Author's Warnings: Contains material that some may find disturbing and/or triggering.
Commenter's Notes: This is a seriously late birthday present. Grace loves DVD commentary on her fic and I'd planned to do one but time got away from me. Then this challenge came along and also, she wrote this story for mcshep_match and I loved it so much that I had thinky thoughts. About the formatting, I prefer to do the blockquote method simply because I find it hard to read chunks of bolded or italicized texts.
I need to start off here explaining that it's essentially impossible for me to do a "cold" reading or commentary of anything Grace writes. When you've been in the same chat room with a person almost every night for the last four years and you consider them a really good friend and you've written with them and read their fic and read their thinky thoughts about writing and life, the universe and everything...you know them too well to read their fic without knowledge of them as a person bleeding over. Or at least that's how it works for me.It's hot today, must be in the nineties, maybe, and it's not even noon yet. John's got his shirt off, got it tucked into the back of his cut-offs in case he needs it later, doesn't want to have to go back to the motel room and risk waking Rodney.
Okay that said....
John should still be asleep himself. He doesn't remember what time he finally got in, but it was getting light outside. Couldn't get to sleep, though. Not that that's anything new, but he usually manages a couple hours. He'd tried. He'd lain in bed for three hours, at least, but he's got a tooth in back that's real bad and lately even the usual aspirin-and-a-joint treatment doesn't do much. It doesn't help any that his ass was fucked raw, either. That last guy'd been more than a little rough, paid extra for taking John with nothing but a gob of spit, but John's kind of wishing now he'd said no. Still, ten bucks extra's nothing to sneeze at. Maybe they'll go see Return of the Jedi again tonight.
Wow, here's Grace, not pulling punches but throwing us into the story and expecting us to just trust her and keep reading. To do that, you have to have a set up that makes the reader want more, and John hooking at a young enough age that he'd be wanting to see RotJ again is more than good enough for me. She also lets us know up front that this is not the whole "glamorous call boy" lifestyle thing, but the gritty reality of life on the streets.It's only four blocks to the Winchell's and he's already sweating. The place is empty except for a bum at one of the corner tables, and John goes straight for the cigarette machine, digging in his pocket for change. "The usual," he tells Maria as he feeds quarters into the machine, and by the time he's up at the counter, she's got him all rung up - two chocolate glazed, a raspberry jelly, an eclair, three bearclaws, and a large coffee. There's a little carton of milk, too, but the total's still the same.
He pushes a crumpled five across the counter. "What's that for?"
The cash register opens with a ding and she counts out his change. "A growing boy needs more than coffee and cigarettes."
"I'm eighteen," he says, smiling.
"Uh-huh, and I'm still twenty-five." She puts the carton in the bag with his doughnuts, carefully rearranging them so they don't get squashed. "Just drink it, mijo, okay?"
He ducks his head and mumbles, "Thanks." He jams his change into his pocket, grabs the coffee too quickly and some of it sloshes onto his hand, not that hot, but for some reason his eyes are stinging anyway.
Oh ouch. This John is so easy to see with his bravado and his attempt at charm. You just know he's thin and trying so hard to look tough and wordly and that he's not succeeding. I like the use of Maria here, not only is it a nice bit of showing not telling, but, to me, roots the story firmly in SoCal. Of course, I know it's SoCal, because Grace said so, but...yeah.He's halfway back home before he realizes he forgot to get any sugars.
It's not that bad if he holds his breath when he drinks it. Not like he's drinking for the taste anyway. He cuts through the cemetery, sticks his coffee through a hole in the fence and then pulls himself over the top. He sits Indian-style on a bench in the shade, the stone still nice and cool. He eats the doughnuts as fast as he can shove them in his mouth and washes them down with the milk and the rest of the coffee. His tooth is fucking killing him. He can never remember to eat on just one side of his mouth.
The weirdest things can get to you; the whole thing with John's tooth is like a punch to the gut for me.He punches himself on the jaw. "Eat on the left, retard." It's not like he could go to the dentist even if he wanted to blow all their savings. It'd be their ticket right out of L.A. and back into fucking foster care. A little sore tooth's nothing he can't deal with. He gets up then and trudges out the other side of the cemetery, kicking the balled-up doughnut bag ahead of him and squinting so hard he can feel the start of a headache.
Of course John's out of foster care; we already know that this isn't a happy fun story. And here we see that that's how he met Rodney, which makes sense and also lets us know that Rodney's probably not in much better shape than John.Rodney is probably still sleeping, seems like he always is. Lucky bastard never has trouble getting to sleep, not even in heat like this. Their room's gotta be sweltering. No breeze ever seems to come through the window and the cheapo fan just blows hot air around. 'Course, once John gets to sleep, he stays asleep, never dreams much that he can remember, so that's a trade-off.
And yep, there's Rodney with bad dreams, about what we don't know, but at this point the reader's guess will probably be wrong.At least there's a bit of a breeze now, so maybe he's better off not cooped up inside. He starts running after a bit, still kicking the bag until it goes wild, shooting out into the street, and then he just leaves it. There's no traffic; he could get it easily, but he's picking up speed now, his shirt flapping behind him. He grabs it and tugs it out of his shorts before it comes loose on its own and he loses it.
The only time he slows is when he turns the corner, and even so, he narrowly misses a collision with a stroller. The woman pushing it frowns at him, but he just grins and yells "Sorry!" over his shoulder, halfway down the block already. He shoots past the bus stop, flies off the curb without checking for cars. Just a side-street anyway.
Nice bit of dating here, along with RotJ, the fic is now fixed firmly in the early 80s. And coming right after showing that John is still a kid is good timing, because yes, if he's roughly the same age as canon!John (or Joe) then he really is still quite young at this point.When he finally slows to a walk, the sweat starts pouring off him, like all the sweat the wind blew dry is back and trying to drown him. He mops his face with his shirt and looks around. He's past Sav-On, any thoughts of picking up a pair of cheap sunglasses run clean out of his head. Literally. He doesn't feel like turning back now, not when he can see Shakey's just up the block, and his stomach's growling and his hands are suddenly itching to get a hold of a joystick. He could use a piss, too.
He waits for a break in the cars and dashes across the street, pulling his shirt on over his head as soon as he's back on the sidewalk.
It's cool and dark inside, nearly empty in that afternoon lull between the lunch and dinner crowds. He feels a bit bad at splurging on a whole medium pizza for himself, but what Rodney doesn't know won't hurt him. And more importantly, what Rodney doesn't know, he can't complain about. With that in mind, he orders a pitcher of root beer, too.
Nice touch, here: showing us that Rodney is still recognizably Rodney, because of course he'd complain about missing out on pizza, particularly if it's a treat.He uses the bathroom while he waits, and it's always kind of weird now using a public restroom to actually piss, but it's the middle of the day and it's mostly moms and kids here besides him, so it's not like hanging out in the bathroom'd get him any money.
Oh ouch ouch ouch. God, poor John. And the thing is, again, he's so fucking young here. Because instead of saving what he can, he's blowing money on pizza and, we see a paragraph down, video games, and so you get this gut feeling that he's never going to get out of this life and that hurts.He scarfs down half the pizza, then gets change for a five. That's all he's going to spend on games today. Maybe not even that if he's good enough. He keeps those quarters in his right pocket, separate from the rest of his money so he's not tempted.
There's a kid playing Crystal Castles already. It's always that way with the new games. John plays Ms. Pac-Man and Dig Dug instead and then Tron for a bit, until the kid's mom finally comes and drags him away. It's nothing but Crystal Castles after that, with a few trips back to his table for another slice of pizza, at least until John's quarters run out. The pizza's run out by then, too, and the last of the root beer is watered down with melted ice. He drinks it anyway.
Between his feet and his tooth and his ass, he's feeling pretty damn beat up. Tired, too, finally. Fat lot of good it does him now, when he's gotta be awake for a good twelve hours or more. He shouldn't've spent all that money today. Rodney'll be pissed off.
This time the bit about Rodney struck me as "oh okay, Rodney's the practical one then." And you know, he would be, so even though we haven't even seen him yet, he feels as in character as this John does. Or to me they do, at least.His feet hurt too bad to walk home, much less run, but the bus only goes halfway. It's nice while it lasts; he manages to snag a seat by an open window, presses his cheek to the glass and closes his eyes, enjoying the breeze. There are bums who ride the bus to the end of the line and back all day long, and maybe John will try that, too, sometime, just to see where it goes.
And again, John's in bad shape here and I think it's only the fact that he is still a kid that keeps him from being even more run down by his life. Part of me wants to say "don't spend all your money on pizza and video games" but another part of me wants to say "be a kid as long as you can!" Of course, most of me wants to help him somehow.
He ends up running the rest of the way home after all. It hurts more, but it's faster.
I like the whole running thing. Not only is it a bit of a tie in with canon!John, who runs, but it feels like this John runs not only to get off his feet faster but to feel like he's actually going somewhere.Rodney's still asleep when John lets himself in. The little clock on the nightstand says three-thirty, which John figures is about right, even though it said three-thirty when he left this morning. It's close enough, anyway. He turns on the fan; it's a fucking oven in here, no doubt. Rodney's hair is sticking to his forehead and cheek, his t-shirt dark with sweat, and he's tangled up in the sheets like a mummy. John wonders if that's just the heat or if Rodney's had nightmares again, and now he's kicking himself for going off and leaving him alone.
I love that John feels so responsible for Rodney here. Later Grace tells us that Rodney's younger than John by about a year, but even so, this is canon!John all over, even though he's a kid and does stupid kid stuff, he still feels responsible for the people he cares about.He toes out of his shoes, pulls his socks off, the right one bloody at the heel, and pads into the bathroom. He'll have to take a shower before going out again later, but that can wait. For now he just takes a piss and gets a drink from the tap. He has to let the water run a bit before it stops coming out rusty.
He strips down to his underwear and climbs onto the bed. "Hey," he whispers. "Hey, it's just me, okay?" The bed creaks and Rodney rolls over, mumbling something John can't hear. John stretches out, trying not to startle him. He lies still, barely breathing, and it's like trying to get a bird to hop into your hand or something. Just gotta wait and let them come to you. So John waits and watches Rodney toss and turn, listens to the snatches of nonsense and the bits he understands all too well, and eventually Rodney recognizes him, even in his sleep, and he curls around John, tangled sheets and all.
It's hot and uncomfortable and John probably won't have any better luck getting to sleep now than he did this morning, but it calms Rodney down, and that's something.
Awwwwww.... But seriously, I love this look at Rodney we're getting here; whatever he's been through hasn't been any easier for him that it has for John and you can't help wondering at this point if he's as prickly when he's awake as canon!Rodney is, or as you'd imagine canon!Rodney was as a teen.
And there's this tenderness in John that you know he'd deny if someone brought it up, but the way he's so patient with Rodney says volumes all without Grace ever once telling it.
The first time John met Rodney, he was a sullen little girl named Meredith. It was about the seventh or eighth time John landed in foster care, but his first time with the Allens. They had two older boys of their own, high-school-aged, and four foster kids, not counting John. Most of them were younger, the littlest not even in school yet. Meredith was the closest to his age - the same fifth-grade class, but a year younger. He'd never known anyone who skipped a grade before.
And this is the place where I really wish I'd known nothing about the fic. Because I would have gotten the impact other people got from reading this paragraph and that would have been cool. As it is, I do love the way she packs a hell of a lot in this paragraph: Rodney was once a girl named Meredith and John was in and out of foster homes and Rodney was really smart and.... And it doesn't feel like an info dump. I just adore the way that Grace can do that; her writing is so spare and she never writes two paragraphs where one will do.She had a funny slanted mouth that always made her look unhappy and just about the shortest hair John had ever seen on a girl, the bangs uneven, like maybe she cut them herself. She played the piano a lot and she didn't like football, but she liked CHiPs and The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, and knew more about comics than John, so they got along well enough.
I don't know about anyone else, but I can so totally see canon!Rodney in this kid Grace describes regardless of the gender issues.When Star Wars was rereleased that summer, Greg and Martha Allen took them all to see it, but Meredith was the only one who really got it like John did. They played Star Wars every day after that, fighting over who got to be Luke until they finally agreed to switch off every other day. It wasn't that Han wasn't cool, too, but he didn't have Jedi powers or a lightsaber, so it just wasn't the same. The one time John suggested Meredith be Princess Leia, she kicked him in the nuts so hard he cried and wouldn't talk to him for the rest of the day.
I loved this because again, it's so much like you'd imagine both of them as kids. And I like that these foster parents seem to do things that the kids might like.It wasn't long after that John's mom showed up again, new boyfriend in tow. This one was a mean drunk, and by the time he left her, John had what felt like permanent bruises on his arms and spent the hottest weeks of summer sweltering in long sleeves and jeans.
Oh man. It's not like you can't guess that something like this is coming when you learn that this is John's seventh or eighth time in a foster home, but still...God. Poor John.The fight after that was the worst. It started off the same as always: "If you just behaved yourself, Dale wouldn'ta left!"
John just turned the sound up higher and pretended like The Love Boat was the most interesting show ever, even though it was dumb and a repeat anyway. He let her yell. Not like he hadn't heard it all before, and she'd leave him alone soon enough. He figured she'd be drowning her sorrows before the next commercial.
Instead she grabbed his arms, fingers wrapping right around the bruises Dale left, and shook him hard. "You're nothing but trouble!" She was crying pretty hard, and John would've felt bad if Dale hadn't been such an asshole. "I shoulda left you at the home."
All I can do is repeat myself here: poor John. Just...yeah.It stung more than it should have. She didn't mean it any more than he did when he snapped, "I wish you had!" Her slap hurt more than anything Dale or any other stupid boyfriend ever did, but she hugged him after, like she hadn't done in years, and in the morning she took him to International House of Pancakes and let him order anything he wanted.
He was back at the Allens' before school started.
If someone asked me why I think Grace is such a good writer, I could easily use these two paragraphs as a perfect example. With this kind of story it would be so easy to go way over the top and write several more paragraphs about John and his abusive, alcoholic mom and the patterns they get into just to wrench every last bit of angst out of it and then wallow in it. Instead you get that little bit and then the stark sentence about him being back with the Allens. And the twist in the chest is, for me at least, so much more ouchie than if she'd gone on at length. Instead, there's a sympathy here but it's not smothered in sentimentality; this is John's life and Grace isn't about to tell you what to feel about it because that's up to you.Meredith wouldn't talk to him at all at first. She didn't even say hi when the social worker dropped John off, just went back to the piano and started playing as if he wasn't even there.
Grace writes kids so well; Meredith blaming John rings very true to life for me and not just as "well Rodney would be like that" but as a "most kids would be like that" thing."Don't let her fool you," Martha said when they were upstairs getting John settled. He didn't have a lot, just his backpack and a small suitcase he hadn't even gotten around to unpacking at home yet. If it weren't for Martha folding and putting away his clothes, he probably wouldn't bother here, either. "She kept peeking out the window ever since we got the call this morning." She pushed his suitcase under the bed and turned back to him. "Meredith's been with us a little over three years now, you know, and she's never really made friends..."
I like Martha here; just this little bit makes me think that she really does care about both Meredith and John.Martha said it like she was telling him some big secret, but John wasn't at all surprised. Meredith scowled at him all through dinner and it was only after a week of the silent treatment that she came into his room one afternoon and said, "I'm gonna play Six Million Dollar Man. You can be Jamie Sommers if you want," like nothing ever happened.
"I'm not a girl!"
"Be a boy named Jamie, then, duh."
Duh! *grins* This is cute in a kid way but it's also an interesting bit of...well not exactly foreshadowing because we know that by the time they're on their own, Meredith has become Rodney, but it's an interesting mirror/echo thing to have John be the one saying "I'm not a girl!"Being bionic mostly involved running around the backyard or sitting in the narrow space between the garage and the back wall, which Meredith had declared their secret headquarters. It wasn't really all that secret, but it was the closest thing they had, and in the late afternoon like this, it was nice and shady. John wished the Allens had a tree house or a fort or something. That would be cool.
I've really only briefly touched on the fact that Grace uses pop culture references to give us a time and place, but I really do like it. This is one of those things that was cool about "listening" to her talk about the process of writing the story; I know she did a lot of research about when things came out--like the checkered Vans and so on--and because of that attention to detail, you never really notice that there are actually no dates in this fic because it's set so obviously in the mid-70s and early 80s that you don't need dates.They sat with their backs against the garage and their legs propped up on the brick wall. Their knees were green from the grass. Meredith said, "I hope we're in the same class again this year."
John hoped so, too, but he just said, "I hope the school burns down and we don't have to go at all."
Even at this age, John and his feelings aren't exactly on speaking terms and having seen some of what he grew up with, is anyone surprised? Oddly enough, I could almost buy a slightly less angsty version of this as canon!John's backstory."I'm really a boy, you know."
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. It wasn't hard to imagine. Maybe if her name was Jamie, he would have thought she was a boy Jamie. She said, "There was an accident when I was born and I came out with a girl body instead, that's all."
I love the complete and utter lack of any kind of a graceful segue from Meredith here. Both that and Meredith's explanation of what's wrong with "her" is both very kid-like and very Rodney-like.John was way past the age where he believed in Santa or magic or stupid stuff like that, but the way she said it, in that same old bossy know-it-all voice, made it sound real somehow, like maybe it was just some disease or something he didn't know about. After all, he never knew anyone allergic to oranges and lemons before, either.
"That sucks," he said finally.
"Yeah." Meredith scrambled to her feet. "I'm gonna go see if there are any Otter Pops left. Gretchen better not have eaten the last one again."
And John's reaction is great too: for all that he isn't that good with feelings, he says exactly the right thing here because I can't imagine Meredith responding well to anything other than this kind of answer.They weren't in the same class. There were a few kids John remembered from fifth grade, and he made friends easily enough. He always had. Meredith declared everyone in her class stupid and said she wouldn't want to be friends with them anyway.
The other thing I get here is how much John already trusts Meredith/Rodney to know things that he doesn't; for me, it's a really satisfying echo to canon.
Christmas came and went and John didn't hear a word from his mom. He turned twelve in January and Martha baked a cake just like she had for Travis's birthday in November. The Allens treated him and the other foster kids like their own, which was more than he could say for a lot of the folks he'd stayed with. Sure, Travis got a new bike and John got an X-Wing, but no one else'd ever even asked when his birthday was. Sometimes his mom even needed reminding.
That's probably why she didn't call or come get him or anything. He tried not to worry about her, tried not to think about how maybe if John wasn't there, she might be the one getting hit. But maybe without a stupid kid around, she'd found a boyfriend who treated her good, maybe even gotten married, and he didn't want to think about that, either.
Again we see that these people are good and give a damn about the kids. It would have been really easy for Grace to wallow in the angst and give John and Rodney crappy foster parents on top of everything else, but thank God she didn't. Because really, the comparison between his mom and the Allens is enough angst here.Instead he concentrated on taunting Meredith with the fact that he had an X-Wing and she didn't. They'd both gotten Star Wars figures for Christmas, and he let her Luke fly it sometimes if she asked nicely. A lot of times her idea of asking nicely was arguing that since Han Solo didn't fly the X-Wing in the movie, she should get to play with it more since she had Luke.
Sometimes it was easiest just to give in.
*snickers* Get used to that, John.In May he'd been at the Allens' a year, and even with the month or so over the summer he'd been back with his mom, it was still longer than he'd been anywhere else. He didn't want it to feel like home.
Home didn't mean having his own room. It didn't mean eight other people at the dinner table and the same school for the whole year. Except when it did, and then he felt like a traitor for ever thinking it.
John's insistent loyalty to his mom is really painful here, but I find it in character both for John and for any kid. She may be awful, but she's his mom.Home was wherever his mom was. Sometimes it was the backseat of a car when there was no money for a motel room or a stranger's couch while he tried not to hear what was going on in the bedroom. For one summer when he was six, it was at his grandparents' house while his mom tried to "clean herself up".
He thought about his grandparents sometimes, wondered if they knew he was here or if they thought about him at all. He didn't even know their names or if they lived here in Colorado or somewhere else. All he remembered was that it was a long drive.
He didn't think about them very often, though, and as time went on he thought about his mom less and less, too. If you ignored the fact that sometimes the kids were different if someone got adopted or someone else's mom showed up, the Allens were almost like a TV family, like Eight Is Enough or something, only with seven of them, and John kind of liked it.
Ow ow ow. Nothing new to say here, but ouch anyway. Poor John.In seventh grade, the other girls were starting to get boobs. A lot of them wore makeup and had purses, and they liked to huddle together in the corner of the classroom and giggle. Meredith's hair was still cut short, shorter than John's, even, and he'd never seen her in a dress.
John knew he should like Sandy McKinley, who had bigger boobs than anyone else in their grade, or Jenny Grant, who all the boys said was easy. He knew not to look at other boys in the showers, knew better than to even look like he was looking. It didn't take Jimmy Mancini getting the shit kicked out of him to know the boys here had no more love for fucking faggots than Mom's boyfriends had. If Jimmy didn't know that by now, it wasn't John's problem.
So he pretended to be interested when someone excitedly showed off their brother's Playboy, and when the rumor started going around that Mr. Hunt, their algebra teacher, was sleeping with one of the ninth-grade boys, John took up a dare to write cocksucker on Mr. Hunt's desk after school. He never got caught and he never forgot the look on Mr. Hunt's face the next day, like it hurt to smile.
Kids? Suck. They're so good about picking things up and reinforcing the uglier lessons of life, and Grace gives us a perfect example here. The interesting thing is that her John is so emotionally resilient; from what we've seen of him a few years later, he doesn't seem to have picked up any of the all too common internalized self-loathing that a lot of gay men end up with.If he didn't talk to Meredith much at school, he told himself it was 'cause he saw her at home all the time anyway.
I find this really interesting coming right after the whole thing about him doing his best to fit in with the straight kids. Does he avoid her at school because she's not girly enough? Because she's his "sister"? Because she's younger and/or not cool and doesn't have his easy charm and ability to make friends?He did spend all his time with her: lying flat on his back in the den listening to her play piano or cramped up in their secret hideout doing homework and talking about the newest issue of Superman and what it would be like if Bo and Luke Duke teamed up with Ponch and Jon ("That's the stupidest idea you've ever had," Meredith said, but John still thought it would be pretty cool).
*sporfle* I'm so glad Grace put this in here; not only is it both typical of kids and a cute nod to the idea that so many kids mentally write fanfic, but I really like the nice little bit of humor in the midst of all the grimness. It's both needed and a nice echo to later on when we see that John is still a kid in so many ways.Towards the end of the year, they had to write a paper together for English, one of the few classes they had together. It was supposed to be a story about your family. John wrote about his dad and said he was a pilot in the Air Force. He said he wanted to be in the Air Force when he grew up, too, which was true, and for all he knew, the part about his dad was true, too. Meredith wrote about the Allens.
This is one of the few--maybe only?--things in the fic that I'm not all that wild about; I really think that the attempt to tie John in with canon!John wasn't necessary. It's hard, because John and flying are the peanut butter and chocolate of SGA characterizations, but here it feels a tiny bit forced even if it is necessary to segue into the next bit.
"What about your real parents?"
She was quiet for a long time and then said, "I didn't like them."
This is one of the places where I would love to have a Meredith POV. Because beyond my curiosity about her parents, something about the carefulness of the answer here makes me wonder if she feels like she should be as loyal to her parents as John is to his mom.He didn't mention that she didn't act like she liked the Allens much, either, or how happy she'd been last August when Patrick went away to college, but he noticed she didn't mention Patrick at all in her paper.
I only noticed this on the closer reread but it really made wonder if he'd just teased her or of there was something worse going on. We know from the later stuff that Rodney has nightmares and you have to wonder what that's about.The first time he kissed her was just after he turned fourteen. He didn't think about it beforehand, didn't even mean to do it, not then, anyway. One minute they were lying on his bed reading and the next he was on top of her, their mouths pressed together and his dick suddenly hard against her thigh. The door was open and the house was full of people and it didn't matter.
Meredith's mouth opened and he thrust his tongue in, sloppy and wet, and it took him far too long to realize she was completely still under him. When he opened his eyes, she was crying. He'd never seen her cry before, never seen her so quiet.
This is another utter punch to the gut moment. Her passivity here and the way that she's doing nothing to stop him is creepy, given that it's been established that she has no problem kicking John in the nuts if he pisses her off.He jerked away, sat up and turned his back to her and said, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I thought..."
"I told you. I told you," she said, almost too low to hear. "I'm a boy."
The sense of betrayal here is just devastating; that John of all people wouldn't understand this."I know," he said, but she was already gone.
And, of course, the fact that he tried to kiss her actually shows that John really does accept that Meredith is a boy, but there's no way that for Meredith to know that.It wasn't like their usual fights. She didn't stop talking to him. She asked him to pass the potatoes and if he'd done his homework and whether or not he wanted to go to the library tomorrow if it was still snowing. She walked to school with him and talked about what was on TV last night and asked if he was looking forward to the Super Bowl, which was not only a stupid question, but also probably the first time he'd ever heard her voluntarily bring up football.
Also, the pronoun issue is going to start getting tricky here for me. I'm going to try to stick with calling Meredith a girl as long as Grace uses the female pronoun except where I'm comparing Meredith to canon!Rodney or even the Rodney we see later in the fic. Hope that works.
He let her talk because he didn't know what to say, and for days and weeks and months after that it felt like she never shut up. He let her talk because he was afraid the alternative was her pretending he didn't exist.
This is both canon and fanon in a way; Meredith/Rodney here, talking to cover up awkwardness and John going along with it because he doesn't know what to say.He kept thinking about it, though. He couldn't not. He thought about kissing her, about touching her. He knew she didn't have a dick for real, but thought of what it would be like to give her a blowjob. It wasn't like thinking about girls at all. He'd tried thinking about boobs and pretty girls when he jerked off, but he might as well have been thinking about what was for dinner.
I love that when John fantasizes about Meredith, he's adding in the boy parts. There's so much said here about gender: does John think of Meredith as a boy because Meredith insists on it, or is it more that John likes boys and he likes Meredith, therefore Meredith is a boy? Does John like boys more than girls because Meredith is the one person he truly loves and trusts and counts on? Is it some combination of all of the above along with other factors like biology?They were walking to school when he said it. Gretchen and Andrew had already turned down the street to the elementary school, and it was just him and Meredith. She was talking, but he didn't even know what about. He just walked with his hands shoved in his pockets and looked down at the ground and waited for her to pause for breath and then he said, "I like boys."
And really, this is one of the things I love so much about this story. It's a queer love story but it's not a really simplistic "John and Rodney met in foster care as kids and fell in love" story. There's both a fluid concept of gender--John knows Meredith's body is female, but he can turn Meredith into a boy in his head when he jerks off--and a very rigid concept--as far as Meredith is concerned, he's always been a boy and always will be and the body he was born in is simply a mistake. It's all very complicated, which is one of the reasons I really, really want people to read it and think while they do. Well all that and it's so very well-written. :)
"I don't like girls."
She walked a little faster, and even though he looked up, he couldn't see her face. He thought maybe she said, "Oh."
"Mer," he said, jogging a few steps to catch up with her.
"I don't like that name."
"I like the name Rodney." She turned and looked at him then, thin lips set in a line, like she expected him to argue. Her bangs fell into her eyes. She looked more like a Rodney than a Meredith.
He said, "Me, too."
Of course, it's that simple for them. And yet...it's not and we know it won't be, and that's one of the underlying angst points. Because there they are, John and Rodney, but not in any way anyone around them is going to understand and we already know that life won't be kind to them.She was the one who came up with the idea. Rodney was. He. It was hard to get used to that, especially when everyone else still called Rodney Meredith, and it's not like John could call him that when anyone else was around.
I like that it's not easy for John when he's not jerking off. Even though he's so accepting, there's got to be some disconnect for him, particularly when they're around other people.Maybe that was why it was so easy to say yes when Rodney said they should run away, or maybe he'd just been in one place too long. John liked the Allens all right, but the only one he'd miss if he had to leave was Rodney, and Rodney was coming with him.
I think it's interesting that John's bouncing around in and out of foster homes has given him this weird kind of wanderlust."I want to go to L.A." Rodney said. "Or maybe San Francisco. San Francisco has a lot of gays, but it's sunny all the time in L.A. and there's probably a lot of gays there, too."
For me, Rodney's reasons are obvious and simplistic in that kid way; he can't be Rodney where he is so the answer is to go somewhere else.
"Either one's fine by me." John squinted up at the narrow strip of sky between the garage and the wall. Their secret hideout was just wide enough for him and Rodney to lie side by side on their backs without quite touching. He wanted to kiss Rodney. He was getting a boner thinking about it and he rolled up into a sitting position, drawing his knees up and hoping Rodney hadn't noticed. "Um. I like." His voice cracked. "Sunny sounds good."
I think it's interesting that even after John's confession, they're not sexual with each other. This is yet another place I'd love a Rodney POV because I really wonder if he's struggling with the idea that maybe liking John means he's a girl after all.On the last day of school they filled their backpacks with clothes and food instead of books. Not that they really needed books today, but John had come up with the idea of saying they had to clean out their lockers if anyone asked. Rodney'd sneaked down to the kitchen in the middle of the night and gotten some stuff: apples and Twinkies and bolonga sandwiches he'd forgotten to put any mustard or mayo on.
Totally unrelated to the story but this is a nitpicky something I see in SGA fic all the time...if Rodney's allergies are real, he can't eat most mayo. /PSAJohn felt kind of bad about it, but he took twenty dollars from Martha's purse and another ten from Travis's room. It got them tickets on the Greyhound to Denver with enough left over that Rodney didn't totally panic. John smiled at the bus driver and said they were going to visit cousins for the summer.
"Your brother doesn't look too happy about it," the driver said.
"Yeah, he gets homesick."
Rodney punched him on the shoulder, but he was grinning. "I do not!"
The driver smiled. "No roughhousing on my bus now."
"Yes, sir," John said, and gave Rodney a push down the aisle.
They flopped into a pair of seats at the very back and Rodney whispered, "He thought I was your brother."
Rodney beamed. "He thought-"
"I know." John laughed, grabbed him around the neck and gave him a noogie. "Shut up. Jeez."
"No roughhousing!" Rodney squawked, and John let go. He smiled at the old lady who turned back to look at them, and she smiled back. The bus would be gone before school was even out. They would be in Denver. He tried not to think about after that.
I love this so much. Rodney's glee at being mistaken for a boy is so much fun and John's reaction is really good too.
The cold seeped through the knees of John's jeans as he unzipped the guy's pants. The stall stunk of piss, but at least the floor wasn't wet. The guy's hands fluttered around John's head like he didn't know where to put them, eventually settling on John's shoulders. It was easier than John remembered. His mouth was bigger. He wasn't crying. He even managed to smile at the guy afterwards, the ten in his hand soft and worn.
And of course, because this is an ansty, Grace story, the lightheartedness is followed by another punch to the gut.They ate at McDonald's to celebrate their first night away from home and Rodney didn't ask where the money came from.
We already know that John had to resort to hustling, but we didn't know that he'd been sexually as well as physically abused. And again, neither Grace nor John dwell on it. In fact for John, it's more "hey I have this skill and sure, I learned it under bad circumstances, but it's useful now."
Also this leads to something that I didn't mention earlier. For me--I'm roughly five years older than John--the idea that he's having unsafe sex at this point in history is like painting a big damn target on his back; I can't imagine it ending well. I just cringe.
I've gotta wonder if it's just that Rodney is still naive or if he just doesn't know what to say and so, takes the easy way out.
It took a while to find a motel they could afford. It took longer still to find one that didn't insist on seeing the dad John said was waiting in the car. There was only the one bed. John was gonna tell the guy they had sleeping bags if he'd asked, but he hadn't.
I like the little details here and I can totally see John with the ready lies on his lips, counting on his charm to get him through.Rodney kicked off his shoes and pulled down his jeans. He was wearing a pair of John's underwear, the front hanging loose and empty. Before John could say anything, she climbed into bed, curled up on her side and pulled the covers up around her neck.
I really find the deliberate pronoun shift here interesting and I'm not really sure what's going on in John's head. I'm gathering that he's still got some disconnect going on when he's actually presented with the very real fact that Rodney's in a girl's body.
"Me- Rodney. Um..."
And Rodney is obviously a little freaked and not wanting to deal with the fact that he's in bed with a boy who wants to have sex with him."Yeah. Me, too. I just..." John tugged at the hem of his t-shirt, wishing it would magically grow longer to hide his boner. "Gotta pee."
He jerked off quickly in the bathroom, then stripped down to his underwear and crawled into bed next to Rodney. He had to get up again to turn off the light.
It was hard to sleep far enough away and still have any covers. He thought of suggesting they split them up, but Rodney was pretending to be asleep already. Rodney moved around a lot when he finally did fall asleep. He kept getting his cold feet on John's legs. The rest of him was warm.
John had to get up three times to go jerk off.
Ah, teen-aged stamina.He woke up in the morning with the covers kicked mostly off and Rodney wrapped around him. Resting one hand on Rodney's bony hip, John squirmed around and kissed him, and Rodney woke with a start. "Sorry, I. Sorry," John breathed. "Can I...?"
Rodney reached down between them, wrapped his hand around John's dick. John's hips jerked and he pushed into Rodney's hand. "Rodney..." He didn't know where he was allowed to touch. Rodney's hip seemed to be okay. Kissing him seemed to be okay, too, when he tried that. John wanted to feel him without clothes on, but he couldn't ask. He was afraid to say anything that might make Rodney stop touching him like this. And then Rodney moved a little, wrapped one leg around John's and started rubbing his crotch against John's thigh. He was so warm there, burning up, and his hand was warm, too.
It was over too quickly, but they did it again.
One of the more interesting things about this fic is that the sex is rarely...sexy or seriously hot. The description of John giving a blowjob in the bathroom is gritty and uncomfortable and now John and Rodney having sex for the first time is more sweet than anything else. I think it really works; it would feel out of balance if you felt that Grace was suddenly all porny here.They stayed in Denver for a month. It wasn't a bad city, but it was close to home. Not their home anymore. Close to the Allens'. They fought over where to go next: west to Grand Junction or south down to New Mexico.
I like that, even if it's for selfish reasons, John is willing to only do what Rodney is comfortable with. You know that's the only reason Rodney's willing to have sex with him and the trust between them makes this surprisingly romantic.
"We can't be this far north when it gets cold," Rodney said, waving his arms. "I'm not ready to freeze to death!"
"It's still summer."
"Yeah, and look how long it took us to save up enough money to go anywhere."
"Fine," John said, and rolled over on the bed.
Rodney sat down next to him and poked him in the kidney. "Why d'you wanna go to Grand Junction anyway?"
It might be where John's grandparents lived. He didn't even know their names. "I don't."
This little, last bit of loyalty to his birth family really got to me. *clutches chest*He rolled back over, ran his hand up Rodney's thigh as Rodney bent down to kiss him. It was easy to think of him as Rodney now. Nobody here knew Meredith. John wasn't sure she'd ever even existed.
It's interesting that John's perception of Rodney is influenced by how the outside world sees them.Before they left for Santa Fe, John bought a postcard of the city. He addressed it to Greg and Martha and wrote We're OK. Don't worry about us. He thought about the nights there'd been no money for a motel room and the first time Rodney had come back from the restroom with more money than he'd had going in, and he scrubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand and added Thanks for everything. Love, John.
Okay, I'mma admit it here, I got a little teary-eyed when I read this even after having read bits and pieces of the fic before and even knowing what Grace had in mind. This is so very much John all bravado and not letting anyone see how hard things are. John's protectiveness seems to highlight a certain selfishness on Rodney's part, except that we know that Rodney's hustling too. You have to wonder if Rodney's actually passing as a boy and maybe only doing blow jobs or if he's hooking as a girl.John turned fifteen in Phoenix, and still they stayed. Money that should have been saved for bus tickets was spent on jackets for both of them, and new jeans and shoes for John, who was growing out of everything. It went to a portable cassette player for Rodney, who then spent even more money on tapes of classical music. John bought a couple ABBA albums.
Another link to canon!Rodeny is the music of course. I get this image of Rodney withdrawing in on himself more and more as it becomes more and more physically obvious to outsiders that he's in a girl's body and I think the music is part of that because it and the books in the library are the only things where gender doesn't matter. Even John isn't as much as much of a refuge as he used to be, now that they're having sex. Or at least...that's how I can see things going.It was Easter before they moved on to San Diego. They arrived in L.A. a full year after they left the Allens'.
Also, we finally have an age for John. Fifteen. God.
I really liked the use of the extended flashback bracketed by the "now" here. It could have been gimmicky, but it works, helped by the tense shift and by the fact that you're hooked on both stories from the get go.
John half-drowses, vaguely aware that Rodney isn't in bed with him anymore. The cassette player's playing something classical that he should recognize by now, but it all sounds the same. After a while, he pushes up on one elbow and reaches down to scratch his balls, palms his hand over his half-hard dick on the way back up.
Rodney stands in front of the fan, blocking it, and John says, "It's cooler if you take your shirt off."
"No. It isn't."
The bed creaks as Rodney climbs on top of John. John doesn't let his eyes linger on the slight swell of breasts, but he can feel them when Rodney presses against him. He wants to tell him it's okay, but instead he just worms his hand between them, slips his fingers into Rodney's underwear and finds him hard and slick already. Rodney rubs against John's fingers, eyes squeezed tightly shut.
He kisses back when John kisses him.
*sighs* And in the end...it's okay. It's not perfect and, yeah, life's washed over them but still, they have each other. I know that Grace said she wanted to show how life had sort of worn them down, but I'm not sure that's what I get from it. I think the main wearing down is still to come and I hurt for them in advance, if that makes sense.
A few final impressions and then I'm gonna take a quick look at the soundtrack.
Grace isn't the first person to make the Meredith = FtM!Rodney connection, but this is the first story I've read that makes it work and doesn't either make it something funny or treat it lightly and somewhat unrealistically. And, interestingly enough, the story still manages to be more about John then Rodney and I really like that about it. Not that Rodney's story isn't interesting and not that I wouldn't love to see it from Rodney's POV, but in the end this is about how life is in the process of washing over John.
Like many of Grace's stories, there's a gritty realism to both Rodney's story and John's that hits you repeatedly in the gut. Rodney's not suddenly--magically--gonna have a working dick someday and John's not going to become a classy $300 a night call boy. Yet...for all that, it's surprisingly romantic. I know that Grace has said that it's one of the most romantic things she's ever written and, having read a lot of her work, I have to agree. I love that at the end of the day, they're there for one another and....
busaikko wrote an AU sequel called "Ring of Fire (Nails Driven Through the Steel)" that I highly recommend. It takes place 10 years later when John and Rodney meet up again after a long separation, and it manages to combine the same feeling of reality with a hopeful bit of romance. Also the very end packs a serious wallop. Read it too. :)
And now, the soundtrack, which I really urge you to download and listen to.
01. I've Been High/R.E.M.
I've been high
I've climbed so high
but life sometimes
it washes over me.
washes over me
close my eyes so I can see
make my make-believe believe
This is a perfect title track; the song is wistful and hopeful and so very much in John's voice.
02. Round Here/Counting Crows
Round here she's always on my mind
Round here hey man got lots of time
Round here we're never sent to bed early
and nobody makes us wait
Round here we stay up very, very, very, very late
I can't see nothing.. nothing round here
I don't quite know what to say about this one--well other than the fact that I love the song and have for a long time. On the first listen, I tied it in with the whole running away thing, but the second time around I also got the feeling that John's confused by Rodney at times. And of course there's the feeling that he's under the gun, which, as their main provider, he is.
03. Daughter/Pearl Jam
Alone... listless... breakfast table in an otherwise empty room
Young girl... violins... center of her own attention
The, mother reads aloud, child, tries to understand it
Tries to make her proud
The shades go down, it's in her head
Painted room... can't deny there's something wrong...
This, of course, is Meredith's song and the fact that Grace chose it makes me wonder more about Meredith's birth family.
04. Learning to Fly/Pink Floyd
Ice is forming on the tips of my wings
Unheeded warnings, I thought I thought of everything
No navigator to find my way home
Unladen, empty and turned to stone
A soul in tension that's learning to fly
Condition grounded but determined to try
Can't keep my eyes from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted just an earthbound misfit, I
Another John song and one that's probably been used in other SGA soundtracks because it really does suit canon!John as well as Grace's John. I want to find some kind of hope for John's future here, that maybe he will actually get off the ground, but then I'm an optimist that way.
05. Falling/Matthew Sweet
Whether you're cold, hot, bottled or not
This is the day for which you have fought
And you're calling calling calling
But you can't get home
And every day takes something away
Until there's nothing left to say
No single world can deliver you love
No understanding no sound from above
And nothing to do
It's nothing to you
This one is painful in context and yet it is where we find them, both in the now, and, to a certain extent in the past. The line "but you can't get home" also brings something to my attention that I should have noticed but didn't quite get while reading the story: so much of it ends up being about John trying to define home and how, in the end, home is, of course, where Rodney is.
06. All Over You/Live
our love is like water
pinned down and abused for being strange
our love is no other
than me alone for me all day
our love is like water/angels pinned down and abused
Such a perfect song for their relationship, this is really a brilliant choice.
07. Wish 'Em All Away/Embrace
Now if you look out you'll find
Us standing in a line
Just understand you're safe
Understand that everything will change
If you just
Wish 'em all,
Wish 'em all,
Wish 'em all,
Wish 'em all away,
I like how this ties in with both the make believe line in the first song and the naivete that led them to think that running away was the answer to their problems. Also, I didn't know this band and I kind of like them, so thank you, Grace. :)
08. Thursday's Child/David Bowie
All of my life I've tried so hard
Doing my best with what I had
Nothing much happened all the same
Something about me stood apart
A whisper of hope that seemed to fail
Maybe I'm born right out of my time
Breaking my life in two
It would be so easy to say, okay this is Rodney's song, but I actually see is as being something that could be about both of them. After all, John's as much an outsider as Rodney is and one of the interesting thing about the story is how "normal" John's gayness seems in light of Rodney being trans. Of course, part of that is that, as slashers, the idea that John is gay doesn't seem strange or out of place. But as a young gay teen in the early 80s, of course he stands apart.
09. Runaway Train/Soul Asylum
Can you help me remember how to smile?
Make it somehow all seem worthwhile
How on earth did I get so jaded?
Life's mystery seems so faded
I can go where no one else can go
I know what no one else knows
Here I am just a-drownin' in the rain
With a ticket for a runaway train
Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I'm not sure all these people understand
It's not like years ago,
The fear of getting caught,
Of recklessness and water
They cannot see me naked
These things, they go away,
Replaced by everyday
This bit and the whole song in general really resonates with the point in the story where they've been on the road for a month and John is thinking that it's easier to see Rodney as a boy. Also, between the sort of gentleness of the song and the whole "cannot see me naked," I think this song sums up their sex life in a really interesting way.
11. On the Bus Mall/The Decemberists
And here in our hollow we fuse like a family,
But I will not mourn for you.
So take up your makeup
And pocket your pills away.
We're kings among runaways
On the bus mall.
On the bus mall.
I think if Grace were a little more sentimental, she might have easily called this "We Fuse Like a Family" because I really do get that feeling from the story. This song, of course, is all about being runaways and hustling and living on the edge of poverty and it suits both of them in general and John in particular.
12. Beat a Drum/R.E.M.
half way from coal
half way to diamond.
my fall knocked a mean chip out of me.
gathering as far as I can reach.
perched up on the precipice
and this is what I've seen.
For me this harkens back to the way Grace tells this story. Stripped of overly angsty sentiment, this is John's story--and Rodney's as well--and this is where he is and this is what he's seen, and Grace just lays it on the line and leaves the rest up to you.
And yes, again, I like to take a little hope here that one day John and Rodney will be closer to diamonds than coal. Because...well, Grace may not be that sentimental, but I am. :)
So there you are. Happy (very Belated) Birthday, Grace!