It wasn't really something Rodney cared to think about. Of course, that didn't mean he didn't think about it sometimes...okay, maybe a lot. Some people might have called him petty or jealous because of it, but honestly, a guy had the right to wonder, right?
There were occasions when he almost let it slip, the question sitting right at the tip of his tongue, just waiting to fly out and embarrass him. Yet there were also times when he wished it would, if for no other reason than to get the matter over and done with so he wouldn't have to think about it so damn much.
He wanted to know. Rodney hated not knowing something and this was a big something in his book; big and disgustingly personal and potentially messy as hell. That was another thing: Rodney didn't like messy--not in his personal life, anyway. Messy meant dealing with other people's feelings and issues and lots things he just didn't have the time to worry about.
It was taunting him, though.
Like right now, as John stood in front of the bathroom mirror brushing his teeth, shamelessly naked and absurdly gorgeous. It started, as always, with a little, perfectly acceptable ogling, Rodney's eyes traveling down from strong shoulders to admire the lean arc of John's back, down further to follow the soft curve of his waist and then...there it was.
Knowing John, whoever put it there probably ended up unconscious on the floor directly after and Rodney was sure it had hurt like hell when it happened, no matter the circumstances. But still, it was kind of hot. Okay, it was really hot and that grated on Rodney because it wasn't his. He hadn't been the one to put it there. He wanted to know who had, and more importantly, why John had let them.
It wasn't that Rodney thought owned John, far from it in fact. He wasn't even the jealous type. When the bimbo of the week threw herself at John and John, being John, batted his eyelashes and flirted right back, Rodney just rolled his eyes and went back to his computer. He knew John would never, ever cheat on him. John just wasn't that kind of guy.
This though, this thing, this brazen display of ownership that decorated John's body, this was different. It wasn't like some backwoods, double-D, giggling idiot who would be gone and forgotten the next day. It wasn't like the lipstick or the smell of stale perfume that clung to John's uniform after a mission into harem country. This mark, this claim, couldn't be erased with just a little soap and water. It was always there.
Sometimes John would catch him watching, and his perfect eyebrows would arch up questioningly until he tracked the line of Rodney's vision to the spot. Every time, John's expression morphed, going from fond amusement to something akin to guilt. There were times when John would find Rodney's eyes on the mark that John would look at him as if he wanted Rodney to ask, but Rodney never did. No matter how much he wanted to, he couldn't. Some things were just too personal. Some things Rodney just didn't need to know.
Now was one of those times. Rodney could see John's body stiffen, tensing up, waiting. John looked at him, nervous determination coloring his handsome features. His eyes were locked on Rodney's face, the unspoken question clearly visible, begging him: just ask me?
When Rodney didn't, as he never did, John sighed and pulled his toothbrush out of his mouth. He leaned over and spat into the sink, rinsed, then turned, still wiping his mouth as he over at Rodney. "You okay?" he asked, lips set in a thin, worried line.
"Yeah," Rodney sighed softly as he stared down at his feet, not wanting to meet John's eyes. He felt ridiculous, embarrassed for being so upset about something that really didn't matter. But John just nodded and walked across the few feet of floor that separated them, meeting Rodney where he stood in the doorway to their small bathroom, leaning against the frame.
Pressing one, strong hand to the bow of his lover's neck, John pulled Rodney towards him, wrapping his arms around the other man in a firm embrace. Then he kissed him on the forehead, trailing a line of gentle, barely-there kisses down the side of Rodney's face, across the soft curve of his cheek until finally their lips met; wet on dry, slow and careful.
John kissed him until Rodney relented and sighed, closed his eyes and melted into John's embrace. Bending forward to rest his head against the hard, familiar plain of John's chest, he let the sound of John's breath and the quiet beating of his heart calm him until he felt the last edges of tension slowly seeping from his body, leaving him feeling relaxed and warm in his lover's arms . He finally allowed himself to drape his arms loosely around John's waist and let himself relax into John's careful touch.
Eventually John moved, using his left hand to brush Rodney's hair back from his forehead and tilted his chin up and to the side so that he could press a chaste kiss to the soft, exposed skin of Rodney's temple. John shifted his stance, so that Rodney was forced lift his head from its resting place and meet John's eyes.
"Ask me, Rodney," he said softly.
Rodney tightened his arms around John's waist and nodded. It was time. "I don't..." he began, hesitation clearly audible in his own voice, "I don't even know how...what to ask. I mean, how do you...how does anyone ask about something like this?"
John sighed loudly and moved back, releasing his hold on Rodney before reaching out and grasping the other man's hand firmly in his own and pulling him towards their bed. "Come on. Come with me, please?"
"Okay," Rodney answered simply, letting John drag him across the room to sit down on the edge of the bed.
John sat next to him, leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees as he stared down at the floor, his long fingers buried in his unruly hair. Rodney watched him, noting the tightness in the muscles of John's back, his labored breathing, and the way he looked so fragile, as if Rodney touched him he might shatter into a million pieces. I kind of scared him, seeing John so vulnerable. Obviously, whatever John was going to tell him was more than a story of a past lover. It was something that John found painful, something he didn't want to remember.
"One of the last places I was stationed before I was sent to Antarctica was a military base near Kabul," John stated suddenly, pulling Rodney away from his thoughts. "I was there for several years, flying medical choppers and Cobras in and out of military territory."
Rodney looked at John, wondering why information like that was at all relevant to their current conversation. "Okay," he said after a moment, prodding John to continue.
John sighed, shifted his legs into a more comfortable position, rearranged the towel around his waist and started picking imaginary lint off of the bedspread with his fingers. Obviously he was stalling for time, trying to get his thoughts together. Still, it was a little annoying. Rodney hated waiting on anything or anyone, but this was John, so he gritted his teeth and waited.
"Nancy and I had just finished with the divorce proceedings before I shipped out," John went on at last. "She hated that I was gone for so long and that she wasn't allowed to know where or when I would be back. By then I'd been doing Black Ops for awhile. Nancy had tried to deal with it all--the secrecy, the bad dreams, the absences, the lack of communication--but in the end it was just too much," John signed, one hand brushing roughly back through his hair as if the action might ground him somehow.
I came home one night and she was gone. All of her things, down to last mismatched sock, completely cleaned out. I found the divorce papers on the coffee table in the living room next to her note, explaining to me why she couldn't do it anymore."
Rodney moved then, wrapping his arm around John's shoulders and pulling him into an awkward, sideways hug and then just kept holding on. Burying his face against John's right bicep, he murmured, "I'm so sorry, John."
Beside him, John huffed out a self-depreciative laugh and leaned into Rodney's touch. "Yeah, but we're not done yet. I told you I would tell you about the mark and..." He broke off, raising his left hand to rub at his eyes. "So, anyway, by the time I shipped out, I was a single guy again with no family to speak of and very few people I could call friends. There was nothing left for me but my job. So, I threw myself into my work. I made a name for myself by being one of the best pilots stationed in the Mid East, and by being a really good, by-the-books officer."
The piloting thing Rodney could understand, even picture in his mind, but the 'good officer'? He tried to imagine John sitting at a desk, hair cropped short to military standards, uniform starched crisp and clean, for once doing his own paperwork. It did seem like John at all--not the one he knew, anyway. And honestly, the picture kind of frightened him, imagining John without the strong undercurrent of defiance, his sarcasm and laidback slouch. Looking at John now, slumped down beside him on the bed with his arms resting on his knees and his head between them. He looked for all the world like a man defeated, and Rodney realized for the first time just how much Nancy had really meant to John. God, he must have been in so much pain then.
"There were a few other pilots on base," John continued. "Two of them, Mitch and Dex, helped me get back on my feet and showed me how to enjoy life again."
And probably saved you life, Rodney added silently, terrified by the truth in his thoughts.
"They were pretty neat guys--good pilots, great drinking buddies," John said with a small smile, "and probably two of the best friends I've ever had in my life. We worked together a lot and usually spent any free time we had together too. The other airmen on base called us the three musketeers," he chuckled.
Then, suddenly, John's eyes went dark, their deep hazel tinged with sadness. "They were killed. Shot down during a rescue op while I was out babysitting Senator Kinsey during his surprise visit to the base," he said, shivering in Rodney's arms. When Rodney's embrace grew tighter around him, John automatically leaning into his touch, long years of familiarity and trust making the move practically instinctual.
"When I found out, I left the base and headed for our favorite drinking spot: a bar called The Desert Flower, located just outside the city limits to serve the U.S. military contingent stationed there." From the way John said it, Rodney guessed the place was one of those grimy, hole-in-the-wall bars with the dirty glasses and lots of cheap liquor and even cheaper women. Of course John would love a bar like that, Rodney thought snidely, thinking he knew now exactly where and how John had gotten the mark.
"I sat there and drank myself stupid, trying to convince myself that I was there as a memorial to them, not just hoping to find a way to make it hurt less....I felt..." John's voice broke, betraying him, and Rodney was forced to sit and watch helplessly as John's face crumpled, his eyes shining brightly with unshed tears, "completely alone."
And with that, any annoyance Rodney still felt about the origin of John's mark was gone. All that mattered now was John. John, who trusted him enough to tell him this piece of his past, something Rodney doubted he'd ever done for anyone else. "John," he whispered, not knowing if it was a plea or some futile attempt to comfort his partner. But John just shook head and went on.
"When I got back to base, I headed straight for my quarters. I pulled my handgun and my combat knife from my TAC vest and placed them side by side at the foot of my cot."
Rodney shivered at the hollow tone of John's voice and strengthened his grip on John's shoulders. He pulled John tighter, closer, for support and comfort for both of them. How close had he come? Rodney wondered. He was both angry and heartsick, for and at his partner. Unconsciously, Rodney began digging the nails of his right hand into the sensitive skin at the inside of John's upper arm as he pictured the scene John described. He knew John had been tempted to kill himself that night and Rodney hated that. Hell, right now, imagining it all, Rodney kind of hated John, and alcohol, and pilots who got themselves killed; the grungy bar, the knife, war. But more than anything, he wished he could go back in time, find John and make everything right. Make it so John, who always seemed so sure of himself, so in control, would never have had to feel that hopeless or that alone.
"I picked up the knife," John whispered and Rodney couldn't hold in the small gasp of relief at his words, "because I wanted to see, had to see if I was still...I felt so numb, Rodney," he broke off, breathing harshly.
Rodney closed his eyes and just kept holding on, not knowing what else to do and for once, unable to find the words to say.
"I raised my hand to the blade but then..." he stopped, letting out a disparaging laugh. "I remembered that the Air Force would ground me and send me to a shrink if I put the cut somewhere easily visible so I...I decided, in my drunken state, that no one would look at my back. So, I stripped off my shirt, grabbed my shaving mirror and ..."
Oh God, no, Rodney prayed but all he managed to say was "Oh--" before speech escaped him again, leaving him sitting there in open-mouthed shock, staring up at John, taking in the lines of pain and regret that colored his partner's handsome features. And all this time he'd thought the scar was...oh, God.
Rodney sat up and quickly turned his body so that he could see John's back, searching carefully for the mark. Finding it hidden beneath the folds of John's towel, he carefully pulled the fabric away, revealing the harsh, faded red lines of the scar, the mark that had haunted his thoughts for so long. Slowly, gently, he reached out to trace the scar with one, long, blunt-tipped finger, feeling John tremble beneath his touch. D M, two letters painstakingly etched into the skin of John's lower back. And now Rodney knew. What he'd thought was a mark of ownership, a brand left by a previous lover, was in fact a physical reminder of John's pain, as well as a memorial to the dead.
Without another thought Rodney gently pushed John to lie on the bed on his stomach. Rodney carefully removed the towel from around John's waist, dragging the tips of his fingers lightly down the sides of John's legs as he did, then he leaned down to kiss the smooth backs of John's knees ,down his calves to his boney ankles, all the way to the tips of John's hairy toes. Then, with a soft sigh, Rodney moved to straddle John's thighs, bending forward to tenderly kiss the scarred flesh that he now knew was a symbol of pain rather than lust.
Rodney continued to move on instinct, using his hands, his body, his mouth to caress his lover; trying to show John that he was loved, wanted,cherished. With his palms gliding across John's skin in endless, careful patterns, Rodney kissed every bit of John he could reach until John turned and pulled Rodney into his arms, drawing him into a hard, desperate kiss. And Rodney kissed him back, trying to push all his worry, anger, desperation, and his love into the firm, hot press of lips and tongue.
When the kiss ended, Rodney shifted to lay at John's side and leaned forward to rest his forehead against John's. He closed his eyes and breathed in the clean scent of the other man's skin, mixed with the faint aroma of bath soap and minty toothpaste. "You're not alone anymore, John. I plan on sticking around as long as you'll have me," he said. He nearly sobbed himself when he felt John's arms tighten around his shoulders, pulling their bodies closer together as if he couldn't bear for there to be any distance between them just then.
"I really don't think you're going to have to worry about that, Rodney," John whispered. But Rodney had known him long enough to hear the faint smile in his voice.
"I love, you know?"
"I know," John said.
"I have to admit sometimes I wonder why. I mean, you...you're..."
Rodney laughed. Still smiling, he leaned forward to place a gentle, almost chaste kiss against John's slightly parted lips. "Anytime, John."