Richard sighed petulantly, practically throwing himself into a window seat on the bus just before it left the school. He loosened his tie, then decisively took it off and stuffed it in his jacket pocket.
He had known that it wasn't going to be easy at first, but he hadn't expected it to be this hard, either. He had eaten alone during lunch and talked to none of the other students. The fact that he was wearing his old school uniform probably didn't help matters either, but he had wanted to make a good impression. The only thing that had convinced him that he hadn't somehow become invisible was the incredulous looks some of the other students had given him as they passed in the halls or when he entered classrooms.
He watched the scenery go by, not sure what to make of the palm trees and scrubby grass that was prevalent out here and so different from the lush yards and deciduous trees on the East Coast, and wished he knew what had possessed his mother to think that it would be a good idea to send him to spend his senior year of high school with his father. It couldn't be that she was trying to punish him for anything – he had always been an exemplary student who never got in trouble and was planning on going to Harvard after graduation to study law. Every time he had tried to ask, she was always mum on giving him an answer.
And when he had tried to get information out of his father, he had simply replied that he had missed Richard and jumped at the opportunity when it presented itself.
Richard took a deep breath and sighed again, stepping off the bus in front of his dad's ranch house, and looked around. This was definitely going to take some getting used to. He let himself in and dropped his book bag on one of the kitchen chairs, putting his crumpled tie over top of it.
He read the short note from his father – "At the shop, back by six. We can figure out dinner together. Help yourself if you're hungry." – before rummaging around the kitchen to find a can of soda and some cookies. With nothing else to do, he settled on the couch and flipped on the TV. After flipping through a few channels and finding nothing of interest, he turned the TV off and went out onto the deck to look out over the backyard and the beach beyond. A few people further down on the beach were taking advantage of the beautiful day and were surfing, and Richard mentally added a swimsuit to his list of things to get. He had never been very keen on swimming, but he knew that it would be useful out here.
He went back inside and grabbed the newspaper off the bar on his way into his room, glad his father subscribed to USA Today, and as much as he wished it was The New York Times, it was definitely better than nothing and far better than most papers.
Richard looked up from the newspaper when he heard, "I'm home!" followed by the front door shutting. "Richard?" his dad called.
"Back here," he replied, folding the newspaper and laying it down on his chest. His father appeared in the doorway as he sat up.
Leaning against the doorjamb, his dad, Aaron, asked, "How was your first day of school?"
Richard shrugged. "I survived. Though, the school mascot's a bit… odd. The Lanteans?"
"I think it's supposed to be a take on the story of Atlantis or something," Aaron replied with a laugh. "Things will get better, I promise. First days are always hard. Are you hungry? Do you want to get something to eat before we go shopping or after or what? I don't know what you're used to doing."
Richard shrugged. "Doesn't matter. We usually ate dinner at six or six-thirty, but it's up to you."
"I am glad you're here, I hope you know that," Aaron told him. "I know this is a huge adjustment for you – leaving your friends, your school, your mom…."
"Did you get any say in the matter, or did she just steamroll you like she does with everyone else?" Richard asked, the question rolling off his tongue before he had a chance to stop it.
"I did get a say, but not much," Aaron replied honestly, sitting down next to Richard. "I've been asking her since we divorced to let me have more time with you than your spring break, but she never did. I don't know what led her to this decision, though. And it sounds like you don't know either, and I was kind of hoping she had said something to you about it."
Richard shrugged in resignation. "The most I received from her was the announcement that I was going to be coming out here for my senior year and to start packing. That was a week ago."
Aaron shook his head in amusement. "That's your mother for you. I guess that's what drew me to her in the beginning – that air of mystery. The only thing I can guess she saw in me was that I was a bad boy, but still good enough to take home to your grandparents. Anyway, let's get something to eat and afterwards I'll take you clothes shopping, since it looks like you only own your school uniforms or something that looks like it. I take it you don't own a variety of clothes?"
"Not really," Richard replied, slightly embarrassed. "Mom always wanted me to look nice, so it was just easier to have one wardrobe."
Aaron nodded and they stood. "How does pizza sound? You do still like pizza, right?"
Richard laughed and nodded. "I still do. Don't eat it very much, but that at least hasn't changed."
"Good thing, too. I don't know what I'd do if you started liking tofu, wheat grass, or any of that stuff that most of the people coming into the surf shop like."
They drove to a local pizzeria and ended up eating a whole pizza between them before heading to the mall. Richard didn't verbally admit it to his father, and hoped his reaction didn't show either, but he was overwhelmed by all the choices that he was presented with. On the upside, most of his polo shirts could be used regardless, so that helped take out some of the guesswork. He ended up getting a few pairs of shorts and jeans, some t-shirts, a pair of swimming trunks, and a pair of sneakers.
The next day, Richard debated wearing his school uniform again while he scanned the lunchroom for a place to sit. At least he'd been noticed, which increased his chances of meeting people, instead of blending in with practically everyone else. He sighed and made his way across the cafeteria to the same empty table he had sat at the day before. At least back home he'd had someone else to hang out with, even if it was the other kids no one wanted to sit with.
"Hey," a voice called as he set his tray down, "why don't you come sit with us?"
Richard looked up, confused, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. A boy sitting at the next table over was waving him over, an amused smile on his face. "Are you sure?" Richard asked nervously and picked his tray up to move over.
"I wouldn't have asked if I wasn't," he said and Richard set his tray down at the one empty seat. "My name's John and this is Ronon, Teyla, Rodney, Lorne, and Radek." He pointed around the table, starting with the big guy next to him and ending with the slight, bookish kid next to Richard.
"I, uh, I'm Richard," Richard announced to the group and let his book bag slip to the floor and sat down. "Richard Woolsey."
"It's nice to meet you, Richard Woolsey," John replied warmly and the others added their hellos before going back to their conversations, though Teyla also seemed interested in him. "You're new in town, aren't you?"
Richard nodded. "Correct. I've only been in town since last week."
"It must be hard," Teyla commented, "being uprooted and sent to a new school. Where are you from?"
"New York City. Holbrook, technically, though most people don't know where that is. My, uh, my mother thought it would be a good idea if I spent my senior year with my father."
"Ouch, that's harsh," John replied with a sympathetic wince. "What'd you do wrong?"
"Nothing that I'm aware of," Richard replied.
Another kid sat down next to Rodney, and they immediately began talking about something in Rodney's book, and Richard had a hard time figuring out if it was a boy or a girl. "That's Cadman," John said nonchalantly between bites, following Richard's gaze. "So, how do you like this place so far?"
Richard shrugged. "It's okay, I guess. It's definitely different than the other side of the country."
"I would suppose so. So, what sort of stuff do you like?"
"Reading, music, following the news. What about you?"
"Ferris wheels, football, turkey sandwiches, and anything that goes over 200 miles an hour. What's your schedule look like?"
Richard pulled it out of his bag and handed it to John.
John looked it over and nodded. "Not a bad schedule. And it looks like you've got a class with each of us." The bell rang and he said, "See you later," as they all cleaned up and left the cafeteria.
Richard found himself walking to English with Teyla. "So, what's it like here?" he finally asked her.
Teyla shrugged. "Like most other schools, I would imagine. Everyone has their own niche and most people don't cross that line, though sometimes you will find people in places you don't expect. But, I'm sure that in a few days, once the initial shock of adjustment has worn off, you'll find that we're not so different from your old school."
They entered the classroom and he sat down next to her. "Is there any group I should look out for? Anyone I should be aware of?" he asked her.
She shrugged and shook her head. "No one I can think of. Oh, Cary –" her attention turned to a girl sitting down on her other side, "Becky wanted me to –"
"Okay, class," the teacher said after the bell rang. "These are going to be your seats for the rest of the year." There were a few groans while she continued, "And I will be passing around a seating chart for you to write your names down. Now, with regards to the books I assigned yesterday…"
The rest of the day passed quickly. Richard and Rodney were paired together for chemistry in sixth period and Richard wasn't surprised when Rodney looked confused when Richard commented that he had eaten lunch with Rodney's group of friends, considering Rodney's head had been stuck in a book the whole time. And when Richard sat next to John in world civilizations, he was pleased that John said 'hi' to him of his own accord and remembered Richard's name.
"How're you holding up?" John asked as they left class.
"Good, I guess," Richard replied. "Might still be too soon to tell, though. But it's definitely a big change coming from a private school."
John laughed. "Good answer. I've got to get to practice. I'll see you tomorrow."
Richard nodded. "See you tomorrow." He watched John trot off, dodging between people, until he joined Ronon down the hall. He got on his bus and sat by the window again, this time in a much better mood than the day before and hoping it wasn't all a dream.
Cadman sat down next to him and said, without preamble, "You have to help me. Rodney's determined to ask Jennifer Keller out and I have to stop him."
"Ooh-kay," he replied hesitantly. "I'm not exactly sure how I can do that, considering I just met Rodney today, I don't know who Jennifer Keller is, I'm not sure what your motivation is, and we haven't even been properly introduced."
Cadman rolled his? – her? – eyes and huffed in exasperation and muttered under her breath before saying, "My name's Laura Cadman, but if you call me Laura, I will kill you. Quit staring, will you?" she hissed. She said, looking to the roof of the bus, "Why do I have to go through this every time?" before telling him, "Okay, technically, I'm a girl. But, I'm really a boy stuck in a girl's body. And I've had enough therapy, done enough research on my own, and all that to be completely certain. I plan on getting the surgery and all that done as soon as I'm legal and I've got the money together. I prefer to go by Cadman, but if you have to call me something else, I prefer Jaime, since that's my middle name and it's gender-neutral. Anyway, back to the important stuff, Jennifer's this really smart sophomore that Rodney's had his eye on recently, well, since not long after Carson – his kinda-sorta boyfriend moved away – and she's totally not right for him. And I think she has a bit of a crush on him, but they're so wrong for each other and I'm afraid it'll end really badly for him and that's unacceptable."
"Why? Because you like Rodney that way?"
"No!" She – he – he looked at Richard indignantly. "I'm straight!"
Richard rubbed his temples together, not sure how to work out the information she – he – Cadman was giving him. "So you like Jennifer that way?"
"Eeww. Oh God, no," Cadman replied, shifting in the seat and crossing his arms over his chest in a defensive gesture. "I just don't want them getting together because they're totally wrong for each other and everyone else can see that except them and I don't want this messing Rodney up."
"And why me?" Richard asked. "Why not someone else, who knows you, Rodney, and Jennifer better?"
Cadman shrugged, but Richard could see him falter a little. "Well, I thought I could use you as an impartial observer, since you don't know us. But, you might be right – I'm sure he'd take it better if it was from someone who knows him better. So, you like surfing?"
"I've never been," Richard confided.
"Really?" he asked, looking at him incredulously. "That's weird."
Richard shrugged. "Where I lived wasn't exactly conducive to surfing."
"Well, a bunch of us go surfing as much as we can down off of Bowers Road. There's a stretch of public beach down past the last house. During the week we're there around four. You should come out sometime and at least hang out, and we can teach you, if you want." The bus came to a stop and he/she stood. "I'll see you later, Richard. It was good talking to you."
"Bye, Cadman," he replied, still a bit flummoxed by the whole exchange, but realizing it had been his new friends he had seen on the beach the day before.
When he entered the house, he quickly did his homework before changing into his swimming trunks and a t-shirt and throwing a towel, his cell phone, and sunscreen into a bag and heading out onto the beach. It wasn't hard to spot the rest of his new friends appearing out of the dunes a few yards down and onto the beach itself, some carrying surfboards and the rest carrying other beach necessities. He joined them and they greeted him as if they had known him longer than a day and he helped them set up before John, Ronon, Lorne, and Radek ran down to the water with their boards.
"We won't see them for a while," Teyla commented fondly, taking off her cover-up and applying sunscreen to her shoulders and arms. "Could you get my back for me, please?"
Richard obliged, before spreading out his towel and sitting down on it. "Do you surf?" he asked her.
"No, but not for a lack of trying," she replied in amusement and sat down on her chair and put on her sunglasses. "On my part and that of the guys, but it seems that I'm not meant to ride the waves as they do. Do you swim or surf?"
Richard looked out to where the guys were sitting on their boards and waiting for the next wave to come along, and replied, "I can swim – not very well, but I'm proficient enough that I won't drown. So I think surfing's definitely out of the question."
"You're a wise man," Rodney commented from the other side of Teyla, where he was finishing slathering on what Richard was fairly certain was most of a bottle of SPF 100 sunscreen before putting his t-shirt back on and adding a pair of sunglasses and a fisherman's hat. "Surfing's an insane sport."
"Only if you're in unsafe waters or out of your own depth," Cadman replied, joining them and dropping his things in the sand. "Same with anything else. Glad you could make it, Richard." He set up his chair and took off his shirt, revealing a sports bra – which threw Richard for a loop again, to apply sunscreen before heading down to the water.
"I think I'm going to join the others in the water," Teyla said, standing. "Would either of you care to join us?"
"I think I will," Richard replied and took off his shirt. "Oh, give me a second – I forgot sunscreen. Wouldn't want to get burned the first time out." Rodney snorted, but Teyla smiled kindly as Richard quickly applied it and they joined the others in the water.
"Glad to see you came out, Richard," John told him as he and Teyla swam out to where the guys were lounging on their boards and Cadman was hanging onto Lorne's board.
"Well, I live just up there," Richard pointed to the house as he and Teyla began treading water, "and when Cadman mentioned it, I couldn't pass it up."
The others nodded and Radek asked, "So, what's it like on the East Coast?"
Richard shrugged. "Not sure I've seen enough of out here to tell the difference. Definitely more hectic than here. School's different, though. I was in a private school, so that's going to be different regardless."
"Mixed or all boys?" John asked.
"Mixed," Richard replied. "My mother wanted me to have the best of both worlds – a private school with both genders. But even with all the money and the uniforms, it probably isn't much different than here."
"Probably not. My parents had my brother Dave and me in a private school for a year," John replied. "But my dad said he couldn't see the sense of paying all that tuition when we could get it for free and closer to home. It was a bit weird, though – there's a lot more politics to it, even when you're in first grade."
"There is," Richard replied with a nod. "I think it has to do with the school uniforms and everyone's parents being rich. You have to figure out a way to distinguish yourself somehow, so it ends up being about who and what you know and what you do and don't do and all of that idiotic crap."
"Not a fan of the system?" Ronon asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Not so much," Richard agreed with a shake of his head. "I did what I needed to get through, but otherwise I refused to play their game and in turn, they refused to acknowledge me unless necessary, so I didn't have very many friends."
"Wave," Lorne said, breaking up the conversation.
Cadman let go of Lorne's board and he and the four surfers started swimming for shore. Richard and Teyla watched them go as the wave passed them by and picked the others up and gave them a good ride. The group was all smiles when they rejoined Teyla and Richard a few moments later. Time passed quickly as the group swam, surfed, played a game of catch with a football, and tried to build a sandcastle, as well as talked about what they had heard some of their classmates had been up to over the summer.
Richard was surprised when his phone rang and quickly dug it out of his bag. Looking at the display, he answered it with, "Hi, Dad."
"Hey," Aaron replied. "If you guys are hungry, come on up and I'll throw some burgers on the grill."
Richard glanced up to the house and his dad waved from the deck. "Let me ask." He covered the phone with his hand and said, "My dad wants to know if you all would like to come for dinner."
They all shrugged and replied, "Sure."
"Okay," Richard told his dad. "What time do you want us there?"
"Well, as soon as you can. I'll light the grill now, so it shouldn't take long."
"All right, we'll be up." Richard closed the phone and they all gathered their things together, dusted the sand off, and made their way to his house.
"Welcome, welcome," Aaron greeted the group. "Please make yourselves comfortable. There's sodas in the fridge. Burgers will be ready shortly." and passed Richard with the platter of burgers, he said, "Could you finish setting the table? Use the paper plates."
"Do you want some help?" John asked.
Richard shrugged. "Sure, if you'd like." After a few minutes of searching, he found the plates and silverware and handed them to John. After another moment of searching, Richard joined him with glasses and napkins.
"I didn't know you were Aaron's son," John commented. "I mean, I knew he had a son because he mentioned you, but I didn't put two and two together."
Richard was surprised to feel a knot of tension inside him ease at the statement. So his dad hadn't asked some of the kids who frequented his surf shot to befriend Richard; it had happened naturally. Richard knew his mother had paid kids to do it over the years – with varying degrees of success. What made this time different? "Well, you've only known me one day," Richard replied casually.
"I know, but I should've realized something yesterday after world civ. I'm sure there can't be that many Woolseys out there. Plus, you do look a lot like him – especially with the glasses and the hair."
Without thinking, Richard said, "If you decide to stay friends with me just because of who my dad is, please disabuse yourself of that idea as quickly as possible."
John's expression immediately turned sheepish. "I didn't mean it that way. Look, I'm sorry – most days my people skills aren't much better than Rodney's."
"Hey!" Rodney replied indignantly from where he was getting a soda out of the refrigerator. "It's not my fault most people are morons and my superior IQ eclipses ninety-five percent of them."
"At least he's got the sarcastic wit to match," Richard replied under his breath.
John chuckled. "That's definitely true. What else do you want out?"
"I guess we should get the condiments and all," Richard replied and they moved back into the kitchen. He handed the containers and cheese from out of the refrigerator to John and took the buns and chips out of the pantry himself. "I think we're set," he said once they were done.
"Good," Aaron replied, and came up behind them with the done burgers. "We're ready!" he called. The others joined them at the table and John and Richard got their own sodas. Aaron said, "Well, I know a few of these characters from my shop, but who are the rest of your new friends, Richard?"
"Rodney and Teyla," Richard replied, pointing them out.
"Good to meet you all and please dig in," Aaron replied. "While I'm Richard's dad, 'Mr. Woolsey' sounds way too formal, so please call me Aaron."
"When did you go grocery shopping, Dad?" Richard asked while he prepared his burger, remembering the mostly bare cupboards the day before.
"I got home early today and saw you all out on the beach and went. I had just gotten back and put the food away before I called. So, how's the football team look this year?" he asked John and Ronon.
"I think we've got a good chance this year," John replied.
"If John can keep his hands on the ball," Ronon added.
"That was once!" John replied indignantly.
"Still." Ronon grinned at him wolfishly just prior to taking a bite of his burger and the rest of the group laughed.
After Richard's new friends left that night, Aaron said, "I'm glad you're making friends, Richard. They seem like a good bunch of kids, and I'll admit I was worried since your mom said you didn't have many friends at your old school."
Richard shrugged, but didn't make eye contact, and helped his dad clean up. "I had a couple, but no one close. This just kind of happened."
"This sort of thing usually does," Aaron replied with a smile. "But don't stress out over it. I know you'll do fine with them." He clapped Richard on the shoulder on his way past him.
It was quickly apparent the next morning that he hadn't been dreaming about his new friends when Ronon nodded to him in greeting in art, before their poly sci Cadman informed him that the Rodney/Jennifer crisis had been adverted with the help of Teyla and a luckily timed IM from Carson, Radek invited himself to sit with Richard in study hall, and Lorne IM-ed him during their computer literacy class.
"Are you coming to the game tonight?" he asked.
Richard stared at the chat box on his screen for a long moment before answering, "What game?" and turn his attention back to the assignment.
Lorne replied almost immediately with "shakes head The football game, doofus. It's tradition – you gotta go to the games!"
"All right, I guess I'll have to go. But I don't know anything about football."
"We'll explain it to you. It'll be fun."
That evening, Richard rode his dad's bike to the game, with a promise from Aaron to teach him how to drive stick-shift over the weekend so he could have the Jeep. Richard was surprised when he got to the school a half-hour before the game to find the parking lot was already full and most of the people had already staked out seats in the bleachers. Cadman met him at the entrance to the field and led him to where the others were sitting on the fifty yard line. Richard enjoyed the game – even if he found the rules confusing, the crowd's enthusiasm made up for it.
After the game, which they had won, they made their way over to the beach with the rest of the student body that had attended to celebrate with a bonfire. Everyone cheered when the football team showed up, and John and Ronon joined their group with big grins on their faces.
"We did it!" John shouted jubilantly as Teyla and Ronon gave each other a half-hug and he kissed her on the top of the head. "First win of the season and we beat the Wraith!" Joining Richard and exuberantly throwing his arm around his shoulders, he said, "So, what'd you think? Lorne told me this was your first game."
"I enjoyed it," Richard replied. "I didn't understand most of it, though."
"These goobers will teach you," John replied with a grin and pointed to the others. "And you can always ask me. I'm glad you came. And how do you not know anything about football?"
Richard shrugged. "It never appealed to me, so I always read or talked with my older relatives."
"Well, we've got to remedy that."
Things fell into a routine after that. During the weekdays, Richard was an attentive student in class and was slowly learning what it was like to have genuine friends. After school, he would head home to do his homework before joining them on the beach. Sometimes he ate dinner with his dad, sometimes he didn't, and every once in a while at least one of his friends would also join them. In the evenings he would do some combination of reading, watching TV, and playing on his laptop. On the weekends he'd go to the football games and the rest of the time was spent on the beach, or at either the mall, the movies, or at the home of one of his new friends. And during all of it he tried not to marvel too much, thinking that if he did, he would jinx it and it would be taken away from him.
And throughout all of it, Richard found himself spending more time with John and Cadman. He enjoyed debating with Cadman on a whole host of social issues, in which he'd usually take the devil's advocate position simply to help Cadman hone his skills. Richard could see promise in him, even though he hadn't had the training Richard and his old schoolmates had. He did still have the passion and fire that most of them had lost after their second debate, and he hoped Cadman would never lose that. If he could find a way to harness that passion, Cadman would be a formidable opponent, in whatever area he chose to pursue.
And he simply enjoyed spending time with John. He was smart and, while somewhat laconic, he had a subtle sense of humor that always came as a pleasant surprise. And Richard always felt like John's attention was focused solely on him when they talked. Richard actually had a sneaking suspicion that John was flirting with him and it scared him that he liked it. He had never thought of himself as gay – in fact, he had never thought about it at all. And he wasn't sure how he felt about it – if anything, his reaction was more along the line of 'huh, really?' than 'oh shit, I think I'm gay'. Any time he tried to examine it any further, he felt like he was going around in circles and it made his brain hurt. He had a feeling this would be a situation he'd have to confront head-on in order to make a decision.
"So, food?" John asked after he and Ronon bounded out of the locker room after another winning game.
"Sure," Cadman replied and the rest of the group nodded their consent. "How about the diner?"
John nodded. "I've been wanting pancakes." He bumped Richard in the arm with his elbow. "Want a ride?"
"Sounds good," Richard nodded. "I'll need to get my bike."
"No problem. We'll meet you guys over there," he told the others. They split up and he and Richard got his bike.
"Are you understanding the game better?" he asked Richard.
"A little," Richard replied with a smile. "But some of the rules are confusing and there's a lot of distractions."
"If I told you there was going to be a test at the end of the season, would that be a sufficient motivator to help you learn?" John asked with a laugh and a grin.
"Sure, if you also took away the cheerleaders, the band, and some of our friends," Richard replied and unlocked his bike and they walked it to John's truck.
"Hey, if I can play with all that going on, I'm sure you can learn with all that going on."
"Probably, but maybe it's not about learning the game, but just watching you and Ronon play."
"Ooh, good one. Compliments will get you everywhere, my friend."
They manhandled the bike into the back of the truck before heading out to the diner. The last ones to arrive, they slid into opposite sides of the round booth.
Without looking at the menu, John said, "I know what I want."
"Because it's what you always get when we come here," Rodney said while everyone else looked through the menu.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," John shot back, but he held Richard's gaze for a long moment and smiled.
Richard gave him a small smile before he turned his attention back to his menu, glad it gave him a cover for the flush he felt in his cheeks, and decided on an order of fries and a soda.
"What is it?" Radek asked without looking up from his calculus homework one day during study hall.
"Nothing," Richard replied, tapping his pen against his notebook.
"It's not nothing," Radek pushed. "You've been at the same spot for five minutes. It's definitely something."
"How do you have an accent when you were born in the States?" Richard deflected.
"My parents are first generation Czech immigrants and they speak it at home, so I learned their pronunciations." Radek sighed and put down his pencil to look up at Richard. "That's not what's bothering you and we both know it. Is it about John? Is he coming on too strong?"
"Strong?" Richard asked in surprise. "If that's considered strong, I'd like to see him actually try."
"I'll take that as a yes," Radek answered with a smile. "He's not necessarily 'strong' so much as he is 'intense'. I'm going to guess you've picked up that he likes you?"
"I don't know what I picked up," Richard replied, fiddling with his pen. "I could simply be misconstruing best-friend-type cues as something more because I don't have enough experience with anything like this to know the difference. And I don't want to screw it up."
"Pffft," Radek said in response and leaned back in his chair. "A five year-old knows the difference. You're simply making excuses for yourself because you're confused."
"What are you now? My psychiatrist?" Richard asked indignantly.
"If that's what you need. If you don't like him like that, just tell him so and he'll back off. He's not made of glass and it won't be the first time he's been turned down, though I think you're the first guy he's shown an interest in." Radek studied Richard for a longer moment. "But I don't think that's it either. I also think you're not sure of yourself."
Richard shrugged with one shoulder, but didn't say anything.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of – almost everyone goes through a period of questioning about who they are and what they like. For some it's a non-issue and simply a matter of whether they like people with light hair or dark hair, blue eyes or brown eyes. For others, it's also whether they like boys or girls or both – which can be a big thing. Your answer will come to you."
"You sound very sure of yourself," Richard remarked dryly.
Radek shrugged. "That's because I am. I've already gone through this and, therefore, I should have some sort of knowledge on the subject." Richard almost laughed at Radek's matter-of-fact 'Yes, I do know what I'm talking about and you should listen to me' tone, and Radek continued, "If you ever need someone to talk to about it, I'm willing to help you – and I know Evan would be glad to do so also."
"Evan?" Richard asked, confused. "I don't know if I've met him yet."
Radek chuckled. "I mean Lorne. We experienced the whole confused, questioning cycle at the same time because we realized we were attracted to one another and didn't know what it meant."
"When was that?" Richard asked.
"Summer soccer camp before freshman year." The bell rang and they gathered up their books. "We've been together ever since."
"Wow, that's a long time," Richard replied as they left the cafeteria. "I didn't know."
"It may seem like it is, but it doesn't really feel like it. And we've learned to be careful – most of our peers haven't quite learned to think for themselves yet and I'm sure you'd agree that living to see graduation would be a very good thing," Radek replied with an amused smile. They came to an intersection and paused. "It will work out for you, I'm sure. Whatever you decide."
"Thanks, Radek," Richard replied before they parted. He was surprised to find that he did feel better now that he had talked about it with someone else.
He ended up thinking about it for the rest of the day. The others seemed to notice his contemplative mood, but didn't press him on it – for which he was grateful. Teyla did ask if he was all right, but didn't push him when he said he was fine. He didn't go down to the beach that afternoon and instead stayed home and read after he did his homework.
"Hey, are you feeling okay?" Aaron asked, poking his head into Richard's room.
"Yes, I'm fine," Richard replied flatly, glancing up from his book.
"You sure?" Aaron asked, leaning against the door frame. "Because it's my duty as a parent to wheedle you until I get a completely honest answer."
Richard marked his place in the book and looked at his dad. "What was it like when you met Mom? Did you know she was the one right away?"
Aaron snorted in amusement and took the question as an invitation to come in. "Not at all. She practically had to hit me over the head the first few times." He sat down in Richard's desk chair. "What was it like when I met your mom?" He shrugged. "I met her through mutual friends when we were in college and I thought she was nice and we got along well, but she wasn't exactly my type when it comes to dating – too rich for my taste. She liked what she saw in me, though, and did everything in her power to get me to notice her. Did a girl catch your eye at school?"
"No, but I think I caught their eye," Richard replied, keeping his expression and tone neutral. He hoped his father would forgive him if he ever found out the truth.
"And you're not sure how you feel," Aaron replied knowingly. "I wouldn't worry about it, son. As much as it may feel like you need to make a decision right now or it'll be the end of the world, it really isn't. She can wait until you've made up your mind about how you feel about her. And if she can't wait, she's not the girl for you. Do I know who is it? Is it Teyla?"
Richard shook his head. "It's not Teyla. She's nice and all, but I don't see her that way. Besides, I think she's seeing either Ronon or Kanaan – I'm not really sure." Richard bit his lip, wondering if he should feel out how his dad felt about gays.
But Aaron stood and said, "You've got a good head on your shoulders and I know you'll figure it out. I know it's hard and I wish there was more advice I could give you, but it's tough since love is as different for each couple as the people in it. And it took me a long time to learn that. As long as you follow your heart and don't do anything too stupid, you'll figure things out. And I'll always be here for you, regardless of what you get yourself into – just try to make sure it's not something with a high bail. Okay?"
Richard nodded and couldn't completely stifle a laugh. "Thanks, Dad."
Aaron smiled. "You're welcome. Dinner will be ready in about an hour. I think your friends are still outside."
"I don't really feel like socializing today."
Aaron nodded and left the room. "I'll call you when the food's ready."
Richard sighed. As he had figured, the talk didn't help at all, though he felt more comforted than any of the times he had ever tried to talk to his mother about these things. She had always tried to micro-manage things and made sure he knew the minute details of every option before he made a decision, but somehow it had always been cold and business-like – like most of the things his mother did. He knew that she loved him, but he hadn't always felt it. His father, on the other hand, dealt with life in much broader strokes and left most of the minor details to take care of themselves, which somehow they always did. In the short time Richard had been living with him, he had definitely felt that his father loved him in a myriad of little ways.
But that didn't help him in figuring out how he felt about John's attention and possible feelings for him, and what he would need to do in return – to either encourage or discourage him.
Not wanting to stay in the house any longer, Richard pushed himself off the bed and called, "I'm heading down to the beach; I'll be back for dinner."
He slowly made his way over to where his friends had made "camp"on the beach.
"You okay?" John asked him from where he was sprawled on his towel.
"Yes, I'm fine," Richard replied, sitting down next to him in the sand. "Just trying to figure some things out."
"Did the culture shock finally catch up to you?" John asked with a knowing grin and pushed his sunglasses up into his hair so he could look at Richard.
"Something like that," Richard told him. For a long moment, he looked out to where the others, even Rodney, were playing in the water. Then he blurted out, "What's going on between us, John?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw John shrug. "I thought we were friends. Is something going on?"
"As far as I know we are." Richard sighed. "I don't know what it is. I think my mind's playing tricks on me. Maybe I should get my head examined."
John chuckled. "With how much you've been debating with Cadman, that might be a good idea. I didn't think anyone could argue with him even a quarter as much as you do without going insane."
Richard couldn't help but smile. "Cadman's good – not very polished, but good. I think he'll be a good asset one day to whatever cause he decides to commit to."
"If he could ever pick just one," John replied. "I think he'd try to save everyone, the whales, and the Earth all at the same time if he could."
"If he could find a way to spin the argument, he would," Richard replied and felt himself relax. "Or knowing him, he'll go in a completely different direction and become a bombs expert. But that's not what I meant. I want to know how you feel about me."
John shrugged casually. "I like you. I think you're a great guy and one of my best friends – along with the rest of those goobers out there," he gestured in the direction of the water. "Someone I can be myself around." He shifted so he was on his side, his elbow supporting his upper body. "Did I do something wrong?"
Richard shrugged and looked out over the water. "If you did, I'm sure it wasn't intentional."
"Okay, now you've got me intrigued and confused over something I might have done unintentionally that I have no recollection of."
"Have you been flirting with me?"
John laughed. "Flirting? That's what this is about? You've been confusing the hell out of me to ask if I've been flirting with you?"
"Would you rather I punched you?" Richard asked him.
"If it would make you feel better, sure," John told him. "I'm a big boy and I know my actions have consequences – I can deal with them."
Richard couldn't help but laugh at that. "Definitely spoken like someone who grew up in a family with money." John smiled with him, but didn't interrupt, and Richard continued, "I'm not sure how I feel, and, honestly, it's a bit disconcerting. I've never had anyone show any honest interest in me as a friend before – let alone any sort of romantic interest – so it's still all really new and shocking."
"Well, you're handling it very well. Most guys would've hauled off and hit me way before now, and then never spoken to me again." John rolled back onto his back. "So, you're not going to kill me or anything, are you?"
"Not yet," Richard replied. "I'm still trying to process all of this. I just – I don't know, actually. I don't have any sort of navigational reference for any of this."
"Really?" John asked, squirming a bit so he could squint up at Richard. "Not even the whole gay/straight thing?"
Richard shook his head. "I never really thought about it. I had always taken for granted that I'd grow up, get married, and have kids because that's what my parents did, and that's what everyone else's parents around me had done, and that's just the way things are. I know there are gay couples and all where I'm from, but that was something I never encountered personally. Once I got out here everything was turned on its ear. Sure, there's still straight couples, but then there's Rodney – who's bi, Lorne and Radek – who've been together for almost four years, Cadman – who's going to turn into a real boy at some point in the next few years, and Ronon and Teyla – who are doing who knows what with whom. And there's you – who I can't seem to figure out, no matter how hard I try."
John smiled up at him. "That's me – John Sheppard, international man of mystery. I think I like both guys and girls. But I've never really thought much about it either. I didn't dislike the few girls I've gone out with and kissed, but they didn't really make the fireworks go off either."
"Have you ever kissed another guy?" Richard asked, his curiosity getting the best of him.
"Yeah, one. And the fireworks didn't go off with him either, if that's what you're asking." He shrugged. "I'm not worried about it, though. I've got time."
"Hey, Richard," Rodney said in greeting and joined them. "What are you two talking about so seriously?"
"Nietzsche's view of the objectivity of truth," John replied, looking up at Rodney.
Rodney rolled his eyes and took a drink from his water bottle. "Fine, whatever. I'll leave you two to your 'serious business'." He put air quotes on the last two words before heading back to the water.
Watching him go, both John and Richard laughed. "It's funny how such a nice guy can have such a prickly reputation," Richard commented. "He's been a great lab partner in chemistry, but I swear ninety-nine percent of the class sighed in relief when Mrs. Smith announced that I was going to be his lab partner."
"It's something he's carefully cultivated," John replied. "He may complain about being allergic to a lot of things, but I think he's really only allergic to stupidity and lemons. And he is willing to recognize other people's academic prowess if they show a willingness to yield to his higher IQ."
"Which I definitely do and always will in any of the sciences." Pulling them back on topic, he asked, "So, are you attracted to me or have I been making up the whole flirting thing or what?"
John shrugged half-halfheartedly. "It's up to you. I do like you. I don't know if I want to do the whole boyfriend thing, but I'm willing to give it a shot if you want to."
"You're not very helpful, you know that?" Richard said in exasperation. "Give me a straight answer so we can either go forward from here, or we can go on the way we've been – as if this increasingly bizarre conversation never happened. Either way, I'm not going to think less of you, and you're not going to lose my friendship."
There was no way Richard could've missed the relief that passed over John's features. "Okay, yes, I like you a lot and I do want to try the whole boyfriend thing with you."
"So, how are we going to work this?" Richard asked.
John shrugged. "I don't know. And I'm not going to worry about it. We don't need to plan everything out to the tiniest detail, Richard."
"I know," Richard admitted, "but I like being able to have something concrete to go on. I swear it's all my mom's doing. I wish I was more like my dad and you guys and could take things as they come and just ride everything like a wave."
"I'll have you know that takes a lot more planning than you'd think it does."
"Oh, I know – I've watched and listened to you all enough." Richard leaned back on his elbows so he was more on John's level. "I just want to have something to go on."
John smiled and shook his head. "Your innocence and naivete are definitely a part of the attraction."
Richard made a face and said, "I still find it amusing when you pull out the ten dollar words that show you aren't just some surfer jock."
"It's all part of my package. So, what would you like to do for our first date?"
"When do you want to do our first date?" Richard countered. "Things are going to get busy with the championships next week, not counting the end of the term."
"True," John replied thoughtfully. "You want to come over one night and watch a movie?"
"Sure," Richard answered. "Do you think your dad will mind? He didn't seem too keen on me the last time I was over to study for the world civ test."
"I don't care if he minds or not – we're just going to be watching a movie. If he doesn't like it, he can go fuck off. I doubt the idea of either of his sons being gay has even crossed his mind, anyway – especially his jock son."
"Okay. Let me know when's a good night."
"I think your dad wants you," John said and Richard looked to where his dad was waving from the deck.
"Dinner must be ready," he commented. "I gotta go."
"I'll see you tomorrow, Richard."
"See you tomorrow," Richard said and stood and dusted off his clothes before heading back to the house.
"You look better," Aaron commented as Richard sat down at the table. "It seems like John was able to help you get things sorted out."
"Yes, I think he did," Richard replied.
In bed that night, Richard lay awake for a long time. He wasn't sure if he had made the right decision – he hadn't weighed all the pros and cons of what this could mean – for himself or for John. It was going to be a big thing for both of them. And, given the risks, it felt like something that should be planned and calculated, not just jumped into without considering the bigger picture. But at the same time, he was excited about going into something and not knowing how it was going to turn out.
"You've been thinking too much," John commented to Richard at lunch the next day.
"That tends to happen in school," Richard remarked dryly.
"Probably," John replied, taking a bite of his sandwich, "but you look like you're about to overload."
"I think I'll manage. Just don't pay any attention if you see steam come out my ears."
John laughed as Richard bent over to get a notebook out of his book bag. "Hey, you want to come over tonight? We could watch that movie we were talking about." Richard quickly sat up straight and stared at John, notebook forgotten. John looked at him, confused, "What? Did I say something wrong?"
"No. It's just –" Richard looked at the others, who weren't paying them any attention at the moment and cleared his throat. "No. It's just, you know."
"They have no idea what we're talking about," John said, rolling his eyes. "Besides, they're not even paying attention. We could be talking about the end of the world, and I don't think they'd notice."
Richard rolled his eyes. "Very funny. Ha. Ha."
John raised an eyebrow questioningly. "So? Tonight?"
"Sure," Richard replied. "I think my dad's going out anyway."
"In that case, maybe we should do it at your place," John said with a smirk.
"Good luck with that, Champ. I don't put out on the first date."
That comment did get Cadman's attention, who got everyone else's attention by saying, "You don't do what on the first date and how many does it take?" which got a laugh from everyone else before they turned back to their conversations.
Richard rolled his eyes. "Something you'd have no concept of."
"Maybe not, but he probably would," Cadman replied, pointing to Rodney. "And you know we share a brain."
"The scary thing is, in some weird way, I think they do," John whispered to Richard. "I'm not sure how it works, considering Cadman hates almost all of the sciences and most math and Rodney hates history and English."
"It's a weird, symbiotic relationship," Richard replied. "I've learned not to question it."
"So, we're good for tonight?"
"Sure. We can go after we're done on the beach."
John winced. "I've got practice tonight and I'm not sure what time we'll get done. I could swing by and pick you up afterward, though."
"Okay. We could do that. What about dinner?"
John shrugged. "I'm not done with lunch yet. We can figure that out later. What type of movies do you like?"
"Comedies," Richard replied. "But the older ones more than the newer ones."
"I'll see what I can dig up." The bell rang and John quickly picked up his tray and his bag. "I'll see you seventh period."
Richard nodded and Teyla asked, "What was that all about? Is everything between you and John all right?"
"Everything's fine," Richard replied as they threw out their trash. "Great, actually. He must've needed to hit his locker before fifth period. Can I ask you a question?"
"What's going on with you and Ronon? Are you two together?"
She let out a slow breath and a quick glance told Richard she was thinking about how to reply. "We are not together, per se. We have a very complicated relationship. We both had a tragic event happen early in our lives and we've bonded through shared experiences and are closer than most. So, while it may seem like we're dating, our relationship is much more familial than romantic."
"So you and Kanaan and he and Amelia are dating?"
"I cannot speak for Ronon and Amelia for certain, because he hasn't confided the specifics of their relationship to me, but Kanaan and I are tentatively moving in that direction. Because of my past, I'm hesitant to have a boyfriend, and I'm grateful that he understands and is willing to take things slow."
"Good. I'm glad you found someone you think is worth your time – you're definitely worth it. And I'm glad you've got Ronon to lean on as well. And, well, um." He nervously cleared his throat. "I'm always willing to help you out any way I can."
"Thank you, Richard, that's very sweet of you." They sat down at their desks. "So, you seem a little excited and I couldn't help but notice you and John were talking between yourselves during lunch. Did someone catch your eye?"
"You could say that," Richard replied evasively. "I'm hesitant to talk about it at the moment, though, because things are still very vague and I'd rather not jinx anything. I've never had a chance like this before and I don't want to mess it up."
"I can understand that," she sympathized. "I've done that a few times myself. Love is not an easy thing to undertake, but it is rewarding if you're willing to be open to it."
As the class started, Richard wondered what had happened in Teyla's life that had made her so wise beyond her young years.
As they prepped for their lab experiment in chemistry, he asked Rodney, "Do you think that we'll ever be able to quantify something like love and explain it in completely scientific terms?"
Rodney shrugged disinterestedly and laid out some test tubes. "Probably. I wouldn't be surprised if we did – we've been doing it for everything else over the years. Obviously, at least some of it's already been done – pheromones, physiological changes in regards to desire and orgasm. I'm sure it's just a matter of time. It's not going to happen before your next date, if that's what you're thinking. You're still on your own for getting whoever you've got your eye on to fall in love with you for the time being."
Richard sighed. "That's what I'm worried about."
"Don't worry about it," Rodney told him with a smug grin. "If I was able to get Carson Beckett, who was one of the cutest guys in the school before he moved, to become friends with me, I'm sure you'll have no problems making whoever your Cinderella or Prince Charming is fall in love with you. Hell, I'd probably even date you, if you weren't quite so… you."
"Thank you for that vote of confidence, Rodney, it was almost nice." Richard measured out some of the dye into one of the test tubes. "You should be careful – you might be going soft."
"Don't worry – I'm scheduled to verbally flay some freshmen for being stupid after this class – that always keeps me sharp."
That evening John and Ronon loped down to the beach, both sporting big grins, and Ronon his surfboard.
"I take it practice went well?" Teyla asked them, nonplussed.
"Better than well," John replied, sitting down in the sand next to Richard with a 'thump'.
"You're not surfing?" Richard asked, confused.
John shrugged. "I need to eat soon, so I figured it was too much hassle. Plus, you know."
Richard nodded. "We've got pizza coming. Is after that good?"
"Yeah, but do you mind driving? Ronon ended up giving me a ride this morning."
"Sure. Not a problem."
Cadman stared at them suspiciously. "What are you two plotting?"
"World domination," Richard replied. "If you get in on our plans now, we might be willing to consider making you a low-level minion."
Cadman gave them a look of disgust. "I deserve to be at least high-level minion, if not better."
"We might consider that, depending on your service," John told him. "What would you bring to the table?"
A whistle pierced the air and Richard looked up to see his dad waving them in. "Pizza's here," Richard announced. The group gathered up their things and crossed the beach to Richard's house.
When they got up onto the deck, the pizza boxes, and stacks of plates and napkins were on the table. Everyone grabbed a plate and loaded it up with pizza. Aaron joined them with an armful of sodas and began passing them out.
"I think we're beginning to spend too much time here," John remarked to Richard between bites of pizza. "Your dad knows what kinds of soda we all like and keeps them stocked up. And we all have an open invitation to use the outside shower and the deck."
Richard shrugged. "I think my dad thinks it keeps things interesting if he doesn't know who's going to show up when. I wouldn't start to worry until he starts keeping a stocked cooler out here with sodas for all of us."
"Don't give me any ideas," Aaron told him with a grin and held out sodas to the boys. "I just might do it."
"I'm going over to John's after dinner," Richard told Aaron.
"Don't stay too late – you've got school tomorrow."
"Don't worry," John said, glancing at Richard with an amused smile. "I'll have him home before midnight so he won't turn into a pumpkin."
"I wasn't worried – just trying to be a responsible parent." He patted Richard's cheek before moving to get his own soda.
"I think my dad might suspect something," Richard whispered as they moved to a secluded part of the deck away from the rest of the group.
"It's quite possible," John answered. "Parents do have that knack of knowing their kids better than the kids do themselves. Well, if they're willing to know certain things."
"Are you ever going to tell your dad that you're kind of, sort of bisexual?"
John shrugged. "At this point, that information is only on a need to know basis. And he doesn't need to know. Let me know when you're ready to go."
"Getting a little antsy, are we?"
"No," John replied defensively and nibbled at his pizza crust. "Okay, maybe a little."
"It doesn't have to be an actual date date, you know."
"Yeah, I know, but –"
"Don't worry about it." Richard put his empty plate down on the railing. "We already said we're not sure what we're doing with this – whatever it is. Not rushing things isn't going to hurt anything."
"You sure?" John looked at him like Richard was about to grow another head.
Richard rolled his eyes. "I've gone for forever without any sort of romantic entanglements. A few more days, weeks, months, whatever isn't going to kill me."
"Seriously?" John looked like that was a bigger shock than Richard not caring if they took things slow. He dropped his voice to a whisper and asked, "You're a virgin?"
"Yes," Richard replied with a shrug. "It's not that big of a deal, really."
"I'd think it would be – most guys are trying to do it as soon as they start puberty."
"Did you?" Richard asked guilelessly.
John blushed and looked down at his feet and nervously shifted from one foot to the other. "Do you really want to talk about this with everyone around?"
"You're right – it's probably not a good idea."
After dinner the group dispersed and John and Richard set off for John's house.
"Hey, Dad," John said as they entered. "Richard's here and we're going to go watch a movie in my room."
"Don't be up too late," Mr. Sheppard commented without taking his eyes off the TV, where he was watching a football game. "You need your rest for the game."
"We won't be – just one movie," John said on their way back to his room. When they were out of earshot, he said, "I'm surprised he didn't tell me to leave the door open."
Richard chuckled sat down on John's bed as John started looking through his DVD collection.
"How about Ghostbusters?" he asked.
"Sure," Richard replied. "It'll refresh my memory, so I'll have something to bait Rodney with tomorrow in chem."
"Have fun taking your life into your hands. You know how he feels about this genre."
"That's part of what makes it so much fun," Richard replied and kicked off his shoes and John put the disc in the DVD player and turned on the TV.
John laughed and took off his shoes and got on the bed with Richard. They lay next to each other and John hit the play button on the remote. As the movie played, Richard couldn't help thinking that he liked this whatever it was that he had with John. It felt comfortable and right, if a bit foreign.
When the movie finished, John said, "So…" and turned onto his side and looked down at Richard.
"So what?" Richard asked. "Did I get enough material for Rodney? How do I feel about us? What?"
"I'm going to go with the second option," John told him.
Richard shrugged. "I'm not really sure. You see, I have a tendency, when I'm with friends, to actually watch the movie."
"So, nothing?" John asked, looking crest-fallen.
"I wouldn't say nothing," Richard said. "But I didn't exactly have an epiphany either. I liked this – whatever it is. And I'd like to continue pursuing it."
John grinned. "Great!"
They looked at each other for a long moment and John bent down to kiss Richard, but Richard put a hand on John's chest to stop him. "No. Not yet. Just because I might like you that way, doesn't mean I'm going to do that indiscriminately."
"Okay," John said, dropping his head. "Sorry." He got up, turned the TV off, and put the DVD away.
"I'm not rejecting you completely, John," Richard told him and sat up. "I'm just not ready for that yet. I think something like that deserves to be something special and I think that you deserve for it to be special."
John glanced away before saying, "It's getting late – you should probably go."
"Okay," Richard replied and pulled his shoes on. As he stood, he said, "I'll see you tomorrow."
John nodded and Richard made his way out of the house. On his way home, Richard hoped that things between them hadn't been permanently marred.
The next morning before school started, Richard found a note stuck in his locker. 'Sorry for rushing,' was all it read. That gave him a bit of hope that things would be okay, but he knew he'd have to wait until later to be completely certain.
Throughout his first four classes, all of his friends acted normally around him as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened the night before. And Richard knew intellectually that to them nothing had. Going to someone's house to watch a movie wasn't exactly earth-shattering news. And if John had said anything to any of them about it after Richard had left, no one let on about it.
During lunch, Richard joined John in the lunch line and said, "Are you sure everything's okay?"
"Yeah, it's fine," John said and turned to look at him. "Look, I'm sorry about what I did last night – you had said that you weren't sure and I shouldn't have taken that chance."
Richard looked around and even though no one else seemed to be paying attention, he said, "This probably isn't the best place to talk about this."
John shrugged and took the tray he was offered. "You're probably right. People do listen and context means nothing most of the time. Are you sure you're okay with it?"
"Yes," Richard replied. "I just need time to think this through. And, um, possibly some more empirical data."
John raised an eyebrow. "More empirical data? Is that your way of asking for –" he cut himself off.
Richard licked his lips and nodded. "If you're still willing that is. I'd understand if you didn't; we wouldn't want things to become awkward in our group."
John laughed as they both picked up a milk carton. "I doubt that would ever happen. The group's too close for that and Ronon and Teyla would both smack us silly if things got even close to being awkward."
"True," Richard replied and chose an apple and raised an eyebrow. "So?"
"Sure," John replied. "Let me know when and where and I'm game."
"Practice is going to be crazy for a while isn't it?" Richard asked and paid.
John led them out of the line and across the cafeteria. "Yeah, kinda since championships are next week. But I don't think Coach is sweating it too much, since we've won all of our games so far and aside from the first game against the Wraith, we've won easily."
"Do you have practice tonight?"
John shook his head. "We have off tonight."
"Then why don't you come over after school? We'll do homework and go down to the beach with everyone, and we'll see how things go from there."
John nodded as they sat down. "Sounds good."
"What sounds good?" Cadman asked.
"Not sticking your nose in other people's business," John told him.
"You know, given how much you tease me," Cadman said, "it could be construed as flirting."
"I wouldn't do it if I knew you didn't like it," John replied. "And we both know that I'm not flirting. At least not where you're concerned."
"It's so nice to know that I'm held in such high esteem in your eyes, John Sheppard," Cadman replied tartly. "So, I guess that means I can't mention my proposal to you."
"And what proposal is that?"
"That we start an SGA here in the school."
"Don't you mean a GSA?" Richard asked.
Cadman shrugged. "Whatever. GSA. SGA. Gay-Straight Alliance. Straight-Gay Alliance. Gender and Sexually Questioning Alliance. I don't care. I think it's something that this school needs and I already told the others about it, but I think you all should help me with it."
"Why?" John asked.
"Because we practically are the SGA. And while the school seems pretty cool and tolerable to everyone, I think it would be good to have a place to go for kids who don't know what's going on inside their heads and bodies. Or for kids who do know and are okay with it and just want to hang out with other people who are too. There are all sorts of reasons."
"And what do you need us to do?" Richard asked, intrigued by the idea.
"Well, I'm sure I'm going to need help getting approval for the group to meet here at school, so anything you could do there would be great. And, obviously, help get people to come to the meetings."
"I hope you're ready to fight," John said, "because I don't think Principal Hammond is going to be too keen on this whole thing."
"I think I might need to worry about Vice Principal Weir, more. She's cool, but she can be a bit…"
"Anal retentive?" John asked. "I can understand wanting to dot her i's and cross her t's and all that, but she takes it to a whole new level."
"I heard she was a diplomat before she entered the education system," Lorne cut into the conversation. "Something about how she wanted a real challenge. So what are we doing talking about Weir if one of us isn't in trouble?"
"Well, one of us might be in trouble very shortly if we're not careful," John told him, pointing at Cadman. "This one here wants to start a GSA."
"Why do you want to start a GSA?" Lorne asked Cadman, his brow furrowing in confusion.
"Because I think it would be a good way to promote tolerance and disseminate information to kids who might be questioning their sexuality or gender identity."
Lorne leaned on the table and looked across John at Richard. "Just so you know, I'm blaming you for making him so articulate."
"And that's a bad thing how?" Richard asked. "At least this way Cadman sounds as smart as we all know he is."
Cadman smirked. "Thank you, Richard. Can I count on you for support?"
"Maybe?" Richard asked. "Don't get me wrong," he quickly added, "I think it's a great idea and all, but –"
John put his hand over Richard's mouth and said, "What he's trying to say is that he's interested, but he's still working on getting 'extremely fucked up prep school in which any sort of individuality is a crime' time out of his system and he's not completely turned into a real boy yet."
"So, can I count on your support, John?" Cadman asked him.
"Sure," John replied with an easy shrug. "But you're not going to get much out of me until after football's over."
"Fine with me," Cadman replied and made a note on his paper. Cadman turned his attention the rest of the group and extracted whatever promises he could from them for help.
Richard wasn't surprised that most of them were hesitant to do it, but in theory thought it was a good idea. He glared at John and John finally took his hand away.
"Sorry," John replied.
"I can speak for myself, you know," Richard told him.
"I know," John told him sheepishly. "I just," he lowered his voice. "When Cadman wants something, he gets focused – really focused – and tends to expect the same level of commitment from everyone else involved."
"Like I haven't noticed that," Richard retorted.
"I know, I know. But you haven't really seen any of it first hand and I wanted to make sure that you didn't allow yourself to be sucked in without knowing what exactly you were getting yourself into. Plus, this is making Cadman get his act together before he drafts anyone else into it." Louder, he asked Cadman, "So, what's next on your agenda with the GSA?"
"Well, I need to go talk to Weir and see what needs to be done. I found a little blurb on forming a club in our handbook, but I think they made it intentionally and needlessly vague so that students would have to go to the administration before they got anything together – which would cause more leg-work and more aggravation."
"And cut down the number of clubs that would get formed," Lorne added. "Which is probably a good idea. Remember when some of the more popular girls wanted to form a 'cupcake club' or whatever it was called last year?" He and the other guys shuddered. To Richard, he added, "Think pink, sparkles, and lots of teen girls squealing. It's a good thing they decided it wasn't worth the effort and kept it informal."
"Regardless," Teyla said, "I think it's a great idea that you're set on forming this club, Cadman. Best of luck to you and I'll be willing to help as much as my schedule will allow."
The bell rang and everyone gathered up their things. Richard and Teyla moved out the door together.
"I'll see you later," John said and hit Richard on the elbow with the back of his hand and moved past them.
"Later," Richard replied.
"I'm glad to see you've settled in so well, Richard," Teyla told him. "It seems like this place suits you."
"Or maybe it's the people that suit me," he told her with a warm smile.
"It is possible," she acknowledged. "Though I think the landscape has something to do with it too. My family has always said that the ocean is a great source of renewal, healing, and community and that those who need those three things will find their way to it and there find what they need."
"That's an interesting view," Richard replied. "Are your people fishermen?"
"No," she said with a sad shake of her head. "They were farm folk, though they usually traded with the fishermen for shares of their bounty."
Richard could see the line of discussion was still a negative one for Teyla and decided to turn the conversation to something else. "I do want to thank you for your part in making me feel welcome."
Teyla beamed at him. "It's been my pleasure, Richard. You're definitely an interesting person and it's a shame that your fellow classmates at your old school didn't take the time to see that."
The bell rang and the teacher started writing on the board and said, "Okay, class, we're going to have a pop quiz on your reading homework from last night, so take out a piece of paper and a pen." There was a chorus of groans as everyone did what she said. Teyla and Richard both rolled their eyes at each other and smiled.
Before world civ, Richard asked John, "So you're okay with coming over tonight?"
"Sure," John replied with a shrug. "Your dad cooks a lot better than mine does."
"When he bothers to cook," Richard finished. "I know, I know. You live in such an impoverished culinary environment. It's amazing you've managed to survive."
"You have absolutely no idea," John replied with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. "It's deplorable."
"I think I should start rewarding you for those ten-dollar words," Richard told him with a chuckle.
John raised his eyebrows, but didn't say anything while the teacher started class.
"So… you and John?" Lorne asked and sat down next to Richard on their towels that afternoon.
"What about us?" Richard replied and reapplied his sunscreen.
"Are you two together yet?" he questioned.
Richard looked at him in surprise. "What makes you think that we'd be together?"
"Because he's been flirting like crazy with you for a while now and you don't seem put off by it. Unless you've been completely oblivious and I just totally made things weird for you."
"You haven't yet," Richard cut him off, "but if I let you keep going, you might be able to put your whole leg in your mouth."
"Yeah, let's not," Lorne replied sheepishly. "Because I totally can – just ask Radek."
"So, are you going to give me the 'hurt him and I'll kill you' speech?" Richard asked.
"Nope – I think Ronon's going to do that later. Since he actually can."
Richard nodded. "He's the only one I'd believe it from anyway."
"I take it that you like him like him?" Lorne asked with a laugh.
"I might?" Richard asked. "I don't really know. I think he's a great guy and that I might like him like him. We're taking it slow."
"Good. John is a great guy, and I don't want to see him get hurt. He's already been hurt once and I'd rather not see it happen again." At Richard's questioning look, he elaborated, "John had a major crush on Rodney freshman year – it was how he figured out he was bisexual. Rodney… Rodney didn't feel that way – at least not about John. You know Rodney, I'm sure you can put two and two together."
"Yes, I think I can," Richard replied with a nod and watched Rodney and the others in the water. "I'm surprised they're still friends."
"It took a while – and a lot of mediation on Teyla's part and probably some well-placed hits on Ronon's before they patched things up. After that though, they've been back to normal. They're both amazingly loyal – which I think is what helped them patch it up in the end." There was a shout from the water and they both looked to see the others waving them in. "And, you know, I think you're a pretty cool guy too. I think you'll be good for each other."
"Thanks," Richard said, feeling his face get unnaturally warm as they headed back to the water. "We'll see how things go."
"You're looking a little red," John told Richard and poked his shoulder to prove his point.
Richard shrugged as they crossed the beach to the house. "I think my skin's still getting used to all this sun. I was hardly ever out this much back east, and I almost always wore a shirt then."
"At least you haven't gotten badly burned," John told him. "This'll make it easier for you to tan next year."
Richard rinsed himself off in the outside shower before they moved up to the deck where Aaron had started to set out dinner. "John's here," he called inside.
"Hi, Aaron," John called inside.
"Hi, boys," came the reply. "I'll be out in a minute."
John and Richard sat down at the table and John said, "I love football, but I'll be glad when the season's over. It'll be nice to have time to relax instead of always go, go, go."
"But you know you'll miss it," Richard told him.
"I will," John replied with a nod. "And Ronon, Lorne, and I will end up playing insane amounts of Madden whenever we get the chance. So I can't seem to win either way."
"At least you're having a great season," Richard told him. "It'll look good for whatever college you want to play for."
"I haven't actually decided if I want to play yet," John replied. "A few schools have made some good offers for me to play for them, but they don't really have the programs I want to study. CalTech on the other hand… not so much with the football, but they do have the engineering program I want. Plus it'll give me a chance to fly, but without going into either the military or commercial piloting. And they're willing to give me a great scholarship for my grades. It's going to be weird not playing once the season's over, but I think that's what I'm going to have to do."
"I'm sure you could figure out a way to make both things work, if you wanted," Richard told him. "It seems like you normally do."
"Dinner is served," Aaron said and brought a steaming dish. "I hope you don't mind beef stir-fry, John."
"Not at all," John said as Aaron put the dish of vegetables and beef down on the table and started back inside. "Do you need any help?"
"Could you get drinks?" he asked.
"I just want water," Richard told John, who nodded and followed Aaron inside. A moment later they reappeared – John with the drinks and Aaron with a large bowl of white rice.
"So, it sounds like you know where you're headed for college," Aaron said as they sat down and he started dishing out the rice.
"For the moment," John told him. "It's not perfect, but I think I'll be able to manage."
"As much as we may not like it, sometimes we need one door to close to see how great the one that's opening really is. I'm sure you'll love wherever you end up going and whatever you end up doing."
"Thanks," John replied. "I wish my dad saw it the same way. He still seems to think I should be concentrating on my football and making my way that way instead of in engineering."
"I don't know what to tell you – it's always hard when family's involved. But I do know you've got a good head on your shoulders and you'll make the right decision." Aaron looked at Richard and smiled. "Richard here's been planning to go to Harvard for I don't know how long and he got accepted last year."
Richard blushed and looked down at his plate. "I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer and figured it would be good to start looking early and it paid off."
"Harvard?" John asked. "Wow. That's prestigious."
"Like CalTech's anything to laugh at," Richard replied.
"You didn't say anything about it."
Richard shrugged. "It's always been a given, so I didn't think anything of it. Besides, it's not like it's an easy thing to work into conversation – 'Oh, by the way, I'm going to Harvard next year'."
"I know, it's just – wow. That's pretty cool." John grinned at Richard before eating a big forkful of rice.
After dinner, they disappeared into Richard's room. Richard turned on his laptop and John played with the small TV on the dresser.
"Are you sure you're okay about last night?" John asked.
"I'm fine," Richard replied in exasperation. "If I wasn't, I wouldn't have invited you over or be alone with you in my room right now."
"Good. So, what do you think about Cadman's proposal?"
"For the GSA? I think it's a good idea. Sure, we're all in a good place because we've got great friends and most of us have good parents, but I'm sure there are others in school that aren't because of their friends or families or because they don't know what to think of themselves. So I think for them it could be very beneficial. And it could also be good for all the people who aren't quite so positive about being gay – or the people who never really thought about it before."
"So you're going to help Cadman with it?"
Richard shrugged. "I'll help him out in some capacity, sure. But I'm not going to be co-president or anything, if that's what you're asking. If you're unsure about doing it, then don't do it. Cadman will understand if you don't. He may sulk for a while, but he'll get over it."
"That's the thing, I do want to do it. I just –" He blew out a breath. "I'm afraid of my father finding out and what he'll think. I'm already on a bit of a precipice with him as it is; I don't want to give him any more ammo. Or a reason to kick me out and disown me."
Richard turned in his chair and looked at John's back. "It'll be okay. It's not like he's going to find out. And you never know, he might not be as bad as you think."
John looked at Richard and rolled his eyes. "Keep telling yourself that and I've got some magic beans to sell you too."
"All right," Richard said and turned back to his computer and brought up Google.
"What are you doing?" John asked and sat on Richard's bed, more interested now in Richard than the TV.
"I figured I'd look some stuff up on GSAs to see if I could find anything to help Cadman. Knowing him, he would have found some things, but only enough to sound like he knows what he's talking about, and he's going to need more than that if he's going to get past Weir."
"And you're taking this upon yourself why?"
"Because I think it'll be a good way to help him."
"And it's so you won't have to think about you and me, isn't it?"
Richard stiffened slightly. "Maybe," he said hesitantly. He turned back to look at John again. "I just… I don't know what to do here. I like you a lot and I feel… something – something like how I imagined love might feel like – towards you and it scares me. And I don't want to screw up what we have by trying to go deeper and finding out that we're better off friends, but that we screwed it up completely with trying to be boyfriends so we can't be around each other at all anymore and –"
"Richard," John said. "Richard. Listen to me. Deep breath." He did and was told and John smiled before he continued. "We'll be fine, I promise. And I feel the same way. I don't want to screw up our friendship just because of this whatever. But if we don't risk it, we won't know, will we?"
Richard shrugged. "You're not completely wrong. I wish there was a safe way of knowing how things would turn out beforehand, though."
John snorted. "I think everyone wishes that. But what happens, happens. Okay? Sometimes you just have to let things go and see where you end up."
"And that's where you and I differ," Richard replied with a small smile. "You're able to roll with the punches and I need to know cause and effect not only for this moment right now, but for the next five or six down the road before I feel comfortable."
John shrugged, unconcerned. "We'll figure this out as we go. No one ever said being in a relationship would be boring. So, what exactly are you doing with the GSA stuff?" He asked and joined Richard at the computer.
"Just looking," Richard replied and turned back to the screen. "I don't even know where to start."
The Saturday of the football championship was clear and comfortable. As Richard looked out his open window while he pulled on a t-shirt, he still thought it was odd that he was able to do so the week before Thanksgiving. Unusually, his dad was still home and making breakfast when Richard wandered into the kitchen.
"Don't you have to open the shop?" Richard asked and sat down at the kitchen table.
"Nope," Aaron replied and began dishing out scrambled eggs. "A couple of the girls are going to run the shop today. I thought it would be fun to go to the game. And don't worry – I'm going with my own friends, so you won't have to deal with your dear old dad hanging around."
Richard rolled his eyes in amusement while Aaron added pancakes and sausage to both plates and handed one to him. "You're not that bad," he replied and buttered his pancakes. "What are we doing for Thanksgiving?"
Aaron shrugged. "Whatever you want. I've usually been invited over to others' houses, but you and I need to do our own thing. What'd you do with your mother?"
"We'd get together with the rest of her family and have a big, yet very polite, meal and afterwards watch football in the most well-mannered way possible. Though I'd usually end up talking to my grandmother or sneaking off to read."
Aaron nodded and cut up his pancakes, and Richard could see the smile at the corners of his mouth. Aaron definitely knew what he was talking about. "How about we have our meal at noon – nothing huge, but still all the traditional stuff – and then invite your friends over in the afternoon to watch football or whatever?"
"Sounds good," Richard replied as Cadman rapped on the back door. "What's up?" he asked and let him in. "You're early."
"Yeah, I know," Cadman replied as they both sat down at the table. "But it's going to be crazy over there for the pre-game stuff and all."
"Do you want anything to eat?" Aaron asked. "We have some pancakes and sausage left."
"I'm good, but thanks though," Cadman said and snagged one of Richard's sausage links anyway. "Are you coming to any of the festivities, Aaron?"
"I'll be there," Aaron replied with a smile. "Took the day off."
"Good for you! You deserve it. It's going to be a lot of fun. Unlike trying to convince Weir about the SGA." He rolled his eyes in exasperation. "And the frustrating part is that I don't think she's against it, she just wants to watch me squirm and make me convince her."
"GSA?" Aaron asked, creasing his brow in confusion.
"Gay-Straight alliance," Richard supplied.
Aaron nodded in understanding and said, "Congratulations. You're going after something you want and not letting anyone get in your way. Are you going to be involved, Richard?"
"I am. I told Cadman I would once he got things off the ground," Richard replied. He quickly finished his breakfast. "We'd better get going, Cadman," he said and got his wallet and his keys off the counter and slipped on his sandals. "Bye, Dad."
As they got into Cadman's truck, Cadman said, "You haven't come out to your dad yet, have you?"
"Not yet," Richard replied. "Mainly because I don't know what to come out as – gay, bi, Kinsey scale number 4.75…" He trailed off for a moment. "Once I have a better idea of what I am, I'll let him know."
"Just don't let it go too long," Cadman told him. "It'll be better for both of you if you get it out in the open ASAP."
"Speaking from personal experience, are we?"
"Hell, no," Cadman replied with a bitter laugh. "I think my parents knew before I did – at least about wanting to be a boy. Though, I think they figured it was because of my older brother – who I adore. Which it isn't, but he's been fantastic about this whole thing since the beginning, unlike my parents. But enough about that." Cadman pulled into a vacant lot a block from the school. "We're supposed to have fun today."
They joined up with the rest of their group outside of the stadium and squished into an open space in the bleachers. The excitement was contagious and Richard found himself looking forward to the game during the two schools' bands performances and their cheerleaders riled the crowds. Once the game started, Richard found himself watching John's every move, trying to decipher what he was doing so they could talk about it afterwards. The teams seemed evenly matched as they fought each other up and down the field for points and yards. When the game ended, the teams were tied and both sides cheered louder as the whistle blew, signaling overtime.
The Lanteans finally pulled ahead with a field goal seconds before the clock ran out. Everyone in the Lanteans' stands went crazy and Richard couldn't help but grin and clapped and cheered along with everyone else. Students and parents alike began pouring out onto the field to congratulate the team and its coaches. Richard found himself carried along by the exuberant crowd and soon their group had piled into Cadman's truck and were on their way to the beach to celebrate along with everyone else.
"We did it! We won!" John exclaimed as he and the rest of the football team poured out onto the beach and the crowd roared in excitement. John and Ronon zeroed in on their group and joined them at full tilt. "Fifth time's the charm!" he said and slung his arm around Richard's shoulder.
Richard was surprised to see them so soon, even though they hadn't changed out of their jerseys. "Congratulations," he said as he and John made their way through the crowd to get food.
"Thank you," John said as someone else patted him on the back and he smiled at them. "It feels like it's taken us forever to get here, but we finally did it!"
The party wore on into the evening and as it got dark, a bonfire was built so people could continue to celebrate. Richard watched contentedly as his friends drifted among their own group, of which he seemed to be the anchor from where he sat on one of the dunes, to other groups or the food tables and back again, and other people joined them or left as conversations led them elsewhere. When he had arrived almost three months prior, he never would have dreamed that he would have made so many friends and adjusted so well to his surroundings.
A sound drew his attention and Richard looked up to see Radek and Lorne rejoin the group from the dunes, both looking a little flushed and mussed up in the firelight. He smiled as they endured some playful teasing from the rest. John sat down next to him in the sand.
"I, um, I need to run home and I'll be right back, okay?" he asked.
Richard nodded. "I don't think we're going anywhere anytime soon."
"I'll be back soon," John said and stood and ruffled Richard's hair.
Richard unconsciously leaned into the touch and said "Later" as Cadman and Lorne tried to get his attention for an argument.
An hour later, Richard looked at his watch, wondering where John had gotten to. All things considered, it should've taken him fifteen minutes to get to his house and back – twenty if his dad stopped him to talk. Granted, with the amount of people that were around, he could have been sidetracked by people wanting to congratulate him or talk about the game. But somehow he didn't think that was the case.
"Any idea if John's back?" he asked Ronon when the other teen rejoined the group.
"Nope, he's not back yet," Ronon told him. "Don't sweat it – I'm sure he was just waylaid."
Richard nervously looked around the crowd, trying to tell himself that Ronon was probably right. It had been the first time in a long time that their team had won the championship and it was possible that there were still people who wanted a piece of the football team. He finally got up and wandered around to look for John. He checked among the scattered groups and by the food tables, but John was nowhere to be found. From there, Richard walked over the dunes to where people had parked along the street, but after walking the length of cars in both directions, he had to concede that John's truck wasn't there, either.
He hopped into his Jeep and drove, going the route he knew John would've taken to his place and back, the uneasiness in his stomach growing the whole time. He tried to reassure himself that there could be all sorts of reasons why John hadn't returned fairly quickly, but none of them seemed to do the trick. He didn't see John at all along the way, and breathed a small sigh of relief when he saw his truck was unscathed and parked in front of his house. Richard parked behind it and turned off the engine.
The house looked dark however and John was nowhere around, which confused Richard and got out of his Jeep. A soft moan drew Richard's attention, and he crept towards it cautiously. Inching around the front of John's truck, he found John lying on the pavement, blood coming from a split lip and his nose, and it looked like he was just starting to regain consciousness. Pulling out his cell phone, Richard rushed over to him and called for an ambulance.
As he hung up, John quietly said, "Hey."
"What happened?" Richard asked.
"Some of the –" John winced. "Some of the Wraith ganged up on me."
"How did they know where you live?"
John took a careful breath. "Dunno. Think they might've followed me from the party. When did you get here?"
"Just now. I was worried."
"You could've just called."
"Yeah, like that would've really helped," Richard replied with a roll of his eyes, his voice heavy with sarcasm.
John shrugged carefully. "Might've scared them off if you had timed it right – not that you would've known."
"Where's your dad?"
"Dunno. We usually all do our own things on Saturdays if there isn't a game."
Richard could hear the ambulance's sirens coming steadily closer. "The ambulance is almost here," he said stupidly, sure that John could hear it too.
John nodded carefully.
"Do you know who did this to you?" Richard asked. He knew the police would become involved at some point and if John wasn't able to answer any of the questions, he wanted to be able to.
"Um…" John thought it over for a moment. "Steve, Todd, Kenny, and Michael," he said. "Don't know their last names."
"What happened, exactly?" Richard asked and looked up and saw the ambulance turn onto John's street.
"They jumped me when I was getting back into my truck," John replied. "I think they were pissed that they lost."
"Anything else you can think of?" Richard pressed.
John rolled his eyes in amusement. "No, officer, but if I think of anything, you'll be the first to know."
"I just want to make sure they get what they deserve," Richard told him. "Don't you think we should call your dad and let him know what's going on?"
"Guess so," John said. "Take my cell phone – it's in my right front pocket. Actually, call your dad first. I have a better feeling about that."
Richard took the cell phone before he moved away to let the paramedics do their job. "Okay, I will."
While they checked John and loaded him into the back of the ambulance, Richard called his dad and told him what happened. Aaron promised to meet them just as the paramedics were finishing up and they let Richard ride with John to the hospital.
Once they got to the ER, Richard stayed outside for a moment to call John's dad. He wasn't surprised when he ended up leaving a message on his voice mail, telling him what had happened and where they were. When he stepped inside, he was directed to a waiting room. A few minutes later, his dad, with their friends in tow, joined him.
"What's going on?" Aaron asked and sat down next to Richard. The others placed themselves around them.
"I'm not sure," Richard asked. "He's still in with the doctors. I only heard a bit of what the paramedics said because I was talking to you. I think there's some bruising, maybe a cracked rib or something, maybe a broken arm – not really sure."
"Have you called John's dad?"
"Yes, I did when we got here and left a message."
Aaron nodded and stood. "I'm going to see if I can get any information."
"How are you holding up?" Cadman asked quietly when Aaron was on the other side of the room.
Richard shrugged a shoulder. "Okay, I guess. I'm worried about John obviously – just like the rest of you."
"Yeah, but you two are – you know," Rodney replied and Richard looked at him questioningly. Rodney rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Don't make me spell it out. I know you're not that stupid."
"We're not anything yet," Richard replied. "We're still trying to figure that out."
"I think Rodney's trying to say that that allows you to be a little more worried," Teyla said and sat down next to him and squeezed his hand.
Aaron came back a little while later. "The doctor's finishing up with John," he told them. "According to one of the nurses, he has a concussion, a lot of cuts and bruises, a cracked rib and a fractured wrist, but otherwise it sounds like he'll be okay. They're going to keep him at least tonight and some of tomorrow to make sure he's healing all right."
As Aaron finished, the doctor came out and grinned. "I wish all my patients' parents took this much interest in what's going on," he said. "The Sheppards are lucky to have you and your son as friends. In any case, John's being moved up to Room 325. He's a bit out of it due to the pain killers, but you can all go see him. I'd advise that you don't stay too long tonight."
"You guys go ahead," Aaron told them. "I want to ask the doctor a few more questions."
"Thanks, Doc," Richard said as he and the others started moving towards the elevator.
Once they were on the third floor, it was easy enough to locate the room and they all streamed in. John groggily smiled at them as they took their places around the bed.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey yourself," Cadman replied. "How're you feeling?" Lorne smacked him on the arm and Cadman yelped in indignation.
"With or without the pain killers?" John asked. "Because with them, I feel frickin' great!"
"Do you know who did it?" Ronon asked him, the anger and implication evident in his voice.
"A few of the guys from the Wraith football team," John told him. "And don't you dare go after them. I don't want you jeopardizing your chance at a scholarship because some pea-brained jocks couldn't handle losing a game."
"I'm sure I could do something without getting caught, though," Rodney told him.
"Rodney and I both," Radek replied. "Just say the word."
"Thanks, all of you," John replied. "But right now, I just want to let the police handle it."
"Speaking of which," Teyla replied, and moved out of the way as a police officer hovered in the doorway of the room. "We'll go and stop by tomorrow to see how you're doing."
John nodded as the others said their good-nights and filed out. He grasped Richard's wrist and said, "You should stay, since you were the one who called the ambulance."
"Okay," Richard replied and sat down in the chair next to the bed while the police officer took John's statement. All of the fear and worry that Richard had pushed aside once he had found John came rushing back as he listened to John dispassionately recount what had happened to him since he left the party. He twisted a hand into the sheets of John's bed to anchor himself.
When the officer turned his attention to Richard for his statement, Richard swallowed and shrugged. "John had been gone for about an hour and a half and I had started to get worried. I knew that it would have only taken him about fifteen minutes to get from the beach to his house and back – twenty if his dad had wanted to talk to him – and I had even figured in some extra time for being stopped by people who were at the party to talk. But considering that I hadn't seen or heard him, even talking to someone else, for that long made me worry. And I honestly don't know why I didn't try calling him first. I knew he had his cell phone on him, but all I could think was that I needed to actually find him, so I left the party. The others knew where I was going. When I got to John's house, he was outside on the side of the street in front of his truck. The truck was turned off and the house was dark, and he was just waking up. I immediately called an ambulance and did my best to keep him talking to me until the ambulance arrived. Once the paramedics were there, I called my dad, and I called John's dad once we got to the hospital. I'm not sure why, I guess I was just a little too freaked out and figured that my dad would be a good place to start."
"Thank you both," the officer told them and closed his notebook and put it and his pen away. "I'll be in touch with both of you again about this and we should have it resolved soon. If you need anything from me, here's my card." He produced one and handed it over to Richard. "Have a good night, and I hope you feel better soon." The last was said to John before he left.
"You look about as bad as I feel," John said softly after the police officer was gone.
"I was worried," Richard replied truthfully. "I don't know how I knew you were in trouble, but I did."
"I'm glad you came looking for me," John told him and turned his hand palm up. "Who knows what would've happened if you didn't."
Richard dropped his gaze down to John's hand and nodded and swallowed. "I know. I just – I don't know. I wish it hadn't happened."
"So do I," John replied with a laugh before he sucked in a sharp breath and Richard looked up in alarm. He shook his head sheepishly. "Need to remember it hurts to laugh right now. You should go home and get some sleep. You're not going to do me any good if you stay here and you look like you're about to drop."
"I'd rather stay here. If I go home, I'll probably worry."
"You're going to worry anyway. They can't get me in here and I'm sure the nurses will be in every five minutes to check my temperature and make sure I don't get any sleep tonight. So one of us should."
Richard shrugged thoughtfully and looked down at John's hand again and put his own palm-down on the bed next to it. "This puts things in perspective, you know?"
"What do you mean?" John asked, furrowing his brow.
Richard shrugged with one shoulder this time. "Just that you don't know what's going to happen from one minute to the next and –"
"Stop right there," John commanded and tapped Richard on the back of the hand. "This had nothing to do with that. They're just a bunch of idiots with no brains who couldn't handle the fact that this year we had a great team that was able to beat the crap out of them on the field – the right way."
"I know, but –" Richard lapsed into silence again. He nudged John's fingers with his own. John spread his fingers and Richard gently laced their fingers together. "I could've lost you tonight and we wouldn't have been able to do this or who knows what else."
"I don't think you'd be able to get rid of me that easily," John replied with an amused smile and he brushed his thumb against Richard's pinky finger. "I want to do a lot more than just this with you."
There was a gruff throat-clearing from the doorway and both boys looked up, startled. "What is going on here?" John's dad asked angrily.
"I was beaten up by a bunch of the Wraith's players," John replied, his eyes narrowing. "You did tell him that in the message, didn't you?" he asked Richard.
"I heard the damn message," Mr. Sheppard replied. "I mean here." He waved his hand at them and Richard looked down to see they were still sort of holding hands. He tried to withdraw his hand, but John's fingers tightened and wouldn't let him go.
"What do you think it means?" John shot back.
"John," Richard quietly hissed. "Do you really –"
"It's okay, Richard," John told him. "I'm not afraid of him."
"Maybe if your mother had let me whip your ass more you would be," Mr. Sheppard replied angrily.
"And that would've done what, exactly?" John asked. "It would've made me afraid of getting you angry, but it wouldn't have stopped me from being what I am."
"No son of mine is a sissy-footed pansy."
"I very much doubt that I'm 'a sissy-footed pansy' and I have the football team to back it up," John retorted before his tone turned casual. "Or maybe it was the football team that turned me gay. You know – long hours at practice with a bunch of other guys, all of us hot and sweaty, and getting to see them in various stages of undress in the locker room. I guess it was inevitable, given that I've spent more time around a bunch of muscled hunks than I have girls."
Mr. Sheppard looked at him in pure disgust. "I don't want to see you again," he said before leaving.
"Well, um," Richard started after a long moment. He swallowed. "Are you all right?"
"Ask me later," John replied with a wan smile. "That wasn't how I wanted him to find out, by the way."
"I kind of thought so," Richard told him softly. "I figured you would've gone about introducing it more tactfully, if you told him at all."
"Oh, I would've told him… eventually. Probably after college."
"So, I just got the blackest look imaginable times a thousand from John's dad," Aaron said and entered the room. "What happened?" Taking in the sight of the two of teens, he replied, "Oh. Yeah. Okay. I can see why now. You need a place to stay, John?"
John nodded gratefully. "Thanks, Aaron."
Aaron nodded as a nurse came in to check on John. "Come on, Richard. We'd better get going before they kick us out of here and don't let us back for visiting hours tomorrow."
"I'll see you tomorrow," John told Richard and squeezed Richard's hand before letting it go.
"Okay," Richard replied.
They were quiet on the way out to the car. Richard mulled over what had happened and how different his dad's reaction had been to that of John's father, and felt himself slowly relax.
Once they were on their way home, Aaron finally broke the silence and said, "So. You and John, huh?"
"Yep," Richard replied and twisted the hem of his shirt in his hands. "Though, we're not really me and John, we're just…. I don't know what we are. We're still figuring it out. I'm still trying to figure it all out – the whole gay thing, I mean."
Aaron reached over and patted Richard's knee. "You've got time. You don't need to figure everything out all at once. As long as the two of you are being smart, I know you'll make the right decisions."
"So you're not mad at me?"
Aaron glanced over at Richard with a confused expression on his face. "Why would I be mad at you for being true to yourself?"
Richard shrugged. "I don't know. John's dad was. Mom probably would be."
"Well, your mother's always had her plans about her life – and yours by extension. I don't doubt that this is going to screw that up when she finds out. If you go this route. But I have absolutely no problem with you being gay, straight, bisexual, whatever – as long as you don't do something extremely stupid. Then I'll have problems and be angrier than a bull. Otherwise, I could care less what you do with whom."
"Thanks, Dad," Richard said in relief.
"You're welcome," Aaron told him, pulling up in front of the Sheppard's house. "I'll see you back at the house."
"Okay," Richard replied and got out. "I'll see you in a few minutes."
When he got back to the house, the others were all there waiting for him.
"How is he?" Teyla asked.
Richard shrugged. "He's okay, I guess." He sank down into a kitchen chair. "Well, he was doing pretty good until his dad came in and saw us holding hands." Richard snorted and looked down at the table. "Not even that, really. Our fingers were holding hands. And he got pissed and told John to not come home."
"Ouch," Lorne said with a wince that was shared by the rest of the group.
"Yes, well. My dad found out just after John's dad left – we didn't even have time to react. But he's cool about it and John'll be coming home with us after he's released. Which should hopefully be tomorrow afternoon."
"So, you and John…?" Radek softly prompted.
Richard shrugged and glanced at everyone in the group. "Kinda, sorta, maybe?"
They all nodded and Ronon said, "We got some calls after you left – John wasn't the only one who got beat up tonight."
"It seems like the Wraith football team was out en masse tonight to get revenge for losing," Teyla clarified. "A few of the other football players were beat up once they arrived home from the party, but so far John's the only one who was beaten bad enough to warrant going to the hospital. All the other players either had people with them or at home who heard the commotion and were able to help fight the attackers off before things got bad."
"So, what's going to happen?" Richard asked.
"The police are looking into it, but it should be a fairly open-and-shut case. Especially since all the players can be identified."
"Good," Richard replied with a grim nod. "John will be happy to hear that."
"Hear what?" Aaron replied as he came in from helping clean up the last of the party.
"John wasn't the only one who was beaten up and the police are looking into it," Richard told him.
"That's great news for us," Aaron replied. He glanced at the clock. "If you all want, feel free to crash here. There's enough floor and couch space. I know Richard's going over to the hospital as early as possible tomorrow and I bet the rest of you will too."
"Might be a good way to keep our minds off of it," Cadman said and looked around at the rest of the group. "We could watch cheesy late-night movies and stuff."
"Sounds like a plan," Richard said, thankful to have a diversion for the time being. He didn't want to think about what had happened to John and how they had almost lost him. How he had almost lost him.
Aaron helped them gather blankets and pillows before bidding the group good night and heading to his room. Richard and the others made a nest of blankets and pillows on the floor in the living room before making popcorn and gathering drinks and other snacks and arranging themselves comfortably.
Richard commandeered the remote control and flipped through the TV channels before they finally settled on the movie playing on Comedy Central. He slowly relaxed back against the couch as they watched and the others made fun of the movie and threw popcorn at the screen and each other.
"It's going to be okay," Cadman said softly and leaned against Richard.
"I know," Richard replied. "It's just that I never thought something like this could happen to someone I know. Sure, I heard about people getting beaten up and mugged and stuff like that when I lived with my mom, but that was always 'other people' and never someone I knew even in a passing acquaintance sort of way."
"It usually doesn't happen here either. The kids at Iratus High are practically all juvenile delinquents anyway. Not that that should excuse what they did, but they've been spoiling for a fight for a while now, I think."
Richard nodded, remembering some of the stuff he'd heard around school about petty vandalism and various other misdemeanors that had happened around town that everyone seemed to agree the Wraith had done. "I know. It's just –" He let out a breath. "What if I hadn't gotten there when I did? The doctor said he had a pretty bad concussion. And if he had tried to move –" he took another breath. "Things could've been worse."
"But they weren't, and you got there in time, and John's going to be fine." Cadman gave him a reassuring smile and bumped Richard's shoulder with his own. "And he's going to be living with you once he gets out. We've all been telling him that he needs to get out of his house for years. I think all of us have made an offer for him to live with us at least once. His dad's not overtly abusive as far as we know, but he's definitely made things hard on John for a long time – I think because John's never wanted to play his games, unlike his brother."
"What about your parents? How exactly did they take it when you told them?"
"Well, when I actually told them, there was a lot of hand-wringing and some tears on my mother's part and some blustering and 'no child of mine is going to mutilate their body in such a manner!' from my father. But once they got that out of their system, they made me go to therapy and do research and 'present my case' to them. I know they just want what's best for me and that they don't want me to make a mistake I'm going to regret somewhere down the road that I'm not going to be able to take back. But once I proved to them that it wasn't a phase and that it really was what I wanted and that it's what's best for me, they've been surprisingly supportive. They've still been very careful around the rest of the family – who think I'm just going through a weird tom-boy phase – and periodically making sure that this is still what I want and that I'm not just planning on going through with it because I feel like I have to after I put so much work into convincing them."
Richard nodded. "It sounds like you and I are two of the lucky ones. On the way home, my dad told me he would be happy as long as I was happy and that he'd only get upset if I did something monumentally stupid."
"And you're surprised by this how?" Cadman asked with a grin. "Your dad's always been the coolest."
A flurry of popcorn rained down on them. "If you want to talk, go somewhere else. We're trying to watch a movie!" Rodney told them in exasperation.
"We're done! We're done!" Richard told them contritely.
He and Cadman snuggled together on the floor to watch the rest of the movie and part of the next before they, and the rest of the group, began to fall asleep.
The next morning, Richard awoke to the smell of coffee brewing and breakfast cooking. He sleepily propped himself up and blinked and looked around the living room where his friends were still sleeping – Ronon on the long part of the couch and Teyla on the short part, their hands entwined at the corner; Radek and Lorne were wrapped up in each other in front of the TV; and he, Cadman, and Rodney curled together on the floor by the couch. He ran a hand through his hair a few times and tried to wipe the sleep from his eyes. Richard carefully got up and blearily made his way into the kitchen.
"Good morning, sleepy head," Aaron said with a smile. "Did you guys have a good time last night?"
"As good as can be expected," Richard replied and poured himself a cup of coffee. "I'm going over to the hospital once I can get ready."
"I know you want to get over there, but don't you think you should wait for the others?" Aaron asked him pointedly. "John's not just your friend, regardless of how close the two of you might've gotten."
"Probably, but they'd understand," Richard replied and took a sip.
"I thought I smelled coffee," Rodney said and joined them. Richard and Aaron laughed as Rodney helped himself to a mug and made indulgent noises as he drank. "What time are we going over?" he asked Richard.
"I want to go over as soon as I can," Richard repeated and Rodney nodded.
"So do we. Do you think he'll want help moving his stuff out of his dad's place?"
Richard shrugged. "I don't know, but we can ask. Where's he going to stay here, Dad?"
"There's space in the basement for him," Aaron said. "The couch down there pulls out into a bed and it'll give him a bit of privacy at least. And before you ask, he can stay here for as long as he needs to."
"That might be a while," Richard replied with an apologetic wince. "I don't think things with John and his dad were good for a long time and now this…."
"They weren't," Rodney agreed. "We'll do what we can to help out, too."
Richard smiled. "Whatever people might say, you're really not as bad as they say."
"Careful," Rodney told him. "I've got a reputation to uphold."
The rest of the group was up shortly after Aaron started dishing out the food, and they were all ready to go and at the hospital in record time. John grinned when he saw them troop in, Richard the only one in different clothes.
"It looks like I'm not the only one who had a long night," he commented.
"You have no idea," Rodney told him before smacking him upside the head. "We've been worried about you."
"So it appears," John replied dryly.
"Any idea when you're getting out of here?" Richard asked him.
"Later today?" John asked. "Not really sure. It sounds like most of the stuff is set and there's nothing else they can do right now, so they're going to let me go and have me check in with my doctor regularly. I think they just want to wait a bit longer with the concussion."
Despite the nurses' efforts to get the group out of John's room, or to at least take turns with him, no one left until John was discharged that evening. Once John was comfortably ensconced at the Woolseys', and pizza had been ordered, Richard was able to convince John that going over to his house the next day after school for his things really was the best idea.
"I'd rather not talk to my dad, though," John practically whined.
"And he'd probably rather not talk to you, but you've got to get your stuff out of there and you're going to need to talk to him sooner rather than later anyway," Richard countered. "Do you want us to go with you?"
"I want you to go with me," John replied truthfully. "Honestly, I'd like everyone to go, but we can't all fit in my room and have space to pack." He thought for a minute. "I think Lorne and Radek should come too."
The rest of the group smirked as Richard casually commented, "Trying to rub it in his face, are you?"
"Maybe?" John asked with a raised eyebrow. "Though, I don't think he knows about them."
"Do you want him to know about us?" Lorne asked and he and Radek had matching evil looks on their faces.
"As much fun as that might be, let's not go there. I don't want him to keel over."
Aaron interrupted the conversation to put the pizza on the table and after everyone had gotten some, the topic turned to other things and the tension that everyone had been holding in slowly began to dissolve.
Moving John out of his father's house and into the Woolseys' proved to be anticlimactic. His dad wasn't there and they decided against waiting for him, figuring that forcing the issue wouldn't do anyone any good. John released a sigh of relief and carefully laid back on his newly-made bed.
"So you're sure your dad doesn't mind that I'm going to be with you guys for the holidays?" John asked. "Because I really doubt that my dad and I are going to patch things up in the next week, let alone by Christmas."
"I told you it was fine," Richard replied in amusement and lay down next to him, being careful not to jostle the bed too much. "We were just going to have a small meal for Thanksgiving and invite everyone over afterwards anyway, so adding one more person to the meal won't be a big deal. And he's mentioned a few times while I was growing up that when he was growing up, he had a lot of cousins that were practically siblings and now that they're grown, they've scattered all over place and he misses the big holidays. So I think having the two of us here will be good for him. And, knowing him, he'll figure out a way to get everyone else here after they're done with their families too." Richard smiled as his fingers played with John's. "My dad's a big believer in making everyone family."
"Yeah, I noticed that," John said. He grimaced as he shifted. "The first time I walked into his shop, he made me feel like I was a long-lost relative or something. And I've wondered, at times, what it would be like to have him as a dad." He turned his head to look at Richard. "That doesn't weird you out, does it? Especially now that we're…."
Richard shook his head. "Not really. It probably should, but I'm okay with it. So, what's this Christmas Ball thing? I heard Teyla talking about it this week."
John snorted. "It's our school's answer to Homecoming. Supposedly, years and years ago, something happened during Homecoming, which made the principal ban it starting the next year. So, in protest, the students decided to have a 'Christmas Ball' instead, or so it's said in school lore. It's basically Homecoming, but not. And Teyla's been on the committee every year and this year, she's running it. I wouldn't be surprised if she drafts all of us in to helping get things done."
Richard couldn't help but chuckle. "First, Cadman wants us to help get the GSA started. Now we have to look forward to Teyla commandeering our help for the Christmas Ball. If this is what friendship's like, I think I want to go back to my old school."
"You take that back! Take it back right now!" John told him. "I don't want you going anywhere!"
Richard turned onto his side so he could look at John and gave him a soft smile. "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere. Sorry, it still takes me by surprise sometimes that I have you guys as friends. It's a bit… overwhelming how much different you all are from the people I knew back at my mom's. How much more real you all are."
"So, does this mean you've finally turned into a real boy?" John asked quietly and Richard could feel something change in the air around them.
"Maybe?" he asked just as quietly and gently placed his other hand flat on John's stomach.
They looked at each other for a long moment before Richard leaned down and softly brushed his lips against John's. John's gasp was almost inaudible, but it zinged through Richard. He leaned down and kissed John properly this time. John leaned up to deepen the kiss and Richard let him, his whole body tingling at the kiss. He shifted closer to John and John whimpered softly in the back of his throat.
Richard pulled away as if he'd been shocked.
"What's wrong?" John asked in confusion.
"I don't –" Richard started. "I don't know. It's just – wow."
John looked at him in amusement. "Yeah, I'd have to agree – wow. I definitely want to do that again. If it hasn't freaked you out too much."
"No, I don't think so," Richard said, his brain trying to catch up with the rest of him – which was saying that this was a great idea. "Just trying to process all of it right away."
"Stop processing and start kissing!" John teased. "Processing can wait for later."
"You're incorrigible!" Richard told him and playfully smacked his stomach. "First you get me thinking about all of this and now you're trying to debauch me!"
"I'm not trying to debauch you!" John said and started laughing. "Besides – you're the one that kissed me first! So maybe you're trying to debauch me!" They were both laughing by this point. "Are we okay?" John asked once the laughter started to die down.
"We're okay," Richard replied with a nod. "We will be okay. I guess that answers a lot of questions."
"Such as?" John raised an eyebrow.
"If I'm really doing this."
"You mean if we're really doing this. I'm in this too, you know."
With a nod, Richard said, "I know."
Aaron picked that point to call them for dinner and they joined him upstairs.
As expected, Teyla picked the next day to draft everyone to help with the Christmas Ball. Cadman pouted because he wanted first dibs on everyone for the GSA, but once Teyla had finished convincing him that by the day of the Ball, they'd have an answer on the GSA and, if it was allowed, she would make sure everyone knew that they had helped put it together and it could be a major coup for the fledgling group, Cadman was all for it and already starting to figure out ways for them to work on both at the same time.
Richard laughed and shook his head. "I think it's a good thing that Teyla doesn't seem interested in going into politics," he commented, "otherwise the world would be a much different place."
"Considering how much Teyla doesn't like fighting, maybe we should push her into it," Lorne replied. "She might be able to stop some of the wars and smooth more than a few feathers."
"And this coming from the one who was thinking about joining the ROTC," Radek replied affectionately.
"I still might!" Lorne replied indignantly.
"Not with half a year left, you're not," Radek told him. He leaned in and whispered something in Lorne's ear and Lorne blushed furiously and nodded.
On their way to English, Teyla asked Richard, "Do you think it was wise of me to ask for everyone's help? I know things are going to be busy for everyone with midterms coming up and starting the GSA, but there's only so much the committee and I can do."
Richard shrugged. "You were going to have to get help from somewhere, so it might as well be from people you know. At least you know how to blackmail all of us into getting things done."
"Very true," she replied with a laugh. "Even you, I think. It's good to see how far you've come since you started here, Richard."
"You think so?" he asked her.
She nodded as they took out their homework. "I think this place has been good for you in ways that you weren't aware of."
"I don't think it's the place, I think it's the people," he said.
"Whatever the reason, I'm happy for you."
"Was that an attempt at blackmail to seal the deal?" he asked in mock indignation.
"Maybe," she replied with an enigmatic smile as class started. "But it was also said with the utmost sincerity."
"Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod," Cadman said and sat down in the seat in front of Richard and John the bus, practically radiating nervousness.
"What's going on now?" Richard asked.
"We've got a meeting with Weir tomorrow about the SGA."
"What do you mean 'we'?" he asked, furrowing his brow.
"Well, I might have mentioned your name while we were hashing this out," Cadman said apologetically. "So she wants to meet with both of us tomorrow during lunch to 'talk' and before she makes a decision."
"Oh-kay," Richard replied. "And you didn't think to mention this to me in any sort of capacity before now why?"
Cadman shrugged. "It slipped my mind, sorry. And when she asked about collaborators, I mentioned you because you were the first person that popped into my head and I didn't think she'd want to speak to both of us. But now we've got a meeting tomorrow and what the hell are we going to do?"
"We're going go and talk to her civilly and show her we're not crazy and that the GSA would be a good asset to the school. And you're going to start taking slow deep breaths. I don't need you passing out on me."
Cadman nodded and started doing as he was told and John asked, "So, how favorable are the chances of getting this thing started?"
"As of right now, pretty good," Cadman replied. "I think. I think she really does want to make sure we're not crazy and all that, like Richard said, and that she just wants to hear it from someone other than me."
"Do you want me to come over after dinner so we can hash out what we're going to do?" Richard asked.
Cadman shook his head. "My brother's home from college for Thanksgiving break, we won't get anything done. Can I come over to your place?"
"Sure. We're only doing homework tonight." Looking at John, Richard said, "I'll have to skip out on surfing to get my homework done so I can help Cadman out."
John shrugged indifferently. "You gotta do what you gotta do and you know where we'll be when you're done." He leaned in and said, "Just because of you know, doesn't mean that we have to be together all the time."
"So you two," Cadman wagged a finger between them and they nodded. "Cool. Congratulations and all that. I remember my first love," he said dreamily.
John snorted. "It was Sarah from Labyrinth and Cadman was about ten," he told Richard.
"Don't you laugh," Cadman commanded Richard. "She was beautiful. And I'm going to kill you for that, John."
"Yeah, I'd like to see you try," John replied dryly. "We'll see you later," he said as the bus doors opened for Cadman's stop.
"Bye," both Cadman and Richard said as Cadman got off the bus.
Both John and Richard shook their heads as the bus pulled away from the curb. "I think all this started back then," John told Richard. "You gotta figure something's up when a girl wants to be Jarrod so she can have Sarah, and not the other way around and, over the years, she just wants to be Jarrod."
"And what about you?" Richard asked.
John snorted again. "I was a little boy. I wanted to be Sir Didymus."
When they got home, John decided to stay in and work on his homework too.
"Just because we're together…" Richard started to tease John.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," John replied. "It's not so much fun being out on the beach when I can't do anything aside from sit on the sand and carefully put my feet in the water. I might as well stay inside."
Richard laughed as they settled down to work and tried to ignore the growing apprehension about the next day.
When Richard and Cadman promptly showed up at the vice principal's office at the beginning of lunch the next day, they were quickly ushered in.
"Welcome," Ms. Weir said warmly. "Please, have a seat."
As they sat in the chairs in front of her desk, Richard took slow deep breaths to keep himself calm and noticed that Cadman's knuckles were white from gripping his chair's seat. He wondered what it would be like if they were actually in trouble.
"So, Cadman tells me that you've been helping with the GSA," Weir said to open the conversation.
"Yes, ma'am," Richard replied. "Cadman thought it would be a good idea to form the group as a way to help students who were questioning certain aspects of their sexual identities and to also foster a welcoming community here at the school."
"And what sorts of things would your 'club' do to help move this agenda forward?"
"We'd meet once a week to discuss what sorts of things are going on in our lives, give each other support, and what we can do to make things more positive around school," Cadman replied. "And," he glanced at Richard, "those of us who are already interested in the group have agreed to help put together the Christmas Ball."
The corners of Weir's mouth twitched in amusement, but her tone was even and said, "I hope you both expect to recruit more than just your immediate friends to be a part of this."
"Without a doubt," Richard replied.
"And when will you be meeting?"
"Fridays after school."
"And who's your academic advisor?"
Richard looked at Cadman questioningly. "Mr. Jackson," Cadman replied. "He's letting us use his room."
Weir made a note on a paper in front of her and flipped the folder shut. "Your club will be on probation until the end of the school year – same as any other new school club. Please make sure that any signs you hang in the hallways are tasteful and within school guidelines. Thank you for your time." As they stood, she said, "Oh, Richard – may I have a word with you?"
"I'll catch you later," he told Cadman, who nodded and left.
"I was told you were the one who found John Sheppard. How's he doing? I tried to call his home yesterday and again this morning, but I wasn't able to speak with anyone."
"He's doing well, under the circumstances," Richard replied, hesitant to disclose too much. "You might want to talk to him about the situation. He is in school."
She nodded. "Thank you."
Richard got back to the cafeteria with just enough time to wolf down his lunch, and was glad to see everyone else was excited about the GSA being given the green light.
"Weir will probably be calling you to her office," he warned John as they all headed to their next classes and John nodded.
"So, how do you think we should weave the GSA into the Christmas Ball's theme?" Teyla asked Richard.
"How do I think we should do what?" he asked in confusion. "Do you think we can get away with it?"
She shrugged. "It's worth a shot. It'll have to be more subtle than most of the student body will probably recognize if we're going to get it past Hammond and Weir, but I think it could be interesting for those that do."
Saying the first thing that popped into his head, Richard said, "What about something with Ancient Greece or Rome? They were pretty accepting of homosexuality."
"That might be possible," Teyla replied thoughtfully. "And I'm sure we'd be able to tie at least the Roman aspect into Christmas. Or something. Keep thinking about it and let me know if you think of anything."
"Will do, boss," Richard replied with a two fingered salute and Teyla smiled.
Thanksgiving Day was different from anything Richard was used to. The TV was on all day – first on ESPN from the time he woke up, giving the stats and predictions for the day's games, and throughout the day switched to various channels as the games started and stopped. Richard helped Aaron make their meal and John sat at the kitchen table, where he could talk with them and keep an eye on the TV so they could have a play-by-play of the game. Well, if Richard was honest with himself – so Aaron could have a personal play-by-play and he could watch in amusement as his boyfriend and his dad got caught up in the game.
His boyfriend. That thought stopped Richard and he slowly looked up from where he was cutting up vegetables for a salad to watch John. The surge of warmth and happiness that he felt when he did so definitely made a case for the whole boyfriend thing.
John caught him staring at him and made a face, causing Richard to laugh. "You okay?" he asked.
"Fine," Richard replied. "Just thinking."
"I figured, I could hear the gears over here."
"Very funny – you should become a comedian."
John rolled his eyes in exasperation. "If this is how it's going to be from now on, I don't know if I'll be able to put up with you."
"Oh, I think you will. You like me too much."
"You're right, I do. Dammit. You and your insurmountable logic."
The informality took some getting used to. He kept thinking about how formal everything was with his mother's family – nice clothes, refined conversation, fine place settings, the whole meal done by their cook so they wouldn't have to worry about the mess. The memories clashed with his reality – they were all in jeans, t-shirts, and bare-footed. The TV kept up a running commentary on football while they talked about football, school, and how they were already sick of Christmas commercials. And the kitchen was a mess. With John there, Aaron had decided to go for a full, albeit small, turkey and was having moderate success in cooking it. Meanwhile, Richard was glad that Aaron hadn't set anything on fire yet and had the Turkey Hotline's number in his cellphone just in case. Meanwhile, the rest of the meal was in various stages of readiness around the kitchen while they worked on salad, vegetables, stuffing, mashed potatoes, the works. The only thing Richard had been able to talk Aaron out of doing was dessert, and some pies were safely tucked away out of harm's way.
"You should probably call your mom," Aaron said as Richard finished with the salad.
"Why?" Richard asked without thinking and rinsed his hands.
"Because you should be thankful she gave birth to you and didn't immediately put you up for adoption, doofus," John replied without missing a beat.
"That's it – as soon as you've got a clean bill of health, I'm turning you in for a different model. One that won't sass me," Richard told John and rolled up the towel and flicked it in John's direction, barely missing him.
"You wouldn't dare!" John exclaimed and tried to move out of the way and fell off of his chair.
"Try me," Richard replied and lunged after him again with the towel.
They were stopped by the phone and Aaron yelling for Richard to get it while he got the turkey out of the oven.
Richard picked up the phone. "Hello?"
"Happy Thanksgiving, dear," his mom said.
"You too, Mom," he said. "I was just about to call you. I figured you'd be finished eating dinner by now."
"We just finished," she said. "I guess you're still getting ready to eat?"
"Yeah, we should be eating in about an hour or so – provided Dad figures out what's going on with the turkey."
"The turkey's fine!" Aaron said and put it back in the oven.
"It'd be finished by now if you didn't take it out every five minutes to check on it!" Richard quickly volleyed back.
"Richard!" his mother said in surprise. Regaining her composure, she said, "I also wanted to know if you were coming home for Christmas."
"I don't know," Richard replied. "I want to spend Christmas here."
"You should go," Aaron mouthed as his mother said, "Please, Richard, even for a couple days? I've missed you."
Richard took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Okay, a couple days."
They talked for a while longer, hashing out some of the details of his visit with his mother and what had been going on at home. When he hung up, he breathed a sigh of relief.
"See? That wasn't so hard," Aaron commented. "You should talk to her more often."
"I know," Richard replied. "But, and I know she's my mom, but I feel like she should make some of the effort too. We hardly talked to you for years and the next thing I know, she's dumping me off on you. I'm glad she did – don't get me wrong – but at the same time, I wish we'd done things differently."
"Me too," Aaron replied.
"I'm sure you'll have a good time," John said. "You'll get to see your old friends and catch up."
"I'll miss you, though," Richard said and helped his dad finish up preparing the meal and set the table.
"Absence will make the heart grow fonder."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Smart ass."
"And what am I, chopped liver?" Aaron asked in amusement. "He's not the only one who's going to worry you won't come back."
"Don't worry – I'll be back. There's too much going on for me not to," Richard said as they sat down to eat.
As they ate and talked, Richard couldn't help comparing this Thanksgiving to the ones he'd had with his mother and it definitely beat them all hands down. The normal veneer of civility covering a low-simmering hostility and jealousy that he'd grown so accustomed to was nowhere to be found. Here there was only genuine warmth and affection. And he knew that when they and the rest of his friends watched football later, there would be no quiet cheering.
The next morning, Richard and John had to go to the police station to identify John's attackers and give official statements. Richard felt like the whole thing had been too easy and the speed at which the Wraith players were being dealt with negated what had happened to John and the other Lantean players.
"You okay?" John asked as he joined Richard in the lobby of the police station and they left.
Richard shrugged. "I'm not sure," he replied honestly. "Is it wrong that I want them to hurt more because of what they did to you?"
John laughed. "No, I don't think so. And if they hadn't been so monumentally stupid, I would too." At Richard's questioning glance, he clarified, "Their whole team ganging up on most of our team in one night to beat the crap out of them because they're sore losers? Not the smartest move. They're going to have that on their records for forever. Me, on the other hand? I'll heal." He stopped Richard with a hand on the shoulder and looked him in the eye. "I am healing. I'll be okay."
So Richard's surreptitious glances in John's direction the past week hadn't been so surreptitious. Richard looked at him guiltily.
"I appreciate the concern, though," John told him fondly. "It's more than I would've gotten from my dad."
"You sure you're okay with all of this?" Richard asked him uneasily.
"Definitely." John squeezed Richard's shoulder reassuringly before they continued to his truck. "Come on, Cadman's expecting us to be his slaves for the afternoon."
"If he expects me to use glitter, he's got another thing coming," Richard said, feeling something inside him ease a little bit. If John was okay with things, he could try to be too.
Thankfully, Cadman kept the glitter use to a judicious minimum while they made posters for the first GSA meeting the following week and tried to plan for what sort of direction they wanted the group to go.
"Are you sure we need to have a plan?" Radek asked in exasperation.
"He's got a point," Lorne agreed. "The chess club doesn't need a plan. The drama club doesn't need a plan. Hell, the Christian club doesn't have a plan."
"You're right, we probably don't need one," Cadman said, "but I want to have one. I feel like this has gone too easily and I'm just trying to cover all my bases as far in advance as I can."
"Not everything is going to be as much of a fight as you think or heard it will be," Richard said. "Sometimes things really are this easy."
On Monday morning, the group got to school early and fanned out around the building to hang up their posters. Throughout the day, they heard snickers and insults as students read the posters and by the end of the day, a few had either been drawn on or ripped up.
"This is going to suck," Cadman said as they walked out to Richard's Jeep. "This was a bad idea. I was stupid to think we could do this."
"It'll get better," Richard told him. "You know how us high school students are – we like to make fun of anything and everything. Plus, how many kids are doing it because they don't want their friends to know they like guys or girls – or think that they might? Remember, you said you wanted to make the school a better place. If you back down now, that's not going to happen. It's just going to take time."
Cadman looked at John, and John said, "I'm going to agree with him because I do and I'm never going say something as good."
"And you're sure?" Cadman asked.
"Positive," they both replied with a nod.
If Richard was honest, though, the week stretched out like molasses. Friday afternoon finally came and they met in Mr. Jackson's room. He gave them free reign to do whatever they wanted and ensconced himself at his desk to grade papers. For a while, it was just the eight of them staring at each other and Richard could tell Cadman was getting antsy. Finally a freshman carefully came in, followed by two more students, then one of the girls from Teyla and Richard's English class, and a couple of band kids until it was equal between Richard and his friends and interested students. As they came in, Cadman greeted all of them warmly.
Once the trickle stopped again, he said, "Okay, wow. This is a better turn-out than I was expecting. Most of these guys," he waved at Richard, John, Teyla, Ronon, Rodney, Evan, and Radek, "came because I kind of made them. But we're glad all of you came. And we don't care if you're gay, straight, bi, transgendered, questioning, or completely unsure. You can say what your orientation is if you want – or not. It's all up to you. I thought it would be good to have a place for those of us who feel a little different to have a place where we can be safe."
"Yeah, that's what drama club's for," one of the freshmen snickered to the other.
Cadman balled up the piece of paper he had been doodling on and threw it at the kid, bouncing it off his head. The kid looked at him startled. "Comments like that will not be allowed. We are to be respectful to each other. Let's get started by introducing ourselves. My name's Cadman."
"Well, that was…" Cadman said and slowly let out a deep breath and relaxed against his couch afterwards. "This is going to be a lot of work."
"But we know you can do it," Teyla assured him. "You did very well today and I think you may have even saved David Parrish's life."
"Which one was that again?" Cadman asked.
"The geeky little freshman," Ronon replied. "The first one that came in."
"You think so?"
"Definitely," Lorne added. "He looked like a deer caught in the headlights when he came in and by the time he left, he looked like he might actually be okay."
"I think I saw him in orchestra," Radek said. "I'll have to keep an eye out for him."
Richard handed John his soda and settled next to him on the couch, carefully taking the fingers of his injured hand in his own and said, "I think it went well. If we really are going to take turns leading the group, maybe we should make Rodney do it next week. Just scare everyone right off the bat and get it over with."
"Ha, ha, ha. Very funny," Rodney replied dryly. "You should be a comedian. How are the plans for the Ball coming, Teyla?"
"Ooh, nice deflection and change of subject," Cadman said.
"The plans for the Ball are progressing nicely," Teyla replied. "We still need to pick out a theme, though. Once we get that done, it'll be easy to get decorations, make posters, all that sort of thing."
"I had an idea!" Richard said. "Remember how we said we wanted to tie in the GSA somehow, since we'd be helping with it?" Teyla nodded. "What about having The Wizard of Oz for the theme? It's pretty generic, yet gay men used to say that they were 'a friend of Dorothy'."
"That's pretty clever," Teyla replied thoughtfully.
"Should we be worried how you know that?" John teased.
"I think it was a Jeopardy! question?" Richard replied. "I honestly don't know how I know that."
"What do the rest of you think?" Teyla asked.
Ronon, Lorne and Radek shrugged and Lorne said, "Practically everyone loves The Wizard of Oz."
"There are worse theme ideas," Rodney conceded.
"Don't care," Cadman said indifferently.
"You've got some mail, John," Aaron said, handing over a large envelope with a barely concealed grin.
"What is it?" Richard asked, looking up from his homework.
John stared at it for a second before saying, "It's from CalTech. I don't know if I can open it."
"What do you mean you don't know if you can open it?" Richard asked. "After all the work you did for early admission? Do you want me to open it?"
John glared at him. "Just give me another minute where anything's possible."
"I doubt it's bad news with something that size," Aaron said.
John stared at the envelope for a long moment before turning it over and opening it. He took out the letter and read it to himself. And read it again. And read it a third time.
"Well?" Richard asked.
"I got accepted," John said dazedly. "And I'm getting financial aid."
"I think this calls for a celebration," Aaron said. "What do you want to do?"
The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas flummoxed Richard. He was so used to buying two Christmas presents – one for his mom and a joint one for his grandparents, sending his dad a card, and keeping his nose to the books for the mid-terms that would take place right before Christmas Break.
But this year, it was all of that and more. He also had to make arrangements to go home, get presents for his dad and his seven friends – though, if he was honest with himself he wanted to make sure he got something special for John, help with the Christmas Ball, keep Cadman at least one step away from having a melt-down over the GSA, and learn how to be a boyfriend. There were times when he found himself wishing he was still living with his mother, but he knew deep down that there was no way he was giving up all of this for what he had had with her.
As John slowly healed, he and Richard became closer and more comfortable with each other. They talked a lot about what they wanted to do during the summer – which quickly boiled down to as much as possible with each other – what John was going to do about college now that his dad was out of the picture (Richard was pleased that John had already planned for a similar contingency and was prepared to not rely on his dad for financial support through college) and how Richard was coping with the new development in his life. Or not talking in some cases when talking turned into kissing and careful exploration.
"How are you holding up?" John asked quietly and met Richard at his locker before seventh period.
"Okay, I guess," Richard replied with a shrug. "Why?"
"You just seem a little overwhelmed lately," John said, letting his amusement show. "Not used to all of this socializing stuff?"
"Not really," Richard replied sheepishly as they walked down the hall. "I like it, though, and I wouldn't trade it for anything." He carefully bumped John's shoulder. "I mean it."
"Good. Because I'd hate to have to find ways to convince you otherwise," John said with a smirk and a wicked look in his eyes.
"Maybe you still can," Richard said, with a smirk of his own as they sat down.
"So, what'd you get me for Christmas?"
Richard rolled his eyes. "Very funny. There's no way I'm telling you." John pouted while Richard pulled his book out of his book bag. "Nice try, still not telling."
"You're evil," John said and pulled out his own book and his homework.
"Like you'd tell me what you got me," Richard commented.
"I might – if you asked nicely."
Richard rolled his eyes. "So… any ideas for the GSA?"
"What do we need more ideas for?" John asked in frustration. "I know this is Cadman's baby and that he's getting a lot out of it, but I think Cadman's trying to over-analyze, over-think, over-plan, over-everything this thing a little too much."
Richard shrugged. "He wants it to be good and to work and all of that so that we'll be in the clear by the end of the year."
"I told you he'd suck you into this if you let him, and he did. You really need to back off and let Cadman crash and burn once in a while." John took Richard's hand and made him look at him. "Because I feel like it's going to be inevitable and I don't want him taking you down with him when he goes."
Richard started to speak, but made himself pause for a moment to figure out what he wanted to say. There was more to it than just Cadman crashing and burning. "Look, I know you're worried about me, and I appreciate it, but I'm going to be fine. The GSA's been good for me too, you know. Listening to Cadman and Lorne and Radek talking about their experiences, and Parrish sharing his fears – a bunch of which I can relate to, and 'the twins' getting past their bravado makes me more comfortable with who I am."
John nodded and changed the subject. "You need to let me know what to get you for Christmas. I think we should go Christmas shopping after school."
"Can't," Richard replied with an apologetic look. "I'm going with Lorne and Radek."
"Fags," one of their classmates said and walked past and sat down in front of Richard.
"Ha, ha. Very funny, Reggie," John commented snidely. "How long did it take you to come up with that one?"
"What are you saying, Sheppard?" Reggie asked, his eyes narrowing and stood.
John shrugged and turned in his seat so he could look up at Reggie. "You've been teasing us since we started the GSA. I don't know about you," he glanced at Richard, "but methinks he doth protest too much." Turning his attention back to Reggie, he said, "Maybe I could help you figure yourself out one day after school. I'm sure my boyfriend wouldn't mind."
Reggie glared at Richard before taking a menacing step towards John as the bell rang and Mr. Jackson cleared his throat from the front of the room.
"Are you insane?" Richard hissed after Reggie sat down.
"Gentlemen?" Mr. Jackson asked. "Do you have anything you'd like to share with the class?"
"No, sir," John and Richard quickly replied.
"We need to talk," John said as he and Richard hung streamers in the gym the day of the dance.
"That's never good," Richard replied sarcastically and handed more tape up to John.
"You know Lisa and Laura?" John nodded in the two cheerleaders' direction.
"They're cheerleaders and they've come to the GSA once. So?"
"They need dates to the dance tonight. They have their own tickets and everything, but I kind of said we'd be their dates."
Confused, Richard responded, "What? Why?"
John got down off the step-stool. "For the same reason we were going to pretend to go stag tonight. But, for some reason, they're really worried about not having dates."
"So you figured I'd agree on the logic of safety in numbers?" Richard asked, his eyes narrowing and crossed his arms over his chest. "When did you all agree to this?"
"Something like that," John replied and put his hands on his hips, but still didn't quite look at Richard. "They just asked me today – they caught me on the way here, actually. But I didn't agree agree. I said I thought it was a good idea and that I'd ask you."
"But what about Lorne and Radek?" Richard asked, suddenly realizing what was going on. "They're going together."
"And they've been an open secret since they started going out. They don't have anything to worry about. You and I on the other hand…"
"You mean you on the other hand," Richard interrupted angrily. "I might be unsure of what I'm doing, John, but I am not going to lie so other people will feel safe. And I won't use either Lisa or Laura that way either. And if no one cares about Lorne and Radek, then what makes you think they'll care about you and me or Lisa and Laura?" Without waiting for a response, Richard angrily stormed out of the gym.
He stopped outside and watched the other students swarmed around in an effort to get to leave school as quickly as possible while at the same time holding as many conversations as possible for as long as possible. His anger slowly dissipated and breathed slow and steady breathes. How could John? He knew Richard hadn't wanted to hide – not that he'd wanted to shout it from the roof of the school, either, but he just wanted to be whatever he was and take things one day at a time.
"He didn't mean it in a bad way," Rodney said and joined Richard in people watching. "I hope you know that. Yes, his agreement may have been partially due to fear of what people would think of him, but overall, he was thinking about Lisa and Laura above either himself or you."
"How can you be so sure about that?" Richard asked.
"Because John and I have known each other for waaay too long and I know how he works. He puts other people above himself every time and I have a feeling that one of these days it's going to have a detrimental outcome. But I think you're good for him. I think that if you two stay together long enough, you'll be able to temper some of his more unintentionally suicidal ideas."
"Thanks for that," Richard replied with a bitter chuckle. "You just want me around to keep John from going crazy while he's surfing."
"Well, more crazy. And Cadman too."
"And Cadman too," Richard replied with an amused shake of his head. "It's nice to know that even two days before Christmas, I can count on you to tell it like it is. What do you think I should do, Rodney?"
"I think that's up to you," Rodney replied while the last of the crowd dissipated. "And I think that deep down, you already know what the answer is. Anyway, congratulations, you two have just had your first fight. Regardless of what anyone else says, if you can make up from this, you'll officially be a couple. Feel up to going back in before Teyla comes looking for us?"
Richard shook his head in amusement again as they moved back inside. No one said anything as they reentered the gym and Rodney rejoined Cadman and Ronon and Richard joined John, Laura, and Lisa.
"I'm sorry," Richard said and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I didn't – and don't – mean to hurt anyone's feelings. I do understand where the three of you are coming from, but I just think that going to the Ball tonight as dates so we can try to fool other people that we're not who we really are is a stupid idea. Especially when everyone knows that the GSA is helping out with the Ball."
The girls pursed their lips and crossed their arms over their chests before glancing at each other and back at Richard. He would've laughed at how in synch they were if it weren't for the cool look they were giving him. Richard crossed his arms over his chest and glared back; he could play this game if they wanted.
"Richard, what are you doing?" John asked, looking between Richard and the girls.
"Giving them, and you, time to think things through," Richard told him. "I'm willing to go as friends, but I don't want to put on a show for people who I doubt will care anyway. Do you all really want to look back on tonight and regret that you didn't have the guts to do what you really wanted?"
"It's a high school dance, for God's sake, Richard," John said angrily. "It's not a huge deal!"
"If it's not a huge deal, then why are you making out to be one?"
"Richard's got a point," Lisa finally said.
"What? How can you say that?" Laura asked in shock.
"Look, you know how I feel about you," Lisa said and turned to Laura and ran her hand up and down Laura's arm, "and I wish we could tell everyone so we didn't have to worry about who knew and who didn't and maybe this would be a good way to start. I don't want to regret anything with you, Laura."
"Man, you really do have a silver tongue," John told Richard. "You're going to make one hell of a lawyer."
Richard blushed. "That's what I get for having a snooty private school education – I can bullshit my way through practically anything, or I can convince people about practically anything."
"You sure you want to be a lawyer?" John asked. "You could make a killing being a salesman."
"Lawyers kind of are salesmen – they just sell views of guilt and innocence. So, are we okay?" he asked all of them.
Laura looked at Lisa and her expression softened. "I think we need to talk this through some more, but I think we are," she said and Lisa nodded. "Thanks, both of you."
Richard looked at John, whose expression was unreadable, as the girls left them to finish their assigned tasks. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I know we've talked and talked about this, and I do get where you're coming from – I do – but I can't do what you're asking me."
"I know," John replied and smiled weakly. "And that's something I love about you. But I don't know if I'm cut out for this."
"For what?" Richard asked, closing the distance between them. "Taking things one day at a time when it comes to relationships? This isn't rocket science, John, it's just us. It can't be that hard to figure out."
"Sometimes I think rocket science would be easier," John admitted.
"Of course you would," Richard replied. "You never see it coming, do you?"
They both laughed at John's usual response to others flirting with him and John tentatively brushed his fingers against Richard's. "Not usually, no," he conceded. He carefully curled his fingers around Richard's.
Richard squeezed back and said, "We're doing okay, aren't we? You're not mad at me, are you?"
"Why would I be mad at you?" John asked, his brow furrowing in confusion.
"Well, I kind of put the kibosh on your cover for the dance tonight."
John shrugged. "I can't be mad at you for sticking to your guns. You've said a few times that you didn't want to hide unless absolutely necessary and I guess that in the grand scheme of things, this isn't huge. It really was for Lisa and Laura's benefit." He looked over to where they were working. "But I'm glad you got them to change their minds – it looks like it's going to be good for them."
Richard followed his gaze to see Lisa and Laura's heads together and they were both smiling and laughing at something. "This is huge, in a way," he said, turning his attention back to John. "They say that a lot of the decisions we make in high school have lasting effects on the rest of our lives."
"Are we going to talk the rest of the afternoon, or work?" Teyla asked, smiling sweetly and joined them. "Please don't make me regret the work I did to get all of us out of class for seventh period – as easy as Mr. Jackson may have been for the two of you."
"Can't we do both?" John pouted.
"If you can do both, do both," she said. "And your pouting charm lost its ability to work on me a long time ago. We've got a lot to do before the start of the Ball, and that doesn't include getting ready." She handed over a box. "The next thing I need you two to do is sort through the tickets and I need a final count of how many couples and singles tickets were sold, as well how many of each of the different types of photo ops we've sold."
"I thought you already did that," John whined.
"I did as we went along," she conceded tightly. "And I'm certain it's all correct, but I prefer having someone else going over it as well to make sure my numbers are correct."
"We'll get right on it," Richard said and took the box from John, trying to appease her and forestalling more arguments from John. He pulled John over to the bleachers and sat down. "What?" he finally asked John, who was still standing, and watching him sort through the pre-bought ticket stubs.
"I don't know," John finally said. "I just –." He let out a sigh. "I don't know."
Richard turned to face him and poked John's stomach. "What's your gut telling you?"
"To trust you. To believe that we'll be okay tonight and that there's nothing to worry about."
"And what's your head telling you?"
"That we're totally screwed and tonight's going to end badly."
Richard thought for a moment. "Okay, let's try this. You've gone to the Ball every year, right?" John bit his lip and mutely nodded. "How many people go without dates?" John shrugged and Richard held up a pile of ticket stubs. "A bunch, if this year's number is consistent with the past few years. And a number of these tickets probably belong to people who are trying to go under the radar."
"Under the radar?" John asked, confused.
"Gay? Lesbian?" Richard asked, as if it were obvious. "Did Radek and Lorne get a couples ticket?"
"No," John replied, his brow furrowing and tried to follow Richard's logic. "They got single tickets."
Richard kept going. "Radek said they've been together since summer before freshman year. Did they dance together? Did it seem like anyone cared?"
John thought for a moment. "Freshman year… we all went as a group. I don't think they did – at least not that year. I don't remember sophomore year, but they did last year and it didn't seem like anyone cared. Though, they were really discreet and careful about it."
"Did you take dates sophomore year or last year?"
"Yeah, sophomore year, I was dating a girl named Nancy. We broke up that summer – it was bad. Junior year, I took an exchange student – Chaya. We thought we liked each other, but it fizzled out pretty quickly."
"And you started thinking you were bi when?"
John thought for a moment. "Just before Nancy and I started going out. I think that's why I started dating her – I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn't gay after the whole thing with Rodney blew up in my face. And I think that's why we broke up – neither of us really knew how to handle it."
"And the boy you kissed, when did that happen?"
"The beginning of this past summer. He was a college student on vacation."
"And it was just kissing?"
"And a little groping. He got weird after that, though, and left not long after."
Richard nodded and stood. "Well, it's no wonder that you think this is going to crash and burn. Nothing happened with either of the girls you took to the dance. You were rebuffed by Rodney as well, and the one relationship with another guy you've actually had any sort of physical intimacy with besides me hardly made it out of the gate." He looked over John's shoulder and saw that no one else was paying them any attention. He took John's face in his hands and made John look at him. "I promise I will do everything in my power to make this work. And that tonight will be just fine. It's going to be like freshman year – we're going as a group with the rest of our friends like we planned, and we're going to enjoy ourselves, and no one else is going to care who we are or aren't with because they're going to be enjoying themselves, too. And if they do care, they can either fuck off or we'll deal with them."
"I wish I could believe it'll be that easy," John told him. "Tonight and in general."
Richard gave him a reassuring smile. "We'll keep working on it and one of these days you'll realize it is." He kissed John chastely on the lips before pulling away. "Come on, let's finish this so we can get everything done and have time to go home and get ready." He grinned. "And so my dad can have enough time to take pictures. I have a feeling he's cleaned out his camera's memory card in anticipation of tonight."
John laughed and relaxed. "You and your dad spoil me."
"I think you deserve it. And I think he does too."
"How do I look?" John nervously asked that evening and appeared at the top of the basement steps.
"You look great," Richard replied with a grin from where he was leaning against the kitchen counter and took in the sight of John in the tux. "You look really, really great."
"Good," John replied, relaxing. He adjusted his bow-tie. "It's been a long time since I've done anything like this."
"Maybe we should find ways to do this more often," Richard said and batted John's hands away from his tie. "It's fine. Keep doing that and you're going to actually mess it up."
"You look really good too," John told him. "It suits you."
"It better because I am not wearing a dress."
They both laughed as Aaron joined them with his camera. "Wow, look at the two of you," he said with a grin. "There's going to be a lot of disappointed ladies tonight. Okay, let me take some pictures before you go."
Richard rolled his eyes good-naturedly and John smiled in return while Aaron ushered them into the living room. Aaron took a few with the boys standing side-by-side, one with their arms around each other, and somehow managed to snap a quick candid photo when John turned to whisper something to Richard and Richard laughed in response.
"Oh, hold on!" Aaron said and quickly put the camera down. "I almost forgot!" He practically ran into the kitchen and came back a moment later carrying two small boxes. He handed one to each of the boys. "I got these for you both."
They opened the boxes and found matching boutonnieres inside.
"Dad," Richard replied in fond exasperation. "You didn't have to do that."
"I know, but I wanted to and I knew that neither of you would think of it."
"Here," John said and took his boutonniere out of the box and put the box on the table.
He carefully pinned his to Richard's lapel. Richard smiled and did the same with his to John's. Aaron discreetly took a few more pictures as they did so.
"Okay, you both look great," he finally said. "Now, go. Have fun. Try not to do anything stupid. If you do, you're paying me back the bail money."
Both John and Richard laughed and they left with a "Bye, Dad," and a "Bye, Aaron".
When they arrived at the school, the parking lot was filling and light and sound were pouring out of the hallway entrance in front of the gym. A few students were heading into the school and others were bunched in front of the doors, talking and laughing as they waited to be let in.
John and Richard shared a smile. "It's show time," Richard said. "We'll be okay. This will be great."
"Keep saying that and I might just believe you when this is over," John told him.
"If I had my way, you'd believe it now," Richard replied. Glad for the cover of darkness and their distance from the school, he leaned in and kissed John softly on the lips. "We're going to have a great time tonight, I promise."
"There's no way I'm going to get out of this, is there?" John asked.
"Only if you want to have Teyla kill you afterwards," Richard replied with a smile and took John's hand. "Come on, let's get this over with."
"Okay," John replied, and let Richard pull him towards the building.
Richard let go of John's hand before they got through the cars. They threaded their way through the gathered students, saying hi to a few of them on their way inside. Teyla was waiting for them inside the door, looking amazing and not like she had changed and done her hair and make-up in the locker room.
"You look amazing," Richard told her.
"So do the both of you," she said with a smile. "I think we're finally ready."
"We were ready when you sent us all home," John teased her.
"I know," she replied, "but I felt I needed to add a few finishing touches before the photographer and deejay arrived. Come, I'll show you where I've set you two up for the ticket table."
Once she had set them up with strict instructions on what to do, she made the final rounds to check on the rest of the group and have the deejay start playing before officially opening the doors.
Richard and John were caught up in the initial rush of students and taking tickets and stamping hands. After it had become a trickle and they had a chance to sort through the ticket stubs and organize everything to Teyla's specific instructions, they allowed themselves a chance to breathe a sigh of relief.
"It's probably a good thing we're all seniors," John said and relaxed back into his chair. "I don't know if I could do this again."
Richard laughed as Ms. Frasier approached them with an amused smile. "I believe it's time for me to take over and for you two boys to go have some fun."
"Will do," John said and they stood and moved into the gym.
What had looked simply like a gym with decorations earlier, now looked magical as lights illuminated some of the decorations constantly and others pulsed off and on. Almost everyone was dancing and seemed to be having a good time. John and Richard hovered in the doorway for a moment before finally locating their group and joining them.
"This looks great, doesn't it?" Cadman asked and pulled Richard into the group dance.
Richard nodded and awkwardly tried to dance. "It does. I think Teyla's happy with it."
"She'd better be. We're going to get our group picture done after a couple more songs."
Richard finally looked at Cadman and realized what was off about his appearance – "You're wearing a dress."
"Yes, I am," Cadman replied darkly. "That's one of the stipulations my parents have – any sort of big thing, I have to dress like a girl."
"It's – well –" Richard blushed and stuttered. "You look really good."
"Thanks," Cadman replied. "Though, I'll be happy when I can get out of this monstrosity. I think my parents thought I'd realize I'm really a girl, but it only confirms that I'm a boy."
"Relax," John whispered in Richard's ear, pulling his attention away from Cadman.
"I am relaxed," Richard replied with a glare.
"You're dancing like a robot. You need to relax." He pinched Richard's arm.
Richard yelped and jumped away, causing the others to laugh. "That's not going to help me relax!"
After some intensive time being taught how to 'dance' by his friends, Richard felt like he might actually have the hang of it. This was worlds apart from the ballroom dancing he had learned growing up, but it – like his friends – had its own sort of charm.
When the first slow song came on, the group left to get their picture taken, though he noticed John's wistful look and glanced back into the gym while they walked out. Richard had initially looked at them skeptically when they'd first mentioned it and they told him it was tradition. When he tried to beg out of it – they all looked at him like he'd grown another head and told him in no uncertain terms that he was going to be in the damn picture.
Richard watched in amusement as they waited in line for their picture. There were a few couples getting pictures taken and the girls were smiling radiantly as the camera flashed. And there were quite a few groups getting pictures taken as well and Richard was surprised at some of the groupings and who knew whom.
When it was finally their turn, they put Teyla in the middle with Ronon behind her, with Cadman, John, and Richard on their left and Rodney, Lorne, and Radek on their right. After the photographer finished his ministrations, the camera flashed and the group started to move out of the way as Lorne handed the photographer another stub for himself and Radek.
As they posed, Lorne with his arm around Radek's shoulders and Radek's arm around Lorne's waist, John put a hand on Richard's shoulder and said, "Hold on a minute." When they finished, he handed the photographer a stub and dragged a surprised Richard back in front of the camera.
"What the hell are we doing?" Richard asked.
"We're getting a picture, dumbass," John told him quietly. "Regardless of what happens, I want us to remember this – tonight, our friendship, the possibilities, all of it."
John slung his arm around Richard's shoulder and Richard rolled his eyes in amusement and put his arm around John's waist. Richard had to admit that he did like the idea of having a formal picture of them together, even if a part of his brain was exclaiming it was too soon. The photographer fussed over them for a moment, preparing the shot, before stepping behind the camera and making a few more adjustments. Finally, the button was pushed and the lights flashed a few times and it was over.
The group stopped at the refreshments table to get drinks before heading back into the gym to dance. Over the course of the night, Richard loosened up more and had a great time. He danced with Cadman during a couple of the slow songs, Teyla during another, and even with Ronon's date, Amelia, whom he had crossed paths with a few times in study hall. He was even able to pull off a fairly decent – if laugh-filled – jitterbug with Lorne.
During the last slow song, he and John stood off to the side as they watched the other couples dance. Richard wasn't surprised to see Lorne and Radek dancing together – even if this time it was a little closer, a little more intimately than the other times they had over the evening. He hoped that one day he and John would feel comfortable enough to do that in public.
After the dance was over, the group waited with Teyla until the last students were gone and the deejay was done packing up.
"Okay," she finally said with a tired sigh. "I think we can tell Ms. Weir we're finished and go home. Thank you all for helping me. And remember we have to clean this up tomorrow morning."
"As if you'd let us forget!" Cadman replied.
On the way out to Richard's Jeep through the practically empty parking lot, Richard carefully took John's hand in his. He could feel John's whole body tense through his hand. "It's okay," Richard told him. "We're okay and everything's going to be fine."
"I know," John said. "But I still… I still worry that something's going to happen to you, too."
Richard stopped them and tugged John around to look at him. "I know where you're coming from, but the only thing that's going to get me right now is tiredness if we don't get home soon. I do appreciate the sentiment, however."
He pulled John in and kissed him softly. John smiled at him and pulled away. "You're a lot bolder than you let on."
"Some of the time," Richard replied as they separated and got into his Jeep.
Back at the house, they both changed and showered and Richard put their boutonnieres back in the fridge with a bit of water.
"Do you really think they'll keep?" John asked him in amusement and leaned back against the counter.
Richard shrugged and shut the refrigerator door and leaned back against it. "I don't know, but we'll find out soon enough. I had a good time tonight."
"Me too. Thanks for what you did earlier today. I talked to Lisa and Laura tonight and they wanted me to thank you too. See, this is why you're going to Harvard and I'm going to CalTech."
"CalTech is nothing to flinch at either," Richard replied. "From what I hear, you've got to to be a genius or something to get in."
John smiled. "I'm going to miss you."
John pushed himself away from the counter and held out a hand to Richard. Richard took it with a questioning look as John pulled him into a close dance position.
"I'd say you could've done this earlier, you know," Richard said softly, "but I know that you'd deflect it somehow."
"And you'd be right," John replied. "But I'm ready now."
"Hold on," Richard said. He pulled away from John, flicked on the radio and tuned it to a schmaltzy radio station. "Okay, now I'm ready," he said and returned to John's arms.
John laughed and pulled Richard to him. "Why do I feel like anything is possible with you?"
Richard shrugged with a laugh of his own. "I honestly don't know. But I'm glad you think so. We'll be a good team."
"Righting wrongs and building cities of the future." John snorted. "Yeah, we're going to be our own dynamic duo."
Richard smacked him on the shoulder. "Don't knock it until you try it."
"Feel up to trying to dance? I haven't done anything formal in years, but I'm sure I can muddle through without damaging your feet too badly."
"If you do, I'll start leading," Richard replied with a mock glare.
The song that had been playing ended and a new one came on. John led them in a passable waltz around the kitchen and Richard couldn't help but grin when he caught John counting the steps. John glared at him, but Richard only laughed and shook his head in amusement. John stopped them when the song ended by sending Richard out in a twirl and pulling him in close.
They both held their breath for a moment and looked into each other's eyes. John slowly leaned down and kissed Richard softly. John licked Richard's lips and Richard opened his mouth and let him taste him. John let go of Richard's hand and brought his hand up to cup Richard's cheek. Richard brought his now free hand around John's body and pulled him closer. Richard deepened the kiss. John pushed a leg between Richard's and Richard abruptly broke the kiss.
"I'm not ready yet," he told John and backed up.
John nodded and Richard could see him close in on himself. "Okay. Sorry. I wasn't thinking."
"Don't worry about it," he said, taking John's hand and wanting to make sure he knew everything was okay. "I'm just not quite there. And it's not about you – even before you, sex was a weird thing that I knew had to happen in order for me to have kids, but I didn't want to think about it too much."
"I won't pressure you, if that's what you're worried about," John told him. "I'm not that kind of guy."
"I never thought you were," Richard reassured him, pulling John to him for another dance, this time going for something slower and more intimate. "Plus, I want the first time to be special."
"And you don't think this will be special?" John asked with a snort of amusement.
"Oh, I'm sure it would be special all right," Richard replied sarcastically. "In my dad's house after a dance? That's pretty cliched. Not to mention the fatigue and stress from setting up from said dance and school mid-terms. I'd say this is the least sexy set-up ever."
"I'm sure we could find something even less sexy. But I see your point."
"We'll know when it's right," Richard told him. "Just not tonight."
John smiled at him sappily. "I don't deserve you."
"That makes two of us," Richard said. He saw some hesitancy in John's eyes. "We'll make this work, I promise. Regardless of what happens with your dad or school, we'll be together."
"I hope you're right."
Richard smiled smugly. "I know I'm right. We're a dynamic duo; it has to work for us."
John shook his head in amusement. "You are your father's son. His optimism knows no bounds, either."
Christmas Eve morning passed in a flurry of excitement as they cleaned up after the ball and decorated the Woolsey house for Christmas Day.
Just before lunch, Aaron stopped the guys on their way out the door with a load of their gifts and said, "We're going to have dinner together tonight and afterwards, we're going to get and decorate the tree. It's the Woolsey family tradition and neither of you are getting out of it. So finish up whatever you two need to do now because dinner's going to be at 5:30."
"Okay," John replied and Richard said, "We're going over to Lorne's for a holiday party. We'll be back for dinner."
"Have fun, you two."
"Do you think we have enough gifts?" Richard asked and put the the last of them in the back of John's truck.
"I certainly hope so," John replied in amusement and surveyed the wrapped items before getting in the cab. "Just remember we're bringing this much back too."
"Oh, I know," Richard replied. "I still haven't gotten my head around it, but I know."
John laughed and started the truck. "I still haven't gotten my head around how you're not more stuck-up and snooty than you are."
"Much to my mother's chagrin, I'm sure," Richard replied. "I doubt she wanted me to be arrogant, but I never gave in to flaunting my family's wealth, however subtly, and I don't think she ever understood why I wouldn't want to."
"That makes two of us," John said in sympathy. "I've never really cared about my parents' money. It's been nice to have sometimes, sure, but most of the time I don't care."
"I guess that means when we come into our inheritances, we'll end up spoiling our friends and family rotten."
"That sounds like a very good plan. What time's your flight leaving again?"
It took Richard a moment to catch up to the change in conversation. "Eight am day after tomorrow, which means I'll have all day tomorrow with you and my dad."
John parked behind Rodney's car in front of Lorne's house. "I'm going to miss you a lot."
"I know and I'm going to miss you too. I wish I could take you with me, but somehow I don't think that'll go over very well."
John shut off the engine and took Richard's hand in his. "Have you decided how you're going to tell her?"
"I don't even know if I'm going to tell her," he admitted and studied their hands and rubbed his thumb over John's skin. "We'll see."
John abruptly laughed. "I think we better get inside before our audience decides to become more up close and personal."
Richard looked out his window to the house and saw Lorne and Radek grinning at them like loons through the glass storm door and smiled himself. "I think you're right."
They gathered the gifts and went inside. Lorne showed them where to place the gifts by the tree in the living room before herding them into the den with everyone else.
"Welcome to this year's Christmas Extravaganza," he said. "This year's festivities will include a round or two of mini-golf – depending on time constraints, followed by gifts and traditional holiday foods and beverages. Though, due to the unfortunate events at last year's Christmas Extravaganza, there will be no wassail."
Everyone except Richard snickered at that and Rodney turned a bright red. John leaned over and said, "Rodney accidentally used hard cider instead of regular last year. I'm sure you can put two and two together. Thankfully, his parents realized what was going on and fixed things pretty quickly."
"If you need to go to the bathroom, I suggest going now," Lorne said.
The group collected their stuff and left Lorne's house. They reconvened a few moments later at the center that housed the mini-golf courses and batting cages where they paid for a game and collected clubs and balls. To make things easier, they broke up into two teams – Cadman, Richard, John, and Rodney; and Teyla, Ronon, Lorne, and Radek.
Richard soon found that he was disadvantaged in playing with John and Rodney. Both played like professionals and had the competitive edge to go with it. They also heckled the other four, who were playing in front of them. John did help Richard with how to hold himself and swing the club to his advantage. By the time they finished, he had a respectable score, even if he was still last out of the three of them and only better than Radek.
When they got back to Lorne's house, they grabbed seats in the living room to open presents. Lorne and Radek passed out gifts, making sure everyone had one before anyone was allowed to open anything. It quickly devolved into a free-for-all as they opened gifts and passed out more.
Richard was surprised at the thought that was put into the gifts. Teyla had made them all a bracelet – a leather thong with intricately carved beads that she said were meant for protection among her people. Ronon had carved small figurines that reminded him of each of them and Richard was surprised to see that his was a fox. Rodney had gotten him a gift certificate to the mall with an apologetic note written on the envelope that a book he had ordered hadn't come in yet. Cadman got him a nice leather portfolio with a legal pad inside. And John, still holding the teddy bear Richard had given him to hold while he was gone, had gotten him a bag of gummy worms for the plane ride.
Lorne and Radek had jointly gotten him a present and Richard looked at them quizzically and took the odd-shaped box. "Hold on," Radek said suddenly and handed John a smaller gift. "You and John should open your presents at the same time. I think it will be more effective that way, since the two gifts go together."
John and Richard looked at each other confused, and they all laughed. "I think we're in trouble," Richard commented.
"And I think you'd be right," John agreed. "On three?" Richard nodded. "One. Two. Three."
They quickly opened their gifts. And stared at the boxes in disbelief for a moment as everyone else was quiet for a second and then started laughing. They had given Richard a large box of condoms and John a three-pack of lube.
"Thanks, guys," John replied slowly. "This is, um…"
"Hey, we want you two to be safe and prepared," Lorne said. "We don't want to know any details – now or, you know, ever – but –"
"We did it out of both love and not wanting to pass up an opportunity for a joke," Radek added.
"Yes, well, thank you," Richard replied diplomatically. "Just remember that this is all your fault if we decide to use some of the condoms for nefarious purposes."
"You wouldn't dare," Lorne replied, as if Richard had issued a challenge.
Richard smirked. "I'm not promising or denying anything. Just forewarning."
"Okay, let's get on with things," Cadman replied before things progressed any further. "The longer it takes, the longer we'll have to wait to watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."
Everyone agreed and quickly cleaned up before heading back into the dining room to load up on food and drinks before returning to the den. They all got comfortable and Lorne put the movie in the DVD player. Richard curled up against John and John put his arm around Richard's shoulders and pulled him close. Richard put his hand on John's stomach and John placed his other hand over Richard's.
When they got back to the house, Richard called, "Hey, Dad!"
"Back here!" Aaron replied from the deck.
John and Richard joined him back and Richard asked, "What's sticking out of your car?"
"That's the Christmas tree," Aaron replied, looking up from where he was trying to untangle the Christmas tree lights. "I decided that we should have a real one this year instead of the monstrosity that's in the attic. I left it out there because I'm going to need help getting it inside and setting it up. Did you boys have a good time?" They both nodded. "How was the wassail this year?" he asked with a sly grin.
John laughed and said, "Sadly, there was no wassail this year."
"Too bad," Aaron said with a wry grin and put down the lights "Okay, I'm giving up on these for now. Let's get the tree in and it can settle while we finish."
The three of them manhandled the tree into the house and put it in the newly bought stand Aaron had set up in the front corner of the house before cutting open the netting. Once the tree had been secured, they cleaned up the stray needles and twigs and Aaron made John and Richard work on the lights while he started dinner.
"You know, you could let me cook," Richard said.
"I know," Aaron replied. "But I like doing it. It's not much fun when it's just me, and it also makes me feel like I'm making up for some of the lost time."
"Dad –" Richard started.
"Don't 'Dad' me," Aaron said. "I mean it. I missed out on a lot of stuff while you were growing up and I'd like to do something to try to make up for that."
Richard went into the kitchen and hugged him. "Believe me, you are – in more ways than you can imagine."
Aaron kissed Richard's forehead. "That's good to hear. Now go finish those lights or no dessert. For either of you." He teasingly thwacked Richard on the butt with a dishtowel and sent him back onto the porch.
"I'm not losing my dessert because of you," John told him.
Richard laughed. "Good, neither am I."
They applied themselves to the task at hand and by the time dinner was ready, they had all the lights untangled and stretched across the deck and plugged in to assure they were in full working order.
"Thanks again for doing this for me, Aaron," John said as they sat down.
"Don't mention it," Aaron replied. "I'm glad I could do something to help you out after what happened with your dad. Have you tried talking to him?"
John shrugged. "I called a few times, but never got an answer. I guess the fact that my cellphone hasn't been shut off yet is a good sign. I've gotten a few emails from Dave and he hasn't said much, beyond that my dad isn't talking about me or the situation."
"How about we talk about something else?" Richard asked, seeing John's unease with the topic.
Aaron and John nodded and they ate in silence for a few moments. "We'll leave around six to get you to the airport on time," Aaron said. "It's not far, but I don't know how crazy it's going to be with it being the day after Christmas, so I'd rather have you there early."
Richard nodded. "Okay. And Mom said she got the flight itinerary I emailed her and that she'd be waiting for me in the baggage claim area."
"Good. And remember to call me when you get there."
Richard rolled his eyes and smiled. "Yes, Dad."
"At least call John."
John smirked at Richard. "Got us on that one."
"He does that," Richard conceded.
"Remember that tomorrow night we're having an open house," Aaron told them. "I picked up a couple of different food trays earlier and they're in the fridge, and some other munching stuff."
The boys both nodded. "What's the plan for tonight?" Richard asked.
"After dinner we'll decorate the tree, then maybe watch something Christmas-y on TV and drink hot chocolate." Aaron laughed. "Don't give me that look. I haven't had Christmas with you since you were seven. I think I'm due at least this much schmaltzy Christmas stuff."
"Okay, okay," Richard said and John tried to hide his smile by stuffing a forkful of salad in his mouth. "And you're not helping," he told him.
"Don't care," John said around the lettuce.
The dishes were cleared in record time and Aaron had them bring in the light strands with a highly undue amount of reverence lest they tangle again, which they teased him about unmercifully as they put them on the tree and affixed the star to the top. Once that was done, Aaron opened up the box of ornaments and began spreading them out.
"A lot of these belonged to my parents," he explained. "I've only ever bought a box or two of balls to add a little bit of variety."
They hung the old ornaments on the tree with Aaron telling them stories about Christmases growing up. They finished by hanging crocheted snowflakes instead of tinsel or garland.
Stepping back to admire their handiwork, Aaron said, "That looks better than any of the department store trees I've seen. Okay, picture time."
Richard laughed. "Seriously?"
"What?" Aaron asked and got the camera. "Your mother doesn't do this?"
"She hasn't for a long time," Richard said.
"Well, you're doing it now, so move," Aaron said, motioning to the tree. "You too, John."
Richard smirked and pulled John in front of the tree with him. The boys slung their arms around each other and smiled at Aaron. After studying the picture, Aaron smiled and said, "Good."
"Here," John said, moving away from Richard. "Let me get you two."
Aaron handed over the camera and joined Richard in front of the tree. John took their picture and smiled as it came up on the display. "Great."
The next morning was started by Aaron bouncing down onto Richard's bed.
"Uuurgh," was Richard's response and burrowed under the covers.
"Come on, sleepyhead," Aaron told him brightly. "It's Christmas morning! You should be doing this to me."
Richard shifted around and glared at Aaron out of one eye. "What time is it?"
"You've been waiting years to do this, haven't you?"
"You bet." Aaron grinned. "Come on. John's up and we want to open presents. And, no, I didn't wake him up this way."
"Mmmph," Richard said and burrowed his face in his pillow. "Five minutes."
"Five minutes, then you have to be up, dressed, and washed in five."
Richard nodded and yawned into his pillow. Aaron moved off the bed and Richard heard him leave the room. He stretched and yawned again before turning over onto his back. He grinned. This was the first Christmas in a long time that he was actually excited about. It didn't have the depressive air of knowing that he was going to be getting boring clothes and presents he didn't want or ask for again, followed by a formal brunch with his mother and visiting time and a formal dinner with the extended family. This was going to be the antithesis of Christmas with his mother.
He got up and quickly did his morning ablutions and dressed. After rechecking his appearance in the mirror, he joined John in the living room.
"Merry Christmas," he said, still somewhat sleepily.
"Merry Christmas," John told him with a grin.
Richard looked at the tree and smiled and saw the plethora of gifts that his dad had added to it after he and John had added theirs prior to going to bed, as well as the candy canes that decorated the tree. There were also two large, full stockings propped up on one of the chairs. They were definitely designed for kids and one had a plane on it, and the other a book, but Richard couldn't help but like the sentiment that was behind them.
"Are we all set?" Aaron asked and brought out three steaming mugs of coffee.
"I think so," Richard replied and John nodded and they both took a mug of coffee.
"Well, you know where to start," Aaron said, sitting down on the couch and taking a sip of his coffee.
Both boys picked up their stockings and settled on the floor next to each other in front of the tree. Their stockings were filled primarily with "necessities" – deodorant, toothpaste, a toothbrush, gas cards, and other similar items.
"Thanks, Dad," Aaron said in amusement, when they finished, still somewhat surprised at the amount of stuff that had been inside.
"Thanks, Aaron," John said in amazement. "You didn't have to do this."
"Have to? No. Want to? Yes," Aaron replied with a warm smile. "Let's get started on the rest of the presents.
John, who was closer to the tree, began handing out presents and soon the floor was awash in wrapping paper and packaging. Richard was surprised at the variety of things they had gotten each other. Sure, he did get some clothes from his dad, but the items were things he had mentioned liking, or similar to the items he had picked out before. Aaron had even gotten John a few items of clothing, which seemed to surprise John only slightly less than the amount of gifts he was getting. There were also books, DVDs, CDs, a set of cooking knives Aaron had mentioned, various items to keep John and Richard's vehicles running smoothly, board wax and other surfing items for John, and an IOU certificate from Aaron to Richard for his college textbooks.
"I have one more thing, for you," Richard and John said at the same time. Aaron chuckled and got up and retrieved their mugs to refill them.
"You first," John said.
"No, you first," Richard replied.
They laughed and exchanged gifts, hesitating for a second before opening them at the same time. Richard grinned when he saw the black leather briefcase. He finished unwrapping it and ran his fingers over the lock and nameplate that had his initials on it, feeling a silly grin develop on his face. He heard John's small gasp and looked up to see John staring at a pair of mechanical pencils.
"If –" he started, suddenly unsure if he overstepped a boundary. "I figured you'd need them with all of the math and drafting you'd be doing."
"Wow," John said and took one of the pencils out and examined it closer. "These are – wow."
"Thank you," they both said at the same time.
"Let me know when you two are done spoiling each other rotten so I can start breakfast," Aaron called out of the kitchen and both John and Richard laughed.
"Will do," Richard called back. "Thank you," he told John again and leaned in to kiss him.
John made a soft "mmm" sound in the back of his throat and smiled into the kiss. He licked at Richard's bottom lip and Richard broke off the kiss.
"Not while my dad's in the kitchen!" Richard hissed.
"Don't act so scandalized," John replied in amusement. "I doubt he'd care if he saw us kissing. He's probably already figuring we're doing a lot of things we're not."
"Regardless," Richard returned, "I like believing that a stork brought me and I want to stay in that bubble when it comes to anything concerning either of my parents and sex."
John laughed. "I'll have to agree on that one. Should we tell him to start making breakfast?"
Richard's stomach growled. "I think that's a yes," he said with a laugh.
They cleaned up the remainder of the wrapping paper and stacked the presents under the tree before heading back into the kitchen.
That evening, John lounged on Richard's bed while Richard packed. "It's not going to be that long," John reminded him.
"I know," Richard replied with a sigh and threw some socks into his suitcase. "But I still wish I could've stayed home with you for the whole break."
"We'll still have a couple days at the end. And you don't want to alienate your mom – one of us will need to have parents speaking to us if we plan on pawning off paying for our wedding on someone."
Richard's head snapped up in surprise and he looked at John in surprise. "Just kidding!" John said with a nervous laugh. "Maybe it'll do you good to get away for a few days – absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that."
Richard laughed. "I am coming back, you know. I just –" he took a deep breath. "I'm nervous too," he confessed. "I didn't fit in before, I don't know what it's going to be like now that I've been gone for four months. And I've changed since I left, and if I can tell, I'm sure everyone else will too, and this is going to be weird."
"Of course it's going to be weird – you're going back to the rich life after 'slumming it' for four months, at least that's how they're going to look at it. But you and I both know better – it's better here than it is there. And I think the changes have all been for the better." He poked Richard's arm, which was tanner than it had been when he'd first arrived – and that was just the most evident of the changes. "You're going to have to call me every day and tell me what's going on so we can make fun of all those snobby jerks."
"You can call them assholes," Richard said and threw a few t-shirts in the suitcase, followed by some jeans. "There's no point in denying it."
"Okay, then – snobby, pretentious assholes. There." He smiled. "It'll be fun – I haven't had a chance to mock anyone from that group for a long time."
"You know, you'd make a good candidate for Batman if Bruce Wayne ever decided to hang up the cowl. You've got the aloof, disparaging playboy thing down pat."
"And don't forget the angst – you can never forget the angst."
"It would be un-Batman-like to not have angst," Richard agreed and finished, shut the suitcase, and put it by the bedroom door. "I hope you don't feel weird about being here alone with my dad for five days."
John shook his head. "Nah, I'm sure we'll be fine. He and I've always got along great." He gave Richard a lopsided smile. "I guess it's good that I get along with my in-laws and we found a way to not have to deal with yours pretty quickly."
Richard sat next to John on the bed. "All this stuff about us getting married…" he started.
"Just teasing," John replied easily, though Richard could see the nervousness in his eyes. "You know how it goes – you start a relationship and sooner or later one of you starts thinking about the forever stuff." He shrugged. "I figured if we could joke about that sort of thing, then it would make all this," he waved his hands aimlessly, "easier somehow while we figured it out."
"Sounds like a good plan to me," Richard said with a smile and leaned in and kissed John tenderly, and this time he deepened the kiss and tasted John's mouth. John's hand settled on Richard's hip and held on to his shirt.
When they broke apart, John grinned wickedly and said, "So, how many condoms do we want to keep and how do we want to pay Lorne and Radek back with the rest of them?"
"Feeling optimistic, are we?" Richard replied with a laugh and stretched out on the bed next to him.
"Maybe?" John asked. "We are teenage boys after all. We shouldn't be naturally showing this much restraint. I doubt it's good for us."
Richard shook his head in amusement and curled up next to John and began stroking John's stomach and John wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Let's talk about it when I get back. I can't even begin to think about anything like this when I'm about to go away. How's your chest feeling?"
"Good. Doc said things are progressing well – maybe even a little quicker than he was expecting."
"That's good to hear, right?"
"Definitely. So… you said you weren't planning on telling your mom unless you had to. What about everyone else? Are you going to do your best to shock the extended family and your ex-schoolmates with the newest personal development?"
Richard chuckled. "You really are evil. I don't know. I'm not planning on it, but I guess if the situation warrants it, then I think I will. I don't want to be dishonest with anyone – you know how I feel about it."
"I know, I know. But we both know about the idea of 'discretion is the better part of valor'."
"Though, maybe a little havoc would be good," Richard replied thoughtfully. "Give them something new to talk about. I swear, they're still circulating the same gossip from before I was born."
John laughed. "I think I've heard similar things at some of the functions my dad hosted. And there was always someone who was shocked by it." Switching gears, he said, "I'm glad your mom, for whatever weird reason, decided to ship you out here. You've made things so much better. And not just by giving me a place to live."
Richard smiled. "I'm glad she did too. And I can say the same about you and the rest of the group, but you especially. If you hadn't called me over that day…." He looked up at John. "Why did you call me over?"
John squeezed Richard's shoulder. "I don't know, really. It just felt like the right thing to do – and not in the 'look at the new kid who's eating alone' kind of way. I know it makes no sense, but it's like you were meant to be part of our group."
"Thank you for that," he said, relaxing against John and wrapping his arm around him. "Can we stay like this for a while?"
"Sure," John said and kissed the top of Richard's head.
"Come on, sleepyheads," Aaron said, shaking Richard's shoulder.
Richard blearily looked up at him. "What time is it?" he asked and tried to stifle a yawn.
"It's 5:30," Aaron replied in amusement.
"A.M.," Aaron confirmed.
Richard looked over at John, who was slowly starting to stir, before looking back up at his dad. "I guess we –"
"Yeah, it looks like you did," Aaron replied, the amusement still evident on his face. "We've got to get moving so you don't miss your flight."
"Okay," Richard replied and slowly started to stretch. "I'll wake him up and we'll be ready to go shortly."
"Don't take too long," Aaron said and left.
"Hey," Richard said, patting John's stomach. "You've got to wake up and let go."
"Don't want to," John murmured and shifted towards Richard and settled again, this time his other arm around Richard's waist.
"Yes, you do or we won't get to the airport in time."
"Don't go," John said, slowly opened his eyes.
"Need to," Richard replied. "We've got a wedding to pay for, remember?"
John snorted. "Yeah, I know." He leaned in and kissed Richard languidly.
Richard melted into the kiss and cupped John's cheek before moving his hand up to thread in John's hair. When they parted, he leaned his forehead against John's. "You know, I've heard people wondering what you do to get your hair this way," he said and began stroking it. "And I wonder what they'd say if they knew that it's like that naturally."
"I doubt they'd believe that it really is a living entity," John said with a grin. "It and I have a weird symbiotic relationship. I don't tell anyone, and it and its cronies don't take over the world."
Richard laughed. "That sounds like a really bad horror movie."
"'The Hair From Planet 5 and 3-quarters," John intoned before they dissolved into giggles. "I'm going to miss you."
"I'm going to miss you too." He paused for a second. "And I'm going to save the freaking out over sleeping with you until I get on the plane. It'll give me something to do – it's a long flight."
"We literally slept together," John said. "There's nothing to freak out about. How'd your dad take it?"
"He appeared amused." Richard looked down. "And considering the fact that we're both fully clothed and on top of my made bed, I think we're in the clear."
"Good." John stroked Richard's back. "I liked this. Think we could do it again when you get back?"
"I think we could work something out," Richard agreed and sat up. "But at the moment, I want a shower."
"I guess it's too much to ask if we could share?" John asked hopefully.
"I'm all for conserving water, but no. Not when I'm about to go visit my mother and we've got under half an hour."
John grinned evilly. "I'm definitely taking a rain check."
Richard smiled in amusement. "Okay. I think I can deal with that."
"It'll give you something to work through on the plane," John said and also sat up. "Go, get ready."
Richard stopped in the gate's lounge area to stretch properly after the long flight and adjusted the straps on his book bag. He slowly followed the rest of the crowd down to the baggage claim, nervousness slowly building inside, centered around all his doubts about how things would go with his mother. He hadn't been joking about changing and he was afraid she wasn't going to like who he'd become – even though Richard loved it. It might've only been four months, but he felt like a whole new person – a real person.
His mother was the first person he saw when he reached his destination. "Richard!" she called happily and waved.
"Hi, Mom," he said when he reached her and they hugged.
"How was your flight?" she asked before they followed the crowd to the carousel.
"Long and boring," he said.
"I brought your coat," she said, handing it over to him.
"Thanks," he replied and shrugged it on. "You look good. Did you get your hair done?"
She made a face. "No, actually. I haven't had a chance and it looks horrible, but thank you for the compliment. You look well, though. Southern California must agree with you."
"I think it does," Richard replied with a smile. Seeing his bag on the carousel, he fetched it and they fought through the throngs of people to the parking garage. "I need to call Dad and let him know I got in okay," he said, pulling out his cell phone. She nodded and unlocked the car and Richard put his suitcase in the back seat. "Hey, Dad."
"Hey," Aaron replied. "How was your flight?"
"Long and boring. Not even a bit of turbulence."
Aaron laughed. "Good to hear. You met up with your mom okay and got your luggage?"
"Yep, we're on our way out of the parking garage now."
"Good, good. John and I went out for breakfast after we dropped you off, then came back and crashed for a while in front of a Bond marathon on TV." Richard smiled as his mom paid the parking fee. "Do you want to talk to him? He's right here."
"Sure," Richard replied. "Love you, Dad."
"Love you too. Call me before you leave so I know when to start worrying. Here he is."
Richard laughed and heard the phone being passed over and John said, "Hey."
"Hey," Richard said, his voice unintentionally softening. "Having fun?"
"You bet," John replied. "I think I'm going to give up being an engineer for NASA and become the next James Bond. Or better yet – Sheppard, John Sheppard."
Richard laughed and replied sarcastically, "Yeah, I'd like to see that. You already have the girls swooning over you and you look good in a tux."
"So, everything going okay?"
"So far so good," Richard replied, glancing at his mother, who was wearing an unreadable expression and navigated away from the airport. "I'll talk to you later, okay?"
"Okay," John agreed. "Be online later?"
"Yes, I will. Bye."
As Richard put his cell phone back in his backpack, his mother looked over at him questioningly. "Who was that?" she asked.
"That was John," Richard replied, looking out the window at the passing scenery. "He's staying with us because his dad kicked him out of the house."
"Friend from school?" she asked.
"Yes," Richard replied. "Best friend."
"Sounds like it's more than that," she commented, her tone neutral.
"It might be," he replied, also keeping his tone neutral.
"Look at me, Richard," she said and he did and was told. "Are you gay?" she asked, glancing at him before returning to the traffic in front of them.
"I don't know," he replied. "Maybe?"
"Do you like John?"
Knowing there was no way he'd be able to feign misunderstanding, he replied, "I do." He could see the grip on the steering wheel tighten and her knuckles turn white as her mouth tightened.
They were quiet for the rest of the drive home and Richard wasn't sure if that was a good sign. His mother had always been easier to read than his dad. Richard shouldered his pack and looked up at the two-story house in front of him and didn't get the reaction he was expecting. He didn't feel like he was coming home for part of his Christmas vacation, but that he was visiting his mother during Christmas vacation. He sighed and got his suitcase out of the back seat before following her inside.
"Would you like something to eat?" she asked as they stopped in the small foyer. "I'm sorry I forgot to ask earlier – I was just so excited to see you."
Richard shook his head. "I'm okay," he replied. "Still a bit fuzzy from the flight."
She nodded and said, "You know to let Ariacella know if you would like her to cook you anything."
Richard nodded. "Don't let me hold you up from any plans you have for tonight."
"The family wants to see you," she told him. "We're having a dinner the day after tomorrow."
"Okay," Richard replied. "It'll be good to see them. Any other plans for this week?"
"Not at the moment," she replied. "I'm sure your friends will want to see you, though."
Richard bit back a laugh at the thought. "I'll have to see who's around," he said truthfully. "They usually go away. Can I use the car this week?"
She nodded. "You know where the keys are."
There was a long pause. "I'm, um, I'm going to go get a shower," Richard finally said before turning and heading up the steps to his room. He heard his mother sigh wearily before walking towards the back of the house and he kept going. He threw his suitcase on the bed and the backpack followed more carefully. He took his laptop out and set it up on his desk, going to get a shower in his personal bathroom as it started up.
Feeling a little better, he sat down at his desk, signed onto his mother's wireless internet, opened up his messenger, and texted John.
Laywertobe: This sucks. She found out right away.
Flyboy: Then you shouldn't have talked to me like you did. You can be pretty obvious. :-P
Laywertobe: rolls eyes No, I'm not. I don't know how she's taking it. She got really quiet. Do you think my dad would kill me if I came home early?
Flyboy: Probably. People take it differently. Give her some time to work through it. It's a lot to process at once.
Laywertobe: I know. But, still… I wish I knew how….
Flyboy: as. You're still new at this and coming out will get easier as you get more used to it yourself. Or so I've heard. 2. It's never easy with your family or people you're close to.
Laywertobe: Thanks. What're you up to the rest of the day?
Flyboy: Maybe another Bond movie, then going to Cadman's. Wish you could be here for his post-Christmas blitz.
Laywertobe: Me too.
Flyboy: Miss you.
Laywertobe: Miss you too. Getting off before we turn into a bunch of girls.
Flyboy: :-P Don't let Teyla hear you say that.
The next day, Richard drove around town, re-familiarizing himself with all of his old haunts. Places that had once seemed impossible to leave, now felt like strangers. He ran into a couple of his peers from school, people he had known a little better than acquaintances from the times his mother had tried to "help" him in the friendship department. They were all very cordial to each other and politely inquired after the other's school years so far and holiday celebrations. More than once, Richard almost admitted to having a boyfriend, but ended up biting his tongue. And after each interaction, he cursed himself for not having the courage to do it. He had never liked any of these people anyway, so why did it matter whether or not they liked the fact that he was gay?
His cousin, the only one his age and one of the few he actually liked, had surprised him while they walked around the mall and brought up the subject of the family dinner the following evening. "Your mom's pretty excited about it," Robert said.
"Don't worry about it," Richard replied easily. "I'd actually like to see her get excited about something. Hey, did you ever ho- did you ever go out with that girl, Tammy?"
"From Briar Ridge?" Robert looked surprised that Richard had remembered. "Yes. And it failed spectacularly. She's going out with Theodore, now. But I'm going out with her sister, Samantha. It'll be our four month anniversary on New Year's Eve."
"Thanks. What about you? Have anyone back in California?" Robert asked, stopping to get a soda.
Richard shrugged and took a straw. "Yes, there's someone. We're still kinda," he circled his hands in front of him and finished, "trying to figure things out. Medium coke, please."
"Large coke. Good for you too. You know," Robert dropped his voice confidentially, "at school we all kind of thought you were a fag."
Richard's head shot up and he stared at Robert in shock. "You – what?" He opened and shut his mouth a few times. "Why?"
Robert shrugged. "You never seemed to have any really close friends and we thought you were trying to not, you know, get involved with anyone."
"That's ridiculous!" Richard replied. "I – uh – I don't know how to even respond to that."
"Well, it's good to hear that we were wrong," Robert replied.
Richard's eyes narrowed and for once, listening to more than one of Rodney's rants seemed to actually be a good thing, and he started to tear into Robert. "Actually, you weren't wrong. I do have a boyfriend – well, sort-of boyfriend. But the idea that I'm gay because I wasn't friends with people is a shit excuse with so much faulty logic that I don't even know where to start and I'm glad I'm not better friends with any of you. And it's a two-way street, you know. I did try to be friendly and get involved, but I was excluded unless it was necessary for you to acknowledge me, regardless of the fact that I'm family. And another large part of the reason I didn't have friends was because no one made the effort either unless my mother paid out which, honestly, doesn't bode well on our 'friends'' social skills or life in general in the future if you're not willing to put in the effort to know people who aren't exactly like you. You all seemed to know before I did that I was gay. Was that part of the reason why you closed ranks against me? Were you afraid to get 'gay cooties'? Honestly, our private school is gayer than my high school's GSA ever will be – and at least there it's intentional."
Richard threw his money down, swiped his soda off the counter, and walked away with his head held high, not looking back. That wasn't how he'd planned for things to go at all. And he knew everyone would know by the next day – no, by the end of today. And he didn't think he cared too much. His mother would probably kill him, but he was pretty sure he was okay with that.
"Sit," his mother said the next evening after the party. As Richard sat down in a kitchen chair, she continued,"What the hell's going on, Richard? I was given the cold shoulder by family members who I'd normally count on with my life and I couldn't help noticing you weren't exactly welcome either."
"I told Robert I was gay."
"Richard," his mother said in exasperation and sat down next to him. "That's hardly something to talk about."
"I know, but I needed to set him straight on it, so I did. Whatever you might like to think, this had nothing to do with you or our family. I'll be gone soon and after a while, all this will fade and you won't have to worry about it anymore."
"I still have to deal with these people during the holidays and other events. I can't just cut myself off from them."
"Maybe you should," Richard told her. "They've never liked you that much and you've never liked them that much either and pretending that you do always upsets you. I know you tried to shield me from it, but I always saw."
"It's not as easy as that."
"It never is, Mom. Is that why you divorced Dad? They were putting too much pressure on you to do it?"
Her expression hardened before she said, "No. Your father and I had been growing apart for a long time and we agreed that it would be better if we didn't pretend anymore and let ourselves go our separate ways. Hand been saying things about me or my side of the family?"
Richard shook his head. "No – nothing bad anyway. Every once in a while, he'll remember a funny story or something, but that's about it."
She nodded and sank into a chair. "You know this isn't going to be easy for you, this path."
"I know," Richard replied. "But I do like him a lot – maybe even love him."
"I doubt you'll be allowed back to any family gatherings, you know how they are."
"I do," he said with a bitter laugh. "And I'm completely okay with that, since I've got my own family. What about you, Mom? Are you okay with it?"
"I'm your mother. I'll deal. Of course, I wanted grandkids and a huge wedding, but I'll learn to settle for pets and you and whoever your partner is."
"You know, with the way things are going, you could still get that wedding and the grandkids. There are a lot of options now, and I'm sure there will be even more by the time I'm done college and want to start actually thinking about stuff like that."
"Good, that'll give me more time to get used to it. I'm apologizing in advance for anything that I do unintentionally."
"Thank you," Richard replied. "Can I ask you something?" She nodded. "Why did you send me to Dad's?"
She gave him a sad look. "Because I wanted to make sure you had a chance. I didn't want you ending up like me or the rest of the family."
"You could've said something instead of just sending me."
"I'm sorry. Have you been happy?"
Richard nodded and smiled. "Yes, I have."
"Good," she said. "I'm glad." She patted him on the shoulder before standing. "Good night."
"Good night, Mom." Richard retired to his room and turned on his laptop. As soon and started up his instant messenger, Cadman sent him a message.
Realboy: OMG! I know what I want to do for Valentine's Day!
Laywertobe: Calm down. It's not even the new year yet.
Realboy: Never too early to plan. How're things at your mom's? The world end yet?
Laywertobe: It almost did a couple of times, but things are still intact. How're things out there?
Realboy: Good. We miss you. John misses you. I think he's moping.
Laywertobe: LOL. He doesn't mope.
Realboy: Whatever. When you get back, we'll have to talk about my plans. I need to go eat.
Cadman signed off and John signed on at the same time.
Laywertobe & Flyboy: Hey.
Flyboy: How're you?
Laywertobe: Good. Ready to come home. Really miss you. How're you and my dad?
Flyboy: We're doing okay. And I miss you too. And so does your dad… I think. :-P
They talked for a while longer before they signed off and Richard got ready for bed. He couldn't wait to go home.
The rest of the time with his mother was a blur, but Richard felt like they had a better relationship now and he was glad about that. But this wasn't his home any more and he couldn't wait to go back.
He was dropped off at the airport with a sad smile and kiss on the cheek by his mother. The trip felt like it took forever to get home, but soon enough he was standing in the LAX airport and heading for the baggage claim. His dad and John were waiting and they both waved enthusiastically at him and he couldn't help grinning when he saw them. He and Aaron hugged each other tight when he reached them. And he and John grinned at each other for a moment before hugging and kissing each other.
With John's arm casually slung around his shoulders, Richard and his real family went to collect his suitcase from the carousel and then head out to the car. He was glad to be home with all of its craziness, this time better prepared to deal with the oncoming insanity.