Many thanks to reccea for taking on the entire beta tonight. Remaining errors are mine, not hers. Also, thanks to z_rayne for the info on CU Boulder. Much love for everyone who has let me rattle on about this story over the past few days/weeks/months.
Previous parts are available at the link below.
The Best Things in Life Are Free
High School AU
Rated: R (overall)
The Best Things in Life Are Free
John opened his eyes and was immediately sorry. He tried to close them again but he seemed to have forgotten how.
"Here, drink this," Rodney's voice said from his left side.
John reached out blindly until his hand closed around a glass. He hitched himself up on one elbow and nearly had the rim to his mouth before he realized that it didn't contain his usual hangover cure -- orange juice.
"What is this?" he asked, squinting suspiciously at the milky red contents.
"Tomato juice and raw egg," Rodney answered. "And some other stuff."
"Aw, yuck," John managed, waving the glass away.
"Just drink it," Rodney snapped. "It works."
John reluctantly took a sip. It was awful but Rodney was standing there, arms crossed and scowling, so John tilted his head back and poured it down.
"That was foul," he said after swallowing and coughing a few times. "Where'd you learn about this?" He swiped at his watering eyes. If this was a healthy breakfast at the McKay household, the whole family suddenly made more sense.
"It doesn't matter," Rodney said. "Just trust me. It works. Your headache should go away in half an hour or so."
Reminded, John rubbed at his throbbing temples.
"You have fun last night?" he asked around a yawn. "I told you pool was great."
"Oh, yes," Rodney said, punctuating the words by flinging one arm wide. "Pool was just a belly laugh all around. No, I did not have a good time. I had to haul your drunk ass home and I was worried. You were reckless and a jerk and you scared me and you're never allowed to do it again." The speech came out in a rush, like water blowing out a cracked dam, frantic and inexorable.
John waited for several seconds to make sure Rodney was done and then said quietly, "I'm sorry."
Rodney sat down heavily on the bed beside him and slumped over. He rubbed both hands over his face and for a minute, John was afraid he was going to cry.
"Rodney, look," he said, putting one hand on Rodney's shoulder and squeezing. "I didn't want -- I just -- fuck." He pulled his hand away and fell back on his pillow, covering his eyes with his forearm. He was lying there for about five seconds, listening to the sounds of Rodney's bracing breaths and his own tightly controlled exhales when he realized that he was hard. It shouldn't have been a surprise, it was morning and he hadn't been to the bathroom yet, but the urge to wrap himself around Rodney and rub up against him was -- that surprised him. John sat up and raised his knees high enough to tent the covers and lean his elbows on them. He scrubbed his hands over his face, which still felt tight from all the alcohol he'd drunk the night before. "I'm sorry. It's something I do when I need to, to not be myself. I get a little trashed and play a little pool and I thought, maybe...." Who was he kidding? Getting trashed and playing pool wasn't something Rodney would enjoy. That brilliant plan was entirely his own conceit. "I've never taken anyone there before," he said, more to himself than to Rodney.
"So what, I'm special?" Rodney asked, turning his head back to look at John.
"Yeah," John said before he put any thought into it. "You're my best friend."
Rodney opened his mouth, looked vaguely startled, and closed it again. "Yeah, for the next week," he said.
John had nothing to say to that.
"It wasn't that you got drunk or were an ass about driving home," Rodney said, a little despairingly. His eyes begged something of John, something John didn't know how to give. He wanted the truth. "It was that I've never seen you not in control and it was seriously weird."
There was a loose thread on the coverlet and John rolled it between his fingers, twisting it into a kink. "That's why I don't take anyone there," he said. His mouth was dry and the words felt heavy and damning.
The silence slid from thoughtful to awkward to downright uncomfortable and John was really starting to feel a need to take care of his morning erection.
"Hey, look, I smell like smoke," John said, wrinkling his nose. "I need to take a shower. We've got eggs and stuff in the kitchen," he offered, hoping Rodney would take the hint, "if you can cook at all, if not, I'll do it when I'm done."
"I can do it," Rodney said, hopping off the bed and bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet. "I'll um. See you in a little bit."
The look on his face was impossible to read and he was out the door.
John breathed a sigh of relief and scooted out from under the covers, still hard in his shorts. He grabbed clean underwear, a t-shirt, and a pair of jeans that weren't too dirty and retreated to the bathroom, relieved that Rodney hadn't come back down the hall for some reason.
He stripped his shirt off and started the water, letting it run to warm it up before he got in. He flipped on the fan as well, for extra noise, just in case. Sitting on his bed with Rodney hadn't exactly eased his problem and he needed to touch himself, needed to come now.
John worked his boxers over his hips and left them on the floor as he stepped into the shower. He got his hand on his dick and for once, it wasn't enough, it didn't make it better at all. He braced his forearm on the wall and pressed his forehead against it as he moved his hand, setting the pace hard and fast as the water hit the side of his face.
This time he didn't even bother trying to think about Elizabeth, or Teyla, or even Katie.
Rodney had been sitting right there on the side of his bed and John had wanted nothing more to reach out and touch him. He had flash-memories of the night before, Rodney's body against his, Rodney's hands in his pocket, because he was too much of an asshole to just hand over the keys. He could feel Rodney's wrist in his hand, warm and his pulse throbbing against John's thumb, and he remembered his plea for Rodney to stay, flushing hot with the shame of it.
But Rodney was still there, in his kitchen, making breakfast or some shit, and John never thought that would be sexy. A shudder ripped through him and he could have come then, but he took a breath and waited and held off so he could work the problem over in his mind a little longer.
Because Rodney wasn't hot in the conventional sense, not the way John could acknowledge Ronon or even Ford as hot, but Rodney's hands flew and stabbed and clutched and John thought that maybe he'd like to feel them around his dick, jerking him off. Then he did come, the sensation crashing over him all at once, and the edges of his vision grayed out.
The muscles in his legs felt wrung out and he sat down in the shower, propping his elbows on his knees and letting the water soak his hair and pound down on his body. He would have sat there forever, but Rodney was in his kitchen and John had to clean up and get dressed and go out there and smile at him.
For once, John didn't know if he could trust his face to lie for him and he didn't know what would happen if he failed.
Rodney stared dubiously at the still-liquid eggs floating slowly in the pan on the stove. He'd told John that he'd be fine in the kitchen but the truth was, his mother hadn't let him touch the stove since the Great Spaghetti Incident of 1983. That, of course, was the impetus for McKay Family Argument #168: Is three years more than enough time for Rodney to have developed common sense or will he burn the house down?
Rodney looked up from the pan to see John walking into the kitchen, looking freshly washed and shaved and seventeen again in jeans and an Air Force t-shirt.
"Hey," he said. John looked a far cry from the shyster of the night before and Rodney wanted to go up and hug him. Instead, he stuck his hands in his pockets.
"You okay?" John asked, frowning a little in the forehead.
"Yeah, sorry about that uh, you know," Rodney said, waving vaguely toward the bedroom.
John ran a hand through his hair and glanced away at the floor. "Yeah, no, that's my fault. I should have thought -- "
"No, I mean -- " Rodney rubbed the back of his neck. "I mean, it was supposed to be a compliment, right? That you wanted me to be there?"
Some expression crossed John's face that Rodney didn't even know how to start interpreting. "Yeah," he muttered softly, then, "Rodney, the eggs!"
"What?" Rodney asked, but he could already smell the scorched eggs. He spun around to find the pan smoking. "Oh, crap." He jerked it off the burner and stuck the whole mess under the faucet and turned on the water.
"I thought you said you could handle this," John said with a grin, bumping Rodney aside to scrape out the pan.
"I -- I was distracted!" Rodney protested, moving aside reluctantly. "We were having a deep and manly conversation!"
"I think those terms might be mutually exclusive," John said mildly. "Hey, get me the eggs and the butter." He shut off the water and ran a dishtowel over the newly scrubbed pan as Rodney retrieved the butter from the kitchen table. The pan still had to be hot, Rodney realized, watching John hold it by the handle.
John lopped off a slice of butter and melted it in the pan, broke half a dozen eggs into it, and broke the yolks with the edge of a spoon. "Milk?" he said. Rodney got the milk out of the fridge and handed it to John, who splashed some into the pan, then added salt and pepper. He zigzagged the spoon through everything, mixing it together, and then turned up the heat on the burner. "Now get over here and pay attention," John ordered.
Rodney moved next to John, close enough for their upper arms to brush together and when they did, he felt it in his gut, hot and electric. He glanced up, wondering if maybe, maybe, John felt it too, but John was staring into the pan, shifting it slowly around the burner, swirling the still-liquid portion of the eggs toward the outside edges.
Rodney tucked his hands under his arms and leaned forward. "It looks almost done," he said.
"It is," John confirmed. "When the egg just looks a little shiny on top -- " He reached across Rodney to a utensil cup and pulled out a flat spatula. Rodney felt that same prickly heat when John's arm brushed across him. " -- you fold it and put it on a plate." He folded the egg neatly into thirds, sliced it in half with the front edge of the spatula, and slid both halves neatly onto a plate. "There's some bacon in the fridge," he said, opening the breadbox and putting two slices in the toaster.
Rodney found the bacon easily enough and watched John lay four slices into the still-sizzling pan and stand back. When the bread popped up, John lay half the omelet on each piece and put two more slices in to toast. Within minutes, the bacon was ready to go on top of the egg, the second slices of bread closed the sandwiches, and John and Rodney were eating breakfast.
"Does your head still hurt?" Rodney asked with his mouth full.
John lifted his eyebrows in consideration and then shook his head. "Nope. Guess that stuff worked." He sounded like he didn't believe it, like maybe it had been the shower or the food, or anything but Uncle Martin's 'tried-and-true' hangover cure. Uncle Martin tried to feed it to Rodney and Jeannie for breakfast whenever their parents were away and he was in charge, even though he was the only one with a hangover.
"So, um," Rodney said, picking up a piece of bacon that had fallen from his sandwich and popping it in his mouth. "You go to that place a lot?"
John glanced up and studied him. "Not a lot," he said, picking up his sandwich and taking a bite. When he swallowed, he added, "I used to go about once a month and shoot a few bad rounds, have a couple of drinks. It's a trucker bar, so if there were guys from out of town, I'd run a table now and then, but mostly I was just laying the groundwork to do something like we did last night."
"You had that whole thing planned?" Rodney asked, impressed. "But wait, how did you know that I'd be here and that I could, you know, actually play and stuff?"
"I didn't," John said. "Sometimes you do things just to do them."
"I don't," Rodney said.
That look came back to John's face, the expression that Rodney hadn't understood before and still didn't. He looked down at his sandwich and said in a slightly cracked voice, "I know."
John could hear Doctor and Mrs. -- Doctor and Doctor? -- McKay fighting in the study all the way from his slouch against the kitchen door. Rodney had insisted on going to his house first to raid the mailbox and was starting to rival his parents in volume.
"Oh, I do not believe this!" Rodney said, shuffling through the pile of letter-sized envelopes. "Publisher's Clearinghouse, electric bill, phone bill, Macy's catalogue. I talked to the admissions office at CalTech yesterday! They said they sent out an application packet three weeks ago!"
"Maybe it's been delayed?" John asked. "Those packets need extra postage and all."
"Oh, spare me," Rodney snapped, throwing the pile of mail back on the counter and stomping down the hall to his room. "Move!" he snapped at his sister, who had come out of her room.
"What's the matter with you?" Jeannie asked disdainfully, but John could see the worry in her eyes.
He offered her a quick smile. "He's just worried about schools and why they haven't sent him the application forms yet. I keep telling him he's jumping the gun, but he won't listen."
"Oh." Jeannie bit her lip. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," John said gently and was taken aback when Jeannie responded by bursting into tears. "Jeannie?"
Jeannie ran out of the room.
John looked at Rodney, who shrugged. "She's all weird about me going away and leaving her here with McKay vs. McKay," Rodney said with a shrug, jerking a thumb at the study where they could still hear his parents yelling. He went to his room and threw his bookbag down on the only available patch of floor while John slung his own bag on the end of the bed and sat down next to it. "I swear," Rodney said. "If I don't get out of this house, I'm going to be one of those brilliant but demented geniuses whose work they find stacked in moldering piles in the basement after my death."
That was when Jeannie reappeared, face red and tear-stained and no less than six fat envelopes in her arms.
"What -- ?" Rodney started, his mouth dropping open.
"I took them," she said quickly. "Out of the mailbox when I got home from school. You were never home. It was easy." Her voice broke on the last word and she threw the envelopes down on the floor between them. John could clearly see the seals for CalTech, MIT, and the University of Colorado on the corners of the ones facing up.
"Oh, my God! You snot-nosed, little brat!"
Rodney lunged for Jeannie and John barely managed to get off the bed in time to body block him, wedging his shoulder hard against Rodney's chest and batting down the flailing limbs as best he could.
"I don't believe you!" Rodney yelled over John's shoulder. "You could have ruined everything! What if you already did? What if I missed the deadlines?"
"Rodney!" John roared before Rodney could say anything else. Rodney made one last hard push against him, and John hooked his foot behind Rodney's ankle and tripped him. Rodney hit the floor with a thump, bringing John down on top of him.
Jeannie started crying again and ran away.
"What's going on in there?" Dr. McKay's voice called from the study.
"Nothing, sir," John called breathlessly from his sprawl on top of Rodney. "We're fine."
There was a beat of silence and then the McKays resumed their verbal battle.
John got one elbow on the floor and pushed himself up. He sat up, ribs aching a little, and rubbed the back of his neck. It was hard to ignore how tightly his body was strung, begging to fall back down over Rodney and slide up, full-length, against him. He glanced over. Rodney's face was red and his eyes were glassy with tears. "C'mon," John said. "You can't be that mad at her. She did it because she wanted you around and how many people are going to do that, with your people skills?" He grinned and reached for the nearest envelope. "Let's open them up," he suggested calmly and reasonably -- which was quite an accomplishment considering his pulse was neither calm nor reasonable. "See what they say. See if killing Jeannie is actually justifiable homicide or what, okay?"
Rodney rubbed his wrist over his mouth and pouted and grabbed for the next nearest envelope.
John tore open the flap of the one he was holding and pulled out the letter and accompanying packet. "Okay, this is no problem," he said, skimming the letter and accompanying paperwork. "The deadline is still months away, unless you were going to make a run for early admissions." He glanced up at Rodney. "Are you going to try for your first choice school?"
Rodney shook his head. "I, uh, don't really have a preference," he muttered, slitting open another envelope and dumping out its contents.
John stared at him. "How do you not have a preference?" he asked. "You probably know all their astrophysics programs inside and out. You probably even know who teaches where. You have to have a favorite."
Rodney flushed. "I'm just waiting to see which school is willing to give me the better offer," he said calmly.
John nodded, the pieces fitting together in his mind. Of course Rodney would go to the place that would offer him the best scholarship. He wondered just how much help, if any, the McKays were intending to contribute and felt his temper grow short. Rodney was brilliant, amazingly brilliant, and he needed to go to one of the best colleges in the country. To propose otherwise was...negligent, in John's opinion.
"Sure," he said, noticing that Rodney's face was still red. "If they're going to be knocking each other down to get to you, you should make sure you've got a good advisor and lots of lab time and...." John waved one hand. "All that stuff."
"Right," Rodney nodded. "Of course." Then his face fell a little and he sighed. "If I go to the local college where my dad teaches, I can go for free. I need to get enough of a scholarship to prove that it's worth it to go away."
"Rodney," John said. "That's not going to be a problem." He handed over the pile of papers he was holding. The flyer on top informed Rodney that his SAT scores might be high enough to warrant a full scholarship. The card underneath it waived the application fee. "You're really smart," he said, lying back on Rodney's floor and pillowing his head on his forearms. "So where do you want to go? If you got to choose which one offered you the full tuition, room and board, blonde cheerleaders, whatever, where would you go?"
"I'm really bad at choosing," Rodney said. "Caltech is Caltech, obviously and Northeastern is great but I'd rather go there for my graduate work. Their undergraduate research is pretty limited. If I get into MIT, I'll probably go there. I mean, if they offer me enough financial aid. But CU Boulder has the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and there's seriously nothing like that anywhere."
"And it's only a couple of hours away from Colorado Springs," John said quietly, doing the math in his head. "If you go there, you could come visit me. Come to a football game or something."
"I -- really?" Rodney asked, glancing up in surprise. He'd been arranging his pilfered mail in some sort of order that John was sure was only ever going to make sense to him. "You want me to come see you play?"
"I'm not going to play," John said, lifting his head. "I just thought it would be fun if you came out and watched a game or something. We could do something afterward. I hear we get liberty after the games."
"Why aren't you going to play?" Rodney demanded.
John grinned at Rodney's ceiling. A brown waterspot was forming in the far corner. "Well, first of all," he drawled, "good for a small-town, academically-oriented high school does not mean I'm good enough for Division 1A college ball. Secondly, I'm really not big enough. And also, it would really suck to fuck up my knee or my shoulder playing ball and never get to fly. You know?"
"Yeah," Rodney said. "So what are you going to do instead?"
John quirked a smile that was probably out of Rodney's line of sight and thought of the Academy's reputation for high-credit courseloads, mandatory physical fitness training, and military demands. "I don't know," he said. "But I'm sure I'll find something to keep me busy."
Rodney knocked on Radek's door and shifted his weight impatiently. He'd mentally recited up to eleven digits of pi by the time Radek opened the door, looking vaguely displeased. He had probably been doing Simmons' last problem set which had sucked beyond the telling of it and Rodney suddenly realized that he and Radek hadn't worked together on an assignment in over two weeks. But he had more important things on his mind.
"Hi, I have to talk to you," he said in a rush, stepping into the house. "Are there any of those little round cookies with the jam in the middle? Because those would really help."
Radek rolled his eyes. "They are called kolache," he said. "You can have some when you learn to say it."
"In that case, we're going to be here a long time," Rodney said. "Because my mouth doesn't bend in that direction."
"You are hopeless," Radek told him, but he went to the kitchen and retrieved a round metal tin, two glasses, and a carafe of hot, sweet tea. "We will go to my room," he said decisively. "My sister is home and she is nosy."
"You think your sister's bad?" Rodney said. "You know how I was complaining about not getting my application materials? Jeannie had them. She'd been squirreling them away the whole time hoping that I wouldn't go away to college and leave her with our crazy parents."
"Your sister is very strange," Radek agreed. "Certainly there are more pleasant choices of companion."
"Oh, shut up," Rodney said.
In Radek's room, Rodney ate two cookies, pointed out a mistake in the problem set worksheets scattered on Radek's desk, and said, "When I told you that I liked guys, were you, you know, curious?"
"Curious how?" Radek asked, right in step as always as he calmly sipped from his glass of tea.
"You know. Did you wonder if maybe you were gay? Or what it was like to...you know?" Rodney fiddled with the waxed paper lining the tin, tearing it into a row of fringe as he remembered John's questions and his hands on Rodney's, and his double-entendres, and, most of all, his voice saying, You feel weird to me, and I don't know what you want from me.
"Of course. It is only natural to be curious of options. Please stop hogging the cookies now." Radek beckoned at the container holding the cookies and Rodney's mutilated waxed paper.
"Really?" Rodney held out the tin and regarded Radek thoughtfully. "Why didn't you say anything?"
Radek shrugged, a tilt of his head toward one shoulder. "I do not find you attractive in the least," he said matter-of-factly, and popped a cookie in his mouth.
Rodney scowled. "I am both insulted and relieved to know that," he said, stealing the cookies back from Radek.
Radek shrugged, with both shoulders this time. "Is not my fault I like girls," he said. He started to say something else, then paused and considered Rodney. "Are you thinking to tell John?"
"Little late for that," Rodney said with his mouth full. "Jeannie spilled the beans a week ago."
Radek's eyebrows went up. "And yet he does not seem to have given you swirlies, unless I have missed you dripping water down the hall."
"Yeah, he seems just fine with it." Rodney frowned into his glass and then took a long sip of tea.
"And this is a bad thing why?" Radek asked.
"I never said it was a bad thing," Rodney snapped, because Radek wasn't usually so stupid. He thought guiltily of John's hand on his back and on his wrist and deflected as well as he could. "Why would it be a bad thing? Not being beaten to a pulp by the football star is a very good thing, I was thinking."
Radek sighed and looked so very put upon. "You spend the entire last school year mooning over John Sheppard, you trade away your new telescope just to be able to spend time with him, you make Katie Brown cry -- " He held up a warning finger. "Do not think that I do not know these things. And now, when he knows that you like boys, and he is okay with it, and maybe is a little curious -- do not give me that look either, you would not have come here with your question if you did not have reason -- you pretend like you have never wanted to make out with him."
Rodney rolled his eyes so hard his entire head followed the motion. Yes, okay, he might have been fine with wanting to just make out with John when John was just a hot guy in tight football pants, but that was before he was, well...John. "You're just bitter because he showed up out of nowhere last year and swept Elizabeth Weir off her feet," he said.
Radek sniffed. "Do not change the subject. Elizabeth was perhaps blinded by all that blow-dried hair."
"You didn't even tell her how you felt," Rodney shot back. "Seriously, what's the worst that could happen? She could turn you down? She's coming back for homecoming, Radek, why don't you ask her out? And when you do, I'll ask John if he wants to go make out behind the bleachers." He leaned over to grab a cookie but Radek yanked the tin out of his reach.
"Is that a deal?" Radek asked.
"What?" Rodney replied irritably, trying again to swipe a kolache. Radek pulled them further.
"I ask out Elizabeth Weir and you ask out John?" Radek blinked owlishly at him from behind his glasses.
Rodney scowled. "No," he said, standing up. His knees felt like jelly and it wasn't because he'd just eaten more sugar than his mother let him have in a week. Didn't Radek get it? Rodney couldn't just ask John to make out under the bleachers like he was asking him to come over and play Impossible Mission. It wasn't anything close to that easy. "And if you're going to be stingy with the cookies, I'm leaving."
"Rodney!" he heard Radek say behind him, but he didn't stop. He stomped out of the house, face burning, and turned toward home.
John walked right up the steps to the front porch and rang the doorbell before he could chicken out.
Danny Connors opened the door. "John!" he said. He glanced behind him. "Look," he said, turning back to John, "I don't think your father would want you to be here -- "
"My father doesn't know I'm here," John said quickly. "I wanted to talk to you. I -- I had a question."
Danny frowned at him. "Yeah, come in," he said, moving aside. "You want something to drink?"
"I could really use a beer," John tried.
"Yeah, right." Danny snorted. "Try again."
"That I'll give you," Danny said, leading John into the kitchen. He got a can of Coke, and after a hesitation, a second one, out of the fridge and handed one to John. "You want a glass?"
"Nah, I'm fine," John said, sitting down at the kitchen table after Danny. He popped the can and fiddled with the tab, studiously not looking at Danny.
"Oh, don't tell me you're here to talk about what I think you're here to talk about," Danny sighed, and when John looked up, he was rubbing his hand over his eyes. "That's just what I need, Colonel Sheppard's son, showing up at my doorstep for underage drinking and advice on being gay."
John felt his cheeks and ears go red. "I can leave," he said.
Danny shook his head and dropped his hand. "Let me guess," he said wearily. "There's a guy at school?"
"Theoretically," John said. "If there was a guy at school, a guy who liked a lot of the same things I did, someone I -- he's not really -- he's smart, he's so smart, and he's not like anyone else I've ever met and I can be myself around him -- " John caught himself and squeezed the soda can a little, watching the liquid bubble into the well. "If there was a guy like that, how do I know if he's just my best friend or if I'm gay and I want to be with him?"
John stared resolutely at his soda can as he heard Danny Connors get up and open the fridge. The sound of two bottles being opened echoed in the background and then Danny plunked one in front of him, bitingly cold and frosted with condensation.
John looked up at Danny, who shrugged apologetically. "I guess you need one," he said, nodding at the beer. He sat down again and took a long drag of his own. "Look, John." Danny bit his lower lip and looked John in the eye. "I think you already know the answer to that. Or you wouldn't be here."
John ducked his head and hid his confusion by taking a long drink of beer -- probably a little too long. When he looked back at Danny, the pilot -- ex-pilot, John reminded himself miserably -- was still looking at him, but with definite sympathy in his gaze.
"I, um," he said, mouth dry. He took another drink. "Yeah. I guess."
Danny nodded. "Does he know?"
"You mean, that I like him?" John asked, his fingers slipping in the condensation beading up on the bottle. "No. I mean, he thinks I'm -- " John bit his lower lip, pressing down hard enough that it hurt. "He doesn't think I feel the way I do."
"Is he going to be okay with it?" Danny asked, taking a studiedly casual drink of his beer.
John found himself grinning when he thought of what Rodney's reaction would be. "Yeah," he said. "He'll be okay with it. I'm pretty sure he'll be really okay with it."
Danny smiled a little. "Let me guess," he said. "He's more okay with it than you are?"
John felt his smile fade as a dull ache started in the pit of his stomach. "This is new," he said defensively. "I -- I don't know -- "
He was saved from having to finish his thought by the appearance of a tall, sandy-haired man with a pair of gardening gloves shoved in his back pocket.
"Hey, Dan -- " the man said, and cut himself off when he saw John. "Oh, hi. I didn't realize we had a guest."
His voice was deep and his blue eyes were kind but what captured John's attention was the hand he had reached out to touch Danny Connors' shoulder. That hand hovered a moment in mid-air and then dropped back to his side and John wanted him to put it back up, to touch Danny, to finish what he'd started.
"Hi," John said, standing up and holding out his hand. "Don't worry about it," he said, waving toward Danny. "It's cool. Hi. I'm John."
The man's eyebrows went up and Danny said, " John Sheppard, Greg."
"Oh." He froze, his hand curled loosely around John's. The pause lasted only a moment and then Greg tightened his grip. "Well. It's nice to meet you." His eyes catalogued John warily and John liked him immediately. He felt oddly pleased that Danny Connors's boyfriend -- boyfriend -- was nice and normal and well, he looked pretty smart.
"Nice to meet you, too," John said. "And you can, um -- " He waved toward Danny again. "You can touch him if you want. I don't mind."
Greg and Danny exchanged glances, Greg's querying and Danny's resigned. John tried not to take offense when Danny rolled his eyes and Greg grinned and disappeared into the other room with a, "Nice meeting you, John."
"He seems nice," John said, sitting back down and watching how Danny's eyes tracked Greg.
"John." Danny set aside his bottle. "Okay. Here's the deal. You've got three options."
John nodded. He could tell from the tired look on Danny's face that he was finally going to get the truth, as ugly as it might be.
"The first option is to see where it goes with this guy. Forget the Air Force. It's not too late to get into another college, go wherever he's going, go somewhere close by, doesn't matter, you can see each other on weekends. People are going to figure it out, they're going to be assholes, but it's easier, you know? You're not living in everyone else's pocket, everyone's not living in yours. Your life is your business, for the most part."
John nodded, already thinking of Rodney and the University of Colorado, so close to Colorado Springs, so close to John at the Academy. He knew that wasn't what Danny was suggesting but going on a path that didn't include the Air Force, that didn't include flying -- he didn't know what that kind of path would look like.
"Your second option is to forget the guy. Tell him you're not interested, play it as straight as possible, go to the Academy, get through, deal." Danny smiled tired and ran a hand through his red crewcut. "Problem with that is, it ain't going to go away. Believe me, I've tried. And maybe you can do it, maybe you can find some girl to hook up with and be happy. But these guys you're going to school with? They're the best guys you'll ever meet. The best friends you'll ever make. And when you get a crush on one of them -- and you will -- it's like getting caught in your own downwash. It hurts, kid, and you can't let that guy know, 'cause I can guarantee he doesn't feel the same way."
John knew Danny was trying to scare him, so he set his jaw and nodded solemnly. "Sounds like you know from personal experience," he said.
Danny quirked a half grin at him. "And then," he said, confirming John's statement by not replying to it, "you've got door number three. You hide who you are, you go Air Force, and you play the game until it's taken out of your hands."
'That's what you did," John said evenly, because this was what he came for. "You did that for...for a long time."
"Ten years," Danny said, drinking his beer in a thoughtful salute. "It's easy to crash and burn this way. Dishonorable discharge for conduct unbecoming is rough. It'll fuck up your life. Your dad kept that from happening to me, but I'm still out, John." He stretched a little and scratched his stomach. "I don't know. It was a little different for me. There wasn't anyone special most of the time. When there was, it didn't last long. Sometimes I wonder if that made it better or worse. It's risky to start a relationship, get to know someone, try to build something in secret. Easier to just slip out for a quick fuck or a blowjob."
John felt the hollow of his stomach tighten when he heard Danny say those words so casually. His homosexual tendencies were still largely in theory. He was fairly experienced with women but he'd never even kissed a man and the thought of anal sex and blowjobs was still intimidating.
"But," Danny added, "Greg and I hooked up about three years ago and it feels a lot less dangerous, not having to go out looking for a lay. Guys'll leave you alone if you tell them the right things." His gaze was steady on John. "I can tell you how."
John stared back, his fingers working on the label of the bottle to keep them from trembling, to keep from thinking too hard about the whole thing.
"Tell me," he said, his voice barely louder than a whisper, but steady. He put a lot of effort into making it steady. He could feel Danny's eyes on him as the other man took a long drink of beer.
"You play the best friend card," Danny said, wiping his mouth with his hand. "Talk about him, mention him in the stories, but only when there's girls involved. Show off the prom pictures, the double dates, group photos. If there's no girls in the picture, there better be mud. You had a girlfriend last year, right?"
"Yeah," John said after missing a beat. "She's at Berkley right now."
"Nice," Danny chuckled. "If you go to see your guy, come back with stories about her. Pretend the two of you are still fuckbuddies. Fake a girlfriend back home -- someone you're not with because of the distance, or better yet, someone you're still with. You can fake a Dear John letter if things get too complicated. You're far enough away that you won't have to worry about needing her to visit." Danny scratched the back of his neck. "You can get hotel rooms in town. No one looks twice at poor college students sharing a room. But be careful when you go out. If you blow off your buddies, they'll talk. If this guy comes off as a twink -- "
John shook his head. "I didn't know," he said. "I never even guessed."
"Okay." Danny nodded. "John, are you sure you want to do this?"
John lifted his head from the beer bottle and looked up at Danny's concerned face. "I want you to keep going," he said. "But can you tell me if all this…is it worth it?"
Danny broke his gaze and looked down at the table. When he looked up, his eyes were ten years older. "I don't know," he said. "Is he?"