Disclaimer: The characters and concepts belong to MGM and the Sci-Fi Channel (SGA) and Touchstone Pictures (Can't Buy Me Love). Several of the lines used come from one source or the other, but I'm pretty confident in saying those make up less than 1% of the story. This story was a labor of love and no money was made from its distribution.

The Best Things in Life are Free

by Smitty

John Sheppard was on a mission from God.

He was seventeen years old, the starting quarterback on his high school football team, it was T-minus three hours until the first big party of the school year, and his father was going to be away. All. Weekend. Long.

All John needed was a hot set of wheels and he knew exactly where he could find those. He made it as far as the living room and then realized that maybe he had miscalculated one of those key components.

Like exactly when his father was getting out of Dodge.

"John! There you are!" John's father walked out of the bedroom area of the ranch house in his fatigues. Colonel Sheppard was even taller than his son, with broad shoulders and close-cropped gray hair.

"Hi, Dad," John said, giving his father his best 'good son' smile. It fooled neither of them.

"I know that smile," William Sheppard said. "What do you want?"

John shrugged defeat. "Can I borrow the car tonight?"

"Sure," his father said. "Keys to the Chevy are in the hall table."

John bit his lip against his disappointment and tried a more straightforward tact. "Actually, Dad, there's a big party and I sorta have a big date and I was hoping I could borrow the De Lorean."

"Not a chance," his father said instantly.


"I know you want to impress Elizabeth -- "

"Elizabeth and I broke up last month." It wasn't exactly accurate -- John and Elizabeth had an 'agreement' since she'd moved away to college upstate. It meant he could put his moves on the new girl at Dex's party tonight.

" -- but until your physics grade approaches acceptable and I stop getting reports of you skipping class, my answer is no. You understand me?"

John sighed silently. "Yes, sir," he answered dutifully. He looked away and saw, for the first time, the rucksack leaning on the wall by the door.

"Duty driver'll be picking me up at 1700," Colonel Sheppard said. "You going to be okay until Tuesday?"

"Sure," John said. His father had an account set up with the nearest pizza shop so John could order all the pizza he needed while the Colonel was TDY.

"All right." William smiled and clapped his son on the shoulder. "Get that physics grade up, will you?"

Whatever he was going to say next was lost in the loud, precise knock on the door, and thirty seconds later, the Colonel was gone to John-didn't-even-know-where. The house was quiet in his wake and John crossed to the front hall table and slid open the drawer. Two sets of keys sat inside, one to the 1973 Chevy Nova that had been in the family since his dad was a major and his mom was alive. The other set of keys belonged to Will Sheppard's 1983 DeLorean. PRV V-6 engine with a five-speed manual transmission, capable of 170 horsepower before emissions regulations knocked it down to 130, and the literature promised that it could go from 0-60 in eight-point-eight seconds.

John had wet dreams about that car.

He reached into the drawer and touched the keys reverently. It was one party. What could happen?

Rodney McKay shoveled mashed potatoes into his mouth and hoped no one would try to talk to him before he could escape from the kitchen table. His parents, tired of McKay Family Argument #615, Should We Return to Canada, finally stopped screaming and the kitchen fell into sulky silence.

"Rodney," his father said, in what was undoubtedly an attempt to initiate Family Discussion. "Are you still tutoring?"

"Er, yeah," Rodney answered, trying to swallow at the same time.

"Tutoring," his sister Jeannie snorted. "More like charging them to write their papers for them."

"No," Rodney snapped witheringly. "How would you know, anyway?"

"Maybe I'm not stupid," Jeannie snapped back.

"Children," Dr. McKay boomed, to little effect.

"I think it's nice of Rodney to help out the kids who aren't as smart as he is," Mrs. McKay said idly, stirring her mashed potatoes without eating any.

"Except that he's gouging them an arm and a leg," Jeannie muttered.

"Almost have enough saved for that microscope, son?" Dr. McKay asked, raising his voice to talk over Jeannie's snipes.

"Telescope, Dad," Rodney corrected, glad for a change in subject. "I got the last of it today. I'm going over to the mall tomorrow to pick it up. It's going to be great. I'll be able to observe all sorts of lunar activity over Mars next month."

Jeannie laughed. "Don't you mean the moons around Uranus?"

"Now, Jeannie, there's no need to be vulgar," Dr. McKay said as Rodney kicked her under the table.

"I think Rodney needs a nice girlfriend," Mrs. McKay said, apropos of absolutely nothing.

"Mom," Rodney groaned.

"Rodney's gay," Jeannie announced, poking at her vegetables.


"Now, Jeannie," their father lectured. "Just because Rodney hasn't found the right girl to date does not indicate a tendency toward homosexuality. Nor is 'gay' acceptable as a pejorative. Alfred Kinsey's theories indicate that sexuality can be measured along a scale of preference on which the majority of the population -- "

Rodney rested his forehead in his hand and shoveled up some more mashed potatoes.


"Woo, nice car!"

"Your old man finally let you borrow the car!" Mitch greeted John with a goofy grin and a proffered beer.

"That's a hot set of wheels, Shep," Dex agreed, gazing enviously at the car.

John stepped out of the DeLorean and took the beer, winking at the crowd gathered around the vehicle. He retracted the gull-wing doors and sauntered into the house after Mitch and Dex, inseparable as always.. A few of the die-hard machineheads stayed to gaze at the car, but most of the crowd followed John into the house.

"Teyla's here," Mitch told him, eyebrows waggling in a way that was meant to be lecherous but just looked goofy. "And she is looking fantastic."

John popped the tab on his beer and took a drink off the top. "I'm a man on a mission," he announced. He wandered through the rooms, nodding to some people and slapping others on the back. He winked at a cluster of girls who were giggling behind their hands, and finally found Teyla holding court in the living room. She was surrounded by girls who were copying her everyday style of tank tops and miniskirts, to varying degrees of success, and telling stories of the last base her father had been stationed. All the stories seemed to involve a bar or danceclub of some sort and John imagined -- in vivid detail -- that she had a real wild side.

She spotted him from across the room and winked. John was very glad he'd borrowed the De Lorean.

"This is crap, I can't see a thing," Rodney sighed, stepping away from Radek Zelenka's telescope.

"Maybe you are not looking at the right thing," Radek suggested, peering in the telescope himself.

"No, it just doesn't have enough power." Rodney sighed and scrubbed one hand through his hair. "Don't worry about it. When I get my new telescope tomorrow, we'll be able to chart anything we want."

"Yes, yes, your telescope. Your extremely expensive and high-technical new way of spying on John Sheppard."

"Oh, shut up," Rodney snapped but he didn't put much heat into it. Radek was his best friend and had known about his crush on John for nearly the entire summer. Some days it felt like Rodney had always had a crush on the boy next door and he had to remind himself that his family had only moved to the base a year and a half before. Radek's family had arrived shortly after the McKays, and it was a good thing, because nobody else at that high school was even close to Rodney's intelligence. Not even John Sheppard, Rodney knew, but his adoration was equal to his adoration of Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, and Patrick Dempsey. Maybe even equal to his adoration of Rob Lowe. Maybe even greater, because John was real and had strong, capable hands that threw footballs and twirled his pencils in study hall, and he had hair that flopped over his eyes and jeans that were tight enough in all the right places.

Radek had picked up on his interest instantly and after an initial observation of, "So you like boys as well as girls? Why should I care?" he pretty much let Rodney obsess without comment.

Rodney found an empty patch of floor in Radek's room and sat down. John Sheppard was handsome and athletic and cool and popular. His father was a colonel and John had been accepted to the Air Force Academy pending a nomination from his representative and excellent mid-year grades. Everyone assumed he had it in the bag. Rodney was smarter than John, brilliant, in fact, but he didn't have anything in the bag. He had a lot of outstanding requests for admissions materials and twice that many scholarship applications, and he knew that they'd be knocking down his door any day now, but so far he'd heard nothing.

"You have your worrying face on," Radek said. "John is no longer dating Elizabeth Weir. They broke up when she graduated. Maybe you should see what he thinks about liking boys."

Rodney snorted. Radek didn't often give advice, which was the only reason Rodney had for not reaming him for his stupidity. That and Radek tended to think the best of people and Rodney wasn't quite bastard enough to squash that. "Right, or he and his football buddies will introduce my head to the toilet in the men's locker room."

Radek shook his head. "You have no positive thinking," he scolded.

"No," Rodney agreed, staring at the sky out the window. "But tomorrow I'll have the best telescope ever made and that'll make up for a lot."

John Sheppard stared at the sky out the window of the DeLorean as Teyla Emmagan sucked his neck. He was going to have a huge hickey, but his dad wouldn't be home until Tuesday and the swelling would be gone by then. John knew quite a lot about hickeys, the hiding and disposal of them in particular.

He'd gotten both hands up the back of Teyla's tank top and she most definitely was not wearing a bra. That was interesting. Very interesting. He'd just managed to slip his hands to her sides and move his thumbs -- yes, there, the bottom swell of her breasts and --

The car jolted hard, and John's hands were down on Teyla's waist, but he didn't even notice as he struggled to sit up. Teyla moved off him and scrambled back over to the passenger seat. John looked out the window, wiping his neck, and saw some guy in a car trying to maneuver around him.

"Hey!" he called, hitting the door release. "What are you doing?"

"Sorry, man," the guy's voice came distantly through his own car window and John's own.

John frowned. He hit the door mechanism again. The gull-wings didn't budge.

"John?" Teyla asked, her voice lilting toward a warning.

John hit the door release again and groaned at the utter lack of response.

"The doors are stuck."

Rodney and his thousand dollars of ghost-written papers and tutoring sessions spent doing other people's homework arrived at the mall the next day, half an hour before the science store opened. He paced the mall entrance for ten minutes or so, and then gave up and walked outside. It a nice Saturday morning, bright and sunny with the crisp, leafy scent of fall. The parking lot was mostly quiet with a few mothers dragging children behind them in an effort to finish their errands before the day truly started and a cluster of girls too young to have been out partying the night before waiting for the ear piercing kiosk to open. On the end, though, a glare of silver caught Rodney's attention and held it. There, parked outside the auto repair shop, was a 1983, stainless-steel, gull-wing De Lorean, and standing next to it, all snug jeans and tousled hair, was John Sheppard. Rodney knew that car. John's father drove it occasionally and washed it more.

Taking a chance, he crossed the parking lot and waved awkwardly when John turned his head.

"Hi," he said, not nearly as cool as he'd imagined. "I'm Rodney. Rodney McKay."

John nodded. "You live next door," he said.

"Yes!" Rodney agreed. "Yes, I do." Up close, John Sheppard's eyes turned out to be not brown at all. Or maybe light brown. Definitely the color they called hazel, with light rings and darker rings and green and gold flecks and Rodney was absolutely not blinking owlishly into another guy's eyes in the middle of the manliest of all manly places -- the autobody shop.

"So, uh..." John shrugged and jammed his hands in his back pockets. "You getting your...bike...fixed?"

"Um, no," Rodney said, suddenly feeling ridiculous. What was he doing over here? "I was uh, I was on my way to buy a -- a telescope, and I saw you over here and you looked like you were having trouble so I came over to see if I could give you a hand."

John nodded slowly, frowning a little at Rodney. "Doors are stuck," he said. He turned his head and nodded at the front corner of the car. Rodney followed his gaze and winced when he saw the dent.

"I guess you weren't in it at the time?" Rodney said, grinning at John.

"Actually, I was," John said shortly. "We had to call a truck, get it towed, wake up someone from the garage and have them pop the doors manually to let us out -- good times, McKay. Good times."

Rodney knew sarcasm when he heard it and Sheppard wasn't even wielding it with any kind of cleverness. Well, maybe a little bit.

"I could fix that for you," Rodney offered with calculated nonchalance. "I'm what they call mechanically inclined. It's just applied physics, really," he added, in case Sheppard needed to be reassured.

Sheppard scratched the back of his neck and looked Rodney up and down. Rodney's heart beat double-time in his chest and he started to hope. Maybe this was the way to win over Sheppard after all. The other boy leaned in close and Rodney grinned.

"McKay," Sheppard said softly. "This is a $25,000 car that my father doesn't know I borrowed...in fact, specifically told me not to borrow. They don't make these cars anymore. And my father is a colonel in the Air Force who commands a few thousand men with guns. Are you sure you can fix this car?"

Rodney was 99% sure that he could fix that car, but Sheppard was raising some truly excellent points. Especially about the guns.

"Hey!" They both turned to see the grizzled owner of the garage coming toward them with a clipboard. "Sheppard? You're the kid with the De Lorean?" He looked at John and Rodney before John stepped forward.

"Yeah, that's me," he said. "What's the damage?"

"Gotta order a part," the man said. "It's gonna be a grand. You can pick her up Tuesday morning if we get to work today. I gotta ask for half up front. This ain't no cheap car, kid."

"A what? A thousand dollars?" John exclaimed, looking as upset as Rodney had ever seen him. Even his hair was quivering. "I don't have that kind of money."

The man shrugged. Rodney noticed, belatedly, that his stitched nametag dubbed him Bob. "Let me know what you want to do, kid." He turned and ambled back into the garage.

"Great," Sheppard muttered. "This is just great."

"When's your dad getting home?" Rodney asked. He had a thousand dollars in his pocket and his brain was working very quickly.

"Tuesday," John muttered, looking around like he wanted something to kick. "God, this is just perfect." He looked up at Rodney. "You really think you can fix it?"

Rodney had to shake his head. "Needs parts, remember," he said. "Depending on what it is, I could probably find one, but the likelihood of getting it fixed before Tuesday is probably one in oh...."

Sheppard turned his back and hunched, shoving his hands in his jacket pockets. Rodney stopped calculating probability and started calculating something else.

"Okay, look," he said cautiously. "I've got a proposition for you."

Sheppard muttered something unintelligible and Rodney barreled forward.

"I have a thousand dollars. I was going to use it to buy this telescope. You see -- uh, never mind," he said, because Sheppard had turned around and fixed him with a slightly confused, hazel gaze. "But look. I have the money."

"And what? You're just going to give it to me?" Sheppard narrowed his eyes and shook his head. "Right."

"No, see." Rodney stopped and took a deep breath, thinking frantically. "I give you the money. And you...pretend like you're my best friend for, oh, say, a month?"

"What?" Sheppard quirked one eyebrow upward and twisted his face into an expression of surprised confusion. Rodney was pretty impressed.

"I give you a thousand dollars. You pay the garage to fix your dad's car -- "

"I got that part, thanks."

" -- and you let me hang out with you for a month. Four weeks. I get to go everywhere you go. You pretend like you like hanging out with me. I become cool by osmosis."

"Cool by osmosis?" Sheppard repeated.

"Yes, it's a term used in cellular biology, mostly, applied to a social situation. It means -- "

"Okay, okay, never mind." Sheppard cut Rodney off with a wave of his hand. "It's a deal."

"It -- really?" Rodney blinked.

"Yes, really! Four weeks. Saturday to Friday night -- "

"Monday to Sunday night," Rodney corrected. Sheppard looked at him like he wanted to punch him in the nose. Rodney stood his ground. "I'd rather start Monday morning at school so I can get acclimated for the Friday and Saturday night party scenes. Get people used to seeing me around so they don't automatically flush my head in a toilet before you can save me. I want them all to know I'm with you in advance, sort of, you see?"

Sheppard closed his eyes and gave his head a little shake. "Okay," he said softly, then opened his eyes and glared at Rodney. "Friends, McKay," he said. "That's it. You don't follow me to class or go on dates with me and we do not hang out together outside of school and any party or sporting event, got it?"

"Can we double date?" Rodney asked.

"If you can get a date," Sheppard said, not as meanly as he could have, Rodney thought, "we can double date."

"Great!" Rodney beamed. He could always get Katie Brown to go out with him. She was in the science club, had a reasonable grasp of botany, if you wanted to call that a science, and had a mad crush on him. Even Rodney's mother would be pleased. He fished the money out of his pocket and hesitated before handing it over to Sheppard. "Here," he said. "I'm uh -- I'm gonna trust you to keep up your half of the deal on Monday."

Sheppard nodded. "Yeah. I don't go back on my bargains."

Rodney nodded back, quashing his own plans to make Sheppard pinky-swear or slice open his thumb and make them blood brothers. Instead, Sheppard took the money in his left hand and stuck out his right. Rodney took his hand and they shook on the matter.

John Sheppard's hand was warm and large and calloused and Rodney didn't even regret the loss of the telescope.

John woke up Sunday morning hung over. The party he'd gone to the night before was typical except that this time he had no car and riding shotgun with Dex was pretty much carte blanche to overindulge. Besides, he hadn't had the best weekend so far and Teyla still wasn't speaking to him.

He stood in the kitchen and drank orange juice from the carton. It helped, and so did a quick five-mile run and a hot shower. Feeling vaguely human again, he sat down at the kitchen table with his homework, but only made it through the math and English Lit before boredom settled in. He went back to his bedroom and made his bed, tucking the sheets into military corners so his father wouldn't give him grief. He straightened up and then went back to the kitchen to wash his lunch dishes from the day before and write orange juice on the running grocery list pinned to the fridge with a magnet advertising the nearest USAA branch. It was almost noon and his stomach was feeling pretty normal, so he scrambled up some eggs and squashed them between toast with a slice of cheese. It made a good enough lunch and he was probably going to have pizza that night anyway.

He dialed Elizabeth's number at her dorm room and woke up her roommate. Elizabeth wasn't in and Kate didn't know where she was. John asked that she have Elizabeth call him back and put the phone back in the cradle.

With nothing better to do, John cleaned up his lunch dishes and went outside with his skateboard. He cruised down to Dex's house but Dex was suffering the indignities of family time with his parents, grandparents, and little brothers. John raised his eyebrows at the invitation to join them and promptly backed away.

Mitch didn't have that problem, but he was on academic probation and was trying to get through his own homework. John made a half-hearted attempt to help him with the algebra assignment and then took off again. Mitch was a nice guy, but John only had enough patience to explain something once. Besides, coming off as too much a brainiac would definitely erode his cool.

The rest of his football buddies were either out or subject to family obligations and even Aiden Ford, the freshman who started at tight end and still managed to keep up his grades, was spending time with his grandparents and people from their church that afternoon. John had wavered when Aiden invited him in -- Grandma Ford's cookies were worth any amount of cool that might be lost, but John had never had a lot of faith in any being higher than his father and spending the afternoon praising the Lord with the Fords' Baptist friends scared him a little. He begged off and got a handful of cookies anyway.

He knocked on Teyla's door and got no answer. He threw a few pebbles up at her window and didn't get a reaction from that, either. She was either out or ignoring him, and he wasn't equipped for great romantic gestures involving music or oration, so he took off for the cul-de-sac on the next block. John was used to a little solitude and he spent the next half hour practicing his kick turns, a few ollies, and a grind that nearly took the skin off the left side of his face when he miscalculated and wound up in the street. Disgusted with himself, he brushed the gravel off and went back to less complicated board flips.

Dirty and sweaty, he pondered his next option. It wasn't even three o'clock yet, and he had most of the afternoon in front of him. It was too nice a day to waste on boring Sunday afternoon television and most of his friends were busy.

There was one 'friend' though, that he hadn't considered. Ok, so technically speaking, he didn't have to be Rodney McKay's 'best friend' until the next day, but McKay had more than a few things to learn about being cool and John figured it wouldn't hurt to get a head start on that. The McKays lived next door, after all, and he really should have thought of Rodney sooner. Well, he reconsidered, thinking of the guy's awkward enthusiasm. Maybe not. Still. He'd do for a Sunday afternoon diversion. Even if he sucked at anything outdoors, they could go down to the arcade and play Pole Position or pinball.

John rang the McKays' doorbell and shifted his weight impatiently. He heard the pounding of footsteps inside -- figured that McKay would be excitable -- and settled back, sliding his hands in his pockets.

A small, blonde girl threw the door open and blinked at him expectantly.

"Hi," John said, smiling at her. "Is Rodney around?"

"You're John Sheppard," she said, her blue eyes going bright and dreamy.

"Er. Yep. Live next door," he confirmed, tilting his head toward his house. "You're...Rodney's sister?"

"I'm Jeannie McKay," she said, with a sudden self-assuredness to her voice. She struck a pose against the doorframe and John had to make an actual effort not to laugh. Jeannie McKay couldn't have been more than twelve and he was pretty sure that she was flirting with him.

"It's nice to meet you, Jeannie," he said as politely as he could. "I don't suppose you could help me out, could you? With finding Rodney?"

"Oh, Rodney." The enthusiasm drained out of Jeannie instantly. "He's over at Radek's house. But," she added brightly. "I would be happy to tell him that you were looking for him."

"Yeah," John said with a nod. "You do that. Thanks." He offered her a half-smile. "See you 'round, Jeannie."

He turned and stepped off the porch and he could swear that he heard Jeannie McKay swoon behind him. He shook his head and tucked his skateboard under his arm as he walked back to his house. Maybe he'd do his physics homework after all.

"So...let me get this right," Radek said slowly and Rodney rolled his eyes.

"Yes, yes," Rodney interrupted. "I gave all the money to John Sheppard so he could get the car fixed and in return, he's going to be my best friend for four weeks."

"Oh, now my best friendship is not good enough," Radek said. "And you still have no telescope."

"But I'll be cool," Rodney insisted. "And then you'll hang out with me and you'll be cool and hell, it's only money. I can make more and by the time I do, they'll have put out the next model and I'll have a bigger and better telescope than the one I would have gotten yesterday."

Radek sighed and pushed his glasses up his nose. "I do not like this plan," he said. "You give all your money to spend time with someone I do not think is so very nice."

"How do you know?" Rodney challenged. "Have you ever talked to him?"

"No! And he would never talk to me! And would never talk to you if you were not giving him all your money."

"It's a business arrangement," Rodney insisted loudly. "Even if he's a grade A asshole, hanging out with him is going to make me popular and hanging out with me is going to make you popular. Aren't you tired of getting stuffed in lockers and having your head flushed down a toilet?"

"Yes," Radek said. "But joining them does not beat them. Did we not exact revenge?"

Rodney blew out air through his nose and tried not to smile at the thought of the exploding toilets and malfunctioning car stereos. "Yeah," he admitted reluctantly. Revenge was fun but a week later, they were all right back in the same place they had started, and Rodney was tired of it. "Ok, can we just try it my way? Four weeks, that's it."

Radek looked at Rodney carefully and Rodney could feel him capitulate.

"All right," Radek said. He shook his head and muttered just loudly enough for Rodney to hear, "But I do not think this will end well."

Still stinging from his fight with Radek, Rodney went home for dinner. He poked at his meatloaf and macaroni-and-cheese -- and his mother couldn't even get the Kraft powder, she had to buy the store brand because it was cheaper -- and missed Mrs. Zelenka's dumplings and porkchops sulkily.

"A boy came by to see Rodney, today," Jeannie announced, running her fork tines into the little macaroni tubes.

"What?" Rodney said instantly, sitting straight up. His hand hit his milk glass and nearly knocked it over. He reached over with his other hand and succeeded in dragging his sleeve through his macaroni.

"John Sheppard," Jeannie informed the table as if this was important information.

"That's nice," Mrs. McKay said. "Is that a new friend, Rodney?"

"Ah, yeah," Rodney managed. "John Sheppard came here? Looking for me?" he hissed to Jeannie furiously. "And you're only telling me now?"

Jeannie shrugged with one shoulder.

"Sheppard, Sheppard," Dr. McKay mused. "That name sounds familiar."

"He lives next door," Rodney said in exasperation. "What did he want?"

"How should I know?" Jeannie asked disdainfully, sucking macaroni off her fork. She turned her attention to the rest of the table. "He's the dreamiest boy in school," she said.

"He doesn't even go to your school," Rodney reminded her.

"He's the quarterback," Jeannie went on. "He and Elizabeth Weir were going steady but now he's going out with Teyla Emmagan."

"How do you even know all this?" Rodney asked, swiping at his sleeve with a napkin. "I need to go see what he wants."

"It can wait 'til after dinner," his father said placatingly.

"He's sure not your new boyfriend," Jeannie needled. "He'd never go out with you, even if he was queer."

"JEANNIE!" Rodney's face was beet red and flaming hot. Jeannie had been threatened under threat of humiliation and social ostracization never to reveal the existence of the gay porn magazine she'd found under Rodney's mattress. It didn't seem to stop her from broaching the subject of Rodney's sexuality whenever she could. Rodney took a deep breath and sat down slowly, rigid with anger and anticipation that one of his parents would finally catch a clue. "John and I are just friends," he said evenly.

"Are you tutoring him?" Mrs. McKay asked innocently.

"Yes," Rodney said immediately, because it was easy. It was something his mother understood. "I'm tutoring him."

"Oh, that's nice," Mrs. McKay said.

Dr. McKay went back to shoveling in meatloaf, without even a lecture on human sexuality, Masters & Johnson, or Alfred Kinsey. Jeannie went back to running her macaroni through on her fork. Rodney stirred his plate around for about another thirty seconds, slid his vegetables under the macaroni, and took one last bite of meatloaf.

"May I please be excused?" he asked with his mouth full.

"You may," his father said. "Whose turn is it for the dishes tonight?"

"Jeannie's," he said, making a quick getaway. The second phone was in his parents' room and he closed the door before sitting on the floor and punching in the number he'd memorized over a year ago. He chewed on his lower lip and listened for the phone ring once, twice, three times. Five. Seven. Ten. He let it ring twice more and then hung up. John Sheppard wasn't home. He was probably out with some girl, maybe Teyla Emmagan or one of the cheerleaders. He was always on the sidelines flirting with the cheerleading squad.

Rodney went slowly to his own room and opened the window. He could get out on the roof from there, so he threw his leg over the sill and crawled out on the flat ledge over the garage. Maybe Radek was right, he thought. Maybe John Sheppard was a Grade A asshole and Rodney's distant adoration would shrivel up and die when he realized what a jerk John really was. Maybe he'd made a big, big mistake, and he'd given up the telescope for absolutely nothing. Tears pricked in his eyes but he blinked them away. He'd thought this out very carefully and there was no way to fail. He was Rodney McKay and he had an IQ that broke the banks and a perfect 4.0 average.

And John Sheppard never went back on his bargains. They'd shook on it.

Rodney stood up to go back in the house and saw a dark shape on the roof next door. He stared at it for a while and finally realized that it was John Sheppard, arms tucked behind his head, face tilted up to the stars. Rodney stood and watched him for a long time before stepping quietly back into his room.

John got to school early the next morning and laid in wait for Rodney. He had some serious work to do before he could even try to pass Rodney off as cool to his friends.

Rodney walked by John's hiding place with a huge smile on his face, completely oblivious of his surroundings. He was alone, which made the smile mystifying but John's job a lot easier.

John grabbed Rodney's arm as he went by and dragged him behind the low brick wall. Rodney put up a minimum of resistance that faded as soon as he saw John.

"Why didn't you just call my name or start walking beside me, or something cool?" he asked, looking betrayed and wow, had the guy never heard of a poker face?

"Because we need to do some work first," John said, taking in Rodney's chinos, "Mr. Fantastic" shirt, and flat hair.

"Huh, what? What do you mean by -- "

"First off," John said, finding the seam where Rodney's right sleeve met the shoulder and pulling. The stitches broke with a satisfying sound. Rodney squeaked.

"What are you doing?" he demanded. "I really like this shirt."

"Yeah, I can see why," John muttered, dragging the tail out from Rodney's pants and letting it hang over the belt. He tore off the second sleeve and thought that for a geek, Rodney's arms really weren't anything to laugh at. He wondered if Rodney could throw a football. "Ok, look." He tossed the sleeve at Rodney, who caught it and fumbled it into his pocket. John's backpack was at his feet and he'd thrown his bottle of Dep on top of his books.

"Wait, what...what is that?" Rodney asked, shying back.

"It's hair gel," John said, squirting a dime-sized dollop on his palm and rubbing his hands together. "Ok, now...don't take this the wrong way or anything." He reached out and scrubbed his hands through Rodney's hair, then took his time spiking up not-actually-random pieces.

"What -- what -- what are you doing?" Rodney sputtered, glaring up at John like a wet cat. John tried very hard not to smile at the image.

"I'm fixing your hair," he said, tweaking one last piece between his fingertips.

Rodney made a sound that indicated how utterly put out he was and John got a mean sense of satisfaction by rubbing his hand hard up the back of Rodney's head, sending all the hair the other direction.

"Great, now I look like I stuck my finger in a socket," Rodney griped.

"You haven't even looked in a mirror," John said cheerfully, shaking out the flannel shirt Rodney had stuffed between the straps of his backpack and tossing it at him. "Tie that around your waist.

"I figured it looks like yours," Rodney said, and John raised his eyebrows automatically.

"My hair is cool," he said. "My hair is the epitome of cool. And don't put that backpack on. One strap, if you have to have it over your shoulder."

"One -- I'll wind up with an irreversible back injury before I can vote! My spine will develop a curvature that will eventually lead to a lifetime of discomfort on rainy days and prescription mattresses."

"So switch off which side," John said, picking up Rodney's backpack and thrusting it at him. "And geez, try to carry around less than six books, would you?" He vaulted over the low wall and started to walk toward the school.

Rodney caught up with him just before the stairs and started babbling nervously. "So this'll be my first time walking down the cool hallway. On purpose, I mean. Because when I first moved here I had no idea and I figured it was just a quick way to get to homeroom because I was already late -- "

"Rodney," John interrupted. "Relax. We're friends, remember? Best friends. No one's going to stuff you in a locker. I promise."

Rodney's gelled head bobbed. "Ok, yes. Good, that's the deal after all."

It was 8:30 in the morning and John was already exhausted.

"Hey," he said to the cluster near his locker. He spun the combination lock, found the number easily, and jerked his locker open. They responded with various degrees of apathy and he pretended not to listen to hard to see if Teyla said anything.

"Hi!" Rodney greeted everyone. "Rodney. Rodney McKay."

"Didn't you do my homework for summer school?" Mitch asked, scratching his head.

"Er, yes. That was me. I mean, that was the old me -- "

"You guys know Rod -- " Okay, that was even worse. "Rodney. Right?" John said, cutting into the awkwardness as smoothly as he could. "He's cool."

Mitch and Dex exchanged glances. Clearly they did not agree with John's assessment of Rodney but they just cast amused glances toward him and shrugged. "Cool," Dex said, nodding solemnly.

"Hey, whatever Shep says is fine by me," Aiden Ford said, punching Rodney in the shoulder.

"Ow! Hey, I have very fair skin," Rodney said. "And I bruise really easily."

John slammed his locker shut to drown out Rodney and bared his teeth in the best imitation of a grin he could muster. "So," he said stiffly. "I think we're late for class."

"Oh, my God," Rodney sighed, lying on his back and lowering the triangle of drippy cheese into his mouth, "if my blood sugar was any lower, I'd be dead. That's all I'm saying."

"Why didn't you eat lunch?" John asked, sprawled on his own couch, watching Rodney inhale the pizza.

"Too nervous," Rodney explained, closing his mouth over the tip and just reveling in the hot greasy taste of tomato sauce and cheese. "Mm, this is fantastic." He bit off the piece, chewed and swallowed. He thought maybe he could feel the chemical balance of his blood return to normal. "Let me give you a few bucks for it."

"Nah, don't worry about it," John said, taking a bite of pizza himself. "Dad has a deal with the pizza shop down the street, so I can eat while he's gone. Just leave me a slice or two for breakfast tomorrow and he'll be home tomorrow night."

Rodney sat up. "So your dad isn't even around?"

John shook his head. "He's some big deal NATO whatever. He's gotta go a lot of places."

Rodney didn't know what had happened to John's mother, but he knew that she never lived in the house next to his own. "So, what?" he asked. "Your dad just leaves you here all on your own? With pizza?"

John shrugged. "I'm seventeen," he pointed out. "I can pretty much feed and clothe myself for three days."

"Yeah, but." Rodney looked around. He'd almost said, But don't you get lonely? but Rodney wouldn't be lonely. Rodney would love to have the house to himself for three days. No lectures from his father or stupid question from his mother or torturous whining and teasing from Jeannie. "Why don't you ever have any parties over here?"

John cast him a look. "Air Force Colonel," he said. "My dad would kick my ass."

"Oh." The house was nice, if a little spare. Manly. Blue. "Are you going to get in trouble for having me over?"

"No." John didn't elaborate, just picked up another slice of pizza and started eating it.

Rodney felt awkward. He glanced around the living room and his eyes fell on John's backpack and the books spilling out. "You're reading War and Peace?" he asked in frantic need to make conversation.

"For English class," John said. He smiled a little. "I'm on page seventeen."

"A little slow, aren't you?" Rodney said without thinking about it, squinting at the book.

"I'm right on schedule." With that, John seemed to unbend a little. He scooted up on the couch so his head was higher than his knees and hooked his elbow on the back as he chewed thoughtfully. "You read a lot?"

"Sure," Rodney said. "Have you read Heinlein? Asimov?"

"Tom Clancy?" John tried.

The name sounded vaguely familiar to Rodney but he wasn't sure why. "Nope. Douglas? Douglas is a genius."

John made a face. "Coonts?"


"Stephen. Flight of the Intruder?"

Rodney shook his head and settled back on the couch to eat more pizza.

"You like sports at all?" John asked dubiously.

"Hockey!" Rodney volunteered despite still having a mouthful of pizza. He chewed quickly and swallowed even though his mother wasn't there to correct him.

"Not a real sport," John muttered under his breath and through a bite of pizza but Rodney understood him anyway. "Football?"

Rodney wavered. This getting to know John thing was failing spectacularly and unless he pulled something out of his ass, and soon, this was going to be the longest four weeks ever. "Cheerleaders," he said.

"Yeah, the cheerleaders are great," John said with a smile that looked as relieved as Rodney's. "Hey, my dad rented Back to the Future before he left -- "

"Oh, don't even get me started on that movie," Rodney exclaimed around yet another bite of pizza. John didn't seem capable of saying something that required response when his mouth was empty and he didn't seem capable of not saying something inflammatory when Rodney's mouth was full.

"What?" John asked, mystified. "I liked that movie."

"Right. Well, let me assure you that in no way, shape, or form, can one manipulate black hole technology through both space and time using a power source as esoteric as plutonium-fueled nuclear fusion and it's further ridiculous to suggest that one can use electricity to create anywhere near the power capacity of a reaction -- "

"I thought the car just needed to get up to 88 miles per hour," John interrupted. "Electricity could do that."

"Right, but the flux capacitor, whatever that's supposed to be, apparently needs nuclear power to run the first two trips and yet can bounce on back to 1985 with nothing but a lightning strike."

"So I guess you don't want to watch it again?" John asked, jerking his thumb toward the entertainment system. The corner of his mouth twitched up and the corner of his eyes crinkled.

"Oh. Well," Rodney conceded, "If you have it." A thought occurred to him. "Oh, don't tell me -- "

"We had the DeLorean before the movie came out," John said as he got up from the couch and picked up the plastic video box.

"Hm," Rodney said, sitting back and picking up another piece of pizza. "Thank goodness for small favors."

John flipped his skateboard up into his hand and rang the McKays' doorbell. He lived right next door to the guy. There was no reason they couldn't go to school together. Besides, Rodney was completely entertaining. The entire rant the day before about the implausibility of the flux capacitor had brought on periodic fits of laughter until he went to bed.

The door was flung open and John found himself shifting his gaze down to see Jeannie McKay gazing up at him adoringly.

"John!" she exclaimed. "Isn't this a surprise!"

"Hi, Jeannie," he said with a self-conscious smile. "Rodney almost ready for school?"

Jeannie nearly achieved flight through vibration, she was so pleased. "Why don't you come in?" she said graciously, opening the screen door.

"That's ok," he started to say before he found himself hustled into the foyer and down the hallway. Apparently Jeannie had the same ability to take over as her brother did. "Um, hi," he said, blinking dumbly in the sun-bright kitchen in the back of the house. Three people stared at him. No, he corrected, two people and a newspaper stared at him. Rodney stood at the counter, his backpack on his back -- by both straps, John realized with a sigh -- and a Pop-Tart stuffed in his mouth. A blonde woman in her robe and slippers, holding a rag was dabbing at his cheek. "I'm John Sheppard," he explained, trying to slide backward but Jeannie was in his way. "I live next door? I was just checking to see if Rodney was ready to go." He let his voice trail off toward the end when it was clear that everyone but the newspaper was staring at him in bewilderment.

"Yeah, yeah, all set," Rodney said quickly, pulling away from his mother. "Thanks, Mom, I gotta go." He shot John a thoroughly humiliated look, grabbed a brown paper sack off the counter and pushed by his mother and then his sister. "Are we going or what?" he called to John, already halfway out the door.

"Yeah, sure," John replied, navigating Jeannie while waving to Mrs. McKay. "Nice to meet you!" he called for good measure as he followed Rodney out into the sunny morning.

"I didn't know you were coming by," Rodney said. It would have been snappy if he hadn't been so obviously anxious.

"Sorry," John said. "Guess I should have called first." He shrugged, not displeased with the outcome. "I figured you live right next door. No reason to travel alone." He dropped his skateboard to the ground and stepped on it, using the other foot to push himself down the street.

"You're going to crack your head open one of these days," Rodney said, mussing his own hair self-consciously.

"I know what I'm doing," John murmured, letting the board slow enough for Rodney to catch up, and then reaching out to pluck at his hair.

"Would you stop that? You have some perverse fascination with my hair," Rodney snapped, lifting his hands to fix whatever damage John had wrought.

"Hey, it's your investment," John said, minding where he was going because he really wasn't into concussions. "You wanted to be my best buddy and learn how to be cool."

Rodney sighed. "Okay, fine," he said, stopping and ducking his head down.

John stopped and blinked at him. Rodney looked like he was stepping up to the guillotine rather than letting John spike his hair. "You look dumb like that," he said lightly, twisting bits of hair between his fingertips anyway. "There, we cool?"

Rodney lifted his head and looked at John with a sad sort of longing that made John frown. "You're cool, I'm fine," he said.

"You're getting there," John said kindly.

"Thanks," Rodney said, turning and walking off. John watched him trudge down the street for a minute, then put his foot on the ground and pushed off after him.

Rodney slid into his college-level physics class three minutes late and straddled the empty chair Radek had saved for him. "What'd I miss?" he hissed.

"Where were you?" Radek demanded in much too loud a whisper to escape notice.

"Shh," Rodney hissed as Mr. Simmons turned around and raised an eyebrow.

"Well, Mr. McKay, nice of you to join us."

"Yeah, well, it's a pleasure to be here," Rodney said, flipping open his book.

"With that attitude, even your grades won't carry you through any sort of undergraduate program, let alone higher education," Mr. Simmons sneered.

"And I'd be a lot more worried about that instead of how little I'm getting out of this class, except, wait, you're the one who's supposed to be teaching me physics," Rodney shot back. He'd worry about getting in trouble except that they'd done this every day that year and nothing had happened. People, Rodney thought with some disgust, were completely stupid.

"Difficult to teach an absent student," Simmons said, turning back to the board. He launched back into his explanation of Coulomb's force. Rodney had read about it the summer before and had already sat through two of Mr. Simmons' insufficient lectures on the subject.

"How goes your brilliant plan?" Radek whispered, slouching in his seat.

"Shut up," Rodney whispered back. He glanced around and leaned in. "It's going fine. John...is not a complete gorilla. For a football player."

"Oh, so he is good enough to take up all your time and your money?" Radek sounded pissy. Rodney rolled his eyes.

"Ok, look," he whispered, leaning over, "I know I haven't been around at all, but don't get your panties in a twist about it. I've been learning how to be cool. And I will pass this knowledge on to you. When, you know, I have time."

"Panties in a twist?" Radek hissed back. "What does that mean?"

"Oh, John said it the other day," Rodney said, feeling the rush of explaining something new. "It's when you get all uptight and completely, totally unreasonably irritated about something that's totally not worth worrying about. Like you're doing."

Radek hunched over his notebook, scribbling too fast to actually be taking notes and muttering under his breath in Czech. Rodney leaned back, smiling. He was going to have this 'cool' thing down in no time at all.

John found Rodney in the cafeteria at lunch.

"C'mon," he said, catching Rodney's arm and steering him out of the lunch line. "We have things to do."

"We have lunch to eat!" Rodney replied with a longing look at the food line. "Unless you've forgotten the delicate state of my blood sugar?"

"We'll get something while we're out," John said, shouldering open the side door near the gym and pushing Rodney into the sunlight.

"How will people figure out that I'm cool when I'm not eating lunch with you?" Rodney demanded.

"Because you're cutting class with me," John said, checking casually for cars before jogging across the street. "We're probably not going to make it back by the end of lunch."

"What?" Rodney sounded more horrified than usual. "I can't skip class! You can't ask me to risk my academic career for some adolescent pre-criminal folly you're planning -- what are you planning, anyway?"

"We're picking up my dad's car," John said. "What class are you going to miss?"

"Study hall," Rodney said.

John stopped and turned to look at Rodney. "You're telling me," he said slowly, "that with that great big brain of yours, your academic career is going to come crashing to a halt because you missed study hall?"

"Of course not." The corners of Rodney's mouth turned down, which somehow made the corners of John's mouth turn up.

"Part of being cool," he said, squeezing Rodney's shoulder, "is knowing the difference between what other people think is true and what you know is true." Rodney gave him a quizzical look and he dropped his hand. "Besides," he said lightly. "I know you want to ride in the DeLorean."

Rodney's eyes glazed over a little and John knew that he had won.

On Wednesday, Rodney waited on his porch for John to come out of his house. His parents were revisiting argument #615 and Jeannie was scowling darkly at him, so he figured he'd spare John -- and himself -- the pain.

All in all, it showed no sign of being anything other than an ordinary day until Rodney took a shortcut down the cool hallway and managed to get tackled for reasons other than locker entrapment.

"McKay!" Rodney stumbled as John grabbed his shoulders and pushed him out of the crowd.

"You could just wave next time," he snapped

"Yeah, but then I don't get to listen to you bitch," John said with a twitch of his eyebrows. "Look, Mitch is having a party at his place on Saturday night so meet me after school in front of the bike racks and we'll head over to the mall."

Rodney squinted at John, trying to track the logical progression of cause and effect in that sentence and then decided that logic really had very little to do with it.

"Why are we going to the mall?"

"Because you need something to wear."

Rodney winced. He had some money left over from tutoring but not a lot.

"C'mon, it won't be that bad." John clapped him on the arm. "Four o'clock, ok?"

"Don't you have football practice?" Rodney tried.

"Just a weigh-in."

"I have a meeting!"

"Skip it!"

"I'm the president of the club!"

"Then cancel it!"

Rodney huffed. "If you think I'm going to cancel a very important meeting of the Future Physicists of America club to hang around the mall with you and your ruffian friends so we can look good for a party -- is Mitch the lobotomized one? -- then you -- "

"Rodney. You're not even an American citizen. How are you the president of the Future Physicists of America club? And what are you doing that's so important anyway?"

Rodney scowled. He was already regretting telling John about the Canadian thing. "We're planning a party for Heisenberg's birthday."

"When's the party?"

"Why, you want to crash it?" Rodney sneered. "It's in December."

"Rodney. Meet me at four."

"Fine," Rodney grumbled. "Should I electrocute myself along the way so that I can fit in?"

John pointed one finger at Rodney as he walked backwards down the hall. "Don't forget," he called. "Those ruffian friends of mine are going to make you cool."

Rodney sighed, but he wound up cutting his meeting short and went out to the bike racks at four. John was showing off, sliding his skateboard along the top of one of the mostly-empty racks and twisting off, spinning in the air before landing on the grass. The crowd gathered around him made sounds of enthusiasm. Rodney rolled his eyes. John hammed it up for them a little more, then nodded and popped his skateboard up into his hand.

"You ready?" he asked Rodney as the crowd drifted off and Rodney found the several yards of distance between them filled with grass instead of people.

"Sure," Rodney said, walking toward John and the street. "You know you're going to crack your head open."

"Yeah, you told me yesterday, thanks," John said. "What'd I tell you about the backpack?" He reached out and tugged one strap down Rodney's shoulder and Rodney obediently shrugged out of it.

"Where's everyone else?" Rodney asked, realizing belatedly that it was just him and John.

"Just us today," John said. "We're all supposed to be doing homework so we can play on Friday."

"And you're going to lose the game for us by taking me shopping instead of finishing your homework?" Rodney sniped.

"My grades are fine," John said stiffly. "I'm here to hold up my end of the deal."

"I haven't been given a swirlie all week," Rodney said. "I have no complaints."

"Right, which is why I hear you complaining non-stop," John said, raising his eyebrows.

"I'm staying in practice," Rodney said with dignity. "I wouldn't want to go soft while you're coddling me."

"That would be a shame," John agreed, holding open the outer door to of the mall.

"We're not girlfriends," Rodney said half an hour later, from under a pile of jeans and shirts. "There's really no need to dress me."

"There is if you hold any hope of getting a girlfriend," John called from somewhere off to his right and behind some denim jackets.

"These are too tight," Rodney said twenty minutes after that when he hopped out of the dressing room wearing stonewashed jeans that pinched.

"Depends on how slutty a girlfriend you're looking for," John said, raising one eyebrow and regarding Rodney worriedly. "Go try something else."

"I think we should go back to my house and play Impossible Mission," Rodney said after another ten minutes of changing in and out of clothes.

"Sure," John said. "As soon as you're done here."

Rodney huffed and went back inside the dressing room.

Ninety minutes and three stores later, John pronounced him acceptable to be seen in public and Rodney was counting out ones on the store counter.

"I got it," John said, leaning on the desk and sliding over a credit card.

"What are you doing?" Rodney asked, irritated. He might not have a lot of money left over, but he had enough.

"It's my dad's credit card," John said casually. "I figure he'll never know the difference and it's going toward a good cause."

"Making me cool is now a charity project?" Rodney asked. He considered being disgusted but the idea was vaguely intriguing. "Hey, wait a minute!"

John made a face at him that clearly asked, What?

"If you had your dad's credit card, why didn't you just use that for the car repairs?"

John rolled his eyes. "Because," he said quietly as the clerk rang up Rodney's purchases, "he's not even going to blink at fifty dollars of clothes. A thousand dollars to the auto body shop is kind of noticeable. Especially when he specifically told me not to touch the car."

"Oh. Right." Rodney glanced at the trendy clothes disappearing into plastic bags. "Is he home now?"

"Yeah," John said. "Got in last night. If he's noticed anything about the car, he hasn't said."

"Well, that's good," Rodney said, feeling oddly tired and cranky. The clerk handed him his bags and John signed the receipt.

"You want to get something to eat?" John asked as they passed the food court and lovely smells hung in the air.

"Yeah, I'm starving," Rodney said. "What time is it?" He struggled with his bags to check his watch.

"Quarter of seven," John said.

"What?" Rodney nearly tripped over his bags.

"Quarter of seven," John repeated. He raised an eyebrow. "You need to be somewhere?"

"Yes!" Rodney fumbled the bags into his other hand and started digging in his pocket for change. "Is there a pay phone around here?"

John nodded at the wall next to Chinese food booth. Rodney thrust the bags at him and went to call home.

"Rodney!" his mother exclaimed when she answered. "Where are you? We were worried sick!"

"You sound like a nag," he heard his father say in the background. "The boy's seventeen. Give him a break."

"You missed dinner," his mother snapped. "I had no idea where you were."

"Look, I had things to do," Rodney said. He hated it when his parents used him as an excuse to fight and he was starting to get a headache. "I'm sorry I'm late, I'll grab something when I get home."

"It'll be cold," his mother said. "You'll have to warm it up."

"That's fine," he said. "I like cold leftovers."

"If you're not home in fifteen minutes, you're grounded, young man," his mother said, and Rodney could hear his father yelling at her as he hung up the phone.

Fifteen minutes wasn't a lot of time, but they would be too busy screaming at each other when he walked in that being a little late wouldn't matter.

"I gotta go," he said to John as he turned around.

John held out a soft pretzel and peered at him curiously from under a flop of brown hair. "You in trouble?" he asked.

"Kinda," Rodney answered, taking the pretzel gratefully. It was bland but the salt was harsh on his tongue and he started feeling better almost immediately. "I'm supposed to be home for dinner at six every night. I just forgot. It'll be ok."

"Ok," John said, and the look on his face gave Rodney the sinking feeling that he had heard Rodney's parents arguing over the phone.

"Don't you have to be home for dinner?" Rodney asked snidely to cover his embarrassment.

John shrugged artlessly. "If Dad's home, he usually makes something around eight. He works late a lot. It depends on if I'm home, too." He shrugged again. "We don't have much of a schedule anymore."

"Must be nice," Rodney said, wondering what it would be like to have so much freedom.

"Yeah," John said vaguely. "Come on." He grinned wickedly at Rodney. "I'll walk you home."

"We are not girlfriends!"

John let himself into his house and blinked at the lighted hallway.

"Hi, Dad," he said to the empty hall.

"In here," his father called from the general vicinity of the kitchen.

John dropped his backpack on the floor inside the door and went to find his dad. "Smells good," he said. "What's cooking?"

"Chili," Colonel Sheppard said proudly. "I grabbed a loaf from the BX, too, so we can have garlic bread." He nodded toward the French bread sitting on the sideboard.

John crossed the room and pulled it out of its paper sack, grabbing a knife from the block and a cutting board. "I have a game on Friday," he said, hacking the bread into broad, diagonal slices. "So I won't be home until late."

"Yeah, I saw on the schedule," the Colonel said. "I should be able to make it."

"Yeah?" John's dad never made it to his games. He was usually out of town or on duty.

"I figured it would be nice to see you play once more before you go off to college," Colonel Sheppard said dryly. "I somehow missed five-foot-eight through six-oh. I'm waiting to come home and find out you're taller than me."

John rolled his eyes and grinned a little. He opened the fridge door and pulled out the butter. "I wish," he said as he slathered butter on the bread and shook garlic flakes over the slices.

"Chili's up," Colonel Sheppard said when the butter had broiled on the garlic bread. He filled bowls and set them on the table with extra onions and cheese and John rescued the bread before it charred. "So what surprises am I going to find waiting for me when I talk to the vice-principal?" he asked when they'd dug into the chili and bread and declared it edible.

John shook his head and shrugged, indicating that his mouth was full.

"Nice try," his father said. "You've got to swallow some time."

John shrugged and did so. "Depends on how much they know," he said casually. His father had once made the mistake of telling him that if he couldn't behave, to at least try not to get caught.

"John," his father warned.

"Can I have a beer?" John asked, to change the subject.

Colonel Sheppard looked flummoxed and like he was going to refuse and then he shrugged and sagged back against his seat. "Oh, go ahead." He tipped back his own bottle in resignation.

"Really?" John asked, already halfway across the kitchen to retrieve a beer from the fridge.

"I'm sure you do it when I'm not here," Colonel Sheppard sighed. "This probably makes me the worst father ever...."

"No," John said, thinking of the yelling he'd heard coming from the McKay's house when Rodney had opened the door. "I think there's probably someone out there who makes their kids completely miserable."

"I keep you around for my ego, you know," Colonel Sheppard said, helping himself to more garlic bread.

"And so you can cheer for one winning team," John offered, which turned the dinner conversation to sports and away from other sketchy topics like John's physics grade.

After he helped his father clean up, he went to his room and paged through what homework he did have. He'd done most of it in study hall and he could put off the reading until he was ready to go to bed. He slid the window up and stepped onto the roof. It was a little windy and cooler than it had been, but even at ten o'clock at night, October in Arizona was far from unpleasant. He lay on his back and stared up into the sky, wondering if he was going to spend his entire life never being home.

He wanted to fly. There was no question there. Maybe it was better, he thought, dropping his head to the side, than being home all the time and being miserable. He glanced over at the McKay's house and saw a dark shape on the roof.

There was only one person that could be and he sat up before calling over.

"Rodney! Hey, McKay!"

The shape sat up quickly and leaned into the patch of moonlight.

"Hey," Rodney's voice carried through the still, dry air.

John moved over a little. "You get dinner?"

"Yeah." Rodney quirked a grin. "I think corned beef hash is actually better cold."

"That's disgusting," John said, wrinkling his nose. "Are you grounded?"

Rodney shook his head, his face bobbing in and out of shadows. "Nah, they didn't even look at the clock when I came in."

John nodded and didn't know what else to say. "Hey," he finally called back. "We've got like, six gallons of chili in here, seriously, so next week you should come over one night when my dad's gone and we'll have some."

"Yeah?" Rodney sounded hopeful to John and he nodded back. "That sounds, uh -- "

He stopped talking and the sound of shrill twelve-year-old echoed out of the open window. He winced and shrugged, waving at the window. "Ok, I have to go kill her now. I'll see you tomorrow."

John nodded and waved a little as Rodney disappeared back into the bedroom window. He lay back on the roof and began to calculate the days until he left town and started his career in the Air Force.

"Hey, McKAY!"

Rodney blinked as he heard his name bellowed at the top of someone's sizable and very healthy lungs.

"McKay!" It was Aiden Ford, all bright eyes and teeth, grinning and slinging an arm around Rodney's neck. "Tell me you're coming to the game tomorrow night. C'mon, you can't miss it." He snugged Rodney's head in close and punched him several times in the arm.

Rodney panicked instantly, searching the crowd for John, who was leaning against a locker, trying to talk to Teyla, who had turned her head and was watching Rodney.

"Er. Well, I hadn't planned, I mean -- "

"You have to come," Aiden said. "You're going to party with us afterward, right?"

Rodney saw John watching him and saw the small smirk twist the side of his mouth. He nodded, slightly, and relief flooded Rodney.

"Yeah, sure," Rodney said instantly. The truth was, he'd made it to one football game that season -- and that was after telling Radek he was going to the university library -- solely for the purpose of watching John play. He'd had to leave in the second quarter when John got sacked and came up spitting blood. Rodney and blood didn't do so well together when it came to John.

He glanced over at John, just one more time, he promised himself, before he started quizzing Ford on when and where he had to be. John was smiling at him and the look on his face was almost...affectionate? Rodney was spellbound until Teyla reached up and tapped on John's chest, and his attention snapped back to her.

Rodney sighed and looked back to Ford. He was so doomed.

"Hey! You're just in time," John's father called as he walked through the door, still sweaty and tired from practice. "Phone for you." He was grinning and John raised one eyebrow and went into his room for privacy.

"Got it," he said into the receiver and waited for the click of his father hanging up the extension in the kitchen. "Hello?"

"Hi, John." The voice was warm and so familiar his chest ached. He could almost hear the smile in her voice.

"Elizabeth?" John kicked off his shoes and settled back against the wall. "Long time, no hear," he teased and then added in a softer voice, "I've missed you."

"I'm really sorry about that," Elizabeth said. "I was at a party the night before and I crashed in a friend's room, and then I went hiking that afternoon and I've had classes and work...oh, I feel like I have so much to tell you!"

"Sounds like a good time," John said, wondering whose room she'd crashed in and whether that was a female friend or a male friend. Not that it was any of his business, he reminded himself.

"Oh, it's fantastic," Elizabeth enthused. "My Spanish class went out to this restaurant the other night and ordered the entire meal in Spanish! And last weekend? We ate Moroccan, seven courses in one meal. It took three hours to serve the entire thing but it was to die for."

"That's kind of neat," John said, but she was already off and running to the next thing.

"I've finally found someone besides you who can beat me at chess," Elizabeth said, "and -- oh! I can't believe I didn't tell you this first! I might get to spend six weeks in Switzerland this summer. A couple of the econ classes I need are going to be held abroad and I have a really good chance of getting a seat."

"That's great. You should do it," John found himself saying when he really wanted to ask who could beat Elizabeth at chess and if she was going to send him postcards from Switzerland when he was sweating it out in BCT.

"I hope I can," she said wistfully and John remembered nights sitting on the hood of the Nova, when he told her he wanted to see the stars and she told him she wanted to see other lands. "Hey, you haven't said anything. What's going on with you? How was your day? Do you have a game tomorrow? I've missed you so much!"

"Everything's -- " John paused. "You remember Rodney McKay?"

"Rodney," Elizabeth said thoughtfully. "Very smart? Very talkative?"

"That's him," John said with a smile. "So I um, ran into him at the...mall, and we started talking and -- " He wasn't even sure what he was going to say because it absolutely had nothing to do with taking a thousand dollars from Rodney to fix the dent he'd gotten in his father's car while making out with another girl, but as it turned out, he didn't need to say another word.

"Elizabeth, you coming?" a girl's voice called from the background and John stopped talking.

"Yes, sorry, just one minute!" Elizabeth called back, muffled. "Oops, I gotta go, I'm very late. But I'll talk to you later! Call me!"

"Yeah, sure," John said to the dial tone and hung up the phone with only a little more force than necessary.

Safely encased in his fleece pullover, Rodney climbed the bleachers in search of a seat. He hadn't tried to convince Radek to come with him and he'd refused to let Jeannie tag along for the same reason. John had said, So you're going to party with us after the game? in a kind of skeptical tone of voice that clearly meant he hadn't expected Rodney and maybe didn't want him. It made Rodney all the more determined to go, but he was pretty sure John wouldn't welcome additional guests.

"Rodney! Rodney, over here!"

Katie Brown waved at him from her huddle with Jeannette Simpson and Laura Cadman.

"Hi," he said, reluctantly sliding onto the end of the bench next to Katie. "How much did I miss?"

"Only the first seven minutes," Laura said. She was tall and pretty and ran track. She also had an uncanny knack for building things that went boom, so the girls in the science club loved her.

"I've never seen you at a game before, Rodney," Katie said. "Do you like football?"

"Uh. I'm really more of a hockey fan," Rodney said, glancing back at the field just in time to see John throw a forward pass for a seventeen-yard gain.

Rodney and the girls cheered for him, and for Chuck-somone who had completed the pass, and then Laura Cadman leaned over and said, "So you've been hanging out with the football players an awful lot, Rodney. When did that start?"

Rodney shrugged, suddenly terrified. "I live next door to John Sheppard," he said. "We're friends."

"Huh," Laura said thoughtfully, but that seemed to be the end of it.

They won, 23-14, and when Rodney wandered out of the stadium and into the parking lot, Katie was still glued to his side. He didn't really know how to get rid of her or where he was supposed to go for the party and he didn't see anyone he knew. He thought about just asking Katie out for ice cream, but then he saw John standing in the parking lot, talking to an older man slightly taller and broader than him. The other man must be John's father, the Colonel, Rodney thought, watching him slap John on the back and walk off.

John turned, and he must have caught Rodney staring because he jogged over. He was still in his uniform and his face was tired and grimy with dried sweat and blacking.

"Hey, you had a good game," Rodney said before realizing how condescending he must sound. "I mean, you did really well. Except for that one time when you threw it away and Dex was wide open but nobody's perfect, right? I mean, at least you won. I mean, the team won. And you helped. Well, did a lot of it, mostly."

"Thanks," John said, cutting off the embarrassing flow of babble. He touched his hair gingerly. It was messier than usually after being crammed under his helmet. "I've gotta go shower. I'll see you at the party, right? It's at Ronon's house." He glanced over at Katie. "You coming too, Katie?"

Rodney glanced over. Katie's eyes had widened when she realized John knew her name and her cheeks flushed. Just what he needed -- the one girl in school who was actually interested in him mooning over the guy Rodney was madly in love with. How was that for equilateral irony? He was ready to work up a good sulk when John looked back to him.

"I'm catching a ride over with one of the guys," he said. "If you two want to wait around, I can get you a seat, but it might be a while."

"I've got my dad's car," Rodney said, slightly mollified. "Ronon's house is the big old one on the corner before ours, right?"

"You got it," John said, nodding. "I'll see you there." And then he jogged off, his helmet tucked under his arm.

"It's um, it's a little early," Rodney said, because he was sure Ronon was in the locker room with everyone else and didn't want to lurk around Ronon's house in the dark or worse, have to go in and make small talk with Ronon's parents. "You want to get some ice cream?"

"Rodney, it's cold out," Katie said with a pretty smile, and Rodney didn't feel quite so stupid as he might have.

"But it's ice cream," he said, smiling back. "Unless you'd rather go somewhere else."

Katie blushed and it took an awkward moment for Rodney to realize she thought he was suggesting they go somewhere to make out.

"I mean," he babbled. "If you wanted pizza or something. It's warm. Or hot. Since you're cold."

"No, ice cream's ok," she said, and Rodney breathed a sigh of relief.

"Ok. The car is over here," he said, leading the way to his father's old Buick Electra. He unlocked the driver's side and started to get in and then realized Katie was standing outside. "Oops, sorry." Rodney jumped out and ran around to the other side and unlocked her door, too. "I don't get a lot of passengers," he said, completely mortified.

He should know better, he thought, face hot as he turned on the engine. He was Canadian for crying out loud! He shifted quickly from embarrassed to indignant. After all, it wasn't his fault his father had never taught him the rudiments of taking out girls and it wasn't like his mother was going to do it.

John wouldn't have made that mistake, he thought miserably, driving to the ice cream parlor. He started weighing how embarrassing it might be to ask John versus the possible repercussions of never learning at all. He might never get laid, ever, if he didn't at least get the opening doors thing down. On the other hand, mortal humiliation in the face of the school's most popular boy was not to be taken lightly, either.

For a sudden, terrifying moment, Rodney wondered if John would mock Rodney about all the things he learned about him over the course of the month. John didn't seem like that sort of guy, but Rodney had never thought to put a gag clause in the contract and well, they'd never had a lot of contact before. He reminded himself sternly that John had never actually done anything nasty to him before and concentrated on not running the stop sign in front of the ice cream parlor.


He looked over to see Katie peering at him oddly and sighed out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

"Sorry," he said. "I was...concentrating. What uh, what kind of ice cream do you like?"

"I usually get chocolate chip," Katie said, sliding her hand around Rodney's elbow as they went inside.

"You want a double?" Rodney asked. "I'm getting a double." He needed the fortification for the party, he rationalized.

"Oh, no, just one scoop is fine," Katie said.

Rodney ordered her a double anyway, because he hadn't really been listening and covered by offering to eat any she didn't want. So Rodney ate two scoops of pistachio -- and he imagined John asking if he wasn't allergic to nuts and snapping out a brilliantly witty and cool response -- and three-quarters of a scoop of chocolate-chip while listening to Katie talk about saving her grandmother's African violet from the dastardly threat of overwatering.

"They don't like to have wet feet," she explained perkily.

Rodney had failed at paying attention several minutes before this proclamation and was thinking about John Sheppard in tight gray leggings that were padded in the ass and football cleats, his calves thin and hairy between them.

"Rodney?" Katie was blinking at him owlishly from across the table.

"Um, yes?"

"I asked what you thought."

"About -- ?" Rodney's mind raced to recall what might have been a question requiring his opinion.

"We've been sitting here for a while," Katie said cautiously. "Do you think maybe we should, you know, go? So we're not late?"

"Oh, yes. Excellent, uh, excellent idea." Rodney jumped up and grabbed his jacket, hustling Katie out the door and into the car. He wasn't sure if it was possible to be late to football player party, but he figured he didn't really want to find out.

When they pulled up to Ronon's house, Ford and a short, stocky player named Lorne, a junior whose first name Rodney could never remember, were spilling out of an aging Plymouth Fury.

"McKay!" Ford roared, crashing enthusiastically into Rodney, who stumbled under the assault.

"Hey, um, good job," Rodney said.

Ford beamed at him and Rodney couldn't help but smile back.

"Did you see that run I made around the Sam?" Ford asked Rodney excitedly. "I picked up twenty-four yards on that play!"

"That was great," Rodney said sincerely, even though he had no idea what a Sam was. He knew that ten yards was a down and that twenty-four yards was definitely a first down. "Do you know Katie?"

"Hey," Ford greeted her, turning his million-watt smile to her. "Aiden Ford. You're Rodney's...what?" He gave them a mischievous grin. "Friend?"

"We're, um, I mean -- " Katie looked up at Rodney from under her bangs.

Rodney shifted nervously. "We are friends," he said stiffly. "Katie is in the science and algebra clubs with me."

Ford nodded slowly, his eyebrows creeping high on his forehead. "Wow," he said. "That sounds like good times. C'mon, let's go in and get a drink!" And he was off and running again.

Rodney felt his face get hot and he didn't look at Katie as they followed Ford into Ronon's house and down the stairs to the basement. He didn't see Ronon's parents anywhere, but most of the kids at their school were military brats and their parents were often gone at odd hours.

Rodney's parents were not gone at odd hours and he hoped they didn't ask too many questions about this party.

Ronon's basement was finished and divided into several rooms. The lights were dimmed in the main room where several of the players were already well-sloshed, holding plastic cups of beer and at least one was already making time with a cheerleader, running a hand up her bare leg.

Rodney stared. He tried not to, but she was blonde and tan and well, it wasn't like he saw that kind of thing every day. Katie's hand squeezing his arm startled him away from the sight and she glanced around nervously.

"Do you uh, want anything to drink?" Rodney asked as gallantly as he could muster.

"Uh, yes?" Katie said, her voice lilting into more of a question than an answer. "If you...." She trailed off with no indication of what she might have wanted to say.

"I'll be right back," Rodney promised, pulling his arm away and looking for someone he knew. "What are you doing to that thing?" he asked, when he saw Ford and half a dozen of his teammates killing themselves in a sorry attempt at a kegstand so he detoured to show them the correct angle and rigged up a simple way to hold the tap open until the idiot in question was ready to stop. Then he asked Ford where the rest of the drinks were, and got pointed into a small room off to the side.

"Do you not have any soda?" Rodney asked the makeshift bar as he rooted through beer, cheap whiskey, and wine-in-a-box. Predictably, the bar didn't answer.

"Having fun, McKay?"

Rodney recognized that drawl. It belonged to John Sheppard and if Rodney had a better sense of human interaction than he did, he might have noticed that the tone wasn't particularly happy.

"If by 'having fun' you mean being forced to save your brain-dead teammates from death by terrible beer and not finding a single decent thing to drink that wasn't bought with a fake ID, yes, I'm having a fantastic time, thank you."

John smiled tightly. He was holding a can of beer in his hand and his hair still looked damp. "Sorry to offend your delicate sensibilities," he said. He tilted his head back and poured half the can down his throat. Rodney got distracted from his ire by the sight of John's neck muscles shifting as he swallowed. "We're kind of in the mood to celebrate when we win."

"Oh. Yeah, right." Rodney bit his lip. "Did I tell you that you did really well? Because I watched the whole game and you looked really good out there. I mean, you played well. Your -- throwing arm looked good."

John grinned, slow and lazy. "You came to watch me?"

"Well, yeah," Rodney said, as if John was stupid and Rodney knew he wasn't. "And there was no blood this time, which was really good because I probably wouldn't have made it through the whole thing if there was -- well, anyway. Ford said I should come."

"Well, Ford was right," John said, and then, before Rodney could reply, tilted his head to the side and raised his eyebrows.

"What -- oh?" Rodney turned his head and saw Katie peek into the room. "Katie?"

"Rodney?" Katie's eyes were huge and she looked even paler than usual. "Would you mind taking me home? It's late and -- " She glanced at John and turned her head a little so that only Rodney could hear her lowered voice. " -- I'm not very comfortable here."

"Yeah, sure, no problem," said Rodney, who wasn't entirely comfortable there himself. "You want to go now?"

She nodded and before Rodney could say good-bye, John said, "Actually, could I catch a ride home, too? I've got to be up early tomorrow and since you're right next door and all...."

"Sure," Rodney said, just relieved to be escaping.

It took longer than expected because John's exit had to be heralded with backslaps and bellybumps and other ridiculous forms of physical congratulations on the victory. Katie looked thoroughly miserable when Rodney unlocked and opened the car door for her. He didn't know what to say, at least not with John sprawled in the backseat, so he drove to her house in silence. He'd been there once before, for an algebra club party the previous year.

"'Night, Katie," John said as Rodney held the car door for her again. "Thanks for coming out."

"Are you okay?" Rodney asked when they'd reached her front door.

"I -- I -- The only other girls there were cheerleaders," Katie said helplessly. "And they were watching this movie in the back and there was so much beer and pizza and no soda or anything and I just -- I'm sorry, Rodney. I guess I'm just not a party girl."

"I didn't know it was going to be like that," Rodney said, but Katie was already going inside and closing the door on him. He sighed and went back to the car, thinking that at least he didn't have to worry about whether to kiss her.

John was lounging in the front passenger seat, arms folded behind his head, when Rodney returned.

"That was smooth," he said helpfully as Rodney got in the car.

Rodney considered the ignition for a moment, then turned to look at John. "So you want to tell me what that was all about?" he asked, twisting the key savagely. The engine cranked to life reluctantly.

"What?" John asked, sounding believably surprised.

"That. Tonight," Rodney said waving one hand in the general direction of the house. "Inviting Katie to a party where people are doing kegstands and making out and watching porn movies. What on earth made you think that was a good idea? No, wait, let me guess. You thought it would be funny to get a rise out of the little geek girl. Because it's fun. Wow, and I just told Radek you weren't a gorilla. I hate being wrong!" Rodney threw the car into reverse and backed out into the street with more gas than was entirely required.

"Hey. I was trying to be nice," John shot back, straightening up. "She was standing right there! What were you going to do, say sorry, I'm going to a party now, have a nice walk home?"

"I don't know what I was going to do," Rodney said. "Besides, I was working off inadequate data. You didn't tell me it was that kind of party."

"Yeah, because I didn't invite you!"

"That's another thing!" Rodney replied, completely on a roll, now. "You're supposed to take me everywhere with you! That includes parties! You said so yourself."

"I didn't think you'd want to go," John said. "It's that kind of party."

Rodney opened his mouth, but paused to concede -- to himself only -- that John had a point. "You could have asked."

The resultant silence was moody until Rodney got twitchy enough to break it by speaking again.

"Do you like that kind of party?"

"You notice I'm sitting here?" John muttered. He shrugged. "I don't mind. It's okay."

Rodney glanced over at him. He was slouched back, head tilted down, his face in shadows. "Was that your dad, tonight?" he asked.

The dark head moved and then John said, "Yeah."

"He came to watch you play?"

"Yeah. And to tell me that he's on his way somewhere else. He'll be back Monday."

"Oh." Rodney didn't know anyone who was away quite as much as John's dad was. "You, uh, you wanna sleep at my house? There's an extra bed in my room somewhere and my mom makes breakfast on the weekends."

"No, thanks." John's face was shadowed still, but Rodney thought maybe he'd smiled a little.

Of course John didn't want to be around his family at breakfast. He'd witnessed one McKay Family Meal, and that was one of the ones where they all managed to ignore each other.

"Thanks for the ride," John said when Rodney pulled into his own driveway and put the car in park. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Yeah," Rodney said, in no hurry to get out of the car. "Tomorrow."

John woke up to the sound of the phone ringing in his ear.

"Mrngh, what?" he mumbled around a yawn, rolling to his back.

"I just wanted to let you know that I'm not going to the party tonight," Rodney said matter-of-factly.

John blinked and rubbed one hand through his hair. "Yes, you are," he said. "I'll be over at eight." He hung up the phone and dragged the pillow over his face. There was still potential for another hour or two of sleep.

The phone rang again.

"This is not me wimping out or feeling socially insecure," Rodney said when John picked up the receiver, just to make it stop ringing. "It's merely a matter of self-acceptance after last night's unfortunate...unfortunateness."

"Rodney," John groaned, rolling his neck. "I don't do this emotional support shit. You said it yourself -- we are not girlfriends."

"I never asked -- " Rodney started.

"You're going to the party," John said as firmly as he could manage. He shifted on his bed. It was weird to be talking to Rodney with his morning erection still heavy in his boxers. "I'll be over at eight and we'll walk over. Be ready." He palmed himself with a wince. "And stop calling. Some of us are trying to sleep over here." He rolled to his side and set the phone back in the cradle. There was no way he was going to back to sleep, now. He kicked off the sheets wandered into the bathroom. He relieved himself and turned on the shower, stripping off his shirt and shorts while the water warmed up.

He tried to think of Elizabeth when he jerked off in the shower, her thin body arching and her strong arms wrapped around his shoulders the first time he pushed into her, but Rodney's voice kept distracting him. Elizabeth was so very far away, fading into the background, and Rodney was so very there all the time. John wondered if Rodney was a virgin or if he'd been with some girl -- probably not Katie Brown. John couldn't imagine her in bed with anyone, although if he tried hard, he could picture her small pale hands on Rodney's dick, maybe even her mouth on him --

John came into the spray of water, his back curled and shuddering. He stared at his hand, water sluicing away the pale liquid. He washed himself slowly and wondered why it didn't bother him more that he'd just jerked off thinking of Rodney's dick.

Rodney was bound and determined not to leave the house that night, even when John showed up brandishing hair gel and blow dryer.

"I don't care about your dissociative teenage existential angst," he said, holding Rodney's head under the bathroom faucet.

"My angst is not existential," Rodney sputtered. "My angst is the incredibly real fear of likely social humiliation resulting in ostracization."

"You told me this morning that this wasn't social insecurity," John said, dragging Rodney's head from the running water and throwing a towel over the top. "Dry."

Rodney rubbed the towel over his head and glared balefully at John.

"It's not going to be like last night," John finally said, his voice low so Rodney's parents -- watching television in the living room -- couldn't hear him.

"What, no porn and booze?" Rodney asked, snatching the towel away.

John rolled his eyes. "There'll be alcohol. But you don't have to drink it. Although maybe you should. You could use a drink or two."

"Right, and my bloodhound of a mother isn't going to smell that a mile away," Rodney muttered.

"Spend the night at my house," John suggested. "I'll go out and tell them some sob story about hating to be alone while my dad's away and you can save me from the terrible sucking loneliness." He turned on the blow dryer, handed it to Rodney, and left the bathroom.

Rodney aimed the blow dryer at his forehead and picked at his hair with a comb. His hair was nearly dry when John came back, shit-eating grin plastered all over his face.

"You didn't," Rodney said, dropping his aching arm to his side and thumbing the blow dryer off.

John raised both eyebrows and widened his eyes. "I'm very, very lonely at home," he said with heart-breaking sincerity. "Raised without a mother, by an itinerant father...I'm just lucky I have you as a friend to keep me from feeling abandoned."

Rodney stared at him. "You're a con artist," he accused. "You've completely suckered my parents into thinking you're some kind of -- some kind of -- "

"Shut up, you're ruining my tragic childhood," John said, taking the blow dryer and comb away and coming at Rodney with the hair gel. "Now hold still."

Half an hour later, Rodney was gelled, dressed in acid washed jeans, white t-shirt, and a vinyl jacket that was making a really good run at looking like leather.

"I really don't think I should go," Rodney tried one last time.

"I really don't think you have a choice," John said, dragging Rodney and his overnight bag into the living room.

"Oh, there you are," Rodney's mother said as they walked out. "Rodney, it's so nice of you to keep John company while his father's away."

"I really appreciate it, Mrs. McKay," John said, doing that thing with his eyes again. "You have no idea."

"He's a con artist," Rodney announced. John kicked him. Dr. McKay rustled his paper.

"Rodney," Mrs. McKay scolded. "It's not nice to joke about such things. Now run along. Be home for dinner tomorrow. John, you're invited too, of course, dear."

"Aw, thanks, Mrs. McKay," John said with a grin. "If my dad doesn't get in, I just might." He pushed Rodney out the door with one hand, waving goodbye to the McKays with the other.

"What the hell was that?" Rodney asked loudly when the door closed behind them. "Have you been possessed by the ghost of Eddie Haskell or something? That was nauseating."

"You missed the part where I was charming your sister," John said cheerfully. "Drop your bag in my garage. We'll walk over."

"Aw," Rodney groaned. "I think I'm going to hurl."

"Maybe later," John suggested, patting him on the shoulder. "You haven't even had any beer yet."

John had a beer in his hand less than a minute after he walked through the door. Rodney was so busy being delighted by the backslaps and arm punches that came with being John's friend that he didn't even see where he'd gotten it. He didn't seem to actually be drinking from it, though and Rodney didn't worry about it until Ford showed up with a trio of plastic cups, filled with something red.

"Jello shots," he exclaimed, passing them each one. "You ever done one, McKay?"

Rodney glanced at John because of course he'd never done them before -- the science clubs were well aware that such things killed brain cells and they had no need of oblivion.

"Loosen it up with your tongue," John said, demonstrating so effectively that Rodney's mouth went dry. "And then just let it slide down." He tipped his head back and dropped the shot into his mouth, throat working to swallow it whole.

Still staring at the play of muscles in John's throat, Rodney licked around the edges of his own shot. The vodka burned on the tip of his tongue. He tossed the shot back and got a lungful of air. Then John leaned forward and tapped the bottom of the cup firmly and the Jello was sliding into his mouth and down his throat. The vodka seared his sinuses and made his eyes water but he managed not to cough. A second later, warmth shot through his body, flushing his extremities.

Aiden slapped him on the back, grinning. "See? Mitch's shots are awesome!"

Rodney nodded enthusiastically.

"You seen Teyla around?" John asked in a way Rodney felt completely failed at casual.

Aiden's face lit up. "I saw her out by the pool earlier."

John's eyebrows went up and he reached out to pat idly at Rodney's shoulder. "That sounds promising," he said. "Rodney, you're on your own for a few. Don't worry. Ford here will protect you."

"Wait, what does that mean?" Rodney demanded, petulance reinforced by alcohol. "You're just going to abandon me here?"

"I think there's subs and pizza in the kitchen," Aiden said. "Want to get something to eat?"

"Huh, what, food?" Rodney said, attention successfully drawn. "Lead the way."

Ford was right -- there was pizza and subs, plus chips and pretzels, M&Ms, punch, soda, and a fridge full of beer and more Jello shots.

"This is fantastic," Rodney said with his mouth full as Aiden cracked open a beer. "Hey, can I have another of those Jello things?"

"Sure," Aiden said, passing one over.

Rodney did much better this time around, popping it free of the cup and knocking it back easily. The warmth that flowed through his body was milder, more comfortable.

"Hey, you're catching on," Aiden said, tilting his head back and swallowing one himself.

The kitchen was getting too warm so Rodney switched to punch and was getting up the nerve to ask Ford about John and Teyla when Laura Cadman walked in with a few girls Rodney knew by sight but not name.

"Hey, Rodney," Laura said easily and, with raised eyebrows, the other girls greeted him, too. They went over to the counter and started playing with the bottles stacked there, but Laura hung back. "So," she said softly as Aiden tried to talk up one of her friends. "What did you do to Katie last night? She said she's finished with you."

"Well, that's ridiculous," Rodney said, refilling his cup with more punch. "We'd have to start something for her to be finished with it." He rolled his eyes and took a deep drink. "I was supposed to go hang out with some of the players after the game and Katie was standing there, so John invited her along. The guys were being, you know, guys, so I took her home."

Laura tapped her fingers on the counter and looked thoughtful. She was a redhead, too, but more blonde than Katie. Even though she wore her hair long, down over her shoulders, and Rodney not-so-secretly preferred short haircuts, he still thought she was probably the hottest girl at school.

Not that he'd ever say so.

"She seemed pretty upset," Laura said. "Did you ask her what was bothering her?"

"Did I -- NO!" Rodney said. "She's -- she's not even my type! Why on Earth would I ask her what was bothering her? It was obviously all the -- the testosterone and porn."

"Wow, McKay," Laura said with a roll of her eyes. "You know absolutely nothing about women."

"Yes, well, thank you very much. That's extremely helpful and also, irrelevant because I do not need to know anything about women. Katie and I are not dating." Rodney scowled and swigged more punch.

"If you want," Laura offered, "I could help you out. Give you the whole woman's perspective on things."

"Were you not listening to a single thing I said?" Rodney asked, and his next words were drowned out by the distinctive whir and crash of a blender on "broken."

Laura was closer and she pulled the plug out of the wall before the appliance had time to catch fire or anything else really awful and Rodney shouldered her friends aside to examine the smoking hulk.

"I can fix it," he said, unscrewing the jar from the base and passing it to Laura. "Does anyone have a screwdriver? Wait, I think -- yes." He had a small Phillips' head in his Swiss army knife and before long, he had the thing open and spread across the counter.

"Hey, now look there," Laura said with a gentle nudge to his right shoulder blade. "You're good with your hands. There may be hope for you yet."

"Oh, thank you," Rodney snapped. "Your approval means so very much to me. Now would you please be quiet so I can fix this and then you get back to being juvenile delinquents with the alcoholic equivalent of power tools. And hand me that wire, the red one." He snapped his fingers and held out his hand.

There was dead silence. After a beat, it was broken by a light sigh and couple of murmurs.

Rodney looked up and blinked at Laura owlishly as a couple of her friends made appreciative noises. She winked at him and it didn't look coy, but then Rodney really didn't know anything about women and if admitting that got him that kind of attention, he wasn't going to make a fuss. Well, not that big a fuss.

"What are you, uh, trying to make?" he asked as Laura set the wire in his palm.

"White Russians," Friend Number Two said, tossing her dark hair behind her shoulder and cocking one hip.

"You don't need a blender for that," Rodney snorted. "Is there any ice cream in the freezer?"

"I'll check," Laura offered and came back with a box of Breyers.

"Great, give me a glass," Rodney said, putting the case of the blender back together. "Look, instead of crushing the ice cubes and watering down the drink, just use ice cream instead of the cream and shake." He dumped vodka, Kahlua, and a healthy scoop of ice cream into a tall glass, slapped a styrofoam bowl on top, and shook the whole thing together. "There, shortcut." He handed the glass to Friend Number Two, and started the process over again.

He'd just finished mixing up one last batch for Laura when John and Teyla came into the room. "Hey, Rodney," John said with a smile. "Having fun?"

"Always," Rodney said, fumbling the cup he was handing to Laura. She caught it anyway and licked away the droplets that had spilled over the rim of the cup onto her hand. "You?"

"John is going to teach me to do vodka shots," Teyla said, the note of challenge evident in her voice. She was wearing her bathing suit top with a denim skirt and her feet were bare.

"Mitch has a sugar jar around here somewhere," John said, lifting a bottle of Absolut from the stash and picking the bowl of lemon wedges off the table.

"Are you doing body shots?" Rodney asked, taking a drink of his punch.

Teyla glanced at John. John was looking at Rodney.

"Oh, don't even tell me you don't know how to do a body shot," Rodney said, as if he hadn't just read about them that afternoon. "All right, all right, give me. Here." He pulled the bowl of lemon wedges out of John's hand. "Take one of these and put it in your mouth," he ordered Teyla, consciously trying not to touch any of the wedges. His last allergic reaction had been years ago, but the memory was enough to make him shy away. "The rind side. Hold it there."

Teyla held the lemon between her teeth and made a face at Rodney, the corners of her eyes crinkling up adorably. Rodney grinned back at her and managed to tear his gaze away long enough to glance around the gathering crowd. "Someone bring me the sugar bowl," he commanded, snapping his fingers. "And you," he added, indicating John. "Pour a shot."

John grinned, all slow and lazy, like he was doing it because he wanted to and not because Rodney had said so, and poured the shot. Someone produced the sugar and Rodney took the small glass from John.

"Okay, hold on to this," he said, setting the shot glass on her shoulder and tipping her head to the side to keep it upright.

"McKay," John said.

"You can do it next," Rodney said, taking a pinch of sugar as soon as he was sure the glass wasn't going anywhere. He stepped up close and took a deep breath, then ducked his head and kissed Teyla low on the extended curve of her neck. She tasted good, very good, and he wondered if John had already tasted her there. He sprinkled the sugar on the damp patch his mouth had left and felt John's eyes hard on him. Bravely, he looked back and saw John's lashes flicker in surprise. Rodney leaned forward and licked the sugar off Teyla's neck, then tilted his head to the other side, pulling the shot glass from her neck and swallowing the vodka, which didn't burn quite so much anymore. He looked up and felt a sinking sensation. "You're supposed to -- to suck the lemon next," he said, taking a step back. "I can't. I'm allergic."

John leaned forward and put his mouth on the lemon wedge. From Rodney's angle, it looked like he was kissing Teyla but his eyes opened and went straight to Rodney. He leaned back with the lemon between his teeth, then wrinkled his nose and pulled it out of his mouth.

"My turn?" Teyla asked.

"Go for it," Rodney said, crossing his arms and easing back into the crowd.

Teyla put a lemon in John's mouth and a shot in his shoulder. She was too short to get all the way up to his neck, so she licked at his collarbone above his black t-shirt and sprinkled sugar across the skin.

Rodney put his hands in his pockets to hide the fact he was getting hard, but he'd forgotten how close the jeans fit and realized the position didn't help.

Teyla licked the sugar off gracefully, wrapped her mouth around the shot glass, and went up on her toes to take the lemon from John's mouth.

"Hey, Rodney?" Laura Cadman asked, touching his shoulder.

"I have to go to the bathroom," he said awkwardly, turning and leaving the kitchen which, by now, had attracted most of the party. He found the bathroom readily enough and locked himself in. A few awkward jerks toward the toilet took care of his biggest problem and cold water took care of his red face, but he was still fairly embarrassed. He cursed the accident of genetics that had required John to finish the demonstration. Why couldn't they need a nice apple or something? He pushed himself up on the counter and kicked his heels against the cabinet until someone knocked on the door.

"Hey, Rodney!" Andrea Dumais caught his arm as he walked into the living room.

"Uh, hi Andrea. What's up?" She was in Rodney's math class and was actually reasonably intelligent for someone who managed to get invited to one of Mitch's parties. She'd also never given him the time of day, let alone grabbed his arm.

"I heard you were pretty good at mixing drinks. Do you know how to make a Cosmopolitan?"

"Of course I do," Rodney said disparagingly. "The question is why would you want one?"

"Aw, c'mon." Andrea flashed a surprisingly pretty smile. "I've always wanted to try one."

"Sure," Rodney said with a sigh. "But you're pouring the lime juice."

The crowd in the kitchen had thinned out significantly since he'd retreated and John and Teyla were nowhere to be seen. Rodney shook up the vodka and lime juice with triple sec and cranberry juice, and got a kiss on the cheek for his efforts.

He stepped into the living room and ran into someone he didn't know, requesting a screwdriver. He privately thought anyone who couldn't make a screwdriver was an idiot, but did so anyway, adding a little too much vodka to get them to leave him alone.


Rodney looked up and kept on looking. Ronon Dex, easily the biggest guy on the football team, loomed into Rodney's space.

"Er, hi," Rodney said. Ronon used to spend a lot of time hovering around John and Rodney suddenly wondered if Ronon was irritated at being supplanted. "Um. Is there something I can do for you?" He cast a surreptitious glance around the room, hoping for John to appear and save his ass.

"People say you're good at mixing drinks," Ronon rumbled.

"I'm surprised the people in this place are sober enough to be forming sentences," Rodney muttered.

Ronon leaned into Rodney's personal space and slung an arm around his shoulders. "Any chance you know how to make a Dirty Girl Scout?"

"Yes," Rodney said, thinking that really, Ronon might be his kind of guy after all. "Yes, I do."

After that surreal encounter, Rodney collapsed on the nearest sofa, only to find himself shaken awake by John an indeterminate amount of time later.

"Rodney. Rodney."

"Huh, wha- ?" Rodney asked sharply, sitting straight up. "Where'd everyone go?"

"Home," John said, his mouth twitching up at the corner. "Which is where we're going."

"Home?" Rodney repeated, bouncing up off the couch. The room spun insanely and he flailed and sat down hard. "The room's spinning," he announced.

"Because you're drunk," John said helpfully.

"No, I'm not. I can't be. I kept very careful track," Rodney said, noticing that really, something wasn't quite right and maybe his tongue was a little too big. He said so.

John rolled his eyes. "Yeah, you're toasted," he said. "Let's get you walking."

Rodney made it to his feet this time without getting dizzy and he felt better the minute they stepped outside.

"So what did you drink, Mr. Boston?" John asked.

"I had," Rodney said, trying hard to remember, "a shot. With you. And Aiden Ford."

"The Jello shot," John agreed. "And then I left you alone."

"And then I did another one," Rodney added. "With Aiden."

"Okay," John said. "So, two Jello shots. Then what?"

"Then you came back," Rodney said. "And then I did the shot on Teyla."

"Yeah, remind me to kick your ass for that," John said but Rodney didn't think he was serious. "What else did you drink?"

"Nothing!" Rodney shouted, secure in his calculated sobriety. "I was mixing drinks for everyone because I memorized this bartending book my dad has and I know every drink in the world, now, but I'm not drunk, because I drank the punch instead!"

"Rod-ney," John drawled, clearly trying not to laugh. "You never drink the punch. Who knows what Mitch spiked it with?"

"What?" Rodney repeated, a sudden roiling sensation in his stomach. "What did you say? What was in the punch?"

"I don't know," John said as they walked down the street, Rodney now clutching his stomach. " Probably the cheapest swill they could get. That's why I don't drink anything I don't pour out of the bottle myself."

"Oh, my god," Rodney groaned. "There could be anything in there. I could be suffering from severe alcohol poisoning from -- from -- who knows what! I -- I -- oh, god."

"You okay?" John asked, stopping and turning to look at Rodney.

Rodney felt miserable and shivery and sick under John's scrutiny. His stomach jumped again. "I think," he said weakly.

"If you're going to get sick -- " John started.

"I'm fine," Rodney snapped. "I just have...a delicate stomach."

"It'll make you feel better," John offered. "Do it in the gutter."

The offer was too tempting and Rodney turned, waited a minute, and threw up on the side of the street. He sniffed, squeezing his eyes closed and decided that John was right -- he did feel better.

John's cool hand on the back of his neck, and John's soft voice murmuring, "See? Isn't that better?" helped some, too.

"Yeah," Rodney croaked, resting his hands on his knees for a few extra seconds, just because he didn't want to displace John's hand.

"C'mon," John said when it was pretty clear Rodney was done. He patted Rodney's back and guided him down the street. "You can stay in my room. I set up the cot and bucket this afternoon."

John had model airplanes in his room, exactingly accurate, and books of every shape and size, piled on top of each other, crammed into two bookcases beside the bed. Rodney approved. John also had posters of Carol Alt in a bikini and Phoebe Cates in a school girl outfit on his wall. Rodney wished he at least had the good taste to like blondes.

Then he caught sight of the smaller picture, framed, sitting on the window sill over the cot. It was a black and white picture of a woman in her twenties with windswept hair, soulful eyes, and a secretive, wistful smile. "Wow, who's this?" he blurted out, his mind racing to place her. "She's hot."

"It's my mom," John said with a sideways glance that Rodney wouldn't even know how to start interpreting. "She died when I was fourteen."

"Oh. Oh." Rodney looked at the picture of the late Mrs. Sheppard smiling softly at him. "She was, uh. You, um." Half sentences formed in his head, coming out before he realized how stupidly they all ended. "How'd it happen?" He peered over his shoulder at John and wanted to take it back and apologize. It wasn't any of his business, really, but he wanted to know and, well. Okay, it was rude. But it would be worse to sputter about it.

"Cancer," John said. "It was fast." He took the picture from Rodney and sat down on the cot with it.

"Oh." Rodney looked helplessly at the back of John's head. "How fast is fast? I mean, is that good? It means she wasn't in pain for long, right?"

"It didn't feel fast," John said, running his thumb down the side of the frame. "Six weeks, I think. I don't remember much of it."

Rodney sat down next to him. "Was your dad gone then?"

"No, he was here the whole time. He took leave so he could be with her. I mean, I don't think she told him for the first couple weeks, but then he came home and then she was really sick. I really don't remember very much."

Rodney's stomach felt hollow. His mother was a pain in his ass and asked him stupid questions all the time and just didn't get it, but he couldn't imagine her dying like that. Sick and in pain and when he was young. "I -- I wish I had something nice to say. I'm really sorry."

John shrugged again, and leaned over to put the picture back on the shelf. "That was nice," he said. He walked over to his bed and kicked off his jeans. "Bathroom's down the hall and bucket's on the floor if you need it," he added.

Rodney wanted to say something nicer, to explain that he was sorry for bringing it up, maybe even give John a hug. But John didn't seem that bothered or else he really just didn't want to talk about it, so Rodney undid his own jeans and climbed onto the cot, pulling the blankets around him. John turned off the light and Rodney listened to the sound of John's breathing in the dark room.

"I -- I'm sorry," he said before he lost his nerve. "About calling your mom hot. And um, about the thing with Teyla. I should have asked, first."

"If she'd minded, she would have kicked your nuts so far up your ass, you wouldn't be able to sit down," John said mildly.

"Ah, yes. There is that," Rodney admitted.

"Besides," John said, his voice low with sleep. "It was really kind of hot."

Rodney opened his mouth to answer and closed it again. He was sure John meant that actually doing the shots with Teyla was hot, but if he didn't say anything, he could pretend, just for a little while, that it was his mouth on Teyla's shoulder that John had found so arousing.

"Ha! Take that!" Rodney crowed, dropping the joystick controller and pumping both fists into the air.

John scowled at the game console. "Best out of seventeen," he tried.

"No, because thirteen is the next highest prime and even if you managed to win both games, I'll still be ahead." Rodney sat back down on the couch, cheeks glowing in satisfaction. He had woken up with a mild hangover but after a couple of aspirin and some breakfast, it was long gone. "Face it, Sheppard. I beat you."

John tossed his joystick down next to Rodney's and rolled his eyes. "Fine," he conceded. "You won. You are the Supreme Intergalactic Commander."

"You can call me 'Supe' for short," Rodney offered smugly.

"Wow. Thanks," John said, rolling his eyes. He glanced up and was hit, again, by the fact that Rodney's arms weren't entirely laughable. "Hey," he said thoughtfully. "Did anyone ever show you how to throw a football?"

Rodney's expression fell from glee into wariness. "Oh, no," he warned. "You are not recruiting me into your little band of miscreants. I'm already compromising my dignity for this 'cool' thing. There's no way I'm selling off my immortal soul."

"Rodney," John complained, rolling his head back on the back of the couch. "We don't want you on the team. It's too late in the season anyway. I just wanted to know if they teach you to throw a football in Canada."

Rodney huffed. "We do have a football league, you know. And for your information, no. I have never needed to throw a football. Hockey is obviously the superior sport."

"Which is why we won the gold in '80," John muttered.

"And didn't even make the medal rounds in '84," Rodney concluded smugly.

"Okay, c'mon," he said loudly, before Rodney could vent further about Olympic hockey. He marched through the garage and snagged a football from the sports ball bin hanging on the wall. Rodney, after crowing unintelligibly from the living room, finally followed him out and around to the back yard.

"All right," he said, setting his fingers between the laces. "See how I'm holding my hand? Fingers between the laces and seams. Both hands," he added, setting his other hand on the side of the ball and pulling it up to his chin. "Arm back." He drew his arm into position, feeling the familiar stretch. "Keep your elbow bent. Now decide where you're throwing, point at it, like this, and then -- " John stretched out his empty hand, drawing a line straight to the invisible point ten yards in front of him, and threw a hard, level pass. "Like that. If you want to throw a long pass, you need to drop your shoulder and aim up."

"Right, because I have so many opportunities to throw footballs from my roof to yours," Rodney said, but his eyes had tracked the ball and he'd obviously paid attention.

"You never know," John said. "Go get it and throw it back to me."

"What am I, your fetching hound?" Rodney asked, but he jogged off to scoop up the ball.

John watched him set up the pass, could almost see the gears turning in his head as he followed each step.

He released too early and the ball turned end over end before hitting the ground halfway to John's position.

"You let go too soon," John called to him, walking forward to get the ball. "Don't release until it's right over your head, and then snap your arm forward. If you don't follow through, it's just going to float around. Put your shoulders into it." He lobbed the ball back to Rodney, a short toss that didn't actually require much in the way of form, but he did it picture perfect anyway, just the way his dad had taught him a decade ago, so Rodney could see how to do it right.

John walked backward as Rodney wound up, every step computing in his brain, and this time when he threw the ball, John bent his knees and caught it in both hands, a foot from the ground.

"Nice," he called back, even though it was sloppy as hell and awkward to boot. "Remember to follow all the way though." He threw the ball back and Rodney ducked to the side and missed it. "Right," John muttered under his breath as Rodney ran over to get the ball. "All right," he called so that Rodney could hear him. "Nice and hard, right into my hands." He clapped his hands together and held them up to give Rodney a target.

This attempt was better and John's assessment that Rodney had a few muscles in that skinny body of his was gaining some support. He still had to lean for the ball, but it made it to him at ten yards out and that wasn't bad.

"Okay, now catch this one," he called, winging it back to Rodney with a flick of his wrist to give the ball some spin.

Rodney threw his hands in front of his face but somehow didn't manage to actually catch the ball. The result was immediate and deafening.

"Ow! Owowowowow!" The football bounced harmlessly on the ground as Rodney doubled over, his hands clamped to his face.

Shit, John thought. I broke his nose. He dashed the length of the yard in a time that would have impressed his coach. "Let me see," he demanded when he reached Rodney's side and laid one hand on Rodney's shoulder.

"Dod't touch it, dod't look ad it," Rodney wheezed.

"Rodney, let me see," he demanded, fisting his hand in Rodney's shirt and dragging him upright.

Rodney's hands were cupped over most of his face, but when John tugged them away, there was no blood.

"By dose!" Rodney protested. "Id's broked."

"It's not broken," John said, touching the bridge. It was swelling, but it didn't seem to be misshapen and Rodney wasn't indicating pain in one area more than the rest. Tears ran down both sides of his face but he wasn't bleeding or bruising the way John's nose had when he'd taken a bat to the face in Little League. He'd deserved it, his father said later, for standing up and being bossy when he was supposed to be catching, but at the time, all he'd known was the blood and the tears, his mother's hand smoothing down his hair in the emergency room, and the intense, intense hatred for Bobby Millbrook.

"I cad't breade," Rodney said.

"Try," John suggested.

Rodney glared at him and inhaled, blinking in surprise when it worked. John crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. Rodney scowled back. "Oh, sure," he snapped, sniffing indignantly. "Just because my face isn't a mess of blood and bone doesn't mean I don't have cartilage injuries. I could still be horribly disfigured." He blinked hard and rubbed irritably at his damp cheeks.

"We'll go in and get some juice," John suggested, tucking the football under his arm and clamping a hand on Rodney's shoulder.

"Juice? You think juice is going to fix my eventual disfigurement?" Rodney shrieked, letting John steer him back toward the house.

"You're not disfigured," John sighed. His parents had always offered juice as an alternative to tears, even when the tears were just a result of an impact too close to his tear ducts. He pushed Rodney into a chair and pulled out a bottle of orange juice.

"Oh, God, are you trying to kill me?" Rodney squeaked.

"What, with OJ?" John asked, snagging a glass off the drainboard.

"Hello, were you paying attention last night?" Rodney asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"What, with the lemon?" John asked, wishing he didn't remember the look on Rodney's face when he's turned away from Teyla. Taking his place had been the smoothest way John could think of to cover the awkwardness of the situation.

"It's not lemon," Rodney sniffed, touching his nose gingerly. "It's citrus."

John blinked at the orange juice and put it back in the fridge.

"Coke okay?" he asked. "We have that and milk."

"Coke's fine," Rodney said. "Thank you," he added as John passed over a frosty can.

John slouched across the table with his own can and watched Rodney down half the can in one gulp. "Look," he said. "Teyla said she'd go to the movies with me on Saturday night. Why don't you ask Katie and we'll all go together."

"Really?" Rodney blurted out.

"Yeah." John shrugged. He wouldn't get that far with Teyla, not with an audience, but Katie really had looked freaked out on Friday and he felt that he should feel bad about that.

Also, John could still feel the sense-memory of Teyla's mouth on his collarbone and he could thank Rodney for that.

"The base theater is playing Top Gun," he said. "I totally want to see that."

"The one with Tom Cruise and the planes," Rodney asked, lighting up a little.

"Yeah, it's supposed to be great," John told him. He let himself feel a little thrill of knowing that Rodney was just as excited about something as he was, and then realized he'd have to spend the entire movie listening to what they got wrong.

"Cool." Rodney fiddled with his can. "I, um, I need to get home. I have a ton of homework I haven't done this weekend. Are you coming over for dinner?"

John half-shrugged. "No, thanks. I've got some stuff to do here."

"You can come over if you're doing homework," Rodney said. "I can probably give you a hand if you need it?"

"Nah, I'm fine," John said. "It's other stuff."

"Oh. Okay." Rodney looked skeptical.

"Phone calls. Working out," John explained.

"Oh, yes." Rodney got up and threw his can away. "Well. Thanks for letting me stay."

"Yeah. I'm sorry I threw a ball in your face," John said, thinking that really, it was Rodney's fault for letting it go through his fingers.

"That's all right," Rodney said. "In fifteen years when I'm giving lectures and everyone wants to know why my face is so messed up, I can tell them it's an old football injury and be telling the truth."

John snorted and shook his head. "See you tomorrow, Rodney."

Rodney offered him a slight grin. "Yeah," he agreed. "I'll meet you outside."

"Maybe if you had the first clue what was going on around you -- !"

"You always blame me for things you don't want to take responsibility for!"

Rodney looked up as his parents' yelling turned louder and discernible and then muffled again. Jeannie was closing his door.

"You ever hear of knocking?" he asked, but he pushed his chemistry text further up on his pillow and sat up to make room for Jeannie at the end of the bed.

"You always lock the door when you jerk off," Jeannie said, but with only a shadow of her standard sneer.

"Way to be observant," Rodney muttered and didn't bother to ask how she knew about jerking off already. She might not be anywhere near his level of brilliance, but Jeannie McKay was no dummy. She still came from the same set of genes, after all. "So what are you doing here?"

"What do you think?" Jeannie cocked her head to the door. "Why don't they just get a divorce already? Michelle Butler's dad moved to California and she gets to fly out to Disneyland every other weekend and for two weeks in the summer."

"If you think Dad is going to move to Disneyland, you're delusional," Rodney told her.

"He doesn't have to go that far," she admitted. "Just away."

"You know, they're probably staying together for us," Rodney said, picking up his book and resting it on his knee. He put his socked foot flat on the bed -- his mother would kill him if he did that wearing shoes -- so Jeannie could lean against his knee. "So they don't warp us or something."

"That's not true," Jeannie said. "They hate us."

"They don't hate us." Rodney sighed. "They just blame us. They blame me. Because I built that thing and we had to move and Mom had to give up her job and -- " He shrugged. "They're just not happy. It's not that bad."

"Easy for you to say," Jeannie sniffed. "You're going away to college. You won't have to live with them anymore."

"Yeah, not if nowhere wants me," Rodney said bitterly. "Which is stupid, because they should all be knocking down the door to get to me first. And throwing money at me, too, because there's no way we can afford it without scholarships."

Jeannie made a little sighing noise and rested her head against his knee.

"You should read a book or something if you're going to stay in here," Rodney said.

To his surprise, she went to his bookshelf and found his beat-up old copy of The Hobbit, and curled up on the bed next to him to read it. He reached out and put his hand on her hair and left it there while he studied.

Rodney was doing physics homework and John was reading War and Peace with their feet on the coffee table when the front door opened and, "Hi, honey, I'm home!" echoed in the front hall.

"My dad is a dork," John explained, dropping his feet to the floor without taking his eyes off the book.

Rodney tensed beside him, scooting his feet off the table as well. "Is it okay that I'm here?" he asked.

"Of course it is," John said, turning the page. "In the TV room," he called over his shoulder.

"Because last time you said that you didn't have parties here because -- "

"Parties," John said in exasperation. "You know, eighty people I don't know, underage drinking, property damage?"

"Yeah, but," Rodney started and then stopped and hopped into a straighter position, his eyes over John's head.

"Hey," Colonel Sheppard said, ambling into the room.

"Hi, Dad," John said without looking up.

"Um, hi, I'm -- I'm -- " Rodney stumbled, jumping to his feet and holding out his hand.

"You're the McKays' kid, the oldest one, right?" Colonel Sheppard said, leaning forward to squeeze his hand briefly. "Will Sheppard, John's dad." He looked speculatively from Rodney to John and back. "You giving John a hand in physics?"

"Dad!" John groaned from his slouch.

"You need help in physics?" Rodney asked quickly, his eyes lighting up.

"He's my friend," John called with doom in his voice.

"Okay," Colonel Sheppard replied, offering Rodney a grin. "He could use some help in physics," he stage-whispered.

"Dad! My physics grade is fine!"

"If you want a hand in physics, it's my best subject," Rodney said, all anxiety over meeting the Colonel forgotten. "Which class are you in?"

"Rodney, shut up," John grumbled, closing the book. "Dad, he's a friend, cut it out."

"All right, all right," the Colonel said mildly. "Rodney, you like Mexican?"

"I'm not so much on the really spicy things, the peppers and such, but anything in a tortilla is pretty much gold -- " Rodney started.

"Great," the Colonel interrupted. "I'll call your parents."

"Huh?" Rodney blinked over the couch and John grinned, picking up War and Peace again.

"You just got invited to dinner," he said, kicking Rodney gently with the bottom of his sneaker.

"But -- "

"Air Force Colonel," John reminded Rodney.

"Huh." Rodney sounded thoughtful but when John looked up, he found that Rodney was studying him before hastily turning his attention back to physics.

Half an hour later, the Colonel yelled something unintelligible from the kitchen that John recognized as their version of the dinner bell.

"Coming?" he asked Rodney.

"That was dinner? I though maybe your dad was watching football or something," he said, but he jumped off the couch and actually preceded John into the kitchen as the aroma of spiced beef and melted cheese wafted through the rest of the house.

"Grab a plate and dig in," Colonel Sheppard said. The table was practically sagging under the weight of rice and beans and enchiladas, tamales and tostadas and a large quesadilla, sectioned into eighths.

"There's, uh, there's no lemon in any of this, right?" Rodney asked.

John glanced at him. "Rodney's allergic," he said.

"A single drop could kill me," Rodney volunteered, right on schedule.

"Not that it's even remotely cool to bring that up at every possible moment," John growled, raising his eyebrows at Rodney.

"John." His father's voice was a warning and he'd almost forgotten the Colonel was there. "No, Rodney, there shouldn't be any lemon. Your father didn't say anything about food allergies when I called...."

"He forgets," Rodney said. "And John's giving me um, cool lessons. In exchange for helping him with physics."

"He's not helping me with physics," John interrupted, trying to set things straight. His father's eyebrows went up. "I mean, okay, yeah, whatever. But we're -- y'know what? Never mind." He topped his entire plate with a spoonful of beans and a glob of sour cream and collapsed into his seat.

"John," the Colonel said conspiratorially to Rodney, "has never been good at accepting defeat when he's outnumbered."

Rodney grinned and glanced over at John, blue eyes bright and obviously pleased at being included in the jest. The expression made John feel like Rodney was trying to laugh with him instead of at him, so he smiled back, a little.

"So, Rodney," Colonel Sheppard said, loading his plate with enchiladas and a wedge of quesadilla. "Where are you applying? I assume you're looking at some big schools for next year."

"Um, yeah," Rodney said, wiping his mouth quickly. "I mean -- with my grades and SAT scores, I figured there would be places knocking my door down, maybe sending attractive co-eds with incentives and scholarships, but I haven't heard back from a lot of places I requested application materials from and I think that's a little weird, but they all say that they sent them out so I guess it's just a matter of waiting for them to get here, but I'm in contact with MIT and CalTech and Northeastern, but I really like the program at the University of Colorado, Boulder campus. That's one of the ones I haven't heard from at all, though, so I don't know if I'm going to be able to get that one in for the first wave of early admission and I'd really like my application to be one of the first they look at for obvious reasons."

The kitchen fell oddly silent as Rodney paused to shovel food into his mouth. John smirked at his father, who obviously hadn't been expecting that sort of response to his question.

When dinner -- an uncharacteristically talkative dinner for the Sheppard household -- was over, Colonel Sheppard shooed Rodney and John off to do their homework elsewhere while he cleaned up the kitchen.

"No, really," Rodney said when they were back on the couch. "I can help you out with physics. I'm really good at it. I mean, I know I'm really good at everything, but physics is just, it's what I want to do. So, you know, if you need help, I don't mind."

"All right," John said, making his decision quickly, before he could think too much about it. "Let's do it."

"Really?" Rodney said, sounding surprised.

"Yeah," John said, jumping off the couch. "I need an A in the class. I need to know physics to fly a plane. Makes sense to know as much as possible before I go to the Academy, right?"

"Right, of course," Rodney said, scrambling up and following him. "Whose class are you in?"

"Simmons," John said, picking up his backpack and dropping it on his bed. He dug around until he found his book and saw Rodney staring at him. "What?"

"Simmons only teaches advanced, AP, and college-level physics," Rodney said, his mouth hanging open. "I'm in the college-level class because it's really just a sop to insanely advanced kids who are stuck in this town and so your school can put in for federal funding. Which class are you in?"

"AP," John said slowly.

Rodney's mouth fell open further. "And your grade is -- "

"A B-Minus right now," John said, tossing his book on the bed. "I understand the mathematical constructs behind Gauss's Law, but how it leads to Coulomb's Law is sort of -- " He paused and then said it anyway. If he couldn't say stupid things in front of Rodney, well, there wasn't any justice in the world. "I think it's a little over my head."

Rodney's eyes skimmed over the text and a smile broke out over his face. His eyes lit up and he said to John, "Oh, this is going to be so much fun."

"Have you asked Katie yet?" John asked Rodney at lunch.

"Have I asked her what?" Rodney stared blankly at John. He didn't remember needing to ask Katie anything.

"To go see Top Gun with us," John replied with a roll of his eyes. "You have to ask her today."


"It's Wednesday and we're going on Saturday," John reminded him. "Girls need advance notice for these things."

"Really?" Rodney asked, thinking that girls were infinitely more complex than he'd realized. "Why?"

John shrugged. "I don't know. To buy new clothes and convince their fathers not to kill us, I guess."

"Oh," Rodney said faintly. "Great." He looked around the cafeteria. Katie was sitting with a few other girls in the science club, eating a sandwich out of a brown paper sack. "Should I go ask her now?"

John glanced over to the table where Katie was sitting. "No, you don't want to ask her with all her friends there," he said. He glanced around the cafeteria. "C'mon." He stood up and slid his tray over. "Get that for me?" he asked, punching Ford in the shoulder.

"Yeah, sure!" Ford said even though it hadn't really been a question.

Rodney stuffed the last of his sandwich in his mouth, crumpled up his bag, and looked at the rest of the table. Ronon raised an eyebrow at him and ate half a hot dog in one bite.

"I'll just...take care of this," Rodney said, tripping over the legs of his chair as he got up. He dumped the bag in the trash and found John waiting for him in the hallway.

"Okay," John said, turning down a row of lockers, out of sight of the cafeteria, and pausing before a random one. "You want to catch her at her locker when her friends aren't around. Girls are weird around their friends. Now, you have to act really casual here." John looked as serious as he had when explaining football passes earlier that week, both hands held out in front of him. "Lean on the locker next to hers, and remember, you're really happy to see her. But not happy enough that you're speechless or anything." John rested one elbow at head-level on a locker and let his whole body tilt inward. He glanced back and said, "See, watch me," and Rodney did.

He watched the cant of John's hips and his legs, crossed at the ankle. The bulge of his bicep where he held the strap of his backpack at the shoulder, and the cord of muscle running up his neck.

Rodney swallowed hard and wondered how hanging out with John had actually pushed along his totally non-relationship with Katie Brown. Wasn't he supposed to be dating one of Teyla's friends by now?

" -- hoping you'd be able to come with me," John was saying when Rodney remembered to pay attention again. John looked earnest and sincere and Rodney was jealous of the air he was talking to. "All right, you try," John said, pushing away from the locker and uncrossing his legs just as casually.

"I -- what?" John didn't really expect him to --

"Practice makes perfect, McKay," John told him, dropping his backpack next to the wall and settling his hands on his hips, ready to critique Rodney's technique.

"Oh, my God," Rodney grumbled. "This is so ridiculous." He glared at the invisible Katie and took the required two steps to the locker next to her. He put his elbow on the locker and leaned in awkwardly.

"Yeah, and you just took someone out with your seven million books," John interrupted. "Either keep your bag on your outside shoulder like I keep telling you, or just carry the book you need for your next class."

Rodney scowled in John's direction and wrestled the backpack strap off his shoulder. He tried leaning in again and found himself wildly off-balance.

"Single book it is," John said, relieving Rodney of his load.

Rodney cleared his throat, leaned, and tried again. "Hi, Katie," he managed. "I'm going to the movies with um -- am I supposed to tell her who I'm going with?"

"You should at least tell her it's a double date," John said. "in case she thought she was getting the famous McKay charm all to herself."

"Hi, Katie, I'm going on a double date and -- " That sounded terrible. "Hi, Katie. John and I are going to see Top Gun -- "

"On Saturday," John prompted.

"We're going to see Top Gun on Saturday," Rodney amended. "And we're -- "

"I'm," John corrected.

"Since when you do you like Katie that much anyway?" Rodney asked, feeling slightly cross.

"Say I'm," John said, rolling his eyes. "You want her to think you really like her. You do really like her, right?"

"Yes, of course I do," Rodney lied.

"Okay, then." John gestured for Rodney to try again.

"Hi, Katie," Rodney got out before a deeper voice said from the mouth of the hall,

"What are you boys doing out here?"

Rodney spun around, knocking his elbow on the lockers and forgetting he had one foot crossed over the other.

"Hi, Mr. Landry," John was saying to the vice principal as Rodney crashed rather metallically.

"John. Rodney?" Landry sounded perplexed. "What are the two of you doing out here?" Together, he didn't add. Rodney tried not to take offense. Before last week, he hadn't spoken five words to John.

"Roleplaying," John said easily. "For Spanish class."

"You know you should be in the cafeteria," Landry said.

"We know," John said with a dazzling grin. "But we want to get this right and senior year is really busy, what with practice and applications and college visits -- "

"Yes, well -- how are those applications coming, Rodney?" Landry asked, as if to confirm John's excuse.

Rodney flashed him a big smile and a double thumbs up.

Landry gave him a funny look but nodded.

"All right," he said. "Good luck."

"Thanks, sir!" John called after him.

Rodney just waved, then slumped against the lockers. "I'm so humiliated," he said. "The vice principal just watched me ask out an imaginary girl."

"Don't worry about it," John said. "He thinks you were practicing a skit for Spanish."

"I don't even take Spanish," Rodney shot back.

"Well, that explains why you were speaking in English," John said blithely. "C'mon, the bell's going to ring. Get rid of some of those books so you can ambush Katie."

John trailed Rodney to his locker and waited expectantly while Rodney pulled out his calculus book and his Trapper Keeper and wrestled his bookbag into the narrow space. Rodney was so pleased to have John nearby that it didn't hit him until after he'd closed his locker just why John was still there.

"You're not going to watch are you?" he asked in horror, clutching his books to his chest.

"For moral support!" John replied.

"It's voyeurism!" Rodney snapped. "Go to class. I'll tell you what happened when I get there."

"All right," John drawled, turning away. "If you're sure...."

"I'm very sure," Rodney said, mentally urging John on down the hall. "Go ahead. I'll be fine."

He waited until John was out of sight and then ventured down the biology hall, where Katie's locker was. He waited casually for Jeannette Simpson to leave Katie's side and then much less casually when she didn't show signs of going anywhere.

Rodney was ready to give up and go to study hall in defeat when salvation came down in the hall in the form of a 6'4" offensive center with a taste for girly drinks.

"Ah, Ronon, just the man I needed to see."

"McKay," Ronon acknowledged, moving past him.

"I need a favor," Rodney said, catching up to him.

Ronon turned and raised an eyebrow. "What kind of favor?"

"I want to talk to Katie and Jeannette won't leave," Rodney explained. "Can you, I don't know, flirt with her or something so I can ask Katie out?"

Ronon glanced across the hall and curled a lip. "She's kind of homely," he said.

"I have three words for you," Rodney said, losing patience along with time. "Dirty. Girl. Scout."

Ronon raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and crossed the hall.

Five seconds later, Jeannette was sufficiently distracted and Rodney was leaning awkwardly on the locker next to Katie's.

"Hi, Katie," he said with a smile that felt at least as fake as it looked.

"I don't ever want you to talk to me again," Katie said with a sniff.

Rodney froze. John hadn't coached him on this.

"Look, you can't blame me for that party," he said. "I had no idea it was going to be like that and John didn't tell me. I already yelled at him about that."

"You did?" Katie asked, sounding ever-so-slightly interested.

"Ye-yeah. Of course. And hey, we're going to see Top Gun on Saturday and I'd uh -- I'd really like if you came with us. John's bringing Teyla," Rodney finished, marveling at how easy it was after all that fuss. He just had to open his mouth and let it all come tumbling out.

"Oh. Well." Katie turned doe eyes on him. "I -- I suppose so."

"Great!" Rodney beamed at her as the bell rang. "Oh, crap. I'm -- I'm late for study hall. I gotta go." He waved vaguely behind him as he ran off for class.

"Ah, Mr. McKay," the teacher droned as he slipped through the door. "You think study hall isn't a real class so you can just blow off the bell?"

"Well, considering I have a 4.0 and the point of the class is to study? Yeah, pretty much," Rodney said, sliding into his seat. To his surprise, people in the back of the room laughed.

"Talking back is good for a detention," the teacher announced with a scowl.

Okay, that sucked, but it would give Rodney a chance to catch up on all the work he'd neglected over the weekend. He accepted the slip with a nod and opened his calculus book. The teacher settled in his own chair and the room fell silent.

Two minutes later, a tiny white paper airplane landed between the latching rings of Rodney's Trapper Keeper. It was intricately folded and designed for maximum operator control. Rodney unfolded it carefully, taking note of the folds, and looked at the scrawl inside.


He turned and looked over his shoulder for John, slouched in the back row. John lifted his eyebrows. Rodney flashed him the double thumbs up and grinned.

John nodded in return with a funny little smile twisting over his lips. It looked like approval.

The lights were off in the hall when John got home. He turned them on and checked the table for a note from his father. No note and the keys to the Nova were still missing. It wasn't unusual for the Colonel to stay late at the base after a trip -- covert ops generated just as much, if not more, paperwork as any other mission.

John scanned the kitchen for food and found leftover Mexican and a container of chili. He dumped the chili in a pan and turned on the burner. The phone rang and John scooped it up, expecting it to be Rodney having another crisis or maybe Mitch with a question about the practice he'd missed while suffering in his tutoring session.


"This is Colonel Anders. Is Colonel Sheppard available?"

"Uh, no, sir," John replied, automatically improving his posture. "He's not home yet. May I take a message?"

"Tell him to call me regarding the Connors mess. ASAP."

"I'll do that, sir," John said, grabbing for a pen and a notepad.

John had barely hung up and written down the message when the phone rang again.

"Sheppard residence," he answered more formally. Something was going on and it stood to reason that Anders wouldn't be the last call.


"No, sir, this is his son, John," John replied dutifully.

"Oh, right. Son, this is General Ryklhoff. Have your old man call me at home."

"Will do, sir," John said, writing the message under the first one.

The next bout of peace lasted almost five minutes and then the doorbell rang.

John opened the door to find Danny Connors standing on the front porch. Danny was a short, compact guy with a bright red crew cut and blue eyes, a captain under his father's command. He flew Pave Lows and had been one of the guys to talk to John about the Academy and what John could expect there.

Right now, his fair, freckled face looked blotchy and his mouth was set in a crooked line. John remembered Colonel Anders's message about, 'the Connors mess' and realized why his father wasn't home yet.

"Hi, Captain Connors," he said, moving out of the doorway. "C'mon in. My dad isn't here right now, but he should be home soon."

"Thanks, John," Connors said, stepping into the front hall. "I'm sorry about just showing up without calling. This week's just been a -- a helluva mess."

"You can hang out in here," John offered, leading Connors to the living room. The phone rang again. "Sorry, I'll be right back." He caught the phone on the fourth ring. "Sheppard residence."

"This is General D'Angelo. Is this Colonel William T. Sheppard?"

"No, sir," John replied. They hadn't had this much brass calling the house since the Marine barracks in Beirut had been bombed, three years before. "The Colonel isn't home yet. I can have him call you as soon as he gets in."

"You do that," General D'Angelo barked. "Tell him I expect and explanation for this horse shit memo on that Connors fag!"

"Right, sir," John said, taking care to write out and put quotes around 'horse shit.' "The second he walks in the door."

General D'Angelo hung up without saying thank you.

John got a bottle of beer and a can of soda out of the fridge and went back to the living room where Captain Connors had his head in his hands.

"You look like you could use this," John offered, setting the beer in front of him.

Connors looked up and for a moment, the visible panic in his blue eyes reminded John of Rodney. "We have MTV on here," John said, gesturing to the television, "and a VCR and Atari if you want to play Missile Command or something."

Connors had downed half his beer in one swallow and was looking a little calmer. "Yeah, sure," he said after a beat of obvious reluctance.

John set the television to accept input from the game device and plugged the cartridge into the center slot. He set the game for two players and handed Connors the primary joystick. They took turns defending their cities until the front door opened and what sounded like a duffle bag hit the floor.

Captain Connors was on his feet and at attention before Colonel Sheppard entered the room with the frustrated, exhausted look of a man who had spent the day battling a brick wall.

"Danny. C'mon, we'll talk in my office." Colonel Sheppard directed Captain Connors down the hall to where he and John had lugged the Colonel's father's desk and a set of bookshelves into the third bedroom to make it an office.

"Dad, there's three phone messages for you in the kitchen," John said, standing too, because it seemed like the right thing to do. "Colonel Anders, General Rhyklhoff, and General D'Angelo."

John's father looked at him with tired eyes. "Thanks, son. Do me a favor and order up some dinner for the three of us, all right? I'll invite Danny to stay."

"Okay," John said as his father went into the kitchen to get the messages.

"Horse shit memo?" he called out a moment later. He appeared in the doorway, John's note in his hand. "D'Angelo wouldn't know horse shit if he fell face-first into it. By the way, your chili's burning."

"Oh, shit!" John said, vaulting the back of the couch to get to the kitchen. The Colonel got out of his way and disappeared down the hall without saying a thing about a) John's language (it was the word of the day anyway) or b) his mistreatment of the furniture.

The chili wasn't on fire, but it was charred to the bottom of the pot. John scraped the undamaged portions back into the plastic container -- it was still enough for one. The smoking pot went in the sink with half a bottle of Palmolive and as much hot water as the pot would hold.

The kitchen was still a little hazy so John flipped on the fan and started leafing through the takeout menus. He wasn't quite sure what the deal was with using his dad's account at the pizza shop while his dad was home, so he went for Chinese instead. He didn't quite know how much food three people ate either, so he ordered chicken, beef, and pork, both white and fried rice, and egg rolls.

The phone rang again but cut off after one ring so John figured his father had picked it up in the office. He switched Missile Command to one player and played three rounds before his father and Danny reappeared, both looking worse for the wear.

"I ordered Chinese," John said as the doorbell rang.

"I'll get it," Colonel Sheppard said, his hand already reaching for his wallet. John went into the kitchen to grab napkins and an armful of sodas and beer. "Good grief, John!" his father said when he returned. "Did you invite the entire Air Force?"

"I'm a growing boy," John replied.

"Well, you two dig in. I've got phone calls to return and then I'll be out," the Colonel instructed.

John and Danny opened the containers and started assembling plates of food. Forty minutes and half an episode of The Equalizer later, John's father reappeared and appropriated the moo-shu pork. They cheered for McCall as he kicked the snot out of a rapist and then Danny Connors stood up to leave.

"Thanks for everything you've done, Colonel," he said. "It's been an honor and a privilege flying for you." He looked over at John. "Your old man's a real class act, kid."

John didn't know how to respond as his father grabbed Danny's hand and clapped him on the shoulder.

"You're the best pilot I've ever had," he said. "I'm sorry it all fell out this way."

"I guess I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner, sir. Thank you for being so decent about it."

"You call me if you need anything," Colonel Sheppard ordered. "Here's a letter from me. Give it to anyone you want to fly with." He passed over an envelope as he walked Danny to the door. John trailed along, still curious but trying to play it cool. He waited for the door to close before he said, "So what was that all about?"

His father sighed. "Get me a beer, John, and I'll tell you."

John's father hadn't had him fetch things since he'd started high school, so John got a bottle of beer from the fridge without complaint, popped off the cap, and delivered it to his father who had his feet up on the coffee table.

"Thanks," Colonel Sheppard said, taking a long draught. "Sit down."

John sat down on the couch and waited.

"Danny Connors is getting kicked out of the Air Force," Colonel Sheppard finally said, "because he has a boyfriend he goes to see on the weekends instead of a girlfriend."

"Captain Connors is gay?" John asked. Never, in a million years, had he been expecting that, even with General D'Angelo's nasty comment. Disobeying a direct order maybe -- not one of his father's, obviously -- or maybe punching someone, or, well, anything else. John knew Danny Connors, talked to him on more than one occasion, and he never would have thought the man any different from his father or himself.

"Couldn't happen to a nicer guy," the Colonel said morosely. "Or a better pilot. Best damn pilot I had on my team and he's shitcanned because some mealy-balled, fuckhead colonel sees him walking around a fucking nursery -- a fucking place they sell fucking plants -- and without one word to me, opens an investigation. What the fuck is up with that?"

"What would you have done if he'd gone to you?" John asked. He knew perfectly well that the official policy was that homosexuality was incompatible with service in the Air Force. He also knew perfectly well that gay people served quietly with no more fanfare than many civilians.

"I would have told Colonel Anders that it was none of his goddamn business and that I'd take care of it."

"Would you?" John asked. "Take care of it, I mean."

"There's nothing to take care of," Colonel Sheppard said. "I don't care who Danny fucks. I don't give a shit about who he fucking buys begonias with. I care that he's in his 'copter, flying where I tell him to and when and not getting shot out of the sky and that is what he excels at." He rubbed a hand over his face. "One day you'll be in charge of men and you'll realize that there are things you just don't want to know about them -- things you don't need to know. And their sex lives are usually number one on that list. Don't ask questions, son, if you're not ready to hear the answers."

John picked up his soda and turned it in his hands. It was warm now, and probably flat. "Okay," he said, setting the can down. "I should do my physics homework." He knew that the mere mention of physics would be his ticket out of that awkward conversation.

"Yeah, you should," his dad agreed. "C'mere," he said, reaching an arm out. John leaned in awkwardly and let his father cuff him on the back of the neck. Will pulled him in and kissed him on the forehead. "You're a good kid, John," he said.

"You don't suck as a dad, either," John replied, feeling rather odd that they'd had such similar conversations twice in as many weeks. He retreated to his room and sprawled out on his bed to consider the things his dad had said.

It wasn't that it applied to him, so much. He liked girls. He'd been with Elizabeth for almost a year and she'd had some very deliberate plans regarding what she'd wanted on her prom night and what she'd wanted to experience before she went to college. Plus, things were finally starting to go right with Teyla. He'd gotten to second base the other night, licking sugar off her neck and letting her take shots off his chest.

But there were other things that had happened that day, too, things John had been trying his best not to think about.

That weird jerk-off session in the shower when his thoughts had shifted to Rodney right before he came. The hot flush and half-erection he'd gotten watching Rodney do the shot off Teyla. The way he'd lingered when Rodney was throwing up in the gutter. He'd nursed both Mitch and Ford through their first drunks and he hadn't wanted to touch them, run a hand up their backs or smooth down their hair.

There was really no point to thinking about them, he decided, rolling over and pushing his face into his pillow.

It was all academic, anyway.

"It is Friday night and we are here looking through a telescope," Radek said. "I cannot help but think that your plan is not working."

"Oh, will you give it a rest?" Rodney demanded. "It hasn't been two whole weeks. John is playing an away game tonight. And we're double dating with Teyla and Katie tomorrow."

"You sound like boyfriends already," Radek assured him. "Except that you do not even like Katie and you will have to spend all tomorrow night watching him make out with Teyla."

Rodney sighed and slumped against Radek's bed.

"Plus you have detention and you forget all your old friends."

"I'm here, aren't I?" Rodney asked in exasperation.

"Only because your new friends are off playing football somewhere," Radek reminded him.

"I give up," Rodney said, getting to his feet. "I'm going home. I have a ton of homework anyway."

Radek sighed. "Don't go," he said grudgingly. "My mother made those cookies you like and milk tea. I'll go get them and then we will talk."

Rodney watched Radek go and thought that yeah, maybe he had been a bit of a jerk to the other guy lately.

But Radek wasn't John Sheppard.

"No, you have to read the book before you can see the movie," Rodney insisted, waving his hands across John's space as they walked home.

"I thought you said that the movie was nothing like the book," John countered. He wasn't quite sure how he'd gotten himself stuck in this argument. All he'd said was that the base video store had finally gotten a copy of Dune and Rodney had turned red and started ranting on the relative merits of the book versus the movie.

Apparently the movie was lacking.

"Of course it's nothing like the book," Rodney said, clearly exasperated. "That's why you need to read the book, so you know what they got wrong."

"But if I do that, I'll hate the movie," John said, mostly to make Rodney sputter.

"Okay, look, I'll let you borrow my copy and then you can see the movie and you decide which is better. Let me run in and get it," Rodney said as their houses came into view, and then looked confused when John followed him. "Enter at your own risk," he warned. "You know what my family's like."

John just smiled and didn't say anything. He found Rodney's family weirdly interesting. At least they were never boring, even if he'd never want to spend extended time with them.

"Hi, Mom, you remember Eddie Haskell, I mean John, right?" Rodney said in a rush as they walked in the kitchen door. "I just need to grab a book." John waved a hello to Mrs. McKay, who was working on something at the kitchen table, as he followed.

Rodney's room was as random as he was, with posters of blonde models and actresses next to posters of Albert Einstein and St. Elmo's Fire on the walls, a real Commodore 64 on the desk, and assorted bits of metal and circuitry mixed in with the stacks of clothes and schoolbooks. It was messy, with a clearing that branched into separate paths to the bed and desk.

"Got enough stuff in here?" John asked as Rodney scrabbled through the books on the shelves.

"What I really need is my own lab," Rodney said. "Our house in Canada had a two-car garage and I was able to convert one side to -- it's not here. Mom!" he called, walking out of the room. John trailed after him and found himself back in the kitchen. "Where are all the books I packed away when we moved last time?" Rodney asked his mother.

"You have so many of them," Mrs. McKay said as she got up from the kitchen table. "They take up so much space. Let me see if we got rid of them."

Something flashed in Rodney's face -- hurt, John thought, suddenly angry -- and was gone almost before John had put a name to it.

"Yeah, well, that's exactly what I'm trying to do," he said. "Get rid of one of them."

Mrs. McKay and Rodney went down the basement and John, not invited to join them, loitered in the kitchen. He looked around at the cheerful yellow walls and checked curtains and the white Formica table with Mrs. McKay's papers spread over it. The whole room was squeaky-clean and shiny-bright and smelled like pine. Not one thing was out of place or showed a speck of dust or a single cookie crumb. Even his dad would be impressed.

Curious, he peered at whatever Mrs. McKay had left scattered over the kitchen table and was surprised to see mathematical equations. He leaned closer and realized that not only had she been doing math problems, she was doing math that John had never seen before. He tried to intuit some of her notes, but this was clearly material far, far, beyond his education.


John straightened up hastily, embarrassed to be caught snooping. "Hey, Jeannie," he said, running a nervous hand through his hair. "What's up?"

"I was just wondering," she said, faux-casual and running her fingers along the shiny edge of the fanatically clean counter. "Why are you hanging out with my loser brother?"

John gave her his best charming grin. "Rodney's my friend," he said. "I hang out with him because he's fun to be around."

"Rodney's not fun to be around," Jeannie said. "He's loud and mean and he talks about boring stuff all the time."

John shrugged and was about to reply that he liked the "boring" stuff Rodney talked about, but the topic of conversation slammed out of the basement at just that moment, face stormy.

"I'm spending the night at John's house!" he yelled over his shoulder and he went right past John and out the kitchen door.

"See you later, kiddo," John said to Jeannie with a wink and a light tug on her ponytail.

Rodney was already halfway across the yard when John let himself out. He entertained the idea of letting Rodney cool his heels on the doorstep until he wandered over with the keys, but Rodney took the decision out of his hands by turning around suddenly and yelling, "Are you coming or not?"

John took his time walking up and said, "I'm right here."

Rodney had already spun back toward John's house and was walking more quickly than usual. "My mother," he said, when they were almost at John's door, "is such a loon."

"Y'know," John said, pulling out his keys and letting them into the house, "I wasn't trying to be nosy or anything, but I was looking at the papers she left on the table and she was doing some sort of math that I'd never seen before. I mean, I had no idea. That was like, really high level stuff."

"She used to be a math professor when we lived in Canada," Rodney said glumly. "She hates it here. When we were going to move to the States, Dad got a couple of job offers and picked this one. It really sucked for her because Dad's college doesn't have an open position for a math professor and there's not really anywhere else around."

"She must be really smart," John said, thinking of the neat rows of intricate equations.

"She's brilliant," Rodney said. "She used to teach me stuff. I was always so far ahead of my math class that they just excused me after a while. No one made me take a math class until we moved here."

"So what's she do now?" John asked as they went into the kitchen and Rodney put the book on the kitchen table.

"She says she's staying home with me and Jeannie," Rodney said. "But she's really just slowly gassing herself to death on Windex and Comet cleanser."

"Nice," John said, frowning as he checked the fridge. "What do you want for dinner? I can heat up chili or I can make scrambled eggs or we can order pizza again."

"You can cook?" Rodney asked.

"I'm here by myself most of the time," John reminded him. "I can do eggs and I can heat things up."

"Didn't you like, set something on fire earlier this week?" Rodney asked. "I seem to remember walking in here and smelling the distinctive aroma of charred food."

"It only stuck to the bottom," John said, rolling his eyes. "Fine, we're having pizza."

He ordered a large with pepperoni and sausage, a combination Rodney never complained about, and said, "We've got half an hour before it gets here. We should probably get ready."

"Okay," Rodney agreed, and followed John back to his bedroom. He was already dressed, so he disappeared into the bathroom while John put on a nicer pair of jeans and a shirt that buttoned down over a fresh t-shirt. By the time he poked his head into the bathroom, Rodney was touching the ends of his hair carefully with his fingertips and frowning studiously into the mirror.

"Watch out, or your face will get stuck like that," John said, reaching out to tweak the front cowlick into place.

"You can't help yourself, can you?" Rodney said, crossing his eyes to glare at John's hand. "You just need to touch my hair at every opportunity."

"If you'd do it right the first time," John said mildly, "I wouldn't have to fix it later."

"The whole cool thing is just an act," Rodney grumbled. "Your secret identity is Pain in the Ass."

John grinned and chucked Rodney's chin with two knuckles. "The fireman poles that lead down to my secret lair are in the basement," he said as the doorbell rang. "That'll be the pizza."

All the pizza delivery guys knew that food delivered to the Sheppard address went on the Colonel's account and didn't expect to collect any money, but John always remembered to tip them.

"You want a beer?" he called to Rodney as he opened the fridge.

"No," Rodney said, wandering into the kitchen. "Soda's fine."

"Okay." John pulled out two sodas and sat them next to the pizza and paper plates.

Rodney slid into his usual seat, pulled two slices of pizza onto his plate, and popped open his soda can in silence. He was unusually quiet as John did the same, and by the time they'd gotten through their first slices, John couldn't take it anymore.

"Penny for your thoughts," he said.

"What's it like having sex?" Rodney asked.

John spit his soda across the table. "Geez," he said. "Rodney, what the hell?"

"Well, you dated Elizabeth Weir forever," Rodney said. "I figured you know what you're doing."

"That doesn't mean -- I mean yeah but -- " John winced and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I -- it's, it's nice, okay?"

"Nice? People start wars over that stuff and it's just nice?" Rodney demanded. "Come on. I might get to do it one day and I don't want to be taken by surprise."

"Not with Katie," John muttered under his breath, his brain going to that same place it had in the shower where he couldn't help but fail to imagine Katie engaging in sex at all. He looked up and found Rodney looking at him expectantly and couldn't tell if Rodney had overheard him or not. "Okay, first of all, the last time someone started a war over sex, it was the Greeks and the Trojans. Second, geez, Rodney, you can't just go around asking people that. I mean -- " John sighed. "Okay, what do you want to know?"

Rodney looked startled. "I -- um -- well, you have done it, right?"

"Yes," John said because that was a question he could answer.

"With Elizabeth?"

"Rodney," John warned, because...it was Elizabeth.


John shook his head. "It doesn't matter who," he said.

"It's doesn't?" Rodney asked.

There was something -- everything -- about Rodney, John reflected, that drove him right past crazy and into a state where the insane was pretty normal.

"Rodney," John said finally. "I'm not really the sharing type. If there's something you want to know, just ask the question."

Rodney was quiet and uneasy for a long moment. "I don't have enough data to form intelligent questions," he said.

"So for once in your life, ask a stupid question," John said. "You want to know something or you wouldn't have brought it up."

"How do you know when you're supposed to -- you know. Ask."

John blinked. "Ask if she wants to have sex?"

"Well, yeah." Rodney's face went red and John stood by for an incoming rant. "Okay, look, it wasn't like I had to worry about the possibility before and in the last two weeks, I've had two dates, one of which was entirely by accident, and I've been to two parties with outrageous amounts of illegal alcohol and seriously, I have been thinking about sex non-stop for the last week and with my brain, that's a lot of valuable resources devoted purely to the theoretical."

"Okay," John said, and felt like he'd already said that word at least a thousand times during that conversation. "On the list of things that I didn't need to know? That's pretty close to the top." He looked at his Coke can and turned it in a circle to avoid looking at Rodney. "So, you want to get laid?"

Rodney scowled. "That's not it," he said.

John leaned back in his chair and looked across the table at Rodney. The other boy's head was down and the gel in his hair had dried so his hair didn't look so dark. John bit his lower lip and took a breath.

"My first time was when we lived in Texas," he said. "Right before we moved here."

Rodney lifted his head and both eyebrows went up but he didn't say anything.

"There was this girl I used to see when I went out that summer. She was beautiful, dark hair, really...really exotic-looking, you know, and she was, well, okay, she was probably old enough to be there. Legally."

"Why does it not surprise me that your first sexual experience amounts to statutory rape?" Rodney asked with his mouth full.

John opened his mouth to point out that at least he was the victim and not the perpetrator, then thought better of it.

"I can't help it if I was irresistible at an early age," he said instead. "So do you want to hear this or not?"

"I'm riveted," Rodney assured him. He sounded more cheerful.

"Yeah, so, I used to see her around and this one night, I got up the courage to ask her to dance."

"You dance, too?" Rodney looked so stricken that John had to make a conscious effort not to laugh. "Oh, for the love of God, I'm never going to get any, am I?"

"So anyway," John said loudly. "I asked her to dance and -- "

"Wait," Rodney interrupted. "Before you came here -- You said the other night -- wait, how old were you?"

"It was a few months after my mom died, yeah," John said. He stood up and squeezed his soda can in his fist before tossing it in the trash. "We're going to be late." He closed the top on the pizza box and found a place in the fridge for it.

"Wait, what, why are you stopping? Was it something I said?" Rodney stood up, too, and stacked their paper plates together.

"We're going to be late," John said. "C'mon. I don't want to miss the beginning of the movie."

"Oh, my God," John said as they left the theater. "Did you see those maneuvers? Did you see how fast they were going? That was so cool!"

"It was incredible!" Rodney agreed, giddy. "The Gs involved in those stunts! And wow, Kelly McGillis as an astrophysicist! I mean, let's not even talk about all the details they got wrong but -- "

"You know," John interrupted, "There are no MiG 28s. They only number them with odds."

"What were they using in the movie?" Rodney asked. "A-4s?"

"F-5s," John answered immediately.

"Is that what you wish to fly?" Teyla asked curiously.

Rodney had nearly forgotten about her and Katie, who was tagging along by Rodney's elbow.

"I'd rather fly the new F-16s," John said. "My dad says that by the time I'm in flight training, the Block 30s will be ready."

Rodney wasn't really up on his fighter variants so he made a note to do some research and glanced over at Katie. "How did you like it?" he asked her. He wanted her to have had a good time -- the movie was spectacular, Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise were so hot, and the whole thing was just incredible.

"It was...nice," Katie said with a hopeful smile. "I mean, when they weren't cursing or -- or dying or anything."

Rodney faltered a little and turned his attention back to John, who was explaining to Teyla that all the missiles shown were dummies because the shells were blue.

"We should go to the Early Bird," John said as he unlocked the car. "Everyone else up for a snack?"

Rodney was always up for a snack and the girls agreed readily, so John drove them to the all-night diner that sat half a mile off the base and they all ordered fries or onion rings and Cokes.

"I enjoyed the volleyball game," Teyla said, grinning at Katie and nudging John with her elbow. John tickled her.

Rodney privately agreed but he wasn't about to say so.

Katie giggled and blushed. "I liked the singing," she said. "I thought that was sweet."

"And bad," Rodney added. "Those guys can't carry a tune in a bucket."

John chuckled. "How about that dive when they went below the hard deck and took Jester out?" he said. "That was a thing of beauty."

"Yeah, I didn't hear him call No Joy," Rodney said, slurping at his soda. "Did anyone else?"

"Nope," John said. He glanced at the girls, who shook their heads. "Hey, but how awesome were those cat launches? And the scene where they were chasing Viper around and got taken out by Jester?"

"Plus, seriously, could Kelly McGillis get any hotter?" Rodney asked excitedly. "I mean, oh my God, she obviously had no idea what she was talking about but wow, the leg and the hair and wow, I could listen to her say, 'you were in a 4-G inverted dive with a MiG-28?' all day long and -- why are you shaking your head at me?" he asked John, who appeared to have acquired a nervous tick.

John rolled his eyes.

Katie burst into tears, pushed away from the table, and ran for the back of the diner.

"What's the matter?" Rodney asked, thoroughly confused. "Why is she crying?"

"Because she likes you," Teyla said, throwing her napkin down on the table and pushing around John to follow Katie.

"What did I do?" Rodney asked, turning his attention to John.

John shook his head. "You don't talk about other women and how hot they are when you're out on a date," he hissed. "It's not -- it's not respectful."

"Oh." Well, that certainly made sense once he'd thought about it. "I guess that was kinda -- I just get all excited and forget to stop talking sometimes..." Rodney said miserably.

John's face relaxed into a faint smile. "No kidding," he said. "Look, apologize to her, but don't expect her to go out with you again." He crumpled up his napkin and glanced back over his shoulder toward the restrooms. "Don't worry about it," he said when Rodney sighed. "We'll find you someone else. Katie's nice and all, but there are other girls out there. You can have your pick."

Rodney snorted. "Right."

"Did I tell you I'd make you cool?" John asked, raising both eyebrows at Rodney.

"Yes," he admitted grudgingly.

"Then trust me." John checked over his shoulder again. He and Rodney sat in silence for a while, playing with the cold food and the increasingly shredded napkins. "Hey," John finally said, a smile creeping across his face. "Wasn't that something?"

Rodney grinned back. John's enthusiasm for the movie washed away the sour feeling from Katie's outburst. "That part?" he said, "when Tom Cruise just stopped the plane and let the guy fly by him? The engineering involved in making that plane not go crashing into the water is just -- just -- I mean, can you imagine? Can you imagine sitting there figuring that stuff out?"

"Can you imagine flying those planes?" John asked, just as starry-eyed as Rodney felt. "The rush when he cut the speed like that? I can't wait to be able to do that."

"You'll be amazing," Rodney said before he could stop himself, but John just looked pleased.

"You think so?" he said in something less than a question. He leaned back in his seat and sighed. "Sometimes it seems like it'll be forever, doesn't it?"

Rodney looked down at the ketchup patterns on his plate and the salt left from his fries. "Yeah," he said, knowing exactly what John meant.

"The girls are coming back," John said, checking over his shoulder. "We should, um, probably shut up about the movie."

Rodney nodded but the girls were within earshot so he didn't say anything.

"Hi," John said as they approached. "Everything okay?"

"I think we are ready to go," Teyla said. Her voice made it clear that neither of them were off the hook.

"Okay," John said easily. "I've got the check. Rodney, can you go start up the car?" He took the keys out of his pocket and tossed them to Rodney.

"Um, sure, but, let me give you some money," Rodney started but John waved him off.

"No, it's fine. Go ahead." At the last minute, he reached back and snagged Teyla's hand. "Hey, wait up a sec."

Rodney found himself alone with Katie. Her face was red and blotchy and her mouth was pinched.

"Look, um," he started. "I -- "

"I want to go home," Katie said.

"Okay," he said immediately. "So, um, John pointed out that what I said was, well, not untrue, but really, I shouldn't have said it, I mean, not while I was out with you and -- "

"John pointed out?" Katie asked, color rising high in her cheeks as she stopped and stamped her foot. "How about you? Don't you know what a jerk you are?"

"Well, yeah, but -- I mean -- "

"Maybe you should spend less time listening to John and more time listening to what comes out of your mouth," Katie said. She crossed her arms over her stomach and wouldn't say anything else as Rodney unlocked the Nova and started the engine.

John and Teyla showed up a long and awkward silence later and John drove Katie and Teyla home.

"She's really pissed at you, isn't she?" John said as he got back in the car and took it out of park.

"Teyla really slipped you some tongue there, too, didn't she?" Rodney responded bitterly, because John's mouth was still wet and kind of flushed.

John opened his mouth and touched the tip of his tongue to his upper lip, but didn't say anything for a long time. A long enough time that Rodney decided that yes, he was absolutely an asshole and almost apologized to John for being a dick.

"Look," John finally said before Rodney had to do anything drastic. "Were you really that into her? Because I kind of thought maybe you were just dating her because you knew her. If she means that much to you, we can -- we can figure out something."

"No," Rodney said, glad to finally just say what he meant. "She's nice and she likes me and when you said we could double date, I thought maybe it would be a good idea but wow was I wrong about that."

John shrugged. "It happens," he said.

"At least the movie was amazing," Rodney said. "Even if they did get almost everything wrong. It's like -- it's like I always thought sex must feel like." The words were all the way out of his mouth before he realized what he was saying and he glanced over at John carefully, remembering the spit-take from earlier that evening.

Instead, John smiled a little. "That part where Wolfman says he's getting a hard-on watching the ACM film?" he said. "I knew exactly how he felt."

"Last game," John said as Rodney restarted Impossible Mission. "Simmons is testing us on electron fields on Tuesday and I want to go over the stuff from last week one more time."

"You know it all already," Rodney said, jumping his pixilated avatar into the elevator. "But I can give you some practice problems if you want. We're learning the same thing, just on a much more advanced level."

"Yeah, that'd be great," John said. He'd never admit it but he liked Rodney's tutoring sessions. Rodney had a knack for making complicated concepts seem moronically simple.

Rodney beat him again, but considering he'd been playing less than a week, he was fairly pleased with his time.

"Here's my problem set from last week," Rodney said, fishing a sheet of paper out of his Trapper Keeper. "Ignore the answers, they aren't right anyway."

John looked at the page and the problems printed on it and the number "42" written neatly underneath every question.

"Forty-two?" he asked.

"It's the answer to life, the universe, and everything," Rodney said. He looked at John expectantly and heaved a beleaguered sigh when John shrugged. "I'll let you borrow that book when you're done with Dune. Anyway, Simmons wasn't impressed but I showed my work on another paper, so just do it and I'll check it against mine."

"Okay," John agreed, and sprawled on Rodney's bed to work the problems.

They were harder than the ones he'd done for homework, but not by much, and the added complications were sort of intuitive, mostly.

"You want to watch the numbers in that one," Rodney said suddenly in his ear. "Simmons tried to trip us up by stating diameter instead of radius. And don't forget that squares make R absolute."

"Thanks," John murmured, oddly aware of Rodney's presence. He was leaning over John's shoulder, way inside his personal space.

"You forgot to account for the magnetic flux density in this one, too," Rodney said, reaching across to point at a previous problem.

"I didn't know where it went in," John said. He tried to straighten up a little -- sprawling on his stomach had cramped his diaphragm or something and he didn't seem to be getting enough air.

"Yeah, it probably won't be on your exam but if you want, I can -- " Rodney cut himself off and took John's pencil away to scribble an equation in the corner. "You can use that, but you won't have to. It's a special case for absence of magnetic monopoles."

"Thanks," John said, taking his pencil back from Rodney's fingers.

"Don't forget to account for -- " Rodney started as the door rattled. "Hold on a sec!" he yelled.

"Oh, my Gawd!" Jeannie's voice shrieked from the other side of the door. "You're jerking off in there! Is John jerking off, too?"

John blinked. Jeannie was...twelve? Where on Earth had she heard about --

Rodney leapt for the door, fumbling with the lock and jerking it open.

"Are you and John having sex?" Jeannie yelled before realizing that the door was open. "I knew you were gay, I told you! The door was locked!"

"Shut up!" Rodney said furiously as Jeannie launched herself into the room. "Stop it!" He caught her arm and tried to wrestle her back into the hall, but despite his advantage in both weight and height, she managed to hold her ground.

"Oh, wow, I am so telling Mom and Dad," she crowed, bouncing up and down as Rodney shuffled her out.

"There's nothing to tell," Rodney snapped. "Nothing's going on here, so shut up and go back to whatever you were doing before you decided to come bother us. We're doing homework and that's it." He knocked her out of the room with one last shoulder check and slammed the door loudly.

"Wow," John said after a moment. His shock was slowly giving way to amusement -- a familiar feelings he'd come to associate with all things McKay. "Your sister has a real potty mouth on her."

Rodney didn't answer, which was unusual enough, and his color hadn't gone down either. John immediately reviewed Jeannie's words, his brain recalling them perfectly.

...you're jerking off in there...is John jerking off, too?...are you and John having sex?...I knew you were gay...I told you...the door was locked....

I knew you were gay.

I told you.

John never locked his own door but his father never failed to knock, either. Jeannie wasn't given to such courtesies and he doubted Rodney's parents were much better. Suddenly, a lot of things seemed clear now.

John looked at Rodney's red face and hunched shoulders and, in complete disregard of his father's admonishment, asked, "Rodney, are you gay?"

"No, of course not," Rodney snapped instantly. "Jeannie is always saying things and -- she's just a kid, she doesn't know anything."

"Rodney," John said, watching Rodney's blush approach critical. "It's okay."

"I -- it is?" Rodney's expression improved slightly from suicidal to just dismayed.

"You're not the first gay guy I've ever met," John said, conveniently leaving out that Danny Connors was the first. "I mean, it's not my thing but I don't care who you like. I mean, it's not like it's any of my business. I just thought you liked girls, I mean with the Kelly McGillis thing and all that, but that makes sense now with the not wanting to date Katie and all."

"I don't want to date Katie because she's boring," Rodney said disdainfully. "I would still do Kelly McGillis."

John laughed a little. "You gotta choose one, Rodney."


John raised his eyebrows. It wasn't often he saw Rodney clearly puzzled, but the look on his face was honestly questioning. "Well. You're either gay or you're not. Right?"

Rodney heaved a long-suffering sigh and John was suddenly relieved to see the familiar expression of, You're SO stupid, on his face.

"As my father, the soft scientist, would love to tell you," Rodney said, with a roll of his eyes, "Alfred Kinsey created a scale to identify levels of sexual orientation. It's, okay, it's like defining something by its negative. We all have some level of attraction to the same gender, or else we wouldn't be able to find ourselves attractive enough to have sex with the opposite gender. And yes, don't give me that look, even you. But there's this whole range of degrees and I'm like, somewhere in the middle." He seemed to run out of steam and finally dared to look John in the face. "Sometimes I like girls and sometimes I like guys. That's it, okay?"

"Okay," John said. His stomach felt funny and that made him mad. He wasn't going to be the asshole who got all squeamish just because his best friend was -- liking men. "So what was I suppose to account for?"

"Huh?" Rodney's eyes looked bruised and hollow. He looked like Danny Connors had, standing on the Sheppards's front porch.

"The problem, genius," John said, tapping the page with the pencil Rodney had so confidently snatched away only minutes before. "What was I suppose to account for? Or is that another of those things my class is too stupid to worry about?"

Rodney's mouth opened and closed. Then he smiled, a careful little tilt of one side of his mouth and John forced himself to buckle down on the problem set. Rodney was his friend and the hot rush of anger that slid through him was definitely because of the red face and embarrassed way Rodney had shied away.


Rodney walked out his door Monday morning to find John waiting for him at the curb, one foot bracing his skateboard vertically.

"What'd you do, oversleep?" John asked, lifting his foot and let the board drop onto its wheels.

"Ah, yeah. Overslept," Rodney said. He'd actually dawdled until his mother had called, Are you watching your time? through the bathroom door, which was the stupidest question ever because of course he was watching his time, calculating exactly how long he could linger in the house without being late to school and still give John maximum opportunity to avoid him.

"We're going to be late," John said, already halfway down the street. "Unless you want to skip today."

"I love how you just talk about skipping class like it's something you can just go and do all the time," Rodney sputtered, his hands flailing wildly and nearly hitting John in the mouth.

"Watch where you point that thing," John admonished, grabbing Rodney's wrist and steering it back over to his own space. "And sure you can. Did your mom or dad even say anything about us skipping study hall last time?"

"No, of course not," Rodney said. "We didn't get caught." His heart beat doubletime when John had casually -- casually -- moved his arm, as if touching Rodney didn't bother him at all, even after last night.

"Sure we did," John said. "Landry called my dad."

"And you didn't get in trouble?" Rodney was fairly impressed, but the fact that Landry must have called his own house and his parents just didn't care overrode his awe.

"Not much," John said with a shrug. "He just said not to do it again."

"Which, of course, you're suggesting right now."

"Well, I have a test tomorrow so I want to get in on Simmons' review today, but Rodney, I've skipped class...I don't even know how many times this year alone. Trust me, the world will not end because I didn't sit through study hall drawing in my notebook." John gave his skateboard another push, forcing Rodney to pick up his pace. "I'm just saying, you're smart enough that you don't need to be there. If you want to take a day, why don't you?"

Rodney stopped in his tracks and stared at John, as he rolled forward. It took a few seconds for John to notice that Rodney wasn't right behind him and he twisted around on the board, almost falling off.

"But what would I do?" Rodney demanded, jogging forward a few steps to catch up with John. "I mean, Radek's not going to skip and you're going to physics so...."

John shrugged. "What do you want to do?"

"I -- I don't know. I could go to the mall, but it's not open yet and I don't have anything I need. Movies don't start 'til after lunch. There's no one to hang out with. Everyone's in class. I could -- well, I can't go home and watch television or take a nap because Mom will be there...."

"Go to my house," John suggested. "I'll just give you the keys and I'll be back after practice."

"Really?" Rodney said, stunned. "What about your dad?"

"Not due back for two more days," John said.

"What if he comes back early?"

"Then either the mission got scrapped or his team's dead and he'll spend all day on base anyway." John reached in his pocket and extracted his keys, which he threw at Rodney. "Take the day off, Rodney. Hang out, watch TV, try not to think. There's plenty of food in the fridge."

"Um, thanks," Rodney said, rubbing his thumb over the keys. "I mean, really."

John shrugged. "Maybe I'll come home for lunch," he said with a grin, and then pushed off on his skateboard, leaving Rodney standing in the middle of the street.

"Huh," he said, watching John's retreating form. He took the long way around the block and let himself in the Sheppards' kitchen door so his mother wouldn't look out the window and see him lingering in the neighborhood.

The house was quiet without John, devoid of life and personality. Rodney wandered around the kitchen, checking in the fridge and the cabinets, and then the formal living room, looking for pictures. He found two -- one of John's mother, this one in bright color, her dark, feathered hair curling softly around her face, and one of the whole family. The latter was taken when John was young -- younger than Jeannie, anyway -- and had recently lost a tooth. He was grinning and his father was holding his mother's hand.

Rodney didn't touch either of the photos, not wanting to shift them out of place. He went into John's room, not quite as neat as it was when the Colonel was home, and sat on the bed. The cot was folded up in the corner and Rodney could have set it up but John's bed was made up and he wasn't there, and Rodney wasn't going to take a very long nap, just enough to make up for the sleep he hadn't gotten so much of the night before. John's pillow smelled like John, hair gel and soap and something else good, and Rodney curled his hand into the pillowcase and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

Physics was John's last class before lunch and by the time it was over, he was wishing he had skipped with Rodney. Simmons was pretty clear on his opinion of a high school quarterback who got good grades and by the time John had asked a few entirely relevant questions, he all but accused John of cheating.

John jerked open his locker and threw his physics book on the top shelf. He glared at the inside of his locker for a minute, then pulled out his skateboard and leaned it against the locker next to him.

"Ah, excuse me?"

"Yeah, what?' John drawled, rolling around and smiling in a way he didn't even come close to feeling. The kid in front of him was small and thin with messy hair, round glasses, and nervous hands. "Oh, hey, Radek," he said, recognizing Rodney's friend. "What's up?"

Radek's eyes widened in surprise. "You, ah, you know -- " He made fluttering hand gestures that indicated he hadn't expected John to know his name.

"Rodney talks about you all the time," John said casually, feeling inexplicably pissed off.

"Oh. Ah, yes, I -- I wanted to ask if you have seen Rodney. He was not in physics this morning or in calculus. I thought perhaps he might be ill."

"No," John said. "He's at my place. He's skipping today."

"Rodney is skipping class?" Radek asked in obvious surprise.

"He needed a break," John said, hating the rush of guilt that hit him.

"He does work and he worries until he is stressed," Radek agreed, and it was John's turn to be surprised. "It's probably good for him."

"Ah, yeah, that's what I thought," John said. "Look, I'm going home for lunch, to check up on him. Do you want to come, too?"

"No, thank you," Radek said, flushing. "I have a test this afternoon. But maybe you could give him this?" He handed John a folder of papers, some mimeographed, some torn from a spiral notebook, the ragged edges escaping from the clean lines of the folder.

"Sure," John said, taking it. "What is it?"

"Homework, notes," Radek said. "So he does not fall behind. He will curse me, but he will appreciate it."

"Yeah, thanks," John said. "I'll, uh, I'll let him know."

Radek nodded and hesitated a moment as if he wanted to say something else. John waited but Radek just turned and disappeared into the crowd pushing toward the cafeteria. John watched him go, then shoved the folder into his backpack and slammed his locker closed. He went down the hall against the crowd, which was easier than it should have been, and went out the door by the gym. He kept the skateboard under his arm until he was out on the street, and then dropped it on the asphalt to go the rest of the way back to his house.

Rodney had locked the door after himself, so John went out back to the shed where his father hid the spare key, and let himself in the kitchen door.

"Rodney?" he asked, poking his head into the television room. Rodney wasn't there and the Atari and all the game and video boxes were tucked away or stacked neatly on top of the entertainment center. John walked down the hall and looked in his bedroom.

He grinned when he saw Rodney sacked out on his bed, mouth open, hair sticking up, and death grip on his pillow. John figured he'd let Rodney sleep for a little longer and went back to the kitchen to poke around the freezer and see what was available for lunch.

Pre-formed burger patties and frozen French fries would work well enough. They had very explicit directions and could be cooked at the same temperature. John pre-heated the oven and loaded in the food.

He took a short walk around the house, trying to figure out if Rodney at least did any homework, but it seemed that sleeping was the extent of Rodney's activities. Boring.

The kitchen timer rang and John flipped the burger patties and stirred the fries around with a spatula, then ducked into the garage. His father kept his car wash supplies on a small shelf above the worktable and the spritzer bottle was easy to reach.

"Hey, McKay!" John leaned against the doorframe of his bedroom and pointed the spray bottle at Rodney's still form. "You've got three seconds to wake up or the hair gets it. Three. Two...."

"Huh, what?" Rodney asked, coming awake suddenly, if not completely.

John sprayed him anyway.

"Gah, what are you doing?" Rodney cried, flailing ineffectually at the cloud of water droplets.

"Waking you up," John said. "I'm making lunch. You want some?"

Rodney looked like he wanted to argue but then he visibly caught the word 'lunch' and sniffed the air. "It smells good," he said, swinging his legs off the bed and rubbing the back of his neck. The implied question hovered in the air.

"Burgers and fries," John answered. "They're just broiling in the oven. I didn't try to grill them or anything."

Rodney brightened. "That's cool."

John grinned. "See you in five," he said, turning back toward the kitchen to give Rodney some privacy to relieve himself and wash up. The burgers looked pretty much done and the fries were brown and crispy, so John unwrapped two cheese slices and put them on the burgers, and scraped the fries onto two plates.

He had just juggled the burgers off the broiler pan and onto two buns when something cold and wet hit the back of his neck.

"Hey!" he yelped, dropping a burger upside down on the plate and grabbing for his neck. "What are you doing?"

"Test run," Rodney said. He pumped the trigger with his finger a couple more times. "Good pressure, wide dispersion. Near-freezing temperature. Why on Earth would you use this to disturb someone's much-needed sleep?"

"You were drooling on my pillow," John said, righting his burger and nudging it back on its bun.

"Yeah, but seriously, why don't you just come...I don't know, punch me on the shoulder or something? Like a normal person?" Rodney took the plate John handed him and ate a fry, dry.

"I got my first black eye from waking my father up like that," John said proudly, making a puddle of ketchup on his plate. "Elbow right in the face."

Rodney's mouth dropped open. "Your father gave you a black eye?" he blurted out.

John shrugged and took a bite of his burger. It was a little overdone but not bad. "Yeah," he said around a mouthful of meat and bun. He swallowed. "It was an accident, Rodney. It's not like he was beating me."

It was actually one of John's favorite childhood memories. His father had been dozing on the couch one muggy summer day and when John had jumped on his stomach to wake him up, his arm had shot out and caught John right in the eye. There had been crying, of course, but his father was so horrified, there had also been a new baseball mitt and dinner out. That night, before bed, his mother had snuggled up with them both and run her hand over John's sadly cowlicked hair and explained that Daddy sometimes had nightmares. The spray bottle was her solution to history repeating itself.

"Yeah, but, but...." Rodney cut himself off by stuffing his burger into his mouth but the expression on his face was still startled.

Personally, John would take a little accidental violence over Rodney's parents and their constant, nasty bickering any day, and at the time, the black eye had made him extremely popular in his kindergarten class.

"I mean, yeah, if he'd broken my nose, that would have sucked," John said, touching the end of his nose which had been broken three years later. "But it was just a black eye. Really, I've had worse."

Rodney's eyes were huge and round and he chewed and swallowed and said, "Well, if you're okay with it...."

"Rodney, I'm fucking with you," John said. "Really."

"So your dad didn't hit you?"

"Of course he did. But it was an accident, Rodney. He was asleep."

Rodney stuffed more burger in his mouth and looked unsatisfied. "So, did I miss anything at school?" he asked instead when he was done chewing and ate a few more fries.

"Nah," John said. "Radek sent your homework from this morning."

"Oh, cool, thanks," Rodney said, his eyes lighting up. "I'm sure it's all rote regurgitation of lectures, but at least I won't have to worry about being penalized for failing to play along with their stupidity -- what are you grinning at?"

"Nothing," John said, secretly and childishly amused by Rodney's pronunciation of 'penalized.' "Simmons is an ass, by the way."

"Yeah, well, we all knew that," Rodney said around another mouthful of burger. "What'd he do this time?"

John shrugged. "Nothing."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh, please, you wouldn't have said anything if it wasn't bothering you. Cough it up."

John rolled his eyes back and shrugged. "I asked a question. He thought I was cheating."

"Cheating?" Rodney made a face. "How can you cheat on a class review?"

"Yeah, I dunno," John said, deciding that he actually felt slightly better for having gotten it off his chest and pleased that Rodney found the situation just as ridiculous as he did. "Football players are supposed to be stupid, I guess."

Rodney stared at him. "Look," he said finally, ducking his head and wiping his burger in the ketchup on his plate, "if you were as stupid as he seems to expect you to be, you'd be lounging around in the back row of Earth Sciences sticking pencils up your nose and your dad would be paying me to help you pass the class, like your buddy Mitch. And speaking of your dad, tell him to lay off, because a B in AP physics is not exactly a sign of mental retardation, especially since this is the most consistent stretch of formal education you've gotten since you were born. I mean, granted, you're no prodigy, but let me assure you, it's not the compensation it should be for the associated shit, at least not until I can start testing my theories and win the Nobel prize."

John stared at Rodney. "Are you okay?" he asked.

"People are idiots," Rodney said.

"Yeah," John agreed.

"This is absolutely ridiculous," Rodney said at lunch the next day, marking the Scantron sheet with dark pencil marks that couldn't be read as anything other than he'd intended. Rodney McKay knew how to take multiple choice tests. "There is no way two dozen data points are enough to extrapolate compatibility between highly individualized human beings. Besides, as seniors, we should be exempt from this because there is no rational point in pairing us up in little Stepford relationships when we're all going to go off to college in six months and break each other's hearts. If we last six months to begin with, because once again, this extremely limited question set had to have been made up by monkeys."

"It was made up by the homecoming committee," Teyla said, raising one eyebrow. "We were hoping it would encourage everyone to bring a date to the dance. Even if they were previously...romantically disinclined."

Rodney looked up. John popped the last bite of cafeteria pizza in his mouth and widened his eyes in a look that clearly signaled, Danger, Will Robinson.

"Well, not all the questions are stupid," Rodney amended, because John's past assessment of Teyla's ass-kicking abilities had not completely vacated his memory.

"You're just afraid the test is going to tell you're not compatible with anyone, McKay," Ford said cheerfully. "I'm hoping it'll give me someone hot. I don't have a date to the dance yet and I haven't decided who to ask."

"Well," John announced a little too loudly, tossing his napkin onto his tray. "I'm out of here. Rodney? You coming to study hall?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah." Rodney tossed his brown paper bag on top of John's tray. "You can take mine up, too," he said to Ford, who just nodded as he quizzed Teyla on the availability of the freshman girls on the cheerleading squad.

"You know, I probably saved your life in there," John said as they escaped the cafeteria for the hallway.

"It's still a stupid test," Rodney said, completing the form as they walked to study hall. "They'd be better off leaving a space to fill in who you want to get and then matching people up by mutual attraction."

John tilted his head. "Do you believe in love at first sight?"

"Oh, my God," Rodney said. "Of course not. Romantic love, as viewed by contemporary society, is really just sexual attraction and compatibility of lifestyle combined with mutual goals. With extended commitment, all this comes to include -- " He waved his free hand, only vaguely aware that John had to duck his pencil. " -- contentment, inertia, what's the word that means settling for what you have? "

"Complacency," John said.

"Oh." Rodney made one last scribble. "There. Done. So what? Do you?"

"My dad met my mom at his hail and farewell," John said.

"What's that?" Rodney asked, frowning. There weren't a lot of terms foreign to Rodney at this point, but he'd never heard of a hail and farewell.

"That's when officers leave or arrive at a command. They have a big party," John said.

"So your dad was new?"

"Actually, he was leaving," John said. "And my mother was there visiting her brother, who was an incoming lieutenant. It was his first assignment after OCS and she wanted him to have a friendly face. So my dad met her and asked her to dance, and when he left, he asked her to write to him."

Rodney nodded, wondering where this was going. John rarely spoke more than a handful of words at a time, but seldom about his father and even less often about his mother. It was unusual enough for Rodney to keep his mouth shut for the time being. "Did she?"

"Well, he got to his base in California," John said, obviously warming to his story. "And waited weeks. Finally, he decided that she'd forgotten him, but he hadn't forgotten her, and started writing to his friends on base to see if anyone had heard from her. And after about six weeks, he got a letter from her."


"And he wrote back to the address on the envelope," John said. "It took another six weeks, but he finally got a letter back. He had, you know, missions and stuff to do, but he had leave coming, and he wrote and asked if he could spend it with her. Well, the thing was, Mom lived five miles from the base. She and my uncle were Army brats and my grandfather had retired not far from where my dad was stationed. She'd been sending the letters through her brother in North Carolina to see if my dad was really as interested in her as she was in him."

"This explains so much about you," Rodney said, but he couldn't help smiling a little. "So does that story actually get girls in bed?"

John smirked. "First time, I crashed and burned," he said.

"And the second?" Rodney asked before he could help himself. "Oh, that's awful, don't even answer that," he complained even as John laughed and shouted his line.

"Ask me in morning, but it's looking good so far!"

"Some day you'll have to explain how this makes me cool," Rodney muttered, shoving his Scantron form at John. "Here, hold this for a sec," he ordered, twirling the combination lock on his locker.

"Hey," John said softly, leaning in a little, and Rodney's breath caught in his throat. He could smell the light scent of the aftershave John used, mixed with the familiar aroma of Dep hair gel. "Does it bother you? That this test -- " he waved the paper at Rodney -- "is only going to match you up with girls? I mean, the first question is gender, so obviously they mean to use that as a parameter -- "

"The fact that they're using this test to match up the losers for Homecoming," Rodney said, wrestling his physics book out of his locker, "indicates that the point is not exactly to determine our lifetime partners in complacency. Besides," he said, lifting his eyes to John's concerned face as he dumped the physics book in his bag -- Simmons had inundated them with homework that morning, "if this test matched me up with Laura Cadman, I wouldn't be complaining." He straightened. "It's a little disturbing that you're more obsessed with my relative gayness than I am," he added softly enough that only John could hear him.

"Hey," John said. "I'm an equal opportunity kind of guy."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "That's what they all say."

John propped himself against the wall and braced his foot on the edge of the bed as he filled out his own Homecoming Match Survey. They were fairly stupid questions, Rodney had been right about that. It was kind of disturbing how often Rodney really did turn out to be right.

"So, um," he said, watching Rodney cross out half of his equations and rewrite them in red pencil wherever he could find room. "What's it like?"

"What's what like?" Rodney asked, frowning at the page. "Did you use calculus to solve this one?"

"Yeah," John said. "It's just integration."

"Of course it is but -- okay, never mind, cool," Rodney said. "So what's what like?"

"You know," John said, even though Rodney clearly didn't and there was no reason to believe he did. Rodney gave him a you're SO stupid look to back up that theory, and that forced John to actually say it. "Being gay. What's it like?"

"It's like -- what kind of question is that anyway?" Rodney asked, sitting up and shoving John's notebook aside. "No, seriously, that's the stupidest -- okay, it's not, but what?"

"Oh, and 'what's it feel like to have sex' is the mark of brilliance," John said. "It's the same thing."

"You want to know about gay sex?" Rodney asked. "I assume you want to know the mechanics since we already established that my experience can probably be measured in values approaching zero. Most of it's pretty standard heterosexual foreplay, handjobs, blowjobs -- "

"No!" John interrupted. "Rodney! I'm not asking about the sex." He gave Rodney a very pointed look, complete with eyebrow emphasis. "It's just -- last week, my dad had to boot a guy out of the Air Force for being gay. And...it's not like he wasn't doing his job and it wasn't even like anyone knew. Heck, no one knows about you, I don't think. I mean, no one's ever said anything. So. I mean. What's it like? How did you know? I mean, if you haven't had sex with anyone, maybe you don't even know for sure."

Rodney shrugged and looked down at John's work. "I know," he said quietly. He got up off the bed and sat in the desk chair backward, resting his chin on the back. The position made him look very small and a little lost. "I mean, I look at Kelly McGillis and think, whoa, she's hot, but I look at Tom Cruise and think, whoa, he's hot, too. I start talking to someone and we don't just get along, we click, or I think we do, and suddenly I'm wondering if he might want to experiment or at least kiss me while we're playing D&D or watching television or something. Crush on a guy, crush on a girl, there's not a lot of difference. All those things you think about the supermodels or Teyla or whoever, you know, nice tits, nice ass, I think those things about men. I mean, okay, not nice tits, but nice chest, nice ass, nice hands. It's not just an aesthetic thing. I'm attracted to them. The way all you Kinsey one types are attracted to girls. Some of them I like. Some of them I don't. Emilio Estevez isn't that hot, but Rob Lowe, yeah."

John licked his lower lip, fully aware that his next question fell firmly into his dad's categorization of things he might not want to know.

"Are you attracted to me?"

Rodney glanced down at the floor and didn't answer.

"You're an attractive guy," he said finally, lifting his head.

John nodded carefully. He wasn't sure if that meant that Rodney was attracted to him but was afraid to tell him, or if Rodney wasn't attracted to him at all and was trying not to be insulting. "Okay," he said.

Fear flashed across Rodney's face and then John knew. Knew, and it made his breath catch in his throat. Rodney was attracted to him. Rodney was maybe more than attracted to him. Rodney had a fucking crush on him.

"Is that why you made the deal?" he asked and wished instantly that he could take it back.

Rodney's face went redder than it already was. "No." He said it so defensively, that John knew he was lying. "You needed money and I had it, and I wanted to be cool and...."

"But you don't," John said. "You hang out with me, but you pretty much ignore everything I tell you about being cool."

"Because I'm not good at it," Rodney said, standing up and kicking John's desk chair hard enough to roll it back toward the desk. "Because there's all these stupid little things to remember and I've got so many more things in my head that are much more worthy of my intellect. Because it feels weird." He turned a betrayed look on John. "Doesn't it feel weird to you, too?"

"You feel weird to me," John said and fuck, had he really just said that? That was up with the all-time stupidest things to come out of his mouth ever.

Rodney's face fell, so drastically and so immediately it would have been comical if it hadn't twisted John's stomach up in those awful, weird knots.

"Well. Well, fine," Rodney said stiffly. "Let me remove my weird self from your presence and maybe I'll actually manage to get some of my own homework done for a change."

And then he walked out.

"Wait, Rodney, that's not what I meant," John said, scrambling off the bed, but it was too late.

The front door slammed and Rodney was gone.

Rodney walked into his house without attracting any attention and went quickly down the hall to his room. He locked the door and threw himself on his bed.

Radek was right. John was a jerk. Just, instead of being an unfeeling, asshole, macho jerk, he was an invasive, inquisitive, judgmental jerk. And he was still hot.

And what was worse was that it didn't change how Rodney felt about him. He could easily -- easily -- close his eyes and see John working on physics concepts that were only just barely beyond him, frustrated frown between his eyes, and tension riding between his shoulder blades. He could see John coming out of Top Gun, genuinely happy, genuinely excited, light gleaming behind usually opaque eyes, that extra spring in his step, and a smile that he couldn't suppress.

It wasn't fair, Rodney thought, his hand sliding over the front of his pants. Being mad at John should turn him off, not on. He pressed down harder and yanked at the button with his other hand. He got his pants open and slid his hand into his boxers, thinking of John's fingers spaced perfectly on a football. John's fingers would space perfectly on him, too, and that thought was just starting to get interesting when Rodney realized something was hitting the roof.

There was a good chance his parents would never notice, but there was just as good a chance that they would and if the noise woke Jeannie up, they'd never hear the end of it. Rodney hopped off the bed and did his pants back up, swearing a little when he had to zip up his jeans. It was entirely possible John had the right idea with the button flies.

When he was dressed again, Rodney climbed out his window and onto the roof, and nearly got strafed with a handful of small rocks.

"Hey, stop that!" he called.

"Sorry," John called back from his own house. He made a strange gesture and waved his fist near his ear. "Call me!" He knelt down and disappeared back into his own house.

"What?" Rodney asked, but there was no one left to hear him. He sighed irritably and crawled back into his room. He had recently reassembled the old telephone in his room, which had ended up buried under several of his other projects and some laundry. He dug it out and dialed John's number.

"Hey," John said, picking it up halfway through the first ring. He sounded a little breathless. "I didn't want to piss your parents off by calling too late."

"They probably wouldn't notice," Rodney said shortly, opening up his pants again to give himself some room.

"Yeah, I -- look." John took a breath deep enough to be audible through the phone. "I wasn't trying to be a jerk tonight."

"Just comes naturally, eh?" Rodney asked, tucking his free hand into his pants and putting pressure on his still-present erection. That felt a little better and he settled back to wait for John's response.

"Yeah, some days," John said, and they were both quiet for a moment. "Look, I -- that thing about my parents? I've never actually told anyone that before. I mean, not that it's a big secret or anything, I just -- I never wanted to. You know?"

"It's not really a macho football star thing to talk about at lunch," Rodney offered.

"Or ever," John said. "I, uh, when I said...what I did. Ford? He takes my lunch tray and does all those stupid errands because he wants to be like me. Mitch thinks that hanging around me will help him pick up girls. Ronon just wants someone to follow -- someone who isn't intimidated by him. But Rodney, you gave me a thousand dollars -- that's a lot of money -- to give you all that, and every time I try, you won't take it, and I don't know what you want from me."

"Why do I have to want something from you like it's a great big terrible thing?" Rodney asked. "Maybe I just like hanging out with you."

John was quiet for a minute. "Because you think I'm attractive?" he asked, his voice cracking a little on the last word.

"Yeah," Rodney said, his heart pounding in his throat. This conversation was quickly coming up on the 4th Grade Glue Incident as the most embarrassing situation of Rodney's life. He wasn't about to admit the truth and he couldn't lie for shit, so he went with option three -- mock the stupid person. "Because I have so much patience and goodwill that I let pretty people hang around and look good in my presence.

"Okay, so if you asked my father? He'd probably tell you that sociological studies have indicated that other people are more apt to spend time among other of the same general level of attractiveness or some crap like that." He rolled his eyes at John, who couldn't see him and said, "At least you can do math." He licked his lips, waiting to see if John was going to push the matter and his cock softened against his palm and he slid his hand out of his pants. Possible abject humiliation was never sexy.

He waited a beat, heart sinking. He could almost feel the skepticism over the phone line and he started coming up with backup excuses, promises never to hit on John or stare at his ass, or anything.

"I swear, McKay," John said, his voice lazy again and a little relieved, "you're the only person I know who counts math as a positive personality trait."

"I bet your dad would," Rodney said immediately, just happy to be able to breathe again.

"Theory without application is just a bunch of guys sitting in a room jerking off," John quoted, the origin obvious in his deepened voice and gruff manner. "My dad tells me that all the time," he added at his normal timbre.

"Well, until we actually find a way to build a stable wormhole or the space program gets off its ass and develops a way to observe black hole behavior, all we can do is work with theoreticals," Rodney argued. His dick had twitched when John said 'jerking off' and he bit his lip against the shiver that ran up his shoulders and the back of his neck.

"Exactly," John said smugly. "Maybe instead of guessing how they work, we should be finding ways to make our own."

"Wow, do you have any idea how far away from that we are?" Rodney asked, sliding his hand back down his stomach. His palm felt good on the hollow of his hip and he let his hand rest there. "We're ten times more likely to find data or equipment from a significantly advanced culture and then who will you be calling to tell you how it works?"

"Mechanical engineers!" John said just as Rodney shouted,

"Theoretical astrophysicists!"

There was a beat of silence and then they both started to laugh, John in light, reluctant chuckles and Rodney with an edge of hysteria. He slid his hand around his cock, holding it in a loose grip. He was getting hard again and there really might be something to what John had said.

"Okay, so they might be use- huh."

"What?" John asked immediately. "What are you thinking?"

"I've been concentrating on the theoretical side of my education but think of how much more valuable I'd be if I double-majored in theoretical astrophysics and Mech E...." Rodney idly rubbed his right hand the length of his cock and back up as he pondered the new version of his career plan.

"Rodney?" John growled into the phone as Rodney was accepting his imaginary future Nobel Prize.

Rodney jerked, his hand stuttering as he realized that he was jerking off while talking on the phone to John. He pulled his hand away and pressed it against the outside of his leg. "The idea has merit," he muttered.

"Huh," John said, and Rodney could just picture him kicking out both legs and crossing one over the other. "Looks like I was right after all."

"Gloating is so unattractive on you," Rodney said. "Don't think one little suggestion is going to gain you a mention in my Nobel Prize acceptance speech."

"Geez, McKay, you're breaking my heart," John said. "So what do Nobel Prize winners do before they, you know, actually get the award?"

"Live off grants," Rodney said airily. "Teach. Research. Theorize. Blow things up. I'll probably be recruited by NASA or the CIA, which should save me from having to teach undergrads. You never know, though. I might stop by a class once in a while to impart my wisdom."

John guffawed.

"What?" Rodney demanded.

"You aren't even one of those undergrads yet," John pointed out. "Get through the program first."

"Hey, you asked," Rodney replied. "So what about you?"

"So what about me?" John asked.

"What's your big, top secret dream? NFL football player? President of the United States?"

John just made an amused sound. "I just want to fly."

Something fluttered in Rodney's chest when John said that. It was so perfectly content that he felt that maybe he knew everything there was to know about John just in those five words.

"Yeah," John said quietly. "Um, anyway. Are we cool?"

Rodney grinned a little at his ceiling. "You're cool," he said. "I'm -- "

"You're cool," John said. "See you tomorrow?"

"Yeah," Rodney said, breath catching in his throat. "'Night."

"'Night." John hung up and Rodney dropped the phone into its cradle and slid in free hand into his pants alongside his other hand. There wasn't much room and he finally kicked his pants and shorts off.

John's voice still lingered in his ear, soft and rough and lazy. Everything about John turned Rodney on and it was only getting worse as he got to know John better. Now the indolent accent drew out his name, the amazing eyes tracked directly to him, and even the strong, capable hands Rodney had watched in study hall now folded paper airplanes just for him and squeezed around his arm or ruffled his hair.

Rodney closed his eyes and let his hand fall into a natural pace.

That night could have gone so differently, he thought, if John had just been a little more curious. If he'd said, What's it like to be gay? Can you show me? If he'd undone the buttons of his jeans with trembling fingers, until Rodney reached over and helped him.

Rodney was a lot braver in his fantasies.

In his mind, John went starry-eyed when Rodney got a hand on him, grinned when he felt Rodney's mouth. Just like Top Gun, a forty-yard pass, and the right answer to Rodney's hardest physics problem, tied up with a big red ribbon for him.

Rodney would lick around the head first, he decided, brushing his thumb in deliberate circles in just the place. He'd watch John press his teeth into his lower lip and blink down at Rodney, his eyes going glassy and awed.

He had to loosen his hand and slow down for a moment because the more he knew John, the more details his imagination provided, the more real the possibility became.

He could imagine John's scent, the way he smelled after football practice, damp with soap but still a little warm. He'd touched the inside of John's arm and he'd bet John's inner thigh felt the same way, surprisingly smooth and taut skin pulled over bone and muscle. He'd like to lick that skin, see if it would taste any different from the rest of John, rub his cheek against it.

Rodney paused and panted, his hand squeezing rhythmically around his own cock. He could hear the ghost of John's voice, growling his name and wanted to feel John's curved lips against his own and he knew he wasn't going to last any longer. He shivered, trying to slow down but it was too late. There was a moment when the air seemed to hold still and then everything rushed through Rodney, making him shudder and groan. He felt his release spill hot over his hand and blinked away the bright spots of light at the edges of his vision.

He wiped his hand on his boxers and pulled up the covers.

If only John had just been a little more curious.

"So did you get the test back?" Rodney demanded as John walked out of Simmons' classroom.

"Geez, Rodney," John said, shifting his backpack to his other shoulder. "Impatient?"

"I put enough time into teaching you that stuff," Rodney said. "Let me see."

John held out the paper silently and Rodney snatched it away. "Ninety-seven!" he crowed. "I told you I would get you an A in physics! Tell your dad he can pay my fee in enchiladas."

John rolled his eyes. "My dad better not be paying you," he said.

"What's this 'See Me' note for?" Rodney asked, frowning as he flipped through the pages of John's work. "Did you talk to him? Is that why you were so pokey getting out of there?"

"Pokey?" John repeated.

Rodney lowered his arms and turned his face up to John's. "He still thinks you're cheating."

John heaved a sigh. He'd hoped he could deflect Rodney by picking on his odd word choice. "He wants me to come by after school and do a few problems."

"You have practice after school."

"Not if a teacher requests my presence," John sighed. "And then I get to go to practice late."

"You don't get to start if you're late the day before a game," Rodney said and John wondered when he'd picked up on that rule.

"I know," he said. "It'll be fine. Coach'll start Lorne and I'll come in during the second quarter."

"But you didn't cheat!" Rodney argued. "Simmons is a dick!"

"Hey," John said. "I'm not arguing. But I'm not telling him that, either."

"Did you tell him I was tutoring you?"

John shrugged. "Hey, there's Radek," he said, waving a casual hand at the other boy, who nearly tripped over his shoelaces.

"You didn't!"

"Hey," John said to Radek as they all stopped in front of Rodney's locker. Rodney was still looking at him in accusation, or maybe betrayal.

"Ah, hello," Radek said, still looking a little nervous. "Why is Rodney apoplectic today?"

John glanced over at Rodney who was still glaring at him, and then shrugged at Radek.

"Because this idiot," Rodney supplied, "worked his ass off learning our work with Coulomb's Law and electron fields, and now Simmons thinks he had a crib sheet and is making him skip practice to do extra problems."

"That does not seem fair," Radek said.

"Uh, maybe because it's not," Rodney spat out, finally turning to his locker. "Seriously, and they expect these jackasses to be our role models or something?"

"Well, what do you want me to do about it?" John demanded. He was plenty good at getting around rules and stuff, but he had no idea how to play this one any way but straight.

"Hey," a new voice interrupted. "Mind if I butt in a minute?"

John and Radek raised their eyebrows and glanced at each other as Laura Cadman ducked in between them and Rodney. John offered her an eloquent 'go ahead' shrug.

"Er," said Rodney.

"Hey." Laura offered him a smile. Rodney tentatively returned it, looking as though he fully expected to be skewered and roasted before the next bell rang. "Are you going to the football game tomorrow night?"

"I -- uh -- yeah," Rodney stuttered out and John suddenly felt hot and angry. Of course Rodney was going to be there. He was going to see John -- and the rest of the team -- play. And cheer. Rodney was definitely going to cheer.

"Oh, great," Laura said with a smile. "I'll see you there." She spared a glance at John and Radek as she turned to make her way to the cafeteria. "See you boys later."

John looked at Radek. Radek shrugged. Rodney cleared his throat.

"Well," he said, glancing between John and Radek. "Does anyone know what the cafeteria's serving for lunch? Not that it matters to me, really, since I have -- " He held up his ubiquitous brown paper bag and gestured frantically at it. "Oh, fuck it." His expression collapsed into panic. "What just happened?"

"Why are you still getting college mail?" Rodney asked as John hauled a handful of paper out of his mailbox. The brightly colored leaflets mocked him. "Aren't you going to the Air Force Academy?"

"Yeah," John mumbled, sorting the mail in one hand and trying to unlock the front door with the other. "I still need a nomination."

"But you're in, right?" Rodney pressed. "Someone will nominate you if you're a sure bet."

"Yes, Rodney," John said with a roll of his eyes. "But the other colleges don't know that. They just know that I took the SATs last spring." He dropped one stack of envelopes on the hall table and walked into the kitchen to dump the rest in the trash.

"What did you get?" Rodney asked as casually as he could manage. He'd been dying for an opening to find out how John did on standardized tests, petty as it sounded.

John spared him a glance that let Rodney know he wasn't hiding anything. "Fourteen-seventy," he said. "You?"

"Really? Fourteen-seventy?"

John raised an eyebrow expectantly.

"Oh, yes, right," Rodney said, collecting himself. "I got a fifteen-forty, notwithstanding that form of standardized testing is really -- "

"Wait, wait," John interrupted. "You got a fifteen-forty?"

"Yes," Rodney said, feeling shifty and defensive under John's disbelieving gaze.

"A fifteen-forty," John repeated. "What happened to the other sixty points? I would have thought you'd get a perfect score."

Rodney huffed and rolled his eyes. "Well, that would be a reasonable assumption," he snapped. "Unfortunately, I failed to read all the directions for the reading comprehension part -- "

"You didn't read the directions?" John burst out. "For the reading comprehension?"

"Oh, shut up," Rodney sighed. "Do you have any juice?"

"Just the liquid poison you're always screaming about," John said, opening the fridge. "Here, have a Coke. There's Cheese Doodles in the cupboard if you want some. What do you want to play, Missile Command or Space Invaders?"

"Space Invaders," Rodney called as John wandered into the living room. He found the snacks in the pantry, sitting on top of a dozen cans of soup, and was reaching for the soda John had left on the counter for him when the phone rang.

"Hey, can you get that?" John called from the other room.

"What do I look like, your receptionist?" Rodney shouted back, but he put the Cheese Doodles on the counter and picked up the receiver. "Hi, Sheppard household."

"Um. Hi." The voice on the other end of the line was uncertain and female. "This is Elizabeth Weir. I was looking for John...."

"Oh, hold on a minute," Rodney said, his stomach unexpectedly knotting up. This was his competition. This was the girl John had loved -- maybe still loved, even though he was seeing Teyla.

"Who is it?" John asked, appearing in the doorway.

Rodney remembered to cover the speaker with his palm and raised his eyebrows. "It's Elizabeth," he said, holding out the phone.

John's face went blank. "Oh," he said. "Look, can you tell her I'll call her back?"

"Are you sure?" Rodney asked. The other night, John had sounded like Elizabeth was still -- but then Rodney had never been very good at interpersonal relationships so he might as well just go with it.

John nodded and vanished back into the living room.

"Uh, Elizabeth?"

"Yes, hi?"

"Look, it's Rodney McKay. John had me answer the phone because he's a little uh, indisposed. But he'll call you back, okay?"

"Of course, sure, no problem," Elizabeth said, and it really sounded all right. "Thank you, Rodney. It's good to hear you."

"Uh, yes, um. Same to you. I mean, it's good to hear -- er, have a good afternoon," Rodney babbled and then hung up. What was he supposed to say to John's ex anyway? "I told her you were indisposed," Rodney said, taking his soda and the Cheese Doodles into the other room. He put the can on a coaster and sat the bag on the couch between himself and John.

"Great, now she'll think I was in the can," John said, shifting his joystick to the other hand and taking a handful of Cheese Doodles. He nodded at the Atari. "You can go first."

John was still on the bench when Rodney got to the game. Jeannie had pestered him to take her and it wasn't until he'd told his parents that he'd be coming home late -- which started McKay Family Argument #756, what was an acceptable curfew for Rodney; ultimately a moot point because neither parent was willing to stay up late and wait for him -- that he was able to slip out.

Laura Cadman, in her olive green parka, waved to him and he dawdled on the step while he scoped out the situation. Laura was sitting with Jeannette Simpson who was kind of a grumpy bitch at the best of times, and that was before Rodney had made her best friend cry. Still, Katie was nowhere to be seen, and Rodney was smarter than Jeannette, and Laura was not only hot, but waving him up, so Rodney approached with caution, ready to flee if anything explosive looked likely.

"Hi," he said, heart beating against his chest.

"Hi," Laura said, scooting over.

Rodney took the invitation and sat down.

"So do you know why John didn't start?" Jeannette asked, and it was almost pleasant.

"Simmons made him stay after school to do some problems," Rodney told them. "He missed some of practice so he couldn't start."

"Simmons creeps me out," Laura said.

"That's because he's always waiting for you to blow something up," Jeannette said. "Oh, there they go!"

Rodney looked where she was pointing. John was jogging out on the field, fastening the chinstrap of his helmet. He glanced back at Jeannette. He hadn't known she liked John. That explained why she was being nice to him.

On the field, the center snapped the ball and John ran backward, head turning in search of an open receiver. Defensive linemen closed in on him and Ronon blocked at least one and a half of them as John drew his arm back and snapped a hard, high pass to Stackhouse.

"Yeah, Sheppard!" he cheered, having picked up appropriate football stand protocol from Laura during the last game.

"Ooh, look at his shoulders," Jeannette squeaked.

Rodney stared at her. He hadn't known her voice went that high. "You know, they're mostly pads," he said.

Jeannette stared back. "Well, it's not like they're not big enough without them," she said.

Rodney blinked. John did have nice shoulders, strong and rounded from throwing passes, but big, not quite. "I guess that depends on your standards for big," he muttered. Jeannette either didn't hear him or ignored him.

John ran the next play, and would have gone down before reaching the line of scrimmage but for Ronon knocking an opposing to the ground and going after a second.

"Did you see Ronon in that play?" Jeannette sighed as John got tackled and hit the ground hard.

"Ronon?" Rodney burst out.

Jeannette scowled at him. "Yes. Ronon. Who did you think I was talking about?"

"Oh, um." Behind him, Laura was giggling. "How was I supposed to know when the only name out of your mouth was John's? Besides, aren't girls always supposed to like the quarterback best?"

"John?" Jeannette rolled her eyes. "Right, like he'd ever ask me out. Ronon at least talks to me."

Rodney opened his mouth, the words, only because I told him to on the tip of his tongue when Laura cut in.

"Hey, I want some hot chocolate," she said. "Rodney, want to come with me?"

"Sure," Rodney said, even though hot chocolate hadn't even occurred to him and it wasn't that cold. He'd rather spend time with Laura than Jeannette, anyway.

There was a bit of a fuss over the payment. Rodney finally handed over money for all three of them after shoulder checking Laura out of the way. She pushed into his side and then grabbed two of the cups to prevent retaliation.

"Oh, that's cheating," Rodney complained as he followed her back up the stands.

"That's strategic advantage," she countered.

Rodney put up a good argument but Laura held her own until Jeannette poked her in the ribs and aimed a flailing whack at Rodney's arm. He stuck his tongue out at her and settled back to drink his hot chocolate while John threw the ball out of bounds half a dozen times, winged a few wide shots, went down holding the ball once, and still managed to complete enough passes to win the game, especially after he feinted out the defense and ran thirty-seven yards for a touchdown.

Rodney and Laura scrambled down from the bleachers with the rest of the crowd, losing Jeannette to her new Ronon obsession as they made their way out to the parking lot.


Rodney recognized John's voice immediately and stopped short, turning toward the source, and causing two people to trip over him.

"There you are," he said, shouldering his way in toward John, who wasn't lacking for attention.

"Yeah," John said, flashing a completely fake smile at someone and nodding before slipping through a gap in the crowd and stepping a little away from everyone else. "Hey, I was thinking -- hi, Laura," he said with a nod.

Rodney glanced over his shoulder and smiled at Laura, who had somehow kept up with him despite his awkward progress. "Hey," she greeted John easily.

"Is there a party tonight?" Rodney asked.

John hesitated, glanced at Laura, and then back at Rodney, before nodding. "Yeah, it's at Lorne's house. Did you, um -- " He broke off and straightened. He smiled. "Are you going? Did you drive?"

"I barely got out of the house without Jeannie," Rodney said. "I was hoping to catch a ride with you. Did you bring your car or are you catching a ride with someone?"

"I can give you a lift," Laura said, pulling a set of keys out of her parka and waving them at Rodney.

John raised his eyebrows at Rodney and turned his palms up. He might as well have said, You're on your own, buddy for all the lack of subtlety.

"Well, you should know," Rodney stammered, fixing his gaze on a point over Laura's left shoulder. "There's going to be, you know, alcohol there. And some of the movies they play are kind of, well -- "

"Rodney, I've been to those parties before," Laura said, rolling her eyes at him. "You want a ride, come on."

Rodney glanced at John, who shrugged at him. "You can go now or you can wait for me to shower," he said, tugging at the muddy neckline of his jersey. "I've got the Nova."

Laura dangled her keys.

"I'll see you there," Rodney said hesitantly, trying the words out. He'd knew that he'd rather wait for John, but Laura really seemed interested and John really seemed...straight.

John shrugged. "Cool," he said, smacking Rodney's shoulder and turning back toward the locker room.

"Cool," Laura echoed with a dazzling smile. "Let's go."

John had never been especially fond of the post-game parties but since they were mostly in his honor, he showed up at each one and smiled and thumped people on the back and if he was lucky, the cheerleaders would show up. But his patience that night was limited and he realized that he would much rather be playing Impossible Mission with Rodney or watching a movie and mocking the bad science.

"I am so out of here," he said to himself, words lost in the noisy room, and went to look in the kitchen for Rodney.

The kitchen was empty except for Ford and a couple of guys on second-string raiding the hot wings. Since when was Rodney not where the food was?

"Crap, where'd he go?" John muttered, anxious to get out of there. He was getting claustrophobic. "Ford! Have you seen McKay anywhere?"

Ford had his mouth full, but he managed to grin and point to the living room.

"Great, thanks," John said, walking through the doorway and rolling around the corner. "Hey, look, Rodney -- whoa!"

Rodney and Laura Cadman jumped apart, Rodney snatching his hand out from beneath her shirt.

"Geez, McKay," John said, turning back quickly around the corner and pressing his back against the wall. He tried not to think about how red Rodney's mouth had been, bright and wet with kissing, and he wondered if Rodney had touched Laura's breast and if he'd felt lace or cotton or silky soft skin.

"Sorry!" Rodney called from the living room, voice high and cracked. "Sorry," John heard him saying more softly to Laura, and some ruffling of clothes. "He's my ride tonight let me just -- "

"I can give you a lift home if you want to stay," Laura said and John rolled his eyes.

"Wow, um, yeah, okay, let me just -- "

Rodney appeared around the corner, hair still mussed and mouth flushed but dry. "Ah, hi. Sorry about that," he said, rubbing self-consciously at his mouth. "You were looking for me?"

"Yeah," John said, "and found you!"

Rodney looked indignant. "All right, I admit, the room's not exactly private but we weren't really -- what did you want, anyway?"

John glanced back toward the room and leaned forward to whisper in Rodney's ear, "So are you actually attracted to Laura or is she just Katie Brown, round two?"

Rodney flushed and stuttered and finally bounced forward on his toes and whispered fiercely, "Laura is very hot! I think she just might be the hottest girl in the school, and also, it's none of your business!"

"It's going to be wind up being my business if you send her off crying to the bathroom!" John shot back.

"Oh, like you were the one who had to go in there after her! Since when do you care about my dates?"

"Since you paid me a whole fucking lot of money to care," John gritted out, metaphorical gloves off.

"Fine, what, you want to leave now?" Rodney asked, tilting his chin up. "Go ahead. I'll catch a ride with Laura! And I will be just fine! I will be wonderful! I will be fantastic!" He glanced toward the room behind him and managed to lower his voice to an echoing stage whisper. "And I am going to get all the way to second base, where I would already be if you hadn't just walked in."

"Fine," John said tightly. "I'm going to find Teyla." He raised his eyebrows at Rodney in the most significant expression he could summon.

Rodney went pale and looked like John had punched him. "Oh."

"Yeah." John felt a little punched himself and realized they were fighting over something entirely stupid. So what if Rodney wanted to get a little action? Good for him.

After all, John had seen Rodney's face that night in his bedroom. He knew that Rodney wanted him and John couldn't be jealous for him finding someone else. It wasn't like he could be what Rodney wanted. He reached out and squeezed Rodney's upper arm, feeling the muscle under the thin cotton. "Look," he said. "Good luck. Have fun with Laura, okay?"

"Yeah," Rodney said, nodding. "Have -- fun -- with Teyla." His voice broke on the word 'fun' and John pretended not to hear.

"Thanks," he said and started to turn away, his gut heavy with tension. He wanted to do something to fix this, something to show that he could still hold up his end of the bargain. "Hey," he said, turning back long enough to lean in, the scent of Rodney's shampoo and cologne surprising him as the tip of his nose bumped Rodney's cheek. He grabbed onto the first thing that came to mind. "Girls like it when you go slow. It's a thing."

"Okay," Rodney said, nodding. "Thanks."

"Sure." John gave him one last look and went back downstairs. He was pretty sure he'd heard Teyla say that she was going to be there. It was just a matter of tracking her down.

Luck was with him. Teyla was standing next to the drink table with a couple of her friends. She was talking and holding a drink but that didn't matter. John pushed past several of his teammates, walked right up her, took her face in his hands, and kissed her as hard as he could. She made a helpless noise against his mouth and he heard one of her friends whisper something stupid and giggly to someone else. The rest of the room had gone dead silent. He steered her away from her friends and pushed her up against the nearest wall. "You want to get out of here?" he asked breathlessly when he ran out of air and had to lift his mouth.

"Yes," she said, her voice choked up in her throat as she stared up at him.

"Good." He grabbed her hand and dragged her through the crowded room and up the basement stairs, toward the front door. The racket was back, wolf whistles and 'attaboys' churning the air as his teammates punched at his shoulders and rubbed his head and winked lewdly at Teyla.

"Is everything all right?" she asked as he pulled her outside into the chilly night air, sounds of the party dying behind them.

"Peachy," he said.

"Your face is red," she noted.

His jeans were too tight, too, he knew, but that was because he was going to get some action that night. He thought briefly of Rodney, back in the living room with Laura and wondered if he'd noticed the fuss surrounding their exit except that he didn't want to worry about Rodney anymore. Inside the car, he brushed Teyla's hair back from her face with both hands and kissed her deeply, searching her mouth with his tongue.

He didn't find what he was looking for.

"Come on," he said, drawing back and starting the car. He could feel Teyla's curious gaze on his cheek like a brand as he drove to the local makeout spot. It was fairly empty since most everyone was doing their making out -- or putting their hands up people's shirts, John though viciously -- at Lorne's house. John turned off the engine but left the radio on and pulled Teyla to him.

She made a soft sound as he crushed her mouth to his. Soft sounds weren't enough anymore. He wanted a match, for her to push back, and when he swept his tongue into her mouth, she finally responded, rocking up against him. He pressed closer and wound up with a gear shift in his thigh. He shifted closer to the back of the seat and cupped his hands around her hips. She went to him easily, straddling his lap and rubbing her whole body up against his.

Yeah, he thought wildly. Here we go.

"Maybe," she whispered against his cheek as he sucked his way down her throat, "we should move to the back seat?"

"Great idea," John said, reaching behind him for the release lever to push the front seat down. Teyla grabbed his arm and twisted and suddenly John found himself flat on his back with his wrists pinned above his head, jammed against the door. "Uh." He lifted his head as best he could and looked at Teyla, who did not look amused. "Are we playing a game?"

"Funny," she said with no humor in her voice. "I was going to ask you that very thing."

John raised his eyebrows and gave her his best hangdog expression.

"You have not called me in two weeks and you have barely spoken to me since last Saturday," she said. "You have cut lunch or left early all week and you did not even mention this party to me and now you want to act like -- " She leaned down and the tips of her breasts brushed against his chest. " -- we are closer than we have been."

"Aw, Teyla, I'm sorry," he said. "I had a big test this week -- Rodney was giving me a hand studying -- and Simmons kept me after school yesterday. It's just been one of those weeks. I swear, I'll make it up to you." Even as he said it, he realized that he probably wouldn't. "Look, these parties are just beer and porn anyway. I didn't think you'd be interested. It got Rodney in trouble before and -- "

"Which is another thing," Teyla interrupted, settling herself more heavily on John's hips and -- yeah, there -- and squeezing his wrists more tightly. "I understand that Rodney is your friend and that you are attempting to keep your thicker-skulled teammates from flushing his head in the lavatory, but is it really necessary for him to trail you around everywhere?"

"Yes," John said. "It is."

Teyla's finely arched eyebrows went up, almost to her hairline. "All right," she said, releasing his wrists.

John slumped back and realized how harsh he'd sounded. "Look, Teyla -- "

"No," she said. "I understand. I should not have presumed."

John sighed and closed his eyes. He was tired and he remembered the horrible look on Rodney's face when John had said he was going off with Teyla. He hoped Rodney had his hand on Laura Cadman's breast. He hoped he'd gotten her bra off and that he'd managed to kiss his way down her stomach and maybe curl his fingers inside her panties.

Because someone deserved to have a better night than him.

Then he felt Teyla's lips on his, very soft and gentle, and then he felt her kiss both his cheeks and his chin and between his eyes.

"I'm not going to be the guy you want me to be," he said quietly, lifting his hands to run lightly up her sides.

"Shh," she whispered back and then he felt, rather than heard her, "I know," against his skin. Any other girl would have stopped, would have huddled against the door with her arms crossed over her chest. But not Teyla, and maybe he hadn't given her the credit she was due.

He ran his hands up her back, feeling warm skin under his palms and buried his fingers in her hair. She felt tiny and lithe in his grasp and he wished she were heavier as she shifted against him. He dragged both hands down her sides and spread his fingers wide, stroking the outer swells of her breasts with his thumbs. She pushed against him and he moved his hands to sweep across her nipples. They were larger than Elizabeth's had been and he'd only touched them once before -- at the party where he was taking shots out of her cleavage and thinking how hot it would be if she let him and Rodney both lick sugar and vodka off her body. He shuddered a little at the memory, wishing Rodney was there with them. He'd been half-hard before but that idea made him hot and heavy, eager and a little breathless with the danger of the idea. Rodney would absolutely go for a threesome. He liked guys and he'd be okay with John -- with John --

John gasped, opening his eyes and blinking at the roof of the car. The tan felt ceiling stared back, the same as it always was.

"What is it?" Teyla asked, lifting her head from his neck and tucking her hair behind one ear.

"Nothing," he said. "Keep doing what you're doing."

He tugged her shirt open and got one of those nipples into his mouth. She gave a hitching little whimper and he let his other hand slide up under her mini-skirt and traced two fingers under the edge of her underwear. Her hips pushed against his, urgent and rhythmic. He dragged his fingers along the warm crease of her leg and slid them into her panties to stroke across the spot he knew would make her buck against him. It worked and she bit lightly at his jaw as he slid his fingers deep inside.

She braced herself on one hand and lifted up, pressing her free hand against him. He moved his hand from her breast to his pants and undid the row of buttons. Her hand moved inside, pushing his boxers aside and wrapping her fingers around him. He gasped and arched into her grasp.

He curled his fingers inside her and she worked him hard and quick as they both raced for the end. He made her come first, but when she tightened around his fingers, he lost control and came all over her hand.

It took him longer than usual to catch his breath and when he sat up, he found her cleaning her hand with tissues from the box his father always kept in the car. He put his fingers in his mouth and tasted her but it wasn't as hot as he thought it should be.

"I should get home," she said, tucking her skirt primly around her and licking her bottom lip where she'd bitten it earlier.

"Okay," John said, buttoning his jeans up and wiping his damp fingers on the pantsleg. He turned the engine over and leaned over to kiss Teyla's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"I know," she said.

He felt...sated, but not satisfied. He wanted to go home and jerk off before going to bed and maybe Rodney would still be up and want to play a round of -- Rodney was probably still with Laura, John realized with a flash of frustration that made him want to smack his hand against the steering wheel.

He drove Teyla home and leaned in to kiss her mouth at the door. She turned her cheek to him instead and he knew then that he wouldn't be calling her again.

"We're going to go to this place I know," John said when Rodney showed up at the door with his overnight bag and let himself in at John's shouted command. He had on black jeans and a black t-shirt and he hadn't shaved since the day before, if then. It was just enough stubble to cast a shadow across his jaw, making him look older than seventeen. His hair had more gel in it than usual, formed into glossy spikes. Rodney had to remind himself that this was John and not some pin-up boy to get hard over.

"Should I change?" he asked, glancing down at his own jeans, gray t-shirt, and flannel shirt. He wasn't quite sure what he had that would match up to John's outfit, but he didn't want to look like a nerdy tagalong, either.

"Nah, you're fine," John said, grabbing a leather jacket and shoving Rodney out the door. The jacket went in the back seat and Rodney went in the passenger seat and John backed the Chevy Nova out of the driveway and onto the highway.

"So where is this place?" Rodney asked for the fourth time when John got off at an exit just west of civilization and took the car down a dusty road with a mud-covered sign.

"Down a bit," John said, completely unhelpfully.

"You're not taking me to a gay bar, are you?" Rodney asked, just to make sure.

"No," John said, a grin teasing at the corner of his mouth. "No gay bars for you."

"I'm just asking," Rodney replied, stung with embarrassment, because of course John wouldn't be trying to sneak them into a gay bar, not the way Rodney was dressed. If anything, John would be the one getting hit on and wouldn't that just be Rodney's luck? "You're certainly dressed to cruise," he grumbled.

John laughed at him, out loud. It was a freer sound than Rodney remembered ever having heard from John and he thought maybe he liked it.

"Dressed to cruise," John repeated. "Wow. Way to pick up your gay slang from seventies porn."

Maybe Rodney didn't like it that much.

"Like you'd know," he snapped back. "Watched much gay porn this week, Sheppard?"

John shook his head, still chuckling silently, but Rodney felt a mean sense of satisfaction that he'd managed to make the tips of John's ears go pink.

"So what is this place?" Rodney asked when John turned the car onto the sandy ground next to a clapboard building which was most definitely a bar. It had neon signs in all the windows advertising cheap brands of beer and one sign that blinked "Pool." Rodney didn't think it was a place to go swimming. A rundown motel stood a few hundred yards away.

"Kind of a rough place," John said, making it sound like a ride at Disneyland. "You think you can hack it?"

"What, are we going to get you laid?" Rodney asked, irritated by the lack of information flowing forth. "Wait. We're not here to get me laid, are we?" His mind supplied terrible images of beefy truckers slapping his ass and wanted to cower behind John, except they were still in the car.

"Speaking of getting laid," John said, pausing with one hand on the door handle and his eyes on the dash. "How'd it go last night with Laura?"

Rodney felt his face go red at the memory. Laura had let him slide all the way into second base, let him touch and kiss her breasts, and had taken his shirt off and kissed his neck and shoulders and chest. It had been fabulous -- incredible -- amazing -- and Rodney had thought of her when he went home and locked himself in his room to jerk off. "It went fine -- good," he corrected himself. "Did you find Teyla?"

John flushed, up his neck to the tips of his ears, even though the rest of his face stayed fairly cool. "Yeah," he said. "We went to Carlson Point."

Rodney raised his eyebrows. Carlson Point was the notorious makeout spot and rumored to be the site of more deflowerings than any other single place in Tuscon. "Wow," he said. If he wasn't fairly sure that Teyla didn't need deflowering, he'd have chalked up another one to John's charm. He cast a sideways glance at John and tried to imagine what it was like, John fucking Teyla in the backseat of the Nova. "So, um," he said, trying to shove the image in his mind aside, "not getting laid here?"

"Hell, no," John drawled, sliding out of the car. "We're going to play some pool."

"Pool?" Rodney repeated, scrambling out of the car before John left him behind. "Couldn't we do that somewhere, I don't know, closer to home?"

John just walked into the place ahead of him and Rodney caught the door just before it closed in his face. If nothing else, he had to be there to save John from himself.

He took two steps inside and stopped. A haze hung in the air, gray smoke from cigarettes and cigars and probably joints, although Rodney was trying not to inhale too much. There was a bar across the wall to his left, beat-up wooden chairs across the back, and about a dozen pool tables scattered throughout the room. He looked around and saw a lot of men in jeans and t-shirts and undershirts, drinking beer and smoking. There were a few women, all of the type that Rodney's mother would call 'floozies' and Rodney found himself dangerously close to parroting her. It was pretty much his worst nightmare.

"Here." John was at his elbow, nudging him and pushing something cold into his hand. Rodney turned it up to look at the label and almost dropped it.

"This is beer," he hissed.

John raised one eyebrow and took a long drink from his own bottle, tilting his head back and Rodney was mesmerized.

"I guess you really are Canadian," John finally said, after wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "Able to recognize beer in a single intuitive leap. Just go with it, ok? They don't card here."

"Obviously," Rodney muttered, letting John drag him by the elbow toward the back of the room.

"Hi," John said brightly to the surly looking guys bent over the table, eyeing their shots. He took an overly-enthusiastic drink of beer. "Can we play next?"

"Oh, great," Rodney muttered. "Now I can suck in public, thank you ever so much."

"Shh," John whispered.

One of the guys leaning on the table grinned up at his partner. "We've got the table for the rest of the night," he said. "You want to play the winners, you gotta buy in."

"How much?" John asked, reaching in his back pocket. "I really just want to give a quick lesson or two to my friend here. He's a quick study."

Rodney groaned.

"Twenty to play the winner," one of the other men said. "Five per ball."

"Oh." John paused for a moment, then glanced back at Rodney and did that thing where he shrugged with only half his body. "What the hell. We can't lose that badly." He threw a twenty on the table and settled back next to Rodney to drink his beer and watch the game.

"Hello, are you crazy?" Rodney demanded as quietly as possible. "How is this possibly a good idea? You might be good at this game, but I've never even played before and there's no way they're not going to kick our asses."

John turned his head, tilting it down, and Rodney watched a lock of hair fall over his eyes. "Look, Rodney. This game is all physics. It's all about the force with which you hit the ball and the angle at which you hit it. I'm going to show you how to work the cue and then we're going to take all their money."

"What?" Rodney sputtered, distracted by the smell of cheap beer on John's breath. "You can't possibly think -- "

"Yes," John said, his voice carefully modulated. His hand squeezed Rodney's arm above the elbow. "I think you can. Now shut up and watch them. Even you might learn something."

Something tightened in Rodney's stomach as if John's hand was sliding under his shirt instead of resting on his arm. He nodded once and started watching the men playing, calculating the angles that caused the balls to careen into the pockets and which ones failed. When that looked easy, he began to take note of where the cue impacted the white ball, at what angle that ball hit the colored balls, how far away each man drew back the cue, and then he started guestimating force and velocity. He barely noticed when John took his beer away, sloshed it around, and handed it back to him. He was too busy taking note of the use of chalk, the heft of the cues, and the position of each man's fingers on the end of the cue to care when John went back to the bar.

"So what do you think?" John murmured in his ear some time later, interrupting his flow of thought and startling him so badly, he nearly jumped out of his pants.

"I think," Rodney muttered furiously, "that you were obviously raised wrong because you just don't sneak up on people like that and that if you want me to figure out this game fast enough not to embarrass you, then you'd best shut up and let me concentrate." He went back to his study of the game, his panic escalating as the balls disappeared into one pocket after another.

"Did you see that?" John exclaimed when the guy who seemed to be in charge made a three-bank shot. He elbowed Rodney in the ribs just a little too hard. "Wasn't that cool?"

"Stunning," Rodney snapped. "Are you sure we should be playing these guys?"

The big guy glanced over at them and John planted his elbow solidly in Rodney's rib cage and left it there.

"We'll be okay," John said loudly enough to be heard.

"Okay," Rodney said doubtfully as the battle for the eight-ball began.

"C'mere," John said, tapping Rodney's elbow. "I'm going to teach you a couple things."

Rodney glanced at the table one more time before following John to the corner of the room where John was pulling cues down from the rack on the wall.

"Okay, now this," John said, pushing the wide end of the stick at Rodney. "Is the cue. This end is the butt. This end," he continued, tilting the narrow end forward, "is shaft. Butt. Shaft. Think you can remember that?" His smile was completely wicked.

Rodney swallowed hard and scowled. "I got it, thanks," he snapped and snatched the cue away from John.

John let it go with an easy smile and a lazy shrug. "Chalk the tip before every shot," he said, picking up the blue cube from the shelf of the rack and showing Rodney the concave side. "Know why?"

Rodney sighed. This was basic. "To keep it from slipping and completely missing your shot," he said.

"Increases the friction coefficient," John nodded and wow, that was playing dirty. Rodney felt the shiver slide through him even though he was absolutely not impressed with John and his dirty innuendos and maybe had the very smallest fear that John was fucking with him on purpose.

Rodney glanced over his shoulder. Just about everyone in the room outweighed either of them by thirty pounds, easy. "Are you sure we should be doing this?" he asked uneasily.

"We won't be doing it at all unless you shut up and pay attention," John said. Rodney turned back to him and saw that John was regarding him with full attention. It was a little disconcerting. "Okay, so you're right handed, right?"

"I'm ambidextrous."

John looked momentarily disconcerted. "I didn't mean like that," he said, raising his eyebrows, and it took Rodney a moment to get the double entendre but when he did, he blushed.

"Oh, very funny," he said. "Just show me whatever it is I need to know to keep from being the laughingstock of this...pit of sin."

John snorted. "All right. Dominant hand on the butt and you rest the shaft on your hand to steady it when you take your shot. You can put it between your thumb and your index finger," he said, demonstrating, "or you can put it between the knuckles of your index and middle finger. You want to push and follow through. Don't let the tip pop up. Lay your index finger on top if you have to."

Rodney watched John fold one finger over the shaft of the stick and found himself thinking shamefully dirty thoughts in the middle of the most redneck pool hall in the state. "Can we just get on with it?" he asked desperately.

"Yeah, sure," John said. He glanced over to the table they'd been observing. "I think they're almost ready."

Rodney trailed John over to the table where the big guy who had spoken to them before was lighting up a new cigarette from the butt of his old one.

"You kids ready?" he asked.

"Can I have a minute to show my friend the table?" John asked.

The two exchanged glances. "Go for it," the other guy said. "I'm going for another beer."

John watched them go, his hands busy with the balls on the table. "I just want you to get a few shots in, get used to the cue, the way the balls roll, that kind of thing," he said, setting up a shot, side pocket. The five, with the cue ball lined up perfectly across from it.

Rodney arranged his hands on the pool cue and leaned over the table.

"Give yourself a wider stance," John coached, nudging Rodney's feet apart with his foot. "Keep your back elbow steady." He laid one hand on Rodney's elbow, warm and present as Rodney took the shot. "Okay, nice," he said as the cue ball tapped the five into the hole. "Don't be afraid to use a little more strength if you need to. You don't want the cue ball to scratch and I know you have it." He squeezed Rodney's left bicep and for one crazy minute, Rodney thought that maybe John was flirting with him.

"We play winner breaks," the big guy said. "And we just won. You got a problem with that?"

John shrugged. "We could flip a coin," he offered. The man loomed at him. "Or, you know, that works for us. I'm John," he added. "This is Rodney." He stuck out his hand. "What do you want us to call you?"

"The name's Eddie," he said. "My pal's Vince."

"Nice to meet you," John said, nodding and moving aside for Rodney to shake Eddie's hand. Eddie had a grip that nearly broke Rodney's wrist and grinned wolfishly at him. Rodney knew a test when he saw one and squeezed back as hard as he could.

"We breaking?" Vince asked, reappearing with a beer for himself and one for Eddie.

"Yeah," Eddie replied. "Junior here wanted to flip a coin."

They shared a laugh and John rolled his eyes. "Are you going to break or are you going to drink?" he asked.

Eddie laughed and put his bottle aside to take his shot. A loud crack and the balls scattered in all directions.

"Nice," Vince complimented him.

None of the balls went into the pockets so John stepped up to the table and lined up his cue on the white ball. Rodney very studiously kept his eyes on John's hands and the angle of the cue. This was the last place he wanted to be caught staring at another guy's ass.

John missed by a mile.

"Oops," he said, offering up an apologetic shrug and grin.

Rodney shrugged and said, "It's okay," although he was pretty sure John could have nailed that shot.

Vince stepped up and knocked in the one that John missed. "Stripes," he called, and went on to knock in the fourteen as well before failing to sink the twelve in the far corner.

"Try for the four," John breathed in Rodney's ear, completely disconcerting him before he lined up his shot.

The seven was more accessible, but John had said the four, so Rodney lined up the shot and took it. The cue ball skimmed the four, knocking it into the side pocket and rolled along...right into corner hole.

Vince and Eddie responded with a few rude jeers but John slapped his hand on Rodney's shoulder and whispered, "Good job. We need to let them get comfortable." His hand slipped to Rodney's shoulder blade and lingered just long enough for Rodney to worry, but Vince was watching Eddie slam the fifteen into the corner.

Eddie aimed for the nine across the short end of the table, glanced up at John and Rodney, and pushed his shot short. The nine bounced steadily between the walls of the corner before settling to a halt. He shrugged. "Your turn, kid."

"Thanks!" John said cheerfully, and sent the seven careening against three walls and cleanly into the near corner.

The two was a neat slam into the side pocket. The six followed easily.

This time Rodney let himself watch John's forearms as they lined up the shot, the muscles tensed under the light dusting of dark hair and he could tell from the hunch of John's shoulders that it wasn't going to be an easy one.

To his credit, John almost made it. Rodney held his breath as the five just missed the side pocket, banked and rolled back toward the opposite pocket. It eased to a halt about an inch and a half before the dropoff.

"Fuck," John said softly.

"But." Rodney waved at the table. "It's not like you were completely useless before that shot."

John grinned and shrugged at Eddie and Vince, who were looking considerably pissier than when the game had started. "Beginner's luck," he said cheerfully.

"Beginner's luck my ass," Eddie said as Vince tried to find a ball in decent position to play. John hadn't left him with much.

Vince's next shot really was successful only by providence of luck, and he managed to knock a second ball in after it, but then he completely missed the ball he was aiming for and scratched.

John retrieved the cue ball for Rodney and huddled over the table with him.

"You've got the one, the three, and the five to choose from," John murmured, breath warm on Rodney's cheek.

"The five is right there," Rodney said. "I just have to sort of hit it from an angle."

"Yeah." John rubbed the back of his neck and squinted at the table. "But if you can knock in the one and hit it hard enough to get it back, you'll have a straight shot."

"But if I hit it too hard," Rodney countered, "it'll go past and I'll be in the same position."

John tilted his head and nodded. "Yeah," he said. "It's up to you." He straightened up and stepped back, sliding one hand into his back pocket and snagging his beer bottle with the other.

"That's it?" Rodney asked, turning around and spreading his arms wide enough to almost hit Vince with his cue.

John shrugged and took a drink. "You're the one who has to play. I trust you."

Rodney had opened his mouth to say something, utterly forgot what it might have been. Instead, he just gaped at John.

John grinned. "Take your best shot, McKay."

"Hm," Rodney said, scowling, and turned around. He decided to take the shot at the five, because John had told him not to and took a deep breath. He studied the ball's distance from the pocket, and where the cue ball would have to strike to push it in the right direction. He drew the cue back, feeling the wooden shaft slide against the tender skin between his fingers, and pushed forward, remembering to follow through. The cue ball shot briskly forward, tapped the five in a perfect cut, and went on its way. The five rolled sweetly into the pocket.

Rodney released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding, and dropped his head forward as John grabbed his shoulders and shook them hard.

"That was awesome!" he shouted in Rodney's ear. "Beautiful!"

"Yes, well," Rodney said, inordinately pleased. "That's what you get for bringing a physics genius with you to hus-- um, play pool."

"Okay, then, genius," John joked, nudging Rodney with his elbow and coming up beside him to survey the table. He took a long draw on his beer bottle. "Sink us another ball. They're still up by one."

Rodney set up the shot on the one and sunk it. The three was the only ball left on the table. It was a long shot and the cue ball just glanced off and almost scratched, but came to a rest next to the wall. The three rolled placidly in the opposite direction than intended. Rodney sighed and turned to see John shrug philosophically.

"You got the five and the one," he said. "And you gave them shit for position."

"Small victories, huh?" Rodney said, leaning against the wall next to John while Eddie knocked in one ball and wound up for his next shot.

Eddie missed and left John in perfect position to knock in the three. He called the far left pocket for the eight ball and missed by centimeters. "Small victories," he said to Rodney, rejoining him on the wall.

A crowd had gathered by that point, to watch Vince knock in the thirteen and line up the eight ball.

John tensed beside him and Rodney glanced over nervously. This wasn't his fault, he told himself. It was all John's idea and he hadn't even ever played before, but that didn't stop the feeling of impending doom.

Vince called the far right pocket and tapped the cue ball. Everyone watched the white ball roll across the baize, hit the eight ball, and stop. The eight rolled toward the pocket. It hit the edge between the wall and the pocket and canted off to the other edge, finally settling on the edge of the pocket. Vince cursed up a blue streak.

"Take it," John said, bouncing his fist off Rodney's shoulder.

Rodney took a deep breath and walked up to the table. He picked up the cube of chalk and rubbed it on the tip of his cue. It wouldn't take much force, just a tap. But the ball was on the left and he didn't want to bounce it back between the sides like Vince had. The cue ball was a square shot, aimed just left of the center of the eight. Rodney held his breath and watched as the eight fell neatly into the pocket.

Cheers and groans went up around the table, money changed hands, and Rodney sighed and closed his eyes, feeling faint with relief. John slung an arm around his neck and squeezed, rattling him around.

"Air!" Rodney squeaked. "Need air!"

John loosened his grip but didn't let go. "Next time, will you listen to me when I tell you that you can do something?" he whispered, hot and low in Rodney's ear.

Rodney nodded and a shiver ran through his body despite his flannel shirt and the dozens of bodies in the room.

"You guys want to play again?" John asked, dropping his arm from around Rodney and taking another drink of his beer. He stepped up close enough to shake Eddie's hand. "It was a good game."

Eddie and Vince exchanged glances and almost-imperceptible nods.

"Yeah," Eddie said. He grinned and it didn't look friendly. "What say we go double or nothing?"

John's face lost a little of its elation and he bit down on his lower lip. "Hold on a sec, okay?" he said and drew Rodney over to the corner. "We're making it look like we might be worried," he said quietly.

"Shouldn't we?" Rodney asked. "I mean, yeah, we won that one, but he totally let us have that one shot."

"Yeah, and how many did we let him have?" John asked scornfully.

"Um, one?" Rodney asked.

John shook his head. "They're chasing their money," he said. "We can take them. You've got it figured out now. We're going to kick ass."

"If you say so," Rodney said doubtfully.

He should have trusted John. Twenty minutes later, John was sinking the eight-ball and giving Eddie his best 'aw, shucks' looks.

"Go again?" he asked.

"I'll play you," another guy said, stepping up.

John grinned. "You guys are going to lose your chance," he taunted Eddie.

"Forget it," Eddie said, waving them off.

John shrugged. "You're on. You got a partner? We play as a team."

"Yeah, c'mon," the guy said, beckoning to the guy he'd been playing. "We can take 'em. They're just a couple of kids. I've played the taller one before."

Rodney glanced at John. John shrugged.

"All right, then," he said. "Let's do it."

The next three hours were a blur of cue balls and blue chalk and green bills and John's hands and body brushing up against Rodney. Rodney calculated angle after angle in his head, chased balls around the table, and listened to John's quiet voice, murmuring instructions in his ear, as they pissed off pair after pair of competitors.

"All right!" John called to the room at large, nearly a dozen games and more bottles of beer than Rodney could count later. "Who else wants a go?"

"It might be time to cut and run," Rodney muttered, brave enough to speak close in John's ear.

"You're no fun," John told him, nudging shoulders. "C'mon, who's up next!"

There was a disgruntled murmur and Rodney reached out and gripped the back of John's neck. "We'll be right back," he called. "Don't anyone uh, miss us. Or anything." He hauled John outside.

The air was a good deal cooler outside than in the humid, smoky bar, and had a fresh, crisp quality. Rodney took a deep breath and was almost surprised at how irritated his throat felt. He lagged back and watched John look automatically to the stars.

The expression on his face was familiar -- Rodney had felt it on his own face enough times. Get me out of this place. They'd outgrown their quiet lives in their little town and they wanted something else, something more, something elsewhere.

"I'll be up there some day," John whispered.

Rodney wasn't sure if he was even meant to hear those words, but they weren't something he was going to let slide. He tamped down the urge to hug John, to press his face into John's neck, and instead reached out and squeezed John's shoulder and said, "I know."

John looked at him and when their eyes met, Rodney thought maybe he was only just now seeing the real John. Then the veil came down again and John's face split into a dirty smirk. "We made five hundred dollars tonight."

"What?" Rodney yelped. The moment was gone and he dropped his hand reluctantly. "How did we get that much money? You were only betting for twenties. And five per ball."

John shrugged. "I had Melanie, the girl at the bar? She was running the crowd."

Rodney gaped at him. "Five hundred dollars?"

"I mean, I gave Melly a cut and fronted the twenty bucks," John said, wandering over to the car and leaning back against it. He pulled a roll of cash out of his pocket and started dividing it up. "But after that, it came to about five-twenty, so really it's like, two hundred and sixty dollars each."

"Yeah, basic math, thank you," Rodney said, scrambling over to him and standing to block the cash from the door. "What if you'd lost? What if we'd lost?"

A slow grin spread over John's face. "Rodney, I've been coming to this place for a year, convincing them all I sucked. And you were great, all 'I suck, I've never played this before.' No one thought we'd win. No one. The odds against us were...were...well, they were twenty to one for a while, and then they started dropping a little." John pressed a wad of bills into Rodney's hand. "Here ya go. Your cut."

"I can't take this," Rodney said, trying to shove it back.

"Yes, you can," John said firmly, but Rodney caught a bit of a lisp on the S. "You played the game, you won the money. Take it." And then he folded the wad of bills in half and pushed them into Rodney's front pocket.

Rodney blinked at him. "You're drunk," he said.

John blinked at him. "I'm a little tipsy," he corrected, swaying when he tried to tilt his head. Rodney caught his arm and he yawned. "No big deal."

"You are so not driving like this," Rodney told John, just barely on the edge of panic.

"'M fine," John protested sleepily, leaning back against the driver's side of the car.

"Compared to what?" Rodney snapped desperately. "Let's not forget, Einstein, that you're transporting the brain that may very well save the world at some unspecified time in the future and even if my talents don't run to heroism and leadership, I can't very well be expected to win the Nobel Prize if you spatter my gray matter all over Highway X. Now give me your keys!"

John grinned in a way Rodney tried valiantly not to find sexy and failed. "Make me," he slurred.

"Oh, for -- " The keys were in John's right hip pocket. Rodney had felt them against his leg when John had leaned in to point out that he could put the 4-ball between the 13 and the pocket, even though there was no good shot to sink. He went for them now, pushing his hand over John's sharp hipbone and thin thigh, his hand trapped close by John's tight jeans.

"Don't think I'm getting fresh or anything," Rodney warned as he dragged the keys and his hand out of John's warm pocket. "You're not that lucky." He unlocked the driver's side door and realized John hadn't moved. "Oh, fine," he grumbled, pocketing the keys. "Come on." He grabbed John's wrist and dragged it around his neck, hauling John away from the car and around to the other side. John had the nerve -- the nerve -- to laugh at him, stumbling against Rodney's side as Rodney saved both their freaking lives.

He wrestled John, who was all loose, too-long limbs and lazy grin, into the front seat, pulled the seatbelt across him -- ignoring, totally ignoring the way John's hips shifted under the lap belt as Rodney fastened it -- and closed the door.

He stopped halfway around the car and took a deep breath, taking the dry, cool air in great gulps and trying not to panic. When he slid into the car, he felt better, especially when he only had to move the seat forward a tiny bit and then John put his hand on Rodney's knee and said, "It's okay, Rodney."

"I know," Rodney said, because he did, but that didn't mean he had to like it. He started the engine, took the car out of park, and eased the clutch. The Nova started right away and Rodney breathed a sigh of relief. He'd never driven any car besides his father's old Buick Elektra and he didn't want to grind the gears on John's father's car. Just because it wasn't the De Lorean didn't mean it was all right to abuse.

He navigated the way home slowly. He missed the first turn for the freeway and had to circle around, but once he was on, he knew how to get home and the knot in his chest loosened.

"See," he said to John, who had his head tilted back against the seat. "Easy as pie. No problem. Cakewalk."

John chuckled and didn't say anything else. It made Rodney unaccountably nervous. They didn't talk as he drove back to John's house, pulled in the driveway, and turned off the car with a deep, relieved breath.

"Mm," John said, from where he'd been leaning his forehead against the window. "We home?"

"And in one piece, I might add," Rodney said, slumping in his seat. He'd been sitting rigidly all the way back without realizing it and his back was starting to ache. He unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car.

John managed to untangle himself from the car and met him halfway around.

"You are so drunk," Rodney announced, realizing belatedly how quiet the neighborhood was and how much his voice echoed without background noise.

The key for the house was on the same ring as the car keys so Rodney managed to get the door open and both of them inside before people started looking out their windows to see what was going on.

"I think I'm drunk," John said matter-of-factly, tilting in an alarming fashion toward the floor.

"Whoa!" Rodney grabbed him and hauled him back up. "To the bedroom with you."

"Aw, Rodney." John's voice was hazy, a little sarcastic. "I thought you'd never ask."

"In your dreams," Rodney snapped, even though John's words made him go a little hot inside. It was only fifteen steps down to John's room, but they took them slow, inching forward with loose, anchorless strides from John and careful shuffling from Rodney.

Rodney dumped John on the bed with a shrug of his shoulder. The mattress bounced under John's weight, creaking a little and making Rodney think really inappropriate thoughts.

"You're a mess," Rodney said, pushing up the cuffs of John's jeans to find the top of his boots -- black leather on the front and back, but with canvas webbing panels on the sides, military issue -- and unlace them. He tugged them off and dumped them next to the bed. "I think you need the bucket tonight," he said, moving around the bed to get to where John had parked the plastic bucket under the cot. He was tired and a little queasy, and he wanted to get John squared away so he could curl up in the white sheets and slightly scratchy military-issue blanket that John provided every weekend.

"Rodney." John grabbed Rodney's wrist and squeezed tightly. Rodney looked down at him, surprised and alarmed to see the mask of studied indifference gone and John -- the John he'd only caught glimpses of through cracks and worn-down patches -- looking up at him. His eyes were pleading and his mouth was open and soft, so soft that it took Rodney everything he had not to lean over and kiss John, suck that lower lip into his mouth and scrape it very gently with his teeth. "Stay here with me?" John whispered, and all the arousal washed out of Rodney because John's voice was so plaintive and his eyes so sad, it wasn't even hot.

"Yeah," Rodney said, his chest aching a little because this didn't seem like something he should have to see. It didn't seem like something he should be allowed to see. "I'm spending the night. I'll be right over on the cot."

"Don't leave me," John whispered, his eyes slipping closed and his grip on Rodney's arm slackening.

"I won't, Rodney whispered, tucking John's arm under the covers and risking one dry, shaky kiss to John's forehead. "I won't."

John opened his eyes and was immediately sorry. He tried to close them again but he seemed to have forgotten how.

"Here, drink this," Rodney's voice said from his left side.

John reached out blindly until his hand closed around a glass. He hitched himself up on one elbow and nearly had the rim to his mouth before he realized that it didn't contain his usual hangover cure -- orange juice.

"What is this?" he asked, squinting suspiciously at the milky red contents.

"Tomato juice and raw egg," Rodney answered. "And some other stuff."

"Aw, yuck," John managed, waving the glass away.

"Just drink it," Rodney snapped. "It works."

John reluctantly took a sip. It was awful but Rodney was standing there, arms crossed and scowling, so John tilted his head back and poured it down.

"That was foul," he said after swallowing and coughing a few times. "Where'd you learn about this?" He swiped at his watering eyes. If this was a healthy breakfast at the McKay household, the whole family suddenly made more sense.

"It doesn't matter," Rodney said. "Just trust me. It works. Your headache should go away in half an hour or so."

Reminded, John rubbed at his throbbing temples.

"You have fun last night?" he asked around a yawn. "I told you pool was great."

"Oh, yes," Rodney said, punctuating the words by flinging one arm wide. "Pool was just a belly laugh all around. No, I did not have a good time. I had to haul your drunk ass home and I was worried. You were reckless and a jerk and you scared me and you're never allowed to do it again." The speech came out in a rush, like water blowing out a cracked dam, frantic and inexorable.

John waited for several seconds to make sure Rodney was done and then said quietly, "I'm sorry."

Rodney sat down heavily on the bed beside him and slumped over. He rubbed both hands over his face and for a minute, John was afraid he was going to cry.

"Rodney, look," he said, putting one hand on Rodney's shoulder and squeezing. "I didn't want -- I just -- fuck." He pulled his hand away and fell back on his pillow, covering his eyes with his forearm. He was lying there for about five seconds, listening to the sounds of Rodney's bracing breaths and his own tightly controlled exhales when he realized that he was hard. It shouldn't have been a surprise, it was morning and he hadn't been to the bathroom yet, but the urge to wrap himself around Rodney and rub up against him was -- that surprised him. John sat up and raised his knees high enough to tent the covers and lean his elbows on them. He scrubbed his hands over his face, which still felt tight from all the alcohol he'd drunk the night before. "I'm sorry. It's something I do when I need to, to not be myself. I get a little trashed and play a little pool and I thought, maybe...." Who was he kidding? Getting trashed and playing pool wasn't something Rodney would enjoy. That brilliant plan was entirely his own conceit. "I've never taken anyone there before," he said, more to himself than to Rodney.

"So what, I'm special?" Rodney asked, turning his head back to look at John.

"Yeah," John said before he put any thought into it. "You're my best friend."

Rodney opened his mouth, looked vaguely startled, and closed it again. "Yeah, for the next week," he said.

John had nothing to say to that.

"It wasn't that you got drunk or were an ass about driving home," Rodney said, a little despairingly. His eyes begged something of John, something John didn't know how to give. He wanted the truth. "It was that I've never seen you not in control and it was seriously weird."

There was a loose thread on the coverlet and John rolled it between his fingers, twisting it into a kink. "That's why I don't take anyone there," he said. His mouth was dry and the words felt heavy and damning.


The silence slid from thoughtful to awkward to downright uncomfortable and John was really starting to feel a need to take care of his morning erection.

"Hey, look, I smell like smoke," John said, wrinkling his nose. "I need to take a shower. We've got eggs and stuff in the kitchen," he offered, hoping Rodney would take the hint, "if you can cook at all, if not, I'll do it when I'm done."

"I can do it," Rodney said, hopping off the bed and bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet. "I'll um. See you in a little bit."

The look on his face was impossible to read and he was out the door.

John breathed a sigh of relief and scooted out from under the covers, still hard in his shorts. He grabbed clean underwear, a t-shirt, and a pair of jeans that weren't too dirty and retreated to the bathroom, relieved that Rodney hadn't come back down the hall for some reason.

He stripped his shirt off and started the water, letting it run to warm it up before he got in. He flipped on the fan as well, for extra noise, just in case. Sitting on his bed with Rodney hadn't exactly eased his problem and he needed to touch himself, needed to come now.

John worked his boxers over his hips and left them on the floor as he stepped into the shower. He got his hand on his dick and for once, it wasn't enough, it didn't make it better at all. He braced his forearm on the wall and pressed his forehead against it as he moved his hand, setting the pace hard and fast as the water hit the side of his face.

This time he didn't even bother trying to think about Elizabeth, or Teyla, or even Katie.

Rodney had been sitting right there on the side of his bed and John had wanted nothing more to reach out and touch him. He had flash-memories of the night before, Rodney's body against his, Rodney's hands in his pocket, because he was too much of an asshole to just hand over the keys. He could feel Rodney's wrist in his hand, warm and his pulse throbbing against John's thumb, and he remembered his plea for Rodney to stay, flushing hot with the shame of it.

But Rodney was still there, in his kitchen, making breakfast or some shit, and John never thought that would be sexy. A shudder ripped through him and he could have come then, but he took a breath and waited and held off so he could work the problem over in his mind a little longer.

Because Rodney wasn't hot in the conventional sense, not the way John could acknowledge Ronon or even Ford as hot, but Rodney's hands flew and stabbed and clutched and John thought that maybe he'd like to feel them around his dick, jerking him off. Then he did come, the sensation crashing over him all at once, and the edges of his vision grayed out.

The muscles in his legs felt wrung out and he sat down in the shower, propping his elbows on his knees and letting the water soak his hair and pound down on his body. He would have sat there forever, but Rodney was in his kitchen and John had to clean up and get dressed and go out there and smile at him.

For once, John didn't know if he could trust his face to lie for him and he didn't know what would happen if he failed.

Rodney stared dubiously at the still-liquid eggs floating slowly in the pan on the stove. He'd told John that he'd be fine in the kitchen but the truth was, his mother hadn't let him touch the stove since the Great Spaghetti Incident of 1983. That, of course, was the impetus for McKay Family Argument #168: Is three years more than enough time for Rodney to have developed common sense or will he burn the house down?


Rodney looked up from the pan to see John walking into the kitchen, looking freshly washed and shaved and seventeen again in jeans and an Air Force t-shirt.

"Hey," he said. John looked a far cry from the shyster of the night before and Rodney wanted to go up and hug him. Instead, he stuck his hands in his pockets.

"You okay?" John asked, frowning a little in the forehead.

"Yeah, sorry about that uh, you know," Rodney said, waving vaguely toward the bedroom.

John ran a hand through his hair and glanced away at the floor. "Yeah, no, that's my fault. I should have thought -- "

"No, I mean -- " Rodney rubbed the back of his neck. "I mean, it was supposed to be a compliment, right? That you wanted me to be there?"

Some expression crossed John's face that Rodney didn't even know how to start interpreting. "Yeah," he muttered softly, then, "Rodney, the eggs!"

"What?" Rodney asked, but he could already smell the scorched eggs. He spun around to find the pan smoking. "Oh, crap." He jerked it off the burner and stuck the whole mess under the faucet and turned on the water.

"I thought you said you could handle this," John said with a grin, bumping Rodney aside to scrape out the pan.

"I -- I was distracted!" Rodney protested, moving aside reluctantly. "We were having a deep and manly conversation!"

"I think those terms might be mutually exclusive," John said mildly. "Hey, get me the eggs and the butter." He shut off the water and ran a dishtowel over the newly scrubbed pan as Rodney retrieved the butter from the kitchen table. The pan still had to be hot, Rodney realized, watching John hold it by the handle.

John lopped off a slice of butter and melted it in the pan, broke half a dozen eggs into it, and broke the yolks with the edge of a spoon. "Milk?" he said. Rodney got the milk out of the fridge and handed it to John, who splashed some into the pan, then added salt and pepper. He zigzagged the spoon through everything, mixing it together, and then turned up the heat on the burner. "Now get over here and pay attention," John ordered.

Rodney moved next to John, close enough for their upper arms to brush together and when they did, he felt it in his gut, hot and electric. He glanced up, wondering if maybe, maybe, John felt it too, but John was staring into the pan, shifting it slowly around the burner, swirling the still-liquid portion of the eggs toward the outside edges.

Rodney tucked his hands under his arms and leaned forward. "It looks almost done," he said.

"It is," John confirmed. "When the egg just looks a little shiny on top -- " He reached across Rodney to a utensil cup and pulled out a flat spatula. Rodney felt that same prickly heat when John's arm brushed across him. " -- you fold it and put it on a plate." He folded the egg neatly into thirds, sliced it in half with the front edge of the spatula, and slid both halves neatly onto a plate. "There's some bacon in the fridge," he said, opening the breadbox and putting two slices in the toaster.

Rodney found the bacon easily enough and watched John lay four slices into the still-sizzling pan and stand back. When the bread popped up, John lay half the omelet on each piece and put two more slices in to toast. Within minutes, the bacon was ready to go on top of the egg, the second slices of bread closed the sandwiches, and John and Rodney were eating breakfast.

"Does your head still hurt?" Rodney asked with his mouth full.

John lifted his eyebrows in consideration and then shook his head. "Nope. Guess that stuff worked." He sounded like he didn't believe it, like maybe it had been the shower or the food, or anything but Uncle Martin's 'tried-and-true' hangover cure. Uncle Martin tried to feed it to Rodney and Jeannie for breakfast whenever their parents were away and he was in charge, even though he was the only one with a hangover.

"So, um," Rodney said, picking up a piece of bacon that had fallen from his sandwich and popping it in his mouth. "You go to that place a lot?"

John glanced up and studied him. "Not a lot," he said, picking up his sandwich and taking a bite. When he swallowed, he added, "I used to go about once a month and shoot a few bad rounds, have a couple of drinks. It's a trucker bar, so if there were guys from out of town, I'd run a table now and then, but mostly I was just laying the groundwork to do something like we did last night."

"You had that whole thing planned?" Rodney asked, impressed. "But wait, how did you know that I'd be here and that I could, you know, actually play and stuff?"

"I didn't," John said. "Sometimes you do things just to do them."

"I don't," Rodney said.

That look came back to John's face, the expression that Rodney hadn't understood before and still didn't. He looked down at his sandwich and said in a slightly cracked voice, "I know."

John could hear Doctor and Mrs. -- Doctor and Doctor? -- McKay fighting in the study all the way from his slouch against the kitchen door. Rodney had insisted on going to his house first to raid the mailbox and was starting to rival his parents in volume.

"Oh, I do not believe this!" Rodney said, shuffling through the pile of letter-sized envelopes. "Publisher's Clearinghouse, electric bill, phone bill, Macy's catalogue. I talked to the admissions office at CalTech yesterday! They said they sent out an application packet three weeks ago!"

"Maybe it's been delayed?" John asked. "Those packets need extra postage and all."

"Oh, spare me," Rodney snapped, throwing the pile of mail back on the counter and stomping down the hall to his room. "Move!" he snapped at his sister, who had come out of her room.

"What's the matter with you?" Jeannie asked disdainfully, but John could see the worry in her eyes.

He offered her a quick smile. "He's just worried about schools and why they haven't sent him the application forms yet. I keep telling him he's jumping the gun, but he won't listen."

"Oh." Jeannie bit her lip. "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault," John said gently and was taken aback when Jeannie responded by bursting into tears. "Jeannie?"

Jeannie ran out of the room.

John looked at Rodney, who shrugged. "She's all weird about me going away and leaving her here with McKay vs. McKay," Rodney said with a shrug, jerking a thumb at the study where they could still hear his parents yelling. He went to his room and threw his bookbag down on the only available patch of floor while John slung his own bag on the end of the bed and sat down next to it. "I swear," Rodney said. "If I don't get out of this house, I'm going to be one of those brilliant but demented geniuses whose work they find stacked in moldering piles in the basement after my death."

That was when Jeannie reappeared, face red and tear-stained and no less than six fat envelopes in her arms.

"What -- ?" Rodney started, his mouth dropping open.

"I took them," she said quickly. "Out of the mailbox when I got home from school. You were never home. It was easy." Her voice broke on the last word and she threw the envelopes down on the floor between them. John could clearly see the seals for CalTech, MIT, and the University of Colorado on the corners of the ones facing up.

"Oh, my God! You snot-nosed, little brat!"

Rodney lunged for Jeannie and John barely managed to get off the bed in time to body block him, wedging his shoulder hard against Rodney's chest and batting down the flailing limbs as best he could.

"I don't believe you!" Rodney yelled over John's shoulder. "You could have ruined everything! What if you already did? What if I missed the deadlines?"

"Rodney!" John roared before Rodney could say anything else. Rodney made one last hard push against him, and John hooked his foot behind Rodney's ankle and tripped him. Rodney hit the floor with a thump, bringing John down on top of him.

Jeannie started crying again and ran away.

"What's going on in there?" Dr. McKay's voice called from the study.

"Nothing, sir," John called breathlessly from his sprawl on top of Rodney. "We're fine."

There was a beat of silence and then the McKays resumed their verbal battle.

John got one elbow on the floor and pushed himself up. He sat up, ribs aching a little, and rubbed the back of his neck. It was hard to ignore how tightly his body was strung, begging to fall back down over Rodney and slide up, full-length, against him. He glanced over. Rodney's face was red and his eyes were glassy with tears. "C'mon," John said. "You can't be that mad at her. She did it because she wanted you around and how many people are going to do that, with your people skills?" He grinned and reached for the nearest envelope. "Let's open them up," he suggested calmly and reasonably -- which was quite an accomplishment considering his pulse was neither calm nor reasonable. "See what they say. See if killing Jeannie is actually justifiable homicide or what, okay?"

Rodney rubbed his wrist over his mouth and pouted and grabbed for the next nearest envelope.

John tore open the flap of the one he was holding and pulled out the letter and accompanying packet. "Okay, this is no problem," he said, skimming the letter and accompanying paperwork. "The deadline is still months away, unless you were going to make a run for early admissions." He glanced up at Rodney. "Are you going to try for your first choice school?"

Rodney shook his head. "I, uh, don't really have a preference," he muttered, slitting open another envelope and dumping out its contents.

John stared at him. "How do you not have a preference?" he asked. "You probably know all their astrophysics programs inside and out. You probably even know who teaches where. You have to have a favorite."

Rodney flushed. "I'm just waiting to see which school is willing to give me the better offer," he said calmly.

John nodded, the pieces fitting together in his mind. Of course Rodney would go to the place that would offer him the best scholarship. He wondered just how much help, if any, the McKays were intending to contribute and felt his temper grow short. Rodney was brilliant, amazingly brilliant, and he needed to go to one of the best colleges in the country. To propose otherwise was...negligent, in John's opinion.

"Sure," he said, noticing that Rodney's face was still red. "If they're going to be knocking each other down to get to you, you should make sure you've got a good advisor and lots of lab time and...." John waved one hand. "All that stuff."

"Right," Rodney nodded. "Of course." Then his face fell a little and he sighed. "If I go to the local college where my dad teaches, I can go for free. I need to get enough of a scholarship to prove that it's worth it to go away."

"Rodney," John said. "That's not going to be a problem." He handed over the pile of papers he was holding. The flyer on top informed Rodney that his SAT scores might be high enough to warrant a full scholarship. The card underneath it waived the application fee. "You're really smart," he said, lying back on Rodney's floor and pillowing his head on his forearms. "So where do you want to go? If you got to choose which one offered you the full tuition, room and board, blonde cheerleaders, whatever, where would you go?"

"I'm really bad at choosing," Rodney said. "Caltech is Caltech, obviously and Northeastern is great but I'd rather go there for my graduate work. Their undergraduate research is pretty limited. If I get into MIT, I'll probably go there. I mean, if they offer me enough financial aid. But CU Boulder has the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and there's seriously nothing like that anywhere."

"And it's only a couple of hours away from Colorado Springs," John said quietly, doing the math in his head. "If you go there, you could come visit me. Come to a football game or something."

"I -- really?" Rodney asked, glancing up in surprise. He'd been arranging his pilfered mail in some sort of order that John was sure was only ever going to make sense to him. "You want me to come see you play?"

"I'm not going to play," John said, lifting his head. "I just thought it would be fun if you came out and watched a game or something. We could do something afterward. I hear we get liberty after the games."

"Why aren't you going to play?" Rodney demanded.

John grinned at Rodney's ceiling. A brown waterspot was forming in the far corner. "Well, first of all," he drawled, "good for a small-town, academically-oriented high school does not mean I'm good enough for Division 1A college ball. Secondly, I'm really not big enough. And also, it would really suck to fuck up my knee or my shoulder playing ball and never get to fly. You know?"

"Yeah," Rodney said. "So what are you going to do instead?"

John quirked a smile that was probably out of Rodney's line of sight and thought of the Academy's reputation for high-credit courseloads, mandatory physical fitness training, and military demands. "I don't know," he said. "But I'm sure I'll find something to keep me busy."

Rodney knocked on Radek's door and shifted his weight impatiently. He'd mentally recited up to eleven digits of pi by the time Radek opened the door, looking vaguely displeased. He had probably been doing Simmons' last problem set which had sucked beyond the telling of it and Rodney suddenly realized that he and Radek hadn't worked together on an assignment in over two weeks. But he had more important things on his mind.

"Hi, I have to talk to you," he said in a rush, stepping into the house. "Are there any of those little round cookies with the jam in the middle? Because those would really help."

Radek rolled his eyes. "They are called kolache," he said. "You can have some when you learn to say it."

"In that case, we're going to be here a long time," Rodney said. "Because my mouth doesn't bend in that direction."

"You are hopeless," Radek told him, but he went to the kitchen and retrieved a round metal tin, two glasses, and a carafe of hot, sweet tea. "We will go to my room," he said decisively. "My sister is home and she is nosy."

"You think your sister's bad?" Rodney said. "You know how I was complaining about not getting my application materials? Jeannie had them. She'd been squirreling them away the whole time hoping that I wouldn't go away to college and leave her with our crazy parents."

"Your sister is very strange," Radek agreed. "Certainly there are more pleasant choices of companion."

"Oh, shut up," Rodney said.

In Radek's room, Rodney ate two cookies, pointed out a mistake in the problem set worksheets scattered on Radek's desk, and said, "When I told you that I liked guys, were you, you know, curious?"

"Curious how?" Radek asked, right in step as always as he calmly sipped from his glass of tea.

"You know. Did you wonder if maybe you were gay? Or what it was like to...you know?" Rodney fiddled with the waxed paper lining the tin, tearing it into a row of fringe as he remembered John's questions and his hands on Rodney's, and his double-entendres, and, most of all, his voice saying, You feel weird to me, and I don't know what you want from me.

"Of course. It is only natural to be curious of options. Please stop hogging the cookies now." Radek beckoned at the container holding the cookies and Rodney's mutilated waxed paper.

"Really?" Rodney held out the tin and regarded Radek thoughtfully. "Why didn't you say anything?"

Radek shrugged, a tilt of his head toward one shoulder. "I do not find you attractive in the least," he said matter-of-factly, and popped a cookie in his mouth.

Rodney scowled. "I am both insulted and relieved to know that," he said, stealing the cookies back from Radek.

Radek shrugged, with both shoulders this time. "Is not my fault I like girls," he said. He started to say something else, then paused and considered Rodney. "Are you thinking to tell John?"

"Little late for that," Rodney said with his mouth full. "Jeannie spilled the beans a week ago."

Radek's eyebrows went up. "And yet he does not seem to have given you swirlies, unless I have missed you dripping water down the hall."

"Yeah, he seems just fine with it." Rodney frowned into his glass and then took a long sip of tea.

"And this is a bad thing why?" Radek asked.

"I never said it was a bad thing," Rodney snapped, because Radek wasn't usually so stupid. He thought guiltily of John's hand on his back and on his wrist and deflected as well as he could. "Why would it be a bad thing? Not being beaten to a pulp by the football star is a very good thing, I was thinking."

Radek sighed and looked so very put upon. "You spend the entire last school year mooning over John Sheppard, you trade away your new telescope just to be able to spend time with him, you make Katie Brown cry -- " He held up a warning finger. "Do not think that I do not know these things. And now, when he knows that you like boys, and he is okay with it, and maybe is a little curious -- do not give me that look either, you would not have come here with your question if you did not have reason -- you pretend like you have never wanted to make out with him."

Rodney rolled his eyes so hard his entire head followed the motion. Yes, okay, he might have been fine with wanting to just make out with John when John was just a hot guy in tight football pants, but that was before he was, well...John. "You're just bitter because he showed up out of nowhere last year and swept Elizabeth Weir off her feet," he said.

Radek sniffed. "Do not change the subject. Elizabeth was perhaps blinded by all that blow-dried hair."

"You didn't even tell her how you felt," Rodney shot back. "Seriously, what's the worst that could happen? She could turn you down? She's coming back for homecoming, Radek, why don't you ask her out? And when you do, I'll ask John if he wants to go make out behind the bleachers." He leaned over to grab a cookie but Radek yanked the tin out of his reach.

"Is that a deal?" Radek asked.

"What?" Rodney replied irritably, trying again to swipe a kolache. Radek pulled them further.

"I ask out Elizabeth Weir and you ask out John?" Radek blinked owlishly at him from behind his glasses.

Rodney scowled. "No," he said, standing up. His knees felt like jelly and it wasn't because he'd just eaten more sugar than his mother let him have in a week. Didn't Radek get it? Rodney couldn't just ask John to make out under the bleachers like he was asking him to come over and play Impossible Mission. It wasn't anything close to that easy. "And if you're going to be stingy with the cookies, I'm leaving."

"Rodney!" he heard Radek say behind him, but he didn't stop. He stomped out of the house, face burning, and turned toward home.

John walked right up the steps to the front porch and rang the doorbell before he could chicken out.

Danny Connors opened the door. "John!" he said. He glanced behind him. "Look," he said, turning back to John, "I don't think your father would want you to be here -- "

"My father doesn't know I'm here," John said quickly. "I wanted to talk to you. I -- I had a question."

Danny frowned at him. "Yeah, come in," he said, moving aside. "You want something to drink?"

"I could really use a beer," John tried.

"Yeah, right." Danny snorted. "Try again."


"That I'll give you," Danny said, leading John into the kitchen. He got a can of Coke, and after a hesitation, a second one, out of the fridge and handed one to John. "You want a glass?"

"Nah, I'm fine," John said, sitting down at the kitchen table after Danny. He popped the can and fiddled with the tab, studiously not looking at Danny.

"Oh, don't tell me you're here to talk about what I think you're here to talk about," Danny sighed, and when John looked up, he was rubbing his hand over his eyes. "That's just what I need, Colonel Sheppard's son, showing up at my doorstep for underage drinking and advice on being gay."

John felt his cheeks and ears go red. "I can leave," he said.

Danny shook his head and dropped his hand. "Let me guess," he said wearily. "There's a guy at school?"

"Theoretically," John said. "If there was a guy at school, a guy who liked a lot of the same things I did, someone I -- he's not really -- he's smart, he's so smart, and he's not like anyone else I've ever met and I can be myself around him -- " John caught himself and squeezed the soda can a little, watching the liquid bubble into the well. "If there was a guy like that, how do I know if he's just my best friend or if I'm gay and I want to be with him?"

John stared resolutely at his soda can as he heard Danny Connors get up and open the fridge. The sound of two bottles being opened echoed in the background and then Danny plunked one in front of him, bitingly cold and frosted with condensation.

John looked up at Danny, who shrugged apologetically. "I guess you need one," he said, nodding at the beer. He sat down again and took a long drag of his own. "Look, John." Danny bit his lower lip and looked John in the eye. "I think you already know the answer to that. Or you wouldn't be here."

John ducked his head and hid his confusion by taking a long drink of beer -- probably a little too long. When he looked back at Danny, the pilot -- ex-pilot, John reminded himself miserably -- was still looking at him, but with definite sympathy in his gaze.

"I, um," he said, mouth dry. He took another drink. "Yeah. I guess."

Danny nodded. "Does he know?"

"You mean, that I like him?" John asked, his fingers slipping in the condensation beading up on the bottle. "No. I mean, he thinks I'm -- " John bit his lower lip, pressing down hard enough that it hurt. "He doesn't think I feel the way I do."

"Is he going to be okay with it?" Danny asked, taking a studiedly casual drink of his beer.

John found himself grinning when he thought of what Rodney's reaction would be. "Yeah," he said. "He'll be okay with it. I'm pretty sure he'll be really okay with it."

Danny smiled a little. "Let me guess," he said. "He's more okay with it than you are?"

John felt his smile fade as a dull ache started in the pit of his stomach. "This is new," he said defensively. "I -- I don't know -- "

He was saved from having to finish his thought by the appearance of a tall, sandy-haired man with a pair of gardening gloves shoved in his back pocket.

"Hey, Dan -- " the man said, and cut himself off when he saw John. "Oh, hi. I didn't realize we had a guest."

His voice was deep and his blue eyes were kind but what captured John's attention was the hand he had reached out to touch Danny Connors' shoulder. That hand hovered a moment in mid-air and then dropped back to his side and John wanted him to put it back up, to touch Danny, to finish what he'd started.

"Hi," John said, standing up and holding out his hand. "Don't worry about it," he said, waving toward Danny. "It's cool. Hi. I'm John."

The man's eyebrows went up and Danny said, " John Sheppard, Greg."

"Oh." He froze, his hand curled loosely around John's. The pause lasted only a moment and then Greg tightened his grip. "Well. It's nice to meet you." His eyes catalogued John warily and John liked him immediately. He felt oddly pleased that Danny Connors's boyfriend -- boyfriend -- was nice and normal and well, he looked pretty smart.

"Nice to meet you, too," John said. "And you can, um -- " He waved toward Danny again. "You can touch him if you want. I don't mind."

Greg and Danny exchanged glances, Greg's querying and Danny's resigned. John tried not to take offense when Danny rolled his eyes and Greg grinned and disappeared into the other room with a, "Nice meeting you, John."

"He seems nice," John said, sitting back down and watching how Danny's eyes tracked Greg.

"John." Danny set aside his bottle. "Okay. Here's the deal. You've got three options."

John nodded. He could tell from the tired look on Danny's face that he was finally going to get the truth, as ugly as it might be.

"The first option is to see where it goes with this guy. Forget the Air Force. It's not too late to get into another college, go wherever he's going, go somewhere close by, doesn't matter, you can see each other on weekends. People are going to figure it out, they're going to be assholes, but it's easier, you know? You're not living in everyone else's pocket, everyone's not living in yours. Your life is your business, for the most part."

John nodded, already thinking of Rodney and the University of Colorado, so close to Colorado Springs, so close to John at the Academy. He knew that wasn't what Danny was suggesting but going on a path that didn't include the Air Force, that didn't include flying -- he didn't know what that kind of path would look like.

"Your second option is to forget the guy. Tell him you're not interested, play it as straight as possible, go to the Academy, get through, deal." Danny smiled tired and ran a hand through his red crewcut. "Problem with that is, it ain't going to go away. Believe me, I've tried. And maybe you can do it, maybe you can find some girl to hook up with and be happy. But these guys you're going to school with? They're the best guys you'll ever meet. The best friends you'll ever make. And when you get a crush on one of them -- and you will -- it's like getting caught in your own downwash. It hurts, kid, and you can't let that guy know, 'cause I can guarantee he doesn't feel the same way."

John knew Danny was trying to scare him, so he set his jaw and nodded solemnly. "Sounds like you know from personal experience," he said.

Danny quirked a half grin at him. "And then," he said, confirming John's statement by not replying to it, "you've got door number three. You hide who you are, you go Air Force, and you play the game until it's taken out of your hands."

'That's what you did," John said evenly, because this was what he came for. "You did that for...for a long time."

"Ten years," Danny said, drinking his beer in a thoughtful salute. "It's easy to crash and burn this way. Dishonorable discharge for conduct unbecoming is rough. It'll fuck up your life. Your dad kept that from happening to me, but I'm still out, John." He stretched a little and scratched his stomach. "I don't know. It was a little different for me. There wasn't anyone special most of the time. When there was, it didn't last long. Sometimes I wonder if that made it better or worse. It's risky to start a relationship, get to know someone, try to build something in secret. Easier to just slip out for a quick fuck or a blowjob."

John felt the hollow of his stomach tighten when he heard Danny say those words so casually. His homosexual tendencies were still largely in theory. He was fairly experienced with women but he'd never even kissed a man and the thought of anal sex and blowjobs was still intimidating.

"But," Danny added, "Greg and I hooked up about three years ago and it feels a lot less dangerous, not having to go out looking for a lay. Guys'll leave you alone if you tell them the right things." His gaze was steady on John. "I can tell you how."

John stared back, his fingers working on the label of the bottle to keep them from trembling, to keep from thinking too hard about the whole thing.

"Tell me," he said, his voice barely louder than a whisper, but steady. He put a lot of effort into making it steady. He could feel Danny's eyes on him as the other man took a long drink of beer.

"You play the best friend card," Danny said, wiping his mouth with his hand. "Talk about him, mention him in the stories, but only when there's girls involved. Show off the prom pictures, the double dates, group photos. If there's no girls in the picture, there better be mud. You had a girlfriend last year, right?"

"Yeah," John said after missing a beat. "She's at Berkley right now."

"Nice," Danny chuckled. "If you go to see your guy, come back with stories about her. Pretend the two of you are still fuckbuddies. Fake a girlfriend back home -- someone you're not with because of the distance, or better yet, someone you're still with. You can fake a Dear John letter if things get too complicated. You're far enough away that you won't have to worry about needing her to visit." Danny scratched the back of his neck. "You can get hotel rooms in town. No one looks twice at poor college students sharing a room. But be careful when you go out. If you blow off your buddies, they'll talk. If this guy comes off as a twink -- "

John shook his head. "I didn't know," he said. "I never even guessed."

"Okay." Danny nodded. "John, are you sure you want to do this?"

John lifted his head from the beer bottle and looked up at Danny's concerned face. "I want you to keep going," he said. "But can you tell me if all this…is it worth it?"

Danny broke his gaze and looked down at the table. When he looked up, his eyes were ten years older. "I don't know," he said. "Is he?"

"Where have you been?" John asked, looking up from his lunch tray when Rodney rushed into the lunchroom and sat down heavily across from him.

"I," Rodney said dramatically, upending his lunchbag onto the table, "have been typing up my applications in the main office on their sixty-year-old manual typewriter, which I'm only allowed to use when Mrs. Langford doesn't need it."

He corralled his apple and his string cheese and pulled half of his sandwich out of its plastic baggie. A quick glance at the table told him that John had given up early on 'Italian Surprise' -- most of it still sat in its assigned well on John's tray, and the individual white plastic tines of John's mutilated fork poked cheerfully out from the clump of pasta, sauce, and congealed cheese. Ronon was stoically shoveling in double helpings down at the end of the table and Teyla -- that was weird -- Teyla was down there, too, instead of next to John, and she looked like she was helping Aiden Ford with his homework. Well, Rodney supposed, that explained that.

"How far did you get?" John asked, ripping his milk carton apart.

"A page and a half," Rodney snorted. "How much time do I have to eat? Lunch is practically over." He glanced up at the clock on the wall and surveyed the rest of his food.

"Probably, if you don't breathe," John said helpfully, "you could get most of it down."

"Oh, very funny," Rodney said with his mouth full. "Here, you want this?" he asked, pushing the other half of the sandwich across the table at John and peeling apart the wrapping on the string cheese. "It's tuna," he added, when John pulled the bread apart gingerly.

John shrugged and ate it in about four bites. "Thanks," he said, glancing at his watch and standing up. "Hey, walk with me," he said as Rodney bit the top off the string cheese and followed it with a bite of apple. He liked the way the cheese and fruit tasted together in his mouth.

And that was when Laura Cadman showed up and slid into John's barely-abandoned seat, right across from Rodney.

"Rodney," she said, her smile wide and dangerous. "Long time, no see."

"Er," Rodney said around his double mouthful of food. He tried to swallow everything in one go and wound up choking.

"You coming or what, McKay?" John asked, walking around the end of the table and whacking him harder than necessary on the back.

"Er," Rodney said again, his food safe, but the rest of him possibly in mortal danger. He glanced from Laura's eyes, bright and intent, and John's face, casually expectant and knew that no good could come of this. "We've got this, um, thing," he said to Laura, waving his hand between himself and John. "That we have to go...work on."

"What kind of thing?" she asked, tilting her head and Rodney thought, oh, wow, she's hot before glancing over at John, who was looking positively stormy.

"A school thing," he said quickly. "It's uh, important. For our grades. For school." He scrambled up, tipping over his chair in the process. "Gotta go, talk to you later, bye!" he called as he fumbled the chair upright and followed John out of the cafeteria. "She is so going to kick my ass," he sighed when he'd caught up.

John tilted his head quizzically. "Why? What did you do?"

"Um, hello? Did you see her face? I just ditched her to hang out with you and you think she's going to be happy about that?"

John narrowed his eyes. "You could have said no if you wanted to stay. She kind of looked like she wanted to kick your ass anyway. I thought I was doing you a favor."

Rodney heaved a sigh and started walking again. "Okay, I suppose that there is some slim possibility that you're not entirely wrong. She might already be pissed off at me for not calling her or...whatever it is I'm supposed to do after making out with a girl." He paused and considered this. "What do you do after making out with a girl at a party? I guess you're supposed to call her, huh?"

John raised his eyebrows. "It's generally a good idea, yeah," he said.

"Oh, well, do you think it's too late? Should I try calling her tonight?" Rodney asked, suddenly preoccupied with images of Laura pantsing him or punching him in the mouth, or, what would really suck, not letting him slide his hands up under her shirt and cup her breasts again.

"I wouldn't worry about it," John said dismissively. "Look, I had this idea and -- Rodney, focus."

Rodney, who had been having incredibly inappropriate fantasies regarding Laura and her breasts, blinked and nearly crashed into a locker. John's hand clamped down on his arm and dragged him away.

"Sorry," Rodney said, shaking his head a little and looking over into John's weird-colored eyes. They were, he realized, quite a bit like Laura's except that he'd forgotten to notice John's quite so much in the last three and a half weeks.

"Yeah, so, I had an idea for the best prank ever," John said, hauling Rodney into the empty study hall classroom.

"Really?" Rodney asked, intrigued. He put his books down on his usual desk in the front row and perched on the desktop, feet on the chair. "What is it?"

John hopped up on the desk behind Rodney's and kicked his feet gently. "Well," he temporized. "It really all depends on whether you can reprogram the school's Scantron machine."

Rodney felt vaguely insulted. "Of course I can reprogram the Scantron," he scoffed. "What do you think I am, an amateur?"

"Hey," John said, the corners of his mouth turning up and Rodney remembered just how much he liked to see John smile. "I'm just asking. Everyone has limits."

Rodney snorted. "Only people who want them," he said without really thinking about it.

John licked his upper lip and gave Rodney a long, assessing look. Then he leaned forward and glanced at the door. "So this is what I was thinking," he said softly. "The first question on that Homecoming Match questionnaire was sex, right?"

"Uh -- " Rodney's brain derailed when John said sex even though he knew that John had been talking about gender. "Yes?"

"Well, I just thought if you could eliminate that particular parameter, then the results would come back completely different." John sketched a deliberately casual shrug. "C'mon, how much fun would it be to watch everyone go completely batshit?"

Rodney bit his lip. It sounded like a good way to get his ass kicked, to him, but John was pretty much the king of cool and Rodney trusted him to ride this one out. "The results don't come out 'til next week," he said slowly.

John looked up at the ceiling. "Rodney," he said. "I'm trying to set it up so that you stay cool. That was the point of all this, right?"

Rodney stared at John and thought to himself, No. That wasn't the point at all.

"Well. Yes. Of course it was," he said instead.

"So…." John said, drawing out the word. "This will pretty much seal your place in school history forever. Once everyone realizes it's a joke, you'll be the hottest thing around." He glanced at the door and quieted as two girls came in the classroom and sat on the other side of the room. They put their heads together and giggled. "So what do you say?" John asked, too quietly for them to overhear.

"Okay, fine," Rodney said. "But if I get my head flushed down a toilet, it's all on you."

John flashed a grin and knocked Rodney's shoulder with his fist as he hopped off the desk and brushed off his jeans. "We'll do it this weekend," he said, walking back to his seat. "Saturday. We've got to go all the way up to Oro Valley for the game."

"Great," Rodney said. "A stay. I wonder if I get a last meal?"

John detoured through the kitchen to grab an apple before picking up his gear for that night's game from his room. The phone rang while he had his head in the fridge, so he stuck the apple in his mouth, snagged the receiver, swallowed a bite that was maybe a little too big, and choked out a, "H'lo?"

"Why is Rodney McKay answering your phone?" a familiar voice demanded cheerfully.

"Elizabeth? Oh, shoot, I never called you back," John said, vaguely remembering the day he'd turned down her call to play video games with Rodney. "Rodney told me you called. I've just been -- " His heart sank a little as he thought about the De Lorean and Teyla and Rodney and the exhilarating trip to the pool hall and the jerk-off sessions that felt really forbidden for the first time. " -- busy," he finished lamely.

"Apparently," Elizabeth said, but her tone was indulgent. "So what's going on with you and Rodney? I don't remember you two ever being friends."

"He lives right next door," John said defensively. "It's pretty stupid that we never hung out before."

"Right," said Elizabeth. "Except that you like football, ferris wheels, and anything that goes obscenely fast, and Rodney likes physics, coffee, and being smarter than the teachers. So you want to tell me what's going on?"

"Well," John said, to bide time, and scrambled for the partial truths he'd told his father. "My dad's been getting on me about my physics grade, so Rodney gave me a hand with a couple of concepts I wasn't getting and in exchange, I...helped him ask out this girl he was interested in."

John thought it had been a pretty good save but the skeptical silence on the other end of the line told him otherwise.

"You're still not telling me the whole story," Elizabeth said thoughtfully. "But I'll be back in two weeks and don't think you're pulling one over on me then," she warned.

"You'll be back?" John asked, a tiny hope flaring in his chest.

"Don't tell me you've forgotten homecoming," she teased. "I've got to come back for the dance."

"Right," he said, realizing he'd been so preoccupied with Rodney and everything else that he'd completely forgotten that he'd actually have to go to the dance. He thought of last year's dance, watching Elizabeth blush and duck for Principal Hammond to put the crown on her hand and waiting for her to finish her dance with Jack O'Neill so that he could put his arms around her and turn his face into her hair. Everything had seemed so perfect back then, so easy. John ached for her suddenly, wished for the knowing lift of her eyebrow, and desperately wanted to confess everything to her and get her blessing.

"I've got to go," Elizabeth said suddenly.

"Wait," he said, even though he could hear people calling her name in the background.

"Hold on a sec," he heard her say to the other voices. "No, no, go on, I'll catch up to you." Then, "What is it John?" she asked softly, just for his ears.

He opened his mouth and nothing came out as he realized that he couldn't tell her. He couldn't tell anyone.

"John?" Elizabeth prompted.

"Elizabeth," he said, a little helplessly. "When -- when we were together? It was -- it was all right, wasn't it?"

"It, you mean -- " Elizabeth started, very softly. "John," she murmured, the background noise muting and John imagined her cupping her hand around the phone. "John, you know I wouldn't have wanted anyone else for my first time, right? Everything was exactly as I'd hoped. You were exactly as I'd hoped. Okay?"

"Okay," John said, nodding even though he knew she couldn't see him.

"I've got to go," Elizabeth said reluctantly. "I'll...do you want me to -- "

"No," John interrupted in his best guise of casual. "Don't worry about calling. I'll see you in two weeks, right?"

"Okay." Elizabeth still sounded a little unsure and John felt bad for ever bringing it up. "I've got to go! Love you, bye!" she added in a sudden rush.

"Have fun," John said, half meaning it, but he was talking to the dial tone.

"We are going to get arrested," Rodney whispered to John, who was doing something sketchy to door. "Are you picking the lock?"

"Nope," John said, holding up something shiny in the dim floodlights. "I have a key."

"Oh, my God," Rodney said, closing his eyes and trying to melt deeper into the shadows painting the side of the gym. "You really are a juvenile delinquent. What did you do, swipe the coach's keys and make a copy? Press wax into the lock? No, wait, never mind, don't tell me. I'd rather not know, that way when they arrest us, I can claim plausible deniability. 'He had a key!' I'll say. Of course when they ask what we were doing here in the middle of the night, I can't really sell the 'I thought we were allowed -- "

"Shut up, Rodney," John whispered. He opened the door and slipped inside.

Rodney cast one last glance around the quiet campus and followed him. "Where are we?" he whispered. This wasn't the main gym, the walls were too close and there was too much stuff scattered around. He took a step forward and crashed into something that pressed into his stomach and thighs and clattered metallically.

"We're in the weight room," John said in a normal tone. "All the football players have keys so we can come in and work out whenever we want."

"Oh. Well." Rodney stumbled away from the bench press table -- he recognized the shape now that his eyes had adjusted to the dark and also since John had gotten around to giving him some kind of clue of his great breaking and entering scheme.

"This way," John said from somewhere off to Rodney's left. "Try not to kill yourself on any of this stuff."

"That would be a little easier if I had some idea of where any of it was or maybe if we weren't, oh, sneaking around in the dark," Rodney muttered, picking his way through the room, hands out in front of him to protect the rest of him from malicious dumbbells and weight benches.

"We're going up stairs, next," John said, his hand bumping against Rodney's back before patting up to his shoulder. "You go first, I'll be right behind you."

Rodney made his way up the stairs slowly with John as a warm presence at his back. John's hand stayed firm on his shoulder throughout the climb.

"This way," John said. They went past the coaches' and health ed teacher's offices, to the end of the hall. John unlatched the window and pushed it up.

"What are you doing?" Rodney whispered. "I hope you're not doing what I think you're doing!"

"Why are you whispering?" John asked, his grin quicksilver in the moonlight. He sat on the windowsill and swung his feet outside.

"I don't know." Rodney realized, belatedly, that there were no teachers around in the middle of the weekend, no security guard, not even the janitors worked on Saturday nights. "It seemed like the right thing to do," he said.

John shook his head and hopped out the window.

Rodney squeaked.

"Are you coming?" John asked, ducking his head to peer in the window.

Rodney glanced outside. John was standing on the roof of the breezeway that connected the gym to the rest of the school. "You're crazy," he said, crawling through the window. "I thought you just threw yourself onto the ground!"

Even in the dark, it was easy to see John roll his eyes. "Because I pushed you up a flight of stairs so I could jump two stories and break a leg? Give me a little credit, McKay."

"I try my best," Rodney replied, crawling out on the breezeway with John. "It's not my fault you make it so difficult."

"Glad to know you're putting forth an effort," John said sarcastically, walking across the roof toward the main building.

Rodney edged across at a much less confident pace. "What's the advantage to breaking in this way?" he asked, folding his arms and looking around the dark campus.

"Teachers on the second floor are less likely to lock their windows," John said, trying the one to the left of the breezeway. "Try the one on your side."

Sure enough, whoever had the classroom on the right hadn't locked their window on Friday afternoon and Rodney pushed it up easily. "This is underclass math," he said when his feet were on solid linoleum again, looking at the equations left on the chalkboard.

"Yeah," John said, sliding in after him. "Mr. Boyd's room." He opened the door and jammed it open with the rubber wedge. "We want to be able to get back in here."

"What'd you do? Recon the place yesterday?" Rodney asked, and then did a double take at the expression on John's face. "You did! You totally have a plan!"

"Of course I do," John said, leading the way down the hall. "I want this to work, you know."

Rodney caught up with him and they walked side by side until they reached the main office. "You're going to break into the main office now?" he asked.

"Nope," John said, digging in his jeans pocket. "Teyla let me borrow the key. She's an office aide first period so she has a key in case she gets in early."

"Wow," Rodney said, definitely impressed, first that the office staff would think that Teyla needed a key when she spent her mornings in the cool hallway flirting with John and secondly that she'd given John the key with no questions asked. "So, I guess things are uh, cool? With you two?"

John cut him a sideways glance. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing," Rodney backpedaled. "I mean, look. You weren't sitting together at lunch the other day, you skipped lunch twice, and she skipped it once. I haven't seen you groping in the hall all week. So what's going on? Did you piss her off again? Did I piss her off again and you have to suck up? What happened?"

John shrugged. "We broke up," he said. "No big deal."

"No big deal!" Rodney stopped and dropped his jaw. "It's Teyla! She's the hottest girl in school!"

"Rodney, are you coming in here or not?" John asked from inside the office.

"Yeah, but -- " Rodney said, joining John.

"So let's find the machine and you can do your thing and we can get out of here," John said.

"Okay, fine," Rodney huffed, brushing past him to the computer room in the back. "Can you even break up with a girl you're not going steady with?"

"Since this is no longer the nineteen-fifties and people don't go steady anymore, and there are still people breaking up right and left, I'm going to go with yes," John said. He fished a penlight out from somewhere and flashed it over the keyboards of the computers. "Need this?"

"Yeah, over here," Rodney said, waving at one workstation and taking the seat in front of it. He found the boot disk and started the computer up and then realized what John had just offered. "Wait, you had that all along?"

"Had what?" John asked, feigning obliviousness badly.

"The flashlight," Rodney said, bracing himself on the back of the chair as he turned to glare at John and wound up blinding himself. He flinched away. "You let me bang around the gym all that time when you had a flashlight in your pocket the whole time?"

"The gym has windows," John said. "I didn't want the light to be seen from the outside."

"Fine," Rodney muttered, turning back to the computer and searching for the match program.

"What are you doing?" John asked, leaning over his shoulder.

"I'm looking for -- aha!" Rodney opened the program and started studying the lines of code. "We don't actually want to recode the Scantron machine. It's designed to recognize only one right answer. So the program the Homecoming Committee is going to use to match these up is designed only to match right-answer question ones with wrong-answer question ones. I'm just going to delete the line of code in the correlation program that -- there it is -- that gives that order, and that way -- huh."

"Huh, what?" John growled.

Rodney felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. "If I take that parameter out, the test will match gender like any other variable. The test is defaulted to match like with like. Only on certain questions do they want opposites. So…." He pulled the keyboard closer and typed in a few lines. "There. That makes the first question completely irrelevant." He hit enter and spun the chair to beam smugly at John and nearly brained himself on the flashlight.

"Whoa, careful there, Einstein," John said, pulling his arm back. "You ready to go?"

"Let me just shut down," Rodney said grumpily, making a few keystrokes and then going through the procedure to turn off the computer. He had just returned the boot disk to its case when they heard a siren.

Their eyes met, alarmed, and John switched off the flashlight and sprinted to the doorway.

"Cop car," he said, peering into the main office, which had windows to the outside.

"I knew it!" Rodney yelled. "We are going to get arrested!"

"Not yet," John muttered, shoving the flashlight back in his vest pocket. "Get down." He pushed Rodney's head down and dropped to the floor after him. "This way," he whispered, running in a crouch to the door. "We need to get out of here."

Rodney pressed close to John as they slipped out of the office, more for reassurance than any untoward intent, and fidgeted nervously as John relocked the door.

"Left, then right down the Bio hall," John whispered as they heard the heavy lock on the front door rattling open. "Go!"

Rodney dashed down the hall and swung around the corner to the Biology hallway. There was a stairwell at the end and he didn't even hesitate when he reached it, just yanked open the door and ran up the stairs, John on his heels. He heard shouts behind them but not the creak of the stairwell door. He burst out on the second floor and John's hand on his back pushed him toward the math hallway.

They ran down to the last rooms in the hall and John yanked open the door and kicked the rubber wedge inside the room. "You first," he said, letting Rodney through and then closing the door behind them.

Rodney pushed the window up and crawled out onto the roof of the breezeway and froze. The ground was a long way down on either side and the police car sat in front of the school, lights blazing and siren still ringing.

"Rodney." John's voice was low in his ear and his hand was warm on the small of Rodney's back. "Get going. Now!"

"Right, right," Rodney said, not moving. John pushed, none-too-gently, and Rodney stumbled forward a few steps. He felt very unsteady on the creaky metal roof and inched forward even as John was urging him to get a move on.

"Hey! Who's up there?" The beam of a flashlight cut across the sky and Rodney found himself hurtling face-first at the breezeway roof with John on top of him.

"Crawl!" John hissed and Rodney did, scrambling with his hands and knees to get to the other side, through the window, and into the tiny hallway on the second floor of the gym. He lay there for a moment breathing in the sweet, sweet scent of linoleum and Simple Green, until John grabbed his collar and dragged him upright and down the stairs to the weight room. "In here," John muttered, shoving Rodney in a closet and pushing the door closed quietly after them.

"What are we doing in here?" Rodney asked.

"Being very quiet," John said shortly.

It was dark in the closet and Rodney kicked John when he tried to shift around enough to sit down. John's hand clamped over his shin and squeezed uncomfortably hard. Rodney scowled but didn't say anything. He had no desire to go to jail, after all.

The main doors to the gym swung open and only John's hand on his leg kept Rodney from jumping to his feet and knocking over everything in the closet. The crack between the door and the floor glowed, yellow light stretching not quite to the toes of John's black boots. Rodney bit his lip and held his breath. His heart was beating a mile a minute and when someone rattled the door of the closet, he thought that maybe he was going to swallow his tongue.

"No one's here. Must have been a false alarm," he heard a voice call and then heavy footsteps and the light under the door went out.

Rodney continued to hold his breath until he heard the doors close again. He started to move but John pressed an elbow into his kneecap and so Rodney sat still until the siren shut down and the sound of a car crunching over gravel faded away.

"That was close," Rodney said, only to get his mouth sealed by John's hand.

"Shh," he said. He pulled something out of his pocket and slid it under the door. They waited a minute -- for what, Rodney wasn't sure, but he'd counted up to sixty by the time John tried the door. He took his time, easing the door open and peering into the dark weight room before sliding out of the closet and letting Rodney out after him.

Silently, they slipped back out of the gym and ran to John's car, parked two blocks away in a residential neighborhood.

"Oh, my God, I was right, we almost got arrested!" Rodney shouted when they were safely in the car with the doors closed.

"Oh, we did not," John snapped, starting the engine. "And did you hear what the one said? You must have tripped a silent alarm somewhere."

"I tripped an alarm?" Rodney shot back. "How do you know you didn't trip it? You're running around with your boots and your flashlights -- maybe the alarm was triggered by light!"

"Maybe it was triggered by someone booting up the computers at one in the morning," John growled in return.

Rodney opened his mouth and closed it again, at loss for a good retort. As he groped for one, another idea occurred to him. "Hey," he said, feeling faintly surprised. "We did it!"

John turned to look at him, the moonlight playing over his features and in that moment, he looked surprised, too.

"Yeah," he said, the wonder evident in his voice. "We did."

"Where are we going?" John asked when Rodney pulled up in his dad's car.

"It's the last night we're contractually obligated to hang out together, so I'm going to teach you a little something about being a geek," Rodney said with insufferable smugness.

John suffered it gladly. He had his own ideas about certain 'contractual obligations' and with luck, they would fit perfectly with whatever Rodney had planned.

"Did you bring me flowers?" he asked, getting into the passenger side of the car and seeing a long, rectangular box in the back seat.

"In your dreams," Rodney shot back.

John just smiled and watched the late afternoon sun as Rodney drove out toward the base and then turned onto the backroads, skirting the perimeter. He finally pulled up next to a dumpster. A 12-foot wall stretched above them and it was the only thing around.

"If you wanted to sneak onto the base," John said as they got out of the car and Rodney retrieved the box from the backseat, "we could have just gone through the front door. I do have an ID card."

"Trust me," Rodney said, placing the box on the dumpster and hauling himself up. "It's more fun this way."

John scrambled up after him and joined him at the wall, squinting against the sun.

There were airplanes.

For as far as his eyes could see, airplanes lined up below him, parked in formation. B-29 Superfortresses sat before C-47 Gooney Birds, next to F-86A Sabrejets. John could see Stratojets and U-2s and Valkyries, all in various stages of rust and decay.

"Oh, wow," he breathed, taking in everything he could, his brain processing each sight and cataloging it, comparing it against pre-existing knowledge, slotting it against pictures in books and magazines and calendars, and then, when his brain couldn't handle any more, he just stared. "I didn't know these were here."

"Come on," Rodney said, and his odd, lopsided mouth was grinning so hard he looked twelve, and like someone had given him something he'd always wanted. A telescope, John's slightly guilty conscience kicked in.

Rodney put the box on top of the wall and hauled himself up with only a little help from John. He dropped to the other side and looked up. "Toss it down?" he said.

John picked up the box. It was heavier than it looked and something solid inside slid from end to end. He leaned over the wall as far as he could and released it, letting it drop into Rodney's hands. Then he pushed himself over the wall and dropped down on the other side.

"This is amazing," he said, reaching out to touch the nearest B-18 Bolo, his hand stuttering over the old metal. "The Bolos replaced the DC-2s in the late thirties. Double the range, double the bomb load of the B-10. We lost a lot of them in Pearl Harbor and the B-17 took over on the front lines during World War II." He glanced back at Rodney, who was looking unbearably smug. "And after the war, they put the MAG -- magnetic anomaly detector -- radome in the bombardier's spot and sent them sub-hunting."

"And then," Rodney said, with the aura of someone gearing up for a punchline, "the Royal Canadian Air Force bought them and renamed them Digbys."

"Yeah," John agreed. "Because we didn't need them anymore."

"Hey." Rodney only looked tangentially offended so John grinned and walked over to a sleek, black U-2, which looked intact until he circled around expecting to find a second wing.

"I hear these things are a bitch to fly," he said admiringly. "The Air Force lost nine of them the first year they were in service."

"The wings have an extremely high aspect ratio," Rodney noted. "It'd be like flying a glider."

"At ninety thousand feet," John said. "Dad says they have to stay within five knots of stall speed in order not to max out."

"That sounds incredibly dangerous," Rodney said.

"It is," John agreed soberly. "Especially with one engine, one pilot, and no offensive weapon capabilities? No thanks."

"I'm surprised your country is still using them after the Soviets developed missiles that have that kind of range," Rodney said. "Lest we forget the Gary Powers incident."

John screwed up his face in Rodney's general direction. "Yeah, but no one saw your homeland of military excellence scoffing when the U-2 picked up Soviet missile silos in Cuba."

"I'm so glad I brought you here so I could listen to you disparage my country of birth," Rodney said, but he had a little smile on his face and it made John want to knock shoulders with him, or better yet, wrap his arm around Rodney's shoulders, draw him in and -- "Okay, that's not even an American plane," Rodney said, frowning at an II-28 Beagle.

"That's a Soviet plane," John said. "They used it toward the end of World War II and now Poland, East Germany, Egypt, and some other places have it. They're phasing them out everywhere now. This is the bomber version. The markings look like it might have been Polish."

"Looks like it was shot down," Rodney said, poking a hole in a large caliber bullet hole in the fuselage.

"Yeah," John said, wondering how long ago that had happened. The rough edges of the metal were laced with rust and the sand and dirt coating the plane indicated that it had been there for years.

They walked the airplane graveyard for hours, pointing out rarities and discussing the attributes of some of the lesser-known models. John had always liked history and he liked the history of aircraft best of all.

"It's like you have a photographic memory or something," Rodney said when John had rattled off the top airspeed of an F-104 Starfighter.

John shrugged. "They're planes," he said, as if that explained everything. And the way Rodney nodded, maybe it did. "Wind's picking up," he added, turning up the collar on his vest.

"It's Arizona at the end of October," Rodney said. "And you're whining like it's the dead of winter in Newfoundland."

"All I said was that it was getting windy," John shot back.

"Well, come on, then," Rodney said, peering into the cockpit of an R-22 that sat incongruously among the warplanes. The doors were gone, so he crawled into the seat and beckoned John in after him. The plexiglass bubble blocked the wind well enough and John slouched into the pilot's seat happily. He glanced over at Rodney, who was pulling the lid off the box and pulling out components for…something.

"What is that?" he asked, as Rodney's hands fitted the pieces together quickly and expertly.

Rodney gave him a crooked grin. "It's not a real telescope," he said, "but it'll do for now." He hauled the tube aloft and squinted into the tiny hole punched a few inches from the bottom. "Right there," Rodney said, peering into his telescope and pointing haphazardly at the sky, "that's Rigel."

John nodded, but he wasn't looking for Rigel. He was watching the corner of Rodney's mouth twitch as he tracked down and pointed out a steady stream of stars.

"Here, you should look at this," Rodney said, pushing the makeshift telescope into John's lap and boosting it up to his face. "Right in the -- yeah."

John found his eye pressed up against the glass lens in the side of the tube and he let Rodney push the tube -- and John's head -- higher until he could see the star in question.

"This thing you made works really well," he said, looking up at the painfully bright dot in the sky.

"Yeah, you like it? I sort of cobbled it together from the tube -- my father had stuff for his classroom come in it -- and a couple of lenses which I made by -- "

John let Rodney ramble on, tilting his head back until he could see Betelgeuse, just as bright. He took his eye away from the glass and set the telescope carefully back into the cardboard box sitting at their feet. The helicopter cockpit was cozy and warm enough, even with the sides exposed. Pieces of metal creaked faintly in the near distance and John thought, It's now or never. He'd never done this with a guy but surely the mechanics couldn't be all that different on this very basic level he was working on.

"Rodney," he said, and lifted his hands to Rodney's face, as much to keep him from pulling away as to keep him steady and give John less chance to well, miss.

Then, he kissed Rodney's amazing, mobile mouth, catching Rodney's tongue on his lips because did the guy never stop talking? It was nothing like kissing a girl. Rodney's mouth was bigger than his and warm like a blanket on a cold night. There was strength there, too, a lazy strength that even Teyla at her most enthusiastic couldn't hope to duplicate. John shuddered and gentled his hands on Rodney's face. After a moment, Rodney's lower lip dropped against his mouth and John licked the length of it, like he was sealing an envelope only he wanted Rodney's mouth open, open and his, instead of sealed shut.

Rodney made a noise in the back of his throat and John's muscles tensed at the sound of it. His extremities tingled, all of them, and he pushed in a little, sweeping his tongue inside Rodney's mouth. Rodney's fingers brushed over his face and John wished he'd thought to shave again before he left the house. Then Rodney's hand came around the back of John's neck and took control. And John let him, feeling his heart beating wildly in his chest.

He let Rodney inside his mouth, let him kiss and lick, and scrape John's lip gently between his teeth. He was a little clumsy, a little sloppy, but Rodney was nothing if not a fast learner, and everything went from awkward to wow in less time than John bothered to count. He wasn't used to giving up control like this but he trusted Rodney and right now that, letting Rodney do this, was paying off in spades.

Rodney finally pulled away first, resting his forehead against John's with a light sigh before sitting back. His eyes were bright and the corner of his mouth was twitching up and John thought, I did that.

"I think we'd better go," Rodney said quietly.

John felt his eyes glaze over. Rodney wanted to go. He did too, back to his house, where his father would be gone for another three days and he could kiss Rodney all he wanted and touch him and peel his jeans back and do whatever the hell there was to do.

"Yeah," he said, head spinning with the breadth of possibility. "Let's go." He waited impatiently for Rodney to pack the telescope into its box, gazing rapturously at the slice of skin that showed between the waistband of his jeans and where his long sleeved t-shirt had ridden up.

The wall presented a bit of a challenge without the dumpster, but Rodney boosted John up, then passed up the telescope and managed to jump high enough for John to catch his hand and pull. Rodney helped and they both made it to the other side without much trouble.

John glanced over at Rodney at least a hundred times all the way home, but he didn't know what to say and was too distracted thinking of all the things they could do to care. Rodney looked over once to offer a tremulous smile and he didn't speak either. John thought he must be just as excited and willed his stomach to stop jumping around.

"So," he said when Rodney pulled into his driveway and didn't turn off the engine. "You gonna come in?"

"I uh, I think I should get home," Rodney said, not looking at him.

John felt the first flutter of panic and anger in his chest. What was wrong here? He had been sure Rodney wanted this. Wanted him. He thought of the way Rodney's mouth had opened under his, the sound in the back of his throat, the little sigh at the end.

"It's okay," he said, tilting his head to get a better look at Rodney's face. "My dad's not here. He won't be until Wednesday."

"I know," Rodney said. "It's not that."

"You can just tell your parents that he's away and you're staying with me. They let you do that before."

Rodney nodded once, appearing to come to some internal decision, and shifted in his seat so that he was facing John.

"I just don't think this is a good idea," he said.

"How is it not a good idea?" John asked. "You want me, don't you? Isn't this why you made this whole deal in the first place?"

He watched Rodney close his eyes at the steering wheel and sigh.

"I wasn't -- I just." Rodney sighed again and this time it was more like a shudder of frustration and it made John angry. "Not like this."

"Not like what?" John shouted, then gritted his teeth at his loss of control. What was his problem?

"Like...like this. We're not even supposed to be friends tomorrow."

"There's no reason for us to stop." John felt obstinate and quarrelsome and he wanted, desperately wanted, to go back to feeling happy and anticipatory and taking Rodney to his room and spreading him out on the bed and tasting every last inch of him. "I'm not that big an asshole." Rodney didn't look like he was changing his mind so John tried again. "Look, I like you. So why can't we just go in and fool around? I know you want to." To prove his point, he reached over to put his hand in Rodney's lap, but Rodney caught his wrist before he made contact.

"Because you're not gay," Rodney finally said, his voice rising a bit at the end.

"I just kissed you," John shouted, really shouted. "How am I not gay?"

"Face it," Rodney said, and he seemed on steadier ground, which just made John feel more unhinged. "You never had a gay impulse until I bought my way into your life. You found out about me, you started thinking about it, and now you're curious."

"Well. Well. Yeah." And why shouldn't he be? He'd never dated a girl who made as much sense as Rodney, who liked airplanes and science fiction and things that went boom like Rodney, who made him feel like he wasn't alone in the universe like Rodney did. "Look, I'm the one who might be giving something up if this all -- whatever. I don't know why you're so upset."

Rodney's face stiffened. "Because I don't want to be your experimental constant."

John furrowed his brow at the term. That would make him the experimental variable and it took him a minute to realize what Rodney meant by that.

"I'm not using you to find out if I like guys," he said with every bit of calm he could collect. "I like you, Rodney. That's just the way it is."

Rodney nodded once. "That's what you think now."

John elbowed the door open and slammed it as loudly as he could. He didn't look at Rodney as he jogged up the walk and let himself in to his dark, empty house. He didn't bother to turn on any lights, listening for the sounds of Rodney's car crawling next door and shutting off. He threw himself on his bed and stared moodily at the ceiling until he couldn't hold still anymore. Jeans and boxers to his knees and one hand, then both on his dick, thinking of Rodney sucking him, of sucking Rodney, of only a fraction of things they could be doing here, now, together, before he came, a warm splash on his stomach and hand. He closed his eyes and kicked off his pants and shoes. Then, he turned on his side and curled into the fetal position. The dampness on his face was entirely from the force of his orgasm.

Rodney let himself into the dark house and trudged to his room. He left his shades down and threw himself on his bed.

Rodney McKay, teen genius, had just turned down an invitation to the school quarterback's bed. Literally. A literal invitation. And a literal bed.

Surely that set a new record for ultimate stupidity.

Of course he would have reached stupid entropy if he'd gone inside with John and ridden with John's crazy kamikaze ideas. It would have been fun -- it would have been spectacular -- for a while and then the next day, or the next week, or maybe even as late as next month, when John decided that he wasn't really gay, it would be too late. Rodney would be looking at heartbreak and humiliation that even years of therapy would be unable to dent.

Rodney rolled over and immediately found something sticking him in the back. He reached behind himself and felt around until he found a solid rectangle that didn't feel like an electronics component but still definitely did not belong in his bed.

Not, Rodney thought morosely, that he was even qualified to determine what belonged in his bed anymore. John had put a hand in his lap. John had tried to touch his dick and Rodney, in his infinite wisdom -- or lack thereof -- had turned him down.

He poked at his sinuses, which had started to feel swollen, and reached to turn on the lamp on the nightstand. The rectangle was a chocolate bar, the good stuff. Something was written on it in black magic marker and it had smeared when Rodney had sat on it. He squinted a little and made out, "Sorry" and a "J". The Cadbury bar must have cost Jeannie her entire week's allowance. He slid the paper sleeve down and peeled the foil away from one corner. Jeannie and his mother downed pounds of the stuff watching stupid sappy movies about lost love. Maybe there was something chemical, some reaction that confirmed chocolate as a mood-altering substance. Maybe women were on to something.

Rodney stopped when he smelled the chocolate and ran his tongue across his bottom lip. He could still taste the inside of John's mouth on the tip of his tongue. It was likely the only time he'd ever know that. Rodney wrapped the chocolate bar up again and set it aside. He stripped down to his boxers and got into bed. He laid still for an entire thirty seconds before his hand was magnetically drawn to his cock and he jerked off with his lower lip sucked between his teeth.

Everything would be back to normal by the next morning, after all. John wasn't the kind of guy to hold a grudge.

The next day, John skipped school in its entirety and spent the day in bed, staring at the ceiling. Around ten, the school called and John croaked out enough to satisfy them that he was sick, and then went back to resolutely not thinking about Rodney.

The phone rang twice after that and John ignored it. Around 3:30, someone knocked on the door and John closed his eyes tightly and rolled away from the window. He tried to convince himself that he didn't want to see if it was Rodney.

The Colonel came home a few hours later and frowned when he found John overwarm and listless under too many covers.

"You're warm," he said, the back of his hand brushing up under the hair that usually flopped over John's eyebrows. "But I don't think you have a fever."

"I'll be fine by tomorrow," John lied. He felt like he was never going to be fine again but he couldn't stand another day of moping.

"Come out in a little bit," his father said. "I'll make grilled cheese."

John felt horrible, hot and sick and guilty and completely unable to tell his father why. After forty-five minutes, he kicked the covers off and slogged out to the kitchen in sweatpants and a t-shirt.

"You're home early," he said, realizing that he'd been expecting two more days of solitude and that if Rodney had spent the night and they'd skipped school together, he'd be doing some fancy footwork. He couldn't quite work up the energy to be relieved.

"Mission got scrubbed," the Colonel said, turning over two sandwiches. The buttered bread sizzled against the hot pan and John wondered how his father had known to start cooking. "Bad intel. I rented Silverado. Why don't you go set it up?"

"Cool," John said, going into the living room. He opened the plastic rental box and pushed the tape into the VCR. He let it run through the FBI warning and the previews and then paused the movie until his father came out of the kitchen with a plastic bowl of sandwich quarters -- cut into triangles -- in one hand and a bottle of ketchup in the other.

"Hey, vegetables," John said, starting the movie and was rewarded with the ketchup flying at his head. He caught it before impact and sat down on the couch with a sigh.

His father sat next to him and put the bowl of grilled cheese triangles between them. "Look," he said, not looking at John as he squirted ketchup onto a piece of sandwich and handed the bottle to John.

"Yeah?" John asked when nothing else was forthcoming.

"I don't know," Colonel Sheppard admitted. "I was trying to be fatherly and supportive and I think we lost the instruction manual that came with you during one of the moves."

John snorted. "I just don't feel good, okay?"

"Okay," his father said and used the remote to start the movie. But then he reached over and squeezed the back of John's neck and John felt a little more awful for having a secret he couldn't even tell his father.

"Rodney! Rodney!"

Rodney glanced around. Usually, when female voices were calling for him at the top of their lungs, it all turned out to be a dream. But he was pretty sure he'd woken up and gotten out of bed already this morning and there was Teyla, jogging down the hall to catch up with him.

"Hi, Teyla," he said, trying to hide his dread. He wondered if John had made up to her the day before, since Rodney had derailed his Great Gay Experiment. He was only saving John later embarrassment, he told himself.

"Hello," Teyla greeted him, and despite her smile, she didn't look happy. "Might I speak to you for a moment? In private?"

Rodney's stomach went cold, John's words about Teyla kicking his nuts so far up his ass he couldn't sit down came involuntarily and inexorably to mind and he edged away. "Well, the thing is," he said quickly, "I've really got to get to homeroom and well, there's only, wow, twelve minutes, that's like no time at all and I have to get all the way down to um, the end of the hall and -- "

"This will not take more than a minute," Teyla said. Rodney squawked as he found his ears twisted between her fingers. She frogmarched him across the hall and into the nearest girls' bathroom. It had an out-of-order sign on the door, but Teyla ignored it and pushed Rodney against a sink. He rubbed his burning ear and kept a wary eye on Teyla. She was tiny but she was mean!

"Are you responsible for this?" she demanded, brandishing a fistful of papers. By turning his head, Rodney could see that they were -- oh shit -- the results of the match test.

"Responsible for what?" he asked nervously.

"Somebody," Teyla said, her raised eyebrow indicating exactly who she thought that somebody was, "changed the programming to ignore the first question. Boys are matched up with other boys and girls are matched with other girls!"

"Why would I do that?" Rodney asked, his tongue going numb with fear and tripping over the words.

"You were making fun of the test at lunch and I'm sure that if I had asked you at any point before today, you would tell me that you are the only student in this school with the knowledge and abilities to do this."

Okay, so Teyla wasn't just another pretty face.

"Well, technically I think Radek would probably be able to pull it off," Rodney admitted. "Of course whether he had the creativity to think of it is another story all together." Technically, Simpson or Kavanagh might have been able to do it, too, Rodney thought. Their school had the draw of the best science curriculum in the state. But he didn't know for sure and he wasn't willing to give either of them that kind of credit without proof.

Teyla's eyebrows went up. "And did Radek change the test?" she asked.

Rodney felt his face go hot. "No," he said. "I did it. It's just a joke. Because everyone was taking it so seriously and it's -- it's funny."

Teyla stared at him. "Did John talk you into it?" she asked. "Was this his idea?"

"What, I can't think of a good joke by myself?" Rodney asked, trying to keep from selling out John.

"You are protecting him," Teyla said. "Or trying."

Rodney rolled his eyes and crossed his arms protectively over his chest. "Look, I just don't see what's so terrible about it," he snapped. "I meant what I said about hooking us all up when we're all going off to different colleges next fall. But it's matching up people by interest and temperament, right? So why does that have to be restricted to romantic gestures and societal expectations of adolescent interaction? Why can't we have a test that just says, 'Hey, you might like hanging out with these people?' Because if John and I hadn't made that -- " He broke off, realizing what he was about to reveal.

"I mean, okay, look, if John hadn't been a really nice guy and started talking to me because I live next door, we never would have been friends, because I'm a geek and he's a jock. And that shouldn't matter and neither should what our parents do for a living, or gender or -- or -- any of that. It's narrow-minded to look at a group of people and expect them to interact in a certain way.

"There are whole fields of study devoted to that and they're useless because you know what? They're not provable. Something works for 99 percent of a population and that's fine but it's not universal. They call it deviant behavior but it's not deviant, it's just outside norms, and okay, yes, in their classroom models it's a deviation but they should know, they study connotations and it's just -- it's just not fair," he finished lamely.

He looked down at the floor, then up and around the tiny room. "Huh. So this is what the girls' bathroom is like? I've always wanted to see inside"

Teyla stared at him, her posture no longer aggressive. Rodney fidgeted, sure she could see right through him and his paper wall of words. "I believe I see your point," she said after a long moment. "I will distribute the results. As they are. I cannot promise that people will accept the results as you intend, but I will not complain to the teachers." She straightened the stack in her hand. "You are a good friend, Rodney," she said. "Even if John was maybe not so noble in his intent as you."

"John was noble," he said, before he remembered that he was trying not to sell John out. "I mean, in a different way, and I can't really explain but -- "

Teyla smiled. "You do not need to," she said. "John's motives are not malicious."

"He's a good guy," Rodney said. "You should get back together with him."

Teyla shrugged, her smile and eyes darting toward the door of the bathroom. "John's heart is elsewhere," she said. "I do not want to be merely convenient."

"He likes you," Rodney said, feeling bad for her. "He's just...he's confused right now."

"I do not think he is confused at all," Teyla said. She handed Rodney the top page. "I think it is merely a question of priorities."

Rodney looked at the paper as she turned around and walked out of the bathroom.

John's name was printed in ten point courier new at the top of the page.

John skipped the cool hallway and went straight to homeroom.  Just because he couldn't stand to mope around the house anymore didn't mean he felt any more social or any less angry.  He dropped his bookbag on the floor and slid into his seat, hearing his classmates laugh and joke about the usual things -- homework, girls, sports, homecoming -- as they filed in around him.  The final bell rang and he had to suffer through the drone of the Mr. Maybourne calling attendance and the announcements about sports team scores and club meetings before picking up the stack of papers on his desk and aligned the edges with his hands while clearing his throat importantly.

"As I'm sure you've all been waiting with bated breath," he said dryly, "the results of the homecoming compatibility tests have been compiled.  I'm sure you'll all be useless for the rest of the day whether you get them now or later, so we might as well get on with it.  While the rest of the faculty and staff expect that you will all react in a respectful and mature way whatever your results may reveal, I know better.  Just try to keep it civil, people."

John rolled his eyes and there were snickers around the room, but Mr. Maybourne walked up and down the rows of desks, laying each piece of paper face down on the corresponding student's desk. 

He stared determinedly at the flat expanse of white and waited for the shit to hit the fan. 

"Uh? Mr. Maybourne?" Andrea Dumais talked as she raised her hand, likely her first experience talking out of turn ever. "I think there's been a mistake."

"Yeah, no kidding," someone else said, setting off a chain reaction of whispers and rustling of papers as the class started comparing their results.

John glanced toward Teyla and saw the corner of her mouth twitch up in a faint Mona-Lisa smile. She knew, he thought. She knew and she let Maybourne distribute the tests anyway.

"Dude, this is so wrong," Mitch said from the seat behind John.

"Let me see," Mr. Maybourne said, walking down the aisle and picking up Andrea's paper. "Well, something's certainly futzed up," he said after skimming the page. "Teyla?"

The faint smile vanished and Teyla's head snapped up. "Yes, Mr. Maybourne?"

"Do you know anything about this?" Mr. Maybourne scowled and tried to look threatening but didn't bother holding the expression.

Teyla widened her eyes and tilted her head. "I do not," she said. "Perhaps there was an error in the compatibility program. It seemed to be very difficult to write."

"Right. And I just fell off the turnip truck." Maybourne shrugged and went back to the front of the room. "All right -- "

His next words were drowned out by the crackle of the loudspeaker engaging and the tapping of a finger against the microphone.

"Is this thing on? This is Principal Hammond. I have been informed that the Homecoming Compatibility Test has been compromised. We do not know how this happened but rest assured we will find out. Members of the Homecoming Committee are to report to the student government room at lunch. In the meantime, faculty is to collect the tests and turn them in to the main office."

The intercom system clicked off and Mr. Maybourne shrugged. "All right," he said. "Pass them back."

A cry of protest went up.  John snorted.

"He's standing in the way of our love!" Dex cried from the seat besides Mitch's. John twisted around to see him standing in a heroic pose, one fist clasped over his heart.

"The heck are you doing?" he asked, stretching his legs into the aisle and leaning back in his seat.

"Dex and I are soul mates," Mitch explained, thrusting his computer printout at John. "The test says so."

John scanned the list of ten names. "I hate to break it to you," he said, "but there are six other people on this list who are more your soul mate than Dex. Not that I'm not really happy for you," he added quickly because seriously, Mitch and Dex were doing all his work for him on this point. Already, half the class was laughing and egging them on. And John was just fine with that.

"You two, break it up," Maybourne said, walking to the back of the room and tapping Mitch -- who had wrapped his arms around himself and was simulating a steamy makeout session -- on the shoulder. "Give 'em up." He took the paper off Dex's desk and John handed up Mitch's page. "Thank you."

The bell rang and everyone stood up, slinging their bookbags over their shoulders and scooping up books and papers.

"Wait up," Maybourne called, making his way to the front of the room. "Leave your printouts on my desk as you leave. And don't forget to turn in your ballot for Homecoming Court by the end of the week!"

John scooped his notebook under his arm and left the room in a clot of people, his test safely hidden away. In the hallway, he opened his locker and, shielded by the open door, turned over the page.

The name Rodney McKay glared up at him from the number one spot, in black and white. John stared at it, a flare of anger heating his face -- because goddamn Rodney, it was right there in black and white, what else did the boy need? -- and then crumpled the paper into a ball and threw it in the back of the locker.

He slammed the door shut and nearly jumped out of his skin when Ford was suddenly standing next to him.

"Geez, Ford," he said, scratching the back of his neck. "Wear a bell or something, would you?"

"Sorry Shep but…did Rodney really change the tests?"

John raised one eyebrow. "What are you talking about?" he asked ingenuously.

"The match tests the Homecoming Committee was doing," Ford explained. "Teyla was on the warpath this morning, man. They came out all messed up -- you heard Hammond, right? -- and she thinks Rodney did it."

"What do you mean 'all messed up'?" John asked casually, shifting his books into his backpack so he wouldn't have to look Ford in the face.

"It's got everyone paired up funny," Ford said hesitantly. "Like, it's got guys on the same page as other guys. And same thing with girls."

"Well," John drawled, trying not to laugh. "Gotta admit, two girls together would be pretty hot." He glanced sideways and was gratified to see Ford's face flush. "I'm messing with you," he said, reaching out and clapping his hand on Ford's shoulder. "Yeah, Rodney reprogrammed the machine to ignore the first question. The one that asked if you were male or female. We thought it would be pretty funny."

"Yeah?" Ford asked, his face showing his eagerness to be in on the joke.

"You heard Hammond on the loudspeaker," John said with an enthusiasm he didn't feel. "Five bucks his head's bright red."

Ford bobbed his head and followed John closely to the end of the hall where the cool kids congregated.

"I don't know, man," Lorne was saying. "I think it's a little fucked up."

Ronon, who was standing silently behind him, looked up as John approached. "Sheppard," he said.

"Ronon," John answered. "What's going on?"

Ronon raised one eyebrow and tilted his head at the cluster of football players and cheerleaders arguing in the hall.

"It's sick, man," someone said.

"What's sick?" John asked, making sure his voice carried. The crowd quieted somewhat.

"This whole thing with the match test," Lorne explained. "The program got fucked or something."

"It didn't get fucked up," John said with his best lazy-slash-smug grin. "Rodney and I fucked it up. That guy can do anything with a computer."

A dozen pairs of eyes stared at him.

"Seriously?" Stackhouse said. "Why?"

John shrugged lazily. "It's a dumb test," he said. "But it's got Hammond's panties in a twist. The teachers are going nuts over this."

"I just don't see how this is this funny," Bates said.

"Trust me," Laura Cadman said, peering over his shoulder at his page -- Teyla must have given him an advance copy, "the image of Mitch and Dex going to the Homecoming dance together is going to keep a smile on my face for days."

"Which one's going to wear the dress?" Lorne wanted to know, chuckling.

"This is fantastic," Laura said, punching John in the arm. She had a pretty good left jab. "Rodney's totally forgiven for being a jerkwad if this is what you two were up to."

John thought of Rodney's hand under Laura's shirt and forced a grin that felt plastic on his face. "C'mon, Laura," he said, "do you really think Rodney would blow you off for anything less than the perfect prank?"

"Oh, John Sheppard, you sweet talker, you," Laura teased back. "Whoever gets you on their list is going to have to do a whole song and dance number to hold your attention."

"Oh, yeah?" Mitch called. "You better watch out, Shep! If your name's on my hit list, I'll sweep you off your feet, just like the rest of 'em!"

"Ha!" John shot back. "You only wish my name's on your sheet!" He scooped up his backpack, slinging one strap over his shoulder, and turned around, grin still pulling at his face, to find himself nose-to-nose with Rodney.

The sounds of the busy hallway dimmed and faded into the distance. Rodney's eyes were wide and very blue and when he saw John, his mouth fell open, just a little bit. John tensed to keep himself from pushing Rodney's chin up with his knuckles, tensed to keep himself from reaching out and touching Rodney at all.

You never had a gay impulse until I bought my way into your life came into his head so clearly that he blinked and looked at Rodney as if he'd said it again, in the middle of the hallway and everyone. At the same time, he was hit with the sense of memory of the heavy warmth of Rodney's hand on his neck, as John gave up control and fell, fell, fell --

The bell rang and the noise of the corridor came rushing back to his ears. John twisted away and shouldered around Rodney to get to his first class, his heart pounding in his chest.

Status check: Rodney McKay was now the hottest thing at school. Women wanted him. Men wanted to be him. His name was on the tip of everyone's tongue and his entourage of freshmen had grown from that little Abrams geek to an entire assortment of geek, theater, and jock hopefuls.

What he didn't have, though, was a date to the Homecoming dance. Plus, John was still looking at him like Rodney had run down his puppy or something but Rodney couldn't exactly take him to the dance anyway.

"I need your help again," he said to Ronon that Thursday before class. "I'm trying to ask Laura to the Homecoming dance and I can't get her alone. I don't suppose you could -- "

"No problem," Ronon said, breaking away from the crowd and heading for the library with long strides.

"Uh, hey, I didn't necessarily mean right...huh...now," Rodney wheezed, half-jogging down the hall just to stay in earshot.

"Good a time as any," Ronon said, reaching his goal. He approached the wall where Laura was standing with Jeannette Simpson and a couple of girls from the track team and planted his hand on the wall next to Jeannette, wedging his body between the girls and effectively cutting off whatever Laura had been about to say.

"Um, excuse me," she tried, reaching high to tap Ronon's shoulder. "Yeah, hi, I -- "

"Laura, hi," Rodney interrupted, having almost managed to catch his breath. His stomach twisted a little and he shifted his weight to his other foot.

"Hi, Rodney," Lauara said, still fixing Ronon with the evil eye. "You need to teach your big, hairy friend some manners." She finally turned her attention to Rodney. "So what's going on?" she asked. Her track friends had moved subtly down the hall a bit and Rodney glanced over at them before leaning his shoulder carefully on the wall next to Laura. It felt awkward so he resituated it, and cocked his hips the way John did when he leaned that way.

"I hear -- I mean, the word on the street is -- oh my God, do people really say that? It sounds so much better on TV. I mean, um. The dance, the Homecoming dance, it's next Saturday and I, uh -- "

"Oh!" Laura said, sounding terribly disappointed. "Rodney." She smiled sympathetically. "I'd love to go with you, but I promised a friend I'd be his date."

"I -- you -- really?" Rodney bravado crumbled around him. "Couldn't you just...you know?"

"I would if I could," Laura said, as if she knew exactly what he was talking about. "But I promised."

"Oh. Well." Rodney lifted his chin. "It's good to know that you are a woman of forthrightness and honesty. I wouldn't want to, you know...waste my time and attention on someone less worthy."

Laura smiled. "You're sweet, McKay," she said, leaning in and pecking him on the cheek. "Weird, but sweet." She winked at him as she hooked her bookbag over one shoulder and headed down the hall.

The bell for homeroom rang and Rodney sighed, pressing his hand to his cheek. It was time for Plan B.

Physics class really made John lose his appetite. He threw his book into the top of his locker with more force than entirely necessary and slammed the door shut. The halls teemed with students funneling toward the cafeteria and John let himself get carried along with them. Any desire he'd had to stand against the crowd was quashed by the indifference that seemed to have seeped into him over the course of the week.

He paused at the door of the cafeteria, letting people stream past him, and looked at the table where he usually sat with his friends. Mitch, Dex, Ronon, and Teyla were already there. Dex had two straws up his nose and Teyla was taking something -- it looked like a plastic knife -- away from Ronon as he protested good-naturedly.

Rodney came up and shouldered his bookbag off, rooting around inside for his bag lunch. John shook his head. Rodney wasn't any cooler than he had been a month ago, except maybe for his hair and clothes, and everyone suddenly adored him, all on John's say-so. All because John could throw a football and had cool hair.

John turned away from the door and pushed against the crowd, shoving his way to the library. He wasn't so hungry anyway and he wasn't too enthused about sitting across from Rodney at lunch and having to think about the careful, matter-of-fact rejection in the car. He slouched into a chair way in the back corner and pulled out War & Peace to read until he had to go to study hall -- and he just might skip study hall, too, since it was the only class he shared with Rodney.

He stared at the page, until the words blurred under his eyes and he slammed the book shut. He was hiding in the library from Rodney and the irony of the situation struck him full on.

Way to go, John, he thought disgustedly. You really know how to pick 'em. Risk your whole career, your whole life, and for some guy who doesn't even want -- He stuttered over the idea that Rodney didn't want him. He knew it wasn't true, knew, but somehow thinking that way made it easier to be angry at Rodney. Easier to transfer the embarrassment into blame.

He scrubbed his fists over his eyes and rested that way, elbows braced on the table, for a long moment.


John jerked upright, dropping his hands. "Teyla?" She approached the table where he sat, Ford and Ronon trailing in her wake.

"You okay?" Ford asked tentatively.

"You look like shit," Ronon added.

"Thanks, guys, I'm swell," John said, hooking one arm over the back of his chair and slouching down. "Just got a little homework to take care of."

"We were concerned," Teyla said, reaching out to touch his shoulder. Her small hand burned hot through his t-shirt. "You have been avoiding us. All of us, including Rodney." She tilted her head and he felt like she was looking right inside of him. "You were great friends and your…prank…was very successful. And yet you do not seem to be celebrating with him."

John threaded his pen into the spirals of his notebook and said casually, "Where is Rodney?"

"He's helping Mitch with his homework," Ford said. "Well, he's probably doing Mitch's homework. He gets a little bossy."

"Aiden," Teyla warned. "I seem to recall that Rodney was very generous with his time when you needed help with your algebra."

Ford flushed and shifted his weight sheepishly. "Yeah, he was," he admitted.

"Rodney has helped me as well," Teyla said. She looked pointedly at Ronon.

"Not me," he said, holding up both hands. "I got Jeannette Simpson to hang out with me after practice by faking dumb at chemistry, though."

"Good job," John said, even though he was fairly sure he had no idea who Jeannette Simpson was.

"The point is," Teyla said. "Rodney is our friend, but you were our friend first and we do not like to see you like this."

"Like what?" John protested. "I'm fine."

"Right," Ronon said. "That's why you're hanging out in the library during lunch."

John shot him the glare of the betrayed and turned his eyes up to Teyla. "I really appreciate you guys coming out here," he started. "But really, everything's fine."

Teyla inclined her head. "So I see," she said. "Still, I think we may…stay a while." She pulled out the seat next to him and sat down. Ronon and Ford sat down, too, and pulled out books or magazines, all obviously prepared to sit with him until he packed up to go.

John bit his lip and looked at each of them in turn. Teyla, serene but implacable, her coppery hair glinting in the harsh light as she bent her head over her history assignment. Ford, perched on the edge of his chair, memorizing Spanish verbs by mouthing them to himself. Ronon, like an immovable mountain to his right, flipping through a magazine, legs stretched casually in front of him.

He was lucky, even without Rodney, and he bent over his book once again, quiet and grateful.

Rodney didn't actually have a Plan B. Rodney didn't actually have a plan at all, but he didn't see where that had to be a problem. Wasn't he the most popular guy at school now? Didn't he have squads of freshmen following him around and Ronon at his beck and call -- well, when it had anything to do with Laura Cadman's little circle of friends -- and also a 4.0 GPA, which -- when produced with an official transcript -- was lifted above the ordinary constraints of an artificial cap on mediocrity by his college level courses? Surely getting a date wouldn't be so difficult a task. He just had to narrow down the wide array of options.

"Katie Brown is definitely out," he told Ford after school, with his mouth full of pizza. "Too high-maintenance. I don't want to deal with the crying thing."

Ford nodded solemnly, tethered to his slice by a thick strand of cheese.

"Laura's sacrificing herself to the greater good for the course of the evening, but I'm sure we'll be together eventually, so whomever we pick should be a pleasant conversationalist, reasonably intelligent, and most importantly, spectacular arm candy, but shouldn't be holding out hope for a long-term liaison. Teyla's off-limits because John dated her and in all honesty, I prefer blondes -- "

Ford choked on his pizza.

"Maybe Jeannette Simpson? She's far from ideal. Blonde, not terribly stupid, but she fails the other criteria."

"Also, Ronon will snap your neck," Ford said helpfully as Rodney pondered Jeannette's worthiness.

"Mmm, well. Oh, I know! That girl, the one in my math class." Rodney snapped his fingers a couple of times, trying to draw out the name. "Dumais! Andrea Dumais. She is both lovely and talented, though I have to admit that her snappy patter leaves much to be desired."

"That's 'cause she hates you," Ford informed him. "You gonna eat that?" He reached for Rodney's last slice of pizza.

"Yes!" Rodney dragged the slice toward him protectively just as a brightly clad body burst into his peripheral vision. "And anyway, she doesn't hate me. I made her a Cosmopolitan."

Ford rolled his eyes, but before he could say anything, they were abruptly interrupted.

"Hello, Rodney." Vala Mal Doran slid into the booth across from Rodney, bodychecking Ford into the corner, and grinning widely. "You do go by Rodney, don't you?"

"Er. Yes?" Rodney answered, his tongue numb and stupid again in his mouth. His eyes snapped directly to her breasts, swelling from the tight tank top she wore and he was pretty sure Ford was doing the same. Everyone at school knew Vala. Her cup size was inversely proportional to Rodney's grades and her price for sharing the wealth always seemed like a good deal at the time. "What -- what else would I go by?"

Vala shrugged elegantly. "Everyone has a nickname...Rod," she suggested.

"Er?" said Rodney.

Vala glanced over at Ford. "Could we have a little privacy?" she said and it wasn't a question.

"Um, yeah," Ford said, ignoring the desperate look Rodney slung his way. "Sure. Let me just, uh -- " He made a shooing gesture, helplessly looking around Vala since she was so obviously blocking his path. "I'm going to need for you to uh, move, if you want me to uh -- "

Vala heaved a sigh to illustrate how put out she was by Ford's request. Ford and Rodney both watched her chest heave and then she leaned back slightly, twisting her lower body to the side so Ford could squeeze past her. He made it with an unintentionally hilarious series of contortions engineered to avoid accidentally groping or pressing up against Vala. Then he ran for the bathroom.

"Um, so, you uh, wanted to talk to me?" Rodney asked, sparing half a glance to watch Ford run away before turning his attention back to Vala.

"Yes!" Vala offered him a bright and somewhat predatory smile. She reached across the table and looped her fingers around his wrist. The touch went instantly to his dick and Rodney gulped. The number of guys with dirty stories about Vala were legion, much greater than the number Rodney had suspected to be telling the truth, but now he was revising his estimates. "I think that you," she said, drawing the words out, "should take me to the Homecoming dance." She shifted her weight, uncrossing and crossing her legs so that her foot brushed up against the inside of Rodney's calf. She blinked at him. "I could make it, shall we say, worth your while?"

Was she...was she propositioning him? Rodney blinked. "Wow," he said.

"Well?" she demanded, her grip tightening on his wrist.

"Um. Yeah," he said. "Sure."

"Lovely!" Her face lit up and she released him. "You can pick me up at six-thirty for dinner. See you on Saturday!" She slid out of the booth and winked at him, her hips twitching in her tight, acid-washed jeans as she sauntered away.

"Wow," Ford said, sliding back into the booth with Rodney. "What was that all about?"

Rodney opened his mouth and was completely unsurprised when nothing came out. Ford pushed a glass of water across the table and Rodney dumped it in his mouth, closing his eyes and letting the water and ice dampen his admittedly over-stimulated libido. First John and now Vala. It was more than one should be expected to bear. "She wants me to take her to the Homecoming dance," he croaked when the situation was less dire.

Ford blinked at him and then twisted around to look at the door, though Vala was already long gone. "Wow," he said again. "You know, they say she's a sure thing."

Rodney nodded. "Well," he said sanguinely. "Obviously she realized that she needed to get herself some of this and really, who could blame her?" He tried to drink from the empty water glass and found himself with a face full of ice. "Oh, my God," he said. "What do I do?"

Ford clapped him on the shoulder. "Well," he said, although he was obviously out of his depth. "Maybe you should think about getting a...you know."

"I know?" Rodney repeated.

"A...you know," Ford said. He leaned forward and glanced around. "You need to invest in some...protection."

"Protection?" Rodney asked blankly. Ford looked aggrieved.

"C'mon, McKay," he whispered as if Rodney's obtuseness needed to be kept hushed. "You need to buy a condom."

John spit his mouthguard out and pulled his helmet off his head. Practice the day before a game was made up primarily of precision drills -- strenuous and tedious.

"Genii Prep won't be a problem," Ronon said, thumping John on the back of the shoulder. John rocked forward and very nearly snapped at Ronon for forgetting his own strength when a voice from the bleachers called, "John!" and he turned automatically.

Elizabeth waved at him from the bleachers and John's foul mood dissipated like smoke into the wind. He jogged over the bleachers and tossed his helmet aside to wrap up Elizabeth in a tight embrace. She felt good -- too thin, too light, but good -- in his arms and her hair smelled like strawberries.

"Hey. You all right?" Elizabeth asked in his ear, and he decided that yeah, he could be okay with her back.

"Yeah, I'm good," he said, pulling away reluctantly.

Elizabeth had cut her hair and it curled around her ears and puffed over her forehead. She had on makeup -- blue mascara that made her eyes look very green, and pale lipstick made her mouth glossy and shimmering. John leaned in to kiss her, but she turned her head and he tasted powder on her cheek.

"John," she said, her voice oddly formal, "I want you to meet Simon. He's pre-med."

John blinked and realized that there had been someone sitting on the bleachers behind Elizabeth. The other guy -- Simon -- stood and nodded. He was tall and thin, with too much hair -- in John's assessment -- and an arrogant set to his lips.

John hated him on sight.

"Hi," he said, stepping away from Elizabeth and extending his hand. "John Sheppard."

Simon nodded. "You're the one going into the military," he said, not making it much of a question.

"Simon," Elizabeth warned under her breath, "we talked about this."

"Yep, that's me," John said loudly, as if he hadn't heard Elizabeth, his hand still firmly suspended in mid-air.

Simon finally stepped up and clasped his hand quickly. He had a hard grip and John matched it.

"Elizabeth is very proud of you," he said.

John eyed him warily.

"Simon," Elizabeth murmured.

"She is," Simon said. "She talks about you all the time."

"Well," John said, still gripping Simon's hand. "That's nice."

"Boys," Elizabeth said.

Simon released and so did John and John resisted the urge to wipe his hand on his jersey. Yeah, his palm was sweaty and his fingers were cramped but it would be rude. And he didn't want to be rude.

"Yes, well, that was nice," Elizabeth said. John wasn't looking at her, he was watching Simon, but he was pretty sure she was rolling her eyes. Elizabeth had a brilliant eyeroll and she was never afraid to use it. "Now that you've gotten that out of your systems, what do you say we all go out and grab some dinner. John? I've been looking forward to catching up with you."

Her smile wavered just at tiny bit as he raised an eyebrow at her and she looked hopeful and uncertain. He tried to imagine asking her about her life in Berkeley and trying to tell her about the last four weeks with Rodney and one-point-five-seven weeks without, and maybe try to get back together with her...with Simon sitting across the table.

"No, thanks," he told her with a careless shrug. "My dad's home and I'm having dinner with him."

Elizabeth frowned, the divot John knew so well appearing between her eyes. "All right," she said. "Promise me we'll get together before we leave on Sunday, okay? I don't want to leave without finding out what's going on with you."

"Sure," John said recklessly. It was ridiculously easy to make open-ended promises. Everyone always believed him and no one ever held him to them.

"Okay." Elizabeth's smile was small and worried but still warm. "I'll talk to you soon."

John just nodded and waved over his shoulder as he turned away. The ache in his chest was just a drop in the bucket compared to how he'd felt the week before.

"I do not know this person who is with Elizabeth," Radek said grumpily, frowning around the eyepieces of his binoculars.

"Maybe he's her new boyfriend," Rodney suggested, leaning back against the chainlink fence that surrounded the football field and stretching his legs out in front of him. "That would be the logical assumption, anyway. Back to things that are actual issues, how on Earth am I going to the Homecoming dance with Vala Mal Doran?"

"I do not know why your petty inadequacies rate higher than my possibly very broken heart," Radek said. "You are going with her because she asked you and you said yes."

"Yes, yes, your imaginary girlfriend left you and ran off with some other guy," Rodney said. "But why did Vala ask me?"

"Did you not get the memo?" Radek asked, finally putting the binoculars down and turning to slump against the fence with Rodney. "You are cool now. You are special. All the girls think you are cute and awesome. The real question is why you said yes if you do not want to go."

"I tried to ask Laura Cadman earlier this week," Rodney said glumly. "But she already promised a friend she would go with him."

"That I am sorry to hear," Radek said, not sounding sorry at all. "What does John think of all this fuss?"

Rodney shrugged, glancing to his left, away from the field and the door to the locker room where the football players disappeared after practice. "I haven't really talked to him much this week," he said casually.

Radek snorted. "Your deal is over and now you are not friends?" he asked. "It is very silly of him to make that decision since you are now Mister Popular."

"He...didn't exactly make the decision," Rodney blurted out. "I did."

Radek gave him a sharp, skeptical look and then his eyebrows shot toward his hairline. "You asked him to date you!"

"No!" Rodney shot back. "That's stupid. And ridiculous. And dumb."

"No, you do not get to pass go on this," Radek said, and Rodney regretted teaching him to play Monopoly. "What did you do? Was it ill-thought out and embarrassing?"

"No, it was not ill-thought out and embarrassing," Rodney replied witheringly, "and you don't have to sound so gleeful about the possibility. I merely -- I turned John gay and he threw himself at me. I can't help that I'm irresistible."

There was a beat and then Radek burst into peals of laughter. "Of course you did," he said, patting Rodney's arm. "Who could resist your pulsing virility?"

Rodney huffed out the breath he'd just taken and clamped his mouth shut. The last thing he needed to do was confess John's bout of temporary insanity.

"Wait." Radek's eyes widened, almost comically, and his mouth turned down in a thoughtful frown. "You are not complaining. Or yelling at me for mocking you. It is not possible you were speaking the truth?"

"Oh, please," Rodney blustered, desperate to defend John's honor. "How many ridiculous stories to I have to make up before you catch on that I'm just toying with your puny little mind?"

"John Sheppard jumped you!" Radek crowed. "You got your heart's desire and...then what happened? Was he a terrible kisser? Too grabby with the hands? Wait, you probably like that. Are you not gay after all?"

"Oh, for crying out -- I turned him down," Rodney said before he could stop himself.

Radek's grin faded into a worried little frown that wrinkled his forehead and twisted his mouth. "But Rodney," he asked searchingly, "is that not what you want? All last year it was, 'John Sheppard, John Sheppard, John Sheppard.' Do you not like him so well now that you know that he is a real boy?"

"No," Rodney said, feeling like the ground was dropping out from under him. "No, now, I think I like him better."

John pushed his formerly-frozen peas around his plate with the tines of his fork. His father had grilled steaks and baked potatoes and usually that was the best dinner ever, real food after a steady diet of pizza, stories about the places his father had been and the aircraft he'd flown. The stories were getting spare these days, had been since his dad had made colonel, but he wasn't really up to listening anyway.

It was hard to avoid Rodney at school, or even out of it. All his friends had come around, just as he knew they would, and now hanging out with them meant hanging out with Rodney. They didn't speak much but John was always reluctant to part ways anyway. He didn't know how to convince Rodney that he had been definitely, pathetically sincere in his overture because he just didn't want to use anyone else as an 'experimental constant.' Rodney was right, that was unfair, and John didn't want to be unfair to anybody. He really didn't want to be unfair to Rodney but as each day passed, he was more and more sure that his days as an experimental variable were drawing to a close.

It wasn't that he didn't like girls anymore. He absolutely did and he still wanted to go to the Academy and he still wanted to fly. It was just that no one understood him the way Rodney did, and no one made him feel the way Rodney did -- not even Elizabeth, and he had dated her for almost a year. He couldn't stop seeing Rodney when he jerked off in the shower or in bed and he had to stop himself from reaching out and touching Rodney at least four times a day.

He lined up his peas in double rows and stabbed them with the fork until he had them stacked on the tines.

"All right. Spit it out."

John looked up in surprise. He'd almost forgotten his dad was there. The elder Sheppard was leaning back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest. He raised an eyebrow at John. "Something's on your mind, son."

John took a deep breath and nodded. He knew better than to try an end run around his father when he had that look about him. And John did have a lot on his mind. Too much, too much he could never say to his father, because there were things they didn't talk about, things that he knew without being told weren't allowed so he opened his mouth and prayed for something safe to come out.

"If I don't want to be in the Air Force -- " he started, and then stopped.

If I get kicked out of the Air Force for being gay....

"How pissed are you going to be?" he finished with disgust.

Will you still love me?

The side of his father's face quirked up. "Only a little," he said. He uncrossed his arms and pushed his plate aside so he could lean on the table. "Don't ask me what we'd talk about on holidays," he said. "But if you really, honestly, don't want to be in the military, then don't be." Colonel Sheppard studied John and then suddenly he was just Dad.

John lied to his father on a regular basis. He told minor fibs and half-truths and lies of omission and he bent reality and engaged in the fine art of bullshit. He had damaged his father's beloved car and hid the repercussions for a month. A month that had put him in this position. He had never felt so dishonest, so secretive and cut-off from the man who had taught him to salute and to throw a football as he did just then. I'm sorry, he thought fiercely. I'm so sorry that I can't tell you this.

"But don't not do it just because it's big deal," Will continued, his blue eyes steady on John. "Life is about taking risks and making commitments and you can't not do something just because you're scared. You'll wind up being scared of everything and you'll wind up not doing anything with your life."

John knew he wanted to be in the Air Force and he knew he didn't want to end up like Danny Connors. But even now, rejected out of hand, even tagged "experimental variable" by Rodney's insane brand of logic, he couldn't help but think -- to know although he didn't know how -- that it was going to be worth it. No matter what, Rodney -- the fuckhead -- was still worth it.

He took a deep breath and put his fork down. "I still want to fly," he said and he looked at his father.

"Yeah," Will Sheppard said with a grin. "I knew that."

Ford, Lorne, and Ronon had invited Rodney to hang out at the Early Bird after football practice but Rodney didn't want to sit around in the stands all afternoon when John was on the field and being included in the cool crowd wasn't nearly as fun without John nudging him and muttering sardonic comments in his ear. So he trudged home alone, instead.

Jeannie and three of her little Miami Vice-worshiping friends -- actually, Rodney realized, after getting a better look, he didn't recognize any of them as friends of Jeannie's -- were sitting on the front step when he walked up to the door. There was a flurry of whispers as Rodney let himself in the house -- pointedly ignoring Jeannie -- and then he heard Jeannie say, "I'll find out," before the door closed behind him. He dumped his bag in his room and went into the kitchen to find Jeannie already lurking in the doorway.

"Sooo..." Jeannie drawled, leaning on the counter next to Rodney as he got out the milk and the Nestle Quik and proceeded to mix up a glass of chocolate milk. He put the ingredients away without asking Jeannie if she wanted any and went to sit at the kitchen table. Jeannie followed. "How come John's not here?" she asked finally. "He never comes around anymore."

"How come your little juvenile delinquent friends are here?" Rodney countered. "Where's Mom? You know she doesn't like you having people over when she's gone."

"She's at one of those tea parties for the faculty wives," Jeannie said morosely. "And you didn't answer my question."

Rodney made a face. Their mother hated those tea parties. More specifically, she hated being a 'faculty wife.' There was absolutely going to be another round of McKay Family Argument #615 tonight.

"Also," Jeannie continued loudly, "I'm allowed to have friends over if you're here."

"Oh, like you even knew I was going to be home," Rodney said, wiping off the milk clinging to his upper lip with the back of his hand. "I could have gone to the Early Bird with the football team or I could have had a meeting, or I could have gone to John's house."

"You haven't gone to John's house all week," Jeannie said. "You've been home early every single day. Did you guys get in a fight?"

"No, we didn't get in a fight," Rodney said, scowling. And technically, no, he and John had not fought. Well, he hadn't fought. John had maybe raised his voice a little. Which didn't make anything a fight.

"Is it because everyone's saying you're cool now?" Jeannie asked eagerly. "Are you cooler than John now?"

Rodney choked on his milk. "Oh, oh yes," he said, going to the counter for a paper towel. "I am now the paragon of cool. People are lining up at my door for my autograph." He paused. "Wait a minute. Those friends of yours. I haven't seen them before. They're not -- " He dropped the paper towel on the table and stalked to the front door and yanked it open. Three pairs of twelve-year-old eyes, complete with illicit purple and blue eyeliner tracked right to him. "Are they all here to see me?" he demanded of Jeannie, who was worming her way under his arm to put herself between him and the three girls.

"No," one of the girls said as snottily as Rodney had ever heard someone sound, "we're here to see John Sheppard."

"Yeah, we each paid you three dollars, now where is he?" another said.

"Guys," the third stage-whispered. "This is Jeannie's brother! The one who reprogrammed the test."

"Oh, God," Rodney said.

"So?" Jeannie demanded. "When is John coming over next? I have to tell them something," she added, nodding at the three girls as if they weren't even there. "Otherwise I'll have to refund their money."

"Oh, my God," Rodney said again. "Look, you can't charge people to hang out with John. You just -- no, you just can't," he said quickly, trying not to remember that he'd done the exact same thing. "Give them their money back."

Jeannie sighed and turned around. "Hey," she said to the girls. "You know Rodney's the next big thing. Two-fifty to hang out with Rodney?"

"No!" Rodney cried.

The girls exchanged glances. "That was pretty cool how he had the whole school going crazy," one of them said.

"Hello, you don't even go to my school," Rodney said desperately. "You still have recess."

There were a lot of very put-out sighs.

"Fine," Jeannie said, digging into her pocket. "I'll -- oh! Look, John! John!" She started jumping up and down, her blonde ponytail alternately obscuring Rodney's vision and leaving his line of sight clear to see John rolling down the street on his skateboard.

"Hey, Jeannie," John called, lifting his hand, and Rodney wanted to crawl under the front step and die.

"C'mere!" Jeannie called, still bouncing and John visibly hesitated, then stepped off his board, flipping it into his hand -- to the tune of four lovesick sighs and one irritated eyeroll -- and making his way slowly up the front walk.

"What's going on?" John asked when he was just feet away from Rodney and everyone. He reached out and tugged on Jeannie's ponytail and grinned when she flushed bright red. "Who are your friends?"

"This is Michelle," she said, too fast. "And Jennifer and Heather."

"Nice to meet you, Michelle and Jennifer and Heather," John said, grinning.

"Oh, God, I think I'm going to be sick," Rodney announced.

John glanced up at him, finally, and raised an eyebrow as the twinkle in his eyes faded and he looked guarded again. "Too much chocolate milk?" he asked.

"What? How did you?" Rodney slapped a hand over his mouth and found his upper lip damp. "Oh, for crying out loud," he said defensively. "I'm talking about this ridiculous display of teenybopper adoration. Any minute now, they're going to break out in a painfully off-key rendition of, I Know What Boys Like, and I'm going to have to shoot myself."

"Rodney!" Jeannie screeched, punching him hard in the arm. "Shut up! You're ruining everything!"

"Hey!" Rodney yelped, grabbing his arm and shoving at Jeannie.

"Whoa," John said vaguely, catching her and sort of shifting her back onto the porch as best he could, but Jeannie had locked her arms around his waist and was holding on for dear life. The three other girls sighed in envy.

Rodney was really just seconds away from taking control of the situation when a familiar Buick Elektra pulled around the corner and drove slowly up to the house. The entire porch fell silent as Mrs. McKay parked in the driveway and got out of the car.

"You're going to be in trou-ble," Jeannie sing-songed under her breath, not releasing her hold on John.

"I'm going to be in trouble?" Rodney asked. "I'm not even supposed to be here. You're the one with illicit guests."

"I have just spent two hours listening to four very stupid women discuss the benefits of a balloon valance over a tailored one," Mrs. McKay announced as she walked up to the porch. "And whether grapefruit is the next diet revolution. My life is hell. You, you, and you," she added, pointing to Jeannie's customers. "Home. Now. Jeannie? Let go of John and get inside right now. Rodney? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't hold you responsible for whatever's going on here."

"Oh, this is so not my fault!" Rodney exclaimed as his mother steered Jeannie into the house. He glanced back at John, who had backed off the porch and was standing on the front walk. The look in his eyes was something weird and confused and unlike anything Rodney had seen in Laura's eyes, or Katie's, or even Vala's. "Hey," he said, a little desperately. It was the closest John had allowed him to get since the Sunday night before last and he wasn't ready to let him slip away.

"Gotta go," John said, giving Rodney a two-fingered salute and turning away. "See you later."

Rodney sighed. "Yeah, well, have fun and...good luck tomorrow," he said, raising his voice to carry across the lawn. "Throw lots of touchdowns."

But John was already gone.

John had taken to doing his physics homework in the library during his free period. Whenever he tried to do it at home, his thoughts drifted from magnetic fields to Rodney's hands and Rodney's voice and just Rodney himself and the way he would take John's pencil right out of his hand while he was writing to illustrate a concept in the margins of John's work.

Lock it away and block it off, he told himself sternly. His father had taught him the importance of concentration long ago, when he had trouble sitting still in class because the sky was outside, with the grass and football and planes.

He scratched out another equation and immediately failed at locking and blocking by wondering why the book wasn't compensating for varying density and wanting to ask Rodney. Assuming infinite density, the square of r in the divisor increased the magnetic field toward infinity...and was that someone crying?

No, this was the library, a lot of people came here to work on projects so it was probably --

Someone was -- definitely...crying.

John put down his pencil and got up to peer around the stacks. He found her in the second row -- a pretty good hiding place, really, tucked in the alcove where the older books were. "Katie?"

The mop of fiery hair shifted and Katie Brown's red and tear-stained face glanced up at him through swollen eyes. John suddenly realized what his father was talking about when he talked about the necessity of anticipating logical follow-through.

John had no idea what he was supposed to do now.

But he couldn't exactly walk away now that he'd made his presence known, so he sat down beside Katie and rubbed the back of his neck.

"Rodney again?" he asked, bracing for more tears. "He's kind of stupid when it comes to girls."

"No," Katie said poutily. "Yes. I don't know. Did you know that he's going to Homecoming with Vala Mal Doran?"

"He's what?" John asked. "You're kidding. He asked Vala?"

"I don't know," Katie said, sniffing. "I heard she asked him."

John grimaced and tried not to think about it. He'd met Vala a few weeks after starting his junior year and that was more than enough to last him. "What does she want with him?" he wondered aloud.

Katie shrugged.

"So you're pissed that he's going with Vala?" he asked. It was valid. He was pissed that Rodney was going to Homecoming with Vala.

Katie sniffed. "He asked Laura Cadman first," she said. "But she's going with Carson Beckett and turned him down."

John nodded. "Didn't ask you, huh?"

Katie shrugged and let her hair fall in front of her face again. "No one asked me," she said quietly.

John felt kind of terrible. "I don't have a date either," he said, stretching his legs out in front of him. "You know what we should do?" he asked, snapping his fingers and pointing at Katie as if he'd just had the best idea in the world. "We should go anyway. We should just go and have fun and who cares if no one asked us? We'll show 'em. If we stay home, they won't know what they're missing."

Katie lifted her head and brushed her hair back. She did have pretty eyes, John thought, even if they were too big for her face and tended to look terrified all the time.

"Really?" she asked, biting her lip.

"Really," John said, really getting into the idea, now. "C'mon, we gotta show them what they're missing, right?"

A tentative but genuine smile slipped across Katie's face. "Wow," she said. "That's really -- that's really nice of you. I mean, Rodney said you were a good guy but I never expected, I mean -- wow, I can't wait to tell my mom!"

John blinked. "Yeah. I mean. What just happened?"

Katie's eyes widened again and her smile wavered. "You don't want to -- I thought you were asking me to go with you."

"Oh. I." John looked at Katie's fallen face and felt a hard twist of self-loathing in his gut. "Well, of course I was," he said with false conviction. "We're not going with anyone else so we might as well go together, right? I mean hey, look at what Rodney did to the match test. You don't need to run in the same circles to be friends."

"Right," Katie said, and John could see her regain that little bit of confidence. "And Rodney McKay will see what he missed out on."

"You bet," John said. "You bet he will."

"We should play a game," Radek offered when Jeannie whined about having to wait for the kickoff and Rodney's blood pressure shot up another five points. He'd finally given in to her pleas to tag along with him to a football game when Radek volunteered to walk her home afterward, negating Rodney's excuse of going straight to the subsequent party. "Do you know what a prime number is?"

"Since I was like, two," Jeannie said, rolling her eyes.

"Then I will say a number and you will tell me if that number is prime or is not prime," Radek went on, nonplussed. After all, he'd been dealing with Rodney for years and for some inexplicable reason, Radek seemed to get along with Jeannie better than Rodney did. Probably even better than Radek got along with his own sister, although Rodney had only met her once. His only lasting impressions were that she was very pretty and very impatient.

"That sounds pretty easy," Jeannie said suspiciously.

"I will use hard numbers," Radek promised.

"Don't go easy on her," Rodney said, scanning the field where the players were warming up. "She does share some of my genetic sequences, you know."

"Please shut up and stare at the cheerleaders," Radek said. "We are playing." He turned his attention to Jeannie. "Forty-one."

Jeannie's lips moved silently as she considered the number. Rodney glanced over at her and then turned back to the field. Forty-one was easy.

"Prime!" she decided.

"Very good! Now you ask me." Radek smiled at her.

"Umm, seventy…three."

"Seventy-three is also prime," Radek said. "How about…fifty-seven?"


"Hello, try dividing by three," Rodney said. John was in the end zone, lobbing passes to Ford and Stackhouse down the field. Teyla was on the sidelines with the rest of the cheerleaders, shaking her pom-poms. As he watched, she lifted one and waved it and it took him a minute to realize she was waving at him. He smiled and waved back tentatively, as if someone was going to come kick his ass for assuming Teyla was waving at him. But she was and if that wasn't the weirdest part of the whole thing, Laura Cadman, Jeannette Simpson, and Katie Brown were walking up the bleacher steps and they were waving at him, too.

"Shush," Radek said. "Go back to being popular. We will be nerds right here now. Fifty-seven is three times nineteen," he said. "Let us try another. One hundred and twenty-one."

"That one's not prime," Jeannie said as if it were obvious -- which it was, Rodney thought as he stood up to greet the girls. "Also, it's my turn."

"Hi," Rodney said to Laura. He was determined to be cool, because she was going to the dance with some other guy and he didn't want her to think he was pining or anything. Not that it mattered, because it wasn't like he didn't have a date and even if he was only technically kind of using Vala for the experience he'd need later, Laura didn't need to know that. But Katie was there and it would probably be bad form to brag in front of her after how badly everything on that end had gone and well, Rodney was starting to think that this popular thing was really more stress than it was worth.

"Hey," Laura said cheerfully. "Anyone sitting here?" She raised her eyebrows at the empty bench in front of them.

"No, sit down, be my guest," Rodney said. "Uh, you know Radek, right? And this is my sister, Jeannie."

"Hi!" Jeannie said, beaming at the older girls. "I'm Jeannie McKay."

"Hi, Jeannie," Laura said. "I'm Laura, this is Jeannette, and this is Katie."

"Oh!" Jeannie said, her face lighting up as Jeannette and Katie said hi. "Are you the one who -- "

Rodney slapped a hand over Jeannie's mouth. "Oh, hey!" he said. "They're getting ready for the kickoff."

Everyone shifted their attention to the field to watch John and the captain of the opposing team meet at the middle for the coin flip. Jeannie tried to bite Rodney's palm, and he waited until she actually got some skin between her teeth before jerking his hand away. "Shut up," he whispered to her as John elected to receive and took his position on the sidelines.

The Genii kicker drove the ball high and deep into the end zone. Markham, the kick returner, caught the ball high on his chest, looked down the field at the stampeding pack bearing down at him, and took a knee for a touchback.

The offensive line jogged out on the field and took position for a snap.

"Go Ronon!" Jeannette yelled, waving a school pennant.

"It's a snap," Rodney said, "not a touchdown." Jeannette turned around glared at him and Radek kicked him in the calf. "Ow, what was that for?"

"Come on, John!" Katie yelled, clapping her hands.

This time Rodney didn't say anything, just rolled his eyes. John at least had an actual role in this play and he'd be cheering himself if it wouldn't be so…obvious.

Ronon snapped the ball to John, who tucked the ball up next to his shoulder and ran several steps backward. He scanned the field for less than two seconds and then whipped out a pass, hard and fast toward Ford, running up the right side.

But the pass was too low, Rodney could tell from the stands. John had released too late and one of the Genii players cut in front of Ford and snagged the ball out of the air. He sprinted for the end zone and was brought down by Ronon and Mitch immediately on the twenty-two.

The referee blew his whistle and gestured for a change in possession. A groan rose from the stands, discontent murmurs and sighs echoing around Rodney. He peered between Laura and Jeannette's shoulders and saw John rip his helmet off on the sidelines. Rodney was too far away to see his face very well, but there was a better than average probability that John was pissed off and blaming himself for giving the Genii the ball so close to their own goal.

Sure enough, the Genii scored in two plays and neatly kicked in the extra point.

"I thought we were supposed to play easy teams on Homecoming," Rodney said, his eyes fixed on the field as the offensive line moved into position. John was yanking at his helmet and talking to Ronon. "So we could win and be all happy."

"We'll win," Laura said positively. "It's one touchdown. And we've always beaten the Genii."

"First time for everything," Rodney mumbled, remembering an accidental run-in with that team's defensive backs the year before.

"They are indeed very large, this team," Radek said doubtfully.

"Maybe we just need to make some noise!" Katie -- who had never made noise in her life -- suggested, and immediately started yelling encouragements at John. Jeannette joined in, entreating Ronon to do terrible, violent things to the Genii linebackers. Laura, who had a hell of a set of lungs on her, chimed in, and Jeannie, not to be outdone by the other girls, added her voice to the mix.

Rodney and Radek exchanged puzzled glances, shrugged, and settled back to watch the girls watch the game.

It soon became clear that the Genii were bigger, stronger, and meaner. John threw pass after pass and handed off the ball time and time again, but only Ronon seemed able to cut any path through the Genii defense. Every time he jogged off the field, John looked more and more tired and with four minutes left in the second quarter, they were down by thirteen points. Rodney wondered what he would say to John afterward, at the party. He wanted to say something comforting and wise, something that would make John smile and talk to him again, make him go back to being just the way he was before. But even on the field he seemed tense and short-tempered, off his game just enough that everyone else felt it, too.

"Rodney," Jeannie asked, breaking him out of his reverie by yanking on his jacket sleeve. "I'm thirsty, can I have a Coke?"

"Yeah, okay," Rodney said, more because he wanted a Coke and because his butt was going numb from sitting still on the hard metal bleachers. "You want anything else? Popcorn? Soft pretzel?"

Jeannie shook her head and pulled out her little purse.

Rodney watched her count out change and sighed. "No, seriously, I will buy you a drink and a snack if you want it. Stop it with the quarter counting. I'm going to get something to eat. Anyone else need anything?"

Katie wanted a soda and Radek was hungry for a hot dog -- Radek tended to eat like he had a tapeworm and never gained an ounce -- and Jeannie finally decided on a soft pretzel. Rodney collected the money and shoved it in his pocket before taking the steps down to the field level. The concession stands were under the bleachers with the port-a-potties and Rodney took the long way around to avoid the stench. Just before he turned the corner that would take the field out of sight, he glanced back to see if the offense was doing anything interesting.

His breath choked up in his throat as he got a clear view of the field positions and he rushed for the chain link fence circling the field.

Football may never have been Rodney's particular area of expertise, but it didn't take a genius to see what was coming.

John never saw it coming. One second he was scanning for a receiver with minimal heat, the next he was flat on his back, feeling the impact of a dozen bodies landing on top of him.

He grunted and directed murderous thoughts toward Ronon.

As the weight eased off, John realized that his jaw hurt like a bitch and his mouth was filled with coppery blood. Someone rolled off his arm and John felt around for his mouthguard. It was dangling from his facemask, but further exploration confirmed that all his teeth were intact.

"You okay?"

John squinted up at Ronon Dex looming over him.

"That hurt," he said, lifting his head.

Ronon leaned down, wrapped John's jersey in his fist, and lifted John to his feet.

"You're bleeding," Ronon said.

"Yeah, no shit," John replied.

The defense was taking the field, so John made his way off, dabbing blood out of his mouth to find himself faced with a frantic Rodney McKay.

"Oh, my God, are you all right? No, you're not, you're bleeding!"

"Rodney, what are you doing here?" John asked, edging around the flailing hands to get to the bench.

"I'm making sure you didn't break your neck!" Rodney nearly shouted.

"You're not supposed to be down here," John said, his words garbled around the swelling.

"You all right?" Carson Beckett, the team manager, asked John, handing him a flexible cold pack.

"Yeah," John said, aware of Rodney hovering beside him. "Bit my lip or something."

"Let me see." Carson thumbed John's chin down and directed a penlight into his mouth.

John saw Rodney peering over Carson's shoulder and had the irrational urge to hit him.

"I'm fine," he said, pulling his head back.

"Suit yourself," Carson said. He handed John a scrap of clean white gauze. "Blot with that. You need to stop bleeding before Coach'll let you back on the field."

John nodded his comprehension and blotted. The gauze tasted awful and came away spotted with blood.

"Who's supposed to be guarding him?" Rodney was demanding. "What's wrong with you people? How hard is it to keep your quarterback from getting sacked?"

Just the word 'sack' made John groan. Rodney vanished, ostensibly to go tell the football players how to play their game.

"You okay, Shep?" Ford asked, materializing at his side. "That looked like a nasty hit."

"Yeah, I'm fine." John cracked his neck and felt a little better. "Go drag Rodney off Ronon before Ronon snaps him like a twig."

Ford chuckled. "Yeah, no problem." He went off and John ducked his head, pressed the gauze back into the cut. He could hear Ronon's rumble and Rodney's high-pitched distress and Ford's calming voice. Eventually he saw a familiar pair of shoes hesitate in front of him and a tentative voice ask,

"Hey, are you okay?"

John glanced up and growled, "Rodney...."

"Look, you're not stupid and it would be a shame for you to lose valuable brain cells to an asinine game," Rodney started.

"McKay!" John barked. "Get back in the stands! Now!"

Rodney stared at him.

"Now," John said. When Rodney didn't move, he stood up and leaned close to Rodney's ear, his voice dampened to the rest of the field by the cheering accompanying an interception. "Get off the field and stop making me want to kiss you," he muttered. "It's fucking up my concentration." He stepped back, still glaring at Rodney, and put on his helmet. He tossed the bloody gauze in the nearest trash container and jogged out onto the field.

"Hey! Hey, McKay!"

"Huh, what?" Rodney blinked out of his shock. Ford was peering at him from under thick eyebrows. He looked concerned.

"You gotta get off the field before Coach sees you," Ford said, snapping the chinstrap of his helmet. He clapped Rodney on the shoulder. "Don't mind Sheppard," he said kindly. "He can be kind of a jerk when we're down. He doesn't like to lose."

"But -- " Rodney said, but Ford was already on the field and ducking into his position. John still looked angry when he turned his head and snapped something at Ford.

Rodney stepped back two paces and stumbled over some equipment piled on the ground. He turned and rushed off the sidelines, awkward in his haste.

It was stupid, stupid because Rodney knew John wanted to kiss him, John had kissed him, but Rodney had to unzip his jacket anyway and wave some air onto his flushed face.

On the field, the whistle blew to signal half-time and people started to stir from their seats. Rodney got in line at the food stands to beat the crowds. His jeans chafed uncomfortably when he had to dig the money out of his pocket and all he could do was think of the smell of John, the faint warmth of aftershave under sweat and dirt and eye black grease. He gathered up the food and started making his way back to the bleachers where he'd left his sister and friends.


The voice was too deep to be a student -- except maybe Ronon who had apparently gone through puberty at the age of six, but he was on the field -- so Rodney straightened up automatically as he turned around, drinks and pretzels snugged tight against his chest. "Colonel Sheppard," he said, surprised. At least that took care of one problem -- there was nothing that killed an erection like facing the father of its source. "I thought you were out of town."

"Just got in," the Colonel said. He was wearing his blue uniform and had a lightweight blue jacket zipped halfway up over his uniform shirt. "I came straight here. How's John doing out there?"

Rodney figured the Colonel didn't want to know that John was stinking up the field because Rodney wouldn't have sex with him, so he just said, "We're down by a couple of touchdowns. John took a pretty hard hit a couple minutes ago." Even that small fact felt like a betrayal.

The Colonel grimaced. "His mother always said he was too small to play football," he said. "We never listened to her."

"He's okay," Rodney said quickly. It was the first time he'd heard the Colonel refer to Mrs. Sheppard and he glanced at the older man's face, but if there was anything there to see, he'd missed it. "I mean, he's bleeding and he's probably going to have a pretty spectacular bruise, but he doesn't seem to be too mentally impaired or anything."

The corner of the Colonel's mouth quirked up in a grin. "Well, that's a relief," he said. "Is it crowded up there? Let me give you a hand with those," he added, taking two of the sodas from Rodney and walking off toward the stairs to the bleachers.

"Well, you can sit with us, um, I mean, if you want to," Rodney said doubtfully.

"Great!" the Colonel replied. "Lead the way."

"This is, uh, Colonel Sheppard," Rodney said when he got back to where Jeannie and Radek and the girls were waiting for him. "John's dad."

Laura Cadman shot to her feet. "Sir," she said, and everyone stared at her.

The Colonel grinned. "You're Hack Cadman's little girl, huh?" he asked, taking her hand. "Laura? Not a day goes by that we don't hear about you."

Laura blushed and said, "Yes, sir," as Jeannette and Radek howled with laughter and Katie giggled, blushing, behind her hand.

The Colonel made a point of learning everyone's name and shaking their hands, and then he sat down between Rodney and Jeannie. "You must be Jeannie McKay," he said, tugging on Jeannie's ponytail just like John had done earlier that week. Jeannie beamed.

Rodney ate his own pretzel and drank his Coke and cheered with the rest of the crowd when Stackhouse picked up forty yards in the third quarter and Ronon carried it over the line. But so far, that had been the only score in the second half of the game. The defensive line held the Genii to only about eighty yards total, but John threw more incomplete passes than good ones, and was taken down hard when he tried to run the ball himself. He finally started handing off the ball to Ronon, who would pick up a half dozen yards on a good play. It was slow going and just plain not enough with the Genii throwing long passes far into the fourth quarter. Everyone was starting to look dejected and Jeannie was leaning sleepily on the Colonel's side, the same way she leaned on Rodney when it was past her bedtime.

"I can't believe we're going to lose Homecoming," Jeannette said dejectedly, as the clock was running down. "Go, Ronon!" she yelled for good measure as half the Genii defensive line piled on Ronon.

"It is not looking good," Radek agreed, leaning his chin on his hand.

"One good play," Colonel Sheppard said, elbows resting on his knees as he studied the field intently. "All they need is one good play."

Rodney looked at the clock and shook his head. Thirty-eight seconds left in the game. That wasn't nearly enough time.

"There's no time left, Shep," Mitch said, adjusting his cup while he was blocked from the bleachers by the rest of the huddle. "Look at the clock."

John glanced guiltily at the timekeeper on the scoreboard, even though he knew just how long they had. Thirty-eight seconds. That wasn't enough time to do much of anything. "All right," he said, shrugging his shoulders to settle his pads. "In that case, just run for the end zone."

"Just run for the endzone?" Ford echoed doubtfully.

"You do your job," John said, putting out his hand, palm down. The other players slowly pressed their hands over his. "And I'll do mine." He offered a smile that was just beyond fake and backed out of the huddle to take his position.

He fit the mouthguard against his teeth and bit down. The Genii defensive line was barely even tense and why would they be? They thought they had this all sewn up. They were six points ahead and John was on the sixty-yard line. The guy who had sacked John, a dark, pock-marked kid with a hooked nose, sneered at him, and John made a face right back. If for no other reason, he wanted to beat that guy, watch him slump in defeat, and that image kept John sharp and bright with adrenaline.

The whistle barked clear and loudly a few yards away.

Ronon snapped the ball neatly into John's hands. John ran back into position, set his feet, pulled his arm back and threw. It wasn't arc-perfect like he'd shown Rodney that day in his back yard, but hard, with everything he had, the words running through his head --

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee --

He danced backward, even though, now that the ball was released, he was of no interest to the other team.

Padded bodies in bright jerseys raced down the field, jockeying for position, but John kept his eyes steady on the football, spinning brown and white against the dark sky and bright pinpricks of white light.

He saw it reach its apex, watched it angle downward, and felt the hush of the crowd as the ball tumbled down, down…

…Into Aiden Ford's reaching hands.

John gasped, air rushing out of his body as the bleachers erupted in riotous cheers. Ronon grabbed him and lifted him clean off the ground. In seconds, John was in the air, on Ronon's shoulders and Mitch's, and they were carrying him off the field. Special teams had gone in and kicked the extra point clean through the posts.

They had won.

"Did you see that?" the Colonel shouted over the eruption of cheers and whistles and cowbells shaking the stands and deafening Rodney. The fans were waving pompoms and school pennants and throwing peanuts and popcorn. It was utter, gleeful, chaos.

Rodney nodded enthusiastically, trying to see around people. He could barely see the field, could see the knot of football players, the colors of their jerseys jumbled together, each one indistinguishable from the next. He craned his neck to see the numbers on their backs, to find John in the pile.

It didn't take as long as Rodney had expected. John was boosted up and into sight, supported on the shoulders of his teammates. Ford, too, but Rodney only had eyes for John.

"C'mon, let's get down there," Colonel Sheppard said, putting one hand on Rodney's shoulder to hold him back as Jeannie and Radek stepped into the aisle of the bleachers ahead of them.

The Colonel's hand was large and heavy, reminding Rodney of John's casual punches to his shoulder and the way John's fingers lined up between the laces of a football. He wondered what Colonel Sheppard would say if he knew John had kissed Rodney and invited him inside. He wondered what his own father would think. Dr. McKay's hands were always full, but at least he wouldn't be angry or disappointed.

Colonel Sheppard moved easily through the crowd of students and parents, the silver eagles on his shoulders gleaming in the near-daylight glare of the stadium lighting. Rodney trailed him down to the trampled grass and dirt surrounding the field, glancing around for John or anyone else he might know. Several kids whose names he might have known said hello and waved or tapped him on the shoulder. It felt spooky and surreal, like he was trapped in his own Outer Limits episode where a Pod-Rodney was suddenly popular and liked by his peers. It felt wrong, but still sort of good, like sneaking a look at the skin magazines in the drugstore, like scoring an A on a test he had spent maybe a grand total of five minutes studying for. He turned to tell the Colonel he had to give Radek and Jeannie a ride or some other invented excuse and found himself face-to-face with John, who looked sweaty, grimy, bloodied, and bruised. The side of his face and his lip were starting to swell but he was grinning like he was feeling no pain at all.

"Did you see that?" he burst out, his inflection an exact echo of his father's.

"That was incredible," Rodney agreed, his excitement reignited by John's. "When you threw the -- and Ford caught it and -- "

John's expression shifted and he straightened his back, helmet dangling, forgotten, from his fingertips.

"What?" Rodney asked, baffled, until he realized that the Colonel had stepped up behind him. "Oh." He moved out of the way and the Colonel cuffed John on the back of the head and pulled him into a rough hug.

"Dad," John complained, muffled against the shoulder of his father's uniform.

"Just like Flutie," the Colonel boomed, still beaming with pride. "That was a great play, Johnny."

John turned his head toward Rodney and blushed when they made eye contact. He lifted his eyebrows in the universal, Parents, what can you do? gesture, but he couldn't seem to keep the smile off his face. Rodney beamed right back and thought that maybe this was what perfect meant.

The entire room paused to cheer when John walked into Mitch's house.

"It was a lucky throw," he said, accepting an open beer from Mitch and slinging an arm around Ford's neck. "Ford here did all the legwork." He took a long drink from the can and looked around the room. There were people there he'd never seen at an after-party before, along with a handful of last year's graduates, Jack O'Neill and Elizabeth among them. Simon, John noticed with displeasure, was also there, standing against the wall with is hands shoved in his pockets. John released Ford and wandered away from the main crowd, away from Elizabeth and her shiny new boyfriend, and went looking for Rodney.

The painless ache in his shoulder from the hard throw, the pride in his father's face, Rodney's excited grin, all mixed together in his memory and pushed a smile onto John's face. He was on top of the world, and nothing was going to bring him down. Maybe even Rodney, who really was an idiot when he thought too much, would kick back a little and agree to go out to -- well, no, they should really go back -- no, his house was out with his dad home. Fine, so they weren't going to be making out that night, but surely Rodney had realized by now --

John paused in the doorway of Mitch's recreation room. Rodney was sitting on the pool table, legs dangling off the side, with some dark-haired girl standing between them. She wore an Academy of the Holy Potentia sweater and as he watched, she stole a sip of Rodney's drink and giggled. Rodney grinned in return and leaned down to whisper something in her ear.

Fuck. John turned away and pressed his forehead to the wall just out of sight of the rec room doorway. He was breathing heavily and so he tipped his head back and poured the rest of his beer down his throat, swallowing as he went.

His thoughts collapsed in a jumbled heap of, no, and, but wait and, you have a crush on me and most of all, why and how can I make you understand? He pushed off the wall and went into the kitchen.

"'Nother beer?" someone asked him.

"Nah, gimme something good," John said, finding a bottle of whiskey on the table. He sloshed some in a plastic cup, filling it to the top indentation, just like he would if it were beer.

"That's a lot of JD," someone else said, peering over his shoulder. John caught a flash of red hair and thought, Laura Cadman.

"Yeah," he said, taking the first swallow off the top of the cup and feeling the whiskey shudder its way down his throat. "I think I deserve it."

Rodney was feeling pretty confident in the endurance of his popularity. Girls who weren't even from his school were hanging on his every word! This new girl, Allina, turned out to go to the all-girls Catholic school down the block, Academy of the Holy Potentia, and Rodney thought she looked quite fetching in her short denim Gap skirt and penny loafers. She wasn't stupid, either, he realized delightedly as she asked him intelligent questions about his plans for the statewide science fair. The actual event wasn't until April but Rodney had learned early on that a little planning meant time to recover from abject disaster.

He was on his second cup of beer and considering sharing the whole story about building the nuke in sixth grade -- well, the parts that weren't too classified, anyway -- when Elizabeth Weir tapped him on the shoulder.

"Sorry to interrupt," she said, not sounding terribly sorry at all, "but do you have a minute? I'd like to talk to you."

"Ah, yeah, of course," Rodney said, suddenly feeling the beer in his stomach. Elizabeth had been intimidating before he had started identifying her as 'John's ex.' He had a feeling this wasn't going to go well for him.

He trailed Elizabeth out to the porch where she shut the door, muffling the noise from the party, and folded her arms around herself as if she was cold. She probably was, Rodney realized, in short sleeves in the cool night air. It wasn't terribly cold, but she should have a sweater.

"I've got a fleece jacket in the car if you're cold," he offered, feeling lame.

"I'm fine, thank you," Elizabeth said with a genuine smile. "I wanted to talk to you about John."

"Ah. Yes. Well." Rodney fought the urge to fidget. "Contrary to what you may have heard, it's not that we spend all that much time together so really, it's not like I know -- "

"You answered his phone," Elizabeth said wryly. "Believe me, I know better than anyone that John's not much for talking. But he's been really…he just hasn't sounded like the John I know, the last few times I've called. Is there something going on?"

"Going on?" Rodney repeated. "Why would anything be going on?"

"Rodney," Elizabeth managed to make the word sound like an admonishment, but she was smiling. "I'm not asking if he's in trouble. I'm just worried about him. Is it his father? School? He never says he's having trouble but I know he hates Mr. Simmons."

"Well, obviously," Rodney agreed. "Simmons is an ass and John's not having problems in his class because I'm helping him and he's not stupid, but Simmons can't seem to latch his feeble mind around the idea that a football player might not actually be brain dead. If he's having problems with his dad, I don't know anything about it. I mean, that whole thing is a little weird but, heh, you should see my family. And I don't know what the thing was with Teyla. I have to say, I think she dumped him but -- I wasn't supposed to mention that, was I?" He winced and braced for the wrath of Elizabeth.

"What? That he was seeing someone else?" Rodney peeked in time to see Elizabeth raise one eyebrow. "He didn't tell me, but I can guess when that was going on. She dumped him two weeks ago?"

"Three," Rodney said weakly.

Elizabeth bit her lip and looked slightly confused. "Okay," she said, sounding doubtful. "Maybe that's it, then."

"He -- didn't seem terribly broken up about it," Rodney said, and then wanted to kick himself. If he played his cards right, he could cover for John without raising Elizabeth's suspicions.

"This is John we're talking about," Elizabeth said so wryly that Rodney suddenly liked her a lot. "He doesn't seem terribly broken up about much of anything."

"Huh," Rodney said, thinking of the way John had yelled at him in the car, and the stony silence that had dominated at their meetings since that night. "No, no, I guess not."

Elizabeth ran one hand through her hair. "I just," she started. "I don't know what to say to him. I mean, I knew we'd drift apart, I expected that. I just -- he's been acting so funny lately." She sounded bereft and Rodney actually started to feel a little bad about not being able to tell her what was going on.

"Look," he said, stuffing both hands into his pockets. "I haven't really -- "

The front door opened and Laura Cadman stepped out onto the porch. "'Scuse me," she said. "Hi, Elizabeth. Um, Rodney? You know, far be it from me to monitor someone else's alcohol tolerance, but John's been drinking kind of a lot, and he's getting a little...sloppy."

"John?" Elizabeth interrupted, looking surprised. "Drunk?"

"Oh, for crying out -- yes, where is he? I'll do it," Rodney told Laura. His heart beat a little faster in his chest as he remembered John asking him to stay and wondering what he would say this time. Then he remembered that the Colonel was in town and realized he couldn't take John home. Maybe if he drove around for a while --

"I'll take him home," Elizabeth said, stepping in front of Rodney. "You stay and have fun. We've got to talk anyway."

"But -- " Rodney started, but neither Elizabeth nor Laura were listening. "That's my job," he finished, but no one was around to hear.

"Here," John heard Elizabeth say to Simon as she tossed him her keys. "Take my car back to the house. I'll meet you there after I drop John off."

"I'll follow you," Simon said.

"Don't," Elizabeth ordered and John was selfishly glad to hear that tone in her voice. "I'm two blocks away and I want to make sure he's okay before I leave."

"He's a big boy -- " Simon started.

"He's still in high school," Elizabeth hissed.

"Hey," John protested. "I'm a big boy -- "

"Get in the car," Elizabeth snapped. "You're wasted."

Elizabeth was angry. John hadn't seen her that mad more than a handful of times and never at him. So he raised his eyebrows at Simon, who refused to look at him, and slid into Nova's passenger seat. He leaned his head back against the stiff leather seat and glanced at the ceiling. He'd been here three weeks ago when he'd been finger-fucking Teyla and thinking of Rodney and nothing since then had been the same. The car didn't even seem like the same place without the smell of sex and Teyla's body over his and the radio playing too softly to identify the song.

Elizabeth opened the driver's side door and got in. She jacked the seat forward to accommodate for her shorter legs and tugged the seatbelt across her body. John rolled his head to the side to apologize to her but instead he said, "Your boyfriend's a real dick."

"Yeah, well, so is my ex," Elizabeth muttered, starting the engine and putting the car in gear.

John knew that she meant him but he was too loose to feel particularly insulted. He glanced out the window and watched the houses and street signs go by and he watched the reflection of Elizabeth's face. Her mouth twitched and frowned and she concentrated very hard on getting them back to John's house, a place she'd been a hundred times before. Her teeth pressed at her bottom lip and John remembered the way she'd tasted, Tic-Tacs and lip gloss.

"You're not the same guy I said goodbye to three months ago," Elizabeth finally said. "What is going on with you?"

John turned his head toward her and saw the little creases of frustration in her forehead.

"What's going on with you?" he asked. "You barely have time to answer your phone, you cut your hair, and you're dating that, that, hippie!"

"We broke up when I went away because this would happen," Elizabeth said, her voice tight. She pulled into John's driveway and turned off the engine. "People change when they go to college, John. They grow up."

"Is that what you're doing?" John asked, a little more belligerently than he meant. "Growing up?"

"You'll understand when you go off to the Academy," Elizabeth said. "When you're on your own like that, you learn things about yourself you'd never even guess."

What, like kissing guys makes me hot? John just barely managed not to ask. Aloud, he said, "And you found out that long-haired, judgmental, beatniks make great boyfriends?"

"You should cut Simon a little slack," she said with a lot less righteous indignation than John expected from her.

"What?" John sputtered, outrage coursing through him. "I should cut him some slack? He practically walked up and called me a babykiller!"

Elizabeth sighed. "John, you have to understand. His father was in Vietnam -- "

"My father was in Vietnam," John spat back, not inclined to understand in the least. "My father flew dozens of missions and won the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross in Vietnam."

"It was different," Elizabeth insisted. "He was in the air, he was an officer -- John, Simon's dad was a grunt in the Army. He was on the ground getting shot at. By the time he got home, every little thing made him jump and he kept expecting to see -- " Her voice broke. "He kept expecting to see horrible things. So he drank a lot. And that made him a mean, old, bitter man. I know your father, John, and he's a good man. Simon's father isn't."

"He was a soldier," John said stiffly.

"I don't think you really understand what war is like," Elizabeth said.

"What, and you do?" John snapped, not bothering to keep his voice from carrying outside his slightly open window. He tried not to think of that hazy time when he was five, those eleven awful days when the military wives on base were always in their house, always trying to pet his hair down, even the ones he didn't know. When the television was always on and he didn't have to go to school, and then, finally, they took their first trip to Germany and John pressed his nose to the airplane window and his mother said, We're going to see your daddy, John.

"What do you do, go look for ground wars to fight on the weekends?" he snapped. "When you're not going out to foreign restaurants?"

"That's not what I'm saying," Elizabeth protested. "I think you know what happens in war, I just don't think you understand how badly it screws people up. I think you look at your fast airplanes and your air to ground missiles and your distant explosions and you don't know what it's like to have your best friend ripped apart by a grenade or see the guy next to you take a bullet in the face. It messes people up. It makes them drink. And…and do crazy things."

"That's their choice," John said. "It doesn't have to be mine."

"I hope it's not," Elizabeth said. "I just hope the alternative isn't worse."

Her voice broke on the last word and that's when the Colonel knocked on the car window.

John and Elizabeth both jumped at the sound. John collapsed back in his seat with an, "Oh, crap," and a dizzy, sick feeling in his stomach.

"Colonel Sheppard," Elizabeth said, the nervousness in her voice new. "I'm sorry, I was just -- "

"It's okay, Elizabeth," the Colonel said evenly. "I'm going to take John inside now."

Elizabeth nodded and John closed his eyes, banged his head against the leather headrest, and thought of every curse he knew, in alphabetical order, as his father came around the car and opened the door.

"Up and at 'em, cowboy," the Colonel said, steadying John as he got out of the car. John, embarrassed by the cowboy bit, made a half-hearted attempt to shake off his guiding hand. But the Colonel's grip just tightened in warning. "You drive home," he said to Elizabeth, who had been getting out of the car. "John will get it in the morning when he comes over to apologize."

"I can walk," Elizabeth said with the edge of what John was coming to think of as her 'college girl' voice.

"It's after midnight," the Colonel said. "You'll drive that car home." A quick smile softened his words. "It's good to see you again, Elizabeth," he said. "I'm sorry it's not under better circumstances."

Elizabeth nodded, her gaze torn between the Colonel and John. "Me, too," she said. "Thank you." And she got in the car and started the engine.

John didn't look at his father as he marched inside. Nothing had gone right that week, nothing until that spectacular pass, and here he was, back in the doghouse with everyone over something entirely stupid. He missed Rodney, had been missing him for the past two weeks, but especially badly that night. No rooftop talks, not tonight, even though there was never much talking anyway. It was just being up there that mattered.

"I don't ever want to hear you speak to Elizabeth, or any woman, the way you did tonight," Colonel Sheppard said when the door closed behind them.

"You weren't there," John said, trying not to slur his words. He had sobered up a little on the ride home, trying to catch up with Elizabeth when they argued. "She's got this boyfriend. He's a real pr -- " John cut himself off before he actually said, 'prick' and thought fast. " -- putz. You didn't hear the things he said."

"There's no excuse for not being a gentleman, John," his father said. "You overindulged, your judgment is impaired, and you started running at the mouth without thinking. Tomorrow you're going over there to apologize to Elizabeth and you will keep yourself civil, boyfriend or not."

"You don't understand," John said, his voice rising.

"I do," the Colonel said firmly. "And so will you, come morning. C'mon. Get to bed."

John licked his lips. They were dry, like the rest of his mouth. He knew better than to fight his father on this thing, but he couldn't help but feel that he'd lost his last ally. "Yes, sir," he said quietly and turned around and walked to his room before his father could admonish him for his sardonic tone.

He knew better than to go out on the roof -- it was fairly flat but he wasn't keen on the idea of walking off the edge by accident. After a few minutes spent staring at his ceiling, he leaned over and opened the bottom drawer of his nightstand. The picture of him and Elizabeth at Homecoming -- their first date, after she'd kissed him while they were planning the dance -- was framed in simple silver. John rubbed his thumb down the edge of the photograph, over Elizabeth's long hair and simple white dress. His own hair was flopped over his eyes, unruly and sloppy. He looked entirely comfortable in his suit, and they both beamed at the camera, excited to be there, excited to be together.

John replaced the picture in his drawer and rolled over. He wasn't sure he recognized either of the people in the shot. His own face, at least, wasn't the one who stared back at him in the mirror.

"I should have brought Ford," Rodney said when he saw the binoculars in Radek's hand. "Ford's stealthy."

"Ah, but you did not want Ford to know you have never bought a condom before," Radek said helpfully.

"Ford's a freshman," Rodney groaned. "Ford has never bought a condom before."

"Maybe no, but you are a senior," Radek said, peering around the corner, "and this entire operation is a testament to our sad lack of social achievement."

"But we are going to excellent colleges," Rodney reminded him. "And studies show that over time, women's desire to marry good-looking men falls in inverse proportions to their desire to marry rich men. And we are going to be rich men."

"You must hope that it is to include marrying bald men," Radek said placidly. "Or that the slope of this supposed learning curve is steeper than the entropic loss of your hair."

"Hey," Rodney protested, lifting a protective hand to his artfully mussed hair. "Just because my father's almost completely -- how do you know he doesn't just shave it? Besides, male pattern baldness is passed down through the mother's side."

"And you have sealed your destiny," Radek declared with great finality. "Or do you mean to tell me that Uncle Martin does not attach his hair by glue every morning?"

"Okay, fine," Rodney huffed. "I'm doomed to be bald by the time I'm fifty. I'll have won at least my first Nobel prize by then. Also, I think it's worth noting that we're here because I am going to get laid tonight by a very beautiful woman."

"You are getting lucky with the school slut," Radek corrected. "And you do not want to catch anything unpleasant."

"Can we just go in?" Rodney said.

Radek made an elaborate gesture inviting Rodney to lead the way. Rodney drew himself up, rounded the corner, and jerked open the door to the drugstore just in time to save a small, gray-haired woman the trouble of doing it herself.

"Oh, Rodney! Thank you!" Rodney stopped short and Radek bounced off his back. Mrs. Beckett smiled beatifically and exited the drugstore through the door Rodney was holding open. "And Radek, too! How nice to see you both. Are you running errands for your mothers, dear?"

"I -- er -- um -- yes -- thank you. I mean -- " Rodney stuttered helplessly. He sucked at lying and he was pretty sure his face was broadcasting, I'm going to have sex tonight! loud and clear to Carson Beckett's mother. She used to serve them shortbread cookies and milky tea when Rodney and Radek had played poker with Carson in her basement. But some time in their junior year, Carson had dropped physics and denounced the hard -- really hard, anyway -- sciences, and somehow achieved an artificial level of cool that set him strata above Rodney and Radek, though still significantly lower than the jocks.

"It is a fine morning to be out and productive," Radek said in yet another display of saving Rodney's ass. Rodney sagged against the edge of the door. All mothers loved Radek. He was home free, as long as he kept his mouth shut and smiled a lot.

"Early to bed and early to rise," Mrs. Beckett added. "Carson's father loved that saying. A harder-working man there never was." She misted up and Rodney and Radek shifted nervously. Carson's father had died years ago, long before either of them had met the family and Mrs. Beckett's continued devotion to the man made them both feel a little weird. "Well. Are you both going to this dance tonight?"

"Er," Radek said.

"Yes!" Rodney cut in. "Yes, we are. Both of us."

Mrs. Beckett ignored Radek's sulky glare and beamed at both of them. "That's wonderful! Carson will be there, too, of course." She paused meaningfully. "Maybe I'll see you both over again sometime soon?"

"Ah," Rodney said.

"Well," she said. "Here I am holding you up. Do have fun tonight and tell your mothers I said hello!"

"Of course," Radek said as Rodney said, "All right," and they both waved until Mrs. Beckett had turned the corner and then they rushed inside the store, nearly getting stuck as they both tried to fit through the doorway at once.

"Oh, my God," Rodney said once the door had closed behind them. "I don't think I want to have sex anymore."

Radek looked a little queasy. "Perhaps it is not good to think on right now," he agreed. "But you are telling fibs, saying I will go to this dance."

"Oh, please," Rodney said, picking up one of the baskets stacked inside the door. "You have to come along, for moral support if nothing else. Besides, Elizabeth Weir will be there."

"With her new boyfriend," Radek sulked.

"But she'll look hot," Rodney said. "And you can sit on the bleachers and ogle her."

"Yes, because that is so much fun," Radek said, trailing Rodney to the medicine aisle.

"We've been doing it for two and a half years," Rodney said, throwing cotton balls and band-aids into the basket. "Why break a tradition like that?"

"It is a sucky tradition," Radek said. "Why are you buying foot cream? Since when do you suffer from athlete's foot?"

"Because if I buy enough stuff, and just happen to have a box of condoms in there with everything else," Rodney explained, "it's not like I'm walking up to the register and saying, 'Hi, I'm having sex tonight. Can you ring these up for me?'"

Radek snorted but conceded to Rodney's obvious brilliance. Rodney added a few other choice items and then took a deep breath and marched up to the condom display.

"Okay, I didn't think there'd be so many," he admitted.

"Perhaps you should begin with basic model," Radek suggested, his eyes round behind his glasses as he gazed as the choices.

"Yeah, if I knew -- hey! You're supposed to be keeping lookout!"

Radek jumped and dragged his eyes away from the shelf. "I am looking out!" he protested, spinning around, his neck craned to see over the top shelves. "What am I looking for?"

"Oh, I don't know," Rodney said, now fully distracted from the condoms. "Maybe people we know? Any of my mother's friends would be a good start and maybe also our teachers and right, can you imagine if Katie Brown walked in on this?"

"I see your point," Radek said, peering around the corner and jumping back from the stack of feminine products. "There is no need to shout."

"There's a need to shout when people don't listen," Rodney said, choosing a box at random and throwing it into his basket, then arranging the bag of cotton balls to cover it. "Okay, let's go."

"This is all very James Bond," Radek remarked as they made their way circuitously to the front of the store, avoiding any aisle with actual people in it and pausing to feign interest in various products along the way. "Except that you are stealthy like a rhinoceros."

"Shut up," Rodney said. He surveyed the open registers and chose one with a middle-aged male cashier. He leaned against the counter and threw a pack of mint-flavored gum in with the rest of his purchases as the man started to run the items across the price scanner. Rodney lowered his voice and grinned smugly at Radek. "My great plan worked, didn't it?"

Radek lifted his eyebrows and shrugged in concession.

"Huh," the cashier said and lifted his intercom speaker. "I need a price check for a three-pack of Trojan condoms on register seven," he said, the words echoing through the entire store.

Rodney covered his face. "I hate my life," he said, but his words were muffled by his hands and Radek's peals of laughter.

"Thanks, Mr. Bayard," John said to the elderly man, "but I told you I can't accept tips."

"Keep it, sonny," old Mr. Bayard said. "Use it to save up for college!"

"Uh, thanks," John said, looking at the quarter in his palm. "But really, it's all right."

He felt like death warmed over but he was done for the morning. He could take his cottony mouth and pounding head home for some orange juice -- he actually kind of wished he knew how to make the stuff Rodney had given him; it was vile but it had worked -- and a run. Mr. Bayard had closed the door firmly so John put the quarter in the pocket his other tips -- tips were certainly permitted but John always tried to refuse Mr. Bayard, who was on Social Security -- and headed back to the drugstore.

He went around to the loading dock, taking the stairs two at a time into the warehouse. There was a back door that went straight to the inventory room, so he shrugged off the insulated bag with the drugstore name on the front that kept any medication cool until he got it where it was going, and found the manager. John picked up his paycheck for the past fortnight from the manager's office and went back out the back, tossing off a casual salute to the men unloading the huge delivery trucks. He slipped on his sunglasses against the painful glare of the midday sun and retrieved his skateboard from the wall just inside the rolling garage doors, and then he was on his way.

Elizabeth's house looked the same as always, bright and neat and white. The Nova sat in the driveway and Simon sat on the front porch swing. John flipped his skateboard into his hand and walked slowly up the driveway.

"Feeling better?" Simon asked when he was in earshot.

John shrugged. "It was no big thing," he lied.

"That's a hell of bruise," Simon said, standing up. "Make sure you get some ice on it. I'm sure you're looking for Elizabeth." He turned to go inside.

"Yeah," John said. "But hey, wait."

Simon paused. "What?"

"Okay, look," John said, hating himself a little. "I don't know why, but Elizabeth seems to like you. So I think we should agree to disagree on, well, everything. Except one thing."

Simon stood between the porch swing and the front door and waited.

"Elizabeth," John said. "Treat her right. Because if you hurt her, I'll have to come kick your ass. Okay?"

Simon nodded. "Fair enough," he said. "I don't want to see Elizabeth hurt any more than you do." The challenge in his voice was implicit.

John nodded. "Send her on out, then," he said resignedly. "I've got some 'splainin' to do."

"Don't be stupid," Rodney said, struggling with his necktie. "You have to go."

"No, no, I do not," Radek said decidedly.

"Oh, come on," Rodney insisted. "Moral support at the very least!"

"There is no hope for your morals," Radek said. "I am not going to the dance without a date and look foolish merely for the sake of your insecurity."

"Hey! There's no merely about it. This is a very big deal," Rodney said. "I am crossing the threshold of manhood, here. I'd like to think that as my best friend, you'll be standing by."

"In case of emergency?" Radek asked.

"As my second, if you will," Rodney said breezily.

"Your second?" Radek asked in disgust. "To sleep with your date should you pass out from sheer terror? No, thank you. She is not my type."

"I wasn't inviting you to sleep with her," Rodney said, frowning as the skinny end of his tie ended up longer than the wide end again. "And there will be no passing out. Besides, Vala is everyone's type -- hot, and willing. I mean, we're talking about the threshold of manhood, not fulfilling the American aspiration of buying a quaint little house and procreating rapidly."

Radek held up his hands in defeat and sat heavily on the edge of Rodney's bed. "It is just odd," he said finally. "That you seem to like John so much better, yet you dump him to sleep with Vala."

"See, why are you saying that?" Rodney asked, giving up on his tie. "There's no causality there. I didn't -- I just -- look, okay, I thought you didn't even like John. You were the one who was all bent out of shape when I made that bet."

"Since when do you care what I think?" Radek asked.

Rodney rolled his eyes and made a sound of disbelief. "Since you go on about it until you're blue in the face," he said. "Look. Vala's maybe not the kind of girl you want to spend the rest of your life bound to by some stupid piece of jewelry, but it's not like I have to wait for true love or anything. I mean, not to be crass, but she's uh, pretty much a sure thing."

"That is just it," Radek said. "Yes, you can sleep with Vala and it does not have to be true love. But John is just as willing and maybe love, maybe not, but you have liked him for as long as I have known you and if it does not matter who you have the sex with, why do you not do it with the person you actually like?"

"Okay, let me put this in terms even you can understand," Rodney said. "If Elizabeth came up to you at the dance and said let's have hot sex, but then Ally Sheedy comes up and says the same thing, who would you go for? You'd go for Ally Sheedy because you know Elizabeth has a boyfriend across the room and you know she's going back to him. Right?"

"I would choose Elizabeth," Radek said quietly. "Because she asked and because there is nothing I would be able to deny her."

Rodney frowned at the tie in his hands and thought of John's stricken expression, of the shock on his face and how he had sounded so angry and confused. "Look," he said carefully. "If I -- if I maybe didn't sleep with Vala tonight. And if, maybe tomorrow or -- or later this week, I went to talk to John." He looked at Radek quickly. Radek's features were softening, his eyes not so squinty and accusing anymore. He looked like the guy who had said, so long ago, So you like boys as well as girls? Why should I care? "Okay, I'm not promising anything, but -- It would really mean a lot to me if you were at the dance tonight." He hooked the tie around his neck and held out his hand. "What do you say?"

"Fine," Radek capitulated, ignoring Rodney's hand and snatching the tie away. He slung it around his own neck and started tying the knot. "I will go. I will stand on the wall and look like loser, but I will go."

"I knew you'd see it my way, once you started thinking," Rodney said, feeling oddly thick in the throat. He took the tie back from Radek and tightened it under his collar.

Radek snorted. "At least," he said, with an air of mean satisfaction, "since I have no date, I will not have to make fool of myself trying to dance."

"Yeah, small blessings, huh?" Rodney said and then froze. Terrifying images of himself in the middle of a crowded gymnasium, trying to Walk Like an Egyptian flashed in his mind. "Oh, my God," Rodney said, dread taking root in his stomach. "I don't know how to dance."

John frowned at his reflection as he knotted his tie in a half-Windsor and smoothed it down the front of his shirt. His face was still swollen and discolored and the side of his mouth was puffy. The cut inside stung whenever he tried to eat but he couldn't keep his tongue away from it.

He shrugged on the suit jacket and straightened the lapels before buttoning it up. There was nothing he could do about his face but otherwise he looked nice enough. Katie and her mom were undoubtedly going to make a fuss but it was one night and he could endure for one night. He walked into the living room where his dad was reading the paper and spread both arms.

"So?" he asked. "How do I look?"

Colonel Sheppard peered over the top of the sports page. "Like you got sacked and then put on a suit," he said. He set the newspaper aside and stood up. "C'mere." He reached for John's tie, tugging the careful knot apart and turning John around. "Like this," he said, retying it into a less twisted knot.

"Thanks," John said, touching the tie with one hand. His father had coached him endlessly on tying a bow tie the previous spring because he had been sent to Europe for prom weekend and couldn't be there to backseat drive the process himself.

"So who's the lucky girl?" the Colonel asked, sitting back down on the couch.

John turned around. "Her name's Katie Brown," he said. "She's -- " He shrugged.

"Not Elizabeth?"

"Elizabeth is in town," John said, jealousy stabbing at him. "With her boyfriend."

Colonel Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "I hear he's a real putz," he said. "Maybe he won't last?"

John shrugged. "It doesn't matter," he said. "I told you, she and I broke up a couple months ago. I'm just taking this girl because she doesn't have a date."

"That's it?" the Colonel asked. "That's the only reason?"

Because I know how it feels to be dumped by Rodney, John didn't say. "Pretty much," he said instead.

"That's a pretty shitty reason," Colonel Sheppard said. "If you don't find a reason to enjoy her company, it's going to be one very long night and she's going to notice." He was about to say something else when the doorbell rang and then rang again only seconds later. "I'll get it," the Colonel said, standing up and crossing the room. He jerked the door open to reveal Rodney McKay standing on the front step, hand raised and poised to knock on the door.

"Okay, look," he started before realizing that it was the Colonel and not John at the door. "Oh. Colonel Sheppard. Um. Good to see you here."

"C'mon in, Rodney," the Colonel said, opening the door and stepping aside. "John's in the living room."

John made a solid effort to drop through the floor but it was a no go.

"Okay, good, thanks," Rodney said in a hurry. He poked his head through the doorway and John felt his chest tighten up. Rodney's hair was impossibly tousled and his eyes were wide and panicked in his face. "Um. Hi," he said when he saw John. "Okay, look," he said quickly before John had a chance to answer. "I know you're still mad at me but I'm having an emergency and I need your help."

John didn't trust himself to speak so he just raised both eyebrows instead. Rodney visibly braced for impact.

"I don't know how to dance," he said quickly, "and you're the only one I know who can teach me."

"Oh, this is going to be good," the Colonel said, sitting down on the couch and shook out his newspaper.

"You want me to teach you how to dance?" John echoed, painfully aware of the Colonel's presence. "Right now?"

"I know, it sounds crazy but I just realized. I'm going to a dance and I don't know how to dance. I am going to make a fool of myself and the entire gym is going to laugh at me."

John sighed. Rodney's bouts of social anxiety had somehow gone from annoying to a little heart-rending and John couldn't seem to deny him anything. "Okay," he said. "But I don't have a lot of time so pay attention."

Rodney's face lit up and John forced down the urge to shake him. Why couldn't he have looked that happy when John had kissed him? Why couldn't John make him look like that for something other than dancing?

"You don't have to teach me to breakdance or anything," Rodney said hastily. "I'm not sure there's quite enough time for me to pick up the thing where I spin on my head."

There was a choking sound and a rustle of newsprint. John glared murderously at the headline of his father's newspaper before turning back to Rodney.

"Okay, no," he said. "No breakdancing. Look, for the fast dances, just look at what the people around you are doing. Take your cues off -- " Off Vala, he didn't say because that was just asking for it. "-- off the girls and try to stay with the music. You know how to count beats, right?"

"Of course," Rodney said. "Any idiot -- "

"Right," John said loudly because his father was both tone-deaf and had no natural rhythm. John's mother had taught them both to dance and John was the only one still benefiting from her lessons. "So what you really want to know is what to do on the slower songs and -- okay, so traditionally the guy leads and the girl follows. So -- put out your arms."

Rodney thrust both arms straight outward.

"Okay," John said, imagining Rodney dancing with Vala and Vala pressing herself up against him. "You want to put a hand on her waist like this -- " He grabbed Rodney's wrist and pushed his hand against John's side. "And hold her other hand."

Rodney hesitated and flushed a little and then took John's hand carefully, as if John might snatch it away and punch him. John felt Rodney's thumb on his palm and bit his lip.

"You want to keep at least six inches between you," he said, because he wasn't above a little vindictiveness and heard his father swallow a laugh behind the paper. "Now, you move forward, and the girl moves back with the opposite foot."

Rodney stepped forward too fast and John, unused to following, didn't move in time.

"Sorry," Rodney said, dropping John's hand and wiping his own on the seam of his pants. "You were in the way."

"I know, I know, c'mon," John said, holding up his hand for Rodney to take again.

"Maybe you need some music," the Colonel suggested, standing up. "I'll put on a record."

"Oh, great," John muttered, not loudly enough to be heard. The expression on Rodney's face was pretty comical but he wasn't in the mood to laugh. They shifted awkwardly, not touching and not looking at each other, as the Colonel shuffled through his record collection and made various noises of rejection and approval.

"Here we go," he decided, sliding the vinyl from its sleeve and setting it carefully on the turntable. He adjusted the needle arm and dropped it onto the record.

John let Rodney take his hand as the opening strains of the song filled the room.

"Dad," he groaned as Rodney took a deep breath and stepped forward, stomping on his foot for the second time. "Ow! Wait 'til I tell you to go," he snapped irritably.

"The music started!" Rodney protested.

"This isn't music," John argued.

"The Commodores were a very popular band," the Colonel told them archly, returning to his place on the couch. "And better than that noise you listen to all day. This song was a number one hit in 1978."

"Oh, well that should tell you something," John grumbled as Lionel Ritchie sang Once...twice...three times a lady... from the turntable.

"You were nine years old," the Colonel said nostalgically. "And you liked to dance to Foreigner's Hot-Blooded."

"OKAY!" John said as loudly as possible. "Let's try this again. And try not to step on my foot this time. Kind of angle yourself to the side."

"Right, right," Rodney muttered and stepped forward before John was ready. John stepped back anyway and found Rodney much closer to him than he'd expected and stepped back. Rodney didn't follow. "Can I step with the other foot now?" Rodney asked.

"Knock yourself out," John said tiredly. He shifted his foot back slightly as Rodney stepped, just to keep things even, and said, "Try stepping in time with the music."

Rodney did have a good sense of rhythm and could follow the music well but he was stiff and awkward. John wanted to stop him and squeeze his shoulders and tell him to slow down and relax and to pull him into the music and demonstrate what he needed to do, but his dad was sitting right there, right behind them, and John was suddenly very aware of the lines he could never cross and all the things he could never say to his father, out loud or otherwise.

"Okay, look," he said quickly, pulling away from Rodney. "I have to go pick up Katie soon and -- " He cut himself off when Rodney's mouth fell open.

"You're taking Katie to Homecoming?" he asked, stricken.

"Yeah," John said, mystified and a little angry. Rodney obviously hadn't wanted to take Katie, judging from the state he'd found Katie in at the library. In fact, John's only reason (and a shitty one at that, as his father had pointed out) for taking Katie was because she was so upset that Rodney wouldn't go with her.

"But I dated Katie!" Rodney protested and John's temper flared.

"Yeah, well, I slept with Vala!" he shot back.

Rodney's face somehow managed to look even more stricken than before. "You -- you did?" he faltered.

"All right," the Colonel declared, standing up and folding his paper. "I'll be in the garage composing my resignation from fatherhood speech if anyone needs me."

"Fuck," John spat before the Colonel was all the way out of earshot. "Dammit, Rodney!"

"What? I mean, I knew Vala was, um, well, I've heard, I mean. I just didn't realize you...."

"Just -- " John rubbed his hand over his forehead. "Vala's given more rides than a Greyhound bus," he said. "It wasn't like it was anything special. Look, just get out of here, okay? I've got to go get Katie."

"Yeah, okay, fine," Rodney said, edging out of the living room. "I'll, um, see you at the dance?"

John didn't answer. Instead, he turned and went into the kitchen to retrieve the corsage he'd gotten Katie from the refrigerator. He heard the front door open and close and leaned against the kitchen counter, wondering how he'd gotten to this point. He should be getting ready to pick up Teyla, or maybe, if she hadn't been carting that creep around, Elizabeth, and spending the night hanging out with Ronon and Mitch and Ford, spiking the punch and sneaking drinks in their cars and going to Carlson Point to make out.

The garage door opened and closed and John's father stepped into the kitchen. "I don't want to know," he said, holding up both hands. "I just came in to wish you good luck tonight." The you're going to need it remained unspoken.

"Thanks," John said. He turned the plastic flower box in his hands. "I, uh, I didn't ask Katie to make Rodney mad. She was upset that he was going with someone else and -- " He shrugged. "It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time."

The Colonel nodded and pulled something out of his pocket. "Here," he said, tossing it to John.

It clinked as John caught it and he opened his hand to find the keys to the De Lorean. "Really?" he asked, stroking his thumb over the curve of the ignition key.

"Really," his father said. "Just...don't hit anything, okay? And here." He held out a five.

"What's this for?"

"If you're going to be sleeping with girls -- " the Colonel started, flushing a little.

John groaned, flushing a little himself. "Dad! I'm -- don't worry about it, okay?"

"Hey!" The Colonel held up his hands again. "I'm too young and handsome for grandkids just yet, okay?"

"Okay," John said, pocketing the money. He had no intention of sleeping with Katie and Rodney had been just a complete jackass and he wasn't even sure -- but he wasn't about to tell his father any of that either. "Er. Thanks. I think."

"Yeah. No problem." They stood together in the kitchen, not looking at each other, not talking. "Right. So. You'd better get out of here. You don't want to hold that girl up."

"No," John agreed. "I mean, right. Um. Bye."


John walked into the garage and touched the hood of the De Lorean.

Here we go, he thought. All over again.

Rodney straightened his bowtie and studied his reflection in his bedroom mirror. His hair was all wrong. It was flat and floppy and close to his head. He turned away from the mirror and crossed the hall to the bathroom but the door was closed. Rodney sighed and leaned against the opposite wall. After a minute, he heard his father's newspaper rustle and his mother bustling around in the kitchen, so he knew it was Jeannie who was holding him up.

"Jeannie!" he hollered, waited a beat, then pounded on the door. "Get a move on! I'm going to be late!"

The toilet flushed and then the water in the sink ran for far longer than Jeannie usually needed to swipe her hands over a bar of soap and rinse off the residue. "Stop stalling!" he called, shifting impatiently from foot to foot.

Finally (finally!) the door opened and Jeannie came out, chin tilted, face tight, eyes red like she'd been crying.

"Thank you," Rodney said distractedly, pushing past her into the bathroom. "You can try on makeup elsewhere. You have your own room, you know." He ducked his head under the running water and heard the door to Jeannie's room slam. Unconcerned, he rubbed a dollop of Dep -- the bottle he'd bought at the drugstore that morning because he didn't want to use John's anymore -- between his fingertips and started arranging his hair. He was nearly done when he caught a reflection of the wastebasket in the mirror.

"What's -- ?" he asked, leaning over the counter to peer inside the plastic can. He recognized the pastel plastic wrapper from that horrible, horrible movie they'd all had to watch in sixth grade, but his mother'd had a hysterectomy after they moved and Rodney had been spared the awkwardness of living with a menstruating woman. Until now. "Oh, of all the things I should absolutely not have to do," he said aloud in horror, but sucked it up and went over to Jeannie's room. Wham! was playing on the tape deck when Jeannie opened the door, holding her latchhook puppydog pillow across her stomach.

"What do you want?" she asked, eyes watery.

Rodney sighed. "Are you okay?" he asked, glancing down the hall. Their parents certainly seemed oblivious to all the banging of doors and crying going on but then again, with Rodney and Jeannie they were probably used to it. Rodney tried to pitch his voice low so it wouldn't carry out to the living room where their father sat with his newspaper. "Mom, you know, talked to you about it and stuff, right?"

"I did go to health class you know," Jeannie said disdainfully and then promptly burst into tears and threw her arms around Rodney's waist.

"What is it?" he asked anxiously. "Does it hurt? Do you faint at the sight of blood?"

"N-No," Jeannie blubbered. "But it's stupid and now I have to have it every month for the next fifty years!"

"That's not bad," Rodney said.

"That's forever!" Jeannie wailed.

"You could be like Mom and get a hysterectomy," Rodney offered helpfully.

Jeannie pulled back, wiping her nose on her sleeve and glaring at him. "I'm not ever going to be like Mom," she said stormily.

"Well, that's good," Rodney said, trying to imagine Jeannie making meatloaf and putting up with a bunch of screaming kids. "You're way too smart anyhow."

Jeannie sniffled.

"Look," Rodney said, aware he was running short on time. "It'll be great. You'll have a whole new excuse to eat chocolate and you get to be a pain in the ass -- more of a pain in the ass than usual -- once a month."

Jeannie glared up at him, eyes big and skeptical, like she wanted to believe him but had the cramps and misery to prove otherwise. Rodney patted her shoulder awkwardly.

"Trust me," he said grandly, as if he knew anything about it. "A whole new world has just opened up to you."


John did his best to beam happily at Katie as the camera flashed and whirred.

Smiling hurt like hell.

"Okay, just one more!"

It turned out that Mrs. Brown meant one more roll instead of one more picture but finally Katie's corsage was on her wrist and John's boutonniere was in his button hole and it looked like they might be able to make a run for the car.

"Go kiss your mother goodbye, sweetie," Mr. Brown said, slinging his arm around John's shoulders. "I want to have a word with John, here."

John stifled a sigh and let himself be led into the foyer. He thought parents only did this in the movies, still -- he'd certainly never had to field this kind of discussion before. Even Elizabeth's dad had just quizzed him on local sporting events and a few major world events before Elizabeth had dragged John away.

"Yes, sir," he said, hoping to ward off whatever was coming with impeccable manners.

"So," Mr. Brown started. "You seem like a nice enough kid, but you're probably thinking you're a big football star now -- "

I think I got sacked and would have thrown an interception in the second quarter if that guy hadn't fumbled, John thought to himself, but Mr. Brown was on a roll and John knew better than to interrupt fathers on a roll.

" -- but my Katie is a good girl and I'll be waiting at this door at midnight for her, so don't think you can try any funny stuff, you understand me?"

"Yes, sir," John said on cue with a bob of his head.

Mr. Brown settled back into a good glower until Katie ran up to him and threw her arms around his neck. He melted visibly when she kissed him on the cheek and said, "See you later, Daddy!" John grinned and tossed off a cheery salute as he escorted Katie out the door and down the front walk.

"Is he always like that?" John asked, wondering how Rodney made it out the door with Mr. Brown looming over him.

"Well," Katie said, blushing. "I guess he never really had to worry about anything before."

"Oh," John said, and didn't mention that Mr. Brown really didn't have anything to worry about now.

"Tell me I look pretty!" Vala ordered as soon as she'd opened the door. She struck a pose, arms flung wide and waited expectantly.

Rodney stared at the strips of vinyl that made up the top of her dress. "Wow."

"Thank you!" Vala said brightly, and pulled the door closed behind her. "Now. Where are you taking me for dinner?"

"The Il Fiore Bianco," Rodney said grandly. He'd gone through the phone book for the place with the most foreign-sounding name, and stocked his wallet accordingly.

"Ooh. Sounds elegant and expensive," Vala said, wrapping her arm around Rodney's and dragging him off the porch.

Rodney remembered to open the car door for Vala and got a substantial flash of thigh for his trouble. He closed the door after her and stopped to hyperventilate for a moment before pasting a polite smile on his face and getting in the driver's side.

Much to his relief, Vala talked about herself for the entire fifteen minute ride from her house to the restaurant and for a fleeting moment, Rodney thought he was actually going to be able to pull off one date all on his own.

And then he tried to claim their seats.

"What do you mean there's no reservation?" Rodney demanded. "I called two days ago and made a reservation for 6:30!"

"I am quite sorry, Mr. McKay," the maître d' said, not sounding terribly sorry at all. "I am afraid there is no reservation under that name."

"Look," Rodney said, trying to be reasonable when his blood pressure was clearly climbing through the roof and wow, even Vala wasn't going to put out if he couldn't at least buy her a decent dinner. And to not get any from Vala was pretty much a sign of social retardation from which he would never recover. "What if I…threw in an extra ten, just for you?"

The maître d' -- Over-glorified waiter, Rodney thought meanly -- looked down his long aquiline nose. "We have no more seats for the evening," he said archly as if Rodney hadn't just resorted to petty bribery. "Perhaps you should make alternate arrangements."

Rodney glanced over at Vala, who was blowing the biggest pink bubble he'd ever seen. The candlelight from the tables reflected off the shiny material of her dress and Rodney looked desperately back at the maître d'. "Okay," he said, caught halfway between yelling and begging, but the maître d' just turned his head and said, "Next?" and Rodney had nothing to do but turn away and walk back to Vala.

"Fancy," she said, still glancing around the place. "Did you get us a good table?"

"Um," Rodney said. "The thing is -- I got us a great table, but the regular guy is, uh, out sick, and um, they lost the reservation."

"The bastards!" Vala exclaimed, snapping straight and tall. "Wait 'til I give them a piece of my mind!"

"Oh, um, no, no, you don't want to do that," Rodney said quickly. "I mean, they're all full up and they already feel really bad…uh, really…and well, there's pretty much nothing they can do. We're just going to have to find someplace else, but I swear, I will totally make it up to you -- "

"Oh, don't worry about it now," Vala said, relaxing and waving one hand carelessly. "Come on, I know a great little place, it's just around the corner."

Vala's great little place around the corner turned out to be Sol's Diner, and she knew everyone who worked there, including the owner -- Sal.

"He bought the place from Sol," she explained in his ear as Sal tapped the flat of a meat cleaver against his palm and sized Rodney up.

"So, you're taking out our little Val?" he asked, squinting.

"Um," Rodney squeaked, temporarily lost for words.

"We're going to the Homecoming Dance," Vala said, absorbed in the menu and completely oblivious to Rodney's distress.

"And he's bringing you here?"

"I'm bringing him here," Vala said, setting the menu aside and flashing a wide smile at Sal. "He was going to take me to this frightfully expensive place, with white roses, and candles, and -- but really, I just really wanted to go someplace I knew, so I asked if we could just come by. Can we both get the Blue Plate Special?"

"Sure thing," Sal said. "Two BP Specials, coming right up. But don't you think you're off the hook, kid! You better be treating our girl Val right!"

Rodney cleared his throat painfully. "The, uh, Blue Plate Special?" he said. "That doesn't happen to have any lemon, does it?"

John walked into the darkened gym and paused to blink at the transformation from dodgeball stadium to dancehall. The partitions had been folded all the way back, leaving the room wide open and double the size it had been when John had taken PE last spring.

A cluster of freshmen were already perched on the lower steps of the bleachers, pulled out for the occasion.

Radek Zelenka was already there among them, looking miserable in a khaki suit and blue shirt. His hair was smashed down flat.

"Hey," John said, nudging Katie in the side with his elbow before he remembered that you didn't do that with girls you were taking out. "There's Radek. You want to go say hi?"

Katie glanced in the direction he indicated and said, "Oh, yes, let's! I mean, if it's all right with you."

John wouldn't have said anything if he didn't want to, but he wasn't going to tell Katie. He'd have said so to Rodney, but there were a lot of things he'd say to Rodney that he'd never say to Katie Brown. "You're the boss," he deadpanned instead, taking her elbow and clearing a path through the clots of people who were standing near the doorway, not yet brave enough to venture closer to the dance floor. "Hey, Radek!" he called when they were in earshot.

Radek looked up and glanced around if he was surprised to hear his name. Katie pushed a little ahead of the crowd and called his name, too, and this time Radek's face lit up in recognition. "You look very pretty tonight," he told her. "At least someone is here," he added to John. "Rodney insisted that I attend and yet he has failed to make an appearance."

Rodney was probably in the parking lot, getting the answers to certain questions from Vala, but John wasn't about to say so in front of Katie. He was saved from having to say anything at all by the appearance of Elizabeth and Simon.

"John! There you are!"

Elizabeth looked fantastic in a red silk dress that John had never seen before -- and once upon a time, he'd seen all her dresses. "Hey," he said. "Elizabeth, you remember Katie and Radek, right?"

"Of course," Elizabeth said, turning bright smiles on each of them in turn. If she was curious about who was with whom, it didn't show on her face. "Katie, how are you? Did you do the flowers for the dance again?"

"Oh, well, the Horticulture Club did," Katie said, flushing a little. "We had a really good crop of Saguaro blossoms this year so the creative types designed the decorations around them."

"Well, they look wonderful," Elizabeth said. "And Radek? How is Mr. Simmons treating you? I guess you're looking into colleges now, aren't you?"

"Mr. Simmons is much nicer when he is not talked back to," Radek said. "I have no complaints."

Elizabeth nodded but Radek didn't say anything else. "Well, everyone, this is Simon Wallis. Simon, this is Katie Brown and Radek Zelenka, and you've already met John." The last words had a touch of warning to them and because John was very carefully not looking at Simon, he saw Radek's face dim a little and Radek's eyes cut away.

Well, that was interesting.

But before John could dwell on it further, a commotion from the doorway drew everyone's attention and John stepped up on the lowest bleacher seat to see over the heads of the crowd.

Mitch and Dex were arm-in-arm in the doorway, and Dex was dressed in a suit almost identical to John's, right down to the crooked knot in his tie. Mitch, however…Mitch was wearing a tea-length satin dress in a lovely shade of seafoam green and a blonde wig that had to be modeled after Farrah Fawcett's hairstyle. He was absolutely the ugliest woman John had ever seen.

John cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed, "Show us some leg!" over the rest of the laughter and catcalls. He rocked back on his heels and cheered with everyone else as Mitch coquettishly tugged the skirt over one hairy knee, then dropped it in a display of ridiculously exaggerated modesty.

Katie was straining to see through the shoulders of the crowd, her head tilted back, so John tapped her on the shoulder and helped her onto the bleacher next to him. They watched as Hammond and Landry fought their way through the sea of teenagers to reach the unlikely couple.

"You know," Katie said thoughtfully and with such a straight face that it took John an extra minute to realize she was kidding, "I really think seafoam is Mitch's color."

"Hey, that was really good," Rodney said when they were getting back in the car, having escaped alive from Sal and the rest of Sol's Diner. "I guess you go there a lot, huh? Everyone seems to know you." Vala shrugged and smiled.

"Yeah," she said, running her fingertips along the edge of the window. "Sal lets me wait tables there on weekends, for tips and food. My evil stepmother sometimes forgets to cook."

"Oh, um, I'm sorry to hear that," Rodney said awkwardly.

"Look, I -- " Vala took a deep breath, then paused to uncross and recross her legs, then tugged at the hem of her very short skirt. She looked up at him, her eyes large and serious. "Look, Rodney, I would appreciate if you didn't divulge the location of Sol's Diner to your friends. A girl's got a reputation to uphold, you know."

"Not a word," Rodney swore, miming zipping his mouth shut and throwing away the key. "I promise, I won't tell anyone, not even John."

Vala tilted her head and smiled but it was puzzled. "All right, then," she said. "Thank you."

"Or, uh, Laura," Rodney covered, badly. "Or Teyla, or Radek or anyone."

Vala nodded. "Thank you." The silence in the car was awkward for a moment and then she said, "We're going to make the biggest scene walking into that dance, aren't we?"

"Yes!" Rodney said, grabbing onto that idea. "Yes, we are. I mean, hey, your dress…."

"Oh, this old thing?" Vala said coquettishly, but she gave Rodney a big smile over her shoulder and he couldn't help but grin back.

As it turned out, they didn't make a scene at all. When they walked into the gym, everyone's attention was directed at the pull-out stage where Elizabeth Weir was settling a fancy tiara on Teyla Emmagan's head.

"Now that's a pretty bauble," Vala said wistfully as Teyla curtseyed and smiled at everyone.

"It's fake," Rodney assured her. "Paste and aluminum."

Vala sighed dramatically. "The least you could do is let a girl dream," she scolded.

But Rodney wasn't really listening. Because Jack O'Neill was fumbling with a thick, white envelope. It slipped from his hands and hit the floor but instead of going after it, Jack just rolled his eyes and leaned over the microphone.

"They told me before I came up here," he said. "That you guys all voted for John Sheppard. If you don't believe me, you can check the envelope." And then he sat a crown on John's head. "Don't let it go to your head," he murmured with a slap to John's shoulder. Jack looked up in alarm as the microphone caught his last comment. "Um. Did you all hear that?"

Applause drowned him out and he stepped back to stand with Elizabeth, leaving John front and center with Teyla. John smiled and tossed off a thank-you salute to the crowd.

Rodney looked carefully but even he couldn't tell if John's expression was real or just another stunning mask.

"The floor is yours," Principal Hammond announced with a sweeping gesture of his arm.

John smiled, an expression that came easier two months back, before Rodney had turned his life upside down. He held out his arm to Teyla and escorted her down the side steps of the stage to the dance floor.

Teyla smiled up at him as he put his arms around her and the first notes of the music started. John relaxed a little. Teyla had been a good sport about everything up to and including that night. This part wouldn't be bad.

And then he recognized the song.

"Uh. This is awkward," he said helplessly as "Take My Breath Away" filtered through the speakers of the sound system. "Who picked this song?"

Teyla smiled weakly. "I -- believe it might have been my idea," she admitted. "The theme was chosen…a few weeks ago."

"Oh," John said lamely. Awkward didn't even begin to cover this. He licked his lips and decided that as long as his life was sucking, he might as well get out a few things he'd been meaning to say. "Look," he said, suddenly hyper-aware of the entire gymnasium watching them. "I know the last few weeks have been kind of…."

"Weird?" Teyla supplied.

"Weird," John agreed reluctantly. "I just wanted to let you know it wasn't that I -- you know."

Teyla tilted her head. "I do not believe that I do."

John bit his lower lip. "Okay, well…let's just say I haven't quite been myself in the past couple of weeks and, well, I didn't want you to think it was your -- that it had anything to do with anything you did. Did that make sense?"

"John," Teyla said, with a little smile. "You are my friend, and you have always shown yourself to be. Things…." She rolled her head back a little and shrugged. "Things did not work out as either of us expected. Think of it no more."

"Ah. Well. Okay, then," John said. And then, "Thank you."

Teyla leaned forward in his arms and hugged him. "And thank you for the dance," she said.

John hugged her back and released her. He glanced over and saw Aiden Ford hovering at the edge of the crowd, waiting for her. "Ford, huh?" he asked, squeezing her arm.

Teyla glanced over her shoulder as she pulled away and deliberately kicked him in the shin.

"Hey!" he called, but he couldn't help but laugh and that ruined the entire effect.

John glanced around, looking for Katie because it just wasn't fair to leave her alone. Her red hair wasn't hard to find -- she was dancing with Radek. They were both grinning and chatting but they weren't especially close together. John was debating whether or not to cut in when he felt a hand on his shoulder and the familiar scent of Elizabeth's perfume.

"They're playing our song," she said when he turned to her.

He snorted out a laugh. "Sea of Love" was not in any way, shape, or form, their song. In fact, as a couple, they had never really been sentimental about those sorts of things. But Elizabeth had dragged John into the Student Government Association the previous fall and they'd spent countless hours planning a prom around an undersea theme. By the time they were actually wrapped together in the last hours of the dance, they were both thoroughly sick of the song.

And not long afterward, they were back at John's house, peeling off Elizabeth's dress and making love for the first time.

"Well, then," he drawled. "May I have this dance?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Elizabeth said. She fit against his body, thin and delicate, and wrapped her arms around his neck. John rested his cheek against her hair and closed his hands over her hips, guiding her with the movements of his own body. He closed his eyes for the length of a stanza and when he opened them again, the first thing he saw was Rodney, dancing awkwardly with Vala.

John smiled to himself and lifted his hand to tuck Elizabeth's hair behind her ear.

"John?" she said, and he could feel the weight of her next words.

"Shh," he said instead.

Elizabeth drew back and cupped her hand around John's cheek, her fingertips brushing over the bruise there. Her forehead creased in concern and she studied him intently. It was an expression he recognized well. "John," she finally said. "I am sorry. I shouldn't have -- "

John shook his head. "Yeah, I'm sorry, too," he admitted. "I was an asshole."

"Yes," Elizabeth agreed, a smile finally breaking over her face. "You were."

John shrugged, self-effacingly. "I thought you were being -- you know." He glanced over at Rodney. Vala was leading. John turned Elizabeth quickly so Rodney didn't look up and think John was laughing at him. "I think I understand what you were saying, now. About things being different. And…learning about yourself."

"So you were listening," Elizabeth said, sounding pleasantly surprised. "That's a new one."

John made his who knew? face as the last notes of the music drifted away. Another song started and John glanced over to where Katie and Radek were still dancing.

"Hey," he said. "C'mere. You remember Radek Zelenka, right?"

"Of course I do," she said, because Elizabeth knew everyone. "We were talking to him earlier."

"Oh, right, of course." He started steering her deliberately toward the bleachers. "You know, his family speaks Czech exclusively when they're home. I bet he could teach you a few things."

"Teach me a few things?" Elizabeth asked, tilting her head and narrowing her eyes at John.

John shrugged. "I'm just saying," he said as ingenuously as he could manage. "I don't think he would mind."

Elizabeth nodded slowly. "Oh, you don't, do you?"

"Not at all." John glanced over his shoulder and yes, perfect. "Radek!" he called, releasing Elizabeth and stepping to the side. "Trade you." And he swept Katie away from Radek in a move that would have made Fred Astaire envious.

"John!" she exclaimed, totally flustered.

"Check it out," he told her, craning his neck to look around her head where Elizabeth and Radek were settling awkwardly into a rhythm. He steered Katie around until she could see, too, and felt extremely satisfied to hear her giggle.

"Radek had the biggest crush on Elizabeth last year," she confided in him. "Oh. I mean. Um."

"It's cool," John assured her. "Radek's a good guy. I like him better than the dipstick she brought home."

Katie just smiled and blushed, and whispered, "Me, too!" John grinned at her. At least someone agreed with his somewhat sketchy and ill-advised matchmaking attempts.

They danced to a few more songs and then, after a round of the Electric Slide, Katie pulled away, red-faced and laughing. "I need to take a break," she said, staggering back a few steps toward the bleachers.

"You want something to drink?" he asked her, a little thirsty himself.

"Yes, please," she agreed, nodding, and John excused himself to shoulder through the crowd toward the tables stretched across the back of the room.



Mitch had ditched the seafoam green and was wearing dress pants, a button-down shirt, and a tie at half-mast. John didn't bother to ask where his jacket had gone.

"They let you guys back in?" John asked, checking over the selection of beverages.

"They made me lose the dress," Mitch said around a handful of peanuts, as if that wasn't obvious. "But yeah, Hammond's an all right guy."

"You guys are crazy," John muttered. "And lucky. And did I mention crazy?"

"Dude," Mitch said in an entirely different tone of voice. He elbowed John in the side. "Where did you find her? She's hot."

"It's Katie Brown," John said, bypassing the punch -- if Mitch was already there it was at least 70 proof -- and pouring 7-Up into two plastic cups. "You know her. She's in our homeroom."

"Wait. No way. That's Katie Brown?" Mitch whistled long and low. "Man, she cleans up nice."

John lifted an eyebrow and looked across the gym to where Katie was standing. She did look nice, actually. Out of baggy jeans and oversized t-shirts, she had some pretty nice curves, and with her hair clipped back from her face, her eyes were big and bright. She still looked awkward, rubbing her arm and shifting her weight, spine curled forward as she hovered by the wall.

"You want me to introduce you?" John asked, taking a handful of snack mix and popping a pretzel into his mouth.

"I thought she was here with you," Mitch said suspiciously.

"Just friends," John said with a shrug. He lifted his palm and dumped the remaining cereal and nuts into his mouth. "She's cool." And then a peanut and a square of Corn Chex stuck in his throat as he remembered saying the same thing about Rodney more than a month ago.

"So, you don't uh, mind if I take her something to drink?" Mitch asked in that casual way that meant he was either trying to imitate John or tell a stupid joke.

"Yeah, sure. I mean, go ahead." John handed Mitch one of the cups of 7-Up he'd poured and took a sip of the other one. He had to use the restroom anyway. He'd meet up with Katie when he was done and save her from Mitch then, if she needed it.

John wandered away from the food table and headed for the lobby of the gym where the bathrooms were located. But before he reached the door, a figure in a shiny vinyl…dress…and a high ponytail moved into his personal space.

"Well, if it isn't John Sheppard!"

"Vala," John growled as she hooked an arm around his neck and used her body to push him back into the crowd of dancers. "What do you want?"

"Why would you say such a thing?" Vala pouted as she relieved him of the plastic cup of 7-Up. "Is this for me?" she asked, taking a sip. "Hmph. It's not even spiked."

"Oddly enough," John said dryly, "I don't really feel the need to get you drunk. In fact, I don't think anyone does."

"Oh," Vala said. "That was a little bit mean."

There was a beat when Vala looked at him with serious doe eyes and John almost started to feel bad. But then she opened her mouth again.

"I'm sure it's just because you're a little jealous about my coming with Rodney," Vala sighed, her delicate fingers fiddling with the points of John's collar. John tried very hard not to think about coming with Rodney.

"I'll get over it," he assured her.

"I just don't want you to think that what we had wasn't special," Vala continued.

"It was seven minutes in a closet," John pointed out.

"It was a rather pleasurable seven minutes," Vala corrected. "For me, at least. Plus a not-insignificant time up in someone's guest bedroom. Most boys your age? Pop! Just like that." She flicked her fingers outward and regarded her splayed hand thoughtfully.

"Vala, what do you want from me?" John groaned, rolling his eyes. He was hard. The galaxy hated him. The universe hated him. His entire night was just completely unfair. And if Vala rolled Rodney's name out of her mouth one more time, John wasn't going to be responsible for his actions.

"I want you to stop being angry with him," Vala said suddenly, her voice quick and serious. "Ordinarily, I wouldn't care, but Rodney's a good person, even if he does have ridiculous hair, and he seems to think the world of you."

John wondered what happened to the dances he spent sipping spiked drinks and talking about normal things like football and movies.

"Why do you think I'm angry with him?" John asked, trying to imagine what Rodney could have said to make Vala say he thought the world of John.

Vala looked at him as if he was being stupid. "You two were inseparable for weeks," she said. "And now you're never together. I can only assume it's because of me."

John blinked and scratched the back of his head.

"I, uh, I tried talking to him. About…it. Once," he prevaricated.

"Try again," Vala implored.

"I -- " John groped for something to say and came up empty. "Yeah, okay."

"Good boy," Vala beamed, and goosed him as she ran off, taking his soda with her.

John blinked and shrugged and then wandered into the restroom in a daze. Jack O'Neill was there, zipping up, and raised his eyebrows at John's gobsmacked expression.

"Woman trouble?" he asked.

"They're all crazy," John said.

Jack nodded and clapped John on the shoulder. "Sucks to be the man, doesn't it?"

John shook his head. "You have no idea."

"What was that about?" Rodney asked when Vala slid back into his arms. He craned his head to look over her shoulder to where John was disappearing into the locker room area.

"Nothing to worry about," Vala said, pressing her body full-length against Rodney's. "I requested a song for us."

"Really?" Rodney asked hopefully. This had to be promising. "A song? For us."

"One of my favorites," Vala said as Sting belted out,


"Why am I not even surprised?" Rodney asked rhetorically. Rodney was a great connoisseur of irony and he filed this moment away as a stunning example.

But then Vala snuggled her shoulders up against his and tucked her head against his chin. He breathed in the warm, musky scent of her perfume and tried not to sneeze. He looked past Vala's cloud of hair and saw John, leaning against the wall near the bleachers, tossing pretzels into his mouth and laughing with Radek.

Rodney felt a stab of jealousy, wishing he was over there with them, happy and easy, and felt odd and adult with Vala sliding up against him. Later tonight, probably in his father's car, he was going to roll on one of the condoms he'd bought -- he'd practiced with that, too, in the bathroom before leaving to pick up Vala -- and have his first Sexual Experience.

His heart pounded and his skin tingled just thinking about it…but -- and he snuck another look over to where John and Radek, and now Jack O'Neill, were hanging out -- some part of him was still wistful for their easy comradery.

"I wanted to propose a little tradeoff," Vala murmured in Rodney's ear.

"Really? Uh. What kind of tradeoff?" Rodney asked, his heart thudding in his chest. This was it! This was the proposition.

"We-ell," Vala cooed, drawing the word out, "you do want to…get out of here, don't you? With me?"

Rodney's mouth went dry. "Er, well, of course," he said smoothly. (In his head it was smooth.)

"So maybe we could just slip on over to the main building -- "

Sex in the school! Kinky! Rodney had visions of losing is virginity on Simmons's desk. Wouldn't that make physics class more endurable for the rest of the year!

" -- and you can give my grades a little boost in the computer -- just enough so I can graduate, you know -- and then we can go have a good time in that rather sizable back seat of yours." Vala beamed at him and tapped his nose with her fingertip.

"Oh, yes," Rodney said breathlessly, diving in to kiss her, but as he pressed his mouth against hers, her words hit him. "Wait, what?"

Vala blinked long lashes, thick with blue mascara, at him. "It's fairly simple, really," she said. "I just feel that we should get the boring technical things out of the way first and then I will…take…care…of…everything!"

"No, no, no, no," Rodney said, stepping back out of the circle of her arms. "You want to sleep with me as payment for boosting your grades in the school computer? Not because I'm cool and good-looking?"

Vala raised her eyebrow and looked at him for so long, Rodney thought he'd missed something vital. "I think that being able to break into the school's computer is very cool," she said placatingly.

"Oh, this is just perfect," Rodney snapped. "I am not Roxanne! The red light is not out tonight, you, you temptation!" He turned and stomped blindly through the crowd until he found the food table.

There were chips and pretzels and little hot dogs in puff pastry and oh, hey, chicken on a stick. Rodney took a skewer and a can of soda and nodded to Carson Beckett, who was also hanging around the table, collecting a stack of cookies wrapped in a napkin.

"Why so glum?" he asked cheerfully, rounding the table to where Rodney was standing.

"I'm never getting laid," Rodney announced, nibbling on one of the chunks of chicken. It was tasty.

"You need to get out more," Carson advised.

Rodney almost said, How much more out can I get? and then remembered he wasn't talking to John and he couldn't just say things like that. He swallowed hard.

"Rodney, Carson," Radek said, appearing at the table and loading up a plate of pretzels and tucking two sodas under his arm. He paused and regarded them carefully. "Why does Rodney look so morose? What has he done this time?"

"He thinks he's never going to get laid," Carson confided.

"And it's all your fault," Rodney added, his mouth full.

"So many things are," Radek agreed dryly.

"Seriously, if you hadn't insisted on everything being so…deep and meaningful, I totally could have gotten into Vala's pants."

"Vala is not wearing any pants," Radek observed, peering through the crowd. Rodney followed his line of sight to see Vala using Mr. Dixon, the history teacher, as balance while she fussed with her shoe.

"No," Rodney agreed with a sigh, thinking longingly of the flash of thigh she'd given him in the car. "She most definitely is not." He regarded the chicken with suspicion and set it aside in favor of one of the cookies Carson was hoarding. "Anyway, if Laura hadn't already made plans with some idiot, I wouldn't even be in this fix. She would totally sleep with me." He blinked at Radek, who had apparently taken up stage direction or maybe flight control as a hobby. "What?"

Radek sighed and shook his head in defeat.

And then Carson Beckett, mama's boy and wimp of every gym class they'd ever been forced to take together, hauled back and punched Rodney square in the nose.

"Ow! Ow ow ow ow ow!" Rodney clutched at his face, the pain running in bright streamers through his face. He felt something liquid flowing through his fingers and felt faint. "Oh, my God, I'm bleeding!"

"Try keeping your mitts off other people's girlfriends!" Carson shouted and the gym erupted in a din of gossip and humiliation.

"Oh, my God! Carson!" Laura -- just to add insult to injury! Where had she come from? And since when was she Carson's girlfriend? "Rodney!"

"All right, all right." It was John's voice cutting through the uproar and Rodney nearly whimpered, the sound was so welcome. "Carson, simmer down and sort this thing out with Laura. I'll take Rocky here to plug up his nose." A firm hand clamped down on Rodney's shoulder and steered him away from Carson and Laura and the rest of the murmuring crowd and off toward the bathrooms.

"This is so not my fault," Rodney protested nasally as John bypassed the bathrooms and steered him outside. "Wait, where are we going?"

"Out where the bad people can't find you," John said wryly. "Carson? I mean seriously, if you're going to get your face punched in by someone, Carson?"

"It wasn't like I had a choice," Rodney sulked, accepting the handkerchief John offered him and tilting his head back. "I didn't know they were getting back together. I didn't know they ever went out"

"Yeah," John said, and put his hands in his pockets. "I'm sorry. About Laura, I mean. You really seemed to like her."

Rodney sniffed experimentally and didn't feel anything moving or liquid so he tilted his head back up cautiously and dabbed at his nose. John's handkerchief had large patches soaked red, but there were no new droplets. "Yeah, well." He shrugged. He had liked Laura, but she wasn't John and really, even getting punched in the nose was worth it to have John standing out there with him, talking again. "Hey, um." He looked at John, thinking unmanly things like, I'm glad we're talking again, or I missed you. "Wow, the other team really did a number on you, didn't they?"

John quirked up one side of his mouth ruefully -- the undamaged side. "Yeah," he said, touching his swollen mouth cautiously. "Still hurts like a bitch. Can you see the bruise on my cheek?"

"Who could miss it?" Rodney asked. The bruise wasn't deep, but the side of John's face was definitely discolored from cheekbone to jaw.

John's fingers moved from his mouth to his face and he sighed. "We both look like shit," he said resignedly, his eyes going right to Rodney's nose. "Your eyes are going to black up good." He reached out and let his fingertips drift along the swell of Rodney's cheek between his nose and his eye. "You said, once," he said in a voice that sounded a little broken, "that you could look at a woman and think she was hot, and look at a man and feel the same way."

Rodney swallowed hard. He'd never been more than a half-breath away from giving in to John at any given moment, but John had only asked once and never again. He nodded.

"So, if that works for you," John said, his eyes bright and steady, "why can't it work for me? I did some reading up on those studies you were talking about. There's this theory, you probably know it, it says that everyone's at least one percent gay and -- see, the way I figure it, maybe you're my one percent."

Rodney's breath stopped in his throat and for a desperate moment he wondered if he was having an allergic reaction. But there was too much air instead of not enough so he stepped forward, heart pounding, and curled his hand around the back of John's neck.

John didn't wait for him, just leaned over and kissed Rodney, hard and tender, and desperate and tentative, and a lot of other words that shouldn't have gone together but did anyway. Rodney brushed his hand over the bruises on John's face and John made a soft and vibratory noise against Rodney's mouth.

"Oh, wow," Rodney said, words coming concurrent with his thoughts, still breathing John's air. "This must hurt like hell."

"It stings a little, yeah," John agreed, kissing Rodney again, once. He tilted his forehead into Rodney's and sighed.

"I can kiss you other places," Rodney whispered and felt John tense up against him. "No, I mean like, I just -- " And he leaned forward and kissed the side of John's neck, up in the hollow between his jaw and his ear. He felt the muscle of John's jaw tightened under his lips and then John's throat ripple as he stuttered and then swallowed. Rodney took a deep breath and brought his hand up to the other side of John's neck, cupping his hand around the warm skin and stroking the line of John's jaw with his thumb. "Is this okay?" he murmured when John inhaled sharply.

John nodded too quickly, his head bobbing awkwardly. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I just -- " He brought his hand up and brushed his palm against Rodney's cheek.

Rodney felt his eyes go round at the slide of calluses over his skin and his breath came faster against John's neck. He squeezed his eyes closed and pressed his mouth against John's pulse. John's hand was still hovering in mid-air near his face when he found it and tangled his fingers with John's, bringing both their hands to the back of his own neck.

"Oh," John said, sounding surprised, and then his hand tightened not-quite painfully around Rodney's, and his other hand came up to touch Rodney's side, sliding inside his jacket and closing around a handful of shirt.

Rodney measured careful kisses down the side of John's neck while John's hands turned restless, the one at his neck sliding up into his hair, and the one on his side unclenching and skating up and down his ribcage. He reached the base of John's neck and pulled his collar aside to lick down to the collarbone.

"Oh, wow," John sighed, his body leaning into Rodney's. "That feels good."

Rodney lifted his head and beamed at John, so, so pleased for the confirmation that John at least didn't mind being touched by boys.

"That didn't mean stop," John said with a lazy grin, poking Rodney in the chest with two fingers. Then, his eyes going serious, he hooked those fingers into the open "v" of Rodney's dress shirt and traced them up and down, drawing patterns on Rodney's skin. "C'mere," he whispered. He still had one hand on Rodney's side and he slipped it to the small of Rodney's back, drawing Rodney closer between John's legs, spread wide as he braced himself against the side of the building. "You know," he said softly, looking up through his lashes and letting his thumb stroke into the dip at the apex of Rodney's collarbone. "You know I wouldn't -- "

The sound of the fire door unlatching startled them and Rodney jumped backward, his hands scrabbling at his rumpled shirt and jacket. John straightened up from his sprawl against the wall and looked disconcerted for all of a split second before Elizabeth poked her head out.

"Last dance is about to start, John," she said. She glanced over and Rodney and smiled. "Feeling better?"

"Um. Yeah," Rodney said lamely. He held up John's handkerchief, still crumpled in his fist. "I stopped bleeding."

"Good." Elizabeth nodded at him and looked back at John. "Coming?"

"Yeah," John said, taking the weight of the door from her. "On my way." He glanced back at Rodney.

Rodney glanced at the ground. He was hard and overheated, despite the cool air, and he didn't know what John had been about to say but he felt awkward for the interruption.

"Hey," John whispered. Rodney looked up, faithfully drawn by his voice. John's eyes were level on him, and serious. "You know I wouldn't jerk you around, right?" John said quietly, too quietly for Elizabeth to hear.

Rodney found himself nodding, although he knew no such thing and he didn't even know what that was supposed to mean --

"Okay," John said with a familiar smirk. "So trust me."

The door closed behind him and Rodney was left standing outside, alone with the wind in his hair and a small, thoughtful smile on his face.

"Why don't you have another cup of coffee?" John suggested desperately.

"If I have more coffee," Katie said very carefully, frowning into her mug, "I will have to pee all night long."

John winced and slouched back in his seat. When he'd gone back inside the gym for the last dance, he'd found Katie completely plastered and hanging on Mitch's arm.

"I only spiked the one drink, Shep," Mitch had whispered to him when he'd handed Katie off. "I swear, I wasn't trying to get her smashed."

"Yes, you were," John had grunted, hauling Katie upright. She didn't weigh a hundred pounds, dripping wet so it wasn't that hard. "You just didn't think it would only take one drink."

John snuck them out as the dance was breaking up and drove Katie to the Early Bird to ply her with coffee until she sobered up enough for him to take her home. To her parents.

That was three cups of coffee ago. John wasn't sure Katie could actually drink any more without jittering out of her skin. She wasn't anywhere close to sober and she didn't even look like she was ready to throw up. At least Rodney'd had the courtesy to get sick immediately and John reminded himself that the memory wasn't actually a reason to laugh.

Katie leaned across the table and regarded John intensely. "John," she said very seriously. "I don't think we should go out anymore."

"Um. Okay," John agreed just as seriously. "If that's the way you feel about it."

"It's just that you're not my type at all," Katie expounded, with a sigh that completely deflated her body. She rested her head on her arms, collapsing down on her table. "I think I really like guys who are all, you know, burly."

"Burly?" John asked, taking a sip of his milkshake to keep from laughing out loud. "Rodney's not burly."

"But he has those, those arms, you know?" Katie struggled to sit upright and tried to show the breadth of Rodney's shoulders by holding her hands apart and frowning critically at the space between them. "Mitch, too. You're just…you're just too tall."

"Oh. Too tall." John sipped at his milkshake again and wondered how to get another cup of coffee into her.

Then, as if giving life to his previous thoughts, the front door of the Early Bird opened and Rodney and Vala walked in. They went to the counter where Vala perched on a stool and spun around. Rodney said something to her and then went to the back of the restaurant where the bathrooms were located.

"Katie, I'll be right back," John said quickly, setting his glass aside. "She needs another cup of coffee," he told the waitress as he slid out of the booth and then he headed toward the restrooms. He waited outside the door for a moment, waiting for the sound of running water, and then went in to find Rodney wiping his hands on a paper towel.

"John?" Rodney said, surprised. He probably hadn't even seen John when he'd come in.

"C'mon," John said, grabbing him by the shirt and pulling him into the first stall. He pressed his mouth quickly against Rodney's, closing his eyes against the heat and strength and the taste of Altoids and blood.

"Ow," Rodney mumbled against his mouth, and then hauled him in with both hands, crushing the lapels of John's jacket.

"Ow," John replied, as Rodney's mouth bruised his already-puffy lip, but he wrapped his hand around the back of Rodney's neck and kept kissing for as long as he could. He didn't feel Rodney release his jacket but he felt Rodney's fingers when they tugged his shirt from his pants and pressed, warm and deft, against skin at the small of his back. For just a moment, John wondered if he'd ever been touched there before.

"You taste like chocolate," Rodney said when he pulled back. "Wow, I didn't even know you were here. And -- we can't do this here!"

"I know," John said, his heart thudding in his chest when he realized how stupid he was being. "I know. Look, Katie got drunk, and I brought her here to sober up before her dad kicks my ass. I need to -- "

"Vala -- " Rodney started, overlapping John.

"You go and then I'll go," John said, unlocking the bathroom door and leaning out. They had been the only people in the restaurant when he'd left Katie, but probably people would be trickling in after they'd vacated Carlson Point. "Go."

Rodney left, casting a startled, adoring, backward glance at John. John blew out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and leaned against the sink. He glanced at the mirror and winced at the reflection. His face was still bruised and puffy, but now it was flushed, too, and his suit was rumpled where Rodney had grabbed it. The wrinkles in his suit jacket shook out well enough when he took it off and tucking his shirt back in helped. He ran some cold water in the sink and splashed it on his face and through his hair. It didn't make his face look any better, but it did flatten out some of the cowlicks. He shrugged back into his jacket and went out into the main dining room.

Rodney and Vala were sitting in the booth with Katie, talking to the waitress. Rodney shrugged helplessly at John and John felt himself flush all over again.

"Rodney said some terrible things to Vala," Katie said by way of greeting. "But she's letting him take her home anyway."

"He's buying me eggs," Vala added, perusing the menu. "It's the least he can do for being so rude."

"And she's not going to have sex with him now," Katie added.

"I'm very sorry to hear that," John said, although he totally wasn't. He glanced at the waitress, who seemed completely unfazed and was just tapping her pencil on her pad, waiting for Vala to make up her mind.

"I'll have eggs and bacon," Vala said thoughtfully. "Scrambled. No, wait, maybe make that over easy. Better yet, forget the eggs altogether. I would like some…creamed chipped beef on toast," she said, reading deliberately from the menu. She smiled widely and passed her menu over. "Don't worry," she stage-whispered to Katie. "You'll be sober in no time."

"You want some more milkshake, dear?" the waitress asked John as he slid into the seat next to Rodney.

"No, I'm fine, thanks," he said. "I still have some left."

"No, you don't," Rodney corrected, sliding the glass over to him. "Bring him another one. It's on me," he added apologetically.

John didn't care, he didn't really need more anyway, but maybe it would cool him off. Just sitting in the booth, his thigh pressed against Rodney's, watching Katie sip yet another cup of coffee and listening to Vala prattle on about who-knew-what wasn't making him any less hard or any more patient.

"Oh, here we go!" Vala said when the food arrived. The waitress doled out John's milkshake, a milkshake and fries for Rodney, and then set down Vala's "creamed chipped beef on toast" -- better known in John's house as SOS.

The effect on Katie was instantaneous and amazing. She turned green, then white, and Vala slid gracefully from the booth just in time for Katie to crawl out with her hand clapped over her mouth, and make a dash for the bathroom.

"There," Vala said, taking a dainty bite of her meal. "Didn't I say she'd be right as rain in no time at all?"

"That didn't mean make her throw up," Rodney said around a French fry.

"It helps," John said, mostly because he'd been thinking the same thing earlier. "Doesn't it?" He kicked Rodney under the table and Rodney's face went bright red.

"Well, some people, I suppose," he muttered. But then he kicked John back.

Katie reappeared after a few minutes, looking a little less green and a lot more subdued.

"You okay?" John asked sympathetically.

"Yeah," Katie said, making sure not to look at Vala or her plate. "Do you think we can go now?"

"Yeah, sure," John said, sliding out of the booth to put his body between her and the smell of Vala's early breakfast. "Here, have some of my milkshake. It's cold." She sipped carefully at his drink as he took his wallet out of his pocket.

"Don't worry about it," Rodney said, wiping a napkin over his mouth.

"For the coffee," John said, dropping his father's five on the table. "See you guys later?"

"Toodles," Vala said, waving her fingers at them.

Rodney just said, "Yeah, later," and John had to get Katie out of there before he crawled right back into the booth and kissed Rodney again.

Katie got into the car quietly and learned her head against the window as John drove her home. He pulled the DeLorean up her house and turned off the engine. Sunlight was glimmering at the horizon, lightening the sky without color. He glanced at the house and was relieved that none of the windows in the front rooms were lit.

"Katie," he said, touched her shoulder to rouse her.

"Are we here already?" she asked, sitting straight up.

"Yeah," John said. "Look, I hope you don't mind if I don't, uh, walk you to the door."

"No! I mean, um." Katie cast a look at the house. "Not that I don't…want you to, but I…I'm kind of hoping I can get in without waking up my parents."

"I was just going to say that your father is probably going to kill me and then I won't be much good for anything," John admitted.

Katie grinned at him. "It's okay," she said. "I won't tell him you got me drunk and had your way with me." She leaned over and pecked him on the cheek. "I had a great time," she said sincerely, even though he wasn't the reason for it.

"I did, too," John said, even though she wasn't the reason for him, either. "Don't get too grounded, okay?"

"Okay." Katie let herself out of the car and waved over her shoulder as she ran up the driveway and let herself into the house.

John put the car back in drive and pulled away from the curb. His house was a few blocks away and he was in and almost to his room when he saw the light on under the door of the third bedroom -- his father's office.

He paused. A month ago, he would have just gone to his room and gone to sleep, but now he knocked on the door and waited for his father's quiet, "C'mon in."

"Hey," he said, opening the door and looking inside. Colonel Sheppard was sitting at his desk, a cut glass tumbler of whiskey at his elbow. The safe behind him was closed but not latched and on the desk before him were leather boxes that John knew held medals earned on classified missions.

"Hey, son," Will said quietly. "How was your night?"

John took a seat without being asked, the only other chair in the room. The chair Danny Connors had sat in weeks ago when he'd come to be kicked out of the Air Force.

"It was good," he said, ignoring the butterflies in his stomach and the ghost sensation of Rodney's mouth on his throat. "I spent your five bucks on coffee instead of condoms."

The Colonel's eyebrows went up and he made a face.

"I didn't sleep with her," John said, pleased with the reaction. "Mitch spiked Katie's soda and I couldn't take her home plastered so we went to the Early Bird and now I know everything there is to know about African violets."

"I gave your mother an African violet once," the Colonel said thoughtfully. "They were on sale at the BX and we'd just moved again, I thought maybe it would make the base apartment feel like home."

John stared at his father. They hadn't talked about his mother since she'd died. Not since the night the Colonel had said, Well, your mother's not here to take care of you but I think you're too old for a babysitter. Think you can take care of yourself for a couple of days?

And John had said, Yes, sir and that had been the end of that.

"Did, uh, did she like it?" he asked, wanting the story to go on, to go on forever, and not knowing how to ask.

"She killed it in about a week," Will said with a smile.

John snorted out a laugh and then froze, suddenly horrified about laughing at the memory of his mother. But his father didn't seem to notice.

"That woman couldn't keep a plant alive," Will said, reaching for his glass and taking a sip of his drink. "The only thing she managed not to kill was that little cactus thing you brought home from school."

"That's because she told me that if I wanted to keep it, I had to take care of it," John said, the words falling from his mouth like bright, sharp, pieces of stained glass. "I took it for walks every day for two weeks before she told me that plants didn't need exercise."

Will guffawed and took another sip of his drink. "I remember when she got it in her head to make you peanut butter cup ice cream for your birthday."

"That was good ice cream," John said. He remembered that birthday. His father had been home.

"I would hope so," Will said dryly. "I had to go to three grocery stores that night because you were too excited to sleep until almost midnight and as it turned out, we were out of rock salt."

"I used to wake up sometimes," John said, feeling like he was sharing a secret. "And she'd be out on the couch watching old movies on the television. If it wasn't a school night, she'd made a big bowl of popcorn and we'd stay up to watch the movie and then sleep on the couch."

Will picked up his tumbler and looked inside. He rolled his wrist and John heard the ice clinking against the glass. "Was she sad?" he asked, his voice suddenly low and serious. "When I was gone? I kept saying that it would pay off in the end, that I'd get a stateside posting eventually, something more permanent, and then I could spoil her. Take her out to dinner and buy her things and go dancing. And I never got the chance."

John felt the shift in the atmosphere of the room, something not so funny, not so casual. His father never relaxed like this, was never less than a command presence. It was like his father had just hurled a ball in his direction with no aim, no control, and it was up to John to field it the best he knew how.

"I never saw her cry," he said thoughtfully. "She was always busy. She always had some…project for us to do, or some adventure, or a new math game. When I was in school, she did a lot of volunteer work. She decided she was going to learn to knit one winter and I spent a lot of time holding yarn. She used to -- to talk to me about you. I don't think she was sad, but I think -- I think she did miss you."

"I missed her, too" the Colonel said with a nod and upended his drink. He set the glass down, well away from his papers and medals, and smiled at John, a small, sad smile that reminded him of the small, sad smiles his mother had worn on those late movie nights as she stroked her fingers through his hopeless cowlicks. "And damn," Will added, turning his face toward the window, where the first rays of morning sunlight were turning the shade a dark gold. His voice choked low in his throat. "I miss her now."

If Rodney had thought that the events of the homecoming dance meant that everything would go back to normal -- except with bonus making out with John -- he had been wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

"Has anyone seen the Great Football Star?" Rodney asked crankily as he sat down to lunch.

"John has been in homeroom every day this week," Teyla said serenely as she tried to balance one of the new plastic milk pouches on her plate and stab it with a tiny, pointed straw. "Why? Why did they feel the need to replace the milk boxes with these things?"

"I got it for you," Ford offered gallantly, reaching for her milk bubble. He squeezed one end and rammed the straw through -- all the way through. "Oops."

Teyla covered her mouth casually and tried to cough away her laugh as she piled napkin on the spreading pool of milk and dabbed at Aiden's face.

Rodney rolled his eyes and donated his own napkin to the cause. "Well, he hasn't been at lunch or in study hall," he said.

"Don't worry about it," Ronon said, grabbing both of Rodney's shoulders from behind and shaking him in his seat. "He'll turn up."

"Yeah, great, how do you know that?" Rodney asked, but Ronon was already ambling across the cafeteria to lean on Simpson's table, over where Rodney used to sit. "Wonderful." He finished his lunch and balled his brown paper bag in his fist to throw away.

John hadn't met him outside to walk to school all week. The one day, Rodney knocked on his door, he was met with a somewhat sleepy Colonel Sheppard who looked confused, went to look in John's room, and then suggested with equal bewilderment that maybe John had left for school early. Clearly, neither of them bought it, but John wasn't available to interrogate, so they both went their separate ways.

By Friday, it was pretty obvious. John was freaking out. Rodney had so called this.

Throwing his trash away, Rodney left the cafeteria and walked down the hall to his locker to get his books for study hall. He wanted to finish his calculus and physics problems so he could spend the afternoon filling out his applications after Mrs. Langford went home.

"Oh, hey, now, there's no need to be rude!"

Rodney would recognize that voice anywhere, and seconds later, Vala stumbled out of Mr. Dixon's classroom and crashed into him. "Oh, Rodney!"

"Vala," Rodney replied untangling himself. He glanced back at the classroom they were passing. The door slammed before he could see anything. He blinked. "Were you trying to -- oh my God! With Mr. Dixon?"

Vala sighed and rolled her eyes. "No! Well. If he were more cooperative maybe. I mean, the man has five kids. You would think he'd be a little more amenable to a little strings-free -- "

"You'd think he'd never want to have sex again," Rodney said. "If he gets a kid every time he tries."

Vala blinked at him. "That…is something I hadn't considered," she admitted reluctantly. She gusted out a massive sigh. "Oh, Rodney! What am I supposed to do?"

Rodney sighed. "Look, you just need high enough marks to graduate, right?

"Well," Vala said, drawing out the word. "A nice grade would certainly be preferable. But really at the rate things are going, I'm really just not doing that well. If you know what I mean." She gazed up at him from beneath her lashes. "I don't suppose you'd reconsider?" she asked. "Surely you see the advantages of a mutually beneficial business exchange."

It wasn't even that Rodney had extreme conscientious objections to changing Vala's grade. He knew that Vala wasn't dumb, wasn't even lazy, really, just wasn't interested in the ridiculously restricted curriculum the school forced upon them. Sure, changing grades was wrong -- especially when it screwed with the class rankings -- but Vala just wanted to graduate and Rodney wasn't unsympathetic to the wish to escape high school and their cloistered little town.

But he wasn't going to extort sex from Vala as payment, even though his conscience reminded him how he's extorted friendship for John in exchange for a thousand dollars.

"Okay, look," he said. "We're friends, right?"

"Er, are we?" she asked, rubbing the corner of her mouth with one fingertip. "I'm not terribly familiar with the concept."

"Yes," Rodney said firmly. "We are friends and you don't have to trade me sexual favors to get me to do something for you."

"What do you want me trade you?" Vala asked, cocking her head to the side.

"You just want to graduate, right?" he asked. Vala bobbed her head. "Okay, so here's the deal. It's only the beginning of November and there's no way your grades can be so bad that you can't graduate in June. I can teach you everything you need to know to pass the tests. You just need to learn it."

Vala brought her clasped hands to her mouth. "I can't pay you," she said hesitantly.

"You don't have to," Rodney said. "You just have to listen to me and do what I tell you to pass your classes."

"That sounds like an awful lot of work. Are you sure you can't just go in and, you know, tweak things a little?"

"That's my final offer," Rodney said boldly. "Take it or leave it."

Vala bit her lip and cast a nervous sideways look at the closed door of Mr. Dixon's classroom. "All right," she said finally. "You have a deal."

John ran into the house and straight to the bathroom, shedding his clothes on the floor and ducking under the warming stream of water. He scrubbed off the sweat from walking Mrs. Davis's dogs and shut off the water, wrapping a towel around his waist to go back to his room. His suit pants were hung up neatly. The white shirt he'd worn to Homecoming was still in the laundry -- no point doing wash until absolutely necessary -- but he had another one in the closet, and he got that buttoned up over an undershirt and the tails shoved into his pants when his father knocked.

"Yeah, come in," he called, unslinging his red tie from the hook inside the closet and pulling the circle over his head. His mother had tied it years ago and he only wore it to interviews and important events when he felt like he needed a little extra luck.

"You almost ready?" his father asked, clearly almost as nervous as John. He was wearing his dress blues, eagles gleaming on the epaulets, and he'd had his hair cut that day.

"Almost," John said, sliding the knot of the tie up under his collar and lining the top half over the bottom. He already had his socks and shoes on, so he shrugged into the jacket and frowned at his hair in the mirror. He'd slicked it up with gel in the bathroom but it still refused to behave. He made an ineffectual swipe at it.

"Fix it in the car," his father suggested. "Your appointment's in an hour."

"Yeah," John said, sliding his wallet into a pocket and following his father out to the garage. They were taking the DeLorean and it would take maybe half that time to get to Senator Goldwater's office, but they both knew how important this was.

"You know you won't meet with the Senator tonight," the Colonel said as he backed the car down the driveway. "He has a -- a nominating committee. You'll be talking to them."

"I know," John said. Danny Connors had said as much at that picnic when he was explaining the application process for the Academy and the nomination process to win an appointment from one of the senators or House representative.

Fifteen miles down the road, a few things became pretty clear. 1) The Sheppards were going to be very, very early to John's interview. 2) John's hair was never going to flatten out.

"Maybe I should have gotten it cut," John said, frowning at his reflection in the DeLorean's window as he got out of the car.

"I'm not even sure that would help," Will said, completely unhelpfully.

They went inside and sat in the waiting room with another boy and a girl with a very short haircut and very pretty face, and shoulders that told John she was definitely a varsity swimmer.

"I guess maybe we didn't have to go 80," Will muttered as he picked up first one TIME magazine and then another. "Speaking of, what were you out doing this afternoon? Isn't football over?"

"Yeah," John muttered from behind his own issue of TIME. "I was um, walking Mrs. Davis's dogs."

"Seriously?" Will asked. "Is that what you were doing the other day when Rodney stopped by?"

John's hearts stuttered in his chest. "When did Rodney come by?" he asked, flipping past an article about California and capital punishment.

"A couple mornings ago," Will said. "He said he was getting you to walk to school."

"Oh, yeah," John said, guilt blossoming in his chest. "They need morning and evening walks. They're kind of, well, they're big dogs." He scanned an article without seeing it, aware of his father's eyes on him and the delay in response.

"If you needed money," Will said carefully, "you could have said something."

"It's not that," John said, turning the page. "Mrs. Davis dislocated her shoulder -- well, I think the dogs did it for her. I just said I'd help out."

"Well. That's nice of you." Will tilted his head toward the inner office where the swimmer girl had just been escorted. "Make sure to tell them that, would you?"

John grinned. "No problem," he said, relieved his dad had believed him. Because this was something he had to do himself.

Mrs. Langford's typewriter was ancient and manual and the E key stuck. Rodney had already taken it apart and reassembled it once. He had plenty of time, really -- if he wanted to be evaluated with the masses of high school graduates with no work prospects and the goal of getting drunk and laid on their parents' dime.

No, Rodney McKay was going to be in the first batch of applicants, sororal sabotage notwithstanding.

He was down to three applications -- East Coast schools like Cornell and Columbia, and the oh-so-important CU Boulder application. It was stupid, maybe, but Rodney couldn't get John's words out of his head.

If you go there, you could come visit me. Come to a football game or something.

Plus the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, he reminded himself hurriedly. The most important thing was that CU Boulder had the LASP.

Mrs. Langford had locked the door behind her when she left at four, promising Rodney that he would be able to get out but no one else could get in. So he was pretty surprised when he heard a key in the lock and the door swing open.

"Hey," John said, poking his messy hair into the typewriter alcove. "Teyla said you were in here."

Rodney fumbled on the keys, adding another half dozen spaces, and gaped at John. "I thought you'd skipped town or something," he said.

John grinned abashedly and lifted the big black case he was carrying onto the counter. "Yeah, sorry about that," he said. "I've had some stuff to take care of. You finishing up your applications?"

"Yeah," Rodney said, curiosity getting the better of him. "What did you -- ?"

But then John unlatched the case and opened it to reveal a beautiful, shiny, black Underwood.

"I thought you could use some help," John said. "I was going to bring my dad's Selectric but he's holed up in his office doing something. This one was my mom's. It was just sitting in the garage so…." He shrugged.

"Wow, yeah, thanks," Rodney blurted out, relieved that he might be able to leave the school sometime before midnight. He pulled the unfinished Cornell application from Mrs. Langford's typewriter and passed it over to John along with the finished pages of his application to Columbia. "Here," he said. "If you can just copy this information over, I can work on the CU Boulder one and then I'll be done."

"Cool," John said. He dragged a chair over to the counter and rolled the first piece of paper into the old typewriter.

Rodney was giddy inside as he pulled the CU Boulder application from its envelope and thought happily of special trips to the LASP and weekends at football games in Colorado Springs. The office was quiet but for the noise of the typewriters.

The peace lasted all of about thirty seconds and then:

"Meredith?" John burst out. "Your first name is Meredith?"

John could do math in his head. It was handy for things like dividing up restaurant checks, adding up the grocery bill, and freaking out his father. It was also good for projecting numbers, and since he'd picked up his last paycheck from the drugstore and twenty bucks from Mrs. Davis for walking the hellhounds, that just about --

"JOHN!" His father's command voice carried down the hall from the kitchen and through John's closed door and John knew better than to do anything but pull the door open and run into the hall. "Phone," his father said, thrusting the receiver at him. Be polite, he mouthed.

"John Sheppard," he said cautiously.

"Please hold for Senator Goldwater," a clipped voice said in reply.

John blinked and raised his eyebrows at his father. His father made the same face back at him.

"John Sheppard?"

"Yes, sir," John said automatically.

"This is Senator Goldwater. How are you doing, John?"

"I'm doing just fine, sir," John said, mindful of his father. "Are you doing well this evening?"

"I am, son, thank you for asking." There was a beat and then the senator said, "I'm calling to offer you a place at the US Air Force Academy. You'll be my last nomination from this office and I'm confident that you will serve your country proudly."

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," John said, calm on the outside, but everything racing on the inside. "It would be an honor."

"They tell me the formal paperwork will get to you by mail in a few days," the senator continued. "But I wanted to call and offer my congratulations personally. Usually we notify our nominees in January, but I won't be in office much longer. I'm a little envious of you, John. You have a promising career ahead of you."

"Thank you, sir," John said again. Then he remembered discussing the just-passed Goldwater-Nichols Act at the dinner table with his father and added, "Congratulations on your bill passing. If I understand it correctly, we'll be seeing more successful joint operations in the future."

"That's the plan, son," the senator said wryly. "We did what we could on my end. Now it's up to you kids."

The call wrapped up quickly after that and John hung up the phone, feeling a little dazed.

"Well," his father demanded, as if eavesdropping hadn't told him everything he'd needed to know.

"I have the nomination," John said and found himself swept in a bear hug.

"Congratulations," his father said when he'd released John. "I had no doubt." He leaned against the kitchen counter and rubbed the back of his neck, like John did when he was nervous. "I'm glad this happened tonight," he said. "There's something I want to talk to you about."

John's first guess was that they were moving, or rather, his father was moving, as soon as John left home. It wasn't like it was anything unusual and they'd been in Arizona for longer than they were most places. He just hoped it would happen after graduation and not sometime before. "Yeah, what is it?" he asked.

"I have…I have a lot of leave accrued," Will said nervously. "And I was looking at the numbers and feeling kind of guilty because I really shouldn't have that much. I've been away a lot and maybe I didn't have to…I just didn't think I could do my job very well if I wasn't, well, you know, right there. In the middle of things. But you'll be taking off for the Academy, now, in what, six months? Seven? So I thought maybe I'd back off the travel a little, take some time here and there. Maybe a few trips? I mean, we haven't been camping since -- okay, I'm not sure we've ever been camping."

"Yeah, we have," John said. "We went when Mom was alive, and then there was that time they had to come pick you up by helicopter and they sent an airman to drive me home. That was pretty awesome, by the way. We stopped for dinner at this beer and burger joint and the waitress wasn't wearing a bra."

"Great," Will muttered. "This is exactly what I'm talking about. I was a terrible absentee father. I guess what I'm asking is that…if I try to make it up to you now, will you just resent me for horning in on your last year with your friends, or do you want to do this? Spend some time with your extremely uncool old dad? It's okay," he added quickly. "I don't actually expect you to drop everything after I left you to your own devices so long. It's like shutting the barn door after the horse escapes, I guess." He sighed and sat down at the kitchen table.

John thought for a moment. He'd been counting on having the house to himself -- well, to himself and Rodney. Weekend nights spent together, hanging out and kissing and touching and maybe going out to hustle a game of pool now and then, just for old time's sake.

But with luck and confidence in Rodney's vaunted brain, they'd get more time together and it wasn't like his father was going to be around 24-7.

"If you want to bring a friend along when we go somewhere, that's fine," Will added, clearly a peace offering.

John grinned. "You just want to watch Rodney try to start a campfire," he accused.

Will grinned back. "I like Rodney," he said. "I really do. But if you bring him camping, you have to let me have some fun with him."

"Yeah, okay," John said. "I guess it wouldn't suck to have you around."

Will grinned and reached out to tousle John's hair. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "Don't you have homework? Physics or something?"

"I had an A on the last report card!" John fired back.

"And you've got three more to go," Will replied. "So get a move on."

John rolled his eyes and went to his room, where he closed the door and opened the window. He crawled out on the roof, having no real intention of doing more work, and grinned when he saw a dark shape on the roof next door.

"Hey!" John called across the gap between the buildings. "Meredith!"

"Oh, my God," Rodney's voice echoed back. "How many times do I have to tell you, I was named after -- oh, this is that thing where you -- right, very funny, thank you."

John grinned and lay back against the roof. He remembered staring at the stars, wanting to be anywhere but where he was, wanting to flee the tiny town for the great adventure of Colorado Springs, and now that he was going, now it seemed less important to get out. He liked that Rodney was right there on the other roof, not so far away.

"Did you get your Boulder application done?" he called over.

"Yup," Rodney replied. "Mailing it out tomorrow."

"Good," John replied. "Offer still stands, you know." Rodney's silence was a near-palpable thing.

"You think," he said. "Even next year?"

But before John could answer, there was some sort of commotion from Rodney's room and Jeannie's plaintive voice wafted through the window, calling for her brother.

"Crap, gotta go!" Rodney called, and John watched him sit up and crawl back in through the window.

John tucked his arms behind his head and tilted his face up to the stars and imagined that he was flying.

Rodney crammed the last of his application packets into the too-narrow slot of the mailbox. It dropped into the receptacle with a satisfying crash and he grinned at Jeannie, who was holding the little door open for him.

"That's it!" he said, tapping his palm against his other fist. "That was the last one."

"I can let go now?" Jeannie asked. At his nod, she let go the hinged flap and let it slam shut with a final, resounding clang. "Am I done apologizing now?" she asked, falling into step with him on the way back down the street.

"Why, do you have more chocolate?" Rodney asked.

Jeannie kicked him and promptly tripped over her own feet.

"Okay, okay, fine. Don't injure yourself. You can be done apologizing." He glowered down at the top of her head and thought about the noisy fight their parents had gotten into during breakfast. Jeannie had looked at him with wide, desperate eyes, and he'd said, Come help me mail off my stuff.

In nine months, John or not, Rodney would be at college, on his own, and away from all that. But Jeannie had six years left in the house, at least. "Look," he said awkwardly. "It won't be that bad. Once you get to high school you can -- join clubs and play sports if that's what you want, and you don't have to be in the house all the time and -- "

"Oh, my God," Jeannie said, her expression completely horrified. "We're not like, talking about this, are we?"

"No," Rodney said firmly. "Absolutely not. C'mon," he added, reaching out and mussing Jeannie's meticulously teased bangs just to make her shriek and bat his hand away. "Let's go get some ice cream. My treat."

Simmons kept John late after physics, first to berate him on nearly falling asleep in class -- it had been a late night -- and then to congratulate him on his improving scores on the weekly quizzes.  John thought about his errand for the afternoon and let the teacher's words wash by him until Simmons said,

"I understand Rodney McKay has been tutoring you," confident with the air of someone who had spies everywhere.

"Uh, yeah," John mumbled, brought suddenly back to the present.  He thought guiltily about how many weeks had passed since he had studied with Rodney.  But after Saturday that would be a moot point.  He wondered who had told Simmons and was surprised to realize he had a choice of culprits.

Four weeks being Rodney's best friend had made John new friends as well.

"Well, as long as you absorb his skills and none of that attitude, you should do just fine," Simmons said, clapping John's shoulder.  "Keep up the good work."

John mumbled his thanks and escaped, fighting the urge to wipe off that shoulder.  He stopped at his locker to dump his morning books. Something crinkled in the back of his locker as he pushed his physics book to the back. John's locker wasn't cluttered -- it had his books stacked neatly on the top shelf, his sweatshirt hanging on the hook against the back wall, and his skateboard propped diagonally inside. Not like Rodney's locker, which was stuffed so tightly with mimeographed problem sets, crumpled brown lunch bags, and schoolbooks, that everything threatened to cascade down on his head every time he opened the door.

The source of the mysterious sound turned out to be a ball of computer paper. John tugged at the corners, pulling the paper flat, and looked down to see Rodney's name printed in black on a white line.

The match test.

John smiled and folded the page in half, sliding it into his physics book. For all Rodney's bitching and whining about the inaccuracy of the test, his computers had come through for him in the end.

The halls were empty and the lunch line was short when John got to the cafeteria.

"Almost missed it, honey," Marietta the Lunch Lady said, using a gargantuan ice cream scoop to disgorge a lump of macaroni and cheese onto John's tray. There was a brown slab of meat next to it that might have been meatloaf or possibly roast beef.

John smiled and thanked her, grabbing a plastic pouch of milk on his way to the cashier. He paid for his lunch and paused at the end of the line to survey the cafeteria.

Rodney, Teyla, Ford, and Ronon were at their usual table with Mitch and Dex goofing off. As he watched, Katie Brown and Jeannette Simpson ventured over. Ronon immediately jumped out of his seat and offered it to Jeannette. Mitch lost control of the milk carton he was trying to balance on his head and John watched Katie laugh as he came up dripping chocolate milk.

It was like watching television without sound and John was glad to see Rodney in the middle of it, his mouth moving rapid-fire as he shoved napkins at Mitch.

And then John turned around and crossed to a table on the other side of the room and set his tray down across from its lone occupant.

Radek Zelenka looked up from his calculus book and blinked at John. "Hello." He glanced from John to the other side of the room where Rodney and Teyla and everyone else sat. "Not to be impolite, but why are you on this side of the room and not on the other?"

John sat down at the table across from Radek and leaned his elbows on the table.

"Because there's something I need to do," he said. "And I'm going to need your help."

Rodney was having a perfectly decent Saturday afternoon, which could have been improved only with some making out, but that was looking less and less likely as the weeks wore on.

He was bored of playing Impossible Mission by himself and had started sketching out the code for a game of his own when the doorbell rang. Maybe -- Could it be? John had said to trust him so maybe his little freak-out time was over? Rodney jumped up and checked his hair in the mirror. The front was fluffy and he tried to pull a few strands down over his forehead before running for the door.

But he'd dawdled too long -- he heard Jeannie dragging the front door open. Good, fine, perfect. Jeannie could play lady of the house and flirt to her heart's content and John could think Rodney had more important things to do than sit around waiting for him to show up.

Someone knocked on the door, twice, and Rodney threw himself at the desk chair. But despite all odds -- and John's ridiculously polite upbringing -- the door opened before Rodney called for his visitor to enter.

"Get up," Radek said. "You have very important things to do."

"I -- what? You're not John." Rodney stared at Radek, helplessly disappointed.

Radek scowled at him. "You have astronomical expectations. Please with the moving, now."

"Why am I moving?" Rodney asked, getting up anyway. "What could I possibly have to do that's so important? My applications are sent off, my scholarship papers are -- well, there's nothing due this week, at least, and I think I'm supposed to be watching Jeannie or something. Did you see my parents when you were going through?"

Radek rolled his eyes. "I will watch Jeannie but you must go to the school, to the football field."

"To the football field?" Rodney asked, the coffee he'd downed earlier going acidic in his stomach. It really was all a trick -- John had realized that he didn't want to be gay, he was blaming Rodney, and he was dragging Radek into it, too. "Oh, this is because I kind of blew you off for a couple of weeks?" he asked. "Because it's not like I was that great a friend even before that, you know."

"Clearly you are not well," Radek told him, looking confounded. "Are you so terribly insecure that you think I, too, am out to get you?"

Rodney scowled. "I am not insecure," he said as witheringly as possible.

"Fine. So go to the football field, "Radek answered. "I promise that there is no evil plot to make you do exercise or anything."

"Hilarious," Rodney sneered and grabbed his jacket. He didn't really need it -- it was mostly habit from his childhood, when it actually got cold in November not just mildly less hot than the rest of the year.

Halfway to the school, Rodney realized that his great gay-bashing conspiracy theory probably was really stupid and that he really did know John better than that. Even if John was freaking out, he'd sort-of warned Rodney in advance and Rodney had promised to trust him.

Maybe this had nothing to do with John at all. Maybe Ronon wanted Rodney to tend bar for some party? But on the football field? Elizabeth had gone back to California the day after the Homecoming dance, so she couldn't have anything to do with it, despite Radek's slavish devotion to her. Rodney couldn't even get Radek to spill on whether he'd gotten in a kiss or maybe a grope during their one dance. A gentleman never kisses and tells, Radek had said primly and no amount of rationalization or pleading could get Rodney a satisfactory answer.

Maybe this was some sort of elaborate revenge by Teyla? Or Katie? Or Laura? Oh. Laura. Either this was Carson trying to beat him up again or Laura wanting to apologize? But Laura had already apologized, awkwardly in the hallway, and he'd seen her holding Carson's hand in between classes.

Vala? No, as familiar as she was with the underside of the bleachers, Vala wouldn't bother using Radek to get him to meet her. He'd been meeting her in the library after school, teaching her math and science and what little grammar he could remember, or pick up from her textbook as he was tutoring her. Vala wasn't stupid -- she just needed more attention than anyone seemed inclined to give her. It was frustrating that such easy things sometimes took her forever to get, but when she did, her face would light up and she'd clap her hands together and Rodney couldn't hate that.

Lost in his own reasoning, Rodney reached the school and trekked behind the gym and out to the football field. "Hello?" he called when he was in sight of the bleachers.

"I'm in here."

Rodney rounded the end of the bleachers and what he saw on the field stopped him in his tracks.

Before him stood, what was without a doubt, the most beautiful sight in the world. And next to it was John Sheppard, hands shoved awkwardly in his varsity jacket.

John paced the end zone anxiously, flexing his fingers and skimming his palms down the sides of his jeans. He knew Rodney wanted him, wanted to be with him. They'd kissed out behind the gym and Rodney had beamed like nothing could make him happier. The memory of his earlier rejection still burned, though, knotting low in John's stomach and Rodney was so damn flighty, John wasn't sure he'd even show.

He had to show. If he didn't, John was going to march out to Rodney's house and beat him over the head with --


The metal bleachers made Rodney's voice echo and John promptly forgot about breathing. "Yeah, I'm -- " His voice wasn't loud enough, or strong enough, and he had to clear his throat before trying again. "I'm in here."

"What are you doing -- " Rodney's voice broke off as he came through the opening in the bleachers and saw John. His eyes widened and his mouth fell open in a way that would be utterly unattractive on anyone else. But one thing John had learned about falling in love was that it changed your perspective on everything. "That's -- that's a Meade 8-inch LX2 SCT." Rodney dashed up, dividing his astonished gaze between John and the shining new telescope sitting on its tripod next to him in the end zone. "Did you -- oh my God. You -- "

"I have a proposition for you," John said, before Rodney could get out whatever he was going to say. "I, uh, I have this telescope." He rubbed the back of his neck and cleared his throat. "And I'll -- I'll give it to you. If you'll be my boyfriend for, oh, say a month."

"Monday to Sunday night?" Rodney asked, openly beaming now, and John felt warm explosions in his chest for having put that expression on his face.

"Saturday to Friday night," he said, pulling his hands out of his pockets as Rodney took another step closer. "Since I'm making the rules this time."

"Speaking of rules," Rodney said, glancing between the telescope and John.

"You can tell Radek," John said quickly, "but -- "

"I wasn't going to tell anybody," Rodney said. "But if it's okay for Radek to know, well, he probably would have figured it out anyway. I just wanted to know what happened when the uh, contract was up."

"I'm out of telescopes," John said as straight-faced as he could manage when all he wanted to do was smile. "But if it's looking good in four weeks, I'm sure we can develop some algorithm for trading favors."

"Oh, my God," Rodney said delightedly, reaching for John's jacket and dragging him in close. "You are such a geek!"

John laughed, feeling everything slot into place, and slid his hands around Rodney's waist, tangling his fingers the warm cotton of his shirttail. "Hey," he said, tilting his head so that his mouth lined up with Rodney's. "I learned from the best."

The End

A/N: The Goldwater-Nichols Act passed in October of 1986, reorganizing the upper echelons of the military and setting up a more streamlined command structure for the benefit of joint operations. Barry Goldwater retired in January, 1987, giving up his senatorial seat to John McCain. The process for nominating service academy candidates runs from about September to January. I took a few liberties with the timeline for the purposes of the story.

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