Rating: Mild R.
Length: 3051 words.
Warning: Seasons four and five alluded to.
Notes: Here's your first time! It's a reworking of “Bearskin”
Once there was a soldier skilled in the art of war, in the ways of death. But when wars were done with him, when they sent him back, his father’s house was not his home, and his brother had no place for him. Landless, bereft of both the brotherhood of his blood and the brotherhood of his heart he wandered through the woods of the world, all the way down into the last wilderness, a vast expanse of empty white that echoed the emptiness in his heart, his hands.
The sky over him was wide and blue and achingly far away. It was the closest to home he’d known in his lifetime.
It was there he met a man in green, who made him an offer he could scarcely refuse: family, a home, and one who would love him always.
John hadn’t known it would be like this. Hadn’t expected to find himself suddenly at war again, in the middle of a battle that had waged for ten thousand years against vampires who drained humans to a withered husk. Hadn’t expected to have to shoot his commanding officer because it was better than letting that … thing, that Wraith, drain him.
Hadn’t expected to have to lead a bunch of very young marines.
He knew war, at least, understood it. Knew what these young men needed him to be, even if he wasn’t that, not any more. Or ever, at all, really. So he pulled war back on like an old robe, wore its mantle and lived the part, though in his heart he’d lost the taste for it so very long ago.
He clipped one of Sumner’s tags to his own chain, wore it against his skin so that it burned him, etched into his bone.
He wore the skin like it was his own, and only knew the lie that it was in his own heart.
The thing about deals with the devil – and the soldier soon enough realized that this was what it was, a deal with the devil – is that there were always hidden conditions, complications that the devil knew to lie in the details, but a mere mortal could not begin to foresee.
At first it was … if not easy, then at least not hard. He slipped the green coat on, and the mantle made of the bear he’d killed, and greased his face and hands and beard so that he stank of the killing, achieved with one single, perfect shot through the heart of the beast. He moved through the woods of the world easily then, as though one of its own, and bedded by shaded waters and in the hollows of great trees and none were the wiser: not the birds of the air, the small scurrying mammals, not even the bears that prowled the edges around him but never dared to challenge him, save for one who shat in his waters and pissed in his bedding and growled low in its throat from across the riverbed.
They met a handful of times, and the soldier bested him, though each time he felt the rake of claws, or broken ribs from a well-placed blow. At last, after three years circling each other the soldier thought himself free of the old bear.
He was wrong.
John looked at his hands, the skin firm and hard and somehow, miraculously, young again.
Or as young as they could be, considering the stain of blood they carried.
He stripped himself naked in front of the mirror, down to his dog tags, saw the ghost-scar, the faint puckering of the skin where the Wraith’s hand had taken … and where it had given back. He traced it with slow fingers, felt a shiver of something like revulsion and a little like longing at the intimacy of the exchange. He’d been remade somehow, taken apart and knitted back together, but he’d be damned if he knew how, or what it meant.
Still, the Wraith had not made him new again, had not taken the scars that were the maps of where he’d been. Nor was he young again, not really. The threads of silver in his chest hair, and at the temples were still there. He lifted his head, looked at the slight heaviness in his jaw, the stockiness in his body that had not been there three years ago, as though Pegasus itself had reforged him, somehow, made him something denser and sterner.
He touched the three tags resting against his chest, and wondered if this change was for good or ill.
Wounded and tired and hungry for the company of men, the soldier left the woods for the first time since the man in the green coat had come to him. Time and again he found that no inn would have him, not even to lie down on the floor of the barn, for the smell of him disquieted even the horses.
He rubbed his long, rough beard and thought -- damn him, damn him. He considered throwing off the bearskin, stripping naked and wading into the stream, scraping every last trace of beard from his face. He longed to be clean and smooth again, to be a man and not Bearskin.
He thought of his father’s house, of his brother’s children, and something cold and sharp lay like a stone against his heart.
The hardest thing about dealing with David, with trying to build some sort of bridge that made the span between galaxies seem trivial in comparison, was that David had their mother’s eyes, her quirk of a smile. It was somehow ironic that John was the one who took after their father and David after their mother.
David also had about as much patience with bullshit as their mother had had.
“Deep space telemetry?” he said, rolling the words in his mouth. “You fall off the planet for five years and you tell me you were holed up doing deep space telemetry?” He snorted softly, picked up his coffee cup and leaned back into the green leather club chair across from the one John had taken. “You’re a fucking piece of work, John.”
“So I’ve been told,” John replied evenly. “But that’s the only answer I have for you, David. You can take it or leave it.”
“Like you and … everything? The house, the business, the horses?” David asked finally, after a silence that stretched and pulled at them both.
“Like me and everything,” John agreed. “Though I wouldn’t mind a couple of pictures of Mom. And maybe something from Grandpa.”
David stared at him a few moments, then nodded. “That can be arranged. But on one condition.”
John sat settled deeper into the chair, letting his head fall back. “Yeah?”
“Keep in touch, John. Telemetry can’t keep you that busy and … sometimes I remember what it was like to have a brother. And I miss it.” David’s voice was low, rough like John’s got, like their mother’s had.
John looked up then, nodded. “I can try, David. But … if I don’t? It’s not you. It was never you, okay?”
They stood slowly, and they didn’t hug because they’d both been broken of the habit by Patrick years before. But they moved through their father’s house together, and it was … a beginning.
At last one broken-down inn let him into the taproom, and he huddled by the fire for warmth despite the sweating weight of the bear skin because this warmth meant so much more: humanity, and home, and a dozen other things he had almost forgotten. So engrossed with the glow and flicker it took him awhile to notice the man sitting across from him, neck bent, body hunched, like the cold had found its way in and was burrowing into his guts.
The soldier asked the man: “What is your grief, brother?” and the man startled, lifted his pale gaze to fix upon the wild man, the beast the soldier had become.
“I have lost my fortunes in an unworthy venture, and I have nothing left. All my peers have fled me, and all my friends and family reviled me.” His voice was colder than the snow outside. “I have lost my home and my good name and truth be told, I’ve not even money to pay for a meal, let alone a room here.”
The soldier reached under the bearskin, under the green coat, and pulled out the purse with the last of his campaign wages. “Let this be your room, let this be your supper, let this begin to restore what you have lost.”
The soldier’s companion blinked at him, and sat motionless until the purse was pressed firmly into his hand. “But … I can’t … what can I give you in return?”
The soldier turned back to the fire, and sat quietly awhile. “Meet with me here each month, and tell me how the world of men goes, and share a pint and platter and remind me of what I once was.”
The stranger nodded, swallowed thickly. “I can do that,” he said.
A soft knock on his door woke John from the edge of sleep. When he opened it he found Rodney there, rocking uneasily on the balls of his feet, almost poised to turn and leave. “Yeah? What’s up?”
“I just wanted to come by,” Rodney said haltingly, uncertainly, his hand brushing the pale bandage on his forehead. “I just came by to apologize. And to, uh, thank you. For, you know, dealing with me. It can’t have been, ah, pleasant, and well …” he trailed off. “I mean, I’m totally humiliated that you had to see me like that, and incredibly grateful at the same time that you were there, that you never …” he trailed off uncertainly, then took a deep breath, pushed his shoulders back. “I never thought there’d be anyone there for me like that. I always sort of pictured my corpse being nibbled by my pet cat, to be perfectly honest, and yet there you were.”
John shook his head, rubbed the back of his neck. “Yep. There I was. And the cat thing? Ewww?” He stepped back, motioned Rodney in. “I’ve got beer, if you brought your towel, Trillian.”
“Trillian? But she’s the girl!” Rodney protested, following him in.
“Yeah, but she was the smart one,” John said, digging into his bar fridge. “Though honestly? You’re more like Marvin than anyone.”
“Oh, thanks very much,” Rodney said, accepting the beer John handed him. “So, video golf, chess or what?” he said, flicking John’s laptop open, and John watched him and felt the skin he’d worn stretch and crack just a little wider and it was getting harder to wear the skin but somehow, it seemed worth it, watching Rodney’s animated face, letting it overwrite the terrified, lost look that had burned its way into John’s memory.
Definitely worth it.
They met two years, each month, and the soldier watched the fortunes of the man he called friend rise again in the world: he won back his reputation, his achievements, and soon grew famous in the world of engines and alchemy. Each time they played chess, drank beer, talked of places they had traveled, and the movement of the stars, and the properties of matter. Never once did the other man mention the bearskin, or turn away from the stink of the soldier, or forget to show up.
And then one month, the man came with a pretty blonde girl in tow, who was kind and funny and who seemed to see beneath the bluster of her lover, just as her eyes looked at the soldier and seemed to see him beneath the matted hair and dirt he had accumulated over the years.
Something in the soldier’s heart shifted and cracked, and he understood what he had never known before, had never dared guess about himself, and he was happy for his friend, he was, but when he left the inn that night for the woods he howled and tore the earth and grieved like a wild thing.
When the next month came, he did not go, nor did he the month after. He grew wilder, hairier, more like an animal each month, and he thought he might lose himself, become a wild beast himself. He hoped to, for to live as a man with no heart save shards and shatters seemed impossible to bear.
Six months gone and he thought, perhaps, that his friend might be married to the soft-eyed girl, but was proven wrong when he woke one morning to see the other man sitting outside his den, fingers busy with some small machine while he waited. “You know, I really did love her,” his friend said quietly.
“So why are you here with this beast in the woods and not in her bed, in her arms?” the soldier demanded.
“Because as much as I miss her, it’s not a hole through and through like the last six months without you have been,” was the reply, finally, softly. “It hurts my heart to be without her. It stops it to be without you.”
“I am a monster,” said the soldier, meaning not only the skin and filth, but the man beneath, who had killed for his bread and salt and who had never made anything, not one thing, only destroyed others.
“You are my friend,” the other man said quietly, simply. “And I could ask for none better. I take you as you are, and would have you no other way. Just as you have done with me.”
That night they ate thick stew in the man’s house, and the soldier slept on a good straw mattress and when he woke he realized that seven years had passed, that his deal was done. And this was his reward: family, and home, and someone who felt the absence of him as keenly as he felt theirs.
John let Ronon pull him up into a warriors dance, and whirled gracelessly but with much laughter around the fire pit. When it was done and he was gasping for breath, he accepted the mug of good, thick stout beer that Teyla held out and thought: this is why I’m here. Athosians with a good harvest in, with a dozen toddlers underfoot and more on the way. This was … life. Living.
He walked the periphery of the increasingly exuberant party, still keeping the perimeter even in times of peace, such as these were. Along the way he stopped by the two jumpers they’d used to ferry in Atlantis personnel and their contributions to the party. He found Rodney and Zelenka in the back, going over the last of the fireworks preparations before carrying them over to the main party area for set up.
He watched Rodney bitch and fuss and Radek give back as he good as he got and he thought:
When it was at last set up to their expectations, Radek carried the bundles over to the rest of the party while Rodney rounded up the charges and timers. John watched him, then leaned in and touched his hands, stilled them. “Rodney?”
Rodney looked up at him, impatient, curious, a little concerned. “What?”
“You over Jennifer?” he asked finally, his hands still covering Rodney’s.
Rodney blinked. “If you mean, am I pining away, no. I miss her, and it was good, but … it is what it is, and it ended on good terms, so hey.” He shrugged. “So, yes? I think so?”
John said, “Good,” then leaned in brushed his mouth over Rodney’s, a question.
“You’re my best friend,” Rodney said finally, blinking.
“And that means?” John said, because he wasn’t going to be bound up in Sumner’s memory and his own fears any longer. Because he had grown into the man he needed to be for others, and now, maybe, it was time for something he needed himself.
“It means … try that again,” Rodney said, and John did.
The soldier buried the bear cloak, and the green cloak, and went into the finest inn in town to bathe seven years of stink and loneliness from his skin. Then to the barber, and then the tailor, until he was tall and fine and as handsome as any man could be once again. He was a little thicker in the body, and there was silver in his hair, but he was still as fine as glass.
He walked to his friend’s house and rapped upon the door. When it was opened the other man merely smiled and said, “Good, you are in time for breakfast!”
The soldier was confused, and not a little amazed. “How do you know me so quickly, for I scarcely knew myself, I am so transformed!”
His friend only smiled. “I would know your heart anywhere, my dear one.”
And the soldier took his friend’s face between his hands, and tasted his smile and his salt and the sweetness of them both, together.
It took three days to find time to follow up those few, hasty kisses, but at long last John found himself with Rodney in his quarters. He cupped his face, held it and found Rodney’s soft, breathless sigh, swallowed it down and kept kissing him until his mouth was wet and his body was thrumming with a want that had its own pulse, its own ebb and flow.
Rodney pulled back then, fingers stroking down his front. “I want to see you naked,” he said roughly.
“You have,” John said, pulling his shirt up, showing the scars on his body, pulling his pants down to show the hard jut of his cock. “You always have,” John said, and it was like breathing freely for the first time in a quarter of a century.
Rodney stepped in close, stroked his fingers over his tags, letting them rake the line of hair that trailed downwards. “You’re my best friend,” Rodney said, but John heard everything beneath the words and leaned in, kissed him hard and fierce with open-mouthed ardour and thought:
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