As always, thanks to reccea for betaing and bullying and to those forced to pre-audience. (ie: listen to me whine)
Previous parts are available at the link below.
The Best Things in Life Are Free
High School AU
Rated: R (overall)
Pairing: Sheppard/McKay (eventually)
The Best Things in Life Are Free
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.