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The Parity of Zero

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Zero is an even number. In other words, its parity—the quality of an integer being even or odd—is even. ….Within the even numbers, zero plays a central role: it is the identity element of the group of even integers, and it is the starting case from which other even natural numbers are recursively generated. Every integer divides 0, including each power of 2; in this sense, 0 is the "most even" number of all.


"So I've been thinking," John says, and waits a beat, because Rodney is way too predictable to miss that opening. John's stretched out on his bed, lying on his stomach, and propped up on his elbows to flip through a golf magazine that's relatively new.

"How novel that must be for you," Rodney says, right on cue. John grins and waits another moment, sliding a page over lazily. Rodney's fingers slow on the keyboard. John does it again, making as much noise as possible. Rodney stops typing. Flip. "Wait," Rodney says, and actually turns around to give John what looks like his full attention. "Thinking, or thinking-thinking?"

"Thinking about trying something thinking," John says, and Rodney nods a few times as though that makes sense. Now John's got his real attention, and not just the fake alertness that Rodney uses to skate through boring meetings.

"Unpack for me," Rodney says, and even though John knows he has to do this and has been trying to put together the words for a while, it's hard. John takes a couple of breaths. "Would it help if you were on your knees?" Rodney asks, and it's like being punched hard in the stomach; John goes just that breathless at how much that question's casual lack of judgement means to him. To Rodney, John's like an Ancient device that he's figuring out how to work; he simply pushes buttons and notes reactions. It's the most comfort John's ever known. And it makes it easy to roll off the bed, cross the room, and kneel at Rodney's feet.

"I know you're uncomfortable hurting me," John says, looking up with his head at a bit of an angle, trying not to appear confrontational. Rodney rolls his eyes.

In the beginning, Rodney had assumed John was gay and approached him for sex. John had been much, much worse at communication back then. It took a couple of weeks to get Rodney to understand that John was interested, just not in sex. Rodney had applied beer to the problem, and when John finally admitted that he liked to sub Rodney had said, with a smug smile, that this could really work.

John loves being pushed to extremes, discovering how much he can be asked to give and still come back to himself. John can let himself go further with Rodney than he's ever gone before. John thinks that Rodney, on the other hand, holds back, which is not how John figured the relationship would go. Rodney likes inflicting pain, but he's afraid, John suspects, of selfishly pushing John too far. Rodney has probably been called selfish in most of his relationships.

John looks at Rodney's knees, the soft fabric of his old uniform trousers, and hopes that after he explains, Rodney will let him rest his cheek there.

"I want you to hit me," John says, and he knows that won't be good enough, so he makes himself go on. "Because -- " because too many people have been hitting him lately and John's been too close to death, they all have, and he hasn't been in control of any of it -- "I want to know it's you. Just not with your hands," he adds. He doesn't think he's ready for that yet. "And I want you to think it's the hottest scene ever." He shrugs a little and shifts. He can't help it; keeping still isn't his thing. "I imagine it like porn, with me blissed out on the bed and you jerking off and getting your come all over me. Messing me up."

"You've been thinking about it," Rodney says, his tone prodding.

It was all John could think about the last time he was tied up and beaten to his knees. "I know you want to. And it's not like no one ever has." Nancy had been into domestic discipline, which John suspects Rodney finds just as funny as the thought of John married, somebody's husband. But it hadn't been a joke to John. He'd wanted his marriage to work, and he'd tried for six years, even though their schedules -- his absences -- made him a stranger to Nancy, in the end.

Nancy had been traditional. She'd slapped John's ass and arms with wooden spoons, smacked his palms with the ruler she kept just for that purpose, used her hairbrush on him sometimes. The last time she'd used a doubled-over belt, three hard cracks mis-aimed with anger before she stopped, put one hand on John's shoulder in apology and perhaps regret, and said, "It's not going to work, is it?"

"I don't want to hit you for the same reason your wife did." Rodney slides his fingers into John's hair and curls them under tight.

"I know. Just." John shrugs, lazily testing Rodney's grip. "I can take it."

"I know that," Rodney snaps back. "The question is whether you enjoy it. If your dick isn't going to talk for you, then you need to give me something."

John blows out a breath in frustration. "I want to make you happy. I wanted to make Nancy happy."

Rodney sucks in a sharp breath, and the burn to John's scalp increases, making him nudge his head up, even if that means Rodney can see his watering eyes.

"I'm easier," Rodney says, bluntly. "All I want you to do is feel. I don't want to make you change."

John's mouth twists. "I'm not the changing kind." That's not the direction he wants the conversation to go. "It'd be good with you." John hopes that if he gives Rodney this, it will be easier for Rodney to say what he wants.

He really, really loves giving Rodney what he wants.

"Everything is better with me." Rodney pulls his fingers free from John's hair absently and puts his hand around the back of John's head. He gives a tug forward. John settles his cheek against Rodney's knees, tension draining from his shoulders as Rodney starts working on the knot that always forms at the base of John's skull. "Thank you," Rodney says, formally, and he sounds pleased, like John did good, and John's eyes close with warm pleasure.

A few days later, Rodney produces a long, flexible rod trash-picked from some Ancient clutter being cleared from the new labs in tower 6A. John blinks when it's presented to him, taking it, testing the weight and the swish and the smoothly polished tip.

"Wicked," John says, and waggles his eyebrows. Rodney is always on the lookout for things that can be used as toys. John's sure Rodney's already started practising on some poor Ancient bolster that should be in a museum, not used for target practice. John hands the rod back, proffering the end where Rodney made a comfortable handgrip with tape. When Rodney takes it back John feels a bit of the devil in him. He puts his hand out, palm up. "Try me."

Rodney's eyes narrow. He's obviously thinking several moves ahead, and that makes John feel naked. But Rodney just says, "Two, left hand."

John holds out his other hand.

The rod stings like a bitch and leaves welts that Rodney examines with something like pride, or -- or like it turns him on. John makes himself hold still as Rodney presses down with his fingers along the length of the marks, his breath catching as Rodney makes him spread his fingers and then make a fist.

"That hurts," Rodney says, and even though it's not really a question, John says "Yeah." His voice has gone all scratchy, the way it does.

"Like a bee sting," John adds. He takes his hand back and wants to blow on the red marks to cool them down. Instead, he pats them lightly with his fingers. Then a bit harder. "Or a hard plastic ruler."

"When's your next day off?" Rodney asks. His higher brain functions are still on line, but his focus is on the marks he put on John's body, and on John's discomfort.

"Ten days? Maybe eight. I'll look it up." John scratches across the marks with his fingernails, because they kind of itch now. He's sure Rodney has ice packs, but he doesn't offer anything for relief. That means Rodney is giving John this, because it turns him on. "Want me to take care of you?"

Sometimes Rodney's weird about being the one in the relationship who has all the orgasms. This is right on the fine edge of his self-control.

"Jerk you off," John continues, upping the ante. "Put the hand you marked on your dick."

Rodney swallows. "Stay," Rodney says, and goes to sit on the edge of the bed, pants and underwear shoved down, his dick fat and hard between his legs.

Because of me, John thinks. Because he hit me. Because my hand is still burning and I can't stop it because he doesn't want me to.

"On your knees," Rodney says. John goes down. "Come here." John hasn't been told to crawl; he figures Rodney doesn't want a hand that's been on the floor on his dick. It's only a few steps. It just takes a little longer on his knees. "Lick your hand," Rodney says when John's between his legs. "Get it as wet as you can, and do me slow."

John's natural instinct is to be a smartass, to resist even though it's his fucking idea. Rodney has told him this is a defence mechanism; he didn't say but implied heavily that it was a stupid one. John has to look up at Rodney as he curls his fingers around his cock and lets them slide, loose and lazy, down and then up to rub the ache in his hand in circles over the head of Rodney's dick.

Rodney's expression has turned inward, focussed on the pleasure building inside him, but he reaches out and touches John's face, thumb tracing the line of one eyebrow outwards. John's mouth falls open, because it floods him like praise, so fucking good.

God, John wants, and he tries to tell Rodney that by making this the best handjob ever. It's awkward with his left hand, but Rodney keeps touching his face, keeping John in that place where he just doesn't fucking matter except as something Rodney needs.

"Make me come now," Rodney says, words short with arousal, fingers on John's lips. John changes gears immediately, slicking his palm with precum and working Rodney's cock fast and tight. He's tense with anticipation, and when Rodney groans and comes, he slides his fingers into John's mouth.

John sucks hard as come spills over his fingers, letting his eyes fall shut, and thinks about the things Rodney's going to make him do now. Run a bath. Wash the sweat and come from Rodney's skin. Rub him dry. Let John press his forehead down against the base of Rodney's neck and let time stop, just for a while.

He wants Rodney to beat him bloody, to half-kill him, to rocket John past all of his limits, just for what will come after.

Rodney sets up their date the night before John's day off. John brings him flowers and chocolate. The flowers are a couple of daisy-like things from the mainland; Rodney hits John in the head with them before sticking them into a water-filled beer can. The chocolate is one of those serious organic bars, in a velvety brown wrapper with gold lettering.

John asks for a bite and gets laughed at. Rodney makes him go into the bathroom to take a shower and tells him to just pull on his underwear afterwards. John suspects Rodney's using the opportunity to hide the chocolate. He probably should have had some before he gave it away. He'll remember that next time.

He comes out with shower-messy hair, wearing his ugly plaid boxers. Rodney rolls his eyes -- he loathes John's ugly boxers and has said so many times -- and tells John to grab the massage oil.

Rodney strips down to his underwear and stretches out on the bed, which is covered only with the bottom sheet. "Start with my feet," Rodney says.

Being massaged makes John tense. He's not sure if it's having other people's hands on him, or if it's because he feels cornered when some stranger tries to trick his body into giving up its tension and pain. Nancy had loved long, full-body massages, though, and when Rodney found that out he'd looked like John had handed him a ZPM.

John has Rodney-like confidence in his ability to massage Rodney into very relaxed goo. He works his way up the backs of Rodney's legs, keeping his touch firm but not painful, using a steady rhythm that slows and deepens Rodney's breathing. Beneath his hands, John can feel tension ease into softness. It makes him smile even though no one's watching, and put that much more effort into making Rodney feel good.

From Rodney's shoulders John works his way up his neck, wiping the oil on his hands onto his boxers before starting on Rodney's scalp. Nancy had loved having shampoo massaged into her hair; she'd said he was better than any hairdresser she knew. Rodney makes little pleased grunts and lets John move his head so his fingers can work their way forward, lightly. John feels a kind of flowing fondness for Rodney; as fun as he is when he's talking a mile a minute, it means something that Rodney can give John his silent approval as well.

John returns to Rodney's shoulders and kneads down his arms to his hands. Even though his own fingers are tired from the workout, he spends a lot of time on Rodney's hands. Like his head, they're important. John always takes care of the things that are important to the people who are important to him.

When he gives a last little questioning rub to the pad of Rodney's thumb, Rodney takes a deep breath and flaps John a short backhanded wave.

"Give me a minute," Rodney says. "You're a treasure, you know that? It seems criminally greedy to hoard talent like that, but there's no way in hell that I'd ever share you with anyone."

"I'm picky, anyway," John says. He stretches his fingers wide, and then rubs the last of the oil into his skin and his fingernails. "You're just lucky I like you."

"I really am," Rodney says, matter-of-fact. John's so wide open that he can't help feeling the words fly straight in, like birds winging home to nest.

"Safewords," Rodney says, with a short put-upon sigh as he sits up. "And take off those disgusting pants before you lie down. I don't want to see them while I'm beating you."

"These are my sexy shorts," John protests, even though they really, really aren't. He slides them off and tries not to be ashamed that he's not hard like Rodney is. He knows Rodney has already catalogued that fact and that Rodney says he doesn't care, which also makes John prickle with embarrassment.

John stretches naked along the bed and tries to breathe out the unwanted feelings. "Green, yellow, red," John says. "Pink." Because John had come once, back in the beginning, and had lost his pleasant disconnect instantly. He'd freaked the fuck out, a cascade of worries that Rodney would think he'd fixed John -- that he'd fucked John normal. Rodney just snorted and gave him a new safeword so he'd know what was too sexual for John to handle.

John remembers his grandfather. He was wiry and bowlegged and mean, which in retrospect John guesses came from being packed off to an expensive residential facility by a family that visited, dutifully, the first weekend every month. When his granddad started going blind, John had been given the responsibility of taking him on walks while his parents talked to the director in the office.

"They say the other senses compensate," his granddad told him, fingers digging into John's arm as they made their way down the wheelchair ramp into the rose garden. "It's a fucking lie, Johnny." And then he demanded the slim pink cigarettes he had John steal from his mother and told terrible stories about the war while he chain-smoked them one after another.

John doesn't know if sexual arousal counts as a sense. He's learned, imperfectly, to recognize the shape of its absence. When he has a partner, it's good and bad, because he gets familiar with their tells, but their focus is on him. He can't really compensate for not reciprocating, short of lying, which he has done, disastrously, a few times.

But as far back as he remembers, John's life has oscillated between wanting to follow orders, and to disobey. Perversely, his mind has wired his happiness into that: the sick feeling he got digging through his mother's purse, the tense weight of fear of discovery, the shame of returning in a telltale pall of menthol smoke... but also the firm hand of the only person who really loved him stroking over his hair, telling him he was a good boy and one day he would fly if he wanted to.

Rodney's hand settles between John's shoulders, pressing down.

"Can you do this for me?" Rodney asks.

If John wanted to stop, this would be the easiest time to do it. He's been trying not to think of the pain in his hand magnified in area and intensity, of just how much Rodney will ask him to take. But Rodney knows him and his limits, so John says, "Yeah."

"Put your hands on the edge of the mattress and keep them there," Rodney says. When John does, Rodney curls his fingers under so his nails dig into John's skin. "Look at you," Rodney says. "You're just -- God." His hand clenches hard and then smoothes over that patch of John's back. John imagines that there are five crescents cut into the skin there. "I'm going to mark your tailbone," Rodney says, and John hears a pop and smells white-board marker. Several of Rodney's fingers slide down his spine, a firm clinical touch even when they dip into the crease of his ass. The fingers stop, press down, and then John feels the lighter brush of the marker.

"Is that an X marks the spot?" John asks, kind of wishing he could see.

"You'll thank me every time you sit down and it doesn't hurt," Rodney snaps, and tosses the marker over towards the desk. He misses, and John hears it skitter across the floor. "Well. Apart from the next few days. But that won't be permanent." His hand settles at the small of John's back. "It means a lot to me that you're even willing to try this," and then before John can formulate an answer, "count backwards from five."

The sting of the rod turns the oh of zero into fuck, and John clenches his hands tight on the mattress. Rodney follows up with lighter strokes, almost gentle. It takes John a moment to process that he reflexively started slow breathing through the pain, and that the taps with the rod are mirroring that.

"Can you take another?" Rodney asks.

"Yeah." John counts down, feeling a bit ragged, and this time Rodney doesn't pull the rod back right away. He lets it press hard into the line of fire it's drawn across John's skin, and when Rodney drags it back John feels like he's being cut open.

It maybe takes a little longer than before for John to relax, because the pain's like a flood washing over John's defences.

The next time Rodney asks, John doesn't want to say yes, but he does anyway; and the time after that, and the time after that. The softer in-between taps fall on hot bruised skin now, and it's like John's breathing in pain and breathing out all of his resistance in sharp regular breaths, rocked between the pain and the countdowns.

There's a longer break, when each touch is like waves of fire, and then Rodney's leaning over to slide his fingers into John's hair, which is wet with sweat. He pulls, but slightly, fondly; just enough to give John focus.

"You've done really well," Rodney says. "You're so strong. I'm really impressed. This is. . . amazing." John doesn't say anything, but it's like seeing that oncoming light and knowing he's rising up towards it, not falling. He did good. He's an awesome boyfriend. "Can you take more?" Rodney asks, and scratches John's scalp with his fingernails.

Just that little extra pain pushes John so close to the edge that he doesn't say the first thing that comes to mind, which is that Rodney doesn't need to stop, not ever, because John can take everything Rodney wants to give. "One," John says, his voice raw and breaking at the end, making the word into a question. "Two?"

"One is perfect," Rodney says. "You're perfect. I just. . . this is good. Start at five."

John's back inside himself enough that it's hard to line the numbers up. His eyes are already squeezed shut when he reaches zero, and this time Rodney's a beat later than he expects. John can't help shouting, and then tenses because he's supposed to keep quiet. Isn't he? Except maybe it wasn't Rodney who told him that. He gets a little short of breath, afraid because he can't remember, and then something soft and light and warm settles over him. Rodney tucks the blanket around his feet snugly before stretching out next to John.

"I'm going to jerk off now," Rodney says. "You're so hot, you're so fucking amazing, I nearly came watching you." John lets the words wash away his fears. "Someday I'm going to make you cry, if you let me that would be so good," and Rodney's working his dick hard, frantic. "Look at you." Rodney's other hand scratches desperately down John's back to the edge of the blanket, nails brushing over the first of the welts in a way that makes the sting well up again like the way a bad burn itches. John hisses and twitches away reflexively, and Rodney's breath catches even as he bites his lip. "Sorry," Rodney says, and presses the heel of his hand over the spot gently.

John doesn't want Rodney to apologize. He knows what Rodney likes, and he wants to give as much as he can, but he knows he has to be honest. He thinks he's there on the edge; he can't take more pain right now.

"Sit up," he says, twisting carefully so he's looking at Rodney. "Come on my face. I want you to," he adds, which is true. He wants to be marked and welcomed back and warm and good and owned. "Please," he adds, letting some of his hunger bleed through, even though he knows it's dirty pool. He knows he sounds seductive, but he also knows that Rodney knows him better than anyone.

Rodney pauses, clearly trying not to come just from thinking about it, and then pulls himself up to his knees with efficiency but no grace.

"Close your eyes," Rodney says, and he's anchoring himself by pulling hard on John's hair, forcing John to twist onto his shoulder and turn his face up.

John's so close to Rodney's dick that he can smell come, but he's still surprised by the warm splash of it against his eyelids and his cheeks and his mouth. He can feel more seeping into his hair.

John's feeling punchy and sleepily proud of himself for giving Rodney such a good orgasm. He smiles, and Rodney groans and pulls his fingers out of John's hair.

"Open your eyes," Rodney says, and John does. He has to blink away come; it's sliding down his cheeks and he can just imagine what he looks like. Rodney's staring at him like he's -- "You're so good," Rodney says, and leans down to kiss John, licking his lips clean.

John believes him, feels that happiness of belief run through him like the axis of a gyroscope. He kisses back, and kisses back, and thinks that love must feel something like this.

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The end
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