"You never talk about your family," Rodney said.
"You never talk about yours," John countered.
"My parents like public television and earnest theater productions. My sister is married to a lout and has two spawn. My own childhood was the usual combination of psychological damage, colds, and the inflicted cruelties of my peers, if you can call them that. It's only by genius and hard work that I managed to elevate myself above such humble origins." He seemed to reflect on this happy thought for a moment with a self-satisfied smile, then said, "Your turn."
John tipped his head back against the post and worked his wrists against his bonds some more. They'd started to chafe in a maddening way, but he thought they were loosening. "My dad was a bigamist who molested neighborhood children," he said in a distracted tone. "My mom was an alcoholic who killed herself."
"Seriously?" Rodney looked horrified, then his expression cleared and he twisted his mouth in a grousing way. "Fine. Be the stereotype of flinty American manhood. See if I share my innermost hopes and dreams with you again."
"I must have missed the sharing part." Giving up on his ropes, John slumped and thought about water. Icy cold water. And hot dogs with mustard.
"I was working up to it."
"You said 'again'."
"I've shared before. I'm certain of it." He frowned. "I told you I wanted to be a pianist, right?"
"I think I'd remember that."
"Oh. Well, I did. And when I was eleven, I ran away from home. I convinced a family to take me across the border by telling them my elderly aunt was expecting me and had forgotten to send the plane ticket, and then I took the bus to Princeton. I figured that if I just started auditing seminars, the professors would be so impressed they'd have to accept me into their graduate program."
"They accepted me, of course--"
"Of course," John murmured, though secretly impressed himself.
"--but wouldn't take me until I was fourteen." Even now, John could see the blow of this failure imprinted on Rodney's face.
"That must have been disappointing." He wasn't entirely sure whether to empathize or mock, but military training allowed him to keep his tone and expression neutral.
"It was. I decided to go to Northeastern instead."
"Just to show them." John felt a smile surface.
"More or less," Rodney admitted, and released one of his own smiles, the tiny quirky one that bordered on cute and made John think about licking the left corner of it, to see what else Rodney's lips might offer.
They sat in silence. Conversation had diverted Rodney from complaining about the heat and the flies and the smell, and with that in mind John only let a few minutes pass before saying, "My father and I don't talk. My mother allies with my father. It makes sense. She has to live with him. We've talked maybe half a dozen times on the phone in the last ten years. Mostly she writes letters--polite, passive-aggressive, full of news about my brother. He's a lawyer, with the approved wife and quota of grandkids." He paused. Rodney was quiet for a change, listening. "They don't expect any grandkids from me. I've been written off as a loss."
"They think you're a loss?" There was a clipped bite to Rodney's voice and an ugly cast to his mouth, the one expression you really didn't want to see there, as the science department had learned to its collective misfortune.
"Well," John said, drawing out the word. Tightness coiled in his chest and his throat, something in him rising to get loose that he couldn't keep in any longer. "The queer son isn't expected to contribute much to family reunions."
Rodney's expression didn't change, and John was watching with the sharpness of absolute tension, despite the casual way he held his head, obscuring his eyes behind lashes.
"Some people don't deserve to reproduce," Rodney said shortly. "Then again, you wouldn't be here if it weren't for them." John could tell he hated the paradox and wanted to resolve it.
"I've learned to live with that."
"How long have you known you were gay?"
John blinked, caught off guard despite thinking he was prepared. "Fourth grade."
"You don't sound too surprised." Sudden coldness spiked through John's gut. "I'm not--it's not obvious, is it?"
"No, of course not. Well, yes, but only to me. Probably only to me." Rodney made it sound matter-of-fact.
"And that's because...?"
"Because I'm not an idiot?" he shot back in that brute racquetball way of his, as if amazed and impatient that he needed to remind John of this when he'd proved his mental superiority so many times already.
John studied him steadily. "You're not, then?"
"An idiot? What did I just say?" But Rodney obviously got the real question. He shifted in place, looking uncomfortable. "You know, you might not think it, but it's just as fatal to be a gay scientist as a gay serviceman. Careerwise, anyway."
"No Nobels, I take it."
"It's not a chance I'm willing to take." Rodney's mouth was set and he was meeting John's eyes now.
"I get that." It still didn't quite fit, but he didn't want to say that. Rodney was so supremely sure of himself, so apparently indifferent to what people thought of him, at least on a personal level--if anyone could carry off being out while working with the military, it was him. Rodney expressed his many and varied fears almost without shame, but this wasn't one John would have expected him to have.
Rodney seemed to have lapsed into brooding, and John didn't disturb him. He could tell that what he'd confided to Rodney wasn't going to raise problems, wouldn't be one of those things Rodney couldn't keep to himself. They understood each other, at least in this. He knew already that Rodney would back him up in the simple effortless way family did, reinforcing the façade they both had to maintain. He'd get in digs about John's way with women while making sure his men overheard. He'd know what not to say and when not to say it, and he'd keep a strict professional distance in public, so that no one would ever have the slightest reason to speculate.
It was the kind of understanding you could build a friendship on, John thought. And maybe more. His mood rose, and he cracked easy jokes when their rescue finally came, impressing his people with how unflappable and cool he kept it in the face of capture.
Rodney complained loudly during his own release. He was the perfect distraction.