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Bell Curve, or, Ladies Night at the Boom Boom Room

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by Crysothemis

In his rational mind, Rodney knew that following a girl who'd just dumped you into a strip club was really, really pathetic.

But so was going to your little sister's wedding without a date.

Science was his mistress, yes, but it was hardly one Rodney could put into a turquoise mermaid dress and parade around skeptical and shocked family members who had been taking bets on whether Rodney was asexual, gay, or more attracted to theoretical physics than other organic matter. And how incredibly insulting had it been when Uncle Jake had said "other organic matter," instead of "people," or even "bipedals," so generously including most compost and the half of the engineering department at Caltech who had thought it'd be funny to dismantle Rodney's car and put the engine in the women's restroom.

So really, if Rodney had to pick the lesser of two evils between dealing with cousin Harry's terrifying, trademark come-on, "It's not illegal since we're once-removed, you know," or walking into the Boom Boom Room and begging Charlotte to do what she seemed to have been doing since the beginningand pretend to like him, then boom boom boom.

"Are you comin' in or not?"

Rodney blinked, shook his head to clear it, and stared up at the enormous, thickly-built man in the glittering, arched doorway of the club. The strobe light and fog and neon glitter flashed around his profile and made him look otherworldly. The man was wearing a pair of wrap-around blue Oakley's, with oily rainbows in geometric shine on the surface. Rodney was momentarily hypnotized before the man did something hugely threatening with his eyebrows.

"I--yes, I mean, yes," Rodney decided and fumbled at his wallet for a minute. "I--I'm sorry. I don't do this a lot. Do I bribe you directly or...?"

The bouncer sighed and the other members suspiciously mixed-gender line behind him groaned.

"ID," the bouncer said, though it sounded more like, "Do not make me eat your face," to Rodney.

"Yes, of course, because you know, ID," Rodney babbled, sweaty fingers slipping on the cheap leather of his brown wallet.

And he was holding his driver's license up to the bouncer's threatening eyebrows when he heard laughter and commotion, the sound of bodies quickly rearranged in the line behind him, and before Rodney managed to turn around to see what was happening somebody was pressed up nearly to his back, and Rodney saw stubble from the corner of his eye--a strong chin, long neck, a narrow chest.

"I'm late, I'm late," the man who'd rushed up said, and the bouncer's expression suddenly melted into one of sweet and wholesome affection, a broad smile revealing two gold front teeth that made Rodney shudder.

"You're always late," the bouncer said, still grinning, "employee entrance in back."

Rodney glanced to his left and blinked hard: brown or blue or green eyes, and olive skin that looked dark in the evening light and the blinking neon red of the Boom Boom Room sign, attractive features and a pouting, smiling mouth, that was dragged up in one corner to reveal a very persuasive grin.

"Aw, come on, Terrence," the man begged. "You know what Lilah said she'd do if she caught me coming in late again." He blinked hugely, rolling his shoulders so that a crinkling of plastic from the dry cleaning bag he had tossed over his shoulder snapped Rodney out of his confused daze.

Terrance, the bouncer, smirked. "It's your ass."

"And I like it the way it is," the man said, still smiling. "Please, come on, you won't regret it."

The bouncer cocked his brow, pausing thoughtfully, during which time the man next to Rodney made a terrifyingly attractive pleading face and tilted his head to the left.

"Fine--but I suggest you consult Paul backstage," Terrence said, and before the terrifyingly attractive pleading face disappeared from view, Rodney noted that it collapsed into doomed resignation--but only for a second before the man sighed and dashed into the club, disappearing into a blur of bodies, though his progress through the crowd was marked by various, delighted shrieks of "John!"

Rodney stared after him for a moment before he felt a huge paw descend on his shoulder.

He turned to look up at the bouncer again, who scowled. "Um," Rodney said.

"Just get in there already, and you'd better drink your body weight," the man said threateningly, giving him a very not-gentle shove toward the gyrating mass of bodies.

Rodney said, "Hey--wait! Woah!" and fell into the rabbit hole.

*

The club was terrifying--and not just the name. Rodney couldn't get over the fact that women would go to a place called the Boom Boom Room. The interior was slick and blue and pale orange, two colors Rodney remembered (very vaguely) being told clashed but actually melted into one another in the soothing, seductive contours of the curving bar, the rounded walls, the dance floor that was a mess of grinding bodies, and--dear God, Rodney thought to himself--the catwalk, where a single spotlight illuminated a currently bereft fireman's pole. While nobody was up there taking off their clothes at that exact moment, it promised to happen soon, if the DJ's obnoxious enthusiasm over sweaty, embarrassing male nudity or the increasingly high-pitched shrieking from the men and women that populated the place was any indication.

Rodney just couldn't get over the fact that he'd fallen so low, and after half an hour of unsuccessfully struggling through the crowds in an effort to find Charlotte and her usually easily-spotted bright blond hair, he staggered to the bar and collapsed in an empty seat, clutching the counter, gasping for breath.

"First timer, huh?"

Rodney looked up, and blinked in surprise to see the man who'd run into him standing on the other side, a sympathetic grin on his face. His dark hair was sticking up every which way in a tousled, I Paid A Hundred Bucks For This Do In West Hollywood way and his eyes--which were hazel--were shining.

"Is it always like this?" Rodney demanded, shouting over the pounding music.

"Don't club much, do you?" the man yelled sympathetically. He reached under the bar, stretching his black t-shirt sleeves over his biceps in a weirdly distracting way, catching one of the orange strobe lights, which danced across his stomach like a firefly. "What'll you have?" he asked loudly.

The music switched from obnoxious rap to obnoxious pop, and not for the first time, Rodney hated the whole entire world.

"Just give me a beer," Rodney moaned, putting his head in his hands. "Whatever you think would be least offensive to Canadian taste buds."

The man laughed, and soon a tall, artful mug with strands of red and blue and yellow woven into the glass was set down in front of his face, beer buzzing golden and forgiving in front of his face. Rodney grabbed at it desperately, but one sip and he scowled at the bartender, setting the mug down and yelling, "This tastes like horse piss! What did I just say about my delicate taste buds?"

"I had something great all lined up for you," the man explained, still laughing, "but then I took a good look and realized you were a student and I switched you to the tap. I'd hate for you to have to turn tricks to pay your tab."

Rodney opened his mouth to say "I'm a professor thank you very much!" but then somebody yelled, "John! Two Screaming Orgasms and make 'em snappy!"

"Got it," John said, and his busy, brown hands went to work under the counter, pouring and stirring and putting ice in things and shaking metal phallic objects while Rodney sulked into his crappy beer, listening to his head pound and hating Charlotte, and his sister for getting married, and Harry for his gay incestuous crush, and Caltech for being in California, because of course there'd be a club called the Boom Boom Room.

What seemed like a few seconds later two luminously tropical drinks were produced in very art deco glasses and immediately whisked away by a very scantily clad, pretty, androgynous person type object, Rodney observed. John started wiping down the bar, and the music quieted a little, moving to a slower, sultry beat, and Rodney took the brief respite to say:

"Look, you work regularly in this hellhole?"

John cocked his brow. "Yes," he said after a beat.

Rodney sighed. "Do you know a girl named Charlotte Abbot? Bright blonde hair? Short? Cute in a peppy, smarter-than-average-but-still-totally-wrong-about-Reinmann way?" Rodney observed John's blank expression and said, "Figures. Extended exposure to conditions like this could wear away anybody's base intellect, but when you're starting from aspiring actor slash screenwriter there's no hope to be had."

"Wow, you're just a real people person, aren'tcha?" John said sarcastically, and then he leaned over and grabbed the phone mounted on the wall and said something into it, grinned and added, "Thanks, Carla," and hung up.

Rodney got as far as asking, "What did you--?" before the music screeched to a stop, and the DJ's voice boomed over the club saying:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we've got a lonely bastard at the bar looking for one Miss Charlotte Abbot, blonde, there was--according to our good friend John--"

A cheer rose up from the drunken crowd, crowing, "John!" with one very excited exception yelling, "Take off your pants!" John just rolled his eyes and poked at a computer mounted into the bar, hands going off again, making some other neon, obscene drink.

"--an implication of some sort of lingering dispute over a theory about large primes."

Rodney's eyes rounded in horror, but before he was able to launch himself over the bar and strangle the smugly grinning John he heard Charlotte's slurring yell:

"Rodney, you God damn--! Oh--oh my God, I'm so drunk!"

*

 

Charlotte didn't so much find Rodney at the bar as get poured into his lap and sob and slobber all over him. Rodney stared balefully at the two very pretty waiters (waitresses? He just couldn't tell) who'd brought her over, but their only response was to move past him, lean into the bar, and speak, in perfect comedy duo:

"Just a heads up, John," the blond one said, grinning.

"Lilah's looking for you," the brunette continued innocently, licking his--her--its mouth.

John winced. "Oh," he said, sounding doomed.

The brunette reached over to pat John's hand in a thoroughly sexual way, thumb making small rotations over the back of John's hand. Rodney thought, "Figures," when John didn't pull his appendage away and only swallowed hard, eyes searching the crowd, seemingly unbothered by the wailing mass of ex-girlfriend that was still bawling into Rodney's shirt.

"Charlotte," he tried to start, and then stopped when she let out a high-pitched squeak, and muttered, "Oh God, you sloppy drunk."

"ETA?" John asked nervously.

The blonde giggled sweetly and leaned in, murmuring practically against John's mouth in what had to be one of the most obscene and all the same incredibly hot things ever, "Oh, I love that--you're flyboy roots are showing."

"And no playing the nervous virgin," the brunette warned as the blonde pulled away, eyes still sparkling. "You know how much Lilah likes that."

Rodney recoiled, which jolted Charlotte enough that she fell off of his lap, landed in a tumbled heap on the floor and started crying anew. Rodney didn't know what was worse, the fact that now he definitely wouldn't have a date for the wedding or that Charlotte was writhing on a floor that was so disgusting and covered with spilled drinks and bodily fluids and God knows what else that Rodney was probably going to have to drive her home.

John scowled. "Maybe I'll just get snowed again," he said sulkily, and leaned over the bar, face next to Rodney's own as he peeked down at where Charlotte was drunkenly singing "Hey Pretty" and kicking her feet against John's bar.

When John pulled back, the two wait...people were giggling again, their slender arms and shoulders shaking, bright eyes glinting, as John turned to look at Rodney and said, "No matter what's going on between the two of you, you should probably get her home."

Rodney frowned. "I'm sorry, how is this any of your business?" he snapped. "Shouldn't you be--I don't know--busy having twisted orgies and using empty wine bottles as sex toys with these--" Rodney pointed at the two waitpersons, whose eyes were narrowing at him and failing to find an appropriate adjective he settled on "--two, um, drink biscuits--oh, hey, what are you--?"

Later, Rodney would realize he'd been incredibly lucky that John had grabbed both Blondie and Brownie and shoved them out toward the floor again saying, "We've discussed this before, guys: no head trauma!" before scowling at Rodney and sighing. "Well, if you're going to earn the love and adulation of everybody in the joint, you may as well leave before they all attack you."

Rodney puffed up. "Fine."

John said, "And that'll be ten bucks for the beer."

Rodney's eyes widened his shock, and before he was able to finish yelling about what disgusting highway robbery this was and how it was reprehensible a very tall, terrifying woman shoved him out of the way and got right into John's face and said:

"So I was checking surveillance tapes."

John said slowly, with a pronounced drawl, "You look absolutely fantastic today, Lilah, really beautiful. Have you done something new with your hair?" He sniffed the air. "New perfume?"

Snorting, Rodney clambered down to try and pull Charlotte off the floor, only to find her huddled into a comfortable ball on the ground, sleeping. He scowled at her peaceful, sweet face, and thought that if he hadn't lived through it, he never would have believed that the Great Disintegrating Relationship Immolation had ever happened. Over his head, he could hear John prevaricating and begging dimly through the music and shouting, and saw two pairs of shapely, bare legs step up to the bar again, and the hitching giggles indicated that Things one and two had returned. Rodney, in a moment of supreme cowardice, was really glad he was under the counter dealing with his drunk ex-girlfriend.

He heard the words, "Please!" and "...dock your pay!" and "Do it, do it!" and John's low, resigned moan and warning, "I get to keep all the tips!"

Rodney's curiosity ratcheted up, but by the time he managed to prop Charlotte up into a chair and relatively stablized, John was nowhere to be found, and the wonder twins were seen disappearing behind a very glittery, burgundy curtain, their high-heeled feet tapping against the wooden boards of the backstage underneath the music.

He glanced around a bit, eyes narrowed, but then remembered he couldn't even find Charlotte--his chances of finding a dark-haired guy in the dim crowd was going to be nearly impossible. He sighed and turned back to the bar only to find a new bartender, who looked like a cross between an armored vehicle and a porn star, staring at him.

Rodney squeaked.

"It's five dollars for your beer," the tanker said, grinning at him in a thoroughly predatory way.

Rodney blinked. "I--wait, he, John, that guy, just said--"

The tanker sighed. "You're a little slow, aintcha?" Rodney's brow furrowed. The tanker leaned in, looking Rodney up and down. "Wanna meet me in the bathroom?"

Rodney stumbled backwards off of the stool and barely stayed upright, and was about to shout that he felt violated! Dirty! That even if he was a professor of Astrophysics at Caltech, he had more taste than for fumbled groping in a bathroom in a club called the Boom Boom Room and all sorts of other things, when the music in the club suddenly exploded, screeched to a sudden halt, and Carla the Evil DJ's voice thundered over the room again.

"Ladies and Gentlemen--adjust your pants and pull out your loose bills!"

If Rodney thought the club had been noisy before he just hadn't known, because suddenly the entire, cavernous space exploded into shrieking and whistling, laughter and encouraging yells, and the rest of the lights in the place dimmed down until all that was the left was the glittering backdrop on the catwalk, at which Rodney stared with great trepidation and a vague sense of nausea. I am going to see male strippers, Rodney thought strangely.

Carla laughed, and the sound rippled over the room at dangerously high decibels, adding with genuine, lascivious glee, "And brace yourselves, girls and flamers--we've got a special treat. You may remember him from that time when he fell off the stage!"

There was a speculative rumble in the audience until one single voice shrieked, "Oh my God! He's doing it again! Yes, yes!"

"Or you may remember him from the bar, you boozers!"

"Booze rules!" somebody yelled hoarsely over the laughing.

Rodney blinked, and thought, What? for probably less than a second before his synapses connected with a shock, Charlotte fell off of the stool with a thunk, and Carla yelled over the speakers, "Everybody give a nice, warm, dollar-waving welcome to our very favorite enabler, whose Screaming Orgasms are to die for--!"

And then Rodney thought, holy shit, and totally thought about covering his face, but it was already too late.

The curtains had opened, the spotlight had snapped on, and there was John the fucking bartender, standing at ease, hands clasped behind his back, wearing what looked like totally obscene military fatigues that werenot supposed to be that tight around the ass, and smirking the smirk of seven homosexual hells, eyes masked by a pair of dark sunglasses.

If Rodney had any further thoughts after that particular moment, they were completely drowned out by the fact that a small ocean of people rushed the stage simultaneously, breaking the sound barrier, Rodney's ear drums, and waving more money than Rodney would ever make in his entire life.

Rodney did cover his face, fat lot of good that did, since he was morbidly curious and ended up watching through the spaces between his fingers.

First, John did a freakishly sexy number with flicking off his sunglasses and smirking as he held them between his very white teeth in a move that had to be illegal in most states, a thought supported by the way it elicited a brand new wave of lustful shrieking from the crowd.

Then, John started stripping off the uniform jacket with deliberate slowness, and every undone button revealed a tantalizingly soft-looking black t-shirt underneath, low-slung pants, and Rodney found himself weirdly hypnotized by the time John slid the jacket off. It also helped that the shirt was a little bit...short and very bronze flashes of flat abdomen were showing.

And then there was some stuff where John grinned and threw the sunglasses into the crowd and the jacket off to the side of the stage and strode up to the front of the catwalk with a purposeful, slinky gait which proved equally distracting. This was followed by a few very geometric moments, conservation of time and energy, where John smoothed one hand over his stomach and Rodney watched a bunch of people swoon, and then John started rubbing at himself in a way that made Rodney squirm in his seat.

Then John started playing with a hip-holstered gun Rodney hadn't noticed before and Rodney got all turned around and confused.

Rodney was hot and dizzy. He tried to drink his beer but then John ripped off his shirt and Rodney's ten dollar investment for the evening was being spewed all over the tanker porn star, who didn't really seem to mind but looked worrisomely turned on by the whole thing. Though at least he was making the Bend Over, Now eyes at the stage instead of at Rodney.

Then John's very clever-looking hands started molesting his belt and the money was flying at the stage like confetti. John was grinning, half-amused but also rueful, and Rodney couldn't help but track the way John's hands moved across the leather of the belt, how his fingers rubbed and pushed and gripped the material. Shit or not Rodney found himself chugging the rest of the horse piss John had given him, staring at the blurry image of the bartender through the bottom of the glass.

John, in a blatant act of aggression, then licked his mouth in Rodney's general direction and smoothed his hand over the front of his pants.

Rodney was debating having some sort of gay epiphany when Charlotte puked on his shoe.

*

Rodney was really, really smart, class-A genius--except when he forgot that bolting a large mug of crap beer on an empty stomach was likely to make you incredibly drunk incredibly quickly.

Rodney had always assumed that the Incident in seventh grade would be his most embarrassing moment, but he was wrong, because here he was, shoeless in the men's room with the porntank who was hosing off his feet while one of the androgyny twins--the blond one--had cooed at Charlotte and disappeared with her off into the ladies room, which should have answered at least one of Rodney's pressing questions for the evening but totally didn't at all.

"This is awful," Rodney slurred.

"Yes," the porntank agreed glumly. "This is supposed to be John's job on Saturday's--but he's still pulling tens out of his g-string."

"You take turns hosing off the customers?" Rodney balked.

The porntank blinked. "Well, yeah. It wouldn't be fair for one person to have to do it all the time."

Rodney covered his face and groaned. "This has to be a drunken hallucination."

"You can't possibly be that much of a lightweight," the porntank said, and after a pause where he blasted more freezing cold water on Rodney's feet, soaking his rolled up pants, he added, "Look, are you sure you don't want to hook up?"

"Yes! I am!" Rodney said. "How can you possibly think about sex right now? You're hosing puke off of me--" and then his voice failed him when he saw the expression on the porntank's face and Rodney muttered darkly, "Never mind."

"I just kind of like the chubby ones, that's all," the porntank said, in what he probably thought was an appealing way, leering at Rodney, who put his hands over his chest in a truly embarrassing, 1950's woman of virtue way just as the door to the bathroom opened and John stumbled in, glitter in his hair, lipstick on his face, in his black t-shirt and cargo fatigues.

Rodney stared, John stared, the porntank stared.

And then John sighed and said, "Charlie, do you have to do your kinky sex thing in the work bathrooms?" to which Charlie replied, "Carpe diem. I think he's cute. I like my men built for comfort, not speed, toothpick boy," and Rodney shrieked, "Excuse me! I am totally still in the room!"

*

To cap off an already unspeakably bad night, John and Charlie the porntank played Rock, Scissors, Paper over who got to drive Rodney (who had been liberated of his car keys) and Charlotte home. On the slightly less humiliating side, John was doing it to protect Rodney's virtue, since Charlie was looking increasingly randy and Rodney was feeling pathetic and lonely and hey, if a guy liked you when he was hosing puke off of you in a sketchy men's room, then that was a true credit to his character indeed.

John had frogmarched Rodney out of the bathroom, monitored Charlie as Rodney gathered his things and sulked out of the bar, and then hustled Charlotte and Rodney out to his car, which was an old red, classic Caddy, in surprisingly good condition. Rodney was only able to stare at it in the mostly-deserted parking lot for a second before he was very rudely shoved into the backseat next to Charlotte, who flopped over into his lap immediately and started to drool on his pants leg.

Sliding into the driver's seat, dressed in his black t-shirt and ordinary loose jeans again, John tossed a jacket into the passenger seat and looked into the rearview window, loose and easy and confident, giving no indication that just a few hours ago he had gotten up onto a stage and taken off his clothes and rubbed himself like a horny teenager in front of a roomful of people who were trying to stick money in his underwear.

"Where do you live?" John asked.

"I--the apartments with--the--you don't have to drive me. I'm not that drunk," Rodney said.

John cocked one eyebrow at him and started the car. "Well, if you're not going to cooperate, we'll just have to do this through deductive logic, won't we?" he said, way too cheerfully for nearly three in the morning.

Rodney tried to shove Charlotte's face off of his lap. He couldn't believe he'd wanted to take her to the wedding--there was going to be an open bar and Rodney could hardly impress people and make cousin Harry back off if his girlfriend was drooling on an expensively decorated table instead of sashaying around being seductive and terribly in love with him.

"You're a student," John said, "or anyway, you look the part, so working off of that fairly solid assumption, I know you have to live in the neighborhood. Also, you said "apartment" but there're only three complexes kids at Caltech ever live in cause we're impoverished and SoCal is not a kind real estate mistress."

The car was moving forward now, pulling out of the parking lot, and Rodney wanted to be really obnoxious and say, "Oh, how little you know," but he was still a little bit loopy from you know, the gay stripping and the puking and his feet were cold.

"You're so wrong," Rodney snapped.

"And, given the fact that your key ring has a round key on it, that means you can't be living at Glenacres, because Glenacres gives square keys," John said speculatively, taking a right--directly toward Palm Landing. Where Rodney lived.

Rodney let his head loll back, moaning, "I hate you. That beer was awful. You took off your clothes."

"You're just amazingly perceptive, aren't you?" John said charitably, and with a little bit of speed, was hitting the series of speed bumps that welcomed Palm Landing residents very gently, so that Charlotte barely stirred in the backseat. "All right, what building?"

"The ugliest one," Rodney sulked. "D."

John's eyes flicked up to look at Rodney in the rearview window, and they seemed to be smiling. "Hey, no need to feel all prickly because your aspiring actor slash screenwriter bartender--"

"Stripper," Rodney interrupted.

"--isn't quite as dim as you thought," John finished evenly and parked the car in front of building D. Afterward, there was some more embarrassing stuff where John shuffled Rodney up the stairs and then shuffled Charlotte up the stairs and shoved them into the apartment and hid the car keys and stood in Rodney's doorway, smirking and saying, "It was a slice, buddy," before closing the door.

*

Rodney spent the next morning rubbing his cheek, since he'd been summarily shocked out of sleep when Charlotte had slapped him silly. Then, he'd found a yellow post-it stuck to his bathroom mirror in unfamiliar handwriting that said, "Car keys in your freezer, your car is still in the Boom Boom Room parking lot. PS, you need to defrost, man." So he'd stumbled into the kitchen and found his car keys and that yes, indeed, his freezer needed defrosting, but his face hurt and his head was pounding so he just made a huge pot of coffee, drank half of it while sulking in front of his computer, checking his email, and poured the other half into an enormous thermos, because his life sucked and he figured he'd need it for when he called a cab at half past eight in the morning to take him to a strip club to pick up his car.

Rodney hated the cab driver (who was smirking at him) and the day manager (who was also smirking at him) and everybody else in the whole wide world.

And more than anything--anything--he hated the tenured professor who said, "Hey, Dr. McKay, they're making TA assignments today--ha ha, I can't wait to see who gets stuck with you!"

He scowled indiscriminately around the department offices and then crawled off into his office, clutched at his blotter, and prayed it was somebody meek and easily cowed and tried very, very hard to forget about Charlie the porn tank, Charlotte the sloppy drunk, the shemale twins, and John, the very bad no good horrible stripper of a bartender.

And it had almost worked, too, when Rodney heard a knock at his door, looked up, and found the very same very bad no good horrible stripper of a bartender in a gray t-shirt and jeans, consulting a sheet of crumpled paper in his hands, hair still in full West Hollywood style, saying, "Hey, is this Dr. McKay's office? I'?m your...TA..."

Rodney stared. John stared back. Both of them turned white.

Then, Rodney put up his hand and said, "Just--hold whatever you're about to say."

He fell upon his coffee, drank it in one chug, set the mug down, and said, "Okay, okay, we can start freaking out now."

*

 

After he'd made Eve, Wesley, Harry, and Dawson cry, Rodney had been pulled aside by the department heads and given a stern talking-to, which involved a lot of hand-waving and paper-waving and asking, "Do you know how many times people have threatened to sue us over you?"

So the department policy stood that should Rodney upset, traumatize, or otherwise break any more TAs, he'd be ritually castrated and hung from a public square.

The gross irony of all of this was that for once in his life, Rodney hadn't done anything wrong--he hadn't even wanted to go to the Boom Boom Room and find Charlotte, but he'd done it because Jeannie had called and said, "You RSVPed for two. You will bring a guest or reimburse me for the amount per head. Also, Harry will be there. He misses you lots." Rodney was blameless, completely innocent! And to top it all off, he was still honor-bound to appear at his sister's wedding, the dateless wonder to be sexually harassed by his cousin once-removed--it was Sunday and he was at work and on Friday he'd have to fly to Toronto and listen to Jeannie say, "I knew it!" and "Oh, hey, Harry, it's been so long! Rodney's just dying to see you again."

Stewing over all of this hatefully, Rodney found himself sitting across a café table from an unnaturally mellow John Sheppard, whose lanky and loose posture only made Rodney feel more like a crazy square for clutching his thighs in terror.

There were loads of rules about teacher-student relationships, teacher-TA relationships, advisor-grad relationships--professional, proscribed behaviorisms. Rodney couldn't even get his mind around what he was supposed to do with John, who'd given him alcohol, stripped down in front of him--okay, not just in front of him--and then driven him home and hidden his keys.

"So," Rodney started awkwardly.

Don't, you know, hurt yourself trying to make conversation or anything," John said mildly, an amused look on his face. He waved a hand dismissively in the air.

"So we got off on the wrong foot. Let's start over." John held out his hand to shake. "My name's John Sheppard and I'll be your TA for the next year."

Rodney stared at him. "You're kidding."

"Give it a chance," John insisted.

Rodney rubbed the space between his eyes. "Fine," he snapped. "Fine. Dr. Rodney McKay, PhD, MENSA member, leader in the field of astrophysics." He cast John a simultaneously appraising and patronizing expression--one perfected after many years of practice--and added, "I'll tell you up front I'm very demanding of my TAs--if I wanted you just to grade papers and photocopy, I could train a monkey or build a robot out of spare toaster parts."

John's grin, however, knocked a little of the edge off of Rodney's statement, which was equal parts surprising and infuriating.

"So I've heard," John said dryly. "To be honest, I was assigned to you because I was the only person who agreed to work with you at all. The first three got notice and filed formal complaints."

Rodney sniffed. "Clearly of inferior intellectual fiber."

"That's what I figured, too," John said, a little too sincerely. But before Rodney could narrow his eyes and ask if John was making fun of him, John said, "Anyway--I'm looking forward to the challenge. I was on a wait-list for almost a year to get a TA slot and I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth."

For no good reason, Rodney thought: g-string.

He shook his head savagely, and said, "Right, right--good attitude, I hope you can keep, um." Rodney did an embarrassing hand motion that amounted to flapping his fingers around. "Keep that up, you know--oh God, what am I saying," he moaned, cursing adolescence for locking his brain in a permanent state of perversion and picking up double entendre from forty paces.

John only laughed, shaking his head and saying, "Look, Dr. McKay, I get that we met under um--" And Rodney looked up with a cocked eyebrow "--unusual circumstances, but I'm sure we can put that behind us."

"Well there doesn't seem to be any other option," Rodney snapped.

"Not really, no," John quipped, and then leaning forward, he admitted, "One of the things I've picked up, you know, doing what I do, is selective memory. It's in your favor to forget things that people tell you when you're a bartender."

Rodney said flatly, "Bartender."

John stared back at him. "That's what it says on the bits of paper they give me."

Rodney sighed, long-suffering, and said, "Sure, fine, whatever."

Then, John said some stuff about cooperation and hours and how they would work office hours and what Rodney was planning for his classes, and Rodney said some stuff back. After a while, Rodney even forgot that he'd seen John doing a really obscene bit with a fake gun on a glittering stage with four hundred very stoned, incredibly horny twentysomethings throwing money at him.

*

 

The first week of school was always dropping students and adding them, and when it came to classes taught by the infamous Dr. Rodney McKay, young genius and most brilliant talent in the astrophysics department--it was all about scaring students out of his classes. He culled the herds of pimple-faced frosh every year, and despite what university psychological services said about gross cruelty and post-traumatic stress, Rodney felt he was providing a much-needed service to the students who were unsure about their interest in physics.

John sat in the far right corner of the front row idly taking notes or drawing airplanes or trying to convince seventeen year old girls and obviously gay boys that flirting with him was probably a bad idea when Rodney was up at the podium glaring daggers at the sides of their heads.

By Thursday, Rodney was ready to turn in his PhD and run away from home. He felt as if a small nation of students had emigrated through his class, and he came in every morning with the same stack of syllabuses and an economy-sized bottle of Advil, starting the lecture by gritting his teeth, scowling across the rows of new faces, and saying, "All right, which ones of you are indecisive teenies who only signed up for this class last night or are sneaking in here now hoping for me to add you, or, in a new and interestingly stupid twist, auditing so you can flirt with my TA?" Then, John would turn around and wave at the class, and the class would wave back eagerly, thus sparking a chain reaction that generally made Rodney wish desperately that the Vulcan death grip was real.

On Friday, Rodney was gleeful as his last class let out, his smile brilliant and his eyes dancing with joy, and he felt that if it wouldn't be painfully embarrassing, he might actually do a little victory dance. And then John said, "So, any plans for the weekend?" while he was gathering up the first quiz of the year, which had already made two students inconsolable.

"What? Oh, I'm thinking about kicking back and?" Rodney started and then froze, all the blood draining out of his face.

John's brows knit together. "What? What's wrong?"

Rodney brought his wrist up to stare at his watch and his eyes bulged in bleak horror. "Oh God," he groaned. "Oh fuck--my plane. My plane leaves in four hours."

John raised an eyebrow. "Hey, weekend getaway. That's cool."

"That's not cool, Sheppard," Rodney snapped, hands moving at Mach 1, gathering up papers and jerking them out of Sheppard's hands and stacking them messily, clutching them to his chest and rushing around shouting:

"I can't believe I totally forgot--well, okay, I can believe that I totally forgot because it's Jeannie--that's my sister, by the way--and we haven't spoken to one another since the Incident when I was an undergraduate at MIT. Because, oh my God, how traumatic is it to be a sixteen year old in college and then having to deal with your psychotic younger sister flashing your Spock underpants around your dorm shouting your name at the top of--" Rodney stopped talking at John's hamstrung expression, shook his head, and barreled on, saying, "Um, anyway, she's getting married this weekend and it totally slipped my mind and now I'm going to miss my plane and oh Jesus I didn't even buy her a present and now she's going to make crazy incestuous Harry corner me at the bar or something, dear God, how could this have happened--!"

John narrowed his eyes in concentration and tilted his head to the side in another one of those weirdly and painfully attractive moves that made Rodney think about his gay epiphany again, which unfortunately automatically associated itself with Charlotte puking on him and the porntank hosing him down.

Finally, John said, "Okay," and deftly jerked the papers out of Rodney's hand, putting a quelling hand on Rodney's shoulder and smiling at him persuasively. "Now, what I gathered from that sudden blast of verbal diarrhea is that you have to go to a wedding this weekend."

"And I'm late! Already!" Rodney snapped, jerking the papers back. "And oh, great, I don't have a date after all so Jeannie's going to be harassing me all weekend over how I lied about having a girlfriend--which I didn't! I have the ruined shoes to prove it!--and my parents are going to get on my back about giving them grandkids and how I can't mate with physics and--"

"All right then," John interrupted evenly. He dipped his chin and opened his eyes wide in a helpful expression Rodney found vaguely puppyish, and his hold on the papers failed a little. "Anything I can do to help?"

Rodney stared at him for a second. "You wanna come to the wedding with me?"

For a moment, it seemed almost as if the heavens had opened up and a ray of golden light had shafted into the room. It was perfect! A wonderful solution! Rodney was desperate enough to take anyone to the damn wedding, as long as he could get them to smile pretty and prove to Jeannie that Rodney wasn't a complete failure when it came to relationships. And John, despite his many failings as a TA and, in general,as a person, was very handsome in a rugged way during his day job and pretty like a rentboy during the nightshift and that was something Rodney could really work with. Maybe, with sufficient monetary incentive, John could even be convinced to go up to Harry and say, "Back off, bitch, he's mine!"

But then John blinked.

"Um, no. I meant more like--" he waved his hands at the papers "--grading those for you."

If embarrassment was terminal, and Rodney wasn't completely convinced it wasn't, Rodney would have actually willed himself to an early grave. Instead, he forced his chin up in as haughty an expression as somebody who was the color of a beefsteak tomato could actually manage and said gravely, "That won't be necessary."

John bit his lip. He was trying not to laugh. Rodney was trying not to kill him.

"I have to leave now," Rodney said.

John said, "Okay," and his smile was manic.

Rodney bolted.

"See you Monday, Dr. McKay!" John called down the hall after him, and because John was an asshole, he added afterward, "Have fun! I bet you do a mean bunny hop!"

*

 

Rodney cursed weddings as he sped home and threw clothes into his suitcase. Rodney cursed Jeannie as he dropped a brick foot onto his gas pedal going toward LAX. Rodney cursed family as he spent a truly obscene amount of money at a duty free shop in LAX buying some sort of incredibly floral perfume for his sister's wedding gift, and as the clerk rung it up, Rodney hoped that she was horribly, horribly allergic to it. Rodney cursed airplanes as he got onto one and he cursed himself for not taking John's offer as he graded crappy quiz after crappy quiz during the flight. His head was foggy and his mouth was dry and his lips were cracking and despite the fact he was on an Air Canada flight the beer was still shit.

By the time he landed in Toronto a few hours later, he was murderous and exhausted.

His mood was not improved when he saw who was waiting for him as he stepped out into the terminal.

Fighting an instinctive desire to run, Rodney said warily, "Hi, Harry."

Harry smiled at him, his crazy, cousin-kissing smile. "Hi----Rodney!"

And then, Harry ran up to grab Rodney's bag, to babble into Rodney's ear, to press up close to Rodney's left side, and murmur sweet, scary, incestuous nothings into Rodney's very frightened ear and if anybody asked, and Rodney was sure somebody would someday, that was when the lying started, because Rodney was a hunted animal, damn it.

"You look really good, Rodney," Harry gushed. His eyes were shining.

Rodney edged to the right. "I'm sick," he lied, holding his laptop bag between himself and Harry, though Rodney knew damn well that not even IBM could save him now. "Really sick."

"Maybe I could nurse you," Harry suggested, hands creeping up Rodney's arms. "Wow, have you been working out?" he asked, voice breathy.

Rodney hadn't been so scared since he'd tried to lose his virginity for the third time. "I'm seeing somebody!" he babbled suddenly, clutching the laptop case to his chest and searching around in his brain for somebody, anybody to make for a plausible lie.

But because Rodney was a genius, he managed to come up with something.

The downside, of course, was that by the time the McKay brood settled down for one of those torturous family dinners later that night, everybody was already buzzing about Rodney's hot, stripper boyfriend.

Rodney's parents weren't making eye-contact with him or each other, which wasn't all that unusual, and Rodney figured they'd already written him off and turned all their desperate hopes for grandchildren and a normal child to Jeannie, anyway. Jeannie, on the other hand, looked suspicious but sufficiently amused by Rodney's mortification.

"There's no way," Jeannie hissed at him over dessert.

"What are you talking about?" Rodney hissed back, digging up an enormous chunk of mud cake for himself. He was going to need strength to survive this, and he'd take it in any available form.

"Please, Rodney," she snapped, her blue eyes narrowed in a way that was disconcertingly familiar, and for a second, Rodney almost forgot that his grandmother was sitting with an inconsolable Harry, saying that maybe it was for the best that Rodney was dating an almost-hooker. "Look, I've always known that you'd pant for it from anybody--"

"Hey!" Rodney protested.

"--but a stripper? Rodney, you work at Caltech, how the hell do you know a stripper?" Jeannie demanded, her expression clearly stating that she'd already decided that he'd lied and that he'd suffer, suffer, suffer for not bringing a date and for attempting to be cool through deception.

"I can meet strippers! I could meet strippers all the time!" Rodney argued, unfortunately, at the exact same time that his grandmother looked back up, and her expression went from horrified to closed off as she clutched rosary beads to her chest and scowled at him, as if she could see the evil spirit of lascivious homosexuality hanging around Rodney's head like a specter.

"You lie like a rug, Rodney," Jeannie said with great satisfaction, and leaned back in her seat.

Just for that, Rodney decided, picturing the schematics already, he was jacking the sound system at her wedding and playing New Kids on the Block on repeat.

*

The physics building at Caltech was called Robinson, and it had an incredibly long ladder that stretched deep into the bowels of the earth. It was something like a five minute climb down, though Rodney had never personally investigated since it was used for something lame like seismic studies and he had a pronounced aversion to pointless physical activity. It was called the pit ladder, since the student body of Caltech wasn't known for its linguistic ingenuity, and Rodney, given half the chance, would have gladly flung himself at the bottom and prayed for death on impact or at least total paralysis, because if the alternate was to sit here at Jeannie's God damn wedding reception and get shitfaced off the open bar with one of Jeannie's moronic liberal arts educated friends, death seemed sweet like nectar.

What made it worse was that despite the fact that Rodney had jacked the sound system and New Kids on the Block, The Right Stuff was blaring with some George Michael telling Jeannie to wake him up, before she went--

She was still beautiful out there, prettier than Rodney had ever known a girl could be, all incandescent with joy and shining with optimism and all those other flattering words Rodney fed to girls who would eventually slap him and tell him he was socially retarded. But they actually applied this time, Rodney mused, watching his baby sister dance the damn bunny hop across the ballroom floor of the hotel with her new husband, a mediocre-looking accountant who had proposed on one knee with a ukulele. Jeannie was laughing and flushed from champagne and so happy that Rodney thought she was about to burst.

Rodney and Jeannie had dedicated their lives to making one another miserable one way or another. They one-upped one another, bickered, gossiped, and otherwise harassed one another like horrible, sniping children, a stage out of which neither of them had really ever grown.

But despite the terrible food and the awful music (which was his own fault, actually) and Harry the weeping, incestuous cousin, Rodney was happy for Jeannie tonight, genuinely happy.

And so he called a temporary truce in his head, raised his half empty glass of Long Island Iced Tea and dedicated the evening to her happiness.

He'd get her back for the "almost-hooker" business after her honeymoon. She'd never see it coming.

*

 

Then, suddenly it was the next morning and Jeannie and Todd, the new husband, were flying out to Hawaii for a week and Rodney was waving goodbye from the front steps of the house he'd grown up in, standing next to his parents, who still weren't speaking with him.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of the day sucked, though for one brief, bright spot, his grandmother pulled him aside and asked Rodney what kind of number his stripping boyfriend did, and whether he was available for retirement parties. Rodney nearly herniated something when his grandmother said the word "thong."

At some point, he finally got to leave, and when he hugged his mother awkwardly, she stared at him hard in the face, and Rodney was reminded that they were blood, that she was as much of a horrible hardass as he and Jeannie had turned out to be. Regina Halloway had been a museum curator before she'd bullied one of the new docents into marrying her and giving her his last name. Over the course of a few years, she'd produced two children, who'd been raised under her iron fist. Rodney still remembered being detained by the CIA for being a member of a youth terrorist group and how she'd looked, stomping into the room, raising hell.

She held his face in her two hands, stared at him with her very blue eyes and said, "Rodney Edward McKay--I don't give a damn who you choose to be with, as long as you're happy and you're good to them, do you understand?"

"Hey, wow, you guys are taking this well," Rodney said feebly, feeling like six kinds of scum.

She scowled at him. "Your father's been trying to drown himself all day."

"Shouldn't you go stop him?" Rodney asked.

"Later," Regina McKay snapped. "Do you understand what I'm saying, Rodney?"

The scum population in Rodney's soul grew exponentially and shuffling, he said, "Hey, Mom, the thing is--"

"The thing is, Rodney," she said, her voice more quiet, "that you're bad at taking care of yourself. Let somebody help you--and for God's sake! Don't scare them off!" Her eyes went scary for a minute. "Remember, if it's men for you, you haven't got the option of binding them to you legally."

Rodney's eyes bulged at her.

"And now I harangue people into cleaning up this damn mess," she reported, wandering off to yell at the caterers,who were picking up their supplies, and hopefully save her husband from a watery grave.

Rodney was wolfing down his airplane lunch by the time it hit him how painfully, ridiculously hilarious his whole weekend had been. And when he started laughing, he almost couldn't stop, had to muffle himself with an airline blanket that smelled like wet dogs. The smile was still on his face when he stepped out of the airport into the California sunset, bathed in shimmering orange and reds, stroked across the rolling sky.

When he got to the school the next day he found on his desk carefully organized stacks of papers prepared for him, and a copy of Marking's latest paper with the most ridiculous parts already highlighted in green with giant question marks in the margins. Rodney was already laughing his head off when he glanced up to catch John leaning in the doorway.

"Good morning," Rodney said, setting the magazine down.

John nodded. "How as the wedding?"

Rodney stared at John for a long time, thought about what his mom said and about Jeannie's disbelief and about his grandmother, who'd been married at seventeen and was still fiercely in love with Rodney's grandfather, who had died nearly twenty years ago, thought about Jeannie's face beaming and beautiful at her reception.

He smirked and picked up the magazine again. "Better than expected."

From the doorway, John grinned at him and disappeared.

*

 

John turned out to be a revoltingly helpful person to have around.

John graded papers and held office hours, frequently in Rodney's stead, since Rodney made students near and far cringe in terror and loathing. John organized papers, photocopied tests, lied to department heads on Rodney's behalf when he was hiding, and did not openly defame Rodney's personage to the few attractive females on campus who hadn't already figured him out. He, essentially, ingratiated himself and became an indispensable tool, as attractive and useful as a high end computer.

The downside, of course, was the editorializing.

"You know what I like about you, Dr. McKay?"

Rodney clutched at his desk. "What's that, Sheppard?" he asked through gritted teeth. Rodney had been tempted to bring a remote control from home and see if it would mute the man, but he had the nagging suspicion that John would only smile his stupid, paralyzing smile and write it off as yet another indication that Rodney was steadily losing his mind.

"Your total lack of regard for extenuating circumstances, personal relationships, accidents, natural disasters--in short, all that makes us human," Sheppard said brightly, setting a very thin folder on Rodney's desk.

"Where are all the tests?" Rodney demanded, rifling through the folder and only finding four actual graded exams out of a class of thirty. He turned to glare at John, who looked unrepentant and serene.

"I'm gonna take a wild guess here and assume that you didn't hear about the sprinklers going nuts in half the dorms and the flooding over the weekend," John said. "And I'm gonna extrapolate from that and assume that even if you had known that three quarters of your students lost all of their study materials and a lot of their worldly belongings, you wouldn't care that much, either."

Rodney opened his mouth.

John held up a quelling hand. "I checked the residence lists against the students who came to me, it's all above board. Also you're giving a make-up exam this Thursday."

Rodney looked horrified. He had no classes on Thursday--he could be running experiments on Thursday!

"You will be happy to hold office hours this afternoon," John finished with a grin.

"I--!"

"I checked your schedule," John said firmly, the smile on his face gaining an edge. "You have time. Now, sign these," John ordered, dropping a sheaf of papers on Rodney's desk roughly two feet tall.

Rodney stared at it all helplessly. None of these things ever happened when he put off grading, when he hadn't had a TA, before John had shimmied his leather-g-stringed ass into Rodney's life!

"What the hell is this?" Rodney asked, a distinct whine coloring his tone.

"Carefully worded apologies for the last time you attended a seminar unsupervised apparently," John said, shrugging. "This stuff is before my time. Somebody just passed it to me on my way in."

Rodney snorted. "You make one presenter cry and you're vilified for life."

Sheppard rolled his eyes and started out of the office, saying over his shoulder, "You're a real credit to the human race, Dr. McKay. I'll see you at three."

He left, clutching a folder of notes, covered in his looping, sprawling handwriting.

Rodney looked down at the pitiful stack of tests and saw it there, too, the same loops and angles. Rodney had started seeing it everywhere, since he first saw it on his desk all over a stack of exams and now he saw it on Post-it notes in the office, lined paper in scattered file folders that John left all over the place when he was busy with other things.

Initially, Rodney had tried yelling at John about being a slob and leaving his things all over Rodney's office space, until Rodney realized that John wasn't particularly bothered by Rodney's feeble attempts at asserting his authority over him.

"My family's military through and through," John had said sympathetically at Rodney's frustration. "I've kind of been brought up by drill sergeants. Sorry."

"I'll expect you to pretend to be cowed," Rodney had sulked.

"I'll do my best," John had said smugly, and then harassed Rodney into showing up for office hours.

The real problem, Rodney knew, was that John didn't seem bothered by him. Not by Rodney's attitude, not by Rodney's snappish moods, not by Rodney's frequent, out of the blue shouts of "Oh my God--of course!" or his tendency to bolt out of his office immediately afterward. John just jogged after him, collecting the bits of whatever Rodney had taken with him and going back to cover all the bases, smile at bewildered students.

And when it came to students, there was universal agreement that they'd avail themselves to John Sheppard in any way he saw fit. If there was a sign-up sheet--and Rodney didn't doubt there would be, sometime soon, too--to provide Sheppard with sexual favors, the damn thing would go on for four pages, through all of Rodney's freshman physics and astronomy classes and dragging out to his seminars and hijacked by all the department secretaries and random people who intercepted John in the course of day to day events. Rodney had gotten so many compliments over how much nicer it was to work with him when nobody had to deal with him that it was actually sort of insulting.

It was like the guy was a machine, and it was making Rodney nervous.

There had to be another shoe, and Rodney had a weird, sinking feeling that when it fell, it was going to hit him right in the ass.

Rodney sat there and stared at his desk, at the stack of sycophantic apologies, at John's handwriting, blinked three times, shook his head, and pushed himself out of his seat, heading toward one of the sim labs. Grant was sure to be running a few equations but Rodney was legendary for bullying people out of their hard-earned time and he'd gotten that reputation for good reason.

He spent the rest of the afternoon there, and it wasn't until he heard rain splattering on the windows that he thought of water and oceans and flooding and thought that Sheppard was going to kill him because it was six thirty already and his office hours ran from three to five fifteen.

In an Embarrassingly Reminiscent Of Coming Of Age Movies From The Eighties montage of slips and slides and getting soaked bolting from the labs toward his office Rodney saw at least three students giving him the stink eye and one who looked smug, which boded ill. And when Rodney skidded down the hall and nearly slammed face-first into his own office door, he found a yellow Post-it note on it that said:

DON'T WORRY. THEY WEREN'T EXPECTING YOU TO BE HERE ANYWAY. J.

*

The next few days were tense and quiet and accusatory.

John dropped him an email saying he had some function to attend and fell off the face of the Earth on Tuesday. Rodney spent most of his three classes that day watching students scowl at him darkly from their places in the classroom, each of their poisonous expressions more accusatory than the last. Not that Rodney really cared what they thought, but he had left his office door unlocked and they could have booby-trappedanything. That was what happened when you trapped a bunch of socially-maladjusted geniuses in one small, southern Californian university.

Wednesday, John was back but it was with a polite veneer of artificial pleasantness that Rodney and everybody else (even the engineering majors) saw through at a distance of forty paces. He looked tense and irritable and didn't draw any F-14s on people who got exceptionally good scores on tests, so everything that came back in a manila folder after John had graded them looked flat and unhappy and Rodney expected further loathing from his class Thursday for it.

By Thursday, Rodney had gone past lingering guilt into full-blown anger, because as much as yes, he'd flaked out it didn't warrant a week-long silent treatment. Rodney hadn't even known that relationships not involving sex could warrant a silent treatment at all. He was sick of it! It was ridiculous! And when he stormed into the classroom late in the afternoon to find his class three-quarters full and everybody doing last minute cramming, he scowled at them hard enough to make one kid physically lean away from the front of the room.

"The exam is fifty questions, twenty-five multiple choice because otherwise the average grade would be so low I'd have to invent something newer and shinier than the bell curve in order not to label you guys as the mentally damaged," Rodney snapped, and three girls in the back row rolled their eyes. "Ten are true false, and the remaining fifteen are problems. Get out your calculators and I don't care what formulas you've saved on them and are using. I want full work shown--and Cartman," he said, looking meaningfully at a slight, twitchy boy in the second row of desks, "could we please explore the possibility of you writing in something larger than a three point font? This is just a kind request from the grader."

"Ohmigosh," a very curly-haired boy in the front row said, "speaking of John, you don't think he's sick, is he? I haven't seen him around anywhere these past few days."

"He's not sick," Rodney snapped, "and even if he was, it doesn't matter!"

A hush fell, and somebody in the back snorted, saying, "Hey, that's nice, Dr. McKay."

"Oh, for--!" he started, and Rodney knew he should have kept his mouth shut the moment he'd said it because the three girls in the back row lit up.

"Is John mad at you?" one of them demanded. "He seemed mad at you at office hours Monday."

Rodney narrowed his eyes. "Does this have anything to do with the test? No, I don't think so."

"Sure it does, he's grading them and maybe we don't want him to take out being mad at you on our grades," another girl argued, and Rodney had a passing, bitter thought that he didn't know what the hell American educators were talking about when they fought on TV over girls not feeling empowered to speak. All the sharks in his classes were women.

He rubbed his forehead. "I'm sure Mister Sheppard will manage somehow, now, if we could--"

There was a sudden rumble of concerned whispering in the room that made Rodney's very soul hurt. He just wanted to administer this test. He just wanted to get out of there so he could go back home and crawl into bed and not deal with the world until all of it straightened itself out again and somebody came knocking with a huge offer to be part of cutting-edge physics. He just wanted to go back into time and kick John in the face for letting these little monsters take their tests late.

"Guys, chill," somebody said, a dark-haired, clean-cut sophomore who grinned lazily across the room at his classmates. Rodney barely resisted the urge to throw a chair. "I just talked to him earlier today at the AFROTC thing at USC, there've just been a few big things going down, formal stuff and--woah!" he interrupted himself, because the three girls that flanked him in the back had all gotten right into his face to say in quick succession:

"John's in the Air Force?"

"Oh my God, was he in dress uniform? Was it like An Officer and a Gentleman?"

"Was it cooler than Top Gun?"

Rodney threw a chair.

In his own defense, it was toward the side door, so the only real damage was a very loud noise and his throwing out his very delicate back. Not that these seemed to lighten up the departmental secretaries who hauled him in for the reaming of his life a few hours later.

*

 

On Friday morning, irritated and not a little embarrassed over the entire chair fiasco, Rodney stomped into work, stomped into his office, and stomped around his desk trying to find a set of scantron tests he seemed to have misplaced, which was ridiculous because Rodney never misplaced anything. Ten minutes later, they were still not-misplaced and he was starting to grow even more irritable, which had to be some sort of scientific achievement, because Rodney could swear he'd already reached critical mass on annoyance.

He resorted to cussing in fluid French when he heard a cough at the doorway, and turning around he saw John leaning against the frame, an amused expression on his face. He was holding out a folder.

"Are you looking for these?" he asked. He opened it to reveal a neat pile of scantrons, already graded, with percentage points all calculated out and written in red pen. There was, at the top of the pile, at least one sheet with a F14 on it, and Rodney let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding because apparently John wasn't pissed anymore.

Rodney stomped over and snatched it out of his hands, ignoring the way John smirked.

"Yes, and you could have given me some forward notice!" Rodney snapped, settling down at his desk to fumble with his blotter and fiddle with his papers, because damned if he was going to be noticeably grateful that his most favorite piece of academic machinery had come back.

"I thought about writing you a post-it," John said casually, and his mouth curved up when Rodney winced, of which Rodney made a note so he could equally casually put laxative in John's coffee next time he left it unattended.

Rodney waved his hand dismissively. "Never mind," he muttered, and pointing at the stack, he asked, "So all of these are graded? Recorded?"

"We're supposed to record grades?" John asked, his eyes huge.

Rodney pointed at the door. "Get out of my office."

John just grinned and started down the hall, but not before he said, "By the way, Dr. McKay, I'd be nice next week, evaluations are coming down next Friday."

It was starting to become a pattern, one which Rodney found hugely disturbing: it seemed that every time John dropped by the office Rodney was going to be left clawing at his desk blotter and fighting an incipient hard-on that reminded him way too much of hitting puberty full in the face his junior year of college.

*

 

Sunday, Rodney got woken up at half-past seven in the morning by the phone shrieking in his ear, and by the time he hung up about twenty minutes later, he had a sinking sensation that he'd just agreed to some stuff he'd seriously regret agreeing to.

Two hours later, when he finally crawled out of bed and had two cups of coffee, he was about to star sixty-nine when somebody from a long distance service called and Rodney cussed under his breath before hanging up. The sinking feeling he'd had that morning was starting to be compounded with a sneaking suspicion that it had been Jeannie who'd called, which boded ill for Rodney under any circumstances, but was catastrophic when considered in conjunction with the fact he had been half-asleep when he'd answered the phone.

He spent the rest of the day antsy, and by evening he'd decided he was getting Caller ID, because whether or not there was a bunch of noise in the tech sector about CNID being some sort of breach of privacy, it would be better than this hell of wondering.

By dinner, he was bored and sick of staring at lesson plans and had started to wonder why he hadn't applied for that job at CERN, which made him remember that they were supposed to come to him, which he thought was pathetic enough that watching porn wouldn't be that much worse.

Halfway through Perky Platinums, Volume III Rodney got distracted by the soft and flabby side of one of the men in the video, his hairy hands, his narrow and ugly shoulders, and of course his cock decided that its upward climb should be forestalled to entertain a long and horrifying detour into the "Hey, about that gay epiphany" conversation.

And the thing was that it wasn't that bad a conversation, because Rodney had his share of sexual experimentation, because research trips out to observatories in the middle of nowhere frequently drove up the adrenaline and drove away the ladies and Harry Bingham had been very, very pretty for a boy. Plus, he'd sucked cock better than anybody, though that might have been colored by the fact that Rodney had been eighteen at the time and really excited about any cocksucking at all. Still, Rodney had chalked it up to convenience and sexual experimentation before John had shimmied in his life, and now he was stuck with a half-hard dick, watching short-haired, blond girls getting fucked and having little success thinking of anything but the way John's black t-shirt had stretched over his chest, how he smiled, the way his eyes were all twinkling hazel and other such fourteen year old schoolgirl thoughts.

The video kept going in the background, and Rodney mostly ignored it, closing his eyes and listening to the whimpers, the slick, flesh sounds of it and thought about John's face and his hands and his stupid F14s, scribbled onto scantrons with perfect grades.

Rodney, blessed with the vivid and technical imagination of the very best physicists, saw in stunning detail the lines and angles of John's body underneath the loose pants and old t-shirts, how the way John cocked his head moved the muscles in his neck, changed the tension of his shoulders. Rodney's hand tightened on his cock, and he admitted he'd been watching, and how could he not? John was always in his damn office, as if he didn't have one of his own, grading papers or answering his emails on the Telnet server, answering questions from a nervous and adoring student. Rodney had spent a lot of time watching John from doorways, studying him and trying to figure him out.

Rodney wanted to know why John wanted the TA position, since the ten dollar enthusiasm of boozers at the Boom Boom Room was effusive and generous, and why John seemed to like Rodney, more than anybody who really knew Rodney did.

Then, Rodney thought about John's mouth and his smirk and how it might look circled around Rodney's dick and it was all over very shortly.

Wiping himself off, Rodney knew he'd gone to the bad place, because it was one thing to see his TA taking off his clothes for money before Rodney had known John was going to be his TA, but another beast entirely to jerk off thinking about him now that they had managed to get past the initial awkwardness and on one another's nerves. Rodney liked John, enough that he didn't want himself to accidentally blurt out that he'd been thinking about John's hands or his mouth or his ass for that matter. God alone knew what the department secretaries would do to Rodney if he added "Scared away TA with unexpectedly honest babble about sort of harmless sexual fantasies that were his fault anyway" to his long list of crimes.

So anyway, maybe not a gay epiphany, but definitely an important one, Rodney consoled himself and rolled the thought around in his head. He checked his watch: seven thirty. He glanced around his dark apartment, at the way the sky was heavy and turning slowly orange outside the window in an early-fall rush.

Rodney was never one for true self-pity, it wasted time better spent solving or destroying the problem or irritant. Sure, he whined a lot, but that was lip-service and therapy all in one, and Rodney could bitch about imminent failure while solving the problem simultaneously, which in his opinion only emphasized his unparalleled genius.

Fact statement: Rodney was attracted to John.

Supporting details: Rodney had met John while emotionally vulnerable, desperate, and on the road toward inebriation; a large part of their encounter had involved plastered ex-girlfriends weeping into Rodney's shirt. Then, there'd been some nudity and money, that part was a little fuzzy and Rodney blamed the strobe lights.

Possible conclusions: Rodney was either projecting his resentment over being lonely onto this whole thing and putting it on the nearest, attractive, tolerable person, or, that latent itch for a man's hands on his shoulders and a wider mouth on his cock had been latent long enough. But that didn't take into account all those complicating variables about John and how he was funny and kind of smart, which Rodney had always known would be unreasonably attractive in anybody. Further complicating factors arose from the fact that John was technically Rodney's subordinate--and hey, didn't that make for a fun sexual fantasy? Rodney thought and filed it away for future reference.

After another fifteen minutes of batting the idea around in his head Rodney sighed in frustration and fished out his car keys. Twenty minutes later, he was circling the block around the Boom Boom Room, where the beat was pulsing hard enough to shake the asphalt all the way where Rodney was driving, battling a sinking feeling that this was probably going to be one of those moments he looked back on in mind-numbing humiliation.

John, Rodney thought, had provided Rodney with a copy of his schedule when they'd started working together, and the sheet had been meticulously blocked out between his work schedule at the Boom Boom Room ("Bartender," Rodney had said again, and John had rolled his eyes, saying, "In case you didn't notice, that's what I did for most of the night.") his classes ("You have Collins? Collins? I teach that class, too!" Rodney had said, to which John had replied grimly, "I know."), and the hours he TAed for Rodney.

It left Sunday gloriously, gloriously blank.

Rodney thought, at least guys are easy, which immediately perked him right up, and he found himself taking a left into the Boom Boom Room parking lot and an all new bounce in his step as he walked to the door. He was ready. He had his ID.

*

 

Rodney had done his masters at Caltech, too, which meant he'd been driving past the Boom Boom Room for years--cracking the occasional joke about the pathetic life forms that would actually condescend to go patronize the place.

That was before chasing Charlotte there, before he saw the slick interiors and shimmering lights show on the ceiling, and then Rodney figured out that Boom Boom Room must have been one of those non-trendy, doesn't take itself seriously, so casual that it's the hippest place in town joints, which made him feelincredibly out of place when he stepped into it the second time and the music bowled him over like a wave. It was some electronica mix that night, with shaking bass and something that sounded a lot like wood against a grater running the offbeat, shrieking keyboard, the hollow, metal sound of timpani.

The real problem with Rodney's otherwise brilliant experimental design was that he had forgotten that the majority of California was not filled with brilliant, insightful people with dramatically lowered standards like the ones that populated the lab sims that he allowed the student body and faculty of Caltech to see. And as a panic response, he froze near the edge of the bar, noting gratefully that at least the porntank wasn't working, but feeling his stomach sink as he saw all the pretty people. They were plastic and perfectly smooth and had incredibly defined bodies, all muscle or pale or creamy chocolate skin. Rodney looked down at himself, wearing scruffy jeans and a gray shirt over a black tshirt he hadn't bothered to button and groaned. Of course, he thought, only a brilliant physicist would go out to pick somebody up and forget to get dressed up for the occasion.

Which was how, he rationalized, he had ended up in the alleyway, trying to find the fastest way out to his car, since there were a few exits at the back of the club and the bouncer wasn't letting out reverse traffic.

It didn't, he thought glumly, explain why he was staring at the profile of a guy leaning back against a dumpster, all his lean lanky lines outlined in the feeble light around back. There was something about the shoulders, arms, the light that glowed off of the curvature of his neck that made Rodney's stomach twist in memory and his body light up with hopefulness, and Rodney took three steps forward.

"Um," he said. "Hi."

The man was silent for a bit before he said, "Entrance to the club's out front." His voice seemed harsh, and that was when Rodney saw the cigarette hanging from his long fingers, and he blanched, wondering momentarily if he'd be finding one of those battered, age-worn chain smokers, and then he thought about a blowjob and found he cared less.

"Uh, no," Rodney said stupidly. "Actually, I was. Um. Would you like to--hm."

Rodney had seen enough indie hipster movies and episodes of Law and Order to know that this was when the rentboy was suppose to take a hint, slink on over, and offer to go on his knees. Then Rodney, being the magnanimous man he was, would say that wasn't necessary, drive him back to his apartment (hiding all his valuables first and arming the security system, naturally), and proceed to engage the man in scorching hot sex. Perhaps it would change the man's life, and next time somebody in the family got married, Rodney could take him, and say offhandedly, "Oh, well, with me to support him, he hadn't exactly got to take off his clothes for money anymore."

And he figured it might have gone down that way, if the man hadn't started to choke horribly and cough in a violent fit, and before Rodney could say, "Oh, God, are you diseased?" the man in front of him took three steps forward and resolved the profile into the very familiar, tortured face of John the God forsaken TA.

John stared at Rodney some, Rodney stared back, and the whole thing was so miserably déjà vu that Rodney was starting to think he was cursed. The annoyed expression on John's face turned into one of hysterical amusement, and he asked strangely, stilting pauses in his speech, "Dr. McKay--you--are you trying to cruise me?"

Rodney prayed for death. "No," he said solemnly. "No, of course not."

John raised his eyebrows, and put out the cigarette, crushing it beneath his heel with a careless sort of violence that really, really shouldn't have been hot, Rodney thought desperately, his mouth going dry.

"But you were trying to cruise somebody," John said pleasantly.

"That is really none of your business," Rodney snapped, recovering his dignity. "And anyway, what are you doing out in this alley, anyway? Offering yourself up as a pound of flesh to the highest bidder?"

Rodney really got into his speech now, thinking about prostitution and the horrors of it, how it preyed on the young and beautiful and how John, even though he was a pain in the ass and so competent that Rodney was seriously waiting for the explosion, because it would come, was actually doing some good work for his master's thesis, drafts of which Rodney had been reading on the sly.

"You've got a brilliant future ahead of you! Okay, maybe not as brilliant at my own but not everybody can have my meteoric rise," Rodney went on. "Honestly, Sheppard, I've been reading the work you've been doing for Norton--"

John's eyes went huge. "You've been reading my thesis?" he asked.

"I'm curious, all right?" Rodney answered. "And anyway, I've been reading the work you've been doing for Norton, and it's not actually too terrible--granted, the assumptions on which you're basing your hypothesis are flawed but for your age--"

John frowned. "I'm twenty-six," he snapped.

"By which I mean your mature and knowledgeable age," Rodney quickly prevaricated, backtracking. "You're really doing very well."

John rolled his eyes. "I guess I'll take that as a compliment," he sulked, and there was a long pause before his eyes flashed, and Rodney took an instinctive step back, away, like he knew something was coming, but the way that his body thrummed said that it might not be all bad. The tattered remnants of his professionalism told him to run, run away and everything else said to stay and shove his cock down his TA's throat, because that was the very best porn ever.

But before John managed to offer Rodney solace with his body or say, "I guess we could fuck," the back door of the club opened and somebody yelled, "John! Break's over!" and Rodney watched with his jaw gaping his TA nod and start to head inside.

Before he disappeared completely, John stuck out his head and said, "Oh, yeah, for future reference, Dr. McKay? The twinks are generally--" he pointed further down the alley "--thataway." He smiled sweetly, and went inside.

Rodney really, really, really hated the whole wide world.

*

 

Rodney debated feigning illness, but then decided he'd go with his familiar, beloved route of ignorance, and if John brought it up Monday, then Rodney would summarily hack his thesis to pieces--which would be difficult since Norton was actually one of the best in the field and famously protective of his students. Also, he hated Rodney.

But Rodney kept a stiff upper lip and soldiered on, going through the motions and showing up at school, though paranoia was high and he was completely convinced everybody at the department was looking at him funny. He kept looking around for some badly-photocopied flyer crying out John's woes or with incriminating photographs of him (not)cruising his TA, but none revealed themselves, so he shuffled into his office, shut the door, and buried his head in some data he hadn't gotten around to processing yet and waited for the other shoe to drop.

So he was completely prepared to raise hell and or go for a stiff upper lip when John slunk into the office, all scruffy, California cute and smirking, making allusions to the Venice boardwalk and fifteen year old trickboys,when the door to his office opened and two men in uniforms entered.

"Um," Rodney said, momentarily speechless, and the one on the left smiled winningly while the one on the right looked grim and still. And later, Rodney would reflect on that as the reason why it took so long for recognition to kick in, because even with combed hair, pressed, light-blue shirt, a navy tie and suit and pants that were spotless and creaseless, Rodney would have recognized John if only he'd smiled, made his hazel eyes crinkle.

"Dr. McKay," John said, and his vowels were drawn out longer than usual, speech measured and slower than Rodney was used to at this point, like he had to think out everything he said. Which was ridiculous, Rodney knew, because John had a mind like a calculator, circuits rushing in arithmetic, figures dashing--he would never be a gifted theorist and therefore would always be excellent but not exceptional, but very few people could think faster than John did.

"Yes, hello, Sheppard," Rodney said, and then added awkwardly, "Who's your friend?"

The broadly smiling man took a step forward and reached out one brown, meaty hand, which Rodney took automatically and then regretted when his arm was nearly dislocated in the ensuing pleasantries. Curling his fingers pitifully afterward, Rodney pasted an artificial smile on his face as the man in front of him said, "Strange for this one to suddenly become shy--" he was looking at John fondly from the corner of one eye, expression nearly paternalistic, and John was looking at the ground, sheepish "--when he's the loudest black sheep in the whole Air Force."

"That's slander, sir," John said feelingly, his mouth starting to curve upward, regaining equilibrium.

"That's fact, Lieutenant," the man said back, grinning, and turned to Rodney again. "Now, Dr. McKay. My name's General Heller, and I've heard good things about you."

Rodney's eyebrows rose. "From John?" he asked, dumbfounded.

It made Heller laugh and John sigh in an aggrieved way. "Now, Sheppard might be a bit mouthy at times," Heller said affectionately, "but damned if this boy isn't one of the most skillful pilots and smartest men I've ever had the fortune to encounter."

Rodney watched in fascination as John seemed to square his shoulders, brighten visibly all over at the compliment, and it made him wonder if John ever heard all the nice things everybody said about him, if they ever really impacted or if it had to come from some prick with a set of wings sewn onto a breast pocket.

(Just for shits and giggles, Rodney decided he'd spend at least a day sometime in the near future lavishing compliments on John's person. As likely as not, John would decide Rodney was running a fever and shuffle him off to the student health center, but it would be worth it to see the freaked out expression too-frequently on Rodney's own face on somebody else's.)

"Well, he's very good at drawing F14's on students' papers," Rodney said, business-like, and immediately regretted it when he saw the look on Sheppard's face, which was neither pride nor amusement, but a distressing combination of discomfort and embarrassment. "And uh, things involving advanced physics and math, of course."

"He's an ace, all right," Heller said, and then looked sideways at Sheppard, saying, "Don't let that get to your head, son."

"Of course not, sir," John agreed, smiling wryly.

Rodney occasionally found himself irrationally pissed off, and not for the first time, he found himself irrationally pissed off at John Sheppard. Sheppard smirked and implied and existed in degrees day to day; everybody loved him and nobody knew him. Rodney's insults rolled right off of his back and praises from the department or Norton never seemed to make any difference.

The fact that Heller had been in Rodney's office for less than ten minutes and had already managed to make Sheppard swing from light to dark like a planet in orbit of the fucking United States Air Force made Rodney want to punch John in his perfect face.

Rodney wanted to out John for the big fake he was, flirting with the graduate students and smiling at all the frosh, being everybody's best friend when Rodney had it all figured out now: John didn't care. He tended bar and took off his clothes for money and smoked in the alley a ways up from where all the twinks hid out and drew pictures of airplanes for good grades, but all of it was a fucking front because all John would ever be was a flyboy, and Rodney hated fakes.

"Anyway, it's good to meet you McKay," Heller said, clearing his throat. "We'll be in touch."

Rodney blinked. "What? Who? With me?"

Heller smirked. "All in good time, Dr. McKay." He put his hand on John's shoulder and said, "No need to walk me out--Janson's meeting me at the car. Good work, Lieutenant."

John saluted smartly. "It was a pleasure, sir."

"Yeah, I'm sure," Heller drawled, and waved as he left.

John stared after him a bit, like a sick, lovelorn puppy, before he turned back to Rodney--and all that sincerity was gone as fast as it had come. John was smirking, his smile like his voice, slow and indulgent. Rodney swore that John's hair had gotten messier, his shoulders looser, that, despite the uniform and its distracting, clean lines and shiny buttons, John was John was John and Rodney's nascent desire to beat him with a textbook had vanished as soon as Heller's footsteps faded down the hall.

"He liked you, I think," John reported.

"Oh, like I would ever work for the Air Force," Rodney snapped, shuffling behind his desk and flopping down into his seat, scowling up at John and trying not to look too much at the uniform, because damn those girls in his Monday section: it did look totally delicious.

John was practically bouncing. "No, really. He liked you. Heller doesn't like anybody."

Rodney snorted. "Sheppard, if he weren't allowed to ask and you weren't allowed to tell, he would have taken you back to his Humvee to play master and servant. Oh, wait," Rodney paused, looked at John's uniform meaningfully, and added snottily, "he already has."

John's eyebrow's knit together. "Hey," he said feelingly.

Rodney sighed and rubbed the spot between his eyes. "Sorry," he ground out.

"You're acting like a bigger jerk than usual," John said, and it was almost kind the way he put it.

"I am not," Rodney said.

"You really, really are," John promised him. Then, he did his revoltingly helpful TA thing and went over to Rodney's desk, sifting gently through piles of folders and papers to unearth the papers Rodney was looking for and also find a half-empty bottle of aspirin. "Here you go."

"Well, suffice it to say, I'm not having my best week," Rodney muttered, dry-swallowing the aspirin and flashing Sheppard a look that just dared him to mention being cruised.

"I never would have guessed," John said charitably, and then leaned against Rodney's desk for a bit, his hip perilously close to Rodney's elbow, enough so that if Rodney moved there'd be some inappropriate touching. Which was ridiculous since Rodney had already vowed not to perve on his TA since he wanted tenure and hated undergrads and didn't particularly want to get anybody killed at the next American Military Gay Burning.

"What was that all about, anyway?" Rodney finally asked peevishly. "Mister I'm Too Mellow."

John raised one of his very flexible eyebrows and said, "I'm sorry, I don't follow."

"You're like a greased pig!" Rodney snapped, and at John's expression, barreled on, "That unfortunate simile aside, it's true! Nobody can pin you down. I mean, last week, when my students were definitely supposed to be doing a small, manageable simulation--"

"That was not a small, manageable simulation," John says.

Rodney flaps his hand. "Whatever. The point is, when they were supposed to be proving that ether doesn't exist--which, by the way, is so doable--three of the more vapid ones were discussing what your favorite colors are." Rodney paused for effect. "Your favorite colors, Sheppard. Nobody knows anything about you."

"You know things about me," John said lightly, his grin secretive.

Rodney scowled. "Yeah, that you mention the Delorean in your masters thesis."

"I like that movie," John said defensively.

Rodney threw his hands in the air dramatically. "Stop the presses--Sheppard likes something! Wait, I've got to make a note of this in case the undergrads find out and the girls come out of the woodwork to beat me senseless for not sharing the information."

"I'm leaving now," John said, but he was grinning. "I will not stand for this harassment."

Rodney colored darkly, and Sheppard winked as he headed toward the door. "I'll be back in time for afternoon class," he promised, and waved on his way out. "Try to cheer up before you make anybody cry--again."

"Yeah, well," Rodney said gruffly, "it's almost finals."

John smiled. "Well, you know, that's what I'm here to do, help out." He laughed, leaning against the doorway "Last minute, six in the morning, grades due the next day--I'm your man."

Rodney gave him a fish-eyed look. "I'm holding you to that."

At the end of the day, on a stack of newly-graded papers, Rodney found a Post-It note in John's raggedy handwriting. It said:

JOHN SHEPPARD LIKES:
FERRIS WHEELS
COLLEGE FOOTBALL
ANYTHING THAT GOES 200+ MPH

*

"When I said that thing about it being six in the morning," John said, voice sleep-rough, "I didn't mean it literally."

Rodney stared at him, feeling every bit as crazy he looked. "You have to help me," he said.

John was barefoot in his doorway, skinny, pale legs hairy underneath his blue striped boxers, and his arms looked distressingly good in the USAF t-shirt he was wearing. His hair was--if possible--even more disastrous than usual, and in the gray light of morning, John's sleepy gaze looked sweet. At least, it had until he had seen the person who had woken him up by banging wildly at the door at half past five in the morning was Rodney, and now was staring at Rodney, expression deadened with exhaustion.

"When I asked you if you had those exams under control," John said.

Rodney nodded feverishly. "I lied," he said. "I totally lied."

"When I asked you if you had those exams under control like two weeks ago," John said, voice rising in pitch.

"So much lying," Rodney confessed. "Terrible, horrible, unthinkable amounts of lying."

John actually growled. "I warned you about making a twenty-three page exam, McKay."

"And I was wrong, totally, awfully wrong," Rodney babbled, pride a thing of the past.

He hadn't slept in nearly thirty-six hours, and he was barely a quarter of the way through the exams. There had been a minor mutiny when he'd announced the exam was going to be twenty-three pages, and his students hadn't cared if it meant one problem per printed sheet, they'd wanted partial credit and now Rodney wanted to die. John had asked if Rodney needed help before the beginning of winter break, but Rodney had just waved him off, distracted by some fascinating new data that had appeared during his wormhole simulations.

"You have to help me," Rodney insisted. "They're due in forty-eight hours, and I'm scared of the department secretaries, and my students already hate me enough to coordinate a violent coup. I'm too much of an asset to the scientific community to die so young--you have a moral obligation to help me."

John scowled at him, and the move made Rodney look suddenly at John's morning stubble, dark across his pale face.

"I hate you," John said feelingly. "So much right now."

Rodney looked up at him with crazy, crazy eyes. John rolled his own and said, "Oh for God's sake--you, wait in the living room. I'll go put some clothes on."

So Rodney had stumbled into John's living room, sat down on the couch, and managed to pass out twice in three minutes--he knew because he was keeping a terrified watch on the clock, knowing that every minute that passed was another tick toward his imminent demise and the crushing miscarriage of his tenure--before he started stabbing himself in the leg with his housekeys to stay alert.

John's living room was smaller than Rodney's, with the same, boring eggshell white walls that all middling apartment complexes had and nondescript, brownish-tan carpet. The sofa and loveseat mismatched in a not-horrible way, worn in and comfortable. The coffee table was scarred from age and worn with use and covered with back issues of sports and car magazines, a stray article or two from a few math and physics journals, blurry from bad Xeroxing--mail and coasters, a couple of napkins from In and Out, dotted with grease spots. There was a battered-looking television on a cheap, do-it-yourself cart opposite the couch, and an enormous stack of games and videos next to it--Nintendo and all its attendant frills. On top of the television, there was a single VHS tape labeled just HAIL MARY in all capital letters.

The curtains were drawn and the whole room was comfortably dark, pale like a watercolor wash, and by the time Rodney heard footsteps padding out again, it was John, a zip-up hoodie pulled over his USAF t-shirt and jeans on, stumbling out in dusty Vans, pocketing his keys and rubbing a hand through his--

"Oh my God, your hair really is like that naturally," Rodney said, apropos of nothing.

John had the decency to look embarrassed. "I can't do anything about it," he said feebly.

Rodney got up, legs shaky. "Okay, sure. Let's get going."

"I'm serious," John protested. "I've done everything--it just sticks up."

"I believe you," Rodney said, wobbling toward the front door. "Leave. Now."

"This is so unfair," John complained.

Rodney thought what was really unfair was how the morning shift girl at McDonald's practically threw herself at John from the drive-through window when they detoured for sixteen black coffees and six egg McMuffins. It improved his mood when he realized John later sopped up some spilt coffee with the napkin she'd written her phone number on, but not by much, because John said, "Wow, your house is still a sty," thoughtfully the moment he stepped in.

Rodney pointed at the kitchen table, covered with tests. "No editorializing," he warned.

"Have you defrosted your fridge yet?" John asked innocently, settling into one of the creaking, wooden seats, mismatched and cobbled together at multiple garage sales.

"Seriously, I will kill you," Rodney promised. He handed John a stack of papers.

"I'm not feeling appreciated," John said, a pout bright on his lips, and Rodney was torn between the strong urge to either kiss or slap him.

"When I threaten you, it just means I love you," Rodney snapped and threw a red sharpie at John's head.

*

 

Rodney woke up in a puddle of his own drool an unspecified number of hours later, back killing him, stomach rumbling in hunger, and when he blinked the sleep out of his eyes he saw John still sitting across from him, one hand knotted in his hair, the other holding the red sharpie, flying across the pages, tip squeaking across the paper.

"Hmrphrs," Rodney said.

John looked up, and his eyes looked red. "I drank all the coffee," he said. "Go buy more."

Rodney stared at him for a long time. "There were six left," he said.

"You've been asleep for nearly seven hours," John croaked. He pointed at the remaining papers, which looked to be about a quarter of the original height, and said, "I want the good stuff."

"Like, Maxwell House?" Rodney said hopefully.

"Like, specialty espresso," John snapped, narrowing his hazel eyes, and Rodney was reminded once again that John was trained to kill and fly very fast planes and that it was revoltingly sexy. "Go now, before I reconsider my decision not to kill you in your sleep."

"That's a good idea," Rodney agreed, and went. He hit the local coffeeshop and spent an obscene amount of money on the best caffeine in the world, because Rodney figured that all things considered, his TA was nearing sainthood, between being charming and smart and hardworking and so hot it scorched.

And when Rodney got back, it was John's turn to be asleep at the table, head pillowed in the crook of one of his arms, lashes throwing deep shadows on his high cheekbones, his mouth slightly open, letting Rodney see a flash of pink, wet skin. Outside, the sun was high, heavy and hot in the December sky and Rodney felt, for an interminable second, that he had found something he liked a little bit too much here--in the very ordinary confines of his kitchen, in the very extraordinary shape of John Sheppard, who had been from the very start a surprise.

The thought made something in Rodney still, and he sat down and threw himself into grading, blocking out the thought until he was circling a fifty-six on the last midterm in the stack and falling asleep, pen slipping out of his hand as his eyes fell shut, listening to the sound of John's breathing, deep and even across the table.

*

 

"Rodney."

Rodney waved his hand feebly across the table, which meant he mostly slammed his knuckles into the wood of the table.

"Rodney."

He muttered something into his arm.

"Hey asshole!"

"Shut up!" he snapped, pulling his head up and feeling his neck protest. "Shut up right now! I finished grading! No talking, more--"

He blinked twice and the image that resolved in front of his eyes was most definitely not a disgruntled John Sheppard because it was totally Jeannie and her most shit-eating expression.

"--ohmyGod," he finished, eyes huge. "Oh my God," he said again, for emphasis.

His eyes flicked over to see John stirring, rubbing his eyes with his fist, yawning hugely.

"Jeannie," Rodney finally said. "Oh my God--how did you get in here?"

Jeannie rolled her very blue eyes and said, "Please, Rodney. I taught you how to pick locks in the third grade." She cast a fascinated eye at John, who was blinking to consciousness in a way that Rodney was finding distressingly adorable.

"He's very pretty," she said condescendingly, her eyes huge and innocent.

"Shut up, bitch," Rodney hissed, and glanced over at John, who was blinking at Jeannie in what appeared to be deep confusion. "Sheppard?"

"Oh my God," John said sadly. "It wasn't a nightmare. I've spent the day before the day before Christmas Eve grading papers in your hole of an apartment."

"What did I say about editorializing," Rodney snapped, and then turned back to his sister, who was looking at both of them with a speculative expression, like she was trying to remember something before the light of recognition dawned on her face and she said:

"Oh my God! You're John! You're the stripper boyfriend!"

John's face froze.

Jeannie grabbed John's hands from the table, and beamed at him. "You know," she said, her voice friendly and warm, "nobody believed Rodney when he said you were real, but--" and then Jeannie did a thing where she looked John up and down in a way that made even Rodney feel dirty "--my goodness, my little Rodnina has certainly done well for himself."

In the absence of anything else really to say, Rodney muttered, "I'm older than you," feebly.

John opened his mouth. Then he closed it again. Then he opened his mouth again, and took his hands out of Jeannie's hands before he closed one hand over Rodney's wrist like an iron clamp, and through gritted teeth, said, "Rodney, can I see you in the bedroom for a minute?"

"Oh, really? But Jeannie just got here," Rodney said, high-pitched. "Hi, Jeannie."

"Hi, Rodney," she said charitably.

"Now, Rodney," John said.

"Okay," Rodney agreed sadly.

They were halfway into a really interesting whispered shouting match before Rodney realized his mother and father were unpacking a small mountain of luggage in his bedroom.

*

 

Rodney had always known his bathroom was small, but when John's bony hip digging into his side and John's very angry expression far too close to his own feebly conciliatory one--the size issue was really emphasized.

"There's a perfectly rational explanation for this," Rodney said self-righteously.

John's eyes narrowed. "Does it involve you going to your sister's wedding and lying about having a boyfriend who was a stripper because mine was the only name you could come up with?"

Rodney opened and then closed his mouth. "No?"

"McKay!" John hissed.

"Okay, okay! I'm sorry!" Rodney said. "But I was under a lot of stress! Harry was getting very physical and Jeannie was giving me that look and I got all turned around!"

"McKay, if I wasn't twenty-six years old and your parents weren't like, three feet away from us, I swear toGod I would push your head into this toilet and flush and flush and flush," John snarled.

"Oh my God," Rodney said, horrified, eyes huge like he was seeing John anew. "You're threatening me with a swirlie? What are you, twelve?"

John made a noise that sounded halfway between an outraged squawk and a dangerous growl, and Rodney was distinctly disturbed that the two could be amalgamated like that, but then Jeannie yelled into the bathroom, "Keep it clean, Rodney! Mom and Dad are right next door! Geez, you little slut!"

"Oh my God," Rodney said pitifully. "How can this be happening to me?"

"I imagine it has something to do with you sucking at lying," John hissed, taking as much of a step back as he could, which meant he sat on the closed lid of the toilet and ran his hands through his hair for a bit. "You have to think of something--I can't be your naked gay boyfriend, McKay."

Rodney wrung his hands worriedly. "Well, you're not really naked," he said.

"Also not your boyfriend," John shot back, and if looks could kill.

"Okay," Rodney admitted, feeling the beginnings of a completely terrible but possibly workable idea and that was the best he'd had so far, "but really, would it kill you to maybe, I don't know."

John's eyes bulged. "Oh no," he said immediately.

Rodney's eyes went huge and pleading. "Oh come on! It can't be that much of a stretch for you!" He waved his hands. "You--you're a stripper!"

"For the last time," John said through gritted teeth, "I am a bartender."

"I'm sorry," Rodney said with exaggerated patience. "Perhaps I was mistaken. You see, I tend to get confused when people go up on stage and start taking their clothes off for money, but in the future, I will always, always associate public nudity with the serving of alcoholic beverages," he finished in a hiss.

John pouted. "It's not like I like it or anything."

Rodney decided to ignore him until he came up with a plan. "Okay," he said to himself, "we could--I could explain that you're not John! You're just my TA! John, my actual stripper boyfriend is in Vegas for holidays--"

"Visiting his trannie grandmother," John snorted.

"--Visiting his trannie--" Rodney agreed readily, and then stopped, glaring. "If you're not going to be helpful, stop contributing to the conversation."

"Would it be so bad if I just went out there and we all laughed it off," John asked, hands opened. "I mean, come on--your parents have to have a good sense of humor right?" He smirked. "I mean, they raised you after all."

Rodney scowled. "Firstly, ha ha very ha. Secondly, no, my parents do not have a very good sense of humor, my God, if only I could relate to you the frequency with which they display their crushing and distressing lack of humor, then you would understand why I'm so terrified about this." He shuddered. "And then there's the thing where Jeannie will never ever ever let me live this down."

John scowled at him mulishly. "Well, I'm sorry for not first thinking of your reputation."

Sniffing primly, Rodney made what would have been an expansive gesture had he not knocked his hand into the wall and shouted, "Shit!" which made his mom thump against the closed door saying, "For goodness sakes, Rodney! You know your father's blood pressure! If you're going to commit lewd acts against nature, then do it quietly!"

John looked kind of sick and Rodney saw his face had gone to a whole different color of red that probably wasn't a good indicator for heart health.

"You have to help me," Rodney said.

"Forget it!" John hissed back, eyes narrow. "I graded a billion sheets of paper and I think I gave myself an ulcer from stress and drinking your crappy coffee! Find somebody else to be your naked gay boyfriend!"

Rodney stared at John. John stared back.

Then, Rodney heard Jeannie whisper through the door, "Rodney! Mom's going through your nightstand!"

That's when it all got really undignified, with John crossing his arms over his chest and Rodney saying stuff like "checking account" and "withdrawal from line of credit" and "never have to grade papers again."

John's counteroffer involved things like, "I know how much they pay you" and "I don't believe you!" and "oh my God, I think your sister is trying to peek under the door." The struggle of wills continued a few more minutes until Rodney swore on every single prescription bottle John could find in the medicine cabinet--Sheppard so has my number, Rodney thought with equal parts sadness and thrill--that Rodney owed him one favor of unspecified order and magnitude.

"Oh please," Rodney had protested. "You could ask for anything--my car! My kidney! My virtue!"

John snorted. "Your car is a piece of shit," he said, ticking it off his points on his fingers, "given that I know your eating, sleeping, and exercise habits, I don't want your kidney, and--" John made a face "--I don't wanna know about that."

Rodney glared. "Fine!" he snapped, and stuck out his hand. "Give me back my allergy pills."

John handed him the bottle with a sigh. "I feel so dirty," he complained.

"Whatever," Rodney muttered, "I'm the one dating a floozy."

*

 

"How did you come into your line of work, John?" Jeannie asked, eyes huge and blue and evil.

Rodney--who'd been set to the task of stirring something because, to quote John, "There's literally nothing you can do to ruin it"--choked.

John though, true to his word, smiled through it like a real trooper. "I think Rodney, er, overstated what I do," he said, conciliatory, and flashed Rodney an expression of annoyance that was very, very real while Jeannie tittered in the background. She liked nothing better than seeing Rodney miserable and really, this situation really took the prize, Rodney thought morbidly.

"Oh," Jeannie said with a secretive smile curving her mouth.

She stirred the red sauce bubbling in a pot distractedly and Rodney's mouth watered at the smell of it--his hand must have stopped because John swatted him on the wrist with a pasta-stirrer and Rodney scowled and automatically started moving his arm again. Jeannie bit her lip hard enough for it to look painful.

Rolling his eyes, John salted the water, rolling white and steaming in a tall pot Rodney had not previously known he owned, and started sliding long, yellow pieces of pasta into it, saying as he neatly avoided being burned, "Yeah--to say the least. I tend bar in kind of a colorful club."

It made Jeannie laugh out loud, and she turned to Rodney, eyes shining, "You liar."

Rodney puffed up. "I was not," he said, and glared at John. "Tell her the truth! You--there was nudity! And strobe lights! There was a pole!" Rodney waved his free hand, feeling remarkably loose and relaxed given the fact he was having a cute but real argument with his cute but not really naked gay boyfriend. "I remember you did something very inappropriate with some sunglasses and a fake gun!"

Jeannie squealed, delighted, and John had the good grace to flush in embarrassment. Rodney swore he heard his father whimper in the living room, but he figured it'd be fine. He'd set his mother up with a bottle of wine.

Meanwhile, the look John gave him could have killed a buffalo at forty paces.

"That--I don't do that, usually!" John protested, cheeks red.

"So you're an occasional stripper," Jeannie said, playing dumb, eyes dancing.

Rodney grinned. "Yeah, John. So you're an occasional stripper?"

The look on John's face told Rodney very clearly that Rodney would be grading his own damn papers for a very long time, but he suddenly seemed to lose steam, a wry smile appearing on his face.

"Actually, kind of. Yes," John admitted.

Rodney and Jeannie stared at him, and the blush deepened, making his throat red and Rodney wondered, if since they were pretending and all, it would be okay for him to lean the foot over and press his nose into the curve where John's neck melted into his shoulder and grin fondly.

"It kind of depends on whether or not I get to work on time," John explained, still blushing darkly. He rubbed a hand through his hair, sheepish. "My boss, she's this total dragon lady named Lilah--you met her, pro--Rodney, that first time you were in the club--"

Rodney's blood pressure skyrocketed at John's slip, and when he glanced over at Jeannie, the frozen expression of interest on her face let him know she'd definitely caught that, and Rodney could be catching hell for it later. Fantastic.

"--has this rule. It was kind of a joke," John explained glumly. "She made this policy that if you were late more than ten times, you had the choice of being fired, or you know--" John made a hand gesture which apparently meant taking off clothes for money, but looked kind of like he was conducting drunk "--do the thing. I always thought it was really funny until, you know, I was late like, fourteen times."

Jeannie snorted in a totally undignified way, and Rodney was grateful there was at least one person in the room he was cooler than. "Oh my God, John," she said.

"The thing is," John added, really gaining some momentum, "I'm really bad at it. No, seriously!" he insisted when Jeannie doubled over laughing, eyes wide and earnest. "I had all these loans and I just got a new car so I wasn't going to let her fire me, so I said, 'sure, okay, I'll do it,' and--no, seriously!" he said desperately as Jeannie crumbled to the kitchen floor, laughing so hard she was hiccupping. "I didn't think she'd make me go through with it!"

"Oh my God, you're such a moron," Rodney said, sighing. "I can't believe you so cavalierly prostituted yourself out to a raving, hormonal crowd."

John glared. "Oh yeah," he drawled sarcastically. "You so have the moral high ground here, Mister I Had To Get Hosed Off In The Men's Room."

Jeannie's eyes went round like plates.

"It's not what it sounds like!" Rodney protested, and scowled at John. "You think you're so clever, don't you?"

"Well, I like to think you don't just keep me around 'cause I'm handy in the kitchen," John said, smirking and turning the burners off for the--what the hell was Rodney stirring?--pots on the stove and turning back to Jeannie, saying, "So I walk into work the next day and she's got this horrible, skimpy outfit laid out for me and I'm still thinking it's a joke at this point."

"Did the fact that you really were going to dance around naked hit you before or after you danced around naked?" Rodney asked sincerely.

John glared. "After they made me put on the outfit, I kind of figured out I was screwed, yes," he said acidly, and Jeannie asked at the same time, "Wait, they didn't give you any training?"

"They gave me a bottle of whiskey," John said.

Something clicked in Rodney's memory, and he snapped his fingers a few times, trying to catch it until his eyes widened and he said, "That's right! That's you! They said you fell off the stage!"

John groaned in embarrassment. "It probably wasn't a good idea to bolt the whole thing before going out," he admitted. "I don't really remember, but apparently I tried to pull off the snap-pants, tripped and fell off the stage."

Jeannie seemed to be having trouble breathing. "Oh, John."

"They said the bouncers had to taser the drunk clubbers off of me," John added sadly.

There was a moment of farcical silence before John poked at the spaghetti, and too-brightly said, "Hey, dinner's up!"

*

 

Dinner, which turned out to be surprisingly good spaghetti and meat sauce, garlic bread, and what remained of the wine, which was a miserly single glass for Rodney and Jeannie since John was drinking water. Rodney's father looked very, very glazed.

"It's good to finally meet you," Rodney's mother said. "We've heard so much about you."

John smiled warmly. "Oh, so Jeannie's been telling me." Rodney felt a shiver go down his spine as John smiled over at his sister, realizing that he had just facilitated the unholiest of alliances. "Isn't that right, Jeannie?"

"That it is," Jeannie agreed happily, patting Rodney's hand. "I'm just tickled for you, Rodnina."

Rodney winced. His father swayed at the other end of the table, eyes focused just over Rodney's shoulder, at the wall of degrees mounted on the wall, and said, "I knew grad school would make you gay. You were always so prissy." He paused, and added glumly, "We shouldn't have let you come home from hockey camp, son."

"Oh my God," Rodney said, putting his hands over his face. "It's like ninth grade all over again."

"Rodney went to hockey camp?" John asked.

"Oh, sure, Dad, it was the hockey camp that made him gay," Jeannie said sarcastically.

"Frankly, I think it was all the telescopes," Rodney's mother cut in decisively. "And you were the one who bought him his first one, Edward."

"Rodney went to hockey camp," Edward McKay said, eyes fever-bright and focused on John. "He wasn't good at it, I mean, aside from the heckling, but--" shaking his head sadly "--we let him quit too easily. I just feel we could have done something. Made him less queer." Pausing, he added, "No offense."

"Oh, none taken," John said sweetly.

Rodney put his head down on the table. "I'm ready to wake up now," he said.

Jeannie reached over and pinched him viciously, and when Rodney shot up, flailing in pain he knocked over the bottle of wine and sent dishware flying and everything just went straight to an all new level of hell they'd dug just for Rodney.

Later, when Rodney stepped out of the bathroom after blow-drying his white-wine drenched pants, which--of course, of course--were the last clean pair he had, he heard John saying to Jeannie:

"Oh, no. Not yet. I'm saving myself for marriage."

Which was why as he was "driving John home" what he was actually doing was having a spirited exchange of ideas with his TA that involved mostly one-sided and feeble death threats while John laughed so hard he struggled for breath in the passenger side seat.

*

 

When Rodney got back to his apartment, it was dark and quiet and the only sounds were of Jeannie washing the dishes in the kitchen, pooled in orangey overhead light. Rodney watched her for a second from the doorway before he cleared his throat, and she raised her eyebrows at him for a long moment before she turned back to the plate she was rinsing.

"Thanks," Rodney said.

"No problem," Jeannie answered lightly, setting the plate away on the drying rack and reaching for a handful of forks, slick with suds and glossy in the light.

"So, hey," Rodney started awkwardly. "That was?just as bad as I thought it'd be, ac--"

"Is he a student?" she interrupted bluntly.

Rodney winced. "Well, not mine," he said, prevaricating, and suddenly John's idea to just laugh the whole thing off sounded so much better. "Are Mom and Dad--?"

"They're asleep," Jeannie snapped, and put the forks away, drying her hands on the front of her jeans and turning around to glare at Rodney, an unfamiliar expression of something like disappointment on her face. Rodney had spent most of his life cowed by Jeannie in one way or another--it wasn't that Rodney wasn't terrifying in his own right, it was just that some of Rodney's earliest memories were of Jeannie threatening to make Rodney drink toilet water.

"It's not what you're thinking," Rodney said.

"He's a cute kid working a night job and awed by your big, hot degrees," Jeannie said, with a filthy, pornographic gasp on the word 'degrees,' before her face went rigid again. "That's what I see. And my God, Rodney--if this is just some little thing to you I will seriously, seriously--"

"Okay--just shut up," Rodney snapped, and Jeannie narrowed her eyes at him. "It isn't what you're thinking at all."

Jeannie's eyes were dark. "He calls you professor, Rodney."

"He also calls me jackass," Rodney pleaded, rubbing his hands over his face. "Look, Jeannie, the whole situation is--" he stopped, looked at his sister and her wide-open face, eyes that just begged Rodney to make up some sort of reason this was okay, because as weird as it was, even if Jeannie was feeding Rodney toilet water, she wanted him to be able to grin through it.

"I met him at the club before I knew he was a student," Rodney finally started, because his plan of coming out of the closet as not having a gay naked boyfriend wasn't going to work in the face of Jeannie's best wishes for him. "He was mixing drinks, Charlotte--the girlfriend I was supposed to bring to the party--was sloppy drink and puked all over my shoes. I got hosed off in the bathroom. He drove me home. Few days later, he pops in asking if I'm Dr. McKay because he's been assigned to be my TA."

Jeannie's eyes bulged. "Wow," she said.

"What was I supposed to do?" Rodney asked, getting creative. "I mean, he just liked me so much--I mean, in a non-abuse of power sort of way," he backtracked.

Sighing tiredly, Jeannie said, "I like him, Rodney. I really do. And hey, you! You're almost happy when he's around, you know that?" She smirked. "If you could glow, you'd glow."

"Thanks," Rodney muttered darkly.

"But God, Rodney, this is like, out of bad porn or something," she protested. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," Rodney lied.

He pulled off his jacket and headed toward the couch, turning off the room lights as he went. He found a blanket and his least favorite pillow on the couch, and Jeannie settled down on the loveseat and curled underneath Rodney's favorite comforter, and Rodney was reminded again of how much he loathed his family.

In the darkness, Jeannie asked again, "Are you sure?"

"Look," Rodney said, frustrated. "It's not like I have him cleaning my chalkboards in a miniskirt and see-through shirt, okay?" Jeannie made a horrified noise at that. "Oh shut up, you know you liked it," Rodney snapped. "And anyway, I wouldn't--well, I wouldn't worry about this being a long term thing." He paused. "Guys like John don't really date guys like me."

There was a long silence, and Jeannie reached over to touch his face, fingers pale in the uneven moonlight. For a second, Rodney thought they were having a moment.

And then she picked up her palm and smacked him on the forehead.

"Moron," she said.

"Oh my God!" Rodney yelled. "Ow! My brain! I need that for my Nobel!"

*

 

Rodney woke up blearily the next morning, his whole body aching from being contorted on the couch all night. He thudded off into the bathroom to brush and shower and shave and curse his bitter fate in his sink mirror. The reflection that stared back at him was tired and saggy and showed every one of Rodney's twenty-nine years and, not for the first time, he wondered if maybe he was adopted--that the family outside in his apartment was just a horrible nightmare.

It wasn't that Rodney hated his family or anything. He just appreciated them from a given distance, enjoyed having a safe and constant orbit like the Earth from the sun--because, as this latest visit proved, the effects of Rodney's family visiting were pretty much the same as the sun coming to Earth. It was like that Canadian movie with Callum Keith Rennie detailing his sexual acrobatics during Earth's last days on his kitchen wall, and that was probably a bad direction for his thoughts to go, because Rodney could definitely think of at least one person he'd ask to help him fulfill a few of those unexplored territories.

Which was how Rodney ended up dunking his face in cold water and wishing the sink was deep enough to drown in.

When he finally convinced himself to leave the bathroom and give up on feeble, half-hearted suicide attempts, he heard Jeannie saying, "We'll be right there," into the telephone.

She whirled around to face him. "That was the hospital," she said, matter-of-fact. "John was in car accident this morning."

Rodney felt everything go very still for a moment, like he was watching a single pin drop with perfect concentration before everything sped into full awareness, and he was barking out questions and looking for his car keys, hustling Jeannie into her coat and pulling on his shoes and dropping a brick foot to the accelerator of his car.

Rodney hated accidents, abhorred the inelegant; even the universe, with its silent spheres and orbits, it's hyperbolic movements, did not fit math exactly, allowed for guesswork, and in the spaces between weak and strong forces Rodney saw twisted metal, broken glass, the steaming engine of an overturned car, flames licking, blood cutting across tan skin. He saw himself lost in an ocean of papers, piled so high they rivaled the skyscrapers in downtown L.A.; university administration was on its way--they wanted to know why Rodney hadn't turned in any grades.

When they reached the hospital, Rodney blew into it like a force of nature, all distraught prickliness and condescension and four of the nurses seemed to hate him on sight. Despite Jeannie's whining, Rodney swore it got them through the red tape more quickly and they were being directed to a bed in triage were John was picking at his brand new wrist-brace. Hair matted and unhappy-looking but otherwise unharmed.

"Oh my God!" Rodney yelled, shaking with relief and fisting his hands to keep himself from rushing forward to touch John's arms, to put his palm on the back of John's neck. "You total moron! I thought you were crippled for life!"

John looked up and scowled. "It's nice to see you, too, you jackass," he said, speaking with exaggerated, slow Southern sincerity. Then, he waved brightly at Jeannie. "Hey there--sorry to ruin your Christmas Eve."

She shook her head urgently, jabbing Rodney in the elbow on her way over to pet John's hair and touch his shoulders and run her hands over his brace and over his other wrist with motherly, unpolitical concern that Rodney was suddenly jealous of, wished he had freedom to do the same.

And then Rodney realized with a sudden shock he could, that even if it was pretend, he could.

So he all but shoved Jeannie out of the way, cupped John's face and ignored the surprised look in his eyes to check his pupils, felt his heart rate, and touched his arms and put his hand on the back of John's neck. Jeannie was smiling smugly from the sidelines and John was looking at Rodney like he'd just discovered something new and unexpected, and his face melted into an unreadable expression that made Rodney feel soft and unfocused. And in a sudden, shocking twist, John wrapped his good arm around Rodney's waist and put his face in Rodney's shoulder.

"Thanks for coming," John said.

Rodney looked at Jeannie for a while, frozen in indecision, and she made a hand gesture at him that spoke clearly of what she thought about his personal angst, so Rodney wrapped both his arms around John's shoulders and said, "I'm glad I'm here," and the thing was that he really, really was.

*

 

John's car was a goner, and when John was telling them what happened, Rodney had spent the whole time wincing and tightening his fingers on the steering wheel. John talked about being t-boned at an intersection by somebody running a red all the way to his own apartment, and then as they were pulling into the parking lot Rodney shouted that nobody was allowed to talk about car accidents until they were no longer in a car. At John's apartment, there was a brief skirmish during which Jeannie insisted he couldn't stay alone--"You're hurt! And it's Christmas!" Jeannie protested, which had John muttering, half-embarrassed and half-defensive, that nobody at home was expecting him so he'd just stay put, thanks--so Rodney had put his foot down and told John to pack a bag because he was going back to Rodney's.

John stared at him. "I don't think that's a good idea," John said, though the way he was looking at Rodney made it come out sounding a lot more like, "Are you really sure? Is it okay?"

So Rodney scowled and said, "Don't make me do it for you," and John's eyes went wide and he high-tailed it into the bedroom, where Jeannie and Rodney heard the sounds of opening and closing drawers, the creaky hinge of a closet.

"You're so cute when you feel threatened," Jeannie cooed, and Rodney scowled at her.

"Oh my God," Rodney said, thought lagging behind action for once, "how am I going to fit four other people in my apartment?" He paused thoughtfully. "Maybe you can sleep in the car," he told his sister.

Jeannie glared. "Thanks, jerk," she snapped. "Actually--Mom and Dad are going out to San Francisco tonight to spend Christmas Day with Aunt Midge--" Rodney and Jeannie shared a shudder at that "--and Todd's with his dad in the hospital, so really--" Jeannie's grin went one million watts "--it'll just be you, me, and your honey."

Rodney paled. "Maybe that's not such a good idea," he said, realizing what exactly this meant.

Which was probably why Jeannie grinned her evil, evil grin and said, "This is the best idea ever."

"No," Rodney said feebly, but then John walked into the room, looking a little glassy and flushed, uncomfortable and tired, which made sense given the sprained wrist and the concussion and the bruised ribs.

"I'm fine, really," John said, sounding embarrassed and like he was talking from far away, which made Rodney rush over to snatch his bag away and take John's hand in his own, sweaty palm against cold one and jerk him--gently--toward the door and the car, buckle him in carefully, and drive slowly over all the speed bumps, casting a worried expression over to the passenger seat and ignoring the way Jeannie was smiling kindly at him from the backseat.

And when Rodney finally pulled his blankets around John, up to his chin and watched John's eyes go blurry and tired and exhausted. Rodney felt something in his chest finally loosen, and sat on the edge of the bed, stroking John's hair until the light went faint and he walked his parents to the door, where his mother told him not to fuck it up, his father said he loved Rodney even if he was a queer, and Jeannie kissed them both goodbye.

Rodney and Jeannie spent the night playing viciously competitive Uno, cross-legged on the floor of Rodney's bedroom. Rodney was leaning back against the bed, and reached up to stroke John's arm every few minutes despite Jeannie making stupid kissy faces at him. And every three hours Rodney would shake John awake just to make sure everything was okay, as per nurse's instructions, and every time John went back to sleep after Rodney did, it was with a very soft and secretive smile around his mouth that made Rodney want to kiss it onto his own.

"You're a regular mother hen," John croaked out, and Jeannie giggled in the background.

Rodney tried to frown down at him, but John looked bruised and burned out and every bit as crappy as he had to be feeling, and Rodney discovered a whole new weakness, looking at John's pale, tired face smiling up at him strangely.

"Shut up," he finally said, and rearranged the comforter around John for what had to be the billionth time. "Despite what you must otherwise imagine, I can, in fact, become concerned about people that are not me, and anyway, I--" Rodney started to say but then got cut off when John put his hand on Rodney's neck and tugged him down for--

It was just a quick kiss, a dry brush of John's chapped lips against Rodney's own, but Rodney felt a spark of electricity riding up his spine, making his skin tingle in pleased surprise.

"Thank you," John said against his cheek, pulling away, eyes closed away, dark lashes shadowing his cheeks, and Rodney stood there, curved protectively over him and shocked wordless until Jeannie cleared her throat, and Rodney felt John smirk against his cheek and whisper for his ears only: "That'll cost you extra, McKay."

For years, Rodney had thought Jeannie was the most infuriating person on the face of the Earth but now he knew he was wrong, wrong, so very wrong, because even though she was trying to keep Rodney from smothering John with a pillow, it was John who was laughing so hysterically his ribs had to be killing him.

*

 

In the morning, John was quieter, and it was halfway through breakfast before Rodney finally figured out that it was because John was toughing it out through the pain in a stupidly manly, military-drilled way and ordered John to double his dose of ibuprofen and put him right back in bed.

"Hey, merry Christmas to you, too," John had muttered crankily.

And Rodney had scowled down at him. "I'll be merry when you stop acting like a moron."

Then Jeannie had made some cooing noises and Rodney had to get out of the room before he did something stupid like kiss John again, but Rodney didn't manage to make it out before he ran one hand over John's hair in a way that might have been but probably wasn't affectionate, Rodney thought.

A move which made Jeannie laugh and make all sorts of inappropriate jokes before telling Rodney to get his wallet, they were going shopping because it was utterly deplorable that a grown man had a refrigerator like Rodney did--especially if he was taking care of his injured significant other.

Which was how Rodney ended up in a grocery store on Christmas day, which had to be the most miserable place in the whole world, Rodney thought, looking at the miserable cashiers, the miserable deli workers, the miserable shoppers, all bleary and exhausted.

"Wow," Rodney said darkly. "I have seen the face of hell now."

Jeannie ignored him and kept dropping things into the overflowing cart: milk, eggs, eggnog, cheap wine, ridiculously overpriced vegetables and fruits, all toppling over one another on the uneven sides of a box for an artificial Christmas tree, an acquisition Rodney had fought ardently but ultimately lost because Jeannie had played the "John obviously doesn't have much family--shouldn't we try to make this a good Christmas?" card, that bitch. Boxes of twinkle lights lined the bottom of the cart and Rodney clutched a tin of very, very good coffee to his chest, because something was going to get him through this next day, and he was kind of resigned to the fact that it was going to be caffeine.

"So I am revising my opinion of this," Jeannie said in the baked goods aisle, earning a little of Rodney's reluctant affection back by shoving vast heaps of cookies into the cart.

Rodney blinked. "What opinion?" he asked.

"You, and John," she said matter-of-factly. "Clearly, for reasons beyond my understanding, he likes you a lot and really--" she smirked "--to run away from that would be looking a gift horse in the mouth in so many ways."

Scowling, Rodney grabbed a box of Goldfish, because John had some sort of unnatural affection for them, would skip breakfast, lunch, and dinner but snack on them constantly, leaving half-eaten cartons of the damn things all over Rodney's office. "You're a credit to humanity, Jeannie."

"Yes, I know," she said breezily, without a trace of irony, and then cornered Rodney with the shopping cart near a display of bread and butter pickles to glare furiously at him and say, "Do not--I repeat--do not fuck this up. This kind of thing doesn't happen much, not even to normal people."

Rodney held his coffee in front of him like a shield. "I find it completely disturbing how emotionally invested you are in a relationship that--for the record?--you didn't even believe until you picked the lock to my apartment and barged in on my life," Rodney hissed. "And look, Jeannie, I already told you this last night but guys like John don't date guys like--"

And that was when Jeannie slapped her small hand over Rodney's mouth in a way that was way more painful than necessary to make a point, and her glare went hard and sharp.

"Listen up and listen well, Rodney Edward McKay, because I will likely never again repeat these words," she told him in a clipped, precise tone.

Rodney stared at her with big eyes in the canned fruit and condiments aisle.

"You've always been smarter than anybody else you ever met, and that made you feel good about being socially retarded and not understanding how to make friends and influence people," Jeannie said, ruthless and honest. "And Mom and Dad let you get away with it because according to them raising a genius is hard and they were always a little bit fucked up anyway. But you were a good big brother, when you could be fucked to do it, and Rodney?"

Rodney nodded at her, because Jeannie looked just on this side of crazy at that moment.

"You're a good person," Jeannie told him, her voice firm and her face open and honest and several other good things she couldn't have gotten from their shared genetics. "You're a good and decent man and you deserve better than you let yourself have. You've been talking down to yourself your whole life and beating people into submission with your brain your whole life and as your sister who loves you despite herself, I am telling you that it is time for a change."

She took her hand off his mouth and Rodney opened it to say, "But--!" so she slapped it right over his face--again, harder than necessary, and Rodney winced and glared fiercely at her.

"No buts, Rodney," she said, and the hard look on her face changed into something nicer and foreign, and this time, when she took away her mouth, Rodney stayed silent so she could say, "I mean it, okay? You're a good guy, and if John's the guy I think he is, he knows that, too."

Rodney stood there and felt faint for a while, clutching his coffee can like a lifeline. He worked his jaw over and over but nothing came out and finally Jeannie just smiled, lopsided and forgiving, and punched him on the arm, taking the cart and starting toward the freezer aisle.

And as she was putting a gallon of Rocky Road into the cart, she said merrily, "And now we shall never speak of this moment again--" she glared "--will we?"

"What moment?" Rodney asked reflexively.

Jeannie smiled at him, serene. "Good."

His bill came out to $345.78, but Jeannie glared him down when he tried to make a fuss, and Rodney meekly signed over his money and his soul and his whole damn life. He hated Christmas, he really did, and he managed to hate it even though when they finally got home John was curled up on the sofa underneath a blanket, watching A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV.

*

 

"Maybe you should give up," John said uncertainly.

"You should definitely give up," Jeannie called from the kitchen.

Rodney glared down at where John was sitting cross-legged on the floor, soft and young in old jeans and a gray sweatshirt, holding a box of shiny ornaments Jeannie had forced Rodney to buy, their obnoxious red and green and silver-white sides gleaming through the cellophane window.

"I am a world-renowned physicist," Rodney said through gritted teeth. "I am on the faculty of one of the most prestigious institutes of science and engineering in the known universe, which is, by the way, very very big, so will you two kindly shut up and let me work the Christmas lights in peace?" he finished in a shout.

John and Jeannie were quiet for maybe a minute before Jeannie came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her jeans and made a face at the naked, plastic green tree, set up to the left of Rodney's television and blocking the window.

Then, John said, "No, but really, I don't want to die young because you can't hook up lights."

And Jeannie added, "You're really astonishingly bad at that, aren't you?"

Rodney groaned and knocked his head against the wall, figuring sacrificed brain cells would be worth the point he was trying to and failing to make. "What have I done to deserve this?" he muttered.

"Well, you made all of your TAs before me cry," John said helpfully. "Plus, school counseling services keeps calling during your office hours to chew you out for making kids want to die."

"Oh, and you dressed up as Michael Jackson for Halloween that one year," Jeannie said, shuddering. "It was the worst experience of my life."'

Rodney glared at both of them and returned to the lights, which turned out to be futile because two hours later when John and Jeannie had already otherwise decorated the tree between themselves and Rodney was still futzing with the wires and peering hatefully at the string of blinky lights, John said, "Oh, hey, there's a bulb missing!" after which he screwed it on and half-blinded Rodney in one eye when the whole damn rope of light exploded into schizophrenically cheerful red and green blinking.

"Kill me," Rodney muttered, laying flat on his back, waiting for the multi-colored floaters to go out of his vision.

"Not actually in the spirit of the season," John said saucily, leaning over him and smiling brightly.

"I hate this season," Rodney said sullenly.

John laughed gently, and put his hand flat on the floor next to Rodney's face, still grinning down on him and said, "Aw, Dr. McKay, you don't mean that."

The way John said that made Rodney want to admit that he didn't, even though it'd be lying, which was how Rodney knew he was in deep shit. "Yes, I do," he persisted stubbornly, pushing himself up on his elbows so that their faces were very close together. "Do I look like I'm joking?" he demanded.

But John only looked at Rodney like he had been lost and now was found and leaned in, mouth soft and wet and warm over Rodney's--and Rodney reached up, bracing himself on one elbow so he could cup John's cheek, the surprisingly delicate line of John's jaw, and kiss him back, lick slowly into John's mouth, sweet from apple cider. Rodney bit gently at John's lower lip, ran his tongue over John's teeth, and felt John do the same, all soft and surprisingly familiar, and Rodney thought it felt like coming home to kiss John, to tilt his face and bring their mouths together, to breathe into each other.

And when Rodney finally pulled away, flushed and panting for breath, John was smiling so widely it could have broken his face in two, and it made Rodney shy all of a sudden.

"Um," Rodney said.

"Hey," John whispered back.

"You can't, uh, keep doing that and charging me," Rodney said stupidly.

John grinned at him and winked. "That was a freebie."

Rodney's mouth shaped an "oh" of surprise, and John laughed at his expression.

Jeannie broke the moment with a whooping cheer, and when Rodney turned to look she was clutching her Polaroid camera in one hand and three developing pictures in the other, gray fog resolving into a picture of him with his hands wound in John's hair, kissing him hungrily, the Christmas lights flashing obnoxiously around them, like stars going nova in the background.

*

 

They ate dinner on the living room floor, watching the lights blink, and The Christmas Story on television,and trading off "My worst Christmas ever" stories until John fell asleep on Rodney's shoulder, snuffling into Rodney's neck, hair soft and warm against Rodney's cheek.

"Say nothing," Rodney hissed--quietly.

Jeannie bit her lip and threatened to go get her camera again, but settled for helping John to the bedroom, where he collapsed into Rodney's bed, sleepy and soft, sighing and murmuring, "Thanks, Rodney," before his eyes drifted shut again.

But before John fell asleep he wrapped one hand around Rodney's wrist in a move that was almost innocent but so intoxicatingly sweet that Rodney felt blood roar in his ears, his face going red, and he ignored the way Jeannie smiled at him as he fussed with the bedcovers and touched Sheppard's hair, smoothing it away from his face.

And in the orange cast of the streetlights and shade of the blinds, Sheppard looked very young and his face was easy with sleep, a whole different person than Rodney knew by day: lazy vowels and leaning against doorways. John was different here, secret and small in Rodney's small apartment in his small life, dotted by Christmas lights and fuzzy with blurred boundaries. Rodney thought distantly about how he'd go back to playing the roles they'd been assigned and wondered if he'd ever watch Sheppard grading papers, legs kicked up on a desk, without thinking about John's bare feet, white and plain, across Rodney's carpet.

It would never again be John, it'd be John with details, and Rodney had to close his eyes hard to banish the image of John smiling over Rodney's desk, loose and limber in his black t-shirt and favorite jeans, fingers sketching out the left wing of a fighter plane in the afternoon sun.

"You should you know, do it," Jeannie whispered close to Rodney's ear, leaning in and completely shattering the peaceful moment.

It startled Rodney enough to rocket him to his feet, which only made Jeannie roll her eyes and grab him by his collar, hauling him out of the bedroom and easing the door closed gently behind them. When it shut with a metallic click, she crossed her arms over her generous chest in a move Rodney had feared since she'd turned four and Rodney instantly went on the defensive, narrowing his eyes and backing against the wall, palms flat against the smooth, latex paint.

"You. Should. Do. It," Jeannie said again, keeping her voice low and expression serious.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Rodney hissed at her.

Jeannie rolled her eyes and punched him in the arm--"Ow! I need that to shake hands at my Nobel presentation!" Rodney protested--before she growled, "I'm giving you my blessing, you jackass--go forth! Deflower!"

She waved her hands emphatically as Rodney's face went slack in horror.

There was a long, expectant silence before Rodney started to wave his hands in what was probably interpretive dance of what he'd be doing verbally--if he wasn't busy swallowing his own tongue in pure, unmitigated horror.

"I--you--! I am not going to deflower--! You--!" Rodney kept trying to say, and Jeannie's scowl transformed into an expression that Rodney associated closely with public humiliation. "No!" Rodney said preemptively. "Whatever you're thinking, no! Go back to Canada! Right now!"

"Well, if that's the kind of privacy you'll need to you know, coax John's flower into full blossom," she said, sadistically innocent, eyes huge and guiltless.

Rodney clawed at his face. "Oh my God. He is not a virgin!"

She put her hands on his shoulders and said, her voice totally serious, "Rodney, look, if you're nervous about doing it with a virgin--relax. It always sucks at the beginning. I'm sure he'll forgive you. Just you know." She made a hand motion that looked like it involved a drill bit and six bricks and Rodney covered his face in defeat.

"Hm," she said thoughtfully in reaction to Rodney's pitiful groan. "You're right--maybe you should buy a book."

"I am not going to buy a book on gay sex!" Rodney said hysterically. "I am also not going to go in there and have sex with him! You're deranged!"

Jeannie frowned worriedly. "But what if you do it wrong?" she asked, concerned. "What if you know--you rip something?"

"I--" Rodney started, so furious he was stuttering.

And oh God, the mental images had started flooding in and he had always been a visual learner because here he was, seeing the exact curve of John's shoulder over his own, John's face buried between his shoulder blades, John's face between his legs, pink slips of tongue, slick on Rodney's skin and large, brown hands on Rodney's pale hips--and it'd be so good--

"We're not having this conversation," Rodney said firmly. "This was all a hallucination."

He stared at Jeannie's frown and believed that if he believed it enough, it might be almost true.

She scowled. "That is just so irresponsible," she whispered. "You two are both far too old for adolescent fumbling and oh my God, Rodney, don't think I didn't hear from every girl in the twelfth grade about how you slobbered all over Amanda Cunningham's face at prom--"

"Rodney, you cad," John said lazily.

Which was the moment both Jeannie and Rodney froze in the hallway and turned, glacially slow, to look at John, mussed with sleep and leaning against the half-opened door, one hand still on the knob and Rodney thought, bare feet, and felt a pang for no good reason before he remembered what he and Jeannie had been talking about.

"Here I thought I was special," John added, and his voice was scratchy.

"You are," Rodney said, knee-jerk and too-sincere, and it must have been the weird break in his voice that made John's eyes go wide like that for a moment before darkening again and Rodney had never felt quite so naked before in his entire life, watching John watch him.

When Rodney finally broke John's gaze to stare at his feet, flushing terribly and feeling his heart racing out of his chest, Jeannie said sheepishly, "Did we wake you up? Sorry about that."

And in the very long silence after Jeannie spoke, Rodney waited for John to crack a joke and go back to sleep, to change the subject and ease them back into familiar territory, but instead, John's hand reached over and curled inside of Rodney's, and Rodney wrapped his fingers around John's, pressed their palms together with surprised ease and John said:

"I was just coming to get Rodney for bed."

*

 

Rodney said, "Wait--are you--?" and "Sheppard--John," and "You're so--are you sure--?" and "Jesus, oh Jesus," as the door closed behind them and John pressed Rodney gently against it, cold wood against Rodney's back and John's warm, rising chest against Rodney's and the dissonance was driving Rodney crazy, like light fracturing into different, new colors.

And John, in the charcoal light, looked a little bit torn, pulled in different directions, but his hands came up to cup Rodney's face in a way that was not pretend, and it made something in Rodney's chest seize as John whispered, "Don't you--you talk so much--don't you ever get tired?"

Rodney wanted to say that yeah, yes, he did, but never managed to get around to it before John pressed his mouth to Rodney's and shattered all the words right out of Rodney's head.

Kissing John was nothing like Rodney had imagined because John was real, so the scrape of teeth stung and their tongues were awkward around each other, chins slick with saliva and their lips swollen and buzzing with bruises, noses bumping, and Rodney's brain went everywhere and nowhere, awareness fanning out across his body and rushing back to his lips and tongue and teeth. John's hands were on Rodney's face and then on the back of his neck and on Rodney's elbow, soft like his mouth was hard and Rodney was reaching for everything at once.

Rodney had always been a greedy child, hungry for knowledge and accomplishment and more chocolate, and he smoothed over John's shoulders, the line of his back, the perfect, smooth curve of his spine, the dip of his back, the cut of his hips, hands sliding down to palm John's ass through the track pants, groan into the touch. Rodney wanted more, more, more until he was drowning in it, bursting with it, biting at John's mouth and gasping when he could bear to pull away--and he kept his eyes open, half-lidded and predatory because he loved, he fucking loved, the way John looked, raw and burst open.

"God--because I'm so tired," John gasped, voice wet between kisses, and he moved his mouth down along Rodney's chin, pressed sucking kisses behind Rodney's ear, down his jugular.

Rodney scrabbled at John's back, all tight muscle and hot skin and said, "Yes, okay, right," babbling incoherently and tugging at John's shirt, trying to peel it off so Rodney could touch all that skin, press his mouth to it, lick shining wet streaks down the middle of John's chest and hear him gasp, arch beneath Rodney's hands.

Rodney thought that maybe he'd wanted this since the first time John got on that stage and started to do obscene things to a perfectly innocent pair of sunglasses but that might be wrong. And maybe Rodney started wanting this at some indistinct point between the beginning and the distant end and it's all so caught up in vectors and velocity and motions across a Cartesian plane, that John is written in math that evenRodney doesn't know and shouldn't try to learn.

"You don't have to--" Rodney managed, and he shoved at John, pushed him away and for a moment there was confusion in John's suddenly green, green eyes before Rodney pushed him onto the bed. "You don't have to do anything that you don't--"

Rodney tried again, but John was hissing from his hurting ribs and Rodney had to stop talking so he could push up John's shirt and kiss his bruised chest, run his tongue down John's sternum, to fasten his hands on John's waist and press a deep-open mouthed-kiss to John's chest, so close Rodney could feel John's heart, wild beneath his skin.

John said, "Rodney, Rodney," and pulled him up and rolled them onto their sides, mouths desperate against one another and Rodney couldn't decide if he wanted skin or sex or more kissing and that was how he knew maybe it was a first time--and that even if it was bad it'd be good and fuck Jeannie and her instruction manual.

Which is why when John grinned into Rodney's mouth and asked, "You ever done this with a guy before?" Rodney shook with laughter and batted feebly at John's instructing hands until they were comfortably curled around one another, because Jeannie was right and they aren't fumbling adolescents anymore--grown-ups with scars and sores and bruises from car accidents, and Rodney likes the way John looked, sprawled and decadent in Rodney's bed.

"This is just like porn," Rodney said, and touched everywhere he could reach: John's shoulders, his arms, his legs and skated his fingers nervously over John's hips, hard and different than a woman's--opened outward like the petals of a flower.

John raised one lazy brow, and said, "You're so lucky I like you."

Rodney was about to protest but he figured that he really, really was, and went with it.

Then John said, "Hey," and Rodney said, "Hi," and John smiled as he murmured, "Come here."

So Rodney did, and it was a blur of warm skin and hair scratching at his legs, a tangle of arms and the press of flat chests together--feeling Sheppard's outward breaths, biting at his nipples, burying his face in the crook of John's neck--and John laughing and Rodney biting at John's shoulder, (good) hands curling around one another's cocks and the press of flesh to flesh. It was a slow rocking, like a sickle moon hanging and swaying in the sky and Rodney thought about constellations as he bit red spots across John's skin, thought about gravity as he was pressed deeper into the mattress, thought about vacuums when his breath abandoned him.

When John came a few determined twists of Rodney's wrist, after Rodney had come all over John's stomach, Rodney thought about spacetime, about the fabric of the universe curving around the round masses of stars and planets and how somehow, he'd curved around John the way that matter bent for great and miraculous things.

*

When Rodney woke up the next morning, the bed was empty and the pillow as cold, and his bad mood lasted all the way into the kitchen where he heard Jeannie and John over the bubbling sound of the coffeemaker.

"Was it okay?" Jeannie asked, deeply concerned. "Was he gentle?"

"We just cuddled," John lied easily, and there was the clink of ceramic cups.

"That is such a lie," Jeannie said accusingly. "I'm going to know the moment Rodney steps out. He can't hide anything for shit."

Rodney felt a momentary flare of mixed panic and relief, because, yes, sure, his sister was discussing his sex life with his not-boyfriend-actually-a-TA-wow-what-a-disaster, but on the other hand, John hadn't woken up in a heterosexual panic and stolen Rodney's car in a getaway attempt.

Though the more Rodney let himself think about last night--and he had to limit that because walking into the kitchen with morning wood would just encourage all the utterly filthy things Jeannie implied about Rodney's relationship with coffee--John hadn't seemed all that virginal or much confused about the gay thing, either.

Rodney remembered John's guiding hands, his voice murmuring what to do and where Rodney's mouth should go, John's smile against Rodney's neck.

It took a full minute to wipe the smug smile off his face but when he stepped, all dignified grace of a cuddler, into the kitchen, Jeannie's eyes just went huge and round as she shouted, "I knew it!" and John smiled into his coffee mug and Rodney colored deeply and said, "Oh, shut up!"

*

 

Jeannie cried all over them both at the airport, wiping her eyes on Rodney's sleeves and daring him to say anything about it, while Sheppard submitted to her sniffling well-wishes with much more grace, pressing a fond kiss to her cheek.

"It was so good to meet you," Jeannie said sincerely, and with a feverish look in her eyes, she said to John, "I know he's a dick--but you know, one day, he'll be worth a lot of money, so don't be too hasty breaking up with him, okay? He'll buy you nice things; it's his knee-jerk reaction in any uncomfortable romantic situation."

"Hey!" Rodney protested, but John put a hand on his elbow and suddenly all the tension went out of Rodney's shoulders like water from a broken dam.

"Sweet," John said, and grinned at Rodney, which made Jeannie titter hysterically, and Rodney scowl and kick at the nebulous, purple airport carpet, muttering dark nothings under his breath about revenge and nuclear weapons and how one day, he'd get them both for this sort of mistreatment.

They watched the plane lift off and wandered through the overpriced gift shops in the airport until they wound up in the parking lot, Rodney helping John into the car when John's ribs started to hurt with a vengeance--comeuppance for last night, probably, Rodney thought, too buzzed from it to be really rueful. And when Rodney put the car in drive the world blurred around them, California in late December, strange and foreign and suspended like a tropical snow globe, aspirations of winter all around them and no real accomplishment, sun striping the streets gold and white like snow and rosy fire all diluted.

John was half-asleep again by the time they got back to Rodney's apartment, and his frustration with the medications he was on was so adorably petulant that Rodney couldn't even pretend to be angry when John scowled from the bed, bundled in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, half-buried in the covers, and whined, "Well?" like Rodney was the one determining the boundaries of the relationship or something.

But it all ended up with Rodney crawling into bed behind John, wrapping one arm around John's waist and putting his face against the back of John's neck, feeling so bonelessly warm that all the words and aches dropped away with every idle, clumsy stroke of John's drowsy fingers, smoothing across the back of Rodney's hand.

Sometime between then and the next afternoon John woke up and taught Rodney why John smirked every time Rodney said "star sixty-nine," and Rodney taught him what bored physics nerds did in cold, mountaintop observatories. John made a lot of stupid jokes and pretended to be dumber than he could possibly be, given his thesis, and Rodney talked a lot about cutting-edge physics and where he'd put his Nobel.

Rodney felt an occasional spike of fear over everything they weren't saying, but then John did something like smile or breathe or say, "I was talking to this guy from CERN the other day?" and it all evaporated, melted away from his thoughts like ether.

They didn't talk about it, partly because Rodney didn't even know how that conversation would start, and also because John didn't seem quite so tired anymore, and Rodney had a vested interest in this--whatever it was. So for a week Rodney chauffeured John to his doctor's appointments and drove past In and Out for burgers and they rented B-movies and made out on the couch. Rodney wrote mathematical equations on John's wrist cast and a concise treatise on why Back to the Future was crap, which John had the audacity to white out and cover instead with a surf shop bumper sticker.

*

And it lasted until Rodney woke up one day and John was sitting at the kitchen table, completely dressed and the not-stranger Rodney remembered from school again, smiling blankly and saying, "I kind of need to get back to my place. Pick up the mail. Get my messages, you know."

"Right," Rodney had said, and driven John over, waited for him to putter around writing checks for bills and sighing at the estimate the car place had given on fixing John's decimated Caddy and cleaned out his refrigerator. If Rodney was overcome with desire to ask John to just move in with him, he figured it was sleep deprivation from all the deflowering they'd been up to.

Rodney was leafing through a hardbound cookbook he'd found in John's overflowing and messy bookshelf of uneven volumes and sloppy journals. The pages were yellowing and crackled, and the surface of the paper was smooth and worn when Rodney ran his fingers down black words typing out recipes for tomato aspic and chicken casseroles--boring, white bread American food from the 1970s. On page thirty-eight he stumbled on a dulling photograph of a cookie-cutter house, clean and trim, with no excess save for the gaudy, multicolored beach umbrella in the front yard. And in the green grass sat a woman in sunglasses and a small boy, the woman reaching out to hold the boy's hands, a smile on her face and Rodney recognized the way her mouth curled upward.

He startled when he heard John curse, and set away the cookbook, hands shaking a little as he stuffed it in between a math journal and a copy of War and Peace, and was rubbing his hands on his pants when John came back into the room, weary around the eyes.

"So it'll cost more to fix the car than to just dump it," John said sighing and rubbing at his face.

"Um," Rodney said unevenly. "Sorry about that."

"Not your fault," John said easily, walking over to the coffee table, he started picking up papers and shuffling them into random piles, saying robotically. "Anyway--as far as money goes, give me a week and I'll pay you back for everything." He glanced at Rodney for a second and smiled awkwardly and added, "Just need to deposit my pittance of a check."

Rodney stared at him for a long time before he snapped, "Oh, that's very nice."

John looked up, brow wrinkled. "What?"

Rodney waved his hand angrily. "Oh, I'm just sympathizing with Norton. He'll just be crushed when he realizes his star master's student got brain damage in a car accident--" John's mouth shaped an 'o' of confusion, but Rodney plowed right on ahead "--because I can't think of any other reason he'd be saying something so obnoxiously stupid right now," Rodney finished with a glare.

"I didn't mean it like that," John protested. "It's just that--"

"Nope--no more. Stop talking," Rodney instructed, scowling. "I knew coming here was a bad idea. I should have just picked up your mail and driven us back home and--"

And Rodney's voice fell away at the expression on John's face, which was equal parts astonished and scared,and it was a strange look on a guy who up till a week and a half ago Rodney swore only had two settings: smug and smugger.

"What?" Rodney demanded self-consciously. "What, what?"

"No, I just--" John started, and then cut himself off, determinedly putting a resolved expression on his face. "It's a very nice offer, Professor McKay, but you've already done way too much for me this week." He stood up straight, clutching old magazines and backdated newspapers, bills and torn up envelopes to his chest. "I couldn't impose anymore."

Rodney clawed at his own face. "Are we seriously having this conversation?" he asked, horrified.

"Hey," John said feelingly.

"Don't get me wrong," Rodney said, recovering and managing not to roll his eyes too hard, "but I think as far as debts and payments goes, between the gay naked boyfriend cameo, the putting up with my alcoholic parents, entertaining my pervert of a younger sister and, um, the other stuff--" he described them all eloquently with a wave of his hand "--you are very possibly still on top."

Which of course, was an unfortunate choice of words since it made Rodney blush all the way to the roots of his hair, but had the fortunate side-effect of making John's mouth twitch horribly.

And when John burst into laughter, it was helpless and ridiculous, because that's exactly what this was, and John kept laughing until Rodney finally couldn't take it and snatched the papers out of John's hands and snapped, "Oh, that's very mature!" and dragged him back out to the car where Rodney consoled himself that in their own very special, non-communicative way, they'd talked about it.

Back at Rodney's apartment, John frowned at the contents of the refrigerator and said, "You're out of milk," and "How can you live like this, McKay?" and "Are you sure you don't want me to go home? I have a bus schedule," to which Rodney replied, "Milk is only for the weak coffee-drinkers," and "Hey--I don't make fun of your hair," even though that was a filthy lie, and "What are you, retarded? Come over here and take off your pants."

And John smiled, tentative but good, and he did.

*

 

John's ribs still bugged him more than he liked to admit and Rodney hated seeing John unhappy more than he would be caught dead saying, so the next week found the two of them engaged in a strange ballet. John would skip his painkillers and Rodney would grind them into John's food--unsuccessfully, apparently, given the fact that on Saturday night John choked on half a piece of pill and had glared until Rodney had lied feebly about a secret addiction to oxycotin and a fear of swallowing. The only upside of that being, of course, that later that evening John condescended to help Rodney get over said fear of swallowing in the most friendly way possible.

"Oh, that's very--ah!--civic-minded of you," Rodney had managed.

"Well," John had said, "you know me, always trying to save the world and all," before he'd sealed his mouth around Rodney's cock in a vivid illustration of all the benefits of taking one for the team.

On Sunday morning, Rodney woke up late and when he stumbled out of bed he found John sitting on the floor of the living room, the Los Angeles Times opened like newsprint butterfly, wings all over his floor as John methodically read every story out of the science and technology section. Rodney maybe fell in love with him but probably not, since Rodney had kind of been falling in love with John all of Saturday and for at least an hour on Friday while John was editing his thesis.

"Read anything good?" Rodney asked when he wandered back into the room with an enormous mug of coffee, having repressed his not-so-latent desire to fall upon John like he was the last chocolate bar on Earth.

John rolled his shoulders and murmured something about William Gates and personal computers that could fit into his pocket. Rodney cocked his eyebrow and settled down, cross-legged next to John on the floor, and what other people might construe as Rodney putting his head on John's shoulder was, actually, just Rodney resting his neck.

Then John turned to the Sunday crossword, and they marked it up and mocked it and knew secretly in their hearts that fourteen across was supposed to be "mitochondria," even though when they tried it out it was one letter over.

"We're still out of milk," John said about half an hour later, drowsily paging through one of Rodney's grad school textbooks, with notes in Rodney's erratic handwriting nearly blacking out the generous margins. He squinted and asked, "Did you just tell this author to suck your--?"

"That's quite enough of that," Rodney said, snapping the book shut and taking it away from John, who only reached for an applied math book from Rodney's freshman year of college.

"So," John said, exceedingly casual, "there's that faculty new year's party tonight."

Rodney glared. "I never go," he said firmly.

"I know you never go," John replied smoothly, and smiled, sweet and huge and saucy.

"Then why are we talking about this?" Rodney demanded suspiciously.

"I was just mentioning it. You were the one who got all weird," John quipped, and grinned hugely when he saw a question on page 145 that was viciously marked out by Sharpie. "Aw, Rodney--is this what you did when you got one wrong?"

"Give me that!" Rodney growled, tugging the book out of John's hands and setting it in his own lap firmly, narrowing his eyes and saying, "But you want me to go, don't you?"

John stared at him, eyes blankly innocent.

"But why do you want me to go?" Rodney mused aloud.

"Did you know," John said brightly, "that there is a department-wide pool on if you and Henry are going to kill each other before I finish my thesis?"

Rodney stared at John dumbly for a moment before all the pieces interlocked and he balked, saying, "Henry--Henry? As in Henry Norton? Since when are you two on a first name basis?"

"Okay, see, this is exactly what I'm talking about," John said smoothly, an extremely agreeable smile on his face that completely contradicted his words. "Henry is my thesis advisor. You are my b--"

"Don't say it!" Rodney warned.

"--boss," John finished stubbornly, wickedly, licking his mouth because he was an asshole, "my superior, my professor--" Rodney covered his face and moaned miserably because maybe one day he'd be over the fact that he'd turned into a bad letter to Gay Penthouse but that day was not today "--and I would enjoy it if you two could have a conversation without having to use me as some sort of military buffer."

"We do not use you as a military buffer," Rodney said stiffly.

John raised his eyebrows. "Last time he came to your office to find me, you snapped a pencil."

"It had nothing to do with Norton," Rodney argued.

"With your teeth, Rodney," John said. "Shouldn't you two be nerd buddies or something?"

It's really not right that you categorize us as nerds when you, yourself, are writing a thesis about aerodynamics," Rodney said sullenly, and hoped the reference to potentially very fast-moving objects would deflect John's attention, which didn't seem to be working given John's amused-cum-annoyed facial expression.

"It would make my life a lot easier if you two could get along," John said without a hint of pleading in his voice.

He just looked at Rodney with wide, hazel eyes and an earnest expression that Rodney knew for a fact was schooled from long years of practice and was still falling for,because that was the kind of stupid thing Rodney had been doing since he'd started sort of but not really falling in love with John.

Rodney turned his attention pointedly to the half-destroyed crossword puzzle and consoled himself with the fact that only idiots with far too much time on their hands could successfully complete crossword puzzles. And anyway, the Sunday one was the hardest, and he and John had been trying to do it in something that was not quite but almost exactly like a pen, by which Rodney meant a pencil--and a large pink Rubbermaid eraser. But taking into account the texture of newsprint it was basically the same thing.

"And it occurred to me that Henry would be at the faculty new year's party," John said oh-so-casually and caught Rodney's attention by touching his cheek.

"I'm not going," Rodney said feebly, but John was rubbing one thumb in circles along Rodney's jaw and Rodney knew his own limitations.

"They'll have free booze," John said comfortingly, like Rodney's "I'm not going," had read like the "Okay, but only because you're looking at me like that," Rodney had meant. "And cake--I hear it might even be chocolate."

"It's going to be bad chocolate," Rodney protested, but John smiled at him like he knew what that really meant, too.

*

 

The fourteenth time somebody said, "Wow, Dr. McKay! You're actually here!" and then laughed ruefully and said, "I guess I owe John some money, huh?" Rodney was basically ready to storm into the nearest room with a telephone and give Sheppard a piece of his mind.

"My God, McKay," Rodney heard as he was weaving through the disbelieving crowd toward the phone just outside the room, kicking aside balloons and stomping over gaudy gold streamers and PARTY LIKE IT'S 1995 banners. "You're actually here."

And when Rodney wheeled around, hands searching for the nearest heavy object, he saw it was Norton in all of his salt-and-pepper, elegantly academic disapproval, and Rodney felt his shoulders slump.

"Norton," Rodney said primly.

"McKay," the man replied, narrowing his eyes.

"Are you, ah--" Rodney searched around for something to say that wasn't "Stop distracting my TA, you jackass!" or "I hate you! And your stupid tweed patches!" "--enjoying the party?" he finished lamely.

Norton rolled his eyes which made Rodney snap, "What?" which made Norton say in his nasal, New England voice, "Oh, nothing, just feeling crushing sympathy for John," and that, of course, made Rodney say, "Please! I'm not the one who's working him until his fingers bleed. I've seen one-hit-wonders move down charts slower than you've got him working on his thesis!"

Then it all got kind of ugly in a snooty, academically one-upping way, until finally Norton said, "You're monopolizing his time! Or have you forgotten that his primary role is that of a student?"

"John's right where he should be," Rodney snapped, "bent over my desk!"

Norton's eyes bulged.

"Grading papers!" Rodney squeaked, eyes huge and cheeks blazing. "I meant grading papers! I meant bent over my desk grading papers!"

"I think I know what you meant!" Norton said, horrified. "Oh my God, McKay! I have to worry about hisvirtue now, too?"

Rodney flapped his hands. "Firstly, as if John has virtue, and secondly, it's none of your business, and thirdly, from every draft of his thesis I have possibly stolen from your desk I've seen nothing but stellar work from a stellar student who--"

"I thought I told you to stop breaking into my office," Norton said, annoyed.

"--is more than handling his responsibilities," Rodney finished, almost serene, if it weren't for the fact that his heart was about to beat out of his chest because insulated as he'd been for the past two weeks, he'd kind of forgotten that John wasn't just some really hot guy who had magically appeared in Rodney's apartment. There were rules and politics and conflicting loyalties here, and then there was that thing about the Air Force that Rodney wasn't about to touch with a ten-foot pole.

If making Rodney talk to Norton was a really roundabout way of giving Rodney a reality check, then John should have just written a note, Rodney thought sickly.

Which was when Norton surprised Rodney by holding up his hand in what appeared to almost be a peacekeeping gesture, his brown eyes hard as he said, "Wait--look, I promised John I would attempt to be civil with you."

Rodney stared, and managed to bite back his comment of "Hah! It's just professional jealousy speaking, isn't it?" long enough to say, "And I sort of promised, too."

They coughed uncomfortably.

They shifted around a bit.

Rodney looked left; Norton looked up.

The thing was, Norton and Rodney had drawn their battle lines long before John became their Helen of Caltech.

Norton abhorred String Theorists and frequently could be found wearing a t-shirt reading "M THEORY MY 455" under one of his oh-so-trendy sport coats with his jeans, filled with the virile, middle-aged handsomeness that drew female students to him like fireflies to certain death. He was disgustingly well-funded and everybody liked him. Rodney, on the other hand, had a t-shirt saying, "YOU ARE WRONG IN 11 WHOLE PLANES," had a crowd of unattractive, self-flagellating graduate students following him around like a charged-particle cloud, and had managed, somehow, to avoid getting even one thesis student in his years at the university through sheer force of personality.

When Rodney had first joined the faculty, a sort-of-friendly chess match had been proposed, with sim lab time being on the line. Norton said he'd moved knight to A3 before the end of the last match; Rodney said Norton was a filthy liar and just wanted to hog the labs. Norton said Rodney kept stealing his paperclips, which was technically true, but the point was knight was not on A3 before and so the war had begun.

"Maybe we should drink," Rodney suggested finally.

Norton looked almost insultingly relieved. "That's the first good idea I've ever heard out of--"

"Don't ruin the mood, okay?" Rodney snapped.

Somewhere between the fourth finger of Beefeater Gin and the ninth shot of something that burned burned burned Rodney decided that he was terribly in love with plant life and sat with his arm around a fichus in the corner of the room, watching Norton dance drunkenly with some lady from the engineering department, with Prince shrieking "We're gonna party like it's 1999!" over their heads on the crummy speakers.

"I'm so drunk," Rodney told the fichus, and then Norton came over and flopped down next to him against the wall, red-faced and frowning.

"Are you sleeping with John?" Norton said, blurry. "I like him a lot."

Rodney tried very hard to link words together in a sentence that would mean 'no,' he was not sleeping with John the TA because that would be wrong and terrible but what actually came out was "You are a very attractive physicist--I mean, attractive for a physicist."

Norton stared at him.

"I'm so drunk," Rodney assured him.

"My liver hurts," Norton confided.

It all got really blurry after. He saw a few of the department secretaries doing something more suited for a Girls Gone Wild video than the conference room in the administrative building and God knows Rodney had never seen any truly sizzling sexual tension between the majority of the faculty at the school--though they all seemed to be discovering it with one another in corners of the room, slobbering and passing out in the couches.

Then the engineers started playing, "I bet if I broke these lamps, I could make a time machine!" which was usually one of Rodney's favorite games, only he was too busy feeling really good about this new friendship he and Norton were developing. Rodney was also fairly certain that he and Norton generally didn't like one another enough to crush one another in weepy embraces but what the hell. He also didn't generally feel comfortable enough about his body to start threatening to take his clothes off and shake it like a Polaroid picture, and Rodney was really, really sure that he totally didn't probably hadn't maybe had kept his mouth shut instead of saying blearily, "Oh, yeah, I'm totally fucking John," around the cup of more-brandy-than-egg nog.

He woke up the next morning in his own bed. There was a trash can on the floor next to his head and a glass of water and a whole bottle of aspirin on the nightstand. There was also a note, in John's scrawled hand, taped to a darkened lampshade, saying:

I AM SO TELLING JEANNIE.
@ LUNCH WITH NORTON. 
TRY NOT TO DIE. -- JS.

"Oh God," Rodney said, and then threw up all over his floor.

*

 

Rodney didn't know Norton well enough to calculate out the odds that the lunch he and Sheppard were having would involve such embarrassing personal revelations like, "Professor McKay has no rhythm, though clearly with enough vodka that is not a deterrent," and "McKay and I apparently both like to snuggle," and "So as your thesis advisor I'd like to ask why you're sleeping with your boss," or maybe, in a coup de grace, "Air Force--Air Force."

And really, the only thing more miserable than a hangover was having a hangover while panicking over the fact that the best thing that had ever happened to you could be sharing organic foi gras with the very worst. Rodney kept having flashes of what John's face would look like if Norton reached across the table and touched his hand, said, "I know about you and McKay," or worse yet, if when John tried to smile at Norton--who, despite Rodney's ardent and jealous protests, had John's very highest regards--and Norton only sneered at him and said, "So you're the Air Force's newest secret queer." The thought was enough to roll his stomach again.

Eventually, in a moment that ranked somewhat higher than the time he'd accidentally cruised John and much lower than when he'd tripped into a conference room that one time in front of the entire physics department of Northwestern, he fell asleep with his cheek pressed against the toilet seat and woke up with a cramp that could have decimated small nations.

He was less drunk that second wake-up but all that really meant was that he was more hung over, which was why the moment he blinked his eyes open a tidal wave of pain crashed down on his head and Rodney crawled away from the toilet into the shower, where he dry-heaved miserably and tried to scrub the alcoholic out of his hair. Mostly, he wanted to die. And he was washing himself feebly with an almost-new bar of Ivory soap when the smell of hot water and bubbles snapped him into better awareness and his panic soared off again, capslocked this time, like a neon marquee ripping through his head:




YOU MAY HAVE ACCIDENTALLY OUTED JOHN. FEEL FREE TO PANIC. YOU DO NOT HAVE A TOWEL. ALSO, YOU ARE AN ASS.




So Rodney just groaned to himself and made his way miserably out of the shower, toweled down and cleaned up the puke on his bedroom floor. He took what felt like half the bottle of aspirin and thought about calling the school or all the restaurants in Pasadena but decided it was (a) irrational, (b) pointless and that, (c) given that somebody was unlocking his door as he panicked in the living room, a little too late.

*

 

Rodney's first kiss has given him mono; his second got him punched. His third was in a freezing cold observatory with some deranged physics and astronomy graduate student who'd been so hot for some ass even Rodney would do, and they'd jerked one another off on the cold tile floor and both gotten bitched out for failing to produce useable data the next morning. Eventually, Rodney started letting other people trap him into relationships because it was just easier that way--without all the personal risk and professional humiliation.

John was some unholy combination of all of these things: dangerous and painful and exciting, a shock like electric running through Rodney's veins and as familiar as star charts, comforting as the North American sky at night, far away from light pollution where the heavens were clear and earnest. John was no constant, suffered for no sameness, and numbers Rodney had always known slipped out of his grasp and gravity stopped pulling at 9.8 m/s and c stretched out, lengthening like a voice echoing down a long hall.

John was Rodney's 13th first kiss, and he had tasted like coffee and sweet bread and a little like a hospital. John did not hit Rodney or give him mono and Rodney didn't regret anything.

And that was a shocking realization, that of all the hideous embarrassment and public nudity and attempted solicitation that had brought him and John to this strange and precarious place, Rodney wouldn't change a thing, because even so hung over he could barely see, he knew out of sense memories that John was rare and strange, and strange and rare things had to have happened to bring them to this point.

Rodney wanted--and this was stupid, so so stupid--John to be his last first kiss, maybe, and so as he watched the doorknob turn, he couldn't help but think in advance, please, please let this be okay.

*

 

When John came through the door, he was pale and drawn and so distracted it took him a whole minute of pulling off his jacket and putting away the key before he realized Rodney was in the living room staring at him, eyes wide and hungry and scared.

"Hi," Rodney said finally, when John's mouth curved into a tight smile.

"You're up," John said. "How's your head?"

Rodney swallowed around the nausea and asked, "Did--what did Norton say?"

John grinned wryly. "I wouldn't worry about the drunken cuddling," he assured Rodney, and walked past him into the kitchen, calling over his shoulder, "Though, for the record? Maybe you should take this as a lesson that you plus too much alcohol can equal inappropriate public nudity."

"Oh like you're one to talk," Rodney sneered, knee-jerk, and trudged after John, leaning heavily on a counter as John started a pot of coffee, hands busy on the filters and measuring spoons.

"Job hazard," John admitted ruefully, and looked at Rodney sideways.

"He--uh, say anything else?" And at John's curious eyebrow, Rodney admitted sheepishly, "My memory of the evening is spotty at best."

Snickering, John said, "I mean, you don't have to make an honest man of him, if that's what you're worried about." And the smile finally reached his eyes as John said, "I always knew you were easy, Rodney, but that was too easy."

"Ha ha very ha," Rodney said sullenly.

"If it makes you feel any better, Norton doesn't remember anything either," John said.

Rodney felt something in his chest loosen. John didn't know, and Norton didn't know, and either way John was safe and he was safe and they were safe, and he was so ecstatic that he had to blink hard in the harsh light of the kitchen and when he did, he saw the edge of an envelope peeking out of John's back pocket.

But then John handed Rodney a mug of coffee and hustled him off to bed again, muttering, "I left you atrashcan," before crawling up into bed, too in the late afternoon light, white with winter. John sat over the covers, frowning at the remaining detritus of the latest draft of his thesis, all marked with red comments in Norton's impeccably neat handwriting and scribbled liberally with John's own revisions. Rodney had read John's thesis approximately six billion and four times already, in between thieving drafts of it from Norton's office and over John's shoulder while he was working on it late into the night while Rodney graded miserably and looked for anything--anything--to take his mind off of marking papers, even his TA's ridiculously named ("Not Quite a Delorian, and Definitely Not 88 mph") thesis.

"Hey," Rodney said suddenly. "Don't you still work?"

John stared at him. "If you still have papers to grade, Rodney, I swear to God--"

Waving his hands, Rodney interrupted, "No, no--I mean. Don't you still work at the Boom Boom Room?" And there really was no way to say the name of the club without sounding completely ridiculous.

John raised his eyebrows and turned back to his work. "Not really," he said lightly. "I mean, I thought I was going to have to beg for hours after the car accident but I'm not really going to--" John cut himself off resolutely, and Rodney narrowed his eyes in suspicion for a whole half a second before John smiled at him and said, "Besides, being your TA is good times--and no required nudity."

"Actually," Rodney said solemnly, "I think I'm going to start requiring nudity."

"Oh is that so," John said, grinning.

Rodney shoved aside December's copy of the Journal of Applied Physics and pushed John's three-ring binder of aerodynamic agony onto the ground, where it made an extremely satisfying thunk, papers rustling. Rodney crawled, hands and knees, over John, until they were very close and Rodney could practically feel John's smile against his own.

"I was working on that, you know," John said, but his eyes were darkening with a smile already.

"I'll do your homework later if you help me out now," Rodney answered, scraping his cheek over John's and feeling John sigh into the touch, fingertips light on Rodney's hips.

"Doesn't speak well of the procedure and integrity of science," John murmured, and Rodney felt the butterfly of John's eyelashes on his cheek and felt his heart constrict in his chest.

"Science, who cares, right," Rodney murmured, and closed his mouth over John's, feeling Sheppard's hand come up to palm Rodney's face, stroke his chin, tongue licking into Rodney's mouth and opening his knees so Rodney fell between them, pressed them body to body, John's thighs tight around his ribs.

John stroked his hands down Rodney's sides and slipped them under the waist of Rodney's pajama pants as Rodney smoothed his palms up John's blue t-shirt and they huffed, rearranging themselves in the bed until John was lying back, sideways across the mattress, laughing as Rodney struggled with his button-fly jeans and cursed inventively.

"I'm wearing these pants all the time from now on," John told him around completely unmanly giggles as Rodney finally jerked the jeans down John's slim hips. "There's just too much entertainment value here."

"Oh, that's very funny," Rodney said bitterly, "no sex for you," but then immediately contradicted his own decision by applying himself earnestly to making John too breathless to speak, and John just melted beneath him, hands soft on Rodney's back and his sides and palms warm when they cupped Rodney's ass.

And Rodney knew, because it was one of the Eureka moments, that Jeannie was right, that this was different and John was different and they were different and that one day Rodney was going to buy John plane, because it wouldn't be fair if Rodney was the only person who got high off this relationship.

*

 

Rodney woke up on January third with a weird, incomplete thought in the back of his mind, a scattershot of images that didn't make sense, disconnected and off-center that resonated for no good reason--

John wandered off early in the morning for some Air Force event which Rodney managed not to make fun of him for, even when John said, "Rodney, I'm serious," as he was crawling out of bed, his Marvin the Martian boxers half hanging off his ass and had borrowed Rodney's car and a pair of sweatpants to drive over to his own apartment and left his crap all over the bedroom and

--and Rodney went to the bedroom and picked up from the floor John's discarded button-fly jeans and pulled the crumpled envelope out of the back pocket and got so far as remembering John's distressed, pale face before he saw the U.S. Air Force insignia and heard the television in the background, heard buildings exploding and war correspondents talking and remembered that he and John were not an island.

*

 

The fight they had when John got back later that night started with Rodney saying:

"You could have fucking told me you were shipping out to fucking Bosnia!"

And John's face paling as he said, "You were digging through my mail?"

"Don't even try to change the subject, you asshole," Rodney yelled, so furious he could barely talk straight. "When were you going to tell me? Or were you at all? Was I going to wake up a month from now and find a fucking Post-It note saying HAVE TO GO KILL SELF IN BALKAN WAR ZONE--DON'T FORGET TO GRADE THE QUIZZES, JS."

"So much for my romantic dinner and breaking it to you gently," John sighed tiredly, setting aside a brown paper bag of takeout.

"That was your romantic dinner?" Rodney balked, and before John could make some sort of irrelevant argument like pointing out that Rodney loved bad Chinese food or that Rodney hated pretentious restaurants, Rodney said, "You should have told me. You should have told me and you shouldn't be going."

Then John scowled and said, "I'm Air Force, Rodney, you knew that. You knew that--"

"You're a fucking student," Rodney yelled back, voice growing hoarse because all he could think was John and flaming wreckage, the lazy spin of helicopter blades slowing and the shriek of wind. John's face, pale and dirty and cold. "You're writing a thesis that's so brilliantly obscure that nobody will understand it and everybody will want to and--"

"I'm a pilot," John hollered back, and that's when his voice broke a little. "I'm a pilot, Rodney, and I can't just--"

"--John, please, please just--"

"I have to go," John finally said, and he put his hands on Rodney's face, and when Rodney looked in John's eyes it was full of excuses, just like his mouth and Rodney had always thought nothing could make him hate John's mouth, but those full lips shaping around words like, "I'm sorry," and "It's not forever--it's just a tour," and "I'll be fine, Rodney--it'll be fine," made Rodney want to punch him in it.

"You're not even through with your thesis," Rodney said numbly, eyes huge and his throat tight. "You'll be an academic failure. I'll make fun of you to everybody. I'll trash your drafts."

"You can hang pictures of me in effigy," John said, and smiled in a painful, lopsided way.

"My students will like it too much," Rodney snapped.

"I'll take my chances," John murmured.

Rodney shut his eyes fiercely and gritted his teeth. "God--don't say that--I know enough about statistics that I hate it when people say that--"

But John cut him off with a kiss, and Rodney hated how he could tell from the way he was putting his hands in John's dark hair, and how he scraped his teeth along John's lower lip that he was going to let John off the hook.

Later, when John was curled over Rodney, his back like the arch of a Roman aqueduct, his hips grinding against Rodney and his cock splitting Rodney open and his fingers dotting bruises all over Rodney's hips--Rodney just kept asking for more and harder and fuck--

Rodney wanted marks, scrapes, cuts, tender red skin between his shoulders blades, a crescent of purpling teethmarks on his shoulders, for John not to be careful anymore--anything, anything to prove that this had been real.

*

School started on the fourth, and Rodney made that extra effort to monopolize John as much as possible, giving his students pop quizzes left and right and luring John into the office for extra grading before throwing the entire stack into a convenient trash can and starting a conversation about Dr. Who. John attempted to look disapproving, but seriously, it was Dr. Who.

"You know I have this thesis I'm working on?" John asked sarcastically.

"You're just looking for an excuse to cheat on me with Norton," Rodney shot back, and handed John a muffin. "Here, it's cranberry walnut. Eat it before I steal the top." And John would, because he recognized a love token from Rodney when he saw one.

But Rodney wasn't the only one clambering for John's attention and John, who was getting rides "back to his apartment" from Rodney under the very clever cover that John's car was totaled, was late more often than not for their designated eight o'clock meeting time in one of the faculty lots. And half the time, Rodney didn't even have the heart to yell at him because John looked so ragged around the edges, trying to push through the last bumps of his thesis.

During the three and a half week period John spent throwing himself against a proverbial brick wall and Norton logged billions of extra office hours with his most favorite student, Rodney skulked around corners taping small, inconspicuous objects to the lower corners of Norton's office doorframe so he could maintain an opening and make sure Norton wasn't taking advantage of John's delirious exhaustion. Mostly, he heard Norton saying soothing, fatherly things like, "You're almost there, John. And this is the last revision, Ipromise," about three times every day and John bitterly accusing, "You're just fucking with my mind now--I know it."

Rodney was kind of glad that John had de facto moved in with him, because he kept finding his normally-sane TA wandering around the apartment at four in the morning, confused and stubbing his toe on the couch looking for his shoes.

"What are you doing?" Rodney would ask, bewildered.

"I don't know," John would answer, and he sounded so helpless Rodney couldn't help but laugh.

A few weeks before John was supposed to ship out--Rodney had a mental calendar, with red Xs and a big skull and crossbones over The Day--Norton said, "Oh my God, I think you're done," and John said, "I hate aerodynamics. I hate airplanes. I am never flying an airplane again," before he rushed it off to the printers.

"I think I'm going blind," John said the day Rodney collected him from one of the Caltech computer labs at eight in the morning. He was unshaven and smelled like toner and he had a dozen papercuts on his hands, his sleeves rolled up so Rodney saw the dark hair on his arms, and it struck Rodney that in a few days he wouldn't see stuff like that anymore, so he committed it to memory with the resigned ache he'd been doing for a lot of things in the last few weeks.

"But you're done," Rodney said soothingly, and waited while John feverishly checked through every bound version of his thesis the printers had sent him, remembering fondly his own first master's thesis.

"Oh, God," John said hoarsely. "This is useless. I can't even read anymore."

Which was when Rodney decided this could not go on and took them out of John's hands and walked them over to Delores, queen of the department secretaries, and settled the crate of theses on her desk, ignoring her reflex scowl at him and saying, "Delores--I believe my TA has finished his thesis."

She put her hand over her quivering lip and looked at John proudly, who stared at her with the blank exhaustion of a job well done.

"Oh, John," she said. "And against--" she looked at Rodney pointedly while saying it "--insurmountable odds, too! I'll get these out to the department immediately."

John blinked three times and said, "Wait--what?"

Rodney scowled at her and put his hands on John's shoulders, saying firmly, "And now, you're going home."

"Wait--my thesis," John protested feebly.

"Is out of your hands," Rodney soothed.

John held up his hands as Rodney steered him toward the parking lot and looked at them sadly. "Those pages were really sharp, Rodney," he mourned, and Rodney wondered had he been like this at seventeen, finishing up his first masters and so disoriented he'd walked into a parked car hard enough to jam his knee--which, actually, was a pretty good indication that answer was a yes.

Rodney told John to sleep in the passenger seat but mostly, John just stared straight ahead and breathed loudly until they reached Rodney's apartment. So Rodney sighed, put the car in park, and somehow managed to get them inside where he stripped John carefully, throwing his jeans and t-shirt and track jacket into the wash, and arranged John under a hot shower--joining him under the spray after a moment's indecision.

Rodney was halfway through rubbing shampoo through John's ridiculous hair when he felt John wrap his arms around Rodney's chest and bury his face in Rodney's shoulder.

"Hey," Rodney murmured, close to John's ear, water rolling down his back and legs, and it was strange, to feel John's wet hands on him, slick and wonderful and safe.

"Hi," John said back and took a long breath out before he murmured, "Thanks for everything."

Rodney's throat closed up, and he put one hand on the back of John's neck, saying, "I'll expect you to do some manly pining."

"I'll cry myself to sleep in my lacy, pink pillow every night, promise," John answered.

"Then it's settled," Rodney said decisively, and made sure both of them were rinsed and clean before they stumbled out of the shower, dried off and dumped the towels on the bathroom floor, collapsing into bed, where Rodney pressed John back in the pillows and blew him, slow and sweet and tender, hands holding John's hips and rubbing his cheek against the hollow of John's hipbone. And after John had come with a tiny, choked-off moan, Rodney scooted up his body and batted John's reaching hands away, saying, "Knock it off. You've had a long month."

"You could give a guy a complex," John said blurrily, but his eyes were already closing.

"Eye for an eye," Rodney said softly, and he laid there for a long time watching John asleep.

*

 

For the next few days, Rodney and Norton called a temporary truce and ran around the school harassing professors into reading John's thesis with a terrifying urgency. They cajoled, threatened, left annoying voice messages, and made absolutely no eye contact with one another.

"Why is everybody glaring at me?" John had asked, narrow-eyed.

"They're just jealous of how pretty you are," Rodney had said, which wasn't precisely a lie but probably not the exact truth John was looking for.

"I'm going to go play Oregon Trail now," John had finally said, glaring, "try not to destroy modern physics while I'm gone."

"Stop playing as me," Rodney had complained after him. He was sick of reading, HERE LIES RODNEY MCKAY: CROTCH ROT ENDED HIM on the badly pixilated tombstones on the side of the road.

But the point was to speed along the process, and Rodney and Norton beamed from the sidelines like proud parents--only not, because that'd be strange and more than vaguely incestuous--as John soldiered through his exams. They ignored all their predetermined rules about personal space and jammed their faces into the crack between the double-doors of the conference room and listened to the faint murmur of voices from Caltech faculty they had harassed, intimidated, and otherwise bludgeoned into reading John's thesis with lighting speed, and felt their hearts race out of their chests as John formulated answers.

"Oh my God--this is too stressful," Rodney moaned at Norton. "How can you do this with more than one student?"

Norton rubbed at his face. "Well, I don't really like most of them," he admitted.

"That makes sense," Rodney was forced to concede.

And they were still beaming like proud parents when John stepped out of his orals, looking flustered and crap, and said, "Oh, God, that was awful," and Rodney had to resist the urge to coo, "All grown up and getting your first master's."

*

 

They had a little over three days left at that point, which Rodney had calculated down to hours and minutes even. He'd considered drafting an itinerary, but figured he'd mostly end up writing "SEX" or "MORE SEX" and "EATING FOLLOWED BY SEX" all over it anyway so he'd discarded the paper plans and just tackled John into bed the moment they'd gotten into the apartment and got no complaints.

Eventually, though, Rodney convinced himself he'd broken his hip and sent John out to buy him a heating pad and a splint and Cadbury crème eggs.

John came back with a bag of Doritos, a hot water bag, some Hershey's Kisses and a kitten.

"Are you learning impaired?" Rodney demanded around a mouthful of kisses, palming the kitten's grey and white striped head as it yawned in his lap. Then, his eyes lit up as he said, "Wait! If you're mentally unfit for duty then we'll just--"

"No," John disagreed emphatically, and got down on the floor next to Rodney by the couch, stroking a curled finger over the trembling pink shell of the kitten's ear. "I found her in a box in front of the grocery store. Last one." John smiled at Rodney and said, "Kind of ornery. I thought you two might enjoy one another."

Rodney looked appalled. "You actually pick up strays," he sneered, trying for disgust but actually just missing "disgruntled," largely because the kitten was unbearably cute in that stupid but loveable way that had been his downfall with John, too. It was currently licking at Rodney's palm and mewling, blinking its large, sweet eyes and nuzzling into Rodney's lap.

John hummed in agreement and smiled as the kitten blinked at him curiously, waving one forepaw to slap at John's fingers.

"Thought you might want some company," John admitted, and in a far more quiet voice, said as he looked away, "Of course, you're welcome to replace the current line-up in its absence."

It took Rodney about thirty-six seconds to decode whatever the hell John was talking about, and when he did he made a choking noise and set the kitten down on the floor where it started and knead at the carpet with its baby claws immediately. Then Rodney grabbed John and was torn between punching him or punching him in the nipple for being an asshole.

"You're not replaceable," he finally said, glaring into John's purposefully blank face.

"You don't have to wait for me," John told him calmly.

"No," Rodney disagreed savagely, "I shouldn't have to wait for you."

A flicker of something darker passed over John's face. "I don't want to fight, Rodney."

Rodney stared at him for along time before he realized he didn't want to either, that he was tired and feeling a little brittle around the edges, with a citrus-poison urgency at the edges of his awareness that had kept him up more nights than he'd actually managed to sleep through the last several weeks. He would stay up as long as he could, arguing math with John or talking about classic scifi or counting John's fingers over and over again, studying the shadows of his face because somewhere along the way John had become dearto him--and Rodney didn't actually know what that meant, but it felt right in his mouth, it seemed to read properly when he stroked his hand over John's shoulder in the morning.

So he sighed long and deep and put a hand on the back of John's neck, pulled him close and pulled him down, until John's face was buried in Rodney's shoulder and they were lying down on Rodney's floor--John's weight heavy and real across Rodney's chest.

"So you have to go," Rodney said dully.

"Yep," John murmured. "Make you sign in blood your third year at the Academy."

"Can't run away, can't be gay, can't avoid conflict with predicted massive U.S. casualties--" Rodney didn't let his voice break over the words, because he'd been watching the news too much lately and feeling the weight of it sink into his head with a sickening sense of reality "--can't stay home and have sex with brilliant astrophysicist--what's in this for you anyway?"

John was quiet for a very long time before he said, "You ever see the sky on a perfectly clear day, Rodney? When it's all blue and huge and almost gold from the light?"

"No," Rodney lied.

"This is the first time I've ever thought that maybe it wasn't worth it," John told him quietly, and then closed his eyes.

Rodney just curled his fingers into the hair at the back of John's head.

*

 

John shipped out on a Tuesday afternoon and refused to let either Rodney or Norton (hah!) drive him. He just called a cab and kissed Rodney goodbye at the door in such a sick mimicry of war movies it made Rodney's stomach turn, made him so helplessly furious he knotted his hands in John's reckless hair and bit hungrily at his mouth until John pressed his palms to Rodney's cheeks, until John pulled away and said, "Hey, hey now."

"Don't go," Rodney said--for the millionth time now.

He knew his eyes were too wide and too pleading but he'd been watching the news, been listening to Clinton's solemn discourse on why this was necessary and proper. Rodney knew he wasn't being fair but he didn't care--they could go to Canada. His sister would hide them.

John just smiled at him, crooked and rueful. "I'll be back soon," John said gently, and this time, when he kissed Rodney, it really felt like something in Rodney's chest was going to crack open, like the stressed walls of a dam.

John's mouth was soft and kind and warm on his own, and Rodney felt John just breath into him, close-lipped and so intoxicatingly sweet that Rodney was feeling lightheaded off of it, feeling starry, and this time, when John pulled away he did it so slowly Rodney barely realized they'd stopped kissing until John pressed his mouth to Rodney's temple and said, "Bye," and "Take care of yourself, okay?" and "Don't name the cat Gollum." and walked out of the door.

Rodney spent the rest of the day parked in his office at school watching the television he'd liberated from the faculty kitchen and listening to announcers talking about the dead in thousands until he forced himself to go home and feed the cat.

"You're just like that jackass," Rodney berated her as she curled her soft, furry body around his ankles in the living room. "Completely irrational and easily influenced and?you like me," he finished lamely.

He went to bed that night and despite all his best intentions let the cat curl up practically on his face, and when he woke up choking on hair, he realized the world hadn't stopped turning or anything and that it was Wednesday, and he had a class at eleven.

*

 

It was weird but mostly debilitating and horrible to be alone again after having John and John's long arms and legs taking up so much space for--well, not very long, actually, Rodney sulked.

He spent a lot of time laying in his bed and allowing the cat to lord over the apartment, and ate the entire contents of his increasingly poorly-stocked fridge. Then, he ate pizza, Chinese, Greek--anybody who would deliver and sometimes all in one night and regretted it (a lot) the next morning. The cat looked at Rodney as if he was some sort of beast king, demolishing entire mountains with his iron jaw.

"Oh, like I didn't find you passed-out face down in the food dish yesterday," Rodney told it snottily, which only made the cat narrow its kitten eyes in a remarkably good impression of John when he was annoyed. "That is incredibly creepy," he said, frowning. "Stop it immediately."

A few days later he felt well enough to start picking fights with Norton again, but neither of their hearts were into it, and Rodney spent most of his waking hours investing in newer and better answering machines and voice mail systems and checking his mailbox, waiting for any kind of word at all.

The second week, he got a letter, in John's now-familiar handwriting. It read:

STRANGE BUT TRUE: THE USAF CAN RUIN EVEN ITALIAN FOOD.
SERIOUSLY. DON'T NAME THE CAT GOLLUM. JS.
PS, SEND NORTON MY LOVE.

Rodney was torn by the warring urges to clutch it to his chest and burn it immediately, which he hated as it was disingenuous and exactly what John had probably wanted.

"I hate your owner," Rodney told the cat.

*

 

It really hit him John was gone when they sent him his new TA, huge-eyed and fragile-looking and Rodney wondered how they'd made that terrible decision, like sending the sick one out of the pack to appease the wolf--or some anthropological claptrap.

"What's your name?" Rodney asked, passing the kid a stack of illegible quizzes.

He said, "Todd. Todd Ritter," and fumbled as Rodney stuffed yet another stack of file folders into his arms. "Um--I'm excited to be working with you, Dr. McKay."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "You know, I'd be more convinced of your apparent enthusiasm if it didn't look like you were about to hurl all over my office," he said sarcastically, and at Ritter's increasingly green expression, Rodney yelled, "Don't you dare hurl all over my office!"

It was not the most auspicious of beginnings for a new and beautiful working relationship, but then again, Rodney had never been served alcoholic beverages by Ritter, nor had Rodney seen Ritter mostly naked and being lusted at by hundreds of drunken, stoned twentysomethings so all things considered he was already at an advantage over Sheppard.

His morning class, a significant number of whom were returnees from last semester's Adventures In Physics were equally if not more vicious, and Rodney started keeping his office hours if only because it was kind of hilarious hearing seemingly-harmless undergrads say completely horrible things about Rodney's new TA. It was cruel and Ritter was looking slighter and more ill by the day, but Rodney figured what didn't kill you made you stronger, and there was a better than likely chance Ritter would survive this.

"I have this strange feeling none of the students like me," Ritter mourned, feebly grading tests without drawing any F-14s onto the A-papers, for which Rodney hated and judged him silently.

"I have no idea where you're getting that impression," Rodney allowed, and told him to go away and grade in the privacy of his own office and get the hell out of Rodney's. He was in the middle of yet anotherastonishing breakthrough in wormhole theory and Ritter was disturbing Rodney's zen-inducing solitaire game.

"But Norton said your previous TA did all his work in here," Ritter said, sounding confused.

Rodney vowed to plant a bomb in Norton's toilet at the earliest possible convenience. "Norton is famous for lying," he assured Ritter. "It's a debilitating case of professional jealousy and you shouldn't listen to a word he says about me."

Ritter widened his eyes in alarm. "He said you'd say that."

"Norton also engages in sexual congress with sheep!" Rodney blustered, furious.

"He said you'd say that, too!" Ritter gasped, horrified.

Ritter the TA was out of the picture in a record four weeks, but Rodney must have been showing wear and weariness around the edges, because Delores only yelled at him for five minutes and didn't even withhold staples the following week.

"We all miss John, Dr. McKay," she told him later, when she was dropping by yet another set of apology letters for him to sign. "But we're running out of bright young minds for you to warp, and John was the only guy in this department anywhere near as sick as you."

Rodney thought she was being kind to him until he realized that was supposed to be his subtle heads-up at that theretofore unpracticed policy of TA's Are A Privilege, Not A Right was being exercised out of furious spite, and Rodney nursed his bitterness over bad coffee from a nearby café, writing things like, "Are you out of your mind?" and "No, there's no way you can be this stupid," all over the papers he graded.

The only thing that kept him going was the fact that once John had vacated Norton's coveted one thesis student at a time space, the man had garnered a vacuous following even more depressingly unwashed than Rodney's own, and Rodney took enormous pleasure in watching Norton feebly attempt to pass them off to other professors and protect his own academic chastity. "It's not you," Norton would say, "it's me--we're just not studying similar-enough fields, Mr. Argent."

But the thing was that no matter how distracting and weird and politicized school was, at the end of the day Rodney still came home to an apartment that was suddenly unwieldy in size, even with all the boxes of John's crap he'd offered to take in John's absence.

Rodney wandered around his apartment looking for something he never managed to find. So he turned on the television to CNN and watched war coverage and unpacked all of John's stuff--poured it out onto his bland carpet and smoothed his hands over it. And after a couple of days of letting John's clothes and shoes andback copies of Superman comics--Christ, the man had no taste--Rodney realized he was being completely ridiculous and tried to pack all of John's stuff away again but ended up putting it in his closet and his dresser instead.

And then it seemed stupid to just have John's clothes mixed in with Rodney's stuff so he put all of John's videos and CDs with his own and started putting John's books onto the shelves, rereading John's copy of The Giving Tree and flipped through John's cookbook, touched the edges of the old photograph and missed John so much he couldn't breathe.

He read John's undergraduate history textbooks, traced John's handwriting in the margins of chapters about war and death and sacrifice, about how people bore the weight of great and dangerous change, and felt an ache so huge and horrible in his chest that when he pulled the cat into his arms, she only rubbed her soft nose against Rodney's nose like she could feel the weight of loneliness that was holding both of them down.

Rodney spent a lot of time swearing off cable news and then binging on it again and still no news of casualties, which he was alternately grateful for and sickened by, because people were still hurt, U.S. servicemen were still injured, and John could be one of them.

Rodney spent a month trying to figure out what he'd do if he got a call saying John was hurt before he realized that he wouldn't get a call that John was hurt, that to the rest of the world, he was just some guy who'd burdened John with papers to grade for a couple of months and if Jeannie ever found out about Rodney throwing a textbook through a television screen, that's exactly what he'd tell her made him do it.

*

 

Over the next two months, Rodney got three postcards and four letters. John talked about the weather and the color of the sky when morning was just a pale, pink sheen over it and how the sun looked, furious and ethereal from that high. But John was never chatty in real life and so Rodney hadn't been expecting it in letters, all of which were signed "JS" and the last of which asked what the hell Rodney was calling the cat, anyway.

The cat, who responded in her own cattish way whenever Rodney spoke since they were the only people in this strange, half-empty apartment of theirs, seemed to miss John, too, and always sat docile and still next to Rodney in front of the new television, listening to bombs go off far away.

"He's going to be fine, Rodney," Jeannie said.

"Well of course he is," Rodney snapped. "I'm pretty sure I might die from sheer irritation if he wasn't and I'm too young and too valuable to the scientific community and God knows I can't let feeble minds like Henry Norton's rule the world of cutting edge physics so of course he will be fine and then I'll live." He paused, listening to something smacking and wet, disgusting and familiar from childhood summers. "Are you eating ice cream?"

"Oh, like you aren't," Jeannie sneered over the phone, and Rodney glared guiltily down at his own tub of fudge ripple.

"I have an excuse," Rodney sulked, eyes following the CNN reporter on location and tried to ignore the black ribbon of the closed captioning and any mention of the word "death."

"So do I!" Jeannie argued. "We've only been married for what--a couple of months and Todd is already turning into this completely disgusting slob. I found socks in the microwave this morning, Rodney. Socks. In the microwave."

"Okay, being married to you, frankly, I'm surprised Todd hasn't stuck his nuts in the microwave," Rodney snapped. "And your trauma can hardly compare to my own!"

Jeannie disagreed, and by the time Rodney finally hung up on her an hour later he realized the entire tub of ice cream had melted into a disgusting cream-colored mess and was starting to leak out onto his pants, making completely scandalous stains.

"This is ridiculous," he told himself, and then yelled it again later that night when he realized the cat was licking his pants in the laundry basket.

The next week, Rodney had almost made it a full three days without panicking over John and where John was and if John was dead and also if he was sleeping with Balkan hussies when Rodney heard the words "fighter jet shot down in Bosnia" on his way to class and felt his knees give out.

*

 

Norton stared at him.

"You called General Heller?" he asked, baffled.

Rodney sulked into his Mai Thai.

"He asked if I knew how many young men in F-16s there are in Bosnia." Rodney kicked the bar lightly before wincing. "Then he asked me if I knew what the federal punishment for hacking into the Defense Department was."

Norton snorted. "Figures," he muttered, and sipped at his whiskey sour. "Maybe you'll be sexually abused by Mounties after you're deported."

Rodney narrowed his eyes. "This seething jealousy, Norton--it's not a good look for you."

It was at exactly that moment, apparently, that shift change kicked in and the rainbow strobe lights replaced the classy, overhead barlights and Rodney had a terrifying flashback to the first time he'd ever been in this hellhole, winced around the memory of John and his sidearm and the sunglasses.

"I can't believe you brought me here," Norton muttered.

Rodney glared. "You made noises about bonding over our mutual worry and silly me, I thought we'd give a nod to nostalgia."

"I can't believe John worked here," Norton said in a hushed voice as scantily clad, gender-indeterminate beautiful people started to appear from the staff area, giggling and lighting tea light candles on the tables, straightening artistic light fixtures, chattering amongst themselves, their lean legs and tight asses smooth in tight leather.

"I mean," Norton murmured, awed as Thing 1 wandered past and Rodney ducked his head for fear of recognition, "this is practically a harem."

Which made Rodney choke on his Mai Thai and unfortunately also served to catch the attention of Charlie the porntank, who made a beeline for Rodney.

"Hey," he said, flashing his all-American white teeth, gleaming and sharp and predatory.

Norton's eyes went huge. Rodney held up his Rum and Coke like a cross.

"I paid full price already!" Rodney yelped.

The porntank pouted, but then brightened to say, "Well, the next one can be on me."

Rodney recoiled. "Go away!" he sputtered. "I'm seeing someone! He's very big and mean! And has a gun!"

"Oh--roleplay. I like," the porntank practically purred, and finally noticing Norton, horrified and frozen at Rodney's side, gave him an up-down glance before saying, "He doesn't look very big or mean to me."

"I don't like penises," Norton squeaked. Rodney stared at him.

The porntank leaned in and licked his mouth. "Maybe you just haven't had the right one yet."

Norton looked like he was about to either asphyxiate or lose all his limbs because all the blood in his body had clearly surged to his face when--thank God, Rodney thought, because he was not going to be responsible for killing Caltech's physics grant magnet--Thing 2 slapped the porntank upside the head and frowned fiercely.

"Charlie, it's barely eight o'clock. Save some for the ones who aren't actually afraid of you," Thing 2 said, ignoring the porntank's sulky noises, then turned to Rodney to scowl. "It's you again. John told us about you."

Rodney paled. "Uh," he said eloquently. Norton's eyebrows raised in interest.

"For the record?" Thing 2 told him. "He could do so much better."

It wasn't like Rodney was a stranger to career suicide, but still, it was one thing to call the chairman of the physics department at Northeastern an idiot and an insult to the field and quite another to listen to Henry Norton spew his liquor and shout, "You slept with John?" as the porntank said, "I knew he was keeping you to himself!" and Thing 2 added, "Also, it's just so unfair that you trapped somebody like John into a monogamous relationship--that's patently inhumane! He could do so much good for society but no."

"Um," Rodney prevaricated.

Norton's eyes narrowed and he slammed his glass on the counter. "You slept with John?"

"Only a little!" Rodney protested.

"How do you sleep with somebody 'only a little'?" Norton demanded furiously.

The porntank opened his mouth to volunteer information that probably nobody wanted to hear so Rodney had to be grateful that Norton barreled right on, yelling, "This is--! No wonder--! I can't--! He told me he got that bruise skateboarding!"

"Why were you looking at his bruises?" Rodney squawked.

"Oh my God," Norton moaned in agony, covering his face. "He had multiple bruises? You gave him multiple bruises?"

Rodney figured saying that John had liked getting the bruises wouldn't help his case any, and Thing 2 looked entirely too amused. The porntank had a strange, speculative expression on his face like he was working out the mechanics of how and where Rodney had most-likely bruised John--which Rodney figured were probably all far more aerobic and acrobatic and strange and terrifying than their actual causes.

"Oh like you've never had any rough sex before!" Rodney snapped, and trance music, heavy on the bass, low on the artistic value, started pounding the air, the DJ's voice saying, "Testing, testing" over the roar, and Norton shouting over it:

"Not with my TAs--no!"

"Despite the fact that I cannot argue with that," Rodney yelled back unhappily, "I can say that John started it! And it totally wasn't my fault!"

"You were fucking your TA!" Norton bellowed over the beat. "You abused a position of trust and probably gave him STDs!"

"I have not had an STD since I was in middle school thank you very much!" Rodney hollered back, but before he could go on and yell that it was mono he realized--with the music cut out abruptly--there was literally total silence in the club, and that even the porntank was giving him a vaguely disgusted look.

"It was mono!" Rodney yelled.

"Right," Thing 2 said, taking a step back.

"Maybe we shouldn't hook up after all," the porntank said, like he was letting Rodney down easy.

Norton tore at his hair. "I can't believe I didn't see the signs," he said feverishly. "He defended you. He said you were interesting. He didn't hate you! Of course you were touching him inappropriately--it was the only possible answer!"

"This is becoming really insulting," Rodney said peevishly.

"Wait--does his CO know?" Norton asked suddenly, looking up, wild-eyed and worried. "Nobody from the Air Force knows, right?"

Rodney rolled his eyes hugely. "Actually, Norton, I thought it'd be a great idea to invite General Heller over for tiny, penis-shaped Jell-O shots while John walked around my living room trussed up in leather with a ball gag and a tattoo saying SOMETIMES I PITCH, SOMETIMES I CATCH on his left asscheek."

Norton stared in naked horror.

"Of course they don't know!" Rodney barked. "How stupid are you?"

Given the fact that Rodney's incredibly unethical relationship had just been outed, it was probably not the best question to ask, and then they'd gotten right back into one of those shouting matches that made their rivalry legendary to even the undergrads. Norton called Rodney a sexual predator; Rodney insinuated Norton had gained carnal knowledge of various barn animals. They had a pissing match over M-Theory, and then Norton said Rodney's hair looked stupid, and Rodney told Norton exactly what he thought about those patches on the elbows of his sport coats. Somehow, all of this wound back to John. At the end of the night, by the time naked men started prancing out onto the stage and shaking their money-makers, Norton and Rodney were shitfaced enough off of girly mixed drinks to draw up a temporary truce.

"No more, though," Norton said warningly, wobbling in his seat. "He's too good for you."

"Right," Rodney slurred. "No more gay sex with the stripper bartender."

Norton said, "Oh God, what?"

And then Rodney said, "Where are my feet?"

The porntank drove them home to Rodney's apartment at the end of his shift around one in the morning. Although he didn't editorialize about the state of Rodney's freezer, he did arrange Rodney and Norton in bed together under the covers in a way that left both of them shrieking in crushing, agonizing trauma the next morning.

"We never speak of this again," Rodney croaked, rubbing his sore head and clutching the blanket to his chest prudishly. "God, I hate that club."

"I've forgotten it already," Norton agreed fiercely.

"I--John can never know," Rodney insisted, eyes crazy. "Never. Know."

Norton's expression softened slightly. "I'm sure he'll understand it wasn't--"

"No, no, you misunderstand," Rodney interrupted, waving a hand. "He thinks it's funny. He thinks we should get married and have hateful, unattractive children."

"John is a much sicker person than I previously thought," Norton said, but with deep affection.

Rodney looked away. "Yeah. Yeah, he is."

*

 

In the next six days, Rodney managed (a) not to make eye contact with Norton (b) make four students cry (c) almost hit a mailbox (d) and get one phone call from John, who sounded scratchy and tired but glad to talk to Rodney.

"Are you okay? Have you been shot?" Rodney asked, feeling a cold sweat break out all over his body. His original line of questioning had included the question "Are you acting out gay military-themed porno?" but he thought maybe that was a bad idea if he wanted John to still date him eventually.

"Yes, Rodney, I've been shot," John said. "That's why they let me have a nice, leisurely call."

"Well, it might have been your dying wish," Rodney sniffed.

"I think I'd opt for lobster," John said earnestly. "How's stuff? Cat okay? Made anybody cry?"

"The cat is hateful and contrary," Rodney said, ignoring John's "So just like his owner, then," and went on to add, "I took Norton to the Boom Boom Room," mostly for the hilarity of hearing John choke on a telephone line all the way from Italy.

"So that's a yes," John said, laughing. "You made somebody cry."

"I think, actually, that Charlie, the indiscreet bartender, made your precious Norton cry," Rodney answered, but he couldn't help but grin.

"Guess I have to write another apology letter on your behalf," John said easily, and said, "I'm glad everything over there's good."

"Yeah," Rodney said, mostly because he suddenly felt an ache in his throat.

"I'm fine, buddy, I promise," John told him, but it felt hollow and only half-there with the echoing voices of dozens of other servicemen in the back of the room.

Rodney imagined a wall of phone banks and John leaning against his cubby, hair a wreck and clothes wrinkled, a wry, tired smile on his face. And Rodney thought that if he were there, if Rodney were able to reach him, he'd want to smooth a hand over the back of John's head and touch his cheek and say, "I miss you, too."

*

 

At some point the seasons started to change and Rodney felt a little like a deranged war bride, with a patchwork of John's letters and postcards and--incongruously--one Polaroid photo of him, boots kicked up on a table, heels crumpling up important documents left and right, sporting sunglasses and puffing on a cigar: big man in war zone. The only thing written on the back of it was "Send Jeannie a copy!!!" which Rodney did, but rolled his eyes the whole time.

"I have such an inappropriate extra-marital crush on your boyfriend," she'd sighed over the phone the day she'd gotten the Xerox of the photo. "Next time you phone him, tell him he can have me when he gets sick of you."

"I'm telling Todd," Rodney had threatened.

Then Jeannie had snorted, and there'd been a brief rustling noise before she'd yelled into the background, "Hey! Todd! I'm telling Rodney his boyfriend can have me for a sex slave when he finally gets sick of my brother."

Todd had said, "Okay! What's for dinner?"

"The thrill is gone," Jeannie had hissed into the phone.

Summer eventually crawled over southern California like a lazy tide and the blistering dry heat reminded Rodney strangely of Canadian winters on still, still mornings, when stepping outside was a blast of frigid dissonance, and hisskin went into shock for a moment before the billions of nerve endings in the dermis got with the program. The air was so dry it could have caught, and Rodney spent the summer monopolizing labs and breaking ground on an astonishing new theory and listening to news reports about forest fires and Bosnia and tried not to think about it too much.

At the end of August, Jeannie was down for a medical conference, and crashed on his couch after four days in a five-star hotel, eating complimentary food and listening to people talk about different kinds of schizophrenia and the newest edition of DSM.

"So tell me," Rodney asked, "seriously, did you go into psychiatry so you could explain our family?"

Jeannie smirked. "Nothing could explain our family."

Rodney couldn't help but grin meanly. "Mom and Dad still making one another miserable?"

Her face cleared for a moment in an expression of schooled serenity she'd taken a whole class for during college and she reached over to pluck the French fry out of Rodney's fingers.

"Yes, in their own way that makes them happy," she compromised, pausing before she added, "I wish you'd let it go."

"I wish you'd stop trying to tell me to get over it," Rodney snapped.

"I wish you'd stop being a wronged princess," Jeannie told him easily. "They weren't great parents but they've hardly ruined your life."

"I'm a big gay astrophysicist," he told her. "Doesn't that indicate ruined life to you?"

She rolled her eyes. "You're dating the hottest man I've ever seen off film and people keep offering you more and more money to verbally abuse their student body. Oh yeah, Rodney, your life just sucks left and right."

"I'm just so misunderstood," he said sincerely.

"Oh my God," she moaned. "There has to be a Motel 8 somewhere around here."

Later that night, two bottles of wine in, he and Jeannie sat on his couch and talked about all the letters John sent and looked all the postcards, and sometime around three in the morning, Rodney found himself clutching the Polaroid with his head in the cushions and Jeannie stroking his hair drunkenly.

"Nobody's going to call me," he mumbled. "If John gets shot down or eaten by a bear, nobody's going to call me and I'll never know."

"I don't think there're bears," she said uncertainly, slurring. "Rodney, it's okay."

"What if there are?" he asked.

The thought that was never on the surface but never far away was a sickening, shattering realization that this was not a Hallmark movie, and that if John never came home, Rodney wouldn't get an artfully muted score and a flash forward to six years later, when he was a strong, determined woman again. He'd just be a fucked up professor with grant money coming out of his ears in a crappy apartment with all of John's stuff, and he'd never be able to tell anybody how John liked to kiss him on the corner of the mouth good morning. Or how John pushed his Cheerios around in his breakfast bowl until they mapped out parabolas, or how John's books looked nice next to Rodney's books, and how Rodney had given up and gotten a frame for the photo of John and his mother, and set it on top of the television weeks ago. Or most importantly, how John made Rodney laugh in spite of himself, and because of himself, and just because.

It would be like it'd never happened, and maybe that would be what really made Rodney crazy.

Jeannie stared at him for a long time and put her hand on his forehead. "It's not fair," she whispered.

"I'm not drunk enough to cry in front of another human being yet," he admitted.

"Wait for a second," Jeannie said. "There's another Merlot under the sink."

"God bless you," Rodney said, and Jeannie poured him another mug of cheap wine and said it wasn't her usual methodology but fuck professionalism anyway.

*

 

Through a combination of begging, pleading, bribery, and sheer persistence, Rodney convinced the department that he needed another TA, and they sent him a four foot Korean girl who popped Bubbleyum and had a black belt and handwriting like a computer font, and liked to tell Rodney about the latest bad Korean drama she was watching.

"But then she saw him on the steps of the building and she knew," she said, hands flying across the pages as she slaughtered yet another class of freshman chum.

Rodney stared at her. "Wait--I thought she was dead. Her transplant gave out!" he asked, puzzled.

"That's what he thought, but secretly, she was afraid she'd only been in love with him because she had his dead girlfriend's organ--so she told her ex-fiance to let him think she was dead," she said conspiratorially.

"Oh God," Rodney hissed hatefully. "You've got me interested in this shit!"

"In my own defense," she said in a way that was only slightly apologetic, "nobody got cancer or hit by a car this time."

Rodney's associations with finals were always smug cruelty writing the exam and then agonized recrimination while grading--and this year, it wouldn't even end in orgasms. Mary, the ultra-Christian TA wasn't into premarital sex (at least not with Rodney) and frequently muttered things under her breath in his general direction that made Rodney very concerned about her committing physical violence against his person.

Another black mark against this year's holidays were that he was flying up to Toronto to spend them with Jeannie, Todd, his drunken parents, and his very best prospect for getting laid that season: crazy, crazy incestuous Harry.

"Maybe I'm too distraught over John to come up," Rodney said hopefully. It was December 17th and there was a better than likely chance all the flights were already booked.

"I already tried that," Jeannie reported sadly from her hiding place in the guest room of their mother's house. "I also said I was allergic to spruce, but I don't think it's going to work."

Rodney decided charitably not to point out that Jeannie was whining about a battle when clearly she'd already lost the war, given that nobody had died and it wasn't a major holiday and she was still over to dinner.

"Hey, though, this year, Harry might be more inclined to leave you alone if he knows your boyfriend is a badass military guy."

Rodney snorted. "He's in the Air Force. It's like the charm school of the armed forces."

Somewhere, Rodney knew John was feeling the urge to slap Rodney upside the back of the head and he didn't even know why.

Then, his mother had picked up another extension at her house and snapped, "Rodney, Jeannie, I know perfectly well you two are on the phone attempting to fabricate legitimate excuses for avoiding Christmas at home, but I am old and wily and you will both be present on Christmas Eve or God help you. Rodney, go buy your plane ticket. Jeannie, give me a grandchild."

"Okay," they chorused miserably, and hung up.

So Rodney ordered his tickets and packed his bags and sulked and watched John's copy of Back to the Future, not because he was feeling lonely or anything, but just because he hated it so much he couldn't resist it, and that was when Norton burst through the unlocked door of his apartment and told Rodney John's F-16 had been shot down.

*

 

"I just can't believe he listed you as his emergency contact," Rodney said hatefully.

Norton glared over his Bloody Mary. "I don't know what I'm baffled by more: the fact that this was the first thing you bitched about or that we're still talking about it."

"I'm going to let you in on a little secret, Princess Drunkenpanties," Rodney snapped. "I am violently panicked and on the knife edge of a mental breakdown right now and you are within easy seizure-injury distance. Focusing on the petty is meaningful now in that I'm not going to start shrieking and tearing at my hair and taking all of my clothing and rubbing this grape jelly on my nipples. Are we clear?"

"I hate talking to you," Norton said, pained. "I really do. More than I hate you as a person."

"And that is yet another reason I just can't believe he listed you," Rodney said, disgusted.

Norton looked like he wanted to climb into his vodka and tomato juice, but managed to say instead, "McKay, I've known John since he came into the program. We've worked together on his thesis for two years." He leveled Rodney a glare. "You met him in a flamer club, abused him as your TA, and tricked him into sleeping with you in the span of what, a semester? Why do you think I'm listed?"

Rodney's mouth set into a frown. "You're right," he said determinedly. "John loved me too much to upset me with a phone call saying he'd been injured, and so he wrote your name down--you know, to cushion the immediate blow."

Norton just bolted the rest of his drink and hit the call button on his armrest again. The flight attendants were starting to give them the stink-eye, though honestly, Rodney thought, if he and Norton were paying for each of their drinks and bent on consuming their body weight en route to Germany, what the hell were they complaining about?

When the blonde one approached them--Rodney could swear they were taking turns--a big, fake smile pasted to her face, she asked, "What would you gentlemen like this time?"

"Another Bloody Mary," Norton said, waving a five dollar bill.

"Coke and rum," Rodney told her, and passed her a ten. "Just go ahead and make me two."

Rodney's immediate reaction to Norton breaking into his house to break the bad news had been a combination of murderous rage and choking fear that had left him incapacitated. Then, it'd all whited out into glorious, productive panic. The next thing he remembered consciously he was shoving Norton onto and airplane and they were going to Germany. The last time Rodney was in Germany, he'd hooked up with a small, blond German woman after his lecture for what was possibly the worst sex Rodney had ever had, and he had some pretty bad sex in his history. It was not a place of pleasant memories.

"Did they say what his condition was?" Rodney asked for the hundredth time.

"Of course they did, I've just been keeping it from you for shits and giggles," Norton snapped.

Rodney frowned. "You're not a very nice drunk."

"You're not a very nice human being!" Norton snapped back. "For the last time, I don't know! I know he got shot down. I know he's in the hospital." He nursed at his glass and scowled, finishing with a hiss, "I know that I hate you."

Rodney waved his hand dismissively and slammed back both of his rum and Coke's.

Then it all got really undignified because apparently, air-travel and alcohol did not go hand in hand, and by the time Rodney and Norton had created a solid experimental method and were ready to draw conclusions, they were already tanked. Rodney was realizing a distressing correlation between time spent with Norton and alcoholism which, just on principle, he decided to blame on John, but that put him on a whole different tangent where he worried and wanted to scream and thought about ways to tell John that Rodney still loved him even if he didn't have all his limbs or was missing a hand or had half a face or wanted to live in a tree and eat raw meat for the rest of his life as a manifest of PTSD. Unsurprisingly, that made Rodney want to drink more and the flight attendants had already cut them off.

"Two theoretical physicists walk into a bar," Rodney said.

"Ow," Norton said, his face pressed into the tray table of the seat in front of him.

Rodney frowned. "You've already heard this joke," he pouted.

"I think my hangover is starting to set in," he moaned, feebly pulling his airline blanket more tightly around his shoulders. "Are we there yet?"

Rodney looked out the window: clouds, ugly clouds, gray clouds.

"Not yet, I don't think," he whispered.

"Rodney," Norton said.

"Yeah?"

"Are you scared?" Norton asked, and his voice was liquid and slurring, easy the way only drunks could talk, and Rodney looked at Norton's open-wide face and saw somebody who was John's very good friend and very good teacher and said:

"Yeah, I'm scared, too."

*

When they landed in Germany and all but fell out of the airplane, armed with Rodney's Mastercard and a rudimentary understanding of German--"Don't say 'yah' to any woman with an Adam's apple," Rodney had hissed--they got into a cab and drew pictures of the US flag and airplanes and wrote out Ramstein in all capital letters--the equivalent of shouting in English to people who spoke foreign languages, but the driver just rolled his eyes and hit the gas.

Once they reached the hospital, paying what Rodney figured was probably an exorbitant amount for the trip, he and Norton paced and pantomimed and turned out their wallets, offered up the U.S. Air Force any and all identification they wanted or needed and kept asking, "Is John okay? What happened?" and "He can't die! He just got his masters!" while the nurses pursed their lips at them and the orderlies raised their brows.

Rodney figured every weeping family that came through said the same things, that their husband or father or son or daughter or wife was indispensable, that she was everything, that he had so much ahead of him, that they had to be together--and Rodney used to balk at all of that undignified desperation until he found himself in that same place, saying the same words as loudly as possible in his head.

The nurses assured Norton and Rodney that it wasn't as bad as it looked, with John pale and thinner and white against the tired, bleached sheets of the hospital bed, hooked up to unidentifiable monitors that were "just precautions."

Of course, she was also under the impression that Rodney and Norton were John's gay uncles, which was more John's fault--and for which Rodney was determined John would pay dearly--than due to her own feeble grasp of particulars, so he was taking everything she said with several large chunks of rock salt.

Norton had been dragged away by one of the nurses to fill out a few forms and finish off some paperwork for John's release, of which a significant portion of the male and female staffs spoke of sadly, and left Rodney there to monitor him, but not without a warning glare beforehand.

It was too insulting for a proper eye-roll, so Rodney had just waved him off and settled down next to John's bed, watching his labored breathing and feeling weirdly heartsick about it at the edges of shuddering relief. All the way to Germany he'd pictured every possible terrible end, flashed back to images from war museums and now, looking at John's slender shoulders in the hospital scrubs, skin bruised and pale but otherwise unharmed, alive and intact and recovering--it made something in Rodney's stomach clench to know how close it was, how lucky John was.

And after five minutes of deep introspection, Rodney said brightly, "Well, that's enough of that," and started digging through John's medical charts.

*

 

For John, the doctors had found:

1 broken collarbone (left)
1 twisted ankle (left)
2 hairline fractures (left and right hand)
1 gash across the hairline, requiring 6 stitches
assorted bruises, scrapes, and cuts
1 case pneumonia

For himself, Rodney noted:

1 rude awakening Valium prescription is a good idea
1 / → 0 desire to kidnap unconscious John and take him back to Canada
1 / → 0 desire to slap unconscious John awake so he could explain himself
1 potentially deadly case of sinus infection (in development)

*

 

The nurses had been emphatic about the sheer amount of sedatives they gave their patients and how much they wanted Rodney and Norton to stay quiet to allow for rest and peacefulness--though the bloodlust in their eyes had made Rodney more than a little suspicious of their ability to Florence Nightingale with the best of them.

It was a concern further compounded by the fact that John didn't wake up because Rodney was making quiet squawking noises at Norton in their continuing argument over whether or not he'd "seduced"--air quotes Rodney's--John or had been tricked into becoming overly fond of him--emphasis added.

John woke up because a tall, frighteningly skinny and worrisomely pale blonde woman came into the room and hissed at them to shut up. John blinked once, twice, and his blurry hazel eyes came into focus on Rodney's face.

"Hey," he croaked, and John blinked at Norton over Rodney's shoulder. "Hey."

"Oh thank God you're all right," Norton said, voice squeaky.

"You told them we were your gay uncles," Rodney tried to hiss, but it came out kind of feeble.

"What?" Norton asked, alarmed, face reddening.

John smiled at Rodney, and one of his hands moved to cover his reassuringly, which was kind of gay for a military joint but Rodney could go with it, and curled his palm around John's long fingers, which felt thinner and more fragile than they had before. They'd blame the drugs. Norton rolled his eyes.

"Told you I'd be fine," John said hoarsely.

Rodney's eyes rounded and he said, "You got shot down."

"It's not a big deal," John confided.

"From the sky," Rodney continued emphatically. "In a flying fire hazard--by a missile."

"It wasn't really a missile," John compromised.

"They said it took a week for the marines to find you," Rodney growled.

John had learned fluent Rodney already, and he must have heard what Rodney was really saying over the sound of hospital white noise, over Norton's babbling gratitude that his most favorite thesis student ever was still sentient and cogent and alive.

It was hugely out of character and completely embarrassing but all Rodney wanted to do was to draw the white curtain around the bed and put his head down on where he was clutching John's hand, to press his lips John's knuckles and be wordlessly grateful. And because John was as clever a cryptographer as Rodney, he just curled one finger under Rodney's palm, stroked it over Rodney's lifeline once, twice, three times, and it meant that he knew and that he was sorry and that everything would be fine.

"Little vacation," John muttered, and he was already falling back asleep. "War's such a drag."

"Asshole," Rodney told him affectionately.

*

 

In the following week, John attempted to keep the nurses from telling his gay uncles about John's adventures in squirrel-eating and how sick it had made him, and then he'd stared at Rodney and Norton balefully as they'd laughed hearty, belly laughs in gleeful Schadenfreude. Rodney made sure to tell John secretly later that his ability to survive in the wilderness with nothing but a pocketknife and his wiles--"Wiles?" John had balked--was kind of hot, which John had rolled his eyes at but probably appreciated.

Eventually, through a combination of John's continuous and disturbingly effective whining, actual recovery, and the growing frustration of the ward doctors, John was released into the wild again and told by the United States Air Force to go home. Which really only meant he spent the entire ride home under Rodney and Norton's eagle-eyed (and only slightly inebriated) supervision still complaining about the choking fur and tiny bones of squirrels.

"They're just cute rats," John muttered somewhere over Western Europe, the drone of the airplane dulling his words. "Half their body weight is that damn tail."

"Oh my God, are you still bitter about this?" Rodney asked him, third rum and Coke warming his stomach.

Next to them, Norton snored, face pressed into Rodney's shoulder despite having been shoved away at least a dozen times already.

"I nearly choked and died on their tiny, tiny arm and leg bones, Rodney," John said mournfully.

"Christ," Rodney sighed at him, but pulled John in more closely, so he could take advantage of the artificial night on the airplane and the lack of circulating flight attendants, to kiss John very carefully on both corners of his lovely mouth.

"I'm glad I'm going home," John whispered.

"Yeah," Rodney agreed, and stroked a thumb over the back of John's hand, still dotted with dark, angry purple bruises from the IVs, and the memory of it made a flare of sorrow and anger run through him until John's fingers intertwined with his and Rodney couldn't help but say, "Oh God. We're like stupid teenagers together."

John just grinned at him, still thin from sickness but better, and said, "Thirteen's a good age on you, Rodney. I like the awkward, fumbling parts."

Rodney scowled. "Pedophile," he muttered.

"Yes, professor," John said obediently, and Rodney opened and closed his mouth furiously several times before deciding that John's snide little comments weren't worth it. John laughed and murmured, "You still owe me, you know."

Rodney blinked a lot before he remembered, and when he did, he leaned in close. "How do you plan on reaping your ill-gotten goods?"

"I was thinking about just making you pay." John grinned. "And pay. And pay. And pay."

"There's a lot to be said for constancy," Rodney commented and he felt stupidly giddy at the thought of John hanging around to make a killing on interest.

A few minutes later, when John said, "Oh, wow, Rodney, look," and pointed out of their tiny window at the sun cresting over mountainous clouds Rodney ended up mostly watching the way the light bathed John's features, shaded him in pinks and flamboyant oranges and worshipful gold. It made Rodney feel strange and out of sorts and humbled to think that this was what John had been talking about, the hugeness of morning and the sharp, sweet burn of it against a blue sky, and that he'd regretted loving it unreasonably if it meant having to leave Rodney.

So when John turned, mouth lit by the sun and his smile, Rodney just smiled back and pressed his hands to John's cheeks and kissed him on the left temple, as gentle as the light had been, and said, "Welcome home."

*

Epilogue:

John had confided that his original plan had never included getting a doctorate, but that after a semester of watching Rodney berate his undergrads, the prospect had seemed weirdly attractive.

"But by then I figured I wouldn't be able to do it at Caltech, I mean, what with the scandalous teacher-student relationship since you seduced me when I was your TA and everything," John had said easily, shelving some books in Rodney's new office.

"God, could you stop mentioning that?" Rodney had hissed, but when he'd looked up to scowl at John face to face, he realized that there was a horrified expression on the face of a boy in the hallway outside his office, fist raised and about to knock.

"Oh, hi," Rodney had said feebly. "Are you the new TA?"

"You cad," John had said. "Replacing me already with a younger, prettier model."

If possible, the student had gone even paler.

Later that night, when Jeannie had made her bi-monthly phone call, Rodney had heard she and John in hysterics over their gross character defamation and decided in the middle of unpacking their bedroom that he hated both of them and would kick John out of his life as soon as it was convenient, which would probably be immediately after John stopped being so funny and cute and embarrassingly nice to kiss first thing in the morning.

As it was, Rodney's reputation had been shot before he'd ever stepped foot on Northwestern University's campus. The fact that John thought it was incredibly funny to feign utter stupidity and act as a trophy husband at all the faculty events only compounded Rodney's agony--although in a weirdly flattering way, since a significant portion of the female and male faculty of the university manifested some kind of wistful jealousy about it.

John--who continued to blink his eyes hugely at Christmas parties and ask what a covalent bond was out of sheer bloody-mindedness--and because it was easier than talking about his actual academic qualifications and suffering the intelligentsia one-upmanship--just thought Rodney's, "No, he's smart. Really. He has a doctorate! In applied physics! I'll have Berkley forward his thesis!" was perennially funny.

With all of these strikes against him, it wasn't really a huge surprise that Rodney was known as unconventional playboy number one in the physics department. People frequently inquired worriedly after John, who everybody persisted in thinking a little bit too emotionally blond to take care of himself, and fretted over Rodney's TA, who despite Rodney's placating was alternately concerned for his chastity and perhaps too happy to spend his time in Rodney's office, alone and making curiously allured faces.

"It's so cold," Rodney bitched, dragging mud and snow and dead nature into the house. "It's so cold I think I'm too cold to work up a good holiday spirit."

John just stuck his head out of a kitchen, a smudge of flour on his face. "You're so bad at being Canadian," he sighed, and his expression darkened as he saw Rodney's shoes. "Mud room. Now."

"Well, happy Thanksgiving to you, too," Rodney snapped, and tramped grudgingly out of the foyer, through the--oh God, Rodney had never seen food that color before--utterly destroyed kitchen where John was doing something probably illegal with a stove, a meat thermometer, and a ball of butter, and into the mud room off the side of the house.

"Is it too late to give up and call a caterer?" John asked when Rodney wandered back into the kitchen, stripped of his winter coat and orange mittens. John looked disheartened. Even his hair was flat.

Rodney looked at the counter: at the ruined glazed carrots, the lumpy potatoes, the burned yams.

"It really never fails to blow the mind how you're bad at everything," Rodney muttered. He rolled up his sleeves and picked up the still-steaming yams, thrusting the crock into John's hands and glaring as he said, "Garbage disposal all of this stuff, now."

John pursed his lips. "Well, you know. I'm a trophy husband. My talents aren't supposed to lie in practical application."

"One of these days," Rodney vowed, "I'm going to trick you into saying that at one of your work parties, and then all the corporate sellouts at Boeing can give you the same look my coworkers give me and life will finally, finally be sweet." He popped a slice of carrot into his mouth before John scooped them into the sink and gagged. "But nothing can make these carrots sweet. Jesus, what did you do to them?"

John looked sad. "You probably shouldn't taste anything," he admitted.

"You're so lucky I love you," Rodney said under his breath, and opened the refrigerator. Ultimately, damage was minimal. Part of John's charm was that his inability to cook came with an inability to figure out portion size, so they still had enough raw materials to drag together a dinner, and since the turkey was still rock-solid frozen, they weren't down a bird, either.

"I am, I really am," John agreed readily.

Too readily, and Rodney pulled his head out of the fridge to narrow his eyes suspiciously.

"What's going on?" he asked. And that's when he noted what John was wearing: black t-shirt, threadbare and too tight, button-fly jeans that wreaked havoc on Rodney's higher brain functions. He was barefoot and looked disheveled and saucy. "Oh, no," Rodney said, eyes widening.

John smiled, sexy and low. "Aw, Rodney."

"Oh, no!" Rodney protested. "No!"

John pouted shamelessly. "It's Thanksgiving."

Rodney put a hand over his face, since the tempting, burnished gleam of the row of buttons barely visible on John's fly--and oh God, had the pants gotten tighter since John was a grad student?--was already starting to distract him.

"No!" he protested. "I refuse to me coerced by your cheap tricks! It won't work anymore! The thrill is gone!"

"But Rodney," John purred, sidling up to him, stroking his palms down Rodney's sides. "I thought you liked these pants. I wore them special for you."

"Back, Jezebel," Rodney said, but it was mostly for show, because there wasn't a person on Earth strong enough to resist John Sheppard when he was full of smug, congratulatory smiles and wearing that damn t-shirt and those jeans. Which, Rodney remembered, were more fun to take off if he was trying to do the unbuttoning with his teeth.

He glared. "Which horrible people have you invited this--?"

But that was as far as Rodney got before John closed his mouth over Rodney's. And the kitchen was so sunny and warm and filled with the smells of disastrous food tragedies thatRodney had to fist his hands in John's t-shirt and haul him against a counter. Had to kiss John's throat and his collarbone and the side of his neck and lick into his mouth again, because one of the perks of being a boring, suburban couple was he got to make out with somebody in the kitchen just because, and Rodney fully intended to collect.

John made a rolling, satisfied noise in the back of his throat, and he caught Rodney up in a hug, holding him close for a while before he said, "In my own defense: they were going to come anyway. I just thought I'd cushion the blow with sex."

"Well, I suppose that is to be commended," Rodney said grudgingly.

When John laughed, Rodney could feel the shivery shake of his all through his body, so when he pulled away he could look into John's now-familiar hazel eyes and see nothing but recognition there: everyday and ordinary and home and ours. And Rodney thought he'd slip soon, probably in the next few days, or deep in the lazy cold night, curled around John in the bed in the sunniest room of the house and whisper that of everything, it was that look on John's face that he was most grateful for.

"I do what I can," John murmured against Rodney's mouth, and pulled away with a conciliatory expression on his face, saying, "Anyway. Jeannie and her husband and the kids should be here any minute." Rodney paled. "And Henry's getting a cab in from the airport."

"Henry Norton?" Rodney squeaked in a thoroughly undignified way.

"You know he's got a new book?" John said brightly. "Apparently it's a huge mainstream hit."

Rodney didn't claw at his own face, but it was very hard. "I hate Thanksgiving."

John just laughed and brushed a kiss over Rodney's cheek, saying, "Yeah, I know."