Notes: AU, set during Desert Storm.
"We don't know who we are until we see what we can do." - Martha Grimes
The day Rodney graduated from grad school, John said, "So I think I'm going to skip the ceremony," because Rodney kept ranting about how boring it would be, how boring his speech was, how bored John would be if he was going to be there and really, the whole thing was just a bunch of pomp and circumstance anyway.
So John took it to mean that Rodney didn't want him there, except after six years together John should've known that Rodney's constant downplay of the entire thing meant that he really did want him there. Needed him there, maybe, but John didn't really think it through until Rodney swatted him upside the head. "Ouch," John said, even though it didn't hurt. Not really. "What?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "If you were giving a speech at your graduation," Rodney said testily, "I would at least attend. Not make a spectacle out of not attending."
John rolled his eyes right back. "If I was giving a speech," John said, "the world would have clearly come to a tragic end, and I would stop babbling about how boring it was going to be, Rodney, seriously."
Rodney glared at him and shook his head. "Yes, well, that's a stupid excuse."
John shrugged and said, "If you want me to be there, you should ask me to come." He said it simple, nonchalant, like a conversation, and Rodney sighed as John smiled at him. "And it's not a spectacle if I'm telling you I'm not going. It's low-key." Pause. "Simple."
"So maybe I don't want you to go, then," Rodney said, and John shrugged again.
"You're not funny."
"I'm not trying to be funny," John said innocently, and he stepped forward and smoothed Rodney's shirt, straightened his tie. "You're going to be late."
"Infuriating," Rodney added halfheartedly, and he had a thousand and one other synonyms for what John really, really was, except John grabbed Rodney's shirt in his fists and pushed him back against the door and kissed him until his teeth ached.
After what was probably seven or eight minutes but felt like a heartbeat, Rodney pulled away and licked his lips and grabbed his cap and gown and his keys. He had one hand on the doorknob and the gown draped over one arm when he said, "Slacker," and John grinned smugly at him and said, "See you at the bar later."
And then he winked - winked - and Rodney's brain shut down until John laughed, long and loud and beautiful.
John had always been instinctive. Always took chances and never second-guessed himself, always seizing opportunities and making the most of every moment. He'd never really regretted anything before, never really stopped to say wait a second.
Or at least until he got the letter, signed and sealed and definitely delivered, while Rodney was giving his too-boring speech at his too-boring graduation. John would have killed for too-boring right then, and John lay on Rodney's side of the bed, staring at the ceiling. Well, he thought, his mind clouded with what ifs and uncertainty. It might be nice to fly again.
Rodney was exhausted when he got to the bar, and he sank onto the barstool next to John and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. "I told you school was a waste of time," John said without looking at him, and he drained the rest of his glass and squeezed Rodney's shoulder. He waved the bartender over, glancing sideways at Rodney before ordering two Molsons and four shots of vodka, and Rodney looked over at him. "Congratulations," John said quietly, bumping his shoulder into Rodney's, and Rodney ducked his head and smiled at the floor.
"Thank you," he said, and the bartender slid two beer glasses over to them, followed by four shot glasses. Rodney never loved vodka, but he didn't question it, just took a long drink of his beer and closed his eyes. "Hey," he turned to John, "my sister mentioned us coming up for a visit, we could do that now that school's—"
"Rodney." John had his hand on Rodney's arm, and Rodney frowned at him. He had a feeling this was what the vodka was for, and John slid one of the shot glasses over without breaking eye contact. Rodney glanced at it and picked it up, and he hesitated for a second before downing its contents. When he looked at John again, John's eyes were on the bar, his hand flat over a folded sheet of cream-colored paper. "I got this letter today," John said, like it wasn't even the slightest hint of a big deal, like the whole world wasn't completely open to anything they wanted. Like his entire life was all about John, John, John, and Rodney was just along for the ride.
John told Rodney he didn't want him there when they left because it would be too much, too hard, too everything. Rodney watched him when he said it, listening extra hard for a hint of anger or maybe resentment, for too-strong hands pushing him away. But he didn't hear them, only the silent resignation of someone with no way out. Rodney thought back to the way they'd argued when they first moved in together and how, every night when he went to bed, he'd been positive that he'd wake up the next morning and John would be gone.
But this wasn't just another fight or just another argument, this was Afghanistan, and when he'd told Rodney about it they fought for three days, this time a thousand times harsher and with a million fiercer words. "You could've told me," Rodney said over and over, and John spent the silent moments glowering at everything in his line of vision. By the end of that first week of knowing, Rodney was almost entirely certain John was going to buy his own plane and fly himself to Afghanistan.
But they made up not long after that, capping the three horrible days with the best sex they'd ever had. It ached when it was over, from the base of Rodney's spine to the spot right behind his heart. It ached long and deep and beautiful but hurt like a bitch around the edges, and Rodney was almost afraid to let the pain go.
That last night, they ordered takeout from an Italian restaurant in town. Rodney took out the good dishes and silver and set out candles and turned on a CD of soft jazz music, and John wore a button-up shirt and tie, sleeves rolled to his elbows. They didn't talk about planes or war or politics or anything, just made small talk and watched each other through the flickering of the flames. Rodney assumed it was because they had such opposite personalities, every viewpoint seemed to be opposite, that if he so much as mentioned something controversial, an argument would break out about even the smallest thing. And sure, it would end with a fanfare and fantastic farewell sex, but the ache would stay until Rodney cracked in half, numb with invisible, undetectable pain. Alone, he thought, and the word reverberated in his head until he forgot what it meant, and the finality was terrifying.
After dinner, he watched John's eyes while he poured two glasses of wine. Downcast, flitting from the neck of the bottle to the glass, nervous. He wanted to say something or to reassure him that it would be okay, and yes, he would still be here when John decided to come back, only he didn't have that reassurance and John didn't have that decision. Everything was premeditated now, and John's hand was shaking when he set the bottle down.
But they didn't talk about it. Instead, Rodney told John a too detailed story about a student who had finally – finally – mastered Beethoven's fifth at their last lesson, and he quietly marveled at how tolerant he'd become of the children he was teaching. John had his hands laced together in a fist under his chin, smiling without his eyes, and when Rodney stopped to take a breath John said, "I don't actually want to go, you know."
It sounded like simple conversation, but Rodney's John-trained ears could hear the tears biting at the back of his throat. Even as he watched, John blinked four times in quick succession, still smiling without breaking face, but there was one single tear that snuck out of the corner of his eye, catching on his eyelashes. And it was beautiful and horrible at the very same time, and Rodney's own throat ached like someone was slicing it with a too-sharp blade. "I know," was all he could come up with in response. Then he said it again. "I know."
What he was thinking was "I don't want you to go either, you moron," but he couldn't even bring himself to resort to such sentiments. So instead he said "I know" again for good measure, whispering more to himself than John, and John sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face. "I'll take care of the dishes," he said, waving his hand over the table, and Rodney just looked at him. "I'll take care of it."
So Rodney just sat at the table while John cleared the dishes away. John always did the dishes by hand, ignoring the dishwasher like it wasn't even there, standing at the sink with his back to Rodney and elbow-deep in lukewarm water and soap bubbles. Rodney watched him until his vision started to sparkle, memorizing every detail so he wouldn't have a chance to forget. John had just gotten his hair cut, his hairline razor-sharp and short behind his ears. His shoulders were strong under the thin fabric of his shirt, bone shifting with muscle when he'd pick up another dish. He kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other, leaning on one hip against the edge of the counter when he would pick up the towel to dry a dish, leaning on his other hip when he'd pick one up to wash. Rodney imagined touching John, touching his shoulders and the nape of his neck and his ears, tracing the outlines and memorizing the curves. Every detail, every nuance and every idiosyncrasy, Rodney wanted to take them all and knit them into a blanket and when John finally left, sit at the window and wrap himself up with the memories.
The water gurgled in the drain and snapped him back to reality, and John was toweling his hands off, his back still to Rodney. When he turned around his eyes were rimmed in red, and he smiled again, still distant and sadder than anything. Rodney stood up and waved in the direction of the living room and John followed him without another word.
They sat on the couch together, side-by-side without making contact at first, but Rodney forced his left thigh to relax and he could feel John do the same with his right. The warmth of contact was almost unbearable when coupled with the silence, and Rodney cleared his throat and studied the opposite wall. "Do you have everything in order?" he asked like he was talking to a student just before finals. "Is there anything you need me to take care of?" He was being exceptionally selfless, he knew that, and he was being extraordinarily calm, he knew that, too. But if John noticed he didn't say anything, instead just glanced over and sighed quickly, this little choked sigh that sounded like everything in the world was dying.
"I think I'll be fine," he said quietly, words dry and cracking, and he offered Rodney a half-smile. "Thanks." There was a long pause that dragged on for hours before John reached over and hooked his hand around Rodney's neck, pressing his fingertips into the skin and burying his face into Rodney's shoulder, and the way time seemed to speed up just didn't make any sense.
By the time Rodney caught his breath and the tears began to dry, the clock said it was one in the morning, and John had to leave in four hours. Sleep was imminent, scratching behind Rodney's eyelids every time he blinked. John's palm was still flat against his neck, warm and smelling of dish soap. His forehead was against Rodney's cheek now, and he was whispering a long prayer into Rodney's jawline, too quiet for Rodney to hear anything but dear Lord. When he was done, he asked, "What are you praying for?" It felt unfair for it to be kept secret, for it to stay inside John's head and against Rodney's skin. But he felt John shake his head, and Rodney squeezed his shoulder.
"It's not for me," John whispered, lips damp against Rodney's skin, and Rodney closed his eyes.
He didn't remember falling asleep, but the next time he opened his eyes, the couch was empty. Early rays of sun were streaming through the window, white-hot and stinging, and Rodney's heart was already aching. He let his head fall back against the couch, temples throbbing with a sober hangover, and he had blurry flashes of memories of John leaving, half-awake kisses and too-sleepy tears, and then he remembered a smile, brighter than the sunshine and far more painful, before the door had clicked shut and he'd fallen back asleep.
The days were long, but the nights were even longer, sleep often punctuated by the pop of gunfire or the threat of invasion. John slept with one hand wrapped around his gun, and when he dreamed, it was of Rodney.
Rodney, in long corridors, and Rodney, fingers dancing over ivory piano keys, and Rodney, writing a furious piece of music at the kitchen table with a mug of cold coffee beside him. He was always moving quickly, realism threading itself through John's subconscious, and sometimes he would wish he could just sleep forever. The dreams were always as vivid as photographs, beautiful colors and details and so real he felt like he could reach out and touch everything. But he tried, once, and was woken up by gunfire so close he could feel it in his teeth; after that, he stopped trying.
Three months in, he had a dream about their kitchen, late afternoon sun casting long shadows over the tiled floor. Rodney was at the table, sheets of music and ink pens scattered across its surface, scribbling out a line of music with a dull-point pencil. John watched him for a long time before dream-Rodney realized he was there, looking up and tilting his head to the side and narrowing his eyes. John braced himself for a lashing, "Please be careful" lecture with dozens of over-emphasized words, but instead dream-Rodney just laid down his dream-pencil and sighed, quiet and reserved. "I miss you, you know," was all he said, matter-of-factly, before picking up his pencil again and writing line after line of music notes and crescendos, and John sighed back and woke up.
He liked flying, for the most part – the way it made him feel weightless, invincible. Until Dex and Mitch got shot down outside Kabul, and the reserve he'd been working so meticulously to build up all came crashing down around him. He slipped up on a couple of missions, almost getting more than a few people killed, and his CO ripped him more than a few new ones, and re-ripped a few old ones. John expected to be on the next flight home after he made a colossal mistake that resulted in the deaths of thirty-six civilians and four actual enemies in a village outside of Jalalabad. But it was as if every person in Afghanistan was the enemy, even the people they were risking their lives to save, and they all clapped him on the shoulder like it was a wonderful thing he'd done. John smiled like he was proud of himself and when everyone got over it, he escaped to their makeshift bathroom and threw up twice, his throat burning and his eyes watering so badly he couldn't see.
That night he didn't dream, just heard screaming and felt suffocated by invisible smoke. When he woke up it was already morning again, and his eyes scratched like sandpaper when he splashed water on his face. He studied his reflection in the mirror, skin tan from Middle Eastern sun, his hair lighter than it had been when he'd left. He looked tougher, felt harder, and he thought about Rodney for a second before he went to get his order for the mission.
And then five months later, it was just another boring routine flight until he heard a scratchy distress call over his radio, asking for help and sounding desperate. John listened until his CO interrupted, calling him back, ordering him back, and John made the split-second decision to go for the distress call, just a quick second out of his way. The memory of the village was still sharp in his mind, the desperate need to save someone, only when he touched down to save someone they were already dead. He kicked at the dirt and swore a few times, and by the time he got back, he was pretty much guaranteed a one-way ticket back to California.
He went through debriefings and medical checkups and three connecting flights on his way back, and he didn't call Rodney to pick him up until he was at LAX. He found a payphone in the luggage terminal, and every joint in his body throbbed when he picked up the receiver and deposited three coins into the slot. The number was as familiar as an old song, memorized and stored in the back of his mind, and he rubbed the back of his neck and thought about a shower, about no limits on his bathroom time and being able to relax and—
And Rodney picked up the phone and broke John's heart with that one word, and John's voice cracked when he said, "Hey, it's me. Can you come pick me up?"
Eleven months, Rodney thought furiously on his way to the airport, eleven fucking months and not so much as a postcard or a staticky phone call or anything, and every time the words "Air Force" and "casualty" came out of Bryant Gumbel's mouth, Rodney held his breath until they went to commercial. Every second that he wasn't writing elaborate symphonies and berating students for not studying their scales was spent bracing himself for hearing John's name or reading John's name or for his entire world exploding, and it almost did when he got that stupid phone call.
But his brain shifted to autopilot, and he nodded and said, "Yes, yes, of course," and told John to meet him outside the terminal and John said okay, he'd be out there, and the click of the line told Rodney that he'd hung up. Rodney hung up, too, grabbed his keys and walked out of the house before remembering that he'd forgotten to put on his shoes.
He was driving almost ninety down the highway, swerving in and out of cars that were going far, far too slowly for his tastes. He pulled into the short-term lot at LAX and slammed the door on the driver's side, and his heart was racing a million miles a second, burning a hole through his sternum. He forced himself to breathe – just breathe.
When he got to the sidewalk he glanced up one way and down the other, eyes scanning extra carefully for a familiar face. When he saw him, he almost kept looking out of habit, but John raised a hand in a half-wave and pulled an Army-green bag higher on his shoulder.
And almost every inch of Rodney wanted to grab him by the arm and drag him to the car and yell at him until he lost his voice, but there was a tiny inch he hadn't counted on when John got over to him. Rodney grabbed his arm, sure, but he grabbed John's other arm, too, and pulled him into a hug that left them both breathless. Stars were sparkling overhead and John's hands were fisted in the back of Rodney's shirt and he was breathing too-quick and ragged. Rodney was vaguely aware of damp tears at his neck, and he kissed every part of John he could get to. He tasted like dust, like dust and exhaustion and overwhelming obstacles, but Rodney kept kissing him until he could taste it on the back of his tongue. "Hi," he whispered into John's teeth, "hi, hi, hi."
John just squeezed tighter in response, his hands shaking, and Rodney's heart started to ache, so he kissed John again.
When he managed to stop long enough to look at John, he saw a cut over his left eye and bruises blossoming under his collar. His skin was dark, tough from the desert sun and tan and dirty, too, like he'd washed off too quickly to get all the dirt off, and Rodney wrinkled his nose. "You look terrible," he said with short breaths and cracked words. He expected John to raise an eyebrow and come back with some witticism, some snarky comeback, but instead he buried his face in Rodney's shoulder and squeezed him too tight around the ribs.
"Can we go home?" is what Rodney heard him say, his words muffled in the fabric. He was suddenly unaware of everyone around them, the jostling crowds and the people running late for their flights. He pulled back and John looked up at him, and his reserve was strong but his eyes said that something was wrong, and Rodney was suddenly, desperately, craving to see the old John again, the way John used to look, the look he used to have in his eyes. One that wasn't broken with death and war, and Rodney exhaled softly and said, "What happened?" in a voice that he wished sounded more confident and controlled.
John winced and shook his head, and his eyes darted back and forth between Rodney's. "Can we just go home?" he asked again, and this time Rodney didn't hesitate.
The house was majestic, beautiful, and the hardwood floors in the foyer were almost like a luxury. John toed off his shoes at the door and took careful, intentional steps, his mind flashing back to Kabul and dirt floors and tiny rocks in his boots. After that, this floor felt like smooth ice in January, and John sighed and immediately felt an overwhelming wave of exhaustion. "Rodney," he said quietly, and Rodney was at his side, hand on his elbow, guiding him upstairs.
The bathroom smelled like clean towels, luxurious and fresh. John touched his finger to a one folded on the edge of the sink while Rodney started the shower, and he felt a million miles outside of his own body when Rodney pulled the hem of his shirt up over his head. He winced when Rodney's fingers brushed one of the bruises, dull purple and stinging. "Sorry," Rodney said, voice quick with apology. "Sorry."
John just nodded, flashes of planes and fire flitting through his mind, and he swallowed hard. Rodney hooked his fingers in the waistband of John's pants, unbuckling the belt and the fastenings, slipping them down over his hips. There was a shrapnel scar on his stomach, still angry-red and jagged, stretching from just under his belly-button to his right hip. He turned his head away when Rodney sucked in a small breath, touching his fingertip to the skin, and John closed his eyes and shook his head. "Don't," he whispered, and Rodney pulled his hand away like he'd been burned. "Don't."
And it was like that until John's clothes were in a pile on the floor, nervous glances and short inhalations, and Rodney put a hand on John's elbow and his other hand on the small of his back, maneuvering around bruises and scars, and it felt like a security blanket. Like as long as Rodney had him, John couldn't fall.
He stepped into the shower and the water was warm, the spray like a nurturing massage against his back. And it hurt, in a good way, and he let out a long breath he'd been holding since he first stepped off the plane in Afghanistan. His lungs felt like broken shards of glass and his throat like sandpaper, and he wanted to take the soap and scrub until his skin was pink and raw but he couldn't get his hands to work.
"I've got you," Rodney said, and John hadn't even noticed he was in the shower, too, hands warm on John's shoulders. John closed his eyes as Rodney rubbed soap over his muscles, sore and tight. He felt like he'd been folded into a box and shipped back home, like he'd been stuck in too-small space for three months and now he wasn't sure what to do with all the extra room.
Rodney rubbed slow circles around the bruises and over the scars, not as hard as John would've liked but hard enough to distract him, and he thought about Mitch and Dex, and the words just tumbled out. "I fucked up," he whispered, words slipping between the warm water, and he cleared his throat. "I fucked up," he said again, harder this time, and Rodney's hand stilled on the small of his back. "I fucked up."
He kept saying it, over and over like he was trying to remind himself of it, and Rodney pressed a soft kiss to the curve of John's shoulder, right where it merged with his neck, in a spot unmarred by scars and bad memories. John closed his eyes to the touch, and Rodney kissed him again.
"I've got you." John felt it this time, whispered against his skin, melding with the water until the pain started to subside. "I've got you."
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