|844,739 Ways to Eat a Hamburger
"What do you mean, all you have left is a minivan?"
The only thing that kept them from a holding cell in Denver International Airport was John's security clearance. It took five TSA agents at Security to convince Ronon to hand over all 16 of his hair knives, and even after he'd been completely disarmed, they still wouldn't let him on the plane. The mousiest of the TSA agents wanted to toss them into a holding cell, and John pulled rank - slapped a hand over Rodney's mouth to cut off the stream of angry ranting coming out of it, pulled out his cell phone, and called General O'Neill.
O'Neill kept them from getting arrested and never seeing the light of day again, but US Air wouldn't let them get on the plane even if Ronon gave up all the knives, and by the time John thought to try any of the other airlines, TSA had passed the message along and nobody would sell them one ticket, let alone four.
"All right," John said. "I guess we're driving."
The minivan was a blue Dodge Caravan, and it offended all of John's aesthetic and moral sensibilities, but they had to be in DC in 9 days - the plan had been to fly out and take Ronon and Teyla sight-seeing - and the longer he stood at the counter arguing with the woman behind it, the more wrinkled his dress uniform was getting, his garment bag clutched in Ronon's huge hands while the rest of their luggage hung off his shoulders. And the faster he would have to drive a vehicle that wasn't intended to go more than 50 miles an hour at the hands of somebody's mother.
"Fine, I'll take it, but this is a travesty," John said.
"Yes, sir," the woman behind the counter said, the corner of her mouth twitching with a smile, until Ronon growled at her, at which point she started looking a little scared. John hoped - fruitlessly, it turned out - that she might be scared into finding them something cooler, anything cooler than a Dodge Caravan, but she wasn't. She handed the keys to John, listed Rodney as a secondary driver at John's insistence and Rodney's protests that this was John's insane idea, he was having nothing to do with it, he was going to sit in the passenger's seat and work while John was being a crazy person, and then the Dodge Caravan was theirs, all theirs, until they hit DC.
"All right, let's hit the road," John said.
Rodney said, "This is the worst idea you've ever had," but he struggled to his feet from where he'd been sitting on Teyla's new suitcase and slung his laptops over his shoulders.
Teyla said, "Why would we want to hit the road?"
Ronon said, "Can I drive?"
"Oh, God," Rodney said.
"No," John said to Ronon, and then, "It's an expression, Teyla. A metaphor. We're just going to drive on the road. Rodney, shut the hell up."
Later he would think that he should have just recorded those sentences and saved them on tape for future use - would have saved a lot of time.
Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20.
Day 2: Salina, Kansas
They had two adjoining rooms at a Best Western in Salina, Kansas, halfway across the state - John thought, what could go wrong? (John wouldn't think, what could go wrong, for the rest of the trip after that; he would think, oh, God, please let this go partially right, and please let us not get arrested. His optimism on Day 2 couldn't be faulted, could it?)
They hadn't actually gotten a start on the first day of their trip - arguing with TSA and then with Hertz had taken up all of John's energy and most of his patience, and they'd stayed in an airport motel, all four of them crowded into one room, and started out from Denver the morning of the second day. "We were already supposed to be in DC," Rodney had mourned over his third cup of coffee (ten minutes before the first but not the last time he'd ask John to stop because he had to take a piss; Rodney had a bladder like a peanut, apparently). "All those museums. All that food. Instead we're on Route 40, not even a real highway, heading east, and you drive almost as dangerously as you fly."
Just for that, John had spent 50 miles doing 95 in the fast lane, while Ronon whooped in the backseat and Rodney clutched the door with one hand and his coffee with the other. "Why are you so mean to me," he had asked John sadly, over lunch at a truck stop in Quinter, Kansas. Ronon was eating chipped beef on toasted with his fingers, and Teyla was poking a meatball sub suspiciously with Ronon's fork. "You've got it backwards," Rodney told them. "Ronon needs a fork, you're supposed to pick that up with your hands."
"Shut up, Rodney," John said, and shoved a French fry into Rodney's open mouth. Rodney bleated in alarm and then chewed, and it was the only 15 seconds of the day that Rodney stopped talking. Every time they stopped, Rodney got more coffee, and the more coffee he drank, the more he talked.
He talked while John got the rooms in Salina and argued with the desk clerk about whether or not the adjoining feature was necessary. (It was. John wasn't going to leave Ronon and Teyla in a hotel room where he couldn't easily keep an eye on them.) He complained about hotel security and how easy it was to hack into those electronic key cards while John tried to explain to Ronon and Teyla how the little pieces of plastic locked the doors.
He talked straight through dinner. (John ordered bacon cheeseburgers and fries for the three of them, and left Rodney to order his own steak and baked potato, and then had to explain to Ronon that despite Rodney's lectures, hamburgers were not meant to eaten with knife and fork.) In between shoveling the steak into his mouth, Rodney had John nearly crying with laughter over a story about the last McKay family vacation, a car trip from Toronto to the Grand Canyon that nearly ended with a 12 year old Jeannie shoving a 14 year old Rodney straight over the edge.
Rodney lay on his back on the bed when they got back to the room and talked while John took the longest, hottest shower he could stand, the cadence of Rodney's voice rising and falling over the beating water. When Rodney's running monologue - not that John had understood any of it over the noise of the shower - trailed off, John turned the shower off and wandered, dripping, out into the room.
Rodney had fallen asleep, mouth open, in the middle of the king size bed. John rolled his eyes, wrapped the towel more firmly around his waist, and wrestled Rodney out of his pants. Rodney didn't even stir, except to flop over onto his stomach and start snoring.
John rolled his eyes again, put some pants on, and knocked on the adjoining door. "You guys okay?"
"Yeah," Ronon's voice growled. "Come in."
Teyla was meditating in the center of the floor. Ronon was sprawled on the bed, shirt stripped off, with the remote control to the TV in his hand and SportsCenter going full blast on the screen. "TV, huh," John said.
"You can change it when you get bored," Ronon said. "It's better than those movies you guys have."
"It's pretty cool," John said. "Don't watch it all night, okay?"
"Okay," Ronon said, and John shut the door and lay down on the bed beside Rodney. He was asleep within minutes.
Which was a problem in the morning. Trying to check out, John discovered that Ronon had discovered the Pay-Per-View options on the television, and was trying to explain to the indignant clerk (without saying anything that was classified) about why he couldn't actually be held responsible for what Ronon had done, and he wasn't going to pay them for 7 hours of Pay-Per-View porn. While John was arguing, Rodney made a beeline for the complimentary buffet breakfast, followed closely by Ronon, and while Ronon was eating all the pastries that were available, Rodney was practically flat on his back under the coffee drip.
Teyla was chewing calmly on an apple when John gave up and paid the whole bill - all $349.78 of it. What the hell, it was going on the Air Force's tab, anyway.
He collected an over-caffeinated Rodney, and Ronon, who was still trying to eat cheese Danish, and Teyla, who was smiling faintly at the whole spectacle, and John got the hell out of the Salina Best Western before they got thrown out.
Day 3: Kansas City, Missouri
"Okay, that's it," John said.
"What's it?" Ronon said from his sprawl in the backseat.
"We're taking the scenic route," John said. He shoved the atlas at Rodney and said, "Figure out where we can pick up 40 further east of here." Then he yanked the car off of the Kansas City beltway and onto the off-ramp for I-35, heading south towards Dallas.
Rodney shrieked, "What do I know about the interstate system here?"
"You can read a map, right?" John snapped. "Read the map. Figure out where I can cut over to 40, and stop shouting."
"What's wrong with the directions we already had?"
"Two days in Kansas, Rodney," John said. "Two days. I'm not driving all the way across Missouri, too. This way, we can go through Memphis. Spend a night there."
"Because exactly what I wanted to do with my life was let Ronon loose on Memphis, Tennessee," Rodney said. "I think one near-arrest would have been enough for you, but no. You want to take that barbarian to Memphis. And I think we're heading west, which is not the way we are supposed to be going, in case you've forgotten."
"We can stop at all the Waffle Houses that you see, Rodney," John said.
"Well," Rodney said.
"Double chocolate chip waffles," John said. "Hash browns, scattered, smothered, covered, topped, diced, and capped."
"Aww," Rodney said. "You remembered how I like my hash browns. How sweet. We are not taking Ronon to Memphis."
"How about Nashville?" John asked.
"What is a Waffle House?" Teyla said.
Rodney made a choking sort of noise and when John turned to see if he was accidentally inhaling his coffee again, Rodney was clutching the map to his chest and looking stricken. "They don't have Waffle Houses in the Pegasus Galaxy," John said. "And I guess the Marines didn't see the need to explain about them."
"Oh, but they could explain all about lesbian porn," Rodney said. "Their ideas about what constitutes essential Earth culture are completely inexplicable."
"Marines are inexplicable," John said. "It's one of the known facts about them."
"What's a waffle?" Ronon asked.
"This one's all you," John said. "Go for it, Rodney, explain the cultural significance of Waffle House."
"You know," Rodney said thoughtfully, "I'm not the one who was feeling someone up the last time we were in a Waffle House. That would be you, Colonel Sheppard, and you were the one who claimed that all red-blooded American men got hard when faced with six pounds of greasy food. I think this one's all you."
John glanced in the rear view mirror; Teyla had covered her mouth with one hand, and John was pretty sure that she was smiling. He knew Ronon was smiling, because Ronon was hanging over the back of Teyla's seat, grinning like a monkey. "I thought we were never going to speak of that in public," John said.
"Well, I'm bored," Rodney said. "Missouri sucks. And Teyla won't play car games with me."
"You were going to work," John said. "You were going to be quiet and work."
"My laptop's out of batteries," Rodney said. "All three of them are out of batteries. And I have to go to the bathroom, and not one of those gross truck stop bathrooms like the last one we stopped at, all right? I have standards."
"You have standards about where you piss?" John said. "You pissed on a ceremonial artifact on MR5-67A!"
"Which one was that?"
"The planet were the natives chased us with flamethrowers," Teyla said. "I believe that is the term Colonel Sheppard used at the time? He said, 'Flamethrowers are proof that someone somewhere said, I need to set that on fire, and I am too far away. I just wish it hadn't been said here.' And then we ran."
"Oh, that one," Rodney said, sounding far less concerned than he had at the time, when he was running for the 'gate with one hand still holding up his pants, since he hadn't had time to button them back up after his social blunder. "Well, their ceremonial artifacts shouldn't look like urinals, that's all I'm saying. I can't help that I got the wrong idea. I don't see you stopping, Sheppard. I really have to go."
"I'm hungry," Ronon said.
"Have we reached our destination yet?" Teyla asked.
"I hate all three of you," John said, and then he almost drove off the road into the ditch beyond the shoulder, because Rodney had grabbed his arm and was shrieking frantically into John's ear. John yanked the steering wheel straight and said, "What, Rodney?"
"Waffle House," Rodney said, pointing at the sign for the upcoming exit.
"Okay, here's the deal I'm making," John said.
"Why do you get to make a deal?" Rodney said.
"Because I'm driving," John said. "We're going to pull into the Waffle House parking lot. You're going to help me figure out the quickest way to get to I-40 heading east from here. Then we're going to go to Waffle House. And all three of you can order anything you want."
"Anything?" Rodney said.
"They have food there?" Ronon said.
"Yeah," John said, thinking sadly that maybe they should just get Ronon his own table, because he had a pretty good idea how Ronon's introduction to Waffle House was going to go. At least the Air Force was paying for it. "I think you'll like the place."
"Anything?" Rodney said again, sounding hopeful, and, thankfully, when John looked over, flipping through the atlas toward Missouri.
"Anything, Rodney," John said. "Even take-out."
"Deal," Rodney said, and his head was already bent over the atlas, and he was humming.
Sitting in the parking lot of the Waffle House, John wished fervently for child locks on the sliding doors at the back of the minivan. Ronon had crawled out of the backseat as soon as John had stopped the car - before the motor had even growled to a halt - and was prowling the edges of the parking lot like it was a hostile planet. The handful of old people who'd pulled into the lot after John and his unfortunate minivanned entourage peered at Ronon with looks of unbridled terror on their faces, and John didn't want to think about how they were going to look when he finally took Ronon inside.
At that point, Ronon snapped a small sapling in half in the parking lot, Rodney smacked John in the arm, and Teyla said, "Colonel Sheppard, may I borrow your ... iPod?"
"What?" John said snappishly in the direction of the passenger seat, as Rodney's hand pulled back to smack him again. "What?"
"The small, white box that contains the music," Teyla said.
"You're not paying attention to me," Rodney said. "I said, if we take 40 to Raleigh, we can pick up 85 and then - "
"Rodney, shut up," John said. His head was starting to hurt. "Teyla. I'm sorry. I'm not - I'm having - I'm sorry. What?"
"With the headphones?" Teyla said, and John could hear the rare edge of impatience starting to creep into her voice.
"My iPod," John said. "Yes, sure, of course. Rodney, give Teyla my iPod."
"What do I look like," Rodney said, "your secretary?" But he fished through John's laptop case until he came up with the iPod and the tangled headphones. "Here you go," Rodney said. "I envy you. Being able to block out the Colonel is a gift."
"I'm not the one talking nonstop, Rodney," John said. "You know where we're going?"
"Yes," Rodney said, "not that you were interested in hearing about it."
"I'm working on a need to know basis here," John said. "I need to know about a mile before the exit."
"God, I don't know why I'm sleeping with you," Rodney said.
"Because I've got the credit cards," John said. "And the keys to the car."
"Neither of those things inspire great confidence," Rodney said, but he was sliding out of the car and heading toward the Waffle House's door, so that was progress. John's head almost stopped hurting, and he locked up the car before following Teyla and Ronon, who was hot on Rodney's heels through the door, into the restaurant.
He was hungry. John was thinking about overcooked bacon, and waffles, when the waitress showed them to an empty booth, and it was Missouri but maybe the grits wouldn't be too bad, and then Ronon looked down at the pictures on the menu and said, "Can I have it?"
"Have what?" John said distractedly, desperately wishing for some coffee.
"All of it," Ronon said.
"No," John said, and turned away to help Teyla decipher the menu ("What is the difference between toast in Texas and toast on the rest of the planet?"). Rodney was mumbling happily to himself, slurping away at John's cup of coffee because he'd already downed his own, and Ronon was staring at the pictures on the menu, frown between his eyes.
When the waitress came back, John tapped Ronon's menu and said, "You ready?"
Ronon grunted, and then looked up at the waitress, waiting with pen in hand, and back at John. "What'm I supposed to do?"
"He doesn't get out very often," John said to the waitress, who was looking a little concerned, and then to Ronon, "Tell her what you want."
"Oh," Ronon said. "I want ten waffles."
"And some orange juice," John added. "Ten waffles, and some orange juice."
"Oh, no," Rodney said, surfacing from the bottom of Teyla's coffee mug. "There will be no orange juice at this table, what do you want, Sheppard, me to spend the rest of the trip dead in the trunk?"
"No orange juice," John told the waitress, who had taken over Rodney's mumbling gig and was looking vaguely in shock. "But I'll have two eggs, over easy, and a side of bacon and a side of grits, and she'll have the bacon, egg and cheese on Texas toast. And make that three Cokes, instead of the juice. Rodney?"
"All-Star breakfast, bacon and sausage, white toast, hash browns. Scattered, smothered, covered, topped, diced, and capped. And if you bring a glass of orange juice anywhere within ten feet of my food, I'll sue you after I recover. I'm deathly allergic. And more coffee. For everyone."
"Right, hon," the waitress said, backing away slowly. "Whatever you say."
"God, don't get us banned from Waffle House," John said. Rodney glared at him, and grabbed Ronon's coffee mug.
"What's a waffle?" Ronon asked.
"Uh," John said.
When the food arrived, the waitress had stacked Ronon's waffles one on top of each other, a teetering stack with a handful of butter packets wobbling on the top. Ronon peered at them, poked them with a fork, and then knocked all the butter packets off the top with the back of his hand, several of them splashing into Rodney's refilled coffee mug. "Hey," Rodney said feelingly, grabbing his mug and fishing the packets out of it before clutching it protectively to his chest.
Ronon picked up the top waffle, folded it in half, and ate it in two huge bites. Then he picked up the second waffle in the stack, folded it in half, and ate that one in two huge bites. The waitress, bringing John's bowl of grits, stared. Rodney stared, his coffee mug forgotten halfway to his mouth.
And John stared, idly stirring butter into his grits. "Huh," John said. "That's one way to do it."
"This drink has bubbles in it," Teyla said.
John tried to find a place on the table to bang his head, but it was entirely covered in food, and all he ended up doing was getting grits in his hair.
Day 4: Conway, Arkanas
"You know, I think it's bad form to tailgate a backhoe."
Traffic outside of Little Rock during morning rush hour was brutal, and to make matters worse, John was pinned in on both sides by tractor trailers and in front by a back hoe, which was doing 40 miles an hour in the center lane on I-40. He gritted his teeth and said, "Says the man who missed backing into a lamppost by six inches this morning."
"If you hadn't been sitting in the passenger seat clutching the door like I was trying to arm a nuclear device instead of back out of the parking lot, maybe I wouldn't have been so nervous," Rodney snapped. Teyla had fastened John's headphones over her ears the minute she sat down in the car, and Ronon was snoring in the backseat - he'd spent the entire night watching a Cosby Show marathon on Nick at Night, and every time John rolled over in his sleep, Bill Cosby's voice had woken him up, blue light of the TV flickering in the hotel room. After the $374 porn bill in Salina, John had stopped getting two rooms and settled on not getting laid until they were in DC, where he couldn't be held responsible for what Ronon did on the Air Force's dime.
"There's a Waffle House at the next exit," Ronon said. John glanced in the rear view mirror; all he could see of Ronon in the back seat was his knees, sticking up over the middle seat.
"We stopped at a Waffle House ten miles ago," John said. "We're not stopping again until we clear Little Rock, all right?"
"But I'm hungry," Ronon rumbled. "I want a waffle."
"And I want a million bucks and a pony," Rodney snapped, "but it's getting embarrassing to eat places with you, caveman, and that's saying something."
"Yeah, that's really saying something, coming from you, McKay," John said.
"Oh, shut up," Rodney snapped, and turned his head back to the road, where the backhoe was trying to change lanes at 20 miles an hour, and the trucks flying past at 85 miles an hour weren't letting it. "God, do you even know where we're going?"
"Sure," John said. "We're on 40. 40 runs into Memphis. Easy as pie."
"Easy as you," Rodney mumbled. John leaned over and smacked Rodney in the arm, the sound of flesh on flesh making Ronon sit up and peer over the seats.
"Hey, are we hitting McKay?" he asked. "I want a turn."
"Fuck off," Rodney said. "God, I have to take a piss, Sheppard."
"I thought you didn't want to stop," John said.
"I didn't want to stop and watch Mr. Table Manners back there fold waffles in half and shove them in his mouth. I do want to stop and piss," Rodney said.
"You have a bladder the size of a peanut," John said, flicking a glance into the side mirror and yanking the van into the next lane over, cutting off the backhoe and barely missing getting creamed by a Mayflower moving van. He pulled them off onto a tiny state route, which advertised a gas station 5 miles down the road. "And you are a royal fucking pain in the ass."
Rodney smirked, and then crossed his legs and looked a little pained.
The gas station was more like 10 miles down a completely empty two lane highway, and by the time they got to Tim and Tom's Roadside Gas and Guzzle, Rodney was squirming like a 2 year old. When John pulled into the parking lot, Rodney had the door open and was fleeing into the store before the car had even stopped. John stopped the engine and twisted around. "Go get anything you want," he said, and handed Ronon $40 and hoped that he'd get some change back. Ronon grinned and nodded and banged out of the car in a flash; Teyla followed more sedately, still wearing John's headphones and nodding her head rhythmically to whatever she had found to drown out the Rodney and Ronon show.
Rodney came back with Tim and Tom's version of a Big Gulp, while John was looking at the map. John rolled his eyes. "You're just going to have to piss again in ten miles, and I'm not stopping," he said. "You can piss in the cup for all I care."
"Fine, I will," Rodney said. "What are you looking at?"
"Map," John said. "I think I found a shortcut, get us around the rest of the Little Rock traffic."
"Thank God," Rodney said. "If I had to watch you tailgate that backhoe for another mile, I was going to cry."
"Shut up, Rodney," John said.
Ronon and Teyla emerged with 40 bucks worth of beef jerky, Cheetos, and Gatorade (Ronon liked the blue kind) and no change for John. John took a left out of the parking lot, heading away from 40, and hoped he was right. Rodney fell asleep with the Big Gulp perched precariously between his knees. Teyla put John's headphones back on and closed her eyes. Ronon lay in the backseat and tossed Cheetos into the air, trying, John assumed, to catch them in his mouth. He could see the Cheetos rising and falling in the mirror.
45 miles later, he was completely lost, but at least Ronon had stopped tossing Cheetos in the air. "Rodney," John said. Rodney mumbled, and twitched, threatening to spill his soda all over the floor. "Rodney," he said more loudly, and poked Rodney's shoulder.
"Wha," Rodney said, startling awake and reaching out to grab the Big Gulp before it tipped onto the floor. "Shit, what, what?"
"We're lost," John said.
"God," Rodney said. "Of course we are. You couldn't find your dick with both hands and a map, how can I expect you to find the damn highway?"
"That's what you're for," John snapped.
"What, finding the highway?" Rodney said, trying to juggle the soda and the atlas without losing either.
"No, finding my dick, asshole," John said.
"Ew," Ronon said.
"Nobody asked your opinion," Rodney snapped. He rolled down the window and tossed the soda out of it, and John winced when the cup exploded in a spray of Diet Coke and ice on the road behind him. "And you, you've never needed any help finding your own dick, God knows I've come home and found you with your hand down your pants often enough. God damn it, where the fuck are we?"
John punched Rodney in the arm and swerved the car suddenly, throwing Rodney against the door, to miss a turtle walking in the middle of the road.
Ronon, unpertubed, said, "Arkansas."
"This was the worst idea ever," Rodney said, and flattened the atlas out on his lap. "Okay, seriously, where the fuck are we?"
Day 4, Evening: Memphis, Tennessee
Rodney was balancing his chair on two legs and leaning backwards, staring at the waitress's chest from upside down. "You," he slurred, "are the prettiest waitress in Memphis."
John said, "Rodney, hey," while the waitress smirked at Rodney and patted his cheek before walking away.
"It's okay," Rodney said, chair crashing to ground while he tried to focus his eyes on John's face; he couldn't manage it, and ended up staring at a spot somewhere six inches to the left of John's left ear. "You're not a waitress in Memphis. You're still the prettiest in the whole galaxy, I promise."
"Yeah, that's not what I was worried about," John said, fending off Rodney's attempts to steal John's beer. "I was thinking more along the lines of you getting punched in the face by that waitress."
"She wouldn't punch me," Rodney said. He slumped forward onto the table and stared balefully at Teyla, who had slid down in her chair and was slurping up a daiquiri with a straw and no visible use of her hands. "She wouldn't have punched me, because I am charming and brilliant and have a very, very hot boyfriend."
"Your boyfriend is indeed very hot," Teyla agreed.
"God," John said, dropping his head into his hands. "This was such a bad idea."
"It really was," Rodney said. He burped daintily and then said, sounding vaguely scandalized, "Oh, God."
"What?" John said.
"You are not God, Colonel Sheppard," Teyla slurred. "You are not even a minor deity."
"I meant," John said, and stopped mid-sentence to throw the rest of his drink back. "What, Rodney?"
Rodney pointed, his mouth hanging open. John followed his finger to the tiny dance floor, which was taken up entirely by Ronon ... and a big-haired Southern belle wearing a tiny skirt and a tube top. She had a thigh wedged between Ronon's legs, and they were writhing together in a way that made John sincerely uncomfortable to watch. "Oh, God," John said.
"Yeah," Rodney said, and burped again. Then he slid slowly off his chair onto the floor, where he rested his head against John's thigh and sighed hugely. Teyla was diligently trying to suck out non-existent daiquiri from the bottom of her glass with a straw, Rodney had started to snore, and John was captivated by Ronon's sex show on the dance floor.
"We've got to get out of here," he said, to no one in particular, and Teyla looked up from her glass and frowned.
"I would like another one of these," she said. She tried to stand up, but her legs buckled underneath her.
"Yeah, I think not," John said, standing up to catch her and wincing when Rodney hit the floor with a thump. "You just ... sit on the floor with Rodney, okay, and I'm going to go get Ronon and then we're going to go back to the hotel. I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere."
"I will not," Teyla said. John lowered her to the floor and watched while she curled around Rodney and closed her eyes.
"Okay, two down," John muttered to himself, and strode out onto the dance floor to wrest Ronon away from the woman who was now trying to shove her hands down Ronon's pants, not that Ronon was trying to stop her. Ronon had introduced himself to the first woman who'd approached him by saying, "I'm Dex. Ronon Dex," and hadn't understood why John and Rodney had collapsed into laughter, but had definitely understood when the woman had looked him up and down, and when she'd purred, "Oh, honey, you'll do."
John had still been laughing twenty minutes later, snickering against Rodney's neck where they were collapsed against each other, before his brain kicked back in and he realized that Ronon had maybe very much been getting into trouble. John had spent the rest of the night keeping an eye on Ronon and his big-haired belles, which was why Rodney had drunk four margaritas and fallen asleep on the floor, and it was like having children, unruly, alcoholic children, and John had never wanted to reproduce less than he did at this exact moment.
John edged onto the dance floor, fended off the advances of two other big-haired Memphis belles who wanted to dance with him, and said, "Hey, Ronon, time to go."
Ronon said, "No."
"Oh, no, buddy, sorry, we're not playing that way tonight," John said. "Sorry, ma'am, I'm sorry to take you away from your ... recreation, but he's coming with me. Right now, Dex."
Ronon's belle said, "Oh, baby, you're a shirtlifter? You should have said earlier." But she didn't move away from Ronon like John was hoping she might.
"I'm not," Ronon said.
"I can't throw you over my shoulder," John said, through gritted teeth, "but - hey, cut that out, get your hands out of my pants, would you?" He glared at the woman who'd wriggled up behind him and she smiled up at him, showing more teeth than John liked to see in a woman who was trying to pick him up. "Sorry, I'm taken, and you really don't want to get on the bad side of my significant other."
"Yeah," Ronon growled, still rubbing up against the belle. "He can build bombs."
"Okay, that's totally classified," John said. "Seriously, please, please, get your hands out of my pants, I can't deal with this tonight."
"You never see it coming, Sheppard," Ronon said, and John reached out and grabbed Ronon's belle's wrists with one hand, reached around behind him and grabbed his belle's wrists with the other hand.
"All right, everybody, hands out of all pants," John said. "Dex, go help Teyla stand on her own two feet. We are going back to the hotel, and no one is going to sleep with anyone tonight."
"You can't say no to McKay," Ronon said.
"I am so not talking about that here, now, or with you, ever," John said. "Ladies? If you'll come over to the bar, I'll buy you both drinks."
"I don't want a drink," Ronon's belle pouted. "I want him."
"He's off-limits, sorry," John said. "He's actually a top-secret military weapon, and if you were to sleep with him, I'd have to kill you afterwards."
"Really?" the belle said. She seemed far too interested in that news for John's comfort.
"Yeah, really," John said. "Dex, go. Teyla. Feet. Outside on the sidewalk, and don't buy anything, sell anything, or look at anyone funny until I get out there."
"Whatever," Ronon said, and he stalked off toward their table, but not before bending his dance partner back over his arm and kissing her thoroughly. She swooned. John rolled his eyes, and hated the Marines for teaching Ronon to say whatever and to kiss women like that.
"Come on, ladies," John said, slinging an arm around both their shoulders and trying not to shudder, "I'm buying, whatever you want."
Half an hour later, John extracted himself from the attention of the two women at the bar and wove his way back to their table. Rodney was still asleep underneath it, and someone had spilled tequila in his hair. "Come on, sleeping beauty," John said, prodding Rodney with the toe of his boot. "Up and at 'em."
Rodney grumbled, and tried to roll over, butting up against the pole in the center of the table and flopping back down onto his back. "What?" he said, eyes still closed. "I'm sleeping."
"You're sleeping under a table in a Beale Street blues bar," John said. He neglected to mention the tequila in Rodney's hair. "Get up, we're going home. Or to the police station, if Ronon and Teyla managed to get arrested while I was buying off the crazy women who wanted my body."
Rodney sat straight up at that, blinking at John and running his hands over his head. "Someone was trying to steal your virtue? And what the hell is in my hair?"
"You don't want to know," John said, and then, "actually, you don't want the answers to either of those questions."
"I hate you," Rodney slurred. "This was the worst idea ever."
"You thought it was a great idea an hour ago when you were ogling the waitress," John said, sticking a hand out for Rodney to grab. When Rodney struggled to his feet and leaned heavily against John, John stared at his sticky, tequila-covered hand and wiped it on the back of Rodney's shirt.
"That was the rum talking," Rodney said. "Oh, God, my head."
"Yeah, you and Teyla are going to be hurting tomorrow," John said, dragging Rodney away from the table and out the door. "But don't say I didn't warn you, because I did."
"Nooo," Rodney said, right up against John's ear, and then he leaned over, heavy against John's chest, and bit John's earlobe. "You didn't warn me about anything. You never warn me about anything. You never see it coming, you can't warn anyone about anything!"
"I warn you about all kinds of things, McKay," John said, and yanked Rodney's hand out of his pants. "Jesus Christ, stop molesting me in public, you know Ronon hates it when he has to acknowledge the fact that we're having sex."
"Ronon is," Rodney said, and then slumped placidly against John's side.
"Ronon is what?" John asked, shoving Rodney through the door in front of him.
"Yeah, McKay," Ronon said. He had Teyla slung over his shoulder, where she was giggling happily upside down, humming something that sounded like Britney Spears (not that John would ever admit that he knew what Britney Spears sounded like). "Ronon is what?"
"A very good looking man," Rodney said, and hiccupped, and then burped. "A very good looking mountain man," and he tried to lean over and pat Ronon's chest, but he misjudged the distance, stumbled away from John's supporting arm, and landed face-first against Teyla's ass. Teyla shrieked, flailed, elbowing Ronon in the side of the head and barely missing John's face with a well-placed kick, and John ducked, yanking Rodney back against his chest. Ronon wrapped his arms more tightly around Teyla's thighs.
"Jesus Christ," John said. "Okay, let's go, march, soldiers, march."
He'd splurged for adjoining rooms at the Peabody, in hopes that the Peabody was classy enough that Ronon couldn't find the Pay-Per-View porn and John could have the privacy to fuck his boyfriend in peace, so it was only three blocks around two corners before he and Ronon walked (and Rodney stumbled, burped, and lurched) through the front doors of the hotel. They rode up to the 5h floor in the elevator together, Teyla snoring gently against Ronon's back, Rodney mumbling happily about ducks and waitresses and trying to shove his hands down John's pants (futilely, because John had some standards), and John said, "No porn."
"Whatever," Ronon said.
"I wanted to have sex tonight," Rodney slurred. "What do you mean, no porn?"
"God, I hate everyone," John said, which was when Teyla threw up on his shoes.
Day 5: Asheville, North Carolina
The next morning, Teyla trailed into the lobby of the Peabody with Ronon's $4 gas station sunglasses wrapped firmly around her face, the last of the four of them to get out of bed and get moving. Rodney was slumped on a couch clutching an enormous cup of coffee and still mumbling about ducks, but this time the mumbling was accompanied by a glare that wavered between John ("I can't believe you let me drink that much last night, Sheppard!" "I didn't let you do anything, you're an adult!" "God, I bet you were molested by Southern sluts while I was passed out under the table." "... No?" "Oh, Jesus, you were, I can't take you anywhere!") and the actual ducks that lived in the lobby of the Peabody.
When Teyla sank down onto the couch next to Rodney and accepted Ronon's offer of coffee gratefully, John said, "Everybody ready to cross Tennessee and go up and over the mountains today?"
Ronon grunted. Rodney closed his eyes and slurped coffee. Teyla turned green at the mention of crossing the mountains and bolted for the bathroom.
"So," John said brightly. Sure, he hadn't gotten laid last night, Rodney had puked in the shower that morning, and Memphis wasn't half as cool as John remembered it being, but at least he wasn't hung over. Given that he had at least 20 more hours to spend in a minivan (ugh) with the three worst travel partners in the world (double ugh) and the standard bad radio reception that you always got driving over the Appalachians (triple ugh), he thought he should count his blessings. There sure weren't many. "Who wants breakfast?'
"Waffle House," Ronon grunted, and Teyla, who had emerged from the bathroom, shades still firmly in place and looking pale rather than green, turned sharply on her heel and headed straight back for the bathroom.
"Maybe IHOP?" John suggested hopefully. Five days, 17 different Waffle House stops, and if he never saw another plate of hashbrowns or Ronon fold another waffle in half, it would be too soon. "Or Denny's? Taco Bell?"
"Ugh," Rodney said, shoving his coffee at John frantically and making his own break for the bathroom. When he came back, Teyla leaning on his shoulder and looking practically asleep, Rodney said, "Not Taco Bell."
John hummed under his breath and Rodney grimaced and said, "Do not say I told you so, Sheppard, or the next time I have to puke, I am going to puke in your shoes."
"Come on," John said. "There's a Waffle House out by St. Jude's."
Rodney burped, and John flapped a hand in front of his face. "First stop, though, somewhere that sells toothbrushes and plastic buckets. Geez, McKay, you kiss your mother with that breath?"
"I kiss you with that breath," Rodney said, and then looked vaguely disgusted by himself for saying that, which was a good thing, because John was more than vaguely disgusted, as much as he, you know, didn't want to kill Rodney most days (John considered not wanting to commit murder the highest form of his affection, not that he'd tell Rodney that), by the thought of kissing Rodney with hungover barf breath.
John patted Teyla on the shoulder and ignored Rodney, who was still burping and looking increasingly green. "Come on, Teyla, buddy, let's go, you can sleep in the car."
"I have not felt this awful since Jinto was born and Halling fermented the juice from the salt plums in celebration," Teyla said, and then she leaned across Rodney and threw up in the trash can at Rodney's elbow.
"Buckets for everybody," John said. "And waffles for Ronon, because after that display, even I don't want to eat. And no more tequila or rum for anyone, ever."
"I wanted to go to Graceland," Rodney said.
"What's Graceland?" Ronon asked.
"Elvis's house," Rodney said. "Blue Suede Shoes, You Ain't Nothin' But A Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel." Ronon stared at him blankly. John, who was trying to decide whether or not rubbing circles on Teyla's back while she barfed into a trash can in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel was appropriate team leader behavior, twitched and rattled the car keys. "God," Rodney said. "The Marines aren't teaching you anything, you're not allowed to hang out with them anymore."
"You're not my mother," Ronon said.
"Waffles," John said desperately. "Hash browns? Coffee?"
"Who's Elvis?" Ronon said.
"Oh, fuck," John said.
After a mercifully brief stop at the Graceland giftshop (where Teyla threw up into another trashcan and then went to sleep in the backseat of the minivan, snoring, and Ronon said, "He died in a bathroom while eating?" and Rodney said dreamily, "God, I know, it's exactly how I want to go," and John said, "I can't believe I'm sleeping with you, McKay, that's just sick," and Rodney said, "Peanut butter and marshmallow fluff, Colonel?" to which John had no answer, so instead he went and hid in the van with Teyla while Ronon used John's credit card to buy shot glasses with Elvis on them), John got in the fast lane on I-40 and declared that he was refusing to stop anywhere from here on out, except once every four hours for a bathroom break.
An hour out of Memphis, they passed a turn-off for Jasper, Tennessee, and John switched lanes on auto-pilot, until Rodney said, "Where are you going?"
"There's a Waffle House in Jasper," John said.
"There are Waffle Houses everywhere," Rodney said, head down over the map, finger tracing a route. "Wait, is that where we stopped last year?"
"Yeah," John said.
Ronon snorted. Rodney made a small, quiet sound, and John pulled his eyes away from the road just long enough to see Rodney wearing a weird, puzzled sort of look. "What, and that's supposed to be romantic?"
"Uh," John said. He hadn't really thought about it; he'd seen the sign for Jasper and just thought fondly off the fry cook who'd said, Thanks, beautiful, when John had complimented his hash browns. Thought fondly of Rodney, complaining all the way across the country about John's driving and John's hair and John's eating habits. Thought fondly of blowing Rodney outside of St. Louis, while Rodney spun down the road at 70 miles an hour, at the wheel of a much cooler car than the one John was driving now.
"Do I look like a woman?" Rodney snapped.
"I want to go to the Waffle House in Jasper," Ronon said.
"Get back on the highway, Sheppard," Rodney said. "Merge into the fast lane, and do not stop until we are somewhere with cable television and wireless internet and normal, decent civilization."
Three hours later, Rodney was standing on the side of I-40, behind a bush. "This is not civilization," he shouted up to John, who was leaning on the passenger side of the minivan and smirking.
"Tough shit, McKay," John said, and then edged sideways so Teyla could shove past him, out the sliding side door, and join Rodney in the bushes. (She was still throwing up; Rodney said, "Maybe that fourth daiquiri was not a good idea," and John said, "You think? Jesus, McKay, this is your fault. Teyla, you okay?" Teyla had groaned, but managed to give them a shaky thumbs up sign over the back of the middle seat.) "You wouldn't piss at the last three places I stopped, it's your fault you're pissing in the bushes now."
"Yeah, next to a vomiting alien," Rodney said. He stomped out, and climbed heavily up to the shoulder of the highway. "How did my life end up like this?"
"Traded to the Russians for a player to be named later, blew up a solar system," John said.
Rodney snorted and said, "Was too nice to you the first time you saved my life and have been stuck with you ever since."
John ignored him and called, "Teyla, you okay?"
"I am fine, John," she said. "In fact, I am feeling almost like myself again."
"Good to hear it," John said. "Because I have an idea."
Five hours, three fights over who got to sleep in the backseat (Teyla won, and Ronon complained for 60 miles about the fact that his legs hung off the end of the middle seat, until John said, "Do you want me to turn this car around?" and Rodney laughed until he got the hiccups, and then said, "That's a pitch-perfect impression of my mother"), and two Waffle House stops later, they were in Asheville, North Carolina. John had remembered Asheville from a cross-country trip with his parents when he was a teenager, a sweetly whimsical hippie sort of town full of pretty, pretty girls, and he was leaning against the door of the minivan grinning at Rodney and feeling faintly pleased with himself.
Ronon was staring at the wall of mountains behind them, around them, with wild mountain man sort of wonder, and Teyla was meditating on the gravel and dirt of the parking lot. Rodney looked up, at where John had brought him, and then back at John, and said, "This is your great idea? Your great idea is minor league baseball in a hick town where the only motel we could check into doesn't have cable, much less WiFi?"
"Yeah," John said. "Awesome, huh?"
Rodney rolled his eyes, and then leaned heavily against John's shoulder and pressed his mouth again John's neck. "You owe me so many hot dogs," he mumbled.
John laughed, palming the back of Rodney's neck, smelling the beer and the freshly cut grass and the sawdust of the stadium behind them, and said, "This was a totally great idea, McKay, and you know it."
"What's baseball?" Ronon said.
"What is a minor league?" Teyla asked.
"Why isn't there anyone selling hot dogs in the parking lot?" Rodney whined.
John said, "You're all like a bunch of six year olds."
"I guess that makes you the father figure," Rodney said, and then he lifted his head and sniffed happily. "Mmmm, hot dogs."
"That's wrong on so many levels I don't even want to talk about it, McKay," John said. "Father figure?"
"For the team," Rodney called over his shoulder, drifting toward the gates of the stadium and the now obvious smell of hot dogs and onions. "The team, as an entity, looks to you as its father. Me, personally, I think you're more like an annoying and very distant relative who won't leave me alone no matter what I do."
John twitched, grimaced, and followed after Rodney, shouting, "You sleep with all your relatives, McKay?" at Rodney's rapidly retreating back.
Ronon said, "What's a hot dog?"
"Oh, you'll love this," John said.
Four tickets right behind the home team's dugout (not counting the two teams, there were maybe 15 people in the stadium), 15 hot dogs, six cups of beer (four of which were for John alone) and two errors by the Tourists in the top of the first later, they were settled into their seats and John was trying to explain peculiarities of baseball to Ronon, who was listening intently, and Teyla, who was attempting to squeeze a fourth packet of relish onto her hot dog. "And then there's the infield fly rule," John said. Rodney snorted through a mouthful of hot dog. "What?" John said.
"I'll bet you ten bucks that you don't even understand the infield fly rule," Rodney said.
"I do so," John said. "It's a crucial and underrated rule in baseball."
"It's a stupid rule and no one understands it," Rodney said. "Okay, then. Go on. Explain why it's so important and when it should be used."
"Okay," John said. "Okay, so you get the bases, right?"
"First, second, third, and house," Ronon said.
"Close enough. If there's a guy on first, and a guy on second, and less than two outs in an inning, if the batter pops up within the dirt of the infield, he's automatically out, whether or not anyone catches the ball," John said.
"There appears to always be a man standing on the first," Teyla said.
"That's the first baseman," John said. "And he's not standing on first, he's playing first."
"What is the difference?"
"Okay," John said. "See, how the guys out there are wearing two different shirts?"
"Yes," Teyla said.
"Ugly shirts," Ronon said.
"Well, minor league teams don't have a lot of cash for uniforms," John said. "They don't have a lot of cash for anything. Anyway, the shirts mean that they're on different teams. One team bats, and one team fields. The team that's fielding always has a player at each of the bases, for defense."
"Tell me about it," Rodney muttered. "Minor league players are more broke than grad students."
"What do you know about minor league ball?"
"I grew up in Ontario, hello," Rodney said. "There's a Triple A club there, has been for years, and when I was in high school, I knew guys who knew guys who knew that the players sometimes turned tricks on the side."
John choked on the last swallow of his second beer. "Somehow I doubt that, McKay."
"What is a trick?" Teyla asked.
"I'm just telling you what the Ottawa gossip said," Rodney sniffed imperiously. "Go on, then, you weren't finished explaining about why the infield fly rule is important."
"I thought they had to catch the ball to get out," Ronon said.
"They do," John said. "Except with the infield fly rule, because players used to intentionally miss the ball so they could pick guys off, get a double play. The infield fly rule makes it less easy for them to do that."
"Huh," Ronon said.
"Is there more ketchup?" Teyla said.
"I told you it was a stupid rule," Rodney said.
"God," John said, and flagged down the sole vendor in the stadium to buy himself two more beers.
In the fourth inning, the first batter in the Savannah Sand Gnats' lineup came up to bat again. "Hey," Ronon said. "I thought he was out, why isn't he dead?"
"Dead?" Rodney said.
"Dead?" John slurred.
"He was out," Ronon said insistently.
Rodney said, eyes wide and sounding vaguely aghast, "What kind of games did you play on Sateda?"
Ronon shrugged. "We didn't have anything with outs."
"They don't kill the players, Ronon," John said.
"Maybe they should," Ronon said. "Motivate 'em."
"God, don't tell Steinbrenner that," John groaned. "He would, too."
"This really isn't baseball," Rodney said. "This is teenagers tripping on their own feet."
"You're a Montreal Expos fan, McKay," John said. "I would not throw stones."
"At least I can throw to first base," Rodney said, and he grabbed John's hand when John tried to flag down the beer guy for the fourth time. "These guys can't even throw to first base with regularity. Yeah, no more beer for you, Colonel. I can't believe you haven't passed out yet."
"The Expos don't even exist anymore!" John said, struggling to sit up. He poked Rodney in the chest with a finger and said, "And you throw like a girl."
"There are so many things wrong with the fact that I'm having this argument with you in a minor league baseball stadium in North Carolina," Rodney said, grabbing one of John's wrists and tugging it back into his lap. "Stop waving, the beer guy already said that you were cut off."
"You're no fun," John said, slumping down in his seat and crossing his arms over his chest.
"Why do they not take the bats with them to the white bases?" Teyla asked.
"Seriously, Rodney, what's wrong with minor league baseball?" John said.
Ronon said, "Yeah, why don't they take the sticks with them?"
"This is not the Pegasus Galaxy," John said, and burped. Everyone had been drunk on this trip but him, and Rodney and the beer guy were conspiring against him - and who was an Expos fan, anyway? Not even people from Montreal were Expos fans - and the centerfielder for the Tourists had just made a completely egregious throwing error, according to the scoreboard, and John had missed it because two aliens and an astrophysicist who didn't appreciate the beauty of a double play were determined to ruin John's fun. "We do not hit people with sticks in this galaxy. I can't believe you don't understand the why the double play is such an important thing, McKay. It's math," John said, and he realized that he was tipping over into Rodney's space. "Six to four to three! Four to six to three! Five to four to three! Math," he said feelingly, and closed his eyes, just a little, because the pitcher was starting to spin a little on the mound.
Rodney patted John's back and said, "Numbers are not the same thing as math, Colonel."
John tried to make his mouth work, so he could explain the sanctity of Tinker to Evers to Chance to Rodney, but the crack of the bat - the Tourists giving up another home run - made his head hurt, and he dropped his head onto Rodney's shoulder and listened to Rodney trying to talk Ronon out of climbing onto the field and taking his shot at "hitting the guy on the hill with the little ball".
Day 6: Fredricksburg, Virginia
John woke up with a pounding headache and a vague recollection of having gotten thrown out of the baseball stadium, but not before Ronon had, with only one swing, cracked a home run out of the park for the Sand Gnats.
He managed to pry one eye open, giving him a view of the night table, complete with a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin on it. His face was stuck to the pillow with drool, and from somewhere to his left, Rodney was humming something that sounded suspiciously cheerful (given how awful John felt) and suspiciously like "Take Me Out To The Ballgame". John tried to pick his head up and say something like, "For God's sakes, Rodney, I thought you hated baseball," or maybe, "Did the Asheville Tourists beat me with their bats in the parking lot after the game?" but the drool had him fused down completely and his voice wasn't working very well.
What came out was something that sounded like a Wraith in pain, so John opened his other eye, winced at the sunlight streaming in through the cheap motel curtains, and yanked his face off the pillow in one painful, kind of disgusting go, struggling to sitting. "Rodney?"
"Morning, Sleeping Beauty," Rodney said, emerging from the bathroom, fully-dressed but damp, and barefoot. "This fucking motel doesn't have a free breakfast. I sent Ronon and Teyla to the Waffle House up the street with your credit card."
John's head started to pound in a rumba beat. He flopped back down on the bed, the drool-encrusted pillow crinkling under his head, and squeezed his eyes shut. "You did what?"
"Hey, I kept the car keys," Rodney said, grabbing John's wrist. He turned John's' hand over and rattled four aspirin into John's palm before folding John's fingers over onto them. "I could have given Ronon the car keys, and then we'd be stuck in this stupid hippie town without a credit card or a car or a big hulking alien to get us thrown out of tediously boring minor league baseball games."
"Hey," John said, sitting up halfway and groping blindly for the glass of water. He tossed the aspirin into his mouth and washed them down. "You were enjoying yourself."
"I was enjoying the hot dogs," Rodney said. "The baseball was decidedly sub-par, though by your sixth beer, you really seemed to be finding some deep spiritual meaning in berating the shortstop and his four errors in five innings."
"Uh," John said, and rolled over to bury his face in the non-drooled-on pillow.
"If it helps," Rodney added cheerfully, rattling something noisily at the bureau under the television, "if Ronon hadn't decided to make his professional baseball debut in the seventh, you'd have gotten us pitched out by the eighth. I think the shortstop was going to start crying any minute there."
John put a pillow over his head and contemplated suicide by motel bedding. Rodney broke into a rousing chorus of "Centerfield".
By the time they walked into the Waffle House (Rodney walked; John slouched carefully in a manner designed to minimize the throbbing in his temples), Ronon was on what appeared to be his third plate of waffles and his second pitcher of syrup. Outside of Nashville the day before, he'd finally managed to find a method of waffle-folding that let him drown his waffles in syrup without getting any of it on his hands or face. Rodney thought it was a brilliant feat of physics; John was just sort of creeped out, not to mention the fact that Ronon hadn't consumed a fruit or vegetable in three days and John was starting to get worried about returning him to Elizabeth with scurvy.
John slid into the booth beside Teyla, who was still wearing his headphones and nodding along to the Creedence Clearwater Revival that was seeping out of the ear buds. Ronon looked up and said, "I want to play professional baseball."
"No," John said, and gazed longingly at Teyla's glass of water until she gave it to him.
Rodney said, "I don't know, didn't, I don't know, some guy who played for the Red Sox have hair like that? It could work."
"Bronson Arroyo had cornrows," John said. Teyla had ordered a bowl of grits, and he was thinking that they looked comfortable - a nice place to take a nap. "And I think Manny Ramirez had dreads for a while. No, Ronon, you cannot play professional baseball. For one thing, I don't think the SGC could get you the necessary paperwork."
"What's a contract?" Ronon said, folding two waffles together and talking with his mouth full. "Before you tried to punch the man with the gun and we got thrown out, the manager said that he'd write me a contract."
"Oh, God," John said, and, failing to find any bodies of water on the table that were large enough to drown himself in, he put his head in Teyla's grits and tried to die.
Rodney said, "Colonel, are you going to eat?"
John picked his head up from the bowl of grits and wiped his face off. His stomach rolled at the smell of butter and grease on his skin, and he winced. "Uh. No."
"Right then," Rodney said. "Let's go. There's a bucket in the car, and you can sleep while I drive."
"I can't sleep while you drive, Rodney," John said, "because you drive like an old woman and when you drive, I fear for all our lives. You drive 45 in the fast line, and some day, that is going to kill you. And then me."
"Minivans were not made to go 105, Colonel," Rodney snapped. "Fold those in half, and let's go. Teyla, you're not going to eat those grits, are you?"
Teyla picked a hair out of the bowl and glared serenely at John. "No."
"Well, let's hit the road," Rodney said.
"I still do not understand why we are hitting the road," Teyla said. "The roads on which we have been traveling seem to be non-combative."
"It's an expression," Rodney said, and the waitress slid another triple stack of waffles onto the table. "Jesus Christ, Ronon, how many plates of waffles did you order?"
"Told her to keep them coming," Ronon mumbled through a mouthful.
"You," John said weakly, "do not get to hang out with the Marines anymore."
John had forgotten how many Waffle Houses there were in the state of North Carolina. They stopped west of Hickory, and Ronon ate three hamburgers and four waffles. They stopped halfway between Hickory and Chapel Hill, and Ronon ate five plates of scattered, smothered, and topped hashbrowns -- and four waffles.
When Ronon grabbed at Rodney's shirtsleeve and pointed out a Waffle House just off I-40 between Durham and Raleigh, John groaned. "Please, no," he said. "All that grease is making me sick. Besides, didn't we already miss the turn-off for I-85?"
"Since when does the smell of food make you sick?" Rodney demanded. "Are you pregnant? Did you secretly get yourself knocked up last night?"
"We missed the turn-off for I-85," John said. "And if I was pregnant, wouldn't you have something to do with that?"
"Not in this galaxy," Rodney said. "Weird alien ass-babies only happen in the Pegasus Galaxy."
"I'm hungry," Ronon said.
Teyla slid John's headphones off and said, "John, why does this woman sing that love is a battlefield? In my experience, love is the furthest thing from the heat of battle."
Rodney glanced over at John and smirked. "Pat Benatar?"
Ronon said, "I'm hungry."
John stared at the highway and contemplated how much it would hurt if he threw himself out of the car at that exact moment; he calculated impact, the possibility that the BMW in the next lane would crush his spine, and then he said, "I could have left all of you in a holding cell in the airport, you know."
"You didn't, though," Rodney said. "This exit is Waffle House." He changed lanes without checking his mirrors, and John closed his eyes and clung to the door handle.
John pried one eye open when Rodney turned the engine off; the Waffle House sign said AFLE HUSE, and the parking lot was full. The door behind him slid open and slammed, and through his slit-opened eye, John could see Ronon and Teyla scrambling for the entrance. Rodney poked John in the side and said, "You know, you started this."
"I regret starting it," John said. "I regret renting this minivan, and I regret not leaving you under that table in Memphis, to be mauled by women with big hair and designs on your virtue. I regret many, many things, Rodney."
"Clearly not enough," Rodney said, "or we'd have gotten out of this death trap and into first class on a nice commercial flight somewhere around Wichita. I guess you're not eating."
"You guessed right," John said, resting his face against the cool glass of the window. Goddamned ballpark beer, it tasted like piss and it kicked you in the head worse than turning into a bug did.
"If you drive off and leave us here," Rodney said, sounding threatening.
John tried to say that he wouldn't, but Rodney had already slammed the door behind him. John watched Rodney stomp across the parking lot after Ronon and Teyla, and then he closed his eyes again.
The driver's side door being yanked open pull John out of his doze. He had no idea how long he'd been asleep or even if they were still in the AFLE HUSE parking lot or if he was being carjacked by a crazed North Carolinian, but given the way his head was still hurting, he didn't really care where he was or who was driving. Someone - so, okay, not a carjacker, unless carjackers had gotten a lot more polite while John was in another galaxy - shoved coffee under his nose, the steam rising up to John's face, and he blinked his eyes open to see Rodney's hand clutching at the handle of a Waffle House mug.
"I told you not to steal the dishes, Rodney," John said, but the coffee smelled good - first thing all day that had - and just the steam and the bitter scent was making him feel better, or maybe the piss-water beer had finally just run out of his pores.
"I brought you a cup of coffee," Rodney said. "I've never seen you hungover before. It was actually frightening. Your hair is flat, did you know that?"
"Thank you," John said, and drained the mug in two gulps. "Why aren't you eating? Where are Ronon and Teyla?"
"Ronon is trying to out-eat a biker," Rodney said. "Teyla is investigating the jukebox. And believe it or not, I think I actually have no interest in eating another hash brown, ever. Come inside and sit with us."
John shuffled in to the Waffle House on North Carolina 54 in Durham with the hood of Rodney's battered Northwestern sweatshirt pulled firmly over his head, and his sunglasses in place over his eyes. When he'd tried to get dressed in Asheville, he'd realized that the only piece of clothing he had with him that didn't smell like beer, smoke, puke or stale hotel air was his dress uniform, and he'd smuggled Rodney's sweatshirt out of Rodney's luggage while Rodney was singing something about a dying Cubs fan in the bathroom. Rodney had frowned, and then smiled smugly, when he'd emerged and seen John curled up on the double bed in his sweatshirt. "What," John had growled.
Rodney had said, "I just had this fleeting glimpse of what the quarterback of the football team must have felt like when the head cheerleader wore his varsity jacket," and John threw a pillow at him. Rodney let him wear the sweatshirt, which was good, because it was clean - it smelled like the Ancient washing machines they used in Atlantis, never mind that they'd never been able to figure out where the soap came from, and a little like Rodney - and it was warm and soft and definitely had not been puked on by a hungover alien, like John's Air Force Academy sweatshirt had been the day before.
John blinked through the glare of fluorescent lights inside the restaurant and found Ronon and Teyla, sitting opposite each other in a booth. Teyla was studiously eating a bowl of grits, and Ronon was splitting his time between devouring a stack of waffles, glaring at the afore-mentioned biker (who was, John thought with a shudder, if it was possible, actually larger than Ronon), and ogling the table of women sitting in the booth behind Teyla.
Rodney slid in to the seat beside Ronon and poached a waffle, Ronon's stabbing fork just barely missing Rodney's hand as he jerked backwards, and John crawled onto the bench, lying down and putting his head in Teyla's lap. She tugged the hood down and petted his hair soothingly, and John closed his eyes, letting the sounds of waitresses, laughing women, and Ronon shoveling down waffles wash over him.
He was reaching blindly for his coffee mug - Teyla said, "Do not spill that on my legs, Colonel Sheppard" - when one of the women behind them, who had all been shrieking with laughter since John had laid down, said, "I'm just saying, I think that actually violates the laws of physics."
John sat up halfway, peering over the back of the bench, and assessed the women at the table. He didn't need to look at Rodney, because he knew Rodney: if there were pretty women talking about the laws of physics, Rodney was interested in them and only them. The four women at the table were pretty - a redhead with a ring in her lip, an Asian woman wearing glasses and a University of North Carolina School of Journalism sweatshirt, a brunette smoking a cigarette, and a blonde wearing an expression that John knew very, very well. It was Teyla's expression, halfway between trying not to laugh and deciding that she was definitely not bailing them out of jail (or the local dungeons, or accidental marriages to alien dignitaries). A very long suffering expression.
Rodney said, "What violates the laws of physics?"
The blonde said, "The sheer amount of food we eat. Let alone how we fit it all on the table."
"Also, three people having sex in the back seat of a '67 GTO," the brunette said, blowing a smoke ring and pointing at Rodney with her cigarette.
"Honestly, where do you put all those thighs?" Journalism Sweatshirt said.
"Somebody's going to get kicked in the face, is all we're saying," Lip Ring said. "You really have to consider the implications of these things when working out the physics of pornography."
Rodney blinked at them. John propped his chin on the back of the bench and blinked at them. Teyla put John's headphones back on. Ronon ordered some more waffles. Lip Ring and Journalism Sweatshirt smirked at John, and then at each other. Smoker lit another cigarette. Teyla's Soulmate studiously applied herself to a plate of hash browns, the corner of her mouth twitching like she wanted to smile.
"That's not physics," Rodney sneered. "That's good spatial sense, maybe, but that's not physics."
"What the hell do you know about physics?" Journalism Sweatshirt said.
"I'll have you know," Rodney said, straightening up and glaring at the entire table of women, each of them in turn. Lip Ring caught John watching and winked at him. Smoker smirked around her cigarette. Teyla's Soulmate grinned into her hasbrowns. "I'll have you know that I am one of the pre-eminent astrophysicists in the world, and my work on --"
Ronon clapped a hand over Rodney's mouth. Rodney mumbled on for a couple of seconds before shutting up, twisting to glare at Ronon. The women snickered, and John dug down through his hangover to, first and foremost, appreciate four women who were clearly not physicists flustering Rodney completely, and then to dig up his most charming smile, the one that usually made women fall down at his feet. (Not that John, hungover or not, had any real interest in the women who fell down at his feet, but it made Rodney crazy, so he kept doing it.)
"He doesn't get out very much," John said to Smoker, who raised her eyebrows and grinned at her friends.
"I can imagine," she said dryly.
"When he corrects your physics, he is attempting to flirt with you," Teyla said seriously.
"What," Lip Ring said, "all four of us?"
"He's not picky," Ronon growled, and Rodney, Ronon's hand still firmly over his mouth, twitched and flailed, knocked over a cup of coffee onto John's lap, and pulled free from Ronon's grip. John leapt up from the table, mopping at his lap with a handful of napkins that Teyla produced miraculously quickly, and glared at Rodney.
"Hey," Rodney said, glaring at all seven of them now, his eyes flicking back and forth between the four women and John (covered in coffee), Teyla (smirking blandly), and Ronon (still eating waffles, which John found startling), like Rodney couldn't decide which one of them he hated most. Even counting Ronon hitting a home run, Teyla discovering Pat Benatar, and Rodney on the floor of a Memphis blues bar, this was the funniest thing John had seen since they'd left Colorado. "Hey, I am right here, and their concept of what is physics and what is not is completely wrong, and I don't see why I shouldn't say something about this. They're giving physics a bad name!"
"We'll take your word for it," Teyla's Soulmate said.
"But we're still better at rearranging the food than you are," Journalism Sweatshirt said.
Smoker crushed out her cigarette and said, "Is everybody done? We're going to miss the movie if we don't book."
"Yeah," Lip Ring said, slurping down her coffee.
The waitress shuffled over, refilling the coffee cup Rodney was sulking into while he watched the women over the rim, and then passed checks around the table to all four of the women. "Can somebody break a 20?" Journalism Sweatshirt said.
"Hand me my camera," Teyla's Soulmate said.
"Jesus Christ, I can't take you people anywhere," Smoker said, as John slumped back down into Teyla's lap, watching Rodney fight with his desire to yell at all four of the women some more from below the edge of the table. "Everybody got everything?"
John heard some murmurs of agreement, and then Journalism Sweatshirt and Lip Ring loomed over their table. He peered up at them over the tops of his sunglasses, and Lip Ring winked at him again. "Goodbye, preeminent astrophysicist," Journalism Sweatshirt said.
"Have fun with your spatial relation problems!" Lip Ring said, and then they fled the restaurant, shrieking with laughter, and every head in the place turned to watch them. John was suddenly, amazingly grateful that the women on Atlantis, who didn't mostly run in packs like these women seemed to, weren't shriekers. Or gigglers. Or prone to teasing Rodney fondly until he had climbed halfway into his coffee mug, like he had now.
John wasn't sure his nerves could have handled that.
They lingered at the Waffle House, Rodney pouting into his coffee cup and John dozing intermittently with his head on Teyla's lap. When Rodney finally decided they were ready to leave, Ronon had seven syrup-sticky plates piled in front of him, and John felt almost all the way to human.
"Keys," he said to Rodney in the parking lot, and Rodney frowned. "I'm fine," John insisted. "Napping in Waffle Houses is therapeutic."
"Fine," Rodney grumbled, clutching his travel mug and digging the keys out of his pocket. "But if you wreck the minivan, I'm going to tell everyone about ... something embarrassing. Something really embarrassing."
"Whatever you say, Mr. I Slept Under A Table In A Memphis Blues Bar," John said. "And while you're at it, use those spatial relation skills of yours to figure out the quickest way to get back to I-85."
Ronon laughed. Teyla smirked. Rodney said, "I hate all of you, and just for that, I'm not going to tell you where the last Waffle House between here and D.C. is. You'll just have to wonder if we've missed the last one on I-95."
John started the engine and smiled.
Day 7: Washington, DC
They were standing at one end of the Reflecting Pool, staring down at the Washington Monument, because when they'd turned up to the Pentagon, General O'Neill had suggested (ordered) politely (with quite a bit of irritation at their lateness, John's three days of stubble, and Teyla's refusal to part with John's iPod) that John and Rodney spend the day taking Ronon and Teyla sight-seeing.
Teyla said, "Why is it so ..."
"Tall?" John said.
"Ugly?" Ronon said.
"Phallic?" Rodney said.
Teyla said, "Yes."
"Because Americans are tacky, spoiled people," Rodney said. "And they're very fond of penises."
"Hey," John said. "You're pretty fond of ..."
"Don't finish that sentence, Colonel," Rodney said.
"So where's the nearest Waffle House?" Ronon said.
John said, "No."
Rodney said, "Aberdeen, Maryland." John glared. Rodney said. "What? I looked it up. I think Ronon has developed a functional dependency on chocolate chip waffles, and Elizabeth will be pissed if Ronon does something inappropriate in a meeting at the Pentagon just because he's been deprived of waffles."
"I am going to find a way to blame this on you, McKay," John muttered.
"I would like to purchase an iPod," Teyla said.
Rodney said, "There's an Apple Store in White Marsh. It's on the way to Aberdeen."
"How on the way?" John said, before snaking a hand out to grab Ronon's jacket before Ronon could go plunging into the reflecting pool. "We are not going swimming here."
"Only about 55 miles out of the way," Rodney said. "Each way."
"What the hell," John said, "I paid for unlimited mileage on the minivan."
"The United States Air Force paid for unlimited mileage on the minivan," Rodney said. "Come on, I've got a map on the laptop."
"This planet is not a bad place," Teyla said.
Ronon said, "Do we have an waffle iron on Atlantis?"
"Don't talk about that here," Rodney hissed, reaching out to smack Ronon's arm and teetering unstably on the lip of the pool. "Shit," he said, grabbing for Ronon's chest to catch his balance. Ronon picked Rodney up, tossed him over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, and started jogging off toward the garage where they'd left the rental van. Rodney screamed his outrage, threatening to call the Secret Service, the entire U.S. Marine Corps, goddamnit, I will even call Lorne, and Ronon's low laugh carried back over the Mall. Teyla followed them both sedately, carefully fastening John's headphones back over her ears.
John just laughed, and turned toward the sunset, and followed.
author's notes: this is, by far, the silliest, most ridiculously self-indulgent thing i've ever written -- and i wouldn't change a thing about it. pru and t did beta duty, and this can be blamed entirely on the north carolina axis of evil: pru, asb, shep and ez. the title is from a song that appears on waffle house jukeboxes.
the contents of john's ipod are available, courtesy of t., here. despite my insistence, she would not call that playlist "john sheppard is secretly a twelve-year-old girl." she also made my gorgeous banner, because she is my otp and she loves me. ♥