And You Loathe the Ground

Fandom: SGA

Category/Rated: Slash, R

Year/Length: 2009/~100,721 wordss

Pairing: John/Rodney, team

Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit, only having fun.

Warning: Serious whump, gore, language, slash

Summary: Sometimes things are broken beyond fixing, and all you can do is live with them.

Beta: sherriaisling. I don't even know what I would have done on this one without her. Sherri, I owe you liek woah.

 

| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 |

hr

It's easier, somehow, that the aliens here are obviously not human. John watches Ronon go through another door, leading with his gun. Ronon's face is twisted up into a snarl of fury. Low, deep screams echo after the retort of Ronon's blaster, and John follows on the other man's heels, P-90 tucked in against his shoulder, stepping over pale, stocky bodies, his boot almost sliding in the dark blood pooling across the floor.

They're in another lab, Ronon yanking the spare side-arm he's taken to carrying out of its holster and mowing down the aliens arrayed around the room in seconds. They go down in twisted tangles of their long, thin limbs. Ronon gets one of them in the head, and one of the creature's huge, silvered eyes explodes in a spill of nerves and blood down its cheek.

This lab, like all the other labs, is filled with what John can't quite stop thinking of as plexi-glass and dull, gray metal. There's a cage in the middle of the room, surrounded by buzzing machines and splattered now with dark blood. There's a man in it, a human, hung from the ceiling by his wrists, limp and still.

It's not Rodney.

John grimaces, turning his head to the side and spitting, barking into his radio, "We've got something here," as he moves forward. Ronon is already across the room, kicking one of the aliens over onto its back, kneeling down beside it and twisting its chin from side to side. John is pretty sure that the thing is dead.

The cage has some kind of hydraulic lock, and John snaps, "Ronon," after wasting a few of his own bullets on the damn thing. The big man doesn't even look up, just raises his blaster and fires. It takes out the lock with the accompaniment of a lot of sparks, and John yanks the door open.

Inside, the smell is horrendous, enough to make John feel momentarily lightheaded. He swallows back nausea, looking at the man hanging from the ceiling. The poor bastard's feet aren't quite touching the ground, his skin clean of blood and oddly pink in places. At first John can't tell if the other man is breathing, not with the way his chest is being held.

John is within a step of the man, reaching up to take his pulse, when John notices the tattoo on the guy's forearm. It takes a half-second for the globe and anchor to register, and then John is cursing, yelling, "He's one of ours!"

Before John can even think about it, he has an arm wrapped around the Marine's waist, grunting and lifting to take some strain off the man's shoulders, arms, ribs. The man's skin is still warm, and John can feel him breathing, relief now making John feel almost as light-headed as the smell.

Ronon is in the cage just like that, taking in the situation and raising his blaster again, shooting the chain holding the man up. All of his weight comes down on John at once, and John curses, adrenaline keeping him upright when the man's arms bounce off of the top of his head.

Ronon says, "I got him," and grabs the man, slinging him over one broad shoulder. And John stares, because something is...something is wrong. Then Ronon jerks his head towards the door. John nods back, adjusting his grip on the P-90, trying to push back the stupid swell of relief. Just because one of the Marines survived, he knows he can't assume that–

It's then that the man jerks, full-bodied, the tail–is it a tail?–lashing back and forth. He's making a terrible sound that, for a moment, doesn't seem real. Sounds like that don't come out of human throats. The Marine kicks out, and Ronon wraps an arm up around him while John steps back in close, yelling over the roaring, yowling, pissed off sound the man is making, "We're rescuing you! Soldier! Shut the fuck up!"

The man snaps his mouth shut, still rumbling inside his chest, arching his back up in a surprising show of strength to scan the room, his gaze settling on John. And John feels his mouth drop open, staring at the Marine's huge eyes, the slitted pupils that expand while John watches, almost swallowing up the green of the man's irises.

The man sucks in a deep breath, lips pulling back from teeth that are not as they should be. A muscle in the man's cheek twitches, and he says, "Colonel Sheppard," like he's tasting the words, stumbling over them a little bit. John imagines that it's hard to make your tongue work properly with teeth that sharp filling up your mouth.

John nods anyway, pushing the weirdness to the side for now, "Yeah. We're the cavalry. Where's the rest of your team?"

The way the man's expression shuts down makes something freeze in John's gut. The man rallies, twisting off of Ronon's shoulder in a way that very nearly seems spineless. Ronon makes a surprised, grunting sound, the man landing on the balls of his feet, shaking his head side to side, the dark brown hair on his tail puffed all out, the tip twitching back and forth. He stands with a strange, fluid grace. The man shakes at the shackles that are still around his wrists, narrowing his eyes, talking all the while, "Dead. Dead for a while, sir."

John's stomach goes to ice, his body stiffening up automatically, jerking his shoulders straight and his back up. He snaps his jaw shut so hard that he bites his tongue, blood flooding salty into his mouth, bringing the nausea back even worse than before.

Somehow, he finds words anyway, his jaw aching when he speaks, "Then we're getting the fuck out of here. Tell Lorne and Teyla that the Daedalus has a go. I want this place blown to–"

The Marine is on John before he can finish the sentence, driving John down to the floor, lips pulled back in a snarl, hands wrapped around John's neck. The man growls, a rumble that vibrates through his chest, hell, through John's chest, "We're not leaving without Doctor McKay."

John's relieved laughter feels incredibly inappropriate, but he can't help it.

hr

Five minutes later, the soldier is leading the rescue teams down the hall. In that time, they haven't really gotten anything else out of the man. The others know him, Sergeant Richardson, the late Major Frederick's second in command. The last surviving member of his team.

Someone gives the man a jacket, which ends up draped over Richardson's shoulders as he prowls through the halls, tail twitching, nostrils flaring, rumbling constantly in his chest. John exchanges a look with Ronon, who shrugs, blaster up and ready.

Richardson freezes in front of a door, looking over his shoulder expectantly, his lips pulled back, breathing fast and shallow through his mouth. John nods to Ronon, who shoulders Richardson aside and blasts the locking mechanism off of the door.

It slides open with a happy little beep, warm air rushing out of the room into the cooler hallway.

There's a second where it feels like the entire world is inhaling, bracing for impact, and then John opens his eyes, and freezes. He knows what he expected, another cage like the one they'd found Richardson in, Rodney strung up by his arms, possibly unconscious, possibly hurt bad.

Rodney is facedown on a shiny, metallic table in the middle of the room. The straps holding him down have the same metallic gleam where they stretch across the back of his neck, the tops of his shoulders, his biceps and wrists, his waist, thighs, and ankles.

There are bags of clear fluid hanging around him, feeding into ports on his arms. Monitors are set up all around the room, no doubt recording information that John couldn't care less about.

And on Rodney's back, so bizarre that for a long moment John can't even contemplate it, are...well, John doesn't know what to call them. There are metallic straps around the pale blue and purple...things. They're knobby, oddly shaped, stretching from above Rodney's head to below his feet, and growing right out of his shoulders. John says, "Well, fuck me sideways," and Rodney jerks.

Before John can even properly contemplate that, Rodney is jerking again, his hands clenching and releasing while he yells, voice muffled and cracking with pain, "Sheppard! John! Let him go! Let him fucking go!" Rodney's thrashing violently enough that John worries he'll hurt himself.

There's no thought to crossing the room, everyone else flooding in behind John. He hears himself, from far away, "Hey, hey, Rodney, calm down. I need you to calm down, it's okay, no one has me, no one has me, we're here to get you out," the words tumble out, babbling that John can't control or contain.

Rodney jerks and twists against the bonds, his skin is staining red already, and John hesitates beside him, cutting a look up at the, fuck, wings? Is that what he's supposed to call them? John shakes his head, putting a hand on Rodney's arm, the other man's pulse pounding insanely fast beneath his skin. Rodney voice is tight, strained, "Are you real?"

John winces, kneeling, trying to turn Rodney's head, but his face is pressed down into some kind of indentation in the table. John keeps his hand curled around the back of Rodney's head anyway, voice coming out guttural and rough, "Yeah, buddy, we're real," he twists his head over his shoulder, shouts, "Get him out of this fucking thing!"

Not that anyone had been waiting for him to tell them that. They don't even bother looking up to give him the impatient, scornful looks he probably deserves. Rodney's twitching under John's touch, his skin rising into gooseflesh, his whole body almost vibrating.

John watches the scientist from Lorne's team throw down her computer beside the controls along the wall of the room. She's pushing her fiery red hair back, little hands flying across alien tech when Rodney gasps, "Hurts, John."

John nods, even though Rodney can't see him, "I know, I know, but we're going to get you out of here. You're going to be fine." Rodney might try to nod as well, but he doesn't get very far. His skin is cold, almost clammy, and John starts rubbing at what skin he can reach, worried suddenly about Rodney going into shock. After a half-second, John is aware of Ronon's presence beside him, the bigger man rubbing one hand fast up and down one of Rodney's legs, cutting John a sharp, worried look.

The shaking is getting worse by the time Rodney starts babbling, "The others, did you find the others? I don't think they're all dead. I think. I can hear, sometimes, sounds. Did I ever tell you about Snowflake? My sister named him. He was my cat. A tabby. Got hit by a car. Made, ha, the same sounds." Rodney's hands twitch, the wings that John is trying very hard to ignore mimicking the movement. "Did you find them? Please, don't snap their necks. My dad–my dad–"

"Sh, Rodney, we found them," John feels like he isn't getting enough air, yelling, without turning around this time, "Get him the fuck out of this thing, goddamnit!" and then, "Richardson, get over here." The man, for all that he'd been insistent about getting to Rodney before, is hanging back now, pacing in agitated little circles, his head down and his shoulders up around his ears.

John snaps, "Now!" and the man looks at him, all animal eyes that catch the light for a moment. But then he's stepping over, kneeling beside Rodney's head and, after a moment, leaning his forehead down to rest against the top of Rodney's head. John says, feeling like he's slipped completely loose of his bearings, "He likes cats. Could you–" he cuts himself off, wincing.

Richardson looks up at John, surprise and irritation warring for dominance on his features before Rodney whimpers again, tiny and broken. Richardson makes a low, growling sound, licks Rodney's hair, and then starts purring. Loudly.

For a moment, all John can do is stare, and then Lorne's little red-headed scientist makes a triumphant sound, and the bonds holding Rodney down snap open. All of them.

Rodney makes a sound that John can't translate, not least because he's been knocked back onto his ass. The wings drop, no longer held up and folded tight. One catches John in the shoulder on its way to stretching out across the floor, where it trembles.

John stares. The wings are huge, and they're still folded a little. On the table, Rodney makes a sound that's all relief, rocking himself partially onto one side, bracing a hand on the metal, pushing up. His face is red, a dark line around the sides of his face where it had been pressed down against the metal. The skin on his chest is the same, and the muscles in his arms are shaking when he pushes himself up.

And then Rodney tilts his head back, rolling his shoulders, mouth falling open as he draws up first one wing, then the other, before making a sound like a sob and stretching them out.

The room is huge, but Rodney's wings still take up most of the available space. John's brain, the part not reeling, is already making guesses on size, close to thirty feet from wing-tip to wing-tip, as wide as Rodney is tall, maybe wider. He can see the bones in the wings, the lights shining right through them. They're pale; the lacework of the veins running through them is clearly visible. John figures, absently, that the blood must be what's giving them the pale bluish-purple color.

Rodney says, "Oh, God," and falls sideways off of the table.

hr

John is jerking forward before he can even think about it. He manages to get to his knees, to get one arm around Rodney before the other man hits the floor, and ends up overestimating how hard he needs to pull to keep them both upright.

John ends up on his back, with Rodney sprawled across his chest, limp and slack. His wings are spread out, one across the floor, the other draped over the table. John curses, everyone in the room swarming forward, stepping carefully to avoid treading on the wings.

Rodney's breathing is fast and shallow against John's throat, his heart racing like a freight train. It shakes John out of the momentary stupor he'd fallen into. He grits his teeth, shifting up, pointing at Ronon and one of the other members of the rescue team, trying to keep his voice calm when he says, "Help me with the wings. Carefully."

For a second the two men just exchange looks, and then Ronon carefully touches the edge of one of Rodney's wings, before sucking in a deep breath and lifting it. Rodney stays insensible, which John isn't sure is a good sign, while the others carefully fold his wings back down into a manageable size. They're still bigger than fuck, but John doesn't want to hold them down too tightly.

John says, "Okay, okay," and carefully gets his arms around Rodney, shifting up. It's easier than it has any right to be, and John gazes dumbly down at Rodney. He doesn't look that much smaller. In fact, he doesn't really look smaller at all. That's not changing the fact that John's pretty sure he could carry Rodney around with one arm, if he wanted to.

John keeps both arms around Rodney. The position in which he has to hold the other man is awkward with the wings. They manage, though by the time they're moving out the door it's mostly John cradling Rodney's head and shoulders, one of the others carrying his legs, Ronon and another man each with a wing.

It might not be pretty, but it works. Richardson leads the way back to the Jumper, his nose up and his eyes slitted. It's too much weirdness for John to process all at once, and he can feel himself pushing away parts of it. It's probably cowardly, but it's the only thing he can think to do to keep his brain from just snapping.

By the time they make it back to the Jumpers, John has managed to successfully compartmentalize what he needs to. He still holds his breath when they lower Rodney down to the floor of the Jumper, struggling out of his jacket so they have something soft to rest Rodney's head on. Rodney's face is pale, his skin clammy, and his eyes are moving around beneath his eyelids.

John shakes his head, nodding at Ronon when he stands to move to the pilot's seat. The other man nods back, crouching over Rodney and gently arranging the wings, staying there to prevent any jarring during the flight. John tells himself not to worry about it anymore, sitting down, putting his hands on the controls, and trying to push all the noise out of his head.

Mostly, he manages. But John can't stop himself from twisting to look over his shoulder every few seconds. No one is sitting on the benches. They're all clustered around Rodney, hands on his shoulders and back, a few of them stroking wondering hands up the curves of his wings.

John bites his lip hard against the orders he wants to bark at them to stop touching Rodney.

hr

John thinks, really, that Keller did remarkably well when faced with Rodney and Richardson. She'd taken one look at the two men, asked John how they carried Rodney back on the planet, and ordered him delivered the same way down to the infirmary.

That had been what feels like hours ago. John paces outside the infirmary until his legs ache and then he makes himself go shower, in the vague hope that the medical profession will start working like a watched pot. It doesn't work, and John ends up pacing outside the infirmary again, this time squeaky clean.

Ronon and Teyla stay with him, John stumbling over an explanation for Teyla. He doesn't know how he's possibly supposed to properly put it into words, and finally Ronon cuts in, looking up from where he's been cleaning his blaster, "He's got wings. Big ones. Like a maererth."

And Teyla says, "Oh, of course," nodding her head like that makes perfect sense. John looks back and forth between the two of them, and then decides that he doesn't actually want to know. Then Ronon stands up, sighing tiredly, because people are coming down the hall again, looking worried and distraught, and it's Ronon's turn to deal with them.

John watches, tired and letting his thoughts drift, as Ronon cuts off the crowd, talking to them in a low voice that John can't hear. John doesn't know what variation of 'we got Rodney back, he's in with Keller' Ronon is going with this time, but the scientists all end up nodding and wandering away again with vaguely unsatisfied looks on their faces.

John would feel bad, but he can't quite manage it. Too much has happened today for him to feel anything but exhausted. He doesn't have the energy to offer anyone else comfort. What little of it he can manage he fully intends to keep for himself.

And John means to keep his mouth shut, but his thoughts are just getting too noisy. John clears his throat, leaning his head back against the wall, and asks, "So, what's a maererth?" He ignores it when Teyla and Ronon exchange a look over his head.

At least Teyla's confusing explanation of winged people takes John's mind off the world for a while.

hr

Teyla and Ronon are in the midst of an argument about whether or not the maererth actually exist, more, John thinks, to pass the time than any real disagreement, when the infirmary doors slide open. John comes up off the wall, Ronon jerking to his feet, Teyla moving every bit as quickly but with far more grace. They're all strung tight as bowstrings.

Keller comes out still dressed for surgery, the only part of her skin that's visible is the strip around her tired eyes. John tries to imagine what her expression might be behind the blue mask over her face. The look in her eyes isn't particularly happy. John swallows heavily.

She steps out into the hall, the door sliding closed behind her, before pulling the mask down. Her mouth is pressed thin and tight, matching her voice when she says, all at once, the words just a little shaky, "I can't get him stable. Every time I get close, we..."

Keller trails off with a wince that makes John suck in a sharp, worried breath. She meets his gaze, frowning, "He's conscious now. And panicking, badly. I need him to be calm if I stand a chance of figuring this out, Colonel."

John looks sideways at Teyla, because he's not exactly sure what Keller is telling them this for. He says, when she just keeps staring at him, "Well, can't you, you know, calm him," John mimes giving himself a shot, and Keller starts shaking her head immediately.

She says, sounding even more exhausted, "I don't want to risk introducing anything new into his system until I've managed to get a baseline for him." She pauses, expression twisting up with indecision, before she draws her shoulders back and asks, meeting his gaze, "Can you get him to calm down?"

And John hears himself say, "Yes," without even thinking about it, because it doesn't sound like they have a whole lot of choices right now. She needs Rodney to be calm. She's running out of options. John will do whatever the hell he needs to do. There's not even a question there.

Keller nods, looking like she had expected that answer but still isn't sure if it was the one she wanted or not. She says, "I need you to scrub up, quickly," and John bobs his head, following her into the shower room the medical staff uses.

His hands feel thick and useless, and John rushes so much that he drops everything he touches. Standing there, water running into his face and down his back, his knee throbbing where he slammed it into the side of a table, he makes himself take a deep breath and slow down.

It works for about twenty seconds.

John manages to tear the first set of scrubs he tries to get into, but on the second try he manages. His hair is soaking wet, and he pulls one of the little hats down over it before ripping it off again. He's fairly sure he can keep his hair out of any problem areas.

There's a nurse waiting for him when John steps out of the room. The man doesn't say a word, just turns and leads John into the infirmary. Not that he needs the guide. Rodney is saying, voice shaking, "Just cut them off, just cut them off, please, you don't understand, everything hurts, it all hurts and I can't think. Why aren't you helping me? I don't understand why you won't help me. I–John!"

Rodney tries to come off the examination table when he looks up and sees John. He's lost even more color, gone ashen in the face. The doctors and nurses clustered around him try to grab him, and Rodney flinches, startling. His wings, which had been stretched out behind the table, snap forward.

One of the doctors catches a blow full in his chest, and goes down backwards, hard. John blinks, looking at Rodney, now wrapped in the wings, and then down to the doctor, who is rocking a little back and forth, his face twisted up with pain.

Two of the nurses kneel beside the doctor, helping him to his feet while his face stains red and he sucks in shallow breaths. Rodney is blinking at them all, wide-eyed, his expression coming very close to crumpling. He very slowly unwraps one wing, then the other, John trying to quantify the sound they make when Rodney folds them up tight against his back.

Keller says, into the silence, "Please, sit down, we're doing everything we–"

Rodney turns to glare at her, holding one hand up, spitting, "Oh, really? I've been here for fucking hours. And look! I can't stop–" he cuts himself off when John steps forward, grabbing Rodney's badly shaking hand and curling Rodney's fingers in towards his palm.

John says, "Let the doctor do her job, Rodney. You need to calm down a little bit," and Rodney twists to look at him, expression disbelieving and upset. His whole body is shaking, like his bones are vibrating. It scares John more than he likes to think about.

The venom in Rodney's voice is a pale imitation of what it should be, "Calm? You want me to be calm? Are you even paying attention? Are you blind? Look at me! Why the hell should I–" Rodney sways, eyes going wide, and John curses, lifting Rodney back onto the table, standing between Rodney's legs and pulling Rodney's forehead down against his shoulder.

"Sh, sh, just breathe," John looks at Keller over Rodney's shoulder, and she nods, wheeling up a cart. Against John's shoulder, Rodney makes a scornful, snorting sound, and John worries some more about how very cold Rodney is.

Rodney seems to be worrying about the same thing, crossing his arms over his chest and tucking his hands up under his arms. It does nothing to stop the way he's trembling, and John says, watching Keller slide an I.V. into Rodney's arm, above the ports the aliens had set into his skin, "Can we turn the heat up in here?" When they just blink at him, John closes his eyes and does it himself.

Keller is saying, while John listens to Rodney's too-fast breathing, "Can you tell me what hurts, Rodney?"

That gets another derisive snort from Rodney, the wings partially extending with the noise and then folding back up. His voice sounds exhausted, the words spoken between his ragged breathing, "Everything. Everything hurts. Or, oh, are we going for scaling here? Because, in that case, I'd have to go with everything under my skin, first."

Keller presses her lips together, palming a scanner and then hesitating. She ends up running it over the back of Rodney's head, saying, "Rodney..." and squinting at the results that come up on her scanner. John kind of hopes that she'll burst into a smile and start waving around miracle drugs, but her expression doesn't relax at all.

Rodney huffs, rubbing his forehead against John's shoulder, and John finds himself reaching up automatically, his hand sliding across Rodney's shoulder, Rodney's cold skin. Rodney says, "Fine, my chest, I–that's as specific as I can be. It hurts to breathe."

John curses again, looking at Keller, who immediately starts running the scanner over Rodney's back. John watches her eyes get wider and wider, and finds himself rubbing his hand across Rodney's shoulders, dipping his fingers a little lower with each pass, until he brushes the hard bone and muscle that's set where Rodney's back becomes Rodney's wing. Rodney sucks in a breath, going momentarily still, and John pushes his fingers lightly against the skin, feeling muscles twitch beneath his touch.

Keller says, softly, "Rodney, I want you to exhale hard, and then take as deep a breath as you can, okay?" her voice weird and tight. John can almost hear Rodney roll his eyes, but then the other man is following her directions, breathing in and in and in and–

John murmurs, "Holy shit," feeling Rodney's ribs expand as his lungs fill up. Rodney doesn't end up weirdly stretched out afterwards, which John kind of had been expecting, and he shoots Keller another look, even as she reaches around to press the scanner up against the middle of Rodney's chest.

Rodney makes a surprised sound, breath easing out again, his wings fluttering open. When Rodney flaps them, not even a full sweep, it lifts him a little off the bed, and John tightens his grip automatically, suddenly convinced that Rodney will just fly away.

He doesn't realize that he's shouted, "No!" until Rodney looks up to blink at him, wings still stretched up and out. John makes himself ease his grip, fingers wrapped around the root of Rodney's right wing. He can feel the blood pounding through it, fast and hard against his palm.

Keller says, with the scanner still pressed up against Rodney's chest, her tone very soft, "Well, there's not a whole lot I can do about the pain. Actually, I think it might go away on its own, after your body, uh, adapts to it." Rodney shoots her a disbelieving look, and Keller might flush under the mask before she hurries on with, "Your lungs are much bigger than...well, than any I've seen. And your heart is huge. Breathing deeper and slower will help, I think."

Rodney makes a face, but John can feel him trying to adjust his breathing. It's fucking weird, feeling Rodney inhale for so long. Rodney asks, on the exhale, "So, where are my other organs, then? I'm not exactly bigger than I was, you know."

That makes Keller blink, and she resumes the scanning without a word. John finds himself rubbing his hand across Rodney's shoulders, right above the wings. Every few passes he changes the sweep, rubbing up the side of one of the wings, trying to make sense of how they feel, alive and trembling just a little bit, the same way the rest of Rodney is.

Actually, the trembling is getting worse. John frowns, opening his mouth, and Keller interrupts with, "Oh, that's interesting," and then she falls silent.

Rodney rolls his eyes again, before dropping his chin down. He's still trying to breathe slow and deep, but there's a weird hitch in each exhale that's starting to worry John. Rodney snaps, "That's obviously the correct word for this situation. Mind explaining to us what exactly it is that's interesting now?"

Keller looks up, blinking, opening her mouth and then closing it again. She reaches up and grabs one of Rodney's wrists, pulling his hand down and bracing it over his stomach. Rodney raises his eyebrows at her, and she says, "Your organs have been, well, re-structured. I'd assume it was to make room for the larger lungs and heart. I wonder..."

She trails off, raising the scanner to Rodney's shoulder and frowning. Rodney makes a tired sound, his hand sliding down into his lap and settling there. The shivering is coming in waves now, and after each one Rodney is going a little limper.

John says, "Uh, doc," and Keller hums in acknowledgement, still staring down at the scanner. John frowns, looking down at the top of Rodney's head, rubbing his back a little more vigorously, "Hey, buddy, you still with me?" Rodney only shakes his head in reply, his other hand dropping down to his lap as well, the wings rustling loudly as the trembling increases again.

Keller looks up then, eyes wide when she blurts, "Your bones are hollow," sounding confused and impressed at the same time. John blinks at her, and she shrugs, bouncing the scanner in her hand and then frowning when she looks at Rodney.

She reaches out to take Rodney's pulse, not that John sees how that could do a lot of good, seeing as they don't know how fast his heart is supposed to be beating right now. Rodney sags forward into John, his head tilting to the side, and John curses, wrapping an arm around Rodney's back, blurting, "Hey, hey, whoa. Rodney, I need you to talk to me here."

There's no response, and Keller starts snapping orders, doing a pretty good job of covering over the panic in her voice. John tunes her out for the moment, watching Rodney's wings flutter, dipping down towards the floor like all the strength is just draining out of them.

John shakes Rodney, hard, his voice coming out rough when he says, "Come on, Rodney, at least now we know why you're so easy to pick up and carry around. I bet Teyla could lift you," that gets a response, a soft snort and Rodney managing to tilt his head up to glare at John.

Beside them, Keller is holding a giant syringe, looking between it and Rodney, and John hisses, "What are you waiting for?" because Rodney's eyes are all pupil, and Jesus, now his lips are turning blue, his head just falling back like he can't support it with his neck anymore. John curses, and reaches out to take the syringe away from her.

Keller jerks back, her voice cracking when she says, "You don't understand, I don't know what it'll do to him! It could–"

John growls over her, "You do see what not having it is doing to him?" as Rodney reaches up and grabs John's wrist, grip disturbingly weak. John turns his attention back to the other man just as the weight of the wings finally pulls Rodney backwards.

John curses, wrapping both arms around Rodney and pulling him back forward, and God, he's way too cold, the I.V. drips jerking and jangling when John yanks on him. Rodney makes a soft, pained sound, the wings jerking with a surprising amount of speed.

For a half second, John is sure he's about to be knocked on his ass, just like the doctor. By the time he realizes that's not going to happen, Rodney has him completely wrapped up in the wings. John breathes out a soft curse, his arms around Rodney's back, blinking at the side of one of the wings, the veins so close to the surface and so fine that John can see each individual one.

John says, "Rodney?" and Rodney sighs, his head tilted down and to the side, leaning against the arch of one of his wings. "You should see this, it's kind of cool," Rodney almost manages to lift one side of his mouth into a smile, but doesn't open his eyes.

One of his wings slides back, Rodney's head lolling back with it. John's heart is racing, and Keller is shouting, "Oh, oh, shit! I'm such an idiot!" and yanking the I.V. directly out of Rodney's arm, shouting for different things, snapping, "Hold him, we need to get him warm! Raise the temperature in here if you can. Jesus, Jesus, I need someone from botany up here, right now!"

John wants to demand explanations, but suddenly everyone is moving way too fast to bother with him. Keller hands the big needle she'd been holding off to someone else, storming across the room and throwing open cases that John's pretty sure haven't been touched for years.

It's their wall of off-world medications, and she's rushing back, throwing a bag of powder to one of the nurses and rattling off medical jargon that John doesn't even try to follow. She says, when she reaches them again, muttering mostly to herself, "Probably in a hypoglycemic coma by now, fuck," and John's possibly more startled by hearing her curse than anything else.

Then she looks around the room, finally locking her gaze onto John and ordering, "Go get me someone from botany right now," John eases Rodney over into her hold, turns, and runs for the door. Ronon and Teyla try to ask him something when he shoots out of the infirmary, but John just waves a hand, and keeps going. They fall into step behind him, Ronon demanding an explanation for where they're going.

John manages to gasp, "Botany, need a botanist," and the other man nods before just leaving them in his dust.

hr

They won't let John back into the infirmary when Ronon carries a botanist back over his shoulder. The man has apparently given up kicking and thrashing by the time Ronon comes running back through the halls. Or possibly Ronon just knocked the poor guy insensible. John doesn't particularly care which.

Nurses pull the botanist into the infirmary, and over the course of the next few hours, Ronon runs down to the greenhouse a half-dozen more times, bringing back huge piles of leaves, flowers, and, once, an entire potted plant that is very nearly as large as he is.

John paces, and starts considering how to best go about a full frontal assault on the infirmary, because he needs to know what's going on in there. The image he's stuck with of Rodney, the last glimpse he'd gotten of the other man, far too pale, limp, barely breathing, is pounding away at the insides of his skull. There's no place for John to hide from it.

And then the door slides open, Keller pulling down her mask and saying, "I think we've got him stable, but the coma–" and John stops listening, already pushing past her into the infirmary, Teyla and Ronon on his heels.

Rodney is still in the same bed he had been, stretched out on his stomach now, wings over the side and brushing against the floor. It's stuffy, almost oppressively hot, in the infirmary, and John does his best to ignore that, hesitating at the side of Rodney's bed.

Rodney's hooked up to a bunch of monitors, more I.V. feeds in his arms, the sheets on the bed pulled up to right below his wings. John can see his chest rising and falling with each breath, and exhales in relief, reaching out to brace one hand on the mattress by Rodney's hip.

Teyla makes a soft sound, and John turns his head to look at her. She's circling the bed slowly, eyes wide, mouth open just a little bit when she raises one hand to cautiously brush her fingertips across the back of one of Rodney's wings. She says, "Oh," flattening her palm against it and looking up at John. She looks surprised when she continues, "They are warm."

John blinks, because they hadn't particularly been earlier. But then, Rodney had been freezing cold pretty much everywhere. John reaches out himself, presses his hand to Rodney's back first, before touching the wing, which, yes, is as warm as the rest of Rodney, soft and alive beneath John's palm.

Keller says, standing at the foot of the bed, "We're going to have to watch out for hypothermia. With the increased surface area he's going to lose heat very quickly. And the hypoglycemia will be much harder to manage now, if our estimates on the changes in his metabolism are even close to accurate."

John turns to look at her, blinking in surprise, "What are you talking about? He said he wanted them off. Take them off." John bites back on the urge to add fix this because he's pretty sure it wouldn't do any of them any good.

In any case, Keller is making a face, sighing and wrapping her arms around the chart she's holding. She says, very slowly, "It's not that easy. Whatever they did to him–I can't just wave a magic wand and fix it. I've never seen musculature like this. Not to mention that his entire nervous system has been rewired. Even if I could take them off without crippling him, which I in no way think I could manage, I couldn't undo what they've done to his organs, his bones, his muscles, his nerves."

She sounds so calmly matter of fact about it that for a long time all John can do is helplessly stare at her, not wanting to believe it. He says, "There's got to be something," and Keller just looks at him, her mouth pressed down tight, exhaustion lining her face. John curses, turning to look at Rodney's sleeping face, absently rubbing his hand across the firm stretch of Rodney's wing.

Finally, Keller heaves a sigh, smoothing out wrinkles in Rodney's sheets when she says, "I can't change what they did to the Sergeant, either, in case you were wondering." Her voice is just a little sharp, and John cuts his eyes towards her, watching Ronon and Teyla do the same.

Their silence makes her shake her head, sighing tiredly. She says, smile forced and hollow, "Well. I'll leave you with him, then." When she walks again, John thinks for a half second Ronon might follow her. But Ronon just crosses his arms, settling in, looking worriedly at Rodney every few seconds.

hr

In the end, Rodney is only unconscious for a little over a day. It's less time than John had expected, and he half-wonders if it's a side-effect of the all the changes to Rodney's body. It doesn't particularly matter though, and John doesn't particularly care.

When Rodney awakes the wings stir first, oddly enough. John's almost dozing, elbows braced on Rodney's mattress, staring down at the weave of the sheets without really seeing it, when a little jerk of movement catches his attention. The wings, stretched over the sides of the narrow bed and out across the floor, twitch again as John watches, drawing up and in.

John blinks, fascinated by the movement of the wings themselves and additionally by the way the muscles in Rodney's uncovered shoulders and back move. Each tiny movement of the wings makes muscles bunch and release beneath Rodney's skin, liquid smooth.

John is reaching out, fingers a breath away from the muscles flexing on either side of Rodney's spine, when Rodney grunts and flaps the wings hard, once. The wings knock over what's probably a million dollars worth of medical equipment, catching in the I.V. lines hooked to Rodney. The force of the moved air blows back the curtains and shoves the bed backwards. And the simple movement lifts Rodney and flings him backwards.

Instead of a soft touch, John ends up grabbing Rodney, trying to keep him from tumbling backwards off of the bed, Teyla and Ronon jerking forward as well. Between the three of them they manage to keep him steady, Rodney batting at their heads and shoulders, shouting something unintelligible as the doctors run up.

Rodney flaps the wings again, and he might be lighter now, but there's an insane amount of strength in the new bones, tendons, and muscles. John grunts, stumbling a step, Rodney crying out when his wings tangle in the metal railing holding up the curtains, yanking it out of the ceiling, draping all of them in heavy blue fabric.

The thrashing is most probably not improving a damn thing, so John shouts, "Hey! Hey, stop!" keeping one arm around Rodney's back and trying to grab hold of one of the jerking, flapping wings in the other. It doesn't work as well as he'd like, his fingers wrapping around the arch of Rodney's right wing just as Rodney snaps it back.

John releases his grip as quickly as he can, but his shoulder still feels as though it was nearly ripped out of its socket. John opens his mouth to yell at Rodney to fucking calm down again, and that's when Teyla jerks forward and slaps Rodney across the face.

Everything goes still, the four of them breathing hard, tangled and covered by the blue curtains, metallic poles clanking every time they move. Rodney still has one leg on the bed, but other than that they're supporting him. One of Rodney's wings is completely wrapped in sheets and curtains, the other flared out wide, bent oddly against the ceiling and wall. John yanks the curtain off of his head, taking deep breathes, avoiding, for the moment, looking at the rest of the infirmary. It's gone oddly silent around them.

And then Rodney is snapping, "Ow! What was that for?" as he reaches up to rub at his cheek, already staining red in the shape of Teyla's hand. The wings shifts and flex, Rodney maybe trying to settle them across him back and hissing when the sheets and curtains interfere.

Rodney twists his head over his shoulder, continuing, even grumpier, "Oh, wonderful. Someone help me with this. Why aren't these gone? I believe I was very specific about getting these taken off. You really didn't have to wait for me to wake up," as he grabs handfuls of the fabric and starts yanking, the poles jerking and clanging together.

John swallows, feeling guilty even as he bats Rodney's hands away to take over, Ronon holding the wing still for him. John says, "Yeah, about that," and Rodney turns to glare at him, eyes narrow, mouth thinned down to nothing.

John wonders where the hell Keller is when he needs her.

hr

Luckily, Keller does show up to explain why cutting the wings off isn't possible, and why she needs Rodney to stay in the infirmary for observation until she gives word otherwise. John sits through Rodney yelling and ranting against the decisions, but can't take it when the other man finally falls silent, sitting on the edge of one of the examination tables with his hands in his lap, staring blankly down at the floor. Even the wings are drooping when John edges out of the room.

John only stops by the infirmary once over the next few days, just to see how Rodney's taking the news. He'd brought food, but one of the nurses confiscates it as soon as John steps through the door and nothing he says will get her to give it back. After a few minutes, John gives up, and wanders off in the direction of Rodney's newly curtained off area, instead.

John is about to pull the curtain aside when Rodney grumbles, "Seriously, you're not going to eat me or anything, right?" and John pauses, frowning. For a long beat, John actually thinks Rodney's talking to him, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Luckily, someone else laughs from inside the curtain, a voice it takes John a second to place saying, "No, doctor, I'm not going to eat you." Richardson. And John supposes it makes sense that they'd be speaking to each other, after what they...went through.

Rodney snorts, and John can hear the wings shifting around. Rodney sounds a little amused himself when he says, "It's just that I've seen how cats play with their food, and I don't want you confusing me for a prey animal, if that's at all avoidable."

They laugh, both of them, though there's plenty of bitterness mixed in with the sound. It bothers John anyway, and he shakes himself, turning and walking away without saying a thing.

Rodney is stable, he's fine, he's not in any danger of falling over dead, or, at least, no more than he usually is. Hell, he's cracking jokes, even if they're not particularly funny. Which is good, because John needs some time to let his body rest, to put away the month's worth of panic and anger about Rodney being missing, lost out there amongst the stars. He stays away from the infirmary, since Rodney is obviously doing just fine on his own. And maybe because John is still kind of waiting for the staff meeting where Keller happily tells them that she's found a way to fix Rodney.

That doesn't happen.

That's probably why the first time John sees Rodney again is at a morning staff meeting a week after that evening in the infirmary. John's running late, his body still dealing with the sleep debt he'd racked up when Rodney had gone missing.

He rushes into the room to find Rodney standing behind his usual chair, arms crossed on the backrest, arguing with Zelenka and acting like there's nothing at all strange about the huge wings folded against his back. John freezes in the doorway, mouth open, and Woolsey says, "Ah, Colonel Sheppard, how nice of you to join us," without even looking up.

Rodney does look up, expression unreadable for the second that he turns his attention to John. He still looks too pale, though, on the whole, infinitely better than he had. It's the first time John's really seen Rodney in good light, without panicking or being worried out of his skull. And there's a lot to see.

Rodney's shirtless, which John figures does make sense. Any shirt Rodney tried to wear would have to be butchered to the point of uselessness, but it's still jarring to see him without one. For a half second John finds himself staring hard at Rodney's chest, trying to decide if it looks different, if the muscles beneath his skin have changed enough to be noticeable. While he stares, Rodney shifts one of the wings, muscles shifting in his pecs and down over his ribs.

And John only realizes that he's standing in the doorway of the meeting room, with his mouth hanging open, staring at Rodney's chest, when Woolsey says, "Would you like to sit down, Colonel?" John jerks his head up to find everyone else looking at him. John clears his throat, snaps his mouth shut, and throws himself down into the closest chair. He regrets, immediately, that it happens to be the chair directly across from Rodney.

The meeting goes as the meetings usually do. Or at least that's what John assumes. He's having a hard time paying attention, staring hard down at his hands where they're folded on the table in front of him. Of course, staring at Rodney's chest had only been a stalling attempt to keep from staring at the wings, but he isn't sure that anyone else here realizes that. John can't really think of a good way to tell them all.

It doesn't help that he feels uncomfortably warm under his collar. In fact, far more warm than he would have expected. John shifts in his seat, frowning, because, okay, even with the staring the temperature seems off. He asks, in a lull of reports, before he can stop himself, "Is it hot in here?"

Rodney's tone is all indulgent scorn, "Thank you, Captain Obvious. Indeed, it is hot in here. You see, these," there's a rustle of movement and John looks up automatically, in time to watch Rodney spread his wings out. This time, John keeps his gaze very pointedly away from Rodney's chest. He even avoids the shoulder area, just to be on the safe side. Rodney reaches up to trace a fingertip along one of the veins running through the wings, "These, in addition to getting caught on the tops of every door I try to walk through, making it impossible for me to sleep on my back, and just waiting to throw my back out, are also completely lacking in any kind of insulation. I would complain to the manufacturers, but, unfortunately, they're all dead."

For a beat there's silence, except for one of the other scientists giggling nervously into her hand. Rodney snaps the wings shut, and John's surprised all over again by how fast he can move them. John keeps staring at them, startled by how blue they are now, his brain making comparisons with Rodney's eyes that he's not sure he's completely comfortable with.

Finally, John manages, "I don't think they would have been very good with customer service, anyway," and Rodney snorts. The rest of the meeting passes without incident, and, after John manages to stop staring at his hands, he's relieved to find that he's hardly the only one having problems keeping his gaze from lingering too long on Rodney. The wings get a lot of attention. And so does Rodney's bare skin.

Eventually, Zelenka changes the subject to some Ancient device they found in one of the old medical labs, getting Rodney ranting about safety procedures and how stupid the Ancients were. That eats up most of the rest of the meeting.

Afterwards, when Rodney and Zelenka head off to the labs, John catches Teyla, because the Athosians are good at clothes involving a lot of laces.

hr

For the next few days, John runs into Rodney in all the usual places. It's all completely bizarre, the way everyone kind of pretends the wings aren't there to the best of their ability, all while sneaking looks whenever they think Rodney won't notice. John figures he can't say anything about it, since he's doing the same thing.

And Rodney, in a show of uncommon tact, doesn't even comment about the constant staring. John can't decide if it's a side effect of Rodney pretending the wings aren't there as well, or if the entire situation is just so embarrassing that Rodney is trying to ignore it.

Either way, by the end of the week John feels like he's going a little crazy, and pretending the wings aren't there and that Rodney isn't running around half-naked has completely lost any appeal it ever had. It's hell to watch all the muscles in Rodney's chest, shoulders, back, move every time he so much as flexes the wings. The fact that he adjusts them constantly, spreading them a little before bringing them back in tight, over and over again, makes it impossible for John to even think when Rodney happens to be in the same room. And yet, John can't quite bring himself to just avoid the places he knows Rodney will be.

He can't very well abandon Rodney in his hour of need, after all. Besides, there are usually enough other people around, purportedly to work, all of them staring, that John's inability to keep his gaze to himself goes unnoticed.

Still, it's a great relief when Teyla finally shows up at John's room with a large, wrapped package. She's smiling when she hands it over, saying, "My people would very much like to see Rodney. But..." she pauses, smile going a little sad, "I believe it would be best if we allowed Rodney more time to...adjust."

John imagines the Athosians, who have more enthusiasm than they know what to do with about most things, and nods. Most of the Atlanteans stare, true, but they've been keeping their hands to themselves. John's made sure of that. John nods, "Tell them we really appreciate this, though."

Teyla smiles, inclining her head even though John is sure that she's already handled the niceties far better than he could ever manage. She turns to leave then, before hesitating and saying softly, "He will most likely need some assistance," Teyla mimes knotting a bow, and John stares down at the package, feeling warmth rise up the back of his neck.

He thinks his voice manages to mostly sound normal when he says, "Right. Right, of course." Teyla is smiling in a way that John finds less than comforting when she nods and continues on her way. John shakes his head, steps into his room and sits on the bed with the package, staring at it.

Stalling isn't going to get him anywhere. He should just go over to Rodney's room and give him the shirts. It's not a big deal. It'll get Rodney covered up. John sucks in a deep breath, stands up, bracing himself, and decides that he'll do it in the morning.

hr

John ends up not sleeping at all, probably a side effect of working out so late with Ronon. He maybe leaves his room a little too early in the morning, and finds himself outside of Rodney's door while the halls are still empty of other people, the suns outside barely staining the sky pink. He should probably go away and come back later.

Rodney answers the door the second time John waves his hand over the outside controls. Rodney looks just out of the shower, his hair messy and wet. There's a little nick on Rodney's chin where he shaved, and his eyes are heavy lidded. He's shirtless, of course. John had been prepared for that, for the way Rodney's chest hair is flattened by the water, for Rodney's dark BDUs, low around his hips, for the bare feet. The wings are hanging down, splayed out across the floor behind Rodney.

Rodney says, "John?" blinking sleepily and sounding puzzled.

"I brought you something," John shoves the package forward, watching Rodney look down at it and squint. For a moment Rodney makes no move to take it, and then he cautiously reaches out, taking it out of John's hands and looking back up to John's face. John shifts his weight from foot to foot and nods, hooking his thumb over his shoulder and starting to turn.

He makes it three steps, listening to Rodney tear the package open, before Rodney is calling after him, "Where do you think you're going? Get back here." John winces, half-turning to watch Rodney hold most of the shirts to his chest with one arm, while shaking one of them out with his free hand, blinking at it.

It's leather. Of course it is. That's the Athosian's favorite fabric. Apparently John should have specified that something closer to cotton would have been just fine. It's also light blue, and John spends a long moment wondering if they dyed it or if they just killed a blue animal. He's fairly certain that PP2-202 had been the planet where they'd found the gigantic blue bison looking things.

Rodney is saying, "What's–you got me shirts," he sounds puzzled, and then his chin is going up and he's stepping back into his room, talking like he expects John to just follow him, "Of course, I was getting around to fixing some of my clothes, but I don't exactly have time to play Suzie Homemaker while catching up on my backlog, though I still think the zipper idea was sound. What are these, laces? Great, now I get to feel like I'm wearing a giant sneaker every day."

John lingers in the doorway, watching Rodney put the shirts on his unmade bed, still holding the blue one. He's still holding his wings loosely, raising one when he turns to look at John over his shoulder, the movement looking smooth and automatic.

Rodney snaps, "Well, what are you waiting for? Get over here," as he pulls the top of the shirt over his head, and pushes one arm into its sleeve. The sleeves are long, and, John notices as he finds himself walking across the room to stand beside Rodney, the entire thing is lined with some kind of soft, thick fabric.

Rodney grunts, wrestling his other arm into the shirt, and then shrugging his shoulders back. The leather across his shoulders comes down almost to the tops of the wings. The back is hanging loose, the leather cording threaded through one of the eyelets, waiting to be laced up.

John stares, wondering how he never realized that Teyla was completely evil before, and Rodney makes a surprised, happy sound. Rodney looks over his shoulder, saying, "It's warm!" and then, "Hey, why are you just standing there? Come on, I don't have all day."

"You're welcome, Rodney," John rolls his eyes, trying to keep his voice dry. Rodney just snorts, bending his spine a little impatiently. John curses the Athosian tailors one more time before taking a deep breath and reaching for the cording.

John says, "Hold still," more out of the expectation that that's what he's supposed to say in this situation than anything else. Rodney makes another scornful sound, and John tugs hard on the laces in retaliation, forgetting for a moment how much lighter Rodney is now.

It jerks Rodney back against him, John's hands and Rodney's wings caught between them. John says, "Uh," feeling remarkably dimwitted, and carefully eases a step back, clearing his throat loudly. He could feel Rodney's pulse through the wings, and could feel the warmth of them that close. It was...weird.

Rodney says, "If this is an accurate representation of your knot tying abilities, it's really no wonder you don't ever tie your shoes," and John decides to ignore the jab because he can't come up with a decent rejoinder, concentrating on threading the cord through eyelet after eyelet, until it's laced down to Rodney's hips.

John figures that the giant bow he ties is payback enough.

hr

The upside is that after that Rodney isn't running around shirtless anymore. The downside is that John ends up in his room every morning to help him get the damn shirts on. Probably, John should be there most evenings too, but Rodney stays in the labs ridiculously late, and John can never keep track of the other man's schedule.

John forces himself not to ask who's helping Rodney unlace the damn things. He's pretty sure that knowing would only make him uncomfortable. And besides, it's for the best. Putting Rodney into them is bad enough. John's not sure exactly how he'd feel about taking Rodney out of one. He tries not to think about it.

In any case, it's easier to be around Rodney in the daytime now that John isn't constantly tempted to watch the other man's bare skin. The leather and the soft fabric it's lined with are thick enough that John can't see Rodney's muscles shifting anymore, or anything else that he probably shouldn't be looking at in the first place. Of course that's a good thing.

It lets John think about other things while eating lunch with Rodney again, in any case. It takes him all of two meal periods to realize that it's not exactly the same. John puts down his sandwich when he's halfway done with it, watching Rodney eat half of a melon. The only coffee on the table is John's, and Rodney hasn't made any attempt to steal a drink. Instead, Rodney swigs constantly from the huge bottle that John's only absently noticed him carrying around before. Whatever is in the plastic smells very sweet.

John swallows the bite of BLT that he'd been chewing, watching Rodney pop a piece of plain, unseasoned chicken into his mouth, making a face at the taste. John asks, faintly disbelieving and horrified, because he likes Rodney just the way he is, and the last thing any of them need is for Rodney to be any easier to carry around, "Are you dieting?"

Rodney chokes, shoulders curling over as he coughs, wings fluttering open and stirring the hair and clothes of the people around them. No one makes a big deal of turning and looking, but John can tell they are anyway. John curses, watching Rodney take a long drink out of his squeeze bottle, wiping his mouth afterwards and blinking at John with shock written all over his expression.

Rodney's voice is a little hoarse from the choking, but he still manages to sound completely indignant, "What?"

John flushes, because, okay, it was a stupid and random thought, but it had still been the first thing that popped into his head. John shrugs, motioning at Rodney's plate with one hand. Plain chicken and fruit isn't exactly his idea of an appetizing lunch. He hadn't particularly thought it was Rodney's either. He says, when Rodney just keeps giving him a dark look, "I just–do you want some coffee?"

Rodney's expression shuts down, eyes shuttering, mouth going thin and white when he stands jerkily up from the table. "That's not funny," Rodney snatches up his tablet and bottle, looking stiff and unhappy, and John is painfully aware that they're being watched from every corner of the room.

John says, "Goddamnit, wait, I don't–" and tries to stand to follow Rodney. Before he can make it to his feet, Rodney flares his wings out, catching John with the broad edge of the left one and slamming him hard back into his seat and then sideways.

John just manages to catch the edge of the table, keeping himself from going over while Rodney jerks his chin up and spits, "Sorry, sometimes they get away from me," before turning and storming out of the room, taking his food with him.

It takes John a moment to get his breath back, rubbing at his chest, his lungs burning and his ribs aching. He's willing to bet there'll be a bruise there later, can already feel warmth rising under his skin and a bone deep ache.

John has no desire to finish his sandwich.

hr

John ends up going to see Keller, because he sees any additional conversations with Rodney on the subject ending with further accidents with the wings. John would prefer to avoid that, especially since he was right about the bruising. The purple mark is stretched diagonally across John's chest, sore and aching.

When John shows up at the infirmary, Keller is busy, so he waits, pacing agitatedly and trying to look like he has a good reason to be there. Keller finally comes out of one of the curtained off areas, Richardson following behind her, looking tired and stressed out.

John feels a flash of guilt, because he should probably be doing more for the soldier. Richardson's team is dead, and the Marine was fucked with just like Rodney, even if the changes to his genetic code aren't quite as obvious as Rodney's are, most of the time.

Still, now the man just gives John a tight nod, before heading for the door. John waits until the doors slide shut before raising his eyebrows at Keller, asking, "Everything okay?"

She sighs, shoving her hair back and crossing her arms, shaking her head tiredly. "He's having some problems with, uh," she blushes then, and John is just opening his mouth to assure her that he's changed his mind and doesn't want to know when she continues, "with ovulating women. He can, well, smell them? I hadn't realized his brain chemistry was affected that much. It's very difficult for him."

John closes his mouth, turning that idea over in his head and deciding that yes, he was right, he didn't want to know that. Nothing to be done about it now. John says, "Right," because he isn't sure what else to contribute, and then shakes his head and focuses on what he actually came here for, "What's going on with Rodney?"

Keller blinks, then blinks again, and then surprises the hell out of John by very briefly bursting into giggles. She recovers herself after a moment, gasping out, "I'm sorry," and holding up one hand for a moment, before clearing her throat and straightening her jacket. She goes on, "It's been a while since I slept. What, exactly, about Rodney are we referring to?"

Actually saying it seems silly, but apparently she's going to make him. John sighs, stuffing his hands into his pockets and shrugging with one shoulder, "You know," she stares at him, and there goes John's last hope for this being easy, "The eating thing. And the coffee."

Understanding flashes across Keller's expression, and she says, "Oh," in a soft voice, nodding, "That. It's really his private medical information and I–"

John sighs, "Jennifer," and she raises her eyebrows at him, mimicking his tone back at him and staring at him hard. For a moment, they just stand like that, and then John nods, "Alright, alright, fine," raising his hands in defeat and leaving the infirmary. Apparently he's going to have to talk to Rodney about it anyway.

hr

John isn't looking forward to the conversation, when he shows up at Rodney's lab. But he'd planned to get it over with and out of the way, awkwardness aside. Unfortunately, he ends up stepping into the room and just watching, clenching his jaw up tight to prevent himself from letting his mouth hang open.

It's amazingly the same as it ever was in the lab. Maybe because Rodney always had such a huge presence, everyone is just used to the idea of him occupying so much space. Maybe there's something to be said for all the geniuses running around, and they've just adapted already. John isn't sure.

That isn't what surprises him so badly. The surprise is all from Rodney himself. John's seen Rodney fold the wings down and close, that's how they're usually kept. But not like this. John isn't, actually, entirely sure how Rodney managed to fold them down so small. He can't imagine it feels like anything but torture.

Before John can think about it any longer, Zelenka is nudging Rodney in the ribs and tilting his chin towards John. John watches Rodney go stiff across his shoulders, slamming down the machine that he had been working on, snapping, "If anyone touches this while I'm gone, I'll be cutting off hands," and spinning around.

Rodney is in John's space just like that, mouth thin and angry, arms crossed belligerently when he says, "Something you needed?" with his chin stuck up and his eyes narrowed. John thinks that, really, an innocent question about coffee should not have been enough to cause this much drama. Then again, this is Rodney. Coffee is more serious to him than most people realize.

John forces himself to stop focusing on the tight bunch of Rodney's wings, attempting to keep his voice low, "Can I talk to you?" and Rodney waves a hand, impatient, not giving so much as an inch. And maybe that's what finally kicks John's temper into action.

John grits out, "Fine, be that way," and grabs Rodney, pulling him off of his feet and heading for the door. Rodney yelps, spitting angry words that John's heart is pounding too hard for him to hear, shoving at John's head and shoulders and the thing that surprises John the most is that Rodney at no point attempts to beat him with the wings.

John sets Rodney down out on one of the balconies, Rodney jerking away from him and spitting, "Asshole!" face red and upset, hands balled up into fists. The wings are still folded impossibly tight down against his back, and John feels himself frowning.

"Why are they like that?" John hadn't particularly meant to ask, but the words are already out there. It steals some of the anger from Rodney's expression and replaces it with confusion. John nods towards the wings in explanation and Rodney looks over his shoulder.

"Oh," Rodney shrugs, and then winces, "Gee, I wonder why I'd want to make the giant, delicate bundles of nerves attached to my back as small as possible in a lab where things frequently explode. Hm. Give me a minute to think about it." He shoots John a scornful look.

And, okay, yes, John can understand that, he supposes. He says, "Looks like it hurts," because it does. There are little lines of strain around Rodney's mouth and eyes, and he's holding his entire body differently. Rodney opens his mouth and John talks over him, "And we're not in the labs right now."

For a beat, Rodney just stares, and then he rolls his eyes, grumbling something about stubborn, stupid people who interrupt his work. But John doesn't take offense, not when Rodney also lets out a long, long breath, and then shudders full-bodied when he relaxes the wings the tiniest fraction.

John hisses, "Jesus Christ," reaching out to steady Rodney when he gasps, the wings relaxing in jerky increments. By the time they're in their normal rest-state, Rodney is gasping, eyes squeezed closed. He makes a ragged sound when he stretches them out completely, the air rising off the ocean below momentarily filling them and lifting him inches off the ground.

John pulls Rodney back down, his heart racing, Rodney closing the wings, eyes open now, but staring at nothing. John curses again, softly, keeping a hold on Rodney, rubbing the man's arms. He keeps his voice low when he asks, "You're doing that to yourself every day?"

Rodney nods, bobbing his head and still looking a little out of it. John shakes his head, laughing even though it isn't funny at all, wanting to squeeze Rodney at the same time he's fighting down the urge to point out how incredibly stupid that seems.

When Rodney speaks, his voice is rough, "Do you have a better solution? No. So I don't want to hear it," he straightens abruptly, expression firmly under control again, though his skin is still far too pale for John's comfort. At least he doesn't bunch the wings back down immediately.

For a long moment they just stand there staring at each other, Rodney glaring, John wishing he could come up with something, anything, to say. Finally, John says, just to break the silence, "So, the wind almost got you there," and for a moment Rodney just looks at him blankly.

Then Rodney nods, shifting back closer to the wall and glaring suspiciously up into the sky, saying, "Yes, and wouldn't that just be wonderful. Do you have any idea what the air currents must be like around the city? Updrafts, downdrafts, dead air," he snorts, crossing his arms.

John's thought about the sky over the city, quite a bit since they brought Rodney back. When he'd been considering it, the sarcasm hadn't been quite as thick as it was in Rodney's voice. John tips his face up to the clouds, asks, "You don't want to see if you can actually fly?"

For a long moment there's silence, and John looks down to find Rodney staring up at the sky, his wings making little aborted stretching movements that John isn't sure Rodney's even aware of. Finally, Rodney looks back down, expression tense and uncomfortable, "Do you know how long it would take me to freeze to death if I fell into that water? Honestly, I go nearly hypothermic if I have to take a cold shower."

That's not an answer, and John is fairly certain they both know it. John considers pushing it, but Rodney looks off balance and deeply unhappy. He swallows the words back, and says instead, "You can't drink coffee anymore," because he thinks maybe a statement will be easier for Rodney to deal with than a question. It still makes Rodney flinch, frowning.

For a beat, John thinks Rodney won't answer. Then Rodney sighs, shaking his head, sounding tired when he says, "No coffee, lots of simple sugars and protein, an absolute ban on anything artificially manufactured," he shrugs, tone bitter, "You realize that means most chocolate is out of the picture? Oh, and the best part is that I crave citrus. Still allergic," Rodney chirps the last two words, smiling huge before making a scornful sound and dropping the expression.

John says, "At least you can have all the sugar water you want," and Rodney stares at him before laughing, shaking his head and looking so very tired. It takes a long time for the laughter to pass. They stand out on the balcony afterwards, watching the clouds pass overhead, indulging in some silence.

hr

Things are still a little tense between them after that, and John doesn't know what to do to fix it. Which is probably why he ends up searching through Atlantis for Rodney after he's late for movie night. Ronon is ridiculously excited about finally getting to see the newest Disney movies. He has a thing for pirates.

After twenty minutes, John is fairly certain that Rodney just doesn't want to be found. He's about to give up hope when he finally makes it to one of the other rec rooms and decides to check there.

John is, of course, aware that other people in the city are fascinated by Rodney's wings. He hardly has a patent on that. Everyone stares. A few of the braver souls have asked if it's okay to touch them, and Rodney surprised the hell out of John by consenting, as long as they didn't pinch, squeeze, pull, or otherwise misuse the privilege.

Since then, John's gotten used to people randomly stopping by when he and Rodney are eating to brush their hands over the wings. The only time he's seen Rodney get really uncomfortable with it had been when one of the 'gate techs had sort of pressed her cheek up against the delicate, thin skin and rubbed there for a worryingly long amount of time.

Still, that was once. The majority of the time John knows that Rodney is okay with people being interested in the wings. It's still a surprise to find Rodney sitting on a pillow on the floor, his arms folded on an ottoman, his cheek resting on his wrists, his wings spread wide and flared out to their full span.

Lorne is standing a few feet away with an easel and paints, his expression focused and intent, a smear of blue across his check. There are other people in the room as well, sitting or standing with various canvases arrayed in front of them. The woman directly in front of John has charcoal and a sketch pad in her lap, and John can just see the curve of Rodney's spine, the shadow the wings are leaving on his skin, on her paper.

John can't draw worth a damn, and he has no desire to join them. But he understands why they would want to put this on paper. John wonders if they've done this before, because he's fairly certain that Lorne's little art group meets at least twice a month.

John intends to go back to Ronon and Teyla then, to let them know that Rodney won't be able to make it, but instead he just kind of keeps leaning in the doorframe. It's too warm in the room, most likely in concession to the fact that Rodney is shirtless again. Everyone is silent except for the soft sounds their brushes, pens, or pencils make across paper. It should probably be boring.

When a little buzzer goes off, a long time later, John startles, shaking himself hard. His shoulder is sore from leaning against the doorframe for so long, and one of his legs has fallen asleep. In the room, everyone starts moving slowly, after a moment starting soft conversations, putting their supplies away. Rodney pushes to his feet, shaking his wings out before folding them in and then stretching the left out again to rub at a spot on the arch.

Lorne is walking across the room, saying, "See, that wasn't so bad, was it?" and John really means to turn and leave before someone notices him there. But Rodney is already turning, still rubbing at his wing, frowning a little bit before he blinks and notices John standing in the doorway.

John watches Rodney's eyes go wide with surprise, makes himself nod, and then turns around. His heart is beating very hard when he walks away, though he has no idea why. He thinks maybe he should take up sketching, though he doubts he'd ever be able to scrawl anything other than stick-men.

hr

It's a week later that Rodney shows up at John's door first thing in the morning, turning expectantly as soon as he's managed to push his way into the room, motioning impatiently at the laces on his shirt. Rodney is saying, while John's brain is still hung up on Rodney showing up, "I've finally got the majority of the vast and terrible mistakes made in my absence adequately fixed. Jumper Three is cleared in a half an hour, so if you could get a move on that would probably be for the best."

John pauses, Rodney's shirt half-laced up, the movements automatic by now. He asks, "What?" because he's fairly certain he'd remember to agreeing to going flying with Rodney, and he's coming up blank on that front.

Rodney shifts, stretching one wing out so he can look at John over his shoulder. His expression is all impatience, "020-M20 is uninhabited. It's covered in that spongy mushroom that kind of smells like cottage cheese, you know, the one that bounces? Not a lot of trees. Stable, calm weather. And did I mention uninhabited? And there are no freezing cold oceans to be found anywhere."

John says, "And we're going there be–" and then he cuts himself off, really looking at Rodney, forcing himself to wake up and concentrate. Rodney is trying very hard to keep the impatience up, but his eyes are a little too wide, his mouth dipping a little too far down. He swallows heavily while John watches. John sucks in a sharp breath, "Are you sure?"

Rodney jerks his chin up, mouth crooking down even further, "Look, I wouldn't ask, but if I crash and break every bone in my body–not that I'm going to crash, because it's all just applied physics and keeping your thrust and lift properly balanced with your drag and weight, which you should know, pilot boy, but I'm hardly going to risk death amongst a bunch of giant mushrooms for absolutely no reason when I can just as easily have someone there who's going to carry me back to the Jumper in the event of the crash that I'm not going to have. If you don't want to go then I'll just get Lorne and–"

John yanks on the laces, bracing one hand on Rodney's hip automatically to keep them from a collision, because sometimes he does learn from his mistakes. He says, "No, no, I'll go. That's–I want–I'll go." And Rodney nods his head jerkily, almost vibrating in place as John finishes lacing his shirt up. "But are you sure?"

"Oh my God! Shut up! Get dressed! You have twenty-six minutes to be at the Jumper!" And just like that Rodney is gone, storming out of John's room, turning in the direction of the mess hall. John stares after him, then shakes his head, and hurries through getting dressed.

He's never, ever, going to understand Rodney McKay.

hr

Rodney's waiting in the Jumper when John gets there, pacing up and down, his wings held tight against his back. John watches him for a moment, wondering again at the wisdom of this idea, even though if it were him with the wings he would have been flying ages ago. The sun wouldn't have set on him back on Atlantis without an attempt to feel the wind pushing him up, his body lifted and spun up into the sky.

But it's not him with the wings. It's Rodney. Who has his arms crossed and his chin down, looking as jittery as he ever has. John says, clearing his throat from the Jumper's rear hatch, "Hey, we don't have to do this," and for a moment Rodney just stares at him, eyes wide.

And then Rodney is frowning, drawing himself up and squaring his shoulders, "Shut. Up." Rodney jabs a finger hard at the pilot's seat, and John holds his hands up in defeat, stepping past Rodney and into the forward compartment. Rodney doesn't join him, still pacing while John wraps his hands around the controls and brings the Jumper to life.

In the back, John can hear Rodney's wings rustling. If he tilts his head to the side he can just see Rodney opening and closing the wings as wide as they'll go, brushing against the overhead compartments, the walls, the floor. There's no way in hell Rodney could go full span in the ship, and, for whatever reason, John finds that oddly fascinating. He shakes his head and forces himself to face forward.

The 'gate is already open when they drop down into the 'gate room. John gives a jaunty wave to Woolsey through the view screen. The man just raises one eyebrow before nodding, and then looking confused when Rodney leans through the doorway separating the rear of the Jumper from the front and demands, "Come on, hurry it up."

John says, even as he turns the Jumper to take them through the 'gate, "They did know you were coming along, right?"

Rodney says, "Hm?" from the back of the Jumper, sounding distracted and increasingly nervous, "What? Of course. You know any flight has to have a personnel manifest filed." And a half second later, "We are planning on going sometime today, aren't we? I've seen penicillin that grew faster than we're—"

The rest of Rodney's words are swallowed by the 'gate, his voice coming back on the other side, "—about time. I've noted the coordinates where I want us to land. Could we not take the scenic route, grandpa?" Rodney is in the doorway again, hands drumming a rhythm across the top, wings shifting constantly.

John rolls his eyes, "Yes, Rodney," and Rodney ignores John's tone, turning, pacing up and down the Jumper, clumping loudly in his boots. John shakes his head and concentrates on safely getting them to the spot that Rodney has noted three times, just in case John missed the first two, apparently.

When they land, John stands, turns, and nearly runs into Rodney. He startles, grabbing Rodney for balance, who just pats absently at John's hands, staring out of the Jumper at the pale yellow land around them. And, okay, actually it's all giant mushrooms, but John prefers to think of it as dirt.

The emotions shifting across Rodney's face are moving too quickly for John to track, but he's not sure he likes a single one of them. John is opening his mouth to insist, again, that they don't have to do this, when Rodney straightens and says, "Right. Right. Well," nodding his head jerkily, turning and heading for the rear hatch, yelling over his shoulder, "Are you coming?"

John curses, shaking himself and following Rodney out.

Outside, the sky is nearly the same pale yellow as the ground, clouds nothing more than distant, thin wisps in the upper atmosphere. The air is almost dead calm, though there's a slight breeze coming up from the south, bringing warmer air and smelling sweetly sour. The fungus beneath their feet has some spring just being stepped on, an uncomfortable give that makes John feel like he's trying to walk on gigantic marshmallows. The nearest stationary objects are the copse of trees over a hundred yards away, where the ground starts to slope up into the foothills leading into the mesas.

Rodney says, "This is a bad idea, isn't it?" squinting up into the sky, his hands balled up into fists. His wings are trembling, partially extended. There's color in his cheeks, either from the slightly chilly air or from excitement, maybe fear.

John swallows, and thinks they're on marshmallow world, with no wind to snatch Rodney away, no storms coming up. These are about the best conditions they could have asked for, and he's sure, suddenly, that Rodney's been planning this. That's not stopping John from shrugging and saying, "Probably."

Rodney nods, his mouth twitching up into a half-smile. He says, looking towards John, "Right," and then, "Help me with this," turning his back and motioning to the laces of the shirt. John's fingers twitch, warmth flooding into his stomach, and before he can refuse, because he's not sure if that's a good idea at all, Rodney is continuing, "It restricts my range of motion. Come on, we're missing optimal flight time, here."

So John unlaces the shirt, doing his best to avoid Rodney's skin, fumbling with it because he has his eyes squeezed closed. Luckily, Rodney doesn't seem to notice, yanking his arms free and then shoving the leather into John's hands, bending down to remove his boots, hesitating when he stares at the yellow fungus before keeping his socks on and straightening.

For a moment they're silent, and then Rodney says, "You're probably going to want to step back a little." John doesn't, really, but he's seen the power in the wings, and Rodney's going to need space to do this. John nods his head, retreating to the ramp of the Jumper, meaning to set Rodney's shirt down but instead holding onto it.

Rodney clenches and releases his hands a few times, sucking in a series of deep breathes that go on and on and on. His eyes are closed, his expression set with concentration. The wings he stretches out individually, as wide as they'll go, clashingly blue against the prevailing yellow of this world.

John wants to run out and yell at Rodney to stop. He wants to grab Rodney and throw him into the air. He wants to not be holding his breath anymore. He does none of it, watching instead, his eyes starting to burn from not blinking in so long.

Rodney dips his knees, flaring the wings up and out, and John is sure, is positive, just knows, that the other man won't lift off. It's one thing to be given wings by crazy aliens, he thinks, it's something else entirely to be given wings that actually work. And so what if sometimes the wind catches and lifts Rodney a little bit on Atlantis, that's hardly the same thing as flight, it's hardly—

The wings snap down, fast, the sheer amount of air they're moving causing an explosion of fungus spores into the air. The wind hits John hard enough to make him stumble back a step. It's very nearly enough to make him miss the fact that Rodney's feet aren't on the ground.

For a second, Rodney is nearly two feet off the ground, looking completely shocked, falling back almost immediately. John watches Rodney yanks his legs up, the response looking automatic even as the wings stretch out again, beating hard at the air.

Somewhere around the third flap, the spores get too thick in the air for John to see. He curses, turning his face against the side of his arm, coughing, buffeted by all the air that Rodney's moving. He shouts Rodney's name, suddenly worried about losing the other man, the air settling, the spores still floating around and obscuring his view.

John curses again, louder, running out of the Jumper, through the yellow cloud until he's standing in open air again. His throat itches, but he pushes that away for now, turning in a tight circle, gut tense with the expectation that he's going to find Rodney in a heap on the ground somewhere. He doesn't.

John looks up, shielding his eyes, breathing fast and shallow, fear and hope mixing in equal amounts in his stomach. He almost trips over his feet turning in another circle, heart pounding like a hammer up against his ribs, and Rodney banks the wings directly in front of John and ten feet up, shouting something unintelligible when he drops like a stone.

John catches him, the wings snapping forward around them, warm and strong around John's shoulders and back while Rodney breathes hard against John's throat, laughing. After a second John remembers how to breath, and finds himself laughing as well, so hard his stomach hurts and his lungs burn.

He says, his hands wrapped around Rodney's arms, "Why'd you stop?" because apparently Rodney had been doing pretty well for himself on his first try.

Rodney shrugs, still leaning his forehead against John's shoulder, and John thinks that possibly this should be more than odd. He can't make himself step back, not that he'd be able to go anywhere. Rodney still has him wrapped tight in the wings, and they're big enough to cover John from above his head all the way down to his feet.

Rodney finally grumbles, sounding a little embarrassed, "That was supposed to be gliding," and John snorts on a laugh. He's not sure Rodney's wings are really made for gliding, but, then, he can understand wanting to try. They won't know exactly what Rodney's capable of until he's tried.

For another long moment they stay like that, John feeling Rodney's heart pound. Pressed this close together, each contraction of the huge muscle of Rodney's heart shakes Rodney a little bit, rocking him back and forth on his feet. Each time he breathes it seems to go on for an impossibly long time. John tries to match his breathing to Rodney's and nearly goes lightheaded.

John says, gasping, "You going to try again?" and feels Rodney nod against his shoulder. The wings unwrap from around him slowly, carefully, much bluer than they usually are. More blood, John thinks, watching Rodney stretch them out, reaching forward to brush his fingertips over the edge of one of the bones.

Rodney sucks in a sharp breath, and John looks at him. Rodney's eyes are half-lidded, his face stained red. It makes John shake himself, dropping his touch away from the wings, embarrassed though he isn't completely sure why.

After a long second, Rodney shakes his head hard, shaking his wings out and partially mantling them. His voice is oddly rough when he says, "I think—" Rodney pauses to clear his throat, "I think that you should probably be further away this time."

John nods absently, sneezing at the reminder of the spores that he probably inhaled. He says, "Yeah," turning on his heel and sprinting away. When he turns back, Rodney is watching him, head cocked to the side, and John startles.

Then Rodney turns, looking up to the sky, knees dipping, wings snapping wide. This time John gets to see him rising out of the yellow cloud he stirs up, wings stretched full of air, snapping down, sunlight catching on their surface, on Rodney's back, lining him in brilliant white.

John sucks a breath in, and wonders if he's going to end up holding his breath every time Rodney decides he's going to do this. It would probably be bad for John's health.

hr

They stay on the planet for a long time. Rodney has to land every half-an-hour, when he starts going shaky from low blood sugar. The first few times his landings are less than impressive. John doesn't comment, because, as far as he's concerned, catching Rodney is why he's here.

It should probably get stale, following Rodney around on the ground even after his feet get sore and aching, but it doesn't. Not when he can keep his gaze on the sky, watching Rodney move slowly at first, in sweeping circles, his movements gradually getting faster and sharper.

Rodney doesn't fly like a bird, which isn't a surprise, considering what his wings look like. He's got far faster reaction time, and the first time he reverses directions in midair, twisting on a dime, John feels his mouth fall open in shocked amazement.

John could watch this all day, possibly for an indefinite amount of days in a row. But they're down to one squeeze bottle of Rodney's sugar-water, and John isn't going to risk another coma. There'll be other days. He grabs the bottle, keeping his eyes on Rodney and trying to wave him down.

It doesn't take more than a second to catch Rodney's attention. He's been focusing hard on John the entire day, making sure to keep within a distance that, should he fall, John would be able to catch him. Now John watches Rodney twist in the air, cutting some of the altitude he's gotten, tying to kill some speed the way John's only been suggesting since the second not-exactly-smooth landing.

John grins, shielding his eyes with his free-hand, already regretting that they're done for the day. And that's when Rodney jerks up, making a surprised sound that John can only just hear as his wings are pushed hard. John drops the bottle, ice prickling up the back of his neck, cursing himself, because he should have noticed the wind picking up over the last thirty minutes, he should have—

Rodney is rising way too fast for John to be wasting time with self-recriminations. John curses instead, under his breath, running forward. Rodney is already half the size he was, John's depth perception being fucked with by the other man's relative position in the sky.

Obviously, they should have attached a rope to Rodney's ankle, or something. There's advice and orders tumbling through John's head, but he keeps his mouth shut. He needs his breath for running, and Rodney wouldn't be able to hear him, anyway. Probably wouldn't listen to John even if he could.

Running on the marshmallow ground makes John's legs ache, pinching at things in his hips, but that doesn't stop him from making a panicked sound when the ground changes to something with less give. Rodney's being blown towards the foothills. Towards the trees. This is suddenly bad in all kinds of ways that John can't deal with.

God, why the fuck hadn't Rodney just closed the wings back up when the updraft first caught him? The fact that John knows, that Rodney was too high, that John was too far away, doesn't make it any better. If Rodney falls here, if John can't get to him...John has to push the thought aside, his brain unhelpfully supplying images of the wings bent and broken.

John trips over a boulder, skinning his palm when he catches himself, his knee flaring with pain as he scrambles back up to his feet. Rodney is jerking in the air, and John can't tell if it's panic or conflicting wind currents. He curses breathlessly, running, blood slicking down his calf, his hand stinging like a son of a bitch. If Rodney falls and he's not close enough, John doesn't know what he'll do. It just can't happen. They're getting dangerously close to the old, gnarled, huge trees that back up to the mesas. Rodney might already be over them.

Above John, Rodney makes a sound that John can only just hear, loud and afraid, and suddenly he's tumbling down. John yells back, guttural and automatic, running full out, watching Rodney try to get his wings to flare out properly, managing to get the left stretched out a half second before the right, the air catching it and throwing him hard into a twist.

Rodney's wings jerk, and John can just see the arch of one catch Rodney in his chin, snapping his head back. John screams prayers inside his head, watching Rodney go limp, wings streaming up as he falls fast and hard and too fucking far away.

Rodney hits the tops of the trees and John loses sight of him, bursting through the first of the trunks with his heart in his throat, swallowing air and spit, yelling, "Rodney!" and listening for the sounds of crashing in the branches above him.

Silence, silence and holding his breath with his lungs screaming for air. It's one of the hardest things John's ever done. He strains his ears, his heart beating like a drum, thrumming in his fingers and his palm, and his skinned knee.

And there, branches snapping, something heavy falling, and a final thud that puts John's teeth on edge and his stomach down around his knees. John runs again, branches catching at his arms and face, underbrush tangling around his shoes. It feels more like one drawn out fall than running.

It culminates with Rodney, on his side, one wing caught under him, the other tangled down over his legs. Rodney's head is tilted down to the side, his eyes closed, a long scratch opened across his cheek. John lets his fall move to its inevitable conclusion, his knees jolting the impact up through his body when he drops down beside Rodney's head, making a tiny, choking sound.

John opens his mouth, but no sounds come out, his hands steady when he reaches out to press his fingers against Rodney's neck. Rodney's heart is pounding, hard and fast, and John bites off his laughter, manages to rasp out, "Rodney? Buddy? You in there?"

While he waits for an answer, because Rodney is going to answer, he's fine, John slides his hand back over Rodney's shoulder, fingers finding the root of the wing that's tangled with Rodney's legs. John bites his bottom lip, tracing the curve slowly, looking for snaps, the wing warm and soft beneath his hands.

There are no breaks up to the first joint, and John lets out another shuddery breath of relief, continuing, slow and careful. None to the second joint, either, and John bows his head over for just a moment, rubbing his thumb against the spot where the bones join, laughing sharp with relief.

Rodney groans, something low and thick, and John starts, jerking his head towards Rodney's face. Rodney twists, rolling onto his back, wings moving clumsily but not like they're damaged. John keeps his hold without thinking, Rodney yanking him forward, John bracing his free hand on the bracken beside Rodney's head, a rock pressing hard up against his skin.

John doesn't care, not with Rodney's eyes fluttering open, with Rodney licking his bottom lip and making a little grunting sound. John breathes, "You okay?" still rubbing his thumb back and forth over the wing joint, feeling the pound of Rodney's pulse there, fast and steady.

"Huh?" Rodney's gaze is a lot dazed when he blinks up at John. Then he frowns, raising one hand to grab John's wrist, squeezing hard. John freezes, not sure if Rodney's trying to pull him away from the wing or hold him in place. Before he can decide, Rodney starts coughing and John curses, helping him sit up.

John starts to shift away, then, and the next thing he knows, the wings are around him. John blinks, kneeling beside Rodney, completely surrounded, and then shrugs. He rubs Rodney's back until the coughing jag passes, Rodney relaxing a little as it does, the wings resting warm against John's back, intimate as an embrace.

John thinks maybe he should say something, but instead he just keeps rubbing Rodney's back, Rodney's breathing finally evening out. Eventually Rodney shakes himself, squeezing John hard with the wings before pulling them back, slurring, "John, the, I need the—" he lifts a hand to his mouth, making a squeezing motion, and John panics all over again.

John says, "Damnit, I dropped it back—" and then decides that it's not vitally important Rodney know the exact location he dropped the sugar water at this point. Instead he pulls Rodney to his feet, Rodney swaying alarmingly, and then turns his back, keeping a hold on one of Rodney's arms so he can pull it over his shoulder.

Rodney giggles, melting against John's back, mumbling, "Piggy back ride!" with an odd sort of giddiness that worries John as much as anything else. At least it seems to get Rodney a little bit with the program, because he wraps his other arm around John's neck as well, hitching himself up when John reaches for his legs. The reminder of how light Rodney is makes John's stomach go even tighter.

"Hold the wings up if you can, okay?" John squeezes Rodney's leg hard when the other man doesn't respond, and Rodney nods vaguely, his head dropping down onto John's shoulder. But John can see the wings draw up out of the corner of his eye, and that's good enough.

His body really, really, doesn't want to run anymore, but John isn't giving it a choice. He makes himself move, relieved that Rodney doesn't start screaming or whimpering at all the jostling. That, more than anything, reassures John that there's nothing broken in Rodney's body. Now he just needs to get the goddamn sugar before they have more serious problems.

Luckily, and that word just seems wrong in this situation, it's right where John dropped it in his initial panic. John lets out a ragged breath of relief, his lungs burning and his legs on fire, dropping down beside it and wiping the dirt off the lid with his shirt, which is probably every bit as dirty if not dirtier, but some things are automatic.

John says, "Come on, let go," and Rodney makes a faintly protesting sound, but does, promptly starting to slide sideways. John grabs him, cursing breathlessly and yanking the bottle open with his teeth. It takes a half second to pull Rodney back against his chest, the hard bones in Rodney's wings pressing against John's ribs, spreading out on either side of them. John leans Rodney's head against his shoulder, ignoring how very pale Rodney has gotten. John orders, "Drink," raising the bottle to Rodney's mouth.

After a moment, Rodney does, swallowing the sweet smelling liquid as John squeezes it into his mouth. John isn't sure how much to give him, if too much would just throw things too far in the other direction. Somehow he just keeps squeezing until Rodney coughs, pressing his lips closed and getting a splash of water down his dirty chin.

Rodney gasps, "Okay, drowning me here, stop!" and John nods, dropping his arm down, leaning his head down against Rodney's, just trying to breathe. He still has an arm wrapped around Rodney's chest, his legs on either side of Rodney's hips, Rodney's wings stretched out across the ground around them, Rodney's head leaning on his shoulder.

Rodney says, jabbing one finger up into the air, "And that is why I didn't want to try flying on Atlantis!" John just nods, laughing shakily. They sit there like that for a long time. Until the yellow sun above them starts to set, the temperature dropping with it, and Rodney reminds John that hypothermia isn't exactly fun to deal with either.

They both end up limping on the way back to the Jumper.

hr

There's a small crowd waiting in the Jumper bay, even though John hadn't mentioned the accident over the radio. He blinks at them when he comes down the ramp, suddenly painfully aware that he's covered with mushroom spores, sweat, and blood. Someone makes a sharp sound in the back of the crowd and takes off. John is fairly certain the woman was wearing a medical uniform.

It's just as well that she's gone before Rodney pulls himself off of the bench he'd sprawled out on. Rodney's too exhausted to keep the wings up, blood dried down his cheek and neck from the scrape on his face, pale and shirtless because John hadn't wanted to force him back into the shirt after the day he'd had.

The crowd is moving forward before John can think of a damn thing to say, all worried expressions and outstretched hands. John starts forward, trying to figure out what words would be sufficiently calming to make them all go away, and then Teyla is cutting in front of the mess of them, clearing her throat and smiling serenely when she says, "We will be taking Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay back to their rooms now."

Ronon already has a hold of John's elbow, jerking his chin to the side and giving John a little push towards the door. John nods, starting forward, then turning back for Rodney. Ronon already has Rodney, his hand on the back of Rodney's neck, leading him forward even though Rodney looks mostly asleep on his feet. Teyla is still calmly talking to the crowd when they make their escape.

When they stop in front of Rodney's door, John tries to keep going, but Ronon grabs him, hustling him through the door as well. John opens his mouth to protest, and Ronon shoves him down into the chair at Rodney's desk while turning Rodney to face him.

Rodney looks exhausted, and Ronon tilts Rodney's chin up, asking in a surprisingly soft voice, "Can you shower without drowning yourself?" For a moment Rodney's expression goes blank, and then he nods, and Ronon escorts him over to the bathroom door, saying, "Five minutes, then we're coming in after you."

John blinks, starting to stand up. Ronon is back before he can, boxing John in and crossing his arms. John tries to glare back, but that requires a level of energy he's just not sure he can muster right now. Ronon demands, "What happened?"

For a moment John considers insisting that he'll never tell, but then he remembers that it's not exactly a secret. He shrugs one shoulder, slouching down a little in the chair, "Rodney wanted to fly," and at Ronon's surprised expression, "He did really good. Right until the end." Ronon raises an eyebrow, and John winces, stage whispering, "Crash."

Ronon nods, looks contemplative for a moment, and then walks half-way across the room to say something softly into his radio. John is content to stare at the ceiling for a while, letting the last of the panic from the planet bleed out of his bones, listening to Rodney shower, watching Ronon poke around in Rodney's closet and drop a set of spare sheets on the desk beside John's elbow.

Rodney stumbles out of the bathroom then, wearing loose cotton pants and nothing else, his hair wet and the cut on his cheek red and bleeding just a little again. He blinks at Ronon and John like he'd forgotten they were there, takes a step forward and then freezes, wincing and hissing.

John is on his feet automatically, but Ronon grabs him, says, "You shower before you touch him," and shoves John towards the bathroom. John opens his mouth, but Ronon is already moving on, directing Rodney, who is limping badly now, over to the bed and getting him to lie down.

For a long moment John just stands there, and Ronon looks up, raising one eyebrow expectantly. John frowns, says, "Fine," and limps his own way into the bathroom. It's steamy from Rodney's shower, and John shucks his clothes quickly, determined to get this over with as quickly as possible.

The hot water feels really surprisingly good, but John doesn't feel like lingering. He scrubs as quickly as he can, wondering absently how Rodney even fits the wings in here, or if they're not supposed to get wet. There had been a lot of water on the floor outside the stall.

John is still turning the possible mechanics of it over and over in his head when he finishes his shower, drying off with one of Rodney's spare towels. There's a pair of pants sitting on the side of the sink, and one of his shirts. John frowns at them for a moment, before shrugging and pulling the clothes on.

Teyla is in Rodney's room when John steps out of the bathroom, which John figures explains his magically appearing clothes. There's a tray of food on the desk, there are candles burning around the room, filling it up with the scent of pine and something that reminds John of apple pie. He blinks, surprised.

"How long did you allow him to fly?" Teyla's voice is soft, not particularly accusatory. She's standing over Rodney, where they have him sprawled out on his stomach on the bed. Her hands are shiny where she's kneading at the muscles along the top of Rodney's shoulders.

John closes his mouth, shrugging, "A few hours?" and Ronon makes a snorting sound, exchanging a look with Teyla. The big man is on his knees over Rodney's legs, knuckling his way up the line of Rodney's spine. It makes John oddly furious, and he shakes that away as quickly as it flares up.

Teyla shoots Ronon a quelling look, before turning her attention back to John. Her eyes are very serious, "His muscles were not ready for that amount of strain. Please," she raises one hand, motioning John closer, and John feels understanding unfold and heat up in his stomach. He knows how sore he gets if he leaves off running for a while before hitting it hard. This is, he thinks, nothing really at all like that, but it's the closest his tired mind can come to understanding.

John says, "Right," approaching slowly. Rodney is, he thinks, sleeping. His expression is slack and tired, his breathing slow and deep. John hesitates, wiping at the dried blood on Rodney's cheek and then shaking his head, moving his hand down to the other side of Rodney's shoulders.

Ronon snaps, "No," and when John turns to boggle at him the man just jerks his chin, "You do his wings." John opens his mouth, closes it, and swallows hard. Teyla and Ronon are both staring at him, implacable, and John finally squares up his shoulders. It's not like they're giving him any choice in the matter, and making a big deal about it would only make things weird.

The wings are soft, still a little damp from Rodney's shower, and warm. John feels a chill climb his spine, tension in his stomach when he sits on the edge of the bed, pulling Rodney's right wing over his lap. Teyla makes a soft humming sound, offering John a bottle of oil that warms on his fingers when she pours it into his palm.

Teyla's smile is gentle, and she nods softly, turning back to Rodney's shoulders, the skin there turning red from her ministrations. John finds himself smiling unexpectedly, tired, warm, and comfortable here, like this, with his team.

The muscles around the root of Rodney's wing are noticeably tight, even to the lightest touch. John strokes across them softly, before firming up his touch, imitating Teyla's movements at first with his own hands and then adjusting. The muscles and bone he's working with are different, and it takes John a few minutes to get his rhythm down.

They fall into silence in the flickering candle light, until everything feels oddly dream-like. John drifts, smiling again when he feels Rodney's wing slowly relax, muscles unknotting and going supple. His hands are sore by the time he's done the first wing, but that seems distant and unimportant.

They shift around then, John blinking sleepily while Ronon manhandles him back against the headboard, Teyla lifting Rodney and turning him. John hums softly when they half-lean Rodney against him, Rodney's left wing stretched out for John to work on. Teyla has one of Rodney's hands in both of hers, expression intent as she works her thumbs against his palm. Ronon is kneading at Rodney's legs. Rodney is still remarkably dead to the world.

John sort of loses track of time at some point. He blinks when Ronon moves his big hands to Rodney's chest, and almost protests before Teyla gently touches his cheek with her warm, soft fingers. John keeps his mouth shut, but he finds himself wrapping one leg up and around Rodney's waist, anyway, without quite knowing what the hell he thinks he's doing.

Ronon makes an amused, knowing sound, and John ignores him, concentrating on Rodney's wing again.

By the time they're done, Rodney's skin is pink all over, and glistening a little with the oil. He's also completely and totally limp, melting down against the blankets when Teyla helps John slide out of the bed. Ronon is turning Rodney again, carefully arranging his wings, and John helps them spread the blankets up over Rodney's back.

Teyla blows the candles out as they're leaving the room, and by the time they've escorted John across to his own room he's mostly asleep. John is very distantly aware of Ronon pushing him down onto his mattress, of Teyla saying something. But mostly there is just sleep, pulling and tugging him down, an unstoppable force that he gives himself over to.

John wakes up when his door chimes in the morning, finding Rodney outside, holding a shirt and blushing faintly. John smiles, stepping back to allow Rodney into his room, unable to resist reaching out and running his palm across the arch of Rodney's wing before he starts lacing up the shirt.

hr

Rodney is still sore for the next few days. John knows because he watches the other man more than is probably healthy. He notices when Rodney winces when he turns too fast, the slightly restricted range of motion that means Rodney grimaces if he tries to reach for something above his head. But it could have been much worse, and John contents himself with that.

He's still surprised when Rodney shows up at his room four days later, looking determined and tense when he says, "I'm ready to go again." It's not that he thought Rodney would give up; it's just that John always figured Rodney had a healthy respect for pain, and he knows Rodney's been miserable the last few days.

John sighs, and Rodney jerks his chin up, "I'm going one way or another," and it sounds exactly like the threat that John's sure it is. For a long moment he just stares at Rodney, trying not to wonder what would have happened if he hadn't been there last time.

John shakes off the chill creeping up his spine, swallows down the bitter taste in his mouth, and says, "Fine. Let's go." Rodney even looks surprised, for a half-second, and John tries not to feel stung by that. He's not sure why the hell Rodney would think John would refuse.

In any case, it goes better this time. Rodney is hesitant at the start, and John doesn't blame him a bit. But he rallies, smiling by the first time he crash-lands into John's arms, insisting, "It's just like riding a bike. Well, not just like that, obviously, because there's more skill involved here of course, but..." he trails off when John offers him a piece of fruit, and for a moment his mouth is too busy to talk.

Apparently Rodney hasn't noticed, because when he restarts he's skipped ahead, "—surprisingly complicated. Do you know I can feel the wings pull down into my calves? Isn't that a ridiculous design flaw? Then again, that's what you have to expect from biologists. And they try to call themselves scientists." Rodney snorts in disgust.

John rolls his eyes, feeling some tight piece of pressure in his chest that he hadn't even been aware of ease.

When they get back to Atlantis, Ronon and Teyla are waiting for them. Rodney starts to try to get out of the massage, but the way he's limping and already starting to slump in on himself kind of steals any credibility he had. They hustle him back to his room, and the complaints trail off once they actually get to work.

hr

And that's the way it goes. Every three or four days they go back to the planet to let Rodney practice flying. He gets better, even if his landings never manage to be perfect. John doesn't mind being there to catch him, even if Rodney does have a habit of wrapping his wings tight around John every single time. Obviously it's some kind of automatic response, so John doesn't protest it.

The massages afterwards are every bit as automatic. John gets used to the way Rodney goes silent and relaxed under their hands, his muscles losing their tension so, so slowly. He stays relegated to Rodney's wings, but finds that he doesn't mind at all. Besides, John worries that Ronon might get a little too rough with them if they were his responsibility.

It's been weeks since that first trip when John and Rodney get back to find that Ronon and Teyla are both sick with the flu and presently puking their guts up in the infirmary. There's a pause between them, where neither of them really say anything, and then Rodney says, smiling stiffly, "Thank God, do you know how tired I am of dealing with their inappropriate groping? I'm going to sleep."

He's limping off before John can stop him, one of his shoulders dropping down, the muscles in his back knotted up tight enough to be visible with each step. The wings aren't closed as much as they usually are when he walks, the tips dragging a little on the ground. It paints a sorry picture, and John ends up back in his own room, sitting on his bed, showered and fully intending to sleep, unable to and bouncing his heels, rubbing at the back of his neck, biting at his bottom lip.

John manages to last all of five minutes after that before he's outside of Rodney's door, trying to make himself look calm and collected. Rodney opens the door after a long moment, and John feels all the words he'd planned die on his lips. There are lines of tension all around Rodney's mouth and eyes, and he's deeply hunched in on himself, his arms crossed tight, breathing shallow.

John says, "You're a stubborn bastard, you know that?" and doesn't wait around to see if Rodney's in the mood to be at all reasonable. He picks Rodney up, wincing when it drags a ragged sound from Rodney's throat, setting Rodney down by the bed and gritting out, "Lie down, come on."

For a moment Rodney just glares belligerently up at John, and John reaches out, digging his thumb into the slope of muscle down the side of Rodney's neck. Rodney's mouth falls open even as his eyes squeeze shut, a tiny pained sound slipping through his lips. John's stomach is tight and sour.

John strokes his thumb up Rodney's hot skin, makes his voice softer when he says, "Let me do this, okay?" and Rodney nods jerkily, moving slowly and carefully. He ends up stiff on the bed, sucking in a quick breath when he spreads his wings, John watching with half his attention as he pulls out the bottle of oil Teyla has taken to leaving in Rodney's quarters. The candles John doesn't bother with, just dimming the lights down and then hesitating.

He's never done more than Rodney's wings. They usually split the after-care between the three of them, and John swallows heavily. So much of Rodney's skin, right there for him to touch, makes something flip over in his stomach, and he isn't sure what it is.

To cover that over, John clears his throat, asking, "Any particular place you want me to...you know?" he unscrews the lid off of the oil, pouring some into his palm, feeling it warm against his skin. The smell is immediately comforting, not overpowering, just soft and relaxing.

Rodney starts to shrug and then stops, hissing. He says, voice a little muffled against the mattress, "Lower back," and John nods even though Rodney isn't looking at him. When Ronon does this, he kneels over Rodney's legs, and John figures that there's no good reason for him to change that up.

Rodney's mattress dips a little under John when he crawls on, which makes it more noticeable that Rodney causes almost no dip in it all. John smiles, briefly amused, bracing a hand on Rodney's back and getting himself situated. It takes John a half second to notice that Rodney's holding his breath, and he pinches lightly at Rodney's skin, relaxing a little when Rodney sucks in a deep breath.

John spends a moment just getting himself together. Then he pushes out a breath, puts his other hand on Rodney's back as well, and closes his eyes to try to remember exactly what Ronon does. His hands aren't as big as Ronon's, so John has to adjust a little.

Rodney's muscles are hard as rocks under John's hand, and there's no way that's not painful as fuck. John frowns, pushing and squeezing, feeling Rodney's skin warm under his touch. By the time the muscles start unknotting, John's shoulders are aching in sympathy, and he spends a moment just smoothing his palms up and down Rodney's soft skin. Rodney makes a little humming sound, pushing up into the touch, and John says, "Yeah, Rodney," his voice so low and rough it surprises the hell out of him.

John shakes himself, fumbling for the bottle of oil to give himself something to think about besides his body. Besides Rodney's body. It doesn't work very well. John shakes himself again, swallowing heavily, wondering when exactly he started getting hard over helping one of his friends out.

Thankfully, Rodney doesn't appear aware of the fact that John's suddenly completely lost his mind. John grits his teeth, willing the hard-on away with less than no success. Well, fine, apparently it's been too long since he got laid, and John thinks he'll have to deal with that, because he can't have this happening every time Rodney flies.

Rodney says, voice slow and thick, "John?" as his eyes slip half-open. John has no idea what's showing on his face, but he's sure, suddenly, that it's something Rodney shouldn't see. He grunts, panic clearing enough of the haze of lust away from him to shift a little forward, digging his thumbs hard into the space between Rodney's shoulder blades. Rodney gasps, flinching, squeezing his eyes safely closed.

John's heartbeat is distracting him, hard and fast, and still nowhere near the speed that Rodney's is racing at. Even at rest, even relaxed, Rodney's heart beats so fast that unless John concentrates he can't actually differentiate between one beat and the next. John swallows heavily and makes himself concentrate. He can do this. Maybe if he repeats that often enough it'll start feeling true.

Rodney's wings twitch and flex when John rubs at his shoulders. They rise and draw in, brushing against John's forearms, warm, solid strength that makes something in John's gut go even tighter. John bites his bottom lip hard, unable to stop himself from rocking, just a little, when the wings drag against his skin, rubbing through the hair on John's arms before slowly sinking down again.

Beneath him, Rodney squirms a little bit, and John flattens his palms across the tops of Rodney's shoulders, shushing him. The muscles beneath his hands are starting to relax, Rodney's skin warming at the stimulated circulation and maybe a bit from John's body heat soaking down into him.

John wraps a hand around the back of Rodney's neck, which is as tense as the rest of him, and Rodney hums, bowing his head forward against the pillow. John feels himself grinning, his thumb brushing against the short hairs on the back of Rodney's neck, prickly under his thumb after the softness of Rodney's skin.

They fall to silence, nothing but the sounds of their breathing. Rodney usually zones out during the massages, so John isn't exactly surprised when Rodney stops replying to any soft questions John might think to blurt out. John's breath seems way too loud in the room, but he thinks that Rodney is too dead to the world to notice. That's probably for the best.

John lingers for a long time over Rodney's shoulders and ribs, leaving Rodney's skin reddened by the time he's done. He's still hard, and John spares a brief, disbelieving look down at himself. This is Rodney, who's hurting, and John tries really hard to be disgusted with himself for wanting the things he obviously wants. It's more difficult than he likes to contemplate.

There's no telling how long John might have knelt there like that if Rodney hadn't finally stirred, one wing rising and curling back, bumping against John's side. It's pushy and hard enough to rock John to the side. He laughs, surprised, holding onto the blankets to keep from being knocked off the side of the narrow bed. He says, "Yeah, yeah, don't rush me," even as he twists to the side to sit beside Rodney's hip, pulling the wing over his lap.

John thinks that, really, it should be easier for him to deal with his body's insane reaction in this position. But he can feel Rodney's warmth pressing up against his back and side, and it isn't easier at all. John swallows, adjusts himself, and makes a face at the oil that ends up smeared on the crotch of his pants. Nice. Really.

To distract himself, John starts working on Rodney's wing, probably harder than he should. Rodney makes a tiny sound, muscles flexing against John's side and under John's hands. John says, "I've got you," and Rodney just nods, sweat starting to bead up on his forehead.

There's a temptation, briefly, to not be as thorough as he usually is, but that's nothing more than a passing thought. John wants to linger, even though he knows he probably shouldn't, and so he does. His hands ache by the time he's done the first wing, bone deep soreness that has John briefly wondering if he'll even be able to move his fingers the next day. He finds that he really doesn't care.

John pats Rodney's back, planning to switch sides, and then catches himself. Rodney's arms need some attention as well. John thinks for a long moment, absently rubbing his thumb back and forth over Rodney's ribs before shrugging and sliding his palm up, over Rodney's shoulder, down to his triceps, squeezing. Rodney hisses and flinches.

Rodney had thick, strong arms before the wings ever happened. John knows, because, hell, they'd worked together in the field for a lot of years. He's seen Rodney shove heavy consoles to the side without thinking about it. He's seen Rodney in the gym doing curls. He's seen the arm wrestling competition with the Mullens, where Rodney had gotten drunk or high or something and spent the entire night back to back with Ronon, kicking all kinds of ass.

John doesn't know if they were hard like this before, because he'd never had an excuse to wrap his fingers around Rodney's arms and squeeze. It's fascinating, and John squeezes a couple of more times for good measure before making himself get down to business.

By the time he reaches Rodney's hand, John's a little zoned out himself. It's the only real explanation for the amount of time he spends on Rodney's fingers. He's relieved, distantly, that Rodney's fingernails haven't gone to talons. That would have been weird.

Rodney makes a sighing sound then, fingers curling up around John's, squeezing. John squeezes back, and their fingers kind of thread together just a little bit, completely accidentally. Rodney's skin is paler than John's. His knuckles are battered a little bit. The hair on his arms is more golden than the hair on his head.

John feels like he's making lists in his head, cataloging pieces of Rodney like he can't just focus on the whole picture. He says, softer than he'd meant to, "Other side, now," and proceeds to clamber directly over Rodney to the other side of the bed. He feels lightheaded, his stomach full of warmth, his limbs all oddly heavy and tingly.

John leans back against Rodney's side, pulling Rodney's other wing over his lap, pale blue that contrasts with John's dark pants. The wing jumps under John's touch, a short jerk that John rubs out, soothing until Rodney sighs again and relaxes, gives in.

John wonders, absently, what it would be like if Rodney wrapped him up in the wings now. Usually Rodney's tense when that happens, muscles bunched up and miserable. Now he's soft and pliant. The thought gets stuck in John's head, bouncing around from one side of his skull to the other, growing brand new layers of want every single time.

Rodney reaches down and puts his hand on John's knee, and John rolls his eyes, the silence finally too deep for him to interrupt. He just takes Rodney's arm, rubbing the muscles, tracing the same path he had with Rodney's other arm, fascinated by a thousand new things.

The sound Rodney makes when John presses against the inside of his elbow makes John smile.

And then there are Rodney's legs. John's been concentrating very hard on not thinking about the flannel pants or what's beneath them. There's nothing inappropriate about the pants. There's not even any reason that they should be anything but kind of frumpy.

John kind of wants to stick his hand up one of the loose pants legs, just to see how far he can reach. He shakes the urge out of his head, twists and puts a hand on Rodney's thigh, muscles hard and tight under his palm. He squeezes and Rodney sucks in a breath, twitching, knee pushing down into the mattress. The fabric is warm from his skin.

John blurts, "We should, uh, do the front. Now," because he can't deal with rubbing Rodney's legs right now. He's not sure he'll ever be able to. Not if he doesn't want to come in his pants, and when did this situation get this out of control? John takes a half second to suspect Teyla of putting something in the oil, because he doesn't remember being this crazy before he came into Rodney's room.

Rodney doesn't reply; he's sprawled out on the mattress, breathing slow and deep. John wonders if he's sleeping, and feels oddly offended for a moment. He shifts up, bracing one knee on the bed, grabbing one of Rodney's shoulders, grumbling, "Come on, sleeping beauty, turn over," and pulling.

Rodney jerks then, gasping, "Wait! Don't!" and clinging to the mattress. The wings wrap down, curling around the bottom of the bed, and that's weird enough to just make John stare for a moment. He'd already managed to pull Rodney up a little, the other man's head hanging down against his chest, his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth open.

John curses, "Shit, Rodney, why didn't you tell me I was hurting you?" something twists like sickness in his chest. John scrambles into a more stable position on the bed, bending to wrap one arm around Rodney's chest, wondering if he should try to get the other man into a warm bath or a cold one, trying to remember where he left his radio, because maybe Keller would have some idea and—

"What are you doing?" Rodney sounds almost panicked, holding tighter onto the bed, his fingers tangling in the sheets, his shoulders straining, his head bowed forward. John swallows heavily, his mind so conflicted that he doesn't actually know what to do with it.

John grits out, "Stop being stubborn, Jesus, just—tell me what I did," maybe he'd pushed too hard. Maybe he'd been hurting Rodney every single time they'd done this. God. He hopes not. His stomach feels tight and sick at just the thought of it.

"Nothing, nothing, just let me go, John, let me go, please," Rodney's pleading, and it's more than John is equipped to deal with. He locks his jaw shut, braces his legs and back, and pulls hard. This is probably not the best idea, and he knows that even as he does it, in some distant part of his mind.

Rodney squawks, "Holy fuck! Are you insane?" releasing his hold on the mattress all at once. John overbalances, his tailbone catching against the foot of Rodney's bed. And then there's nothing but the floor breaking his fall, Rodney landing hard on his chest, between his thighs, right against him. John freezes, limbs locking tight for a moment before he makes himself release his hold around Rodney's chest.

John manages to scramble out from beneath Rodney, trying to keep the embarrassment off of his face, keeping his eyes on the ground. John doesn't particularly remember standing, but he's on his feet, rubbing his damp palms down over his thighs, unsure if facing Rodney straight on or sideways would be worse.

Rodney's mouth is open, his eyes huge with surprise. John can't make himself look at Rodney anymore, jerking his gaze to the side, feeling the blood just drain out of his face. He grits out, "I'm sorry, I didn't—" and then can't think of anything else to say there that wouldn't be a complete lie. He did realize he was giving Rodney an intimate massage with a hard-on. He did sit there thinking about all the very un-friend-like things he'd wanted to do with Rodney.

Rodney says, "John," voice weird and tight. And John just nods, jerkily, all that he can manage before he's scrambling over Rodney's bed on the way to the door. He has to get out of here before Rodney throws him out. John couldn't handle that. Not right now.

The door slides open in the face of John's panicked waving. Outside, the hallway feels cold, shockingly so after the warmth of Rodney's room. The lights are too bright. They're harsh. John wipes one hand, smelling like sandalwood, up over his mouth, and walks quickly down the hall to his room.

John doesn't breathe until his door closes behind him. He's ridiculously grateful that Rodney doesn't try to come by, or force a conversation. There's no way John's prepared for it now. Not when he's tearing his clothes off, tripping over his feet on the way to his bathroom, coming even as the first wave of water washes down over his head.

hr

They don't talk about it. Rodney doesn't say a word at breakfast the next morning, chewing on one of the special nutrient bars the science department has worked up for him. Rodney's chugging bright pink juice, sitting across from John and bitching about his labs.

John keeps waiting for some kind of comment about what happened, for Rodney to raise his eyebrows a certain way or smirk. There's none of that. The only way John can even be completely sure anything happened at all is the way Rodney's expression goes tight with pain when he stands, his body tense and miserable in a way it never has been before.

It makes John feels sickly guilty, worse than he already had. But he doesn't know how to make it better. There's no way for him to. He can't take back what Rodney felt. And there's no excuse he can give. Especially not after the way he fled the room. John knows that nothing makes guilt more obvious than running away.

And then the first day that Rodney should have gone back to the planet to fly comes and goes. John spends the entire day hanging around the Jumper bay, just in case Rodney tries to leave without him. He isn't sure what right he thinks he still has to accompany Rodney, but he can't help needing to be there. If Rodney falls again, John needs to be there to catch him.

Rodney never shows up. John ends up pacing outside of Rodney's door that night, which is especially useless considering that Rodney isn't even in there. He's down in the labs, where John had heard him yelling at his abused staff.

Somehow it isn't even a surprise when Teyla shows up, moving on silent feet, touching John's elbow and smiling softly when John startles and looks down at her. She still looks a little sick, her color not quite right and her eyes flat and glassy. But she looks better than she had, those days she had spent sick and miserable in the infirmary bed, throwing up every damn thing she ate and sweating it out.

Teyla asks, "Where is Rodney?" with such a calm and knowing look that it makes John involuntarily wince. He can feel the tips of his ears staining red, and it only gets worse when Teyla calmly raises one eyebrow and crosses her arms. Her voice is gentler now, "What has happened?"

There are some things that John just isn't comfortable talking to Teyla about. The fact that he's now popping inappropriate wood over Rodney is on that list. He shrugs, "I don't know. You know Rodney. He was probably just busy. You know." Teyla does not look impressed.

She says, "John..." tired and coughing into her hand on the end of the words. Her lungs don't sound right, a little wet and watery. It makes John step forward, grabbing her upper arm. He wonders if he should take her back down to the infirmary.

Apparently reading his mind, she makes a face at him, shaking her head. She says, "No, no, I am fine. Perfectly fine," and it's John's turn to raises his eyebrows. She frowns, and for a long moment they just stare at each other, stuck in a stalemate in front of Rodney's empty room. John's sure that they've had weirder conversations, he just can't remember any of them.

John gives first, sighing and patting at her back. He says, "Come on, let's get you to your room," and she sniffs loudly but concedes. John goes by to check on Ronon after he makes sure she's not going to start throwing up in the hallway. The big man is already asleep, crashed out on his bed, and John yanks a blanket up over Ronon's shoulders, glad that at least one of his teammates won't be hassling him this evening.

hr

The next day Rodney would have gone to fly, John goes to find him. Obviously one of them is going to have to do something. And it isn't going to be Rodney. Then again, John figures it's probably not Rodney's responsibility to fix this. John's the one who made everything weird.

He finds Rodney in the mess hall, eating a bunch of chicken. Rodney's snagged a table by the windows, and has his wings down and spread out. The sunlight is pouring across them, and Rodney looks relaxed and comfortable, his shirt sleeves folded up for the first time that John has seen since he got the wings.

For a long moment John just watches. He's not alone. Most of the people in the cafeteria are openly watching Rodney, and the ones who aren't are only managing to be slightly sneakier about it. John shakes himself out of his daze after a moment, squares his shoulders, grabs his tray, and heads over to sit beside Rodney.

Rodney looks up when John sits down, mouth opening around what John's sure are going to be sharp, vicious words. And then Rodney turns red, snaps his mouth closed, and drops his gaze back down to his food. He stabs viciously at a piece of the chicken with his fork. John winces.

John says, "Hey," and Rodney cuts a look up at him, blinking wide-eyed. He looks surprised that John's even talking to him, and John wonders if maybe giving Rodney space and time to deal with John's big mess-up had been a mistake all on its own. It's been almost a week. John just wants things to be back to the way they were. "Can I sit here?"

"You already are sitting there," Rodney's voice doesn't have its usual snap, though he's trying for it. John tries to look properly chastened, just to make Rodney feel better. It doesn't appear to work. Rodney just glares at him, mouth thinned down.

John clears his throat, "Right," fidgeting with his own meal. He's not hungry; his stomach is too tight for that. And he's hard, again, God help him, just from sitting at the same table with Rodney. It doesn't help that the fall of light is making Rodney's wings look like they're almost glowing. John clears his throat, shifting in his seat, "Are you going to go fly?"

For a beat, Rodney just stares at him, his expression shuttered. Then his wings snap up and shut, hard, which John is pretty sure says a lot on the subject without saying anything at all. Rodney says, sharp, "I'm sure at some point I will."

John winces, "Look, Rodney—"

Rodney jerks to his feet, wings flaring momentarily. Wind pushes at John, almost knocking his chair back, and he grabs for the table. Rodney slaps one hand down flat on the table, sighing, "I get it, okay. They're wings. They work. I fly. You're a pilot. There's an obvious fascination there."

John opens his mouth to protest, even though he isn't quite sure what Rodney's getting at. Before he can say a word Rodney is continuing, "I'm just not comfortable with you objectifying me. Them. Especially to that..." Rodney's cheeks stain red then, and he makes an awkward motion with one hand that John is sure every single person in the mess hall can read, "You know, that degree." He trails off, biting his bottom lip.

John feels his mouth fall open. He feels like Rodney just slapped him across the face. John does his best imitation of a goldfish, opening and closing his mouth. He doesn't even have to try to keep his eyes off of Rodney's wings, because he can't look away from Rodney's expression, shut down and sad and hurt. John isn't sure why Rodney is the one that gets to be hurt here.

"I don't—why would—" John can't quite wrap his mind around this, much less put it into words for Rodney. Who is shaking his head and shouldering past John, crossing his arms as he goes. John is left sitting there, staring out the window, wondering where exactly this all went so, so wrong.

The noise and bustle around the mess hall all comes back at the same time, too abrupt to be the natural flow of conversation. John rubs a hand up over his face, painfully aware of the fact that everyone in the room is very pointedly not looking in his direction. The sheer weight of their ignoring him feels crushing where it settles down on his chest.

It takes a long moment for John to finally shake himself free of his shock, to stand and walk out of the room, his mind buzzing and his stomach miserable. He's still hard.

hr

John isn't sure what to do, after that. Rodney isn't ignoring him, or anything like that. In fact, unless John alludes to the wings in any way, Rodney treats him normally. They eat together, and Rodney shows up for their team movie night all on his own this time, commandeering one of the couches for himself, sprawling out on his stomach with one wing draped up over the back of the couch and the other wrapped around his body like a living blanket.

Afterwards, John can't even remember what the movie was, much less what happened in it. It's good to just be able to relax around Rodney again. It's good to have Ronon and Teyla there, even in the harsh flashing light of the explosions on screen and with the smell of burnt popcorn filling up the air.

No one says a word about the wings the entire evening, not until they're finally getting ready to leave. John can almost read Ronon's intentions before the man says a word, in the way Ronon sets his jaw and pats at his hip where his blaster would be if he were wearing it.

John wants to stop him, but before he can Ronon already has a hand on Rodney's shoulder, stopping Rodney from walking through the door. Rodney tilts his face up, blinking in surprise, wings flaring a little to steady him, and the movement looks so natural now, like he doesn't even have to think about it.

Ronon says, gruff, "If you stop, someday you're going to have to start all over again. From the beginning." Ronon looks concerned, his skin dark against the off-white of Rodney's shirt. Teyla is nodding on Rodney's other side, her hand resting on Rodney's lower back. John wonders when they all got so used to touching him, when it started being not a big deal to put their hands all over Rodney without asking or even giving it a second thought.

Rodney draws himself up, chin jerking up, though he doesn't try to shake their hands off. John curls his fingers up to his palms, his jaw clenching tight, Teyla cutting him a curious look out of the corner of her eye, like she's only just realized that John is still standing by the couch, cut off from them by only a few feet, by a distance too wide for him to cross.

Rodney hisses, "And who says I'm ever going to want to—" Ronon squeezes Rodney's shoulder, hard enough to make Rodney flash him an offended look. For a beat the two men just stare at each other, and then Rodney shakes his head, rolling his eyes up to the ceiling, blowing a hard breath out of his lips. The wings shift and settle agitatedly, Rodney's tone of voice tighter now, "I know, okay? I know. Genius here, remember? That doesn't mean that I'm always going to have time to run around playing stupid games."

Teyla sighs, "Rodney..." and he waves a hand, twisting forward then, and away from them. John watches him go, the doors snapping shut behind him as hard as the Ancients ever managed to get doors to snap. Somewhere inside John's head his brain substitutes it for a slam, and he winces, just a little.

For a long moment they all stand there, the space between them where Rodney should be empty. Ronon moves first, turning to look hard at John, saying, "Fix this." There's nothing angry in the words, just a statement of what Ronon's expecting John to do. John wants to point out that he'd like to, if he could figure out how, but he keeps his mouth shut instead, arms crossed tight over his chest.

Teyla pats him on the arm before she leaves, Ronon disappearing without another word. The evening has left a sour taste in John's mouth, now, though it had started out so promisingly. He sits back down on the couch, leaning his head against the back, blinking up at the ceiling with his hands resting on his thighs. On the television the menu screen of the DVD plays through again and again. John listens to the clashing music and the screams, because they match his mood as well as anything else seems likely to.

hr

Rodney lasts all of a day after that before apparently deciding he needs to run around playing stupid games, after all. John almost misses it. He's been keeping himself sequestered in his office, losing himself in the banality of the paperwork that's constantly piling up. But his stomach had been rumbling, he'd been out of coffee, and the room had been starting to feel stuffy to a suffocating degree.

The mess hall promises to be a solution for all of those problems. John steps out of the transporter, ignoring the whispered conversation that started up as soon as he was out of the doors. Food. Coffee. Some fresh air. Then he can get back to work and the business of pretending that everything is normal.

He walks into the mess hall to find Rodney jerking stiffly to his feet, yelling at the room in general, "You know, I can hear you. I'm not deaf." He jerks his wings out, flaring them wide enough to make people at the surrounding tables duck, even as he twists his arms behind his back, yanking at the ties there, and John had been trying very hard not to think about who's lacing Rodney's shirts up in the morning. Rodney's all scorn, now, "Guess what, these don't act as deflector dishes."

John starts forward, because, okay, they probably should have expected this. Rodney isn't by any means the most patient person in the world. All the staring and constant attention would be hard for anyone to take. He's done well to deal with it so far, but, apparently, it hadn't been so much dealing with it as internalizing it and now it's all pouring out with Rodney throwing the cording to the ground, yanking the shirt over his head and shaking it down his arms.

Everyone else in the mess hall is frozen, and John says, "Hey, buddy—" and gets cut off when Rodney shoves the shirt towards John's chest. Rodney's breathing fast and agitated, flapping the wings just hard enough to lift himself over the table he's standing beside.

Rodney's shouting, "Yes! They work. Yes! I can fly. No!" He pauses to glare at a table full of Marines, "I am not too fucking scared to find out. But, oh, I forgot, my word isn't good enough, is it? Well, don't come crying to me when I drown and you all have to explain to Earth how you lost their most valuable mind."

Then Rodney's through the door, reappearing a half second later to snap, "Well? I'm waiting." He twists around, stomping off, and for a beat no one in the mess hall moves. John curses, throwing down the shirt and running for the door, because Jesus fuck but Rodney knows better than to do this kind of shit. The wind shear here is horrendous, he can't—

John jerks to a stop outside, only distantly aware that everyone else followed him out, and that they're all crowding behind him. The crowd is oddly muted, staring at Rodney where he's balancing on the balls of his feet on the railing of the walkway. His boots are lying in a pile on the ground, socks in little bundles on top of them.

Rodney spits, "Happy now?" and lifts his ankles, his center of gravity changing, falling forward.

John yells as he jerks forward. He's too slow, of course, his hips knocking into the railing, pain flaring under his skin, everyone behind him surging forward. John's lungs feel like they're on fire, his hands wrapping around the cold metal of the railing as he makes himself look over the edge, dread settling in his gut, icy cold.

Rodney rises so close that he nearly smashes into John. His wings are flared out to their full span, stretched full of air, propelling him up like the hand of God itself. John's head snaps up so fast his teeth knock together, watching Rodney shoot upward, someone gasping, "Fuck," beside him.

John nods, because he doesn't know what to say, watching Rodney get higher and higher before the man cuts his wings, dropping maybe a hundred feet before catching himself, rolling in the air, and John's seen him do that before, back on the fungus planet, but it never felt like this. Not when another updraft catches Rodney halfway through the roll, pushing him up, and Rodney tilts his wings, cutting surface area, slanting down, plummeting, flaring the wings out and rising again.

His wings are as blue as the sky, and, when the light catches them sometimes John can't see them at all. Someone has a hand against John's back, maybe trying to support him, maybe just because they're all pressed together so tight some touching is bound to occur. John stares, his heart pounding in his ears, until Rodney swoops close, flips them all off, and takes off over their heads, over the spires of the city and out of sight.

Someone says, "Son of a bitch," way too loud into the silence that's fallen over them, and somehow that makes everyone laugh, John included. His lungs hurt, and John wonders how long he was holding his breath. Probably too long. It doesn't matter.

After a while everyone else clears out, mostly silent, their expressions unsettled and undecided. John knows the feeling. He gathers up Rodney's boots after a moment, stuffing the socks down inside, before going back to the mess hall to get Rodney's shirt.

When John takes them back to Rodney's room, the door is locked. John stands outside Rodney's room for a long moment, wondering if Rodney is in there, lying in misery, body aching and sore. There's no way for him to know, and there's absolutely nothing he can do about it. John sighs, leaving the clothes directly in front of the door. He still hasn't had lunch.

hr

John's actually surprised that Rodney can move the next day. He keeps dropping by the labs, dropping things off and making a nuisance of himself, he's sure. Rodney is stiff, wincing if he moves too fast, and not holding the wings nearly as tightly as he usually does. But he's not curled up into a little ball either, which is kind of what John was preparing for.

By lunchtime, John is confused and working his way back around to worry again. He leans his hip against Rodney's desk, trying to think of a way to ask about the flying without making Rodney think he's coming on to the wings, and Rodney says, tiredly, "Muscle relaxants. Epson salts. Hot baths. And Keller's finally managed to come up with a pain suppressant my system can handle."

John gapes, though, really, the time when Rodney couldn't read his mind about most things passed years ago. It's just the important things that Rodney seems to get wrong. Rodney looks up then, mouth slanting down, and something in John's expression makes him startle, blink in surprise.

John attempts to wipe whatever is showing on his face away, even though it's obviously too late. Rodney starts to reach out, but then catches himself, crossing his arms instead. Rodney says, stiffly, looking down to his computer screen and away from John, "It's not that bad. I mean, don't get me wrong, yesterday I felt like I'd been ran over by a truck, but I'd like some credit. I do know what I'm doing, I was hardly going to cripple myself."

There's something a little off in Rodney's tone, but John can't tell what it is. John shakes his head, and bites the bullet, "Look, Rodney, Ronon and Teyla would still—"

Rodney shakes his head, hard, standing up and shutting his computer down. His smile is so manufactured that it makes John's stomach twist oddly, "No. No. I think that oil was giving me a rash. And I'm finally managing to get that burnt smell out of my room. I'll handle it on my own." For a beat they stare at each other, and John almost blurts out that it's not fair that Rodney cut them out, that they lost him for a month, that he could have been dead, that he came back like this, and helping him is all they can do now to try to make up for what they couldn't do then.

Instead, John shrugs with one shoulder, asking, "You want to grab some lunch?" Rodney hesitates for a beat, and then nods, wincing a little and half raising a hand to his neck before stopping himself. He glares a challenge at John, and John just shakes his head.

It's an awkward meal.

hr

Rodney flies more frequently around the city than he ever did on the fungus planet. John figures it probably has something to do with the fact that flying around the city doesn't require 'gate travel. He also has the strange idea that Rodney's trying to prove something, though John isn't exactly sure what it is. He thinks that maybe Rodney isn't exactly sure either.

Whatever the case, Rodney flies at least once a day. John can always tell when, because people start shooting each other looks and rushing around. Productivity has to have gone way down since Rodney started winging his way across the sky, but John can't bring himself to say anything about it. It wouldn't do any good, in any case. They're going to look whether it's approved of or not. And it's not like John can blame them.

Rodney likes flying most in the middle of the day, not that John's keeping track. The heat of the sun must feel good on the wings, and John spends more lunches than he likes to think about watching Rodney circle higher and higher into the sky before tucking his wings close and cutting back towards the ocean like a thrown knife.

Sometimes Rodney doesn't extend the wings again until inches above the waves, and John always finds himself with his heart in his throat. Once, that John sees, anyway, the tips of Rodney's wings dip into the water, raising spray when he rises again, his legs swallowed by the waves from the knees down.

And somehow John doesn't realize that Rodney's playing until he's out on one of the walkways, close enough to hear Rodney laughing as he shoots past, close enough for John to touch, the wind stirred by his passage pushing at John. It isn't what John expected, or what he'd been prepared for. Back on the other planet, Rodney had always been so serious, concentrating hard, focused.

John isn't sure if Rodney's just gotten comfortable enough with the mechanics of what he can do to relax a little bit, or if the constantly shifting air currents here just make it impossible for Rodney to plan what he's going to do before he's doing it. It makes the entire thing seem more private, somehow, like knowing Rodney enjoys it makes it different. John doesn't know why.

In any case, it makes John more and more uncomfortable with watching Rodney fly. He starts trying not to, eating on the far side of the mess hall, away from the windows. There's usually no one else sitting close by, most of the tables pushed up against the wide windows so people can watch and talk amongst themselves, like Rodney's just something to amuse them. John decides that he likes the quiet on his side.

Avoiding the outer walkways is harder, because John likes the fresh air, and he's never liked taking the transporters when he can just as soon walk. He has legs for a reason, and he likes using them. But Rodney has a habit of showing up whenever John walks outside, even if it is for just a few seconds in passing. John adjusts accordingly.

They still eat together, they still hang out, and things are finally not completely awkward anymore. John does have some trouble dealing with Rodney's increased comfort with the wings. Maybe all the flying is making them easier to deal with, maybe Rodney's finally just acclimated to them. It's still weird to watch Rodney nudge people with them, to knock people away from white-boards in his lab with them, to wrap one completely around Miko when she comes up with a way to cut their ZPM energy output by forty percent. Afterwards the woman looks dazed. John doesn't blame her. He feels dazed, and he was only catching the experience secondhand.

So, they're managing. But the thing is that Rodney is stiff constantly. Apparently John's the only one who's noticed that Rodney is hurting, and he isn't sure what to do about it. The massages are out, for the obvious reasons. But John's never been any good at sitting around and doing nothing.

They're going to have to talk about it. John winces at just the thought, adjusting his grip on the chess set that he'd dug out as an excuse to go over to Rodney's room. He's spent the last few hours trying to come up with a way to broach the subject. Thus far he's had no luck.

Still, John is confident he'll come up with something. If nothing else, he'll just throw it out there. Sometimes he thinks he and Rodney communicate best when things are awkward and tense. He's not sure what that says about their friendship, really.

John shakes those thoughts out of his head, trying to decide if letting Rodney play white would be too obvious of a peace offering as he steps out of the transporter. There's a good chance that Rodney wouldn't even notice the gesture. Of course, there's also the chance that he would, and would then take offense.

John takes a deep breath, pushes it out, and adjusts his grip on the fruit salad he'd went down to the mess hall to get. There's been a suspicious increase in the sugary, fruity foods showing up lately in the meal options. John's grateful that he didn't have to say anything to the cooking staff about adjusting for Rodney's new dietary needs.

And that's when the door to Rodney's quarters opens, before John even gets close, and Keller steps out. John freezes, watching her turn, tucking some of her hair behind her ear as she smiles, reaching out to touch Rodney, who is leaning in the doorway.

Rodney's shirt is off. He has one hand stuffed into the pocket of a worn pair of jeans that John has never seen before. His hair is messy and he doesn't shift away from Keller's hand on his arm, her fingers small and slim, delicate against his skin.

They're smiling at each other. John feels icy cold, turns on his heel, and manages to walk at a normal speed down to his room. He puts the chess board down carefully on his desk, sets the fruit down, and goes over to sit on his bed. All of a sudden his brain seems insanely quiet. John flops down backwards and stares at his ceiling and doesn't think of anything at all.

hr

John doesn't intend to ever say anything to Rodney about it. It's not John's business. Hell, after everything Rodney's gone through lately, he deserves some...well, whatever. The last thing he needs is a nosy friend prodding him for information. Not that John wants information. Really, he doesn't want to know at all.

Somehow, that doesn't stop John from clearing his throat over their morning meal two days later and asking, "So, how's, uh, Jennifer?" her first name seems weird in his mouth. He's only known her for a year, and after losing Carson and Elizabeth, John hadn't wanted to get on a first name basis with anyone else. Maybe ever. Apparently it's going to happen anyway.

Rodney blinks up at John over the top of his glass. He's chugging some purplish juice, making a face when he slams the glass down, empty, and exhaling sugar sweet breath into the air between them. John takes a deep breath, holding it in his chest.

Then Rodney is saying, "What? She's fine, I guess. I don't know. Why?" he looks more puzzled than anything, stabbing at the egg on his plate and making a distressed face. John isn't sure how he'd personally handle being unable to use salt or pepper ever again, but Rodney still seems to be pouting over it. John doesn't blame him.

John shrugs, because that was about as far as he'd gotten in his conversational planning. He finally says, shrugging again, "She's nice," because she is. She might even weigh something close to what Rodney does now. It's probably nice for Rodney not to worry about her trying to lift him and carry him around. John could see how that would get old.

Rodney is staring at John like he's crazy. And, okay, maybe this is a slightly weird conversation. Talking about women isn't something they've ever really done, which strikes John as odd now that he thinks about it. He shakes his head and takes a long drink of his coffee and wonders why he thought it was a good idea to bring this up.

John is spared having to come up with any explanation for his admittedly somewhat bizarre behavior, because at that moment there's a burst of painfully loud static over Rodney's radio. Rodney yelps, batting at his ear, knocking the radio out and onto the table, where he glares at it, expression full of wounded indignation and betrayal.

Around the room, all of the other members of the science staff are reacting likewise. The combined sound is harsh enough to make John wince in sympathy, even as Rodney is reaching across the table to grab John's radio, sliding it into place over his ear before John can so much as protest. Rodney is demanding, "What's going on? Talk to me here, people."

For a beat Rodney doesn't move, bouncing his leg impatiently and then jerking up to his feet, wings flexing and settling. There's no reply over the radio, at least none that John can hear, but Rodney starts snapping his fingers at people around the room anyway, and then jerking his thumb hard over his shoulder.

He's saying, "You—ZedPM room, you—the hydraulics lab, you—the solar power systems. Now, you morons! Move!" The scientists scatter, the rest of the room falling into a nervous silence, frozen in place. Rodney is storming out on the heels of some woman in science blue who John doesn't recognize, and, just like that, John finds himself on his feet, racing after Rodney's retreating back.

John calls, "What's going on?" and Rodney waves a hand over his shoulder, bracing a hand against the wall as he whips around a corner. John lengthens his stride, momentarily sidetracking to grab the arm of a passing soldier, snagging the woman's radio and flashing her an apologetic smile before resuming his hurry after Rodney. Who still hasn't answered John's question. John repeats it.

This time Rodney flashes him a sharp look, waving his hand impatiently in front of the control for the transporter and then making a huffing sound and heading for the stairs instead. He calls over his shoulder as he goes, "Gee, I don't know, let me pull out my crystal ball and conjure up an explanation. Do you hear anyone talking to me? No. You do remember where I was, right? Eating. Did you see anything going drastically wrong in the mess hall?"

At the base of the stairs Rodney pauses, frowning and looking thoughtfully up. Then he bends his knees, wings flaring with barely enough room in the expansive Ancient architecture. John throws a forearm over his face when Rodney brings the wings down, wind buffeting him as Rodney propels himself up and up and up. John curses, and runs.

John's on the third flight of steps when he hears Rodney swear, loudly, somewhere above him. John demands an explanation into his radio, forcing his legs to speed up, pounding up the stairs, concentrating on breathing down into his stomach.

Rodney shouts, "Shut up, shut up, shut up, thinking here!" and John is too breathless to yell back an order to cut the bitching and just tell him what the fuck is going on. Another flight. And another, and then Rodney is saying, low and sharp, "Everyone else shut up and get off the line, right now!" and it's close.

John slides to a halt, bracing a hand on his thigh for just a moment. Rodney is leaning against the wall, his eyes squeezed shut, snapping his fingers. John fumbles for his radio, flipping it to the science staff's channel, where he can just hear the buzz of faint static, white noise pouring into his head.

Rodney straightens, "Thank you. Now. The only people who need to talk here are Radek and I. The rest of you go scribble on the walls with crayons, or something." There's no reply over the line, and Rodney is sucking in a deep breath, continuing, "Tell me what's going on."

There's a burst of static, and then Radek's voice, finally, "Is bad, Rodney. The overflow circuits cannot handle the surges. It is contained, but we will lose the experiment. Already Michaels is...dead." Rodney curses, softly, and Radek rushes on, "It was quick. He felt no pain. The others managed to get out before the city locked down the level."

Rodney's eyes snap open, "Where are you? You're not—" Radek makes a soft sound over the line, and apparently that makes sense in whatever demented shorthand he and Rodney communicate in, because Rodney sucks in a sharp breath through his nose. Rodney is jerking into motion again, saying, "Okay, okay, I'm going to the control room, I'll manually override the lockdown, I'll—"

"There is not time," Radek sounds utterly exhausted, suddenly. Rodney's wings are twitching with agitation, and he keeps moving, sprinting down one of the long hallways, John following on his heels without thought.

Rodney says, not even out of breath, and that increased lung capacity is pretty impressive, "Of course there's time, don't be a moron. It'll only take a minute, and I'll have all the doors opened for you. All you'll have to do is stroll out. I'm sure even you can manage that."

Radek makes an exasperated sound, and for a half second John can picture him, sighing, pinching at the bridge of his nose, drawing up the tattered shards of his patience. Radek says, tired, "No, listen to me. The circuits are overflowing. Already the heat is very bad. It will not burn out completely until they melt. And that is many hundreds of degrees yet."

It takes John a half second to work through what Radek is saying. When he does, he feels ill, because no one deserves to die like that. Rodney curses loudly in front of John, and then spins on his heel, shouldering past John and frantically waving a hand over the transporter they just passed. This time it shows up, and Rodney throws himself into it, John barely managing to squeeze in before the doors shut.

Rodney is saying, when the doors open at their new destination, "You're on the upper level of the crooked western spire." It's not a question, exactly, but Radek makes an agreeable noise anyway. Rodney is already moving, across the hall, out onto one of Atlantis' balconies, tilting his chin up and scanning the sky line, mumbling something softly to himself. And then, "Ah, broke a window already, did you? Good. Now, shut up and listen because I'm only going to say this once. You get one chance to jump when I tell you to. If you don't take it, I swear to fuck I will let you hit the water, which will at least be a quicker death than your present inside look at the last few moments of a lobster's life."

Rodney twists his head over his shoulder and snaps at John, "Why are you just standing there? Help me with this damn thing," as he twists an arm behind his back, trying to pull the laces free himself. John gapes, not believing this is even being considered, and Rodney makes a disgusted sound, ripping and yanking at the cording, the movements short and sharp.

Over the radio, Radek is saying, "Rodney..." soft and fond, and John can just see the other man leaning out of a window a few stories above them, in another tower. The air around Radek is shimmering with heat, and that, finally, stirs John to action.

John bats Rodney's hands away, cursing at the messy knot he's managed to make of the laces. John's knife is in his hand before he thinks about it, and he pulls the leather as far away from Rodney's skin as he can manage before flipping the knife and tearing the blade down through the shirt.

Rodney hisses, "Finally," yanking it off of his arms and throwing it to the ground, kicking his boots off, pulling himself up onto the railing. He's continuing, "All you need to do is fall. If you feel like attempting usefulness, cover your face. There's going to be glass."

"This is not a good idea, Rodney," Radek's voice is still soft, and the static is staring to get loud again, chopping the words into little pieces that barely manage to be intelligible. John agrees anyway, for all that he just made himself a part of it when that he cut Rodney's shirt off.

Rodney snorts, "Please, this is going to hurt me far more than it's going to hurt you," which John thinks was the whole point, at least as far as John was concerned. He takes a step forward, intending to grab Rodney, who is taking a deep breath, who is flaring his wings out, who is ordering, "Jump."

Radek does.

There's a level of faith there that John's not even sure he understands. Radek looks tiny, a blue streak falling down the side of the Ancient glass, the air above him still shimmering with insane, impossible heat. On the railing, Rodney exhales a curse, and then he's gone, just like that.

John throws himself forward a half second too late. He doesn't even feel the impact, busy tracking the curve of Rodney's fall, where it's going to bring him, counting windows, raising a hand to his radio, holding his breath to see if he's right before he says a damn thing. To see if Rodney even manages to snatch Radek out of his freefall. To see if the extra weight doesn't drag both of them down to a watery grave.

Rodney doesn't flare the wings until he catches Radek. Then they snap back, downward motion arrested and shoved in the opposite direction violently. John imagines he can hear a scream across the space between them, and makes himself push that away, forces himself not to think about it.

Catching Radek changed Rodney's course slightly, and he's dropping faster, even with his wings stretched and full of air. Rodney's never glided much to begin with, and now he's starting to dip, faster and faster. Two hard flaps gain them some altitude, but it makes them wobble alarmingly.

John is aware that he's holding his breath. He can't stop himself. He's trying to sketch the curve of the flight, trying to name the inevitable ending, and then he just knows. John counts levels, counts windows, and tries to remember exactly what's behind that shiny, reflective glass.

He slaps his radio on so hard that his cheek stings. John doesn't care. His voice comes out as a bark, "I need the window in the south-western sparring room broken out, now." For a moment nothing changes, John staring hard at the flawless glass, watching Rodney and Radek get closer and closer, his voice breaking on, "Now, goddamnit!"

John isn't sure what comes through the spinning shards of broken glass. He thinks it might be a weight bench, twisting end over end as it falls down to the churning waves below. John can see people moving inside the room, small from this distance, but just close enough for him to tell that they're knocking out the larger remaining shards of glass, kicking away the pieces that had fallen into the room instead of out to the sea.

John yells, "Back, back!" and watches them scramble away from the window. Rodney and Radek are so close, and there's no way in hell that Rodney's wings are going to fit through the window. John wonders if Rodney can tell from where he is, how well the other man is aware of their size.

He needn't have worried. Rodney dips one of the wings, he and Radek spinning, falling sideways and down. Rodney wraps the wings tight around Radek then, and they're big enough that they mostly surround him as well. Momentum and gravity carry them forward, through the shattered window, out of John's vision.

For a second, all John can do is breathe, his lungs screaming for oxygen. He can't believe that just happened. He can't believe it actually worked. And then someone is yelling over the radio, more of the panicked voices that have been part of this situation right from the start, "Medical team! I need a medical team to the sparring room fucking yesterday!"

John doesn't waste breath cursing. He pushes himself away from the railing, hitting the doorway hard with his shoulder on his way through, unable to slow down enough to care. There are other people in the halls, John is sure. He just doesn't really register them as anything other than obstacles.

Someone makes a surprised sound when John shoves them into the wall, and he waves a hand vaguely in their direction. Later, he'll try to remember the face, so that he can apologize. Right now he's too busy deciding that he isn't likely to break his ankles jumping down a flight of stairs.

John catches himself with his knees and one hand, pain shooting up his limbs from the jolt. He shakes it away, shoving to his feet, running again. His mind has gone razor sharp and completely empty, like all that he is has been focused down to moving as fast as possible, everything else burnt off as useless and unimportant, heeding his progress.

There's a woman bent over, gathering up papers in the middle of the hall, and John doesn't even think about pausing when he comes upon her. Adrenaline gives him height that John's fairly sure he's never gotten off of a jump before, even if he does trip on the landing, his ankle nearly twisting to the side. But only nearly. John pushes away from the wall he'd fallen against, his lungs burning.

John prays that the medic was for Radek, and hates himself for it, briefly.

And then the door to the sparring room is in front of him, already open and waiting. John twists sideways through it, momentum trying to carry his body forward. He knows, logically, that there's a scene to take in here, but his mind reads everything as shattered and fractured apart.

Outside of the broken window, the sky is huge and blue, cloudless. There is one man standing, coming towards John, his expression worried and concerned. There are other people, kneeling. John comes up with a different number every time he counts them, so he stops trying to count them. There is Radek, soaked with sweat, his face very red, having a bottle of water forced into his hands by a woman with a dark ponytail and dog tags.

John sees, and dismisses, all of that. He's moving before he thinks, body processing faster than his brain can. He loses time, seconds, from the doorway to the floor in front of the window, where he's falling to his knees, pain jolting, ignored, up through his legs. John says, "Oh, shit," his voice sounding muffled in his ears.

Rodney is sprawled on his side, lying on one of the wings, the other bent awkwardly away from him, jerking and flopping. Rodney's eyes are squeezed shut, and he's biting his bottom lip so hard that there's a line of blood winding down over his chin and cheek. His hands are moving a little, opening and closing spasmodically. He's breathing fast and shallow, and he's shaking all over.

John curses again, louder, reaching for Rodney and then jerking back. He's thinking about shock, pain thresholds, and how Rodney just carried over double his own weight with muscles and bones that had never had to do anything close to that before. He demands, "Where's Keller?" and someone answers him without John processing the words at all.

Radek says something then, but it's all just noise to John. He nods absently anyway, fixated on how red Rodney's blood looks against his pale skin, on the way the wings are jerking like dying fish, and that image gets stuck in John's head, popping up over and over again no matter how much he doesn't want to think about it.

John reaches out again, and this time he touches Rodney, a careful hand on Rodney's upper arm, keeping the touch as light as he can. Rodney's skin is as cold as ice, trembling, pulse racing. John says, "Sh," even though Rodney hasn't made a damn sound, and then, "Sh, I know it hurts. It must hurt bad."

And, somehow, that makes Rodney open his eyes, though he isn't managing to focus them. He looks disoriented, pupils tiny, blinking up at John. Rodney's mouth falls open, and he sucks in a shuddering breath, his teeth and tongue stained red. John strokes his thumb over Rodney's skin, wondering where the hell the med team is, wondering why they aren't here, and taking care of this.

John repeats, for no good reason, "Sh," and like that's finally reminded Rodney that he should probably be screaming his head off, he does just that. It's a horrible sound, ripped right out of his chest as he tries to curl himself up into a ball, hands flailing out, one of his big hands wrapping around John's elbow and squeezing so tight that John's sure there will be bruises.

John doesn't mind. Not with Rodney making that choking, sobbing, terrible sound. John shifts himself closer to Rodney, ass hitting his ankles, trying absently to wipe at the blood on Rodney's cheek with his free hand. It doesn't work out so well with the jerky movements of Rodney's head.

The screaming isn't getting better, isn't fading off or easing. With his big lungs, Rodney can really scream, the sound twisting on and on and on, sinking down into John's bones and settling there, where he'll never be able to wash it away. John knows all of this in a sterling moment of frightening clarity, where everything seems so very painful and obvious. There will be nightmares about this, later. There will be times when he looks at Rodney across the meeting room table and this is all he can hear. Later.

Now, John curls his back over, his hand going numb from Rodney's grip on his arm. He thinks, again, uselessly, that Rodney is probably going into shock. And then it doesn't matter, because there is shouting, and more people flooding into the room, Jennifer Keller sliding to a stop beside John and yelling to be heard over Rodney, "Oh God, what did he do?"

All John can do is shake his head. It doesn't matter. Radek is there to explain.

hr

Ronon and Teyla are waiting at the infirmary when the med team wheels Rodney in, John following doggedly on the heels of the medics. His arm is throbbing where Rodney had grabbed him. That thought seems disjointed and out of place, but it keeps popping up in the forefront of John's mind anyway. He rubs absently at his forearm, nodding at Ronon and Teyla.

Rodney is still making sounds, smaller, whimpering sounds, now that Keller has a feed of pain suppressant pumping into his veins. She hadn't wanted to move him, at first, and it had taken John a moment to understand why.

There was almost no way to keep the wings stable during transport, and touching them caused Rodney sheer agony. John knows. He can still see Rodney jerking full bodied when one of the nurses had gently tried to fold the wings up against his body, the way Rodney had yelped, sharp and thin, his eyes rolling up in his head.

But they'd had no choice. The doctors could hardly treat Rodney on the floor of the sparring room, and so they'd carefully loaded him onto a gurney, and, even more carefully, folded his wings up over his back. Rodney had passed out, briefly. John thinks it probably would have been better if the unconsciousness had lasted a bit longer.

There's nothing to do about it now, the doors sliding shut behind the last of the doctors. For a long moment no one on the team says anything, and then Teyla touches John's arm, right over the bruise Rodney left, where John's been absently pressing without quite realizing he was doing it. It still doesn't really hurt. There's just this throb beneath the surface of his skin that won't go away.

John says, "I didn't stop him," because they should know. He could have done something, instead of just standing there and letting Rodney pull this kind of fucking retarded shit. God, he'd helped. He'd cut the shirt off, and even though John is sure Rodney would have done the exact same thing with it on, he can't help but blaming himself.

Ronon grunts, "Sit," and pushes John down into one of the waiting chairs without giving John an opportunity to sit his ass down all on his own. John would protest, but Ronon and Teyla are settling in beside him, and it's easier to just thump his head back against the wall and resign himself to staring at the door and waiting for as long as it takes to get news.

And, somehow, the most surprising part of the day is when Richardson comes prowling down the hall. The man's hackles are up, his eyes narrowed, tail lashing, and John watches him tiredly. For a long moment Richardson paces in a tight circle in front of the infirmary doors before freezing and twisting to look back over his shoulder at them.

The movement makes him look oddly spineless, and John winces on his behalf, because it looks like it should be painful. Before John can mention it, Richardson says, "Why is Doctor McKay bleeding?" and John just blinks for a long moment. He decides to let Teyla field the question.

hr

John's surprised when Richardson sticks around, though he thinks maybe he shouldn't be. Going through what Rodney and Richardson went through warps people, and maybe they're the only two who really get that. John really, really doesn't like that idea at all.

Still, there's no way for him to just send Richardson away, so he watches the man pace, and resists the perverse desire to try to pull his tail. Ronon and Teyla are keeping themselves occupied with a string game that Ronon's been trying to teach her for two years now, and the hallway has fallen into a tense silence. John badly wants to be pacing as well, but makes himself sit still, his hands tucked under his arms, feet flat on the ground.

Another little group of scientists hurries by, clustered together and cutting sharp, worried looks at the infirmary door and at John's team. People have been doing that for most of the time they've sat there, and John's gotten tired of glaring at them. They're curious. He understands that, regardless of how little he likes it.

Richardson doesn't wait for the scientists to take the turn at the end of the hall before he says, "They think we're theirs."

John startles, because the man hasn't said more than a handful of words the entire time they've been waiting. And he doesn't appear to be planning to explain himself now. John says, "What?" distracted and feeling jumpy in his skin. He doesn't want to have a conversation right now.

"They think we're theirs. Public property. Look, touch, poke, prod." One side of Richardson's mouth lifts. It doesn't look very much like a smile, especially not with the sharp, curved tooth it reveals. "Dietrich calls it entitlement. Just because we're here, we belong to them. To all of you."

For a long moment, all John does is stare. Rodney hadn't mentioned anything quite like that. Then again, he and Rodney weren't generally in the habit of having conversations quite that deep, even in the best of times. The idea of having one with Richardson makes John uncomfortable, and he deflects as best he can, "Rodney didn't say he'd been talking to Dietrich."

Richardson snorts, and, Jesus, his hair actually rises. John stares, because he's never seen anything quite like that before. He almost misses the other man saying, "He hasn't been. Dietrich can't be in the same room with him. Childhood trauma, or something."

John nods, because he thinks it's the expected response, wishing this conversation would end already.

When Keller finally comes out, it's a relief. She's pulling off her latex gloves. She looks tired, but not emotionally devastated. John breathes out in relief, nudging Ronon in the side to get his attention, because John doesn't feel like having to repeat whatever news Keller has just because Ronon and Teyla weren't paying attention.

She says, when they're all listening, "He's fine. Or, well, he will be. There was some tearing of the ligaments." She pauses, twisting her mouth up into a smile that falls a little flat, "Piper's going to have to come up with some new physical therapy for him, but the surgery is already done and, well, we should know when he wakes up if I...well, if everything went right."

John says, "Not that it would go wrong," maybe sharper than he should have, and Teyla puts a hand on his shoulder. Keller just blinks at him for a moment, her eyes wide and surprised, like she hadn't expected him to say anything.

Finally she sighs, tucking her hair behind her ears, "I don't exactly have a reference to work off of, here. You know that," there's something chiding in her tone, and John frowns, because he knows, they're all completely off the map here, and he accepts that. But she could at least pretend it wasn't so.

Teyla cuts in before John can say another word, "We understand. Tell us about the tearing," and after a moment where she just stares hard at John, Keller does. John makes himself pay attention, listening to the speech all about the wrapping and the ice and the physical therapy.

The flight restrictions Keller mentions last, though John supposes he should have known they were coming. The muscles, tendons, and ligaments all need time to recover, especially the ones that Keller had to surgically repair. John finds that he doesn't like the thought of Rodney not being in the sky, even though he'd been doing his damndest not to pay any attention to the flights. There's not a damn thing he can do about it.

hr

Nothing went wrong. Rodney only stays in the infirmary overnight, which John decides within seconds of being in the same room with him wasn't nearly long enough. Rodney is gray-faced with pain, moving slowly and gingerly, like even breathing hurts. And, well, it probably does.

Rodney's going shirtless again. John doesn't think that Rodney could even raise his arms high enough to put the shirt on, if the way he struggles with his morning sugary drink is anything to go by. The wraps around his chest are oddly orange-ish against his skin, down over his stomach, up over his shoulders. By the look of it, Rodney's entire body is one big pulled muscle.

And then there are the wings. There's something wrong about them being bound down, some kind of soft leather strap wrapped around them in three places to hold them tight and close to Rodney's back. Teyla assures John that the straps aren't too tight, that she's checked them herself, but he can't help disliking them. It's just wrong. He doesn't know why.

Thankfully, no one tries to make John explain. Rodney, for the most part, seems intent on ignoring his injuries. He still rushes everywhere, even though John catches him leaning heavily against a wall more than once, his hands pressed against his chest, breathing slow and shallow, eyes squeezed shut, expression twisted up with pain.

And the wings still try to move all the time. John finds himself watching, if he isn't careful, reading the bunch and twist of muscles in Rodney's shoulders and the shifting of the wings against the leather. He's gotten used to Rodney talking with them every bit as much as he talks with his hands, and maybe that's why seeing them restrained bothers John so much. John's willing to take that as an explanation, in any case.

The physical therapy starts almost immediately. Rodney doesn't tell any of them when the appointments are, but Teyla finds out anyway. Sometimes John wonders why Rodney even bothers trying to be sneaky. It never, ever, works.

John shows up when the first session is supposed to be over. Piper's offices are down by the infirmary, in their own separate little corner where he drags the damned to torment them in perdition until they're finally released on the good graces of God and Jennifer Keller. It's a hell no one deserves to be put through, really, even if John did regain full range of motion in his arm far faster than anyone had anticipated after he broke it last year. He still thinks that was in spite of Piper's therapy, not because of it.

In any case, Rodney looks as bad as expected when he limps his way out of Piper's office. His hair is dark and damp with sweat, the visible skin on his chest and neck reddened. His arms are crossed, fingers digging into his skin, and John shakes his head, stepping forward and putting a hand on Rodney's elbow.

Rodney startles, jerking to the side, and John rolls his eyes, saying, "Jumpy much?" and tightening his grip on Rodney. For a half second Rodney just stares at him, gaping, sweat making his eyelashes clump together. His skin is very, very warm under John's hand.

It takes all of two seconds for Rodney to collect himself. Then he's sputtering, "What the hell are you doing here?" and trying to yank free of John's grip. With his range of motion so restricted and his abused muscles, it isn't hard for John to keep his hold, gently steering Rodney down the hall.

John says, "Teyla wants us to meditate," by way of explanation. That gets a bigger fight from Rodney, the other man trying hard to twist out of John's grip. John stops, and he's still, after all this time, not quite used to the way that he can just pull Rodney to wherever he wants him.

Rodney glares up at him, pressing his hands against his hips, over the wraps there, looking indignant and frustrated. John sighs, rubbing his free hand up over his face and saying, gently, "Look, you want to be done with Piper as soon as possible, right? Teyla says this will help."

Rodney snaps, "Teyla also says that I look like some kind of twisted Pegasus Santa Clause, who flies around dropping candy into kid's mouths in the middle of the night. Because, of course, here they don't even worry about trying to get you into the creepy white van."

John blinks, then blinks again. Rodney rolls his eyes, all long-suffering scorn, saying, "You know, the maererth things? That—you know, never mind. Fine. Where are we going to be getting our mythical hooha on today? Shall I assume it isn't bring your own incense?"

"They're not making bile scented yet, Rodney," John flashes a grin across to Rodney, who only scoffs, but doesn't complain when John starts pulling him along again. It's actually less of a fight than John had been anticipating. He wonders if maybe Rodney is starting to miss them.

Meditating is nowhere near as intimate as the massages had been, but at least it's something. After the way Rodney had cut them all off, it feels like a huge step back towards where they need to be. John feels oddly lighthearted when they step into Teyla's quarters, even as Rodney fakes coughing into his hand over the candles Teyla has burning around the room.

And maybe Teyla is feeling oddly lighthearted as well, because she blows two of the candles out with a soft smile at no one in particular before motioning towards their pillows. John arranges himself carefully, reaching out to steady Rodney when he tries to sit, ignoring the sharp look Rodney shoots him.

Teyla is saying, "Now, just relax," and John's mouth crooks up automatically at Rodney's derisive snort.

hr

They alternate Rodney wrangling duties after his sessions with Piper. Getting Rodney to relax afterwards is difficult, and keeping him that way for any significant amount of time is even harder. They burn through movies and meditation, a chess tournament, and a poker night that Teyla wins by virtue of having the best poker face John has ever seen.

John isn't sure when Rodney finally starts acting normal around him again, not the unconvincing faking he'd been doing for so long, but actually normal. The first time John notices, and knows for sure that things are okay with them again, is when he walks Rodney back to his room and Rodney bumps shoulders with him before stepping through his door.

It's comfortable and normal, and Rodney doesn't look nervous about it afterwards, like he expects John to start slobbering all over his wings at any moment. John spends the rest of the evening grinning to himself, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wondering if it's still too soon to offer to rub out Rodney's shoulders again. Maybe he should give it a little more time.

hr

It's been weeks since the accident, since Rodney's first tandem flight, when Rodney doesn't show up for their lunch meal. It's never really been a set appointment, but they've been eating together since early in the first year of the expedition. It's something they do even when they're not getting along. John's grown accustomed to it.

So he goes looking for Rodney. It's not hard to find him. It isn't that everyone in the city is keeping tabs on him, it's just that people tend to pay attention to where Rodney is, or where he might be going. The wings are still new enough to catch and snag people's attention. They might always be.

The last time anyone had seen Rodney, he'd been climbing the stairs towards the roof of the northern spire. John exchanges friendly nods with his informants, slinging the bag containing their lunch haphazardly over his shoulder and working to keep his pace casual when he heads for the stairs himself.

Outside, the suns are high in the sky, burning up the atmosphere, the heat in the air stifling. John pauses in the doorway, raising his hand to shield his eyes, feeling sweat pricking at the back of his collar already. He'll never get used to how hot it is here in the daytime, contrasted with how cold the temperature tends to drop at night.

The floor is smooth and reflective under John's boots. He can feel the heat radiating up from the tower itself, and feels momentarily like he's in a tanning bed. John shakes his head, snorting at himself, and steps completely out of the door, turning in a slow circle to look for Rodney.

Rodney isn't hard to find. Something in John's chest catches when he crosses to Rodney, who is sprawled out on his stomach near the edge of the roof. Rodney has his arms crossed under his head, his face turned towards the crook of his elbow. He has his wings stretched out to their full span, spread out across the roof, soaking them in the sunlight.

John carefully walks around Rodney's left wing, watching each footstep with care that feels exaggerated. He doesn't like the thought of what his heavy boots could do to the hollow bones in the wings. John swallows, kneeling when he's beside Rodney's shoulder and saying, "You're going to burn."

Rodney startles, one half-flap of the wings pushing him up to his knees. His chest is red from being pressed against the floor, the wrappings gone. He blinks, looking half asleep, and John thinks he should have just let Rodney rest, let him sleep. It's too late now, and so instead John offers out the bag of food, raising his eyebrows in question.

For a beat Rodney just looks skeptical and sleepy. Then he reaches out, grabbing the bag and settling his ass back onto his feet, grumbling, "Don't worry, I've been thoroughly coated in sunscreen." John has a bowl of the fruit salad Rodney likes in the bag, and Rodney plops it down beside his thigh, grabbing the thermos of juice as well before handing the bag back over to John.

John's surprised when Rodney shifts his shoulders, squints at the sky, and then stretches out forward again. Rodney makes a little contented sound when he spreads his wings out, almost visibly relaxing, his eyes slipping closed and his lips parting just a little.

John wants badly to kiss him. More than badly. Instead, John takes a huge bite of his sandwich, looking stiffly out over the horizon, managing to speak after a moment, his voice still gruffer than it should be, "Aren't you supposed to be all wrapped up, Boris?"

"Ha, ha," even Rodney's scornful tone isn't really managing very much ire. He looks too contented, popping a little square of cantaloupe into his mouth while resting his cheek on his forearm, eyes still only half open. He's smiling, a soft upturn in the corners of his mouth that seems infinitely more joyful than a full blown grin would have. "I've promised to be a good little boy, and my keepers have decided that I no longer have to be a walking advertisement for Ace bandages."

John smiles himself then, stretching his legs out in front of him and crossing his ankles. He stuffs another huge bite of sandwich in his mouth to keep himself from saying anything stupid, because unfortunately stupid things are all that he can come up with at the moment.

They fall into a silence, and Rodney must be really comfortable to be quiet this long, just lying there, absently eating fruit and basking in the sun. John snorts on a laugh at the thought of Rodney sunning himself, fighting any reptiles for a prime spot on the rock.

Rodney says, out of the blue, "Cutting them off would probably cripple me." John goes still, his sandwich half-raised to his lips, staring hard at the wispy clouds above them, not trusting himself to look down at Rodney. He knows this. They've been saying that since day one.

Apparently Rodney needs to say it again. He shifts beside John, the wings stirring the air and causing just the slightest hint of a sweet breeze, "Jennifer always thought it would. But I'd been trying to convince her...well. She poked around. When she was, uh, already in there."

John can't stop himself from looking down, now. Rodney has his chin resting on his wrists, staring blankly forward at nothing, the fruit salad sitting half eaten by his elbow. The tiny incisions where Keller went in to do her repairs on the ligaments are already nothing more than pale, fading pink marks. John stares at them, listening to Rodney, "The muscles are more complicated than she thought. And the nerves. It might have been done on purpose. I mean, why do this to people if they can saw all your hard work right off the minute your back is turned, right?" Rodney shrugs, the wings shifting against the floor with the movement.

John says, eyes on Rodney's back, fair skin that's gone more than a little golden from all the time he's spent out in the sun, flying around, "That's what you and Jennifer have been talking about?" He feels like an idiot. A particularly stupid one.

Rodney turns to look at John, finally, frowning, "What? Yes. Tommy has the same problem. She can't very well just cut his eyes out. Well, she could. But that would probably just make things worse." Rodney pauses, like he has to actually consider that, then goes on, "At least he can pass for human," for just a moment Rodney sounds completely and totally bitter. His smile is gone, replaced with a sour downturn of his mouth, his eyes going distant.

John liked it better when Rodney was happy and apparently thrilled just to be lying out in the sun. He wants to ask if they're really that horrible, but stops himself. Since Rodney's gotten them, he's spent most of his time in agony. He can't go back to Earth. He can't flash them around off-world. He's had to deal with so many changes that sometimes John can't fully contemplate it.

John says, into the silence that follows, "You are human, Rodney."

Rodney's answering snort is immediate. He shifts up, first onto his elbows, then leaning back, standing on his knees. The wings he fans out, extended to their full span against the blue sky, casting a faint shadow down over John. He whispers, "I'm not," and when John opens his mouth to protest, "I'm not. Not technically. My DNA's been scrambled. Don't walk like a duck, don't talk like a duck, not a duck." Rodney shrugs, falling forward, catching himself on his hands and lowering himself back down.

The silence stretches out between them again, heavier and heavier with each second that ticks away. John finally blurts, when he can't take the crushing weight anymore, "I always saw you as more of a goose, anyway." Rodney laughs, sounding surprised, snorting into his arm and nudging John hard in the shoulder with one of his wings.

John rocks with the push. There's a breeze starting to blow across the roof now, and John leans back, letting it ruffle his hair and tug at his shirt. Above them, the clouds are starting to move faster, sliding into different shapes, some of them being wiped out to nothing.

John finishes his sandwich, finally. The bread is soggy on the end half, and he gets mustard on his fingers. He wipes it off on his pants before turning to let Rodney know that they should probably be getting back to work.

Rodney is sleeping. His head is still pillowed on his arms, his mouth open a little, his eyes shut, his expression relaxed. He's shifted around just a little, one of his wings curled forward, over his head, keeping him in the shade. It's a level of peacefulness that John doesn't typically associate with Rodney. At all.

Around them the breeze is kicking up a little more, blowing in from the south and bringing with it chillier air. John frowns, gathering up their food, Rodney's half-eaten meal and his own trash. A breeze, even a stiff one, can't be enough to plunge Rodney into hypothermia. Then again, John would feel like utter crap if he left and Rodney ended up freezing up here, all by his lonesome.

But the thing is, John really doesn't want to wake Rodney up.

John isn't a big fan of indecision. He sets their trash to the side, making a mental note to come back and get it, and then pushes himself up, kneeling beside Rodney. There's no sign of flailing or stirring when John cautiously places a hand on the other man's back.

Rodney's skin is soft and warm with the sun. The muscles beneath are knotted up, but John isn't going to push about that, not today. They're not there yet, and he knows damn well Rodney may never be. Which is understandable, if not exactly something that makes John happy.

John shakes his head, carefully folding one of Rodney's wings in, leaning over Rodney to work an arm under his chest. Rodney's all solid strength, for all that he's light, and John lifts him carefully, adjusting his hold as he goes until both wings are fairly contained and Rodney's head isn't hanging at an awkward, potentially very painful, angle.

One of the best things about the Ancient doors is that John doesn't actually need his hands to open them. The door to the roof slides open for him without a problem, and John has to be careful going down the stairs, feeling for each one before taking the step, but even that isn't a problem. The Ancients liked to make everything five times bigger than it needed to be, and the steps are all perfectly even as well.

The only tight spot is when they make it to the transporter. John isn't completely sure he can manage to fit Rodney in like this, but, after some sidling and prayer, they make it. John leans back against the wall for a moment, breathing and resting, wondering why the hell he decided not to wake Rodney up. But now they're almost to Rodney's room, and it would be pointless to give up with his goal so close.

John eases carefully out of the transporters, the doors beeping unhappily at him twice when he takes too long. John rolls his eyes, the doors snapping closed unnecessarily quickly after he finally manages to get them out into the hallway. Rodney is still asleep, so John counts it as a win.

Now that they're down in the inhabited levels, there are people in the halls. John nods at the crowd of scientists presently gawking at him, and does his best to pretend that carrying Rodney around like this is something absolutely normal for him to be doing. By the way their eyes just get wider and wider, he figures he might not be exactly succeeding.

There's nothing to be done about it. John walks past them, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck prick up when they pivot to keep their eyes on him. Thankfully, no one says a word. In fact, there appears to be a bubble of silence spreading out around them, conversations cutting off while people turn to stare, mouths open and expressions dumbstruck.

It seems to take much longer than John's ever remembered it taking before to get to Rodney's room. But then he's there, exhaling with relief, adjusting his hold on Rodney because the doors to their quarters won't open automatically.

Lorne appears by John's elbow before John can even think about uttering a curse. The man says, "I've got it," and waves Rodney's door open with a smile that John thinks might be cheeky. John narrows his eyes, but Lorne doesn't say anything else, just gestures towards the open doors with another smile before continuing on his way.

John sighs again when the doors to Rodney's room slide closed behind him. He closes his eyes for just a second, leaning his shoulders back against the warm metal. He feels briefly dizzy from the change in temperature from the hallway to Rodney's room, which feels nearly sauna-like. It feels like it's been an age since he was in here, and there's a part of John that wants badly to linger.

He shakes himself, opens his eyes, and freezes again. Rodney's been doing some redecorating. The heavy drapes that had hung over Rodney's windows are gone, sunlight pouring down into the small room. Rodney's bed has been shoved over in front of the windows, the sheets all bunched up in the middle of the mattress. There's an empty space all around the bed, the rest of Rodney's possessions very neatly arranged around the walls. The bowl of fruit is new. So is the pile of Ace bandages by the bathroom door, and the pile of leather straps and buckles that John can't quite decipher that's lying on Rodney's desk.

He has no right to be looking around like this. John tightens his jaw up, walking carefully across to Rodney's bed. There's probably an easy way to get Rodney situated on it, but John really doesn't have a shitting clue what it is.

John settles for bracing one knee up on the mattress, leaning over and grunting with strain when he lowers Rodney down. One of Rodney's wings gets caught under him, and John frowns, trying to figure out how to straighten that out, because he doubts it'll be comfortable.

Turns out he doesn't need to worry about it. Rodney sighs, shifting around on the mattress, rolling onto his stomach and stretching the wings out quickly enough that John has to jerk back to avoid being hit by one. The wings stretch over the sides of the bed, edges dipping down to the floor, sunlight pouring down over the bed, the wings, Rodney.

John's moving before he can think about all the reasons he shouldn't, sitting on the edge of the mattress, touching Rodney's hair. Rodney doesn't stir, and John wonders how bad the bandages must have been bothering him, for him to just crash like this after finally getting to remove them.

It makes John want to go down to the infirmary and argue with Keller, try to convince her to take the wings off, to find a way to do it. But Rodney seems to agree with her that it would cripple him, and John doesn't want that, either. He stays sitting on the mattress instead, presuming more than he should with each slow slide of his fingers back over Rodney's head.

John doesn't leave until Woolsey pages him, almost two hours later, to tell him that their team has to start going off-world again, that the reports Keller's filed indicate there's nothing she can do about the wings, and they can't just keep waiting. John leaves the meeting feeling numb.

He's glad to see Rodney down in the mess hall for dinner, even though John suddenly very much wants to yell and punch someone in the face. Their meal is silent and tense, Rodney cutting him constant looks out of the corner of his eye, and John would explain, but he has no idea what to say. Finally he blurts, "Woolsey's moved the team to active duty again."

For a long moment there's a pause, and then Rodney jerks his chin up, his mouth pressed thin and white when he says, "I see. Well. Good luck." And they don't say another word through the meal, pushing their food around the plates, the air so thick between them that John can barely breathe it.

hr

John walks in on Rodney and Ronon talking in hushed, private tones a few times over the next week. Usually Rodney has papers arrayed in front of him, waving a pen around and scribbling while cutting looks up to Ronon, sometimes waiting for input. More than once Ronon takes the pen out of Rodney's hands, scratching something out and ignoring Rodney's demands that he stop right now.

John tries to find out what it is, but every time they notice that he's there, they go close mouthed and the papers end up tucked under Ronon's arm. If they went with Rodney, John might have tried harder to snatch them away, but he knows better than to try to wrestle something out of Ronon's grip.

In any case, neither of them will say a word about what it is, and John eventually gets tired of asking. He tries very hard not to be pissed off that Rodney's working with Ronon instead of him. After all, Ronon didn't spring a surprise hard-on while rubbing Rodney's back. John keeps waiting for the fall-out of that to finally dissipate. It's starting to feel like it might never happen.

They should probably talk about it, but John would really rather they didn't. He's gotten used to Rodney mostly being able to read his mind, to knowing what he means with as few actual words exchanged as possible when it comes to difficult things. John feels a little cheated that it isn't happening this time.

But he has bigger things to worry about. Their first mission back is there, just like that, and it's been long enough that John feels jittery. It's worsened by the fact that he dislikes going out into the field without Rodney. John's aware that he has a soldier's superstitions, and breaking up the team always seems like a bad portent. And he's never really liked Doctor MacDowell, competent or not.

When they make their way to the 'gate room, John can see Rodney arguing with Woolsey in the man's office. Woolsey still hasn't quite mastered turning the walls opaque, and John watches Rodney slap a hand down onto Woolsey's desk, his face red and his expression angry.

In the face of Rodney's ire, Woolsey seems tired, straightening his glasses. John feels a swell of warmth at how hard Rodney's fighting, even while he agrees with Woolsey. As much as John wants Rodney right there with them in the field, he doesn't think he could handle further injury to the wings. And John knows, too well, how often things go from zero to fucked up in seconds out in the field. He doesn't want to risk it.

In the end, Rodney storms out of Woolsey's office in a huff before spotting them down by the 'gate. John watches Rodney try to school his expression down away from furious, and isn't surprised when it doesn't really work.

Then it doesn't matter, because Rodney is turning stiffly towards the stairs, flaring the wings absently and gliding down to land in mid-step, mantling the wings, all of it so smooth and natural that for a beat John can't breathe. Rodney stops in front of him, arms crossed and mouth firmly turned down, saying, "Try not to do anything too ridiculously stupid."

John drawls, "Thanks, Rodney," and Rodney just waves a hand, dismissing him, jerking his head to the left and narrowing his eyes at MacDowell. The woman is nearly Rodney's height, her dark hair pulled back tight at the nape of her neck. Her dark freckles aren't as noticeable when she's flushing red under the force of Rodney's glare.

Rodney takes a step towards her, grabbing her shoulder and partially turning her away from the rest of the team. John wonders if Rodney's trying to be quiet when he says, "Look, just watch out for them. Believe me, I know you're not exactly qualified for this kind of responsibility, but if you could just—"

MacDowell's tone is surprisingly gentle when she interrupts, "I know, Doctor McKay. We've been over this, remember?" For a moment the two scientists just stare at each other, before Rodney flares his wings wide, almost to their full span, and then snaps them back in.

Rodney says, "Right. Yes. Of course," nodding his head jerkily. Rodney has his arms crossed again, staring at each of them hard in turn, before turning on his heel and marching out of the 'gate room. John jerks a step after him, an automatic response, and Ronon catches his elbow, yanking him back.

Jerking against Ronon's hold is automatic as well, and also completely useless. John starts, "I have to—"

"No. You don't." Ronon's voice is calm and low, and he tightens his grip on John's arm past the point of bruising. "You have to come back alive. That'll be enough." Ronon sounds sure, and John grits his teeth but doesn't argue. What argument could there possibly be? They're going through the 'gate, and Rodney isn't going with them, and that's the end of the discussion. Five minutes later, John steps through the blue of the event horizon with a sick twist in his stomach.

hr

Three days later, John's thinking that making it back home alive is looking pretty much completely unlikely. They still don't know what happened to the 'gate, just that it won't dial anywhere. MacDowell had been doing her best to fix it when they had stumbled upon the second, and worse, piece of bad news about their mission.

Genocide is every bit as common in the Pegasus galaxy as it had been on Earth. Different cultures clash when one group of people flee through their 'gate to avoid the Wraith. Or one faction accuses the other of being Wraith worshipers. Sometimes people just need someone to blame, and more often than not it's whoever happens to be different than they are.

This isn't even the first time they've been caught in the middle of an ugly, ugly attempt to wipe out an entire people. This is, however, the first time their scientist got shot in the back of her head, her face distorting and shattering before the energy blast just destroyed it altogether.

That had been three days ago. Since then Ronon's been captured, lined up along a cliff with a hundred other men, women, and children, and nearly shoved in. Since then John and Teyla have been killing a shit load of people, and have managed to get Ronon back, but not before the crazy fuckers who had him broke things in Ronon's chest.

Now, Ronon's breathing is shallow and slow, each exhale sounding wet and watery. They've been pulling him along on a makeshift gurney for the last twenty four hours. The land they have to cover back to the 'gate is rocky, the foothills of the mountains, covered in gnarled tree roots, streams, and more bramble than John can shake a stick at. No pun intended.

Teyla says, kneeling beside Ronon and trying to get him to drink the water she has soaked into her shirt, "You should return to the 'gate without us." She's staring sightlessly forward, blinded by some kind of explosion when they were rescuing Ronon.

John says, "No," and leaves it at that, because there's nothing else to say about the subject. Behind them, getting closer and closer as the hours wax and wane, he can hear the horse-size dogs the natives have baying. John's killed a dozen of the damn things, but he's running out of bullets, and they're showing no sign of running out of dogs. "Come on."

For a moment he thinks Teyla just won't get up again, but then she stands, her fingers clenched tight around the stick John found for her to walk with. It doesn't work so well with helping her avoid the roots and rocks strewn in their path, but at least it helps keep her from falling down.

John grunts, lifting the front end of Ronon's gurney as well as he can. His entire body aches, Ronon is too heavy for him to carry for any length of time, even like this, and they've been doing this nearly twenty-four hours. John's waiting for his muscles to just give out, and he's not particularly looking forward to it.

Behind them, the dogs howl and continue on, implacable and inescapable. In front of them, somewhere, is a 'gate that they can't fucking use. John pushes all of that down, making his legs work, the sole of one of his shoes sliding across a wet rock and very nearly twisting his ankle. He swallows hard, heart jack hammering, because that's the last thing he needs, and Teyla says, "John?" soft and tiny.

John shakes himself. "It's fine. Come on," he's forgotten how many times he's said that over the last three days. The words no longer feel quite real, but he just keeps repeating them, over and over again, more as a reminder to himself than anything else. Earlier, before Ronon had lapsed into unconsciousness, he'd sometimes said it so John didn't have to.

The air is cold and damp here, and it sits heavily in John's chest. He keeps going anyway, painfully aware of how much of a racket they're making. Each bump of Ronon's gurney over rotting leaves and hard stone seems insanely loud. Each time Teyla stumbles or thumps her stick down too hard John hears it like the pounding of a drum. His heaving breath alone could probably draw every damn thing hunting for them down on their heads.

They keep dragging themselves forward anyway. John's lost track of time, staring blankly forward, listening to the baying of the hounds, when he hears Teyla freeze. It takes a few steps before he remembers to stop himself, turning over his shoulder to make sure she hasn't fallen or ran into something big.

Teyla has her head cocked to the side, her eyes shut tight. When she speaks, her voice is a whisper, "There are at least three men ahead of us, moving in this direction." John curses under his breath, and Teyla goes on, low and intense, "You must leave. You can make it to the 'gate and—"

John grits out, "No, goddamnit!" and Teyla snaps her mouth shut, staring at him hard with her sightless eyes. She looks disapproving, but John can't be assed to care. He's not leaving them, and that's just the way it is.

The men are close enough now that John can hear them, tramping through the bracken that covers the forest floor. John swallows hard, lowering Ronon back down to the ground, drawing his nearly empty P-90 and bracing himself up against a tree. The blisters on his hands burn when he presses them up against the side of the P-90. John grits his teeth and ignores it.

He hisses, "Get down," and Teyla cautiously sinks down onto her haunches, her hands wrapped around the heavy walking stick, staring hard in the direction of the noise. There's a scratch over her cheek, and her hair is a tangled mess. Her shirt is torn, and John can see the pale stretch marks on her stomach where she carried Torren. He feels sick.

And then a voice is saying, "Fuck you, I heard them over this way, just keep looking," and John bites his bottom lip hard against the relief in his chest. Because he knows that voice. Teyla does too, if the way she sags a little forward, exhaling heavily and pressing a hand up over her heart is anything to go by. The woman is going on, "I'm calling for 'em, I don't care what—"

John lets the barrel of the P-90 swing towards the ground, stepping towards the approaching group, trying to keep his tone calm and even, raising his voice enough to hopefully be heard, "That's not going to be necessary, Sergeant."

Someone curses, and there are rushing footsteps. A half second later the rescue team is converging on him, most of them rushing past, towards Teyla and Ronon. The Sergeant who stops in front of John looks him up and down, wincing when she says, "We've been looking for you everywhere, sir. And I must say, Doctor McKay is going to be even more fucking pissed. Come on, we're hauling ass back."

John nods, exhaustion choosing now to try to catch up with him. He pushes it back, making himself keep pace with the woman who's double-timing it in the direction the rescue team came from. He says, breathing too hard, still, "We've got unfriendlies on our tail. Lots of unfriendlies."

She nods, grim faced, "Not as many as you think, sir," and John doesn't ask, just nods, because that's good enough for now. When he looks over his shoulder, two of the big Marines are carrying Ronon's gurney like it's nothing, another has Teyla carefully arranged over one shoulder, her big stick over his other.

John says, struggling to keep track of everything, "You know the 'gate won't dial?"

The Sergeant cuts him a sharp look, her mouth briefly twisting up into a vicious smile. She says, "That's not a problem anymore, sir," and John finds himself nodding again. That's good. That it works is all he really cares about. He'll worry about the whys and hows later, or maybe never. Right now, he just concentrates on running. The howling dogs don't seem so close anymore, somehow.

hr

It takes them two hours to make it back to the 'gate. Without the rescue team they might have walked right past it, unseen through the trees, and the idea makes John feel ill all over again. He pushes it away, because that didn't happen, they did find the rescue team, they did make it back, and that's the important thing.

There's a perimeter of Marines around the open 'gate, looking pissed off and armed to the teeth, and John's never been happier to see them. There are nods when he limps up, calls for field medics at the sight of Ronon and Teyla, and for a second John just stops, trying very hard not to lean over and brace his hands on his knees. Later, in his quarters, he can sit down and put his head between his knees, but not here.

And then Rodney is snapping, "Why the hell are we bothering with field medics? Are you all idiots? Take them home, right now." John looks up slowly, and there's Rodney, stomping towards them, looking pale, wet, and tired, wrapped up in one of Ronon's huge leather coats.

John opens his mouth, but nothing comes out, as the Marines carry Ronon and Teyla past, hurrying towards the 'gate, Rodney yelling at them until the second the 'gate ripples around their backsides. Then Rodney turns back towards John, suddenly closer, going on in the same impatient tone, even as he reaches out, touching John's shoulder, arm, briefly pushing his fingers against John's stomach, "Well? What are you waiting for? Do you need to be carried through, too?"

John stares down at Rodney's hand. He hadn't realized how bloody he was. Most of it is, he thinks, not his. Rodney's fingers still look startlingly pale against the dark, blood soaked fabric of John's shirt. John reaches out and grabs Rodney's wrist, surprised by how busted up his knuckles are, hissing when the burst blisters across his palm brush across Rodney's skin, but not releasing his grip.

Rodney says, "John?" his tone different, softer, reaching out with his other hand to steady John's elbow, which is good, because John feels not quite as balanced as he should be. His mind feels like it's full of cotton, but even with that things here don't feel quite right.

"What happened?" John's voice comes out rough, and he motions distractedly towards Rodney's back, towards where the wings should be, just in case he's not being clear enough. "Did—what did you do?" Rodney doesn't look crippled, which is a relief, but John's brain is still having trouble reconciling the absence of the huge wings that he's gotten so used to seeing.

Something on Rodney's expression twists, for just a second all the bluster slips and there's a flash of pain so intense that John winces in sympathy. Then Rodney's locking it all up tight, hurrying through, "I'll show you when you don't look like you're about to fall over. Come on, we're leaving this hell hole. Do you know how hard it was to find you? There's some kind of natural EM field being generated by the planet's third moon and it's—"

Rodney starts to turn away, and John tightens his grip, swaying. Rodney pauses, turns back, and John's jaw is locked up too tight for him to say another word, but maybe their mind reading thing is finally working a little bit again because Rodney says, "Oh, oh," and steps back close again.

It takes all John has to swallow back the pained sound in the back of his throat when Rodney pulls John's arm over his shoulders. The muscles in his arm and down his back scream in protest, but John pushes all of that down.

Rodney takes enough of his weight that John mostly manages to make it back to the 'gate without limping. Around them the Marines are gathering in close. The DHD is still covered with dark red stains, and Rodney says, softly, "We brought her home," and John nods, squeezing his eyes shut as they step through the 'gate.

There are medics waiting for him on the other side, who make him sit on a gurney and push him down onto the white, white sheets before rolling him away. John lets it happen, blinking up at the ceiling, aching and exhausted, and hoping that the cold of 'gate travel didn't hurt Rodney. After that, everything gets blurry.

hr

John's wounds are mostly superficial, and they only keep him in the infirmary one night. Ronon will be there longer, and Teyla's eyesight is going to take time to return, though Keller promises that it will. John leaves just as Kanaan arrives, carrying Torren, his expression drenched in fear and worry. It brings back the sick feeling that had crawled up John's gullet on the planet, and he has to shake himself hard to get rid of it.

That's over, that's past, they made it back, though not quite in one piece. MacDowell's body has already been shipped back to Earth, and John hates himself for not even knowing the woman's first name. For a second all John can see is her dying, all he can remember is the insane surge of relief that it hadn't been Rodney standing over the DHD, trying to get it to work.

That feeling John doesn't even bother trying to shake away. It's too deep in him, down in his bones, and he doesn't think it's ever going to go away, no matter how much it disgusts him sometimes. He just blows out a hard breath, and goes to find Rodney.

It's not particularly hard to find him. Not when Chuck grabs John's arm in the middle of the hallway and says, "I think you should go to the conference room." For a moment John just blinks at the other man, and then he nods. He'd been planning to shower first, but there's an edge of hurried stress on Chuck's face, so John pushes the urge to be clean to the side.

The door to the conference room is closed when he gets there, but not locked. John waves it open, stepping in and then pausing, taking in the scene. Keller is there, and Woolsey, both of them seated, looking dour and serious. Rodney is standing, arms crossed, looking defiant and at his most bull-headed. They all turn to look at John, Rodney's eyes going a little wide with surprise when he blurts, "They let you out already?"

John ignores the question, since the answer is obvious and because he suspects it's probably just a stalling move. Instead, John narrows his eyes, moving closer to Rodney and grabbing the other man's shoulder, turning him and gritting out, "This is what you've been working on with Ronon."

It isn't a question. Rodney answers anyway, "Um, yes? I suppose he did contribute slightly, and—"

"Does it hurt?" the question is out before John can stop it. He can't imagine how the straps and buckles could feel anything but bad. He frowns, turning Rodney further, wincing at the way the wings have been bent and folded down, leather tight around them, the straps continuing around Rodney's shoulders, chest, arms, and waist. The whole thing looks insanely complicated.

For a long moment, Rodney is silent, and then he says, "No," and John can hear the lie beneath the word, can feel the truth when Rodney flinches, just slightly, at the softest touch to the wings. Before John can call him on it, Rodney is rushing into, "It's all very ergonomically correct, I assure you. And with the coat, they're completely hidden."

The last part is directed at Woolsey, who sighs and shifts back in his seat. Keller looks as uncomfortable as John feels, casting unhappy looks at the harness holding the wings down. When the silence stretches for a beat, Rodney barrels on, "Look, you're just being grossly negligent sending Sheppard out into the field without me to bail him out. Believe me, I'm not going to flash these around in front of the superstitious peasants, and this is the best solution we're going to get."

There's another beat of silence, Rodney glaring at everyone in the room, and then Woolsey leans forward, resting his hands on the table. The man says, carefully, "You understand the risks involved with what you're asking me to approve? The likelihood of one of the cultures you'd visit reacting badly to the discovery of your...adaptations...is very high."

Rodney snorts, crossing his arms, the leather around his biceps tightening in ways that make John suddenly very interested. He has to make himself concentrate on what Rodney's saying, "Please, have you even read our mission reports? On PP3-023 they tried to kill me because I have blue eyes. The crazies on MX0-200 tried to skin me to make a dress for their child-queen. They haven't exactly just been waiting for an excuse to try to kill me."

John winces just from the memories of those planets. They've all had their fair share of run-ins with natives holding weird prejudices. The skinning one had been particularly gruesome, and John had taken to attempting to lure Rodney outside to try to darken his fair skin a few shades for weeks afterwards. It hadn't worked. But he'd tried.

At the head of the table, Woolsey is still staring hard at Rodney, before turning and asking Keller, "And there's no medical issue with the binding?" Woolsey cuts a look back at Rodney, and John mirrors the look. He can't imagine that the leather straps aren't doing some kind of damage.

But Keller is saying, "None that I can find. Depending on the length of time he wears them there might be some issues with circulation, but there's nothing here that could make me advise strongly against them." She doesn't look happy about it, though, frowning softly up at Rodney, her hands balled up in her lap.

Rodney sighs, rolling his eyes, all dramatics, "Look, let's just cut the crap, shall we? It's my body, and you can't tell me what to do with it. And you need me to be out there. Believe me, I don't have to be making it this easy for you, so let's just consider all the standard bullshit protests successfully entered into the minutes and put me back on active duty so we can all get back to our very important work."

For a moment, John thinks Rodney pushed too far, but Woolsey's too much of a professional to lash out just to prove a point. The man purses his lips and then nods, "Fine. But if this starts causing any kind of medical issue you're to cease and desist immediately, do you understand?"

Rodney nods, looking entirely too pleased with himself, and somehow, just like that, John has Rodney back on the team. The swell of relief in his gut temporarily overwhelms everything else, and John basks in it while Keller and Woolsey clear out of the room, Rodney lingering to grab the long coat of Ronon's that he's apparently commandeered for his own.

John leans against the wall, narrowing his eyes when Rodney winces, reaching up to rub at one of the leather straps over his chest. John says, soft, "How bad, Rodney?" and when Rodney turns to look at him, expression all tight and stubborn, "The truth, damnit."

Rodney exhales heavily, his chin coming up as he jerks one arm into the sleeve of Ronon's coat, yanking it up over his shoulder. His voice is knife sharp, "Nothing I won't deal with," which isn't any kind of answer at all. He has the coat on now, and with the way it hangs it's hard to notice that there's anything under it that there shouldn't be. Ronon had probably used it to hide weapons.

"God, Rodney," John takes a half step forward, wincing. This entire situation just keeps getting more and more fucked up, and he wants desperately to fix it somehow. He just doesn't know how. Rodney is watching him, body held tense and upset, and that makes John feel ever worse.

There's no way John can argue about it, not really. He needs Rodney on the team, always has. Knowing that it's going to be putting Rodney in constant pain, though, that's something he doesn't know if he can deal with. But... But they all almost died on that last planet, and Ronon and Teyla are still in the infirmary. Rodney came and got them, and John's willing, this once, to concede that that's probably the only reason they're alive at all.

After a long moment, John sighs, dragging a hand back through his hair. Lose-lose situations have never been his favorite thing to deal with, and this galaxy specializes in them. He has to look over Rodney's shoulder, to focus on the wall, when he makes himself grit out, "Okay. Okay, fine."

Rodney looks gob smacked when John looks back to him. His eyes are huge, and for a long moment he just blinks, shocked into silence. John takes the opportunity to continue, "But you don't have to be in it now, right? Do you want me to get someone to help with all the—" John waves one hand, not sure what to call all the straps and clasps, some of which he knows Rodney won't be able to reach on his own. He's thinking that might be a serious design flaw.

Rodney blinks, and then says, "No," and John frowns, because, goddamnit, just once he'd like the other man to stop being such a stubborn fucking asshole. Rodney continues, looking down at the floor, picking at the sleeve of the coat, and then shrugging it off his shoulder again, "That would just be a waste of time. Here, start here," he motions at his left arm, still staring hard at the floor.

And, okay, John hadn't really been expecting that even a little bit. He has to swallow hard, his heart suddenly beating much faster than the situation calls for. John clears his throat, says, "Right. Sure," because he can't very well say 'no', even if this is some kind of new, sweet torture.

Attempting to shake off the curl of want in his stomach doesn't work very well at all. John bites his tongue hard, watching Rodney throw the coat over the back of one of the chairs, looking oddly hesitant all of a sudden. Somehow, that makes this easier.

John licks his bottom lip, then chides himself for it. Luckily, Rodney is still very interested in the floor, so he doesn't notice. John doubts it would have set the right tone for this. Which is just him helping Rodney out. In a strictly friendly way.

John brushes his thumb over Rodney's shoulder, wincing at how low his voice comes out, "Here?" Rodney nods, jerkily, and John says, "Okay," nodding himself, cautiously sliding his hand down. The leather isn't overly warm against Rodney's skin, thin narrow straps that John isn't totally convinced Rodney couldn't just snap if he wanted.

Thinking about that provides a brief distraction, and John's fingers barely fumble at all with the first gray buckle. Rodney makes a soft, sighing sound when the pressure eases, and it goes straight down to John's gut, and then lower. He shifts, brushing his thumb over the reddened skin across Rodney's bicep, knowing he shouldn't even as he does.

Rodney sighs again, shifting, his chin dipping down towards his chest. John has to shake himself, biting his tongue again and reaching down to rub one palm on his thigh before reaching for the next buckle. They're small and they seem to get smaller as he goes, slipping from his fingers and leaving John brushing Rodney's skin with his knuckles and fingertips no matter how hard he tries to keep his hands to himself.

After a moment Rodney seems to startle, blinking slowly and then raising his hands to his chest, working on the buckles there while John moves around to the wings. It looks so painful, still, and John can't help trailing a finger down the edge of one of the bones, trying to be comforting.

Rodney makes a small sound, and John catches himself, startling badly. He clears his throat, rubbing his palms down his thighs again, though that doesn't really get rid of the damp feeling over his skin at all. Nothing to be done about it.

The first buckle that John undoes on the wings has the leather cord snapping back. John blinks down at it in surprise, and Rodney says, after a beat, "There's a lot of strain on them," which is so obvious that all John can do is nod. Next time, he grabs the strap before releasing the buckle, and feels the wings press out against his hands when the pressure is released. It sends a shiver, that John does his best to ignore, down his spine.

Time slips out of focus while John works, until the last buckle is finally under his fingers. He hesitates, for a moment feeling terribly selfish. He wants to keep touching, wishes that there were more, and shakes his head hard. He releases the buckle, and then waits expectantly.

Rodney's voice is rough, tight with strain, "Step—step back." John does, automatically, and Rodney is twisting, bracing his hands on the tabletop, a raw sound ripped from his throat when the wings snap open, all at once.

It's startling, and John sucks in a breath. Seeing them go from comparatively small and compact to their full size like that makes John realize how big they really are. They stretch from one side of the room to the other, blue as the sky outside, trembling just a little bit, steadying when Rodney flexes and shifts them.

Rodney is still leaning over the table, his fingers curling up on the smooth, lacquered wood, his chin down, his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth open just a little bit. He's breathing fast and deep, shoulders heaving with each exhale, expression caught in a middle ground somewhere between pain and relief.

And then he makes a tiny sound, a choked on gasp, and John finds himself moving. It's easy to brace a hand between Rodney's shoulders, ducking beneath the wings, asking, "Do you want me to get Keller back in here?"

Rodney shakes his head, eyes still squeezed shut. For a half-second John considers ignoring him and calling the doctor back anyway, but then Rodney opens his eyes. He looks a little dazed, disoriented, but not like he's in crippling pain. At least not anymore.

Rodney exhales hard, pushing up off the table, carefully drawing his wings down. There are red marks all across his chest and arms, and John has a brief flash of what he's sure is irrational ire at the thought of Rodney walking through the city with the marks showing. People will look. John really doesn't want them to. It's not his choice.

For a long moment they just stare at each other. Rodney looks away first, gathering up the harness, holding it awkwardly to his chest and then grabbing Ronon's long coat. John feels like he should say something, but has no idea what it should be. He settles on, as Rodney turns to leave, "Welcome back."

Rodney pauses in the doorway, dropping one wing so he can look over his shoulder at John. It's another eerie reminder of how used to them he's gotten. After a moment Rodney smiles, tight and crooked, saying, "Yes, well, someone has to look after you three."

It's only after the door shuts behind Rodney that John sighs, "Yeah," rubbing a hand up over his face and wondering if he made a single right choice today.

hr

Rodney doesn't wear the harness around the city, and John finds that a relief. He doesn't like the way the straps had made Rodney's expression go tight with contained pain. Really, John would be happy if Rodney never had to wear it again, but they have missions coming up, and there're no longer any arguments against it to be made. That time has come and gone.

Ronon looks stunningly unrepentant when John goes to talk to him about the harness. That's not really a surprise, and probably why Rodney went to Ronon for help in the first place. All Ronon says, when John finally mentions that it might not be the best idea, is, "He's part of the team, we need him," like that makes everything okay. And maybe John hates it most because he agrees completely.

Teyla seems at least a little uncomfortable with it, possibly because John does a poor job of explaining it to her. Her vision is coming back, slowly. She can see light and dark now, and big shapes. He thinks that he gave her the wrong impression completely when she reaches out very carefully to pay at his arm, saying, "I am sorry. Perhaps you should allow someone else to help him next time?"

John says, "Nah," and realizes it was maybe a little too abrupt when she raises her eyebrows at him. He hurries on, forcing himself not to move his arm away from her touch, because it's Teyla, because she can't see, and because he thinks he'd be touching people if it were him, "It's not a big deal." Teyla makes a humming sound then, tilting her head to the side, but she doesn't comment.

The conversation passes to other things, to Kanaan, who is deeply worried over her, though he hasn't asked her to leave the team. Teyla insists that he won't, that he understands why she has to do the things she does and take the risks that 'gate travel requires of her, but John isn't sure he believes that, not completely.

He's been part of the military for too long. He's seen too many families broken up because one partner can't deal with the person they love constantly being put in danger. He hopes that she's right, but he's not sure that it's anything but wishful thinking on her part.

John doesn't say any of that. It's not something she needs to deal with on top of everything else, and, besides, he wouldn't have any shitting clue how to put it into words. They talk about Torren again, until John can't bear to hear another baby story and feigns a call from Lorne to escape.

He isn't sure what to make of her expression when he mentions Lorne, something soft and wistful and gone before he can quantify it. It makes John pause, for just a moment, but then Keller is bustling in to make sure her patients are okay and John makes his escape.

It takes days for the marks the straps left in Rodney's skin to fade. John keeps track, because Rodney's starting coming by his room in the mornings again to get his shirts laced up. The red lines across Rodney's chest fade last, and John is more relieved than he knows how to express when they finally disappear completely.

The morning that they're gone completely, Rodney hesitates after John's done lacing him up. Usually Rodney's out the door the moment John's finished, and John raises his eyebrows, leaning a hip against his desk and trying to look casual.

It must work, because Rodney finally sighs, tilting his chin up and crossing his arms when he says, "Look, Tommy should be cleared for active duty, too." It's so out of left field that for a moment John just blinks, completely unsure how to respond to it. Rodney apparently takes John's silence for disagreement, because his chin goes up even higher, mouth dipping down, "Look, all he really needs to pass for normal are sunglasses. And baggy pants for, you know, the tail. And, well, he probably shouldn't smile too much. But it's not fair to keep him cooped up here, really, and he'd be useful out in the field, with, you know, the smelling. And claws."

John crosses his arms, turning this strange turn in conversation over in his head and finally managing, "Why isn't Richardson coming to me with this?"

For a beat, Rodney looks uncomfortable, shifting his weight from foot to foot and agitatedly fluttering the wings. On the desk, papers lift and resettle, and the sheets on John's bed move. Rodney says, while John is distracted, "Oh, maybe because I'm here and he isn't." Rodney shrugs, all stubbornness just for the sake of being stubborn, "Plus if we got both of you in the same room, the tomcatting levels would be far too high."

The snort of laughter Rodney's words drag from John's throat is unexpected. He tries to cover it over while Rodney looks on, unimpressed. Finally, John says, dryly, "Charmer. Fine. Get him cleared with Keller and I'll get the paperwork taken care of."

Rodney's smile makes something in John's gut tighten up, huge and unexpectedly smug. Rodney rocks up onto the balls of his feet, wings flaring a little for balance, clapping his hands together when he turns towards the door. Rodney calls over his shoulder, "The paperwork is in your office," and then he's gone, the doors sliding shut behind him.

hr

John figures that, really, he should go talk to Richardson before he finishes signing the papers. It's not that he doesn't trust Rodney's judgment—or Keller's. But he's responsible for the soldiers he sends out into the field, and besides the physical changes wrought on Richardson's body, he lost his entire team.

In the time since they brought Rodney and Richardson back to Atlantis, John hasn't really made any effort to track the other man down. Richardson is one more reminder of their failures, and John really has more than enough of those already. The man also makes John uncomfortable, though he hasn't been able to put his finger on exactly why.

Nevertheless, it isn't hard to find him now. The same way everyone in the city always seems to know exactly where Rodney is, they're keeping tabs on Richardson. John feels, briefly, even more sorry for them. The lack of privacy, on top of everything else, has to be a complete pain in the ass. But telling people not to look would only make them stare harder, and John knows that. Besides, for his purposes, it's kind of useful.

Richardson is down in one of the sparring rooms. John wonders if it's coincidence that it's the same room Rodney carried Zelenka into. The glass is still out, and the air smells clean and fresh off the ocean below. There's a strong wind blowing in, enough to make John stumble in the middle of a step, blinking against the sting of it against his eyes.

John doesn't recognize the man who Richardson is sparring with. They're both sweat soaked, moving fast and hard, and John has to look away after a moment. Richardson doesn't move quite the way humans should anymore. It's not disgusting, but it makes John's stomach hurt anyway, simply because he keeps expecting to hear bones snap from some of the ways the man twists and ducks and bends.

John leans against the wall and stares out through the broken window. There's a tiny speck circling high overhead, and John wonders absently if it's Rodney. He hadn't thought that Rodney was flying quite that high, but, then, there's no predicting what Rodney's going to do lately.

John is still staring up into the sky, his neck starting to ache, when there's a loud bang, and growling so deep it raises the hair on the back of John's neck and makes something primitive and animal in the back of his skull want to hold very, very still.

It takes more work than it should to shake off the feeling, but John manages. He turns slowly, an icy chill running down his spine and his limbs burning with a rush of adrenaline. The man who had been sparring with Richardson is on the floor, flat on his back, splay limbed and looking a little dazed.

Richardson is pacing in a circle around the other man, and the growling is definitely coming from him. His slitted eyes are narrowed down and his mouth is open just a little bit. The tail isn't lashing the way John would have expected. Instead it's held down and tense, hair raised.

The man on the floor coughs, rubbing at his chest and rolling up onto his side. No one is speaking, Richardson still pacing while the man pushes up to his knees and then pauses. The man goes very still then, cocking his head to the side and squinting up at Richardson. John carefully drops his hand to his side-arm, just in case, because the tension in the room is throwing all kinds of warning switches in his head.

And then Richardson shakes himself, pausing in midstep and rolling his shoulders. The growling cuts off abruptly, leaving the room in a ringing silence. John blinks, exhaling slowly, thumbing the safety back on his gun and watching Richardson help his partner up off the floor.

For the first time, the other men appear to notice that John's even in the room. Richardson's sparring partner nods and then takes off for the door, rubbing a towel up over his damp hair and unscrewing the cap off of a bottle of water. John watches him go, and then turns his attention back to Richardson.

The man is watching him, thumbs tucking into his waistband, eyes narrow and mouth tight. John raises his eyebrows, and Richardson dips his chin in what might possibly be a nod while he says, "Something I can help you with, sir?" He's gotten better at talking around the teeth, to the point where John can only just tell that something is off.

John shrugs, leaning his shoulders back against the wall. He keeps his tone casual, "Rodney came to see me this morning."

Richardson's entire bearing changes then, his back straightening and his shoulders squaring up, tail snapping hard, just once. His eyes are wide open, the lack of white startling all over again when it's that obvious. He's gone completely still by the time he says, dry and tight, "Good for you. Sir."

It's not what John expected, enough so that he startles, saying, "No, I—" and then, in the space between the words, John decides he doesn't feel like clarifying. This is, he thinks, why he hasn't been actively seeking out Richardson's company. The man makes him nervous. John clears his throat, goes on, "He thinks you're ready to start going through the 'gate again."

For a long beat there's silence, where they just stare at each other and John wonders if maybe he's going to have to grab Richardson by the scruff of his neck and shake him to get that irritating look off of the man's face. He wonders if Richardson would bite him if he tried. He wonders why the hell he's thinking about it.

Then Richardson tilts his head to the side and says, "Yes," which John isn't entirely sure how to take in the context of their conversation. He waits for a beat, but no further explanation appears to be forthcoming. John sighs, biting back on the irritation that's been building since he walked into this room.

John says, struggling to just make it through this so he can leave, wondering why exactly he thought it was a good idea in the first place, "Keller's given you the all-clear." Richardson just stares, and John figures that he's attempted to hold up both sides of this conversation long enough. He says, "Well, have fun then," and turns towards the door.

"Sheppard," Richardson's voice is softer than it had been. John turns to look over his shoulder, finds the man standing in the middle of the window, looking down at the ocean, looking completely unconcerned with the height. After a beat, Richardson turns to look at him, says, "Thank you."

John nods, pats the wall, and steps through the door. Richardson is leaning out against the emptiness, just a little bit, when the doors slide shut. The man has his face tilted up to the sky, looking up at God only knows what. John shakes his head, and tries to ignore the chill that's still sitting, heavy and damning, in his gut.

hr

Their next mission they have to take without Teyla. She's mostly got her vision back, but her depth perception is still all fucked to hell. It's nothing but a trading run, and Teyla hadn't been particularly fond of the Maassia on their first visit, especially after they tried to chop off her hair and gag her. John thinks that she might be faking the severity of her vision problems just to get out of going back.

They bring Keller with them instead, because most of the trade is in medical treatment for the many and varied medical conditions the Maassia are suffering from. They're a mining people, and, unfortunately, though they'd been mining for generations they'd apparently never quite gotten the hang of doing so without seriously fucking themselves up.

One of the other medical doctors had been assigned for the mission, but it's Keller who shows up in the 'gate room with an excuse for the other woman's absence that sounds like bullshit to John. Still, he can't exactly protest it. Especially not when she makes Rodney take off the heavy coat to check the straps before even allowing them to dial the 'gate.

Rodney bitches about it the entire time, and the people up in the control room take far too much interest in the proceedings, but there's nothing John can do about that, and he feels better knowing that someone besides Rodney's made sure the harness is on properly. He still hates the straps and buckles, can't help but wincing every time he so much as looks in Rodney's direction.

In the end, Keller can't find anything amiss. They go through the 'gate without incident, they help some people, and they manage to come home without any attempts on their lives or making any new enemies. The entire thing feels like a smashing success, and John catches himself smiling at nothing on the walk back to the 'gate. Thankfully, no one comments.

And then they're back on Atlantis, Rodney standing through the mission debrief, his hands braced on the back of a chair. His knuckles are white with strain and every line of his body is tight with pain. John is distracted and misses most of what gets said, which is mostly Keller talking about the various and sundry respiratory problems the Maassia are suffering from.

By the time Woolsey finally dismisses them, John doesn't even have to think about following Rodney down to his room. For his part, Rodney appears to be so distracted he doesn't even notice, tugging the coat off of his shoulders with a barely suppressed hiss of pain as he hurries down the stairs to the crew quarters.

The skin all around the straps is red and angry, and it makes something in John's gut go tight and miserably unhappy. He clenches his hands up into fists and glares hard at everyone they pass in the corridors, wincing when Rodney braces one hand beside his doorframe, making a tiny, pained sound when he waves it open.

Rodney shuffles his feet into the room, catching his hip on the corner of his desk and pivoting around it, bracing both of his hands on the papers strewn across it, his eyes squeezed shut. John steps in after him, waving the door shut and saying without thinking, "Hey, I've got you," as he eases forward, resting one hand on Rodney's lower back and reaching for the buckles on his right arm with the other.

Rodney startles badly, jerking his head up, eyes huge. Rodney's mouth is opening, but before he can say a word, John manages to open the first buckle and all that comes out of Rodney's mouth is a soft gasp. John can feel the other man shaking, strain and sublimated pain dancing right under Rodney's skin.

John frowns in concentration, trying to work faster. Rodney doesn't attempt to help with the removal of the harness this time. By his expression, he's using all his energy to keep himself upright. John curses softly, his fingers sliding against Rodney's chest when he reaches for the buckles there. They're hard to get to with the way Rodney is standing, but John can't bring himself to ask Rodney to move.

Rodney's heart is pounding hard, right beneath John's hand, and for a half second John gives in to the temptation and just presses his palm there. Rodney's muscles are bound up tight, and there's a leather strap bisecting John's palm. The hair on Rodney's chest is coarse under John's fingers, his nipple pressing against the heel of John's hand.

Rodney gasps, "Fuck," and it's enough to startle John out of the daze he'd slipped into. He shakes himself, mouth too dry to form words. His fingers fumble over the buckles, but it's the best he can do, and they open, so he supposes that'll have to be enough.

By the time John's done with the last strap across Rodney's chest, Rodney appears to be breathing easier. He's swallowing great gulps of air, his chin dropping down, and John rubs a hand up his arm in an attempt at comfort. John grits out, "You're almost there," and Rodney laughs a little bit, sharp and bitter into the thick air around them.

John steps quickly around Rodney, reaching for his other arm, for the straps there. When they're removed, Rodney sags forward abruptly, his forehead knocking against the wall, going lopsided when he drops down to one elbow. John curses again, promises, "Almost there, buddy, you're almost there."

This time John doesn't worry about trying to keep the straps from snapping back on him when he undoes the buckles. They leave stinging reminders on his hands and forearms, but John couldn't care less. He works fast and clumsy, and Rodney makes a choked sound when the last strap gives, the harness sliding down and landing heavily on the floor.

John takes a hasty step back, so quick that he trips over his own feet, catching himself on Rodney's bed before he can fall on his ass. Rodney yells, something short and harsh, the wings jerking open in increments, jerky and uneven, until they're finally spread out to their full span and Rodney's knees are giving out on him.

Rodney manages to keep himself from falling over completely by virtue of grabbing onto the edge of his desk and holding on. John pushes away from the bed, crossing back to Rodney, kneeling carefully behind him and reaching out, though he doesn't know where to touch or what the hell to do.

Rodney thumps his head down against the desk when John touches his back. His skin is covered in a cold sweat, and John says, loud in the sudden quiet of the room, "You can't do this again," staring down at the red marks graven angrily into Rodney's skin. The straps around Rodney's biceps rubbed too much, and there's dried blood curling down towards the insides of Rodney's elbows, flaking off of his skin.

"Fuck you, you can't tell me what to do," the determination in Rodney's voice is somewhat undercut by the pain that John can hear every bit as well. Rodney lifts his head then, his hands still pressing against the desk, his wings stretched out across the ground, twitching and jumping. They're far paler than they usually are, color coming back into them slowly as proper circulation returns.

John sighs heavily, rubbing his hand absently back and forth across Rodney's shoulders. He says, before he can stop himself, "Why would you want to do this to yourself?"

For a beat Rodney is silent, and then he twists to look at John over his shoulder. His eyes are tired, a line of sweat running down from his temple, his skin ashen. One side of Rodney's mouth crooks up bitterly, and he says, "Why do you think, dumb-ass?" with so little bite behind the words that it's frightening.

They stare at each other for a long moment, and then Rodney looks to the side, focusing on the wall when he says, "Look, as much as I appreciate you breaking into my room and mother henning me, I, at least, have better things to do with my time than indulge you, so if you could—"

John interrupts, "Rodney—"

And Rodney cuts him right back off, chin jerking up, wings snapping in so quickly that John jerks his hand back even though it had been safely between Rodney's shoulder blades. "No. I know that this is hard for you to wrap your control freak brain around, but you don't get to have any say in what I do with my body. Now leave me alone. Ronon's coat still smells funky and I need to wash that smell off."

Arguing anymore with Rodney when he's like this would be stunningly useless, and John knows that. He sighs, shifting to his feet slowly, giving Rodney time, that he won't use, to change his mind. John pauses in the doorway, asking sharper than he intended, "You need help standing up?"

The door sliding shut in his face is his only reply, though he thinks Rodney might have flipped him off before the doors closed him off from John's view. He's still sitting on the floor, wings stretched out around him, and John wants more than anything to go back in there and fix this all.

Instead, he walks down to Teyla's quarters to check on her. Her condition is remarkably improved, but John doesn't say a word about it.

hr

Teyla's with them on their next mission, and it's a weight lifted off of John's shoulders to go through the 'gate with the team in one piece and all together. They're checking out a contact of one of Teyla's contacts, taking the Jumper through the space 'gate, and Rodney stands in the back, gripping the overhead racks with one hand like the Jumper might start shaking violently, or something.

There's no way for Rodney to sit, not with the wings held down against his back. It's one more reason for John to hate the harness, like he didn't have enough already. The flight is quiet, Ronon finally getting up to go stand in the back with Rodney. After a few moments, John can hear quiet conversation from them, and when he dares a look over his shoulder, Ronon is rearranging his coat over Rodney's shoulders, smoothing the fabric, and in anyone else John would have called it fussing.

Teyla says, sitting in Rodney's seat, "It is not wrong to worry." The words are soft and calm, and she's staring out the forward view screen. It's good to see her looking completely like herself again, her eyes bright and sharp, her hair pulled back and neatly arranged. Kanaan had done his best to keep it handled while she couldn't see, but his thicker fingers hadn't been as skilled with plaiting the long strands as Teyla's were. John thinks maybe she's been overcompensating since then, because there's some very elaborate braiding going on today.

John drawls, "About what?" just to be difficult. Beside him, Teyla rolls her eyes, turning her head just a little to the side to look at him. Her expression is a mix of amusement, chiding, and empathy. John looks down to the control panel, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

He's expecting her to say something painfully wise that'll make him think and leave him embarrassed with his past actions. Teyla's good at that kind of thing. But instead she just reaches over and touches his arm, brief and soft, before leaning her head against the back of her seat and closing her eyes.

John almost wishes there had been a lecture, because now he just feels tense and uncomfortable and like he missed something. He shakes his head, looking over his shoulder again. Ronon is holding up one of Rodney's arms, rolling up the too-long sleeves of his coat and making little jabbing motions towards the leather while Rodney stares at him with a glazed look.

John decides that he doesn't actually want to know, even a little bit, and turns his attention forward. The planet that they're going to is almost an hour away, and it's looking like it's going to be a long trip. He wishes that he'd brought a toy, stretching his legs out and setting the autopilot.

He intends to follow Teyla's example, and tries to let his mind drift a little bit. But instead he tilts his head sideways against the seat, just enough to keep the back of the Jumper in his view, watching Ronon pull out a needle from somewhere, along with some thick thread, intent on pinning the sleeves of the coat into place while Rodney stares at him like he's completely lost his mind.

John smiles, snorting softly, and thinks how good it feels to have the team all together again, the way they're supposed to be.

hr

They end up having a run of easy missions, which almost always means something horrible is looming just on the other side of the horizon, but for now John isn't looking a gift horse in the mouth. No one shoots at them. No one tries to poison their food. No one decides they'd really like to keep Teyla or Rodney. No one gets into any blood feuds with Ronon. No crazy priestesses try to take up with him. It's nice.

John follows Rodney back to his room after the first few mission de-briefs, before Teyla very calmly takes Woolsey to the side and has a soft conversation with him that results in all of their mission de-briefs being held the day after they return. After that, John just follows Rodney directly from the 'gate room. Rodney is always in too much pain to protest when John bullies his way through the door and makes sure that his help is accepted. Someone has to get the damn harness off, and John doesn't want anyone else doing it.

John never really gets used to the red marks left behind, or the way the wings snap open, or the soft, pained sounds Rodney makes. He does learn to bite his tongue, because if he doesn't mention his dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs, Rodney doesn't get snappy and kick him out nearly as quickly.

On PP3-003, they end up staying two days over their scheduled time, and Rodney can't get the wings open afterwards, his face pressed down against his arms and his shoulders shaking. John feels sick to his stomach, but swallows the nausea down, making himself step forward instead.

The wings feel colder than he's ever felt them, and hard under his hands. Rodney gasps raggedly when John touches them, his shoulders rising and falling rapidly with each breath. He might be getting close to hyperventilating, and John's hand jerks towards his radio before he stops himself.

John asks, keeping his voice soft as he can make it, "Where's the oil Teyla had?" For a long moment he doesn't think Rodney will answer, but then he slowly raises one hand, pointing at his dresser and snapping his fingers, just once, before dropping his arm back down to the desk with a thump.

John grimaces, rubbing his hand down Rodney's spine before moving across to the dresser. The oil is in the top drawer, nestled between Rodney's old blue science shirts and all the newer black t-shirts. John grabs it, and then stops, making himself look at Rodney.

Everything in the other man's posture is screaming pain, his back beading up in a cold sweat, muscles knotted up tight. John says, "I'm calling Ronon and Teyla," and does so before Rodney can protest, because there are times when John's smart enough to admit that he needs help.

Thankfully, they don't ask for an explanation. Within minutes they're both there, looking dour and serious. If they're surprised by the state that Rodney's in, they don't comment. Teyla just looks at John while Ronon lifts Rodney, her voice gentle, "Raise the heat more, please." It's already hot in the room, but John complies without even thinking about it.

Rodney is making tiny, gasping sounds while Ronon lays him out on the bed, gently pushing him onto his stomach and turning his face sideways on the pillow when Rodney makes no effort to move. Rodney's eyes are open, but glassy, his pupils tiny, and John isn't completely sure that he's seeing anything.

Ronon rumbles, "Sheppard," and holds out a hand expectantly. John hands over the oil without thinking, Ronon handing it back after a moment for John to pour out some of his own. He doesn't know where to start, but thankfully Ronon and Teyla appear to.

Teyla crawls up onto Rodney's back, rubbing her hands together, looking determined when she very carefully wraps both hands around the base of one of Rodney's wings. The touch drags a low, miserable sound from Rodney's throat, and John winces, shakes himself, and reaches for one of the tight, tense joints of the wing, hating the hurt noises Rodney makes with every single touch, no matter how light it is.

By the time they get the wings to relax, stretched down over either side of the bed, Rodney has his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth bloody from where he's been biting at his tongue and lips. John keeps rubbing the long curve of bone up the arch of the wing while Teyla stands, heading towards Rodney's bathroom, and Ronon mirrors John on the other wing.

They worked color back into the wings as they went, and now they are the blue-ish purple hue that John's used to. There are still red bands around them, though, matching the ones on Rodney's arms and chest. John frowns and keeps stroking, not sure who exactly he's trying to comfort here.

Teyla comes back then, with an armful of spare blankets. John stands, helps her spread them out over Rodney, carefully avoiding tangling the wings up. At some point during their work, Rodney finally relaxes, and when John rubs a hand back over Rodney's head the man's eyes are shut, his mouth slack with sleep.

John exhales heavily, feeling suddenly lightheaded, and braces a hand on the mattress by Rodney's shoulder. Teyla and Ronon are already waiting by the door, and John knows he should join them. He just needs a second to catch his breath. Maybe a minute.

Eventually John shakes himself, makes himself turn away. The harness is still lying by Rodney's desk, in a tangled mess at the moment. For a long moment John wants nothing more than to stomp on it. He could bend the buckles easily, make them useless and broken.

John's pretty sure that Rodney would just build something new, and probably even worse, if John destroyed the present harness. Instead he sighs, bending and picking it up, carefully untangling the straps and draping it over the back of Rodney's desk chair when he's done. Teyla and Ronon are still waiting for him, leaning against the wall, patient.

John nods his chin towards the door and they step out, John leaving last with one long look over his shoulder. Then he realizes he's letting the warm air out of Rodney's room and closes the door. He goes back to his own room, sits on his bed, and stares up at the ceiling.

This can't continue.

hr

Of course it does anyway. There's nothing John can do to stop it, and, if he's completely truthful with himself, he doesn't have a better solution, so he just keeps his mouth shut. He has a feeling this makes him part of the problem, which is not something he's proud of.

It isn't that bad as long as he doesn't think about it. Rodney's lighter body is actually pretty useful. When Rodney gets poisoned off-world, a blow dart to his neck that probably works faster on him than it would have on any of them, Ronon and John snared in traps before they could move, Teyla manages to carry Rodney back to the 'gate all on her own and return with backup before anyone gets sacrificed to the angry volcano god.

And Rodney can hold his breath for a really long time. The natives on KMP-203 throw Rodney in a tank and shut the lid. John is prepared for the worst by the time they finally manage to kill enough of the bastards to open it again. But Rodney comes up sputtering and alive, minutes under water leaving him only wet and dangerously cold. They'd had to rush back to Atlantis, John more worried about Rodney going hypothermic than he knew how to handle. But they'd all lived.

The fact that Rodney's a much faster runner is somehow the most surprising part. John isn't sure if it's a side effect of the fact that he weighs so much less, the larger heart or lungs, or what. But the first time they have to run for their lives Rodney pulls ahead, looking surprised when he reaches the Jumper and turns to find the rest of them still fifty yards back. Thankfully, Rodney had proceeded to use to Jumper to blast the hell out of their pursuers, but it had still been really fucking weird.

Compared to some of the shit they've dealt with over the last five years, they're still getting off mildly. It's starting to worry John, because he can only credit a karmic easing after what was done to Rodney for so much. Now he's starting to think that the universe is just saving up for something even worse.

He thinks they might get it on MK0-20M.

The planet is, as far as they can tell, completely uninhabited. But it had been marked with rainbows and unicorns in the Ancient database, and as soon as it had turned up Rodney had been bouncing with the desire to go there right away. There'd been promises of ZPMs or something better than ZPMs and maybe John was easy, but of course they were going to go after that.

As far as planets go, it's the exception, not the rule. Most of the ground is flat and rocky, with pale blue lichen growing over most of the stones. There are a few trees, but for the most part they're scattered far and wide, hard woods instead of the almost-pines that most of the planets are full of.

The world's twin suns are beating down when they step through the 'gate, though they're only providing watery, weak light. There's not a cloud in sight, though there is a stiff breeze. John makes eye contact with Ronon and Teyla, and they all rearrange without a word being spoken, putting Rodney in the middle of their group, trying to break the chilly wind as much as possible.

If Rodney notices, he doesn't comment, staring down intently at his scanners and making little displeased sounds before stomping off south of the 'gate. John shrugs, and they keep pace with Rodney, listening to him talk to himself and to their boots squishing over the damp ground.

They stop for a break after an hour or so, though Rodney's been taking long drinks of the bottle by his hip since they started and doesn't really need to stop. That's another change. As long as Rodney's getting enough calories and sugar he rarely gets tired or worn out. Of course, he is brimming with impatience.

John can't really blame him, but the rest of them are still strictly human. Rodney paces in circles while they take five, John watching him without really thinking about it. Rodney's wings are out on this mission, with no reason for them to think that there will be people anywhere on this world. Woolsey hadn't wanted to take the chance, but Teyla had whammied him or something, because he'd given in.

Now Rodney is lifting his wings a little in the breeze, just enough to get air flowing over them. The action is completely absent-minded, and it makes John smile for no good reason. He wonders, swallowing a bite of his Powerbar and washing it down with a swig of water, what it feels like. He wonders how to ask without pissing Rodney off, and thinks that might be a lost cause.

Then Rodney is looking up, glaring exaggeratedly down at his watch and grumbling, "I can just go on without you, if that's what you want. I'll probably be there and back by the time you're all done with second breakfast over here."

John rolls his eyes and Ronon throws an apple core in Rodney's general direction. They all fall into formation again, John stopping to pick up the apple core because the botanists get all in a tizzy at just the thought of them accidentally introducing an alien organism to another planet's ecosystem. Personally, John thinks that a few more apples would do this galaxy a fuck load of good, but it isn't his decision.

Another half-hour brings them to the ruins of what Rodney first claims is an Ancient city and then revises into some kind of lab. Within minutes Rodney's gone into hyper babbling mode, and John starts bobbing his head along with the incomprehensible jumble coming out of Rodney's mouth when Ronon and Teyla abandon him to scout out a perimeter.

Rodney's been excitedly waving his arms and wings around for the better part of an hour when John first notices the sky darkening. John tilts his face up, squinting up into the sky, watching heavy, angry storm clouds come rolling down from the north.

John feels something heavy settle in his stomach, pushing away from the bolder he'd been leaning against, pivoting to look back towards the 'gate. The sky there is dark and streaked with rain. There's a flash of lightening as he watches, too far away for the crash of thunder to reach them for long, long seconds.

John looks back up to the clouds, moving closer by the minute, and thumbs his radio on. There's faint static in the background, the electricity in the storm already messing with their systems. He says, "I don't suppose you've found any buildings out there in your scouting?"

There's a pause, and then Teyla's voice, slightly garbled, in his ear, "No. And this planet is very...flat." She pauses, and then goes on, "You believe the storm is coming this way?"

John looks at the roiling clouds, and the first stinging drop of rain lands right in the middle of his forehead. He says, "Yeah, yeah, I'm thinking so. Get back here." Beside him Rodney is cursing, shoving his computers into the waterproof backpack at his feet, sparing a furious look up to the sky every few seconds.

The rain lands in huge splotches across the rocks around them, drops beating down on them, off rhythm and random. John turns his back to it, drops beating down on his shoulders and back, stinging against the back of his neck. Rodney raises one wing, shielding himself and his equipment as he finally manages to shove the last scanner into the bag, zipping it up and then tossing it towards John. Backpacks don't really work so well for Rodney anymore.

Ronon and Teyla sprint up then, not breathing hard. They already look a little damp. John opens his mouth just as thunder rolls overtop of them, long and loud, and the rain starts coming down in earnest. Within seconds they're all soaked, the rain cold and stinging and accompanied by a wind that pushes at them hard.

Ronon is already pulling Teyla close, curving his shoulders over her, and John starts towards Rodney without thinking. The wind catches at Rodney's wings, pulling him for a few feet before Rodney pulls the wings down tight and John grabs him, hands wrapped tight around Rodney's arms.

Rodney's already shivering, looking up at John with so much fear written across his expression that John can't breathe for a moment. The rain stings where it hits his skin, and John curses, shoving his hair back and dragging Rodney over to one of the half collapsed walls of the lab. The shelter it offers is minimal at best, but it's better than nothing, and Ronon and Teyla are already making their way over.

The rain is coming down so hard that John can barely see them, even though they're only a few feet away. There's a swell of relief in his chest when they finally slog close enough to touch, Ronon pushing Teyla down against John's side and bracing his arms on the wall, leaning over all of them.

And then Rodney is squirming around, reaching up and yanking hard on Ronon's shirt, yelling to be heard over the almost deafening pound of rain against stone, "Get down here, you idiot. I know I'm the brains of this operation, but, honestly, sometimes you morons just embarrass yourselves. I said come here!" Rodney pulls hard on Ronon's shirt again, half extending one wing, carefully out of the wind, and looking at it pointedly.

For a moment Ronon doesn't move, and then he carefully sinks down to his knees, before pressing in close against Rodney's side. Rodney makes a sound that John more feels that hears, reaching out and tugging expectantly on Teyla.

Teyla's hair is plastered down over her face, but she allows Rodney to pull her forward anyway. John blinks when Rodney yanks her down into his lap, pushing her head under his chin and then turning to stare hard at John, looking impatient and almost managing to disguise the fear.

It's Teyla who reaches out to pull on John, and he finds himself pressed up against Rodney's other side. For a moment they all just sit there in a soggy mess, getting wetter by the moment, and then Rodney grunts and shifts and John curses softly, blinking the water running down his face away, surprise curling in his chest.

Rodney's wings are big enough to completely wrap around them all. One of the edges is digging into the back of John's head, but he figures he can't really complain. The wing is pressing against his shoulders and back, and he can feel the rain pounding down against it, kept off of him.

John meets Ronon's eyes in the dry space they're contained in, and the other man shrugs. John shrugs back, because what else is there to do, really. Teyla still has her face pressed up against Rodney's chest, reaching up to push her damp hair out of the way. All of their asses are getting soaked, but the absence of stinging rain has drastically improved their conditions.

Rodney his head tilted down and to the side, his cheek pressing against the top of Teyla's head, his eyes closed. There's rain running down the back of his neck, and John is close enough to watch the drops hit skin with a tiny explosion and slide down, beading up on the leather of Rodney's shirt.

For a long moment they sit in relative silence, the rain sounding odd when it bounces off of Rodney's wings. It takes John a while to notice that it's not just the vibrations of the rain against Rodney's wings that he's feeling, and another second after that to realize that Rodney is shivering. Badly.

John curses, and it sounds loud in the bubble of still air that they're in. Ronon and Teyla both look at him, and he sees the moment they realize what he just has, Teyla's eyes going wide, Ronon's mouth thinning out. John curses again, just to make himself feel better, and then tries to press closer to Rodney.

Teyla is already twisting around, sliding an arm around Rodney's body and yanking at the strings holding his shirt together. John helps as best he can, their fingers getting tangled together while Ronon grunts and manages to get his arm up enough to slice through the strap around Rodney's neck.

Rodney blinks at them lethargically, and John hisses, "Jesus fuck," because he's seen how fast things can go really bad once Rodney's core temperature starts to drop. There's no resistance when John and Ronon yank the sleeves of the shirt down Rodney's arms, though his wings still stay wrapped tight around them. John wonders how much of Rodney's concentration is devoted just to that.

It doesn't matter, it can't right now. John pushes all of that away. He's relieved when he doesn't have to say a damn thing to Ronon or Teyla about what they need to do. Teyla is already pressing close to Rodney again, rubbing her hands up and down his sides fast. Ronon is shifting around, getting one big hand on Rodney's back, rubbing his other back and forth on Rodney's thigh.

With all the heat Rodney has to be losing through the wings, John isn't really sure how much this is going to help at all. But there's nothing else for them to do. He rubs at Rodney's chest and upper back and wishes that they had something dry to wrap him in, wishes the rain would stop, wishes he'd brought a fucking Jumper along.

Outside the circle of Rodney's wings, the rain keeps coming down. Lightning strikes around them, making the veins running through the wings stand out in stark relief with every brilliant flash. Rodney's eyes slip closed at some point and John swears he can feel the other man's heartbeat slowing down, swears that he can almost feel the individual beats.

And as quickly as the storm swept up, it's past them. The pounding of the rain fades to a few last drops falling on Rodney's wings, and then nothing. John holds his breath for a moment, and then they're all moving at once, gently moving Rodney's wings, which is surprisingly hard when Rodney grunts and fights them.

They manage anyway, Rodney slumping down against John's side all of a sudden. His face, chest, and arms have all gone pale, but the backs of his wings are stained red, and John winces before shaking himself. He pushes to his feet, bringing Rodney with him, and Ronon is already reaching forward, taking Rodney and gathering him up.

John says, "Go," and Ronon jerks out a nod, going.

This world is flat enough that John can still see Ronon running for a long, long time. He and Teyla keep pace with each other, eventually losing Ronon to the distance. The mud stirred up by the rain sucks at their shoes, and John's breathe burns in his lungs. Beside him, Teyla looks like someone attempted to drown her, her hair clinging to her face. She might be shivering. It's hard to tell while they're running.

They don't talk, and for that John is grateful. He can't even think, not if he wants to avoid the thick, choking guilt. He can't wash away the memory of the way Rodney had looked, going limp, his mouth as blue and purple as his wings, hair plastered dark against his head.

By the time they reach the 'gate, Ronon is already long through. John dials Atlantis with his fist, unable to unclench his fingers. Teyla paces beside him, shoving her hair back now that they've paused. It's dry, by now, tangled into a rat's nest that sticks up around her head.

For just a second after the 'gate opens, John hesitates. Right now, Rodney is still safe and alive. Stepping through the 'gate could change all of that. John stares at it, suddenly frozen in place, and Teyla puts a hand on his shoulder, pushing just a little.

They go through without saying a word, John ignoring the questions being called down from the control room, scanning the room for Ronon, for anyone who he can demand some immediate answers from. His muddy boots leave tracks down the ramp. Teyla is sidelining Woolsey. She already looks almost completely put together again, and someday John is going to have to figure out how she does that.

Right now, he doesn't care. He grabs one of the passing scientists, opening his mouth to ask where Rodney and Ronon have gone, and the woman takes one look at him before talking over him, "His quarters." John blinks at her, and she pats awkwardly at his shoulder before twisting out of his grip and hurrying away.

It doesn't matter. That's all John needed to know. He calls, "Teyla," over his shoulder, heading for the door. A half second later he hears her fall into step beside him, leaving Woolsey behind, looking tired and stressed out in front of the 'gate. Later John might feel bad about that.

The ride in the transporter is as quiet as the grave. Teyla is picking grass out of her hair, and John isn't even sure how she managed to get it there. He flicks at some of the mud dried on his shirt, and then makes his peace with the fact that he's pretty much wearing the mud like a second skin and leaves it.

John squeezes through the doors before they're all the way open, shouldering around the other people standing in the hall. The door to Rodney's room opens when John waves his hand in front of the control mechanism, and John blows out a hard breath, drawn in like the room has its own gravitational field.

Ronon says, "About time," standing up from the side of Rodney's bed. John blinks, taking in the room, and finally letting himself breathe in again. Sunlight is pouring hot and bright down through Rodney's windows, painted across his skin where he's spread out on the bed. Ronon has him bundled up in all kinds of blankets, and Rodney's eyes are closed, lines of stress and exhaustion graven into his face.

But Rodney's no longer corpse-pale, and that's all that really matters. John ignores the obvious insult to their speed in favor of crossing the room, pushing one of his hands up under the blankets that Rodney's cocooned in, and pressing his palm up against Rodney's shoulder.

Rodney's skin is warm, soft. John gasps, "Holy fuck," and, "Thank God," lurching forward, bracing his other hand on the mattress to steady himself. Under his hand, Rodney stirs, making a disgruntled sound and twisting in the thick blankets he's been swaddled in.

Rodney cracks one eye open, the white a little bloodshot but focusing properly. He grumbles, the words slurred just a little bit, "Look what the cat dragged in," and then he snorts, eyes crinkling up in the corners, mouth twisting up with whatever it is that's amused him.

Teyla interrupts before John can think of a damn thing to say, "How are you feeling, Rodney?"

That gets another snort, Rodney shutting his eyes and decisively burying his face against the pillow. He mumbles, "Like I went through a touch-less car wash," and then it's John's turn to snort, meaning to stop touching Rodney then but stalling. "You're all welcome, by the way."

John is still grinning, just a little bit, when he says, "Yeah," but Rodney's already asleep, or at least doing a pretty damn good imitation of being asleep. John slides his hand out from beneath the blankets, smoothing them over Rodney's shoulder, tucking the edges in around him.

Ronon says, then, "You smell," and for a long moment John just boggles at the other man before Teyla laughs softly into her hand. It's so unexpected that it gets John laughing as well. In the bed, Rodney throws an arm over his head and curses at them all.

Rodney's wings are still stained a little pink and he still looks exhausted and hurt. But he's alive. They're all alive. John reaches out, brushing his knuckles over Rodney's forearm, and lets the laughter in his throat dry up. They're all quiet for a long time. That's okay, too.

hr

Rodney recovers faster than John had hoped from the rain storm. The pink tinge to the wings fades over the next two days, and John basks in relief when it completely dissipates. In the end, it isn't nearly as horrible as John had been gearing up to deal with, and he feels vaguely robbed and uncomfortable. Sometimes John wonders what the hell is wrong with him.

The biggest parts of the fallout seem to be stuck in John's head. He keeps thinking about the wings, the press of them against him when Rodney had wrapped them all up. He'd been able to feel Rodney's pulse right through the thin skin, the flex of the muscles every time Rodney had adjusted his position. In the circle of Rodney's wings the air had been tight and stuffy, the four of them all sharing the same breath. It had been humid and thick and almost sour. John can't stop thinking about it.

His dreams, which had already featured Rodney's wings more frequently than he'd been strictly comfortable with, shift slightly. More often than not, John's waking up tangled in his blankets, his sleeping mind supplying the feel of Rodney's wings around him.

It seems wrong, especially since it had hardly been the best circumstances, especially for Rodney. But John can't help but wanting, no matter how hard he tries to avoid it. John wonders, sometimes, if Teyla and Ronon are struggling with the same thoughts, but he doesn't know how to ask. And he isn't completely sure he wants to know the answer.

For now, he is content to let everything lie. Things settle, and they fall into one more new version of normal. Missions come and go, life moves on, sometimes so quickly they have to scramble to keep up. On PPP-302, John manages to wrench his knee, and he doesn't think anything about it at the time. It's not until the next day that his freshly limited range of motion drives him to distraction and he hobbles his way down to the infirmary to offer himself up to Keller's ministrations.

John isn't expecting for Rodney to be there. Nothing horrible had happened on the mission, and Rodney's been managing his new diet well. It's been a long time since he lost track of how often he had to eat and ended up passing out in the middle of the hallway.

Nevertheless, the first thing John hears when he steps through the doors is Rodney's voice. Rodney's trying to be quiet, probably, saying, "Look, do we really have to do this every time?" John turns automatically towards the sound, narrowing his eyes at the curtained off corner of the lab. The lights behind the curtain throw shadows across the wall, Rodney sitting on the side of an examination table, his wings dipping down and his ankles crossed.

Keller is saying, her shadow behind Rodney's, too vague for John to see what she's doing, "Are you really going to ask me that every time?" She sounds fondly exasperated, and John waves off one of the nurses who had started towards him. John eases closer to the curtained off area instead.

Rodney huffs impatiently, "Only until I get the answer I want." Keller snorts softly, and John rolls his eyes.

There's a brief lull in the conversation. John fidgets, his knee burning from the weight he's putting on it. He reaches out, bracing a hand on the wall and trying to take some of the pressure off his bum knee. Keller finally says, gently, "You know, there are things you could be doing to prevent this. There are plenty of people who would help."

"Oh, yes, because obviously I want to just sit back and let everyone satisfy their curiosity by rubbing all over my body. Why didn't I think of that? Wait, I know, because it's a gross invasion of my privacy and completely unprofessional. How about you just give me the pills and stop attempting to make suggestions." The bitterness in Rodney's voice isn't an undercurrent, and hearing it makes John wince.

Keller sighs, "I know it wouldn't be easy for you, but I'm not sure that it's safe to be giving you this kind of medication unless it's absolutely necessary and—"

"Believe me, it's necessary." Rodney just sounds tired now, the snappishness losing its bite under the sheer weight of the exhaustion. His wings droop a little further down, and Keller reaches out, almost touches Rodney's shoulder before catching herself.

John finds himself tensing up, though he doesn't exactly know why. He tells himself to go over to the nurses who are starting to clump together, whispering amongst themselves while they watch him eavesdrop. John tries glaring them into submission, but they've obviously seen worse, and proceed to just ignore him completely. Keller breaks up John's train of thought, "I know, Rodney, believe me, I know you're hurting. Isn't there anyone you could get to help work the mus—"

Rodney interrupts again, lifting a wing and wrapping it half around his body, snapping, "No, no one." For a long beat there's silence, and then Keller sighs audibly, turning, heading for the edge of the curtain. John does his best to look innocent, but she barely spares him a look, crossing to one of the medicine cabinets and mumbling softly to herself as she palms three bottles.

John decides to come back later, and ends up wrapping the knee with an Ace bandage and calling it a day. If it's still bothering him in the morning, he'll consider going back down. Probably.

hr

John starts paying closer attention to any pills Rodney might be popping after that. He's surprised to find that Rodney's taking a drug cocktail every morning and evening. Rodney might not be trying to be sneaky about it, but he's certainly not making a big deal of it. It makes John deeply uncomfortable.

He watches for a week, making note of the way the strain on Rodney's face eases just a little bit after he takes the pills, the way some of the tension bleeds out of his shoulders. He thinks that, really, the last thing they need is Rodney getting addicted to pain pills.

It's obviously something that needs to be fixed. It's just a matter of trying to come up with a workable solution. In the end, John loses patience about two minutes into his brainstorming session, and decides to go with his initial, gut instinct.

John shows up outside Rodney's room with his sleeves rolled up and his game face on. It takes Rodney a long moment to answer the door, looking rumpled and tired when he finally does, and gaping incredulously at John's expression. John takes advantage of Rodney's momentary speechlessness to squeeze through the doorway, kicking his shoes off and saying, "Okay, where do you want to do this?"

There's a pause, but it's only for a heartbeat. Rodney never takes long to catch up, no matter the circumstances, "What? What are you even doing in here? Some of us have important things to do in the morning, you know," Rodney already has his arms crossed, flaring the wings out behind him, making himself look bigger. John wonders if Rodney even knows he's doing it.

John grits his teeth, deciding that they're just going to have to do this the hard way. He steps in quick, wrapping his arms around Rodney's waist and lifting while Rodney curses him and beats at his shoulders. Rodney is yelling, "—fucking put me down, you insane bastard—" while John dumps him down onto his mattress.

Rodney lands on his back, wings flat on the mattress, blinking up at John in disbelief. John says, "Look, it'll make you feel better, okay?" because that's the best sounding explanation he can manage, even in the quiet of his own head.

Rodney is gaping up at him, sputtering for a half second before managing, "What? Seriously, are you insane? No. No, whatever you're thinking, just stop thinking it. Go away and leave me alone." Rodney pushes up with one wing, rolling sideways, batting at John with the other.

John reaches out, wrapping his fingers around one of the joints in the wings, pressing his thumb up into it hard. Rodney makes a choking sound, his knees giving, reaching out to grab at John's shoulders, hard. Under John's hand, the wing is jumping and twitching.

John's voice comes out gruff, thick, "Just let me help you, okay?" And maybe it's unfair, because he really doesn't think that Rodney will be able to protest, not like this. Not even with Rodney's stubborn streak. Everyone has their limits.

Rodney is gasping, eyes huge with the whites showing all the way around. He slurs, "Okay," nodding his head up and down slowly. John feels briefly guilty, but sometimes the only way to get Rodney to do what he needs to do is to force the issue.

"Good. Good, come on, lie down."

Rodney nods again, head lolling back on his neck, trying to twist sideways and not quite managing it. John helps, pulling Rodney forward, getting him horizontal. The blankets are already messed up, because apparently Rodney really was trying to sleep for once. John smoothes wrinkles out, hesitating now that he's gotten this far.

And then Rodney is mumbling, "Well, what are you waiting for? Or were you just trying to prove that you could torment me into giving into your twisted machinations?" John squeezes at the joint again, and Rodney's voice trails off into a soft whine.

John says, "This is where you say thank you, Rodney," and Rodney just snorts, managing scorn even as his twists his fingers into the blankets. John frowns, and then says, "I'm just going to, you know," and Rodney grunts, not bothering with words.

John takes it as permission that it probably isn't. He braces one knee carefully on the bed, leaning over, reaching out. His hand hovers over the space between Rodney's shoulder blades, close enough to feel the warmth rising off of Rodney's skin, to feel the tiny vibrations with each inhale and exhale.

It's harder than John thinks it should be to lower his hand down to skin. Rodney's spine presses against his palm, his heartbeat a constant pound that John can feel all the way up his arm. It feels like a pulse of electricity, like something deep and beyond human.

John clears his throat and says, "Okay, okay then," because he doesn't know what else to say. He splays his fingers out, oddly dark against Rodney's fair skin. Then he takes a deep breath, and makes himself do what he came here to do.

Rodney's muscles are tighter than they ever were before. John winces in sympathy, because Jesus, he has to be in all kinds of pain, constantly. Apparently the twisted geneticists hadn't properly factored everything they needed to into the implants, because it's twisting Rodney up beyond belief.

John shoves down the fresh resurgence of bitter anger. The fuckers who did this are long dead, and there's nothing to be done about them now. He concentrates on kneading out the knots in Rodney's back, starting by Rodney's spine and working his way out.

It doesn't take long for Rodney to start making sounds, most of which sound pained. John does his best to block it out, because the sounds hit like physical blows. He's doing this to help, and help he knows it will, but now, right now, he's hurting Rodney. There's no way to ignore that, not with Rodney turning his face against the pillow, fingers clawing at the sheets, whimpering.

John grits his teeth and presses on. It takes what feels like hours to work out the worst of the knots, some so deep that John can only get to them after the ones closer to the surface have been eased away. By the time he's done, the skin all across Rodney's back is stained red. Rodney still has his face buried against the pillow.

There's a long moment where John is tempted to just stop there. He doesn't want to hurt Rodney anymore. It's making him feel nauseous, his stomach tight and miserable. But the wings are the biggest problem area. He should have started with them, and he knows it. But he hadn't wanted Rodney to think that this was all just an attempt to get his hands back on the wings.

Now John shifts back, rubbing at his hands, aching as they are. His palms feel rubbed almost raw, and his skin is every bit as red as Rodney's. John flexes his wrists, takes a deep breath, and warns, "It's going to be bad."

Rodney's voice is muffled, but clear, "I know," and then, a half second later, "Just do it already."

And maybe a part of John had really been hoping Rodney would back out of it here, once they were down to it. But apparently that's not going to happen. John braces himself, gritting his teeth, reminding himself that as bad as this is going to be for him, it's going to be worse for Rodney.

John says, on his exhale, "Okay. Okay. Doing it." He decides in the space of a heartbeat that the band-aid approach is going to work best here. He squares his shoulders up, and wraps both hands around the base of Rodney's right wing, digging in hard.

Rodney doesn't scream, but he does bow up. John grunts and shoves him back down to the bed, thankfully not even remotely hard this time. There's no way he could be, with Rodney hurting this bad. With John being the one to cause the pain.

Rodney thrashes beneath him, hands braced on the bed, shoving up. John snaps, "Don't!" because Rodney is strong enough to knock him off, light weight or no. He's surprised when Rodney actually stops after just a moment, breathing hard, his arms flexing, his head hanging forward. "I've got you, okay? You just need to trust me here."

"Fuck you," Rodney's voice comes out hoarse, sharp as razors. John swallows, because while that probably isn't what he should have been hoping for, it nevertheless was. It's Rodney, and the relief that he's still managing to be himself through the agony is a relief that's almost smothering.

John lies, "The worst is done now," and Rodney just snorts.

Rodney hisses, "Liar," and laughs a little breathlessly on the end of it. John snorts himself, nodding even though Rodney can't see him and cautiously tightening his grip again. He rubs his thumbs in deep circles, and Rodney coughs, pounding a fist down into the mattress.

John means to say something comforting, maybe to promise again that he's almost done even though he's nowhere close. But his throat is closed up too tightly for any words to get through. Instead he grits his teeth shut, his jaw aching from the pressure he's putting on it, Rodney twisting and squirming beneath him.

There's a part of John's brain that thinks this should be insanely hot. He's dreamt about Rodney like this, fingers tangled in the sheets, unable to stay still, making tiny little sounds. In practice, it's much less enjoyable than his brain had made it out to be. There's sweat beading up across Rodney's shoulders and by his hairline, but it's hardly a good kind of exertion. The way he's biting his bottom lip has nothing to do with pleasure.

John finishes with the first joint, folding Rodney's wing carefully in, sliding his palms up the firm, smooth line of bone. The skin he's worked on is a darker purple than the rest of the wing, blood flow increased. John strokes his thumb over the warmed skin for just a moment, before getting back to work.

The muscles in the wings haven't gotten bulky. John doesn't figure they ever will. But there's much more definition under his touch than there had been when Rodney first got them. John traces the slopes and cuts of the muscle, the veins he can feel beating beneath thin skin, the joints where bones fit together smooth and tight as puzzle pieces.

By the time John's done with the first wing, Rodney is breathing hard and deep, staring sightlessly to the side. His mouth is just a little bit open, and his face is very red. John carefully eases the wing down, standing and grabbing one of Rodney's spare blankets to throw it haphazardly across the floor.

John is breathing hard himself, and he doesn't really know why. He sucks in careful, slow, breathes, pushing out hard on the exhales. His hands, arms, and shoulders ache from the amount of work he's putting into this, but he doesn't even consider that it might not be worth it.

John clears his throat and says, "I'm going to get the other one now," as he climbs back up onto the mattress. The sheets are twisted up where his knees had been braced, and he slides back into place easily, hating that they have to do the entire process over again.

"Oh, just do it," Rodney's voice is too hoarse to be a snap, dry and cracking before he wets his lips. John decides not to comment, bracing himself instead, reaching for the base of Rodney's wing. This time, he braces a hand between Rodney's shoulder blades preemptively, and when Rodney tries to come up off of the bed, John's ready for it.

They strain against each other for a moment, Rodney gasping hard, babbling, "Fuck, fuck, stop, stop, stop!" It takes everything John has to grit his teeth and ignore the other man, to keep up the pressure, his thumb pressing hard up against muscle, feeling the hard, lack of give in the bone beneath.

He curves his shoulders over, hissing, "Jesus, I'm so sorry," even though he doubts Rodney can hear him. The words are just dragged out of his chest, through his raw throat, echoing back and forth in his head until Rodney finally sinks back down to the mattress, shaking, arms moving jerkily over messy sheets, like he can't quite get himself coordinated.

John swallows back the urge to ask Rodney if he's alright, because he doesn't particularly feel like being yelled at for being an idiot right now. He just swallows and gets with the program, working the knots out, loosening everything up.

It's a surprise when Rodney finally starts relaxing, as John works his way down the support bones through the wings. His breathing slows down, and when John cuts a look up towards Rodney's face, his eyes are half-lidded and heavy. Rodney's face isn't as red as it was, and while his mouth is still slightly parted, he's no longer sucking in tiny swallows of air like that's all he can manages. His hands are open and loose on the bed.

When John finishes, he stands slowly, trying not to jar the mattress. There's another spare blanket on the foot of Rodney's bed, and John spreads it out hurriedly on the floor before stretching out Rodney's wing. The wings are uniformly dark now, contrasting sharply with Rodney's pale skin.

John shoves his hands deep into his pockets. His fingers ache, and he thinks that at this point he really needs someone to rub out his own shoulders. He'll settle for a hot shower back in his quarters. For now, John pulls Rodney's blankets up to right below his wings, unable to resist the urge to rub his thumb just once over the warm skin there.

Then he makes himself straighten. He did what he came here to do, and Rodney looks completely out of it, just staring at the wall, eyes almost closed, and his body loose and relaxed. John suppresses a smile, shaking his head and heading for the door, relieved that it looks like they're going to get out of this without further awkward conversation.

Rodney doesn't say a word when John steps out of his quarters, already snoring softly. John walks with a little bounce to his step all the way back to his quarters. The air in his room feels cold after the warmth of Rodney's room, and John shivers just a little before reminding himself that this is the usual temperature.

Still, it feels good to climb into the shower, the water so hot that his skin feels like it's on fire. John braces his hands on the wall, dipping his head down, letting the scalding hot water fall over him, run down the back of his neck, follow his spine down.

By the time John gets out, his skin is starting to wrinkle up, and he's gone red all over. He goes to bed.

hr

The next day, Rodney is notably more relaxed. John watches him talk with the people around him in line in the mess hall, and catches Rodney smiling more than once. Rodney's even carrying himself differently, like he's comfortable in his skin, like the absence of pain has thrown some kind of switch in his head.

John is willing to concede that part of the difference might be the way everyone else reacts. There's an air of relaxation to the city that surprises John. He catches more people telling jokes or smiling at each other than he has in ages. John hadn't realized that Rodney was quite that tied in to the moods of the general population, but he isn't really surprised. Rodney has a way of making sure that absolutely everyone knows how he feels.

Whatever the reason, John's pretty sure that this is healthier for the city than the tension that's been so prevalent lately. And if keeping Rodney pain-free is all it takes to make sure that it stays this way, then John figures he'll just have to take one for the team. It wasn't like he was looking for an excuse to end up outside of Rodney's quarters, or anything.

Rodney doesn't even look surprised to see him, bracing one hand against the doorframe and just staring at John for a long, long moment. John had thought that there were other people in the corridor when he rang the chime on Rodney's door, but they all seem to have vanished. That makes it easier to say, "Come on, Rodney. It'll probably help your productivity."

Rodney rolls his eyes, snorting, but steps out of the way, saying, "How very selfless of you," as he walks over to his bed. The covers are neatly made this time, and Rodney sits awkwardly on the side, raising and extending his wings, sweeping them forward so the tips curl in front of his feet, framing him in their long, long arch.

John shrugs, "Not really," because lying about it would be stupid. Rodney narrows his eyes, tilting his head a little to the side, staring hard at John. Then he rolls his eyes again, extending the wings straight out, brushing the walls and the ceiling, cutting off John's view of the far side of the room. John doubts that's ever not going to be impressive, but he would have thought he'd have gotten slightly more used to it by now. Apparently he hasn't.

Rodney sighs, "Fine, get over here, then," and twists, dropping down onto his stomach, folding his arms under his head and staring stubbornly at John. And really, there are some things John is just never going to argue with.

John kicks off his boots by the door, opening the collar of his jacket and pushing up the sleeves, because it's predictably warm in here. Rodney's mattress is starting to feel familiar under him, which John is aware enough to know is probably a bad thing. He pushes the thought away, clearing his throat and trying to sound professional when he says, "Any major problem spots?"

Rodney snorts, shrugging with the wings, and John rolls his eyes. It was probably a stupid question. He cracks his knuckles, resettling his weight, and lowers his hands to Rodney's back. Under his hands, it's all hard muscle, slightly easier to unknot than it had been the night previous.

There are more than a few spots where Rodney still flinches, but he's keeping any of the pained sounds to himself. That's a good thing. John isn't sure he could subject himself to another night of hurting Rodney like that, even if it was for the best, for the city, for Rodney.

It doesn't take as long to ease all the stress out of Rodney's back. It still takes long enough that John's hands ache by the time he's done. He doesn't mention it, rubbing at his palm with his thumb, looking at Rodney's reddened skin, wishing he could see even a part of Rodney's expression, hidden as it is with Rodney's chin resting on his wrists.

After a moment, Rodney shifts the wings, an impatient twitch that has John's mouth curling up in amusement. John reaches out, running his knuckles lightly down the slope of bone. He says, soft in the thick air that's settled between them, "You ready?"

Rodney says, "No," and then, "Do it anyway," and John nods. He shifts one hand, pressing down on Rodney's back, shifting up so he has more weight to bring to bear, and reaches for the first joint. Under his hand, Rodney tries to push up, but only for a moment before he catches himself, cursing bitterly, his free wing twitching and jerking over the side of the bed.

The wings are easier tonight as well, even if they're not actually managing to be easy, yet. John thinks that maybe if they do this regularly it'll at least stop being such agony for Rodney. At least that's what he hopes. John pushes the thoughts aside, and just concentrates on the task at hand.

He's done before he knows it, both wings stretched out to the side, Rodney breathing steady and slow against his arms, tension drained out of him. John smiles, feeling pleasantly smug with himself when he pats at Rodney's back, shifting to the side.

John's back hurts a little now, stiff from sitting so straight for so long. He stretches it out, wincing, and then shaking his head. He's getting old, and the reminders are starting to shift from annoying to frustrating. Ignoring them is getting more and more difficult, no matter how much effort he puts into it.

John figures that they won't talk about it again, because there's nothing he can think to say. He starts for Rodney's door, bending to grab his shoes, and Rodney calls out, voice slow and tired, "You can...you know, if you want."

John pauses, looking over his shoulder. Rodney hasn't shifted, looking sleepy and comfortable, his wings taking up most of the floor space in the room. They're still dark from John's attentions, and he likes that he's the only one who gets to see them that color, suddenly and surprisingly deeply. He asks, when he realizes after a long moment that it's expected, "What?"

Rodney sighs, turning his head to the side and blinking impatiently at John, "Look," he suddenly looks very uncomfortable, "Look, it's only fair, isn't it? And, I mean, it's not like I can stop you from thinking whatever it is you think about them, so I don't mind if you," he waves a hand, blushing, "You know."

For a long moment, all John can do is blink at him. Most of the time talking to Rodney requires some kind of mental translation, and he lets his mind cycle through Rodney's possible thought patterns for this particular spiel of bizarreness.

When it hits John, it's so simple that he's embarrassed it wasn't immediately clear. He says, "Jesus, Rodney, no," yanking his shoes on quickly and pulling down the sleeves on his jacket. Just the thought of it is making his stomach sour. He just wants to be out of here.

But Rodney is shifting up, pulling one of the wings up onto the mattress, half curving it around his body when he says, "Try not to be unbearably stupid for a second. I mean, that's what you want, right? You have a thing," Rodney drops his gaze pointedly below John's belt, and John isn't sure why he'd assumed that Rodney had the tact or grace to not ever mention that again. "I mean, you're probably going to go jerk off while thinking about them, aren't you? That's hardly fair for you. So, you know, you can do whatever. Just, uh, wipe off any mess and—"

"Shut up," the words come out sharper than John intended. He's not sure if he's more angry or embarrassed at the moment. It's a close race. Rodney gapes at him, before crossing his arms, mouth opening again. John stabs a finger towards him, gritting out, "Just shut up."

Of course, Rodney isn't going to, chin up and eyes narrowed, "Look, I'm just trying to help you here. Believe me, there are plenty of people wandering around with hard-ons for them, and I'm not letting any of those bastards get their greasy little paws on them. The least you could do is—"

"We're not talking about this," John's jaw is clenched so tightly that it hurts. He frantically waves Rodney's door open, stepping half through into the hallway and then continuing without looking back, "I'll be back tomorrow. When we can continue, uh, not talking about it."

John waves the door shut again, and thinks he hears, right before it slides shut, Rodney calling his name. John doesn't go back. He doesn't even pause. This time he takes a cold shower when he gets back to his quarters, standing under the beating water until he has to clench his jaw shut tight to prevent his teeth from chattering together.

hr

They don't talk about it. Sometimes Rodney starts to say something, after John's done rubbing his back out, but a well placed pinch usually cuts off the words. Rodney stays relaxed, noticeably in less pain, and John figures that makes any awkwardness bearable.

Of course, not everything is that easy to just brush under the rug and ignore. John can't just keep ignoring the wings anymore, not now that he's getting so much hands-on time with them. All of his careful efforts spent not watching Rodney fly get abandoned immediately. It's a relief. John hadn't realized how very badly he wanted to watch, to track Rodney's progress through the air, until he finally allows himself to.

Rodney's improved in the time that John's been ignoring his flights. He's comfortable in the air in a way that John's not sure he's ever managed to be on the ground. There's an easy skill to each movement that John would think was showing off if he thought Rodney cared even one iota about the opinions of the people watching below.

There's something dizzying about watching Rodney fold the wings and fall towards the waves in a corkscrew that he pulls out of at the last second to gain just enough lift to land on one of the lower piers. It's the same sharp thrill that John gets watching Rodney allow the hot air rising off the waves to push him straight up, catching the top of one of the spires and repairing damaged circuitry without a harness or a net, shifting and stretching the wings for balance every few seconds as a gust of wind pushes at him. It's all so very practical, and that makes it more fun to watch, somehow.

Unfortunately, it also makes John realize how many other people watch Rodney. He'd known, of course, that there was a city wide fascination with the wings. But letting himself notice, letting himself become aware of the extent of it, is still a surprise.

And, even worse, it proves Rodney right. There are an uncomfortable number of people wandering around the city hot and bothered over the wings. John wants to tell them to stop acting like hormonal teenagers, but seeing as his own body shares their reaction, he can't say much. Instead, John finds himself standing with them, listening to them talk, uncomfortable and curious all at the same time. He feels less alone, even as he feels more like a bastard.

The response of the other pilots isn't really a surprise. It's still at least a little amusing, at first, when John finds a group of them clustered together out on one of the wide open balconies. They're mostly leaning against the railing, faces tilted up to the sky, wearing glasses and smiles. None of them question it when John joins them, bracing his shoulders against the wall, scanning the sky until he spots Rodney.

Against the blue of the sky, Rodney's wings are harder to spot. John wonders if the entire color scheme was intended as camouflage, if the geneticists had planned that far ahead, or if it's purely a factor of Rodney's light skin. He supposes it doesn't really matter. The fact that Rodney's stomach and chest didn't turn blue as well kind of ruins any chameleon effect.

Now, Rodney is working with a group in one of the higher towers. Every now and then someone tosses him something out into the open air. John wonders what they're repairing, watching Rodney swoop in close to the tower, banking the wings at the last instant, catching a handhold and hanging there, looking all kinds of weightless.

One of the men standing beside John sighs, tone soft and wistful, "Can you even imagine what it must be like?" By the way the others nod, all at the same time, John has a feeling this isn't the first time they've heard this particular comment. But none of them are complaining.

In fact, the sole woman in the group, one of the new 302 pilots off the Apollo, is saying, "Being able to move on the wind like that would be amazing. The lift he must get..." She sighs, hands flexing around the railing, looking straight up as Rodney drops away from the tower, tumbling for two hundred feet before flaring the wings out and shooting back up, "Has anyone tested what kind of g's he can pull? How fast and maneuverable he is?"

Lorne shrugs, the only one sitting down, a notebook open in his lap, though there's nothing drawn on the plain white paper. There's a pencil tucked behind his ear. He says, "Doc Keller did some testing. And I did a test run in a Jumper with him."

John feels something tighten up across his shoulders, something bitter that tastes more than a little bit like jealousy. He grits out, "Really?" and they all suddenly look deeply uncomfortable. Good. If anyone should have been running test flights in a Jumper with Rodney, it should have been John.

Lorne is the only one who doesn't look completely like he suddenly wants to be somewhere else. He tilts his head to the side, squinting against the sunlight when he says, "Really. We already knew the Jumpers weren't exactly the most maneuverable ships," there's a soft murmur of agreement around the balcony, "so I don't know how impressive any test against them would be. What we need to do is get one of the 302s down here, and see how he matches her for sheer maneuverability." Another rising swell of agreement, offers to fly the 302, faint complaints that Rodney didn't come back with built in rocket launchers.

John just stares at them, almost surprised about where their area of concern lays. It makes sense. Flying might be their passion, but it's also their craft, their profession. That they're compartmentalizing the wings down into nothing more than a tool is to be expected. Still, it's not what John sees when he looks at them.

Above them, there's yelling, too faint to be made out over the distance between them. It doesn't sound panicked, just irritated, and Rodney comes up fast beside the window he's communicating through, flapping the wings hard in front of it. Inside, John can imagine the people being knocked back by the force of the wind, and grins a little to himself.

They all lapse into silence for a moment, but it's not to last. One of the other pilots, a man who John isn't sure he's ever met before, says, "It's a pity we don't have the tech to replicate them," without looking down, and John feels something icy curl up in his gut. The ice is joined by sour anger when around the balcony the others nod or make soft noises of agreement, with wistful, yearning looks on their faces.

John crosses his arms, his voice dropping to a low drawl, "Would you want a set?"

The man looks down, finally. He's young, probably just out of college, wet behind the ears. When he sees John he flushes, red climbing up the sides of his neck and the shell of his ears. John waits. A half second later the man shrugs, "Well, yes," looking uncomfortable and surprised that John even had to ask.

For a half-second all John can feel is anger. He wants to shake some sense into the man, to demand an explanation for why he hasn't noticed all the damage the wings have done. If the pain Rodney's in has somehow escaped them. The foods Rodney can't eat. The coffee Rodney can't drink. The fucking harness when Rodney wants to go off-world. The fact that Earth is as good as lost to Rodney.

John wants to say all of that. But it's not his place. Instead he says, "No, you wouldn't," and turns away from them. He leaves them in an uncomfortable silence, aware of their gaze on the back of his neck when he walks down the hall. John doesn't look back.

From then on, he does what he can to avoid the other pilots when Rodney is flying.

That isn't to say that all the other groups are any better, and after John wanders out onto a pier to find a bunch of the expedition's female members doing some kind of yoga thing while watching Rodney fly, he decides maybe he should just avoid other people all together. It's not even that they were saying anything bad.

John just isn't equipped to deal with one of his Marines licking her lips and saying, while twisting herself up into a pretzel, "Have you noticed how they change color sometimes?" Around her the other women are nodding, spines bent back.

Someone else, somewhere in the group where John can't see, says, "And you just know he could wrap them completely around you." Which John knows first hand Rodney could. Which he also knows he doesn't want any of these women to ever experience. There's something fiercely personnel about being wrapped up in the strange mix of fragility and strength that are Rodney's wings. John doesn't want to share.

His opinion isn't stopping the wistful sighs. A few of them even bite their lips, and John wonders when Atlantis became a high school homeroom, but figures that it probably happened years ago. It's just annoying him more than usual, presently.

One of the women, stretching her arms out over her head, says, with a wicked grin, "I bet they're insanely sensitive. You could probably make him come just from stroking them." And that's when John knows that it's time for him to go.

John walks away before they ever see him, too late to escape the words that are still playing through his mind. He wonders if it's true, and, if so, why it hasn't worked for him. God knows he's had more time to rub on Rodney's wings than any of them will get.

Just thinking about it makes him feel ridiculously guilty. John shakes his head, stuffing his hands into his pockets and walking randomly through the city. He ends up stopping by the cafeteria, grabbing some dinner, and going to try to find an empty balcony to watch the sunset. It takes more effort than it should to find an unoccupied space.

Eventually, John ends up out on the southern pier, the setting suns burning up the atmosphere. The meteorologists claim that it's the constant storms on the southern continent that cause the green and purple sunsets. John doesn't particularly care what causes them.

He eats slowly, not expecting to catch a glimpse of Rodney, who had been working on the other side of the city all day. The sandwich is good, if a little soggy, and John is just licking mustard off of his fingers when the light from the sunset is blotted out, wind buffeting him, the dry sounds of Rodney's wings filling up the air between them momentarily.

John throws an arm up over his face automatically, the air stinging his eyes anyway. When he drops his arm, blinking, Rodney is standing on the railing. He's not wearing shoes. Lately he's been wearing them less and less around the city, and no one has said a word about it. His toes are curled up against the railing, his ankles raised, balancing like it's nothing.

John swallows the words rising in his throat, because he doesn't know what they are, and that scares him. Rodney's face is in shadow, his wings spread out behind him, blocking off the light. For a moment they're frozen, just like that, and then Rodney draws the wings in, light pouring back in over John's legs.

Rodney is saying, "Hey, did you get anything for me?" as he hops down off of the railing. He's shirtless, his shoulders a little red from being out under the sun all day, the muscles in his arms and shoulders and chest still standing tight and tense from flight, skin a little slick with sweat.

John's voice comes out hoarse when he hands over the one part of his meal that Rodney can safely consume, "Jell-O." It's the green kind, and Rodney makes a face but snatches it anyway, settling down onto the floor beside John, wings spreading out and taking up most of the space on the balcony.

Rodney is saying, "I can't believe you got the green kind. What the hell is wrong with you?" but he's eating, here, beside John, and somehow John doesn't much mind that his food was just stolen by someone who's only going to bitch about it. John just shrugs, watching the sunset. Watching Rodney.

hr

Now that John knows the degree to which everyone else is fixated on Rodney's wings, he can't get it out of his head. He's not sure what bothers him more, the people who seem perfectly willing to treat them like nothing more than a new resource, or the people who seem sexually fascinated by them. He's beginning to think that only the team just sees them as a part of Rodney.

It makes John uncomfortable, and sure that someone else in the city is going to overstep their bounds. Rodney has enough problems without people getting handsy with him, or treating any part of him like a thing, and John is ashamed of the people under his command for apparently not realizing that.

Obviously, he's going to have to take matters into his own hands, just until they wise up enough to figure it out on their own.

It doesn't take John long to decide that it's even worse than he realized. When he swings by the labs, just to check on Rodney, he's just in time to catch Michaels reaching out to touch Rodney's wing as he squeezes past. Rodney doesn't keep the wings as closely mantled as he originally did, but there's still plenty of room to avoid that level of intimacy.

John narrows his eyes, sliding up beside Rodney and resting his hip against Rodney's desk before offering him the thermos full of fortified apple juice. Rodney is in mid-rant, but he snatches the juice anyway, taking a long swig and somehow managing to talk even with a mouthful of liquid.

Across the room, Zelenka yells back, waving two dry-erase markers and an eraser, accidentally jabbing Simpson in the cheek with a blue marker. She grabs Zelenka's coffee and pours it down the sink, and Rodney curses, hurrying across the room to try to break the two up before it comes to blows.

John shakes his head, rolling his eyes and listening to the yelling escalate. He has every bit of faith that Rodney will be able to handle his misbehaving children on his own. Instead, John narrows his focus down onto Michaels, hooking one thumb into his belt and ambling over to the man's work station.

Michaels is bent over his computer, typing something in feverously. John peers over his shoulder, the symbols on the screen moving too quickly for him to see, much less make sense of. It doesn't really matter. John sips his coffee, and just stands.

It doesn't take more than thirty seconds for Michaels to start shifting around. And once he starts that, it's only a matter of heartbeats before the scientist is rubbing at the back of his neck and then looking over his shoulder. Michaels goes amusingly wide-eyed when he spots John.

John smiles, nodding a little bit and then grabbing the back of Michaels' chair and spinning him around. Michaels gapes up at him, not letting go of his keyboard immediately. It clatters down to the floor, John raising an eyebrow and Michaels finally blurts, "Uh, hello? Is there something I can help you with?"

John shrugs, says, "I hope so," and Michaels cuts a nervous look to the side. Rodney is still dealing with Zelenka and Simpson, a process which seems to include telling both of them that they're wrong and idiots for wasting his time and erasing most of the work on the white boards. John continues, lightly, "We have a very strict harassment policy here."

Rodney chooses then to shout, exasperated, "Oh my God! How did your parents manage not to beat you to death while you were growing up? Wrong, wrong, abysmally wrong!" and Michaels looks up at John, eyebrows rising slowly. John just glares, until the man stops trying to looks so smug.

Once Michaels is back to looking uncomfortable, John leans over just a little. Michaels tries to squirm backwards in his chair, but there's nowhere for him to go. John turns up the corners of his mouth, says as though he hadn't been interrupted, "And we're our own enforcers."

Michaels swallows heavily, starting to twist to reach for his fallen keyboard and then catching himself, saying hurriedly, "Look, I'm not really sure what you're talking about, but I—"

"If I catch you touching the wings again, I'm going to have to take the appropriate action." The words come out lower than John had intended, and Michaels gapes at him. Across the room, the yelling is starting to die down, and John straightens, turning to find Rodney yelling, "Fix it!" and shoving both Zelenka and Simpson towards the whiteboard before spinning on his heel.

Michaels is still staring, mouth hanging open just a little bit, which isn't exactly the promise to behave that John had been hoping for, but it's a start. John pats Michaels' shoulder, squeezing just hard enough to make the man jump before turning to meet Rodney.

When John leaves, Michaels still looks pole-axed. He wonders if Rodney is aware of the man's problems with adapting. He'll have to bring it up if Michaels can't pull himself together.

hr

Making sure people keep their hands to themselves is a harder task than John had been originally anticipating. Apparently they've all been given too much leeway for too long, because it feels like every time he turns around someone is touching or grabbing or squeezing, without even bothering to ask Rodney if that's okay.

John's never backed down from a fight. He grits his teeth and prepares to have a lot of conversations, none of which he's looking forward to in the slightest. It's especially frustrating when everyone just stares at him while he's talking, until the point where they all start looking deeply unsettled. John can work with unsettled.

It's all worth it when the unprovoked and unappreciated contact starts to lessen. John tries not to feel too pleased with himself, but not very hard. He knows he should have done this earlier, but he figures better late than never.

Teyla and Ronon appear briefly confused when John tells them about the clarification of the rules that everyone seems to be ignoring, but they catch on quickly. John had known that they would. Teyla seems slightly amused by the entire thing, but Ronon seems to be pleased, and pretty much immediately John catches Ronon having private little discussions with people.

Most of the people Ronon talks to just skip unsettled and go right to promising never to do it again, and John seriously considers just relegating all conversation duties to Ronon. That really wouldn't be fair. And besides, there are a lot of people to get into contact with.

It's harder to stop everyone from staring every time Rodney takes to the skies. It's really not appropriate, and John is sure their productivity has to be suffering while they're busy objectifying the wings. They need to be saved from themselves, and John accepts that it's his responsibility as the leader of the military contingent to take care of that.

Technically, they should have been having fire drills since they arrived. They never really had. The scientists were bad about refusing to leave their labs, and the military tended to overreact to alarms of any kind going off. It was better for everyone's blood pressure to just not and say they did.

Luckily, Woolsey is very sympathetic to John's argument when John goes to him with the problem. John can't call a fire drill every time Rodney goes out to fly, but he does when he can. After that, it's surprisingly easy to find work for people, down in the dark, abandoned levels of the city. Far away from any windows.

John gets the exercise classes held out on the piers moved inside for safety reasons. Teyla gives him dirty looks over that one for a while, but John can't even fake repentance. It's their fault for abusing the privilege, not his.

If Rodney notices the sudden decrease in unwelcome attention, he doesn't say anything about it. Which John is willing to admit means that Rodney hasn't noticed. It's only slightly disappointing, because John wouldn't have minded some acknowledgment of their concern.

Rodney does seem more relaxed, though. Part of it is the regular back and wing rubs. They still knot up and get tense, but for the most part John can keep it under control. It doesn't take him long to learn the problem spots, the muscles under Rodney's shoulder blades, and down the back of Rodney's neck always end up particularly fucked up.

Rodney doesn't offer again to let John do anything afterwards, which is a relief. They don't talk much while John is helping him, which is a relief as well. Every time Rodney opens his mouth when they're like this, things tend to get weird and uncomfortable between them, and John's had enough weird and uncomfortable between them for a lifetime.

After particularly bad missions, when Rodney is trapped in the harness for more than three days, Ronon and Teyla come by to help. John expects to resent their presence, and with anyone else, he's sure he would. But they're team, and he likes them to be there. Besides, those days, mostly John is desperate to do anything to ease the pain that's crippling Rodney.

Keller only comes to John once to thank him for getting Rodney to take less of the medication she'd been providing him with. She doesn't ask how, and John's grateful, because he isn't sure how he'd explain to anyone other than Ronon and Teyla what they're doing for Rodney. He doesn't want anyone to get any ideas. Particularly not Keller, which he knows and recognizes as spiteful. He can't help it. He isn't really trying very hard.

Someone needs to watch out for Rodney, and it's going to be the team. For the most part, the situation seems to be in hand, but there's still more staring than John is strictly comfortable with. If it makes him nervous, it has to be bothering Rodney as well, and, really, everyone in the city has been given more than enough time to slake their curiosity. John's tired of humoring them.

Aside from making a city wide announcement, John is running out of solutions to deal with the unwelcome attention. Sitting in the mess, eating lunch with Rodney and watching everyone else watch them, John can feel his irritation building.

Rodney is digging into a bowl of the cook's newest fruit and sugar concoction. The sweet smell makes John's teeth ache in sympathy, but Keller had been all bubbly with insistence that somehow the enamel on Rodney's teeth had been changed like so much else, and so far there'd been no sign of all of them rotting right out of his mouth. John finds himself standing anyway, saying, "Refill," and motioning with his cup when Rodney shoots him a surprised look.

Most of the mess hall is paying attention to Rodney. Conversational volume has gone way down since he got the wings, people too distracted to talk while they eat. John's put up with it, but he's starting to think that maybe he's reached his limit, right here.

John refills his coffee, goes back to the table, and sets it down by his plate. When he doesn't sit down immediately, Rodney looks up, asking, "What? Is it time for your hour of looming practice? Can you go do it somewhere else?"

John says, his stomach going tight with nerves, "You were out on the eastern pier earlier, right?" They'd had a problem with one of the shield generators, hard to reach and out of the way, and John knows damn well that Rodney flew out there. He still smells like the salt spray.

Rodney tilts his face up, shooting John a confused look, "Yes? Is it broken again? Did you just have a sudden epiphany about work that you never even saw? Can it wait until after—"

Rodney cuts himself off when John steps behind him, curving one hand around the back of Rodney's neck, resting his other on Rodney's shoulder. The leather of Rodney's shirt is warm beneath John's palms, the muscles tense and knotted. Rodney's wings shift out a little, making room for John, and there's a smile turning up the corner of John's mouth before he can stop it. Rodney's voice comes out low, "John?"

"We should take care of it now, so it won't be as bad later." John has no idea what he thinks he's doing, but it's far too late to back out of it now. John swallows, squeezing carefully at Rodney's shoulders, sliding his hand down until the heel of his hand is pressing against skin, right above the base of Rodney's left wing.

Rodney says, rough, "Here?" and John realizes that he's gone perfectly still. Rodney has his hands flat on the table on either side of his plate, his head tilted forward. His heartbeat is a steady thrum beneath John's touch, his voice rough, "I don't think, uh, here, is a good idea, actually."

John looks around the room. Everyone is still staring. He says, "I think it is," and traces his thumb around the side of the base of the wing, muscle twitching under his touch. On the table, Rodney is pressing down hard with his fingertips, the skin under his fingernails turning white from the pressure.

Apparently that's not quite good enough for Rodney, who blurts, "No, bad, believe me," even as John squeezes at the joint, and his wings spread out a little more. Rodney takes a shuddering breath, leaning forward, elbows sliding up onto the table, fingers knocking into John's coffee cup and almost sloshing the contents everywhere.

John says, "You'll feel better," and Rodney makes a tiny sound, dropping his head forward. Around them the mess hall has gone completely silent, but John is now too distracted to care. Rodney might very well have been right, because John has a horrible feeling that it's going to take everyone about two seconds to notice that he's hard, just from this.

This is when John should flee, while he still has some semblance of pride left intact, and he knows it. Somehow that's not stopping him from gently squeezing the base of Rodney's wing, a flex of his fingers that has Rodney dropping his head down and arching his back up, wings sliding out further to each side.

Even ignoring the fact that John's about to seriously embarrass himself in front of most of the expedition, this isn't the best idea he's ever had.

For one thing, it's at least a little unfair to Rodney. John knows how good the absence of pain feels to Rodney. He knows, also, that there's no way in hell Rodney's going to keep protesting, not with John touching him like this. There's a trust between them, that Rodney even lets him do this in private, and John thinks this might be breaking it.

But he's so fucking tired of everyone staring. And Rodney is legitimately hurting right now, John could see it as soon as Rodney walked into the mess hall. That alone is enough to tip the balance of the scales on this decision, and John frowns, curving his other hand up around the back of Rodney's neck, brushing his thumb over the bumps of Rodney's spine.

John says, so soft he barely hears the words, "I can't really get your shoulders," not with the shirt on, and John is aware enough not to think taking that off here would be a good idea, even if he is briefly tempted by the thought. The thick leather is good for a lot of things, mostly keeping Rodney warm and covered up, but it seriously hampers any massaging.

"Okay," Rodney's voice is low and a little thick, and he sort of nods with his shoulders. "Sure, great. Just—whatever."

John nods back, even with Rodney's head down. He slides both hands back to the wing, kneading softly, working his way out to the first joint. Around them the mess hall is so quiet John could hear a pin drop, but he's barely even aware of it. Somewhere down below conscious thought, he's aware that everyone in the room is staring, and that maybe his plan is backfiring a little bit, but his mission objectives have slightly changed.

Their lunch hour has long come and gone by the time John finishes the first wing. Rodney has shifted around, moving in tiny increments while John worked. Now he's got his arms crossed on the table, plates and cups shoved to the side, his cheek resting on his forearms, eyes half-lidded.

John gently helps Rodney cradle the wing close, Rodney making a little contented humming sound when John reaches for the other. John grins just to hear it, sliding a hand up into the short hair at the back of Rodney's neck, squeezing and shaking him back and forth just a little bit. Rodney's answering grumble of protest is barely audible and half-hearted at best.

It makes John snort on a laugh, shaking his head, getting down to work on Rodney's other wing. The sun pouring in through the large windows is warm along John's right side. It's still so very, very quiet in the room. John barely notices any of it.

By the time John finishes with the wing, Rodney has one arm stretched out, fingers curled over the edge of the table. His face is pressed up against the side of his arm, but there aren't any lines of pain there that John can see.

John fights off the sudden, powerful urge to bend over and brush a kiss to Rodney's temple. It has significantly less to do with him being worried about all the people around them than with the fact that he doesn't think Rodney would welcome the action. John's pretty sure it should worry him that his priorities are this out of whack. Maybe it will later.

For now, John slides his palms back in towards Rodney's body, the wings warm and smooth beneath his skin. He asks, "Better?" and Rodney makes a sleepy sound, cracking one eye and focusing on John after a moment. There's only a thin ring of blue around Rodney's pupil, and seeing that makes something in John's stomach go tight and sends a shiver down his spine.

John doesn't yank his hands away from Rodney's skin, but he does remove them quickly, clearing his throat. He says, "Right. Well. We should probably—" John tilts his head towards one of the doors, and for a long moment Rodney just stares at him, looking uncomprehending.

Luckily, Rodney is quicker on the uptake than most people. He says, "Oh, oh, right. Yes." He shifts up, stretching the wings to half their span as he stands, looking at his watch and frowning, taping the face and then turning to glare accusingly at John, "Do you know how long I've been away from the labs? It's amazing that they haven't sunk the city while I was in here indulging your proclivity for Swedish massages."

John rolls his eyes, tugging on the hem of his jacket while Rodney is busy gathering up their trash. It's hard to get his voice anywhere close to the lazy, sarcastic tone he wants when he says, "You're welcome, Rodney."

Rodney snorts, straightening and then pausing with a considering look on his face. Before John can blink, Rodney is sighing, stretching the wings out to their full span, rocking up onto his toes and tilting his head back and to the side. Obviously, he's worked full-bodied stretching to an art form while John wasn't paying attention. John tugs on the hem of his jacket again.

Then Rodney is folding the wings in, his mouth turned up just a little bit in the corner. He says, "Well, time to go find out how badly they messed everything up," with an almost cheerful tone in his voice, before turning and walking out of the mess hall.

John watches him go, pushing down the stubborn insistence in his gut that he should be going after Rodney. Instead, John just stands there for a long moment, clenching and unclenching his fists, his skin warm from the memory of Rodney's wings.

It's not until someone softly coughs over to one side that John shakes himself and really remembers where he is. He drags a hand back through his hair, blowing out a hard breath and wishing Rodney had left some of their trash behind, if just to give John something to do with his hands.

As it is, John is left with nothing but walking out. No one has started talking yet, half of them watching John with wide-eyes, the others very studiously staring down at their plates. John feels like maybe he should say something, but absolutely nothing is coming to mind, so he just walks out silently.

Outside, John presses one hand to the wall, cursing himself for an idiot. Then he shakes himself and forces his legs to work, walking stiffly to the nearest transporter and jabbing a finger viciously against the control panel. The seconds it takes to reach the crew quarters seem to take an eternity.

John's tried not to regularly jerk off after he massages out Rodney's wings and back. It seems twisted, and makes him feel like he's taking advantage, though he isn't quite sure how. Sometimes he can't help it, just needs a little bit of fucking relief, even if he feels guilty about it afterwards.

Today he needs to ease some of the pressure away. John braces his shoulders back against the door, fumbling with his belt buckle and zipper. His free hand goes up to his mouth, and he bites hard at his knuckles, cursing clumsily and tipping his face up to the ceiling, eyes squeezed shut.

He's been hard for way too long for this to be anything but fast. He tries to cut off a ragged sound in the back of his throat, fisting his cock and pushing up. God, he wants, so very much more than this. John knocks his head back hard against the door again, trying to stop thinking about the things he can't have.

John is less than successful. He comes all over his hand, six hard strokes later, thinking about Rodney, images all jumbled together in his mind. Afterwards, John braces his legs, breathing hard through his nose, still worrying at his knuckles with his teeth.

This was not what he intended back in the cafeteria. Not at all.

hr

After that, John really intends to cut back a little bit on the protective streak he'd been nurturing. Obviously he can't be completely trusted himself, and who is he to judge the others when he can't control himself any better than they can. All those intentions last about two seconds after a soldier hurrying through the halls just picks Rodney up and moves him out of the way without so much as pausing.

Rodney calls something angrily after the man's retreating back, even while rolling his eyes, like it's something he's resigned himself to. John starts making brand new plans on how to impress upon people that just because Rodney can be lifted and moved easily doesn't mean he should be.

So John ends up back where he was without Rodney ever knowing that John had attempted to change. Somehow that doesn't surprise John as much as he's sure it should. He does manage not to rub out Rodney's wings in public anymore, though he's more than tempted a few times. He's sure the first and only time started enough gossip. The last thing they need is to throw further fuel on the fire.

And it's not as though the entire exercise is completely ineffective. People do stop with the constant touching, though apparently nothing John can do is going to cut down on the staring. He'll just have to deal with it, and, for his part, Rodney already appears to have acclimated to all the attention being sent his way.

John figures that's pretty much the best he's going to be able to hope for, and waits for something to show up to fuck up the status quo.

He doesn't have to wait long.

The scientists in Rodney's labs had always been the worst offenders for the inappropriate grabbing, and John still swings by to check things out once or twice a day. He just wants to make sure that the threat of his presence stays in the forefront of their minds. And, besides, it's not like that's any change in his schedule. He's been stopping randomly by the labs since the very beginning.

John nods to Zelenka when he steps into the room, carrying a refill for Rodney's thermos. Zelenka rolls his eyes in reply, even as he snatches up his laptop and makes for the door. The man can put on some serious speed when he wants to, and John raises his eyebrows.

For Zelenka to flee that quickly, Rodney must be in a seriously foul mood. John takes a drink of his coffee, scanning the lab for Rodney, ignoring the way the scientists sort of fall silent when he walks past them. A few of them rise noisily. All of them make for the doors.

John decides he doesn't want to know. He finds Rodney standing in a half-circle of whiteboards, grumbling to himself and pounding calculations into a tablet. For a long moment, John just watches him, the wings flexing a little bit each time Rodney makes a particularly irritated sound, papers on the surrounding desks stirring and then resettling.

Before John can think of a thing to say, Rodney looks up, startles and then curses, snapping, "Jesus fuck! Did you finally pay the last nineteen ninety-five for your super secret stealth ninja shoes or something?" Rodney is glaring, but still takes the thermos when John offers it to him.

John ignores the snappish greeting entirely, nodding instead at the white boards and asking, "Working on something special?"

Rodney is still giving John a dark look, interrupted only when he tips his head back to take a long drink from the thermos. When Rodney swallows, he wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand, grumbling, "Yeah, it's the formula for the perfect golf swing."

John rolls his eyes, leaning his hip against the wall and only wondering absently what it actually is. The odds of him understanding it are abysmally low, but he wouldn't mind listening to Rodney attempt to explain it anyway. John's just opening his mouth to say so when Rodney frowns and pushes past him.

"What?" John's question goes ignored, Rodney looking down at the screens of the laptops set up around the room, typing things on a few of them, moving increasingly quickly as he goes. John feels something cold lodge in his stomach, "Rodney, what the hell is it?"

Rodney doesn't spare him a look, distracted when he says, "Shut up for two seconds," and then, "Don't you hear that? Something's..." he snaps his fingers, turning in a little circle. John freezes, holding his breath and straining his ears.

It takes him a half second to hear the soft beeping. It's so faint that John knows he wouldn't have noticed it unless someone had pointed it out. And it seems to be speeding up. Across the room, Rodney looks up, eyes getting wider when he curses and flaps the wings, sharp and short.

The movement is just enough to carry Rodney over a desk, knocking the whiteboards completely over, papers fluttering everywhere. Rodney pushes past John again, cursing over and over under his breath, grabbing the computer at the work station in the corner and then jerking back like it burned him.

Rodney says, "Oh, no," and John jerks forward, grabbing him, because they need to get out of here right now. When Rodney starts saying 'oh, no' things never, ever, end up going well. Rodney is babbling, "This wasn't my fault, oh, fuck, I never should have let her work on it, I should have—"

Rodney cuts himself off, seeming to realize for the first time that John is dragging him towards the door. Behind them, the beep has settled into one long note, and it reminds John, for just a second, of Rodney's heartbeat. The air suddenly feels thicker. When John takes a deep breath, it burns in his lungs. They're almost to the door.

"No time," Rodney looks over his shoulder, and John can't help looking as well. The air around the work station is starting to shimmer with heat. It's been, maybe, ten seconds since John first heard the beeping. Rodney turns back to look at him, eyes wide, as all the air in the room seems to pull away, like the tide drawing back from the shore in preparation for a massive wave.

John curses, breathless, and yanks Rodney forward, preparing to give everything he has to getting to the door.

John isn't anticipating Rodney grabbing him back as the quality of light in the room shifts to something bright and sharp. Rodney hisses, no air to get his voice any louder, "Fuck," and then he's wrapping around John, arms tight around John's chest, wings folding around John's back, covering him from head to feet, warm and alive and tight.

John just manages, "Don't—" because this doesn't feel like a hug, this feels like shielding, and no, no, no. The world explodes then, to light and sound and heat. The force of the blast takes them off their feet, John landing hard on his shoulder, hearing something crack under his weight, Rodney jerking, his whole body just vibrating with what John can only assume is pain.

The heat is impossibly searing for the brief time it lasts, the force of the air so hard that John still can't breathe. The sound is too loud for John to make out anything else, but he has the impression of movement, of things shifting where he can't see or hear or think. Rodney's arms, squeezing him hard, are the only things that feel real at all for a long time.

And then it's over.

The sudden quiet has John's ears ringing. There's salty liquid on his lips, and John licks at it, swallowing his blood down. His eyes are burning, and John blinks slowly, feeling dizzy and disoriented. His head hurts like someone took a sledge hammer to it.

It takes a long time before John can manage to connect his thoughts together in any useful way. He feels scrambled up inside, but the world manages to creep back in anyway. He's pretty sure he remembers landing on his back, but now he's on his stomach, sprawled across Rodney.

Rodney's pulse is beating fast against John's forehead, where he has his head tucked down against Rodney's neck. Rodney's breath is fast and irregular, and there's something hot and wet sinking down against John's back.

Making himself focus on that takes what feels like hours. Then John grunts, trying to shift up. He's probably too heavy to be lying on top of Rodney, anyway, and he worries about broken ribs, the thoughts swimming disjointedly through his mind.

John tries to raise himself up, and Rodney screams, body jerking and thrashing, the sound burning like fire in John's brain. John curses, feeling the weight across his shoulders for the first time, trying to figure out what it is, wishing he was working on all cylinders here because—

Because Rodney had wrapped his wings around John, before the world went all to blinding light and crushing sound. John finds himself holding his breath, staring at Rodney's shoulder. John's shirt is sticking to his back, wet and hot.

John gags on, "No, oh no," and attempts to shift slower this time. Rodney is gasping for breath, making a tight whining sound in the back of his throat. Even moving slowly makes Rodney sob, but John can't just keep laying here, he can't, he has to help.

John manages to twist half up, the wings still wrapped around him. He braces one hand on the floor over Rodney's shoulder, taking a bracing breath, not sure he's going to be able to make himself look, not sure he can handle this, not when he can smell the blood now, thick and salty in the air.

Turns out he can. John twists his head slowly back, swallowing down bitter bile. There's too much blood for John to see much, but he can see his shirt through some of the jagged holes torn in Rodney's wings. The blood is soaking down to the floor, spreading out around them, dark red and thick.

John curses, choking on it, fumbling for his radio and yelling words he doesn't hear into it. It takes him a long moment to figure out where one wing ends and the other starts, the ruined skin and the blood making everything hard and slick.

John says, his voice rough and scratchy in his throat, "I'm gonna—I'm gonna---" he swallows, the words just not coming, no matter how hard he tries. He can't make himself look at Rodney's face, not with the tiny sounds Rodney is making, the way he's shaking. Instead he manages to force out, "You're fine, you're going to be fine."

There's no response from Rodney. John swallows down more bile, still staring at the wings. Some of the long, thin bones are snapped. John can remember falling on them, the nausea rising so thick up his throat that he has to spit, his gut clenching hard.

John squeezes his eyes shut, trying to center himself. He grits out, "Okay, okay. I'm so sorry about this," and then he reaches back, carefully pulling one of Rodney's wings back. Beneath him, Rodney bows up, screaming, before mercifully passing out, going silent and still except for the ragged rhythm of his breathing and his racing heartbeat.

John's hands are instantly covered in blood. It makes Rodney's wings hard to grip, and he fumbles with the one he'd been moving to the side, wincing. Rodney doesn't make a sound, his head twisted to the side, mouth open, and so pale that John can see the blue lacework of veins in his eyelids.

There are more words falling out of John's throat, but he can't really keep track of them anymore. There's no way for him to straighten the wing, too many of the bones have snapped, there's not really enough of it left, in any case. John does the best his can, ignoring the way his hands are shaking, rocking forward and down to press a hard lipped kiss to Rodney's temple, though he doesn't know why.

The other wing is still lying across John's back, and he twists back, reaching for it. Not as many of the fine bones are snapped in this one, though it's still shredded. Blood is pumping out of too many tears for John to count, running over his hands and his sides and the floor, far more blood than any normal people would even contain.

John has the sudden, terrible surety that Rodney's going to bleed out here, on the floor of this lab, and rejects it. He can't allow that to happen. He won't.

John's head swims when he forces himself up to his knees, and he has to pause just for a second, sucking in breathes that sting in his lungs. He considers, distantly, that some of the blood all over the floor might very well be his, but it doesn't matter.

Getting to his feet is harder, especially because John has to wrap an arm under Rodney first, pulling him close and tight and raising them both. Rodney is all dead weight, the wings dragging his spine back, his neck tilted at an angle that looks nothing but painful. There's so much blood.

John shakes himself, putting his other hand behind Rodney's neck, pulling him forward, pressing Rodney's face to his shoulder. That way he can feel Rodney's failing breath against his neck. There's no way to gather up the wings, not in the shape they're in. Jarring them like this has to be agony. John's glad that Rodney's unconscious for it.

After two hard breathes, John starts making his way to the door. His body stings, like he just belly-flopped all over, or was very badly carpet burnt. John ignores it, just like he ignores his feet slipping in the blood, just like he ignores the slow pulses of blood he can feel running down over his arms. All it means is that Rodney's heart is still beating. That's all.

The door is locked. This close, John can hear other people outside of it, angry voices rising higher and higher. He bangs his shoulder against the wall beside the door, managing to knock the control panel open, leaving bloody fingerprints across the crystals inside, trying to remember the sequence for the override.

In the end, it's something he touches by accident that has the doors sliding open. John doesn't really care. It's enough that it works at all. Cool air floods into the lab, followed by more yelling, followed by people, crowding and shoving at each other, and then freezing.

There's a med team there, and Rodney's scientists, and Ronon and Teyla, thank God, Ronon and Teyla. John stares at them, trying to pull himself together enough to start giving orders, but Teyla takes it out of his hands, her voice calm and steady, "Everyone move out of the way of the stretcher! Ronon, help John."

Everyone starts moving, following her direction without so much as hesitating. Later that memory might make John smile. Now there are too many other things going on in his brain for him to appreciate it. Ronon is moving towards him, grabbing John's arm and trying to unwrap it from around Rodney.

John tightens his grip automatically, snarling up at Ronon, and Teyla is there, resting a hand on his shoulder, speaking against his ear, "You must let him go." John keeps staring at Ronon, the man holding his gaze, calm and steady. Every instinct in John's body says to fight them, to hold onto Rodney at all costs, but logic and faith in them wins out. John relaxes his grip.

Ronon has Rodney in his arms in seconds, twisting and taking the two steps over to the stretcher. He settles Rodney down onto his stomach, already covered in blood, just like John. Doctors swarm around, hooking up I.V.s so quickly that it's almost like magic, yelling at each other, wheeling the stretcher out, pressure bandages going everywhere, working as they run.

Someone asks him, then, what happened. John stares blankly forward, not even seeing the face of the person who spoke. He's not sure how it matters. He's not sure how any of it matters. He bends over, bracing his hands on his knees and spitting between his feet. His mouth tastes like ash.

Above his head, Teyla is saying, "Ronon," and apparently communicating the rest telepathically, because John finds himself jerked back upright. He means to protest when Ronon manhandles him out of the room, but the dizzy lightheadedness is back with a vengeance. The only thing keeping the world from spinning out from under John's feet is Ronon's grip around his biceps, strong and sure.

They end up down in the locker rooms, Ronon shoving John into the showers and whipping out his field knife. The water beats down on John's head, not nearly as hot as Rodney's blood, while Ronon cuts off John's blood soaked clothes, leaving them in a little pile on the black tile.

There are little cuts and burns across John's shoulders and back. They sting like sons of bitches under the spray, but aren't that deep. John feels sick, scrubbing at his skin until every hint of the blood is gone, though he's managed to stain his skin red.

He probably would have stayed beneath the water longer, but Ronon yanked him out then. The towel across John's back is another small agony, stinging like nettles against the wounds. The pain steadies John, brings him back into his own head enough for him to focus on putting on the clothes Teyla has retrieved.

This time, when Ronon reaches for him, John waves him off. He's feeling not so much like he's going to fall over anymore. Ronon raises his eyebrows, but doesn't comment, pulling off his own blood soaked shirt and stepping towards the showers.

For a beat, John and Teyla just stare at each other, and then she nods slightly. John nods back, as much of a thank-you as he can presently manage. He steps past her, out of the locker room, hesitating for a beat before turning in the direction of the infirmary. He wants to run, very badly, but he doesn't.

Richardson is pacing agitatedly outside the doors to the infirmary, and somehow that isn't a surprise at all. The man looks like he's fit to start climbing up the walls, and John can sympathize with that. It actually makes him feel better, somehow, that he's not the only one wearing a hole in the floor.

Neither of them says a word to the other, which is fine with John. He's not fit to speak to anyone at this point, and he knows it. In his head there's nothing but static, buzzing down through his bones, into the pit of his stomach, where it gains weight and mass, and chills down to ice.

They wait.

hr

It hasn't been very long at all when Keller comes out of the infirmary, but there's a huge crowd gathered. Everyone in the city must have heard almost immediately, and most of them apparently headed directly for the infirmary. They've been hanging back, leaving enough space for John to pace, but they're there, present and inescapable.

Keller is covered in blood, and she looks right at John, walking up to him and almost placing one bloody hand on his arm before she catches herself and just motions him closer. John has to squeeze his eyes shut, just for a beat, before bending, putting himself level with her. There's a drop of blood in the corner of her glasses. A strand of her hair has come loose and is trying to fall forward.

Then she's speaking, and the scattershot observations that had been keeping John's mind busy fade out, "You should—you should come in. Your team. Anyone else that you think he would want—"

John reels back as though she hit him, her eyes huge and pitying. It takes everything he has to keep his expression blank, his heart pounding hard in his chest. There's pressure in his throat, nearly choking him, and John sucks in shallow breathes through his nose, the best he can do.

Keller says, "I'm sorry," and her voice breaks on the words. Around them, the crowd has gone remarkably quiet, except for the hiss of a whispered radio call off to one side. John thinks it was one of Rodney's scientists. Mostly, though, it's like they're all holding their breath. John has no doubt that they've heard every word she said, no matter how quiet she tried to be.

John has to clear his throat before he can speak, and even then his voice comes out flat and hoarse, "There's nothing?" He can't elaborate, not with the cotton in his throat, the burn behind his eyes that he's resolutely not feeling.

"I'm so sorry," Keller is still looking at him, her eyes huge and dry even though she's blinking a lot. Somewhere, John is impressed. He's sure that if Rodney kept almost dying on his operating table he wouldn't be handling it as well.

"Right," John swallows hard, looking down to the ground and then back up. His jaw aches, his teeth pushing against each other hard. He clears his throat again, "Right. We—someone get a video link set up for his sister, and—"

"Move!" The shout is so loud after the silence that John startles, jerking his head to the side. Zelenka is pushing and shoving his way through the gathered crowd, Miko moving in from the side, both of their expressions tense and determined.

John frowns, "He'd want to see—"

Before John can finish, Zelenka is shoving his way out of the crowd, hugging a little green globe to his chest, his glasses askew and his hair a mess. Zelenka shoves the globe towards John, blurting, "He would not want to die. Is no one else aware of this?" There's nothing but sharp scorn in Zelenka's voice, and John raises his eyebrows, sharp words poised on his tongue that he never gets to speak, because Miko is stepping forward and cutting in.

"Doctor McKay left very strict orders that this machine was not to be used after we found its entry in the Ancient database." Which doesn't help John at all. He stares at the pair of them, hard, wondering where the hell they're going with this, impatience making him feel even sicker than he already had.

Miko cuts a look towards Zelenka, who is still trying to press the globe into John's hands. John finally takes it just because he's tired of being nudged in the chest. It's only the size of a small bowling ball, but not nearly as heavy. It's very cold against his skin.

John asks, staring down hard at the machine, "Why didn't Rodney want this to be used?" He doesn't have to look up to know that they're exchanging worried glances again. John turns the globe in his hands, ignoring Keller when she clears her throat over to the side.

It's Zelenka who finally breaks the silence, "It is very dangerous to the user. Especially if the recipient's wounds are severe. There were deaths in the initial testing of the device." John looks up slowly, feeling something inside him go very still.

He asks, because he needs to be completely sure that they're all on the same page, "Are you telling me this will fix him?" John cradles the machine closer without thinking about it, a cold pressure against his stomach that chills him through his clothes.

Zelenka meets John's gaze levelly, mouth pressed thin and tight, "I am telling you that it should. It is not hard to operate. It is, hm, intuitive? We believe it was meant for battlefield triage, for soldiers, yes? You can—" John isn't listening anymore, the words fading to a soft buzz in the back of his head.

John starts to step around Keller, because this isn't even a decision he has to think about to make. She cuts him off, hands raised, striving for calm with her tone, "I can't let you endanger yourself to—" And John just doesn't have time for this. Every second wasted feels like a punch to his gut.

John looks to the side, nodding at Ronon and Teyla. They don't even hesitate, and John loves them a little bit for that. Ronon rumbles, "Sorry," even as he lifts Keller, hefting her over one shoulder. Teyla grabs Ronon's stunner as she passes, waving the infirmary door open, John following on her heels.

Once they're inside, someone demands an explanation for their presence, and John barely hears Teyla saying, "Please, pretend we are not here." John's sure that the politeness is somewhat contradicted by the fact that she has Ronon's blaster trained on the medical staff.

It's hard for John to care about it very much. Not even when Ronon steps into the room, sans Keller, waving the door shut and joining Teyla. John leaves them to take care of the doctors and nurses, yanking aside curtain after curtain, his heart pounding in his throat.

Rodney is half-way across the room. There's blood all over the floor beside, around, under his bed, still dripping. Keller has him hooked up to all kinds of drips, bags and bags of the specially synthesized blood she has to use for him now. He's flat on his stomach, mangled wings stretched out and cleaned off, which only makes them look worse.

John looks down at the little globe in his hands, back at Rodney, and squares up his shoulders. His boots make little squishing sounds when he steps into the blood, and it puts John's teeth on edge. He ignores it. Rodney is still out, barely breathing now, skin tone gone ashen.

John clears his throat, and says, "Everything is going to be fine now. I'm going to fix this, okay?" even though he knows Rodney can't hear him. It makes him feel better just to say it. He takes a breath, looks down at the globe again, and wonders what, exactly, Zelenka meant by intuitive.

And then he just knows. Information scrolls across the smooth surface of the machine, most of it things that John can't read. He's fairly certain the huge blocks of red, blinking text are a bad sign in any language. He doesn't care. It doesn't matter even a little bit. Mostly he concentrates on the little holographic representation off to one side, which very helpfully shows one little featureless man pressing the globe to the center of another featureless man's back with both hands. The fact that the second man has wings is a nice, interactive touch.

"Okay. Right," talking to himself is really more of Rodney's thing than John's, but apparently he's picking up the slack today. John pulls himself clumsily up onto the narrow bed, holding the device close with one hand. The mattress is soaked with Rodney's blood.

The red lettering on the globe is flashing brighter and far more angrily. John has the feeling that if the thing had audio it would be screaming. He's grateful it doesn't. For now, he licks his bottom lip, nerves burning across his shoulders and down his spine as he leans forward, pausing to wipe his right hand down his side.

John says, "You know, my mom always wanted me to be a doctor?" and then laughs, because he hasn't even thought about that for years. He shakes his head, pushes the machine against Rodney's back, and really expects it not to do a damn thing.

Therefore, the burning comes as a surprise. John's jaw snaps shut so hard and fast that it catches his tongue, blood bursting in his mouth. His wrists lock, then his elbows, his shoulders, his neck, his back, things cracking as his spine jerks completely straight.

There's something moving under John's skin, something too big that's tearing muscle away from bone and flaying ligaments down to nothing. If John's lungs were still connected to his throat, he might have tried to scream. His ribs are contracting down, trying to compress him down into a ball, his kidneys and lungs pushed down.

He's on fire. He's freezing to death. His toes curl up hard in his boots, knife sharp pain shooting up through the pads of his feet, up his calves, in his knees. Even his balls hurt, feeling like they're connected to his belly button and like someone is trying very hard to pull them up through his stomach.

There's something wet and warm running down the sides of John's neck. His throat burns, and the colors he sees behind his eyes don't have names. Somewhere, his cheek bones are exploding and every tooth in his mouth is being pushed out of his jaw.

John wonders, in a moment of clarity that feels startlingly out of place, how he is possibly still alive. It doesn't seem like it should be possible. At this point he'd really prefer that he wasn't. He swears he can feel his blood pumping backwards through his body, dragging and burning.

And then it stops. John slumps forward, forgetting how to breathe for long, long moments until he remembers where his lungs are. His ribs are on fire, creaking with every breath, but they appear to have not actually crushed themselves down to nothing.

John coughs, his elbows giving out on him, dumping him forward. Somewhere, he is distantly aware of the machine rolling off of Rodney's back, knocking against the railing of the bed, and then falling down to the floor with a crash that promises a scolding later.

Right now, John doesn't care. He can barely even think. He feels like someone stuck a hot poker up his nose and stirred his brains around with it. Just the thought of it makes John raise a hand, rubbing at his face, trying to make sure everything is still where it's supposed to be. His mouth is wet with blood, but other than that, he appears to be arranged properly. His nose actually feels a little straighter.

John is still having trouble breathing, sucking in slow, shallow breathes. He's vaguely aware that his forearms are resting against Rodney's back, and that his elbows have to be digging into Rodney's shoulders. Trying to move proves to be something he just can't manage right at the moment.

In fact, just the attempt has John's head reeling. He coughs, squeezing his eyes shut against the swirl of colors behind them. It's easier to just let his head drop forward, his forehead feeling sweaty and too hot against the cool skin on Rodney's neck.

There's something with Rodney he needs to check, and John knows that. He just can't remember what it is. Something about blood. His brain is fuzzy, and what little he is managing to think is just moving in useless circles. It's frustrating, but even that isn't enough to make him remember.

Instead, John twists his head to the side, pressing his cheek up against the back of Rodney's neck. He's likewise sure that there's a reason he's not supposed to press up against Rodney like this. A really good one. He has no shitting clue what it might be, and, right now, it's the only thing in the world that feels good.

John can feel Rodney breathing, laying like this, so long and deep that John can't match their breathing up at all. Rodney's heartbeat is so fast John can't track it, and he seems to be warming up a little. That's good, John thinks. It seems like it should be good, anyway.

John figures he'll worry about it when he wakes up. For now, he finally lets his knees slide out. There's something wet and kind of cold sinking into his pants, but John doesn't care. He closes his eyes, weight settled over Rodney's back, feeling Rodney's wings digging into his chest, oddly comforted by that.

Later, John will be pissed off that his body chose then to pass out, instead of earlier, when he could have really used it.

hr

John dreams disjointed dreams. He has only vague memories afterwards of pale hardwood floors, waxed so they shine, lots of crashes, and the smell of burnt popcorn. When he wakes up, his mouth tastes like something crawled inside it and died, and his entire body hurts.

John winces, barely managing to slit his eyes open. The lights seem far too bright, and he hisses, turning his face away from their harshness. His cheek slides against skin, soft and cool, and John knows it's Rodney he's all pressed up against because the constant pulse of Rodney's heartbeat is humming against John's jaw.

That's good. That means Rodney's alive, and John smiles a little, feeling more skin under his mouth. There's no thought to pressing a dry kiss to Rodney's neck, done just because he can, because they're both alive, because he's wanted to for so long.

There's no response from Rodney. He doesn't even stir. In fact, he's only moving when he breathes, each long inhale enough to lift John. John smiles again, feeling remarkably good tempered, giddy with the world. With as badly as he hurts, he thinks that he shouldn't be nearly this happy.

But Rodney is alive. And so is he. John had been fairly certain that neither of them were going to manage that before he passed out. He figures that's reason enough for a small celebration. He manages to open his eyes again, this time his face is pressed up against Rodney's neck and the lights don't burn as badly.

From there, it takes John a long time to muster the energy to do anything. He still feels like there might be fire ants crawling around under his skin, and his bones all feel like someone took them out, gave them a thorough scrubbing, and then shoved them back inside his skin again.

Probably, he should get Keller over here, to make sure he didn't permanently damage himself. That decided, John grunts, trying to push himself up. It doesn't work so well, and instead he falls back down into unconsciousness.

hr

There's weight across his back, not a lot, but more than he feels presently up to wrestling with.

John gives up after a moment, slumping back down, vaguely noting that he appears to be resting against Rodney's chest now. He's pretty sure he hadn't been before. He takes a moment to just absorb their conditions as best he can without the benefit of movement. Both of them are covered in blood, their clothes stiff with it, the smell strong in John's nose now that he's aware it's there. Both of them are alive. He feels like shit, and thinks it's fairly likely that Rodney feels about the same.

John sighs, shifting up just a little bit. Rodney's wings are wrapped around him, and they're whole. For a long moment all John can do is stare, feeling something in his throat go almost unbearably tight. Finally, he reaches out, trailing a fingertip down the arch of bone, the blue undamaged beneath his touch.

Beneath him, Rodney grumbles, shifting around and tightening one of the wings. It's enough to yank John back down, and he laughs hoarsely, even though it sets off bursts of pain all down his side and shoulders. Still, he'd just about been out of energy. Lying down is probably the best thing he could do. Let himself sleep some more, let his body sort out whatever damage he's managed to do to himself.

Rodney mumbles something again, stirring a little bit, and John shushes him, putting his hand over Rodney's heart and pushing down. If he's sleeping, so is Rodney. It's only fair, after all. After a beat, Rodney settles, and John smiles to himself, settling back down.

There are things he should probably be doing, like getting Keller in here, like getting the fuck off of Rodney, like figuring out what happened. But his body hurts, and his head is a scrambled mess, and right now, this is the best John can do. He passes out. Again.

hr

The next time John wakes up, Rodney is still all wrapped around him. Inside the cocoon of Rodney's wings, John's body heat has settled in, warming both of them. It feels good against John's aching body, and for a long time he just lays still, eyes half-lidded, more asleep than awake.

If his mouth wasn't so damn dry, John probably would have fallen back asleep. As it is, he manages to clear his throat, smacking his dry lips and blinking sleepily before managing to push himself up onto one elbow.

Ronon says, "Teyla," from somewhere close by. John blinks, trying to clear his slightly blurry vision. Luckily, Ronon is hard to miss even if the world is kind of out of focus. Ronon is rising from a chair beside the bed, blaster in one hand, leaning over.

John says, his voice hoarse and rough, "Hey," and Ronon snorts on a laugh. John isn't sure what's at all amusing about the situation, but he also doesn't have the energy to say that. Instead he just reaches up to rub at his eyes, and croaks, "Water?"

A half second later, Ronon is pressing a glass against John's hand. Just the pressure of it sets off little sparks of pain down John's fingers and in his palm, but he ignores them. It feels good going down his throat, in any case, lukewarm and flavorless. He drains the entire glass, getting greedier as he goes, until his head is tilted back, water streaming out of the corners of his mouth.

John coughs, and Ronon grabs his shoulder, squeezing while he takes the glass away. John waves a hand, his cheeks rough with stubble when he rubs at the water. Teyla is there, then, stepping up to the foot of the bed, her hair pulled up tight, cradling a Wraith stunner to her chest and smiling when she looks at him. It's a tired expression, and her voice matches it when she says, "John. You are well?"

John considers that question from all angles, and then shrugs, wincing just a little when the movement pulls all kinds of painful things in his back. John watches Teyla look to Ronon, her expression going tense, and he manages to rasp out, "Where's Keller?"

For a beat Teyla and Ronon are silent, and then Ronon says, carefully, "Waiting."

John turns that over. It's perfectly possible that he's still a little slow from whatever the hell he did to himself with that machine. He waves his hand for another glass of water and doesn't reply until he's drained every last drop, "Waiting why?"

Ronon shrugs, and Teyla says, "There have been no emergencies. She was...unhappy, with the action you took. We thought it would be best to allow you to rest before allowing any others in." Oh. Well, John supposes that explains the blaster and the Wraith stunner. He does vaguely remember them taking the infirmary by force, but all of that has gone blurry, twisted up with the pain and with seeing Rodney so close to death.

"Well, I think we can let them in now." Teyla nods, moving towards the door, and John doesn't ask what happened to the doctors and nurses who had been in the infirmary when they arrived. Either they're locked in a room somewhere, or Ronon and Teyla herded them out. Either way, it's not one of the more pressing matters requiring John's concern.

Across the infirmary, Woolsey is saying, "You can't just go around hijacking portions of the city!"

And someone else is saying, "Oh my God! It worked!"

John thinks, wincing at the loud voices, that maybe he should have just let Ronon and Teyla keep the infirmary closed off for another day or two. He probably also should have made some kind of effort to disentangle himself from Rodney before they all came pouring in, but it's too late for that now. John groans in misery, drops his head back down, and lets exhaustion drag him down once more.

hr

When John wakes next, Keller is right there, and catches him immediately. She says, voice mercifully soft, "How are you feeling, Colonel?" John shrugs, because he feels infinitely better than he had, but still like something you'd find on the side of the road dead. He's also still got Rodney wrapped all around him.

Keller rolls her eyes, like the non-verbal response was expected, "Well, you were dangerously dehydrated when we got to you. And I honestly don't know how half the things showing up on the scans could possibly be wrong with you, but we're treating everything, and you're healing quickly."

John rasps, "Rodney?" because he knows he's going to live. He stopped feeling like he was going to die after the machine fell down to the floor.

There's a pause, and John feels his heart rate spike, but apparently Keller was only examining one of the charts in her arms. She says, soft, "He's fine. He lost a lot of blood, which, apparently, that device wasn't set up to replace, and he went into shock, but he's fine."

The weight that lifts off John's chest is a surprise. He lets out a long, shaky breath, running a hand back through his dirt hair and laughing hoarsely. He pats at Rodney's chest, still in his dirty, bloody clothes, and feels like laughing all over again.

For a moment, there's silence as Keller moves around, adjusting the I.V.s that are hanging all around them. John thinks there must be morphine in one of them, because some of the pain in his body starts fading almost immediately, and he sighs a little with relief.

She's not done speaking, though, leaning her hip against the side of the bed after a long moment, her arms folding over the charts she's holding to her chest. Even now, John can't help but being a little irritated over how close she is to touching Rodney's wings. He tries to shake it off, especially when she starts speaking, "Woolsey is talking about some kind of disciplinary action for the three of you."

John just stares at her, wondering what the hell she expects him to say. Anyone would have done the same for one of their teammates, and expecting them not to is just insane. He's not going to apologize for it, or justify himself to her, or anyone else.

After a long moment, she sighs, "Yeah, that's what I told him," like she can read his mind. John presses his lips together tighter and she goes on, "That doesn't mean that what you did wasn't grossly irresponsible. If something had happened—"

"They would have let you in," John's voice comes out rough, and even he can't tell if it's irritation or just the fact that his throat feels shredded raw. Keller is looking at him with sad eyes, disapproving, even a little pitying.

She says, "Every second in here counts, Colonel." John looks down, balling his hands up into fists. There's a part of him, however small, that knows she's exactly right, that knows no matter how much he'd like everyone in the city to share his priorities, they can't. They shouldn't. When she goes on, her voice is gentler, "For what it's worth, I'm glad you did it."

John looks up at her, trying to read her expression. She straightens then, sliding the chart into the foot of the bed, continuing, "And I've advised Woolsey against any disciplinary action, because the machine is broken. Zelenka's already disposed of it.'

Something icy cold twists in John's gut, though he doesn't know why, bitter as the spit before vomiting. He watches her walk away with his fingers twisting up into Rodney's shirt, holding on though he isn't sure why. Under his touch, Rodney stirs, mumbling something and then startling, wings tightening around John while his eyes snap open.

John says, looking down at Rodney, "Hey there," and Rodney's only answer is a coughing fit that has Keller hurrying back over, ordering him to sit up and shoving a stethoscope up against his chest. John tries to slide out of the bed, but Rodney holds onto him, and so he stays.

John doesn't manage to escape until Rodney falls asleep again, sneaking out while Keller is preoccupied.

hr

The next two days are quiet. The city goes through periods like that, John knows. Sometimes everyone just needs to take a step back, to draw into themselves and put everything back in its proper place. Last time had been after Elizabeth died. That silence had lasted months.

John is a participant, just like everyone else. In the mess hall he eats alone, sitting at one of the tables bathed in sunlight and chasing peas around with his fork. Even the clack of silverware against the ceramic plates seems muted, hesitant, careful.

The exercise rooms are full, but no one is talking or laughing. For once there's no horsing around, and John isn't forced to fight down the urge to tell them all to stop acting like children. There's no hip-hop or head banging rock on the radio. The sparring rooms are probably the loudest places in the city, because there's no way to quiet the crash of bodies into each other and the floor.

John avoids them.

He finds himself spending a lot of time out on the balconies. Rodney is still in the infirmary, because Keller wants to monitor all the repaired bones and muscles, just to make sure they're handling stress properly, and that they're not going to suddenly start deteriorating. John knows because Simpson told him. Apparently she's dating one of the nurses, and thought John would want to know.

The sky seems oddly empty without Rodney anywhere in it. It makes something go tight and miserable in John's stomach, that increasingly familiar bitter taste flooding into his mouth. It's not like Rodney could be flying right now, anyway. There's a storm system brewing south of them, and its winds have been battering the city for the past three days. If Rodney tried to fly in it, he'd probably end up slammed against one of the towers in seconds.

That doesn't shake the tight feeling in John's stomach. He doesn't know what to do about it, so he mostly ignores it. He catches up on paperwork. He avoids Woolsey, who, instead of being angry, seems to be radiating high level disappointment that's so much worse. He goes to see Ronon and Teyla, individually, and doesn't really say a thing to either of them, just sitting in their rooms for a while.

He's getting up to leave Teyla's room when she says, voice soft and quiet, flat, "Kanaan is...leaving me."

John really doesn't know how to reply to that. He does sit back down, looking across at her where she's been oiling up her sticks since she granted him entry to her room. He's glad that she doesn't appear to be about to burst into tears, because John really isn't sure he could deal with that, not even for her. He finally manages, when she makes no move to continue, "Torren?"

Teyla blinks, losing her rhythm for just a moment before she catches herself and resumes, smooth and easy. She says, "This is not the place to raise a child." There's something sad in the words, but also relief, and maybe somewhere below that, guilt. John can't say for sure. He's never been that good with emotions.

They sit in silence, and John blows out a hard breath. He wishes, truly and deeply, that he could be surprised, but he can't quite muster it. Maybe she isn't either. Just thinking it makes him feel like an ass, and John looks down at his hands. He says, "I'm sorry."

Teyla pauses again, staring at the far wall for a long moment. He wants to tell her that he understands, though maybe he doesn't, not exactly. With he and Nancy, the leaving had been largely mutual. Between them, things hadn't blown up so much as softly fizzled out.

Finally, Teyla says, "This is the life I want, John. It is not the life he wants." And that's it. John sits beside her for another few minutes, picking at her bed spread and wondering it he's supposed to be offering more comfort than this. She doesn't seem to expect anything more.

It's only then that John realizes Torren's crib is no longer in her room. He swallows heavily, reaching out and putting his hand on her shoulder. They sit like that for a long time, the silence settling back around them like a warm blanket.

hr

John knows the day Rodney gets out of the infirmary, because there are all kinds of brand new fruit and sugar related dishes in the mess hall. Some of it looks very much like cotton candy, and John can't resist grabbing just a bit of it. The fluffy, blue, confectionary ends up being far too sweet for John to swallow.

Sound also comes back to the city, in bits and snatches. John walks by a balcony to catch people laughing outside, even though it's raining, even though Rodney couldn't possibly be out there. He rolls his eyes at them, and wonders if they're smoking. The pipe-weed that they found on the planet that they'd all started referring to as the Shire without any discussion needed had taken off in a big way.

Personally, John thought it smelled like menthols, and avoided it like the plague.

He still had paperwork to catch up on, so he spent most of the rest of the day in his office, with the door cracked just enough to hear his men moving and laughing outside. There were apparently trying to round up enough people for a football game, arguing that it was better played in the rain. John decided to make his escape before he could get roped into playing with guys twenty years younger than him.

John was aware that he'd, probably, been avoiding Rodney for most of the day. They had things to discuss, and John really wasn't in the mood for a discussion of any kind. Especially not when Rodney was likely to be severely pissed off that John had used one of the machines in his Do Not Touch pile.

So, instead of going by Rodney's room, John went to his own. It was still early, but the Apollo had just dropped off the latest magazine shipment, and someone had accidentally stuck Sergeant Brown's Maxim in John's mail pile and while it wasn't a complete bulls-eye on John's thing, he still fully intended to put it to its intended purpose.

To that end, John shrugs out of his jacket as soon as his door shuts behind him, reaching up a hand to rub at the knots in his neck, wincing just a little bit at the pull of the muscles down his back. He's still not feeling completely recovered from whatever that machine did to him, though there's no way in hell he's telling Keller, or anyone else, that.

John kicks off his shoes, eying his desk and feeling entirely too much like he's back in high school when his door chimes. John frowns, casting a last wistful look in the direction of the Maxim and padding across to his door.

It's not really a surprise to find Rodney on the other side. Mostly John's surprised that Rodney doesn't look like he's about to blow a gasket. In fact, Rodney just looks tired, freshly showered, and God, John would really like to know how he fit in the shower with the wings. He almost doesn't stop himself from asking.

Thankfully, Rodney chooses then to push John into the room, effectively derailing any stupid lines of questioning. The doors slide closed behind him, Rodney saying, "Look, I just came by to say that as much as I appreciate you nearly frying yourself to a crisp to save me from an ignoble death, it was an incredibly stupid thing to do, even for you, and if you ever try to pull a stunt like that again I'll have to kill you myself."

John raises an eyebrow, looking down at Rodney's hand where it's pressed against his chest, even though he thinks he probably shouldn't. He expects Rodney to jerk his touch away, and while Rodney does tense up a little bit, he leaves his hand right where it is. John leans a little weight against it, just to see what Rodney'll do.

Muscles shift in Rodney's bicep, apparently none of the nurses volunteered to help lace him into one of his shirts. John bites the insides of his cheeks, and finally manages a reply to Rodney's tirade, his voice rougher than it has any right to be, "Any time, Rodney."

Rodney snorts, "That's the problem, isn't it?" and he sounds tired, suddenly, dropping his hand down, leaving his arms hanging loose by his sides. He looks to the side, expression distant but definitely unhappy. John thinks he just missed something that was apparently fairly major.

"Look, most people don't complain when someone saves—"

"Did you even ask what the possible side-effects were going to be for you?" Rodney's still looking at the wall, and the angle means that the muscle jumping in his jaw is painfully obvious. There's a vein throbbing in his forehead. John thinks he probably shouldn't be getting this stressed out so soon after nearly dying.

That doesn't mean John can think of a damn thing to say that might calm Rodney down. John settles on drawling, "Zelenka was pretty clear about the dying thing." At the time that hadn't seemed like an important consideration. If John's being honest, it still doesn't.

Rodney snaps his gaze across to John, eyes sharp and mouth twisted down, words bitten off and angry, "Oh, believe me, death would have been a relief after what it did to you." There's nothing but absolute surety in the words, and John tenses up all over, struggling not to flinch. He manages.

Apparently, Rodney takes his lack of response as a challenge, shifting a little closer, going on, "It would have cooked you alive from the inside out, using your cells for the energy generation it needed to power itself. It would have gone for the soft, fleshy tissues first. And the bone marrow, if the Ancients were right."

John grits out, "Jesus, Rodney," reaching a hand up to rub at his mouth, "Look, there are things I don't need to hear."

"Apparently you do." Rodney still looks angry, following John when he tries to retreat, to get a little space between them, to distance himself from the description of what could have happened to him. John tries to turn away and Rodney grabs his arm, spinning him back, "Apparently it's the only way to drive into your thick skull just how idiotic you really are. Seriously, what the fuck were you—"

"Don't you dare finish that," And maybe responding to the anger with fury of his own isn't the most mature reaction. John doesn't care. He grabs Rodney's wrist, squeezing hard, feeling himself hold back even as he does because he keeps getting reminded of how breakable Rodney is now, and he can't be responsible for snapping anymore of those thin bones.

For a beat they just stare at each other, and Rodney's chin jerks up, one side of his mouth twisting up in a vicious smile, "—thinking?"

John doesn't know exactly when he started breathing this heavily, but he sucks in another hard breath through his nose. He wants to shove Rodney back. He wants to curse the other man for making him put this into words. He wants Rodney to have just, for once, accepted this without question. But of course Rodney has to poke at it. That's what Rodney does.

John leans in, and for a moment he thinks he'll scream, but his voice comes out tense and gritty as gravel instead, "I was thinking there was a way to save your sorry ass. I was thinking that Keller had just told me to get together the people you'd want to say goodbye to. I was thinking—"

Rodney flinches and looks to the side, blinking fast, twice. It makes something in John's throat go too tight for words, and he makes himself loosen his grip on Rodney's wrist. It was probably bruising, the skin red and agitated where he'd been squeezing.

For a long, long moment they stand like that, the air between them still tense and thick with words they haven't spoken. John rubs his thumb over the mark he left on Rodney's wrist, tilting his chin down towards his chest, waiting for what might come.

One thing about Rodney is that you never have to wait long for the conversation to pick back up. He blows out a hard breath, releasing John's arm, finally, shifting his wings and rocking back on his heels without actually taking a step back. He says, "I'm kind of sore from being cooped up in the infirmary for days. Do you know I can't even fully extend them in there? Jennifer's convinced that I'll knock over some of her magic drugs." The irritation is a little forced, but John's relieved to hear it anyway.

John exhales slowly in relief, nodding over Rodney's shoulder, asking, "You want me to?" and wondering immediately if it was the wrong thing to say.

Rodney hesitates, looking down at his feet, then somewhere in the vicinity of John's shoulder, finally managing to get his gaze around about John's cheekbone. He says, mouth pursing thin, "As a matter of fact, yes, I do."

John snorts on a laugh, even though he supposes it's not really amusing. He says, "Alright, then," and reaches out to rest a hand on Rodney's elbow, pushing him gently towards the bed. They haven't done this in John's room before, and suddenly he worries about his messy sheets, about when the last time he washed them was, about dirty socks tangled in the blankets.

It's too late to do anything about it. Rodney hesitates for a beat by the side of John's bed, looking over his shoulder. John doesn't know what exactly Rodney's looking for, but he must find it, because he narrows his eyes and then very deliberately crawls onto the mattress.

John holds his breath while Rodney gets himself arranged, punching irritably at John's pillow and then wadding it up into a ball to shove beneath his head. John's bed is too close to the wall on the left side for Rodney to extend his wing out and down, and instead it folds down over his back, extending past his feet and above his head.

After a moment, Rodney grumbles, "Well?" and John shakes his head, swallowing hard and sitting down beside Rodney's hip. The bed wasn't meant for two people, especially not when one of them was sporting big ass wings. Only a tiny bit of John's ass manages to end up on the mattress, and he plants his feet on the ground, supporting his weight on his legs.

John starts to twist sideways to get to the wings, but Rodney shifts before he can, raising one wing, stretching it, and then settling it over John's lap. It reminds John, suddenly and viscerally, of the infirmary, of waking up with Rodney all wrapped around him. A shiver climbs up John's spine, and there's nothing he can do to suppress it.

To distract himself from it, he carefully runs his palm up the back of Rodney's wing, murmuring, "Do they feel different?"

"Hm?" Rodney sounds a little out of it already. John smiles to himself, dragging the back of his knuckles across skin, fascinated and indulging just for a moment. "What? Uh, no. No, they feel like they always did." John nods, even though he doubts Rodney is looking at him.

"Good. That's good," at least John thinks it is. It's kind of hard to think right at the moment. So he stops trying, settling into the familiar motion of rubbing out the wings instead. The first is easy enough, but the second is still folded down against Rodney, and John frowns, twisting to look at it over his shoulder.

Rodney's sleepy voice distracts John before he can come up with a plan of attack, "Jennifer says that the healing was complete. No nerve damage or anything. I, uh, kind of wish it wasn't." John feels Rodney shudder, reaches out automatically to rest a hand on Rodney's back, listening to him go on, "It—I don't know. Hurt isn't," he shifts uncomfortably, wings stretching and flexing, like he needs to remind himself that they're fine, "isn't even the right word."

There's a part of John that wants to roll his eyes and just brush the words off as exaggeration. But there's no way he can, not with the memory of Rodney's bloody wings tangled around his shoulders still so fresh in his mind. He's never heard Rodney scream like that before. He'd really prefer to never have to hear it again.

John says, his voice still oddly soft, "It's done now."

Rodney is shaking his head before John's even finished speaking, keeping his face pressed down against John's pillow. It makes his voice muffled, so that John has to strain to hear the words, "No. When I sleep I can still...never mind."

Rodney twists then, pushing up on his arms and settling back onto his haunches beside John. He waves one hand, one wing brushing up against John's side, "I have to get back down to the labs. Anyway. Try not to be such a moron in the future and—"

John catches Rodney before he can scramble out of the bed, and for all that he's gotten used to touching Rodney, his fingers curling around Rodney's shoulder still feel painful intimate. Rodney stares down at the floor, body held tense all of a sudden while he says, "John—"

Rodney cuts himself off when John leans forward, resting his chin on Rodney's shoulder. They're sitting in his messy sheets, he can still feel the warmth of Rodney's wing beneath his hands. He says, "Look. Look," and then falls silent, swallowing heavily and wondering what the hell he thinks he's doing.

And then the words are just there, out of his throat before he can bite them back, "It's not the wings, you know. It was never the wings." He bites his tongue hard, then, curling his fingers up to his palms. They don't talk about things like this. It isn't covered in the spectrum of either of their emotional skill sets.

Rodney flinches, just a little bit, turning to look at John and going a little cross eyed from how close they are to one another. He sounds tired all over again when he says, "Sure, whatever," and the bitter resignation in his tone hurts far more than John would have anticipated. It also makes John suddenly furiously angry.

He opens his mouth, sharp words poised on the tip of his tongue, but before he can speak even one of them, Rodney's radio is going off. All John can hear is a faint murmur of sound, but Rodney is sighing, twisting away from John and to his feet, tapping the radio and replying, "Yes, yes, I'll be right there. Don't touch anything."

Rodney's already across the room, waving John's door open, and, bizarrely, John really wants to call him back. John fights back the urge, resists it, and Rodney darts out without saying goodbye or even looking over his shoulder. He's just gone, the doors sliding shut behind him.

John huffs out a sigh, falling backwards down onto the mattress, winding his fingers into the blankets and staring at the ceiling. He can't decide whether he just completely messed that conversation up or not. It's always hard to tell with Rodney.

After a moment he pushes up, moves across to his desk, and grabs the Maxim. At least that he can completely understand.

hr

Apparently things between them aren't too weird, because Rodney doesn't pull away again or anything like that. Which is a relief. John's getting tired of being see-sawed back and forth while Rodney has his little freak-outs. He knows that's not exactly charitable.

As far as John can tell, nothing he's ever going to be able to do or say is going to be able to convince Rodney that he's not just nursing some weird fascination with the wings. John can't even really blame Rodney for believing that. He's sure that if he suddenly developed the ability to manipulate quantum mechanics with his brain and Rodney decided to get a lot more handsy, he'd assume there might be some ulterior motives going on.

It doesn't help any of John's discarded arguments that he does really, really, like the wings. But they're just a part of Rodney, and he doesn't understand, completely, why Rodney insists that other people must be seeing them as separate entities.

It's not something that John exactly has the free time to sit around thinking about. They're still catching up on the backlog of technological missions from when Rodney was off active duty. The rest of the science staff is good, without a doubt, but Rodney is just better, and most of their trading partners only want him for any work trade.

A few of their allies ask about the trench coat, but most seem to just take it as another of Rodney's idiosyncrasies without so much as batting an eye. One of two seem to realize that it used to be Ronon's coat, and start jumping to all kinds of conclusions there that John really doesn't care for at all.

The third time that Ronon and Rodney get assigned their own private quarters, John spends the entire mission in a snit. Of course, the rest of the team realizes it, and he swears they spend the entire time snickering behind their hands. It's the first time in a while that John's resented Ronon's size.

Still, no one tries to shoot at them, kidnap them, burn them alive, 'gate them to space, or otherwise complicate their lives, so John can't really complain. In fact, the people that assume Ronon and Rodney have hooked up are notably friendlier than they previously were. Teyla explains it as a family thing, and John supposes he can understand that. As a whole the peoples of the Pegasus galaxy are big on family units of any kind.

It's every bit as busy back on Atlantis. John makes an effort to actually keep up with his paperwork for once, though his success is limited. Rodney keeps flying around, and, apparently, continues to sit still for a few hours a week to let people sketch him. Sometimes John plays with the idea of heading down there, but he never follows through.

Their team appears to have cornered the market on gossip at this point. Word spreads fast that Kanaan is gone, and that he's taken Torren with him, and for a while it seems like every time John sees Teyla she's surrounded by a crowd of sympathetic looking woman. John has no idea what she says to them, but after a few days they disappear.

John also notices Lorne hanging around, and thinks he probably has a good idea what to make of that, though he isn't sure if he should or not. Teyla's his team, and so John figures that makes it his business, but he's never had a younger sister or a daughter, and he's not sure exactly how this should go down.

To the limited scope of his knowledge, John thinks maybe he should invite Lorne over to his quarters while he's cleaning a gun and ask some embarrassing questions until they both feel like killing themselves. The idea doesn't have a whole lot of appeal. John eventually decides that Teyla is a grown woman, who is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, and doesn't need his help.

Ronon's the only one that isn't getting whispered about, and John wonders exactly where the other man learned discretion, and if he'd be willing to share the knowledge with John before John completely loses what's left of his mind. At least there don't appear to be any rumors circling on Atlantis about Ronon and Rodney.

It's a testament to just how boring MMP-002 is that John's thinking about this now.

The planet is nothing but rolling hills, covered in golden, waving, almost-grain that has Rodney's allergies all in an uproar. Teyla insisted that there was a civilization not far from the 'gate, but they're at least three hours away from 'not far' and John is starting to lose interest in chewing on various pieces of almost-grain.

Beside him, Rodney sneezes again, so hard that it knocks him to the side. John reaches out to steady him automatically, Rodney blinking up at him with miserable, watery eyes. Keller is working as fast as she can to synthesize workable alternatives to standard medication for his system, but so far she hasn't had any luck with anti-histamines of any kind.

In front of them, Ronon says without shifting his attention from his constant scanning of the terrain, "You should get above it."

Rodney rolls his eyes, the effect somewhat lessened by the way they're all red and puffy, sounding all stuffed up when he says, "Hello, populated planet here, remember? Well, supposedly, anyway. So far I'm not seeing very much in the population department. Maybe they were Lilliputians, and we passed them back at the 'gate."

John snorts, digging in his pockets for the hundredth time for anything for Rodney to blow his nose in and coming up empty one more time. He winces when Rodney sneezes and wipes his hand down his thigh. John is aware that there really isn't a better solution. That's not stopping him from thinking it's kind of gross. Tissues, he decides, are like rope.

He says, when Rodney is temporarily done sniffling into his sleeve, "You getting any energy readings yet?"

Rodney shoots John a disbelieving look, waving his scanner around and going off, "Oh, wow, I sure am. Gee, if you hadn't asked I'd have just kept it to myself, but since you want to know, there's a highly industrial society off to the left that I just thought I wouldn't mention in favor of tramping around in these weeds for a little bit longer."

Ahead of them, Ronon snorts, and Teyla says, "I believe we are nearly there. These fields have been tended quite recently." She says that like it's all the proof she needs, and John is willing to take it on faith. Trusting Teyla to know the locations of farmsteads in relation to their crops is just one more way they rely on her in the field.

Rodney sneezes again, and John grabs a handful on his coat, jerking him back up to his feet when he almost tumbles over. The bigger lungs are really, really kind of a downside when sneezing is involved. John's thinking that any cold is going to be a whole lot of not fun.

Rodney grumbles, rubbing at his nose, "Next time, I'm just going with the heart attack." John rolls his eyes and grips the back of Rodney's neck hard, just for a second. He knows perfectly well that Rodney's just bitching to hear himself bitch, but it's still too soon since they almost lost him for John to find it even remotely amusing.

Rodney shrugs out from under John's touch, coughing and then spitting off to the side. He makes a face, taking a long drink of his water afterwards, and John searches his pockets one more time. At least it gives him something to do.

And then Teyla is brightening, her voice happy and relieved when she says, "There, just as I thought," motioning them towards the little walled town nestled atop the next hill over. It's still maybe a mile away, and John sighs.

Rodney grumbles, "Great," glaring with his watering eyes at everything in the surrounding area.

John pats him on the back again, making his voice obnoxiously upbeat when he says, "Come on, Gulliver." Rodney makes a pained sound, slapping one hand up over his face and then sneezing hard again. John rolls his eyes and gets Rodney straightened.

Ahead of them, Ronon says in the most ridiculous voice John has ever heard, "We'll all be killed," and John makes a mental note to make sure Ronon never gets anywhere near a television set ever again. They march.

hr

The fact that the people of this world are actually called Lilliputians has got to be one of the great jokes of the cosmos. John had snickered about that under his breath for most of the first day they spent wandering around their new friend's city, hitting all the major conversational getting-to-know-you points for the Pegasus galaxy.

The Lilliputians are friendly, and they manage it in a way that's not even creepy, which is a pleasant surprise. There are no special meals set out for the team, no one falls all over themselves to make them comfortable. There aren't any apparent psychos running around with mind control drugs, no monsters in the woods, and no Wraith killing drugs being stored up in a basement somewhere. In all, John has a pretty good feeling about the whole thing.

It lasts right up until the third day, when they explain that they have to be getting back to the 'gate, and the Lilliputians request that they stay for a festival. There aren't any weapons bandied about, and the entire thing seems to be in earnest, but John really doesn't like to keep Rodney's wings in the harness any longer than three days.

Of course, Rodney decides to be stubborn, and insists that they should stay. Mostly, John thinks this has a lot to do with the sweet bread the Lilliputians serve with every meal, that's light enough and has a high enough sugar content to make it perfect for Rodney's system. Personally, John can't stand the stuff, because it reminds him of doughy cotton candy.

They end up staying in any case, and the festival goes off without a hitch. John doesn't realize until they're back in their room that he'd half been expecting the Lilliputians to whip out some human sacrifice or a tendency towards Wraith worship the entire night. It's a pleasant surprise.

He's feeling a little drunk, maybe just pleasantly buzzed, when he stumbles down into the narrow little bed that's been provided for him. The mead stuff that they'd been drinking had tasted like shit for the first few cups, but after that it had improved greatly.

John slouches against the wall and grins up at the rest of his team, who roll their eyes and ignore him, even though he knows Teyla is every bit as inebriated as he is. She still manages to make collapsing down into her bed look graceful, and John resists the urge to stick his tongue out at her.

Ronon and Rodney are both sober, Ronon because he couldn't stand the mead at all, and Rodney because they didn't know what it might do to him. John watches them go through the standard off-world night check, guns and doors, warmed by the easy efficiency of their movements.

Rodney winces just a little bit when he puts down the last P-90, his expression going tight and tense as he almost reaches for his shoulder before catching himself. It makes John sit up a little straighter, frowning and cutting a quick look at the locked door before saying, "Okay, come on, take it off."

For a moment, Rodney just boggles at him, and then he crosses his arms over his chest, snapping, "No. It stays on until we go home." His expression is completely shut down, not open to any argument at all, and John sighs, rolling his eyes and shifting up to his feet.

"Just for a few minutes, come on. With the three of us it won't take any time at all to work them loose, and it'll save you from crippling yourself."

Rodney gapes up at him, looking across to Ronon and Teyla, probably for support. Ronon just shrugs, and Teyla sits up again, rubbing at her eyes and pushing her hair back. Rodney narrows his eyes, "Am I seriously the only one here that realizes how bad an idea that is?"

John resists rolling his eyes this time, because as far as protests go, that's hardly heated. He says, "Come on, you know it'll feel better," and Rodney grumbles something indistinct, fiddling with the buttons on the front of the coat. He looks conflicted. John hears exasperation in his own voice, "Would it make you feel better if it was an order?"

That gets a sharp look from Rodney, complete with raised eyebrow and thinned down lips, "Getting a little too big for your britches, aren't you?"

"Rodney," usually Rodney's stubbornness isn't something that bothers John that much. But right now he just wants to relax, to rub out the wings and then go to sleep, wake up hung over, and go home. Rodney is messing up his carefully thought out plan.

Rodney throws his hands up, muttering, "Oh, fine, you'll just keep whining at me until I give in." He pulls at the buttons, and John grins in victory, turning to nod Ronon and Teyla over. When he looks back, Rodney is shrugging the coat down off of his shoulders, folding it quickly and dropping it down onto the mattress.

John winces. The straps have already dug into Rodney's skin, angry red lines everywhere. Rodney narrows his eyes down and doesn't say a word, starting to cross his arms over his chest before John reaches out and catches him.

It doesn't take much effort to pull Rodney forward a step, so Teyla and Ronon can help with removing the harness. The room is a little stuffy from the fire they have burning in one corner, which probably translates as comfortable to Rodney, which right at the moment makes John happy.

John isn't drunk enough for it to impair with his ability to get the buckles open. They work quickly, and have Rodney out of the contraption within five minutes. Rodney tries to stand still through all of it, but as soon as the last strap is undone he sags, eyes squeezed shut, breathing shakily through his mouth.

John says, "Sh," his palms pressed against Rodney's collarbone, sliding out to his shoulders. Behind Rodney, the wings are trembling, jerking a little. And then Rodney is making a whimpering sound, reaching out to grab John and falling forward against him, wings snapping open suddenly.

Rodney is trembling against him, and John hums softly, pressing his cheek against the side of Rodney's head, Rodney's wings bumping against the walls and ceiling and floor. It's noisy and for a moment John worries about that, but it slips out of his mind almost immediately.

Rodney appears to be fairly settled on leaning against John, and John doesn't try to move him. He just winds an arm around Rodney's ribs, rubbing at the trembling muscles. Teyla and Ronon are already close, gently touching the wings, rubbing and kneading, and for a long moment Rodney holds his breath against John's shoulder.

Somewhere in there, John loses track of time. He hadn't meant to, but that's just how it happens. He thinks he might very well fall asleep on his feet, but it doesn't matter, because he doesn't fall over or lose his grip on Rodney.

Then Ronon and Teyla are shifting back, and Rodney is breathing slow and deep against John's shoulder, the wings dipping down towards the floor, color rubbed back into them. John hates, suddenly, the thought of putting them back in the harness, even as he knows that it's a necessity. There are only so many stupid risks that he can rationalize taking off-world.

John says, "You okay?" and Rodney nods, his hands gripping at John's shirt. It's enough. John nods at Ronon and Teyla, and they gather the harness back up. This is one part that John's never been involved with before, and that's a relief.

Putting it back on is every bit as unpleasant as John had been anticipating. Rodney tenses up, flinching a little with each strap that's pulled tight, but there's nothing else they can do about it. It takes much longer to get it on than it had to get it off, and at the end Rodney rolls his shoulders, looking up with his mouth open to say what John is willing to bet will not be 'thank you'.

Whatever it was, Rodney never gets the chance to say it. John hears the key turn in their lock and then takes a long moment to figure out what the hell he's actually hearing. Rodney reacts faster, scrambling for the coat and then discarding it, grabbing the heavy blankets on the bed instead.

The door is already open. There's a pretty young woman on the other side, her red curls falling down over generous freckled cleavage. The light green shift she's wearing doesn't leave a whole lot to the imagination, and she's all full breasts and a rounded stomach, hips flaring out and catching the fabric.

She says, "Ronon?" and then freezes, staring into the room with her mouth falling open. Rodney has the blanket over one shoulder, but gives it up there, apparently deciding that she's already seen everything to there is to be seen. He straightens up his shoulders, and John steps in front of him without thinking.

Teyla starts, "Please, you must listen—" And that's when the girl starts screaming.

hr

Adrenaline flushes any traces of the alcohol out of John's system really fucking quickly. He has a P-90 in his hands almost immediately, Teyla lunging forward in an attempt to catch the girl, who's already twisting away, her bare feet slapping on the stone floor of the hallway. She's still screaming.

John twists back around, cursing. Ronon is yanking the shutters off the window on the far end of the room, but John can already see that it'll be too small for Rodney to fit through with the wings. He pushes the P-90 into Rodney's hands, grabbing another for himself, meeting Ronon's eyes.

There are running feet approaching. Lots of them. These people have a disturbingly fast reaction time. John curses again, aware that Rodney is babbling something but not really catching the words. Something about his fault, and them dying and the window, and John snaps, "No! We're not leaving you!" Rodney grabs his arm, and John pushes him against the wall, gritting out, "Don't even say it, Rodney. Don't. Even. Say. It."

Rodney grits his jaw shut for a long moment, his hands gripping at John's wrists, twisting around. And then he opens his mouth, because he's Rodney, and of course he's going to say it. He can't fucking help himself. For just a moment, John wants to hit Rodney so badly he feels his arm jerk.

And then Teyla is yelling, "We have company!" and Jesus, his entire team is being infected with ridiculous Earth expressions. John curses, shoving Rodney behind him, P-90 swinging up automatically, counting heads and wincing at the guns that are being leveled on his team.

There are far, far too many for them to just mow down, not without taking some serious damage of their own. John cuts a look across to Ronon, still standing by the window, and he doesn't even have to nod, Ronon just understands.

It takes seconds for the man to go through the window, the Lilliputians yelling angrily and shoving into the room, but, thankfully, not just opening fire. John opens his mouth to explain, to bullshit their way out of this somehow, and someone hits him hard in the back of the head. He goes down hard and fast.

hr

John wakes up with a splitting headache, which is hardly unexpected. Still, he thinks it has little to do with the mead he'd drank the previous night and a lot more to do with whatever had cracked the back of his head. He winces, raising a hand carefully and probing at the knot on the back of his head. It's warm to the touch and impressively huge. John takes a moment to hope that he's not concussed.

Before he can get any farther than that, there are small hands pushing at him, and Teyla saying, low and urgent, "Are you aware enough to listen to me?"

John takes a moment to consider that. His head does feel like of stuffed with cotton, but he doesn't appear to be completely confused. He swallows, slitting his eyes open and squinting at the faded brick of the wall he's sprawled out beside. There's something soft under his head. It smells like his shirt. He finally rasps, "Yeah."

Teyla makes a relieved sound, leaning over him. John can feel her hair brushing against his cheek and down the line of his jaw. One of her hands is resting on his hip, and John would wonder why, expect he's pretty sure the placement of her thumb is ideal of digging into a nerve cluster there and immobilizing him. John's nerves ratchet up fast. When Teyla speaks, she doesn't make him feel any better, "They have taken Rodney."

John swallows hard, feeling something icy cold settle in his gut. He manages to grit out, "How long?"

There's a stretch of silence, Teyla's grip tightening. Her voice is very tightly controlled, "I believe it has been close to three hours." John lets out a ragged breath of relief, because that means Ronon has to be close to the 'gate, close to coming back with a fucking squad of Marines, close to busting them out of here. Then Teyla is going on, "John...he convinced them that we were not aware of the wings."

John blinks, frowning, because that wouldn't have been the piece of information he asked for next. He shakes his head, "What? Why?" and tries to shift up. Teyla shifts her grip, grunting and keeping him pinned. There's bad news coming. Something she thinks he's going to take really, really badly.

Teyla blows out a hard breath, "They believe he has been attacked by some kind of monster. And that the wings are endangering his..." She pauses, and John can almost hear her looking for the word she wants to use, "You would call it a soul."

John frowns, trying to figure out where the hell she's going with this. Maybe he is concussed, because it's just not falling into place for him at all. Finally, Teyla tightens her grip again, and says, "They say he must not be allowed to die with them, if he is to enter the Eternal Rest." John can hear the capital letters in her tone, and gets momentarily hung up there.

And then everything falls together, all at once, a domino effect through John's brain. He jerks hard, trying to lunge up, because he needs to kill someone, to kick some ass, to stop this. Teyla presses her thumb into his side hard, and John gasps, legs jerking, effectively held immobile.

Teyla's voice is very tight, almost whisper quiet, "We must be calm. We need a plan if we are to help him." And the worse part is that John knows she's right. He hates that she's right. Because the last thing John wants to be right now is calm.

She's not giving him a choice, and he takes a moment to be bitter about how well she knows him. Then he swallows, managing nothing more than a tight nod. Teyla makes a relieved sound, releasing her grip, and John rolls up onto his hands, breathing raggedly.

He says, "How's the security here?" while pushing up onto his knees, squinting around the gloomy room. In the back of his head he's straining to hear the rumble of Jumper engines. Or screams. It's the last thing he wants to hear, but waiting for it is killing him. Things go wrong fast when they go wrong, and John just wants to know how wrong this one's going to go.

Teyla opens her mouth, but whatever she's going to say is interrupted when the door to their cell swings open. There are armed guards outside, a shit load of them, and John wonders if one of them gave him this knot on the back of his head. He forces a smile, "Hi, we seem to have misplaced some of our—"

Then he's being pulled to his feet, his arms twisted up behind his back and held there by strong hands. John makes a furious sound, twisting against him, but his struggles are ignored. He finds himself frog marched out of the cell, trying to look over his shoulder to see if Teyla is being brought along as well. He catches just a glimpse of her and doesn't relax as much as he thinks it should.

He tries to force down the hot panic in his chest, "Where are we going? Somewhere fun? I—" one of the guards jabs him hard in the side, and John bites his bottom lip, trying to kick out at them. The rescue team has to be almost here. They just have to find Rodney. That's all.

Someone pushes down on the top of John's head, then, shoving him through a short doorway. On the other side, the fresh air buffets up against him. The sun is starting to rise in the northern sky, pink light that's streaking by fluffy white clouds.

John twists again, but there's no escaping the hold the men have on him. He's marched across the cobbled courtyard that there had been dancers on the previous night. There's still some trash strewn about, including a crust of bread being fought over by two bright yellow birds.

It's a ridiculous thing to notice. That concussion is starting to look more and more likely.

They're out to the hills now, grain twisting around John's ankles, and he wonders if somewhere out here Rodney is sneezing. He listens for it, twisting and fighting and then going still, the bottom dropping out of his stomach.

They've built some kind of platform out in the middle of the field. The wood looks fresh and new, still splintery and unseasoned. There's sap forming little bubbles on some of the planks. It's nothing fancy, just a flat, raised surface with two poles rising up out of it.

There's a group gathered up on it, farmers dressed like farmers, not like insane cultists or whatever John had been expecting. And there's Rodney, his hands bound tight in front of him, guns trailed on him by every other person gathered there. But he's alive. Thank God.

John fights harder against the restraining hands, for all the good it does. Behind him he can hear Teyla making a relieved sound, but John barely registers it. He yells, "Rodney!" and Rodney looks towards him, looking tired and hopeless, his shoulders bowed down.

Rodney is still wearing the harness. He doesn't look beaten or abused in any way. He looks fine. Somehow John thinks that's a bad sign. Almost as bad as Rodney not answering him. John opens his mouth to yell, and the guards behind him shake him hard.

One of the farmers standing on the platform turns to look at them. The man has weathered skin, bright green eyes, faded gray hair. His big hands are crossed with scars and covered with coarse red hair. He reminds John viscerally of an uncle, who had lived out his entire life on his farm, divorced as far away from the rest of the family as possible.

The man says, "We wish you no ill will, though your friend has informed us you might choose to take this as such. I'm sure if you consider upon it you'll understand that we've only your best interests in our hearts." John discovered a long time ago that people that feel like giving speeches are the most dangerous kind. He starts praying for the Jumper to get there.

While he waits, Teyla is speaking, "Please, just allow us to take our friend and go. We will offer you no trouble." Her tone as good as says she knows they won't listen, but she's trying anyway. One side of Rodney's mouth twists up, and he looks down at the ground, sun beating down against his back, blurring the lines of his body.

The farmer sighs, shaking his head slowly back and forth. His refusal isn't a surprise, but John had still been holding out hope, just a grain of it, that maybe this wasn't going to have to go down this way. The man says, "We will give him to you afterwards," and waves a hand at the men gathered around him.

Two of the Lilliputians pull Rodney up to his feet. John running through possible scenarios, relieved as fuck that there's no noose hanging anywhere on the platform. Then one of the men is drawing a long, curved, knife, and John feels like someone hit him hard up under the ribs. He manages to hiss, "No," out from between his suddenly clenched teeth.

No one is listening. Rodney goes wild-eyed, nostrils flaring and color draining out of his face. When the knife is slid between strap and skin, and twisted, Rodney flinches, catching the tip against his shoulder. Blood rolls dark down his arm, running into the next strap down and spreading out along it.

Rodney is yelling, words coming fast and jumbling together, "Wait, wait, wait! That's what—there are buckles, for fuck's sake! There are—all you have—stop!" They're already done with Rodney's right arm, leaving behind little nicks that are probably more from Rodney's twisting and squirming than anything else.

They reach towards his chest, and Rodney tries to look down, back-peddling uselessly, held by restraining hands. He's shouting, "Hey, whoa, whoa, ow!" and when the man with the knife steps back there are two bright bursts of blood on Rodney's chest, and John is shaking with impotent rage.

Numbly, from far away, John can hear Teyla trying to reason with one of the guards. He wants to tell her that it's useless, but hell, he's seen her pull off some truly impressive things. Maybe she'll manage this. But John wouldn't put money on it. His voice seems to have dried up in his chest, the tendons in his neck straining impossibly tight.

Rodney is babbling, while they move to his other arm, implacable as a fucking storm, "Look, just take them away, okay? Don't make them watch this. Don't—" Rodney's voice cracks, wavering in the air between them. He's not looking at John anymore. He's not looking at anything, his eyes squeezed shut tight instead.

John lies, "It's going to be okay, Rodney. Everything is going to be fine," and absolutely no one dignifies that with a response. John can't say that he really expected them to. Just like he didn't really expect Rodney to buy it for a minute.

Still, he thinks it's probably a bad sign that Rodney doesn't even try to tell him how stupid he is for even trying to sell that bullshit.

Rodney looks like he's hyperventilating, gasping at the air, his chin tilted down towards his chest. One of the Lilliputians wraps a big hand around the back of Rodney's neck, squeezing, holding him in place, while one of the others slides the knife in between wing and strap, and twists.

Rodney doesn't scream. John makes up for it, yelling something wordless and putting everything he has into escaping the hold his captors have on him. It's enough to get him free for a few long seconds. He puts his elbow into the side of a man's head, slamming the broad side of his palm against another man's windpipe, barely hearing the sound of a body hitting the ground.

Then they're on him again, a thick arm around his neck tightening down. John tries to hit the man, fists or knees, but the man is just too big, all muscle, bull-strong. John fights anyway, even when spots start swimming up behind his eyes, his air supply dwindling more and more.

Up on the platform, they have most of the straps snapped, and John yells, "Go! Just go!" because maybe they've underestimated the strength in the wings. Most people do before they've seen what Rodney can do, and they're far overdue for some good luck.

The last strap parts under the blade of the knife, the last piece of the harness falling down to the sticky wood. Rodney is already moving, flaring the wings out wide, to their full span, and John takes a moment to be grateful that they rubbed the wings out the previous night, because there's no way in hell Rodney would have been able to manage that otherwise.

Around them people flinch back, yelling at each other. John laughs hoarsely, trying to rip the arm away from his throat. Rodney knocks two men clean off of the platform, tripping backwards a few steps, lifting the wings, bending his knees, and John would yell for him to go all over again, if he had any breath to spare forming the words.

Rodney hesitates, looking at John, looking at Teyla, expression twisting up with the conflict in his head. It's only for a second, but it's all the time the Lilliputians need. John makes a low, miserable, sound, watching them swarm over him, hands grabbing the wings, yanking and twisting and overwhelming him with sheer numbers.

John hears something crack, hears Rodney scream, and hates them so viscerally that it gives him the strength to yank the man's arm away from his neck long enough for him to suck in a deep breath. It's not enough, not by a long shot.

On the platform, they're dragging Rodney forward. Rodney's gone limp, his legs hanging uselessly, his head lolling to the side. His wings are being manhandled by a half-dozen men, and one of them is twisted all wrong, the main arch bone snapped in two and bent in half. It makes the nausea in John's stomach thicken to what feels like a solid state.

Not again. He can't deal with this again. Not with the machine broken. Not with no way to fix it.

The universe doesn't give a good goddamn. John can feel his heels kicking out at nothing, his lungs on fire. He starts to sag down and the man behind him grunts, easing his grip enough for John to suck in tiny gasps of air. It's not enough to get his strength back. It's barely enough to keep him conscious.

On the platform, they drop Rodney and he hits his knees, starts to fall over. Hands catch at his wings, and Rodney hangs forward from them, his eyes open but blank, blood sliding out of the corner of his mouth, reddening his lips.

Around them the morning has gone absolutely silent. Even the birds that had been so noisy earlier are completely quiet. It means that John hears the crack when the Lilliputians straighten Rodney's wings out. Rodney makes a ragged sound that's not quite a scream, gagging.

It's ignored. That's pretty much what John expected. They haul Rodney up, his knees inches off the floor, his feet bent back. The Lilliputians are exchanging nods and hand gestures, and John is too wrung out on adrenaline and panic to try to decipher what the hell they're communicating.

They don't keep him in suspense. They yank Rodney a little higher, pulling the wings out straight and manhandling him towards the poles. John manages, "No, fuck no," but it's not audible even to his ears, so it's not exactly a surprise when they show no signs of hearing him.

The Lilliputians hold one of the wings up against the pole, and another of the big, healthy looking farm boys is climbing the steps, a hammer hefted over his shoulder. John makes a rough sound, marshalling what strength he's been left, and the man holding him flexes his bicep, squeezing shut John's windpipe.

John loses the first blow to the spots behind his eyes. But he hears Rodney scream, the sound animal and wounded, horrendous. John gasps and sucks desperately on air, blinking his eyes, willing away the spots by sheer force of will. Afterwards, he wishes that he hadn't, because he wishes like anything that he'd never had to see this.

There's a thick nail through the upper joint of Rodney's right wing. There's blood running in thick streams down the blue flesh of the wing. Rodney is curled over as much as he can get, his shoulders heaving, a pile of vomit in front of him. The wing is flexing and jerking spasmodically, but it's nowhere near enough to get Rodney off the poles.

The Lilliputians are already pulling Rodney's other wing up. This time John sees everything, sees the man holding the nail, sees the swing of the hammer. This time Rodney only makes a dry coughing sound, hanging limp between his skewered wings. Blood is dripping off of them, forming two growing puddles below the nails.

John prays that Rodney's lost consciousness, because this is horrible, and the Lilliputians don't look like they're done. But Rodney rolls his head slowly to the side, tries to raise it and doesn't quite manage it. Rodney spits, a long line of saliva stretching down from his mouth, catching the morning sunlight.

One of the Lilliputians steps forward then, resting a hand on the back of Rodney's neck again, bending over and saying something that John can't hear. Whatever it is, Rodney doesn't respond. He doesn't so much as stir, and John hates these people, hates them so damn much.

He hates them more when he sees the axe one of the people on the ground tosses up to the platform. It doesn't look much like a weapon, regardless of the thick, curved blade. John imagines that they mostly use it for cutting down trees, because it has the thick, sturdy look of something that's used to going up against thirty foot tall monsters and winning. The edge catches the sun, reflects it in John's eyes and temporarily blinds him.

When John can see again, the man still has his hand on the back of Rodney's neck. The man has his face tilted up to the sky, and his mouth is moving slowly, his other hand pressed flat over his heart. The boy who had brought the hammer is holding the axe, running his thumb along the blade, looking considering.

John tries to gasp out a protest, but he can't manage it. Not even when the boy sighs, straightening up and hefting the axe to test the weight of it. The boy spins it in his hands, and John tells himself not to look, to spare himself this. It's selfish, and he shakes the thoughts away.

Rodney is shaking his head back and forth, and it's the only way John knows he's still awake for this. John wishes that he weren't. But there's nothing to be done about it. There's a roar on the edge of John's hearing, the blood supply that's been cut off finally starting to get to him.

On the platform, the boy steps up beside Rodney, his muscles bulging beneath the tunic he's wearing. The kid would have been right at home in a body-building competition, but right now he seems more interested in raising the axe.

Beside John, Teyla finds the air to yell, something furious and wordless. John can't, his throat closed too tight, his lungs on fire. The boy brings the axe down in a sweet arch, every single part of it completely perfect. In another situation, it might have been beautiful.

One blow apparently took off both wings. Rodney goes forward onto his face, blood going everywhere, the wings staying behind. John gags, the roar in his ears going almost deafening, thrashing and fighting and praying that this is all some kind of horrible dream.

On the platform, the Lilliputians are kneeling beside Rodney, all concern now, and John hates them for that. The man behind John leaves him go, releases him, and John doesn't even think before he's moving. He falls forward, scrambling on the ground for something, anything, coming up with a rock, his legs carrying him to his feet before he can even breathe.

John twists, catching Teyla moving whip-snap fast out of the corner of his eye. The man behind John is looking at him, puzzled, bending over as though he'd been planning to help John stand. John doesn't fucking care.

The first blow with the rock splits open the skin of the man's forehead. Blood floods across John's knuckles, and he's drawing back before the sting of it even registers. The next blow lays the man out, and John bends over him, taking the gun at the man's hip.

John doesn't bother rising to his feet before he starts firing. These bastards signed their own death warrants and John has no problem serving it. The kickback is surprisingly strong, and John grunts, absorbing the blow with his shoulder. Up on the platform, a man's head explodes, but John barely associates it with what he's doing. It all seems disconnected.

It takes seconds to expend the ammunition in the gun. By the time John's done, everyone is screaming, running around like fucking idiots. John can see Teyla moving, cutting her way through the crowd towards the platform. He catches a glimpse of her driving the heel of her hand up into some guy's chin, snapping the man's head back.

Rodney is still and silent up on the platform, and John rolls to his feet, smacking some man across the face with the butt of his empty gun and stepping over him. The steps on the platform are uneven, and John trips going up them. He catches himself with one hand, a splinter digging deep into his palm. He leaves behind a smear of blood when he pushes to his feet.

The boy with the axe is turning towards John, and John goes low. These people aren't soldiers, strong as they are. It takes only a few blows to lay the boy out, John snatching the axe as it drops. It would probably be too much weight for John to heft and swing regularly. Right now there's enough adrenaline and pure naked fury in his head to move a mountain. The axe isn't going to be any fucking problem at all.

John grunts, feeling a burn in his shoulders that he's probably going to regret later, not really caring when he manages a glancing blow against some poor bastard's neck. The man goes down hard, head tilting back like a Pez dispenser. John keeps moving.

His hands are hot and wet, sliding around the handle of the axe, and John isn't quite sure why. He doesn't care. People come and go, and John doesn't track them after he's past them. Then he's swinging the axe again, grunting at the impact when he strikes bone and feels the blade catch hard.

John releases the axe, presently deep in some man's hip, and turns in a circle looking for the next person to kill. There's no one else on the platform. John shakes his head hard, still trying desperately to catch his breath. Right now he can't worry about anything as insignificant as asphyxiating.

Rodney is flat on his face, blood soaking down over him. John drops to his knees beside Rodney, wasting a precious second to raise his hand to his ears because that roar is just getting louder and louder and right now it's just pissing him off.

For a second, John hesitates there, his hand hovering above Rodney's back. There's blood pumping out of the ragged wounds on Rodney's back, and he's pale as death beneath it, his hands still bound in front of him. John chokes on a curse, and makes himself lower his hand down to Rodney's skin.

There's no response from Rodney. He doesn't flinch, he doesn't stir, nothing. John figures it's a good bet that he's in shock, or well on his way to dead from the blood loss. John rips off his shirt, pressing it to Rodney's back, aware even as he does it that it's probably the most pointless medical aid he's ever attempted to offer.

There are major veins leading into the wings, and they've all been severed. Rodney's killing himself a little with each pump of his heart, and there's jack shit that John can do about it. A wind blows up suddenly, and John winces, raising one arm to protect his face.

And from somewhere below him, Teyla is yelling, "John!" her voice hoarse and tight. John turns to look at her automatically, following her gaze back over his shoulder, where four Jumpers are setting down, the grain in the fields leveled flat by their engines.

For a long moment all John can do is blink dumbly, and then the Jumper doors are sliding open. Ronon is out first, armed to the teeth, scanning the area and then freezing with a frozen, horrified look on his face, just for a moment, before he compartmentalizes everything away, and regains his standard, calm, expression.

John doesn't know that he's ever been so grateful to see the other man. Especially when John catches sight of all the yellow medical uniforms behind Ronon. John yells, his throat raw and stinging, "Over here!" and god fucking bless them, but they all move towards him immediately, ignoring the dead and dying all around them.

When they spot the wings, they all go still for just a beat, and John bites his tongue against the insane urge to just start explaining. It's not important, and they don't need to know anymore than John needed to see it. Keller is ignoring them, in any case, yelling for pressure bandages, and blood and then not waiting, instead shouldering John aside and shoving her hands down onto Rodney's flayed back.

She's cursing, which is such a surprise that John just rocks back and stares at her. Her hair is tied in a knot at the back of her neck, and her hands are already covered in blood. She's yelling, words that echo through John's head like a buzz as she fishes for arteries and veins, pinching things off, setting up a tiny triage right there on the platform.

After a moment, Ronon grabs John, lifting him and dragging him back a few feet. Other doctors move into the space John had vacated immediately, and somehow they get Rodney onto a stretcher with Keller straddling his back, shouting orders as she keeps her hands moving in his back.

The doctors aren't waiting to inform anyone else what they're doing, and John doesn't try to stop them. The doors to Jumper Four close behind them, and John watches with his mouth hanging open as it rises, shooting towards the 'gate immediately.

The morning is starting to turn hot, and has gone quiet again. Teyla comes running to the stairs then, her hair tangled and dark with blood, gripping makeshift weapons that look a lot like little spades in both hands. John stares up at her, and she stares back, before squeezing her eyes shut for just a second.

Then Ronon is pulling John to his feet, not asking what happened, thank God, just there. Ronon brought help, even if it was too late, far too late. John knows he shouldn't think that way, but he can't help it. He would have given anything to get Ronon there five minutes earlier.

But that isn't what happened, and what ifs and could have beens aren't going to help at this point. John almost drags a hand back through his hair, and then remembers just how bloody it is and catches himself. Instead he blows out a hard breath, making himself turn in the direction of the wings, even if he can't quite manage looking at them yet.

John manages, voice hoarse, "We should, uh—"

"Yes," Teyla's voice is firm and sure, and she's nodding her head hard, continuing, "Yes, that is a good idea." Then she's moving forward, carefully folding one of the wings in and looking expectantly over her shoulder, "Ronon, would you assist me?"

It's all so patently bizarre, but it's what they need to do right at the moment. Ronon grunts, moving forward and ignoring Teyla to yank the axe John had discarded out of the man that had been keeping it warm. It only takes him two swings to bring down the pole.

John flinches hard when the pole and the wing hit the ground. The wings aren't twitching, which is a small mercy. There's no life in them at all, and, as far as John can tell, no blood. Most of it seems to be spilt across the platform, dark red and sticky, copper sharp in John's nose.

Ronon is shifting, swinging the axe again and bringing down the second pole. The wing nailed there is already broken, and it folds up sickly when it crashes down. John turns his mouth against his shoulder, swallowing bile. He keeps waiting to wake up, for this to just be a nightmare.

But it's real, visceral in ways that John can't ignore. There are flies swarming everywhere already, buzzing around the bodies John and Teyla left dead and dying, all over the blood covering the platform. When John looks up to the sky, trying to avoid looking at Ronon hefting the poles and the wings, there are dark shapes circling overhead. They're not shaped anything like Earth's vultures, in fact, they remind John more of storks, but he has no doubt they're carrion birds.

Not all of the Lilliputians are dead yet, either. A few are groaning loudly, one or two sobbing. Half of them are just kids. John turns his head to the side and spits, sick and disgusted, not sure how much of it is with himself. Nothing about this went right, nothing went a way that John can reconcile as okay.

Teyla steps up beside him. She's slicked with blood, still carrying her makeshift weapons. She doesn't try to touch him, says while staring up into the sky, "I have seen the doctors perform many things that my people would have considered miracles."

John turns in a slow circle, looking at the scene surrounding them, the dead and dying, the flies, the blood, the ruined crop. Ronon is standing in the rear hatch of Jumper One, staring out at John and Teyla, his arms and chest darkened with blood from carrying the wings.

John says, "Not today," because he knows, somewhere down in his gut, that it's true. Today isn't the kind of day for miracles. Not with the healing machine broken and destroyed. Not with Rodney's wings presently on a completely different world than he is. Not with these dead kids and their dead crops.

Teyla doesn't argue. She just stares up at the sky for another long moment, before tossing both of her spades off the side of the platform and walking down. John looks down at the spades, one sticking up out of the dark earth, the other half-rolled beneath the platform.

Finally he says, "Okay," to the dead and the circling birds and the flies. His brain isn't connecting on any of this yet, and he accepts that. Standing here and waiting for it to click is just wasting time. He repeats himself, turns, and walks down the steps.

John trips again on the uneven steps. No one comments on it when he steps into the Jumper.

There's not a lot of room in the ship. Rodney's wings and the poles take up most of the room, the salty smell of blood and the sweet smell of sap filling up the air. John sits down on one of the benches, beside Teyla and the team of fully geared up Marines, Ronon standing by the door. He stares at the far wall, resting his elbows on his knees, hands open and hanging down.

No one says a word. None of them touch, even with the crowded quarters. That suits John just fine. The numbness spreading through him is a relief, and he soaks down into it. The blood from the wings is forming around the soles of his boots, and John shifts his feet, smearing it.

They go through the 'gate what has to be almost silently. John can't hear the pilot saying anything to the techs over the radio, but he really isn't listening very hard. The 'gate is cold and icy when they slide through, sends a shiver down John's spine.

In the Jumper bay, there's a crowd waiting for them. John wonders what it says about them, about all of them, that no one seems overly horrified by the amount of blood they're covered in. He stares out at the gathered crowd for a moment. It's hard to make himself register them as anything but bodies.

Eventually, John stops trying. Later, he'll worry about how fucking messed up he is. Right now there's nothing he can do about it. He stands slowly, looking out at the people that he lives with and works with and not really recognizing any of them.

He says, "We need to take the wings to Keller. See what she can do with them." No one says a word, not gaping at him, just staring with shut down, flat eyes. John continues, because there's nothing else to do, "Someone tell Woolsey that we'll debrief in the morning," he twists to look over his shoulder, "Ronon, get Teyla down to the infirmary. I'll be in my quarters."

No one tries to bar his way when John moves forward, though no one scrambles to clear a path for him, either. John steps around a small cluster of Rodney's scientists, pulling his side-arm off as an afterthought and offering it to one of the guards by the door. The man takes the gun without comment, and John keeps going.

A few people stop and stare in the corridors, but John can't recall their faces afterwards. He leaves little smears of blood on the map in the transporter, frowning and rubbing his fingers together. Some of the drying blood balls up, and John flicks it off. Most of it stays on, lining his fingerprints and cuticles with dark red.

John's room is cool and still. He ups the heat without thinking about it, kicking off his bloody boots outside the door and carrying them out to the balcony. The sky looks like it might storm. The waves have gone sharp and choppy the way they do before a windstorm. John leaves the boots out there anyway.

His socks are bloody too. John looks down at them, wiggles his toes, and then leans back against the wall, bending to pull them all. He can see the eyelets of his boot laces, the only part of his socks that are still pale gray below the ankles. John stuffs them down into his boots, turns, and goes back into his room.

It's still cool. It feels wrong. John frowns, but there's nothing he can do but wait for it to warm up. He pads across to his bathroom, shedding his tac vest as he goes. It's bloody as well. He should have put it out on the balcony. He doesn't feel like going back. Instead, he sets it on the toilet.

His clothes peel off more than anything. John balls them up and sets them in a corner. He'll need to make a run down to the laundry room before the blood-smell fills his room up completely. It's such a bitch to get out once it's settled in.

The shower barely registers when John steps under the water. His skin doesn't seem to be properly connected to his nerves. John knocks the water hotter, looking down at his feet, where the water swirls pink around his toes and down the drain.

There's steam rising now, stinging in John's nose. He waves a hand in front of his face, blinking. He's pretty certain that there's something wrong in his mind, some switch that he needs to flip or a button that needs to be pushed, just, something. He doesn't know what it is.

His hair feels grimy when he shampoos it out, gritty. John closes his eyes and rinses, scrubbing at his face, able to feel the gouges and contusions on his fingers and palms, but not getting any pain sensations from them. John rubs his fingertips together, and slaps himself hard across the cheek, just to see if he can feel it.

It's not registering. John frowns, but still has no idea what to do about it. It's not something he can just make better, so he shrugs, and ignores it. He finishes washing instead, scrubbing his skin until the water isn't running pink anymore.

John shaves when he's done, standing in front of his fogged up mirror and welding the razor by memory and feel. He nicks his jaw, but only once, and it's small. John pushes a square of toilet paper to the cut, and moves on.

Getting dressed is done without conscious thought. John's room is warm now, almost too hot. John sits on the side of his bed for a long moment, feeling sweat bead up across his brow and down the back of his neck. He's not tired, though he thinks he should probably be exhausted. He's not hungry. He's not angry. He's not anything.

John stands, because the nothing in his chest is uncomfortably heavy to carry around. He gets stares walking down to the infirmary, though he thinks he should look normal now. The blood is all washed off. He's wearing clean clothes. Fuck, he's even shaved. John ignores the looks, wiping off the transporter controls with his sleeve and then selecting the infirmary.

Ronon and Teyla are already there. Teyla has a small row of stitches above her eyebrows. John nods at it and she shrugs, reaching up to brush her fingertips across it without offering any vocal explanation. Ronon is still bloody. John raises his eyebrows, tilting his head to the side, and Ronon grunts, pushing away from the wall and striding away.

Last time they'd pulled Rodney into the infirmary, half dead and quickly working his way to fully dead, they'd ended up with more than half the city crowded around, waiting for news, lingering. Now the halls are mostly empty. Sometimes people skitter past, casting them nervous looks. John wonders if they've all already heard what's happened. If they've written Rodney off already.

There's a watch around John's wrist, but he turns it down to the inside of his wrist and ignores it. The chairs are uncomfortable, but John doesn't feel them. There's a lot that he's not feeling anymore. It's working out for him alright.

The infirmary isn't completely soundproofed, and every now and again John can hear the doctors yelling at each other. He decides to take that as a good sign. If nothing else, it means that they still have something to argue about, which is for the best.

Time passes. Ronon comes back, clean and still a little wet. The three of them sit together, staring at nothing, not attempting conversation, just waiting. John keeps waiting for the weight of the day to crash down onto him.

John is staring up at the ceiling, wondering why the hell the Ancients decided to go with fifteen foot ceilings when, as far as they know, the Ancients generally didn't get any taller than humans. His mind is chasing itself in circles. The door to the infirmary opening is a relief just for giving him something else to think about.

John has no doubt, suddenly, that he knows exactly what Keller is going to say. He thinks that maybe that's why he's felt so numb for so long. He knows, and he's been bracing for it for hours, trying to get into a state where hearing it won't result in, well, John doesn't know. He just knows that if he can feel, that if he's fully connected, things are going to get ugly.

Keller looks hyper, for once, instead of exhausted. She's smiling, but the expression looks rigid, almost painful. John wonders why she's doing it. And then she's saying, stepping forward and putting her hands on John's shoulders, "He's stable."

It's not what John had prepared himself for. He blinks up at her, waiting for her to take it back, to correct herself. She's not, continuing instead, "Wait, that's—he's still critical. But we've stopped the blood loss. There's a good chance—a big chance, that we're not going to lose him tonight." She pauses, blinking up at the huge windows along the hall, amending, "Today."

John just keeps staring at her. His jaw is aching, and his palms hurt. John makes himself relax his fists, hard as that is to manage. Keller cuts a look to the side, maybe for support from Teyla or Ronon, but they're just staring at her as well, eyes wide, waiting. She clears her throat, patting John's shoulders and removing her hands, speaking carefully now, "I thought—do you want to see him?"

John sucks in a breath, the world suddenly tilting lopsidedly. He finally manages, pushing to his feet and brushing imaginary dirt across his thighs, "Yes. Yeah. Now." He sounds more demanding than he'd meant to be, surprising himself.

Keller looks relieved, oddly, nodding her head and touching John's elbow again, steering him towards the door to the infirmary. John hesitates on the threshold, hating to make himself ask but needing to know, to brace himself before he goes in, "The wings?"

For a moment Keller doesn't answer, wincing. That's enough. John feels something twist hard in his gut, bracing a hand against the doorframe and breathing through it. Finally, she says, "I couldn't—I don't even know how well I managed to fix the damaged muscles and nerves as it is. Reconnecting the wings would have been more stress than his body could have handled and I—I'm sorry. You don't need to hear this," she grimaces, looking to the side.

John is pretty sure he's supposed to tell her that it's okay, but he can't make himself form the lie. Instead he just stares forward, unable even to nod. After a moment, Keller says, "Right. Right. I—this way." She leads him forward again, John following in her wake even though he isn't sure he's ready to face this.

They have Rodney closed into a private room, the air inside hot and humid. There are machines set everywhere around the room, beeping and humming to themselves. John avoids looking at Rodney's bed for as long as he can, barely hearing it when Keller backs out of the room.

Finally, there's nothing left for him to stall with. John sucks in a breath, and looks.

Rodney is still on his stomach, but he looks so much smaller without the wings. It's physically jarring, and John reaches out to brace himself against the wall. The blankets are tucked in around Rodney's waist, thick bandages swaddled from the base of his ribs up to his shoulders. There are tubes and wires running into the bandages, and it's already staining pink in places.

John covers his mouth with his hand. It takes him a long time to make his way across the room, because he has to keep pausing, turning to look at something, anything else. But the room isn't all that big, and sooner than he would like, he's by the side of the bed.

It takes even longer for John to make himself sit, because his knees seem to have locked up. But he manages, eventually, sinking down and wrapping his hands around the arms of the chair, staring into the corner of the room. There's silence but for the whispers and whistles of the machines

After a long time, Rodney makes a soft sound, and that's it. John can't ignore it anymore. He lets out a shuddery breath and turns to look at the bed. Rodney's got his face turned to the side on the pillow, his eyes closed, his expression all twisted up with pain anyway.

Rodney's mouth is bitten and raw, little stains of blood on the pillow. His arms are curled up, and John has to resist the urge to reach out and straighten them. He can't resist smoothing a hand back over Rodney's sweaty, tangled hair.

Rodney doesn't stir. John isn't surprised. He might be in a medical coma for all that John knows, probably at least in shock. John doesn't see how he couldn't be. That doesn't stop John from wishing Rodney would crack an eye open and bitch at John for disturbing his rest.

John moves his hand slowly, down over the back of Rodney's neck, until the edge of his palm is just resting against the thick bandages. He keeps expecting the wings to be there, stretched out over the sides of the bed, larger than life and so alive. But they're gone. John wonders what was done with them, and to the poles they were nailed to.

He decides, after a beat, that he doesn't actually want to know.

To stop himself from wondering about it, John closes his eyes, braces himself, and raises his hand up over the bandages. He keeps his hand close enough that he can feel the texture of the fabric against his palm, but doesn't lower his hand completely. He can't imagine how any touch at all would be anything but agony for Rodney, unconscious or no.

For a long, long time, John just sits there. Around them the machines beep. In the bed Rodney sleeps, looking fragile and breakable in a way that John would have preferred to never see him. After a while John's hand starts shaking with the strain of being held in place for so long, and he curls his fingers up, drawing his hand back, resting it on the bed beside Rodney's ribs.

After a while, doctors come in, moving around John like he isn't even there. John watches them change the I.V. drips, watches them unwrap the bandages around Rodney's ribs and expects it to make him ill. Oddly, he can't feel anything at all when he sees the ugly, red wounds.

The ragged, stitched up wounds are shaped like fishhooks. The skin is stretched oddly, over, John supposes, what's left of the base of Rodney's wings. They're red and angry, the stitches thick and dark. It's going to scar, which is a stupid thing to notice. It's a relief when the doctors bandage the wounds up again, hiding them from view beneath thick white cloth and salves.

No one comes in to try to make John leave. Eventually he stops worrying that they're about to, and lets some of the strain drain out of his shoulders. Rodney shows no signs of stirring, and John slouches down, leaning his head back against the edge of the seat, ignoring the immediate burn of pain.

John doesn't mean to sleep, but he's exhausted, wrung out, and it just kind of happens. When he wakes up, there's a blanket spread over him. Rodney is still unconscious.

hr

The next few days are hell. John expected it to take time for Rodney to regain consciousness, but that's not making him feel any better. Each day that Rodney just lies there, still and pale, is a little harder to deal with. John stays close though he wants nothing more than to run far away. He wants to be there when Rodney wakes up.

The doctors become his almost constant companions. They don't try to engage him in conversation while they work on Rodney, and for that John is grateful. He still can't seem to make himself connect on any useful level with other people. Hell, even with himself.

Keller does speak with him sometimes. Mostly it's things that John doesn't want to know, but apparently she needs someone to speak the words to. She tells him how many times Rodney died on the table, or describes the hours she spent trying to connect muscle tissue in a way that wouldn't leave Rodney too broken to move, or talks about all the blood.

John can't bring himself to share anything back, to tell her what he had to watch. Someone else apparently did, because she mentions it sometimes, her tiny hands almost shaking with anger when she talks about it. It must have been Teyla that told her, though John can't figure out why. Maybe Teyla just needs someone to talk to, as well.

After a few days, Keller apparently deems that Rodney can have other visitors. John doesn't like it, though he doesn't know why. He finds himself tensing up and watching any people that come into the room, his arms crossed tight over his chest, his chin down.

Mostly, it's the team that lingers in the room, and even they put John on edge. Rodney's minions come by, worried and fluttery as caged birds. For as much as they bitch about Rodney in their day to day lives, they look lost without him now. The entire life-drawing group comes by, in small little clusters. Everyone avoids mentioning the wings, the thick bandages, the loss.

John leaves only when Ronon and Teyla are both there. They're relatively safe here, in Atlantis, but he still doesn't want to leave Rodney alone. Not when he's unaware, unable to protect him. Not when, for all they know, he might be crippled, unable to move below his shoulder blades.

It's not like John's ever gone for very long, in any case. He moves through the motions that everyone seems to be expecting of him. He keeps his appearance in order, he eats, he stops by to talk to Lorne, who has everything running like a smoothly oiled machine. The motions are all rote, things he could do in his sleep, which is just as well, because John feels like a sleep-walker that can't quite wake up.

Mostly, John sleeps in the infirmary. He never intends to, and sometimes he thinks he's just disconnected from his body enough to fall asleep without being consciously aware that he's even tired. The hard chair doesn't bother him. The crink in the back of his neck doesn't even register.

Once, John wakes up to find Teyla and Lorne in the room. They're talking in low voices, though for whose benefit John isn't sure. Teyla has her arms crossed, all the blood cleaned out from beneath her nails. Lorne is standing close enough that they might be touching. John blinks, tilting his head just a little to the side and deciding that there's still a little space between them.

Lorne raises a hand, tracing the edge of his thumb nail below the line of stitches on Teyla's forehead. The man has his head tilted, eyes sharp, mouth quirked up. Teyla leans into the touch, and John closes his eyes, sure that he should feel happy for her. He makes a note to be, just as soon as the ice in his chest thaws out.

Twice, John wakes up to find Richardson in the room. Both times the man is making a noise, something low that fits under the heading of 'purring', and that's what wakes John both times. There's probably something weird about the soft licks across the back of Rodney's neck, but it isn't hitting on anything for John. Richardson has his eyes half-lidded, what John can see is all pupil, his hands kneading at the mattress. The first time John just closes his eyes and goes back to sleep.

The second time John sighs, shifting in the chair, and Richardson startles. The man's on his feet in seconds, lips pulling back from his sharp teeth, hands up with his fingers spread. It's the first time John's really noticed the claws, no darker than human nails, curved like thick, wicked hooks on the ends of his fingers.

John just raises an eyebrow, and after a moment Richardson makes an irritated, rumbling sound and settles. His fingers twitch when the claws retract, and his pupils shrink to half their previous size in a second. John figures he should probably say something, ask how the new team is working out, if going on missions is going well. He keeps his mouth closed, nodding a little bit after a moment and wondering if he could fall back to sleep.

Richardson shows no signs of speaking, either, crouching back down again. The rumbling sound in his chest translates back to purring after a moment, a noticeable change in the tone of the vibration. Cats never really appealed to John, but he can remember his mother's gigantic Persian, cuddled up beside him, warm and purring while he was so sick he thought he might die with strep throat in the third grade. John remembers it as the sole bright spot of comfort in the entire experience.

John closes his eyes. He can still hear Richardson, who generates a lot more noise than John's mother's Persian could have ever hoped to. John imagines that the air around them is vibrating with it. It's a stupid, disjointed thought, but John doesn't have to think about it for very long. He sleeps again.

John loses track of the times he wakes up to find doctors or nurses in the room. He gets used to the look of the ugly wounds. They operate on Rodney again, several times. The scars spread, though Keller is very good at her job. There's only so much she can do with what she has to work with, and so the incisions grow and spread across Rodney's back like a sickness all their own. John tracks them.

The cuts above Rodney's shoulder blades are long but thin. They might heal without scars. The long cut from the nape of his neck to the bottom of his ribs John holds out less hope for. Especially because that one comes with secondary incisions, spreading out across Rodney's sides.

John doesn't ask what each progressive surgery is for, and no one volunteers the information, which is for the best as far as he's concerned. They take constant scans of Rodney's body, frowning over them while John looks on, absently trying to read their lips and not succeeding. He probably wouldn't understand what they were talking about, even if he knew. He takes comfort in the fact that though the doctors look frustrated, they never really look upset.

Sometimes, the psychiatrist comes by. John mostly ignores the man, and Dietrich always has some excuse for being there, his blood pressure or a prescription for his patients that he felt the need to personally deliver. John doesn't care, it's just more noise, pointless and easy to ignore.

It's been over a week when the world finally shifts. John is staring at the floor when it happens, but the feel of the hair rising on the back of his neck makes him look up. It takes him a moment to make sense of what he's seeing, because there had been a spot inside of him where he'd been sure that they were stuck in a rut, a loop that would never end.

Rodney's eyes are open. John stands cautiously, watching Rodney slowly blink. There's almost no other movement. In fact, Rodney's tensed up all over, his hands digging into the mattress, breathing sharp and fast, his jaw locked up hard.

John opens his mouth to call for Keller, but nothing comes out. He swallows heavily instead, taking a small step towards the bed, and then another. Rodney isn't focusing on him. In fact, Rodney doesn't appear to be focusing on anything, just staring blankly forward, his entire body tense as a compressed spring.

John is close enough now to put his hand on the bed, and so he does. The sheets seem coarse under his skin, so John walks his hand sideways until his hand is pressing up against Rodney's forearm. Rodney jerks, full-bodied, sucking in a sharp breath through his nose, his eyes rolling up for a long moment.

For a moment all John can do is mouth curses, unable to find any air to put behind them to make the words audible. Then Rodney settles, still so tense, gaze no more focused than it had been. John's heart is jack-hammering in his chest. He turns on his heel, and runs for the door, feeling suddenly knocked off skew, grabbing the nearest doctor and managing, "He's awake," before twisting away and heading for the door.

Everything is coming down on John all at once, and he wants his disconnection back. The powers that be don't care. He feels cold and hot, light-headed and weighed down, his mind roaring. It takes all he has to get into the transporter, to go to his room, to get inside before he does something stupid.

Once inside, it takes what's left of his fraying control to bring up the sound-proofing on the walls, to lock everyone out, to turn off his radio. That's the best he can manage. John grabs the chair by his desk and throws it across the room as best he can. The crash it makes across the floor is deeply satisfying, so John grabs the desk as well, pulling it over. Pens go spinning across the floor, a forgotten coffee mug shattering to a thousand pieces and bleeding out caffeine.

It's not good enough. John doesn't do anything as stupid as hitting the wall. In a contest between human fist and Ancient architecture, the walls always win. However, he can upend his bed. His lamp goes into a wall, and Mister Cash escapes only because John has some respect, even now.

John feels kind of like a tornado, high pressure and low pressure systems colliding inside him until he's spent himself out. It takes what feels like seconds, before he's standing in the middle of his room, his possessions strewn like debris around the room, uniformly bent and broken.

John's breathing hard, his hands balled up into fists. He sits down abruptly, a puppet with it's strings cut, folding his arms in his lap and trying to control his breathing. He's so angry it's gone off the chart. Angry, and he'd thought that Rodney was going to die. For the last week, he'd thought Rodney was going to die, had been preparing himself for it, and now Rodney's awake.

John laughs, choking on it, unable to stop once he starts. It seems to go on a lot longer than the burst of destructive energy had. Rodney's awake, alive, somehow. Teyla's fine. They killed a shit load of people back on that planet. It all comes down on John at once, a pile of shit so big it's developed its own gravitational field.

It's still not enough to cut off his dry and flat laughter. John isn't sure that anything is ever going to be able to. Maybe he'll just sit in here and laugh until the world falls down around his ears. An hour earlier he would have been okay with that.

But everything has changed now. John shakes himself, finally, rubbing the back of his hand over his mouth and looking around at the mess he made. There's a flash of shame up through his gut, any emotion at all still surprising after the last week of emptiness.

John pushes slowly to his feet, wiping his hands off on his pants, turning in a slow circle. It takes him hours to put back to right what it took him maybe minutes to destroy, and there are things that can't be repaired at all. He thinks that he might have thrown some of his golf clubs out into the ocean.

hr

Rodney might be awake, but he isn't registering anything, really. Keller worries and frets, sick with the fact that he's awake and that her hands are tied on pain medication. Nothing she's managed to synthesize comes close to being able to deal with this amount of trauma, and she panics over not being able to discuss other options with Rodney. John tells her that he doesn't think Rodney would really go for a spinal, anyway, and for a long moment Keller just looks at him with surprise written all over her face. People have been doing that a lot, recently, when John talks. He supposes he can't really blame them, and for the most part they recover quickly.

The doctors do all kinds of further testing, on Rodney's brain and his body. Keller insists that they're seeing normal brain activity, that she doesn't know why Rodney won't respond. She doesn't have to say that she's terrified she did something wrong for John to hear the words.

For his part, John can't think how to tell them all that Rodney's probably just being stubborn, dealing with things the way he needs to, and he'll talk to them when he's ready. If the pain is even half as bad as Keller is predicting, then John figures that's all the explanation anyone should need. Rodney's dealing with that. There's not enough of him left over to deal with anything else.

In a way, this half-awake state is worse than when Rodney had been dead to the world. Not least because John's lost his numb disconnection. All the pressure that had built up crashed down all at once, and John had thought that he'd exorcised it, but it still sneaks up on him when he least expects it. Ronon and Teyla don't comment when things get slightly out of hand in the sparring rooms. They still kick his ass, anyway, so John figures it doesn't concern them too greatly.

John thinks it would be easier if he could just avoid the infirmary for a few days, but he can't make himself do it. Even now that he's gotten back into his life, into doing what he's supposed to do, he still finds himself swinging by to check on things several times a day.

Rodney's condition doesn't take any miraculous turns while John's away. He just keeps laying there, eyes open, blinking regularly, wound up tight. There's another surgery Keller wants to do, but she's worried about putting Rodney under again, about him maybe not waking up again if she takes that chance. John's stopped questioning why she sees fit to tell him these things. He just goes with it.

There's a heartbeat where John almost suggests she just do the surgery without anesthetic of any kind, but just the thought of it makes him feel physically ill. John doesn't know exactly what's going on in Rodney's head right now, but he's certain the other man is aware of his body. Subjecting him to even more pain isn't going to help anything.

In the end, Keller talks herself around to giving Rodney another week to wake up, and then going on with the surgery. She keeps talking afterwards, maybe in an attempt to give John some good news, maybe just because she needs to hear herself talk a little more. She insists that Rodney's healing better than she expected, that as far as they can tell he's retained feeling in his legs and feet.

John nods along, wishing he could zone out on what she was saying, but apparently he's lost that ability somewhere along the way. Without thinking about it, he reaches out, resting his palm on the back of Rodney's knee and telling himself that Rodney can feel that, somewhere down inside his head. It makes John feel better, oddly enough.

People keep coming by. John catches Ronon in the room, reading to Rodney, and has to suppress a ridiculous grin when it turns out to be Popular Mechanics. The fact that Ronon's wearing glasses, little wire frames that look surprisingly dignified on him, is too good to pass up as teasing material. John decides to save it for a little while.

Richardson still stops by to purr at Rodney. John can't tell if it helps anything or not. He thinks that maybe he's just convincing himself that Rodney seems more relaxed afterwards. It's too easy for the brain to just believe what it wants to, and John doesn't trust himself right now. He's thinking that he hasn't exactly been at his most mentally stable lately.

The science staff brings by problems, and babbles them to Rodney. At first John can't figure out why the hell they're doing it, but it seems to comfort them somehow. They all seem much more at ease after pouring their little hearts out, even though, as far as John can tell, they don't really manage to figure out what they're doing wrong. John figures it's one of those genius things that he's never going to understand, and stops worrying about it.

Woolsey even comes by, and brings flowers. The happy yellow blooms look kind of out of place on the table beside Rodney's bed, and John tilts his head and blinks at them for a while. There's even a card that says to get well soon. John isn't sure whether it should be touching or amusing. Maybe it's both.

The heavy bandages on Rodney's back stop staining pink around them, and some of the tubes that he's been hooked up to come off. He's healing, slowly, and John figures they just have to wait for Rodney's big brain to catch onto that.

He can be patient, for that, hard as it is.

John dreams about Rodney waking up, just once. There's a lot of laughter in the dream, and an impossible number of people crowded into the room. John only realizes it's a dream when he notices the wings, back where they were supposed to be, Rodney indignant and frustrated with everyone asking him where they came from, when they'd always been there.

John wakes up still laughing, rolling his head and shaking it off. The laughter burns oddly outside of the dream, sour and bitter, leaving a bad taste in his mouth. He pinches the bridge of his nose, and goes to do his job, making time at lunch to go by the infirmary, to bitch for Rodney about what they'd been serving in the mess hall, offering to smuggle in an extra bowl of Jell-O if Rodney wanted it.

John catches himself saying, "All you have to do is ask, you know, and I'll bring it right over," and holding his breath. It's embarrassing for a reason he can't really put his finger on, and he's glad that no one else is around to see him attempting to bribe Rodney back to awareness with Jell-O. He'd probably never live it down. Anyone else would realize right away that chocolate was the better option to go with.

After a beat, John shakes his head at himself, shoveling a huge bite into his mouth, because he needs to be not here right now. He'll be back later. But right now, at this very second, he can't deal with Rodney blinking blankly out at the world, struggling with something John can't help him fight, present but frustrating unreachable.

John's in the middle of swallowing a mouthful of peas without bothering with anything as unimportant as chewing, when Rodney rasps, "Said—the blue?" For a half second, John knows it has to be someone playing a cruel joke, just knows it bone deep.

He coughs on his peas anyway, choking into his hand and shoving his tray awkwardly over onto the spare chair. His eyes are burning and his throat is still clogged when John looks up, but that doesn't matter. Because Rodney's gaze is shifting around the room, scanning over everything and finally landing on John. Rodney demands, hoarse and cracking, "Well?"

John finds himself on his feet. His legs seem to be operating without letting the rest of his body in on their plan, because just like that John's standing beside the bed. He bends over, one hand braced on the mattress, the other fumbling for the call button because it's all John can think to do.

Still, after a heartbeat of watching Rodney stare up at him expectantly, John manages, "Yeah, the blue, Rodney. Hell, whatever colors you want. I'll even mix them up." He laughs on the end of the words, feeling giddy and elated, aware that he's smiling like a fool, so wide that it's painful.

Rodney makes a face, nose crinkling up, wheezing, "Gross," and John laughs again, wanting all kinds of things that get jumbled together in his head. He almost pats Rodney's shoulder, but stops himself, worried about pain and sending Rodney back into that blank-eyed state. He wonders where the doctors are, and starts pressing the call button continuously. He hopes that, somewhere, it's making a really obnoxious noise.

It doesn't matter, he'll just go grab someone. John shifts back, still smiling way too big, then leaning down so that he's nearly on the same level as Rodney to say, "Okay. No mixing. I'll just go get—"

"No!" Rodney startles, badly. He's not moving quickly, or with any great deal of coordination, but when he manages to grab John's arm, he squeezes hard. John blinks down at Rodney's hand, the I.V. port in the back, knuckles going white from how hard he's holding on. "Stay. Stay here."

Rodney's staring up at him desperately, eyes huge, and John soothes, "Okay, I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying right here. It's okay, Rodney." He leans his weight against the bed, just to prove that he's not going anywhere, but Rodney doesn't loosen his grip at all. He's trembling.

John reaches for the call button again, pounding on it, because where the hell are the doctors? They need to get their asses in here, to talk to Rodney before he passes out again. John starts to twist his head over his shoulder to bellow for them, and Rodney pulls on his arm, making a tight little sound.

John twists back, swallowing the words in his throat. Rodney is full-out shaking now, his eyes huge, gaze locked on John. John curses softly, pounding on the call button once more for good measure, sliding his hand up, saying, "Hey, hey, you're fine now, everything is—" and patting at Rodney's shoulder.

The sound Rodney makes isn't a scream. It's too hoarse for that. He thrashes on the bed, though, legs kicking out. His grip on John's arm goes even tighter, digging down against muscle painfully, leaving fingerprint bruises behind. John doesn't give a shit.

Adding his own voice to Rodney's isn't likely to be much help, but it's all John can think to do. He can't bring himself to wrench out of Rodney's grip, not without knowing how badly it might hurt Rodney. Instead he twists back to the door, yelling for some fucking help, already.

The doctors come then, finally. Keller is first through the door, going wide-eyed for just a beat at the scene in the room. She recovers herself quickly, God bless her, storming forward, already talking in a soothing coo to Rodney, words that wash over John, there but not registering.

Then she's saying, soft and calm, "What happened, John?" and John tells her without even thinking about what he's doing, everything from the moment he stepped through the door to the room just pouring out of him. She hums at the end, stroking a hand back over Rodney's head.

Rodney is jerking around on the bed, not violently, and completely without coordination. He looks like his arms and legs aren't quite working together, making gasping, grunting sounds. He's still holding onto John, even as Keller leans down, voice low when she says, "Look, I can give you something that might help some with the pain, but it's going to put you under and—"

"No," Rodney manages to shift his gaze to Keller, his eyes too bright, pupils shrunk down to almost nothing. The single word seems to have cost him a lot. There's a line of sweat running down the side of his face even though his skin seems to have gone cold when John reaches around to grab Rodney's wrist.

Keller grimaces, though she doesn't look surprised. She closes her eyes for just a moment, taking a deep breath and drawing herself up. John wants to grab her and insist that she give Rodney something, screw Rodney's apparent masochistic streak. His jaw seems to be locked up too tightly for him to form the words.

Then she's saying, motioning for a chart as she does, "You're not going to be able to stay conscious like this for long, okay? I need you to talk to me while you are, can you do that?" Rodney blinks quickly, and then shifts his head on the pillow in what might be a nod. Keller takes it as agreement, "Good. Can you—oh."

Rodney goes still all at once, letting out a deep, shuddery breath as his eyes close. His grip on John's arm goes lax, arm dropping back down to the bed, and John stares down at his skin, reddened where Rodney had held him tight. He can see the imprints of Rodney's fingers.

Beside him, Keller is yelling, snapping orders and demands for tests. John takes a step back, and then another, his withdraw going unnoticed and uncommented on, even with his curiously noisy footsteps. John's shoulders hit the wall, missing the door by a few feet. He shakes himself, turns, grabs the doorframe and pulls himself through. His heart is racing.

Ronon is in the mess hall, sitting at a table with one of the new Marines off of the Apollo. The woman is more handsome than pretty, young, and talking enthusiastically about weapons. Ronon looks like he isn't sure if he should be amused or annoyed, his expression changing completely when he spots John coming into the room. It makes John wonder what's showing on his face.

Ronon is to John in seconds, hand dropping to his blaster. John twists sideways, hands on his hips, keeping his voice low because this feels like a private thing, a team thing, not for the rest of the mess hall to know about. John says, "He woke up. Really—really awake. Not the," John waves a hand in front of his face, because he doesn't know how to describe the blank, sightless expression Rodney had been wearing for the last week.

For a moment, Ronon just stares at him, gaze searching. John half expects the other man to lift him and spin him around, but instead Ronon takes a deep breath and asks, "Teyla know?" And the calmness is good, eases something in John's chest and spools down the tight build of pressure in John's gut.

John is already shaking his head, and Ronon nods, tilts his chin towards the door. They go to find Teyla.

hr

Keller closes Rodney's room to visitors after that. It frustrates John, to know that Rodney's actually conscious and aware in there, but out of their reach. Not that he knows what he'd say, if he could get in there to talk to Rodney. Apologize, he supposes, though that feels painfully insufficient after what's happened, after what John allowed to happen.

But he can't get in there. Keller is very patient when she explains why, probably more patient than they deserve. John knows Rodney's in pain, though he thinks maybe he can't quite wrap his mind around how much pain. When Rodney does wake up, he's never conscious for very long, and the doctors need to be able to speak with him, to try to figure this thing out.

John understands the logic behind that decision, but that doesn't mean he likes it, at all. Any news of Rodney gets relegated to the staff meetings, and it's not enough to satisfy John. He spends the next week frustrated out of his mind, going on long runs and letting Teyla and Ronon beat him up some more, waiting for the next tiny step of progress.

It's slow going. Keller tells them one day that Rodney can feel his legs, looking so relieved that it finally drives home to John that there had been a very real chance he wouldn't be able to. That's the good news. The bad news is that the nerve damage isn't fully repairable, no matter what she does or how many times they cut Rodney open. She tells them that they think they've got the pain down to a workable level, which doesn't seem as comforting as John thinks it should.

None of that matters when she finally opens up visiting hours again. John forgets to stop by the mess hall before going to the infirmary, and freezes just short of the door. By the time he gets down to the mess, gets the Jell-O, and runs back, he's out of breath and his heart is pounding, but it's only been five minutes. Teyla raises her eyebrows at him when he comes through the door.

Rodney is standing, kind of. Apparently someone's been building new furniture for the infirmary. Rodney has his arms wrapped around some kind of incredibly high-backed chair, leaning his weight against it, his chin resting on the top. He's still hooked up to a dozen machines, blinking at John and grousing, "To be fashionably late you generally have to be fashionable."

It makes John grin huge, though he can't say why. He shakes his head, holding the Jell-O out in explanation. For a moment Rodney just stares at it, and then he motions for it impatiently, grumbling, "Do you know how hard it is to get real food in here? I swear, she just wants to stick a tube into my stomach and be done with it."

Ronon snorts, "At least you wouldn't talk with your mouth full anymore," and Rodney flips him off absently, fumbling with the Jell-O. There's no way for him to hold onto it, hold onto the chair, and eat at the same time, so John takes the bowl back, handing Rodney the spoon instead.

Rodney blinks at him in surprise, mouth open just a little bit, and John shrugs, offering the bowl out. Around them, the others fall silent for just a beat, and then Rodney clears his throat, ducking his head down a little bit and carefully scooping up a cube of blue Jell-O.

Rodney moans obscenely over the first bite, smacking his lips over-dramatically. John snorts, conversation rising again, mostly Teyla talking with Rodney throwing in the occasional sharp rejoinder and Ronon adding an observation or two. John's mouth stays shut, and he takes the opportunity to just look at Rodney.

The absence of the wings is physically jarring. John keeps expecting to see them every time he looks at Rodney. Each time he doesn't it hits like a blow, brings back memories John would rather forget, pounding away at the front of his skull, accusatory and laden with guilt. It's hard to notice anything past that, but John manages, eventually.

Rodney's wan, with circles nearly black under his eyes. The stubble on his cheeks has pretty much become a beard at this point, and John makes an absent note to see about getting him a razor. There's more white in the bristles than John remembers, and he thinks about stress and age and wasted time. They have too much of all three between them, and John wishes he could change all of that. But he can't.

John shakes himself, allows himself to be startled by the missing wings one more time. He gets distracted by the fact that Rodney is wearing medical scrubs for the first time in ages, white fabric draped across his shoulders and tied across his back. John can just make out the shape of the bandages beneath the thin clothing.

There are wires running up Rodney's sleeves, bunching the fabric up. Rodney's arms already seem to have lost the golden tinge they had gained when he was out flying every day. John thinks that's stupid, that there's no way he lost the tan that quickly, that it must just be the infirmary lights washing him out. Oddly, that doesn't make John feel any better at all.

Thankfully, Rodney's down to only one I.V., and while Rodney takes the last bite of the Jell-O, John reaches for the stand, turning it so he can read the bag. Rodney says, swallowing noisily, "It's the closest I can get to children's Tylenol," the bitterness in the words makes John flinch.

John looks sideways at Rodney. It's impossible not to see the lines of pain around his eyes and mouth. And if he somehow ignored those, the pain is writ large in the tension in Rodney's shoulders and arms, in the way his knuckles are clenched tight. For a moment the others are silent, looking at the floor or the walls, while John and Rodney stare at each other.

There's something challenging in Rodney gaze, but John doesn't know what he's trying to fight about to respond to it. Instead, all John can manage is, "How bad?"

Rodney holds his gaze for another long moment, before turning to look to the side. A muscle in his jaw is jumping, and the tendons in his neck are straining tight. Rodney huffs out a breath, squeezing the back of the chair, lying through his teeth, "It's fine."

It would be easy to push. But sometimes the lies are all that keep you going, through the worst times. John nods instead of arguing, setting down the empty bowl of Jell-O and letting Teyla take control of the conversation again. They sit with Rodney until Keller comes by to throw them out.

hr

John doesn't even realize that there's going to be physical therapy needed until he catches two nurses helping Rodney out of Piper's offices. One of them is pushing a wheelchair, trying to get Rodney to sit in it with no success. Rodney is sweating, looking almost gray, mouth pressed down to nothing, and still fighting tooth and nail.

John had been on his way to a supply check, but it's not hard to completely write that off. He changes direction without even thinking about it, cutting between the nurses and Rodney, kicking the wheelchair to the side because it was a shitty idea anyway. Apparently they weren't paying attention to the fact that their patient's back wasn't exactly feeling up to par at the moment.

Rodney startles when John takes his elbow, looking up with tired eyes, gaze pissed off. John forces a smile, the nurses fluttering around them, looking incredibly nervous. John ignores them, asks instead, his voice as close to normal as he can get it, "How's it going?"

Rodney glowers at him, rage boiling right below the surface. John wonders if it's real, or if Rodney's just generating the anger to give himself something to run off of. It sounds real enough in his voice, "Peachy. Never been better. Go away."

John nods agreeably without making any move to release his grip. He keeps his own tone light and easy, "How's Piper doing?" That earns him an even filthier look, and Rodney makes a half-assed attempt to jerk out of John grip. It doesn't get him very far.

When Rodney gives up, he resumes scowling up at John, biting out, "He's a psychopathic sadist, who possesses neither a soul nor a conscience." John nods, experimentally leading Rodney forward a few steps, wincing when Rodney hisses in pain, almost stumbling over his feet.

"So, his usual charming self, then?" the dry words get a snort of amusement from Rodney, and John feels himself grin. He knows it's not entirely appropriate, but he's taking his victories where he can get them. One of the nurses tries to get his attention and John waves them off. They obviously weren't prepared to handle this, and John has more important things to deal with than them.

Rodney says, voice gritty, "Yeah. Bastard made me stretch." John nods in understanding, carefully easing Rodney forward another step. They're almost twenty yards away from the transporter. It might as well be miles, for the strain that it's putting on Rodney.

Distracting Rodney isn't likely to work very well, but John feels that he should try anyway. He grunts, "Yeah?" in an attempt to get Rodney really going, managing another step. God, walking shouldn't be this hard for anyone, and John is quickly running out of patience with inflicting it on Rodney, even with the little voice in the back of his head that's insisting it's something that has to happen, sooner or later.

Rodney nods, pants out, "No range of motion. Can't—can't lift my arms, you know? Not that I need to in the labs. I keep telling Keller that," Rodney's starting to sound petulant, and John bites his tongue against the thought that Rodney really isn't ready to go back to work. In fact, trying to go back to work is probably one of the worst ideas he's heard Rodney recently come up with. Telling him that isn't likely to do any good at all.

Instead, John says, "Well, what about the white boards?"

Rodney snorts, "That's what Radek's for," taking another step and tripping over his feet. He curses breathlessly, grabbing at John, and John's had enough. Doing this is probably a necessary evil, and John realizes that. He's probably not helping anything by interfering, and he knows that too. It's very likely that he's going to be making things worse in the long run. John doesn't care.

The nurses make protesting sounds when John lifts Rodney, but he ignores them. Rodney's even lighter than he was, the wings were a larger portion of his weight than John realized, apparently. He's easier to hold without their awkward bulk, as well.

Rodney demands, "What the hell do you think you're doing?" even as he grips onto John's shoulders. John ignores the question in favor of trying to figure out where to put his arms, how to hold, where to grip. He doesn't want to jar Rodney's shoulders, and he remembers how far down the surgeries ended up opening Rodney up.

In the end, he thinks he comes up with a fairly workable solution. Rodney isn't flailing around in pain, in any case, which John counts as a success. John says, "So, were you going back to the infirmary, then?" and tries to pretend like this is absolutely not out of the ordinary in any way.

"You're insane," Rodney says it with absolute conviction, and John considers that he very well might be. After everything that's happened, after everything they've seen, John is no longer sure that anyone in the city is completely sane. How could they be? He waits patiently for Rodney to answer his question, instead of arguing the point. Finally, Rodney huffs out a sigh, "Actually, my rooms?"

John very seriously doubts that's what Keller's instructions were. On the other hand, he very much wants to give Rodney what he wants. And Rodney's not hooked up to the I.V.s anymore. Keller's as good as said that further surgery would just make things worse. As far as John can tell, there's nothing else she can really do.

John swallows, and says, "Okay," ignoring Rodney's little hum of pleased surprise. He makes for the transporters, leaving the nurses calling after his back to come back right now with their patient. They should have thought of this first. It's not John's fault that they didn't.

Rodney's quarters are a mess. They usually are, to some degree or another. Rodney's bed is still in front of the windows, and John sits him down on the edge carefully, leaning back and tugging on the hem of his shirt, wondering what exactly he's supposed to do now.

Rodney is staring up at him, head tilted to the side, and John rubs a hand over the back of his neck. For a long time they're silent, and then Rodney carefully pushes to his feet, mostly managing to contain the wince that the movement paints across his features.

"You should rest," the words are out before John can even think about what he's going to say. He's in front of Rodney, wondering exactly how inappropriate it would be to push Rodney back down onto the bed, wondering how much he cares at this point. The wings are gone. That's surely going to make it harder for Rodney to keep misinterpreting his intentions.

Rodney is shaking his head, and it jars John out of his thoughts. Rodney sounds tired and determined at the same time, "I've rested enough. I need to do something." He's fidgeting, and John bites his bottom lip. He understands the need to move. At the same time, he really isn't sure it's the best idea.

And then Rodney is stepping around him, limping heavily but managing to stay upright, calling over his shoulder, "I'm supposed to be back at Piper's tomorrow at fourteen hundred. You're welcome to tag along. He was asking about your knee, you know."

Apparently that's a dismissal. Rodney's managed to make it to his bathroom, and the doors slide shut behind him, closing him off. John stares at the empty room, listening to the sink run in the bathroom, wondering what Rodney's doing, knowing it's none of his business.

Finally, John shakes his head. This might not be the best decision, but it's the one he made, and he has to live with it now. He moves Rodney's bed before he even thinks about leaving the room, back against the wall where it used to be, trying to make sure that nothing Rodney might need is on a high shelf. It takes him a moment to acknowledge that he's stalling.

John laughs at himself, then, casting one last look around the room. It's the best he can do, and he closes his eyes, and yells, "Call if you need anything," before leaving. Rodney doesn't make any reply that John can hear. John spends the rest of the day lingering in the general vicinity of Rodney's quarters, just in case.

hr

The next few days, John makes himself scarce. He helps Rodney down to Piper's, trying to tell himself that Rodney is improving. If it's true, then the improvement is too slow to be noticeable. On the third day, Rodney comes out with a cane that he proceeds to shove into John's hands and ignore. John doesn't try to make him use it, because it feels like giving up, like admitting that there's something seriously wrong, and John is quite happy in his denial, all things considered.

John does make sure that Rodney isn't sneaking down to the labs for hours on end. But he doesn't stop Rodney's people from stopping by Rodney's room, and some of them stay in there for a long time. John only checks in once, and he's unsurprised to find the room crammed full of whiteboards and new computers, three scientists jammed onto Rodney's bed, bent over their work while Rodney berates them.

The next day John manages to drop some hints about the unused washing room on the other end of the hall, and in his head he starts referring to it as their science team's Alpha Site. It's not a perfect solution, and he knows Rodney wants desperately to be back down in the labs, but it just isn't feasible yet.

The team takes turns keeping Rodney from having to run down to the mess hall for food. All in all, everything is working out pretty well. Keller doesn't agree when she finally manages to catch up to John, accusing him of kidnapping one of her patients and interfering with his care.

John takes the chewing out, figuring that he probably deserves it, in all likelihood. That doesn't mean that he's repentant in any way. Rodney doesn't need to be shut up in the infirmary, and she's as much as said that there's not very much chance for a complete recovery in any case.

Still, John's starting to think about escape, wondering how to get away from her, when Rodney comes around the corner. Rodney manages to walk over to them without leaning against the wall for support or stumbling, and Keller just cuts herself off, turning to gape at him.

While she's still staring, Rodney crosses his arms, gripping hard at his biceps, swaying just a little bit when he says, "Ready for the weekly bloodletting?" Apparently there's nothing Keller can say to that, because she just rolls her eyes and leads Rodney down to the infirmary. John tags along, just in case he's needed. They don't let him follow them in. That's fine. He waits outside.

Afterwards, Rodney looks pale and miserable, stopping beside John to lean against the wall, breathing shallow and fast. John grimaces, wondering if there's any way carrying Rodney this close to the infirmary would go over well. He stalls by asking, "How'd it go?"

Rodney rolls his eyes, shooting John a scornful look, and then just shaking his head, as though the stupidity of John's question is just too much for him to presently contemplate. John just leans beside him, because sooner or later Rodney will get tired of ignoring him.

It's sooner. Rodney pushes slowly away from the wall, motioning impatiently for John. Rodney holds onto his shoulder hard, most of his weight leaning against John when he says, "I'm a picture of health, except for the crippled part." John snorts, wrapping an arm carefully around Rodney's ribs. It's easy to lift him a little with each step. Rodney waves a hand absently, "Blah blah, center of balance actually not as off as she'd thought, blah blah, still no decent pain medication, blah."

John nods, pulling Rodney into the transporter and punching in the level for their quarters. He's surprised when Rodney just leans against him, though he has a feeling it has more to do with Rodney just not having the strength to keep standing straight than any desire for physical closeness. He's not deluding himself.

They're silent most of the way to Rodney's quarters, Rodney clearing his throat outside his door and rushing through, "I'm cleared for light work in the labs if I use the cane." He winces on the end of the words, staring forward hard.

John sucks in a breath, wanting to shove his hands in his pockets but not wanting to withdraw all support from Rodney. He still looks a little off balance, after all. He isn't sure what to say, how to vocalize his unease with the cane, with what it represents.

Rodney apparently is tired of waiting for a response, kicking absently at the baseboard and saying, tone distant, "It's not nearly as likely to get in the way as the—the wings." Rodney swallows hard then, jerking his chin up while his expression crumbles.

The doors to Rodney's room snap open, and Rodney is through them before John can say a word. He's left watching the doors close, catching just a glimpse of Rodney grabbing the side of his desk, back curving over, expression twisted up with emotion.

John stands outside the closed doors for a long time, just staring, one hand half extended towards where Rodney had been standing. He wishes, badly, that he had any clue at all how to comfort. But he doesn't, never did, never will, and he knows that.

John tries to call Teyla, but her radio is turned off, and since she's technically not on duty he can't even complain about that. He swings by her room anyway, but there are two voices inside, and he stops himself before he can even chime at the door. He doubts that Rodney wants company anyway, no matter if he needs it or not.

In the end, John can think of nothing to do. The next day, Rodney is down in the labs, the cane beside his desk, there but completely ignored. John doesn't comment when he swings by to check how things are going, relieved when Rodney waves his concern off.

He still has to go down to drag Rodney to his appointment with Piper, but John thinks that's a good sign as well. It's nice to hear Rodney bitching the entire time about the project he was in the middle of working on, waving a hand that's covered in smears of black marker.

hr

Somehow, after that John convinces himself that everything is okay. He's not sure how he managed that, and can only figure that he's had entirely too much practice lying to himself. Luckily, the world isn't in the mood to allow him his delusions for too long.

It's little things that remind John that everything is all fucked up. Rodney and Radek get into one of their arguments and John walks in to hear Radek calling Rodney a greasy-haired slime ball and only realizes then that Rodney's hair is greasy.

Later, when John asks about it, Rodney gives him a completely disgusted look, raising his arms to right below his shoulders and gritting out, "Limited range of motion, extensive scarring, physical therapy, any of this ringing any bells for you?"

John winces, torn between being furious with himself for not thinking about it and Rodney for not asking for help. Then again, he doesn't know why he'd ever think Rodney would ask for help. It's not in Rodney's nature to admit faults, even if they're only perceived.

John means to offer to help, because he can wash Rodney's hair for him, no problem, and is surprised when instead he finds himself saying, "How do you even get dressed?" trying to picture it in his head. It's got to be difficult, and Jesus, no wonder Rodney looks exhausted by the time he leaves his room every morning.

Rodney's chin tilts up, and he snaps, "Very carefully," which just makes John roll his eyes, exasperation filling up what places his frustration has left behind. If Rodney can see it in John's expression, then it doesn't concern him, because he turns back to his lunch without making any sign of taking the conversation seriously.

The meal is still mostly fruit and sugars. There had been a few days where John had forgotten that the wings weren't the only change Rodney had undergone, or even the most major. They had just been the most physically obvious, but he's still not what he was, not what any of the rest of them are, or ever will be. That's too easy to forget without the wings there as a reminder.

John pushes food around his plate for a while before clearing his throat, his frustration pushed back down to manageable levels when he says, "I'll be at your quarters at oh six hundred hours." He's not going to offer, because there's too good a chance that Rodney will just turn him down.

Across the table, Rodney drops his fork. John ignores it, determinedly smashing up some peas to give himself something to focus on. He's aware that there might be yelling here, name calling, Rodney's general dramatic defense mechanism whenever anyone tries to help him.

John isn't prepared for Rodney to say, flat and cold, "John, they're gone."

That's enough to make John look up. Rodney looks tired all of a sudden, elbows on the table, hands curled up loosely, dark circles under his eyes, his hair starting to separate. He still hasn't shaved, and maybe that should have been a clue ages ago that he needed a hand. Rodney's been clean shaven as long as John's known him, even in the midst of horrible disasters.

John shakes his head, trying to clear away all the distractions. He says, slowly, "I know." He doesn't ask what Rodney's talking about. It would be an insult to both of their intelligences, and probably only piss Rodney off. John would prefer to avoid that, just this once.

Rodney sighs, reaching up like he wants to rub his forehead and laughing around a curse when he can't. John grimaces and balls his hands up into fists to resist reaching out himself. Rodney still sounds cold, distant, "They're not coming back, I'm not hiding another pair somewhere, so you don't have to...you know," he waves a hand, apparently more interested in staring at the wall than meeting John's gaze.

"Actually, I don't know. What?" John's voice comes out sharper than he'd intended, but this has been building for a long, long time. He's ready to have it out, once and for all, though he doubts that with Rodney it'll ever be over. Not with the way he holds onto things.

Rodney shrugs with one shoulder, and then shakes his head, laughing dryly, "Never mind. Whatever. I'll see you at six." And John knows he should push it, knows it deep down in his chest. But he just can't make himself do it. They eat the rest of their meal in silence.

hr

John's there right at six the next morning, but Rodney's door doesn't open for him the way he'd expected. John frowns, ringing the chime again, nervous for no good reason. Most likely, Rodney is just being an ass and pretending he can't hear it. John knows that. He feels inexplicably anxious, anyway.

John gives it five minutes, nodding uncomfortably at the people that walk past him and then giving up any pretense of calm. He's about to go find Zelenka, because he's pretty sure the other man is almost as good as Rodney at getting these doors open, and waves his hand over the controls one last time, just to check.

The doors slide open.

John pauses, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. The lights in the room are dim, and Rodney is not standing in the doorway as John had expected him to be. John cautiously steps into the room, listening for the shower and not hearing it, bringing the lights up and waving the doors closed behind him.

Rodney's straightened up a little bit since last time John was here. The bed is still where John shoved it, the blankets twisted and pulled mostly off of the bed. They're only staying on in one corner, the rest strewn across the floor in a sad little pile.

John clears his throat and calls for Rodney, prickles running down his spine when there's no answer. Any consideration that this might have been a joke is gone now. John curses, moving quickly around the room, no sign of Rodney in the main quarters or out on the balcony, moving for the bathroom with adrenaline burning in his veins.

The doors slide open for him worryingly quickly, the way the city has of responding when something is wrong. John doesn't even have time to think about that, cursing bitterly as soon as the door are open and knocking his radio on, going to his knees and yelling for Keller.

Rodney wheezes, "Don't," but John decides that this time he's going to have to ignore Rodney for his own good. Rodney looks bad, pale and shaking all over, his face wet with sweat, curled up against the sink, shirtless and barefoot.

John demands, "What's wrong? What's going on?" not sure if he should touch or not. It's the first time he's seen the scars since the infirmary. They're healing into ugly scars, angry red or pale white, patterns traced across Rodney's back that are never going to fade.

Rodney shakes his head, short, jerky little movements and John pushes up to his knees, filling up a glass with water and bringing it to Rodney's lips. Rodney does try to drink, but after the first swallow he coughs, shoulders jerking hard, and John sets the glass to the side, water split over his fingers from the jarring.

"Rodney! What's wrong?" his voice sounds too loud in the confined space of the bathroom. He doesn't care, and, anyway, it's enough to make Rodney roll his head back, to make him blink up at John. He doesn't seem to be focusing all the way.

When Rodney speaks, his voice is a sandpaper rasp, "Hurts. Hurts bad. I can't—" Rodney shakes his head, side to side, slurring when he repeats, "Hurts bad, John," and there's an edge of pleading to the last that kills John a little bit inside.

John curses softer, easing closer and carefully touching Rodney's shoulders. They're clammily cold beneath his hands, which John thinks is a bad sign with absolutely no basis at all. He wants to grab and hold, but doesn't dare, not until he knows what exactly it is that's hurting. John makes himself ask, "What? What's hurting? You have to tell me so I can help, okay?"

The trust in Rodney's gaze when he manages to actually focus on John makes something in John's chest sting. God, he just wants to make this better. He just wants to make all of this better, and right since the beginning he hasn't been able to. It's not fair at all.

Rodney's voice is whisper thin, when he finally answers, "The wings. They hurt so bad. Please—you can't tell Jennifer. Don't tell Jennifer," Rodney starts rocking, just a little, his arms wrapped around his stomach, his expression a study in misery. John stares at him, mouth falling open just a little bit, and thinks that this shouldn't be a surprise, really. He knows all about phantom pain.

The medical staff is already on their way, and even if they weren't, John would call them. Sometimes the things that Rodney wants aren't very good for him, and right now John can't bring himself to go along with Rodney's wishes, as much as he wants to.

Instead, John eases a little closer, not as worried about touching Rodney now that he knows the source of pain isn't exactly tangible. He keeps his voice as soothing as possible, "It's okay. It's going to be okay. We're going to fix it, okay?"

Rodney is still looking at him, eyes huge, choking on a sob. It makes John flinch, and he tries hard to suppress that, because Rodney doesn't need to see that, it's not helpful at all. Rodney whispers, "You swear?" and John nods without even thinking about it, praying for Keller to get there.

He hears the door to Rodney's quarters open then, looking expectantly over his shoulder, tightening his grip on Rodney's shoulders. Rodney apparently takes that as an offer, slumping forward into John, burying his face against John's shoulder, gripping hard at John's shirt.

Keller comes through the door and freezes, staring down at them with her mouth dropping open in surprise. John can guess what it looks like. Right at the moment he doesn't particularly care, and, in all actuality, he kind of likes her seeing them like this. It's not something he's proud of, but that doesn't make it less true.

Rodney mumbles, "Make them go away," tight and cracking, and John hushes him without thinking about it, bracing a hand low on Rodney's back, below any of the thick scars. Keller looks at his hand, blinks, and then shakes herself.

When she speaks, she sounds nothing but concerned, "Rodney? Can you tell me what's wrong?" Rodney is shaking his head against John's shoulder. John looks across at her, trying to think how to explain, how to make it sound like something normal.

In the end, he just tells her, "It's the wings. He can feel them. They—hurt."

Keller's expression goes soft. She says, "Oh, Rodney," wincing and moving closer, waving the rest of the medical team away, and John is so painfully grateful to her for that. He doesn't want them seeing Rodney like this. They have no right. "How long? How often is this happening?"

When Rodney doesn't respond, she looks expectantly to John and he can only shake his head. Knowing Rodney, it could have been since he got out of the infirmary. If he thought it was going to affect her diagnosis of his ability to work, he'd lie through his teeth about it. Stubborn bastard.

Keller sighs heavily, placing her hand on Rodney's back as well, beside John's. There's not a lot they can do, and John knows that, as much as he wants for there to be a magic button to push. Against his shoulder, Rodney gasps, sweat dampening up John's shirt. John doesn't say a word about it. He just holds on.

It's a long time before Rodney so much as moves.

hr

They don't talk about the phantom pain, just like they haven't talked about the actual physical pain. It's one of the subjects that got marked as off limits without any discussion needed. Just like they don't talk about Kanaan. Just like they don't talk about the things Ronon said when he was on the Wraith enzyme. Just like they don't talk about John's family. John doesn't even tell Ronon and Teyla, though he thinks someday he will. Now he just doesn't know how to.

Keller doesn't put any new restrictions on Rodney, which earns her all kinds of points in John's book. There's nothing they can do about the pain, and any restrictions are just going to be taken as punishment by Rodney, regardless of their intent.

John shows up at Rodney's room again the next morning, bracing himself to find Rodney on the bathroom floor again. This time Rodney is comparatively fine, just crawling out of bed, blinking at John, expression tight with pain but not crumpling.

For a moment they just stare at each other, John shifting his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot before he manages, "I think we missed our appointment yesterday." Rodney stares for another long moment, before starting to reach up towards his face, hissing in pain when he can't quit make it.

"Right. Fine," Rodney's voice is rough with sleep, and he rolls out of bed. He's shirtless again, and John stares at the scars when though he knows he shouldn't. After all the years of watching Rodney's broad back, covered in pale, unbroken skin, it's jarring to see it like this.

Rodney snaps, "I've been told chicks dig scars," already heading towards his bathroom. John flushes at being called on staring, shaking himself and following Rodney across the room. The bathroom looks the same as it did the previous morning, with the notable exception of Rodney not being on the floor. John thinks that's a big improvement.

It's a little crowded with two people in the room, though there's still enough room for them to move around, mostly. The Ancients were big on building rooms with excessive space, and the bathrooms are no different. John says, "So," and looks at Rodney's shower.

Rodney snorts, "I see you're feeling extremely loquacious this morning," and John rolls his eyes, looking over to find Rodney pulling a razor and shaving cream out of his closet, throwing some towels down onto the toilet, continuing, "I don't know what the hell I'm thinking letting you anywhere near my hair, so let's just get this over with."

John ignores the insult. Rodney pushing past him to step into the shower, still wearing a pair of long, flannel pants. John doesn't suggest he take them off, though the words are right there, waiting for him to vocalize them.

Rodney turns the water on, standing under it for a moment before handing John a bottle of shampoo and stepping out from under the beating drops. John hadn't really thought about how they were going to do this, but apparently Rodney had, bending his shoulders over and dropping his chin down towards his chest.

John swallows hard, squeezing out an unnecessarily large amount of shampoo and then hesitating a moment. He has to clear his throat before managing to finally get his hands on Rodney's head. The water was hot, but it's already cooling off, and John scrubs quickly.

The shampoo is odorless, white bubbles rising when John scrubs. Rodney's hair is soft, and John resists any urges to run his fingers through it over and over again, though he can't quite make himself withdraw his hands. After a moment, Rodney snorts and moves back, stepping under the water again.

Rodney just stands there, water hitting the crown of his head and running down the sides of his face and the back of his neck, taking the shampoo with it. John grunts, shoves his sleeves a little higher up his arms, water flattening down his arm hair. Rodney startles when John reaches into the shower to assist with the rinsing, but doesn't protest.

It's probably presumptuous for John to tilt Rodney's chin up to the water, but that doesn't stop him. He brushes his thumbs over Rodney's closed eyes, making sure there's no shampoo there to sting and burn. His arms are soaked, the sleeve-pushing-up stunningly ineffective on the whole.

Rodney opens his eyes then, drops of water heavy on his eyelashes, looking at John. It makes John clear his throat, dropping his hands, leaning his shoulder against the cool tile of the shower. Water soaks into the shoulder of his shirt, but John can't really bring himself to care.

For a long moment they just stare at each other, and then Rodney turns away, mumbling, "You can wait outside now." John nods even though Rodney isn't looking at him, and wanders, feeling weightless, out of the bathroom. He stands right outside the door, unable to make himself focus enough to actually do anything.

In the bathroom, he listens to the shower run for another few moments. When it cuts off, he imagines he can hear Rodney moving around, drying off, getting dressed. He holds his breath, tracking the soft whispers of sound, startling when the door open and Rodney looks out at him.

Rodney takes in John's proximity to the bathroom door, raises an eyebrow, and grumbles something about freaks under his breath. A second later he's waving John back into the bathroom, stopping beside the sink with his arms folded and a pointed look down at the razor that's waiting there.

John clears his throat, reaching out to fiddle with the can of shaving cream, "Look, if you want someone else to—"

Rodney's voice is hoarse, impatient, tired, "Can we just get this over with?" His arms are still crossed tight, and his shirt is unzipped, open down over his collarbone and chest and stomach. John tells himself not to look, doesn't quite succeed, and breathes out a heavy breath.

"Fine," is the best response that he can manage. Rodney jerks out a nod, and John jerks his chin towards the toilet. Rodney makes a face but sits down without complaint or protest. He doesn't have any rugs in his bathroom, and the tile has to be cold under his bare feet. John fights the urge to ask if Rodney wants to go get some socks.

Instead he concentrates on lathering up the shaving cream across Rodney's cheeks. The beard has grown down his neck as well, and John frowns, losing himself in this easy task. It's better to just focus on this, and let all the bigger issues shift out of focus.

Rodney jerks just a little when John first touches the razor to skin, and John curses, barely managing to avoid nicking him with the blade. For a moment they freeze like that, and Rodney whispers, soft and thin, "Sorry, I—" he waves a hand instead of finishing the thought.

John swallows heavily, rinsing the razor even though there's nothing on it but some shaving cream. He says, "It's fine. No problem," and then, hesitating before trying again, "I'm going to do it now," and Rodney nods, his eyes squeezed closed.

Rodney doesn't jump this time. John relaxes just a little bit, dragging razor across skin. The rasping noise is familiar, and the shaving cream is cool against John's fingers. He works in silence, concentrating harder than he probably needs to. By the time he's done, Rodney's skin is pink and there are only a few spots of shaving cream left. John wipes them away. He doesn't mean to leave his hand, holding a rag, resting against Rodney's cheek. It just happens.

Rodney turns his face away, sounding stiff and a little uncomfortable, "Well, that was weird. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to—"

"I should rub out your back," John isn't sure which one of them is more surprised by the words. They weren't what he intended, not at all. He'd meant to excuse himself, to get to work, to try very hard to pretend none of this ever happened.

Rodney gapes at him, satisfyingly wide-eyed. "What? Are you—what?" And okay, maybe this degree of surprise is a little offensive. After all, John's been regularly handing out back-rubs for months now. It shouldn't be that big of a shock.

John grits his teeth, resisting the urge to shove his hands into his pockets, shrugging, "Well, it might help, right? I mean, it helped before." Though, he supposes, it also might make everything worse. Just the briefest touch is enough to make Rodney hiss with pain sometimes, now.

There's a long stretch of silence, where Rodney just stares at him, mouth open a little bit, eyes wide. He looks confused, brows drawing together when he finally manages, "The wings are gone. There's no reason for you to want to—you know." Rodney waves a hand, blushing just a little bit, and fuck, but John is really sick of having this conversation.

It's hard to keep his voice anywhere close to patient when he grits out, "Rodney, the wings were never the reason," because that should be obvious. Sometimes Rodney is nowhere near as intelligent as he claims to be. It's frustrating.

Rodney blinks wide-eyed at him now, mouth opening and closing, before he finally manages, tight and choked, "Oh?"

John nods, feeling suddenly like he's talking to a child, "Yeah. I've been trying to tell you that." The air between them is getting ridiculously thick with tension, and John clears his throat, has to dispel it. He clears his throat again, "So, you want me to, or what?"

Rodney looks to the side, then back at John, expression conflicted. John sighs heavily, figuring that's his answer right there. He stows the razor away, shaking his head. He's rinsing his hands, wiping off imaginary shaving cream and stalling even though he knows he should just leave, when Rodney finally says, quietly, "Okay."

It's enough to startle John. He turns his head to look at Rodney, blinking dumbly with surprise. Rodney looks stubborn now that he's made up his mind, his chin tilted up to look at John, his fingers twisted up in his pants. John turns off the sink.

John breathes in and out slowly, just once, and then nods. He says, "Good. That's—uh, good. Now? Should we do it now?" His palms feel kind of sweaty all of a sudden, and his stomach is warm and tight. He braces his hands on his hips.

Rodney is already nodding, standing quickly and manhandling John out of the way to bustle past him. John stares at himself in the mirror, not fogged up at all anymore. He wonders if this is really the best idea, frowning at himself, reaching up to tap his fist against the side of the mirror. Rodney yells from his bedroom, "Your hair looks fine, John."

John rolls his eyes, and walks out of the room. Rodney is standing by his bed, fiddling with the edges of his shirt, staring at nothing in particular. For a long moment they don't say anything, distant enough that they might as well have been in different rooms.

Then Rodney blows out a hard breath, scrambling with taking off his shirt, babbling, "Right, right, well, let's get this over with." He throws the shirt down on the ground, gaze skipping right over John when he turns to crawl up onto the bed. And the scars are nothing new at this point, but seeing them still makes John wince, anger crawling up his throat.

Rodney lowers himself down carefully onto his stomach, his arms out by his side instead of folded under his head, another reminder that things aren't the way they should be. John shakes his head, and makes himself cross the room, hesitating by the side of the bed.

Rodney snaps, while John stares down at him "Can we get this show on the road? I'm supposed to be meeting with Woolsey in an hour, and I'd like to grab some breakfast before I have to deal with the brass." And oddly, that helps.

John shakes his head, snorting to himself. It feels different than it ever has before when he sits down on the side of the bed. Without the wings there, the bed feels oddly empty, and John can't figure out why for a long moment. Then he shakes himself, shifting one leg up onto the bed, into the space that would have been filled with Rodney's wing before.

Rodney's skin is pale where John's hip settles against his side, contrasting with John's black pants. Most of the scars are still dark red, some fading to pink, some already gone white. John swallows heavily, his gaze dragging down over each of them, tracing their shapes, trying to memorize them.

On the blankets, Rodney's hand twitches, and he shifts around uncomfortably. John reaches out automatically, resting a hand on Rodney's lower back in what he hopes will be comfort. Rodney's skin is a little cool beneath his palm, soft, the lowest of the scars hot and raised under John's fingers.

Rodney makes a soft sound, and John's voice comes out as a whisper, "Hurt?" and he holds his breath while waiting on the answer. He isn't sure that he'll be able to bring himself to do this if it's agonizing for Rodney, no matter the long term benefits.

"No. It's—no." Rodney's voice is muffled, his face mostly buried against the pillow. John nods, but keeps his touch as light as he can, rubbing a small circle. It's odd, being able to see Rodney's entire back like this. Usually the wings had covered his shoulders. John had almost forgotten how broad they were.

John shakes himself, clearing his throat and shifting his weight back and forth. He says, "Right. Tell me if it does," even though he thinks he'll be able to notice pretty quickly. Rodney hadn't exactly been being subtle the previous morning.

Then there's nothing else to stall with. John swallows, sliding his hand carefully up the line of Rodney's spine, touch light and soft. The knobs of Rodney's spine rise and fall beneath his fingers, the scars that are stretched out on either side of it little bumps that John skims over. John doesn't stop the movement until his fingers are brushing in the hair at the nape of Rodney's neck, short and prickly, still wet from the shower.

John shifts then, twisting so he can get both hands on Rodney's back. Rodney's shoulders are hard as rocks beneath his hands, and John rubs little circles. He'd gotten good at knowing just where and how to rub to get out the tension, but he's dealing with what feels like completely new territory here, never mind that it looks the same. Mostly the same.

John wishes Rodney would say something, because the silence they've stumbled into isn't exactly comfortable. But Rodney's silent, just gripping at the blankets, and John's throat is tight. So the silence stays, and John moves his hands to Rodney's neck, kneading and rubbing there for a while, fairly certain that it's a safe area, with no chance of sending him into paroxysms of agony.

After a moment, Rodney sighs in what sounds like relief, turning his head on the pillow. His eyes are closed, and his bottom lip is caught a little between his teeth. It makes John smile, and gives him the encouragement he'd been looking for to move his hands, to branch out a little, though he's still cautious as can be about causing accidental harm.

Rodney does wince and flinch a little when John works on his shoulders. He hisses in pain when John first brushes the upper edges of his shoulder blades. John hesitates there, but Rodney isn't crumbling in on himself, apparently it's nothing he can't deal with.

Time seems to slow down to a crawl, and John tilts his head to the side, drifting slightly out of focus. His hands seem more sensitive than they should be, but it doesn't bother him. He works slowly, unable to do much more than softly brush across Rodney's shoulder blades. Maybe someday, if they make this a regular thing again, he'll be able to work on them, but not yet.

John is just tracing the pads of his thumbs down the fishhook scars where the wings had been when Rodney stirs, slurring softly, "I dream about it." John pauses, freezing where he is, breathing soft and shallow, worried that he'll disturb the close atmosphere they've settled into.

It takes work to keep his voice low and soft, to match his tone to Rodney's, "About what, buddy?"

Rodney shrugs, just a slight lift and drop of his shoulders. He blinks his eyes open, but his gaze is soft and unfocused, staring at nothing that's in the room. He sounds half asleep, "That morning. There must have been a nerve nexus in the joints. It felt—" Rodney shudders then, letting out a shuddery little breath.

John murmurs, "It's over now," which is stupid, god, so ridiculously stupid. Because he doubts this will be ever completely over. Not until he can think of a way to completely wash away the scars. And they're not able to work those kinds of miracles yet.

Rodney makes a soft, sighing sound, shrugging again. "I hate farmers." And John laughs, just a little, involuntarily, because after the years he's spent in the Pegasus galaxy, he isn't that fond of them either. He starts moving his hands again, working slower than before, in case Rodney isn't done talking.

Apparently, he isn't, "How didn't I die?" John flinches at the end of the words, but Rodney doesn't sound bitter or angry about it. In fact, mostly he just seems tired, and a little bit puzzled. Leave it to Rodney to look at the entire thing like a problem that needs solving.

John shrugs, rubbing his thumb up and down Rodney's spine, "We just got lucky, I guess." He conceived the words as a joke, but they come out ragged, too much emotion bleeding through. He bites his tongue, the inside of his cheeks, his fingers curling up on Rodney's back.

There's a pause for a second, and then Rodney grunts, trying to push up and not quite managing it. Rodney says, pain making his voice rough, "John..." and apparently for once he can't think of anything to say, because he just trails off there.

John shakes his head, unable to say a damn thing himself. Thinking about what happened that morning as lucky feels sickeningly wrong. But they came so fucking close to losing Rodney that he can't think of it as anything but. It would have been far too easy for him to bleed out, to die of shock, a thousand other things that could have just gone wrong and wiped Rodney off the face of the universe.

The silence between them stretches, and John can feel it getting uncomfortable again. He rubs at Rodney's back again, swallowing and trying to figure out where to look, to the walls, to the ceiling, to the floor, back to Rodney. The scars are starting to look familiar. John hates that.

John manages a strangled, "God, Rodney," bending before he can stop himself, resting the side of his cheek against Rodney's shoulder. He can feel the constant thrum of Rodney's heartbeat against his cheek, Rodney's chest expanding and lifting him. The scar is silky smooth and hot against his skin.

Rodney makes a soft, surprised sound, trying to shift again. John nods, not sure why, starting to raise himself up. He means to pull back, he means to leave, he means to do all kinds of other things. What he does is brush his lips against the scar, nothing more than a dry touch, brief and barely there before he draws back.

And then he realizes what he just did, and freezes. Of all the fucked up, stupid, mistakes, he can't believe he just made that one. John jerks his spine straight, yanking his hands away from Rodney's back, gritting out, "Jesus, I'm sorry, I shouldn't—"

Rodney grabs his arm, squeezing hard. John stares down at where Rodney is holding him, his heart racing, wondering if this situation is salvageable at all. He feels like he should probably say something else, maybe apologize some more, but the words just aren't coming, not at all.

"Hey, look at me," Rodney's tone is tense, and John badly wants to resist, and can't. He swallows hard instead, shifting his gaze across to Rodney, who is staring up at him, eyes wide, mouth open just a little bit. His expression is contemplative, and he's scanning John's expression, looking for something, putting something together. John feels lost.

Rodney says, gaze narrowing down, "The wings are gone."

That's enough to make John bark out a harsh laugh, because, Jesus, they've been over this before, today, even, "I know, the wings weren't ever..." he waves a hand, stealing the gesture from Rodney, because he has no idea what words should go there.

"Oh." Rodney is still staring at him, then looks down where his hand is still gripping at John's wrist. Almost experimentally, he rubs his thumb against John's skin, and John works to suppress the shiver that wants to slide down his spine. "Oh."

"Yeah, oh. Look, I need to—not be here," he needs to be somewhere far away from here, where he can put everything back the way it should be in his head. He needs some space, he needs to not be touching Rodney, he needs to just take some time for himself.

Rodney doesn't leave him go, which doesn't really surprise John. After all, it's Rodney, and he never makes things easy. John can't bring himself to twist away from Rodney's grip, and he's not sure, even in his own head, if it's because he's worried about hurting Rodney or because he's just relishing the contact far more than he should.

Then Rodney is shifting up a little more, saying carefully, "No, I think you should stay," and for a long moment the words just bounce around John's head, not making any sense at all. It can't be what Rodney meant to say, John can't even wrap his mind around it.

He grits out, "Rodney," trying to infuse all the warnings that he can into the other man's name, because he can't stay here and do as he has been. If he stays, nothing will be the same, and John isn't sure that they can take any more violent changes right now, not with everything else still so scrambled. Nothing is stable, and he doesn't want this to be the thing that pushes them over the final edge.

But Rodney isn't any better at heeding warnings than he is at leaving things go. He counters with, "John," all tension and challenge, meeting John's eyes levelly. They stare at one another, tension crackling across the space between them, and John is suddenly painfully aware of the fact that they're on Rodney's bed, that Rodney is shirtless, that he's had his hands very recently all over Rodney's bare skin. God.

John leans forward a little, can't stop himself, one hand bracing down on the bed beside Rodney's pillow. He's holding his breath, which seems insane. His free hand is clenching and unclenching, his heart pounding hard in his ears.

Rodney grumbles, "Oh, for fuck's sake," and pulls himself up with a hand on John's shoulder. His weight is no problem at all to handle, but John finds himself dipping down into it anyway. For a beat he can feel Rodney's breath on his face, an exhale longer than anyone strictly human would have been able to manage, and then Rodney is closing the last of the distance between them.

Rodney's lips are dry against John's. This close, John can smell the shaving cream still clinging against his skin. He can feel Rodney sucking in a breath through his nose, his fingers tightening on John's shoulders. It feels like separate pieces, all flying apart in different directions, scattering before John can get a grip on them.

Then Rodney is hitching himself closer to John, making an impatient sound, lips parting enough for him to nip at John's bottom lip. It brings everything slamming together, condenses this down into a singular bright point of light that John feels himself falling into.

A thousand fleeting considerations stream through John's mind in an instant. He doesn't want to hurt Rodney. He has no idea how gentle he'll be able to be, but he's thinking the answer has to be somewhere between ‘not very' and ‘not at all'. He pulls back, gripping hard at Rodney's biceps to keep him from following, panting out, "Can't."

Rodney blinks, eyes huge and bright, "What?" his mouth is reddened already. John takes hold of his self-control and tries to make himself ease towards the side of the bed. It seems painfully far away, which seems unfair, seeing as how tiny these fucking beds are. "No! John, what—"

John shakes his head, and there's the side of the bed. He manages to get a leg over the side, his heart thundering hard in his ears. His voice comes out rough as gravel, "I can't. I—" he waves a hand, trying to think of the words for the thoughts streamlining themselves behind his eyes. He settles on, "—shouldn't."

For a beat, Rodney just gapes at him. That doesn't last. Rodney's mouth firms up, and he has an arm around John's chest, pressing their bodies together, his lips brushing over John's cheek, back to the soft skin behind John's ear. John groans, clenching his hands up, wanting so badly to push Rodney down to the bed, to just give up and allow the pressure inside him to snap, finally.

Rodney's voice is low and warm, sliding over John's ear and down his throat, "You want to, right? It seems like—you know, you do. Want to." John imagines that he can feel Rodney's face heating up against his skin with a blush, and his hips shift forward automatically, his body betraying him, telling all his secrets.

Rodney exhales shakily, making a surprised sound and gripping John tighter. "So, yeah, I'm not feeling a problem there. Seeing. Seeing a problem." John tilts his head down, burying his face against Rodney's shoulder, laughing breathlessly. Rodney is squirming against him, it isn't helping John's intention to get up and get out of here.

John can feel the muscles in Rodney's shoulder, the skin soft but not as warm as he'd expected where he has his cheek pressed close. His hands are still clenched up tight by his sides, because if he touches, if he allows himself to touch, there won't be any more talking. He won't be capable of it. John manages to rasp out, "Yeah, okay? Yeah. But, you?" because this isn't something he thought he'd ever be able to have. It wasn't something he thought was even on Rodney's radar.

For a long moment there's no answer, though Rodney is rocking against him, just a little bit, back and forth on his knees on the mattress. John feels Rodney's throat work when he swallows, feels the vibration of the words when Rodney says, "Hello, do you need a written invitation?"

Probably, he should get one. It would be the responsible thing to do. God, but he doesn't care. John squeezes his eyes shut, afraid to shift away any further, because he'd drag Rodney right out of the bed, and he doesn't want to do that. He just needs a second, just one second to marshal himself.

Then Rodney is nipping at John's neck, his mouth warm and wet, his teeth a there and gone pressure against John's nerves. Rodney's voice is so thick John can barely make out the individual words, "I just—come on, come on. I don't want to hurt for a little while." He pulls on John's back, pushy and determined and that's not a good reason for doing this at all.

At this point, John isn't holding out for a good reason.

John skims his hands up the sides of Rodney's thighs, sliding up and around automatically. Rodney's back is tense under his touch, muscles bound tight again for all that John just worked the knots out. He ghosts his fingers up over the scars, all of them, cataloging and noting them, fingers brushing up Rodney's neck, gripping at Rodney's head, pulling him back far enough to kiss him, really kiss him this time.

The sound Rodney makes against his mouth is all relief. Rodney's already scrambling at John's shirt, trying to pull it out of the back of his pants, big hands brushing against John's skin in brief touches that feel more like torture than anything else. John groans, kissing Rodney harder, shifting his weight back up onto the bed, wondering why he ever thought about leaving.

Rodney sits suddenly, pulling John over, something pulling in John's lower back with the abrupt movement. Rodney's teeth close a little too sharply around John's bottom lip and the both gasp, one of Rodney's hands flattened on John's back, up under his shirt, palm a little sweaty, fingertips pressing hard.

It takes John a moment to realize Rodney's trying to lean back, and he makes a sharp sound in the back on his throat. As much as he wants that, he's seen how little it takes to cripple Rodney down with pain with touches to the scars. John rolls sideways instead, catching himself on his shoulder and hip, diagonally across the narrow bed.

Rodney blinks down at him, looking momentarily puzzled. John has no intention of giving him the time to get his bearings. It's not hard at all to just drag Rodney over onto him, to wrap a hand around the back of Rodney's neck and pull him down into another kiss, letting Rodney lick his way into John's mouth, one of Rodney's hands braced by John's shoulder.

Their legs are all tangled together, and John pushes his hips up against Rodney's thigh without thinking about it. It feels good, and for a moment John gets side-tracked, rocking there, still holding onto Rodney's neck, his other hand gripping up and down Rodney's arm.

Rodney hisses, "Jesus, okay," shifting his hips around and pushing back and John thinks that he's not going to last, that there's no way in hell he's going to last. He wanted to, so badly, but everything is happening far too quickly for him to keep up with and Rodney is shifting, dropping his forehead down to John's shoulder, his teeth closing in John's shirt.

John tilts his head back, body bowing up, holding Rodney tight, vaguely embarrassed that he's going, going, gone. There's no breath in his lungs to make a sound when he comes, so he just pants desperately, tremors running up and down his spine while Rodney makes surprised sounds and then pulls back to blink down at John.

Rodney's still hard, John can feel his erection, hard where it's pressing against John's hip. Rodney's mouth is open a little bit, and there's hectic color in his cheeks, his hair damp and messy. For a long moment they just stare at each other, and John bites his tongue against the urge to apologize.

Rodney shifts his gaze down to John's lap, blinking, and John feels himself blush. He has to clear his throat before he can talk, his brain not quite working enough to be attempting speech, "I wanted a long time." As far as excuses go, John thinks he could have done better, but unfortunately he's too out of it to attempt anything but the truth.

For a long moment there's silence, and then Rodney shifts his gaze back up to meet John's eyes, expression suddenly far more serious than John's comfortable thinking about. Rodney says, "Huh," tilting his head a little to the side and reaching up to brush his thumb is a little half circle over John's forehead. John rolls his eyes up to try to see, even knowing there's no way in hell he'd be able to.

Around them, the silence is getting uncomfortable. John's come is starting to go cool in his pants, and get very unpleasant. Rodney's still hard. John wishes he could rewind five minutes and try to do some of this differently, so that they could have ended up somewhere besides here.

Then Rodney clears his throat, and says, "I used to get hard when you would—" he waves a hand at shoulder level, as high as his arms will go, "—you know, with my wings." As far as confessions go, it wasn't what John was expecting. He blinks.

John pushes up onto one elbow, ignoring the unpleasant way his wet pants shift around. There's nothing he can do about them now, and he sort of has other concerns right at the moment. He says, "What?" because that's pretty much covers everything, and is the best he can come up with, all at the same time.

Rodney makes a dry, laughing sound, dropping his hands to John's chest, fingers twisting up in John's shirt. The fabric pulls tight across John's ribs, and he feels it stretch when he inhales, waiting for some kind of explanation. He doesn't have to wait long.

Rodney tilts his head to the side, "I thought—well, there were a lot of nerves, you know, in them. I thought it was just a thing. With them. A, uh, shared fetish." He lifts one hand, waves it between their bodies. John turns that over in his head, not sure that he understands and not completely sure that Rodney's even talking sense. "I didn't know it was, you know, this." There's a lot of weight on the last word, Rodney finally looking up, meeting John's eyes, open and tense and worried.

There's a part of John that wants to be pissed off about this. About all of this. Later, he thinks maybe he'll indulge in that, because Jesus, Rodney is a stupid bastard sometimes. But right now, right now he has Rodney sitting in his lap, and maybe they're the closest they've been to understanding each other in months and months. John knows how to prioritize.

John pushes himself up a little higher, wrapping an arm low around Rodney's back, below the scars, to keep him from tipping over backwards. He rubs his thumb back and forth against Rodney's skin, wondering just how bad an idea this is, not caring.

John says, "Okay," because that's the best he can do, right now. Maybe they should talk about it more, but he really doesn't want to, doesn't think that it's all that likely he's ever going to want to. Maybe they should think this over. Maybe he should be putting a little more consideration on the fact that Rodney's a fucking mess at the moment.

The way their lives are going, John figures that one or the other of them is always going to be a fucking mess, and they can't very well let that dictate their actions. He leans forward, kissing Rodney again, giddily relieved when Rodney sighs against his mouth and kisses him back.

There's a very real chance this is a mistake, and John knows that and accepts it. He's fucked up for less than this before, and right now there's not even a tiny piece of him that doesn't think the payoff is worth the risk. Maybe that's just orgasm talking. He'll deal with it later, if it is.

A long moment later, Rodney shifts around against him, trying to find something solid to rub against, and it brings John back to himself a little bit. He hums softly, running his hands up Rodney's sides and murmuring, soft against Rodney's mouth, "How about we see if we can make the pain stop for a little while?"

Rodney nods jerkily in agreement. John hadn't really expected him to protest. It doesn't take much effort for John to get Rodney to stretch out on his side, to wrestle Rodney's pants down his legs and to take his time kissing his way down Rodney's chest.

Rodney tangles his fingers in John's hair when John licks across the head of his cock, and maybe this isn't a good idea, but right then John doesn't care. They'll figure it out. They always do, and he has faith in that, if he has faith in nothing else.

Besides, it's worth it for the look of dumbstruck pleasure on Rodney's face when he comes, for the way that he relaxes, really relaxes, for the first time in forever.

John picks the radio up off Rodney's dresser, and calls around the city to let everyone know that they'll be taking the day off. Rodney doesn't protest. He's already asleep. John smiles softly, sinking down beside him on the bed, and letting his mind go quiet, just for a little while.

They might not be good, they might never be good, but they're definitely okay.

hr

From the bed, Rodney calls, "Hurry up, no one takes that long to shower," and John rolls his eyes even while he hurries. It's not the words that speed him up, but the tone. It's been a long time since John heard Rodney that obviously in pain. It twists things up in John's guts.

John steps out into the bedroom while toweling his hair off, foregoing bothering with getting dressed. He'd been hoping, before he realized how bad off Rodney was, that maybe he'd have a good reason for getting naked. Now, he just doesn't feel like wasting time pulling on some pants.

Rodney is flat on his stomach, his hands crossed under his head, and for a long moment John just stares at that, feeling himself smiling like an idiot. Keller and Piper had both said that there was no way in hell he'd ever get his full range of motion back, back when Rodney had started his physical therapy. John half-thinks that Rodney worked so hard just to spite them. Right now it doesn't really matter.

John walks slowly over to the bed, brushing his fingers up the back of Rodney's leg when he gets close enough. Rodney makes a soft sound, twitching but not pushing up into it. That, more than anything else, tells John how bad the pain must be.

He murmurs softly, nonsense words as he climbs up onto the bed. The scars from the newest surgery are still red and raw on Rodney's back, low on his spine because Keller had been worried that some of what she'd done had been in danger of crippling him all over again. In the months since the wings were cut off, Rodney's averaged at least one surgery a month. John hates them all.

He asks, "Where's it bothering you, buddy?" running a hand slowly up Rodney's back, pushing lightly at all the usual problem spots. Rodney flinches a little, but not as badly as John had been anticipating. That's, at the same time, both a relief and not.

There's a pause for a moment, Rodney shifting uncomfortably, which tells John what he needs to know. Rodney never likes to admit to the phantom pain where the wings used to be. He curses a little under his breath, because there's nothing he can do for that, besides be there and offer what comfort he can.

Rodney mumbles into the pillow, "It's so stupid," and John shushes him. Rodney's skin is soft and warm under his hands, and John carefully kneels over him. He trails his fingers over all of the old scars, which has become more ritual than anything else over the months. Rodney sighs a little with what sounds like relief, and John smiles, glad that he can at least do that.

After a long moment, John actually gets down to what he's supposed to be doing. He might not be able to actually do anything about the pain in the wings, but he can at least ease the tension in Rodney's body. It's not enough, but it's all he can offer.

Around them, time slows to a crawl, and John gets lost in the ease of this. He thinks, sometimes, that it relaxes him every bit as much as it makes Rodney feel better. Maybe even more, and maybe that should worry him, but for now it's working for them, so he isn't complaining.

John's just easing his palms over Rodney's shoulder blades, still the biggest problem area, when he pauses. The fishhook scars are hot under his hands, the way they always are, dark red even though they're the oldest of the bunch, and most of the rest have faded to white. John has memorized everything about them, and so he doesn't doubt at all that something is...different.

"John?" Rodney's voice is soft, slurred just a little bit. John isn't completely sure if it's with exhaustion or arousal. It might be both. "What is it?" Rodney turns his head to the side, cracking an eye open and squinting up at John.

"Nothing," the lie is automatic and smooth, falling from John's lips and twisting in the air between them. For a long moment, Rodney just stares up at him, and then he shrugs, and closes his eyes again. John crooks a smile, rubbing his palms up and down Rodney's shoulder blades again.

He isn't sure what, exactly, it is he's feeling. Keller hadn't taken the complete wing base out, worried about causing more damage than had already been wrought, and John's gotten used to feeling the bone, snapped off clean beneath the skin. He knows its edges, the way it moves, and the way it feels.

There's something different, now. John runs his fingertips down the edges of the fishhook scar, wondering if he's just imagining the lines of smaller bones beneath skin, folded up tight, no bigger than his palm at this point. It doesn't make any sense. Rodney isn't a starfish.

But then, they don't know exactly what the aliens that did this did to him. John swallows hard, making himself move away from Rodney's shoulder blades, though he can't take his gaze off of them. Now that he's looking for it, even the shape is different, smoother and rounded, stretched over something beneath the surface.

John's going to have to tell Rodney. Someday. They'll have to let Keller know, and inevitably there will be more surgeries, more freaking out, more cursing and wondering when the hell the universe is going to stop kicking them in the balls. For now, though, John keeps it to himself.

John bends over slowly, brushing a kiss over both red, angry scars, and Rodney groans beneath him, mumbling, "You're insatiable, you know that?s John grins, and presses one last kiss to the delicate scar tissue, before shifting up, stretching over Rodney's back, and kissing him instead.

::back to index::


Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional