Grumbling under his breath, Rodney searched through his pockets, trying to locate his ring of keys without dropping one of the four grocery bags he had in his arms.
Finally finding them, he fished them out and opened the small apartment door and shuffled inside, barely making it to the kitchen before he dropped the bags onto the counter. He tossed the keys onto the counter as well and then took a moment to stare around the silent apartment.
"He's almost home," Rodney told the unmoving furniture. With those words, that usual thrill of excitement ran down his back, squeezing his insides in such a way that made him want to run up and down the hallways, screaming that it was nearly time for John to come home. Going over to the calendar on the fridge, he grabbed the pen tied onto it and crossed off another day. He didn't need to count how many more empty squares there were until he would reach the one that said 'COMING HOME DAY'. 13 days. Thirteen days, eight hours and twenty two minutes, but who was counting?
Going back to the counter, he rummaged through the grocery bags and took out the new toothpaste, soap and toothbrush that he'd bought. Carrying the items into the bathroom, he tossed the soap and the toothpaste into a drawer and carefully opened the toothbrush package and stuck it into the small holder. Taking the older toothbrush, he tossed it into the garbage. Four months was a long time to sit in a holder without being used. Rodney wouldn't want that thing near his mouth, and he sure didn't want it near John's mouth. Besides, who knew what other unsanitary things John had had to put into his mouth in the past four months? John swore the MREs were the same in Somalia as they had been in Kuwait and every base he had been on, but Rodney always had his doubts.
Glancing around the apartment one more time, he made a mental note to come back and stock up the fridge the day before John came home. Then he grabbed his other grocery bags and shuffled back out the door. Locking it behind him, he walked three doors down the hall and then fiddled with his key ring again, marveling over the fact that over the space of five meters, he had managed to nearly lose them again.
A woman appeared from a few doors down and smirked at him.
"Having problems, McKay?"
He glared. "None as severe as you, thank you. Now go away."
She smirked, not cowed by his attitude.
Rodney cursed the fact that first off, she was a biology student and secondly, she had been living in the campus apartment complex nearly as long as he had and was used to him. Thirdly, she was doing her PhD just like he was and had been accepted to do her doctorate at the university the same year as Rodney had. The only leverage he had over her was the fact that, hello, biology wasn't really a science.
"So, watering your friend's plants again?" From her smirk, Rodney could tell she knew exactly what he had been doing in there.
"Not that it's any of your business, but yes."
"Mm hmm," she gave him a knowing smile with a raised eyebrow and abruptly sauntered down the hallway. "What do they say, McKay?" she raised an eyebrow and pretended to look confused. "Don't know, don't see? Or is it don't ask, don't tell? Look it up for me, would you?"
With a parting smirk, she walked to the end of the hallway and started off down the stairs.
Rodney ignored the parting words and opened his own door. Slamming it behind him, he put his bags onto the counter. First he took out all the food and stuffed it into his fridge. Then he took out a box of Lucky Charms and a jar of peanut butter and suppressed a shudder as he put them into his cupboards. That was always a sure sign that John was about to come home. Peanut butter and Lucky Charms appearing in the cupboards again.
Then he took out a new toothbrush from the last bag and walked into the bathroom.
Tossing the old blue toothbrush that sat beside his into the garbage, he unwrapped the new one and put it in the holder.
"You're going to have to wait a few more days until you're used," he murmured.
Going back into the kitchen, he tossed out the empty bags and then threw himself onto the couch.
Immediately, something furry wound itself around his ankles and he snapped his fingers lightly and Cat jumped onto Rodney's lap. Rodney smiled at the small tabby and gently scratched her behind the ears.
"Hey, you. Guess what? Thirteen more days. That's right. Thirteen more days and John comes home."
She started to purr as she moved her head around, directing Rodney's fingers.
Nobody ever believed Rodney when he said his cat's name was Cat, but Rodney didn't care. It wasn't like he had intended on naming his cat Cat.
John had brought Cat home the day before he had shipped out to Somalia, knowing how lonely Rodney had gotten while he had been in the Gulf. The day had been the same as all other last days had been, full of clenched jaws, held back tears, desperate hugs and unspoken pleas (which Rodney swallowed) and apologies (which Rodney never allowed John to make).
It was only when John was on the plane that Rodney realized John had forgotten to help him name the cat. Knowing she was both of theirs, Rodney didn't think it was fair to give her a name himself, so he patiently waited for John to bring it up. It was too dangerous for Rodney to send John any letters, so he always relied on John to answer his unasked questions.
The idiot always chattered on and on about the heat, sand and grumpy warlords, but never brought up the cat's name. So Rodney had called her Cat, and before he knew it, four months had gone by and the cat was already responding to that name and it had stuck. Let John complain about it when he got home, Rodney thought. It was his own fault for forgetting to bring it up anyway.
Letting Cat get comfortable on his chest, Rodney let his eyes wander around their apartment, skimming over all the pictures decorating the bookshelves and the awards pinned up on the walls.
He sighed quietly. "It's almost time for them to come down again, isn't it?"
Although copies of John's bachelor diplomas—one for math and the other for English—and his masters—for math—hung in his own apartment, the real copies were framed and on their wall here. Pictures of him and John together at various places stood all over the bookshelves, window sills and on the television. Rodney could hardly bear the thought of taking them down and hiding them in the compartment beneath his bed, but knew he should be used to it by now.
It was actually Rodney who had always been the more cautious out of the two.
Back when they had first met—having had the same lunch break back in their first year and having had to share a table in the overcrowded cafeteria on two occasions—Rodney couldn't believe that such an incredibly hot, smart guy wanted anything to do with him.
Besides all of Rodney's social shortcomings—and yes, he wasn't so dense that he didn't realize he had some severe issues in that area—he was also 16, two years younger than the vast majority of other first years, including John.
John was an English major—Rodney still shuddered remembering—but he was also a math major and could work his way through proofs nearly as fast as Rodney. Not only that, but he was a sci-fi nut, was just as sarcastic as him, and best of all, he genuinely liked Rodney. They had started hanging out more and more, going to movies, sitting in on each others classes and studying together.
Rodney knew that John was gay and had finally mustered up the nerve to ask him on a real date one random Saturday. John had grinned apologetically and said that he couldn't since he had training that weekend, like most weekends. It was then that Rodney found out that his super smart and super hot best friend was in the AFROTC, training to be a combat pilot. Their reactions had been so predictable.
Rodney had freaked out, John had frowned with that half idiotic, half polite confusion on his face, and then Rodney had freaked out even more and John had looked even more confused. It wasn't that John didn't know about the military's policies against officers being openly gay or involved in homosexual situations, it was just that he didn't care.
At first, he had tried getting John out of the program, but John wouldn't hear of it. He needed the money the AFROTC paid for his tuition and living expenses, and besides, he really genuinely wanted to be a soldier. He was also a wing nut, but that was beside the point, since he could fly without being in the military. Rodney had bitched, complained and pleaded, but John had been firm. Not just about him being in the military, but about him and Rodney being together. It turned out that John wanted something to happen between them just as much as Rodney did and in John's world, he didn't see why he had to sacrifice either of the two things he was crazy about. If they were in another country, he could have easily had both, but because they were in America, at an American university, he couldn't.
Rodney would never understand it, but he would be damned if something happened to John because of them. He knew that John loved the military as much as he loved Rodney and Rodney thought of it as his personal responsibility to keep John from having to give up either.
So he was careful.
While they had been undergrads, they had lived in two different residences and the lack of privacy in either space kept them from spending too much time in either place. Rodney had quickly identified all the current ROTC Cadets on campus and got used to keeping an eye out for any. He didn't let John hug him in public or hold his hand and tried to limit touching him in any way until they were alone together. John hated it, Rodney hated it, but that was the way things had to be. Their summers were the only times when they could really go away and be themselves in public. John had boot camp for about four weeks every summer, but asides from that, they could pack up, rent a car and disappear anywhere they wanted where nobody knew that one of them was military.
They both got into grad school, John wanting to get his masters in math and Rodney in both math and astrophysics—and no matter how many times John gave him that incredulous look, Rodney swore it was possible. They both found spaces in an apartment complex on campus which was shared by profs and grad students—and were just mildly amused by the fact that they had managed to be three doors down from each other and on the same floor.
They did what they had always done; spending time outside the apartment—with cautious eyes out for any ultra conservative, narrow minded Cadet—and figuring out creative ways to be alone together without being caught.
They were experts at knowing which lab was empty at what time, which bathrooms had the least traffic and even which corners of the library never had any visitors, and interestingly enough, the section housing the cookbooks was amongst those. They studied together, went to classes together, helped each other plan tutorials and labs for the classes they were TAs for, and went out to movies and football games (to accommodate John) and symphonies (to accommodate Rodney).
While they were starting their graduate classes, half way around the world, Iraq invaded Kuwait after suspicions of Kuwait illegally slant-drilling petroleum across Iraq's borders. Rodney never cared about world politics or what wars were happening where. He didn't understand why John was suddenly watching CNN more than before and why he got more and more quiet and pale. First term came and went with Rodney always yawning and turning a deaf ear whenever the conversation amongst people around him started including the words mideast, UN sanctions, unprovoked attack and US involvement.
It wasn't until John came into his room one night in January, holding a letter with an Air Force insignia on it that Rodney realized his life was about to drastically change.
He stood there for a good five minutes, staring at the letter and John's pale face, not really understanding. Sure, he knew John was in the ROTC, he knew John was military, but somehow the fact that John would have to go into combat zones never entered his mind. Boot camp was just something that took up valuable alone time in the summer and was a source for endless jokes at John's expense, not something to actually prepare John for battle.
Rodney's first words were: "This is a joke, right?"
John had stared at him and sighed softly. "You know it isn't, Rodney."
"Don't tell me those are your marching orders."
"I said, don't tell me. Tear it up and forget about it. Throw it in the garbage and we'll rewind this conversation and pretend it never happened."
John briefly closed his eyes and his fist tightened around the letter. "It doesn't work like that, Rodney."
"Then quit. Go see General Renton right now, hand in your tags and tell him you quit."
John stared at Rodney with such pain in his eyes that Rodney nearly had to look away.
"Rodney, don't do this to yourself."
"Do what? I'm giving you the solution to a problem."
"Why are we still talking about this? Go see Renton and I'll pop in a video in the mean time and grab popcorn. Classes start tomorrow and I have every intention of milking every last drop of freedom out of winter break while we can. Do you want extra butter or not?" He had already turned to go to his small cupboard when John swore loudly, ran a hand through his hair and lost his composure.
"You know it doesn't work like that! They paid for my tuition and my living expenses for four years, and now I have to go pay them back. Not with money, but by fighting for them. That's the deal I made with them. That's what I agreed to when I signed up. Jesus, Rodney, you knew that! You knew that. You knew this could happen."
Rodney blinked, feeling like the world had suddenly decided to invert itself. He realized he was starting to shake slightly. His body was starting to accept things faster than his mind. He numbly stared at the letter in John's hand. He remembered grainy images on CNN of buildings crumbling, fires burning, people screaming and running down dust covered, broken streets. Suddenly it wasn't just something happening somewhere else that didn't effect him. John would have to go there. John would have to go there and try to survive in that hell for six months.
"No," Rodney said. He meant for it to come out strong and loud, a declaration against the military, but instead, it came out as a pleading whisper.
His body had continued reacting without him realizing it and it wasn't until John stepped up to him, dropping the letter on the floor and taking his face in his hands and using his thumbs to wipe his cheeks that Rodney realized he was crying.
"It'll be okay. It's just one tour—"
Rodney tried to laugh but it came out as a sob. "It doesn't matter if its one hour or a year that you're there. You could get shot or blown up in the first five minutes of stepping off the plane and you damn well know it."
John kissed him on the forehead. "Rodney, don't think like—"
Suddenly angry, Rodney shoved John away from him and glared at him, furiously wiping at his wet face. "How the hell do you want me to think?! You want me to spend the next six months sitting here and pretending you're in Vegas playing slots? You think I can just ignore where you're going to be and the fact that you might be hurt or dying somewhere half way around the world and I wouldn't know about it or be able to help?"
John's gaze dropped to the floor. "You don't have to ignore it, Rodney, but you don't have to worry about it either. You can—"
"I'm sorry, is that statement supposed to make sense? How the hell am I not supposed to worry?"
"You don't have to wait for me."
At first Rodney thought John was talking about him waiting for John to finish his sentence before interrupting him and he was about to retort that John had forfeit his right to finish sentences that day, when the real meaning of John's words hit him like a ton of bricks.
"I don't—what—did that letter pull all your brain cells out of your ears?"
"Rodney, I'm serious."
"If you are, then so am I. Because that's the only way I could think of you saying something idiotic like that."
"You didn't sign up for this. I don't blame you. You deserve someone who you can be with whenever you want. The constant sneaking around and hiding and lying wasn't fair to you, and asking you to wait for six months and spend those six months worrying isn't fair either. Let's just call it a day and move on. We can still be friends."
Rodney stared at him. "You think I'm going to quit because this relationship is a bit more work than normal ones are?"
"You deserve better."
"Better? You're the damn best thing that's ever happened to me! Yeah, you're a hell of a lot of work, John Sheppard, but you just be glad that you're worth it. Now, do you want to trade me in for a better model?"
"Good. Then forget we ever had this stupid conversation. It's over and dealt with. Now, can I please get back to freaking out over something that I really should be freaking out about?"
"About you leaving? Hell no. About this war business being a valuable use of your time? Hell no. About you not being replaceable? Hell yes."
Something in John's eyes sparked for a moment, like they always did when Rodney said something that tried to convey how much John meant to him. John took a step forward, grabbed Rodney and pulled him in for a hard kiss. Rodney momentarily fought John off, ran over and locked his tiny bedroom door and pulled down the blinds and then turned around and shoved John onto his bed, who laughed quietly and reached up to grab Rodney's waistband and pull him down on top of him.
By unspoken agreement, they didn't talk about it for the rest of the week that John had before shipping out. The letter had been thrown into the garbage and the date had been outlined in black with an unhappy face drawn into the square on the calendar on both of their fridges. John had gone to his professors and deregistered from his second semester classes since he would miss all the finals and deadlines anyway and had helped find a replacement TA for the classes he was supposed to be assisting with. They all promised John that when he came back, he should take the summer off to have a break and that they'd start again September but John was adamant about keeping up with his classes and left specific instructions with Rodney about which summer courses he wanted to be registered for if he didn't make it back before registration time.
The night before John was leaving, they lay in Rodney's bed together—always a safer bet than John's bed because no military personnel would come to Rodney's room. Rodney lay with his head on John's chest, listening to him breathing and staring at the faint glint reflecting off the silver dog tags rimmed with the black rubber silencers lying on his chest. He reached over and traced them with a finger, wanting nothing more than to rip them off and hurl them out the window and forget they ever existed. Pushing himself up, he scooted up John's body and put his arms on either side of John's head and stared at him, loving the feeling of John's body lying beneath his.
John felt the weight of the stare and slowly opened his eyes. "Hey, you," He whispered, a smile curling his lips.
Rodney didn't smile back. "Don't go."
"Please, please, don't go. Don't do this to me. Don't do this to us. You're leaving your masters and you're leaving me and neither of us might ever see you again and I don't think I can handle that. How the hell am I supposed to finish my degrees and be a brilliant scientist if I turn into a mental case? Because that's what I'll be. They'll have to lock me up and I'll spend days staring at a wall and picking at the stitches in my pants. I won't hear anybody talking to me and I'll just always be smiling and saying 'John's coming home soon, John's coming home soon.' Or worse, I'll be like one of those pathetic old nutters, sitting on my porch, waiting for you to come home after you went MIA about forty years before. People will feel sorry for me and bring me casseroles and kids will throw eggs and sticks at me."
"Rodney, don't be morbid."
"I'm not being morbid. I'm warning you what's going to happen to me."
"I told you you don't have to put yourself through that. You don't have to wait—"
"I thought we agreed never to bring up that idiotic conversation again."
"Then I don't know what you want me to say."
"We can run away. Right now. We can be packed up and ready to go in fifteen minutes. I'll book a flight while we're in the cab and we'll drop your tags in a sewer drain somewhere."
John sighed and opened his mouth to say something but Rodney was on a role and kept going.
"Lots of others are running, John! Didn't you notice how Jim Teason and his girlfriend just happened to disappear last week? Besides, Jeannie would take us in. Not only Jeannie but hell, Canada would take us in. I have the citizenship and the government has always been lenient about letting war resistors stay. Nobody would ever find us, John. I swear."
"Rodney, I wouldn't be a war resistor, I'd be a deserter. There's a difference. If I did object to Desert Storm, then I might agree to run, but I'm not just running for the sake of running. I can't desert, Rodney."
"Why the hell not?"
"Because I have to go."
"Screw the military, John! Forget about owing them a few bucks! They exploit kids who don't have the money for school and don't have a clue what war is really about."
John laid a finger on Rodney's lips, silencing him.
"I didn't mean my military obligation, Rodney. I meant that I have to go for me."
"I can do some good over there, don't you see? I have the training to help those people who can't help themselves. I have to go and use what I've learned to protect those people who can't protect themselves. That's what being a soldier is about, Rodney. We aren't just muscle for the sake of being muscle, we are the ones who try to stand between bullies and people who are being bullied and don't have the resources or the strength to stand up to them."
"If somebody came to you and told you that there was a village somewhere full of people who were dying and that all of their problems would solved if you went there and taught them Newton's Laws of Motion, would you do it?"
"John, that's an absolutely ridiculous example—"
"But would you go?"
Rodney scowled. "Of course I would."
"You see? That's why I have to go. I wish I could be in two places at once and stay here with you and go at the same time, but I can't."
Rodney stared down at him for a long time, finally staring to understand what drove millions of people to chose living in war zones as their careers—whether they were aid workers, medics or soldiers who had to be all three in some cases. What drove nineteen year olds to join up and volunteer for tours in combat zones. Most importantly, he finally understood why John had to leave him.
He reached up and gently traced John's face, trying to memorize every inch of him. Leaning down, he pressed a soft kiss to his lips and then rested his forehead on John's.
"I love you, you know that right?"
John nodded, reaching up and wrapping his arms around Rodney's waist, pulling him as close as he could go.
"I know. And you know I love you and I'm not doing this to hurt you, right?"
"Now I do."
They spent the rest of the night holding each other, tracing bodies with fingers intent on memorizing every part of them, wiping away tears and not daring to voice any of their fears.
The next morning Rodney went to John's room and helped him pack up. They both agreed that it was too dangerous for Rodney to write John any letters and that it was John's sole responsibility to write as much as he could and phone when he could. Rodney asked John for the millionth time whether he had listed Rodney as his emergency contact, John reminded him that he had a class to get to at eleven and they once again launched into an argument over John not wanting Rodney to come to the airport with him. For once it was John who was being cautious, not wanting to lose control of himself and be inappropriate with Rodney in front of hundreds of other soldiers.
Then they sat on the couch and Rodney pulled John's tags off him and held them in his hand for a long moment.
"It's your job to protect him from now until he comes back, you hear? I can't help him over there so it's your job. Don't make me regret trusting you." Then he kissed both of the tags and slipped them back over John's head. He didn't see the tears in John's eyes until he leaned back and then he found himself being grabbed and held so tightly that he couldn't breathe.
"I'm gonna miss you, McKay," he whispered into Rodney's ear.
They stayed like that on the couch until John had to leave. Rodney was determined not to cry or make a fuss since John looked like he was on the verge of breaking down too. Instead, he gave him a tight hug, kissed him, told him he loved him and to be careful, trying to ignore the fact that he was copying every clichéd, cheesy war movie he had ever seen. They didn't seem so clichéd or cheesy now.
John's jaw was clenched and he didn't look like he could handle saying anything so Rodney steered him to the door and pointed out that he had a plane to catch. It wasn't until he saw John's taxi pulling away from the curb that Rodney slid down the wall and let himself burst into tears.
Summary: After John is badly wounded while serving in Somalia, he and Rodney have to learn how to make a serious physical disability a part of their lives.