John is in the bathroom when the phone rings. Neil takes the stairs two at a time, but the damn ringer cuts out just as he gets to it and it goes to the machine. A familiar voice says, "Er. John, hi. It's Rodney. Jennifer. We broke up. I just. Can you? I'm sorry, I shouldn't-" and it cuts to a high-pitched beep as Rodney hangs up. Neil looks up to see John standing at the top of the stairs, toothbrush in hand, white as a sheet.
He turns away quickly, hoping John hasn't seen the horror on his face, and pads into the kitchen. John follows him and Neil busies himself pouring coffee. "You'd better get your flight booked," he says, handing John a cup without looking around. "I need to get home anyway, I've got at least a thousand tests to grade." He hopes he's not imagining the relaxed amusement in his voice.
"A thousand. Sure. You need remedial math again?" Okay, so if John's 'relaxed amusement' is anything to go by, then Neil's doing a shitty job, too.
"Shoo," he says. "Go organize."
The thing is, they have it good, the two of them, but Neil's under no illusions. Any he may have harbored when they first started dating had long been shattered; getting John to talk about stuff during his waking hours may be like getting blood out of a stone – with a dull spoon – but he talks enough in his sleep for Neil to know that his tales of years in Antarctica are as much a lie as that Rodney is his close friend, nothing more. Neil may not understand the strange things John mumbles in his sleep, of wraith and replicators, Atlantis and stargates, but he recognizes the way John's voice shapes the syllables of Rodney's name.
It had hurt, but it had been bearable. While Rodney had been with Jennifer, Neil could be happy enough settling for being second best. But now. What could he even do?
"I'm booked on the next flight out," says John, shaking Neil from his thoughts. "I'll be back in a couple of days, I promise."
Neil schools his face and turns around. "It's okay, John." He wants to say more, but he can't trust his voice.
They have time and John makes love to him slowly and considerately. Neil has always felt small under John's hands; today he feels like a china doll. He does not let his heart break.
Neil met John three months after John had shipped back to the States after, apparently, the funding had been pulled on his mission in Antarctica. He'd retired out of the Air Force and taken up the life of a beach bum with a vengeance. Neil'd had his class on a field trip down at the shore. Despite the constant head-counting, he'd managed to mislay one of his most slippery charges and had been frantic trying to find him. John had heard the yelling, jogging over and lifting his Aviators to show concerned eyes. "Can I help?" he'd asked and Neil had nodded violently, desperate. "Hey, it'll be okay, we'll find him," John had said, "It's kind of a talent of mine."
John had found the kid within five minutes and Neil had been so relieved he'd flopped down in the sand and stuck his head between his knees. Next thing he knew, John was crouched beside him, clapping him on the shoulder and saying, "See? Talented."
Yeah, thought Neil, as he felt the warmth of John's palm through the cotton of his shirt. Yeah.
Even then, in the earliest days, Neil could tell John had lost a lot. He'd never asked; he'd never needed to.
Over the next few days, Neil gets on with his life. He sees friends, teaches his kids, fends off the increasingly fraught requests from the drama teacher for his help with the Thanksgiving play (Yes, he's gay, no, he doesn't have the costuming gene, thank you very much), doesn't think about what might be happening on the other side of the country. Doesn't think about it.
John comes back exactly a week after he left. He comes around to Neil's condo, ostensibly to watch a movie, but he's on edge and unable to settle. When Neil has mopped up a beer spill, taken the fraying coaster from John's hands and narrowly averted a popcorn catastrophe, he pauses the DVD and asks, "How is he?"
"Not so good," says John, picking at the arm of the couch. "Maybe I should invite him for the holidays."
Neil imagines the three of them in the room together – him making goo-goo eyes at John, who's trying not to do the same to Rodney, who's listing all of his 'good qualities' and wondering just what the hell went wrong. That's possibly the worst idea he's ever heard, and he has to read through thirty 'creative compositions' every week, that's a lot of bad ideas. He thinks he might be getting a little hysterical.
He reaches over to still John's restless fingers and stands up, walking to the fridge and getting himself a beer. He pops the cap and downs half the bottle in one gulp. He needs the courage.
"You can do what you want, of course, but I won't be around."
John is on his feet now, too, his face screwed up in his I-don't-get-this-but-I-should expression. Neil's heart clenches and he only just manages to keep his breath.
"Look," he continues. "You're an honorable guy, so I'm doing the decent thing, I'm breaking up with you. I don't know if he'll ever give you what you want, but you need to find out and I can't be waiting while you do. I kind of...I need to matter."
John's hands flail a little as if he doesn't quite know where to put them. He settles for on his hips. It makes him look about ten and Neil wishes so hard that they could reset to before the phone-call. "You do matter," he says and Neil believes him. He knows how much it took just to say that much.
He reaches up and takes John's chin, tilting his own head up for a kiss. It's soft and quiet and final. "Not enough, though. It's okay, I'm a big boy, I can deal." Neil runs a hand through his hair. Needs a cut, he thinks inconsequentially. "You should probably go now," he adds.
John's face shifts, he bites his lip awkwardly. "Thank you, I-"
"Yeah, yeah," Neil cuts in because John hates scenes and Neil hates watching him hate them. He wraps his arms around John and hugs him tightly. "Be well, okay? Be happy, it's all I could ever want for you."
John buries his face in Neil's hair and Neil hears him breathe deeply. Let go, thinks Neil. Let go. He forces his arms to relax and steps away. They nod at each other, like strangers who've just completed a business transaction, but there's nothing more to say, and they both know it.
Neil watches through the window as John walks away. He looks back just once, and Neil thinks he sees gratitude written across his face. He leans his head on the cool glass for a moment, then turns away and goes to write his lesson plans. They're learning long division this week.