I'm of two minds about DVD commentary: on the one hand, I can talk on and on about myself and my writing; on the other hand, I don't think anyone cares. SO! Here's one of my least popular stories, enhanced with some zombie dialogue, book and film references, and my inane rambling. Enjoy! (Any other stories of mine that you'd like to see mangled, jsut let me know!)
Title: DVD Commentary for Building Bombs (11451 words); Story originally posted here: Atlantis 9 to 5
Author: busaikko with commentary by busaikko
Betas: inkscribe and wingwyrm
Rating: R for violence and adult subject matter
Pairing: Sheppard/McKay… kind of?
Summary: Atlantis 9 to 5 AU: One hot summer during the Cold War, John Sheppard takes a job at Rodney McKay's dad's pharmacy.
Spoilers: Spoilers through all of S4
Warnings: The warning will spoil the ending of the story. If you need warnings, please click on this link. No underaged sex; only one bad thing happens 'on-screen'. And a heck of a lot of good things also happen. Still worried? Leave me a comment, and just download the soundtrack *g*.
Spoilers: Through all of S4
Warnings: The warnings will spoil the ending of the story. If you need warnings, please click on this link.
Rodney's father fired Cal Warner from McKay's Pharmacy on the morning of June tenth. That afternoon John Sheppard walked in with an easy smile and a resume, looking for a job.
I'm terrible at ending lines, but I manage to come up with a lot of beginnings that I like. This is one. That said, one thing I should have done in the story was make Cal a Mike. My local cinema is MyCal Warner, and I didn't want to make readers see Wraith right from the get-go. Unfortunately, the result was that they didn't see him as a danger *at all*.
I like to give my stories titles that I can Google. 'Building Bombs' is so un-Google-able it's not even funny. However, I saw my role, as author, to build the story like a bomb. Cal's the explosive; John's the igniter. Rodney (and his father, representing nice middle-class suburbia) fail to see this, because Cal's a low-life and John's obviously from money (which is mistakenly taken to mean that he can fend for himself). I consider the story a tragedy of inaction. Dunno how well it works, though, if it does. . . .
Hiring John was really a no-brainer. He was the kind of person Rodney had hated in high school: the kind of polite, popular boy that he suspected his parents would have preferred to have. But Rodney was going into his junior year at university and John would, basically, be working for him, facts which Rodney made certain John understood as he gave him the tour and the rundown of his responsibilities. He didn't seem to be scoring any hits — everything he said was met by a Sure or an Okay or a raise of an eyebrow, which seemed to be as much emotional range as John had — but he was pretty confident John wouldn't hit back. Plus, Rodney halfway liked him just for being from out of town.
He introduced John to Teyla over the pharmacy counter. She shook his hand solemnly and mentioned that she'd grown up with Rodney and that he wasn't as bad as first impressions made him seem.
"Yeah, he is," Ronon said, straightening up from where he'd been shelving first-aid supplies. "New guy?"
"John Sheppard," John said, and shook hands all over again, and had one of those weird little jock-bonding moments where he and Ronon agreed that each others' teams sucked.
"The fuck they trade Nagai for?" Ronon said, glaring, and John shook his head as if in pain and confessed he had no idea. Ronon clapped him on the shoulder hard enough to make John stagger, and Rodney reminded everyone that they were getting paid to do actual work, or should he go clock everyone out?
All my OCs are either African or Asian, hence the fictional Japanese baseball player. . . .
"I'm not, actually, clocked in," John said, and Rodney rolled his eyes.
"You're not, actually, working," he shot back, but that was when Ronon pointed out that if John helped him unload the afternoon delivery then Rodney wouldn't have to bitch about carrying boxes in the heat and the damage to his back and curse the stupid women who thought that eight million bottles of dye actually made people think they were younger.
So he scrawled John's name on a new timecard and then had to show him how to get the stamp in the right little box, and John fucked it up anyway.
Hands, everyone who did this to their first timecard! I expect John's had a good bit of work experience, here, but for 'friends of his father'.
John looked embarrassed and kind of annoyed, and Rodney kicked him out of the office. He told Ronon to get John up to speed, and then completely forgot about him until Ronon poked his head around the door when he was leaving at five and told him that Elizabeth was teaching John how to operate the cash register but she had to go get the kids from her mother's and could he take over?
Rodney stomped out to take a look. John had taken off the button-down shirt that had given him the hire-able preppy look and was wearing a plain white t-shirt, tucked neatly into his jeans. He frowned at the register, biting his tongue in thought, and then rang up the items Elizabeth had in the basket on the counter. Rodney was sure that glaciers moved faster.
"The machine adds it all up for you," he said, looking over John's shoulder. "Oh, my God, just — no. Maybe you could just dust something so I don't cringe myself to death."
"Rodney," Elizabeth said, and gave him a sideways warning look over her glasses. "You don't really want me to tell John the story about the traveller's checks, the Canadians, and your stay with the police, do you?"
This story really needed to be told somewhere else as well, because it is Significant *cough*. I was trying to establish that Rodney didn't get on with the police (nor they with him), for reasons later necessary to the plot.
"Sure he does," John said, subtracting the issue of Vogue that he'd rung up twice and accidentally taking ten percent off.
"No," Rodney said, leaning around John and batting his hands out of the way. "I just think that in the natural order of things there are people who are
destined to unload trucks and there are people who are destined to have genius. Exhibit A," he said, waving at John indicate that he should step back and bag. He took Elizabeth's twenty, which he waved at himself. "And Exhibit B." He handed her her change.
"You're sure you don't want to charge sales tax?" John asked, looking somehow both sarcastic and earnestly wide-eyed. "It ought to be around sixty-three cents. Unless Massachusetts doesn't tax printed material? In which case — " he paused and bit his tongue again, which was an annoying habit — "fifty-one cents?"
Cash registers take a bit of getting used to. Especially if you can do it faster in your head.
Elizabeth handed the change back graciously and patted Rodney on the arm. "Insert the lecture about pride goeth here," she said, and gave John a sympathetic smile. "I really think you and Rodney will have a lot in common," she said, and waved goodbye brightly.
Rodney waited until the bells on the door had stopped tinkling until he turned to look at John. "You can do math." John snorted and stopped studying the register, though his fingers were still moving. "You just — in your head."
"It's nothing," John said, and started pulling open drawers, as if he had a sincere desire to learn where the scissors, tape, stapler, gift boxes (in three different sizes), and ribbons were.
"It's pretty cool," Rodney corrected, and John looked at him as if this were some kind of a trap. He let out a put-upon sigh and hopped up on the counter, letting his feet swing. He pointed at his chest. "I'm the youngest undergrad in the physics department, ever. I built a non-working model of a nuclear bomb in sixth grade, and the CIA interrogated me. I like math." He kicked John in the leg for still looking defensive. "So what's your major?"
John shrugged. "I just got out of high school, I haven't thought that far yet."
"Bullshit." This time, when Rodney kicked, John grabbed his leg and punched him, hard, in the calf. "Ow, ow, ow. Just for that, you should go buy me supper."
John shifted, and stuck his hands back in his pockets. "I got sandwiches in my bag. If you want one."
"I have hypoglaecemia," Rodney said. "I could go into a coma if I don't eat. And also I'm allergic to citrus, including the lemon in mayonnaise. It makes my throat close up and I suffocate. I could die. You'll probably be fired if you kill me the first day on the job."
"So I'll wait until tomorrow to kill you," John said, but he smiled when he spoke and the sandwiches were pretty good even if they were on cheap white bread and the tomato was flavourless store-bought instead of sun-sweet homegrown.
*cough* Ignore all the references to Princess Bride, which was 1987 and therefore made *after* this fic…. Also *diverts your attention* I'm starting to chalk up the 'facts' about John (he needs a job, he's broke, he's brown-bagging his meals and eating that crappy 99 cent white bread that gets mold after two days in the summer heat). Rodney's a bit young to see the dangers. . . .
Over the next week, they settled into a kind of rhythm. Rodney bitched and John let it all slide off him like he was greased, and when they were the only people in the store they ate food that wasn't, technically, part of any major food group. And every night Rodney climbed into the cab of his (embarrassing, handed-down-from-his-mother) truck while John practiced dumb things with his bike (like getting it to jump like a pogo stick, which Rodney derided as one step away from instant vasectomy), and John always waved good-bye with a cheerful kill you tomorrow.
One of my memories of UMass was of meeting an aging hippie in the Student Union. We got to talking, and he asked me if I realised how much violence there was in my everyday speech. Since then, I think about it. You probably should, too, especially when I start using 'Kill you tomorrow' in dialogue. . . .
While John was still learning how not to screw up too badly, Rodney arranged the schedule so that they worked most shifts together. He preferred John's passive-aggressive humour to Ronon's silence, and he tried as much as possible not to be around when Sam Carter was working the register, ever since the one disastrous date when he'd called her a dumb blonde (which he'd meant as a compliment). She'd kicked him out of her car in the middle of nowhere, in a snowstorm. He was lucky he hadn't frozen to death. Elizabeth was nice, but there was such a thing as being too nice, especially when it was mothering kind of nice all wrapped up in bemused tolerance of his faults, which she tried to correct with gentle diplomacy. John just told him straight out if he was being an asshole, or exacted weird revenges, like the time he superglued Rodney's shoelaces together (Rodney still wasn't sure how John had managed that).
Just adding some canon!
He also liked having John around when Teyla was working nights, because Cal Warner kept coming around and stalking her. Technically, Cal was some kind of cousin to Teyla, and she talked to him as if he were a misbehaving child, but Rodney still worried that someday it would come to violence. He wasn't sure if Cal wanted Teyla to break up with her boyfriend or steal drugs for him or be Bonnie to his Clyde or what. John picked up on the vibe and always managed to loom out at Cal with a feral smile and ask him how he could be assisted. Rodney admired how John could be polite and threatening at the same time, and also how John didn't seem to realise how cool he was.
So speaking of violence in daily life, and also of canon: dear Readers, please remember that John is a teenaged boy, and not a cardboard cutout of a hero or a rebel or someone 'cool'. And while you're at it, remind Rodney?
John was perfectly capable, for example, of turning from a conversation with Ronon about some football team that sucked, and asking Rodney with a straight face, "So what's the deal with the condom guy?"
Rodney blinked for a moment before he realised that the question was aimed at him. "There's a condom guy?"
John rolled his eyes and bounced the broom handle back and forth between his hands like a Slinky. "He only comes in every night as soon as Elizabeth goes home and buys a box of condoms."
"I don't remember every customer," Rodney said. "Don't forget the dust under the shelves."
John rolled his eyes. "Twelve condoms. Every. Single. Day."
Rodney grimaced. "That's not fair. I'm still a virgin."
"We know," Ronon said. "We're not surprised, either."
"You're so funny, go die now. Teyla — condom guy?"
"I believe," she said, speaking as if they were naughty and annoying children, well beneath her notice, "he is a Czechoslovakian student who resells them to the needy and desperate. He has an admirable devotion to contraception. And also to Elizabeth."
This story is set in Amherst, somewhat between Amherst University and UMass. Now, I do not recall whether there were condom vending machines on those campuses or not. . . but considering this article maybe not. . . .
"Freak," Ronon said, in an admiring kind of way. "Husák's loss, our gain." And then he and John got into an argument about which central European governments sucked the worst. Rodney knew Ronon wanted to go into politics: the Dexes were a political family, ever since the town of Sateda had been disincorporated and sunk beneath the reservoir. He hadn't known John planned to go into the Air Force; when it came up, in John and Ronon's argument, it was a disappointment. Rodney might have said a few things about mass murder, and John might have insinuated that Rodney was completely naïve if he thought his research would never have military applications.
In April 1938, the four towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott were disincorporated and subsequently drowned under the Quabbin Reservoir in Western Massachusetts. While there were no vampire aliens involved, H.P. Lovecraft did write a horror story (The Colour out of Space) about a Miskatonic U. surveyer who surveyed the fictional town of Arkham, intending to drown it. The Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory is located in what was Prescott, in the park by the reservoir.
Oh, and again with the Cold War, bombs and bombers theme.
"Chill," Ronon said, finally, wrapping an arm around John's neck and shaking him like a puppy. "Rodney's a good kid. Trust me."
"Perhaps you might redirect your sexual frustrations into work," Teyla said, sweetly, and flipped a page in her magazine, the very model of someone who had no frustrations at all. Which made Rodney wonder about her, a little.
John took the first two hours working the front, which meant that Rodney was at the register that evening when someone asked him for a box of lubricated Trojans. He nearly burst out laughing, and then he realised that he knew the man. Somebody-or-other, name started with Z, TA in theoretical physics. And the man wasn't even embarrassed at all: he gave Rodney a very knowing smile and some well-researched advice about condom sizing and penile sensation versus condom thickness.
I really like the idea of a slightly older Radek getting to be all superior to Rodney because he's more socially aware.
After what's-his-name left, John emerged from the back and solemnly presented Rodney with a silver-bordered card which had been altered in black marker to read My sincerest condolences on the untimely death of your
loved one libido.
"But hey," he said, punching Rodney in the shoulder, "when you decide to lose the virginity, you'll be prepared," and waggled his eyebrows like a bad Groucho Marx impersonation.
"What, you're not going to share your vast experience with me, too?" Rodney said, only it came out a bit too sour and more honest than he'd intended. John gave him a level look and then shrugged.
"Never even kissed anyone," he said, with a little jerk of his head to the side, his eyes sharp and wary. "Military school. I'm good at marksmanship, though."
Yes, and that's why this fic isn't NC17: it's violent as hell, but there's no sex. (er. sorry. you did know that there's no sex, didn't you?)
"I got mono kissing April Bingham sophomore year," Rodney said. "I'm famous for that, around here. So I won't tell anyone. They wouldn't laugh at you, anyway. Even my mother has a soft spot for you — she thinks you need to eat more vegetables. Me, they remember that I was reading encyclopaedias in diapers. Elizabeth remembers changing those diapers."
"That must be what keeps you so humble."
"Hey," Rodney said. "People who ran away from home can just shut up." John did shut up, his armour coming up around him like a potato bug curling into a defensive ball. Rodney waved his hands and back-pedalled. "It's kind of flattering that I have more experience than you. The triumph of brains over, well, whatever."
John smirked, his eyes still sharply wary. "My new purpose in life: to make you look good."
"I've always wanted sycophants," Rodney said, perhaps a little too wistfully. John burst out in loud braying laughter, folding up and leaning on the doorframe to keep from falling over.
"The sad thing," John wheezed as he came out of his fit, "is I think you mean it."
He so totally does. Jeannie was never cooperative.
"First paycheck you get? Buy my autograph. Someday it'll be worth a fortune."
"Sure," John said. "I'll put that on the list, right after vegetables."
Rodney bit his lip. "You'd tell me if you really were starving, right?"
No, Rodney, he wouldn't. He won't tell you anything. And if he does? You won't listen. Also, I re-use th 'starving' thing later in the fic, referring to different appetites.
"Rodney," John said, with watery-eyed smarm, "I'd eat you."
Rodney shoved a case of candy at him with his foot, hard and fast. "Go shelve something, peon."
The rest of the night, John wouldn't say anything but yeth, mathter to everything Rodney said. It kind of made Rodney want to hit him, and it also made him want to take John to the revival theatre and watch really bad horror movies. He thought John might appreciate them.
John beat him to the movie-glut, though. The first weekend after payday, flush with cash, he wheedled and whined until Rodney agreed to go with him to the opening of Back to the Future. This dates the fic: BttF opened July 3, 1985 On the plus side, John smuggled in a huge number of snacks, for which Rodney was able to temporarily overlook the very bad science. But he also made Rodney bring Jeannie, who fell in love with Michael J. Fox and — by transference — John.
Rodney's parents thought this was wonderful.
"Rodney refuses to babysit," his mother said, plying John with carrot cake. John mentioned something about how he used to look after his brother, and all of a sudden Rodney found himself volunteered to take John and Jeannie to the annual Fourth fireworks display at the high school.
"They pay sub-minimum for babysitting," Rodney said, after he'd dragged John out of the kitchen in a fury. John tried to get his bike to go around in circles while balanced on one tire. "We'll have to sit with Jeannie's vicious little junior high friends."
"You get paid to watch your sister?" John said. "Sweet." He wobbled, and then went right down on his ass, the handlebars nearly removing the back of his skull.
"Were you a performing bear in a former life?" Rodney said, as John lay there on the hot asphalt, grinning. "Did you run away from the circus?"
"Ayup," John said, and Rodney pulled him up with one hand and then tried to throw him in the bushes for Yankee impersonation. I figure, if Rodney has to be a New Englander, he's going to be die-hard. If his arm is twisted, he will even admit the superiority of the Red Sox to all other teams. *has active fantasy life*
"Boys," Rodney's mother said, appearing with plastic cups of KoolAid. John stopped shoving leaves down Rodney's shirt, looking guilty. Rodney palmed an earthworm, took his juice, and tried to look innocent. "Meredith Rodney," his mother said, her mouth going into a slanted, no-nonsense line. "Remember — "
"I hope you do, now." She gave him one more piercing look. "Behave."
Rodney felt about six years old. He scuffed his sneakers and watched her disappear back behind the screen door, and then dropped the worm in with one of the potted geraniums.
This scene failed. I was trying, in the story, to convey the borderline stage between being a teenager and being an adult, when parents still have legal power and control over their children; and the teenager's fear and resentment of that control (and as well, the parents' fear of losing that control when their child is still judged too young to be responsible: Rodney, after all, has already made a bomb). Rodney works at the family business and drives his mother's truck: he can be forced to clean the garage or have his stereo taken away. Which I needed to bring up more, make more tangible, I think.
John was looking down the road as if it was infinitely more interesting than being forced to watch someone's mother make vague, veiled, humiliating threats.
He didn't even seem to notice The Name.
"Well," Rodney said, and wiped his hands down his jeans.
"The new Mad Max comes out next week," John offered. Rodney said he hadn't ever seen the old Mad Max, which John thought was a crime that needed redressing, maybe after work someday. Rodney was all for that, even though he felt personally betrayed by John keeping secrets from him.
"I mean," he said, walking into John's apartment Wednesday night and continuing the same conversation he'd been holding since Sunday, "you have a video player? And you never even once thought that some people suffer from parents who think network television's enough?"
VCRs were unusual and expensive at this time, Young Readers. My friend's actually had *dials*. I was admittedly a geek, but I used my odd-jobs money to buy a VCR and was a very popular gal on weekends.
"Do you never shut up?" John said, opening the closet and pulling out a cardboard box full of videotapes. He shoved it over to Rodney with his foot.
"Not for long," Rodney said, looking at each tape and sorting them into towers. Unwatchables on the left, possibles and definites on the right. "Are the ones without labels porn?"
"Just crap off the TV," John said, fighting the window open and propping it up with a stick. "Kick the stuff off the bed and make yourself at home, okay?"
John didn't really have a bed, just a mattress on the floor with the kind of faded floral sheets that Goodwill sold, the sort people got rid of from elderly dead relatives' households. He didn't have much else, either. The apartment was one room, green linoleum on the floor of the kitchen side and brown carpet everywhere else. The video deck was balanced on top of the cheap, chunky television. The walls were painted a kind of cream, and Rodney could see the marks where former residents had taped up posters, and where holes had been filled with toothpaste. John hadn't put up any decorations, unless the curtain counted, and he didn't have any other furniture. The kitchen counter to the left of the sink had a pile of dishes, and to the right there was a neat row of books.
Um. This might have been several places I lived. Except they didn't have pritave kitchens or bathrooms.
Rodney shoved the stuff on the bed (a couple books, a roll of toilet paper, most of a dismantled typewriter, and a plastic medallion that looked like it came from a cereal box) onto the floor and grabbed the pillow. He squirmed to make himself comfortable, stretching out on his stomach, and envied John his privacy, and his freedom, and his very own personal video deck and television, which he never had to share with a younger sibling.
Rodney's not exactly a reliable narrator. He's a sheltered teenaged boy. I don't know why John took the typewriter apart. I do know why he has the roll of toilet paper, though. Do they still put prizes in cereal boxes?
John put the Mad Max tape in, shut off the lights, and flopped down next to Rodney with an open bag of Cheetos. He gave Rodney a sideways look; Rodney blinked at him, mouth full of cheesy snack product.
"Beer," John said, and slid a can over. "If you want it. There's also water and Coke and the kind of juice that kills you."
Rodney looked at the label and winced. "Very patriotic of you," he said, but popped the tab anyway. Three cheers for the Red, White, and Blue! "Aren't you too young to buy beer?"
"No," John said. Rodney threw Cheetos at his head and called him a liar, and John told him to shut up and watch the movie. There were lots of car chases and guns and some pretty good explosions, if not much plot, though that might have been due to the film being dubbed. I thought Australians spoke English, Rodney said, buzzed and drowsing as motorcycles screamed across the screen; John just sighed noisily and tried to tap the last drops of cheap beer from his can into his mouth.
When the movie ended, they took turns pissing in John's bathroom (wonderfully empty of curling irons and Maybelline and Tampax). John put something else on, maybe Saturday Night Live, and Rodney was asleep as soon as he lay back down.
He woke disoriented and feeling as if his teeth were covered in felt. Sunlight poured in around the curtain, which shivered in the waves of heat. Rodney's clothes were already starting to stick to him with sweat. John was taking a shower with the door open, steam leaking out. Rodney rolled to his feet, stretched carefully, and started rummaging through the kitchen for coffee.
One would think that New England summers would be mild. Not necessarily!
"You should see your hair," John said, far too cheerfully, as he emerged from the bathroom, still damp, and flicked a towel at Rodney's stomach. He was wearing blue shorts and looked irritatingly like he'd just walked out of the J. Crew catalogue. "Go clean up and we can walk down to Friendly's for breakfast."
"Shower," Rodney said, pulling his shirt over his head and yanking the towel out of John's hands.
"The hot water's almost gone," John said, and lounged in the bathroom door as Rodney stripped and took a lukewarm shower and got dressed again, talking non-stop about really bad movies and the weird whistling noise Rodney's truck was making and did Rodney think Teyla was knocked up and whether it was possible to swim in Jell-o, or would you just drown.
I also know why John's babbling like a brook. Poor kid. The Jell-o line is a very obscure reference to Daddy Long Legs. Anyone get that? Didn't think so. . . .
"Oh my God, just shut up," Rodney said, finger-combing his hair straight up in the mirror. John raised an eyebrow and pointed to the bottle of aspirin on top of the mirror. "I'm not hung-over, you idiot, I'm in caffeine withdrawal."
"Poor little baby," John said, and for that Rodney made him spend all afternoon taking inventory of Aisle 3 (diapers, formula, and things for disgusting urinary and anal problems).
The heat wasn't so much a wave as it was a tsunami, completely overwhelming the two fans that were Rodney's father's answer to air conditioning. The office was airless and at least a hundred degrees. Rodney propped open the fire door, trying to create a cross-breeze, and informed everyone of his imminent demise.
"Wuss," John said, and dangled a pacifier on a pink bear clip in Rodney's face, which was of course when Jeannie walked in.
"You're in trouble," she sing-songed, so Rodney grabbed the toy and threw it at her. "Ow." She threw it back. "Dad! Mer's throwing the merchandise again."
"Take it outside," Rodney's father said, looking up from behind the pharmacist's counter. Teyla was out sick again: she found the heat enervating. No one resented her, really — Elizabeth had picked out a very nice Get Well Soon card that they'd all signed — but it was hard having Rodney's father around all the time. He was short-tempered and prone to overriding Rodney's decisions. Though Rodney admitted that he tended to make his worst decisions when his father was breathing over his shoulder. "And John, a word with you, in the back, please."
John froze, shoulders going stiff, and then handed Rodney his clipboard.
"Is he fired?" Jeannie asked in an awed whisper that carried clearly: Rodney saw John tense up even more as his father waved him into the office. She looked horrified. "What did you do?"
"Please please please," Rodney said, accompanying the words with shoves to Jeannie's shoulders, "go somewhere else for, oh, twenty years. Come back when you're a real person."
"At least I'm not grounded," Jeannie said. "At least no one waited up all night for me to come home and then had to call me a taxi to get to the dentist's."
Those sentences are made of fail. Apologies. Rodney missed his curfew (remember those?) and also didn't chauffeur Jeannie around. So. . . he's grounded.
"That is so unfair." Rodney had the horrible drowning-in-Jell-o feeling of doom, though, that meant that, deep down, even he realised he'd screwed up. "It's summer vacation! I've done everything they've told me to do! I do not deserve this."
"Shoot the messenger," Jeannie said. "If you give me five bucks I'll go buy you some ice cream to drown your sorrows."
Rodney gave her the money just to make her go away, and he was glad, because John came out a minute later, shuffling behind Rodney's father like a criminal.
"What?" Rodney mouthed at him. He could see John obviously considering ignoring him, and then John gave him a thin unamused smile and mouthed Seventeen? back at him.
John's not an idiot. He's covering up what he's really upset about.
Rodney was grounded for a week, and it took nearly that long for John to start talking to him again. He supposed he ought to have refused the beer, if that was what John was angry about, but that would be completely hypocritical, seeing as how John wasn't legal yet, either. It was kind of flattering that John'd thought he was older, though on the other hand hadn't he said that he was the youngest junior in his department? He was sure he had, three or four or maybe ten times, just to make sure it sank in.
He didn't even know what it was that made John stop being mad at him. Teyla had come back, looking tired and frail, and John had had to kick Cal out twice. The second time John had wound up with a split lip and a nasty bruise on the back of his shoulder, from where Cal had shoved him against the window frame. Rodney had been on the verge of calling the police, despite the way they still looked at him like they were laughing on the inside, but John waved his concern off. Cal won't be walking straight for a while he said, and Teyla wiped away the blood very carefully with gauze.
More bomb-building. John's angry when he's scared and cornered; Cal makes a welcome target for all that free-floating hostility.
The next day John brought sandwiches and bottles of Coke to share with Rodney. He talked just as if nothing had ever happened, even if he was mumbling a bit because of his mouth.
"I'll give you a ride," Rodney said after work, tossing John's bike in the back of the truck. "Get in."
"Cool," John said, swinging up into the cab and immediately fiddling with the knobs on Rodney's radio.
Rodney slapped his hand away, but after a mile he relented and let John put on the Jefferson Airplane tape that he was so inexplicably fond of. He supposed that military school might bring out the inner long-haired hippie in anyone.
I think it's just that he likes the line, 'Up against the wall, motherfuckers' (We Can Be Together).
He was in a driving-around mood, so he turned east, heading out of town. He went most of the way up to the radio observatory, and then pulled off the road.
"Here," he said, hauling the blanket out from behind the seat. "Follow me."
He had a flashlight, but he knew the trail well enough that he probably could have made it to the top of the hill just by the light of the crescent moon. There was a large low darkness to the east, which was the reservoir, and a taller, lumpier darkness behind them, which was the woods, and above, one of the clearest sky views he knew. He made John put the blanket down in the centre of the clearing, and took a two litre bottle of root beer and a box of Big Wheels out of his backpack. The air was heavy and bathwater-warm, swirling slightly in the breeze.
"'s nice," John said, flopping back onto the blanket with a sigh. "Pretty."
"My birthday's in eight days," Rodney said, abruptly. He could have told John the exact number of hours, but he didn't want to seem too obsessive. "My father didn't really threaten to have you arrested for the corruption of a minor, did he?"
"Not really," John said, pulling his knees up. "Just worried I might be a bad influence."
"Yes, with your wild ways," Rodney said, scathing. "Picture my eyes rolling." He took out a Big Wheel and set to work trying to lick the cream out of the middle before the chocolate frosting all melted. It was hard to do, especially lying down: the crumbs tended to go up his nose. "So. I can talk for hours. Until you crack or die of boredom." He pointed up with his free hand and gestured theatrically. "Imagine where you are in the universe. The earth, and the solar system, and the galaxy, and so on and so forth, all the way out to the residual traces of the Big Bang."
John shifted, settled, and folded his hands over his stomach. "Always wanted my own personal Carl Sagan."
Rodney loved Cosmos as a kid. Then he decided he wanted to prove it all wrong.
Rodney slapped him, aiming for the stomach but hitting his arm. "Shut up. This will be on your final exam. Take notes."
"Yeth, mathter," John said, but he did a pretty good job of keeping up. No matter how much John might have hated his school, it had probably been very expensive and college-prep, with calculus as well as marching up and down in lines. It had probably been much better, at any rate, than the local high school Rodney'd fought to escape. John was smart enough to ask intelligent questions, and he mocked the stupid theories in all the right places, until the Big Wheels and half the soda pop were gone. Then the sugar made him lose his mind, and he started asking about time travel. Rodney was wired, too, so he began to yell about horrible science fiction.
John clapped a hand over Rodney's mouth; he kept talking for another half a minute anyway.
"Northwestern," John said. He was twisted half on his side, and Rodney could just barely see the moonlit curve of his cheek and the hollows of his eyes. "Your father, he told me." He removed his hand but kept looking at Rodney.
"It's in Illinois," Rodney said, slowly, trying to figure out how this was important in the grand scheme of life, the universe, and everything. "In Evanston."
"I know that," John said; of course he did, rich prep-school kids knew things like that. "I just — I thought you went to school here."
"I did." Rodney breathed in through his nose and tried to be patient. "Until I turn eighteen, that was the bargain I made with my parents. Northwestern's been holding a full scholarship for me since I was fifteen, do you know just how crazy-making that is?"
I kind of feel sorry for Rodney's parents, trying to instil him with Values and Responsibility before unleashing him on the world.
"So you're leaving," John said, and his voice was raw, as if he'd just — lost his best friend, and Rodney felt all kinds of things slip into place. He was slow to catch on, but he'd never had a best friend before either, so how would he have known?
"Oh, hey," he said, and John made a huffing kind of unamused laugh.
"Don't tell me you'll write."
"It's my dream," Rodney said, and John rolled onto his back and dug the heels of his hands into his eyes, as if he were exhausted. Rodney told him about the research programme, about his lab and his to-be colleagues and his perks and benefits, and John made little go-on noises until he was done.
"I'll be happy for you tomorrow," John said. He sounded half-asleep. "I just — God." He reached out with one hand and grabbed Rodney's, still raised from his enthusiasm about the allowance for international conferences. John wove their fingers together and stared up at the sky; as if he didn't look, he didn't have to acknowledge what he was doing.
Rodney rubbed his thumb across the back of John's hand. Jeannie had still held his hand up through elementary school: people had thought it was cute. Rodney missed the comfort of her easy touch, even though he'd rather eat cockroaches than ever say so.
But there was a huge difference between holding Jeannie's hand and holding John Sheppard's. It was kind of gay, whichever way you looked at it, and Rodney was sure that he wasn't supposed to like it or find comfort in it, and he didn't want to know what it might mean if he did. He wished that he could blame it on cultural differences — he knew that there were some places where people touched each other all the time — but John could be an honorary Yankee where physical and emotional repression were concerned. So, it was weird and troubling, and even John must have thought so, but there they were: Rodney soothing an arc over warm, dry skin, and John's fingertips curled down as if he wasn't planning on letting go any time soon.
Which meant that it was up to Rodney. He fake-yawned and stretched, letting John's hand slide away as he rolled to sit up and said something about curfew and grounding and maybe John was a bad influence after all. John got up and took a long pull from the pop bottle, wiping his mouth afterwards on the shoulder of his t-shirt. Rodney watched him, and then realised that he shouldn't be watching. He looked away and felt three kinds of nervous, wondering if John had caught him watching — or even worse, if he'd watched Rodney watching.
There's a brilliant Far Side cartoon titled "Same Planet, Different Worlds' where the top panel is a boy in bed, thinking 'I wonder if she knows I exist? Should I call her? Maybe she doesn't even know I exist. Well, maybe she does. I'll call her. No, wait, I'm not sure she knows I exist. Dang!' In the lower panel, the girl is lying in her bed, thinking, 'You know, I think I really like vanilla.' This is Rodney POV, so we're hearing a lot about how much he likes vanilla, but by now I hope everyone has figured out what John's thinking and feeling.
He got some of his equilibrium back as they walked back to the truck. John had no sense of direction and kept wanting them to go turn off into God-knows-where. When they reached the road, Rodney made sure to rub in John's absolute failure at navigation.
"And you think they'll let you be a pilot?" he said, making a tight U-turn, headlights flashing wildly through the trees.
"Things look different from the air," John said. After a moment he added, "Better."
"And then you bomb the hell out of them." Rodney knew a thing or two about bombs.
John replied with what he always said: "Some things are worth fighting for."
Rodney snorted — he really wasn't in the mood for clichés — and turned the music up so he didn't need to talk.
The next day, he was worried that there would be some kind of residual hand-holding awkwardness, but John acted as if nothing had happened — surprise, surprise. Rodney was equally miffed and relieved. Elizabeth had her annual meeting about the back-to-school displays and products (fancy expensive shampoos, prophylactics, pee-in-a-cup home pregnancy tests, things like that), and the countdown to the return of fifteen thousand or so potential customers began. You'll have to train the new kids, Rodney said to John. Make them fear you, or they'll try and get away with murder. Ronon talked about the shoplifters, Teyla about the druggies, Sam about the privileged assholes who assumed that if you were female you practically had a duty to sleep with them (she didn't even look at Rodney, but everyone else did), and no one talked about Cal Warner.
Cal didn't turn up again, which was a relief (Rodney hated physical conflict: he was no good at it; pain hurt), but over the week things started turning up missing, just like they had before Cal was fired. Elizabeth's copy of Waiting for Godot, the spare jeans Teyla kept in the back, Rodney's prescription for antihistamines. Rodney's father crossed his arms and turned a blotchy red at the latter — the prescription drugs needed to be kept secure. For the second time that summer, all the keys were collected and all the locks changed, an expense that was worrisome enough that Rodney's mother decided that he didn't need anything new to take to college: his old clothes and sheets and towels would have to suffice.
busaikko can never resist a) a bad pun or b) making hideously obscure references. Cal stole Elizabeth's Beckett; Teyla's jeans (genes), and the stuff that keeps Rodney from developing hives. Yes, you may hurt me now.
"If it is Teyla's stupid cousin making trouble, I'm going to kill him," Rodney said, balancing at the top of a ladder and stretching very slowly up to get the fluorescent bulb that had started blinking. Ronon held the ladder steady with one hand and Rodney's leg with the other. Rodney wished, for the millionth time, that his father hadn't bought such a cheap aluminium stepladder that it had started to crumple under Ronon's weight. He wished that John hadn't chosen today of all days to be late for work. Pilots weren't afraid of heights. Probably. "Of course, I won't be going to Illinois if I break my neck falling on the lipstick."
Remember what I said about violent language? Cal has now been upgraded to the subject of casual murderous thoughts.
"Keep complaining and I'll push you into the lipstick," Ronon said.
Rodney thought he was joking, but sometimes it was hard to tell. "Ha, ha. I'm going to — just don't — "
"I got you, McKay," Ronon said. "You're gonna need to — "
Rodney let go with his right hand and straightened slowly, swearing steadily through paralysed lips as the whole world seemed to revolve beneath him.
busaikko is irrationally afraid of ladders. Now you know my weakness. Damn.
"Attaboy." Rodney spared a glance downwards to glare messy death at Ronon. He eased the dying bulb free, needing to twist and pull at the end because when was his life ever easy, and then he began his knee-shaking descent, palms sweaty and slipping against the metal.
"Yo, John," Ronon said as the bells over the door clattered, and wouldn't you know that he'd turn up just as the bad job was finished?
"Where have you been?" Rodney asked, grabbing the ladder and nearly dropping the flourescent tube as Ronon let go.
"What the fuck happened to you?" Ronon asked, practically at the same time. Rodney turned around and fell the last two rungs, but it was enough to give him a quick look at John. John's shirt was muddy, and his jeans were torn. He looked furious, and he was sopping wet with sweat. There was a dangerous shine to his eyes, but Rodney felt that, appearances aside, John was just this side of tears. He glanced at Ronon, who had gone still, assessing.
"Guy stole my bike," John said, limping towards the back.
Ronon fell into step behind him. "I got my workout bag. Towel and change of clothes, if you want."
"Fucker ran me off the road." John looked back at Ronon, and then flinched and looked away from Rodney's horrified expression. "Thought he was stopping to help."
"It happens," Ronon said, and John gulped in air as if he were forcing something terrible down. Ronon reached around him and opened the door to the back. "Hey. John. It happens." He pulled the door shut behind them, and Rodney thought that it was stupid that he was shaking when the closest he'd been to a near-death experience this afternoon was six feet off the ground with a Ronon-shaped safety net. He tried not to picture John flying off his bike into the roadside scrub and lying there stunned, bruised, and terrified. He tried not to think about what could have happened: bones broken, skull cracked, neck snapped. He hated having a vivid imagination and made himself get the replacement bulb and install it all by himself. This time, he didn't feel nearly as dizzy at the top of the ladder.
And again with the vague. In my head it was pretty clear that John was sexually assaulted, but apparently hardly anyone noticed. . . except for the people who read the warning. The concept of 'same planet, different worlds' is a key component in the bomb I was building (or where the tragedy comes from, if you prefer). The story is a tight Rodney POV, and he's not entirely reliable. When I write, I am always *clearest* about what the non-POV characters' motivations and thoughts are. If it doesn't freak you too much, imagine this scene from *John's* POV.
Ronon came out, grabbed a toothbrush and a bottle of ginger ale (barfing, he said to Rodney, and snorted when Rodney started talking about head injuries), and disappeared again.
Rodney was just considering folding up the ladder and using it as an excuse to go into the back when a herd of girls with mall hair walked in and headed for the Wet'n'Wild display. As the only employee actually working, Rodney settled himself behind the front counter at the angle which let him keep an eye on them. If anyone tried to shoplift today, he decided, he'd sic Ronon on them.
The girls looked up hopefully when John came out, but either the weird way sweat had restyled his hair or Ronon's oversized Metallica t-shirt put them off, or maybe it was that he looked blotchy and pale. Ronon swept his way up the aisle and played the bad boy for them, and they let John fade into the background. That seemed to make him happiest. He put the ladder away and took the dead bulb down to the electronics shop, and then he stared out the windows at the road for nearly a minute before hauling out the new shipment of feminine hygiene products and shelving them with an intensity that cleared the shop of girls in record time.
Rodney trusted that Ronon had got things mostly under control, so he alternately snapped rude orders at John (to prove he wasn't worrying) or tried to check unobtrusively that John's pupils were the same size (which made John try out his thousand and one bad zombie impersonations). Ronon went up to Panda East after clocking out and came back with so much Chinese that by seven they could barely move. Ronon grunted, packed up the leftovers for a snack later, and ruffled John's disgusting hair as he headed out to his evening security job.
Rodney drove John home: he didn't even need to repeat his offer. John climbed in without protest, and Rodney even let him listen to the mix tape that Jeannie had made for John, despite it being banned for having a too-high quotient of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. John didn't say anything when Rodney followed him up to his apartment, or when Rodney checked his pupils again and made him take three aspirin.
Rodney paced between the kitchen and the mattress, trying to make things work in his brain. John settled on the mattress with his back to the wall, knees pulled up in front of him.
"You can get another bike," Rodney blurted out, and then put his hands up when John glared. "Okay, okay, I know that's not the point, but what is the point?"
"I had to sell my car when I came out here," John said, slapping out some tune on his thigh. "Needed the money to get a real address, else I'd've just slept in the back seat. Having a bike kind of made it worth it. Christ — sometimes I don't know why I'm here."
Non-US readers may not know that state universities have two tuition scales, in-state (which is cheap) and out-of-state (which can be terribly expensive). This system is described here. John's trying to establish residency to get the lower tuition rate. Massachusetts is a lot more liberal than where he came from: he was figuring it would be a good place to start his life.
"Um," Rodney said, and waffled, pacing in tighter arcs. "You can't go home?"
"Oh, fuck, no." John had that glittering, scary, verge-of-tears look again. "Fucking bombed that bridge when I left. I couldn't — " he stared at Rodney — "I couldn't survive there."
"You survive better than anyone I know," Rodney said. "So screw the bastards, and. . . you know we'll be your family. Me, and Ronon, and Teyla and Sam and Elizabeth and even Jeannie — hell, little sister, you can have her."
"But you're leaving," John said, with a very faint smile that reminded Rodney of the people on the six o'clock news as they recounted the terrible things had had happened to them, smiling because they just didn't know what else to do in front of God and America when they were too weary to rage and too proud to cry.
*hands you the purple marker to colour in the prose* Not sure what I was thinking, here.
"It's not like I'm being beamed halfway across the universe. Illinois isn't so far."
"Okay, so it's far from my parents, but that doesn't mean — "
"Yeah. I know."
Rodney grabbed a bag of pretzels from the kitchen counter, ripped it open, and dropped down on the bed. He sat tailor-style. John didn't care about having dirty sneakers on his bed any more than he cared about the crumbs.
"Not like you have to stay here, either," Rodney said, holding the bag out for John to grab a handful. "How long does it take to get residency in Illinois?"
John shrugged, turning his mouth down and bugging his eyes out in exaggerated ignorance. "Year or so?"
"So come with me. If I have another driver, I can take the scenic route, maybe through Canada or something."
John coughed, spraying the mattress with partially-chewed pretzel. Rodney twisted around to whap him hard on the shoulder.
"Ow," John said, jerking to the side. Rodney froze, hand raised mid-strike. John grinned. "Psych."
*has fond childhood memories*
"Fine," Rodney said stiffly, turning so his back was to John.
"It would — I — look."
There was a rustle and a dip in the mattress behind him, and Rodney wanted to cross his arms but was afraid he'd tip over like a defective Weeble. He settled for scrunching his face up in what he hoped was an unforgiving expression, but worried that he just looked petulant.
Weebles, Young Readers, are egg-shaped toys that 'wobble but don't fall down!'
"You wouldn't want me around," John said, and Rodney could see him out of the corners of his eyes, kneeling and looking all boyish and awkward. "You don't want some, some hanger-on following you off to college. Dragging you down."
"Why would you?" Rodney asked. "Why would it be any different there than here?"
John leaned over, and it was as baffling and awkward as the whole hand-holding thing had been. John's chin was practically on Rodney's shoulder, and suddenly Rodney thought he knew what this was all about. Horror made him babble.
"I know everyone thinks I'm — but it's just my hair, I can't help it. I don't know what you heard, they said, but I'm not, I don't, and — " he turned to scowl right into John's (even-pupiled) eyes — "it's really insulting that you'd listen to gossip about me." His voice dropped, all by itself, from irate to wounded. "I mean — do I really look gay?"
So here's David Hewlett in 1987 and in 1988. Now picture him three years younger, when hair like this was popular. Now, busaikko is not saying that hair has a sexual preference all of its own. . . but she suspects Rodney's classmates had a few stereotypes they didn't mind sharing.
"Who does?" John asked, and he kept his eyes open as he ducked forward to press his mouth just to the side of Rodney's. Rodney had the impression of off-center speed and cool, dry lips, and then John pulled himself back all the way to the wall, barricading himself with his knees again. "You don't want me going with you. Trust me."
"That so doesn't count as a first kiss," Rodney said, rubbing his mouth as if maybe he'd been marked. And, okay, he'd gotten everything backwards, but how was he to know? John liked football and airplanes and still hadn't completely outgrown his military haircut. John mocked The Smiths and knew all the words to every song by Spinal Tap, and was never happier than when he was doing something suicidal on his bike. John liked disgusting, greasy junk food, and Rodney was pretty sure that most homosexuals in the Valley were vegetarians.
Yup, Rodney's aware of a few stereotypes.
The moment the word homosexual percolated through his brain, then suddenly sex was all he could think about. It was no wonder John was a virgin, if he wanted to do that with guys (exactly what that was, he didn't know, but it was bad enough that people didn't talk about it, or think about it if at all possible). He was glad he wasn't looking at John anymore; he didn't know that he could.
Young Readers, I have no idea what kind of formal sex ed you had, but mine was scant (a filmstrip on the joys of menstruation, as I recall). Everything else was word-of-mouth or hands-on. I learned pretty quick that guys come, but never heard that girls could. I had a boyfriend who liked his dildo, but (in retrospect) he didn't seem to know that the prostate is a male organ. Until my second year of high school, I didn't know anyone gay. I realise that I was ridiculously sheltered (we didn't have TV for years) but I think an argument can be made that Rodney could be just as naïve.
"Go on home," John said, listlessly, but Rodney's brain was still tangled up with confusion and curiosity.
"We could watch a video," Rodney said. John collapsed over sideways whimpering at the utter lameness of this idea, but after a minute of Rodney suggesting movies they had seen already he crawled over, grabbed Night of the Living Dead, and shoved it in without a word.
Rodney got up after ten minutes to get himself a beer and John a can of Dr Pepper. When he came back, the empty pretzel bag had been tied in a knot and tossed on the floor and John was sprawled out on his back, head hanging off the mattress, watching the film upside-down.
Rodney rearranged John into a less annoying position by shoving him into place with one foot, and then sat down next to him the way he always did. He could maybe pretend that things were normal, and maybe they'd go back to being normal. Maybe he could forget ever even thinking that John might want to do weird sex things with him.
Except that if John was trying to be seductive, he was worse than Jeannie — in fact, Rodney would bet good money that if John owned a turntable, he'd have sunk to the level of making Rodney mixtapes. As it was, he'd held Rodney's hand — once — and (kind-of) kissed him — once. If relationships were meals, Rodney thought, then John was starving. He tried to study John without getting caught. It didn't work, because John was looking at him — though when their eyes met, John snapped his gaze immediately back to the television.
Rodney reached out and touched John's hair. Even Ronon did that much, and he wasn't gay.
He didn't look gay.
"Jeez," John said, squirming away from Rodney's hand and brushing at his hair like it might have been damaged. "I can't handle you being nice right now." He put his hands under his chin and hunched his shoulders up. "I fucking hate it."
Rodney did a little hunching himself. It quite unexpectedly hurt, that John pushed him away. "Being nice?"
"Being this," John said.
"I never thought about it," Rodney said, wishing that his honesty sounded. . . suaver. On screen, it was the creepy part with the music box and the taxidermy, just before the crazy girl began having hysterics. "God, this always creeps me out — she freaks me out."
"Everyone wants to know, if push comes to shove, are you going to break like she did, or fight like the hero does." John sounded remote. "And the thing is, you can't know."
Or sometimes you fight and still get broken.
"Teyla'd kick zombie ass."
John coughed. "Not if it'd hurt her baby."
"I thought she was getting fat."
Rodney tried to digest this. "Cal's not the father, is he?"
"Dunno. Maybe no. Not my business."
In the movie, the girl was recounting how she'd screamed for her brother, Johnny Johnny help me help me, when the zombie tore off her clothes. John's shoulders shook a little, like waves going through the worn fabric of Ronon's shirt, and Rodney thought he really ought to have left earlier, when he'd been given the chance. He was no good at this, at any of it. But when push came to shove. . . he liked to think he wouldn't be a coward.
*busaikko makes blatant Mighty Mighty Bosstones reference*
If you haven't seen Night of the Living Dead, get thee hither to YouTube and watch the entire film here. If you have a short attention span, watch the above scene at 27 minutes in, and then watch the ending (oh, the ending broke my heart. . . and foreshadows this fic *huh moment*). The dialogue for the scene is:
Barbara: We were riding in the cemetery, Johnny and me. Johnny. We, we came to put a wreath on my father's grave. Johnny, and he said, can I have some candy, Barbara, and we didn't have any, and — oh, it's hot in here, hot ((pulls at tightly wrapped overcoat)) — and he said oh, it's late, why did we start so late, and I said, Johnny, if you'd gotten up earlier, we wouldn't be late. Johnny asked me if I were afraid, and I said, I'm not afraid, Johnny. And then this man started walking up the road. He came slowly and Johnny kept teasing me and saying he's coming to get you, Barbara, and I laughed at him and said Johnny, stop it. And then Johnny ran away, and I went up to this man and I was going to apologise.
Ben: Why don't you just keep calm.
Barbara: And I looked up and I said good eve– and he grabbed me! He grabbed me, and he ripped at me, he held me and he ripped at my clothes.
Ben: I think that you should just calm down.
Barbara: Oh, I screamed, oh, Johnny, oh, help me, help me, and he wouldn't let me go, he ripped at me. And then Johnny came, and he ran, and he fought this man, and I got so afraid, I ran, I ran, I ran, and Johnny didn't come. . . .
I really, really want to be able to do with fic what this scene does to my heart. Listen to her voice, watch her eyes. It's terrible. Go watch.
"Oh, for — " he started, gritting his teeth and hauling John sideways. "Just shut up and let me." He dropped John's head in his lap and kept one hand there, just behind John's ear, and his other in the middle of John's back, to hold him down. Even though John let himself be manhandled, Rodney felt as if they were objects with the same polarity, trying to push apart. "I wanted a cat, you know," he said.
Why is John so easy to see as feline? Why, why?
One of John's shoulders jerked in response: John always said that Rodney's rants about his mother's overprotective compulsions (she blamed his allergies on his ill-fated dog, and refused any other pets after that, even fish) were nearly as frequent as those about how this, that, or the other thing would kill him. Rodney tried petting John like a cat, experimentally. John didn't purr (probably a mercy: his laugh was bad enough), but eventually, in the middle of some very bad zombie carnage, he shuddered three times like a car running out of gas, and a moment later sagged limp and started drooling on Rodney's jeans.
Rodney waited a few minutes to make sure John was really asleep, and then eased himself free. He turned the TV off and taped a note to it, saying he'd be by in the morning.
His mother got up when he came home and stood, in her curlers and robe, in his doorway.
"John's again?" she said. "We worry that you don't see your other friends anymore."
So, again with Rodney's parents worrying about John's influence on their son. Who's protecting John?
Rodney nearly told her that John was coming to Illinois with him, but he stopped himself. His mother had a very fine-tuned sense of us and them. Rodney suspected that his father pointedly hired outsiders at the store just to make her uncomfortable. He didn't know if she understood that he felt more at home with people from away; he didn't want to be the one to tell her.
So he asked if they could have tuna casserole for dinner. She crossed her arms and asked did he know how hot the kitchen was with the oven on, and then relented and said maybe. She looked at his room, at the chaos of sorting eighteen years of life into boxes, and said he should go get a haircut soon. He said he would, and she nodded, and went back to bed.
Rodney was suddenly very tired himself. He slept hard, oversleeping and waking with a start, tangled in sweat-drenched sheets. He didn't get to John's until half past ten. But John looked as if he'd been awakened by the sound of the key in the lock, his hair greasy and his face sleep-lined. He took a shower while Rodney watched a talk show and then stole a cup of coffee from Rodney's thermos.
In the truck, John fiddled with the radio until he found an NPR broadcast about the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
"Just think," John said, "pretty soon you could be designing even better bombs."
"Even if I did," Rodney said, turning down an audio clip of a panicked Japanese radio announcer, "you'd be the one dropping them, so you can get off your moral high horse."
"Huh," John said, smirking. "Bombs don't kill people, bombers do?"
"Exactly," Rodney said. "I mean — physics is all about the ideas."
John nodded, sagely. "Knowledge is power."
"Asshole," Rodney said, drumming the steering wheel in time with the song on the radio.
"Takes one to know one."
"Bite me." John shifted sideways on the seat and stuck his feet out the window, just because he knew it annoyed the hell out of Rodney. "I swear, if you do this all the way to Illinois — "
"They'll never find the body?"
"Genius, here," Rodney said, and John laughed his stupid laugh.
John made him pull into the Big Y so he could buy breakfast. Rodney followed him in, because all he'd had was two bananas, and when they emerged he was wearing a pair of Wayfarer knock-offs from the rotary rack by the front. So was John, but John could carry the look off, even when he was unravelling a pecan roll and eating it in strips.
I'm thinking Don Henley's Boys of Summer and Risky Business. I'm thinking Thelma and Louise, even though that was a 1991 film.
The day was so hot that mirages shimmered and shifted across the road like snakes. No one was out walking. Everyone who could go was probably at the mall, soaking up the air conditioning. Jeannie was probably going to spend the day at the pool, again, while he slaved away in the brick oven of the store. But Rodney felt happy enough anyway that he didn't mind, even when the sugar on the little doughnuts melted all over his fingers and the steering wheel.
Rodney'd forgotten that John wasn't scheduled to start work for another two hours. John shrugged and said he'd go down to the library, but he followed Rodney in, folding his glasses and hanging them on the front of his t-shirt as if he'd been born cool.
"Rodney," Teyla said, coming around the counter and hugging him, her stomach definitely big and hard between them. She'd been talking to his father, who was standing with Elizabeth and looking uncomfortable. Ronon was leaning on the counter. There was a suitcase on the floor by his feet. Teyla framed Rodney's face with her hands and smiled. "I'm going to miss you."
"Wait — you're quitting?" Rodney glared at his father, who — he was sure — had no reason to fire Teyla. Not after all the hard work she'd done to pay her way through her degree, despite the fact that she was always having to go help out with some family problem or another. Elizabeth shook her head at him and rolled her eyes to tell him he was being childish.
"I'm going to have a baby," Teyla said, with her most secretive Mona Lisa smile. "I'd told your father that I'd work through September, but — " she shrugged and gave Rodney another hug — " I should go home. Cal worries me. And the heat is terrible down here."
"I'm driving her up to family in New Athoston," Ronon said. "Figure John can manage for a couple days."
"We'll send you stuff," Rodney said. "Baby stuff. We've got diapers, and wet wipes, and things."
"Take care," John said. He'd been hanging back, probably figuring that he didn't really belong, but Teyla went and put her arms around him. She held on, gently, and after a long moment he reached up awkwardly to pat her on the back. Teyla said something to him, too softly for Rodney to hear anything but the intensity, and she didn't let go until John nodded, agreeing to whatever she'd said.
Something about staying safe, I think.
They walked Teyla and Ronon out to Ronon's car. Elizabeth kept one hand on Teyla's arm, and when she hugged Teyla goodbye she was crying. John dashed up the road to get his groceries from Rodney's truck and made them take them, even though Teyla murmured something about not wanting to damage the fetus with chemical additives. She gave each of them a little piece of paper with her uncle's address and telephone number, waved soberly, and then folded herself into the car.
"Drive safely," Rodney's father said, and Ronon promised he would.
Going back inside, the store seemed smaller and darker and more stifling. Rodney's father went into the office to call people about finding a new pharmacy technician; John went out for a walk but came back half an hour later, saying that he'd been defeated by the heat. Rodney tucked a wet towel under the collar of his shirt and swore to himself that if next summer his father argued that no one needed air conditioning in New England, he wouldn't come home.
Rodney's father left at five-thirty, heading up to the university to talk to a promising graduate student. Elizabeth manned the register with an air of subdued mourning until six rolled around and she had to go get her kids from her mother's. Rodney had hoped that the atmosphere would lighten when he and John were alone, but it was sort of like hoping that the heat would break when the sun went down. It never did.
"Condom guy's talking to Elizabeth," John said, staring unabashedly out the window. "Didn't think he'd have the nerve."
"Watch them," Rodney said, adding more issues of Soap Opera Digest to the periodicals order, even though it hurt him to do so. "She's emotionally vulnerable right now."
"We've got trouble," John said, backing away from the window suddenly. "Warner."
"Lock the door," Rodney said, and John was halfway there when the door swung open.
Cal Warner was wearing his leathers and didn't even seem to be breaking a sweat. He fancied himself Billy Idol or some other MTV rebel, with his bleached and spiked hair and his tattoos. He should have looked ridiculous, and Rodney should have had no qualms about ridiculing him. But something about him and the pall of cigarette smoke he moved in seemed less play-acting than actually dangerous.
So everyone by now knows that this is Michael from canon, and that he's nobody for a teenager to be messing with, right? Right?
"What can I do for you today?" John said, moving smoothly to box Cal between himself and the counter.
"You can tell me where my cousin is," Cal said.
John shrugged, smiling a bland J. Crew-prep smile. "I'm afraid I don't know. If that's all you wanted — well," his smile sharpened, "then you can see yourself out."
"Fuck you." Cal stared over John's shoulder at Rodney. "She's my family, McKay. You got a sister, don't tell me you wouldn't try and help her if she got herself in trouble."
Rodney frowned: whatever he said about Jeannie, he was still her brother. And what Cal was saying sounded. . . too much like a threat. "Like you care about your family," he shot back. "Teyla's been bailing you out for years, and the only thanks she got was more trouble. Family is as family does, and I think Telya's realised that you? Don't do right by her."
"More power to her," John said, and all the anger that had flared in Cal's eyes redirected itself at John. "Get out." John's voice was low and threatening, but Rodney hoped he knew that Cal wasn't someone to underestimate.
"Don't think a little cocksucker like you can stop me," Cal said. His teeth when he bared them were stained and sharp. Rodney could see John wavering, tense, as if his every instinct was telling him to fight. Cal seemed to sense this. His smile widened as if he wanted John to make the first move, and he almost had John wound up enough to lose his last bit of discipline. "Least, that's what I heard."
Which was meant to imply that what happened to John was connected to his trouble with Cal. Not sure I succeeded here. Again, I tend to be overly vague and I really needed to be more explicit.
The bells on the door rattled, as loud and as shocking as fireworks, and Rodney had a clear view of the condom guy's face, startled and then sharply calculating as he took in the three of them.
"Rodney?" he asked, his accent doing funny things to the R, and Rodney wished he could remember the man's name. It sounded really stupid to yell, Condom guy, go get help.
"Rodney," Cal mimicked, and took a sudden lunging step forward, one arm coming up to shove John out of the way.
John grabbed Cal's wrist and used his momentum to jerk him around almost full circle, so that they wound up eye to eye. Rodney didn't see Cal strike out, but John huffed and hunched over, and then rammed his weight full into Cal's stomach. Cal's back hit the counter, LifeSavers exploding around him like fireworks as John pinned him there.
"Call the police," Rodney heard himself say, and he heard Cal swear and John breathe as if he'd been running hard. Cal twisted, and John held him down, one arm across Cal's throat. "Call the police."
Back then, no one had cell phones: there'd have to be a dash for a payphone.
"Do it and you're dead," Cal spat out, then gagged as John pushed down.
Condom guy backed towards the door, and Rodney wished he knew how to do anything that would help.
Cal slumped boneless, and Rodney saw the fury wash away from John's face to be replaced by fear.
"Don't — " Rodney said, not even sure what he meant, and John looked at him for a moment as if he had no idea what to do himself.
That was the moment Cal shot up, his body moving with cold-blooded grace as he shoved up into John, barrelling him backwards. John's hands wrapped around Cal's arms, as awkward as the hug he'd given Teyla. Cal jerked back, and Rodney saw John's hands tighten, leaving white impressions around each fingertip. Cal pushed forward again, and this time John's hands slipped open as if he were releasing a great weight. John's ankles twisted under him. Cal hissed, one hand knotted in John's hair, and John slid down, leaving a darkness that shone like oil on the black leather.
Again, I worry that I'm too vague: one of my betas said she didn't get what happened here. From Rodney's POV it is hard to show it clearer, but John's just been stabbed, twice. Some of the best advice I've ever been given about writing action scenes is that they need to be slowed down. It feels counter-intuitive to add *more* detail, *more* words. I still don't think I have it quite right.
Condom guy was shouting something that Rodney didn't understand, but he was too busy vaulting over the counter and stumbling to where John was to pay much attention. Cal stared down as if he was just as shocked, as if he had no idea where the knife in his hand had come from, as if it was a mystery why John's shirt was soaked with blood.
"Take these," condom guy said, dropping into a crouch next to Rodney and ripping open a box of MaxiPads. "You hold them here, and here," he said, making Rodney's numb hands press the makeshift bandages down hard on the wounds.
The door banged, and Rodney jerked. He hadn't even noticed Cal leaving.
"I'll be right back," condom guy said. Rodney wanted to protest: he didn't want to be left alone, he didn't know what to do, he was terrified and needed to piss and he wanted his mother. He didn't say anything.
John fought for each shallow breath; when Rodney replaced a pad that had soaked through, blood bubbled up in a way that simply couldn't be good. Condom guy came back, said something earnest and sharp that Rodney didn't understand, and pulled John up so his back was against Rodney's chest otherwise he'll drown.
Rodney nodded. He understood asphyxiation.
Everything started strobing in his mind after that, flashes of sound and colour. Sirens on the road, and people in uniforms moving in camera-flash stop motion. Everyone suddenly seemed to be talking in a foreign language, except for the condom guy, who spoke to him very slowly in simple, monosyllabic words. He was aware of John being taken away from him, and of being wrapped in a blanket, which he thought was absurd, until he realised that he was freezing.
The heat wave finally broke, he thought, pulling the blanket around his shoulders, and that was when his father arrived.
His father sat with him in the office while the police took his statement, and was with him when he was told that John had been pronounced dead on arrival. His father unlocked his desk, even though he was wearing his pyjamas, and took out John's resume. The police officer in charge spoke to John's school, when the call finally went through, and got a home number. Rodney's father spoke to John's father, in clichés that hurt like a handful of razor blades: I'm so sorry and I'm afraid I have some terrible news, he was a hard worker and he will be missed.
I think I got a lot right in these few paragraphs. Rodney's stunned, not following what's happening (the EMTs, the police) but fixing on odd details (his father's pyjamas). He's still thinking as much as he always does, but his intelligence isn't helping.
When everything was done that could be done, his father drove condom guy home, and then brought Rodney home.
"He's going to be buried next to his mother," Rodney's father said in the foyer — Rodney'd been hoping that there wouldn't be any talking.
"He hated his father," he said.
"Time is a great healer," his father said, his voice giving on the last words. He put an arm around Rodney's shoulders and squeezed him close until it turned into almost a hug. "You and he — I know — " He cleared his throat. "You two were inseparable."
Rodney's father will not speak ill of the dead; he won't say I told you so. He might have not wanted John to be friends with (and influence) his son (and whether that was because John was a runaway, or an outsider, or rich, or gay, or a mix, who knows?) but he knows Rodney is grieving.
"Yeah," Rodney said, and God did that sound stupid.
It wasn't as if he'd been thinking about how to make it all work. Thinking about sharing an apartment, maybe, getting a cat, seducing John away from the Air Force with the beauty of physics. Thinking about being friends and about taking one terrifying step beyond. Because he hadn't been thinking those things, not at all. You just couldn't know someone for two months and see the arc of your lifetime described by their smile. He'd only been thinking as far as the drive to Illinois, about the music John'd play and about how many bags of chips they'd need, and about the movies they'd watch if they stayed in a motel.
That was what he'd been thinking, and now he needed to stop thinking.
This is very typical busaikko writing, where the POV character is lying to himself on a deep level. He'd been on the verge of *something* with John, of course he thought about it, but he won't admit it.
He worked his way out of the hug and went upstairs, not turning on his light so he didn't need to see all the hopeful boxes. He stripped off clothes stained with blood and didn't know whether to throw them away or keep them, because it was John's blood, after all. He fell asleep instantly, although he woke up three times with his heart racing, afraid that he was the one who was dead.
The third time he woke up, the sun filled his room with blinding white heat, and the sky was an unforgiving blue. He fell back asleep with ghosts burned onto his retinas and he dreamed of John. He dreamed that he'd kissed John back, and that he'd liked it; he dreamed that he hadn't kissed John back but it had been okay. He dreamed that John took him flying and he wasn't scared of the heights at all, because John pointed out all the sights — Niagara Falls and Mt Fuji and their house, which was small and white and had a yellow door. It had been very hard to see from the airplane, but Rodney thought there might have been a cat sleeping in the front window.
He felt different after that, as if he'd figured something out, maybe something that John had wanted to tell him or wanted him to do — not that he believed in an afterlife. But he did believe that John had been thinking about the future as well, about where he and Rodney would be in one or five or ten years' time. And he wanted — so much that the wanting twisted him up inside — for that future him not to build bombs, and for that lost future John not to drop them, because there had to be something more. Something better.
He went downstairs to tell his parents that he was going to go to John's funeral and needed to get a haircut, and he hugged Jeannie because she was sniffling into her Shredded Wheat, and he told her he loved her.
Which wasn't much, but it was a start.
I like this story. It used a lot of my own experiences, like Five Four Three Two One (Zero), and I like the way the parts of the story are all there in the open, but don't converge until that one terrible scene. A lot of people say that it reads like a John Hughes type film (gone wrong); that's what I was aiming for. It's about growing up, responsibility and dreams, facades and reality. I'm not sure if it really counts as a tragedy, or if so what the flaw is. That John doesn't know how to ask for what he needs? That John never gets seen for who he is? Was it necessary for John to die?… Well, I think that if there's a moral to the story, I suppose it's not to build bombs, of any sort; and in order for Rodney to really *get* that, yes. (Anyone who thinks they can write a viable AU ending, go right on ahead *g*) Thanks for reading!
Soundtrack and Video Links for that 1985 experience!
Music and music videos:
When We Grow Up… (Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack) YT
Hurts Like Teen Spirit (DJ Dangerous Orange feat. Johnny Cash, Blue Oyster Cult, and Nirvana)
Broken Wings (Mr Mister) YT
Shades of 45 (Gary O) YT
Flying North (Thomas Dolby) (if you see nothing else, see this!) YT
Volunteers (Jefferson Airplane) YT
Shout (Tears for Fears) YT
We Can Be Together (Jefferson Airplane) YT
Then He Kissed Me (The Crystals) YT
Glory of Love (Peter Cetera) YT
Temptation (New Order) YT
Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits) YT (not official video, but in keeping with the nuclear theme)
A Sort of Homecoming (U2) YT
Boys of Summer (Don Henley) cover by the Ataris: YT
The audiofic of the story can be downloaded here in MP4 or MP3.