Pairing: John Sheppard/Rodney McKay, vague implication of unrequited Elizabeth/John
Rating: Light R for a bit of sex
Warnings/Content notice: Mention of emotional and physical (as in disability) problems in the aftermath of war
Spoilers: This is an AU, so none
Word count: 2274
Summary: He'd returned from the front nearly two years ago, but part of him was always out there with John, wondering if he was still alive and if the next letter he received would be the notice of his death.
Note: Many thanks to neevebrody for the beta!
They say war makes men out of boys. They say it with pride for the sons they send out in their well-cut uniforms, hoping that the boundless energy of youth will be channeled into the glory of victory. They say it for the dashing lieutenant that leaves the village and returns as the heroic major of his unit.
They say it for someone like John Sheppard.
Rodney tries not to listen. He knows there's no glory in war. Being a cripple is the least of it. It's waking up and still hearing the screams, unsure whether they're yours or someone else's. It's remembering the faces of the people you killed, who were supposed to be the enemy but who looked just as scared as you.
Rodney is the invisible product of war. Not damaged enough to deserve voluntary care, not heroic enough to deserve praise and not dead enough to deserve mourning. If people see him with his walking stick they can pretend it's just a simple aid. They can pretend he did not pay this price for all of them. Most of all, it allows them to ignore him as they always have because he isn't like them and doesn't try to be what they would consider a proper gentleman.
He is well aware that the only reason he's here now, at the great celebration for John's return, is because John mentioned him by name when graciously thanking Mrs. Silverton for her generosity and kindness.
Rodney isn't sure it's either of those things. He doesn't know it for certain but he thinks there was a fight over who would be allowed to throw this party. It's a celebration of their hero in name only, but really it's more of a celebration of themselves.
The men in uniform, the ones that have actually seen war, are the more quiet ones in the crowd. Though not everyone who went to war is still wearing a uniform. Rodney doesn't and there are a few others. Rodney can still identify them. He can see it in their eyes.
He can see it in John's eyes too.
In that moment when John enters to the cheering crowd, Rodney feels like cheering too. He cannot identify with the people around him, but he's happy to see John. Not just happy, but relieved. He'd returned from the front nearly two years ago, but part of him was always out there with John, wondering if he was still alive and if the next letter he received would be the notice of his death.
Of course, he would not actually have been notified. The village's mayor would have had the honor and Rodney would have only known when the horrible news spread.
But thankfully the news never came and when the war was over and John sent a last letter telling Rodney he was finally coming home, Rodney had lived in a constant state of anticipation for the moment when the waiting would finally be over and he could be certain that John was safe.
A huge weight is lifted off his shoulders when he sees John's handsome face, his real face, not a picture he managed to acquire by means best not discussed.
John's eyes scan the crowd; for a second their eyes meet and there's a spark of recognition and the ghost of a real smile. But that's soon replaced by John's polite mask as he greets everyone around him.
Rodney doesn't stand in line. There are not nearly enough chairs to sit on and nobody has offered him one. His leg hurts, but it was worth coming here to these people who don't want to know him after he went to war for them. Well, to be fair, it wasn't for them so much as everyone else—and John. He'd wanted to be close to John.
As the relief of seeing John alive fades, Rodney feels old emotions stirring alive within him.
He's always wanted to be close to John, drawn to him like a moth to a flame. They are completely different on the surface. John, one of the best sons of the village, a role model for every young man and the perfect suitor for every young woman, and Rodney, the barely tolerated misfit. And yet, in each other, Rodney felt they'd found something that bound them together as if they were two sides of a coin, looking nothing alike, but being intrinsically melded together.
He tries to shake this image—being melded together with John. They are not one and will never be, he knows. That knowledge is reinforced as he sees Elizabeth shyly approaching John.
She's as good as his fiancée in the eyes of the villagers. Rodney knows that no promises have been made and John never moved from propriety, only inquiring after her in mails to her uncle, never directly. But Elizabeth is beautiful, rich and well-mannered, which makes her perfect in their eyes. She's also smart and has a sense of humor, which makes her a good person in Rodney's eyes. He likes Elizabeth and tries not to be so irrational as to dislike her for being destined to become John's wife. But it is hard.
The crowd gasps because in an uncharacteristically inappropriate display of emotion Elizabeth opens her arms and hugs John. Rodney sees the understanding and approval in the crowd. He also sees how John stiffens and does not return the hug before eventually awkwardly patting Elizabeth's shoulder and pushing her gently away. Rodney's pathetically grateful for that. It allows him to pretend for a little while longer that John will not inevitably marry and have a family. Although it shouldn't matter to Rodney since they will never be anything but friends. Which is an absurd thought because Rodney can't even articulate what they could possibly be other than friends.
When John is asked to talk about the front, how he fought and won, as if he single-handedly destroyed the enemy, Rodney cannot bear to see the darkness in John's eyes cloud everything for a moment.
"Let us not talk of war when there is peace to celebrate," John says and the crowd breaks out in cheers again. They ask again, of course, and John answers, short and prepared. He wasn't fearless, he says, because it's only human to be afraid of death. He praises his unit. And the one time that he raises his voice in some emotion that's not masked by his politeness, he says, "I did not save McKay. He saved me." Rodney doesn't care when the young man who asked John to recall that moment, completely ignoring Rodney standing half a room away, points out that, still, without John both of them would have been dead.
John looks at Rodney then, as tired as he must have been after carrying Rodney for a mile, and repeats, "He saved me."
Rodney does not stay after that. His leg hurts too much to stand on it any longer and he'd gotten what he'd come for, a glimpse of the man who's become the most important person in his life a long time ago.
He spares everyone the awkwardness and doesn't say goodbye, instead heads home, hobbling half a mile on cobblestone until he can drop down in a chair and put up his leg.
He opens a book, distracting himself from thoughts about John until there's a knock on the front door. "Give me a moment," he says, uncertain who it could be. He hardly has visitors and doesn't expect anyone.
"Can I come in?" he hears John's voice.
His heart skips a beat. "Yes," he shouts, so that John can hear him through the door. A key is entered and turned. Rodney can hardly believe John still has it, much less that he has gone home to get it or had it with him all the time.
The door opens and John comes in, closing the door behind him. He stands and looks at Rodney, hesitating a moment before he says, "You left early."
"Yes. My leg." Rodney doesn't need to say more.
"Someone should have offered you a seat. I should have asked them to." He looks away guiltily.
"You are not at fault," Rodney says, unable to believe that John would blame himself for the host's shortcomings. But then John always feels responsible for everyone and everything. Rodney does not know how he managed to leave the party when surely everyone had asked him to stay. "You left early," he says.
"I stayed long enough." John looks away and adds bitterly, "And they do not need me there to celebrate."
Rodney remembers that John is not always polite when he's with Rodney. He can be himself and Rodney is glad that it doesn't seem to have changed in the last years.
"You must be tired," Rodney says, meaning both the physical stress of the journey home and the years before that.
"I feel like going to bed and not rising for a week," John acknowledges with a short, weak smile.
"Then you should do that," Rodney says. He wants to put his hand on John's shoulder for emphasis, but he knows that standing up will hurt like hell, so he doesn't.
"I can't yet sleep," John says, shaking his head. "I feel like I haven't slept in years."
Rodney nods. He knows the feeling. He hasn't slept through a night since his return. "It is over now," he says because he hopes that it is for John, that he will be able to let the war go and accept the peace back into his life. Maybe Rodney can do it too, now that his heart doesn't lie fearfully awake each night.
"No," John says sadly. "It is never over." They look at each other, the remnants of war too deeply entrenched in their minds not to be visible in their eyes. "Every day can be our last."
Rodney doesn't want to think about that. He wants to believe that John is safe now. He has to. "There will be many years to come for you, I'm sure."
"Even if there are, I cannot in good conscience waste them. If war has taught me anything, it's that life is too precious not to live it the way that feels right to you." He gets a far away look.
Rodney turns his head away. He can imagine what John wants, what would be right for him. A wife and family. He will be well-respected and a good father and husband. Rodney knows it. It shouldn't feel like it's taking something away from him.
He forces himself to look at John and smile. John suddenly focuses back on him and then in a blur of motion he's at Rodney's side on his knees, hand lying gently on Rodney's wounded leg. Rodney's heart beats loudly in his chest.
"When you fell and I did not know whether you'd live or die, I knew that I could never return and keep on living the life I'd led," John says, looking up at him.
His gaze is so open that hope blossoms in Rodney's chest, though he tries to quench it, because John has to mean Elizabeth. It might have been Rodney who made him aware of the fleeting nature of life, but to assume, to even consider that what John would want in his life could be Rodney is madness.
"You can have a new life," Rodney says, trying to brave the inevitable confession to Elizabeth's attraction.
"Can I?" John asks and looks at him. His hand moves up Rodney's leg and Rodney closes his eyes, unable to stand this any longer because John looks every bit as if Elizabeth couldn't be further from his mind. "Rodney?" John asks, cupping his face with one hand.
Rodney's eyes fly open and before he can allow himself to finally believe, John leans in and closes his mouth over Rodney's.
Rodney cannot breathe for a moment, too overwhelmed as everything he never dared to dream, never even dared to think becomes true. Then he opens his mouth and kisses back, returning the kiss with fervor that's been hidden away all his life, kept and nourished for this moment.
He cannot believe what is happening, still doubts when John carries him up the stairs, and imagines himself in a state of delusion when John maps his body with kisses, paying special attention to his scar.
He stops questioning himself when John lavishes his hard member with his tongue and when John takes him into the depths of his mouth, he only feels gratitude and heat and love.
He spills into John's mouth with a cry of passion, so deeply felt, so blinding that it's as if he's dying from pleasure.
He's barely conscious as he holds onto John who moves against Rodney, reaching completion in Rodney's arms with a low moan.
That night, as they lie entwined, Rodney sleeps peacefully for the first time in years.
They say that war is cruel. It takes a good man like John Sheppard and forces him, through the kindness of his heart, to take care of the man to whom he believes he owes his life. They say, with pity in their voices, that had it not been for war, John Sheppard would have married Elizabeth Weir and led the life he was supposed to live.
Rodney doesn't doubt it. He'll never be grateful for the war, but he knows that it is only this particular cruelty of war that affords him and John what would have been forever out of reach for them.