Oliver whispers her name in his sleep.
“Laurel.” He is sweating, scared.
John reaches over, runs his hand along Oliver’s chest, soothing him back to a calmer sleep.
By now, John is used to the presence of her name, hovering above them always. It had taken him a long time to accept that she would always be there.
John likes Laurel, respects her. Compassionate, smart, tough, and does a lot of good for this city. He knows there was a time when Laurel would have been the best thing in the world for Oliver.
But John has long hitched his wagon to Oliver, both the man and the mission, and so it’s hard at first to see anything but the wreck inside Oliver’s head every time he talks to her.
He tries not to be jealous. He’s seen it before, with men and women he knew in the war. They come back a different person and think that with enough time, they’ll go back to who they were before. Sometimes they put that task, that expectation of the miraculous, on one person. Usually it was the same person whose memory got them through all the shit they barely survived, whose face gave them a reason to keep fighting when the human body and all sense told them not to.
John also knows that there’s no going back. Not for Oliver. Not for most people.
Not for John, either.
Besides, he and Oliver share more than a mission. They share the thing that makes them want to finish the mission, the thing that makes them not care how the mission will almost certainly end.
She and Oliver share a past. And love -- John believes that what Oliver and Laurel had, maybe even what they still have, is love. But John and Oliver share something more important.
They need each other. And they both know they always will.
When Oliver thinks they might “win” – when he thinks that one big victory will save a city that is corrupt from top to bottom – John knows that he goes to see Laurel. Something pulls at John, and he almost winces. But he decides to let Oliver have his hope, his happiness, for one night.
In some ways, John wished Oliver could have it always – the least selfish part of him sometimes wanted to believe that Oliver could change the city enough that he could retire, be with Laurel, have a happy life. A normal life.
John knew that wasn’t going to happen.
Even if Oliver stopped one crisis, he wouldn’t stand by idle when the next threat to the city popped up. In their world, a world not deluded into the image of security, there would always be something to remind Oliver of the hardness inside him, and of the need to use it.
When Oliver felt his lost innocence was almost in reach again, he went to Laurel. But when Oliver felt his world fall apart -- when he lost a battle, when his own family betrayed him, when he found out that none of what he believed was true – he went to John.
There would always be moments of hope, but John and Oliver were at war with everyone who profited by destruction and pain. And at war, despair has the clear edge over hope.
There will be moments when Oliver wants to find bliss in Laurel’s arms, to find sweetness in remembering. But there will always be more moments when Oliver is desperate, falling apart, moments when Oliver is terrifyingly close to breaking. So in the end, Oliver will always come back to John.
John wasn’t sure that was a good thing. But eventually he realized that it was a sure thing.
John notices something about Oliver: when he says Laurel’s name in his sleep, in his dreams, it is always spoken with fear. It’s the sound of a man who is losing something.
Of course, when he says Laurel’s name while awake, it’s with the tone of a man who knows he’s already lost.
On the other hand, there are many ways that Oliver says John’s name in his sleep. Sometimes calling him for help, sometimes scowling the name in exasperation. Sometimes with a lewd smile, entreaty in his tone, as Oliver’s sleeping body rustles closer.
Sometimes Oliver wakes up for a moment, sees John staring at him, and stares back, confused. Then Oliver smiles and glides a gentle finger along John’s lips, whispering John’s name in childlike affection before he falls back into sleep. In those moments, John wonders if the two of them could someday be something other than at war, on a mission. He wonders if the two of them could do enough, finish enough, to have the normal life that both their pasts stripped away from them.
It’s ridiculous, he knows. To think that Oliver, of all people, might be the one to bring John back to the innocent self he was long ago.
Not to mention that it’s wrong. When shit hits the fan – and shit is always hitting the fan – innocence is useless. And John also knows that’s why, despite his fantasies, Oliver won’t ever choose it.
But everyone needs a little delusion sometimes. And Oliver has his, some kind of memory or a dream: a life with Laurel, a life where Laurel’s sister wasn’t hovering over them, a life where everything is happy and clean and nightmares don’t wake Oliver up screaming at night.
John has one too: a life that he and Oliver will never share. Chances are, they both die for the mission, probably within ten years. If they’re careful. John knows this. But sometimes he needs the fantasy. Sometimes, he doesn’t think he can make it without a little false hope, without the paint and varnish of something that looks almost like innocence.
When he finally realizes this about himself, he and Oliver stop arguing about Laurel. John’s not willing to give up his delusions. So he won’t ask Oliver to, either.