The plane touches ground, kisses rubber to asphalt, and even Sumner has to give John's landing its due. But John can't feel the ground. It takes a moment for his heart to stop racing, and it will be another hour before his head leaves the clouds. His mom says he's stuck, between the earth and the sky.
Rodney says, "Would you sit still?"
"Can't." The Wednesdays John gets to fly are the same days he gets to hang out with Rodney. John's school friends have grown weary of his talk of planes and flying. Rodney only tells him to shut up when John gets something wrong. "You hungry?"
Rodney hums inside his engine. He's not looking at John. He's not paying attention. Sumner hired him to work on all the planes, but John's never seen that. Whenever John's around, Rodney spends all his time inside the Skipper.
"What are you doing?" John doesn't mean to whine, but he can't go back up, he hasn't come down, and he needs some kind of distraction.
Rodney waves his hands around. "I'm fixing the plane."
Sliding his stool closer to get a better look, John presses up against Rodney in his greasy coveralls, the ones with the holes John hasn't mentioned because life is more fun that way. Rodney watches him while one hand reaches out for a wrench.
"What are you doing?" he says, carefully.
John gets up. The stool rolls away across the hangar before it gets caught up in a Cessna's wheels.
"Let's go eat," he says. He walks around the Skipper, running his fingers along the metal body, burnished and waiting for a new coat of paint. It was yellow the first time John saw it. He presses his hand flat where it's warmest, where Rodney's hands have been today.
He's up, wiping his hands on his pants, watching John when John returns.
Rodney says, "OK. Let's go," and lets John lead the way.
They're five minutes down the long straight road out of Atlantis Flight when Rodney realises he's still wearing his coveralls.
"I don't think the diner'll mind," John says. "They probably get a lot of pilots, mechanics."
Rodney unbuckles his seatbelt and wriggles his way into the backseat. John sees him in the rearview mirror and hears him grunting his way out of his clothes.
"You know this isn't a date, right?"
Rodney's head pops up to glare at John in the mirror.
They pull into the empty parking lot of the chromed diner, The Flying Saucer, its sign a gold beacon on the roof. John sees the place shining from the freeway, but he's never bothered to stop. He's always been in too much of a hurry.
"Good french fries," Rodney says as they park.
It's empty inside except for the single waitress behind the counter and the two old guys sitting in the same booth behind different newspapers.
"Pick a booth," she says, coming around with the coffeepot.
"What's wrong with your Skipper?" John asks. Rodney ignores him for the coffee, adding cream and sugar in copious amounts. He finishes his first cup by the time she's back with the menus.
"It's just old," Rodney tells him when he's decided on lunch. "I picked it up at a police auction. Pretty sure they used it to smuggle drugs."
Rodney smirks. "Thought you'd like that."
When the waitress returns, she has the coffeepot again.
"BLT," Rodney tells her. "Extra B, on sourdough, not white, and lots of butter." He folds the menu before he hands it over. "And no--"
"Citrus." The waitress has a weary smile on her face when she turns to John.
"Burger," he says, a kind of apology.
She sends one more look Rodney's way and leaves the coffeepot on their table.
"Citrus?" John asks.
"I'm deathly allergic," Rodney says, as if John was supposed to know.
"And you tell her every time."
"Did I mention the death?"
Jukeboxes are set against the wall of each booth. John flips through Led Zeppelin, Madonna, AC/DC, then, on the last page, finds "Ring of Fire." He digs into his pocket for a quarter.
Their current soundtrack is the sizzle of the grills and Rodney, talking about his plane. "Had to strip out the walls and floor--they were cut to rags. Seats were gone. They'd been using the oil tank, too. Whole thing was gunked up."
"You go to Caltech to learn how to ungunk?"
John laughs. The music starts. He stacks the creamers that Rodney hasn't ripped open or claimed for his own elaborate structure. John tips his own over, letting it fall, taking down Rodney's at the same time. When they start again, they pool their creamers to build something taller.
"It'll get off the ground," Rodney tells him. "It's going to fly."
"Of course it will."
"You'll be helping with the test flights."
"You want me to take your readings?"
The food arrives. Rodney's BLT is a masterpiece of bacon and bread. "I want you to fly," he says through his first messy mouthful.
"Oh." John's burger is perfect. Exactly what he wanted. "Of course."
Rodney smiles. Johnny Cash sings.
The Skipper comes together quick after that. Rodney never stops tweaking his engine, but John drives out on a Saturday with Rodney's most recent police auction purchase--a pair of green plaid seats--strapped in the back of his Jeep. They fit them into the plane with a bit of trouble and more cursing than is necessary. Rodney grumbles--about nothing in particular, a low-level complaining, keeping John aware of his presence. John smacks him across the head once and gets a glare. Rodney gets quiet when John's next smack catches his hip. He disappears to the other side of the plane for twenty minutes, though their work is done. John lures him back with the promise of another BLT.
The next Saturday, John picks up Rodney from the bus loop on campus, and they drive out to a family-owned garage. Rodney knows everyone, but what's more surprising is they still want to do him favours.
They're here to pick up six gallons of surplus paint from a pretty blonde with grease streaked through her hair. Rodney flirts like a lumbering elephant, but the girl smiles and points to the storage room, and, when John shakes her hand, she's sweating.
"What did you do to that girl?" John asks, carrying five cans to Rodney's one.
"Lab partner, freshman year." Rodney swings his paint can back and forth. "She always had Hershey Kisses in her pocket."
"And you took advantage of that poor girl for chocolate?"
"I didn't," Rodney says. He looks backs at the garage to see who might be listening. "I didn't."
John hefts his cans into the Jeep, takes Rodney's, too, and stacks it on top of the rest.
"We're painting the Skipper white?" John asks, making Rodney smile with the change of subject.
"It's a good base," Rodney tells him. "I thought maybe some cool stripes. Or, oh!" He snaps his fingers--one, two, three. "Vargas girls!"
"In the Jeep, Rodney."
John drives this road each Wednesday, and Saturdays are becoming routine, too. He knows the roads to Atlantis Flight the same way he knows the skies above. Rodney points left, where the freeway becomes dust, and John turns, though he knows this isn't the way. This is Rodney's way, and, John doesn't yet know why, but he wants to follow.
The shortcut isn't any shorter, and when they arrive at Atlantis, the sun has fallen a little closer to the ground. There's a crowd, too. Atlantis Flight is John's escape, his place in the desert that leads to the sky. But there are days like this, too, when he can't find his own space, and learning to fly feels like one more extracurricular activity.
John recruits a couple of kids to wheel the Skipper out into the open desert. Rodney yells and kicks at the paint sprayer until it spits in his face and sprays white all over his shoes. John rescues him, takes over the job of painting, and Rodney directs. They get the primer coat on before John has to get home for dinner, and, on Sunday, they spray two more.
He checks on the plane after Wednesday's lesson. John runs a hand over her curves each time he passes, a touch to let her know that someone's watching out. There's a new kid taking lessons, but John doesn't see Rodney. He's left notes in John's locker: archive photos of war planes, squadron logos, and long rambles on foolscap that begin, "Wouldn't it be cool?"
John picks him up early the next Saturday, throwing a sketchbook in the passenger's seat as Rodney gets in the Jeep.
"Hey, hey, no throwing," Rodney says, and then he looks at the drawings. John did some sketching at Atlantis, but most of it was done up in his long-neglected treehouse, from memory, from a childhood spent imagining a plane of his own.
Rodney whispers, "John," just barely, and he flips through the pages slower now. From the driver's seat, John sees that flash of blue and gold and green. Before he can hold out a hand, Rodney stops.
"That's it," he says. He holds it up for John before the light turns green.
The Skipper looms large above the tiny city of Los Angeles John drew at the bottom of the page. The body of the plane is washed with the same blue of the sky, and its wings, touched with gold and green, pop out of the clouds and off the page.
"I like that one, too."
In the air, Sumner makes himself known only when John makes a mistake. "Fix your pitch, Sheppard," Sumner grunts. "Eyes on the gauge." It's not the same careful voice of his uncle, directing John's eyes to a bright point on the horizon.
John can't escape Rodney, even in the endless sky. The Beechcraft Skipper was made for two. Two surrounded by a bubble windshield because it was made for touring, for watching the world outside, above and below.
"I don't like the way that needle is moving," Rodney says and makes another note in his book. He digs into the bag at his feet again and again. John watched Rodney pack for the Skipper's first flight: logbook, notebooks, slide rule, protractor, two blue pens, one red, one pencil with eraser, and a thermos of coffee. John knows he won't share.
"That's the way it moves, Rodney."
"I don't like the way the wind sounds," Rodney says and makes another note.
John steals the pen, saying, "That's the way it sounds, Rodney."
He scowls at John with another pen in his hand.
"Take a minute," John tells him. "Look at what you did, Rodney."
John banks right, tipping the ground into window, then left, so he can see the sky. The Skipper handles different than the old workhorses Sumner keeps for his students. It cuts through the wind and never lets up.
"Oh." Rodney's wide mouth curves up. There's not much room in the cockpit, and when Rodney twists and turns to take in the view all around them, John feels every move. "Look what I did."
Rodney gets his readings, eventually. John sneaks looks at his notes, flying on the curves of Rodney's graphs. In the sky ahead, John can see equations spelled out in the formations of birds.
They land without incident, but Rodney's not completely happy. John can see the list forming in his head, the wings he'll want adjusted and the prop he'll need to check. But John hasn't joined Rodney on the concrete ground of Atlantis. He's up there in the Skipper, the blue and gold bird who still needs a name. He's up there, and, when he makes a grab for Rodney, catching his wrist, John doesn't have the momentum to drag them back into the sky. They fall instead, against the closest surface--a rusted Cessna.
"I wasn't sure," Rodney breathes. His eyes are wide, searching John's face, then he kisses John before John gets the chance. "I wanted it. Of course." He shakes his head. "But it's not exactly something you can ask high school boys."
Rodney's chin goes up. "But not a high school boy."
John always feels different, here, leaning against a plane on a clear sunny Saturday afternoon in California. He feels different, but maybe they shouldn't be making out against Sumner's favourite plane.
Rodney steps back when John says so. "Right." He moves back in for another kiss, almost without realising. "Right," he says, remembering himself. "Wanna make out in the Skipper?"
John buries his face in Rodney's neck, muffling his laugh there. "It doesn't even have a name."
Rodney is the first to pull away, walking toward his plane where it sits, cooling, at the edge of the hangar. John takes a moment to fix his shirt.
"You've already named it," Rodney says, a finger pointed at John.
"Just thinking. It's your plane, Rodney."
"Well, yeah. But you're going to fly it for me." Rodney says this like it's nothing. "And not just because you want to make out with me," he quickly adds.
John puts his hand on the Skipper, next to Rodney's head. John kisses him and doesn't even look to see who might be watching. "Pegasus," he whispers.
"Really? That's not too girly?"
John shakes his head. "Nope."
"Really? Because my sister has crates full of those pink horses with purple wings."
"Pegasus isn't purple, Rodney. She's blue, with gold wings, and swathes of green. She can fly faster than anything."
"Pegasus," Rodney says, working his mouth around the name.
John drives them home, and Rodney navigates from the passenger's seat, sending them down roads John's never seen before, and it's dark by the time John pulls his Jeep in behind the bus weaving through the Caltech campus. Rodney wants to get out at the bus loop again.
"You have a crazy roommate?" John asks.
"I have a crazy cat."
"Maybe we'll do something this week?" John says, not sure of anything in this moment in his Jeep. Rodney has an arm in the backseat and is packing up his bags to leave.
"Sure, yeah," he says, but he's not listening. "I'll call you," Rodney says, the door open. John waits, watches him cross the road without a glance in either direction, and then Rodney disappears.
Sunday, John sleeps in, through the sun, and smacks down his alarm when it rises up to wake him.
"It's noon, John," his mom yells from the bottom of the stairs.
He comes to in the shower, pulls on yesterday's jeans and a clean black t-shirt. When John stumbles downstairs, his mom's in the kitchen, and she's unpacking her macramé grocery bags. Oranges, lemons, parsley, basil, fruits and vegetables that John can't name come out and are spread across the island. He pushes a head of lettuce aside to make room for his cereal.
"You want some juice? Squeezed fresh. Oranges from the market."
John shakes his head. "I shouldn't. My friend's allergic. Deathly."
"Is that Rodney?" she asks, pouring herself a glass from the juicer.
"How do you do that?"
She smiles, lifts one shoulder. "I know all your other friends."
John finishes his cereal, watching her put the fruit in the big bowl on the kitchen table and the vegetables in the fridge. When he's done breakfast, she makes him clean out the garage.
Monday, John starts running again. Early, before the sun this time, he wakes. He digs his running shoes out from under a pile of dirty laundry, and he runs. The road is hard under his feet, reminding John with every step why he loves this almost as much as he loves to fly. A run after a flight keep him on the ground, keeps John from picking up and disappearing into the sky.
When the rain starts up, John pushes through, because rain doesn't last long in L.A. He pushes through the wall and, at the end of the road, finds home again.
After school on Tuesday, John has a shift at the museum. He pulls into the tiny lot, next to the one car parked there--Chuck's little red two-door.
"Busy day?" he asks, stepping into welcome air conditioning. Chuck tells him about the morning group of third graders--one third grader, in particular, and his sticky fingers.
"Caught him with a B-52 down his pants," Chuck says, and they're both laughing when Teyla arrives. She smiles at them both, narrow-eyed, as she passes into the back room.
Chuck takes off, and John digs through the desk drawers for his nametag and Teyla's. He finds a pair of silver wings, left behind by one of the kids, maybe. He holds them up when Teyla comes out.
"You are the pilot, John," she says. "Not me." He pins them to her vest anyway. "What were you and Chuck laughing about?"
"Third graders," he says, and they start laughing again.
The Newton Air Museum is always quiet when there are no school groups to take care of. John walks outside, underneath the planes. They have a Boeing Stearman that the kids are allowed to sit inside. Parents love taking pictures. John sits in the Stearman when the crowds are gone, when he needs a minute alone.
That's where Teyla finds him as the sun falls behind the trees.
"You have something you need to talk about," she says.
"Rodney," he says. Teyla nods, and John tries to tell her the rest.
Wednesday, at Atlantis, John sees Rodney across the hangar and raises a hand to wave. Obviously, Rodney doesn't know that means, 'Hey, stick around,' because he's nowhere, later, when John lands.
Golf practice is Thursdays this year. There's a new kid on the team. Ford, a freshman, tries too hard to fit in. He's young and excitable, and has questions for everyone. John watches Lorne shoo him off the putting green, and then Ford makes his way over to John on the driving range.
"You really fly, man?" he asks.
John says, "Yep," and takes his swing.
Dad ambushes him Friday morning and makes John promise to stop by the base after school.
"We should talk about your future," he says, coming out from behind the desk when an airman lets John into his office.
"Today?" John asks.
"You're flying now," his dad says, though he hasn't been out to see John at Atlantis. He doesn't know about Pegasus. "Are you still thinking about the Air Force?"
"I don't know," John tells the floor because he doesn't want to see the look on his dad's face.
When Lorne phones Saturday and says, "Arcade," John agrees. He hasn't heard from Rodney all week. John hasn't called him either.
Lorne usually plays Galaga because it's next to John's favourite flight simulator. Today, he goes for Battlezone, and John takes Asteroids because he feels like blowing stuff up. By dinnertime, he has the new high score.
Sunday, John sleeps in, coming awake when he hears pounding on the front door. Dad's out of town, and Mom must be at the farmer's market. The pounding continues, and it won't let John get back to sleep.
"All right already."
He throws open the door. He should have known.
"You're not mad, are you?" Rodney pushes past, into John's house, into John's kitchen. He goes for the fridge. "I'm doing a Master's degree, John."
"You don't have a phone?" John pushes the fridge closed.
"No." Rodney's mouth goes tight.
"You don't have a phone?"
"Sixteen-year-old college student!" Rodney waves his arms about. He tries to get past John, returning to the fridge when can't. "I survive on scholarships. Life is school, and it's Pegasus, and it's, well, me." By the time he finishes his sentence, Rodney's speaking to the fridge. "I know it sounds crazy, but there are rather a lot of things I'm no good at."
"I get that," John says. He boosts himself up on the island, one leg stretched out to keep Rodney from running for the door. "You weren't expecting me. I wasn't expecting you either."
Rodney smiles at the refrigerator. He opens it up again and grabs them both a root beer.
"You gonna make me breakfast, too?" John asks.
"I didn't realise it had been a week. So, I'm, you know, sorry." He looks up at John, his jaw working, his hands up in the air.
"Is that your apology?"
Rodney lets out a long breath. "Yes, I will buy you breakfast." His hands come down on John's thighs. They're set up just right for John to lean over for a kiss.
"Good. Let's get out of here."
Rodney follows him upstairs, and he stands outside the bedroom door as John gets dressed, talking the entire time about what they should do with their Sunday. Go do something, he says, something not at Atlantis, because Sumner's been on him all week to give all the planes a once-over, and, besides, even birds can't fly all the time.
"That's what you think," John says, and he kisses Rodney against the linen closet.
They take John's Jeep, and they drive. Nowhere in mind, but Rodney navigates from the passenger's seat, anyway. John will have to tell him about the Air Force, and his dad, tell him about the plans John had and how they're changing.
But, right now, on this long California road, it's easier to kiss Rodney at the stoplight and listen to him ramble about the sun, about the sky, and how a plane stays in the air.