. "Now I admit, I may have on occasion wished that students were programmable automatons that would simply, finally, do as I say. But now that I have one I'd like a full refund please, or else a replacement AI model—or you know, real intelligence because I have no idea how to program creativity into a mindless piece of meat." John opened his mouth in shock, but Rodney kept going, on a roll—his ability to speak at machine gun speed was his greatest asset in an argument. "When I was competing my entire summer was dedicated to training—"

"You were in high school...." John cut in.

But Rodney ignored him with sweeping gestures. "—I gave up science, I gave up friends, I sacrificed everything, and yes, I was exceptionally talented, but my equally exceptional dedication is what translated that talent into two world championships and the Olympics by age seventeen.

"With the injury you're already weeks behind schedule in developing your programs—and that's if you were Bethany and I had two to four years to gradually develop your artistry. But you're no Bethany. I don't have four years. So we need to make astronomical, near miraculous progress for you to be where you need to be by fall. I don't see how you're going to do it, frankly—" A raw laugh escaped him. "—but I know how you're not going to, and that's by doing what you're doing now. I find it incredible that you've ever reached Nationals at all if this is any example of your summer training."

"I put in good effort in August and September," John said, turning defensive again.

"Then you've played catch up ball and slapped together a program at the last minute. I was under the impression you wanted to do more this time." Rodney raised his chin. He rammed the point home. "This is not generosity on my part, by the way. I'm being very, very selfish. Right now you are wasting my time, treading water, and it is unbelievably frustrating for me."

John took a long breath, looking down. His head came up and he looked at Rodney, eyes intent.

"Rodney. I hear what you're saying," John said with immense—and surprising—patience, fueling Rodney's suspicions that John's temper was deliberate. He peered at Rodney, head tilted suspiciously. "Maybe I can cut my hours a bit. But I'm going to pay my own way."

Rodney felt the utter dismay and frustration break across his face. His sister called him a human billboard, yet he couldn't help it. "But..." He slumped, limp with worry. "...you're killing yourself."

And that hit home, at least based on John's look of naked shock.

~*~*~

A pair of skates leaned against the wall beside the front door. Gray early twilight filtered into the livingroom which was empty aside from a yellow lined notepad on the coffee table, a pen, and several wadded up balls of paper. John's tennis shoes were kicked off by the couch, one laying on its side. The notepad had two lists scratched on it, with PRO and CON double-underlined at the top in sharp strokes. Figures were scattered all over the page in small illegible handwriting at various angles, half-finished long division and strings of calculation.

John's feet could be seen through the kitchen doorway, his legs crossed where he sat back in his chair. The phone cord stretched between him and the wall in a low arc. He tapped on the table in an irregular rhythm, then stopped, a hand lifting to trace his full lower lip, the dark trace of a beard growing in. He leaned on his fist on the table.

Finally, he uncrossed his legs, took his hand off the button on the phone, and dialed.

"Hi. It's me... yeah. Hey, look, I'm going to have to cancel that delivery tomorrow. An old injury flared up... no." He shook his head. "This is going to be long-term. I can put you in touch with an old friend of mine for this summer... Yeah." He ran his hand through his hair, shoulders hunched. "It sucks. On many levels," he said, raising his eyebrows with a roll of his head. "But sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do."

~*~*~

John circled the rink one more time, having to pump energy into his strokes, feeling saturated. He'd never had a summer free to skate like this, free of the pressure of an impending competition. Even as a kid he'd always had to beg rides from his brother, and his parents would pay for only so much skate time.

Gliding at speed he skipped into a backward hop, body spongy and loose – too loose. He popped the jump. He ducked his head, a guilty flick at the doorway where Rodney had gone. Fortunately he wasn't back yet.

A woman in oversized sunglasses and a funky 70s-style rabbit fur jacket stood in Rodney's place. Her pink lips were pursed, one hand on her hip. She wore very high spiked heels which was why John continued to watch. You didn't see that around here.

Her chin lifted as she seemed to scan the little skating rink. Her gaze passed over John's head, ignoring him, and crawled across the ceiling. There were overhead pipes and spreading rust stains. John followed her hard stare and, okay, the squares of open florescent light tubes had lost all their plastic covers. But that happened when you mixed hockey, kids, and relatively low ceilings. And true, the sprinkler heads dangled like alien probes and were speckled at the ends, and then there was the annoying flickering light panel at the far corner that no one ever managed to fix... so John hadn't looked around in a while.

Her hand slid from her hip and she shifted her weight, canting the left hip now, the other fist planted. Her little mouth formed a frown.

Her gaze shifted and lingered on the wooden benches. John noticed they were dented and missing strips of red paint. John's glance followed where hers paused a long moment, and there he had to wince. The greenish-black fuzz on the upper wall was mostly due to the heaters back there, they caused some condensation and the Hurwitzes had just painted again a few months back, but....

Rodney came trundling down the bleacher stairs, exiting the press box. His face lit up as he spotted the woman.

"Hey...!" Rodney began, with a bounce and a smile and a small wave.

"I am not skating here," she announced, imperious. She spun on her high heels and started back up the stairs with a blond flounce.

"But... I don't have anything else planned...." Rodney said.

"Reschedule!" she declared with a flick of her wrist over her shoulder, the fur tails of her jacket bouncing as she clicked through the doors. They echoed shut behind her.

"Who was that?" John asked, forehead rumpled in mixed amusement and annoyance. He liked the Hurwitzes and it wasn't like they didn't try hard. Besides, you just needed ice; it didn't have to be fancy.

"That." Rodney gave an exaggerated sigh. "Was your choreographer."

"I have a choreographer?"

"Hopefully."

John blinked in disbelief. His words came in out in a surprised, shaky breath. "Cool."

~*~*~

An ancient 60s classic echoed through the rink's sound system, thin like a high school intercom, or else a very bad AM radio station. A woman in cotton candy pink stood at the glass overlooking the rink, her coat folded over her arms. Several skaters circled the ice below, including a tall man in a track suit and black gloves. John. His spiky dark hair ruffled then flattened as he moved. He pushed into a slow reverse spiral, his leg extended in the direction of his skating, like an airplane backing up to taxi. He let his leg drop, elegant and slow, then tried it again, this time with more speed.

Rodney swung his arms and slapped his palms together as he climbed the stairs from the rink. He'd been careful not to let John know he was on display. He gave Sonja a smug tilted smile as she turned from the window, shifting the coat to her other arm. It hadn't been difficult to get her to return. She'd always been amenable to bribes and this time he let her pick the restaurant.

"So. What do you think?" He rubbed his hands in satisfaction.

"He's a perfectly average skater," she said. Rodney felt his face fall, and for once Sonja seemed to notice because she added, her hand out in a conciliatory gesture, "—with very good jumps."

"Um...?" Rodney looked her up and down, searching helplessly for some indication of her decision.

"But... I like him." She turned to smile down at John through the window, a fist in the small of her arched back. He'd dug his skates into the ice, shoulders angled forward as he gathered speed to power around the rink. "He will look very pretty skating my work."

~*~*~

Skates glided and hissed on the rink, feminine shrieks of laughter echoing as Rodney's ten o'clock group warmed up on the ice. Three little girls in striped navy track suits picked up speed, racing each other for position as the lead threw a quick single jump, spiraling off into the center of the rink.

Rodney stood on the ice and clapped his hands, then gave a New York taxi cab whistle, signaling to the darker Bethany who hadn't joined the group. She leaned over the boards, her hair in a thick braid today, gazing dreamily up at John as he warmed her hands between his own, blowing on them. "See, you've got to wear gloves up until the last minute. Otherwise they turn pink." He gave her a flick of his eyebrows and a chiding head tip. "Pink flying hands. Not good."

"Bethany!" Rodney barked.

"I'm coming, I'm coming!" she whined with a glance over her shoulder at him, pouting, and then she pushed backwards a few strokes, saying with a flutter of her fingers, "Bye, John."

She turned and power stroked to catch up with the other girls, who'd paused to watch. As John turned away, she mouthed Oh, my God! to her friends and scamper-stepped on her skates, folding over her hands. "I'm never going to wear gloves ever."

The other girls gathered in a tight circle around her, giggling and whispering, and Rodney rolled his eyes, letting his head fall back. The group let out an ear-piercing squeal. One girl gasped, "Oh! You're so lucky!"

Rodney gave up for the next few minutes and skated over to John.

The girls bounced in place, stamping their skates. One sang out to John, "My hands are cold, too!" and the others fell over each other, squeaking with overwrought laughter that bordered on hysteria.

"What was that all about?" John asked, one eye squinted as he gave the group a nervous look.

Rodney borrowed John's water bottle, took a sip, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Mmm... it's tribal behavior. I've learned to ignore it. There will be a resurgence of human-like traits in a moment, while if I punish them it'll just get worse."

"Experience?"

"Vast quantities of trial and error." Rodney capped the water bottle and handed it back to John, and pointed at him. "Warm up stretches, on the ground, now. And don't skate until this lesson is over. Bethany has a chance to be good if you don't screw that up."

"Me?"

Rodney ignored him, muttering about prepubescent hormones as his arms pumped, shoulders squared. With solid strokes he skated out to his little class. John watched him a moment, shook his head then slid into the splits, drawing his head down to his knee. He heard Rodney squawk something about going slower and horrible injuries, and smiled to himself.

~*~*~

Later, Rodney bent over and snapped a skate guard on, stepping off the ice, one hand on the boards. The girls flowed past behind him, gathering to mill around their backpacks, tired but still chatty. It was an odd transformation as they slipped on their mangled sneakers. So graceful on the ice and then such jocks when they stepped off, reminding John more of soccer players than dancers.

Rodney grunted as he straightened his back. "I'll be a moment," Rodney made his fingers into two gun-shaped arrows, targeting the door. "Bathroom."

"Yeah, well I just had the longest stretch in history," John said, raising his voice after Rodney's retreating form, "so hurry up!"

By the time Rodney returned John was already on the ice, arms stretched upward as he finished an easy single, landing backwards and upright, his leg out in a careless swing. He carved a deep backward 'S', his hips carrying the motion more than they would have in the past. Rodney wondered if it was the yoga, the pairs skating, or what had made the difference—then decided he'd never know nor did he care, just as long as it worked. It was an incremental change but Rodney trusted incremental changes; they tended to last.

John ended his step-turn sequence with a subtle flourish, a gesture copied from Rodney and added unthinkingly as he glided to a sideways stop. Rodney's smile froze. It was not the first time he'd caught John imitating him, but it was not a good sign. You couldn't paste on another skater's style, particularly given how utterly inappropriate his was on John.

He noted that most of his ten o'clock class had settled in the stands like birds, watching, and even little Melanie Weir had arrived twenty minutes early. Her mother chatted with one of the other moms down by doors, glancing over at John every now and then. John was popular.

Rodney shrugged off the audience. He liked them for performances but preferred that his coaching be more private.

"Why do you keep your head down through so much of your program?" Rodney called out.

"Huh?"

John swung over and snagged a towel from the edge of the boards. He dabbed at his face, seemingly unaware of his admirers. "No one's ever said I have bad posture, Rodney."

"Your carriage is fine, it's just ... you always watch the ice. Except when you land your jumps."

John shrugged. "I dunno. Never noticed. Where should I be looking?"

Rodney sighed at his cluelessness. "Everywhere. The whole arena." His arm swept the room. "You're giving a performance. There are thousands of people to look at."

John shrank in on himself, shoulders up, eyes squinted tight. "I try not to think about that." He gave one of his quick darting glances at the stands, like a threat was nearby.

"But they're here to see you."

"Get real," John said in a nasal voice, his smile cynical. "They're here to see someone fall. Just like people watch Nascar for all the crashes."

Rodney's face fell, aghast. "People paid to see me perform. I was the headliner at—" He shook off the argument. "—Never mind." Rodney snapped off his skate guards and stepped back onto the ice. He stroked forward and circled in bafflement, head down, his hands on his hips. He shook his head and looked over at John, unable to grasp John's attitude.

Finally, he returned. He took a breath and spoke slowly, accommodating the crazy person. "Okay.... What I want you to do is pick someone on the sidelines. Just one person. And I want you to skate for them." He folded his hands in front of his lap, bouncing them. Then quickly added, "Oh. And it can't be me—and please don't make it Bethany. She might implode."

"Okay," John smiled. "You realize you've just eliminated half the people in the rink."

But he'd already found his target, eyes sliding over to the elegant Elizabeth Weir, who was deep in conversation with a skating mom in a glitter sweatshirt. Attuned to her environment, Elizabeth's glance flickered to John, distracted. John gripped the boards for a moment, then used them to push off. He slid over to Rodney's girls and caught the boards again, leaning over to Bethany's pink boombox. "Pick some music for me, hmm?" He smiled at her, igniting a scurry in the stands as the girls fought over what they'd play. He stretched, gripping one elbow, his forearm resting on his head.

"I've-got-it-I've-got-it-I've-got-it...." a high voice drifted from the stands, dominating the other girls. Their gleaming eyes and heated smiles said they'd found something good. There was a click and a slow thumping rap song began. John let his arms drop.

"Lick that clit... come girl—"

"Whoa!" Rodney lurched forward and skidded to a grinding halt. The girls collapsed in giggles. "You're going to get me thrown out of here!" The girls quickly shut it off. "Do you even know what that stuff means?"

"We know all about sex," he was informed tartly.

"Sure you do," Rodney said. "Keep it clean, ladies, note my hopeful use of the term."

There was a rattle of plastic jewel cases as CDs were exchanged, a whispered argument. Then the heavy downbeat began on a fast-paced techno piece.

A hot rhythm, yep. John bobbed his head. He'd figured the kids would have the faster music. "Can you restart it?" The girls nodded eagerly. "And louder?"

"You can't play that, it has swear words," one of the girls insisted.

"Shhh!" the others responded.

John put some energy into his strokes, dipping his head in a laugh as the girls fast-forwarded through a refrain of "Fuckit, Fuckit, Fuckit—" He was starting to regret asking them to pick the music, though he went with it.

He swept by Mrs. Weir again, getting into the thumping electronica. She flicked a glance in his direction and he dropped both hands to point at her, moving backward, rocking his shoulders with the beat, amused.

He carved a deep backward "S," casting a glance over his shoulder at her as he finished the turn. She'd gone a little blank, checking behind herself as if she thought he might be skating for someone else. Her friend had left. John looked at the ceiling with an air of false innocence and licked his lips, bouncing with the music. With a subtle smile he ducked his head, hips shifting as he ad-libbed fast footwork—and screwed up the last transition, his skate sliding out. He bobbed forward but caught himself before he fell.

He looked up at her, sheepish, his ears warm.

She responded with a little tip of her head and an encouraging nod, eyes sparkling, lips folded shut and obviously trying to smother a smile. He gave her his "I meant to do that" smirk, and was rewarded with a snicker. Hands on his hips and standing tall, he cut around the ice with deep strokes; his chest swelled with a deep breath.

He gave her a sly look. She had both her elbows on the boards now, watching no one but him.

Head down, eyes glinting, he passed right by her, powering into his favorite double Lutz – favorite because it was effortless. Landing backward with his back arched, he let his motion flow down into deep sit spin, holding his leg extended in a long clean line, standing out of it like he was throwing a lasso. He could feel her attention on him like a laser beam, almost uncomfortable in its intensity. He put some speed into the return to catch the look on her face.

The gleam of her smile was wry, her head tilted and chiding.

Okay. So... unimpressed with just a double.

John's eyes narrowed as he took up the gauntlet she'd thrown. Her eyebrows raised as he bent toward the ice, arms pumping to set up the jump. He stroked forward, turned once, twice, and then kicked himself into the air, landing backwards in a pristine triple axel, cutting his hands out on the landing in a gesture that he knew looked cool with the black gloves. He'd seen himself on film.

He deliberately looked away, chin raised and smug, as he heard her clap. He skated to the boards to get a sip of water, though he let his eyes circle back for her reaction. She swept a hand through her hair, sweeping dark chin-length strands off her face, looking away, but her attention was still on him, he could tell. There was nothing in that direction but empty ice. He waited till her eyes returned. Then he recapped the bottle and gave her a slow smile, raising his arms over his head as he did a circular spinning step sequence, letting momentum whip him around and roll his shoulders back and forth.

He ran out of moves before he ran out of music, so he hissed to a stop in front of her, his chin still bobbing to the rhythm.

"Hey," he said.

"Hi." She shifted in place, her eyes dark. She frowned and gestured vaguely behind herself. "I have to, um, I'll see you later—I mean, I'll see you some time," she quickly corrected. "Next lesson perhaps." She blinked rapidly as if hearing herself. "If they happen to overlap. Coincidentally, of course." Then she collapsed in a huff of embarrassed laughter, hiding her face behind her hand. "I'm sorry." Her hand dropped. She relaxed and leaned forward on the boards, saying in an undertone with a quick glance around the rink, "You do realize that I'm married, don't you?"

"Oh, is that what the ring's for?" John grinned, licking his lips.

"Right." She nodded, her head drifting up and down. "Good." Then she looked around, gathering her purse. "Melanie--?" She became immediately embroiled in a mother-daughter argument over a lost skate guard. "Well, where did you put it...?"

Rodney's voice came up behind John as his heavy hand leaned on his shoulder. "You're the devil incarnate."

"The shy ones are easier to deal with," John said.

"Mrs. Weir? Shy?"

"She didn't try to give me her phone number."

"Of course not. She's married!"

"Doesn't matter," John said from cynical experience. "So, is that what you meant?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Rodney said with a mixture of pity and disgust. He released John's shoulder with a tiny shove. "But next time, let's use your powers for good, not evil."

"Maybe I need a superhero name."

"We can start with Dick Grayson as a point of comparison," Rodney said, pushing off into a glide, "although obviously the Grayson half is inappropriate...."

"Oh. This is going to be a good name."

~*~*~

There was a smacking of lips, a clattering sound as someone fumbled with the phone, and then a weak voice answered, "Hello?"

"What, did you have to go dig the phone out of the backyard? It must have rung fourteen times!"

"Rodney." Radek gave a sleepy sniff. "It's two thirty am. I am hanging up now."

"Nononononono, don't do that! I'm at my wit's end."

There was a groan.

"Stop sniveling, you owe me one. I told you to look into that judging thing."

"You encouraged me to respond to an existing invitation," Radek said.

"Correction: I strongly encouraged you," Rodney said, wagging a forefinger. He noticed Radek hadn't hung up yet.

There was a put upon sigh. "What is it?"

"He's an empty shell of a skater," Rodney complained.

"Who is?"

"John, of course."

"The jumper?" In the background there was the sound of blankets shifting as if Radek were sitting up. "I thought you weren't going to teach him any more."

"Oh, ah. Yes. Things changed. Quite a bit as a matter of fact. Still, it's not that big a deal although yes, it could get me kicked out of figure skating forever but I'm sure I could just go to another country – like France, France would be good – the French don't still hate me, do they?"

"I don't think so."

"Good, good, then I could go to France since they're permissive and I doubt they have such strict rules as the uptight Canadians and the ever puritanical Americans. God, sometimes I envy you Europeans," Rodney ended in a mutter.

"What...?"

"It's just a little scary, that's all. Look, can we not discuss this?"

"Of course. Since I have no idea what we are talking about."

"Good."

Radek was silent a moment. "I thought this, ah, John didn't listen to you." He sounded puzzled.

"Well, he is now, but he's listening wrong. He's trying to be me."

Radek yawned, then said, "Maybe he has lost his confidence."

"Him? Ha. He's as cocky as ever."

"Maybe he thinks that you're better. Knowing you, you have said so, yes?"

The phone line fell silent.

"Rodney?"

"I hate it when you're right."

~*~*~

April 1994

Radek gazed up at the rebelliously modern building in Prague, glass panes refracting at odd angles. It was a symbol of the new Czech Republic, although most of the expensive suites he passed appeared to be empty. He picked the button for the seventh floor in the silent elevator and rocked back on his heels, watching the numbers as he rose. At the receptionist's desk he gave his name and then sat in the waiting area, feet together, his hands folded in his lap. He itched his nose and adjusted his glasses. He was early.

The coffee table was a polygon of frosted glass spread with glossy European magazines in an artful fan.

A man in a beige suit strode around the corner to the receptionist. He was surprisingly young and excessively blond. He had an eager, bright face and leaned over to talk to her, moving with the anxious urgency of the new generation, as if after decades of communist rule they were in a hurry to catch up with the world. He blinked up when he caught sight of Radek, startled. "Oh. I thought we were going to meet at the restaurant. That's all right. I'll hire us a cab."

"It's not far." Radek gave him a puzzled glance. "We can walk."

The young man seemed nonplussed, but he recovered quickly. "It is a nice day."

He introduced himself as Petr. On the walk over he admitted with a nervous chuckle, "I usually walk, myself. Prague is an ideal city for walking." He tucked his chin down in apparent embarrassment at this hollow declaration, but fortunately they'd arrived at the restaurant. He and Radek reached for the door at the same time and they blundered for a moment as Petr, who had the longer arms, caught at it and held the door.

The restaurant was not at all what Radek had expected, although if he were honest with himself, he hadn't known what to expect. He simply had an opportunity to meet with the representative of the Czech Olympic committee and still had Rodney's advice echoing in his mind, "Don't blow it." Slovakia and the Czech Republic had recently separated, creating two Olympic teams. The tables were draped with linen and cloth napkins were folded into elaborate shapes on pale glistening china. The waiter took his order like Radek was a king issuing an edict. Petr gradually relaxed as they discussed their families.

As the plates were cleared and they nursed tiny cups of cappuccino – Radek felt the caffeine practically resonating in his hair – they came around to the point.

"I was only a trial judge, and that was eight years ago," Radek explained.

"Of course," Petr said, head bobbing as if he couldn't make up his mind between shaking his head or nodding.

"There was some controversy...." Radek felt it best he get this right out into the open.

Petr interrupted with a brushing gesture. "Yes, yes, we're aware of that—are you in town regularly? Many of our previous judges..." He winced, breath hissing through his teeth. "...now work overseas. We need people who can be here for the competitions." He frowned anxiously.

"Well, I am working for a United States company but my time is split between London and Warsaw," Radek tipped his head reluctantly, "and other travels. But I am not far."

Petr chuckled. "You must live out of your suitcase."

"My houseplants all die," Radek admitted. "Someday, I would like to have a dog, but it's not possible now." He gave Petr a shy smile.

Petr nodded, his mind obviously skipping ahead. He held up a forestalling hand. "You're aware that there's no honorarium?" He added quickly, "Although there is a per diem, no problems there."

"Trial judges have never received an honorarium," Radek said, bashful.

"Oh, this isn't for a trial judge."

Radek blinked, speechless.

Petr leaned forward. "You'll consider it?"

"Why...yes."

"Great. That's great."

On the walk to Radek's hotel (he'd refused a second offer of a taxi and Petr had visibly relaxed again) Petr asked if he knew any other judges who might be interested.

"Any friends you could recommend would be much appreciated," he said with a trace of breathless desperation as they stood outside Rodney's hotel.

"For ski jumping?" Radek asked, turning to him.

"For everything."

~*~*~

Petr swung through his office. He shut the door and dropped to his seat with a satisfied air. The chair spun gently as he snatched up the phone and dialed, leaning back with his elbow on the arm.

The secretary connected them.

"You're never going to believe this," he began. "Are you sitting down?" A wide smile spread across Petr's face. "We have Jiri Zelenka's brother...." He ran his hand through his hair, ruffling it. "...Yes! I know!"

~*~*~

Radek startled them again by showing up with his list in person the next day. It had taken a night of head scratching in his hotel, but the Olympics were after all a memorable time in his life. He couldn't help with the summer team, but for the winter sports he was pleased to find he knew a large number. Especially the figure skating judges whom he'd pestered with questions.

Petr's office wasn't quite as modern as the waiting area, occupied by a new leather swivel chair, yes, but with a somewhat worn wooden desk that didn't quite match. It made Radek smile. Petr shut the door behind them and scanned down the list as he sat back in his chair, oblivious to everything else while Radek found a seat across from him.

Petr's cheerful manner drooped once he reached the end, and finally he cringed. "Yes, we are aware of most of these."

"They're not available?" Radek was surprised. He thought surely the older judges wouldn't have jobs.

Petr chewed his lip and looked at the ceiling. "They all have problematic histories."

"I don't understand. They're fine judges."

"Yes," Petr allowed. "But they have certain affiliations that are frowned upon. We need to be above reproach."

"Everyone was a member of the communist party. Even me. It was a requirement to even become a judge," Radek said, disturbed.

"Yes." And there was a world of frustration in Petr's voice. He added quickly, "Except for cases such as yourself, of course, where there was a clear lack of actual affiliation, despite your official connections."

Radek was silent.

"Unless they were involved – as friends of yours – in your disputation with the Kremlin?" Petr asked, his face brightening.

"Ah. No."

~*~*~

The phone rang many times until someone finally answered. And then Radek had to wait, counting off Czech koruny in his mind as the cost of the call rose, until, "What?" Rodney snapped.

Calling Rodney at work usually caught him in a foul mood.

"I'm in. They want me to judge." Radek still couldn't quite believe it.

"Good. I hope you hate it. I'm going to kill all my students and find a way to pin it on you."

~*~*~

May 1999

John felt Rodney's hand run through his hair, patting him as he insisted John sleep in. John rolled over onto his back, blinking slowly, not quite awake enough to feel guilty. He rubbed the crust off his eyes with his forearm and shoved the blankets down. He pushed himself awake, grabbing the nearest shirt available – a dirty t-shirt of Rodney's, loose and cottony – and shambled into the livingroom.

"You know, that shirt doesn't cover anything essential." Rodney's voice came from the direction of the couch. The news announced it was five a.m.

John grumbled at him, eyes half-lidded against the bright kitchen lights. A bowl of cereal later, he walked through the livingroom, bowl and spoon in hand, eating on the way. He shut the bedroom door behind him. Moments later he set the empty bowl on the side table, climbed into bed and pulled the covers back up to his shoulder.

~*~*~

The house felt curiously empty when John jolted awake several hours later. It took him a moment to remember. Right. Saturday. Rodney's busiest day, thanks to school and parents' work schedules. Although at least the work was continuous and he got home a little earlier. John blinked hard and shook himself, and couldn't believe he'd slept until eleven. He hadn't had a weekend in a long time.

His hair was still wet from the shower by the time he rooted through the fridge for lunch.

The leftover turkey turned out to have green strings growing from the lid to the turkey—John pulled his face away, slapped the lid back on and tossed it, Tupperware and all, into the trash. A man on a mission, he hunted through all the plastic containers he usually ignored. White furred dots in spaghetti sauce. An empty container with nothing but a film of congealed grease. Some kind of vegetable that had liquefied. Stale frozen bones, inexplicably in the freezer. A container of rice that smelled fermented. Something brown that slid down the sides—mushrooms?—that he didn't dare open, and spotted bagels. John stacked them all on the counter, then gathered the pile and dropped it into the trash.

Dusting off his hands, a musty smell still hanging in the air, he decided to forego lunch for a while. Outside maybe.

~*~*~

Later that afternoon, the coiled hose tugged against John's shoulder, slippery and awkward as he dragged it across the lawn. That was the thing. He never found rest all that restful. He blamed his mom for making he and brother work every time she caught them sitting around, even during summer vacations. There were many days where John found himself on a ladder taking down screens, or carefully pinning fabric for one of her myriad sewing projects, her hand ruffling his messy hair when he overdid it on the pins.

The air was cool, a blue puffy cloud day, with a bit of breeze that made it a bit too chilly for John's T-shirt, but the sun on his arms made up for it. Rodney's lawn was already browner than everyone else's. The trouble with Scarborough Bluffs was that the winter melt-off ran downhill, away from them.

The water splashed around his sandals, cold, and it made the hose heavier, but it saved him from having to double back to the spigot.

John recognized the rumble of his Chevy before he saw it, glancing up as Rodney rolled into the driveway. He sat very straight behind the wheel, reminding John somehow of black and white movies back when cars were a luxury. He waved to Rodney, and got a wave in return, Rodney's hand falling, obviously tired. He got out as John squinted at him and unpacked gear from the back seat. Arms loaded, Rodney climbed the steps, the screen door hissing shut behind him. John returned to the lawn.

Water pattered on the ground and made a shimmering arc as John yanked and whipped the hose lose from where it had caught on Rodney's sad stubby rose bushes. He dropped the sprinkler attachment on the grass then bent to take a sip from the hose, following it all the way down to the rim as the water slowly disappeared.

"Hey...." John pouted.

He turned to find Rodney standing in the rose bushes, bent over with a hand on the spigot, squeaking it tight. Rodney blinked at him, blank-faced with recognition.

"Oh. Sorry. You were wasting water—here." He spun it back on before John had a chance to recover.

John jerked his face away—too late. The hose surged and he got a face full of freezing cold water. John coughed and spluttered.

And Rodney's bark of laughter was totally uncalled for.

Shirt soaked and dripping wet (and it wasn't that warm out) John turned towards Rodney. Who had the good sense to run, though he forgot that John was armed. Thumb on the nozzle, he sprayed in a wide arc, enjoying Rodney's startled yelp as he scrambled free of the bushes, his shoulder hunched and a great target.

John chased as Rodney giggled madly—giggled!—dashing around the corner of the house. He turned with his hands up once John cornered him between the garage door, the garbage cans and the fence, slinking the hose behind him like a snake.

"You wouldn't shoot an unarmed man, would you?" Rodney said, stepping on bracken as he backed against the fence. John tilted his head warningly, and smiled.

~*~*~

Orange sunlight trickled in through the dirty laundry room window above John, who stood in still-damp jeans. He balled up his soaked and muddy T-shirt, jumped up and tossed it into the open washing machine. Two points. He pumped his fist.

John tossed Rodney's T-shirt next. It landed with a wet slap.

Rodney poked his head down the pantry steps, naked with a towel wrapped around his waist. He scrubbed at thinning hair with a second towel, grumbling, "I'm going to catch cold, sicken, and die because of you."

Not even getting the shower first had shut him up. Rodney peered at the laundry in curiosity while John threw in more whites and measured the detergent. John answered his unspoken question. "They'll mildew if we put them in the laundry bag."

"Ah."

Moments later, John heard the water run in the kitchen. Then the TV clicked on.

He shut the lid and cranked the washing machine on. Then climbed the stairs to the kitchen, aiming for the shower—and damn it. The Tupperware containers had migrated to the sink. They'd been washed, and had pools of soapy water standing in them. The trash reeked.

John pulled the bag out, spun and sealed it, then dumped the water out of the Tupperware, his face jerking back from the smell. No, they were unsalvageable. He rinsed and tossed them into the recycling, where they should have gone in the first place, then slung the trash over his bare shoulder. It wasn't too cold for a short trip.

~*~*~

John returned from his usual fight with the garbage can, the lid didn't fit right, and found Rodney completely engrossed in his TV show, a nature program about lionesses. As he watched them move in for a kill, John realized he had accidentally skipped lunch. That antelope looked good. His stomach telegraphed "red meat" or, hell, leftover chicken Teriyaki would be great. John strode to the kitchen.

The Tupperware had returned, filled with soap again. John's jaw clenched. He considered his options. An attempt to carry the recycling out would surely escalate.

He yelled over the TV, "Hey, Rodney! We got any bleach?"

"The laundry room!" came Rodney's reply.

Several minutes later, John settled cross-legged on the couch next to Rodney, plate in his lap, head tipped as he took an over-sized bite of chicken. The lionesses had come too near a local village and the wildlife caretakers were negotiating with the villagers to not shoot the lions. Replacement goats were offered.

In the next room, the scent of bleach rose from a sink full of floating Tupperware.

~*~*~

An engine rumbled somewhere deep inside the Schmidt Center, either the hum of a coke machine or the refrigeration on the rink, working overtime at ten p.m.

The last time John had been in a rink this quiet, the power had gone out during the Upper Great Lakes Regional Championships. Sitting in the dim light in the stands near the windows, a teenage John had watched, fascinated, as a liquid slick formed across the ice, softening into puddles. It had been fifteen degrees outside but indoors it wasn't cold enough to save the ice. Then the power had come back on and John had been the only one unfazed by the interruption, still steeped in the unnatural silence. It was one of his best performances.

The rink was huge, easily as big as the U of T rink John had practiced on for Worlds, full Olympic size with an arched dome dark overhead and arena style fold-down seats. It had spotlights instead of florescent panels, and ice as smooth as clear glass. John whisked around the far curve, exploring. Coming out of the turn, he hopped backward. He ducked down into a new variation on his sit spin, edge just skimming the ice, arms tucked in, the world spiraling around him. He stood up into warm eddies of air that carried down from the seats.

He wondered what kind of strings Rodney had pulled to get them into Schmidt Center after hours on a Friday night. Or where their vaunted choreographer had disappeared to.

"Sonja's elevated 'fashionably late' to the level of haute couture. She'll be here," Rodney assured him.

"You gave me hell when I was just five minutes late," John said.

"Yes, well, that's you. How's the quad salchow coming?"

"I'd rather shoot for the quad flip." John scowled. It was harder and also, no one had done it yet. "I was working on it before you derailed me by disallowing all jumps."

"And that went so swimmingly, too. Let's keep the jumps in the realm of probability, shall we? If you have both the quad toe loop and the quad sal then we can add another quad to your program."

"I thought we weren't going to rely on my jumps," John said, with a puzzled squint at Rodney.

"I said we weren't going to rely solely on your jumps," Rodney explained. "The goal is still to win."

John gave a satisfied nod, a faint smile warming him. The elevator dinged and the door rattled open.

"Ooo, it's so quiet," a woman, most probably the very late Sonja, called out from the elevator, her voice echoing. John eyed her with trepidation. She was a bottle blond and wore a short black coat with wide lapels and oversized buttons—and completely blase about being late.

"Oh, thanks for stopping by. We've only been waiting for you for twenty minutes," Rodney said, stabbing a finger at his watch.

"Hmm. You can take it out of my pay." Sonja disappeared behind the boards to put on her skates. Moments later she stepped onto the ice.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh for... how are you supposed to skate in that?"

Sonja glanced down at her micro miniskirt and black nylons. She stroked over to where John and Rodney were standing, pushing with the power of a hockey player. "I will not be skating. I will merely observe—hello, John."

Her smile brightened, deepening tanned dimples as she held out her hand, palm downward. John took it, though he wasn't sure if he was supposed to shake it or what. She used it to pull him closer with a predatory gleam. John noticed her top was backless, too. Her hose had a seam up the back dotted with little black bows. She'd better not fall, was all he could say. Taking in her long legs and relative height next to Rodney, he finally saw past the dyed hair. It had been shorter and more gold in the video.

"You're Sonja," John said in a flat tone, still holding her hand as he slotted fact A, Rodney's former skating partner Sonja, with fact B, his choreographer Sonja.

John let go.

"Have you had a warm up, have you stretched—good," she said without waiting for an answer. She scratched her chin with a long nail. That much make-up had to get itchy. "I need to see everything you know. Top to bottom." She made a little flicking gesture.

Rodney interrupted. "We're far behind schedule, so I thought we could get right to choreo—"

"I must see what he can do."

Rodney nodded and waved a hand like swatting away a fly. "Yes, yes, that's why I sent you the avi files of all his performances."

"They were broken. I put them in the DVD player—" She shrugged, making a helpless gesture, her lips pursed. "—and the screen was blue."

"You play them on a computer, you ignorant technophobe." Rodney spluttered.

She gave Rodney a blank look. Then stared him down, her painted eyebrows arched. "My way is better. There is a magic in person." She pointed at John, every bit the ice diva. "You. Everything." She laced her fingers together and leaned her chin on them. "Impress me."

~*~*~

Sweaty and breathing hard, John landed his last jump. Not his prettiest landing but good enough for government work. He let his legs separate as he rolled across the ice and pushed them together for momentum, standing tall as he approached Sonja and Rodney. She was squinting at him with eyes unfocused, thumb and forefinger pinching her lower lip.

"Hmn. I can work with it," she said at last, and John detected a distinct note of insincerity. "And you picked good music," she added, brightening. "I have some ideas already. Now. What is your freeskate music?"

Rodney gave John a smug tight smile, with a sweeping gesture and the air of someone gladly throwing John to the lions.

John rubbed the back of his head, rumpling his hair. "It's a big decision. But I'm working on it."

"It's May." Her small red lips pursed in a sour expression.

John winced. He really didn't have an answer for that.

She waited, arms folded, tapping her finger on the crook of her elbow, as if John could produce his freeskate music on the spot, despite weeks of combing Rodney's CD collection. Then she smiled, firm and unfriendly. John had no idea what Rodney had ever seen in this woman. "You will have music for me next week, or else I will choreograph music that I pick. The cha-cha, I think." She wiggled her hips in a cha-cha move, then began to cha-cha towards the door.

"Where do you think you're going?" Rodney snapped, echoing John's thoughts exactly. They had his entire short program to choreograph.

"Out. Dancing. It is Friday night." She shimmied her hips, arms in the air. She snapped her fingers over her head to music that only she seemed to hear. "Would you like to come, John?"

The sultry look she gave him suggested the double entendre wasn't an accident. "Not right this second," John said.

Her eyes sparkled with humor. "Rodney? You are a stick in the mud. You should get out, meet some nice boys, or maybe some not-so-nice ones," she purred. She was all the way to the boards at that point.

"Some of us work for a living!" Rodney shouted at her back as she bent to take off her skates.

He and John had automatically moved closer together and exchanged a wary look.

She paused and peered over the edge, looking at John, then Rodney, then back again. John got that creepy-crawly feeling he got whenever someone learned he was a figure skater, that searching stare up and down his body as if he were tagged "gay" now, and all they need do is find the pink label. John's jaw hardened.

Her head slumped to the side in an expression of tired disgust. "You said you two weren't sleeping together." She glared at Rodney, a fist on her hip, and she wagged a finger at him. "Do not use me to silence rumors."

"Rumors?" John said, eyes widening.

"Oh please, like I care enough about those halfwits to lie." Rodney rolled his eyes. "It just so happens that we weren't at the time."

"What rumors?" John repeated.

"Just the usual." Rodney examined his nails. "Attractive student. Handsome, magnetic, flamingly gay coach. It doesn't matter if it's true, they'd be saying it anyway," Rodney said, not at all reassuringly.

"So disappointing. All the ugly Russians are always straight and all the handsome American skaters are gay." Sonja sighed. "You can both still come though," she added, graciously.

John shot her a puzzled look.

"Dancing," she explained, with the unspoken "of course" clear in her tone. "There is this club where everyone dances with no shirts, almost no clothes." She eyed John's chest speculatively.

"Well, ah...." John winced, folding his arms tight.

"We have work to do," Rodney inserted quickly, sparing him.

"Tsk. Then you homebodies can take my skates for me, yes?" She stood on one foot, wiggling into her high heels. "It will save me a trip—thank you!" She held her skates high and then set them next to Rodney's backpack and John's boombox with a flourish. "You owe me details later, Rodney!"

"Yes, yes," Rodney said, swiping a hand tiredly in her direction.

Her hips swung all the way to the elevator.

By the time John glanced back, Rodney had left his side and was digging in his bag. He produced a bright red CD emblazoned Let's Salsa! With a smirk he told John, "I thought you should start practicing your long program music" and pressed play.

The chirpy salsa trumpets began the cha-cha. Rodney made an L with his arms a la Ricky Ricardo, wiggling his shoulders in amusement.

"Shut up," John said, but Rodney drew him into a spinning dance.

~*~*~

Rodney rolled John out, delighting in John's awkwardness, completely out of step with the salsa music, barely able to keep up with Rodney. John's ability to improvise had improved but that wasn't saying much.

"Now this is ice dancing," John chided him, chin dipped as he dug his skate in to stop. He shot a quick glance over his shoulder around the rink, eyes dilated.

Rodney sighed in disgust. He spread his arms and turned to indicate the vast open stands. "It's eleven p.m. in an empty rink."

"They probably have a security cameras in a place like this." John looked around warily.

"At the elevators, front entrances, and offices. And one by the coke machines." Rodney had helped open this rink and watched them build it. He ought to know. "What's with you? All they'd get is two men skating anyway."

"I'm not usually read that easily."

Rodney huffed a laugh, coming up behind John, arms around his waist and pushing them both forward into a glide with his back skate. "Sonja read me. I don't exactly have a poker face and we've known each other ten years." John pushed on the counter stroke, gave Rodney a moment to catch up, and then they both stroked in time, inches apart. Rodney thought he'd give them full marks for that if he were a judge. "Arched back," Rodney said.

They both tipped back, their forward knees bent. John still required more verbal cues than Rodney would have liked.

"You're pretty flexible," John noted, glancing back at Rodney, comparing then increasing the angle of his arch.

"I used to be able to do an Ina Bauer," Rodney said. He admitted quickly, "When I was a lot thinner."

"I'll require photographic proof of that," John said, although he was smiling as they dropped out of the pose.

They let momentum carry them a few more feet, gradually slowing. John put more space between himself and Rodney. "So she can read you."

"She doesn't exactly mind my sexual preferences. People won't react as badly as you seem to think, okay, no, I wouldn't put out a bulletin while you're competing, but—news flash!—gay figure skaters aren't exactly uncommon."

John curled his lip. "That's the problem."

"What do you care what a bunch of perfect strangers think? The only people who matter are—" Rodney paused and mentally fast-forwarded through a dozen scenes of John naked in his house, not minding if the neighbors saw them; his perfectly normal nervousness about public affection in grocery stores; increasing to this near paranoia at the rink. "—Oh my God, that's it, isn't it? You haven't told them."

"Told who what?" John frowned, shaking his head.

But Rodney wasn't listening, eyes glazed as the facts fell neatly into place. "Of course. It makes perfect sense." He looked up as it hit him, thrumming with glee and fascination as he figured it out. He counted off key points on his fingers. "You moved to Canada when you could just as easily have trained in the states; U of T's only blocks away from Church street and the largest gay community in the city—you're not in contact with any of your friends back home, and the only thing you ever talk about with your family is," Rodney spun around, snapped his finger and pointed at John, "figure skating! That's your only potential leak. They don't know!"

"Of course they don't." John stiffened. "It's none of their business."

"It's really not that bad," Rodney reassured him, chuckling. "It takes so much pressure off." He slid his head in a nod, one hand up, fingers spread, admitting, "Granted, I didn't have a lot of pressure since I thought they knew—I'd delegated the whole 'news breaking' thing to my coach and he bungled it, so it came out at the worst possible time, but my dad got over it eventually, mom was the same, and my grandmother? Grandma was great," he said, with a little slicing gesture, beaming. "She'd already put a down payment on that house with my winnings and planned to rent it until I finished college, but instead she let me stay there while the whole mess blew over with my dad."

"So, you told your parents and things got so bad you had to move out," John said in a flat measuring tone, his eyes slits.

Rodney shut his eyes and licked his lips, reconsidering what he'd just said. He rubbed his chin. "This isn't convincing you, is it?"

"No, not so much."

"My circumstances were unusually bad. Dad was mostly upset that he sacrificed so much for the Olympics, I lost, and in the end my coach knew me better than he did." Rodney shuddered at the memory. "He wanted me to regress back to age nine so he could start over."

"So you wouldn't be gay?" John asked cynically.

"So I'd be his son and not Canada's favorite figure skater."

~*~*~

For the rest of the weekend Rodney had taken to taunting John with various renditions of the Cha-Cha-Cha, each worse than the next (his favorite was the one with the little bicycle bell), until John finally snatched away the headphones and pulled out towers of CDs. Within a few hours the coffee table looked like a scale model of a high rise development. Rodney was commanded not to touch anything; apparently John had a complex system of elimination, with varying degrees of "Maybe."

He told Rodney, "It doesn't have to be ideal." Yet he'd vehemently nixed "Mission: Impossible," despite the fact that in Rodney's opinion it was perfect—at which point Rodney threw up his hands and left him to it.

John's head bobbed, the heavy headphones looking like rubber earmuffs. Rodney wasn't spared, however. John tapped a fast rhythm with his thumbs on his thigh and then, moments later, on the coffee table.

He reached over and clicked back through the tracks on the CD, his face intent. A smile pulled at the corner of his mouth.

"Hey, Rodney!" John said, unnecessarily loud. "Found it!"

"Take them off!" Rodney called back from the kitchen.

But John didn't seem to hear him though he pulled the headphones off anyway. He held the CD jewel case over his shoulder as Rodney wiped his hands on his jeans, walked over, and examined it.

"It's Japanese taiko," he said with some surprise, eyebrows raised.

"It's cool!" John said, turning around. He braced his elbows across the back of the couch, chin leaned on the cushions, looking up at Rodney, puppy-like.

Rodney made a pained face, reading the track list. "I... I don't know—this would be, well," he laughed halfway through the word, shaking his head, "it would be really hard."

John spun around to the stereo, still smiling, like he had expected an argument. "No, it's great." He pulled the plug on the headphones, his hand slicing the air downward in a quelling gesture. "Listen."

The Japanese taiko drums opened with a slow soft beat.

Rodney settled on the couch, crossing one leg over the other, wrist draped over his knee, ready to give John the benefit of his professional expertise. Which was, in a word, no.

Although John did seem pretty excited. That was new. Rodney rubbed his lower lip and asked, preparing to let John down gently, "So. Why this piece?"

"It's cool."

Rodney gave him an exasperated eyeroll. "It's cool. How?"

"You can't hear it?" John fired back. "It's like—look." He leaned forward, an elbow on his knees, hands spread, gesturing to try to explain. "Here." He restarted the music. The slow, steady taiko drums began again. "You've got a soldier downed in enemy territory, right? So at this point, here in the beginning, he's trying to be quiet. He stays under cover. You can even hear the bushes there.

"—and there. Right there, they've spotted him. The chase is on."

Rodney shook his head, taking a breath before John got too attached to this piece. "This is a brutal pace for a skater," he began.

"Yeah, well, so is escaping capture." John continued, ignoring Rodney, "So you're dodging back and forth here, zigzagging to evade the bullets—"

"Zigzagging to—? How do you know this military stuff?"

"How do you not know it? Anyhow, dodging and here, yeah, right here you're pinned down and you've gotta fight."

"And—?" Rodney prompted, getting into John's imagination despite himself.

"And, well, obviously you win. The other guy's dead so your cover's not blown."

"Obviously," Rodney said. He pointed out, his tongue in cheek, "What about this shakuhachi flute phrase? A bird-like victory dance?"

John winced. "Can we cut that? It's six and half minutes so we'll need to get rid of two minutes anyway."

"It's doable...." Rodney tipped his head and asked, "So now what happens?"

John blinked. He'd disappeared into the music, always a good sign when picking a piece. "Oh. Um. Well, that's a foghorn, so I guess that he had to break for the coastline all along."

"You," Rodney corrected.

"What?"

"Stick with 'you.' Think of yourself as the guy in the story."

"Okay. So he, I mean, I—" John shook off his confusion. "—you're really glad to see the coast because you're almost home free. But it's more dangerous because coasts are better defended."

"They are?"

"In a war? Yes. Rodney, have you never watched a single World War II flick? D-Day?" John said in disgust. "So this part with the hushed cymbals, you're trying to move fast and low, not be seen as you get out of there."

"And the cymbal crash?"

"You jumped a fence."

"Ah."

"And there's no way you're not going to be spotted, so you just make a break for it, full speed," John said.

"They're shooting at you?"

"Yep. But they're far away, so you've got a chance." John fell silent as the music closed.

"And then—?" Rodney prompted, his hand spiraling.

"The end."

"The end?" Rodney asked, sitting up straight. "Did you make it?"

"Yes." John nods. "Yes, definitely."

"Well, what happened?"

"The music doesn't say." John shrugged.

~*~*~

Crumpling the paper number slip with an irritated sigh, Rodney slumped into one of the molded plastic seats at the MTO. Number 75, now assisting number 62. He squeezed into the row of Ministry of Transportation inmates, sandwiched between an overweight woman with a mustache and a small, grubby child who kicked his chair in rhythmic boredom.

It had come as an unpleasant surprise. Rodney had attempted to write a check at the market the other day and found his driver's license had expired—two months ago. He hurried to correct the oversight, even if it meant a wasted afternoon. John could be surprisingly hidebound and persnickety when it came to that car.

Rodney opened his sack lunch, setting it on his lap. Next to the woman, a soft tawny puppy on a leash peered up at him. It swept the floor once with a hopeful wag and sniffed avidly at Rodney's pant leg.

Rodney looked down at it disdainfully. "I'm really more of a cat person," he explained to it.

The puppy kept snuffling, unfazed. So Rodney gave it a handful of his corn chips which no doubt the animal would regurgitate over someone's Persian rug later tonight, but there was something to be said for temporary happiness, even for dogs.

Still chewing, he finished his lunch and balled up the sack, glancing again at his number. Not that he'd forgotten it. Eleven more people before they called him. There was time enough to visit the men's room. He brushed off his pants and stood with the infinite dignity of someone bound for the bathroom in a public facility.

On his return—and why the men's room was hidden down a stairway an entire floor below the ladies room he'll never know—he passed under a ribbon dangling from a florescent light panel.

He paused, and puzzled at it. Had someone hung up a set of balloons for a birthday party? (Outside a bathroom-? Why?) Or some teenagers fooling around? Perhaps someone put it there just to befuddle and annoy people like himself? It taunted him, swinging lightly in a draught about a half meter above his head.

Rodney glanced around.

No one in the hall. There'd been no one in the bathroom. He'd hear anyone coming down the stair.

John had mentioned visualizing his jumps, imagining being at the crest already.

He tried a vertical jump, missing by a mile. The ribbon swayed.

Rodney frowned, pondering. He'd always needed more vertical height in his jumps. But jumping from a standing position was more difficult, of course. He strode down the hall and then made a run at it. And missed again. He landed heavily.

Several more tries had him missing by increasing increments which he blamed on growing tiredness, being out of practice, and the hardness of the floor respectively.

The hall had grown humid, his face damp. He was highly aware of how preposterous he must look, a grown man sweating in a button down shirt and trousers, leaping for a piece of string. But the problem was as vexing as a piñata and he'd hated those things in childhood. Who could hit with any accuracy when they were blindfolded, and his sister should have stayed out of range anyway. Good thing she had a hard head.

He tried one last time, not bothering to run—this was it, he was not attempting it again—and he missed worse than ever, the ribbon fluttering out of reach.

An updraft must have caught it, he determined. He scowled, frustrated.

He backed down the hall. Put everything out of his mind. Drew a bead on the ribbon. Took a breath and settled himself in the steady calm before a performance, ready, like a coiled-spring. He launched, forgetting the hall, the run up to the clear air of a perfect jump, the jerk of the ribbon in his hand on the way back down.

He whooped and shook his fist. "Take that!" Right before the light cover swung open, exposing rows of florescent tubes.

Huh. So the thing had a purpose after all. Rodney stared up at it, nonplussed, the ribbon now swinging easily within reach. He left it for maintenance to close.

Smiling, sweaty and triumphant, Rodney returned to the main MTO lobby. He looked about himself manfully, mentally telling everyone that yes, indeed, he was a two-time World Champion.

Sign an autograph for them? Sure, no trouble at all. Was he making a comeback? Oh, well, he'd never ruled it out completely but it has been a long time. He did have coaching obligations to consider these days. Why yes, he was raising the next generation of champions ... who's the next Rodney McKay, do you ask? Well. There's only one Rodney McKay. His imaginary entourage of reporters all chuckled. Beaming and satisfied, Rodney swung around to take in the lobby with a bright eye, which had somehow lost its lusterless, sleepy air.

The clerks were now assisting number 82.

~*~*~

Their breaths came in warm, rhythmic pants, John coiled over Rodney's back, his mouth loose and open. Rodney could feel the movement of his Adam's apple against his neck. John's sloppy almost-kisses tickled his hair, sweat slick across his shoulders and thighs where they touched, John sliding. Sweat pooled in the small of Rodney's back.

John rocked to one side, sitting up. Then gripped Rodney's hips, slipping and digging in. His rhythm shifted gears to a series of jolting hard stabs—Rodney cringed—before returning to the slow undulating pace, which John apparently could maintain for hours.

This was not necessarily a good thing.

Rodney leveraged his elbows into the pillow, bracing himself. "You plan on coming sometime this week? This month? This year?"

John reached for the end table. "I'll get us some more oil."

"We're far beyond that. I'm expecting hemorrhoids for the rest of my life." Rodney pulled free and rolled onto his side with a huff.

"Sorry," John gasped. He followed, stretching his legs like a cat kneading the sheet, before pulling it up to his hips. He ran his arm over his eyes. "Guess I'm a little—"

"Rude? Inconsiderate? Showing off one's sexual prowess with no thought whatsoever to the wear and tear on one's partner?" Rodney prompted.

John chuckled. "Maybe a little distracted...."

"—because while I'm perfectly happy to be impressed, and I am, really," Rodney ignored him, barreling on, "you obviously haven't been on the bottom often enough to realize that it can become a little uncomfortable after the first exciting hour and twenty minutes."

"It hasn't been that—" Rodney held up his watch, tapping the face. "—okay, yeah, I guess so. We need another game plan. I don't think this is happening today." John pulled the condom off and flicked it into the trash. He rolled onto his back, arms over his head.

"Well, all is not lost in the McKay-Sheppard household." Rodney's eyes skimmed down John's body.

John's face sparked with interest as he noticed the direction of Rodney's gaze, and he turned to his side, reaching for Rodney.

"No, no, let me, I've come already...." Rodney jerked the sheet off John and licked his lips as he slid down.

"I haven't had a shower yet. I wouldn't if I were you," John said, not looking like he planned on taking that shower, ever.

"What? You used a condom." Rodney fondled John's cock, which was definitely showing an opinion on the proceedings.

"Yes, but...."

He leaned down to give an experimental lick at his head. Sheppard had learned to appreciate the many talents of one Rodney McKay.

Rodney spluttered and spit.

"Nonoxel Nine," John informed him. "Not exactly a great taste sensation."

"Why didn't you warn me?! That has to be toxic!"

"Well," John drawled. "You seemed so sure of yourself." But the grin that spread across John's face was pure mischief.

Rodney shot him a murderous glare.

"I'll tell you what," John said, as relaxed as if he weren't bargaining for his life at the moment. "I can make it up to you." He finally stirred with the speed of a tree sloth and lifted the covers to peek under them. "One of us didn't need a condom earlier—Oh. Look. Someone's getting with the program."

~*~*~

John kept getting distracted by the bobbing pink pom-poms dangling from Sonja's barrette. She was wearing a pink and white skating dress trimmed with fake white fur, white skates, and he was fairly sure he'd seen this outfit in a cartoon. Speed Racer or something. It was hard to stay with what she was saying when she flipped her head and the pom-poms scattered, bouncing off each other like they'd been racked up for a break in a game of pool.

Rodney didn't appear to notice.

"...Words?" she said. It took him a moment to realize she was repeating himself.

John jerked his head around to Rodney, hoping for some clue.

"He's very pretty," she told Rodney, like it was an inside joke. She began again, slower. "What words would you use to describe surfing? Words," she emphasized.

Actually, she didn't make any more sense when he was listening. He fell back on insolence. "Why?"

"See what I have to deal with?" Rodney complained to her and huffed. She gave John a condescending smile. John was getting really tired of them ganging up on him.

"I dunno...." John threw up a hand. "Water?" What was this, a verbal Rorschach test?

They both rolled their eyes. "Good," she said. "And-?"

Okay. "Waves, sun, wet suits, beach boys, wipe outs, Mavericks beach, Shaun Tomson, rebellion, surfer code, anarchism, free spirit—just what are you looking for? You've got be more specific." He narrowed his eyes at them.

"Shaun Tomson?" Rodney puzzled. "Someone you know?"

"One of the greatest surfers of all time. A total genius of the sport," John explained, thumbs hooked on his pockets.

"Anarchism. Rebellion. Free spirit-?" Sonja pulled an exaggerated face at Rodney, pleased and impressed. "I like it. We have our theme I think."

"Mmm. I prefer to use a story," Rodney mused, rubbing his lips with a forefinger. "Easier for the audience to follow and connect the dots. Abstract concepts tend to lose them... when I did that Firebird program—"

She brushed him off with a gesture. "That will come from the music. Now, I want you to hum," she instructed John.

John frowned. "Hum what? The Star-Spangled Banner?"

"Yes, because the Star-Spangled Banner is so completely relevant to this conversation—your program music, of course," Rodney said, dripping with sarcasm.

"Does he always argue like this?" Sonja queried, sounding mildly curious, as if John were an interesting experiment.

"With every breath," Rodney sighed.

"I'm starting to feel like I'm in a Monty Python sketch. Do you want me to stand on one leg and cluck like a chicken next?" John complained.

"Everyone hears music differently," Sonja—finally—explained. "It becomes so obvious when people sing."

John winced. "I, uh. I think mostly it'll become obvious that I can't carry a tune."

Rodney held up a finger, seconding this. The finger dropped to point at John. "That's actually true. I've heard him in the shower."

John really didn't need the warm smirk she cast their way.

"Then we sing together," Sonja said brightly.

It came as surprise to John what a nice, soft gravelly tenor Rodney had. "That's not fair," he interrupted. "You guys can both sing."

"You aren't getting points for quality," Rodney said, although he flushed with pleasure.

Sonja made a flourish gesture of agreement.

They continued, clustered in the far corner. John bobbed his hand in an effort to keep time, while Sonja's alto joined Rodney's tenor. John had been told he was a baritone, but at the moment he was just trying to stay on key. Their humming carried across the stadium seats. Yeah, right about now John was grateful there were no witnesses.

Sonja nodded when they finished. "He goes for the downbeats," she informed Rodney.

"Uh, I think I just have a lower voice than you guys...." John said.

"He did go for the downbeats. That's interesting," Rodney said, turning to her. "He'll skate slower than everyone else. His speed issue is partially due to the music itself, because that's how he hears it." He shook his head in amazement. "I'm a genius, but that? That was remarkably astute of you."

"I don't have a speed issue," John inserted.

"You can't fight a skater's natural sense of the music," she said. "If you choreograph the melody but they skate the harmony...." She shrugged.

"Huh," Rodney said, bemused.

"Now." She pushed off, skating an arc across the ice. She looked back. "Come, John." John pushed away from the boards to follow her. Rodney trailed them, giving them a respectful distance of a few feet. "We will do the introduction section later, but I was thinking the main melody line will curve like waves, like so."

She shaped a wide serpentine curve across the ice. "As soon as you hear the guitar do this, you should be at the top of this curve.... three waves, like so."

It was fairly basic. John nodded.

Rodney cut over to the boom box in quick strokes and turned on the music, which sounded a hell of a lot better than all that humming. They waited through the intro, bouncing lightly to catch the beat.

"Now—" Sonja set off across the ice, carving the top of the circle with the smooth run of the guitar. John kept pace, his head bowed, paying careful attention to both the music and her instructions. It reminded him of tenth grade driver's Ed on the day someone had swiped all the orange traffic cones, forcing him to maneuver in careful imaginary curves.

She skated out and watched John trace the pattern. "Yes," she said aloud as if to herself, "it fits the music, but it's so boring."

"Well, you haven't added any jumps to it yet," John reassured her.

"Let's do this." She carved the first arc, then at the top of the curve did a little hop and landed backward. Followed the second arc backward, then at the top of that curve did another hop, landing forward. She stopped.

"It'll lose a lose a lot of momentum that way," John observed.

"You're the elite skater. That's your problem," she said.

John gave her a doubtful head tilt, trying not to roll his eyes at the nice choreographer lady—after all, he'd never had a real choreographer before and he'd looked up some of her programs, which were pretty good—and followed the pattern.

"Yes, yes," she said. "That is much more interesting."

Rodney was simply watching now. "It looks like you're cresting a wave at the top of each curve."

"I do?" John said. "It feels weird."

"It's not natural but that is what makes it different. Still I think...." She chewed a long pink nail. "Dip your knees when you land. Deep, like this." She demonstrated. "Like you're on a surfboard."

John followed suit. "That's going to wear me out on the little stuff."

"The price you pay for art," she said with a breezy flick of her hand.

"It looks great," Rodney told Sonja admiringly. "You do so much with so little."

"And it just got a lot harder with no net gain on what will score with the judges," John pointed out. He really didn't want to hear Rodney gush over his ex-girlfriend.

"He's got a point," Rodney said. "It does need layers, oceans more difficulty if you will. We still need to work in the required elements and I want it to open with a big splash—I mean, subtle musical interpretation is all well and good but ultimately he'll be scored on the difficulty, not on how pretty it looks—I know, I know," he cut off her half-started objection, "you're highly experienced, but you mostly do women's programs and men are held to a slightly tougher standard—no insult intended, but we can't get away with holding a swan pose for half the rink. What if we get add his first quad the end of that initial turn? We do want the big jumps early, before he's too tired...."

Sonja rubbed her temples, letting the Rodney's flood of micromanaging wash over her. John practiced his deep knee bends, mentally placing bets on who'd win a battle of wills.

~*~*~

The following afternoon, Tae Kwon Do students moved in unison with each punch combination then stepped forward and up into the kick. Again. They did three more sets, and on the last kick the class roared in an explosion of sound. John stood, the energy of release washing over him. There had been many times he had wished he could just... let go... like that in skating.

"More fire! One more time!" Teyla said, leading them through the sequence again.

The whole class ran through the punch combinations and the kick, then—

"Hold!" Teyla ordered.

They froze with their legs extended. Two of the students staggered, but John only spared them a glance, his face serious.

Teyla threaded her way back and forth through the lines of students, checking each of them. She adjusted the foot of one student in the back row. "Heel out. Do not point your toe or else you will break it when you spar."

A student behind John and to the left pinwheeled and squirmed on his heel before regaining his balance. John didn't move, his balance unshakable after years of training on hard ice, where consequences of even a little slip were steep, spiraling out of hand exponentially. Control had to be complete.

She paused at another student, a teenage girl in a blond ponytail. "This kick is with your leg straight out, not upward. There are other kicks that are higher but that is not the current exercise. Show me again."

The student let her leg drop, then kicked again, while the rest of the class balanced, flicking her dirty looks.

"Too high. Again."

There was a soft groan from the back row, but John had learned in skating to just extend his leg more when his thigh muscle started to tremble. He held it there, regretting the fact he was at the end of the line.

"Better."

A twelve-year-old in the front row set his foot down and quickly extended the kick again. Teyla ignored him.

Finally she stepped in front of John and gripped his foot. John stood solid and unmoving. Smug. "Your form is exceptional," she said mildly.

John couldn't resist that. "People don't take figure skating seriously, but it develops strength, balance... coordination...."

"Yes. Your sidekicks are very..." She took a little breath, gaze turned inward as if seeking the right word. "... precise."

"You know, when you pause like that, it doesn't come off as much of a compliment," John told her with a wary glance. Her answering smile was firm.

Up and down the line, classmates shot John furious looks at his chatter, legs beginning to shudder visibly.

Teyla glanced over and signaled for the entire class to relax. The kids dropped their kicks with sighs of relief. John didn't let himself sigh. Not out loud at least.

"Find a partner," she instructed them all with a gentle nod.

But when John turned to the fourteen-year-old next to him, Teyla waved him off. "I believe it is time for you to—what is the phrase?—to pick on someone your own size." She made a cupping gesture. "Jameel?"

A tall Indian kid in his late teens leading a group of more advanced students cocked his head at her. He tightened his black belt as he came over.

John's eyebrows lowered in a frown. "Um. Aren't there are a few levels between...?" He indicated the kid and himself.

"Even the simplest of maneuvers, if carried out with power and speed, can effectively disable your opponent," Teyla said.

"Right," John said, a world of doubt in his eyes, stepping back a step. The kid confidently drew himself to his full height. Teyla moved off to the sidelines. Around them the other teams started to spar.

They squared off, bowed, and John shifted his shoulder toward the kid, one foot forward. The first rule was to present a small target.

They circled each other.

The guy bounced, slashed in, then hopped back as John reacted, his swing missing by a mile. John returned to his starting position, feeling hunted. The guy circled him.

On the next strike John jolted forward, but didn't swing, unsure what to do if the guy stayed out of range.

The guy stepped up and John barely had time to block, and got slammed in the chest then shoulder in quick succession, knocking him backward. The kid was instantly out of range of John's return swipe.

Pain spread like heat through John's shoulder like an afterthought. John rolled it, shook his head, and got back into position.

"Concentrate, John," Teyla told him.

Nice to hear she was on his side. Maybe.

John edged forward, remembering to keep himself angled toward his opponent.

The kid's next feint caught him off guard when it turned into a real hit, but John managed to shift inside, sliding out from under it, feeling damned sharp. The next combo was predictable—he knocked the punch away—then up—he nailed the roundhouse with his forearm, wincing—then the kid jumped towards him, switched legs in a flurry of kicks, and then the world fell away. John landed on his chest and elbows, sprawled, the blur of the last kick disappearing. His thigh throbbed where the kid's back leg had connected and knocked his leg sideways. He blinked away dizziness from the reverse roundhouse heel to his head, ears ringing.

John stood, refusing any help from the circle of classmates who'd paused in their own sparring. He was getting killed here. He pushed up from the ground and forced himself to straighten, limping a little, fists raised more slowly. His opponent regarded him calmly.

"Perhaps it would be best if you were not strictly defensive in your response, but try to attack as well. With a superior opponent one has only a narrow window to win," Teyla advised.

"Right," John drawled, not taking his eyes off the kid.

"You believe that I have never fought anyone larger and more powerful than myself?" Teyla asked, voice tinged with amusement. He glanced over at her, measuring her five-foot-plus-a-few-inches frame with his eyes.

"Yeah, okay," John grudgingly accepted. He admitted in an undertone, "But this kid moves faster than I can think."

"Then it would be best that you do not think," Teyla said. Eyes narrowing, John assessed this kid—Jameel was his name? Then returned to his starting position, shoulder turned, fists raised to his chest. Tall with a long torso, the guy couldn't protect his whole body, no way.

Quick and dirty, John dove in, forgetting the names of the moves. He zeroed in on a hole just below the guy's fists on the lower ribs and fired off a punch—it swept skin—but he landed the second punch hard. He took a hit above the eye and a kick to the shoulder as his own follow-up kick hit air. Worth it though.

They broke off. Circled each other.

John rubbed at the spot above his eye and checked his hand to see if there were blood. He was okay. It just hurt like hell.

"Again," Teyla said, straightening, distant and dignified.

Numb and panting, John couldn't spot an opening. The guy stayed on his toes with easy agility, utter arrogant calm.

But John wasn't going to let him grab the initiative this time. He bounced and pressed forward even without an opening, swung two wild roundhouse punches, tilted sideways into a kick, low, loose and floppy, his form shot to shit. He followed with another punch combination, which the guy sidestepped like a snake—and hammered him in the solar plexus.

John staggered back three steps, the wind forced out of him.

He clutched his arm over the spot, breathing hard.

Simmering with resentment, he looked up through his eyelashes to glower at Teyla and the encircling kids who'd stopped to watch him get pummeled. She didn't chide them, her arms crossed, treating him like some sort of object lesson. Jameel just stood there, one leg still forward, regarding him with cool superiority. John's hands tightened into fists. He wished there weren't an audience for this, that it were more like the kung-fu movies where the good guy met the bad guy in an open empty field.

"That was better," Teyla said.

John aimed an incredulous look at her, heart pounding.

"Again," she said, her eyes sparkling with ruthlessness.

~*~*~

Skates squeaked on the ice and Rodney breathed in the cold, chlorine-scented air. Nothing like a rink just after it's been resurfaced. He watched his students like an alert mamma cat, however, because new ice often had wet patches that were exceptionally, startlingly slick, and broken tailbones were never a good thing.

The soft bell-like tones of "Mr. Sandman" played while John did his stretches. Rodney watched him step onto the ice far more gingerly than was his wont. Perhaps he'd learned his lesson about wet ice years ago. Rodney himself hadn't learned until an ice show where hot stage lights had turned the rink into a bathtub. The worst part wasn't the laughter; it was the fact that the water had made him look like he'd wet his pants for the rest of his routine. He'd finished, of course. The show must go on.

John had his hands on his hips, head stretched up. He stroked heavily and slow.

"Sonja wants you to work on the circular footwork sequences we've covered so far, and I agree," Rodney said, business-like. "You need to swing forward like you're cresting a wave, stop, and then glide backward. Do that a few times, until you conquer the wave and jump."

"You mind if we skip the jumps today?" John said, with the edge of a whine to his voice.

Rodney blinked several times before he could answer. "Okay."

~*~*~

The bike made a satisfying clatter when John tossed it—just short of throwing it—against the yoga center wall. He didn't bother with the kickstand, hoping meanly that it would collapse in the middle of the meditation. If there was one thing he couldn't handle today, it was meditation.

"You need to mellow out."

Ronon was looking at him from across the little glass counter, unperturbed. Several of the hangings behind John still swayed.

John struggled to unsnap the tie on his yoga mat before giving up, slumping. "It's this god-damned martial arts class."

"That's something I'll never understand," Ronon said. John looked up in curiosity. Ronon didn't opt to talk much unless it was about yoga. "Fighting when you don't have to. "

"No offense but—" ah, the yoga mat's strap finally came free, "—you're a yoga teacher." John gave him a knowing smile.

"So what? I was in the army." Ronon explained. John looked him up and down, somehow unsurprised. Massive and kinda scary, Ronon had never seemed like a yoga instructor in the first place. "We trained. Never did anything. We just sat around on peacekeeping missions—I was bored out of my skull. It was pointless." He shrugged, shutting a drawer below the counter. "When I got out, I went up to Kashmir looking for trouble. I found my guru instead. He taught me picking fights was stupid."

"Yeah, well, I think a lot of soldiers would be pretty happy to not have to go to war," John mumbled.

A woman with a beatific expression rang the gong for them to start. There was always a little infighting over who got to ring the gong, a dubious honor John didn't care about. Every group had it's own little politics. He limped into the room, the bruise on his upper thigh making its presence known loudly. He wondered what it was like for these women to do yoga without any noticeable injuries.

As they stretched and held the poses, John twinged in entirely new places. He was certain that Ronon was sadistically holding the worst poses longer, too, grumbling to himself, his mind going in circles today.

At the end of session, John rolled up his mat again and stowed it in his cubbyhole (a kindergarten touch but one he appreciated because it was free). He told Ronon, "You train so that you don't have to fight at all. Ever."

Ronon smirked, his eyes glinting. "You've been thinking about that the whole time?"

~*~*~

"Whip it! Whip it good!"

Rodney stood on the edge of the rink, hands on his hips, and marveled that a song he hadn't been allowed to play in junior high was now a rink staple. Either it heralded a greater acceptance of S&M or else—and far more likely—people had forgotten to listen to the lyrics. In front of him, a half dozen skaters circled the rink. He'd long ago learned to tune out everyone but his own student, even when they cut right between them.

Melanie Weir, a skinny girl in red with long brown hair and kewpie doll eyes, pulled her arms in to her chest, shy and uncomfortable, then flung herself into the new jump combination – under-rotated, the angle completely wrong, not enough momentum – of course she fell, legs up, skittering across the ice. She rolled onto her hip, legs loosely crossed, and stayed down on the ice, sniffling, her shoulders shaking with sobs. Rodney shook his head as he stepped onto the rink.

"Okay, not a bad start," Rodney said, gliding sideways to stop next to her, "but you need to not be afraid of it. If you can land one single, you can land two in a row. The fact that you're messing up the first jump tells me you're over-thinking it. You should be falling on the second one."

She continued with the sniffling, shaking harder. Rodney grabbed a small hand and began to pull her up. She sagged like a sack of potatoes, snot gathering at the end of her nose.

"Come on. Up. Dramatics are only allowed in the program." Rodney stared down at her.

"But I fell..." She shuddered through the next words. "...and it hurts...."

"Stop. Crying." Rodney scowled, his hands on his hips. Melanie's face scrunched up, red and furious. A cluster of his older students gathered, Bethany and her friends, along with a few skaters Rodney didn't recognize. "That was not a bad fall and you know it. We talked about this. You're eight years old and that's the cut off point."

There was a whispering scamper of boots as Mrs. Weir ran around the edge of the rink to the boards across from them. John walked more slowly behind her, unable to run in skates.

"Rodney! She's injured," Weir said, coming to a stop.

"It wasn't a bad fall," John murmured to her.

"Skaters are always injured. This is ice." Rodney stamped his skate on the ice. "It's hard. It's slippery. And you will fall. If even I can learn not to have temper tantrums over pathetic little slips—at age six!—then she can manage it when she's eight years old." Turning to Melanie, Rodney hooked his thumb over his shoulder. "I'll be over there when you've finished your theatrics and collected your academy award. Someday you'll be standing in front of a judge doing your final bow with pins and needles running up and down your leg, and you'll have to smile. So start practicing or give up now."

Gape-mouthed, Elizabeth turned to John, who gave a little "I'll handle this" brushing gesture, took off the skate guards and climbed over the boards. The other girls were already hard at work though, speaking in that tone of insincere concern unique to children with a smaller child.

"It's okay, Melanie," said the tall girl with glasses. "I saw you fall and wow, you slid pretty far."

"But you fell just right though." They all nodded, glancing at each other. "You want to land on your butt. You did good."

Melanie continued sniffling, her lower lip in a pout, brown eyes wet. Bethany knelt down next to her, her frizzy ponytail fluffing as she dropped. "Yesterday, I fell so bad, I had a bruise the size of an orange—" She pointed to her hip. "—right here."

The girls nodded to one another.

"That's why we wear flesh-colored tights for competitions," said a cheerful blond. "Otherwise we'd look like Dalmatians." The others tittered.

"101 Dalmatians...."

"On ice...."

"We should so do that for an ice show!"

"Who needs tights?" They laughed some more. Melanie looked from one to another, still on the ice, her pout slipping.

"One time I fell during a Biellmann and later on I was talking to this boy, and he said, 'Uh, you're bleeding,' and there was blood running down the back of my leg. I was so embarrassed!" Bethany added, dipping her knees, hands to her mouth.

"He was probably impressed. I would be," John told her.

Bethany looked up at him with starry soft brown eyes. The other girls glanced at each other, snickering.

"Aiden's got pins in his knee," the tall girl with glasses cut in, fighting to be the center of attention. "He messed up his leg in Junior Worlds camp." John shot her a look. He hadn't known that. The rink rats always had all the gossip. "He says his leg would fall off if they came out."

"Ewwww...." the girls chorused, delighted.

John knelt down to Melanie and tipped his head. "Rodney's being mean about it, but he is right. If you don't make a big production out of it, it hurts less." The girls all looked at him doubtfully. He spread his hands gave them a nod. "A little less."

Then John lowered his voice and admitted to Melanie, "I've lost it before. We all have."

Melanie stared in wonder, a dark strand of long hair stuck to her damp cheek. "You cried?"

"Well, no," John said. "But I got really mad. I was in practice and I fell and I was supposed to go to Worlds that year." The girls exchanged stunned looks. Apparently they hadn't known that bit. "I knew right away I wasn't going. I punched the ice—and everyone was staring." He took a breath. "So only do that if you want to stop the entire rink. People have more respect for you if you get right back up after a fall."

"Did you get right back up?" Melanie asked, tears forgotten.

"Actually, I couldn't walk right. People had to help me off the practice ice. So I kind of had an excuse that time."

Seeing Melanie handled and with fresh gossip to discuss, the group started to break up, the girls clustered as they began to circle the ice again. On the opposite side of the rink, Rodney was in hot debate with Mrs. Weir.

"Just between you and me?" John said, privately to Melanie. "I'd bet any money that Rodney's tough about this because his coaches had to so thoroughly drill it into him. I know him."

"Really?" Melanie said, brightening, a little color returning to her face.

"Sure. He's a total prima donna." John noticed her puzzled expression and supplied a translation, "A drama queen."

Melanie giggled. She squirmed and stood up on the ice. "Yes. He is."

~*~*~

It was a Tuesday evening and they were home from the rink earlier than usual, thanks to summer vacations and Rodney's students being away at camp. The lights were off in the kitchen when John swung his leg around and slammed the cabinet door shut. It bounced back open. Yet he hadn't hit it with enough force.

He set it up again, concentrating the power towards the end of his kick. It slammed harder, ping-ponging open, back and forth.

"What the hell was that?" Rodney called out from the living room.

"Nothing," John said.

He double-bagged the garbage, avoiding Rodney's dubious look as he carried it out.

In the driveway, he threw the bag into the air like he was tossing up a pitch. His first sidekick missed. The garbage plopped to the ground.

The second try tipped it spinning sideways. John ran and picked it up. He figured his problem had been that he was mostly used to hitting a stationary target. He needed to hit something that moved. He threw the bag into the air again. It bounced along his leg and dropped to the ground.

After six or seven frustrating unsuccessful tries, John drop-kicked the bag like it was a football. He nailed the top of the garbage can; it slid off the lid and fell behind them.

He loped over and dug it out, deciding to try it at closer range. He tossed it up, tipped sideways -- and hit it! The bag bounced off the front of the can.

It was a crappy soft kick, though.

John thought of the cabinet and tried again.

The bag didn't quite go far enough, landing a foot from the can.

He thought of Jameel's head.

The bag bounced off the can and rebounded. The garbage can rocked, hitting the fence behind it.

Yeah, John thought to himself. This was gonna work.

~*~*~

Rodney had warmed up leftovers and was doing paperwork on the kitchen table. He glanced up once as John came in. John took a few quick mouthfuls of spaghetti before carrying the plate with him, still chewing. "Be out back," he said.

He kicked the back door open.

Bugs spun around the porch light attached to the side of the house over the concrete slab in Rodney's backyard. John set his dinner down on one of the loungers. He punched the air, one-two! – hearing Teyla's yell in his mind – and followed it up with a lazy kick. Too loose. He dragged Rodney's chaise lounge out of the way, the aluminum scraping, then got into position, stretching out his kick. He moved through it slowly, focusing the power in the last six inches, heel out. Then fast.

Jameel would be aggressive, get inside to hammer at his head and go for the knock out. John would turn and – bam! – a crack to the jaw sideways, Jameel's chin snapping up when John got him again. "Oh, gee," John said aloud in his most sarcastic voice, "Was that your nose?"

He would follow it with a knee-breaker kick, angled down. Jameel would clutch at his leg, and John would knee him in the head – then an elbow to the back of his neck! Flatten him. By the time Jameel staggered up, John would slam him sideways. He kicked as hard as a horse, teeth gritted.

"Or maybe punch him in the face," John muttered to himself, throwing a three punch combo, huffing out a breath, sweating.

"Are you insane?" Rodney asked behind him.

John spun around, and Rodney backed up an intimidated half step.

"Who are you talking to?" Rodney stared.

"No one," John said quickly. He ducked his chin and swiped at his mouth nervously, putting his hands in his pockets a moment, before remembering dinner. He sat down on the chaise, checking the cold spaghetti for bugs.

"I thought I'd join you," Rodney said looking around warily. He had two beers in his hands, and held one out for John. "Unless you think the local ninjas are going to get us."

"I'll protect you," John said, accepting the beer, and found that he was only half joking.

~*~*~

John went sprawling across the hardwood floor. He leveraged himself up. Jameel was rubbing at his ribs, scowling.

"Good, John, very good!" Teyla said, and turned. "Jameel, you must learn not to 'recycle' your strategies. Even a novice can observe patterns and note your mistakes if you repeat them again and again."

Jameel bowed his head to her respectfully. John did the same, trying to hide his tiny smirk of satisfaction. From the dirty look Jameel leveled at him, he wasn't succeeding.

"Now I will demonstrate how to counter both John's attack and Jameel's response, and show you why they both suffered in the outcome," Teyla told the rest of the class.

~*~*~

John and Rodney watched Sonja's retreating back. Her dress today had little pearl-string straps, which John hoped were fake and wow, looked uncomfortable. But she seemed perfectly relaxed when she waved to them, smiling as the elevator doors shut.

"Is it my imagination or do our sessions keep getting shorter?" John asked in a sarcastic drawl.

Rodney drew in a breath through his teeth. "I'm starting to regret scheduling this for Friday nights."

"Not to volunteer your money or anything, but would it help if we paid her? Something?" John asked.

He pushed off, running through the choreography for his long program in his mind. They hadn't gone further than the first twenty-five seconds and he was anxious to skate the more active parts. But what she had so far was cool. He tried out the opening spin, ducking low, his head under his arm. It was hard to get enough speed in it.

"Trust me, even if you were working, we couldn't afford her," Rodney said.

"We did make some good progress," John ventured. He tried that spin again. It was still too slow.

"Hmm... opening with a spin...." Rodney said in a disapproving, doubt-filled tone. His hand came up to cover his mouth, as if he were trying to stop the words that way.

"It's cool. I've never seen it before."

"With good reason." Rodney sighed and pulled his hand away. "Look. I'm beginning to suspect that she's using us to try out some things that she wouldn't risk with her paying clients."

"Is that good or bad?" John straightened, abandoning the spin.

Rodney cringed, sucking his teeth. "It could be great, or terrible." He huffed. "It's true, you could be the beneficiary of the best work she's ever done," he flung out a hand in a wide gesture, "freed from the constraints of pleasing her clients since she has nothing to lose with us." His forehead creased with worry. "But I'm just a bit concerned she's not taking into account your limitations as a skater."

Rodney's face went suddenly blank and he shrank in on himself, panicking. He added very, very fast, "Um. That is to say, not limitations so much as strengths, specific, individual, personal strengths, such that all skaters have in their personal... range...." His voice trailed off as he fortunately seemed to realize his slip was unrecoverable. His shoulders slumped. "It's too bad for you it's impossible to do a program with all jumps."

"Well," John said, more entertained by Rodney than annoyed, although he filed away Rodney's real opinion of his skating for later consideration. "It's not impossible."

"Yes. It is. The rules require certain set elements." He counted off on his fingers. "A combination of spins, certain jumps which can't even be repeated, footwork...." He made a victorious slashing gesture with his hand. "An utter impossibility."

"Thank you, I hadn't noticed all that in my twelve years of skating. But that doesn't make it impossible."

"No one can sustain an entire program of jumps." Rodney, bright-eyed and beaming, held up a finger. "Spins on the other hand? Eminently doable."

John's arms were crossed. "I've done programs with just jumps."

He let his arms fall and skated over to their bags, searching his daypack for the Jimi Hendrix CD and found... oh yeah. Perfect.

The CD for his 1995-1996 exhibition.

He slapped it into the boombox and stroked hard for the center of the rink. He cut a swathe of ice to stand tall, hands behind his back, elbows out, as the bagpipes from "Braveheart" began.

He stepped out and swung into a turn, swung around and – push! Hard up into a jump on the first high note, spinning fast on his toe.

He landed hard, shifted edges left than right, carving the sharp angles of a Scottish dance, dipped and gathered momentum, increasing his speed, the wind cold on his ears – then launched himself high in the air, turning and breathless – and landed backward with a grunt for his first triple Lutz, only a little out of control.

He burned around another turn, dropping a little of the dance aspects to get the focus he needed, then threw a quick single (which should've been a double), followed in sequence by the next double. John grinned, because he was still with the music.

He cut through the center ice, and amused flicker of "frosted Lucky Charms" tripping across his mind, and held his arms out, knee up, back ramrod straight as he did quick chopping footwork balanced on a single skate. Then he hopped up once, almost running across the ice for his next triple, catching some high air -- whoa shit, this one was big. And almost too far. But he saved it in a spray of white on the landing, his back leg swinging wide, catching him.

He skated backward crossovers, gaining speed again, abandoning the choreography a bit because he was going –

--Up, into his signature quad. Late, way late in the program, landing effortlessly with only a little wobble. Oh yeah, this was where people usually started clapping, once they realized what had happened, as he skated away from the quad.

He sailed into step turns for the finish, arms open wide like he was spinning in a Scottish dance circle, dizzy across the ice, then dug his toepick in and launched into the final triple Lutz. A grin flashed across his face, because sometimes it was double, sometimes a triple. But he was hot tonight.

As the last bagpipe faded, he ended with his arms outstretched, face to the sky, gasping.

He'd missed his mark completely. He was supposed to stop at center ice. But Rodney didn't need to know that. Seven jumps. For an exhibition program. The norm was maybe one or two.

"I hate you," Rodney scowled.

~*~*~

Since Teyla had been teaching John gratis for two (all right, approaching three) months, Rodney thought it best to handle the scaling back of her "extraneous training" himself. And, yes, he did think of it in air quotes. Rodney had to appreciate a sport that ended in almost as many bruises as figure skating, but it was July, the competition season was coming fast, and it was time for John to shift to peak level training.

After a barista shift change, several cups of coffee, and a circuitous, polite, and yet far more heated discussion than Rodney had expected, he was wondering why he'd missed the fact that her training John for free for so long was, in fact, a very bad sign.

"You're just teaching him Tae Kwon Do. He isn't your disciple," Rodney finally told her, exasperated.

"You said he had excellent potential as a student," she said, her face smooth and implacable.

Rodney hand swept the air. "I was lying! He's an undisciplined pain in the ass! I thought he'd last maybe an hour with you."

"On the contrary, I find that he is very disciplined. When motivated properly," she answered, and oh, wouldn't you know she'd sneak in a dig at his coaching technique. Rodney spluttered. She leaned forward, arm on the table, pressing her advantage. "You mentioned that he was unsuccessful in his... figure skating. Perhaps it is because he is not meant to be a dancer." Her disdain drew out the word "dancer." Rodney would be more annoyed if he hadn't heard it thousand times. No one took skating seriously. "John is a natural athlete."

"And he's good at your 'kung-fu fighting,'" Rodney said, knowing she'd miss the sarcastic reference to the goofball 70s song.

"He is terrible," she said flatly. "But his potential is clear."

"I found him first!" Rodney said.

"Yet, as you said yourself, it has been twelve years," she said.

Rodney set his jaw, folding his arms, settling back in his chair, the line of his mouth slanted in a frown. "Why don't you ask him?" he suggested, with a hint of triumph at that foregone conclusion.

~*~*~

"I'll come back to it after the season's over," John reassured Ronon, rolling up his mat and strapping it with bungee cords to his bike. He emptied the other clutter from his cubbyhole into his pack.

"Okay."

"I'll keep up the stretches. Those have really helped," John said earnestly.

"Sure." Ronon gave a disinterested shrug.

John knocked the kickstand up, arm holding the door open as he balanced the bike, hesitating. He finally got his courage up. "I was wondering if you'd, I dunno," he shrugged, as casual as he could, "like to go for a bite sometime."

"Uh." Ronon's face went blank as he blinked slowly, once. "I'm not—"

"No, no, I don't mean—I mean, as friends," John said, his hands pinwheeling.

"Oh," Ronon said, looking relieved. He seemed to think about it a moment, striding to the door to lock up. He shook his dreadlocks over his shoulder and held it open for John, keys jangling in his hand. "I'm going to the range next week," he offered.

"Range? As in shooting range?"

"Yeah. I keep in practice. In case of nuclear war," Ronon said, his face completely serious.

John gave him a funny look. He licked his lips and nodded slowly. "Good plan," he said, meaning you are completely out of your mind.

"You ever fire a gun before?"

"With bullets?" John asked.

"Never mind. I'll teach you."

~*~*~

John scanned the choices on the coffee shop menu, picking out a brownie rather than buy a four-dollar cup of coffee he wouldn't drink. Unwittingly, he sat in the same chair Rodney had two nights before, holding out the chair for Teyla, squeaking it along the floor. Or maybe it wasn't so surprising. This is where John and Rodney had first met and where they sat all the time now, discussing John's skating. She folded her fingers together and rested them on the table, seeming infinitely patient and willing for John to make the first move. Great.

"Um. Yeah...." John squirmed, wincing apologetically. He ran his hands up and down his jeans, wiping his palms. "So. Okay. I know that Rodney already talked to you, so...." He skipped the details she obviously knew. "I'll keep up the katas during the competition season," he promised her, just like he had Ronon. He didn't know how often, but he'd try to fit it in sometimes.

Teyla drew a slow breath. She moved her cup aside with a smooth motion. Every gesture of hers was graceful, conscious. It was one of those things that she carried with her outside of Tae Kwon do, John noticed.

"You must understand. Rodney is a friend, but we disagree on many subjects," she said.

Yeah, John had noticed that. He sarcastically thanked Rodney for passing the buck. He took a bite of his brownie and swept away a cluster of crumbs that gathered on the table.

"My father was an American soldier stationed in Korea, although my mother is Korean," she began. "Being different is... difficult... for any child," she said, bowing her head in acknowledgement. "My maternal grandfather, however, did not perceive me as alien. He had no interest in me at all, in fact, until I began to learn from him. Then he had only interest in my Tae Kwon Do, how I was doing that day." She smiled warmly at the memories. "Usually dreadful, at least according to him. But the color of my skin did not matter, only my mistakes in training."

She took a sip of her coffee. "When I fought, when I competed, despite my family, despite the respect for my grandfather or for my own skill, people rejoiced when I lost. There is some," she sighed, "resentment towards the American military presence in our country. I was always 'the American', no matter what language I spoke or where I was born. There was no question that I would never be able to attract students of my own." She opened her hands. "My grandfather advised that I come to North America, to meet the other half of my family and learn about the other side of my heritage. At the time I was very unsure about it. I wanted to stay in my homeland.

"But he asked me, 'Is this your home?'" She paused, letting her story sink in. Then continued. "At the time I assured him that of course it was. I was horrified at the suggestion." Her gaze was intense. "Now... I am not certain that I would respond the same way."

John cocked an eyebrow at her, slouching insolently in his chair, refusing to take this argument in or leap ahead to her obvious point.

She pressed on regardless. "Sometimes we believe something is true of ourselves just because it is all we have ever known."

~*~*~

John was still grumbling to himself about Teyla, who'd never even seen him skate. Meant to be-? All he had ever known? What the hell was that supposed to mean? He flicked on the turn signal to take the immediate right into the rink to pick up Rodney. Too bad the coffee shop parking lot didn't connect. The rink was right next door.

One minute he was pulling onto an empty divided highway. The next he was picking himself up off the steering wheel, pellets of broken glass sliding down the back of his shirt, staring across the crumpled hood of another car. His vehicle was aimed in a different direction from where he'd started. There was a blur of movement as the other driver got out and slammed his door.

I've been hit, John realized. He pushed open his door, more glass trickling to the ground. His windshield was smashed and the entire front end accordioned, although not as bad as the silver BMW in front of him.

Just how fast had that idiot been going?

"Where's the fire?!" John strode from the car, slamming the door behind him.

"I had the right of way!" a guy in a suit and slicked-back ponytail yelled at him. "Oh, jeeze, look at this," he said, hands gripping his head, circling their cars.

"No, I was pulling out of this lane. Your lane is over there!" John slung an arm around to indicate the driveway. "The only way you could have hit me is if you crossed at a diagonal!"

But ponytail guy had whipped out a cell phone, giving John a pursed-lipped glare as he shouldered away. He had an earring in one ear and wore a power suit with a white collarless shirt. Normally John would have thought he looked cool, but at the moment it, and his pinched face, labeled him a pretentious prick.

"Honey-?" ponytail guy said, turning his back, like that kept his conversation private. "Some idiot hit me in the Beemer!"

John shot him a glare as he checked out his own car, assessing the damage. Shit, this could mean a busted radiator. That was three hundred bucks easy, right there, not even counting the windshield. The grill was wasted.... More glass spilled out as he went to grab his insurance information from the glove box.

Belatedly, a police car started coming their way, lights flashing. Several cars had stopped and were helpfully blocking traffic, while other cars drove along the median to get around them.

"I was dropping off Kiana at the rink and—what? No, she's—she wasn't in the car—yes, yes, she's fine, so far as I know ... you know, I was just in a car accident. A little concern for me might be in order." He was quiet a moment, lips in a sour moue. "I'm fine," he said, still plainly miffed.

He hung up and dialed another number, tapping his foot, arms folded.

"Angie? Yes. Kavanagh here—tell the board that I'm going to be late," he said with a certain relieved smugness John struggled to identify, going inwardly silent. "Some idiot hit me! No, not me personally. In the car! I was driving the Beemer, too. Call my insurance agent," he said. "And my attorney," he added with a sneering glance over his shoulder at John. "He looks like the type to try to slap me with some kind of personal injury claim." Ponytail snapped the phone shut and tucked it into his breast pocket. "You'll be hearing from my insurance company," he informed John tartly.

"You were already late for that meeting, weren't you?" John narrowed his eyes at him, digging in. That's why he'd crossed the road way too fast, shearing off the corner.

The slight widening of ponytail's eyes proved that he'd nailed it.

~*~*~

That weekend, two long legs in grimy jeans squirmed under Rodney's old Honda, one knee raising an inch or two as John cursed. There was a clattering noise that didn't sound good to Rodney. But he'd learned over the last few minutes not to pester John with questions. He was a little testy under there.

They had the garage door open to let in some natural light to supplement the bare overhead bulb. A soft breeze disturbed the newspaper John was laying on.

"If you're trying to impress me," Rodney said, chin hooked over the open car door, watching him with amazed eyes, "It's working."

John grunted, eeling deeper under the vehicle, tennis shoes scrabbling at the pavement, his voice hollow. "Just trying to figure out if you have a parts car here or—ah. Aha." There was another clatter and a clunk, the kind of sound you didn't want to hear while driving. He wriggled out from underneath, dragging newspaper with him as he sat up. He brandished a greasy inexplicable contraption. "Bet it'll work when we replace this."

"And how do you know that?" Rodney asked, balanced between marveling and skeptical, and ready to tip either way.

"Well, at the moment I don't." John set the part on the ground and wiped his hands on the his T-shirt, leaving finger stripes on his stomach. "But on Hondas it's always the water pump. And this thing's toast." He nodded to it.

Rodney decided being impressed was in order, yes.

John stood, dusting himself off. "I'll get some quotes; worst case scenario we get a part from a junk yard. Then we'll know for sure."

Rodney made a face. "I can always cover the cost of getting your car fixed. It can't be more than a thousand—" John glared at him, moved the part from the floor to a table, and wiped his hands on his jeans. "—fine. Just offering. A generous supportive offer from a friend who's been more than a little impacted by the whole shenanigans, I might add, just until that jerk comes through." He winced and asked a little softer, "How's that going anyway?"

John made a frustrated groan, wiping his chin on his sleeve. "His insurance company won't pay. First they said it was my fault. Then when the cops said differently, they swore I was exaggerating the damage and insisted that I send my car to a mechanic who was certified. Which is stupid, because the guy I had lined up was cheaper."

"Then obviously they're backing down," Rodney said. "It's only a matter of time before they can no longer delay the inevitable, so it just makes sense for me to—" John's growl was worthy of a nature show. Rodney held up his hands in surrender and let them fall. He'd be able to pay him back!

"It's more than the repairs. There are storage fees as well," John sighed.

"Then it's all the more vital that we take care of it quickly."

"If we pay for it, that asshole never will," John said, shoulders hunched like the wings of a pissed off hawk. "And then I definitely won't be able to pay you back. Did you think of that?"

Rodney let out a heavy sigh. "At least let me pay for that... thing—" He fluttered his fingers at the contraption on the table. "—and whatever else it takes to get my car running."

John held up a forefinger, wagging it. "That you can do."

~*~*~

The nice thing about living near a grammar school: it wasn't hard to bum rides from the skating moms. John could see how Rodney had managed without a car all these years. He wasn't so stupid as to have anyone drop him off at Rodney's house, but Mrs. Weir was more than happy to take him as far as Melanie's school.

"Nah, it's no problem," John said, slinging his pack over his shoulder as he stepped out. "It's only a few blocks—and I've got a shortcut." All of which was true.

"You sure?" she asked, leaning down to peer at him through the open door. "It wouldn't be out of my way."

"I'm cool," he said, smiling.

"Um, John. Before you go…." she began, a pensive note in her voice. She paused, a hand reaching in his direction, touching the seat. "I was wondering…."

John straightened slowly, his mind flipping through and discarding possible reasons she'd want to talk to him—and landed on the day that he'd skated for her. Uh-oh. Here it came. Lonely neglected housewives. She must have been thinking about the "great skating romance" for the last six weeks. John's head rolled to the side and he suppressed a knowing smirk. He'd let her down easy because it was his fault after all. He never should have flirted with her.

"… Interested in coaching Melanie," she finished.

"What?" He caught up with what she'd asked with an open-mouthed blink. "I'm not a coach."

"Yes, but you're a competitive skater and you have a lot of experience." Washed up. Done for. Has been. None of these words were coming out of her mouth and he tried not to take it that way, tried to see it like the compliment she probably meant it to be, his teeth grinding. "You've been great with her and she really likes you," Mrs. Weir added.

John swallowed bile. "I'm not a coach."

"But—"

"First off," and maybe John's tone was angrier than he meant it to be, "I'd have to be certified, and I'm not. Second—I'm not a coach."

"All right," Mrs. Weir said calmly, dignified, holding her head high. She had the quiet determined air of someone used to being indulged. "Perhaps in the future you might consider it." She dug in her purse and held out a card.

When his body had given out and he couldn't do the jumps anymore and he'd given up all hope ever making it?

"No," John said, his jaw as hard as rock. "That's not gonna happen." There were no post-skating plans. Not for him.

She was smart enough to put the card away.

~*~*~

John met Rodney in the driveway after Rodney's ride pulled away, the summer sun still high. He hefted Rodney's wheelie bag up one step at a time, wondering what the hell he had in there. And he complained about Mrs. Weir all the way from the curb to the front door.

Rodney opened the door for both of them, scowling. "Oh, so I'm losing the Weirs, am I?"

"I think she was just feeling me out," John said, bumping Rodney's arm as he pushed inside.

"You plus ten other coaches no doubt," Rodney said sourly, clicking on the living room lights.

John returned from the kitchen with a can of pop. He held it up and Rodney shook his head, no. John spritzed it open, slumping to the couch which sighed under his weight.

Rodney sniffed, "Melanie will never be anything more than sport skater at any rate. I mean, sure, she has the moves, but she lacks competitive spirit. I can't teach that."

"I just can't believe she asked me," John said, returning to the question at hand.

Rodney snorted. "They don't seem to get that within two weeks you'd be kicking their tiny little fannies, too. A nice coach isn't a winning coach."

"You think I'd be a winning coach?" John said with a curious glance, holding out his pop can. Predictably Rodney borrowed it for a sip. His diets didn't preclude whatever John was having.

"Do you want my honest opinion?" Rodney turned a bright eye towards John, handing him the pop can back.

"Do you have any other kind?" John said, dry as dust.

"You'd make a terrible coach."

"Thank god," John agreed.

~*~*~

The target rocked on the wind like a kite after John pushed the button and it rolled forward. He pulled it off. Only nine had hit within the concentric circles—none in the middle either—and the other seven perforated the edges. John poked at the one that nicked the farthest corner mournfully.

"Not bad for your first time," Ronon said, peeking over his shoulder. John had the fleeting desire to hide it from him.

"I missed," John said, ejecting the clip.

Ronon shook his head. "You're pretty good. All sixteen shots hit the target. The rest just takes practice. You only started going high and to the left towards the end." Ronon pointed to the cluster in the upper corner. "Maybe you should forget skating and join the army." He grinned, all teeth.

John whipped around and growled, "You know, I'm getting really sick and tired of people telling me I shouldn't skate!"

"Whoa, ease up, dude," Ronon said, holding up a palm. "It was just a joke."

"Oh," John said, mollified. "Well. I get sick of hearing it. Especially from people who haven't even seen me skate," he grumbled at the floor.

But Ronon had put on his ear protection and commenced firing.

"Number one!" John yelled over the firing as he struggled to put on his own headgear. "Guns are lot louder in real life than they are in the movies!" He attached another paper target and hit the button. "Number two!" He raised his own gun. "Shooting ranges aren't very social!"

John stuffed a new clip in his weapon, lowered it, aimed, and proceeded to blow the target away until his gun jammed, clicking. He hit the button and his target returned. More holes in the white spaces. His aim was crappy when he was mad.

Ronon did the same and pulled off his headgear, disentangling it from his dreadlocks. "I'll watch you skate," he said matter of factly.

"You will?" John said, surprised.

"Sure."

"Oh." John's lips parted as he processed this. He shook his head and covered his confusion by clearing the jam and sticking another clip into his gun. Finally he explained with a squint, "You know my dad doesn't even go to my competitions?"

"Really?"

"Never. Not even one," John said, his face carefully controlled.

~*~*~

The window of a white Honda hatchback rolled down and the driver whistled at a flagging cyclist, calling out over the thrum of the engine, "Hey, pretty boy! Going my way?"

John glanced up with a start and flash of irritation, then broke into a smile when he recognized Rodney. He pushed his helmet higher to take a look. The car rolled to stop. John stood over his bike. "Hey... it runs." He grinned.

"Turns out you were right about the water pump, although there were a few other things besides—like all four tires needed replacing, and boy, did your mechanic gave me an earful about bent rims," Rodney shouted, one arm stretched across the back of the seat. "Anyhow, you want a ride?" He patted the headrest.

John was tempted but shook his head. "Nah. It's only a few more blocks and—" He indicated the bike. "—the spokes might rip up the upholstery. Hate to damage your new ride."

"Okay, suit yourself. I'll see you when you get there, slowpoke." Rodney gave him a wink and a smug smile and waved as he pulled away. He slowed lazily for the stop sign, his turn signal on.

Oh, Rodney thought he'd make it home first, did he? John stood on his pedals and took a sharp turn into the unpaved alley. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Rodney's head jolt up, catching him in the rear view mirror—and he gunned his engine.

The bike rattled as John curved between ruts, wheels hissing on sand – he cut through a section of grass – and swerved diagonally across the Weaver's driveway. Pumping, rising up to bend forward over the handlebars, John shot a quick look over his shoulder as he hit blacktop. Through the trees a little white hatchback zoomed and then lurched to a stop at the traffic light. Straining, John put on a burst of speed, the wind picking up.

He raced on the dirt trail through the park, past teeter-totters and swing sets, dodging around a startled couple and their dog. He skidded over scattered woodchips where the trail opened up onto the road, then swept across the street, up and onto the neighbor's sidewalk, his shoulder high, ducking as pine branches whipped at his face. He stood off the seat and bounced over the single step, rolling down their neighbor's drive.

Rodney's Honda swerved into the driveway just in front of him, clipping the mailbox. Swearing, John pedaled harder. He dropped the bike in the front yard, jumped off, disentangling himself. He hit the grass at a dead run as Rodney struggled with his seatbelt and fumbled his door open. John launched up the front steps, only to feel a strong hand grab his shoulder, yank him back and shove him into the railing. With a surprised laugh, John caught his balance and tackled Rodney's legs on the top step. He landed on Rodney with a grunt and they went down in sprawl over the front porch. John's chin hit wood, getting a face full of splinters, and Rodney's car keys skittered with a jingle before they fell through a slot in the boards, silenced.

Out of breath, coughing and gasping, they rolled onto their backs. They lay there for several minutes, chests heaving with laughter, unable to stop.

"Brute force," Rodney gasped, when they could finally speak again. "That is so like you."

"Oh, who started that?" John laughed.

"You're going to fetch those keys," Rodney insisted. He barely moved, managing only a little flap of his hand before letting it drop to his forehead.

"No, I'm not," John assured him. He rolled his head to the side. "But thanks for breaking my fall."

"I think I'm going to need a chiropractor," Rodney moaned, but he was beaming.

~*~*~

The music suddenly cut off in the middle of the last footwork sequence as John ran through his entire long program. He finished it anyway, feeling pretty good. It was tough but, John nodded to himself as he pushed across the ice, he'd gotten it down. He edged his hip towards Rodney and Sonja, sliding to a stop.

"Well, that was a little rough around the edges," John began in all modesty, smiling with his hands in his pockets, "but I'd say—"

"I think that entire section needs to be earlier," Sonja mused aloud to Rodney, tapping her lower lip with a long fingernail. She flipped around to John. "You're good at that jump, yes?"

"Usually," John said, not sure if she meant the quad toe or the triple axel.

"Then we should have it right in front of the judges...." She turned and picked up a clipboard with graph paper, paging through the sheets. She tucked her hair behind her ears and folded them over. "Here. We'll have to change the transition, of course."

John leaned over and tried to make out her squiggles. No dice. "You'd have to change a lot more than that."

"And this spin is boring. I don't like it. We'll take it out completely." She started erasing feverishly.

"I just got that down...." John complained, but she held up her hand forcefully for silence.

Finally, she brushed eraser rubbings off the page and straightened. "Yes, that will be much nicer."

Rodney watched over her shoulder in fascination, although John narrowed his eyes at him, looking for the tell-tale confusion that would prove he couldn't follow it either. But Rodney simply rubbed his chin and said, "Hmm."

Sonja pulled the door to the ice open, stepping on. "It will be like this," she began, knee raised, her asymmetrical gauzy skirt fluttering behind her. She crooked a finger at John. "Come."

John tried to follow her new pattern, but it was just close enough to the old one that he had to check himself at every turn, slowing and losing the beat.

"You'll get it," she declared with a clenched smile.

"I got it the last time," John insisted.

She made several more radical changes before waving goodbye, throwing John a kiss and telling him he was doing marvelous. John scowled at her disappearing form.

"Rodney," he said in an undertone through gritted teeth, "She's driving me insane. I get it down—and then she changes it."

"She's great, isn't she?" Rodney beamed. "The timing's being honed like the edge of a knife."

"I haven't practiced the same program two weeks in a row!"

"Any program's going to need a few refinements," Rodney pointed out.

"Refinements? It's unrecognizable!"

"It's clear that you have never worked with a professional choreographer before," Rodney said with a superior gaze. "My Firebird Suite program took weeks to design," he assured him. "In fact, we were still making changes up until the day I left for the Olympics."

At John's shocked expression, Rodney laid a hand on his shoulder. "Get it down in sections, try not to think of it as a complete piece yet—and get into the music behind the program. Then all the changes will make sense."

~*~*~

A day later, Rodney glanced around the new age juice bar, wincing in irritation. Behind him an industrial blender whirred and a woman ordered a "Wheat grass, grande" like it was some sort of latte. Rodney recoiled in mute horror and hunched his shoulders around his overpriced "Mango Tango, tall." No doubt Sonja had chosen this fun house because she knew he would hate it. She plunked down on the stool next to him, holding a large cup of some sort of green and orange slime.

"It's healthy," Sonja said at his appalled stare, taking a long sip from her straw. It oozed up in chunks. She was doing her Jackie Onasis impression today, complete with cropped Chanel jacket and oversized pearls.

Rodney peered at his mango drink warily and hoped that it didn't ooze as well. "When I was growing up, juice came frozen in a can."

"Barbaric," she said, sipping more ooze.

"I know a kid in second grade who was dared to eat a frog, and when he threw up, it looked a lot like that." Rodney used his straw to point at her slime shake.

"You will not successfully disgust me," she said, her eyes steady, making a noise with her straw as a chunk caught.

"Yes, well, I've managed to disgust me," Rodney said mournfully, pushing away his Mango Tango. It was slimy, probably much like the guts of that....

Sonja sipped her drink with a displeased little frown and she looked at Rodney through beady narrowed eyes.

"So. How are we doing?" Rodney opened with a small smile, partially to escape this overpriced hippie haven, and partially because he was genuinely curious why she wanted to meet away from the rink.

"My choreography is excellent," she said with an unshakeable confidence that Rodney couldn't argue with.

He nodded agreement. "Highly original, which in the skating world is the ultimate praise."

She leaned her chin on a tiny little fist. "It is a wasted effort."

Rodney blinked as her frown deepened into a scowl.

"I give John Art and he turns it into shit," she said with a dramatic gesture.

"You choreograph for sixteen year olds," Rodney fired back.

"I would rather choreograph for a baby with some artistic sense than this." She hunched on her stool. "I tell him to duck low, stay low, like he is hiding, and then to spring!" She spread both hands. "Up! Like he has been caught." Rodney squirmed. He knew the part she was talking about and had the same complaint. "What does he do? He bends low, watches for the jump, does the transition and then he jumps—like he has been planning it the whole time." She let her hand fall to her knee with a slap. "It is all wrong," she said in disgust.

Rodney shifted on the stool, his face scrunched as he explained to her, "Well, it takes time for any skater to get into the emotion behind the program. First they have to get the technical aspects down. And... these are more changes than he's used to." Rodney flinched, knowing that wouldn't impress her.

"He is an elite skater. Senior level. For ten years." Sonja shook her head. "It should come quickly. And this, this that I'm showing him now? This part is not hard."

Rodney wrung his hands, wincing at her. "The artistic scores are what we're working on."

Leaning on her elbows she ducked her head, clutching at her blond hair. "He's going to make me look like a fool." She straightened with a huff of breath. "I will finish this long program for you, Rodney, because I love you and you are my friend. But I am never again doing this. He is destroying my work. Even worse," she added, "he is destroying my best work."

~*~*~

John walked past the windows with a faint zapping rasp as the electric hedge trimmers took off another swathe of branches. Rodney couldn't see the point of organizing nature – square hedges were a sign of man's delusion that he'd conquered the wild, while dandelions were proof positive that it was doomed – but since he'd allowed John to tackle the lawn he'd heard fewer complaints from the neighbors, so it was all to the good.

Rodney dragged the phone into the bedroom and paced impatiently until Radek finally picked up.

"Hello?"

"I don't tell him that I'm better than him," Rodney announced defensively. "I tell him that I'm better than everyone! That's different!"

They wasted a minute for Radek to get over the novelty of Rodney calling him during waking hours. Then it took them several minutes to bring Radek up to speed and remind him of their last conversation (which Radek insisted had been over a month ago but it had been only three weeks. At most). They recapped Radek's unfair accusation that Rodney had somehow crushed John's spirit.

"I merely suggested that there must be a reason for him to imitate you," Radek said with an impatient sigh.

"Well, he needs to do a better job of it, because Sonja's ready to throw in the towel," Rodney said.

"Pfft. Sonja."

"You two never did hit it off, did you?" Rodney mused.

"She said I looked better with my clothes on," Radek complained.

"She meant it as a compliment," Rodney said off-handedly.

"Sonja can keep her opinions to herself."

"That's true." Rodney put his fist on his hip, looking around the room. The zapping sound increased as John started on the shrubs in the backyard. "Thank you, Radek, that's a very good point. I mean, who's the coach here anyhow?"

"What?"

Rodney stabbed a finger in the air. "She may be the one with Olympic gold on her wall, but I have a decade of experience coaching."

~*~*~

"Now hear me out," Rodney announced the following Friday. John gave him a mulish stare, while Sonja had that indulgent smile that said she was humoring him.

"I've given it some thought, and I think it's not too late to change our choice of music," Rodney said. "'Mission: Impossible' would be perfect for the long program." He enumerated his points on his hand. "It suits John's style without being ludicrously difficult. It's a crowd pleaser—which will solve half our problem right there, since when the crowd's into the program your artistic marks go up automatically. And then the whole 'Impossible' angle will be a wink to the judges about John's record. They'll eat it up."

John's arms were folded. "So you're saying we dump the last six weeks worth of work?"

"Exactly!" Rodney nodded emphatically. "You weren't getting it anyway! Why don't we save the ground-breaking choreography for the ground-breaking figure skaters?"

"Can I choreograph you?" Sonja asked.

"What? I'm not—no!" Rodney licked his lips. "Look, we need to go with what will work."

"So that whole song and dance about me picking my own music and having a say in my own program only holds true so long as you like my choices." John scowled at him.

"No, no, no! It's just that it's obviously not working out—"

"Oh, I get it all right," John said with false cheer. He skated off across the rink until he hit the doors on the opposite side. There he snapped on his skate guards and stalked out to the coke machines.

Rodney desperately turned to Sonja for support.

She threw up her hands and shrugged, philosophical about it. "He is not going to win anyway. Let him have his fun."

Then she glanced at her watch. "We end early tonight, yes?" She followed John's tracks across the ice and then stepped off when Rodney said nothing, taking off her skates and replacing them with four-inch heels.

"It will be a short season," she called out to Rodney, as if that were supposed to be some sort of reassurance. The elevator doors shut behind her.

"Am I the only person who cares if he wins?" Rodney asked the empty stadium.

~*~*~

Saturday all the lights in the house were on with the dimmer switches turned down low. Rodney had soft romantic music on, a gentle rocking rhythm. He was still shouldering the coffee table back against the fireplace when John came in.

"Ah. It's about time you got home," Rodney said. He dusted off his hands and beamed a smile at him. "I thought we'd try something tonight."

John shook his windbreaker off one arm and glanced around in evident bemusement.

"Should I be worried?" John tossed the windbreaker onto a hook and loped into the living room.

"Call it a work night," Rodney said. "I'm feeling particularly brilliant this evening. Which is not to say that I'm not always brilliant," he assured John with a small sweeping gesture with his hand, mimicking a bird taking flight, "but there are certain times that the stars line up and you just know you're going to shine."

"Fortune smiles on us all," John said dryly, hands on his hips, head tilted at Rodney.

"Doesn't it?" Rodney's smile spread into a grin that was probably a little goofy. Then he snapped his fingers at John. He wasn't with the program yet. Sometimes it frustrated Rodney, when he was galloping leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world, to have to turn back and explain everything. "Take off your shirt."

"Oh, this is a naked brilliant idea," John said, reaching for the buttons and seeming more on board.

"No. It's just that your shirt is garish and it's distracting me."

John pouted down at the well-worn plaid, plucking at it. Rodney could never understand his tendency to get attached to shabby inanimate objects, exhibit A: his car.

"Come, Come." Rodney urged him with a hand-spinning motion. There was a rebellious pause as John met his eyes, but slowly the shirt slid off his shoulders, John looking doubtful but interested. And horny.

Perfect.

Rodney helped hurry him along with the shirt, saying as he fussed with it, "So. You know already how to create an abstract idea in skating... James Bond, that sort of thing...."

"This is a skating lesson?" John sounded disappointed.

"Yes. Of course it is," Rodney said impatiently. People were always very slow on the uptake when he was on one of his streaks, although to be fair it was mostly in comparison to his own intellect and creative acumen. He hooked John's arm with his own and drew him into the center of the living room. "Just run with it, please."

"Please" usually worked to silence the initial objections of the ignorant, Rodney had found.

John pulled off his T-shirt, too, and stood bare-chested in the little clear area Rodney had created, his skin pebbling. Rodney had meant to turn the heat up but it had slipped his mind. That shouldn't matter in a moment, however. He turned up Thunderpuss' thumping cover of "New York City Boys."

"I like this song," John said.

"Yes, yes, I know, that's why it's playing." Rodney spread his hands, forestalling further inane commentary. "So. Right now you know how to create an abstract concept, a visual image that has certain associations for your audience – such as James Bond." John nodded, his lips pursed. He folded his arms over his chest. Not the most receptive posture but perhaps he was just cold. Rodney made a chopping gesture with both hands, like an elevator going down. "You need to go a level or two deeper than that. Delve into the emotions. Movement and emotion, of course they're not separate," Rodney said on a chuckle at that perfectly obvious statement.

John gave him a strange look, one eye cocked at Rodney. All right, not perfectly obvious to everyone. But John, although halfway intelligent, was more physical than intellectual in his approach to problems, so Rodney barreled ahead.

"We'll start with something you're good at—as I can attest to from extensive personal experience." Rodney smirked. "Sex."

John's eyebrows raised. "You should charge more for your lessons."

"Ha, ha. You know, valuable insights are being wasted here while you indulge your puerile sense of humor," Rodney snapped.

"Sorry, Rodney. Sex. Movement." John smiled as if he were indulging Rodney. "I'm all ears."

"Good." Rodney led John by the elbow to the CD player. "Now. There are different types of sex, of course. Thus, our soundtrack for this evening." He waved a hand to the stereo. Picking up the remote he switched to a different song. Bouncy Hispanic rap by Molotov began, chanting "Here comes the mayo...."

"I like this song, too," John noted.

"Again, chosen for just that reason." Rodney's eyelashes fluttered in frustration as John insisted on missing the point. "So. Pop quiz. What kind of sex is embodied in this song?"

John tipped his head, considering.

He was a difficult student. He actually learned with his body but he was stubborn, even if he didn't want to be, forcing Rodney to convince his mind first. It was like he had to pre-set John into learning mode.

"It's kind of, you know ... threesomes, teenage experimentation, that sort of thing. Doing wild, stupid stuff. It's rave music."

Rodney bobbed his head, bouncing to the beat a little, agreeing. John was finally on the on-ramp to the McKay superhighway. "How about this?" He pointed the remote at the CD player and song clicked over to thumping gay nightclub classic, "Dive in the Pool." "What's different about this one?"

John moved his chin back and forth in time with it. He rubbed his lower lip with his forefinger and said, shrugging, "It's louder." Rodney nodded eagerly so he continued, "Older, smarter. You know better what you're doing and what you want. It's still multi-partner, casual sex. Where you get in, get what you want, and get out."

Which sounded appealing. Not that Rodney regretted his relationships; it was just that they'd been so few and far between. He sighed, wistful. "Hmm. I never really did much of that."

"What happened to your parade of international stardom way back when?"

"Oh, it was mostly only one person. I suppose I'm monogamous by nature."

John snorted at the admission. "Yeah, no surprise there."

"What?" Rodney realized he might have lost some cool points with John who had apparently done a lot of that sort of thing.

"No," John said. "I mean, you've lived in the same house for ten years. In your twenties. Most people don't even stick with the same apartment."

"Hey. I could have had countless people through here!"

"But you didn't," John pointed at him, accusingly, Rodney thought. "Look. You seem kind of ... single-minded, and you don't like change much." They both cringed away from the standing minefield of John and cleaning. "I'm just saying that you don't strike me as the type who wants to wake up with someone different every week."

"Is that how it works? One a week?" Rodney asked, bewildered, going eyes wide as he took in the fact that he was currently with the type of guy who'd slept with someone new every week. Wouldn't that get him used to infinite variety? Would he get bored? He looked John up and down, but John for his part just seemed tense.

"Sometimes every couple of days." John dug his toe at the carpet, studying the floor. "Sometimes you strike out a lot, or what's available isn't worth the work involved."

Rodney breathed easier. He'd tried that kind of life himself but mostly he'd struck out. Good that John had as well.

"Sometimes it ... really sucks."

"Oh?" Rodney perked up with prurient curiosity.

John studied him a moment. Then said in a measured tone, "If you don't like someone you're rid of them fast, I guess. But if you do like them...." He shrugged it off. "That's not what they're in it for, it's no big deal if they don't call you back." John grimaced and looked away. "I got out of that world pretty fast. Wasn't my thing."

"Hmm," Rodney said. And realized they were far off-topic. Though he made a mental note of "not my thing" and put it in a silver box, stowed deep in his memory.

He clicked to another song, a slow tremulous trumpet, jazzy and sensual, "Straight to Number One."

John listened and didn't even need to prompted, causing Rodney to fold his arms and beam at him in pride. "Okay," John pointed at the stereo. "Now that's very personal. It's sex, but one on one." "And what's different about it?"

John's mouth quirked to the side in his smart-ass expression. "A woman sings it."

"Ah." Rodney raised a finger, smiling. "But she's not singing, is she?"

"She's whispering," John said, getting it, and on board with the program.

"Now don't tell me about it. Show me."

John squinted at him, clearly puzzled and curious. Mystified, not that he would admit it.

"Let's go back to the queer anthem, shall we?" Rodney returned to the thumping club music and turned it up loud. "Now. Show me this song."

John winced and hesitated.

"Oh, come on. Everyone knows this song. No one cares how you dance to it." Rodney licked his lips and began again, hand in a placating gesture. "All right. Tell me about this song first, then."

"Ah.... It's loud. Fun." John's head dipped, seeming to recognize how silly it was to describe a song rather than dance to it. "People do a conga line. Had a guy practically rub himself off on me all around a club one time...." John's expression froze as his words trailed off, like it had belatedly occurred to him that Rodney might not appreciate that little tidbit. So he'd noticed Rodney's worries earlier. Rodney gave his silver box a mental pat; "not my thing" was still there, warming him.

Although apparently he'd have to demonstrate before John would deign to move his body. Rodney took a moment to roll his eyes and silently berate the whole of white Anglo-Saxon culture that made little boys sit still in church pews and the like, thus needlessly complicating his job. Few of his black students had this problem. Rodney raised his arms and bounced. "Experiment. It doesn't matter how it looks."

The singer shouted, "Let's get soaking wet!" and Rodney turned it up still louder. He led a trail around the couch, declaring, "I'm not even watching you! Grab my hips if you want. That's the benefit of a conga line."

He glanced back, unable to resist. John had let his shoulders bounce to the music, watching Rodney with a sparkle of amusement. But then he slowed, so Rodney studiously kept his eyes forward. He felt John's hands come to rest on his hips.

Rodney asked at the end of the song, breathing hard, "Better?"

He didn't wait for an answer but switched back to the slow techno-jazz of "Straight to Number One." He set down the remote and turned to face John, swaying with him, hand cupped around his hip. It was a simple rhythm in 2/4 time, with a light pick-up and emphasis on the upbeat in the repeating phrase, the bass drum imitating a heartbeat. Very easy to swing back and forth like teenagers at the senior prom. That, however appealing, was not the goal.

Rodney murmured in John's ear, "So how would this be different from the other piece?" John's hair was warm with sweat. He smelled like after shave and sharp body odor, not that Rodney minded one bit.

"It's quieter. Slower."

"And how do you move?"

"Slower," John said with a wink, arms stretched straight out over Rodney's shoulders, hands clasped, and grinning.

Rodney huffed a sigh at him. "And-?"

John shrugged.

"You make smaller, gentler, 'fluffier' movements. Imagine you're dancing in whipped cream."

He felt John's slow upbeat bounce become more conscious, not just mindlessly swaying but lighter on his feet.

Rodney switched the CD back to the pounding club music.

"Hey... I liked that song."

"This is a lesson, not pleasure time," Rodney reminded him, eyes closed primly. "Now, the gay techno is—"

"—Loud. And kind of a shock to the system right now."

"—Aggressively masculine. Therefore you need stronger movements." Rodney chewed his lip, thinking how to describe this. "You know how you have to fight your way through the crowd to the bar?"

John laughed. "Yeah."

"Forceful. Like that."

Rodney backed away to the opposite side of the room and motioned to John, making cupping gestures with both hands. "Force your way through the crowd to me." He held up a forefinger. "But in time with the music."

John glanced down at the floor and back up at Rodney, as if measuring the distance. He unconsciously made loose fists, jaw clamped, muscling with a sideways motion as he swam upstream to Rodney, laboring through an invisible crowd with his shoulders.

"Good!" Much better than Rodney had expected. He'd picked up some of the melodic line with his chest, too.

"It doesn't seem any different to me."

"It's much better. Trust me."

John rubbed the back of his neck, eyes squinted in confusion.

Rodney switched back to a quieter piece, the humming synthesizers on "Sola Sistem," soft and dreamy.

"You know, that's really jarring." But he accepted Rodney's arms back around his waist.

His moves were coming easier with just a little practice. Rodney could see little catches as John over-thought it, but those would smooth away with time.

John admitted after a moment, swaying in the slow dance, "I like this much better."

"I'm learning that about you. I can't decide if it's natural laziness or if you're really just a closet romantic," Rodney said. "Now tell me about this one. What kind of sex do you think it is?"

John rubbed his cheek on Rodney's shoulder, soft as a kiss. "It's the second round. Or maybe the next morning when you've got plenty of time." He changed the swaying motion, taking the lead.

"So this is light and fluffy too, eh?"

"Mmm." John answered with a languid shimmy of his hips, slow as syrup, pressing close.

That was a no. Rodney gave him an A-plus.

Mindful of John's complaint, he let the song play all the way through—which had nothing whatsoever with the fact that Rodney was enjoying himself. At the end of the song Rodney shifted to "Suffering," a sad, acoustic guitar piece with a delicate pick-up note into heavy downbeat, like someone pacing.

"Now... I want you to think about those lovers who didn't call you back."

"I'd rather not," John said, his expression darkening.

"But it's part of sex, isn't it?" Rodney told him anxiously, catching his eyes. This was important to understand. "You've got to capture nuance."

He turned John around, resting his chin on John's shoulder, to give him a chance to think. John resisted being manhandled a moment, then let Rodney clasp his arms around his waist from behind.

"I'll dance it with you."

John's head had fallen forward, mouth in a harsh frown. His body had fallen still. Rodney persisted with the scuffing step of the song. "Nobody suffers like I do... nobody else, oh no...." the song crooned.

They weren't getting anywhere. Rodney listened to the lyrics, forcing himself to stay silent. "Nobody suffers like I do... nobody else but you...."

Arms shifting into a more comfortable position, Rodney swallowed and said into John's shoulder, "I had a... a friend. I didn't know what had happened to him for four years. Thought he was in the Russian gulag." He huffed a little laugh at his teenage self and some very unfortunate research. "Ah, well. I was young. I could be pretty melodramatic back then." He hummed. "But that's part of it. Yearning. The whole... caring thing. It's risky."

"Yes." John's voice was deep and sincere, his face in shadow. But the lines of tension softened and he seemed a little less stoic.

"So," Rodney waved away his inward curiosity at the mysteries of John's brain and stuck to the purpose at hand. "What does your body do when you think of these things?" he asked. "Not anyone else's body, mind you. Yours."

John gave a barely perceptible tilt of his head. "I just want to curl up and—"

"No, not what you want. That's thinking. What does your body do? You curl up... and-? Give me physical descriptions."

John took a breath.

"Okay. Get yourself back into the mood and watch yourself," Rodney said.

John took a moment. Rodney wondered if he'd taken to heart what he'd never told anyone about Radek, or if he was brooding on something else from his own life.

"I look at the ground. Head down. My shoulders curl forward. And my arms kind of go like this." He demonstrated, one arm over his chest, the other around to his hip, protectively. "No. Wait," he corrected himself. "My head kind of goes to the side, not just down."

"Good," Rodney said. That was a level of detail he hadn't expected. "And how do you move?"

"Slow. Kind of... stumbling?" John scrunched his face up and glanced back at Rodney. "That's kind of overdoing it, isn't it?"

"Don't judge yourself. Just go with it."

"Then my hands go out, hopeless. Like just—fuck it." He flung his hands out and let them drop.

Rodney watched him, thoughtful. "Sharp movements? So you're angry?"

"A little of that, yeah."

"That's what I mean by nuance," Rodney said. "There's sadness and heartbreak inside of sex, and anger inside of sadness."

"Huh."

"If you're telling a truth like this out there on the ice, all that nuance will just ... be there. You'll have a performance, not just disconnected motion."

"It isn't really about dancing, is it?" John said.

"No." Rodney shook his head. "It's about being true to yourself. Getting to something raw and real. If it scares you to do it, you're probably right on track."

Rodney let go and backed away a few steps, blinking rapidly. "Whew, ah. I, um, didn't mean to talk so much."

"It's fine," John said softly.

"Okay. Um. You work on that and I'll... be, um," Rodney thumbed over his shoulder, "elsewhere."

"You don't have to go." John gave him a puzzled look.

Rodney shook his head. "Ah. I think you'll find that when you hit something real you'll need a bit of 'a moment' afterward." He picked up the car keys and jingled them. "But... keep dancing."

"Every day?" John offered, looking up.

It was an outstanding sign that he was the one who had suggested it.

"Let's not make a schedule, okay? You already have a lot of that. A few times a week at least. But especially when you feel like it," Rodney said, emphasizing the weak pun. John didn't seem to catch it, his chin lifted and eyes closed.

~*~*~

After driving in aimless circles for a while, Rodney spotted a pay phone at a gas station and realized that he'd been looking for one. Parked, he strode purposefully towards it, the gas station deserted at this hour. The receiver was wet with condensation. He wiped it on his shirt, then dialed the familiar number. The sweat from dancing was cool on the back of his neck.

He called collect since there was no way he had enough change to call Europe.

Radek picked up the phone right away.

"Three-fifteen a.m. It's a new record."

"Don't even pretend you were asleep. You're a night owl that hasn't seen the dawn in years."

Radek didn't argue, which was as good as an admission.

Then Rodney, much to his own dismay, found himself at a loss for words, pinwheeling in the sudden silence. A series of absurd platitudes came to mind, discarded just as quickly as being unworthy of a three a.m. phone call. Finally, he decided to get to the point. Radek hated to waste time.

"I... I thought you were gone for good," Rodney blurted out. Then he clarified, realizing that the Radek he was speaking to was in the present, "I mean, back in 1986."

"A reasonable assumption given that I was carted off by the government."

"I worried about you."

Radek snorted. "That was foolish. There was nothing you could do."

"Yes. Well. I did."

Rodney could practically hear Radek blinking in confusion.

"All right."

~*~*~

Most of the lights were off by the time Rodney returned. He pulled in to the driveway and slid the parking brake home. He smiled with satisfaction as he noted the kitchen drapes were drawn; all signs suggested that John hadn't stopped dancing after he left. Rodney tried to picture it and realized he really couldn't. Instead, his mind conjured up images of a teenage John playing air guitar. He was still chortling as he unlocked the door.

John startled defensively, sitting up a few inches from where he was sprawled on the couch. It took Rodney a moment to process the creamy color of John's bare skin against the dark blue of the fabric, the slight curve of his hip and trail of hair leading to his steady sliding hand. Covered partially, his cock was also blush red. The color was high on John's face, a sheen of sweat where the light curved over his shoulders.

Bright, guilty, yet unrepentant eyes shone up at Rodney. "You did say 'nuance.'" John blushed. He could be surprisingly sweet under his tough exterior.

Rodney dropped his coat on the floor, clambered over the arm of the couch and up between his legs. He knocked John's hand aside, saying, "Give me that." Rodney fisted the firm length of John's cock, warm and sleek with oil, though his thigh was clammy against Rodney's cheek.

John edged back on the couch to give him room and relaxed, looking down his chest with languid eyes. His legs fell open and he let a soft grunt as Rodney swallowed him down.

~*~*~

John flipped the bill for the car storage back and forth between his fingers, paid in full circled on it. He paced the kitchen, the phone on his shoulder. The cord dragged along the floor behind him as he opened the fridge, found nothing in there he wanted, shut it, and moved on to the cabinets.

The insurance company was giving in by stages, but they had issued an ultimatum they would pay storage fees only up to a certain amount. John was pissed enough at them to make sure it cost them exactly that much (hoping it would force them to get their act together), but he wouldn't risk getting stuck with the bill. Faced with the choice of getting the car fixed -- and maybe never getting paid for it -- and paying to get it out of hock, John chose the lesser of two evils. Which meant....

"Thanks, mom," John said, edging his shoulder higher to hold the phone. He found a package of crackers which he proceeded to mangle, dripping crumbs on the counter. "I just couldn't ask... well, anyway. Thanks."

"What's family for?" she said, brushing it off. It was nothing to her, he knew. Then she chided, a bit of steel behind her voice, "We missed you last year."

John ran his hand through his hair, digging the heel of his sneaker into the kitchen linoleum. He looked around for an escape from this part of the conversation. "Yeah, something came up."

"This year the Sectional is in Ohio, just a hop, skip and a jump away. I checked. So there's no excuse."

Visions of lectures filled John's mind. Being surrounded on all sides by family, and their opinions, right in the middle of the skating season. Why couldn't Thanksgiving be in August? "Um. You mind if Rodney comes?"

"He's a skating friend of yours?"

"He's my coach," John said. Then he started getting into it, slouched back against the window. Rodney was perfect. They'd be polite with a witness there. "And, you know, I'd hate to leave him here all alone...."

"All alone?"

"Well, we're sort of roommates now—" John stopped short, looking up, a clear light dawning in his eyes, lips parted as he realized how that sounded. He flashed on telling his mom that he had his own room – and Rodney had meant to give him the den, though John was glad he hadn't because he'd seen the den now, plus Rodney would have had to move his computer – and by the time he weighed the fact that he really didn't want to lie, against the fact that he really didn't want her to know, he knew he'd been quiet far too long.

"Johnny?"

"I've got to go."

He quickly hung up and stared at the phone.

Of course it rang right away. And the answering machine had Rodney's voice on it. John picked up the receiver and held it gingerly away from his face like an unexploded bomb. "Hello?"

It could be a telemarketer. It could happen.

"Johnny?

That's where we left off, John thought ironically. He ducked his head, biting his lip. "Yeah?"

"Are you—?"

Oh, man, he really didn't want to hear the end of that sentence. Fortunately, his mom obliged. John rubbed his eyes and didn't say anything for a long, drawn out moment.

"I knew it!" she said, victorious.

John decided "knew what?" wouldn't fly at this point. He raised his chin an inch, toughing it out. "What do you mean?" he asked.

There. That was neutral. He could still salvage this.

"I always suspected."

"Is this because of my skating?" John whined, voice muffled with his face buried in his hand.

"What? No." She went on, "You were always so different from the other boys, and when you were in the womb—" Here John inwardly died. He'd heard this story a million times. "—I was convinced you were a girl. And in a way, I was right."

"Mom...."

"Plus all those skating posters. You know, there are girl skaters in this world, Johnny, and you'd think a teenage boy would have noticed."

"Mom...."

"And you took all the clothes off your G.I. Joe."

John groaned. How did she know about that? "Can we not talk about this now?"

"I told your father that it was perfectly normal for you to be curious, that's what Dr. Spock said, though I wondered at the time—"

John tried a firmer voice. "Mom." That got her attention. He sighed and adjusted the phone closer, looking down. "Are you all right?"

"I... need a moment to catch my breath."

~*~*~

She called back an hour or so later. John sat in the darkened kitchen, the quiet family neighborhood lit by twilight outside, green with deepening gray skies, the clouds white underneath. Several kids raced by across the street, chasing each other, taking advantage of the last gasp of daylight before being forced to go home for dinner. John's voice was a low murmur, punctuated by an embarrassed chuckle every now and then while he revised ten years of history for her.

He ran his wrist over his knee nervously. Then he asked, looking up, eyes intense, "You're not disappointed in me, are you?"

"What?" she said, genuinely shocked, "No!" Then she added, half-joking, "But I hope you're not disappointed that I'm not too surprised. I'd hate to spoil your dramatic moment."

John frowned, thinking it over. "I kind of am. This is big news."

"You've never been as subtle as you think," she said.

Outside there came the distinct ringing sound of a whiffle bat and kids shouting, "Go, go, go!"

"I'll have to tell your father," she warned him.

John was just grateful that she'd tell him. "I know." His arms folded, slumped in the chair and worn out, he was surprisingly okay with it. Most likely because his dad was in another country. "Will he be as surprised as you were?" John said in a dry voice, his shirt shifting as he leaned back.

His mom took a delicate breath. "Less," she said.

"I figured."

~*~*~

The heat radiated from the empty parking lot, a rising hot shimmer behind John. It was cooler under the row of archways outside the rink which created a wind tunnel, sifting his hair. Light curved in half-moon shapes between overlapping shadows, a shade deeper where they crossed, sweeping over each other.

Sand scuffed under his bare feet where he paced out three steps, and turned. The cord of the headphones dangled and Rodney's CD player felt like a gun on his hip. Lifting his arms tentatively, John licked his lips, chewed his lower lip and tried to find the bass beat with the swing of his shoulders.

He stopped, shook his head, his teeth white as he laughed at himself. He bent down and clicked to the next song, blinking up at the sky.

Shifting his weight self-consciously, John rocked from side to side to the drumming repetition of the club mix. He deepened the motion, eyes shut. His forehead creased for a moment as he forced that internal voice, John, you're making an idiot of yourself, into silence. He focused, a hand to his lips—he made it drop—and deliberately shelved the steps of his programs, breathing in the music instead. His shoulders relaxed, head lifted. Light was gold against his eyelids while he let his hips move, shadows shifting as he turned.

~*~*~

If John had a diary, it would read,

"Dear diary,

I suck."

Except if he had a diary, Rodney would probably get his hands on it and then John would have to defend why he sucked, while Rodney said things like, "Now, let's be specific. That jump sucked. Singular. I don't want to hear any generalizations and outlandish stories built on one mistake. Also, have you done this before? Yes? Good. Now get back to work." And then he'd rant about how skating was simple, that it was skaters who were complicated. "I'd like a map of those kaleidoscopes you call minds" – and, great. Rodney had managed to invade even his hypothetical diary.

At least Sonja had stopped making major changes. They'd had to pass on a pre-season competition simply because her program—John couldn't think of it as his—wasn't done. Rodney had probably given her an earful about that.

John pumped around the ice, his legs tired and sore, his mind more on the snack machine than this, the fourth run-through of his long program in a row. He dipped into a spin and felt it travel across the ice. Shit. He fell out of it entirely, and felt Rodney's eyes on him with his particular confused mixture of appalled amusement. Technically at the moment, Rodney was teaching a small group class, demonstrating footwork and then gliding to the side as they copied him, but he always kept an eye on John.

Frankly? John could do without the attention today.

He tossed aside the current run-through for the time being to get at least that one spin right, and felt the thunderous weight of Rodney's displeasure, telegraphed in the set of his jaw and the way he turned slightly away from John. Fine. John wondered if letting himself hit the snack machine would get rid of that distraction, or if another one would pop up and take its place. He circled to his starting position again for his fifth run-through.

Maybe he needed to take it slower, go step by step? Or section it out?

He dropped any concept of working at tempo and sketched out the program slowly, aiming for precision. He transitioned into a double Lutz rather than work it full-out—and took off, realizing instantly it was the wrong edge, a flutz, then wobbled the landing and tumbled backward onto his ass, one hand on the ice. Crap.

What a granny jump.

Maybe his blood sugar was low and it was costing him his concentration. John gave up on the fifth run-through and skated to the side of the rink. He snapped on the skate guards and walked out. Moments later, he returned with a half eaten package of chips, still chewing.

He rolled up the empty bag, stuffed it into his pack, then glided back onto the ice, feeling a little better. Right up until he began his sixth run-through.

~*~*~

As John waited for Rodney in the dark outside the rink, there was no sound except the cars hissing by. No one could see him, so John put on the CD headphones and spun around and around, arms spread like a kid, his windbreaker fanning out around him.

"John?"

John yanked the headphones off. He wondered when Rodney had appeared or if he'd seen.

"Ready to go?" Rodney said. John could barely make Rodney out in the light, so he figured not.

John cleared his throat. "Uh. Yeah," he said in a low, adult-sounding voice, trying to cover his embarrassment.

~*~*~

The nice thing about Rodney was that he seemed to genuinely enjoy his students' screw-ups. It was like he considered each one a new marvel of idiocy and proof of his own superiority. Then he would be straight with you and say exactly what he thought, that the jump/combination spin/whatever was lousy, and explain exactly what he wanted to see next.

It was infinitely preferable to Sonja's obvious disdain followed by false cheer. "That was much better, John!"

John gave her a dismal stare over his shoulder and wondered if that worked on anyone over the age of five.

"Only because his last try located new levels of abysmal and then found the substrata beneath it."

Which was much better in John's book, although he sighed at Rodney's all-too-accurate assessment.

"Never mind performing 'with feeling'," Rodney said, his arms folded but the air quotes evident in his sarcasm. "I'll settle for a pallid facsimile of a program that is at the very least accurate. We'll just keep lowering the bar until we find a level you can manage." He made a gesture with both palms up, like he was urging an orchestra to turn up the volume. "And give us a little perkiness? Some energy? This is figure skating, not torture."

John wasn't too sure about that. He returned to his starting position and waited for the beats of the taiko drums to begin.

He sketched the arm work Sonja had added, feeling awkward and silly, and ducked into the opening spin, back leg extended. He popped up into the little hop, a half step behind the beat, then moved into the footwork sequence, a basic walk-through.

As he leaned to the side and transitioned into the spin, he let his arms open, outstretched with the music, with the force of the turn... and for one moment of clarity, it clicked. It felt right... yeah, like that... and he dropped into the tuck. It wasn't in the choreography but....

"What was that?" Sonja's voice snapped across the ice. John let his momentum fall away and he stopped. The music continued without him.

She glared at him, hawk-like, and then turned to Rodney.

Rodney was making placating gestures, with a quick panicked check of his watch. "Ah. I think that's good enough for today. We're tired, making mistakes, little itty bitty slips, we've been working this program very, very hard—and very, very exactly, I might add—and we should, ah, take a break?" he ended weakly in a questioning tone. "We can do the short program next week. That's going very well, don't you think?" he turned to Sonja, hands together like little paws.

She was quiet a moment, then conceded with a slow nod, "It is."

"Good, good." Rodney wrung his hands. "We'll see everyone back here next week, same bat time, same bat station." He smiled at her rather desperately.

She gathered her coat and gave John a wide, false smile as she left, the one female skaters used when they were either pissed off or in pain. They were trained to smile no matter what. It was weird to watch one of them get cut off in traffic or have someone step on her toe and see that blank smile appear.

The music built to a crescendo around them and then finished. The elevator returned with an empty car, opening with a ding.

"We're ending a little early," John noted, hands on his hips.

Arms pumping, Rodney skated out to him. He slid delicately to a stop without so much as a scrape along the ice; sometimes his skill with compulsory figures showed. His head ducked, he held up a forefinger, paused as if gathering his thoughts, and then said, "Let me teach you some basic Sonja mathematics." He pinched his fingers together. "She's okay with subtraction. You can miss an element, screw up a jump—it happens. But," Rodney looked up, eyes intense and very, very blue, "she's not too keen on addition. If you want to try a little extemporaneous experimentation, be my guest! But not with her work." Rodney shook his head. "I swore up and down that you were no wannabe choreographer, that you followed your programs with slavish devotion—and I was telling the truth, darn it!"

"I don't know what I did," John said, face blank.

Rodney stabbed a finger at him. "Just... do it on your own time. Pick some music. Lyrics, anything, maybe some other taiko piece," he said, hands sweeping back and forth as he improvised. "But don't fool with her programs. Why do you think no one can get her to choreograph these days?"

~*~*~

Monday's skate proved no better.

John wiped at his chin with his sleeve as he carved around the rink. Rodney watched him from the sidelines, offering fewer directions than usual, and John tried to ignore the genuine worry that had crept into his eyes. He'd stopped mocking John and started reassuring him, which John knew was a very bad sign.

By the end of Tuesday's session they'd dropped back from doing the entire program to just drilling small sections in isolation. Their shadows crossed each other on the ice where Rodney followed close, looking up at him, anxiously reassuring while they drilled it slow, a few steps at a time.

After the session, John trailed Rodney into his office and threw himself into a chair with a heavy sigh, his face blank, ready to hear Rodney's blistering array of complaints. Instead, Rodney counseled patience. John glanced at the wall calendar—August, Jesus—while Rodney assured him that, "Well, Rome wasn't built in a day."

John didn't think Rome was built in five weeks, either, but that's how much time he had before the competition season began.

Over the next few days John started tensing up over "Surf Rider" as well; wooden and tight through the choreography, losing it in the spins—and it reached the point where even his jumps were affected.

His former coach had called it "rubber legs," where you were unsure of yourself seconds into a jump. John landed sprawled on his chest, and he could hear the "Oh—!" from the other skaters as the wind was knocked out of him. All eyes turned.

It was a bad fall. He stood up, one arm clutching his chest over his sternum, breathing slowly to let the pain ease. He backed into crisscross steps, ignoring the sympathetic attention as he picked up speed, lowering his head to go again.

The rug had been pulled out from under him—and he didn't know why.

~*~*~

An hour later in the men's locker room, John resisted throwing his skates and instead set them down, gently, his jaw clenched. Then he tipped up and let loose a high sidekick with a yell of rage—and slammed the stall door.

The top pivot cracked, ripped sideways as he watched, stunned. The door took the bottom hinge with it, and the entire thing came down with a bang, echoing.

Half conscious of his surroundings, John heard a patter of running footsteps. He realized what that must be, and turned a sheepish embarrassed smirk to the shocked faces who crowded the entrance. They stared at him, then at the door, flat on the ground, and then back at him.

With a half-laugh of surprise, still breathing hard, John tried hard to summon the right amount of guilt. Because that, in fact, had felt really fucking good.

"Um... yeah, sorry about that," he said, bewildered. He rubbed the back of his neck and examined the ragged edges of the hinges. They looked more like torn cardboard than metal. "Those must be really cheap hinges."

~*~*~

Normally if they were at the rink late, John would go back on the ice. Today, John just wanted to go home. But one of Rodney's clients had called just as they were leaving and caught him in his office.

John hung outside, back leaned and foot planted against the basement wall as Rodney passed by the half open door, pacing, his voice carrying. He stretched the phone cord high to keep it from knocking over a stack of file folders on the desk.

"Yes, well, if you want to enter Melanie in Regionals, you can," Rodney said, sour and noncommittal. "The paperwork is in the office, and there's a fifty dollar entrance fee.... Do I think she's ready for it-? Is this going to be a committee decision or will my estimation actually carry some weight?"

John rolled away. This was going to be a while.

He found a deserted hallway, the walls white and lit by florescent panels, painted pipes overhead, a doormat and folding metal chair outside an office at the end of the hall. He dug the CD player out of his pack, putting on the headphones and turning heavy metal up loud. He bobbed his head to it for a while, then as the rhythm drove faster, he could see the steps to it. Sort of.

He walked it out down the hall, like the steps of a giant, hitting the off-rhythm guitar licks with a shoulder dip to the side. The guitar squeak of strings became a slide of his sneaker on the dirty floor.

He restarted the music, trying this again. He paced out the slow beginning, turning on one foot like he'd learned in Tae Kwon Do in a slow roundhouse kick. Advice from Ronon came to mind: "What's your hurry? Move smooth and slow, getting every muscle involved. Miss one, and that'll be your weak link." John slowly pushed out the kick again, muscle by muscle, up high and into a yoga Y-shaped pose. He held it, body trembling, as if holding it around the entire rink, imagining.

He let it drop finally and took heavy steps, moving his shoulders to shadow box, which turned into real Tae Kwon Do punches. Step, step, slash-slash. He bobbed his head to the side and made slashing punches with each jab of guitar riffs. Teeth gritted, he took a step, punched low, and shoved the folding chair out of the way to give himself more room.

Images of B-grade action movies flashed through his mind as he stepped up into a series of kicks ... Japanese sword fighting ... then a scene in a Jackie Chan flick with a quarterstaff on his shoulders. How had he done that? John walked it out, miming the motions. He'd rolled it across his shoulders and then spun it around, sweeping the air. John caught the imaginary quarterstaff overhead, then rolled it in a full overhand circle, tucking it under his arm.

He turned in a fast circle, imaginary staff extended, clearing the hall.

He'd never tried more than a few kicks at a time except for drills; tactically, you exploded in kick combinations and pulled back. But how many could he do in a row?

As the music hammered like a chopper blade backed by machine guns, he kicked high, followed by a chest hit, then stepped forward into a spinning roundhouse. Followed that with a punch combination, driving his opponents away. Then a nice knee-breaker kick, getting more power into it. He slammed out a right sidekick, a left sidekick, working his way steadily down the hall with the music. Lashed a punch combination aimed at an opponent on the ground. Then he turned and added the imaginary quarterstaff motions, spinning it in a full circle. The music stopped right as he flew forward, exploding in a shout of energy that rang a moment, hanging in the air.

"Uh...." came a voice behind him.

John spun around, fists up in a defensive posture... to find Rodney, wide-eyed, hands out and spread in surprise. John relaxed and slowly let his fists fall.

"I heard a shout — well, anyway. I'm glad you're okay," Rodney said. He slid the folding chair back next to the closed office. "You ready?"

"Yeah," John said.

He followed Rodney up the stairs out of the rink, recalling a conversation from a few months back that suddenly started to make sense: "It's a high," Rodney had told him.

"The jumps?"

"No. The — you know I can't remember most of my performances? I can tell you everything about them, it's not like I black out. It's just... I'm out there at the beginning, and then there's the applause at the end, and everything in the middle, it's like... I can't describe it."

Outside, Rodney paused to lock the doors behind them. John stepped out from under the archways in a T-shirt, his jacket fisted in his hand, one sleeve a hair from dragging on the ground.

There were a few stars out tonight. Their car sat alone in the parking lot next to a puddle. A hum of traffic sounded in the distance.

John reached the Chevy first and got in on the passenger side, letting Rodney drive for a change. On the drive home John rested his arm out the window, the wind cool as he let the sweat dry on his face.

~*~*~

When John found his practice music while scoping through Rodney's collection of rock versions of Hooked on Classics, he burst out laughing. Because it started out slow and was just what he needed. Plus, he'd always liked Pachebel's Canon. Without saying anything to Rodney he slipped the CD in his pack.

~*~*~

Hands tucked behind his back, John stroked onto the ice. Clear afternoon sun trickled in through the windows overhead.

Rodney had left to meet with Sonja an hour ago, and hardly anyone was around, just a few students of Rodney's.

He asked the girls if they minded if he played some of his own music. They glanced at each other, smiling through bemused shrugs. "Sure. If we get to play ours."

He set up the boombox, adjusting the cord. In the silence, he skated backwards around the rink, speed ruffling his hair, shifting to turn forward, coasting in serpentine curves. He glided to a stop at center ice, adjusted his feet into position, and squared his shoulders. He felt like the pitcher on the mound at a baseball game, turning inward and going utterly still. He had all the time in the world to get this right.

The cello began, slow and smooth as honey, and John pushed off, slightly behind the beat, dragging his foot behind him with a languid tip of his head. At first he just skated the motions he'd imagined, but he let the low, shivery sound penetrate, making his strokes heavy, even if it meant he was a little sloppy, scraping his back blade on the ice. A perfectionist voice in the back of his mind chattered away about "clean lines" and "no, no, upright carriage," but he held it at arms length, filling his attention with the music.

It was natural to pick up the pace once the electric guitar joined in, tremulous and uncertain behind the cello, his edges digging into the ice with the sharper guitar wail. John pushed hard, jaw tight, drawing out the tension in his arms, cutting into the ice. He spread his arms, swinging around the outside edge as the declaration of the guitar took over.

He scraped to a hockey stop. Bounced when the drum kit kicked off, like he was running foolhardy down an empty street, leaping puddles with the cymbal crashes, driving, pushing to pick up speed, barely in control as he did fast crossovers around the back wall, arms pumping, trying to catch the hot guitar licks. He flung himself into a fast, out-of-control triple, stumbling out of it two-footed and laughing.

Then he caught the music, or it had caught up with him, smoothing out, happy and buoyant. He grinned, bobbed his shoulders with it, free-interpreting footwork like he always had on rollerblades, playing with it like no one was watching. He drew his hands into fists, pulled his momentum in for a fast upright scratch spin on the high-pitched guitar squeal. Body loose and athletic with the wild guitar, he dug his toepick into the ice for a flying butterfly kick into a deathdrop, pulling the second low spin as tight as a top.

He pulled out of the spin with a light bounce. And out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the girls had followed, imitating him, trailing behind him like seagulls in the wake of a ship. One girl wiped out, landing on her hands, but a preteen with a curly braid — Bethany — had enough power and speed.

Oh, yeah?

He raced across the ice and slid down on his knees with a Jimi Hendrix squealing guitar run, and scrambled up, leaving them all in the dust. He transitioned into spinning footwork, learning control now in a way he'd never considered it—not total, but just enough to pull him back from the edge. He borrowed steps from his long program and threw in another smaller jump. Spin, step, arms flung out to stop himself, then into choppy footwork. It felt stiff and strange. His body wanted to fall into old habits, to go through the motions, to do it "right" — but he couldn't do that. He let them be uneven, let the music mess it up, forgot where his arms should be, let his arm circle in an air guitar strum. Head back, watching the sky, he tried an only partially successful string of spinning step turns.

Then he leapt, up into the quad, the sky turning with him, almost in slow motion at the peak of the jump. He landed, the jolt running up his leg, then rocked his shoulders with the slower beat, kick stepping out as he moved backward onto his back edge, control coming more easily now, carrying the dance motion with his elbows to his hips.

He let the steady electric beat carry him to the next element, then threw himself into a huge triple axel, almost not sure he'd find the ground, the music in a breathless pause. He landed, leg swung out, arms outstretched.

Finally, the music cooled off and he put his hands on his hips, breathing hard, forehead going cold from sweat. He skated out the rest of the momentum with slow sweeping strokes.

He returned to a dazed awareness of his surroundings to recognize Rodney and Sonja on the side of the rink. Rodney was in his ugliest orange fleece sweater.

John blanked on when they'd come in. Though he should have noticed a Rodney that orange.

The music was still playing as Sonja ran out onto the ice in ballet shoes. She pounced on John, jumping up and hugging him. "That's it, that's it, that's it!"

John flailed to keep his balance at the sudden weight. There was a smothering scent of hairspray. She let go, squealed, then bounced up and squeezed him again.

Rodney stayed on the sidelines, chin drawn in, clearly working hard at being stern. "Well, now, you'll have to be able to repeat that, of course...." he began in his most professorial tone.

"Can you do that with my program?" Sonja interrupted, hands together, pleading in an little-girl voice with big blue eyes.

John was just figuring out that something had radically changed. He weighed her question, trying to gauge his abilities, as tenuous they were, and found he could honestly say: "Yes." He bobbed and nodded his head, laughing in disbelief as he realized that it was true. "Yes, I think I can."

~*~*~

Their garbage can lids had blown into the street, though fortunately the cans had been empty at the time. John winged one lid onto the lawn like a frisbee, where it landed and rolled in a circle to lie flat. Rodney, rake in hand, gave it a sardonic look and yelled something that John couldn't hear over the telephone crew's chainsaw. A downed tree had landed on a phone line.

Branches and leafy twigs were scattered all over the road and cars, and everyone was outside, cleaning up after the summer storm. Rodney's radio declared that two tornadoes had touched down in the States.

The chainsaw finally shut off, leaving the scuffing sound of rakes, rustling garbage bags, and the occasional thump of wood being tossed. Rodney's neighbors chatted with each other, excited about the storm and the change of pace. Plastic pools and lawn furniture had been blown over onto one another's lawns, breaking down boundaries. Next door, two fathers commiserated over the demise of a swing-set and discussed replacement options. "The ones with the slides held up better." A thick-hipped woman wandered past with a deck umbrella slung over her shoulder. "I had to lure the cat out from under the bed with tuna fish this morning," she was telling her friend.

Even Rodney got into it, holding up a large tree branch to his most hated neighbor, she-of-the-deadly-hedge-trimmers. She laughed when he said, "I think this is yours!" He had gathered an impressive pile of branches. John was warmed to see that Rodney knew how to work. Much to Rodney's annoyance, every teenager in the area had been shanghaied by their families, forcing Rodney to do his own yard work.

"They're not indentured servants!" Rodney complained to John. He marched over and picked up the garbage can lid. John shook open another lawn and leaf bag. "They should be free to work for a handsome profit and then go home to do whatever their parents want."

"There was that one kid...." John grinned at him.

"That wasn't profiteering," Rodney said with a scowl. He deposited the lid on the can. "That was extortion."

John took advantage of the spirit of the day and threw open all the windows. Cutting through the house, he surveyed the damage to the back yard while Rodney finished with the front. His scraggly rose bushes had been reduced to buds.

It turned out the battered wooden rowboat that had rolled onto the lawn actually belonged to Rodney, or rather, it had come with the house and had never been moved till now. Together they counted to three and hefted it.

"Oh, my back, my back, my back!" Rodney squawked as he walked sideways steadily, without flinching.

"What?" John gave him a concerned frown.

"This is surely going to do long-term damage. I'm an artist! I wasn't meant for manual labor."

John rolled his eyes. It was only a half a dozen steps to the sawhorses by the concrete patio. John walked backwards, knocking into the grill and kicking over a can of lighter fluid. With a dramatic grunt from Rodney, they swung the boat and set it on the sawhorses – one of which promptly broke and collapsed.

They puzzled over it.

"I say we use it for firewood," John suggested at last, rubbing the back of his head. He found a leaf in his hair, glancing at it with surprise.

"Boats are valuable!"

"Well, don't look now but it's killed your grass."

Once John clarified that he meant burn the sawhorse, they piled its remains on the dead grass, and leaned the boat against the house. John loaded Rodney's sticks onto a tarp and dragged it all around the house, dumping them on the pile.

"That wood's way too wet," Rodney commented.

"Everything burns with the right incentive," John said, pouring lighter fluid over top.

Naturally the matches by the grill were soaked and useless. John tossed them down in disgust.

Rodney sat out in an aluminum lawn chair in the steaming air, looking over his backyard with contentment, while John went in to fetch matches. Once inside, John had apparently gotten inspired – or distracted – and within minutes there came the hum and the roar of the vacuum, bumping against walls and furniture. He came out much later with an armload of papers Rodney recognized from the latest accumulation on the kitchen table.

"Pick your tinder," John said, dropping the stack on the patio, and then loped back inside.

Rodney had to admit he could part with all of it. One at a time he balled them up and tossed them onto the pile, too lazy to stand. He could smell the lighter fluid from where he was. He shut his eyes.

It was nearly twenty minutes later by the time John returned, staggering under the weight of yet another lawn and leaf bag.

"I found something else we might want to toss."

He set it on the ground and held the bag open for Rodney to inspect, silent. He glanced up at Rodney, watching him carefully. Rodney reached in and turned over a magazine folded open to a diagram of the triple Lutz beside a dismal picture Rodney in the Kiss and Cry, looking like he might do just that. Underneath it was a yellowed sports section from a newspaper; coverage of his withdrawal from Canadian Nationals. That article had been snide, Rodney recalled.

He let it drop after several moments. He knew every item in that bag intimately. "Yes. Okay."

John's smile was small but he dumped the bag onto the burn pile with gusto. He squeezed on an excessive amount of lighter fluid, emptying the can. It made a hollow sound as he tossed it aside, and struck the match.

A shimmer of heat came off the smoky blaze, blurring John as he stepped back and watched the licking flames climb, his arms folded. He mused aloud, "Is it legal to have fires?"

"I have no idea. But we'll learn soon enough which of my neighbors hate me."

The fire crackled and John pulled his sunglasses from his shirt pocket. He dragged over the second lawn chair and settled into it beside Rodney, his arms spread. The complete relaxation of exhaustion.

"What we need is a weenie roast," John suggested with a nod at the blaze. "And some marshmallows."

"Hmm. I'm fairly certain that smoke is toxic." For more reasons than one.

"Good point."

They braved the mosquitoes as the sun angled lower in the golden, heat soaked sky—just to keep an eye on the fire, of course. It had nothing to do with the satisfaction of watching those articles curl and burn.

~*~*~

John's work on compulsory figures had been reduced to an hour a day, but Rodney said he needed them to improve his edges, so John signed up to do evening patch. The rink had them at seven and seven.

He was assigned patch number three in the nearer left hand corner of the rink. As the Zamboni made its cautious rounds, he pulled on his oldest pair of skates, the uppers soft and worn flexible for the dainty, precise turns, the toepicks ground off. He rolled his fleece turtleneck up to his chin and pulled on the black ski mask that Rodney always mocked, calling him "Darth Sheppard" and "the zombie skater," although it was effective. He zipped up Rodney's parka, since he'd forgotten his own, and pulled on his gloves with a pair of mittens over them, shaking off the shiver of expected cold.

He glided along the wall to his patch, careful not to mar the pristine surface, the rink as tense and quiet as a library. The fourteen or so other skaters today whispered to each other and marked off the sections as their private territory for the next hour. He set the long, compass-like wooden scribe down on his patch with a light click.

Rodney was a traditionalist. Showman or not, figures was his best event, and the reason he had a reputation for turning out "quality" skaters. He required all of his students to at least learn the slow, perfect figure eights. He said it was good for John, like broccoli.

John hated it.

But for some reason, this part of his skating was never affected by the ups and downs of his freeskating, possibly because it was just so different from what John inwardly referred to as "real" skating. He laid out the compass and traced the first pattern. Rodney sneered at scribes and considered them an affectation for the mere novice, but John had no illusions that he had to work at this, so he had to be certain he was practicing a perfect circle.

Under duress, he could admit that he liked the silence of school figures, even when his toes were going numb with cold. Under even more duress, he could admit that it improved his skating. Though he'd never admit it to Rodney.

He pushed off from the wall and cut into the center of the circle, carefully placing his first push to dig into the curve of the sketched line. Head down, watching the ice, he replayed Rodney's advice to let his hand trace the line in front, like he was drawing it with his arm with his body obeying. He flowed along his right outside edge, the left blade just barely lifted off the ice, trailing behind him.

His momentum slowed too soon and he was forced to push again, messing up the firm even cut. He hit the top of the curve, spun his arms for the bracket-shaped turn, scooping too far out at the end of it but not that bad, then pushed again for the center. He spared a moment of concentration to envy Rodney's easy, confident glides, and wobbled—completely messing up his line.

"Fuck," John said. The girl in the patch next to him glared.

Yeah, he hated school figures.

~*~*~

Lazy afternoon sun shone in through the upper window and laughter sang out over hollow, cheery Disney music, Robin William's singing "Friend Like Me." Two other coaches were on the ice with their students. One led a cluster of adults who fumbled through their first bunny hops, giggling as they clutched at each other. The other had a slew of no-shows today: only one young skater had turned up for her "group" class of six. Rodney snorted in disgust. He failed to see the appeal of teaching recreational skating. Why teach something they weren't going to use?

He was the only competitive track coach at the Hurwitz's rink. For some reason the other competitive coaches had cleared out once Rodney appeared; probably intimidated by his many accomplishments.

"Are you mad at me?"

Rodney startled out of his reverie. Bright worried eyes looked up at him. Melanie Weir was chewing a strand of her dark hair, her back edges angled together where she paused on the ice.

"What? No! Why would I be mad at you?" He scowled. "Wait, you've been practicing, right? Because I did notice that your edges are a bit mushy today and if I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times—"

"No, no, I've been practicing!" she said, wide-eyed.

"Oh." Rodney blinked. "Okay, then why would I be mad?"

"I dunno," she said. "Do you want to see my combination jumps again?"

Rodney smothered a sigh, one hand spread in a half-shrug. He leaned on the edge of the boards. "Sure. Why not." He let his hand drop.

She pushed off into an eager, anxious circle. Gliding, she hesitated, squared up her shoulders, then put her skate down for the first jump, followed immediately by a slower, more awkward toe jump. She skittered on the landing, shooting her arms out as an afterthought, then pumped back over to him.

"How was that?" she said.

"Good. Better." It was nothing less than the truth. Of course, his sense of accomplishment with Melanie had somewhat soured of late.

Those long lashes blinked at him again. "Okay."

There was no telling what ham-fisted third-rate crackpot Elizabeth would enlist as Melanie's new coach. Nathaniel over at Blue View? Worse yet, Emraud Vasseur? It would be a nightmare to be supplanted by him. His jump technique was at least thirty years out of date!

"Mr. McKay?"

Rodney cleared his throat. "So, mmm... how are your mom's new friends?"

"'Scuse me?" Melanie replied in a perfect little imitation of her mother.

"Ah, you know, her new skating friends." He smiled hopefully. "Coaches and stuff?"

"I don't know," Melanie said, clearly baffled.

Rodney looked away across the rink and sighed. "Yes, you're as much out of the loop as I am...."

Melanie changed the subject. "Am I ready for Regionals?"

Rodney wasn't able to hide his cringe, so he didn't try. "Well. Do the best you can. And don't get your hopes up."

"Don't get my hopes up?"

"Don't think of first place as 'winning' per se. See John over there?" Rodney pointed to where John had just blown a jump and was pushing himself back off the ice. "If you think of first place as winning, then he's lost every year."

"Oh."

"What you want to do is improve on your baseline, every year."

"Okay."

They were silent a moment.

It was possible Mrs. Weir might go to the Schmidt Center. She could afford it. Those jackals—their "Olympic-level training team" as the brochures called it—would love to take his training methods apart. Rodney squinted at her anxiously. "You sure your mom hasn't mentioned anyone?" No, no, it couldn't be the Schmidt Center. They wanted only serious contenders. They'd send Melanie packing for a lack of competitive spirit. "No, never mind. Forget I said anything."

Of course, the jackals would be correct. But Rodney couldn't afford to be picky, especially with John soaking up more and more of his time.

"Do you want me to practice my jump sequences again?" Melanie asked.

"Yes." No matter which way he sliced it, losing the Weirs was going to hurt. "You'd better."

~*~*~

The weekend came quickly, complete with telemarketers, or at least that was Rodney's first thought when he picked up the phone anyway. There was always the chance it was someone important.

The voice on the other end was older, brisk and pleasant. "Hello? Is Johnny there?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "I think you have a wrong number." And hung up.

It rang again moments later. The woman spoke with a little more asperity. "This is the number he gave me. I've spoken with him here before."

"Look, ma'am, I don't know anyone named 'Johnny'." He hung up again with a snort of disgust, shaking his head as he returned to his chair.

Stubbornly, the phone rang again. Some people never knew when to stop. This time Rodney ignored it and let the answering machine pick up. "Johnny, this is mom. I need to know what music you're skating this season but someone keeps—"

Rodney was a quick thinker. He calculated the odds of there being two "Johnnys" skating in the area, the likelihood he'd be castigated for hanging up on mommy, and grabbed the phone, plotting to erase all evidence later. "Oh, hi. Uh. Yes, uh, I bet—you mean—um, is this Mrs. Sheppard?" Rodney winced. "I got thrown by the 'Johnny.'"

They both laughed hollowly, the way people did at business conferences, funerals and weddings, when they were obligated to be nice and find each other hilarious. When their forced laughter died down into a sigh, she explained, "I'm just trying to find out what music he's skating this season."

Rodney was confused. Last he heard, John's parents showed little interest in his skating. "Um, well, he's skating to 'Surf Rider' for his short program. Why?"

"Oh. A beach theme. I can do that," she said. "Is Johnny there? We need to discuss colors."

"He's mowing the lawn right now, but I can get him for you," Rodney said, his false smile bleeding through his voice.

"He's always been so good about his chores," she said with obvious pride. Fortunately, the front door opened and John stepped in, smelling of grass clippings and wearing a backwards baseball cap.

"He certainly is, Mrs. Sheppard," Rodney said, bright and phony, raising his voice on her name. He pointed desperately at the receiver, pleading for John to take over before this conversation killed him with ennui.

John took the phone, adjusting his ball cap.

"Hi, mom. Yeah. 'Surf Rider.' Uh-huh. Aquamarine ... Hawaiian print ... okay." He fell silent a long moment, dipping his head. He came up blinking. "Loose and flowing. Uh-huh ... well, I don't know about shorts." He nodded with a quick glance over at Rodney. "Yeah, okay, that's very unique." He laughed. "No, summer is not something people think when you say ice skating." He looked up, eyes tracing the ceiling. "Palm trees? Now, mom, you know I'm not allowed props—oh. The print. Okay, then. T-shirt underneath, right? ... Heavier, so it'll swing? Well, not too heavy. Remember that purple Mariachi thing, with the puffed sleeves?" He fell silent again, his head listing to the side. "It was top heavy, mom," he complained, managing to sound nine years old. "I ended up flat on my—yeah, just like the girl in West Side Story." He laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Just promise me you're not making a dress and I'm cool with whatever you want, mom. Okay. Yeah... bye."

Rodney stared at him silently for a long moment. "Your mom made that horrid sequined jacket, didn't she?"

"She needs a creative outlet," John explained, hanging up the phone.

Rodney couldn't get over it. "A million professional costume designers, and yours are made by—"

"—my mom, yes," John finished for him. "She's pretty good."

~*~*~

Mrs. Sheppard certainly couldn't be faulted for speed. A brown-wrapped package from one Candace Sheppard appeared in Rodney's mailbox not a week later. Rodney carried it in to the kitchen table.

"Your mom's name is Candy?" Rodney asked, smirking as he handed it to John.

"Call her that and I can't vouch for your safety," John said absently, not looking up as he tore open the package, picking up the envelope on top. Rodney hovered as John took his time, reading her note and smiling over it, then turning it over for more.

"Oh, for Pete's sake." Rodney snatched the bundle of fabric out of John's lap.

He unrolled an oversized Hawaiian shirt with a palm tree print on an oddly heavy knit. It swung nicely. A smaller bundle wrapped inside it dropped to the floor.

John picked that up ... and rolled out a pair of cut-offs in stretchy jeans material across the table, the white around the legs carefully fluffed. Stitched into those, unrolling like the dead legs of the Wicked Witch of the East in the Wizard of Oz was a pair of thick flesh-colored tights. The toes stayed curled.

"You'll look like you have no hair," Rodney said, staring at it, flabbergasted.

"She didn't want me to get cold," John explained.

~*~*~

Less than a week after the arrival of John's first costume, Rodney came home to another brown-wrapped package. Mrs. Sheppard sure could stitch up a storm, he thought with an edge of grim hysteria.

Since he knew what was coming this time, he didn't wait for John, ripping the paper off a light shirt box of the sort you'd find at JC Penny's. He dug through tissue paper and....

.... well. Perhaps he hadn't known what was coming. John had clearly passed along the fact that they wanted a military theme for his long program. Only Mrs. Sheppard's idea of "military" was less "stealthy paratrooper" and more "Prince Charles inspecting the Royal Navy" – if Prince Charles wore blue and gold sequins, that is.

Rodney leaned his elbow on the table and ran his hand down the double row of brass buttons. The shoulders were stiff and reinforced, with glittery gold fringe spilling over the arms. Rodney flicked it, saying aloud, "No."

He stalked over to the phone.

Rodney held his chin high, a hand on his hip as it rang. When she answered, he found he wasn't sure exactly how he was going to phrase this. So he started with the basics. "Ah, yes, we, ah, received the costume." He swallowed.

"Oh! Did Johnny like it?"

"Well... he hasn't seen it yet, it's just, well." Rodney took a breath and made his best attempt at tact. "It's... ah, it's not exactly ideal."

"Oh?"

"The military aspect, I mean. It's not... military enough." He winced, his conscience forcing him to veer towards the truth. "Or at all, actually."

"Oh, really?" she said, her voice turning chilly.

"I mean, it's very...." He glanced over at the costume. "...complicated looking. More toy solider than actual soldier. Reminiscent of a Christmas ornament, um, the cheap sort you'd find at Canadian Tire."

"I see." And Rodney could sense very Sheppard-like arms folding in icy determination.

"However, it's—it's clear you can, that you're very adept and... that you sew very, very quickly," he added with breathless desperation. He gave up on tact, throwing both hands in the air. Tact had never worked for him anyway. "It's not even remotely what we're looking for. The colors, the style—everything's wrong," he said with a frustrated slashing gesture.

"We?" she repeated.

"Obviously, I'm his coach so—look." He decided to acquaint her with the facts. "I've been doing this for nearly a decade and prior to that I was a three time World Champion. I've worked with some of the top designers in the hemisphere and quite frankly, this," he spread his hands at the costume on the table, and said on a laugh, "isn't how it's supposed to work."

"Of course. You're the 'expert'," she said frostily. "Ten years experience as a skater, while I've only been designing John's costumes for the last fifteen years—and his Halloween costumes before that. And just how many costumes have you actually made yourself?"

"You don't need to design them to know—"

"Is John there?" she snapped.

He was very relieved to be able to tell her that he wasn't.

~*~*~

His reprieve lasted for less than a day. He was on the toilet when John banged the door open with his forearm. The bathroom was suddenly very crowded.

"What you did say to my mom?" John in a harsh tone with his angriest, most sarcastic smile. "Because she's upset. She thinks I don't like my costumes and that she's just hearing it through you."

"But you don't!" Rodney really didn't want to have this conversation with his pants around his ankles. He silently decided all phone calls would go to the answering machine for the foreseeable future.

"And now I've had to lie to her!" John growled at him with a flinging gesture. He leaned in, one hand on the doorknob, the other on his hip. "From here on out, if it has anything to do with my family—stay out of it. She put a lot of work into those costumes."

"She has no taste whatsoever! Those shorts are ghastly, your legs are going to look like popsicle sticks—and don't even get me started on Admiral Christmas Tree!" Rodney complained, leaning forward on the toilet seat. "Please tell me you haven't gone completely blind, although with that many sequins I can certainly see how it could happen."

"They're supposed to be able to see you on the ice," John explained.

"From orbit?!" Rodney said, bug-eyed.

"Rodney." John lowered his voice, shoulders settling. He said with controlled calm, "When I wanted to skate, my dad was a real jerk about it. My brother gave me rides to the rink occasionally, but that was about it." He continued with tooth-gritting intensity. "Mom's the only one who's seen my performances; she's the one who paid my rent when I was strapped; and she's the one who talked my dad into paying for U of T so I could come here in the first place." John pressed closer. "All she's ever asked of me is that she design my costumes."

Rodney opened his mouth to protest, but John shook a forefinger in Rodney's face, very close now, quiet and furious. "Not only is she going to design both my costumes, you're going to say nice things about them. Is that clear?"

~*~*~

Radek threaded through the network of circular concrete columns and overpasses, craning his neck over the rental's steering wheel at freeway signs with new highway numbers. Each trip here, Toronto seemed to rearrange itself. Suburbs that used to be neat squares of fields and farms now sprouted strip malls.

He had a conference at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York; the ski season hadn't yet begun, so his time was his own for a change. Nobody minded if he flew in a weekend early to see an old friend.

He'd called Rodney several times but all he reached was his answering machine. Perhaps if he'd tried at three am he would have had more success, he thought, sounding catty even to himself.

As he came to roads closer to the city he was on solid ground again, and the way to Rodney's house was so familiar that he turned without looking at the street names, noting new stores and old landmarks, or a playground where an empty field had once been. He slowed as he pulled up to the curb outside Rodney's house.

The lawn didn't have its usual wilderness effect. No four-inch growth or fluffy dandelions. The hedges were neatly trimmed and the roses staked out. It had probably taken a community petition to get Rodney to finally hire someone to clean up his yard. A tiny sports car and an old Chevy took up the driveway, so Radek parked on the street. He locked the rental and hopped up the front steps.

Through the open door he could hear Rodney's voice, "If you want to spend the entire budget on one skate, be my guest, but it seems to be more productive to attend competitions judges actually score."

"I dunno," came a man's nasal voice, uncertain and wavering. "She does have a point about international experience...."

"Which is moot if you don't attend the real competitions!"

Radek knocked on the screen, but it appeared nobody heard him.

"It is awfully expensive," the wavering voice said.

"If you do not plan for the future, then the future will never happen," a woman insisted—Sonja. Radek shut his eyes and considered for a very brief moment returning to his hotel. Unfortunately, it was all the way at the airport and impractical.

There was a beat of silence from the other two. Then Rodney said, "How does that even make sense?"

"Vienna is beautiful. You will love it," Sonja cooed.

"Because sightseeing is so the point of competitive figure skating," Rodney groused.

Radek gave up on knocking and stepped inside. Forms were spread over Rodney's kitchen table and three faces blinked up at him like raccoons caught in the garbage: Rodney standing with his hands braced on the table, Sonja paused in fluffing her hair by the window, and a cautious looking young man with intense green eyes, rumpled hair, and early five o'clock shadow, who dropped forward abruptly, like he'd had his chair leaned back.

The young man's eyes narrowed, looking Radek up and down. "Uh, I think the mad scientist convention is up the street...."

Radek attempted to smooth his hair. It was always in disarray after a long flight.

"Radek!" Rodney brightened, then a flicker of guilt flashed across his face. He waved a forefinger as he squeezed his eyes shut. "Um. I meant to call you back."

"It is all right," Radek said, hesitating in the living room. "I figured I would be welcome."

"And this is-?" The young man shot Rodney a complaining look.

"Radek Zelenka, John Sheppard," Rodney gestured dramatically between them. "John, Radek."

Ah. The schedules were explained. Radek held out a hand to Rodney's new protege. John was better looking than he had imagined, even if he hadn't imagined anything in particular. He now recalled Rodney mentioning that he was attractive, though that had been months before. "I have heard a great deal about you."

"Well, then I think I'm at a disadvantage, because I haven't heard anything at all about you," John Sheppard said, accepting his hand.

"What? I thought I mentioned him." Rodney waved a hand vaguely. "He was my gay Czechoslovakian lover whom I thought was thrown into a Russian gulag, only he wasn't, although they still treated him very, very badly."

"Oh," John said, his expression turning concerned. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"It was many years ago," Radek assured him.

"Yet still a harrowing period of my life," Rodney inserted. "I could use your vote here, Radek, because Sonja is demanding that we do an invitational in Austria—"

"I wouldn't say demand—" John interrupted.

"—to give John some international experience." And Rodney motioned Radek over to the table.

John had taken the news of Rodney's homosexuality as well as most skaters—which was certainly better than most ski jumpers—so it was apparent that he already knew. Rodney had never been very secretive.

On examining John's competition list, loathe as Radek was to agree with Sonja, recalling his conversations with Rodney he rubbed his chin and admitted, "If this is a very unusual program it would less risky if it were seen first far from home. He does not need the Regional," he pointed out. "In America the men do not come to Regionals. There will be no competition against him. That will save you both the fee and the travel."

"Oh, right. The vast expense of traveling to Oakland County, Michigan, as opposed to, say, Europe," Rodney said.

"So... you skate?" John asked Radek with a puzzled frown, as if trying to place an unfamiliar face.

"No, no, I am a ski jump judge," Radek explained to him, then tilted his head at Rodney hopefully. "Could he get a grant perhaps?"

Rodney shook his head wearily, rubbing his forehead. "We've applied but haven't heard."

Sonja wrinkled her nose, saying with a dismissive wave, "They will save it for Worlds. I do not blame them."

So Radek suggested that Canadian competitions were also (technically) international and had the benefit of no travel at all—only to be immediately contradicted by Sonja. Irritating woman.

"Look," John said with a sigh. He rumpled his hair, giving away how it came to be so sloppy in the first place. "I think that what we're arguing here doesn't really matter. Both the Regional, not to mention anything in Austria, is outside my budget. We're gonna have to go streamlined this year."

"Don't be ridiculous," Rodney said. "I'm just talking about pointless frivolity here! You don't have to worry about the basics."

John visibly grit is his teeth, saying firmly, "Yes. I do."

They glared at each other. Radek glanced around in puzzlement, eyes landing on Sonja. She looked at her nails, unhelpful.

Fueled by committee experience, Radek cleared his throat. "So we are agreed that John needs to attend as many competitions as possible," he said carefully, chin tucked in. "And ideally at least one international."

They had said no such thing, of course, but Radek had learned that sometimes you had to move the argument forward.

"I think we're agreed that it's high time for me to get the grill started," John said, standing. He ran his hands down narrow hips. "Are you staying for dinner? After all, it's not often that one of Rodney's 'gay Czechoslovakian lovers' turns up," he said with a sardonic and slightly accusing glance at Rodney.

And, hmm, perhaps John was not as accepting as he had assumed. "That, too, was very long ago," he cringed, and excused himself to go to the bathroom, only partially to extricate himself from an uncomfortable conversation.

In truth, Radek had intended to pry Rodney out of the wreckage of his house for a meal that was more than leftover take-out or spaghetti. But now that he had a chance to see, Rodney's living room was astoundingly clean. The bathroom was even sanitary, with towels hung up and no socks or underwear on the floor.

After he flushed, Radek paused to straighten his hair in the mirror. The mad scientist comment still stung. There were two toothbrushes leaning in opposite directions in a new container, and an unfamiliar electric razor balanced on the edge of the sink. His mind flashed to five o'clock shadow, putting it together with the financial argument.

Radek had always been quick. He said to his reflection, "Oh, Rodney. What have you got yourself into now?"

~*~*~

For the rest of the evening, Radek hovered, impatient to speak to Rodney. Alone. He took John's chair and watched with a doubtful eye while John ordered Rodney around the kitchen unselfconsciously, mixing vinegar, ketchup, and pressed garlic.

"You really have to make your own barbecue sauce to get it spicy enough." John licked his thumb. "Hope you don't mind grilled chicken," he told Radek, loading up a platter. He hefted it to his shoulder. "The charcoal's probably carcinogenic but it's totally worth it." He winked.

Radek gave him a forced smile, sizing him up with a calculating glimmer as John strode with a bounce through the living room. Boyish charm used to his best advantage. Rakish good looks, definitely. And Rodney was a lonely man.

Fortunately, Sonja followed John, leaving Rodney to collect the silverware. Radek attempted to not look menacing at all as he stood, folded his arms, and leaned slowly, oh-so-casually against the pantry wall.

"Rodney," he said, softly. "What are you doing?"

"Trying to find forks that match because John is bizarre about irrelevant details like that," Rodney complained, "While I try not go out of my mind with scheduling and travel plans. Vienna! Does she think I'm made of money?" The forks clattered to the counter.

"Shouldn't he be doing this?" Radek asked with a meaningful tip of his head at the schedules.

"Hmm?" Rodney looked up, eyes blank with confusion. "As his coach I think I should have a say."

"And what's this about you paying for them?" Radek raised his eyebrows and adjusted his glasses back up his nose.

"If he'll let me!" Rodney slammed the drawer shut. A flicker of understanding ran across his face, turning into a sneering half smile. "Oh, please. If you haven't figured out we're together by now then you've slowed down in your old age."

Radek's eyes narrowed and he gave a slow, tiny shake of his head. "He is too young for you."

"What are you talking about? He's twenty-eight and I'm thirty—well, thirty-one, but who's counting?"

"That's not what I mean," Radek said, quite serious.

Rodney broke into a gleeful smile and pointed at him. "You're jealous!"

"I am not—"

"I knew it!" Rodney crowed. "You've been pining away for me all these years, and suddenly—now that you can no longer have me in your long-distance version of a surrogate relationship—"

"Wouldn't I be the one calling you if that were true?"

"—You recognize what you've lost. That you've missed out. The HMS McKay has sailed!" Rodney swung his arm in a gesture aiming towards the horizon.

"You've just compared yourself to a vessel with a typical displacement of over a thousand tons," Radek said.

"Your transparent attempts to belittle, demean, or otherwise undermine John—" Rodney cheerfully waved a finger back and forth. "—will fall on deaf ears," he declared. "No amount of groveling on your part will convince me to take you back." After a slight pause, Rodney added as an afterthought, "Although... I might be amenable to a night of sad—but passionate!—farewell sex if John doesn't object. I can be merciful."

"You're unbelievable," Radek said before he stalked out.

~*~*~

Sitting in the car, head propped on an elbow on the steering wheel, Radek startled at a rap on the window. John was bent over, looking in. He lifted a plate of chicken and potato chips like an offering. Radek rolled down the window.

"Rodney wanted to starve you out but I figured it's a lot better hot," John explained.

"Is Rodney—?" Radek began. He accepted the plate through the window.

"Still gloating," John answered, making a face. He folded his arms tight, hands tucked in his armpits. "We could start a fistfight out here. There's a clear view from the window."

Radek snorted. "That would please him too much."

John squinted and gazed around the quiet neighborhood, not looking at anything in particular. "You're welcome to come inside. We're watching a movie later on, if you want. Of course, Rodney and Sonja will probably talk over the whole thing, so don't expect to be able to actually enjoy the movie, fair warning. It kinda spoils the dramatic tension when you have to rewind all the time."

Radek held up the plate. "Thank you."

"Hey," John said. He patted the door. "Can't let a man go hungry." He skipped a couple of steps as he jogged up the walkway.

~*~*~

"Good morning sleepyhead," Rodney's voice said, clearly self-satisfied and smirking.

Radek shook himself, aware of people getting up around him, the lights coming on.... He stretched, both hands making fists over his head, and realized he could only remember the first twenty minutes of the movie.

He murmured an explanation about time zones and transatlantic fights, but everyone brushed it off.

Sonja adjusted a cape coat around her shoulders and offered him a ride to his hotel. Radek froze at the idea, but Rodney came to his rescue, "You're staying by the airport, right? That's way out of the way. And plus you're coming back here tomorrow anyway, right?" he added, perking up hopefully.

Thus he found himself in Rodney's trophy room, unfolding Rodney's old camp cot, snapping the aluminum legs into place with a click. John came in with a blanket and pillow.

"I see you found the cot."

"Yes," Radek said.

John looked around, turning to take in the room. He tossed the pillow to the cot. "Be careful in here. Some of these trophies are kind of cheap and—" He made a back and forth gesture with his hands. "—tippy."

"Oh, I am well aware of it," Radek said, spreading the blanket. At John's blank look he explained, "You don't honestly believe Rodney can install shelves on his own, do you?"

John nodded, bobbing his head with pursed lips, taking the point.

After he left, Radek lay on the cot, hands folded on his chest, and squirmed into position to get comfortable with a little sigh. He could hear the sound of Rodney and John's voices, if not their words, through the walls, Rodney's tone matter-of-fact, haughty, followed by John's dry deadpan response, humor lurking underneath it. Rodney's voice turned consciously huffy, enjoying his own self-importance, and he was answered with a chuckle. Their footsteps moved from the bedroom to the bathroom, back and forth.

The voices disappeared into Rodney's room and the door shut behind them. And it occurred to Radek that John slept in there. Absurd that he hadn't considered it before. He blinked at the wall at his feet with its photos of the young Rodney, longish curled hair spilling over his forehead, grinning and confident, exactly how he remembered him from the Olympics.

Eyes half-lidded, he gazed over the familiar maple leaf jacket and the veritable shrine Rodney had built to himself. Radek was one of the few people who knew that under the shrine, he'd kept everything else as well. He was not above a decade of self-flagellation. Radek shook his head subtly. At least he hadn't pinned the rest of it to the wall.

One corner of the drawer was open a crack, shut improperly as usual, and Radek sat up, kicking off the covers to fix it. The dresser was old, the wheels in that drawer had never seated correctly and coated magazine paper was surprisingly heavy, making it sag. Radek shimmied the drawer... and found it glided open.

It was empty.

~*~*~

The following morning Radek woke late, bleary with the time change. Jet lag was always worst flying west, he found.

The sound of running water started and stopped, along with the bright clatter of dishes, followed by the clicking of a gas stove before it lit. The cheerful banter from the night before continued as if it had picked up from where it had left off. He found his glasses and pulled on a pair of sweatpants he'd been loaned—from the excessively loose fit they were Rodney's—and padded across the living room in his bare feet. He stood in the kitchen doorway, rubbed at his eyes under his glasses and resettled them.

Rodney was in front of the stove, poking at a pan of eggs skeptically with a spatula. John sat in the same chair from the day before, newspaper in hand, long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles.

John glanced up from reading the comics and grinned at Radek. "Hey."

Radek couldn't resist that smile. He studied John briefly then crossed to Sonja's seat from the day before. He pulled the chair out. "Good morning."

"I fail to see why this is necessary," Rodney scowled down at the pan.

"Breakfast is more than just coffee, Rodney," John said with weary patience.

"Sacrilege," Rodney growled.

"How did you get him to cook for us?" Radek asked John. He raised his eyebrows and paged through the paper on the table, selecting the world news.

"He has to make up for being a prick yesterday," John said with a shark-like smirk at Rodney.

"In that case, I'll have mine over easy with the yolk unbroken please," Radek instructed, carefully not looking up from the page. John snorted.

"Shut up, both of you, or I'll spit in your eggs while you're not looking," Rodney snapped.

~*~*~

The following afternoon, Radek and Sonja sat in the bleachers, bundled up against the cold on the bottom level closest to the ice. Sonja had loaned Radek her fake fur jacket and then tucked herself into John's coat (without even asking) which he'd stripped off for practice. John didn't comment, just leaned back with both hands on the boards, skates still on, his face still flushed from skating. Rodney stood between John and the bleachers, arms folded. They kept their voices low as other skaters squeaked by on the ice.

"We need press kits...." Sonja mused.

"Press kits are good." Radek nodded, but Sonja was still speaking.

"... A nice picture, with a bio—we can't list John's medals, of course, but a history—" She turned to Rodney. "—does he have a tragic past?"

"There is the injury two or three years ago," Radek pointed out.

"Did it involve surgery?"

"Ah, yes. I believe so."

"Perfect. The photo will need to be on the computer these days," she continued, oblivious the dismayed look John and Rodney exchanged.

"No problem," Radek said. "I will scan it at Kinko's."

"Whatever a Kinko is, that is good, you handle it." She brushed that topic off with a sharp wave. "I can work on the judges, Petrovich is a dear...."

John mouthed What? to Rodney.

But Radek had already interrupted her, "No, no, no, no, no. You talk to the press, generate—what do you call it?—buzz, and then you talk to the judges."

John bent forward an inch, eyebrows raised in shock.

Sonja's smile in response had a dangerous edge to it. "You can't wait until too late," she said, sing-song.

"No," Radek insisted, not giving in. "They must know who you are before they will even listen."

"True," she conceded with a sideways tip of acknowledgement. "But then we need a summer competition so that there is something for the press to cover before Regionals."

"Good point," said Radek.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! What are you talking about?" Rodney broke in.

"Thank you," John said, breathing in relief.

"We're not scheduling any competitions until John is ready," Rodney said. "This is figure skating for God's sakes, not a media circus!"

"You mean you never did a single interview?" Radek asked.

Rodney's face went blank. "They wanted to interview me. That's different. It was the natural product of my stellar accomplishments." He straightened a bit.

"It can be a early autumn competition," Sonja proposed.

"Or maybe a charity event?" Radek chewed on his thumb nail. "People like that."

"He looks good surrounded by children," Sonja added, considering.

"Figure skating is mostly a female audience, unlike ski jumping," Radek said, drawing his words out thoughtfully.

"The maternal instinct with the hormones over the handsome man—the girls will go crazy," Sonja said.

"Enough." John finally cut them off, hands cutting outward in two slicing gestures. "No. No charity event. Forget it, I'm not doing some kind of media junket."

"Thank you." Rodney backed him up, drawing closer to John. "You're not supposed to peddle influence with the judges no matter who you've slept with." He glared at Sonja.

"No kidding," John echoed. "I'm doing this on my own," he added with a glare.

"But...." Radek tried to explain.

"No!" they both said together.

John and Rodney turned away in disgust, walking close and muttering to each other as they edged between the benches. A soft "Jesus...." carried across the bleachers, followed by a snort from Rodney. John shoved the door open for them with his shoulder, holding it while he pulled on his gloves.

Radek and Sonja exchanged a dismal look as the two left.

"They are babes in the woods. They do not understand how it works," Radek said. "Since I began judging I don't think I've bought myself a single drink."

Sonja pursed her lips and made a face. "He probably won't win either way."

"Pessimist," Radek said. "Rodney's father did all his media work, I'm certain." He snorted. "Opening a skating center? Pfft. That doesn't happen by itself."

"While I was the choreographer for Yvonne," she swept her arm out in an expansive arc, "we had an entire publicity budget."

"Ooo," Radek said, impressed despite himself. "You did Yvonne?"

"She was so beautiful on the ice and such a horse in person."

"True. Her mother was better."

"Her coach made sure they did their interviews together," Sonja agreed.

They sighed and fell silent a long moment.

"Does it effect your judging?" Sonja asked suddenly with honest, open curiosity.

Radek considered it. "Hmm. Ski jumping is not as subjective as figure skating." He shrugged. "But probably, yes. Still, I like to know what's going on behind the scenes. Sometimes they let slip information that they really shouldn't, and I'll see what I would not have noticed otherwise. So, mmm, it goes both ways."

~*~*~

It was evening with a late summer nip in the air. At the end of the driveway, Rodney pushed the mailbox to a more upright position, holding it with his knee as he kicked dirt into the gap. It sagged again once he let go. He'd complain about the neighbors' kids, but unfortunately, he'd done this himself, chasing John in the Honda.

He raised the little flag on the side to indicate he had outgoing mail and opened the mailbox.

It was a surprise to find another brown paper wrapped package from Mrs. Sheppard—until Rodney recalled John's Exhibition program. They'd been so far behind on John's freeskate they hadn't even started it, but John had a stockpile of old Exhibition programs that he'd never had a chance to perform, so Rodney wasn't worried. But apparently John's mother knew which one John planned to use.

Curious, Rodney stuffed his outgoing mail in the box and dropped the junk mail and sales flyers on the ground. Balancing the package on his knee, he tore it open.

It was another shirt box and, although it was hard to tell in this light, the exact same Admiral Christmas Tree uniform, except in army green. Rodney stuffed the box under his arm, belatedly remembered to pick up the flyers, and went inside to call Mrs. Sheppard.

They exchanged a few stiff pleasantries. Then Rodney brought up the new, and yet strikingly identical, costume.

"You said you wanted it to be more 'military'," she told him with taut patience.

So many answers to that collided in his mind—from sarcastic questions as to just how changing blue to green made it "more military," if she had bought every inch of gold braid in the county, was her next attempt going to be in 3-D, could she have found an uglier Hawaiian print and just what was she thinking with those tights?!—that all that emerged was a startled splutter.

"Well?" she asked tartly.

Rodney took a deep breath and shelved everything he wanted to say. His sex life was at stake here. "Look. A real designer submits sketches, we go over them together, talk about changes—and then, step three!—you sew. You don't just... randomly stitch stuff together."

"Yes, of course... one discusses it, reviews designs and photos of what you like, and then we draw up sketches. That's what I do with wedding dresses," she said sourly.

"You sew wedding dresses?" Rodney said, performing a quick reassessment of Mrs. Sheppard's skill level. Her sewing wasn't necessarily bad. Merely taste-free. He'd yanked on the gold fringe—admittedly with its demise in mind—and it was solid workmanship throughout that would survive a season of athleticism. With some proper guidance, perhaps....

"But Johnny's no artist. He doesn't have any ideas for his costumes," she said with obvious exasperation. "When he was ten, he wanted to be 'a superhero' for Halloween. That's as specific as he gets."

Rodney ran his hand down his face, groaning. She had a point. "True," he agreed. He sighed and rubbed at his eyes, feeling a headache coming on. Finally he said, "Let me give you my fax number at work. I'll describe to you what I'm looking for and you can send me some sketches...."

"But he does like the 'Surf Rider' costume?" she asked, as determined as a hound on a scent.

Rodney weighed how much he could get away with here, and decided it wasn't worth his funeral. "He wouldn't change a thing," he lied.

~*~*~

A week or so later, John frowned at the brown-wrapped box set in the middle of the kitchen table. "What's this?" He'd returned late from one of his phallic male bonding rituals with the yoga instructor, smelling like cordite.

This time Rodney had restrained himself from opening it—just barely—mostly through dint of sticking his hands in his pockets and, when that didn't work, by keeping himself busy on the computer in the den. Out of sight, out of mind. He emerged now and hovered in the background, smug and superior, leaning against the kitchen doorway with both hands in his pockets.

John draped his jacket over a chair and reached for the package. Tearing into it, he muttered to himself about "... already have the costumes..." and "just going to use the old one for...." The rattle of tissue paper paused. John stood blankly over the box. He flipped the note from his mom over to read the back. "For my long program?" he puzzled.

Rodney peered around him. Folded deep army green fabric, almost indistinguishable from black, was all he could see. The color was good though. There was some subtle beading but nary a sequin in sight.

"Did you say anything?" John accused, picking up the box and shaking it at Rodney. Tissue paper rustled. "Because once she gets started...."

"Why don't you just try it on?" Rodney said, making a tiny shooing motion.

"You don't get it. She'll make twenty costumes, one after another, if she thinks you don't like it. It's like firing up a factory," John complained.

Out of patience, Rodney grabbed him by the shoulders, turned him around, and pushed him in the direction of the bedroom. "Go."

Through the closed bedroom door, Rodney heard the tissue paper again, then the jingle of John's belt buckle and his sneakers being kicked off. Tissue paper rustled once more, followed by a minute's silence, and then, "I don't know, Rodney. I think she messed up."

Rodney was almost to the door when John stepped out.

"Or maybe it ripped in the sewing machine?" John said, raising an arm. A few dangling strands of ripped fabric rippled.

Rodney made a spinning motion with one finger. "Single jump. Let me see if the length's right."

After a pause, John complied. The strands followed his motion, fanning out, but not so long that they tangled.

"Huh," John said, swinging his arm forward. He lifted his left arm, which had shorter strands for an asymmetrical effect.

Rodney turned him around, looking for tight spots and pulls that foreshadowed embarrassing rips during competition. "Okay, raise your arms, bend at the knees... uh, huh." The strands had been thoroughly stitched, he noted. They'd shred at the edges but no further.

John pouted down at the stylized rip across his chest, a curl of fabric folding down. She'd filled the zigzag gash with mesh for durability, not something Rodney had requested but he could see her point. She'd done the same for the slashes across his arms and thigh. The insignia on the shoulders and paratrooper wings over the patch pocket looked like a replica of the real thing, but then again, she had a son in the American Air Forces, didn't she? John poked at them with an unreadable expression. The scattered all-over black beading was subtle enough that Rodney forgave her for it. Apparently no one could take away Candy's glitter pen.

John walked out a second hop of a jump, opened the bathroom door, peeked in at the mirror, stroked his hair, then asked, "You don't have a single full-length mirror in this place, do you?"

He thought of the kitchen window right before Rodney did, clicking on the ceiling light for a relatively clear reflection. He tried another jump in the kitchen, watching himself over his shoulder. Rodney had him do several stretches, tugging at the fabric to check the fit.

After twenty minutes or so, John picked up the phone. And he hadn't taken the costume off, Rodney noted with a smirk.

"Yeah, mom. It's really cool," he said on a laugh after a few minutes of conversation, grinning. He turned to look at his reflection again.

Then a confused expression passed over John's face. "You want to talk to Rodney?"

Rodney accepted the phone.

"Hello, Candy," he chirped. And John's face fell. "Couldn't resist the beading, could you? ... no, no, no, it's great, it's great." A tilted smile spread across his face. "Oh yes, I'd say he likes it." Rodney stood with a hand on his hip, chest out, shifting over to his 'professional' mode. "Fit-wise? Shoulders are dead on, and his sleeves aren't pulling when he raises his arms. You were right about that stretch fabric although I admit I had my doubts. We won't know about the pants until after he tries it on with his skates, but there's no puckering so far as I can tell. No doubt we'll need to reinforce the strips halfway through the season though, if you're available." Rodney quirked his head sideways. "Fix it Thanksgiving-?"

"Right," John said, ducking his head and wagging a finger as if he'd just remembered. "You're invited to Thanksgiving dinner."

Rodney tucked the receiver against his chest. "We have Regionals in October," he reminded him.

"American Thanksgiving," John said with a roll of his eyes. "It's right after Sectionals."

"Oh," Rodney said. "Um. Sure."

Then he remembered to say it into the phone to Mrs. Sheppard.

~*~*~

Peering over at Ronon's collection of weapons at the gun range, John tested the heft of a, quote, "shit hot Sig P-220 .45 ACP," a mirror to one of Ronon's guns that John had admired. Not that John was allowed to touch any of Ronon's guns, which he'd spread out over a table outside the range. Truth to tell, Ronon looked like he'd growl at anyone who came near them. The clerk brought several other options out on the glass counter for John to try, setting them down with soft metallic clicks.

"You have good taste," Ronon said, approving. "The Sig's the Cadillac of handguns."

He proceeded to give John a tour of his arsenal-for-the-day, a Browning High Power, the Para Ordnance CCW "the smallest .45 I own" that (apparently) worked well as a concealed weapon, "but this one has a concealed hammer which means I don't have to cock it" and then he touted the benefits of his favorite 17-shot Beretta that he'd had since the Army... John let the rest of the lecture wash over him, just happy that he'd picked the best one.

Setting down the Sig, John picked up another of the weapons, black and sleek-looking. The clerk inserted his own suggestions, holding out a target pistol. "It's roughly the same weight of the other guns so you can get used to the feel." The clerk was a plump guy with glasses and pasty skin but he handled the gun expertly, turning it over for John. "It's easy and fun to train on, with virtually no recoil."

John glanced over at Ronon, hoping he wasn't being recommended the girly gun for his handbag, but Ronon nodded his agreement, adding, "It's a .22. The bullets are cheaper." He gave John a wolfish grin.

"That, too," the clerk said, then went on to recommend a "Kahr P-9," the perfect handgun for "repelling a home intrusion." He pulled back the slide and demonstrated how an emergency bullet could be loaded without a magazine. John realized that the clerk expected him to buy at some point, and entertained himself imagining Rodney's total freak-out.

He made his selections, then bought and pocketed a several boxes of bullets. He sidled up to where Ronon had one of his guns in several pieces.

Ronon nodded to the weapon in John's hand. "You should clean that. It'll jam less."

Watching Ronon, John fumbled with the magazine, then tried to figure out what you'd do next.

"You know I ripped a door off its hinges?" John told him. He found something that looked like a moving part. It didn't seem to do anything when he tugged at it.

"That's another thing my guru warned me about." He gave John a meaningful look, his dreadlocks falling forward. "Destroying private property."

Ronon reached for John's gun and took it away, interrupting himself. "Like this." He disassembled it in a few easy moves.

"You've wrecked a door?" John asked.

"I tore apart a bar once. I was pretty drunk. And pissed off." He smiled grimly at John. "And then two guys beat the shit out of me."

"That's hard to picture."

"Believe it." Ronon indicated their stack of paper targets with a jerk of his chin. "No one's going to mind if you mess up those."

"Oh. The rink just told me not to worry about it. Said they have a budget for that sort of thing," John said. He folded his arms with slow care, and leaned his hip against the table. He said, hopeful, but cautious, "So... um. The skating season has started." He licked his lips.

"Yeah?" Ronon did something with an oversized pipe cleaner in the barrel of John's gun, frowning when it came out way dirtier than it had on his own guns.

"Sectionals aren't until November though," John informed him, examining his nails.

"Uh-huh."

"They're all the way in Cleveland, Ohio, though, while the Eastern Great Lakes Regional is a lot closer – Bloomfield Hills, Michigan." John shifted uncomfortably. "Only a few hours drive from here."

"Umm-hmm." Ronon didn't look up.

"Still, Sectionals will be more of a competition. At Regionals there's just me and one other guy signed up to compete." John gave him an ironic shrug. "We'll both automatically move up."

Ronon sighted down the barrel of John's reassembled gun and asked, "What about that big one you were telling me about?"

"Nationals?" John asked in surprise.

"Yeah."

"There's no guarantee I'll make it that far."

"You will," Ronon said, matter-of-factly, handing him the gun and placing it in his hand. He met John's eyes. "I'll go to that one."

~*~*~

The Century clubhouse had been rented expressly for this event, largely an opportunity to flatter the patrons and give them a chance to wear lovely dresses and meet the stars. The room was dim, with a grand piano, classic cove ceilings, and rather worn oriental carpeting, but it was known for its display of hand-blown art by a noted local artist. A few former champions active in U.S. figure skating made the rounds, shaking hands, arms slung around their shoulders for the flash of photos. Rumor had it that Kyle Fletcher would make a brief appearance; the older skaters would be abandoned the instant Kyle stepped into the room.

Radek glanced over to spy a woman overdressed in a red gown worthy of Marilyn Monroe. She was hard to miss.

Probably a former skater. They weren't held to any sort of fashion standard, unlike the judges. Petr at the Czech Olympic committee had dressed Radek in quirky Paul Smith sweaters and jackets, for the sake of their "image" he explained, and mutual friends had forced Radek to buy more trendy glasses. He had no complaints, although he joked that they needed to invent practical paper clothes since he inevitably spilled something, and someone was forever making him wipe fingerprints off his glasses.

He sipped his wine, deciding it was overly sweet but not bad. The art was far better, if a bit modern for his tastes. Still, he appreciated the whimsy of the rounded teardrop shaped tulips. He took a break from the exhausting friendliness by pretending to study them.

A few meters away, a familiar feminine voice caught Radek's attention. Sonja. He glanced over and realized she was the one in the red gown, blocked partially by the piano. She'd dyed her hair white blond for the occasion.

"Oh, Rodney and I are old friends," Sonja was saying in an undertone implying that it was probably more, one hand toying with her necklace. The man beside her—Radek guessed him to be either press or marketing; he had the cynical air of one who thought himself too clever by half—briefly glanced down her cleavage before turning a smirk up at her. "He's making a comeback, you know."

"McKay's skating again?" the man asked with a brief flicker of surprise, entertained but disbelieving.

"Not exactly," she said with a coquettish smile. "You'll see."

A younger fellow with impeccable hair behind them had heard the conversation, glancing over his shoulder, his manner laconic and spoiled. "Oh, Sonja, don't tease us."

Her gaze swiveled around the room and lighted on Radek. She wiggled her fingers at him, her eyes sparkling. "Well, it's not confirmed yet. But I have it on very good authority that he'll be at your American Sectionals. Mids, in fact."

"I heard he was coaching," said a woman in a sensible suit and white silk blouse. She bit into a strawberry.

"I haven't seen him coaching anyone," the spoiled young fellow said.

"Let me give me you my number," the first man said smoothly, his eyes sharpening on her face now. He had a card in his hand like a magic trick. Definitely media, Radek decided.

Sonja mimed zipping her lip and throwing away the key, tantalizing her audience and brushing the card aside. "I can say nothing more." She left them as they rolled their eyes in frustrated curiosity.

She sidled in next to Radek. "Buy me a drink?" she asked.

It was an open bar.

"What are you doing here?" he muttered to her.

"Everyone with a gold medal is invited, you know that," she said. "What are you doing here?" She flicked her hand gesturing at the rest of the room. "These are American sponsors. You are on the wrong continent."

"I'm visiting old friends; catching up." He glanced at her frank doubt-filled face and admitted with a bashful lean, "He deserves the best chance possible."

"What Rodney doesn't know won't hurt me," she agreed, nodding.

Radek glanced around the room cautiously and took another sip of champagne. "So. Press kits?"

She gave him a sly smile, eyes gleaming with mischief. "If some fan assembles them, who's to stop them?"

"I'll get you the disks." She gave him a bland, uncomprehending smile, taking in the room. "For the photos," he reminded her.

"Ah. Yes," she said, and added cheerfully, "If we are caught, I am blaming you."

"He'll never believe you," Radek assured her, also smiling. After a thoughtful pause, he took a sip and gestured to her with his champagne glass. "You know... you are not as bad as I remember."

"Did we meet before?" Sonja asked, turning to tilt her head at him quizzically.

~*~*~

A cluster of little girls scampered through the front hall of the rink and collided with John's legs. Their hair was up in braids, team jackets zipped and worn with sneakers and skating dresses underneath. They glanced up at him guiltily and dashed off, squeaking and shrill.

The Eastern Great Lakes Regional Championship had the tacky aura of a children's birthday party. A dozen or so vendors crowded the front entry hall above the rink. A little girl in heavy make-up sat primly on a stool while her hair was professionally braided with teal ribbon. Behind her, a display of draped ribbons held enough colors for a paint store. Pink sweatshirts with the words "Girl Power!" and "Skate Great!" printed in glitter were folded on another table where a sewing machine hammered in the background, monogramming T-shirts. A rack of skating dresses on sale separated the vendors from the snack stand; people in line for hot dogs pawed through them. On the far wall, beyond the chaos, hung a trophy case with photos of the local hockey team, frowning and looking merciless in full armament.

John moved easily through shoulder-high groups of giggling teenagers with their hair up, edging past parents to the bulletin board where the skating schedule was posted. He wedged himself between two preteen boys with longish hair who'd leaned against the wall, attempting to look cool and distance themselves from all the girls. They looked up at him in a mixture of relief and gratitude, respectfully stepping aside.

"Nine o'clock tomorrow," John called out to where Rodney was marooned a few meters away in the line to pick up their competition passes.

"Tell me that's a.m.," Rodney complained.

"Not unless I'm back to skating Juveniles," John said.

Rodney understood scheduling the little ones early, it saved everyone headaches, but—"The way these things run over, you won't be skating till ten o'clock!"

John shook his head. "Nah. Detroit's tough about their schedules." He'd skated Eastern Great Lakes before. His own region, Upper Great Lakes, often canceled senior men's. "You're late? Too bad."

"So when's your practice ice?" Rodney asked.

"Tomorrow morning." John smirked, turning to glance over his shoulder at Rodney. "Guess where."

Rodney rolled his eyes in frustration and let his head drop, resigned. "Overflow to another rink?"

"Too noisy here anyway," John said diplomatically and walked over to join him in line. "Buy ice time tonight?" he suggested, rapping on the wall absently with a knuckle.

In Rodney's opinion, the Regional competitions should give precedence to the senior level skaters, but unfortunately, low level competitions were run by local volunteers, most of whom were the parents of younger skaters. They arranged the schedule to suit themselves. "If they've got it, we'd better. Half the point of practice ice is to familiarize yourself with the rink."

The windows across the hall overlooked the ice where the competition was already underway. A little girl in gauzy purple was in the midst of her long program, a small audience huddled in the stands. There was scattered applause as she completed a long swan-like spiral sequence, struggling to keep her back leg high.

Her music filtered through the glass, a peppy 1930s jitterbug. Rodney couldn't resist bouncing to Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing, with a Swing." John shot him a curious glance.

When the frantic woman behind the counter finally handed them the passes—and more paperwork that no one had bothered to mention; U.S. rinks were terrified of litigation—John dangled them by their alligator clips and said, "Here we go."

Rodney gave in and shimmied in time with the hot jazz. John chuckled.

~*~*~

Of course the ice was completely booked for the weekend, thanks to Rodney's inability to plan ahead (according to John), or thanks to the rink's inability to provide adequate phone coverage so he could book it from Toronto (according to Rodney). They argued comfortably all the way back to the hotel. It shouldn't matter. John was experienced enough not to be spooked by a different rink.

At seven a.m. the next morning they got lost on the way to the overflow rink and had to ask directions, which an apple-cheeked guy in a suit at a Denny's delivered rapid fire, nodding helpfully before he walked away. Still lost, they had to ask two more people, who did the exact same thing. They all did it. Rodney had never thought he'd feel like such a foreigner in the United States.

It did give him an opportunity to tank up on more coffee, however.

No thanks to the locals, they found the rink at last and parked the Honda (despite John's leg room argument, Rodney's gas mileage argument had won). Once inside, Rodney set John to jogging up and down the bleachers. The rink was large and utilitarian with an aluminum roof that gave it the air of a warehouse. Concrete floors and metal seats radiated cold. The bleacher stairs thumped and rang with John's footsteps.

Rodney stretched. He leaned his elbows on the edge of the boards, sipped his coffee absently, and then checked the revised skating schedule. Sometimes the other skater pulled out at the last minute when he discovered there were only two men in the competition, given they'd both move up to Sectionals by default. Those who went to Regionals often used it as a practice run. But he hadn't withdrawn.

As usual, the Novice women's schedule was so overloaded it would take most of the day. In Canada they did qualifying rounds to clear-cut the herd.

"I heard a rumor that you were coming back," a voice behind and to his right said.

Rodney swallowed his coffee and turned. The man gave him a cold smile. Balding sloped forehead, short and stocky, and bundled up like a coach, with his thumbs hooked into his belt loops, he looked both victorious and pissed.

Name, name, Rodney could place the face, but not the name....

Oh, right. That's because Rodney had only really known him by his nickname. One that Rodney himself had given him ten years ago. Ted-something, a former champion who'd become a perennial favorite headlining at Disney's World on Ice, otherwise known as the "Mice Capades," an undignified end to a distinguished career. Rodney as the reigning champion had dubbed him "Mr. Bojangles" when the man briefly returned to competition, and the sports writers had lapped it up. John's footsteps silenced as he paused in his jogging, standing on the steps behind the guy.

"Yes, well, excuse me—" Rodney pushed by Bojangles, who was heavier now and a textbook reminder of the chilling inevitability of entropy. "—we have a practice session." He grabbed John by the upper arm and drew him away towards the opposite side of the rink.

"Is everything all right, Rodney?" John asked with an edge of suspicion. He cast a backward glance at the guy, who watched Rodney with steady hatred, and then turned to leave. "You owe a debt to the mob or something?"

"Just an old—" Rodney fumbled. "—friend," he said for lack of a better word, swallowing, his throat tight.

"Yeah, well you better hope your 'friend' didn't bring his brass knuckles," John commented, staring after him as the door closed. His expression turned speculative, creasing into a little frown. "He did look familiar... hey, wait. Wasn't that, whatshisname..." John snapped his fingers a couple times, trying to remember. He lit up. "...Mr. Bojangles?"

"I can't believe he's held onto that for twelve years!" Rodney spluttered.

"What did you do?"

"It wasn't that bad—and wait, why would it be something I did?" Rodney complained. "Get out there on the ice. I want to see choreography. Forget the jumps. No, don't forget them, just—oh, you know what I mean."

By the time John had finished his first lap, Rodney had calmed down enough to finish his tepid coffee. He breathed out a sigh, his breath misting. He tucked his arms around himself and tried to focus on John's skating.

~*~*~

John dropped to the motel bed, stuffing his face into the pillow. He plumped it while Rodney drew the drapes. They'd figured no one would question their sharing at a family event like the Regionals—that plus driving cut costs—but Rodney was taking no chances now.

John curled on his side, turning flirtatious eyes on Rodney, who sat down on the bed with a sigh. His knee slid over to Rodney, stretching closer.

Rodney shoved it away, then pulled off his boots. Kicking off his own shoes, John burrowed under the blankets. His toes crept over to Rodney, nudging him. John gave him a puffy-eyed pleased smile.

Rodney uncooperatively edged away, saying, "No." His eyes circled up at the ceiling for patience.

"Get rid of the pre-competition jitters," John offered with a shrug, folding his arms behind his head and stretching comfortably.

Rodney pointed at him. "I'll make you sleep in the other bed."

"C'mon," John scoffed with a dry whine. "There's no losing here. It might as well be an exhibition."

"You are far from ready."

John curled over onto his side, tucked his arm under the pillow and—dear God—pouted.

"That's why we're here," Rodney insisted, refusing to give way to that melting sensation which could only presage trouble. "I don't ever want to see you go into a competition overconfident." He got up and moved to the other bed, more to cut off his own temptation than John's. "Or spent."

The pout threatened to turn into a sulk.

"I promise you, you'll thank me later," Rodney said.

John's eyebrows went up then pulled together in a scowl. He peered at Rodney, squinting. "You know, sounding like my dad is deeply unsexy."

~*~*~

They'd had an entire afternoon and most of the evening to kill before John's competition, yet somehow, restless naps aside, the time flew. Rodney did a last check for skates, skate guards, water bottles, tissues, wallet, car keys, hotel key cards, and the rink passes, insisting that John change into his costume at the hotel so they wouldn't forget it (oh, yes, that had happened to Rodney)—

"I'd rather change at the rink."

"It takes longer!"

"It always makes me feel like I'm trick or treating if I go out in costume."

—Rodney won that fight. Outside, John shoved his way into the driver's seat, explaining as he slammed the door, "We need to get there today, grandma."

Then proceeded to drive like a demon. Which fit in with the locals, actually. On the freeway Rodney's breath caught as cars swept around them. "I hate this," John said, breezing across three lanes of traffic. He shifted from 60 to 35 mph on the off-ramp. "Next time, I don't care if you have to sit through a hundred little kids' performances, we're gonna be there early."

Moments later, he backed into a parking space with unnecessary and inadvisable speed. Rodney braced himself between the car door and the dashboard. Didn't he know that the majority of automobile accidents occurred in parking lots?!

John abandoned Rodney in the car and strode towards the rink, shoulders stiff, radiating irritation. Rodney scrambled to catch up, momentarily distracted by the pale, flesh-colored tights under John's jacket. Huh. His legs did look like Popsicle sticks.

He opted not to mention it. Number one, he couldn't fix it; number two, he was still annoyed about that "grandma" comment.

Fortunately, Rodney's prediction that the competition would run late proved correct, and John sagged in relief. Instead of arriving with barely ten minutes to spare, the senior men's had been pushed back to nine-thirty. They had forty minutes before the warm-up. Alongside the ice below, the other skater, dressed head to toe in a silver jumpsuit, had taken off his skates and paced the sidelines, looking frustrated and impatient.

The Novice women's competition was still underway.

John double-checked the skate order while Rodney smirked through the window at a rather porcine woman who wobbled on a painfully slow spiral, her leg high, like a hippopotamus imitating a swan. Probably not tonight's winner, no. By going slow she'd increased the difficulty nine-fold and wasted her advantage of power. But some skaters were afraid of speed—or, more accurately, of falling at speed.

"Mr. McKay?" a swallowed voice asked behind him.

Startled, Rodney spun around to find a stressed-looking woman in barrettes flanked by two children who clung to her legs, whining. One sort of... climbed... dragging on her cardigan. Her eyes pinwheeled like she was at the end of her rope. Some people weren't cut out to be skating moms.

"Could you....?" She ignored the climber and held out her crumpled skating program, obviously the first thing that had come to hand.

"Sure."

A cluster of fans quickly formed. Rodney beamed as he was asked to sign backpacks, a T-shirt a little girl had just bought—"Better make that indelible ink... ah, the lady behind the counter has a magic marker for us"—as more people realized just who he was. He posed between two teenage girls while their mother took a photo. Another program was handed over the girls' heads.

John laid a palm on Rodney's shoulder.

"Hmm?" Rodney blinked up from the final swoop of his classic 'Y'.

"Why don't we get this show on the road?" John said dryly. "Before we're late again."

"Oh, yes. Yes, of course." Rodney capped the latest pen and found its owner. "Sorry, folks," he said to his fans, dipping his head with a smug little blocking wave. "More will have to wait."

John's hand slid to the back of Rodney's shoulder and pressed him towards the steps to the lockers. As they trundled down the stairs and turned the corner, Rodney sighed with open satisfaction. "Ah, fans... a balm to the battered soul...."

And take that, Bojangles.

John didn't hear him. He tugged on the sleeves of his jacket, revealing the over-sized Hawaiian shirt. It glittered purple under the fluorescents.

He sat on the bench, elbows on his knees, his chin balanced on laced fingers. His eyes focused downward, staring into nothing... his face serious, determined, descending into the competitor's head space.

~*~*~

John stayed on the ice after the warm-up to the short program, the first to skate. By the boards the other skater, a nervous eighteen year old with slicked back hair wearing a silver bodysuit, bent his head to his coach, nodding.

John was a more independent competitor. He didn't want to chat before competitions, just held his hand out absently for the bottled water, drank, capped it, and handed it back.

In the stands behind Rodney, two skating moms nattered about their day. "Her program was perfect, what happened?"

"She forgot the triple. Just clean forgot it."

"Oh my God."

"She's taking it well, but I don't think it's hit her yet."

"All that work...."

Rodney glared at the women but they were impervious to the silencing power of his mind. Beyond them, about thirty or so people in matching blue skating club jackets sipped coffee and nibbled nachos, paying little attention to the ice; likely waiting for the senior women's competition next. At least the very young skaters had gone home. In the front row, teens still in costume leaned forward, slouched, twitched, and whispered to one another, far more keen to watch a senior skater in action.

John's name was called. "Skating on behalf of...."

And John kicked himself forward, gliding smoothly out to center ice, his arms upraised, his hands cutting upward in an amused gesture. It struck the right humorous note. Rodney approved.

His legs carved a wide circle at the middle of the rink, the Hawaiian shirt fluttering. John struck the opening pose.

"He must use Nair," one of the teenage girls giggled. Rodney flinched.

Then 'Surf Rider' began, and Rodney's attention zeroed in on John.

~*~*~

There was scattered applause as John took his final bow, smiling. The kids in the front row had liked it, he could tell. There weren't very many of them but they were clapping loudly.

The judges? Well, he wasn't so sure. He kept his spirits up as he skated off the ice with light strokes, looking up at the ceiling. The sudden come down from pre-competition adrenaline made him dizzy.

He cut Rodney off as he slid to a stop at the boards and clipped on his skate guards, "I know, I know. I took an extra step between the two jumps. I was going to blow it. I could feel it, and I did what I had to."

"Please, anyone could see you under-rotated there and weren't going to make it. What I'm concerned about is the fact that you did your entire program in slow motion. They have cameras and software for that. You don't have to do it for them."

"You said 'surfer cool.'"

"There's a difference between 'cool' and 'laconic.' I wanted to slap a jet pack on you! How do you expect--" Rodney lowered his voice suddenly, giving the opposing coach a quick surreptitious glance. "--how do you expect to win like that?"

The opposing team was deep in conference. Then the coach patted the kid's shoulder just before he skated onto the ice. Legs apart and sliding backward with small pushes, the kid tugged at the sleeves of his silver bodysuit.

"Go, Jason!" a woman's voice called out. The entire skating club in the blue jackets stirred.

Uh-oh. Rodney recognized the signs of a local boy. Of course, the judges weren't local so it wasn't a genuine issue, but it could be potentially demoralizing for John as the outsider.

The kid struck his pose. Straightened his back. Melodramatic synthesizers began. He raised his arms left then right in an arrow-like slicing gesture, dropping and bouncing them back up, robot-like, in time with the music.

"Oh, cool, Street Fighter," John observed. He leaned his chin on his arms on the side of the rink.

"What's that? Some Japanese anime?" Rodney asked. It had that tinny Japanimation feel to it.

"Video game," John said.

Rodney gave the kid a flat disbelieving stare. "Now I've officially seen everything."

The kid edged his back leg out, starting backwards, a difficult entrance. He turned with quick footwork and stroked forward, picking up the robot arm gestures again as he followed the edge of the rink. Good sense of the music, if not quite enough flow. Rodney nodded cautiously.

He threw an easy double Lutz -- and bobbled the landing, swaying and almost falling face-first. John and Rodney jolted forward as if to catch him, but he made it without their imaginary help, barely holding on. They glanced around, embarrassed, if a little proud of themselves. Although every skater in the rink had done the same.

The kid had lost all speed and pumped to catch up to his music. The crowd clapped and hooted.

He proceeded to collapse sideways in a sit-spin, something Rodney had never seen before. The kid pushed himself off the ice with one hand and swung back up, salvaging his spin sequence, his outstretched leg dipping in an off-balance camel.

John and Rodney exchanged a look. The crowd cheered again encouragingly as the kid fumbled yet another jump.

Rodney licked his lips. "Never mind. Skate as slow as you like."

~*~*~

Since John was in first, he had skated last for the freeskate.

The small crowd clapped as he gave his final bow and took circling strokes to the edge of the rink. It was tiring to "skate pretty" when you were already wiped, but every minute the judges saw you perform counted. Stepping off the ice, John mopped at his face with a towel Rodney handed him, still trying to catch his breath.

"That fast enough for you?" John breathed at last.

"That'll do," Rodney said. John took that as high praise. "But don't think it makes up for Surf Rider, not by a long shot, and we're going to have a talk about arm movement and the necessity thereof." John looked up at the ceiling of the rink, glad to be back competing.

A few feet away, he caught the open look of dismay on the other skater's face. He almost felt sorry for the guy.

Almost.

~*~*~

That evening, John smirked as he unlocked the car door. The ribbon of his gold medal dangled out of the back pocket of his jeans. "Yeah, the competition isn't exactly steep at this level."

"I remember working a lot harder at Regionals," Rodney complained. "I even lost once."

He'd been knocked out for an entire season. It was a bitter memory. He'd slammed doors and been gloomy all the way past Christmas and only watching the guy who'd beaten him get utterly, completely trounced at Canadian Nationals had improved his mood.

John shrugged one shoulder. "Maybe it is. Winter sports are a lot more popular in Canada." He opened the car door, then seemed to think the better of it. "You want to take the wheel?"

"Huh? Uh, sure."

John settled into the passenger side and reclined the seat all the way back. He massaged his right knee with a sigh while Rodney pulled out of the parking space, hunched over the steering wheel and still complaining. "I'm not sure I'd have kept competing if it were that easy."

"I told you. Radek told you," John said. "Don't worry. Sectionals are the real thing."

"At least we shook out the flaws in your programs." Rodney glanced at him with clear blue eyes and pointed, stabbing a forefinger in his direction. "And by 'flaws' I mean you sleeping through 'Surf Rider.' And just what happened to all the arm movement in your freeskate today?"

"I was focusing on the footwork...." John whined, arms cupped around his knee. Rodney gave a derisive snort.

~*~*~

The suitcases sat side by side in the hall, nothing unpacked except the toothbrushes and John's costumes. Rodney's answering machine had more messages than he cared to contemplate. He'd promised himself he'd check them from the road but never had.

It was always vaguely disconcerting to return from a competition, only to find everything the same, if slightly messier than you remembered. There ought to be ticker tape or some disaster that proved that the world couldn't do without you for a week.

They'd changed into sweats and curled up on the coach, shoes scattered on the floor around them. The blanket had fallen off. John slumped, limp as a dishrag, with his back leaned against the arm of the coach, one knee up, the other leg stretched out, toes nearly touching the ticklish spot on Rodney's side. Rodney's legs were bracketed by John's, and his foot had found a home by John's crotch. John had folded his arms, his mouth soft, lips slightly parted. His chest rose and fell in a slow exhausted rhythm. A sliver of his eyes glimmered under lowered lashes. Rodney knew from experience that John sometimes slept with his eyes open, which was creepy, but no worse than snoring.

Rodney paused the recording of his students' local competition, taking a break.

John snuffled and stirred, eyes blinking closed, then open again. His gaze settled on the television. "What you watching...?" he asked in a thick voice.

"Work. Now go back to sleep."

For once, John complied.

~*~*~

"Oh my God...." Rodney complained at the television, reaching for the remote to rewind.

He jostled John, who'd shifted around to lay with his cheek on Rodney's thigh.

"How could Melanie blow ... she never has trouble with her spins, she has pretty spins, it's the jumps that—ooookay," he interrupted himself. "That was about as terrible a jump I've seen ... Get up, get up, you don't get points for sitting on the ice... hell, how is she going to make up the time?"

Rodney stood, letting John's head drop to the cushion. John grabbed a throw pillow and resolutely tried for more sleep.

He tried to ignore the sound of Rodney in the kitchen, but it was like trying to ignore a freight train steaming by your window. Just no dice. He got up and aimed an unfocused glare in Rodney's direction. He filled a glass of water from the tap.

Rodney held up a finger for silence as he listened intently to the phone. "You get one, exactly one day to recover," he told John, "and that largely because I need it, too, so you'd better take full advantage."

"My pillow walked off," John said.

"Damn it!"

Startled, John choked on his water. Rodney slammed down the receiver.

"A complete and total meltdown. She crumbled! Melanie is in no way, shape or form ready to compete—yes, she has most of the basics down and she can perform her little heart out—yet mentally?" He made a cringing face in answer. "But do they listen? Noooo, her mother has to have her to compete at Regionals, never mind what I think."

"I thought you said Melanie could go to Regionals," John puzzled.

"No. I never said that."

John's eyes narrowed as he tilted his head, fox-like. "I distinctly heard you on the phone at the rink...."

"These people want to see progress!" Rodney declared with flinging gestures. "They want to see competitions and medals and trophies or else they fire you or talk about you behind your back, humiliating you to every coach in town!"

"I'm not seeing too many medals here."

"Yes! That's right! Exactly! They've got a good dose of reality now haven't they?! At this point the Weirs can either go back to my program and my pace, or hurry up and fire me." Rodney slumped, looking dismal. "And Elizabeth's taking her sweet time about it, too. If she wanted to wait till the end of the season? Then, fine. The season's over."

John fell conspicuously silent.

"What?" Rodney snapped defensively.

"I'm guess I'm just glad that I'm not nine years old," John said with a vague shrug and a shake of his head.

"Oh!" Rodney spluttered, eyes wide. "You want to deal with parents' unrealistic expectations that far outstrip their little darlings' talent -- or in this case, utter lack of competitive spirit -- then go right ahead! You have the job offer. Enjoy!"

"I'm not a coach," John growled.

~*~*~

The suite had a somewhat organic decor and was decorated in autumn colors. The lampshades had Rhododendron leaves pressed into them to cast leafy, comforting shadows, while the brown metal lamp bases twined in the shape of vines. The art was blandly modern, with reds and browns in a suggestion of swirling leaves and wind, the couch cushions plump and soft. Rather than a typical closet, they had an old-fashioned wardrobe. Radek hung up his garment bag, appreciating the solid oak as he shut the door. His assistant had done well. One could almost forget one was in downtown Chicago.

Radek contacted the front desk and requested a wake-up call, then wandered his suite, postponing work. He stripped off his tie, dropping cufflinks on the dresser. Then he ruffled his hair and wandered into the bathroom to start the shower.

His cell phone twittered. He fished it out of his trouser pocket, shutting off the water, accidentally getting his watch wet.

"Hello? Maggie?" He listened, nodding. "Ah, yes. Tell them I can't make it. I've an appointment this evening—business or pleasure?" His tone turned sardonic. "Yes, Maggie, I have a date with a very bald, very fat old man."

He sat down on the loveseat and toed off his loafers. He chuckled. "No, no, an ex-skater, very important in U. S. figure skating—although they're just as bad as ex-skiers, it is true. You should see my friend Rodney. He's gained at least two stone in five years."

His breath hissed through his teeth. "Viktor-?" Radek winced sympathetically. "He's done for. I watched him train last weekend. His qualification jump was the worst I have ever seen from him, and it was no aberration, of that I am certain." He leaned forward, adjusting his glasses back up his nose. "I suspect it's due to nerves from his last crash—"

Radek shook his head definitively. "No, no, no. I doubt it. He will not recover. Nerve, that is all a ski jumper has. It takes a special sort of crazy to do this. If they lose their nerve, that means they have become, well... sane. And just like one cannot be cured of being healthy, one cannot be 'cured' of sanity. He is finished."

He sagged back in the overstuffed loveseat. The gas fireplace flickered behind the grate, casting soft dancing shadows. "Oh. Yes. By all means, keep him on the team. There is no replacement and it would depress the rest if he were removed for no reason. But barring a miracle, this is his last year."

The hotel phone jangled. "Oh. Um. One moment." He put the cell on mute and crossed the room to answer. "Yes? ... Ah, yes. I appreciate it."

He returned to his other call. "I must go, Maggie. My guest is early. Wish me luck? ... What? You can't wish me luck without knowing what it's-- thank you."

~*~*~

Radek peered into the murmuring hotel bar and brushed at his trousers. Trevor had a large head and always seemed to chew his words. He greeted Radek with an affable smile, waving to the barstool beside him. His face usually turned pinker as he drank and, based on his color, Radek suspected he was at least a round ahead. No, he didn't mind if Radek smoked.

"Are you still involved in figure skating?" Radek asked. It was a little coy of him perhaps, but it was best not to be obvious.

"If you mean that it's taking every waking hour, you bet," Trevor laughed.

Radek nodded knowingly. "Sports do that." And they traded complaints they both knew at heart were insincere. No one became so deeply involved if they didn't love their sport.

"My kids had an argument over whether I had straight or curly hair." Trevor shook his head.

"I think my dog believes my housekeeper is his owner." Radek chuckled.

"Get a cat. An angora—smart bastards. They're like raccoons; open doors, get into everything."

As mutual friends had informed him, Trevor had moved up from judging, taking a more "active role," as they put it, in the U.S. Figure Skating Association. It wasn't difficult to shift the topic of conversation to the promotional side of figure skating.

"Fletcher's good, useful—hell, he's a star. That's always good. Plus he's got 'lost puppy' appeal. But there's this mamma's boy vibe that's turning some people off. We're playing up the art school angle to offset it."

"What about the other skaters? I hear Rodney McKay is coaching some Americans...." Radek suggested, wincing inwardly.

"God." Trevor head dropped, hands cupped around his drink. "I'd kill for a Rodney McKay right now. The Canadians had it good. Smart, articulate—funny. Loved the cameras. So quotable, the sportswriters followed him around like bees. I tell you, if he'd won Olympic gold as expected, McKay would have written a lot of people's meal tickets."

"They were upset?"

"Pissed beyond belief."

"McKay's back," Radek said, taking a sip of his mostly untouched drink.

"Really?" Trevor turned with cheerful disbelief. "Skating?"

Radek shook his head. "He's coaching now."

"Who?"

"Oh, a number of young Canadian skaters. But one American. John Sheppard?" Radek said.

"Never heard—oh, wait. Tall, skinny guy, a perennial at Nationals. McKay came out of the woodwork for that guy?"

"Must be something to him." Radek carefully hid his face behind the glass, taking another sip, to make sure he appeared only mildly interested.

"I'll say."

Trevor was quiet a long minute, chewing this over. He frowned. "He's getting up there though, isn't he? I mean, he's twenty-six if he's a day."

Radek shrugged one shoulder.

Trevor turned and planted his elbows back on the bar, his drink in his hand, amber liquid swirling. "Still, he'd be great for the brand." He tapped his glass with his fingertips. "Masculine. Athletic-looking—I remember that. Hmm." His eyes unfocused for a moment, then he snapped to the present. "He got a girlfriend?"

Radek spread his hands in an 'I don't know' gesture. He preferred not to lie if he didn't have to.

"Because you have no idea how hard it is to fight the Tinkerbell image...." Radek braced himself for the corporate sponsorship rant that he had heard many times before. He wasn't disappointed.

"...football, basketball—even golf—Nike's beating down their doors with endorsements. They're competing over college teams now! A female skater can have her face on a box of Wheaties if she wants. But men's skating-? Forget it. And the ratings for skating are through the roof...."

~*~*~

"All right, now watch me."

Rodney took John's starting pose without the music and moved into the initial spin, his back blade scraping the ice.

"You learned my whole long program?"

"Yes, and it doesn't suit me one bit," Rodney said with a grunt. He landed a single instead of John's triple axel, then sketched out the choreography in silence as he shifted into the footwork sequence. "I need you to be observant now. What am I doing that you're not?"

"Well, for one thing, that jump? Really needed a lot more height," John said, one hand on his hip as he lounged against the boards. He gave Rodney a tight, naughty smirk.

Rodney sighed, shoulders slumping as he dropped the program mid-way. He put his hands on his hips and curved back around towards John, carving a sharper stop than his usual. That program was inspirational. Almost a "John mind-map." Sonja was a genius.

Well, a flawed genius. Rodney's mouth slanted in a frown.

"Okay," John finally gave in and answered. "You were more..." He looked for a word. "...flowery than me."

"Because...?" Rodney circled one hand, prompting him impatiently.

"You were moving your hands more. I think it's called upper body movement." John didn't quite roll his eyes but it was a near thing. "Rodney, don't put me back in kindergarten. We've been through this before."

"Hmm." Rodney quirked his head. "Okay, since you know everything, tell me: what happened at Regionals?"

"I won."

"That wasn't winning, that was a mercy killing. With any luck that kid will take up macramé and save us all the misfortune of ever having to watch him again."

"You were one of the mean rink rats, weren't you?" John said with a sharp glint in his eyes. "Snickering at people when they fell, bitching about the kid who cheats his jumps...."

"Maybe?" Rodney pulled his hands in to his chest like little paws. "But everyone complains about cheated jumps."

John shook his head and handed Rodney his water bottle. Rodney took a sip and handed it back, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Look, all I'm saying is that, when we first met? You didn't have the foggiest notion what was wrong with your skating. You wanted to add some 'Art' like it was chocolate sprinkles." Rodney snorted. "If you want to wear the big boy pants now, then you've got to prove you know better. Give me a little self-diagnosis."

"I self-diagnose all the time, Rodney."

"Let see it."

"All right. It was my first run with the long program and I really wanted to skate it clean." John rubbed at his hair. "Things hadn't gone too well with Surf Rider. I'd focused on the... chocolate sprinkles...." He gestured to Rodney with a dip of his chin, crediting him for the new technical term. "...and dropped the ball on the basics. So I was maybe a little tight going into the LP, kept making stupid mistakes, the wrong edge into the Lutz, that transition—"

"There was a chasm between those elements," Rodney agreed.

"Yeah. I needed to sharpen up and pay attention, just get through it without any more mistakes."

"No! Never, ever 'just get through' your program." Rodney jumped on this, cutting his arms out like an umpire calling a strike. "You're program's not going well? Give more, not less. The great skaters, such as myself, reach deep and turn their worst performances into their best."

He wagged his finger in the air as he thought aloud, eyes scanning the ceiling. "When you skate this next run-through, I want you to treat a mistake as a—a trigger. Give me too much. Don't leave anything for the rest of the practice. Pretend it is the last time you're ever going to skate."

John swallowed. He uncomfortably adjusted his collar and looked away. "Yeah... I wish you wouldn't say things like that."

~*~*~

He's Baaaack! Skating's most famous hermit returns to the ice.

The year was 1986. All of Canada's gold medal hopes were pinned on a rising young star, three-time World Champion, Rodney McKay. He skated clean and pristine in the compulsories. His short program, while not his best, still had him within striking distance of his first Olympic gold following meteoric success on the international circuit.

As he stepped out onto the ice for his freeskate, Canadians collectively held their breath. Rodney need only to turn in his usual crowd pleasing performance to make that his step to the top of the podium.

Then tragedy struck. With an over rotated triple Lutz and a devastating fall, Rodney struggled throughout his program, a pale shadow of his usual flamboyant self. He came in fifth overall.

There were rumors of personality conflicts with his coaching staff that led to what became Rodney's final performance. He fled the Olympic village for Amsterdam just three days before the freeskate. His father met him in the Netherlands and was later quoted as saying, "I regret not being there for Rodney at the Olympics." Sure enough, Rodney's long-time coach, Marc Goodrich, was dismissed shortly after the games.

Rodney returned home without the gold, Canada's hopes once again dashed. He never competed again. Was this the end of Rodney McKay?

The comeback.

"I always assumed he'd left the sport and opened a string of Dairy Queens," says Denise LaFontane, 1992 Olympic gold medalist. But Torontonians knew that Rodney started coaching at an undisclosed location in suburban Toronto. Those close to him say that today, he's training the next generation of champions.

While McKay himself remains elusive Ice Magazine caught up with a few of his skaters at a recent competition. "He's a great coach, a little cranky sometimes," explains nine-year-old Melinda Weir who is due to compete at her first Regionals. "But mom says he's just like that."

Rodney's students protect his hermit-like privacy. "What? Why are you asking about Mr. McKay?" asks skating dynamo Bethany Morris, 13, who has clocked four Regional wins. "Yes, he's a good coach. Why wouldn't he be?"

Sources tell Ice Magazine that Rodney spends most of his time grooming his elite skaters, especially current American hopeful, John Sheppard. "Watch that one," they say. Sheppard is expected to compete at the U.S. Midwestern Sectional Championships November 15th. With Rodney behind the wheel, he has a head start to victory.

Former champion Rodney McKay demonstrates for all of us that there is, in fact, more than one route to gold.

"Oh, crap," Rodney said, his jaw still hanging open. Ice Magazine had been sitting on his desk for weeks. He'd only skimmed it out of boredom while, admittedly, procrastinating on his November billing.

The accompanying photo was at least ten years out of date, one of what his sister called his "pinup" shots: shirt unbuttoned to his navel -- and who knew a person could have that much mousse in their hair?

John apparently had heard him. He sauntered into the den, one hand trailing along the door. He sat on the edge of the desk to peer over the magazine, then glanced at Rodney with a naughty smirk.

"Who's the twink?"

"Shut up, you know that's me."

John just grinned and tossed an orange from hand to hand like a slow motion juggler. "An old magazine escape the burn pile? I have matches."

"No," Rodney said, closing it. His nostrils flared. "I'm going to kill Sonja. That isn't even what happened!"

John made a loose-fingered gesture with a nod at the magazine. "So tell those people. Set 'em straight."

"That burn pile." Rodney turned in his seat, arms folded across his chest. "Do you know how many retractions were in there?"

Slow understanding dawned across John's face.

"If there's one thing I know: once it's out there, there's nothing you can do about it." He clicked Quicken again, glancing back at his notes to check his figures. "Thus, the imminent demise of your choreographer. My condolences."

"It was nice while it lasted."

~*~*~

The Ohio freeskate session was just two days before the Midwestern Sectionals, a.k.a. Mids, and at the same rink.

A tall man with graying hair and deep set Slavic eyes unzipped his warm up jacket, pulling it off. He had a strong chest and was still in shape, and anyone who recalled non-Olympic international competitors from fifteen years ago would have recognized him. But most skaters were too young to remember, while the coaches for their part were involved with their charges. Including McKay, who stood on the opposite side of the rink, holding an intense conversation with the not-quite-so-young John Sheppard. The former Soviet champion joined the small chaos on the ice. He skated looping curves with careless skill, his skates hissing, though he paid little attention to his moves as he kept his eyes on John and Rodney.

With a bob of his head, his face serious, John seemed to take in whatever Rodney had told him, then pumped out onto the ice. Rodney stepped back from the boards and folded his arms over his chest to watch.

As the only senior level skater in this freeskate session, John garnered considerable attention. His speed barreled through the younger skaters. He moved sleek and smooth. He threw an easy double with impressive height, then came out of it, puffing out a breath like a bellows, scissoring his feet back and forth. He shook out his hands, sweeping into his starting pose for the run through. After a pause to gather himself, John launched.

The former champion watched unobtrusively. Most of those gathered in the stands were distracted as well. Two minutes in, a familiar snappish voice cut across the ice, "You're rushing it. You're nervous and you're rushing it."

Sheppard stopped his program and skated towards Rodney. "When I have the music that won't be a problem...." he answered, an impatient note creeping into his tone.

Count on McKay to still have a voice that could fill a stadium. Petrovich shook his head with an amused little smile. He'd seen enough. He stepped off the ice, sat down and cleaned off his skate blades, moving slowly and deliberately. Precisely to annoy the person waiting for his report.

Sure enough, once he loped upstairs – he'd paused to let an elderly woman with a walker go by; one must have respect for ones elders – Sonja was fuming. Newly permed brown hair curled under her fur hat. She didn't tap her foot but she wasn't far from it. Petrovich's face crinkled into an impish smile.

"Well?" she prompted, unamused.

"Interesting," he said. He guided her by the arm to a card table tucked against the wall outside the pro shop where their conversation could be more private.

"Interesting? That's it?" she frowned.

Petrovich moved his chair closer to the table and said with a smile in his voice. "What do you want me to say? He was a dead boring skater. Now he's an interesting skater. A remarkable change—actually, I saw him at the America Cup, so I'd call it an amazing change—but the word I would use is..." He translated from Russian in his mind, carefully. His English was fluent, his accent a mix of upper crust British and Slavic, but certain words.... "Embryonic." He lifted his shoulders in a shrug. "In a few years perhaps...."

"He doesn't have a few years," Sonja said, chewing one long nail, not looking at him.

Which wouldn't do at all. Teasing her, yes, was fun, but he didn't like seeing her like this. She'd grown entirely too attached to this skater. Still, he had to give her the truth. "That is my point, isn't it?"

She sighed. He sighed in sympathy, arms crossed over his chest, protective, bracing himself. He usually enjoyed needling her, because she bounced and her eyes would flash just so. Sonja had the fire of a Russian woman. He hadn't been prepared for her disappointment.

At long last he rolled his head, and in a tone like he was admitting something, with great reluctance, he added, "Does he still have the jumps?"

The jumps were the first thing that evaporated when one tried to turn a sow into a pig's ear, or however the saying went.

"Yes," she said without a breath of hesitation.

"I'll watch the performance tonight," he promised her, leaning across the table to take her hand.

"Of course you will," she said, looking at him like he was a fool. "You're here." And that was the Sonja he knew.

~*~*~

The men had the first practice session. John had dragged Rodney to the rink early, although Rodney had disappeared to hunt down "syrupy overpriced cocoa, you want some?" John told him no. He liked to be the first on the ice. It was superstitious and Rodney would laugh if he knew, but he thought it was important to beat the other skaters out of the gate. It set the tone. Standing in his skate guards, he stamped his feet, trying to keep his heart rate up from his run earlier. The Zamboni rounded the corner for its final pass through the center.

Behind John, two other skaters chatted, while a red-haired kid had taken the only chair, swinging his feet. The coaches had clustered, taking to each other by the boards. John didn't know the first two skaters, although the kid looked familiar, from Juniors last year probably. He recognized Mark Svick doing traditional stretches in the hall back towards the locker rooms. John shook his head. Rodney had discovered USC research that proved holding long stretches made the muscles less elastic, not more, pushing them too far. At best they didn't help at all. John held his arm straight out and kicked his foot towards his palm in Rodney's latest range-of-motion stretches.

The Zamboni trundled off the ice just as Rodney returned, blowing on his cocoa. John pulled off one skate guard and waited one leg at the gate. The other skaters formed up behind him.

"Skating this practice session: Benjamin Lamato, Ian Rossiter, Nathaniel Peters, John Sheppard, Mark Svick...."

John was already on the ice before they called his name.

He stuffed the skate guards into Rodney's hands and pushed it, beating the other guys around the first curve of ice, swinging into the easy flow of footwork. Two of the other skaters had caught on to the game and got fired up to pass him. Svick stayed at the boards talking to his coach and didn't budge until John had completed his first lap. He took a moment to drink some water, too, but John could tell the game irritated Mark.

Good.

John swooped around the red-haired kid, who was starting late, then got down to business. He did several single toe jumps, practicing a solid landing. The two young guys who'd chased him had a near collision, still fired up, and their coaches had to rein them in. John skated over to the boards to Rodney, who was distracted, shaking hands with some big, bald-headed guy. The guy patted Rodney on the shoulder—people didn't usually pat Rodney on the shoulder—and left with a wave.

John cut into the rink to stop, spraying ice. Rodney stared after the guy.

"That was Trevor Morton," Rodney said. He took a sip of his cocoa, then stared into it, pouting. You had to drink it fast if you stood rink side.

"Yeah, well, next time he shows up, tell him you're on the clock," John said, lips in a tight line.

"He's very high up in U.S. figure skating," Rodney explained. "He came to see you skate."

"Really? What did he say?"

"That his wife loves my Korsakov program. You know, that one's everybody's favorite," Rodney said. "It's not as technically difficult as the Firebird, but I can see how it would appeal to the less educated skating fan."

"Ah," John said, disappointed.

"Oh. And he called you 'a feisty one.'"

"Feisty?"

"Cute stunt with the race there, by the way, but this isn't the Preakness," Rodney said, finally turning towards John. He leaned forward with his elbows on the boards, grinning as he leaned close and added in an undertone, "Although if you really want to rattle them, ad lib to their music."

~*~*~

They stood in line with a half a dozen people at the snack stand. Rodney had insisted that he had to have coffee immediately to make up for his disappointment with the hot cocoa, and no amount of coffee back at the hotel could persuade him. John shifted from one foot to the other, counting off the minutes he could be anywhere but here. So he almost missed the moment when an attractive woman in line front of Rodney turned around. She was buxom, with wavy dark hair spilling down her back. As she handed a diet coke to her friend her eyes skimmed Rodney... her smile froze, then fell off her face.

"Rodney McKay," she said in a musical contralto after a tense moment. John smelled trouble instantly.

Rodney squinted at her, confused at first. "You look...."

"You don't remember me?" She turned haughtily to her friend with a small triumphant smile. "What was it he called me? Bella Obesi?"

"... Different," Rodney ended, shoulders hunched.

"Thinner?" she prompted with a raised eyebrow, challenging.

"Well," Rodney began, "Competition weight is important to maintain and the interviewer asked for an example, and naturally you were the first person... who, um... sprang to mind...."

"Come on, Rodney." John gripped Rodney's shoulder before he could dig himself in any deeper. Because that hadn't sounded much like an apology.

She regarded Rodney calmly, head to toe, taking in his extra weight with evident satisfaction. "Yes. I see."

Rodney seemed to take her point and bristled. "It's far more important for the women's compet—"

John physically turned Rodney around and pulled him toward the glass doors, arm around his shoulders.

"—wait, coffee...?" Rodney pointed like a toddler at the snack stand.

"At the hotel." John called back to the lady, "Nice meeting you." He decided at the last second not to call her Bella, in case that was part of the nickname.

Once John got Rodney outside, protesting, but at least walking towards their room, he asked, "How many people have you pissed off?"

"Um. All of them? I was pretty thorough." Rodney wrung his hands. "The trouble is, figure skating is a very small world."

~*~*~

"Hey, stranger...."

"Glad you could join us. Bartender? Another round for the four of us, and one for my friend here."

"Can't stay long. I judge the pee-wees tomorrow morning."

"Ha. I'm sorry."

"At least they're easy to score: mostly you just count the falls."

"So who do you like for the men's short program?"

"Svick."

"Svick."

"Definitely Svick. He's young, his jumps are coming along...."

"I like the red-haired kid, what's his name, Rossiter?"

"Red hair? That's Peters."

"Yeah, Peters, whatever. He's young, coming up very fast."

"I agree he's good, but you can't give them too much success too fast. They'll think it comes easy and never work for it."

"Svick is seasoned. He's earned it."

"Seasoned but young? You're contradicting yourself."

"Okay, who would you place in first, Petrovich?"

"I'm not saying."

"Oh, come on."

"No, no, I will leave that to judges such as yourselves."

"What about Sheppard? He's seasoned."

"He's barbecued. Third."

"Third. You've got to recognize those jumps but he's on his last legs."

"I'd put him in second. There's no way Rossiter or Peters have it behind Svick."

"I picture Sheppard for fourth. What? Stop laughing. Have you seen his costume? He deserves to be knocked down an ordinal just for that. I'm going to claw my eyes out by the end of his program."

"McKay's coaching him."

"Rodney McKay? The Canadian?"

"I heard about that."

"I don't care what kind of genius McKay was as a skater, he's a new coach. Third—or at best second."

"I pick him for second. You saw him in practice."

"No, no, a few bits of clever choreography does not make up for a lack of interpretive skill."

"Who's his choreographer?"

"Sonja Gato."

"Whew. And McKay? Pulling out the heavy hitters there...."

"Looks like McKay and Sonja are still together, too. An age-old question answered."

"That was just a fling."

"Come on, Petrovich. What's your opinion?"

"I'm withholding judgement until after I see his short program clean through. Do I think he's better? Yes."

"He beat Svick last year."

"Yes. And then Svick blew him away at Nationals."

~*~*~

"I can't believe you!"

"It happens. Costumes get lost. I hit up Sears and bought another pair of shorts last night, you still have the shirt—we're fine!" Rodney insisted. He held out the stretch denim cut-offs like an offering. "I'm sure they're not in a dumpster somewhere. We probably left just them at home."

"And you neglected to mention this until now?" John stormed. The other skaters in the locker room stared studiously at their shoes, the lockers, anywhere but at John, their lips sealed.

Rodney shrank in on himself but waved a hand toward the rink anyway. "The short program is in twenty minutes. I suggest you try them on—"

"They might not fit?" John shouted. He glanced around and quickly lowered his voice to a growl, "What am I supposed to do if they don't? Skate in my underwear?"

A little red-haired kid looked up. "You could borrow the pants to my costume. We're not in the same flight," he offered with anxious eyes.

The kid was fully a foot shorter than John, but it cooled him down a notch. He snatched the shorts out of Rodney's hand with a swiping gesture, and Rodney flinched. "Rodney, I swear to God...." He shook his head, not finishing the threat as he yanked his pants down to try them on. He snapped the price tag off and flung it to the ground.

~*~*~

The catcalls started the moment John hit the ice. He dipped his head in a laughing blush which, no, John, that only encouraged them. He unfortunately had thin legs for someone so tall, but at least he didn't look like Pinocchio anymore.

Abandoning all dignity, Rodney leaned his elbow on the boards, chewing his lip. The short program was the technical portion of the competition, with a limited time to fit in very specific elements. A test of skill.

In reaction to the crowd John played his opening pose a little sexier, one hip canted, arms folded behind his head. His mouth twitched and he glanced up with a sparkle at a stray wolf whistle.

The lazy guitar strokes of Surf Rider began.

He pushed off, skating it fast and hot—good! Turn and center with the bass guitar, then turn and center again... following his arms... kick turns back, and then back, and oh, this was much better than his practice. He carved the ice in broad serpentine curves like a surfer playing with a wave, then cut through center ice bending backward in a spread eagle.

He played with quick steps and then leapt up with the high note, light and fast, twisting in the air... no, no, not high enough... one, two, three, four turns... made it! ... followed by the... oh. Just a double. He landed in a spray of ice. Unintentional, but a nice water effect.

Rodney breathed.

Then John was late-late-late! into his next series of curves. But he threw his triple axel beautifully, bending his arm to the ground at the end, making it part of the music, his back leg curving behind him. Good thing the judges didn't know how far off his mark he was.

The bass refrain returned and he bounced up on one skate, one foot high, shoulders solid. He let it drop and carved backward on the standing skate, then kicked again, and bounced, working his edges back, swooping right with the bass beat.

He spun around—whoops a little slip there—and then pulled speed from the ethers for the last half. He launched into the sax sequence with freewheeling footwork, arms out then pulling him into the curves, swinging his head down... and did he actually have his eyes closed? The fruitcake!

Ah, and his combination spin, so beautifully executed. Rodney wanted to kiss him for the sit-spin alone. Tight to the ground with his leg outstretched, long and perfectly straight. Bobbing up, running his hands along his legs—that was new—into a long camel, his line clean as an arrow, smoothly changing position, his hands folded at the small of his back as he tipped his chest towards the ceiling.

He stepped out of it into backward circular steps, a clean transition for a change. Then he kicked his leg high, and sprang into his final triple Lutz, landing it solid like he was on rock. They could hear that landing across the ice.

With a tap of his toe pick, John jumped into his final spin. Rodney shut his eyes briefly. He'd finished everything that could have gone wrong. With a sigh, he watched John deliberately slow the spin, gliding into his ending pose on the dreamy guitar trill.

Rodney clapped with the fans as John swept one hand out to bow, then turned and bowed to the opposite side.

His hair was a shade darker from sweat as he glided over on one foot, carving gentle arcs till he reached the side. Mark Svick was already on the ice, warming up, slicing back and forth, practicing quick turns with his footwork.

"That was decent," Rodney told John, who stepped off the ice, panting. John's bare legs looked pink. "You skated a little conservatively, and it cost you in the combination jump, but overall it was clean."

"That's because I didn't want to fall," John said, his hands gripping the boards. "I know you ditched my costume, Rodney, so where is it?"

Rodney lifted his chin. "It's my civic duty to keep you from being seen in that atrocity."

Mark Svick's music began and Rodney peered over at him clinically. The Larghetto of Vivaldi's Concerto number 2 was always good, but, hmm, there was a heaviness to Svick's movements that he didn't like. Granted he was biased.

"It's tights, Rodney. I've had stupid-looking costumes before. So long as you can skate it doesn't matter. And I'm not skating half naked again."

"Shhh." Rodney made a flicking motion at John. "Busy now."

~*~*~

The only thing worse than the interminable wait in a Kiss 'N Cry was the endless pacing until the scores were printed out at Sectionals. There was no Kiss 'N Cry at this level, that was something invented for television, and with the inefficiency of handwritten score sheets and volunteers it could be forty-five minutes. John leaned one hand against the wall and pretended that he wasn't replaying his every mistake in his mind, his breath a cold wisp. On the rink below, the pairs competition was underway. To John it was just a blur of motion and glittering costumes.

Finally, one of the volunteers shuffled out of the office in a half-scampering run. She posted the sheets on the wall with masking tape. Three of the eleven competitors gathered around.

"What?" Rodney spluttered. "Third?! No way were you behind that twerp Peters!"

"Easy, easy—" John gripped Rodney across the chest, because it looked like Rodney was ready to climb into the stands to hit the kid. Who fortunately was nowhere to be seen. A few spectators glanced in their direction. "These are better scores than last year."

"They're nowhere near what you deserve!"

"Shhh... settle down, Rodney. We'll hang it on the long program. It's not over," John insisted. He released him. "They might be downgrading me because...." He tipped head sideways at his obvious age.

"They can't do that!" Rodney stamped his foot. He scowled, looking around, his hands balled up into fists. "That's it. If they're prejudging you then we'll give them nothing to prejudge." He stabbed a finger in John's direction. "You're practicing your short program only for the rest of the week. Let's see if they can prejudge a program they haven't seen."

John scratched behind his ear doubtfully, cringing. "Um. I kinda need to work on...."

"Are you still questioning me?"

~*~*~

"You saw him. No way he's third."

"Oh, come on! Do you know what McKay's going to be like if he coaches a winning skater?"

There was a long pause. Then: "I usually score the skater, not the coach."

"Yeah, McKay's a prick but he has nothing to do with this."

"Tell you what. If McKay skates tomorrow, you can put him in last."

Everyone laughed.

"Svick can still take him."

"You were right, Petrovich."

"No, I said nothing."

"Look. It doesn't make any difference if he's second or third—or fourth even. He'll move up to Nationals either way."

"Why don't you score him however you like, and we'll score him however we like?"

"Sure...."

"Uh-huh. And when your score's way off from ours, don't cry to me when the finger-pointing starts."

"Second—Sheppard beat the pants off of Rossiter and Peters today."

"No lower than second, definitely."

"I think he might even take Svick."

"Oh, that would have to be one mind-blowing performance."

"Has anyone seen his LP?"

"Nope. He keeps practicing his short."

"Damn it!"

~*~*~

Six skaters glittered on the side of the rink, waiting through the formalities at the beginning of the competition. John was dressed in a dark green that was nearly black that stood out between bright aquas and hunter's orange around him.

"... the technical coordinator, Miranda Shaw...."

Spectators dutifully clapped.

"... our referee, Brian Covich...."

There was some clapping along with the standard chatter in the stands as people filtered in. Unlike Regionals, Sectionals filled the seats.

Rodney suddenly snickered and buried his head in his elbow where it rested on the boards.

"What?" John asked, already laughing himself.

"It's Sled Foot," Rodney said, nudging his chin in the direction of a small man with glasses wearing a snowflake sweater vest. The guy was making his way down the stairs towards the rink.

"Who?"

Rodney leaned over to murmur in John's ear, grinning. "I was in the Champion Series final—the Grand Prix now—and," he smothered another snicker, dipping his head, "—Sled Foot there was having a perfect skate. I thought he had me. Everything was going along beautifully and then—I've never seen anything like it—his foot just kicked up, like he slipped on a banana peel!" Rodney made a swooping gesture with his hand. "For no reason. " He shook his head. "I went up later to thank him."

"Shit." John chuckled.

"Funniest thing ever. It made all the blooper reels." Rodney sighed happily. "I wonder who he's coaching these days...." Because the guy had moved past the audience bleachers and was now into the competitor area. Then he edged around the far end of the rink, hurrying towards....

"... let's give a warm welcome to our judges... from All Year Skating Club...."

Rodney's smile slowly dissipated. John froze.

"Rodney."

"Um."

"He's a judge."

Rodney turned wide eyes on John and swallowed. He patted John's back heavily and advised him, "Um. Skate good?"

~*~*~

John pushed out onto the ice behind the other skaters for the warm up, one hand reaching to steady himself as he nearly ran over little Nathaniel Peters. He burned around the rink as hollow 80s dance music played faintly. Then John lined his back up, glided with one knee ready, then threw himself into a clean spinning triple Lutz, arms slicing outward on the landing. He swung one hand in a sharp motion, making a fist and pulling his elbow in as he carved backward, his face intense.

He curved between the other skaters, flowing easily and fast, shifting his weight from one skate to the other. He moved into the dodging footwork sequence of his long program, shifting his shoulders left then right, ducking his head low and then spinning to face forward. He grabbed his elbows and did a mock jump, then let his hands drop.

John stroked away from the sequence, head down, hands on his hips. The music shifted from bouncy Bananarama to declare that they were "turning Japanese, I really think so." He curved up to Rodney for a hushed conference and a sip of water. Then he skated out again, skirting Svick, who was gliding backward on one knee.

John gave him a quick glance, pumped up to speed, then stepped into the quad, landing it with his arms open to the sky. There was scattered applause.

"Skaters, there is one minute remaining in this warm up...."

Skating slowly this time, John ran through the arm motions to his footwork sequences again. He looked up to Rodney, who shook his head once and held up his fists to do the first two. He stopped sharply and dramatically after each move, looking for all the world like an angry sign language interpreter.

Eyes narrowed, John tried again, this time with the footwork, his gestures sharper, stronger. Rodney's chest swelled as he straightened.

"This warm up is complete. Skaters, please leave the ice."

John was the last to leave the ice, gliding over in rounded curves. He accepted his skate guards from Rodney and pushed past him toward the locker rooms.

"Where are you going?"

"I don't watch anyone else skate. I'll lose my focus."

"Suit yourself." Rodney shrugged. As a competitor he'd always enjoyed watching the other skaters. First, as a skating fan in general, and second, seeing them fumble pathetically through their routines always gave him a little boost. By the time he hit the ice he felt assured of victory.

Case in point, Rossiter's amusing performance, with his struggle to keep up with the bird-like oboe of Vivaldi's Concerto in A Minor. Yes, yes, the hand gestures were appropriately delicate and Rodney would give him props for his smooth flow over the ice. But he had that overall thickening of someone who was too old for the sport, his footwork a shade too heavy—and was that an inside edge take-off on his Lutz? Yes, it was. Tsk. No doubt the judges missed it.

There was no way they'd miss his cheated jumps. He'd call that a two-and-three-quarters axel rather than a triple axel. Rodney clapped politely with the rest of the crowd when Rossiter bowed.

Chin propped up on his elbow, Rodney snoozed through the next skater's entirely forgettable performance of Zimmer's "Anuncio Ferrero Rocher." It was hard to believe these were the top six, although he reminded himself he had skated at a level far above this after age fifteen.

The current fourth place skater, Benjamin Lamato, was better. Much better. Well, the top four moved up to Nationals so no doubt Lamato was motivated.

He felt John's presence beside him. "Decided to watch after all?"

"He is invisible as far as I'm concerned," John assured him. But his eyes drifted out to the ice, his jaw tense. Svick and Peters had paused to watch as well.

When Lamato finished his program, John stepped onto the rink. He skated gentle circles, getting in his final warm-up. Once Lamato stepped off and was congratulated—yes, yes, good performance, backslaps all around, please go away—John returned for some tissues. He blew his nose and handed it to Rodney.

Lovely. Rodney ranked tissue duty as the most disgusting part of his job.

"Skating on behalf of...." the announcer began.

Now was the time for Rodney's final words of wisdom. "Go get 'em, tiger," he said. It was what Rodney's dad had always told him before he skated.

John had already started for center ice. He shot Rodney a funny look over his shoulder. "Tiger?"

Unconsciously gripping that tissue, Rodney willed John to do well.

~*~*~

The last beat of the Daiko drums faded. John let himself drop his final pose. He hoped the breathless silence was a good sign and, breathing hard as he bowed, he couldn't tell if the applause was any louder for him than the other guy. John turned and bowed to the judges, then skated for Rodney, swiping ice shavings off his blades on the way. This program practically scraped the entire rink. Peters was already warming up, scissoring his feet as he ignored John.

Rodney stood alongside the boards, his feet planted, arms folded over the bundle of John's warm up jacket, with a little victorious smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. His eyes all but gleamed.

Okay, then, he had done all right.

Svick paced on the opposite side of the gate from Rodney, his back stick-straight as John clipped on the skate guards.

"It's nice when it comes together out of the clear blue sky like that," Svick said, frowning with a worried expression, his eyes searching John's face. "When once in a blue moon everything just—suddenly works."

John didn't know what to say. That had happened to him before, yeah, but definitely not today.

~*~*~

John moved his legs to let some spectators through the hallway above the rink, then rested his chin on his knees, his back curved. He was still in costume, the strands trailing on the ground, arms looped around his legs where he waited under the line of score sheets. The other skaters had left for the main lobby to get out of the cold.

Rodney lowered himself to the ground next to John with a huff. He handed him a cup of coffee. John took a scalding sip, then handed it back with a shake of his head. His stomach couldn't take anything right now and he was afraid a second sip would make him puke. He tugged at the laces of his sneakers, tightening them. Then resettled his chin on his knee, staring resolutely at the ground. Rodney just blew the steam off his coffee.

John glanced up briefly when a couple of the other skaters drifted back. The redhead, Peters, fidgeted, bouncing his back against the railing. He turned around and lifted himself off the ground, kicking his feet. The older skater, Rossiter, paced, then finally leaned against the wall. Svick was nowhere to be seen. Not that anyone would blame him for skipping the scores altogether. He'd blown his skate, big time. Figure skating was unpredictable. John chewed his lip.

Below them the women's competition continued, ignored.

John and Rossiter jolted up, alert, when the office door opened. Peters let himself drop. John stood slowly, dusting his costume off, followed by Rodney. John wiped all expression off his face, carefully controlled as his adrenaline spiked. He let the other skaters check the standings first.

Rodney turned around with his eyes huge.

"Second, yes!" Peters said, punching the air. He ran off, presumably to tell his coach that they were going to Nationals.

"Congratulations, John." John felt Rossiter pat him on back. The glass door opened, the noise from the lobby momentarily loud. The other skaters had noticed the final standings were up.

The coaches had scored John in a neat row of numbers, with his placement below. First, second, fourth, first, first, first, second, first, first, first....

John was the Section champion. He breathed, slumping, and then laughed.

~*~*~

John floated in a little bubble of victory from the locker room to the office they'd sectioned off for the awards. He stood in front of the blue curtain to have his photo taken as he was given his medal. Rodney looked on, seeming amused by something.

On the way out into the buzzing lobby, the medal still around his neck, people he didn't recognize smiled and offered their congratulations. Weirdly, they knew his name. Rodney, probably noticing John wasn't exactly touching the ground at the moment, offered to collect their things from the locker room and bring the car around. John saw him stop on the top step to talk to a skating mom. When Rodney put a brochure on his knee to sign an autograph, John chalked the offer up to good intentions and figured he'd be getting their stuff.

"Great skate, John," a girl's voice said behind him.

"Thanks," John said, looking around in a daze till he spotted the speaker.

The kid couldn't have been more than sixteen, seventeen. She wore a white ski jacket over a skating costume and sneakers, with a fresh-faced look and less make up than most skaters.

"Are you going to the party?" she asked, chewing gum cheerfully. John's coaches had always made him spit out gum before he set foot in a rink.

"Oh..." John said, scanning the ceiling for an excuse. God, he normally skipped the post competition parties. "It's been a long day...." he began.

"But you have to go! You're the gold medalist," she said, bouncing a little.

John winced.

"And Yvonne'll be there and she wanted to talk to you." She nodded, like this should be a convincing argument.

"Yvonne...?" She couldn't mean....

"Sheaffer."

Oh.

"Oh yeah. I think I've heard of her," John joked, rubbing his jaw. "Any idea why?"

"Nope." The girl popped a bubble.

Now he really didn't want to go. "You know, that's a shame but I really can't."

"Okay. I'll tell her," she said brightly. The girl pranced off, ponytail bobbing. There was an excess of perkiness among the women figure skaters.

Several minutes later, John had collected their gear. He pulled his jacket on, chin raised to look over the crowd to locate Rodney and see if he could separate him from his adoring fans. He felt a tug on his arm and turned to find the same girl.

"Yvonne wants to talk to you now then," she said.

"Uh...." The girl held up a cell phone. It was pink and studded with rhinestones. John took it and tucked it under his chin. "Hello?"

"Hi, John Sheppard?" a sweet feminine voice said.

Yvonne sounded way different from how she did on television. "Yeah?"

"Hi! I've got this charity event that we do every Christmas, and I know you're going to Nationals and stuff, but there's plenty of time in between. It's for the Cancer Society and...."

John listened with a sense of bewildered wonder as she named the sort of skaters who were invited. Oh, gee, Kyle Fletcher did it last year but he's at the Cup of Russia this December and can't make it, uh-huh, okay.

"Would you be interested?" she said, sounding hopeful.

John swallowed and laughed. "Um, yeah!" Like he'd say no.

"Great! Let me get my mom," she said. He heard in the background, "He can do it!" then the phone changed hands to a woman with cool, professional voice: "Hi, John, this is Madeline Sheaffer, but you can call me Maddy. I'm glad you can join us this year. I'll be at the party, so I hope you can come...."

John absently handed the phone back, nodding to whatever it was the kid said, answering her with a probably irrelevant, "I've gotta find Rodney."

~*~*~

John held the brush handle in his teeth while he struggled with his hair. No amount of mousse or hair gel could get it to lie flat. Watching himself in the hotel mirror, John was beginning to suspect he'd made it worse.

Totally naked, Rodney sprawled on the bed behind him, leaned up on one elbow like the queen of Sheba. Not moving one muscle toward his clothes.

"Come on, Rodney. I said I'd be there."

With a groan, Rodney rolled onto his back. "I skipped these things all the time. Just give Maddy a call."

"Yes," John said with utmost, tooth-clenching patience, "I could skip, but it would be rude." Not that Rodney would know anything about that.

"There's going to press there," Rodney said, rolling back towards him. He propped his chin up on both hands. "Glad handers."

John winced. But he started the electric razor anyway, opening his mouth and pulling his jaw tight. It was unfair that Rodney stayed baby smooth while he got two o'clock shadow.

"Skating parents. Little whiny kids," Rodney promised.

"That bothers you more than it does me."

"True," Rodney admitted. "Photographers. Wealthy sponsors who'll pinch your butt."

John snorted and smiled, pulling out a string of dental floss. He mumbled around his fingers as he flossed, "You've never even gone to one of these, have you?"

"I might have once," Rodney said with unselfconscious honesty, pillowing his chin on his arms. John could just barely make out the curves of his ass. "But I was probably too little to remember."

John tossed the dental floss and then slid the tie around his collar, buttoning the top two buttons. He adjusted the length, reciting silently to himself, the fox chases the rabbit around the tree... the way his dad had taught him. He had a U.S. Figure Skating tie tack. Flying the team colors. He smoothed out the tie then picked his suit jacket off the back of a chair and struggled into it.

"Rodney, I don't know anyone there except the guys I beat today. Just go," John said with an exasperated sigh. He checked and had to tuck his shirt in. Again. He unbuckled his belt. They never made the tails long enough for him. "You don't even need a tie. You can just wear your sport coat," he said, pulling the belt tight.

"I'm sorry, I did not go to my junior prom or my high school reunion. I'm not going to some pathetic Chuck E. Cheese figure skating party," Rodney said sourly.

The first leg of the party was all ages. "We're going to Albert's. Then the adults are moving to the bar at ten."

John did a last check of his teeth. Nothing green hanging off them, good. Swept at his hair with his fingers. The mousse had mostly managed to get it to stand up along his part like wire, but at least it had fixed his bangs. He gave up and grabbed his ski jacket. Not exactly formal wear but it's what all the skaters would bring anyway, even those who didn't wear sneakers with their sport coats.

Finally, John stood at the door, one hand on the door handle. Frustrated, he said over his shoulder, his jaw set, "You know, Rodney. You're gonna have to face these people sooner or later. If they don't see something new then, to them, you'll always be that eighteen year old brat."

~*~*~

The little family restaurant hired for the party thrummed with Depeche Mode and laughter. John hadn't realized that they hired DJs for these things. Several of the younger skaters ran past him in dresses, giggling and high from adrenaline, their hair still up in competition braids.

The senior skaters had taken a table in an out of the way corner where they slumped, loose-limbed, punch drunk and dazed, laughing too easily. A party was a surreal experience after months of intense training, John had to admit.

They all looked... strangely ordinary out of costume. They took on individual personalities with their street clothes. Rossiter had turned back into the public defender he was during the day, comfortable in his suit. The ruthless women's competitors had transformed into equally ruthless high school girls who'd gathered in a pack to flirt with the DJ. Tough competitor Nathaniel Peters had turned into a rather gawky teenage boy, seeming too small behind the knot of his tie. They were a mismatched group. John glanced down at his dark suit and tie, and wondered what everyone else saw.

"John, I'm so glad you could make it." John turned to find a woman in her mid-forties at his elbow. She had tasteful make-up, and a little too much perfume as she took his arm and introduced herself as Maddy.

As she walked John through the crowd, chatting in a raised voice over the din, John noticed that it didn't look as if she could easily bend her right knee. The landing leg. So Yvonne's mom was a former skater then. She swept him over to a group of men with carnivorous smiles who leaned over to shake John's hand, congratulating him. A camera flashed over his shoulder. John had the feeling he'd been set up for a photo op. With them at the bar was....

"Radek?" John said, taken aback.

"John," Radek said with equal surprise. He peered at John in confusion, adjusting his glasses. "How is it you know Maddy?"

"You've met?" Maddy asked with a curious glance between them.

"Oh, yes, yes, in Canada," Radek said vaguely, swallowing a sip of his wine. He turned to the others and gestured with his glass to John. "Did you know he's been training in secret with Rodney McKay?"

"Well, I wouldn't call it secret...." John began, rolling his eyes.

"No, no, it's this tiny rink. Middle of nowhere," Radek insisted as he wagged a forefinger. "No one knows about it."

The group was fascinated and John couldn't convince them that secrecy had nothing to do with it. Somehow, Radek had managed to completely change the subject and maneuver John to the center of the group as he made a smooth exit with a murmured, "Excuse me." They had the bartender fetch a beer for John as he was forced to describe his training with Rodney. He hoped he wasn't giving away patented trade secrets. "Unorthodox," they nodded to each other, and drifted into a chortling dissection of Rodney's foibles that was half fond, half mean-spirited. John was too polite to contradict them, so he just squirmed. Finally he spotted Radek by one of the buffet tables and beat a strategic retreat.

"Beware the bite-sized pizzas," Radek warned him. John followed behind him in the line, picking up a plate. "Anchovies." He shuddered.

"Someone's playing a mean trick on the kids," John observed. He put a pizza bite back on the platter. He passed Radek and reached the end of the buffet.

"The children have their own table. I believe they are merely, mmm, encouraging them away from the adult food, yes?" Radek said.

"So there's some left for us?"

"Exactly."

They made their way to an empty table near the senior skaters, who were laughing overloud at a story by a lower-ranked skater who looked to be in his early twenties. Most of the group was in college. A few of the junior champions had joined them, gathering in curiosity around Nathaniel, who was their age but skating seniors. John narrowed his eyes, wondering if that was punch he saw in Nathaniel's hand, or if he'd gotten into the wine.

"So. You know Maddy," Radek prompted, still blinking in surprise over it.

"Not really," John said, deciding it was punch. Probably. He dug into his food. "We just met. Yvonne invited me to do a charity skate for the Cancer Society. Just called right out of the blue."

"Oh, that's lucky. Are you going to do it?"

John shrugged his shoulder, tipping his head, smiling and coy. "Well, it's for a good cause...."

"Good."

They ate quietly for a moment. Then Radek added between bites, "I saw your performance today. You are very different when you compete."

John raised his eyebrows. "Yeah?"

Radek nodded, digging into his plate. "Mmm-hmm. Much better."

"Cool."

"Oh, it's unusual. Most people are better in practice."

"Well, practice is just practice," John said, making a face. He waved his fork at Radek. "Competition's the real thing."

Radek looked around, frowning in concern. "So... where is Rodney? I wouldn't think even his fans could keep him from free food."

"He's probably in the shower at the hotel, whacking off," John said sourly.

"Ah." Radek nodded, considering it for a moment. "Well. I'm not surprised. I was there in 1986. It was really bad."

"He lost. So what?" John said, picking up his plastic cup of beer. "Do you know how many times I would have given my right arm to come in fifth? At Nationals, never mind the Olympics."

"You do not understand." Radek shook his head, wiping his mouth. He put down his napkin. "It was different back then, during the cold war. There were proxy battles fought between the Soviets and the western countries... Vietnam, in Africa, elsewhere, yes? The Olympics was one of those wars. Whole countries were disappointed in Rodney. The Americans were angry, and of course the Canadians were upset, but also the United Kingdom and Germany." Radek folded his hands, steepling his fingers. "You see, when Rodney lost, the Soviets and East Germans took the entire podium. Rodney was their only chance to win that year."

"Their?" John puzzled.

Radek chuckled and said with a dry smirk, "My country was perfectly content with Rodney's performance."

"Oh. Right." John leaned back in his chair, swirling the beer in his glass.

"Excuse me," Radek said, picking up his plate. "I believe my host is looking for me." John spotted Maddy craning her neck, peering in their direction. He hurriedly made a point of joining the other skaters, who set up a raucous cheer.

"Hey, John," one of the college kids announced. "We have another trophy to go with your medal." They produced a gold paper Burger King crown.

"Ha, ha, ha," John said. But he put it on anyway. These guys were more his speed.

Another skater raised his glass and laughingly proposed a toast to John's long, long, long overdue win. Oh yeah, he was going to get roasted tonight.

~*~*~

A crack of light spilled into the room, followed by the click of the door as it closed. There was a shuffle and the soft sound of clothes being removed. Static crackled, like a sweater pulled over hair in a too dry room. It was followed by sniff, a perpetual side effect of cold rinks.

Then the bed dipped and John slid under the covers, rustling close. Rodney edged over to give him more room. John smelled like cigarette smoke and the muggy scent of booze.

"How was it?" Rodney murmured, sighing a little and grumpy about his interrupted sleep. He tucked his arm around John's waist.

"Loud."

"Are you drunk?"

"We'll know when I try the stairs."

"Huh?"

"Inside joke. Goodnight, Rodney."

~*~*~

His flight had been delayed so Radek missed his connection at Dulles, but a quick call to his assistant had rerouted him through National. (There was a petition to rename National the "Ronald Reagan" airport, which, given its short runways, harrowing landings and aging infrastructure seemed oddly appropriate.) He'd been forced to jog the through the terminal but the airline had made it up to him—and it was for good reason he never checked his bags.

Radek reclined his oversized seat and kicked off his shoes for the transatlantic flight. People shuffled past, casting brief envious glances around first class before trudging back to coach. There was a time he'd objected to this as a needless expense, but once his assistant had started using frequent flyer miles to upgrade, well, hmm, she had effectively countered any complaints.

"Newspaper, sir?" the stewardess asked.

"Yes, please." He accepted the Times with one hand while he stuffed his laptop under the seat in front of him.

His cell phone vibrated. Radek fumbled for it in his pocket. "Hello?" He adjusted it under his chin, using his toe to finish shoving the laptop under the seat. "No, I only brought a carry-on. Have him meet me at the gate."

He flipped the phone shut. Then changed his mind and dialed. He edged his shoulders comfortably into his seat, glancing out the window at the rain and bustle of baggage carts.

After six rings he almost gave up. Then a feminine voice answered, cheerful and breezy, "Allo, allo!"

"Sonja," he said, his smile turning mischievous. "It's Radek. Are you busy?"

"Of course! I am always busy."

"Because I understand John has been invited to Yvonne Sheafer's charity skate."

"Yes! Isn't that wonderful?" she said.

"Remarkable," Radek switched the phone to his other ear, "given that they've never even met."

"They'll meet now, yes?"

Radek couldn't quite suppress his slow smirk. "Didn't you say you used to choreograph Yvonne?"

There was a pause, and then Sonja laughed. "All right. He should have his own publicity and not be always in Rodney's shadow. Besides, Yvonne needs a younger image."

"He's older than she is. By at least four years," Radek pointed out.

"Yes, but he's new."

~*~*~

In the kitchen, John gathered up the plate with fresh baked bread, grabbing the butter in the other hand. This left Rodney to carry the extremely heavy Jell-O mould wrapped in one arm, with the cranberry sauce in the other hand. He was dead certain he'd trip, destroy their carpeting, their Thanksgiving dinner, and never be allowed to visit ever again.

John leaned over and murmured in a smiling undertone, "Just be sure you eat the dark meat."

"I prefer the white, thank you."

"No. You don't." John cast a surreptitious glance at the door. "Let's just say that mom's good at a lot of things, but she believes in cooking the bird until it's definitely dead."

"Ah."

Rodney managed to get the Jell-O to the table without mishap, and if he spilled a little of the cranberry sauce on the white tablecloth it was nothing a little strategic placement of the bowl couldn't resolve. He glanced around, his shoulders hunched, hoping no one had noticed that, but John had already sauntered through the arched French doors to the living room, hands in the pockets of his Dockers.

Not to lose John's protection (he still dreaded being left to his own devices with John's sister-in-law, Charlotte), Rodney came up behind him where he'd hesitated, hand trailing on the doorway. The television was loud, roaring with the crowd noise of yet another American ritual: football. Not the real football the rest of the world played, but the American kind. John's father had claimed the leather Lay-Z-Boy, while John's brother Kendall sat on the couch, his wife asleep and stretched out with her feet in his lap, her round belly making a third occupant more or less.

Mr. Sheppard held up a beer can like a toast. "You mind getting us another one, Johnny?"

John turned back to the kitchen without comment. Face in the fridge, he handed Rodney a can while he pulled out three more, squeezed between his chest and forearm.

"In a can?" Rodney hissed, appalled.

John straightened and shut the fridge with his hip. He shoved a second can into Rodney's hands. "Drink it."

"I feel like I've stepped into some kind of hetero-normative middle class Twilight Zone," Rodney hissed. "At any moment now June Cleaver will come around the corner in a pearl necklace and apron."

"Yeah, you're not far off."

"Just tell me there's something strange about your family. Please? Anything. A skeleton in the closet? Mad grand aunt buried in the basement?"

"There's one person who's a little different," John said.

"Yes?"

"Me."

John gave Rodney a slanted backward glance over his shoulder as he led the way back to the living room, his smirk wry.

There was only one spindly-legged uncomfortable looking chair remaining. John handed his dad and brother their beers and sat on the floor, his back to the arm of the couch, legs spread out in front of him. Rodney was left to awkwardly settle beside him, next to the Lay-Z-Boy. He looked at the couch with wistful regret and copied John as he spritzed open his can. The beer was weak and Rodney tried to suppress the face he made, but from the amusement in John's glance he figured he hadn't succeeded. Rodney held out his can and tried to settle in for the long haul. Football had extra innings sometimes, didn't it?

"What's the score?" John asked.

"14-7. The Lions are losing," Mr. Sheppard said with evident satisfaction.

John's smile showed teeth.

After a long moment of watching heavily padded men scrabble back and forth across the field, Rodney ventured, "So... which ones are the Lions?"

John nodded at the screen. "The ones in the blue with the silver helmets. They even have a helpful picture of a lion right there." He pointed at the screen that had flashed to a close-up with, yes, a lion outline. Rodney flashed on medieval heraldry.

"I assume that's to make it easier for the illiterate." Rodney shot him a dark look. How was he supposed to have known that? But since John had revealed his ignorance of this foreign sport to all and sundry he might as well fish for information. In for a penny, in for a pound. "The Lions are the bad guys then?"

"Well, this is Chicago, so yeah, sometimes. If they're playing the Vikings then they're the good guys. Everyone hates Minnesota."

"Now, Johnny, Minnesota has a great team this year," Mr. Sheppard chided.

"No way. They're 5-6," John said.

"And that's great," Mr. Sheppard said.

Everyone laughed.

Rodney leaned on his elbow, trying—and failing miserably—to get comfortable on the hard carpeting. "So... what exactly are these football teams trying to do?"

Everyone turned to stare at Rodney.

"What? I'm Canadian!"

John's father leaned forward and planted his elbows on his knees in a manner strikingly like John—the first clue they were related, because the man's square jaw didn't look at all like John's sharp features—and proceeded to explain the intricacies of the "first down" and "fourth down" and the merits of passing versus running with the ball.

Then Rodney discovered the most frustrating aspect of this game. John leaped to his feet and whooped, punching the air. The other men roared and clapped their knees. "Touchdown!"

"What? What? What happened?" Rodney glanced around, dazed. He stabbed a finger at the screen. "That man deliberately hid that ball!"

"That's the point, Rodney. He was hiding it from the other team." John settled back on the floor next to him, picking up his beer.

"How am I supposed to follow this game if they're sneaking around?"

~*~*~

At "halftime" everyone got up and made a beeline for the bathrooms, the natural consequence of the beer tradition. Rodney wondered if anyone had ever thought this one through. The baby apparently had kicked and Rodney looked up hopefully as the mom-to-be levered herself up with a soft grunt, freeing part of the couch. He took up residence there with a little bounce on the comfy cushions.

Then John peered around the corner. "Hey, Rodney? You mind giving us a hand? Mom's giving Charlotte my crib."

"Unless you need it," Kendall joked from behind him.

John grit his teeth and poked him with an elbow. Kendall was taller than his little brother, broader across the shoulders, with a high forehead, widow's peak, and a longer face. Rodney noted with some smugness that he got the better-looking Sheppard.

With a regretful sigh and backward glance, Rodney gave up his seat.

~*~*~

It was hard to suppress a smirk as he took in John's room. A line of model airplanes were set in precise formation along John's dresser, with Dungeons and Dragons dice clustered on the corner, including a very worn twenty-sided die. Tiny green plastic soldiers were stationed on the windowsill, set in position on a plastic Navarone set. Figure skating posters were pinned to the wall with thumbtacks, their edges yellowed and curling. A skateboard plastered with stickers and a hand-drawn lightning bolt on the bottom—poorly rendered in ballpoint pen—leaned against the dresser. Gold and silver medals were looped over the bedpost next to John's pillow.

Rodney tapped the twenty-sided die. It rolled. "How did you convince me you were ever cool?"

"I was seventeen," John insisted. "No seventeen year old is cool. They just think they are."

Rodney indicated at the airplanes. "You don't have any decals."

"Didn't need them," John pursed his lips. "I knew what they were."

Rodney smiled. "You lost them, didn't you?"

"Every damn time. Slippery little buggers," John admitted, running his hand through his hair. "It was a logistical problem. You had to put them on last, and I'd leave them in the box but they'd just—disappear."

"Well." Rodney turned around. "It certainly doesn't look like your parents changed much."

"Yeah, it's weird," John mused. He walked to a mirrored door on one wall. "The second my brother moved out they turned his room into an office. But maybe they didn't need a second office."

Rodney walked over and examined the medals, turning a gold medal over. It read 1987.

"I've always done well at Regionals," John said, seemingly with eyes on the back of his head, because he was busy in the closet. He grunted as he tugged at something, glancing overhead. "It was Sectionals that were a killer." His eyes flicked to the medal. "I skated to Carmen that year."

"Everyone does Carmen," Rodney sighed.

There was clatter and Rodney watched a stack of board games collapse on John, raining Monopoly money, Scrabble tiles and tiny colored squares from Risk. They scattered across the floor.

"Shit," John said.

"I've got it," Rodney said, bending to sweep them up. He picked up some smallish colorful plastic cassettes. They were too large to be tapes. "What are these? Some sort of 8-Tracks?" Rodney turned them over in his hand, puzzled.

The look John gave him was stunned. "They're video games. No one topped my score in Donkey Kong."

"I never played video games," he said, somewhat defensively, standing straighter, "not unless there was an arcade in our hotel overseas. My training schedule didn't allow it."

"Oh."

Rodney handed them over, but John shook his head and gestured with his shoulder to set them on the bed.

"Let's get all that later. Help me pull this thing out," John said. He yanked at a folded wooden frame.

"Your neat streak seems to have been a late blooming trait," Rodney observed, eyeing the mess.

"It doesn't apply to closets."

John and Rodney wrestled the heavy crib out of John's closet, then dragged it through his bedroom and down the carpeted stairs. Rodney complained, "What is this—lead lined?"

"Solid oak," John said. "They don't make them like they used to."

"I can see why. You realize that if I injure my back, my career is at an end?" Rodney said, setting his end on the landing. "I can't skate in a wheelchair."

"Hey, I've got the hard part," John pointed out from the lower down the steps. He hefted it from his knee. "Now let's get a move on."

Kendall had returned from the rental car with an armload of blankets. He dropped them in the foyer and held the door open with his shoulder as he watched Rodney in bemusement. "Need some help?"

"No, he's got it," John growled, skewering Rodney with a look. "He was a world-renowned athlete—'was' being the operative word." Rodney shot him a dirty look and quickly picked up the other end, the corner of his mouth slanting in a frown.

Freed from indentured scut work, Rodney hopped up the steps into the house. The couch was still clear. On the TV, the sound off, a group of scantily clad cheerleaders surrounded a float decorated with what looked like sparklers and Roman candles. "I'll save you a seat," he called out to John, beaming. He patted the spot next to him and toasted him with his beer.

"You do that," John said with a smile, gathering the armload of the blankets his brother had left and carrying them upstairs.

~*~*~

Kendall had pulled out the hide-a-bed and their suitcases were crowded against one wall. His Air Force uniform was neatly folded on their dad's desk, John noted with a little twinge of envy, and all of Kendall's trophies were displayed in the bookcase behind his dad's broad leather swivel chair.

"Hey, squirt," Kendall chirped at John.

John shifted the blankets to one arm to flick him, but missed, and Kendall laughed.

"Just dump them on the bed. I have no idea where we're going to put all this crap." Kendall scratched his head, shutting the door to give John more room. "But mom seems to think we need it."

"Well, a baby...." John pointed out.

"She's excited," Kendall agreed, nodding. He folded his arms and leaned his back against the door. "So. Rodney."

"Different, I know," John said.

"He's your coach?"

"Um. That's not exactly legal, so don't spread that around."

Kendall snorted. "Yeah, I'm gonna tell everyone I know. Think I should start with the LT, or break the news to a general first?"

"Right." John nodded a little.

The Venetian blinds were down but slatted open, striping the room. The lines ran across Kendall's chest where he leaned against the door. His slid to sit on the carpet, letting his head tip back against the door, elbows draped loosely on his knees, and more or less holding John hostage. John eyed him warily.

"I knew it had to be something else," Kendall said after a moment, not looking at him. "You were always crazy to fly. I knew it couldn't just be figure skating."

John sighed but didn't answer.

"Are you sure?" Kendall squinted at him. "I mean, have you ever tried it?"

"With—?" John prompted.

"Yeah."

John shook his head and looked away. "It doesn't work out."

They were quiet several minutes and John amused himself by entertaining escape plans. The storm windows popped out easily; it was only the second floor. He'd jumped it before from his own room. But there were bushes down below and he'd probably wreck the blinds.

"I'm okay with it, with guys being gay," Kendall said finally. "There's a couple in the service and I don't care. I just..." He ran his hand through his hair, mussing it. "...wish I didn't have to meet the guy, you know? I don't want to have to picture it."

John shot him a look.

"My little brother. You know... who's top, who's bottom?" He winced, looking at John for reassurance, eyebrows rumpled with concern. "You're the top, right?"

"That's none of your business." John scowled.

"Good." His brother stood, dusting himself off. "Let's keep it that way."

~*~*~

The Sheppards weren't much for talking when food was at hand, and Rodney was amused to note another similarity between John, his brother, and his dad, in the happy way they scooped up their mashed potatoes, eating rapidly, like they intended to beat each other to seconds. Rodney was reminded of rabid puppies; cheerful, until you tried to take their food away. He caught Mrs. Sheppard's eyes and she seemed to have a similar thought, her gaze almost purring at her family.

Kendall's wife stirred the food around her plate listlessly. Kendall gave her a questioning sardonic look, and she pressed her lips together and shrugged. He balled up his paper napkin and tossed it on the table. "We can make you a hamburger," he said.

John's father faltered in his eating. "Is everything okay?" His fork mixed at his vegetables as he looked over.

"It's chicken," she said. "I thought turkey would be okay...."

"I'll get it," Mrs. Sheppard offered. She rose from the table, her pearl necklace dangling. "When I was pregnant with John—"

"Why are your pregnancy stories always about me?" John whined.

"Because you I had to work for," Mrs. Sheppard said, picking up the gravy boat. "Fourteen hours," she informed Charlotte with a meaningful look, earning a sympathetic little gasp.

"Well, Ken, I'm glad you took care of that family responsibility," John said, and Kendall glanced at him with a smirk of amusement.

Kendall pulled the chair wide as his wife rocked to her feet, and pushed it back in to follow her. "We might turn in after this," he said, and his wife glanced up at him with a grateful expression. "It was a long flight this morning. I swear those airplane seats keep getting smaller."

"I felt like I was in a muffin tin," Charlotte agreed.

The three disappeared into the kitchen, their soft chatter indecipherable from around the corner, and Rodney found himself and John staring across empty plates and mostly melted candles at Mr. Sheppard. Who cleared his throat.

He turned to Rodney. "So. I understand you're a coach."

As Rodney had feared, the conversation took a turn for the inane, although they kept it focused on Rodney so at least the topic was interesting. Still, Mr. Sheppard skipped over all the best parts—Rodney's fame, his years as a teenage skating sensation, and even the Olympics which most people wanted to know about—to focus on the pedantic, mundane details of his present career.

"You've been coaching almost ten years then," he said, examining Rodney with a keen eye and silent respect, hands folded and elbows on the table. "You pay self-employment taxes?"

"Well, yes and no," Rodney began. He detailed the complex relationship between himself, Skate Canada, the skating clubs, and the rink that was his official employer but left him to handle all his own business affairs. He made a sweeping gesture, hands spread. "I just hand my money to a CPA and let her figure it out."

"It's steady or—?" Mr. Sheppard asked, his voice shading with doubt. His eyes cut over to John.

Rodney winced a little and shrugged his head to the side. "We get hurt by economic downturns just like anyone else, sports are a luxury after all." He wiped his mouth. "But the truth is that of all the sports, figure skating is hurt the least. It's a wealthy -- and dare I say elitist? -- clientele we cater to."

"I understand from John that you own your own house, too," Mr. Sheppard said, settling back in his chair, hooking an arm over the back in another gesture that was a lot like John.

"Yes," and Rodney gleefully launched into the story of his grandmother's brilliance, excellent mortgage terms, and his suburban neighborhood that had been slowly absorbed into Toronto. "I wanted a Porsche when I was sixteen, but all in all, I think she had the better idea."

"Seems you've done very well for yourself," Mr. Sheppard noted, nodding, and Rodney blinked.

He hadn't thought of it that way. Doing well in the figure skating world was measured in competitions, either your own or your students. By those standards he was hardly a superstar. Usually once his students got serious, they dropped Rodney for another coach because of his refusal to attend competitions.

"Um, yes, I suppose so," Rodney said, shooting John a confused glance.

John's expression was carefully blank, his shoulders taut and defensive.

Mrs. Sheppard interrupted their next discussion of Rodney's investments—long-term, buy and hold was his strategy—with dessert, explaining, "Charlotte and Kendall are going to get some sleep. It's been a long day for her." Small china plates were passed around with a clatter.

"More for us," Rodney said, handing John the pumpkin pie, which Rodney loathed. He had a sinister plot to trick John into eating it all so there would be none left.

"Come on, Rodney," John argued, swallowing, "It's good stuff."

Fortunately, Mrs. Sheppard made a wonderful rhubarb pie, so he was spared. Mr. Sheppard joined John in teasing Rodney to just try a slice. Matters degenerated to John hovering a forkful in front of Rodney's face, his hand gripping the back of the chair and edging deeper inside Rodney's personal space as Rodney ducked and dodged.

"Oh, Johnny, don't make him," Mrs. Sheppard laughed. Rodney became uncomfortably aware of Patrick Sheppard's gaze shifting between them, as if the nature of their relationship were just hitting home.

"It's the texture," Rodney explained, chin tucked in, embarrassed. "More like slime than pie really."

"Your loss," John said, wolfing down the offending forkful as he slumped back into his chair. Their chuckles settled with a happy, satisfied sigh as they returned to their desserts.

Mr. Sheppard finished his last bite and wiped his mouth. He took a breath, head lowered, as he opened, "I've been meaning to ask...."

It had the weight of something he'd been thinking about for some time. There was a warning look exchanged between John's mom and dad, but Mr. Sheppard barreled on regardless, eyes serious, elbows planted. He folded his fingers together, chin resting on his hands. "I understand they have domestic partner benefits in Canada."

"Free health care, actually," Rodney said with a smug smile.

Mr. Sheppard conceded this with a nod, relaxing. The warning from John's mom amped up with raised eyebrows. But his father continued, avoiding her gaze. "So I realize John isn't a Canadian citizen for all that he's been up there forever," he said, "but I wondered if he was eligible to be covered under your insurance somehow."

John and Rodney turned to each other with startled blinks. John's mom gave a broad roll of her eyes and looked away.

"I mean, you're obviously serious... It's been, how long?" He turned to his wife.

She sighed, then provided, "Johnny moved in last March."

He made an open-handed gesture. "Almost a year. Now John used to be covered under my policy when he was in college, but for the last few years it's been running about... well, it's up there."

"He needs it to compete," Mrs. Sheppard insisted, sitting forward. "It's a U.S. Figure Skating regulation."

"And I wouldn't want him on the ice without it," Mr. Sheppard said crossly.

Rodney's jaw had been dropping throughout this. "How much are we talking about?"

John ran his hand over his face, looking away.

"Roughly four hundred a month." Mr. Sheppard shrugged into a sideways slump. John turned a bug-eyed stare on him. "It jumped up a bit after the operation two years ago," Mr. Sheppard added, almost apologetically.

"Let me get you boys some ice cream," Mrs. Sheppard interrupted, her jaw firm. "Honey, why don't you help?" she added with a smile that wasn't a request.

Undeterred, Mr. Sheppard said, "Well. You two think about it." He patted the back of a chair as he rose.

John stared after his father, wide-eyed, and took a covering sip of beer.

As they left, her voice carried in a hiss from the hall. "...You just met him!"

"When are we supposed to ask, hmm? Over the phone? Next Thanksgiving?" The kitchen door thumped shut behind them.

John finally coughed on a mouthful of beer that had apparently gone down the wrong pipe.

Rodney stared at him, astounded. "Are they serious?"

John thumped his chest with his fist, still coughing.

"Oh. And by the way—" Rodney slugged him on the arm.

"Hey, ow! What was that for?"

"In what universe does paying five grand a year constitute 'not supporting' your skating?"

"Ow, you hit hard." John rubbed his arm and scowled at Rodney. "You're not taking their side now, are you? I mean, he's never been to a single one of my competitions." He pointed at the door. "Not even when I was a kid."

"Well, I could've done with a little more of a hands off approach!"

Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard returned with ice cream and cake. All four of them pasted on smiles. They busily applied themselves to eating, with uncomfortable exchanges of "good cake" and "yes, that's your mother's frosting recipe" and "ah, I thought I recognized it." John looked at Rodney with helpless child-like eyes over his fork while Rodney squirmed.

Plates cleaned, a silence descended. The grandfather clock ticked. Mr. Sheppard sat with his chair turned slightly away from the table, picking at a tooth and staring off into the corner. Mrs. Sheppard stacked plates, turning and adjusting them unnecessarily. John slouched in his seat, then licked the tip of his middle finger and picked up the remaining crumbs from his plate, his gaze locked on the tablecloth.

Rodney planted a forearm on the table in a businesslike manner and said, "Well. I hadn't exactly considered...." John and his mom looked up at once in alarm, and desperately tried to make "no, no, no!" signals, but Rodney barreled on regardless. "... should I be afraid of a shotgun?"

"If it comes to that," said Mr. Sheppard.

Rodney's face fell in panic. "He's kidding, right?" he asked John, who just tipped his head and cringed. "Of course he is. Right?" Rodney gave a nervous little laugh, looking around at them. "I mean, I feel like you're offering me your spinster daughter's hand in marriage."

Mr. Sheppard snickered. "You said it. Not me." He raised both hands as if he weren't touching this subject with a ten-foot pole. "I'll be satisfied with a career, college—anything," he added, with a slicing gesture for each item on his list.

John rounded on his father, smoldering with fury. "Except my skating."

Mrs. Sheppard's hands covered her face. And that was when Rodney knew he'd blundered.

"I don't see why you can't do one of those ice shows," Mr. Sheppard said. His hands gripped the arms of his chair.

"Because you have to be a name, you have to make the big time to be invited," John said with patient sarcasm, his shoulders squared.

"Exactly!" Mr. Sheppard's fist hammered the table. The forks rattled. "How long will it be till you admit—!"

"Please, you'll wake the baby," Mrs. Sheppard urged them.

"The baby hasn't even been born yet!" John snapped. The jut of Mr. Sheppard's jaw agreed with him, and then the two men returned to their trench war, each move, every salvo long memorized.

Rodney tried to make himself as small as possible.

~*~*~

Upstairs, they got ready for bed. John had the trundle bed, giving Rodney his old twin. The sheets matched the blue walls and had little cartoon airplanes printed on them.

Rodney could hear John brushing his teeth in the small attached bathroom. He spit, then shut the water off. For the last half hour they'd managed to avoid each other, each at opposite ends of the room. The house still rang with tension from the argument and Rodney was beginning to suspect, based on the suspicious silence from Kendall's room, that he'd gone upstairs early on purpose.

John peeked in from the bathroom, nervously hovering in the doorway like a little kid. Rodney paused. He was wearing a T-shirt and pajama bottoms Rodney had never seen before, the too-short cuffs skimming his ankles. His parents' house was apparently not clothing optional.

He shut off the light, stepped on the trundle bed, then climbed into the twin bed with Rodney, who lay on his side and slid over to make room, back tucked against the wall. John pulled the covers to his chest and stared at the ceiling.

Rodney shut his eyes. He began, "I'm sorry, I—"

"No. Don't. We always get into it." John huffed a sigh. "It's like a holiday tradition." They breathed in the silence a moment.

"I swear I wasn't trying to trick you or anything," Rodney burst out. He chewed his lower lip. "I just honestly hadn't noticed."

"What?" John shot him a confused frown.

"Almost a year-? I want you to stay for the rest of the skating season, at least, but after, if you want to find your own place we can always—"

"Rodney." John cut him off. "I'm the one that invited you to Thanksgiving," he said. "With my parents."

"True." Rodney rolled onto his back and blinked up at the ceiling, contemplating the signals that sent. "Why did you?"

"I dunno." The point of John's shoulder shifted against him as he shrugged. "I just thought you should be here."

"Huh."

"A year...." John shook his head with a little huff of disbelief. "You realize I've been paying thirty bucks a month for my storage unit?"

"Well, that's stupid. There's plenty of room in the garage."

~*~*~

Back home that Sunday, the sky was overcast and blustery, shaking the remaining leaves off the trees. They swirled in circles and scattered across the yard, destroying all the useless raking John had done before Sectionals. Rodney felt a smug satisfaction at being right. Nature was capricious. He had the Weather Channel on in the living room and an interesting Doppler graphic open on the computer—updated every ten minutes—while he did his billing. The news declared that a warm front and a cold front had collided over Niagara and, depending on which station you checked, it was either going to rain, snow, or blow over.

Elbowing aside and then picking up a stack of magazines on his desk, it became clear that short of dropping them on the floor, there was no room. He collected his monthly statements from the dot matrix and moved to the kitchen table to finish, enjoying the spectacle of the wind.

John's car had pulled into the drive behind Rodney's at some point, although John was nowhere in sight. He'd been gone all morning on "some errands."

Rodney heard the loud rumble of the garage door being shoved open. Moments later, John walked out, disappeared behind the cars, and then returned hauling an awkward and heavy-looking workout bench that Rodney recognized from his old apartment.

Rodney got up to stick his head out the door. In doing so he got a spatter of water on his face, either rain or water shaken from the trees, it was hard to tell, and quickly ducked back just inside the door. "You need some help?"

"Nah, I got it," John said, lumbering.

Rodney watched him a moment longer edge past the Honda into the open garage, then shrugged and let the door shut.

Back and forth, for the next half hour, Rodney watched him through the picture window, reminded of a squirrel packing away food for the winter. John carried sets of barbells low in each hand, and then in the next trip, the upper half of a Nautilus machine slung over his shoulder. He walked back to his car, which was slightly out of sight behind the Honda, and returned with a canoe on his head—which Rodney had forgotten he had, although he'd seen it on John's wall dozens of times. Next he returned with a very old and dusty TV, the rabbit ears bouncing with each step. That was followed by a VCR perched on a box of VHS tapes. Two open boxes of pots and pans John carried directly in front of the window and up the porch steps.

The wind blew in as John shouldered open the door, boxes clanking as he dropped them in the living room with a grunt. He shut the door behind him and then set his keys on the little change bowl in the kitchen.

"What's for lunch?" John asked, settling in his chair.

~*~*~

Rodney didn't get a lot of work-related calls at home.

This was probably due to the fact that the one time John had heard him field a call from a parent, Rodney had told her, "You know what? I have boundaries. And this is what a boundary sounds like" -- and then hung up on her. At John's stunned look, Rodney explained, "These are pampered people I'm dealing with. You have to be firm. Trust me, I know: I was one of them."

John didn't point out that he had always called Rodney at home, and even showed up at his door late one night, without realizing he was somehow an exception. It suggested that their relationship had been different from the start—not a comfortable thought. He hadn't meant to take advantage of Rodney's obvious crush.

It was a surprise therefore to pick up the phone late on a Friday night and hear a young girl in a strained voice ask, "Is Mr. McKay there?" She said it with a sniffle that John suspected wasn't a cold.

"He's out right now," John told her.

"Who is this?" she asked with child-like bluntness.

"I'm John," he said, deliberately vague. If people knew he lived with Rodney they might get the wrong idea. Or rather, the right idea.

"John Sheppard? You're visiting?"

John paused for a breath.

"Sure," he said with a smile. It was as good an explanation as any.

"I thought it sounded like you," she said, her voice warming. She sounded a shade more cheerful.

"Well then," John asked, smirking. "Fair's fair: Who's this?"

"Bethany," she said with a hint of disbelief and disgust at his stupidity that he somehow couldn't tell. Yeah, yeah, silly adults.

"Bethany." John took a moment to try to remember which of Rodney's students was... ah. Darkish skin, curly hair, about twelve or so. One of Rodney's Novice-level skaters, and pretty good. "Riiiight. Bethany."

On the other end of the phone there was a sharp intake of breath and another smothered sniffle.

"You okay?" he asked.

"I'm fine," she lied.

"Funny..." John imitated her bluntness, squinting as he asked in a dry, disbelieving tone, "...Because you don't sound fine."

"I'm at Divisionals," she explained.

"Right now?" John hadn't realized the Canadian Divisionals were even going on. That was just one step below Nationals on this side of the border.

"Yeah."

"Huh." He thought he knew what was coming next but he asked anyhow, shifting the phone to his other ear. He leaned his hip against the kitchen counter. "So how's it going?"

"I just did my short program." There was a light tremble in her voice.

"I see."

There was a long moment of silence like a door had slammed shut. Then she asked, "When is Mr. McKay coming back?"

He nodded. She wasn't going to tell him anything else. Fumbling with a pad of post-its, he asked with a determined frown, "Why don't you just give me your number and I'll have him call as soon as he gets in."

"Okay...." she said with an uncertain waver, like she had been fully prepared to stay on the phone until the cows came home, or Rodney, whichever came first.

"The second he walks in. I promise."

She weighed this a moment. "All right. You promise?" she asked, clearly suspicious of an adult brush off.

"Cross my heart and hope to die," John said. She didn't respond, and he got the sense that this wasn't enough. "Look, if he doesn't call you within an hour you can call back."

"Okay," she said more firmly, accepting that.

Forty minutes later, Rodney stepped through the door, coat unbuttoned like he hadn't bothered with it, shoulders slumped and tired. John stuffed the post-it into his hand and stripped away his wheelie bag, leaving Rodney blinking in confusion. John gave him a one-word explanation, "Bethany."

Rodney swore. "Okay, let me watch her performance first...." He muscled past John towards the VCR.

John caught his shoulder. "No. Now."

"It will take me five minutes to watch her entire performance and then I will be five hundred percent more informed and actually useful, rather than a long-distance human hanky." He shook John's hand off and turned on the VCR. "Let me do my job."

It took him more like ten minutes, but then Rodney called her, pacing the kitchen. John watched him from the couch, feeling an obligation to eavesdrop.

"Settle down, settle down... no, that's good!... well, you weren't going to beat her anyway... I didn't want to tell you because you might have, we didn't want to banish the possibility in your mind... No. Never go into a competition planning for failure. That's not getting your hopes up, that's positive thinking.... Because you're ready." He folded his arms, more stubborn than she was. "Show me anyone who's worked harder for this.... Look, based on your scores alone, you're in great shape going into the long program tomorrow—oh. Sunday then. Good, that'll give you another day of ice time... no, you're not going to die!... Well, eat what you can and if you throw up, you throw up."

Rodney returned to the VCR and analyzed her performance for her, step by step. Slowly the tension in the room eased. "Think you're going to live through this?... good," he chuckled. "Your mom's right. She's skated longer than you have—no, not at this level, true. But you've got this. You're doing well."

He sighed as he hung up, shaking his head. "Every season." He plunked onto the couch next to John, rewinding the tape to watch all of her competitors' performances with a careful eye.

"Why aren't you there?" John asked. "You're her coach."

Rodney fast-forwarded through an Asian girl in pink sparkles with ribbons in her hair who, although cute, was not definitely not in Bethany's league. No one in that flight was. "I don't do competitions. They all know that. When they sign on with me, that's the deal."

"You went to mine," John pointed out.

Rodney turned to him with wide innocent eyes, seeming hurt. "That's different."

"No. It isn't, Rodney." John waved a hand at the TV screen as Bethany began her program again, the sound muted. "You've left that kid flapping in the breeze!"

"What? You want me to cancel all my Saturday classes, hop in my car right this second and drive to Peterborough?"

John gave him a steady stare, then licked his lips uncertainly and asked, "How far is Peterborough, exactly?"

~*~*~

Two hours later, Rodney was snappish when he called John from his hotel in Peterborough.

"I hope you're happy. This place is little better than a Motel 6. There's mold on the windowsill!" he complained bitterly. "And don't even dream you can slack off just because I'm out of town."

John simply smiled. "Was she surprised?

"I think she cracked my ribs. It might be time to scale back her conditioning," he groused. "Oh," he added with a kind of evil amusement that made John nervous, "I've informed her of how much she owes you. There's talk of marriage, and I do believe I've seen ominous hearts inscribed around the letters 'J plus B.'"

"Evil, McKay." John laughed.

"I warned you of my fiendish ways, and it serves you right." He added as a parting shot, "Touch the beer and you die. Training weight, remember? You gained a ton over Thanksgiving."

~*~*~

Ten o'clock Sunday morning, John dutifully cracked open the bottled water and turned on the cable access channel that carried the figure skating Divisionals—and it suddenly became clear why Rodney had cable he never watched. The VCR whirred and began recording.

Bethany was in the final flight, among the top six. John raised his eyebrows and marveled at the perfectionism of certain skaters. He would have killed to be in the top six when he was a teenager.

As colorful as birds, the six girls launched for their final warm-up, racing each other around the ice until they split apart for their last practice before the freeskate. Rodney stood by the side of the ice, a little apart from the other five coaches. His hands rested on the boards, tense as he watched Bethany hold a long spiral. She executed a combination spin sequence, dropping out of it at the last second, her shoulders sagging as she stroked powerfully over to Rodney. His head bent to her, he gestured with one hand. No way to know what he was telling her. The other skaters were set loose like multiple pinballs around the ice.

Elbow on the arm of the couch, John watched the competition with a smug smile, damned proud of both of them.

He wasn't all surprised when the phone rang not even fifteen minutes later when he was digging around in the fridge. He was due a reward, he thought.

Rodney was breathless with enthusiasm. "The scores aren't posted yet, but barring total idiocy and partial blindness on the part of the judges—which naturally I'm not ruling out—she's in the top four, at least. Maybe more?" he said, his voice rising in a hopeful question. "She just might be going to Nationals." He seemed to try to rein himself in, clearing his throat. "Which, of course, means a lot more work for me. We'd have to train through the Christmas season and there's e