Rodney is shaken out of sleep by an irritated, mechanical growl that had better be John’s alarm clock. It stops before he’s fully awake, the sudden silence shrill in his ears, and he lies with his eyes closed, listening to John try to get out of bed quietly. But the metal frame whines and creaks, and makes more noise than if John hadn’t made the effort. Once out of bed he’s quieter, at least until he smacks what sounds like an elbow into something hard. The resounding crack and bitten-off curse make Rodney wince in sympathy, and he gives up pretending he’s still asleep.
“You can turn the light on. I’m awake already.”
“Sorry.” The light flicks on, revealing John, rubbing his elbow and looking somewhat apologetic. “Didn’t mean to wake you. Usually I can get to the alarm before it actually goes off.”
“Which makes it so very useful.” Rodney squints over at John, eyes not quite adjusted to the sudden brightness. “Is this going to be a regular occurrence? Because if it is, I will be very tempted to do something drastic.”
“Drastic?” John sounds more amused than alarmed. “As in shoot me? Or put yams in my pillow?”
They fall into a rhythm that was entirely lacking with Rodney’s first roommate—and, if he was willing to admit it, with pretty much anyone else he’s ever known. John gets up at insanely early hours to go run or row or something, and Rodney gets free coffee at least a couple times a week.
The one time they wind up taking a class together, it almost destroys their friendship. Rodney knows how smart John is, how good he is at thinking on his feet—so it drives him crazy to see John simply stare past the professor’s left ear for the entire class, ignoring all the questions he could easily answer, thereby forcing the class (and by extension, Rodney) to suffer everyone else’s moronic suggestions. (Rodney would answer, but at the beginning of the course, the professor pulled him aside and told him that his grade would be linked inversely to the amount of time he spent talking in class. So he’s filled several notebooks with extremely rude remarks instead, and maintained a 120% average.)
John likes guns because of ballistics, yeah, but mostly it’s just fun. He spent his childhood shooting at soup cans and groundhogs (he’s killed at least three, but they still eat holes through his mother’s cantaloupe), going hunting with his grandfather and mother (not that his mother does any actual hunting, but she likes walking through the woods in fall).
And he’s bound and determined to drag Rodney home to the farm at some point—he knows Rodney’s family life is kinda messed up, and wants to share what he has. Because yeah, his father still struggles with depression over losing his legs, and his mother almost died when he was 12, but still. He’s had something of a charmed life, and he knows it. Rodney’s had to spend his life fighting for everything.
And the farm is beautiful, is home, is almost his soul. Although he’s playing at being a mathematician right now, at some point he’ll go back to being a farmer. He doesn’t have the same driving need to prove himself as does Rodney. Mathematics is play—the farm is work, good work.
(And that scares him a little, because it means Rodney’s going to leave him behind at some point—or wind up going somewhere John can’t follow.)
John keeps trying to get Rodney to go home with him, promises pie and turkey sandwiches and the best pizza ever. But Rodney can’t help but be suspicious, since all these promises are appended with stories of hunting expeditions and the glories of tramping around with guns in the underbrush at the crack of dawn. Rodney doesn’t particularly want to spend the holiday in an empty dorm—not that he would ever admit it, but he needs people around or he starts to go a little crazy—and he’s certainly not going home for anything less than the death of a close relative, but he’s also got absolutely no interest in appreciating nature or taking potshots at Bambi.
He has a feeling John’s going to wear him down in the end, because it’s not like Rodney really wants to say no—homemade pie? And pizza someone else is paying for? It could be cardboard, so long as it was covered in tomato sauce and cheese and mushrooms.
And he hasn’t been out in the woods since he was ten and making that disastrous (and very brief) attempt at being a boy scout, but maybe it’s not as bad as he remembers. (Plus: pie.)
John’s uncle drives up/over to get them, arriving in a pickup truck that looks like it’s been hauling around rocks or something—Rodney’s never seen anything so covered in mud. He stumbles a little when he climbs out, and limps when he walks over, but that must be normal, because John doesn’t say anything about it. There’s a bit of manly hugging and thumping of backs.
“Hey,” the uncle says after he and John are done bruising each other, with a friendly smile and extended hand. “You must be Rodney McKay. I’m Johnny Sheppard.” His grip is hard, but not bone-crushing, his hand grease-stained and callused.
“John and Johnny?” Rodney says, feeling a bit outnumbered, outmaneuvered. He’s only just beginning to realize what exactly he’s agreed to—at least at home (or in the dorm) he knows the players and terrain. “Doesn’t that get confusing?”
“Nope,” John says, and begins shoving their luggage behind the seat in the cab. “I’m John, he’s Johnny—although he’s really Jonathan.”
“You have trouble with names?” the uncle—Johnny (Jonathan? Mr. Sheppard?)—asks, arms folded in a rather intimidating fashion; that’s a lot of muscle. Although he might just be doing it because of the cold. Rodney can see his own breath and feel the inside of his nose, which is a part of his body he spends most of the time ignoring.
“No,” Rodney says, and can’t help wishing a little that he was like a porcupine or armadillo or something, that he could roll up in a ball and stay like that until it was safe to come out. “How long is this trip going to take, anyway?”
“Three, three and half hours,” John answers, emerging from the depths of the truck cab. “Hey, Uncle Johnny, you want me to drive?”
“If you don’t mind. I’m pretty stiff after the trip here.” Johnny stretches as if to illustrate, and yawns. It’s the same yawn John does—showing tongue and teeth, unselfconscious—and almost equally disarming. “I was planning on stretching out on the luggage, if you don’t have anything breakable in there. And if I can fit myself back there.”
“Getting old and creaky, are you?” John says cheerfully, holding his hand out for the keys. Johnny shakes his head, laughing a little, but tosses them over.
“I’ll show you just how old and creaky I am once we get back.”
And the woods are (he supposes) beautiful and quiet, John and his mother and grandfather all clearly enjoying themselves. (Johnny’s face has gone hard and distant, and he moves with such precision and intent that he almost looks like a soldier on patrol.) But it’s cold, and branches keep whacking Rodney in the face, and he’s hungry, and—
He tries, he really does, but after five minutes of trying and mostly failing to be quiet, Rodney gives up and puts his foot down.
The first time Rodney meets Lucy (for a loose interpretation of “meet”), she’s asleep on John’s bed. John is also on the bed, but he’s awake and bent over notebook and calculator. “Hey,” he says very quietly, like nothing’s out of the ordinary.
Rodney stands in the doorway and stares for a minute, because there’s a girl on John’s bed, and a part of him is going, “Nononono—my room, my friend. Mine.”
Rodney hasn’t had many friends, let alone romantic relationships, and so doesn’t really know what he feels toward John. So when John starts bringing Lucy around (at first just because her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend insist on having sex at all hours of the day, and they don’t care whether or not Lucy’s there, but later because he thinks Lucy’s pretty cool—she does crew and makes paper airplanes and knows how to muck out a stall) Rodney can’t help resenting her. Not because John stops hanging out with him, because he doesn’t, but because Lucy’s always there too. Or it feels like she is.
And there’s misunderstandings and a little bit of angst and stuff, and eventually Rodney kisses John, and it feels like kissing Jeannie (back when she used to insist on being kissed goodnight) and John just stands there. And Rodney is hideously embarrassed, but then John drags him over to the arcade and trounces him at Pacman or something and everything’s fine.
John (this version of him, anyway) grew up on a farm (there’s a long and complicated backstory to this which I really ought to write out at some point), so he’s used to getting up reeeeally early, which Rodney cannot understand at all. Sure, Rodney pulls all-nighters with increasing frequency as the semester wears on, but to voluntarily get out of bed once you’re in it—crazy.
And John (and Lucy, once she and Rodney come to an understanding) loves to do stuff to Rodney (who is a wimp and not ashamed to admit it) like stick his cold fingers down the back of Rodney’s neck and drip on him after he’s been out in the rain and drop snow down his coat.
Rodney decides he could be actual friends with Lucy after something happens to John (some kind of not-too-major injury) and they sit in the emergency waiting room together, Rodney wishing he could remember John’s parents’ phone number and Lucy trying not to cry, because she was on the periphery of whatever happened to John and is sort of in shock. She does break down eventually, and gets Rodney’s shirt all wet, and after that it’s kind of hard to keep on disliking her.
That’s when he realizes that John doesn’t belong to him. (Not that he’d actually thought that before, except that he kind of maybe had. A little.)
Afterwards, Lucy starts treating him like a little brother. Which is irritating, even though she is two years older than he is.
He tries to show them that he does get it—kind of, sort of, a little bit—even though it’s hard. John and Lucy don’t seem to need the same way Rodney does, the way he has for years and just never realized. But he does small stuff, stupid stuff, like play poker with John’s friends (even though they all cheat all the time and Rodney wins only when they let him) and drag himself out of bed on a Saturday morning just so he can go to one of Lucy’s regattas. It seems insignificant in the face of everything they do for him, but maybe it’s enough—they don’t get frustrated with him, as other people have in the past. When he forgets to meet them for pizza, they simply bring it to the lab and play three dimensional tic tac toe until he’s too distracted to continue his calculations. And for some reason, he doesn’t get mad at them for the interruption.
It’s not just that they seem to want to spend time with him, it’s that he wants to spend time with them, even though John’s determined to waste himself on farming (except Rodney’s not sure anymore if he wants to think of it like that) and Lucy doesn’t know what string theory is.
When he has nightmares now, they’re not about other people getting awards that should go to him: they’re about him standing at the podium, Nobel prize in hand, unable to find John and Lucy in the audience.