Fic: Vuja De
Title: Vujà Dé
Author: Quasar (quasar273)
Date written: February 2008
Length: ~11,000 words
Spoilers: many eps up to 4x15 Outcast
Warnings: borderline underage (15 year old with 16 year old)
Summary: It's bad enough being a teenager and probably gay, but going crazy makes it all worse.
I lick along his jawline, coarse stubble under my tongue, and nip at his lips until they open for me. His skin tastes like sweat and medicine; his mouth tastes like coffee and apple. I toy with the nipples peeking through his shirt, paying back some of the teasing they've subjected me to.
He's moaning into my mouth, and I'm whispering into his: "God, you feel so good. Need you. Need to taste you, eat you up, feel you with me, in me. Never let you go again."
He curls his head down, forehead against my chin, panting in little gusts that tickle my throat. "So is this the way a friend loves another friend?"
"You know what I was thinking when I said that."
He chuckles. "I know. You were thinking it loud enough."
"I can't do that again, Rodney. Can't let you go again. I can't --"
"Shhhh," he breathes, lifting his mouth to mine again but keeping it gentle, soothing, warm and sweet instead of crazy with lust. His genius hands are working my fly, slipping behind the band of my boxers. He pulls me free -- warm hands and cool air -- then slides down my body and licks at the slit.
I can hardly speak. "No, no -- Rodney, I want -- I need . . . "
"Shhhh," he says again, blowing across the spit-damp head. "Just going to take the edge off first. Then I want you on your hands and knees, and I'm going to fuck you so you can feel I'm still alive. Long and slow, all night long if I have to, gonna fuck you through the mattress until you come and come again --"
I barely even need his mouth on me to give it up the first time.
John startled awake to a pounding on his door. "You better get downstairs, or Dad's gonna pop a gasket!" Dave shouted through the door.
John blinked around at his room, dazed and achingly hard. Damn, that one had been the most vivid yet. Bad enough when weird gay sex stuff was invading his dreams -- well, a lot of the dreams were about sex, but there were some that weren't -- but now it was starting to happen when he was awake. He glanced over the side of his bed. Yep, there was the book he'd been reading for his homework when that dream, or vision, or whatever it was, started. Maybe Ernest Hemingway was making him gay.
Dave thumped on the door again. "What are you doing in there, whacking off?" The doorknob rattled, and John was glad he'd remembered to lock it.
"Give me a minute, Dave! Geeze!"
Actually, whacking off sounded like a pretty good idea. He couldn't go down to dinner like this, and he knew from experience that it would take a while to go away. Faster just to take care of it.
John grabbed a wad of tissues from the box by the bed -- needed a refill soon -- and stuffed them down his pants. He rolled over and shoved a pillow under his hips, carefully not thinking about broad shoulders and strong hands and firm, flexible lips. He didn't need to think about anything except the feel of his own hand --
the sweet burn of muscles stretching wide as I'm filled, again and again, the heavy cock pounding into me like --
John spilled about a gallon of spunk into the tissues and lay panting on the bed for a minute. Great, so he was gay and crazy. There was just no way he could explain this to his parents.
"Jo-ohn!" Dave bellowed again, from the bottom of the stairs.
"I'm coming!" John yelled, and then giggled at the involuntary pun as he threw the wet tissues in the trash (reminded himself to carry it out later), untucked his shirt just to be safe, and galloped down the stairs.
They were halfway through the soup when he reached the dinner table, and -- surprise! -- talking about Harvard again.
John stirred his soup. Eww, cream of celery, and there was a skin on the top. He tried not to make a face, but Dad picked up on his distaste anyway.
"It wouldn't be cold if you'd come downstairs the first time you were called."
"Sorry, sir," John mumbled. "Sorry, Mom. I didn't hear you the first time. Guess I dozed off."
"Well, if you didn't lock your door, sweetie, I could come wake you up. I don't know what you're doing in there alone for hours on end."
That sounded like the worst idea ever. Dave looked almost as appalled as John felt. Fortunately, Dad didn't say anything.
"I was reading my homework," John said, and made a show of attacking his soup. Dad and Dave had finished theirs already, but Mom was still sipping hers so they weren't exactly waiting on him.
"You were telling us about what classes you'll be taking, son," said Dad encouragingly to Dave.
"Well, of course for the first two years I'm mostly filling general ed requirements," Dave said self-importantly, "but I'll have room for a few electives each semester. I'm thinking about whether I want to major in business or economics."
"Surely you don't have to decide right away," said Dad.
"No, majors are declared in sophomore year. But if I plan it out ahead of time I can get a head start on the required classes. Maybe even do a double major."
Mom dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. "I'm just so proud of you," she gushed. "My boys are growing up!"
Uh-oh. Mom didn't usually get weepy until later in the evening. And her vowels had that peculiar liquid sound to them -- not slurred, of course; she never let herself get that bad. John lowered his soup spoon and glanced at her glass, a dark-blue tumbler like all the others, so he couldn't tell what was in it. A martini, probably. And if he asked (he wouldn't; he'd learned how much trouble that could cause), she would insist this was only her second. Of course, that glass held three times the amount of a regular martini. And sometimes she skipped the vermouth and just drank the gin.
Most nights Mom's drinking wasn't quite so blatant. John had just started to realize it was a problem over the last year or so. Of course, Dave said if it took him so long to figure it out that meant there wasn't really a problem. Dad had said something similar; she didn't drink in the morning, so she wasn't alcoholic. But John was pretty sure getting sloshed every single night was a problem. Not that anyone would listen to his opinion. He was never going to convince them, but still he spent way too much energy trying to figure out exactly what and how much Mom was drinking.
The thing was that Mom and Dad and all their rich friends lived in a world where appearances were everything. Looking weak or out of control for a few minutes during a party or a board meeting could cost them millions of dollars when the stock market opened the next morning. They literally couldn't admit that there was anything wrong, and the worse a problem was, the more important it was to sweep it under the rug.
So Mom drank, every night, but never until she was falling-down drunk. And John listened to Depeche Mode for hours (Lie to Me), but he knew better than to try wearing eyeliner and black leather. He hadn't told a single person about suspecting he was gay, hadn't even dared to sign a book out of the library about it, because the maid would find it when she cleaned his room.
All his life John had tried to live up to what his parents expected of him, even though he never managed to be as polite and smart and good at sports as his older brother. At least when he was younger he'd really believed it was possible to be that perfect, if he tried a little bit harder. Now he knew the only way to create that appearance was to lie -- just like his parents lied.
Making it worse these days was that he had something new to lie about, and he wasn't sure how long he could keep it hidden.
"John." Warm breath in my ear, a soft touch skimming down my arm, a hand coming to rest on my chest. I flinch.
"Sorry, sorry. I just can't believe . . . you don't even have a mark. It was barely visible yesterday, and now it's gone. And your hair is back to --" Rodney combs through my mop. "Well, at least you know you won't have to worry about losing it when you get older, right?" His laugh sounds more like a sob.
"C'mere." I pull Rodney close. "I'm fine," I tell him firmly, willing him to believe it. "Like you said, I'm probably younger than I was before. I feel younger -- parts of me, anyway." I nudge my hips against him suggestively.
"God, yes. That works for me." He tugs the covers away and bends down to check for himself just how alive I am.
"Are you done with your soup, sweetie?" Mom asked, leaning over his shoulder. Her breath was pretty strong.
"Oh! Uh, yeah, sorry Mom. Guess I'm not, uh, very hungry." John handed the half-full bowl to her. He was hard again, under the table where no one could see.
Mom brought a casserole dish from the kitchen and started to serve everyone, Dad first.
Dad scowled at his mix of macaroni and hamburger. "What the hell is this crap?"
Mom's lips went thin and white. "Juanita left it in the freezer for me to heat up." The ladleful she dumped on John's plate missed, partly, and some of it ended up on the tablecloth.
"You said you wanted to cook more," Dad snapped.
"Well, I would, but I've just been so busy with the charity work for --"
"You said we didn't need to hire a second cook to cover Juanita's days off."
"We don't! This is a perfectly good casserole."
It tasted like cardboard to John, but he kept forking it into his mouth anyway, more as an excuse to keep his eyes down than out of any real desire to eat. Across the table, Dave was doing the same thing. Looked like this wasn't such a great time to announce that he was going insane.
"It's reheated crap. I told you we shouldn't have hired that Puerto Rican bitch."
"Patrick! You will not use language like that in front of the boys!"
"They're men, not babies. They might as well learn what a mistake it is to hire lazy, incompetent illegals who barely understand a word of English --"
John's hand tightened on his fork; he liked Juanita. She made special snacks for him and taught him phrases in Spanish (she said they were romantic things to impress the ladies, which he didn't really care about, but she made it fun), and he'd been helping her with her homework for night school. She cooked five or six different meals every day for various family members and staff, and prepared extra food for Mom to serve on the weekends. John didn't see how that could be called lazy.
"Patrick, you know I made sure her documentation was in order --"
"Probably faked. You know those types, always lying --"
John placed his fork and napkin carefully on the table and pushed his chair back.
"What are you doing? John?"
He walked away. He was perfectly calm and mature about it; he didn't stomp or throw anything. But he just couldn't stay in that room a second longer and listen to his parents complain about the lies of other people.
"Jonathan Patrick Sheppard, you come back here this instant!"
John broke. He ran, and he slammed the door on the way out, and he didn't stop running until he was out beyond the horse paddock. Then he bent over and heaved up everything he'd just eaten.
When I find the right cabin, Rodney's already there, sprawled on the bottom bunk. "Major, finally! Good to see you again. I tried to contact you while we were on Earth, but --"
"It's Lieutenant Colonel now." I sling my duffel reluctantly on the top bunk. I could argue, but fear of heights on the one hand and love of flying on the other would probably decide the case.
"Mm, I heard about that. Yes, congratulations." He sits up, then stands, well within my personal space. His hands are coming up, ready to settle on my shoulders or maybe pull me in for a hug.
I back up. There isn't a lot of room. "Listen, McKay . . ."
"We should talk."
Up goes his chin. "About, about what? What about?"
"This, um . . ." I gesture from him to me and back. "What we -- what happened back, you know, when the Wraith were on their way."
He's frowning unhappily. "This doesn't sound good."
"No." I swallow. "It's not. Look, we thought we had days to live, right? We thought there wouldn't be any consequences. But now, it's . . . different."
The slant of his mouth is getting steeper. "Because of your promotion?"
I push a hand through my hair -- freshly trimmed by an actual professional. "That, yeah, and we'll be in regular communication with Earth, and people aren't going to look the other way now. You know Caldwell wants my job, and the IOA would probably like an excuse to give it to him."
"Yeah. Yeah." He's staring at the deck now. "Right. You don't have to tell me twice. I'll just --" He starts to make a gesture, then suddenly grabs me and kisses me, hard, bruising, close-mouthed. And then he lets go. While I'm still swaying, he goes on, "I can switch room assignments with that other, uh, Major whatshisname. Your new second in command. You probably need to get to know him better, right?" He's grabbing a bag, twice the size of mine, and shoving things back into it from the drawers, all crumpled and haphazard. "Yes, that should work. I'll just, uh, go make those arrangements."
The door closes behind him. I wipe my mouth and then, slowly, my eyes.
John waited in the office for a couple of minutes, then started looking at the books on the shelves. There was a lot more stuff here than what he'd found in the school library. He pulled down one called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He tried to look up hallucinations in the index, but it was hard to understand all the technical jargon. He kept getting referred to the pages that described schizophrenia, and that couldn't be right because John didn't have a split personality, did he? Were those weird dreams some kind of memories of being a different person, or something? But no, they couldn't possibly be real. So they were sort of like what the book called "bizarre delusions" -- except he wasn't paranoid, which seemed to be a big part of the definition. He didn't think anyone was trying to control him or anything; he just had these weird, impossible visions.
He heard the guidance counselor outside talking to the school nurse, so that gave him enough warning to get the book back on the shelf and sit down again before the door opened.
"John," said the guidance counselor with fake warmth.
"Hi, Mr. Davis," he said dutifully.
"Come on, I thought you agreed to call me Bob."
"Bob," John repeated.
Blue light illuminates stringy white hair over a greenish-gray face with slit-pupiled eyes and pointed teeth. He jerks and falls and bleeds as a pistol bucks in my hand, again and again and again --
"-- said you might need another ice pack."
"Uh. Yeah." John took it and hoped the guy didn't notice his hand was shaking. That had been a paranoid kind of a hallucination, hadn't it? He didn't really think monster zombies were invading or anything, he just had really detailed, vivid hallucinations about it. "I, uh . . . the ice melted so I threw the bag out, but I still have the cloth it was wrapped in."
"That's fine, you can leave it on my desk. Hang on to that one for now. How does your face feel?"
"It's fine." It wasn't fine; his eye wasn't going to swell shut or anything, but it ached if he blinked too hard and he knew he'd be sporting a shiner for a few days. There'd be no way to hide it from his parents, even if he convinced Mr. Davis not to phone them.
The counselor took a seat -- on this side of the desk, so he could seem like John's buddy.
"So, John, tell me what happened today. It's not like you to get into fights."
John shrugged and pressed the ice pack to his eye.
"In fact, I seem to recall you've acted as a peacemaker in the past. What was different this time?"
"I was trying to get them to cool it, but I guess it didn't work," he said dully.
"Them. You mean Adam Watts and Nicholas Sandage?"
"I guess." A teacher had seen those two slugging it out with John, so they were already in trouble. John didn't mention Tim Bancek and the Purdue twins, who'd been quick enough to get away.
"Adam said you called him Conan the Barbarian?"
John sighed. "Ronon."
"It's just a character in a, um, a movie I saw. Not a bad character or anything. It's just been on my mind, and I said it by accident, and I guess Adam thought I was insulting him so he got pi-- angry. It was just a mistake, though."
"What movie was this?"
"It's been on your mind, but you forget what movie it was?"
"Something on late-night TV. I was like half-asleep."
"I see. But that's not where this all started, was it?"
John was silent.
"I heard Adam and Nicholas were picking on another boy, and you tried to stop it."
"Who were they picking on, John?"
"I don't know. One of the, y'know, the geeky kids. I forget his name." Cory Sidmeier had a big nose and dark curly hair and really didn't look anything like the guy in John's dreams, except for the way his hands waved around when he talked. And the way his eyes got huge and blue when he felt threatened.
Mr. Davis looked at him solemnly. "This isn't a large school, John. I'd be willing to bet you know all the students' names."
"Maybe the kids in my year, but not all of them. I think this kid was a freshman, maybe."
"I see. And you're a sophomore."
"Yeah." John didn't mention he used to be in the same class as Cory. He'd cared a lot, once, about being skipped ahead a grade. He supposed it was still important since it meant he could leave home a year earlier -- but that was starting to feel like three years too late.
"Are you feeling troubled lately, John? Problems at home, maybe?"
He knew the answer to that one. "No, sir."
"How are your classes going?"
"Fine. I mean, I made a mistake on the big chemistry experiment last quarter, but I think I can still pull an A. All the other classes are good."
"How do you like English class?"
John shrugged. "It's okay." Not as much fun as math class, but it was easy. He could relax for an hour.
"Do you like Mr. Randolph?"
"He's okay." Mr. Randolph was the one who'd broken up the fight earlier. John frowned, as he started to see a trend to the questions. "Did I do something wrong in English class?"
"Mr. Randolph mentioned you had a test on Monday."
"Yeah, on War and Peace. I think I did okay."
Mr. Davis was quiet for too long, a faint frown between his eyebrows. "Do you like War and Peace?" he asked at last.
"It's all right. Pretty dense. I'm only --" Up to page 121, he almost said. But he had finished the book the day before the test.
No, he'd finished A Farewell to Arms. The test was on Ernest Hemingway. He'd never read War and Peace, not even partway.
"Um," said John.
"Mr. Randolph said you answered all the questions as if you were referring to a different book."
"Uh." John didn't actually remember the test in any detail, because he'd had one of his visions right before class -- not zombies, but robots that looked just like people. So he'd been sort of distracted, but awake, or at least he thought so. "I guess I got mixed up."
Mr. Davis looked very grave. "John, I'm sorry to have to ask you this. Have you been taking drugs?"
While I'm coaxing the jumper to better speeds up through the black water, I can hear Zelenka in the back fussing over Rodney. After a minute he comes forward again and checks his computer.
"Yes, good, continue at this rate and the shield will last until we reach a depth of one thousand feet, and then it should be safe to let it drop."
"And we'll have enough juice to get home?"
"Yes, if we take it easy. Which we must, anyway -- Rodney tells me he increased pressure in the other jumper to four atmospheres. He must decompress slowly." Zelenka taps on his computer, and my ears pop suddenly and painfully.
"Hey! A little warning might be nice." My voice echoes strangely inside my head. Nothing outside sounds right until I swallow several times, and then I'm suddenly aware of Rodney mumbling in the background.
Zelenka talks over him. "Sorry, sorry. This is the pressure we must start from, for Rodney's sake. I'm not sure of the safe decompression rate, but we can ask once we are in communications range. That will not be too long from now."
"All right. Should be a smooth ascent from here, so I'm putting it on autopilot. I'm going to check on McKay; you keep an eye on the power consumption, okay?"
Rodney's hunched on the bench in the back, still wearing his wet clothes with a blanket pulled uselessly around his shoulders. His teeth are chattering. I grumble inwardly at Zelenka's neglect; Rodney wasn't that clueless even on our first missions.
"I'm okay," Rodney chants through chattering teeth. "Gonna be fine. Sam was right all along."
"Right about what, buddy?" I say gently as I pull the blanket from his cramped grip and get to work on his clothes. Was Sergeant Griffin's first name really Sam? That doesn't sound right.
"She -- she was right."
I blink. "She? Are you talking about Sam Carter?"
"What was she right about?" With his vest off, I start peeling up his shirt. The wet fabric rolls and gets stuck on his shoulders.
"She said you'd rescue me. She said I just had to trust you and wait."
"Well, yeah, she was right about that." I hold the collar wide to keep it from scraping his bloody forehead, tap his arms so he'll raise them for the sleeves to come off.
"What -- what are you doing?"
"Getting you out of these wet clothes."
"No . . . n-no, you can't do that."
"Have to, Rodney, otherwise you'll get hypothermia." If he doesn't have it already. He's still shivering, which is probably a good sign except that it makes my jaw ache in sympathy.
"No! I can't be, be naked in here."
"You won't be -- look, here's a blanket." It's damp, but not too bad. Certainly better than his sopping clothes.
He clutches the blanket, but insists, "No, that's not good enough. Not enough, not -- I can't be naked!"
He wasn't this shy a year ago when the Wraith were on the way, when we were desperate for hope, for just a few more minutes or hours to know we were alive. "It's okay, Rodney, I've seen it all before."
"No -- no . . ."
"Fine," I sigh. "Look, I'll give you my shirt, will that be good enough? And you can wear the blanket over your legs, okay?" I'm not crazy about putting my skin on display either, but I can put up with it for a little while. It was my job to prepare the mission, after all, and I never thought about spare clothes.
I peel off my shirt -- damp in places from handling Rodney -- and pass it to him.
"Oh," he says, curling his hand in it. "Warm."
"Yeah, c'mon, put it on." I have to help him like a child, but he gets the shirt on eventually and pulls the blanket close again while I get to work on his pants. I try to distract him. "So, uh, when did Colonel Carter say that?"
"That you should wait for me to come find you?" How could she have known this would happen?
"Oh. Just, uh, couple hours ago."
That makes me pause in the middle of pulling his pants down. "Colonel Carter was talking to you a couple of hours ago?"
"Uh-huh. I mean . . . it was just a hallucination, of course, I realize that. Because of, uh --" He waves a finger at his lurid forehead.
Hallucinations are bad, I know that only too well. But slightly less bad if you know they're not real. Rodney seems mostly coherent, but I'll need to ask Beckett about it when we get communications going again.
"And also because of, you know, stress and loneliness and thinking no one would come looking for me and all that."
I tap his thigh. "Hips up."
He stands, lurches, braces himself on the overhead compartment. I pull his pants and boxers down together and then realize --
"Boots," he says with a shaky chuckle.
"Yeah, I know, sorry. Sit down and tuck the blanket around yourself." I get started on the wet knots in his laces. Have to keep him talking. "Why did you think I wouldn't come for you?"
He squirms and frowns. "I didn't think you could find me."
"But you had to know we'd keep trying, right?" His feet, once the boots come off, are like blocks of ice. I get the bunched wet fabric shucked off his legs, and then, on an impulse, I undo my own boots. I pull off my socks -- clean this morning but not so much after the kind of day it's been -- and work them onto his icy feet. Then, hyper-conscious of my bony feet and long toes, I jam them sockless back into my boots.
Rodney's still shivering, staring off into the middle distance. Hypothermia, or the head wound, or something else? Is he hallucinating again?
"Rodney, c'mon. Of course we're gonna come rescue you. You have to know that."
His face crumples and he mutters something too low for me to hear beneath the clacking of his teeth.
"What was that?" I turn him to face sideways on the bench and slip in behind him, wrapping my arms around his chest. He's cold and damp, droplets falling from his hair onto my bare arms. Instead of warming him up, in a couple of minutes I'll be shivering, too. "What did you say, Rodney?"
"I . . . I didn't rescue you."
I blink. "Sure you did. Plenty of times."
"Not when Ford took you to raid the hive ship. Not when you were in the time dilation field. I did everything wrong! You were right not to trust me."
Oh. Yeah. He's still pretty upset about that. Me, I had six peaceful (boring) months to meditate it right out of my system. I rub his arms, both to warm him and try to cheer him up. "Come on, I know you tried. And you got there eventually."
"Not --" His teeth click. "Not fast enough. Not good enough. No wonder you didn't want to keep it going between us. I'm always . . . not enough. Or, or too much, or something."
Damn. I turn and check on Radek; his head is barely visible over the top of the chair, and he's muttering in Czech at his laptop.
So I stop warming Rodney's back, manhandle him around on the bench, and straddle his blanket-draped lap. I pull him close, chest to chest. "You're enough for me, Rodney," I whisper, and cover his cold lips with mine.
Saturday, John went out to the orchard and tried to think what to do. He sat with his back against one of the trees, the petals of the apple blossoms drifting slowly around him. When he was young he'd loved to climb these trees, but he was bigger now and fruit trees didn't age so well, so he just sat and ignored the cold damp seeping through his jeans.
He was supposed to be at baseball practice, but he'd told the coach he was grounded because of getting into a fight in school. Since he still had brownish-purple bruises around his eye, the coach believed him. In fact, Dad hadn't bothered with any punishment after bawling him out about the fight and the English test -- and Dad didn't even know John would be peeing in a cup every week until the end of the school year. He'd just been sent to his room after the scolding, and Juanita had snuck a plate of food upstairs for him.
So John wasn't grounded, but he worried about what would happen if he had one of his episodes in the middle of a ballgame. He was always scared one of the other boys would catch him looking in the locker room, but that fear was familiar; thinking they might find him drooling and staring off into space -- or worse, talking about what he was seeing in his visions -- was too much.
It was getting worse. The visions were getting longer, more involved -- and still just as vivid and real-seeming. They were starting to feel not just like individual scenes, but parts of a story told out of order. He knew they weren't real, but on some level he was starting to believe in them, and from what he'd read in Mr. Davis's book that was a really bad sign.
He was sure most adults would say he should go to his parents for help, but he simply couldn't. The conversation wouldn't be about John or about how to get the hallucinations to stop; it would be about how can we keep this a secret, and how could you do this to us, and where did we go wrong, and why do you always have to be the troublemaker, and do you have any idea what this could do to your father's career.
He thought about running away, but Dad could send legions of private investigators after him. Even if John buried himself in the seamiest, most dangerous slums -- even if he went overseas, which he wasn't sure he could manage in the first place -- he'd get dragged back eventually, and he'd be in real trouble then. And he didn't particularly want to inhabit the underbelly of society even for a little while; anything could happen if he drifted off into a vision while the wrong people were watching. He could get killed, or more likely robbed, beaten, raped, or drugged.
If he died, at least he wouldn't have to face the aftermath. John didn't particularly want to die, but not facing his parents sounded sort of attractive. Except if he tried and failed, that would be really bad. There'd been a kid in Dave's year at school who attempted suicide a couple of years ago, and it was in the papers and Mom talked about how it was a cry for help, but Dad said the kid was just spoiled and selfish and didn't think about how his actions would affect others.
John toyed idly for a while with suicide methods that would be sure to succeed. Or maybe something that would look like an accident, so his parents wouldn't have to know. The problem was there wasn't much overlap between the two categories. John could get his dad's gun, which would be sure to work, but he couldn't make that look like an accident. He wasn't sure if he could drown himself without using weights or something obvious. He could throw himself off a horse, or get in the way of one of Devil's vicious kicks, but even if he managed to get kicked in the head he wasn't sure it would be fatal. Setting up a car accident had the same problem, plus it might involve other drivers or bystanders and he might get caught driving without a license before he even reached the nearest cliff or whatever. He didn't want to risk surviving a really bad accident; brain damage or paralysis or both on top of insanity and homosexuality would just make the unbearable worse.
When he realized he'd been thinking seriously about suicide for nearly half an hour, he got scared. He jumped to his feet and started walking, away from the house and stables, wishing he could just fly away and disappear into nothingness. Maybe one day he'd go into one of the visions and just stay there, dreaming about zombies and hot sex, and then he wouldn't have to worry what his parents thought about whether their drooling, catatonic son would ever get his MBA.
More likely he'd wake up to find they'd reached the same conclusion as Mr. Davis.
The lights are too bright. The chirps and whines of the machines hurt my ears. My skin itches; my hair aches. Everything is strangely fluid, people moving and talking too quickly one moment and too slowly the next.
"What is it, why did you call me?" I almost know the voice, but the harmonics and undertones are all wrong.
"He's been asking for you."
I turn my head -- which hurts -- and try to say, "Rodney." I think I constructed it properly but it comes out sounding strange. And it hurts.
"What, what was he saying?"
"That was your name."
"No, before -- you said he was asking for me. What did he say?"
"Ach, just some talk about dreams, I think. Said he was sorry, but he couldn't let the Wraith eat you?"
Rodney's face -- that is Rodney, right? -- turns several impossible colors, especially across the cheeks. "Well, I should hope not!"
"Other bits, too -- nanites and ascension and whatnot."
"Carson," I groan. "Don't . . . don't carry the tumor."
"What was that?"
"I couldn't make it out."
"Go . . . fishing," I gasp.
Rodney pats my shoulder -- which hurts -- then frowns and moves a hand to my forehead, which hurts. "Carson, he's burning up!"
"Aye, Rodney, strangely enough I had noticed that. I believe something was mentioned about it in medical school." Beckett's voice goes from bass distort to chipmunk in one sentence.
"Well, do something about it!" Rodney sounds like a chipmunk too, and I giggle. I grab his hand and squeeze (which hurts).
"There's not much I can do. I can't give him anti-retrovirals because they'll block the corrective retrovirus as well as the first one. All we can do is treat the symptoms, but he's not reacting typically to most drugs."
Rodney pats my hand with his left, trying to squirm the right out of my grasp. "Can't you at least give him a painkiller or, or fever reducer -- at least something to help him sleep!"
"Too dangerous to sleep," I tell him. "He's in your dreams. He's me -- I'm in your dreams. With a clown!" I laugh, and tears sear my skin where they run.
"We've tried all that, Rodney. About the only thing we haven't tried is --"
"Alcohol," says Beckett slowly, the word lengthening and distorting and reverberating around my head.
"You want to get him drunk?" Rodney's still patting my hand nervously.
"It's a simple molecule. As I recall, it affects Wraith and Iratus tissue similarly to humans. I'm not precisely sure the CNS effects will be the same, but it might help him sleep."
"Fine, so get him some! Ask Sergeant Campbell if you don't know who has the best stuff."
Beckett purses his lips, and I watch the infrared tracing the blood vessels across his cheeks.
"What?!" says Rodney.
"Rodney . . . I have the best stuff. I've a twenty-year-old bottle of Glenfiddich in my office, never been opened."
"Oh. Did I know that? No, never mind -- just go get it!"
Beckett leaves, and Rodney starts trying more seriously to pry his hand out of mine. I don't let go; I pull him closer to me.
"No, no, this is not what you want, Colonel. You don't remember just now, but you're very, very angry at me. I did a -- made a mistake, a big one, and you . . . and anyway, even before that you were -- I mean, we're not . . . this isn't what you want!"
"'S what I want now," I mumble, craning up toward his lips.
He looks torn for a moment, and I can see the glow of heat beneath his clothes, concentrating in his crotch. "No," he says decisively. "I can't take advantage of your, your altered state. And anyway, I don't know if what you have is contagious. You don't want me turning blue on you, now do you?"
Then Beckett is back, with a bottle and a glass and a straw, and Rodney pulls away from the bed.
John came back to himself by the side of the road. That one had been really weird, like hearing a dozen different songs played at once, half of them with the turntable at the wrong speed. He still felt like his perceptions were off, like he was seeing or hearing beyond the normal human range.
He didn't know how long he'd been standing there, or even if he'd kept walking while his brain was off in la-la-land. God, what if he'd walked into the path of a passing car? A chill shivered up his spine at the thought, and another when he remembered that just a little while ago he'd been trying to plan something like that on purpose.
He could hear a car coming along the road now, dawdling instead of speeding like most did on this stretch where the driveways were all so far apart. He turned and began to trudge along the side of the road, thumbs tucked in his pockets and head bent while he kicked at gravel.
The car was a taxi, which wasn't a common sight around here. It drove past John, then stopped suddenly with a screech of tires. He lifted his head with a sigh, prepared to give the driver directions, but instead the back door opened and a kid got out.
He was around John's age, skinny with awkward elbows and knees, in clothes that showed his ankles and wrists. Wavy dark-blond hair flopped above blue eyes and a slanted mouth.
"Oh, thank God!" the boy said. "I thought we'd never find the right place. We've been driving around for -- yes, what?" He turned to talk through the open door of the cab. "Well, we wouldn't have gone forty miles if you had any clue what you were doing! No, I'm not going to -- oh, fine, but it's highway robbery -- literally!" He shoved a couple of bills at the driver, pulled a heavy backpack from the seat, and slammed the door. The cab drove away, leaving the two teenagers by the side of the road.
The kid settled the backpack at his feet and huffed. "I just spent two hours on a train and another in the clutches of that so-called taxi driver to get here. I suppose I should be glad you live close enough to Boston for a weekend trip, but I'm having trouble working up the gratitude. You would not believe how hard it was to find out your address, considering that I already knew your name and your father's name and the closest city. In the end, I actually had to physically go to the library, can you believe that? I miss the web. You realize, I don't even have a laptop right now? Just a state-of-the-art desktop which is pretty pitiful by modern -- fut-- our standards, I guess. I remember I thought it was fantastic at the ti-- when I first got it." He gave a puzzled little frown, which would be sort of adorable if John weren't distracted right now.
If the mouth and the stubborn chin hadn't clued John in, the speech patterns clinched it. "Rodney?"
"Yes, what? You're staring . . . do I have something on my face? Oh, it's the hair, isn't it? Yes, I realize it's vastly amusing to see exactly how much I've lost -- will lose -- given that you're, well, pretty much the same as you were -- will be -- at forty, but --"
"Rodney? You're real?!"
"Of course I'm -- wait. What do you remember? Or, what don't you remember? I didn't come back to the wrong time, did I? No, no, I calibrated that very carefully."
"You're my, my . . . hallucination." John wasn't lost in a vision now; he was standing beside the road with the wind ruffling his hair and robins whistling in the bushes. But the person he was seeing couldn't possibly be real, which meant the taxicab wasn't real, which meant he was even closer to the padded rooms and the straitjackets than he'd thought just a few minutes ago.
"Hallucination?" Rodney squeaked.
"Or at least, someone who'll grow up to look like my hallucination." Did imaginary friends age? This was getting way too complicated.
"I'm not a hallucination. Look!" Rodney poked John in the shoulder. "Perfectly corporeal."
John rolled his eyes. "Duh! Hallucinations can include touch as well as sight and sound." He turned his back on the imaginary guy and started to trudge along the road, glumly thinking about what could happen if the visions started mingling with real life. He might end up doing something -- well, something crazy, something that would get other people hurt as well as himself. Maybe he should try talking to his parents about the problem.
Rodney hurried after him, grunting and panting as he hefted the backpack. "Wait, don't you remember me? I mean, don't you realize what happened?"
"What happened is I'm going crazy," John snapped.
"But you know who I am, at least, so I didn't go back too far. Huh. That device must have been further off calibration than I realized. Well, that's what you get for touching things before we've had a chance to figure out what they're for or even if they actually work. Hey, slow down a little, will you? I presume we're heading for your, uh, your house?"
John didn't answer that. A figment of his imagination really ought to know already, and was probably just pretending he didn't. "Next you're going to tell me, what, that aliens are out to get me? There's a secret government project? Only I can save the world by doing something incredibly stupid and dangerous?"
"Actually, all of those are true to some extent, depending on how you look at it. But that's not why I'm here."
"Fine, I'll bite. Why are you here?"
"To help you stop remembering the future."
"Look, just -- tell me about your, um, your hallucinations."
John threw him a glare as they reached the decorative iron gates at the foot of the driveway. "What's to tell? You know it already."
"Humor me, okay?" Rodney adjusted his backpack with a grunt. "I'm doing this all for you, you know."
"Right, because you're my best buddy. My only friend, here to warn me the rest of the world is out to get me -- right?"
"No! I mean, yes, I am your best friend, but -- okay, let me see if I can guess. It started about three weeks ago, right?"
"See? I said you knew already."
"But I don't know the details. That could be important. What's it like?"
John came to a stop on the grassy verge. "Like . . . a dream. Dreams. Really vivid, detailed, lifelike dreams."
"When you're asleep?"
"At first, yeah. But in the last week it's been happening when I'm awake. I have this . . . vision, and then I come out of it and I'm not where I was before and I don't know what's been going on around me." John's voice cracked, which it hadn't done in years, and he swallowed hard. "They're getting longer and stronger every time, and I've even started talking -- or writing -- about them without meaning to. People are noticing something is wrong with me. I read up on it, so I know what it is. Schizophrenia starts in puberty sometimes."
"You're not schizophrenic, John."
"Says my hallucination. Big help."
"Fine! I'll, I'll prove I'm real."
Rodney pointed along the drive to where Gordon was trimming the hedges. "You know him?"
"Sure, for years."
"So he's real, right?"
"Of course he is."
"Good." Rodney marched toward the gardener. "Excuse me! Uh, hi there."
Gordon stopped snipping and looked up, shifting the tobacco chaw to the other side of his mouth.
"Could you tell me, um, um, what kind of, of hedge is this? 'Cause it looks really, uh, nice, and I might want to, you know, get some."
"'S forsythia," Gordon grunted. "Blooms early." He gave John a nod and went back to his clipping.
"Right. Yes, well, that's fascinating. Um, thanks." Rodney turned and stomped back to John's side. "See that? A real person saw me and spoke to me. That means I'm real."
"Unless I'm hallucinating Gordon," John pointed out.
"Oh, for -- will you just take me someplace where we can discuss this? Someplace I can sit?"
John glanced around at the neat lawns all around them. "There's a bench over --"
"Someplace with electricity, did I mention that? Someplace like, ooh, how about that nice big house over there?" He waved up toward the end of the driveway.
"Um," said John. Anything private, he tended to do away from the house. But Mom and Dad were off watching Dave row in a boat race, and they wouldn't be back until nearly dinnertime. "Okay, I guess."
I sit on my bunk, hands loose in my lap. I feel exhausted even though I haven't actually done anything today -- just standing, talking, witnessing.
It's hard even to drag my eyes up for the chime at the door. But McKay isn't the type to let no answer stop him; he breezes right in. "So. Uh, how did it go?"
I shrug. "They're coming, but we knew that. They're really, really hungry, but we knew that." I blink. "Or maybe not quite so hungry anymore. They pretty much wiped out the population of that planet."
"Hmm." He's probably trying to look sympathetic, but it comes across more like constipated. "Did you get your recordings to Ford?"
"Just one. Yeah."
Uninvited, he sinks onto the bunk beside me. "What did you tell your family? I, uh, I really wasn't sure what to say to my sister. We haven't spoken in years."
I sigh. Normally I would change the subject, but it seems like too much work just now. "My family doesn't want to hear from me."
"What? But, I mean, you do have family -- they're not all, um . . ."
"My father and brother are alive, but they don't want anything to do with me." Something trying to be a chuckle forces itself out of my chest. "They don't approve of people like me."
"People like what? A hero? An officer and a gentleman?"
I don't even know why I'm telling the truth. Maybe it has something to do with facing doom. "A homosexual. A queer. A fag."
Even with peripheral vision I can tell McKay's staring with wide blue eyes. "You . . . what?"
"I'm gay, Rodney." Unutterably tired, I drag a hand down my face and wait for him to leave.
"But . . . you can't be."
"Gay people can be heroes, too."
"No, I mean -- what about that, that half-ascended hussy?"
God, he's still upset about that? "That wasn't . . . it wasn't actually sex, you know."
"But you were panting after her like a dog in heat! I mean, a dog after a --"
"Yeah, I get what you mean. I was trying to get her to like us, to help us." There was just something about Chaya that seemed important somehow; she drew the eye from the first moment I saw her. But whatever my subconscious was trying to tell me about her, it didn't have much to do with sex. I was prepared to sleep with her if that would get her on our side, but that wasn't the point of it.
"But, you -- it's not just her. You . . . flirt! All the time! Women are falling at your feet!"
"Newsflash, McKay: sometimes women find it easier to get along with gay men than straight men." It was why Nancy thought marriage might actually work, because we were friends even if we fizzled instead of sizzling in bed. And I still think the reason Teyla first trusted me was because I looked at her face instead of her chest. "Case in point," I add, waving at him. His attempts to talk to Allina are still painful to remember.
The pause that follows stretches out, and out -- then, "Who says I'm straight?"
Now I actually turn my head to look at him. He looks sort of belligerent. "You were going on just the other day about blondes with long legs and perky breasts."
"Well, sure, but I wouldn't say no to dark hair either. Or a nice pair of --" He makes the intergalactic gesture for bazoomba! "-- pecs."
I can't resist; I start to giggle and it turns into worn-out, half-hysterical laughter.
"Yes, all right, very amusing," he grumbles. "Please, don't hesitate to laugh at my expense." He waits for me to get it under control and then continues, "I'm sorry about your family's, um, attitude. But don't you think they would want to at least hear from you? I mean, it might be your last chance to, to talk to them."
"It's not the last chance, Rodney. We're not gonna die."
"How can you say that? You can't possibly know that!"
I do know, though. It's hard to put a finger on the reason for it, but I just know this isn't the end, for me or McKay. I'm not so sure about anyone else, though, and after a day of watching people get killed and talking about people getting killed, I almost wish I could just be afraid for myself instead of everyone else.
"Trust me, McKay. I just have a hunch."
He just stares at me, lips pursing and un-pursing nervously, and I just can't resist. It might be the stupidest thing I've ever done, or the smartest. I lean over and kiss him, gentle and loose-lipped.
His eyes go even wider for a moment, and then he gasps out, "God, yes!" and grabs me and pulls me onto the bed with him. And we're squirming and grinding against each other and yelping as body parts get rolled onto, but after a lot of work I get his fly open and my mouth on him, and he's swearing at me and pushing and pulling until I finally take the hint and turn around the other way so he can get at me too, and then we're flying.
John blinked up at the boy in his bedroom. He was tight against the seam of his jeans, but glancing down to see how visible it was would just attract attention to it.
"Was that one of them? Your . . . visions?"
"What was I doing?" John touched his chin uncertainly.
"You weren't drooling or anything. You just stopped answering me or looking at me. It started about when we reached the house, I think. You just walked up here as if you were hypnotized or something, and you sat down." Rodney glanced around the room as if he'd just remembered his request for a place to sit, then pulled John's desk chair over. "What were you remembering?"
John shook his head. "We thought we were going to die. We, um . . ." His face heated and he found himself looking first at Rodney's mouth (about the same, but without the stubble) and hands (just as big, but more awkward-looking at the ends of skinny wrists). He didn't look at Rodney's crotch -- not for more than a second, anyway.
"Oh. Yes. That one. I remember that." Rodney swallowed hard. "Do you, um . . . are they all like that?"
"Like what? I don't know how it looks from the outside."
"No, I mean the content of what you remember. Are they all, um . . ."
"There's a lot of . . . sex, yeah." It felt like the first time he'd ever spoken the word, even though he knew that couldn't be true. "Some other stuff, too. Some of the visions seem sort of related to whatever I'm doing or thinking about at the time, in the real world I mean. Some of them just come out of nowhere."
Rodney frowned. "That makes sense, I guess. After all -- healthy teenage male, some part of your brain is probably thinking about sex more often than not, so a lot of the memories you're getting revolve around that."
John bent down and grabbed the football from under the bed, just to have something to hold in front of his lap. "Why do you keep saying 'memories' and 'remembering?'"
"Because that's what it is. You're having memories of things that haven't happened yet."
"Uh . . . huh."
"Okay, look, I'll explain it in simple terms. We found a lab in the city -- Atlantis, you remember Atlantis?"
The place in John's visions was definitely called Atlantis, but he just stared at Rodney without answering.
"Right, fine. Anyway, this lab had once belonged to an Ancient who was studying time travel. He destroyed most of his work, but there was one thing left -- a sort of early feasibility test for the basic concepts. The real goal was to see the future, of course, but they hadn't gotten that far yet, so instead this device would let the user's past self see, or, or remember, what happened in the, um, the present -- which would be the future from the point of view of the past self, of course -- up to the moment when the device was activated."
John blinked. "That sounds . . . really complicated."
"Yes, yes it is -- complicated, and delicate, and requiring very careful preparation before use. So of course you had to grab it and jam it on your head before we even knew for sure what it was. And it wasn't calibrated, and the result was . . . this. You having intense and confusing visions of the future. I gather most of what you've seen is from a few years around the time when you activated the device? I mean, you don't remember all the years between then and now?"
There had been one dream, last week or the week before, with some very cool stuff about flying jets and helicopters. "Most of it is about, um, that place. Atlantis," John admitted.
"Right. Interesting." Rodney frowned.
"But how come you, uh, 'remember' all this stuff more clearly than I do?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Because I took the time to calibrate the device and attune it to my brainwaves before using it. You told me about what it had done to you -- as much as you could remember, anyway, which wasn't actually very much. And I read the notes from the Ancient who created the device, who said that it could be 'problematic'" (Rodney made air quotes) "for some brains to handle the conflicting input. So . . . I designed a way to counter the effects."
"Like an antidote."
"No. Okay, yes, if you want to compare hit-or-miss chemical experimentation with the extremely careful advance planning I put into this. Add to that the fact that I had to come up with something that would work with the transistor technology available in this day and age, and you can see why it took me a couple of weeks to build it once I, um, received my own set of future memories. And I do have a very grueling class schedule to keep up with as well -- even though I have full mastery of the subject material already, of course, it's still a lot of work, and I can't afford to mess up my -- my past self's future, if you know what I mean."
"Not really, no."
Rodney huffed impatiently. "Yes, why do I even bother explaining?" He bent and opened up his backpack, pulling out little metal boxes, an oscilloscope, and yards and yards of wire. No wonder the backpack had been heavy. "Fine, I'll reduce it to words of one syllable: I can make your visions stop. You aren't crazy, but you might end up that way if this is allowed to continue. So I'm just going to attach some wires to your head -- I'll have to glue the electrodes on, unfortunately, but --"
"Wait, wait!" John protested as the electronic components started to pile up on his desk. "What is this, some kind of electroshock therapy or something?"
"No! Well, only very distantly similar. ECT is like bashing someone over the head with a club. This is more like . . . like using a jeweler's screwdriver to make fine adjustments. It won't be painful, I promise."
"How do you know? Have you tried it?"
"Of course not! If I had used this on myself already, I wouldn't be able to remember the future and so I wouldn't know what to do to help you!" Rodney swallowed. "I will have to use it on myself later, though -- probably when I get back to MIT -- so you can rest assured that I've been extremely careful to build it to spec."
"Why are you planning to use it? The, um, memories aren't driving you crazy."
"No -- or at least, not yet -- but even if it never went that far, the memories could create a time paradox which would mess up the very future I'm trying to protect. Not to mention how incredibly frustrating it is to be a precocious student at MIT in 1985 when --"
"MIT? How old are you?"
"Sixteen. I did say precocious, didn't I? Anyway, I know about other planets and galaxies and alien technologies -- including some things that are hidden away on this very planet right now -- and I can't do anything about it! Did I say frustrating? That's an understatement. So I assure you, I'm very much looking forward to getting rid of these memories so I can enjoy my dinosaur of a desktop computer for a couple of years." By now, Rodney had his boxes arrayed in a neat tower on the desk and plugged in (he'd brought a power strip, which was fortunate since this old house had a limited number of outlets), and he was sorting out the wires.
John gulped as he looked at the electrodes. "So this is going to . . . erase my memory, or something?"
"Hmm," said Rodney. "Not exactly. It will stop you from having any more of those future visions, but you'll still retain knowledge of the ones you already experienced. But not very clear knowledge, according to your future self. You -- he -- you described it as remembering a dream, or the plot of a book you'd read once as a child, something like that. I, on the other hand, will lose my memories of the future completely -- at least, I remember not remembering, so I think that's what will happen." He flipped on a series of switches and studied the trace on the oscilloscope. "Okay, yes, it's ready to go. Just have to attach the electrodes, and we'll be in business."
John caught the bony hands moving toward his head. "Rodney." It was weird; he knew this was all a delusion, but he believed in Rodney anyway.
Rodney stared back, his eyes larger than ever in this youthful version of his face. He dropped the wires and cupped his hands around John's cheeks and leaned in for a kiss. It was John's first romantic kiss, and at the same time it was so familiar and comforting. Before he knew it he was standing, pulling Rodney close, a whirl of present/real and future/other sensations racing through his head until it all came to a head and his hips stuttered unevenly and he stumbled back, gasping.
Rodney gaped. "Did you just --?"
"Um." This was not exactly how John had imagined his first time with another person. His underwear started to go clammy.
"Oh my god, that is so hot." Rodney looked torn between reaching for himself and reaching for John; he took a step forward and tripped over the forgotten football and fell right into John's lap. Laughing, John tugged him up onto the bed, rolled them both to their sides, stared a moment and then moved in for another kiss. He started to reach down, but Rodney's hand was already there, rubbing frantically over the fabric of his own jeans until suddenly he groaned into John's mouth. His face, when they pulled back from the kiss, was adorably flushed.
Rodney was right; it really was hot, even if it wasn't anything like what you read about in your parent's books or heard about in the back corner of the playground, or saw in incredibly detailed and impossible visions of an alleged future. It would have been lame in a movie, but with another person right there on your bed, it was hot.
John gulped. He was scared, but there was no way he could not trust Rodney. "Do it," he said.
Rodney blinked at him, lips red from kissing and slightly parted.
"With the electrodes," John clarified. "Put them on."
Rodney stiffened and sat up, his face going businesslike and determined. "Right." His wavy hair was tousled, and John wanted to run fingers through it before it was too late, before he forgot and Rodney's hairline receded. But instead he sat still and let Rodney run fingers through his hair, looking for the right spot to place the electrodes.
"Okay, that's the last one." Rodney licked his lips nervously. "I promised it won't hurt and I meant that, but you might, um . . . black out for a second or two. Do you want to lie down?"
"Just do it," John snapped.
"Right. Yes. Okay." Rodney flipped his switches and turned some knobs, and nodded. "Here goes," he said, and threw the last switch.
John blinked up at the ceiling.
The boy bent over him. "John?"
"Are you all right?"
"Yes?" John tried experimentally. He rubbed his eyes. "Yes. I'm fine."
"Do you, um . . . do you remember me?"
John bit his lip. He remembered the boy getting out of the cab, and talking to the gardener . . . and kissing, he remembered the kissing. "Rodney," he said, and heard the name echo through his head with half-known meanings.
"Do you remember Atlantis?"
That name had just as many layers of significance, but John couldn't quite focus on it. "The . . . mythical city."
The boy was silent for too long, his mouth tilted in a frown. "Yes, that's right." He stepped away from the bed, and coughed a little, and checked the digital watch on his wrist. "I should, um, I should get going, if I want to catch the six o'clock train. You're sure you're all right?"
"Yeah." John sat up and swayed. "Just a little dizzy." He tried to remember why the boy was here . . . something important, wasn't it?
The boy's hands were on his head, detaching electrodes. "The glue stuff will come out with hot water; I researched it. Um . . . I'll need to use a phone so I can call a cab?"
"There's a phone downstairs -- no, wait, you know what? I'll ask Gordon to take you to the train station instead. That will be a lot faster."
"Sure." The boy was packing this things away, not looking at John.
Gordon was about to leave for the day and reacted with his usual non-reaction to the request to give John's friend a ride.
Rodney stood by the door as Gordon went to bring his truck around. "Okay. Well. I'll, uh, see you again." He shifted the backpack and held out his hand.
"Twenty years from now."
John shook his head. "I don't know why I said that."
"Well . . . yes. Um. I could give you my number in case you have any trouble, but, uh . . . I probably won't be able to help anyway, after I use the, uh, thing. Um. I hope you feel better soon."
"I'll be fine," John said, not sure if it was true or not. He shook Rodney's hand firmly. "Thank you for stopping by," he said, because it was what Mom had taught him.
Rodney ducked his head and swiped oddly at his face before stepping outside to get in the truck.
John went back upstairs, strangely exhausted, and ended up napping until dinnertime. Mom's knock woke him from an indistinct dream of someone's arms around him, holding him tight. For a moment he felt like he'd lost something precious, but the feeling faded and he headed down to another tense family dinner.