“Do you love him the way he is? And I don’t mean accepting every little idiosyncrasy, because there’s always room for improvement. I mean him, who and what he is. Can you accept the way he views the world, and how his work will quite often win out over you? Because if you can’t, I’m asking you to please not string him along any farther.”
Katie found herself edging away from the colonel, almost frightened by the hard edges hidden behind the words. Sheppard had never been anything more to her than a lazy smile and easy slouch—she knew what he’d done over the years, to keep the city safe, but somehow she’d never really connected the various stories with the man who made Rodney watch bad sci-fi movies on the weekends.
“Why are you asking me this?” He froze at the question, which came out sounding a bit more panicked than she’d meant. She wasn’t actually afraid of him.
“I—It’s not common knowledge—at least I think it isn’t—and I’m asking you to keep it that way, but—” He swiped a hand down his face, like he was removing a mask, and she suddenly noticed how tired he looked. “Look, I was married once, for a while. Got married in college, which probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but—” he shrugged. “Anyway, I loved her very much, and she loved me very much—or seemed to—and she knew that I was going into the military. I made certain of that. And she was fine with it, or at least told me so. And things were fine. I shipped out, got to fly for a while, then go home to her for a little bit, and it seemed like I had the best of all possible worlds: flying and the woman I loved.”
“So what happened?” She wanted to ask why he was telling her this, but she could see he was having enough trouble getting it into words. He could take his time; she wasn’t in any rush.
“I crashed. Equipment failure—not my fault, but the ground doesn’t care about details. Anyway, I was sent home to recover, with the option of a discharge, if I wanted it.”
“But you didn’t,” she guessed. “And she did.”
“More or less. I would have, but it wasn’t the military she had a problem with. It was the flying.”
“Oh,” she said, and began to see where this was going.
“Yeah, ‘oh’. Turns out she’d been less than okay with me being a pilot for a very long time—she just never had the guts to tell me. And when I told her I couldn’t—not wouldn’t, but couldn’t quit flying, no more than a fish can just leave the water—she left. Or rather, kicked me out of the apartment.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, although it seemed rather inadequate. You still love her, she thought, but didn’t say.
“Don’t do the same to Rodney.”
“We don’t share an apartment,” was the only response she could come up with.
After a half hour of playing with her straw-wrapper and the little packets of condiments, Deb decided to give it another five minutes and then give up. She’d already eaten, so there wasn’t much point in sticking around anyway. Not that she had any other plans for the evening, but there was always homework to be done, and it felt odd to be sitting by herself in a slowly-emptying restaurant.
“Let me buy you a milkshake?” The guy asking was slouched against the corner of the booth, had a cute not-quite smile, and definitely wasn’t her date, since he was neither blond, freckled, nor particularly tall. And his t-shirt was black. But she’d been stood-up, and this guy looked friendly enough.
“Sure,” she shrugged, and shoved the detritus of her meal out of the way, so he wouldn’t have to worry about putting his elbow in ketchup. When she looked up again, one corner of his mouth was curled up, like he didn’t know he was smiling. But his eyes were a little wary, and he wasn’t slouching anymore. “What?” she asked, not sure why she felt so defensive.
“I was just offering to buy you a milkshake. I wasn’t expecting anything in return.” If not for that half-smile, she probably would have been insulted. But there was incredulity in his eyes as well as wariness, so she ignored what he was—what he might be—implying.
“And I wasn’t offering anything. Just a seat and someone to talk to.”
He cocked his head to one side for a moment, like her old dog had sometimes done when contemplating something strange, and then grinned at her. She couldn’t help but smile back.
“Sure, why not?” And he slid into the booth as if he’d been planning to do so all along, ending up with his back against the wall, his feet hanging over the edge of the seat and into the aisle. “I could always do with another milkshake.”
One of the waitresses appeared, looking tired despite her smile, and took their order: two shakes, one strawberry, one black and white.
“So,” Deb said, once the waitress was gone again, “What prompted you to buy me a milkshake? Not that I don’t appreciate it, but it would be more than a little odd if this was something you did on a regular basis—buy random strangers milkshakes, I mean.”
“You looked a little lonely, I had five bucks to spare and no one to spend it on, so I figured, why not?” He shrugged. “It’s not a habit of mine, if that’s what you’re asking.” There was a small pile of shredded paper napkins by his elbow—she’d distracted herself for ten minutes, doing that—and he picked up a couple of the pieces, rolling them between his fingers.
He shrugged again, flashed her another grin. “Not really.” Which meant that it was, at least a little bit.
She thought she had never seen anyone so utterly at home in their skin.
“I was supposed to be on a blind date,” she said, feeling a little like she was confessing some unpardonable sin. “My friend set it up, said I’d like him, made me promise not to back out. So here I am, feeling like an idiot, because he was supposed to show up forty-five minutes ago.”
“Well, I don’t think that makes you an idiot. Just means you’re a very nice person.”
“Me, I like Ferris wheels, football, and things that go really fast.”
“Carousels, dancing, and new shoes.” He paused in counting out the change, flashing her a puzzled look. “Those are the things I like,” she said, and his smile was like the glow of the perfect answer, that moment of complete and utter understanding.
It felt a little like being in love.
I really want to write the second one, but I just can't figure out what they'd say to each other - I don't know who Deb was before she tried to tie John down.