John wondered, sometimes, what Rodney left behind him in Colorado. Rodney was a hoarder, a creature of clutter, gathering books and pieces of paper, broken pens and odd blue socks around him at a pace John found almost frightening. Left alone, he could turn the living room into a wasteland of paper and books and half a dozen uncapped green Sharpies in under five minutes, he kept every copy of the American Journal of Physics, which he subscribed to just to mock, and bought new coffee mugs rather than wash out the old ones. When his things began to migrate, piecemeal, from Sam Carter's rental house to John's home, John's wardrobe expanded to the tune of fifteen new sweaters, most of which were unsuitable for Nantucket in September and some of which didn't even fit Rodney any more.
All these things Rodney piled up around him, refused to let go of, stacked on John's shelves and kicked under his bed; and yet on that rainy Monday morning when Rodney made those calls to Colorado Springs to tell the Air Force enough, he was done, he was out, to break the lease on his apartment and have all his bills forwarded on to here, John saw no sign of him arranging to have his old apartment packed up and sent out here.
John hinted, once or twice—subtly, of course—dropped the name of a removal company he'd found online that would clean out your place and ship your stuff over for you. John wanted him to think he could have his own things here, if he wanted, could arrange his memories and his triumphs around them, make a safe space to hide and hold his failures, keep them safe. Stuff that meant something to him, stuff that wasn't tube socks and pens and paperback books with their spines broken and cracked; things that didn't make it seem like before a couple months ago, Rodney'd had nothing and no one, like his life only began when he'd trailed water and sand in across John's kitchen floor. John wanted that for him; not that he knew where exactly they'd put everything, not in a house that was already bursting at the seams with just the two of them, but he was an old hand by now at doing things on impulse and hoping they'd shake themselves out later. It'd worked for him, so far.
He asked Sam about it when he went over to pick up the last of Rodney's stuff before she locked up her house for another year, a couple boxes of books and clothes thrown onto the back seat of his Wagoneer. She tilted her head and tucked a strand of bright blonde hair behind one ear, and perched on the hood of her car to dispense information in true Air Force fashion—meaning John learned nothing much, but just enough.
Sam was hiding a grin when she looked at him, he knew, eyes laughing and knowing when she looked at him standing there in her drive with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his hoodie. "Stuff like this takes time, trust me," she said wryly. "And Rodney's Rodney—he's going to have to learn to trust himself with what you're offering." John snorted at that, and then didn't know where to look when she continued "But I think he can." She patted him on the shoulder, gave him a swift hug and handed over a piece of paper with a name and number scrawled on it, wishing him luck before she drove off in her rental car.
John ended up talking to a guy called Radek who alternately ranted at John over the phone as soon as John mentioned Rodney's name, and spoke very, very quickly in a language John was pretty sure wasn't English. He caved kind of quickly though, sighing heavily over the crackling phone-line and said "Yes, yes, of course, I will speak with Elizabeth", and within a couple of days, John was heading over to the mainland to pick up a couple of packages from Otis Air Base. He was never quite sure Radek had managed to get Rodney's stuff shipped out on an Air Force flight, but John had learned long ago not to look a gift horse in the mouth—least, not long as the horse wasn't actively trying to kick back at him.
The lieutenant who handed it all over had a look on her face that John was used to seeing from people who were familiar with Rodney: part curiosity and part desire to disavow all knowledge of him. "Sir," she said tersely, dumping the last and heaviest of the boxes into his arms without warning. Well, it wasn't like John couldn't sympathise, at times. He signed the paperwork and headed back to the island, tapped impatient fingers on the wheel as he drove back to the house through the quickly darkening evening, worked on what he was going to say and how he was going to say it—and words, as always, failed him, left him drawling "So, I got you some stuff" when he deposited his armful on the coffee table in front of Rodney.
"Wow, stuff," Rodney said dryly, putting down the bowl of pasta he'd been holding in one hand, the tablet notebook that'd been in the other, "can't tell you how much I've been looking forward to..." His voice trailed off when he ripped open the lid of the first box with impatient fingers and pulled out the first of a couple of framed degrees, three or four small, bulging notebooks, a dog-eared photo of a young Rodney scowling uncomfortably at the camera, his arms full of a beaming blonde toddler, and a single pouch of cat-food—clearly the result of Radek cherry-picking Rodney's apartment, pulling out what he thought was the best, the most important. John was kind of glad, now, that he hadn't looked beforehand to see what was in there, that he had left them there for Rodney to show him.
"This is, um," Rodney said, looking up at John from his perch on the couch, grip tight on the picture in his hands.
"Sam said... something before she left," John said awkwardly, fighting with the urge to rub at the back of his neck, or to fidget with his wristband. "And I just, you know. It wasn't a big deal."
"No, no. Right, of course." The tips of Rodney's ears were pink, and his voice sounded a little hoarse even after he cleared his throat. "And the cat food? Is that some kind of... well, I don't know what it could be, I—"
John nudged meaningfully at the biggest box, the one on the floor covered with a cloth.
Rodney's eyes grew huge, the line of his mouth slack with astonishment, and John didn't think he'd ever seen him move as quickly as he did when he scrambled from the couch to the floor. "How did you," Rodney said, "my neighbour, she... I didn't think she'd give him back to me." He threw off the covering and scrabbled to unlatch the carrier, revealing one sleepy and disgruntled tabby cat, who opened one eye just a crack and looked out lazily at them, refusing to budge from the carrier until Rodney pulled him out bodily.
"Thank you," Rodney said, the cat lying limp and purring in his arms, submitting to Rodney's belly scritching with something like grace, "I didn't think I—thank you."
"No problem," John said, sitting down cross-legged on the floor next to Rodney. He reached out with one hand to rub gently at the soft, soft fur behind the cat's ear, let Rodney's words wash over him—where he might hang his degrees, what he'd been up to today while waiting for John to get back home, how his toes were cold—and leaned into Rodney's warmth.
"We'll have to get him used to the house gradually," he heard Rodney warn, "especially with Cash around, and it's probably best not to let him outside, who knows what kind of strays might be hanging around—"
John said sure, Rodney, and yeah and uh huh, pressed a rough kiss to Rodney's temple, to the ragged line of his hair, and wrapped his arms around Rodney as surely as Rodney had his arms wrapped around his cat; breathed in deep at the way Rodney let him, at the way Rodney leaned into him in turn, and thought that maybe, despite all that Rodney'd said, that there was something to be said for taking in strays.