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As Well as Valor

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He used to sit with his head in his mother’s lap, and she would stroke his hair. “Always be polite and courteous,” she told him. “Then people will respect you and listen to what you have to say.” He liked the feeling of her warm fingers on his scalp, and her smell: perfume, the scent of honeysuckle.

Eventually, one or both of them would have to get up. His mother would go downstairs and Rodney would draw a book from the shelf. Curling in on himself, reading, he would hear the banging of pots and pans from the kitchen.

“Goddammit, Frank! How many times did I remind you about the milk? How many goddamn times?”

In primary school he was modest and quiet. He did all his work, quickly and efficiently, and then read with the book propped open on his lap, underneath his desk. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. He rarely raised his hand. He still remembered the look on his teacher’s face in grade one, when he had—he thought politely—corrected several false assumptions on her part when she was attempting to explain to another student why the sky was blue. She was a young woman with a bright smile and a bob of golden hair that shifted across the color spectrum when she stood in the light. Rodney wanted her to like him. He didn’t volunteer any additional information after that.

His grades were never anything spectacular.

When he built the nuclear bomb in grade six, part of the reason the CIA held him for so long was that nobody believed that he could have actually been the one to do it. He was a quiet, competent boy, mostly known (until recently, at least) for hanging around the music room at lunch and after school. Someone—or so his teachers, the principal, the CIA agents themselves all insisted—must have put him up to this; he must be covering for someone. It wasn’t until he softly but assuredly took them step-by-step through his process for creating the bomb that they began to believe him. It went on for hours. By the time they were through questioning him, his throat was raw; this was probably the most he had ever spoken at one time. He hated it: all those eyes on him, hanging on his every word, watching to see what he would do next.

Eventually, one of the agents laughed. “You’re obviously a smart kid,” he said, “why would you do something this dangerous?”

“It’s not dangerous,” Rodney explained. “It’s only a working model.”

“It’s a nuclear bomb,” said the other agent, still somewhat aghast.

Rodney bit back a sigh. “I’m sorry,” was all he said.

At university, someone kept hijacking his lab time.

Rodney would come by at his prescribed time, and find this other guy—handsome with tan skin and a friendly smile—still there, using the equipment that was supposed to be Rodney’s. The first couple of times, Rodney went to the library for a few hours, gave the interloper time to finish up, and then returned. But after a while, even if Rodney spent longer wandering, or hunkered down between the stacks, the other guy would still be there when he got back. Eventually, Rodney had to say something.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he said—and he was. “But on the schedule it says—”

The guy turned around and smiled. He had a freckle on his lip, Rodney noticed—just left of center, along the line of the upper, arching, bow. “Just give me a few more minutes,” he said, lips and teeth. “Thanks, buddy.”

“All right,” Rodney said, and sat down on a stool to wait.

Idly, he glanced over at the other guy’s work. He immediately noticed several things that were wrong. For several minutes, he debated whether or not he should say something. He didn’t want to offend someone he didn’t even know, but maybe these errors were the reason the other guy’s experiments were taking so long—maybe, if he said something, Rodney could save them both a lot of time.

So, “Excuse me,” he said, and proceeded to lay out all the ways his fellow student’s procedure was faulty, his calculations incorrect. He finished off by offering several suggestions for ways to make the entire experiment more efficient and valuable.

He stared down at the lab table the entire time, afraid to look up and see annoyance or dislike on the other student’s face. But when he had finished speaking, and did glance up, he saw nothing besides a serious, contemplative expression. “What was your name again?” the other guy asked.

“Rodney,” said Rodney, blushing. “Rodney McKay.”

“I’m Mark,” said the other student, tan skin and freckles and the whitest smile he had ever seen. “Maybe,” Mark said, “we can help each other out.”

So Mark did Rodney the courtesy of letting him share his lab space during both of their assigned lab times. He also did Rodney the courtesy of letting Rodney suck his cock in one of the bathroom stalls just off the lab: running his fingers through Rodney’s hair as he fed him the shaft, gripping the back of his neck. And afterward, Rodney would smile and lick his cock clean, because that was the polite thing to do.

Mark also went down on Rodney a couple of times, but here all those teeth were a hindrance rather than a help, and it was wet and messy and Rodney didn’t like it very much. But a blowjob was a blowjob, and Rodney was too polite to say anything.

Rodney was too polite to say anything: up to a point. That was probably the most important thing he learned, at any of the many institutes of higher learning that he attended—that there was a point when the politeness cracked and crumbled and fell away. The first time, that point was Mark trying to take credit for his, Rodney’s, work.

When the head of the physics department first came by the lab to congratulate Mark on his exciting new results—the results Rodney had generated—to commend him and mention he was looking forward to the paper Mark was surely going to publish—based on Rodney’s ideas, his calculations, his time and effort—Rodney went pale and shaky and silent. He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. But he stared at Mark’s bland, guileless expression, and inside his chest something built and built, his mind going hot with the memory of his carefully written notes, and Mark’s hands on his head, and connecting the wires on his working model of a nuclear bomb: perfectly safe, but in the wrong hands...

He took it to the dean. In his office, he was calm and polite until he realized that they were humoring him, not taking him seriously. Then there was shouting, and reams of evidence pouring forth from his lips. They brought Mark in for a repeat performance, and it was easy now: anger welling up, the words coming and coming, the best release Mark had ever given him, pulsing out of him until he was sucked dry.

“I’m sorry,” he told the dean and his secretary, once the whole matter had been cleared up, and Mark sent outside to await his punishment. “I don’t usually let my temper get the best of me; I don’t know what came over me.”

“That’s all right,” they told him—smiling, thank God, smiling—“these were unusually trying circumstances.”

Rodney smiled back. He was still smiling when he passed Mark outside in the hallway. Looking over his shoulder, an odd twitch: his lips twisting up into a smirk. “You’re an idiot,” he heard himself say, voice dripping disdain. “And also? You give lousy head.”

It was an aberration, his explosion in the dean’s office (not to mention his little aside afterward): the exception, not the rule. And yet...once he’d let himself go once, it became harder and harder not to boil over in the future. People were just so, so, so stupid, and there were so many of them, everywhere: price-checking packages of socks clearly labeled $5.95, jabbering away about their star sign when he mentioned astronomy, insisting he try some of their grapefruit sorbet when he was DEATHLY ALLERGIC TO CITRUS, HOW MANY GODDAMN TIMES DID HE HAVE TO SAY IT?

He tried excusing himself, taking deep breaths in dark, quiet rooms, but that was a waste of his valuable time, and why should he have to be inconvenienced—punished!—for other people’s incompetence? So rather than face the occasional explosion, he decided instead to let his ever-building frustration out in increments. Sighs became audible. Eyerolls visible. And his mouth opened more and more often, spilling what he needed it to to get him through the day. “Yes, thank you, I’ll keep that in mind next time I want to kill myself messily.” “Really? And how early did you get up this morning to arrive at this utterly absurd—not to mention wrong—conclusion?” “Oh, sure, you’re an unparalleled genius—truly, on the level of Marilyn vos Savant.”

On some level, Rodney still thought of himself as a polite person. He always said, “Please” and “Thank you” and “Excuse me.” (Unless he was in a real hurry, and he thought he could be forgiven in cases of life-or-death emergencies.) He didn’t cut in line. (Unless the people in front of him were being morons who couldn’t make up their tiny little minds, and there were only two pudding cups left.) He was Canadian.

But he no longer cared if everyone liked him. He couldn’t. Forget what his mother had once said (on the few occasions that he still tried to call, she was always much too busy yelling at his father or being yelled at to say much of anything to him at all): at some point he had to make a choice. Either people could like him, or they could respect him, listen to him. Not both.

Sometimes, awe was almost as good as love.

Before coming to the Pegasus Galaxy, Rodney had never before: fired a gun, run for his life, flown a spaceship, had a crossbow pointed at his chest, stepped in front of someone else who had a crossbow pointed at his chest, been shot, nearly died saving someone else’s life.

John had never sucked cock.

That it was his first time was—what was the polite way to phrase this?—readily apparent. Down on his knees, awkwardly gripping the base of Rodney’s dick and slurping messily at the head. And yet, Rodney thought, it was nothing like, ew, Mark. Mark and his calculating glances, his carefully constructed and ultimately meaningless phrases. “You’re an idiot,” John had told him, when he got out of the infirmary. “Only because you taught me to be,” Rodney had replied, and not given way gently when John had pressed his lips to Rodney’s, but kissed back fiercely, helping John make up his annoyingly indecisive mind, touching the top of his head and pushing him down to his knees.

So different: John’s eyes wide and open, staring up at Rodney with recognition and acceptance, not asking for anything at all. Except maybe a little learning, a little kindness, and that...that Rodney thought he might still know how to give.

So, “Shh,” he said. “Shh, it’s okay,” stroking the side of John’s face, caressing the tops of his ears. “Slow down, it’s good, you’re so good...”

And it was. He was.

John had taught him so many other things. Rodney could find the patience to teach him this.

Afterward, they lay together, on the bed. Rodney pulled the blankets more tightly around his chest, trying to keep out the cold. “Hey,” said John, sounding sleepy and well-fucked, “stop hogging the covers. It’s rude.”

Rodney snorted. “It’s my bed,” he said.

But he scooted closer, tucking his head against John’s shoulder so that the blankets covered them both, and John’s fingers could rove.